Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Beer Fast

Several days ago, one of my friends on Facebook linked this article about a guy who sought out to try an ancient tradition practiced by some Bavarian monks:  A beer fast.

Personally, I found the article intriguing as Wilson embarked upon this journey not as any sort of fad diet or weight-loss program, but as a spiritual discipline and research project.  Reading his article and reflection confirms much of what I had read about fasting for extended periods of time. 

Of course, with the media attention Wilson received, suddenly the Beer Fast has become a diet program.  Here's an interesting video from Fox that I came across today:

The difference between Wilson's reflections and the two people in the video is stark.  Neither of the folks in the video could endure the fast and gave up before the week was over. 

In my estimation, there is a reason: they weren't trying a spiritual discipline.  Such disciplines invite us to give up something dear to us so that we can focus our thoughts on God.  With God's help, such discipline gives us focus, clarity, and enhances our lives--just like it did with Wilson.  If we are doing such a thing for our own benefit (like the folks in the video), it will turn into a horrible experience.

Just a word of advice for anyone who wants to do a beer diet to loose weight: don't.  But if you want to go on a beer fast--using Wilson as an example--to enhance your spiritual growth, do it.  One will be a horrible experience.  The other will probably bring you great joy.

Interrupting Ring

Yesterday, I went to visit one of my congregation members who was recovering from shoulder replacement surgery.  I love visiting this particular member because she embodies hospitality.  Her parents owned a pub in England, and she grew up welcoming guests every day.

She is always warm and generous.  Even when she is having a rough go at things, she will always put a smile on her face to welcome you.  Never have I visited without her offering a drink of some sort--even when she would have had difficulty getting it.  Pleasant of demeanor, she nearly always tries to put the best possible understanding on a person's actions. 

About half-way through our visit, my cell phone rang.  Generally, the accepted practice in our age is to take the call even when visiting with someone.  I think I shocked my host and the lady who was helping her do basic things during her recovery.  I looked at my phone, didn't recognize the number, and stuffed the phone back into my holder.

I received some very shocked looks.

"Are you sure you don't need to get that?" my host asked.

"It wasn't my wife or a number I recognized that might be an emergency.  It can wait,"  I replied.

"Are you sure?"


A few moments later, the text tone went off on the phone.  I excused myself to look at the text and promptly responded barely breaking the conversation.

My host grew worried again, "Are you sure you really don't need to check that?"

I responded, "There is a reason they have voicemail on these things.  If that's an emergency or a serious deal, they will call back immediately.  I have a more pressing concern, visiting with you."

The look on my member's face was priceless.  I think it was the last thing she expected me to say because it's not necessarily the expected behavior in this day of cell phones.  Most of the time, we believe the call we receive is more important than the people who are right in front of us.

I call B.S. and shame on us for thinking we absolutely have to take every call even if we are in the midst of a conversation with someone right in front of us.  Most of the time, those things can wait.  By taking such calls--especially if they are not emergencies--we send quite a nasty message to those with whom we are talking with.  We essentially say to them, "You are important unless I get interrupted by the phone.  I'll give you my attention unless someone else needs to talk to me."  Bad form.

I know not many folks will dare to change such behavior, but I'm going to continue to do so.  Why?

Well, I could just picture a 21st Century Jesus sitting down with me to offer a prayer for me and then getting a call on His cell phone.  Do you think He would say, "Wait a moment while I get this."  or would He ignore it to finish His business with you?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Just to Let You Know

To my fellow readers,

I wish to inform you that I am embarking on a bit of a journey in the next few months.  Through prayer and study, some things have opened up to me that I will be pursuing.  I am really struggling to get my head around some very difficult concepts and how they apply not only to the Christian faith, but to my life and life within the Church.

In all possibility, I will be writing a second book as I try to systematically put these concepts down, and hopefully they will be easily understood.  (Not sure that they will be because of the subject matter, but we shall see.)  I am hoping that the study and writing I will be doing will not affect too much the amount of posting that I do on this blog.  Yet, I do know the last time I put a book together, there were several things that suffered.  I just don't know at this juncture.

Please bear with me if I don't quite post as much or as often.  I'll try to keep things going on a very regular basis.



Monday, February 27, 2012

Sermon Delivered February 26, 2012: The Root of Temptation

I’d actually like to begin my sermon this morning with a troubling teaching that Jesus gave His followers. It can be found in the book of Matthew chapter 5 beginning at verse 27. If you would like to follow along in the Bibles in your pews, please turn to page __. Jesus says,

27"You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.
Now, the adultery part is difficult enough, but it’s understandable. Jesus intentionally came to show each and every one of us that we are sinful despite our best efforts to think that we are not. There were more than a few groups in Jesus’ day who thought themselves above everyone else because they adhered to God’s laws. Jesus pushed them very hard in this regard. He didn’t want anyone to think he or she was any less sinful than anyone else. All need God’s grace, and with one fell swoop, he brought every male to his knees with this teaching. As I said, difficult, but understandable.

It’s the next teaching that has given many fits for generations. "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one part of your members than for your whole body to go into hell."

Now, I’ve heard more than a few folks say that Jesus is using hyperbole here, meaning Jesus is intentionally using something extreme to grab your attention. He doesn’t really mean that we should go and cut out our eye or cut off our hand. They point to the fact that there aren’t exactly too many Christians who literally do this. Even Jesus’ disciples didn’t do such a thing. Jesus couldn’t really have meant what He said.

Well, of course, maybe those who explain this text in this fashion are correct. Maybe Jesus didn’t mean that we should cut out our eye or off our hand. Maybe Jesus was using something extreme to get our attention. But what if Jesus was indeed being serious? Maybe He really meant what he said. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. For it is better to lose these members than to spend an eternity in hell. Honestly, this is a true statement. It would be better to go through this life without an eye or without a hand than to spend eternity in hell. There is no doubt in my mind about that. So why don’t Christians pluck out their eyes or cut off their hands?

Well, take some time to think really hard about Jesus’ teaching here. Contemplate it for just a moment and emphasize the word IF. IF your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. IF your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Let me ask you a couple of quick questions as you contemplate that word IF. Does your eye cause you to sin? Does your hand cause you to sin?

Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus is giving us this teaching to point out the absurdity of blaming our eyes or our hands for our sinfulness. Perhaps, just perhaps, Jesus is being downright literal to make us dig down to the root of what causes us to sin, and we can actually see that root in the words of our second lesson this morning from the book of James.

James writes, "13No one, when tempted, should say, "I am being tempted by God"; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. 14But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it; 15then, when that desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, and that sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death."

According to James, where does sin originate?

In our desire.

Where does that desire originate? Does it originate in our eye? Does it originate in our hand? Of course not. Not a chance. Desire does not originate in our eyes or in our hands: it originates in our hearts and minds. This is what Jesus is trying to get across to you and me in His teachings throughout scripture. Why is this so important?

Simply put, Jesus doesn’t just want us to do good things. He wants us to be good people. Let me illustrate this further by returning to Jesus’ sermon on the mount. This time, let’s look at a few verses in chapter six beginning with verse 1:

"Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. 2"So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 3But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. .

5"And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you

Now, there’s certainly nothing wrong with giving alms or giving to the poor. And there’s nothing wrong with praying. Both of these are considered very good things that Christians ought to practice. But, you will notice that Jesus condemns those who give alms so that everyone else can see them. You will notice that Jesus condemns those who pray out in public so that everyone can see them. Why?

Their desires aren’t to give for the sake of giving. Their desire isn’t to pray for God’s sake. They are not seeking to honor God by their gifts or by their prayers–they want others to see them. They want others to consider them good people, holy people. They want others to give them kudos for being nice and prayerful people. As such, they are really being self-centered and not God-centered. They are doing good deeds, but they are not being good people.

It is Jesus’ desire that we become good people. It is Jesus’ desire that our hearts are tuned to Him to reflect His nature and give glory to our Father who is in heaven, and there is some bad news and some good news in this regard.

The bad news is that we cannot simply overcome our desires. Our human nature is warped. No matter how hard we struggle, there will always be pride that surfaces. There will always be self-centeredness. There will always be lust and envy and greed. These parts of our hearts will constantly drag us toward those desires which lead to sin.

But, there is good news. James leaves us with these thoughts, "17Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. 18In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures."

For you see, God, through Jesus Christ has given us birth by the word of truth. He has come into our lives and works in our hearts and minds to combat those desires which lead to sin. He constantly shines His light into us to transform us to help us become better people. You don’t have to pluck out your eye or cut off your hand. Just give God room to work and He will help you overcome the root of temptation. Amen.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon

We received the following story by email this past week.  I thought there was some practical application for Ash Wednesday.

While walking down the street one day a corrupt Senator (that might be redundant) was tragically hit by a car and died.

His soul arrives in heaven and is met by St. Peter at the entrance.

"Welcome to heaven," says St.. Peter. "Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we're not sure what to do with you."

"No problem, just let me in," says the Senator.

"Well, I'd like to, but I have orders from the higher ups. What we'll do is have you spend one day in hell and one in heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity."

"Really? I've made up my mind. I want to be in heaven," says the Senator.

"I'm sorry, but we have our rules."

And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course.

In the distance is a clubhouse and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him.

Everyone is very happy and in evening dress. They run to greet him, shake his hand, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people.

They played a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster, caviar and the finest champagne.

Also present is the devil, who really is a very friendly guy who is having a good time dancing and telling jokes.

They are all having such a good time that before the Senator realizes it, it is time to go.

Everyone gives him a hearty farewell and waves while the elevator rises.

The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens in heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him. "Now it's time to visit heaven."

So, 24 hours passed with the Senator joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.

"Well, then, you've spent a day in hell and another in heaven. Now choose your eternity."

The Senator reflects for a minute, then he answers: "Well, I would never have said it before; I mean heaven has been delightful, but I think I would be better off in hell."

So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to hell.

Now the doors of the elevator open, and he's in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage.

He sees all his friends, dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags as more trash falls to the ground.

The devil comes over to him and puts his arm around his shoulders.

"I don't understand," stammers the Senator. "Yesterday I was here, and there was a golf course and clubhouse, and we ate lobster and caviar, drank champagne, and danced and had a great time. Now there's just a wasteland full of garbage, and my friends look miserable. What happened?"

The devil smiles at him and says: "Yesterday we were campaigning; today, you voted."

I couldn’t help but chuckle at this joke. Particularly since I don’t hold most politicians in high esteem, but there is a rather serious thing that this joke does point out about humankind.

Most of us know if we were given a choice to choose between heaven and hell we should choose heaven.
We know that’s the right answer. We know heaven is where God is and where we are meant to be eternally. Cognitively, our brains know this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Just as cognitively, our brains know we are supposed to choose right over wrong. We know there are things we should do and things we should not do. As Christians, that which is right has been given to us through God’s law. We read it on most pages of the Bible. Beginning with the 10 Commandments, God has given us the instructions on how we should live with Him and with one another. We know this. They are there on the pages in black and white. We know we should choose them, but most of the time we don’t.

You see, Satan comes along and dresses the wrong up so that it looks nice and neat. He makes it look so inviting, so pleasing both to mind and body. We look at those things that are wrong and believe they will satisfy us, give us pleasure, and make us happy. We know we should choose otherwise, but it is our nature to turn from God and give into sin–to choose poorly.

You might want to argue with me. You might want to say that surely this is not the case. You might want to say, "I’m a pretty good person." To this I reply, "By whose standards? Your own or God’s?" For if we wish to be judged by God’s standards, we must pass His test. And let’s take a look at a portion of that test right now.

__ I always love God with all my heart, mind, and soul. (Matthew 22:37

__ I always love my neighbor as much as I love myself. (Matthew 22:39)

__ I have given up everything I have to follow Jesus. (Matthew 19:21)

__ I never get angry with my neighbor or call him a good-for-nothing. (Matthew 5:22)

__ I never look at a person of the opposite sex with thoughts about having sexual intercourse. (Matthew

__ I never swear. (Matthew 5:34)

__ I always do good to others when they do things to hurt me. (Matthew 5:38)

__ I love my enemies and pray that God will bless them. (Matthew 5:43)

__ I never judge others, but always put the best construction on their behavior. (Matthew 7:1)

__ Whenever I do something good for someone else, I keep it a secret and do not let others know about it. (Matthew 6:2)

__ I am happy when someone makes fun of my being a Christian. (Matthew 5:10)

__ I always forgive others when they do me wrong. (Matthew 6:2)

__ I never worry about food or clothing. (Matthew 6:31)

__ I love God more than my family, my friends or myself. (Matthew 10:37)

__ Whenever I see someone in need, I always help them. (Matthew 10:42)

__ I regularly feed the poor, visit prisoners, put strangers up for the night, give clothes to the needy and visit
those who are sick. (Matthew 25:35-36)

How well did you do on this list? How well do you do in attempting to live life in this manner? Are you even attempting to put these things into practice day after day after day?

The God-honest truth of the matter is, most of us don’t. Most of us don’t even come close. I know that I don’t. I’m a pastor, someone who leads a portion of Christ’s church, and I don’t even come close to living my life in this manner. And so, I stand before you this evening as someone who doesn’t measure up. Who can’t measure up. I am not worthy to carry the name of Christian, and I am certainly not worthy to be called a pastor.

Hence, in the spirit of Ash Wednesday; in the spirit of self-reflection; in the spirit of truth telling and repentance, as I once did during a Sunday morning service, I offer to resign my position of pastor. I cannot measure up to the reality of the life I am called to live, and sometimes I confess I don’t even try. I get caught up in my anger; my frustration; my stubbornness, and my unwillingness to change. I become too prideful and too arrogant for my own good. Such a man should not be a pastor of a church.

Congregation responds: We agree you do not measure up to the life you are called to lead, but we reject your resignation. For we have something to confess to you as well. We do not measure up either. We fall far short. There are too many times when we do not follow the teachings of the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. There are too many times when we do things which are not worthy of the Body of Christ. We do not welcome all who need to be welcomed. We do not always love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We only extend forgiveness when it is convenient. And this is only the start. In reality, we are not worthy to be called a church.

Pastor: But God forgives you.

Congregation: And God forgives you.

All: This is good news. Even in our fallenness, God has chosen to work through us. And so we recommit ourselves to work together in mission and ministry as Pastor and Congregation–to forgive one another and work together for God’s Kingdom. Amen.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

I Wonder...

I am re-reading Timothy Keller's book: The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.   It's amazing how much I am picking up that I missed by re-reading.  And I will have to read it at least a few more times. 

This go round, I came across a snippet that I had partially highlighted but don't think I thought about deeply enough.  Here's the passage by Keller:

Why did Jesus die for us?  What was Jesus getting out of it?  Remember, he already had a community of joy, glory, and love [in his relationship of the Trinity].  He didn't need us.  So what benefit did he derive from this?  Not a thing.  And that means that when he came into the world and died on the cross to deal with our sins, he was circling and serving us.  "I have given them the glory that you gave me" (John 17).  He began to do with us what he had been doing with the Father and the Spirit from all eternity.  He centers upon us, loving us without benefit to himself.  pp. 220-221 (bold emphasis mine)
That last sentence stopped me in my tracks.  It made me think about my church: the ELCA.  It made me think about our declining worship attendance, declining resources, and state of high anxiety.  It made me think about congregations and their ability to reach out into their communities with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

And it made me ask: are we imitating Jesus when we seek to proclaim the news of His death and resurrection?  Are we imitating Him when we seek to make disciples of all nations and teach them everything He commanded?  Are we imitating Him by centering ourselves on others, loving them WITHOUT BENEFIT TO OURSELVES?

Or, are we seeking to increase our worship attendance?

Are we seeking to get members?

Are we seeking to make ourselves look better by the tangible things of increased offerings, etc.?

There is so much talking about righting the ship of the ELCA and reversing the trends of decline, but is it even possible to enter into the thought that such a thing will not be done unless we give up thinking there will be some benefit to ourselves?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Visiting with C.S. Lewis

A couple of years ago, I was introduced to a whole new avenue of Christian thought--one I had not been exposed to in college or seminary or by any recommendation from any bishop or pastor I had met.  It was a congregation member who gave me a book entitled A Place for Truth: Leading Thinkers Explore Life's Hardest Questions.  Reading the book was like a dehydrated soul drinking from the deepest, coolest well. 

Authors like Timothy Keller, Mary Poplin, Oz Guiness, Richard John Neuhaus, Francis Collins, and N.T. Wright helped me tremendously with many issues I had wrestled with since getting both my B.A. in Theology and my Master of Divinity.  I've talked about some of those things in earlier postings.  While reading these authors, one name kept surfacing time and again: C.S. Lewis.  Most had great respect for him and his writings.

This caused some "profound brain things" to happen (apologies to the movie Madagascar).  Of course, I had heard the name.  I had read a few of his writings, namely The Chronicles of Narnia.  But I had never read his more serious works--works being cited time and again by the above named Christian thinkers.  I began wondering just why I had never been assigned any reading of his work by my professors.  I began wondering why this apologist (i.e. a defender of the Christian faith) of last century was glossed over by my education.  Curiosity got the better of me as did a desire to read what many had cited so often.  I purchased Mere Christianity for my Kindle.

Before long, I figured it out.  Lewis's world view and understandings of Christianity clashed greatly with many of my professor's own world views and understandings of Christianity.

For instance, Lewis understood Christianity to have the ultimate claim on Truth among all world religions.  This doesn't mean he didn't respect their viewpoints, but he held tenaciously to the idea Christianity had it right.  He'd argue some religions came closer to the truth than others and should be respected for that, but he argued--rather successfully I would say--that Christianity was the top dog.  Most of my professors would turn up their noses at such an idea.  Most of my professors were universalists who argued Christianity was but one path to the top of the same mountain--an argument easily debunked by most serious theologians.

Secondly, Lewis does not buy into the concept of relativity--there are many truths and no absolute Truth.  Lewis argues that Truth does exist and it is folly to suggest otherwise.  Many of my professors adhered to some form of relativism.

Thirdly, Lewis's commentary on morals would drive most of my professors absolutely nuts!  That's all I'll say on that one.

Now, I respect the fact that many of my profs didn't agree with Lewis.  I respect the fact they taught something very different, but I am a little disturbed at this point.  For I believe the goal of education is to open a person's mind up to the various arguments people put forth regarding whatever subject matter a person is studying.  I believe the goal of education is to give people the chance to study across the spectrum of thought and then allow them to solidify their own understandings of the subject matter--even if it disagrees with your own.  I am wondering why my professors never gave me the chance to do so?  Is it because they didn't like the challenge of Lewis and others?  Is it because they had difficulty overcoming their arguments?  Is it because they wanted their students to adhere to their own worldviews and so did not thoroughly subject us to any others?

I wish I knew the answers to these questions because I believe I found something in Lewis, in Wright, in Poplin, in Guiness, in Keller and in others.  I believe I have found the ability to address many of the critiques offered by others in the culture directed toward Christianity.

Too often I have discovered that most Christians are ineffective at engaging the questions thrown at them by the surrounding cultural milieu:

How can Christianity be so exclusive?
Christianity is just a bunch of rules and regulations.
Science has disproved Christianity.
One must leave one's faith at the door when engaging in public discourse because reason is a better judge of things. 

Lewis and others give a Christian the tools to address these thoughts without having to slip down the path of relativity and cultural acceptance or the path of ultra-conservatism--the argument of "the Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.  Neither has ever been acceptable in my book because they both fall short.  Relativity makes faith lose power.  Ultra-conservatism gives no credence to the questions asked by culture.

The orthodox positions of Lewis and others gives Christians the tools to be engaging while being true to our faith.  I wish I had read his thoughts many years ago.

Of course, I am thankful I have gotten the chance to do some visiting with C.S. Lewis at this point in my life and ministry.  I think I will do some further visiting with a few more of his books.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sermon Delivered February 19, 2012: Treasure in Clay Jars

Some of you may remember the Country and Western singer John Anderson. He sang a little song called "I’m Just an Old Chunk of Coal." Take a listen:

I'm just an old chunk of coal
But I'm gonna be a diamond someday
I'm gonna grow and glow 'til I'm so blue pure perfect
I'm gonna put a smile on ev'rybody's face
I'm gonna kneel and pray ev'ry day
Lest I should become vain along the way
I'm just and old chunk of coal now Lord
But I'm gonna be a diamond someday

I'm gonna learn the best way to walk
I’m gonna search and find a better way to talk
I'm gonna spit and polish my old rough-edged self
'Til I get rid of ev'ry single flaw
Well I'm gonna be the world's best friend
Gonna go 'round shakin' ev'rybody's hand
I’m gonna be the cotton pickin’ rage of the age
Hey I’m gonna be a diamond someday

I'm just an old chunk of coal
But I'm gonna be a diamond someday
I'm gonna grow and glow 'til I'm so blue pure perfect
I'm gonna put a smile on ev'rybody's face
I'm gonna kneel and pray ev'ry day
Lest I should become vain along the way
I'm just and old chunk of coal now Lord
But I'm gonna be a diamond someday

I thought about this song when I read our second lesson and our Gospel lesson for this week from the books of 2nd Corinthians and Mark respectively because in many ways both of these texts are about change.
Mark’s story of the transfiguration of Jesus is rather obvious because Jesus is transformed or changed in the presence of Peter, James, and John. His clothing becomes dazzling white, and the disciples are given clear instructions, "This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!" The change in Jesus’ appearance and the voice from heaven are meant to show where Jesus’ authority and power come from, and I believe they were there for the benefit of the disciples to compel them to become even firmer in their conviction to follow Jesus.

In the same way, I believe we are urged through this text to become even more secure in our conviction that Jesus is Lord and Savior of all. I believe we are urged to take seriously our own callings to be Jesus’ followers, and to conform our lives to his.

And this is where things get a little tricky and where are second lesson comes in. Paul talks of the traits and qualities that Christians share. He says, "Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. 2We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God."

Now, let’s break Paul’s statement down piece by piece. First, he says that we as Christians do not lose hope. You and I know we live in a world that oftentimes drags us down into the pits of despair. We suffer. We grieve. We get stressed out and lonely. Whenever you turn on the television or radio, someone is always trying to scare you and tell you how bad things are or how bad they are going to get. Add to this the frantic pace of most of our lives, and you have a recipe for depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. Paul firmly states that Christians do not head down that pathway because we trust in God. Plain and simple. When you trust that God has a plan and a purpose, you can always live in hope.

Secondly, Paul says that we renounce the shameful things one hides. Of course, Paul is talking about our sin. Most of the stuff we do wrong, we tend to do it where no one is watching. We hide it away from everything because we know it’s wrong, and we don’t want to be discovered. Paul says, that we shine the light of Jesus into these hiding places. Jesus’ light drives off the darkness so that we can freely renounce the things we once did.

Thirdly, Paul says Christians refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word. We do not seek to deceive anyone. We are truthful. We do not seek to get our point across by deception, rather we are honest and above board. This even extends to God’s word. We are not supposed to water it down or make it more palatable for others. We are to speak it truthfully, honestly, yet with great love. We aren’t supposed to lie about what is and is not a part of God’s word. We must realize that folks can and will check to see if we are speaking the truth; and we must realize God asks us to speak the truth.

For most Christians, we realize this means our lives have to undergo change constantly. In each of these points, we are constantly at war with our sinful nature which seeks to drag us back–drag us back to hopelessness–drag us back into sin–and drag us back into deceitfulness–drag us back to falsifying God’s word. Yet, there is a big difference between us and what John Anderson sings about. If you listened very closely to the song, you heard John say, "I’m going to learn the best way to talk. I’m going to search and find the best way to talk. I’m going to spit and polish my old rough-edged self, ‘til I get rid of every single flaw."

We know that we are not able to do such a thing. We know, as Christians, we can never turn ourselves into diamonds. We are not capable. Even though we know what is wrong, we oftentimes choose it. Even though we know things are hurtful to others, we still do them. And try as we might, we can’t change it. But there is one who can, and Paul speaks of this eloquently, "5For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 6For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 7But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us."

It is Christ who comes in to change us. It is Christ who enters into our hearts to do battle with our sinful nature. It is Christ who works within us to bring us to: cling to hope, renounce sin, shun deceit, and faithfully adhere to God’s Word. We realize we are but made out of clay and that without the treasure of Christ within, we would be able to do nothing. Let that treasure work in your heart and mind to transform you that you may proclaim His goodness to the world. Amen.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

For a Moment, It Became Real

I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Holy Catholic Church,
the Communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
and the life everlasting.  Amen.

Every Sunday, we profess this as our faith.  Sometimes we use the Nicene Creed which uses different words, but expresses the same sentiments. 

Today, for a few moments a few of those words became reality.

On Thursday, I conducted a funeral for a member of my congregation.  My last blog posting included the sermon from that service.  Today, several of his immediate family attended worship.  At Holy Communion, they came forward to receive the Sacrament.

His wife came forward, and I placed the bread in her hand.  At the same time I spoke the words, "The body of Christ given for you," the phrase "the Communion of Saints" flashed into my head.  With the phrase came the vision of just what we believe happens when we celebrate the Sacrament.

For we believe that as we commune, we become a part of the entirety of the body of Christ: the Church on earth and the Church in heaven.  Eternity and human time become one as we join the host of heaven in this celebration.  For a moment in time, this belief became absolutely real as I handed the body of Christ to this newly widowed woman.

It brought tears to my eyes as I thought of this woman being together with her husband at that moment: worshiping together; communing together; in the presence of Christ together. 

Sometimes, we are blessed with moments like this--when belief becomes reality.  Sometimes they are few and far between, but when they happen, they are special.  Even if they only last a moment.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Until We Meet Again, My Brother

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

Everyone who knew J.C. has a J.C. story. Of the several that I have collected in the past seven and a half years, I will begin with the first one: the day I met him. My wife and I were moving from Seguin, TX out to Cat Spring. Seguin is no major metropolis, but when you compare it to Cat Spring, well, let’s just say there were more people and houses in my former neighborhood than there were in the entire town. My wife really didn’t know what to expect after having grown up in San Antonio. Moving to the country was just a little outside her frame of reference. She didn’t know what to expect. Luckily, I half-way did.

One of the first people we met upon arrival to Cat Spring was J.C. He was on council serving as property chair, and he was offering his services to help us move in. It was a non-typical July day in 2004. When I mean non-typical, I mean that it was actually threatening rain as we moved all our stuff in the house. J.C. was wearing his overalls with no undershirt, and he was dripping sweat as we carried box after box after box. At one point, J.C. stopped me, this giant of a man looked down at me and said, "Preacher, let me tell you something about the sacrifice I’m making today. You see, I have a cutting of hay laying in the field right now, and it looks like it’s going to get rained on."

Without hesitation, I patted him on the shoulder and replied, "Don’t worry, the Lord will reward you greatly in heaven."

I really think that was the last thing he expected to hear from this young whippersnapper. He stood in silence for a second or two before erupting in laughter. He and I then proceeded to continue hauling in boxes and whatever else we had packed in that moving van, and in that moment I knew my family had arrived in a place where we could call home. J.C. helped personify the community: serious about his work, serious about helping out when a hand was needed, serious about his Church, and ready to laugh at the drop of a hat–even when it meant having the tables turned when he was trying to pull the new preacher’s leg.

It may have been the first time we laughed together, but it certainly wasn’t the last. I thought really hard about including in the readings for today Genesis chapter 3 verses 14-15. This text is right in the middle of the Fall story after Man and Woman ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. The Lord is talking to the serpent, and He speaks these words, "14The Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. 15I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel."

I don’t know exactly how J.C. managed it, but in the time I knew him, he managed to get snake bit three times. I don’t know what this seeming attraction between him and copperheads was, but it was a real head scratcher. After the second time he got bit, he came to church. Following the service, I told him, "I’ve seen the shoes you wear up here to work in. I think they’re part of the problem with you getting snake bit. I decided to take up a collection this morning to get you a decent pair of boots to protect your feet. Unfortunately, I was only able to get one dollar and three cents, and I threw in the dollar."

J.C. promised to get me back for that one. But you know something, I don’t know if the devil was after him or what with those snake bites. Because, even when J.C. managed to spot a snake and kill it once, his dog, who is an absolute snake-killing dog, discovered the decapitated head, shook it around, threw it, and it landed on J.C.’s foot and bit him. Yes, my friends. It seemed J.C. couldn’t win for losing at such a thing, but he always managed to bounce back.

J.C. seemed indomitable to me. He seemed larger than life, and in some ways he truly was. When I heard that he had prostate cancer, I was positive he’d beat it. Most men do. He first started taking drugs, and they seemed to help, and I wasn’t worried. Then the cancer moved into his bones. It caused him much pain, but he received radiation. It seemed to help, and I figured he’d come out of it. Nothing ever seemed to get him down. But it didn’t happen. He continued his spiral downward. He knew it. And I don’t think it was easy for him.

Christmas Eve was the last time J.C. was able to come to church. He sat in his wheelchair about five rows from the front. The rest of his family was with him. I found out earlier this week that throughout most of the service, they were arguing and worrying about J.C. going up to communion. They worried that he didn’t have the strength to walk up there, and they tried to convince him to wait and let me bring communion to him. J.C. even handed his cane to Glenda acting as if she needed it more than him.

But J.C. had pulled a fast one on all of them. Unbeknownst to them, I had greeted him before the service started. He asked me to bring him communion when the time came for it in the service, and rather than let anyone else know, he decided to play along with them one more time. We laughed at this together as we talked about it.

But I also remember J.C.’s demeanor when he asked me to bring him communion. He got tears in his eyes when he asked. He wanted to go up by himself on his own power, but he knew he just couldn’t any longer. Roughly two weeks ago, I visited with him and Glenda in their home, and he remarked, "I used to always bounce back, but I’m not able to this time."

As big a heart and as big a man as J.C. was, he finally came upon something he couldn’t overcome. It’s the same thing we all eventually run into in the midst of our lives: the brokenness of our world. As much good as there is in this world, it’s not perfect. It’s still warped, and we can’t fix it. We see how broken it is in snake bites and in cancer and ultimately in death. It might not be to fashionable to talk about such things as the result of sin in this day and age, but that’s exactly what they are. And no matter how hard we might try to fix sin, we just can’t do it. We can’t eradicate cancer. Even if a snake it killed, it can still bite. And no one, and I mean no one can escape death. This news is not so good for us. In fact, it would be terrifying if it were the end of the story. But thankfully, it’s not.

St. Paul left these words for us as he wrote to the church in Rome, "8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. 11But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation."

Paul announces the good news that through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have been reconciled unto God. When we could not defeat sin and death; when we could not overcome the brokenness of this world; Jesus faced that brokenness, was killed by that brokenness, and then was raised to new life to defeat that brokenness and give hope to all who believed in His name. And what is that hope?

Just this, as Jesus said in the reading from the book of John: He is goes to prepare a place for us so that where He is, we will be also. J.C. now shares this hope. J.C. is now with Jesus in one of those rooms especially prepared for him. This is the promise which we cling to today–a promise that even in the midst of our grief gives us hope. For we too share in that promise. We too have a place prepared for us. We too will one day go to be with Jesus to be reunited with J.C. and all those who have gone before. And then, perhaps, we will get to see just what kind of reward J.C. got when his hay got rained on because he was welcoming his new preacher to his new home.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Figured a Little Something Out

I've heard it said over and over again that the Church is heading toward irrelevance in our society.

I've heard it said over and over again that we must change the way we do things to connect with our communities and with our culture.

I agree with these two assertions, but I have increasingly wondered why it is that the Church in North America, particularly the U.S. continues to decline.  It seems that most agree on the issue, but few have figured out what changes need to be made in order to bring about the connection to society.

Now, based upon the title of this blog, you might think that I've got it figured out when it comes to making that connection.  Honestly, no, I don't.  That's not what this posting is about.  Rather, it's about something a little more concerning, at least to yours truly.

For, as I've been in the parish, I've come to see there is quite the gap between what I was taught needed to take place in preaching and teaching and the reality of what preaching and teaching actually works.

That gap was exposed once again yesterday as I visited a member who had been through three rough weeks medically.  As we talked, she spoke about what she believed God was teaching her through this ordeal, and of course, her thoughts turned toward attending worship and being involved in church.

Here's where things got interesting.  She made the comment about attending worship at a congregation in a nearby town.  She spoke of how she appreciated how the preacher "preached the Bible."  Now, for some I know, this statement raises hackles.  I've even heard one or two say, "As if I don't preach the Bible." 

Unfortunately, sometimes I think we as clergy do a poor job of putting ourselves into the pews.  I mean, many of us don't remember what it was like to sit there before taking Hebrew and Greek.  Many of us don't return to the place where we were ignorant of historical-critical methodologies.  Many of us forget that people in the pews don't speak theological jargon.  They look at the Bible plainly.  They read the words on the page, and oftentimes take those words at face value.

Preachers who also take those words at face value and elaborate on them at that face value, "Preach the Bible."  Those who delve into the historical settings and other such things and come at the text through this lens generally don't receive this description.  Sometimes, folks are downright hostile to this approach, and I completely understand why. 

More than a few times, I've come across someone who wants to impress me with the amount of knowledge he or she has acquired.  More than a few times such a person has used "high falutin'" language to try and get a point across.  And more than a few times, I've tuned such people out because if you can't explain something to me plainly in a language I can understand, then I just don't give a darn about it.  If you can't explain a concept to me in everyday terms and resort to "you just don't have enough knowledge to understand what I'm talking about," I'll consider you an unreliable source. 

I believe my job (and perhaps the job of mathematicians, scientists, doctors, and others who deal with the public) is to explain Scripture, explain theology, explain Christianity in terms that people can understand.  For me, this means using the plain explanation of Scripture as my primary default and using higher criticism as rarely as possible.  I personally believe this makes it easier for me to connect to people and connect faith to everyday life.

I do know most mainline denominations have bought into the concepts of higher methodologies of interpreting the Scriptures, but maybe this isn't exactly to our benefit in the long run. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Revisiting of Valentine's Day Thoughts

I expressed my heart-felt thoughts about Valentine's Day last year:

A few things have changed since last year's post in regards to our family's routine, but I'm still not going to celebrate this holiday.

You see, I have this philosophy about family life and the relationships that I hold dear--I want to make sure the people I am closest to in my life know I love and care about them, and I practice this on a DAILY basis--especially with my wife and kids.

Here's a few things I want them to learn from how I treat them:

1. Show love EVERY day.  I'm raising two little girls.  When they find someone to spend the rest of their lives with, I hope and pray for a person that lets them know how special they are every day whether it's through hugs, kisses, flowers, cooking for them, unexpectedly doing the dishes or starting laundry, or telling them over and over again, "I love you."  I want them to know that I love and care for them each day.  Valentine's Day is just one more day of doing the same in my book.

2. Special treats aren't relegated to "special" days or holidays.  Last Saturday, Dawna and I packed the kids up in our Yukon XL, and we headed north.  All throughout the journey, the kids were asking where we were going.  I replied, "It's a surprise."  As we passed through Brenham and headed toward Navasota, my oldest exclaimed as she asked, "Are we going to the Brenham Airport?"  I nodded my head yes as the kids shouted with glee.   They love going there and watching the airplanes.  No rhyme or reason for the special treat.  Did it just because, and that's the way special things are to be handled in my book.

3. There is no need to spend money on someone to make them feel special.  I know our economy runs on people's willingness to fork over cash, but things have gotten to the point of absurd.  In fact, in some ways, I believe some would rather give things instead of something much more precious: time.  I can't tell you how many things I've read about kids who had everything materially they could wish for, but they still ended up going down some very dark paths.  One common theme in all the stories was the fact that parents and others spent no time with them.  Whether it's cuddling with my wife before bed or taking the kids outside and watching them ride bikes or play on the playground, such things are much more important in my book than buying them candy, or cards, or stuffed animals or what have you.

4. Extraordinary love is shown through ordinary acts.  Spare me the car commercials.  Spare me the jewelery commercials.  Spare me the hundred dollar bouquets of flowers.  Such things may make some folks melt, and I'm O.K. with that, just don't expect such things from me.  My love is poured into the ordinary things I do every day: helping the kids get dressed, buckling them into the car, kissing my wife and telling her, "I love you and be careful," as she drives the kids to school, working diligently at my job, cooking dinner each night since it's one of those things my wife dislikes, helping with homework, planting a garden, fixing toys, changing the oil in the cars, and all the hundreds of things I do around the house.  I don't expect my wife to do anything special for me.  Good Lord, she does enough already as it is:  laundry, cleaning house, taking the kids to school, picking them up from the bus stop, doing the girls' hair, and hundreds of others tasks.  We work together to do such things to provide a home, and we do it because we love one another.  No other reason.  When you stop and realize such things are done with great love, why bother with what the commercials say the day should be about?

5. Don't get caught up in commercialism or the pervasive culture.  Perhaps I'm like Charlie Brown in "A Charlie Brown Christmas," but I really don't care.  I prefer to do things my own way, and my way tends not to focus on commercialism or consumerism.  My way tends to swim against the stream.  It can be hard, but I find it much more rewarding.  I'm hoping my family finds it to be the case as well.  

6. And perhaps most importantly: Jesus said it best, "No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends."  John 15:13.  This is love.  Real love.  I want my family to know this is in my heart.  As I look at my wife and my children, I know deep within me, if by my death I can save any of them, then my life would be forfeit.  I'd do it without hesitation.  Put that on a Hallmark card.  Wrap it around a diamond necklace.  Bundle it up in a dozen roses and see what it looks like next to all that stuff.  In my book, nothing can even come close to conveying the reality of Jesus' statement--nothing. 

That's all for now.  Bash away if you like.  I'm stubborn.  I'm a German.  You won't change my mind.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Sermon Delivered February 12, 2012: He Couldn't Help It

I remember the day as clear as a bell. I was working for the YMCA After-School Program in Williamson County. For four hours each day, we were charged with caring for kids ranging from kindergarten to fifth grade. The particular group of kids I worked with were a hand-full, to say the least. When I arrived at the school, the administration was ready to kick the YMCA out because of their inability to keep the kids in line. It was a rowdy bunch.

We began working with those kids and implementing a program to turn things around. One of the things I noticed was the kids having a difficult time settling in and getting role call done. To ease matters, I began a story time as the kids arrived. The kids honed in on the stories immediately, and it helped transition from school time to Y- time. Of course, since I was a seminary student and this was the Young Men’s Christian Association, I started telling Bible stories.

One week, I took three days to tell the Exodus story about God using Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. I told about the Ten Plagues. I told about the Passover. I told about the flight of the people out into the desert and the deliverance at the Red Sea. At the end of the stories, a young boy came up to me. He looked me right in the eye and said, "Is that story true?"

Now, for most of us sitting here this morning, it’s an easy answer. There would be little or no hesitation on our parts to respond, but you see, at the time, I was at a disadvantage. I had spent four years in college studying theology and almost another year in seminary by this time. During those years, I had been exposed to all sorts of stuff regarding this and other biblical stories. There were some well intentioned folks who were very uncomfortable talking about miracles and other such phenomena found in the Bible. They were afraid the Christian faith wouldn’t make sense in a society very much based in technology and science. Therefore, they tried to remove every sort of super-natural occurrence from scripture and chalk it up to embellishment by the biblical writers.

Even in that Exodus story, they tried to explain the ten plagues as a logical consequence of the Nile River becoming infested with a red tide, which led to fish dying, which led to flies, which led to frogs and so on and so forth. The Israelite’s escape was nowhere near as dramatic according to some of my professors. They probably were not released by the Egyptians as the Bible recorded. Instead, they probably slipped away and ran as fast as they could to evade capture. All of these notions came flying back at me when that little boy asked me, "Is this story true?"

Suddenly, I realized I was at a crossroads in my life of faith. I knew I was at the point of having to make a choice. Would I go down the path of removing the supernatural from scripture? Would I buy what my education had taught me about such things? Could I do that? Could I remove the miraculous from everything including the things done by Jesus including the resurrection? Could I chalk the resurrection up to something that just happened in the minds of the disciples and that it wasn’t a bodily resurrection? All this ran through my head in seconds because of this little boy’s question, "Is it true?"

And I looked him in the eye right back and said, "Yes. It’s true." The choice was made. I would not seek to remove the supernatural from Scripture, and I wouldn’t seek to remove it from my life either. For I believe God did work in such ways as recorded in the Bible. I believe God wrought miracles. I believe Jesus healed the sick and calmed the storm and fed 5000 men plus women and children with only five loaves of bread and two little fish. I believe He died and indeed bodily rose from the dead. I continue to hold onto the belief that God works miracles in our day and age as well. Although they aren’t quite as dramatic as when Jesus did them.

I mean, take a look at our Gospel lesson this morning. Jesus’ healing of the leper this morning is instantaneous. The guy comes running up to Jesus, kneels at Jesus’ feet and says, "If you choose, you can make me clean."

Jesus is moved with pity as He looks at the guy. He knows the guy’s been cast out of his village and community. He knows the guy can’t work and is at the mercy of anyone who might share a loaf of bread. He knows many think that God is punishing this leper by giving him the disease. All of this Jesus knows and understands as He touches the man and says, "I do choose. Be made clean!"

Mark includes the word, "immediately" to show how quickly the healing took place. "Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean." It happened fast. The guy was cured and could go back to his family and friends; could go back to work; and could rest easy knowing God wasn’t punishing him. It was a tremendous thing having Jesus heal him.

I’ve witnessed my own share of miracles; although, I must confess the healings that I have seen have taken a little longer. Most recently, I saw one that left my jaw hanging on the floor. Roughly three weeks ago, I headed to Bellville to visit the Gardner family. I was way ahead of schedule, so I decided to stop in at Colonial Belle and check on Anita Wolchik. I entered, and Anita was sitting in her wheelchair right at the entrance watching television. She saw me, and her face lit up. I raced up to her and gave her a big hug. I squatted by her chair to get closer to her to hear what she might have to say.

Anita’s speech still isn’t all the way back, and it can be difficult to have a conversation with her, but I do manage to catch several words. If I work really hard, I can understand quite a bit of what she has to say. For several minutes we talked, and I asked how she was getting along in her therapy. She replied, "O.k." I asked if she was getting stronger, and she said, "Yeah." But she wasn’t content to tell me this. She wanted to show me. She grasped the handles of her wheelchair, and she stood up on her own power!

Now, some of you might think, "Ho-hum. So, she stood up. What’s the big deal?"

Here’s the big deal. Six months ago, she had a stroke that destroyed half of her brain. She spent weeks in the hospital recovering from that only to have open heart surgery which knocked her back even more. She endured months in hospitals and rehab centers, and some of those experiences were downright horrible. At times, I wouldn’t have given a plugged nickel that she would have lasted a week. For quite some time, she couldn’t use one side of her body. I can’t tell you how many prayers I and others lifted up about her asking God to heal her. And here she was, standing. On her own. With no assistance. My eyes started watering.
Shortly thereafter, I had to leave to keep my appointment, but after visiting the Gardners, I headed straight home. I sat down on my computer and blogged about the experience. I couldn’t keep it under wraps. I had to share what had happened. Sure, Anita had doctors and nurses caring for her. She had undergone quite a bit of therapy, but after all I had seen with her, you can’t convince me this was the only thing that had led up to that moment. God was working His healing on her. It was just taking some time. And I had to tell about it.

The guy who had been healed from his leprosy had to tell about it too. Jesus had commanded him to remain silent, but he just couldn’t help it. He had to share. He had to let everyone know what God had done. He had been touched by Jesus and healed. There was no holding back. The former leper spread the word and showed evidence of what Christ had done in his life, and folks flocked to see Jesus.

It makes me wonder about how often do we talk about what Christ has done in our lives? How often do we share how He has touched us or touched those who we know? How often do we proclaim His goodness and His mercy? How often do we point the way to Him especially with those who are hurting? Do we sit in silence? Do we think Jesus commands us to be silent? Perhaps, just perhaps we are called to be like that healed leper who couldn’t help himself. Perhaps, just perhaps, we are called to be so excited about having Christ in our lives and making a difference in them that we are called to share that news with others. And perhaps, just perhaps, folks might just flock from all around to be touched by Him as well. Amen.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

A Tale of Two Deaths

Last night, I received word of two deaths.  I spent a bit of time reflecting upon the news.

One offered the world her voice.
One offered only the sweat of his brow.

One sang for millions.
One fixed the machines that allowed millions to travel to work.

One gave the tabloids headlines, gossip, and marital twists of all sorts.
One gave over 50 years of marriage to his wife, raised three kids, and got a simple mention in the local paper.

One enjoyed all the comforts money could buy.
One lived without air conditioning in one of the hottest states in the U.S.

One rode in limos, chartered jets, and walked the red carpet.
One drove a beat up pickup and walked his pasture covered with cattle droppings.

One was considered a diva.
One would have punched you if you even suggested he was.

Millions will shed tears for one.
A few hundred will gather for the other.

Celebrities will gather and sing praises of one.
Ordinary "Janes and Joes" will gather for the other.

The world will take notice of one.
A community will grieve the other.

Both are children of God.
I have no doubts about this.

But I will miss one much more than the other.
Wonder if you can guess which?

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Laptop Target Practice

Yeah, I saw the video and read the story about the North Carolina dad who blasted his daughter's laptop to smithereens.  Yeah, I also admit to chuckling about it too.

Story here.

Folks have been all over this this story, and most of the comments I have heard are positive.  Dad is being a parent and not a friend.  Did he go too far?  Not in my book.

A few weeks ago, my youngest two kids were having a terrible time listening when getting ready for school.  It seems like their new Christmas toys were much more satisfying to play with than getting their shoes on, packing their backpacks, and getting all their other stuff together before leaving.  Even verbal prompting from parents had absolutely no effect on them.  "Cranky the Crane" (from Thomas and Friends) and Woody (from Toy Story) were much more fun to deal with.

So, Dad took action.  After the six or seventh failure to listen, Daddy marched into the living room and announced in no uncertain terms, "Since you can't and won't listen to Mom and Dad, Cranky and Woody are going to the trash!"

Weeping and gnashing of teeth ensued.

Two little children followed their Daddy to the trash can screaming, "No, Daddy no!" the entire way.  They watched as I placed Cranky beside the trash and Woody inside the can.  Then, I herded them back to the living room.

Weeping and gnashing of teeth did not abate.  They continued throughout the morning as the kids finally prepared for school.

Did we end up throwing the toys away?  No.  Not quite.  We informed the children they could earn their toys back, which they did.  But have I had a problem with kids playing with toys instead of getting ready for school again?  Have they failed to listen to me when I have told them to get their shoes on?


Point made. 

Am I prepared to do it again, this time to follow all the way through?  Yep.  You bet.

Some may decry the destruction of material things that hard earned money was spent on, but there is a principle that is more important: until a kid is on his or her own, Mom and Dad's rules are to be followed, and sometimes object lessons are more powerful even if they cost a little bit of money.  (Jesus' teaching on the worthlessness of possessions really helps one follow through with such things, BTW.)

I'm hoping such lessons at an early age will prevent such measures as they get older, but who knows?  Kids always push their parents' boundaries, and parents have to back up those boundaries.  Even if it means using a laptop for target practice.

(p.s. Dave, if you read this one, I remembered very well the story you told about your dad and the comb.)

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thinking About Turning the Other Cheek

A few days ago, a Facebook friend posted this link about a restaurant owner who kicked out a Tennessee congressman who made inflammatory remarks about gays and lesbians:

I mulled over this post for quite some time as I realized the deep conflict within me.  One part of me realizes I would probably do the same thing.  The times someone has used a position of power to poke fun at me, my faith, my personhood, or even my daughters' skin color has raised a level of anger within me that is no laughing matter.  Thoughts of revenge or spitefulness fill my head quickly, and I get a bit of self-satisfaction from picturing myself pummelling whoever said such remarks.  It's safe to say that if I were in a position of power at those moments, such thoughts might indeed become reality.

The second part of me reaches into the faith Christ taught His followers about turning the other cheek.  Instinctively, I hit the "eye for an eye," but Jesus calls me (and His disciples) to walk another path.  Much good work has gone into understanding Jesus' comments, but as I reflected upon this story and my own reactions, I believe I was led to another understanding--an understanding that has to do with power.

Usually bullies and others who make inflammatory, derogatory, and false accusations do so because they believe they have a position of power or authority and will receive no repercussions.  In a sense, they are in charge and in control when they make their comments.  Those who receive them build up anger and resentment quickly, and if the tables are turned where the "powerless" becomes "powerful" then watch out.  Justice will be served.

This is exactly what happened in the above article.  The restaurant owner has a smidgen of power, albeit not as much as the congressman, but it was still power to exact a note of revenge.  Note: she doesn't call it so.  She calls it standing up to a bully and showing someone what it feels like to be discriminated against.  The first part, maybe.  The second part is as good a definition of an eye for an eye as it gets!

Jesus, I think, understands our nature when it comes to this.  Jesus understands our anger and frustration and our desire to exact our own form of justice, but He expects His followers to be different.  He expects us to turn the other cheek.  Why?

As I thought about this more, I thought about a video entitled "Dust" by Rob Bell.  In it, he speaks about the Rabbinical Tradition of ancient Judaism.  Long and short of the matter, Rob is convinced Jesus is part of this tradition, and I think Rob is onto something.  The Rabbi would go around picking his students with the expectation they would become as much like him as possible.  This meant, they would not only teach the things he taught, but they would do the things he did.

Think about that for a moment when it comes to Jesus calling His disciples--not only would they teach what He taught, but they would DO what He DID.  Healing, casting out demons, curing leprosy, making the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the blind see, raising the dead, walking on water, feeding the hungry, walking on water, calming the storm--all these things Jesus figured the disciples could do.  The Book of Acts actually shows this happening!  If we take such notions seriously, then Jesus was talking about having real power--the power of God.  Such power requires great discipline to use.

Our human nature would be to use such power to bring about our own form of justice--an eye for an eye.  But Jesus' nature is to use it differently.  Jesus' nature is to work to bring about compassion even when derided by others.  It's a tough act to follow.

In fact, I'd almost argue that one of the reasons we don't see many acts of healing and power in our churches in the U.S. these days is we're not much for turning the other cheek these days.  Not many of us have the discipline to wield such power in the manner Jesus describes.  We're into justice.  We're into the eye for an eye thing.  Our dreams of power turn to revenge and retribution and righting the wrongs.  I know I am, and it's tough to admit that.

I, like that restaurant owner, have a ways to go in overcoming such things.  Perhaps, by the grace of God, I'll get there one day.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

I'm Not Going to Church Anymore

At least not after I read this snippet from Under the Overpass: A Journey of Faith on the Streets of America by Mike Yankoski:

We don't go to church, we are the church.  So many problems that show up on the church steps, or in the pews, or between congregations seem to start with misunderstandings about that.  The church isn't a physical building or a doctrinal statement or a perfectly produced program.  It is us--we are the living expression of Christ's presence in the world, His body.  The sooner we realize that, the sooner we'll be able to be the healing body of Christ in our sin-sick world.  p. 164
I stopped in my tracks when I read this.  I had to read it several times because of its impact on my thoughts.  Not because this statement was anything different than I truly believed.  I mean, I'm very Pauline in my theology, and St. Paul penned one of the greatest analogies in the Bible when it comes to what the Church is:

12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many....27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.  --1 Corinthians 12: 12-14, 27

Yes, the Church is the body of Christ in the world.  I knew this.  I have for quite some time.  Yet, I still have been guilty of encouraging my folks to invite people to come to church.  I have been guilty of encouraging people to go to church.  Of course, I am also guilty of encouraging my congregation to be the Church--to be Jesus' disciples.  I guess I have tried to hold these things in dynamic tension persistently holding onto the idea that going to church was somehow equivalent of being the church.

But it's not.  Going to church is worship.  Worship is something someone who is part of the Church does.  One can go to worship and sing hymns, give an offering, and listen to a sermon without ever being a part of the Church.  This was evidenced by several stories Mike told in his book. 

As a little background, Mike and his friend Sam decided to spend four months living on the streets, walking away from everything they knew.  They panhandled for meals, dug through the trash to eat, and associated with the outcasts of society.  Becoming outcasts themselves, they experienced what it was like to be looked down upon because of the way they looked, smelled, and lived.  Some of it was not pretty--especially their treatment in several churches.

Now, they did have some good experiences, and they share it, but one story vividly portrays my point earlier about being a part of the Church.  Mike and Sam went to worship one Sunday morning.  They were both hungry.  Mike had a busted flip-flop and a wound on his foot that had bled.  They appropriated a place in the congregation, but before worship started, Sam approached the minister and sought assistance in getting something to eat.  He returned steamed because the pastor told him they couldn't do that because it would detract from their mission and purpose.  After worship, several men in the congregation engaged Mike and Sam, and Mike did a little experiment.  He took off his busted flip-flop and proceeded to talk about how it was busted and how his sore had bled and needed attention.  The guys around them looked around a little uncomfortable with the situation.  They acknowledged how badly the foot looked and the need for new shoes, but then said, "Well, pray for you.", and walked off. 

The folks there went to church, but they weren't being Church.  Big difference.

I thought about this long and hard throughout the evening yesterday and this morning.  I've decided I'm not going to church anymore.  Instead, I'm going to focus on being the Church.  Sure, I'll still lead worship and attend worship regularly.   That's part of being the Church, but that's just a small slice of the pie.  I'm not content with just one slice--I want the entire deal--for better or for worse.  I want my life to be a reflection of the One who called me.  I want Him to work through me to help bring healing and hope to the world.  I am not content to think that folks need to go to church to experience Christ's love--no.  If I--and all Christians--are being the Church, the body of Christ, then folks will experience that love no matter where we are.

I'm not going to church anymore.

By the grace of God, I'm going to be the Church.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Making a Connection

In the past couple of days, I've been in a little debate about the meaning of Jesus' story about the Widow's Might:

41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” --Mark 12: 41-44

The generally accepted interpretation of this text is one of stewardship.  This widow gave everything to God, and Jesus is praising her for doing so.  She trusts God enough to give everything she has to live on, and, the implication is, we should do the same.

I had a seminary professor who disagreed with this interpretation.  He argued that Jesus is not praising the widow but condemning the temple system which demanded a person tithe in order to be in God's good graces.  He based this upon the historical understanding of what was taught by the temple system at the time and a mistranslation of the ancient Greek.  The last few words are literally translated, "put in everything she had, her entire life."  This meant she now had three choices: beg, become a prostitute, or die for she had no money to buy food.  As such, my professor argued this text was a justice text condemning religious practices that forced the poor to give money to be accepted by God.

Of course, my prof's argument does go against many years of standard interpretation, but the argument he made was compelling.  In fact, I bought it.  But things began to change for me as I thought it over during my morning bike ride as I considered a couple of other things--especially in regard to the other folks "giving out of their abundance."

Thing #1:  Another teaching of Jesus popped into my head which I think could be related:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others.  --Matthew 23:23

Thing #2: A story about Mother Teresa in Mary Poplin's book: Finding Calcutta:

Mother told of a time when she spoke at a conference on world hunger in Bombay.  "I was supposed to go to that meeting and I lost the way.  Suddenly I came to that place, and right in front of the door to where hundreds of people were talking about food and hunger, I found a dying man, I took him out and I took him home.  He died there.  He died of hunger.  And the people inside were talking about how in fifteen years we will have so much food, so much this, so much that, and that man died.  See the difference.  pg. 90

Look at these three stories/teachings side by side, and see if you make the connection.  Do you see what Jesus is seeing?  Do you see the one in need and the failure of the temple, the tithers, and our interpretations years later to see her as well?

Right under our noses is one who is in need--who has given her whole life.  The temple is oblivious to her.  The tithers are oblivious to her.  We are oblivious to her.  The temple is celebrating it got one more penny.  The tithers are self-absorbed in believing they are honoring God.  We are praising the widow for giving everything and depending upon God or railing against the temple system for making her pay. 

What if Jesus is criticizing all of us and saying, "Here is a child of God in need.  Do something about it!"?  And what if we are failing to make the connections?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Sermon Delivered 2/5/2012 : Everyone was Looking for Jesus

Everyone was searching for Jesus. At least that’s what we are told in today’s Gospel lesson. Jesus had only been teaching and preaching for a short time. He had begun proclaiming, "The time is at hand, the Kingdom of God has come near! Repent and believe in the good news!" He went to the synagogue, and he preached with authority. He exercised that authority by casting out evil spirits and healing the sick. Weary with His work, He arose early in the morning to recharge His batteries. He went to go to the source of this power–His Father in heaven. He went to a deserted place to connect, to pray. And there He lingered, getting direction, getting strength, and making sure His heart aligned with His Father’s. His time spent in solitude was interrupted by His disciples who came and said, "Everyone is searching for you."

It’s not surprising, really. If you believe as I do, there literally is a God shaped hole in each and every one of us. We long and desire to have it filled. Unfortunately, most of the time we don’t turn to God. We turn to all sorts of other things that provide temporary relief. We try to fill that hole with money. We try to fill that hole with work. We try to fill that hole with another person. We try to fill that hole with hobbies and sports. We try to fill that hole by escaping to various destinations away from our real lives. Sooner or later, we realize the futility of doing such things. Sooner or later we realize the fixes are just temporary. We realize this when the hunger becomes consuming and the things that once soothed it no longer work. And when something comes up offering us the promise of satisfaction. We jump at the chance. I am positive part of the reason everyone was searching for Jesus was exactly this aspect of human nature.

But it’s not the only reason. Far from it. For I believe folks were also searching for Jesus to experience healing. One day, while sitting in the office, I happened upon a Youtube video about a revival preacher in Florida. Many were flocking to his tents to hear him preach and experience the healing that was supposedly taking place amongst those who gathered. I watched as a mother brought her son forward. He had been stricken with a debilitating illness that left him crippled. He could barely stand. With effort, he could manage a step or two. Doctors could do nothing else, and the parents believed that God, through the touch of this evangelist would heal him. The video showed the boy go on stage. The evangelist touched him, and the boy was "slain in the Spirit." As the video progressed, the evangelist laid hands on him once more, and the boy’s feet and arms shook as though an electric charge was running through them. Finally, the boy stood, and the crowd went wild. A few moments later, the camera focused on the boy once again. He was in the back of the tent trying to dance and sway and participate in the worship. He could barely stand once again, but his mom was convinced he was stronger now. They clung to that hope because of their desperation.

When folks heard Jesus was casting out evil spirits and was healing the sick, they too came out of their desperation. There were few doctors. The mortality rate was sickeningly low. Children died as often as they lived. A high fever was often a death sentence. Blindness, deafness, and leprosy were considered curses from God. Folks who lived with such chronic disease had no hope other than a small one that God would eventually remove this curse from them and restore them to community. Jesus offered that hope. Jesus had cured the sick and had cast out the evil spirits. He could do so for them as well. They came searching.

And of course, Jesus doesn’t disappoint. Sure, we are told that He doesn’t stay in that area, but he moves around. He heads from town to town, village to village to proclaim the gospel. When he is there, He heals the sick and casts out demons. He offers people hope as He fills the God shaped hole with His preaching and he offers hope as he cures disease and casts out demons. It’s not too long that we read of people coming together from the surrounding villages and countryside to produce a crowd of five thousand men plus women and children. Indeed, people from everywhere were searching for Jesus.

But are they still searching for Him? Are people still trying to fill that God-shaped hole? Are people still trying to find healing? Has human nature changed in the last 2000 years so that such things are no longer relevant? We know the answer to those questions. We know people are still searching. We know people are still trying to fill that hole. We know people are still striving to find hope and healing not only for their bodies but for their minds and souls as well. We know people are searching for meaning and for purpose. We know people are searching for hope in the middle of all the stress, all the anxiety, all the rushing back and forth from place to place, and the feeling of being stuck on a treadmill without every getting from point a to point b. Yes, people are still searching, but where are they going to find such things?

If you look at the trends of churches in the U.S., you would be hard pressed to say that they are finding Jesus at church. That might seem blasphemous, but the latest numbers show that there is minimal growth in most denominations. Most are in decline. Most congregations are stagnant to declining as well. Very few are actually growing and thriving, and among those many are thriving not because they are bringing in unchurched and de-churched folks. Instead, they are playing membership shuffle with other congregations. The church doesn’t seem to be growing even as the population itself is. Why? What is going on if the population is increasing and people are still searching? Why aren’t they turning to the church to find what Jesus offers?

This, I think, is where things get tough for you and me. Because this means we must look deeply into the mirror and examine ourselves. We must examine our lives. We must examine our hearts. We must look deep within us and see if we are different from the rest of the world.

Do we as Christians show that our God-shaped holes are filled? Or do we act like those who are still searching?

Do we as Christians show that we have found hope and meaning and purpose? Or do we go about as
though we have no idea on earth why we are here?

Do we as Christians show that we have found healing–not in the sense that we are free from all illness and ailments, but that we know the peace that comes from having hope in the midst of suffering? Are our spirits
healed so that we no longer despair?

Do we as Christians have a sense of peace and humility about us knowing that we could have never come to such a place without coming into contact with Jesus Himself, and do we have compassion upon those who are still seeking? Do we have compassion or contempt? Our attitude will matter immensely when we come into contact with those who are searching for Jesus.

And do we expect that we constantly meet Jesus? Do we expect that even though we have found Him and been found by Him, do we consistently seek to grow in our knowledge of Him? Do we seek to meet Him at church, at work, at play, in our families? Do we seek to walk with Him daily?

I am going to go out on a limb here and say that if those who are seeking see that we are no different from them, then they will continue their search. They will continue to abandon our congregations and churches and continually wander. But, if they see that we indeed have found Jesus–that we have experienced His love and mercy and that we truly seek to show that love and mercy to others so that through us they may find Jesus as well, their search will be over. Amen.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

There is a Problem with Too Much Change

Recently, I have begun to appreciate the point of view of those within churches who complain that too many things have changed too quickly.  Interestingly enough, it was computer games that caused my appreciation.

I am not necessarily what some would call a gamer.  Do I play video games?  Sure, but it's no longer something that consumes hours upon hours of my time as it once did.  Part of it has to do with time constraints, and a refocus on more important things in life.  I mean, when suddenly your family explodes from two adults and two dogs to two adults, three kids and three dogs, other things become much more of a priority.  One has fewer moments for games when dinner needs to be cooked, homework needs to be done, and kids need help building train tracks, playing outside, or riding bicycles.  Such things are much more important than manipulating pixels on a computer or television set.

The other reason my game time slipped substantially has to do with change, and here is where my sympathy has grown for those who resist change in church or society in general.

It seems like every two or three years Microsoft decides to upgrade Windows.  I've been through numerous transitions  (3.0, 3.1, '95, '98, 2000, XP, Vista, and now 7).  During the early years, I fell in love with several games which wasted hours of my time: Civilization 1, Civilization 2, UFO Defense, Colonization, Jedi Academy, and Knights of the Old Republic.  There was just enough of a mental challenge to keep me engaged and just enough repetitiveness to make things mindless.  The balance was perfect, and I enjoyed these games immensely.

But as graphic capabilities increased and processor speeds became faster and faster allowing higher resolution games, programmers decided to make such games more complicated with better graphics.  It's understandable, but there is also something to be said for the simplicity of such games.  I bought Civilization 3, played it through once or twice, and then quit.  It just wasn't as fun for me.  Games in the same vein as UFO Defense caught my eye from time to time, but they too lacked some of the pure fun and enjoyment of the original.  Reviews of the newer Colonization said it stunk, so I didn't even waste my money on it.  I bought Knights of the Old Republic II and was disappointed because it seemed like the game was hurriedly put out without much thought to the story, and I anxiously awaited The Old Republic's debut earlier this year.  However, I haven't purchased it, and I more than likely won't.  Why?

Well, The Old Republic is now an online gaming world.  I don't want that.  When I play on the computer, I want to do so without the rest of the gaming world watching.  I don't necessarily play well with others.  And, in my experience, when you play with others, they oftentimes quit and let you down--Hello Farmtown!  (As an aside, I quit that business when the programmers started adding all sorts of extras which took the game away from farming into industry.  Furthermore, they started setting aside certain items to be used only by buying them with Farm Cash.  It became too complicated and way too much of a time suck!)  While trying to make things new and inventive and exciting, oftentimes, in my humble opinion, such games become overly complicated for a simpleton like myself.

Throw in all those Windows updates now.  For one of the things that happens when Windows updates is a compatibility issue.  Games produced for earlier versions of Windows won't work with the new stuff.  I know that each set has a compatibility setting, but those darn things really don't work on the games I like.  Therefore, when one of my laptops died, I had my buddy reset the thing and install Windows XP.  At least some of my favorites will actually run on that one.

Which brings me to the point about change in congregations.  In a rapidly changing culture, many congregations feel the need to rapidly change as well.  New items are added to worship.  New programs are started up.  Technology is added.  More staff are hired.  Before you know it, some folks are scratching their heads asking, "What the hell happened to the congregation I joined?  This one bears no resemblance to it at all!  It's not simple anymore.  It's too complex."  Sometimes, folks leave because of this.

I understand.  I really do.

I don't play as many games as I used to because of the rapid change.  There's a similarity there, and I sympathize.

Does this mean I'll try to prevent my congregation from growing and reaching out?  No.  But it does mean I will be a little more sensitive when I hear folks talking about too much change, and if it is in my power, I'll make sure there is a place where the old ways are not forgotten.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Did This Really Happen?

Yesterday, I was taken to lunch by one of my congregation members for as Luther would probably put it "mutual conversation and consulation of the bretheren."  We talked of many things, and I remember vividly in the midst of the conversation talking about sharing one's faith with another.  My comment was something like this, "Well, take that back, most Lutherans are simply content to sit back and say nothing."

I know this to be factual because I am a cradle to mid-life Lutheran.  Born and raised in this tradition with all it's good and bad.  Fortunately, one side of my family had a little bit of Baptist in it, including several who were Baptist preachers.  I'm not afraid to talk about my faith, and for most Lutherans, that's fine.  That's what a pastor is supposed to do.  The rest of us will keep everything to ourselves, thank you very much.

It's not that Lutherans aren't outgoing and gregarious.  Just go to a dance where the polka music and the beer flow liberally.  You'll see more than a few good Lutherans letting it all hang out, but ask them about their relationship with God, and things will clam up pretty quickly.  I'm not sure exactly why this is the case, but it generally is.

Which is why the irony of last night's women's meeting is not lost upon me.  For roughly seven hours after I made the comment about Lutherans keeping tight lips about their faith, the exact opposite happened at the women's meeting

During January, our women reveal their prayer partners for the previous year.  It's a rather neat thing they do.  All the ladies who desire to put their names in a hat, and they proceed to draw a name for the year.  They are then charged with praying for that person for the next year.  Before revealing the names of the previous year, a story on prayer was told--one that I had encountered on the internet years ago.  Then, the personal stories started.

A grandmother spoke of the time a black Baptist minister prayed with her and her son on the day her granddaughter was life-flighted to Houston with a mysterious, debilitating illness.

A former PICU nurse spoke of prayers of healing which were answered for children who doctors had said there was no hope for.

Another nurse spoke of a series of "conincidence" including a radical medical procedure to deal with a rare disease, an impossible pregnancy, and the child of the pregnancy having to deal with the same disease as mom--and having the same doctor nearly 20 years later minister to both!  (And, BTW, both the mom and the child are healthy and happy!)

I remember vividly the statement spoken by the leader last night, "Prayer doesn't only help those you pray for, but it helps you too.  It's real."

Those last two words became sort of a theme throughout the rest of the meeting, "It's real."

One of the younger ladies spoke of her frustration in trying to get other ladies to come to the meetings, and then she had a brainstorm, "I figured out, I needed to pray for them.  It's real."

These women of faith gathered together and shared stories of how they had encountered God's presence through prayer.  It was somewhat of an atypical thing in Lutheran congregations, but I don't think anyone who was there last night came away unaffected by the stories that were shared.

And I didn't have to say a bloody word!!!  I could just sit and listen as these ladies shared their testimonies.  In a Lutheran Church. 

Did this really happen?

Yes.  It did.