COLUMN | RETURN TO FAITH | Pastor Tim Johnson, Cherokee Park United Church
Everyday activities are as filled with the sacred, holy | 1.11

Spirit of Life | 2.13

Admittedly it was an interruption to my walk. The goal after all is to get the heart rate up, work up a little sweat and get some needed exercise. But I found myself standing there for a good ten minutes, just watching as children and parents jumped on saucers, snow tubes and various means of sledding as they rode their way down the hill. It was only fifteen years ago that we were at the same hill with our kids, snow rising up into our faces, the occasional spill and near miss. We even traversed a natural bob sled run; winding it’s way through the woods, looking more dangerous than it ever turned out to be. Remembering my mom as she enthusiastically rode down the hill with her grandkids, I couldn’t help but wonder if someday I would do the same.

There are places in our lives that have the ability to evoke a strong sense of connection with the land, with each other, with those who have gone before. It is why it is important at times to stop, breathe a little more slowly and let our spirits be filled with the gifts of that moment. Some would call these places sacred because they find through these encounters, more than a memory of days gone by, but a rich awareness that the joy of all those who traversed that place remains. In a very real sense it is as if my mom and all those other grandparents are still jumping on their sleds, grandkids between their legs, heading down the hill. The spirit of life is present on that hill. Those nurtured in a spiritual tradition, might even call that spirit God.

If it is possible to have this type of deep association with a particular place with just a generation or two of experience, one can only imagine what it must be like for those whose experience goes back many, many generations to the point of not knowing when time began. This of course, is the experience of the Dakota people whose homeland is Minnesota, though they were banished from it following the war of 1862.

For the Dakota, Minnesota is filled with sacred places evoking a deep connection with ancestors, the land, the Creator and all of life. The confluence of the Mississippi River and the Minnesota River is literally remembered as their place of origin, a Garden of Eden place, where their life as a people began. All along the rivers in bluffs areas like Pilot Knob, fresh water springs like Cold Spring and many others, the Dakota people carry an awareness that these places are sacred. Among the places now held sacred is the land just below Fort Snelling, where over 1,700 Dakota, women, children and elderly were held in a concentration camp, following a forced march in the bitter cold of November, 1862. During that winter, lack of food, exposure to the elements, and illness took more than 400 lives. Sad memories of tragic loss can also be sacred places, just like the Vietnam Memorial has become for many in Washington D.C.

This past January, Council Member Dave Thune, introduced a resolution entitled “The Year of the Dakota: Remembering, Honoring and Truth-Telling,” using language nearly identical to a resolution adopted by Minneapolis in December, 2012. Dr. Chris Mato Nunpa, a Dakota Elder and leader, calls it a historic resolution, because for the first time language is used to accurately describe the horrendous treatment of the Dakota, such as genocide, concentration camps, bounties, mass execution and forced removal.

Among the important actions called for by the resolution is directing the Parks and Recreation Department to work in collaboration identifying, naming and interpreting sites that are sacred to the Dakota people. This, of course, is just a beginning in addressing the tragic history of the Dakota and the rest of us who came as immigrants. But it is significant. We all have our sacred places, even if it is only a generation or two that evokes this awareness. It is in such places that we can breathe more slowly, open our hearts and spirits to something larger than ourselves and experience the connections that make us human. By honoring the sacred sites of the Dakota we also acknowledge that our lives are enriched by those places that have become to sacred to us.

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Clay Pots

by Tim Johnson
Pastor, Cherokee Park United Church

It was our first visit to the Pottery Studio at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota. We had heard about Richard Bresnahan, the artist in residence, who utilizes a one-of-a-kind wood-fired kiln, loosely modeled from ancient kilns in the Pacific Rim. Although we didn’t know it at the time, the person who immediately stopped working and greeted us warmly at the door was the artist himself. Richard showed us where the pottery on exhibit could be found and invited us to look around and take our time.

It is distinctive work. The pottery has an earthen look to it with a unique glaze that seems to run down the side of each piece. We enjoyed walking around, looking at the various creations that were on display. It could have ended there, with a short visit, and then onto the next thing in what for us was a 24-hour get-away.

Fortunately, we were not in a rush and neither was Richard. We asked a couple questions about the pottery and how it was created. Before we knew it, we were engaged in an extensive conversation about ecology, sustainability and the type of values needed if humanity is to have a future. These clay pots were clearly more than clay pots. They were shaped and fired with spiritual and moral commitments that made these pieces of work much more than a bowl or a cup for one’s evening’s meal. They connected you to a past that knows something about living sustainably. They offer a critique about a capitalist economy that requires more and more consumption at greater and greater cost to the planet. That’s a lot to ask from a piece of pottery, but with time, questions and conversations it delivers.
Richard explained how the wood fire process was first utilized thousands of years ago in the Pacific Rim. He had studied with Johanna Becker, the first woman professor at St. John’s and a well known Japanologist and art historian. He went on to apprentice in Japan with an artist whose family’s pottery making goes back 13 generations. It is there that Richard learned the art of wood-fired kilns, now utilizing a similar process, with materials all drawn from the St. Cloud area. Clay comes from a nearby glacial ridge, porcelain from abandoned quarry deposits, and the glazes are made from the ash of straw, sunflower hulls and deadfall wood from the St. John’s campus.

Before we left, Richard showed us a plastic bowl that he had been given, filled with Halloween candy. Because of the dangers of the plastic leaching chemicals, it was labeled as unsafe for many uses. It was quite a contrast to the pottery bowls in his studio.

I am grateful we had the time, took the time and that Richard was so generous with engaging us. It makes me mindful of the season we now enter, rich with religious traditions. We can treat them like any old piece of pottery, moving onto the next thing. Or we can become engaged in conversation with traditions that still have the potential to greatly enrich and inform our lives and the world in which we live.

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Scenic View

The sign said “Scenic View.” Had we been driving, it might have been tempting to pull off the road on which we were traveling and see where this alternate road took us. As it was, my wife was getting a break from driving the often narrow, winding roads of Ireland and Scotland. We were on a bus, traversing the Island of Mull on our way to another ferry and our final destination of Iona. The bus driver didn’t give the scenic view sign a second thought.

Driving to Oban, where we caught the ferry to Mull had itself been a beautiful journey. We had come from Edinburgh, taking a route through the mountains of Argyll, with the road skirting one of Scotland’s many lochs (Gaelic for lake or inlet). Besides the occasional castle, and picturesque villages, the long tranquil lochs nestled into the mountains provided many images worthy of postcards.

The hour-long ferry ride to the Island of Mull was itself a panoramic adventure. With the Scottish coastline behind us and islands off in the distance, the ferry glided through the waters of a tranquil day. Since the sun was warming the upper deck, we chose to join the few who preferred taking full advantage of the beauty before us.

The bus ride across Mull was also impressive, holding our attention with each twist and turn in the road. The road itself was even narrower than other roads on which we had traveled, something that was hard to imagine until you actually were on it. There was room for only one vehicle, with pullouts for oncoming travelers. Typically, approaching vehicles gave way to our bus, but now and then, the bus driver pulled over. We sat up front, taking it all in, lakes amidst the treeless rolling hills, mountains in the distance, now and then glimpses of the sea.

Had we been driving, the “scenic view” sign would have been tempting, but it also came as quite a surprise. Up until we saw the sign we thought we were on the scenic view road. In fact, virtually the entire journey had been one scenic view.

The bus driver, of course, had a job to do, which did not include taking side roads. Rather than be tempted to change course, we could simply sit back, relax and continue to appreciate the road we were traveling.

I would like to say that is the way I always live, appreciating the beauty, the wonder, the scenic views on the road I presently travel. But, those signs are tempting, the notion that real beauty lies somewhere else other than where we are or the people with whom we live.
Part of the reason for this particular trip was to learn and experience first-hand the Celtic orientation of seeing beauty and the sacred in the ordinary, every-dayness of life. This is an orientation known by many indigenous people, whose sense of the sacred is rooted in the landscape and the people with whom they live. Rather than chasing after a scenic view that is somewhere else, they stay open to the beauty that is right at hand.

No doubt that is why Jesus of the Gospels says things like “consider the lilies.” It is an invitation to live with a heart open to beauty, wonder and the sacred, in the here and now, with the people and the place where we live.

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The trip we are planning is one we have anticipated for the past year or so. As the time of departure has grown closer, the planning and preparation has increased. The floor in one of our rooms is covered with maps, travel guides and various pamphlets all with helpful information about where to stay and what to see and do. The internet in particular is a welcome source of much information. A few clicks and you can find out how long it takes to get from one place to the next, cost of admission, a full description of accommodations, virtually everything you need to know.

There is, of course, a risk with all the planning and preparation. This future oriented focus can make one less attentive to the possibility and potential of living that is here, right now, in the present. In this regard I am as guilty as the next person. I regularly make lists of things that need doing. My mind frequently is outpacing where I am at the moment, considering the other things that need my attention or I hope to accomplish during the course of the day.

I appreciate the Buddhist corrective known as “mindfulness,” which celebrated Buddhist Monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, describes as “being aware of what is going on — what is going on in your body, in your feelings, in your mind and in the objects of your mind, which are the world.” In his book Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian, author Paul Knitter makes a connection between mindfulness and the Christian notion articulated by Paul of “being in Christ” or “having the mind of Christ.” These are invitations to live in the moment so that we might be fully present to others, the world around us, ourselves, and the spirit of life that unites it all.

Living in the moment, being attentive to the present is, for me, one of the biggest daily spiritual challenges that I face. Yet, as with most things, even this helpful admonition benefits from its own corrective. One of the delights of planning a trip is the anticipation, which is very much an in the moment experience. My wife and I look at the possibility and we experience now the excitement of this future oriented shared experience.

In the Christian tradition theologians describe this future breaking into the present as the “now, but not yet” experience of God’s Realm. The line between what will be and the experience of the present is less linear, but rather overlapping so that one can have experiences of both, even as the future awaits its fullness.

As we look at the travel books, the maps and explore the possibilities for our trip, the joy of this yet unrealized future is right now. Some of it may not happen as we plan. Some of it may not happen at all. But, regardless of what happens, the present is enriched by these future plans and dreams.

In this election year, there are a number of folks who have strong hopes for what the future will look like in Minnesota. Those hopes include a state that says no to constitutional laws denying same gender couples the right to marry. Those hopes include rejecting constitutional amendments that create barriers to democratic participation with new requirements for IDs. On living room floors, places of worship, and many other locations, people spread out road maps, guides from past elections, and all types of information that can help make this future a reality. My encouragement to all these advocates for justice is to enjoy the moment, celebrate the present. In your work together, the future is already here.

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We all have our stories

I was never particularly fond of heights. When I was a kid, there was a neighbor boy by the name of Fred who was into building tree houses. The first one, which we helped him build, was about twelve feet off the ground. It was a classic tree house, with a trap door and a rope ladder that you could pull up behind you. It was the perfect place for early adolescents to hang out. The height of the tree house invited caution, but not terror.

The next tree house, however, tilted in the direction of terror when it came to distance from the ground. I took one look at the tree and let Fred know he was on his own. The first major limb was about 15 feet off the ground. He created a ladder on the trunk just to reach his starting point. From there, he had to negotiate another five feet or so, before finding branches suitable for constructing a tree house. Fred was an independent type, so he persevered on his own, until at last his tree house was complete. He talked me into making the climb once. That was enough.

I was recently reminded of those tree climbing days as I watched one of our members swing about on the extended tree limbs in front of our church. I am not a great judge of heights, but I doubt it would be an exaggeration to put it in the 20 – 25 foot range, perhaps more. The chain saw in his hand added another whole dimension.

Andy approached his tree climbing with the same confidence as Fred, though I am certain in Andy’s case, years of experience and training made his confidence more warranted. Andy is an arborist and does this type of thing professionally.

The previous Sunday, the congregation had gathered around the trees with song and thanksgiving for the ways they had contributed to and supported life. Andy offered a beautiful prayer. Both trees faced a limited future. One was root bound and tipping toward the street. The other was an Ash. The decision had been made to remove them now so that we could proceed with a major solar project that will be installed on the roof this spring.

For Christians, a major part of the draw of what we call Holy Week is the way it catches us up in the drama of living. Holy Week gives us a story that presents us with fear, courage, isolation, community, death and new life. The fears of an adolescent and the anxieties of the old, the courage of the young and the wisdom of the seasoned, the feelings of isolation and the comfort of community are all present. The story of Holy Week frames and gives meaning to the loss of two trees, making way for new possibilities that come from solar energy.

We all have our stories. The gift of our religious traditions is the way they can weave our individual story into a broader narrative that gives us meaning and reminds us the sacred is all around us.

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A Maya Child

It was a tough way to begin a trip. We had just arrived at the hotel in San Cristobal, Chiapas, one of the southern states of Mexico. We stood at the entrance waiting to welcome our fellow travelers who followed in the second van. We expected to see smiling faces eager to disembark after a long journey. Instead we were greeted by earnest expressions of concern.

Crowded into the van with our companions was a family of Maya Indians. The father had a couple sacks of beans by his feet, apparently headed for the market. The mother was holding a little girl, who was crying. A couple more adults and young children, also Maya, sat close by on the floor.

My first assumption was that for some reason the driver of the van had decided to give this family a ride, but the emotional tone in the van suggested otherwise. We soon learned that as they were nearing the hotel they had approached a corner with this Maya family waiting to cross. San Cristobal is an old Spanish colonial city with narrow stone-paved roads, narrow sidewalks about six to eight inches up and buildings that square off right at the corner. One has to walk and drive carefully.

When our second van arrived, part of the family had already crossed the street. The mother, father and little girl were waiting until the traffic cleared before joining them. Some of the members in the van saw what was about to unfold, but could only watch helplessly, yelling out stop, as the little girl darted into the street to join her brothers. The van driver did what he could, but there was no escaping the sound of the little girl’s head hitting the bumper.

The little girl was quickly pulled out from under the van. She was bleeding from the nose and ears, but crying and alert, both very encouraging signs. Since the hotel was on the way to the hospital, the passengers were dropped off, leaving more room and privacy for the family, and our guide who went with them.

We never learned what became of the little girl and her family. Three days later members of the group were still processing what they had witnessed and experienced. Together, they were frequently in our prayers.
We had come to San Cristobal as part of a Global Justice Study trip sponsored by United Theological Seminary. The hope was to learn more about the challenges facing the Indigenous Maya, who like the Indigenous people in our country and around the world, are the canaries in the mine when it comes to the exploitation of global capitalism and environmental degradation. They suffer first and hardest.

What we discovered before our first evening meal is the deep linkage in our humanity that is all too easily lost or ignored. A young Maya child could be my child, my granddaughter, my little sister. Each of us had points of entry into worry, fear, suffering with those we love. We had come to learn about how we are connected to the Maya, the ways in which our lives have an impact on theirs and what it is we still share in common. A little Maya child quickly reminded us how basic that connection can be.

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Not hard to dislike January

It’s not hard to dislike January. Among the months of the year, it has for many folks some of the more disagreeable characteristics. January knows how to make cold more than cold, but painful. I will never forget the days I took the bus to work and then walked a long couple of blocks from the bus stop, up an exposed hill to my destination. With the temperature below zero and the wind steady in your face, it felt like needles were being driven into your flesh. I still feel tremendous empathy for folks standing at bus stops in January. My heart especially goes out to people who are traveling with groceries or worse yet, trying to reach a laundromat.

January, of course, does bring snow, which outdoor enthusiasts appreciate. But even when January is trying to please, it seems to muck things up rather than really get it right in a way that we might appreciate. The snow comes, but then it is immediately followed by temperatures in the subzero range. Unless you are of the Will Steger or Anne Bancroft temperament, you stay inside. Or the snow comes and is followed by freezing rain, creating a hard crust, making skiing of any type much less enjoyable. January has a difficult time finding that sweet spot with fresh fallen snow and temperatures in the twenties. Even when January presents us with one of those thaws pushing temperatures into the forties and up, it is more annoying than pleasing. We know it is too soon to get excited about consistent warmer days, and we will only be left with a chilly, brown landscape.

January also has the disadvantage of being dark, very dark. It is true that the same can be said of December. But, December has the advantage of holiday lights to lift our spirits and any number of activities to distract us. Even though January days are getting longer, it is so slowly incremental it is hardly worth noting.

I do understand why folks turn their backs on January and head south, only returning when a month has arrived with a more pleasant disposition. But, for the vast majority of us who remain, it can be helpful to remember what January has to offer. If we concentrate only on the faults, we can miss out on some distinctive gifts. January after all has a way of inviting us to slow down, which is what the darkness is all about. In the long days of summer, we feel like we want to capture every moment. But January encourages us to stay in bed just a little longer and let our bodies get needed rest. January can also have a distinct beauty that other months have a hard time capturing. A sub-zero day, after a freshly fallen snow, can sparkle like a precious emerald in a way that virtually defies being captured in picture. It has to be experienced. Even the bitter cold, when it is calm and still, can make you feel alive — rather daring, actually, to be living in Minnesota.

Maybe rather than just focus on January’s faults, which admittedly are there, we should give the month a break and concentrate a bit more on its gifts. That, of course, is a good strategy not only for months of the year, but also for people.

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Practices and traditions of the year

The meat market was still there. It looked no different than it did fifty years ago, when we stopped in to pick up beef stored in the locker, left from a cow that we had had butchered. Korstad’s grocery was now a coffee and flower shop. The pharmacy was gone, but the town still had a nice hardware store. Surprisingly, the town bar was vacant as were several other store fronts. In a small town nearby, the bar is about the only thing left.

The former grocery store and the former hospital (it’s now apartments) both seem much smaller than they did when we were children. The same is true of the rural elementary school we attended, now a private Christian school. Those buildings are no longer big enough for the memories that I have of them.

Across the street from the hospital is the house of the small-town banker, who actually owned the bank. His house is at least double the size of anything else in town. As my brother said, “That’s where the one percent lived.” In the banker’s defense, he was a part of the fabric of the community. He and his wife shopped and worshiped in town, and sent their kids to the public school like everyone else.

Driving out toward the old farmstead, we stopped at the church cemetery for a short family reunion with our parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, great grandparents and one brother. It looked much the same as it did years ago when my siblings and I each took turns mowing the lawn, going over and around the gravestones. The hand pump for watering flowers was just like it was when we were kids, with a can of water sitting along side to get it primed.

The farmstead looked tired. The now empty barn long ago lost its usefulness, built for a day when cows were milked by hand. Milk machines did find their way into the barn, but it never was modernized for a twenty-first century cow. The land is farmed by an area farmer who grew his operation in keeping with the trend of larger farms.

A walk down the dirt road bordering the west end of the farm was called short when we noticed the deer hunters in orange vests. Remembering the past was great, but there was still the future to consider.

This excursion into the story of our childhood undertaken by my brother and me is an excursion regularly engaged in by communities of faith as they move through the practices and the traditions of the year. They connect us to a past that feels very much alive, like a family reunion with those who have gone before. Some traditions change, others fall by the way side like an old barn, others feel like they can barely contain all that we bring. Whether we are a first time visitor or been this way many times before, there is always the possibility that somewhere on the excursion you will know that this is holy ground and that you are part of a sacred story.

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Hope for a better world

My awakening to the personal impact of social policy came in 1969 with the institution of the draft for the Vietnam War. Along with many other young adults, I sat staring at the black and white screen awaiting my fate as numbers were drawn from a glass jar. Each number drawn was assigned to a day of the year that determined your likelihood for being shipped off to Vietnam, pursuing the status of a conscientious objector or heading for Canada. Those were your basic options. I was fortunate; the number pulled out of the jar and assigned to my birth date was 282. Throughout the year draftees were called up based on their number, beginning with the number one. If you made it though the year, you were home free because the next calendar began with a new group beginning with one. The highest they went in my year of exposure was 195.

I remember like yesterday sitting on that sofa watching the numbers being pulled. I could only sit by helplessly as my fate and that of many others was determined by forces completely outside of our control. Up until then social policy had been the domain of those I knew as adults. But, with the initiation of the draft, there was no avoiding the awareness that I had a stake in Vietnam and ultimately a whole lot more.

Vietnam and the draft has returned to my consciousness as I watch people gathering in protest on Wall Street, at the Hennepin County Court House, and in many other cities in the U.S. and around the world. Without the visual and dramatic advantage of a jar filled with numbers, there has been a growing awareness, especially among young adults, that they have a stake in social policy. They see an economy that is benefiting a few at the top, while leaving millions behind. They are graduating from high schools and graduate schools with limited or no opportunities. They are offered the opportunity of creating huge debts to banks and financial institutions that have taken their parent’s homes while continuing to be generously compensated for providing this service.

With the exception of unions, which have been both in decline and under attack, most people had abandoned economic questions to those adults to whom they entrusted these weighty matters. Now, however, buffeted by forces over which people have little control, one sees the possibility of an awakening, which is long overdue. Growing numbers are recognizing that they have a stake in the social polices that govern and shape the structuring of our economy.

As a person who turns to the wisdom of faith for guidance, I take comfort in the affirmation that among the forces over which we have no control is the spirit of God. Facing inequity and injustice from those who stacked the deck in their own favor, the Hebrew prophet Joel gives voice to the One who refuses to be managed: “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.”

It is an old story. This is how the spirit works on Wall Street, West Seventh Street, Robert Street and every other street where people awaken to the awareness of injustice and the hope of a better world.

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Low-Impact Dilemma | 10.11

It was an innocent conversation. The young men in the café were merely remarking on the small scale dilemma before them, with no claim to any broader significance. They had come together for one last morning breakfast before heading off on their separate paths. By the time I arrived to say hello, they were starting to slow down on the substantial amount of food they had been given. One of the young men said, “If I stop now, I will feel just about right, but if I keep going, I am going to be stuffed.” One of the other young men, undoubtedly knowing his friend, perhaps himself as well, immediately replied, “You know you are going to do the wrong thing and eat all of it.”

I did not stay around to see the outcome of this low impact dilemma, but consuming more than one needs and knowing when to stop does represent a moral equation that we have been facing for a long time and in its broadest context will greatly influence the type of world our children and grandchildren inherit. Many of the early European settlers to Minnesota saw the state as an endless and inexhaustible supply of trees, wildlife, fish and clean water. They found little reason for doing anything other than consume everything set before them. The beautiful white pines that once filled the Minnesota landscape were clear-cut with little or no thought of what the inability to stop might mean for the people and long term ecology of the state. They are but one example of refusing to push away from the table.

One of the ironies of contemporary politics is that in many cases “conservative” has come to mean no constraints. We should be free to consume as much as we want. No one else has any business suggesting it might be wise to stop. Our current economic mess in many ways can be directly attributed to this outlook. The notion of saying “no more” goes against the grain for a financial industry wanting to live with minimal regulation and consumers stretching beyond their means.

The downturn in the stock market and the high level of unemployment has necessarily given many folks pause, in part because they no longer are sure they can afford that big breakfast. Yet, the core philosophy of consumption without limitations remains a driving philosophy influencing everything from national energy policy, taxation and the personal decisions all of us must make.

The Dakota and Ojibwe people, who were here long before European settlers, knew that choosing to limit consumption had little to do with restrictions on personal liberty. Their conservatism had to do with living in relationship with the earth, with each other. Although too often ignored and distorted, this conservative impulse is shared by all the major faith traditions who immigrated to Minnesota. The message is simple. This is God’s earth. We are called to live in relationship with it and one another; which, of course, means knowing when to stop, even when there is more that can be consumed. It’s time to do the right thing.

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Glorious Summer Days | 9.11

It was one of those glorious summer days. If I had been suddenly given the power to tweak things a bit, fine tune it, so that it was absolutely perfect, I would have been hard pressed to name anything that I would change. Lake Superior is an awe-inspiring body of water under almost any circumstance. I have seen the Lake with waves that would sink a ship, something the Lake has a long history of doing. One November, the waves were so strong that buildings close to the shore became encased with ice. One day in March we watched as the Lake pushed huge slabs of ice down the shore line, rumbling and moving like a slow freight train rolling through St. Paul. We have also witnessed the lake perfectly calm, water like glass, without a ripple disturbing the tranquility of the moment.

We were spending a few days on Madeline Island, part of the Apostle Islands, out of Bayfield, Wisconsin. The Island, which is great for biking, has a couple of lovely parks. We chose the City Park with its lagoon connected to the Lake by a small creek. The Lagoon is a great place to canoe and most folks who rent canoes head that direction. On this day, however, we turned our canoes toward the Lake. It was one of those days when this powerful body of water had decided to catch up on its rest. Ducks gliding through the water created a slight ripple that quickly disappeared into the complete calm that lay before us.

With the warmth of the sun on our backs we headed down the shoreline. Through the crystal clear blue we could see boulders scattered about the bottom, left long ago by glaciers. In most places the shoreline was ragged with outcropping and trees growing awkwardly out of places it often seemed they should not be. Here and there steps descended from homes along the bluffs to small beaches or docks. One of those small beaches was occupied by a young family, who immediately smiled and waved as we paddled by.
The scene evoked memories of an old hymn we occasionally sing on Sunday mornings and is among my favorites, “For the Beauty of the Earth.” The first verse provides a wonderful summation of the day, “For the beauty of the earth, for the glory of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies, Lord of all, to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.”

The overall glories of the day did make the small section of shoreline we had just passed feel all that much more tragic, even pathetic. From our canoe we could clearly see signs posted up and down the bluff in big bold letters, all proclaiming “Keep Out – Private Property.” One was insufficient; they felt they needed four, including one painted onto a log reaching out toward the Lake.

This is, of course, the type of self-protective, what’s mine is mine, orientation that among other things makes us hostile to new immigrants, documented or undocumented. There really is no separating our capacity to see beauty in creation and our openness and caring for one another. The fourth verses of the old hymn tells it well, “For the joy of human love, brother, sister, parent child, friends on earth and friends above, for all gentle thoughts and mild, Lord of all to Thee we raise this our hymn of grateful praise.”

I pray for good weather | 7.11

It was a far cry from being kicked out of a state park on the 4th of July weekend, or worse being told your paycheck has stopped or the assistance upon which you rely has been terminated. All the same, it was disappointing to do a forced retreat inside, abandoning our plans for a summer gathering in our back yard. The tables, the chairs, the helium filled balloons now lying limply on the ground, were all drenched in the rain that showed up just about the time the first guest was to arrive. The only way the rain could have been more prompt was if we had sent it an invitation, which we definitely did not. As unwelcome guests are inclined to do, the rain stayed for the entire length of the party.

I will confess that in anticipation of special events such as this, I do pray for good weather. I do so knowing and trusting God translates my prayer for a sunny, rain free day into the deeper motivation that lies behind it, which is simply that it will be a day of celebration and good fellowship. The latter can and did happen, rain or no rain, sun or no sun. I hope the same was true for all those booted out of the state parks.

I will continue praying for good weather when the occasion suggests it, all along knowing that that when it come to weather conditions for our special events, God has a much broader perspective than those articulated by my personal desires and needs. In the Christian Bible, the Gospel of Matthew records Jesus saying, “For God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45)

This broader perspective rejects any claim to divine inside status, no matter how good or holy or righteous we think we are. It calls us to step back from our personal wants and needs, inviting us instead to see how we are all in this together, the good and the bad, Republicans and Democrats, Tea Party members and Progressives.

As weather forecasts go, it is quite unreliable, with no promise of special favor. But, it is an outlook that could prevent the closing of state parks, the laying off of state employees, and turning our backs on those in need.

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Unpredictable Ways of Life | 6.11

There was no direct connection between the plumber and the cat. I am fairly certain they have never met. Yet, in the often strange and unpredictable ways of life, the early morning knock on our bedroom door could be directly attributed to the cat and the plumber.

The knock on our bedroom door was the result of our son discovering a meowing sound coming from under the bathroom tub. Earlier in the week a guest cat by the name of Twitch had arrived for the summer, the name apparently derived from the after-effects of chewing on an electric cord. The cat of the house, Feebee, has not appropriated the values of hospitality, central to so many religious traditions.

When Twitch arrived, Feebee made an effort to discourage this unwelcome guest from unpacking her bags. Twitch never took the hint. Like many people facing stranger anxiety, Feebee saw only two options, fight or flight. Since the threat of fighting had no apparent effect on Twitch, Feebee opted for flight.
Ordinarily, the underside of the bathtub would be unavailable as a hiding place for our cat, but the day before a plumber had been out to fix the tub faucet. Access to the pipes is through a panel in my wife’s closet, which of course, needed to be removed. The panel had yet to be put back, leaving Feebee a perfect place to hide, causing our son to wake us up with the early morning news that our cat was under the tub.

Later in the day, the director of our after-school tutoring program asked how I was doing. I said, “Tired.” She then heard the full story of the cat and the plumber.

We love the illusion that we live in a linear world of direct cause and effect, as if one can plot the unfolding of one’s life, confident things will work out as planned. Bookstores, libraries and online sellers carry the works of numerous authors who offer steps to a better life, better living. From relationships to weight loss, from financial success to spiritual growth, there is no shortage of books laying out a linear sequence of steps leading to desired results.

These steps can be helpful, but only if they make allowance for the plumber and the cat, which interact in ways that we can never imagine or anticipate. People who have experienced less of the downside of life are particularly prone to placing great faith in their planning, processes and capacity to control outcomes.

Yet, ultimately there is no escaping the interaction of the cat and the plumber, which is why it is always best to approach life with a strong measure of humility, openness and charity, cornerstones for a life of faith and placing one’s trust in something greater than oneself.

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My Uncle Lloyd | 5.11

When my uncle Lloyd thought the newly hired, green-behind-the-ears, town police officer was being too aggressive with his ticket writing, he did not go to the town mayor, he went to see banker Olson. Olson was the president of the town bank. His office was open and accessible. My uncle, who along with my father and grandfather, operated a small dairy farm, believed banker Olson would care about his complaint and do something. He was right.

Banker Olson was part of the community. His home was bigger than most of the other homes, but it existed on the same street with more modest dwellings. His kids played with neighbor kids and went to the same public school. Banker Olson always had a new car, when most folks let theirs age, but he purchased his Lincoln Continental from the same small town Ford dealer who sold pickup trucks to my uncle and all the other dairy farmers. Banker Olson may have had more money than my uncle and virtually every other customer in his bank, but he was trusted as one who cared about the community and the people who lived there, because he was part of the community.

It is hard to imagine saying the same thing abut Stephen Hemsley, the CEO of United Health Group. The article buried in the business section of the Pioneer Press reported Hemsley had a 21% increase in salary in 2010, bringing his pay to $10.8 million. In addition, Hemsley also exercised $43.5 million in stock options. As the nation struggles with soaring health care costs, as community based clinics serving the poor struggle to keep their doors open, as many still find health care out of reach, Hemsley joins a rank of CEOs for whom this type of compensation is considered normal. The compensation committee for United Health said, “Hemsley’s total pay is less than his peers….” The committee was comforted, however, by the belief that “the total compensation was sufficient to motivate and retain him.” What a relief.

I have never met Hemsley and there is virtually no chance I ever will. He may be a nice guy, but I seriously doubt he has the slightest clue about life on main street, the way banker Olson did. Nor do any of the people on the compensation committee who hold their breath hoping they have given Hemsley enough of the money that might otherwise be used to keep open a few more community clinics. This is a world of wealth, status and power run amok. It is obscene, as are all the other highly inflated compensation packages, but it is particularly so in a field that capitalizes on human suffering and need.

These are the very people Congressman Paul Ryan from Wisconsin would reward with his budget proposals, cutting services and assistance to those most in need, while giving even greater tax breaks to people like Hemsley and other CEOs who long ago forgot that a main street even exists. This level of greed is, of course, nothing new. Long ago the prophet Isaiah said, “Doom to you who legislate evil, who make laws that make victims — laws that make misery for the poor, that rob my destitute people of dignity, exploiting defenseless widows, taking advantage of homeless children. What will you have to say on Judgment Day, when Doomsday arrives out of the blue? Who will you get to help you? What good will your money do you?” (Isaiah 10:3, The Message).

I would love to introduce Rep. Ryan, CEO Hemsley and others who share their avarice to Banker Olson. Sadly, he passed away a number of years ago. Fortunately, we still have main street prophets like Isaiah, who remind us all what it means to be part of a community.

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Spring Cleaning | 4.11
There is a certain logic to the association of cleaning with spring. We find ourselves in that sweet spot between the hibernating instincts of winter and the manic desires of maximizing summer. Spring is that time when, like those early daffodils, we awaken with new energy and a desire to get active.

Cleaning fits the bill. It is like preseason for the fun stuff. It gets our blood moving and enables us to accomplish something useful in the process.

Spring cleaning also suggests a certain thoroughness that might be absent from the rest of the year. There is the type of cleaning one does on a regular basis so that you don’t become absolutely disgusted with your surroundings.

Typically there is a scale on the disgust threshold that can vary from person to person. Among my first postcollege roommates was a fellow who ignored the sticky juice spilled on the kitchen floor for a good four days, even though it meant prying your feet away every time you crossed that spot. Admittedly I also ignored the sticky juice, but by that fourth day I capitulated. His threshold for disgust was higher than mine.

My standards for ongoing cleanliness are now more in line with my wife’s, which is a long ways from those postcollege days. But, even with our consensus standard for ongoing house cleaning, we share with most folks the need and desire for a more thorough focus associated with longer days, early flowers, and rediscovered lawns. Spring cleaning means paying attention to areas we might have otherwise ignored. It means getting into the corners and the closets with an eye toward clearing out those things that are no longer useful or broken and beyond repair.

Early in my ministry, there was a member of my congregation who found cleaning to be a meditative experience. Although I have never managed to achieve that level of oneness with the process, I do see an association with spring cleaning and the seasonal rhythms many religious traditions have developed, encouraging a more thorough inspection of our lives and world.

For Christians following the liturgical year, the season of Lent is our spiritual spring cleaning. There is, of course, the weekly or daily confession, inviting one’s attention to the ongoing needs of honesty, faithfulness, living out the values one proclaims. These confessions, for example, are a helpful reminder that rather than let your anger clutter your relationships it might be best to talk it over with your family member, co-worker or neighbor. It is about cleaning up the juice on the floor sooner rather than later.

Lent and the equivalent seasons held by other faith traditions remind us that from time to time we also need a more careful, systemic look at what has been accumulating. On a personal level, one might look at whether your priorities are truly aligned with your values, are you finding meaning and fulfillment in your work or life in general, are you spending time with those you care about and those who need your care. On a systemic level these cleaning seasons remind us that some things will only be addressed by a thorough, truthful assessment of where the problems are, what needs attention, and what should be discarded. Racism, global climate change and growing economic disparity all come to mind as requiring the thoroughness of seasonal cleaning.

The seasons are turning once again. It is a good time to clean house.

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Measure of Truth | 3.11

by Pastor Tim Johnson, Cherokee Park United Church

Perhaps it was a measure of truth telling that today somehow eludes us, but the pants I wore as a child entering second grade were clearly labeled chubby. I don’t recall any of the other descriptive titles, but I do clearly remember going into the store with my mom into the boys section with an area marked chubby boys, filled with pants that also had that designation. Today, of course, no one would think of labeling clothes “chubby”; this in spite of the fact that too much weight in children has become such a problem that it is considered a national epidemic and has the attention of the First Lady.

The glasses were another story. They were round, functional and a far cry from setting any fashion trends. When I wasn’t looking for them, they did enable me to see more clearly. They somehow fit with the chubby boy pants.

The haircut completed the overall look. Though I must confess, I don’t recall as a second grader going for any particular look, other than what I saw when I got up in the morning. The cut was called a heinie, which I have since learned began as a derogatory term for German soldiers in World War I and was a reference to their short crew cuts. As far as I know, there was nothing derogative associated with getting a heinie haircut, other than that it was given to you at home by your mom.

Each morning, a young boy wearing chubby boy pants, glasses that were roundish, and a stylish heinie haircut got up from the breakfast table, ready for another day at school. On more than a few occasions I was sent off by mom with the loving affirmation, “You are handsome.” This, of course, did not swell my head with ideas that all the other kids should make room for me as I walked down the hall. At best it brought me into the broad ranks of what Garrison Keillor claims for all the children of Lake Woebegone — “above average.” I certainly did not feel or think of myself as exceptional.

I now look back and recognize my mom’s affirmation as a parent’s capacity to see the best in their children even when it is not apparent to others. This, of course, is quite different from ignoring a child’s behavioral problems, failure to apply themselves, or any number of things essential for healthy growth.

There is clearly a distinction between a parent’s love for their child and building up a false sense of self-esteem that refuses to address problems or to recognize need for growth. It is this distinction that makes the whole debate on U.S. exceptionalism so utterly confusing. It is one thing to love one’s country and to see its potential. It is quite another to strut down the hall, believing that you are God’s gift to the rest of the world. It is one thing to affirm all that is good and true, it is another thing altogether to ignore prison populations outpacing all other developed countries, an ever deepening gap between the well-off and the poor, entrenched racial disparities and any number of social markers that tell us we have problems.

Faith traditions share a common affirmation about human dignity, value and worth. The Book of Genesis begins with the resounding affirmation that we are created in God’s image, which is not a whole lot different than telling a young boy wearing chubby boy pants, glasses and a heinie hair cut that he is handsome. But, as the story in Genesis also reminds us, once human beings start asserting their exceptionalism, they are only a short distance from a big fall. Maybe it’s time that we restock the chubby boy pants and take an honest and humble look at who we are.

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What We Are Doing When We Are Stuck | 2.11

by Pastor Tim Johnson, Cherokee Park United Church

Looking out my office window at the still accumulating snow, I had a full view of the two cars now stuck in the middle of Baker Street. Both had made the fateful mistake of turning off Smith Avenue onto Baker, getting about as far as their cars’ momentum would take them and no further. In an earlier time, I might have grabbed a shovel and joined them to see what I could do. Now, however, having just turned 60 and mindful my father died of a heart attack at 63 while shoveling out someone who was stuck, I gave it a little more thought. My conclusion was they were going nowhere. The snow was too deep, their cars too small, the distance back to Smith Avenue too far.

The woman in the car directly in front of my office came to the same conclusion in about five minutes. She tried going forward, tried going backward, assessed her situation and called a friend who helped get her car to the side of the road, pointing in the wrong direction, but at least to the side of the road. The two men and woman in the other car kept at it. They shoveled and they pushed. They moved five feet forward and then five feet backward. They were at it for a good two hours. I admired their determination. But, after two hours plus of hard work they had moved the car less than ten feet with a good forty feet to go back to Smith Avenue. They finally decided that continuing to push and shovel was getting them nowhere. With one last burst of energy they also moved their car to the side of the road.

Watching this live theater out my office window, I began wondering what it takes for a reconsideration of what we are doing when we are stuck. There are any number of ways we might find ourselves in the situation of the people in those two cars. Families get hopelessly stuck in hurtful exchanges, but instead of stopping and reconsidering their behavior, they continue doing the same thing. Churches or other organizations begin declining in number and energy, but rather than reconsider what they are about, they work all the harder at the same old thing. Nationally the tragic shooting in Arizona has raised questions about the tone of our rhetoric. Are we forever stuck with a polarized, fractious, disdain-for-the-opponent approach, or is it time to step back and ask whether this is getting us anywhere?

Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, spent 27 years in prison before being released and becoming the first Black to lead his nation. It is hard to imagine being more hopelessly stuck than Mandela was as a prisoner during the years of apartheid. In his recent book, “Conversations with Myself,” Mandela writes in a letter to Winnie Mandela, “The cell is an ideal place to learn to know yourself, to search regularly the process of your own mind and feelings. In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors. But internal factors may be more crucial in assessing one’s development as a human being.”

This capacity to stop, reassess, look inward and reconsider is, of course, what a spiritual life should always be about, and religion should be a vehicle for this development. Religion in other words should help us recognize when we are stuck so that we can quit pushing when it is getting us nowhere. Author Karen Armstrong notes that religion taking this approach is grounded in compassion. But, she adds, too often religious people would rather be right than compassionate, which is another way of saying they will keep on shoveling, keep on pushing, even when it is getting them nowhere.

The next day the drivers were back. The road had been partially plowed, enough so it was now possible to make progress. In a short while they were both on their way. When you are stuck, considering another approach is seldom a bad idea.

Everyday activities are as filled with the sacred, holy | 1.11

I realize it is a stretch to expect family or friends to show much enthusiasm over our new boiler. Like a transmission in the car, plumbing or electricity in the house, it is among those nonflashy essentials upon which we depend, but to which we seldom give much attention, unless there is a problem.

In our case, we had been getting by for many years on an old converted coal-burning furnace. It finally needed some repairs that made upgrading to a more efficient model the prudent thing to do. Since the old coal burning boiler was quite a large monstrosity and the new boiler is small and compact, it is quite a change. It is also a serious financial investment. To us this new purchase feels like a significant undertaking.

But for most folks it is still a boiler, eliciting at best a smile and a nod. It is a far cry from a new high definition TV, remodeled kitchen, or some other home upgrade that might evoke sincere appreciation. My brother actually walked down into the basement and took a look, for which I give him considerable credit. Then again, he is a Minnesota state legislator from the East Side of St. Paul. He has probably been invited to look at boilers before.

For those who follow the Christian calendar we are soon entering what might best be described as a boiler time of the year. Formally the season is known as “Ordinary Time” and it falls between the flashier seasons of Christmas with its Advent prelude and Epiphany postlude and Lent, which, of course, leads up to Easter. One need not know much about the Christian calendar or even be a Christian to appreciate a season dedicated to ordinary time.

Ordinary Time, or as I now like to think of it as boiler time, is a season that among other things reminds us of those many less flashy aspects of our lives that need attention, on which we depend and which we particularly notice when things go wrong. Reading a book with your child happens during Ordinary Time. Listening to your teenager or a young person in the neighborhood happens during Ordinary Time. Taking a meal to someone who is sick or visiting a homebound neighbor occurs during Ordinary Time. Serving on a volunteer board or committee happens during Ordinary Time. Basically, all the many things we do to make relationships and community work are Ordinary Time activities.
Ordinary Time gets a season in the Christian Calendar on the premise that these ordinary, every day activities are as filled with the sacred and holy as are the flashier days and seasons, which we love to celebrate. These ordinary activities nurture aspects of our lives upon which all of us depend. They are as core to our common life as the heat, electricity and running water on which we rely, but often take for granted.

If you are in the neighborhood and want to see our new boiler, don’t hesitate to knock. I will be happy to give you a look.

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