Towards the Beloved Community

Over the past month, I have been doing some long overdue reading; namely, an autobiography of John Lewis, Walking with the Wind. I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, having purchased it in my first summer of ministry, at a conference commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s visit to the Montreat Conference Center in North Carolina.

The conference was called “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda,” and Rep. Lewis was there. He signed my book, and for too long I’ve let it sit, without cracking the spine. But after his passing this summer, and in the midst of the racial tensions that have burst into view once again in our country, I had to read it. Had to know what wisdom this giant of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s could offer us, today.

I was not disappointed. His words, while they might have been written over twenty years ago, are every bit as meaningful and important for us today as they ever were.

And so today, instead of offering you my own thoughts, I want to share some of John’s. As you read the news this week, and grieve and question and pray about the ongoing struggle against racism and inequity in our society, I invite you to keep these words in mind. To sense the invitation here, not to perpetuating the world as we know it, but to something higher, something better, something altogether holy. And may God give us all the strength to work tirelessly, faithlessly, and courageously towards that.

“I go home to Atlanta almost every weekend, as well as during recesses and between congressional sessions. When I do, I go into the streets, into the neighborhoods, into the projects. I see the homeless, the helpless, the anger and the violence, the drugs and the despondency. It is real, it is pervasive, and it cannot be ignored. Some people were shocked by the explosion of rioting in Los Angeles in 1992. They asked aloud, “Where did that come from?” It came from the same place as the rioting in Watts in 1965 and in dozens of other urban neighborhoods in the quarter century since then. The stew of poverty and despair simmers and cooks in the grimmest parts of our cities, and it will not go away. We who do not live in these places might close our eyes or our hearts, we might pretend it does not exist or that it has nothing to do with us, but it will not simply go away. And it has everything to do with us. We have a choice. We can look and listen and respond in constructive, creative ways to our places of poverty, or we can be forced to respond by outbursts of violence such as these riots.

The pat that remains to lead us to the Beloved Community is no longer racial alone. It is one, I believe, marked by the differences, divisions and canyons created by class. There hasn’t been a time in America – certainly not since World War II – that the classes have been pushed as far apart as they are today, with vast numbers of poor at one end, a small number of wealthy at the other and a middle class in danger of completely disappearing as most of it is pushed toward the lower end of the spectrum.

[…] such disparity is a recipe for disaster. It creates a climate of cynicism and discouragement. It encourages people at all ends of the spectrum to turn away from one another, to insulate themselves and, yes, even to arm themselves, for both defense and attack. It makes the political system seem distant, incomprehensible, irrelevant, monolithic and insensitive to the needs of the people. If we are going to begin turning back toward one another, to humanize one another, we need to humanize the political system, we need to make it respond directly to the problems of the people – not just to the people in power, or to the people who are the loudest, but to all of the people, including, crucially, those who have no power, those who have no voice.

The poor, the sick, the disenfranchised. We cannot run away from them. We’re all living in this house. […] We must realize that we are all in this together. Not as black or white. Not as rich or poor. Not even as Americans or “non”-Americans. But as human beings.”


Quoted material from Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement by John Lewis with Michael D’Orso. Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, New York, NY: 1998.

God Reflectors

During this Pandemic, animal shelters have emptied out. For those of us who are blessed to live with pets, this is no surprise. There is little more comforting than the love of these holy companions, who in so many ways reflect God’s love for us.

For us, as you know, Silas, our Labrador retriever, has travelled with us through life’s ups and downs now for almost 13 years. His dog metabolism finds him aged 90 now; his powerful back hips now betray him. We treasure each day, each moment with him, knowing that time will soon bring us to goodbye. The wonder of life’s loving leads us to grieving it’s loss. But what would life be for us without such love, after all?

More than anything, we see and experience the love of God for us through these creatures of his making, as Wendy Francisco says so well in her hymn/poem “God and Dog”:

I look up and I see God
I look down and see my dog
Simple spelling…GOD
same word backwards, DOG
they would stay with me all day
I’m the one who walks away
But both of them just wait for me
And dance act my return with glee
Both love me no matter what
Divine God and canine mutt
I take it hard each time I fail
But God forgives, dog wags his tail
God thought up and made the dog
Dog reflects a part of God
I’ve seen love from both sides now
It’s everywhere, amen, bow wow 
I look up and I see God
I look down and see my Dog
and in my human frailty
I can’t match their love for me

Thanks be to God for these companions along the way.

(This reflection is dedicated to the memory of Trygg Magnusson, who passed away earlier this week)

Peter Hawkinson



Gaping Racial Wound

Our country has a gaping racial wound that is not healing. We cannot pretend that it does not exist.

Yesterday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a 29 year old Black man, Jacob Blake, was shot in the back by police officers as he calmly entered a car that his three sons were in.  As I am writing this, Blake is reportedly in serious condition at a Milwaukee hospital.

It can be easy to remove ourselves from this situation. You might not live in Kenosha. You might not be a police officer. You might not be a Black man.

But each of us has a gaping racial wound that is not healing within us. We cannot pretend that it does not exist.

If we continue to say, “what a broken world we are living in right now.” Or, “times sure are crazy these days.” We are becoming passive as we associate problems as outside of ourselves.

My hope for anyone reading this post is that you would become active in doing personal work of racial righteousness and reconciliation today.

My invitation for you is this:

#1 Acknowledge that our country has a gaping racial wound that is not healing and that you have a gaping racial wound inside you that is not healing.  Feel free to reach out to me, if you would like to have a conversation about this, I would be honored to talk with any of you.

#2 Reflect on the ways that this racial wound has manifested itself in our country and within you.  Feel free to reach out to me, if you would like to have a conversation about this, I would be honored to talk with any of you.

#3 Pray to God for discernment and direction for where our Creator might be calling you towards.  Feel free to reach out to me, if you would like to have a conversation about this, I would be honored to talk with any of you.

You probably noticed that I ended each of the three points with the same sentence. That is because I believe the only way for us to stop pretending these wounds do not exist is to talk about them.  The only way forward is to turn to our Lord for guidance and strength for this journey together.

I encourage you to not stop here with my words.  Sit on a couch, open up your Bible (not your Bible app, but the physical book) and read Proverbs 3.  See where the Holy Spirit guides you.  Pray fervently.  Seek God’s presence and follow that with all you have today and forevermore.  Amen.

-Pastor Joel

Grandpa Leonard (1894-1973)

My Grandfather, Leonard Larson, spent his life as a Covenant Pastor in Kansas City, after serving as a Christian Educator in China. He was a character, an extreme extrovert. When we visited him in his last years, his doctor had to turn his pace-maker down to keep him from getting too excited. More than anything, he loved Jesus and loved helping others come to love Jesus too: his heart was that of an evangelist. I’m told by my large Larson family that I look very much like him.

Two stories that linger down through the generations have lived with me in my years of ministry. The first my mother (his daughter) told me. Leonard was an amazing cook, and he decided one fall to make his award winning chili and invite the neighborhood to come and visit the church. When the time came, and all was prepared, no one from the neighborhood came. But Leonard wasn’t discouraged. He went to the store and purchased a number of Tupperware containers (which he could ill afford) and brought meals out to the doorsteps of the neighborhood, with a note attached that said “Taste and see that the Lord is good” along with an invitation to come and worship. This reflected his heart for ministry and love for people.

The second does the same. It comes in his own words from a sermon he was preaching in 1937:

Driving to Salina one day we picked up a young man at a filling station who was going west. As we drove along the conversation turned to spiritual things and he confessed he was not a Christian and ddid not know ho to become one. Verse by verse we showed him what it meant to be a Christian and how to appropriate Christ unto salvation. At last he yielded and asked the Lord to accept him and cleanse him from his sins and make him his child. Then somewhat bashfully he asked, “Is this all there is to it? I don’t feel like a Christian.” Taking a quarter from our pocket we gave it to him and he taken by surprise thanked us and confessed he only had fifteen cents left with which to buy lunch until he got to Denver. “Are you sure this quarter is yours now?” we asked. “Sure, you gave it to me, didn’t you?” was his response. “Well, do you feel it belongs to you?” “No, but I know it is mine because you said I could have it.” Then he smiled and his face lighted up, “O now I see, that’s just the way it is with being a Christian. I took Jesus like God told me to so I must be a Christian even though I don’t understand all that it means yet.”

Leonard and my grandmother Alice faithfully loved God and their neighbors. They had experienced Grace, and passed the invitation along. They gave of themselves sacrificially. They let their lights shine, as what they said and what they did melded together so beautifully into a witness for Christ.

Leonard died when I was just 9. A year before, at their 50th wedding celebration, he caught my eye, motioned to me from across the room to come to him, plopped me on his lap, took a ribbon from a gift and put it around my neck. Then he held me up with some effort and shouted out, “First prize, First prize!” And I’ll never forget how special, and how loved I felt in his arms.

At gravesides, we speak the word of John the Revelator: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Blessed indeed, says the Spirit, for they rest from their labors, and their deeds follow after them.” (14:13)

Blessed too are those of us who have known and been loved by them, and formed by their witness. Whoever they are for you, remember them give thanks — and remember too, the living opportunities you have too share the love of Christ with those along your road.

Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory, Leonard and Alice!

Peter Hawkinson

Taking Turns

This week, a friend of mine started reading Nadia Bolz-Weber. I’d recommended her writing ages ago, but as so often happens, there were a lot of other books to get to before “Accidental Saints” hit the top of this friend’s reading list. But now that she is there…she is an instant fan, just as I was.

In these days that can be so discouraging, so depleting, it is voices like Nadia’s that remind me of the grittiness and the durability of faith. It isn’t always pretty, or simple, but it is always there for us. God is present, even if God isn’t working in ways that we understand or agree with. Nadia reminds me of that, often with a little extra bit of sarcasm, a lot of honesty, and an extra dose of wit.

Luckily for us, she is also in the habit of writing some regular Sunday prayers right now. Here is her offering from yesterday:

“Dear God,

We are going to just be taking turns for a while, if that’s ok.

Yesterday was mine. My turn to be depressed-as-hell about the closing of beloved, been-around-for-decades local business. My turn to be afraid because the wildfires are so bad that my eyes sting and the interstate is closed. My turn to be angry. My turn to indulge in post-apocalyptic future-casting. (OK maybe I shouldn’t have watched Mad Max this week.)

Please help me not feel bad when it’s my turn, Lord. And with your grace, may my turn to completely freak out not last one minute longer than necessary. But also may it last as long as needed in order to allow it to pass when it’s time to move on and just go make the salad for dinner.

And Lord, may I be a non-anxious presence for the next person whose turn it is. May I not fear their fear so much that I fail to listen well.”

(I encourage you to read the full post here.)

As the best writers do, Nadia here gives voice to something I’ve been experiencing but couldn’t describe over the last few months. Some days, I wake up full of joy at the summer sunshine, excitement at a new camping adventure, a sense of rightness because it’s finally blueberry season or because it’s been two weeks since I was coughed on by someone at the grocery store and I can finally stop worrying about it.

But then there are days I wake up anxious. I feel tired like I haven’t slept, and I can’t focus on anything except the news stories: more protests, more COVID deaths, more political in-fighting, more people out of work. On those days, it is my turn. My turn to freak out.

Nadia’s words remind me that it is ok when it is my turn. That I shouldn’t be ashamed, or feel guilty, or rush through it. She suggests that God isn’t bothered by us taking turns, so we shouldn’t be either. It’s not a sign of frailty or weakness. It is just how life is right now.

And equally important: it will not always be my turn. It will soon be the turn of someone I love, and I have a role to play then. I can sit with them, and give witness to their fear and anxiety, and not be bothered by them either. I can affirm that these are hard and scary times, but as Nadia also says, “my terror is not a sign of [God’s] absence and my hope is not a sign of [God’s] presence.”

Because my terror and my hope are real, and they are important, but they are not the whole story. God is bigger than all of this, bigger than my fear, bigger than the storm I am caught in, but God is also right there with me in it. With you, too.

Thanks be to God!


Praying (by Mary Oliver)

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

I don’t know about you, but I struggle with prayer. Always have, and I’m afraid, always will. Or maybe the struggle is to come to grips with what we’ve decided counts, qualifies, and what is effective in the end. I’ve always taken comfort in those disciples who begged Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” (Luke 11:1). In their imploring is both a confession of struggle and a longing for new strength and understanding.

Me too! Me too! Both the struggle and the longing. How about you?

Like so many of Mary Oliver’s poems, this one about praying invites me into a more hopeful space. Maybe she’s right – that the secret of a praying life is accepting the grace of what “it doesn’t have to be.” If you’re like me – and you don’t usually find the exquisite and profound words (that would be the blue iris!), and the truth is you often have no words at all; if your secret prayer closet habits, would they become public, cause you to shutter with fear; if doubt and questions haunt you into feeling that your faith is, after all, inadequate; then I say, welcome, welcome. Your struggles are mine.

But what if Mary is right? What if prayer’s invitation is an open door into a whole new world, or put bluntly – what if prayer is God’s primary way to speak, and for me to be quiet – simply to open the door of my life, and receive what God has to say, to give. What if the contest is about who can be quiet, and still, who can listen and wonder…these are hopeful and inviting words.

Read the poem again. Better yet, a few times. It’s short enough to memorize, and then you and I can pretend the Holy Spirit is speaking to us, again and again, reminding us that it’s not a contest, but an invitation, should we desire a shared life with the God of the Universe. Now that sounds hopeful!

Peter Hawkinson

Pray Continually

I remember growing up at church and memorizing Bible verses.

John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”

I would try to throw John 11:35 in there for some easy points, because it was so short, “Jesus wept.” I didn’t seem to get as much credit in my Sunday school teachers’ eyes for that one…

Well there is another extremely short verse that has meaning and power far beyond it’s two words; 1 Thessalonians 5:17. “Pray continually.”

Now as a kid growing up, this command seemed to tell me that I needed to go into my bedroom, close the door, sit on my bed, fold my hands, bow my head, close my eyes, and talk to myself- seemingly forever!

How is that even possible, God?!? I need to eat, sleep, go to school, do my chores- you did tell me to honor my mother and father by the way! I knew that I wasn’t good at multi-tasking so I figured something would just have to go- either my prayer life or everything else I did.

Now as I got older, I did what I think a lot of people do; instead of reassessing my understanding of prayer so that I could pray without ceasing, I just assumed that I was a sinner who falls short of God’s glory, which would ideally have me praying all the time.

As I’ve grown up, I now know that God doesn’t require us to fold our hands together for us to officially be praying. In fact, as we know, prayer doesn’t have to be me talking out loud to myself.

Prayer is when my human life is aligned with God’s will for humanity.

This happens when we present our fears, worries and celebrations to God. This happens when a group of fellow Christ-following people gather together to discern where God is calling them towards.

However, this also happens when I am serving food at a soup kitchen. This happens when I am connecting with a friend in a way that gives me life. This happens when I am sleeping (as long as I don’t sleep in too late and miss part of the upcoming day!)

When we expand out definition of prayer, it becomes possible to pray continually. It’s still not easy, because there are still many moments in my day, where I do fall short of what I know God desires for my life. However, there is hope to be able to achieve this high calling that Paul wrote to the early Christian church.

I want to close with this final thought. My view of this verse changed drastically when I read these two words not simply as a command, but an invitation- an invitation to a life abundant and full of grace, mercy and love.

When I am anxious, downtrodden or confused, I pray. I might not fold my hands and close my eyes, but I try to realign my human life with God’s will for humanity. It it incredible how time and time again I can see God clearly.

-Pastor Joel

The Antiochene NO!

(Read Acts Chapter 15 and then this reflection)

Times are challenging in the early Church. The new, but old first church in Jerusalem is up in arms about what’s going on up in Antioch, where bikers and tattoo artists and gypsies and hippies are coming to new life in Christ. They feel as though they are losing control, so they send up some scholars to preach and teach that all the Gentiles turning to Jesus must be circumcised. And we read that “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them.” Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall at that meeting?

Well, they along with other travel back to church headquarters to discuss things further with the apostles and elders (that would be those with decision making power). On the way they add some more enemies of Israel to the fold — Phonecians and Samaritans. Yikes!

They tell their stories of what God’s Spirit is doing to the faithful in Jerusalem. The leaders of a very Jewish Christian early church reiterate that circumcision is necessary to keep the law of Moses. Peter speaks up, reminding them that “if there’s anything we know, it’s that salvation comes through the grace of Jesus. There’s no distinction…we and they all need it, and they have the Holy Spirit just like we do. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

To which Paul and Barnabas jump in and share story after story of all kinds of people placing their faith in Christ. Then the most blessed words of the whole story come: “THE WHOLE ASSEMBLY KEPT SILENCE, AND LISTENED…” They listened, to Barnabus, and Saul, Peter and James, and they listened to the Holy Spirit. We know this, because those with power and under pressure to tow the Mosaic Law line changed their mind! They changed their mind!

They sent ,messengers with a letter back to Antioch, that said, “FOR IT HAS SEEMED GOOD TO THE Holy Spirit AND TO US TO IMPOSE ON YOU NO FURTHER BURDEN…”

The witness of what Willie Jennings called the “Antiochene NO” changed their minds. Here gentiles and Jews shared a new life in God’s grace and as a community were not willing to accept other qualifying necessities that nullified the saving grace of Jesus. This is God’s work, what God is doing in tearing down the walls between them, bringing them together.

This Gentile inclusion brings great joy and Holy trouble to the young church, governed by a people who understand themselves to be chosen and called out and blessed in a way that others are not. Now they must gulp hard, because it is in fact no longer that way, and never will be again, except that in Jesus Christ, the Messiah, ALL, everyone in the world, is chosen, and called out, and blessed.

Paul will relentlessly deal with this issue of the “Us and Them” being put to death in Christ. Here’s what he writes to the Church struggling with this at Galatia:

“Therefore the law (circumcision) was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal 3:24-29)

It’s an amazing moment when the church moved ahead, and opened up to the ways of God. Scholar Luke Timothy Johnson reflects thus: “The text of scripture does not dictate how God should act. Rather, God’s actions dictate how we should understand the text of scripture.” This is important. In Acts 15, the church with great courage went with the actions of God, through the Holy Spirit’s inclusion of All humanity in grace’s invitation, rather than with the old law.

And this is why I will argue for inclusion of all people, because the God of scripture — the Creator of the Cosmos, the Redeemer, Jesus Christ, the Living Word who makes all things new, and the Holy Spirit’s surprising habit of including outsiders that never ends — our God is an inclusive God.

Remember that the Church had the courage to be quiet, and listen, and open up to what God was doing in the world, and say “it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” and they gulped, and wrote a letter welcoming others for the first time.

May it be so, still, that we may be a Church with such courage in these our brief days. That Holy “Antiochene No!” coming to life in us helps the Church follow Christ out into the world.

Peter Hawkinson

Practicing What I Preach

It has happened so often that I really shouldn’t be surprised anymore. But it always catches me off-guard.

This week, I was working on a sermon, to share with another local church that I preached to yesterday morning, about the book of Ruth. And in it, I talked about the way that story reminds us how God is at work, even when all hope seems lost. I spoke at length about Naomi, who in the first five verses of the book is widowed, loses her sons, and returns home to Bethlehem utterly bereft. Naomi talks about how hopeless she is, how there is no future left for her; she calls herself “Mara,” and says that she left Bethlehem full but came back empty. The hand of the Lord, she says, has turned against me.

And yet, by the end of the book, Naomi is a happy grandmother, caring for baby Obed, son of Ruth and Boaz. Her family line is carried on, and includes King David and eventually Jesus.

Naomi thought all was lost, but God was still at work, bringing about redemption and hope, for her and for her people.

I said all this to the congregation at Park Ridge Presbyterian yesterday morning, told them not to lose hope, and then I woke up this morning feeling a little like Naomi again.

Feeling tired and discouraged. Worn out, from all these months of being afraid, taking precautions, not being able to see friends and family in the way that I’d like – and yet recognizing that my suffering is small, compared to those who have actually fallen ill, or lost dear ones to this virus. I felt, and still feel, exhausted by the bitter divisions in this country, and by the legacy of racism and the suffering it causes.

I wondered what God might be up to, or IF God was doing anything in the midst of this.

And I sat in those feelings of hopelessness for a while, before it occurred to me that I’d just, 24 hours ago, preached on this.

Preached a message that I, evidently, needed to hear as much as I needed to share it.

Like I said, I should stop being surprised that this happens so often – that a message I feel called to preach is one I really need to hear for myself. But my capacity for self-forgetfulness is great, and so here I am again, being humbled by God’s reminder that these words are for me too.

So in case you need to hear them, too, let me repeat them to myself and invite you to listen in.

God is still working. Perhaps most especially when it’s hard to see, or to understand, be assured: God has not given up. Not on me, or you, or our situation. Not on the public health crisis, or the evils of racism; not on our societal division or discord. God is still working. Even though we may not be able to see a way forward, God can see one, and making a way for us.

There is work we can do, there is help we can offer to others or receive ourselves, but above all, trust in this: God is at work.

Using us, using strangers, using – in the case of Ruth and Naomi – surprising people, those who could not be more different from us – to bring about healing and hope.

Above all, hear this: the story isn’t over yet. And just because all seems dark, does not mean that is how it ends.

Be open, dear ones, to being surprised.

(And maybe reread the book of Ruth, while you’re at it.)