Thursday, March 22, 2012


During this season of Lent our weekly worship has been slightly different. One of those seasonal changes has been inclusion of a prayer of confession and assurance of pardon.

So guess who gets to come up with our corporate confession each week?  Yep.  Me.  Every Thursday our church secretary, Kim, prods me with statements like, "I need your confession."  These aren't words we Protestants use much, so it sounds a bit strange to me every time she says it.  But it has been a helpful devotional practice.  As I write or find a fitting prayer for us to share as a congregation, it is as much a personal prayer on my own behalf as one I hope will be meaningful and helpful for the rest of our church family.

Why does church tradition include this practice of verbalizing our sinfulness and proclaiming our fallen state?  Shouldn't we focus on happy thoughts and avoid this "negative thinking?"  In answer to this, I love the quote below from Frederick Buechner:

"What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else.  It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are ... because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing.  It is important to tell our secrets too because it makes it easier ... for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own."

Here's to being fearless on Sundays as we tell the truth (before God and everyone) of who we truly and fully are.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Treasure Grace - Be Nice to YOU!

This week our Lenten reflections focus on treasuring grace.  When I am told to focus on grace, I am immediately reminded of others who need for me to show grace.  I seldom think about the grace I need to show to myself.  My young friend Kristin posted this sign on her blog many weeks back, and it made me stop and think.  What is it that distinguishes self-love from self-centeredness?  I think the answer is wrapped up in a deeper understanding of God's immeasurable grace. Does God really love me?  Do I? Why are we so hard on ourselves some days?

My daughter is training for a triathlon and has followed up learning to run (the last 2 months) with learning to swim (starting today).  Yes, she knew how to run before, but not how to run.  And yes, I enrolled her in swimming lessons as a child, but she doesn't yet know how to swim.  It is so easy when we are pushing ourselves into new territory to be down on ourselves.  To wonder why we aren't better at what we are trying to do.  To criticize our own efforts, feel defeated before we've half begun.  I am so incredibly proud of her attitude displayed on her blog.  What a brave woman ... just jumping right in to the deep end and trusting her body and her will to take her further than she knew she could go.

Be nice to yourself today.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

God's Mercy Is Wider than Our Own

At Sunday Vespers this week Bernie Archer mentioned that while in England he had picked up a Faber Hymnal containing all the original verses of many Faber hymns which we sing today.  I was not nearly as familiar with Frederick Faber as Bernie obviously is, but his enthusiasm sent me on a journey to learn more.  
The hymn "There's a Wideness in God's Mercy" which appears in our Chalice Hymnal was originally titled "Come to Jesus."  Our hymnal has only four verses of the original 13, which is understandable given our modern tendency to sing only 2-3 verses of any hymn most Sundays. But in this case, it's too bad.  Because back in 1854 when Faber penned the lyrics he had much to say about grace, including these challenging words:
There is grace enough for thousands
Of new worlds as great as this;
There is room for fresh creations
In that upper home of bliss. 
For the love of God is broader
Than the measure of our mind;
And the heart of the Eternal
Is most wonderfully kind.
If our love were but more simple,
We should take Him at His word;
And our lives would be all sunshine
In the sweetness of our Lord.
But we make His love too narrow
By false limits of our own;
And we magnify His strictness
With a zeal He will not own.

Enjoy the performance above of the Birmingham Boy's Choir as they share a rendition of this Faber classic. I found it incredibly beautiful and the last verses are particularly touching. Truthfully, it makes me think of Bernie's sparkling, grace filled eyes passionately talking about the love of God at Elder's meetings.  In the picture to the right you can't see those eyes, because Bernie is laughing at something Jim Holiman said about the Great Trinitarian Controversy.

I love this church.

Monday, March 12, 2012


"Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished." -- Mary Oliver

There is much to be said for just paying attention.  Some mornings I walk into our sanctuary to retrieve something and suddenly turn around to notice the sun coming through this window in a way that never fails to take me by surprise.  It is astonishing the beauty that surrounds us every moment.  A ray of sunlight, a pure note sung by our neighbor, an infant's smile, or light streaming through blue glass.  Allow yourself to be astonished today!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Eyes Have It

Tues – Psalm 19:7-8

7The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes.

I freely admit I am a sucker for cute baby photos, especially ones that focus on the expression of wonder and interest in a young child's eyes. There is a certain kind of wisdom evident in the very young child.  The wisdom of attentiveness, curiosity, trust, and expectation.

Which commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes??  Perhaps this one: "Unless you become like little children ..."

Pay Attention

The photo above was posted last week by the  Lakewood Daily Snap, a beautiful photoblog worth checking out.
This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists and it is built entirely out of attention.  -- Mary Oliver
This Monday my thoughts are directed to the issue of paying attention. Some days are so full that we realize at it's end we hardly noticed where we were or who was with us. 

Psalm 19 reads "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.  Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge."

Here's hoping we find the wisdom to stop and take notice.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Vespers Poems

Tonight at Lenten Vespers at UniPlace we sang "Be Thou My Vision" and "My Life Flows On" (How Can I Keep from Singing?) as well as listening reflectively once more to all our daily readings from the week.  In addition we listened to readings of a couple Wendell Berry poems.  They are both posted below, along with the full text of the William Butler Yeats poem quoted in the Sunday morning sermon.

Grateful tonight for poets and songwriters ...
The Wild Geese
by Wendell Berry

Horseback on Sunday morning,
harvest over, we taste persimmon
and wild grape, sharp sweet
of summer's end. In time's maze
over the fall fields, we name names
that went west from here, names
that rest on graves. We open
a persimmon seed to find the tree
that stands in promise,
pale, in the seed's marrow.
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear,
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye
clear. What we need is here.

The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

by Wendell Berry

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.

Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millenium. Plant sequoias
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion - put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie down in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn't go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front" from The Country of Marriage,
copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry,  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Collected Poems 1957-1982

The Second Coming
by William Butler Yeats

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Sunday Sermon

Romans 4, Genesis 17 Lent 2B                                         Rev. Kristine Light Branaman
UniPlace Christian Church, Champaign IL                                               March 4, 2012
Treasure Eternal Promises

Treasure Eternal Promises. That has been the theme of our devotions for this second week of Lent, a theme addressed in both the Old Testament and New Testament scripture readings we’ve heard this morning.  Both Genesis and Romans refer to father Abraham, revered in Christianity, Judaism and Islam as a model for true faith.  Abraham, says the Apostle Paul, did not “waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, 21 being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.”

That is a mouthful.  To be “unwavering concerning the promise of God, growing strong in faith, giving glory to God, being fully convinced that God is able to do what God has promised.”  How many of us can make a claim like that?

We live in an age of change and uncertainty. People ask questions: about life’s purpose and meaning, about religion and values, about cultural diversity and preserving a sense of tradition. Soundbites broadcast daily on radio, TV and internet remind us of conflicting lifestyles and viewpoints, and inflammatory statements, like those of Limbaugh and Santorum which filled the news this week, are too often hurtful, inappropriate and intolerant.  It can certainly leave our faith in humankind wavering, can’t it?

Just after the First World War, when the entire western world was reeling from tremendous loss of life and enduring hardship, the English poet William Butler Yeats wrote a piece called “The Second Coming”. Not to be confused with Tim LaHaye’s “Left Behind” saga, the poem was a prophetic piece about approaching anarchy on the global stage.

In that poem Yeats uses the phrase; “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold”. Yeats writes about how all around him, certainties upon which people had built their lives were crumbling and falling to bits. He senses that the culture is disintegrating beyond repair and that it no longer has a stable center.

What he prophetically saw from within his own time we see clearly on the other side of it … this climate of confusion, anger, disappointment and grief allowed for the rise of the Third Reich.  Hitler’s madness was perfectly suited to a people desperate both for answers and somebody to blame after they had lost faith in previously stable institutions. Latching on greedily to a leader who would stoke the embers of fear and prejudice, a nation consented to unthinkable atrocities which erupted very shortly after into the flames of World War II.

But – enough of European History – what about this Abraham character, and why does a retired Pharisee like the Apostle Paul bring him up to young Christians in the imperial city of Rome at the dawn of a new era?

Not unlike the people of Yeats’ generation, the Romans Paul addresses were living in one of those times where stability was waning and seismic global shifts were detectable. Yes, the Roman Empire would hang on to power for several more centuries, but it would be battling to do so not only with swords and chariots, but also with the weapons of rhetoric, suspicion, and scapegoating.  People in these young churches throughout the empire, including those right under the nose of Ceasar in Rome, lived in fear of persecution, experienced prejudice and shunning, and suffered economically from their low social position.  Ostracized from previous systems like family networks and professional guilds, whether Jew or Greek, they too lived in a time where the center did not seem to be holding.

So how could they nurture faith?

The Apostle Paul offers up the example of Abraham who centered his life and his faith on a covenant God struck with him when he was 99 years old.  At a time in life when most of us assume our contributions to the world are behind us, Abraham (or as he was called before this covenant, Abram) believed he was chosen, uniquely called, to a purpose far greater than anything he had accomplished in his youth.

Abram shared an intimacy with God, in fact on multiple occasions he experienced visions or theophonies where he perceived God right there with him, directing his life.  When we get to the story relayed in Genesis 17 where the elderly couple are promised a child it isn’t a voice in Abram’s head telling him this, he experiences God in a very real and present way, and so does Sarai.  Abram knows that God isn’t calling them because no one else could possibly do the job. They are chosen for this, in spite of their age and social status, because God knows Abram is committed to this intimate relationship. 

Although they are old, although the promise of descendants and land seems impossible, they set out together in pursuit of the promise. It is this tenacity of faith in a climate of great risk that marks their story. Instead of pursuing security, sameness, and conserving what they have accumulated  , they strike out in pursuit of new promises from God.

What about us? In church circles, where we should know better, we often mark our life together by an atmosphere of caution rather than confidence, risk aversion rather than promise seeking. We look to worldly standards of success to gauge how we are doing rather than looking for that intimate presence of God to direct our path.  We ask the same questions in church that we ask at a business meeting at work: How big are our revenues? How many customers are we engaging? Which of our programs are most attractive? How can we cut costs?

In a book called “The Cynical Society”, Jeffrey Goldfarb comments that we believe “that if something is profitable it is true, real and good; if it is not, then it is without true meaning”.  The poet Wendell Berry in his poem Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front calls us to challenge that worldly thinking saying:

So, friends, every day do something
that won't compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.

       Further on in the same poem is that great line which speaks of looking toward promises that have nothing to do with benefits we reap for ourselves: Plant sequoias.

When Paul started new churches and then wrote to them in the following years with advice and counsel, he was clearly more concerned about their growth in righteousness through faith than their economic or numerical growth as a congregation. What Paul would tell us today is that even if we had the fanciest church in Champaign, the biggest membership, the greatest choir, the fastest growth in our membership roll, we could still be the least faithful church in Illinois.  None of those measures are sequoias. The measurements offered to us by the world to judge our health as God’s people are inadequate in reporting to us the state of our righteousness through faith.  And that is the planting which demands our attention.

It is significant that when Jesus set about changing the world He did so by nurturing the lives of a small group. As that small group nurtured other small groups, so the message spread. The crowds? Well the crowds were fickle, sensation-seeking and shallow. Just remember how often Jesus withdrew from them or sent them away in order to concentrate on nurturing His disciples.  And yet we are obsessed in our churches with a desire to draw a good crowd.

The story of Abraham and Sarah challenges us to consider how our faith community will nurture and promote the kind of intimacy with God that made a holy covenant possible for that ancient pair.

A meaningful life of faith requires active participation from each one of us. Real growth in our righteousness through faith will not come through trends tracked, fads followed or by throwing around the latest buzz words.  Those strategies do not hold up when the hard times come. If we build our lives on things that fall apart -- that rust and moth consume and thieves break in and steal -- it is impossible to maintain a consistent faith.

But if we can be more like Abraham and Sarah …

If we seek intimacy with and respond positively to the initiative of God.

If we believe that God still calls us for a meaningful purpose, regardless of age.

If we concentrate on the journey before us rather than the possessions of our past.

If we allow God to change us so much we even need new names …

Then, yes, our active response to God’s intrusion and disruption in our lives may ironically provide the stability to our faith --  

that gives us a center

that holds.

How Can I Keep from Singing?

Saturday's verses in the UniPlace devotional guide for Lent were not from scripture, but from a hymn found in our Chalice Hymnal.  The video above is a version of the tune/text recorded by Enya.

Verse 1 of the hymn titled "My Life Flows On" in our hymnal is as follows:

My life flows on in endless song
above earth’s lamentation;  

I hear the clear, though far off hymn 
that hails a new creation.

No storm can shake
my inmost calm 
while to that Rock I’m clinging, 

Since love is Lord of heav’n and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
This Sunday morning we closed our 10:00 a.m. worship service with this hymn.  I will be humming it all day.  After a week of reflecting on keeping faith in God's promises, this hymn resonates in deep places within me.  Resting in that inmost calm which no storm can shake ... happy Sunday everyone.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Blog Love

It's Saturday afternoon and the crazy storms that ripped across the Midwest last night and this morning have kept me indoors rather than enjoying my new routine of a hiking/walking day each weekend.  Instead, I've puttered around the blogosphere through the afternoon and enjoyed some of my favorites.  I thought I'd share for any readers who are interested ...

in good resources for preachers: I really like Alyce McKenzie at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, Dallas, TX and David Lose from Luther Seminary in St Paul, MN

in beautiful photographs:  I must put in a shameless plug for my stepdad, Ralph Johnson in Omaha, NE at Omaha Lens and Ralph recommends another Pacific Northwester (who isn't landlocked in Nebraska!) at a site called The View from Right Here and Fresh Eyes on London (for a bit of Brit each day).

in delicious and beautiful food: Those of us trying to consume less processed foods and more whole grain, locally grown goodness can celebrate at the delicious Sprouted Kitchen; in honor of my German heritage I enjoy The Wednesday Chef and like everyone else, a favorite for everything scrumptious is the Smitten Kitchen.

in dreaming about digging fingernails into the dirt soon: I am impressed with the byline at Cold Climate Gardening which is "hardy plants for hardy souls."  We preachers are all about the souls.  I liked the tip she gives for figuring out where to plant spring bulbs, especially if you are new to your home like I am. Other blogs with great names as well as fun posts are Garden Rant and Gardening While Intoxicated (I'll drink to that...)

So that's what I've been doing with my copious free time this Saturday. I see now the sky is not so menacing and I've decided to take a quick stroll around Clark Park after all.  Whether you are strolling in the sharp, cold air outside or strolling through beautiful blogs from a comfy chair ... enjoy your day!

Signs of Faith

This Sunday's assigned scriptures come from Genesis 17 and Romans 4.  Both passages refer to Abraham's great faith -- faith tied directly to an unwavering belief in the promises of God.  Those promises, for the record, are pretty outlandish.  As a nomad, he is promised a land which will be inherited by his descendants.  As an aged, childless man married to an old sterile woman, he is promised countless descendants.  What about any of that makes sense? 

Many times it is that way for us, though.  In the midst of darkness we are promised light will come; from the depths of despair we are promised something beautiful awaits us when we climb out of this pit; in our poverty we are promised riches; as we are insulted, grief-stricken, and broken we are named "blessed."  It is too simplistic to read this as "pie-in-the-sky-after-you-die" faith.  For both the Apostle Paul reflecting on the life of Abraham in Romans and for Abraham himself as we meet his character in the stories told of him .... the faith which grounds him is not just wishful thinking about his future.  Abraham's faith is witnessed in his present.  Something within him made it possible to live as a possessor of fulfilled promises, joy-filled, confident and yes, blessed, even as an old, wandering childless man.

What will it take for me to be "unwavering concerning the promises of God?" 

Lord, increase my faith!

The video below is a beautiful
rendition of the anthem
our chancel choir will
sing Sunday morning.

Friday, March 2, 2012

In the Arms of the Angels

Three of the four Gospels give an account of Jesus spending time in the wilderness prior to beginning his ministry. The links below will take you to the story as told by Mark, Matthew and Luke

Mark's account of Wilderness
Matthew's account of Wilderness
Luke's account of Wilderness

At my home church, First Christian Church of Omaha (where I was baptized and ordained) a Lenten event was held last week inviting various artists to create an original work interpreting the wilderness experience of Jesus. My mother, Nancy Light Johnson, painted the image above to reflect Mark's version -- where the angel "waited" on Jesus.  That same night the poet Ian Barker read two poems he wrote in response to the passages.  You will find them at the following link to

Ian Barker's poems "Wilderness" and "Friend"

I appreciated Ian's conclusion to the first poem, as it seems apt counsel for all of us looking for the kind ministrations of angels who will take us in their arms:

...tough it out in the present desert,
leave the sand to dust your feet
and let the branches sing Spring
from solid trees which sprang from seeds
who rooted in deeper, slower ground
which has no need for angels to catch them,
to demonstrate their faith
that they will, undeserved,
be saved from dashing on the rocks.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Promises, Promises

"Promises, promises."  Usually these words are spoken with a voice of resignation and a healthy dose of skepticism.  The expectation is that promises made will not be kept.  "I'll come back and take care of that mess later, I promise."  "I'll never do it again if you just forgive and forget one more time ..."  "I'll clean up after the puppy and feed him EVERY day, you'll never have to do ANYTHING.  I PROMISE." 

Oh yeah.  Promises, promises.

Human beings are notorious for their inadequacies in keeping promises.  But scripture assures us this is not true of the promises of God.  When governments seethe with corruption, neighbors violate covenants, friends vanish in times of trouble, lovers' hearts grow cold, and even a mother's bond with her child fails ... God's promises remain.

At Vespers this last Sunday night our discussion of treasured covenants led to comparisons between the legal standing of dependent and independent covenants. (It is a University congregation ... law professors show up sometimes. What are you going to do?) As it was explained to us, the basic difference is that in a dependent covenant each party has made a promise "if you do this, I am obligated to do that."  In an independent covenant, the responsibilities of each party in the covenant are NOT dependent on the behavior of the other party.  "I said I would do this as landlord, and regardless of the tenants' behavior, I will do as I said."  That sort of thing.  You see where this could get one into trouble, don't you?

We like to have guarantees in writing that everything will be fair and recipricol.  I will pay you rent AS LONG AS you keep this apartment safely heated, and water running, and no rats in the walls.  I don't want to be obligated to pay you when you aren't providing what you promised anymore.  And by the same token, the landlord doesn't want to properly care for a building where tenants regularly ignore their obligations to use the premises properly and pay their rent on time.  The same is true in business relationships, neighborhood zoning regulations, even family dynamics.  At what point do you say, "Enough is enough! This is not what you promised."

God's promises of grace, love and forgiveness, not to mention the gifts of abundance available to us from the good earth God entrusted in our care ... are far beyond what any measure of fairness would allow.  The prophets testify to this again and again.  Our grieving, rejected, taken-for-granted-again God turns toward us continuously with a heart filled with love.  Not because of our promises kept, but because the holy covenant God chooses is of the independent kind.  It is God alone who loves us with a "love that wilt not let us go."  And that's a promise.