Pinnacle Presbyterian Church

Echoes Blog

Ultimacy (now there's a word)

I'm always grateful to my friend Bill Smith who sends a daily quote to his circle of followers, always timey and often personal. Recently, he quoted up a 2005 Kenyon College Commencement speech by the late novelist David Foster Wallace that has "gone viral" this graduation season. It's gone viral in part because an LA production company pushed it out. Manuscripts and a video are still being passed around.

I've excerpted it even more, for a little taste of something I want to comment on this week: 

…in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship....

If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.

But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings. They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing.

...The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. 

That is real freedom...

If you have a second, read it again. Then indulge me to add a thought.

Wallace faced his own set of struggles in life, yearnings for freedom that took their toll, but in this address he touches on a deep and lasting truth. The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber once said that believing in the Infinite, in God, is not simply believing in something bigger than what we believe in for day to day freedom in an ordinary world. Believing in God transforms belief itself. It's a different kind of belief, not just a different object of belief. It's different because it's not a harnessing or a comprehension of the Infinite. It's a letting go into the Infinite, an acceptance of relationship, a moving into mystery, and an inarticulate realizing that belief in God will lead to more unknowing than knowing as it grows from understanding to understanding. It is also a receiving of a way of living that issues from this kind of believing—a way of love, moving self from the center and letting the presence and needs of others become a part of our being. 

This kind of believing becomes a kind of trusting, which in turn becomes life- and freedom-giving, not life- or freedom-controlling. It sometimes begins in a switching of the objects of our trust­, from penultimate to ultimate things. But it can't be left there. For it eventually does change how, not just what, we trust.

So Wallace was right, I think. But in light of what I've added here, I also think he advocated an impossibility. For I can't in the end make myself believe in an ultimate way. I can only turn my face in that direction, confess the less than ultimate things in which I put my daily trust, and ask that the Ultimate—who I can't help but call God—might reveal itself (Godself) in ways known to it (God) and so also give me ability, will, sensation, inclination, courage, confidence, grace—ah, grace—to trust it (God). And ask it (God) to provide the grace and the community in which it (God) might be trusted in God-congruent ways—to believe in God in a God-offered, God-given, God-appropriate way...

The Foster speech (with thanks to William Smith):

Mission and Helping, Not Hurting Those You Serve

In several short weeks thirty of the Pinnacle Presbyterian Church Senior High Youth and their leaders will travel to Chicago for their summer mission trip. They will be staying at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago. Their week will be filled with opportunities to learn about and serve with a variety of organizations in the Chicago area that are fighting hunger and homelessness and poverty.

For most of the youth, particularly those who have gone on the trips before, these are highly anticipated events.  It is a chance to visit a new place, to spend time with other youth with whom they are close friends, and experience the bonding that can only come with sleeping, eating, and serving together over a week. For many youth, these trips are a fundamental part of growing their faith.

Along with the excitement and fun there are important building blocks for understanding mission work.

 Churches and mission groups need to think carefully and wisely about what they are doing and the communities they are serving.  Both in terms of our own theological underpinnings for why and how we engage in mission work, and in terms of understanding our own stereotypes and projections about poverty and the particular communities that we serve with.

Important theological basics for doing mission work include understanding that opportunities like this aren’t just trips or opportunities to get school required service opportunities. Doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly in faith with God are literally what we as people of faith are called to each day of our lives. It is also important to understand that we aren’t bringing God to the places we go- whether they be here in Phoenix, the greater U.S., or abroad. God is already there. It is our job to discover that and to participate in it.  Additionally, our service is a chance not to do for others but to serve with them. I love this quote that I discovered that I think names that well: “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Important understandings about alleviating poverty in the places you are going include a thorough understanding blind spots and prejudices we bring with us in addition to knowledge of that particular community. Both of those are key to recognizing that not all helping is helpful and that sometimes the unintended consequences of rightly motivated efforts are long lasting for the communities we serve with. There are several good books on exactly this.  “When Helping Hurts…How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor, And Yourself” and “Toxic Charity, How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse it) are two good resources.

 In his book, “Toxic Charity,” Robert Lupton writes, “Yes, many of our motives are noble. We want to invest in the lives of others. We want to expose adults and youth to the needs of a hurting world. We want to engage people in life changing experiences. Some of us are motivated by the teachings of Jesus…Often though, we miss the big picture because we view aid through the lens of the needs of our organization or church- focusing on what will benefit out team most-and neglecting the best interest of those we serve (pp 15).”

 It is important to ask – and keep asking – thoughtful questions before and after you dive into helping others. It can often mean avoiding harm for us and for those we serve alongside. It can also mean that we have a more lasting impact.

Please pray for our youth and their leaders as they prepare for their trip ahead!

 Basic Theological Understandings of Mission Work:

  • Part of being on a mission trip or serving in the community is letting go of your own comfort
  • God leads us into service. We do not “bring God” to the places we go. God is already there. There is no place we can go that God isn’t already present.
  • Everyone has been given gifts to use for the common good. Your job is to discover how your gifts can be used in any given situation
  • Mission and service are not about a “trip” or a “service opportunity.” Justice, kindness, and walking humbly with God are how God calls us to be in the world
  • Jesus’ light resides within you. It is your job to share that light
  • Our faith includes being pushed out into the wilderness (to the unknown) by the Holy Spirit
  • Each time we give our gifts away the experience changes how we live. Giving ourselves away in the name of Jesus reshapes us.
  • There is no place that is beyond God’s reach for hope, love and transformation. 


Late last June my mother, Mildred Swicegood, had a terrible fall and broke her pelvis and right arm. Since then she has journeyed from hospital to rehab center to her current residence in an Independent Living Facility in Winston-Salem, N.C.

My mom was widowed at 49 and took over my dad’s insurance agency. She became the first female agent for her company in the state of N.C. For seventeen years she built her business and carved out a fiercely independent life.  She was good at what she did, and took pride in every aspect of her life.

I began noticing her memory lapses when she was in the nursing rehabilitation center late last summer. I would tell her something in the morning and in the afternoon she would ask me again. At first it made me angry: “I just told you that four hours ago.” I hung the phone up one day when she made me furious with some outlandish demand.

Then it slowly dawned on me what was going on. Since then it has been hard to determine what she remembers, what she is being ornery about, or how competent she is to manage her own affairs.

For example we have hired a nurse to come into her apartment every day to administer her meds. This after she had them all confused and would take two days dosage at a time, or forget to take them at all. She continually complains about the $6 she has to pay the nurse for each visit. No amount of explanation will mollify her.

Dealing with a difficult, aging parent is uncharted territory for my family. There are no set of instructions, and it is stressful and baffling. 

It got so bad a few months ago that I began praying about it–Lord, help me to know what to do! (Why is it that we only pray when we are at our wits end? At least that’s my pattern.)

I found a prayer for an aging mother that I have posted on our refrigerator, where we put all the important stuff like pictures of our grandchildren. Here is my modified version of it: 

Dear God:

I thank you for my mother, who gave me the gift of life, and so enabled me to see a sunrise, to hear a symphony, and to know the joy of life and love.

She took care of me when I was young--fed me, clothed me, loved me. Now as she grows old and frail,

Help me to be patient with her infirmities, and to be kind to her in every way I possibly can. Surround her each day with your contentment

And send her to sleep each night with angel’s songs. And at the last welcome her into your heavenly home.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Reflections on Confirmation: Faith Formation of Teens

As we finish up this year’s Confirmation class, I have found myself reflecting on faith formation of teenagers. Despite my general discomfort with teaching and talking to teenagers (like bees, teenagers can smell fear), I find them to be remarkable people- bright and articulate, more open in their intellectual curiosity than adults.

In many ways I have found my Confirmation class students to be similar. I experience them as bright, articulate young people who want to do well in school and do the “right thing.”  But I also experience them as lacking in many of the foundations of faith knowledge – how to even read or open the Bible-and curiosity about faith as it relates to the world around them. On the one hand, I think this can be attributed to a general lack of interest in the church compared to other things.

 It is no secret that for most teens, getting out of bed to attend church on Sunday mornings, or giving up a Wednesday evening with their friends to attend Confirmation, is about as exciting as being asked to help pick up the dog’s poop or take out the trash.  Attending Confirmation is another homework assignment, an instrument of parental torture.

 Which is also to say, dragging your teen to church isn’t exactly a pleasant experience for parents either. In a recent article “Why I Make my Teenager go to Church,” Mallory McDuff writes, “Making an ultimatum about church attendance to a sleep-deprived teenager may be my own version of hell on earth.”

But on the other hand, I think that this lack of faith knowledge and curiosity is part of a growing phenomenon in our culture in which faith is drowned out by a world of competing values and activities even on Sunday mornings. The New York Times, the soccer tournament, and a toasted sesame bagel is far more interesting than what happens in church on Sunday morning. For many families, faith is something that the church does for them or that isn't done at all. 

Yet transformative faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t happen by osmosis. In fact, it doesn’t even happen through really, really good Sunday school teachers once a week. It happens in the rich soil of families and congregations where teenagers encounter the people that love them, enacting a larger story of divine care and hope.

Princeton Youth Ministry professor Kenda Dean points out, “The faith lives of the American Teenager mirror with astonishing clarity the faith lives of the adults who nurture them.”

Parenting and nurturing a teen is hard work But giving them a solid foundation of faith might be one of the most important things that we do as parents and as a community of faith.  Included here are my ten commandments of raising faith-filled kids. They are important and a good place to start. 

A candle in sand in a paper bag

Archbishop Elias Chacour of the Melkite Catholic Church in the Holy Land began his ministry in a small Galilean Arab village called Ibillin.  There he built a series of schools, beginning with an elementary school and now going all the way to a college.  He's committed his schools to the challenging balance between the pursuit of justice for the poor and politically oppressed and lasting reconciliation between enemies.  He believes one is not possible without the other, and he believes that's true in all cases and in every land. 

In the summer of 1982 I had a chance to throw some dirt around the shell of the then only anticipated Mar Elias High School in that little village—pretending to help, but mostly taking it all in and asking questions. In the evening, the small group I was with had the chance to sit on the roof of the then village priest's residence. We sat with him, on a dark but special night. It was the feast of his namesake, the prophet Elijah. It was also the middle of Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Our conversation was punctuated by the sound of warplanes overhead, on their way north. It was a chilling sound, and led our host to a genuine despair. What good were his efforts?  What value was the work? What hope was there for these peoples he tried to serve? 

During our discussion, one of the nuns came running up the stairs as if there was a great emergency.  She called to the priest and motioned him to the edge of the roof.  We joined him. There, over the valley between the residence and the shell of a school, we could see where the children who dreamed of that school for their future had put luminaria (those candles in sand in paper bags) in each of the rooms on each of the floors. There was also a row on the ground in front—all in perfect view of their spiritual father's (their "Abuna's") residence on this feast day for his patron saint. It was a surprise.

"Perhaps there is hope," he said through tears. "We must continue building for peace."  

Fourteen years later, in 2006, now an Archbishop, Elias wrote the same thought in a pastoral letter to his supporters around the world. He used more metaphor and waxed theological, but the message was the same. It seemed to resonate in the world we still live in. He wrote this:

No matter what, or rather because of what surrounds us, we do believe that the whispers of the Crucified One are stronger than the bombs of the war lords. 

They cannot be left alone to make history. God is also at work to form history. 

While violence and explosions destroy, humility and love make roots deep in the hearts of men and women of good will.[i]

I write while the bombs at the Boston Marathon are still echoing.  I write while some are still unpacking a story of chemical weapons used in Syria. I write when peace is still elusive between Palestinians and Israel, and suffering continues. I write in a still hostile and troubled world, with violence in homes as well as in streets. 

I also write with the word from the nun beckoning us to the edge of the roof still echoing too. I write in a world of beauty, love, and spiritual discipline—where peace is still made and the whispers of the Crucified One still vibrate our certainties and beg our attention.  A candle in sand in a paper bag shining a light that no darkness can put out.


[i] Annual letter [2006], Office of His Excellency Archbishop Chacour and the Mar Elias Educational Institutions, PO Box 102, Ibillin 30012, Galilee, Israel