A Blessing For Small Town America

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For the last 32 months I have been a pastor in a Northwest, logging town of 1700 people.  There are small towns and then there is where I live, which is dinky.

I have loved every minute of living here.  I have loved the scenery, the people, the identity, the community.  Just this morning towards the end of my run I ran into one of my congregants downtown.  All the small business owners know who I am.  Likewise, I am well known at the schools.

Moreover, this is one of the most laid back places in America.  There is a libertarian attitude to the whole town that is quite jarring at first but quite endearing over time.  In fact, I have often said the best thing about Elgin is also the worst thing about Elgin.  It is that you can get away with murder here.  That is great news, unless you are being murdered and, by metaphor, I have been murdered a few times.

But last September I sensed God was calling me elsewhere.  In early January I was officially called by a small congregation in a suburb of Salt Lake City, UT where 80,000 people live.  It is the exact opposite of Elgin.

I am quite certain God has called me to this new venture. .  However, living in a tiny town has been a lot like going to summer camp and this is Friday, the day everybody goes home.

So before I change that byline on your left from “A Small Town Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” to “A Small Church Pastor’s Thoughts About Grace” I thought I would take a moment to try to articulate my love for this place.

I have known for a few months this day was coming so I have had time to think long and hard about what this post would be.  A month ago I read a wonderful chapter in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “An Altar In The World.”  The chapter was about the practice of blessing others.  It got me thinking that the best way to properly describe and honor the town I am leaving would be to pronounce the Lord’s blessing upon it.

So here goes:

God Bless Elgin, OR, its people, its businesses, it organizations and its churches.

May the Lord richly bless the citizens both young and old

Bless those who live in the town and those who live in the fields around,

Bless those who just moved here, whether young and broke or old and retired.

Bless those who were born here and will never leave and bless those whose parents, grandparents and great grandparents have invested heavily in this town’s prosperity.

Bless those who just arrived.  May their love for this place be greater than my own.

Bless those are poor and live in trailers.  May they find acceptance, wholeness and meaningful work.

Bless those who farm the land on each side.  May the heavens bring them rain in its season and dry, sunny weather when its needed.  May their crops and fields yield enough produce to feed thousands.

Bless the lumber mill and its employees.  May their efforts to conserve the forest continue to provide lumber for many centuries to come.  May your employees find satisfaction and enjoyment in their work and may the administration administer fairly and equitably.

Bless the homeless teenagers.  May they not only find a couch to sleep on but a family to give them the warmth and comfort a couch never could.

Bless the single moms.  There are far too many.  May the Lord bring them sustainable income, blessings of wisdom, and stress free days.  May the Lord be the father their children never had.

Bless the alcoholics and drug addicts.  May they find freedom from addictions and identity in Christ.  May their testimonies cause many to give thanks to the Lord.

Bless the schools, their students, teachers, staff and administrators.  May the Lord’s wisdom prevail so that the students do not just learn data but become critical thinkers and engaged citizens.

Bless the businesses, both the start-ups and those firmly established.  May they employ many with gainful wages.  May their income be ethically earned and may their products and transactions bring joy and mirth to the community.

Bless the clubs and associations:  the quilting, the Lyons, the Opera House, the Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development, the City Council, the High School Associations, the Sports teams, and all else.  May their efforts bring unity and coherency and identity to all those who participate.

Bless the churches.  May their efforts to work together and sing together not overshadow their need to pray together.  May the Lord hear their prayers.  May the Lord bless and increase their members.  And may they seek the peace of this place.

Lord, bless this town.  Pour out your spirit on the rich and poor, the young and old, the hardworking and lazy, the truck drivers, millwrights, small business owners, farmers and commuters.

Bring your peace and prosperity to its people.  Bring your love and warmth and grace.  Do not withhold any blessing but richly give all good things.

Amen.

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What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Barbara Brown Taylor

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Over the course of December, in the busy holiday rush, I did not have much time for reading, let alone blogging.  But over the last two weeks I have started the New Year off right by devouring two of Barbara Brown Taylor’s collected reflections.

The first was 2009’s “An Altar in the World.”  It falls into a genre of spiritual literature that has become common since Richard Foster’s groundbreaking (at least for Evangelical Protestant’s) “A Celebration of Discipline.”  I call these books, “Practice Books” because the chapters are merely suggestions of practices of which spiritual seekers might experiment.

“An Altar in the World” was probably the tenth “Practice” book that I have read and if I were to rank those books it would make the top half.  The chapters were well written and the practices are unique, or at least uniquely describes by Taylor.

But practice books are not meant to be critiqued, ranked or even studied, at least how academics study.  Their worth solely consists in the spiritual value of the practices they recommend.  For this reason I would wholeheartedly recommend the book, if not just for the chapters on feeling pain and pronouncing blessings.

These practices are unique to most practice books (and most spirituality) and over the last week I have had a quite enriching time as I pronounced blessings over objects, animals and people.

The second book I read was Taylor’s most recent, “Learning to Walk in the Dark.”  I was thrilled to pick it up because a TIME Magazine review had intrigued me.  However, I expected a more generic exploration of the bad stuff in our world and how God uses it for glory.  Needless to say, the book did not meet that expectation.

Instead the darkness Taylor explores is the real kind.  It is not the metaphorical kind we equate with “evil,” but the actual kind, the kind that overtakes a room when you turn out the lights and the kind that gradually creeps upon us every evening.  Taylor finds that there are very good things that happen at night or in the dark and those should be welcomed as spiritual guides.

So Taylor’s chapters take us to moonrises, dark caverns, technology-less cabins and restaurants where the diners eat entirely in darkness.  In doing so, Taylor exposes the “darkness is evil” metaphor as a sham by concluding, “We need darkness as much as we need light” (p.6).

Such a book and such a conclusion frustrated me a bit, only because I expected a book of poetry about how God meets us in the darkness and overcomes the bad stuff in us and around us.  Instead we went spelunking and dining and even to a blind museum.

However, that is not to say the poetry and spirituality were absent.  They were just of a different and deeper kind than I expected.  It was the real life kind, the kind that recognizes there are things you can hear in the black that you will not hear in the light.  The moonrise is just as pretty and enlightening as the sunrise and the intentionality that comes with eating in the dark brings a greater reverence to the God who created food for our nourishment.  In fact the dark places may just be altars in our world, places where we find God.

With that said, the chapter on The Dark Night of the Soul, which comes the closest to the spiritual poetry I had expected throughout, is the best chapter on that spiritual phenomena I have yet read, except of course for John of the Cross’ ancient work by the same name.  They should both be required reading for ministry students, pastor, laypeople and.  .  .well.  .  .everybody else.

In fact, just this last week I had a congregant enter my office.  The conversation I had with him was quite common.  The congregant explained that he didn’t feel close to God any more and was struggling to do devotions.  My guess was there were no fewer than 1,000 other Christians telling their pastor that same thing at that moment.

Indeed I have heard this frustration expressed a hundred times before.  But my response was entirely new to him.  I taught him what Barbara Brown Taylor taught me and what Gregory of Nyssa taught her and what Moses taught him, that “those who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.” (p. 21)

In the week since I read “Learning to Walk in the Dark,” I have suddenly found myself turning the lights off at the wrong end of the hallway and blessing my bruised chin when I bang it on a knee high toy hiding between me and the bedroom.  I have found myself longing for a dark cave to sit in but settling for a dark office or sanctuary instead.  I have learned to appreciate the sounds that fill my house at night, which the light of day drowns out.  And I have learned to accept the silence and darkness inside of me, not as signs of moral failure but as reminders that I am drawing near to the opaque splendor of God.

You can click on the pictures below to buy the books!

Walk in the Dark