September 2022 – Thoughts from Pastor Paul

September 2022 – Thoughts from Pastor Paul

Birds have nests, foxes have dens,
But the hope of the whole world rests on the shoulders of a homeless man.
You had the shoulders of a homeless man;
No, you did not have a home.

So sang Rich Mullins in his Gospel-inspired (Matt. 8:20; Luke 9:58) song “You Did Not Have a Home,” one of the last songs he recorded (on a portable cassette player!) in an abandoned church just nine days before his much-too-young and unexpected death. “…the shoulders of a homeless man,” echoing Jesus’ “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” I wonder if the late Bob Marley (why do the greats always leave us while still so young?) had Christ in mind when he sang, “Cold ground was my bed last night, and rock was my pillow, too” (“Talkin’ Blues, 1974). Or maybe he was channeling one of the disciples, that rag-tag bunch who could not possibly have known the entirety of what their lives were about to become when they heard the words, “Follow me,” and did follow, unquestioningly (Simon and his brother Andrew, and James and John, the sons of Zebedee, in Mark 1:16-20 & Matt. 4:18-22; and Levi in Mark 2:14 & Luke 5:27-28).

Have you ever slept on cold ground with a rock for a pillow? I think of the times I came closest to that, camping (by choice rather than necessity) with a tent to shield me from the elements and a RidgeRest® pad to offer a bit of relief from that cold and uneven ground. Or hitchhiking back to Durango and spending the night beneath a billboard in Walsenburg, Colorado with just a sleeping bag and ground pad. My pillow was usually a sweater rolled up inside a stuff sack; and while it may have lacked the comfort of a Tempur-Pedic® down-filled bit of heaven, it was a far cry better, I would wager, than any rock could be.

I mentioned Jesus’ “rag-tag bunch.” I suppose the phrase was inspired by thinking about Rich Mullins, for he and his fellow musicians were called “A Ragamuffin Band.” The band took their name from The Ragamuffin Gospel, a book by the late Brennan Manning, who was a Franciscan priest and a recovering alcoholic. Rich struggled with his own addictions, and Brennan was one of the saints who helped him in his recovery. I did not learn about this until recently (from the biopic “Ragamuffin,” in fact—look for it on Netflix!), but it made perfect sense when I did. You see, his music is the most authentic in the “Christian Contemporary” genre that I have ever heard.

A lot of Christian music is of the “Jesus, Jesus, rah, rah, rah!” variety, and while I don’t begrudge anyone the joy and wonder of getting to praise God in song, I believe that true faith, true worship, is born of struggle and suffering. That is what I hear in Rich’s songwriting, in lyrics like “Hold me, Jesus, ‘cause I’m shaking like a leaf. You have been King of my glory; won’t you be my Prince of Peace?” and “There’s people been friendly, but they’ll never be your friend; sometimes this has bent me to the ground.” It is why I have long felt such kinship with him. (Okay, full disclosure: “Awesome God” is not, in my estimation, one of Rich’s best, but it was arguably his most popular song. So, yes, even he knew how to “rah, rah” it up from time to time!)

One more thing: Rich and I shared a predilection for performing and proclaiming the gospel in unshod feet. We embraced the spirit of Moses on Mount Sinai, where God told him to take off his sandals, “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). You won’t find me barefoot on Purple Cliffs, though. Faced with all its rocks, cacti, broken glass, and discarded hypodermic needles (because, yes, the camp has its share of drug addicts, God bless them), I have decided that a bit of caution is wise. Even with shoes on, I can feel the presence of Christ, in the soil upon which I stand and in the eyes of the ragamuffins with whom I walk.

Jesus is most certainly visible in this band of unhoused misfits. Even in the self-professed atheists, who, despite their (dis)beliefs, carry a spark of humanity, of life, dare I say: of God. Maybe those sparks are the result of being persons who “did not have a home.” Maybe it’s when your life is quite literally attached to the ground, and when you rely on others (and they on you) for your basic survival, that you cannot help but be connected to, and in conversation with, the divine. And maybe they have chosen a name other than “God” for that divinity. But a name is just a box, a crude attempt at containing that for which it stands. As Moses learned on Sinai’s peak, no name could ever hope to capture the majesty, the magnitude, the infinitude of “I Am” (a non-naming name if ever there was one!).

Thus, most of the “atheists” I know are not without God in their lives. It is not the deity that they have given up on, but rather the church. “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today,” Brennan Manning observed, “is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny him by their lifestyle.” Many of those whom I have walked with have pointed to this sort of hypocrisy as the root cause of their having lost or discarded their faith. It might appear, to the outside observer, that they walked away from God and the church; but more likely it was the church—me and you—who walked away from them. Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46), and I often hear myself included in that indictment. How often have I turned my back on those who needed my love? How often have I walked away?

Have I said all of this before? Probably so. I’ve heard it said that each preacher really only has a single sermon, the same message conveyed week-in and week-out in slightly different words. Well, then, if this is my message, I would be remiss not to include this addendum: remember that there is grace. Jesus asks me why I do not always do what he tells me, but Jesus also loves me—no less so when I slip and stumble than when I occasionally get it right. He loves you, too. And he wants you to love yourself. And as you love yourself, so, too, may you love your neighbor!

In Christ,

Pastor Paul

September 2022 – Thoughts from Pastor Paul

August 2022 – Thoughts from Pastor Paul

“I don’t preach a social gospel; I preach the gospel, period.

The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person.

When people were hungry, Jesus didn’t say, ‘Now is that political or social?’

He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.”

These words from Archbishop Desmond Tutu have long inspired me. They haunt me, as well, because they stand as an unflinching challenge to demonstrate our faith through works. I hear echoes of Saint James’ “faith without works is dead” (2:17, cf. 2:26). James specifies the sort of work he means when he says, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what good is that?” (2:15-16). “Daily food,” points directly to Jesus’ “give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11; Luke 11:3).

The good news—the gospel—is bread. What is it about this simple staple, that it stands as emblematic of nourishment, both bodily and spiritual? In the book of Exodus, we hear of God feeding the Hebrews in the desert with “bread from heaven” (16:4). The Hebrew word “manna” literally means “what is it?” (מָ֣ןה֔וּא, or “mān hū”), and the text seems to imply that “what it is” is some sort of quail droppings! (16:13). But the word that God uses for this gift is “bread.”

And, of course, at the “last supper,” the Passover meal that Jesus Christ shared with his disciples, Jesus broke bread and gave it for all to eat, saying, “This is my body.” He instructing them to eat it “for the remembrance of me”—words that harken back to the first Passover supper, when the Hebrews prepared to escape their enslavement in Egypt. God instructed them to eat unleavened bread to mark that “day of remembrance” (12:14)! The words “remembrance” and “bread” are not used arbitrarily. Rather, they point to the constancy of God’s presence and love throughout God’s relationship with us.

What is your “bread”? I am actually asking two questions here. First, what is the bread that you need? What is it that nourishes you, body and soul, and what do you hunger for? If James, or Bishop Desmond, or I were to ask you how we can be Christ for you, how would you respond? And how would you, in receiving or getting to share this nourishment, remember the largess that is the sacrifice and the eternal life of Jesus Christ?

And second, what is the bread that you have? What are your God-given gifts with which you can feed the hearts and spirits (and yes, bodies) of your sisters and brothers? How do you feel called to serve Christ by serving others—and how do you respond to that call? We are each extended an invitation from God to love God by loving one another. In that invitation is the promise that your faith and your relationship with Jesus will take root, grow, and blossom through your responses. And it also contains the assurance that this call is wholly for your benefit, and never for your condemnation. Serve as you are able, and know that there is no such thing as “not good enough” in God’s eyes. You are loved as you are, and God, through the Holy Spirit, will continue to invite and encourage you; and next time, and the time after that, you will serve more fully, more passionately, more neighborly. And each time you will find that your faith has grown a bit stronger, your heart a bit larger, and your love a bit more fearless.

Next month we celebrate “God’s Work. Our Hands.” Sunday (also known as “Rally Sunday”), a day for us to commit our lives to serving others. As we prepare our hearts for this day, let us be nourished by the living bread, the body of Christ. And let us use that nourishment to be Christ’s body, using our hands (and minds and hearts and souls) to do God’s work for the benefit of the world. Saint Francis of Assisi advises us to, “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words.” May our works be our proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. And may that good news…be your bread.

In Christ,

Pastor Paul


September 2022 – Thoughts from Pastor Paul

July 2022 – Thoughts from Pastor Paul

You probably know that Deacon Mandy is leading a book study this summer of The Deeply Formed Life: Five Transformative Values to Root Us in the Way of Jesus, by Rich Villodas. (There are still three copies of the book available in the narthex, by the way; it’s not too late to join us!) The first two chapters of the book are about cultivating “Contemplative Rhythms.” These chapters have taken my mind back to those times in my life when I longed for and pursued such rhythms for myself. I wanted to be a monk when I was younger. 

Well, not too young; for a while I wanted to be a priest. But in time my thoughts about the priesthood fizzled (perhaps around the time that puberty hit!). It was not until years later that my desire to be a monk arose. It was around the time that I first read Houston Smith’s The Religions of Man and developed an interest in Eastern religious traditions. That book inspired me to pick up a copy of The Way of Life, According to Lao Tzu, by Witter Bynner, one of the cornerstones of Buddhism. 

It was around that time that I first saw the film The Razor’s Edge, starring Bill Murray in a surprisingly brilliant dramatic performance. The film, based on the W. Somerset Maugham novel of the same name, is the story of a man named Larry Darrell. Disillusioned by his experiences in the First World War, he abandoned his comfortable upper-class American life and began a magnificent and tortuous journey of self-discovery. Along the way, he knocked around Europe, living simply and with meager means. He worked for a spell sweeping up after Parisienne fishmongers. He fell in love. He moved to Wales and worked in a coal mine. It was there that he befriended a Welshman who encouraged him to “go to the East” and to read the Upanishads, the sacred Hindu scriptures. Larry did go east, and he eventually found himself in a Buddhist monastery high in the Himalayas. Now, my western mind is tempted to distinguish between Hinduism, the religion to which the Upanishads belongs, and Buddhism, the eastern spirituality and monastic life that Larry Darrell ultimately embraced, but that’s really an apples-versus-oranges sort of distinction. To suggest that the Hindu scriptures have no place in a story of Buddhist discovery and enlightenment would be to deny that the Buddha himself was raised as a Hindu. So, I set aside my comparisons and simply take pleasure in what I discovered through The Razor’s Edge

The title of the book comes from a teaching in the Upanishads that reads, “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus, the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.” My Christian mind cannot help but see connections to Jesus’ metaphors for the path to heaven: as difficult as a camel passing through the eye of a needle, or a narrow gate through which few may pass. Indeed, the more I study, the clearer it becomes that all the major spiritual and religious traditions point to the same truth, albeit using different metaphors and imagery. This awareness helped me to conclude that life in a more familiar Christian monastic community would be just as valuable as life in a Buddhist one, perhaps more so. 

I eventually learned, though, that monkhood is not the life to which I have been called. Rather, God keeps sending me back into this messy and complicated world, where meditation and enlightenment seem rare, and human foibles and struggles the norm. But now, thanks to The Deeply Formed Life, I am coming to see more clearly that a quiet and contemplative life is indeed possible out here. Even in my service as chaplain to the community of unhoused persons at Purple Cliffs, I can find quiet when I need it. I can also find fellowship with these good people. For, just as solitude and contemplation are important elements of a spiritual life, so, the book reminds us, are friendships and communion with others. I am grateful for my communion with each of you, as well. 

Peace in Christ,

Pastor Paul