Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Getting Lectured

I got lectured yesterday.

It wasn't a horrible tongue lashing, that's for certain.  It was one of the kindest rebukes and lectures that I have ever received.

As I was preparing for a funeral I performed yesterday, I walked over to the sanctuary.  I was met by one of the "little old ladies" of the church.  (I hope she grins as that one when she reads it!)  She informed me that after reading my newsletter article this past month, she was going to march herself over to my office and give me a lecture.  However, my appearance in the sanctuary that morning where she was also working removed the need for that.  She knew God provided this opportunity for her to have a few words with her pastor.

Stop worrying was the gist of her words to me.

The devil is working on you causing doubt and frustration.  Don't let him win.

God has a plan for you, and it is good.  We love you, don't forget that.

All of these words hit.  And hit hard.

They were delivered gently, in quite the spirit of love and compassion and kindness.  All the more reason to heed them.

As she spoke, I realized just how true they were, and I realized where some of my worry, my fear, and my anxiety is coming from.

The congregation I serve has grown and is growing.  It is getting to that point I cannot manage it all and be on top of everything.  I cannot be everywhere and do everything that needs to be done.  Even though I am pulled in numerous directions all at once, I simply can't accomplish everything that needs to be accomplished.  And I'm worried about what people will think.

You see, there is a trade off as a church grows.  When it is small, a pastor can be there for everyone.  He or she can visit all the sick and shut in with amazing regularity.  He or she can be there at every hospital visit, every crisis, every celebration, and every event in the life of the church.  There is an amazing sense of connection that takes place. 

But when growth comes, such a thing is no longer possible.  Several events conflict.  Weddings conflict with graduation parties.  Women's meetings conflict with Kindergarten graduation.  Visiting sick and shut ins conflict with preparing Bible Studies and Youth Retreats.  And the list goes on. 

Much of this is far beyond my control, but I am faced with the difficult choice of discerning which events and things become priority.  Most of the time, the choice is pretty easy, but...

Someone is going to get disappointed.  The pastor wasn't there.  How come he wasn't there when I asked him to be?  Doesn't he care about me and what is going on in my life? 

Of course, I do.  And I really don't want to disappoint my congregation members, but I know I can't kill myself to be there for everything.  I've got to be a good father for my children.  I've got to be a good husband to my wife.  I want to be the best possible pastor, but I can't split myself in two.  Neither can I clone myself.

Stop worrying.  Do what you can.  Folks will have to understand.  We love you.

She's right, you know.  She's absolutely right.  The devil is in the details, and he's working to erode my confidence.  He's working to diminish my effectiveness as a pastor and a preacher.  He's working to undermine where the congregation is headed and trying to throw a stumbling block in front of me.

I needed that lecture. 

And...(and this is the hard part) I need to put her words into action.

That might be the hard part, but I think I know this lady pretty well.  If I start slipping, she'll lecture me again and again and again until it finally sinks in.

I hope it doesn't take too long.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Sermon Delivered 5/30/2011: Making the Unknown, Known

Making the Unknown, Known

I know you have heard the following statement spoken by at least someone in your lifetime. I can almost guarantee it. Perhaps you have even said it yourself. Perhaps you have even said it to me. It’s a phrase that gets uttered anytime someone wants to justify themselves when going hunting or fishing or to the beach or to the mountains or what have you. They use it to justify not going to church. Can you guess the phrase yet?

"I don’t need to worship God in church. I can worship Him out in nature." Yep, that’s the phrase, and it has all sorts of variations. How many of you have heard that phrase? Quite a few hands. Now, confession time, how many of you have ever used it?

Now, don’t be embarrassed if you have used this phrase. On one level I completely agree with you. You can indeed worship God out in creation. In fact, as one looks at creation, one can easily see the work of God. Scripture tells us this beyond the shadow of a doubt. Take for instance these references:

Psalm 8 verses 3 and 4 says: "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"

When looking at the heavens, the Psalmist sees God’s hand in creating them.

Psalm 19:1 says: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork."
I think that one is self explanatory.

Psalm 36 verses 5 and 6 read: "Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord."

Again, the seeing of God’s majesty in creation. It’s there. All you have to do is look for it.

Let’s skip to the book of Romans chapter 1 where St. Paul writes, "19For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made."

Paul even says that we can see evidence of God’s power and divine nature mediated through creation. It’s there. So, can you worship God in creation? Can you see His handiwork? Can you come to know there is a God by being out in creation and sensing His presence?

Absolutely. You will get no argument from me on that one.

But, you knew there was going to be a but, didn’t you? And so there is. But there is one problem with coming to know God through nature. And that problem is actually revealed in our first lesson this morning from the book of Acts. St. Paul is preaching in Athens and he is seeking to proclaim the Gospel. As he is looking around at all the temples and altars constructed in the city, he spots a very intriguing altar. It has a very interesting inscription which says, "To an Unknown God."

When Paul spots this altar, he addresses the crowd, " "Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things."

Do you see the problem revealed by the Athenians and addressed by Paul? The people of Athens worshiped a plethora of gods. They were very spiritual. Through their observations in nature and in the world around them they understood something of the spirituality of the world. They knew a God or several gods existed, but they did not know that God. Let me say that again. Those in Athens did not who that God was. They did not know the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They did not know the God who created the heavens and the earth. They knew of Him, but they did not know Him.

And so now, Paul had to help them along. He had to help them come to know the Creator of the universe. He had to introduce them to God the Father and to Jesus Christ, who one cannot come to know in nature. Skip down now to verse 29 where Paul says, "Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead."

Paul lays it all out for the Athenians. He talks about God who cannot be represented with gold or silver or stone. And Paul talks about the God who has called all to repentance because of a coming day of judgment by a man whom God has appointed. And God has given assurance to us regarding this by rasing this man, Jesus, from the dead. Paul was trying desperately to connect with the Athenians to help make the unknown known to them. He was trying to help them connect their spiritual understanding of god to the one True God.
And as you can expect, he was a little successful and a little unsuccessful. Some folks listened to what Paul
had to say, and others scoffed. Such is the case with us as well.

For in this day and time, we are now ambassadors for Christ. We are now called to go out into the world and make the unknown, known. And we have the perfect setting to do it in as well. Why do I say this?

Well, think about how I began this sermon. Think of all the times you have heard folks talk about worshiping God in nature. Think about all the times you have heard someone say that they are spiritual but not religious.
For you see, my brothers and sisters, we live in a society which is hungering to experience the divine. We live in a society where people are hungering to be spiritual and come in contact with the One who created and formed them. Folks are clamoring for religious experience.

And yet, many of them are not looking in churches. Many of them shun Christianity. Oh, there are numerous reasons why, but I think perhaps one of the greatest reasons is our unwillingness to help them along like Paul did. Perhaps one of the greatest reasons is our failure to make connections with them and then take the time to explain to them calmly and assuredly that we have come to know what was once unknown. We don’t like the feeling of rejection if people scoff, and so we clam up instead of taking the risk and saying, "I see that you are very spiritual. But let me help you go deeper. I believe you can find and sense God in nature, but if you really want to know Him, let’s talk about how He came down to earth."

By our willingness to take that risk, by our willingness to invite others into conversation with us, we open up the possibilities of God’s Spirit to work through us and help others understand a reality that we have come to know ourselves. The unknown has come to be known. Amen.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Overheard at Church Today

One of the blessings about being in a rural congregation and having children born to your family in that church is the fact your kids are not just your kids.  The congregation tends to claim them as well.  Your kids have more grandparents, aunts and uncles than they can shake a stick at.

This can make it easier on their mother trying to cope with tree little ones during boring (at least to them) church services.  It's always nice when they can sit next to or be entertained by one of their "grandparents", "aunts" or "uncles" during worship.

It's also a good thing, at least for me as a parent, in that I get informed of all the hijinks my kids try to pull, and the things they do manage to pull off as well.

For instance, today I was informed that 3/4 of the way through my sermon, my son said, "When is Daddy going to stop talking?"

Saturday, May 28, 2011

My Hands Hurt

I awoke this morning with swollen, inflamed, and painful hands and fingers, and I knew exactly why.

Yesterday, I spent the better part of the day working at our rent house in Bellville.  One of my tasks was the removal of a tree stump in the front yard.  Our renter who is leaving had hit the thing a couple of times with her lawn mower, the second time bending the crankshaft.  (For those non-mechanical types, that basically means it's cheaper to get a new mower than have the thing repaired.)

Now, I didn't technically need to remove the stump.  It was pretty low to the ground in the first place, and my renter wasn't exactly a lawn mowing expert.  In fact, she had been mowing the lawn on the mower's lowest setting.  That's a recipe for disaster no matter which way you cut it, and the results were predictable. 

However, since I require my tenants to maintain the yard and keep it mowed or else face a fine, I thought it proper for me to make things as easy as possible--including removing obstacles which could cause further damage to my tenants' equipment.

We are currently under a burn ban, so there was no option to burn the stump out.  I had to tackle it the old fashioned way--with a grubbin' hoe.  As I attacked the stump yesterday, I knew I would be in trouble.  The stump was very similar to ceder.  If you know anything about ceder wood, you know it doesn't rot.  Luckily, this stump was pretty small.

Yet, after repeated blows, I knew my hands would suffer.  I could literally feel the vibrations going through my palms and the joints of my fingers.  I knew I would have a couple of days of pain and inflammation.  I also knew it would be for little or no reward.  No one in the future would even know about that stump or thank me for taking it out.  But, I knew it would improve the property.  I knew it would prevent further damage of lawn equipment, even if it wasn't my own.  Is that payoff enough?

So many times in life, we attack problems and bear pain.  Sometimes we see direct results and people thank us for our efforts.  However, in just as many cases, we attack problems and suffer pain for very little reward.  We make diligent efforts physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and many times we end up with permanent scars for what we have done.  And no one seems to care.  So why keep it up?  Why keep trying?  Why seek to solve problems for others when they won't even bother to wonder or care about or even thank you for trying to make things better?

For me, it's a principle I live by.  I want this world to be better than when I left it.  I want the things I own and use to be better because of my passing by.  It is a deeply held desire of mine to build and make improvements.  It's much easier to destroy--to tear down--to leave scars.  It's more difficult to build.  It takes more time.  It takes more effort.  It takes more planning.  It requires more of you.  Including pain.

The other day, I blogged about an encounter with a young woman who was suffering because of the pain of losing her father pre-maturely.  Several days later, I still think about that encounter because I realize the pain that I now have after having encountered her.  No, I don't bear her pain.  That is her own, but I have an emotional and spiritual wound because I long for her to experience the grace, mercy, and soothing balm of Christ's healing.  I did my best to present her with it the other day, but I have little knowledge of what impact it had.  I don't know if it made a difference at all.  I don't know if she will ever have her pain soothed and her anger eased.  And my heart breaks for her pain--as it does for those who hunger needlessly, who thirst needlessly, who through no fault of their own experience pain, abuse, and degradation. 

When you desire to make things better, you will suffer some pain.  Especially if you are willing to work for it.  My hands will return to normal, as will my heart, in time.  But, it will only be temporary.  I'll have to put them to work again before too long, and we'll see if a difference can be made.

I live in hope that it will.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Being a Part of a God Moment

Sometimes, I believe God works in our lives to prepare us for a specific moment in time.  Along the way, we have experiences that mold us and make us and sculpt our thoughts so that when the time is right, we have a word to speak to someone who desperately needs to hear it.  When that time finally arrives, I personally call it a God moment.

I have had several of those moments throughout my life and in the course of my ordained ministry.  They are very powerful.  They literally affect you deep within your soul.

Yesterday, I had such an experience, and I am still affected by it.

A young couple met with me to visit about their upcoming wedding and to discuss baptism.  The young bride to be had lived her life in church and learning about the faith, but she had never been baptized.  She wanted to be baptized and was wondering what all it entailed.

We spent a goodly amount of time talking about it, and as we were (as I thought at the time) finishing up the discussion, I asked, "Do you have any other questions?"

Then, a bombshell was dropped.  One I didn't anticipate, but one I was prepared for.

The young lady had lost her father to a devastating heart attack a few years ago, and she took a risk and became vulnerable for a moment.

"I might not make it through this without crying...I'm still angry," she said.  "Would that prevent me from being bapized?  Will God hold that against me?"

A cry of anguish.  At least that's what I saw.  A cry from a young lady whose heart was ripped and torn when her father died.  A gut wrenching, agonizing question of "Why?"  And a deep wonder and bewilderment as to why God didn't save her father or why God took her father from her at such a young age.

Most of the time, we clergy are fixers.  We want to fix things and make them right.  Not only that, we are passionate about our relationship with God.  We tend to believe we need to defend God and correct thoughts that aren't exactly right, and that especially goes for those who are angry with God.  We want folks to love God and speak well of Him, so there is a quick emotional response when we see someone who is angry with God.  But, if we have been equipped, we stop ourselves short.  Sometimes, it's better not to defend.  God is quite capable of that when the time is ripe.  Sometimes, folks need to be angry and work through it.  This is where I was led during that holy moment.

"Do you think God can handle your anger?" I asked.

The initial response was no.  But after a few seconds, the thought sunk in.  "Yes."

"Do you think God's shoulders are broad enough for Him to handle you being angry at Him?"

Again, "Yes."

"No amount of anger that you have can ever exceed the love that God has for you.  It's just impossible.  He will not allow your anger to overcome His love.  He love you that much."

Pause.

"And, it's perfectly O.K. to be angry.  It's one of the stages of grief.  Just don't let your anger consume you.  That's not healthy."

I don't remember the next few moments of conversation.  I know we delved into her emotional state and her usual unwillingness to let out her emotions regarding her dad.  We spoke some of how the anger is still there and refuses to go away.  Somehow, we got back to the question of why, and I do remember what I said then.

"I can't answer the question of why.  I just don't know.  I wish I did, but here is what I do know.  I know God understands.  God knows what it is like to lose a loved one all too soon.  Jesus' death on the cross wasn't just about forgiveness of sins.  There's another part to it.  Did Jesus deserve to die?"

"No."

"Was it justice that He was crucified?"

No.

"He was basically murdered.  Was that right?"

No.

"And what did God do?"

Silence.

"On the third day, what did God do?"

"Raised him."

"Yes.  God raised Jesus from the dead.  In a very real way, God said that death wouldn't have the last word.  Injustice wouldn't have the last word.  God was going to take the wrongs that were done and make them right.  God would have the last word, and it would be good.  I don't know if you have ever heard a pastor cuss before, but please excuse me here.  When the shit of life happens, God is moving and active working to make it right.  I don't know why your dad died, but I believe God is somehow working to make things right.  I don't know how that's going to come about.  I won't even pretend to, but I believe God will at some point.  That's where I stand."

Silence.

"I'd never heard it put that way before," she finally said with tears streaming down her face.

We talked some more.  I remember bits and pieces.  When all was said and done, I was wiped out.  Physically, emotionally, and spiritually drained. 

I don't know what the end result will be of our conversation.  I don't know if it will help in her healing process.  I don't know if it will lessen her anger any at all.  I just don't know.

But I do know the moment was pregnant with God's presence.  I do know He was waging war against an enemy who will use despair, anger, and frustration to keep a soul from experiencing the love of God.  I do know He was using me at that moment to wade through some deep almost impenetrable darkness to shine a light and plant a seed of hope.

I pray that seed will grow.  I pray it will make a difference in this young woman's life.  I pray it will bring soothing balm to her anger, and even though it might not get rid of it, I pray it will beat it back to a point where it will not consume her and prevent her from loving God and loving her neighbors. 

I only wish I knew what the future is going to hold for her.  Instead, I have to sit and wonder.

But God moments do that to you.  They bring to you and make you wonder.

But I wouldn't trade them for the world.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

You Don't See Any Amish Terrorists

As I was reading Timothy Keller's essay in A Place for Truth yesterday, I came across this particular snippet:

Actually, my wife Kathy gave this to me some years ago, right after 9/11.  All the papers were saying this is the problem with regligious fundamentalism.  If you're a fundamentalist, if you really believe you have the truth, this is what happens.  Kathy said, as I tried to show you here, everybody's fundamentalist, in a way.  Everybody believes fundamentals; everybody's got exclusive truth.  I remember Kathy said, "Fundamentalism doesn't necessarily lead you to terrorism.  It depends on what your fundamental is.  Have you ever seen an Amish terrorist?

I first laughed at the comment, and then I started thinking very seriously about it.  I started thinking about how the antidote to religious fundamentalism, particularly in my neck of the woods of the U.S. has been.

Several years ago, I remember being in conversation with a fellow clergy who had a high school son.  His son had told him the folks most despised in school were "Fundies" or religious fundamentalists.  In Texas, that usually means hard-core Southern Baptists, Pentacostalists, or Independent Bible Church going folks.  Most of the time, these folks, as they live out their faith lives, are in your face about belief in Jesus Christ.

"Do you know Jesus?" they will unabashedly say.  And if you say that you do and you are a part of a mainline denomination, you'd better be ready to defend yourself.  They will work diligently and forcefully to tell you why you are wrong, why your baptism (if you were sprinkled as an infant) doesn't count, why women shouldn't preach, how your worship is too rigid and not spontaneous enough, and the list goes on.  And, as an extra added measure, they will oftentimes tell you if you don't change and come over to their point of view, you are destined to hell.

Sound's peachy, doesn't it?

While such churches do grow and become the rage, they do turn off quite a few folks from living the life of faith, and many mainline denominations are well aware of this.  Therefore, to reach out to the ones "Fundies" hurt or turn off, mainline denominations (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America of which I am a part included) have tended to head in almost the opposite direction.  Instead of being absolutely certain in what we believe and how we articulate it, we have tended to buy into the post-modern thought of relativizing faith and practice.  We have tended to buy into the "it doesn't matter what you believe as long as you live your life faithful to your beliefs and don't hurt anyone."  Usually, we link forms of universal salvation to this belief along with a particularly strong emphasis on doing good works, especially social justice.  Other mainline denominations may not go quite that far, but they still tend to move in this general direction to distance themselves from "Fundies."

In my estimation, what then happens is a denomination or even a congregation that becomes rudderless.  What is the guiding principles and beliefs of such an organization?  Believe what you want and do good.  That's bascially it.  That becomes your fundamentals.  And I believe they are inadequate if you would choose to call yourself a Christian.

I believe there are some fundamentals for Christianity; particularly my "brand" of Christianity, Lutheranism.  They can best be articulated in the documents contained within the Book of Concord.  This book enlightens us in how we read Scripture, holds up our core beliefs and understandings, and gives us the parameters of belief and doctrine.  It helps us know what is and what is not central to the Christian faith. 

And, of course, it points us to the Word of God, Jesus Christ.  And that makes a huge difference.  How?

I'll end with an extended quote from Keller's essay:

If your "fundamental" is a Man dying on the cross for his enemies, if the very heart of your self-image and your religion is a Man sacrificing and praying for his enemies as he died for them, loving them--if that sinks into your heart of hearts--its going to produce the kind of life that the early Christians produced.  The most inclusive possible life out of the most exclusive possible claim.  This is the truth.  But what is the truth?  The truth is a God who became weak, who loved and died for the people who opposed him, forgiving them.

Take that into the center of your heart and you will be at the heart of the solution we need in this world.

That's why you don't see any Amish terrorists--and why you shouldn't see any Christian ones either.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Price of Love

You hear about all the benefits of love all the time.

You hear about the dreamy feelings of being with someone.  You hear about the laughter.  You hear about joy.  You hear about spending precious moments with someone else. 

And this isn't just romantic love either.  It's the love of family and friends.  The love that binds relationships together. 

We like this stuff.

But we don't often talk about the price of love.  And no, I am not talking about when a relationship goes sour.  That's a whole other topic.

I am talking about the price of love that is paid while the relationship is ongoing and even thriving.

I wrote not long ago about being in sort of a dry spell.  I've been wrestling a lot with what is going on within me, and today something came to the fore-front that I wasn't expecting. 

I drove to East Bernard to visit one of my members who is on hospice.  His wife requested that I bring Holy Communion to them.  It's always a powerful moment to bring the Sacrament to someone who is dying and to that person's family as well.  It's an honor and a privilege to be a part of that moment, and it was again today.

But as I left the house and revved the engine in my Mustang, my brain sent one of those signals.  "That hurt," it said.

And I realized, it did.

It hurt to see this man dying.

It hurt to see his wife standing beside him and holding hands after they took communion together.

It hurt to stand in the kitchen, washing out the used wine cups and hear their silence in the other room.

It hurt to have the gentleman grasp my hand and refuse to let go as I was planning to exit.

It hurt because I care.

It hurt because I love them.

In seminary, we held numerous conversations about keeping a professional distance from members of your congregation.  My mentor also cautioned me to avoid making deep friendships with folks in the church.

I asked why.

He replied, "Do you want to bury one of your good friends?"

I'm really not sure I could handle that one.

So I've worked on maintaining those professional boundaries.  I've worked on keeping up an emotional barrier which allows me to function and be there through tremendous upheaval in peoples' lives.

But I've begun to notice it doesn't stop the pain. 

Because as much as you want to keep that professional barrier up, you still come to know, respect, and love the people you work with.  You see their joys and their sorrows, and it affects you whether you like it or not. 

Could I change that?

I think so.  I think I could block everything out, but I believe then I will become totally callous; uncaring; unfeeling.  That's not me.  Love breaks down the barriers--not the professional distance, but the barriers which allow complete detachment.

In seven years of working with and serving people, I have become attached.  I love my congregation.  I love my people.  Being with them and working with them brings me true joy.  Not quite as overwhelming as the joy I receive from my wife and children, but there's still plenty of it.

But, I think I am also starting to feel the pain.  As the congregation has grown, the amount of pain has increased.  Two members on hospice.  A child seeing a specialist for a problem which could be serious.  Members caring for parents and being overwhelmed emotionally.  Members dealing with cancer and its treatment.  Spouses of those members dealing with watching their loved ones deal with the disease.  A community member who is well connected to many of my members has a stroke and now must undergo six months of rehabilitation.  And this is just the tip of the ice berg.  There are so many other things going on with so many other people.

And they all come to me for prayer...

for a word from God...

for some type of comfort in the midst of what they are going through.

And I pray.

And I speak.

And I hug.

And I hurt.

Because I love.

A Place for Truth

A church member referred me to a book which shares the title of this post: A Place for Truth.  In the book are several essays/lectures given in the Veritas Forum series.  Basically, some of the leading universities invite theologians and philosophers to discuss the concept of truth, morality, etc.

I've read the first essay and have begun wading into the second, and I am thrilled to be reading such stuff.

I have generally been a bit uncomfortable with the train of thought which has raised its head during my time in academia and preparation for ordained ministry.  Many call the train of thought postmodern, post modernity, or what have you.

One of its basic, underlying themes is: there is no absolute truth.  Truth is based in perception, cultural and family conditioning, and a whole host of other factors which render it impossible to expand to a universal perspective.

Such thinking has left me scratching my head in bewilderment.

No universal truth?

Come on.

Really.

So, if I am brought up in a culture which says raping women is O.K. and I am culturally conditioned to believe this is normative, does that make it O.K. to practice it?

If I choose to believe the current President of the United States isn't black but is instead green, are we to conclude my perception is indeed truth?

To quote Richard John Neuhaus in his lecture entitled, "Is There Life After Truth?":

In a world where people have stopped talking about truth...--in such a world there is no way to deliberate the question how we ought to live our life together.  There's only power and propaganda and grievance and anger and caucuses and anticaucuses and special interest groups and victims and vengeance.  That's the kind of world we increasingly live in, because we've stopped believing, or so many have stopped believing, that there is a truth that we can deliberate together. --p. 30

"There's only propaganda and grievance and anger..."

Sound familiar?

Even though we may not fully see the ultimate Truth, we must debate its existence.  We must strive to seek it out and understand it as best as we can.  We must grasp and hold onto those portions which we know help govern society and promote its welfare.  For without it, there can be only chaos.

Yes, there must be a place for truth, and I'm willing to join in the debate about what it is.

Are you?

Monday, May 23, 2011

Sermon Preached May 22, 2011: Do Not Let Your Hearts be Troubled

I can’t honestly tell you how many times I have preached on our Gospel lesson for today. Really, I can’t. It would be too numerous. Of all the texts in the Bible, I can honestly tell you I have preached on John chapter 14 the most by far. Why? Take a gander at those first seven verses and then take a wild guess:

Jesus tells his followers, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4And you know the way to the place where I am going." 5Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" 6Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

I hope you were listening to those verses carefully, because I have a question for you. What service do you think this passage is used at most often? Here’s a hint, there is usually a big box, sometimes ornate, sometimes not, placed at the front of the church at that service.

If you guessed funerals, you would be absolutely correct. In fact, as I reflect on the number of funerals I have performed, I hazard to guess that 3/4 of those funerals had this particular text read at them. And I have probably preached on this text at ½ of those.

Why is this text so popular at funerals?

Well, take a look at verse 2. Jesus says, "In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also." These are tremendously comforting words for families who are gathering to celebrate their loved one’s life and grieve his or her death.
These words offer comfort to families as they hear Jesus say that He has prepared a special place for those who know Him in His Father’s house. For those who are grieving, these words offer soothing balm as they hear their loved one is now with Jesus and that one day they will see their loved one once again.

Oh, I have used this text over and over again to proclaim this news to families who grieve. But I am going to let you in on a dirty little secret of mine this morning. I really don’t like using this text at funerals. I really don’t. Because in all honesty, I believe the main focus of this text is not about death and what happens to us when we die. Let me say that again. I do not believe this text is about death and what happens to us when we die. Instead, I believe this text is about how we are called to live our lives.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to dismiss anyone who thinks otherwise, but please hear me out on this one. Jesus does address death, but I believe He does so that we might know what it means to truly live.

If we take a look at John Chapter 13, we see Jesus giving His disciples some very disturbing news. In verse 21, Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray Him. Everyone knew that meant the worst for Jesus. You could feel the disciples’ anxiety start to raise. Jesus did nothing to counter it. In fact, Jesus made it worse. In verse 33, Jesus says he will be with the disciples only a little longer. He will be going some place that they cannot go. Again, you can feel the anxiety level increasing. Jesus then puts the anxiety at a fever pitch when Peter comes up to him and says, "Lord, I will go with you wherever you go."

Jesus tells Peter, "Before the cock crows you will have denied me three times."

I’m sure this really got the disciples attention. Peter was their default leader. He was their spokesperson, and Jesus just told him he would deny Jesus three times before the night was over. All this news was deeply troublesome and anxiety producing. I am sure the questions were numerous. How would the disciples go on if Jesus’ were betrayed? What would happen to them? Would they be betrayed too? What would they do without Jesus? If they could no longer follow Him, what would happen to their lives? How could they go on without Him?

Into this swirl of questioning, Jesus brings his teaching in John chapter 14, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God and believe also in me." Why shouldn’t the disciples let their hearts be troubled?
Because, Jesus says, I’m going to prepare a place for you. I’m going to make sure you are taken care of. Trust me. I’ll make sure everything is taken care of. Even if you were to die, you have a place with me in my Father’s house. All will be well. There is nothing you have to fear.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. Let’s take a look at the last few sentences of Jesus’ teaching today. Let’s begin in verse 12, "Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father. 13I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it."

Whoa! Did you catch that? Did you catch what Jesus says here? You will do the works that I do. You will do greater works because I am going to the Father. Ask in my name so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it

Now, I don’t really want to get into long explanations about what Jesus meant by those statements. We’d be here all morning. But let me ask this: do such statements sound like Jesus is trying to talk to them about death? Do they sound like Jesus is trying to help them grieve? Or is Jesus trying to help them truly live? Is Jesus trying to give them the tools they need to overcome fear? Is Jesus pointing the way to get rid of anxiety and the fear of unexpected things in life that are out of our control? Put it all together, and I think you can see there is a reason Jesus says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled!" For if we trust Him, we can shove our fears aside and focus on truly living our lives as those who seek to follow and serve our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Today, we will be pausing to remember this as someone we have come to love and appreciate is leaving us to fulfill an act of service she dreamed of doing nearly 20 years ago. We know Joan is heading out to join the Peace Corps and head to Mongolia. It is a venture that I know is causing her quite a bit of excitement. However, Joan, you can’t tell me that when you are getting ready to board that plane in a couple of weeks you won’t have butterflies or a set of wobbly knees–at least a little bit. But do not let your heart be troubled. You are answering a call that was placed in you. Jesus has your back, and you now have the opportunity to live a part of your life to the fullest. If you sit and think about all the what ifs that might happen, you’d get yourself worked up to the point where you won’t be able to enjoy what you are seeking to do. Trust that God has His hand on you. Trust that Jesus is walking with you. Do not let your heart be troubled.

And this message isn’t just for Joan. It’s for all of us in the midst of our daily lives as well. We can focus on all the things that could go wrong, that could slow us down, that could undermine what we want to accomplish. We could focus on the things that could and do cause us grief and anxiety and worry. We could focus on roadblocks and detours and the limits of time. Or...

We could focus on the fact that Jesus has things taken care of. We could focus on the fact that Jesus has our back. We could focus on the fact that even if the worst happens, Jesus will take us to His Father’s house where everything wrong will be made right. Which do you thing helps us live life to the fullest? Worrying about all the stuff or living as Jesus calls us? Do we become worked up about everything or do we heed Jesus words? Do not let your hearts be troubled. Amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

On the End of the World

I don't know what's worse.

Christian ministers who proclaim that they have figured out when the end of the world will occur and Jesus will return...

or...

Those who actually give credence, and air time, and newspaper articles, and blog posts to and about said ministers (your's truly included.)

I mean, every single one of those who have made such claims has one common thing: they've failed.

You would think they would begin to learn their lesson.

"No one knows the day or the time or the hour." 

Someone once said that.  Look it up.  Those who know their Bibles probably know who.

As I told my congregation this morning, "When it comes to figuring out the end of the world, I will give you Pastor Haug's prediction.  It is 100% fool-proof.  I guarantee it.  You can write this down.  Jesus will return when He is good and ready.

Period.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Man of God

This Friday I spent the better part of the morning running around Bellville taking care of various errands for my kids' schooling.

Among my tasks was dropping off the transfer papers for my two eldest at the Bellville Administrative Offices.

I walked in and handed my paperwork to the receptionist.  As luck would have it, the Assistant Superintendent was standing there in conversation with the receptionist and another lady.  It's been an interesting twist of fate having my kids in the Bellville School District since this Assistant Superintendent was my kindergarten principal.

We've had the chance to visit a couple of times, and I usually tell everyone how frightened of this guy I used to be.  (Note, I now am about six inches taller than this guy, and much broader in the chest and shoulders.  Needless to say, I'm not afraid anymore.)  Everyone laughs at that comment.

But it is interesting that since we have this connection in our past, this guy  is not ashamed to talk about the things I have accomplished.  He knew I was valedictorian of my high school class, and he began unabashedly sharing this information.

Then, one of the ladies recognized me because of my position as Pastor of St. John in Cat Spring.  She chimed that she was a member of the Lutheran church in Bellville.  I made some kind of quip that that's what they told me I did in Cat Spring.

And then my former principal said it.  "Kevin is a man of God."

For some reason, that title always makes me a little uncomfortable.  And I know why.

I replied, "Not really."

Weird looks.
"If people knew what was going on up here (pointing to my head), they wouldn't think I'm a God guy.  I just try to offer a word or two from Him as His spokesperson."

I could tell, they didn't really get it. 

But I do.

I know the secret thoughts of my heart, and they aren't pretty.  I'm like the old, black Baptist preacher who was once told he must live an exemplary life to preach great sermons full of the Gospel.  The preacher replied, "Sir, I can preach more Gospel in fifteen minutes than I can live in a lifetime."

In some ways, sad.  But it is true.

Sure, I preach God's Word.  I teach  His precepts.  I do a few good deeds from time to time.  But a man of God? 

Not too sure about that one.

Still makes me uncomfortable.

I really don't deserve the title because of my shortcomings.

But still folks will call me such. 

It's a mantle that I shoulder very reluctantly.

Donuts with Dad

Yesterday, my eldest's school held its annual "Donuts with Dad" breakfast.  For $1.75 you get to have a donut, a bit of juice, and milk along with sitting down to breakfast with your child.

My wife and I are parents who realize the importance of making such memories for our children.  We know how important it is for our kids to understand we are there for them at such times.

My daughter and I ate together, and we talked some about school and the previous day's field day.  We finished, and I walked her to her classroom.

When we got there, I noticed her shoe was untied.  She is perfectly capable of tying her own shoes, but every once in a while, she still wants me to be daddy and take care of her.  This was one of those occasions. 

Not only did she let me tie her shoe, she wanted to sit down on my bended knee.  She wrapped her arms around my neck and hugged on me.  I tickled and played with her for a few moments, and I returned her hugs with enthusiasm.

It was time for me to be moving along, but she looked at me and said, "Daddy, stay with me all day."

"I'd love to, sweetie, but Daddy has to go to work.  I will see you later today."

One more enthusiastic hug, and I headed down the hallway to my awaiting car.

As I walked, my eyes misted up.

In the not too distant future, I am pretty sure this little girl will want me to drop her off several blocks from school so that no one sees her embarrassing Dad.  I am sure she will want to distance herself from me as she defines who she is apart from me and her mother as well.  Parents will become those people who live with me and give me a roof over my head and cater to my demands for money and time and whatever else I need, but they are pretty much dumb and have no idea about how the world works.

*SIGH*

But, for now, I am still a giant figure in this little girl's eyes.  I can almost do no wrong.  I can fix anything.  I can change the world.  I can keep her safe and make everything right with a word and a hug.  And those hugs are demanded of me--sometimes overwhelming me as this little girl demands affection and attention. 

Part of me rebels against the attention and smothering, but there is another part that tells me, "Take it and save it for later when she thinks she doesn't need you anymore.  Cherish the moments and hold onto them.  Remember them because you will go through a dry period where she wants almost nothing to do with you.  They will get you through until that time when she looks back and sees that you weren't so dumb.  Then you will be her hero again.  She will know your limitations, but she will still see you as larger than life.  And her hugs will return, just a little different though.  And that's not a bad thing."

My daughter asked me yesterday afternoon to come and eat lunch with her today.  She wants me to pick up cheese sticks at Sonic along with a strawberry slush. 

It's my day off.  Why not?

Donuts with Dad.  Lunch in the cafeteria surrounded by screaming masses of little people.  But precious time spent with my daughter. 

I'll take it.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Sermon Delivered May 15, 2011: Follow in His Steps

Sermon Title: "Follow in His Steps"

I remember when I was a little boy. Oftentimes, I would walk behind my mom and dad and try to follow their steps. This presented a challenge for me because they were so much taller than I was. Sometimes I would have to hop to put my feet in their footprints. But for some reason, it was worth it. For some reason, I enjoyed walking in my parents’ footsteps. Perhaps it was because I wanted to be like them.

Maybe you’ve wanted to follow in someone’s footsteps like that too. Maybe you’ve wanted to be like someone in your life, and you have tried to model your words and deeds after that person. I think it’s part of human nature to look up to someone and admire them. If you don’t believe me take a moment to think about someone you respect and like. Have you ever started saying a phrase that they say in exactly the same manner? I bet you have. I catch myself doing it quite often, and contrary to those who might want to say so, doing such a thing is perfectly O.K. In fact, this morning, I am going to encourage each and every one of us to follow in Jesus’ steps.

Now, perhaps you’d like to question me saying such a thing. After all, wouldn’t it be impossible to follow in Jesus’ steps? Could we ever truly, walk in the Son of God’s steps? Well, the author of 1 Peter actually encourages us to do so. Listen once again, "19For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps."
But what does following in Jesus’ steps entail? What would it be like?

Well, let’s pretend a little bit this morning. Let’s pretend these footsteps on the floor are Jesus’ steps. You know, when you first start walking in Jesus’ steps, there is quite a bit of excitement. It’s fun to learn about what Jesus says. As we hear His words and take them to heart, we feel a joy and excitement we generally haven’t had before. We hear Jesus say, "Why do you worry? Consider the birds of the air. They don’t work for their food, God provides it. Aren’t you worth more than birds? God will provide for you too. And consider the lilies of the field. They don’t worry about getting clothing. Yet, they are clothed beautifully by God. Aren’t you worth more than flowers? God will provide you with clothes. In fact, God knows everything that you need. Seek His kingdom above all else, and these things will be given to you as well."

As we hear these words, we become comforted. We seek God’s kingdom, and it seems like everything is going well. We rejoice in seeing God work to provide for us. And we continue to grow in faith.

We hear Jesus’ words that we will do greater things than he did. We know that we are filled with the power of the Holy Spirit. We know that the Spirit is living and active in our lives, and we spend moments thanking God and celebrating this gift we have been given. We get a thrill to worship, and we sing loud and long to hymns and songs of praise. We feel like nothing can go wrong.

But then we do end up hitting a few bumps in the road. Some of our friends and even some of our family get put off by our new found religious fervor. They get tired of us asking them to go to church or they get tired of talking about God all the time. Some of them ask us to bring the old person back, the one who wasn’t so full of Jesus. Others start avoiding us, and that begins to make us a little sad. We’re not sure what to make of it until we start learning more. We hear Jesus’ words that some of our friends and family will desert us. We see that they will become angry and jealous of our faith. While we regret their stance, we realize this is just part of being faithful. If they can’t handle it, then it’s their problem, not ours. We re-commit ourselves to following Jesus’ footsteps.

But then we learn a few other things, things that cause us to pause for a moment. Jesus says, "If anyone wants to be my disciples, let him take up his cross and follow me." Take up a cross? An instrument of death and torture? That can’t be what Jesus really means. Surely He isn’t calling me to die? We rationalize and come up with different interpretations easing our own consciences and convincing ourselves there is no sacrifice in following in Jesus’ steps. And so we press on.

Then there is more disconcerting news. We see Jesus say, no one can be my disciple unless he gives up all of his possessions. Again, we wrestle with this. We may pause in our journey, and once again, we rationalize. We interpret. Jesus didn’t mean give up everything. He meant we have to love Him above all our possessions, and certainly I do that. I love Jesus more than anything in this world. That’s what He really meant. And so we once again follow without worry or fear. We are following Jesus, and it’s exciting.
But, sooner or later, we finally arrive at a critical juncture. It’s a juncture that makes us stop right in our tracks because we actually do see where Jesus’ steps lead. We’re not happy about what we see. Jesus footsteps lead right to the cross.

Only in this moment do we realize what this means. Following in Jesus’ footsteps will require pain. It will require death. If we continue onto the cross, we will be forever changed, and there will be no going back. Will we continue on? Will we head toward that instrument of death? Will we head to that instrument of agony? Will we head toward that instrument where we too will suffer and die?

No, we will not have to die for the world as Jesus did, but we will have to die to ourselves. We will have to die to our will and our desire. We will have to die to our own egos and place them under Christ. We will have to die to our selfishness. If we continue to the cross, death awaits.

And it’s not too comforting to think about such a thing. It’s not too comforting to know parts of ourselves will be dying. Parts of ourselves will be challenged and changed in a way that we might not like. We will see things differently. We will act differently. No longer will we be seeing only with our eyes. No longer will we be hearing with our ears. No longer will our own vision of our lives dominate. Christ will help us see. Christ will help us hear. Christ will give us a vision of what we are called to do in the midst of our daily lives.

Are you ready to follow in Jesus’ steps? Are you ready to go to the cross? Are you ready to die to yourself?
At this point, we might hesitate as we think about it long and hard. Do we really want to go through with it? Do we really want to be changed?

This morning, my brothers and sisters, I would like to remind you that even though those footsteps lead up to the cross, they do not stop there. There are more steps heading away from it, and those footsteps lead to the resurrection. They lead to a place of true life, true joy, and true meaning. The cross may be a painful place to go to and through, but you should see what is on the other side.

Remember what Jesus said, "I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly."?

That abundant life is waiting for us on the other side of the cross. Are you ready to take those final steps? Are you ready to go to the cross? Are you ready to follow Jesus? Amen.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Life's Not Fair!

Today, I attended my eldest daughter's field day.

Things have changed quite a bit from the days when I used to participate in such events.  Some for the good, but quite a bit for the bad, I am afraid.

First, the good part: the afternoon activities consisted of seven "centers" of activity.  Popsicles, a really fun game, a water slide, water and free play, Rain, Rain, Flood (a variation of Duck, Duck, Goose), basketball and playground time, and finally a slip and slide.  These activities were really cool both literally and figuratively.  Never had such activities when I was in school, and they sure beat sitting in the blazing sun at the football stadium watching everyone else race while (im)patiently waiting your turn.  Furthermore, there was no danger of anyone overheating.  The water activities literally kept everyone cool, and sometimes even cold.  Definitely better than when I was a kid.

Oh, but the morning...I could have done without the morning.

Don't get me wrong, the kids had a blast playing the games they played.  They got a little bored in between, but for the most part they enjoyed the activities.  What bothered me most was what the focus was.

#1: There were no races where there were individual winners and losers.  Geez, I couldn't conceive of field day without such things when I was a kid.  We had sack races, three legged races, 50 yard dashes, 100 yard dashes, potato races, and relay races.  When we won, we actually got ribbons.  We would work to put together teams and we'd hopefully link up with others who had some semblance of speed.  Such races have been all but banished for entire group games because they don't want anyone to be disappointed in losing. 

I mean, far be it that a youngster have his or her fragile little ego crushed as they find out that life isn't fair.  Far be it that a youngster actually find out that there are winners and losers in life.  Far be it that they are so sheltered so that they go through a little bit of their life with the delusion that everyone wins and no one ever loses.

Jimney Crickets!  Hello!  Does anyone realize the wisdom of dealing with winning and losing on a small scale like field day so that kids can be taught how to be good sports in winning and losing?  Anyone realize the wisdom of teaching kids how to cope with losing at an event that really doesn't mean all that much anyway?  Anyone realize the wisdom in bringing kids along slowly in such endeavors so that when they actually fail at something (believe me, it WILL happen) they will be able to say to themselves, "O.K., I missed this time, but I refuse to give up."?

Even Jesus didn't tell His followers life would be fair.  He taught them to deal with the reality of a world that was unfair.  He didn't tell them all things and all people would be equal now.  When the Kingdom of God was fully established...well, that would be another matter.  But until that time, Jesus equipped His disciples to never lose dignity, never lose hope, and to keep planting one foot in front of the other no matter what they encountered in life.

#2: Even though individuals were not recognized, classes were.  Classes won first, second, third, most spirited, and best sportsmanship.  And the classes weren't rewarded with anything--the teachers were.  Now, don't get me wrong.  I believe teachers earn every darn dime they receive.  They are not paid enough for what they do, and they get tons of crap shoveled upon them from some parents below and administrators above.  But, should kids run and jump and race and earn points so their teacher gets a reward?  Are we teaching these kids to work their tail ends off so that someone else can enjoy the fruits of their labor?

Now, I know.  I know.  This is just field day, but it is a learning experience for these kids.  If the class is being rewarded with points, reward the class as well as the teacher.

If you ask me, what is really unfair about the way this field day (and many, many others who instill the same stuff) was handled was the messages it teaches the kids about fairness.  They will be in for some very rude awakenings at a later date when they discover what many of us already know:

Life's not fair.

But, if you learn how, you still make the most of it.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sermon Delivered May 8, 2011: Love One Another Deeply...

Sermon Title: Love One Another Deeply From the Heart

He stood there watching the crowd come toward him. He knew why they were coming. Every fiber in his human nature warned him to run. Or to fight. They were coming to arrest him, and he knew they would stack evidence against him. He knew they would eventually find him guilty, and he knew they would call for his death. Human nature rode him hard. Take off. Hide. Go where they cannot find you. There are others who would shelter you and keep you safe. Fight. Use every bit of your power that you have. Call your followers. Have them rise up. They will follow you to victory. But something else was also operating. Something else overrode those voices of fight or flight. He stood there watching the crowd come for him. And he didn’t run. He didn’t fight. He allowed himself to be arrested.

He stood there watching the trial around him. People came forward to accuse him. Much of what they said was false testimony. They could not even get two witnesses to agree on any details. They were sloppy. Anyone with half a brain could see he was innocent of the charges being brought forth. The human force of anger started welling within him. All he needed to do was open his mouth and speak. He could shatter these lies with a word. He could destroy their so called evidence by defending himself. He could make them look foolish, incompetent and weak. He could make all the people lose faith in these so called leaders. Folks listened to him. He could give into his anger and end this trial very quickly. But something else stayed his voice. Something deep within his heart continued to move him to silence. There was more he needed to accomplish, and only his silence would permit it to happen. He kept his mouth shut, and he was found guilty.

He stood there on that hill overlooking the city. For a few moments he had been relieved of his heavy burden. But it was a moment of calm before he knew he would experience excruciating pain. Every fiber in his body was already struck with pain and agony. They had beaten him. They had flogged him. Bruised and bloody with a crown of thorns pressing into his skull, he awaited the final blow. They laid him down. A hand pressed his forearm to the hard wood. He felt the coldness of steel. The pain in his arm was so intense he didn’t even hear the sound of the hammer. He couldn’t help it. He screamed. He had never, ever known such pain. Excruciating, horrible pain. And this was only the first nail. There were still two more to go.

He looked down at those gathering before him. His head hung limply as each time he breathed the pain shot through his arms, his legs, and his lungs. Would he ever know relief? Those below began hurling insults. Not only were they killing his body, they were trying to kill his spirit. They made fun of his teachings. They made fun of his healings. They made fun of his power and now his seeming powerlessness. Once again, that human trait of anger began to surface. How dare they kick a man at his weakest at his moment of greatest pain. He could fight back. He could raise his own voice and insult them back. He could call curses from God down upon them. But something deep within him stopped him from doing so. Something from his heart led him down a different path. Garnering his strength, he looked at his enemies at the foot of the cross, and then he looked heavenward. "Father," he said, "forgive them, for they do not know what they do."

He died there on that hill. Seemingly rejected and alone. Something within him kept him from acting as we as humans act. He didn’t run. He didn’t fight. He didn’t argue or call for revenge. Something in his heart didn’t allow him to go down those paths.

God the Father looked down on the scene outside Jerusalem. He dried His eyes as He watched His Son’s body being taken down from the cross. He almost couldn’t bear the ordeal. He couldn’t stand watching His Son’s pain; His Son’s agony. He wanted to do something, anything to prevent this. But the facts were, He had tried. He had tried to reconcile humankind unto Himself. He had tried to show them the way. He had tried to tell them what it meant to live in accord with Him and with one another. But nothing had worked. He had cajoled them. He had punished them. He had sent them into exile, but nothing worked. He could have given up on them. He could have walked away from His creation, but He had made a promise. And He would never, ever walk away from a promise. He could once again offer punishment for those who had killed His Son. He could send down fire and flood and famine. But He knew it was time to do something different. He knew it was time to offer a different path–to show another way. He would act and act decisively.

He watched them carry His Son’s body to a tomb. He watched them lay it down and seal the grave. He watched them walk away in grief. He saw the guards posted, and He settled down to wait for the right moment.

And we know when that moment arrived. We know what happened when the ground shook, when the stone was rolled away, and when Jesus walked out of that darkness and shined a light that will never be extinguished. We know the Father acted in a new and glorious way to give salvation and hope to all. And we know why He did it. We know why He sent Jesus. We know why Jesus didn’t run. We know why Jesus didn’t fight. We know why Jesus didn’t defend himself in anger. And we know why Jesus offered forgiveness.

He loved us from His heart.

His love for us consumed his entire being to the point where He was able to overcome the natural tendencies and desires to fight, to run, to anger, and to hold a grudge. And now, He has poured out that love for you and for me.

Peter writes in our second lesson today, "18You know that you were
ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things
like silver or gold, 19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without
defect or blemish. 20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was
revealed at the end of the ages for your sake. 21Through him you have come to trust in
God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are
set on God. 22Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so
that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart."

Love as Jesus loved.

Forgive as Jesus forgave.

Hope as Jesus hoped.

For this love changed the world forever those 2000 years ago. This love became a force to be reckoned with–a force for good, a force for justice, a force for peace that the world had not seen before. It continues to be bound up in God’s strong Word which comes to us in the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. And that Word now resides in our hearts as Children of God. And how should we respond to this Word? How should we conduct ourselves knowing what Christ has done for us? Just this, love one another deeply from the heart. Amen.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The State of the Church

I have been giving some interesting thought to the congregation of St. John in the past few weeks.  Much of it is a wrestling of what it means to be the church in this day and age along with wrestling with the challenges of what it means to be a rural congregation whose membership is spread far and wide in the surrounding area.

One of the great challenges is Christian Education.  There is a need to pass on the faith to the next generation.  There is a need to challenge folks and help them grow in their own faith walks.  There is a need to help folks of all ages grow deeper in their understanding of who God is and what God intends for their lives.

And yet...

We live in a society that demands time without regard.

Athletics, school, family, church, scouts, work, festivals, kids, parents, even ourselves demand moments or chunks of our time. 

And we have become a people who find it hard to meet all those demands.  We have a hard time prioritizing what should and should not come first.  As more and more things demand more and more of us, we find it difficult to breathe and actually enjoy life.

So, in the midst of that chaos, how in the world can we even find time for learning and growing in our faith?

How can we find time to exercise our brains in regard to our walks with God?  How can we find time to help our children learn and grow in this faith thing?

The church used to hold a privileged place in people's time slots.  Folks made time for worship and education and Sunday School and meetings and special events.  But those days are rapidly passing.

And so we find that when we try to add a weekly Bible Study--no one comes.
When we try to revamp Sunday School--no one comes.
When we try to conduct church business--few stay.
When we ask for input and guidance through letters and email--silence reigns.

Yet, when we hold one time events and gatherings--we overflow.

It's gotten me thinking...

What if...

What if...

What if the church centered itself on worship.  What if this became our main thrust as a congregation?  What if we made this the primary focus of what we do?  What if, as our mission statement guides us, actively reaching out as a strong Christian influence in our community by showing God's love through kindness, caring, and involvement with others inside and outside our community of faith, entails gathering for worship and praise and hearing God's Word and receiving His sacraments first and foremost...

and then...

then...

As people are equipped through worship, they go into the world with their varied callings?  And when in their varied callings they uncover opportunities for the church to make its presence known in a big way?

This doesn't prevent the church from being involved and helping others in the community, but it makes doing those things dependent upon our worship and our grounding in God's Word.

Further, the church can equip people to learn more about God and His Word by offering resources for families and individuals through internet communication.  We can still hold classes and events, but they would take a back seat to parents teaching in their homes.

Of course, when folks get a creative goose from the Spirit to try special events (like a Zumba aerobics class), the church gladly opens its doors for folks to do so.  But this would come, not from the council or pastor or any authority figure, but it would come from folks who take an interest and want to see if it could happen.

The mission and ministry of the congregation, therefore, isn't dependent upon a pastor or particular paid staff...it isn't dependent upon the council...rather, it's dependent upon the people of the church.  Pastor's change.  Council members change.  Leadership changes.  Staff changes.  The people stay.

What if?

What if?

What if?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The "Fat" Gene

Here's the story:

http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20110515/lf_nm_life/us_obesity_genes

Here's my take:

For over ten years, I have been taking classes in Bowen Family System's Theory.  We consider many aspects of life in this class as we discuss this theory and its applications.  One of the central themes we deal with is how to cope with anxiety.

What does this have to do with that Yahoo! story?

Just this--anxiety causes an increase in the amount of cortisol our body produces.  Our bodies basically are designed to deal with anxiety by fight or flight.  When stressed, our adrenal gland secretes cortisol into our system.  In nature, we use the cortisol up by fighting or running.

But what about many of our current lives?  How often do we fight or flight when confronted with stress now a days?  When our jobs cause us anxiety, do we run?  Do we fight our boss?  Nope.  Generally, we sit on it, and the cortisol our bodies produce stays in them. 

And so what happens to our bodies?  What does that cortisol do within us when we are chronically under stress and do not use it up?  Research has shown that it increases our fat content. 

Now, while the finding of the "fat" gene certainly is worth note, what I wonder is the statistic that obesity globally is now increasing.  I have to wonder if the "cause" isn't a world that is increasingly growing more anxious? 

I sense that the U.S. society is increasingly anxious and is becoming more and more emotionally regressed.  (This is Bowen's idea, not my own.)  The slightest things tend to set off emotional firestorms.  The media tends to get us all worked up about rather trivial things.  Many people and institutions play off our fears and concerns and raise them to a level which was unheard of in the past.

Part of the problem, I argue at least, is the access we have to untold quantities of information.  I simply don't believe our brains are capable of handling the amount of news that we have access to worldwide.  And the media intentionally puts the stories out which heighten our sense of fear.   They keep these stories before us 24 hours a day 7 days a week, and our anxieties grow and grow and grow.  Our cortisol levels shoot up, and it has no place to go.

And we see our waistlines expand.

And we fight the epidemic by talking about BMI's and more exercise and healthier eating.

But I tend to wonder if we should concentrate more on lowering our anxiety?  I wonder if we shouldn't spend more time in prayer and meditation and less time watching Fox, CNN, MSNBC and reading internet blogs and stories which are designed to scare the crap out of us or tick us off? I wonder if our waistlines would shrink if we simply tried to lower our fight or flight response?

What if our obesity is less about genetics and more about our anxiety?

Kind of gives new insight into Jesus' teachings to refrain from worry, doesn't it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Giant Power Struggle

Interesting times in Cat Spring, TX.

Not only are we in the midst of one of those 100 year droughts, but folks have now come close to taking up arms because of a plan to run a series of power lines through the county.

I've heard numerous stories on the background of the ordeal, but in a nutshell, Center Point Energy wants to run 345kv transmission lines from the Fayette County Power Plant down to Harris County (in other words, Houston, TX).  In a sense, country folks are having to put up with their land being taken so that city folks can have electricity.  Unfortunately, Center Point Energy is apparently trying to ramrod this ordeal through on a fast track to avoid having to pay extra cast to landowners because of a law that goes into effect shortly. 

Now, I know country folks.  I are one.

I know we are willing to help out anyone at the drop of a hat.  We don't begrudge making sure folks have the things that they need.

But you'd better be straight up with us.

You'd better be honest.

You'd better not try to circumvent any processes or ramrod anything down our throats.

We will open a collective can of whoop a$$.

I think, as I have been a part of the conversation surrounding the proposed routes of these power lines, this is more than a case of NIMBY  (Not In My Back Yard).  I think this is also a case that digs far down into some of the perceived resentment country folks (including myself) feel or sense from people in the city.

For instance: we in the country do not have access to DSL or Cable Television.  We have to depend upon dial up or rather expensive broadband services that at times are unreliable.  We have to depend upon satellite for any sort of expanded television.  Why don't cable or phone companies offer such things?  Volume and cost according to them.  Those who live in the city get such things.  We in the country get overlooked--if you want to call it that.

Secondly, the "green" agenda is really rooted and grounded in places surrounded by concrete, cars, and people.  Not too terribly many folks in the country jump on the "green" bandwagon.  Hey, those of you out there who read this blog who are greens, please know, I love you.  I recycle myself, recently purchased a fuel efficient car, and got rid of my pick up truck.  However, I don't need the pick up.  Many of the cattle ranchers around here can't do without.  It's a necessity for their livelihood.  Being talked about as uncaring for the environment because you drive a gas guzzler is a slap in the face to many who provide food for those in the cities--those who simply go to the grocery store and buy what they need.  Farmers have seen an explosion in the amount of food they can produce due to the use of pesticides, herbicides and genetically engineered plant varieties.  Without such additions, we would not be able to feed the earth's population and keep food prices relatively low.  Yet, there are some who still deride farmers for using such things.  They will cry that farmers aren't caring for the earth.  Hello!  Farmers dang sure do care for the earth.  Without it, they wouldn't have any livelihood.

Thirdly, some folks who live in the city look down their noses at country folks as uneducated "hicks."  He, he, he.  Well, I'd like to introduce you to several out here who are world class lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc.  Furthermore, I'd like to see some of those who talk such talk design, build, and do many of the things some of the farmers and ranchers do around here.  Just because you are educated doesn't mean you have the ability to do something well.  To paraphrase a line out of the Michael Crichton book Congo: Read a book that tells you how to ride a bicycle.  Then go do it.  You will find your book knowledge is very, very limited.  There is such a thing as wisdom gained by practical application.

I could go on, but I will stop.  Please know that I am also aware of prejudices that country folks have toward city folks.  These are very real as well, but I don't think they are as pertinent to the discussion over these power lines.

What I think is pertinent is the feeling that city folks are trying to ramrod stuff through to benefit city folks at the expense of the folks in the country.  And the country folks are mad as hell about it.

As a country preacher, I am wondering a bit what my role is.  I am a preacher of the Gospel, not a political activist.  I share in my folks' concern to keep these power lines out.   I share in some of their frustrations and anger at the process.  But I also don't think it's my place to use the pulpit to give any sort of theological justification to the fight or to call down God's wrath on the power companies. 

I'm having a giant power struggle within myself over this giant power struggle.

I hope the lines don't go through Cat Spring, and I hope my role will become more clear.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Stuck at home recovering from a stomach bug today, so not much else to do but blog a little more since I finished my sermon earlier.  (Probably a case of TMI right there, but oh well.)

Came across this article on MSN:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42985277/ns/weather/

The tremendous flooding on the Mississippi has resulted in one of those catch 22 situations.  Flood New Orleans or flood 2,500 people and 2000 buildings on 3 million acres with another 22,500 people and 11,000 buildings being affected. 

Tough choice, huh?

As a Christian, I'd have to ask myself what kind of ethics would one put into place in making such a decision.  Do you decide based upon the fewest number of people affected?  A classic case of sacrificing the few to save the many?  Do you decide upon the basis of what the law dictates?  (Although I'm not exactly sure what the law would say in this particular case? 

And what about the responsibility of folks who decided to live and build in such places where such a thing is possible?  (Blame the victim folks may raise their objections now.) 

How are Christians called to make such decisions in these cases?

I mean, isn't the property of those few just as valuable to them as the property of the many in New Orleans?

Isn't it setting a bad precedent to make a decision purely based upon the fewest number of people--therefore the fewest dollars needed to repair--affected?

What about the preservation of private property?

Oooh.  What a complicated dilemma.

Anyone out there with any answers?

What is the Balance?

Further reflecting upon the idea of humor/playfulness and the church...

What is the proper balance between having humor and dealing with the "business" of the church?

In our class, we talked about taking our responsibilities seriously.  I mean, when you are engaging someone who is facing terminal cancer, divorce, having troublesome questions about faith, you must not make light of what they are going through.  These are serious issues!  Yet, can humor be injected into such times to lighten the atmosphere?

I believe so.  More than once, I have done so in the midst of some very serious situations.  Walking into a hospital room of a gentleman who had a heart attack during worship, I quipped, "Bill, you know, I have had folks come up with all sorts of reasons and excuses to skip out on hearing one of my sermons, but yours takes the cake!"

Luckily, this guy had a great sense of humor, and we laughed heartily together.

Of course, we also had some very serious moments during that conversation as well. But I wonder if starting off on a lighter note helped the conversation flow better?

Similarly, this past Sunday, I preached a rather heavy sermon.  After taking up the offering a little later, I noticed the plates having to travel down the same row twice--back and forth. 

Before starting the prayers, I quipped, "Just a quick question that I noticed.  If the offering plate goes both up and down the pew, do you have to put something in twice?"

Eruption of laughter!

Healthy?

I think so.

The church has some very serious business to attend to.  We have a life changing, world changing message to get out.  We have the job of spreading the good news of Jesus death and resurrection.  We have the job of engaging and challenging the world when it commits injustice.  We have been called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, and to visit the sick and imprisoned.  We have been commissioned to be witnesses of Jesus in word and in deed. 

But do we always have to be serious when doing this serious business?

I mean, aren't we called to be joyful as we follow our Lord and Savior?

Contrast that with what you see in many congregations throughout the U.S.

Do you see joy?

Do you see people who walk through life in a joyful manner no matter what hardships they face?

Is there humor and laughter in these folks lives even in the face of serious matters?

Who wants to be around someone who is deadly serious all the time?

And at the same time, who wants to be around someone who can't take anything seriously? 

There's a balance there.  I wish more people and congregations well as they seek to find it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Playful Jesus

Today, I traveled to Austin to sit in on a continuing education class on Bowen Family Systems.

Today's topic was playfulness and it's application to bodily and organizational health.  A corollary to the class was the unhealthiness of seriousness which tends to pervade most of our institutions.  To bumper sticker the class today, we were asked what it would be like if we could instill a sense of playfulness in our congregations and what effect it would have on their overall health.

Toward the end of class, some folks dared to ask whether or not Jesus was playful.

I responded, "If you look carefully in Scripture, I believe you can find it quite easily."

I'm serious (pun intended) about that comment.  I believe that Jesus wasn't serious all the time.  I believe that being fully human, He enjoyed laughter, playfulness, and those human activities which bring a smile to our collective faces.

Think I'm way off base?

Consider the following story in the book of Luke chapter 10:

17The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” 18He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. 19See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. 20Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

First, read that passage in all seriousness and see if you can make good sense of it.

Then, read Jesus' comment about watching Satan fall like lightning with a grain of humor.  See if it makes more sense that way.  (I'm indebted to my Greek professor in college Dr. Peter Ansorge for opening my eyes to this possibility.) 

In your's truly's estimation, reading that sentence with humor makes an awful lot of sense.  Jesus is basically making fun of his disciples' awe and wonder in their defeat of demons saying this stuff isn't all that important.  What's really important is that their names are written in heaven.  Again, my take on this story, and I could be completely wrong. 

But I don't think so.  I think Luke is purposely capturing a bit of humor from the Master.

Sometimes, I think we miss this.  I think we believe Jesus is deadly serious in all that He says and does, but what if He laughed and told jokes and danced and smiled.  What if Jesus went through life with a sense of humor.  What if He went about the serious business of saving the world with a smile and sense of pure joy deep within Himself?

Could our congregations emanate such joy if we accepted such a picture of Jesus?  Could our congregations become places where this joy is palpable in the midst of a world where ideology divides, angers, and corrupts? 

I can hope, can't I?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Time Does Not Exist

Mind blowing thought, huh?

Well, not really...at least in the big scope of things.

Let me explain.

This past Sunday, my adult Bible Study was working through Luther's Small Catechism.  We were dealing with the seventh commandment.  For a refresher, that one is "Thou shalt not steal."

One of the participants raised a very interesting point when she spoke about "stealing time" from an employer, etc.  For example, when you goof off at work, you are stealing time. 

Knowing I have a heat exchange engineer who keeps abreast of all the latest scientific studies and such I decided to have a moment of fun.

"You know, if you really think about it, time doesn't exist," I said.

That raised a few eyebrows and caused a smirk on the engineer's face.

He knew what I was up to, but he also knew I would approach it theologically while he would approach the issue scientifically.  (If you'd like to see what some scientists are talking about regarding the existence of time, I'd invite you to Google it.  We already know that time is a variable according to Einstein's theory of special relativity.  Some scientists are taking it further.)

I continued, "If we think of all things happening in God's time, time as we know it doesn't exist."

More pause.

I continued, "God is eternal.  He has no beginning and no end.  There is no such thing as time in such a state."

Then, they got it.

I wonder what it would be like if we decided to live under such an ideal?

What would we do if that whole adage "time is money" was proven to be false?

What if time isn't as precious as we think--at least in terms of straining and stressing to accomplish as much as we possibly can in a short period?

What if, as people who are guaranteed eternal life, we believe we actually have all the time in the world to accomplish the things we need to accomplish?

How would that affect our stress levels?

How would that impact the choices we make?

How would that impact our worldview?

What if time really doesn't exist?

What if God's time is the only time?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Mother's Day Story

Many moons ago, a young male on the threshold of manhood sat in his driveway in his car.

He didn't know it at the time, but he was wrestling with that transition all kids must make when they leave the nest and travel into adulthood and more responsibility.  In some ways, he didn't realize the effect stress and anxiety could have on his life.

Interestingly enough, the symptom of the stress had been the basketball game he played that evening.  Generally a pretty cool customer on the court, he flat out sucked that evening.  He couldn't concentrate.  He missed nearly everything he threw at the rim.  Not that he was that great of a basketball player to begin with, but normally he did O.K.  Except for this evening.

As this young man looked back on this time, he realized he was worried about choosing his course in life.  Where exactly he would go to college was still up in the air.  What he would major in was extremely cloudy.  Other than having a goal of marrying and getting a very high paying job, there was no sense of call--no sense of vocation in who he was and what he might become.  Having no true sense of direction was weighing heavily on his mind.

But he didn't quite know that was the problem just yet.  All he knew was something wasn't quite right.  He was mad at himself for the way he played.  He was disappointed because he felt he let his team down.  He wanted to talk to someone, but he wasn't quite sure how to do that either.  Society and culture had taught him to bury it, sulk on it, and keep it under wraps unless someone invited you to share.

Unable to reach out, he just sat in the car and waited. 

His parents and sister showed up finally and pulled into the drive way.

And still he sat there.

They all went into the house.

And still he sat there.

The minutes drug on.

And still, he sat there.

Finally, the door of the house opened.  The young man looked up and saw his mother coming.

This is what he had hoped for.  Someone.  Anyone to sit and talk with him.  To help guide him in some form or fashion.  To help him process this messiness of life that he felt ill equipped to deal with.

His mother opened the car door, and they began to talk.

Finally getting the opportunity, the youngster opened up.  He spoke of his  fear.  He spoke of his anxiety.  He laid it all out there, and his mom listened patiently offering a few words here and a few words there to keep the conversation moving.

Sometimes there are moments in life which can be defined as kairotic.  No, that's not a misspelling.  It comes from the Greek word Kairos which indicates time as God sees it.  It is in those kairotic times that we are truly receptive to God's Word for us as it comes to us in various ways.  In this young man's life, such a kairotic moment had arrived.

After patiently listening, the young man's mother spoke, "Kevin, you need to learn to give everything up to God.  You need to learn to trust Him and believe that He will take care of you.  He's done it for me, and I know He will do it for you as well."

Whether she realizes it or not, my mom changed my way of thinking that night.  She gave me a principle to live by, and it is a principle that has given me a firm conviction that things will be O.K. no matter what happens.  I continue to live by it to this day.

Thanks, Mom for taking the time to talk to your son that night and for all the other times you were there for me.  Don't ever think that you didn't have an impact in my life.  You continue to be an inspiration, and I love you.

Happy Mother's Day to you and all the other mother's out there.  May you feel blessed this day and always.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Entering a Dry Spell?

I'm wrestling with something within me right now, and I'm not sure what it is.

Easter Sunday was a huge blessing.  I never expected seeing what I saw in my congregation that morning.  The Spirit's movement in the life of this church has been nothing short of amazing in the seven years that I have been here.  And even though we are in a slight transition as we seek a new director of music, I'm sensing things are primed and ready to head to the next level.  It's exciting to be a part of such a thing.

Yet...

Since Easter, I've seemed to be running in low gear.  I feel sort of worn out; weary even though I've got plenty of energy to get things done.

Don't know if it's the post-Easter let down or if it's something else.

Never had it before.

First time in 10 years of ordained ministry.

Am somewhat wondering if I'm entering a dry spell or if God's got something up His sleeve for me.

Now before any of my congregation members read this and start freaking thinking I might be looking for another call, let me put that to rest quickly.  Not a chance.  I've said before as long as the congregation and I are getting along, I intend to stay.  I have no desire to pull up roots and leave.

But something is gnawing at my gut.

I even mentioned to a guy in a continuing education class that I was half-way interested in getting a Doctorate of Ministry.  Not that I really want to put myself through classes and the financial burden of doing such a thing, but I was trying to see if that was where the gnawing in my gut was leading.

I received a packet from the Seminary offering the DMin.  Still haven't opened it.  Not excited about it.  That should be a sign.

This week, a member of the community came to visit me and essentially asked me to serve as a Spiritual Director.  This is something I have felt called to in the past, and I told him I would be happy to serve in such a capacity.  However, I also told him there was one caveat--I needed to find a Spiritual Director as well.  I've begun that process, so I wonder if that will help.

It's been a long while since I've had a Spiritual Director.  Such folks are gifted in helping you discover what God is up to in your life.  They ask pointed questions to get you to see things you might be missing.

I'm hoping it will help.  Dry spells aren't much fun.  They're full of struggle.  They can be very helpful in the long run, but...

We'll see.