Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Time to Take It Up a Notch

I actually was hoping it was a fluke.

Turns out it wasn't.

For the past couple of months, I've been incorporating into my exercise routine a series of squats and push ups.  Begin with one squat, then do 10 push ups.  Continue adding squats and reducing push ups until you do 10 squats and 1 push up.  It's not as easy as it sounds if you aren't in shape for it.

And I wasn't. 

Until now.

Monday, when I did the routine, I completed the entire cycle without having to resort to "girl" style push ups.  It was the first time I had accomplished that feat.  I figured it was because I had taken four days off from doing the routine and my muscles were fresh.  It wouldn't happen the next time.  But, low and behold, this morning, I completed the routine again.  I finished with both a sense of accomplishment and a sense of dread.

The accomplishment, of course, comes from completing the task and knowing I have gotten stronger.  The dread comes in that I know if I am to continue to progress, I've got to take it up another notch.  It probably means adding one more set and beginning with one squat and 11 push ups.  That's taking the routine to a total of 66 squats and push ups in rapid succession.  While that may not seem like a big deal, I personally know it means more pain and a reverting to some "girl" style push ups.

Of course, I could get comfortable.  I could stay right where I am at and enjoy the fact I can actually complete the routine.

But, I am not where I want to be just yet.  I haven't gotten rid of all the belly fat I want to get rid of.  I haven't progressed to the point where I believe I'd make a Captain America costume look good (next Halloween).  My arms aren't as defined as I want them to be.  In order to reach that place, I've got to take it to another level--even if it causes pain and extra-exertion on my part.

Makes me wonder how often many folks get content with where they are in life.  Accomplishing something, we tend to sit back and relax instead of look for other challenges.  But aren't there other areas to pursue?  Aren't there other places we can take it up a notch? 

Thinking of my role as a pastor, I've seen congregations become comfortable.  They might have grown or completed a building program or paid off a debt or led a marvelous ministry, and when it is all said and done, they sit back and are content to stop right there.  But, if Christ has asked them (and us) to make disciples of all nations, and we know we haven't quite finished that job, isn't it time we kick it up a notch in our own Christian walks and in our congregational lives?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Becoming One of the Hated: A Bicycler

Yes, my friends, today I made my initial journey into the ranks of those most despised in my little area of the world.  I took my first bike ride.

As I traveled those first 7.5 miles, I couldn't help but remember a joke I had heard and told numerous times:

There was a trucker who was generally a nice guy except when it came to bicyclists.  He absolutely hated them.  In fact, whenever he saw one cycling down the highway, he would always nudge over and knock them over--such was his distaste.

One day, he picked up a hitch-hiker.  As the hitch-hiker got in the cab, the trucker noticed this was no ordinary hitch-hiker.  It was a priest.

"Thank you, my son," the priest said.  "My car broke down a few miles back, and I've been walking trying to get to the next town.  You were the first who would pick me up."

"No problem, Father," the trucker replied.

Things went swimmingly for the first few miles, but then, just ahead, the trucker noticed a bicycler in the shoulder ahead.  The trucker began twitching.  He changed lanes to get into the right hand lane.  He looked at the priest and then looked at the cyclist.  His fingers began shaking.  He moved his truck onto the shoulder just a bit; thought of his passenger, and moved back onto the highway.  Another look at the cyclist caused him to swerve into the shoulder once again, but at the last minute, the trucker thought of that priest, and swerved back onto the highway.

Yet, the driver still heard an unmistakable "THUMP!"  He looked over at the priest who then said, "I saw you swerve at the last minute.  Don't worry.  I got him with the door."

Such is the attitude toward cyclist that many of us have out here.  Now, don't get me wrong.  None of us begrudge anyone who wishes to get some exercise.  None of us begrudge anyone who wishes to see the beauty of the countryside from the seat of a bicycle.  But we do begrudge those cyclist who come out here and believe they own the road. 

More than a few weekends, our community is overrun with bicyclists from Houston and other urban areas.  They come out here to ride around, and most of them are pretty decent.  But there are those few who spoil it for the rest.  Several of them decide it would be fun to ride two or three or ever four abreast in the road.  Some decide it would be easier to ride in the middle of the lane.  And many times, they don't give a darn that a car is coming up behind them. 

Now, such a prospect isn't a difficult thing down in Houston or Austin or any place they actually have bicycle lanes.  (Head scratch moment: why did these folks gripe and complain about wanting bike lanes in their cities for safety purposes, and when the city installed them, instead they traveled to places where there are no bike lanes?)  Out in the country, we have two lane roads.  Most of them have no shoulder to speak of.  Furthermore, our folks drive around in tractors with equipment and trucks hauling trailers full of hay, cattle, or other such things.  Slowing down and stopping isn't easy, especially when the folks holding up traffic are traveling 10-15 mph down these roads.  And because of the curves and hills, you can't exactly just pass anytime you want.  When cyclists do such things, they don't only endanger themselves, but they endanger others on the road.  Plus, their cavalier attitude toward country folks has earned them the ire of folks around here.

In fact, generally good, solid, caring, compassionate people have their emotions take over to the point where they "wave" to bikers regularly--but they just don't use all their fingers.

I understand their anger.

I understand their frustration.

I understand exactly where they are coming from.

But now, I'm on the other side as well.  Not necessarily by my choosing.  My sciatic had something to do with it.  It started giving me all kinds of fits as I started incorporated running and jogging into my exercise routine.  So I had to start looking for something that was a little less stressful on my sciatic.  My brother-in-law had a bike he wasn't using, so I asked him if I could use it.  He readily agreed, and so I have begun.

There was only one car driving down the same road I biked on this morning.  I waved.  Not sure what the response was.  I can only say this: if you do come across me biking around Cat Spring, please know I am trying to follow all the rules of the road.  I do not wish to slow you down.  I want to use only a small portion of the road.  And if by chance you are forced to slow down because of me and you choose to "wave" at me, please at least remember why I am relegated to doing this and "wave" with a smile.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sermon Preached November 27, 2011: Advent 1

I understand Isaiah. I really, really do.

In the past few months things have been rather overwhelming at times. As I have contemplated all that is going on in the world, all that is going on in our community, and all that is going on in our church, I have often wondered why it seems that God sometimes seeks to remain silent or almost absent. I wonder why it seems like God refuses to answer our prayers. I have asked Him this numerous times and the silence is deafening.
Sometimes I even go so far as to say, "God, can you see what is happening in the world around us? Sure, I know the Church is thriving in Africa, in South America, and in Asia, but look around here in the U.S. Look at what is happening to most denominations. They are declining. Worship attendance is dropping. Polls show that even though most folks believe, they aren’t worshiping. Spirituality seems to be making a comeback, but people aren’t going to the church to find it. And interestingly enough, even though spirituality is on the increase, so is secularism. There has never been a time in our nation’s history when the numbers of atheists are so high. And what are you doing about it? Why won’t You reveal yourself in marvelous and mighty ways? Why won’t you make miracles happen like you did in the early church? Why don’t we see miraculous healings? Why don’t you defy the forecasters and make it rain buckets to fill all the ponds in those places that are suffering drought? Why don’t you show beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are real?"

Such thoughts are doubly on my lips when I have gone to see some of our congregations members who are suffering due to illness, stroke or surgery. Numerous times, I have walked into Memorial Children’s Hospital or Health Bridge Hospital to see Macie Gardner and thought, "Lord, imagine the response to you if Macie were miraculously healed. Imagine how folks would react to seeing her up and running again when the doctors have basically said she will be this way for the rest of her life. Can you imagine how many people would come to believe?" Or, similar thoughts entered into my mind when I went to see Anita Wolchik. "Lord, a stroke wiped out half of her brain. Can you imagine what people would say if you healed her so that she was talking normal, walking normal and even dancing again? Can you imagine how people would turn to you if such a thing would happen? It would be amazing. Your churches could experience a rebirth of sorts. They could once again be full and overflowing if you unleashed your Spirit of healing in such a manner. Why do you hold back?"

Compare these prayers with what Isaiah says, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence— 2as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. 5You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways." Very similar, is it not? Isaiah too cries out for God to reveal Himself. Isaiah remembers what God did in the past and how God revealed Himself to the world, and Isaiah wonders why God seems to be silent now.

The answer isn’t necessarily pretty. Isaiah continues, "But you were angry, and we sinned; because you hid yourself we transgressed. 6We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. 7There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity."

Isaiah isn’t pulling any punches here. He reflects deeply on the nature of God and the nature of people. When God didn’t seem to speak, people turned away. They transgressed, they stopped calling on His name, and they stopped trying to take hold of God. At their very core, people stopped believing God could or would do anything. They stopped believing He would assist them. They stopped believing God could act in the world. And when they ceased to believe, it was almost as form followed function, God ceased to act.

Now, this isn’t to say that our faith somehow manipulates God. It doesn’t. God does what God pleases, but sometimes I believe He has to teach us a lesson. That might sound a little callous, but let me illustrate it in this fashion. I’m going to pick on my kids a little bit right here because it has happened with each one of them. At some point and time, each of them has decided to get dressed on his or her own. Dawna or I will be in their room getting ready to help them put on a shirt or their pants or socks or what have you, and they will stop us. They’ll look us in the eye and say, "I can do it myself!" I can’t speak for my wife at this moment, but I personally always let them try. I sit back and watch, and sometimes it’s comical. My son recently tried to get a shirt on, and he contorted himself in about 50 different ways trying to get arms in sleeves and his head in the right hole. After a few moments of struggle, guess what he said? Yep, he said, "Help me." And I did. I wonder if there is a parallel in how we live our lives, or try to live our lives as though we don’t need God? Is there a lesson for us to learn here?

Perhaps so. Perhaps we too need to come to the place where Isaiah ends up in our Old Testament lesson this morning. He ends his thoughts with these words, "8Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. 9Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people." Isaiah turns to repentance. Isaiah returns to the place of submission to God. You are our Father. We are the clay. You are our potter. We are the work of your hand.

Now what does this mean for you and for me? What does this lead us to in the midst of our daily lives?
Just this: We are God’s projects in this world. God wants to continually mold us and make us into something special–something that shows His handiwork in this world. God wants to have His fingers in our lives tinkering with things and making us into the vision He has for us. But oftentimes, we are uncooperative. We want to do things our way. We want to call our own shots and do things the way we think they should be done. We want all the breaks to fall our way and have God cater to our whims. And when He doesn’t do it the way we think it should be done, we shirk God and do it ourselves.

Things might go O.K. for a time, but eventually, the bottom’s going to fall out. Eventually, we will hit a wall, and as is our nature, we will keep running into that wall over and over trying to break through. We’ll get frustrated enough to perhaps finally cry out, "O that you would rend the heavens and come down, Lord!"
But if we then take some time to be quiet, we might just hear Him reply, "My child, I am down here. I have wanted to mold you and make you into all that you could be. Yet, you turned away and tried to do it yourself. I will happily begin working again if you stop trying to do it all on your own and ask for my help. Do you want me to work on you? Do you want my help?"

Do you? Amen.

A Gentle Reminder from Mongolia

This was sent to me by our former director of music who joined the Peace Corps and is spending two years in Mongolia (reprinted by permission).  She was responding to my newsletter article which will appear below the note:

A Personal Note to Pastor Haug:

This is just a quick note to let you know that your newsletter has brought the first tears to my face since I have been in Mongolia. 
I am not sure if it is because this season is always so beautiful in your church or just because I am so far removed from the excitement....and a bit lonely....and saddened that the choirs (yes, even the bell choir!!) aren't a big part of the service. 
I agree wholeheartedly about your perspective on the commercialism of Christmas, but I really want  you to remind the congregation how truly blessed they are to have each other with whom they can worship together and sing the joys of Christ's Birth.
It is easy to be absent from church and the fellowship therein because in America reminders of Christianity are daily around us.
But, this Christmas there will be no reminders for me.  Yes, there is a church here and cell groups, but it is still a quiet religion.
For my whole life I took so much for granted in my Christian walk...the hymns, the Scriptures, the lessons to be learned.

Now I am seeking this on my own which is probably the most soul searching part of this Peace Corps experience to date.
God is here - I just struggle to share it with someone. 

My article:
What is God Calling Us to Do and Be?

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!

We will be singing those lines very soon. The Advent season is upon us in the church as we prepare for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas. But how often is this season joyful for us?

Honestly, in the coming weeks, we will be bombarded by all the advertisements, all the sales pitches, all the holiday commentary to ensure your Christmas is perfect, etc., etc., etc. And most of us will get caught up in the ensuing hustle and bustle until our nerves are frazzled, our wills are stretched, and we are only too happy for Christmas to come only once a year.

How has this holiday turned into such a thing? How has this hectic nature overwhelmed the joy of knowing Jesus came to earth? Is there anything we can do to bring that joy back?

Here’s one thing my wife and I did last year. Instead of asking all of our relatives and friends what they wanted or needed for Christmas (so that we could get them the "perfect" gift), Dawna and I jumped into the car and decided to walk through as many stores as we could. If we saw something that fit one of our loved ones and our pocketbooks, we would buy it.

And you know what, Christmas shopping became a joy! We didn’t feel any pressure to find the right things. Instead we could walk around and gaze at stuff. The right gifts just popped out at the right times. I’m actually looking forward to Christmas shopping again this year–as we should every year as we participate in the joy of the season.

What other creative ways can you see to help you turn this season into a season of joy instead of hecticness? How can your faith help transform the hustle and bustle into a time of peace and joy? Think about it, and then when you come to church on Christmas Eve and sing "Joy to the World!", you will really mean it!


Pastor Haug

Thursday, November 24, 2011

2011 Thanksgiving Sermon

Luke 17: 11-19
11On the way to Jerusalem Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee. 12As he entered a village, ten lepers approached him. Keeping their distance, 13they called out, saying, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" 14When he saw them, he said to them, "Go and show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were made clean. 15Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 16He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. And he was a Samaritan. 17Then Jesus asked, "Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? 18Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" 19Then he said to him, "Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well."
I’d like to begin my sermon by taking a verbal snapshot of a typical Thanksgiving. Of course, that snapshot doesn’t begin on Thanksgiving Day, it begins anywhere from a week to a couple of days before the actual holiday. And, of course, it begins in the grocery store. The designated shopper of the family has been given the requirement for procuring the ingredients for the Thanksgiving meal. Scrounging through the circulars, her or she has decided the local grocery store is the perfect place to buy everything–the deal on the turkey is especially amazing.

Arriving at the store, our designated shopper is amazed by all the cars. Looks like this will not be a simple trip, it’s shaping up to be a dogfight. Luckily a few carts are still available, so grabbing one, our shopper enters the fray. Up and down the aisles items are thrown into the cart at a reckless pace. Debates about brand names versus store brands are settled in one’s mind at a frantic pace. Yams, check. Green beans, check. Cornbread for stuffing, check. Cranberry sauce, check. Marinade for the turkey, check. And now it’s time to head for the meat department. Instructions are clear. At least a 14lb bird is required. Rounding the aisle, our shopper runs into mayhem. It seems like hundreds are gathered around the turkeys which are on sale. Taking a deep breath, our shopper wades into the scrum. Too small. Too big. That one’s not on sale. A perfect bird! Rats, that lady snatched it before it was grabbed. More digging. More failure. Suddenly, hope abounds, the butcher is arriving with more birds! Immediately, one is found that matches the correct measurements. Triumphant, our shopper returns to the basket. He looks at his watch and sighs, "Record time." Ah, but that was before heading toward the check out line. Oh, the lines. And of course, our shopper picks the slowest one. Topping it off, the little old lady in front of him has about a thousand coupons and decides to pay with a check! Oh, the indignity. Ah, but that’s not the worst of it, when the cashier finally tallies up the total...sticker shock! Worn out, our shopper heads back to the car to head home. The first battle is done, but this is only the beginning.

A couple of days later, the turkey having been put into the refrigerator and marinated, our chef awakens in the middle of the night. It’s time to put the turkey in the oven. A blissful night of sleep is interrupted, and it would be wonderful if our chef could have fallen right to sleep again. But, sleep does not come. Thoughts of the morning ahead begin rushing in. The ingredient list is poured over once again. Each item is checked off. Sighs of relief are heard. Planning of the use of the oven ensues. Will there be room enough in the oven for the turkey and the dressing and the green bean casserole? Will there be enough to feed the entire family, especially since Aunt June decided to come at the last minute? Will the kids cooperate so that the huge job of getting dinner ready can be completed? Tossing and turning ensues until fatigue finally takes over. But the reprieve is short lived. Sunlight streams through the window indicating it is time to arise.

Breakfast is handled, and then our chef goes into super-chef mode. Spinning round and round the kitchen, pies are thrown together. Yams are topped with marshmallows and baked. Green bean casserole is a success. The dressing is a little burned around the edges, but not too bad. The doorbell starts ringing and guests start arriving. The house turns into a madhouse as cousins run around yelling and playing. Adults raise their voices to be heard over the kids. The early football game begins, and the volume is raised to be heard over the kids and the talking. Of course, that makes everyone talk louder and yell louder to be heard. Chaos is fast becoming the norm. Suddenly, the bell chimes. The turkey is done! A masterpiece.

Our chef hounds her spouse and the kids to help set the table. They scurry around putting plates, silverware, and glasses into place. Guests wait impatiently smelling the smells–their taste buds watering. Finally, all is ready, and everyone sits down. Prayer. A few moments of silence to give thanks, and then chaos erupts again. Food is passed. A drink is spilled. Clean up is swift. Seconds are served. Kids jump up to play. Adults raise their voices. The television gets turned back on. In less than 15 minutes, a meal that took hours to prepare is devoured. But no rest for the weary. Cleaning up the table must take place.
Harried and worn, the dishwasher humming, our family sits down to watch the games on t.v. But their respite is short lived. The local chain store is having an afternoon sale. The bargains are too good to be true. Thanksgiving must shift to Christmas immediately. Time to prepare and get there before the crowds. No time for a nap. No time to see who wins. Go! Go! Go!

And crowds get fought. Items get bought. Life continues on at warp speed. Is it any wonder why some people dread the holidays?

In our Gospel lesson this evening nine lepers got caught up in the busy-ness of life. Nine lepers became so overwhelmed with the thoughts of what they were going to do because they were now clean that they took off to return to their families and friends. Nine lepers became overwhelmed by all the stuff they wanted and needed to do that they just kept going.

But one stopped. One paused. One took time to think and reflect about what had just happened to him. One realized the nature of the healing he had experienced. One realized the gift of healing that had happened and the source of that gift. One put all of his wants, all of his desires, all of his perceived needs on hold to fulfill the one true need which beckoned. He needed to place himself at the feet of Jesus and say, "Thank you."

He let the other nine go on their way, oblivious to their laughter, oblivious to their cat calls, oblivious to their commentary of what they would do when they got to their homes. Rather than give into what the group said he should do, he took moments which were precious to him and returned to kneel before the one who had restored him to health and to his community.

And Jesus blessed him once more by proclaiming, "Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well."

Is there a lesson we can learn here? Is there a point to this story of thanksgiving as we get ready for Thanksgiving tomorrow? Perhaps there is. For how many of us will be tempted by the busy-ness of the day? How many of us will be tempted to push ourselves through to jump from cooking, to cleaning, to watching games, to shopping without a moment’s rest? How many of us will buy into the group think which says, move fast so that you don’t miss anything?

And how many of us will really and truly pause? How many of us will really and truly think about the gifts we have been given: of breath, of life, of love, of hope, of material possessions, of family, of friends, of grace, of mercy, of compassion? How many of us will recognize the real giver of these gifts? And how many of us will take the time to stop, to turn to him, to kneel at His feet and say, "Thanks."? My hope and my prayer is that it will be all of us. Amen.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Justifying the Decline

A friend posted a link to this on Facebook:

There are some places I absolutely agree.  Especially this:

Sentimentality and pragmatism are the one-two punch which has the American Church on the ropes, while a generation of church leaders acquiesces to the demands of our consumer culture. The demands are simple: tell me something that will make me feel better (sentimentality for the churchgoer), and tell me something that will work (pragmatism for the church leader). Yet it is not clear how either one of those are part of what it means to be the church.
Feel good Christianity certainly isn't the pathway Jesus taught.  Church growth for the sake of growth certainly isn't the path of Christ either.  But Mr. Suttle does get a little bit off base.

The fundamental problem with the one-two punch of sentimentality and pragmatism is, of course, the church's job is not to affirm people's lives, but to allow the gospel to continually call our lives into question. The church's job is not to grow -- not even to survive. The church's job is to die -- continually -- on behalf of the world, believing that with every death there is a resurrection. God's part is to grow whatever God wishes to grow. Growing a church isn't hard ... being faithful as the church, that's a different story.
Number one, the Church's job is to fulfill the Great Commission found in Matthew 28: to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.  The grace portion of the Great Commission indeed affirms peoples' lives, but there is also a call to transformation--to discipleship--to be covered in the dust of our Rabbi, to coin a phrase used by Rob Bell. 

What Mr. Suttle misses in his little diatribe is number two: a congregation engaged in doing number one does not die, at least numerically.  Of course, it does die figuratively.  It dies to self.  It dies to self-interest.  It dies to the "what's-in-it-for-me" attitude.  These things are not resurrected.  They are battled against continually as God molds us into a new creation--those who imitate Him and are Christ's body in the world.

Suttle argues that this faithfulness leads to shrinkage:

Convincing the church she does not exist for the benefit of her members, but for the life of the world is a bad church growth strategy. It's also exactly what the church must do. It's a tough sell because crucifixion seems like a losing strategy unless you believe in the resurrection. Faithfulness seems like a losing strategy unless you believe that the power of the gospel trumps our ability to come up with all the right answers to all the right questions.

So, God save us from the successful church. Give us churches who shun sentimentality and pragmatism and aren't afraid to face the inevitable shrinkage which comes as a result of following Jesus. God save us from church leadership strategies. After all, it takes zero faith to follow a strategy, but incredible faith to pursue the kingdom of God and leave the rest in God's hands. If I've learned anything as a pastor, it is this: faithfulness flies in the face of sentimentality and pragmatism, and if you pursue it you have to expect small numbers.
Here is my rebuttal:

37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ 38Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.’ 40And he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ 41So those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. 42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  --Acts 2:37-42 (The Day of Pentecost)

Authentic teaching of Christ crucified.

Led by the Spirit of God.

Equals numerical shrinkage?

I don't think so.

Mr. Suttle's diatribe is simply Prozac for those denominations who are in decline.  It's disguising a failure to follow Jesus' Great Commission by self-justification.  "We're not growing because we're being faithful."  I call BS!

Black Fri..., no Thurs..., no Monda...Uh, What?

Ah, here we go.

Thanksgiving week. 

Cue the requisite build up to the Christmas shopping season.

I can't tell you how many stories I've already seen harping on how best to get the Black Friday deals--ahead of time.

"Some Stores Already Running Black Friday Specials"

"Buy Online, and Get Black Friday Prices a Week Early"

"Stores Opening on Thursday to Entice Black Friday Shoppers"

Good grief!

How long before we're bombarded with videos of people trampling one another heading into stores?  (Hint, wait until midnight on Thursday.  I'm sure we'll see at least one posted on the Drudge Report.)

It's almost enough to make one have a Lee Corso moment.
Oh that most of us would just throw up our hands and let such things go.  I mean, it's nothing more than blatant consumerism and greed trying to get us to buy more, spend more, and procure more than we really and truly need.

Me.  I'll take a raincheck.  I'm going to enjoy Thanksgiving Day with my family.  I'm going to sleep in on "Black Friday"--or at least as long as my children will let me.  I think I'll take them to a park, weather permitting, and I think I'll avoid the shopping centers like the plague.  I don't need to be a part of those mass mobs.  I don't need to be a part of getting the best deal.

I'd rather be a part of getting the most quality time with my family.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On the Infallibility of Scripture

In my various ruminations this morning, my thoughts turned to the concept of the infallibility of scripture once again.  More than a few folks I know, including many of my college and seminary professors, cringed at those who said the Bible was inerrant and infallible.

I'll concede the inerrant part.  There are more than a few verses in the text which are contradictory.  I also know that in the earliest manuscripts, there is error--even in just a word or two--from one manuscript to another.  Perhaps at one time there existed a "perfect" manuscript, but one does not exist today.  Furthermore, there is error in translation.  Anyone who has studied Greek and Hebrew knows this.  So, the idea the Bible is completely inerrant does not compute.  And I don't believe it has to.

But infallibility is another issue completely.  I have blogged about this before arguing the Bible can be seen as infallible.  I used Timothy Keller's argument from his book A Reason for God as my basis.  And, of course, as a reminder, the definition I and Keller use for infallible is, "incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith and morals."

As I reflected upon this issue further this morning, I began to ask my colleagues (imaginatively, of course), if Scripture is fallible, then what is capable of defining doctrines touching faith and morals?  Is there some other source to turn to?

First, let's tackle the argument.  We Lutherans like to refer to Martin Luther's statement, "The Bible is the cradle that holds Christ."

Imaginary Professor (IP): I don't worship the cradle, I worship the Christ the cradle holds.

Me: Granted, but how do you know what the Christ is like without the cradle?

IP: The Spirit leads me to know what the Christ is like.

Me: Granted, but how do you know it's God's Spirit and not your own thoughts?

IP: I live in a community of faith that helps me discern what is true about Christ through that same Spirit.

Me: And communities have never been led astray?  Communities have never gotten it wrong?

IP: Well, of course they have, but there is a tradition of interpretation the Church has held to.

Me: And so challenging that tradition is wrong?

IP: Well, no.  Luther challenged that tradition, and sometimes we must because the tradition can go astray.

Me: On what basis do we challenge that tradition?  Our own thoughts and understandings?

IP: No, our thoughts and understandings can go off base. After all, we are sinful.

Me: So, again, on what basis do we challenge tradition?

IP: If tradition moves away from the teachings and person of Jesus.

Me: And how do you know the teachings and person of Jesus?

IP: The Spirit drives me to them.

Me: And where do you find them?

IP: The Bible.

Me: And why should the Bible be authoritative if it's not infallible?  If the Bible is capable of leading us astray in matters of doctrine and morality, who cares about what it says at all?

Keller sums his chapter on "You Can't Take the Bible Literally" in this fashion:

If you don't trust the Bible enough to let it challenge and correct your thinking, how could you ever have a personal relationship with God?  In any truly personal relationship, the other person has to be able to contradict you.  For example, if a wife is not allowed to contradict her husband, they won't have an intimate relationship.  Remember the (two!) movies The Stepford Wives?  The husbands of Stepford, Connecticut, decide to have their wives turned into robots who never cross the wills of their husbands.  A Stepford wife was wonderfully compliant an beautiful, but no one would describe such a marriage as intimate or personal.

Now, what happens if you eliminate anything from the Bible that offends your sensibility and crosses your will?  If you pick and choose what you want to believe and reject the rest, how will you ever have a God who can contradict you?  You won't!  You'll have a Stepford God!  A God, essentially, of your own making, and not a God with whom you can have a relationship and genuine interaction.  Only if your God can say things that outrage you and make you struggle (as in a real friendship or marriage!) will you know that you have gotten hold of a real God and not a figment of your imagination.  So an authoritative Bible is not the enemy of a personal relationship with God.  It is the precondition of it.  --Timothy Keller, The Reason for God pp.113-114

Monday, November 21, 2011

Time to Change it Up

I've written about my walking/running in this blog previously and how I have added running to help increase my metabolism and burn off that nasty bit of spare tire that clings with all its might to my midsection.  Things have been going very well.

Until now.

I've hit a roadblock.  Well, maybe not a road block per se.  But I have met my match when it comes to playing through the pain.  After several weeks of running, my sciatic nerve decided to flare up.  My wife even commented she could tell it was causing me grief in the way I was walking.  In previous years, such pains were quick to go away, but when the pain lasted over four days this time, I knew rest was much needed.

And a change in method.

I'm not going to stop my aerobic exercising.  Weightlifting and toning only get you so far.  To stay on task, I've got to keep doing something, and in this case, it means changing things up.

Looks like I'll be dusting off the exercycle I bought several years ago.  It's not my favorite form of exercise.  I don't like looking at the t.v. or four walls for an extended period of time, but it's my next best (see cheapest) option.

I'll give it a few weeks and see how walking/running goes again.  But, for the moment, it's necessary.

I have also learned that such change is good for one's prayer life and discipleship as well.  The same methods only take you so far in growth.  After practicing them for a time, staleness sets in.  Growth slows.  It's time to change it up.

Instead of meditating for 20 minutes, try study.

Instead of reading 20 minutes, try silence.

Instead of structured prayer time, be spontaneous.

Instead of speaking to God, try listening.

Change it up.

See what happens.

You might find it to be healing.

You might find it to be inspiring.

You might find it helpful once you return to that which you were doing habitually.

Who knows?

You won't until you try. 

Friday, November 18, 2011

What Is the Point?

Yesterday, I posted about being thankful and the Christian's calling to do so at all times.

However, even though it is our calling, it's much easier to say than it is to do.  For instance, in my friend Vimean's post, can you imagine telling her to be thankful as she was crying herself on the floor while her stomach screamed for food?  Sure, you could tell her, "Be thankful that the Khmer Rouge hasn't killed you yet.  Be thankful you have a roof over your head."  These are things to be thankful for, but in the midst of suffering, thankfulness is driven far from your thoughts.

When suffering one's self; when watching a loved one suffer; when thinking of the millions who suffer on this planet on a daily basis, one gets consumed with the situation.  It grows on you.  It tears at your emotional core.  It sucks the life out of you.  It leads you to that point where, like my friend on Facebook, you ask, "What is the point?"

Brian, I wish I could have the ultimate answer to that question.  If I had that answer, I would probably be on the lecture circuit right now asking for more than Al Gore to give out the answers.  Thousands of books have been written on the subject, and despite all these books and the combined IQ's of those who have written them, we still seek the answers.

What is the point to your daughter having the irregular heartbeat, which led to the seizure, which led to her heart attack?

What is the point of her lying in PICU for a month?

What is the point of her losing her cognitive portion of her brain?

What is the point of her undergoing surgery to aid her stiffness only to contract meningitis and have the pump removed?

What is the point of hearing that her brain has shrunk and the only activity seems to be in the stem?

What is the point of one step forward and then several steps backward?

I wish the answer was clear.  I wish I could give it to you and ease all of your and Keili's questions.  I wish I could resolve the matter for you so that you could ultimately be at peace without worries about what might or might not happen in your future.

But I cannot.  My sight is far too limited, and that is one of the problems we face as human beings.  Our perspective is far too limited.

St. Paul wrote about this in the great love chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13.  He says in verse 12, "12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."

We can't see the fullness of the answers.  So what is the point?  Notice Paul says we see in a mirror dimly.  We can't see clearly, but as Christians, we know something is there.  But the question is, "What?"

We begin to get the answer in Jesus.  For if there was a  person on this planet who least deserved suffering, it was Him.  He did all the right things.  He loved God perfectly.  He committed every good deed imaginable.  He taught the Truth.  And despite all those things, He was betrayed, arrested, tortured, beaten, unjustly condemned, and crucified (you could call that murder, if you like).  Yes, He died for our sins, but did He have to die in such a fashion?  Did He have to suffer? 

In a word, yes.  He had to suffer to show that He was not above our experiences.  He had to suffer to show that God understands our plight.  God understands what it means to lose a child.  God understands what it means to watch a child undergo tremendous pain at the hands of others.  God knows what it means to watch His Child undergo every parent's nightmare.  God is not above our experiences.  He knows them fully.

But this isn't quite getting us to see what's in that mirror yet.  For if God suffers with us, that can be small consolation.  The end result is much more satisfying.  For Jesus' story doesn't end with the crucifixion.  It ends with resurrection.  The final word in the story is a very, very good one.  The final word is new life.  Death does not have the last word.  Evil does not have the last word.  Suffering does not have the last word.  God does.  Every time.  That's the Truth.

But what is God's last word in the case of Macie? 

I don't know.  I can't ultimately see what it is.  None of us can.  But if we trust God, we know it will be there.  Even if the worst should come to pass, God will make things right in His time. 

If this is the case for us, what does that mean?  How are we supposed to respond?  Again, I turn to St. Paul this time the 5th Chapter of the Book of Romans verses 1-5:

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Suffering builds our endurance, which builds our character, which leads us to hope, and I believe that our calling is to hang on, stubbornly, tenaciously, with reckless abandon to that hope. 

This doesn't mean we don't cry out, "What's the point?!"  This doesn't mean we don't get angry.  This doesn't mean we don't kick a wall or two.  This doesn't mean we don't shed tears or get upset.  We need to do such things as we deal with our emotions and our frustrations.  You can't keep such things pent up inside.

But, we do these things knowing there is something in that mirror.  There is something that beckons us.  And that something is good.  Without that something, there is no point.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Putting Things into Perspective: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is next week.

I'm looking forward to more of a relaxed week at work even if it means adding one more worship service into the schedule.  My kids have the entire week off from school.  My wife will take them to spend a couple of days with Grandma and Grandpa while I batch it for a couple of days.  Then, they will return for Thanksgiving Eve service, and then we'll head to Nona and Grumpy's for Thanksgiving day.

It's a shame that we have to set aside one day to remember to give thanks.  Thankfulness is actually a quality to be cultivated and practiced on a daily basis by those of us who are Christian.  St. Paul says so.

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. --Philippians 4:6

And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. --Colossians 3:17

16Rejoice always, 17pray without ceasing, 18give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. --1 Thessalonians 5: 16-18

Unfortunately, most of the time our attitudes do not reflect this air of thanksgiving.  Most of the time, we complain.  About the weather (God, will you finally send us some rain?), about the gap between rich and poor (It's not fair that they have so much!), about politics (Vote those turkeys out of office!), about the busy-ness in our lives (I have so much to do and not enough time to do it!)  BTW: The word "no" is in the English language for a reason.  About people not having respect, taking responsibity, parenting correctly, abusing freedom, or what have you.  About us destoying the planet.  Need I go on?

Now, don't get me wrong.  I know each and every one of us has a burden to bear.  Some are heavier than others.  We need some time to let things out, and we need help from time to time.  But, come on, folks!  The majority of folks who read this blog, myself included, have a roof over our heads, food on the table, and more stuff than we actually need.  Why do we spend an incessant amount of time complaining about things?

I got my reminder of this from a high school friend on Facebook.  She posted the following (reprinted with permission):

I guess it that time of the month that we r thankful for: I am thankful that I survived the Khmer Rouge kill spree. I am thankful for that I am still alive for being in the Vietnam War. I am thankful that my refreigerator is full of foods (I remember when I was a child during the war I would sit I cry cause until I fall asleep cause there were not food to eat...) I am thankful for our sponsor Sister Teresa Catholic Organization for bring our family here the land of opportunity (USA). I am thankful that I got my educations from Odem School (1-12 grades I couldn't even speak one word of English) ....

I hope it puts things into perspective for you as well.  Thanks Vimean for really giving me a perspective this Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

A Lesson on Practicing the Disciplines from Jurassic Park

"I will tell you what I am talking about," he said. "Most kinds of power require a substantial sacrifice by whoever wants the power. There is an apprenticeship, a discipline lasting many years. Whatever kind of power you want. President of the company. Black belt in karate. Spiritual guru. Whatever it is you seek, you have to put in the time, the practice, the effort. You must give up a lot to get it. It has to be very important to you. And once you have attained it, it is your power, It can’t be given away: it resides in you. It is literally the result of your discipline.
"Now, what is interesting about this process is that, by the time someone has acquired the ability to kill with his bare hands, he has also matured to the point where he won’t use it unwisely. So that kind of power has a built-in control. The discipline of getting the power changes you so that you won’t abuse it."

1. Crichton, Michael. Jurassic Park World. © 1995; Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. New York. p. 315.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Sermon Delivered November 13, 2011: Getting Ready for Jesus' Return

I’d actually like to begin my sermon this morning by reading some of Jesus prophesies about the end of the world. If you would like to follow along, please open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 24 beginning in verse 3. It’s found on page ___ in the New Testament section of that little red book in your pews. Here’s what Jesus says:

3When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" 4Jesus answered them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. 5For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Messiah!’ and they will lead many astray. 6And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: 8all this is but the beginning of the birthpangs. 9"Then they will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name. 10Then many will fall away, and they will betray one another and hate one another. 11And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold. 13But the one who endures to the end will be saved.
Now, Jesus does say a few more things, but I’m going to stop right here because just recently I’ve been asked about all the stuff going on in the world. Certainly, there have been more than a few earthquakes that have grabbed our attention. It seems like they have been more and more numerous lately. Even the state of Texas and our neighbor Oklahoma have experienced earthquakes–a very, very rare thing.

There is also much to be said about political unrest throughout the world. Rumors are swirling right now about Israel and Iran particularly since a group has said that some of the testing Iran is doing right now could only be in building nuclear weapons. Tensions are high with the rumors of war and that Israel will strike unilaterally to protect itself. Not only is this military situation rattling things around, but the global economy is still on shaky ground. For the moment, the Greek currency issue seems to be settled; however all eyes are now turning to Italy which seems to be in just as bad or worse shape than Greece. The stock market even took a major tumble mid-week over fears in that area of the world.

Unfortunately, it’s been shoved into the background of stories, but there is a major famine because of drought in Africa right now as well. The La Nina weather pattern has not only affected us with little rainfall, it has majorly affected them as well. Fortunately for us, many here have branched out into other areas besides farming and ranching and have survived the loss of herds and crops. Not so in Africa. When crops there fail, people starve. And that’s exactly what is happening now. Furthermore, other weather phenomena have grabbed our attentions. Spring thunderstorms produced major outbreaks of tornadoes which destroyed large portions of towns and cities in the eastern part of the U.S. A giant winter storm, one of historical proportions hit Alaska just the other day.

And it could be argued that in our midst, we have many false prophets trying to lead us astray. In a world full of relativity and a lack of understood and agreed upon truth, just about anything goes. If you don’t agree with something I say in a sermon, you can either turn on the television or click a few times on the internet and find someone who agrees just like you do and who offers all sorts of proof why I am wrong and they are right.
And just for truth’s sake, I do the same thing to those I disagree with. The real question is, which of us is indeed telling the truth and which of us is trying to lead you astray? Just to set the record straight: I am never trying to intentionally lead you astray. It is my purpose to point you toward Jesus and see that you have a personal, life-changing meeting with Him.

But that’s a personal note. What isn’t so personal is all the stuff that is happening around us. Lots of stuff is going on, and when we look at all of it there are some striking similarities between these things and what Jesus talks about here in the book of Matthew. And, of course, when we look at the similarities some folks begin wondering: is this it? Is this the beginning of the birth pangs? Is Jesus getting ready to return?

Well, maybe. But in reality, we just don’t know. I mean, read through the rest of Matthew and Mark and Luke and you will find that we don’t exactly know when Jesus is returning. Despite what Harold Camping and other fortune tellers who have set the exact date of when Jesus will return tell us, the Bible gives us no firm time table for the end of days. Furthermore, I’d also state that there have always been earthquakes.
There has always been political upheaval. There has always been economic turmoil. There have always been severe weather phenomena. We just have the capability of having it broadcast into our homes and on our computers 24 hours a day and seven days a week. So, maybe what is going on is just what has always gone on, but we just have more access to it.

But! But what if these indeed are the beginning of the birth pangs Jesus spoke of? What if this is a foretaste of the events that will hearken the return of Jesus? What are we called to do in this situation?

Well, hopefully, as good Lutheran Christians, you follow in the footsteps of the founder of our particular branch of Christianity. Hopefully, you realize there is no need to panic. There is no need to sell off all your possessions. There is no need to clothe yourself in a white robe, find the nearest hill, and sing Kum By Yah. As people who believe we are saved by grace through faith, we are already prepared for the return of Jesus.
Our salvation is secure because the Holy Spirit has called us through the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts and sanctified and preserved us in the true faith. God’s grace is sufficient for us, and we can continue on with our daily lives as we live out our callings each and every day.

Paul echoes these sentiments in our second lesson today from the book of 1 Thessalonians. He says, " 5for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. 6So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober; 7for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night. 8But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. 9For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, 10who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him."

Those last two verses are such beautiful passages. "For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with Him." This is the promise we can hold onto even in the midst of all the things happening in the world. Our salvation is secure, so we have no need to worry.

But, please take a moment to see where our second lesson ends today, because not only does Paul comfort us with the knowledge that we are indeed safe and secure in our salvation, he also gives us instructions in what we are called to do in the mean time.

Paul says, "Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing." Ah, what a difficult thing to follow. For how easy is it for us to build up each other? How easy is it for us to strive to strengthen one another? Isn’t it much easier to complain? Isn’t it much easier to point our fingers and talk about how someone is or isn’t doing what is right, isn’t taking responsibility, isn’t caring, or giving, or following what the Bible says? Of course it is. It’s much easier to do such things and point out another’s faults. But what if one’s faults were diminished over time by helping that person build up his or her strengths? What if in encouraging one another and building one another up, we actually overcome our weaknesses? What if by encouraging one another and building up one another, we become less and less affected by the nastiness that goes on around us and we become closer and closer to the One who made us and who will save us? What if Christians around the world started focusing more on building one another up instead of tearing one another down? Do you think it might help everyone be prepared for Christ’s return? Amen.

Monday, November 14, 2011

On Suicide

This post is in response to one of my high school friends who asked me this on Facebook:

Hi Kevin! I have a question for you. Someone I love very much committed suicide 8 years ago today. I pray for him all the time and his parents. He was their only son and I'm always concerned for them. My question is if you pray for forgiveness for his soul will he be saved? I know suicide is unforgiveable but the thought of him not being at peace tears me up inside. Please tell me the truth! Thanks.

Thank you for asking me about this, Gina.  The subject of suicide can be tough for many especially if one is a person of faith.

And speaking of faith, perhaps I should begin by letting you know that I approach faith from a Lutheran-Christian perspective.  There is a big difference between how we interpret and understand things than say a Roman Catholic, a Baptist, a Pentecostal, etc.  Therefore, I will be coming at these questions from my faith--which will give you a very different answer than from a priest or from a "brother" who preaches.

The lens that governs much Lutheran-Christian thought is that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus and by no work of our own.  There is nothing we can do that will earn our salvation.  It comes only through the mercy, love, and forgiveness given by Christ himself.

Therefore, your prayers, in my understanding, have no effect what-so-ever on your friend's soul.  God has already judged him.  We don't believe in Purgatory or some sort of holding station where souls are purified.  We believe God handles all that stuff immediately.

That could potentially be bad news in your eyes.  I mean, what hope would your friend then have if suicide was, in your words, unforgiveable?

But, here is the good news.  As we read through scripture, we see that there is only one unforgiveable sin--the sin against the Holy Spirit.  Matthew 12:32, "Whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come."

What is this sin?  There is no definitive verse in Scripture which says, "The sin against the Holy Spirit is a, b, c, or d."  Therefore, we must discern what that sin is.  The Lutheran tradition has held that since it is only by the Holy Spirit that we can say, "Jesus is Lord" (1 Corinthians 12:3), then the unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit is the rejection of Christ as Lord.  If we are right, then suicide certainly is a forgiveable sin.

Now, why would we say such a thing?  We know now that nearly everyone who commits suicide suffers from severe depression.  It has driven them to a place of despair and hopelessness.  It has caused them to turn so deeply within themselves, they can see nothing but darkness.  Unable to see any hope or light, death becomes their way of release.  In short, the disease killed the person, just like cancer, or heart disease, or diabetes, etc.  Do we say that such people are unforgiven when they die of such disease?  How many folks have you heard say, "This person is rotting in hell because he smoked for 30 years and got lung cancer."  or "This person is rotting in hell because she died from diabetes and refused to stop eating sweets."?  We don't blame the person, we blame the disease for the death.  Why don't we blame depression for those who commit suicide?

Furthermore, we also need to take a look at the nature and character of God.  What is God's nature of forgiveness?  Perhaps at this point, I will add a sermon that I preached a couple years ago at a funeral for one of my congregation members who committed suicide.  I hope all this stuff helps, Gina.  You gave me a difficult topic to address in such a short amount of space.  Thanks again for asking.

(sermon begins)

It’s such a small word in the English language. It’s only made up of three letters: W, H, and Y. Yet, when you put those three letters together in front of a sentence, that one little word can cause the human mind to race and do flips as it tries to figure things out. The word is why, and if you are like me, you have asked that question many, many times in the last few days as you have contemplated the news that we received early Tuesday morning. Why?

It’s an honest question. It’s a question that we would like an answer to because no one that I knew saw this coming. No one that I visited with ever thought that Les would do what he did. Why?

I mean, those who knew Les knew him to be somewhat of a loner, but he was a loner who always seemed calm and relaxed. Although he was an introvert, he enjoyed helping people. To give you a glimpse of Les’ character, I’d like to share with you a story that Margie told me of one of their earliest dates. If I remember correctly, Margie, you said that the two of you had been dating for about three weeks when he invited you to go along with him to a company banquet. Margie, of course, was very excited about this prospect, and she busied herself getting ready trying to find the perfect dress and make sure she looked good. But, when she got to the banquet with Les, she found herself in somewhat of a state of shock because she didn’t expect to see what she saw. At the banquet were several hundred people who were disadvantaged in one way or another. They were missing limbs or blind. At the table of ten at which she and Les sat, there were only two people capable of using the full compliment of silverware: her and Les. One man had no arms and ate using his mouth. Margie was shocked, but her shock turned into admiration when she realized that many of those who attended that banquet that evening were people that Les had helped. They were people who Les worked with to help them become productive members of society when society might have turned their backs upon them because of their disabilities. To quote Margie, "If you don’t think that wasn’t a life changing experience, I don’t know what would be."

But that was the person Les was, one who enjoyed helping others. Even after he retired, he continued to do this. He looked after his mother and called her constantly before she died in October of last year. He traveled almost daily to Cat Spring to check on Margie’s mother Tekla. He had begun volunteering in the hospital working at the popcorn machine to raise scholarship money. Yet despite all of this, despite his reaching out to help others, Les began to suffer severely from depression. No matter what Margie or anyone else did, this disease began to eat at him from within. He couldn’t break out of it. Why?

It’s frustrating because there isn’t any good answer. It’s frustrating because we want one. We want to be able to say with confidence that we understand and that we know, but we can’t. We are left with only one answer, and an unsatisfactory one at that: we don’t know. Margie even told me on the phone the other day that they joked about ordering t-shirts that read, "No, I don’t know." And I wish I could stand before you this afternoon with words of wisdom that would clear everything up for you as well. I wish I could give you the magic answer that would bring about a resolution to the struggle that many of us here today feel as we wrestle with that question of, "Why?". But I don’t have that answer. I don’t know either. I don’t know why Les did what he did, and I don’t know why he couldn’t break out of the depression that he suffered that ultimately claimed his life. I’m in the same boat that you are in. I have to wrestle with it as well, but if you will allow me, I would like to share with you something this afternoon that helps me in the midst of my wrestling. I would like to share with you something that gives me comfort in the midst of my unknowing.

We actually heard the words a little bit earlier when we read from the 8th chapter of the book of Romans. Please hear them again. St. Paul writes, "What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?" "No," Paul says. "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."

Did you catch those words? Did you catch what Paul said? Did you catch it when he said that nothing, not a single thing in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?

One of the things that I believe with all of my heart is that God’s love surpasses anything that I can ever imagine. God’s love is greater than the greatest love than I could ever have. And despite what this world can throw at me, I have the confidence that God will never leave me alone. God will always be there, steadfastly and stubbornly, even when I try to get away from Him. God’s love through Jesus Christ will never leave us or forsake us: even though we walk through the darkest valley.

And Les walked through that dark valley. Les walked through the valley of depression, and that valley is very, very dark. That darkness eventually swallowed him up and did not allow him to see any light what-so-ever. It became so dark for Les that he couldn’t see any hope despite what others around him tried to do for him. And unfortunately, that darkness became so bitter, that it caused Les to do the unthinkable. But even though Les lost hope, God did not lose Les. See, God claimed Les long ago at Les’ baptism. Les was a child of God, and God does not let go of His children easily or willingly. And even though the depression consumed Les, God was greater than that depression. Just as God triumphed over the darkness of His Son’s crucifixion by shedding the light of the resurrection, God has triumphed over the darkness of Les’ depression, and now Les is with God being bathed in glorious light. Why? Well, what do you know, I finally have an answer for that one: because nothing can separate us from God’s love through Jesus Christ.

And this is the hope that we now hold onto today as we gather. We hold onto the hope that in the midst of our questioning, in the midst of our asking why, in the midst of our inability to find answers, in the midst of our grief, God is with us as well. God’s presence is an ever present support upholding us and reminding us that we too are children of God. We too share in the promise of eternal life. We too can have some bit of certainty in an uncertain world. And when we leave this world, we can believe that we will go the homes that Christ himself has prepared for us, where we will be reunited with those we love. Today, we gather asking why and not knowing, but on that day we will know, when we see our brother Les and our Father God face to face. Amen.

(end sermon)

Gina, if your friend was a Christian, I'd be able to rework this sermon, change out the activities he did with the things my member did, and replace Les's name with his.  That's how confident I am in God's love and Christ's forgiveness.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A Few Thoughts Come Together

This morning on my daily walk/jog, several thoughts started coming together:

1) In my Sunday morning adult Bible study, we talked earnestly of the seeming deterrioration of respect in society--even within the church.  Some of the conversation even drifted into the realm of what people wear to church.  A couple of folks argued that wearing short shorts and other assundry items was a sign of disrespect toward God.  Of course, descriptions and examples of the problem were long and answers were short.

2) I've been engaged with a woman named Kathy for quite some time regarding the differences between Lutherans and Catholics and the brokenness of the Church--so many denominations with Christians attacking Christians over doctrinal issues.  And, of course, all this brokenness must be set in contrast to Jesus' praying that His followers be one (John 17).

These two issues began weaving themselves together as I thought about how to address them.  How does one teach respect to others?  Doesn't one first have to earn that respect?  And how do we get along with one another within the body of Christ when we have very different understandings of what it means to respect our heavenly Father?  I mean, in my own personal understanding, I'd rather have a congregation full of men wearing tank-tops with body piercings and tatoos sitting next to women who are wearing short shorts, heavy make up, and sports shirts who genuinely gather to worship the Lord "with all their hearts and all their souls and all their minds and all their strength," who give generously, and who seek to take their faith out into the world than a congregation filled with men in three piece suits and women in long dresses with perfect hair and expensive accessories who worship to be seen, who give out of their abundance, and who spend time criticizing others instead of showing the love of Jesus Christ.  To ask a question by that same Jesus Christ, "Who did (is doing) the will of the Father?" (Matthew 21:31)

And: how do we get along with our fellow brothers and sisters when we have so many different doctrinal understandings?  How do we stay true to our identity and our concepts of what it means to follow Christ in the truth without demeaning our brothers and sisters in the Body who believe they too have the truth?  And is it possible to use the example of the Holy Trinity--the Three in One and One in Three--to use as a model of how different denominations can get along with one another?  And I ask that question not in the theoretical sense, but in the practical sense?

As these thoughts and questions ruminated in my mind, a particular passage jumped into the forefront of my thoughts.  For, you see, even when Jesus gathered His disciples together, they were not all of one accord.  They were not completely united.  They too wanted power and position and status.  They too wanted to be closer to the Truth.  They too wanted to be in a place where they could lord it over others.

35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” 41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.  (Mark 10:35-41)

Even within the ranks of the disciples, there was division.  There was tension.  There was the idea I could be in a higher position than everyone else.  This led to anger--much like some of the anger and derisiveness we see between denominations.

However, Jesus didn't let such things stop here.  He interceded:

42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Hmmm.  Think about this teaching in a practical manner when it comes to teaching respect of God to others.  Think about this teachign in a practical manner when it comes to denominational relations.  There is no need for us to set aside our arguments for the truth, but we must argue with the utmost of humility recognizing our need for service to others, and it is with our service to others that we can build bonds of relationship toward teaching respect, honesty, compassion, kindness, caring, etc. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


For just over a month, I have been training.  Not for anything in particular, but working on shaping and sculpting my body.

It all began with the purchase of my Halloween Costume: Thor.

I wanted to actually fill it out like Chris Hemsworth in the movie, but I fell a little short.  I did manage to increase my bicep size about an inch and lose a couple of inches in the waist, but as far as getting to where I really stood out: no dice.

But, that made me even more determined for next year.  See, I'm a superhero freak, and I want to do Captain America next year.  Captain America is pretty buff too, so I am training.

I discovered through a Yahoo! News Story a rather good cardio/toning routine that I have implemented three days a week.  Start with one squat (no weights) and then do 10 push ups.  Begin increasing squats and decreasing push ups by one until you do 10 squats and one push up.  It's tougher than you think and good cardio and toning.  But personally, I know it's not going to get me where I need to go.  So, I'm also working arm curls heavily three days a week as well to build the biceps.  That's fun stuff right there.

And I know by working on toning and sculpting and increasing my protein intake and reducing my carbohydrate intake, things will eventually happen.  But, I don't want to wait forever.  I want to get rid of that little spare tire that is a persistent booger around my midsection.

So, I'm working cardio five days a week.  First, I started with simply walking three miles a day.  But, I know that doing that will only get me so far.  It will only increase my metabolism so much.  To really get the heart going and the fat melting, I knew I had to do more, even though it pained me to think about it.  I knew I needed to incorporate some running/jogging.  And so I have.  For just about a month now, I've been incorporating interval running for a mile and a half of my workout.  Now, some who read this might scoff at that, but for someone like me who absolutely hates running, it's a big deal.  And every time I think about passing on the running part, I remember my goals.  I press on.  I know in order to get where I am going, it's going to cause me pain and hurt.  In order to transform my body, there will be pain associated with it.

In many ways, this is also teaching me a lesson in discipleship.  For to be a disciple of Jesus involves further transformation of the body, soul, and mind.  There are activities that are done to strenthen one's ability to be a disicple, and they too come with pain.  Fasting brings hunger.  Confession brings the pain of admitting one's wrongs and shortcomings.  Walking away from those things we would like to do but we know are not healthy causes emotional pain.  But is it worth it?

At least one person thought so:

24Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. 25Athletes exercise self-control in all things; they do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable one. 26So I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; 27but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified.  1 Cointhians 9: 24-27

What Makes Us Stand Out as a Church? Part 3

Now, I will be entering a territory where it is a bit more sticky, for now I must venture into denominational identity.

This is a rather tricky area given that Jesus prayed that all his followers be one (John 17).  Of course, should we like to split some hairs here, Jesus prays that we may be one as He and the Father--and I am sure we could add the Spirit here--are one.  Thinking about this in Trinitarian terms, the oneness we perhaps are called to have is a oneness of relationship in the confusing way God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three in one and one in three.  So there!

Yet, even if we are called to be in relationship, we must define ourselves.  Again, this is a rather tricky sort of thing to do in this day and age.  Every time a person or entity defines itself, it puts someone on the outside.  There is "me" and then there is "not me".  There is a strong vein running through the ELCA right now that insists all are welcome...all have a place.  Well, that's technically an impossibility.  If we define ourselves as Christian, then those who do not believe in Christ don't have a place.  They must first come to believe, and then they will actually feel welcome.  If we define ourselves as understanding that Christ is present in the Sacrament "in, with, and under the bread and the wine," then those who believe otherwise (transubstantiation, memorial presence) don't have a place.  If we define ourselves as having salvation by grace alone (Romans 3), then those who believe salvation is a combination of grace and works (James 2:24) do not have a place.  It doesn't mean we cannot fellowship with folks who believe differently or that we cannot worship together, but it does mean their ideas conflict with our own and are not considered to be true.

And yet, even though we cause conflict by articulating our beliefs, we must define ourselves.  If we do not define ourselves, we are nothing more than an amorphous entity floating around in the midst of an amorphous culture that doesn't know who it is or what it is supposed to do.  We must say, "This is what we believe."  And, we must also be willing to defend our beliefs and understandings and articulate them in a manner others can understand them.

For Lutherans, we must always begin with the understanding we are first and foremost Christian, and it is within that faith we define our core beliefs and understandings. 

From this starting point, our self-definition as Lutheran Christians turns to the Augsburg Confession, Smalcald Articles, and other documents found within the Book of Concord.  Within these pages, we get the foundational articles of the Lutheran faith and identity.  We get guidance on how to interpret scripture.  We come to understand the lens through which we look.  In short, we get our worldview.

Oh, I can hear the criticism start now:

The AC was written 500 years ago and the issues it was addressing then are not the same issues we are addressing now!  (The same thing could be said of Scripture, except we must extend the dates back millenia instead of centuries.)

The Book of Concord was written by a bunch of white men who had no concept of what (pick your particular subjective group here) go through!

This stuff was written by those who were in elite positions of the establishment, so they have little concern for the perspective of the poor, the marginalized, etc.!

All well and good.  But utterly unsatisfactory criticism; for the task of the Lutheran theologian is to take the concepts raised in the Book of Concord and the documents within and apply them to said situations.  The Book of Concord is the starting point with understanding Lutheran identity, and it moves outward toward such issues.  Not the other way around.

It is these basic fundamentals  (funny, no matter how much I or anyone like Timothy Keller or other thinkers articulate this, many within the Lutheran Church continue to say, "Those fundamentalist Christians out there..." instead of actually seeing that they themselves are fundamentalists) which help us stand out as a people of faith. 

Unfortunately, I would argue that many have forgotten these fundamentals and are persuaded by many of the trendy theologies: the resurgence of the social gospel/social justice movement, liberation theologies, ethnic and gender driven theologies, etc.  I have no problem with folks delving into such theologies and being influenced by them; however, these are not the things that set us apart as Lutherans.  Our confessions do.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Somewhat Disturbing: At Least to Me

For the past 11 years, I have had the same routine when it comes to handling a non-member funeral--especially a funeral for a person I did not meet or come to know.

When I received the call to perform the services, I called the family.  I set up a time to meet with them to talk them through the service and so that I could get to know them a little better.  Not only this, but this meeting was crucial for my sermon preparation.  After we would work through the details of the sermon, I'd tell the family straight up, "Now, you are aware that I didn't get to know your loved one, so I need your help.  I need you to tell me about him/her.  I need to get to know them through you.  Are there important traits, qualities, or attributes your loved one had?  What things did he/she like to do?  Do you have any stories that highlight who he/she was: humorous, sad, or otherwise?"

Usually, I'd spend an hour or so visiting with the family and gathering such information.  If I felt like I needed more, I'd burn up the phone lines seeing who knew this person and doing even more research.  For eleven years, the results were all the same: folks were generally amazed I could pull such a thing off and seem like I "knew" the person I was burying.

Giving of my time and effort seemed a joy.  I knew I was serving this particular family and providing comfort to them and to the deceased's friends.

The same pattern for 11 years.

Until this weekend. 

I officiated at a funeral on Saturday.  I didn't know the guy from Adam.  I received the call Thursday afternoon around 4:30.  My day off is Friday.  I had no desire to schedule a meeting on Friday to meet with the family.  I had no desire to make a bunch of phone calls.  I asked the funeral director to have the widow give me a call, and she did.  We spent 15 minutes on the phone.  I garnered a little bit of information, but certainly not enough to really know the guy I was burying.  And, sadly, I must admit, I really didn't care.

Sure, I wanted to do a good job.  Sure, I knew I had an opportunity to preach the gospel to this group of people.  Sure, it's not really in me to only give half effort.  But I was also facing some cold hard facts that I have learned--and I am also facing the cold hard fact that part of me is getting burned out and stretched thin.

Fact #1: If the folks aren't attending church before the funeral, 99% of the time they won't after the funeral no matter how much effort you put into things.

Fact #2: Funerals cut into my family time which has become all too precious since my kids started school.

Fact #3: The likelihood of me running into the folks at these funerals ever again is very, very slim.

Fact #4: It's time intensive to do all the homework to put such services together, and when it is Thursday afternoon, I have become less and less willing to give up my time on Friday.

These facts aren't excuses.  They are reality.  And perhaps I should have spent more time in preparation.  But I didn't.  Here's the results of my labors in preaching:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our Risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
I’d like to begin my few words to you this morning with a joke. Now, this might seem a little bit sacrilegious on a couple of counts, but please bear with me. I promise, there is a point.

A minister once presided over a funeral, and during that funeral, he preached a 30 minute sermon extolling the good qualities of the man who died. He spoke of how he was a really good man: a loving husband, a caring father. He was the model of a good church man who attended church regularly and was generous with his time and money. He cared for those less fortunate, and everyone who met him came to know just how good of a guy he was. The preacher went on about how he never became angry, never spoke a cross word, and was careful and considerate about how he spoke and acted toward others. And the preacher was now deeply saddened to lay this wonderful saint to rest.

After the service was over and the pastor had left, the widow approached the funeral director. Deeply grieved, she said, "Excuse me, sir. Can we open the casket one more time?"

The director gave her a confused look and said, "Why certainly, ma’am, but I am curious. Earlier you said that once we closed the casket, it was to remain closed. Why the change of heart?"

The woman replied, "Well, sir, after hearing that reverend speak, I want to make sure that’s my husband in there and that I’m not at the wrong funeral.

Unfortunately, that joke holds up a rather uncomfortable truth that many of us clergy face. Oftentimes, we are called upon to do a funeral for someone we didn’t know well or didn’t know at all. We want to offer comfort to the gathering of family and friends, and many times we will go to great lengths to talk about how good the person who has died was. Oftentimes, we will talk about him or her in very lofty terms, and the God-honest truth is, we have no idea if we are right or not. We have no idea because we simply don’t know. And perhaps we are too prideful to admit it.

Well, this is one pastor who isn’t too prideful to admit it, and perhaps this will cause you to think less of me, but I would rather have that happen than to stand before you here this morning and say some things that I hope are true but might not be. For the reality is, I regrettably did not get a chance to know Forrest during his life. All the knowledge I have of him is by one short phone conversation with Dianne. And even though I know Dianne was telling me the truth about Forrest, one conversation over the phone is far too little to come to really know who a person was, what made him or her tick, and to come to understand his or her personality with all its quirks and qualities.

Those of you who have come to gather here this afternoon to pay your respects knew Forrest much better. You saw him regularly. You have your memories and your knowledge, and I wish to honor that as best as I can. Therefore, I will defer to you and to Tom and to all those who knew Forrest better than I to extol the qualities that made him who he was. I will let you speak of those things in which you know, and I will take a moment to speak of something I know that I hope helps you this afternoon as you celebrate Forrest’s life and grieve his death.

In our first reading this morning from the book of 1 Corinthians, we heard a wonderful passage about love. This passage is most often preached at weddings, but I chose it for today’s funeral because of something that is often passed over while reading it. St. Paul pens these words, "8Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."

Paul holds up here one of those major truths we face as human beings. Unfortunately, we can never fully know the truth. We can never fully know one another. We can never fully know God. Sure, we can know in part. There are some things we know as the truth. There are some things we know about one another. There are some things we know about God, but we do not know them fully. We cannot know one another’s thoughts–we can only know what we are told. We cannot know God fully–we can only know what He has taught us through His Word. As Paul says, "For now, we see such things as looking through a dim mirror."

However, there are a couple of things that cannot be overlooked. 1. Paul says, one day we will know fully. One day we will know each other fully. One day we will know God fully. One day we will know the truth fully. It will be revealed to us, and so we live in the hope that this will happen. Today we gather in the hope that Forrest now understands these things. Why do I say such a thing?

Because of the other thing that cannot be overlooked, and that is the fact that even though we cannot know God fully, He knows us. "Now I know in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known," St. Paul says. Yes, we are fully known. God knows us. Christ knows us. His love is so great that he knows our hearts and our minds. He knows what makes us tick because He has put us together. He put Forrest together. And now, Forrest has gone to meet his Maker. Just as one day we all will.

And so we gather today to give thanks to God for Forrest’s life, for the time shared with him, for getting a chance to know him; and yet, we also gather to remember that God fully knows Forrest just as he fully knows each and every one of us. Amen.

Interestingly enough, I received more positive commentary out of this sermon that I had many others.  Perhaps it was the honesty.  Perhaps it was the willingness to tell the truth.  I really don't know.  What I do know is that God used those words to reach at least a few of those gathered on Saturday.  And for this, I am glad.  But I am also in a state of bewilderment knowing I didn't put forth my best effort.  I'm disturbed by this on several levels because it's not necessarily in my nature to do so.