Daily Thoughts from Pastor Greg

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

[Yesterday's quote should have been attributed to Maya Angelou. I wish I'd come up with it, but alas...]

On a late-November Poetry Saturday, here is a poem by Major Jackson, followed by a reflection from the poet:

“I thought by now my reverence would have waned,
matured to the tempered silence of the bookish or revealed
how blasé I’ve grown with age, but the unrestrained
joy I feel when a black skein of geese voyages like a dropped
string from God, slowly shifting and soaring, when the decayed
apples of an orchard amass beneath its trees like Eve’s
first party, when driving and the road Vanna-Whites its crops
of corn whose stalks will soon give way to a harvester’s blade
and turn the land to a man’s unruly face, makes me believe
I will never soothe the pagan in me, nor exhibit the propriety
of the polite. After a few moons, I’m loud this time of year,
unseemly as a chevron of honking. I’m fire in the leaves,
obstreperous as a New England farmer. I see fear
in the eyes of his children. They walk home from school,
as evening falls like an advancing trickle of bats, the sky
pungent as bounty in chimney smoke. I read the scowl
below the smiles of parents at my son’s soccer game, their agitation,
the figure of wind yellow leaves make of quaking aspens.”


[about this poem]

“Of late, I’ve been actively recording my responses to the seasons. 
Fall is particularly spectacular in northern New England;
the countryside of Vermont hits my bones like warm bands of neon;
there’s that palpable change in the air, electric and mysterious. 
However, in late autumn, one senses the impending, long wintry gloom
overtake all reason. At some point, I began to understand Robert Frost
and what critics such as Lionel Trilling and Joseph Brodsky argued,
which is the darkness that hits the spirit. I think the poem is also an attempt
to get out from underneath the shadow of the poet who looms in New England
and to trouble the iconicity of the ‘quaintness’ of Vermont.”

— Major Jackson

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, November, 27, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

It's always a choice.

“Let gratitude be the pillow upon which you kneel to say your nightly prayer. And let faith be the bridge you build to overcome evil and welcome good.”

-Maya Angelou

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Happy, blessed, unusual Thanksgiving to you and yours.

I'm aware of, but not hindered by, the fact that this holiday emerged from a historical circumstance fraught with human frailty, inequity, and abuse of power. I know this, and Thanksgiving is still my favorite holiday. (My kids can't believe Christmas isn't at the top of my list. I tell them it used to be, but it dipped in the standings once I moved into my twenties and began receiving my annual allotment of socks and deodorant.) I love pouring gravy over stuffing, turkey, and mashed potatoes―and then taking giant, mixed-together bites. I love watching the Dallas Cowboys play, win or lose (and the fact that the whole world has to watch them, too). I love tryptophan. I love cranberry sauce shaped like a can, like it's supposed to be, like in nature.

It occurs to me that, if we celebrated only the human experiences with motivations and outcomes that were/are 100% pure, we wouldn't have much to celebrate. Fortunately― thankfully― God keeps bestowing treasures in clay pots. With that in mind, here are a few of my favorite Thanksgiving quotes:


“Thanksgiving Day, a function which originated in New England two or three centuries ago when those people recognized that they really had something to be thankful for―annually, not oftener―if they had succeeded in exterminating their neighbors, the Indians, during the previous twelve months instead of getting exterminated by their neighbors, the Indians. Thanksgiving Day became a habit, for the reason that in the course of time, as the years drifted on, it was perceived that the exterminating had ceased to be mutual and was all on the white man's side, consequently on the Lord's side; hence it was proper to thank the Lord for it and extend the usual annual compliments.”

― Mark Twain 

“To be thankful for one thing is infinitely more powerful than to be bitter about a hundred others. It starts with one thing. And when I find that ‘one thing’ that I can be thankful for, others immediately rush to the forefront of my mind. And in but a few moments I am so inundated by all that I have to be thankful for that any sense that my life is impoverished itself becomes impoverished.”

― Craig D. Lounsbrough

“Gorgeous, amazing things come into our lives when we are paying attention: mangoes, grandnieces, Bach, ponds. This happens more often when we have as little expectation as possible. If you say, ‘Well, that's pretty much what I thought I'd see,’ you are in trouble. At that point, you have to ask yourself why you are even here. [...] Astonishing material and revelation appear in our lives all the time. Let it be. Unto us, so much is given. We just have to be open for business.

Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior. It almost always makes you willing to be of service, which is where the joy resides. It means that you are willing to stop being such a jerk. When you are aware of all that has been given to you, in your lifetime and the past few days, it is hard not to be humbled, and pleased to give back.”


― Anne Lamott,  Help, Thanks, Wow: Three Essential Prayers

I'll be back here with you Friday.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“We are all strangers in a strange land, longing for home, but not quite knowing what or where home is. We glimpse it sometimes in our dreams, or as we turn a corner, and suddenly there is a strange, sweet familiarity that vanishes almost as soon as it comes.  

[So] I will have nothing to do with a God who cares only occasionally. I need a God who is with us always, everywhere, in the deepest depths as well as the highest heights. It is when things go wrong, when good things do not happen, when our prayers seem to have been lost, that God is most present. We do not need the sheltering wings when things go smoothly. We are closest to God in the darkness, stumbling along blindly.”

― Madeleine L'Engle

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, November 23, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Like everyone, everywhere, we Christ-followers have much to be grateful for―even at the hardest stages of our journeys. But we Christians also recognize, trust, and give thanks for a unique blessing: grace. So, given the particular November in which our particular country finds itself, I invite you to take a few moments to reflect on these two thoughts from Philip Yancey:

 “Grace is Christianity’s best gift to the world, a spiritual nova in our midst exerting a force stronger than vengeance, stronger than racism, stronger than hate. Sadly, to a world desperate for this grace the church sometimes presents one more form of un-grace.”

― Philip Yancey, What's So Amazing About Grace?

“The gospel of Jesus was not primarily a political platform. In all the talk of voting blocs and culture wars, the message of grace—the main distinctive Christians have to offer—tends to fall aside. It is difficult, if not impossible, to communicate the message of grace from the corridors of power.”

― Philip Yancey, Christians and Politics Uneasy Partners

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, November 21, 2020

Dear PCUM family,
 
A Thanksgiving poem by John Keats:
 
“Endymion”
 
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old, and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.
 
— Endymion, Book I, lines 1-24
 
In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, November 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Give thanks for this beautiful day today. Like all blessings, 
take it, cherish it, celebrate it when it comes.

 “I grab
a small container
of glitter.

Because this day,
this wonderful,
beautiful,
glorious day
just wouldn't be complete
without a little,
or a lot, of

glitter”

― Lisa Schroeder, The Day Before

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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 Thursday, November 19, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.”

― Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Confession doesn't just come at the start of our worship service on Sunday. Confession is the start of any meaningful relationship with God―and, thus, with ourselves. Anybody who's been around the block knows: before any grace can flow, our defensive walls have to come down.

Adam and Eve didn't get in trouble because they disobeyed instructions. No, as PCUM's confirmation class discussed in a lively session a few weeks back, that ancient Jewish story―a story that describes the way we humans are today probably more accurately than it depicts actual prehistoric events―shows that all of us go wrong not when we make mistakes, but when we try to “be like God.” That, more than anything, is what makes the Garden of Eden story true.

Eve and Adam showed us: when we use what we've been given solely for our own purposes, it doesn't work. Even our faith becomes just another hammer, another weapon, instead of a transforming wonder. Here's a provocative observation on how we tend to get off-track from Protestant minister and Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann, longtime professor at Columbia (Presbyterian) Theological Seminary in Georgia:


“The crisis in the U.S. Church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our baptism—and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, November 16, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

There’s a difference, it turns out, between confident determination and obsession driven by anxiety and uncertainty. Only one brings abundant life. 

“You are never fanatically dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas or goals are in doubt.”

-Robert M. Pirsig,  Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
 An Inquiry Into Values

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, November 14, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Humility, as challenging as it can be to embrace, is always the best first step.

“Do not think me gentle 
because I speak in praise
of gentleness, or elegant
because I honor the grace
that keeps this world. I am
a man crude as any,
gross of speech, intolerant,
stubborn, angry, full
of fits and furies. That I
may have spoken well
at times, is not natural.
A wonder is what it is.”


― Wendell Berry

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Today's thought comes with my prayers for your health, peace, and, yes, good fortune this Friday the 13th. As if this year could be any worse in the luck department. (In fact, I read somewhere that this is the second such Friday of calendar year 2020. The first one came in March, just as the pandemic hit us. Go figure.)

I actually don't mind Friday the 13th. Way, way back when I played sports, it was my number. I wore 13 in football, basketball, and baseball all the way through high school. There was no particular reason, other than no one else would take it. I remember, though, when I first showed up among all those older boys, pausing for a second before agreeing to take 13. "Well
," I thought, "maybe it will make me a little more noticeable to the coaches, and if it means I'll have worse luck than most, maybe it'll make me try harder than most." My dad had told me more than once that you make your own luck, and he was mostly correct. Anyway, today our daughter Maggie wears number 13, and this old dad is happy about that.

That's because I believe a lot of the time we do make our own luck. The theological way of expressing it is: “The Good Lord helps those who help themselves.” (Such theological propositions need interpretation, I've learned. When I was a kid, I thought the “help themselves” part meant it was okay at dinner to reach for seconds without asking first. My mom disabused me pretty quickly of that notion.) “The Lord helps those who help themselves” means, I think, that the choices we make matter―and not just for ourselves. That's an awesome responsibility, of course, but also a light in the midst of whatever storm we're facing, a source of hope for tomorrow. Here's what Kurt Vonnegut says:

“I've often thought there ought to be a manual to hand to little kids, telling them what kind of planet they're on, why they don't fall off it, how much time they've probably got here, how to avoid poison ivy, and so on. I tried to write one once. It was called Welcome to Earth. But I got stuck on explaining why we don't fall off the planet. Gravity is just a word. It doesn't explain anything.

If I could get past gravity, I'd tell them how we reproduce, how long we've been here, apparently, and a little bit about evolution. I didn't learn until I was in college about all the other cultures, and I should have learned that in the first grade. A first grader should understand that his or her culture isn't a rational invention; that there are thousands of other cultures and they all work pretty well; that all cultures function on faith rather than truth; that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. Cultural relativity is defensible and attractive. It's also a source of hope. It means we don't have to continue this way if we don't like it.”

― Kurt Vonnegut

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, November 12,2020

Dear PCUM family,

“Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you . . . remember that the lives of others are not your business. They are their business. They are God’s business . . . even your own life is not your business. It also is God’s business. Leave it to God. It is an astonishing thought. It can become a life-transforming thought . . . unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy . . .

What deadens us most to God’s presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort . . . than being able from time to time to stop that chatter . . . ”


― Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

Peace to you and yours this Veterans Day―and heartfelt thanks to all who served and who serve.

Here is a quote from Marilynne Robinson's novel Gilead:

“It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance - for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light ....

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don't have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it? .... Theologians talk about a prevenient grace that precedes grace itself and allows us to accept it. I think there must also be a prevenient courage that allows us to be brave - that is, to acknowledge that there is more beauty than our eyes can bear, that precious things have been put into our hands and to do nothing to honor them is to do great harm.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Why do we church people keep doing what we do, why do we worship, even when it's hard? Even when it's different? Well, I think the simple answer to that question is...because we've learned that we need to. Here's another way of putting it:

“I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist (Communion) as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in the Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. In fact, 'Eucharist' means "gratitude." Imagine having a sacrament named 'thanks'!

We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are 'weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care' receive gladly. The offer of free gift...might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed.”

― Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, November 9, 2020

 Dear PCUM family,

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace - not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth."

-James Baldwin, A Fire Inside

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, November 7, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“A Prayer for Healing"

make me 

a builder of bridges.
teach me
to dance to the music of new names.
cause me
to throw all of my doors open.
make me
a traveler of hopeful roads.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Friday, November 6, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“I'm all over the place, up and down, scattered, withdrawing,
trying to find some elusive sense of serenity.
The world can't give that serenity.
The world can't give us peace.
We can only find it in our hearts.
I hate that.
But the good news is that, by the same token,
the world can't take it away.”


― Anne Lamott

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, November 5, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Lots of waiting going on today.

“We never live; we are always in the expectation of living.”
― Voltaire

"Patience is power.
Patience is not an absence of action;
rather it is "timing"
it waits on the right time to act,
for the right principle and in the right way.”

― Fultion J. Sheen

“Waiting on God requires the willingness to bear uncertainty,
to carry within oneself the unanswered question,
lifting the heart to God about it
whenever it intrudes upon one's thoughts.”
― Elizabeth Elliot

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given.

Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny. In this world of ours in other lands, there are some people, who, in times past, have lived and fought for freedom, and seem now to have grown too weary to carry on the fight. They have sold their heritage of freedom for the illusion of a living. They have yielded their democracy.

I believe in my heart that only our success can stir their ancient hope. They begin to know that here in America we are waging a war against want and destitution and economic demoralization. It is more than that; it is a war for the survival of democracy. We are fighting to save a great and precious form of government for ourselves and for the world.”

― President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

A prayer for today and this week from the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber:

Dear God,

This week is a doozey.

If anxiety produced a sound, it would be deafening right now. 

Open my ears to the sounds I need most: the wild geese overhead, Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” (1972); the sound of my friend on the other end of the phone; the sugar-high laughter of children who need us to dial down the doom.

If fear could be seen, it would be obscuring everything else.

Open my eyes to the sights that I need most: my puppy underfoot with a toy in her mouth, ready to play; the brightening of my neighbor’s eyes under their mask when I pass them in the stairwell; that sidewalk covered in an oak tree’s fallen leaves like nature’s confetti.

If sorrow could be tasted, the bitterness would overcome me.

Open my mouth to the sweetness I need: words of kindness; long, unhurried hugs; and absolutely as much Ben and Jerry’s as I deem necessary.

Help me remember that you are on the other side of Tuesday, no matter what.

Amen.


Aretha Franklin sings “Amazing Grace,” from the film Amazing Grace (Live at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, 1972)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxs_0fBTrjE

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, November 2, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

On this Election Day Eve, it's not a bad idea to reach for a little perspective.

Over the years, I've learned to look for perspective in certain reliable places. The ocean is one; so are mountains. Driving across the country can give it to you, as can descending in an airplane over your home town. Books, friendships, and films also work for me. Our kids. Our dogs. Music. When I become so fixated that it's hard to regain my balance, perspective helps.


One of my favorite movies is Grand Canyon (1991). It's a terrific film starring Mary McDonnell, Danny Glover, Kevin Kline, Alfre Woodard, and Steve Martin. The movie is set mostly in the intense world in and around Los Angeles. It's only at the end of the story that the characters find their way to the Grand Canyon itself, and that is enough.

So much is up to us. But not everything. Whatever happens today, or tomorrow, we're part of something larger―and longer-lasting. Nothing will change that. That larger something larger arcs toward the good, even if, try as we might, we can't see beyond the horizon. Perspective, I guess, reminds us that there is something beyond what we can see. Here's a great, perspective-reminding quote about the Grand Canyon itself, from Barry López in his book Crossing Open Ground:

“I do not know, really, how we will survive without places like the Inner Gorge of the Grand Canyon to visit. Once in a lifetime, even, is enough. To feel the stripping down, an ebb of the press of conventional time, a radical change of proportion, an unspoken respect for others that elicits keen emotional pleasure, a quick intimate pounding of the heart.

The living of life, any life, involves great and private pain, much of which we share with no one. In such places as the Inner Gorge the pain trails away from us. It is not so quiet there or so removed that you can hear yourself think, that you would even wish to; that comes later. You can hear your heart beat. That comes first.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, October 31, 2020

Dear PCUM family,
       
                                         "What’s True,” by Jerry Lucius
 
God waited for Abraham's arm to be actually starting down, the biceps fully tensed.

Nothing short would do; in extremity, we learn what’s true.

With a good job, a good marriage, a fine son, I had everything one could expect.

And yet there was a lingering dissatisfaction; a malaise.

It seemed, deep down, that I didn’t really feel or believe in anything.

On Saturday morning, August 11, 1990, my three-year-old son and I rounded the corner at the south end of the block where we live.  We were out for a walk.  (He had been born through in-vitro fertilization, everything else had failed — including several previous in-vitro attempts.)  He was riding his tricycle — it’s amazing how fast a three-year-old can go on a tricycle with big wheels. . . .  The house next to the corner had tall bushes growing right out to the sidewalk.  As we passed the house, my son speeded up.  My attention was diverted to men working across the street trimming trees.  Their chainsaws drowned out the sound of a car backing out of the driveway next to the house with the bushes.  The car was moving slowly and I can see in the slowest of slow motion — I screamed, but I’m not sure just when (there’s no sound track to this movie) — the car backing into the left handlebar of the tricycle, tilting it over to the right, my son breaking his fall with his right hand.   (As low to the ground as he and the tricycle were, they could not be visible in the driver’s rearview mirror at this point.)  And, then, the car stopping.  Did the car stop because of my scream?  Or had the old man driving the car seen my son at the last second before he disappeared behind the car?

I learned instantly with the terrible weight of that tire inches from my son’s head,

that I wanted with a giant, horrible wanting for this boy to grow up healthy

and to have children of his own who would, in turn, have children of their own,

and that having my wife hate me for losing him would be unbearable.

All the unfairnesses I had suffered in life — ALL of them —

instantly became meaningless.
Everything was clear.

This is what I wanted; this is what I believed.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Friday, October 30, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

For reasons many of you will understand, one of my favorite anonymous quotes is, "Procrastinate now!"  Another good one is from Mark Twain: "Never put off to tomorrow what may just as well be done day after tomorrow." I hope you think those are funny. I do.

I've always gotten a ton of things done, but, in doing so, I've shown myself to be a believer in the axiom that "Urgency brings clarity." Fortunately, life and work have always offered more than enough tasks and challenges about which to feel urgently passionate. So, with me, it's a lot of stops and bursts. I tend to be one of those people who makes little to no progress on things that aren't on my brain at a given moment, in part because I know that, once I do get started, I can usually stay longer and work harder than most folks are willing to do.

This is effective, mostly. When it's not, I blame it on my having grown up the son not only of a military man―but of a career pilot. You see, if you want to make sure you land again, you had better have every little thing planned out, calibrated, checked, and double-checked. And there was, and still is, security in knowing there's a plan and a schedule for everything. But for me, as time went on, it felt more and more restrictive. The older I got, trying to follow in my dad's organized "flight pattern" made it harder and harder to pivot in new directions, my own directions. On top of that, a lot of the time―when the old saying that "We make plans; God laughs" came true―the fallout caused a lot of what I felt was unnecessary stress. That isn't me. I really don't mind getting detoured or even lost. You never know what you might discover. I guess I am adopted. 

Still, I do (greatly, if secretly) appreciate those steady-as-you go, start-and-finish-every-day-at-the-same-time, make-a-plan/work-your-plan types, my father being the first among many. To illustrate: I bought my first big motorcycle in Spokane, Washington in early September 1982, about a week before my sophomore year in college was to start in California. I barely knew how to drive the thing. I didn't have a motorcycle endorsement on my driver's license. I didn't have a plan. All I knew was that I had earned the money, I wanted one, it was cool, and I'd figure the rest out as I went. That other boring stuff could wait. 

On my last Saturday morning before hitting the road, my family and a few close friends gathered to see me off. Everyone wished me well. My mom handed me a care-package. My dad, shaking his head, presented me with a handwritten, 6-page trip itinerary. I hadn't asked for or expected it. He had done it himself, using about 5 AAA maps and our Rand-McNally Atlas. (This was in the days before computers.) It must have taken him days. Every leg of the journey was traced in blue on a map, with a corresponding entry--showing miles and terrain and places-of interest--listed on the itinerary. He'd included suggestions in each town for places to eat (many of which he'd visited, others he'd researched, who knows how). He had even marked towns and stops where he suggested I visit the restroom! Now, do you see why I'm like I am? 

I couldn't help rolling my eyes even as I gave him a thank-you hug. Did Steve McQueen get this kind of treatment from his dad? Dennis Hopper? Peter Fonda? No, it was important to me that my dad and all these people saw that I thought not. Steve and Dennis and Peter and I, easy riders all, would just hit the road, unencumbered by plans and schedules, and just see where it took us. So, I donned sunglasses and helmet, hopped on the bike, rev'd it loudly a couple of times, and zoomed off down our street. I was free!

Looking in the rearview mirror, I could see them all smiling and waving, my dad shaking his head knowingly. I pulled around the first corner―just out of sight―and pulled his itinerary out. I used it the whole way. He still doesn't know.

Here's what motivational speaker Dennis Waitley says about procrastination:

“Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can't buy more hours. Scientists can't invent new minutes. And you can't save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you've wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Thursday, October 29, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In these tense days leading up to election day, a good and realistic reminder from Frederick Buechner to those of us who want to follow Jesus as we make our way in this world:

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back―in many ways it is a feast fit for a king.

The chief drawback, of course, is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Originally from Kabul, Mohadesa Najumi (born January 12, 1993) is an Afghan-born British feminist writer and blogger based in London. She cites neuroscience, existentialist philosophy, quantum physics, and social psychology as her inspirations for investigating the relationship between subjects and the wider world. As I read this quote from Najumi, I'm amazed again at how, sooner or later, eternal human truths surface for those who are open to them, whatever their background or their generation.

“You are not always right.
It’s not always about being right. 

The best thing you can offer others is understanding. 
Being an active listener is about more than just listening, 
it is about reciprocating and being receptive to somebody else. 
Everybody has woes. Nobody is safe from pain.

However, we all suffer in different ways. So learn to adapt to each person, know your audience and reserve yourself for people who have earned the depths of you.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Whatever the uncertainty, whatever the challenge, whatever the odds, it's true: faith, hope and, especially, love abide. Paul said it first, but he was neither the first nor the last to experience it in his own life. This statement from the late Rachel Held Evans, the 37-year-old millennial author who died just last year due to complications from an infection, is descriptive of what Christians claim in faith that God has already done―and what God is still doing:

“We could not become like God, so God became like us. God showed us how to heal instead of kill, how to mend instead of destroy, how to love instead of hate, how to live with peace instead of long for more.

When we nailed God to a tree, God forgave. And when we buried God in the ground, God got up.”

Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, October 26, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

One of my favorites from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.:

“Here is a lesson in creative writing.

First rule: Do not use semicolons... All they do is show you've been to college.

And I realize some of you may be having trouble deciding whether I am kidding or not.


So from now on I will tell you when I'm kidding.

For instance, join the National Guard or the Marines and teach democracy. 
I'm kidding.

We are about to be attacked by Al Qaeda. Wave flags if you have them. That always seems to scare them away. I'm kidding.

If you want to really hurt your parents... the least you can do is go into the arts. 
I'm not kidding.

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven's sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.”

Kurt Vonnegut ― A Man Without a Country

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, October 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

It's fall, which here in New Jersey means color, and fall colors mean leaves. When I was growing up, most of the places my itinerant military family lived were on or near Air Force bases in the south or southwest or northwest of our country―places with little to no fall foliage other than pine needles. In fact, for me in those years, autumn was a season that very much resembled those little towns: if you blinked or weren't paying attention when you got there, you might have missed it.

When I moved east in my twenties, I finally learned that leaves and colors and raking weren't just in the movies. We don't have large deciduous trees in our yard, but our neighbors on every side do. So, they have the trees; I get their leaves. Yay! In a couple of weeks or so, as they do each year, the mounds of leaves I'll have to deal with will seem endless. Of course, soon enough they, too, will be gone.

These days, that's probably a good reminder for all of us. Everything, even the things we suffer through, will change. With the notable exception of God's love, everything will pass away. I think I need to appreciate those explosions of color and the brief time I'm blessed to experience them. Here is Mary Oliver's poem "Aunt Leaf."

"Aunt Leaf"

Needing one, I invented her -
the great-great-aunt dark as hickory
called Shining-Leaf, or Drifting-Cloud
or The-Beauty-of-the-Night.

Dear aunt, I'd call into the leaves,
and she'd rise up, like an old log in a pool,
and whisper in a language only the two of us knew
the word that meant follow,

and we'd travel
cheerful as birds
out of the dusty town and into the trees
where she would change us both into something quicker -
two foxes with black feet,
two snakes green as ribbons,
two shimmering fish - and all day we'd travel.

At day's end she'd leave me back at my own door
with the rest of my family,
who were kind, but solid as wood
and rarely wandered. While she,
old twist of feathers and birch bark,
would walk in circles wide as rain and then
float back

scattering the rags of twilight
on fluttering moth wings;

or she'd slouch from the barn like a gray opossum;

or she'd hang in the milky moonlight
burning like a medallion,

this bone dream, this friend I had to have,
this old woman made out of leaves.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Dear PCUM family,

These days―as much as, if not more, than ever―I'm grateful that this remains a deep Reformed Protestant/Presbyterian conviction about who God is in Christ and a lived-commitment of this wonderful congregation:

Go and love someone
exactly as they are.
And then watch how
quickly they transform
into the greatest, truest 
version of themselves.
When one feels seen and appreciated
in their own essence,
one is instantly empowered.


- Wes Angelozzi

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Dear PCUM family,

Though we Protestant clergy can't give blessings any better or authoritatively than you can—i.e., since we all have equal access to God—here is a "Non-Traditional Blessing" for you from Sister Ruth Fox:

"Non-Traditional Blessing"

MAY GOD BLESS YOU WITH DISCONTENT
with easy answers, half-truths, and
superficial relationships, so that you
will live from deep within your heart.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU WITH ANGER
at injustice, oppression, abuse, and
exploitation of people, so that you will
work for justice, equality, and peace (and not only for yourself).

MAY GOD BLESS YOU WITH TEARS
to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection,
self-condemnation, starvation, and war, so that you
will reach out your hand to comfort them
and to work to change their pain to joy.

MAY GOD BLESS YOU WITH THE FOOLISHNESS
to think you can make a difference in this
world, so that you will do the things which
others tell you cannot be done.

Sister Ruth Fox, OSB

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Dear PCUM family,

From the great Catholic (Trappist) monk and mystic, Thomas Merton:

“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times.”

“Peace demands the most heroic labor and the most difficult sacrifice. It demands greater heroism than war. It demands greater fidelity to the truth and a much more perfect purity of conscience.”

“Keeping a journal has taught me that there is not so much new in your life as you sometimes think. When you re-read your journal you find out that your latest discovery is something you already found out five years ago. Still, it is true that one penetrates deeper and deeper into the same ideas and the same experiences.”


― Thomas Merton, The Sign of Jonas

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

We are in this together, indeed.

“All I am saying is that anyone can do this. Anyone can ask and anyone can bless, whether anyone has authorized you to do it or not. All I am saying is that the world needs you to do this, because there is a real shortage of people willing to kneel wherever they are and recognize the holiness holding its sometimes bony, often tender, always life-giving hand above their heads.

That we are able to bless one another at all is evidence that we have been blessed, whether we can remember when or not. That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.”


― Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, October 19, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

A suggestion for getting myself off the merry-go-round of sameness and disappointment:

“Where we go wrong is that we bring along some ready-made idea of God, wherever we may have learned it, and then try to make Jesus Christ fit in with that idea of God. But if we take the idea of a revelation of God in Christ seriously, then we must be willing to have our understanding of God corrected and even revolutionized... ”

~ The Rev. John Macquarrie

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, October 17, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Here is a favorite poem―entitled "Poem"―by e.e. cummings:


"Poem"

suppose
Life is an old man carrying flowers on his dead.

young death sits in a café
smiling, a piece of money held between
his thumb and first finger

(I say “will he buy flowers” to you

and “Death is young

life wears velour trousers
life totters, life has a beard” i


say to you who are silent.—“Do you see
Life? he is there and here,
or that, or this
or nothing or an old man 3 thirds
asleep, on his head

flowers, always crying
to nobody something about les
roses les bluets                         

                        yes,                                 

                          will He buy?
Les belles bottes—oh hear
, pas chères”)

and my love slowly answered I think so. But
I think I see someone else

there is a lady, whose name is Afterwards
she is sitting beside young death, is slender;

likes flowers.


In Christ's peace,

Pastor Greg

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Friday, October 16, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“Work for what you believe in, but pick your battles, and don’t burn your bridges. Don’t be afraid to take charge, think about what you want, then do the work; but then enjoy what makes you happy, bring along your crew, have a sense of humor.”

     - Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as quoted in
       Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon

In Christ’s peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, October 15, 2020

Dear PCUM Family,

Think about it:

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

Every morning I get up, pour the first of several cups of coffee, pick up my phone (I used to do it with the newspaper) and start absorbing the numbers: polling numbers, COVID totals, sports scores, the latest wild and―usually deflating―national news. How many fires, hearings, murders, insults, arrests, votes, tweets, dollars? How many positive stories for my cause? How many negative? 

It's a lot of counting, but I like to count. More to the point, I do all this watching and counting with a particular question in mind: Will things take a turn for the better?―in politics, in medicine, in our troubled society? And, in my personal life, it's the same question? Will the numbers break the right way for my kids, my family? My health, friends, finances? My church?

In that sense, of course, I'm like you. You and I are always checking in, checking up, playing the percentages, trying to gauge and handicap if and when the world will spin the way we want it to. It's a bit of a roller coaster, really. Actually, it's a giant roller coaster. The experience-borne truth is―and this is the hard part for many of us―when the numbers are good, they don't make us as satisfied as we thought we'd be, and bad numbers, despite our worst fears, aren't ever the (complete) end of the world. But we keep going up...and down. Like those numbers.


Admittedly, it's hard to resist tracking and counting all the numbers around us. Still, if the answer isn't "out there," it's probably a good idea to pay attention to what's going on inside us, too. I like what Philip Yancey, the author of What's So Amazing About Grace, says about it:

“If prayer stands as the place where God and human beings meet, then I must learn about prayer. Most of my struggles in the Christian life circle around the same two themes: why God doesn't act the way I want God to, and why I don't act the way God wants me to. Prayer is the precise point where those themes converge.”

In Christ’s peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Dear PCUM friends, 

"Alone"
 
by Maya Angelou

Lying, thinking
Last night
How to find my soul a home
Where water is not thirsty
And bread loaf is not stone
I came up with one thing
And I don’t believe I’m wrong
That nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

There are some millionaires
With money they can’t use
Their wives run round like banshees
Their children sing the blues
They’ve got expensive doctors
To cure their hearts of stone.
But nobody
No, nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Now if you listen closely
I’ll tell you what I know
Storm clouds are gathering
The wind is gonna blow
The race of man is suffering
And I can hear the moan,
‘Cause nobody,
But nobody
Can make it out here alone.

Alone, all alone
Nobody, but nobody
Can make it out here alone. 

In Christ’s peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, October 12, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

“Arguments always begin with an answer in mind.
Conversation begins with a question.” 


- unknown -

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, October 10, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

I don't know about you, but I find E.B. White's words here to be especially true of Saturdays:

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, October 9, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

Corrie ten Boom (1892-1983) was a Dutch Christian watchmaker and later a writer whose family during World War II used secret rooms in their home to help many Jews and members of the Dutch Resistance escape the Holocaust. She was caught, arrested, and sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp. She survived and went on to found a post-war reentry/ rehabilitation center for refugees and become a well-known speaker and author. Her most famous book, The Hiding Place, tells the story of what her family did and how she herself found hope in God while imprisoned by the Nazis. Given that faith was the driving force in Corrie ten Boom's life, inspiring her to take risks and accomplish things most of us wouldn't dream of, I've always liked her description of how real faith works:

“When a train goes through a tunnel and it gets very dark, you don’t throw away the ticket and jump off. You sit still and trust the engineer.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, October 8, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

One gem of a reminder being discovered repeatedly these last seven months is that our skill and effort do not influence outcomes as much as we'd like to think. For many of us, this is a hard pill to swallow. Life is, it turns out, more mysterious than maybe we thought.

I'm not a big fantasy reader, but in their 2014 science fiction novel Cibola Burn, the authors Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who together use the pen-name James S.A. Corey, said something that resonates with my own, real-world experience:

“You can order the sun to come up if you time it right. But I’m not driving this bus. Making it do what I want would be like talking someone out of a seizure.”

They're right. I know, because I've had the not-so-great privilege of witnessing first-hand a seizure by not one, but two people by the name of William Horn. The first time happened in 1989, when I was twenty-six and my dad was about the age I am now. We were heading out fishing, cruising in a 12-foot, v-hull motorboat on top of 80 feet of lake water, not wearing life jackets, when his eyes rolled back in his head and his arms started flailing like the robot from the Lost in Space television show of my childhood. (“Danger, Will Robinson!”) At some point, this William Horn, or a not-so-reasonable facsimile thereof, went overboard, followed by his son. Fortunately, we got out of that lake alive, and my dad hasn't experienced anything like it since. But I have. The second up-close-and-personal experience of a William Horn having a seizure happened about eighteen years later, when my then 4 & 1/2-year-old son of same name experienced a febrile seizure (caused by a spike in body temperature) in my arms. Again, no precedent or warning signs, and nothing like it since―though this one, somehow, was even worse. Maybe it's because this William was so young. Eyes rolled back, violent shaking, other unpleasantries. An ambulance ride. Good times.

Neither William remembers anything about his seizure, and that's for the best. Pretty scary, humbling, awesome stuff. And, as I say, it's true: in both moments, I couldn't have talked either William out of it, though I sure would have liked to. All I could do was hold on tightly and love each of them as imperfectly and desperately and as completely as I could. When faced with mystery, that's the best any of us can do.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Where is all of this going to go? It's hard to say, because there doesn't seem to be much in the way of sustainable good news. With that question and that observation on our minds, more words of hope in a hard, unstable time:

“The disciples’ mistake was also my mistake: They forgot that they have a God who created the universe out of ‘nothing,’ that can put flesh on dry bones ‘nothing,’ that can put life in a dusty womb ‘nothing.’ I mean, let’s face it, ‘nothing” is God’s favorite material to work with. Perhaps God looks upon that which we dismiss as nothing, insignificant, hopeless, and worthless, and says ‘Ha! Now that I can do something with.’”

― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

These days, it seems the only trustworthy bridge between people's differences, the bridge that just might lead to a better day for everyone, is listening to each other. That's why I find this quote by the actor and director, Jordan Peele, so powerful:

“I'm a true believer in story. I think when you just tell people to think, people tend to get resistant and defensive and feel like you're accusing them of not thinking.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, October 5, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Experience teaches that insecurity and self-loathing are behind most of the nastiness and hatred and generally bad behavior that these days seem to be the rule more than the exception. That's why I really like this one by Anne Lamott:

“You were loved because God loves, period. God loved you, and everyone, not because you believed in certain things, but because you were a mess, and lonely, and His or Her child. God loved you no matter how crazy you felt on the inside, no matter what a fake you were; always, even in your current condition, even before coffee. God loves you crazily, like I love you...like a slightly overweight auntie, who sees only your marvelousness and need.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, October 3, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Here is "The Kingfisher" by Mary Oliver:

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a silver leaf. I think this is
the prettiest world—so long as you don't mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your
whole life
that doesn't have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn't born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the
water
remains water—hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could
believe.
I don't say he's right. Neither
do I say he's wrong. Religiously he swallows the
silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and
easy cry
I couldn't rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, October 2, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

A half dozen or so years ago, my then-colleague/associate pastor and still-friend, Lauren Scharstein, introduced me to Father Gregory Boyle's book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.

Father Boyle is a Los Angeles-based Roman Catholic priest of the Jesuit order. In the late 1980s, he and his parish, the Delores Mission Church in LA, founded a jobs program for youth involved with gangs. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the project expanded to become a social enterprise business, Homeboy Bakery, the success of which formed the basis for Homeboy Industries, the largest and arguably most successful gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. It's of course inspiring to discover and learn more about another Christian doing so much good in the real lives of real people, but, in this conflicted time―as you and I face competing claims about what (and who) matters―it's also instructive to consider the reasons why Gregory Boyle lives his commitments the way he does:


“You stand with the least likely to succeed until success is succeeded by something more valuable: kinship. You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.”

“Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world.’ I like even more what Jesus doesn’t say. He does not say, ‘One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.’ He doesn’t say ‘If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.’ No. He says, straight out, ‘You are light.’ It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it....”


― Gregory Boyle, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, October 1, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

“Similarly, grace seeks us but will not control us. Saint Augustine once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them. If our hands are full, they are full of the things to which we are addicted. And not only our hands, but also our hearts, minds, and attention are clogged with addiction. Our addictions fill up the spaces within us, spaces where grace might flow.”

― Gerald G. May, Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Our high school senior, Will, just finished reading Alex Haley's book The Autobiography of Malcolm X as a summer assignment. I'm always thrilled when one of the kids (or anybody) reads and appreciates a book I've loved, and this was no exception. It's an oversimplification, probably, to say that the civil rights leader and activist Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965, came to appreciate and value people of all races, including the white people who, in his experience, had individually and collectively caused Black people's suffering from before the founding of this nation. Still, near the end of his short life, Malcolm's 1964 Hajj―the pilgrimage to Mecca required at least once in a lifetime by all observant Muslims with the means to do so―opened his eyes for the first time to the possibility of racial harmony. It's a hopeful end to a story full of hard truths. Here is one of my favorite quotes from that remarkable book:

“I remember one night at Muzdalifa with nothing but the sky overhead I lay awake amid sleeping Muslim brothers and I learned that pilgrims from every land―every color, and class, and rank; high officials and the beggar alike―all snored in the same language.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

On this day of debates and in this season of contention, it might be worthwhile to remind ourselves how much we need each other. Whether it's art or worship, it always takes at least two. Here's the way actor, singer, producer, and director Orson Welles put it:

“I want to give the audience a hint of a scene. No more than that. Give them too much and they won't contribute anything themselves. Give them just a suggestion and you get them working with you. That's what gives the theater meaning: when it becomes a social act.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, September 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In these days of easy enemies, an important reminder from poet Wendell Berry:

“Enemies”

If you are not to become a monster,

you must care what they think.
If you care what they think,

how will you not hate them,
and so become a monster
of the opposite kind? From where then

is love to come—love for your enemy
that is the way of liberty?
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go

free of you, and you of them;
they are to you as sunlight
on a green branch. You must not

think of them again, except
as monsters like yourself,
pitiable because unforgiving.


In Christ's peace,

Pastor Greg

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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The late Indira Ghandi (b. 1917) was the first woman prime minister of India and was serving her fourth term when she was assassinated in 1984. She was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of an independent India, and the granddaughter of Motilal Nehru, one of the founders of the Indian independence movement and a close associate of Mohandes ("Mohatma") Ghandi.

Indira Ghandi's political career and long tenure leading a newly-independent nation were a mixed bag of spectacular successes and equally noteworthy failures. I've always liked this quote of hers:


“My grandfather once told me that there were two kinds of people: those who do the work and those who take the credit. He told me to try to be in the first group; there was much less competition.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, September 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Gary Wills (b. 1934) is an American author, journalist, and historian specializing in American history, politics, and religion. It is rare today to find books on Christianity or religion to be particularly well written or conceived, but Wills's What Jesus Meant, published in 2006, is one of the best I've read from any time. In it, he says:

“What is the kind of religion Jesus opposed? Any religion that is proud of its virtue, like the boastful Pharisee. Any that is self-righteous, quick to judge and condemn, ready to impose burdens rather than share or lift them. Any that exalts its own officers, proud of its trappings, building expensive monuments to itself. Any that neglects the poor and cultivates the rich, any that scorns outcasts and flatters the rulers of this world.

If that sounds like just about every form of religion we know, then we can see how far off from religion Jesus stood.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, September 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.

This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.”


Ralph Waldo Emerson, Collected Poems and Translations

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

Probably the most famous 20th century American Catholic (along with John F. Kennedy), Dorothy Day (1987-1980) was an American journalist, anarchist, and social activist. She converted to Catholicism in young adulthood without abandoning her commitment to justice for all people, especially the poor and marginalized. Day was a co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, a pacifist movement combining direct aid for the poor and homeless with nonviolent direct action on their behalf. In 2000, the Roman Catholic Church―petitioned successfully by the Archdiocese of New York City, where she lived―opened a cause for Dorothy Day's possible canonization, which could lead to their classifying her as a saint. Whether or not her church confers on her that title, she was one, as her words here show:

“What we would like to do is change the world: make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, of the destitute―the rights of the worthy and the unworthy poor, in other words―we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.

We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

Because we want to worship honestly or, more precisely, completely, I'm one of those fuddy-duddies (sp?) who believes that confession should be an integral, non-negotiable part of a Presbyterian worship experience. The Christian life, actually. Sure, being honest is always risky, but, as most risks do, it clears the decks, which is why when we're together we do it near the beginning. It's only after we've all let down our guard and put ourselves in God's hands that we're ready for what comes next. 

Of course, confession is, when it's all said and done, intimatei.e., between us and God. Our tradition has always held that you don't need me or any religious intermediary to communicate with God. It's just between the two of you. So, when we're together in worship, our confession moment is really just to make sure each of us does what will be the best for us. Then again, it's more than that, too. When you have that many people taking such an intimate risk together, unburdening privately but at the same time, something powerful happens.  

Here's what Frederick Buechner says about confessionor, as he terms it, telling our secrets: 

“I have come to believe that by and large the human family all has the same secrets, which are both very telling and very important to tell. They are telling in the sense that they tell what is perhaps the central paradox of our condition—that what we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.

It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.

It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier that way to see where we have been in our lives and where we are going. It also makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own, and exchanges like that have a lot to do with what being a family is all about and what being human is all about.” 

—Frederick Buechner, Telling Secrets 

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, September 21, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The album from which I'm selecting my first attempt at a multi-media Daily Thought was a staple of my cassette deck (along with Journey, the Eagles, and AC/DC) in my pretty awesome high school car, a midnight blue 1968 Ford Mustang. I had to sell that car in order to afford about a third of my freshman year in college, and I don't think I've ever gotten over it.

More importantly, the first line of the lyric includes "Do you remember the twenty-first night of September?" which, as it turned out much, much later, was the night twenty-one years ago when Sarah and I met on a blind date. On this twenty-first night of September, enjoy the joy of "September" by the incomparable Earth, Wind & Fire:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gs069dndIYk 

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Here is "Some Days" by James Baldwin.

"Some Days"

Some days worry
some days glad
some days more than make you mad.

Some days, some days,
more than shine:

when you see what's coming
on down the line!

Some days you say,
oh, not me never - !

Some days you say
bless God forever.

Some days, you say,
curse God, & die

& the day comes when you wrestle

with that lie.

Some days tussle

then some days groan

& some days
don't even leave a bone.

Some days you hassle
all alone.

I don't know, sister,
what I'm saying,

nor do no man,
if he don't be praying.

I know that love is the only answer

and the tight-rope lover

the only dancer.

When the lover come off the rope today,
the net which holds him is how we pray,

and not to God's unknown,
but to each other - :

the falling mortal is our brother!

Some days leave

some days grieve

some days you almost don't believe.

Some days believe you,

some days don't,

some days believe you
and you won't.

Some days worry
some days mad
some days more than make you glad.

Some days, some days,
more than shine,
witnesses,

coming on down the line!

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, September 18, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

As strange as this year has been and still is, it's still a special time of year:

“No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.”
- from “The Autumnal,” featured in the Complete Poetry and Select Prose of John Donne.

In her book Wither, Lauren DeStefano said: “Fall has always been my favorite season. The time when everything bursts with its last beauty, as if nature had been saving up all year for the grand finale.”

In American Notebooks, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote,“I cannot endure to waste anything so precious as autumnal sunshine by staying in the house.

“Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.”
- George Eliot in her letter to Miss Lewis in 1841.

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall,” 
- F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby.

“Autumn is the hardest season. The leaves are all falling, and they're falling like they're falling in love with the ground,”
- Andrea Gibson in her song, “Photograph.”

“Winter is an etching, spring a watercolor, summer an oil painting and autumn a mosaic of them all,”
- Stanley Horowitz in a 1983 Reader's Digest poem.

Siobhan Vivian in her book Same DifferenceFall colors are funny. They’re so bright and intense and beautiful. It’s like nature is trying to fill you up with color, to saturate you so you can stockpile it before winter turns everything muted and dreary.”

In a book of his collected letters, Vincent van Gogh wrote, “As long as autumn lasts, I shall not have hands, canvas and colors enough to paint the beautiful things I see.”

“I loved autumn, the one season of the year that God seemed to have put there just for the beauty of it,”

- Lee Maynard in his novel Crum.

In part of her poem “Late October,” the late acclaimed poet and activist Maya Angelou says, “Only lovers / see the fall / a signal end to endings / a gruffish gesture alerting / those who will not be alarmed / that we begin to stop / in order simply / to begin / again.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, September 17, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

A few of you have asked what happened to the motorcycle whose untimely breakdown in early September of 1983 forced me to abandon it in Bend, Oregon and hitchhike the rest of my way back to college in California. (For reference, see the August 28 Daily Thought, included in the church's DT archive: http://pcum.org/get-involved-grow/daily-thought-from-pastor-greg. Great if you're having trouble sleeping...)

At any rate, thanks for asking. As it turned out, while initially my group of five close college friends enthusiastically pledged to drop everything and take off on a "save the Kawasaki" road trip the moment they were called upon―If I recall, each of them said something like, "Dude, I'm there!"―as the weeks dragged on and on, they...well, they bailed, to quote Monty Python, "like rats out of an aqueduct."

I couldn't really blame them. As the fall wore on, the weather became cooler and cooler. More to the point, as the fall wore on the academic work at Stanford, as it tended to do, got heavier and heavier. That's one thing about a place like that: no matter how laid-back someone might seem, everybody is still super-studious. By the time the motorcycle shop in Oregon got around to calling to say they'd fixed the bike belonging to some kid who didn't even hang around to wait for it, early September had turned into late October. We were deep into midterms; big papers were coming due; a road trip of indeterminate length was a lot more costly. So, on the Saturday morning I took off northward, only one of my five "best friends in the whole world" was willing to go with me: Joe, the pre-med (now a longtime doctor and professor at Duke Medical School), the only one of us who actually had a midterm that Monday morning. 

It probably won't surprise you to hear we we hadn't thought it all through. For starters, Joe didn't know how to drive a standard transmission. Okay; first task: teach Joe how to drive the Celica I borrowed from another friend. While we were driving. Next, get on the road very early so that we'd do the 500+ miles before the shop closed for the weekend. We made it with an hour to spare, only to discover that the motorcycle shop hadn't taken me seriously when I'd said I was coming―and hadn't actually finished fixing my bike. Hadn't really started it, to be precise. I tried my best to be an irate customer, and they stayed a couple of hours after closing to finish the job. By that time, though, it was getting late in the day. And the snow was starting to fly.

You haven't really lived until you've tried to drive a motorcycle in the dark on a two-lane road over a mountain pass in three inches of snow. (Remember that thing about teenage boys not always thinking things through.) By the time we crossed the Oregon-California border and hit Yreka, just north of Mt. Shasta, I was ready to give up trying to keep myself alive on two wheels and Joe alive on four. We found a roadside motel, and the next morning I rented the only U-Haul truck available for hundreds of miles, a truck I shouldn't have needed and couldn't afford (and that could have held twelve Kawasakis), and grumpily started back to Stanford with Joe slipping and sliding behind. We arrived on campus at 4:30 am. Joe took his chemistry test at 8. I guess he passed.

That was close to forty years ago, and Joe is still one of my most cherished friends. He seemed then, and still seems, more conservative than I am in every way, but at the end of that academic year it was Joe who rode on the back of that same motorcycle, through the Redwood Forest, up the California coast, through the Columbia Gorge, and back to my home town of Spokane, Washington. He and I differ on politics, on faith, on lots of things, but we're bonded by something greater than agreement on things. He stood by me when I needed him, and he had the guts to to roll the dice for a friend. I'd do anything for him.

I know you have friends like Joe―and that you have been a friend like Joe to someone. Whatever is going on around you, give joyous thanks for that. True blessings are rare, even in the best of times. Here is a great observation about friendship from Jon Katz:

“I think if I've learned anything about friendship, it's to hang in, stay connected, fight for them, and let them fight for you. Don't walk away, don't be distracted, don't be too busy or tired, don't take them for granted. Friends are part of the glue that holds life and faith together. Powerful stuff.”

In Chris's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“The adjective so often coupled with mercy is the word tender, but God’s mercy is not tender; this mercy is a blunt instrument. Mercy doesn’t wrap a warm, limp blanket around offenders. God’s mercy is the kind that kills the thing that wronged it and resurrects something new in its place. In our guilt and remorse, we may wish for nothing but the ability to rewrite our own past, but what’s done cannot, will not, be undone.

But I am here to say that, in the mercy of  God, it can be redeemed. I cling to the truth of  God’s ability to redeem us more than perhaps any other. I have to. I need to. I want to. For when we say 'Lord have mercy,' what else could we possibly mean than this truth?”


Nadia Bolz-Weber in Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People

In Christ's mercy,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) was/is a quiet hero to many of us who felt called to study theology and enter ministry in the latter half of the 20th century. Nouwen (pronounced: NOW-un) was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian. His interests were rooted primarily in psychology, pastoral ministry, spirituality, social justice and community. Over the course of his life, Nouwen was heavily influenced by the work of Anton BoisenThomas Merton, Rembrandt, and Vincent van Gogh.

After nearly two decades of teaching at academic institutions including the University of Notre DameYale Divinity School and Harvard Divinity School, Nouwen shifted his career trajectory and went to work with individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities at the L'Arche Daybreak community in Richmond HillOntario. With his own life as a map, here are a few words of wisdom from Nouwen:

“When suddenly you seem to lose all you thought you had gained, do not despair. You must expect setbacks and regressions. Don't say to yourself, 'All is lost. I have to start all over again.' This is not true. What you have gained you have gained...When you return to the road, you return to the place where you left it, not to where you started.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, September 14, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

"Help" is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn't matter how you pray — with your head bowed in silence, crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors.

— Anne Lamott in Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

The air turned cool yesterday, just as anyone who was around here nineteen years ago remembers it did the morning of September 11, 2001. That drop in temperature is hard to forget, maybe because the contrast between the start of that crisp, gorgeous day and the sadness that came later that morning created such a lasting sensory memory. Now, though, as then, cool is welcome after a hot summer. Life's little blessings, which, especially in days like these, should be taken when and where we can find them.

Thinking about it reminds me of the poem "This is Just To Say" by William Carlos Williams:


I have eaten
the plums
that were in
in the icebox

and which 
you were probably 
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious 
so sweet
and so cold.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Again in recent months, we've experienced the power of a name. Breonna Taylor. Tom Seaver. Fill in the blank. The world turns, as they say, and as it does the numbers keep rising: people killed by a global pandemic; law enforcement and military personnel killed serving and protecting; Black Americans killed, injured and harassed by systemic racism; people killed and displaced by natural disasters intensified by nature's overheating. It's easy to be overwhelmed by the numbers. It's easy to forgetor, at least, not to consider for longthat behind each number is a name, and that each name proclaims the existence of a unique child of God.

Nineteen years ago today, of course, the names first appeared above photographs on the thousands of fliers plastered on the walls, telephone poles, store windows, and public spaces near my office in Lower Manhattan. I got off the #6 subway train at the Bowling Green station at 8:52 am on that beautiful, crisp morning. An unusually large crowd had already gathered in Battery Park, but, undaunted in my daily quest for morning sugar and coffee, I decided to stop as usual at the pastry cart at the north end of the park on my way to my building, 17 Battery Place. Everybody, I noticed, was staring up and northward toward the World Trade Center. From our vantage point, we could tell only that a fire had broken out high on the North Tower's opposite side. We bonded in our confusion. Someone said a plane had crashed into the tower; we all thought it must have been a smaller, private aircraft. A few minutes later, as the guesses continued spreading through the growing crowd, a Boeing 767 (United Flight 175) appeared right over our heads and flew directly into the South Tower. Six blocks away. I'll never forget that sight, that sound, that sensation. Now, we knew.

Two thousand six hundred and six people died at or near the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. One hundred twenty-five perished at the Pentagon. Two hundred and sixty-five persons on the four planes. Three hundred and forty-three firefighters, seventy-two law enforcement officers, and nineteen military personnel. Even more than the shock of what I saw and felt that daywatching those buildings in the terrible minutes after both planes hit, the focus on getting our staff and ourselves out of there, the long walk to some semblance of safety and sanity, the firefighters and cops grimly fighting their way toward the World Trade Center through the growing tide of people fleeingwhat I remember most vividly are the fliers with those names and those faces.

They started to appear by late that same afternoon. They stayed up for weeks and months. Have you seen Jennifer? Do you know Juan? Please help us find our son/daughter/ father/mother. They all had names. The frantic search for names, it seems to me, has something to do with the well-known stages of grief we normally navigate alone. We deny. We negotiate. We bargain. Maybe it's not true. Maybe, if I say this name enough times, look for this name, this loved one, in every emergency room in every hospital in every town, I'll find them, and what once was... will be again.

In 2002, United States Poet Laureate Billy Collins wrote and dedicated the poem "Names" to honor the lives and personhood of the victims and the survivors of September 11, 2001. We honor and remember them again today.

"Names"

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.
A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,
And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,
I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,
Then Baxter and Calabro,
Davis and Eberling, names falling into place
As droplets fell through the dark.
Names printed on the ceiling of the night.
Names slipping around a watery bend.
Twenty-six willows on the banks of a stream.
In the morning, I walked out barefoot
Among thousands of flowers
Heavy with dew like the eyes of tears,
And each had a name —
Fiori inscribed on a yellow petal.
Then Gonzalez and Han, Ishikawa and Jenkins.
Names written in the air
And stitched into the cloth of the day.
A name under a photograph taped to a mailbox.
Monogram on a torn shirt,
I see you spelled out on storefront windows
And on the bright unfurled awnings of this city.
I say the syllables as I turn a corner —
Kelly and Lee,
Medina, Nardella, and O'Connor.
When I peer into the woods,
I see a thick tangle where letters are hidden
As in a puzzle concocted for children.
Parker and Quigley in the twigs of an ash,
Rizzo, Schubert, Torres, and Upton,
Secrets in the boughs of an ancient maple.
Names written in the pale sky.
Names rising in the updraft amid buildings.
Names silent in stone
Or cried out behind a door.
Names blown over the earth and out to sea.
In the evening — weakening light, the last swallows.
A boy on a lake lifts his oars.
A woman by a window puts a match to a candle,
And the names are outlined on the rose clouds —
Vanacore and Wallace,
(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)
Then Young and Ziminsky, the final jolt of Z.
Names etched on the head of a pin.
One name spanning a bridge, another undergoing a tunnel.
A blue name needled into the skin.
Names of citizens, workers, mothers and fathers,
The bright-eyed daughter, the quick son.
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.
So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, September 10, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

About what you are capable of, from a perhaps unexpected voice:

“My dear,

In the midst of hate, I found that there was, within me, an invincible love.
In the midst of tears, I found there was, within me, an invincible smile. 
In the midst of chaos, I found there was, within me, an invincible calm. 
In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger—something better, pushing right back.

Yours Truly,
Albert Camus”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Tony Campolo is, without question, the Evangelical Christian thinker whose life, writings, teaching, and ministry garner respect from across the theological and political spectrum, and even beyond the boundaries of Christianity. Campolo is that gracious, that committed to justice for the marginalized, to listening/looking for the Spirit in the other, and to the conviction that God in Christ loves and seeks abundant life for all people, regardless. Here are two compelling quotes from pastor, sociologist, and author Tony Campolo in Why I Left, Why I Stayed: Conversations on Christianity Between an Evangelical Father and His Humanist Son:

“Even if there were no heaven and there were no hell, would you still follow Jesus?  Would you follow him for the life, joy and fulfillment he gives you right now?”

“I have found that there are two conditions that prevent me from experiencing this life as my theology dictates. The first is guilt, and the second is anxiety. Guilt keeps me oriented to the past. It focuses my attention on the things I should have done, and the things I should not have done.

Guilt is a burden that saps my energy, dissipates my enthusiasm for life, and destroys my appetite for saving the fullness of each moment. Anxiety, on the other hand, orients me to the future and keeps me from enjoying life in the present, because of the dread that I have about the future. Caught between guilt over the past and anxiety over the future, I have nothing left with which to address the present moment in which I find myself.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Ironically, or appropriately, an off-day yesterday makes this ode to labor a day late. I hope you don't mind, and I hope you and yours enjoyed a relaxing holiday in the midst of all the stress that swirls around us.

In her poem, “Virtuosi,” the German-American poet Lisel Mueller (1924-2020) captures the spirit of women and men with whom I've worked in a variety of jobs that came my way before ministry. Those included, if memory serves, and not in sequential order: hay baler, ditch digger (I preferred the term 'manual excavation engineer'), law clerk, janitor, hotel houseman, parking valet, irrigation/sewage treatment plant worker, traffic sign-holder (you know, "Stop/Slow"), electrical lineman's helper, volcanic ash remover, software designer, house painter, homeless shelter director, office clerk, weed-puller, and lawn-mower (I preferred 'vegetation altitude control engineer').

In most of those jobs, especially early on, the people with whom I worked—like me, in those days—needed to earn money to pay for...well, everything. There was no one else to do it. Some were nicer than others. Some were better at their craft than others. A lot of them are still there, doing whatever it is we were doing then. And some have beaten the odds, constructed amazing lives for themselves. But they all got up, showed up, and kept it going day after day. These days, especially, I've got to hand it to them, to the frontline workers and the essential workers, and to all who give the best of themselves to their work, wherever and whatever that work may be. 


“Virtuosi” by Lisel Mueller

People whose lives have been shaped
by history—and it is always tragic—
do not want to talk about it,
would rather dance, give parties
on thrift-shop china. You feel 
wonderful in their homes,
two leaky rooms, nests
they stowed inside their hearts
on the road into exile.
They know how to fix potato peelings
and apple cores so you smack your lips.

The words 'start over again'
hold no terror for them.
Obediently they rise 
and go only with a rucksack
or tote bag. If they weep,
it's when you're not looking.

To tame their nightmares, they choose 
the most dazzling occupations,
swallow the flames in the sunset sky,
jump through burning hoops 
in their dazzling tiger suits.
Cover your eyes: there's one
walking on a thread 
thirty feet above us
shivering points of light
leap across her body,
and she works without a net.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, September 5, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

For this beautiful Saturday, with storms of various kinds and so much worry somewhere in the distance, a well-timed prose poem from Mary Oliver:

“Don't Hesitate”

If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy,

don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the
case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, September 4, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

They say there’s nothing new under the sun. Whoever “they” are, I think they’re right. If so, it may be worth recognizing that, though this is the first time we’ve been unable to avoid a prolonged period that mixes challenges like mass illness, capricious leadership, social unrest, life-changing uncertainty, and general suffering, we’re not the first to face them. Other people in other times have walked this road ahead of us. Other people in other parts of the world are (still) there now. Can we learn from them?

Chinua Achebe (1930-2013) was a Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic known and loved for depicting the social and psychological disorientation brought by the imposition of Western customs and values upon traditional African society. Another way of putting it is that Achebe was an expert at voicing what it's like to have your world turned upside down. His masterpiece and first novel Things Fall Apart (1958) is the most widely-read book in modern African literature. Here are a couple of Chinua Achebe quotes that might speak to us today:


“I believe in the complexity of the human story and that there’s no way you can tell that story in one way and say, ‘This is it.’ Always there will be someone who can tell it differently, depending on where they are standing...  I think of that masquerade in Igbo festivals that dances in the public arena. The Igbo people say, ‘If you want to see it well, you must not stand in one place.’ The masquerade is moving through this big arena. Dancing. If you’re rooted to a spot, you miss a lot of the grace. So you keep moving, and this is the way I think the world’s stories should be told—from many different perspectives.”

“We cannot trample upon the humanity of others without devaluing our own. The Igbo, always practical, put it concretely in their proverb Onye ji onye n'ani ji onwe ya:  'He who will hold another down in the mud must stay in the mud to keep him down.’”

― Chinua Achebe, The Education of a British-Protected Child: Essays

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, September 3, 2020


Dear PCUM family,

What do you already have, what do we share, that is going to get you through and beyond these stressful, uncertain days? What do you have to offer to others? Walter Brueggemann, the venerable and respected Old Testament scholar, has the answer in the form of a reminder:

“It is there within and among us, for we are ordained of God to be people of hope. It is there by virtue of our being in the image of the promissory God. It is sealed there in the sacrament of baptism. It is dramatized in the Lord's Supper—“until he comes again.” It is the structure of every creed that ends by trusting in God’s promises. Hope is the decision to which God invites Israel, God's people, a decision against despair, against permanent consignment to chaos (Isa 45:18), oppression, barrenness, and exile.”

― Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

My intention has been that the quotes in these daily messages to you run the gamut from encouraging to thought-provoking, comforting to challenging, topical to reflective. I've wanted to speak to you and, in a way, as I think of you while writing, to talk with you. I also try to include a wide range of voices, voices I've loved forever and voices I'm only now discovering. That's because I've found the old adage, like so many old adages, to be true: God works, and speaks to us, in mysterious ways. Usually new and unexpected ways.

Sometimes, the choice of whom and what to share with you is as simple and urgent as wanting to introduce one dear friend to another. That's the case today, as I leave you with a sample of brilliant, pure writing from Fyodor Dostoevsky, the great 19th-century Russian author. In this bit of Dostoevsky's short story “White Nights,” Natenska, befriended and secretly loved by a lonely, idealistic dreamer, tells him her wishes for him―and all humanity―even as she confesses that her heart belongs to another:


“Tell me, how is it that we can't all be like brothers [and sisters] together? Why is it that even the best of us always seem to hide something from other people and to keep something back? Why not say straight out what is on one's heart... As it is, everyone seems harsher than they really are...

If and when you fall in love, may you be happy with her. I don't need to wish her anything, because she'll be happy with you. I know, I am a woman myself, and you must believe me when I tell you so. May your sky always be clear, may your dear smile always be bright and happy, and may you be forever blessed for that moment of bliss and happiness which you gave to another lonely and grateful heart. Isn't such a moment sufficient for the whole of one's life?”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“An old story is told about Rabia of Basra, an eighth-century Sufi mystic who was seen running through the streets of her city one day carrying a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other.

When someone asked her what she was doing, she said she wanted to burn down the rewards of paradise with the torch and put out the fires of hell with the water, because both blocked the way to God.  'O, Allah,' Rabia prayed, 'if I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty.'


In Christian tradition, this comes under the heading of unconditional love, though it is usually understood as the kind of love God exercises toward humans instead of the other way around. Now, thanks to a Muslim mystic from Iraq, I have a new way of understanding what it means to love God unconditionally. Whenever I am tempted to act from fear of divine punishment or hope of divine reward, Rabia leans over from her religion into mine and empties a bucket of water on my head.”

― Barbara Brown Taylor in Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, August 31, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I know you're already aware of the fact, but I've denied and evaded it longer than most. Today, though, the truth caught up with me: I'm officially old. This realization came this morning as I heard myself laughing out loud at a particular point in an online article about the country's spate of ill-advised, unauthorized, and, in some cases, illegal gatherings (read: parties) of unmasked, socially-proximal college students―newly returned to campus―and the inevitable outbreaks of COVID-19 that came along with them. The article's thesis was that colleges and universities are really to blame for these outbreaks of this devastating, deadly disease. After all, the author complained, who in their right mind would or could expect your average red-blooded American 18 to 22-year-old to do anything except just what they want to do, regardless of having all the information, regardless of standards and rules put in place to protect them, and regardless of the risk of getting others sick. The funny part, for me, and the sad part, too, was the moment I realized the author wasn't joking.

Yes, as I read about the impossible situation these young adults are in today, it was hard not to laugh a little bitterly when thinking of other generations of American youth―the wartime teenagers, for starters, who stormed the beaches at Anzio or Normandy (thousands of whom never came home). Or who held households together while working 12-hour shifts in factories. Or some kids I grew up with who, despite their academic talent, had exactly one choice after high school: go to work. Compared to what those kids decided to do when called upon, cutting down on the parties, wearing a mask, and keeping a little distance seem, by comparison, somewhat mild requests. But, as I say, and as my kids remind me, I'm old.


I do agree with at least a thread of the author's argument. Responsible though they may be for their decisions, our young people today are not entirely at fault. Young adults generally learn from and pattern themselves after older adults. So, we're all a part of this. Maybe admitting that brings us all a glimmer of hope. Maybe here, as in worship, confession is the only good place to start. With all that on my aging mind, and free now to be the curmudgeon that both my age and the mirror say I have every right to be, some perhaps timely words from Wendell Berry in "A Native Hill," from The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays:

“We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. And this has been based on the even flimsier assumption that we could know with any certainty what was good even for us. We have fulfilled the danger of this by making our personal pride and greed the standard of our behavior toward the world - to the incalculable disadvantage of the world and every living thing in it. And now, perhaps very close to too late, our great error has become clear. It is not only our own creativity - our own capacity for life - that is stifled by our arrogant assumption; the creation itself is stifled.

We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it. We must learn to cooperate in its processes, and to yield to its limits. But even more important, we must learn to acknowledge that the creation is full of mystery; we will never entirely understand it. We must abandon arrogance and stand in awe. We must recover the sense of the majesty of creation, and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For I do not doubt that it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, August 29, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

For me, alwaysas my mother reassured mea generally “thoughtful” kind of personone destabilizing and important revelation delivered by the Black Lives Matter movement has been the challenge to the assumption that I have a clue what it's like to be Black every day in this country. I don't. Here are two poems I've discovered by the late, great Maya Angelou:  “Equality” and “Life Doesn't Frighten Me.”

“Equality”

“You declare you see me dimly
through a glass which will not shine,
though I stand before you boldly,
trim in rank and marking time.
You do own to hear me faintly
as a whisper out of range,
while my drums beat out the message
and the rhythms never change.

Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.

You announce my ways are wanton,
that I fly from man to man,
but if I'm just a shadow to you,
could you ever understand?

We have lived a painful history,
we know the shameful past,
but I keep on marching forward,
and you keep on coming last.

Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.

Take the blinders from your vision,
take the padding from your ears,
and confess you've heard me crying,
and admit you've seen my tears.

Hear the tempo so compelling,
hear the blood throb in my veins.
Yes, my drums are beating nightly,
and the rhythms never change.

Equality, and I will be free.
Equality, and I will be free.”



“Life Doesn't Frighten Me.” 

“Shadows on the wall
Noises down the hall
Life doesn't frighten me at all

Bad dogs barking loud
Big ghosts in a cloud
Life doesn't frighten me at all

Mean old Mother Goose
Lions on the loose
They don't frighten me at all

Dragons breathing flame
On my counterpane
That doesn't frighten me at all.

I go boo
Make them shoo
I make fun
Way they run
I won't cry
So they fly
I just smile
They go wild

Life doesn't frighten me at all.

Tough guys fight
All alone at night
Life doesn't frighten me at all.

Panthers in the park
Strangers in the dark
No, they don't frighten me at all.

That new classroom where
Boys all pull my hair
(Kissy little girls
With their hair in curls)
They don't frighten me at all.

Don't show me frogs and snakes
And listen for my scream,
If I'm afraid at all
It's only in my dreams.

I've got a magic charm
That I keep up my sleeve
I can walk the ocean floor
And never have to breathe.

Life doesn't frighten me at all
Not at all
Not at all.

Life doesn't frighten me at all.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, August 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Below are three quotes about hitchhiking, an activity which, in my younger years, I found myself doing
out of necessity or for adventurenow and then. Mind you, I'm not old enough to recall a time when standing alone on the side of a road with your thumb out, then catching a ride with a complete stranger, was considered a good idea, let alone safe. Let's just say I never told my mother.

Hitchhiking has been on my mind recently because of another hobby I've shared with you elsewhere: memorizing song lyrics. One song whose words I've learned during COVID is "Wagon Wheel" by the Americana string band, Old Crow Medicine Show. (The original version, by the way, written by Ketch Secor and based on a line from an old Bob Dylan bootleg, is better than Darius Rucker's more popular cover. Sorry, Hootie.) I've liked the song for a long time but didn't realize until I focused on the lyrics that it's Secors's semi-autobiographical account of a hitchhiking trip south from his upstate New York college to visit a girlfriend in North Carolina. "I made it down the coast in seventeen hours, picking me a boo-quet of dogwood flowers, and I'm hoping for Raleigh gonna see my baby tonight! So, rock me, mama, like a wagon wheel..."

I once made a similar college-age hitchhiking trip about the same length in the same amount of time, though my trip was down the opposite coast
and that's where the similarities end. For me, sadly, there was no girl involved and no flowers of any kindjust a stubborn refusal to let a thrown rod on my Kawasaki 750 prevent me from getting to the first day of class in my junior year on time. I left Spokane, Washington on my motorcycle on a Saturday morning, heading for the San Francisco Bay Area, and made it 330 or so miles to 50 miles north of Bend, Oregon before I knew I was in trouble. Limped into town mid-afternoon, dropped the bike off at the local motorcycle shop, and stuck out my thumb. 

After a good bit of waiting, my first ride was in the back of a Ford pickup. Those nice people neglected to tell me they weren't going too far out of town
which I realized when they dropped me off in the middle of nowhere after twenty short minutes. Only 500 miles to go. So much for sleeping in a motel if things didn't work out. The next ride, which picked me up around 10 pm, was a nice elderly couple in a (very) old Chevrolet Impala. They got me almost to the Oregon-California border by sunrise. Still 300 miles left. The third and final vehicle that stopped to pick me up, but not before I waited on the roadside 'til high noon on Sunday, was a black Chevy Camaro driven by an out-of-work truck driver named Woody. Woody, as it turned out, was short on dental hygiene and long on tall tales, chewing tobacco, and a big heart. He told me when I sat in his passenger's seat for the first time that he could only take me as far as Chico, which was fine by me. In the end, though, Woody drove another 100 miles out of his way to drop me off at the Sacramento bus station. He wouldn't take any money, so I left a twenty-dollar bill on the seat when I got out of the car. Two buses and another sunrise later, I was on campus. Without Woody, I never would have been sitting in my calculus class that Monday morning at 8 am (not that being there did me much good come exam time.)

My kids aren't going to do it, and neither should yours. Or you. But hitchhiking, as it turns out, at least in those simpler days, was an experience that taught you a lot about yourself. How to embrace the unknown without letting the bad things that might happen to you in the future paralyze your decision-making in the present. How to relate to (and value) people who are a lot different from you. How to discover treasures in earthen vessels
even the treasure of the self you share with others. In these days of social turmoil, pandemic anxiety, and all-around uncertainty about what the future holds, songs and stories like this might seem quaint, at best, and, at worst, tone-deaf. I hope not. 

Here are those hitchhiking quotes I wanted to share with you:

"When I got out of school, I spent two years just hitchhiking around. Every time I met some old farmer who could play banjo, I got him to teach me a lick or two. Little by little, I put it together."  (Pete Seeger)

"The one thing I miss is hitchhiking. Now there's no more of that. When's the last time you saw a hitchhiker? It's not that I consider it a great sport, but it was my way of seeing the country. The open road, especially in the western United States, is still very pristine, but everything else around it has changed."  (Edward Ruscha)

"I really didn't have any bad hitchhiking experiences. The only bad experiences were standing by the road for 10 hours. I never thought I'd get a ride with a minister's wife or a coal miner or a Republican elected official. It was all pleasant surprises. The only drag was the waiting."  (John Waters...yes, that John Waters)

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, August 27, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Born in 1924, James Baldwin was an American essayist, novelist, playwright and social critic. He became an important voice through writing passionately and brilliantly about racial discrimination, spirituality and humanity, and the psychological pressure affecting Black Americans and others who face daily marginalization. 

Baldwin was born to a young single mother and never knew the identity of his biological father. When James was three years old, his mother married a Baptist minister named David Baldwin. The author discovered his passion for reading at an early age, but at first he followed his stepfather’s footsteps and served as a youth minister. However, in high school he got a chance to work on the school's magazine, where he found his calling, publishing numerous poems and short stories. Overcoming challenges ranging from poverty to homophobia to systemic racism, James Baldwin went on to become a significant mid-twentieth century thinker and cultural figure—and one of America's greatest writers.

Here are a few quotes from James Baldwin that resonate as much today as ever:


“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”

"People can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, any more than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say ‘Yes’ to life.”

“Neither love nor terror makes one blind: indifference makes one blind.”

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

“People pay for what they do, and still more for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply; by the lives they lead.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

From our late Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall:

“We cannot play ostrich. Democracy just cannot flourish amid fear. Liberty cannot bloom amid hate. Justice cannot take root amid rage. America must get to work. In the chill climate in which we live, we must go against the prevailing wind. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust. We must dissent from a nation that has buried its head in the sand, waiting in vain for the needs of its poor, its elderly, and its sick to disappear and just blow away. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

As frustrating as the stops and the slow-downs forced on us by this pandemic have been, maybe this from E.B. White, in Charlotte's Web and Other Illustrated Classics, can help us appreciate the blessings that come hidden within:

[Charlotte asks] “Did you ever hear of the Queensborough Bridge?'
  Wilbur shook his head. 'Is it a web?'
  'Sort of,' replied Charlotte. 'But do you know how long it took [people] to build it? Eight whole years. My goodness, I would have starved to death waiting that long. I can make a web in a single evening.'
  'What do people catch in the Queensborough Bridge—bugs?' asked Wilbur.
  'No,' said Charlotte. 'They don’t catch anything. They just keep trotting back and forth across the bridge thinking there is something better on the other side. If they’d hang head-down at the top of the thing and wait quietly, maybe something good would come along. But no—with [people] it’s rush, rush, rush, every minute. I’m glad I’m a sedentary spider.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, August 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The altered rhythm-of-life this spring and summer has provided more time in our backyard, which looks the best it has in the 10+ years we've lived here. As I've worked out there, I've made my annual discovery: everything grows in the Garden State. Especially weeds. 

Having spent most of my younger years in southeastern and northwestern places long on pine trees and short on growing seasons, a New Jersey garden (like a small New Jersey farm or a weekend farmers' market) to me is a wondrous place. Corn, tomatoes, squash. Blueberries, flowers, herbs. It's all here, and most of it, especially this time of year, tastes better than anywhere else. It must be the water. Don't ask!

While the weather is still one of the good things in these otherwise challenging days, I hope you'll get a chance to get outside, soak up some sun, and get your hands in the dirt. Failing that, my prayer is that you'll savor a tomato or an ear of corn in the way one can only here in New Jersey, which must have been the site of Ol' man Simon's garden in Shel Silverstein's Where the Sidewalk Ends:

“Ol' man Simon, planted a diamond. Grew hisself a garden the likes of none. Sprouts all growin' comin' up glowin' Fruit of jewels all shinin' in the sun. Colors of the rainbow. See the sun and the rain grow sapphires and rubies on ivory vines, Grapes of jade, just ripenin' in the shade, just ready for the squeezin' into green jade wine. Pure gold corn there, Blowin' in the warm air. Ol' crow nibblin' on the amethyst seeds.

In between the diamonds, Ol' man Simon crawls about pullin' out platinum weeds. Pink pearl berries, all you can carry, put 'em in a bushel and haul 'em into town. Up in the tree there's opal nuts and gold pears―Hurry quick, grab a stick and shake some down. Take a silver tater, emerald tomater, fresh plump coral melons. Hangin' in reach. Ol' man Simon, diggin' in his diamonds, stops and rests and dreams about one... real... peach.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, August 22, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was the first Black author to win the Pulitzer Prize and the first Black woman to be named to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and to serve as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress.

This Gwendolyn Brooks poem names and challenges the best of ourselves in times of trial.

“To Prisoners”

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.

Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, August 21, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

This reminder from Anne Lamott in her Almost Everything: Notes On Hope:

“Could you say this about yourself right now, that you have immense and intrinsic value, at your current weight and income level, while waiting to hear if you got the job or didn’t, or sold your book or didn’t, or are loved by that person or aren't?

This idea that I already had all the value I’d ever need was concealed from me my whole life. I want a refund. In this world of suffering and grace, of brokenness and sky, of bad skin and buckteeth and one another, I cannot add to the value of myself.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, August 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

About 29 years ago, my friend and mentor, the late Ron Johnson, gave me some perspective that burst my young, self-absorbed bubble a little bit: “Greg,” Ron said, “I hate to break this to you, but whether or not a first-time visitor comes or longtime member comes back to church isn't always about you, how well you do, how hard you work, or even how much you care. Sometimes it is, but a lot of times it isn't. There's always something bigger going on, and the truth is...it's a revolving door.” 

He was right. That said, over the past (almost) three decades, I've been lucky and blessed to have served congregations whose doors have revolved mostly inwardly. They've thrived and grown―in health, most importantly, but also in vibrancy, in numbers, in relationships, and in possibilities. None of these churches was perfect, mind you, but each, including and especially this one, had an obvious gift for radiating the Spirit, which, among other attributes, enabled them to be gracious with the pastor's imperfections. I have, definitely, been blessed. In fact, for all the focus on a church experience that both embraces new people and connects all people, I've learned that the true test of a healthy congregation isn't how many pews are filled or the numbers on a spreadsheet. What makes a church healthy is how that family of faith comes together in the face of mystery. Challenge, sadness, joy, disagreement, celebration...that's when the rubber hits the road.

Ron's good advice always makes me think of the famous quote from one of my heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Writing to a group of German seminarians in his little book Life Together, and thinking about how his beloved German Christian church was caving into the standards of selfishness set by the increasingly powerful Nazi Party, Bonhoeffer said the most provocative and true thing:

“God hates visionary dreaming; it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. The one who fashions a visionary ideal of Christian community demands that it be realized by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community with their demands, set up their own law, and judge their fellow Christians and God Himself accordingly.

The visionary dreamer stands adamant, a living reproach to all others in the circle... They act as if they alone are the creator of the Christian community, as if their dream binds us all together. When things do not go their way, they call the effort a failure. When their ideal picture is destroyed, they see the community going to smash. So the dreamer becomes, first an accuser of his brothers and sisters, then an accuser of God, and finally the despairing accuser of himself.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Along with watching (and re-watching) movies, one gift that has helped all of us in the Horn house navigate and survive these past 5+ months has been the gift of books. More than once, we've watched movies based on books we've read. A couple of us have even been known to go out and find and read the book that inspired a movie we've watched. It's, as the not-so-far-away-because-it's-Nutley-legend, Martha Stewart, used to say, "a good thing."

On the topic of reading, an even closer local legend is Montclair's own Denise Lewis Patrick, a thoughtful and prolific writer of books, poetry and children's books. Denise's works include Finding Someplace; A Girl Named Rosa: The True Story of Rosa Parks; The Car Washing Street; A New Beginning: My Journey with Addy; Red Dancing Shoes; Jackie Robinson: Strong Inside and Out; Ronald Reagan: From Silver Screen to Oval Office; four books for the American Girl Doll series; and A Lesson for Martin Luther King, Jr.  Finally, since I'm fond of you, and since Denise is our next-door neighbor, I'll reveal her website coordinates: http://www.deniselewispatrick.com.


I love this from Denise:

“When I visit schools, there are two questions children always ask:  ‘What's your favorite book that you wrote?’ and ‘What's the most important thing to do if you want to become a writer?’   
Now, the answer to the first question is hard. Nearly everything I write is autobiographical in some way.  There's a little part of me, or something I've experienced directly (or that happened to someone else I know) in all of my work. I always change the story a little, and change the names up. So my characters almost become brothers, sisters, aunts or uncles to me—and sometimes children, though I do have real ones.

And the answer to the second question is soooo easy. If you want to be—or become—a writer, read.  That's right, read everything. Read all the time! Think about the world, and all the other people who live in it! Then you can start creating worlds of your own.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Jesus called it abundant living, and he said (John 10:10) that that's the real reason he came to be with us. I love this quote from New Jersey's own Bruce Springsteen, from his book Born to Run, about the one thing in life worth pursuing and protecting:

“The primary math of the real world is one and one equals two. The layman (as, often, do I) swings that every day. He goes to the job, does his work, pays his bills and comes home. One plus one equals two. It keeps the world spinning. But artists, musicians, con men, poets, mystics and such are paid to turn that math on its head, to rub two sticks together and bring forth fire. Everybody performs this alchemy somewhere in their life, but it’s hard to hold on to and easy to forget. People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut.

That's when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three. It’s the essential equation of love, art, rock ’n’ roll and rock ’n’ roll bands. It’s the reason the universe will never be fully comprehensible, love will continue to be ecstatic, confounding, and true rock ’n’ roll will never die.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, August 17,2020

Dear PCUM family,

On this Monday, in a season when the temptation to focus on ourselves and our own problems is especially low-hanging fruit, a timely, provocative reminder from the English New Testament scholar and former Anglican bishop, N.T. Wright, from his book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is:

“Our task as image-bearing, God-loving, Christ-shaped, Spirit-filled Christians, following Christ and shaping our world, is to announce redemption to a world that has discovered its fallenness, to announce healing to a world that has now faced its brokenness, to proclaim love and trust to a world that knows only exploitation, fear and suspicion...

The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even―heaven help us―Biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically-rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and post-modernity, leading the way...with joy and humor and gentleness and good judgment and true wisdom. 

I believe if we face the question, ‘if not now, then when?’ if we are grasped by this vision we may also hear the question, ‘if not us, then who?’ And if the gospel of Jesus is not the key to this task, then what is?”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, August 15, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Here is “Midsummer, Tobago” by the St. Lucian poet, Derek Walcott (1930-2017).

Broad sun-stoned beaches.

White heat.
A green river.

A bridge,
scorched yellow palms

from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.

Days I have held,
days I have lost,

days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harboring arms. 


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, August 14, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The old, semi-theological truism goes something like this: “Life is what happens when what you had planned doesn't work out.” My father, back when I was bumbling my way from being a problem-free teenager to an adult, used to put it more bluntly: “Welcome to the real world.” Thanks, dad. Still, what he was trying to get across with such tenderness and compassion, it seems to me now, is that the question isn't whether or not your life will always, or even mostly, go the way you want it to. It won't. The question is what you do when it doesn't. Certainly, we're (re-)learning that truth these days. 

If you're a Brad Pitt fan, you may be familiar with the film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, the 2008 Oscar-nominated story directed by David Fincher about a man born with the appearance of an 80-year-old who then proceeds to age in reverse. It's a pretty good movie, if long-ish (about nine Presbyterian sermons-worth, if you're counting.) What you may not know, though, is that the film is loosely based on a 1922 short story by none other than F. Scott Fitzgerald. Both the story and the movie that came from it portray a life lived “off-script,” if you will, both strange enough and familiar enough to give us a new way of seeing ourselves. That's what all good art does, I think. Here is what The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's screenwriter, Eric Roth, has to say about the potential in our real, unscripted living:

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it.

I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the courage to start all over again.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

One of the voices I've relied on and gotten to know better myself during this pandemic has been that of the Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, an increasingly well-known and well-respected writer, thinker, and speaker from Denver, Colorado. Bolz-Weber is a scholarly, irreverent, tattoo-covered Lutheran minister, feminist leader, and New York Times best-selling author with a compelling personal story, a story that makes her voice both important and, I think, timely. 

She grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado in a fundamentalist Christian family. In 1986, at age 17, Bolz-Weber started getting tattoos, including tattoos on both arms that mark the liturgical year and the story of the Gospel. She briefly attended Pepperdine University in California before dropping out and moving to Denver, where she says that she became an alcoholic and drug abuser and often felt like one of “society's outsiders.” Bolz-Weber became sober in the early 1990s and, as of 2020, has stayed sober for twenty-eight years. Prior to her ordination, she was a stand-up comedian and worked in the restaurant industry.

Asked in 2004 to eulogize a friend who had committed suicide, Bolz-Weber heard God's call to serve. She attended seminary at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and in 2008 was ordained as a Lutheran minister. Remaining in Denver, she became the founding pastor of her own church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, a diverse group of believers that includes members of the LGBTQ community, families with children, local professors and professionals, and a range of people with drug addiction, depression, and even those who don't exactly share Bolz-Weber's Christ-centered faith.

Nadia Bolz-Weber's life story is an example of the authentic claiming of one's value as a child of God while, at the same time, facing the truth that―in the end, as at the start―that value isn't found in always being right or getting things right, but in God's amazing grace. In this time of naming and challenging longstanding and pervasive injustices, this quote from her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People reminds us all of the humility and openness to the Spirit's surprising movements that are the essential flip-side of the passion for God's justice:

“Personally, I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of  important. But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, and the poor are blessed, and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests, it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin in its own right.

Knowing what category to place hemlock in might help us know whether it’s safe to drink, but knowing what category to place ourselves and others in does not help us know God...”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

After a week on beautiful Cape Cod, I can without hesitation announce and affirm that I am not a beach person. You probably weren’t worried about this question, but now you have your answer.  

As it happens, a good part of my adolescence —10 through 14 years old—was spent living on the water in Florida, so I've had a lot of time to reflect on the question. Reflect is a good word, actually. I’ve got no tan and almost as little patience. Sure, like you, I’d expect, I experience the ocean and the beach (read: “Shore” if you're born and raised around here) as relaxing and perspective-giving. Still, a few days roasting on the sand and sweating all over my book, and I'm ready for some shade.  

On the other hand, summer in general, I like. A week staring at the ocean, eating seafood, and not seeing a computer all say “summer” to me, just like baseball (in any other year) and driving with the radio turned up. For all those summer experiences, I'm grateful. In fact, the things that make summer, when you get a good dose of them, are hard to leave. So, to ease myself off the beach and back into the Daily Thought routine, and, perhaps, to greet you where you are this mid-August, here are a few favorite quotes about summer: 

“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby 

“The summer night is like a perfection of thought.” — Wallace Stevens 

“Smell the sea, and feel the sky, let your spirit fly.”  — Van Morrison

“Deep summer is when laziness finds respectability.” — Sam Keen

“Summer will end soon enough, and childhood as well.” 
— George R.R. Martin, Game of Thrones


“The first week of August hangs at the very top of summer, the top of the live-long year, like the highest seat of the Ferris wheel when it pauses in its turning. The weeks that come before are only a climb from balmy spring, and those that follow a drop to the chill of Autumn, but the first week of August is motionless, and hot. It is curiously silent, too, with blank white dawns and glaring noons, and sunsets smeared with too much color.” 
— Natalie Babbit, Tuck Everlasting 

In Christ’s peace, 
Pastor Greg 

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Friday, July 31, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Sarah, Will, Maggie, and I will head out early tomorrow for a week's vacation, so the Daily Thought, too, will be taking a vacation from your inboxes and feeds. I'll miss speaking with you each day in this way, but will be back soon. Enjoy your break.

In the meantime, "Courage," by a newfound favorite poet, John O'Donohue:


“When the light around lessens
And your thoughts darken until
Your body feels fear turn
Cold as a stone inside,


When you find yourself bereft
Of any belief in yourself
And all you unknowingly
Leaned on has fallen,

W
hen one voice commands
Your whole heart,
And it is raven dark,


Steady yourself and see
That it is your own thinking
That darkens your world.


Search and you will find
A diamond-thought of light,


Know that you are not alone,
And that this darkness has purpose;
Gradually it will school your eyes,
To find the one gift your life requires
Hidden within this night-corner.


Invoke the learning
Of every suffering
You have suffered.


Close your eyes.
Gather all the kindling
About your heart
To create one spark
That is all you need
To nourish the flame
That will cleanse the dark
Of its weight of festered fear.


A new confidence will come alive
To urge you towards higher ground
Where your imagination
will learn to engage difficulty
As its most rewarding threshold!”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, July 30, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

With the same steady determination, time marches on―like it or not―toward the known and unknown alike. You and I can't avoid or hide from it. Ready or not, as we used to say playing tag, here it comes!

Energy is best spent, it would seem, not in chasing down and managing all possible outcomes or in keeping the calendar from turning, but in finding peace with one's self, come what may. In fact, as irony would have it, that's the best way to exert influence on how things are going to turn out. I've always liked what F. Scott Fitgerald had to say in This Side of Paradise about the self-discoveries both time and the facing of challenges hold in store for us:

“Don't let yourself feel worthless: often through life you will really be at your worst when you seem to think best of yourself; and don't worry about losing your ‘personality,’ as you persist in calling it: at fifteen you had the radiance of early morning, at twenty you will begin to have the melancholy brilliance of the moon, and when you are my age you will give out, as I do, the genial golden warmth of 4 p.m.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Today's installment features two quotes from the late Nelson Mandela―author, anti-apartheid revolutionary, South Africa's first post-apartheid president, and 27-year prisoner of a modern political and economic system established on overtly racist principles.

When I was a college student in California in the early 1980s, we marched to protest both Mandela's imprisonment and the inequity and suffering caused by the Republic of South Africa's segregated apartheid system. We believed in our cause, but frankly, looking back, I doubt most of us thought either situation would change as soon as it did (Nelson Mandela walked out of prison in 1990, and apartheid ended in 1994.) Both seemed so entrenched; both had lasted so long. Like the Berlin Wall, VHS tapes, and San Francisco 49ers' dominance, it looked at the time like those realities were here to stay.

Of course, all things come to an end, including those things whose end can't come soon enough. These days, we've got a global pandemic, a wave of civic protest over the aspects of our great country's own racist past, and―for some years now―the kind of vicious cultural and political polarization that comes easy when things are going well but doesn't help much when much is at stake. (When you get to the place where wearing masks has become politicized, with predictable results, you've got to ask yourself how you got here.) To move forward, through this, to a better day, we'll need determination, resolve, and hope. We'll also need the perspective (and maturity) necessary to put self-interest aside, reach out, and work together across differences for the common good.

That's where Nelson Mandela comes in. In his autobiography, A Long Walk to Freedom, he wrote:

“I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one's head pointed toward the sun, one's feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.”

When someone asked Mandela if, when he left prison after twenty-seven years and began walking his road to freedom, he didn't hate his white oppressors all over again, he said:

“Absolutely I did, because they’d imprisoned me for so long. I was abused. I didn’t get to see my children grow up. I lost my marriage and the best years of my life. I was angry. And I was afraid, because I had not been free in so long. But as I got closer to the car that would take me away, I realized that when I went through that gate, if I still hated them, they would still have me. I wanted to be free. And so I let it go.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Have you learned this lesson, yet? It took me a long time. The lesson is... as much as we like to rely on our own strength, it's being together, sticking together―virtually or in-person, via Zoom or the distanced-and-stretched-but-never-broken bonds of affection―that will see us through all this. 

After she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, the late poet Audre Lorde (1934-1992) wrote in her book The Cancer Journals that, without community, without each other, “there is certainly no liberation, no future, only the most temporary and vulnerable armistice...” I love how one of my favorite poems by Lorde, “The Electric Slide Boogie,” honors the relationships that construct life's deeper meaning:

“New Year's Day 1:16 AM and my body is weary beyond
time to withdraw and rest ample room allowed me in everyone's head
but community calls right over the threshold
drums beating through the walls
children playing their truck dramas
under the collapsible coatrack
in the narrow hallway outside my room

The TV lounge next door is wide open
it is midnight in Idaho
and the throb easy subtle spin
of the electric slide boogie
step-stepping around the corner of the parlor
past the sweet clink
of dining room glasses
and the edged aroma of slightly overdone
dutch-apple pie
all laced together
with the rich dark laughter
of Gloria
and her higher-octave sisters

How hard it is to sleep
in the middle of life.”

In  Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, July 27, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Along with digging ditches, painting fire hydrants, and serving as a lackey for journeyman electricians and plumbers, my high school and college summer job was to service above-ground irrigation pipes on the half dozen farms on the eastern outskirts of Spokane, Washington. (Those farms are now long gone.) Even as a sixteen-year-old, they called me “college boy” since, unlike many of the other summer workers, they knew I wasn't staying. Not that I had much choice. They liked me well enough, but I was hopeless in all things mechanical, which meant that everybody, including me, hoped my gifts lay elsewhere. 

So, whenever an irrigation pipe sprung a leak on some farmer's back-forty, the guys supervising me thought it was consistently hilarious to dress me, the least qualified among us, in a yellow rain-suit and goggles, hand me a clamp and a wrench, and sit back to watch as I waded into a plume of water that often reached as high as fifty feet. For me, fumbling blindly to stop those geysers of bracingly-cold water wasn't just a job, it was an adventure.

Over the years, in addition to getting my head almost blown off on a regular basis, repeated irrigation repair-calls resulted in us getting to know a few of those sun-burnt, straight-legged jeans-wearing, tobacco-chewing farmers. They weren't always long on dental hygiene, but, to my mind at the time, those guys were generally wiser and more interesting than most adults I knew. One old farmer, in particular, sticks in my memory. Every time we'd show up, he'd give us homemade beef jerky and cold water, along with funny aphorisms like, “Boys, ain't much more painful than trying to stand on both sides of a barbed-wire fence at the same time.” He was right about that; I'd suggest you not try it.


In fact, standing on both sides of a barbed-wire fence is what, it seems to me, a lot of us in this country are trying to do these days. We want things to be back to normal; in some ways, we're forcing things as best we can to be normal, and yet the coronavirus rages on. Around the country, the surge in COVID numbers demonstrates what happens when, for whatever reason, people's insistence on getting together in the old ways overrides scientific fact. In other words, just wishing or politicizing or conspiracy-theorizing hasn't made the virus disappear. Here in New Jersey, things have been good as of late, but our latest three-day rolling average shows a slight-but-slightly-worrisome percentage uptick, and who knows what the coming weeks will bring? People desperately want their sports, such a symbol of normality, and just this last weekend Major League Baseball kicked-off a shortened season with much fanfare. Still, just three days into baseball's return, it was reported this morning that fourteen members of the Miami Marlins baseball team have already tested positive for COVIDputting this whole manufactured season in jeopardy almost before it starts.

This isn't over, and, once all the scenarios are explored and the hemming-and-hawing have been thoroughly hemmed and hawed, the implications of that fact will have to be accepted, at all levels of life. Churches and other religious groups, schools, sports, businesses, our personal lives―the answers to our questions will most likely not be the ones we want. Like it or not, it looks as though we're in this fight for the long(er) haul, and the foe is as formidable as ever. Honesty (with ourselves, mostly), resolve, courage, selflessness, and trust in God's steadfast love in the face of mystery seem to me to be the order of the day. As we used to say in the football huddle, looking across at a bigger, faster, more talented opponent, “Time to buckle your chin straps!” In that spirit, here is one of my favorite quotes from Peter Jackson's 2003 film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King―based on the J.R.R. Tolkien novel of the same name―this time from Aaragorn, the quiet king, as he rallies the forces of good at the Battle of Helm's Deep against what seems to be an evil and unbeatable foe:

“Hold your ground! Hold your ground!

Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,

I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends
and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,

This day we fight!!
By all that you hold dear on this good Earth,
I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!
This day does not belong to one Man,
But to All.

Let us together rebuild this World,
That we may share in the
Days of Peace...”

Blessings to you and yours this Monday.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, July 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

One of the amazing―and reassuring―facets of the Judeo-Christian tradition's understanding of God is that we don't experience God as distant or disinterested. Nor is God for us a static, inactive ball of sentimental love.

No, God is fiercely committed to each and every human being and to all creation. God loves, the Old Testament (Hebrew) scriptures tell us, with “hesed” (steadfast love). Which means, with a God like that, whatever stage of our life's road you're on, and even when you're lost on strange roads or delayed on side roads, you are never alone. None of us is. And we'll make it. Irish poet Paul Muldoon, Pulitzer Prize winner, describes that kind of steadfast love in a poem:

“Sideman

I'll be the Road Runner

To your Wile E. Coyote
I'll take you in my stride
I'll be a Sancho Panza to your Don Quixote
Your ever faithful guide

I'll stand by you in the lists

With our market strategists
I'll be your sideman, baby,
I'll be by your side

I'll be your Keith Richards

To your Mick Jagger
Before he let things slide
I'll be Sears to your Roebuck
Before he took the headstaggers 
And opened nationwide

I'll support you at Wembley
I may require some assembly
But I'll be your sideman, baby,
I'll be by your side

I'll be McCartney to your Lennon

Lenin to your Marx
Jerry to your Ben &
Lewis to your Clark
Burke to your Hare
James Bond to your Q
Booboo to your Yogi Bear
Tigger to your Pooh
Trigger to your Roy Rogers
Roy to your Siegfried
Fabin to your Artful Dodger
I guess I'll let you take the lead

(guitar solo)

I'll be a Chingachgook

To your Leatherstocking
A blaze of fur and hide
Our shares consolidated
Our directories interlocking
I'll be along for the ride

I'll be at Ticonderoga

I'll be there for you at yoga

I'll be your sideman, baby,
I'll be by your side

In  Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Friday, July 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I wasn't born a Presbyterian. I chose it. As a younger person, my family's itinerant military lifestyle didn't provide much opportunity to connect with a local congregation. For the most part, we went to Sunday worship, and that was it. Being short-timers on whatever base near whatever town in whatever state my father was stationed, we rarely made connections in the churches we visited. People were often warm and even welcoming, but it just wasn't to be. 

I tended to listen, though, and―in all the sanctuaries in all the southern and western states where we lived―what I usually heard was the mixture of compelling and repellent that, on the basis of my personal experience, defines the “Born Again/Super Evangelical” Christian world. Jesus himself as presented was always incredibly attractive to me, especially his message of giving yourself away for others in order to find yourself, and God. On the other hand, from the start I got the impression that, to be acceptable to Jesus, I had to believe certain things, pray in a certain way, and reject certain behaviors (and people)―and do it all right now! It seemed to me like a lot of pressure to put on a person, and it didn't sound much like Jesus. More than that, as I listened to sermon after sermon, I began to get the impression that too often, behind all the earnestness was the preacher's anxiety-driven need to justify his own life decisions―which, to my mind, had obviously at one point included the decision to sacrifice independent thought for a sense of belonging. I didn't buy it.

So you can imagine my surprise when, around the age of fourteen, I walked into a Presbyterian church and discovered you actually can believe and think at the same time. That was pretty cool. Best of all, though, was the incredibly good news that my relationship with whatever God is doesn't depend on me―on my believing the right way, on my getting saved at the right time, on my accepting certain things as true while burying all my questions and doubts, and on my behaving like the world's best Boy Scout. The message that had been “To get this incredible thing, to earn God's love, you can't be yourself” now, in the Presbyterian version of Christianity, became “This incredible thing, this love from God, is already yours, not because of anything you've done or avoided doing, but because God already loves you completely through Christ. Now, go be your best self.”


That very-Presbyterian focus on the sovereign grace of God was the game-changer. It still is. In fact, one of my all-time favorite illustrations of how God's sovereign grace works comes not from the church, but from the 1846 novel The Count of Monte Cristo by the French author Alexander Dumas. (It's also very well done in the excellent 2002 film of the same name starring Jim Cavaziel.) Framed by his best friend and imprisoned for life on the island prison, the Chateau D'if, after thirteen years the once-optimistic and faithful Edmond Dantes has become consumed by hatred and the desire for revenge. As his fellow prisoner and teacher, the Abbe Faria (“Mad Priest”), lays dying, the priest encourages Edmond to keep trying to escape, gives him a map leading to a buried treasure of untold riches, and begs him to use his wealth for good. 

“No,” Edmond replies, “I will surely use it for my revenge.”

The priest says to Edmond: “Here now is your final lesson: Do not commit the crime for which you now serve the sentence. God says, 'Vengeance is mine.'”

Bitterly, Edmond protests, “I don't believe in God.”

“That doesn't matter,” the priest says, taking his final breath, “[God] believes in you.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, July 23, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

What truths about yourself have these pandemic days uncovered (for the first time, or again)?  They say the truth will set you free, but―like Pontius Pilate as he passed the buck and, in effect, left Jesus to die―when face to face with truth, most of us tend to prevaricate. To stall. To rationalize. To stick with the easy unhappiness with ourselves we know so well. With a hard-but-clear path to a better place clearly laid out before us, we'll ask, "What is truth?" as Pilate did, hoping to buy enough time for someone to change the subject. But the truth has a way of hanging around, knocking on the door, tapping us on the shoulder.


Here are two insightful, possibly-helpful quotes about truth from Nadia Bolz-Weber's book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint:

“Very often I will avoid the truth until my face goes red like a toddler avoiding her nap; until limp limbed, she finally stops flailing and falls asleep and receives rest—the very thing she needs and the very thing she fights. When someone like me, who will go to superhero lengths to avoid the truth, runs out of options—when I am found out or too exhausted to pretend anymore or maybe just confronted by my sister—it feels like the truth might crush me. And that is right. The truth does crush us, but the instant it crushes us, it somehow puts us back together into something honest. It’s death and resurrection every time it happens. This, to me, is the point of confession...”  

“There’s a popular misconception that religion, Christianity specifically, is about knowing the difference between good and evil so that we can choose the good. But being good has never set me free the way truth has. Knowing all of this makes me love and hate Jesus at the same time. Because, when instead of contrasting good and evil, he contrasted truth and evil, I have to think about all the times I’ve substituted being good (or appearing to be good) for truth.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The other day, someone asked me half-jokingly if―had I known in mid-March how long the uncertainty surrounding this global pandemic would go on―these Daily Thoughts would have been called “Twice-Weekly Thoughts.” Maybe; probably not. Still, I'm the first to admit that I had no clue back then that, four-and-some-change months later, we would be here, by which I mean not much farther down the road to clarity, let alone recovery, and still with no end in sight.

COVID-19 and the coronavirus are still raging and deadly (though, for now, at least, they've mostly traveled to other parts of the country); a unified, goal-oriented response and unifying leadership remain sadly absent; and the questions and the answers keep changing with each new dose of bad news. Will there be school in the fall? What will it look like? Sports? Indoor dining? When will we be back in church? Will I be safe? Will there be a vaccine? When? What about people's jobs, businesses, careers, plans? What about their health? What about their lives? [In fact, I learned the new term: 'Doomscrolling.' Have you done it? I have, and then I immediately turn on Gilligan's Island reruns or some similar reliable vacation from reality (a three-hour tour, perhaps?)]

Anyway, it seems―in case you haven't noticed or would rather not face it―that resolution to this mess, not to mention answers leading to a plan, don't come easily this time around. That's a bitter 
pill to swallow, since most of us fall, on a global scale, into the top few percentage points of privilege. While a lot flows our way comparatively easily, we're used to overcoming the things that don't. We're used to marshaling considerable resources to find and implement solutions. We're used to getting what we want, when we want it. 

That said, if the ongoing clouds of COVID-caused anxiety and uncertainty have any sort of silver-lining, maybe it's us realizing that more can be reclaimed and recovered here than just “getting back to normal.” In fact, to the extent you and I have been spared devastation to our health or our livelihood, it's at least possible that this pandemic-pause has made us stop long enough to see more clearly what matters. Maybe even resolve to make what matters part of our new normal, whenever it gets here. In that sense, then, maybe we're not in so much of a rush. After all, as my dad told impatient me more than once, anything worthwhile takes time. Here are wise words on that score from Rachel Held Evans, the brilliant young Christian writer and blogger who died too soon just over a year ago:

“The thing about healing, as opposed to curing, is that it is relational. It takes time. It is inefficient, like a meandering river. Rarely does healing follow a straight or well-lit path. Rarely does it conform to our expectations or resolve in a timely manner. Walking with someone through grief, or through the process of reconciliation, requires patience, presence, and a willingness to wander, to take the scenic route.”

May you be blessed as you take the scenic route. 

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

Whatever challenge you're facing lately, whether it's a virus-borne pandemic or some other unwelcome intrusion―including this heat!―you'll need good friends, true friends, to get through it. That's where the phone and FaceTime and Zoom come in; texting, email, and even (gasp!) old fashioned handwritten letters. They all are precious, especially in this time of intentional and necessary distancing. If you can't be with the ones you love, at least you can connect with them from the heart.

I've been doing that for years. Every now and then someone will observe how “loyal” I am to my close circle of longtime friends, but, really, it's just a learned survival trick. I moved so much in younger life―as a military brat, as a student, and then as a young adult (all the way into my forties, really)―that along the way I realized I'd have to make a choice: either let the ones who matter slide into the “Christmas card and check-in-once-in-awhile” category or keep it going, no matter what. Fortunately, the success of my closest friendships has never depended on me alone (when it did, those relationships didn't stay at the same depth.) In each case over the years, when one of us was too busy or too self-absorbed to make the effort, the other got over being hurt and took up the slack. Then, a little later, the scenario was reversed. After a while, each of us learned to trust the friendship. That way, no matter how many miles separate us, neither of us is ever alone.


These days, when we're all facing a good bit more than we'd care to, it might be just the time to connect and reconnect with the people who know you best and love you best―not because you're perfect―but just because you're you. I like what Anne Lamott says about good friends in her Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair:

“What saved me was that I found gentle, loyal and hilarious companions, which is at the heart of meaning: maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s tougher questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better. They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest possible version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all—they still love you. They keep you company as perhaps you become less of a whiny baby, if you accept their help.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, July 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

They say you can learn a lot about someone by observing how they respond to a crisis. Like the process that produces a diamond or a lump of coal, pressure reveals character.


One of my favorite scenes in the long-running television comedy, Seinfeld, saw the hapless George Costanza trying to impress a new girlfriend at a children's birthday party, only to show his true colors when he mistakes something burning on the stove for an actual fire. Forgetting his fake-virtuous self along with everyone else, George knocks over several 6 year-olds, Bozo the Party Clown, and a couple of elderly ladies in his panicked attempt to escape. Needless to say, the relationship doesn't last.

On the other hand, I'll never forget the below-zero night in Washington in the winter of 1979, when my parents returned from a dinner out with the couple next door, in whose home sixteen-year-old me had been babysitting their four-year-old daughter. As the family had all day and for many frigid days before that, we had been burning wood in the fireplace to keep warm all evening. Just as the adults walked through the door (and, luckily, not before), the overheated chimney caught fire. While it went up in flames, everyone stood around stunned, not sure what was going on, reluctant to face whatever it was, paralyzed with indecision and fear. Everybody, that is, except my dad. Maybe it was his military training. Maybe it was just him. I don't know, but, before anyone could say the word "fire," my father had already recognized what was happening, grabbed an old blanket they had lying around and then some water, and extinguished the burning drywall and a couple of pieces of furniture. It was over before it started―but in a good way. It could have turned out differently.


Some people are at their best when things get tough. Some of us could be better. Almost always, stress reveals our real priorities. These days, what can we learn from the way we and the people around us are responding to this ongoing pandemic? What do receptiveness and resistance to this national awareness of systemic racial inequities have to tell us about the people around us, about ourselves? There's a lot to learn by just looking out the window―and in the mirror. Since I first read the book (secretly) when I was thirteen or so, I've always loved this line from Louisa May Alcott's novel Little Women:

“I don't pretend to be wise, but I am observing, and I see a great deal more than you'd imagine. I'm interested in other people's experiences and inconsistencies, and, though I can't explain, I remember and use them for my own benefit.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, July 18, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

On a day whose beauty reminds us of God’s Presence and, at the same time, belies the heaviness of the uncertainty we all feel, words about purposeful living from the much-respected poet Mary Oliver, who died last year, followed by a quote from John Lewis, the much-respected United States Congressional Representative from Georgia and longtime civil rights leader, who died yesterday.

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it is over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.”


― Mary Oliver, from “When Death Comes” 

“The civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants...saw our involvement as an extension of our faith. We saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty. Segregation and racial discrimination were not in keeping with our faith, so we had to do something.

― John Lewis

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, July 17, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In case you're looking for one (or two) in the not-too-distant future, I'm here to tell you that miracles happen. In fact, the reality of miracles, for me, points to a simple observational truth: There is always, always more going on than meets the eye. The trick is how, and how far, you and I choose to see. Here's my evidence:

I'm not a big jewelry guy, which means I can barely tell a karat from a carrot, but over more than eighteen years of marriage I've noticed more than once that a lot of wedding rings on a lot of fingers are larger than Sarah's―sometimes, in this neck of the woods and in other woods like it―significantly larger. She doesn't complain, though, because, like me, Sarah sees her particular wedding ring differently than other people might. She sees a miracle.

You see, late one evening in 1986, my tiny grandmother with a giant personality, Hazel Angeline Horn, was watching "Johnny" (Carson) on the thirteenth floor of her high-rise apartment building in the heart of downtown Spokane, Washington. Hazel was 88 years old at the time. [Five years later, after her neighborhood had continued to get more “lively” around her, Grandma Hazel suffered a 3 a.m. heart attack in that same 13th-floor apartment. Instead of phoning her son, my dad, who presumably would have liked to know of this development quickly and lived just twenty minutes away, Hazel decided to take the elevator alone down to the ground floor, walk across the street to the bus station (!), and hail a cab to the hospital. Which she did. Ten or so minutes later, upon arrival at the ER, Hazel, still mid-heart attack, stipulated that she would agree to check herself in provided the nursing staff promised not to call “her boy” until 7 a.m. He needed his rest, she said. They agreed to her terms. My dad arrived at the hospital at 8 a.m.; she died at 9. The court case, in which 93 year-old Hazel had been fighting a jaywalking ticket, was dismissed. I'm not making this up.]

But back to 1986: In the middle of The Tonight Show, just after Johnny's monologue, my grandmother's doorbell rang. Surprised by a late-night visitor (it was a residence for elderly people, after all) and flustered at the prospect of her apartment not being presentable, Hazel yelled, “I'll be right there!” and started cleaning up. She quickly placed her teacup in the kitchen sink, straightened the stack of issues of People Magazine on her coffee table, and, in the bathroom, hurriedly emptied the half-filled Dixie Cup into the toilet. Then... she flushed. Mid-flush, and to her horror, Hazel realized that, in that Dixie Cup, had been her wedding ring―the same ring my grandfather, William “Ted” Horn, had presented to her not long before they were married in 1918.

This. Was. Not. Good. My grandmother started screaming. She called and woke up the super. He got there around midnight to give the toilet bowl and tank a good once-over. No ring. Hazel announced she was going to die (which she had announced before, several times.) The superintendent prevailed upon her to remain alive at least until the next morning, at which time they called in the man from the local sewage utility. This gentleman arrived, took apart the toilet, and looked as far as he could into the plumbing. No ring. The man explained that it was a long journey to the bottom of the building, and, even if they could look at all the building's plumbing, the odds of the ring having already traveled down all thirteen floors and then a good distance through the city's underground sewage system were pretty high. So, no ring. The man took Hazel's name, wrote a few notes in his logbook, and left. Again, my grandmother announced that she was now in the process of dying―and there commenced a period of uncharacteristic sadness and listlessness that lasted a long, long time, even after my mom, Betty, convinced her mother-in-law to buy another diamond ring as a replacement. Which she did. It was bigger; it was shinier, but, as Hazel correctly and frequently observed, it wasn't the same.

Just over three years later, this time in the middle of the afternoon, the bell to my Grandma Hazel's thirteenth-floor apartment rang again. When she opened the door, there stood the super and the man from the sewage company. The sewage gentleman said, “Ma'am, are you the lady who, according to my records, lost a ring back in 1986?” “Yes,” Hazel said, beginning to shake. “Can you describe this ring?” “Yes...” (I wish you could hear her voice, because it was distinctive), Hazel answered, proceeding to do so. He then held out his clenched fist, opened his hand palm-up, and presented her with her long-lost wedding ring―recently, and thoroughly, cleaned.

Over a thousand days after my grandmother had lost her ring, this man was working at a sewage treatment plant about five city blocks away from her building. I never knew the specific details―I never wanted to know them―but, somehow, of all the workers in all the sewage joints in the world, he was the one who came across that ring. Then, retreating three years into his memory, he recalled, from among all the people he had dealt with in that intervening period of time, this little old lady with slightly blue hair who had decided to start dying because she had flushed her wedding of 68 years down thirteen floors of plumbing. Then―and, remember, this was in the days before the widespread use of computers―this man took the time to go back through reams and reams of paperwork to find...Hazel Horn's name and address. Finally, hoping that she was still alive, this man made the effort to return her ring to her personally.

That's our miracle. That's why the littlest ring on most blocks became so big in my eyes, and then, in 2002, when Sarah and I were married, in hers. It was purchased and given to Hazel by my Grandpa Ted just as World War I was ending. Seven decades later, when it set off on its three-year journey “down the tubes,” that ring had already made it through the Great Depression, another world war, countless societal changes, my grandmother's life as a career police officer's wife, and then Hazel's reinventing of herself after my grandfather died. You could explain that ring being lost and then being found as a lucky, highly-improbable and random series of coincidences, and maybe you would be right. But I choose to see the story of Hazel's and Sarah's ring as a miracle, an unlikely and improbable gift of renewal and hope that didn't have to happen, but did.

Because it happened, I've been looking for miracles ever since. They're pretty awesome. One of my favorite, most humorous, and more useful observations about miracles comes from Lemony Snicket (pen name of author Daniel Handler) in his novel The Carnivorous Carnival:

“Miracles are like meatballs, because nobody can exactly agree on what they are made of, where they come from, or how often they should appear. Some people say that a sunrise is a miracle, because it is somewhat mysterious and often very beautiful, but other people say it is simply a fact of life, because it happens every day and far too early in the morning. Some people say that a telephone is a miracle, because it sometimes seems wondrous that you can talk with somebody who is thousands of miles away, and other people say it is merely a manufactured device fashioned out of metal parts, electronic circuitry, and wires that are very easily cut. And some people say that sneaking out of a hotel is a miracle, particularly if the lobby is swarming with policemen, and other people say it is simply a fact of life, because it happens every day and far too early in the morning.

So you might think that there are so many miracles in the world that you can scarcely count them, or that there are so few that they are scarcely worth mentioning, depending on whether you spend your mornings gazing at a beautiful sunset or lowering yourself into a back alley with a rope made of matching towels.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

 Dear PCUM family,

With so much unclear about what lies ahead, I find myself again writing to you about hope. What, specifically, do you hope for on the other side of all this? Why?

“Faith,” the unknown writer of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews tells us, "is the assurance of things hoped for." With a few brief exceptions, that kind of faith―being certain (assured) of something that seems so far-off and so far-fetched that you can only hope for it―isn't the kind of faith most of us have had much occasion to call upon. That kind of powerful, fierce, not-always-rational-but-always-very-much-alive faith is more common to peoples and cultures accustomed to prolonged uncertainty and suffering. There are many examples, close to home and farther away, to choose from. Today I want to share with you words from the writer many call the “voice of the Brazilian people,” Jorge Amado, who lived and wrote in the city of Salvador, the multicultural northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, where I have visited many times (including a 2011 trip with wonderful PCUM youth and adults). In describing one of his characters, Amado gets at the relationship between true happiness and hope:

“He owned a whole world full of memories, of lovely moments relived and happy recollections. I'm not saying he was happy or that he didn't suffer. He suffered very much, but he did not despair; he still drew nourishment from what he had been given. But the sadness never left him. Happiness needs more than memories of the past to feed on; it also needs dreams of the future.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I struggle at times lately to remain the optimist that I am. This country of ours, this world, seems so fractured and fragmented. Where are we going? Even amidst a pandemic and the start of a long-overdue national reckoning on race, self interest and power-plays are refusing to give up center stage. Sacrifice, elevating the common good above my need to be right, setting aside differences to work together―have been assigned minor roles or shoved off the national stage completely. What for years I've looked at as the ups and downs and twists and turns of history's steady, upward arc now look and feel like my fishing line every time when, as a kid, my dad took me out in our boat: a tangled mess. (That's one reason I'm no longer in the fishing line... get it?) These are hard times, these COVID-19 days, but they're also sad days. We can do better, and we can be better. 

Still, as a Christian, I don't want to quit on this human project. I cling to hope. In fact, we Jesus followers are―once we've realized that faith isn't about building a better world by getting our act together or being nicer or having the right opinions on issues―pretty good at recognizing that a dead end is, ironically, almost always a good place to start. Farmer-poet Wendell Berry says it better in his poem “Our Real Work.”

“It may be that when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work, 
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.”


In  Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

For worse and, in a lot of ways, for better, the world lately has subtracted from our days a lot of the illusions that enable us to pretend―to others and to ourselves―to be what we are not. With so much of “normal life” on pause, you and I have more time these days to look in the mirror. Whatever we see there, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Normally, most of us spend a good deal of our time portraying ourselves as more than we really are: more competent, more fabulous and fascinating, more on top of things, more triumphant over the problems and weaknesses that trip up mere mortals. If there's a crack in the armor, we hide it or ignore it, or we work really hard to shine up our other armored pieces in hopes that no one will notice what's broken. 

These days, though, it's harder to lodge my identity in conspicuous consumption when there isn't as much to consume, conspicuously or otherwise. And finding one's value by conquering enemies known and unknown doesn't work so well when competitions of every kind are on hold. The social and professional pecking order―all the ways people in groups do battle, gain and hold ground, make and break strategic alliances, affirm or condemn each other―they're all sort of useless when we can't gather in board rooms, school cafeterias, bars and restaurants, or fellowship halls.

What we're left with, of course, is ourselves, which, now that we have some time, might be worth getting to know, and accept, and love. I've always liked this quote from one of my heroes, the one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, Tom Waits: 


“My kids are starting to notice I'm a little different from the other dads. ‘Why don't you have a straight job like everyone else?’ they asked me the other day.

I told them this story:


In the forest, there was a crooked tree and a straight tree. Every day, the straight tree would say to the crooked tree, ‘Look at me...I'm tall, and I'm straight, and I'm handsome. Look at you...you're all crooked and bent over. No one wants to look at you.’ And they grew up in that forest together. And then one day the loggers came, and they saw the crooked tree and the straight tree, and they said, ‘Just cut the straight trees and leave the rest.’ So the loggers turned all the straight trees into lumber and toothpicks and paper.

And the crooked tree is still there, growing stronger and stranger every day.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, July 13, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I like these two conclusions about all of us humans from (now 86 year-old) Jane Goodall, considered to be the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees. A primatologist, conservationist, and anthropologist, Goodall is best known for her 60-year study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees―begun in 1960 when she first visited the Gombe Stream National Park in Tanzania.

In her memoir, Reason for Hope, A Spiritual Journey, Jane Goodall wrote:

"It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds. We fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behavior."

And, in 40 Years at Gombe, a pictorial tribute to her life and work, Goodall is quoted as saying:

"Only if we understand, can we care. Only if we care, will we help.  Only if we help, shall we be saved." 

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, July 11, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

On this mid-July Saturday, in this strange, evolving new world, timely words and images from the poet Lucille Clifton. Publisher's Weekly once called hers a distinctive American voice, one that pulls no punches in taking on the best and worst of life.”

Lucille Clifton was born in 1936 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. She studied at Howard University before transferring to SUNY Fredonia, near her hometown. She was discovered as a poet by Langston Hughes and was the first author to have two books of poetry chosen as finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. A prolific and widely respected poet, Clifton's work, which includes collections of poetry as well as many children's books, emphasizes Black experience, family life, and endurance and strength through adversity. She died in 2010.

Here is Lucille Clifton's poem “won 't you celebrate with me?”

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, July 10, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) was a Polish born American rabbi, theologian, and philosopher who to this day is a hero to Jews and many Christians alike. Before being introduced to him when I was in seminary, it didn't occur to me that someone whose background was so different from mine could have something to say about what was going on in my head and heart. Since then, I've been fortunate to expect and find others, but he was the first.

After studying in Berlin and beginning his academic career in Germany, in the late 1930's Heschel was arrested by the Gestapo and sent back to Poland. He escaped to London and then on to the United States, eventually earning his U.S. citizenship and teaching from 1946 until his death in 1972 at the famous Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York City. He was much beloved―at JTS, across the street at the (Christian) Union Theological Seminary, and all over the world.

Heschel argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse; so he believed that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth. He spoke and wrote about the spiritual life, against the Vietnam War, and for the achievement of full, real, and lasting equality for Black Americans. Rabbi Heschel lived a life of deep faith. He also had a way with words. Here are just a few of my favorite Abraham Joshua Heschel quotes, which these days might be even more on target:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is precious; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

“When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

“People of our time are losing the power of celebration. Instead of celebrating we seek to be amused or entertained. Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing reverence or appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state―it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle.... Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one's actions.”

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”

"It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion―its message becomes meaningless.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, July 9, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Just as it has religion, and if you'll forgive the pun, this pandemic has resurrected art, at least the kind that can be consumed at home. Books, movies, music. Audible, Netflix, Spotify, even virtual tours of the Louvre―They're all thriving. I don't think that's an accident, and I don't think it's only because people are bored. They're also paying more attention. In fact, I've always found that authentic faith and good art, especially so-called secular art, come from the same place and are trying to get back to the same home. So I'm intrigued by the blurring of the spiritual and the artistic in this quote by James Baldwin, a giant of American letters whose writing the New York Review of Books once called the “meeting of Henry James, the Bible, and Harlem:”

“Art has to be a kind of confession. I don’t mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people. This has happened to every one of us, I’m sure. You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky.

This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who until that point always thinks that they are alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important. Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to them from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true for everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace of that illusion. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

My job most nights is to rinse the dinner dishes, unload and load the dishwasher, and hand-wash and dry the big stuff. I enjoy it, most of the time, because I'm guaranteed to end my day by accomplishing something. I also like doing the dishes at night because, while I'm alone in the kitchen, I have Alexa play songs over and over again on our Amazon Echo Dot. I like the music, but I'm really trying to learn song lyrics. It's something I've been doing all my life. 

When I was still pretty young, I began practicing with my memory. Eventually I got pretty good at remembering sequences of numbers, where on a page and what part of the book I'd read something, Major League Baseball batting averages, and my friends' birthdays. In school, I was good at remembering what I'd read or been told. Still, I didn't and don't have a prodigious memory. As a sort of scattered person, I'm terrible at remembering where I put my keys, my cell phone, and that bowl of ice cream (which is melting...somewhere!) I'm only good at remembering names because I have to be; and, while decent at telling jokes, I don't remember them well. All in all, and while it's fading a bit with age, my pretty good memory has been a help to me, though starting in childhood I've been accused on the domestic front of employing my pretty good memory selectively.  

Around the fifth grade, long before Alexa, I started memorizing song lyrics. (For those of you keeping score, that would have been somewhere around 1974.) I did own vinyl records, mostly 45s, but my best option for getting the words to the latest popular songs was to record  from the AM radio. So, after school or on weekends I'd tune in...and wait. When I heard the first few notes of the song―something like Brandy (Looking Glass), Listen to the Music (Doobie Brothers), Heartbeat, It's a Lovebeat (DeFranco Family), Time in a Bottle (Jim Croce), or The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down (The Band)―I'd press the "record" button as fast as I could. Most of the time, I'd get everything but those first few notes. Almost always, I'd get the DJ talking over the instrumental intro, sometimes even the opening lyric! But, at least I'd have the song. Then I'd play that song over and over and over and over and over, until I had it down. And, once you have them, you have them. In college, my friends would sometimes use me to win bets. If you're interested in the third verse of Brandy, let me know. It's heartbreaking.

How do you remember? What do you remember? Why? I memorize lyrics because they make me alive again and again to the moments and the people and the emotions I experienced when I first heard a song. Having the words from the past at the ready gives me a different perspective on whatever crossroads I'm facing today. Memory is a gift that way; sometimes, it's a burden. Always, it's a mirror. Author and theologian Frederick Buechner urges us to use our memory to do what we often have trouble doing in the present―seeing our lives as sacred, recognizing God not just in the big moments and characters of our life story, but also in its long arc. In his sermon, “A Room Called Remember,” Buechner says:

“The time is ripe for looking back over the day, the week, the year, and trying to figure out where we have come from and where we are going to, for sifting through the things we have done and the things we have left undone for a clue to who we are and who, for better or worse, we are becoming.

But again and again we avoid the long thoughts….We cling to the present out of wariness of the past. And why not, after all? We get confused. We need such escape as we can find. But there is a deeper need yet, I think, and that is the need—not all the time, surely, but from time to time—to enter that still room within us all where the past lives on as a part of the present, where the dead are alive again, where we are most alive ourselves to turnings and to where our journeys have brought us...the room where with patience, with charity, with quietness of heart, we remember consciously to remember the lives we have lived.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

When it's all said and done, what is it that you treasure most in life? Times like these bring that question to the surface, do they not? I don't mean plans and dreams. Tomorrow isn't the issue. I'm talking about, as you look back and look around at your life, what is it, do you find, that has meant the most to you? Maybe I should say: who is it?

Among just a handful of authors, I will always love reading John Irving for the same reason we love our closest friends: shared experience that no one can take away, no matter what. The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Cider House Rules, Avenue of Mysteries, The Hotel New Hampshire, The 158-Pound Marriage, Trying to Save Piggy Sneed, and (my all-time favorite) A Widow For One Year―I've spent a lot of time with John Irving. Some of his books were better than others, but in all of them he ingeniously weaves character, parallel and intersecting story lines, societal commentary, and intimate personal relationships. Irving is a genius at mining the extraordinary in the everyday.

In fact, the worlds John Irving creates are always, as one critic put it, exercises in "containing the crazy"―bears and wrestlers and little people, colorful characters and bizarre situations―to me his ultimate affirmation is that our most precious treasure is the people who make our lives worth living. The best relationships are never won; they just are. And, no matter how we fight it, even the people we love the most won't always be with us. Irving wants us to cherish them. Here's what he says in Last Night in Twisted River:

“We don't always have a choice how we get to know one another. Sometimes, people fall into our lives cleanly―as if out of the sky, or as if there were a direct flight from Heaven to Earth―the same sudden way we lose people, who once seemed they would always be part of our lives.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, July 6, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

We're coming up now on four months since the complete halt to all in-person church activities here in this very active congregation. Sunday worship, kids' and youth programming, an incredible music program, classroom presentations, service projects, social gatherings, even the Presbyterian obsession with committee meetings―all on hold. We've shifted to an online, virtual ministry, and we've done it mostly successfully. But we all miss our beautiful sanctuary. We miss each other. In fact, you hear a lot these socially-distanced days that “A church isn't the building; it's the people.”


I don't think that's precisely true. Better said, it's only partly true. A group of people is a club or an office or a team or a tribe or a mob, and a group's purpose always serves its identity: build a better widget, sell more widgets, win more games or more arguments, enhance the experience and the interests of its members. Groups can be, and mostly are, good. A Christian church is something more, and that makes the church different. A church is a group of people whose identity serves its purpose. The church's purpose needs us and loves us; it even redeems us. But the church's purpose is bigger than any one, two, or six hundred of us, and that's why the church will survive this. That's why we'll survive this. I like the way Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it in her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People:

“There are many reasons to steer clear of  Christianity. No question. I fully understand why people make that choice. Christianity has survived some unspeakable abominations: the Crusades, clergy sex-scandals, papal corruption, televangelist scams, and clown ministry. But it will survive us, too. It will survive our mistakes and pride and exclusion of others. 

I believe that the power of  Christianity — the thing that made the very first disciples drop their nets and walk away from everything they knew, the thing that caused Mary Magdalene to return to the tomb and then be the first to announce the resurrection of Christ, the thing that the early Christians martyred themselves for, and the thing that keeps me in the Jesus business (or, what my Episcopal priest friend Paul calls “working for the company”) — is something that cannot be killed. The power of unbounded mercy, of what we call The Gospel, cannot be destroyed by corruption and toothy TV preachers. Because in the end, there is still Jesus.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, July 4, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

On this particular Fourth of July, we Americans might find a timely word from Irish poet John O'Donohue, whose poem "For One Who is Exhausted, A Blessing" was published posthumously in 2017:

“When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laborsome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have traveled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of color
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.”


May God bless you and the United States of America. 
Happy (and safe!) Fourth of July!

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, July 3, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

These days, church people aren't just debating the question of when we'll go "back to church" (though the debate has subsided recently as COVID-19 explodes in some other states). We're also asking if we'll ever be the same, or should be.

As traditional Protestant faith communities go, ours is actually pretty nimble and forward-thinking (I'm aware that this might not be saying a whole lot). Still, as a rule, it takes something cataclysmic to get any church to loosen its moorings and do a better job of following the Spirit's leading. Well, take an open-ended, ongoing dose of pandemic and mix in a national reckoning with our collective racism, and you've got the cataclysm. We're surely not all paying attention now, but more of us are, more of the time. It's unprecedented, really. Maybe even a reason to hope. In fact, since even she could not have predicted the situation in which we all find ourselves, Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Dillard might be surprised at how the odds of the Christian church actually following where the Spirit blows have, over the past four months, increased dramatically:

“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, July 2, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

How are you at waiting? I'm about average, I guess. These days, your “waiting profile” might be worth thinking about, because we're all getting a lot of practice. What's going to happen? When will we know? How long will it take? The waiting is going on and on. The waiting, for a lot of us, is taking a toll. The waiting, Tom Petty so correctly observed, is the hardest part.

Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodore Geisel, had something to say about waiting. In a section of his  "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" Geisel wrote:

“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. But mostly they're darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?


You can get so confused
that you’ll start in to race
down long wiggled roads at a break-necking pace
and grind on for miles cross weirdish wild space,
headed, I fear, toward a most useless place.
The Waiting Place…

…for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or the waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for the wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a string of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.”


Sometimes I'm terrible at waiting. I think that's because I'm one of those people who tends at times to overestimate their capabilities (I prefer to call it being optimistic). When that happens, when it seems like it's still possible to tilt the outcome in the direction that best suits me, I'm not so good at calmly sitting around. Or sitting still. Or sitting at all. Or sleeping. It can make for some long nights.

At other times, though, I'm pretty good at waiting. Maybe it's all those years sitting on New York City subway cars, listening to a garbled, barely-understandable voice announce that we were being held “indefinitely, due to track work.” Indefinitely was right. It could mean anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Forget wherever you were going, whatever you had planned (and this was before the subway was air conditioned!). A lot of the folks around me would get upset, and start complaining. Not me. When I've finally accepted that I can do absolutely nothing to make the clock tick or the calendar turn any faster, I find it easier to wait. Time has a way of marching on, taking care of things. You learn that as you get older, whether you want to or not. Another lesson you learn is that being forced to give up control and wait doesn't have to mean giving up hope. I love the lyrics of the recently deceased John Prine's song, "Just Waitin.'"

“The old maid's a waitin' for leap year to come, the crooner's just waitin' to sing
The old cow's standin' by the Bull Durham sign,
just waitin' for the grass to turn green
The bar-fly's waitin' for an easy mark, the hitchhiker's just waitin' for a ride
The lifetimer's waitin' for a prison break, the beachcomber's waitin' for the tide

Farmer's daughter's waitin' for the salesman to take her into town
The city slicker's waitin' for the country boy to lay all his money down
You know everything comes to standstill and nothing seems to make a turn
Worm must be waitin' for the early bird, I guess the early bird's waitin' for the worm

Nobody wants to do nothin' just waitin' to get a finger in the pie
Waitin' for a call for a big quiz show or a waitin' for some rich uncle to die
Katy, she's waitin' at the garden gate, the moonshiner's waitin' at the still
The gambler's still waitin' for that Ace in the hole and Jack's still waitin' for Jill

Everybody's waitin' for something, but nothing seems to turn out right
Cause the night shift's waitin' for mornin' and the burglar he's just waitin' for night
The congregation's waitin' for the preacher, the preacher's just waitin' for the groom
The groom's just waitin' for the June bride and the bride's just waitin' for June
Sunflower's waitin' for the sunshine, violet's just waitin' for dew
Bee's just waitin' for honey, and honey I'm just waitin' for you.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In the spring of 1984, I had the privilege of being part of a small college class in creative writing "guest-taught" by the great American short story writer and novelist, Eudora Welty. At the time, Welty, who wrote about the American South, was already close to my pantheon of heroes (Roger Staubach, Muhammad Ali, Jack Nicklaus, and post-braces Jan Brady.) After that experience, she was completely in. A decade earlier, her novel The Optimist's Daughter had won the Pulitzer Prize. Just a couple of years before she taught our class, Welty had been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Being taught by her was pretty cool.

Fast forward: Earlier this year, in a high school English class, our son Will read a short story by Eudora Welty that has always disturbed and amazed me. The story is called "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" It's a fictionalized account of the June 12,1963 assassination of Black civil rights leader Medger Evers in his own driveway in Jackson, Mississippi―told via the thoughts and mindset of the killer. When he died, Medger Evers was thirty-seven years old, a married father of three, and a U.S. Army veteran who as a teenager had taken part in the Allied invasion of Normandy and the World War II liberation of Europe. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.  

Eudora Welty wrote her story on June 29, 1963, just two and a half weeks after the real murder; The New Yorker magazine published it on July 6th. (I was three months old.) When I read "Where Is the Voice Coming From?" with Will this spring, I was amazed again at how Welty found a way, at such a sad, devastating moment, to capture in the fictionalized killer's interior monologue the racist hatred that so many white people and systems have held and still hold for Black people in this country. Indeed, as tragedy upon tragedy continue to show, she could have written the story today. 

Welty's searing critique from a place of relative privilege in mid-20th century Jackson, Mississippi, her hometown, was and is an important voice. Even more important, hauntingly prophetic, and―miraculously―hopeful, are the words of Medger Evers himself:

“I'm looking to be shot any time I step out of my car... If I die, it will be in a good cause.

I've been fighting for America just as much as the soldiers in Vietnam.”


and:

“It may sound funny, but I love the South. I don't choose to live anywhere else. There's land here, where a man can raise cattle, and I'm going to do it some day. There are lakes where a man can sink a hook and fight the bass. There is room here for my children to play and grow, and become good citizens - if the white man will let them.”

May the God of hope, the God who keeps promises, continue to call, challenge, and love us forward, out of these pandemics.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In our Presbyterian/Reformed branch of the Protestant tradition, confession is―and, probably, should be―the most uncomfortable moment in any worship experience (that is, unless the pastor forgets to turn off his body microphone during a hymn, which does happen.)

Confession is hard for everyone. We Presbyterian Christians don't do it with a priest or minister as go-between, so it's just God...and us. And, let's face it, who likes coming face to face with the truth about one's self? Better, easier anyway, to pretend. In fact, we do such a good job hiding our mistakes and our brokenness and our humanness from others that we've become skilled at hiding them from ourselves, too. Left to our own devices, we're happy to keep on our merry way, until we can't any longer. Eventually, things break. Eventually, as it did to John Candy and Steve Martin in the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, a voice reaches us from across the divide: “You're going the wrong way!”  

Fortunately, confession is never the last word. In a worship service, as in life, facing who we truly are is just the crucial first step on the way to recovery, forgiveness, restored wholeness. We start there, but we don't stay there. Once we take that step, once we risk trusting that Someone accepts us as we really are, we're on our way. Much is at stake, so confession is always worth it.

I usually reserve my quoting of Kahlil Gibran, the early 20th-century Lebanese-American poet, artist and mystic, for weddings, but here Gibran encapsulates what today could be a crucial, confessional first step for us all:

“Seven times I have despised my soul:
The first time when I saw her being meek that she might attain height.
The second time when I saw her limping before the crippled.
The third time when she was given to choose between the hard and the easy, and she chose the easy.
The fourth time when she committed a wrong, and comforted herself that others also commit wrong.
The fifth time when she forbode for weakness, and attributed her patience to strength.
The sixth time when she despised the ugliness of a face, and knew not that it was one of her own masks.
And the seventh time when she sang a song of praise, and deemed it a virtue.”

― Kahlil Gibran, "Sand and Fog," 1926

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg 

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Monday, June 29, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

N.T. Wright is an English New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop. He was the Bishop of Durham from 2003 until 2010, then Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Last year, he became a fellow at Oxford University.

Wright writes about theology and Christian life and the relationship between them. In an interview in 2003, Wright said he could not remember a time when he wasn't aware of the Presence and the love of God. That awareness, that certainty, he said, gives him hope, notwithstanding all the facts and realities that often leave him overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness. For N.T. Wright, it's not just that our God is a God who loves, but how the God we know through Jesus Christ chooses to love that makes hope real. A decade before that interview, in his book The Crown and the Fire: Meditations on the Cross and the Life of the Spirit, he wrote:

"Here is the mystery, the secret, one might almost say the cunning, of the deep love of God: that it is bound to draw onto itself the hatred and pain and shame and anger and bitterness and rejection of the world, but to draw all those things onto itself is precisely the means, chosen from all eternity by the generous, loving God, by which to rid his world of the evils which have resulted from human abuse of God-given freedom."

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, June 27, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Author, essayist and university professor, Rita Dove is the first Black poet to serve as United States Poet Laureate and the second to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I love the realistic, hopeful poem she calls "Dawn Revisited."

"Dawn Revisited"

Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don't look back,

the future never happens.
How good to rise in the sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits -
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours

to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You'll never know
who's down there, frying those eggs,
if you don't get up and see.


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, June 26, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

In the midst of a painful and long-overdue confrontation with our history of systemic racism in this country, we've staggered into yet another troubling phase of this COVID-19 pandemic. Once again, the U.S. is leading globally, but not in a way we can be proud of. We have more cases and more deaths than anyone, anywhere. It's not even close, it's getting worse, and it's not changing any time soon.

Here in New Jersey, decisive-and-reasonable-if-not-perfect leadership has made it possible―for now, at least―to put the worst behind us. We can be grateful for that, but not complacent. The curve was not flattened accidentally; nor has it dipped because somebody decided the coronavirus scare is overblown. Wearing masks, social distancing, putting others' well being ahead of bravado or some weird, selfish notion of independence...all have saved real people's lives. Not so in other parts of the country, particularly in the places I grew up, including California, Florida, and Texas. A longtime friend in Florida just shared a report that today his state, where he and I went to school together from 6th through 9th grade, recorded 9,000 new cases of COVID-19, obliterating the previous day's record of 5,500. My friend and his family are understandably terrified. Commenting on the chart showing Florida's skyrocketing curve, he writes: "Up, up, up. And people don’t know how to live or work safely because there is no statewide or federal guidance. It’s just beyond tragic and beyond comprehension.”

As my kids say, I'm paid to be nice, but frankly it's hard to be polite about this. Choosing to politicize a global public health crisis rather than prioritize the well-being of all citizens is the height or irresponsibility, even criminality. It's also just incredibly sad. That's where we can come in. One of the primary functions of faith in our Judeo-Christian tradition is that of lament, which is defined as expressing sorrow, mourning, or regret demonstrably. The last word in that definition―"demonstrably"―is the tough one for most of us. Lament is a faith practice that too many of us modern American Christians have discarded in favor of pretending everything is fine or, if things are obviously not fine, choosing not to say anything in case the truth might upset somebody. Not particularly healthy or helpful, actually.

In his book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, Christian preacher and Old Testament scholar extraordinaire Walter Brueggemann points out:

"Jesus knew what we numb ones must always learn again: (a) that weeping must be real because endings are real; and (b) that weeping permits newness. His weeping permits the kingdom to come...

The fact that Jesus weeps and that he is moved in spirit and troubled contrasts remarkably with the dominant culture. That is not the way of power, and it is scarcely the way among those who intend to maintain firm social control. But in [John 11:33-35] Jesus is engaged not in social control but in dismantling the power of death, and he does so by submitting himself to the pain and grief present in the situation, the very pain and grief that the dominant society must deny.

Such utterance staggers and offends among the listeners. But it also opens vistas of possibility where we had not thought to go and where, in fact, we are most reluctant to go. Yet those new vistas are precisely where hope is born.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, June 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In case you hadn't noticed, the world has gotten a lot smaller over the last twenty or thirty years.

In October of 1986 I was sitting in my graduate student apartment in Baltimore, watching Game Six of that year's baseball World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets. The visiting Red Sox, who at the time had not won a World Series in 68 years, were one outone pitch, actuallyfrom a long-awaited, long longed-for victory. The champagne was already cooling in their dressing room, and even the electric scoreboard at Shea Stadium in Queens got a little ahead of itself (as it turned out), flashing "Congratulations Boston Red Sox, 1986 World Series Champions!" Then, suddenly: a two-strike single, a wild pitch, a terrible error on an easy ground ball, and the Red Sox had, as they say, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. The Mets won, then went on to win Game Seven at home, and the Red Sox would have to wait eighteen more years to be World Series champions again. 

I remember that game like it was yesterdayand not just because it was miraculous, which it was. I remember it because I used a Number Two pencil and both sides of about fifteen sheets of a yellow legal pad to write down every pitch , every hit, and every out. That wasn't something I normally did, but my college roommate and close friend, Ben, was in Liberia, West Africa at the time, halfway through a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, and had no access to any communication other than an apparently unreliable postal service. And so, since the Red Sox were about to win, I thought, we all thought, for the first time since 1918, I thought I'd cheer Ben up by letting him experience it with me, regardless of how long it took for my letter to arrive.

It took a while. Ben didn't read my scintillating play-by-play Game Six descriptionwhich ended with something like: Game's over. The Sox are finally going to win. Wait... wild pitch! Wait... Mookie Wilson just hit a slow roller through Bill Buckner's legs! Ray Knight's gonna score! Mets win! Mets win!”―until mid-February of 1987. It took four months for him to find out who won the World Series.

These days, if something happens in Baltimore, Bali, or the Balkans, it gets reported, tweeted, or posted in minutes, if not seconds. Ideas, images, food, video, viruses, people...all travel across the globe in an instant. For better or worse, one's life and one's identity in 2020 are less defined by distance, isolation, and homogeneity and more by discovering one's self and learning how to live in (constant) relationship to difference. In her book Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others, Christian preacher and scholar Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

“When I first began teaching Religion 101, students would sometimes tell me they were scared to study other religions for fear of losing their own faith. It was an odd concern, on the face of it. Would studying Spanish make them lose their English? Would traveling to Turkey cost them their US passport? I had a stock response to their concern: engaging the faith of others is the best way to grow your own.

Now, years down the road, I have greater respect for their unease. To discover that your faith is one among many - that there are hundreds of others that have sustained millions of people for thousands of years, and that some of them make a great deal of sense - that can rock your boat, especially if you thought yours was the only one on the sea. If your faith depends on being God's only child, then the discovery that there are others can lead you to decide that someone must be wrong - or that, by God's mysterious grace, everybody belongs, which means that no religion, including yours, is the entire ocean.

The next time I teach the course I will try to be more honest. ‘Engaging the faith of others will almost certainly cause you to lose faith in the old box you kept God in,’ I will say. ‘The truths you glimpse in other religions are going to crowd up against some of your own. Holy envy may lead you to borrow some things, and you will need a place to put them. You may find spiritual guides outside your box whom you want to make room for, or some neighbors from other faith who have stopped by for a visit. However it happens, your old box will turn out to be too small for who you have become. You will need a bigger one with more windows in it - something more like a home than a box, perhaps - where you can open the door to all kinds of people without fearing their faith will cancel yours out if you let them in. If things go well, they may invite you to visit them in their homes as well, so that your children can make friends.’”
 

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

You don't have to live in New Jersey to appreciate Bruce Springsteen as a uniquely American performer and songwriter. But when you're here for awhile, when New Jersey becomes your home, you start to hear his music and his voice in ways that people from other places just can't. I love these two timely statements from the Boss:

“I'm interested in what it means to live in America. I'm interested in the kind of country that we live in and leave our kids. I'm interested in trying to define what that country is. I got the chutzpah or whatever you want to say to believe that if I write a really good song about it, it's going to make a difference.”

“The wonderful thing about rock music is how it forces people to find a way to work together. Even if you hate the other person, sometimes you need him more, you know. In other words if he's the guy that made that sound, he's the guy that made that sound, and without that guy making that sound, you don't have a band, you know.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

It's hard to believe that American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist Maya Angelou has been gone six years now. I for one would welcome her voice and perspective on all that is happening in our country and world. Fortunately, her writings live on. Here, Angelou shares a few of the things she learned over the course of her long, rich life:

“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.

I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.

I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.

I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a ‘life.’ 

I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.

I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.

I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision.

I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one.

I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.

I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, June 22, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I admit it: I'm a The Lord of the Rings fan. I read the three famous volumes of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy novel early in my teens―and haven't looked back since. On paper or on screen, if TLOTR is within arm's reach, I might as well forget being productive for a few hours, at least. The books are masterpieces, and the films do them justice. 

Sarah and Maggie tell me it's a “guy thing.” Maybe. All I know is, in our household, only Will seems to have good taste in this regard. If he and I could, we'd watch Strider (secretly the returned king, Aragorn) lead the doomed, determined, motley crew of varied beings and species in defending Helm's Deep every day. We're ready again and again to walk each step with tiny Frodo, supported by his devoted gardener, Samwise "Sam" Gamgee, as Frodo not only bears a ring of terrible power but journeys to where he's ready to sacrifice everything for just a chance against the overwhelming forces of evil. 

In Tolkien's world, which he calls Middle Earth, the odds for the mostly-unprepared-but-heroic-anyway main characters are rarely good. And that's the point. While others give in or give up, they refuse. They keep going, together, toward a better day. In one of the most famous quotes from The Lord of the Rings, words that have always moved me but seem more relevant today than ever, Sam gives his opinion to Frodo about what's happening to them:

“I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn't want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?

But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going, because they were holding on to something.”


Welcome to summer. Keep holding on.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, June 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Here is message to us from Mary Oliver, in her poem Wild Geese.

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
 
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
 
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting 
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
 
In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg 
 
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Friday, June 19, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

If you had a few minutes and were to take a quick look at the 10th chapter of the Book of Acts, in the New Testament, you'd read about a dream the Apostle Peter experienced, a dream that changed everything. Peter, of course, was by most accounts Jesus' #1 disciple and by all accounts a leader of the early Christian Church. He was also a life-long Jew who loved and had followed another Jew, Jesus of Nazareth, recently deceased. Peter fervently believed in Jesus' resurrection as a victory for God's love and a blessing to all humanity. But Peter until that point understood Christianity's purpose and program largely―maybe, even, mostly―in racial terms. Jesus came as God's Son as a Jew, to the Jews, for the Jews, who by staying separated from the rest of the non-Jewish world (and, thus, biblically “pure") would be a blessing to that whole world. After his dream, he saw things differently, and the world was never the same. 

Since it let all of us Gentiles “in,” so to speak, we're all glad Peter dreamed what he did. It was a dream about food, but not so much about eating. It was about mixing foods, foods that until that point―for religious reasons, cultural reasons, racial reasons―were never or rarely eaten together. In the dream, Peter heard God tell him to eat from any of it. Nothing was to be left out. Afterward, Peter said, “Now I understand that God shows no partiality...He has sent his ...good news of peace through Jesus the Messiah. This man is the Lord of everyone!” (Acts 10:34, 36).

After Peter's dream, we all started mixing together. We've come a long way in almost two thousand years, but we have a long way yet to go. Almost two millennia later, James Alan McPherson, the twentieth century essayist and short story writer, was one of America's most venerated fiction writers. In 1978 McPherson was the first Black writer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. His writing appeared regularly in Atlantic magazine and included short stories, book reviews, and non-fiction pieces (among them “Invisible Man,” co-written with Ralph Ellison). When he died, James Alan McPherson was professor emeritus of fiction at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

In "On Becoming an American Writer," written in 1978, McPherson sketched out what may have been his philosophy of life:

“I believe that―if one can experience diversity, touch a variety of its people, laugh at its craziness, distill wisdom from its tragedies, and attempt to synthesize all this inside oneself without going crazy―one will have earned the right to call oneself ‘citizen of the United States.’”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, June 18, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

As we work our way from today to tomorrow and the day after that, here is this from Anne Lamott:

“You will go through your life thinking there was a day in second grade that you must have missed, when the grown-ups came in and explained everything important to other kids. They said, ‘Look, you're human, you're going to feel isolated and afraid a lot of the time, and have bad self-esteem, and feel uniquely ruined, but here is the magic phrase that will take this feeling away. It will be like a feather that will lift you out of that fear and self-consciousness every single time, all through your life.’ And then they told the children who were there that day this magic phrase that everyone else in the world knows about and uses when feeling blue, which only you don't know, because you were home sick the day the grown-ups told the children the way the whole world works.

But there was not such a day in school. No one got the instructions. That is the secret of life. Everyone is flailing around, winging it most of the time, trying to find the way out, or through, or up, without a map. This lack of an instruction manual is how most people develop compassion and how they figure out to show up, care, help and serve, as the only way of filling up and being free. Otherwise you grow up to be someone who needs to dominate and shame others so no one will know that you weren't there the day the instructions were passed out.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

You and I are doing a lot of hoping these days, more even than usual. We're hoping for someone to give us clarity on when life will return to something that resembles "normal." We're hoping someone else will develop a cure for COVID-19 and bring the coronavirus's spread to an end. We hope still other people will "get it" so that the world will more closely resemble our vision for what it should be. On the personal front, of course, many of us are still hoping particular persons―loved ones, co-workers, etc.―will make that long-awaited change for the better, which, in turn, will make our lives easier. Today more than ever, it seems, we're convincing ourselves that, once these hopes of ours come true, we'll finally enter the promised land.

The problem, of course, is that any promised land delivered by someone else is a mirage. As soon as you get close, it moves farther away, shimmering and beckoning again from the horizon. It turns out that in the end, as at the beginning, it is between us and God―just us and God―and that's enough. To search high and low, only to find you've always had everything you'll ever need, is to arrive at spiritual health. In his book Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, the late Dutch Catholic priest, professor and theologian, Henri Nouwen, wrote: 

“Aren't you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don't you often hope: 'May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.'

But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In 1972, psychotherapist Sheldon Kopp wrote a book with a title that made you want to know more. [In that sense, it occurs to me that coming up with book titles must be a lot like thinking up sermon titles. It may be true that you can't judge a book by its cover, or its title; but, since you're going to judge anyway, the book might as well start on an interesting note. Who knows how long that note will last?]

Kopp's book is called If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!  The title references a saying that some of you may know (I didn't) is attributed to Linji Yixuan, the 9th-century C.E. founder of the Linji school of Chan Buddhism, Tang Dynasty. It's a provocative saying, certainly, with its surprise juxtaposition of enlightenment journeying and violence. It's also, I'm pretty sure, not meant to be taken literally (since it's the kind of thing Buddhas likely went around teaching people).

What does it mean? Well, with all deference to centuries of varied opinion, my take is that the last step you'll take on your road to true happiness, or liberation (enlightenment), is to let go of―i.e., to kill―the thing you're convinced got you there, the thing you're certain you can't live without. It may be Buddha for you, or, among many other possibilities, it may be the Oprah Winfrey Book Club, jogging, prudent investments, hot yoga, your children, your politics, gin & tonics, or just a firm conviction about how life should be lived and how the world should be. It can even be your way of doing religion. Holding onto any good teaching, any good thing, transforms it into a crutch. An idol, theologically speaking. Better to be rid of it and free. Jesus said the same thing many times and in many ways. Every time his followers assumed they knew who was in and who was out, what was important and what was not, Jesus pulled the rug out from under their feet. It's unnerving, even terrifying, but―whether you kill the Buddha voluntarily or are forced to do it―living in the moment, mind and heart freed, you're truly alive and you're ready to learn.

These days, so much of what we've counted on and trusted and taken for granted is in question. It's hard, it's scary, but it can be just the opportunity we've longed for. In If You Meet the Buddha on the Road, Kill Him!, Sheldon Kopp said: 

“Crises marked by anxiety, doubt, and despair have always been those periods of personal unrest that occur at the times when [a person] is sufficiently unsettled to have an opportunity for personal growth. We must always see our own feelings of uneasiness as being our chance for making the growth choice rather than the fear choice.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, June 15, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Wherever in this world it happens to be, the Christian church these days is in a vulnerable place. Like many businesses and even more not-for-profits, this COVID-19 pandemic threatens the church's very existence. Survival is not, as it hasn't been for some time, guaranteed. Now, however, neither is the kind of slow, steady decline with an inevitable end that most of us won't be around to see―the predictable kind that becomes real only when the last member turns out the sanctuary lights on the way to Florida. Reports of the church's demise that were just rumors or, often, greatly exaggerated, are now increasingly factual. Congregations that have for years surfed the slowly dying waves of  tradition and routine are at a complete standstill. As long as enough folks had somewhere to go on Sunday mornings, as long as they dropped something in the offering plate, things on the surface moved along just fine. But the waves are gone, and when the routine is stopped―or, to be more precise, when it's interrupted for an undetermined amount of time―the church stops, too.

Adapt, as someone thinking of Darwin must have said, or die. In fact, I think that how this or any church navigates the uncertainty, stress, and high emotions of this pandemic is essentially a "job interview" for what happens once it's all over and people start deciding whether or not to come back and when. We've already built it, but will they come? What will we have waiting for them? Routine and tradition? Something more? I love what the late columnist Rachel Held Evans, the funny and honest millennial voice who died too young just last year, had to say about the unique thing Jesus Christ's church offers in times like this, or any time:

“...[The] modern-day church doesn’t like to wander or wait. The modern-day church likes results. Convinced the gospel is a product we’ve got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished—proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS!... 'The world is watching,' Christians like to say, 'so let’s be on our best behavior and quickly hide the mess. Let’s throw up some before-and-after shots and roll that flashy footage of our miracle product blanching out every sign of dirt, hiding every sign of disease.'

But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn’t offer a cure. It doesn’t offer a quick fix. The church offers death and resurrection. The church offers abundant life discovered in real living, not in escape. The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace. Anything else we try to peddle is snake oil. It’s not the real thing.”


― Rachel Held Evans,  Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I love this funny and hopeful poem about itself, by Billy Collins, once Poet Laureate of the Unites States (2001-2003).

It's called “Workshop,” and it reminds me that, while I don't always know exactly where I'm heading or even which step forward I should take, it's in the going that we find our way.

"Workshop" by Billy Collins

I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title.
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now
so immediately the poem has my attention,
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve.

And I like the first couple of stanzas,
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing
that runs through the whole poem
and tells us that words are food thrown down
on the ground for other words to eat.
I can almost taste the tail of the snake
in its own mouth,
if you know what I mean.

But what I’m not sure about is the voice,
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans,
but other times seems standoffish,
professorial in the worst sense of the word
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face.
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do.

What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas,
especially the fourth one.
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges
which gives me a very clear picture.
And I really like how this drawbridge operator
just appears out of the blue
with his feet up on the iron railing
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging—
a hook in the slow industrial canal below.
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s.

Maybe it’s just me,
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem.
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars?
And what’s an obbligato of snow?
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets.
At that point I’m lost. I need help.

The other thing that throws me off,
and maybe this is just me,
is the way the scene keeps shifting around.
First, we’re in this big aerodrome
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles,
which makes me think this could be a dream.
Then he takes us into his garden,
The part with the dahlias and the coiling hose,
though that’s nice, the coiling hose,
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be.
The rain and the mint green light,
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper?
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery?
There’s something about death going on here.

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here
is really two poems, or three, or four,
or possibly none.

But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite.
This is where the poem wins me back,
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse.
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before,
but I still love the details he uses
when he’s describing where he lives.
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard,
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can,
the spool of thread for a table.
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work
night after night collecting all these things
while the people in the house were fast asleep,
and that gives me a very strong feeling,
a very powerful sense of something.
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that.
Maybe that was just me.
Maybe that’s just the way I read it.


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, June 12, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

This pandemic has now stretched long enough that we've entered a moment when we feel vulnerable on several fronts at once. What to do? Well, in the absence of my ability to make people do what I want them to do or be what I'd like them to be, a place to start might be myself. What am I learning in all of this? Am I moving this world closer to the kingdom of God or farther away? How about my own life? Is it even possible at this point for me to grow closer to the person God wants me to be?

Those are big questions. Thankfully,we don't have to answer them alone. God is with us in Christ―that's not a hope or a goal, it's a given―and not because we deserve it or have earned it. Because we haven't. No, God simply chooses to love you and each and every human being on this planet because that's who God is. And that's called grace. What is grace, and how does it work? It may help to update our definitions a bit. Here is the ultimately hopeful way author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it:

“God's grace is not defined as God being forgiving to us even though we sin. Grace is when God is a source of wholeness, which makes up for my failings. My failings hurt me and others and even the planet, and God's grace to me is that my brokenness is not the final word ...

Grace isn't about God creating humans and flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace ― like saying, ‘Oh, it's OK, I'll be the good guy and forgive you.’ It's God saying, ‘I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.’”


― Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint 

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, June 11, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

If you're of a certain age, as I am, you don't just remember the music of John Lennon and the Beatles; you remember John Lennon himself. He was something.

I was always more of a Paul McCartney guy, actually. That's probably because―and this may surprise you―I'm a little young to remember the Beatles in their heyday, and, in the early 1970s, McCartney's music with his band Wings was more accessible to a fourth grader. So, while Paul was all over AM radio and in record stores singing silly love songs, post-Beatles John was sort of a mythical creature―putting out his own music, making art, speaking out as a peace activist, refusing to get the band back together, and generally doing his own thing. You didn't see much of him, which made him even more mysterious and powerful. There was no social media; no cable; heck, there were only three television channels. He was out of sight but, for all Beatles fans hoping for a reunion, never out of mind. Then, one day in December 1980, in the middle of my senior year of high school, the evening news reported that John Lennon had been assassinated in New York City outside the Dakota, the big co-op on the corner of West 72nd Street and Central Park West, where he lived with Yoko Ono. It was a sad day.

It's almost impossible for me to fathom that 2020 is the fortieth year since that terrible moment. In fact, John Lennon himself was only forty years old when he died so violently. Over those many years, the more I've learned about and enjoyed the amazing catalog of music he created in partnership with McCartney and on his own, the more I've considered his words and some of the choices he made, the more it seems to me that Lennon, in addition to his musical genius, was one of those people who sees things sooner and more clearly than the rest of us. At the time, he seemed strange, weird, recalcitrant, even. Looking back from the same distance as the span of time he lived on earth, I wish more people had listened to John Lennon. He once said,

“There are two basic motivating forces: fear and love. When we are afraid, we pull back from life. When we are in love, we open to all that life has to offer with passion, excitement, and acceptance.

We need to learn to love ourselves first, in all our glory and our imperfections. If we cannot love ourselves, we cannot fully open to our ability to love others or our potential to create. Evolution and all hopes for a better world rest in the fearlessness and open-hearted vision of people who embrace life.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I love Raymond Carver's short stories because he used spare, unadorned language to describe the broken, unmentionable, hurting sides of human life with both detachment and compassion. Instead of avoiding the pain of living, Carver somehow found hope by facing it. 

Raymond Carver (1938-1988)  was born and died in the Northwest, but he lived and wrote in places like California, Israel, Iowa, Texas, and upstate New York, writing and helping support his family by working as a bookstore clerk, sawmill laborer, library assistant, janitor, textbook editor, and delivery man, among other things. Beloved by family and friends, he also drank too much and was generally destructive in various ways. He got his money's worth out of life, as my grandfather used to say. One of my favorite Carver stories, “A Small Good Thing,” gets right to the truth of how we grow only, it seems, when life pushes us past our powers of resistance and forces us to see the world through another person's eyes.

In “A Small Good Thing,” a young mother, Ann, orders a birthday cake for her son, Scotty, who is turning 8. Ann is slightly put off by the grumpy baker, who tells her the cake will be ready Monday morning. While walking to school with a friend early Monday, Scotty is hit by a car. At first he seems fine, but at home he collapses. His parents call an ambulance; the birthday party is canceled. At the hospital, Scotty goes into a deep sleep while the doctor repeatedly assures Ann and her husband, Howard, that their son has a mild concussion and will wake up soon. Howard goes home to change clothes. The phone rings, and a male voice asks him about a sixteen dollar cake that hasn't been picked up. Howard yells at the man and hangs up. Back at the hospital, another doctor tells Ann and Howard that Scotty is definitely not in a coma. Howard convinces his wife to go home to rest and feed the dog. As she leaves, Ann meets an African American family in a similar situation. Their son has been stabbed at a party, and they are all there together, just waiting. Ann wishes she could stay with them but heads home. At the house, the phone rings, and she frantically asks if the call is about Scotty. The caller replies, cryptically, that it is, then hangs up. Arriving again at the hospital, Ann asks how the other boy's surgery went, but is told that he has died. Back in her son's room, the doctors are just deciding to operate; but, before the news can sink in, Scotty wakes up, screams once loudly, and then dies. At home, Ann and Howard struggle with their shock and grief. The anonymous caller rings again to tell Ann that she has forgotten about Scotty; she screams at him. At midnight, the phone rings again. Howard answers, but this time the caller hangs up. Ann realizes who it is making these calls. Enraged, she and Howard drive to the bakery, which is closed. They see the baker at work and pound on the door. At first he is combative with the parents for not picking up and paying for their son's cake. Ann's anger suddenly dissipates and she collapses into Howard's arms. After a moment, the baker brings chairs to them and insists they sit down. He makes a place for them on the table, and then apologizes:

“I'm just a baker. I don't claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being…I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem.”

The baker then takes some cinnamon rolls from his oven and suggests they should eat – “eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.”

Ann and Howard both realize how hungry they are and eat several rolls. While they do, the baker tells them his life story: about his loneliness, his years of doubt and limitations, his childlessness, the repetition and futility of ovens constantly full and constantly empty. He's glad he's a baker, at least, since he can feed people.

The baker has them smell and then taste some fresh-baked bread; the three of them talk on into the morning, and Ann and Howard don't think about leaving.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

These days seem to call for an unusual amount of self-awareness. Self-awareness isn't easy, but, often, it's the first step on the journey to opening one's heart and one's mind.

A few years ago, our daughter, Maggie, read and loved The Diary of Anne Frank. If there ever was a victim, it was Anne Frank. Yet―not long before her capture by the Nazis and death at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, as she and her family and four other people hid every day in the apartment on Amsterdam's Prinsengracht canal― fourteen year-old Anne wrote eloquently about the recognition of her own limitations that helped her see, all evidence to the contrary, the best in other people.

“I have one outstanding trait in my character, which must strike anyone who knows me for any length of time, and that is my knowledge of myself. I can watch myself and my actions, just like an outsider. The Anne of every day I can face entirely without prejudice, without making excuses for her, and watch what's good and what's bad about her.

This ‘self-consciousness’ haunts me, and every time I open my mouth I know as soon as I've spoken whether ‘that ought to have been different’ or ‘that was right as it was.’... I understand more and more how true Daddy's words were when he said: ‘'All children must look after their own upbringing.’ Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands.”


― Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, June 8, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Being raised in a military officer's home, I received a daily dose of structure--so much structure, in fact, that, by the time I was eighteen, I couldn't wait to escape. It wasn't personal. As I've shared elsewhere, my parents were each and both extremely loving. It was just that, from the start, my father made it clear, with only half a twinkle in his eye, that "In this house, there are rules and regulations to which you shall adhere." I think I was in kindergarten the first time I heard that.

A crossroads came the summer before my senior year in high school, when I received a congressional appointment to the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado. It was a big deal; I turned it down. Everybody (except my dad, ironically) thought I was crazy. The local sports editor even ran a column gently criticizing seventeen year-old me for my decision to pass on the offer. I didn't care. I had done my research. The Academy featured mostly engineering courses, disguised in about a dozen ways, so I could see we didn't share similar interests. More to the point: I knew a lot of young people joined the military to get some discipline and structure in their lives―and I'd been there, done that. The Air Force was, as the ad used to say, a great way of life, but I was ready to try living without someone telling me what to do, how to do it, when to show up, and when to go home. 

Little did I know that the civilian world had structure, too, if a bit more more relaxed and longer-haired. I should have suspected. For three summers during high school, I had spent eight hours a day working for a utility company―digging ditches, mowing lawns, patching leaky irrigation pipes, painting fire hydrants―but mostly watching the clock slowly tick, tick, tick. It's amazing how time doesn't fly when you're not having fun. Then, after college, I did the same thing for almost two years in a San Francisco law firm, followed by another year and a half at Microsoft in Seattle. After a day of staring at a computer screen or ledger book, 5 o'clock couldn't come fast enough. This wasn't going to work. I had to find a way to make a living that would let me create my own structure.  

Ministry was, and is, the ticket. Someone once said, "If you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life." It's true, and part of that love about my job is the varied and project-driven way a pastor's week unfolds. The Sunday-to-Sunday framework provides just enough structure (and motivation), but, beyond that, every day is different. (And, as an added bonus, even watching a movie or taking a midday nap are now, technically, speaking, part of my job. Cultural research and sabbath-taking, in case you're keeping score.)

The challenge is that, even for someone like me, this absence of structure can leave one either working too hard, too long, and too late or, almost as often, at a complete standstill. In ministry, there's a lot of starting and stopping, lots of changing directions. You're "on" when other people are "off," and when they're at work, you're pretty much working, too. In that sense, being a pastor is like graduate school. The price for control over your schedule is that, 24/7, there's always something you should be doing. To be effective and to survive, you have to create and stick to healthy boundaries. But sometimes―not always, but sometimes―when the project or the wedding or the crisis of the moment has come and gone, you're not sure what step to take next. You can feel a little stuck. Whatever your job, you've been there.

I've been thinking lately about the perseverance and internal drive it takes to overcome that "stuck" feeling we're all experiencing these days. This pandemic has subtracted from all of our lives the usual structural supports that hold us up and propel us forward--school and work and carefully-constructed plans, among others. Add to that the lack of unifying leadership in the face of this deadly threat and the persistent uncertainty as to how and when it's going to end. Then, as the days and weeks go by, we're all realizing that, whatever the relaxation in restrictions, a return to "normal life" will take longer than any of us had hoped. Finally, in recent days waves of protest over the unjust deaths of black citizens and the constant threat of unfair treatment faced by people of color leave us as a country, maybe, on the brink of a major societal shift. What to do next? How do we face all of this, all at one time?

The twentieth-century Danish author Isak Dinesen once wrote: “When you have a great and difficult task, something perhaps almost impossible, if you only work a little at a time, every day a little, suddenly the work will finish itself.”

The late Randy Pausch, the computer science professor who, upon learning he had pancreatic cancer, gave and then wrote the extremely popular The Last Lecture, said: “The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

Finally, in her book Defiance, the author C.J. Redwine reminds us: “It’s probably my job to tell you life isn’t fair, but I figure you already know that. So instead, I’ll tell you that hope is precious, and you’re right not to give up.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, June 6, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

From John O'Donohue's Benedictus:

“This is the time to be slow,
Lie low to the wall
Until the bitter weather passes.
Try, as best you can, not to let
The wire brush of doubt
Scrape from your heart
All sense of yourself
And your hesitant light.
If you remain generous,
Time will come good;
And you will find your feet
Again on fresh pastures of promise,
Where the air will be kind
And blushed with beginning.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, June 5, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In Luke chapter 10, Jesus answers a too-smart-for-his-own-good lawyer asking him to identify this neighbor we’re supposed to love by telling the story of the Good Samaritan. Clearly, according to Jesus, our way of loving is to be more than a feeling; it’s also supposed to be more than an act.

It’s easy, he points out, to love those we know, but if you and I reserve our love for those we recognize and approve of, we’re not loving like he says we should. We’re also not loving like Jesus loves us, and that's a problem called hypocrisy. No, the neighbors we’re supposed to love are the ones on the ground, whose situations and backgrounds  are usually messy, the ones with complicated problems that have complicated, time-consuming solutions. That’s how and where Jesus calls his followers to love. He does not call us, his followers, to cross to the other side of the street, rationalizing our choice as we go. He does not call us, to borrow James Baldwin’s phrase, to be contemptuous of other people’s pain.

But it's hard, painful, even, as is most any experience that leads to something new and better. This week, I've been thinking about these honest words from author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor:

“If I could make my neighbors up, I could love them in a minute. I could make them in my own image, looking back at me with deep gratitude for how authentically human I am being to them—and they to me!—reading poetry to each other, admiring pictures of each other’s grandchildren, and taking casseroles to each other when we are sick. But nine times out of ten these are not the neighbors I get.

Instead, I get neighbors who cancel my vote, burn trash in their yard, and shoot guns so close to my house that I have to wear an orange vest when I walk to the mailbox. These neighbors I did not make up knock on my front door to offer me the latest issue of The Watchtower. They put things on their church signs that make me embarrassed for all Christians everywhere. They text while they drive, flipping me off when I pass their expensive pickup trucks... in spite of the fish symbols on their shiny rear bumpers.”


― Barbara Brown Taylor, Holy Envy: Finding God in the Faith of Others

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Someone once said: as with pubs and shoes, you know you're reading a great book from the moment you're inside. It's true. Some novels’ beginnings are so good it's impossible not to read on; and, as openings to novels go, it's hard to beat the first sentence of Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities.

Sure, the competition is fierce. For my money, if you’re interested, it includes, in no particular order: Melville's Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael.”); The Bible (“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”); Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”);  Roald Dahl's The Witches (“In fairy tales, witches always wear silly black hats and black coats, and they ride on broomsticks. But this is not a fairy tale."); The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality…”); Kafka's Metamorphosis (“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”); and James Ellroy's American Tabloid (“America was never innocent.”)

Those are all great, but it’s A Tale of Two Cities that consistently ranks as the best-selling novel of all time. Dickens didn’t just write an incredible opening; he backed it up. Set in Paris and London before and during the French Revolution, the book speaks as truthfully today as ever about the lived human struggle between freedom and tyranny, good and evil, bias and integrity, vengeance and hope, suffering and redemption. Dickens starts A Tale of Two Cities with a single, paragraph-long sentence:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

In Christ’s peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

ear PCUM family,

Years ago, in a different life, I was admitted as a doctoral student in history at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. In the summer of 1986, I drove my metallic green Volkswagen Rabbit and all my worldly possessions from San Francisco, where I had lived and worked for a year after college, to the East Coast, a part of the country unfamiliar to me in every way. Little did I know I would never leave, though my migration would continue northward. I liked Baltimore and I loved history, but I realized pretty quickly that neither would be a long-term relationship. It dawned on me that choosing a profession meant doing it every day for the rest of your professional life. One day I mentioned to a fellow student that I had been thinking of quitting, moving to New York City, entering seminary, and becoming a Presbyterian minister. The friend smiled and said, "You don't even go to church." She was right, but not for long.

I left Johns Hopkins with little to show for my time there except more student loans and no appreciation in my marketable skills. Still, along with learning about myself, I learned a lot in that one year about history and the study of history. I learned that a first principle in understanding any historical subject—whether in written form, as a documentary, or in a story told over dinner, etc.—is not to memorize sequences and names and dates, but rather to figure out the historian's point of view. Their angle. What's at stake for the author? Perspective is everything.

In just the last days, the devastation of this ongoing pandemic has been intensified by images and stories of authorities murdering and abusing black citizens, mass protests, violent agitation and repression, and political opportunism. As privileged, mostly white Christians—loved and freed by Jesus and called to join him in loving and freeing all of God's children—I think it's time to take a harder look at our own perspective on our American history. What's at stake for us in telling our story the way we do? How can so many of us keep persuading ourselves things are fine when they're obviously not fine for everyone? How do you and I benefit by ignoring racism? How do we benefit from it? If black and brown people's experience in the United States today is so antithetical to what we would tolerate for ourselves, what is our role in keeping alive a four centuries-old system of privileging one race and crushing another? We have to do better at taking responsibility. That's the crucial first step. Our nation is sick, broken, burning; people are dying. We who bear the name Christian must stand and work for change, because that's what Jesus is doing. Just being nice people isn't enough.

During that one and only year as a doctoral student, I first came across a quote about history and perspective by James Baldwin, the American novelist, playwright, poet, and national treasure who so eloquently and forcefully gave voice to the African American experience. Baldwin's words speak to me today even more powerfully than they did then: 

“To accept one’s past—one’s history—is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it. An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.”

In  Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, June 1, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

It's rare for me to be at a loss for words. (Can I get an "Amen?!") Lately, though, being buried under layer upon layer of disturbing, dangerous, and disastrous news has done the trick. I've got no answers. I can't dig my way out because I can't figure any of it out. Why must so many people with privilege and power exorcise their insecurities through the suffering―and even death―of others? When, and how, will this pandemic end? What will "normal" life be like going forward? How can some folks be willing to risk their own and others' health to make some kind of useless point? Why won't particular leaders lead? Is there no one who can see and inspire in all of us the spirit that makes us, together, greater than the sum of our different parts?

As I say, I don't have the answers. Whatever they are, I have a feeling that the solutions to these problems, like the problems themselves, will ask something of each of us. That's the tricky part, since, from birth, we humans are broken and beautiful creations. Fortunately, we aren't alone. As I read the reports and see the images, the words that come to my mind are writer Anne Lamott's, describing her time as a grade school teacher, in her 2005 book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith:

“Even as we improved as teachers and as students, the children continued to have raging impulse-control problems; the very thing that made them spontaneous and immediate could also make them mean... we could barely manage them in class.

[Teaching] was hard. Some of the kids were needy and vulnerable and depressed, with faces of dubious, aged concern, rumpled foreheads, downcast or shuttered eyes. Some were wild. We did not exclude anyone, because Jesus didn't. On bad days, I could not imagine what he had been thinking. [But] I could always feel Jesus in the room, encouraging us in every way...”


Please pray with me for Christ's peace and Christ's justice.
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, May 30, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In Mary Oliver’s poem, “Last Night the Rain Spoke to Me,” maybe, as I do, you’ll see a vision of a better day, of hope dawning on the far side of a storm.

“Last night
the rain
spoke to me
slowly, saying,
what joy
to come falling
out of the brisk cloud,
to be happy again
in a new way
on the earth!
That’s what it said
as it dropped,
smelling of iron,
and vanished
like a dream of the ocean
into the branches
and the grass below.
Then it was over.
The sky cleared.
I was standing
under a tree.
The tree was a tree
with happy leaves,
and I was myself,
and there were stars in the sky
that were also themselves
at the moment
at which moment
my right hand
was holding my left hand
which was holding the tree
which was filled with stars
and the soft rain –
imagine! imagine!
the long and wondrous journeys
still to be ours.”


In Christ’s peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, May 29, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

“...We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

With all that already threatens us, it breaks my heart that Abraham Lincoln's appeal to Americans in his First Inaugural Address of 1861 seems, in some real ways, as distant a hope today as when our Civil War started 159 years ago. And so, with more troubling reminders that the color of our skin in this country still determines our very different experiences, with the sad truth again and again made obvious that I can leave my house with assurances and benefits-of-the-doubt that my neighbors who live next door cannot, and hearing my call as a follower of Jesus to look honestly at myself so that I might be able to love in the selfless way he loves me, I also share this from author and activist Rebecca Solnit, in her book Hope in the Dark:

"Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures, and the grinding down of the poor and marginal... To hope is to give yourself to the future ― and that commitment to the future is what makes the present bearable."

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, May 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family, 

I mentioned a while back that lately I'm listening to more classical music, appreciating it as a gift that has come at just the right time. I still don't really get it. The glasses and fancy title may give the impression that I know the subtle difference between andante and andantino, but that would be incorrect. I'll always be more of a hard rock type of guy. (You can take the boy out of Spokane...) Still, when I turn to 105.9 FM and let the music wash over me, when I visualize the violins and cellos and clarinets coming in on time, when I imagine the vision and joyous labor of the composer, it―to quote the great Axl Rose (I told you)―"takes me away to that special place, [where] if I stare too long, I'd probably break down and cry." Classical music has been a saving grace, even for me.

I'm having a harder time lately with social media. So much of it seems to be weaponized ― and at precisely a moment when we in this country and this world could use some coming together. With no data, of course, to support my theory, I fear these days that a great many of us are arguing online with people who aren't listening. As a result, instead of discovering common ground, the walls that divide us just grow higher, and we're as far away from each other as ever. Farther. Maybe I'm wrong; maybe I'm just old, but the impression I get is that, absent productive dialog with opposing points of view, a lot of us are using social media in order to establish our credentials with those who already agree with us. 

As Exhibit A, I offer the sheer number of Facebook posts that came over my feed just last week in response to our president's insistence that churches and all houses of worship re-open immediately. We've never closed, the posts announced. The church isn't only a building, they proclaimed. We're connected in new and different ways, they pointed out. All of which is spot on. No argument from me. I'm just wondering whom they're arguing with, whom they're trying to persuade. The president? The church leaders and churchgoers who will insist on opening? I doubt it. In fact, my sense―and, again, I could be mistaken―is that, in the vast majority of instances, out of every thousand "friends" who read and/or comment on a post with opposing views, the average number who will actually change their minds (let alone their behavior) is somewhere between 1... and 1.1. That could be generous. Yes, we have plenty of weapons these days. We spend a lot of time sitting around with others on our side, our team, sharpening and polishing our swords, denigrating our foes.

More gifts of grace, not fewer, are what we all need to navigate this pandemic, it seems to me. And each of us probably needs to risk extending such grace at least half as often as we'd like to receive it. Grace, I try to remind myself, is defined as acceptance and respect and even love that are not deserved but given nonetheless. Grace, by that definition, doesn't make sense. It starts and ends as mystery. So maybe we all could get better at trusting that, whatever the good is we're fighting for―the good we are called to fight for―it will probably look at least a little different than we think it should. Probably a lot different. That kind of humility would be a good start.

Joan Didion, one of this country's best writers, penned the words below in the tumultuous year of 1968. She could have written them yesterday.

“Of course we would all like to ‘believe’ in something, like to assuage our private guilt in public causes, like to lose our tiresome selves; like, perhaps, to transform the white flag of defeat at home into the brave white banner of battle away from home. And of course it is all right to do that; that is how, immemorially, things have gotten done.

But I think it is all right only so long as we do not delude ourselves about what we are doing, and why. It is all right only so long as we remember that all the ad hoc committees, all the picket lines, all the brave signatures in The New York Times, all the tools of agitprop straight across the spectrum, do not confer upon anyone any ipso facto virtue. It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may or may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with ‘morality.’ Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”


-Joan Didion, Slouching Toward Bethlehem

In Christ's grace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

They say, God is in the interruptions. If that's true, then we've got a whole lot of God these days.

"Normal life" has been on an indefinite pause, which itself has extended so long and become so burdensome that now a great many folks are nostalgic, apparently, for crowded roadways, crowded train cars, and crowded schedules. Of course, people also want and need their jobs back. They want their livelihoods back, their sense of purpose. We all do. We all desperately want good health. Let's keep praying and working where we can. For now, though, we're faced with this massive interruption. Is God also interrupted? Or is God everywhere in the interruption itself?

When, standing in front of a talking, burning bush, Moses had the temerity to ask God's name. God answered, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Not a man, not a woman, not with a beard, not with a scepter or a list of good deeds and bad. Just what is―not just a reality, but the reality― the loving reality that bends across the arc of history in the direction of freedom, of fulfillment, of justice, and of peace. 

In War and Peace, the great Leo Tolstoy wrote, 

“Life is everything. Life is God. Everything shifts and moves, and this movement is God. And while there is life, there is delight in the self-awareness of the divinity. To love life is to love God. The hardest and most blissful thing is to love this life in one's suffering, in the guiltlessness of suffering.”

And, in his Letters and Miscellaneous, Tolstoy said,

“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful... I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Soon after I started out as a pastor, I made a difficult discovery: Caring and trying hard do not solve every problem. Sometimes, the answers are impossible to come by.

I was still pretty young at that point, twenty-eight or so. Until then, the challenges I had faced, the ones that had kept me awake nights, were mostly of the personal growth and accomplishment persuasion. The questions came, but so did the solutions. Would I get an A on that test? Would I do well in this game? Would that girl/woman like me? Would my parents be proud of me? Would that professor or that coach or that boss or that admissions committee affirm my efforts? My world, as a young person, had been pretty much about me. As the hurdles came, I dug deep and stepped up. I only realized later that everybody else had been doing the same thing. On top of that, because of what I now know was luck or God or something else―though back then I convinced myself it was my strength of will―I had, for the most part, avoided inexplicable loss and suffering. It was a setup.

In my first congregation, for example, when an elderly parishioner would ask me as her new young pastor to stop by for a talk, I'd accept the invitation with the assumption that my role was to be that of "problem-solver." I'd sit there on the sofa, drinking tea and eating homemade cookies, and listen to the latest in family worries. I'd ask a few questions out of genuine interest as well as the need to get my facts straight. Then, I'd pronounce, with appropriate humility but also with the authority of someone who had recently read the Bible and passed a couple of exams, my life-altering solution. 

It rarely worked. My proposals were usually politely received, but often had already been considered, then discarded―e.g., "Maybe you should try forgiving your pot-smoking, video game-playing, 32 year-old grandson for not repaying the loan."  Or, when I was stumped, my answers tended toward the most familiar of useless, non-biblical platitudes―e.g., "Well, the Lord never gives us more than we can carry" or the always-at-the-ready "It must be God's will." I'm surprised, in fact, that at least one of those older ladies never punched me in the nose. 

More than that, after a good bit of trial and a whole lot of error, I finally figured out that the church folks who wanted me to listen to their problems don't really want me to provide answers. They just wanted me to be there with them, to be present with them. They wanted their church, and their faith, to be ready and willing to ride out the storm with them, however long it takes. When Jesus said, "...love one another, just as I have loved you..." (John 13:34), I think that's what he meant. Loving someone else is easy when they don't ask much of us, when we (not they) can wrap their problems up in a neat bow and walk away. Loving each other in the face of chronic sadness or serious illness or devastating loss is a lot harder. Yet, that's what Jesus asks of us. Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, observes:

“Mary Magdalene would have very little tolerance for the Christian platitudes and vapid optimism that seem to swirl around these kinds of tragic events. Those platitudes are tempting, but they’re nothing but luxuries for people who’ve never had to deal with demons (or at least have never admitted to them). But equally, she would reject nihilism, or the idea that there is no real meaning in life or death—ideas present in so much of post-modernity. Those ideas, too, are luxuries, but they are for those who have never been freed.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

For this particular Memorial Day, here are a few parts of a favorite sermon on the power of sacrificial love and the power of memory — "A Room Called Remember," by Frederick Buechner, from a collection of writings by the same name:

 “We have survived, you and I. Maybe that is at the heart of our remembering. After twenty years, forty years, sixty years or eighty, we have made it this year, this day. We needn't have made it. There were times we never thought we would and nearly didn't. There were times we almost hoped we wouldn't, were ready to give the whole thing up. Each must speak for himself, for herself, but I can say for myself that I have seen sorrow and pain enough to turn the heart to stone. Who hasn't?

…But I didn't. I have not given up. And each of you, with all the memories you have and the tales you could tell, you also have not given up. You also are survivors and are here. And what does it tell us, our surviving? It tells us that weak as we are, a strength beyond our strength has pulled us through at least this far, at least to this day. Foolish as we are, a wisdom beyond our wisdom has flickered up just often enough to light us if not to the right path through the forest, at least to a path that leads forward... Faint of heart as we are, a love beyond our power to love has kept our hearts alive. 

...Who or what was with us all those years? Who or what do we have to thank for our survival? Our lucky stars? ...Was it God? Is it God we have to thank, you and I, for having made it somehow to this day? Again, each of us must speak for himself, for herself. We must, each of us, remember our own lives. Someone died whom we loved and needed, and from somewhere something came to fill our emptiness and mend us where we were broken. Was it only time that mended us…that filled our emptiness?... We must each of us answer for ourselves, remember for ourselves, preach to ourselves our own sermons.

But ‘Remember the wonderful works that he has done,’ sings King David… remember above all what he has done in Christ—remember those moments in our own lives when Christ came to us in countless disguises through people who one way or another strengthened us, comforted us, healed us, held us accountable, by the power of Christ alive within them. All that is the past. All that is what there is to remember. And because that is the past, because we remember, we have this high and holy hope that what he has done, he will continue to do, that what he has begun in us and in our world, he will in unimaginable ways bring to fullness and fruition.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, May 23, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In the midst of changed plans, unrealized dreams, and slower pace, people tell me they're finding meaning in unexpected places. From a Christian perspective, we call that a blessing. In fact, one could argue that the main thrust of the Gospel (good news) about Jesus is that meaning is almost never to be found where we expect it to be.

But it's always there, always on the margins, in the undeserving, the insignificant, the loss, the everyday. Billy Collins gets it, in his poem, "An Afternoon With Irish Cows."

"There were a few dozen who occupied the field
across the road from where we lived,
stepping all day from tuft to tuft,
their big heads down in the soft grass,
though I would sometimes pass a window
and look out to see the field suddenly empty
as if they had taken wing, flown off to another country.

Then later, I would open the blue front door,
and again the field would be full of their munching
or they would be lying down
on the black-and-white maps of their sides,
facing in all directions, waiting for rain.
How mysterious, how patient and dumbfounded
they appear in the long quiet of the afternoon.

But every once in a while, one of them
would let out a sound so phenomenal
that I would put down the paper
or the knife I was cutting an apple with
and walk across the road to the stone wall
to see which one of them was being torched
or pierced through the side with a long spear.

Yes, it sounded like pain until I could see
the noisy one, anchored there on all fours,
her neck outstretched, her bellowing head
laboring upward as she gave voice
to the rising, full-bodied cry
that began in the darkness of her belly
and echoed up through her bowed ribs into her gaping mouth.

Then I knew that she was only announcing
the large, unadulterated cowness of herself,
pouring out the ancient apologia of her kind
to all the green fields and the gray clouds,
to the limestone hills and the inlet of the blue bay,
while she regarded my head and shoulders
above the wall with one wild, shocking eye."


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, May 22, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Can you name the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World? I can't identify more than a few; at least, I couldn't (and in a few days I probably won't be able to, again.) So, to ensure that we can all be ready to impress our friends at dinner parties―once we can have dinner parties with our friends―I humbly drop the following knowledge: The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World are, in no particular order:

  • the Great Pyramid of Giza, in El Giza, Egypt (the only one that still exists);
  • the Colossus of Rhodes, on the Greek island of the same name;
  • the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, in Babylon, near present-day Hillah, in Iraq;
  • the Lighthouse of Alexandria, in Alexandria, Egypt;
  • the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, in Halicarnassus, Achaemenid Empire, modern Turkey;
  • the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, in Olympia, Greece; and
  • the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus (near the modern town of Selçuk in present day Turkey)

[Given how wondrous they were and how long it's been, I would add to this list of ancient wonders the early-1990's Dallas Cowboys, but that's just me.]

There are, of course, all kinds of other wonders and all kinds of other lists, which include things like the Great Wall of China, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Taj Mahal, etc. I like the list of "New Seven Wonders" named in 2006 by judges for the newspaper USA Today:

  • the Potala Palace - Lhasa, Tibet;
  • the Old City of Jerusalem - Israel/Palestine;
  • the Polar Ice Caps - Polar regions;
  • the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument - Hawaii, U.S.A.;
  • the Internet;
  • Mayan ruins - Yucatán Peninsula, México;
  • the Great Wildebeest Migration & the Maasai Mara - Serengeti, Tanzania/Kenya; and
  • (chosen by readers) the Grand Canyon - Arizona, United States

In case you go to lots of dinner parties, there are other lists, including, to name just a few: the world's Seven Natural Wonders, the Seven Underwater Wonders, Seven City Wonders, Seven Industrial Wonders, and Seven Wonders of the Solar System. To all these wonders of the world, ancient and new, I would add just one more:

"It is only on days when life is uncertain that we learn what we need to know every day."

Here are two quotes from Tao Te Chin by Laozi (literally "Old Master"), describing this particular world wonder. The first is a statement to us; the second is a question for us.

Laozi says:
“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.

Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”


And Laozi asks:
"Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear?"

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, May 21, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

A few years ago, I did something I never do. I finished reading Anthony Doerr's novel All the Light We Cannot See, and then I immediately read it again. For me, it's that good.

All the Light We Cannot See is set in occupied France during the Second World War. The book focuses on two main characters, a blind French girl named Marie-Laure and a German boy named Werner, whose paths eventually cross, but only after each experiences profound loss and coming of age. This quote, at the end of the book, has Marie-Laure, now a grandmother, reflect on the spiritual possibilities at what, for all of us living through this pandemic, is now the familiar intersection of technology, nature, loss, and memory:

“People walk the paths of the gardens... and the wind sings anthems in the hedges, and the big old cedars at the entrance to the maze creak. [She] imagines the electromagnetic waves traveling into and out of [her grandson's video game]… except now a thousand times more crisscross the air… maybe a million times more.

Torrents of text conversations, tides of cell conversations, of television programs, of e-mails, vast networks of fiber and wire interlaced above and beneath the city, passing through buildings, arcing between transmitters in Metro tunnels, between antennas atop buildings, from lampposts with cellular transmitters in them, commercials for Carrefour and Evian and pre-baked toaster pastries flashing into space and back to earth again, I am going to be late and Maybe we should get reservations? and Pick up avocados and What did he say? and ten thousand I miss yous, fifty thousand I love yous, hate mail and appointment reminders and market updates, jewelry ads, coffee ads, furniture ads flying invisibly over the warrens of Paris, over the battlefields and tombs, over the Ardennes, over the Rhine, over Belgium and Denmark, over the scarred and ever-shifting landscape we call nations.

And is it so hard to believe that souls might also travel those paths? That her father and Etienne and Madame Manec and the German boy named Werner Pfennig might harry the sky in flocks, like egrets, like terns, like starlings? That great shuttles of souls might fly about, faded but audible if you listen closely enough? They flow above the chimneys, ride the sidewalks, slip through your jacket and shirt and breastbone and lungs, and pass out through the other side, the air a library and the record of every life lived, every sentence spoken, every word transmitted still reverberating within it.

Every hour, she thinks, someone for whom the war was memory falls out of the world.

We rise again in the grass. In the flowers. In songs.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I was adopted as a 5-day old infant. On Saturday, April 6, 1963, my mom and dad, fresh off a series of miscarriages, drove a black Volkswagen Beetle with no air conditioning two hundred seventy miles from San Antonio, Texas, where my father was stationed as a pilot at Lackland Air Force Base, to Fort Worth, where they met me for the first time. I've had some pretty good days since, but I'm not exaggerating when I say that day was the best day of my life.

I make that claim simply because, despite the unsettling absence of a back story, I've always felt infinitely loved and wanted by each of my parents. That's all I could ask for, really. That's all any one could ask for. And I know not everybody, adopted or not, gets it. Still, if some adults dream more than others of having children of their own, then those of us who were placed for adoption, for whatever reasons, long even more than others to be desired and accepted. To belong.

My mother, Betty, was really, really good at making me feel that way. She was an unusually kind and thoughtful person; so I benefited a lot from being the apple of her particular eye. She told me she loved me every time we ever encountered each other, in person, over the phone, in writing. Then she showed it. She suffered with me in my defeats and mistakes and disappointments; she delighted in what delighted me. She wouldn't allow me to feel alone, ever. About the only error I can recall her making, when it comes to me, anyway, is a story I can't remember. Later on that same Saturday in April in 1963, when they stopped on their way back to San Antonio for gas, the lady at the counter took one look at this unprepared neophyte of a mother and observed, "Darling, you don't hold one of those like that." My mom cried all the way home.

My father, Bill, I'm positive, did not cry. I've only seen him cry once, maybe; it's debatable. In fact, in the days and years after that day in 1963, he was not what I would call warm and fuzzy. (He's warmer and a lot fuzzier now.) Growing up in the home of a military officer, himself the son of a police officer, meant that I didn't experience a lot of democratic discussion or consensus building. I had a voice, but there was definitely a hierarchy. Nor were emotions something that one allowed to get the better of one. (Apparently, falling to pieces isn't helpful when you're hovering your helicopter over a jungle from which people are shooting at you while other wounded people are climbing up the rope ladder so you can get them home safely to their people.) Also, there was that generational thing, especially for men. My dad didn't, and doesn't, get emotional with me. He has told me he loves me exactly two times...in 57 years. I've counted.

And, yet, I've never doubted it. Not once. Not for a second. Why? Because countless times, in countless ways, and especially when I needed it most, my dad has announced to me through his actions that he is mine, and I am his. He has announced to me that he will always put me first―even when I've gone in directions different than what he would choose―because my happiness is his happiness. That's what a father is. So, even if I didn't get his broad shoulders or chiseled features or ability to fix things, he's my dad, and I'm his son.

We all need to hear―and trust―the message that we are loved, and love enacted, love embodied, speaks louder than any words. That's especially true when times are tough, when we're in pain, when there's a lot at stake. Love in action announces itself as here to stay. It removes any doubt, any uncertainty. That's the best lesson my mom and dad ever taught me. I've always liked the way Philip Yancey puts it in his book Where Is God When It Hurts? 

“Bear one another’s burdens, the Bible says. It is a lesson about pain that we all can agree on. Some of us will not see pain as a gift; some will always accuse God of being unfair for allowing it. But, the fact is, pain and suffering are here among us, and we need to respond in some way. 

The response Jesus gave was to bear the burdens of those he touched. To live in the world as his body, his emotional incarnation, we must follow his example. The image of the body accurately portrays how God is working in the world. Sometimes he does enter in, occasionally by performing miracles, and often by giving supernatural strength to those in need. But mainly he relies on us, his agents, to do his work in the world. We are asked to live out the life of Christ in the world, not just to refer back to it or describe it. We announce his message, work for justice, pray for mercy . . . and suffer with the sufferers.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

What new things has all this locking down and slowing down taught you? I ask because―along with the worry and the loss and the upheaval―if we're willing to have eyes to see and ears to hear, this could be a most educational experience.

I don't mean the things you already knew but might have forgotten, like the importance of family time or how quiet your street can get. And I don't mean the lessons that used to work well. Most of us, in this particular cultural slice of the northeastern United States, have already learned to wake up in the morning, gird our loins, hop on the train or into the SUV or onto email... and do battle. And why not? We've got more weapons than most: money, access, privilege, time. We don't submit easily, because we don't have to. Our weapons enable us to live most days with the illusion (delusion?) that there is no problem we can't solve. If a particular challenge poses a threat to our children, our career, our convenience; if we sense a threat to the well-being for which we've worked hard and paid dearly, well, we can get even more feisty.

Don't believe me? Picture, if you will―if you can remember the way it used to be―a springtime 5th-grade parents' gathering where some naive vice principal makes the mistake of opening the floor for questions about whether or not parents can choose their child's teacher for the coming year. A feeding frenzy. Or: picture the deli aisle at Whole Foods on a weekday between 4:00 and 6:30 pm. Or: recall some of the more colorful comments uttered at the referees (and coaches and players) at pretty much any kids' soccer game. Or: drive on Grove Street pretty much any time of day. I've got plans, aspirations, things to do and places to be, so don't get in my way.

Of course, fighting battles―in life, as in geopolitics―never achieves a lasting peace. You have to keep firing to hold onto any ground you've gained. Even if you happen to be winning at the moment, there's never really a moment's rest. More that that, what's instructive about the days we're living in now is that the weapons we're so used to using are so useless. The coronavirus is no respecter of rank or power. You and I are having to submit to it, to the arbitrary whims of biology, like everybody else.

Maybe that's the best new lesson. A peace that will last, the peace that passes understanding, can't be found in changing our circumstances for the better. It's found in our circumstances. One of my all-time heroes, the late Gerald May, twentieth century psychiatrist and theologian, once said:

“Peace is not something you can force on anything or anyone... much less upon one's own mind. It is like trying to quiet the ocean by pressing upon the waves. Sanity lies in somehow opening to the chaos, allowing anxiety, moving deeply into the tumult, diving into the waves, where underneath, within, peace simply is.”

Gerald G. May,
The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, May 18, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I wasn't expecting to be moved almost to tears yesterday evening, when sixty-six of you gathered online for this congregation's first-ever "virtual Confirmation celebration." Actually, if Zoom or the internet had crashed, I would have felt like crying, but that's not what I'm talking about.

We got together virtually―with the kids, their parents and loved ones, their volunteer mentors, and the Session (elected church board)―to celebrate fourteen thoughtful and flexible eighth graders who comprise this 113+ year old congregation's first "internet confirmation class." We also, for the first time in PCUM's history, virtually ordained and installed new elders, being prevented this year by obvious constraints from succumbing to the Presbyterian temptation to lay-on-hands as we did. It was a first, and, given that we were all sitting in our respective houses, it was all unexpectedly moving. As a pastor honored to watch these young people and these adults live their lives of faith over the years, it was hard for me not to be overcome with several emotions, gratitude above all. As a dad of one (Maggie) of the confirmands, it was that much harder, still. But that's not what I'm not talking about, either.

No, what got me, what almost made me lose it in "public," nine or so weeks into this lock down...was just seeing all those faces at once, on one, giant, Brady Bunch, Hollywood Squares-style screen. All those faces, in all those boxes, caught me unprepared. I hadn't realized how much I've missed those faces, how much I've missed your faces, how much I've missed being together. The images brought that home.

In these days, images are a gift that sustains us. I can't be with my dad, but I can talk to him and see him on FaceTime. We can, in this way, be together. (Now, if he'll only move the phone a little farther away from his nose...) Images are keeping us going―as families, as friends, as workers, as a church body. There is a reason for that, I think. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the great French 20th century social- documentary photographer, once said:

“To me, photography is the simultaneous recognition, in a fraction of a second, of the significance of an event.”

That's what hit me yesterday. The significance and power and truth of being with these amazing people, of being together, captured in images. That significance and power and truth are, of course, captured in moving images, too: Zoom, Google Meet, Teams, FaceTime, WhatsApp, whatever. Pick a platform. Netflix, Hulu, Instagram, Facebook. It's a new world out there, one with new problems and new benefits. I encourage you to embrace it, in whatever way works best for you. As Bob Iger, film producer and chairperson of the Walt Disney Company, observes:

“When you think about it, media's the intersection of content and technology ― it's all about storytelling...”

He's right. This intersection of moment and content and technology is definitely a new chapter in the story of our lives. That's okay, though, because the story of your life is where God will find you.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, May 16, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Which way will you turn during this time, knowing, as we're all starting to realize, that the world will never be quite the same? Will you turn inward? Outward? It's a question we've faced before. Here is the poet W.H. Auden's answer―in excerpts from his poem, "September 1, 1939," written at the outbreak of the Second World War and first published in the October 1939 issue of the New Republic:

"I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odor of death
Offends the September night.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire

Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night

For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
...
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street

No one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame."


In Christ’s peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, May 15, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Faith, I think, is a good thing these days. You probably expected me to say that. But let's shift the grammar. Is faith something you have, or is faith something you do? Is it something we're supposed to acquire and keep locked away for safe-keeping? Or is it something we should use? Here’s how Frederick Buechner—novelist, poet, preacher, and theologian—defines faith…as a verb. 

“When God told Abraham, who was a hundred at the time, that at the age of ninety his wife, Sarah, was finally going to have a baby, Abraham came close to knocking himself out: ‘fell on his face and laughed,’ as Genesis puts it (17:17). In another version of the story (18:8ff.), Sarah is hiding behind the door eavesdropping, and here it's Sarah herself who nearly splits a gut, although when God asks her about it afterward, she denies it. ‘No, but you did laugh,’ God says... God doesn't seem to hold their outbursts against them, however. On the contrary, God tells them the baby's going to be a boy and they are to name him Isaac. Isaac in Hebrew means ‘laughter.’

Why did the two old crocks laugh? They laughed because they knew only a fool would believe that a woman with one foot in the grave was soon going to have her other foot in the maternity ward. They laughed because God expected them to believe it anyway. They laughed because God seemed to believe it. They laughed because they half believed it themselves. They laughed because laughing felt better than crying. They laughed because if by some crazy chance it just happened to come true, they would really have something to laugh about, and in the meanwhile it helped keep them going.

Faith is ‘the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,’ says the Letter to the Hebrews (11:1).

Faith is better understood as a verb than as a noun, as a process than as a possession. It is on-again-off-again rather than once-and-for-all. Faith is not being sure where you're going, but going anyway. A journey without maps...

I have faith that my friend is my friend. It is possible that all his motives are ulterior. It is possible that what he is secretly drawn to is not me, but my wife or my money. But there's something about the way I feel when he's around, about the way he looks me in the eye, about the way we can talk to each other without pretense and be silent together without embarrassment, that makes me willing to put my life in his hands, as I do each time I call him friend.

I can't prove the friendship of my friend. When I experience it, I don't need to prove it. When I don't experience it, no proof will do. … So it is with the Godness of God.”


In Christ’s peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, May 14, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Now that we're moving into our third month of lock-down, it occurs to me that the "normalization" of this experience has now become just another source of pain. This new pain gets added to the worry, sorrow, vulnerability, and uncertainty we've all felt since early March. Politicized debates about when to re-open businesses or schools or the basketball season aside, no one I know has any idea what the end of this will be or how we're supposed to get there. Nor is anyone I know, despite what they may say on social media, all that interested in taking unnecessary risks with their own health. It's not the question of when we'll be able to re-open or re-congregate. It's about when we'll be safe. Nobody knows, and that means no one knows about school next fall, when they'll go back to the office, travel plans, college visits, job security, or when we'll be able to gather with our families, our congregations, our friends. No one yet is pointing us in a direction that provides a usable semblance of hope. So, as the days and weeks go on, it's that absence―the absence of a strategy, of a unified conviction, of a plan―that also hurts.

In the classes I teach for fledgling pastors, the graduate students and I often discuss the fact that, in any given group of people at any given moment, at least two or three are living with unimaginable pain. Only a few of them aren't able to hide it. The rest do a more or less good job of doing what most of us were taught: bury it, put on a good face, pretend everything's fine. The trick is to watch for the signs. These days, more than two or three are living with serious pain, and―socially distanced as we may be―each of us, in our own small way, can help. We can keep reaching out, keep staying connected, keep caring. Keep looking for the signs.

Here is something author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says about pain in her book, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith:

“Plato once said that pain restores order to the soul. Rumi said that it lops off the branches of indifference. 'The throbbing vein / will take you further / than any thinking.'  Whatever else it does, pain offers an experience of being human... Because it is so real, pain is an available antidote to unreality—not the medicine you would have chosen, perhaps, but an effective one all the same. 

The next time you are in real pain, see how you feel about television shows, new appliances, a clean house, or your resumé. Chances are that none of these will do anything for you. All that will do anything for you is some cool water, held out by someone who has stopped everything else in order to look after you. An extra blanket might also help, a dry pillow, the simple knowledge that there is someone in the house who might hear you if you cried.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

It turns out the clouds recently descended upon us also contain silver linings. What are those silver linings for you? Silence? Perspective? The importance of maintaining true friendships? The rediscovery of mealtimes with loved ones? A renewed connection with the nature and the earth's healing? The realization that you actually can live without something you thought you couldn't? (For me, that's ice cream.) Silver linings, indeed. But just how do you plan to take them with you? Lately, you and I might appreciate and even enjoy the unexpected gifts that have come with locking down and slowing down, but the truth is: those treasures will be hard to hold onto. There might not be enough room.

Using this time meaningfully for the long haul will take some work, mostly the work of unloading to make space. It's hard to pick up new things, even good things, when our hands and hearts are already full. I learn this every time I get home from food shopping―and try to carry all twelve bags of groceries from the car into the house...in one trip. Not a pretty picture. It reminds me of the scene in the classic movie, The Jerk, when Steve Martin, ashamed of what he's become, breaks up with Bernadette Peters to start a new life. As he walks toward the door, he tells her, "I don't need you! I don't need anything! Just this, this ash tray, and that's the only thing I need... oh, and this paddle game... and this remote control... and these matches... and this lamp... that's all I need!" By the end of the scene, his hands are so full of the things he doesn't need, he can barely go anywhere.

We do this spiritually, too. We hold onto the old and then wonder why it's hard to make the new part of who we are or who, deep down, we want to be. I love what the late Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Catholic priest and theologian, once said:

"The resistance to praying is like the resistance of tightly clenched fists. This image shows a tension, a desire to cling tightly to yourself, a greediness which betrays fear. A story about an elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center exemplifies this attitude. She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her.

But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear."


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Attitude is everything. Facts and statistics and scouting reports and balance sheets have their place, but give them too much power, and it's hard to get out of bed in the morning. What's the point?

No, to get out of bed, to take on a challenge, to keep walking forward in a storm, you need a little attitude. About twenty-five hundred years ago, someone―someone for whom things were not going particularly well―wrote words dripping with attitude: "God is our refuge and strength,  a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake..." (Psalm 46:1-2)  Earth changing? Mountains shaking? Sounds pretty scary to me, but the psalmist is defiant: "...we will not fear."

That's attitude, which, just as it was with that psalmist, is something you only get once you accept that there is always more going on, in any situation, in every situation, than meets the eye. Faith, in fact, is just a word we use for trusting that truth to be true. Faith means learning to make decisions about your life--shifting your perspective and your expectations--not just because of facts but also because you know, deep down, there's more going on than meets the eye. "God is our refuge and strength...therefore, we will not fear." It's an attitude that makes all the difference.

In his novel  Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes has his resolute hero, Alonso Quixano, also known as knight errant Don Quixote de la Mancha, tell his squire, Sancho Panza:

“Destiny guides our fortunes more favorably than we could have expected. Look there, Sancho Panza, my friend, and see those thirty or so wild giants, with whom I intend to do battle and kill each and all of them, so with their stolen booty we can begin to enrich ourselves. This is noble, righteous warfare, for it is wonderfully useful to God to have such an evil race wiped from the face of the earth."
"What giants?" Asked Sancho Panza.
"The ones you can see over there," answered his master, "with the huge arms, some of which are very nearly two leagues long."
"Now look, your grace," said Sancho, "what you see over there aren't giants, but windmills, and what seems to be arms are just their sails, that go around in the wind and turn the millstone."
"Obviously," replied Don Quixote, "you don't know much about adventures.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, May 11, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

What have you learned in the last eight weeks that other people already know?

I'm learning a ton, which maybe you find surprising. You'd think someone in my line of work would have a clue about the challenges folks struggle with on a daily basis. My mom―who, I''ll admit, this day after Mother's Day, was biased (and the only person not surprised when I went into the ministry)―used to say I was a sensitive boy. I've never been exactly sure why she said that, all evidence to the contrary. Maybe it was because I often cried at movies and was never afraid to be affectionate with my elderly grandmothers...

Still, it's one thing to know about and even care about people's feelings and the burdens they have to bear; it's another to take your place in line and shoulder your part of the load. That's what I'm learning, Until now, for the most part, I've been lucky. 'Privileged' is another, better word for it. Intractable, chronic suffering and uncertainty were things other people faced. I've always been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and, having glimpsed it, to marshal my resources and work my way out of trouble, even the hard and devastating kind. I've never had to live very long with uncertainty. I've never been nervous about what might happen when I walked out the front door. I've rarely, if ever, felt helpless. Those were other people's problems.

These days, I can't delude myself into believing that this pandemic is something I can keep at a distance or handle on my own. I need help. Here's what Anne Lamott says in her book on prayer, Help-Thanks-Wow: Three Essential Prayers:

“Most of us figure out by a certain age - some of us later than others - that life unspools in cycles, some lovely, some painful, but in no predictable order. So you could have lovely, painful, and painful again, which I think we all agree is not at all fair. You don't have to like it, and you are always welcome to file a brief with the Complaints Department. But if you've been around for a while, you know that much of the time, if you are patient and are paying attention, you will see that God will restore what the locusts have taken away.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, May 9, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Saturday has turned into "poetry day." So, with eight or so weeks of staying home under our belt, and with our eyes and hearts set on a better day to come, I thought I'd share "Caged Bird," first published by Maya Angelou in 1983:

"The free bird leaps
on the back of the wind
and floats downstream
till the current ends
and dips his wings
in the orange sun rays
and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks
down his narrow cage
can seldom see through
his bars of rage
his wings are clipped and
his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings
with fearful trill
of the things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom."

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, May 8, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Well, the grace period seems to have run its course. After seven weeks of solidarity and staying at home in the face of a devastating and deadly threat, the inevitable frustrations have begun to surface. Bad behavior is making a comeback: Violence and fighting―or comments or dirty looks―over wearing face masks. Debates and protests about reopening the economy, the beaches, the bars. Conspiracy theories and finger-pointing. Aggressive driving, both cars and shopping carts. The comment-thread under even the most innocuous social media post. (Actually, they've always been nasty.) It's moved beyond toilet paper.

We don't know what burdens other people are carrying, and anger, at any time, is fear turned outward. Those are two truths I've learned and struggled at times to remember. In fact, it helps to be reminded. Here's an observation by author, Buddhist monk and Vipassana meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield:

"If you can sit quietly after difficult news;
if in financial downturns you remain perfectly calm;
if you can see others succeed without a twinge of jealousy;
if you can happily eat whatever is put on your plate;
if you can fall asleep after an intense day without a drink or a pill;
if you can always find contentment just where you are:
You are probably a dog."


Be gracious to yourself. Be gracious to each other.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, May 7, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Where would you and I be these days without music? It's music, after all, usually Tom Waits or Linda Ronstadt or the Temptations, that gets me through my nightly dish washing duties. During the day, my aversion to bad news about this pandemic and sad news about how we're being led through it―not to mention commercial rock stations that repeat the same seven songs endlessly―has me appreciating classical music like never before. I think this Mozart guy is going to catch on. I've been a heavy-metal fan since my teens. I wore out several AC/DC tapes back when we used tapes, and I saw Def Leppard in concert long before Rick Allen, their drummer, famously lost an arm in a 1984 car accident. (He's still drumming.) Beyond that, I'm somewhat but not completely embarrassed to admit that my childhood must have been lonely, since it resulted in the memorization of (all) the lyrics of (most) 1970s pop songs. Third verse of Terry Jacks's 1974 hit "Seasons in the Sun?"―I'm your man. Finally, since I'm on a confessional roll, I do like (some) rap and (some) Taylor Swift. And everything by the Backstreet Boys. I tried to resist all three.

In this church family, where would we be without music? Music is now, and has always been, PCUM's beating heart. Especially these days, where would we be without Anne Marie Juliano playing piano and organ; Matt Culbertson and Karen Merchant backing her up; Jordan Green in his lair creating amazing "virtual choir" pieces; Steve Culbertson directing and shaping the sound; Julie Platte and Denise Silecchia inspiring and teaching our children to sing their faith; all our amazing choristers and soloists and musicians who are so generous with their gifts and who are constantly finding new ways to share them, in person and online? We wouldn't be who we are. That's where we'd be.

But music does more than remind us who we are. In a community of faith like ours, music does more than awaken our senses to the beautiful or transport us to an idealized past. Music is shaping and forming who we're going to be. Whether we can carry a tune or tap our toes, whether we have perfect pitch or just lip-sync (in case we forget to turn off our body-microphone), when we make music together in this church, we're participating in God's making of a brand new miracle, right now. Listen to James Baldwin's description of how we get to share in God's creative activity through music, in his 1957 short story "Sonny's Blues:"

“All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations.

But the [one] who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Six weeks ago, right after the stay-at-home order went into effect and we postponed in-person worship indefinitely, I heard the question for the first time. It wasn't the last. In fact, I've heard the same question, or versions of it, countless times since: What will it be like when we're back in church? Back at work? Back in class? Back together?

Questions like this are on everyone's mind and, given all that we don't know and what little we do, propel both the one asking and the one being asked right down a rabbit hole. One mystery leads to the next. Will we have to stay six feet apart to keep ourselves and each other healthy and safe? Three feet? Ten? Will we still have to wear masks? Will the number of people in each pew be limited? How will we teach our kids? How will we sing? How we will we stay committed to feeding our homeless and hungry friends? How will we do the offering? How will we do communion?

The question in its various forms often comes accompanied by an link to an article the questioner has just read. The article generally references more or less reliable data and more or less expert opinion. It informs and, at the same time, ratchets up anxiety. Suppositions and conjecture have been hardened into fact, and facts can be scary. (That's why I rarely read WebMD.) More to the point, it's obvious that, in the mind of the questioner, the article accompanying the question they're asking me has already provided the answer. They just want to see what I'm going to say. I don't fall for it; I play dumb. That's easy.

I didn't just fall off the turnip truck. Still, one thing this life experience has taught me about hard, uncertain times is that, on the other side, things will definitely be the same, and things will definitely be different. You and I will be just like we were, and we'll be changed. Either way, what matters most―our identity as God's children and the infinite love God has for each of us and the whole world in Christ―will be our constant companions. That identity and that love are what give our past meaning; they're what will give our future hope, whatever that future looks like. ("If God is for us, who is against us?...No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us." -Romans 8:31, 37). Here's what Nadia Bolz-Weber says in her book Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint:

“There are times when I hear my name, turn, and recognize Jesus. There are times when faith feels like a friendship with God. But there are many other times when it feels more adversarial or even vacant. Yet none of that matters in the end. How we feel about Jesus or how close we feel to God is meaningless next to how God acts upon us. How God indeed enters into our messy lives and loves us through them, whether we want God’s help or not. And how, even after we’ve experienced some sort of resurrection, it’s never perfect or impressive like an Easter bonnet, because, like Jesus, resurrected bodies are always in rough shape.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

As parts of our country fixate on re-opening while the nationwide numbers of COVID-19 illnesses and deaths keep rising, I offer two strategies people of faith can use together when confronted with irrational contradictions and apparently unsolvable problems. Both strategies are based on my reading of the well-known Old Testament professor Walter Brueggemann, one of the most influential biblical scholars of the last few decades.

Brueggeman's first strategy is to remember. We remember by telling stories, and people of faith tell stories because a creative link exists between what happened yesterday and what's going to happen tomorrow. Sunday after Sunday, we remind each other in story of how God once carried us when we were exhausted so that we'll look for God to do it again. Once we get in the habit of trusting in God to keep promises, our perspective changes, our decisions change, we change, the future changes. Here is how Brueggemann puts it in his book The Practice of Prophetic Imagination:

The entire future of Israel depends, in each generation, on the capacity and resolve of [God] to make a way out of no way. This reiterated miracle of new life in a context of hopelessness evokes in Israel a due sense of awe that issues in... laughter: 'Now Sarah said, ‘God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me’ (Gen. 21:6). In subsequent Christian tradition, that laugh has become an 'Easter laugh, a deep sweep of elation that looks death and despair in the face and mocks them. Our ancestral narratives attest to the power of [God] to create new historical possibilities where there is no ground for expectation.”

Brueggemann's second strategy is to pray. Prayer―listening for God, waiting for God, being honest with God and ourselves―is what we do after we tell the stories. Prayer is the lens we use to look for God to create new possibilities. So, with Walter Brueggemann in his Prayers for a Privileged People, I invite you to pray for God to keep promises that seem impossible:

“We know about your presence
that fills the world,
that occupies our life,
that makes our life in the world true and good.
We notice your powerful transformative presence
in word and
in sacrament,
in food and in water,
in gestures of mercy
and practices of justice,
in gentle neighbors
and daring gratitude.
We count so on your presence
and then plunge—without intending—into your absence.
We find ourselves alone, abandoned, without resources
remembering your goodness,
hoping your future,
but mired in anxiety and threat and risk beyond our coping.
In your absence we bid your presence,
come again,
come soon,
come here:
Come to every garden become a jungle
Come to every community become joyless
sad and numb.
We acknowledge your dreadful absence and insist on your presence.
Come again, come soon.
Come here. 
Amen."


Keep remembering. Keep praying.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, May 4, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Our 14 year-old daughter, Maggie, loves to read. Maggie reads when she wakes up, she reads before she goes to bed, and she reads during her brother's soccer games. She reads in the car, at the breakfast table, at lunch, and at dinner. We've sort of given up on that one. She reads for school, of course, and, this year, she's been reading for confirmation (at the last minute―where'd she get that habit?). Mostly, though, Maggie reads for fun. She's my kind of nerd.

For some years, Maggie has read tween books, teen books, young adult books. The Harry Potter series comes to mind, and there were others. Now she's graduated to more grown up novels, which, it turns out, she reads quickly and thoroughly, no skipping. (We have a saying: "Horns don't skip.") Lately, Maggie has been asking me for reading recommendations, which makes me happy. So, I'm suggesting books I love and sometimes didn't understand or truly appreciate myself until I was much older. Not long ago, it was The Call of the Wild, from my teen years, followed in succession by Little Women, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility, all three of which Sarah and I first read as teenagers and were thrilled to introduce to our daughter. After those, Maggie devoured Irish author Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture, one of the most beautifully-written novels I've ever come across. Just today, she asked for a new recommendation; so, after some digging around, I handed her Willa Cather's My Antonia. (I'm still holding off on my two favorite writers, Charles Dickens and John Irving, for different reasons.)

I know this won't last much longer. Soon enough, I'll be asking Maggie for suggestions. For now, I'm grateful that she loves books, and a lot of the same books, as much as her mother and father do. That will save some money. More that that, I'm happy that, in her own way, Maggie is discovering one of the best things about good art―whether it be literature or dance or theater or music or film or painting or whatever―namely, that God speaks to us through art, secular and religious art, because art lets the truth of our human lives speak.

As a fellow reader and as her dad, my hope for Maggie, as she wanders around in an author's mind, getting lost for a time in the struggle and beauty and heartbreak that bring any good book to life, is that she will learn to recognize God's voice―and then to follow that voice down the road that will be the right road for her. The question of where Maggie or you or I should listen for the voice of God reminds me of something written not long ago by Rachel Held Evans, the American columnist, blogger, and author who gave millennial Christians a powerful voice and who, exactly a year ago today, died tragically from an allergic reaction to medication. She was just thirty-seven years old.

“Dignified or not, believable or not, ours is a God perpetually on bended-knee, doing everything it takes to convince stubborn and petulant children that they are seen and loved. It is no more beneath God to speak to us using poetry, proverb, letters, and legend than it is for a mother to read storybooks to her daughter at bedtime. This is who God is. This is what God does.”

Rachel Held Evans,
Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again

Keep listening.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, May 2, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

As an antidote to worry and confinement―and to celebrate a beautiful day and the (safe, socially-distanced) re-opening of state parks here in New Jersey―here is Wendell Berry's poem, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

“When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, May 1, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

Over the years, I've observed more than once that our human tendency to personify God ―  i.e., give to the divine human traits, like a beard or a strong right arm or recognizable human ways of thinking ― might be the biggest hurdle standing between us and trusting what God really is. In fact, not only is our habit of making God into a person a big hurdle; it's a hurdle a lot of people don't even want to jump. If, for example, God is always a "Father," with a deep voice and a bit of a judgmental streak, and my experiences with father-types haven't inspired much confidence, let alone trust, then God and I have a problem. And it's not just words or images for God that get in our way. It's the way God behaves. If to me God is a "person," and that divine person then does or doesn't do something I have a hard time accepting or understanding, if the way God acts doesn't live up to my standards ― of decency, of rationality, of piety, whatever ― then it makes sense that I'd look elsewhere for strength and comfort. It happens a lot.

Is God a person? Or something more or different? Is it "God's will" that hard or sad or even terrible things happen? Each of us experiences these things at different times. Lately, we're all experiencing sadness and vulnerability at the same time. Are you and I as Christians supposed to just go on whistling hymns through the graveyard? Are we, like Dorothy and the Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Cowardly Lion, supposed to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain," when what we'd really like to do is drag that guy into the open and give him a piece of our mind? (and then click our heels together three times to get back to normal?)

Maybe it's just me, but, in sharing today's quote from the 13th century German mystic, Meister Eckhart, I offer these thoughts in hopes that, together, we can get past the first sentence. When we do, when we begin to see God not as a person who does or allows or decides things that we like or don't like, understand or don't understand, but rather as the God who just "is" ("I am who I am." - Exodus 3:14), we begin to hold the key to discovering the treasure Eckart wants to share: the only reliable promise we have, the love of God that, because of Jesus, cannot and will not leave us.

In "Selected Writings," Meister Eckart said,

“God, who is faithful, allows his friends to fall frequently into weakness only in order to remove from them any prop on which they might lean. For a loving person it would be a great joy to be able to achieve many great feats, whether praying, keeping vigils, fasting, performing other ascetical practices or doing major, difficult and unusual works. For them this is a great joy, support and source of hope so that their works become a product and a support upon which they can lean.

But it is precisely this which our Lord wishes to take from them so that he alone will be their help and support . . . in no way do our works serve to make God give us anything or do anything for us. Our Lord wishes his friends to be freed from such an attitude, and thus he removes their support from them so that they must henceforth find their support only in him.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, April 30, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

It's impossible to tell at this point, but I'm a decent dancer. That said, growing up I was the fourth best dancer in a family of four. My parents taught us: the steps, the etiquette, the "feel." My younger sister, in better days, could light up a dance floor or a recital stage, whether it was folk, jazz, hip-hop, western, contemporary, classical. For her, it didn't matter. Dancing was effortless, like breathing. Watching the company, everyone's eyes were drawn to her. My sister's life was never easy, but, when she danced, her troubles seemed to melt away. I hope she still gets the chance to dance.

Both my parents were fantastic dancers. (My father actually competed in "pairs roller-dancing" competitions as a young man.) Among my most cherished memories are the evenings when my mom and dad would put on a record and clear space in the living room. My dad, a serious military officer-type who stood a bit over 6'1" in those days, would place his right hand on the small of my mother's back, offering her his left hand. She, opposite him at about 5'11", would accept by taking his left hand in her right, while resting her left arm on his right shoulder and her left hand elegantly on the back of his neck. They would stare into each other's eyes...and begin, spinning and gliding around the room—almost as if they were floating—never seeming to take steps, never looking anywhere but directly at each other's faces. Like a lot of couples of that generation, my mom and dad were completely in-sync, completely one, completely content. What set them apart was that they could really dance. We were almost as happy just watching them.

Looking back from a somewhat less self-absorbed perspective, I realize now that my parents, too, navigated some tough roads in those years. As every family does, they faced unexpected challenges, painful losses. But when they danced, my mom and dad seemed to draw on a reservoir of love and, at the same time, generate more for the days to come. It made all the difference. About ten years ago, novelist and poet Alice Walker published a book of poetry entitled "Hard Times Require Furious Dancing: New Poems." In the preface, she says,

"It isn’t that I didn’t know how to dance before; everyone in my community knew how to dance, even those with several left feet. I just didn’t know how basic it is for maintaining balance. That Africans are always dancing (in their ceremonies and rituals) shows an awareness of this. It struck me one day, while dancing, that the marvelous moves African Americans are famous for on the dance floor came about because the dancers, especially in the old days, were contorting away various knots of stress. Some of the lower-back movements handed down to us that have seemed merely sensual were no doubt created after a day’s work bending over a plow or hoe on a slave driver’s plantation.

Wishing to honor the role of dance in the healing of families, communities, and nations, I hired a local hall and a local band and invited friends and family from near and far to come together, on Thanksgiving, to dance our sorrows away, or at least to integrate them more smoothly into our daily existence. The next generation of my family, mourning the recent death of a mother, my sister-in-law, created a spirited line dance that assured me that, though we have all encountered our share of grief and troubles, we can still hold the line of beauty, form, and beat — no small accomplishment in a world as challenging as this one.

Hard times require furious dancing. Each of us is the proof."


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

One theme emerging in our recent correspondence has been the importance of our commitment to staying connected through this anxious, socially-distanced time. We need each other, now as much as ever before, but staying connected, really being in fulfilling, sustainable relationship, takes some interior work.

What is the relationship between how I treat others and how I treat myself? Can I honestly offer myself as Jesus does when the self I'm offering is in turmoil, maybe even broken in places? What is the "price" I charge people for my affections and attention? Do I reach out to help bring them healing, or is my true motive to be healed myself―or, at least, to make myself feel a little better for a little while? No matter how warm or pious I may come across, no matter how successfully I convince myself and others that my prayers for them are sincere, am I inviting them into a minefield?

Henri Nouwen, the late Catholic priest and theologian, once wrote a little piece he called "Create Space in Your Innermost Self." 

"Today I imagined my inner self as a place crowded with pins and needles. How could I receive anyone in my prayer when there is no place for them to be free and relaxed? When I am still so full of preoccupations, jealousies, angry feelings, anyone who enters will get hurt.

I had a very vivid realization that I must create some free space in my innermost self so that I may indeed invite others to enter and be healed. To pray for others means to offer others a hospitable place where I can really listen to their needs and pains. Compassion, therefore, calls for a self-scrutiny that can lead to inner gentleness."


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The old joke starts with the question, "Why did it take the Israelites forty long years to get out of the wilderness?" Answer: "Because the men wouldn't ask for directions."

I resemble that remark. (I'm here 'til Thursday. Try the veal.)

I'll admit it: I don't like being lost. No one likes being lost. Not knowing just where you are is frustrating, even painful. It undermines our sense of self. Even generally disorganized people like me (I prefer "unstructured" or "spontaneous") hate it, try to avoid it, and deny it when it happens. I don't mind running late or having to go the long way 'round, but don't tell me I'm lost. Like Moses and the rest of the guys, I guess, I'd rather delude myself into believing I'm on the right track than confront the truth: There are moments, like the one we're experiencing right now, when I have no idea where exactly we are, which road will get us out of here, or how long it will take.

In fact, having written in a recent installment about my love for, and familiarity with, New York City, I also have to admit that, every few years, I'll emerge onto street level from the NYC Subway system and, for a few unpleasant moments, I don't know where I am. Which way is uptown? Which way is New Jersey? Usually, as an experienced New Yorker, I can intuit these things. Just the "look" of a cab as it goes by usually does the trick. But, if it doesn't, if I can't figure out which way is up right away, a sort of panic sets in―until I find a street sign, or can sit for 10 minutes in any one of Manhattan's ten thousand Starbucks, or catch a glimpse of the Hudson River between the tall buildings.

Being a little lost or a lot lost happens to all of us, at times. Lately, it's happening to all of us at the same time. My big mistake―whether I'm disoriented at the corner of Avenue Z and Wherever Street, vehemently denying to every Horn in the car that I have absolutely no clue where I am, or living through a pandemic―is trying to go it alone. You can get lost anywhere, says author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, but there's a trick to it.

"You can get lost on your way home. You can get lost looking for love. You can get lost between jobs. You can get lost looking for God. However it happens, take heart. Others before you have found a way in the wilderness, where there are as many angels as there are wild beasts, and plenty of other lost people too. All it takes is one of them to find you. All it takes is you to find one of them. However it happens, you could do worse than to kneel down and ask a blessing, remembering how many knees have kissed this altar before you.”

Stay safe. Stay connected.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, April 27, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

How are we getting through this crisis? One day at a time, you might answer, and you would be right. I would add: we're making it through together.

You may recall from three or so weeks back that the Thursday before Easter Sunday is known and observed by (most) Christians as Maundy Thursday. The name 'Maundy' comes from the Latin word 'mandatum' which means "command" or "commandment." On that Thursday evening, just minutes before he would be betrayed and arrested, Jesus ate one final meal with his closest followers. According to John's account, at that Passover table he said, "I give you a new commandment (mandatum), that you love one another, just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples..." (John 13:34-35)

Loving others the way Jesus did―i.e., loving beyond our self-interest―is what makes us fully human. In his book, The Best Care Possible: A Physician’s Quest to Transform Care Through the End of Life, the author and palliative care physician Dr. Ira Byock tells a story that drives the point home:

"Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that, in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. 'Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts,' Mead said.

We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized."


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The other day a friend asked me to name my favorite poem. I didn't get an early start appreciating poetry―having in younger years spent more time reading comic books and baseball box scores―but over time I've come to know a poem I like when I see it or, better said, when I feel it. As poets go, I like to read Mary Oliver, who died not long ago, James Baldwin, Wendell Berry, Alice Walker, Billy Collins. My favorite single poem, though, is one of T.S. Eliot's lesser known works called "Preludes."

In "Preludes," Eliot creates a narrative image of an exhausted, desiccated city's soul as night falls and another work day ends. Throngs of people trudge through the usual dirty streets to the usual tired evening routine at home. The atmosphere is dark, depressing. The morning arrives with the same air of impersonal, meaningless drudgery, But then, in my favorite stanza, the poem's focus shifts to "you" as you lie in bed emerging from your dream state, describing how your own soul and inner life can change the way you see this hard world. Finally, Eliot points to the constant presence of what I call God―"The notion of some infinitely gentle / Infinitely suffering thing"―offering a determined glimmer of hope that we're not alone in this world of shadows and that there is more to living than the clock ticking and the earth turning.

Here is "Preludes," by T.S. Eliot:

I
The winter evening settles down
With smell of steaks in passageways.
Six o’clock.
The burnt-out ends of smoky days.
And now a gusty shower wraps
The grimy scraps
Of withered leaves about your feet
And newspapers from vacant lots;
The showers beat
On broken blinds and chimney-pots,
And at the corner of the street
A lonely cab-horse steams and stamps.

And then the lighting of the lamps.

II
The morning comes to consciousness
Of faint stale smells of beer
From the sawdust-trampled street
With all its muddy feet that press
To early coffee-stands.
With the other masquerades
That time resumes,
One thinks of all the hands
That are raising dingy shades
In a thousand furnished rooms.

III
You tossed a blanket from the bed,
You lay upon your back, and waited;
You dozed, and watched the night revealing
The thousand sordid images
Of which your soul was constituted;
They flickered against the ceiling.
And when all the world came back
And the light crept up between the shutters
And you heard the sparrows in the gutters,
You had such a vision of the street
As the street hardly understands;
Sitting along the bed’s edge, where
You curled the papers from your hair,
Or clasped the yellow soles of feet
In the palms of both soiled hands.

IV
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o’clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.

I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.

Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, April 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Since we're talking intimately like this lately, I can admit to you that over the years there have been Sundays when I was sorely tempted to build a sermon around a joke that just needed telling. (I'm not saying I've ever given in to that temptation; I'm not saying I haven't.) With that in mind, and with the end of this thing neither clearly defined nor in sight, I have to share these poignant, funny, and confessional words from Anne Lamott in her Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  I'm touched by their wise counsel to keep moving toward your goal, even if you can't see it or can barely imagine reaching it.

“I know some very great writers, writers you love who write beautifully and have made a great deal of money, and not one of them sits down routinely feeling wildly enthusiastic and confident. Not one of them writes elegant first drafts.

All right, one of them does, but we do not like her very much. We do not think that she has a rich inner life or that God likes her or can even stand her. (Although when I mentioned this to my priest friend Tom, he said that you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.)”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, April 23, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I fell in love with New York City when I visited for the first time at the age of twenty-three. Soon afterward, when, as they often do, fixed long-term plans went off the tracks, I found myself living there. For a year or so, I earned five to six dollars an hour as a "temp worker" in offices all over the city―Cartier on Fifth Avenue, Wall Street law firms, Columbia Presbyterian and Beth Israel hospitals, the Jewish Defense League, an insurance company, an anxious disorders clinic. I had no typing skills, but I could answer the phone cheerfully, and I was a proficient alphabetizer. I even had a stint as an extra in the film, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. (You won't see me on screen, but I did get paid, and Steve Martin did said say "Excuse me!" to me on set. I was standing in his way. He was very polite.) Later, I lived in Manhattan as a graduate student. Believe me, when you don't have much money, you experience much of the best, and the worst, a place has to offer through a unique lens. In those early years, I saw as much of New York City's ugliness and meanness as I did its beauty and magic, but my affection for it only deepened―and has never wavered. I guess that's true love.

The thing I love most about New York is that, at its heart, the City is the "Great Leveler." Yes, the gap there between those who have and those who don't might be larger than anywhere else (in the U.S., at least), but, for almost every human being on that island, the daily ebb and flow of life isn't centrifugal. It doesn't trend toward separation and segregation. No, in Manhattan, the flow is magnetic. Like it or not, it draws people together, pulls people together, throws people together, squishes people together. Look around you in the subway car. Look next to you on the sidewalk or at a restaurant. Look in front of and behind you on line in Times Square waiting to get discounted theater tickets, or waiting to order at the food truck, or waiting for your chance to liberate your car at the Pier 76 towing yard on 12th Avenue. (I had that pleasure three times over the course of my 20s and 30s. You'd better have cash.) Tuxedos and tattered jackets. Big hair; no hair. People with street-smarts; people with no clue. Every language on the planet, every color of the rainbow, and every smell, too.

For me, that's among the most tragic of the many tragedies that have befallen New York City, and all of us as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The streets are quiet. The trains almost empty. The pulse faint. As New York usually reminds itself and shows the world every day, we humans need each other―and not only when we're facing devastation and challenge. We need to be connected because of what we can, and do, teach each other. The brilliant American writer James Baldwin, born in Harlem and no stranger himself to isolation, once said,

“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive."

Stay safe. Stay connected.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

This extra time, the slower pace, our worry about the possibility of illness and loss, the losses themselves―any or all of these give us reason to reflect more than usual on the preciousness of this life. In Marilynne Robinson's excellent novel Gilead, the Reverend John Ames, an elderly Congregationalist pastor, knows he is dying of a heart condition. Gilead is an account of his life, written for his seven-year-old son, who will have few memories of him.

In one place, Ames tells his son:

“I have been thinking about existence lately. In fact, I have been so full of admiration for existence that I have hardly been able to enjoy it properly... I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it.

And I can’t believe that, when we have all been changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us.... Because I don’t imagine any reality putting this one in the shade entirely, and I think piety forbids me to try.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg
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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

These days, I do a "close read" of the news when I get up every morning. I'm looking for signs of hope, something pointing to an end to all this. Like you, maybe, I'm looking for an accelerated testing protocol or maybe the discovery that some medicine we already have, developed to treat something else, is an effective treatment or cure. I'm searching for useful feedback from countries weeks or months ahead of us on the curve. I'm absorbing the views of medical and scientific experts. Like a prairie dog facing a threatening world, I scan social media and every news outlet possible for any tidbit of information that tells me―if I just do "this" (and not "that") when I poke my head outside my front door―I'll be safe. My family will be safe. You'll be safe.

Hope is the twin of faith. When you have something or someone you believe in, something or someone you trust implicitly―a leader, a partner, a friend―hope is your constant companion. No matter how bad things might look, you know how it's going to end. But, if I'm not used to being honest with myself about what I trust, and how I trust, if I'm not so familiar with bringing my authentic doubts and regrets and fears to God, hope can be elusive. Frederick Buechner once said the secret to faith and, thus, hope, is not saying or praying the right things; the secret is being honest with God, and with ourselves:

"Every morning you should wake up in your bed and ask yourself, 'Can I believe it all again today?' No, better still, don't ask it till after you've read the New York Times, till after you've studied that daily record of the world's brokenness and corruption, which should always stand side by side with your Bible. Then ask yourself if you can believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ again for that particular day.

If your answer's always Yes, then you probably don't know what believing means. At least five times out of ten the answer should be No, because the No is as important as the Yes, maybe more so. The No is what proves you're human, in case you should ever doubt it. And then if some morning the answer happens to be really Yes, it should be a Yes that's choked with confession and tears and. . . great laughter.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Many years ago, I was able to study at, and then graduate from, one pretty decent university, but I actually attended two. I am forever grateful to my alma mater, Stanford University, where I studied for three and a half of my four years of college. Going to Stanford in California changed my life. Before arriving as a freshman, I didn't know there were places where people like that were the rule, not the exception―students and teachers who loved ideas, who didn't necessarily want to take practical courses in a field in which they planned to work, who not only studied foreign languages but had actually visited other countries for fun, who in the summers had gone on vacations and to summer camp and not been required to work 8 hours a day from the moment high school ended in June to when it started up again after Labor Day. True, these folks did work hard, and they did wonder like everybody else which profession they would go into, but not many of them ever wondered whether they would get a job after graduation. They knew they would. Confidence, connections, resources, momentum―all of it would kick in, and usually did. All this was new to me. At first, it was a hard place to be, socially; but, in the classroom, while I wasn't always the brightest bulb, I was, as they say, as happy as a clam. A pig in slop. A dog with a bone. Pick any "happy mollusk/animal" metaphor.

Still, when I've been asked over the years to look back on my life as a student and name my favorite class of all time, my answer is always the same: an English class on the short story I took at Eastern Washington University, where I attended for just one term of my freshman year, when I had lost my nerve and gone back to live near my parents. (I found my nerve again.)

I'll never forget that course. The teacher used to leap around the room, yelling and gesticulating, getting into our faces, pretending to be irate at our often lethargic and timid answers. He challenged us to read and to think...for ourselves, not just to get a good grade. Now that was a revelation. In that class, he had us read a story by one Elwyn Brooks White, better known as E.B. White, whom I already knew as the author of Charlotte's Web. All these years later, I can't remember that wonderful teacher's name, but I'll never forget that short story, "The Door," which I commend to you while you're sheltering in place.

I'm thinking about the great E.B. White because this past week I happened again on a description he wrote of his wife, Katharine, and used it in yesterday's sermon on "plotting resurrection," a phrase I borrow from White. We're in a particularly strange and hard Easter season, when we might at times wonder if hope and a better day really are possible. If there is evidence to help us trust the promise of resurrection, if there is a glimmer of light in the gathering shadows, where is it? So, with E.B. White and legitimate questions about the power of God on the brain, it seems right to remind you of a conversation that took place in Charlotte's Web:

“Do you understand how there could be any writing in a spider's web?"

"Oh, no," said Dr. Dorian. "I don't understand it. But for that matter I don't understand how a spider learned to spin a web in the first place. When the words appeared, everyone said they were a miracle. But nobody pointed out that the web itself is a miracle."

"What's miraculous about a spider's web?" said Mrs. Arable. "I don't see why you say a web is a miracle - it's just a web."

"Ever try to spin one?" asked Dr. Dorian.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, April 18, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The upshot of the Easter celebration we shared online a week ago is that it guarantees God's Presence in your life, my life, everywhere, every day. Easter isn't only an annual excuse to dress up and eat ham or (and?) chocolate. It's good news. Really good news. If death and brokenness don't have the last word, if a way can actually be made when there is no way, well ... that changes everything.

I may have reasons as good as anybody's to feel nervous or afraid or hopeless, but I don't have to be controlled by my anxiety, my fear, or those times when I just can't muster any hope. Christ is risen! Immanuel, "God-with-us," turns out to be God-with-me, too. Hard to see, maybe, hard to make out clearly amidst the lengthening shadows. Still, an honest look at my past shows that, even when it seemed otherwise, I wasn't alone. So I'm willing to trust that I'm not alone now. That's the promise of Easter.

The trick is to keep my eyes and heart open to that promise, not to miss what's right in front of me every day. In today's quote, Barbara Brown Taylor, author and Episcopal priest, lifelong Christian and church professional, describes where we can find God in addition to finding God in the Bible or in church. For her, the real experience of God keeping God's promise in real life leads to seeking and thanking God in Word and worship. But it also works the other way around. Emptying myself of my burdens and my thanks along with others fills me with the desire to move back into the world, ready to find and be found by God again. That's the rhythm of Easter people.

Here is what Barbara Brown Taylor says in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith:

“People encounter God under shady oak trees, on riverbanks, at the tops of mountains, and in long stretches of barren wilderness. God shows up in whirlwinds, starry skies, burning bushes, and perfect strangers. When people want to know more about God, the son of God tells them to pay attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, to women kneading bread and workers lining up for their pay.

Whoever wrote this stuff believed that people could learn as much about the ways of God from paying attention to the world as they could from paying attention to scripture. What is true is what happens, even if what happens is not always right. People can learn as much about the ways of God from business deals gone bad or sparrows falling to the ground as they can from reciting the books of the Bible in order. They can learn as much from a love affair or a wildflower as they can from knowing the Ten Commandments by heart.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, April 17, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

This morning I talked on the phone with a dear friend who grew up in Liberia, West Africa. She has been in New Jersey a long time now―even became a U.S. citizen years ago―but still she lives in two worlds. On the one hand, like us, these days she is going stir-crazy at home, trying to move her personal and professional life online, balancing her anxiety about health with anxieties about losing work time, losing money, losing time. On the other, her family and her formative past remain many thousands of miles away in Liberia, a place where more people are more vulnerable, more of the time...and more aware of that fact.

She said, "Here everyone works so hard to build a wall around themselves and the people they love, so nothing bad will happen to them. I do, too. That way, we feel protected. But, Greg, problems find you. You know that. Life is what you do then. The virus doesn't care how much money or school you have. It doesn't care about the color of your skin. When Ebola was back home a few years ago, here we just thought of it as a problem 'for them, over there.' But it touches everybody. Life is precious."

After we hung up, thinking about those three words she said―"Life is precious"―reminded me of lines from a poem by Wendell Berry called "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front."

“Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.

And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.

When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.


So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.

...

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

...

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go.

Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, April 16, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In ways we never expected or, in some cases, wanted, the preciousness of life is on our minds lately. Almost constantly, in fact. We have been forced by unwelcome circumstance to say goodbye to people we love and/or admire, and the suddenness and pain of their loss clarify what their lives have meant for our own. At the same time, we are forced each day to confront the precariousness of our personal health and the privilege of appreciating it. You and I are not used to having our thoughts and our attention directed in such ways. We like to choose what we think about, what we focus on, but there it is.

Just over a year ago, with the unwelcome death of the wonderful American poet, Mary Oliver, I experienced that same, eye-opening juxtaposition of feeling profoundly indebted and deeply grateful. Mary Oliver was a giant. What a gift she had for laying bare, if you had eyes to see and ears to hear, the seriousness and the joy of living.

Here is most of Oliver's poem, "Have You Ever Tried to Enter the Long Black Branches."

"Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives ―
tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging
from the branches of the young locust trees, in early morning, feel like?

Do you think this world was only an entertainment for you?

Never to enter the sea and notice how the water divides
with perfect courtesy, to let you in!
Never to lie down on the grass, as though you were the grass!
Never to leap to the air as you open your wings over the dark acorn of your heart!

No wonder we hear, in your mournful voice, the complaint
that something is missing from your life!

Who can open the door who does not reach for the latch?
Who can travel the miles who does not put one foot
in front of the other, all attentive to what presents itself continually?
Who will behold the inner chamber who has not observed
with admiration, even with rapture, the outer stone?

Well, there is time left ―
fields everywhere invite you into them.

And who will care, who will chide you if you wander away
from wherever you are, to look for your soul?

Quickly, then, get up, put on your coat, leave your desk!

To put one's foot into the door of the grass, which is
the mystery, which is death as well as life, and
not be afraid!

To set one's foot in the door of death, and be overcome
with amazement!

To sit down in front of the weeds, and imagine
god the ten-fingered, sailing out of his house of straw,
nodding this way and that way, to the flowers of the
present hour,
to the song falling out of the mockingbird's pink mouth,
to the tippets of the honeysuckle, that have opened
in the night

To sit down, like a weed among weeds, and rustle in the wind!

Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?

...

Meanwhile, once in a while, I have chanced, among the quick things,
upon the immutable.
What more could one ask?

And I would touch the faces of the daises,
and I would bow down
to think about it.

That was then, which hasn't ended yet.

Now the sun begins to swing down. Under the peach-light,
I cross the fields and the dunes, I follow the ocean's edge.

I climb, I backtrack.
I float.
I ramble my way home."


Mary Oliver, West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Today is the day my taxes were supposed to be due. It's also two days after Easter―two days, technically, into what the church calls the season of Easter. The season of resurrection.

While the generous I.R.S. extension provides a bit of a reprieve, it will be over soon enough, as will this crazy, hard, and fearful time we're living through. Resurrection, on the other hand, is a gift that can last, if we choose to accept and use it. Easter means that neither death nor the (formidable) notion of "the way things are" has the last word. Here is what Nadia Bolz-Weber, author, speaker, Lutheran minister, and founder of Denver's House for All Sinners and Saints, has to say:

God was never about making me spiffy; God was about making me new. New doesn't always look perfect. Like the Easter story itself, new is often messy. New looks like recovering alcoholics. New looks like reconciliation between family members who don't actually deserve it. New looks like every time I manage to admit I was wrong and every time I manage to not mention when I'm right.

New looks like every fresh start and every act of forgiveness and every moment of letting go of what we thought we couldn't live without and then somehow living without it anyway. New is the thing we never saw coming―never even hoped for―but ends up being what we needed all along.


Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Starting at the age of about six and up to this very moment, one of my heroes has been Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the Hall of Fame basketball player, author, and public thinker whom I first knew as Lewis (Lew) Alcindor during his college playing days and before his 1968 conversion to Islam.

Abdul-Jabbar is still the National Basketball Association's all-time leading scorer and one of its greatest players ever. He won the NBA's Most Valuable Player award a record six times, was on six NBA championship teams, and was named to the All Star team a record nineteen times. He might have been an even better collegian. As Lew Alcindor, he led the U.C.L.A. Bruins to an 88-2 record, won three consecutive national championships, was twice named the nation's player of the year, was a three-time first team All American, and three times was named the outstanding player in the N.C.A.A. Tournament. Abdul-Jabbar is also a historian, a cultural critic, and a pretty decent actor. (You might remember him as the co-pilot Roger Murdock in the 1980 movie Airplane! ― "We have clearance, Clarence." "Roger, Roger." "What's our vector, Victor?"), though at 7 feet, 2 inches tall, it's hard for me to see him on the screen as anything other than himself. He's that famous.

For all his accomplishments, one of the things I've always admired most about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is his life-long devotion to John Wooden, his basketball coach while at U.C.L.A.  One, a star African-American athlete, multi-millionaire, and bookish intellectual born in 1947 and raised in the Inwood section of Manhattan as an only child; the other a (much shorter) white coach, one of four children, born in Indiana almost 40 years earlier―in a different generation and a different world.

Wooden and Abdul-Jabbar achieved amazing success together on the basketball court, but their biggest accomplishment was their relationship. In this time of isolating socially and, at the same time, gravitating toward what matters, I want to share three short quotes from Abdul-Jabbar's 2017 book Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court:

At times when I am feeling low, I hear from my friend and then, my worries start to go away, and I am on the mend. No matter what the doctors say, and their studies never end ― The best cure of all, when spirits fall, is a kind word from a friend.

Recalling a conversation with Coach Wooden, Abdul-Jabbar writes:

He said to me, "The lines I’m referring to, Lewis, are that Triumph and Disaster are the same. They’re both impostors because they are momentary. More important is becoming a [person] of convictions. Lasting joy comes from that.”

In 2016, six years after John Wooden's death at the age of 99, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar described how he felt as he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

I looked down the line of the wonderfully successful people on either side of me and wondered if each of them had a Coach Wooden who, to quote President Obama, “helped make me who I am.” I hoped so, because without Coach, my life would have been so much less. Less joyous. Less meaningful. Less filled with love.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Along with the usual bouts of worry and sadness lately, I've also been feeling a good bit of gratitude. I'm grateful for all the "grace-moments" that have been given to me and to others in this unimaginable time. By grace-moments, I'm talking about experiences, filled with meaning and perspective, that I didn't expect or achieve by hard work. They are... just grace, just given.

With neither an end to this pandemic nor our return to "normal" at all clearly defined, I'm finding that these grace-moments balance the tough ones. More than that, they're just what I need. Quieter streets. Quieter schedules. The beauty of the emerging spring. More opportunity to read what I want to read (as opposed to what I have to read). More honest conversations with old friends. Time with loved ones not rushed or taken for granted. Family meals. Family movies. Family walks. If the goal right now is to get from the start to the finish of each day, then it's these grace-moments, more than anything, that are getting me through.

Some of you will remember the late Roger Ebert, the Chicago Sun-Times journalist and film critic who, along with the Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel, became nationally and internationally famous as the stars of the television show At the Movies. Siskel and Ebert are the ones who popularized the phrase "two thumbs up!"

Roger Ebert, who died in 2013, was also a film historian. In a 2002 interview with Hayao Miyazaki, the great Japanese animator and filmmaker, Ebert wrote:

I told Miyazaki I love the "gratuitous motion" in his films. Instead of every movement being dictated by the story, sometimes people in a Miyazaki film will just sit for a moment, or they will sigh, or look in a running stream, or do something extra, not to advance the story but only to give the sense of time and place and who they are.

"We have a word for that in Japanese," he said, "It's called ma. Emptiness. It's there intentionally."

Is that like the "pillow words" that separate phrases in Japanese poetry?

"No, I don't think it's like the 'pillow word.'" He clapped his hands three or four times.

"The time in between my clapping is ma. If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness, but if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension. If you just have constant tension all the time, you just get numb.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, April 11, 2020

Dear PCUM friends,

On this clear-but-cold Saturday before an Easter like no other, I want to share with you the opening words of the song "Walk On" by the Irish band, U2.

"Walk On" is the fourth track on U2's 2000 album, All That You Can't Leave Behind. According to the Edge, the band's guitarist, lead singer Bono was inspired by 2nd Corinthians 5:7 ("For we walk by faith and not by sight.") and wrote the lyric as a tribute to Burmese academic Aung Suu Kyi, the chairperson of the National League for Democracy who was placed under house arrest from 1989 until 2010 for her pro-democracy activities.

"Walk On" was released as a single in the fall of the next year, following the September 11th terrorist attacks.

And if the darkness is to keep us apart
And if the daylight feels like it's a long way off
And if your glass heart should crack
And for a second you turn back
Oh no, be strong


Oh, oh
Walk on, walk on
What you got, they can't steal it
No, they can't even feel it


Walk on, walk on
Stay safe tonight

You're packing a suitcase for a place none of us has been
A place that has to be believed, to be seen...


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, April 10, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

The journey from today, Good Friday, to Easter Sunday morning is a journey through death to new life, through pretense to authenticity, through despair to hope. On the calendar, it takes just two days. That's if you're feeling pretty hopeful, when you have a good idea of how things will turn out. That same trip can take a lot longer if you're not so sure you can make it this time around. It's hard to imagine yourself at the end of the road, free and at peace, when you're carrying so much that is heavy, when you’re weighed down with anxiety and uncertainty and sadness.

They say "A watched pot never boils," and they're right. We look forward to a better day, but it doesn't seem to get closer. Like those first, devastated disciples, whose dreams were shattered by Jesus' execution, how do you and I go forward, when the new day we need seems so dim and so far away? How are we going to get from here to there? In her 1995 book Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott wrote:

I heard a preacher say recently that hope is a revolutionary patience; let me add that so is being a writer. Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work: you don't give up.

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report written on birds that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin..., and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books about birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg 

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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

On this unprecedented Maundy Thursday, when we all find ourselves bearing a heavier than usual load of sadness, a day when we Christians do our best to experience again the intimacy and the sadness of Jesus' last meal with his followers, here's what I'm thinking this particular day might mean.

It occurs to me that this evening's solemn ritual, celebrated around the world (this year, through the Internet), shines a light on the uniqueness of Christianity. I don't mean superiority, and I don't mean we've got a corner on knowing God. In fact, as a Presbyterian in the Reformed Protestant tradition, I believe deeply that our God is sovereign, meaning that God can and does act and love across all boundaries, including the boundaries between religions and the boundaries of our understanding. I've just been too many places and met too many people who pulled the rug out from under my expectations and my upbringing with the way they radiated Holy Spirit. God, as it happens, is free to be God, no matter what my Sunday School teacher might have said; and, for me, human history and human experience show that our sovereign God is Present and at work in all people and all religious traditions, calling for a response and a relationship. No doubt in my mind.

However, and this is a big "however," Christianity has its own way of getting there―a way, in fact, no one else wants to take. No other religion or, for that matter, no "7 Habits of Highly Effective Whoever" in the Self-Help aisle celebrates weakness like we Christians (are supposed to) do. "Blessed are the meek," Jesus said in that sermon on that mountain. "Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who mourn." Have you ever stopped reading or hearing those words long enough to absorb how radical they are? How unmarketable?

No, my life and my faith have been deepened by the great religions that are not my own, but I've yet to find one that puts all its eggs in the basket of One who, on the face of it, so thoroughly disappoints. Think about it. A Savior from God whose revolution fizzled out? (never got started, really) A Savior who chooses weakness and giving to others over strength and self-interest? A Savior who knows death is real and doesn't pretend he (or we) will live forever? A Savior who is betrayed by his closest friends? A Savior unjustly tried and condemned to death, beaten mercilessly, dragged to the moment of execution? And then who...at that last moment, doesn't escape his enemy's evil clutches?

No, thank you, say other religions. No, thank you, say most human beings, including a lot more Christians than will own up to it. We'll go with the strong, muscular, obviously-victorious type. God on High. Royal. Powerful. Loving, sure, but loving in kind of a benevolently dictatorial kind of way. A God who'll make sure we'll make a real success of this thing. Like Vince Lombardi or Bill Gates (for whom I worked once). You know, a proven winner.

That's not Maundy Thursday.

Christianity claims that the victory of life that will happen over the next few days (and weeks and months) will be found in the midst of weakness, in sadness, in uncertainty about the future, in suffering. In fact, as Jesus told us―though Peter didn't want to hear it then and we don't want to hear it now―that's the only way to find it. It's hard; it's not our natural instinct, but that's our calling. That's the voice we trust, especially today. Listen to what Barbara Brown Taylor says in her A Memoir of Faith:

“If I had to name my disability, I would call it an unwillingness to fall. On the one hand, this is perfectly normal. I do not know anyone who likes to fall. But, on the other hand, this reluctance signals mistrust of the central truth of the Christian gospel: life springs from death, not only at the last but also in the many little deaths along the way.

When everything you count on for protection has failed, the Divine Presence does not fail. The hands are still there – not promising to rescue, not promising to intervene – promising only to hold you no matter how far you fall. Ironically, those who try hardest not to fall learn this later than those who topple more easily. The ones who find their lives are the losers, while the winners come in last.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Did you know there are more cherry trees in our own Branch Brook Park, which is just a few miles from the church, than in Washington D.C., a city much more, unjustly (!), known for its cherry blossoms? I'll bet maybe you didn't.

Branch Brook Park sits on 360 acres and spans the border of neighboring towns Newark and Belleville, a quintessential New Jersey municipality which has produced, among others, Joe Pesci, Connie Francis, Kacy Catanzaro, Frankie Valli, Tony Meola, and Russell Baker. Belleville is also where I was privileged many years ago to eat a lot of really good food and serve my first pastorate. [By the way, I'm not sure when in the last 20-30 years I defied youthful predictions and became a proud New Jerseyan, but I did. So, I must also mention that Branch Brook Park was designed by the renowned Olmsted Brothers architectural firm, whose eponymous partners sought to create a naturalistic look and feel after the example of their father, Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Manhattan's Central Park as well as Prospect Park in Brooklyn. The Olmsted Brothers firm also designed our own Brookdale Park. Okay. Enough fascinating local trivia, which you're welcome to use, and, no, you don't have to quote me.]

Every year, the first two to three weeks in April, both the cherry blossoms and the Cherry Blossom Festival that celebrates them invade Branch Brook Park and take it over. Throngs of people, like the bursts of pink and white and lavender, are out and on display: families with small children, elderly folks enjoying the beauty. School groups and church groups and every kind of group you can think of. Music is in the air, and so are at least a half dozen different languages at any given time, along with the smells of churros and hot dogs. It's hard to find a place to park. Cars move at a snail's pace, faces plastered against windows.

This year...not so much. In 2020, Branch Brook Park has no Cherry Blossom Festival. No singers, no dancers. No children's programs or cultural performances. No narrated strolls to the spectacular Newark Cathedral or through the historic Forrest Hill neighborhood nearby. No 10K. No 1K run/walk. No photography tours. No food vendors.

Nevertheless, yesterday, pretty early in the morning, I had to run an essential errand and decided to go the long way, just to see what was up in the park. I had my reasons. I go every year at this time. Ten years ago, in fact, just a day before she died, I was able to get my mom into the car for one last ride, which we decided would be to the Cherry Blossom Festival and through Branch Brook Park. I'll never forget how beautiful the cherry trees were on that sunny afternoon and how the blossoms made her smile. So, a decade later, even though everything else is cancelled, I wanted to see if the cherry blossoms had come out on their own, anyway. And, I wanted to think about my mom. I'm glad I did.

In the next few days, we Christians make ourselves focus on the reality of our human limitations, including the reality of death. This year, that hard task will, in certain ways, be easier for us. On Maundy Thursday (tomorrow) and Good Friday, we pause and give thanks for Jesus' death, and, in a way, for our own, so that we can not only understand but experience the joy and meaning of the gift of abundant life that Easter Sunday makes possible for us.

How do we live with the almost unbearable reality of death ― the death of those precious to us, our own death, the death of a Savior? "Love is stronger than death," they say, and they're right. We say, "He is risen; he is risen, indeed!" Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was imprisoned and executed by the Nazis at the age of 33, once wrote:

“There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it.

It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve ― even in pain ― the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I hope this finds you healthy and well during this Holy Week, a week of rising numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, as well as even more intense social distancing. Please continue doing all you are doing to keep yourselves and others safe. My love and prayers are with you as these unprecedented days march forward.

Madeleine L'Engle, the 20th century author and poet who in 1962 wrote A Wrinkle in Time (one of my favorite books as a 12 year-old), was a Christian of deep faith whose writing displayed both a keen interest in science and a certainty about God's love for all human beings. Not a bad combination, you would think. Maybe, but, L'Engle's optimistic view of God's love and her curiosity about the natural world resulted in her works being suspected on all sides―attacked by secular critics for being "too religious" and, at the same time, banned from many Christian schools, libraries, and bookstores for being "too universalist." Go figure.

Madeleine L'Engle has been labeled a writer of young adult fiction, but to my mind she was a fierce disciple and realist who tried―as we all must―to recognize and follow God in the mystery of living in the real world. She was courageous in that way, and thus can perhaps give the rest of us a little bit of light to guide our steps.

Here is what L'Engle wrote in A Ring of Endless Light, her 1980 novel about a teenage girl struggling to understand how the beauty of living in this universe is connected to the reality of her grandfather's death:

"Rock, water, tree, iron, share this grief
As distant stars participate in the pain.
A candle snuffed, a falling star or leaf,
A dolphin death, O this particular loss
A Heaven-mourned; for if no angel cried
If this small one was tossed away as dross,
The very galaxies would have lied.

How shall we sing our love's song now
In this strange land where all are born to die?
Each tree and leaf and star show how
The universe is part of this one cry,
Every life is noted and is cherished,
and nothing loved is ever lost or perished.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, April 6, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In our house, preparing and eating more evening meals at home has emerged as one of the silver linings in the otherwise stormy and anxiety-producing cloud that is the spread of the coronavirus. It’s an unexpected “good thing,” as Martha Stewart says. Horns love to eat, especially together. We also love to cook and bake, though when I say “we” I mean Maggie (14) and Sarah. I cook a little and eat a lot. Will (16) just eats.

In “normal” times Sarah and I try our best to have all four of us sit down together for dinner at least two or three times a week. It doesn’t always work out that way. By my unscientific calculations, on average we usually achieve approximately 1.67 to 2.23 meals together in any seven-day period. It's frustrating and unsatisfying. I’m at our church or some other church or teaching a lot of evenings. Sometimes Sarah has work commitments that keep her in the city later, and it seems like every soccer or lacrosse practice ever scheduled is scheduled from 6 to 8 pm. Sitting down together is a hard goal to achieve. Even if we are all at the table at one time, one of us is just running in or just running out.

So lately, like other sabbath blessings, we’re trying to cherish the slower rhythms and deeper insights that come from beginning a meal as a family in the kitchen and ending it together at the dinner table. Somehow, through that process, something important is being created. Something more nurturing and nourishing even than good food and drink. Even when the news is bad and nerves are on edge, for me the meal and the table-talk, more often than not, are accompanied by a Presence greater than the sum of all our parts.

In his The World According to Garp, John Irving has his hero, Garp, capture how the creative process of making a meal can shape and give meaning to an entire day, whether we're by ourselves or with people we love:

 "If you are careful," Garp wrote, "if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane."

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, April 4, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I pass along the prayer below to you and yours as a gift to us on this Saturday before Holy Week and in the midst of this pandemic.

It comes from Thomas Merton, the mid-twentieth century American Trappist monk, spiritual writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist, and scholar of comparative religion.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going,
I do not see the road ahead of me. 
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself
and the fact that I think I am following you
doesn’t actually mean that I am doing so.

But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing.
I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this,
you will lead me by the right road
though I may know nothing about it.

Therefore I will trust you always.
Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death,
I will not fear for you are ever with me
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, April 3, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

We're traveling through a particularly "wilderness-y" Lent this year. Why? I wish I had a better answer than "I don't know," but I don't know—other than to remind myself and you of what experience teaches: we'll find the meaning in all this not by avoiding it, but by going through it.

The New Testament tells us that no less a benevolent force than the Holy Spirit of God led Jesus into the desert wilderness for forty days and nights. It was a long time; he suffered there. If you think that's rough, recall the Old Testament report that the newly-liberated people of Israel were made to wander around the Sinai desert for forty long years. Why? Again, I don't know.

I do know that Jesus, according to the Gospel writers, did a better job of staying focused on what counts. Offered tempting, quick-fix solutions to his hunger, his sufferings and uncertainty, he chose to keep his eyes fixed on God. "One does not live by bread alone." (Luke 4:4)  That's impressive, but then again that was Jesus. The Israelites, on the other hand, behaved in ways more recognizable to us. They complained—a lot. They suggested to Moses that, if this was his or God's idea of freedom, maybe they'd take slavery. Maybe it would have been better for them to have stayed in Egypt. At least life back then was predictable.

As they wandered and suffered, the freed Hebrews clung to the hope of a promised land, a place of their own, "a land flowing with milk and honey." Now, I've been to Israel a couple of times. In 1990, I hitchhiked the country from top to bottom, took part in an archaeological dig (it was really hot), and lived for a month in East Jerusalem. In 2011, I went back with a group of rabbinical students and Christian seminarians. On both visits, I found Israel to be a fascinating place, but I didn't see much milk and honey on the ground. The land itself is kind of harsh, in a beautiful way. Sort of like Arizona. It is also a troubled, unequal, and divided land. No, when I think of the phrase 'the promised land' as the goal of our wilderness wanderings right now, it helps me to focus less on the land...and more on the promise. And that gives me hope.

Here is what the late Eugene Peterson, the irascible Presbyterian theologian and biblical scholar (and author of The Message), had to say about the dynamic duo of promise and hope.

“Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it.

When I pray, I pray to GOD—my life a prayer—and wait for what he'll say and do. My life's on the line before God, my Lord, waiting and watching till morning, waiting and watching till morning.”


Eugene H. Peterson,  A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, April 2, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I don't know about you lately, but, for me, some days are better than others. On the tougher days, I keep going because I have to. On both the bad days and the better days, I'm trying to cherish the little graces — "movie night" with the kids, the blossoms coming out on our backyard cherry trees, FaceTiming with my dad, the fresh air when I walk the dogs.

Under normal circumstances, we survive tough times by having a pretty good idea of when they'll end. Winter will inevitably give way to spring. I'll finally turn this bear-of-a-project in tomorrow. The cast will come off in 8 weeks. I'll hear from the Admissions Committee the first of April. But, when the news gets worse and the end is no more clear today than it was yesterday, or last week, it's hard to imagine how I'm going to muster the energy and the spirit to get through it.

In these Lenten days, it's another (humbling) gift for me to be reminded that what I need most... I don't have to create on my own. In her book, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber tells us:

“The movement in our relationship to God is always from God to us. Always. We can't, through our piety or goodness, move closer to God. God is always coming near to us. Most especially in the Eucharist and in the stranger."

Maundy Thursday, April 9th (with online Communion!) is coming.
Easter, April 12th, is coming.  God is coming near.

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

You and I fear the terrors of the night and "the valley of the shadow of death" as much as anybody, but we Christian-types probably should at least be more ready to embrace darkness. You could argue, in fact, that the most important moment in our relationship with God was, literally, covered in it. In the last few moments that Jesus hung on the cross, Luke's Gospel reports, "...darkness came over the whole land...while the sun's light failed... Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, 'Father into your hands I commend my spirit.' And he breathed his last." (Luke 23:44-46)

What's hard to trust, let alone understand, is that the darkness that "came over the whole land" came bearing a gift. Somehow, its mysteries restore us to God, and God to us. On the cross—the tragic, hope-filled symbol of our religion—Jesus takes our fears and burdens and our brokenness, bodily, into himself, and the dawn of Easter is made possible. Even in the shadows, we are not going through this alone.

Our problem is that we in the church, especially in our privileged world, have tended to focus on the sunny side of the street. Joys celebrated, prayers answered, blessings counted. Those things are good, but they're not the whole story of our lives; and, as the cross shows in its shadows, God is committed to being with us not just on the good days, but on every page of our story.

In Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor describes her own journey from avoiding the shadows (around her and inside her) at all costs to the place where she could find God even in the dark:

"[As a college student] I was suffering from the full solar version of Christianity, dedicated to keeping young people like me out of as many dark places as possible, including but not limited to smoky nightclubs, back alleys, dark bedrooms, shady dope dens, and dim jail cells. In many ways it was just what I needed... It scared me straight. I turned my face to the sun. It offered me a map with a clearly marked path on it and answered all my questions about why I shouldn't stray from it. But it also saddled me with a kind of 'darkness disability' that would haunt me for years to come."

But, Brown Taylor noticed, the heroes of our faith―people like Moses and Jacob―encountered "an entirely unnatural darkness, both dangerous and divinethat contains the presence of God before whom there are no others. In the Old Testament, it is so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say 'dark' that it has its own word: araphel, reserved for God's exclusive use. This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it, the same way the brightness of God's glory does. Both are signs of God's mercy and love..."

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

In the haunting story in chapter 32 of the Book of Genesis, Jacob, the anti-hero of the Hebrew scriptural tradition, finds himself by the Jabbok River, alone and afraid. He's on the run. His past is catching up to himas all our pasts tend to do, one way or anotherand now the wily and resourceful Jacob has no plan and nothing to fall back on. He's won every battle up until now, but he can't win this one. As he beds down for the night, tomorrow isn't looking so good.

In the wee hours, a strange man (or is it a man?) appears and starts to wrestle with Jacob. Clueless about who this is or why this is happening, Jacob fights back. It's all he can do. This silly struggle goes on for hours, with neither side prevailing. At one point, the stranger makes a move that puts Jacob's hip out of joint, but, despite the pain, Jacob doesn't give up. Finally, as morning dawns, the man says, "Let me go, for the day has broken."

Jacob, defiant to the end and in desperate need of some kind of hope, answers, "I won't let you go unless you bless me."

The stranger asks his name and then says, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel (which means 'the one who strives with God'), because you have struggled with God and with people, and somehow you have prevailed."

Jacob, his trick-hip now a permanent reminder of this ordeal, limps into the sunrise. Since he has come face to face with his limitations, with his mortality, and since he's still here, he calls the place Peniel, which in Hebrew means "The face of God." Wow.

They say it's not the destination that counts, but the journey. We go through life thinking again and again that finally reaching the next goal will define us and make us worthy, when in truth it's how we travel that reveals the truth of our lives—namely, that God has been with us, in the struggle, all along. A few years ago, as she moved into her 80s, the truly great feminist biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, took Jacob's words and made them her own:

"I too shall hold fast for blessing. But I am under no illusion that blessing, if it comes, will be on my terms—that I will not be changed in the process. Indeed, the... line I pluck from the story undercuts that illusion: The storyteller reports, 'The sun rose upon him [Jacob], limping because of his hip.' ... And, wrestling with these words, to the light I limp."

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Monday, March 30, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

As a teenager and younger adult, when I would bring them some problem or disappointment, my parents tended to respond supportively, but in different ways. I could count on my mom, Betty, to express warmth and sympathy. A hug, a few thoughtful questions, and a grilled cheese sandwich usually did the trick. My dad, on the other hand, typically came up with some variation of the phrase. "Welcome to the real world." Thanks, dad.

He was right, of course, if not that pastoral. Theologically, one could rework that Bill Horn-ism into the familiar "We make plans; God laughs." Or, there's the more existential "Life is what happens when what you had planned doesn't work out."

However you put it, and however harsh, I believe that's true. The trick, I've learned (though not perfected) is to get better and better at letting go of what I was convinced should have been or could have been... so I can focus on what is.

Painters and priests, artists and authors have been telling us this for centuries. This past summer, on my sabbatical, I had the chance to re-read Fyodor Dostoevsky's great novel, The Brothers Karamazov. [If you have some time on your hands, I recommend it.] There, the passionate central character and eldest brother, Dmitri, tells his sensitive and spiritual younger brother Alyosha:

"But I always liked the side-paths, the little dark back-alleys behind the main road--there one finds adventures and surprises, and precious metal in the dirt."

Jump 100 years, from Russia to the western United States, and Robert Pirsig has the narrator of his Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values reflect on a multi-state motorcycle trip he and his young son, Chris, make together:

"Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best, state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on 'good' rather than 'time,' and when you make that shift in emphasis the whole approach changes.

...The discovery was a real find. I’ve wondered why it took us so long to catch on. We saw it and yet we didn’t see it. Or rather we were trained not to see it. Conned, perhaps, into thinking that the real action was metropolitan and all this was just boring hinterland. It was a puzzling thing. The truth knocks on the door and you say, 'Go away, I’m looking for the truth,' and so it goes away. Puzzling."


On those side roads, whether we choose them or not, each of us will  discover our own version of "precious metal." I love this exchange between father and son in Pirsig's book about the motorcycle trip (and life).

"I can see by my watch, without taking my hand from the left grip of the cycle, that it is eight-thirty in the morning. The wind, even at sixty miles an hour, is warm and humid...

In the wind are pungent odors from the marshes by the road. We are in an area of the Central Plains filled with thousands of duck hunting sloughs, heading northwest from Minneapolis toward the Dakotas. This highway is an old concrete two-laner that hasn’t had much traffic since a four-laner went in parallel to it several years ago.

When we pass a marsh the air suddenly becomes cooler. Then, when we are past, it suddenly warms up again. I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that. Tensions disappear along old roads like this. We bump along the beat-up concrete between the cattails and stretches of meadow and then more cattails and marsh grass. Here and there is a stretch of open water and if you look closely you can see wild ducks at the edge of the cattails. And turtles.—There’s a red-winged blackbird.

I whack Chris’s knee and point to it.

'What!' he hollers.

'Blackbird!'

He says something I don’t hear. 'What?' I holler back.

He grabs the back of my helmet and hollers up, 'I’ve seen lots of those, Dad!'

'Oh!' I holler back.

Then I nod. At age eleven you don’t get very impressed with red-winged blackbirds."


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Saturday, March 28, 2020

Dear PCUM family-

With all due respect to Valentine's Day, love is a hot item just now. Of course, love has always been popular, but now—with other favored resources shrinking, hard to come by, or not working too well—love is currency. We need it, and we're using it.

Based on what you're telling me, love seems to be what we're turning to, counting on, and sharing as much as we can in these days of worry and uncertainty. It makes sense. Love for our families moves us to protect and care for them. Love for neighbor, known and unknown, inspires us to pray for their well-being and protect them, too, by keeping a healthy distance. Love inspires medical workers and first-responders to put themselves at greater risk. Love, I'd like to believe, is at least one primary motivation behind the scientific push to find an effective treatment and, maybe, a cure.

So, along with other things these days, love is in the air. That's good. I could Google it to get the exact count, but let's just agree that there are lots of love-focused songs with encouraging titles like "Love Will See Us Through," "Love Will Find a Way," or "Love Is the Answer." Those are helpful. Then there are songs-of-abundance such as "All You Need is Love," "Endless Love," and "Whole Lotta Love," songs which help us focus on what truly matters and (maybe) keep us from too many trips to the grocery store. Whatever the song, or poem, or story, if it has love in it, it brings hope.

But what kind love will get us through this? What kind of love really never runs out? For over thirty years now, as many of you know, one of my heroes has been Frederick Buechner, the novelist, poet, theologian, Presbyterian minister and and graduate of Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Now 93 years old, Buechner has written many books, including a challenging collection of sermons called The Magnificent Defeat. In it, he reflects on love:

“The love for equals is a human thing--of friend for friend, lover for lover, brother for brother. It is to love what is loving and lovely. The world smiles. The love for the less fortunate is a beautiful thing—the love for those who suffer, for those who are poor, the sick, the failures, the unlovely. This is compassion, and it touches the heart of the world.

The love for the more fortunate is a rare thing—to love those who succeed where we fail, to rejoice without envy with those who rejoice... The world is always bewildered by its saints. And then there is the love for the enemy—love for the one who does not love you but mocks, threatens, and inflicts pain. The tortured's love for the torturer. This is God's love. It conquers the world.”


In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Friday, March 27, 2020

Dear PCUM family-

This past fall, our sixteen year-old son, Will, earned his driver's permit. This achievement permits him to drive accompanied by an adult and me to sit vigilantly in the passenger seat to the point of nervous-exhaustion for a full year. Thank you, New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission.

In truth, Will is and is becoming a good driver. Not long ago, he found himself driving for the first time in some serious rain. He exclaimed, "This is harder!" and then asked, "What do you do when you can't see ahead?"  With my eyes glued forward, I told him that, sometimes, it's worse. In heavy snow or fog, there have been times when I was in the middle of nowhere on a two-lane road and couldn't see more than a few feet beyond my headlights. That can be pretty nerve-wracking, but—as my dad the wartime helicopter pilot taught me—the way to do it is to take a breath, slow down, and focus on keeping the car between the yellow line in the middle and the white line on the right.

Don't look anywhere else, because it doesn't do much good. If you look ahead, as you normally would, you won't see anything at all, and you'll start to imagine all kinds of dangers lurking out there. If you look in the mirror, you'll just see anxiety. But if you just deal with what's in front of you, in the moment, pretty soon you'll be home, no matter how far you have to go.

During the Second World War, Corrie ten Boom and her family risked their lives by hiding, feeding, and transporting Jews and Dutch resistance fighters hunted by the Nazis out of occupied Holland and to safety. It was a commitment inspired by her reformed/Calvinist (Presbyterian) faith that meant facing danger, fear and uncertainty each and every day. Corrie ten Boom is the author of the book The Hiding Place, which tells of her experience. She once said,

"Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength—carrying two days at once.  It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn't empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength."

May focusing on Christ's peace be your strength today,
Pastor Greg

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Thursday, March 26, 2020

Dear PCUM family-

Every year around this time, Christians looking toward Easter face and embrace the hard truth that things get worse before they get better. Some years, that truth is more real for us than others.

 The news day after day confirms that, right now, you and I are deep in the "get worse" part. It's unnerving; it's scary.  A few years back, Anne Lamott posted this to her Facebook page:

"When I am distressed, as I am now, I go to my groups of friends, sober people, church, Twitter, the dog park, hoping someone will say the exact right thing to pull me out of the pinball game in my mind.

The exact right thing would break the swirling trance of catastrophic thought, hit my heart’s re-set button and remind me that Love and grace bat last. The pond inside me would settle, and I would see through the water that most of my reactive terror and held breath were the survival tools of childhood... The tools did not work very well when I was 6, nor do they work well at 62, but I always fish them out first from the battered old tool box.

Remembering this means I can now move on to what may help today–a worried mercy, vulnerability, wonder.

It’s good to be afraid, when it mobilizes us to fight tooth and nail for what is right, when it pricks the balloon of our complacency, when it gets us back on our feet. A lot of us are both afraid and devoutly faithful at the exact same time, fairly often, for ourselves, our kids, our elderly, our country, but what is true, and the exact right thing I need to hear today is that courage is fear that has said its prayers."

In Christ's peace,

Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Dear PCUM family-

Shifting focus from your own anxieties to the needs of others is the best roadmap through any time of challenge. Still, you can't give what you don't have. Reminding yourself every day that you, right now, are precious to God is the first step to sharing God's love with those you meet along the way.

I love these two quotes by the late Maya Angelou:

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.”

and

“I don't trust people who don't love themselves and tell me, 'I love you.' ... There is an African saying which is: Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.”

In Christ's peace,

Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

You've probably heard common aphorisms like "Laughter is the best medicine;" "If I didn't laugh, I'd cry;" and various versions of the notion that one needs a sense of humor to get through life, especially when times are tough. But what makes these sayings true?

In today's thought, the late Reinhold Niebuhr, by far the the most influential American theologian of the 20th century and longtime professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, gives us his thoughts on the relationship between laughter and trusting God during times of challenge in Discerning the Signs of the Times:

“Humor is, in fact, a prelude to faith; and laughter is the beginning of prayer. Laughter must be heard in the outer courts of religion, and the echoes of it should resound in the sanctuary; but there is no laughter in the holy of holies. There, laughter is swallowed up in prayer and humor is fulfilled by faith.

The intimate relation between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence. ... Laughter is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those which do not affect us essentially. Faith is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which shake the foundations of the very meaning of our life."


In Christ's peace,

Pastor Greg

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

I'd like to start this new week of sheltering-in-place with words from Barbara Brown Taylor,  Episcopal priest, professor, preacher, and theologian. In 2014, TIME Magazine placed her in its annual list of most influential people in the world. That's how others describe her; I love the self-description on her website: "writer, speaker, spiritual contrarian."

In the quote below from her book An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Brown Taylor gives her take on the sort of cryptic statement in Luke, where Jesus says, "...because, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17:21)

“No one longs for what he or she already has, and yet the accumulated insight of those wise about the spiritual life suggests that the reason so many of us cannot see the red X that marks the spot is because we are standing on it. The treasure we seek requires no lengthy expedition, no expensive equipment, no superior aptitude or special company. All we lack is the willingness to imagine that we already have everything we need. The only thing missing is our consent to be where we are.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg 

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Saturday, March 21, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

As this weekend arrives, my prayer is that hope will surround and sustain you and yours.

In that Spirit, this poem by the Old Testament scholar and writer, Water Breuggemann, portrays our Christian hope as a journey from anxiety-driven solitude to the gift from God of a relationship that can never be taken away, fills our deepest needs, and leads us to discover that the only way to keep it is to give it away.

In Christ's peace,

Pastor Greg


"On Generosity 
 
On our own, we conclude: 
there is not enough to go around 
 
we are going to run short 
of money 
of love 
of grades 
of publications 
of sex 
of beer 
of members 
of years 
of life 
 
we should seize the day 
seize our goods 
seize our neighbors goods 
because there is not enough to go around 
 
and in the midst of our perceived deficit 
you come 
you come giving bread in the wilderness 
you come giving children at the 11th hour 
you come giving homes to exiles 
you come giving futures to the shut down 
you come giving Easter joy to the dead 
you come – fleshed in Jesus. 
 
and we watch while 
the blind receive their sight 
the lame walk 
the lepers are cleansed 
the deaf hear 
the dead are raised 
the poor dance and sing 
 
we watch 
and we take food we did not grow and 
life we did not invent and 
future that is gift and gift and gift and 
families and neighbors who sustain us 
when we did not deserve it. 
 
It dawns on us – late rather than soon- 
that you “give food in due season 
you open your hand 
and satisfy the desire of every living thing.” 
 
By your giving…quiet our anxieties of lack 
transform our perceptual field to see 
the abundance………mercy upon mercy 
blessing upon blessing. 
 
Sink your generosity deep into our lives 
that your muchness may expose our false lack 
that endlessly receiving we may endlessly give 
so that the world may be made Easter new, 
without greedy lack, but only wonder, 
without coercive need but only love, 
without destructive greed but only praise 
without aggression and invasiveness…. 
all things Easter new….. 
all around us, toward us and 
by us 
 
all things Easter new. 
 
Finish your creation, in wonder, love and praise. Amen.” 

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Friday, March 20, 2020

Dear PCUM family,

Today's thought comes from the wise and funny Anne Lamott in her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.

Strangely, sadly, "faith" is one of the most misunderstood words in the Christian vocabulary. Most of us have somehow internalized the message that faith means believing something to be true, accepting without question certain events and propositions as factual, even when contradicted by our experience or reason. Then we're invited into a life of "faith" during which we do a lot of pretending―to others and to ourselves.

There are lots and lots of problems with this, but maybe the biggest problem is that faith like that doesn't help us much. It doesn't help much any time, but especially in times like this.

Here is what Lamott says about faith:

“I have a lot of faith. But I am also afraid a lot, and have no real certainty about anything.

I remembered something Father Tom had told me―that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty. Certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”


In Christ's  peace,

Pastor Greg

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Thursday, March 19, 2020

Dear PCUM family-

Lately, as you and I are forced to embrace a new reality, I'm reminded again that the days Christians have come to call "Lent"–the six weeks leading up to the betrayal of Jesus by his friends and his unjust Good Friday execution, which in turn lead to his Easter resurrection–were not welcome days. Nobody expected them; nobody wanted them. In fact, the writers of the Gospels of Mark and Matthew report that Jesus himself, as he hung on the cross, used the ancient words of Psalm 22 to ask an agonizing question, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

What meaning can we discover in giving up, or being forced to give up, so much that we have come to trust and take for granted? With this question in mind, and with God's Easter promise to us and the whole world of a love that cannot ever be taken away, it occurs to me that the two quotes below might relate to each other.

The first is from Anaïs Ninn, in The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1:

“You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living.

Then you read a book… or you take a trip… and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous...) absence of pleasure, of fulfillment. That is all.

It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, an event, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken."


Today's second quote is from one of my all-time favorite books, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values, written by Robert M. Pirsig:

“We’re in such a hurry most of the time we never get much chance to talk. The result is a kind of endless day-to-day shallowness, a monotony that leaves a person wondering years later where all the time went and sorry that it's all gone."

In Christ's peace, and with prayers that we will use this precious time.

Pastor Greg

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Good morning, PCUM family. I pray that you are well and finding grace in the little things.

Today's daily thought focuses us on the question of just how to stay most alive spiritually during this (or any) time.  It comes to us from Nadia Bolz-Weber, in her book Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People.

“My spirituality is most active, not in meditation, but in the moments when: I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am an a*****e, and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies, and when I am unable to judge the sin of someone else (which, let’s be honest, I love to do)..., and when I have to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite my desire to be left alone, and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel, and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting, and when I end up changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalog but whom God sends my way to teach me about God’s love.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg

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Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Dear PCUM family-

In each of the unknown, unpredictable days ahead, I'm going to try to send you a brief daily thought or quote or idea that, I hope, might be meaningful for you. Whether you're at home or somewhere else safe, I invite you to take a moment or more to think and/or pray about these regular messages from me to you.

These won't be full-fledged meditations; you'll be free to draw your own conclusions. At most, one or more of these pastoral messages will help you navigate what's in front of you on a particular day. At least, my prayer is that they might be a reminder that, while we can't be with each other physically, we can reflect together on the life, the unconditional love, and the calling God gives us.

So today, as the contours of our "new normal" begins to come into view, I'm grateful for the way unexpected interruptions in life have a way of providing us with the precious gift of perspective, allowing the fog to clear so that we can better see what really matters. Here's what Frederick Buechner says in his memoir Now and Then:

“Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is. In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

In Christ's peace,
Pastor Greg