Monday, April 30, 2012

Sermon: Pointing to Jesus

Mary Poplin, in her book Finding Calcutta, tells this story about an encounter a woman had with Mother Teresa:

One morning during Mass, a well-dressed Indian woman rushed in and threw herself at Mother’s feet. She began to bow to her and kiss her hands and feet. Mother Teresa’s face became stern and she pointed to the crucifix on the wall directly across the room. At first I thought she was motioning that the Mass was in session and that the woman should be more reverent. But the woman continued her adulation. Then I saw Mother take the woman’s hands in hers and point them to the crucifix. She said something in a language I did not understand and then firmly in English, "It is not me, it is him. Give your thanks to him." The woman stopped, looked up, looked at Mother, looked at the cross, sat still for several minutes and then left. p. 30

I find this story uplifting each time I read it because it helps me remember what it means to follow our Lord and Savior as we seek to be witnesses and make disciples of all nations–both of these being the central commands Jesus gave to His followers. In the past several weeks I have spoken about what it means to be a witness to Jesus, and last week I emphasized reflecting Him into the world. This week, the focus shifts a little bit as we look at what that means for you and me as we witness and as people respond to that witness.

Our second lesson this morning begins with these words, "16We know love by this, that he–Jesus–laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action."

John is pulling no punches with you and I as we live in relationship with one another. He says beyond doubt that if we have the world’s goods, if we see a brother or sister who needs help, if we refuse to help that brother or sister, then we do not have God’s love within us. A follower of Jesus is generous. Plain and simple. There is to be no hesitation on our part. If there is a need, we help. Case closed. Love does not take only the form of words and speech. These are cheap. They are easy to come by. They require nothing on our part. But Christian love is not love grounded in word and speech, it is grounded in truth and in action.

Which brings us back to Mother Teresa. If one reads the accounts of Mother Teresa, one knows that over the course of the ministry she led, she received millions of dollars of donations in money and food. They poured in to the Sisters of Charity, and they gave it away. Money was like a revolving door in Calcutta and in other places where the Sisters established houses to care for the poor and needy. It came in, and it went out to the poor. It bought food. It bought medical supplies. It bought whatever was needed at any particular time. There was little thought of keeping it for themselves. It would all go to those in need.

Did the Sister’s save some for a rainy day? You bet they did, and it cost them to do it. For the Sisters fasted one day a week, and the money they would have spent on food for themselves, they saved to give away when dire circumstances hit. They never kept it for themselves. They understood it to be God’s goods for those who needed it.

Now, when a group truly lives by Jesus’ commands and they truly seek to love not in word or speech but in truth and action, people come from all around to get aid. People come from all around for assistance and prayer and healing. The Sisters of Charity do their best in every occasion, and sometimes when someone is helped–when someone is touched by the love these Sisters practice, they will come to offer their thanks. But do the Sisters accept it for themselves? Remember the story I told to start this sermon?

No. They seek to point to Jesus. They know it is not themselves doing anything but Christ doing such things through them. They want no honor. They want no glory. They want no prestige. They want Jesus to receive all these things. Love in truth and action leads a person to point to Jesus not to themselves. This is a crucial aspect of what it means to be a witness in this day and age. Why?

Well, in all honesty, most of the time churches do not do things to point the way to Jesus. I hate to admit that being a pastor, but I think it’s true. Too often we start a ministry or do something in the community or make some sort of a social statement or what have you, to get our name out there, to get more members, or to make sure we don’t lose any members. We get caught in the self-preservation game instead of bearing witness to Jesus.

I mean, think about this for a moment. If someone came up to you and asked you, "Why should I go to your church?", what would you say? Odds are, you’d say one of a few things. You might say, "Our church is very friendly and outgoing. It feels like a family." Or, you might say, "Our church has a lot of stuff for people to do. We’ve got a strong youth program and neat fellowship opportunities for every group possible." Or you might say, "Our pastor is very dynamic. He preaches great sermons which connect faith to daily life." Or you might say, "We perform a lot of community service in our neighborhood. We really try to make a difference in the world in all that we do."

Now, none of these things are inherently bad. Not in the least. Some of them are pretty good reasons for perhaps joining a church, but where is Jesus in that mix? How come, for the most part, when someone asks us why we should join a particular church we don’t respond with these words or something similar, "You should become a part of this church because we try to help you meet Jesus. We try to help you get in touch with Him so that He may change your life."? Do you see the difference in the response?

Love in truth and action almost requires us to say the latter. We are, of course, free to say what we wish, but we must ask ourselves what is the best way to be a witness: pointing to ourselves, or pointing to Jesus. Remember, if we point to ourselves, we are only offering a reflection of Jesus and not the true picture. And that makes a big difference. How so?

In my previous congregation, the music director once shared a devotion with us in regards to tuning instruments. He told us that to properly tune a group of instruments, it is best to use a tuning fork. One cannot tune a piano and then use that piano to tune the next. When tunes a piano by another piano, the quality of the tune diminishes just a little. If one repeats the process over and over and over, the final instrument is nowhere near in tune. If, however, one tunes every piano to the tuning fork, all pianos resonate the same sound.

Such is the case if we allow others to turn to us or to a church or to a pastor or to anyone who is human–who is saint and sinner. They might resonate with a sound or two, but they will not be tuned by the Master Musician himself. They will not be tuned correctly. To be an effective witness to Jesus, we must be like Mother Teresa, pointing others to Christ and not to ourselves. This, coupled to our acts of kindness and generosity, is truly love in action. Amen.

Friday, April 27, 2012

A Day to Remember: Kaylee's Birthday

I'll not forget.  Unless Alzheimer's or dementia takes my memories.

Six years ago this afternoon, I was visiting one of my members at a home construction site--a home that our congregation was building.  I had forgotten my cell phone that afternoon.

As we sat on what was to become the porch, talking and visiting about the project, I looked down the road to see what appeared to be our mini-van heading toward us.  I remarked, "That looks like our mini-van."

As it turned up the drive, I said, "Yep, that's our van.  I wonder what is wrong?"

A few moments later, my wife jumped out of the van and said, "We need to talk."

"O.K.," I responded.

"Kim called from the adoption agency.  She was talking to me about the Mother's Day celebration the agency was throwing this weekend. She asked if we were planning on being there, and I told her we were and that I was planning to bring some cheesecake.  She then said, 'That sounds good, and by the way, Kevin said you were looking to get back on the adoption list.  How soon is too soon.'" 

My wife continued, "I said, 'Do you have a birth mother looking to place?'  Kim replied, 'No, I have a baby.'"

A  young woman had had a baby in the bathtub early that morning and was looking to place for adoption.  The child was a bi-racial, little girl and no other couple at the agency would consider a bi-racial child at the time.

Kim said, "Since you already have a bi-racial child and were looking to get on the list, we were wondering if we could show her your life book."

My wife looked at me expectantly.  I said, "It doesn't hurt for anyone to look.  Let's give them permission."

We called the adoption agency right then and there and gave them permission.  We talked to Victoria at this point, and she said, "I'll get back to you later."  I assumed at this point it would be the following day when we heard back.

I then turned to my member and said, "I need to go.  My wife and I need to talk."

"I understand," was the reply.

We headed out to dinner to talk about the possible, massive upheaval.  As my wife and I visited, we checked off everything on our list: finances, we were good; room in the house, no problem; baby equipment, we had everything; baby clothes, well, we just had a baby girl and hadn't gotten rid of a thing: check; did it fit into our timing, no, but you know, that's really not a good reason to say no.

After dinner, we headed to Brookshire Brothers Grocery Store.  We needed a few items, and as we walked back out to the car, my phone beeped at me.  There was a message.  From the agency (I had a pretty lame phone that couldn't get very good signal in a metal building).  Victoria's voice came from the speaker, "I showed birth-mom your book.  She'd like to meet you.  Tonight."

"Oh, cr@p!  A trip to College Station?  Tonight?  With a 16 month old?  Well, we can do it."

A quick trip home and a quick bath for the girl, and we headed out.

An hour and a half later, we saw the little bundle of joy that was to become our daughter.

There were a few hiccups in the adoption process, but everything eventually worked out for the best.  In the space of only a few hours, our relatively stable life had been turned upside down, but you know what?  I don't regret it in the least.  Take a look at this smiling face and tell me  you wouldn't feel the same way:


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Who Do You Trust?

I ask this in all honesty especially after reading this article by Ron Fournier in the National Journal.

From the article:

Seven in 10 Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track; eight in 10 are dissatisfied with the way the nation is being governed. Only 23 percent have confidence in banks, and just 19 percent have confidence in big business. Less than half the population expresses “a great deal” of confidence in the public-school system or organized religion. “We have lost our gods,” says Laura Hansen, an assistant professor of sociology at Western New England University in Springfield, Mass. “We lost [faith] in the media: Remember Walter Cronkite? We lost it in our culture: You can’t point to a movie star who might inspire us, because we know too much about them. We lost it in politics, because we know too much about politicians’ lives. We’ve lost it—that basic sense of trust and confidence—in everything.”

I wish I could argue the point, but I cannot.  I personally do not see much trust given to any institution in the public sphere today, and I'll offer my non-scientific analysis of why.

1. The 1960's.  I wasn't around during this period of time, so everything I say is based upon reading history and the anecdotal stories I've heard.  This was a time of monumental upheaval in our nation.  Some of it was good.  I'd hate to think what my daughters would be having to go through without the Civil Right's Movement.  Some of it was not so good.  Folks were taught to question every institution out there from Government to Religion.   This is where things began.

2. Questioning led to anger as it was discovered that institutions were less than honest.  Scandals rocked government and churches and all places in between. 

3. The rise of postmodern thought began to have its effect right about this time as well.  Truth became relative, based only in my point of view.

4. Technology gave us the ability to monitor everything (and everyone?) on a constant basis.  No longer were people able to slip by without fear of being discovered.  Everyone was on watch, and God help you if they caught you.

5. Since everyone is a flawed human being, technology enabled us to emphasize those flaws.

6. The decline in religion has also coincided with a decline in religious values particularly the value of forgiveness.  Try to trust someone if you are unable or unwilling to forgive him/her.

7. The media.  Need I say more.  It is my belief they purposely drive conflict and distrust.  Machiavelli, "Divide and conquer."

Of course, there may be a few more things to include.  I'm not a sociologist (obviously).  But I personally think these things have much to do with it.

So what can be done about it? 

That's an even more difficult question.  Personally, I believe it will take a monumental shift in society to accomplish such a thing.  A monumental shift which includes the following things:

1. The recapturing of the notion of Universal Truth.  Not that we can perfectly know it, but that there are some values which everyone should ascribe toward.

2. One of those values being the knowledge that all people, organizations, and societies are fundamentally flawed.  There is no perfection, and we should not expect perfection.  Therefore we must incorporate some way of understanding this, dealing with this appropriately (see forgiveness and repentance), and allowing folks to get past it with one another (humility).

3. Emphasizing the strengths someone has instead of focusing on his/her/its weaknesses. 

4. Finding a narrative which unites us.  We have no such thing today.  There is nothing out there which gives us the opportunity to say, "I need to care about what happens to this person because..."

It is my belief the Church can be instrumental in this process.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Would I Rather Be Right, or Would I Rather Be Kind?

That's a quote by Wayne Dyer.  I came across it in this link posted by a friend on Facebook.

Now, there's a few things in this article worth noting, but I almost stopped reading after point number one.  It reads:

1. Give up your need to always be right. There are so many of us who can’t stand the idea of being wrong – wanting to always be right – even at the risk of ending great relationships or causing a great deal of stress and pain, for us and for others. It’s just not worth it. Whenever you feel the ‘urgent’ need to jump into a fight over who is right and who is wrong, ask yourself this question: “Would I rather be right, or would I rather be kind?” Wayne Dyer. What difference will that make? Is your ego really that big?

Now, at first glance, this might seem like a no-brainer.  Aren't relationships more important than being right?  Isn't it better to avoid stress and pain for ourselves and for others?  Wouldn't I rather be seen as being kind instead of judgmental and self-righteous?

Honestly, this isn't the first time I've come across this statement.  It's the first time I've seen the attribution, but I've heard numerous such things in regards to the Church and it's ability to reach out to the unchurched.  It's better that we be seen as compassionate than to be seen as judgmental.

Perhaps.  But there is a BIG problem with this train of thought.  It assumes we all have the same understanding of what it means to be kind.  Let me illustrate with this hypothetical example:

Let's say a teacher gives her classroom an assignment at the beginning of the six weeks.  She asks them to write a two page report on zebras.  Wanting to be kind and give every kid the opportunity to pass, she reminds them two to three times a week including every Friday before they head home for the weekend.  She emails parents once a week and sends three letters home about the report during the course of the six weeks.

The day the report is due, the teacher sees Johnny scribbling frantically.  She asks for the reports, and she begins to grade them.  Johnny's report is written on one page and consists of one sentence: Zebras are black and white.

What does it mean for the teacher to be kind in this instance?  Well, from my perspective, the kindest thing the teacher could do is flunk Johnny because he failed miserably at the assignment.  Of course, Johnny will not think her too kind because of her actions.  Yet, he must learn that one cannot turn such work in on a clearly stated assignment.  He must learn there are consequences to the work he decides to do (or not do in this case).  He must learn responsibility for school assignments.  Teaching him this now by failing him would be the kindest thing to do even if Johnny doesn't believe this to be the case.

Well, just as it so happens, Johnny's parents are helicopter parents.  They demand to see the teacher once they find out Johnny has flunked the assignment.  They begin arguing for a better grade.  "We've had a rough couple of weeks as a family.  Johnny needs to work at his own pace.  We try to give him freedom to be creative and do things when he wants to so that his work is better.  This will ruin his average, and he will be devastated if he doesn't make the honor roll.  Can't you give him a chance?  He probably didn't understand the assignment.  Please be kind and make an exception."  The parents truly believe they are being kind to their son by asking the teacher to change his grade.  They truly believe they are looking out for his best interest in what they are doing, and if the teacher does not change Johnny's grade, they will go ballistic thinking the teacher is a cruel, heartless woman who doesn't care about their child.

When in reality, she really does.  She really wants what is best for Johnny and his education.  She really wants to be kind and help him in the best way she can right now--by failing him on this assignment. 

So, the question is: who is really being kind?  And how do you make that judgment call?  How do you know you are being kind?  And ultimately, who is right?

What if being right also means being kind and being wrong means you are actually hurting someone badly?

Do we not have an obligation to do what is right even if it means being un-kind?

What sayest thou?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sermon: Being a Witness

There has been quite the theme running through our Easter lessons this year–the theme of witnessing. First off, on Easter Sunday, I offered up a mock scenario of an atheistic/agnostic organization suing the Church to make it cease proclaiming the resurrection since there was no rational, scientific proof the event took place. I argued our only form of defense was to produce credible witnesses that this event indeed was real and had a noticeable impact on our lives. Last week, as we looked at doubting Thomas, we saw that one cannot argue another person toward belief. It is essentially futile given that if one tries hard enough he/she can poke a hole in every argument we were to bring forth. I ended the sermon with the fact that it is Christ Himself who brings someone to belief, and it is our job to be a witness to Jesus–to point the way to Jesus so that others may encounter Him personally and come to believe.

This week, the theme continues. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus appears to the disciples after His resurrection. He opens their hearts and minds to understand why the Messiah had to suffer, die, and be raised from the dead. Then, Jesus commissions the disciples with these words, "...repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in His name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

Unequivocally, Jesus tells His followers then, and by extension, His followers now, that we are called to be witnesses to these things. We are called to be clothed with power from on high–which in actually we already are since we have received the Holy Spirit in our baptisms. We are called to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations, and we are to accomplish this by being witnesses of these things.
But now comes the sticky part. Just how are we supposed to be a witness to Jesus Christ? What are the things we are called to do to point to Jesus?

You might say at this point, "Pastor, why do you say that such a thing is sticky? Isn’t it obvious what we’re supposed to do and not supposed to do? Isn’t it all laid out for us in the Bible?"

To this I reply, yes and no. I mean, yes, there are some pretty clear instructions in the Bible as to the type of people we are called to be. There are some pretty clear instructions as to how we are to be oriented, what kind of qualities we should have, and how we should act toward one another. Yet, I’d also argue no from the sense that if you look around at the state of the Church today, you will see it divided on best how to be a witness to Jesus.

For instance, there is a train of thought that has run through the Church which believes the best way for the Church to witness to Jesus is to transform the world and bring about the Kingdom of God on earth. They believe that the Church must influence every possible sphere of life including government and the passing of laws which uphold Christian values. If we’d like to parse this train of thought even further, we could argue that the Church has even become split on exactly what kind of values and laws should and should not be passed to bring about God’s Kingdom on earth. There is one strain of Christianity which focuses on morality and takes up the banner against abortion, gay marriage, divorce, drinking, and drugs. In our country, we would define this group as the Religious Right. The other strain of Christianity that has emerged is called the Christian Left, and they focus on the Christian values of care for the needy and poor and striving for justice and peace. Both have their roots in Christianity and Jesus’ call to be a witness, but both emphasize different paths. Yet, they share in common the desire to bring about God’s Kingdom through the political, governmental realm.

Another train of thought which Christians have followed in witnessing is the personal, individual path. As C.S. Lewis said in his book Mere Christianity, "A Christian society is not going to arrive until most of us really want it: and we are not going to want it until we become fully Christian." Therefore, in order to have such a thing happen, the Church should focus on individual transformation. The Church should focusing on bringing people into contact with Jesus one by one. Individual Christians should strive to reach other individuals one at a time.

One final train of thought comes from those who believe the Church should offer an alternative setting to the mores and values of society. Instead of striving to impose the Kingdom of God through government and laws, but not content to just keep things at an individual level, this group seeks to establish a community which is in the world but not of it. Where it can practice charity, care of the poor, and care of one another while also focusing on the transformation of individuals.

All of these various strains are grounded and rooted in Christian thought. So, which is right? Which one should we as a congregation become? Do these fully encapsulate what it means to be a witness to Jesus? Well, I’m not sure. Instead, perhaps we need to head in another direction. Perhaps we need to have a different sort of focus–a focus of witnessing based on showing Jesus Himself to others.

Now, how do we do that? How do we show Jesus to others? Is that even possible? According to Scripture, it is. There are a couple of places to note. First, St. Paul writes these words in 1 Corinthians 11:1, "Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ." And again, in Ephesians chapter 5 verse 1, he says again, "1Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, 2and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." Would Paul have instructed us of such things if it were not possible?

But, you might argue, it is impossible. We could never imitate Jesus Christ. We could never live up to His standards. We could never love like He loved. We could never do the things He did. We could never teach like Him or preach like Him. We cannot walk on water or heal like He did. We are such poor imitations. How could we even be a witness if we can’t come close to doing what Jesus did?

Let’s ponder this for a moment with this real world example. I’ve got a few pictures for you to look at this morning. They are actually pictures from an image search on Yahoo! depicting rocks brought back from the moon. Look at them carefully as I scroll through them.

Do you notice anything peculiar about those rocks? In particular, did you notice the color of those rocks? What color are they? They are awfully dark, aren’t they? In fact, in an article I read from the magazine Astronomy entitled "Strange Universe" written by Bob Berman in August of 2011, he states, "If you could plop our nearly black, low-reflectivity Moon among familiar earthly objects, it would closely match an asphalt parking lot. Yet, seen against the inkiness of space, it doesn’t look black at all."

Think about this for a moment. Realize the Moon, although it is nearly black appears dazzling white against the background of the darkness of space as it reflects the sun’s light. And if God could put together a universe where something that is black appears dazzling white because it reflects the light of the Sun, do you not think He can make our darkness, our weakness in imitating Christ shine all the more since we are seeking to reflect the light of His Son?

Sure, we might not be perfect in what we do. We may struggle in loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. We may find ourselves hopelessly striving to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. We may find it a chore to love each other as Jesus loved us so that others would know that we are His disciples. But, God can take these feeble attempts and make us shine brighter that anything around. God can take these broken hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits, and transform them so that they cannot be ignored. God can take our weakness and transform it into strength as we reflect the nature and love of Jesus. God can take our imperfect desire to imitate Jesus and make it truly shine so that we can indeed be witnesses to these things. Amen.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

What Happened to Morals?

I ran across this video on Fox News this morning.  It asks a very good question:

Indeed, what has happened to morals?

I found the content of the video to be quite lacking in its attempt to address what has actually happened to the idea of morals and values in our society today.  The closest anyone came was the guy who began talking about absolute truths and the fact that 91% of the younger generation do not believe in such things.

This, of course, is probably the root of the matter.  We live in a society governed by relativity.  There is no longer a general understanding or consensus about how truth is derived, and when there is no truth, there are no morals.

The video, unfortunately, only gives a cursory thought to this as the anchor strives to connect government scandal to the administration and give the administration a black eye because of it.  What could have been much more productive is a deep reflection upon the nature of truth, the nature of ethics, and how such things have been cast aside by many within our culture.

The Nature of Truth

It's hard to imagine that much of the understanding of truth within our society derives from thoughts from the late 1800's, but I believe it can be traced back to that period.  Philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche famously decreed that "God is dead," and along with that idea came the natural consequence that any noble ideals such as absolute truth were dead as well.  Such thoughts were fallacies constructed by faith and not reason.

Nietzsche argued for perspectivism: the idea that all of our understandings of morality, justice, and truth are grounded and rooted, not in something that stands above and beyond our reality, but in things we have been conditioned to believe.  And the idea that we have arrived at some sort of universal truth through our efforts is tantamount to selfishness and arrogance on our part.  (Gay Science)  All we have is our perspective of what is right and what is wrong.

Much of what is called post-modern thought is predicated upon this belief, and it has surged relatively unchecked through our culture. 

Even in the above video, we see how deeply ingrained this thought is as the Muslim spokes-woman addresses the Secret Service scandal by saying essentially, "I'm not making a judgment because it's between them and their God and their spouse..."  This comment actually relativizes values and morality for if such actions are understood as O.K. by those agents--"I'm not hurting anyone, just having fun, and my spouse doesn't care."--then why the uproar?

Ah, but if there is a moral standard, then we have a very different conclusion.  We can render judgment and say these men were wrong in what they were doing.  But on what do we rest such a judgment?  Are there such Truths which transcend society, culture, etc.?

If there are not, then there is no justice; there is no honesty; there is no right and wrong.  Do you really want to live in such a culture?

The Nature of Ethics

 If we can agree that living in such a culture would be a very bad thing, we must then move to the discussion of what sort of ethics govern our behavior.

This leads to a very sticky discussion in a pluralistic culture which has people of all sorts of faiths and beliefs including those who say they have no faith or belief.  How can one even begin to put together some sort of understanding of how we are supposed to treat one another?

At one time in our country, things were a little more simple in this realm.  Nearly all of our understanding of ethics was based upon the Judeo-Christian heritage.  At first, it was mainly a Protestant view of such ethics; then it morphed into a Protestant/Catholic view; then it was Protestant/Catholic/Jewish, and then it went to pot.  As more and more people of other faith backgrounds came in, the ethical situation faltered.  Why?

Simply put: basic assumptions lead to very different places.

The assumption reason is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to social Darwinism.
The assumption Christianity is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to Biblically based values.
The assumption Islam is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to Koran based values.
The assumption Buddhism is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to the 8 fold path as a place for values.
The assumption that Hinduism is the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to Vedic based values.
The assumption that the U.S. founding documents are the best place to obtain knowledge and ethics leads to the idea of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--even if that happiness might make others miserable.

So, where do we start in formulating ethics if such assumptions will lead to such varying positions?

How such Things Have Been Cast Aside

To even begin the conversation is difficult work, and rather than do the difficult work and argue which set of ethics might be better, many have given up altogether.  It's easier and intellectually lazier to throw up one's hands and say "it's all relative," and then let each culture and person do as they please.

Now, that might work very well in a small area with a homogeneous population, but if you are in a pluralistic society, it won't.  Something has got to give.  Either a meta-narrative must exist to give guidance and ethics, or get ready for anarchy.

Perhaps we are already there, at least morally.

So how can things change?  Is it possible for the U.S. to formulate a new narrative (or capture the essence of its earliest roots)? 

In order for such a thing to happen, the figure I cited earlier about 91% of young people believing there are no absolute truths will have to be reversed.  We will have to recapture and articulate just why it is of the utmost importance to adhere to these truths, and we will have to literally change a culture rooted and grounded in relativism.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Nietzsche, Politics, and Faith

I've posted previously about how I am having to wade through some of Nietzsche's work in writing my current book.  Thankfully, I've pretty much gotten through what's necessary at this time.  I say this because I don't like Nietzsche.  One quick glance at the following quote will give you an insight as to why:

We exercise our power over others by doing them good or by doing them ill–that is all we care for! Doing ill to those on whom we have to make our power felt; for pain is a far more sensitive means for that purpose than pleasure:–pain always asks concerning the cause, while pleasure is inclined to keep within itself and not look backward. Doing good and being kind to those who are in any way already dependent upon us (that is, who are accustomed to think of us as their raison d’etre); we want to increase their power, because we thus increase our own; or we want to show them the advantage there is in being in our power,-they thus become more contented with their position, and more hostile to the enemies of our power and readier to contend with them. If we make sacrifices in doing good or doing ill, it does not alter the ultimate value of our actions; even if we stake our life in the cause, as martyrs for the sake of our church, it is a sacrifice to our longing for power, or for the purpose of conserving our sense of power. (The Gay Science reprinted in Nietzsche Ultimate Collection, Kindle edition.  location 17791)

Take a good hard look at that statement.  Read it several times if you need to so that you might grasp what it is saying. 

Then, take a good hard look at the politics that you see practiced in our nation.

Tell me that either Nietzsche nailed the human condition or that our politicians follow Nietzsche to a tee.

This is one of the reasons I abhor politics and I believe that the Church needs to keep itself as separate as possible from it.  The Church is not about power--it's about becoming powerless!

In a conversation with someone a few weeks ago, a man commented about how he is leery of those who believe they have the Truth.  He argued that for the most part whenever someone believes he or she has the absolute Truth, they use it to make a power play and exert their power over others.  (Nietzsche to a tee.)

I responded, "This is why I have come to a high appreciation for Jesus.  He knew He had the Truth, and instead of seeking power, He sought the cross.  He sought to die for others and become powerless."

That caused a pause in the conversation; a pause  followed by an admission that such a comment deserved some careful deliberation and thought--especially in light of the obvious conclusions.

And one of those conclusions being--when the Church (in whatever form it takes be it the Religious Right or the Christian Left) begins to dabble in the political realm and seek to bring the Kingdom of God through power, it is misguided.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Sometimes the Little Guys Win a Round

Last year, I wrote the following blog post to support a community wide effort to stop a proposed project to run powerlines through Cat Spring:

This past week, those in the proposed path of this project received the following letter from CenterPoint Energy out of Houston:

April 5, 2012


Dear ******************,

Last year CenterPoint Energy provided notice of a proposed electric transmission line running from the LCRA's Fayetteville Substation to our Zenith Substation. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), the independent system operator that manages and schedules power on the electric grid, had approved this line based on a consumer benefit test that was used to determine the necessity of these types of projects.
During the last session of the Texas Legislature, measures were passed that prompted the Public Utility Commission of Texas (PUCT), the state agency that regulates utilities, to initiate a rulemaking to consider the criteria used to evaluate the need for new transmission projects. We want you to know that the PUCT has eliminated the use of the consumer benefit test. As a result, CenterPoint Energy is no longer pursuing construction of the proposed line at this time. Please note that the potential still exists that a similar project may be needed in the future to ensure energy reliability and to accommodate expected growth.
We deeply value and appreciate the participation of everyone involved in the meetings held last year. Your input is important and helpful as we make decisions about projects like this. If ERCOT determines a similar project is necessary in the future, we will provide advanced notice to all property owners near any potential line segment. We will again host public meetings and seek your input. As always, we welcome your comments at any time. Should you have any questions or concerns in the meantime, please do not hesitate to contact Wes Padgett at 713-207­2189. Thank you for your interest and your concern.

John R. Kellum, Jr.
Division Vice President High Voltage Power Delivery

Sometimes the little guys win a round.  As stated in the letter, we are not completely out of the woods, but at least we have a reprieve, and CenterPoint is going to have to offer a better argument than, "It will save our customers money."  There will have to be a definite need for power.

Thanks for all who offered their support for this community as we faced this issue.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

An Interesting Exercise

I broke my silence on a Lutheran message board I used to frequent often.  Frankly, I did so because I became tired of a refrain which seemed to pop up time and again.  Perhaps you have heard it before:

"We do not have the right to impose our faith/morals upon anyone or shove them down their throats."

Now, such a statement might seem like a no-brainer.  I mean, no one likes to have anything shoved down their throats.  No one wants to be told what to believe.  No one wants to be told what to do.  Everyone wants to be free and have the freedom to do as they please.

However, complete freedom is actually anarchy.  In order for us to co-exist with one another, there must be agreed upon rules which govern how we live.  I mean, I simply cannot go and take something from another person.  That's stealing.  It's one of the rules we live by.

Of course, most people agree that we do indeed need some rules so that we don't live in anarchy.  However, we tend to have a difficult time figuring out just what those rules should and should not be.  I would personally argue this is why we have quite a bit of social anxiety within our culture these days.  Many different worldviews are competing for supremacy in the rules department, and they are trying to exert their influence within our society.

There's the Christian worlview.
There's the conservative worldview.
There's the liberal worldview.
There's the Muslim worldview.
There's the secular humanist worldview.
There's the postmodern worldview.

Oh, and I could list more than a dozen others, but I hope you get my point.

To try and enable some sort of dialogue between people who hold worldviews, some academics have asserted that when engaging in public discourse, one should leave one's faith behind.  One is free to discuss one's faith in private, but it should not affect the public sphere.  Among the myriads of fallacies with this approach is the fact that all worldviews are predicated upon assumptions which are grounded in faith, not reason.  Yet, most folks fail to acknowledge that--especially those who resort to the refrain "we can't shove our faith/morals down the throats of others." 

So, to expose that fallacy, I challenged folks on that Lutheran message board to give me a secular based, rational argument for universal health care.  No faith arguments are allowed. 

It's been fun watching the fireworks fly, and perhaps I am enjoying it a little too much because I am on the board arguing from a secular, evolutionary based worldview, and it's driving some folks nuts.

Yet, it is quite the interesting challenge to leave one's worldview behind and argue from another.  It really stretches one's brain.  And it also shows just how unwilling we usually are to even assess our own assumptions about the way we think.

I offer my readers this challenge: pick an argument and see if you can argue it from a different worldview.  See if you can check your faith at the door and approach things only from reason, science, and logic.  Or, if you are an athiest, see if you can argue things from a faith-based perspective.  Let me know what you find out.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Encountering the Risen Christ

There is a story I came across written by a man named Ed Friedman. Ed was a huge proponent of a theory of thought called Bowen Family Systems theory. The theory has many components, and rather than bore you with all the technical terms, I thought I’d just share with you a story about one of those components. It’s entitled "The Power of Belief," and for honesty’s sake, please know I am abbreviating it and telling a bit of it in my own words.

One evening, a man came home and announced he was dead.

Immediately some of his neighbors tried to show him how foolish this notion was. He walked, and dead men cannot move themselves. He was thinking, his brain was functioning, and he was breathing; and that, after all, is the quintessence of living. But none of these arguments had any effect.

No matter what reason was brought to bear against his position, no matter how sensible the argument, the man maintained that he was dead. He parried their thrusts with ingenious skill.
He seemed to have a way of constantly putting the burden of proof upon the other. He never quite came right out and said, "Prove it." But that was the message implied, not so much by how he answered as by how he avoided giving any answer at all.

Every now and then someone thought, "Now, I’ve pinned him down," having brought evidence so obvious no one could deny it. But then he would use his trump: "If I am dead, you do not exist either, since surely the living do not traffic with the dead."

His family became more and more frustrated and a bit fearful of this man’s condition, so they invited a psychiatrist to interview him. After some preliminary greetings, the two of them went off into a room alone. Now and then an elevated voice broadcast itself over the transom, although nothing could be understood. It was clear, however that the voice they heard getting louder belonged to the clinician.

Some time later, both men emerged. The doctor had his jacket over his arm, his necktie had been loosened and his collar opened (in fact, the button was no longer there). As for the man, he seemed totally unchanged. "Hopelessly psychotic," muttered the psychiatrist. "You will have to have him committed. He has lost all awareness of reality. If you want, I’ll call the hospital and see if they have room."

"Now really," said the man calmly, "what kind of therapy would you prescribe for a dead man? Surely, sir, if it were known that you had tried to cure a man who was not even about losing one’s grip on reality."

The doctor started to answer, caught himself, and then with measured calm, said to the others, "I haven’t finished dinner yet. If you want me to call the hospital, give me a ring."

The family then sought out a clergyman. They thought about what kind of minister they should get. Should it be a more modern clergy who had some knowledge of psychiatry, or should they get an old-fashioned fundamentalist? The family decided to fight fire with fire.

As it happened, that evening a well known evangelist was in town speaking. When he heard about the man’s issue, he believed it would give him an opportunity to bolster his own success. The clergy and the man once again headed behind closed doors. Once again a voice was raised–the voice of the clergy. And once again, the professional exited the room with a nervous look on his face. The clergy kissed his black book, and exited the house without a glance back. The family members looked in the room, and the man was fast asleep.

Finally, the family sent for the family doctor. The doc had known the man since infancy, and he was known for not only his medical skill but some homey wisdom. The doctor entered the house and after a few introductory questions asked, "Tell me, do dead men bleed?"

The man replied, "Of course not."

"Then," said the doctor, "would you allow me to make a small cut in your arm, say above the elbow? I will treat it; there’s no reason to worry about infection. I’ll stop the flow immediately, and we can see, once and for all, whether you are dead."

"Dead men do not get infections, nor do they bleed, doctor," said the man, as he proceeded to roll up his sleeve.

With everyone watching anxiously, the doctor deftly slit the flesh, and blood came spurting out. There was a gasp of joy throughout the group. Some laughed, others even applauded, though a few seemed rather to be relieved.

The doctor quickly dressed the wound and turn to everyone saying, "Well, I hope that puts an end to this foolishness." Everyone was congratulating the physician when they suddenly realized the man was headed for the door. As he opened it, he turned to the group and said, "I see that I was wrong." Then as he turned to leave, he added, "Dead men, in fact, do bleed." (Friedman's Fables  pp. 55-60 c. 1990)

I like this story because it shows indeed the power of belief that people have. We have a tendency to construct a way of looking at the world, and if something falls outside of that view, either we have a very hard time incorporating it or we reject it outright. I’m pretty sure you have witnessed this in your own life at some time or another. For instance, have you ever gotten into a political debate with someone and argued over a particular issue, and you produced piece after piece after piece of evidence to prove your point only to find you’ve made no headway at all? I see more than a few heads nodding.

If you’ve experienced this, you know the frustration the disciples felt when they tried to convince Thomas that Jesus had risen from the dead. They had witnessed the living Jesus with their own eyes. They had talked with Him, and they wanted Thomas to believe as well. They wanted Him to share their joy. But no matter how much they argued with Thomas; no matter how many proofs they shared; no matter how much they cajoled him, he wouldn’t believe. There was only one who could break through the power of Thomas’ belief–Jesus Himself. The good news of this story from the 21st Chapter of John is that Jesus actually came to Thomas to inspire belief, and when Thomas encountered Jesus, he fell to his knees and uttered, "My Lord, and my God."

There is an important piece of information for you and I to take from this lesson today–it is a lesson that links the story I told about the guy who thought he was dead and from our Gospel text. The lesson is, you will never argue someone into belief. You will never be able to convince someone that Jesus is risen from the dead by cajoling, threat, persuasion, rational argument, or otherwise. It just won’t happen.

The only one who can bring that person to belief is Jesus Himself. So what does that mean for us as we live as Christians? If we can’t argue people to belief, what can we do? Well, plain and simple, we can witness to Jesus; we can show others where He is working; we can ask people to come and see where He is active; we can lead them to the place where Jesus is so that they may have their own encounter with the risen Lord. And when they encounter Jesus, they will come to believe. Amen.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Unlearn What You Have Learned

This Easter, my parents surprised us and decided to spend the holiday weekend with us.  We were thrilled.  Part of the drawbacks of being a pastor is that you don't get family holidays off.  I mean, it's possible to go up to your council or board of elders and say, "I'm going to take Christmas and Easter off this year."  It's possible, but I wouldn't recommend it.  You'd have to start looking for a new congregation pretty quickly.  :-)  Since I can't travel to see family on Christmas and Easter, it's wonderful when they come to stay with my wife, my kids, and me.

During our time together, my dad and I had a couple of conversations about science, mathematics and quantum physics.  Yeah, I know.  Not exactly most family's idea of Easter weekend conversations, but my dad taught these subjects for 30 years after graduating with a degree in petroleum engineering.  The guy loves math and science, and he managed to pass off a part of that to yours truly.

We were having a conversation about what it means to "touch" an object.  I was sharing how when you "touch" a table, you don't really touch it.  Rather, the forces that bind the atoms of your hand and the forces which bind the atoms of the table repel one another.  They never come into contact.

Dad had a little fun then and said, "And you know why there's a sound when it looks like you touch it?  Because the air between those forces gets pushed out like a balloon popping."

At this point of the conversation, my wife said something to the effect of, "I have a hard time getting my head around this stuff."

To which, my dad, being somewhat of a Star Wars fan reminded us of that wonderful saying by Jedi Master Yoda:

When dealing with the quantum world, you must "unlearn" much of what you have learned.  Things function quite differently at that level than they do in the higher levels.  You've got to truly re-think things and imagine a very, very different world.

In all honesty, this why I am drawn to further study of quantum mechanics as a person of faith.  Because in a very real way, faith requires us to "unlearn what we have learned"; to view the world differently; to realize that things function in a different way when it comes to God's level of working.

There are things we see with our eyes that God sees very differently.  For instance let's tackle the subject of miraculous healing.

For the longest time, I was extremely perplexed by Jesus' commentary in the Gospels when He said the following:

19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.  --Matthew 18:19


If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it. --John 14:14

Numerous times I have contemplated these texts when praying for someone who is suffering with some sort of debilitating illness--whether it is a congregation member with cancer or a child who has suffered brain trauma.  I have wondered why it seems like my prayers and the prayers of the members of the church I serve go unheeded--even though Jesus says they will be done.

And then one day something helped me "unlearn what I have learned."  The unlearning struck me so forcefully, I am now writing a book on the subject--understanding the concept of time through God's perspective.

For in God and with God there is no time.  God is eternal, which means God encapsulates the past, present, and future all at once.  In our limited capacity, we can't see this.  In fact, for many, it's too hard to even contemplate.  But none-the-less, it is true.

If God, then encapsulates the past, present, and future, then when we pray for the healing of someone, it is done.  From God's perspective, the person is healed.  We cannot see it because we still function within our reality of time. 

This may offer little comfort to those who suffer now or who are watching their children suffer.  I know such folks want to see that healing in our time frame not in God's.  I can appreciate such sentiments.  I would prefer that to happen as well.  Yet, I personally take great comfort in knowing the healing does take place even without my being able to see it.  I personally have faith that God hears, and God takes action.

Yes, we cannot see such a thing with our eyes, but we must trust God does. 

"You must unlearn what you have learned." 

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Funeral Sermon for Thekla Kollatschny

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18
13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
When Margie called me last week to tell me that Thekla had passed away, I hung up the phone and images and memories started flooding into my brain. As they passed through, one became particularly vivid.

It is our custom at this church to have a Halloween hay ride. During my first years here, we went all over Cat Spring, and I mean all over it. We’d stop right here in town, drive down 949 all the way out to Franz Road, up to Newberg Rd to just before the church cemetery. The kids had a ball–except when it was cold. Then it was a test of endurance.

You may have realized already that one of our stops along the way was at Thekla’s house. I found out early on, she loved it when we came by, and my memory confirmed it. I still see her in my mind’s eye as we arrived at her house. She was out alongside the fence sitting I think in her wheelchair. The kids being kids jumped off those trailers like they had never trick-or-treated in their lives, and they ran to get what was offered. I remember seeing Thekla almost shaking with excitement. Her eyes gleamed with joy as she laughed and smiled as the kids came forward. She was consumed with utter exuberance as she watched two trailer loads of kids come to her house to receive goodies. I didn’t blame those kids. For you see, Thekla wasn’t content just to put a couple of pieces of candy in a bag for those kids. Nope. Not at all. She had to add in some home made cookies, and if you had ever tasted any of Thekla’s baking, it was worth jumping off a trailer and running for. In fact, I used to make sure I was one of the last ones to go up to Thekla or Margie just to see if there was extra and I might be rewarded with two treat bags instead of one. Those cookies were that good! It was probably because Thekla used a secret ingredient in those cookies–she baked those doggone things with joy and the knowledge they would be used for something God had His hand on.

For you see, Thekla was a woman with a very deep faith, and that faith was central to her life. Early on, her family was instrumental in having Bible study within the community. She remembered clear as a bell hearing the bell rung in the first building constructed on this site. She made this church a part of her life holding every position possible in the Ladies Aid which is now Women of the ELCA. The church newsletter was read over and over and over. When her 90th birthday arrived, and her kids asked her what she would like to do for it, there was no hesitation. "I want something at the church." Even when she turned 93 this past weekend, she received a birthday card from the ladies of the church, and she read every name of every person who signed it. Church wasn’t something she just went to–it was her family.

This was evident in that Thekla didn’t just go to church–she realized she was the church. I mean that in this way. As Christians, we collectively are the Body of Christ in the world. We represent Jesus, not only on Sunday mornings, but every single day of the week. Thekla knew this at a very deep level. She was, as I said earlier, a person of faith. It was lived out in the midst of her daily life in the things she did and in the person she was. If you knew Thekla or Wah, you knew she didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was kind and thoughtful and caring. Each year, the West End Industry Lioness Club would send a basket of goodies to her for Easter, and each year, Thekla would take the time to send a thank you card with a hand written note expressing her gratitude and joy at receiving the basket. A month or so ago, her step-grandson got fantastic news that he was cancer free after battling leukemia. Wah and Margie worked to make homemade candy to send to Steve’s care givers. Even though she was declining at this point, she wanted to share her kindness and thankfulness to all who had helped him through that difficulty. Whenever a prayer request came through either the email or from the prayer chain, she stopped whatever she was doing, and she gave her attention to that prayer need. She was indeed a prayer warrior. And, according to Margie, no morsel of food was ever eaten in Thekla’s house without giving thanks to God for it. And, finally, Wah had one of the most positive attitudes of any person. She would say repeatedly, "It will get better." And she believed it. Each of these things are only a sampling of the way she lived out her faith, and I mean it when I say it, she lived out her faith.

And there is a reason she not only believed her faith but she lived it. It has a lot to do with what was one of her favorite passages from the Bible. We heard it just a few moments ago when I read 1 Thessalonians 3: 13-18. I will spare you from having to hear the entirety of that passage again, but I will concentrate on verses 13 and 18. They read respectively, "13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope." Then there’s a lot of stuff about what will happen to us when Christ returns, and then these words, "18Therefore encourage one another with these words."

Both of these statements are fundamental to a life of faith. First, we are people of hope. Yesterday, we celebrated the day of Easter. It is the day Jesus was raised from the dead signaling the beginning of the defeat of death, evil and suffering. The unique thing about Easter is that one has to have Good Friday as well. They both walk hand in hand. To get to the resurrection, one must go through the cross. If Christianity were just about the cross alone, one would be left to ask, "Where is the hope?" If death is the end; if suffering is the end; if pain is the end, then what is the point? Christianity does not stop at death. It does not stop at pain. It does not stop at suffering. It pushes through to resurrection. It pushes through to promise. Sure, we will suffer. We will have pain. We will die, but it won’t be the end. God has a plan and a purpose that includes redemption. It includes eternal life. It includes a righting of the wrongs. Those of us who believe this do not live our lives in fear, in grousing, in anger or in turmoil. We live them in hope. And Thekla had that hope.

So, she shared it with others as Paul urges us to do. "Encourage one another with these words" is the exact quote. Now, Thekla might not have necessarily done that with a lot of words, but you can be darn sure she did it with her actions. Through prayer, kindness, caring, baking cookies, making candy, celebrating her daughters, grand kids and great grand kids–in all these things and much more, she encouraged us to have that same hope. And now it is a hope she is experiencing in its fullest.

Margie told me that a few nights ago, Thekla and she had a conversation about life after death. Margie told Thekla about Steve Jobs who changed the world running Apple Computer. This genius of a man spoke two words as he died from cancer, "Oh wow." Thekla wondered what that "Oh wow" was like. She was sure it would be grand. On Wednesday night, as she was laying down to sleep, Thekla fell into Jesus’ arms. She fell into the eternal hope–a hope that you and I share as believers in Jesus Christ. We will all have our wow moments, and let us encourage one another with these words. Amen.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why We Never Hear God

It occurred to me the other day just why many of us never hear God in our lives.

We seem to be in a constant war with boredom.

Technology has been a boon for spare time for those who benefit from it.  Whereas at one time, most folks spent their time laboring in the field producing just enough food to scrape by, now, factory farms produce an overabundance of food so that the vast majority of people no longer have to work to produce it. 

This has freed countless hours up for extra activities, and honestly, we don't know what to do with all that spare time.

First, we tried to fill it up with school and education.  The printing press made books available so that we could use our imaginations.  Imagination led to creativity, and we were able to create all sorts of jobs which are not agriculturally based.  This managed to fill up some of the spare time we had, but not all of it.  Therefore we started inventing sports and games and other such things to bide our time.

Then we had the advent of the radio.  We could listen to music and commentary; however, we were once limited in the distance we could take the music and talk.  Pesky electrical cords.

Ah, but that was soon resolved as radios entered our cars.  Now, we could take music and talk with us as we traveled. 

Television followed soon thereafter.  As an extra added "bonus", t.v. enabled us to turn off our imaginations.  We no longer had to construct pictures of the words coming over the airwaves.

Ah, then the computer and video games.  And now IPad's, Kindle Fires, Smart Phones, IPod's.  No longer do we have to be without music, entertainment, talk, or video.  Every second of free time can be filled with something--engaging our brains at all moments.  (Sometimes this is a blessing.  I was able to stream Netflix on my Kindle to keep my kids entertained while waiting in the doctor's waiting room.  I find they get in much less trouble that way.  However, one must also take the bad with the good.) 

And so, we no longer have quiet.  We no longer have the place where we can listen to that still, small voice, the place where the voice of God comes to us without distraction.

In our war on boredom, we've destroyed quiet and reflection.  Many no longer even seek it out.

And we never hear God.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

A Happy Birthday to My Son

My poor son had to share Easter with Jesus this year.  He seemed o.k.. with it now, but I wonder what will happen in the future?  I know his birthday will fall on Easter again.  Hope he won't be disappointed in having to share, but if that disappointment begins to show, I know what I will do.  I will remind him of how he really, truly is a miracle from God.

To really understand this, you have to travel back in time 12 years.   As my seminary career was winding down, and I prepared to enter the ordained ministry--and become gainfully employed, my wife and I decided it was time to start our family.  Well, it didn't quite work out for us to begin with.

After month after month of futility, we talked with my wife's OBGYN.  She put my wife on Clomid, and we began monitoring days and awaiting ovulation.  Several attempts proved unfruitful, and the emotional roller coaster my wife was riding was devastating to her. 

Right about this time, I began serving Emanuel's Lutheran Church in Seguin, TX.  I was blessed with very good insurance and the name of a local OBGYN who was rapidly making a name for herself in New Braunfels.  We scheduled an appointment with her.  My wife's new doctor quickly diagnosed her with Poly-cystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).  Long and short of it, my wife has a major hormonal imbalance which makes it very difficult to conceive.  Knowing the difficulties we had experienced with Clomid before, our new doc recommended further assistance.  We consulted a fertility specialist.

We made an appointment in San Antoino with one such specialist.  After running more than a few tests, we were met with grim news.  My wife had one of the highest levels of testosterone she had ever seen.  If we wanted to try injections, we could, but they would cost $10,000 a pop with no guarantees.  That was much too steep for a couple living off one income and just getting established.  The knowledge there were absolutely no guarantees didn't help matters.  We knew we could go no further.  "It would take a miracle for conception without treatment," the specialist told us.  We thanked her, and started looking at adoption.

Fast forward several years and a move to Cat Spring, TX.  We had been blessed with two little girls through the adoption process and had settled into a nice routine.  My wife wasn't taking any treatments for conception; neither were we doing anything preventative.  We were pretty sure we were done and our family was as large as it was going to get.

Then my wife's body started acting strangely.  It began with frequent trips to the restroom followed by augmentation of particular body parts which generally stop growing after puberty.  My wife became terrified.  Her mother had experienced such things when her ovary blew up--a long term side effect of taking Clomid.  My wife was very worried she was in trouble.

After doing some research, she informed me she either was pregnant or she had cancer. 

"Either way, we've got to go to the doctor.  We might as well rule at least one of them out," I replied.

A trip to Wal-Mart and a trip to the restroom later, we got one of the most tremendous blessings we'd ever experienced.  For the first time, we saw a positive result on the test!

I'll not forget the next Sunday in church when I informed the congregation.  I asked them to please pray for us the next week as we had scheduled a doctor's appointment for my wife because, "the test was positive."  At first there was a collective gasp followed by applause when they understood what it meant.

Later that week, we got our first glimpse of a real miracle:

We heard the heartbeat and were filled with a joy that knows no bounds.  That one in a million in a million chance had actually happened!

I know that people pray for miracles every day.  I know some of them never receive such a thing.  I know the disappointment, and I know the joy.  I wish I had an answer as to why not everyone--including those who are of a deep faith--receives such blessings in their lives.  I think it will ever be a mystery. 

Some have tried to explain away such a thing by saying that miracles simply don't exist.  All of them have a rational, logical, scientific explanation.  Whatever.

I know what the tests showed us.

I know what the doctor told us.

I know what happened.

A miracle. 

My son.

Don't ever, ever tell me miracles don't happen.  I have one living with me.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Easter Sermon: Would You Be a Credible Witness?

My brothers and sisters in Christ, I received a very disturbing correspondence this past week. Apparently, a well-funded, start-up organization called the Athiest Agnostic Association of America has filed suit in a federal court in Houston asking the court to file a cease and desist order against the Church for proclaiming a lie. They have asked, "Just as free speech does not give one the right to lie and yell ‘fire’ in a crowded theater, it does not give people the right to proclaim falsehoods and lies about history." They continue, "Since there is no verifiable, scientific proof that one Jesus of Nazareth ever was raised from the dead, we request an order that the Church stop proclaiming such a falsity."

I don’t know how they managed to get such a lawsuit filed, but somehow they found a sympathetic judge right down the road in Houston. I took the correspondence to our Associate Member Richard Faulk who is a partner in a major law firm in Houston. I visited with Rick about this, and aside from being shocked this thing is actually going forward, we started trying to think through a defense.

Now, I don’t think I need to tell you how serious this charge is. I mean, if the quadruple A folks win, there are staggering consequences. I mean, sure, we could continue to proclaim that Jesus was a good teacher and that He wants you and I do be kind to one another and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. But if we cannot proclaim the resurrection, we are through. The resurrection is THE most important event in all of Christianity. St. Paul even wrote in 1 Corinthians Chapter 15, "13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; 14and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. 15We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. 17If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins." The entire central, core message of Christianity is in trouble if we are not allowed to proclaim the resurrection!

So what can we do? What kind of defense can we offer? First off, we can’t offer scientific proof Jesus was raised from the dead. There is no way to measurably show that indeed this event happened. We can’t recreate it. We have no video evidence. Neither do we have any record noted by any people of authority. Sure, we have the Bible. We have the scriptures, but the AAAA will argue that these records are biased, taken down by Jesus’ followers and not objective observers. They will easily call them into suspicion.

Furthermore, they will call into question the validity of the Bible. They will surely point to things like our Gospel lesson this morning. They will show that the first people to go to the tomb went there and were confronted by a young man. They will argue the first reaction these women had was not joy, not elation, not a strong conviction to tell others. No. They will argue the first reaction of these women was to go home and cower in fear. They will argue that this is no such appropriate action, and even though we will counter that Jesus later appeared to His disciples and urged them to go out and tell, this primary reaction will be troubling for our defense.

As Rick and I talked we came to believe that our only defense will be to show that the witnesses of the resurrection are credible witnesses. We believe that the only way we can defend the proposition that Jesus did indeed rise from the dead is to show that the witness accounts by the earliest disciples are accurate and that they have had a lasting effect on the world. We believe that the only way we can defend the proposition that Jesus indeed rose from the dead is to show that these witnesses to the resurrection were so changed by the experience that they changed their lives and put into practice the very things Jesus taught them to do. We believe that the only way we can defend the proposition that Jesus indeed rose from the dead is to show that the risen Jesus still comes to people today to change their lives and empower them to witness to this fact of history.

Ah, but we face a daunting challenge in this defense. A daunting challenge. It is very true that we will be able to call upon a host of witnesses. We will be able to call upon the saints of 2000 years of history. We will be able to call upon the disciples who after encountering the risen Christ took His message into the world. We will be able to call upon the fact they willingly gave their lives and suffered martyrdom for Christ. We will be able to call upon the early Church Fathers who forsake glory and power and wealth and sought solitude and conversation with God in the desert. We will be able to call upon the saints who when the plague struck in the Roman empire, stayed and ministered to those sick and oftentimes dying, giving up their own lives when everyone else ran in fear. We will be able to call upon the major reformers of society who fought injustice, hunger, and poverty–St. Francis of Assissi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. We will be able to call upon the Church’s founding of education and health care as further evidence of the power of the risen Lord.

Yet, our opponents will point to the fact that for every Christian who does such marvelous things–who has had their lives transformed, there are just as many who don’t. There are just as many who call themselves Christian who have no noticeable evidence that the risen Christ has had an impact in their lives. They will point out that many who are Christian have no sense of peace and joy in their lives. They will point out that many who are Christian do not speak out and act against injustice. They will point out that many who are Christian still speak ill of others, are prejudiced toward others, and do not even follow the basic command of Jesus to love others as He has loved us.

Our only hope is to provide overwhelming numbers of people whose lives have been touched by the risen Savior. Our only hope is to produce an overabundance of credible witnesses who can show beyond the shadow of a doubt that their lives are different because they have encountered Jesus Christ. Our only hope is to have witness after witness after witness take the stand who produce the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control. It is in this alone that we can win this lawsuit. It is in this alone that we must rest our hope.

Of course, you might realize by now there is no such organization as the Athiest Agnositc Association of America. You might also realize there has been no such case filed. Yet, what if there had been? What if such a thing were ever to happen? Would we be able to call you to the stand? Would we be able to show that the risen Christ had touched your live and made a difference in it? Would you be seen as closer to those women who cowered in fear, or as those who live boldly proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and Savior of all? Would you be seen as a credible witness? Amen.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A New Command

Maundy Thursday.

Maundy: from mandatum, Latin for command. 

And what is the command?

34I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. 35By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

So much has been written; so much has been said about this command.

What more is there to write that has not already been written? 

What more is there to say that has not already been said?

All that is left is to do.

At times it seems impossible with all there is to divide.

It's easier to clump with those who look like us,

...believe like us,

...act like us,

...dress like us,

...or what have you.

Such superficiality that divides.

But Jesus expects more out of those who follow Him.

Differences be damned.

"Love one another as I have loved you."

That's not a request.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Palm Sunday Sermon

(A little later than normal.)

This week as I began preparing for this sermon, I found it interesting that the second lesson designated this week was the Christ hymn from Philippians chapter two. Many scholars believe this is one of the earliest hymns of the early Church, and it begins with a rather intriguing stanza. "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus." Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. As I reflect upon that statement, I reflect upon it with some difficulty. I mean, is it possible to think with the same mind as Jesus Christ? Is it possible to entertain the idea that our thoughts should line up in the same manner as Jesus’ own thoughts? I mean, that’s a true mind stretcher if there ever was one.

For instance, let’s apply this principle to this day in the Church year. It is Palm Sunday. It is the day we remember the beginning of the end. We remember how Jesus rode on the back of a donkey into Jerusalem. The crowd is whipped into a frenzy. They are celebrating His entry and rejoicing. They are placing palm fronds and robes in His path. They are crying out, "Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!" There is little doubt the people believed that Jesus was there to do something spectacular. There is little doubt they believed Jesus was full of power. There is little doubt they believed Jesus came in the Lord’s name and was somehow going to be involved in the arrival of the kingdom–although we see revealed in Mark’s text they believed it would be the kingdom of their ancestor David. Apparently, they believed Jesus was going to re-establish the kingdom of Israel and overthrow those who were occupying it currently. This is the milieu Jesus is riding into.

And, to be faithful to the text in Philippians chapter 2, one must ask, "What was going on in Jesus’ mind at that point and time? What were His thoughts?"

These are tough questions. We do know in the Gospel of Luke, some folks told Jesus to silence the crowd, and Jesus responded by saying, "If they were told to be silent, even the stones would cry out." Does this mean Jesus is reveling in the attention He is getting? Does this mean that as Jesus sat astride the donkey, He was waving at the crowd, smiling, and taking in all the attention? Does this mean Jesus was caught up in the celebration and elation of His arrival into Jerusalem?

I personally have a tough time imagining this. I have a tough time imagining Jesus playing to the crowd at this juncture. Why? Because I believe Jesus knew what would be happening next. We know unequivocally that throughout the Gospels, Jesus made known to His followers the truth that He would come to Jerusalem to be handed over to the elders, chief priests, and scribes. He would be arrested, tried, and executed. We know Jesus said this earlier, and if He knew He was headed to His execution, do you think He would have seen His entry into Jerusalem as an occasion for celebration? As I said before, I have a hard time believing that.

So what was Jesus thinking? Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. As I was on one of my bike rides this week and was thinking about this text, an old hymn title popped into my head. It’s a hymn that has lost much of its luster, and some would argue that it has no place in worship any longer. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if it didn’t offer some insight into Jesus’ thoughts on that day He entered Jerusalem. The hymn is actually found in our green hymnal. Hymn number 183: "The Son of God Goes Forth to War."

The opening stanza reads:

The Son of God goes forth to war, A kingly crown to gain.
As I thought about this hymn and Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, I began to wonder if there was some connection. I began to wonder if Jesus didn’t think of Himself astride His mount heading into war. No, not a war with Rome. Not a war with poverty. Not a war with injustice. Not a war with oppression. But rather a war with the root cause of all of these things. A war with the forces of evil, the Devil, and all his empty promises. A war with sin itself and everything that would draw us away from placing God first in our lives and living by God’s will and command. Jesus was marching into combat.

And just as soldiers head into combat cheered on by throngs, Jesus too was cheered on by those around Him. How often do we see video or pictures of flag waving supporters as armies prepare for war? But amidst the smiling throngs, do the generals and others buy into the flag waving and cheers? Not if they are seasoned soldiers because they know the reality of which they are facing. They know the reality of war. They know the horrors the soldiers will soon face. They know they will see death and destruction and the nastiness of humankind.

Jesus knew He would see that shortly. Jesus knew He would be attacked. Jesus knew there would be blood and sweat and tears. It’s hard to imagine Jesus smiling and cheering on such a thing as He rode into Jerusalem that day.

And as is apt to happen during war, many times the same crowd who is so anxious to cheer their soldiers on turns. We’ve seen it happen in our country numerous times. When the expectations of war are not met; when things don’t go as people see them in their heads, they rail against the war. Sometimes they even rail against the soldiers. The voices that were once singing praises begin shouting insults. It happens, and I have a sneaky suspicion Jesus realized this crowd would turn on Him as well. I have a sneaky suspicion Jesus looked at all the faces gathered there and realized their smiles and laughter would disappear into shouts of anger, frustration, and ill will. Their Hosannas! would turn into "Crucify Him!" I find it hard to believe Jesus would be smiling and laughing as He rode with this in His mind.

So what kept Him going? What kept Him focused? As He rode into this cheering throng, headed toward bloody battle with evil, knowing that these same people would turn on Him, what did He think? Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus–who though He was in the form of God did not consider equality with God as something to be exploited, but rather He humbled Himself becoming obedient unto death even death on a cross.

Jesus knew the cross was coming. Amidst the celebration and the palm branches and the cloaks and the shouts, Jesus knew it was the beginning of the end. The beginning of God’s reconciling the world unto Himself. Jesus knew God’s great love for us. He knew God’s desire to defeat death and sin and the devil. He knew He was the instrument to be used to accomplish that purpose. He would ride to war even though He knew it would cost everything. But He was willing to give it because He shared His Father’s love.

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Amen.
His blood red banner streams a-far; Who follows in his train?
Who best can drink his cup of woe, Triumphant over pain;
Who patient bears his cross below–He follows in his train.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What the Bleep Do We Know?

As I stated in a previous post, I got a kick out of watching this documentary which dealt with both quantum mechanics and brain function.

One of the interesting tidbits given by a neurologist (doctor who studies and works on the brain) was that the eye sees over two million pieces of information at one time, yet we can only focus on 2000 of those pieces.  (The terminology I am using here might not be exact, but the gist is the same.)  This means that we literally take in 1,998,000 more pieces of information in than we can handle at any given moment.  This also means we miss a whole lot more than we are often willing to admit.

It's little wonder we can't really come up with a coherent picture of events that happened.  It's little wonder we have trouble remembering the details of events.

For instance, I am notorious about forgetting things people tell me on Sunday morning before or after worship.  Just the other Sunday, a member of the choir informed me they would like to sing an introductory piece before we began worship.  I had just finished teaching Sunday School and my brain was still processing a few things, nature was calling, I was entering my pre-worship routine and noticing one of my kids running toward me.  Long and short of it, when the appropriate time for the choir to sing arrived, I skipped right over it.  My brain didn't alert me until I had a few moments to gather myself while another person was reading the lessons.  With everything going on, it took several moments of quiet and reflection until my brain actually processed the choir members' request.

Now, I'm not trying to excuse myself.  I didn't focus like I should, however, it's not surprising given how our brains work. 

For my money, this should make us quite humble as we enter into any sort of argument or debate about things.  We miss way too much of what our eyes actually see (not to mention that sometimes our brain only sees that which confirms our own viewpoints--that's another post, though).  There really is a whole world out there that we are missing.

Gives a kind of fresh insight as to why Jesus called His followers do be humble, does it not?

Monday, April 2, 2012

Some Mind Blowing Stuff

To further the commentary on quantum mechanics and faith:

Recently, I watched a documentary titled "What the Bleep Do We Know?"  Part of the documentary dealt with how atoms dealt with one another.

They used an example of a basketball bouncing on concrete.  They shared the fact that the atoms of the basketball never actually touch the atoms of the concrete.  The atoms actually repel one another.  Therefore, the ball never actually touches the concrete.  (Weird, but true.)

A quantum physicist was then interviewed who blatantly said, "(This means) If we believed with every fiber of our being that we could walk on water, we could."

Actually, I was pretty dumbstruck by this comment. 

"Really?" I thought.

Needing further confirmation, I inquired of this comment with my church member.  "Yep!" he assured me. 

Reminds me of another who talked about having faith enough to move mountains who was reported to have walked on water.  According to quantum theory--such a thing is actually possible.

(So much for those who want to "demythologize" the Bible.)

Sunday, April 1, 2012

If I Decided to Further My Education

For a little while, I toyed with going back to school and getting my Doctorate of Ministry.  I even made inquiries at the Presbyterian Seminary in Austin.  I never quite took the plunge.

And now, I've decided if I do decide to further my education, it will not be in the theological realm. 

When I moved out to Cat Spring, I was blessed to meet someone who was/is well versed in science.  He and I have had numerous conversations about faith, theology, science, and reason in the past seven and a half  years.  What he had to teach me blew my ever-loving mind--in a very good way.

In our conversations, I was exposed to the wonderful reality of quantum mechanics.  The further I have delved into this arena of physics, the more my faith has grown.  It has been quite a ride.

I very much wish I could have wrapped my head around these concepts when I was younger.  I'm not saying that I would have entered into a different calling.  I am almost 100% certain I am called to be a Lutheran pastor and will continued to be called to live out this vocation.  Yet, I am inextricably drawn to the quantum reality.  I am inextricably drawn to how the quantum world affects our understanding of reality.  I am inextricably drawn to how the quantum world and the world of faith relate.

The book that I am currently writing relates to quantum theory and the reality of time.  I wish I were more knowledgeable of the subject, but fortunately for me, my church member is helping me along with that part.

I do know, that given the opportunity, I would further my education so that I wouldn't need such assistance.  Given the opportunity, I would pursue a BS in physics and probably follow it up with an MS as well.  A PhD would probably be beyond my grasp, but who would know?  There is a whole realm of probabilities.