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Gen 31:49                    (Common English Bible)

[Laban] also named it Mizpah, because he said, “The Lord will observe both of us when we are separated from each other.

The story of Laban and Jacob is one of two tricksters constantly trying to get the better of the other one. Jacob has a long history of getting ahead by tricking his brother, but then Laban turns the tables on him. They never manage to see eye to eye even after becoming family. Finally they at least reach an understanding to find peace between them.

In Advent we talk about Jesus coming into the world in order to bring peace. Is there a relationship in your life that needs peace? Could you reach out to begin reconciliation this year? Perhaps you’ll find in making the first move that the other party is also willing to move on.


I’m posting a reflection on the daily Scripture reading from the Advent calendar we shared at Hopewell. Here’s what we’re using if you’d like to join us! https://thomasmousin.files.wordpress.com/2016/11/advent-calendar-2016.pdf


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I recently read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking. I didn’t know much about her as an artist, besides her share of odd and amusing headlines. I’m not sure what I expected when I picked it up. I was on the hunt for a new book to read before bed (non-fiction, because I can’t put fiction down and go to sleep!).

Palmer’s history as a street performer brings a difference perspective than most on what it means to be an artist. She carries the desire for the one-to-one or one-to-few connection carries in her current artistic endeavors with house shows and being one of the first artists to embrace crowdfunding (both Kickstarter and Patreon).

I found this interesting, since I’ve backed several projects on Kickstarter and really like the idea behind Patreon. However, I never expected the book to apply to me. After all, I’ve never considered myself an artist, or even particularly creative. Painting, sculpting, photography, any of those visual mediums were never my thing. Neither was music nor creative writing. I saw those as gifts and talents belonging to others. So I was quite surprised to come across this quotation in the book.

The impulse to connect the dots–and to share what you’ve connected–is the urge that makes you an artist. If you’re using words or symbols to connect the dots, whether you’re a “professional artist” or not, you are an artistic force in the world. (p16-17)

I read that and realized that I’m an artist. All preachers are. We desire to connect people with the living God, with Scripture, with faith, and with one another. We use mostly words, but also images, clips, props, music, and anything else we think will help people see how old words and a man who lived 2000 years ago relate to their life today.

I’m still discovering what it means to consider myself an artist as a preacher. That is a new idea for me not only personally, but also vocationally. Seminary didn’t talk about pastors as artists. I never thought about pastoring as a creative endeavor. Palmer opened up that definition to me. I’m exploring the idea further, using her book and others. I’m curious to see where the journey goes and I’ll be sharing more reflections here.

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This past week I listened to Pulpit Fiction’s recent interview with Rachel Held Evans, which you can listen to here. (Pulpit Fiction is a lectionary resource that I highly recommend.) As soon as she started talking I thought, “She doesn’t sound like I expected!” It actually threw me for a second, thinking I might have clicked the wrong link.

It’s weird that hearing Rachel’s voice throws me, because she has a Southern accent that I’ve heard all my life. It’s not really about Rachel though; the problem lies somewhere else. I read Rachel’s blog on a regular basis, and like anything else I read on the Internet, I read it in my head. Which means I hear her words with my own voice. Do that enough times and you begin to forget there’s someone else on the other end of the screen. After a while, the words on the screen become all you associate with that person.

Social media is not much better. Although Facebook and Twitter have your name and picture attached to your posts, it’s still easy to forget the person on the other end. You lose the benefit of inflection, tone, expression, and all other important non-verbal communications. Smilies and emojis just don’t cut it.

Of course, talking in person isn’t perfect. There’s lots of ways of disengage or not engage in every conversation. Sometimes we sit without listening, only waiting for our turn to speak. But at least I can’t forget you’re a real person when you’re sitting in front of me.

Here’s my dilemma. Having recognized a problem, I have no idea how to address it. I don’t know how to be better at seeing, or at least remembering, the person on the other end of the screen. The prevalence of social media means this isn’t going away any time soon, so I could use some help. After my blanket apology to Rachel and all other people on the Internet, “I’m sorry I forgot you were real people,” what’s next?

I hope you have an idea. How do you avoid my mistake? How do you remember the person on the other side of the screen?

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Modern art exists in an interesting place in our culture. Some people love it. Others struggle to see the artistry, sometimes dismissing it as “not real art.” Of course, the same things they say about Pollack or Warhol (or more recent artists), they said about Van Gogh or Picasso. Art is always evolving, always changing. Different artistic movements rise up to respond to the culture or context.

Art has never been simple. It’s always made statements about our world. However as long as artists focused on realism, it was easier to decipher that statement. When comparing a modern piece to a Rembrandt, it can be harder to see the artistry. Appreciating modern art sometimes feel like Jacob wrestling at the Jabbok. You have to wrestle until it blesses you.

That’s how I felt experiencing On Kawara’s Silence exhibition. Silence incorporates several different series of Kawara’s work. His most well-known is probably Today. Each painting has the date the work was completed in white letters on a solid color canvas. The dates are always centered regardless of the canvas size. The paintings are sometimes displayed with newspaper clippings from the day he painted or following day (so news on the actual day of painting), but Kawara chooses the clippings solely by whatever struck him. He makes no claim that these events were worthy of noting the day.

The one that really struck was a joint collection of I Got Up, I Met and I Went. I Got Up are postcards sent to friends with the time he woke up that morning. I Met is a binder with collections of names of the people he met in a day, a project he began because he was bad with Western names. I Went are maps with highlighted routes of where he went in the day.

The exhibition presents information without context. We see particular days and news stories or places, names, and wake-up times, but nothing about the day’s value. Each day simply is, with no positive or negative statements. I have no idea how Kawara feels about any day, the people he met, or the places he saw. Which also means I don’t know how I feel about those particular days; they are just days.

In our age of extreme information, it’s a bit unsettling to realize that all this information doesn’t actually tell us anything. With everything that gets published, spoken, sung, or tweeted in a day how much information is added to our experience every day? And yet, in a vacuum of perspective, it’s all just words.

How many of my days are filled like this, lots of information but little to no meaning? Places, times, even people, but no life. For me, this is the challenge, the revelation of Kawara’s Silence. These things on their own do not make a life. They are only a tiny drop in the ever-growing sea of information. Their true value requires meaning and perspective to come alongside. The what, where and who needs the why.

How do you stay focused on your why in the midst of the what, where and who? How do you define the value of your day?

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Why We Read Again

“What are you doing here? I’ve got nothing for you. You’ve heard it all already.”

These words from Jason Byassee greeted me as I stood up to ask him a question at the NC Preaching Festival. I’ve been blessed to hear Jason speak at several venues in the past few years and I always receive a similar greeting. Today, Jason, allow me to answer your question.

I am here because I hear something new every time. I am here because through the miracle of the Holy Spirit in proclamation and teaching there is fresh inspiration. Simply put, I am here because there is new beauty.

It occurs to me this is how we read Scripture as Christians. The text does not change. The words are the same, the stories familiar, the characters known. And yet we return to read again and again. Why? Because we believe these words matter, these words are life. We return because the Holy Spirit inspires us anew when we read. We return because there is new beauty.

It would be uncharitable of me not to extend a final word of grace to my questioner. Jason, I know, even as the question sounds harsh to the unknowing ear, it is said with a smile and with love. It is said with humility. “I cannot teach you more. Go hear someone else!” It has become our ritual in these spaces of saying, “It is good to see you, friend.”

As I open my Bible tomorrow morning, I will imagine Jesus, the Word, standing over my shoulder. “What are you doing here?” he will say. “You’ve heard it all already.” But I will see the grin and reply, “I am here because there is life. I am here because there is beauty, again and again.”

“It is good to see you, friend.”

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Share What You Love

A strange thing happened to me last week. I was home, the Super Bowl was on, and I wasn’t watching. I’ve been a football fan most of my life (hard not to be growing up in SEC country). And while I still prefer the NCAA to the NFL, I follow them both. Like many fans, I wasn’t overjoyed with the prospects of having to root for Seattle or New England as I had pulled for all of their opponents during the playoffs. But it was still the Super Bowl; I was going to be watching. We invited a couple friends over, Kathy made some amazing game food, and we settled in to watch the game.

Partway through the first half, it happened. I mentioned this card game I just backed on Kickstarter, Exploding Kittens. (If you like silly games or the Oatmeal comic, you should definitely check it out!) Our friends’ 8 year-old lit up with excitement so I pulled out my iPhone to show him the game. After he was reading through the cards, I remembered I also had the app on my iPad, which would be much easier to read given the larger screen. Once he finished reading all the cards and rules, he saw my “Games” folder. Almost three years ago I got bit by the board game bug, hard. (It’s honestly the fault of Wil Wheaton and his show Tabletop which you can find on the Geek & Sundry YouTube Channel.) After I found some favorites, I discovered that there were app versions as well. They’re not quite as fun without the physical elements and the screen can interrupt the social element a bit, but they’re handy in a pinch.

V wanted to try all the games I had. A couple he knew, but was unfamiliar with them on iPad. Once he figured those out, I showed him the tutorials for several others and then let him try them. These were longer games, so I checked in every few minutes to see how he was getting on. He even challenged me to a couple games on the iPad plus a round of Zombie Fluxx with the cards.

It wasn’t until the 4th quarter that I realized how much of the game I had missed. I wasn’t that concerned, since I wasn’t too invested in either team. In fact, I didn’t think much of it until the next day. I had been really excited to watch the game with friends. Why didn’t I care about missing it?

I realized it was because I shared a passion. I enjoy football, but I love gaming. Football is a distraction, a diversion but gaming is all about connection and story. I love that. So of course I didn’t mind missing the game; I found something better.

I wonder how often I do that every day? How often do I choose the diversion over my passion? I’m afraid I won’t like the answer but I think it’s worth exploring during this season of my life.

How about you? What’s your passion? How are you sharing it?

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I’ve been musing about current YA fiction and their movie spin-offs. Harry Potter and Twilight films did much better than their Percy Jackson and The Mortal Instruments counterparts. I’m sure there’s a host of reasons why and I know nothing about the movie industry. But what if the success or failure of the movies depends, at least in part, on people being able to enter the world? For a fiction novel to be successful, readers need to be able to imagine the world, especially if it is based on our own. And even more, movies based on books need to attract more than just their own readers to be successful.
Perhaps a world of wizards or vampires is easier to imagine than one of Greek mythology or demons. Although I love Greek mythology, I didn’t imagine the Percy Jackson world actually being the world I live in.  But for some reason, Harry Potter seemed a little more possible.
If the success of YA fiction is based on readers being able to enter the world, then does the same principle apply to sermons? Perhaps the reason certain sermons don’t take off is because those hearing can’t enter the world that the sermon imagines.
Sometimes sermons can get stuck in “Bible times,” discussing historical context without ever relating the message to those in the pews. One of my Duke professors talked about stained glass window theology. Everyone looks happy, clean, and perfect; they don’t look at all like regular people. Sermons like that leave a congregation saying “That’s fine, preacher, but no one could live it today.”
Sometimes we need to help to see the world of the sermon. Sometimes we need help seeing God’s grace. God’s grace really is incredibly big and absurdly expansive but we can have troubling believing it.
All this means the preacher has to invite people to see differently. Chuck Campbell talks about reading Paul with cross-colored glasses, that Paul only makes sense seen through the cross. While it may seem the world is the same, Paul argues that Christ’s death and resurrection have changed everything. If we look carefully, we can see moments of the kingdom breaking through and grace rushing in.
How do you help others to see? What helps you to see?

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