Thoughtful Boldness

Thoughtful Boldness on God's Love and Grace

April 12, 2016

Mitch the “Angel Wing” Goose

Our flat-roofed fixer-upper house is located on a small lake. Every year we watch a new spring flock of baby geese grow from excited balls of fuzz to awkward and indolent teens by midsummer and turn into mostly disciplined young flyers eager to migrate south in the fall.

In 2011, one gosling was deformed.  His wrist joints twisted and his wings stuck out like an airplane.  The syndrome is called, “Angel Wings” and there is no cure. I named the afflicted young male goose, “Mitch”.

In early fall, as Mitch’s siblings quickly learned to madly flap, take running steps off the bank, launch themselves into the air and fly, Mitch splashed again and again into the lake.  His father and siblings took turns running next to him, honking their encouragement.  But Mitch  just couldn’t do it.  As the gander advanced the rest of the flock to taking flight from the water, Mitch’s mother kept working with him individually, but Mitch’s trajectory always went down instead of up.

By Thanksgiving when they usually migrated, there was great disharmony in the flock. The gander was taking the brood on longer test flights away from the lake, but his mother refused to leave young Mitch alone. Finally after two days of loud argumentative honking in mid December, the flock left the lake, leaving the young deformed goose all by himself in the rapidly freezing water.  As it started snowing, the sad young goose took refuge under a neighbors deck by their blue paddle boat. –And  I researched where to buy cracked corn.

But the next morning , I couldn’t find him. Mitch was gone. During the long months of winter we wondered what happened to Mitch. We shouldn’t have worried. In the spring, a fat and happy Mitch suddenly appeared back on our lake, welcoming his parents and siblings back home with joyful honks.  A later report from one of our neighbors was that Mitch had overwintered with a flock of ducks on a nearby creek that typically flowed all winter.  Unable to fly to a winter haven,  Mitch had walked there instead!  He had a plan the whole time.  (This story appeared in the online version of Presbyterians Today. Summer of 2015 and ended here.)

In Celtic Christianity, the Wild Goose is used as a symbol for the Holy Spirit. While many of us think of the Holy Spirit as a dove, our Scottish spiritual ancestors knew better.  Geese are creatures that live in community.  –While a pair of doves will be off on their own building their nest only in the quietest of areas, geese live in a flock and will live and work together their whole lives. For example, when geese go to an area to forage for food, one goose will not lower their head to eat.  Their job instead is to stand up straight and to keep looking around keeping an eye out for the next thing to happen to them.   After the flock eats for a while another goose will take up the watch position and allow that former guard goose a turn to eat.   This unique sentinel behavior in geese has been noticed and exploited. The Romans often used flocks of geese as watchdogs.  Their system of always having one goose on duty, scanning the horizon proved to be not only beneficial to the lives of the geese, but to the humans who allied themselves with the flock.

At the Scottish Iona community, where the symbol of the  Wild Goose is prominently used for the Holy Spirit, there is a phrase that often accompanies the image of a wild goose.  The phrase is “Where there is no vision, the people perish”.   To me this brings to mind that one sentinel goose, keeping a lookout for the next thing to come around the corner.  It means keeping an eye out for what the next thing is.    As a flock guided by the Holy Spirit, let us pay attention to what is happening around us.  Let us be prepared with a plan for when our winter comes.   Let’s have a vision of where we are going to go and what we are going to do with the people and the potential that surrounds us.  –For if a simple goose can do that, so can we.


December 7, 2015


Photo of Art Prize Entry 2015

“In a Promised Land”   by Shawn Michael Warren   Rev. Karen Fitz La Barge Photo of this Art Prize Entry 2015Tulsa Race RiotsPBS StoryWikipedia 

What is Justice?

On Thursday evening, December 4th 2015, the bells of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in San Bernadino, CA rang out 16 times. The bells were ringing in memory of the dead. Present were clergy from seven area churches as well as representatives from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to help with counseling those who were attending the prayer vigil. The prayers and the counseling was greatly needed. The entire San Bernadino community and the entire nation was shocked by another terrible shooting this past Wednesday. –The shooting of the day was by a county employee, a restaurant inspector and his wife who entered a county awards ceremony and opened fire with automatic and hand held weapons. The police estimate that 150 rounds were shot off inside the Inland Regional Center. 14 people were gunned down and killed and 21 were wounded. The couple, Tashfeen Malik aged 27 and her husband Syed Rizwan Farook age 28 have now been identified as sympathetic or to have ties to the terrorist group ISIL. The two are survived by their six month old daughter.
But at the prayer vigil, the pastors spoke about how the City of San Bernadino was suffering under a deep darkness. The trouble there began loss of Kaiser Steel Mill in 1983, and then in 1992, when the Santa Fe Railroad repair yards shut down. The biggest and quickest hit was the closure of Norton Air Force base in 1994. –12,600 jobs were gone in a year. Unemployment soared to 15%. The city suffered immensely and the per capita income fell to $35,000 while home foreclosures spiked. They became known for the highest homelessness rate in the nation. Efforts to fix problems were hampered by California’s sweeping state mandated laws. By 2012 the city was was bankrupt. The economic situation in San Bernadino was rated as the second worst in the United States, only behind Detroit.
As the San Bernadino Community and the entire nation grieves another mass shooting, the arguments stack up faster than our daily body count. Some people argue for more practical measures like background checks and gun control, while others advocate for personal defense with open carry and well armed citizens. There are some people who point to causes as diverse as the local or global economy and they talk about the unfair policies on minimum wage, taxes and free trade. Others blame religion for creating radicalized followers of Jesus who shoot people at Planned Parenthood Clinics or followers of Mohammed who murder people who are attending a rock concert in Paris.

While all of these diverse discussion are going on there is one common theme that is the foundation for all of them. One basis that is fundamental. –Everyone is longing for peace and trying to find an easy solution to this global crisis of violence. But peace is never something that easy or simple. It can only be brought about by people who are committed wholeheartedly to the practice of Justice.

Justice? What exactly is justice? Is it only another word for the punishment that is given to someone when they commit a crime? No, justice is something that is much bigger than the legal system and the judges who have the difficult job of untangling the webs of evidence that actually get to be presented in court. Justice is, at its heart, a system of fairness, honesty and equity that is so much bigger and all encompassing than the courtroom. –It is a way of loving and caring for others, a way of being and thinking about the world. Justice and the way that it is practiced by humanity is fundamentally a philosophy, one that has its roots deep in the morality of religion. And while we look hopefully toward the day of Christ’s return and his righting of all of the wrongs of the world with his perfect justice, we here today are left with the decisions on how ever are we to best live on this planet justly in order to be able to live in peace.
The earliest western philosophers to think deeply about the nature of justice were the Greek philosophers of Plato and Aristotle. Plato saw justice as a requirement for establishing an orderly society, with everyone serving their appropriate role. Everyone in their place.   For Aristotle, justice was what was fair and it involved equal distribution of goods and the correction of inequalities. But into this Greek political system of thoughtful equality, the Roman empire swept in with their mighty legions and with “might makes right” they efficiently reordered society with the Romans and the Emperor in charge of every land they could physically march into.
Into this situation with the Jewish people under oppression by the Romans, a new hope was born. The baby was named Jesus and was born to a humble girl named Mary in a barn in Bethlehem. But instead of being the conquering Messiah, the hero that would overthrow the entire Roman empire, the fight that the son of God would begin would be for the hearts and minds of humananity. — A savior for the world and for the transformation of how we are to think of and treat each other. Instead of perpetuating an ordered society where women and slaves knew their roles and kept their place, Jesus instead ushered us into a new upside down kingdom of radical equality for all people and justice that fundamentally transformed our thinking. His Sermon on the Mount, the parable of the Good Samaritan and his love and concern for the outcasts and the forgotten of society was essentially a mode of justice and fairness that he embodied and lived and ultimately died for.

After Christianity was adopted as the official religion by the Roman Emperor Constantine, the theologian Augustine began to dream of new just ways of existing together as humanity that was not based on the Roman Empire rule of “Might makes right”. Augustine’s theology and theories of justice were summarized in his book “City of God” by two basic rules: 1) Harm no one and 2) try to help others as best as you can. A later theologian, Thomas Aquinas also took up Augustine’s theology justice and expanded on it. These Christian theologians provided the basis for the work of Immanuel Kant who created an entire complete philosophical system of ethics and justice. For Kant, there were three principles that informed what justice should be. 1) That the laws that were passed should be able to applied universally to everyone. There were to be no exceptions. 2) A radical imperative to treat every person as an “end onto themselves” and not a means for someone else’s gain. (A principle that echoes the Golden Rule in Matthew 7:12) And 3) a principle of moral autonomy that every person is granted by God with the dignity and the responsibility to act rightly in a universal way toward others.  While these concepts are difficult to explain, it is always easier to illustrate things with a story, but I could not find one that worked, so I wrote one instead.)
It is always easier to illustrate a point with a story. Once there was a prince who grew into a man and thought that he had the whole world figured out. When people came into the royal court with a dispute for him to settle, he would meet with each man privately and ask them what they would give to him or do for him if he decided the case in their favor. Then the Prince would simply decide every dispute based on which thing would please him the most. When the King found out about the Prince’s self serving behavior, he feared for his own position, and decided that his son needed to learn more about justice. So the King sent for the wisest old Scholar in his whole kingdom. He instructed the Scholar to take the Prince on a long journey and to not bring the Prince back until he had a better understanding of justice. So the Prince and the Scholar set out on one of the kings finest ships. The Prince proved to be worthless student and would fall sleep rather than listen to lectures. One day the skies grew dark and a strong storm blew up. The proud young Prince did not listen to the repeated warnings of the sailors and consequently was swept overboard by a rogue wave. The Scholar, seeing the Prince drowning in the sea did not hesitate but jumped in after him and held the younger man’s head above the water. The sailors tried repeatedly to throw the life ropes and even tried to go after them in a longboat, but the ocean quickly whisked the Prince and the Scholar away. All that night, the two men clung to each other through the storm. By dawn the storm had subsided and the Prince who had either saltwater or tears on his face asked the Scholar why he had jumped into the fierce seas to save him. “It is justice to do the right thing and to help others as much as you are able.” The Prince over the course of three days floating at sea thought about that and thought that he finally understood it. After three days, a small island appeared in the distance and the two men used the last of their strength to swim toward it. On the island they found and drank fresh water and ate some turtle eggs to regain their strength. Once the turtle eggs were all eaten, they noticed that there were some small birds resting on the island. So the Scholar wove together a net with a noose from vines and hid in the brush while the younger Prince ran and drove the birds past him. But once a bird was secured in the net, the Prince in his hunger grabbed the bird and laughed and ran away with it to eat it all by himself on the other side of the island. At first the Prince was very pleased with himself. He had taken what he needed to survive. But then he realized that he needed the Scholar’s help to make and to throw the net to catch more of the small birds who were even faster than he was. For three days the Prince thought about the problem and tried various tactics to capture the birds by himself. None of them worked. The Prince finally gave up and went back to where the Scholar was sitting beneath a tree, patiently fishing. The Prince mumbled an apology and the old Scholar said, “Yes. You must never treat others as a means to an end. We all can only survive or thrive together.” Months passed and the young Prince learned much from wise old Scholar on the island. He learned not only how to make fire and survive but also many lessons about justice. One day a merchant ship was drawn to the island by the smoke from their fire. The merchant himself came to the island shore along with three of his strongest sailors. After many joyful and hearty greetings, the Prince and the Scholar told the Merchant who they were. Now the merchant was a shrewd and greedy man and knew that he would be highly rewarded for returning the Prince to his father the King. But he wanted even more, and so pretended that his ship was so full of goods that he only had room to take on one more man. The Merchant then asked the Scholar, what payment could he expect to receive for bringing him along to the mainland and leaving one of his own sailors behind on the island. The Prince was shocked to hear what the Merchant was saying and immediately recognized the Merchant as displaying his own self serving and greedy attitude from earlier that year. Then the Prince responded before the Scholar could. “No, Sir Merchant. No one will remain here to die alone on this island. Throw some of your goods overboard and make enough room for all of us or I shall not return to the mainland with you, and you shall get no reward for my return to the king. There is not one thing on this earth that is worth more than the life of a single man.” Seeing that the Prince was firm in his resolve, the Merchant agreed to take all of the men back to the mainland, and even found that by rearranging his cargo that he had enough room for everyone and everything after all.

When The Prince and the Scholar were finally returned home to the King, the Prince was a changed man. He recalled all of the cases that he had heard, returned all of the goods and listened to the disputes again with a new changed heart and mind. And when it became time for the Prince to rule the kingdom in place of his father, he did so with such great wisdom and justice that his Kingdom was considered to be the so overflowing with kindness and peace that it was considered by all to the be the greatest place in all the world.


My friends, let each of us work to for justice in each of our own kingdoms. May we follow the example of Christ and allow our lives to be a source of love and kindness. May we work for justice, in both the biggest and the smallest of ways, and may all of us contribute in every way that we can to become the people of God’s peace. Amen.

October 4, 2015


Ladder & Empty Apple Tree “What kind of ladder are you climbing?”

The other day a friend posted an interesting story on Facebook. The story was about how a college was trying to get the official definition of a word changed in the Miriam Webster dictionary. The word is “Success” and the official Miriam Webster Dictionary definition is: “the fact of getting or achieving wealth, respect, or fame.”

The problem is that this definition of success is outdated. In 2014, Strayer University in Herndon Virginia funded a survey in which they asked people what their definition of success was. Over 90% of 2011 adults over the age of 18 said that success was more about happiness than power, possessions or prestige. Only 20% thought that money was an indicator of success.

This is a big change in American culture. Instead of success being linked to having a hot car or a big fancy house, people are instead are defining success by their pursuit of a fulfilling life, which for some means a better or more meaningful career, achieving a personal goal or spending more time with their families.

Miriam Webster for their part said that they, “Appreciated Strayer University’s interest in their definition of success.” But did not indicate that they would be changing the definition anytime soon.

Following the survey, Strayer is now heading up a marketing campaign called “Readdress Success.” They have committed to giving a .50 donation to a “dress for success” charity for each person who will sign their petition to Miriam Webster asking them to change the official definition of the word.

Instead of the old definition of the word, Strayer is suggesting a new definition for success:

“Success is happiness derived from good relationships and achieving personal goals.”

This article, while it was intended to have people think about things at a personal level could also be applied to our church. How do we define what a successful church looks like?

If we go with the old version of success, then a successful church would be an organization that had a significant number of people giving enough money to be considered wealthy, had the respect of the community and was featured in the newspaper a lot. We may have a mental picture of what this looks like:

We imagine the pews of the church filled to bursting with business professionals who pull $100 pens out of their breast pockets and write six figure checks from leather bound checkbooks. We imagine awards and plagues from the city fathers crowding the walls of our fellowship hall. We picture television cameras and lengthy feature pieces in the newspaper highlighting our good works while they take photos of the hundreds of scampering children singing in the building.

But what if we revised our definition of what it meant to be a successful church? What if we focused on the happiness that we got by our good relationships with God, others and ourselves? What if instead of defining our definition of success by the church offering report we defined it by successfully helping someone find housing or successfully feeding 100 people every week?

Think about it for a bit. If you could redefine what it meant for your Church to be successful, what criteria would you choose? What sort of ladder would you choose to climb?


Pastor Karen

Read more:

September 7, 2015

The Bible is not a Rule Book

“If Jesus could live his life breaking so many of the rules of the Old Testament in the pursuit of his mission to enact the love of God upon the world, what makes us think that we should be so concerned with making hundreds of rules that we would impose on other people?” -Rev. Karen Fitz La Barge

Sermon 9/6/2015 First Presbyterian Church of Allegan.
2 Tim. 3:10 – 17
A couple of weeks ago, Bill’s Uncle Bob La Barge posted a story on Facebook. In his work as a   driving tester for Century driving school he comes across many different types of people every day, and he frequently engages them in conversation so that he can help them be less nervous and to pass their drivers test. This often makes for great stories. The other day Uncle Bob was testing a somber 18 year old man named Tyler. The young man told him that he was about to leave to go to Bible College and that he and his family took the Bible, “Very, very literally.” Uncle Bob, who has a whole range of bad jokes said, “Great! Then I have the perfect Bible Quiz for you. Do you know who was the longest man in the Bible?”
Tyler hems and haws a bit and then asks if he means “up and down”, and Bob replies, “Sure, something like that.” But Tyler has not a clue what the answer would be. Then Uncle Bob drops the punch line of his bad joke:
“His name is Balaam. In the King James Translation it says that Balaam tied his ass to a tree and walked 2 miles to town.”
(Tyler was busy paying attention to his driving and didn’t get the joke. And the King James Version doesn’t say anything like that anyway.)

Today we come to the end of our summer sermon series of questions from the congregation. And today we come to a question about Bible interpretation. The question is, “What is the difference between a literal interpretation of the Bible and an authoritative? How do people who take the Bible literally deal with some of the passages that are obviously not meant to be taken that way?”
This last question is the easiest to answer. Some of you may know that I was raised “Bob Jones Baptist” with a foundation of a “very literal” interpretation of the Bible. The people that I come from would describe themselves as “Very, very literal”.  But that did not mean that we didn’t understand Biblical metaphors. For example, when Jesus was talking to Nicodemus about the need to be “Born again” in John 3 and Nicodemus asks Jesus how to enter his mother’s womb and be physically born a second time, Christians who believe in a “very literal” interpretation of the Bible understand Jesus explanation to be a metaphor for a spiritual rebirth. In the same way in Psalm 18 when God is called a Rock or a Fortress, people with a literal view of scripture don’t actually think that God is a piece of granite or a fortress sitting on a mountaintop. They understand that those metaphors are talking about the qualities of God being an strong and reliable protector.

Steve Falkenberg, professor of religious psychology at Eastern Kentucky University, observed:
“I’ve never met anyone who actually believes the Bible is literally true. I know a bunch of people who say they believe the Bible is literally true but nobody is actually a literalist. Taken literally, the Bible says the earth is flat and sitting on pillars and cannot move (Ps 93:1, Ps 96:10, 1 Sam 2:8, Job 9:6). It says that great sea monsters are set to guard the edge of the sea (Job 41, Ps 104:26). …[24]”

This is indeed the case. Even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy clarifies what people who say that the Bible is inerrant believe,
“WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”

But at the same time that those who call themselves Biblical “Literalists” are officially saying that they believe in the “gramatical-historical” sense of the Bible, there are plenty of Biblical Literalists who will grab their Bibles and read a verse or part of a verse and remove that verse completely from the context in which it was written in order to apply it to today. They call this the “plain meaning” of the text. They would say, “The Bible says that women are not supposed to be silent in church. So we don’t allow women to speak in church.” The problem is however that the verses that they pull out of their context to clobber other people with are never the verses that apply to everyone. –The loving your neighbor verses. Nor are they verses that could potentially be applied to themselves such as selling all that they have and giving it to the poor.

From my point of view, the biggest problem with “Biblical Literalism” is all of the time and energy spent on trying to dig out and define and defend a “Biblical truth” in order to create rules for other people to live by. They tend to take the last part of 2 Timothy 3 out of its context. They will look you in the eye and quote 2 Timothy 3:16-17, ” All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God[a] may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” They will say that the creation of rules from scripture is because we need to rebuke others to correct them to be righteous. But they ignore the first part of that section of scripture. The first part of that passage in 2 Timothy is the context for the last.

In the first part of this scripture it says, “You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, 11 persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured.” The context is that the author is talking about himself and his own preparation for ministry. He is talking about how the scriptures inspired him to live out his purpose in faith, patience, love and endurance. How God speaks to him through the scriptures to teach him, to rebuke him, and to equip him to do the good work that God calls him to. –And to endure the suffering and the persecutions that he underwent. This passage was never meant as instructions for Christians to dissect the Bible and to come up with rules for society to live by or as directions to create a check list to document how other people are not living in righteousness. The Biblical literalist movement and their pursuit of “God given truth”, whether that is a 7 literal days of creation stance or a dogged defense of a young earth or their limitations that they place on the gifts of women are missing the point. The Bible is not meant to be a rulebook to impose on others. If the Bible were a rulebook, it would read entirely like the book of Leviticus and Jesus would have given us Leviticus update 2.0. Instead it is authoritative for our spiritual lives.

The opposite viewpoint of the literalist is that scripture is authoritative. But if you are not digging through the Bible trying to find gotcha rules and you focus instead on the overall narrative, on the stories, how can this book be authoritative for our spiritual lives? How can a story become an authority? The easiest way to understand this to step back a minute and look at what the Bible is and what it is trying to illustrate and document.

The Bible is a collection of stories of how God has been working through the lives of people in order to do God’s work. In the Old Testament we have many great stories of God working in people’s lives. We have the stories of Noah of Abraham, of Moses and Miriam of Joseph and Jacob. In the Old Testament we find the stories of the prophets who listened to God’s call on their lives and who spent their lives calling people back to God. In the Old Testament you find the stories of King David, of King Solomon of little known women like Hannah and Hulda. In each of these cases, God was the authority in their lives calling people in their particular context to be faithful followers for a bigger purpose. The Bible is an authoritative source documenting that God works and changes people’s hearts and turns them around to be agents of peace, of justice and of love.

In the New Testament in the gospels we find the story of Christ. Instead of a timeless rule book or a book of order telling us how to be a perfect church or a perfect Christian, instead we have Christ as our example, Christ as our inspiration, Christ as our Savior showing us that the love of God is much stronger than death. And if we still don’t understand what is going on and that we are supposed to interact with our contexts as an agent of love, we have the gift of the Holy Spirit and the stories of the early churches who were trying to work out how to be God’s people in a hostile self serving world. The Bible is the authoritative place for us to find the stories about how God works within human beings to make a difference in the world. Through it’s stories it invites us to envision ourselves in their context, in their world and to learn lessons that we can take with us to our own world. —Lessons about how to care for the least of these, lessons about how to share what we have, lessons about how our greed and our pride and our self deception lead us down dark roads to our own destruction.

In conclusion, people who claim they take the Bible “literally” are not often found defending the Bible’s claims that the world is flat or that the sun travels around the earth. Instead you most often find them searching for “Biblical Truths” and trying to create a rulebook out of the smallest pieces of out of context snippets of scripture. They try to live their lives within the small coffin sized box of these self imposed rules and are miserable when they fall short of the lives of perfection that they demand for themselves and for the world around them. But the Bible was never designed to be a rule book to impose “God’s will” on others. Instead it is an inspiration, it is a comfort, it is a narrative that is THE authority on the fact that there is a spiritual world and that God is working and calling humans to do God’s work in this world. If Jesus could live his life breaking so many of the rules of the Old Testament in the pursuit of his mission to enact the love of God upon the world, what makes us think that we should be so concerned with making hundreds of rules that we would impose on other people? What better example do we have than Christ as we follow the leading of the Holy Spirit to emulate Christ and to throw all of the scriptural rules out of the window while we live out our calling to love God, and love others while loving ourselves? None. We are called to be like Christ and to be the light of God’s love shining in the darkest places in this world. So be it. Amen.

PS. An excellent article on this topic of Biblical Authority is by N.T. Wright and is found here:


February 3, 2015

Repairing a Car While Driving

Gorgeous CarRepairing a Car while Driving.
“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation, the old life has passed away and the new life has begun.” This is one of my favorite verses in the Bible. It is from I Corinthians 5:17. It seems particularly appropriate at the beginning of a New Year when it seems that everyone (including myself) tries to start the new year out with a resolution to change some things in their life. There are so many things wrong with me. For starters, I need to eat healthier, exercise more, finish house projects, get rid of all my clutter, and call my mother! All of this and more needs to be done while I reduce my stress and become more loving toward the people who get on my nerves!

It seems every year no matter how hard I try, that my New Year Resolutions always fail. For a couple weeks or even a month, I will have some success at not eating so much fast food or finding the time to work out. But then something happens and my schedule changes or I catch a virus or there is some kind of crisis and the next thing I know I am back to the same old habits that I was stuck in before. It is like I am trying really hard to fix my car while I am driving it down the highway at 70 mph. With one hand on the steering wheel and one foot on the gas, I am also timing quick ducks down under the dashboard trying to work on my wiring or to figure out where there is a short in the fuse box. It doesn’t take very long for this sort of zany and futile experiment to dramatically fail or for me to give up in frustration. There has to be a better way.

This Christmas, I bought a little gift for myself. It is a new translation of the Bible that I found when I was researching for our last Benefit Concert with Elden Kelley for Allegan High School Tiger Tales. The translation is called, “The Voice”. At first glance, it takes some astonishing liberties with the texts. Right in the middle of a Bible passage, it will add a few clarifying words or sentences. (Very much like adding verses!) And at the beginnings of many chapters it adds introductory paragraphs to explain what is going on in that section. At first, I was annoyed with it because it was so different, but when I started working with it for a while, I found that I really liked it.
This is what The Voice Translation has down for I Cor. 5:16-18:

16 Because of all that God has done, we now have a new perspective. We used to show regard for people based on worldly standards and interests. No longer. We used to think of the Anointed the same way. No longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is united with the Anointed One, that person is a new creation. The old life is gone—and see—a new life has begun! 18 All of this is a gift from our Creator God, who has pursued us and brought us into a restored and healthy relationship with Him through the Anointed. And He has given us the same mission, the ministry of reconciliation, to bring others back to Him.
And the Voice introduction for chapter 5 is this:

In chapter 3, Paul explains how the Spirit transforms believers so they are conformed to the image of Jesus. He now clarifies that this change means believers embody Jesus’ death through suffering and participate in His present, risen life. This life is ultimately experienced through the resurrection of the body in the future, but it also consists of an inward renewal in the midst of the challenges and troubles of daily existence. Our hope is, therefore, not a release from our bodies but a resurrection of our bodies so that the life inside us now will show outside as well. While we still suffer, this hope of bodily resurrection is a matter of faith.

What this passage says to me is that instead of me trying to change my life while living it, (repairing my car while driving it) that instead I need to allow the Holy Spirit to transform me as the driver. I need to stop trying to fix all this stuff in my life while going 70 mph with my to do list streaming out the window. I need to let the Holy Spirit convince me to pull off my life road for 5 or 10 minutes at a time and to simply sit and rest in God’s presence in prayer. I need to seek God’s direction for my life instead of proudly wandering around in circles fooling myself that I am actually getting somewhere. While of course the road ahead of us is going to be full of potholes and broken pavement (we do still live in Michigan), I can slow down, avoid the worst of it and even fill my car with people who are on the same journey going to the same destination.
And all of those repairs that I need in my life? All of those New Year’s resolutions to eat better, exercise more and to reduce my stress? I wish they were as infrequent a fix as needing to take my car to a repair shop for a new transmission. But the truth is that they are more like filling my tank up with gas and changing the oil. I just need to stop my driving and do them, regularly. –I can’t be on the move down the highway and parked at the gas station at the same time, just like I can’t change my oil while changing lanes.

If I can let the Holy Spirit transform me as the driver of my life, no matter what sort of road conditions or weather comes up, I know that I can trust God to guide me to make the right decisions every day. And that ultimately, by doing so, I am really going to be able to get somewhere good!

December 19, 2014

Baby Shower

Shower Invitation 2014

Christmas Baby Shower                                                                                            Rev. Karen Fitz La Barge

So, I have been invited to a Baby Shower! How nice. What a wonderful thing!  –It is a celebration of a brand new life. So what is the first thing that I should do? –Obviously, go shopping. Oh, look, here is the Costco ad that came in the mail. I had better open that for the coupons. You know, this could be the year to go out and to buy myself a new huge big screen TV.  I have really been wanting one, and the new curved screen ones are oh so sweet. Here is the 55″ Samsung at Costco, and according to the ad, it is only $1,279.99 –after $500 OFF and it has free shipping as well.  Or, I could splurge a bit and really get the one I want and go with the 65″ Samsung. That has $800 off and it is $2779.99.  Kathy said that they were really flying off the shelves since Black Friday, even though they are limited to three per person.  I would need to call around to make sure that they were still in stock if I decided to get one. Hmmm…

But what about all of the stuff that my family wants?  All that my daughter wants is a car. I don’t want to get her a brand new one, because she will probably smash it with the crazy way that she drives, but my cousin Bob is selling his red 2001 Pontiac Aztek for $1000, and it would really be a big surprise for her to find it sitting out in our driveway with a big green bow on the top. That way she could get to school on time without breaking down. And I remember that Bob said he just put new tires on it last year so she wouldn’t need to worry about new tires soon with the snow flying and driving on ice and everything.

But if I spent $1000 on my daughter, I had better spend about that much on my son.  He sent me a link to that scuba gear he wanted. Where was it?  Oh yes, here it is, the link was buried in my inbox.  I really had better read all of those unopened emails.  –There it is, the Oceanic Flex 2 SCUBA package from Diver’s Direct. The whole package is on sale for $1099.00.  I am not sure if it is a good deal, but it seems to come with everything. A special wet suit, a breathing regulator, a computer of some sort with a decompression algorithm. I’m not sure what everything does, but the safety reviews are really good on it.  I should probably charge that on the Visa to get the reward points.

But what now to get the spouse?  I’ve seen how they watch those digital camera commercials on TV. — Where is the Costco ad again?   Yup. Costco has the Canon EOS Rebel T5i DSLR bundled with two lenses.  Normally $1149, but only $849 on sale.  That should be a good way to document everything going on. Something to make memories that last because those kids are just getting bigger every year and soon they will be moving out and going away to college. I had better plan on getting that camera package too. I can put that on the American Express.

And then we had better plan a big get together with the whole family, and invite all of the relatives over.  A huge meal with all of the trimmings.  Honey ham probably, and cheesy potatoes, should we have a green bean casserole again? Everyone does really love that.  Or maybe we should do something different?  Who was it that was telling me about that port marinated beef tenderloin recipe again?  We could have that butternut squash soup we loved at that October wedding, and Dennis was going to give us some venison that we could make into deer sausage. We could have warm apple pie with ice cream, or pecan pie using Great Grandma’s recipe. I bet I could talk the kids into making chocolate covered strawberries that we could eat with peppermint hot chocolate and homemade cookies with sprinkles. Oh yea. I can taste that. Yeah. That sounds great. The whole family sitting around together watching movies on our new 65″ curved big screen TV. We could have popcorn. We can sit around playing some board games while the snow flies outside. Good memories and good times together that we can document with that camera. Get some photos of the boy in his new wet suit and the girl behind the wheel of her first car. –That would just be great. Gotta just love all of those moments. I had better start shopping!

Wait. …What was this letter in the mail? Oh, yes, that baby shower invitation. Gotta love babies.  Who had a baby? It’s for “Mary of Nazareth.” Hmmm, I don’t really know her that well. Who was telling me about her?  I can’t remember. –I don’t think she has a job, but I do think that I remember that she is a teenager who isn’t married, but has a baby anyway. She should have gotten a job instead of gotten herself pregnant. No income but has a little mouth to feed. Typical. There always seems to be needy people around that just want a handout. –Anyway, I am way too busy with my own stuff to go to this baby shower. I’m not exactly sure how I got invited anyway. –But I guess that I could just buy a package of Pampers and drop them off at the church this week with her name on them. All babies need diapers. That should be plenty to celebrate the birth of a little baby boy and his unemployed mother. It would be the polite thing to do. –Yea, I can pick some diapers up at Costco when I get the new TV and the camera bundle. I sure hope that they will fit in the minivan. Hmmm…there may not be room for the diapers in the van once I get the big screen TV loaded in.  No room in the van, no room in my schedule, no money left in the bank. That is the story of my life.  Hmmm, I need to be able to fit all of the groceries in the van too.  I had better get the TV in the van first and the groceries home and in the fridge before they go bad.

–I will just worry about this Baby Shower invitation later on when I have the time. –I’ll just forget about the Pampers for now.  They’re not critical.  After all, who is this baby boy to me?  Not like he is anyone important or anything. Not like I am going to invite him and his mother into my house and family.  He’s just a untimely pregnancy turned into an unwanted baby boy.  There will be no love for him from this world.  It’s not like my love will make any difference to him, will it?

November 6, 2014

Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore…

Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore…  and how 4 acts of love will make your church irresistible

The above book, written by Thom and Joani Schultz was one that I had purchased and read months ago.   It was sitting on the top of a stack of books on the edge of my home library bookcase, (because I have long ago run out of actual shelf space.)  I had read the book quickly and eagerly, thinking, “I really need to do something with this great information.”  –But then I had gotten caught up in the weekly and daily cycle of regular church work; and the book and it’s great perspectives just sat there on my shelf like a rose bush waiting to be planted in my garden.

But when my plans for continuing education got changed, I looked around for other options and found The Future of the Church Conference in Loveland, CO.  I was delighted to see that Dr. Leonard Sweet was going to be there, and the conference itself was going to be hosted by Thom and Joani Schultz at GROUP publishing.  There was even an optional preconference three hour session about the Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church book. I eagerly made my arrangements and flew off to Colorado.

While there, I was reminded of many important things in the book.  Every year about 4000 churches are closing.   Across the country, church attendance and giving is falling.  Church buildings are being put up for sale in record numbers.  When Thom and Joanie recognized that the institutional church is in a crisis, they went out and did some research.  The question they asked people is one that is extremely important.  “Why don’t you go to church anymore?”

#1 Reason)  “I feel judged.”   According to the studies done by Lyons and Kinnaman, 87 percent of Americans label Christians as judgmental.  91 percent label Christians as anti-homosexuals. With so many people either having friends or family members who are openly GLTB, even the commonly used Christian phrase of, “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was considered extremely offensive and a way for Christians to practice their, “Holy Hate” judgment of others.

#2 Reason) “I don’t want to be lectured.”  The younger generations especially are sensitive to this.  Raised in an educational system where they would discuss issues and work in groups to learn and solve problems, the old school lecture model where you sit and passively listen to the teacher or preacher is extremely foreign and uncomfortable to them. Unless the message is a story on a screen with special effects and a soundtrack, the culture has switched to a method of learning that is participatory and open to comments, questions and feedback.

#3 Reason) “Church people are a bunch of hypocrites.” 85 percent of Americans agree. They believe that the church has an impossible standard of perfect behavior, one that even leader after Christian leader fails to meet.  Instead of people being open and honest at church about their struggles, everyone who goes to church puts on their best face when they walk through the doors.  Instead of being a place where people can be open and honest about life, the perception is that church is instead a place where everyone pretends that everything is wonderful.  The icing of false happiness that drips off church people is toxic to the un-churched. They see right through it and want absolutely nothing to do with it.

#4 Reason) “I don’t experience God in Church.”  It is sad, but according to the Barna group only 44 percent of people say that they experience God in church. While the church staff and members spend most of our time, energy and resources creating and putting on worship services, they are more often than not working to connect people to God.  Perhaps it is because we put so much emphasis on learning about God with our minds, or perhaps it is because it is so easy for the service to veer off the track and to become either painfully bad quality or just an entertaining human performance.  But church services are frequently coming up empty when people report finding God there.

Thom and Joanie then went on to discuss four ways that the church can try to address these very real and valid concerns.  They call these for ways of being, “Acts of Love.”

#1 Act of Love)  Radical Hospitality.  Jesus was the best at this. He was constantly going to and hanging out with the worst sinners he could find.  Prostitutes, tax collectors, the blind, the lame, the untouchables –these were the people that he sought out and ate with and talked to.  Unlike our churches where only respectable people go, I suspect that if Jesus was here today, he wouldn’t often be in church, but he would be in the bars, the strip clubs, the coffee shops, and the party scene.  And everywhere he went, he would treat people like they were important and beloved children of God.

#2) Fearless Conversation.  We really can’t show the love of Christ to someone unless we know who they are and what they are going through.  We can’t help them understand something unless we know what their questions are.  And we can’t grow ourselves if we are not honest with ourselves and with our own doubts and questions. It is a proven fact that more spiritual growth occurs with active participation than with passive listening. The conversations that we have at church need to go much deeper than, “How are you?”  –“Doing fine.” We need to open our hearts to each other and show each other God’s love and care.

#3) Genuine Humility.   Jesus, while he was the God of the universe, came and served the needs of the common ordinary people. The key word here is served.  We are truly to love others, to work together to serve others without being selfish.  We have to stop trying to impress others with how perfect we are and with how well we have it “all together”.  We have to think of others as being more important than ourselves.  We must be open to listening and learning from others, no matter who they are.  We have to admit our mistakes and faults and struggles.  We have to be the broken humans that we actually are for a change rather than pretending to be holier than thou Christians.

#4) Divine Anticipation.  What is God doing in your life? How is God speaking to you?  Are you open to the presence of God in your daily life or are you too busy with your chores, deadlines, bills and facebook to even pause to listen for what God may be saying?  God is everywhere and speaks to us through the Holy Spirit in a still small voice.  Our job is often to simply shut up and quiet our constant inner critic and listen to God for a change.  We need to make opportunities for silence, for us to simply rest in the presence of God and to feel loved.  We need to be spiritually open and aware of the God sightings that happen in our life, and to be willing to share them with other believers at church.  God is not done with us yet, but so often we are busy acting as if though we have already arrived; that there is no room for God to do more spiritual work on us.

In conclusion, there is much work to be done in the church, but not all of it is what you think it is.  Our huge efforts to keep everything running the same as it ever was, is the best way for the institutional church to keep on its current trajectory of decline and irrelevance.  Our best way forward is to get real about who we really are and to begin to truly care for the most hurt and broken people we know. With radical hospitality, fearless conversations, genuine humility and being attentive to the Spirit of God; we can become a church that bears good fruit of love that has eternal value. Are you willing to give it a try with me?

October 5, 2014

Cultural Changes and the Church
The idea for the Pony Express came out of necessity. California had experienced a gold rush, they were part of the still growing union of states and the population living there needed to be able to have fast reliable communication with the rest of the country back east. To that end, the Central Overland  California and Pikes Peak Express Company established a mail relay system. The system was a series of stations which had fresh horses. The goal was to build the stations no more than 10 miles apart, the distance a horse could run at top speed without needing to rest. The system was elaborate. There were swing stations which only had fresh horses, and home stations in which the riders could rest after riding 75 miles in a day. The riders were young men, no older than 18, no more than 125 lbs, who had the courage to ride at full speed through all of the dangers along the trail. About 187 stations were built and over 400 horses were purchased for the project. The horses along with the 120 riders and several hundred personnel worked together to deliver mail across the western wilderness in four days. The Pony Express was an organizational and operational success!

 However the system that started its operation on April 3rd 1860, closed its   operations on  October 26, 1861, two days after the transcontinental telegraph reached Sacramento, CA. Even though the Pony Express system had done nothing wrong, something new came along and made what they were doing obsolete.

In the church, we also can have traditions and practices which may no longer serve us well. For example, the practice of a bride walking down an aisle runner in the sanctuary was once something that was done out of necessity. In the eras when most streets were unpaved and churches were un carpeted, the guests coming to the wedding would track mud into the church on their boots and shoes. By the time that the bride was to walk down the center aisle, the route could be filled with dirt which would leave unsightly streaks on a wedding dress and possibly ruin it for any future daughter to potentially use. To protect the bride’s dress and train, an aisle runner was put down for the bride to walk on. Over the years, the reason for the aisle runner was forgotten, and still today, brides will often pay for them and incorporate this expensive item into their wedding plans; even though their original purpose has in many cases become obsolete.

As culture changes around us, as good stewards of God’s time and resources, we as a church must constantly ask ourselves if the way that we are doing things is still in step with the way that things work today.  Are we really meeting a need with what we are doing?  Or are we just feeding the horses in our own version of a Pony Express?


August 29, 2014


The other day I was shopping in Costco and saw a display of neon signs for sale. Next to a stack of boxes, there was one sign that was plugged in and turned on.  It cheerfully read, “OPEN” in red surrounded by a royal blue border.   –This was a typical neon sign that you would see in a restaurant window or put up next to the door in a shop.  For a few seconds I imagined what it would be like for our church to have a neon sign like this.  I imagined that we could put it in the Chestnut Street Door window and turn it on during the Wednesday Community Lunch.  We could also turn it on Sundays for our worship service, during the times when AA and Recovery were having their meetings, and we could even have it turned on during office hours.  –It would be a very easily understood message by the public.  People are used to having open signs telling them when a business was open for them to come in and purchase things or to order their favorite Chinese entree. For us it could be used to signify that the building was open and that folks could come in for one purpose or another.

            But then I thought about the other uses for the word “Open”.   Are we as a church actually people who are open?  Are we open to the Holy Spirit coming into our lives and inspiring us to actually live as followers of Christ?  What would it look like if we as a group of people really strived to be open to the Holy Spirit?

            What about our minds?  Are our minds open and searching for new and better answers to the questions of our faith?  Are we open to new information, new research, new archeological findings, new translations that can be used to build up people’s faith?  Or are we closed minded people, determined to keep doing things the way that we have always done because we can’t for a minute imagine that there could be anything new that may be worthwhile?

            What about us as a community of people?  Are we open to others, to newcomers?  Are we open to other’s new perspectives, new cultures, new recipes, new friends?   Are we people who are so narrow and closed off that we only concern ourselves with what is happening in Allegan County, Michigan? Or are we open to learning lessons about ourselves and the world from what is happening today in Ferguson, Missouri as well as Syria, Gaza and Israel?

            The more that I thought about it, the more I thought that it would be extremely helpful if each of us wore a neon sign around our necks every day.   –That way we could turn it on to signify that we were up, awake and open not only to the leading of the Holy Spirit, but open to listening to new ideas, to forming relationships with new people, to learning and growing and becoming who it is that God designed us to be.  Those people who were not up to the task of being open to God and others could just turn off their signs, so that people could know to avoid them and to not waste their time offering them their friendship, and their new ideas…

            While it would not be cost effective or remotely practical for everyone to purchase and to wear a $79.99 neon sign around their necks, (let alone  drag around the extensive combined weight of the sign and its necessary battery pack!), the idea of being “OPEN” in our spirits to the presence of God, and open in our minds to new ideas and to new friendships and relationships is something that we as followers of Christ do need to be trying to do.  Every morning we need to choose if we are going to be open to new possibilities and people and let folks and their new ideas come into our lives; or if we are just going to remain closed and lock ourselves and our resources away.   Are you going to be open today? I hope so. Amen.

April 15, 2014

What is your purpose in life?

“To find out what my purpose in life is, if there is any.  I wonder if there is a reason why we are here.” –Robert Kenny

Robert is from Grand Rapids and is a first generation American.  His is also a recent Graduate of Grand Valley State University with his bachelors degree in business administration.  His plan is to get his MBA from Davenport and to ultimately get a job with some company in the manufacturing import and export business.  Robert is trilingual, and is fluent in English, Vietnamese and French.  He also knows a little bit of Spanish and a few words in German.  Currently he is working hard at Sweetie Thai on 28th st in Grand Rapids, but he really enjoys getting to know more about other cultures through their language and through their people.  If he can’t get a business job in manufacturing imports, he plans to teach English overseas.