Wednesday, December 31, 2008

resolve or reflect?

She asked if we offered a New Year's Eve service, and when I said we didn't, she wondered about a New Year's Day one. No, we don't offer that either. She told me about how she liked going to a service on the morning of January 1st, for it was a good time to sit, with only a few folks around, and reflect on what had happened the last year and on what might happen in the coming one. Then she paused, and wondered,

"Can you reflect forward?"

Most of the shows on TV and the radio today have been about what has happened over the last 12 months: cultural phenomena, political comings and goings, those we lost to our old friend, death. One could watch clips and hum along on songs, laugh at old jokes and mourn the loss of folks who had touched us in some way or another. Retrospectives, remembrances, looking back, all those things we do at this moment on the calendar.

But, can we reflect forward? Do we dare?

Do we take some time tomorrow, or the next day, or the next to sit in silence and just listen to the yearnings of our hearts, to those longings of our souls which have been pushed aside by the hustle and bustle, the worry and hurry of the last month or so? Can we calm our fears, our doubts, our nightmares long enough to once more dream about a life that could be whole and holy; about a relationship that might be reconciled and knit back together; about a journey we have long thought about taking but just can't bring ourselves to pick up our foot and take that first step; about a wish that a friend has that we suddenly realize we can help make come true?

If history is any indication, at this point most of us probably have that list of resolutions for the coming 12 months - a list that looks an awful lot like the one we made back in December 2007, and looks as if we just folded it up and put in our jeans pocket, letting it run through the wash a few dozen times: tattered, faded, ink-run-together-till-we-can't-read-it. Those same resolutions we will break as easily as we have done in all the other past years.

What might happen if tonight, or tomorrow morning, or in the evening before going to bed, we were to sit down and make a list of reflections for 2009? That list we laminate and stick on the refrigerator; that list we scotchtape to the mirror in the bathroom; that list about living more peacefully, being more open to the surprising grace of God, of gifting others with joy when we want to slap them silly with sarcasm. That list of hopes we have jotted down on napkins, on the bottom of bulletins, on the backs of voided checks, and shoved way down into our purses 'to do later.'

"Can you reflect forward?"

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 25, 2008

morning grace

Read Titus 2:11-14

the angels have folded
their sheet music
and stored it away
for another year,
twittering away
about the ski trip
planned for New Years;

the shepherds are all
snug in their beds,
thoughts of last night
distracting them from
much-needed sleep,
while the kids play
quietly in the next room
(with an occasional, very loud
"SHUSH! You'll wake them!");

Mary turns to Joseph
in the midst of packing
for the trip,
'Wise ones, huh?
not smart enough
to bring something practical
like a crib or diapers?'

Jesus lies quietly
in the manger,
smiling up at the cow
with its great big eyes
watching him carefully,
resting up
for the work of Christmas:

weaning us from sin;
holding our hand as
we take those first
teetering steps in the kingdom;
clapping his hands in delight
when we first whisper
helping us to wrap up
grace, peace, and joy,
re-gifting them
for the folks down
at the hopeless shelter.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

wide open

Please read Isaiah 29:13-14 and Revelation 21:9-25

There is an old Sci-fi short story about a crew that has landed on Mars. They are surprised to find that the air is breathable. They are shocked when a scout comes back to report that a town has been found. As the crew rushes to explore, they are even more amazed that the streets, the houses, the town are just like home back on earth. One by one, each astronaut finds a house that is populated by family from back home. Is it a mass delusion perpetrated by the Martians or is it heaven, since the family members are all those who have died?

For centuries, humans and especially believers, have struggled with the idea of life after death, of heaven. What would it look like, smell like, be like? For some, because of the descriptions in today's passage from Revelation, it is a wonderful, bejeweled city, with streets paved in gold, with beauty that can only be hinted at by John. For others, heaven will be that place where all pain is healed, all tears wiped away, all the broken people will be made whole, where someone like Teddy will become the person God intended before others and the world damaged him.

While I still remember the vivid dream I had as a teenager of heaven being that place where I was invited to step out of the crowd and lead the marching band from the movie 'The Music Man,' I now am hoping that I will find a great big library (with no due dates), a comfortable rocking chair, lots of pastries, and an unlimited supply of chocolates. I would guess each of us has that place, that person, that hope, that joy we will find when Jesus returns to take us home on the occasion of the Second Advent.

But amid all conversations about heaven being the place where only 'certain' folks will go; amid all the dogma about some being destined (pre- or not) for that other place (where one certainly will not find much to enjoy); in the midst of a culture that seems to be so wrapped up in who will be left behind that we cannot see those who are being left out right now, I notice one verse in particular in this passage.

"It's gates will never be shut by day--and there will be no night there."

If the gates of the new Jerusalem are never shut, then it seems to me that we are reminded, at the very end of Scripture, that God is going to make it possible for everyone to come home. And if there is no night, but only day, then aren't we being told that even those who have lived in the deepest shadows can find their way to God's heart and hopes for them?

We have become so convinced that we know what heaven will be like and just exactly who it is that God will let in there, we may be just like those folks who were so surprised, shocked, and amazed at the first Advent, when God showed up in a barn, surrounded by dirt and grime, being born as a little baby into a working class family who will soon be hunted by the authorities.

Maybe, just maybe, when it comes to heaven, life beyond death, and the second Advent, God will do exactly what he says through Isaiah - something so shocking and amazing we might not recognize it.

Prayer: In the quiet of this day and night, as we wait to celebrate the shocking way in which you came so long ago in Bethlehem, keep our hearts, our minds, our hopes open to the amazement which you still have in store for us, Approaching God. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

take a bow, Joe!

Please read Matthew 1:24-25

You usually find him stuck back in the corner of the crèche set. He may be kneeling, he may be wtanding, he may appear as if he has a rather stunned look at his face. And in the Christmas pageant at most churches, he never has any lines to say, never gets a solo, never has the wpotlight turned on him.

Poor Joseph.

And how much poorer we are, because we believe that Joseph has no role to play, no big part, nothing to say or sing during these holiest of days. Oh, we convince ourselves that we don't need to pay any attention to him, or should, because (we whisper behind our hands as his neighbors probably did) he's not really the father of the Child. He is just a bystander, a person to ignore, a character actor who appears just for a moment, and then is forgotten.

But is there any better person to model trust for us? Sure, he could have easily dismissed what had been told him one night as a dyspeptic dream caused by all the rich food at the office party. Yet, Joseph saw it as his calling, and decided that he would do whatever it was God was asking him to do. And couldn't we use a little more trust in our lives, in our communities, in our world, in our churches right now?

And his courage? To stand up to family, friends, drinking buddies, and probably even strangers who had heard only the gossip (but based their beliefs on those whispered words), and simply way, perhaps over and over, 'whatever. I stand by Mary. I believe her, I love her, I will marry her, I will help her to raise this child.' Don't we need to be reminded that courage is a trait that we need as we move into those unknown moments of our lives - a new job, a new year, children, retirement, downsizing?

What about his lifelong commitment to Mary, to Jesus, to the rest of the kids who came along? He could have become an absentee father, he could have been one of those dads constantly being searched for to pay child support. But he goes about his job, working long hours, providing for Mary and the family, helping to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. He reminds us of our calling to get up out of bed each morning, and simply go about doing all that day-to-day stuff we do as mothers and fathers, as teachers and volunteers, as friends and neighbors - all those little, insignificant tasks we take on, while standing in the background, no one noticing us, but making all the difference in the world to someone.

This year, let's reach back into that shadowy corner of the crèche where we have stuck him, and move Joseph up to the manger where he belongs.

Prayer: With angels singing, the shepherds rejoicing, the wise ones gifting, it is easy to overlook Joseph, Everlasting Father. But since he is the one who most resembles us, we give you thanks for his trust, his courage, his loyalty, his role in this holy story. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 22, 2008


Read Matthew 1:18-25

you come,
struggling through
the deep drifts of our sins,
to pull us out,
hand us a warm toddy of grace,
and wrap us in
the comfort of
your hope;

you come,
unlatching the storm windows
we have hung over our
so we can open our hearts
to the bracing breath
of your joy;

you come,
you arms full of groceries,
cooking up a storm,
letting us lick the bowls,
and decorate the kitchen
with icing and sprinkles,
then sending us out
with our arms full
of your goodness,
so everyone might
gorge themselves
on your love;

you come,
that little child
taking our hand
on a cold winter night's
suddenly stopping
and whispering,
'did you hear that?'

o come, o come,

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, December 21, 2008

the stump

Please read Isaiah 11:1-9

Years (and years) ago, I was visiting friends who were getting ready to move into a new home. We were over at the new house one day, painting and such, when the former owner stopped by to pick up some things. At one point, I looked out the window, and there was the fellow, his hand resting on an old tree, just standing there. My friend, Robert, who noticed what I was looking at, simply said, "he's remembering, and thanking the tree."

At the time, I thought to myself, "What?" But as I look at the empty space that stands where our tree used to tower to the sky, as my eyes are drawn to the fresh stump (that even seems to glow in the dark), I finally understand. The sweet gum tree, which had been damaged in the hurricane, back in September, has finally had to be cut down - it was just too broken, too shaky, too much of a danger.

But I remember. I remember the tree that had stood and watched over Teddy and his friends, and the church's youth group, as they bounced higher and higher into the sky. I remember the old tire swing that had hung on the sturdy branch long after Teddy had outgrown it, yet the tree was always ready to give a little kid a ride. I remember the cool shade of its leafy branches on hot days after mowing the lawn. I remember the comforting sound of the Spirit moving through the branches on crisp fall evenings.

As I stare into the empty space, and try to avoid the stumpy reminder of our loss, I remember, and I give thanks.

Isaiah says that from the stumps of our toppled efforts, God will bring a time when the meek and the poor will finally find the justice we seem unable to offer.

Isaiah says that from our failed attempts at peace and reconciliation, God will bring forth a kingdom where the worst enemies share bunkbeds at night, and where the person who has hurt us the most will hand us the Bread of life and the Cup of grace.

Isaiah tells us that as we stare into the empty spaces where our comfort and strength once towered, God will come and fill us with that joy which has no end, with that hope which holds us up when we are about to fall over, with that Spirit who is our constant ccompanion and caregiver when everyone else has wandered off.

Isaiah tells us . . . do we remember?

Prayer: Indeed, God of trees and stumps, it was Isaiah 'twas foretold it.' Help us to remember, and in that remembering, to give thanks. And in that thanksgiving, to look for the newness you are bringing into our lives. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, December 20, 2008


Please read Isaiah 10:20-23

from the trashcan
where the ashes of our dreams
have mingled with our fear-filled tears,
you will fill the luminaries
to line the path of peace
for all to walk;

from the crumbs we cast
to those who hover around us,
hoping for friendship,
you will concoct a feast
which fills that emptiness
we all try to satisfy
with junk;

from those odds and ends
of our jerry-built lives
we have stored
in the basements
of our hearts,
you will craft
a home where joy
is the welcome mat,
and grace holds open
the door for all;

from the left-over losers
the world puts out by the curb
with the little, the least, the last,
you will build that kingdom
where everyone is called
and each one
is nicknamed

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 19, 2008

the wait-er

Please read Psalm 130:1-8

Everything I need to know about waiting I learned from Dusty.

There's anticipation, as he stands frozen like a statue - not a twitch, not a sound, not a frozen breath into the air - as he waits, waits, and waits for the squirrel to drop out of the tree, run over, and jump into his mouth. There's patience, as he slowly lies down and stretches into a comfortable pose, settling into that long winter nap, while I stop to chat with someone on our walk.

There's expectation as he comes down from his post on our bed, gets up on the couch, and begins to stare out the window. When his ears begin to rise and his tail begins to twitch, I know it is just about time, and about 30 seconds later, Bonnie's car pulls into the driveway. There's excitement as he runs back and forth from the table in front of the living room window to the front door, when he hears one of us answer the phone and say, "Hi, Heather!"

There is the hope evidenced as he raises first one eyebrow and then the other, almost as if he is sending some sort of morse code to me, as the clock moves closer and closer to dinner time. And there is the pure, leaping-into-the-air, all four paws off the ground and the tail brushing the ceiling joy, as I get up out of the chair and move towards the dog chow bucket.

There is that trust, as we sit in the exam room waiting for the vet to come in, Dusty curled underneath the bench, as close to my feet as he can get. And there is the sheer ecstasy that comes with his head stuck out the back window, tongue and ears flying in the wind, as he strains to get his first glimpse of Teddy as we pull into the front of the Broadview building.

There are all sorts of waiting . . . each and every one of them is perfect for Advent.

Just ask Dusty.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 18, 2008

what will you do?

Please read Isaiah 10:1-4
It was one of those comments made that you take and stick in the back pocket of your mind. I can't remember if I heard it or read it somewhere, but an executive director of a social service agency recently observed, in response to announced cutbacks in services through Medicaid and Medicare, "the elderly are the new poor."

Well, duh!

Older folks have always been one of our 'most vulnerable' groups. And not just in our time and our culture, but more or less in every generation, in every community. That's why one of the ten commandments given at Sinai had to do with the elderly. According to biblical scholars, 'honor your father and mother' is not about being civil to your folks and eating your vegetables, it is about how a society takes care of its aging population.

The director's comment, though stating nothing new, is a reminder to all of us, but especially to those of us in faith communities (and those of us who believe we live in nations guided by belief in God), that in those uncertain and increasingly frightening economic times, it is the most vulnerable of our society which will be hit the hardest. Why? Because economic suffering always trickles down until it hits those folks who have no one below them to pass on that suffering.

Those who are homeless, hungry, and helpless are finding more people joining them in the lines at the food banks, at the soup kitchens, at the shelters. And those organizations are finding their sources of funding and donations (food as well as dollars) decreasing exactly at the time when the need is so dramatically increasing.

Those who have no health insurance are finding health clinics closed, or one has to travel a greater distance to find an open clinic which, of course, puts a greater strain on those who have no ready transportation choices. And, if one has children, then the stress of trying to find some health care, any health care, for a sick child increases.

Vulnerable individuals like Teddy, who resides in a state developmental center, may not even be aware or able to understand why a lot of their friends are being moved out, and buildings are being closed, and staff (all those familiar faces who make them feel so safe) is being cut. In Ohio, families recently received a letter that the state has mandated that 725 inidviduals will need to be placed 'in community settings' (a phrase which basically means 'we don't know where they will end up'); this comes on top of previous 'decreases in population' which took place several months ago because of the economy. This means each of the ten centers will need to 'outsource' an average of 72 residents. And with the most profound, the most damaged, the most medically fragile being affected, this will have a major impact on these children of God, especially for those who do not have families or advocates to fight for them.

And any one who is looking for assistance, be they already 'in the system' or those who are just discovering that such a system is in place, they will find tighter, stricter regulations; fewer case managers; more hoops to jump through as the social service agencies deal with less and less funding, and more and more job cuts.

And, to no one's great surprise, there will be no $700 billion bailout for developmental centers, group homes, respite care for already-exhausted family caregivers. There will be no governmental loans to keep social workers and care managers on staff at the agencies that open their doors each morning to longer and longer lines. And the $1 Trillion (!) amount being considered for rebuilding our 'infrastructure' will not be used for health clinics, for ERs, for food banks, for soup kitchens, for shelters for homeless families.

I know, because I hear them on radio and TV, and get mailings about their seminars, that there are those folks who are convinced that God was speaking about us and our current situation in books like Daniel and Revelation - you know, all those 'hidden codes' about the end times coming, the apocalypse just over the horizon, the four horsemen throwing the saddles over the horses.

But for me, if God uses any writers in scripture to speak to us and our current situation, it is folks like Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea. Folks who tell about those times which will come when our compassion decreases as our fears increase; when our generosity falters as our income diminishes; when we turn away the poor and needy because whatever is in the cupboard is needed for us.

Prayer: As uncomfortable as it may make us, or as frustrated, you have always been clear that it is what we do for the most vulnerable in our midst that demonstrates our belief, our trust, our commitment to you, O God. So continue to speak those uncomfortable words, and hopes, to us through such folks as Isaiah, Amos, and Hosea. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


Please read Luke 1:46-55

While Lizzie started making dinner, she slipped out the back door and wandered down to the frozen pond. Sitting down on the rough-hewn bench that Zeke had made a few summers before, she stared across the ice towards the hillside, where the shepherds were huddled for warmth around a fire, while the sheep shuffled, trying to get comfortable in the chill air.

'What a strange few weeks,' she muttered to herself. She thought back to her conversation with the stranger at the bus stop while she waited to go home after doing her homework at the library. She kept trying to inch away from him, until there was no more inching she could do, stunned at his repeated insistence that she was going to have a child (hey, she had thought to herself, I'm a good girl!) and the child would be a gift from God. Actually, he had said the baby would be God. What can one say to that!?! 'Sure, whatever you say, mister' was all she could come up with.

Snapping out of her reverie, she began to rummage around in her backpack, pulling out her skates. As she wiped the blades clean, she relived the chat she had just had with her auntie. How in the world did Lizzie figure out she was pregnant - she had just found out the other day! And, wonder of wonders, Lizzie was going to have a kid, too; at her age! She must be near 40. And she thinks I am blessed?

She slipped off her right shoe, put on the skate, and began to tighten the laces, so she would have the support her ankle needed. She giggled to herself, as she remembered how she and Sarah had talked late one night, after Shabbos dinner. Like all kids, they wondered what the Anointed One would be like when he came. 'When Messiah comes,' Sarah had whispered, 'I hope he comes as a baker, with wonderful goodies and lots of hot bread for everyone. I am so tired of being hungry all the time.'

Finished with that skate, she quickly put on her left one, as she remembered what her boyfriend, Joseph, had mentioned to her, while they walked home from the synagogue one day. 'The rabbi uses such big words, I can't always understand him. I'm a simple man,' he said, looking her in the eyes he could not pull himself away from. 'I want someone who can tell me in plain terms about Adonai, who can put his thoughts into words a carpenter like me can hear and walk away saying, 'now I see'."

Stretching her neck and shoulder muscles, loosening up her arms and legs, she stared off into the blue-black sky, freckled with stars which glimmered in the crisp night. 'I just want mercy - sweet, tender mercy when Messiah comes. Compassion for all the children whose parents have no time for them; help for those who long to shelter and feed their families, but who have no money; hope for those who clasp those promises made so long ago to Sarah and Abraham, and wait so patiently for them to come true."

Stepping out onto the ice, she slowly began to do her warm-ups, circles and figure-eights, beginning to hum a little tune which she did not recognize, but had just popped into her head. As she picked up speed on the ice, she started to murmur words which tumbled out of her heart, in rhythm to the tune, 'my soul magnifies . . .'

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

after the comma

Please read Isaiah 9:2-7

Jesus Christ, W.C.; M.G.; E.F.; PoP

According to Isaiah, this is the way that the business card or stationery for Jesus should read - with all his honorifics after the comma.

Or at least, that is the way it would read if Jesus was as obsessed with what comes after the comma as we, and our culture, seem to be. There on the door, or the nameplate on the desk, or in the brochure, or on the cover of the annual report are all those details about how well educated we are, how honored we are, how important we are (at least to ourselves).

Please don't misunderstand me. I know how hard folks work for such 'letters', for such an education, for such a title. It takes drive, determination, sacrifice, tenacity to reach those achievements. One of the reasons I did not go after a PhD is that I recognized that I did not have the qualities needed to pursue such a goal.

I have several certificates that have been framed for me - my degrees from college, as well as from the seminary I attended; the certificate attesting to my ordination as a Minister of Word and Sacrament. But I have this nagging feeling that what Jesus might be handing me to hang on my walls is a picture of Mother Theresa with her lined and weary face, which I am coming more and more to believe is what God looks like.

Now that I am at a different church, I am asked about how I want to be called - Reverend, Doctor, RevDoc, Mr. I have to admit that usually when someone calls me by those titles, I think they are talking to someone else. While I prefer just plain Thom, I wouldn't mind being known as patient, compassionate, friend, chocolate-lover.

And while I have "earned" (whatever that means) the privilege of putting velvet bars on my robe, I am pretty sure that Jesus might find that a little bit ostentatious. After all, the one who talked about giving away coats and cloaks, of clothing the naked, of being more concerned about the poor than about how I look in fancy regalia, probably looks in askance at me at certain times.

For Jesus, it's far more important what we do before the comma. Do we reflect the love and care that went into the giving of our name? Do we carry on the heritage and hopes of those who stood before God and a faith community, naming us as God's own, God's beloved child? Do we live out our relationship with Jesus, our Brother, our Friend, our Servant - who calls us to be sisters and brothers to the castoffs of our society; who longs for us to befriend those whom the world hates; who sends us out from behind our desks, our homes, our titles to serve a creation that is broken and yearning for healing?

Prayer: Help us to realize that it is the life we live before the comma that makes all the difference for others, and for ourselves. In the name of the Prince of Peace, we pray. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 15, 2008


Read Luke 22:39-53

i keep such a
death grip on
my way of being/doing
that i am fatigued
by breakfast:

was it an uphill struggle
for you
to turn your dreams
loose into the garden mist,
and walk into
God's hope
for the world?

i get a caustic
taste in my heart
when i try to pray
for those
whose flung words
and turned backs
broke my spirit:

was it as distasteful
for you
to keep loving, forgiving,
accepting your friends
with their asleep-at-the-switch

it is so easy for us
to grab the nearest
spite to throw in
another's face,
or to bash them
with a dose of bitterness:

did you have to keep
your hands tucked deep
in your pockets,
so as not to slap
your friend's face
as he kissed yours?

was it easier said
than done
for you
to hand your glory
to the angels
and put on

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, December 14, 2008

the hearing

Read John 1:6-8, 19-28; 3:25-30

"This room will come to order," the chair intones. "This hearing is for the purpose of obtaining the facts concerning this person who has appeared in our midst, who seems to be causing a great deal of controversy among our people. The first witness has been sworn in. Would you please identify yourself for this committee?"

"I am called John the Baptist."

Shuffling some papers until he finds the right document, the chair asks, "Mr. Baptist, are you the light that has come into the world?"

"No, Senator, I am not. And please, call me John."

"If you are not the light, then who are you?"

"I am simply the one who draws people from the shadows of this world, and of their lives, so they can find the Light."

"Well then, are you this word we have heard about, that is supposed to have been from the beginning of all time?"

"No, I am not the Word. But I do use words to introduce people who, having been deafened by all the noise of our culture, need to be able to hear that Word that can silence their fears, which can speak to their concerns, which can answer their questions, which can whisper songs of joy and peace into their ears."

"Well, I guess I am unclear as to why you are here before our committee," states the chair. "Just who in the world are you?"

"Senator, have you ever been to a wedding?"

"Of course, many, many times. I attend one almost every weekend."

"Then you will remember there comes that moment in the service when the bridegroom appears at the front of the congregation, just as everything is about to begin. Well, I am the one who has stood with the bridegroom and fixed his tie into a perfect shape. I am the friend who brushes the lint off of his tuxedo. I am the good friend who reminds him to smile at the bride as she comes down the aisle so she won't turn to him in 25 years and ask why he didn't smile on their wedding day. I am the one who whispers, 'walk slowly,' as he steps out, and I go to the back of the church to dim the lights so that only he can be seen. I am the one who shushes all the latecomers so they can hear his voice. I am simply the friend of the bridegroom, thanking God for the gift of serving him, and the privilege of getting out of the way."


Prayer: Help us to step back into the shadows, Bridegroom of all humanity, so that others might see you, hear your words, and rejoice that you have come to us at last. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, December 13, 2008

fiat mihi

Read Luke 1:26-38

'I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the midst of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.'
- - Francis Thompson, "The Hound of Heaven"

Moses was a good role model, with his protests about being unable to speak in public. Jeremiah resonated with his protests about being too young, too immature, too inexperienced to stand up and proclaim the Lord's word. In fact, the Bible is filled with so many more people who try to worm their way out of God's insistent, persistent notion that they are precisely the ones - untested, unworthy, unknown - God has decided to use for purposes the called could not begin to understand.

So, with such good company, it was easy for me to convince myself at age 14, and 24, and 34, that the only option I had when I heard God call me, one summer at camp, to ministry was to run. And so I ran. And ran. And ran. Until that persistent, insistent God had turned me in the direction that was intended all along, and I reached the destination I had been longing for, despite every effort to deny it.

But Mary?

That young, little, innocent, unmarried girl who had every legitimate, and reasonable, excuse to say no, to run away, to claim the right to enjoy her childhood, to simply get married to that simple craftsman from Nazareth? What was her response? Did she say, 'Uh, you were looking for someone else named Mary, right?' No, she replied (though, I hope with a lot of fear and trembling), "Let it be to me according to your will."

With these simple words, her life, my life, our lives were changed forever. Because she was willing to speak those words of hope, of acceptance, of trust, of welcome.

That's why we can all go running into the laughter of God without fear, reluctance, or protest.

Prayer: Help us to be as willing to say simply, and hopefully, 'let it be' - for it is, dear Lord, it is. amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 12, 2008

among us

Read Luke 22:14-30

We should reach critical mass sometime next week. With Christmas Day getting closer and closer, with more and more activities at school, with meetings almost every night, the annual meltdown should take place soon (mid-week is my best guess). There is just too much to do.

It's the same thing at the church. More services to prepare, several newsletter articles to be submitted, end of the year 'business.' And the people have an amazing variety of ways by which they can share their gifts. In addition to the choir, worship, Session, potluck dinner, there is the host of voices singing of their needs - trees on which to hang mittens, hats and scarves for those who have none; food collections; a box for toys, books, school supplies; opportunities to give to any number of charities, sacred and secular. There is just too much to do.

Yet, as hard to believe as it may be, the songs in the stores will be silenced, the shelves cleared of all the 'stuff' (after one final push of post-holiday sales), all the bowl games will take up time on the TV, we will be preparing for an historic presidential inauguration.

And in the background, where they always have been and always will be, will be the hungry and homeless, the wandering and wondering, the families who must choose between food or medicine, the lost, the last, the least, the little who are such an intimate part of Jesus's family. The ones whose needs continue every day, every week, every month, not through any fault of theirs, it is just the way of the world.

But this is the way Jesus came to change, this is the world Jesus came to challenge. Recognizing that the hunger will grow and the available food will diminish, knowing that the winter winds will continue to slice through lives and the coat box will be empty, aware of the kids who go to bed each night scared and lonely, this is why Jesus tells us he is among us as one who serves.

Not just during a month, but through a lifetime; not just on his birth, but through his death; not just in the season of joy and giving, but in the years of emptiness and despair. He is among us as one who serves, and he simply hopes that we will join him, not just now, but in all the nows to come.

Prayer: You came to serve, Blessing of Bethlehem, in all the places, to all your children, through all your followers. Help us to continue to serve at your side. Amen.

(c) Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 11, 2008

a faith in the crowd

Read Isaiah 7:1-9; Luke 22:1-13

For me, the problem is not that I betray Jesus when there is no one around; no, for me, it is precisely the way I deny him in the midst of the crowd.

There is a group huddled around the bar at the wedding reception, and someone tells a joke concerning a blonde, or a person with a disability, or someone of color. And that's usually when I grab my drink or move over to the chocolate fountain.

I am sitting in a meeting and once again, the same person is making the same weary comments/accusations about someone who is not doing their job the way it 'should' be done, and I pick up the minutes to read through them again, hoping the chair will move on to the next item on the agenda.

I receive an email from someone who is sending it to a whole bunch of people, one of those notes that has an inaccurate, yet highly titillating and even more inflammatory, story about a famous person, and I hit my delete button, rather than moving the cursor up to the Reply All button, so that folks know the real facts, and exactly where I got the information.

Even for someone who likes silence as much as I do, I know deep down inside that these are not the times and places to practice that spiritual discipline. Why is it that I (we) have so much trouble standing firm for others (and for the One who cares so much for the other) in such moments and situations?

Then I recognize those sins I commit in the shadows of the day, and in the privacy of my life, and realize that if I cannot stand firm in my faith when it is just me around, I am not going to be able to be able to do it in the crowd.

Prayer: Help me to stand more firmly in faith: to stretch my prayers, to strengthen my heart, to feed on your words, to practice all those disciplines that will draw me closer to you. Then, Advent Blessing, I can stand firm, not just on my own two feet, but in the midst of the crowd. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Read Isaiah 6:1-13

By all standards of his day, he was on his way to success. Bright, articulate, popular with his friends and colleagues, he probably would have been a great professor, a scholar, a mentor, an author. But on December 10, 1941, Thomas Merton entered the monastic life at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Though he had been expressing an interest In developing his faith in his adult years, and was especially drawn to those 'saints' with deep spiritual roots, his friends were still surprised by his decision to enter a life of poverty, of stability, of a commitment to living in community with others. Yet for Merton, he felt like he had finally arrived home. And 27 years later, when he died on December 10, 1968, he had indeed become a great teacher, a scholar, a mentor, an author - a spiritual guide who continues to speak to millions of people throughout the world.

No one can really put into words why or how they are called to lives of faith. For some, it is a journey home; for others, it is the sense of being chased by God. For some, it is a dramatic epiphany such as Isaiah speaks about; for others, it is a dawning awareness of how God wishes them to use their gifts. For some, it is a call to leave everything behind and enter a world of silence and prayer; for others it is a job filled with meetings and paperwork. For some, it is lived out as a pastor or priest; for others, it is a life of teaching, of mothering, of laying bricks, of nursing care, of sitting at a keyboard. But, like Merton, each of us is called to follow, to live out our faith, to finally find that place God has called us to be a servant.

A few months ago, a friend asked me to write a prayer for her ordination to ministry. While I wrote it for a specific person, called to a particular place, perhaps it speaks to all of us, who seek to listen and to keep on listening to the One who calls us.

who -

to look foolish
so others might
discover you;

to become weak
so your hurting children
might be touched
by your healing heart;
so those who weep
by cold graves
might feel your
warmth comforting them;

to speak
(not in six-syllable lectures)
but to whisper
your simple words:
grace hope
peace joy
love life
those teeny-tiny seeds
of your heart
nourished with cold cups
of living water,
growing into gracefulness, embracing and welcoming
all (not only you);

who -

here i am, Lord:

sent here.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

splish, splash

Read Acts 2:1-4; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28

A couple of discerning folks noticed the 'typo' in Sunday's devotion. Where I meant to talk about Dusty sitting on the front lawn surveying his domain, I wrote of how he would sit and survive his domain! Not sure how that came about (I imagine there is some fancy word that describes thinking of one word and typing another), other than the rush to get the devotion out before church that morning.

Yet as my friend, Lex, pointed out, there are probably a lot of us who try to survive our domain. It's a tough world we live in, and whatever field we work in, or task we undertake, or life we try to live, there is someone, some group, some thing that makes it difficult for us to get things done, to do what we feel we are called to do, to live as we believe God wants us to be. And so, we struggle to survive our domain.

So often, it seems that the church has installed sprinklers throughout the building, not for safety reasons, but so that there is no danger of what happened on that first day of Pentecost taking place in our churches, in our people, in our lives. We have to make sure there is no explosion of excitement, no flare-up of faith, no gust of grace blowing through our halls. We are committed to playing it safe, to remaining calm, to keeping a tight rein on our little piece of the kingdom.

A young adult takes on the task of working with the youth in a church. Intelligent, enthusiastic, faithful, committed to creating a space where kids can safely explore the Bible, talk about the world in which they live, struggle with the choices they face, he begins to engage the kids in a way which is attractive and meaningful to them. Yet, because he is not offering the same sort of structure and programming that was done years ago, he is criticized. Splash!

A musician attends a conference where she is challenged by the variety of musical programs and offerings. Exposed to new ways of praising God, with different tunes/instruments/languages/voices, she catches a vision of what the psalmists mean when they talk about 'new songs' to/for God. Determined to teach these gifts to her choir and congregation, she is confronted with comments about the tunes not being singable, about the words not being in English, about the songs not being in the hymnal. Slosh!

Several members are approached to serve on a committee. Not sure why the church would want them, but assured that they are precisely what the group needs, they reluctantly agree. After several meetings of giving their imput, but not seeing it appear in the minutes; of offering suggestions for new ways of doing, but being told that the way it was done the last few years still works; of providing creative ideas on some different ministries and missions, but never hearing them put to the governing board, they come to realize they were asked solely so the committee would have a full complement of people. Douse.

Maybe that is why, in writing to one of the first congregations in the early church, the apostle Paul urged them to rejoice, to pray, to give thanks. But then, he goes on to say, in a warning to every generation, 'do not quench the Spirit.'

Prayer: When we are tempted to throw water on all the new ideas your Spirit offers to us through new people, new voices, new hearts, Surprising God, help us to sit down, take a cool drink, and listen, just listen - to them, and to you. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 08, 2008


Read any psalm, but particularly 146-150

It's undeniable that music is a major force during this season of holiness. Whether it is the annual 'battle' over when a church can begin to sing the beloved carols, or churches bringing in brass or string groups for worship, or choirs of little children being taught how not to fidget and the appropriate use of hands while singing at the family service, music is foundational for the observance of the celebration of the Christ Child.

Yet, do you notice that for most of us, the music comes from someone else, other than ourselves? It is piped in the stores, the elevators, the underground. It is a professional group, or the chancel choir, or the Little Cherubs, who are doing the singing. It is special concerts down at the square, or in the music hall, or on television, or our iPods. But it is not usually us, who are going around singing.

We've lost the art of singing, I'm afraid. There was a time in our past when people were singing all the time. Fathers sang lullabies to their babies, mothers sang 'My Lord, What a Morning" while getting ready for the day. Families sang around the dinner table, or in the family room in the evening. People sang while building bridges, working at a lathe, sweeping the front porch, weeding in the garden, doing laundry, mowing the lawn. Whether it was hymns or a show tune, a psalm or a pop standard, people went around singing. But not any more.

Nearly a century ago, John Philip Sousa remarked, 'What will happen to the American voice now that they've invented the phonograph?' And I can only imagine his reaction to iPods, cell phones that can carry hundreds of songs, everyone walking around with their own headphones, listening to their own music, not noticing all those others flowing down that same street, with their ears filled with their private stock of tunes.

As Pete Seeger is fond of saying, music is full of great power. Yes, it can help us forget our troubles; yes, it can distract us from our troubles. Yes, like the psalms, those marvelous songs that are filled with the wide range of human experiences as well as emotions, music can help us to understand our troubles.

But, Seeger goes on to say, music can help us do something about our troubles. Music can bring us together with folks who are just as broken as we are, and we can draw comfort and strength as we sing 'sometimes I feel like a motherless child.' Music can put us in touch with those who have experienced the same suffering as we have, yet together we can dance to a lively klezmer tune. Music can unite us with those who long for justice and an end to every form of human oppression, and we can lift our voices in 'We Shall Overcome' as we march, and work, and vote.

Maybe this year, we should start singing again. Start out slowly, in the shower or in the car. Hum a tune on the bus or the subway car (and notice if anyone starts humming along with you!) Sing along with Perry, or Toby, or Beyonce, or your favorite group. Turn off the TV and gather around the piano instead. But sing, sing, sing . . .

praising God for the wonderful gift of music, echoing the songs sung on that first morning of the new creation so long ago.

Prayer: Whether with a piano or an old kazoo, whether classical or country, whether solo or with a friend, we would sing to you, Joyous Heart, as we wait to celebrate your coming to us. amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, December 07, 2008


Read Mark 1:1-8

While our golden retriever, Dusty, is known throughout blogdom as the Church Dog, at home he is affectionately called COTU -

And he certainly acts like it at times. The only reason we get out of bed this morning is so that he can get his food, and be let outside so he can sit on the front lawn and survey his domain. We come home, simply so that we can take him for a walk, throw a ball for him and, of course, feed him. And anyone who comes to the door, be it friend or neighbor, be it a young person selling candy for her school or the plumber, they have come to play with him, to admire him, to let him know how beautiful and wonderful he is.

Oh yes, in Dusty's world, it is all about him!

I am beginning to wonder if that attitude - if that sense of being COTU - hasn't crept into the church.

Someone says that our church is dwindling and if it closes, there will be no one else to do what we have been doing the last 50, 150, 1500 years. Really?

A study proclaims that by the year (take your pick), the mainline denominations will have disappeared, and we talk as if at that point Christianity will disappear from the face of the earth.

A moderator, a theologian, an author, an 'expert' speaks at a seminar, and offers the 9-step-program to become the most successful, the most popular (and populous), the most well-known congregation in the country, and we drop all the faithful missions and ministries we have been doing to serve God's people, in order to be first in line to buy the program.

Well, maybe it's not all about us. Maybe it's not all about a particular church staying open. Maybe it's not all about a denomination which has become outdated and outmoded.

Maybe, as Mark says, it's about the gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's not about my sermons, or her music, or our successes.

Maybe, as Mark says, we are not called to be entrepreneurs, or emerging prophets, or listed in Time magazine as one of the top 10 preachers.

No, it's about being forerunners, messengers, friends of the bridegroom, pointing past ourselves and all our pretensions, all our insecurities, to Jesus.

Maybe, as Mark says, we are living in the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And we need to stop acting that if we don't do it, it will all come to an end.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, December 06, 2008

the way

Read Luke 21:5-19

When I was around 14, I went through confirmation class in order to become a member of the church. I didn't do it because I wanted to serve on a board, or get to vote at meetings, or even be on the mailing list for the stewardship season. I did it because I was afraid. For I lived in a time and culture which made it pretty clear that if I did not profess Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, if I didn't sign on the dotted line as a member of the church, if I didn't stand up and let myself be counted, well, then there was only one destination for me when, and if, I died.

Fear can be a powerful motivator. Politicians know it, and use it at the first hint of any trouble. Teachers know it, and use it to get the kids to stay in line. Parents know it, and can cause it by the look in an eye, or the lifting of a hand. And, sadly, religious folks know this truth as well. I think that is why there is a segment of Christianity which finds passages like this one in Luke to be, perhaps, the most important words Jesus spoke. After all, if we can get folks to take seriously a fearful notion of the end times, to worry about being left behind, to know without a single doubt that they run a great risk of being stuck on earth to live through the great tribulation, then the pews can be filled, as well as the coffers.

But while fear can make us alert when we are walking through a graveyard at midnight; while fear can give us the adrenalin to get through the long days of worrying about a child facing a life-threatening illness; while fear can make us drop a bad habit, and lead a healthier life, fear can only be a motivator, can only drive us, for just a little while. Truth be told, fear has a very short shelf life.

But endurance?

It's that dogged determination to get out of bed on a snowy, frigid Saturday and show up for that tutoring session with a bunch of neighbor kids.

It's that stubborn willingness to keep talking to your kids about faith, that there is something more to life than just IMs and ipods, that there is Someone who is not going to disappoint them or reject them or make them feel like complete idiots. And when they ask you for tangible, rational, touchable proof, to say with wonder, and simplicity, 'it's a mystery.'

It's that belief that spending time in prayer will become more than practice, it will become a way of listening to God and noticing God's presence in others. It's that faithful act of sitting through soul numbing sermons, because God has promised to speak through the Word. It's that foolish, and antiquated notion in today's world, of letting one's decisions be guided by a relationship with Someone who will never show up on the View or Dr. Phil. It's that understanding that while Scripture may not be the literal, inerrant words from God, it can be trusted for faith and practice.

Jesus doesn't tell us at this end of these apocalyptic observations that our fear will help us to gain our souls.

It is endurance. That endurance, Paul reminds us, that shapes our character, and turns us into people of hope, people of Advent.

Prayer: Whether it is persecution or panic attacks, you give us those gifts which help us to endure. Whether facing fear or foolishness, you surround us with folks who can help us to endure. Continue to put up with us, Approaching God, as we struggle to be your people. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 05, 2008

Advent people

Read Psalm 102:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12

God calls us to holiness, Paul tells us, and in this holy season, we prepare to live such lives. Holy lives that are lived quietly, yet do more and more for those God invites us to serve. Lives that focus on looking after our own affairs, yet being willing to use our hands, as well as our hearts and souls, and behalf of others. A holiness that invites us to draw closer to God, in love and hope, and teaches us how to treat those the world considers to be outsiders, by inviting them into our lives, our struggles, our dreams.

Some of this we already know. After all, as people of faith, however feeble or full, we have learned the 10 commandments, the Golden Rule, the two greatest commandments. We have been taught that we should love justice, do kindness, and walk humbly with God. We have heard the sermons and sunday school discussions about letting justice roll forth like a raging river. With the little children, we can sing of how Jesus loves us, and how Jesus loves all the children of God. We know so much that we live out great lives of know-i-ness.

But do we know how to please God? Have we discovered those insights, those intuitive flashes, those inner disciplines that allow us to know, yes, but more importantly, to be (as God intends for us) the sort of people who hear the owl hooting in the wilderness; who sees the teenager sitting at the mall like a lonely bird, while the rest of the flock is twittering away; who notices the heart-stricken face of the neighbor reading a letter from their dearest friend; who are willing to share a sandwich with one whose life has turned to ashes?

For these are the people we live with, we drive next to on the way to work, we sit with in a classroom, we brush past in the card store, we jostle elbows with as we juggle our packages at the post office. These are the people who look for a friend in every person, but see only blank faces. These are the people who hunger for affirmation, but hear only grumblings and mutterings under the breath. These are the people whose poverty of spirit could be filled by the simple act of a kind smile.

These are the people of Advent. The ones God has come for in Christ, and the ones God would have us come to know, as intimately, as lovingly, as gently as we want God to know us.

Prayer: Help us to please you, Wise God, not by reciting all the verses we have memorized, all the theology we have learned, all the knowledge we have attained. But by living lives of kindness, of justice, of love - for these are the signs of true holiness, the signs we see in the One who came for us that first Advent so long ago.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 04, 2008

the voice

Read Isaiah 2:2-5

I would lay in the dark of my dorm room in college and listen to her low voice singing:
no more auction block for me,
no more, no more
no more auction block for me,
many thousand gone.
After listening to the likes of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, I discovered the voice of Odetta, a voice of wisdom, a voice of spirituality, a voice for conscience, a voice for freedom.

She marched with Martin Luther King, and stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, singing 'O Freedom' and all one could say is 'oh yes!' She knew the success and adulation which her voice could bring her, and she experienced those deep, deep wounds that the color of her skin caused others to inflict on her. Her voice was sometimes so low you might make the mistake of thinking you were listening to a man singing. But her passion for justice, for equality, for change was that unique timbre in her singing.

Dr. King called her the 'Queen of American folk music' but her music spoke of such common experiences as struggle, the longing for freedom, the hope for a future, the vision of a society in which all were not only called 'equal' but treated as such. She was an influence on other singers from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez, from John Hiatt to Janis Joplin. When Rosa Parks was asked what songs meant the most to her, she simply replied, 'all the songs Odetta sings.' And, she was scheduled to sing at the inauguration of Barack Obama this January.

Like Isaiah, she saw that vision God has of a time, and a place, and a people who could be at peace, who would live for justice, who would have open doors and open tables where every single one of God's children was welcome. She was passionately committed to that arcane notion that people could walk in God's light because she had been relegated to the shadows by the culture in which she lived as a young person in Alabama. She believed that it just wasn't words in a dusty book sitting on the pulpit in an empty church, but that it was possible for guns to be turned into guitars, for tanks to be dismantled and converted into school buses, for war colleges to become retirement homes for pacifists.

But like Isaiah, Odetta's voice has been stilled, as she died just the other day.

So, who will sing the songs God taught to Isaiah and Odetta now?

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

face to face

Read 1 Thessalonians 2:13-20

I'd love to see Dan this Christmas. My best friend in (and after) college, it has to be 15 years or more since we have seen each other, and that was when he, Jodi, and the family had a layover at the airport here in Cincinnati. For a long time, whenever we would see each other after an absence, it seemed as if once we started talking, all that missing time of being apart just melted away, and we were back in the dorm, continuing a conversation we began 44 years ago when we entered college together. But they are out in Portland, Oregon, and that's a long, long way, especially for someone who would rather have root canal then fly. But, I'll bet if I got to look into his face, he'd look the same!

It would be a special Christmas indeed, if I could sit down around the dinner table with the Millers, even if they served corned beef (that's an inside joke, friends, don't sweat it)! To be with Robert and Nancy, with John, Margaret, Helen, and Francis, with their spouses and kids, what a joy that would be. Looking into faces lined with wonder and worry, comparing the gray and white hairs caused by kids and the kindness of God, to simply enjoy the comfortable silence that we can share with one another - that would be one of the best gifts I could have this year. But they (like so many families) are scattered, and with the economy the way it is, it probably wouldn't happen.

I'd like to look into my mother's face this year, to see it, as I always do, through the eyes of a child who thinks his mother is the wisest, the most beautiful, the most gentle person in the world (and she is, believe me). I'd like to sit down with my siblings and reconnect, to find out what has really been going on in their lives over the last few years, to behold them face to face. I'd like to see my nieces and nephews, especially Scot, who just got back, safely, thank God, from serving overseas. But we are scattered, we are busy, two of us have to 'work' on Christmas

But the boss who, when I said I was resigning in order to go to seminary, told me, "Well, those who can, do; those who can't do, teach; those who can't teach, go into ministry"? Not sure if I would want to exchange Christmas cards with him.

And the folks who made life such a hell for me and my family the last 18 months or so at my last church, who treated me with such disrespect, and spoke words no person, much less a Christian, should speak? I am not sure if I could sit down around any table with them this Christmas.

There is a long line of people, in my mind's eye, that I just would just rather not look into their faces this time of year. It would be too painful, too hard, too depressing for such a season.

Yet, this is the season when we celebrate that amazing grace of God, who was willing to come to be one of us. Who was willing to live with, to encounter, to eat with those who would ridicule and reject him, who would hurt him, who would even kill him. And God was willing to look at them face-to-face and simply say,

"I forgive you;
I love you;
I came for you."

Prayer: How easy it is to long to look into the faces of those we love or we know love us. Strengthen us to look into the faces we would rather avoid, and to be able to see your Child in them, even as we seek to show that he lives in us. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

you know!

Read 1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

I know what I am called to do as a believer in God. I am invited to live within the boundaries of the kingdom where God's people dwell - where they love and where they hate, where they hurt others as well as where they are damaged by those who love them, where they live in hope and wonder, and where they die, some in pain and some with thanksgiving. I know that I am invited to pray for them, for their healing as well as their peace, with thanksgiving, searching to do good for them always.

I know this, so why don't I?

You know what journey Jesus is taking you on, when he turns and says, 'follow me.' You are the ones who hear his challenging stories, comforting love, his disturbing grace. You are the ones who can't ignore his defiance of the status quo, as he gives his place at the Table to the poor, as he invites the illegal immigrant into the circle, as he kisses the child with AIDs. You are the ones he pushes out the door of our inner sanctums of piety and dogma. You are the ones he asks to bear witness to the good news that has broken into a damaged world.

You know this, so why are you so reluctant to be called to the witness stand?

We remember that great day when the Spirit came dancing down upon us, filling us with peace, with power, with possibilities spilling out of our hearts. We know that we can become like that nurse who, after his shift is over, goes and sits in the room of the child with cancer, so that her parents can get a good night's sleep. We know that we can be like that mother, bone-weary from standing on her feet for 12 hours, who teachs her 16-year-old how to slow dance, so he won't be embarassed at the winter prom. We know that the life we lead can provide a path for others who seem to have lost their way.

We know all this, yet all too often act as if we all have become amnesiacs, don't we?

Prayer: We no longer have any excuses to give, Loving God, in this time of great worry and calamity. We must show that we do know how to live as your people. Help us not to forget all that you have taught us. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 01, 2008

A pilgrim's song

Read Psalm 122

This is one of the psalms of Ascents. For untold centuries, those folks journeying to Jerusalem for their annual pilgrimage to the temple would sing, chant, or whisper these songs. The evocative nature of these songs, with their imagery, hopes, prayers, thanksgivings, would speak to the pilgrims of their deepest longings to be in those places where they would find the presence of God resting, waiting for them. And since the Hebrews believed that God's presence, God's glory, resided in the Holy of Holies in the temple, no wonder these songs became a part of that pilgrimage, giving voice to these longings, and became a part of our faith heritage.

But when we journey to the hospital, and visit a friend or family member; when we listen to their hopes for recovery, their fears of what the tests might show, their anxiety about undergoing surgery; when we pray for their healing, are we not seeking their good?

When we are behind the counter at the soup kitchen, making sandwiches from the simple gifts provided by others; when we are standing at the stove stirring the soup rich with vegetables and other needed nutrition; when we say a prayer for the food and for those who would be nourished by this feast; when we open the doors and invite them in, and willingly become a part of their lives, listening to their stories, letting them minister to us with their grace and hope, are we not in the Holy of Holies?

When we go down to the local school and work with a 2nd grader who reads at a kindergarten level; when we visit the retirement center and aid a man's trembling hands as he paints a ceramic angel for his grandchildren's Christmas gift; when we knock on the newly widowed neighbor's door and invite him to Sunday dinner, and listen to his silent grief; when we take our dog for a walk and slow him down from trying to catch a squirrel, so a child can rub his ears until their grins match; when we simply go to all those places where we are surprised to find God already there . . .

aren't we already inside Jerusalem's gate, where God whispers to each and every one of us, 'peace be within you'?

Prayer: No long distant pilgrimages are needed, are they, Holiness of our hearts, for you are in our midst, in the people, in the places, in the sounds and silence of our lives. Open our hearts, open our eyes, and quiet us in holy stillness, even as we journey as Advent pilgrims. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, November 30, 2008

First Sunday of Advent - B

Read Mark 13:24-37

This morning, when I went out to get the paper, Dusty the Church Dog followed. I went about my routine of getting the paper and scanning the headlines while he followed his routine of sitting, scratching, and sniffing. Suddenly, he looked down at the house on the corner and started barking his head off, at absolutely nothing as far as I could tell. About 15 minutes later, while we were eating breakfast, he was at it again, on the coffee table, looking out the window, barking loudly for no apparent reason.

Then it struck me. Most days when he and I do the morning routine, there is a neighbor coming around the corner walking his dog. And, Dusty has to greet him. Around breakfast time, another neighbor strolls by with her dog, and Dusty has to grant permission for them to walk on his side of the street. So this morning, I guess, Dusty was keeping his routine, even though his friends didn't show up as expected.

At the time of the first Advent centuries ago, people were going about their business as usual, keeping to their routines, having already figured out how, and when the Messiah would come - in the palace, born on a day foretold by the prophets, ready to lead the people into that golden age promised so long ago. So, when God is born into a peasant family taking shelter in a stable, with a bunch of smelly animals as midwives, it went right past all the people with all their expectations.

In the gospel reading for this first Sunday in Advent, Jesus warns us that we need to be alert, to be awake, to keep an eye out for the next coming. If we are basing his return on some sort of preconceived expectations, appearing at a certain time on a certain day in a certain place for a certain people, well maybe it will go right past us, while we go about our usual business, keeping to our routines, having figured it all out as to how and when Jesus will return.

If he already hasn't.

Prayer: Help us to realize that it is not business as usual when it comes to your appearing in our lives. Help us to set down our expectations, that we might have empty hands and hearts to welcome you. Amen.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Wonder of wonders

I thought for a very long time that I would never marry.

Most of the reasoning behind that belief was that I grew up in what we now call a dysfunctional family. (Though the fact that all five children went to college and sometimes beyond, and that none of us ended up in great trouble is a tribute to my mother's great grace in functioning under very difficult conditions) But my father's addiction to alcohol, and the resulting difficulties, did not give me a good role model of a husband and father.

In God's wisdom, I met the Miller family when I was in college, and was blessed to be in the presence of two people who did, indeed, provide a model for me of what a relationship built on love and trust might look like, sound like, be like. Nancy confirmed for me what I saw in my mother, and Robert helped me to understand that a father could be both loving and just, could have high expectations and even greater compassion. And because they were not a perfect couple, I was able to learn that words spoken at a wedding only took on flesh and blood in the struggles as well as the passion of marriage, in the fallow times as well as times of harvest. And because Nancy, Robert, John, Margaret, Helen, and Francis accepted me despite all my imperfections, I began to think that maybe, just maybe I could have such a life.

But I was still surprised when Bonnie said 'Yes'. And despite marrying a guy who didn't have a clue as to what he was going to do when he grew up; despite getting into a relationship with a fellow who lost his job two months after the wedding; despite moving ten different times in nine years; despite riding shotgun on that rollercoaster called ministry; despite the heartache, the brokenness, the struggles with Teddy, it continues to be a source of wonder that she has never asked to have that word back.

She has been the yin to my yang, most assuredly,
and she has been the Martha to my Mary,
the Hardy to my Laurel,
the Leo McGarry to my Jed Bartlett,
the Bert to my Ernie.

And more . . .

in her unconditional forgiveness for my stupid mistakes, she reminds me of how much God loves and accepts me; in her commitment to and love for all those forgotten by the world, I hear Jesus' call to serve the lost, the last, the little, the least; in the graceful way she puts up with my procrastination and repeated assurances that I will get that job done, don't worry, the Spirit breathes hope and peace into my life each and every day.

Thirty years ago today, Bonnie said "I do" - and wonder of wonders,

she still does.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, November 10, 2008


Ninety years ago, at 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month, the noise of war grew silent.

As a history buff, I have always been keenly interested in World War I - the war to end all wars. As a young person, I can still remember when Barbara Tuchman's book, "The Guns of August" came out, describing the first month or so of the war, and the renewed interest in this conflict. As one might expect, much was made of the nobility, the sacrifices, the defense of freedom which was part of the story.

But as I began to read more, about places like Ypres and Gallipoli, about the terrible conditions in the trenches, about battles like Passchendaele, about the horrific loss of life (10 million killed, 21 million wounded, nearly 8 million missing - and that is just military figures), as I discovered the poetry and letters of the living and dead, I learned of the dark side of war.

But as an American, whose country entered the war late, and whose people (by all the evidence around me) was largely untouched by the tragedy, I didn't truly understand the human element until I traveled overseas some years ago. In church after church, cathedral after cathedral, town after town, there were the memorials to those who had lived and fought and died in that war, to the generation that was lost and whose loss still echoes down the country lanes, the aisles of the churches, the cemetaries.

I still remember visiting Lindisfarne (Holy Island). What a wonderfully peaceful place, what a thin place, what a place of gentleness and quiet. One day I walked up the small hill to where the building which had housed the lifeboat unit which would go out to rescue boaters stood. Next to it, was a small memorial which listed the names of the three men from the island who had died in the War to end all wars. Then, when I walked around to the other side, I found the names of the five from that island who had died in World War II, two of whom had obviously been named after those who had died in World War I. All from a community of several hundred.

Of all the places I have been, that is perhaps the thinnest spot, where one could be enveloped in the weeping heart of God.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


I rendered unto Caesar this morning - I voted.

For me, this may be the most excited I have been about a presidential candidate since 1976. And, I think it may be as transformative an election as 1960. Or at least, I hope so.

Yet, as I stood in line, preparing to vote, I couldn't help but reflect on the rhetoric, the ads, the commentary about the election.

There was a lot of talk about folks who make $250,000 a year, or $200,000, or even more. But, where was the conversation about the single mother who struggles to clothe her children, to feed them, to help them get an education in schools with crumbling facilities? Or, the couple who works 3 jobs between them in order to pay medical bills?

There was concern about foreclosures, and those who may be facing such possibilities. But where was the discussion about the homeless, and the closing of shelters, the increased demand at food banks, the number of children who sleep in cars?

There were debates about the best way to 'rescue' Wall Street. But where was the open and honest discussion about those who are, or will be, standing in unemployment lines, while watching the executives land safely with their golden parachutes?

There was acrimony and accusations about 'spreading the wealth,' and how such a concept is alien to the American Way. But where was the person who would question the reality that it is always okay to spread the wealth upwards, but never downward, even if it is only a mere trickle.

Whether ironic, or providential, in the lectionary Gospel reading in a few weeks, we will once again confront the Jesus who reminds us that it is when we are clothing the naked, and stocking the shelves at a food pantry; when we are praying beside the bed of a neighbor in the hospital, and listening to a stranger sitting in a jail cell; when we hand the cup of grace to an immigrant, and receive the broken bread of life from an enemy; when we notice the lost, the least, the little, the last all around us, and pay them as much attention, as much passion, as much commitment as we do to the politicians and pundits -

then we will truly be rendering unto God.

I've voted. Now, the real work begins.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, October 17, 2008

Happy Birthday!

The world looks at you on your special day, and sees an old lady, limited by her age, her wheelchair, her oxygen tank. Our culture looks at you and sees someone who has nothing of value to offer in this age of IM, texting, cell phones, and space shuttles. Our society looks at you and sees someone who does not 'fit' any of the all important demographics for advertising, for sales, for profits.

But God looks at you, in your daily love for others more than you love yourself, and sees a child who is as young and fresh as the dew on the first morning of creation.

God looks at you, as you show more concern for how the days of your neighbors are going than how your years are winding down, and sees a young person who is about her Abba's business rather than doing what is 'expected' of you.

God looks at you, as you unceasingly open your arms to welcome the stranger, the outcast, the lost, the lonely, the differently gifted - all those people our society overlooks, and sees another mother hen would gather her chicks to her heart.

God looks at you, as you laughingly teach Dusty the Church Dog to gently take the cracker from your lips, as you joyfully celebrate the birthday of Teddy with a funny card and a gift of love, as you smile at the infants and children in your church who all tenderly call you 'Granny,' and sees the one who heard that call to 'follow me' and has always been on the journey.

I don't know who others see in their mind's eye when Paul talks about the woman in the early church, women like Eunice and Lois, Persis and Claudia, Mary and Phoebe, but when I come across those names, I see you.

Happy Birthday, Inez. God loves you very much and so do I.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


You might remember the old chestnut about a reporter asking a politician, "Senator, have you stopped beating your wife?" There is just no good answer! If 'yes,' then the implication is that the senator used to behave that way; if 'no,' then such behavior is still going on.

In today's culture, such questions are called 'gotcha journalism.' Those attempts to get the candidate, the incumbent, the party standard bearer, the press rep, the spokesperson to say something which they immediately wish they could take back, and which immediately becomes a sound bite played over and over and over again. And, of course, if no answer is given, then obviously something else must be in play.

We like to think that this is all new - that we are the first generation, the first people to engage in such a tactic. But, of course, it is as old as humanity.

Back in Jesus' day, though, it was not the media that was playing 'gotcha,' it was all the good, proper religious types: the priests, the Sadducees, the Pharisees. All those who trailed after Jesus (sort of like a press pool) trying, in the words of Scripture, to 'entrap' him.

'Should we pay taxes?'
'If a woman marries more than once, who will be her husband in heaven?'
'Which commandment is the most important?'

The questions are asked in such a way, with such a gleam in the eye, and anticipation in the heart, that Jesus is seemingly doomed to failure, if he dares to open his mouth. The bait has been cast out, the lure is sitting on the surface just waiting to be snatched, so that the poor fish can be caught in the net.

Gotcha Jesus!!!

Maybe that's why Jesus always responds by going beneath the surface of the question (and the questioner) when he opens his mouth.

How are YOU doing at keeping those commandments, especially the two that are part of the prayer that every devout believer was to pray each day? Why are YOU the one that carries evidence around in your pocket/purse/wallet of where your true allegiance lies? Why are YOU so concerned with what will happen in heaven when you don't seem to have a clue as to how to live here on earth, with the people God has given to you?

In going beneath the surface of the question, in focusing more on the person who has asked the words rather than the words themselves, in his seeming willingness to step into the trap which has been set for him, Jesus is able to set people free, is able to open them up to the transforming power of God's grace, is able to help them put aside all those fears they carry around as burdens so they can embrace God's hopes and dreams for them. He offers them the chance to turn away from a life which is focused on 'getting' another, and living the gospel of service to all.

And then, Jesus smiles and whispers, 'Gotcha!'

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, October 13, 2008


When did elite become a four-letter word?

When did we decide that a young person who chose to work hard in school was 'above her station?' When did we decide that mediocre was the level people should strive for, and then stay there? When did we decide that we did not want (or need) the 'best and the brightest' to lead us, to teach us, to mentor us, to guide us, to be role models for us?

God gives us some guidelines as to how we can best live in relationship with the Divine and with each other, and almost immediately, we take all our costume jewelry and melt it down into a nice, domesticated, gum-chewing god who won't cause us too much trouble or expect too much from us.

Jesus walks around talking with folks and telling them about a country where God invites us to live. A country where the last, the lost, the little, the least are honored and valued. A country where forgiveness and grace are passports. A country where those we don't like knock on our door asking to borrow a cup of sugar; where those who don't like us are given the house next to us. A country where justice is a stream where our children can go wading; where hope is delivered to our doorstep every morning with the news.

But to get there, to find our way to this country, to cross its borders is going to take everything we have. A mediocre attempt won't cut it, if we are going to love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves (and it will take our best to love ourselves). A half-hearted effort isn't going to enable us to love our enemies (and it is going to take our best thinking to see beyond prejudices, teachings, hate talk about who our enemies are). And forgiveness is a test we will have to take and re-take seven times, 7 X 70 times, and beyond, trying to get an A+ every time.

We can continue to treat 'elite' as a four-letter word. It's easy. Just drop the 'e' at the beginning and we have
lite compassion
lite love
lite effort
lite ethics
lite lives
lite faith
lite discipleship

But I think God expects more. For in creating us and all that is around us, God chose to give us the best, the brightest, the choice gifts, the love that can transform lives, the grace that can lift people from their knees, the hope that set others free, the peace that can heal broken nations, the reconciliation that can bring us together despite our worst efforts to stay apart.

It takes our hardest work, our most determined efforts, our most tenacious thinking, our most steadfast commitment to discernment if we are to follow Jesus.

And if that means being elite, why not?

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, August 28, 2008

ever wonder . . .

It began, as they did back then, with handwritten letters to a stranger, someone who just wanted a friend from another country, sharing their lives. My wife's sister has had a friendship with a woman from England for probably over 40 years now. They began as pen pals while in grade school, lost touch for a little while, and then started communicating once more. They finally got to meet some years ago, with Heather going to England for a visit, and Sue and her family visiting here on several occasions. Wonder of wonders, after 40 years, they have a good and solid friendship.

In today's world, of course, it is all done via the internet, email, instant messages, texting. We can communicate with folks we have never met, complete strangers who can become good friends, simply through the process of sitting down at a keyboard, and sharing one's life. Of course, there are risks we have to keep in the back of our minds, but by and large, we meet good, decent, and caring folks.

Madeleine and Megan first met by chatting on, a website for expectant mothers. Ironically, coincidentally, their respective daughters, Lileth (Madeleine's) and Rowan (Megan's) were born on the same day. And so, as folks do in today's culture, they maintained their friendship through emails and posting pictures to one another.

While looking at a picture of 1-year-old Rowan on the website, Madeleine noticed a white shadow in the baby's left eye. Now, she didn't have a bit of medical training, but finding the shadow curious, she began to research the web. And she discovered that the shadow could be a symptom of an eye cancer known as retinoblastoma. Reluctantly, hesitantly, she sent an email to Megan, expressing her concerns, trusting that if there was nothing wrong, then no harm was done. As it turned out, Megan made an immediate appointment with her doctor, who referred her to a specialist who, indeed, discovered a cancerous tumor growing on Rowan's retina.

Rowan will lose her eye sometime in the next few months, and will have to go through several rounds of chemotherapy. But, by Madeleine's simple wondering, her concern for a friend's child (even though they had never met), her willingness to seek more information, the cancer was discovered early, and Rowan's prognosis is good.

Now, some will say that it is all a coincidence, a quirk of fate, a lucky chance that the white shadow only appeared in a flash photo that was later posted on an internet site.

But the Book tells us that God works in mysterious ways, wonders to perform. And since God seems not to trust to luck, or believe in fate, or rely on coincidences, God chooses to work these wonders, to perform these things we call miracles, through us.

Through experts and doctors, yes. But more often than not, especially through people like Madeleine, who simply cared enough to wonder.

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, August 22, 2008

nudge . . . nudge . . . nudge

Several weeks ago, a friend sent out an email
about 'bags of grace.' He had heard about this
way of ministering to the homeless on our streets
from a devotion in a journal, and since he had
been wondering and wanting to do more than
just decide whether or not to give someone cash,
he decided to try it. It is a simple concept. A
little bag holding several items of food - 16 oz.
bottle of water; a can of sardines. a can of vienna
sausages, 1/2 sleeve of saltine crackers, and a pair
of white cotton socks (a homeless person told
him once that socks are like 'gold' on the street).
You could carry a bag in your purse, your coat
pocket, your briefcase. When someone asks you
for help, you hand them a bag of grace, which
also contains a card or list of agencies, shelters,
medical clinics, etc.

Nudge . . .

Then, I received the latest issue of 'Life and
Work' the magazine of the Church of Scotland.
In it was an article about Street Pastors, volunteers
(laity and clergy in several cities in Scotland, as
well as in Britain). Wearing high visibility jackets
and vests with 'Street Pastor' clearly marked, they
go out in pairs on Saturday night, to walk the
streets. They are not out to convert or preach,
simply to be a presence - to engage in conversation,
to assist people with practical help, to be hope
and compassion on streets not often filled with
these gifts. It's simple things they do - talk with
a young person who approaches them, offer a
pair of flip-flops to young women who have
taken off their dress shoes, picking up discarded
bottles (which can easily become weapons in
tense situations). In the neighborhoods they
have walked, crime has decreased, and people
respond positively to their presence.

Nudge . . . nudge . . .

And last Saturday night in Pittsburgh, while Bonnie
and I were walking back to the hotel after dinner,
we met a man in a red shirt who was looking at a
map. We stopped to ask if we could help, and he
smiled and said 'no, just learning my way around.'
He was a worker in a unique program, a partnership
between the city and downtown businesses, to offer
assistance to the homeless in the city. He carried a
walkie-talkie, a flashlight, some medical supplies
in a small bag on his belt. His job was to simply
walk the street, to check up on the homeless, to
see if they needed any assistance (medical or
otherwise), if they needed to know where they
could get a meal, or find shelter. A trained nurse,
he was now using his skills in a 'hospital on the
streets,' so to speak.

Nudge . . . nudge . . . nudge . . .

i wonder if God is trying to offer us new ways of
thinking, of serving, of being with the people who
are on our streets at night, whether they are folks
out for a good time, folks walking home after
dinner, folks who have no home only sidewalks
to walk on, sleep on, live on.

nudge . . . nudge . . . nudge . . .

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, July 14, 2008

Parable of the pitcher

A sower went out to sow . . .

only in this case, it was a volunteer baseball coach throwing batting practice to a teenager. Batting practice is used to prepare a ballplayer to begin to see the ball, to learn how to hit in different situations, to develop one's rhythm and stroke. Sometimes the ball is thrown to practice groundballs, other times fly balls, and sometimes just thrown to the batter nice and easy, big 'fat' pitches to drive out of the park.

For years, Clay Council threw batting practice to hundreds of young boys and men, simply casting out his time and support to them. One, Josh Hamilton, became the # 1 pick in the baseball draft a few years ago. He was considered to be on the fast track to the majors, a five-tool player, a pure hitter with an incredible arm. And as that # 1 pick, he signed for an incredible amount of money.

And that's when this incredibly gifted athlete got stupid. That's when this five-tool player began to focus on only one thing - getting high. Alcohol, drugs, crack cocaine, Josh Hamilton threw away his talents, his career, his chances, and almost his life because of his addiction. Like many addicts, he tattooed his body, with over 20 'signings' of flames, and especially demons. His family turned their backs on him, his wife threw him out, Major League Baseball suspended him for over three years. The patient work that Clay Council had done with him, the seeds of ability and promise that had been planted in all the hours of batting practice seemed to have fallen on barren ground.

But with his only option, in his mind, being to die, Josh Hamilton went to his grandmother, who agreed to take him in on the condition that he clean himself up. And to everyone's surprise, that's exactly what happened. Through faith, through determination, through struggle, he sobered up, he convinced his wife to give him a second chance (for the millionth time), he became a new person, a person dedicated to his family, and to his belief in Jesus Christ. And wonder of wonders, he decided to try to become a professional baseball player again.

In only his second season as a major league player, Hamilton leads the majors in runs batted in, and is in the top ten in a host of other categories. He has remained sober, through faith, through the love of his wife and family, and the support of his teammates. And tonight, at Yankee Stadium, Josh Hamilton will step up to the plate as an All-Star, to participate in the Home Run Derby.

Each player gets to select the person to pitch to him during his attempts to become the one to hit the most home runs in the contest. It is batting practice on an international stage. And out of all the people, the supporters, the friends, the teammates Josh Hamilton could choose to pitch to him, 71-year-old Clay Council will take the mound at Yankee Stadium, a volunteer coach who influenced Josh so many years ago.

A sower went out to sow . . .

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, July 02, 2008


I spent six years in the 'wilderness' before I went back to college to get my degree.

From the time I first encountered the 'fruits' of the Iona Community and the community at Taize, I spent about a dozen years before finding the time, and resources, to visit those places.

Depending on whether you count the day I entered seminary, or the day I was ordained, it took me 22-26 years to finally answer the call to ministry.

So you can see, that I don't have a very good track record when it comes to responding to nudges, urgings, proddings, whispers in the ear, whatever you might call God encouraging someone to do something.

But this time it took only a little over two months (okay, 73 days to be precise).

This morning, on a beautiful, clear, cool morning, while walking Dusty, I finally prayed for the people I hold responsible for my departure from the church I had served for nearly 18 years. I wish I could say that the words, the names, the intent came easily. It didn't. I tried my best to be distracted, to pay attention to the albino squirrel Dusty was stalking, to notice the leaves rustling in the trees, to hear the quiet laughter of children playing in a yard, to grumble about the late delivery of the paper. But to no avail.

Somebody, some One, some where, was pretty darn insistent that I bring these people to mind; that I cradle them in the empty hollows of my heart; that I begin the process of really letting go of the hurt, the anger, the bitterness, the frustration, by speaking their names to the One who knows them, who loves them, who wraps them in grace and peace, even when I can't. So haltingly, reluctantly, uncomfortably, painfully, I prayed.

I wish I could say that I was transformed, that I came home with a lighter step, that the aching tightness in my shoulders and gut and heart wonderfully disappeared, that I was at peace with myself and them. Sadly, no. I think it is going to take a lot more walks, a lot more reluctant prayers, a lot more giving in to God rather than giving in to me, before that happens.

Yet I wonder . . .

are there those times, when the Holy Spirit is as uncomfortable, as pain-filled, as reluctant to pray for me?

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, June 02, 2008

restrain that order!

It didn't make front-page news (at least in our newspaper, but the headline certainly caught Bonnie's and my attention: "Mom cited for taking autistic son to church." A Catholic church in Minnesota has gotten a restraining order to keep a 13-year-old autistic young man from attending Mass.

According to the account in the paper, the church believes the young man, who is already 6 feet tall and weighs more than 225 pounds, is disruptive and his behavior is a threat to other parishioners. The church claims that he has hit a child, knocked over elderly members, spat at people, and urinated in the church. His mother disputes these claims and believes that Adam should be in Mass, and either not barred from the service, nor relegated to watching it on a video feed in the church's basement.

Now to be honest, as one who is both a pastor as well as the parent of a person with developmental disorders and behavior problems such as this young man, I have sympathies for both the church and the family. There were times, when due to Teddy's behavior in worship, that I had to physically remove him, or others had to assist Bonnie in doing so. I know the ways in which such behavior can be frightening and even threatening to those who do not know the person. If you have not lived with a person so damaged, you may not understand the inner turmoils they are experiencing, both as a result of their disabilities, and the result of the medications they are being given. For instance, many of the medications used to help people (like this young man and Teddy) typically cause weight gain and physical growth. So, it is not surprising to read of the size of this young man.

And to be honest, there is no more important place for this young man, or Teddy, of the millions like them to be, than in Mass, in worship, in church, in God's House, in God's Household, in that sanctuary, that refuge, the psalmists talk about. They may not be able to verbalize very well, but they know how profoundly damaged and different they are. But they also know that they need a place where unconditional love, unconditional acceptance, unconditional compassion is offered. Teddy's emotional and intellectual level may be that of a five-year-old (in a 22-year-old's body), but like any five-year-old, he knows beyond any shadow of a doubt that God loves him, and God cares for him, and God accepts him, and he wants to be with this wonderful Person.

But to be honest, like this young man's experience, like Teddy's experience, all too often it is the church that stands in the way of entering this refuge, of finding this Person, of being with the One who loves them beyond question. In the families of the people we know, with children who are autistic, who are Fetal Alcohol, who are mentally ill, who are developmentally delayed, and yet are families of faith (any and every faith), the vast majority of them have encountered barriers at their houses of worship. Some are physical, true; but by and large, the barriers are those of fear, of attitudes, of misunderstanding. None have had such legal obstacles put in their way, but most have had it made clear to them, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that the presence of their child, of their family, in that house of worship is not welcome.

Let's be honest. I am not surprised by the article, but deeply saddened. Because I will bet that this is a congregation that talks (like most) of welcoming all, that talks (like most) of wanting families, that talks (like most) of including everyone in the life of faith. Yet, when inclusion becomes difficult, it is easier to fall back on the old patterns of exclusion. The irony is that this particular church is part of the faith stream that produced Benedict, who believed that we should welcome each person as if they were Christ.

And we certainly wouldn't take out a restraining order against Christ, would we?

(c) 2008 Thom M. Shuman