Monday, February 28, 2011

I Understand Ron White

For the past several years, the ELCA Health Plan has been emphasizing wellness.

They are working diligently with clergy to promote health by helping us lose weight, maintain weight, reduce stress and other such things as part of a program to have preventative medicine.

I understand the approach and am very appreciative of it.

I'm currently receiving coaching in the "weight management" portion of this program.  Last year, I lost 40 lbs, and am seeking to keep it off.  I actually took an "after" picture yesterday, and was amazed at the results. 

Note: for those of you offended by seeing a pastor with his shirt off, please hit the red X button or back click and don't come back to this post.


I'm pretty happy with the results.  I've begun working out with kettlebells, and I actually anticipate firming up a few more flabby parts.

But there is something that's bugging me right now. 

As part of my coaching, I'm working on eating healthier. 

I've proposed and set as my goal to eat more fruits and vegetables.  I'm working up to at least 4 servings per day by the next time my coach calls.

I'm a little bit too successful.

How do I know this?

Well, I do know I have substantially increased my fruit and vegetable intake because of the way my gastro-intestinal tract is acting.

Good Lord!

Do you know what that much extra fiber does to your intestines?

Do you know how it makes you feel full?

Hint: Methane!

I am having a serious debate with myself right now.  I'm wondering if it's worth it.

I now understand why so many vegetarians have sour looks on their faces.  They (like me) are bloated and trying to keep the gas in until an appropriate moment.

Sometimes, that's difficult.

Like when you are preaching a sermon.

Life was easier when I wasn't eating as much fruits and vegetables.

I was much more comfortable.

But at least I can now understand and appreciate more fully comedian Ron White's comment, "I didn't crawl all the way to the top of the food chain to eat carrots."

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Worry: Sermon Delivered 2/27/2011

Gospel: Matthew 6:24-34

24 ‘No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. 25 ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?" 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Eleven years ago, more than a few people sat at the edge of their seats wondering if the world was going to come to an end. The calendar was about to change from 1999 to 2000. Oh, and believe it or not, I’m not talking about those of a religious persuasion who believed Christ would return sometime during that year. No. I’m not talking about faith-based fear. Rather, I am talking about television and media pundits and computer programers who believed the Y2K bug would cause computers to become confused and cease to operate.

I am sure more than one of you here this morning remember the dire predictions. Most computers had been programed to only recognize only six digits when it came to the date. For instance January 1, 1999 was represented by 01/01/99. Some believed when the switch from 99 to 00 occurred, computers wouldn’t know to leap to 2000. Instead they would try to revert to 1900 or worse...they would shut down completely because an ascending number assumption would suddenly become invalid.

There were more than a few pundits including John Hamre, United States Deputy Secretary of Defense who said, "The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe."

Thoughts ranged from complete power failure to nuclear plants melting down. Some folks began preparing for the worst.

Midnight hit, and not a darn thing happened for 99.44% of the world. If you look on Wikipedia, you will see several documented instances that might have been related to the Y2K bug, but they hardly shut down government or the economy or our vehicles or anything for that matter.

And yet...

How much worry was generated over this problem?

How many people spent countless hours agonizing as to whether or not when they woke up the following morning if things had gone to h-e double hockey sticks in a hand basket? More hours were spent worrying about the problem than actually cleaning up the few minor glitches that did occur.

In reality, the problem wasn’t really a problem.

Such is the case with much of our worrying. I ran across an interesting little blurb in my sermon research this past week written by Brian Stoffregen in his writing entitled "Exegetical Notes". Brian says, "Some years ago I read the following in a business magazine:

Stress management experts say that only two percent of our "worrying time" is spent on things that might actually be helped by worrying. The figures below illustrate how the other 98 percent of this time is spent:

40% on things that never happen
35% on things that can't be changed
15% on things that turn out better than expected
8% on useless, petty worries

Did you catch those numbers? 98% of the time we spend worrying, we worry about things that never happen, cannot be changed, turn out better than expected, or are petty and useless. Given these numbers, do you think worry is a wise investment?

For those of you who are business people out there, let me rephrase that question. If someone came up to you and said, "I’ve got an investment opportunity for you. There is a 98% chance that you will lose everything you put into it, but there’s a 2% chance we’ll hit it." How many of you would invest? Think about that.

Think about that as you hear once again Jesus’ words this morning about worry. "‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?" 32For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today."

Jesus takes worry one step further. Not only does Jesus convey the poor investment worry is; Jesus tells us that worry is one of the ways we show our distrust of God. "If God feeds the birds, don’t you think He’ll feed you?" Jesus asks. "And if God clothes the lilies of the field as beautifully as He does, don’t you think He will clothe you? Don’t you think you are important to God? Don’t you think He knows you need all this stuff? Trust that He will provide. Stop worrying about it."

Oh but that’s the rub isn’t it? Do we have enough trust, enough faith in God to stop worrying? Do we have enough faith, do we have enough trust in God to seek only His Kingdom and shove aside all the other stuff that gets in our way? Do we have enough trust, do we have enough faith in God to deal with our worries which hit us right here and right now? Do we have enough faith, do we have enough trust in God to leave the future in His hands instead of thinking it’s all up to us?

Oh those are some very, very tough questions. Those are ones to ponder and roll around up in the cerebrum for more than just a few minutes. Can I trust God enough when gas prices look like they are going to shoot through the roof? Can I trust God enough when food prices are going to head that direction as well? Can I trust God enough even if such a spike in those prices along with a continually falling housing market leads to a double dip recession or even a depression?

Let’s talk about a few other scenarios that people face. Can I trust God enough if I find out that lump which is causing me pain is cancer? Can I trust God enough if I discover my child has a learning disability? Can I trust God enough if the uproar in the Middle East leads to armed conflict and I have a child in the military? Can I trust God enough if another cold snap comes and damages my crops or my herd? Can I trust God enough if this drought continues and my land becomes even more parched than it is? Can I trust God enough and place all these things and more in His hands and stop my worry?

I don’t know about you, but I simply cannot.

That’s right. You heard me right. I can’t stop worrying, and I bet you can’t either. I’m sure you didn’t exactly expect to hear that, but I’m not going to stand up her and speak platitudes. I’m going to tell you the truth. Worry is a habit that is extremely hard to break, but I am hoping that in my life and in your life, we can hear Jesus’ words ringing in the back of our heads for just a little while. I am hoping we can hear Jesus say, "Your Heavenly Father knows what you need. Seek His Kingdom and He will grant it to you. Today’s worries are enough for today. Don’t worry about tomorrow’s." I’m hoping we can hear such words and lessen our anxiety, lessen or worries. And trust God a little more. For when we do, we can focus on the real worries of the world.

And what might those be? Another story I heard this week: A man was seen fleeing down the hall of the hospital just before his operation. A security guard stopped him before he could leave the hospital and asked, "What's the matter?"

The man said, "I heard the nurse say, 'It's a very simple operation, don't worry, I'm sure it will be all right.'"

"She was just trying to comfort you," said the security guard. "What's so frightening about that?"

"She wasn't talking to me," exclaimed the man. "She was talking to the doctor!"

Now that, my brothers and sisters in Christ, is a cause for worry! But, may everything else become less worrisome as we remember our Heavenly Father knows what we need and He has promised to provide. Amen.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Inequality or Sin?

Before going on any further, my friends and readers who tilt a little toward the left might want to stop reading after this first sentence.

I saw this article posted on Yahoo News the other day, and a few of my clergy friends linked to it on their Facebook pages:

The title (for those who didn't click on the link) was, "It's the Inequality, Stupid"--posing the argument that what ails the U.S. is inequality among income, wealth, and taxation.

Now, I will grant that each should pay his or her fair share in taxes.  Our nation needs roads, bridges, schools, a safety net for those who fall upon hard times, etc.  I'm not sure anyone would argue that fact.  I do know folks would argue what a fair share is.   For instance, in none of those charts did it show that almost 50% of Americans do not pay any income tax at all.  (That's the hell of using charts and statistics to prove your point.  It's easy to pick out the ones that support your cause yet leave out inconvenient ones.)

But, I need to stop right now before getting into the politics of who should and shouldn't pay.  Governments argue about such things, and while that kingdom is answerable to God in the long run, it is not governed by Him at this point.  The church is about another kingdom, and has no business butting into such affairs unless the government passes laws compelling people to act against God's command.

So, I will turn from politics to address an underlying assumption that some Christians hold in regards to wealth--that equality of wealth is the way things should work.  This train of thought basically comes from a group which identifies itself as the Christian Left.  This movement started in response to the Christian Right.  Both of these groups have delved into politics in the U.S. and seek to instill Christian values into the government's way of doing things.  Both sides are worthy of scathing critique, and for this post, I'm going after the Christian Left.

Let's build the usual argument for economic justice as presented by the Christian Left--i.e. that wealth should be evenly distributed amongst all people.

1. The prophets in the Old Testament warned the nation of Israel about mistreating the poor, the widow, and the orphan.  They called for justice from the wealthy who ignored these folks, and if they were not taken care of, God would punish the nation.

Critique: The argument is absolutely sound on one level.  Indeed, this is what the prophets spoke.  Loudly and clearly.  But, the prophets spoke to a theocracy.  The king of Israel was a representative of God on earth.  If that king didn't adhere to the laws of God, then the nation would be punished because it wasn't honoring the true leader of the nation.  This is very important to remember in our case.  Why?  Because if we want to hold our nation accountable to God's law, then we must consider it a Christian nation--through and through.  And as a Christian nation, those who would wish to fight for equality in wealth, should also be fighting for Christian prayer in school, extremely limited access to abortion (rape, incest, endangerment to the life of the mother), and the allowance of religious themes monuments and decorations in the public square.  Christianity should be named the preferred religion of the country, and while we would definitely welcome people of other religious faith traditions--and people of no faith tradition--they must understand and adhere to the fundamental laws which we believe govern such a nation.  If folks are unwilling to define the U.S. as a Christian nation, then we must take the other route which says this is not a Christian nation and cannot be held accountable to Christian principles and understandings.  The church cannot call the shots with government, but it must be working within society to promote God's Kingdom, sometimes at odds with the government. 

2. Many of the teachings of Jesus call for the care and compassion toward the poor and needy.  Addressing someone's hunger and poverty without addressing the root cause of that hunger and poverty is simply a band aid and doesn't solve anything.

Critique: Again, a sound argument.  It is the truth.  However, I argue those who wish to address the root issue don't dig deep enough.  Most critique capitalism and the structures of society which institutionalize poverty and racism and injustice, etc.  But they don't go deep enough.  At all.  The root cause of hunger and poverty and racism and injustice isn't government and society structure--it's our fundamental nature as human beings.  Simply put, the root cause of all those things is sin.  To fully eradicate poverty and injustice and racism and hunger one must eradicate sin.  Good luck.  Wonder if that's why Jesus said, "You will always have the poor with you."  Not an abdication of responsibility.  Just the truth.  No matter what type of structure or government a society puts into place, it will be flawed.  There will be those who slip through the cracks.  There will be those who become victims.  There will be those in power and those who are powerless.  It is the church's job to create, as best as it can, an alternative reality where there are no more hungry, thirsty, homeless, etc.  We haven't managed to do it completely in 2000 years.  I'm not optimistic we'll ever get there, but we're called to try because of the great love God has shown us. 

3. The earliest believers sold everything they had, and distributed to whoever had need.  We need to do so as well.  (Acts 2)

Critique:  First, show me a person who articulates this who actually does it.  Most of the rhetoric you hear is that a person should take the average income for a person in the U.S., live on that much and give the rest away.  Good thought, but that's not what Jesus calls His followers to do.  Neither is that what the church did in the days after Pentecost.  They sold EVERYTHING and gave EVERYTHING away.  That was the radical nature of discipleship.  If you really want to follow Christ and do what He commanded.  Give it all away.  Then come talk about economic justice.  Seeing such a thing happen would be a miracle in and of itself.  Why?  Well, anyone want to tell me what happened to the church in Jerusalem just a few short years after they put this into practice?  Anyone want to tell me what happened to the church in Jerusalem when Jesus didn't come back in a few weeks and people ran out of property to sell and redistribute?  There are a few major hints in scripture and in historical sources.  In Romans, Paul talks about taking up collections to remember the poor in Jerusalem.  Apparently, famine hit, and the church in Jerusalem fell upon very hard times because they had absolutely no resources or way to produce income.  They had sold it all and had nothing.  They became dependent upon other churches who had folks who would give of their wealth and who were willing to help out.  Idealism is a wonderful thing.  It probably would have worked out if Jesus had returned immediately, but it didn't.  And it still won't.  The church is still dependent upon those who are willing to give from what they have earned.  St. Paul even addressed this little problem in the book of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13:

6Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Yes, you saw Paul right.  Work for a living.  Earn your income.  Some will earn more than others.  That's just the way the world works.  Even Jesus didn't promise equality in income and results in His teachings.

But both Jesus and Paul urged Christians to be generous, and that means a church should never stop working for justice and an end to hunger and an end to racism and an end to poverty.  It's part of our job.  We can critique governments to no end.  We can call them toward compassion and justice.  Those of us who have the opportunity to vote can and should do so with our Christian faith leading us to candidates and representatives who share our ideas.  But, I think we need to realize, inequality isn't the problem.

There has never been a time in recorded history when everyone was equal.


Amendment to that statement.

There was only one time in biblical history when everyone was equal: the Garden of Eden.

And we know what happened.

As a consequence, we know sinfulness entered the world as did the idea of equality in the world.  Man was placed over woman and over creation, etc. etc.

Christ came along and promised a return to the conditions of Eden, but that reality would be brought along at a later date--when He returned to make all things new.

We have a vision of what that will be like, and that's important.  Why?

Well, we live with a foot firmly rooted and grounded in that vision AND we live with a foot rooted and grounded in the reality of the world in which we live.  In the world, but not of it.

Our churches should be a real-world constructions of the reality of the Kingdom of God--where no one hungers or thirst or has need.  Where one cannot tell the difference between rich and poor.  Where the haves share with the have nots.  It never has been a perfect process, but this is where we seek to implement Jesus' teachings.

We hold onto this reality even while having another foot squarely planted in a world full of injustice whose structures will not allow equality.  And no matter how much we try to tinker with such structures, we will never result in equality for all.  History shows us that beyond a shadow of a doubt.  Every single society or micro-society which has tried to exist based upon equality has failed.  And there have been many.

In fact, I would argue that Jesus never, ever tried to induce his followers to radically change the world.  Spice it up, sure.  But radically overthrow existing governments and principalities and powers.  Not a chance.  Nowhere to be found.  (Unless you want to pick and choose which parts of Jesus' teachings in Scripture you think are "authentically Jesus" and which are "not so much Jesus".  I don't quite have such divine powers.)

I'd argue the Christian Left (just like the Christian Right) is suffering from the delusion of Christendom--the time when Christianity had the power of and over government.  Bad things happened then.  Bad things will continue to happen if the church ever receives that power again.

As Lutherans, I believe we need to stick to our confessions:

12] Therefore the power of the Church and the civil power must not be confounded. The power of the Church has its own commission to teach the Gospel and 13] to administer the Sacraments. Let it not break into the office of another; let it not transfer the kingdoms of this world; let it not abrogate the laws of civil rulers; let it not abolish lawful obedience; let it not interfere with judgments concerning civil ordinances or contracts; let it not prescribe laws to civil rulers concerning the form of the Commonwealth. 14] As Christ says, John 18:36: My kingdom is not of this world; 15] also Luke 12:14: Who made Me a judge or a divider over you? 16] Paul also says, Phil. 3:20: Our citizenship is in heaven; 17] 2 Cor. 10:4: The weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty through God to the casting down of imaginations.

20] When, therefore, the question is concerning the jurisdiction of bishops, civil authority must be distinguished from 21] ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Again, according to the Gospel or, as they say, by divine right, there belongs to the bishops as bishops, that is, to those to whom has been committed the ministry of the Word and the Sacraments, no jurisdiction except to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked men, whose wickedness is known, and this without human force, 22] simply by the Word. Herein the congregations of necessity and by divine right must obey them, according to Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me. 23] But when they teach or ordain anything against the Gospel, then the congregations have a commandment of God prohibiting obedience, Matt. 7:15:

--Article 28

Friday, February 25, 2011

Saying Good-by to a Virtual Friend

About a week ago, I decided to kick a habit.

I decided to say good-by to a virtual friend.

For a couple of years, I freqented and posted regularly on a Lutheran Message Board.

Several times, I found myself getting quite worked up about things going on and being said on that board. 

Several times, I didn't sleep too well after engaging in a virtual debate.

And then I awakened suddenly to the realization of that word "virtual."

It's not real.

It's artificial connection.

There is something within me that while embracing technology (this blog for instance), also rebels against it.

There is part of me that doesn't even like picking up the phone to call a congregation member.  I'd rather meet face to face.  I realize the impossibility of visiting in person about every single jot and tittle that goes on in church, so I use the phone.  But I still don't quite like it.

Even last week, I got an email from my bishop.  To set the background, as a matter of principle, I don't fill out congregational reports and send them into the larger church office.  If someone really wants my reasons why, I'll do a blog on it in the near future.  We fill them out here at the church and file them here for future reference, so we don't lose the documentation.  We just don't send them in.  (Again, if you want to know why, just comment.  I'll be happy to fill you in on the details.)

My bishop was very kind.  He actually gave me a pass in filling out the forms, but he did ask me in the email how things were going, how my sense of call was, how worship attendance and giving were.  I hit the reply button and then stopped.

"I'll be d*mned if I do," I thought to myself.

I responded, "Hey Mike,

Glad you asked [about all the stuff].  I was disappointed our conversation at Theological Conference got cut short.  I would have loved to visit a little more.

In fact, instead of doing this over email, would you like to do lunch some time?  My treat.  I'll drive and meet you in Houston and get you out of the office for a few minutes--if that's kosher.

If it's not, I'll answer by email, but I'm starting to rebel against technology just a little--even though I'll keep up with the blog and stuff.  :-)



My bishop graciously accepted the invitation.

I'm looking forward to the face to face meeting.  There's more of a real connection.  There no barriers or filters between the two of us.  We can see the smirks on each others' faces when we are being sarcastic or humorous.  We don't have to try and interpret the words on the page and figure out the underlying motivations for usage.

We can honestly connect.

Like we as human beings are supposed to.

That's why I'm saying good-by to my virtual community message boards.  Trying to trade more of the virtual for more of the real.

I already feel better about returning to reality.

I think I'll try to stay there.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Fake Doctor's Note

I never tried to pull it off when I was a kid. 



The consequences would have left an impression on my mind and on my behind.

I never tried to fake being sick to get out of school.

I never tried to falsify a note or an excuse.  It's lying.  Plain and simple.

And then I see the news stories coming out of Wisconsin:,0,2938787.story?track=rss

Doctor's handing out notes for teachers protesting a law being passed to end some of their collective bargaining rights.  Notes handed out without any form of examination.  Or appointment.  Just off the cuff.  Because a doctor agrees with what the teachers are doing.

Now, please don't get me wrong.  I am not dissing the teachers and their protest.  I believe that there are things worth fighting for in our lives.  There are things worth standing up and protesting.  I believe teachers are well under-paid and deserve every single bit of pay, benefits and retirement they earn.  I believe if the state has been taken to town by collective bargaining, the state of Wisconsin needs to get some better negotiators.  Not take away the rights of the teachers.  That's simply my opinion. 

But if you are going to protest, don't lessen your protest by lying.  Don't lessen your protest by accepting something given to you dishonestly.  If you are going to protest, take the punishment.  Then show how unjust the punishment is.

That was the secret to the Civil Right's movement.  African-Americans and others intentionally broke laws that were unjust.  They did so on purpose knowing the consequences.  Knowing they would be jailed.  Knowing they would get a blight on their records.  But they did so en masse to draw attention to the stupidity of those laws in the first place.  As more and more were convicted of "crimes" simply because of skin color, it exposed the sham of it all.  People were drawn to the cause because of the willingness of those who would accept the unjust consequences of their actions because they knew their cause was right.

If indeed, the protesters in Wisconsin are just in their protest, they do not need a fake doctor's note.  If they are convinced they are right about their cause, they shouldn't even want one.

I mean, let's think about the conversation a teacher will have with their kids when returning to school:

Student: Ma'am, why were you gone for the past few days?

Teacher: I was protesting the passage of a law I felt was unjust.

Student: But won't you get in trouble for being gone?

Teacher: No, I have a doctor's note telling me it was O.K.

Student: But you weren't sick.

Teacher: Yes, but this way, I can protest without worrying about losing my job or losing any pay.

Student: But you lied.

Teacher: Yes, but sometimes it's O.K. to lie if you are trying to do the right thing in the long run.

Are you comfortable with that?  Contrast it with this:

Student: Ma'am, where were you the last few days?

Teacher: I was in Madison, protesting the passing of a law that I thought wasn't right.

Student:  But, won't you get in trouble for being gone.

Teacher: Maybe.  It's certainly possible I'll get in trouble or lose some pay.

Student: But why would you do such a thing?

Teacher: Because some things are worth fighting for, even if you get hurt a little.  I may lose some pay, but in the long run, I and other teachers will be better off because of it.

Student: So you will take punishment for the sake of others?

Teacher: Yes.  I will.  It means that much to me.

In Lutheran terms, one of these conversations leads to cheap grace.  The other is costly grace. 

Which one do you think has more integrity?

The Laws of the Garbage Truck

On the lighter side, an illustration from a sermon illustration site I subscribe to as told by Barbara Turpish

One day I hopped in a taxi and we took off for the airport. We were driving in the right lane when suddenly a black car jumped out of a parking space right in front of us. My taxi driver slammed on his brakes, skidded, and missed the other car by just inches!

The driver of the other car whipped his head around and started yelling at us. My taxi driver just smiled and waved at the guy. And I mean, he was really friendly. So I asked, 'Why did you just do that? This guy almost ruined your car and sent us to the hospital!'

This is when my taxi driver taught me what I now call, 'The Law of the Garbage Truck.'

He explained that many people are like garbage trucks. They run around full of garbage, full of frustration, full of anger, and full of disappointment. As their garbage piles up, they need a place to dump it and sometimes they'll dump it on you.

Don't take it personally. Just smile, wave, wish them well, and move on. Don't take their garbage and spread it to other people at work, at home, or on the streets.

The bottom line is that successful people do not let garbage trucks take over their day. Life's too short to wake up in the morning with regrets, so...

Love the people who treat you right. Pray for the ones who don't. Life is ten percent what you make it and ninety percent how you take it!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011


I can't keep cash on me.

I just can't do it.

It always seems to run away from me, and I have no one to blame but myself.

But here's the reason why:

During November and December of last year, I conducted several events where I received honoraria.  Rather than simply put all of it into my checking account, I kept out extra cash thinking I might need a few extra dollars on hand during the holiday season.

My wife and kids were out of town for a small stretch, and I decided to frequent a Mexican food restaurant I had never eaten at before.  (Usually, I have to scout out a Mexican food restaurant before taking the family.)  I enjoyed my meal and watched as the waitress tried to both wait tables and watch over her 2 to 3 year old daughter.  Her daughter actually came up to me several times while I was eating, smiling at me and giggling.  I, of course, winked at her and smiled back.

Mom wasn't exactly thrilled her daughter was bothering the customers, but it didn't bother me in the least.  I could tell by the way the girl was dressed and the fact that mom had her at work these folks weren't too high on the socio-economic ladder.  I wondered what Christmas was going to be like in their household.

I rose to pay my check.  My bill was just under $10.  My waitress was my cashier.  I handed her a $20 and walked out the door.  Didn't even wait to have her ask me if I wanted change.  Didn't wait to see her reaction.  Just walked out.  I hope she had a Merry Christmas.

On Monday, I traveled into Houston to visit a member who was having surgery.  I stopped at a Mexican food restaurant on Mason Rd. in Katy.  Las Manintias has excellent food, and it's one of my wife and my favorite places to dine.  With three kids, we don't get to go there as often as we'd like.  So, since I was traveling over lunch, I thought I'd treat my taste buds.

As I sat there giving full attention to my lunch, I heard a voice from above, "What are you doing here?"

I looked up to see one of my congregation members standing over me.  She just happens to be the daughter of my congregation president.

"I'm actually on my way to visit a member who's having surgery," I replied.

"Oh," she said with a "that stinks" inflection--in that it stinks for the person having surgery.

We made a bit of small talk before she headed to her table to meet a friend for lunch.  Both of them are school teachers.  My member has a young daughter and has been married for close to two years.  I remembered those early years my wife and I shared.  I remembered adjusting to having a young child and the extra expenses.  I remembered the kindness folks showed us by offering us small gifts as we adjusted to this new lifestyle.

When I finished, I asked my waiter for the check, and I added, "I'd like to pick up the check for those two ladies over there too."

When I paid, I was nearly wiped out of cash once more.  Just a few dollars left.

But it's worth it.

It's worth it to commit a random act of kindness and bring a smile to someone's face.

It's worth it to provide an example for others--as I have had that example provided for me so many times.

I have been blessed in my life.  My family and I are far from rich, but we practice giving.  We give 10% of our income back to the church which pays my salary.  We donate to local charities and organizations.  Whenever one of my congregation members asks us to purchase goods for the FFA or Extension Agency or the athletic club or Boy Scouts or Relay for Life, we give and we buy.  Without hesitation.  Whenever we have a special fundraiser for the youth or for a community member in need, we give.  It's become second nature.

There was a time when we couldn't do this, but we do now and will continue to do so.  I don't drive the fanciest of cars.  My family doesn't wear designer clothes.  We don't have all the latest technology and gadgets.  We don't take extravagant vacations.  We put off purchasing our wants and focus on our needs.  And part of the reason we do this is that we might give.

We have discovered the joy of giving, and we'll do so until we can't any longer.

Or, until I run out of cash again.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Will of the People

As I continue to listen to the rhetoric of politics these days, I keep hearing a phrase repeated over and over again from either side of the political aisle, "We must do the will of the people."  The negative phrase is also kicked around quite a bit, "Such and such isn't doing the will of the people."

Usually, the person making the commentary is citing evidence from the latest political poll.  Oddly enough, when that same poll shows something to the contrary of this person's belief, the phrase, "You can't trust polls.", gets bandied around rather quickly as well.  I guess the will of the people only counts when they vote in your favor. :-)

Yet, there is something quite bothersome about elected and other leaders trying to satisfy "The Will of the People."  Not that I am suggesting that the will and opinion of people isn't important, but...

Let me first cite a biblical example from Exodus 32:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, ‘Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ 2Aaron said to them, ‘Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.’ 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mould, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’

Mind you, this was only 40 days after the people of Israel promised to serve only God and obey His commandments--the first one being you shall have no other gods and the second you shall not make any idols.  Two strikes less than 40 days after making a solemn oath.  And this was the will of the people.

And what did Aaron do?

As the default "leader" (and I use that term loosely), he simply did the will of the people.

If you would like, you can read the consequences as to what happened a little later in Exodus 32.  It's not pretty. 

But I wonder what would have happened if Aaron hadn't done the will of the people?  What if Aaron would have stood firm and reminded them of the promises they made before God?  Would there have been a different outcome?  Well, if a frog had wings...

It seems to me leadership, whether political or in the church is more than simply doing the will of the people.

The will of the people can be very fickle.  Many of us who are clergy have been invited to lead a congregation under the premise the congregation actually wants to grow.  And our initial contacts with people prove this to be the case.  However, as we delve into the mission and ministry of the church, we tend to find another group of people who are really content to keep the congregation just the way it is.  Eventually, one of those two groups is going to get upset.  How does a pastor then do the will of the people?

In my own congregation, we faced this with the August 2009 ELCA national assembly's decision to allow congregations to call a practicing homosexual to serve as pastor.  There were some in my congregation who applauded the decision and were enthusiastic about it.  There were also many who couldn't believe such a thing had passed, and they wanted action to show their opposition to the decision.  (Simply getting it off their chest by writing letters, etc. wasn't going to cut it.)  As pastor and the one most looked at for leadership, I was in a bind.  There was simply no way I could follow the will of the people.  The will was divided.

But I believe a true leader does not try to sense the direction the crowd is moving and then run to the front.  A leader leads.  A leader sticks his or her neck out--even if it means it will cost him or her.  A leader digs down deep, stands on principle, and offers to show the way.  He or she remains connected to the people; however.  The leader doesn't make choices and decisions without listening, being available, and working on relationships even with those he or she disagrees with.  A leader doesn't ever intentionally cut off. 

As I thought long and deep and prayed in hours of prayer regarding what was happening in my congregation, there were several things which I held dear, most of them backed up by Scripture:

1) I believed it was unacceptable to lose members over the 2009 decision.  I didn't believe it was acceptable to lose those who were against the decision, and I didn't believe it was acceptable to lose those who were very much in favor of it.  I wouldn't hold it against anyone who felt like they couldn't stick around because the decision went against their principles, but it would be their decision.  I would try to chart a course which allowed differing parties to work together, even if it meant each side didn't get their way completely.  (Galatians 5:16-26)

2) I believed the church can be a place where differences of interpretation and opinion could be held in dynamic tension.  I maintained and still do, Christianity is not about getting along with people who believe and think exactly as you do.  That's the easy part.  Christians are called to love and get along with those who are different than us.  (Luke 10:25-37)

3) I believed in seeking to understand where each group of people were coming from in their understandings.  Even though I knew it wouldn't necessarily change my mind about the decision, I wanted folks to know I respected where they were coming from. (Matthew 7:12)

4) I believed the congregation has a more important and broader mission to adhere to--one that shouldn't be side tracked by who supposedly can and cannot preach and lead other congregations.  Sure, there are boundaries that must be upheld, but other congregations can be responsible for themselves.  We would define what we believed even if it put us at odds with the national church. (Matthew 28:16-20)

5) If you read my post on "Courage or Cowardice", you also saw my principles regarding running away from a problem or an issue.  Simply leaving the national church was not acceptable to me.  Cutting off support completely was not acceptable to me.  I know the Lutheran church was born out of schism, but it was born that way not because of choice.  Luther would not have left the Roman Church if it would have been up to him.  However, the Roman Church chose to excommunicate him.  As far as I could tell, the national church wasn't looking to excommunicate me or my congregation (at least not yet insert smiley face here), so I had no desire to sever or cut off that relationship. (Galatians 5:16-26)

6) I believed my relationships with individual members were important.  Some pastors may not have this problem, but I genuinely love and respect the members of my congregation.  Yes, even those who stretch me in my thinking and in my patience.  I genuinely do love and respect them, and being honest with myself (and with my readers) it hurts when some move away or leave the congregation.  It saddens me greatly when I don't see someone in worship for long periods of time.  When folks return, my heart gives a leap.  I know I cannot tell people what to do and how often to attend church and whether or not even to be a part of my congregation, but I do miss them when they aren't there.  I know I cannot keep everyone happy, but I do seek to leave myself open to concerns.  And, if there is a way I can help a relationship improve or save a relationship without compromising my principles, I will seek to do it. (1 Corinthians 9: 17-23)

Given these deeply held beliefs about the church and my relationship with others, I offered a pathway forward.  A path which I knew would not completely satisfy, but would allow folks to continue to be a part of this congregation with integrity no matter where they came down on the issue.  I suggested we remove our ELCA Synod Benevolence from our budget and establish a special fund for the benevolence instead.  Folks who were against the decision could now make their voice known.  Folks who were in favor of the decision could still contribute to the wider ministry of the church.  The congregation could remain in the ELCA, and we could put the issue to rest and move forward. 

I knew the decision probably wouldn't be received well by the synod offices.  I knew we'd hear from them. 

We did.

But we are going to hold course and see what happens. 

So far, the results are very positive.

We've lost one family, but the discontent seems to have eased.  We seem to be back on track.

Not because the will of the people was done. 

No one got their way.

But because we sought a way that allowed us to be the church--through leadership; through understanding; through prayer; through compromise.

We gave up our will, so that the greater good might be accomplished.

And, hopefully, that greater good, was not our will, but God's.

Monday, February 21, 2011

You Can't Turn it Off

In my Clinical Pastoral Education review, my seminary professor wrote these words, "Kevin will need to realize there is never a time he is not pastor."

I scoffed. 

I need to re-evaluate my reaction.

Friday is my day off.  I stick to it tediously unless there is a wedding or funeral or other such emergency I am called to deal with.  Some pundits argue that a pastor should avoid complete contact with his or her congregation members completely on his/her day off.  Those pundits don't live in a rurual community where if you walk outside the door of your house, you see congregaton members. :-)  But that is beside the point.

My congregation is exceptional when it comes to understanding their pastor's need for recreation and rest.  I applaud them for honoring my day off and allowing me to spend time with my family and taking care of myself on my day off.  I have freedom to work outside, play computer games, or do whatever I need to do without interruption.

But one thing I have begun to discover is that you can't simply hang up your pastor's hat and forget what you do and who you are.  It's almost impossible.

Last Friday, I decided to do some work on our rent house in Bellville.  The attic severly needed a layer of insulation in it.  The one inch in the attic wasn't going to cut it for the long term.  A trip to Lowe's to purchase blow in insulation and rent the blower was easily accomplished.

My wife met me at the house, and while my son played in the backyard, we blew shredded junk into the attic to lower my renter's bills and hopefully add to the value of our property. 

Just as we were finishing up, our renter came home from a shopping trip.  My wife needed to go pick up our middle child from pre-K, and so I stayed to clean up the mess made by our work.

That's when the pastoral hat was forced back on my head.

My renter needed to talk.

She was in the midst of some very troubling stuff.  Stuff that was weighing her down tremendously.

My wife picked up my daughter and then picked up Sonic.  She dropped my meal back off at the house.

My renter and I continued to talk.

An hour and a half later, we finished visiting.  She needed it. 

Now, I realize that I could have told her to make an appointment with me.  I could have told her, "My office hours are 8 to 1, Monday through Thursday, and you can call me anytime to make an appointment.  My day off is Friday, so I really don't want to talk about this stuff today."  I could have.  But...

She is unchurched, and one must always be congnizant of what message one sends when dealing with someone who is in a fragile emotional state.  If I would have cut her off and held my boundaries absolutely firm, she might have never wanted to frequent a church another day in her life.  Would she have ever given the Christian faith another chance when she needed spiritual and emotional guidance, and a leader in that faith shut her off because he didn't want to play the part of pastor at that moment in time?

And perhaps that's the kicker: "play the part of pastor."  It's not a play.  It's not an act.  It's a calling.  It's a state of being. 

I tend the flock of Jesus Christ, and I have a designated part of that flock called St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring.  But there are other members of that flock--those who are slightly connected and those who God wants to be connected to it.  And it is my responsibility to tend to them as well.  Not to the point where it absolutely exhausts me to do so, but to be available and open when the Spirit leads me to them.

"Kevin needs to realize there is never a time when he is not pastor."

I understand that statement now.

You can't turn it off.

Just like you can't turn off being a Christian.

Yeah, I know it would be nice to hang that hat up for a week or so.  It would be nice to be able to turn that one off too.  Hang up the responsibility of loving one's neighbor, praying for one's enemies, and all those other tasks we are called to do. 

It would be nice to be able to turn it off and slip into moral avarice for a week, two, or even a month. 

But that's not how it works either.

It's a state of being.

Not an act.

At least it shouldn't be.

You can't turn it off.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Sermon on Building Delivered 2/20/2011

Second Lesson: 1 Corinthians 3: 10-23

10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. 16Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
18Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise. 19For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," 20and again, "The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile." 21So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, 22whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you, 23and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.

One of the things I have come to realize about myself is that I am a builder. I love building things. Now, I’m not the best carpenter in the world. Neither am I the best architect or designer. I can swing a hammer and drive a nail, but several nails do get bent in the process, and a couple of fingers have been known to get bruised. I generally can get by when it comes to constructing something, and I do try to build it to make it last. Nothing I accomplish is perfect, but the job eventually gets done. Part of my desire to build, I think, comes from something my family instilled me as I grew up. They taught me the importance of leaving something in better condition than when I found it.

Now, this can pose a bit of a problem in some cases. A few months ago, I asked if I could borrow a vehicle while mine was in the shop. One of our congregation members loaned me a Jeep Wrangler 4X4 that was essentially brand new. Now, how in the world was I going to leave that sucker in better shape than I found it? I had to think long and hard about that one, and it took me a while to figure out what to do. But when it was all said and done, the Jeep was left in this member’s garage, clean, with a mostly full tank of gas, and a six pack of Shiner Bock in the backseat. Now that this story is out, I wonder how many folks will loan me a car the next time I need one? :-)

As I read our second lesson this morning, I am glad my parents worked so diligently to instill this sense of responsibility deep within me–particularly since God called me to be a pastor. St. Paul writes, "10According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire."

These words are actually a scary prospect for those of us who work at evangelism and Christian education. They are tremendously humbling as we think about them and as we think about the job we are called upon to do when it comes to helping people live the Christian life.

First of all, I realize I am called to be a builder. I guess it’s a good thing I enjoy doing it so much. However, the building I am working on is not something made out of wood or brick or stone. The buildings I get to work on are souls. Some, I get to lay the foundation of the Gospel on. I get to help give the basics of Christianity to. I remember a young lady at my previous congregation who was 18 years old. She had attended worship with a friend for several Sundays. She was not baptized. She wasn’t sure about this thing called Christianity. She and I met in my office one evening to talk about this thing called faith. We conversed for quite some time. She had no problems grasping the concepts of God the Father and Jesus the Son. She believed in those two persons of the Trinity, but she was getting caught at the Holy Spirit. She seemed to be butting up against a wall time and again. And I was working very hard to explain it to her as best as I could. Despite my efforts, we arrived at an impasse. She wanted to believe. She wanted to profess her faith. But I couldn’t get her there. So, we turned to prayer. I prayed that God would open her heart and mind to help her understand the Spirit.

After that prayer, this young girl looked at me and told me a short story about something that happened to her at her grandmother’s house one time. She spoke of sensing something leading her in a particular direction. She asked me, "Was that the Holy Spirit?"

I replied, "What do you think?"

She said, "Yes. I believe it was. I think I understand. I believe in the Holy Spirit."

I realized at that moment, I was laying a foundation. I would not be doing too much building because she would be heading out to college and into other places in the world. But I was fortunate to be in on the ground floor. It’s an exciting thing to do because so much relies on a solid foundation.

But after the foundation, other forms of building take place. And that can lead to some exciting things, to say the least. I’ve been fortunate to work with James Hering and Malcolm Dittert a couple of times in doing some renovation projects. It’s interesting to be involved in such a thing because when you delve into such projects, you not only have to have your ideas, you have to somehow try and see what others have done before you. You have to look at what they did and see if you can adapt and work to make additions. You have to see if you can meld the old with the new, and there is great celebration on heaven and on earth if you can actually accomplish it. :-)

And there is such a similar thing with working with people in their lives of faith. There have been several instances when I have done some teaching on a particular item and heard, "That’s not what I was taught growing up." Right then and there, I know I’m butting up against another’s building. It’s not necessarily good. It’s not necessarily bad. It just is. Sometimes that construction is such a central part of another’s building, that I’ve got to leave it alone. I’ve got to allow folks to hold onto it or it will damage them irreparably. Hopefully, I can add a few additions to what others have built, and do so in a helpful manner.

Of course, if I am lucky, I get a chance to do some major construction after someone else has laid the foundation or after I have gotten a chance to lay that foundation myself. There’s always a thrill when you are creating something new, building from the ground up. You can be as creative as you like working diligently with the material you have been given. You don’t have to worry about trying to make things fit in what others have done before. For instance, sometimes it’s hard to help a person who has grown up with a fundamentalist background understand the concept of free grace. It’s much easier to try and get that building in first.

But here is the kicker. I have to be very careful with my building. Because at some point and time, what I have built will be judged by fire. If I’ve used shoddy material; if I’ve done a poor job, if things aren’t properly put together, it’s going to come back on my shoulders. So while building on people’s soul’s is an exhilarating process, it’s also done with fear and trepidation. You’ve got to work with the utmost respect and utmost care. You can’t just do a half-way job. You’ve got to give it your best.

This is one of the reasons I love the church so much. In order to effectively build, I have to get to know people. I have to get to know you. I have to build a relationship with you and see what makes you tick. And as I get to know you, I can discover where things need to be added or subtracted. As I get to know you, I can help refine what others have done and hopefully make it better. And as I get to know you, I come to love what makes you--you. I come to see how unique and special you are as a child of God, and I come to cherish working with you.

Now, all this might sound well and good, but perhaps one or two of you out there are asking, "But what does this text have to do with me? It’s all well and good that you love the church so much because you get to build on us, pastor, but what about our walks of faith?"

Well, my brothers and sisters in Christ, let me ask you this: who do you think builds on me and on those who I don’t get a chance to work with? Do you think God may be calling you to be a builder too? Amen.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Courage or Cowardice?

It really depends upon one's perspective.

Political headlines across the nation are highlighting the ongoing battle in the Wisconsin senate where all of the Democrat senators have skipped town to prevent a quorum.  They have done so in protest of a bill restricting the collective bargaining ability of state workers' unions.

There are those who call such an action cowardice.  Running from responsibility.  Tantamount to a child yelling out, "I don't like your toys, I'll go play with someone else."  And so the child goes and hides in the corner, head sulking, hoping his or her actions will change the game.

Then there are those who call such actions courageous.  Standing on principle.  Preventing the passing of a law that they feel is unjust.  Using the one iota of power they have to stop a process they don't agree with.

So which is it?

Ah, meddling in politics is not the job of the church.  The Augsburg Confession makes that absolutely clear.  In fact, if one of these senators had come to my office and asked me, "Pastor, what should I do?" 

I would have responded, "You must allow your faith and conscience to guide you.  I can't make the choice for you." 

"But what would YOU do?"

A good question.  A very good question.

More than once, I have found myself on the "losing" end of an argument within the church.  On numerous occasions, I have seen my denomination, my synod, and my congregation (not the one I currently serve) looking to make decisions that I did not agree with and felt were a detriment to the mission I believe we are called to accomplish.  Each time such a decision was being made, I have attended the meetings, stated my case, and let the chips fall where they may.

That's my style.  That's what I do.  Good, bad, or indifferent.

I've seen how things cycle.

I've seen Republican controlled governments.

I've seen Democrat controlled governments.

There's a whole lot of posturing that goes on.  Laws get passed.  Laws get reversed.  A whole lot of emotion, time, and energy tends to get wasted.

I have come to see that patience is a virtue.  Time has a way of revealing the truth.

Sometimes, I have been wrong in what I saw happening.  Sometimes I have been right. 

But I believe the process must be allowed to continue.  Holding a government, or a church, or a family hostage because a person or group isn't getting what they want is not the right answer. 

Take your lumps.  Vow to continue the fight.  If the next election cycle favors your party, change things.

It's the way the world works. 

There are winners.

There are losers.

Courage is being able to lose without being defeated.

Cowardice is running from the problem.

Perhaps I've said too much.

Friday, February 18, 2011

75 Calories

Per day.

Yep, that's the recommended amount of calories one should take in via "sweets" according to the Mayo Clinic Weight Management guide I am currently reading. 

My health insurance company gives us the opportunity to earn "wellness dollars" for an account to help defray medical expenses, and to earn them I can jump through various hoops including health assessments, lifestyle coaching, and other as sundry items.

For the second year in a row, I have a coach to "help" me along with things.  I had several options when it came to the area of life I wanted to be coached on this year.  Last year, I chose weight loss because I was in the midst of trying to drop quite a few pounds.  Since I succeeded in losing the weight last year, I chose weight management so that I could maintain my weight loss and continue to exercise and keep in some semblance of health.

My coach was nice enough, and she asked me if I wanted to receive the Mayo Clinic Weight Management guide.  I graciously accepted and began working my way through it.

It's full of all sorts of helpful information about exercise, calorie counts, and of course what to eat and what not to eat. 

That's where the Mayo Clinic food pyramid makes its appearance.  Eat all the fruits and vegetables you want.  Slow down on the carbs.  Just a smidgen of meat, and only 75 calories of sweets.

75 friggin' calories for sweets?

Four M&M's?

Not even a spoonful of ice cream?

Oh, and get this, my good German friends, alcohol counts for sweets.  You can't even drink a bottle of beer a day.  Well, I guess there are one or two very, very light beers you could drink, but you are limited to only one.  And don't even bother having a piece of cake or a cookie with it.  You're over the limit, buddy.

75 calories for sweets.

Are you kidding me?

What a stupid limitation.

Well, at least according to me.

I love sweets.  I've got a sweet tooth to beat the band.  I love empty calories.  They taste really, really good.

And I'm not going to limit myself to 75 of them per day.

I'm just not going to do it.

I'll exercise a little more if I need it, but I'm going to enjoy some of life's simple pleasures.

Eating sugar isn't a sin as far as I can read from Scripture.  Overindulgence, now, I can make a case for that.

But, who really wants to go through life limiting themselves to only 75 calories of sweets a day?  Who really wants to become that ascetic?  (For my readers who have no idea what that word means: it means living in a constant state of self-denial of things pleasurable.)  Aren't there a few things in life worth enjoying?  Chocolate, for instance?

I'm sure one or two health experts might like to take me to task, but believe me, all your scientific knowledge is not going to convince me to eat one small slice of angel food cake per day.

And you theologians who want to argue that my body is the temple of God and that I should want to take care of it and maintain it and keep it in as pristine shape as possible, I will argue that a temple is made to be used as well.  Most "temples" have ornamentation and other such "fluff" within them to enhance their beauty.  Kind of like how sweets enhances living life.

Now, you need to know.  I haven't had a full sized or a king sized candy bar in about 2 years.  I limit myself to a few snacks a day.  If you throw in a soda every other day or so, I'm probably around 300 to 350 calories a day with sweet stuff.  A major faux pax?  Maybe according to some, but I've maintained 210 lbs for seven months with only a slight gain during the holidays.  I think my body is handling it well.

My taste buds certainly are.

And I won't be denying them.

Sue me.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Holy Ground

There is something very holy about working and tilling the soil.

Every year about this time, my biological clock starts going off.

It is time to begin the process of sowing and reaping.

This afternoon, I started by cutting numerous swaths with my riding mower in a field adjacent to the church.  When I was called to St. John, I made it known that I needed a place to garden.  Some place larger than the back yard of the parsonage.  I told everyone it was either find a place for me to have a large garden, or the church would have to spring for a therapist. 

Guess which one they chose. :-)

Behind the church is about a 1/2 acre field.  One can avoid the drain fields of the septic systems and put in a pretty good sized garden.  For the first couple of years, someone tilled the ground for me.  They would still do so if I asked, but I like the work.

Each time I cut a swath, I lowered the deck on my riding mower until I literally scalped the grass to nothing.  Then I fired up my tiller.  The tines cut into the soil beautifully.  The short grass meant no clogged up tines.  Unless one has a Troy-built massive machine, one needs to make a couple of passes to truly break up and then till the soil to where it is nice and loose for planting.  Two times did the trick this time.

There is a very refreshing smell that comes with new tilled soil.  Pardon the pun, but it's earthy.  It's deep.  Even though we are in the midst of a pretty bad drought, recent winter rains and precipitation have left the soil damp.  It adds to the smell.

As I till, I think about all sorts of things.  I get away from the computer and all the instant news.  My mind has time to process.  I can think about things going on in the church.  I can reflect upon conversations with church members.  I can think about God.  I can speak to him with the breeze blowing in my face and the smell of dirt in my nostrils.

I think about when He created the world and then turned His attention to creating man.  Did God sniff the dirt when He formed man out of it?  Breathing deeply, I can almost with certainty say that He did.

I think about Jesus' parables and stories about farming and working in the dirt.  More than a couple of times I have heard "theologians"  (I use that term lightly because of what they say) who pontificate that such imagry is outdated and outmoded for this day and age--a time where technology rules and kids are more familiar with Wii's and PS3's and texting and multi-tasking.  But as my tiller cuts through the soil, and I realize the importance of our connection to farming and ranching for sustinence, I shudder at anyone trying to get rid of all imagery of farming and ranching from scripture. 

No, we don't need new imagery.  We need to help folks connect.  We need to help folks bound by concrete jungles find the freedom of fields of wide open grass or corn or maize or cotton.  We need to help folks come in contact with where their food comes from.  It might change their perspective.

I grew up spending hours on my grandfather's farm.  I walked miles with a cotton hoe in my hand.  God and I had several wrestling matches in the process.  I learned much.

But I learned even more from my grandfather who could cuss with the best of them and drink even more of them under.  But he was a man of deep faith.  He knew his utter dependency upon the Almighty.  He knew if the weather wasn't beneficial, his crop would fail.  He knew how to pray for rain.  He refused crop insurance tellin folks point blank, "If the good Lord wants me to have a crop, I will have a crop."

That's unshakable faith.  Tied to the ground.  Tied to the earth.  Holy ground.

My shoulders and my back ache tonight.  The vibrations of the tiller worked muscles I haven't worked since last summer.  But I don't care.  My hands have delved deeply into the earth.  Like my grandfather.  And my father.  And now me.  And hopefully my son.  And my daughters. 

I hope they come to know the hope, the joy, and the feeling of holy ground.

A Lay Down Hand

One of the great joys I have experienced since moving to Cat Spring has been the opportunity to play Skat.  Not many folks know of or how to play this German card game, but fortunately, there are a couple of gentlemen around here who still know how to play.

Once a month, my congregation has a Senior Service.  We gather at 11 a.m. for a brief worship service with Holy Communion.  Following worship, we have a meal together, and after the meal, we play games.  Bingo and dominoes garner the time for many there.  Three of us play Skat.  Everyone has learned not to bother us too much during that time.  The three of us are dedicated players and enjoy the game immensely.

For almost seven years, I have been playing with these gentlemen, and yesterday, I had something happen to me that hadn't happened before.  I picked up a "lay down hand."

Now, in Skat, every player is given 10 cards to begin with.  You bid on that hand.  If you win the bid, you have the option of picking up the "skat"--the two cards left over from the deal.  It can make or break your hand.

If you are lucky, you receive a hand where you don't need to pick up the skat.  If you are lucky, you can get dealt a perfect hand.  It's a rare thing to have it happen, and if you don't have any luck, you'll never experience such a thing.

Apparently, I had just a little bit of luck yesterday.  I picked up the hand which was dealt to me.  There were only clubs and hearts in the hand.  I would definitely bid on the hand, and I knew I could choose which suit I wanted to make trump.  But then I looked at the cards more carefully.  I rearranged a couple of Jacks, and I saw that I had a "lay down hand."  I could bid "null", which is essentially no trick.  There was no way anyone could make me take a trick with the hand I held. 

Now, I'm German, and the unwritten rules of Skat say that no one at any time can show any sort of emotion.  I made my bid.  One of the other gentlemen pushed the "skat" toward me, and I simply pushed them back.  I turned over my hand and laid it out.

There was no need to play.

They saw perfection too.

A rare thing.

I won sixty points on the hand.  But I didn't win the game.

Another player was having a very good day, and he carried the most points.

I came in second.

I had one other really good hand the rest of the afternoon.  The rest of the time, I suffered through some pretty bad cards.

But there was still that moment of absolute beauty.

There was still that moment of perfection.

I think many people play cards and dominoes because there is always that possibility of getting that perfect hand.  There is always that possibility of having an opportunity to bid or bet a no lose hand.  You can suffer through an absolutely horrible run of luck, and it can change in a few moments when you look at something just a little differently and see perfection.

Sometimes, I think life is like that.  Sometimes I think we get surrounded by streaks of bad luck.  Sometimes we get caught up in boring routines.  But there is always that chance of seeing perfection.  There is always that chance of seeing beauty.  There is always that chance of being caught up in the wonderful mystery of life when you feel connected to something greater than you are. 

For Christians, this is a sensation of feeling connected to God in a marvelous, almost magical sort of way.  We call them mystical experiences--the times we come face to face in this world with the hand of the Almighty. 

Such experiences offer comfort and hope in the midst of life.  They offer us reasons to go on when things are tough.  They cut us to the core and help us say to ourselves, "This life is definitely worth living."  And they point us to the ultimate hope of the day when we will be in the presence of God in its perfection for eternity.

This life is not perfect.

Neither is any card game.

But, there is a chance of getting a perfect hand.

Just like there's a chance of seeing the perfection of God here and now.

And when it happens, we can marvel.

We can wonder.

We can enjoy the moment.

We can celebrate.

And give thanks that we had such an opportunity.

Even though we might not experience it again for a long time, we can live in assurance that it did happen, and that it can happen again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I'd like to return for another post to my class last Thursday on leadership and the example provided by Sir Ernest Shackleton.

Here's a link to Wikipedia's page to give some biographical information:

We watched movie excerpts detailing Shackleton's leadership and his interaction with his men.  It was a fascinating study not only in human endurance and survival, but also in human dynamics in the midst of a crisis.

Shackleton actually faced some mutiny along the journey.  Some felt their attempt to cross sea ice dragging lifeboats was a waste of time and energy.  A few believed they were simply prolonging their inevitable deaths.  These folks would simply be satisfied to sit and use up their supplies until death eventually took them.  One particular crewman challenged Shackleton to his face regarding this position.

In the movie, Shackleton had it out with this crewman.  In no uncertain terms, Shackleton looked him in the eye and said, "I am responsible for your life and for the lives of every man here.  I will not let them die!"  The movie apparently took some poetic license at this point, but my instructor shared that at this point in the journals, Shackleton looked at the disgruntled crew member and turned his back on him and headed back to leading his men toward survival.  Shackleton would have left him standing there on his own, if this crew member chose to remain, but he wouldn't have been happy about it.  Shackleton was bound and determined to bring his men through this ordeal, and nothing was going to stop him.  His vision of his responsibility was that clear.  Anything else would have been unacceptable.

But, it must be duly noted that Shackleton's leadership did not mean that he was somehow above the rest of the crew.  Most of the time, he was up early making hot tea for his men.  He labored as hard or harder than anyone else when it came to pulling their life boats across the ice and snow.  He sacrificed his comfort for the comfort of his men.  He learned from them when faced with doing something he had never done before.  Not only did Shackleton lead, he shared the situation with his men.  He was not above it.

My instructor asked our class to draw parallels to leadership in the church.

As most pastors will do, the compassionate side of Shackleton was raised immediately--his sacrifice of himself and his comfort for his men.  But all too often, church leaders sacrifice themselves to death so that everyone else can be comfortable.  Shackleton didn't just sacrifice for the comfort of others; he sacrificed to show everyone else he wasn't going to absolve himself of the dirty work of survival.  Everyone would share the hardship.  Everyone would share the reward.

I wonder how many of us who are church leaders offer to do the same thing?  I wonder how many of us church leaders are willing to do the "dirty work" of the church?  How many of us are willing to get our hands dirty during a building project and shovel dirt and drive nails?  How many of us are willing to walk around and greet as many people as possible on a Sunday morning--modeling hospitality?  How many of us are willing to share our successes and failures in trying to share our faith with strangers?  How many of us are willing to wash dishes after a church pot luck?  How many of us are willing to cook Lenten suppers for our flocks?  How many of us are willing to say to our congregation members, "I won't ask you to do anything I'm not willing to do myself."?  That's sharing with, if you ask my opinion.

And, a further parallel, how many of us clergy take responsibility for the growth or lack of it in our congregations?  How many of us are so consumed by the vision of making disciples of all nations and bearing witness to Jesus Christ, that we are willing to passionately say, "I'm responsible for getting this congregation to reach out.  I will not let it die!"?  How many of us are willing to put our tail end's on the line in such a manner?  How many of us look at declining congregations and declining denominations and (rather than trying to sugar coat it with various excuses) and say, "This is completely unacceptable."?  And how many of us are willing to push not only ourselves but our congregation members to make a difference and reach out to others to stem decline?

As far as I am concerned, what I have seen happening in many churches and in my larger denomination is unacceptable.  A church striving to follow Jesus Christ shouldn't decline.  A church striving to make a difference in the lives of individuals and in communities shouldn't have problems attracting those in need and those who want to make a difference.

No more excuses.

No more waffling.

It's time to be who we are called to be.

It's time to venture out.

Anything else is unacceptable.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Daddy, I Want to Show You Something

Monday was quilting day at the church.

My wife has found an affinity with our quilters, and she enjoys helping them put quilts together.  Only one problem usually ensues: my son.

Kevin's not quite three and hasn't discovered the joys of preschool yet, and he tends to occupy my wife's time during the mornings.  He can be very demanding.  In fact, on this Monday morning, he was quite demanding when mom tried to quilt.  I received a phone call that Kevin wanted to see his daddy.

I made the short trip across the parking lot to visit with my son, and he obviously was disappointed that his mommy wanted to do something that didn't involve him.  Knowing mom wanted to quilt, I asked Kevin, "Do you want to come to Daddy's office?"

He nodded his head.

A quick trip home for a DVD player and the "Polar Express" and we were set.  Kevin played with his cars and watched the "Polar Express."  He discovered several Spiderman toys in my office and played with them.  He played peek-a-boo with my church secretary.  In short, he did a really good job of occupying himself.

Of course, he did decide from time to time to get his father's attention.

At one point in the morning, Kevin came up to me and said, "Daddy, I want to show you something."

Kevin started leading me all over the house that doubles as our church offices.  We went from room to room.  It was obvious he didn't really want to show me something.  He really just wanted some of daddy's attention.  Like a good father, I followed along with him.  He pointed to a couple of dead bugs.  He walked from room to room.  He showed me the closet.  He showed me the church library.  He showed me the restroom and the bathtub within.  I couldn't help but grin to myself as I followed this little person around.

I thought to myself that at this moment, this kid was being a pretty good little evangelist in his own right.  No, he wasn't pointing the way to Jesus or anything, but he was offering an invitation to come and see something that was important to him.  He was asking me to come along with him and check things out.  He was unabashedly offering an invitation for me to stop my daily routine and follow along with him and see the world through his eyes for just a little while.

Ah, for the bravery of a child. 

How often have I wanted to extend an invitation to someone to come to worship with my congregation on any given Sunday and then fallen short because of fear?  How often have we as Christians shirked from invitation because of fear of rejection?  How often have we paused, letting a poignant moment escape because we didn't know the words to say?

"Daddy, I want to show you something..."

"Ma'am, I want to show you something..."

"Sir, I want to show you something..."

Jesus said, "Come and see." 

Maybe, it's not so different.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day

Don't look for a bouquet of roses that will wither away.
Don't look for chocolates--empty calories.
Don't look for lingere, it's a self-serving gift.
Don't look for a sappy card just because Hallmark says it's needed.
Don't look for jewelry.  It's just expensive rock.
Don't look for a new car as if that's really a sign someone loves you.
Don't look for a nice, romantic dinner at an exclusive restaurant.  It's a school night, and we've got to get the kids in bed in time.

Instead, look for me to help get the kids ready for school early in the morning.
Look for me heading off to work to make enough to ensure you don't have to find a money-making job because I know raising kids is a full time job in and of itself.
Look for me taking off from work at lunch and having the youngster's lunches ready to roll when you bring them home from preschool.
Look for me struggling to put together a dinner that will suit the taste of five different taste buds.
Look for me helping to occupy the kids' time before bed--keeping them from harming one another when getting too bored.
Look for me herding them toward the bathroom to brush teeth before bed saving you from ears that don't like to listen to Mommy.
Look for me helping them get dressed for bed.
Look for me fulfilling my duties as head of the household in leading everyone in bedtime prayer.
Look for me spending precious moments just before sleep takes hold, cuddling and talking to the little ones so they know Daddy's near.
Look for me ready to wrap my arms around you and holding you tightly at the end of the day, allowing the endorphins of our embrace to filter through the stress of dealing with kids most of the day and relax you as you fall asleep in my arms.
Look for my gentle kiss and whisper of, "Good night.  I love you, hon." as deep sleep takes hold and you rest easy knowing I'm there to watch over you and protect you and the children.
Look for these everyday things I do because they are filled with much more love than all the garbage the retailers make out to be so important on this day.

If you ever wondered why I never get you a Valentine's Day gift, now, you hopefully can see.
I believe in more substantial things.
Real life acts of service and kindness.
Each day.
Every day.
Without exception.
Without fail.
They are yours. 
Until death do us part.

Sermon Delivered 2/13/2011

Gospel Lesson: Matthew 5: 21-37
21"You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. 27"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31"It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ 32But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. 33"Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

As I read the appointed texts for today, especially that wonderful gospel lesson from the book of Matthew, I decided I had a few options of dealing with the difficulty of Jesus’ teachings.

#1. I could simply ignore the Gospel lesson and preach on either the first or the second lesson. Both of them offered some very good sermon material, and neither one is particularly controversial. I could have done this, but I decided this wasn’t being very faithful, and I thought it was simply avoiding the issues raised by Jesus.

Option #2: Explain away what Jesus says in the Gospel lesson. Believe me, I’ve been exposed to all types of biblical criticism and methodologies which open up a whole lot of avenues to soften what Jesus says in Matthew chapter 5. I could use them to make everyone feel pretty secure that Jesus really isn’t being as harsh as he seems in these verses. But, the more I thought about such a tact, the more I realized I was probably avoiding the issue once again.

So, I decided for option number 3. The same option a batter exercises when he is facing a pitcher who throws a 100 mile an hour fast ball. Walk up to the plate, take your best swing, and hope for the best.

It’s safe to say, Jesus doesn’t hold any punches back with these four teachings. He is in your face, and dare I say it, He’s nasty. When I was in college, I took a course on Judaism. The professor explained to us the Jewish concept of sin. "It’s not a sin unless you actually act on it," he shared with us. "It doesn’t matter what you think," my professor continued. "It matters what you do." This is important to understand in regards to what Jesus says in these verses.

For the common, everyday Jew that Jesus is speaking do, Jesus’ words would have been revolutionary. Whereas the Pharisees and religious teachers taught that one’s thoughts were irrelevant, Jesus puts thought on a par with action.

For instance, the Pharisees were awfully good about leading on that they were holy and blameless. They followed the Jewish law. They didn’t kill. They didn’t steal. They didn’t commit adultery. They did not swear by God’s name. They ritually washed their hands, ate the right foods, and didn’t work on the Sabbath like some others. Of course, their actions led them to believe they were righteous. They thought since they didn’t sin like common everyday folks, they had a special relationship with God. They believed God favored them above anyone else.

Jesus quickly and demonstrably puts all of that to rest with four simple teachings. If you think you are righteous because you don’t commit murder, I tell you that if you harbor anger in your heart, you are liable to judgement. And if you think you haven’t committed adultery by lying with a woman, I tell you that if you even think about sleeping with another, you commit adultery. If you divorce and get remarried, you commit sin. And finally, if you swear any type of oath, what-so-ever, you are in the wrong. In the space of 17 verses, Jesus levels the playing field. In the space of 17 verses, Jesus shows there is not a single person who is above the law. In the space of 17 verses, Jesus shows that every single person He is talking to is in the same boat. All of them are sinners. Just because you haven’t acted on something, your thoughts count as well.

I am sure this made folks both glad and sad at the same time. I’m sure it gladdened their hearts to hear someone stand up to the holier than thou attitude of the Pharisees. I’m sure it made their hearts glad to hear that the Pharisees and religious leaders were just like them–sinners all. But I am also sure that it made them scratch their heads. I’m sure it made them wonder, "Then who will be saved?" If everyone stands condemned by what we do or even what we think, where is the hope?

It’s a fair question that all of us need to answer this morning. It’s a fair question that each and every one of us need to wrestle with as we sit in our pews and hear Jesus’ words because those words aren’t just for those people sitting on that hillside 2000 years ago, they are for us as well.

And how many of you think you are righteous after hearing them? How many of you have been angry at family members, friends, or fellow church members? How many of you have ever looked at a member of the opposite sex and had thoughts which are better left unspoken? Who of us in this room today hasn’t been affected by divorce either ourselves or a family member? Who of us hasn’t sworn to uphold a belief or a promised action? Who of us can consider ourselves blameless with just the four teachings that Jesus presents in these 17 verses? If you consider yourself blameless, please stand up.

Yeah, I’m sitting down too now. I can’t stand before you because I’ve broken three out of those four teachings Jesus has this morning. I don’t notice anyone else standing either, so if you are like me. If you sit here condemned this morning. If you find yourself judged by Jesus’ words, please grab that red book that you find in your pew in front of you. You know, the one marked, "B-I-B-L-E". It’s a pretty important book.

If you sit here this morning condemned by Jesus words, turn with me in that Bible to Romans chapter 3. That’s in the New Testament, folks. It’s on page ___ in the back section of the Bible. I want you to scan down to verse 19 and read with me. Yes, let’s read verses 19 through 24 together, out loud.

19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For "no human being will be justified in his sight" by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus,

Go back and read verses 23 and 24 again out loud, "23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus."

Now verse 24 out loud, "They are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

Jesus purposely levels the playing field for all of us, because we need to remember where we stand. We need to remember that we have no business thinking we are any holier than anyone else. We have no business spouting off how good we might be morally or ethically or otherwise. We all are in the same boat because we are all under the condemnation of sin AND, and let me emphasize that AND we are all justified only by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing else. There is nothing else we can do to earn our place with God. It’s solely a gift given to us through grace.

And so, how does that leave us? I believe it gives us a sense of humility and joy. Humility in dealing with others because they are just like us, and joy because we have been given something we didn’t deserve. Therefore, we can now live our lives with our heads held high knowing that God loves us unceasingly, and yet, we live without looking down our noses at anyone for we know that none of us are righteous on our own. Amen.