Entries by Jeff MacKnight

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Trail Notes: 05/06/2018

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LOVE: Easier Said than Done

When I first starting working with kids, I realized that we needed to do some interpretation when we used the world “love” in the Christian context.  Kids think of love through what they know: the affection of family members for each other, or the “yucky” love of attraction and romance.  (Yucky especially when they think of their parents!  Of course, during the teens, romantic and sexual interest begins to quicken and not seem so yucky anymore.) 

To speak meaningfully of love to kids requires interpretation.  So we translated Christian love as “care and respect” – something you could offer even to somebody you didn’t really like…something you could decide to give, independent of feelings. 

(C.S. Lewis wrote a classic examination of the kinds of love, The Four Loves, (1960) which is still worth reading and considering.  But it’s a bit much for children.) 

We speak of love often, as we should.  But we need to be clear about what we mean.  Recently, at St. Dunstan’s we’ve used the phrase “Love Practiced Here,” which suggests that we have to put love into practice, into action.  Christian love is not just a philosophy, or a feeling.  It is a way of life, an orientation toward others.  Acts of love include forgiveness, care and compassion, generosity, respect for others.  Love can mean staying in touch, staying connected – even when it’s inconvenient or stressful.  These actions are things we can teach our children, and apply in our own lives.  No, it’s not easy.  Yes, it gets tiring.  But John’s Gospel reminds us that this is the path to true joy: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.”  I have to say that the people I know who practice love most are the most joyful.  I say this even though love makes us vulnerable to hurt. 

  • What is one way you are practicing love in your life? 
  • What is an area where you want to work on loving: offering care and respect, even when it’s not convenient? 

JBM 


 

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Trail Notes 04/29/2018

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Lessons from the Vineyards

Friends of ours have vineyards and a winery in the Loire Valley of France.  It’s a heavenly place to visit – it is so peaceful to look out over the rolling hills covered with neat vines, while sipping (of course) on some wonderful cabernet. 

What we don’t see, when we visit, is the long hours of pruning to keep those vines in peak condition for bearing fruit.  We don’t see the worry about pests and drought which could destroy the crop.  We don’t see the “all hands on deck” effort to harvest the grapes at just the right moment. 

Jesus says to us, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  We bear fruit when we are well-connected to the vine of God.  God also prunes the branches (that’s us) when we are not bearing good fruit.  Even when we are fruitful, God prunes us to bear even more fruit.  The emphasis is on outcomes.  What is the fruit of our labors? 

The First letter of John tells us what that fruit is.  It is simply love.  Love for our neighbors, love for our selves, love for God.  When we love like this, God actually lives in us – God comes to dwell in us.  We don’t have to work at getting close to God, because God is there when we are loving. 

We are meant to grow and bear fruit for God.  That fruit is love.  Maybe this business of Christianity is not so complicated after all.  JBM 

 


 

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Trail Notes: 04/22/2018

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Who’s your shepherd? 

These days, we talk about mentors in business, spiritual guides in religion, and buddies in grammar school.  But the Bible talks about shepherds…a lot.  Moses was a shepherd for his father-in-law Jethro’s flocks, before he became a shepherd of the Hebrew people.  David was the boy-shepherd in his father Jesse’s family, until he became the shepherd of a new Hebrew nation. 

We know well from many Christmas pageants that the lowly shepherd were the first to recognize the infant Jesus as Messiah – the one who would become “the Good Shepherd of his people.” 

Many sermons on this Sunday affectionately known as “Good Shepherd Sunday” have been preached about sheep and lambs: their docility, the vulnerability, and yes, their stupidity.  But I’d rather focus on humans this year.  Who’s your shepherd?  Who has led you, supported you at crucial times in your life?  Who has warned you from dangers, and perhaps challenged your youthful arrogance?  Who has been a friend when the world didn’t seem very friendly? 

I think of certain teachers I was blessed to have, and one or two priests too.  My music teachers and choral conductors saw potential in me, and encouraged me without trying to make me in their own image.  My parents shepherded me wisely when I was young, and my older brothers did when I was older.  Today, I have a few close friends who listen when I am confused, support when I am down, and steer me in the right direction when I am confused.  When I think about it, I’ve been blessed with shepherds throughout my life.  I believe God has worked through each of them. 

I hope you have, too.  I encourage you this week to think about the good shepherds in your own life.  Who are they?  Remember the times they guided and supported you.  Give thanks to God for them.  In them, Christ our Good Shepherd has touched your life.  JBM 


 

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Trail Notes: 04/15/2018

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Practicing Easter (and flying kites)

What’s hard for me about Easter is that the climactic moment of Easter Day comes – with all its gorgeous flowers and shining brass, its grand music and big crowds, its joy and gladness – and then it fades so quickly.  The flowers of spring are fragile – when cut, they don’t last long.  The crowds in church don’t come back for the next Sunday.  How do we keep the spirit of Easter alive? 

Last Sunday, our guest preacher, Tricia Lyons, spoke inspiringly about the spirit of Easter in her family.  After suffering a tragic loss, the spirit was lost for some years.  They finally got it back by flying kites one Easter Day: feeling the tug on the string as the kite was lifted up by unseen forces of wind.  Often, we need to believe in things we cannot see!  The kites were lifted high and soared into the sky, just as Jesus was lifted up to live again.  Now, Tricia keeps a kite in her car at all times, so she is ready whenever she needs to recapture the spirit of Easter.  Tricia calls it, “Practicing Easter.” 

How do you “practice Easter” in your own life?  Are there certain places that restore the spirit of Easter for you – the roaring seashore, or a majestic mountain?  Such beautiful places do inspire me.  But when I need to recapture the spirit, the best thing for me to do is to do something kind, something loving and unexpected.  When I visit a lonely person, or bring a treat to someone who is suffering, I find I am the one who is helped.  My spirit is revived.  My joy comes back.  When I feel restored, it’s not hard to believe that The God of Jesus is the one who raises the dead to life, who breaks the bonds of sadness, anxiety, or regret, and sets us free. 

How do you “practice Easter” in your own life?  JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 04/08/2018

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Babies are wonderful!  But they are also messy little creatures.  They spit up, soil their diapers, and get dirty exploring whatever they can get their hands on.  In essence, they are human beings.  We all live lives that get messy.  Whether baby or grownup, we often need a good bath.  Once we have one (or a shower), we feel clean, rejuvenated, and ready for life again. 

We are bathing a baby this Sunday at 10:45 a.m.: “Coco” Gomez – daughter of Julie Anderson and Tony Gomez, will be baptized.  Easter is the best possible time to baptize a child into the fellowship of Christ.  Baptism is itself a spiritual experience parallel to the journey of Jesus: with Jesus, we are moving through death into a new life – from dirty to clean, from messy to ship-shape.  With baptism, a new reality comes – a new child of God, a new member of the Body of Christ, a.k.a. the Church. 

Some churches do not baptize infants, because they aren’t conscious of what is happening, and aren’t able to make a decision.  We do baptize little ones, because we acknowledge a reality much bigger than any of us – the fellowship of God’s love – and we want our children to be included in that.  Being loved doesn’t require a decision; love is a free gift that showers over us, like clean water.  We simple experience it, and eventually we acknowledge it as the wonder that it is.  JBM 


 

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Trail Notes: 04/01/2018

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Why Come to Church at Easter? 

The church proclaims its greatest message – Jesus’ resurrection from the dead – on Easter.  It’s also the hardest to believe for many people.  The ancient scriptures and creeds seem far from the modern world. To some, the church can seem like an artifact from an earlier time.  Many folks have objected to various church teachings, and of course the institutional church has sometimes not lived up to its own values. 

Still, I think people long for something greater than themselves, a source of deeper meaning and purpose than the world provides.  When I feel the coming of spring – the springing up of crocus and daffodils – the idea of resurrection doesn’t seem so far-fetched.  In fact, it appears to be part of the fabric of nature. 

The church is our human attempt to be this resurrected Christ in today’s world.  God knows, it is flawed, as every community is.  We are always forming and reforming, seeking to be closer to God, better at loving our neighbors.  This community, the “Body of Christ,” invites us back, no matter how many times we stray, or how long we stay away.  Margaret Renkl, for the New York Times, writes this in an article called “Easter is Calling Me Back to the Church”:

The year away from church hasn’t made me miss the place itself. I don’t miss the stained glass. I don’t miss the gleaming chalice or the glowing candles or the sweeping vestments. But I do miss being part of a congregation. I miss standing side by side with other people, our eyes gazing in the same direction, our voices murmuring the same prayers in a fallen world. I miss the wiggling babies grinning at me over their parents’ shoulders. I miss reaching for a stranger to offer the handshake of peace. I miss the singing.

So, in the name of the church, I invite you to join with those wiggling babies and people praying for our fallen world: come to church.  Sing the hymns that proclaim the best of all possible news: Jesus Christ is risen today!  If that is so, then all things are possible.  JBM 

 


 

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Trail Notes: 03/18/2018

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“I will write it on their hearts”

After centuries of tumultuous political and religious life in Israel, the prophet Jeremiah describes a new covenant with God, a covenant that will not be an outward contract between God and people – a contract often broken by humans – but an inward, built-in relationship that cannot be severed by our failings and waywardness.  I picture this new covenant as more like a familial relationship: like a parent who simply cannot and will not give up on her child, no matter what. 

I believe this new covenant which Jeremiah described six centuries before Jesus became embodied in God’s Messiah, or Christ, whom we know as Jesus of Nazareth.  The covenant shifts from a conditional, breakable, external agreement, to an internal, unconditional, unbreakable relationship of love.  Jesus described this kind of love in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (sometimes known as “the Gospel in miniature.”) 

This new covenant shifts focus from getting to giving.  God is not in it to get our adulation, devotion, or obedience (although these are not bad things!).  God’s intention is to give Godself to us, and hopefully inspire us to give ourselves away too – for each other, and for the life of the world.  The grain of wheat gives up its life, in order to bring growth and fruit.  We do not seek to preserve our lives and hoard our goods, but rather give ourselves away and find abundant life. 

The Prodigal Son lost it all, and found that in fact he still had what mattered: his father’s love.  His father gave up control over his son and his inheritance, and found that he was rewarded with the freely-given love of the son he adored.  This is the great paradox of Christian living.  Jesus demonstrates this new covenant by giving his own life on the cross, and finding new life in God – for himself and for all of us.  Go figure.  JBM 


 

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Trail Notes: 03/11/2018

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“We detest this miserable food!”

Complaining about the food is a time-honored pastime – whether it’s the school cafeteria, the mess tent, or the company lunchroom.  Food is something almost all of us care about – it’s basic to our happiness.  When we don’t like, it, we say so. 

Sometime during the Hebrews’ 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we have this story from Numbers chapter 21 about the people moaning and complaining against God and Moses about the poor food.  God apparently gets fed up with them, and sends poisonous snakes which bite the Israelites so that many died.  This seems a bit extreme, although it’s true that the Hebrews had been complaining about the food for a good 10 chapters.  When the people realized what God had done, they admitted their sin and asked Moses to intercede for them.  God, strangely, tells Moses to make a bronze serpent and lift it up on a pole. When those who were bitten by the snakes look at the bronze serpent, they are allowed to live. 

John’s Gospel, again strangely, compares this bronze serpent to Jesus lifted up on the cross, who also brings life to those who believe in him.  This comparison doesn’t work very well for me.  I get stuck on the fact that God sent the venomous snakes to kill in the first place.  What do you think? 

We don’t hear from the Book of Numbers that often on Sundays.  It is one of the first five books of the Bible, known as the Books of Moses or the Pentateuch.  Its name comes from the many lists and enumerations that fill the book, starting with a census of all the people and tribes of Israel.  Numbers tells much of the same history of the time in the wilderness that we also hear about in Exodus.  Numbers does give us a number colorful vignettes: Balaam’s talking donkey, the manna and the quails, the spies sent into Canaan, a man executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and of course today’s bronze serpent. 

Numbers also gives us this beautiful benediction which is still often used, known as the Aaronic Blessing: 

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”                                         

                                                                                                                                    JBM


 

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Trail Notes: 03/04/2018

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An Angry Jesus?

Today we encounter Jesus turning over tables and driving animals out of the Temple courtyard with a whip of cords!  This story has always stood out against the “meek and mild” picture of Jesus many of us grew up with – a Jesus usually pictured with pale, delicate features and blue eyes.  But the Jesus in this story is strong, vital, and athletic…and no doubt dark-skinned and swarthy. 

While the other gospels use this story near the end of Jesus’ life, just after Palm Sunday, John’s Gospel begins with it: it appears in chapter 2.  Maybe John wants us to know from the outset that Jesus can get angry when he encounters behavior that he believes runs counter to God’s will.  He is even disruptive. 

To me, Jesus’ anger is a reflection of God’s own indignation when we contravene God’s commandments – when we treat each other badly, make war, despoil the creation, and disrespect the God who made us.  Anger is the very natural reaction to events and behaviors that we abhor – how else would we react? 

The big question, however, is how do we respond in our anger?  We teach our children to own their angry feelings, but still control their responses. Spiteful words and destructive behaviors are not okay, even though we are angry.  Yet Jesus does overturn the furniture and wreak havoc with the livestock in the Temple courtyard.  Are there times when such acting out is warranted? 

We need our righteous indignation to fight some crucial battles in our society right now.  One such battle is over guns: who should have the privilege of keeping a gun?  What kinds of guns are reasonable for citizens to own?  How do we keep guns out of the hands of irresponsible persons?  The March for Our Lives is gathering on March 24, 2018 in Washington to demand a response.  St. Dunstan’s will be hosting folks from out of town that weekend.  Palm Sunday weekend will be full of meaning this year.  JBM  


 

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Trail Notes: 02/25/2018

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“I would take a bullet for the kids.”

That’s what one of the Parkland, Florida teachers said to his wife after the shooting there.  We can all applaud his willingness to sacrifice for the sake of other. 

But I wonder how his wife felt hearing that.  If that were to transpire, she would face not only the loss of her life partner, but the father of her children.  Untold suffering would come with his selfless decision. 

Of course, without the evil of shooters such an act would not be needed.  But in our present climate where there is no political will to do anything to arrest this madness, this is the world we live in. 

This sad state of affairs helps me understand Jesus and his decision to “take a bullet for the world.”  Without human evil, it would never have happened, never have been needed.  But there was human evil aplenty in the first century, as in our twenty-first. 

Our Lenten theme is “Meeting God in the wilderness.”  Today we focus on “Meeting God in suffering” – a place I do not like to visit!  And yet suffering can be necessary.  Suffering can lead to a greater good.  Suffering can be sacrificial. 

 

If I were a school teacher, I have to wonder…if “I would take a bullet for the kids.”  JBM  


 

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