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Echoes Blog

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I was reminded of the Auden poem “stop the clocks, calm the sirens", and the headline seemed to warrant that we all stop and take note and reassign some sort of moral order:  HOMELESS FOUND DEAD FROM HEAT IN CITY. Hot town, summer in the city.  Many dead, mostly homeless, candles lit in a cathedral to commemorate anonymous lives, fried Phoenix brains, and bodies, homeless dead.

We, as a society, don’t like the homeless much. They tend to clutter the walkways. They stink.  Sometimes they make strange gestures and spit out guttural utterances. We don’t like the homeless. They make us nervous.

As a little girl, I was told of a homeless couple going door-to-door, begging for compassionate hospitality. Their son, Jesus, had a profound impact on my road less traveled. He was the child of homeless people. Wonder what the weather was like in the barn.

A very strange and homeless guy prepared the way for Jesus — a wild man who dieted on locusts and shouted out wild pronouncements about the future. A lot of those prophet types were homeless, and they certainly make us squeamish.

Of all things, Mother Teresa went out seeking the homeless, scooping up skeletal bodies off the streets of Calcutta, cradling them, feeding, wiping their brows and their tears. What was up with her?

Then there’s the Dalai Lama, that happy homeless fellow, who had to hit the road when the Chinese landed in Tibet. He would make a jolly poster child for the homeless.

Gandhi and Buddha chose voluntary homelessness. What were they thinking???

Many of the inmates with whom I shared ministry would get a vacant faraway look in their eyes when they talked about their homelessness. Did I mention that a lot of homeless people are mentally ill?

Homeless dead in the Phoenix summer heat. Why should we care? And yet my clock stopped.

Our homeless Jesus, Son of God, said He would remember us if we gave a drink to the thirsty. Please consider bringing bottled water to the church as part of our Mission Collection for Vista del Camino for the month of August. Pile it up in the Sanctuary and Chapel narthexes. Do this in remembrance of Him.

Don't Feel Like Praying?

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What do you do when you don’t feel like praying? Prayer has been the life-blood of my faith for the past thirty-five years at least. Yet, I’ve reached a time period in my life when praying doesn’t come easily. In fact, it seems darned near impossible.  I used to get up early in the morning regularly and “pray” for at least fifteen to thirty minutes a day.  And how did I pray?  Well, when I was a teenager I had read a book on prayer by Agnes Sanford, an Episcopal lay woman, called The Healing Light. In this book Agnes talks about seeing (in her imagination) the light of God surrounding the person or situation for which she was praying.  In this form of prayer she might also visualize Christ being present with the person or standing in the midst of the situation, and she trusted that God’s love, light and power were all flowing into the situation for God’s highest and best to come about. I utilized this form of prayer, and others, with great effect. I found a certain peace in surrendering all things to God in an imaginative and creative way. 

I’ve explored other forms of prayer…and I even teach courses on prayer, exploring multiple techniques and approaches: petitionary prayer, silent prayer, singing prayer, chanting words of scripture, visual prayer (using paint or colors), journaling prayer, intercessory prayer, and the list goes on.  In seminary we even studied how to write formal prayers according to ancient church formulas.  My toolbox for prayer is full.  And I seemed to have forgotten how to use all those tools…or they just aren’t sufficient for the job at hand.

Many Christian commentators throughout the centuries have admitted that there come times in life when the well-springs of prayer dry up…or at least they seem to.  The 16th-century mystic writer, St. John of the Cross, wrote a poem about such times called, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” We use this phrase “dark night of the soul” now to mean any time we feel completely depleted of the tools to engage life fully, especially one’s spiritual life. At such a time as this I am reminded of these haunting words from the chorus of a K.D. Lang song,

“Fate must have a reason.
Why else endure the season
Of hollow soul.
The ground on which we leave on
How strangely fuels the season
Of hollow soul.”

K.D. speaks of “Fate” when I would speak of God, but the sentiment is the same: God must have a reason; why else endure this season of hollow soul? And so, in such hollow times, I have to trust Jesus’ words, “Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.” So, when I have difficulty praying, sometimes I open a book…

And this morning I “just happened” to read these words in a book by the 20th-century Protestant mystic, Glenn Clark, called A Man’s Reach, where he discusses the “problem” of way of prayer:

Some people come to me with all sorts of problems of the Way. They say they have achieved considerable success at prayer and in many cases feel that their prayers are answered, and then again they seem to get no answers and no feeling that there is Anyone to hear; they are lost in dryness….[T]he basic answer to every problem of prayer is the same answer: GIVE ALL. Hold back nothing. Insist on being used entirely of God. Feel ourselves transmuted into love, without reservation or adulteration or hesitation.

And then I encountered these words (in the Jewish book of prayers I have on the shelf) which pick up on the theme of “dryness” on which Mr. Clark dwells:

Prayer invites God to let His presence suffuse our spirits, to let His will prevail in our lives. Prayer cannot bring water to parched fields, or mend a broken bridge, or rebuild a ruined city; but prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will. (Gates of Prayer: The New Union Prayerbook, 1975)

There are definitely times when I have felt like a parched field, or a deer by an empty wadi, panting after life-giving streams.  I am waiting to be “transmuted” by love…by LOVE!

This evening the monsoons rolled into the valley with dramatic force, and the rains began their yearly job of replenishing the dry, desert landscape. The author of the Book of James tells his readers, “Be patient, therefore, brothers and sisters, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.”  Patiently wait for the rain. Patiently wait for the Lord. Patiently wait for the well-spring of Spirit to return to the place of prayer, to encounter us in our “inner closet.” And in the meantime, while waiting patiently, live with gratitude. When all other prayer seems to fall short. The least I can do…that we can do…is say, “Thank you.”

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“What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. And when you bring what is within out into the world, miracles happen.” Attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson & Henry David Thoreau.

Attitude is one of the single most important factors influencing our success and satisfaction in life. This is as true in the life of Pinnacle Presbyterian Church as it is in our individual lives. What you believe about yourself and about our church is a great predictor of the results you will see and the reality you will experience.

A plaque in the late Arnold Palmer’s office tells a lot about why he was so successful on and off the golf course. It reads:

            If you think you are beaten, you are.
            If you think you dare not, you don’t.
            If you’d like to win but think you can’t,
            It’s almost certain you won’t.
            Life’s battles don’t always go
            To the stronger or faster man,
            But sooner or later the man who wins,
            Is the man who thinks he can.

Pinnacle’s future is as bright as the hope that lies within us. And when Jesus is our “bright and morning star” all things are possible!

The Apostle Paul encourages us to approach life with the same attitude Christ did:

Is there any encouragement from belonging to Christ? Any comfort from his love? Any fellowship together in the Spirit? Are your hearts tender and compassionate? Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
   Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
    and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Phillippians 2:1-8

Prayer: Grant us Lord God, that we your children may live our lives with the same attitude as our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Showing Grace and Gratitude

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Last week I gathered with a close group of colleagues and friends to discuss theology.  We gather every year, choosing a topic that we want to know more about or something that affects our ministry.  This year was no different, we chose a topic that we thought would be relevant, challenging and thought provoking…we chose humanity.  The Doctrine of Humanity studies all of us as it relates to our life in and with Christ.

The reading was difficult and challenging.  Not only because we were studying difficult theology, but because the topic was so personal.  It required that we think internally about the sins and mistakes we make and how they keep us from knowing God more clearly, which no one really wants to do.  This is until we were reminded that it is our sins and the confession of them that makes us know Christ’s gift of grace more clearly. The topic also required that we consider what makes us truly human: suffering, relationships, and our connections with the world around us. Our humanity puts in perspective our limits and our gifts. And in light of all that God has done for us, how are we to respond.  But the most difficult was the discussions on how we live together in light of the current events.

What hit me so strongly was the ongoing theme of grace given from God and the gratitude we are to show in response.  It is a simple idea with a huge impact on how we live our lives with God and each other.  What was highlighted this past week was how little grace and gratitude we show each other in response to the most recent immigration issues.  As we worked through our own humanity and how God sees us we were forced to discuss race, religion, age, education and social status. 

While it wasn’t a surprise, it was still a difficult challenge to see how God doesn’t see any of those labels when He looks at each of us.  According to Karl Barth, what God sees is a separation due to broken relationships and the need for grace.  Grace needed when we put ourselves above God. Grace shown when we don’t treat each other with respect and equality. Grace required when we forget that the Holy Spirit uses the imperfect and broken people that we are to do His work. Grace shown when we turn to fear instead of trust in God.

The only response that is required to all of this grace is gratitude.  The challenge to this way of living, from Karl Barth's perspective, is that the only way we can truly understand the amazing gift of grace is in gratitude. To be grateful in our short comings. To be grateful when we suffer physically, emotionally or spiritually. To be grateful in the midst of our fear. To be grateful when we make mistakes. To be grateful when things go right.

It is very humbling when you spend the week contemplating the relationship between God and us and each other as we watch our nation treat children, parents and neighbors without equality.  When we segregate instead of see people through God’s eyes. Our group is politically diverse and our discussions about immigration varied. The issues are complicated and not unique to the United States.  Every country has to work through its response to immigrants. I am not sure where you fall in your beliefs and feelings about immigration, but I don’t think it matters in God’s eyes. What matters in God’s eyes is that we treat each other with that same grace that He shows us.

This is a hot topic and one that could cause division, fear and anger among us as a community of believers. I know it is complicated, but I think that God asks us to show grace and to seek out the places of gratitude in the midst of this crisis. Our group had to ask ourselves, “How do we show grace to these families who have crossed the border seeking refuge?” “Where do we see places and people we can be grateful for?” “What is our responsibility?” “How do we see each other the way God sees us, as His beloved children?”

The question we all should ask ourselves is how will we respond individually and collectively with grace and gratitude to the current events?  I am grateful to my colleagues who were willing to go to these hard places this past week and be challenged by God to live differently.  My prayer is that in the midst of passionate arguments and discussions about these individuals and families, that we will remember to show grace and gratitude to and for each other.

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One of the great teachers in my life was a Jesuit priest named Ivan Illich.  He was an advisor at the Second Vatican Council and a noted Catholic thinker (was Vice Rector of the Catholic University in Puerto Rico at one point), until the Vatican got upset with him and asked him to be quiet.  In response, he informed the Vatican that, while he could never renounce his priesthood, he would no longer perform the functions of a priest or theologian.  He continued to write and teach, though, but as an “historian.”  He became best known for a handful of small books in the 1970s that many considered ‘radical,’ but said things that many now believe—about schooling, about medicine, about how social services and ways many institutions or strategies we create to solve problems so often create more problems than they solve.  Though he was known for those 1970s books, he actually wrote and taught until his death in 2002.  And though he renounced his priestly role, he once told me that everything he wrote and everything he said was, finally, about the church—and in service to the gospel.  


Ivan was interested in Christian virtue, in how we live beyond what we believe.  He believed that no achievement, no pedigree or educational attainment, no strategy for success or institutional role, no technology, no amount of wealth, no level of political power can humanize a person who lacks heart.  None of those things can humanize someone who lacks passion, who lacks courage, who lacks basic curiosity or capacity for friendship or simple respect for others. 

Once, when talking about the first photo we saw from space of the blue dot called our planet, Ivan insisted that we risk a great irony taking us over.  As we see ourselves as part of a world community we’ll act with “global awareness”—or so we’ll think.  But, in fact, we risk losing touch with the very virtues we need to act well.  As we try to save the big planet, we risk losing touch with the small places we live in.  “I’ve no interest in saving the planet,” he said.  “I have every interest in walking decently on the earth.”

He flipped the question.  Commitment to the big without love for the small sours our hearts.  Care for the moment will, naturally, spill over into love for more.  Begin with those right in front of you, not as just a first step, but as the most important step.  Be decent, loving, respectful, and try to live by the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5).  Doing that, you’ll know how to save the planet.  

Consider the lilies, Jesus said, and you’ll understand God’s love.  Follow Jesus, and you’ll learn all things.  Accept the task before you with decency and virtue (not power or privilege) and your eternal purpose will show itself.