Friday, December 13, 2013


Proclaiming the news of the Christmas gospel is a daunting assignment for a preacher. Many of us ask ourselves, "What can I add to this old, old story?" For a number of years my response to this challenge has been to attempt a Christmas sermon in verse. When preaching, I try to read these sermons fluidly, without undue attention to the line endings dictated by poetry. 

I offer this as my blog Christmas card, with thanks for reading, and a prayer that all will hear Good News in this season.

Some have said that childhood is a luxury
of modern times, something we’ve come to see
through the eyes of Dickens and the others.
But I’m not convinced. I think that mothers

and their fierce, soft love made childhood to be
what it is. A time for little ones to see
all life and promise in their mother’s face,
who lets them grow to be themselves in a place

where they are safe: to reach, to try, to laugh, to cry;
To fall and get picked up, a healing smile in mother’s eye:
“All better!…” This is no sentimental new
modern thing, this childhood, it’s the path through

which in all times everyone has learned to be
who they are, and how to live, and how to see
the way. Thus Mary, pondering shepherds' news
still had to teach her wonder child how to tie his shoes.

That is to say, that Christmas truly means
that Christ was born of Mary, a real kid. In his teens
the gospel tells us that Mary had to scold
him for wandering off – “Where have you been! Haven’t I told

you to stay with us in the crowd? Your dad
and I were worried.” And though the young lad
had an answer (teen-agers always do),
he heard how much his mother loved him. And his father, too.

For Joseph, too, had held the little child
that Christmas night, when for his Mary mild
he’d made a bed for them of wood and straw
and pondered, too, the shepherds tale of awe.

And for the love of Mary he’d become
the father of her angel-blessed son.
A carpenter, he’d teach him all he could,
of how to make a life of nails and wood.

Her Joseph held the child that night and said,
“You are mine,” and kissed his little head,
“And I am yours,” and knelt and said a prayer
that he would show this boy a father’s care.

So love came down at Christmas, but I wonder
if it was through a father and a mother
that little baby Jesus grew to be
the man of love that we have come to see…

upon a cross: The place where Mary’s heart
was broken, where heaven tore apart
the sky, as the angels had, when shepherds wondered
that night so long ago; when Mary pondered

these things in her heart. These things? Is this
what called forth carols? Angels’ songs of bliss?
The same mother’s love that kissed a bandaged knee
would have covered, held this boy, so it could never be.

And did Joseph throw himself before the swords
and say, “Not my boy!” Shout to the soldiers and the hordes,
“This is my son. Take me.” As any father would?
And did he then remember how that good

news had sounded in a stable on that night
when shepherds told of skies aglow with light?
And his own angel’s message: How he heard,
“Joseph, save this child, he’ll save the world!”

And so recall how Mary is the one
whose fierce love made a home for God’s own son;
how Joseph loved his Mary and this boy:
This little family is the whole world’s joy.

But joy this Christmas still seems lost in night;
we search the heavens for the angels’ light.
We see a glow of hope, the dawn of morn.
We hear the news, “To you a child is born.”

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Gerhard Frost, who died in 1988, was a college and seminary professor and pastor, beloved by all who knew him. He had a lincolnesque combination of strength and quietness about him. His seminary class on the principles of education caused me, ironically, to leave seminary and become a teacher – for a while. After I was ordained – and in Gerhard’s later years – he became a colleague, a neighbor, and a friend.

Gerhard Frost was one of those pastors for whom reflective time was essential. His parishioners, his students – and we – are the beneficiaries of those reflections, especially as they resulted in the publication of a number of books of poetic meditations. Here are three favorites:


In the Scottish highlands
a man of science knelt,
crouched in the morning dew,
the better to hold a microscope
over a heather bell.

Lost in the blue traceries of exquisite design,
he saw a sun-drawn figure,
the shadow of a man.
Gazing up into a shepherd’s face,
he quickly bade him look.

One long moment
the old man stood, beholding,
pierced by microscopic patterns
in the flower.
Then he spoke: “I wish
you’d never shown me that!”
“But, why?” was the surprised response.
“Because,” the old man said,
gazing at two worn boots,
“these rude feet have crushed
so many of them.”

These rude feet,
and this God’s day,
this most resplendent hour!
Father of mercies,
give me eyes,
make me aware:
I walk in Gift today.


I remember my mouthy days,
my dazzling debates
with mom and dad.

Like a winner,
confidently I’d argue,
condescendingly I’d instruct,
tolerantly I’d repeat,
patiently I’d wait,
until, without a moment’s warning,
one of them would say,
“You know, we love you!”

“Foul!” I’d yearn to cry,
and I’d want out.
They’d struck so hard –
and below the belt.

Love cheats.
It always does;
there’s no defense.


In the long shadows of late November
we stood at the grave of one beloved
as husband, father, friend,
and I overheard soft-spoken words,
not meant for me,
but words to remember.

The moment had arrived,
that time that comes
in every hour of grief,
the moment for going on.
It was then that she,
the daughter and the only child,
spoke words intended just
for her mother: “Well, mama?”

Two softly spoken words,
nothing more, and yet so much
in meaning and in courage,
much with which to turn together
toward a future with a different face,
words of hope and love, great love,
for we honor those who’ve taught us
to face forward by going on.

Unless I am mistaken, Gerhard Frost's books are now out of print, but many of them can be found on Amazon or used book sites such as These are from "Blessed Is The Ordinary."

Thursday, October 24, 2013


A good friend – an engaging preacher, caring pastor, and author – says (of himself), “My messy desk is a sign of my messy life!” Couldn’t have said it better myself (of myself). One of the many messy parts of my life is my approach to daily devotions and prayer. I have no doubt that many of my parishioners (thankfully) have a more disciplined devotional life than I do. And I’m not alone. Other pastor friends have confessed that, like me, they “struggle” with this part of their schedule. This has to do, no doubt, with personality types, learning styles, and whatever odd socio-psycho-spiritual things that make us who we are. (Some of you – also friends – who have read the lectionary and “prayed the hours” before I’m stumbling toward the coffee pot won’t know what I’m talking about.)

Into this mess, a few years ago, dropped a wonderful book, “For All The Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church,” with each day ordered as follows: Opening prayer, three scripture readings (pretty good chunks), a piece of writing by one of the “saints” of the church (both ancient and contemporary), and a closing prayer, also written by some ancient or modern worthy. (Why one would use pre-written prayers is another subject for another journal post.) The book also contains the entire Psalter so that one can include a daily psalm. I know that many books use a similar outline, but this one has grabbed me as others haven’t, and – although with many a lapse – has brought order to my prayer life partly because I so look forward to it each morning.

All this by way of introducing a prayer – the closing prayer of a few days ago. I found myself reading this out loud, and it took on a kind of rhythm. It spoke to me, deeply, and “prayed” for me. I’m using it – for the time being – as a daily prayer.  (I don’t speak with thees and thous, and I don’t usually pray with them, but in this case they’re part of the package.) If I can just find the book, here… Ah, there it is….

O Thou who art not only my God, but also my Father, I thank Thee that Thou dost encourage me to draw near as Thy child. O give me a Father’s blessing.
Thou art acquainted with all my wants. Every trial, every sorrow, every craving of my heart is known to Thee. I am weak; do Thou strengthen me. I am poor; do Thou enrich me. I come to Thee in all my emptiness; do Thou fill me out of Thy fullness. Give me all that I need, and more than I dare to ask. Give me, not according to my unworthiness, but according to my necessity, and according to the abounding riches of Thy grace.
And, O God, Thou knowest likewise all my sins. Make me to know them also, and to feel their greatness. Call to remembrance all that is past. Show me where I have been wrong. Bring to light my hidden iniquities. I acknowledge the guilt of my evil thoughts, my unholy desires, my secret transgressions. Pardon me, O my Father, for Jesus’ sake. Blot out my sins in that precious blood which was shed for me on the cross. Take away this heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh—a tender, believing, loving heart.
O Lord, help me to live nearer to Thee day by day. Keep me under the blessed influence of Thy Holy Spirit. Make me to be ever growing in grace. Forgetting those things which are behind, may I be ever pressing towards the prize of my high calling. Give me grace to crucify self, and to bring my thoughts and desires and will into subjection to Thee.
Bless, O Lord, those who are near and dear to me. Give unto them all that I have asked for myself. If any of them are at this time in sorrow, do Thou comfort them. If in doubt or difficulty, do Thou guide them. Those of them who are still afar off from Thee, do Thou bring near. And to those who know and love Thee, give more and more of Thy grace.
Hear me, O my Father, and give me an answer of peace to these my prayers for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen
 ~ Ashton Oxendon (1808 – 1902)

from, "For All the Saints: A Prayer Book For and By the Church," Vol III, The American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, 1995.

Monday, October 21, 2013

UNBALANCED reports a story about a video that has apparently gone viral: A Boy Scout troop laughingly knocking over an ageless rock formation in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. The act—and the attitude of the Scout leaders—is maddening. And it brings to mind something closer to home:

When our daughter Anna was about fourteen, she attended a Black Hills retreat center as a “counselor in training.” One afternoon she invited a group of her fellow fourteen-year-old trainees to our nearby cabin (I’m fuzzy on the details – an adult staffer must have been present; we weren’t). They hiked up beloved “Rubble Rock Mountain” that rises behind our cabin.

Anna's nephew Sam, in more recent days,
resting near the top of Rubble Rock Mountain
About 6,500 feet high, we named it Rubble Rock because of it’s shattered evidence of the geological uplift—occurring 60 million years ago—that formed the Black Hills. (The rock itself is about 2 billion years old). The rubbly “evidence” of which I speak is indicative of an originally horizontal slab that was suddenly (in geological terms) thrust vertically upward almost 90 degrees--part of the resulting formation remaining upright, other bits of it sloughing off from the pull of gravity and the violence of the uplift. Some of what was hoisted upward now lies on the opposite side of the valley: boulders the size of a house that must have broken away and rolled down almost immediately. Others form a scree of Volkswagen-sized rocks creating the hillside (and much of the fun of the climb -- the rocks still shift underfoot!). But most of the gray wedge held together and, promontory-like, points to the sky. At the very top, the slab is serrated into a series of parallel vertical chunks, as evenly flat as though cut by a saw. One piece, about the size of a refrigerator sliced in half length-wise, was balanced between its two neighboring chunks. And I mean balanced. It weighs probably three times as much as that refrigerator, but you could take your little finger, give it a tiny push, and it would rock—almost swishing—back and forth, like a primeval metronome. And then it would settle back into place, seemingly eternally immovable. It seemed so delicate that I
Rubble's Balancing Rock,
no longer balanced.
never dared push with more than a finger. But, since I’m now writing in the past tense, you’ve probably figured it out. A couple of the fourteen-year-old boys (of course!) weren’t so constrained. With a good shove they dislodged it from its 60 million-year-old cradle; it now leans sorrowfully against its lithic neighbor.

(I may be exaggerating. Geologists who have studied the rock of our valley have determined its ancient age, but are uncertain as to the epochal details of its movements. Perhaps it was only balanced there since the last Ice Age, a mere 100,000-10,000 years ago.)
Let's hope the Boy Scouts don't find this.
(In Arches National Park, Utah)

I grieve the loss of our Balancing Rock, but I don’t blame Anna. I don’t even blame the fourteen-year-old troglodytes because…

…when I was fourteen I would have done the same thing.

(Adult scout leaders, however, I don't let off so easily...)

Wednesday, October 2, 2013


In memory of Tom Ormesher, who loved Autumn, and, every October, became for all of us, "Mr. Moundshroud."1

I. Someone has described Ray Bradbury as “having one foot on Mars and the other on his grandparents' shady front porch in Illinois”—a wonderfully apt picture of this imaginative and humane man, who died last year. His Mars (The Martian Chronicles)has something of the homey porch, and his novels of midwestern boyhood (Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Halloween Treeare always dreamily adrift in the fantastic. 2

Bradbury's poem, Byzantium I Come Not From is both dreamy and rooted. It is like a psalmic prelude to the charmed stories of childhood noted above. (It is, in fact, part of the preface to Dandelion Wine.) The poem can be read in its own light, but it may be instructive to note that it is written with both homage and ironic reference to Yeat’s poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree and Sailing to Byzantium.

“Byzantium I Come Not From"   (Ray Bradbury)

Byzantium, I come not from,
But from another time and place
Whose race was simple, tried and true;

As boy
I dropped me forth in Illinois.
A name with neither love nor grace
Was Waukegan, there I came from
And not, good friends, Byzantium.

And yet in looking back I see
From topmost part of farthest tree
A land as bright, beloved and blue
As any Yeats found to be true.

The house I lived in, hewn of gold
And on the highest market sold
Was dandelion-minted, made
By spendthrift bees in bee-loud glade.
And then of course our finest wine
Came forth from that same dandelion,
While dandelion was my hair
As bright as all the summer air;
I dipped in rainbarrels for my eyes
And cherries stained my lips, my cries,
My shouts of purest exaltation:
Byzantium? No. That Indian nation
Which made of Indian girls and boys
Spelled forth itself as Illinois.
Yet all the Indian bees did hum:

So we grew up with mythic dead
To spoon upon midwestern bread
And spread old gods' bright marmalade
To slake in peanut-butter shade,
Pretending there beneath our sky
That it was Aphrodite's thigh...
While by the porch-rail calm and bold
His words pure wisdom, stare pure gold
My grandfather, a myth indeed,
Did all of Plato supersede
While Grandmama in rockingchair
Sewed up the raveled sleeve of care
Crocheted cool snowflakes rare and bright
To winter us on summer night.
And uncles, gathered with their smokes
Emitted wisdoms masked as jokes,
And aunts as wise as Delphic maids
Dispensed prophetic lemonades
To boys knelt there as acolytes
To Grecian porch on summer nights;
Then went to bed, there to repent
The evils of the innocent;
The gnat-sins sizzling in their ears
Said, through the nights and through the years
Not Illinois nor Waukegan
But blither sky and blither sun.

Though mediocre all our Fates
And Mayor not as bright as Yeats
Yet still we knew ourselves. The sum?

II. John Stewart (not to be confused with the comedian, Jon Stewart), who died in 2008 at age 68, was as much a folk artist as Grandma Moses (though slightly hipper). He painted with his guitar and his heart, his pictures tinged with both the golden sunlight of a California boyhood and the earthier tones of the midwest. His folk-rock style influenced many whose names are known better than his own, and his songs were steeped in an “Americana” that evoked a love of country through images of waving wheat rather than waving flags. His Bradbury-like reminiscence in “Pirates of Stone County Road” (which he described as being set "in Nebraska or Kansas or Oklahoma") makes us see a particular scene that also manages to depict a sort of universal childhood.

“The Pirates of Stone County Road” (a song)
~John Stewart

Henry! It's getting t'wards suppertime you know.

There she calls from her second floor room,
the end of a back porch afternoon,
where we'd stand on the bow of our own man-of-war,
no longer the back porch any more.
And we'd sail, pulling for China,
the pirates of Stone County Road
all weathered and blown.
And we'd sail ever in glory—
'till hungry and tired,
the pirates of Stone County Road
were turning for home.

Henry! You better be getting on up to bed now, don't ya know…

There she calls from her high wicker chair,
as I climb to my room up the stair,
where the wind through the shutters
sends the mainsail to fall
from the shadow of the bedpost on the wall.
And we'd sail, pulling for China,
the pirates of Stone County Road
weathered and blown.
And we'd sail ever in glory,
'till hungry and tired,
the pirates of Stone County Road
were turning for home.

Henry! Can you hear me, Henry
 Are you up there Henry? Henry?... 3

III. I’m no poet, but occasionally the muse gives me a nudge anyway, and I try my hand. My muse in this early attempt was obviously Ray Bradbury.

"943 Colorado Southwest"

The big white house that once held me
I now hold in memory.

It had no ghosts then,
though fifty years old--
sixty years ago.
We are the ghosts now,
wandering through rooms of light
Slamming doors to meet in front
for games of autumn nights.

Spirea-lined and lilac-hedged,
front steps were base, but
back yard stretching into dark
was the place to hide,
to crouch—unbreathing—
Till the seeker passed,
Then to breathe again!
And leap, and run….

I’d hide forever now,                             
till sounds the "all-in-free!"
And mother, apron aflutter
at the front-door confluence
of darkness and light,
calls me in,
then up
the tall staircase,
to that high bedroom,
to sleep,
a ghost, exhausted.
1. "Mr. Moundshroud" is the spirit of Halloween in Bradbury's "The Halloween Tree." Tom put on a fantastic Halloween party every October.

2. It's October! Find a copy of Bradbury's "The Halloween Tree" and read it with a child 6-12 years old.

3. Here is a Youtube audio of John Stewart singing "The Pirates of Stone County Road." (I think the producer's slide show gets in the way, but it's all I could find. I suggest you turn around and just let the words paint the picture.)

4. Thanks to my friend Warren Hanson for the sketch of my boyhood home.