Blue Hen Falls

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Reading the papyrus gospel

Some might consider the question itself too radical to consider, but could Jesus have had a wife? A scrap of papyrus is thought by some to be a newly found gospel.

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What makes my heart sing?

I’m working on a plan for a sabbatical break from ministry. Having completed five years of service at Olmsted Community Church, it’s time–according to my work agreement–for a sabbath. Now I know fully well that there are those who would say, “A break from what? Don’t you just work one day a week?”, to which I might answer with a link to a previous post.

Those who know clergy members know that it’s richly rewarding work in some ways, and soul-draining in others. Pastors have the privilege of being with people in the most incredible moments of life (birth, death, marriage, baptisms, divorce, surgery, etc). We get to share the most exhilarating and most painful parts of life with the people we serve, and it is truly an honor to do so. That’s what drew me back to pastoral ministry after an 11-year administrative position.

But over time, sharing those highs and lows begins to feel like a yoke that’s not always easy to bear. Combine that with endless church meetings and 24/7 on-call hours, and the minutia of ministry begins to overshadow the joy. The best of work situations recognizes the stress (and sometimes pain) that pastors carry on behalf of others, and supports the biblical idea of finding sabbath rest. God rested after six days of creation. Creation needs rest, too. And in rest, we honor the Creator. Winter becomes spring by the grace of God.

So I’m planning a scheduled sabbatical. A couple months of rest and renewal will, I believe, carry me back to daily ministry with enthusiasm and energy that sometimes lags today. There’s a national foundation that provides funding for clergy sabbatical rest, and I’m working through that application with church leaders because the church will benefit from this process too.

The grant suggests we approach this with a question, “what makes your heart sing?”, a question that urges me to spend some time thinking about life priorities. The idea is to focus sabbatical time and energy in activities that delight the spirit. Those things help create rest, because doing what we love isn’t work, it’s restorative.

So what makes my heart sing? Three things, primarily. Spending time with my adult children. Travel. Photography. And I’m mulling over ways to use all three lifesongs for sabbatical rest.

I’m considering some travel with my kids. And then another trip, on my own, that would allow me to develop new photography skills while traveling in a foreign country with a master teacher. All three goals met. Yet it’s not so easy to arrange when life is so fluid.

It’s all still in planning stages, but I hope soon to present my plan to church leaders for their blessing. And after the sabbatical months, planned for 2013, I look forward to opportunities for sharing my learning and new energy with the congregation I love. I hope, should my heart sing, that the church will pick up the song.

UPDATE 9/12: I put sabbatical planning on hold with a growing sense that the timing wasn’t right. For me, it’s a bit of spiritual correction; a lesson in letting go and letting God. It’s my growing edge at the moment, and the letting go part may be more valuable to my spirit than the sabbatical itself. I’ll keep you posted.

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Beauty and Truth

I admire artists who use their skills to add beauty to the world. And sometimes the job of an artist is to highlight truth, even if it’s ugly. Some of the best artists simply take the elements that are around them and use them for either of those purposes.

I find the work of Hong Yi amazing. The Shanghai-based artist uses coffee cups to create portraits that are both true and beautiful. She’s a beautiful  young woman whose blog also shows her creating art with a basketball, with sunflower seeds, and with chili paste on a plate.




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Every day, a gift

I love to watch TED Talks online–short expressions of learning and imagination that often light a spark inside my head or heart.  If you haven’t explored these videos, it’s worth doing so.  I found one today, sent my way through Facebook, that made me remember the goodness of life.  It’s by filmmaker Louie Schwartzberg, sharing his vision for the intersection of nature, beauty, and gratitude.

I believe that every day is a gift from God, and I’m happy to share some part of my life journey with you.

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Text me

I don’t use the texting feature on my phone very often.  I will send my kids a quick note via text or share a picture with them, but few of my friends text with any regularity.  The younger generation uses it extensively, though, and I hear that it’s not unusual for a teen to send over 3,000 texts per month.  A text may be one word, or a TTYL-type acronym (meaning “talk to you later”), or a complete sentence, but texting is the primary method of communication for many young people.

In India, I saw people with cell phones all across the country, in huge cities and in rural villages.  Cell phones are relatively cheap to purchase and operate in India, and there are over 12 major service providers.  I’m not sure if it’s the competition that keeps things cheap, but, whatever the reason, it makes for an affordable means of contact for millions there, even the poor. Still, the data is stunning:

48 million people worldwide have cell phones but no electricity, often charging their phones with car batteries.


Planet Text
Created by: MBA Online

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Curry and rice, with a dash of injustice

I’m thinking a lot about food lately. Often my food consumption goes without a lot of thought, such as a quick run to the local Subway for a sandwich which I can mindlessly eat at my desk while I read or do other tasks. I tend to get the same sandwich most days, so I don’t even have to think about what’s on the Subway menu. If I bring lunch from home, it’s usually the same ham sandwich. The only variation is if I’m dieting, then I skip the cheese and mayo. Otherwise, it’s pretty routine.

During my weeks in India, food became something to think about several times each day. As a traveler, you don’t always know where your next meal will come from, or what it will contain. There’s an element of surprise to it, and more than a little trust involved. There was certainly no lack of food for us and, despite more walking, I came home two pounds heavier than when I left. Food was given generously and graciously with a lot of attention to our Western tastes.

In homes and in restaurants in India, there’s an intentionality about food; real planning is involved.  Meals there consisted of smaller portions, but more dishes.  It wasn’t uncommon for 10-12 items to be placed on the table for each meal: salads, a variety of breads, curries, fruits, rice, sauces, vegetables, and potatoes…and that’s just for lunch.  Breakfast and dinner had similar quantities and varieties of items.

Food is eaten with the hands in India, as it is in many places. That’s more than a little disconcerting to us who are used to forks and knives. Meats are pre-cut into bite-sized pieces, often covered in gravy–some spicy, some not–to be mixed with rice by one’s fingers. There’s a lot of movement on the Indian plate with diners constantly mixing and moving items around with their hands. I tried their method and used my fingers for a couple of meals, but I was rather sloppy and it was clear that I’m much more comfortable with steel utensils to deliver the goodies to my mouth. But there’s something basic about using one’s hands. Somehow the experience ties a person to the food they are eating. Dinner is more organic, not in the sense of being “pesticide-free”, but in the experience of eating with one’s whole body.  The hands and eyes experience the temperature and the texture of the food before the tongue ever tastes it. There’s a sense of integrity about it all.

There’s much less manufactured food, too, as most dishes are from scratch ingredients and fresh produce. We had pineapple right out of the garden; papaya and mango, tomatoes and guava from the back yard. There were more varieties of banana than I could count, and figs and pomegranates and coconuts everywhere. Chicken and lamb often come from one’s own village.

The Indian palate is vastly different from the American one. India is the source of many spices, and dishes reflect the richness of those flavors, some familiar and some exotic.  The American diet seems terribly bland and flavorless to Indians, I was told. It seems to me that Indian food is full of opposites: fiery hot curries with a side of cold plain yogurt to reduce the inflammation, tender meats and crisp salads, well-seasoned lentils with plain rice, salty fried breads cooked with biting black pepper, and for a finishing touch, sweet, creamy ice creams and puddings. I tried it all and then some, so I guess I’m lucky I only brought two pounds back with me.

I like the English tradition of afternoon tea in India, with the hot beverage (whether coffee or tea) steeped darkly and mixed with steamed milk and a generous helping of sugar.  There are always cookies (“biscuits” in the English parlance) with tea. Often potato chips or a piece of cake showed up at tea time, too.  I was reluctant at first to have hot tea in the 95-degree heat, but our hosts were convincing that a hot beverage in the afternoon actually helps the body handle the heat better.  There’s mid-morning and mid-afternoon tea.  Evening dinner was often after 8 p.m.  Lunch tended to be the heavier meal.

Getting home, I was desperate to return to my bland daily bread: dinner was a ham sandwich, some overly salty Cheetos and a glass of milk. No sign of any spice anywhere. My tongue needed a break. But damn any diet, my sandwich had both cheese and mayonnaise. I’d been craving dark chocolate and ate most of a bar before I collapsed from jet lag.

The other thing about food that’s on my mind is the inequitable distribution of it. I saw women in India cooking a pot of white rice over coals, throwing a few leaves and chili peppers in the pot for flavor. They were cooking on the hospital grounds for themselves and their patients, and rice and a few veggies were all they had. I watched children eating rice three times a day, the only variation a few lentils thrown in the pot. I saw farmers who struggle to raise enough rice to feed the people of their village. And I throw away more food than I can ever justify.  Supermarkets here look like palaces of gluttony. There’s too much food in my country and my part of the world, and not enough in other parts.

Doesn’t it seem right to share? On getting back to my duties at work, it’s my pleasure and responsibility to guide our congregation to do something about hunger during the Mission:1 program this November. My time in India has prepared me and opened my eyes to some of the realities of food injustice.

Food is something that we all share in common, but is distinct to each of our cultures. The way we produce, distribute and consume food is crucial to our shared future, and the unhealthy imbalance of food scarcity in the developing world and food over-abundance in the developed world is unsustainable for us all.

May God bless us with a spirit of sharing, not because the hungry of India need our handouts, but because we wealthy people have a need and a responsibility to give.  Resources like food are meant for the sustenance of all God’s people.  It’s wrong to keep more than our fair share.

I’m generally not a big believer in the idea of God testing us, but if there is a test, it might be this one: God gives food to sustain us, and when some have enough and more than enough, perhaps its an examination to see if we will selfishly hoard the blessing, or if we will help others be blessed.

When we help others, Jesus told us, we are participating in the kingdom’s work. May we be found faithful with our food.

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Notes from India

Yet another exhausting and exhilarating day in India as we wind down our mission exploration trip.  Today we

  • ate breakfast crepes filled with freshly grated coconut
  • toured two housing rehabilitation projects for victims of the 2004 tsunami (photo left)
  • visited a mass grave where hundreds were buried after the tsunami in which 225,000 died
  • enjoyed fresh coconut milk and  banana cashew bread made by the rehab villagers who welcomed us by anointing our foreheads with Indian spices and placing on our shoulders ceremonial shawls
  • watched women make rope from coconut fiber
  • drove through acres of rubber trees, mango groves, coconut palms, and banana trees
  • prayed with the residents of an HIV-AIDS home
  • were serenaded by students at the community college run by the Sisters of Notre Dame (who also have Chardon, Ohio connections)
  • enjoyed modern and folk dancing and singing from a group of nursing and engineering students and shared a meal together with them and our host family.

Tomorrow morning we depart the southern tip of India for a day in Mumbai, more commonly known as Bombay.  I’ve been asked to preach there on Sunday, then we’ll have a final afternoon of touring before departing for home.

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India in Pictures

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Picture India

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India Update

It’s late Tuesday night as I write this, and I’m way too tired to attempt anything eloquent.  But in the past few days, our group has experienced things I never dreamed possible:

  • spent time with the 200 children of Family Village Farm orphanage, including beautiful Devi, the girl our church sponsors.
  • rode the school bus with the community children who attend the King’s Matriculation School to see their homes and villages, most of which are thatched roof huts
  • cut the ribbon for the opening of a new dormitory for a rural nursing school
  • received gracious honors from several villages we visited to give support and encouragement to community projects like wells for irrigation
  • met a young man with physical challenges who has recently completed his B.A. degree because of a Global Ministries scholarship and who plays on the state cricket team.
  • drank coconut water from a green coconut and ate the gel-like “meat” to provide electrolytes to our diet
  • visited the Christian Medical College and several rural hospitals made possible by the vision and support of Christians around the world
  • preached at the Good Shepherd Church in Chennai on Sunday where the overflow crowd watched on closed circuit television
  • ate amazing foods that I can barely describe, much less identify
  • saw beauty in some very unexpected places.

I’ll try to post some photos, and next time I get internet access, I’ll give a bit more description. Our group is doing well…it’s been a very demanding trip, and worth every effort.


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India in Pictures

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India, Part One

We had just taken off from Newark to New Delhi when I realized that things were going to be different for the next two weeks. Continental served a meal for Indian tastes, and I was already trying to figure out what items were on my plate–or in the case of plain yogurt, why it was there. A spicy chicken dish started things out. There was a mango yogurt dessert.  There was also a small salad tray with some very spicy whole grains on one end and cool veggies on the other end with a whole green bean on top. The plain yogurt, I learned later, is a cooling agent to diffuse the heat when dishes are spicy.

Arrival in New Delhi came at 8:30 p.m. after the 14.5 hour flight.  We were surprised to find a new, modern airport; bright and spacious.  That’s one of the only things that can be described that way in Delhi.  Delhi is divided into the Old section and the New, but it all looks old to me.  Old and dusty. The entire city is coated with a heavy blanket of dirt kicked up from the roadsides. Trees are the sort of grey-green that look like a plastic plant that hasn’t been dusted in years.

Our hosts met us at the airport with a small van to take us to our hotel. However, the van wouldn’t hold us with our luggage. They attempted to lash our luggage to the rooftop but the rack was small, and standing luggage on end meant that the vehicle exceeded the height of the parking garage and couldn’t exit. Our hosts had to rent a second vehicle to hold us.

The hotel rooms are nice and clean, with thin, firm mattresses. There were some confusing things: There is both a large and small bucket in the shower stall and none of us is sure why they are there. The toilet has a bidet function that sprays directly to the front of the seat, which means that after turning the wrong knob to flush, my clothes were in direct line of fire.  They dried by the next morning. To take a shower, you have to notify the front desk. They tell you to wait five minutes, then hot water shows up in your shower. There’s a stepstool inside each shower.  There are dispensers of yellow and pink liquid in the shower. The yellow we assume to be soap since there’s a matching dispenser of yellow gunk at the sink.  What’s the pink? I thought it would be shampoo, but after washing in the morning, my hair feels thick and slightly tacky. Yuck.

We’re here to meet with representatives of the Church of North India (CNI), following Vijay’s lead.  Vijay is the Reverend Doctor Vijayakumar, our group leader and an Executive for Global Ministries. He works with them as part ambassador/part manager/ part grantsman from the UCC and Disciples of Christ mission organization. Our trip here coincided with a missions partner meeting that he was expected to attend with denominational representatives of Methodist, Anglican, and Episcopal bodies from USA, Australia, and the UK. These denominations, and others, provide mission support and money to fund the work of the CNI.  Our Cleveland group was considered to be part of Vijay’s ambassadorial troupe and were included in the Tuesday business meeting which lasted several hours. I worried that Dan, Pat and Sheila were bored to death, but each reported that they found interesting tidbits of information relayed during the meeting.  In addition to the international partners, there were four bishops from the Church of North India present and several CNI synod staff members.

They began the meeting serving tea and traditional Indian festival foods.  One bishop led me to the serving table and pointed out the things I should try. What looked most appealing to me was a light, fluffy lemon-yellow cake with poppyseeds. It turned out to be a shockingly salty appetizer. The oddest item was a roll of almond paste wrapped around ground pistachios and coated with an edible silver film that made the piece looked like it was gilded.  It was very sweet and chewy and turned out to be my favorite bite.

I got seated next to the presiding bishop—and having been introduced as a UCC pastor—was asked to offer prayers at the conclusion of the meeting and to include the blessing for lunch.

Most reports shared during the meeting were full of pleasantries, the high point for me was a challenge that Vijay presented to the CNI bishops: to not only consider themselves on the receiving end of mission support from other denominations, but to also find way to “partner with the partners” in given mission aid to other, more challenged, places.  Vijay used the extreme needs of East Timor as an example.  Other representatives seemed to brighten up at the suggestion and offered encouragement in that challenge.  The bishops heard the message loud and clear: become a full partner in sharing with others. Though it was a rather routine and boring meeting, Vijay had injected some heart and soul into the session, and I felt very proud to be part of his temporary team.

The meeting and the lunch was held at the church headquarters building, first in an upper level conference room, then in the lower level dining hall. Lunch was casual and friendly and included a lamb stew, various breads, lentils and rice, and salad.  Pat saw a green bean on top of the salad and promptly chomped it. She was quiet during the meal, and only later did we learn that the “green bean” had been an extremely fiery chili pepper, which gave us all something to laugh about later.

Meetings over, Vijay had arranged for a driver to take us to New Delhi tourist attraction:

  • a visit to the Mohandas Ghandi cremation memorial (a sparse but lovely memorial to a man dedicated to independence through nonviolent means),
  • a guided tour of the Qutb Minar, site of seven places of historical significance including an enormous and beautiful minaret (Muslim prayer tower), and arches and columns from an ancient mosque, ruins of a historic Hindu temple, and an iron column carved with Sanskrit writing dating from the 600s.  There were brightly colored green parrots flying around the ruins.
  • a driving tour past the Presidential Palace, Parliament area, and the famous India Gate, which is very impressive when lit up at night.

After time to clean up back at the hotel, we had dinner with the other mission partners in a upscale restaurant, sampling traditional Indian foods and ending with a palate cleanser leaf filled with sugary crystals with a cloves inside.  Then, back to the hotel to counter the jet-lag with sleep…if you can call it that.

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With the best of intentions…

We’re safe in India, but exhausted mentally and physically. Though my hope was to write every day possible, the reality is that we have had only occasional internet access, and when I’ve had network connections I’ve been too tired to fire up the laptop. Electronic gadgets seem so unimportant at times. Some of our travel conditions have been rough and rugged and, nearing the halfway point of our trip, our group has felt a bit of the wind taken out of our sails.  But we’ve now arrived in the city of Chennai and are staying two nights in a place that feels downright luxurious after some of the primitive places we’ve encountered.

I’m not complaining, just letting you know our situation. It has been an amazing and rewarding experience to date, both in line with my expectations and exceeding them.

I do have some notes to share from our first day or two, and I’ll get those posted soon. I haven’t begun to process any photos yet either. I’m eager to see what’s been captured, but I already know it won’t do justice to what I’ve experienced in person. Trust me that the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of India are wonderfully exotic and altogether a heady mix.

Today’s a day of relaxation and recuperation. I’ll post more later.

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Off to India!

I will be traveling today to India with four others (including 2 from Olmsted Community Church) to begin a mission exploration of that wonderful nation.  It will be my first visit to India, though I’m traveling with Rev. Dr. James Vijayakumar who is a seasoned traveler and Indian native, so I’m going with no worries.

Dr. Vijayakumar is an Executive with Global Ministries, the organization that coordinates missions for the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  His area of responsibility includes Southeast Asia, of which India is part.  After getting to know Vijay and his work, I once commented that I’d love to travel with him to see India through his eyes. From that, a trip plan was hatched.

We’re going for several purposes: to give encouragement and support to churches and mission projects that our denomination shares partnership with, and to share in the culture, food, history and sights of that beautiful country. We’ll be traveling from Delhi in the north to the very southern tip of the country. I’ll do my best to add some photos and notes here over the next two weeks as we travel.  Internet availability is unknown, but we should have access several times during our journey.

Keep us in your prayers.

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