Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Sermon Delivered Sunday, January 29, 2012: Authority

Why should people think that we as Christians have authority to speak about God?

Think about that question for a moment if you would. I know that I have wrestled with it a bit this week as I contemplated our Gospel lesson for this morning. In it, Jesus teaches in a synagogue. As he is teaching, the remark is made in verse 22, "They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. After teaching, Jesus casts out a demon, and once again the people gather around and say, "What is this? A new teaching–with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him."

There was obviously something different about Jesus’ approach that caught the attention of those around him. There was obviously something different in how Jesus did things that caused those around to see that He had authority where others didn’t. For those of us who are this side of the resurrection, we know Jesus was the Son of God, or as the demons said, "The Holy One of God!" There’s no mystery for us regarding Jesus’ authority. We know it comes from God the Father. We know why we should listen to what he has to say. But what would make others say that his teaching was new and with authority?

Obviously there were many who taught about God in Jesus’ day. There were the temple priests. There were the Pharisees. There were the Sadducees. There were the zealots. There were the Romans–who held a completely different religion. There was a hodgepodge of religious outlooks even 2000 years ago. Each had their very own way of describing how a person should or should not go about the life of faith. And along comes Jesus into this fray. He’s not afraid to tell it like it is. He doesn’t sit back and say, "Well, a person could look at things this way, or a person could look at things this way." Jesus speaks of God and His Kingdom, that it is at hand, and that all should repent and believe in this good news.

Now, I am sure that the folks who adhered to all those other religious groups rolled their eyes at Jesus. I am sure that when they heard him traipsing around talking with certainty, they thought, "Just one more would be rabbi trying to get everyone to believe his way of thinking." But, Jesus took things a step further. Jesus went from saying that the Kingdom of God was at hand to actually proving it? How? Well, in our Gospel, he cast out a demon. As His ministry grew, we also know that he cured the sick, healed the lame, made the blind to see and the deaf to hear. We know how he calmed the storm and fed the hungry. Jesus didn’t just talk the talk about the Kingdom, he revealed it too. Folks not only heard the preaching, they saw what Jesus did, and they couldn’t deny that he had authority.

But that tells us about Jesus. We, in the church, know that Jesus has authority. We know it comes from God. But what about authority in our world today? Where does it come from? Who has it? I think it’s an important question in our society today because I think we have been taught to question any and every "authority" figure or institution. This started with the great social upheaval in the 1960s, and its effects are still being felt today as any and every authority is being questioned.

I mean, think about it. How many of you today trust the authority of the media? Anyone believe any particular news organization is unbiased and tells the truth?

How many of you trust the government? Anyone believe the government should have more authority over the things we do?

How many of you trust the larger church organization? How many of you believe they should have more authority in what we do here in Cat Spring?

How many of you believe that you can trust people with a whole lot of letters behind their names and titles in front of them? Well, let me phrase that a little differently. Who would you trust more in helping you raise cattle: a youngster who was raised in Houston who just graduated from Texas A&M with a PhD in animal husbandry, or a couple of the ranchers around here who have been raising cattle all their lives? Who do you think has more authority?

Shall I go on in describing how many feel about authority? I could, but I’m going to stop for a moment and ask you if you caught the other word that I used numerous times in describing the institutions above. Did you catch it? Did you catch the word, trust?

For you see, I think that people will submit to an authority if they have a trusting relationship with that authority. It is not enough simply to say, "I have authority." Here’s a story that points that out. A young second lieutenant at Fort Bragg discovered that he had no change when he was about to buy a soft drink from a vending machine. He flagged down a passing private and asked him, "Do you have change for a dollar?" The private said cheerfully, "I think so, let me take a look." The lieutenant drew himself up stiffly and said, "Soldier, that is no way to address an officer. We'll start all over again. Do you have change for a dollar?" The private came to attention, saluted smartly, and said, "No, sir!"

Now, if having a trusting relationship is a partial answer to the question of, "Where does authority come from?", let’s begin applying it to our society and our Christian faith.

We must begin with Jesus’ authority. We know that he has it. We understand this from our Gospel lesson this morning. We know that he used it to help others see the Kingdom of God breaking into the world. We know that he used the authority of the Father to save us from our sins by his death and resurrection. And after his resurrection, he spoke of his authority once more. In Matthew chapter 28, Jesus gathered his followers around him and spoke these words, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

With his authority, Jesus commanded his followers to do two things. 1. Go make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 2. Teach these disciples everything that Jesus commanded.

The question in our society is, "How do we earn the trust of others so that they may recognize us as an authority in teaching what Jesus commanded?" I mean, Jesus trusts us to make disciples and teach them what following Jesus is all about. We can’t do this unless they recognize that we are indeed true followers of Jesus, can we not? And I’m not trying to discount the work of the Holy Spirit. I know ultimately the Spirit is the one who brings folks to faith, but He oftentimes uses us to begin planting those seeds. So, how can we earn the trust of others so that they may recognize our authority to teach the Word of God? How do we build trusting relationships so that we may proclaim the Gospel to ears that are ready to hear instead of simply shutting us out when we begin talking about God?

Do you think the manner in which we follow Jesus and live our lives may have something to do with it? Amen.

It's a Spiritual Problem

Hardly anyone I know agrees that we have no problems in the U.S.  In fact, just about everyone I know believes things are quite amiss.  Even those within the Church know it, and many have mobilized to try and fix it.  Many have entered into the political fray to make their voices known through the voting process, and many Christian (although it could be argued that these folks are more political than Christian) leaders, seizing the power of a group united by their beliefs in Jesus, have sought to direct this process. 

For the purposes of this blog post, I will describe the two main Christian factions as the Christian Right and the Christian Left.  Each of these factions have seen it fit to under gird their political ideologies with the Christian faith, and both have sought to influence the behavior of Americans by legal means.

For instance, the Christian Right, whose leaders are the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Buchannan, etc., focuses on moral issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, the language used in movies and television, and pornography.  They have also historically sought lower taxes and less government intrusion in business--(although, I confess, where they get this Scripturally is beyond me).  Historically, they have put together a "litmus test" for political candidates based upon these issues, and they have voted accordingly.  Their power and influence can be seen in arguments over whether or not abortion should be covered in government health care legislation and the push for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman.  Many in the Christian Right have associated themselves with the Tea Party Movement.

The Christian Left, whose leaders are the likes of Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo, focus on issues of injustice in society.  Their main thrust is dealing with income inequity, particularly the plight of the poor.  They have sought to use government as a means to practice redistribution of wealth and ensuring that all have food, shelter, clothing, health care, etc.  Many among the Christian Left have associated themselves with the Occupy Wall Street Movement, and they too seek to influence the legal process to obtain their goals.

Both the Christian Right and the Christian Left use Scripture and the teachings of Jesus to under gird their philosophies.  I personally believe they both seek the best interest of society, and they want this world to be a better place.  However, I find one problem with the approach of both of these parties: they seek legal solutions to a problem that I believe cannot be solved by the implementation of laws.  I do not believe any amount of legislation will cure what amounts to a Spiritual problem--the problem of sin.

Yeah, I know, sin isn't something that most folks want to talk about now-a-days.  It makes us squirm because it calls into question our very nature as human beings.  We don't like to believe that there is something deeply flawed within ourselves, within our society, or within our world.  NEWS FLASH: There is!  Yes, it is true that humankind does some awfully good things, but we are capable of a whole lot of nasty stuff as well.  And the sadder part is that no matter what kind of laws we put on the books, folks will ALWAYS find a way to work their way around them.  Hey, why do you think there is such a plethora of lawyers out there?  Do you think it's because the law is always straight forward and means exactly what it says?  If it did, we wouldn't need lawyers.  Even the most carefully written law is open to interpretation, and therefore to manipulation. 

Those of you who are Christian who are shaking your heads right now, let me offer this proof through Jesus' teaching from Matthew chapter 18:

8“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.

The first comment out of most folks' mouths usually is, "Did Jesus really mean this, or was He talking metaphorically?"  Yet, it is a command of Jesus, is it not?

But what is at the heart of Jesus' command here?  Is He talking about someone's hand, foot, or eye?  Or is He illustrating something that goes beyond our hand, our foot, or our eye?  For does our eye cause us to sin?  Does our hand cause us to sin?  Does our foot cause us to sin?  Obviously not.  Where does sin originate?  In our hearts.  In the depths of our very being.  Greed leads our hands to steal.  Covetousness leads our eyes to desire.  Anger causes our feet to kick.  The root goes much deeper than these appendages.

And I believe that to be the case in our nation (and in our world for that matter) as well.  We cannot legislate an end to poverty.  We cannot legislate an end to hunger.  We cannot legislate an end to people cussing, or fornicating, or what have you.  Such things cannot be combatted by laws.  If they could, the legal code in the Old Testament would have been sufficient.  The Prophets would have been sufficient.  There would have been no need for the Father to send the Son to redeem the world.  Laws won't work.  Only change of heart can, and change of heart can only come from God Himself through the work of the Holy Spirit in the teaching, preaching, and hearing of His Word. 

Even then, our flawed nature continues to rebel which means we continually must go through the cycle of confession, repentance, self-examination, and cleansing by God the Father.  In my opinion, those of the Christian Right and the Christian Left would be better served in having their congregations serve such purposes.

Monday, January 30, 2012

I Almost Panicked

I woke up yesterday (Sunday) morning, and began my normal routine of preparing for church.  I noticed my phone was blinking indicating I had received an email during the night.  I brought up my screen, and much to my surprise it was an email from my blogging service, Google Blogger.  My surprise turned to shock when I read the subject: www.countrypreacherscorner.blogspot.com has been deleted.

I hurriedly read the email which indicated my blog had been deleted because I had violated the SPAM policy.  That was a head scratcher, so I checked out the SPAM policy.  I realized right away that I hadn't done any of the things that constituted a violation of that policy.  The only thing that came close was my posting of the blog links to Facebook and to my congregation's Facebook page (of which I am the administrator).  But that couldn't be it, could it?

The most frustrating part of the ordeal at this point was not knowing exactly how I had violated the policy and having all my stuff deleted without warning.  There were a mixture of emotions welling up within me at this point:

1. Anger that my blog had been deleted without so much as a warning shot and knowing that much of my public written thoughts both personal and professional were gone.  I considered the hours I had spent typing of things both exhilarating and troubling, and I considered how quickly they had been "taken" from me.  It wasn't pleasant.

2. Frustration at not knowing what I had done wrong. 

3. Sadness at the loss.

4. Anger at myself for having no backup of all the stuff I had composed.

5. Worry that I could never get what I had put out there.

All of these emotions almost led me to panic, but one overrode them all:

6. Calmness of mind which told me, "It has to be a mistake.  See what you can do about it."

I eventually logged onto Blogger.com and discovered I could appeal the deletion.  There was a grace period to do this within.  As I read, I also discovered Blogger has certain algorithms which work to discover SPAM blogs.  They pointedly point out this is a fuzzy process.  Their comments were reassuring in that they promised my blog would be evaluated by real people within two business days.

Later yesterday afternoon, I logged in again, and there was a rather humorous comment apologizing that my blog had been kicked out.  They commented that their "bots" had flagged the blog and that the process was continually undergoing tweaking.  They also said, "Since you are a real human reading this, in all probability your blog will be reinstated shortly."  I laughed.

Sure enough, within the hour, I received another email from Google Blogger that my blog was back up and running.  I breathed a little easier.

However, I had to do some self-examination with this small ordeal, and I've asked myself some hard questions:

1. Why did it disturb you so much to have your blog deleted?  Do you prize it so much?

2. Were you worrying about what other people would think about you should your blog be deleted because of SPAM violations?

3. Was this a call from God telling you to stop focusing so much on your blog?

4. To what extent were you willing to go to retrieve "your" intellectual property?

This blog has become somewhat of an emotional outlet for me.  Granted, I do not reveal all my deepest thoughts.  There are some things I keep under wraps, but there is a great deal that is healing for me to talk about.  Even though I don't get a whole lot of feedback from readers, it is a joy to know a few are reading.  And I do know that some of my comments have really touched the hearts of some of my readers and gave them hope and comfort in the midst of their lives.

Perhaps one day, I will be ready to hang up my fingertips and stop this business, but I'm not ready yet.  And as I said on my Facebook status, I am glad that humans still trump computer algorithms.  To those who tried to log on yesterday and read something, I apologize that the blog wasn't here.  It was out of my hands.  To those who might have been excited that I was gone, well...you'll have to wait a little while longer.  :-)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Enough of the Fundamentalist Bashing

Yeah, I've been there.  I've done that.  I've done my share of making fun of my "Fundamentalist" brothers and sisters in Christ.  It's an easy thing to do--depending upon one's own methodology of approaching the Christian faith.

For instance, for someone who is seeped in the historical-critical methodology of interpreting Scripture, one could potentially look down one's nose at "Fundamentalists" as ignorant of the "real" meaning of Scripture as informed by the historical situation in which it was spoken and how the original audience heard it.  I know I've gone round and round with such folks in my lifetime, and I once held such folks in contempt as ignorant souls who just needed to have a better understanding of the Bible.

(Since I have hopefully grown a little, I do realize many of them thought the exact same thing of me.)

The "Fundamentalist" bashing raised its head this past week at the Theological Conference I attended.  One of the presenters made more than a few sarcastic remarks about fundamentalists.  Of course, many in the room chuckled in laughter at the comments.  I couldn't because I have come to realize (mainly through reading Timothy Keller) that I too am a fundamentalist.  And not only am I a fundamentalist.  Everyone is.  It just depends upon what your fundamentals are.

One might argue vehemently with me here.  "I'm not a fundamentalist!  I believe truth is relative!"

Great, but listen to the sentences you spoke.  One of them is a fundamentalist position--even if it's an oxymoron.  The statement "truth is relative" is a fundamental belief.  It guides the way you look at life, at Scripture, or what have you.  Without that statement, you have no base--no core.  You are a fundamentalist, but you probably don't even realize it.

Such is Keller's argument when it comes to all of us as people, and all who consider themselves Christian.  We all have fundamental beliefs that guide the way we look at faith, interpret Scripture, and understand how we are called to act as followers of Jesus.  Those fundamentals differ across denomination and even from person to person.

What Keller would argue, and I happen to agree.  Is that oftentimes, our fundamentals need adjusting.  For instance, when one makes Jesus' teachings core to one's behavior and outlook on life, it changes the way you act toward others--including those you disagree with. 

Consider Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

21“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.  --Matthew 5: 21-22

Read those carefully, and then apply them to your brother and sister who might be considered a "Fundamentalist."  Tell me then how you might be called to act toward that person. 

If we as Christians face our shortcomings (as difficult as that is), then we need to stop the Fundamentalist bashing.  Christ commands it, and the pot can't call the kettle black when it's the same color.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Some Thoughts Starting to Come Together

Several things have begun to strike me in the past couple of days regarding the Christian faith.

Once again, yesterday, a group of us was reminded about the decline in membership in most congregations in the ELCA.  Last year, our particular synod was involved in a survey given to congregation pastors and council members.  The report will be forthcoming in the near future.  However, my bishop did let us in on a couple of insights gleaned from those reports: #1. Start talking in a language we can understand.  #2. Help us grow.

The bishop responded to the thoughts of some by saying, "I know that sounds like, 'Help us get butts in the pews, but...'"

Yes, I agree with my bishop.  It sounds like, "Help us get butts in the pews," but when my bishop challenged the assumption, I was elated.  Getting butts in the pews isn't just getting butts in the pews to pay bills or otherwise.  Getting butts in the pews is evangelism--plain and simple.  When a congregation proclaims the Gospel, butts get in the pews.

Yet, I sorely realized just how inadequate my own seminary training was when it came to evangelism and "getting butts in the pews."  Don't get me wrong, we talked long and hard about what Jesus' death and resurrection meant for the world, but there was a huge problem that I think I am only now starting to realize.  I think it's also the problem I often clash with others when it comes to doing mission and ministry in the local parish.  It also has to do with point #1 above.

Start talking in language we can understand.

As I reflect upon things, the language that I was being taught in seminary when it came to evangelism was group language.  So much of the teaching I received was based upon what the Christian faith had to say to various ethnic and social groupings: feminist, gay, African-American, Latino, etc.  Much of the language surrounding the conversation was of justice painting a picture of a power over the powerless, and God sided with the powerless.  The powerful could only be accepted if they were in solidarity with the powerless.

Justice is an important component of Christianity.  Many within the ELCA have become convinced it is THE component of Christianity.  But, I have begun to see, justice doesn't "get butts in the pews."  For over 30 years, the ELCA has set justice and equality as one of its primary goals and foci, and for over 30 years, the church has been in decline.  It just isn't working.  Why?

As my thoughts coalesced, I think I am beginning to understand why.  Justice focuses on a group dynamic.  Plain and simply, groups don't connect to the church--individuals do.

Our folks want to invite others to come to church.  Our folks want to spread the good news of Jesus.  But when asked, "What difference does Christianity make for me?", what do our folks have to say? 

"Um, well, I guess it means that God loves the poor and doesn't like the rich.  God goes looking around for the rejects of society.  God has a special place in God's heart for the gay, Latino, African-American, woman, etc., etc." 

Now, these might very well be convincing answers, but think about the majority of people you run into.  Do they share these same concerns?

Maybe in a different context other than my own.  But I can assure you, most of the folks I run into don't.  In fact, they have an entirely different focus in their lives, and they deal with a totally different set of questions.

For instance:

In this society, hardly anyone talks about the Truth anymore.  A lot of people believe all the religions are heading to the same place.  Why then Christianity?  How can I convince my friend/relative who is pluralistic that being a Christian is important?

My life is busy, hectic.  I'm always running all over the place.  I get bombarded daily by all the things I should be doing.  Most of the time, I never get them accomplished.  What is the good news for me?

Science has given us all sorts of breakthroughs and has taught us much of this world.  It's based upon reason and the scientific method.  How do I talk about faith to my friends/family who believe reason is the only way to know the Truth?

I hear all the pundits talking on television about how bad things are in the society and how bad they are going to get.  How can I be at ease about the future?

I can't afford school supplies for my kids since I'm a single mom.  Can you help?  (How many congregations turn such folks away?  How many others give school supplies without letting the folks know this is a gift from God Himself?)

These questions are different, and they require an entirely different set of answers that are not founded in group language.  They are found in language that relates person to person. 

I was not equipped to answer such questions by my theological training.  Only in the last few years have I stumbled upon readings that have helped.  But I wonder if anyone else sees this?  Perhaps they do and are just not talking about it.  I hope they do, for I fear if we keep trying to connect to groups within my denomination instead of individuals, we will continue to suffer a long, slow, painful death.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Finding (The) One's Voice

I am currently in Waco, TX attending a theological conference attended by many of the pastors who serve the three ELCA Synods in Texas and Louisiana.  This year's topic is preaching, and the planners have brought in homiletics (fancy word for preaching) professors from various seminaries.  These folks are giving out advice based upon the things they have learned in their time preaching and teaching.

Our first presenter offered up many good things:

He spoke of making sure one's prayer life was robust and alive.  When one is spiritually drained from taking care of the spiritual needs of others, soon, one has nothing more to give in preaching.  I believe he was absolutely correct in his assessment of this.

He also encouraged us to spend quite a bit of time in study and preparation for our sermons.  He advised us to read not only theological material but poetry as well.  And, I might add, he advised us to work with the biblical text first and "play" with it many hours before we even contemplate looking at any commentaries.  Since this is what I have done for quite some time, I felt quite affirmed.

One of the other main points he made was to be ourselves when we preach.  There is a temptation for many to watch a really good preacher and then try to ape that preacher.  Unfortunately, we don't necessarily have those gifts to be that type of preacher.  When we try to imitate instead of being ourselves, we come across as false, and in the long term, we become exhausted by trying to be something we are not.  My own personal experience resonated deeply with this.  Been there.  Done that, and I would say our presenter was absolutely correct.

If I have one quibble, and it is a bit minor because I think I know what our presenter was trying to say, I just wish he would have phrased it differently.  While discussing the need for us to be ourselves, he admonished us to "Find our own voice."  Again, I believe his intention is to tell us to be ourselves and not someone else, but the hackles on my neck rose slightly.  I wished he would have said something to the effect of, "Find God's voice speaking through you."

It is a contention that I have learned that folks do not come to church to hear a word from the pastor.  It is my contention--and many others--that folks come to church to hear a word from God.  Preaching is essentially trying to bring God's Word into our context of today.  The challenge of preaching is getting one's self out of the way as much as possible and allow God to preach through you.  As one who has striven to do so, I can firmly state, it's darn near impossible.  When I'm dealing with a text, I always want to bring my stuff to the text and interpret it in a way that makes me comfortable.  I always want to take any challenges in the text to the way I am viewing the world or the way I am acting and minimize them.  I always want to emphasize the things I agree with.  But if I do so, I'm not being true to Christ; I'm not being true to the Biblical text; I'm not being helpful to my own spiritual growth; and I am certainly doing no favors to my congregation. 

It's work to try and do such a thing.  And I know it does happen.  I know it when I sit down to type out my sermon and all of a sudden, I finish and say to myself, "That one went a direction I totally didn't expect."  Or I say to myself, "This sermon bites," and on Sunday morning, it ends up touching more than a few sitting in the pews.  Such things are important reminders that it is God who is using those of us to preach to convey His word and not our own. 

I have a very strong feeling our presenter agrees with such sentiments wholeheartedly.  Unfortunately, because we easily fumble in our language and say things without perfect clarity, he didn't come across that way.  Luckily, I don't think it detracted from his presentation too much.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Sermon Delivered 1/22/2012: What Would Your Life Look Like?

Jesus said, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."

What would your life look like if you believed the Kingdom of God was near?

The third grade class was scheduled to take a field trip one day. All the children had dutifully turned in their permission slips. There was but one rule on the day of the trip: you must bring your own sack lunch. As the roll call was made each child answered, "Here." and afterward the teacher asked, "Did you bring your sack lunch?"

Timmy began fidgeting. In his excitement to get to school that day, he rushed out the door and forgot his sack lunch. His mom and dad were both working, and no one would be able to bring it. His lip began trembling. He knew the rule. The teacher finally called his name, and he responded, "Here," but then his tears overtook him when the teacher asked, "Did you bring your sack lunch?"

"I forgot," Timmy managed to say through his tears.

"I’m sorry, Timmy," his teacher said. "You know the rule."

The other kids in class started talking about this event as Timmy sat and sobbed. Suddenly, a little girl looked up, "Mrs. Davis, I have an extra sandwich. Timmy can have it." A little boy then said, "Mrs. Davis, my mommy packed me an extra juice box. Timmy can have it." Another student said, "Mrs. Davis, I have two bags of chips." Another, "Mrs., I have extra cookies." In a matter of moments, Timmy had a sack lunch.

What would your life look like if you believed the Kingdom of God was near?

A widow sat at home staring at the walls. Everywhere she looked there was a picture reminding her of her deceased husband. Fifty-seven years of memories dotted the walls. Six months ago, the diagnosis had come. Six rounds of chemotherapy ensued. It looked like the tumor was shrinking. It looked like they would win. But then another tumor was found. A rapid decline ensued. Hospice was called. Her husband had breathed his last breath in their bedroom. Could she even go back in there?

Worries filled her mind. "What will I do now? How can I keep this place up? Can I manage the bills? Will there be enough for me to pay the hospital bills? Should I move closer to my kids? But how can I leave all the memories?" These things and much more swirled in her brain. She knew she needed to do something, but what? Fear, worry, and sadness paralyzed her. "Lord, help me," she managed to mumble.

Seconds later the phone rang. "Barbara, this is Jane–from your church. I’m just calling to check on you. I remember what it was like when my husband passed away. I remember the hurt. I remember the worry. I remember the fear. Can I come over and sit with you?"

Barbara replied, "I would really appreciate that."

What would your life look like if you believed the Kingdom of God was near?

A young lawyer was approached by a large company. An accident had happened at one of their factories severely injuring one of their employees. They were liable for damages and for the medical bills the employee would incur, but they didn’t want to pay them. They asked this young lawyer to represent them and somehow find a way to release them from the responsibility.

The young lawyer was torn. The suit might mean a big paycheck for him, but could he represent the company and deny the injured man and the man’s family the funds he was entitled to?

The young lawyer spent hours agonizing and praying about the situation. Finally, he called the company’s representatives. "I’m sorry," the young lawyer told them. "I believe you are responsible for the damages and
injuries incurred. I cannot do what you are asking."

The company ended up paying for the man’s injuries and medical bills, and the young lawyer kept his integrity in tact.

What would your life look like if you believed the Kingdom of God was near?

A woman had lunch with her best friend one day. Each one’s lives were extremely busy. Both had successful careers. Both had children who were involved in school and sports. Both wanted the best for their kids and families. Both had aging parents who required attention. Both were concerned about the events going on in their city, state, and country.

"How can you be so relaxed about everything?" one lady said to the other. "Aren’t you worried about all the stuff they are doing up in Washington? Aren’t you worried about the tremendous debt that our country has right now? Aren’t you worried that this is going to be passed down to our children? Aren’t you worried that they will increase your taxes and keep you from being able to do everything you need to do to keep your family comfortable?"

"I might be a little worried," came the reply. "But I don’t focus too much attention on it."

"How can you do that? Isn’t that irresponsible?"

"I have other things that fill my mind."

"Oh, I see. You must be worried about your kids and your parents. I know. I worry a lot too about mine. I’m always having to schedule a parent/teacher conference to make sure my kids are doing well in school. Then it’s off to softball and baseball practice. I keep track of all their activities for their college applications and scholarship applications. And when I’m not focused on the kids, I’m worrying about mom and dad. They are getting older and I’m having to make sure their house is in good shape. I’m having to make sure they are taking their medications. I’m having to make sure they are getting their groceries and aren’t doing things that could affect their health in a major way. I can see how you don’t worry about the stuff in Washington with all the stuff you have to go through with your family as well."

"I do worry a little about them, but these things don’t consume my thoughts, and I don’t stress over them."

"What?! Are you kidding me?! How can you not? Unless, all this stuff is crowded out by your work stress. I mean, when I think about all the deadlines that I have to abide by and worry about making my boss happy as well as those employees happy, sometimes, I’m ready to throw in the towel. I’d just as soon focus on my family and my parents and maybe writing my senators and representative to get things done. But I know I can’t. We’ve got to keep the money flowing, and in this economic downturn, sometimes I worry if I will even have a job one day. I make sure I’m always at the top of my game so that they know I’m indispensable. You’ve got to be worried about your job."

"No. I don’t stress out about it either. In fact, even though I do feel pressed for time sometimes and the demands of life sometimes press in on me, I generally am happy with things. There is much I can’t control and don’t even try to. Worry won’t change it in the least. It’s out of my hands."

"But doesn’t that drive you nuts? Doesn’t it stress you out that you can’t control all this stuff? Don’t you try to be prepared for everything then? Don’t you try to cover every base and make sure you are protected?

"I already am."

"How can you say that?"

"Can I tell you the story of who I believe is in charge of things?"

What would your life look like if you believed the Kingdom of God was near? Amen.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

It's in the Lord's Hands: Funeral Sermon for Bob Key

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

A few months ago, one of my congregation members stopped me in church. She asked me whether or not I had seen Bob and Dale recently. My schedule had been rather hectic, and I admitted that I had not. "You need to go see them," she said. I told her that I would.

Later that week, I made it a point to stop by, and that’s when Bob revealed to me that the doctor had diagnosed him with cancer. He and Dale knew they faced a decision of monumental proportions. Should he go ahead and have a biopsy and face the possibility of a collapsed lung? Should he undergo chemotherapy treatments? The doctor said that they probably wouldn’t extend his life much, should he put himself through the debilitating series of treatment, or should he let nature run its course.

At times like these, I know better than to tell a person what to do. I’ll ask pointed questions. I’ll raise possibilities, but when all is said and done, I know that such decisions are made by the person as he or she consults with family, friends, and with God. This is where we left it at the end of the visit, but I promised to check in more regularly as things progressed.

A week or so later, I called Bob and inquired of what his decision was. He straightforwardly said that he decided not to take any treatments. He decided not to have his lung biopsied. He was going to face the future without these things that he knew would drag his already weakened body further down. He then spoke these words to me, "I guess it’s in the Lord’s hands."

"Yes, it is, Bob" I said. "Yes it is."

Many times, it’s hard for us to place things in God’s hands. Many times it’s hard for us to let go of our worry, our fears, our doubts, or even the idea that there is something we can do to change our fortunes, change the outcome of our lives, or change something that is happening to us. There is something within us that wants to fight, to handle everything on our own, to strive for the last breath with every ounce within us. Few of us have the resolve to place ourselves into the strong hands of our heavenly Father. Few of us have the will to say, "Lord, whatever happens, happens. I trust you to get me there."

But that is exactly what Jesus tells his followers in our second lesson that we heard just a few moments ago. Let me set the scene for you. Jesus had just shared the Last Supper with them. He had informed them moments before that one would betray him. He informed them he would be going away from them and they could not follow him. He then informed Peter, the leader of the disciples that he would betray Jesus before the cock crowed three times. The disciples were perplexed. They were anxious. Their fears arose. What would they do without their leader? How would they continue on?

Jesus responds to their anxiousness by saying, "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."

Ah, but Jesus words didn’t satisfy all of the disciples. Thomas looked at Jesus and said, "Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?"

And Jesus replied, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me."
In a very real, tangible way, Jesus was telling his followers, "Trust me. Trust that I’ve got you covered. Trust that I will care for you and take care of you. Trust that no matter what happens to you, I will be there. And even if the worst should come to pass–if your life should be taken from you, I will take you to a place I have prepared for you. Do not worry. Do not fear. I’ve got you in my hands."

It’s in the Lord’s hands.

For a time, Bob did well. I visited once and he received a phone call from a good friend, and they had a chance to catch up on things. He was feeling pretty good and doing o.k. Until the day before Thanksgiving when he fell and broke his hip. Then things snowballed rather quickly. Surgery ensued. Bob developed sundowner’s syndrome thereafter. He went to Windsong to rehab. It wasn’t a pleasant experience for him.

Just over a week ago, I sat with Bob, Dale, and Barbara in Bob’s room at Windsong. The next day, he would be moving to Colonial Oaks. The cancer was spreading, and it had affected his ability to eat and keep food down. The nursing staff served him his dinner, and Dale helped him eat a few bites. We all knew things were really getting bad when he couldn’t eat much of the chocolate pudding he had especially saved. We visited for a few minutes before Bob excused himself. The food wasn’t setting well.

After taking a pill to settle his stomach, I pulled out my communion kit. There was another food Bob needed. The food of faith. In a matter of moments, that little room became a chapel holding the presence of God. In a matter of moments, Jesus presence surrounded us and entered us in, with, and under the bread and the wine of Holy Communion. Sins were forgiven. Faith was strengthened. And once again, we committed the future into the Lord’s hands.

It’s in the Lord’s hands.

Little did I know that in a matter of days, Bob’s health would spiral downward. Barely 72 hours later, I received a phone call from Barbara telling me that Bob was in really bad shape. She asked if I could come down and see them.

That late afternoon, we gathered around as Bob had entered into a morphine induced slumber. His body was shutting down. We knew the end was approaching. We visited about many things. We talked about who he was and the memories of all the things that he had done. We talked about his temper and how he could unleash it. We had a few things that made us laugh, even in the midst of the tears.

After some time, I excused myself to head back to Cat Spring. I stood at the bed side with Dale, and we prayed. Knowing that Bob was approaching the end, I prayed that he be commended into the waiting arms of Jesus, his Lord and Savior. I prayed that Jesus would wrap His arms around all of Bob’s family and friends. And I left knowing that the entire situation was where Bob had said it needed to be–in the Lord’s hands.

Bob entered into the hands of his Lord and Savior on Tuesday morning–the same day that was his father’s birthday. Today, we gather to celebrate his life and mourn that he is no longer with us. We celebrate getting to know all the things that made him special to us. We celebrate that he and Dale had 68 years together. We celebrate how he touched our lives. And we celebrate that he is no longer in pain and suffering.

But he will be missed, and these are the reasons for our tears, for we must be reminded today that Bob is not gone. We do not say good-by today. We say, "I’ll see you later." For as Christians we do not grieve as though there is no hope. No. Not at all. For you see, our lives are in the Lord’s hands too–just as Bob’s was. One day we will fall into those arms when our time on earth is done. We will go to be with Christ on that day and we will be reunited with Bob and all those who have gone before. We will come to that place that Christ has prepared, and we will be home–we will be in the Lord’s hands, and that is a very good place to be, now and always. Amen.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Facing One's Shortcomings

As I have continued the process of discipleship and prayer, I have noticed that God makes things more and more challenging.

For instance, for the longest time, I have had little difficulty in seeing Christ in all of the members of my congregation--and I mean all of them.

St. Paul describes the Church aptly--as a body.  Taking that description down to a smaller size and recognizing a congregation in the same fashion, I believe is important.  Even the congregation needs all it's body parts--including the butthole.  Yeah, you might laugh, but try living without yours and see what happens.

Every body has one--including congregations.  The tendency within congregations is to want to get rid of it--or the person everyone thinks is it.  But I think it's a mistake for a couple of reasons:

#1. The butthole is capable of shifting around and heading to another person.

#2. In a congregation, if you get rid of one, another one takes it's place.  The one taking its place can oftentimes be even bigger.

#3. The butthole serves its purpose.  That purpose is important.  And sometimes, the butthole is doing some fantastic things where no one can see because everyone simply expects the butthole to be a butthole.

So, to get back to my original point: I generally don't have a problem seeing Christ in all the members of my congregation.  Even those who give me grief at times, I truly love because I know Christ is active in them.

But as I have begun to grow a little more spiritually, Christ has led me to examine how I view not only my congregation, but also how I view the world around me.  He has asked me to look for Him beyond my congregation and into the community and into the larger Church.

As I did this, I became ashamed at some of my thoughts.  I became ashamed that while I had little difficulty recognizing Christ in my congregation members, I was not doing so with my fellow clergy.  As I examined my thoughts, I realized I oftentimes looked upon them with contempt.  And then I realized the source of it all: pride.

I serve a declining denomination.  Many clergy I know serve declining congregations.  I serve a growing congregation.  My perception is that many of my colleagues aren't doing the right things in their churches to help them grow.  My perception is that they are harping on the wrong things and preaching the wrong things to help their congregations reach out.  And my perception plus the growth of my congregation (which I am working very hard to realize comes only from God and not what I have done, am doing, or will do) led me to have a big head.  My thoughts went often like this: if they would only do what I am doing here, then they would see things turn around in their congregations.   That, my readers is nothing more than hubris.  It is sinful.  It is wrong.  Once again, in my spiritual journey, I was faced with a terrible shortcoming when I looked in the mirror.

I have begun praying for forgiveness and a change of heart.  I have begun praying for a diminishing of my pride and more of a humble spirit.  I have begun praying for my colleagues to have success in what they do in their congregations even if I don't agree with their methodologies or their stances on doctrine or their particular leanings (liberal or conservative) when it comes to theology.  I am praying that their congregations thrive and that folks know they can meet Jesus in their congregations.

It is a struggle because I am one who is enamored with the Truth.  I am one who is enamored with orthodoxy.  But part of that orthodoxy is remembering the one who said, "If you want to be first in the Kingdom of God, you must be last of all and servant of all." 

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges I've faced in this journey.  I'm not sure how it will turn out, but I must decrease that He may increase.

To my fellow clergy, I ask for forgiveness.  I never said such things to your face, and I kept such things in my heart.  But I recognize how damaging it is even in there.  I hope to do better.

To my congregation members, you now have even further truth that my feet are made of clay.

To my Lord, I beg that you continue to dig deep and heal my brokenness. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Spiritual but not Religious

Maybe you've seen this video.  It's gone viral and has over 14 million hits in just a few short weeks of being on Youtube:

There is much in this video which resonates with many folks.  Believe me, I've heard many of its sentiments proclaimed over and over and over.  As a pastor, you hear folks say such things time and again, but I guess I'm kind of cynical, for you see, whenever I hear folks tell me that they are spiritual but not religious, I tend to hear this little voice in the background saying, "This is my excuse for not going to church, giving to the church, or participating in any church activities."

You know, I do believe that going to church is a voluntary activity.  One can freely choose to go or not to go.  That is one's prerogative.  But I disagree with the idea that one can be spiritual without being religious in a healthy manner. 

If you want to sling tomatoes or any other such things, go ahead.  I'm willing to get hit because I know the dangers of spirituality without being grounded in a community of faith and doctrine.

Rather than give you a "rational" argument for such things, let me just provide a few examples of people who were spiritual, not religious, who garnered a following:

Jim Jones.

David Koresh.

Warren Jeffs.

Harold Camping.

All of these folks have something in common: they became spiritual "gurus" who were not connected to a larger body of believers or set doctrine. 

Say what you want about religion doing all sorts of bad things.  Granted.  It has.  Wars have been started because of religious understandings.  Heated arguments and denigration of people has happened with religious underpinning.  This is all true.  But the same can be said of non-religious aspects of society as well.  There  is something about human nature that leads to such things.

But religion has also been a very positive force for good in society as well.  Who do you think gave the moral underpinning for welfare?  Who do you think started most hospitals?  Food banks?   Homeless shelters?  As far as the Church is concerned, which countries have the most freedom and civil rights?  Here's a hint: try looking up those founded upon Christian principles.

For all its faults, the world would be worse without religion.  And without religion.  Without doctrine.  Without a sense of what is of the Holy Spirit and what is of the spirit of evil, many more people would get lead down some very dark paths. 

This youtube video is good in that it makes religious folks like myself, and the institution to which I belong, the Lutheran Church, examine ourselves and make sure we are preaching the True Faith--the faith of Jesus.  But to paint Jesus and Religion as polar opposites, I do not think is helpful.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Teaching Prayer to My Kids

In our baptismal service, parents and sponsors promise to do the following for their child(ren):

...faithfully bring them to the services of Gods house, teach them the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, and the Ten Commandments.  As they grow in years, you should place in their hands the Holy Scriptures and provide for their instruction in the Christian faith... (Lutheran Book of Worship p. 121)
Roughly three months ago, my wife and I started emphasizing the Lord's Prayer with my kids, teaching it to them and praying with them before bed.  They picked up on it pretty quick now to the point they will sometimes each ask to pray the prayer individually after we have prayed it collectively.  It's pretty cool to hear each kid recite the prayer in his or her own unique fashion.

My eldest starts off, "Our Father, the Lord in Heaven, hallowed be my name..."  Hasn't quite got that "thy" word down just yet.

My middle child sometimes forgets and asks, "How does that part go?" and then she proceeds to move through the prayer lisping cutely.

My youngest still can't quite pronounce all the sounds and diphthongs of the English language even though he's got the Lord's Prayer down pat.  "Our Fadder, who art in heaben..."

I always enjoy listening to my children pray in this fashion, and I'm excited that they actually want to lead the family prayer themselves--unafraid to pray out loud in front of a small group--even though it is our family unit.  Not too many Lutherans I know of are willing to stick their necks out in such a fashion.

Ah, but interestingly enough, my eldest stopped me in my tracks last night.  "Daddy, you need to teach us some more prayers that we do at church!" 

"Which ones, sweetie?"

"You know, the ones we do at church all the time!"

Well, I"m not exactly a mind reader at this point, so I'm going to bring my worship hymnal home tonight and find out which prayer she's talking about.  Don't know if it might be the Apostles' Creed or the prayer of the day or the prayers of the church (of which I use the same one based upon the Lord's Prayer each Sunday).  Hey, it could even be the Words of Institution.  I don't know.

And in one way, it doesn't matter either.


Something is stirring within her to learn more, and as a good Lutheran, I know it's the Holy Spirit.  Who am I to deny this?  I'm excited as a pastor and as a father that I have the opportunity to help my kids grow in the faith. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sermon Delivered 1/15/2011: Glorify God in Your Bodies

You can’t turn on the t.v. now a days without seeing one. You can’t log onto the internet without catching at least one headline about it either. Right up there with politics is a bunch of stuff about health and fitness. You name it, it’s there–from which diets offer the tastiest food, to the eight best foods for burning fat, to the eight best exercises for rock hard abs. And, of course, there is the latest news on the obesity epidemic and how all of us need to have the perfect Body Mass Index. We even hear stories of schools in Chicago implementing mandatary buying of school lunches because they are healthier for you. Over and over again, we get assaulted by these stories of how we should be taking better care of our bodies.

On the one hand, these stories give us a tremendous sense of guilt. I mean, who really has time to implement all the things these stories tell you to do? How many of us have the resources to eat perfectly healthy as we go about our daily lives? I mean, I’ve got three kids who are very picky about what they eat. Have you ever tried to get kids to appreciate the goodness of asparagus? It ain’t easy, my friends, and when you pop those chicken nuggets in the microwave to avoid the fight, you sigh heavily and wonder if you are permanently damaging your kids’ health. –As just an aside, my pediatrician once said it’s remarkable how kids can survive on macaroni and cheese for a whole year or two and still turn out fine. If you are like me, don’t feel too guilty. But those stories and pieces of advice are few and far between. No. Instead we get images of people with toned arms, legs, and abs. We get told over and over again that we need to be doing at least 30 minutes of exercise per day. And if we’re not doing such a thing, we are some sort of horrible person.

On the other hand, these stories can also inspire us and motivate us to actually take care of ourselves. I know that I’ve found a few in particular that have helped me as I have tried to stay in shape and work out. I found a great one on kettlebell and another one on a push up and squat routine. I even found one that informed me that bike riding burned more calories than walking. I’ve made a few dietary changes based upon some of these articles as well, and I hope for the better. Time will tell. I’ll keep reading some of the articles and perhaps making adjustments in my diet and in my exercise, but it’s not because I am guilty about the way my body looks. It’s not because I believe I need to be healthier to live longer. Neither is it to decrease my Body Mass Index. Truth be known, I’m actually trying to increase that right now, but that’s beside the point. One of the reasons I strive to take care of myself is found in our second lesson this morning from the book of 1 Corinthians.

St. Paul is addressing some sticky issues in the church at Corinth. Remember, St. Paul strongly preached that we are saved by grace through faith alone and not by any works that we could possibly do. In fact, Paul went so far as to say that we are no longer under the discipline of the Law. If you don’t believe me, take a gander at Galatians chapter 3. Verses 23-26 read, "Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith." The folks in Corinth read this, and they ran with it. They basically thought, "Well, if we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, we can just do whatever we want. We can have all the fun in the world because all things are lawful!"

Paul doesn’t disagree. Take note of that. Paul agrees with them in saying that all things are lawful, but he adds a very important caveat, "All things are lawful, but not all things are beneficial. All things are lawful, but I will not be dominated by anything." Paul goes on to talk about food and extra marital sex. Food is for the stomach and the stomach is for food, but God will destroy both. And our bodies are made for the Lord and the Lord for our bodies. They are not made for sexual impurity. Paul argues vehemently that since our bodies are members of Christ’s body, there are certain things that are not beneficial when two become one flesh.
And as Paul begins wrapping up his argument, he says something else that is very, very important.

Paul says in verse 19, "Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?" Take note of this because of it’s implications. "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God." Think about that for just a minute and realize that Paul is not only talking to those in Corinth, but he is talking to you and me as well. "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you which you have from God." Your body is a temple where God lives. What do you think this means when it comes to taking care of the place where God lives? Do you think this means we should do whatever we want to our bodies? Do you think this means we should abuse our bodies and put them through all kinds of punishing things?

No! Not in the least. If God lives in us...if our bodies are His temple, then shouldn’t we care for His temple? Shouldn’t we seek to fix it up and keep it in good shape? Shouldn’t we care for it and treat it as something precious? Personally, I know this motivates me to continue to exercise. It makes me continue to work to stay in shape. It motivates me to eat a little more healthier and make choices that honor this temple of God. I don’t exercise because I feel guilty. I exercise because I want to care for God’s temple. I’m trying to take Paul’s next admonition seriously, "For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body."

Oh, but I would be remiss if I didn’t also put in another one of the implications of what Paul says here. Yes, we are to glorify God in our bodies. Yes, we are to care for them. Yes, we are to make good choices based upon the fact that not all things are beneficial. All of this is very important. And, yet, it is only focused on ourselves. As Christians we are not only supposed to be focused on ourselves, we are also called to care for others. Sometimes that is a difficult task.

Again, think about Paul’s statement, "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God." Turn and look at the person sitting next to you. Turn and look around the church at all the people gathered here this morning. Realize that Paul has spoken this sentence to each and every one of them. Realize that all of us who are here this morning are temples of the Holy Spirit. All of us here this morning have God’s Spirit living within us, and realizing that, let me ask this question: How do you treat God’s temple? How do you treat someone who has God’s Spirit living within him or her?

Mother Teresa once said, "I believe in person to person; every person is Christ to me, and since there is only one Jesus, that person is only one person in the world for me at that moment..." What would our world look like if we treated one another in this fashion? What would our church look like if we treated one another as if we were seeing God living in each person who came through that door? What if we recognized that not only were we bought with a price but so was each and every child of God? Would that change the way we operated?

Christ admonishes us today, "Glorify God in our bodies." Let us not only remember to do this with ourselves, but to also recognize this in our neighbors as well. Amen.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Not Looking for a Pi$$ing Contest, but...

Normally, I wouldn't blog about this, but I was actually asked to by a former Marine who I really respect.  He asked for my take on the whole ordeal.

Some of you may have seen the headlines or the video about the four U.S. Marines who desecrated the bodies of three Taliban terrorists by urinating on them.


First off, those of you reading this need to know I have a very high respect for those who serve in the military.  My  grandfather fought in WWII, and his respect for our nation and willingness to fight for it rubbed off on me.  I never considered entering the armed forces because my grandfather strongly encouraged us to do other things.  He'd seen combat.  He described it as hell, and he didn't want any of his family to ever have to go through it.  In a rather interesting twist, I headed in almost the exact opposite direction: clergy.  "Blessed are the peacemakers..."

Which, of course brings me to my perspective based as someone who seeks to be a follower of Jesus.  It would be quite easy for me to go off on these soldiers by simply offering up the words of Jesus, "Pray for your enemies and bless those who persecute you."  (Matt. 5: 43-44)  Indeed, these soldiers and our nation stand condemned by Jesus' words. 

If we were truly seeking to follow Jesus as people and as a nation, we wouldn't be using weapons to kill one another in the first place.  I believe Jesus understood that every person was and is a creation of the Father.  God longs to be in a relationship with each and every human being.  We sing the children's hymn, "Jesus loves the little children.  All the children of the world.  Red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in His sight.  Jesus loves the little children of the world."  News flash: He loves the adults too.

But He doesn't always like what we do.  Especially when we demonize one another.  Asking us to pray for our enemies makes us aware that they are human too.  Asking us to pray for our enemies and bless those who persecute us makes us acknowledge that they, like us are God's creation.  It's much harder to pull the trigger when you see someone as your brother or sister instead of as a faceless, nameless, somewhat less than human other.

Which brings us to the horrid reality of war.  At this point, I am not speaking from experience only from what I have heard.  I might be dead wrong about these next few statements.  If so, please forgive me.  I confess ignorance.

From what I understand, in order to engage in war, one must psychologically see the other as an enemy.  One must see them as deserving death.  One must see them as an unequal in order to justify killing another.  Slipping into this mindset is made a whole lot easier when you see what folks like the Taliban are capable of...when you hear stories of how they treat women; when you see stories of how they desecrate things important to other cultures and other religions; when you see stories of how they execute civilians for exercising what we see as human rights and freedoms.  Slipping into this mindset is also easier when those same folks are shooting at  you trying to kill you, bomb you, and blow you up.  This mindset soon becomes the mindset you take toward the Taliban and whoever might be related to them.  And when this mindset takes over, you have no respect for your enemy.

Thus, urinating on their dead bodies.  Forcing them to pose naked in prison.  Cutting their heads off so the internet world can view them.  Torturing them for no apparent reason, or whatever other abuse you can think of.

Unfortunately, this is the reality of war.  Atrocities are committed by both sides who engage in combat.  We can feign being shocked all we want.  We can say those soldiers should never have done this.  We can decry their actions, condemn them, court martial the soldiers or what have you. 

But to yours truly, this is just a superficial show.  If we really want to get pissed, instead of singling out these four soldiers, let's take a look at ourselves and our failure to live up to what is best about being human.  Let's take a look in the mirror and see how we have contributed to a world that settles disputes and arguments with violence instead of negotiation.  Let's take a look at how we have sought to look down upon the other instead of seeing him or her as a member of the human race who is supposed to be treated with dignity and respect.

And let's also realize there are those who don't give a darn about the above qualities.  Let's realize there are those who are willing to trample over the human rights of others--who do not believe because of their faith or philosophy that individuals eve  have rights.  Let's realize there are others who are not of our persuasion who do not view the world as we do or view the sacredness of life as we do.  Let's realize this world just ain't quite as perfect as we'd like.

And let's realize that we need to be a bit flexible.  We need to remember there is a reason the word forgiveness exists.  And we need to remember how much we have been forgiven.   There's a reason Jesus told the following parable:

23‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves.24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him;25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made.26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.”27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt.28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.”29Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.”30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt.31When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place.32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?”34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt.35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’  --Matthew 18:23-33

Before rushing to too much judgement upon these soldiers or upon our enemies, I would give a cautious reminder to heed Jesus and try to prevent yourself from becoming an unforgiving servant.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Sometimes it Takes a Little While

It's been just over three weeks since I visited one of my members in the nursing home.  The woman I visited today has been through the wringer since July of last year.

She suffered a debilitating stroke.

She endured a lengthy hospitalization while her brain recovered only to be subjected to open heart surgery to clean up an infected heart valve.

After a very short time in ICU, she was sent to a specialty hospital thanks to Medicare's rules regarding how long they will pay for a hospitalization.  All during this time, this woman could not talk.

The specialty hospital stay amounted to time spent in Purgatory.  She didn't receive quality care.  She didn't get the rehab she needed.  She fell one evening and spent close to four hours on the floor.  Of course, since she couldn't speak, she couldn't cry out for help.

She was moved to another rehab facility and stayed as long as Medicare would pay, but she didn't make much progress.

Her family moved her to a local nursing home, and since arriving there, she's made steady progress.

Today, I stopped by before heading to another appointment.  My member was sitting in her wheelchair in the nursing home lobby waiting for dinner.  She smiled and waved at me when I entered.  She hugged me and grasped my hands in welcome.

Her speech still isn't quite back to normal, but we were able to hold somewhat of a conversation.  As I prepared to go, I commented about how she looked stronger and seemed to be doing better.  I asked if her legs had gotten stronger, and I wasn't prepared for what happened next.

She stood up!  Without help.  On her own power.  Perfectly balanced!

It dang near brought tears to my eyes.

Half of her brain was destroyed by that stroke.  For so long she couldn't even come close to functioning, but here she was standing on her own two feet.

I know extensive rehab has helped.  I know she found a spirit of determination which has helped her more.  But I believe extensively that the prayers lifted up for this woman have made a tremendous difference.

More than a few times I've lifted this woman's situation up in prayer.  More than a few times I wondered why things were moving so slowly.  I don't fully know why it took so long, but God is bringing about healing.  Why it happens for some and not for others, I do not comprehend.  One day, I'll know, but it is good to also know that sometimes it just takes a little while.  We shouldn't lose hope because of it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sensing God's Presence

I know God is present at all times and in all places.

Cognitively, I have no disputes about this.  However, I also know I neither practice as though He is present at all times, nor do I sense that presence at all times.  One of the goals of the spiritual life is to come to a place where one's awareness matches this reality.  I'm working on it.

There are times when I don't have to work too hard, however.  In fact, there is a certain time when I have sensed God's presence time and again, over and over--when I take Holy Communion to a person who is beginning that journey toward eternal life.

I wrote about such an encounter here:


Yesterday, I had another.

Bob and Dale have been married over 60 years.  They were married at 16 and have endured much in those years together.  Their greatest challenge has started.  Roughly three months ago, Bob was diagnosed with lung cancer.  He chose not to receive any treatments and let nature run its course.  Bob already has COPD and is weakened by a very bad back.  Chemo would have only extended his life by making it more miserable.  Faced with quality versus quantity, Bob chose quality.

Unfortunately, a few weeks later, he fell and broke his hip.  Surgery was performed, and he was moved to a rehab facility.  Bob's body does not react well to anesthesia, so he developed sundowner's syndrome.  This made things very unpleasant for Dale, but she stuck with him. 

I visited Bob right before Christmas, and he was actually looking and acting very good.  But yesterday, it was evident that things had changed.  He had endured a rough go for a couple of weeks including having a massive intestinal bout.  Even as we sat and visited, his insides weren't all back together.  He tried to eat a little bit of lunch only to have to go to the restroom moments later and vomit.

His daughter informed me this was the process of the cancer spreading.  It would move to his throat and esophagus and then to his brain.  They would be moving him today to a different facility--a hospice facility.

Sensing that this would be an important visit, I had brought my communion kit along with me.  After Bob finished in the restroom, the nurse left to get him something to settle his stomach.  As we waited, we visited and I informed the group that I had brought Holy Communion should they like to take it.  They readily agreed.

Of course, some of my earthiness came out at that moment.  I looked at Bob and said, "We'll wait for the nurse to get back and give you your medicine.  Let's let your stomach settle a minute.  We don't want you up-chucking Jesus."

That caused a round of laughter. 

After Bob received his medication, I prepared the meal.  My faith is not mature enough that I believe I can offer prayers that will drive cancer out of people.  I have a ways to grow.  I cannot offer someone restoration of health as the apostles once did, but I can offer Jesus.  And as we sat in that room gathered around a make-shift altar, I sensed His presence.  It was strong.  It was palpable.  We entered into another reality of time as bread and wine became His body and blood. 

We ate.  We drank.  We prayed.  And once the meal was over, it was time for me to head out.  I offered them my services at their need.  Perhaps we will get another opportunity to dine and feast with Jesus before Bob's earthly journey comes to an end.  I don't know.  Sometimes cancer moves very rapidly.  But that cancer won't have the last word.  God will.  Of that, I have no doubt.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

I am so Going to Hell for this One

On New Year's Eve my family and I shot off some fireworks.

I loved doing such things when I was a kid, and my children are no different.

I don't spend a lot of money doing so.  I bought roughly $15 worth for 30 minutes of entertainment.  We had a good time.  Except for a few moments.

During the Christmas holidays, my kids were particularly rambunctious.  My eldest is a trouble hunter, and she will literally run over her two younger siblings at times.  While I was shooting off the fireworks, one of those times came.  Instead of walking around to sit in her spot, she decided to jump over the box of fireworks and kick her sister in the face.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth ensued.  As did a liberal dose of scolding from her mother and I.

I then returned to lighting the fireworks.  It just so happened that I was lighting a little thing I called a "chaser."  I don't know if it's the appropriate name for this contraption.  It was a plastic circle with molded wings and a gunpowder filled cylinder in the middle.  When you lit the fuse, the thing spun into the air, flew for a second or two, and sent out with a burst whistling snappers that popped loudly. 

When I lit the "chaser" (I named it thusly when my kids asked me what it was), it flew into the air, sent out its stuff, popped...and then proceeded to head right at my eldest child--who had just kicked her sister.  Unfortunately, it slightly burned her arm and leg, and scared the holy crap out of her.  She started crying liberally, and what did I do? 

Did I comfort her?

Did I tell her this was a freak accident?

No.  I looked her right in the eye and said, "That chaser came after you because you were mean to your sister.  It knew you weren't doing the right thing, and these chasers come after kids who do things that are bad.  You'd better apologize to your sister so that it doesn't happen again."

I am so going to hell for that one.  But guess whose behavior drastically improved the rest of the evening?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sermon Delivered January 8, 2012: Baptism of Jesus

There is an old story about Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, who was a very devout Roman Catholic evangelist. One of the stories that grew out of his ministry concerns a time when he was baptizing new converts in a river. He would wade out waist-deep into the water and call out for new Christians to come to him, one by one, to receive the sacrament.

Once he baptized a mountain chieftain. Saint Patrick was holding a staff in his hands as the new converts made their way into the water. Unfortunately, as he was lowering the chief down under the water three times, he also pressed his staff down into the river bottom.

Afterwards the people on the riverbank noticed their chief limp back to shore. Someone explained to Patrick that, as he pressed the wooden staff into the riverbed, he must have also bruised the foot of the chief. Patrick went to the chief at once and asked, "Why did you not cry out when I stuck you in the foot?"

Surprised the chief answered, "I remembered you telling us about the nails in the cross, and I thought my pain was part of my baptism."

Most of us don’t think this way about baptism. Not in the least. In fact, we usually regard baptism as a warm-fuzzy event. And who wouldn’t? I mean, when we experience baptism in our congregation, it is usually is a heart-warming event. Parents and God-parents gather up here at the front of the church with their little one. We hear words about the miracle God is performing as He adds this little one to His family and to the Church. We ooh and aah as I walk that little child up and down the aisle here and talk about the great thing God has done by bringing this new brother or sister into our midst. Nearly every time, the child smiles and coos as I do this, and it brings smiles to our faces.

Baptizing an adult is a little different, but the same such thoughts are at play. An adult has been touched by the Holy Spirit and has decided to commit his or her lift to following Jesus Christ. That adult now is given the promise that he or she now belongs to God and is a child of God. Even though I don’t carry this person up and down the aisle, we still offer our welcome as God works this miracle of grace. It is a cause for celebration. It is a cause for joy. There is no pain involved.

Oh, but let’s take a step back for a moment. Let’s take a look at our gospel lesson for today from the book of Mark. It’s the story of Jesus’ baptism. Let’s see how it matches up with our perception of what baptism is all about.

John the Baptist is out in the desert proclaiming the Word of God and offering a baptism for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Jesus comes to John to be baptized. As Jesus comes up out of the water, we are told He sees the heavens torn apart, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him as a dove. A voice then thunders from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased!"

At this point, Jesus’ baptism meets all of our warm-fuzzy perceptions. Jesus is announced as the Son of God. Jesus receives the Holy Spirit. God tells Jesus He is pleased with Him. What’s there not to like about this story from Scripture? It’s nice. It’s neat. It’s very affirming especially when we remember our baptism and remember that we too are adopted as God’s children. We too receive the Holy Spirit. We too are told by God, "With you I am well pleased." Case closed. Where’s the pain?

Well, the story of Jesus’ baptism isn’t quite finished yet. We might like it to be, but it’s not. Take a look at verses twelve and thirteen, "12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."

Wait a minute here. What’s this all about? The Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the wilderness? Jesus was in the wilderness 40 days being tempted by Satan that entire time? He was with the wild beasts? That doesn’t sound like too much fun. That doesn’t sound warm and fuzzy. That sounds almost...well...painful. What is the point of all of this being driven, being tempted, and hanging around wild beasts?

Stop and think a moment about one of those dangerous threads that seems to permeate Christianity. It’s the thread that says, "If you commit your life to Christ, and if you believe strongly enough, and if you have enough faith, and if you think enough positive thoughts, then your life will be great. You will have wealth. You will have privilege. You will never suffer or go through tough times."

Hey, you might even get a little of that from me from a certain perspective. I mean, I know that I have repeatedly said that if we follow Jesus and put Him at the center of our lives, we will have peace. We will have joy. We will have contentment. We will have happiness. And I’m not lying when I say this. We will have all these things. However, there is a price we will end up paying as we receive these things. We will have pain. We will also suffer. Because at our baptisms, we are not only called by Christ, we are not only claimed by God, we do not only receive the Holy Spirit, but like Jesus, we too are sent into the world. We are driven into the wilderness where we too face temptation and are surrounded by things that are wild and crazy and obnoxious. We too are assaulted by things that challenge our faith, drive us to despair, and undercut our relationship with God and our relationships with others.

I mean, think about this for a moment. If indeed we are claimed by God... If indeed we are filled with the Holy Spirit... If indeed we seek to follow Jesus’ teachings to love the Lord our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our mind and all our strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves...doesn’t it follow that our hearts will become full of compassion, our hearts will become full of empathy, and our hearts will become full of a desire to ease the suffering of others? And if that is the case, and our hearts become full of such things, doesn’t it follow that we will indeed find the saying of St. Paul true? You know, the one in 1 Corinthians 12: 24-26, " But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it."

"If one member suffers, all suffer together with it." Did you know this was part of being a Christian? Did you know that suffering would be a part of your life if you sought to follow Jesus? Yes. It is. It’s part of being sent into the world. For God does not ask us to simply sit and enjoy our baptisms. He does not ask us to simply kick back with the knowledge that we are His children and relax and watch the world go by. He didn’t do that with Jesus, and He certainly doesn’t do that with us. Instead, God sends us out to proclaim what He has done to others. He sends us out to be His hands, His feet, His eyes, His ears, His shoulders, and His mouth in the world. He sends us out to show compassion to those whom the world has abandoned. He sends us out to offer comfort to those the world has hurt. He sends us out to shine light where there is darkness.

And this is not easy. Not in the least. It’s hard, hard work. It’s difficult leaving comfort and security. It’s difficult taking such risks. It is painful. But as we enter into such things. As we go into the wilderness. As we suffer as Christ suffered and feel the same pain He experienced, we are strangely comforted ourselves. We are strangely met with a peace that passes all understanding. We are reminded that we are God’s children doing God’s work. And joy permeates our being. Yes, this is what happens when we remember that we are baptized and then sent. Amen.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Kiera's Birthday

I still remember the day I first laid eyes on my eldest daughter.  After nine long years of infertility and waiting on adoption lists, the day finally arrived when we became parents.  A young lady by the name of Pam chose my wife and I to be the adoptive parents of her little girl.

The Med at College Station wasn't too crowded that day.  We were led to a room in Labor and Delivery.  Kiera was born at around 8:15 that morning by C-Section.  I remember them wheeling the crib into the room.  Here was this little person.  Tiny, tiny, tiny.  My wife and I took turns holding, cradling, rocking, and enjoying the moment.  We fed her, changed her, and marveled at this life we were being entrusted with.  Among the numerous happy days in my life, this was truly one of the happiest.  Unfortunately, Kiera had to stay in the hospital another day or two before we could take her home.  As we prepared to leave and send her back to the nursery, we kissed her and told her good-by.  As the nurse wheeled her out, I said, "See you tomorrow!"  And she instinctively turned her head toward my voice!  Kiera will never know who her birth-father is, but even at day one, she knew her Daddy.

Two days later, we brought this little bundle of joy home.  We would undergo a six month probation time with the adoption agency, but there were no worries there.  We were more than ready to be parents, and neither of us minded getting up in the middle of the night to feed.  Neither of us minded taking care of diapers or bathing.  Neither of us minded the lack of sleep.  We were overjoyed!  I must confess at this juncture that I was particularly fond of this little girl, and I think she shared the same fondness.  She had a touch of colic.  It wasn't as major as it could have been, but it still affected her.  When it hit, no one could console her.  No one, that is, except me.  I'd stretch her belly out across my chest.  I'd wrap her in my arms.  She'd suck on her "binkie" and in moments would stop crying and go to sleep.  She was my girl.  Case closed.

It's hard to believe seven years have flown by.  It's hard to believe my little girl is growing big!  She's got ear rings now.  She probably knows the ins and outs of my phone and Kindle Fire better than I do.  She is excelling in first grade--an all "A" student.  There's no baby left in her at all.
Except when she comes up to me and raises her arms.  She looks at me and says, "Up hug, Daddy!  Up hug!"  I have to bend my knees a little more now.  I'm glad I've been working out.  Those up hugs require a little more effort.  But I'm giving them as much as I can.  All too soon, I won't be able to do it anymore, and she will not want them.  But for now...

Happy Birthday, Kiera Gail Haug.  We love you very, very much!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Things I've Learned in the Past Year

One more year old today.  38 years on this planet.  Just about 1/2 of my life expectancy.  Last year, I spoke of the things I learned in my lifetime.  Today, I'm going to reflect upon the things I've learned in the past year.

1. The Truth definitely exists, although it's awful hard to see it with perfect clarity.

2. It matters how you think of God when you pray.

3. Kids restrict you in what you do.

4. But I wouldn't trade them for the world.

5. Dogs restrict you too.

6.  See number 4.

7.  Taking an anniversary cruise is definitely worth it--for your relationship, for your stress levels, and for your perspective about life.  The dollars expended matter little.

8.  Grandparents are tremendous when doing number 7.

9.  Reading a few right books is more important than reading a bunch of wrong ones.

10. Droughts in Texas can really suck.

11.  Getting a little bit of rain in the middle of a drought is a joyous occasion.

12.  Lutherans and Catholics can pray for rain together.

13. I missed deer hunting.

14. Deer blinds are great places for thinking, reflecting upon life, and getting away from screaming kids.

15. A wife who lets you do number 14 is worth her weight in gold.

16. Driving through a place that has been damaged by wildfire is extremely humbling.

17.  "Malcolm effects" are real.

18.  God gives strength to get through Malcolm effects.

19.  My congregation is really cool.  (I knew this, but it's affirmed time and again.)

20.  I've still got a lot to learn.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

If I Could Give Advice

This past Sunday, I had one of those conversations that grieved me.

Not in the sense of a breaking relationship or trouble for myself or my congregation, but trouble for another church about an hours drive from me.

One of the son-in-laws of one of my members approached me and asked me to pray for his little congregation.  They have dwindled substantially in the past several years and are now facing the real possibility of closing.  It's a congregation with a long history, and, unfortunately, it might be ending.  According to the gentleman I visited with, the synod office basically advised them to close their doors.

This grieved me.

I do not believe congregations need to close.  Even those who cannot afford a full time, part time, or even a supply pastor.  I believe just about every congregation can grow and thrive regardless of the circumstances--especially if that congregation puts its trust in the power and promise of the Holy Spirit.

No one has asked me for advice on what to do in this situation, but with just the limited amount of information I have, here's what I would suggest:

#1.  Spend some intentional time in prayer asking God to reveal His purpose for the church.  Really be open to His prompting.  Don't have a preconceived idea of what He wants you to do.  Don't come up with an idea and then ask His blessing upon it.  Seek how He might be calling you to spread the good news of His Son in your community.   Don't think you are going to change the world or the community, but think about how God might need you to make an impact in individual lives around you--starting with your neighbors, your friends, and your family.

#2.  Don't rely upon the synod office or a clergy person to turn the church around and make things happen.  The Holy Spirit is gifted to EVERY believer at baptism.  EVERY believer has the opportunity to read, interpret and share God's Word.  Have a group of designated elders who lead sharing God's Word at worship.  It doesn't have to be a formal sermon in any sense of the word.  Just read a Gospel lesson, look at the congregation and ask, "What does this teaching have to do with us today?  How does it apply to our lives today?"  Don't try to get fancy.  Don't worry about the historical context of when the teaching occurred.  Don't worry about the many layers of interpretation that have come down through the ages.  Let those who are gathered for worship add their comments and questions throughout the "sermon."  Let the Word of God become alive and living with all the members in attendance.  YOU DO NOT NEED A CLERGY TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN!

#3. Take a hard look at the hospitality you offer to one another and to those who come into your midst.  Most churches believe they are friendly, and to an extent, they are.  But people pick up on subtle clues.  For instance, when I was in seminary, I supplied for a local country parish on a semi-regular basis.  One Sunday, they had a pot-luck following worship.  My wife and I were invited.  Congregation members had told us how nice it was we were with them and how much they appreciate me helping them out.  They asked me to lead the prayer for the pot-luck and then they allowed my wife and I to go through the line first.  We did and proceeded to sit down at one of the tables in the fellowship hall.  There were two sets of long tables, and we sat at the end of one.  All of the chairs filled up long before someone actually came and sat down beside my wife and I.  The actions of the church spoke much louder than their words.  True hospitality neither smothers nor ignores guests.  There is a delicate balance that is walked, and many congregations truly need to take a hard look at how folks are welcomed.

#4. Take a good hard look at how important your faith and worship life really is.  Is church something you "do" when you have spare time?  How committed are you to being in worship on a VERY regular basis?  Can you invite others to focus on God's love if it isn't first important to you?  Commitment is a thing that is rarely seen in our day and age.  See if you need to re-discover it.

I wouldn't go much further than this.  Are there other things to cover?  Sure.  But I don't believe it takes much for a congregation to begin spreading the Gospel and beginning to grow.  God has a habit of working through people who place Him and His will first in their lives and in the life of their churches.