Thursday, March 31, 2011

Don't Judge By Outward Appearances: Lenten Midweek Sermon

1 Samuel 16:1-13
16The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." 2Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the Lord said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." 4Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, "Do you come peaceably?" 5He said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. 6When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord." 7But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." 8Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." 9Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." 10Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." 11Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." 12He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." 13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

I remember very clearly the day I was told my name was being submitted for consideration at this church. I was sitting at my desk at Emanuel’s Lutheran Church in Seguin. I had sensed the call to move onward and venture out. Rob Moore, who was assistant to the bishop at the time, briefed me on the congregation.
He said, "It’s a relatively small congregation of 185 people. They worship about 65 per Sunday. Houston is moving toward it, and in about five years or so, it will probably be a growing, thriving place."

I replied, "That sounds interesting." Which I should have realized right away meant that I was headed this direction. But that’s another story for another time. I also said, "Go ahead and put my name in and send me the material."

I received all the information, and started doing some research. One of the first things Dawna and I decided to do is do a drive by. We were in the midst of the adoption process at the time, and we had to take monthly trips to College Station.Our next meeting was shortly after I received the phone call, and we decided to take the long way around and head up 949 and check out the town. I remember being struck by the beauty of the area’s rolling hills. It was spring time, and the wild flowers were out. We carefully paid attention to the Mapquest driving instructions which I had printed out. We turned on Ross Street and drove by the parsonage and the church.

As we drove by, I quipped, "It looks like a nice place to retire." I wasn’t at all sure about mission and ministry and outreach and being in a thriving congregation. From outward appearances, it looked like a nice, country church without much happening and where not much would happen.

But there was still something lingering in the back of my mind. Something I had been taught from an early age. Don’t judge something or someone by the outward appearance. It’s an important lesson to learn.

The prophet Samuel even had to learn that lesson. In our first reading for today, Samuel has been called by God to anoint the next king of Israel. God has become disenchanted with the current king, Saul, and God’s ready to get the process started of training and equipping the next one in line. God tells Samuel to head to Bethlehem and find Jesse. One of Jesse’s sons will be the next king.

Samuel heads to Bethlehem and follows the Lord’s instructions. The folks there are actually a little afraid to see Samuel coming. They wonder if he’s coming in peace. I find that particularly interesting. Apparently, prophets could unleash some nasty stuff, and the folks of Bethlehem breathed a sigh of relief when Samuel told them he was peaceable and was offering sacrifice to the Lord. Samuel invited all the leaders to come along, and they did.

Samuel started the process knowing one of the sons of Jesse was supposed to be king, and Samuel started looking them over one by one. He gazed upon the oldest, and apparently, he liked what he saw. Judging by what the Lord says, this son was big and strong. He looked the part. "Surely the Lord’s anointed is before the Lord," Samuel thinks.

But he is in for a shock. The Lord disagrees, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

Wait a minute here. Is the Lord suggesting that He and we have different standards of judgement? Is the Lord suggesting we might judge things on a superficial note where He judges things and people on something of more substance? It surely looks like it. It surely looks like the Lord is suggesting that we as humans have a wonderful tendency of looking at the exterior things–the things that are flashy and grab our attention. We look at the stuff on the outside that looks good, but we fail to look at what is really important. We fail to look on the inside.

To use an automotive analogy, we see a beautiful car with a shiny coat of paint and a beautifully maintained cabin space, but we fail to look under the hood and see the worn and torn engine; we fail to look under the chassis and see the oil dripping and the rusty exhaust system; and we fail to look at the CarFax and see that it’s been in several accidents and been in and out of the service shop for repeated mechanical breakdowns.
It’s not too often that we disregard the external appearances and delve deep into what we can’t see. We are governed by the idea, "You only have one time to make a first impression." And we believe that so deeply we oftentimes fail to get by the externals to really see someone deep down and get to know their heart.

Samuel had to work against his ingrained biases as he went down the line of Jesse’s sons. One by one, the Lord told him, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Soon, Samuel ran out of sons, so he asked Jesse, "You got any more kids?"

And Jesse said, "Yeah, there’s one more. My youngest is out with the sheep." Apparently, even Jesse didn’t consider his youngest son a capable leader, a capable person to be standing in the presence of a prophet.


God doesn’t look upon the outward appearance.

Samuel told Jesse to send for his youngest, and soon the youngest son appeared. The Lord said, "This is the one."

And Samuel anointed David to be the next king of Israel, and anyone who has read the Bible knows that David is considered the greatest king the Kingdom of Israel ever had. Because God picked him by looking at his heart and not his outward appearance.

As I began the interview process at St. John, I forced myself to look past appearances. I know what most pastors say. We say we are not concerned with the size of our congregations. We say we are mostly concerned about being faithful to our callings and not enamored by how many people are worshiping at our churches. But, it’s a lie. There are a few who say such things and really, truly believe them. However, most of us jump at the chance to serve at large congregations. We like the idea of hundreds or thousands of people worshiping with us and hundreds of thousands of dollars entering in the offering plates. We like the idea of scores of programs being run by a congregation, and we really like the idea of sitting as the figure head of such a place. Many times our egos get caught up in such things, and if we can’t have such a congregation, we feel like we are settling for something less. I had to push such thoughts out of my brain as I sat down to discern whether or not I was called to serve in this place.

As the process wound around and around, I think I was able to start to see the heart of this congregation. In my phone interview, there seemed to be a good energy as we talked, and then I asked two questions of vital importance. First, I asked whether or not this congregation’s golden years were behind it or ahead of it. Without hesitation, the response was, "They are definitely ahead of us." The second question, I asked in this manner: I said, "The next question is very, very important, and a lot rides on it." The response from the other end was a pause and then the word, "Okay." I said, "My current congregation is pretty big. I’m in meetings most nights of the week. I’m keeping a very busy schedule with not too much time off. I was wondering, if I accept the call to St. John, will I have to work on Sundays." There was about a five second pause before the entire room erupted in laughter. I breathed a sigh of relief. Folks here had a sense of humor. And then, as things continued, when I met the congregation, I wore a tie and a button down shirt. I was told to take off the tie. Then I sat down and ate, and I began meeting folks. I could sense a desire to do God’s work. It was palatable. "Forget the outward appearance," I told myself. "This congregation might be small, but it wants to do great things."

And you did. And you do. You cannot judge the outward appearance of things. God looks at things differently than we do. In congregations. In people. And in events. The trick is taking the time to discern them and listen for His guidance. For when we do, great things happen. Amen.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Conversation Points with My Bishop: Part II: The Map

When I arrived for my conversation and lunch with Bishop Rinehart, it was the first time I had been in our new synod offices.  Mike greeted me and asked me if I wanted the tour.

Curious, I accepted.

Mike led me through and introduced me to the synod staff, and then we walked into the current conference room.  We stopped in front of a map...a geograpic map of the synod.  On it were marked the congregations of the synod.

I am a part of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod.

If you look on the map on the web link, you will see outlined in black the land area we encompass.

Interestingly enough, our congregations are pretty clustered: the Houston area, west into Washington, Austin, Colorado and such counties, and in the more urban areas of Louisiana.  But there are some very, very large gaps.

Mike pointed out the map as something that really helped him get his head around how our congregations were distributed.  He found it particularly interesting our lack of congregations in far East Texas and Western Louisiana.

I made a couple of comments: #1. That's big Missouri Synod territory.  Mike agreed.

#2.  "We've got a big mission field."

Mike and I didn't expand that comment further and talk about it much, but I wish we would have. 

I think one of the major problems in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America is our blatant disregard for planting and starting congregations.

Now, I'm sure a few eyebrows will be raised at that comment.  I know at least one person connected with Chicago and even the TLGC Synod would like to dispute me and say that we are truly dedicated to starting congregations and reaching out.   We have resources allocated and mission developers, etc., etc., etc.

Yeah.  Right.

For every mission developer and dollar allocated, I'll show you mounds of paperwork and red tape imposed by our denomination which kills the spirit of a pastor who is seeking to start a congregation.  I'll also show you more of an interest in social justice instead of evangelism.  And while social justice is important, I believe Jesus' command to make disciples takes priority. 

And the United States is a HUGE, VAST, OVERWHELMING mission field.  Check out this link about church attendance and the average American:

Even though, we like to say we are religious, we're not really following through.  Our actions aren't in step with our words.  To me, this means we've a mission to connect people to Christ.

And while Christ is certainly present in the world, we can be assured of His presence at Church. 

We need to be planting churches, and there is a vast mission field for the ELCA, in my opinion.

Sure, I don't agree with all the policy decisions of this church.  Sure, I don't agree with all its Biblical interpretation, but it is my church.  I have grown up in it and with it.  And I want it to be faithful.  It bothers me to see it in decline, and I believe it needs to loose the power of its congregation members and pastors in witness.  I believe it needs to loose the power of its people to plant congregations be they lay or clergy.  Cut the red tape, and go!

Two things in this regard come to mind:

#1. I have a fantasy of winning the powerball.  I wondered what I might do with large sums of money, and something struck me the other day as I contemplated such a thing.  Wouldn't it be cool to be able to head from town to town as St. Paul did and establish churches?  Wouldn't it be cool to venture out and proclaim the Gospel in public places and invite folks to get together in a home or some other such place and begin a congregation?  Wouldn't it be cool to say, "I will be here with you for a year or two, and then it's up to you."?  Talk about people taking responsibility for their church...  And, churches can get planted and grow...  Maybe a return to the Biblical model of church planting might be helpful.

P.S. I know Paul wasn't rich as he headed out.  I'm not as brave as he was, and I have a family to think of at this juncture.  While part of me is intrigued by the adventure, because of my family commitments, I'm a little more drawn to security at this juncture of my life.  Perhaps that makes me a hypocrite, and I ask for forgiveness.

#2. I remember my uncle and I visiting one day.  He is a retired pastor who spent many years in East Texas serving Lutheran congregations.  He made the comment, "It's hard for Lutherans to grow congregations in East Texas." 

I understand the sentiments.  First, this area of the South is pretty conservative.  The ELCA is not exactly a conservative church, and the ideology makes for an interesting dynamic.  Yet, I have found in my own conservative context, ideology doesn't matter as much to most folks.  They want to connect to God, and they mostly do so through the preaching of the pastor.  They are mostly willing to overlook ideology if they have a pastor who 1. Can preach a really good sermon. and 2. Is willing to admit the ideology might be or is wrong.  and 3. Gives people freedom to adhere to their beliefs without trying to change them. 

As I have traveled throughout the ELCA, I'm not too sure we're exactly good at some of those points.  Most of the time, we pastors try to defend our positions or the positions of the denomination.  We take things personally instead of allowing healthy disagreement or even acknowledging that others might be right and we might be wrong.  Humility tends to be sorely lacking.  And I don't exactly know many ELCA preachers who rank up there in terms of charisma and dynamism.  Down south here, we compete with Pentecostals and Southern Baptists who whip people into an emotional frenzy with their words.  We Lutherans aren't so good with such things.  We tend to get very heady.  Instead of preaching the plain language of the text, we start delving into Biblical criticism and methodologies, and before you know it, people are lost.  And since Biblical criticism and methodologies tend to be seen as more liberal...  Well, it doesn't help our cause in reaching out in a more conservative area. 

But I am convinced it can be done.  I know it can.  I've seen it done, and am experiencing it right now in my congregation. 

After looking at that map in the Synod Office, I am appalled at all the blank spaces. 

They should be filled with dots of congregations.  Small, medium and large ones. 




No more excuses.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Simple Task

Another trip to Wharton today, and another humbling experience.

For those of you catching up on this situation: I have a member who is in Wharton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.  He has stage four lung cancer which has spread into his brain.  The prognosis is 2 to 2 1/2 months.  Of course, with the power of prayer and such, you never know.  But it's a tough situation.

When a member of my congregation is in such straights, I usually make it a policy to check in as often as possible.  Wharton is an hour drive away, so I am working to see this member once a week.

Today, I made that drive.

I arrived to find my member at rehab.  He was just finishing up.

The brain surgery and tumors have affected his left side.  While it is much better than right after the surgery, I found out today, he still has a long way to go.

The therapist pulled up a chair for me to visit with "Dave" while I he was finishing his therapy.  Dave was sitting in a wheel chair with a movable table in front of him.  On that table was a contraption with several bars running horizontally across it.  Dave's job was to pick up oversized clothes-pins and clamp them across those metal bars.

For most of us, it's a simple task.  Squeeze the ends to open the pin.  Reach out and put the pin on the bar, and done.  It would take most of us a minute to do 20 or 30 such moves.

But not Dave.  In his weakened condition, it was taking much, much longer.  He struggled to grasp the pins.  He struggled to pinch the ends together.  He struggled to reach out and put them on the bars.  Dave didn't lose his sense of humor.  He tried to slip a few moves in with his right hand, but the therapist wouldn't let him get away with it too often.

After hanging about 10 pins, Dave said, "I'm struggling.  I need to rest."

After pinching clothes pins.

A simple task.

When you aren't suffering from cancer.  Or weakened by some other malady.

It brought me back to the reality that such things hit people indiscriminantly.  They don't pay attention to age, skin color, height, weight, or any such thing.

One day, you can be just fine, walking down the street minding your own business, and the next thing you know, you are stuck in the hospital suffering from God knows what.  And dependent upon other people.

After Dave finished his therapy, we went back into his room.  He wanted in bed, and I had to lift him out of his wheelchair to help him.  I thanked God for my strength as I picked him up.  A little later, he wanted to sit up in bed.  He reached out for my hand.  I pulled, and I pulled his bed away from the wall.  Apparently, I was a little too strong at the moment, so I pushed the bed back while helping him sit up.  He asked me to help him put his shoes on.  I did.  He asked me to help him put his feet back in bed, and I did again.

Dave remarked, "Now, I know how my mother felt when I was helping her when she was in the nursing home."

At least he was having an easier time of asking and receiving help.  Some folks fight it.

Numerous times, I have had to remind them of this:

We know that when we help someone in need, we are helping Christ.  For a long time, you might have done so in your life, but now, you are receiving help.  And not only that, people are encountering Christ when they help you.  Let Christ work through you.

A lot of times, that statement helps.  Dave got it.  He understood it, and it helped him.

I hope, if the time comes for me, I can remember that too.  Especially if I too need help accomplishing a simple task.

Conversation Pieces with the Bishop: Part 1

I have managed to procure permission to bring forth parts of my conversation with Bishop Mike Rinehart.  I have told him to monitor what I write to make sure I am being faithful to the conversation and to his part in it, so if you see a response from him, please read it over.  I have found that as I age and increase the number of children in my household (not to mention the number of members in my congregation) my IQ has dropped.  Memory becomes fuzzy, and it's not because of the type of beverages I might or might not consume from time to time. :-)

First off: the reason for our meeting.

Mike has been a huge proponent of all clergy in the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod filling out their annual parochial reports and sending them to the synod (and consequently ELCA) offices.  Mike wants them because he makes important decisions based upon the data he receives.  I have not filed a report in six years.  I have, however, filled them out, and they are kept here at St. John to be turned in at a later date.  That date will be determined when the ELCA ceases a practice I find detestable--more on that below.

Mike sent me an email and asked me how things were going since I hadn't turned in my reports.  I thought of responding to him by email, but decided a face to face meeting would be more productive.  Further, I'm becoming more and more skeptical of technology's ability to keep us connected.  In my evolving opinion, true connection can only take place in face to face meetings.  Therefore, I asked if Mike would allow me to take him out to lunch.

Of course, at one point the topic of those ELCA reports came up.   Here's the back story.

In January of 2005, we adopted a bi-racial little girl.  She's 1/2 African-American and 1/2 Polish.  It's a heck of a combination, let me tell you.  Because of her skin color, she would most likely be considered black even though she is technically bi-racial.  Sixteen months later, we adopted a second little girl who is 1/2 African-American, 1/4 Latina, and 1/4 Polish.  Another heck of a combination.  Again, because of her skin color, she would be considered black even though she is technically bi-racial.

I was and still am fortunate I have not experienced any hard-core racial tension because of the decision to adopt these little girls.  95% of the people we run into are absolutely cool with seeing our blended family.  It's really cool when we get stopped by people who marvel and ooh and aah over our girls and then launch into conversations like, "This is what you see on t.v....where skin color doesn't matter...where families can be blended...etc., etc."  I remember eating at a Mexican food restaurant and having a guy excitedly carry on such a conversation for nearly 10 minutes!

There have been a few experiences where folks have looked down their noses at my family.  About five percent of the folks we have encountered from any culture look at us with some form of disdain.  I really don't give a flip.  I know what I believe, and it is a deep seeded principle.

I do not believe skin color is important in the sight of God.  Period.

And if God doesn't give a rip about the color of a person's skin, I shouldn't either.

The Reverand Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he stated we should judge a person by the content of his or her character and not by the color of his or her skin. 

Yep.  Consider me a convert to this reality.  I'd have never adopted those two girls if I only said such a thing with my lips and didn't believe it in my heart.  Not only do I believe it, I LIVE IT!

And here's the rub...

I remember very clearly the day I sat down to fill out my ELCA parochial report in 2006.  I began putting in all the facts and figures for my congregation, and then I came upon the segment on race and ethnicity.  I paused. 

The church was asking me to take notice of the skin color and ethnicity of members of my congregation.  Suddenly, there was a clash within me.

For a long time, one of my favorite Bible passages was Galatians 3:27-28, "For as many of you have been baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek.  There is no longer slave or free.  There is no longer male or female.  For all of you are one in Christ Jesus."

When I looked at that race/ethnicity section, this verse popped into my head, and right alongside of it was a picture in my mind of me holding my little girl and looking lovingly into her eyes as a father.  Seeing her only as my child, skin color be damned.  Then there was a scene of a little girl crying to her daddy when someone had made fun of her because of the color of her skin, and I heard myself saying, "Skin color doesn't matter.  God made you perfectly, and God doesn't make a mistake.  Anyone who makes fun of you because of your skin color isn't worth crying over."

I saw myself responding to a congregation member who asked me why we didn't adopt someone of our own "culture." 

"Because God doesn't worry about the color of a person's skin, and neither do we," I said.

How could I ever look my girls in the eye and tell them skin color doesn't matter when I was asked to take notice of it in these reports?  How could I tell them God didn't care about skin color when the institution which seeks to represent Him on this earth blatantly took notice of such things and kept statistics on them?

Right then and there, I decided my children would not be a statistic no matter how well intentional it might be.  I decided I would respond differently to this request by the ELCA offices.  Not only with my children, but with my entire congregation.

Under the race/ethnicity portion of this report, I checked the box marked other, and then on the space provided, I put in the entire membership of my congregation with the title, "Children of God." 

Imagine my distaste when a few months later, as I was browsing on the ELCA web site and looking at my congregation's profile when I came across the racial/ethnic make up and saw the data I had sent in was changed.  Someone in the data department apparently didn't like what I had written in and moved the entire membership number into the "White" category.

I WAS LIVID!  Not only had someone changed my report.   They did so without asking me.

Subsequent emailings got me nowhere.  They had changed it.  They weren't going to change it back to the way I reported it, and I needed to change my mind and fill it out as they requested.

"I'll be damned if I do," I told myself.  "If they want to change my report, they can fill it out themselves." 

So I stopped sending it in.  We keep records here on file, but they are not and will not be sent in because I absolutely, positively refuse to be a party to something I reject on Biblical, theological, and personal grounds. 

In the midst of my conversation with Mike, I reminded him of what the data folks in the ELCA offices would do even if I didn't fill that section out.

He remarked, "Oh yeah."

"So I won't do it."

He replied, "You are stubborn."

Yep.  Tell me something I don't know. 

I will not support a policy which goes against something very, very important to me that affects those closest to me.  I would like to think I am a man of integrity, and to fill out that portion of the report or allow someone to change what I write doesn't compute--especially if I believe I am in the right.  And I think on the basis of the Bible, theology, and ethics, I am right.

If my bishop wants such information, he'll have to settle for a phone call, email, or lunch again.  I'll glady talk about my congregation's average worship attendance, our giving, our struggles, our Sunday School program, or what have you.  But do not ask me to talk about race/ethnicity and give any facts and figures about that stuff. 

God doesn't care about it.

Why should I?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Going to Level 2

Since January, I have been trying to maintain my health by working out with a "kettlebell."  It's an interesting little contraption which is basically a ball of weight with a handle.  Exercising with it incorporates both cardio training and weight training at the same time. 

Toward the end of January, I bought a video to help me in my endeavors with the exercise: Jilian Michael's "Shred it with Weights."  The first time I did level one, I thought I would crater.  I wasn't used to working out in such a manner.  However, I was pleasantly surprised that in about three weeks time, I had nearly mastered Level 1.  I was able to complete all the exercises and even take several of them to the "crazy" level--as Jilian calls it.

I then decided it was time to take it up a notch.  It was time for Level 2. 

Warning bells should have gone off in my head when Jilian began the introductory segment with an evil laugh and the comment, "You are going to rue the day you bought this tape."

What transpired next was a 27 minute butt kicking.

I confess, I couldn't handle it.  I had to reduce the weight on my kettlebell to even finish.  Toward the end of the exercise, we had to do push ups.  No problem, right?  I used to be able to knock those things out with no problem in my younger days.  Not this time.  The exercises I had done in the earlier segments had zapped my strength and power.  In order to complete the rotation I had to do "girl" push-ups (at least that's what we called them when I was growing up.).

There was and is a part of me that wants to go back to level 1.  Level 1 was easier.  It was less intense.  I was comfortable there and could have stayed there for a very long time. 


If I want to grow...

If I want to continue to see results...

If I want to continue to move toward health....

I've got to stick with level 2.

I've got to endure the pain.

I've got to endure the soreness.

I've got to humble myself and work up to getting stronger even though I have a long way to go.

I've got to be disciplined and move forward even though there is a part of me that wants to go back.

Many times I have run across congregations who begin a program of outreach and evangelism.  They grow and reach a certain level, and then they become comfortable.  They are happy with increased worship attendance.  They are happy with increased revenues.  They are happy seeing programs becoming revitalized and stronger.  They like having kids where once there were none.

But then the growth ceases.

Many thinkers, yours truly included, believe the growth ceases because a congregation needs to move to the next level.  A notch needs to be kicked up.  Some folks have heard of the family church; pastoral church; program church; and corporate church paradigms.  I still adhere to such thinking in most of what I do.

And I know transitioning isn't easy.  It involves moving up a level, and the transition can be very, very tough.  It can be painful.  It can cause soreness and anxiety.  There's an awful temptation to remain at Level 1 because we know it; we've mastered it; we're used to it; and at least we're doing something.  Why should we work through the pain and head to the next level?

I've been working at level 2 of the Jilian Michaels tape for a couple of weeks.  I've actually started alternating between the two levels because they each work different body groups, but that's beside the point.  I'm not going back to strictly level 1.  I'm still working at reduced weights on level 2, but yesterday, I managed to get through the whole thing with only one, minor pause.  I will keep pressing forward.


I'm seeing results.

At the height of my weight gain, I was a 38--pushing 40--inch waist.  I weighed 245 lbs.  I began walking and went down to 205 lbs.  Interestingly enough, I have gained weight back.  I'm now sitting at 215 lbs.  I started gaining when I started working out with the kettlebell.  BUT...

I am losing inches.  Most of my jeans are still size 36 waist.  But for the past two days, I have been able to take them off WITHOUT unbuttoning them or unzipping them.  Don't picture that in your head, but at least think about the reality of that.  Muscles are building--which is healthier than fat.  Fat and inches are disappearing.  Level 2 is working even though I continue to experience soreness and cannot finish the program with the full compliment of weight.  In short, I'm continuing to develop a healthier body.

I am personally going to push on.  I will begin adding more weight in the next couple of weeks, and I'll end up spending more time in Level 2 than Level 1.  You've got to keep taking it up a notch to see the results.

I think it holds true for churches as well.

As my congregation continues to grow, I'll let you know.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Sermon Delivered March 27, 2011: Standing Alone

Take a quick listen to these songs, and see if you can hear something in common:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus blood and righteousness
No merit of my own I claim
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand.

Stand up, stand up for Jesus As soldiers of the cross
Lift high His royal banner It must not suffer loss
From vict’ry unto vict’ry His army He shall lead
Till every foe is vanquished and Christ is Lord indeed.

Beneath the cross of Jesus, I long to take my stand
The shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land
A home within a wilderness a rest upon the way
From the burning of the noontide heat and burdens of the day.

Notice any commonality within those songs? Notice how each of them in some way talked about taking a stand with and for Jesus? We’ll actually sing another such song in just a few moments: "Standing on the Promises of God." Yes, my brothers and sisters, there a thread which runs through Christianity which calls us to stand up for the principles and convictions of our faith. There is a thread which urges you and me to stand on the Word of God; to stand for what is right; to weather storms of criticism and outright assault by others who would knock us down because, by God, we know we are doing the right thing, and we should never, ever back down.

And honestly, there’s nothing wrong with talking about our faith in such a manner. There’s nothing wrong with talking about the need to stand strong in our faith. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging one another to hold fast to principle to morals to the teachings of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. We need such encouragement. We need to be built up and have our faith strengthened in such a manner. It’s vitally important. Why?

Because when the rubber hits the road, it’s awful hard for us to actually take that stand. Particularly if we are alone. I am reminded of a story I once heard.

On the outskirts of town, there was a huge nut tree by the cemetery fence.

One day two boys filled up a bucketful of nuts and sat down by the tree, out of sight, and began dividing the nuts.  "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me," said one boy.  The bucket was so full, several rolled out toward the fence.

Cycling down the road by the cemetery was a third boy. As he passed he thought he heard voices from inside the cemetery. He slowed down to investigate. Sure enough, he heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me."

This third boy knew what it was. "Oh, my!" he shuddered, "It's Satan and St. Peter dividing the souls at the cemetery!" He cycled down the road as fast as he could and found an old man with a cane, hobbling along.

"Come quick!" said the boy. "You won't believe what I heard. Satan and St. Peter are down at the cemetery dividing the souls."

The man said, "Shoo, you brat! They are doing no such thing. The last judgment is far away."

The boy was persistent, however, and after several pleas, the old man reluctantly hobbled to the cemetery.

Standing by the fence he heard, "One for you, one for me. One for you, one for me..."

The old man, with a skeptical grin, whispered, "We’ll there’s certainly some sorting going on, but I don’t think it’s Peter and the Devil. Somebody’s just playing a prank on people passing by. They don’t even know we’re here."

The third little boy was annoyed with the old man’s pompous attitude, and he whispered back, "Just you wait. It’s St. Peter and the Devil. Watch a minute, and we’ll get to see one of them."

Humoring the boy, the old man just grinned.

The two of them continued to peer through the fence, yet they were still unable to see anything. The boy gripped the wrought iron bars of the fence tighter and tighter as he tried to get a glimpse of Satan. The old man just stood there chuckling to himself. At last they heard, "One for you, one for me. And one last one for you. That's all. Now let's go get those nuts by the fence, and we'll be done."

Suddenly, the old man’s face went from a smile to a look of sheer terror. Both he and the boy bolted, and they say the old guy made it back to town 5 minutes before the boy.

As I said, it’s easy to talk about taking a stand. It’s easy to talk about holding onto our faith. It’s easy to talk about standing on our principles and our values and on the Word of God. But it’s hard to do it. If you were to ask me, I’d tell you it was darn near impossible.

Even the great St. Peter had a difficult time of it. We see that playing out in the continuing story of the passion of Christ this Sunday. Peter was resolved. He was determined. When everyone else would run away, he would not. He would not betray Jesus. He would stick with Jesus to the very, bitter end. Nothing would pry him away. If the song "Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus" had been written by this time, Peter would have sang it the loudest and strongest. But he wouldn’t have known he was a few beats off and way off key until the rubber hit the road. Because when the rubber hit the road, Peter couldn’t stand. Once, twice, three times, Peter denied Jesus. The cock crowed, and Peter wept. He couldn’t stand. He wouldn’t. The reality that he loved his life more than Jesus hit him very hard.

Now, I bet you believe I am going to start coming down on all of us right now. I bet you think I’m going to point out that we are just as weak as Peter is and that when the rubber hits the road for us, we too fall short. We too fail to stand for Jesus. We too fail to love Jesus more than our lives, our wealth, our families, our friends, our jobs, or whatever. I could go down that road, but you don’t need me to tell you this. You already know. You already know you don’t stand up for Jesus all the time. When the rubber hits the road and you are all alone and you are facing temptation, you and I both know we give in. It’s hard to take a stand.

But, there is one in this story who does. There is one in the story of the Passion who continues to stand when everyone else leaves. There is one who still is focused on the mission and ministry of God despite everyone doing everything possible to draw Him away from it. Jesus remains standing. He alone conquers the desires to run, to hide, to avoid the consequences of living a life of faith. He has been arrested; he is being tried; he is being spit upon; he is being slapped around; and he will be crucified. But He is willing to stand alone when we are not. He is willing to go the distance when we so often quit. He will see it through to the bitter end.

And furthermore, He will continue to stand by you even though you fall down as well. Jesus will not desert you even though everyone else might run. Even though you might cause everyone to become angry with you, disenchanted with you, and disappointed with you–even though you might even disappoint Christ himself with your sin, He will continue to stand next to you because He loves you, and He believes in you. He will never, ever desert you, even if He has to stand alone. He’s done it before, and He will do it again. Amen.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

To Raise a Fuss or Not?

I don't know if it's just karma or what.

It seems like I always get worked up about car dealership offers that I receive in the mail, and I'm not talking about the ones which try to sell you extended warranties.  Those go straight into file 13 without reading.

Rather, I'm talking about those "special" promotional offers you get from a dealership.

Unfortunately for Chrysler/Dodge, the two times I have particularly gotten worked up has been at the expense of said dealerships.

The first go round was partly my fault.  While I read the fine print, I didn't quite do the calculations correctly.  The ensuing set-to would not have happened if I had done the figures in the first place; but even after it was done, I was none too happy with the local dealer. 

(Don't know if it was the way of things or just bad luck on their part, but the dealership closed down less than a year after I had issues with it.  I swore to stay away from Dodge/Chrysler at that time.  But Dodge has a really cool sports car: the Challenger!  Temptation.)

My unhappiness has held strong for quite some time, and normally, I wouldn't even consider working with a Dodge dealership again.  But...

After purchasing a gas sipping Chevy Cavalier, I have been waffling about selling my pick-up truck.  My family certainly doesn't need three vehicles, and I could buy a trailer to haul things around with my GMC Yukon XL if needed.  I'd be able to save on insurance and gas.  But I like my truck.

Low and behold, I get a mailing.  One of those "special", private offers.  But from a Dodge dealer.

Oh, what a tempting offer, though.  I will quote it to you verbatim:

Kevin, you are in a very valuable position right now because the vehicle you are driving is in extremely high demand.  Brenham Chrysler Jeep Dodge can buy your 2009 Ford F-150 for up to 120% of NADA Trade-In Value.  Plus we have 0% APR Available for up to 60 months, Ram Heavy Duty Trucks starting at $29,988, Ram 1500 Quad Cabs starting at $18,488, rebates and discounts up to $8,867, and No-Cost Upgrades to a HEMI.  Furthermore we have attached at $3,500 voucher to offset any negative equity.  This may make it possible to exchange vehicles with little to no out of pocket expense.

Well, I did do the math correctly this time, and I figured what 120% of NADA value would be on my truck, and that was a very, very tempting figure.  There was nothing in the letter that suggested that I HAD to purchase another vehicle, so I logged onto the website specially desigated for this offer.  I filled out the required information, and it told me someone would contact me shortly. 

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I think to myself, "I probably shouldn't have put in that the truck was lien free.  They are probably trying to get folks in there who are upside down on their vehicles and want them to wrap their notes into the new vehicles so they can make tons of interest on these things."

Just to give the dealership another chance, I call them the next day and talk to "Don".  "Don" promises to talk to the internet guy and either he or the internet guy would call me back shortly.

Well, that was the second promise to go down the drain.

I'm still waiting for that phone call.

Now, I sit and wonder whether or not to make a stink.  Should I let this dealership get away with such stuff?  Should I force the issue?  Should I go ballistic?  Should I write a letter to the local paper and detail the whole ordeal?  Should I just drop the whole thing?

Ah, decisions, decisions.

How does a Christian handle such things.  I haven't necessarily been wronged, but I feel a principle I value highly is being stepped on.  I value integrity and honesty...even from car dealerships.  Who will hold this dealership accountable for such things if I don't? 

But is it my job to do so?  And am I just acting on a personal vendetta against Dodge?  I would hope not, but...

What to do?

What to do?

What to do?

A Lesson in Hope: From my Dog

My smallest dog is on a diet, and she's not happy about it.

But it had to be done.  At the last trip to the vet, she was very, very overweight.  Borderline obese.

One too many table scraps and...

Being dominant around the food bowl eating all she could to prevent one of our other dogs to eat led to an intervention.

No more table scraps, and dogs get fed separately. 

Aiko now only gets 1 and 1/2 cups of dog food per day, and she thinks we are trying to starve her.

And so, she lives in hope.


Whenever my wife, or my kids, or I am in the kitchen getting a bite to eat, Aiko follows us around looking at each of us longingly.

She is waiting.

She is hoping.

That we will drop a morsel of food or that she can snatch a bite out of an unsuspecting child's hand. 

Never mind the occurance is rare.  Never mind that it may happen once a month.  She's going to be there when the food drops so she can enjoy every morsel of it.  (I'd love to say she would savor it, but that'd be a lie.  She gobbles the stuff down, so I don't see how she could even taste it.)

I don't have to wonder where that dog is at when I am in the kitchen.  I know she is right there.  Waiting and hoping.

Do we have such hope in our Heavenly Father?

When things seem to be going rough and we feel like we are being starved: do we walk around, expectantly, waiting and hoping for a Word from God?  Do we constantly watch and move where we know the morsels will be dropped? 

Or do we mope around?  Do we stew in our hunger?  In our thirst?  Do we just sit there, or do we get up, go where the food is, and wander around until we have something to grab onto?  Do we become disappointed and give up?  Or do we continue to move and wait living in perpetual hope.

Yeah, I know, something about this just doesn't quite gel with the whole Lutheran understanding of the faith.  The analogy isn't perfect, but I wonder sometimes.

I truly do.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Feeding Cattle

I am a pastor who likes to get his hands dirty.

I don't mind a little bit of work as I go about tending the flock here in Cat Spring, and around here, that's important.

A few weeks ago, I stopped by the home of an elderly gentleman and his wife.  I saw him in the barn putting out feed for his cattle.  I walked directly to the back of his truck and grabbed a feed sack.

I don't know if folks aren't used to their pastor jumping in and doing work or if they think we don't like getting our hands dirty, but this particular gentleman gave me every single way out possible so that I didn't have to get my hands dirty.

But I wanted to help.

I like doing manual labor.

I told him in no uncertain terms, "The cows need to be fed, and I will help."

We finished putting the bags out at the barn, and the guy said, "We can go inside and visit for a while.  I'll take out the other sacks to the pasture later."

"No.  Let's do it now," I replied.

We jumped in his truck and headed to the back of his pasture.  We stopped and put out two more bags of feed and the dropped two buckets of sweet feed.  Those buckets had to weigh 100-150 lbs a piece. 

Glad I didn't drop one on my foot!  Not sure the church would have picked up workers' comp for that one!

Now some might question why in the world I would subject myself to such labor.  Why feed cattle?  Why help a carpenter build a building?  Why wash dishes after a pot luck or dinner?  Why take out the office trash?  Why spend a few minutes in the church flower bed?  Shouldn't other people do this?  Isn't it their responsibility?

Two points:

#1: I told my congregation early on I would not ask them to do something I would not be willing to do myself.  Leaders are not above the people they work with.  Leaders share the burden and work of the church or whatever organization they are a part of.  Sure, I don't have to take the trash out.  I don't have to wash dishes.  I don't have to dig in flower beds or spend money to fix up the landscaping or yard of the parsonage.  But I do.  I'm invested in this congregation just like everyone else.  I will share the burden and share it gladly.

#2: 90% of a church's ministry is done outside the walls of the church.  It is done by real people in the midst of their daily lives.  Oftentimes, we miss this.  We think we have to be intentionally doing something "churchy" in order to be doing ministry.  But that is not the case.  Our vocation, even our work is ministry.  The congregation member raising cattle is making money, sure, but he is also feeding people.  Putting out feed for the cattle is linked to making sure the population has food to eat.  This is a great service and a use of his God-given ability and desire to raise cattle.  I hope my willingness to get my hands dirty in this endeavor comes across as a blessing of sorts--a recognition that God blesses his work as his mission in the world.

Seeing people put their faith into action in their daily lives gives me a great charge.  When I can help them become better at it, it charges me further.  I'm not afraid to feed cattle or any other sort of thing that my folks do.  I might come home dirty, smelly, have my boots covered with cow manure, but I don't give a darn.  I'm sharing in what my congregation members are sharing, and I'm seeing God in their daily lives as well.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Greatest of These

Today I sat at the bedside of one of my congregation members.

In all likelihood, I will be officiating at his funeral in two to two and a half months.

He has stage four lung cancer.  It moved into his brain.  He is recovering from brain surgery to remove those tumors.

And he doesn't look like someone who has only a couple of months to live.  Not in the least.

He's making remarkable progress in healing from his brain surgery.  When I saw him in the hospital, he was having trouble remembering things, places, and people.  He had little to no control over the left side of his body including an inability to lift or move his left leg.

He was as lucid as anything when I visited this morning.  He remembered me right off the bat.  He remembered my visit in the hospital including my assistance in cutting up the salad he was served in his hospital room.  He remembered me mentioning my desire to purchase a more economical car for travel.  He was totally with it.

And he was much stronger.  He had control over his left side.  He could easily move his left leg, and he talked about getting stronger and adding weight.  He talked about how he had a very hefty appetite.  He looked and spoke like a man who was intending to get stronger and live longer than anyone gave him hope for.

But, he's refused chemotherapy and radiation.  There is something growing within him that in all likelihood kill him.  Hey, I believe in miracles, and it will take one of those for him to live a good, long time.  But he still doesn't look like someone who only has two months to live.

An hour in the car driving back to Cat Spring is an awful long time to think and reflect, and I started thinking, "What does one look like who is going to die?"  There's no simple answer to that one.  Life is actually pretty fickle when it comes to such matters.

I am sure those 3,000 who went to work on September 11, 2001 at the World Trade Center didn't look like they were going to die.

Neither did a high school classmate who succumbed to cancer this past week.

Neither does the 40 something exercise freak who keels over from a heart attack.

Neither does a teenager out for a joy ride who takes his eyes off traffic for one split second.

Moments like these cause deep times of reflection.  Reflection about life, about faith, about values. 

Most of us live our lives in a constant state of absorption: absorbed in our kids' lives; absorbed in politics; absorbed in work; absorbed in television; absorbed in whatever particular addiction we stumble upon for that day.  We work very hard to convince ourselves that we are making a difference--somehow we are changing the world.

When in reality, all we will end up with is a piece of real estate roughly three foot by eight foot, and not even that if cremation is the chosen option.  We hope when that time comes, someone will be there to remember, to shed a few tears, and to talk about how great a person we were.  And for a time, we will be remembered.  But 1000 years from now, who's going to care?  Who's going to notice?  Might as well dip your finger in a bucket of water and see just what kind of impact you have there.

No wonder the Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes begins his treatise with the words:

2Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? 4A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. 8All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. 9What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 10Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has already been, in the ages before us. 11The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.

He says quite a few other things about  how much of the things we work and worry about are nothing more than vanity.

But we like to convince ourselves otherwise.  We want to have hope that what we do makes a difference.  We want to have hope that the words we speak and the actions we partake of have meaning.  Indeed, if they do not, we might as well not exist.

And so we throw ourselves into our work.  We throw ourselves into politics.  We become entrenched in our ideology, and anyone who thinks or acts differently is the enemy.  Conservatives war on liberals, and liberals on conservatives.  Republicans war on Democrats, and Democrats war on Republicans.  Fundamentalists of every religion consider anyone outside their realm of faith the damned, the infidel, the cursed.  We must engage in these battles to give ourselves meaning.

We clergy must be modern day John the Baptists pointing out the evils of greed, the abuses of "those rich people", and the callousness of multi-national corporations as they seek to destroy the middle-class.  We pat ourselves on the backs for being the "voice of the voiceless" and in solidarity with the poor.  And then we take off our white collars and custom shirts which cost more than most items of clothing; hang up our albs and cinctures and stoles which a combined cost could feed a child in the third world for six to eight months; climb into our automobiles which could feed that same child until he or she becomes an adult, and head back to our wonderfully furnished homes with our computers and televisions and appliances--items which many people throughout the world can only dream about.  Yet, we are somehow morally justified because we dare to speak out on behalf of the poor, the downtrodden, the widow, and the orphan.  Sheesh.  What hypocrites we truly are.  We're willing to demonize those who are part of the corporations of the world to assuage our guilt in buying into and enjoying a lifestyle which is far and away above most people in the world.

And we fail to realize that even Jesus ate with "those rich people."

Yep, those tax collectors were actually part of that society of wealth and power.  Jesus enjoyed more than a few meals with them as I recall.  He didn't demonize them.  He embraced them as God's children as well.

I remember a particular vertically challenged tax collector who Jesus ate with one day.  This tax collector, as were most of them in that time, was considered a sell out; a pawn of the Roman occupiers; getting rich off the backs of his countrymen and women; having a lavish lifestyle by trampling on the poor.  Zacchaeus wants to meet Jesus, to see him, and Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus' house.

While dining that evening, Zacchaeus makes an interesting proclamation, "8Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” --Luke 19:8

Those who interpreted this passage did so in a wrong headed manner.  They were trying to show that after meeting Jesus, Zacchaeus changed his life.  But the translation is wrong.  The original Greek actually reads:

"Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I pay back four times as much."

Notice it isn't in the future tense.  In the Greek, Zacchaeus is actually doing this stuff already.  He's being charitable.  He's being just.  And he is still ostracized by the Jewish Community.  But he is not ostracized by Jesus. 

9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” 

In this case, the "lost" was a Jew who had been kicked out of his community by serving the oppressive Roman government.  It didn't matter that he was a fair tax collector.  It didn't matter that Zacchaeus tried to do good things and commit to charity.  He was rich.  He was a sell out, and he had no place--at least according to the Jewish folks of the day. 

But Jesus changed that.  Jesus dared to say, "This too is a child of Abraham."  In other words, "You can't turn him away and push him out.  He's a child of God too no matter what his profession is."

Ah, to follow Jesus and seek to recognize the good in others no matter where they might be.  In seats of power or in sitting on the street corner, a person is a child of God.  A person is worthy of receiving God's love from and through us.  And though we be abused; though we be tortured; though we be manipulated; though we have our faces slapped, our coats taken, and are forced to walk a mile carrying another's burden, we are called to love the one who does such things to us. 

Does such a path give our lives meaning?  Does walking the path of Jesus in this manner change how we view the world?  Does it lessen our working for justice and compassion, or does it enhance it?  When Jesus said from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do," did he really mean to forgive those Romans who occupied Israel and were murdering him?  Did he really mean to say that God should love them too: the rich, the powerful, who had no desire of giving up control or wealth?  Did Jesus really set such an example?  Did He dare to love them too?

And is it such a love which gives meaning to our lives?  Is it such a love that transforms vanity into hope?

As I sat looking at my congregation member in that nursing home, my heart broke a little.  Not for the fact that he was dying, but for the fact that this is a precious child of God who I did not have as great an opportunity to come to know as I would like.  I have not gotten to form a deep, meaningful relationship with him, but I will have a couple of months to do so.  And when that time comes, I will grieve in my heart.  But, I will then have a chance to proclaim that this child of God has entered into eternity where we will one day meet up again--the hope of all who believe.  And in this hope, I remain.  For all is not vanity, for through Christ there is instead faith, hope, and love.  And the greatest of these is love.

3rd Wednesday of Lent Sermon: Is the Lord Among Us or Not?

Exodus 17: 1-7
From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" 4So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me." 5The Lord said to Moses, "Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink." Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, "Is the Lord among us or not?"

Sometimes it feels like God is hidden. Sometimes it feels like no matter where you look, there is tragedy, there is destruction, there is darkness. Sometimes you hit a string of luck that is so bad you wonder if there will ever be an end to your suffering, to your depression, to your despair. You begin to ask yourself, "Is God still around? What have I done to deserve this? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? And is that light truly daylight, or is it a train coming at me?" Sometimes it feels like God is hidden.

As the Israelites were traveling out of Egypt and headed to the promised land, they encountered many hardships. Life wasn’t always rosy and neat. They had left Egypt with their heads held high. They were dancing and parading around. The Egyptians had given them gold and parting gifts. They had a sense of excitement and giddiness. No longer were they slaves. No longer would Egyptian overseers crack their whips over their heads and across their backs. No longer would they have to make bricks and carry heavy burdens to satisfy their captors. God was gracious. God was good. God had given them their freedom and had promised a land flowing with milk and honey. It was a joy to be alive.

The first inkling of trouble came on the shores of the Red Sea. The Israelites had been camping there for several days when a cry went up. Scouts had come in and informed everyone the Egyptian army was approaching–intent upon bringing the Israelites back to Egypt to resume their slavery. Instead of trusting God at that moment, the people turned to their leader and began complaining. "You brought us out here so that the Egyptians would slaughter us. We would have been better off if we would have stayed in slavery!"

I can imagine the frustration God felt at that moment. God probably asked out loud, "Didn’t you see the signs I performed for you? Didn’t you see the water turn to blood? Didn’t you see the fierce plagues of locusts, flies, and frogs? Didn’t you see the cattle of your enemies die off? Didn’t you see how the people of Egypt were beset by sores and illness? Didn’t you see my hand travel through Egypt striking the firstborn sons of those who demanded the death of your firstborn sons? All of this happened, and not a single hair on your heads were damaged. Your crops were not destroyed. Your cattle lived. Your water remained pure. And now you begin to question me? Do you not think that I will deliver you once more? Quit your belly aching, and get ready to move."

Yet, while God may have had such thoughts, perhaps He also tempered them a little. After all, the people were slaves. They had been used to living their lives being told what to do and how to do it. They weren’t capable of trust just yet. They needed time. They needed to understand God hadn’t turned His back upon them. A grandiose miracle will help them believe.

And so the waters parted.

The people walked across the dry land.

As the enemy began crossing the same path, the waters returned. The enemy drowned, and God’s people were delivered once again. Song and dance ensued.

But it was also time to move on. It was time to travel towards the promised land. And now, the Israelites were headed into and through the desert. Sand and torrid temperatures awaited them. Thirst was a constant companion. The heat, the dust, and the close confines of walking amongst so many people elevated tempers and destroyed cool headed thinking.

The Israelites were forced to make a dry camp at Rephidim. They weren’t happy about it. They wanted water. Their thirst wasn’t satisfied. Freedom wasn’t enough. Delivery from the Egyptians at the Red Sea wasn’t enough. The people wanted more. They wanted everything right then and there. They didn’t trust God to provide. Their anger rose, and it became focused on Moses. They were ready to stone him because they felt like he was responsible for their thirst.

"Why do you test the Lord?" Moses asked.

But their anger was too great. They couldn’t see God’s hand in anything. They were overwhelmed with their fear and frustration. It didn’t matter what God had done. The people wanted water now. There was no such thing as patience–at least from them.

But God was patient with His people once again. Rather than offer punishment, God called forth Moses and gave him instructions to get the people water. Moses did what he was told, and the people were able to drink and be satisfied.

And Moses would work to remind them of their foolishness. Moses named the places Massah and Meribah, which is translated, "Is the Lord among us or not?" God had become hidden from the Israelites because they allowed their thirstiness to hide Him.

We might like to wonder how it was those folks who had seen so much suddenly wondered if God was with them or not. Ah, but how often do we do the same? How often do we continuously allow the circumstances in our lives to overshadow and blot out God’s work in the world? How often do we become consumed with the rat race of our lives so that we become blind to the reality of God? How often do we allow the worries of the world to grow and grow until they blot out the light of God’s love and life? How often do we come to that place where we, like the Israelites wonder, "Is the Lord among us or not?"

And how often do we strike out in anger? How often do we condemn the church? The pastor? The neighbor who asks to pray for us? The person who tries to point out God’s action in the world? How often do these folks become the object of ire and malice when all they are trying to do is help shine God’s light into the midst of the trials and tribulations of this world? And how often have you found yourself the object of such anger? How often have you tried to shine the light of the Lord only to be rebuffed to the point where you too begin to ask, "Is the Lord among us or not?"

Times like these are extremely difficult. They test one’s faith and resolve. But this story from Exodus shows us how dedicated God is. God did not abandon the Israelites. He heeded their cries because He understood them. He knew they needed guidance. He knew they needed His actions so that they could begin to trust in Him. God acted through Moses and brought the people something to drink, and God quenched their thirst.
And the reality for you and me is that God continues to do so in this day and age. We might think God is hidden, that He is not among us, but when this happens it is due to our weakness–our inability to see God. It isn’t because He isn’t there. The reality is: the Lord is among us. He always has been. He always will be. So calm your fears. Ease your anxieties. He is moving. He is active. He will quench your thirst as well. Amen.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lunch with the Bishop

Yesterday, I had lunch with my bishop, Mike Rinehart.

I must say, the experience was very pleasant.

Mike and I are a lot alike in many ways.  Don't know if he would agree, but this is a blog from my perspective, not his.  There are some notable differences, but they stem from our underlying assumptions on how we view things.  He tends to lean more toward the left, me to the right. 

But it was obvious that such differences could not negate the fact we are both very passionate about our church and its ability to reach out with the life-changing news of Jesus Christ. 

One of the first things that struck me as I met Mike at the office was he was in perpetual motion at the time.  I guess it's because his schedule is a little more full than mine.  I'm from the country, and I have coached myself into a type B personality.  I purposely don't move very fast and tend to take my time.  Mike seemed to be moving in 5th gear, and I had to spend a few moments thinking about putting the clutch in and moving a little faster too.  Eventually, I decided not to.

Mike graciously drove his car to the restaurant. China Bear.  All you can eat buffet.  I was thankful he drove because 1. I was driving our new-used Chevy Cavalier.  Mike and I are both over 6 foot tall, and his Ford 500 was much more roomy.  and 2. I didn't know where the restaurant was.  Mike could get us there and back since he knew the territory much better than me.

We ordered our drinks, and Mike showed me around the buffet.  He was being incredibly hospitable at this point.  I wasn't used to such treatment.  I usually take things in on my own and scope out restaurants and buffets without a tour guide.  Having Mike show me around the food was unusual for me.  But we finally got our plates, I prayed, and we commenced in the serious business of eating.

This was the first time in ten years of preaching that I had actually sat down and had an extended one on one conversation with my bishop.  It was the first time, I really had an opportunity to check in with my overseer and express my thoughts and opinions in depth on a variety of issues.

I must confess, the more we spoke, the more wound up I became as we touched on topic after topic regarding the mission and ministry of the church.  Mike and I spent no time arguing about issues of disagreement, but we found plenty of ground in discussing things that were and were not working in the church at large. 

I am going to keep much of that conversation private as I have not asked his permission to reveal anything that was discussed, but I must say that as he revealed his philosophy and responded to many of my comments and questions, I found my respect and admiration growing.

Mike and I may not agree on all points of doctrine and expression of the faith, but I am proud to serve with him.  I look forward to his visit with my congregation on September 25th of this year, and I hope my congregation receives him with graciousness and hospitality.  I hope they get a chance to see his heart and passion for the Gospel and the desire for the church to reach out and spread the good news of Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Grudging Appreciation for Speed Bumps

Driving into the entrance of the hospital yesterday to visit one of my ill congregation members, I saw a pair of dreaded speed bumps.

Generally, I hate those things.  Their purpose: slow you down and prevent you from driving too fast in parking lots, near hospitals, or any other place it is generally wise to use caution.

Doesn't matter what kind of vehicle you drive these days, you have to slow down to the speed of a turtle to prevent damaging your car.  Especially since they have decided to make those things slightly smaller than the Rocky Mountains.

I ascended and descended the apex of said street mountains and made my way to the clergy parking.  I meandered upstairs to visit this particular congregation member.  She had an e-coli infection and needed heavy doses of anti-biotics.  I stood in the room with her as a nurse gave her an ultra sound to find a good vain for an IV.  Another nurse came in to check her body over and make sure everything looked O.K.  I had to leave for a portion of that second nurse's duty.

I stood in that room with hospital gloves on my hands to prevent infection and thought about the woman sitting there.  I've been visiting with her several times a year for the past seven years.  Six and a half of those years were spent in a nursing home.  I had never seen her this sick.

When the nurses were done, I moved to her bedside.  I held her hand and visited with her.  She never opened her eyes, but she spoke clearly to me and held a good conversation with me.  But she felt like crap.  I know not to stay too long in such circumstances, so after about 30 minutes, I prayed with her and left.

I walked back out to my car and climbed in.  I drove to the parking lot exit and saw the speed bumps.

And then I thought about the member I just visited.  I thought about another church member whose heart acted up on him the weekend prior and spent time in the hospital.  I thought about another gentleman who has terminal cancer and has chosen to forgo life extending treatments.  I thought about the many others in the past several years who have encountered such "speed bumps" in life. 

They've been forced to slow down.  Sometimes even stop.  They've been forced to take a second look at life and their surroundings.  Sometimes when they've rammed into those "speed bumps" it has shaken them to the core.  Each time, it has been life altering--even if it was for a few days, weeks, or months.

As I passed over those speed bumps in the road, I wondered if I'm oftentimes traveling too fast.  I wondered if I was going to hit a "speed bump" at some point and time.  Did I need to be reminded to slow down?  Did I need to be reminded to take another look at my surroundings and really see what was going on?  Could I slow down enough to appreciate life as it passes instead of rushing from place to place without noticing what is happening?

After I traversed the speed bumps, I pressed down on the accelerator again.  The car sped up.

Will I allow my life to do the same?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Spiderman Part II

"With great power comes great responsibility."

That phrase has captured my attention for several years, particularly in light of my Lutheran-Christian faith.

We Lutherans are awfully good about articulating our theology of grace.  We talk very well about how all have fallen short of the glory of God; we don't measure up to His standards.  In reality, if God wanted to punish us, He could, without a second thought.

But, God has chosen not to.  Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has acted to bring about our salvation.  (For those not entirely familiar with this process, you'll just have to trust me.  Many books have been written on the subject, and there are far too many details to go into at this juncture.)  When we deserved punishment, God extended love.  We call this grace.

Lutherans have usually articulated these acts of God by using the Law/Gospel dialectic.  We are condemned by the law, but we are saved by grace. 

Unfortunately, we often stop right there.  Is that all there is?  Law/Gospel, that's it?


The Lutheran faith also calls for a response to the Gospel.  We are called to respond to God's graciousness by living lives of service and devotion to God.  Even though we are sinners, God has given us His grace and the power of His Holy Spirit.  We have been filled with mercy.  What do we do with it?

With great power comes great response ability.  Yes, I separated the two words purposely.  We have the ability to respond, and we do so not out of fear of God or a desire to please Him and avoid punishment; rather, we respond with acts of service and love because of what God first did for us.  We respond because we want to, not because we have to.

With great power comes great responsibility.  Yep. 

My kind of hero.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

My Fascination with Spiderman

One of my friends on Facebook asked about the origins of my Spiderman photo:

I have always been a pastor who is not afraid to incorporate snippets from movies and books into my sermons, particularly if those movies and books are popular.  It also helps if there is a very powerful, poignant point given in the movie which applies to the Christian faith.

I found such a snippet in the first Spiderman movie.  You will find a further explanation below in a sermon I preached shortly after arriving at St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring in 2004:

I have to begin this sermon by asking you if you know who Spiderman is? How many are you familiar with this comic book character? Well, if you aren’t now, by the time I am finished working here at this church, you will probably know more than you care to. See, anyone who has walked into my office knows that I am a Spiderman fan. Now, that wasn’t always the case. It was only in the past couple of years that I truly became a fan of the web slinger, and I’ll tell you why.

A couple of years ago, I watched the first Spiderman movie. I haven’t gotten to see the second one yet because I was moving and settling in when it came out, but I’ll get there eventually, and you can bet that you will hear several sermons about that movie too. But that’s for a later date. When I was watching the Spiderman movie, I was blown away by the movie’s underlying message. It was a message that I considered extremely important in this day and age, especially for those of us who call ourselves Christian.

For those of you who don’t know the story well, a young man by the name of Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically altered spider. The venom actually changes Peter’s very being, and he develops super-powers that are similar to spiders including the ability to shoot webs, extraordinary strength, the ability to climb walls and sense danger before it happens. In the movie, Peter is extremely excited about his new powers, and early on, he chooses to use them for his own purposes: to impress his next door neighbor a girl who he has literally had a crush on his entire life. He enters a wrestling match where he is supposed to win several thousand dollars. On the way to the match, a very important scene takes place. Peter has been living with his aunt and uncle, and they have noticed the changes that Peter is going through. His uncle is driving him downtown to supposedly go to the library, and he confronts Peter with the things that Peter has been doing. He does so in such a way that is very mild and mannered, and he tells Peter that he knows that Peter is changing and that he is becoming the man that he will be. And then Peter’s uncle utters these words, the words that made my respect for Spiderman go through the roof, "Remember, with great power comes great responsibility."

Unfortunately, Peter rebuffs his uncle telling him that he’s not his father. Peter bolts for the wrestling match so that he can win money to impress the girl of his dreams. Well, Peter enters and wins the match, but the guy who pays out the money is less than honest, and gyps Peter the prize money. Seconds later a man bursts in and at gunpoint robs the wrestling manager of the money. The felon runs right by Peter who refuses to stop the thief because in his view, it serves the wrestling manager right. But, in a tragic twist of fate, the thief shoots Peter’s uncle who has come to pick Peter up, and the thief steals the uncle’s car to escape. Because Peter failed to take responsibility with his great powers, he tragically lost his uncle.

It’s not all that far off from our Gospel lesson today where Jesus talks about a rich farmer who fails to use his great power responsibly as well. A couple of family members are arguing about inheritance issues, and they ask Jesus to settle the matters. Well, Jesus doesn’t exactly play into their hands, rather he tells them this parable, "The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."

Now, I think it’s very important to look at Jesus’ last statement in this parable, "So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God." Jesus isn’t against wealth; far from it. But Jesus is against wealth when the purpose is to use it for ourselves and at the exclusion of God. Jesus is saying, with great power, with great wealth, there is great responsibility. I told you it was very similar to that scene from Spiderman. In the parable Jesus told, the guy who refused to take responsibility had his life demanded of him. In the movie, when Peter Parker refused to take responsibility, he lost his uncle. Tragedy befell both.
The good news in the movie is that Peter then dedicates his life to using his powers with great responsibility. We know that Spiderman is one of the good guys seeking justice and fighting evil with his powers. Peter had a choice of how to respond, and he responded by seeking good. Peter took to heart his Uncle’s council, "With great power comes great responsibility."

So what about us as Christians? What does this tell us? I think the message is very similar, for we as Christians have been given great power. Yes, we have been given great power. I love being a Lutheran because of how we talk about God’s gifts to humanity. In the large scheme of things, we don’t deserve God’s love. Think about who you are as a person. Are you perfect? Do you do everything that God expects of you? Do you love your neighbor as you love yourself 100% of the time? Do you reach out to those who are in need 100% of the time? Do you keep your mind clear of evil thoughts 100% of the time? Have you given all of your money away to the poor and spent your entire life following Jesus? If you are like me, you’ve answered no to all of these questions. Yet, this is what God expects out of us, and this is just the tip of the ice berg. God actually expects a whole lot more. God expects perfection, and yet, we continually fall short of the mark. Indeed, from God’s perspective, we deserve punishment, constant punishment.

However, God is really amazing. He forgives us. He knows that we cannot live up to his standards, but rather than lower his standards, God forgives. He tells us time and again that he knows that we have fallen short of the mark, he tells us to try hard, but he forgives because of his great love. But here’s the funnier part. God forgives us, and then he blesses us with great power. Yes, God blesses us with great power. In the waters of baptism, God poured his Holy Spirit into each and every one of us. He gave us the power to pray to him. He gave us the power to call upon the name of Jesus Christ. He gave us the power to be Jesus to others in this world. It’s really amazing when you think about it. God has trusted you enough to give you great power, and now here’s the great question. Now that God has forgiven you, loved you, and given you great power, how will you respond? Will you use the great power that you have been given with great responsibility, or will you simply sit back and revel in what you have?

My brothers and sisters, in today’s gospel lesson, I think it’s obvious how Jesus would prefer us to answer that question. Jesus calls us to use the great power that we have been given with great responsibility. Jesus calls us to be different–to use our gifts, our talents, and even our wealth, not for our own satisfaction and gratification but for the glory of God, for building up one another in love, and for spreading the news about God’s love to a world that is hungering for it. You have been given great power, and may you, like Spiderman, use it with great responsibility. Amen.

I continue to be fascinated and driven by the statement, "With great power comes great responsibility," particularly with my Lutheran background.

More on that tomorrow.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Secret to a Good Garden

Spring is springing quickly here despite the lack of rainfall.

My green thumb started itching as the weather changed, and the gut told me it was time to plant this morning.

Green beans, squash, cucumbers, corn, watermelon, tomatoes, jalapenos, and bell peppers.

When I first came to Cat Spring, I told the congregation council I needed a place to garden.  It was either that or pay for me a therapist.  They chose the garden.

Not to brag, but I am a pretty fair gardener.  Last year, we canned 70 pints of green beans off of a 10' X 14' plot of dirt. 

I gave more than a few grocery bags of green beans to several of the widows in my congregation.

I ate squash until I was ready for the plants to stop producing.

Unfortunately, several watermelons went to waste in my plot because we couldn't eat or give them away fast enough.

I've still got corn in the freezer from last year even as this year's crop is going into the ground.

I would love to tell you that I spent hours and hours tilling, weeding, fertilizing, watering, pruning, and all those other such things to make my garden produce as such.

But I'd be lying.

Sure, I did spend some time doing each of those things.  Probably should have spent even more time doing so, but I'm not sure it would have produced much different results.

Because I have a big secret when it comes to my gardening prowess.  And I guess I really shouldn't call it my gardening prowess at all.


Sure it's a little out of context, but none-the-less, it is the truth:

So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.  --1 Corinthians 3:7

And that, my friends, is the secret of a good garden.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Prophet is Never Welcome...

For those of us who are clergy, there is no mystery in Jesus' statement  in Matthew 13.57:

But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.”

We understand this all too well.

Last night, some of our friends came over to my in-laws to visit.  I have friended them on Facebook and have talked with them on numerous occasions.

I was monitoring our sleeping children and stepped into the garage to raid the freezer to get a late night snack.  I was told, "Come here for a minute."

I walked outside where everyone sat on the patio.

My friend said, "I don't think I could ever really see you as a pastor if I came to hear you preach.  I mean, I see all the things you post on Facebook and the stuff you say."

Without a second thought I replied, "I'm too real for you, huh?"

Affirmative replies.  "You're just like one of us."

"Yep.  I am."

"But I bet your congregation places you way up here."

Well, maybe some folks do, but I don't think most of them do.  I think most of them know very well that I am all too human.

But there are some...

Some folks recognize you as a "prophet" or pastor, and they hold you to incredibly high standards.  Their expectations of you are to lead a VERY upright and moral life.  You cannot cuss.  You cannot drink.  You cannot become angry or frustrated at anyone.  You must lead by example in your giving 10% to the church.  You must never express your political opinions or persuasion.  Your kids must be absolutely perfect in church, in school, in life, etc.  Your spouse must be the perfect partner taking an interest in the congregation and serving where there is a need.  You cannot express a desire to earn more money because you are a servant of God and ministry should be more important than money.  You cannot have fancy cars or fancy clothes because then the congregation might be spoiling you too much.  You must toe the line in all things or risk public punishment and embarrassment.  Cross one little line, and someone could be calling for your head on a platter.

Such things happen to pastors.  (I'm not going to get involved in that whole double standard thing at this moment because it's not pertinent to the point of this particular article.) 

Such things happen to pastors, except in their hometown.

Where people know them.

"Is this not the carpenter's son?" the Jewish men asked in Nazareth.

"Is this not Kevin who we grew up with?" my friends say.

They know me.  They know what I was like.  They knew I could cuss a blue streak.  They knew I could be obnoxious.  They knew I could pick on people.  They knew I could be big headed.  They knew and still know that I am not perfect.  They know my failings and frailties.  The good news is, most of them know I can have such things and still be a pastor.  They know being called by God to preach and teach His word doesn't automatically turn you into something you are not.  It doesn't make you perfect.  It doesn't turn off your human switch.

Remember that paragraph I wrote earlier about all those "expectations."

Well, I don't live up to all of them. 


Not at all.

My wife and I do maintain a 10% + tithe to the church, and I do try to refrain from announcing my political leanings.  But all that other stuff?  Mark it down that I don't measure up to a single one of them.  Not at all.

I'm human.  Flesh and blood.  With all that comes with it.

And even though I know some folks hold me to a higher standard than they even hold themselves, I do not try to live up to their expectations.  That would be an impossibility.

Instead, I will be an imperfect pastor.  In my home town or anywhere God calls.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spreading God's Love by Graffitti?

Came across this today while taking the kids to Landa Park in New Braunfels.

Spreading the love of God by defacing public property?

Not too sure about that one.

I mean, I'm all for evangelism.  It's a high priority of the church I serve as pastor, and I'm constantly trying to work with folks to share their faith.

I'm also all in favor of unconventional methods of spreading God's Word.  I don't mind upsetting certain boundaries if it helps convey to others a sense of the Holy and of God's overwhelming love for others.

But graffiti?

I mean, I get the intent.  I appreciate the intent.  But there's something in me that says this ain't right.

I personally prefer the more personal approach.  I prefer face to face visits.  I prefer getting to know someone--really, as a true friend or neighbor.  And then, if the opportunity to share God's love comes, jumping into it whole heartedly. 

I'm also quite into public displays of God's affection as well.  Not afraid to let it be known how my church is helping out in the world--both my local church and national church.  I'm a staunch defender of the faith when folks try to talk about the abuses of Christianity while glossing over its immense amount of compassion and care.  I'll go toe to toe with anyone who disses the church's good deeds.

To me, these are much more appropriate gestures.

However, I much prefer this graffiti to what normally sees.

But, I guess in all, I'd prefer none.