Summer League Season – SLS – is the name of a family-based basketball league created by my younger brothers in 1997. My brothers were teenagers, 15 and 17 years-old respectively, when they started SLS. Along with a couple friends in our very rural village of Earlton, New York, they began playing regularly scheduled games from spring into summer and early Fall. They kept records – wins and losses of course, as well as points, rebounds etc. They had playoffs and a championship series. They eventually began recording the games. 

SLS is still going 25 years later. My youngest brother, five of my nephews, and a few family friends continue the tradition. Through the summer, at the West Ghent Community Park, you will find two-on-two basketball games played, clocked, recorded, and even officiated.  

In 1997, I was 26 years-old, married some three years, and living in Raleigh, North Carolina, college basketball country. I was attending North Carolina State University, the Wolfpack of Jimmy V and the 1983 tourney champs fame. Michael Jordan, likely the most famous North Carolinian, was still in the prime of his career, winning his 5th championship that same year. My brothers were both huge Jordan fans. SLS was in many ways inspired by that love of #23 and the game he perfectly played.

Basketball was a big deal for me too. I was of the Magic-Bird, early MJ generation, and a huge fan of the NBA as well as Big East basketball. I played on school teams from the 5th grade through my senior year of high school. It was probably me who first taught my brothers how to shoot hoops. I certainly was among the first to play the game with them. I remember playing with and against the youngsters who would later make up the first generation of SLS players. 

The driveway to our mobile home had a free standing hoop. The Catskill Mountains loomed in the distance. When the leaves left, the peaks could be seen behind the lofted basketballs. 

From 2004 to 2006, after moving back to the upstate New York of my youth, I played in the SLS. Not to boast, but in the tiny domain of SLS, I am a living legend. I have video compilations, mixed-tapes as you'd call it now, to prove it! Yes, I am trying not to snicker.

But if there was an OG when it comes to the Erickson clan's love of basketball, it would not be me. The SLS OG is my father, Donald Francis Erickson.

My father taught me how to play. He encouraged me to be ambidextrous in my game, learning to shoot with my left and my dominant right hand. We'd play H-O-R-S-E and one of his left-hand shots would often be the one that beat me. He taught me a left and right-handed sky hook, which I still can shoot pretty well though it is a shot now extinct… inexplicably so.

He once shared a rather heartbreaking story, for a basketball lover anyway. When he was in the 10th grade, he tried out for the JV basketball team. He loved to play. He was 5’ 8”, 5’ 9” but was athletic and quick, and, yes, ambidextrous. 

He made the JV team and showed promise. He was good. More importantly, he loved to play and wanted to play.

Basketball helped him get through his mother's death when he was 11 years-old. Shooting hoops and practicing on his own helped him, if just for brief moments, to forget his grief. The camaraderie of playing the game with friends was a healthy distraction in more ways than one. It helped him deal with his father’s new marriage very soon after his mom’s death. He did not get along well with his step-mom who could be overbearing and harsh. He also wasn’t ready to move past the memory of his mother and accept a replacement.

Making Hudson High School’s JV team, it promised him a sense of purpose and fun, both of which he sorely needed. He was hopeful despite the sense of loss that remained.

But his hopes would be dashed. His step-mother and father forbid him to play on the team. He was 16, old enough to get a job, and help pay the bills. He didn’t have a car and would need them to pick him up after practice. They were unwilling to do even that.

He would not play on the basketball team that year or any subsequent years. He’d carry the hurt into his adulthood. When he told me the story, I could sense the pain.

I’d play basketball all four years of high school. He didn’t always attend my games. He got really nervous for me, and so it was hard for him to watch me compete. But he was supportive of my playing a game I absolutely loved, something he dreamed of doing but wasn’t able to.

In some ways, SLS is a fulfillment of his dream. We freely played and still play the beautiful game he was forbidden to play.



BTW, Who's Jesus, Part 2

 So just when I decide to go on vacation, what is being called the beginnings of another Great Awakening happens in Kentucky. And while I was supposed to be on vacation, I could not vacate my natural propensity to ponder church and religion matters.

Maybe you’ve noticed in my two plus years here that I often use the word “ponder.” Pondering is part of my nature.

The Asbury Revival is on the minds of a lot of church folks these days. It is in the news. It’s the subject of articles and discussions in American religion and church publications and websites.

Many have given their 2 cents in regards to Kentucky revival at Asbury University, which has spread to other Christian colleges, including to a university Holly and I attended for a time – Cedarville University in southern Ohio.

To be honest, my first reaction was that its just another viral Tik-Tok moment. But it has turned out to be much more than that.

As I mentioned in the sermon before I went on vacation, there is a real, deep interest in learning about Jesus when it comes this new generation, Gen-Z it is called. That Tik-Toks of a Jesus-themed revival went viral again and again and sparked a movement, it comes out of this interest, I believe.  

There has been criticism of the movement. It has come from the Mainline side of the faith mostly, which includes the Catholic tradition and even United Methodists which Asbury University is affiliated with.

This criticism is understandable to me. Faith based in mere emotions and feelings that are temporary by nature, that is not a long-term solution to the church’s or the world’s problems. Nor does it make up for the church’s historic and present-day exclusion and even harm of LGBTQ folks.

But to quote Stephen Stills, “Something’s happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” We can’t ignore it.

The best response to the Asbury Revival I’ve come across is from an essay shared by Rev. Tamara Moreland, the former area conference minister of our Farmington Valley Association. It was written by Rev. Tom Fuerst, a UMC pastor and scholar. The essay is titled, “Hopeful Discernment: The Asbury Revival and SacredConversation.”

Fuerst basically calls for a middle way between the general Evangelical way that receives God’s grace and responds with deep human emotion and the general Mainline way that ponders the Christian faith and seeks to intellectually understand how to practice that faith. Fuerst writes,

“The Evangelical, revivalist bent of American Christianity desperately needs the critical distance offered by the Mainline church. And the critical distance of the Mainline church desperately needs the revivalist urgency of the Evangelical movement… the weaknesses of both traditions suggests that, on their own, they lack something necessary in being the complete body of Christ. If anything, my argument is that both-sides-are-wrong without each other. The church needs urgency. The church needs discernment. The church needs warm hearts. And the church needs Oxford fellows.”

I will end this part of the conversation by expressing something else that I thought as I pondered. On the same day the Asbury Revival started, students at Michigan State University, after losing 3 of their classmates to gun violence gathered for prayer vigils. In their collective grief, they cried out for change.

The juxtaposition of Asbury University's joyous chapel revival and Michigan State University's campus wide grief struck me. The spiritual uplift of a revival is important and beautiful. Revival is a profound part of the Christian tradition. But beating swords into plowshares, turning weapons of war into structures for peace, resisting hate and cultivating love, ending forms of exclusion and conflict and creating space for acceptance and affirmation... that is the kind of revival I think God truly wants most – a revival that transforms a society stuck in its own egoism, groupism, and greed.

Such peacemaking and compassion-building is the point of spiritual revival. What is changed inside us through revival must result in collective change outside of us. Without this external change, revivals are, well, rather useless.


Anyway, let me move on as I come to a close and focus on the question of the Reflection – who is the Jesus? Who is the one whose name revivals since the beginning have invoked? Who do you say he is?

We are beginning the season of Lent. It feels not too long ago that we finished Advent and we celebrated Christmas and baby Jesus’ Manger. From the Manger, we now journey toward the Cross and the Empty Tomb. Yes, Jesus is the One whom the Cross will contain and the Tomb will not be able to contain.

But too often we highlight the Cross and the Empty Tomb at the expense of the Sandals. The Sandals, the sandals that Jesus walked in, worked in, shepherded in, taught in, lived in.

We must not forget the Sandals. If we do, we miss something essential to Jesus and about the faith of Jesus. We miss the life he lived. By the way, the life expectancy in Jesus’ day was 35. Jesus died around 33 or 34. In other words, he lived a full life.

If we want to truly understand the Cross and the Empty Tomb, we must ponder the Sandals and what Jesus did in those Sandals. When we do, when we spiritually ponder Jesus’ whole life, we’ll see that the Manger, the Sandals, the Cross, and the Empty Tomb are all of one singular, indivisible piece. If you want to know what the Manger, the Cross and Empty Tomb means, look at Jesus’ life, his teaching, and his life as a teaching.

He taught that from small things, humble things, close to the earth things, big things arise. Jesus’ life mirrored this teaching. He was one of what we’d now call “the little people.” Born in the small-town of Bethlehem. Raised in the backwoods, nothing town of Nazareth. His father was a builder, a tradesman, a carpenter. His mother was deemed morally suspect, having conceived and birthed a son out of wedlock. Jesus himself would have been deemed morally suspect as well, born from sin. In other words, Jesus would have been seen as the littlest of the little people.

And his death followed suit. The rejected and despised man of Nazareth was executed as a criminal.

From this littlest, humblest, earthiest human life and death, a big thing, the biggest thing, arose – our refuge, our rescue, our renewal in God.

And here is the application piece. Here’s what it means for us. We no longer have to carry the guilt and the shame that keeps our spirits down. We no longer need to carry the debilitating thought that we are not good enough. The nobody from Nazareth, despised and rejected by men, but beloved by God and epitomizing God who is Love, has taken the guilt and the shame on our behalf, making us good in God’s eyes. And it is only God’s eyes that matter in the scheme of things.

“Everyone loves an underdog,” it has been said. Well, Jesus epitomized the underdog. And we have salvation to thank for it. Our faith is in the underdog of underdogs from Nazareth. I for one would have it no other way! How about you?


BTW, Who's Jesus?

 A recent large survey done by the Barna Group asked Gen-Zers, young people 13 to 17 years-old, what they thought of Jesus. The results were somewhat encouraging for pastors like me. Gen-Z-ers show a real curiosity about the figure of Jesus. In fact, 77% said they were motivated to learn more about Jesus.

Teenagers might not care about the rest of church, but they do want to know about Jesus, it seems. That’s a great place to start.

Thinking about this, I began writing things down. And what I wrote down led to this week’s Reflection, titled “By the way, who’s Jesus?” So, we’ll ponder who Jesus is this morning.

But first, let us pray:

O God, show us your truth in these moments. Let us learn of your way, and take that way into our hearts, and live that way out in the wake of our worship this morning. As for me, O God, may your spirit move my lips and my words. May the reflections of my heart be pleasing to you, loving God, and may your light working through me in turn enlighten your people. Amen.


Who is Jesus?

That is a huge question that could take forever to answer. I might take a couple Reflections for this question. But for this one, let me get down to the basics.

Jesus of Nazareth lived and taught some 2,000 years ago in Ancient Palestine. He was a wisdom teacher based in the Jewish tradition and based in the Torah, Judaism’s holy scripture.

But there were many others that fit that description. What made Jesus unique? Well, there’s his death and what it meant. There’s the circumstances surrounding his birth. Both are for another day. What about his life and his teaching was unique?

That’s what I’d like to discuss for the next few Reflections as we make our way into Lent.

First of all, Jesus offered a unique approach to the Torah, Judaism's holy scripture, highlighting the concept of godly love.

We find this focus on Love in just the name Jesus prefers for God, the name of Father. Now, "Father" is a name used for God in the Torah, but it is not frequently used. Its uncommon, in fact.

So, why does Jesus prefer Father as a name for God? 

Well, for Jesus, a parent-like, unconditional love defines God. God is pictured as an all-loving parent

And for Jesus, unconditional love, embodied in the love of a parent, is the point of godly wisdom.

As for us, we are called to Love like God loves. Matthew 22 says,

36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

In other words, seek to Love God in the way the God loves you.

Seek to Love others as you love yourself and as God loves you

These commandments summarize the wisdom of the Torah, Jesus makes clear.


Here’s another unique thing about what Jesus taught: Jesus’ vision of God’s Kingdom.

There were many Jewish teachers preaching God’s kingdom. But what separated Jesus was how he envisioned the kingdom.

The Lord’s Prayer reveals Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.

“Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

The kingdom of God is a realm, a reality where God’s ways in heaven are realized on earth. Heaven will be brought down to earth and all will equally experience perfect joy and contentment.    

Here’s something else: The Kingdom of God for Jesus is not just a future reality. It is a past, present, and future reality all at the same time. Jesus states in Matthew 8 that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are present in the kingdom, so it is a reality found in the past.

In Luke 17, Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is within you,” or among you in other translations. So, it is a present reality.

Then Jesus tells us to pray for the kingdom to come, meaning the kingdom is yet to come, a future reality.

The kingdom is not about time, or about space. It is a condition, a way of being that transcends time and space.

If we are living the way of God, living in a Christ-like way, we are making the kingdom a reality in a way that transcends time and space. Indeed, compassion, love, grace, godly ways of being, transcends time and space.

The kingdom is indeed here and now for us. It is there for us to realize and actualize. It is akin to the sun. Even behind the clouds, the sun is there, its just covered over by the clouds.

Well, the kingdom of God, heaven brought to earth, is here and now, just behind the clouds of our humanness and wrong choices. Clearing the clouds of sin away, that is what Christ does in us if we let it happen.

The last uniqueness I’ll mention about Jesus as a teacher is what we might called the Jesus paradigm. A short parable that Jesus tells points to this paradigm. It is the Parable of the Mustard Seed. It goes like this:

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

In other words, from small things big things come… That’s the paradigm Jesus teaches again and again.

Jesus points to the forgotten in society, those deemed the losers, the vulnerable ones, the last, the lost, the least, and he claims these, the least, will be lifted up, exalted, and made foundational to the kingdom.

The last will be first.

The lost are those I most seek

The least of these is the true measure of faith.

As for the first, the winners, the highest, they will be humbled and brought low.


This paradigm of the least giving way to highest heaven, we find it in Jesus’ resilient, inconquerable life itself.

It is Jesus of Nothing-town Nazareth, one discarded by his own people, criminalized by his oppressors, crucified as the lowest of men, it is this Jesus who rises, exalted, and anointed as the savior of humankind.

From small things big things come.

To close this Reflection and rather swiftly, this paradigm applies to us. No matter how small you see yourself, no matter how useless you worry you are, no matter how vulnerable or weak you feel, no matter how lost you fear you are, God is looking for you, to love you into being, to build the beloved community that transforms the world.


Imperfect Worship, Perfect Grace

"Imperfect Worship" is the title of this sermon.

I begin by asking, how is your imperfect worship going this morning? And how are you, imperfect worshipper?

Have you ever considered this fact: on this side of Christ, no one has ever engaged in perfect worship? No one. Not one.

Why? Because we are all imperfect, and so our worship will always be imperfect too. “All have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.”

Imagine if you had to go through a Perfection Scan to get into this sanctuary for worship this morning, sort of like you got through to get on an airplane?

You wouldn’t have a preacher, that’s for sure. I’m overweight. I’m an imperfect speaker, prone to flub words. I’m not the most eloquent of pray-ers. I’m what they call, neurodivergent. I’m forgetful and often disorganized. When I was a chaplain years ago, I once forgot a graveside service I was supposed to officiate. Almost had a nervous breakdown. I found out that funeral directors, thankfully, are prepared for things like that. Still, I was horrified. Still am.

But I’d dare say, you all are beautiful people, but you wouldn’t get through that Perfection Scan either! Not even the choir would. There’d be an empty sanctuary every Sunday.

This sanctuary is a powerful place, but we don’t suddenly all become perfect once we enter it. Worship is a powerful practice, but we don’t suddenly all become perfect once engage in it.


We should remind ourselves what worship is. At basis, worship is the practice of being present for and with God, and looking to God and God’s grace with gratitude in our hearts. When I enter worship, I leave behind any focus on myself alone. Narcissists have a hard time worshiping God because of this! I leave behind any focus on another human. Lovebirds or haters have a hard time worshipping God, too, focused too much on the one they love or hate. Instead of focusing on myself alone or another alone, the focus becomes on God and our relationship to God and on God’s relationship to us. I leave the world of me and mine behind and turn my eyes toward Jesus and on our connection to Jesus, the Perfect One.

Together, we, the imperfect, worship God, look toward God’s Perfect Grace which excepts us just the way we are. That is what Sunday mornings are all about! That is why we are here!


But a question arises – what do we do with our imperfections amid worship? What do we do with the fact that I flub words when I preach? What do we do when I unknowingly say the wrong thing? What do we do when the hymn singing is not going perfectly well? What do we do when there is peripheral noise around us and we have trouble hearing the sermon? What do we do with our internal distractions that get in the way of us focusing solely on God? What do we do when Sunday service just feels off?

Well, the answer is pretty straightforward. We remember why we are here! In fact, we might see those distractions as a reminder to remember why we are. We, imperfect as we are, are here to humbly worship. We’ll always worship imperfectly, and that is okay.

The point is not us. The aim is God.

We turn toward God, mind, body, and spirit. We turn toward God, wading in the wonders of God’s perfect grace and in the wondrous light of God’s perfect compassion.


Leonard Cohen once wrote, “there’s cracks in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” 

I’d paraphrase it this way - There’s cracks in everything; that’s how the grace gets in.

The reality of imperfection, the reality of cracks in everything, opens us up to the absolute need for God’s grace to flood into us.

Every Sunday, my mom would get all four of us kids ready for church. We’d pile in our land boat, a pine-green 1978 Ford LTD station wagon, and we’d float to church.

Almost weekly, my two younger brothers would beat each other up in the back seat. Remember that silly game, Punch-Buggy? It involved those VW Beatles, dubbed Bugs. The game basically amounted to, see a VW Bug, punch your brother. This game was usually reserved for long trips. That’s probably when my brothers learned it. But they took away any limits to it, playing it on short rides too. Fights would ensue even on the way to church.

Here's the thing. When you’re looking for those ugly, imperfect Bugs, you’ll begin seeing them everywhere. Seek a bug, and you shall find a bug. VW Beatles weren’t any rarer than, say, Dodge Darts. But my brothers saw them a lot more. Why? Because they were always in wait for one, so they could punch their brother.

You see the connection, I think. The more you look and search and give in to the imperfect bug’s hold, the more prominent those imperfections will become. It’s the proverbial snowball effect. Imperfections accumulate and gather steam as they roll through your mind.


I come to a close with a couple related questions – How to stop this vicious cycle? How to halt the pain and power of the imperfect bug?

Try this – Obverse the graceful landscape instead. Notice the sun-drenched blue heavens. Look to the beautiful hills from whence comes our help. Look to the swaying of trees and the gentle wind. Look to God and God’s gifts instead of looking for the imperfect bug.

And when you find yourself moved and inspired by the worshipful moment, internally say to your brother, I love you.

When your mind’s eye begins noticing and latching on to those imperfect bugs that certainly will arise, do the same. Internally say to your sibling, brother or sister, I love you.

I end with this undeniable truth – I will flub words. I won’t think something through adequately. My prayers will include “ums” and pauses.

The musicians will miss notes, sing out of tune, enter at the wrong time.

You in the pews will lose attention. Your mind will wander away from here to work tomorrow or lunch later. You will get distracted by activity around us or imperfections you notice. You might even take a nap.

There’s cracks in everything.

But God’s grace is a tender light meant to seep through those cracks in us and enlighten our spirits. That’s why those cracks are there. To help us move past ourselves. To help us let go of our attachment to what’s wrong around us. To let the light come in.

Wise Evangelism

 Before I begin my Reflection, I’d like to share with you a list as think about the work of the church on this day of the Annual Meeting. This is a list of things you’re not likely to hear at church… I say not likely because maybe we are different!

– Hey! It’s MY turn to sit on the front pew!

 It was so packed today, I had to sit in the balcony!

– I was so enthralled, I didn’t even notice your sermon went 15 minutes longer than usual.

– Personally, I find evangelism much more enjoyable than golf,

– I’ve decided to give our church the $700.00 a month I used to send to Joel Olsteen

 You know, pastor, since you got here, we’ve forgotten all about the pastors that came before you.

– I volunteer to be the permanent chairperson of the committee of your choosing, pastor.

– I love it when we sing hymns I’ve never heard before!

 Since we’re all here, let’s start the worship service early!

– Nothing inspires me and strengthens my commitment like our annual stewardship campaign!

 Pastor, this winter we’d like to send you to this church conference in Hawaii for a couple weeks.


Anyway, on to Micah 6…

MICAH 6:1-8

Hear what the Lord is saying:
Arise, lay out the lawsuit before the mountains;
        let the hills hear your voice!
Hear, mountains, the lawsuit of the Lord!
        Hear, eternal foundations of the earth!
The Lord has a lawsuit against his people;
        with Israel he will argue.
“My people, what did I ever do to you?
        How have I wearied you? Answer me!
I brought you up out of the land of Egypt;
        I redeemed you from the house of slavery.
        I sent Moses, Aaron, and Miriam before you.
My people, remember what Moab’s King Balak had planned,
        and how Balaam, Beor’s son, answered him!
        Remember everything from Shittim to Gilgal,
        that you might learn to recognize the righteous acts of the Lord!”

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.

God, as Micah describes it, is not happy with Israel. This is a common state for God according to the Prophets. What is God not happy about?

Humans grumbling when they ought to be grateful.

So in Micah 6, God is quoted as saying something to the effect of, “C’mon, people! Didn’t I save you and set you free! How about some gratitude for a change!? Stop complaining its too hot in the summer when in just a few months, you’ll be complaining its too cold.


But in verse 5, the text changes. It turns to say God also doesn’t want the opposite of grumbling. God doesn’t want your appeasement, your seeking to please God with human things – a big donation, hours of volunteering, perfect worship.

God doesn’t want grumbling. God doesn’t want appeasement or obligation either! God wants our hearts.

God wants hearts that act justly, love kindness, and walk in humility with God. Barack Obama had this saying when he’d campaign and folks would start booing. He’d say, don’t boo, vote.

Well, don’t grumble – be just and love compassion.

Don’t appease or seek to please God – walk in humility with God.


Our reading from I CORINTHIANS 1 points to something else God doesn’t desire…

19 It is written in scripture: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and I will reject the intelligence of the intelligent20 Where are the wise? Where are the legal experts? Where are today’s debaters? Hasn’t God made the wisdom of the world foolish? 21 In God’s wisdom, he determined that the world wouldn’t come to know him through its wisdom. Instead, God was pleased to save those who believe through the foolishness of preaching. 22 Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. 24 But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. 25 This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

26 Look at your situation when you were called, brothers and sisters! By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class. 27 But God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise. God chose what the world considers weak to shame the strong. 28 And God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing. 29 So no human being can brag in God’s presence. 30 It is because of God that you are in Christ Jesus. He became wisdom from God for us. This means that he made us righteous and holy, and he delivered us. 31 This is consistent with what was written: The one who brags should brag in the Lord!

Remember when we used floppy discs to run computer programs? Like now, there was Apple and Microsoft. And for a floppy disc to work with a PC, it had to have the right format. Apple-formatted discs wouldn’t work on Microsoft computers, and vice versa. It is kind of similar these days with iPhone apps and Android apps – they are not interchangeable.

Well, Paul in I Corinthians 1 discusses two different wisdom formats. There is the human wisdom format, with its notions of human success and human strength. And there is the godly wisdom format and all that godly wisdom entails. Human wisdom and godly wisdom are two very different formats. They’re not interchangeable.

In other words, God’s got no need for human wisdom. Your wisdom format won’t work when it comes to my kin-dom, God is saying for Paul.

Human wisdom is foolishness to God. Human success is failure to God. Human strength is weakness to God.

But here’s the thing. If we want to walk with God, we need a change in our operating system so it aligns with God. We need a heart change, a godly transformation in order to apply godly wisdom, godly success, godly strength.


A couple months ago, I came across this powerful quote from Henri Nouwen. It is about leadership. He said, “I am deeply convinced that the Christian leader of the future is called to be completely irrelevant and to stand in this world with nothing to offer but his or her own vulnerable self. That is the way Jesus came to reveal God’s love.”

Well, Nouwen is speaking to all of us here. We’re all called to lead others to the Jesus way and to the community that walks that way. That is the great commission Christ gives us. That is the point of the Church – “go into all the world, leading others to the Jesus-way of love.”

But how do we lead?

The how is a godly how, Nouwen reminds us. This godly how defies all the human wisdom found in books on leadership and motivation. It defies all the methods taught in MBA programs. It defies all the self-help programs claiming to create strong, relevant leaders.

Forget worldly relevance. Forget human strength. Be out of step like Jesus was, be out of step with the world’s ways, be out of step with human concepts of success and strength and be vulnerable. As the mandalorians say, “this is the Way.”

Does this mean we don’t do cool stuff? Not at all. I’ll be discussing a cool program I’d like us to pursue at the Annual Meeting. Living joyfully despite the gloom, that is being out of step like Jesus was. The point is the Joy in the Journey, not arriving at some goal.


That brings us to the Good News!

Because our human wisdom and human modes of success don’t apply to the spiritual life, we don’t have to strive so hard. God doesn’t want human perfection. God doesn’t want human wisdom or human success. God doesn’t want our sense of obligation and sacrifice, at least not first and foremost. He simply wants our hearts! To me, that is good news!

God wants you to rest in Him, the one who is Just, who is Love, and who humbly walks with us. God wants you to grow in knowledge of Her and Her wisdom, leaning not on our own understanding, letting the Spirit work through you. That’s why we’re here. To me, that is good news

And for our spreading the Good News, it won’t be the our perfect programs, our innovative plans for growth, or our impressive worship services that spreads the Kin-dom. It will be our sense of justice, our love and compassion, and our humility in walking with God that will spread the kin-dom. To me, that is good news.

And our own spiritual joy and contentment will lead the way, a counterintuitive, subversive contentment born of the Good News will spread the Good News. People will see our contentment and want to join us!

I close with the Good News and with Jesus description of the counterintuitive, subversive contentment born from the Gospel. Matthew 5:1-12:

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up a mountain. He sat down and his disciples came to him. He taught them, saying:

“Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

“Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.

“Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.

“Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.

“Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.

“Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.

“Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

10 “Happy are people whose lives are harassed because they are righteous, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

11 “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. 12 Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.


I’d like to close with a quote that sums up Jesus’ beatitudes well. It is from the Dalai Lama, with small addition:

“The planet does not need more successful people – or churches. The planet desperately needs more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers and lovers of all kinds.”





Born Again for Mainliners, Part 3

This is the 3rd Reflection in a series titled “Born Again for Mainliners.” In the first couple Reflections, I juxtaposed the Mainline tradition and the Evangelical tradition, implying that Mainliners don’t really talk a whole lot about being born again. 

But maybe you’ve wondered, what exactly is an Evangelical. The term has politicized, for certain, often conflated with a particular political party. But before that, there was a category of Christians known as Evangelicals. There is a difference here between the more radical Fundamentalists and the more mainstream Evangelicals, but that's a topic for another day. There's also a light of diversity among the Evangelical tradition, which we'll discuss next week.

Evangelicals hold to 4 cardinal beliefs, according to scholar John Green. First, they believe in the errorlessness of the Bible. The Bible is, to use their term, inerrant. Second, an Evangelical believes in the exclusiveness of salvation – only Christians go to heaven, simply put. Thirdly, an Evangelical believes in the essentiality of conversion. We must have a born again experience, in other words. Lastly, an Evangelical believes in an evangelism mandate. We must seek to lead people to that same born again experience.

Mainliners either don’t hold to one or all of these cardinal beliefs, or they don’t believe to the same degree, meaning they may hold to one or all of the beliefs but not as strongly, not placing a great emphasis on those beliefs.  

With that explanation offered, maybe you’re asking the simple question – why am I preaching on this? Why does it matter? Why do Mainliners need to bother with the idea of being born again?

Well, I’ve hinted at a couple answers to the related questions. A couple Sundays ago I read from John 3 where Jesus in a conversation with the teacher and leader Nicodemus states, “you must be born again.” Well, if Jesus said it, it is important, right? And if there is a must in what he said, it is even more important. This means we should talk about it.

Then last week, I expressed that we might have something to learn from the Evangelical tradition. After all, that tradition has been more successful than the Mainline church when it comes to overall numerical growth, engagement, and involvement, which survey after survey indicates. They are doing something right. We should discern what they are doing right, separate that from a lot of what they do wrong, and maybe emulate the right things in our own ways.

I want to reiterate, I am not saying we need to become Evangelicals. There is a lot Evangelicals get wrong. Homophobia comes to mind. Racism comes to mind. Harmful exclusivity comes to mind. Selling out to partisan politics comes to mind.

But what they get right is something we should learn from.

And I think Evangelicals get that 3rd cardinal belief, that conversion is important, mostly right. 

What do I mean? In what way is conversion essential for us Mainliners?

From my years of experience in the Mainline ethos, most people who are part of the church have come to that either from growing up in the church, being baptized and confirmed within that church. We might call these folks lifers. Those who are not lifers have come to the church through assent to a particular church’s approach, meaning folks find a church whose mission and ideals align with theirs and join the team.  

In this setup, there is little mention of any kind of conversion. What do I mean by conversion? I mean an spiritual experience that changes something inside us. Last week I talked about accepting Christ into our heart. Now, it doesn’t have to be as specific as this. The specifics will vary. But the common denominators of a conversion experience are this – it is heartfelt, it involves something transcendent whether we call this God, Christ, grace, or love or even music, and it changes something inside us.

I’d dare say we’ve all had conversion experiences. We’ve all had moments where our hearts experienced something transcendent and we were changed for the better as a result.

Let me be clear such moments were Christ forged moments. Whenever lives experience the transcendent and are changed for the better, Christ is there. I firmly believe this. Christ is in the Good. Christ is in the Good always and forever. Again, let me say, all moments of real transformation are Christ induced, my friends.

But here’s what I’m trying to get at. We don’t talk about these conversion experiences enough. We don’t talk about our transformative moments enough. We don’t talk about our theophanies, our when God was shown to us moments, enough. We’ve all had them. They were all Christ induced. But they are left unspoken. That needs to change.

Before I became a church pastor some 10 years ago, I was a hospice chaplain. I had officiated more memorials than Sunday services at that point. Of course, officiating memorials continues. To be honest, early on, when I compared the memorials I officiated to Sunday services, the memorials felt much more powerful, meaningful, and heartfelt. In many ways, this remains true. I’ve asked myself why for some time. Why are memorials so powerful compared to your run of the mill Sunday service? Well, because memorials include remembrances of transformative moments and transformative relationships. Memorials include loved-ones talking about how their lives were touched or changed by the person being remembered. Sadly, Sunday services don’t include such testimony.

I’d like to change that.

Beginning in February, I’d like to incorporate what the church I grew up in called personal testimonies. I’m going to ask if any of you all would like to come up on a Sunday morning and give a personal testimony, sharing with us about your story of your conversion, about a moment you experienced God, Christ, or love or grace and were changed by that experience.

I’d like to end this with a testimony of my own using a poem written years ago. It is a poem that arose from a moment of stillness that changed something inside of me.

 Another Salvation - To My Son

A singularity nudges dour days and night to the side
as I watch mesmerized by your first willful smiles
and the sounds of pre-language accompanying them.
What else could lift me so high to a reality purer than light?
What else could bring laughter in me so foundational, as joyous
How could tears be so completely unfiltered by thought?
How could I have ever fathomed a moment of such nirvana?
You answer with lively eyes, toothless smiles, a poem of coos.
And the moment ordains itself, and I sit so, saved and selfless. 

Born Again for Mainliner, Part 2

 Growing up in the Evangelical tradition, there was often talk about our relationship with Christ. The idea was the conversion experience of being born again or being saved began that relationship. There’s a phrase often offered up to describe this conversion, this born again, being saved experience. That phrase is, "accepting Christ into your heart." 

That phrase – accepting Christ into your heart – is a really interesting one. It wasn’t so novel or interesting when I was a kid or a young person still within that tradition. And there was a time after I departed the Evangelical approach to the Christian when that phrase or talk about being born again and saved sort of bothered me. It was language from a past I had left behind and wanted to forget. That language for awhile left a bad taste in my mouth. Sometimes, it still does.

But after years of space between departing what I felt was bad for me and embracing a new understanding of the faith, I’ve come to see especially that phrase and some parts of the Evangelical tradition in a new light.

Christ living in our hearts – do you know what that phrase indicates, what approach to faith it points to? Christian mysticism. That’s right, Christian mysticism.

Now, the term Christian mysticism may evoke some images and ideas in you that we ought to be honest about. Maybe the idea and image arises within you of people having ecstatic visions and trance-like experiences of God. Maybe concerns arise in you about a hippy, trippy, new-agey overtaking of our tried and true, prim and proper church life. Maybe you think, too touchy-feely, loosie-goosy for my taste.

But I’d say that these thoughts and concerns are based on false presumption of what Christian mysticism is. That the term Christian mysticism is prone to such false presumptions is why I don’t like the term, to be honest. We need a new term, something I’ll discuss later.

Christian mysticism is not anything hazy or crazy, hippy or trippy, loosie or goosy. It is simply points to the need of starting from inside and moving from insight out. Start inside our hearts where Christ lives. Start with insight into Christ based in the heart. That is what we’re talking about.

In his book, “The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, “ Carl McColman says this:

“Christian mysticism argues that any respect you pay to external authority – God, Christ, the Church – can emerge only from a profound inner experience or conviction that God is real and present, and that it is both possible and plausible for the average person to have a truly experiential relationship with God” (p. 9)

We can easily fit the Evangelical idea of being born again by accepting Christ into your heart into the definition I just gave you. We can’t have a relationship with God, come to know God, even worship God fully until we have the profound experience of accepting Christ into our heart. And its possible and plausible for anyone to experience Christ being born in us and have a relationship with God.

So, in a deep sense, Evangelical Christianity taps into Christian mysticism. It would ardently deny this, but it seems pretty clear that its true.

But what does this have to do with us. Let me be clear, I’m not saying we should all become Evangelicals. But I will say that there is a reason the Evangelical tradition seems to outpace Mainline Christianity when it comes to growth, church attendance, and spiritual engagement. That the Evangelical tradition practices and preaches a form of Christian mysticism is one, profound reason why it’s been so successful. And there’s something to learn from there.

Thankfully, there is a burgeoning Christian mysticism movement within Mainline, non-Evangelical circles. Right here in New England, we are seeing this movement, focused on contemplative practices and Christian mysticism, happening. Agape Spiritual Community, a UCC congregation in Waltham, Mass, is devoted to building the beloved community using contemplative practices grounded in a Christian mysticist approach to the faith. Its pastor, Matthew Carriker, just this past year, offered a series ofconferences to the Southern New England conference discussing Contemplative Christian practices.

Renowned theologian Karl Rahner once said, "the Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” I really think this is true.

I close by turning to that purveyor of knowledge Wikipedia. Quoting Bernard McGinn, a scholar of Christian mysticism,  Wikepedia says, “Christian mysticism is [T]hat part, or element, of Christian belief and practice that concerns the preparation for, the consciousness of, and the effect of [...] a direct and transformative [experience of the] presence of God.”

A direct and transformative [experience of the] presence of God. Isn’t that what we all want?

As for a new term to replace the oft-misunderstood and stereotyped term, Christian mysticism, how about this: the Way of Christian Insight? In-sight is the practice of looking inward seeing the truth of Christ alive in us. Isn’t the Christian life about insight, looking inward to find Christ and his Way, and seeing the world through Christ and his way, seeing from the inside out?

Christian Insight. The Inner Seeing of Christ.

Is Christ somewhere out there? Can we find Christ in the sky or some place out of our reach? Perhaps. But if Christ is in our heart, why not look there. We look inside to see Christ waiting there in our hearts, waiting to be connected to and lived-out in the world.

This is what I seek to do as a Christ-follower. To look inside, find Christ there, and from there allow Christ to be embodied in and through my life. I hope you feel similarly and thus join me in the adventure, the venture of walking the way of Christian insight. It begins, to end as we began, by being born again, receiving Christ into your heart, allowing Christ to live within you. And, yes, I am talking about conversion. But we’ll talk about that week.

Born-Again for Mainliners, Part 1

 On this day when time in a sense is born again, I begin with a question Have you ever been "born again?”

It is a question that in my family was somewhat common to ask or hear asked. My parents were part of the born again movement which reached its peak in the 1970's and 80's.

The term “born again” comes straight from scripture. I just read it to you. Jesus tells Nicodemus, you must be born again.

The Common English Bible which I read from  translates it, “Born Anew” which I kind of like.

Either way, there are two births according to Jesus in his discussion with Nicodemus. There is the physical, human birth from a mother’s watery womb here on earth. This the "born of water" Jesus mentions. And then there is a second birth, "born of the Spirit," a spiritual birth that is sourced in heaven, sourced in the Spirit of God.

Jesus is pointing to that second birth, and is saying that birth is vital for the heavenly life, the eternal life.

For those who want to be part of the community of God, for those who want to be part of the community that will see heaven and heaven brought to earth, a spiritual birth, being born again in the Spirit is required.

In the context I grew up in, there was another question sometimes asked – when was your spiritual birthday? It was a way of asking when were you born again? It may sound sort of silly. But it does highlight the importance of the born again experience in the Evangelical context. And there’s something to learn for us.

What I am saying here is that we shouldn’t ignore Christ’s teaching to Nicodemus. Even us Mainliners should embrace this call to be born anew.

You don’t have to be an Evangelical to consider or even internalize Jesus’ words. We can be proudly open and affirming UCC, mainline Christians and embrace the language of being born anew.

The question is how, right? How do we claim being born anew while holding to a moderate to progressive view of the Christian faith? That question of what a Born Anew UCCer looks like will be the theme for the next few Sundays.

For the rest of our time today, let me ask the question why? Why is being born anew important to us here. In many ways, the hymn we will sing answers that, but let me just say this here and now: 

We live in an age of a Nicodemus approach to faith.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, so to be conspicuous about his curiosity about Jesus. As a respected, educated person, he doesn’t want to be seen seeking out Jesus, a lowly Galilean itinerant preacher. He doesn’t want people knowing about his appreciation and admiration of Jesus. And he certainly isn’t about to put aside his pride and follow Jesus.

See, Nicodemus believes in his self-sufficiency and status more than he does in God’s grace and love. He believes he’s won God’s favor through sheer self-will and good deeds. What's more, he believes he is being a good leader by assuring Jesus passes his own God self-sufficiency test.  

But Christ tells Nicodemus that is not what God wants first and foremost. Jesus says God wants a transformed heart, a reborn spirit, not merely self-improvement or an enhanced spiritual state.

Us mainliners tend toward the Nicodemus way of things, don’t we? We don’t wear our heart on our sleeves. We don’t necessarily hide our faith, but we keep it close to the vest, as they say. In our increasingly secular world, we sometimes maybe hide our love for Jesus, our faith in and following of Christ.

Like Nicodemus, and as New Englanders, maybe we cling to the ideal of self-sufficiency, and hold onto our good deeds as something qualifying God's favor.

I’m not condemning anyone here. But I do want to say that as with Nicodemus, Jesus might say to us, what I want most is your heart. I want spiritual transformation. I want a letting go of ego and pride so I can be born in you.

Years ago I left the Evangelical faith. I upset folks in my family when that happened. They still pray for my salvation. And I'm still recovering from the wounds from that part of my childhood. But I cannot help but to carry the Evangelical sensibility with me. I also carry memories of teachings. One such memory is a quote from the minister I grew up hearing. He said the Christian life is not me working hard to please God. The Christian life is Christ’s life working through us.

That Christian life of Christ’s life working through us begins with Christ being born in us. Christ born in us - that is what born again means. And then Christ grows in us and Christ’s life works through us.

So I end as I began – are you born again? I pray the answer is a yes and a proud yes.