Once I built a shed

I am not a “Carpenter” either in song or with saw.

Yet, once, I built a shed of old recovered barn wood.

That was in the days before I was taking and collecting pictures of life.  So, the images you see in this post are from others who also love old barns for what they are and for their potential in another form.062decrepitbarnu_p_-vi

If you read my last post, you know that Patricia and I are reading to each other at the dinner table . . . and, you know that just now we are reading from Mary Oliver’s most recent book, “Upstream:  Selected Essays.

What you don’t know is we finished Mary’s book last night.

The final essay in the book (175 pages in all) is titled, “Provincetown.”  That chapter ends with these words:  “I don’t know if I am heading toward heaven or that other, dark place, but I know I have already lived in heaven for fifty years.  Thank you Provincetown.”

I encourage anybody living permanently or for part of the time, in Northport, Michigan, to read this book  . . . most especially read the final essay . . . for . . . 6a00d8345197c969e20168e5eff8be970c-800wi

it is true, we too are living in a place on earth “that is crammed with heaven!” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning).  Thank you, Northport.

The place I chose to build that-long-ago-shed was on the slope of a sandy hill leading steeply toward a small little known inland lake in northern Wisconsin.  To make a level space for the shed required shoring up the shoreward side of the shed location with pick-up-load after pick-up-load after pick-up-load of big and bawdy rocks of northern Wisconsin National Forest.

I traveled the forest roads and selected rocks and loaded them . . .2y76fymu5uck84n1jfg5

ummmmmppppphhhhhh . . . .

Some of them  . . .

were mighty and full of the weight of the earth . . .

Even so, I loaded them into the bed of the pick-up.

The pick-up groaned.

More than once she listed this way and that with the weight of all within her.

It was like birth.

These ancient remnants of another time


(and I imagined artfully)

arranged in order to bring a level and smooth place

that could not before have been imagined

into life.


I remember my wall-of-resistance-to-the-natural-inclination-of-sand as seven or eight tiers high to make the platform for the shed that was yet to be.  old stone wall backgroundIt was taller than I am tall.  It required a lot of ancient forest rocks, some of them bigger than a fella of my size alone shoulda been hefting into the bed of a pick-up.



But heft I did.

And . . .

then . . .

the flat place was secure.

So . . .

I built the shed.

It was a rudimentary building.

It was small.

It was linear in the way of things . . .

My trusty bubbled level told me all was as as it should be.

It was made of ancient stuff  – all of it – the wood, the nails – all of it – except the  cedar shingles for the roof which were bought new from the nearby lumber yard.

The little-shed-that-phil-built was made of ancient stuff.

It had no windows,

but it had a door that opened . . .

a door that was hung with the ancient, oversized hinges of a much bigger building.


I loved how easily the shed door swung open.


The floor was sand.

This shed-of-my-creation was roughly made.

It’s only purpose was to store stuff small enough to fit within its walls.

I loved it.

I loved that I had made it.

That was another time and in another place.

I am not sure if the shed is still standing.

It would be awesome if it is.

Yet . . . standing or not . . .

did you you know . . .

taking down a barn in order to make a shed (and some other stuff too) from the ancient timbers of the barn that needs to come down . . . well . . . it is alot of work and it takes alot of hours.

I invited my two youngest children, Noah and Jacob, to help me with the project.

I decided it would take a week.

They said, “yes.”

Sometimes what I decide is not possible .

Be that as it may, we camped in a tent near this ancient farm structure in a field of the earth’s many blessings, the two of them and me.  I was dad, cook, bottle washer, crew chief for the dismantling, and the one in awe of these two young ones.

I was the one who was supposed to have a plan and know how all this would work out.

The truth is . . .

it takes more than a week

to take down a barn  that has been standing for a hundred years or more . . .

especially if the crew is like the one I assembled . . .

two early teen sons and their father.

Even so . . .

the barn came down.

We took off side boards.

We piled them up.

And, eventually,

with the assistance of the pickup, we pulled the old structure to the earth.



Later, after I took these amazing young men back to their mother, I piled and hauled the salvaged lumber and brought it near to the place I hoped to build a shed . . .

Whether or not the shed remains doesn’t matter.

The crew that helped me dismantle in order to build . . .

these two, Noah and Jacob . . .

each in their own beautifully unique ways . . .

have become builders . . .

creative, intuitive, skilled builders.

Builders of . . .

love and structures and sets and pottery and furniture and cabinets and art and life.

These two are now men.

Before the barn came down, we swung on a rope that hung high-and-high in the sky of the barn.  With a running leap we would fly off the old barn’s loft, holding onto the knots of rope, and swing out and over the abyss of antiquity.

Noah and Jacob went before me.

It was exuberant and playful and wild.

Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh the soaring.

They were/are so beautiful.

After them, I took the rope.

I soared . . .

ooooohhhhhhhhhmmmmmmmyyyyyyy . . .

I was free . . .

and . . .

I waited too long at the end of the ride . . .

to let go . . . .

the back of my body careened with the force of flight

into the timbers of the ancient loft that were still solid.


The abrupt stop took all the air out of me . . .

it hurt . . .

as I dropped to the barn’s old floor.

I was the only one of the thee of us old enough to have a drivers license.

I was “the adult.”

I wondered as I slumped on the ground below the loft . . .

having been liberated from the rope . . .

if I was injured beyond repair.


Turned out I was not.


Eventually, my wind came back.


thank you!

I slept through the night on the ground in a sleeping bag in a tent.

In the morning, we carried on.

The blow of the loft’s timbers to my suspended-in-air-swinging-body,

was just that  . . .

a blow.


We carried on.


Tonight, Patricia read Mary Oliver’s next to last chapter, “Building a House,” from Mary’s newest book “Upstream:  Selected Essays.”  225x225bb

Patricia read . . .  because she actually built a house in Northern Wisconsin.

The only building I ever built was a small-barnwood-shed-with-no-windows-and-a-door-that-opened-with-ease.

Mary’s essay begins:  “I know a young man who can build almost anything – a boat, a fence, kitchen cabinets, a table, a barn, a house.  And so serenely, and in so assured and right a manner, that it is a joy to watch him.”

I know two such young men.

Their names are Noah and Jacob.

Long ago with them I swung

on a rope, and soared, in the strawy aura of an old barn.

It was breathtaking.

We did,

the three of us,

take the old barn down.

Go figure.

Today they . . .

both of them . . .

Noah and Jacob . . .

both of them . . .

are builders.

Is the old barn part of that?

I don’t know.

For sure their creativity is part. . .

the of hearing stories at bedtime at night is part. . .

our awe of an ancient old barn in a field we took down is part . . .

ohhhhh . . .

Who knows all the pieces of their creativity.

Together we took the barn down.

I built a shed on a sand hill leading to a little known lake.

They build beauty.

Serene.  Assured.  Right a manner.

It is an honor to be kin.



Reading to children – the ritual renewed

My children’s mother, Kandi, and I were blessed by daughter, Jennifer, into our lives in 1968. Then, by son, Mark, in 1970. How we loved and enjoyed them. I have no words to convey the beautiful mystery of them around and within us.

By way of Jennifer and Mark I learned again for the first time, the joy of reading to children at bedtime . . . “again,” because my mother, June, read to me endlessly . . . and “for the first time” because it was the first time I was the reader rather than the imaginer/listener. I read and read and read and read to Jennifer and Mark. I read favored authors including Kipling and Suess and McCloskey and Milne, and, and, and. . .

As they got older we ventured into “chapter books”. . .

Burnett and Herriot and Adams and . . .

Reading to Jennifer and Mark was intended to put them to sleep . . .

Sometimes sleep came to reader before listeners . . .

“Dad! Wake up!”

And so it was my eyes would open and we would begin again.

Years went by.

Kandi and I were blessed by the birth of Noah and Jacob in 1978 and 1981. How we loved and enjoyed them.  I have no words to convey the beautiful mystery of them around and within us.

9514847Noah and Jacob alive meant, among other things, I got to read anew the favorite stories-of-the-end-of-the-day by authors who enchanted them and me.

Noah and Jacob got older.

We too got into “chapter books.”

Among my favorites was “Watership Down.” I had read it to Jennifer and Mark. Now, I got to read it to Noah and Jacob.

If you google the novel . . . this is how it is described:

A phenomenal worldwide bestseller for more than forty years, Richard Adams’s Watership Down is a timeless classic and one of the most beloved novels of all time.

Set in England’s Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage, and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of brothers, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

Maybe it is time to read it again . . .

I don’t remember how many weeks it took to read the book. Sometimes after they slept, I was so enthralled, I would read on a chapter or two or three. I couldn’t put the book down.

However many weeks it took to read, we were all woven into the story and character and adventure and setting of this beloved novel.

That was then.

This is now.

It is 2016.

We’ve had a November election that translated to enough likely electoral votes for a man to become president for whom I did not and could not vote.

For months (now it seems like years) before the election I went to the TV and watched the news – CNN, MSNBC, occasionally some others. I read of the news on my iPhone frequently through the day. I was enmeshed hour after hour after hour after hour in the election, in the conventions, in the polls, and in my hope for a particular outcome.

What I hoped did not come to be.

Since the election . . .

I still know the daily news . . .

it continues to wash over me . . .

however . . .

I am not sitting before the TV for three and four hours every night.

Sometime before the election I had preordered-a-yet-to-be-published-book-of-essays by Mary Oliver – Upstream: Selected Essays.

It arrived after the election.

I am so glad.

At an early post election November dinner, Patricia and I began to read the essays aloud to each other – a few paragraphs by me and then a few by Patricia and then a few by me and a few more by her. It was like a reading a chapter book . . . but this time the participants were both listeners and readers.
619k5bxg6vl-_ac_us160_It is now the 6th of December and we continue the practice of listening to and reading to each other.

I recommend the practice to you.

We took a break from Mary Oliver to read: Celtic Tales: Fairy Tales and Stories of Enchantment from Ireland, Scotland, Brittany, and Wales. I loved these stories for the couple of November weeks it took us to read them

And now, in December, we are back to Mary Oliver.

It is a dinnertime practice. It has become a spiritual discipline.

I encourage you to read Mary’s book. I encourage you to immerse yourself in her precision-and-elucidation-with-words-about-poets-of-awe-and-excellence . . . and-other-stuff-too.

225x225bbTonight Patricia and I read Mary Oliver’s chapter on Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman about which she writes:  “It is obsessively affirmative. It is foolishly, childlishly obsessively affirmative. It offers a way to live, in the religious sense, that is intelligent and emotive and rich, and dependent only on the individual – no politics, no liturgy, no down payment. Just attention, sympathy, empathy. Neither does Whitman speak of hell or damnation; rather, he is parental and coaxing, tender and provocative in his drawing us toward him. Line by line he amalgamates to the fact. Brawn and spirit, we are built of light, and God is within us.

Intelligent, emotive, rich.

No politics, no liturgy, no down payment.

Just attention, sympathy, empathy.

Tender . . . provocative.

Brawn and spirit.

We are built of light.

God is within us.

As a result of writing these words, I have ordered a copy of Leaves of Grass for Patricia to gift her/us as we wend our way through the winter dinner table in Northport, Michigan, in my seventy first year of life. Oh, ok . . . I ordered Watership Down too.

Thank you, June, for birthing me into the world, for nurturing my life with love, and for reading to me over and over and over again.

Thank you Jennifer, Mark, Noah, and Jacob for your birthing into the world, for listening to my reading of bedtime stories when you were young, and for all you are that nurtures love in the world now that you are the readers.

Thank you, Patricia, for making this pilgrimage with me. We have had, and continue to have (like walking Leelanau County Park Victoria today), so many mystical experiences. Thank you for your verve. Thank you for your way with “our” children and grandchildren. Thank you for your love of music and dance and joy. Thank you for reading to me (and listening to me read) in 2016 at the dinner table. Your voice speaking the words and then your ears taking in the words . . . make me know, like Elizabeth Barrett Browning ‘s affirmation . . . “Earth is crammed with heaven!

Thank you.

I still read the news . . .

And . . . I still listen to it sometimes on the TV . . .

But . . . mostly I am savoring the-mystery-of-profound-word-read-at-table by the one who loves me and the one I am privileged to love.

It is extraordinary.

It gives me hope.

It builds courage for the nights and days before us.

Oliver says:

The extraordinary is what art is all about.


Whitman’s “message was clear from the first and never changed:  that a better richer life is available to us, and with all his force he advocated it both for the good of each individual soul and for the good of the universe.


Onward  “through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.”


There is so much acrimony, exasperation, impatience, outrage, ire, resentment, indignation, irritation, petulance, irritability, passion, rage, temper, violence out and about.

These words are all synonyms for “anger.”

Matt James, Ph.D. in a “Psychology Today” post from July 16 quotes Mark Twain:  “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”  Of course, he lived in a time before ours.  Today “high capacity, quick reload weapons” are an epidemic of viral anger too often violently blasted on others.  The trauma of loss for families of young black men at the wrong end of a gun in the hand a uniformed police officer . . . and the families of uniformed police officers lured into death by rapid fire weapons of destruction in the hands of angry young men . . . lives snuffed as quickly as a blown-out candle . . . surely this is a pouring out of the acid of anger on others that is even greater than the harm to the human vessel in which it is stored.

Anger is bubbling and spewing in our culture and in the world.

In his article, Dr. James writes:

Right now, I’m working on a new book on ho’oponopono, the Hawaiian forgiveness process. In many ways, ho’oponopono is about releasing anger that has festered for too long so that you may become pono with yourself and the world again.

Pono is when you feel centered and comfortable in your own skin. You feel connected to nature, your community, your friends and family, and yourself. You feel at peace. You feel balanced and a sense that all is well. When you feel pono, your decisions and actions are driven by integrity and awareness of what is good for the whole. And when you feel pono, you feel energetic, focused and effective.

Some of you reading the paragraph above may be thinking, “Wow. I don’t even remember the last time I felt that way!” In Western culture, we assume that this level of well-being is reserved for yoga retreats or spa weekends.

But to the ancient Hawaiians, being pono was not optional, it was required. If they felt even the slightest bit off pono, they did something about it. They knew that allowing anger to fester not only affected their relationships and sense of peace, it also created physical dis-ease.

In the words of this blog, I am inviting readers to examine our own anger . . . on a continuum from anger as acidic destruction of self and others . . .  to anger as indignation that leads to positive transformation . . .  where are we?  where do we want to be?  where do those we love need us to be?  what is God calling us to become?

In her 2016 book, Crossing the Owl’s Bridge, Kim Bateman Ph.D., writes eloquently about the anger associated with bereavement.  She has facilitated workshops and taught courses about Death and Dying for 20 years.  She draws upon the wisdom of poetry and ancient stories from a number of different cultures to teach us about the way of grief and the healing in grief.

As we know too well, anger can be used for well and it can be used for ill.  Reading her words shed light for me on this time of unrest and ugliness in our culture and in the world:

“Within the psyche, the fire of anger can be a potent transformative agent. . . . often intense feelings of rage accompany deep loss. . . we shout out indignation to God, we want to sue, we punish ourselves, and sometimes focus our anger even toward the person we lost.  We roar like a lion, with its noble authority, voicing fierce guardianship on our territory.  We have been wronged.   Anger can be seen as an external reaction to our internal sense of profound powerlessness.

Anger is the primordial power of the psyche saying, “NO!”  One theorist suggests that anger in young children is an adaptive, instinctual response to being separated from a caregiver.  It serves to mobilize the person to seek reunion as well as to communicate to the loved ones that further separations will not be tolerated.  Evolutionarily speaking, anger can be seen as functional.  And in some ways, rage can actually serve to empower us.  It is a way of saying, “I AM,” and an expression of the fact that someone or something has violated our domain.  It speaks with sharp, penetrating intensity and is difficult to ignore, making it potentially a very rich source of information.  David Whyte says, “Anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to.”  It is important to remember that anger is communication from the part of us that is afraid of being alone, afraid of being in danger, and it needs expression and validation . . .we must be attendant to the feelings and not move to repress our anger or inappropriately express it, or let it devour us.  We need to use its energy and see how it has the potential to offer us clarity . . . In allowing the soul to say “NO,” we then set the foundation for the ability to say “YES” later.

Fairy tales traditionally show us many ways of expressing this anger.  For instance, there is the hot anger of a fire-breathing dragon and the cold danger of the Ice Queen.  Hot anger arrives intensely and unpredictably, like a wildfire.  hydrangea complaining about the heat - 7-20-2016It arises out of a primitive urge for survival (think of an eagle’s talons as they penetrate salmon flesh) and the desire for protection.  It is sudden to stir, wreaks chaos, then disappears.

Cold anger plays itself out in the interminable grudge, in stewing resentment, and in a vigilant attentiveness to further perceived slights.  This anger seems as substantial and immovable as a glacier, and is just as effective in changing the psychological landscape of all those in its path.

icicles and shadows - April 9, 2016

Anger is a force we have been given advice about.  Girls are taught to be “nice” and are rewarded for repressing their anger.  Boys are shown from an early age that they must demonstrate reptilian lack of feeling but use their anger to dominate others.  In our ill-equipped state, we are often told to “think positive thoughts” and “look on the bright side.”  This advice can be compared to telling a homeless person to “just buy a house.”  The toxicity of anger needs special care and containment.  We need love and a safe place for catharsis much as a river needs its shores for containment and direction.  And when guided attentively, anger is subject to the same rhythms as all natural cycles.  It rises, is expressed, begins decaying, and then in death, has its energy redistributed.

Dear ones of wellsofwellness, let us listen to the anger within us and the anger of others.

May we be  . . .

and may we be among those  . . .

who build beloved community.

I invite your comments.


July 17, 2016 at Trinity Church UCC, Northport, MI

As promised in the previous post, here are Karoline Lewis’ comments on this week’s text from the Gospel of Luke about the sisters:

Karoline M. Lewis is the author of John: Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries (Fortress Press, 2014) as well as numerous articles for The Christian Century, Feasting on the Word, Feasting on the Gospels, Currents in Theology and Mission, Lutheran Forum, Word & World, Abingdon Preaching Annual, and Odyssey Network’s ON Scripture. Her newest book is SHE: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Women in Ministry (Abingdon, March 2016).

Ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Lewis holds degrees from Northwestern University (B.A.), Luther Seminary (M.Div.), and Emory University (Ph.D., New Testament Studies and Homiletics). She has served as Treasurer of Academy of Homiletics and Regional Coordinator for the Upper Midwest Region of the Society of Biblical Literature.

Lewis regularly leads conferences, workshops, and retreats throughout the country and Canada on interpreting the Bible, preaching, and women in ministry. She is a contributing writer for WorkingPreacher.org, author of the site’s Dear Working Preacher column, and co-host of the site’s weekly podcast, Sermon Brainwave.

She wrote about this week’s lectionary reading from Luke:

Martha, Martha, Martha.

If you grew up when I did, you got that reference. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia — of Brady Bunch fame. The oldest sibling of three daughters. The one who always tries to do her best — and succeeds, darn it. The one who excels at what is expected. Yet, at the same time, some sort of archetype of who you want to be but yet who needs to get a life.

The story of Mary and Martha is freighted with family dynamics that are all too familiar. While there are many issues about our human condition to which this story speaks, this time around, for me anyway, competition between sisters, between women, stands out. Why is it that women are against other women, and can be each other’s worst enemies? Why is that those we thought we could trust end up being those who are determined to undermine our ministry? Well, because our society fosters and depends on the socialization of women toward competition, judgment, and expectation. We should ask why. And we likely know the answer, yet is so very hard to admit.

It is a way to control women. To elevate and exacerbate our insecurities which are the result of unrealistic expectations of performance and beauty. To put women in a place where they are too busy competing against each other to rise up against the injustice of sexism. Well-played.

Woman against woman calls out our sin of comparison. And comparison, competition, who is better, is a deleterious path. It rarely ends with acceptance, but usually in the secured certainty of who wins — and at the expense of the other.

The danger of this story is its invitation to what is better. To pit one expression of belief, of discipleship, of service, of vocation, against the other. We are exceedingly skilled in such comparison. Yet, when we make these kinds of moves and assumptions, we rarely stop to think about what we then assume about Jesus. To favor Mary is to say Jesus discounts service. Which, if you read the Gospel of Luke, makes no sense at all. And makes Jesus make no sense at all. To favor Martha would be to say service is all that matters. Clearly, both matter, if you read the Gospel of Luke carefully.

So, this story cannot be about who is better or what is better, but rather about acknowledging that even a woman can be a disciple — can sit at the feet of Jesus and learn. This story is not about which is better. Because service and learning are both hallmarks of following Jesus.

It’s a story about pointing out what is possible — what God wants to be possible.

That those we deem unworthy for the role of disciple are those that Jesus insists are more than qualified. Our certainty about criteria for discipleship Jesus seems to upend. Is it service or sitting? Hospitality or listening? Attentiveness or learning? Or all of the above? This is a story about the fact that even Mary, even a woman, even those we have determined outside of God’s grace can imagine themselves as disciples.

In other words, what if this story has nothing to do with who is better and everything to do with who matters? What if this story is not preoccupied with proper acceptance and has everything to do with whom you accept? “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree,” Genesis 18:4.

It is an indictment on all of how we adjudicate right and wrong, in and out, worthy and unworthy, which are manifested now in our world as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia — to name only a few. Are we able to confess, “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill? Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart; who do not slander with their tongue, and do no evil to their friends, nor take up a reproach against their neighbors” (Psalm 15)?

Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. The shooting of police officers in Dallas. All are manifestations of the sin of disregard. Disregard is no small moment of oversight. No unintentional act of overlooking. No mere happenstance of “I just didn’t notice.”

Because, disregard, oversight, overlooking, passing by? As last week’s story of the Good Samaritan proved, is no lapse of judgment. No mere misunderstanding. No mistake in assessment. It leads to the reality of a noncommittal, no big deal, he didn’t mean it, acceptance. It leads to complacency even compliance.

We become immune to that which should cause outrage. We give in to saying, “well, that’s the way it is.” We accept that the world around us is the world we should accept.

Mary and Martha cannot be about the better thing that means who is better, who acts better, who can be better.

The better thing is the invitation to believe that you are who God sees you to be.

And that is precisely our problem. An inherent, systemic, omnipresent, ingrained, intrinsic, dysfunctional, disturbing belief that not all are worthy of God’s regard and love. The conviction, as Paul Farmer says, “That not all are not equal in God’s eyes. That all are not made in the image of God.”

This is not a story about comparison but completion. Not about who is better, but when is better. Not about what is better, but why it is better. Perhaps if we allow for a more nimble and gracious view of the Kingdom of God, we might be able to imagine more of the world as part of it — even ourselves. And when we imagine ourselves as part of God’s Kingdom, we are instantly called to bring about its presence here and now.



So, what do you think about this story?

Please do come to Trinity Church UCC in Northport, MI on Sunday, July 17, 2016, as we encounter each other and this Lukan “story of the sisters and Jesus” through song and prayer, scripture and silence, word and wonder.


Life is what happens to you when you are busy making other plans

Some of you know that I am a graduate of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, MO.   That is where I went in the summer of 1972 with their mother, Kandi,  when my oldest children,  Jennifer and Mark, were very small. Jennifer was maybe 3 and Mark was maybe 1.

Another person, about twelve years younger than me, also graduated from St. Paul . . . her name is Jenee Woodward.

Jennifer (my daughter), after she graduated from seminary in Seattle, WA, and was serving a church there told me about a resource for preachers and yearners a dozen or more years ago now, which you too can access at textweek.com.

Textweek was imagined, created, and enabled by Jenee Woodward.  Her story is about how we grow into the lives we become . . . and therefore it is about aging.  As you read you will read about a woman and what she has grown into, because . . . well . . . because of life and how it unfolds.

I am sharing her story here because I think she is compelling and beautiful and inspired and inspiring.  So take time to read and to lean about Jenee and about her life with a son diagnosed with autism.

But I also encourage you to read it because I spend several hours each week at textweek.com in preparation for the “next Sunday”  in my life.

The wellsofwellness.org post immediately following this one will be about one of the readings from this week’s lectionary readings from the Gospel of Luke.  Jenee Woodward makes that post possible because of textweek.com.  Karoline Lewis from Luther Seminary in the Twin Cities of Minnesota who wrote the text of much in the next post contributes regularly to texweek.com.  I think her comments about Luke 10:38-42 (the story we know of as the one in Luke about Martha and Mary) are worth reading by all of us.

So, I invite you to read this post about Jenee . . . and the one to follow with Karoline’s exegesis about a story in the Gospel of Luke.

First, this beautiful story about Jenee written by Susan L. Oppat, in “Faith and Leadership:  A learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke University.”

When her son was diagnosed with autism, Jenee Woodard had to give up her dream of a career as an academic scholar. Instead, she created The Text This Week, an influential trove of online resources for pastors writing sermons, Christian leaders and educators.
MONDAY, JULY 1, 2013
Jenee Woodard is a bustling, blueberry-muffin-making 54-year-old “mama,” she says, to Jaie, a biophysicist pursuing her Ph.D. at Harvard, and Phil, whose autism is about as severe as it gets.

Woodard rarely eats breakfast, and sleeps only in snatches, when Phil does. She is uncomfortable in crowds, or talking about herself.

She listens to audiobooks and knits. She plays her acoustic double bass or her beloved 1975 Fender P-Bass in her spare time, when she’s not getting her son through the day or leading classes in biblical studies.

But all of that happens only when she’s not holed up in the sunny little hardwood-floored office in her ranch-style house in Jackson, Mich.

That’s where she studies biblical texts — often in Greek, Hebrew or Latin. It’s where she trolls the Web for Christian commentaries, articles, artwork, music and sermons.

And it’s where she created and single-handedly operates The Text This Week, (often called by its url, Textweek) a website that generates two million hits a month — four million near Easter — mainly from ministers and educators.

Textweek.com (link is external) is one of the most influential Christian websites in the United States. Woodard says a link or a reference on her site can generate half a million hits for other websites.

“Her influence on the Christian church today is unbelievable,” said the Rev. Peter Wallace, the president and executive producer of Alliance for Christian Media and on-air host of the Day1 program. “If you think of all the preachers who use her resources and preach sermons from all those resources, she probably has more influence on mainline churches than any resource today.”

“Peter’s funny,” Woodard said to that. “It’s weird to me that people consider me an influence in the church. I don’t see myself that way.

“I just do what I do.”


Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans
After graduating from Saint Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Mo., Woodard, a United Methodist, worked in a variety of ministry settings. She then moved to informal study: the Bible, early Christianity and textual criticism.

Seminary and pastoring were not her niche, Woodard said. “I bombed at both. I’d just as soon be studying. I’d only be good with people for a short time. Then I’d lose it.”

Woodard planned to pursue an academic career and was writing applications to graduate school. But then daughter Jaie, now 25, whom Woodard calls “Einstein,” arrived, and Phil, 21, whom she occasionally refers to as “Rain Man,” came along three years later.

Phil was diagnosed with autism at the age of 2, and her world took a hard left turn.

“Before my life-reality changed, I believed more in the categories that other people used,” Woodard said. “I trusted that people … knew what they were doing if they had a degree.”

That “life-reality change” meant dropping the doctorate, dealing 24/7 with Phil’s autism and figuring out how she could still develop a ministry.

Questions to consider:

How have your life circumstances changed or challenged your calling and ministry?
Do the services your institution provides grow organically or strategically? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each?
Textweek is an example of how technology is changing ministry. Do you see unmet needs that technology could be used to respond to?
Woodard speaks about a “faithful integrity” within a host of changes. How do you understand this “faithful integrity” in the changes you are experiencing?

“A ministry, to me, means giving myself away — not for what it gets me or God or the church — but for the act itself. To me, this is probably the essence of faith,” she said.

The Internet was a relatively new phenomenon when she created the site in 1998, and before content aggregation or curation was commonplace, she recognized the possibilities it offered. The Internet could do without paper what used to require a shelf full of books, Woodard realized.

“I thought about how cool it would be to read all of the different commentators right next to each other,” she said.

“My son had just been diagnosed with autism. It was very difficult, and I needed something engaging to get my mind off it.”

The site’s popularity grew organically. Woodard showed it to her pastor, and he showed it to his friends, and they showed it to their friends, and so on, she said.

All these years later, it’s still a bare-bones website — it’s still primarily text and links, and it still reflects Woodard’s sensibilities.

She works in snatches, at a desk less organized than she’d like it to be, while she’s also doing other things.

When she gets rare uninterrupted time, she uses it to index American Theological Library Association (ATLA) material, since it’s written in a more academic style and requires more thought than some other resources.

She works intuitively, “thinking to myself, ‘What that I am reading contributes to the conversation going on in my mind about these particular texts?’

“I like to learn … about how communities work and how people put together theological understandings, share them and integrate them, as individuals and communities. I suppose I consider myself part of that discussion, but … I’d much rather listen than speak,” she said.

The Rev. David Hockett, the senior pastor at Forest Hill United Methodist Church in Concord, N.C., said he uses Textweek to background the ways theologians and scholars reflect on individual texts. “There’s a breadth of information, a breadth of theological positions, from early right up to contemporary preachers,” he said.

Wallace, the Day1 host, calls Woodard “a free spirit, so much fun, and brilliant.”

“I love her story,” Wallace said. “She was faced with this situation and found a way to reinvent herself, to do what she enjoys doing, but in a way that reaches so many people.”


No business model
For many years, Woodard earned no money from Textweek. Now she says she earns what a pastor of a small-to-midsize church makes, supplementing the income of her husband, a special education teacher and music tutor, with Textweek sponsorships and ad sales. She also is paid by ATLA for her indexing.

She admits she could use a few more sponsors. But she accepts only on-point ads — no shimmying women pushing diet pills. She also turned down an offer to sell the site, she said.

“I don’t have a business model, or a business plan, or a budget of any kind,” Woodard said. “I did the work for 10 years without receiving anything in return, including compensation for my time. I didn’t see it as a business. I saw it as something I was doing.”

She gradually began to bring in what she needed to keep up with her children’s educational needs, and a few years ago, she was “talked into” getting a business manager to run the ad sales, but she doesn’t think of it as a commercial site.

“I wish we had more advertisers, but I will not compromise the integrity of the website and my vision for it as a ‘virtual study desk’ in order to take ads which are not also useful and of a certain integrity for my audience,” she said.


How broad is the word of God
Her audience appreciates it. Margot Lyon, the director of ATLA business development, said that pastors in focus groups hosted by her organization mention time and again The Text This Week as a key online resource.

In partnership with ATLA, Woodard methodically searches its 250 journals for relevant current articles and indexes them, with EBSCO (link is external) host links, for the entire three-year liturgical calendar. The links, previously available only on a legacy platform, have expanded the scope and reach of the ATLA recommendations.

“Jenee is one of the most authentic, grounded and inspirational people I’ve ever known. To offer that she is popular is the understatement of the year,” Lyon said.

At professional conferences, “attendees line up … to shake her hand,” Lyon said.

Woodard is asked now to speak publicly but doesn’t do it often, because, she said, “I’m uncomfortable around many people, and I’m overwhelmed much of the time by my son’s needs and my own work and life.”

So she mainly just works quietly on Textweek at home, helping pastors get ready for Sunday.

The site reflects Woodard’s belief that the Bible as it stands now, after 2,000 years, is more valuable — and truer — for today’s readers than ever.

“Not only are there remnants of ancient texts; it has all the interpretations over the years. That doesn’t mean I think it’s inerrant. But it has all those people in it … who attempted to live lives of faith and integrity. If anything, it makes it possible for me to relate to those people,” she said.

This is especially true of the prophets, she said: “They had to rethink everything, look at their own institutions and figure out what was wrong with them. It’s our dilemma,” Woodard said.

“I think a lot, when I’m reading about communities and change, about traditions and change, and especially about faithful integrity within that, ‘What changes, and what doesn’t?’ It seems increasingly fluid to me. And it also seems natural,” she said. “But we dig our heels in, in the church, because it’s hard to change.”

Verity Jones, the director of the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary, said Textweek is an “incredibly wonderful resource for preachers, and leaders of the faith, because [it] aggregates so much of the tradition, the variety of theological perspectives and history.

“We are changing theology through technology. We are witnessing ecumenical changes. If [all pastors] have the same library from which to draw, that demonstrates … how broad is the word of God — how it’s not scary, not a problem.”


The theology of listening
Life is easier — not easy, but easier — now that Phil is grown. He is unlikely now, for example, to leave the house without supervision. But that relative ease has come only after enormous measures of home intervention, frustration and downright discrimination.

A member of her church, Woodard said, once sent her an anonymous letter saying “You’re not welcome here” because Phil couldn’t always remain quiet during services.

She once told a Michigan State University audience that she tries to maintain a sense of humor, especially in public. But “you don’t see me when I’m by myself, screaming, ‘I can’t do this for one more freaking day’ — only I don’t say ‘freaking.’ I say, ‘I didn’t ask for this! I don’t want this! It shouldn’t be mine anymore!’ I feel all of that.”

Her work is one antidote to that frustration.

“I am certain that Textweek was the only thing that kept Jenee sane through all the ‘growing kids’ years — assuming that Jenee is actually sane,” her husband, Bob, said jokingly. “While the kids were both a blessing, they were both very high-maintenance.”

Jaie had all the demands of a high-achieving student. Phil required constant attention.

But Phil’s autism diagnosis didn’t just change Woodard’s career track. It also changed her.

“I have been humbled by the fact that Phil can’t be ‘fixed.’ And I am deeply touched and encouraged by the fact that he doesn’t need fixing,” she said.

“Phil’s autism has changed my theological understandings as much as it has changed everything in my life, and the way I understand and work within the world. I am much less certain, since Phil’s autism, of anything.

“I’ve come to understand ‘theology’ to be a whole lot more about listening than about stating. I listen a lot, very deeply, respectfully and carefully, to people with whom I disagree and to people I do not understand. To me, this is ‘doing theology.’ I think that I would not have come to that understanding without my son.”

As for Phil himself, an un-air-conditioned school bus can send him into a screaming fit, but he is mostly sweet, and funny. He is only basically conversational — he responds to “yes” and “no” questions, and constructs three-word sentences when he’s really motivated. He ends everything he says politely, with “please.” If you offer him something he doesn’t want, you get, “No, please.”

But Phil is brilliant with electronics. He has performed circuit board soldering for Eaton Corporation in a Goodwill sheltered workshop, helps maintain his intermediate school district’s computer network, and once put together an entire computer and loaded the operating system in 90 minutes — at the age of 14.

Sometimes he rests his head on his mother’s shoulder, or fixes her computer. “I try to appreciate my son for who he is. He does everything a human being needs to do, and people who take the time to get to know him and work with him realize a lot about themselves and God and religion,” Woodard said.

The challenge of raising Phil “did open a door that would not have been there — the creation of Textweek,” Bob said. “The influence she has on others in the world of religious studies is so much greater than if she had become that traditional religious scholar.”

Rather than serving a small niche, Woodard is helping millions of scholars, educators and pastors.

“It is my ministry — or what I do with my life, as I explore what I think is my responsibility as a human being — to give more than I take, and to use my gifts for service to others, while giving myself a delightful new lens on texts and interpreters of texts.

“This is the heart of my own faith and of my task, as I see it, in the world.”


Well, graduating from St. Paul led Jenee to textweek.com and it led me to trinityuccnorthport.org and wellsofwellnes.org.

I am honored to be family with you, Jenee, through St. Paul!

Thank you to you who are readers of this blog for taking time to read and thank you for your comments.

Namaste, phil

What does it mean for us to love?

On May 22, 2016, Trinity Sunday in our liturgical year, I was installed as the pastor and teacher at Trinity Church United  Church of Christ in Northport, Michigan.  You can watch an eight minute video that tells about Trinity and its heritage as well as breathes life into the service of Installation, which was a time for “covenanting” between the United  Northern Association of the Michigan Conference of the UCC, Trinity Church UCC, and Phil Garrison.

The guest preacher was Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, who is the Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the United Church of Christ.  She preached in our morning worship at 11:00 am and then again at the service of Installation at 4:00.

Karen is woman, strong woman, faith woman, courage woman, wondering woman, hope woman, Jamaica woman in both skin tone and language lilt.  We were blessed by her presence, her friendship, and her passion for a more loving world.

I had thought of posting her two sermons here for you to read and got Karen’s permission to do so, and then went on to other things.  Is that not the way of me, way too often?

Now it is July.

We have experienced violent deaths times seven.

We are grieving.

We ache in the marrow of self, community, nation, and world.

Karen’s words to us in May were faithful, challenging words for that day and time.

And  . . .

they are poignant words for us in these July days of our lives.

Read, savor, love.


On Sunday morning she preached from Ezekiel,  “New Hope, New Life.”


New Hope, New Life                                        Trinity UCC (Northport, MI)

Ezekiel 37:1-14                                                22 May 2016 (Worship)

Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson

I live on the shores of Lake Erie, in Lakewood, OH, about 7 miles from downtown Cleveland. I, like Phil and Patricia, did what I like to call a reverse migration. After all, most people tend to move south for the warmth, not to the north in search of winter and closer climes. However, here we are having moved from Florida to the Great Lakes for new life.

This is going on my 8th year in Cleveland working with the United Church of Christ national offices. I have spent all but two of those years living on the lake. I actually moved away and lived in Euclid, OH for almost two years, but I have since returned to life on the Lake Erie shore. So, let’s just say, I like this place.

One of the major differences of life in this place where winter exists is watching the seasons and cycles of the earth and life – if you are interested in seeing them. We all have our favorite season. We can name that time of year that makes our hearts sing, that time of year when we are at our finest and best. For some, that is the crisp cold air of winter, bundled up out and out in the snow, enjoying winter sports and struggling to keep warm. Well, I would think that is a part of the joy for those who love winter. My recreational life is almost non-existent in the winter my friends. The great outdoors is not the place for me in the winter months.

I think I am partial to spring and summer. I love the summer because my Jamaican body loves the heat and does not miss the worry of winter coats. I like to sit in the sun and feel its heat and soak up it’s energy. I love going to the beach and watching the tides roll in. I love to watch the sun rise and set in all its majesty. Yes, I love the summer, not the urban summers that come with concrete radiated 110 degrees in New York City, but the warm air, fanned by a cool breeze. And yet there is often times a dryness to summer that comes with the reminder to hydrate and then there are those rays of heat that say use some sun screen and make sure that you stay safe. Everything has its challenges and its limitations.

There is a cycle to life that comes upon us wherever we are. A cycle that is framed in the words of the wisdom teacher in Ecclesiastes, and was made popular by Peter Seeger in the 1950s when he put it to music and named it “Turn! Turn! Turn!” famously sung by the Birds. Pete read his Bible too. The words of the song are verbatim from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

         a time to be born, and a time to die;

         a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

         a time to kill, and a time to heal;

         a time to break down, and a time to build up;

         a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

         a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

         a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

         a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

         a time to seek, and a time to lose;

         a time to keep, and a time to throw away;

         a time to tear, and a time to sew;

         a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

         a time to love, and a time to hate;

         a time for war, and a time for peace.

Yes, there is a time for everything, but there are some things we would rather not witness, see, or hear about. The church is in decline in the United States. While Christianity continues to be the primary religion in our context, the number of individuals who are attending church is not correlating with the population increases over the years. Study after study is naming what pastors have been saying for years.

Pew Research reported in a 2015 report that between 2007 and 2014, the Christian share of the population fell from 78.4 to 70.6%. This was driven by the decline in Roman Catholics and mainline protestants. The number of individuals identifying as “unaffiliated” saw the most increase during that same time frame, while there was also an increase across all other faith traditions.

Self-identification is having an impact on the life of the church, yet all those who name themselves as Christians are not necessarily coming to church any more. The busyness of life has cut into church attendance. More are doing less that is church related. Sunday morning is now a time for rest and relaxation rather than church attendance.

We can talk about the increase in the “nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” and wonder at where things have gone and think back to different times in the life of the church, a time that may even be labelled as “better times” in the church. What does it mean for us to hear that the church is in decline? Is the church in decline the matter than consumes us? Or is there a different place for us to focus our attention and our energy in these times? What would let us know that the church is vibrant and doing well?

The words of the prophet Ezekiel are a glum place to find ourselves present the morning. Ezekiel’s talk of this valley of dry bones is nothing like the “Dead People’s Stuff Pot of Gold” photo-op outside David’s place. Yes, I have been walking around your beautiful town with Patricia and Phil. Ezekiel’s vision was one of a valley full of dry bones, very dry bones at that (v.2). There are those who name the decline in the church as such a valley, a place of deep dryness that has removed sinew, breath and life from the existence of the church. The question to Ezekiel at a time when he was witness to the destruction of the place where he lived and the city that he loved was a deep one: Can these bones live?

Life as Ezekiel knew it was no more. After the destruction of Jerusalem in the seventh century BCE, the people were dispersed and sent into exile. There was a decline that was never seen before. The devastation, destruction and decline were coupled with a longing for restoration and hope. The question: “Can these dry bones live” is a question framed in hope amidst despair, longing in the midst of despair.

The prophet is told to prophesy to these bones. The words of prophecy as steeped in new hope that point to new life. “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. This says the Lord to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you and cause flesh to come upon you and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord” (v.5-6).

Death and these dry bones were a metaphor in the days of Ezekiel, as now. The dry bones are around us everywhere. The dry bones are the decline in the church some might say. Others might point to the dry bones that are the vicious ways in which we treat each other. Our communities have become hostile places where we choose to keep out those we perceive to be different than, or less than who we perceive ourselves to be. What are the dry bones of our lives, of our communities of this world? Where would we point and what would we name as the valley of dry bones that exist for us today?

This text that seems so troubling on many levels finds us one week after Pentecost. In the story of Pentecost and the birth of the early church, there is a story of new life that comes after death. The birth of the church comes after the death of Jesus, at a time when the disciples are gathered to mourn. From death comes the resurrection and new life in Christ. What will it take to bring us to a new place in the life of the church? What are the options for new hope?

I love spring. I appreciate summer, a lot, but I confess that spring is my favorite time of the year. Spring is the time when that which has been dormant comes to life. Plants thought dead emerge from the seeds in the ground. I am always excited by those first blades of grass that herald the possibilities of life to come. I can see the buds on the trees and new leaves emerge to provide the canopy to cover the remnant of fall still on the ground. Spring is about new hope and new life.

The text in Acts 2, tells the story of the Holy Spirit come to bring life to the post-resurrection disciples, filling them with the power, the motivation and the passion to go out and spread the good news of Jesus. What is the good news that we bring as Christians in the United States? What is there that we have to say in the midst of the local and global challenges that are all around us? Can these dry bones live?

I would say yes! The church in the decline is not the church on its deathbed. The population is changing in the U.S. This country is living in the midst of an increasing pluralism that requires we respond in ways that are relevant to the lives we serve and desire to serve.

What do we have to say about the problems here in the U.S.?

In 2014 the US population was 318 million. Of those:

  • 46.7 million people (14.8 percent) were in poverty.
  • 15.5 million (21.1 percent) children under the age of 18 were in poverty.
  • 4.6 million (10 percent) seniors 65 and older were in poverty.
  • The overall national poverty rate according to the Supplemental Poverty Measure is 15.3 percent, as compared with the official poverty rate of 14.8 percent.[ii]
  • Additionally, unemployment was at 6.2%

That is but one set of data that points to a serious problem around us. These are not statistics, these are people’s lives. Cutting across these statistics on poverty are issues of race, gender, age, sexual orientation and other critical factors that point to continued marginalization of God’s creation. The environmental degradation and on-going disregard for the created order is the valley of dry bones that renders us irrelevant in a world that is in need of life and hope, as do we. Can these dry bones live?

I love spring. For me, the winter months in Cleveland can feel harsh. It is not so much the cold, but there are days when there is no sunshine, there are only shades of grey. When those first blades of grass and those hearty buds dare to defy the cold and the snow and push their heads out, that is a sign that spring is on the way. The signs of spring point to renewal and new possibilities. I know with certainty that there will be brighter days, even though the snow is still falling and the skies remain grey.

Pentecost pointed to the work of the Holy Spirit among the disciples. It was the spirit of God present with them that afforded these early followers of Jesus to change the world. How will we change the world in our day? What do we have to offer that will make any difference to the decline, the decline in attendance, the aging demographic in the church and the absence of youth and young adults? We can focus our attention there or we can look at what is working or find our way into providing for the spiritual needs of those who want to make a difference in the world.

Our ability to change the world in which we live is not a result of our good intentions, but of our willingness to be available to the spirit at work among us, in us and through us. Our longing to be filled by God and used by God is what will make a difference.

The words of one of my favorite hymns says:

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

         fill me with life anew

         That I may love the way you love,

         and do what you would do.


         Breathe on me, Breath of God,

         until my heart is pure,

         Until with you I will one will,

         to do and to endure.


         Breathe on me, Breath of God,

         stir in me one desire:

         That every earthly part of me

         may glow with holy fire.


         Breathe on me, Breath of God,

         so shall I never die,

         But live with you the perfect life

         of your eternity.

Are we willing to be filled anew with the presence and promise of the Holy Spirit as we continue to journey together in this age? Let us look beyond the death of Jesus to the resurrection and find our own resurrection and new life in Christ.


And then in the afternoon at 4:00 she preached from Genesis 11 & I John 4, “With One Language.”


With One Language                                         Trinity UCC (Northport, MI)

Genesis 11:1-9; 1 John 4:16-21             22 May 2016 (Installation Service)

Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson

Karen Georgia Thompson preaching



Two weeks ago, I was on a plane heading for Mexico City. I was on my way to a meeting of the World Communion of Reformed Church in Havana, Cuba. As I sat on the plane, awaiting departure there was a couple in conversation across the aisle and one row back. They were not using plane voices or inside voices even as they discussed the various places that they had visited. While it was clear that they had just met, it was also clear that though well traveled they did not see any value to the world’s diverse population.

I listened as they spoke about countries they visited and described the people they met in stereotypical and prejudicial language. I could not believe when I heard the male voice name his beliefs about the Syrian refugee crisis. As far as he was concerned, Europe should send them back to their own country because they were making a mess of things.

I was taken aback by their bold and loud conversation, undaunted by the many who could hear what they were saying in such a public place. I realized that the diversity that lives among us in not received by all. I wondered who these people were and where this rabid nationalism that produced xenophobia, racism and prejudices along every possible demographic developed in their lives.


We live in a world that is changing. Diversity is present all around us. There is a global population of over 7 billion people and within that population there are many differences across race, gender, ethnicity, religion and the ways we engage God.


Mandarin Chinese 11.82%,

Spanish 5.77%,

English 4.67%,

Hindi 3.62%,

Arabic 3.3%,

Portuguese 2.83%,

Bengali 2.69%,

Russian 2.33%,

Japanese 1.7%,

Javanese 1.15%,

Standard German 1.09% (2014 est.)

note 1: percents are for “first language” speakers only; the six UN languages – Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), English, French, Russian, and Spanish (Castilian) – are the mother tongue or second language of about half of the world’s population, and are the official languages in more than half the states in the world; some 150 to 200 languages have more than a million speakers

note 2: all told, there are an estimated 7,100 languages spoken in the world; approximately 80% of these languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people; about 140 languages are spoken by less than 10 people; communities that are isolated from each other in mountainous regions often develop multiple languages; Papua New Guinea, for example, boasts about 839 separate languages

note 3: approximately 2,300 languages are spoken in Asia, 2,140, in Africa, 1,310 in the Pacific, 1,060 in the Americas, and 290 in Europe (2016)


Christian 31.4%

Muslim 23.2%

Hindu 15%

Buddhist 7.1%

folk religions 5.9%

Jewish 0.2%

other 0.8%

unaffiliated 16.4% (2010 est.)



white 79.96%,

black 12.85%,

Asian 4.43%,

Amerindian and Alaska native 0.97%,

native Hawaiian and other Pacific islander 0.18%,

two or more races 1.61% (July 2007 estimate)



English 79.2%,

Spanish 12.9%,

other Indo-European 3.8%,

Asian and Pacific island 3.3%, other 0.9% (2011 est.)


note: data represents the language spoken at home; the US has no official national language, but English has acquired official status in 31 of the 50 states; Hawaiian is an official language in the state of Hawaii



Protestant 51.3%,

Roman Catholic 23.9%,

Mormon 1.7%,

other Christian 1.6%,

Jewish 1.7%, Buddhist 0.7%,

Muslim 0.6%,

other or unspecified 2.5%,

unaffiliated 12.1%,

none 4% (2007 est.)



321,368,864 (July 2015 est.)

Statistics from www.cia.gov



The Genesis text we heard is one of the many Bible stories that did not make sense to me as a child growing up in a household that claimed high levels of Biblical literalism. While I am cured of that ailment, and in recovery from my childhood Christian beliefs, the premise of this story is perplexing at best. The story itself seeks to explain the different languages that are present in the world. Additionally, this narrative also has a few ancient commentaries about the places where these ancient writers found community. There are some morals to the story, among them is the idea that any attempts to make a name for ones self is problematic in relationship to God.

As the story goes, the people of the earth spoke one language. Communication was open. There were no barriers to understanding each other in this vision of the ancient world. These people of the earth, united in one language decided the best use of this unity was to start building a city and a tower whose top would reach heaven. This bold building project would rival any in New York City or Dubai. The intention was to retain this unity that they perceived to be threatened.

As the building went up, God came down and was quite displeased with the people’s objective to build this city and tower:


And the Lord said: Look, they are one people, and they have one language and this is only the beginning of what the will do; nothing that they propose to do will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” (Genesis 11:6-7)


What would happen my friends if the whole world spoke one language? Now, before you go telling Phil not to invite me back, I am not advocating for English language education for all or any such plan. In Africa, there is a saying: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far go together.

Why would God bring disunity to the world by multiplying the languages and rendering people unable to communicate? Frankly, I don’t believe this was God scattering the people. I think this story and the ways in which we attribute experiences and challenges to God are problematic, then and now. This was someone’s explanation of the differences, as opposed to reading this as God’s will desire for the people of this planet.

There are a few things I would like to note in the text, however:

  1. a people united is a people for whom the impossible becomes possible
  2. a people united is a people who will stand strong
  3. a people united is a people for whom life will be fulfilled

There is something to be said for having a common mission and vision in our work and life together.



We live amidst the brokenness of a wounded world and a divided people. The world as described becomes a place where language is confused and we refuse to understand each other. The confusion of this world in which we live is not God’s doing but our own. The divisions in our world are major.

Nearly three-quarters of the world’s adults own under $10,000 in wealth. This 71 percent of the world holds only 3 percent of global wealth. The world’s wealthiest individuals, those owning over $100,000 in assets, total only 8.1 percent of the global population but own 84.6 percent of global wealth.

Western and European countries host the lion’s share of the world’s millionaires. Some 78 percent of the world’s millionaires reside in Europe or North America, with nearly half of these millionaires calling the United State home. The only non-Western nations with a significant share of millionaires: the industrial powerhouses Japan, China, and Taiwan.

Ultra high net worth individuals” — the wealth management industry’s term of art for deep pockets worth more than $30 million — hold an astoundingly disproportionate share of global wealth. These wealth owners own 12.8 percent of total global wealth, yet represent only a tiny fraction of the world population.

And finally: The world’s 10 richest billionaires, according to Forbes, own $505 billion in combined wealth, a sum greater than the total goods and services most nations produce on an annual basis.

– See more at: http://inequality.org/global-inequality/#sthash.ZW6utBJo.dpuf

You add these facts and figures to the language and religious diversity and here I would name one of the bigger problems that is present in the world. With so much of living on various levels and edges, fighting for the scraps that fall under the table from the wealthy, we are hard pressed to find our way to a unified voice that will speak up and speak out. We have no unified message. We have no unity of voice. We have no unified mission. We have no unified vision.



Yet we are called to live in unity. How do we find our way to Christian Unity? “In the United States there are 217 denominations, if one does not account for the nondenominational churches. Globally, Christianity consists of 6 major ecclesiastico-cultural blocs, divided into 300 major ecclesiastical traditions, composed of over 33,000 distinct denominations in 238 countries, these denominations themselves being composed of over 3,400,000 worship centers, churches or congregations.” http://www.philvaz.com/apologetics/a106.htm

That, friends, is only the divisions between Christians. If we are going to be or do anything different, we just find our way to a new language and vision that is grounded in pluralism and steeped in love.

Christians must be willing to act together with unity that is about caring for each other and the earth. Our neighbor must be a part of what is important to us. We have to find ways to go meet the neighbors. Do you know the pastor down the street? What are some of the ways in which communities of faith can come together and work collaboratively to impact change together.

The same is true of our engagement with our brothers and sisters from other faith traditions. Who are the religious leaders in our communities? It took 911 to bring many of our religious leaders together. We reached across faith traditions and religious lines to stand in solidarity in communities in the Middle East where Muslims are standing on behalf of Christian and Jews and people of faith are protecting each other from tyranny, hostility and abuse.

The Syrian refugee crisis. War. Famine. Drought. These are calling us together to give witness to a narrative that is framed in love and rooted in hope for a world where we are working for the common God, of all God’s people, of all God created.

We need religious leaders who are willing to be locally rooted, globally focused, missionally engaged with a pluralistic outlook that embraces the diversity that is evident in the world.


All You Need is Love

1 John 4:16-21 has a simple message: LOVE! Love is a language that cuts across traditions and cultures. Most of the world’s religions have love at their core.

What does it mean for us to love?


Karen Georgia Thompson capturing the Leelanau sunset on her iPhone and in her soul - May 21, 2016

Phil Thomas: Life wisdom . . . economics, where we are

Northport, Michigan is home to a number of amazing people.  Among them is Phil Thomas.  On Thursday, he spoke to around three dozen of us about his life journey and what he believes to be true regarding our economic situation in the US.

I encourage you to take the time to read his life wisdom.  He told us he is 87 1/2, so this is about what he has come to believe over the decades of his life work . . .

What have you come to believe because of what you have been up to all these years of your life in the world as we know it?

Your comments and observations about this post, as always, are welcome . . .

Phil said, any speaker who knows anything about anything begins with a joke . . . here was his:

A doctor and an economist went to heaven. As they were waiting, the pearly gates opened, the angels inside were lined up playing their welcoming trumpets, and St. Peter came out. He embraced the economist and led him through the gates, which closed right in front of the doctor.

The doctor was bewildered, but saw in a tiny door next to the Pearly Gates, there was a guard beaconing him to come in. As he entered, he asked the guard, “What’s going on?”

The guard chuckled, and said: “Why, we have over a dozen doctors coming here every day, but we haven’t had an economist in over 100 years.”

And then Phil said:

The Opinions of One Economist

(Philip S. Thomas, Cracker Barrel, June 16, 2016)


I am 87 ½ years old, and I have started to reminisce about the past, wondering where the time has gone, what experiences I have had, and so forth. In particular, for the past 65 years I’ve been an economist, so I started writing down how economics has changed over the years, and how I have evolved from conservative to liberal and back again, until I now believe these labels are useless… or worse, as they interfere with clear, unbiased analysis of issues, problems, and policies.

In mentioning my economics reminiscing to Mike Sinclair, he thought this might be a good topic for the Cracker Barrel, so here I am. I don’t know whether Mike is to be thanked or condemned. (Time will tell!)

As background, to set the context, I have to define economics. Then I’ll briefly describe my background and the evolution of my thinking. Finally, I will give, and try to explain, my opinions on seven current issues. Of course, we want to have plenty of time for the Q&A.


A textbook or dictionary definition of “economics” is not as good as one given by a professor of mine, namely, “Economics is what economists do!” Initially that may seem circular and useless, but let me try it. Economists study prices and incomes, individually and by industry, by geographical area, and for the country as a whole; we collect statistics on prices and incomes, we try to understand why they rise and fall, and to assess the consequences of these changes. We study the banking and financial system, imports, exports, and the balance of payments (international economics being my special focus). Similarly, we analyze certain issues such as the overall health of the US. Economy, unemployment, inflation, the balance of payments deficit, returning to the gold standard, the federal budget deficit and the national debt, and raising the minimum wage. I will comment on these issues below.

 A while ago, my sister-in-law Marilyn asked me an economics question, which I thought I answered quite well. As soon as I finished, however, she said, “Phil, isn’t economics just a matter of opinion!”

I suspect that many of you would have said the same thing, so I want to address this issue right now.

In experiments in the physical sciences, variables can be quite well controlled, so that to a large degree “facts” are facts and can be agreed upon, and most theories can be tested and re-tested. There is an established scientific method of seeking and often finding the “TRUTH”.

Although the Economics Nobel Prize is publicized as honoring work in Economic “Science”, I would hesitate to use that term.

One of my Michigan professors, Dr. Lawrence Klein, won the Nobel Prize in large part because he was the father of econometrics. Among economists, econometricians come closest to being scientists. They combine economics, math, and statistical analysis. They state their hypotheses carefully in rigorous mathematical terms to make certain that they are clear, complete, logical, and internally consistent. They then apply the most sophisticated statistical tools in analyzing the facts to determine the correlations among key variables, and to ascertain the significance and importance of these correlations in establishing cause and effect.

This work is impressive, but in economics, there are too many variables, they cannot be controlled, they are ever-changing, and we have to use statistics which are never perfect; they are inadequate for guaranteeing 100% “TRUTH”.

So, yes, Marilyn, in economics there are differences of opinion, and even econometricians disagree. But “NO”, Marilyn, economics is not JUST a matter of opinion. Rather it is matter of probabilities.

One of my economic colleagues said, only half-joking, that economists not only can NOT predict the future, we cannot even “predict” the past. That is, no one is 100% certain about the causes of the Great Recession of 2008, but we can estimate probabilities regarding the importance of the housing bubble, or the large dollar holdings by China, or excessive risk-taking by banks. We can apply econometric analysis, and we can try to use the “scientific method”, but we will always have to supplement it with practical experience and judgement. Economics is a discipline based on probabilities.

So much for defining economics. How have I evolved?


I was born a conservative in Hinsdale, Illinois, where, if there were any Democrats at all, they were few in number and they remained in hiding. In 1933, at four years of age, I sat on the lap of Republican ex-President Herbert Hoover, who had just turned the White House over to Franklin Roosevelt. He was visiting a Hinsdale friend, who happened to be a neighbor of ours. At five or six years of age, I met the Republican Vice President under Cal Coolidge, Charles Dawes, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, musical composer, and, fortuitously, President of my dad’s bank. Dad took me up to his office one day for a 30 second handshake. I forget what issues we discussed.

I graduated from high school as a solid conservative.

Then I went to Oberlin College, which was and is one of the most liberal colleges in the U.S. I became a Democrat, which I remained through my graduate years at Michigan. However, as I began working inside foreign governments (six in all, from 1963 to 2000), I learned first-hand about waste, inefficiency, crony capitalism, and corruption. Reading Milton Friedman and Friedrich von Hayek during these same years, I shifted back into the conservative, anti-government camp, although I never became extreme.

I like the saying, which one of you may have told me:

“If you’re not a liberal when you’re 20, you have no heart.

If you’re not a conservative when you’re 40, you have no brains.

If you’re not a reactionary when you are 60 you have no money.”

These days, the world is so complex, I’ve added another line:

“If you’re not confused when you’re 87, you’re not thinking clearly.”

Some old men become set in their ways; they are dogmatic and rigid, thinking that they have seen everything; they know what they think, and there is no need to change their minds. I consider myself just the opposite, increasingly uncertain about what I really know, and open to new ideas. This is one of the reasons I decided to write down my thoughts about economics. What do I think today, and why. I am no longer either a “conservative” or a “liberal”. I am a “REALIST!”.

A decade ago, Alan Blinder, a well-known economist and a Democrat who served on President Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisors, wrote a popular book in which he said: “Democrats have soft hearts, but soft heads. Republicans have hard heads, but hard hearts.” He argued quite simply and eloquently that we all should have hard heads and soft hearts! This is who I think I am: a person who is socially liberal, but who believes in competitive capitalism (not crony-capitalism) and who believes in the competitive market system, with a major role for the free play of SUPPLY AND DEMAND .

Here are seven issues which may be a test of where I stand. However, after the Q&A, depending on the arguments you-all make, I may well change my mind and hold different views.



Join me in a mental experiment. Consider a country we shall call “X”.

–           More immigrants choose to come into X than choose to go into all of the other countries in the world combined.

–           Further, when people all over the world are considering where to place their money – where to invest — more choose X than any other country.

–           Further still, X’s currency (money) is considered the safest and most valuable for paying for goods and services from every country in the world to every other country, and several other countries actually use X’s currency inside their countries as the main medium of exchange, instead of their own currency.

–           Finally, the financial assets which are considered the very safest in the world are the bonds issued by the government of X. That is, the government of X is considered the most likely to pay off its bonds when they come due. The X government (and the X economy) are considered the strongest and the most reliable in the world.

If these four things are true, I would consider the economy of Country X to be in pretty good shape, and I assume that you would agree.

Of course, you recognize that Country X is The United States during the past few decades. These days, immigration from Syria to Europe is, of course, much higher than U.S. immigration, and there are modest, short-term exceptions to the other statements. But basically and overall, the U.S. economy is doing very well, in spite of our problems and legitimate criticisms. This is my 1st opinion, which I give a 95% probability of being correct: The U.S. economy overall is doing very well.



During the 2008 financial meltdown and Great Recession, unemployment rose to 10%. Since then it has fallen steadily by half, to about 5%, and in April it was only 4.7%. Back in 1933, it reached 25% (one-fourth of the labor force was unemployed), so even 10% is not terrible for a recession, and last month’s 4.7% is considered “Full Employment” by most economists. Critics will argue that people have given up looking for a job, so they aren’t counted as being in the labor force, so they are not considered unemployed. This is correct, but the same was true in 2008 (when so-called “true” unemployment might have been 20%, and in 1933, when it might have been 40%. My point is that a consistent measure of unemployment reveals that it has fallen to one-half of what it was in 2008, and we should be celebrating. We have done well in absolute terms, and we have done better than virtually all other economies in recovering from the Great Recession: Unemployment in Germany is 6.1%; in Canada – 7.1%; in France – 9.9% ; in the Euro Area as a whole – 10.2%.   Of course, we can always do better, but we should be very pleased to be where we are today! This is my 2nd opinion (Again, 95% probability that I am correct!): We should be celebrating our low unemployment rate of 4.7%.



Some prices are almost always rising and some are falling and such individual changes are tracked by economic statisticians. But what is happening to prices as a whole, on the average? Most of us are old enough to remember the 13% annual inflation in the 1970’s, and a few of us might remember the 14% inflation right after WWII. At one point in my teaching, I thought that the power of corporations to raise prices in the absence of sufficient competition combined with the power of unions to raise wages would result in perpetual double-digit inflation, called the price-wage inflation or the wage-price ispiral (depending on whom one blamed). Of course, there are countries with TRIPLE DIGIT inflation; the Economist magazine states that it is 181% in Venezuela; and I think it was over 1000% per year in Zimbabwe, before they shifted to the U.S. dollar as their currency.

What is the situation in the U.S.? The average inflation for the most recent decades has been under 3%, and two years ago it was zero, as we retirees know from receiving no increase in our Social Security checks! Most recently it is listed as 1.4%. While we should always be vigilant about inflation, the U.S. has been doing extremely well. This is my 3rd opinion. (which I rate at 94%): There is, and recently has been, virtually NO inflation in the U.S., and none is on the horizon.



Are foreigners “eating out lunch”, as some politicians are saying?

Why are we importing more than we are exporting? Of course, there are many reasons, some of which nobody knows! You may not know one of the reasons I consider most important. People around the world want to invest more in the U.S. In order to do this they have to buy U.S. dollars. This increase in demand for dollars drives the price up; the dollar becomes “stronger”. At this higher price, U.S. exports become more expensive to foreign buyers, so they buy less, reducing our exports. Further, the higher value of the dollar makes imports into the U.S. cheaper, so we buy more. This drop in exports and increase in imports creates (or increases) the U.S. balance of payments deficit, which is due to the strong U.S. economy which attracts foreign investment, and the resulting strong dollar. This is a good thing! (4th opinion, 90%): Our balance of payments deficit is due to the strong dollar and the strong U.S. economy.

We all know that the U.S. came out of WWII relatively undamaged, whereas the other major countries were devastated. As the biggest and strongest economy, the U.S. dollar thus became the main international currency, which has some little known consequences and ramifications.

Growing economies require an increasing money supply to finance transactions to import food and other consumer goods, as well as raw materials, other supplies, and capital goods. So more U.S. dollars are required, and other countries can only acquire more dollars, by earning them, by exporting more than they import.

On the other hand, when we in the U.S. want to import, we simply take out our checkbook and write a dollar check. These dollars have been eagerly accepted by foreigners because the dollar is the international currency and foreigners need them to finance their international transactions. Unlike other countries, we can import without exporting!

This is great for the U.S., but it is grossly unfair to the rest of the world. Other countries are not exploiting us; in fact, one could say that we are exploiting them, and we will continue to do so as long as the U.S. dollar is the dominant international currency. (5th opinion, 93%): Are foreigners eating our lunch? Definitely not. It’s just the opposite.



One of my favorite quotes is this: “Only one man in a million understands money, and you meet him every day.” That is, money is such a complex and intangible subject that no one really understands it, but most people you meet on the street think they know, and they can pull out a dollar bill to prove it.

The first economics course I ever taught was MONEY AND BANKING, and I was the Research Manager, Deputy Governor, and (for two weeks) the acting Governor (the Janet Yellen) of the Central Bank of Swaziland. Still, I would say that I am NOT that one man in a million”. Money is very complex and esoteric.

Nevertheless, I have an opinion about Gold and returning to the international gold standard.

  1. The gold standard involves expending substantial resources, dangerous and dirty work, and lost lives in order to find, mine, refine, and distribute gold, which then ends up in the third sub-basement of the N.Y. Federal reserve Bank (where it is held on behalf of countries from around the world), or it is re-buried in the underground vaults at Fort Knox. Gold is taken out of the ground only to be placed back into it! This is wasteful and ridiculous; (“insane” comes to mind.)
  2. One of the main producers and exporters of gold is Russia, the economy of which would benefit enormously by a return to the international gold standard. I do not want to aid the Russian economy at all, as long as Putin is in charge and is harassing his neighbors.
  3. But the most important consideration is this: basing the international money supply on gold is BAD ECONOMICS. To quote William Jennings Bryan in his July 9, 1896 speech, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” It is essential to have a flexible money supply to meet the changing needs of trade and to finance growing economies. The gold standard prevents nations from using monetary and fiscal policies to stabilize their economies, to reduce unemployment or to contain inflation. (If asked, I can explain this important point more fully in the Q&A.) The money supply should not be constrained by existing gold stocks, by the amount of gold in the ground, nor by private firms and the variable profitability of gold mining. (6th opinion, 99.9%): We should absolutely NOT return to the gold standard.




Capitalist economies depend upon spending, purchases, and sales to make it profitable for private firms to produce the goods and services desired, to hire workers, and to provide the incomes which constitute our standard of living.

One of the main contributions of John Maynard Keynes in his classic, THE GENERAL THEORY, 1936, was to stress that private spending by households and business firms will NOT be adequate to motivate firms to produce and to hire workers at the full employment level. Keynes created what is now known as “macro-economics”. He pointed out that the Great Depression of the 1930’s, with extremely high unemployment and idle factories, could last forever, unless total spending increased, which was not likely during the 1930’s. We were saved, however, on Dec. 7, 1941, by the subsequent rapid and large increase in government defense spending. Unemployment fell from over 20% to under 2% during the first two years of the war.

Since private spending is whimsical, and might be too little (causing a depression) or too much (causing inflation), Keynes recommended that the federal government should monitor total spending, to maintain it at the appropriate level of full employment without inflation.

One of the tools for this is Monetary Policy, and I applaud what Ben Bernanke and Janet Yellen have been doing with low interest rates and quantitative easing to increase the money supply, in order to stimulate private spending.

To some extent, however, one could say that we have been fighting the Great Recession with one hand tied behind our back, as there has been no thoughtful or strategic use of the second, and more powerful tool of Fiscal Policy, to supplement and support Monetary Policy.

Because of the Great Recession, incomes fell, so taxes fell, and the deficit in the federal budget grew larger. This deficit is financed by borrowing, which, of course, leads to a bigger national debt. Unfortunately, concerns about these deficits and the rising national debt have undermined the proper use of fiscal policy. While there were modest attempts at providing a fiscal stimulus after the financial meltdown of 2007-8, it was too little, too late, and focused on bail-outs.

I don’t know how many of you read the N.Y. Times editorials of Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, but I strongly agree with him that we need more government borrowing (not less borrowing) to spend on highways, bridges, and other infrastructure projects which are long overdue. (Of course, there are many other legitimate government programs needing funding.) The main reason for increasing spending is to bring people back into the labor force, to increase jobs and incomes, which will be spent on goods and services, increasing jobs and incomes further. (This re-spending is what Keynes called “the multiplier effect”.)   An alternative to increased government spending, would be a reduction in taxes to achieve more private spending, hoping that higher take-home pay will be spent, increasing jobs and income and triggering the multiplier through re-spending.

It is quite possible that increased deficit spending (through spending more and/or taxing less) will so increase incomes and taxes that there will be a smaller deficit at the end of the day, with a positive impact on the national debt. If the increase in spending leads to a resurgence of inflation (although that does not appear to be anywhere on the horizon), then both Fiscal and Monetary policies would have to be reversed.

There are various ways of assessing and measuring the federal budget deficit, but the most common is to examine how big it is relative to the overall economy. In the U.S., it is 2.5% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is 3.5% in France, 3.6% in Britain, and 6.2% in Japan. (7th opinion, 90%): Do not loses sleep over deficit spending and the national debt. We need more of both (all three if you include more sleep!).




My major professors in both my undergraduate and graduate programs said that the most important and most tested and proven principle of economics is the LAW OF SUPPLY AND DEMAND. I have said the same to my students, and among them, those who are professors are probably telling the same thing to their students.

Based on S & D, it is my strong opinion that any increase in the minimum wage will reduce the quantity of labor demanded and, other things equal, will reduce employment.  

Labor and wages constitute the major cost in most businesses. One of the leading causes of outsourcing, and of companies moving abroad, is to take advantage of lower wages in many third-world countries. A recent ECONOMIST magazine details how European auto makers are moving some of their assembly to Morocco because of lower wages. Many understand this, and yet some of these same people will argue that increasing the minimum wage, to $12 or $15 per hour, will have no impact on the number of workers hired.

Some naively assume that higher wages will simply be paid out of profits, and this is a slim possibility. This may be true in the very short run, as it may take time for businesses to respond to a wage increase, as they may have established procedures requiring a certain number of workers. However, higher wages are more likely to result in higher prices (contributing to inflation) or result in reduced employment, or some combination of these two negative alternatives.

Private firms strive to maximize their profits, and many of them need to do this just to stay in business! If they are required by law to pay a wage more than a worker contributes, they will not hire that worker, and they will fire such low productivity employees, substituting labor-saving devices and techniques. Try finding a clerk in Lowes or Menards and you can see what can happens as firms save on the cost of labor. Try calling any company these days, and there is a good chance that a computer, not a human operator, will answer the phone (and quite often, the computer will pass you along to another computer, and to yet another, until you shout and repeat “representative” or some such term.

Increasing the minimum wage will cause some unemployment, and the unskilled and poorly educated high-school drop-outs, and even some high school grads (those who are the least productive and most vunerable) will bear the burden of the minimum wage increase.

Right now, as the minimum wage is going up, the economy is recovering (slowly) from the Great Recession, so that income and spending are rising, sales are increasing, so firms need more employees. This offsets and conceals the negative impact of the minimum wage increase which is causing unemployment. There are continual changes in both domestic and international markets, which increase and decrease the demand for labor, which makes it virtually impossible to measure the true impact of increasing the minimum wage. Too many other things are changing at the same time.

However, (to quote Fareed Zacharia on his Sunday program, “Here is my take.” I favor having a minimum wage. As a wealthy and compassionate society, we should not allow anyone to be hired at a sub-human wage. Such a “humane minimum wage” will be different in each part of the country, because economic circumstances vary widely. The federal government should set an absolute floor, leaving to the states (or counties and cities) the power to set a higher amount.

However, any increase in the minimum wage will cause more unemployment. Therefore, anyone who favors raising the government mandated minimum wage, as I do (although not to $15), must also favor a safety net and re-retraining programs. Not to increase the productivity of the unemployed is to condemn them to poverty and homelessness, or a life on welfare.

(8th opinion, 90%): Raise the minimum wage, with the understanding that unemployment will increase. Then provide the necessary re-training to improve the skills and productivity of the unemployed.


Thank you, Phil Thomas, for giving me permission to post your thoughts/wisdom on this blog.  So important are your words for me in the midst of the debate in this electoral season in our nation.

So what do you who are reading this post think about what Phil Thomas has come to believe over the years of his life?



may we be worthy

Back in September of ’15, I was getting acquainted, as a resident, with Northport, Michigan.

Matt Fitzgerald, whose mother introduced me to this fine village any number of years ago, posted a “Daily Devotional” on the UCC (United Church of Christ) webpage.   Among his faithful words that September day were these

“. . . I stood in front of my dad’s grave trying to muster up some reverence . . . ”


This is the picture I took on Memorial Day, 2016, of the gravestone where Matt was trying “to muster up some reverence.

His dad, John D. Fitzgerald, who I knew as “Jack,” was my pastor at Pilgrim UCC in Duluth a few years before he died.  Back that long ago, I was honored to teach a seminar for UMD (University of Minnesota, Duluth) med students.  It was called “Caring and Curing.”

Jack knew he was not going to survive his cancer.

I knew that he knew.  I invited him to be in conversation with the small group of students-learning-to-become-doctors about what it is like to be the recipient of a physician’s care.

Jack’s was an eloquent, humble, courageous, kind, strong, patient, eager, wise presence in our midst that day.  I remember, as he described the bedside manner of two of his physicians, how attentive these first-year med students were to the stories of his experience.

Toward the end of our time, one of the students struggled with a question that was stuck in her throat, and couldn’t quite be given voice by her.

Jack listened to her.

He understood.

He said to her, “Are you trying to ask me, ‘What is it like to be dying?'”

The student, whose face flushed a deeper shade of red, said meekly, “Yes.”

Jack smiled.

He had already acknowledged in definitive and direct words like the ones that MD’s use that his disease was not curable.

He looked for a tender moment at this bright human being who would one day be doctor and said, “I don’t think about it all that much.”


Ohhhhhhh . . . not at all!

Jack knew there was “a great love” that would one day welcome him “into paradise.”  

He was not afraid.

“Why not me?”

He chose to live and breathe and be present all the while that he could.

Without a single touch,

this great man nearing his own death,

embraced a future physician,

and in that embrace affirmed,

death is not the victor!

Jack’s ashes are buried in the Leelanau County Cemetery in Northport.  He was the pastor at First Congregational Church here in the early sixties.  It is his leadership that helped First Congregational to merge with the Northport Methodist Church in 1965 to become Trinity Church of the United Church of Christ.

I was installed as pastor at Trinity on May 22, 2016.

If you are interested in an eight minute video about such events, here is a beauty:  installation.

Not too many weeks ago, I was asked if I would pray at the Memorial Day event at Leelanau County Cemetery this year on May 30.

I said yes.

It was not an easy yes for me.

My father was a conscientious objector during WWII.

I did not serve in Viet Nam.  I went to seminary instead.

I learned in seminary that the God I was coming to believe in “again for the very first time” (Marcus Borg) taught peace . . . you know, lions and lambs lying down together . . .

Yet . . .

I was honored to pray at the Memorial Day event in Northport this year.

There was music.

There was singing.

Neal Shine, DSC09302who received an Award for his journalistic coverage of the shootings at Kent State University, gave a significant keynote address about both honoring those who have died in service to our country . . . . and the complexities of war.  I was humbled to be among those who heard him speak.

Memorial Day in Northport is a tradition that includes a reading of General John A. Logan’s Memorial Day Order which you can find online and includes this directive about two thirds of the way through his words:   “Let no wanton foot tread rudely on such hallowed grounds. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and found mourners.”

It seems likely his idea of “reverent visitors” would be those who walked with hands folded in a mood that was both quiet and somber.

As I was writing the Invocation, it was Matt Fitzgerald’s post that had me imagining reverence differently.

“Where, O Death, is your sting?” – 1 Corinthians 15:55

In the middle of vacation my wife and I took our kids to my father’s grave. His headstone is modest. It sits flat on the ground in the newest part of an old rural cemetery.

Is there anything so severe as an unaged graveyard?

We visited in the midst of hikes and swimming, bike rides and board games. It was a hot afternoon. The grass around the grave was parched, the sunlight stark as it broke through thin piney shade.

Our kids carried vacation playfulness straight into the graveyard. Still in their bathing suits, they ran between the headstones laughing.

Meanwhile I stood in front of my dad’s grave trying to muster up some reverence. And then, one of our sons came racing toward my father’s grave and jumped right over it, clearing an entire generation in a single flying leap. My instinct was to grab him out of the air, teach him some respect, “No, no, no!” But I stopped myself.

As he cleared the grave he grinned. I could almost see him levitate for a second.

Years ago a great love reached down from the heavens into his grandfather’s grave and pulled the dead man’s presence up out of the earth and into paradise. As he leapt it was as if the same love caught the child and held him in mid-air for a beat, a pulse, half a second.

And the sunlight was no longer stark. The whole cemetery glowed gold and green. And my boy was laughing as he landed.

If we believe in heaven, why not be gleeful in the graveyard? Grief has its place, but eventually, if you believe in death’s destruction, grief can give way to play.


Laughing thanks to you, O Christ, for defeating death forever. Amen.

Thank you Matt.

It is the image of your son,  “as he leapt it was as if the same love caught the child and held him in mid-air for a beat, a pulse, half a second,” that prompted me to include these words in my invocation for Memorial Day 2016 at Northport, Michigan:

After the speeches were done that day, children from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on Union and Confederate graves, saying prayers, singing hymns, and, because they were children, they allowed the playful joy within them to be expressed even there in that place on that day.”

Here is the link to my video of Memorial Day ala’ Northport.

And here is the text of the invocation and the benediction.


From the prophet Isaiah we learn:

         There is a day coming when the mountain of God’s House will be the highest mountain – and the people from many nations will come streaming to it.  And on the mountain God will teach the people the Way of God and the people will understand the teaching and begin to live in the Way of God.  Arguments between the people will be settled.  They will turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nations will not rise up against other nations and they will not train for war anymore.

         We are here to honor the women and men who have sacrificed their lives in behalf of what is most honorable.

         Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “When we pray, let’s not pray to get things, no, let’s pray to be worthy.”  And I say, yes, let us pray today to be worthy of the sacrifice women and men have made in behalf of us, in behalf of freedom and liberty for all

         Decoration Day formally began three years after the Civil War ended, May 30, 1868.  It was an occasion to honor the war dead and a step toward the healing of our nation.

         After the speeches were done that day, children from the Soldiers and Sailors Orphan Home made their way through the cemetery, strewing flowers on Union and Confederate graves, saying prayers, singing hymns, and, because they were children, they allowed the playful joy within them to be expressed even there in that place on that day.

         Two years before, in 1866, a group of women visited a cemetery to decorate the graves of Confederate soldiers who had died in the battle of Shiloh. Nearby were the graves of Union soldiers, neglected because they were the enemy. Disturbed at the sight of the bare graves, the women placed flowers on those graves as well.

         May the example of these orphaned children and these widowed women from 150 years ago surround and embrace us here today. May our thanksgiving for them, and our honoring of the women and men who made the ultimate sacrifice inspire us.

         Let us begin in silence, for thirty seconds, listening to the still.

         Blessed are you, O God of the Universe.

         You granted us life.

         You sustained us.

         You enabled us to reach this occasion.

         Inspire us to climb the mountain of your love.

         May we give of our very best to veterans wounded in body or spirit because of their service.

         May we reach for peace.

         May we love the earth.

         May we care for the poor.

         May we embrace the beautiful diversity of all your people.

         May we reject racism.

         May we forgive often.

         May we share our resources with largesse.

         May we savor life.

         May we love you, O God, with our whole selves.

         Look upon us here, gathered as one people in a cemetery to remember people of many faiths, traditions, and ethnicities who sacrificed their lives in behalf of what is most honorable.

         May we be worthy of their sacrifice.

         Amen and Amen



         Sisters and brothers of Leelanau County and beyond our time for honoring women and men who have given their lives in our behalf has ended for this Memorial Day.

         Now the time for living in ways that are worthy of their sacrifice begins.

         Go forth from this beautiful and quiet place.

         The whole world awaits you.

         Live passionately.

         Love faithfully.

         Be worthy, every moment of your lives, yes be worthy every moment until the finality,

         for it is true the God of the High Mountain,

         the God of relentless grace,

         goes with you.

         Amen and Amen


On May 31, 2016, the day after memorial day in Northport, MI, I saw this pair of lady slippers at Houdak Dunes.


My, oh my, it is true “the God of the High Mountain, the God of relentless grace, goes with us” whoever we are and wherever we find ourselves on life’s journey.

“Grief has its place, but eventually, if you believe in death’s destruction, grief can give way to play.”

My we be worthy, indeed.  The God of the High Mountain yearns for no less from us.


Signs of Spring in the woods of Michigan

So many shades of brown on the forest floor after the snow has melted and we await the delicate grace of thousands of trilliums in their orchestra of vibrant green and effusive white.DSC07354.jpg

This is the Leelanau State Park woods on the Cathead Trail today.  As we walked, a few leaves were lifted quietly on a merry little breeze of late winter and danced with a swoosh to a new location not very far away.

I have often thought of this brown-scene-of-late-winter as drab in other years of life.  Surely it is no more than a time of waiting for what will be rather than savoring what is.

Today I held three shades of brown in my hand and encountered beauty in their distinct, diverse, delicacy.  You encounter these three leaves as the “featured image” for this post.  Can you name the trees of these three leaves?

Patricia and I found a few beach stones that called to us with the uniqueness of their personality as we walked along the shore of water and sand in a chilly northwest breeze.

Leelanau State Park - Cathead - March 19, 2016.jpg

The water was shades green and blue unique for me to Lake Michigan.

bright sun silvering the tree limbs - Cathead Trail - March 19, 2016.jpg

The sky was awash in blue that went on and on and on. . .   Tree limbs were painted white with the brush of the sun’s brilliance.

Tomorrow is Palm Sunday.  We have been, in anticipation of this day and Holy Week, worshiping-in-the-round at Trinity Church UCC in Northport, MI, all the weeks of Lent.

Saturday afternoon before Palm Sunday the last Sunday of Worship-in-the-round  with the Circle of God's love as our center - at least for now - March 19, 2016.jpg  anticipating Lent - 2016 -  the table of God's forgiving love.jpg   anticipating Lent - 2016.jpg

It has been good.

Among our guides through these weeks has been Eric Elness by way of his book Gifts of the Dark Wood.

We have gathered with the Circle of God’s Love and Light in the center of our worship space.

Over the weeks of Lent:

  • we have entrusted our worries and wonderments to the Circle.
  • we have offered our emptiness to the Circle.
  • we have left stories of our encounter with Awe within the Circle.
  • our hungers (that for which we search) have been nourished from within the Circle.
  • we have left within the Circle the number  of just one of the Phoenix Affirmations as we confronted our temptation to want to do it all and to be every good thing.  We chose just one, yes, just one Affirmation to work on this whole week long.
  • tomorrow we will wave our palms as we sing, and maybe as we pray too.  We’ll take some moments to remember a person or a group that have encouraged us for the journey when the way has been arduous and steep and wearying and unfamiliar and scary and dark and transforming . . . and we will either literally or symbolically etch the name of that person or group onto one of the leaves of our palm frond and we’ll leave that leaf in the Circle of God’s Love and Light.  Those very palms will be transformed for our Lenten beginning on Ash Wednesday in 2017.  The stories within us tomorrow will be worn on the exterior of all of us as we are marked once again with ash and oil on March 1, 2017.  Mourning and healing, that is the work of Lent for people of faith.  Letting go in order to take hold.

Yes, and tomorrow, on Palm Sunday morning, we will encounter Eric Elness’ translation of Matthew 4:17:  “Change your whole way of thinking!  Heaven is already here!”

I said, among other things, at the Lenten Soup Supper on Thursday night at St. Christopher’s Episcopal,  “Everyone agrees that America is polarized, with ever-hardening positions held by people less and less willing to listen to one another. No one agrees on what to do about it.”  (from a review of Adam Hamilton’s book, Seeing Grey in a World of Black and White)

Eric Elness has this to say about what we as people of faith need to do and be in these days:

What follows are twelve characteristics that, in my experience, constitute the new foundation of common ground . . . I believe the time is coming when these twelve attributes will be part of what is considered the new “center” by adherents of many faiths.


  1.  They are letting go of the notion that their particular faith is the only legitimate one on the planet . . .
  2. They are letting go of literal and inerrant interpretations of their most sacred Scriptures while celebrating the unique treasures that their Scriptures contain . . .
  3. They are letting go of the notion that people of faith are called to dominate nature . . .
  4. They are letting go of empty worship conventions and an overemphasis on doctrines as tools of division and exclusion . . .


  1.  They are letting go of racial prejudice and narrow definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity . . .  
  2. They are letting go of an understanding that people of faith should only interest themselves in the spiritual well-being of people . . .
  3. They are letting go of the desire to impose their particular version of faith on the wider society . . .
  4. They are letting go of the old rivalries between ‘liberal, moderate, conservative’ branches of their faith . . .


  1. They are letting go of notions of the afterlife that are dominated by judgement of ‘unbelievers’ . . .
  2. They are letting go of the notion that faith and science are incompatible . . .
  3. They are letting go of the notion that one’s work and one’s spiritual path are unrelated . . . 
  4. They are letting go of old hierarchies that privilege religious leaders over laypeople . . .

Yes, we have much dissonance, discord, disagreement, disease in our midst.

In another time when another people also knew of anger, oppression, ugliness, and lack of justice the writer of the book of Matthew wrote that heaven is already here in some significant and meaningful way.

I believe that to be true now as it was then.

I saw a bit of heaven today as I looked at the deep blue sky through the barren limbs of trees painted white by the brush of the light of sun.   I tasted a bit of heaven today as I held those three leaves, in varying shades of brown, in my hand to photograph for you.  I smelled heaven today on the water.  I heard heaven today in the rustle of the leaves moving from here to there as they serve as blankets for the the beauty of trilliums yet to blossom.  I felt a bit of heaven today with Patricia’s hand in mine as we breathed tenderness for each other, our families, Trinity Church UCC and Northport, for our nation, for all the world, and for the cosmos beyond.  It is a tenderness that is in the woods-preparing-its-way-for-Spring.

Shall we let go?  Shall we let go of mean-spirited ugliness?  Shall we let go of hatred?  Shall we let go of anger at one another?  Shall we let go of hard-headedness, hard-heartedness?  Shall we let go of violence?  Shall we let go of  brokenness?   Shall we let go of despair?

in the front yard of the parsonage - ahhhh spring's delicate beauty..jpg

Shall we take hold of the good news of Light within the Circle of God’s Steadfast Love?

It is heavenly.

It is here and now!

Wanna know more?

Take a walk soon in the woods.

Hold three shades of late winter brown in your hand.

You just read what happened there to me.

Write to me of what you see, taste, smell, hear, feel, whoever you are and in whatever woods you walk on your pilgrimage in these days and nights.