Wednesday, September 29, 2010

One Foot In Front of the Other

I won't be updating this blog for a couple of days.  I'm going on a walk.  A long walk.  62.5 miles or 100 kilometers to be exact.

This past January, I attended a church conference in San Antonio.  While there, I had the opportunity to hear the President of the Lutheran Church of the Central African Republic (CAR) speak.  Now, I must confess that I knew relatively little about the country and the issues it faced.  That's somewhat sad considering my synod is a partner in ministry with the Lutheran Church of the CAR.

I was fascinated hearing this man speak.  He talked of the conditions of the country and the challenges it faced.  He talked about the lack of resources, lack of health care, the lack of infrastructure--things most of us take for granted.  And then, he touched a nerve:

"The church has grown in membership to 70,000 people," President Golike said.  This is up from 56,000 in just a year or two.  Amazing growth, to say the least.

"We have 70 pastors to serve these people."

Now, the guy really had my attention.  That is a very low number to serve such a large number of folks.

"These pastors each have 100 square kilometers to serve in."

President Golike then described how these pastors serve an itinerant ministry within those 100 square kilometers.  They travel from village to village, church to church, to preach, teach, baptize, and give Holy Communion.

"Most of them walk and get paid the equivalent of $70 per month."

What?  Are you kidding me?  Most of them walk.  62.5 square miles to cover, and most of them WALK!!!  Hell, I drive from Cat Spring to Brenham to visit one of my members who lives in Assisted Living.  It's roughly a 60 mile round trip.  I get to ride in an air conditioned pick up on paved roads, and I get 50 cents a mile in reimbursement.  I get $30 to drive there and back, just a little less than half of what these pastors make in a month.  Man, do I have it easy.  And I don't have to travel from church to church to preach.  Folks come to where I am at. 

"We really need motorcycles to help pastors get from place to place.  They make the work easier, and for the pastors who have them, they have become the main way to get people to medical care."

Damn.  Motorcycles become ambulances.  How great do we have it here?  Could you imagine being taken to a hospital on a motorcycle?  When you are hurt?  Sick?  Ready to give birth?  Geez.

"We partnered with the ELCA and got enough money for 11 motorcycles.  They cost roughly $2,500 each."

Wait a minute.  You are telling me that in a church of nearly 5 million, you could only get 11 motorcycles?  That's poor.  I know that my congregation could do better than that.  Maybe not 11 motorcycles, but we could dang sure do between four and six. 

I knew right then, I wanted to help make a difference for these folks in the CAR.  I knew right then, God had placed on my heart this burden to help these folks get more motorcycles.  The problem was how would this come about?

I approached my congregation council shortly thereafter, and they agreed that we could do something for the pastors in the CAR.  We would do something to raise money to get them motorcycles.  But what?

While picking green beans in my garden that spring, the idea popped into my head.  I had begun walking on a regular basis for health reasons and to lose weight.  Why not walk 100 kilometers?  Why not ask for sponsors in completing the walk?  I could do it--I thought.

I brought the idea to one of my council members.  "Well," he said, "Instead of just Kevin walking, how about we have a team Kevin and a team Dennis, and we have a competition."

Good idea!

Next council meeting:  One of the members asks, "Why not open it up to whoever wants to walk.  Invite other churches to send teams."  Good idea!

Another member chimes in, "What about those who can't walk 100K, can we do something shorter?"  Good idea!

Another: "What if we had a big party at the end?"  Good idea!

All of this is finally coming together this weekend.  I and 11 others will be walking 100 kilometers beginning tomorrow.  On Saturday, we will be having a 10K and a 1K walk at our congregation for those wanting to travel shorter distances and help out.  Other congregations have been invited, and we are hoping for some amazing things.

We set as our goal to raise $10,000--four motorcycles.  I personally have pledges in the amount of $14,000.  We will, at the very least, double our goal.

I know it's going to be a challenge to cover that distance in three days.  I know that I will be sore.  I know my feet will probably hurt.  But if I thoughts of quitting start entering my mind, I will remember my colleagues half a world away who walk each and every day to spread God's Word.  I will remember the sacrifices they make in their endeavor to serve the Lord, and I will put one foot in front of the other.  I will not stop until I finish.  It's the least I can do.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

True Sportsmanship

I blog about it yesterday, and today, what shows up on Yahoo!?


This is what sports should be about.  Can I get an "Amen"?

Monday, September 27, 2010


Watching the Cowboy's game yesterday was a dream come true for me.

I've watched that team play through the good (Super Bowls of the 90's) and the bad (Steve Pelleur, Quincy Carter, and even Ryan Leaf, for Pete's sake! And at least we beat the Redskins during that 1-15 year.).  Believe it or not, I almost teared up when the 'Boys lined up to receive the opening kick off.  It really was a dream of mine to watch the Cowboys play in person, and I can now scratch that one off my bucket list.

I heard more than my fair share of smack talk leading up to the game.  You can't help it living in Houston Texans country like I do.  Several of the jokes I heard actually made me crack up:

Matt Schaub calls Tony Romo and says, "Knock. Knock."
Romo: Who's there?
Schaub: Owen.
Romo: Owen who?
Schaub: O and 3 baby! "click"

What do Billy Graham and the Dallas Cowboys have in common?
Answer: They both can make 50,000 people stand up and say, "Jesus Christ."

What's the difference between 0-2 and 2-0?
Answer: About 250 miles on I-45.

It was with no small amount of pleasure that I witnessed the Cowboys' 27-13 beatdown of the Houston Texans.  And, boy, did I want to gloat!!!

I did, in some small manner posting the following to my Facebook status:

Matt Shaub calls Tony Romo, "Knock.  Knock."...Oh, I'm sorry.  That joke doesn't work anymore.

But honestly, I can't bring myself to do any more than that.  There is something within me that forbids my talking any other smack.

Perhaps it's my own playing of sports that doesn't allow me to do so.  I knew very well the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.  I knew what it was like to open my mouth and trash talk only to have those words shoved down my throat by a better, more disciplined, or hungrier opponent.  I know very well that you can be riding on cloud 9 one day only to be drug through the garbage a week later.  And I know that even in defeat, you give your all.  The last thing you want is someone rubbing your nose in it after you've given everything you have.  It simply motivates you to beat the tar out of someone the next time you have the opportunity.  And, sadly, it raises a good deal of anger within you.

In my estimation, such anger isn't productive, especially in sports.  For heaven's sake, these are games we are talking about.  Games that people are PLAYING!!!  They are not life and death affairs.  They are incredible ways to teach us about life, but they should be relegated to PLAYING and TEACHING.  Nothing more. 

I am glad of the lessons in sportsmanship that I learned during my years playing football, basketball, and running track.  When I wason the field, I learned that my opponent had a name, a face, and a life, just like I did.  I learned that he/she is capable of pain, frustration, and anger.  I learned that he/she wants to win as badly as me.  I was cut from the same mold, and I learned to respect him/her.  Therefore, when a play was in full motion, I did everything legal to win--in football terms, I tried to knock the crap out of my opponent--yet, when the whistle blew, I extended my hand in friendship and helped the other off his back (and more than once, my opponent did the same for me after laying me out).  I learned to play within the rules, and I learned to celebrate the abilities of all parties involved.  I may have hated it when someone scored a touchdown on my team, but I respect the abilities of that person and team who scored.

Likewise, I learned to deal with adversity.  I learned to pick myself up when my team lost.  I learned that sometimes you meet someone who is just better than you are--whose physical abilities simply overwhelm you.  However, I learned that no matter how much better someone was than I physically, I would not allow someone to have more heart than me.  I would leave everything on the field of play and give it my best.  If I gave it my best and still lost, I learned to have no shame.  In sports, sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.  And, honestly, there are more losers when it is all said and done because only one team gets to be champion.  Some would say that this isn't fair, but I would argue, it's life.  One must learn to deal with it and face the fact that one will not always be the best at what one is.

I apply this in my daily life day in and day out.  I know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that I am not the best pastor out there.  I am not the best preacher.  I am not the best at visiting the sick and shut in.  I am not the best administrator.  There are others who are far more capable than I.  I give them credit.  I wish them well.  Yet, I am comfortable within my own abilities.  I don't need to be another Billy Graham.  I don't need to lead a mega-church.  I'm called to be me.  Period. 

Perhaps I will be "successful" in what I do.  I'm more concerned that I am faithful.  I've seen plenty of pastors whose congregations have grown and plenty of pastors whose congregations have shrunk, but I will not talks smack to them.  You never know when the shoe will be on the other foot.  Instead, I try to build up my colleagues--even those with whom I disagree.  I may need encouragement myself one day.

Yesterday, once the game was in hand, a couple of younger men sitting behind us wearing Cowboys jerseys began to talk smack to the Texans fans.  They were annoying as hell.  Part of me was not exactly proud to be a Cowboys fan at that moment.

After they finally left, my wife turned to one of the Texans fans and said, "I'm sorry about those guys.  They really don't represent true Cowboys fans."

The lady looked at my wife and said, "Don't worry.  They're just punks."

The difference between sportsmanship and being a punk.  One of them seems more appropriate and sets a better example.  Where do you fall?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Heathen for a Day

Today, I get to be a heathen--well, perhaps in the minds of some folks.

I am neglecting my duties as a pastor to go watch high priced gladiators duke it out in a modern day colosseum.  I guess there is some consolation in that my congregation president gave me the tickets to the game.  If a congregation president gives a gift to the preacher to skip church, does God understand? *Chuckle*

Oh, and further evidence of my "heathenhood".  I found out the other day that the tickets that I have are being sold for $1800 A PIECE.  Can you believe that?  The parking pass I have is going for $250.  I'm sitting on $3,850 worth of paper.  For a game. 

Oh, if I had bought these tickets myself, I might just sell them and turn a profit, but they were a gift.  It's also a chance to see my favorite team: the Dallas Cowboys.  I may never get this opportunity again.  I'm going to seize it. 

I will take my place with 75,000 fellow "worshipers".  We will go through the "liturgy"; pre game warm up, announcements of the starting line up; the singing of the Star Spangled Banner; and the rig a ma roe surrounding the coin flip and the kick off.  It is quite amazing how similar to a worship service attending one of these games is.  This will be my fifth experience at  a pro football game.

In a sense, I have a divided heart when it comes to pro sports.  I love watching it.  I cheer on my favorite team.  But I have the sense to realize it's just a game.  If the Cowboys lose, I'm not depressed for a week or so.  Yet, some folks take these things so seriously, their mental state is greatly affected by whether their team wins or loses.  I personally can't fathom that.  Life doesn't revolve around football or basketball or baseball or whatever sport one chooses.

My life revolves around my relationship with God, and He has blessed me with a wonderful family and great friends.  These are the things that are of utmost importance to me.  If something happens to them, then my world gets topsy-turvy.  My emotional state gets altered.  That's the way it should be. 

Yet, I will sit in the stands.  I will cheer.  I will have fun.  I will be a heathen for a few hours, but once the game is over, I will swing back to reality, ready to focus on the things that are truly important.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Lazy Day

It's nice to sit and watch my kids play this morning.

It seems like forever since I've had a Saturday just to sit at my computer, read some news, watch the kids, and relax.

It's been a steady stream of shopping trips, travels, and preparation for the 100K walk next weekend. 

This morning, I decided I'd do my walk in the afternoon. 

I needed the break.

It's nice.

Some folks get Sunday as the Sabbath.  Not me.  That's a day of work for me.

Today's the day of rest for me, and it's nice.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

From Ordinary to Extraordinary

When I teach my confirmation kids about Holy Communion, I ask them why they think Jesus used bread and wine.  Of course, the answers vary, but usually I finally get the opportunity to relay to them the fact that in the first century, bread and wine were some of the most common items found in any household.  Even the poor had bread and wine available to them.

Jesus took ordinary, everyday items and turned them into something extraordinary--a holy meal that forgives sins and strengthens faith.

I ask the kids what kind of message it would send if Christ had taken something rare and precious and used it to forgive sins.  For instance, what if Jesus had said rubbing a 12 karat diamond forgave sins.  How many people would have access to a 12 karat diamond?  (Very, very few.) 

One of the neatest aspects of Christianity, at least in my book, is how Jesus used ordinary, everyday things to bring the message of God's love to us.  He didn't try to make things exclusive.  He wanted everyone to be able to share, to be able to relate to the goodness of God.  God could be found in the "everydayness" of life.  You didn't have to go to special places to find Him.

This was rammed home to me just a few minutes ago as I was visiting one of my members who has had a prolonged battle with cancer.  We had a great visit in her home, and as I prepared to leave, she asked me if I had my home Communion kit.  Well, it just so happened that my kit was in my other vehicle.

She replied, "Oh, that's O.K., you can bring it next time."

I don't like doing that.  When someone wants/needs Holy Communion, I want to give it then and there.  It's part of my job, but I also had an experience that has scarred me for life.  I once had a dying member request Communion, and I didn't have my kit.  I told her I would be back to see her on Saturday (it was a Thursday).  She died that Friday.  I swore never again would that happen. 

Now, this member is not likely to die very soon, but I'm not one to take a chance.  I told her then and there, "I don't need my communion kit.  If you have some bread and wine, I can give you communion right now."

A short, few minutes later, we had a piece of Mrs. Baird's bread, and a shot of homemade wine sitting before us.  Ordinary items.

I prayed with her, and then began the words of institution, "In the night in which He was betrayed..."

The ordinary became extraordinary.  Bread and wine became body and blood.  Sins were forgiven.  Faith was strengthened.  All because God chooses to make the common, holy.

Come to the Party

Saw this obituary in the Seguin Gazette Enterprise:

Billy “Mr. Bill” Stanley Smith
A memorial party will be held Saturday, Sept. 25 for Billy “Mr. Bill” Stanley Smith.

Smith was born June 13, 1936 and passed away on Sept. 14, 2010.

The party will include a fish fry at Bait & Brew, 8614 FM 725 in McQueeney starting at 4 p.m. All friends of Mr. Bill are invited to celebrate his life.

I didn't know Mr. Smith.  Never ran across him when I served a church in Seguin, but after reading this obit, I wish I would have.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Connecting with Critics

My last two posts have painted critics in a very unfavorable light, yet as a leader, I believe one must strive to stay connected to one's critics.  That may sound strange given what I have said, but let me try to explain.

One of the first reasons I say such a thing is due to my study of a philosophy called Bowen Family Systems Theory.  Without going too deeply into the philosopical and psychological jargon, BFST basically states that a person must be willing to take a stand and then expect criticism.  Expect someone to disagree with you.  Expect someone to react to what you have done.  When leaders work for change, it upsets the "homeostasis" of a group.  A system will naturally try to head back to where it is comfortable, and critics are generally those who try to push a system back to homeostasis.  As such, when critics begin speaking, it means that you are doing something right.  There is no need to fight back against what they say.  Neither is there a need to run from them.  Simply standing on principle and taking their shots with as little reactivity as possible is a good thing.

I am reminded of the final showdown in the Harry Potter books when Harry willingly faces off with Lord Voldemort.  He doesn't attack.  He doesn't run.  He allows Voldemort to zap him with the "Avayda Kadarva" curse.  Harry is "killed", but through his stand, he defeats Voldemort.

Such critics also help a leader see his or her blind spot.  Oftentimes, critics see things that we cannot, and sometimes they do raise valid issues.  A leader willingly takes the criticism--but not personally--so that he or she can make sure all facets of an issue are addressed.  One simply cannot completely ignore them.

The second reason for listening to critics is a theologically based one.  In 1 Corinthians chapter 12, St. Paul compares the church to a body:

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear were to say, ‘Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body’, that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’, nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honourable we clothe with greater honour, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honour to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honoured, all rejoice together with it.

In a very real way, St. Paul says that even critics are part of the body of Christ.  At times, I might think that critics are...well, can I be a little colorful here?...***holes.  (Bet you didn't think pastors had such thoughts, huh?)  However, one of the things that was pointed out to me once regarding critics is: if you think a body can live without an ***hole, try living without yours.

You can't.  Critics are a necessary part of life, as are leaders.  Should they be given too much sway?  Not necessarily, but they are valuable in their assessment and good to keep around.  After all, they are children of God too.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Looking for the Weakness

I'd like to piggy-back my thoughts today on yesterday's blog regarding leadership.  I talked about the difference between leaders and critics and how it's much easier to be a critic, and today, I wanted to do a little bit of reflecting on that which we focus.

I remember watching the movie "Boomerang" long ago and far away.  I can't tell you the plot of the movie or many of the details; however I do remember a piece of it with startling clarity.  Eddie Murphy plays a womanizer.  He is in search of the "perfect" woman--of course, I am talking physically at this point.  He woos a lady and entices her to sleep with him.  I can remember the first woman in the movie being an absolute knockout.  She has a perfect hour-glass figure.  Stunning eyes.  Lucious lips.  Eddie's character and this woman have their tryst, and while she is still sleeping, Murphy slowly draws up the covers.  He exposes a set of feet that look like they have a few too many miles on them.  Murphy grimaces, and that's the last we see of this woman.  Murphy's character wants the "perfect" woman right down to her toes.  Every single part must be perfect.  No exceptions.


But how often do we do the same?  How often do we focus on some one's imperfections?  One's weaknesses?  How often do we believe the strongest chain is only as good as its weakest link?  And, we focus all our attention on that weakest link trying to make it as strong as possible? 

Look at our current school system.  You know, the one controlled by all those government bureaucrats.  Which students do they focus on?  Do they focus on the students who are exceptional in their academic achievement, or do they focus on the students who are at the bottom levels?  Do they spend millions in resources striving to push those who excel to new heights, or do they spend countless dollars at those at the bottom of the ladder hoping to push them up a few rungs?  And is this beneficial?

Now, let me pause a moment to say I am not saying we shouldn't help out those students or those people at the bottom of the ladder.  Far from it.  There are those who desperately need a hand up.  There are those who would indeed excel if given the chance and resources.  But, the God-honest truth of the matter is there are just some students who do not have the learning capacity and ability to handle advanced courses.  There are some people who are not meant to go to college.  There is no shame in that--none, at all.

But instead of giving a kid who doesn't have a high IQ room to use another talent--say working with his or her hands--we want to try and boost them up and make them the equivalent of an honor student.  Newsflash: won't happen. 

Relationships are not chains.  Indeed, if they were, we would all be in trouble because each of us has strengths, and each of us has weaknesses.  There is no one person who has it all together.  That's a fact.

Here's a novel idea.  Instead of focusing on a person's weaknesses and strengthening them--maybe a notch or two higher, start focusing on a person's strengths.  Focus on what they do well, and give them the freedom to develop that gift--that talent--into something special.  Don't force a kid who is artistic to become a mathematician.  Don't force a mathematician to become a great artist.  The likelihood of that happening is slim to none. 

Oh, but there is a drawback to such a stance.  You cannot have a cookie cutter approach to life.  You cannot have a cookie cutter approach to education.  It simply isn't possible.  You have to treat each individual case on an individual basis.  You have to treat each person differently and allocate resources differently.  There are some who just can't abide to see such a thing happen.

But what is so wrong with it?  Why is it such a difficult thing to grasp?  Do we feel bad that folks are treated unequally?  Do we wish equal outcomes instead of equal opportunity?  And is there even such a thing as equal opportunity?  Not exactly.  I do not have a chance academically with someone who has an IQ of 150.  Is that unfair?  No.  We are simply different.  We both have a chance to excel in life, but we have different circumstances that afford us different opportunities.

Yet, we seem to want to make everyone the same.  We seem to want to make everyone fit into one box.  Not possible.  I think we need a new approach, and I'll use my philosophy of pastoring to highlight it.

I believe there are basically two types of pastors in the world.  The first are pastors who believe they know what a congregation should and shouldn't be like.  These pastors work very hard to take a congregation and make it "fit" their understanding.

These pastors are comparable to coaches who believe in a "system," and they coach only their "system."  In this time, a good example of this is Rich Rodriguez who is the head coach of Michigan.  Rich came to Michigan a couple of years ago, and it hasn't been a pretty sight until this year.  Why?  He didn't have players who "fit" his system.  They were recruited under a different coaching staff, and they simply didn't have the talents needed to make Rich's system work.  It's not to say that these players weren't talented, but their talents didn't mesh with the system.  The results speak for themselves.  Michigan will continue to lose football games until the right players are brought in.

Unfortunately, pastors who play this philosophy aren't lucky enough to have turnover in "players."  Folks who join congregations are usually there for the long haul.  They are there year after year after year, and if pastors continue to try to force their system upon a group that doesn't mesh well with it, the results are disastrous.

Which brings me to the second type of pastor.  This type of pastor heads into a congregation, and instead of trying to make that congregation fit a "system", that pastor takes the time to figure out what gifts and talents the congregation has.  He/she takes the time to figure out the strengths of the church, and then he/she designs a "system" around the people.

My coaching analogy is Bill Parcels here.  Love him or hate him, he does this.  When he first took over the Dallas Cowboys, I remember him being asked what "system" he would bring to the table.  He informed those who asked that he needed time to assess his players' strengths, and then based upon those, he would design a system.  You needed to look no further than Parcel's willingness to continue to run a 4-3 defense the first year he was with the Cowboys because he didn't have the personnel for a 3-4 defense, which was his preferred style.

Pastors can easily do the same thing if they get to know a congregation and work with its strengths.  However, far too many want to harp on the weakness and try to make the weak strong.  What if...what if working with the strengths made the strengths stronger, and by virtue of making the strengths stronger, it actually brought up the weakness?  What if instead of focusing on the weakness, one focused on the strengths?  What kind of difference would that make?

Monday, September 20, 2010

Leaders and Critics

These are some reflections on some comments in a Bible study that I taught yesterday at church:

It seems in our society today, we hunger for leaders.  We want someone who knows who he/she is, and we want him/her to be very defined in his/her beliefs.  We admire such folks, particularly if they seem even the least bit heroic--if they go above and beyond the call of duty and inspire hope.

Yet, even though we crave such individuals, we do not hesitate to tear them apart as a shark would do to someone who is bleeding in the water.  You have no further to go than politics, and as to not offend too greatly, I will cite examples from both sides of the political spectrum.

When President Obama was elected, he could almost do no wrong.  He had one of the highest, if not the highest approval rating of any incoming president.  No one dared speak an ill word of him.  How times have changed.  This guy is getting ripped to shreds by just about anybody and everybody.

On the opposite side, we have Christine O'Donnell.  She seemingly came out of nowhere to garner the Republican nomination for Senate in Delaware.  She ran on her principles as a conservative and as a Christians.  Yet, how long did it take for folks to start tearing into her?  Less than 24 hours. 

These two individuals, from polar opposite principles and values are striving to be leaders; yet there are those who are more interested in ripping them to shreds than doing anything constructive.

I once heard a rather interesting definition of a critic, "A critic is someone who never actually goes to the battle, yet who afterwards comes out and shoots the wounded."  What an apt illustration.

In my somewhat warped view of the world, I believe that there are two ends of the spectrum with folks dotted all along it.  On one end, you have those who are willing to roll up their sleeves, get dirty, and make a difference.  On the other end, you have those who believe they make the biggest difference in life by telling the other end how they are doing things wrong.  Leaders and critics.

I have personally told members of my congregation that I will not ask them to do something that I am not willing to do myself.  Therefore, when I preach a sermon or ask them to participate in an activity, I make sure that I am visibly doing the same things.

This is why I will wash dishes after a meal at the church.  This is the reason I volunteer to cook meals at our senior service and Lenten suppers.  This is why I give 10% of my salary to the church.  This is why I will work in the church flowerbeds.  This is why I help move tables and chairs.  This is why I tell folks that I too have a hard time sharing my faith with a complete stranger, but I strive to share in other, non-verbal ways.  Not only must I talk the talk, but I must walk the walk to have any credibility.

Am I faced with criticism?  You bet.  I've heard plenty of it.  It can be extremely frustrating.  However, I am learning to hear criticism as applause.  Yes, you heard that correctly.  I am learning to hear criticism as applause because it means that I am at least doing something.  Usually, it is folks who like the status quo, who want things to remain the same that jeer the loudest.  However, if one looks at the world and knows that there are imperfections...there is injustice...there are people who are in need...people are hurting; how can one ever be satisfied?  How can anyone want everything to stay the same?

I believe leaders don't want things to stay the same.  I believe they have a vision of a world that is better than the current one.  Yes, there are competing visions.  But instead of criticizing, maybe, critics should not only put their visions out there, but start working and getting their hands dirty themselves.  They might just find it's a lot more difficult than they thought.

Which do you want to be?  A leader or a critic?

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Something Old...

Today we had our Gospel service in church.

We've got a little band that specializes in country Gospel.  Songs like: "I Saw the Light"; "I'll Fly Away"; "Old Rugged Cross" and the like.

Once a month we do an entire service with these hymns that are older than...well, at least older than most folks that I know.

It's rather interesting that most folks absolutely love the service and love the music.  Across generations, from the very young to the very old, people tap their feet and sing louder than they do at a "regular" worship service.

It goes against the grain that many of the "experts" told us about church worship.  I can't tell you how many times I heard or read the "experts" tell me that in order to grow a congregation, you had to have contemporary music complete with electric guitars, keyboards, amps, etc.

Yeah, right.  Whatever.

I have found this advice isn't necessarily true.  Folks still respond to those old Gospel tunes.  They still feel uplifted and inspired.  They will even clap--which in a Lutheran congregation is a very, very, very, very big deal.

I don't know why we seem quick to discard those things that had meaning in the past.  Radio stations don't play the oldies.  Television shows that once drew millions are relegated to TV Land.  Cartoons that I grew up with are classified as "too violent."  (Yeah, Tom and Jerry and the Roadrunner/Coyote inspired us to do many acts of violence growing up.)  Oh, and let's not get started on the old fashioned way of human relationships.   Well, let's...

Spanking.  Some expert comes along and says, "It ruins your kid's self esteem.  It's abusive."  Next thing you know, kids are running the house and parents are not allowed to be parents.  Men treated women with respect, opening doors for them and going out of their way to be helpful.  Suddenly, some "expert" comes along and says, "Women and men are totally equal.  Such behavior is chauvinistic."  Next thing you know, you get yelled at for being nice.  Ridiculous.

Now, don't get me wrong.  There are some old ways that I wouldn't give you a plugged nickle for.  Try to bring back discrimination, and I'll have something to say.  Bring back the idea that women should only be barefoot and pregnant, and I'll have issues.  Yet, there was a wisdom that our elders had and have that some of us have lost because we are chasing after everything that's new.

As I age, I am becoming more and more old fashioned.  Perhaps that's not such a bad thing.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Too much pride?

I'm mostly of German descent.

Some might consider that a good thing.  Others, not so much.

The Germanic culture is a strange one, but fun to live within.  We have our quirks and idiosyncrasies.  One of them has to do with pride.  In the Germanic culture, pride truly goeth before the fall.  One dare not be proud of oneself--for that is big headedness.  One dare not be proud of others--for they will eventually let you down.  One dare not be proud of an organization or institution that one belongs to--for the bottom will eventually fall out.

Kind of mind boggling that we set ourselves up for failure, you know?  Or, perhaps it is setting our expectations low enough so that we are surprised by success.  Who rightfully knows?

Which brings me to the point of today's blog: I am feeling just a tinge of pride for my congregation at this point.  That may be a good thing, or, since I am German, a bad thing.  I'll let you decide.

Some are familiar with what my congregation is working toward at this moment in time:

Yes, we are working to provide pastors in the Central African Republic with dirt bikes, and we've invited other congregations to join us in this endeavor.  It's cool to see several of them join in and help out.

I've been in correspondence with a lady who is leading a team of seven individuals from a large congregation.  This church has well over 1000 members.  They have been fundraising and working for a couple of weeks.  They have shared with me that their goal for contribution to this endeavor is $2,500.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm excited and thrilled that they are shooting to contribute this much.  It's roughly one dirt bike.  I hope they exceed their goal.

But, here's the rub, and the reason "the sin of pride" is creeping upon me.  For several weeks, I sent a sponsor sheet around my congregation asking folks to sponsor me.  Most folks wrote down what they would contribute.  Others left that part blank, but they will get money to me when all is said and done.  Simply tabulating what is on my sheet alone (believe me, more has come in from folks in my congregation that haven't signed up) was $2,750.  My church has roughly 360 members. 

This doesn't include their contributions of bottled water and snacks for the journeys.  It doesn't include the donated hours of time that they have put in either.

Now, I am not necessarily trying to say that my congregation is somehow better than this other church.  No.  Not a chance.  This other church has other activities that they blow us out of the water with, but I am saying that I am proud of my folks.  Their generosity is outstanding, and...dare I say it...I am proud of them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Speed of the Spirit

I don't know why I keep getting surprised by how God uses people to accomplishes good in the world.

I have come to believe that most folks want to do good.

Most folks want to make a difference.

That's why many are willing to give of their time and money in helping others.

But it still astounds me how quickly things come about.

Last night.  I sent out a church-wide email to my congregation.  The lady who I blogged about earlier had asked me to keep my eyes and ears open for a double bed that she could use through the duration of her illness.  Shortly thereafter, I received an email from another one of my congregation members asking for a mattress for a man in Sealy who was having back pains.  He didn't have the financial means to get a new one.  I passed these needs onto my congregation.

This morning, at 7:00 a.m. I received a phone message from a lady in my congregation.  She had beds to GIVE to both.  And here is where things get really good.  She literally had a medical bed that would adjust up and down for the lady with cancer.

I called both parties to inform them that we had bedding procured.  When I told the lady with cancer what we had she immediately replied, "That's great!  I needed something like that because I can't breathe when I lay down.  I have to keep my head propped up."

Now, go figure that out.  Coincidence that this woman just happened to have two beds for two people in need in this area?  And coincidence that she just happened to have a bed that was perfect for this lady with cancer?  And coincidence that this was put together so fast?

I...don'  It's the Spirit of God, moving only as He can, and moving fast!

It's an awesome thing to see.  Too bad we won't hear about such stories on the news.  They don't incite anger or frustration or helplessness.  Instead, they inspire hope, joy, and goodness.  And we all know that no one really cares about such good tidings.  (sarcasm off) 

I hope this story gives you hope just like it does me.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Facing Death

People are quite amazing.

Each person is different.

Each person views the world and events in the world differently.

Each person responds differently to certain situations.

As a pastor, I see this all the time.  The rubber really hits the road during traumatic situations--when faced with sudden, serious illness; with a dramatic shift in job circumstances; or when faced with death.

In the past week, a somewhat younger (as I get older the definition of younger changes drastically) member of my congregation has been diagnosed with cancer.  It's lung cancer which generally has a 98% terminal rate.  It has already moved into other organs.  It is causing fluid to build up around her lungs causing her pain and shortness of breath.  Doctors have given her a prognosis of 18 months to two years with treatment.  Faced with such news, her reactions have been nothing less than amazing.

"I'm not afraid to die, Pastor," she told me.  "I'm just not ready to do it yet."

What an amazingly truthful statement.  A statement of true faith in my estimation.  I mean, as people who profess that death is not the end, why should we fear death?  We know where we are headed when we cross that threshold, don't we?  Christians believe we are going to be with God, correct?  And yet, I cannot tell you how many folks I have come upon who are afraid to die.  They are afraid to let go of life on earth.  Not that I don't completely blame them.  It's scary heading someplace that you really and truly have no experience of--yet, we have our faith which tells us what is on the other side.  If we really believe it, why do we fear?  This woman doesn't fear it--at all.

"Pastor, I have never grieved for anyone at their funeral when I knew where they were going."

She knows.  She knows she will get to see them again.  She knows they go to a better place than this world.  She realizes what her Christian faith has taught her, and she has the faith of a child when it comes to its practice.  She really believes it.  Even to the point of realizing that grief at a funeral is directed toward missing a person here on earth--not because of the supposed finality of it all.

"I've wanted to shake my fist at God wondering why such things happened."

Haven't we all, though?  Haven't we all wondered why?  Haven't we questioned why a person is lying in a young age...ravaged by disease or illness...taken by a tragic accident...killed in war...or before they had a chance to breathe their first breath?  Haven't we been angry at such things?  And how many of us have the faith to shake our fist at God?  How many of us had the faith to go toe to toe with the Almighty and say, "What were you thinking?  Why did you allow this?  Couldn't you have done something to help them, save them, let them live?"  Not all of us have the comfort to bargain or negotiate with God like Abraham did, or to wrestle with Him until He blesses us like Jacob did, but what an amazing faith to have.

"But I'm just not ready to die yet."

Man, can I relate to that statement.  This woman has written out her bucket list.  She has many things she wishes to accomplish.  There are things to do and sights to see.  Life is wonderful to experience.  And lest you think that this woman has lived a charmed life, you would be mistaken.  She's been through the ringer.  Abusive relationship, mental health issues, struggling financially, numerous health issues, family estrangement to name a few of the things she has had to battle with.  But she knows there is good with the bad.  She knows there is joy in the sorrow.  There are thorns, but there are roses as well.  Big, beautiful roses.  And she's not ready to stop looking at them just yet.  There are a few more she wants to smell, touch, and gaze upon.

Who can blame her?  She loves her grandchildren and wants to see them.  One of them has the possibility of playing professional baseball.  She'd love to hear whether or not he goes pro.  She loves working with children.  She's been a substitute teacher for quite some time, and when she talks about working with those kids, her face lights up like a million light bulbs.  She wants to be able to enjoy such things.  This world has too much good in it that counterbalances the bad.  I can't blame her one bit for her enjoyment of it and her desire to cram as much of it in as possible.

In the coming weeks, she has decisions to make on treatments.  She doesn't want to spend the rest of her days sick and weak.  She wants to have quality over quantity.  Can't blame her for that one either.  Not sure I want to spend my days weak and upchucking because they are pumping toxic chemicals into my system just to prolong my life a few weeks or months.  But I can say that as someone who is not facing what she is facing.  Don't know if I would be so brave, but I do know, I admire her.  She has a tough path to walk, or from where I come from, "a tough row to hoe."  But she is faith-full.  Someone to learn much from.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Country Life

As I have grown older, I have been drawn to the country.  The seeds were planted long ago when my dad forced me to walk through my grandfather's cotton patch with a hoe in my hand chopping out anything that wasn't a cotton plant.  Those seeds were watered as I worked with my grandfather, riding on the tractor and hopping off to pull countless weeds.  They took root during the summers of my college career as I returned each summer to work at Banquete Grain Co-Op, staying many nights with my grandparents.  I remember getting to grandma and grandpa's after work only to have my grandfather tell me to jump in the truck.  We were heading to the cotton patch to see if there were any weeds.  I, of course would have to jump out and pull them.  But I remember riding in the bed of the truck as the sun set over the coastal plain.  I remember the sea breeze blowing through the cotton and rustling the leaves.  I can taste the dust kicked up by combines and cotton pickers.  They had finished their day's work as we drove around, and I discovered the beauty of fields and wind and wide open spaces.  I began reading Louis L'Amour about this time, and his descriptions of the beauty of rural areas coupled with being in such a place touched a place deep within me.

I've spent time in urban areas.  Yes, there was a bit of excitement there.  It was nice to have all the conveniences minutes down the road.  There are countless avenues to keep oneself entertained, and places that are willing to relieve you of your money very quickly.  But as I remarked to folks after visiting my sister in Plano, TX, "There was too much concrete; too many people; and too many cars packed into too small a place."  And I meant it.

I do not like the rat race.  I do not like feeling like I'm rushed.  I do not like noise--even the white noise of traffic--at all hours of the day and night.  Being in the country allows a person to slow down, to look, and to listen. 

As I prepare for a walk-a-thon that will cover 62.5 miles in three days, I have the opportunity to walk around the countryside.  For long stretches, the sound of silence surrounds me.  It's quiet, and I absolutely love it.  Well, I technically can't say that it's totally quiet as the country side has its own symphony of sounds: the wind blowing over the grass and through the trees; cattle calling and chewing their cuds; donkey's braying; horses blowing; bugs buzzing.  I can hear a car coming miles before I actually see it.  I can hear a train whistle blow knowing the nearest crossing is six or seven miles away.  If folks are outside, I can hear them talking to each other, and everyone I meet along the way offers a friendly wave or greeting.

I contrast this with a trip that I took to Houston not too long ago.  I was early for my appointment, so I stopped in Memorial Park for a short time.  Many folks walked along the walking/jogging path.  No one greeted me or anyone else for that matter.  Nearly all were absorbed in listening to their MP3 players or talking with a friend who just happened to be with them.  The sounds of I-10 drifted over the green belt and drowned out the sounds of the wind and the insects and, of course, the sound of silence.  I couldn't stand to be there too long.  It was too noisy.

I have found that in the quiet, I have the opportunity to listen--to the sounds of the plants and animals, to the sound of creation, and to the still, small whisper that is the voice of God.  He doesn't always speak as I walk, but I have heard Him more in the country because I am less distracted. 

I know that God is everywhere.  Of this, I have no doubts.  But I cringe to think of all the things that we use to drown out His voice.  Cars, radios, MP3s, home theaters, televisions, satellite t.v. and radio, electronic gadgets that allow us to watch football games in the middle of forests (can you believe that commercial?).  What I wouldn't give at times to chunk my cell phone so that it won't interrupt the sounds of silence.  Sounds that are conducive to hearing the Lord when He speaks.

Perhaps one day, I will be called to head into the city once again, but I am hoping that day will come late and end quickly.  For I belong where it is quiet.  Where life moves slowly.  Where I am at peace.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Going Back

This past Sunday, I preached at my internship congregation.  What an experience that was.  It's been eleven years since I've worshiped at St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Waco, and a lot has transpired in that amount of time.

Eleven years ago, St. Matthew was a thriving congregation.  We were gaining members right and left.  Few left, and those that did, left because of job transfers or other such things.  Sure, we had one or two folks get a little disgruntled, but that happens everywhere.  I have learned there is no such thing as appeasing everyone.  Despite such things, St. Matthew's future looked relatively bright.

Well, it looked that way, but it wasn't necessarily so.  You see, St. Matthew was gaining in membership because the other two ELCA congregations in Waco were having quite a bit of difficulty.  They had conflict, and members left those two churches and joined St. Matthew.  In effect, St. Matthew wasn't really getting "new" members--unchurched folks who were becoming new Christians; instead, they were getting transplants.

I pointed this out toward the end of my internship to some good friends I had made in the congregation as I asked, "What's going to happen to St. Matthew when the other two churches stabilize or die?"  The answer was, "That's a good question."

The answer has not been pretty.  St. Matthew has dwindled in size.  It's not quite as cheery as it used to be.  Not quite as warm and hospitable.  Folks know it's declining.  Offerings are down.  There is a general uneasiness that is palpable when one comes in.  It was not at all pleasant to experience this kind of change.

Of course, I was greeted very warmly by those who remembered me, but sadly, the change that had come over the place didn't set well with me.

It is disheartening to know that many congregations in my denomination (and in several others) are experiencing the same things.  It's tough to see so many churches in decline.  It's tough to watch my current denomination split apart before my very eyes.  I know that God must mourn when He watches part of the Body of Christ break once again.

Perhaps it is the way of all things.  Perhaps, as human beings, we just can't help but become embroiled in conflict.  Perhaps we can't but help but become caught up in self-righteousness.  Perhaps we can't help but want to be a part of the church yet want no true responsibility for it's success or its failure.  We say proudly that we are a member of a congregation when things are good, but we can run away just as fast when things turn south.  *sigh*

Yet, I take great comfort in two things: 1. The church will continue to exist no matter what.  As parts of it die off, other new shoots begin forming and branching out.  Exciting things occur because, after all, God is still in charge of the church, and He will not let it completely die. 

2. It doesn't have to be the way it is.  No, it doesn't.  I just don't buy it that the nature of the church is to grow, bloom, wither, and die.  I don't believe congregations go through this cycle.  You cannot tell me that there is a single place in this country where every person is involved in a religious organization.  You cannot tell me that there is such a thing as an entirely Christian town.  There is every reason for the church to grasp and hold and follow Jesus' last command to His disciples in Matthew 28, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."  For some reason, churches and congregations fail to stay focused on this purpose and mission given to the disciples.

Instead, we get caught up in battles over who should and shouldn't be pastors.  We get caught up in battles in who is and who isn't a sinner.  We get caught up in battles about who should be doing what in the church.  We get caught up in battles over how to spend the church's money.  We get caught up in battles over what color to paint the women's restroom and whether or not to buy a refrigerator or a freezer.  When is the last time a church had a battle over how best to invite the new neighbors down the street to church?  When's the last time the church had a battle not over whether or not to help someone out, but how much that person needed?  When's the last time a church had a battle over how best to be a witness to Jesus Christ in the community?

There are no good reasons for a church to decline and die.  There just aren't.  There are plenty of excuses, and instead of pointing the finger at anything and everything, perhaps we in the church should remember that when we point one finger at someone else, there are always three fingers pointing right back at us.

Where is the excitement to be the church of the Great Commission?  Where is the passion that flows down to us from a God who desires all to come to be His children and then flows outward from us into the world?  I believe that if a congregation truly desires to be a channel of this love, it can't help but thrive.  I mean it.  You might not see tremendous growth numerically--especially if you are out in the middle of nowhere, but I doubt that you will see too many folks rushing for the doors.  And if you are planted in a place surrounded by people, watch out.  When you seek to follow the Great Commission, you will explode.

But how can folks who spend so little time thinking about the church or whose lives push church to the edges develop such a passion?  How can they be inspired to make such a difference?  I know that without the power of the Holy Spirit, they cannot and will not.

"Come Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with the power of your love.  Kick us in the seat of our pants and set our tails afire so that we can't help but want to proclaim the great things that you have done!"

Thursday, September 9, 2010

A Football Rant

I love football season.  Could care less about basketball.  Can't drink enough to enjoy baseball.  What in the world is soccer?  For me, it's football.  In my mind, it's THE sport.

Of course, I am watching the Vikings/Saints right now.  Don't have a vested interest in who wins or loses, but am enjoying the game.  Except for the beginning.  The part right after the national anthem.  The part where all the players walked out on the field holding up their pointer fingers in the air.

Al Michaels says, "They're holding up their fingers symbolizing that they are one."  Apparently, this is the players' way of showing they are in solidarity with one another as they face the upcoming labor dispute with the owners.

"Geez," I thought to myself.  "These guys really need some perspective."

I mean, don't get me wrong, I love pro-sports.  I'm a Cowboys fan through and through, but give me a break.  

These guys, both the owners and the players are arguing about how much they make off of a blasted game.  It's not like their major sources of income contribute anything meaningful to society.  (Note: I am well aware of different players' and owners having charities that they established because of their wealth.  These are worthwhile things.  The battle they are trying to wage is asinine.)  In my estimation, it's a battle between greed and greed.  Not a single player makes less than six figures.  Not a single owner is less than a multi-millionaire, and a few of them are billionaires. 

How many of these folks have lost perspective on reality?  Players claim they lay their bodies and, to an extent, their lives on the line.  I agree that they are high priced gladiators, but what makes them so special that they feel more valuable than a teacher who works in an inner city school where gang violence is prevalent and his/her life is truly on the line.  And he/she makes much, much less while trying to make a meaningful contribution to society.  What the heck does the ability to run fast with a pig skin sphere contribute to society?  And honestly, have any of these guys ever worked in a real job?  You know, a job where they had to worry about falling revenues, layoffs, pay cuts, and having enough cash to last week to week to pay the bills?  It's hard to have sympathy for them.

And as for the owners.  These guys are business men and women.  I understand that, but where is the limit to their greed as well?  I look at the new Cowboys stadium.  I marvel at its design and engineering.  It truly is a wonder, just as the Roman Colisseum is a wonder, but is the excess necessary?  Do we really need such extravagant arenas of entertainment?  Arenas that cost over a billion dollars?  Good grief.  Do you know how many people our local food pantry could feed with just 1% of that? 

As a lower, middle-class guy, I have one piece of advice for these guys: get real.  Most of you players make more than 90% of people for playing a game.  Stop thinking that you are victims.  You are privileged.  Come spend a year living on my income with my lifestyle and then go back to your game and see how blessed you really are.  To you owners: congratulations on your ability to make a buck, but be generous.  Most of you have more money than 99% of the rest of us.  You are majorly blessed.  Now be a blessing to others.  You'd get more sympathy if you were really and truly interested in making a difference in your communities instead of padding your bottom lines.  If you gave away half of your profits to local charities, food pantries, and community projects designed to help people overcome poverty and become contributing members of society, you'd have the sympathies of working people like myself.  You would find it amazing just how much respect you would get by being generous.

Luke 12: 15 "And Jesus said to them, ‘Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’"

And, might I add, money.

Now, I'm going to be a bit of a hypocrite.  I'm going to get off this blog and go watch some football.  I'll even take off a Sunday later this year to watch the Cowboys/Texans game.  But there will be a part of me, a segment in the back of my mind that will vomit when I see the players stick their fingers up in the air.


This Sunday will be a unique opportunity for me.  I have been asked to preach at my mentor's 30th anniversary of ordination.  It's quite interesting that his 30th year of anniversary coincides with my 10th, and we're both getting to celebrate together.

I can first remember meeting my mentor almost 14 years ago at Christ Lutheran Church in Georgetown.  My wife had been hired to serve as their church secretary while I was in seminary.  Of course, I was a wet behind the ears youngster who thought I could change the world (and the church) without much difficulty.  Paul looked me over and saw that I might have a chance at doing this pastor thing, but he also knew if my idealism wasn't tempered a little, I could be in trouble.

From that day on, Paul took me under his wing.  We spent many hours in conversation, talking about the way church was supposed to be and the way the church really was.  Thankfully, my parents raised me to learn from others' experiences as well as be critical.  Paul had survived some pretty rough places, and he was a wealth of knowledge.

I tell people that I had two separate sets of training while I was in seminary during those four years.  One was my formal education, sitting in classes and listening to professors talk.  The other was my informal education, sitting with Paul and learning the workings of congregations and how peoples' lives affect one's job.  Guess which education I refer to most now.

Paul is an excellent mentor.  He's stubborn, just like me.  But he's compassionate, like me.  He's a little left of center, not like me, but I can live with that because he doesn't force his understandings on me anymore than I force my understandings on him.  We both agree that the church is broken and it's not likely to be fixed in our lifetimes.  We both resent authority and tend to go our own way.  Our similarities have helped us forge a strong bond of friendship, and I am thankful for that. 

But it is Paul's methodology of teaching that has been most helpful.  He never has told me what I have to do.  He has always given me the freedom to make my own choices and decisions.  When faced with an issue, he'll list out the pros and the cons.  He'll listen to me explain the consequences I expect, and then he will fill me in on the unexpected consequences.  It's those unexpected ones that will get you.  After helping me see as many angles as possible, I have the freedom of choice.  Several times I have plunged ahead.  Several times, I have taken a different course because of his insights. 

How often do we take advantage of such mentors today?  How often do we take the time to sit down at the feet of those who have been there, done that?  Sometimes, I think we like to disregard the wisdom of those who have endured the battles because "we know better" and "this time it will be different."  But is it really?  Do we really know better or is it just our perception?  Are we better off because we have sit in some classes and learned from people who are supposed to know such things, or are we better off because we have spent time with someone who has gotten one's hands dirty and bloody by doing the actual work?

I know there is a place for learning things through education, yet, I have come to believe that learning from someone who is in the trenches day in and day out is much more valuable. 

Today, I thank God for mentors.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Burning the Koran

It is quite disturbing to see the hullabaloo surrounding the Florida pastor and his congregation that is announcing an "International Burn the Koran Day".

First off, I do not approve of the burning.  I tend to be a "do unto others" kind of guy.  I don't want anyone taking the Bible and burning it to make a statement.  I consider it to be a holy book, and I would hope that others would respect my beliefs enough to not burn the Bible. 

Yet, the conundrum is that we are a nation based upon freedoms.  This pastor and his congregation have every right to burn the Koran if they so choose.  I many not like it.  I may not approve of it, but I can't stop them from exercising what they believe to be right.

The rub for me is: why all the attention?  This is the disturbing part to me.  Why is the media plastering this story all over the place?  General David Petraeus has said the incident could inflame the religious extremists and put our troops in harm's way.  (As if somehow they aren't already????)  Several others are expressing their condemnation even calling it "disgraceful" and "idiotic." 

It looks to me like the media is once again trying to fabricate discord, anger, and strife.  It looks to me like someone is intentionally trying to throw gasoline on a fire to see it explode.  Is this healthy? 

By all rights, I shouldn't even be talking about the story itself, but I think there should be some healthy condemnation thrown toward those who have blown this story up and given it national headlines.  So what if a small, podunk congregation that is declining decides to burn the Koran?  Let them do it.  Ignore it.  Move on to more important stuff.  Maybe the congregation posts a YouTube video of it.  But that's as far as it goes.  They don't get any attention (that they are obviously clamoring for).  No one outside the Gainsville area knows about it.  Our troops don't get any undue attention.  And the manufactured uproar never occurs.

You know, it's truly sad to me that garbage like this gets portrayed as real news.  We'll plaster this crap all over the place and ignore the truly good stories that uplift humanity.  I guarantee, if the press were as active in Jesus' day, we'd hear all types of stories about the beheading of John the Baptist, and we wouldn't hear a thing about the Good Samaritan.  Yet, which of those Bible stories has had the most profound impact throughout history?

You know, I wonder what would happen if the media decided to print more about the goodness of humanity.  Would we be inspired to be better people?  Would we live in less fear?  Would we think that this world isn't such a bad place to live?  And how does our faith play into such a thing?

Jesus calls us to be salt and light.  Making a difference by adding spice to blandness and illuminating that which is dark.  I'd bet a dollar to a hole in a donut that the light Jesus is talking about doesn't come from burning other people's religious books.  Instead, I'd bet it's practicing what we preach--truly loving others as Christ first loved us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010


I have decided it gets more difficult to do funerals the longer you are in a congregation.  That might sound strange considering the longer you are in a place, the better you get to know folks, and the better you are able to capture who they were in a funeral sermon.

That is most certainly true; however, there is an emotional price that one pays.  For the longer you are in a place, the better you get to know someone, the more emotionally attached you get to that person as well.

I've heard time and again people tell me that it must be hard to do a funeral for someone you don't know.  Well, the dirty secret is--it isn't.  You just have to do some homework.  You visit with family members.  You call friends of the person.  You try to get a snapshot of the person through their eyes, and once you have it, you can put together a sermon pretty easily.

It gets harder when you really know someone.  There is so much to work through.  So many stories.  So many conversations.  How can you condense it down to a fifteen minute sermon?  I mean, not only must I capture the essence of this person, but I also must convey the Gospel.  If you go to a funeral and do not hear the Good News that this person is now sharing eternal life with Christ, with God, then you have gotten gypped.  Any pastor worth his or her salt must convey this message.  Conveying such a message while holding up a person's personality can be difficult, especially if you know the person well.  The temptation is to talk about the person's qualities and character traits so much that you lose sight of the Gospel.

Case in point is the funeral that I must do this week for a long time congregation member.  Ellie Mae is one of those folks in a congregation who actually reminds a person of a family member.  In Ellie Mae's case, she reminded me of my grandmother--almost to a tee.  I told her that on numerous occasions.  In many ways, she treated me as a grandson.

That means, she was on me about quite a few things.  She didn't like it when I grew a goattee.  She didn't like it when my wife didn't wear a dress.  She wasn't afraid to let me know where she stood on things I did or said.  But she wasn't malicious about it--not at all.  She was simply stating her opinion, and I respected and loved her for that.  And because she treated me in such a fashion, like a grandson, I was able to get away with things with her that some pastors never could have.  Without getting ugly, I could shoot my mouth off back at her and get away with it.  Only once did she raise her cane toward me, but two things were to my advantage: 1. She was in church.  2. I had a head start.

When you have such a relationship with someone, it makes burying them more difficult.  Ellie Mae and I had laughed together.  We walked through some difficult times together--her dealing with lymphoma, two strokes, and memory loss.  I stood over her on Monday as she labored for breath as her body died.  It can take its toll.

But, I have to remind myself what I am called to do.  I am called to announce the Good News.  I am called to live by it.  If I really believe that Ellie Mae is a Child of God whom the Lord will never forsake... If I really believe that I will one day see Ellie Mae again...  If I really believe the promises of God... then I cannot break down weeping as though her death is the most awful thing that could have happened.  I must stand before my congregation on Thursday and announce that we are not saying farewell to Ellie Mae.  We are not saying goodby forever.  We are simply telling her, "see you later," as we gather to give thanks to God for her life.  Weep because you will miss her for the time being, but do not grieve as one who has no hope.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Rumors and Laboring

Got a phone call today from a member.  Apparently, someone actually believed I was resigning because of what I said in my sermon. 


Luckily, the fire was easily put out, but I swear that sometimes between my mouth and someone's ears something gets lost.

And that was the lighter stuff for today.

Today is Labor Day.  The day that (some) folks get to take off from their labors and rest.  Generally, the church closes its office for the day too.  However, because of my profession, just because the office is closed doesn't mean I will get the full day off.

Yesterday, I had to do  nursing home services at a local rest home.  When I arrived, one of the staff informed me that the only member I have in this facility was not doing well at all.  Just that morning, she had taken a major turn southward.  I told her that I would be sure and visit her after I finished leading worship.

After worship was done, I went to visit Ellie Mae.  Her daughter Ellen was in the room with her, and things were not well.  Ellie Mae's breathing was very reminicent of the "death rattle" that I have seen with numerous folks who are dying.  Yet, she was awake and alert.  She asked me how my kids were doing and how I was.  As I was standing by her bed, she snipped, "Ever heard of a chair?"

That was Ellie Mae.  I stayed for quite some time just visiting with Ellen and Ellie Mae.  We coaxed Ellie Mae into taking a nap, and I said my goodbyes.  Unfortunately, it would be the last time that Ellie Mae would be responsive.

Later in the afternoon, I received a call from the hospital telling me that Ellie Mae had been admitted.  Her condition had deteriorrated even further.  I was right in the middle of fixing dinner for the wife and kids (yes, I am the chief cook of the house), so I finished up what I was doing, ate with them, and then headed back to the hospital.

I arrived in the room, and it was obvious that Ellie Mae was not long for this world.  I'd seen this too many times.  The nurse reported that her EKG showed a possible heart attack.  The pericardium was filling up with fluid.  They gave her Lasix to help remove the fluid, but there wasn't the output that should have been there.

"Kidneys shutting down," I thought to myself.

I said a prayer and stayed with the family for a while before heading home to help tuck the kids in bed.

Labor Day morning.  A day when many think about scrounging up something to do.  But my thoughts weren't on what I would perhaps grill later in the day or how we would spend a day to ourselves as a family.  My thoughts were on Ellie Mae and her kids. 

As a pastor, you are never fully off.  You don't get the option of a button that says "Pastor On/Pastor Off".  Plus with cell phones and email and all that other electronic crap that keeps us "connected" you can't get away from anything.  While the day on the calendar says "Day Off, Office Closed, Pastor's Vacation" if someone has an emergency, real or imagined, they know your number.  It comes with the territory, and while there are days I would like to complain, I accept this as the way it is and will be.

I knew it was my responsibility to make sure I checked in with Ellie Mae and her family today.  So, I made it a part of a family outing.  My wife dropped me off at the hospital to visit while she took the kids to the park about a half a mile away.  I would walk to the park and join them later.

It was a good visit.  It was needed.  Ellie Mae's daughter finally told me to go and spend some time with my wife and kids, and I did.  Ellie Mae died an hour and a half after I walked out the door.  More thoughts on that later.   

It didn't end up being a complete day off, but end of life moments have a holiness all of their own.  Sometimes you've just got to ignore the calendar and go to work.  God bless all who labor and those who don't on this day. 

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Positive Reaction

I've never heard a congregation so quiet while I delievered a sermon. 

Afterward, as I greeted people leaving church, I heard numerous comments, "You can't resign."  "You scared my kids to death.  You need to start giving warnings on your sermons if you do that again."  "I'm going to go find that letter and tear it up."  My congregation president said, "On behalf of the congregation, we reject your letter of resignation."

Those were most comforting.  One in humor said, "You got my hopes up there for a minute."

I do know that folks will be talking about that one for a while--which is perhaps a good thing.

I believe that we are often caught between the extremes in our world today.  I believe that most of what we read in the news, see on the internet, and hear on radio and watch on t.v. represents the extremes.  There seems little or no room in the center anymore.

Yet, as a Christian, I believe that we are called to be caught in the dynamic tension of the center.  How so?

As a Lutheran, I am always teetering between Law and Gospel.  The Law, in simplified English, are God's rules--what He expects out of us when it comes to living the life we are supposed to live.  The Gospel has to do with the overwhelming knowledge that God loves us despite the fact that there is not a single person who can follow God's Law.  Furthermore, as I think I pointed out in my sermon, I think every single person purposely breaks some part of God's law and isn't repentant of it.

At this point, I will say, "Spare me trying to explain  away Jesus' teaching in Luke 14:33."  Either you accept that Jesus meant what He said here, or you can try to do creative explanations to make yourself feel better.  I think He meant it just as He said it.  And I know that I don't measure up.  At all.

But here is where the Gospel comes in: we are not saved by doing the works of the Law.  We are only saved through the grace, love and mercy of God.  As St. Paul pens in the book of Romans, "We are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus."  It's a comforting thought.  Freeing.  Paul takes this to the logical consequence in the book of Galatians when he says that because of grace, "the Law is no longer our disciplinarian."  Indeed, we have nothing to fear if we break God's Law.  He will not zap us.  He will not cease to love us.  He will forgive us.  Period.

Yet, and here is the difficult part, that doesn't give us liscense to do whatever we want.  Far from it.  In the book of Romans, Paul even goes so far that we are then called to uphold the law.  Why? 

Well, if God has done so much for us and loved us so much, should we not then try to follow His instructions and rules?  Should we not strive to make it a point to obey His commands--not because we fear His wrath, but because we love and respect Him so much?

I think so.  Yet, when I strive to do such a thing, I am confronted with my inability to do so, and thus I am driven right back to the Gospel.  Who needs amusement rides?  If you are a Christian, you are in a perpetual loop!  --Caught in between Law and Gospel.  --Never able to get to either extreme.  --Always drawn between the poles.

Ah, it might be nice to stay at either end.  To have everything resolved and easy by gravitating to either end; yet, would one ever grow if not experiencing tension?  Do muscles expand when they have it easy? 

I think most of the folks in my congregation this morning "got it."  I think they saw the dynamic of Law/Gospel at play.  Will it have an effect?

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Got the Booger Done

I managed to get the sermon written.  It will be a risk preaching it to the congregation this Sunday, but I believe this is what the Good Lord wants me to put out there.

This week, I wrote my letter of resignation. Yes. You heard me correctly. I wrote my letter of resignation. Please allow me to read it to you this morning.

To the congregation of St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring and Bishop Mike Reinhardt of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod,

It is with a heavy heart that I write to you to tender my resignation as pastor of St. John Lutheran Church and as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. In the past week, I have discovered that I am not qualified to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. Since I cannot be a disciple, that means I cannot shepherd a flock of His followers.

I have thoroughly enjoyed my time serving the church. In fact, I would love to continue to serve; however, I have discovered that I am an unrepentant sinner. There is an aspect of Jesus’ teachings that I cannot and honestly will not comply with. I stand condemned. In good conscience, I cannot continue to serve.


Rev. Kevin Haug
St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring

What made me write this letter? Take a look at our Gospel lesson this morning. It starts off innocuous enough. A large crowd has come to listen to Jesus and travel with him. Seeing all of them, he turns to them and begins to teach:

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

I thought to myself, “That’s pretty harsh, Jesus. In order to be your disciple, I have to hate my father and mother, wife and children, my sister, and even life itself? I’m not sure I can do that fully. I mean, I’ve had my moments. There are certainly times where I can say that I have hated the things my parents have done, my wife and kids have done, my sister has done, and yes, there have been times when I have hated life itself, but is this what you are talking about? Do I have to continually hate them? Or are you saying that I am to make sure that I love you more than my parents, wife, kids, relatives, and life itself?” On one hand, I would sure like to put this spin on what Jesus says, but am I adding a layer of interpretation? Am I trying to gloss over what Jesus is saying? Perhaps I am. Jesus’ words are pretty clear, and they are troublesome. As I read them, my heart dropped a little because I knew I couldn’t do what Jesus was saying here.

Then my hopes rose a little as I continued to read His teaching this morning. “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.”

This is something I can relate to. I see what Jesus is saying here. He wants me/us to make sure we stop and think about the consequences of being His disciple. He wants us to dig down deep within our hearts to see if we are really and truly prepared to accept what it means to carry the cross of following Him. We aren’t to simply jump in and think that everything is going to be perfect and that our lives are going to be exactly what we thought they should. We are to carefully evaluate what Jesus says and what He calls us to do and be as we seek to be His disciple. I understand this. I can do it. No problems here.

But then, Jesus drops the bombshell, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”

OUCH! Did I just read that correctly? O.K. That’s in the bulletin. Let’s look at our Bibles in Luke Chapter 14 and see if it’s the same thing there. Let’s see, page.... Verse 33. There it is again. Same wording.

Well, let me try a different translation. Maybe the translator messed up here. Let’s look in the NIV instead of the NRSV. Let’s see. Ah ha! That one’s a little different. Here we go, verse 33, “In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” Wait a minute, it’s phrased differently, but it still means the same thing. Give up everything I have. I simply cannot do that.

Let’s try another translation. Let’s go to the good old King James Version. “So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple.” That’s still the same thing! I can’t do that.

Might as well pull out the big gun. It’s been a while since I’ve messed with the Greek itself, but I’ll do my own translation from the Greek to English.

οὕτως ον πς ἐξ ὑμν ὃς οὐκ ἀποτάσσεται πσιν τοϛ ἑαυτο ὑπάρχουσιν

Therefore All of you who not say farewell All That he himself possesses

 ού δύναται εναί μου μαθηἠϛ.

Are not able to be my disciples.

No luck there either. Jesus is plain and to the fact. One of the main requirements for following him is to say farewell–to give up all of one’s possessions. No matter how you try to spin it, this is Jesus laying down the law, and I simply cannot do it. I cannot give up all my possessions. And what is even worse, I am not even trying to. I’m not even attempting to give them up, and I’m not sorry I have possessions. In this very sense, I am not repentant at all. I can’t even remember the last time I asked for forgiveness for having possessions, and honestly, I am not convinced that having possessions is sinful.

But this is not what Jesus says. Jesus says that we cannot be his disciple unless we give up all our possessions. I can’t do that. Therefore, I am not worthy to serve as your pastor or as a pastor at all. Confronted with my sinfulness and unwillingness to repent, I cannot continue in this manner–that is unless God’s mercy and forgiveness extend even to me at this point. Do you think Jesus forgives me for having possessions? Do you think Jesus forgives me even though I am unrepentant about having them? Do you think Jesus still calls me His brother even though I do not meet the qualifications for discipleship? Do you think He does the same for any of us who own property, homes, cars, televisions, beds or any other sort of thing?

How far does God’s grace extend in this area? Must I resign because of the law, or do we live by the gospel? I hope you will not accept my resignation. I hope you will extend God’s grace and love to me, because I believe He extends it to you. Amen.
We'll see just how many people truly get God's grace this week.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Terror of Prophecy

Most Sundays, I cannot wait to preach.  While not the best preacher in the world by a long shot, I manage to hold my own--at least I have been told.  There is something neat that goes on within me when I take my stand in front of the congregation to begin proclaiming God's Law and Gospel; sharing the things God has done, is doing, and will do; and helping others see how God is moving in their lives.  I can be having an awful week.  I can be feeling down in the dumps.  I can be physically ill, but when it comes time to preach, I feel the Spirit moving, and I am lifted up.  I'm at home doing what I know I am called to do, and I absolutely love it.

Yet, there are those weeks when I am in terror as I prepare to preach.  This week is one of those weeks.  The text appointed by the Revised Common Lectionary begins with Jesus' teaching in Luke 14.  It's realtively easy to handle, and I wouldn't have any problems coming up with a sermon that I know would be well received.

25Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace.

As I said, easy enough.  It's easy to talk about being prepared to be a follower of Jesus.  It's easy to craft words that help a congregation think through their commitment to following Christ.  It's easy to step on toes lightly here and leave a congregation satisfied that they are indeed preparing enough to take on the yoke of discipleship.  I could work through this without any problem and get several, "Nice sermon, Pastor," comments.  It would be easy, except for the last verse that is appointed.

33So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

OUCH!  (Which, coincidentally is my sermon title this week.)

Give up all your possessions?  Are you kidding me?  Yes, I have heard this teaching over and over again, and I have heard all the excuses and reasonings around it.  I have even used them myself, "It's not that you can't have possessions.  You just have to use them for the right reasons."

Sorry, that ain't what Jesus is saying here.  He's blatant.  He's in your (and my) face.  He's not giving any leeway.  And, frankly, I don't like it.  I don't like it one bit! 

And there are a couple of reasons why.  First, there is no way I can do it.  I can't give up my possessions.  I am required by law to take my children to school.  I can't make my kids walk to the bus stop which is a mile away.  I need a car.  I can't go visit my members in their homes or in the hospital without transportation.  (I am sure them hearing me tell them "I had to give up my truck because Jesus says I can't follow him with possessions." will go over very well. sarcasm off.)  How in the world does one raise a family without some possessions?  I'd really like to ask Jesus this question right about now.  But, honestly, I'm not too worried about my state as a disciple.  I know we live by grace and not by the works of the law--more on that later.

But the second reason I don't like this text is that I must stand in front of my congregation this weekend and tell them what Jesus expects.  I must convey this snippet to them and step on their toes.  I have to tell them that none of them measure up here.  I have to tell them that they don't meet even one of the basic demands of discipleship.  And while I am at it, I'll have to tell them that I am not fit to be their pastor because I don't meet that demand either.  It's not a fun place to be. 

I guess I wouldn't have as much of an issue with it if it hadn't been for several conversations with church members in the past year regarding the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America's decision to begin ordaining practing gays and lesbians.  I serve in this church, and I am against the decision, but for reasons that may be articulated later.

One of the arguments that I have heard time and time again follows this logic:

1. The Bible says such behavior is a sin.
2. They are living in sin.

(At this point, I say that I am living in sin as well.)

3. They are not even trying to repent.  (Meaning that somehow I am sorry for my sins and am doing so.)
4. Since they are unrepentant, they should not be allowed to serve.

Well, now that is all well and good if you want to follow such an argument, but let's apply this logic to Jesus' statement in Luke 14.  "You cannot be my disciple unless you give up all your possessions."

1. The Bible says you cannot follow Jesus unless you give up ALL your possessions.
2. If you do not give up ALL your possessions, you are not a Christian.

(No one can fully give up all their possessions.)

3. You are not even trying to give up your possessions; therefore, you are unrepentant.
4. Since you are unrepentant, you are not allowed to be a Christian, pastor, etc.

Honestly, is this a good argument?  Do you really want to go there? 

Now, while I certainly do not agree with the ELCA's decision in August 2009, I do not agree with the logic or train of thought brought forth in this argument.  If we are going to talk about the law in this fashion, we might as well close up all the churches because none of us have a right to be in one.  None of us measure up.  That's why we live by God's grace.

I understand this all too well as a sinner who is forgiven.  My Lutheran roots run deep.  Yet, I know once I begin showing the fallacy in this argument in my sermon, I will get some very nasty looks from some who believe that this is how one must interpret the Bible.  The fear is that not only will I get those looks, I will receive a verbal tongue lashing or worse from some of these folks.

That is the terror of prophecy.  I know what must be said, but I am aware of the possible consequences as well.  I know I must throw myself into the arms of the Lord and believe He will deliver me.  Such is the calling of a pastor/prophet.


I do not claim to have any special wisdom or understanding when it comes to the Christian faith.  I believe that many issues that we make so much of today have been dealt with in some form throughout the 2000 years the church has existed; however, there are times when I still need to wrestle.  There are times when I still need to put down what is rumbling around between my ears.

I have been extremely blessed in my service as a pastor, and since moving to the country--a rural town in Texas with a population of 75--I have been further showered with such blessings.  Yet, there is a restlessness within me right now.  One might chalk it up to middle age or a mid-life crisis.  Yet, it might be something else.  Perhaps the Spirit is working on me in a fashion that I do not realize as of yet.  In my readings of those who have gone before, I have come across those who give the advice of writing and journaling one's thoughts.   I will attempt to do so.  Perhaps they will flow fast and furious for a time.  Perhaps they will be slow to come.  Yet, here is where I will keep them for the time being as I continue this journey of faith that I and many others are called to experience.