Thursday, May 31, 2012

Surprisingly Good Advice....

from someone I wouldn't necessarily expect.

"He has to realize you can't do it all yourself. It's like when someone drops a touchdown pass at the end of a close game. You can say that play cost the team a chance to win the game, but it didn't cause the team to lose. As you get older in this game, you see how everybody has to do their job and how there are so many plays in a game that affect the outcome. As a competitor, you want the ball in your hands at the end to make the play, but you can't do it all in football. You have to give other people a chance to make a play for you, to help you out."   Steve Smith, Wide Receiver for the Carolina Panthers

As in football, so in life--even life in congregations. 

Source here.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Through Burnout and Back: Part 1

I've decided to begin a series here on Country Preacher's Corner.  Over the next few months, I hope to chronicle my journey to and through burnout to (hopefully) rejuvenation.  If you are a regular reader of my blog, you will probably not be surprised this was coming.  I am hoping the posting will be therapeutic as I seek to recover from this phenomenon physically, mentally, and spiritually.

I remember well the commentary in seminary concerning burnout.  The "B" word ranked right up there with all those other dirty words.  My professors gave me and my classmates all sorts of helpful hints and teachings so that burnout could be avoided.  Seminary retreats focused on the issue and gave us techniques to avoid same as well.  I've been continuously involved with Bowen Family Systems teaching and thought which also focuses on self-definition and maintenance to help a person avoid emotional entanglements which lead guessed it...burnout.

My professors, the retreats, and my systems class all seemed to have the underlying assumption that burnout could be avoided if one practiced a few simple things:

1. Active prayer and spiritual life.
2. Taking one's vacation and adhering to one's day off rigorously.
3. Being well defined in what one believes and holding onto one's vision tenaciously.
4. Taking care of one's physical self by diet and exercise.
5. Feeding one's mind through reading and continuing education.

Of course, that short list isn't exhaustive, but I believe it encapsulates the main items used to avoid crashing and burning in a parish.  Let me say right off the bat, these things are very helpful, and I believe just about every pastor should practice them.  Yet, I will also say they do not help one avoid burnout--postpone it, maybe, but avoid it--no.

Perhaps it is the desire to avoid burnout that doesn't allow many clergy to admit we finally run into it.  Admitting one is burned out automatically leads to the assumption one's prayer life isn't up to snuff; one isn't taking good care of one's self through education or diet or exercise; one is spending countless hours at the office, visiting, or at hospitals and nursing homes and in doing all this activity is neglecting family and vacation time.  Yet, what if this is far from the truth?  What if a person is doing all those things--perhaps not getting an A+ in all areas, but is practicing all of those things and still becomes burned out?  What if it is the nature of the beast as clergy that we will burn out no matter how hard we seek otherwise?

Last week, I finally admitted to myself, my congregation council, and my congregation that I was burned out.  My last sermon on the dry bones from Ezekiel came straight from the heart.  I meant every word of how I felt.  I still do. 

After unloading and putting my cards on the table, I can say I feel better--nowhere close to feeling rejuvenated, energetic, and ready to move mountains; however, I feel well enough to actually get out of my office and visit people again.  I have enough energy to sit with those going through illness, grief, and anxiety again.  That was not the case last Thursday.  I needed to go visit some folks, but I just couldn't.  I spent the entire day reading in my office.  Just sharing with my folks my burnout alleviated the stress just enough to function.

As I continue to chronicle this time in my ministry, I have decided to try and look at myself as a scientist might study a phenomenon.  I hope to study my experiences, reflect upon them, detail them, and think about what I could have done differently or better.  I hope to delve within my own emotional, spiritual, and physical make up and get a better understanding of what makes me tick.  I know there will be several things to consider:

1. In describing the life of a pastor, it might look like I am whining and complaining.  This will be partially true, but it will also be descriptive.  Not everyone knows what it is like on the other side of the collar.  There are tremendous blessings and tremendous joys.  The life varies depending upon whether one serves in a rural location, town location, or urban location.  Parish size makes a difference as well.  I'm not going to sugar coat what I've gone through; I'm going to gripe a little; but I don't want any sympathy.  I know exactly where to look in the dictionary for it.  God called me to this position with the good and the bad.  I'm going to try and emphasize both as best as I can.

2. It might seem like I'm coming down on my congregation or on people within it.  It might seem like I'm taking shots at my denomination and others.  To the best of my ability, I am going to try and avoid this.  I do not seek to blame anyone for this burnout.  If there is blame to shoulder, it is mine and mine alone.  Blame might lie everywhere and nowhere.  The intention of this chronicle is not to spread blame or affix it to anyone or anything.  The intention is to be purely descriptive of the process.  That's a big order.  I know.

3. Part of the reason of putting all this into my blog is its therapeutic nature.  Some folks get counseling.  Some folks go on long walks.  Some folks walk away from it all.  I write.  I hope no one takes major offense at that.

4. Putting all this stuff in public makes me vulnerable.  I know this.  Should you wish to take shots, tell me to suck it up, go postal on me and say, "Stop whining!", or whatever else you see fit, I actually encourage you to do so.  Your comments might not make it past moderation on that given day depending upon my mood, but I think I can handle it.

5. The goal of this process is to arrive at a place in the future where the burnout is passed and I am rejuvenated in doing what I love to do in the place where I love doing it.  My goal is to work through all this stuff and continue to serve in this congregation with these people.  I am proud of them and what they do as a church, and I hope to lead them for many more years. 

On with the journey...

Monday, May 28, 2012

Sermon Delivered: Can These Dry Bones Live?

Have you ever felt like dried out bones? Have you ever felt washed up, dried out, pushed beyond your limits? Have you ever felt like you were walking on a tread mill, getting nowhere and only tiring yourself out? Have you ever felt like despite your best efforts, nothing ever seemed to change? Were you almost ready to quit? Have you ever felt like dried out bones?

This past week, for the first time in my entire career, I found myself in a very unfamiliar place when it came to the biblical texts appointed for the day. Of course, today is Pentecost. It’s the birthday of the Church. It’s the day we remember the power that surged through the disciples turning them into apostles and proclaimers of the good news of Jesus Christ. It’s the day when in a rush of wind and flame fear was driven out, and an overwhelming, undeniable desire to tell of Jesus’ death and resurrection came over the followers who until this time had hidden behind locked doors. They moved out into the streets and began speaking in all sorts of languages where all could understand. At first, everyone thought they were drunk, but Peter proclaimed the message of Jesus to them, and 3000 people were added to the Church in one day. It’s a fantastic story. It’s a story that normally gets my blood pumping as I think about the realty of the power of God blowing with the Holy Spirit. It’s a story I love preaching on because I can talk about the vision of the Church and the power that can change the world. But it was not the story I found myself resonating with. Far from it.

Instead, I actually found myself in the Old Testament lesson from Ezekiel. It’s one of the other appointed texts for the day, and we read it just a few moments ago. It too is a story of power–God’s power in restoring a people and giving them life. But it begins with a valley of dry bones. And this is where I found myself.
For you must understand, for the first time in nearly 12 years, I could really and truly identify with those dry bones. Maybe you can too. Have you ever felt like dried up bones?

For most of us, it’s not one thing that brings us to that point. It’s a lot of things that keep piling up one after another after another. For me, it started with family. No, not my wife and kids; not that family. My church family. I read this little snippet the other night to our council for our devotion. It’s by Charles E. Jefferson who once described the difference between an audience and a church. He said, "An audience is a crowd. A church is a family. An audience is a gathering. A church is a fellowship. An audience is a collection. A church is an organism. An audience is a heap of stones. A church is a temple." And he concludes, "Preachers are ordained not to attract an audience, but to build a church." I hope that everyone in this room understands that critical difference. For you are my family–the family of God. And as such, that means something to me

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 12 verse 36: If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. I don’t think I need to tell you but there have been a lot of our family members suffering, and I have done a lot of suffering with. Since last July, I counted at least seven of our members who have had open heart surgery of one sort or another. We’ve had tragedy strike children. We’ve had weird medical things happen to several of our congregation members. Two weeks ago, I put over 400 miles on my car driving to see hospitalized folks. I don’t mind the driving, but seeing folks suffering isn’t fun; again, especially when you care about those folks. All of this stuff in such a short amount of time wears a person down.

If that were the only part that takes its toll, it would be one thing, but there is more. As with most families, there is oftentimes conflict. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had a whole lot of it, but there have been some things that have happened that were completely out of our control that caused some folks to become upset. Some have left our congregation in the past couple of weeks. I know this happens in every congregation, and ours is no exception, but it hurts. You see, going back to that whole family idea, I have a relationship with each and every one of you, and I don’t like it when those relationships get broken. I try hard to maintain my end of that relationship, and when it fails, there is pain. I know it’s my job to connect you with Christ and not myself, but I can’t help but get attached when I see what you do and how you operate. You see, I actually do care. The alternative is to keep a critical distance between myself and you so that I don’t feel that pain, but how is this possible if we truly follow the commands of Christ–or what Paul tells us about suffering and rejoicing together? It’s impossible. And so, I am open to pain.

And then the piece of straw that broke the camel’s back: I was extremely excited to announce to you that we’ve hired a new director of worship and music. I am overjoyed at what Janice Whitehead brings to the table. It seemed like as a congregation we’d have all our staff in place and ready to move forward. Well, that’s before Valerie told me she needed to leave as secretary of our congregation to get a full time position. It had nothing to do with our congregation, and God knows I watched her shed more than a few tears because she had to leave. But it hurts me to see her go as well. She’s been a joy to work with because of the passion she brings in serving the Lord and her desire to minister with you. She’s done an excellent job in handling the business of the church office, and I will miss her tremendously. My grief was palatable the day Valerie told me of this news. I was heading out to visit Christian Patterson in the hospital. I stopped at home to grab a drink on my way out. I told my wife at that point, "It’s almost getting to be too much."

Have you ever felt like a bunch of dried up bones? Have you ever wanted to just quit and let everything go? Have you ever wanted to walk away from the hurt and the disappointment and the frustration–to seek greener pastures where there weren’t as many headaches or heartache? Have you ever been there? Yeah, that’s where I’ve been in the past couple of weeks.

"Can these dry bones live?" These are God’s words to the prophet who stands looking at a valley of dry bones. It seems like a silly question. How can dry bones live? How can they carry on? How can they do anything more than serve as musical instruments for the wind to blow through? Can these dry bones live?
"Oh Lord God, you know."

God knows. God knows what He can do. God knows what He can accomplish. God knows that dry bones can indeed live. God knows such bones can be knit together, clothed with sinew and muscle. God knows they can be filled with breath and brought back to life. God not only knows such things can happen; God makes it happen.

Then the Lord offers His lesson, "11Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.

Ezekiel’s message to you and to me at this juncture is, "Have hope." Don’t just believe, but expect that God will restore you. Don’t just believe, but expect that God will make good things happen. Don’t just believe, but expect that the Holy Spirit will blow through you and upon you to bring you back to strength and vitality so that God’s work can be accomplished.

And how does God do this? Here’s how it started with me. I got my first sense of restoration Wednesday night after council. In the midst of discussing all this stuff going on, I asked a question to one of the council members, "What are we trying to accomplish as a congregation?" What is our focus? What is our mission? What is God calling us to do and be in this time and place? What are we trying to accomplish?

Things solidified for me as I worked my way through that question, for I do have a dream about what the church is called to do and be in this time. I have a dream about the church that I think sets the church apart from the rest of society. Out in the world, we are divided. Out in the world we are forced into taking on labels: liberal and conservative; Republican and Democrat; pro-life and pro-choice; for gay marriage against gay marriage, and the list goes on and on and on. We are almost bred to distrust one another and insulate ourselves from people if they disagree with us.

But Jesus calls us to a higher standard. He calls us to love even those with whom we disagree. Now, notice I didn’t say, you have to accept what another person believes. Far from it. I don’t do that. In all likelihood, I never will. I’m pretty much set in what I believe. But one of the things I believe is that I am called to be like Jesus as best as I possibly can. I fall far short, but it is a goal–a goal I strive for. And how did Jesus handle sinners? How did He minister with them and to them?

You probably remember the woman caught in adultery. She was brought before Jesus for judgment. The law was clear. She should be stoned for her actions. But Jesus set himself between her and death. Jesus said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." All walked away except for Jesus. He saved her life and then said, "Go and sin no more."

Too often, we in the church are willing to say, "Go and sin no more" without showing the kind of love Jesus shows. Too often we are willing to point the finger without any sacrifice on our part. Too often we are willing to render judgment without being willing to die for others just like Jesus was willing to die for them. But what if we were? What if we really and truly sought to love the person and not what they believed? What if we really were different in the church? What if we didn’t try to change everyone else but allowed God to make those changes to them and to us, for aren’t we all a work in progress? Can you imagine the impact such a community of faith could have on the world?

There was a community that did that at one time, and it changed the world. The power of the Holy Spirit blew through them. It can also blow through us. Can these dry bones live? Absolutely. Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Memorial Day Weekend Tradition

One of the things that has become a special tradition for me as I serve here in Cat Spring is the replacing of flags on the graves of veterans every Memorial Day weekend.

Today I wandered around the congregation's cemetery looking for the veterans and taking the tattered Stars and Stripes, replacing them with shiny, new flags.  I noted the names of these people I never knew.  We were only joined by the common link of a faith and country shared.  Each time we celebrate Holy Communion, I know I join these saints at the Table, and each time I touch the sand of their graves, I join the thanks of others who commemorate their service.

Some may argue the line between separation of church and state becomes a little too blurry in doing such a thing.  There is some merit.  But, for me there exists quite a bit of space between doing absolutely nothing in church to celebrate one's nationality and draping the altar with a nation's flag.  To me both extremes are unacceptable.

But I'm very much at peace with what we do as a congregation.  As I look upon the faces of those who lost loved ones in war as we remember them in worship, I see the thankfulness.  As I walk with some of the older folks through the cemetery, I see how much they appreciate having their pastor honor those who have fallen and those who served.  We're making an important connection--the intersection of faith and daily life.

It's an important connection.  One I have come to appreciate and look forward to.  It's early, but here's an early salute to those who gave their lives in service to our nation.  And here's another to those who have served and are serving from one who doesn't know a darn thing about military service but who still appreciates what you have done and are doing.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Oooooh! I'm Shaking in my Boots

Apparently, Christianity is on it's last leg.  New documents have now come to light that will decimate the message of Jesus Christ and lift Islam to new heights.  Our entire faith will crumble because of these new revelations.

I mean, after all, a supposed document written 600 years after the death/resurrection of Jesus is historically accurate, authoritative, and God breathed.  Its contents far outweigh the documents written shortly after Jesus.  The Bible has suddenly been rendered irrelevant.

I can't stop shaking. 

I'm devastated and extremely frightened.

I haven't been this worried since The Da Vinci Code came out.

Pray for me.

(Sarcasm off.)

Some Humbling Lessons I am Learning

It's been a rough couple of weeks.  Some in my church know this.  Most probably do not.

I've shed more tears in the past couple of days than I've shed in a while.  Most of it is grief driven.

Lesson #1.  I have a breaking point.

Lesson #2.  I'm very close to it.

Perhaps it's because I've broken one of those cardinal rules they try to give you in your training.  "Don't get too close to your people.  Keep a professional distance."  That's pretty easy to do if you stay in a place for a couple of years, but when you are in a long-term pastorate, guess what happens?  You really start to care for your people.  I mean, if you actually follow St. Paul's admonition about the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12:26, this will inevitably happen.  And when you care for your people and suffer with them, it takes a toll on you physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  And when your congregation gets on one of those freaky runs of illness, injury, and death, it drains you--badly.  I'm there.

Lesson #3: The Shepherd analogy for pastors works.

I was warned about this one as well.  "There's only One Shepherd and one flock.  You are not a shepherd."  Sometimes, the caveat was we as clergy were sheep dogs.  Perhaps apt, but I've come to disagree.  My thoughts: There is only One Good Shepherd and a whole bunch of inadequate imitations.  Jesus says His sheep listen to His voice, and He calls them all by name.  He also says He lays His life down for the sheep, and He's willing to leave the 99 to search out the one.  Sometimes, we clergy actually try to do all those things.  I've been trying, and I have found out just how hard it is.  When you are in charge of a flock and you work diligently to guard it and you learn the names of the sheep, and you endeavor to keep the flock together for safety's sake and for the health of the flock, you become invested in the flock.  Sometimes you think the flock is all yours and you forget about them belonging to the Good Shepherd.  You want to keep all the sheep together because they are your pride and joy, but you forget that sheep can become a part of other little flocks with other shepherds.  As far as I know, sheep dogs don't mourn the loss of sheep.  Shepherds do, especially if they have spent time with those sheep and worked with them a lot.  Whether by death or by leaving, there is pain when sheep leave.    And there's not much you can do about it.

Lesson #4:  There is One Good Shepherd, and I am an inadequate imitation.

Too many limitations.  Too much sinfulness. 

Lesson #5: There are myriads of possibilities to consider when trying to discern God's will in all of this.

This is most frustrating for me.  I can't figure it out, and I'm constantly scratching my head.  Some possibilities are very hopeful.  Others, not so much.  Haven't heard much of a peep out of the Big Guy regarding it.  Am trying to listen.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A Shopping Cart at Wal-Mart

We don't go to Wal-Mart as much as we used to.  The fact that the closest one doesn't keep its shelves stocked as well as it should and the fact they actually keep their prices higher than other Wal-Marts (they're the only game in town) has soured us on shopping there for the most part.  Yet, when my daughter decided to redeem some of her tooth-fairy, birthday, and Christmas money, we took her there. 

While pulling into a parking spot, I witnessed an intriguing incident.  It's an incident that I have actually been a part of previously.  In front of us, a man in a Chevy Blazer was pulling into a particular space.  Some ungrateful soul had left a shopping cart in that space, and instead of getting out of the car and moving the cart, the man tried to bump it out of the way with his vehicle.  It wasn't working.  You could see the frustration on his face, so finally he got out of the vehicle.  He walked up to the shopping cart, and promptly pushed it into another parking space right in front of him.

"Hmmm," I thought.  "How intriguing."

A man gets angry because someone left a shopping cart in a space he desired.  He gets out and moves it--into another parking place which just happens to be right next to the designated cart space.  So, when inconvenienced, he is willing to get out and work just enough to provide a space for himself, but he's not afraid to inconvenience someone else by his actions.  Weird.

It almost highlights perfectly the way a lot of our society works today.  I'll do just enough for me, myself, and I, but I'll be damned if I go above and beyond the call of duty for someone else.  I mean, come on, dude, 15 more feet of pushing and you would have the cart where it's supposed to be and the parking place would be clear.  Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so.

(And just so you know what I did and am not simply complaining; I took that cart for my family to use in the store. When I came out, there were two other baskets in that place, so I removed them and put them in the cart space as well.)

It's somewhat amazes me to see this kind of attitude pervasive in much of society today.  Especially when there are so many self-proclaimed Christians around.  I mean, don't get me wrong.  I see a lot, and I mean A LOT of charity and kindness from Christians.  My congregation members do some awesome things for others.  Whether helping out with medical bills or light bills or rent, you name it, they've forked over cash for it; or showing acts of kindness and compassion to those who are hurting--sending cards, calling, spending time with--they've done it and continue to do it.  And I know my congregation isn't alone.  There are many other people who do such things in and through their church, but how often do we see such things taking place outside the church?  How often do we see people pushing shopping carts away from parking spaces and into designated return areas just because?  How often do we see people cleaning up litter and making things look a little neater even when they don't have to?  How come we pass such things off as someone else's responsibility instead of realizing that such acts are little acts of kindness that flow from a life of service to God and to one another?

Is it so hard or so time consuming to put one's faith into action through such small deeds? 

I don't believe the world gets changed through grandiose acts that move mountains and drain the oceans, but I believe the world becomes a better place through little acts done with great love (Mother Teresa).  Is it too much to ask for those of us who are Christians to do such things?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: What Do You Do when You Have the Truth?

In a very real way, I think we as humans both love and hate the truth. That may sound somewhat strange. You would think it would be one way or the other. You would think that we would either love it or hate it but not both. But I stand by what I said. As humans, we both love and hate the truth.

We love the truth in the same way two lovers long for each other when they are separated by a great distance. They want to see each other desperately for when they are together everything becomes real. I believe in many ways we long for the truth in such a way today. We yearn for it. We want to know what’s really real. Why would I say such a thing?

Because of the answer to this question: where do you find the truth today? Is there anyone or anything we trust to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
Do you expect to turn on the television news and find the truth?
Do you expect to read newspapers and find the truth?
Do you expect to find the truth on internet web sites and blogs?
Do you expect politicians to tell the truth?
Do you expect to find the truth at colleges and universities?
Do you expect pastors and other clergy to tell the truth?
Do you expect me to tell you the truth? Wait! Don’t answer that one!
I think if we are honest with ourselves, we are skeptical that anyone really and truly has the truth. Sure, there are many of us, and please note I am including myself here, who believe we have the truth. There are many of us who argue our points of view–some of us very effectively. But we also have a nasty habit of arguing in a fashion which makes our point of view the only point of view, and we tend to omit facts and statements which may call our understandings into question. And, oftentimes, when such things are pointed out to us, we deny them and vociferously attack anyone who would dare bring them up. Such attacks do nothing to help anyone believe we have the truth, and so most are left wondering if truth actually exists. Many yearn for someone or something to actually be honest and trustworthy enough to tell the truth. We would love it if we found it.

Or would we? You see, truth is a two edged sword. And here are a few reasons why I believe we don’t really want to know the truth. If we knew the truth, and that truth disagreed with our point of view, we would have to change the way we did things and the way we acted. If we really and truly found the truth, it would impact our lives directly and make us think differently about reality; and honestly, most of us don’t want that to happen.

For instance, let’s think a moment about the truth of time. We function in the realty of years, months, weeks, days, hours, minutes, and seconds. For most of us, our lives are governed by our clocks. We believe we are severely limited by time constraints, and we only have so much time to squeeze in before we die. Yet, what if we believed we were not bound by time? What if we believed we would live for eternity? What if we believed we had all the time in the world?

Well, isn’t that what our faith tells us? Doesn’t our faith tell us that the truth of the matter is we will have eternal life? Doesn’t our faith tell us we will have eternity to accomplish all we need to accomplish? Doesn’t our faith tell us we are not bound by time–and in a real way, since eternity encompasses the past, present and future, time doesn’t exist? I’m really not trying to give you an ice cream headache, but this is what our faith teaches. Yet, how many of us live as though we had all the time in the world? How many of us are willing to change the way we think and view things in light of the truth? Probably, not many of us. It would be too hard, not only to change the way we think but also the way we live. In this way, we aren’t a big fan of the truth.

Here’s another reason why we don’t like the truth: we see what happens when certain people believe they have it. Remember September 11, 2001? Anyone remember what happened on that date when a group of men who were so convinced they had the truth decided to fly some airplanes into the World Trade Center buildings? Oh, and not to pick on Islamic Fundamentalists; I’ll pick on some Christians as well. Remember centuries ago when certain Christians believed they had the truth and were willing to burn so called witches and drown them without even so much as a bit of remorse? Remember when Christians believed some people were less than human and could be bought and sold as property? Yes, these were people who believed they had the truth, and they stood on that truth even when it meant doing horrible things. Another reason we don’t like the truth.

And so we seem to be stuck between longing for the truth but dreading it. We seem to be stuck between hungering for the truth but afraid to bite into it for fear of what it may do to our system. We seem to want the truth but don’t want it to change anything or anyone. Unfortunately, we can’t have it both ways. If we long for the Truth, and if we find it, it will impact us; but I am convinced, when we have the Truth, it impacts us for the betterment of ourselves and the world.

Jesus says in our gospel lesson this morning about his disciples, "16They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. 17Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. 18As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. 19And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth."

Jesus prays that we may be made holy–that’s what sanctify means–in the truth. And what is the truth: God’s word. And what is God’s Word? Of course, Scripture is God’s Word. And what does Scripture point toward: The Word. That might sound a bit confusing, but let me refresh your memory a little by reading from the first chapter of the book of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people....14And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
So you see, not only is Scripture God’s Word, but Jesus Himself is the Word became flesh who came to live among us. We are made holy in Jesus. Jesus is the truth. Remember John 14:6, Jesus says, "I am the way, and the Truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me." Yes, Jesus is the Truth. And what do we have when we have Jesus? What do we do when we have Jesus? What do we do when we have the Truth in our hearts and in our lives?

Well, it changes us. It changes how we live. It changes how we act. It changes what we do as we become more and more like Him. Ah, but you might say, what about those Christians who burned witches and called for slavery and did all those other atrocities in Jesus’ name? Didn’t they have the Truth?

I respond: no. They didn’t. They may have thought they did, but their lives certainly didn’t show it. Their lives certainly didn’t embody Christ for Christ didn’t come and kill others to instill faith into them by fear–He died for them to take away their fear and instill into them faith. And if we have the Truth, we should be willing to do likewise. Amen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Discerning the Spirit

This upcoming Sunday is Pentecost Sunday.  Let the obligatory commentary begin about how the Holy Spirit is always breaking down boundaries and how we stifle the Spirit's work.

Perhaps this isn't what many of you hear in your respective congregations, but it is what I tend to hear over and over and over again.

And for somewhat good reason.

The Holy Spirit was instrumental in the beginning of the Church.  The first day the Spirit blew, 3000 people were added to the Church.  That's quite an impressive feat.  Not too many congregations I know of even come close to adding this many people in one day, let alone one year.  (Heck, in my work here, we haven't managed 300 in almost 8 years.)

Throughout the book of Acts, the Spirit did all sorts of intriguing things--things which went against the grain of Jewish thought:

1. It led Philip to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch in the middle of the desert.  (Eunuch's were not considered "whole" people and therefore were further from God.)

2. It gave Peter a vision of what is clean and what is not clean according to God, telling Peter to eat "unclean" food.  Shortly thereafter, Peter was invited to the home of Cornelius, a Gentile who would have been considered "unclean."  The connection was obvious.

3. It constantly led and guided the apostles in their journeys to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, oftentimes sending them where they did not expect to go.

Based upon such stories, some in the Church have come to see the Holy Spirit as the great annihilator of boundaries.  The Spirit crashes through boundaries and offers freedom when we least expect it.  Of course, many times, this working of the Spirit is applied to the challenging of certain doctrines in the Church from denomination to denomination.  And, if someone dares challenge the challenge to doctrine, one is summarily labeled as closed minded and not open to the Spirit's promptings.  As I said earlier: those who try to put the Spirit in a box.

While the Holy Spirit certainly blows where it may, and

While the Holy Spirit certainly breaks through boundaries,

It does not blow with complete impunity, and it is limited in the boundaries it does break down.

Am I putting the Holy Spirit in a box?

You are darn right I am, but it is not a box of my own creation.  Let me explain.

It is most certainly true there is more than one spirit at work in the world.  Not only does the Holy Spirit operate, so do evil ones.  John himself wrote about this in 1 John 4:1:  Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world.

The early Church developed a method for testing the spirits, and it is found in Acts chapter 15.  You can read the chapter here if you like.

One notes how the Church tested the spirits in regards to the issue of whether or not Gentiles should become Jews before they became Christians:

1. Peter received a vision from the Holy Spirit and saw the Spirit fall upon Gentiles.  He relayed this to the assembly.  (Acts 15: 6-11)

2. Paul and Barnabas spoke about the signs and wonders God did among the Gentiles.  God's power was moving in and among them.  (Acts 15: 12)

3. They sought confirmation from the Scriptures, and the Scriptures agreed that such things would happen.  (Acts 15: 15-18)

All three things were in agreement and consistent, so the Church invited the Gentiles in without first having to become Jewish.  Boundaries were broken, but they were broken in a particular manner consistent with God's action and prophecy found in the Scriptures.

Part of the beauty of the Christian faith is the dynamic relationship of the Holy Trinity.  God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are constantly interacting with one another.  They do not act independently of one another.  In fact, we even state in the Nicene Creed the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (apologies to the Eastern Orthodox).  As such, the Spirit is rooted in the Father and the Son, and the Spirit will not contradict the Father and the Son.

Which is a very important point we must consider.  A very important part.  For you see, the Father and the Son have defined themselves.  They have revealed themselves to us throughout history, and people recorded their revelation in the Bible.  When they have defined themselves, they set up certain boundaries.  For instance, when Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me," Jesus drew a boundary--a box if you like.  If someone comes along and says, "Jesus is not the truth and does not represent the truth.  I will not put God in a box this way," well, then, we must reject this person's statement because it does not match with the discernment of the spirit test established by the early church, and it is not consistent with the trinitarian relationship.

Pentecost is a wonderfully exciting time in the Church.  It reminds us of the power that flows and the wind of the Spirit that blows.  However, Pentecost does not mean that anything goes. 

Whenever you hear someone talk about the Spirit always breaking down boundaries this week, make sure those boundaries haven't been established by God the Father or Son.  Discern which spirits are trying to break those boundaries lest you follow the wrong one.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Questioning

So, I went off yesterday.

Some folks say that doing such things makes one feel better.

I'm not sure.  I'm a reflective kind of guy, and so when things start happening in such a fashion, I start asking questions.

Every so often, I wonder why.  Is there a purpose to such things happening?

I know most of the answers (the list is not exhaustive):

  • God is testing you--Works for some situations but not all.  Such a thought raises some interesting questions, like: does God test us by tempting us to produce works of the flesh?  The answer to that one is unequivocally no:  No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it;  James 1: 13-14  This doesn't mean that God doesn't test us.  1 Peter shows that. 
  • God is trying to strengthen you--built upon the saying, "What doesn't kill us makes us stronger."  Such a thing is a possibility.
  • God has a purpose, we just don't know what it is--Again, a trusting statement of faith founded in the cross/resurrection dynamic.  I fall squarely into this category most of the time.
  • God is teaching you a lesson--it's a probability, unfortunately, I am dense.  I wish He'd be a little more clear.  I think most others who deal with this answer feel the same way as myself.
Perhaps what I am definitely struggling with is how I have chosen to lead my congregation.  I've made no great secret in announcing that I believe the Church is a place where people who disagree vehemently can still come together under one roof as one family and worship together.  I've made no secret that part of being a Christian means not just associating with those who believe like you, but being able to be with and work with those who don't.  I've held firm on the statement it is not our job to change people; it's our job to be well defined in what we believe and allow God to change people over time--sometimes it seems like God takes forever.

I am well aware of several dynamics of Christian based leadership that may be at play.  One is concerning.  The other is heartening but demands faith and patience.  The problem is discerning which one is taking place.

First the concern: most congregations grow for a phase, level off, and then slowly decline.  Rarely do they break through to the next level of growth.  Is my congregation starting this process of death?  We've definitely leveled off in the past several years in worship attendance.  The involvement in extra activities has slipped a bit.  A few families have left.  Has the congregation lost God's blessing upon things?

Secondly, the hope: Are we being pruned so that fruit can be produced?  Are we on the right track in what we are trying to accomplish based upon the terms I outlined above?  Are we being prepared to head into the next level of what it means to be the church in Cat Spring, TX?  If indeed this is the case, while painful, the end result is going to be really, really good.  Yet, it requires faith not only on my part but on the part of the congregation to believe God is doing something in the midst of all this stuff.

Only time will tell, and I also know my leadership will be key.

One of my favorite stories involves the breaking of the sound barrier by Chuck Yeager.  Every time a pilot had tried to break the sound barrier in his plane, the plane began shaking violently as it approached the speed of sound.  Every time the plane started doing this, the pilot would ease off the accelerator for fear the plane was shaking apart.  Yeager finally did the opposite.  Instead of breaking, he accelerated.  Sure, the plane shook like the dickens, but once it broke the sound barrier, it entered into a level of calm.  Yeager took a risk and put the pedal to the metal. 

I hope I have the intestinal fortitude to stick with it and put the accelerator down.  I'm hoping there's peace on the other side once we (hopefully) break through.  Only time will tell.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Rant from a Ticked-Off Pastor

You might want to stop reading right here.  I am going to let off some steam.  It won't be pretty.  I am sure more than one or two folks might get offended.  I apologize now.  I hope you will forgive.

This morning, I received a phone call from some folks who joined the church about five years ago.  They indicated to me their desire to transfer to another congregation in the area.  The move is not surprising.  They've been church hopping about every five or so years from one church to another.  It's kind of like in their DNA, I guess.  I should keep this in mind, and I shouldn't get upset.

But I am.

Ticked-off is more like it.

I really don't want to be.  I don't want to be angry this couple left.  I don't want to be upset at them or at anyone else, but I just am.  And here's why:

This couple has been outspoken in their opposition to the ELCA's decision to ordain practicing gays/lesbians.  They weren't happy about it at all and have made their voices known.  Yours truly believes that even though people disagree on issues, they can still worship and fellowship together in a congregation.  Yours truly worked diligently to find a way these folks--and the others who disagreed with CWA 2009--could maintain their relationship with the congregation without feeling like they had to support the decision. 

After almost a year of struggle, I helped lead the congregation to a point where this could happen.  It seemed like things were over.  It seemed like we'd managed to put the issue behind us.  But I was wrong. 

Not being satisfied with the congregation's decision, this couple continued to find other things to poke at in the ELCA.  I noticed their absence in worship for the last several weeks, culminating in today's phone call.  They cited several other things regarding their decision to leave: an action by the synod's bishop toward one of their friends, the Episcopal Church's decision to bless gay relationships, and the belief the ELCA would follow that path.  (I personally believe the ELCA will indeed do just this thing.  Already a local pastor has preached and posted a sermon to that very effect.)  "The handwriting's on the wall," the guy said.

As I think about this, the angrier I get.  Fruits of the flesh take over.  Not good.  Not good at all.

I'm trying to head in the other direction.  I'm trying to focus on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, and self-control.  That last one is getting particularly difficult.

I want to lash out.

I want to attack.

I want to go after all the perceived wrongs I feel were committed against me and what I had going here--wrongs I feel I had absolutely no power to address.

I want to tell those who left, "Can't you see how I am bending over backwards trying to keep this congregation focused and provide a place where disagreement can take place?  Can't you appreciate how I put my butt on the line knowing I was ticking off some folks just to make you feel welcome?"

I want to tell those who rejoiced at passing the CWA 2009 and who are gearing up to push for the blessing of same-sex relationships, "Thank you for driving off my members.  You weren't content to go start your own denomination.  You felt you had to change this one despite the consequences of your actions."

I want to tell myself, "You dumb a$$.  Why were you worried about trying to keep everyone together?  In our politically charged environment, that's an impossibility.  What makes you think you are so special that your mere preaching and trying to teach such things would have an impact even in your little church?  You should have just picked a side and stayed there instead of trying to go another direction.  It would have been much easier and much less painful."

And so I sit and stew.

I know the irrationality of my thoughts.  I know the Devil's laughing at me right now, thinking, "Got another one thinking he's tough stuff and above all this happening.  Got him feeling sorry for himself and the perfect little world he thought he was living in.  Got him feeling self-righteous, pompous, and angry.  Close it up.  He'll tick off others, divide the congregation, and we'll win another round."

Maybe they will.  Maybe they won't.

I'm counting on my friends, family, and congregation understanding just a smidgen.  I'm counting on the belief they are forgiving--even when I'm having a hard time doing so.  I'm counting on the belief that when I am having weak moments, they are strong and offering their prayers for me to become stronger.  I hope my belief is well founded.  I've been known to be very, very wrong.

Yeah, if you actually read this and have gotten upset, I'm sorry.  I put myself out there.  You now know the inner workings of my brain and my feelings.  Not to pretty, are they?

Perhaps tomorrow, as I head to Austin for my last continuing education class of this semester, things will clear up.  Perhaps I'll find myself not as ticked off.  Perhaps all will be well with the world.

I can only hope God gives me the grace to feel that way.  Right now, I'm ticked.

Setting the Bar Too High?

It's almost predictable.

Set the standards high, and to begin with people will fail.

When people fail, people get upset.

When people get upset, they start whining and complaining.

When people whine and complain, people who set the standards get twitchy.

More often than not, when those who set the standards get twitchy, they lower the standards.

Happened in Florida recently

Happens in classrooms a lot.  Just ask any teacher what happens when helicopter parents' children get a failing grade--or even a B for heaven's sake!  It's Katy, bar the door.  "My kid can't fail.  You have to adjust the grade.  You made the test too hard."  Get over it.  Kids fail.  They need to.  They have to learn to deal with adversity.

How could I be so cruel and say such a thing?  Don't I want my kids to be as pain free as possible?  Don't I want them to be protected?  Don't I want their egos to be healthy and strong?

Newsflash: you don't get strong by winning all the time.  You get strong by failing.

Case in point:

I've done some weight lifting in my time.  I've been working out diligently since last October because I want to be a credible Captain America this Halloween.  I've been working on sculpting my body to look at lest half-way decent (and I'm succeeding except for those doggone love handles.  TMI, I know.).  But there is a trick to building your muscles: you have to fail.

If you want to get stronger, you must do repetitions until you physically cannot lift the weights any longer.  It is in these final repetitions that your muscles tear just enough so that they can get bigger.  If you don't push it to the point of failure, you will not get stronger.  Sure, you may burn some fat, but you will not grow.  You've got to push it.  You've got to set the bar high.  You will miss it, but in time, you will get closer and closer to it.

I believe the same thing goes for education; for life; for health; you name it.  Even faith.

Jesus Himself set the bar high for those of us who walk the Christian path:

"Be perfect even as your Heavenly Father is perfect."  --Matthew 5:48

Jesus knows the impossibility of our achieving such a goal in this lifetime, but what would you expect Him to say?  "Oh, just do whatever you can.  It's o.k.  I'll just accept whatever quality work you can do.  Just be happy in who you are and what you are doing.  Don't worry about trying to get better or do better or be better.  In the big scheme of things it really doesn't matter."

If someone had set the bar this high for me, I'd achieve it without any problem.  I'd probably feel very good about myself, but I'd never develop into anything more than what I already was.  I'd never grow.  I'd never be challenged.

Jesus challenges you and me.  He doesn't settle for anything less than perfection.  Not that He doesn't care.  Not that He doesn't really love us, but He's not going to just let us scrape by.  He's going to push us and push us hard.

He sets the bar high.  Maybe we should too.

Too Much Ego or Too Little?

We have been blessed in that our congregation has finally found a new organist/choir director after searching for almost a year.  Hip-Hip Hooray!

Last Wednesday, I had the opportunity to visit with her for an hour or so as we talked about the job, her expectations, and how things would be handled.

Of course, we exchanged questions continually throughout our visit.  At one particular point, she asked me how I would feel if I had picked a hymn and she wanted to change it.  Would that pose a problem.

I initially responded, "That's no big deal.  As I told you earlier, this is your program and  your domain.  My ego's not too big that I can't handle such a thing."

Then I paused...

After a moment of hesitation, I said, "Let me rephrase that.  My ego's big enough that such a thing doesn't bother me at all."

I know most of the time when we see someone react poorly to criticism, correction, or suggestion, we tend to think they have a big ego.  They think of themselves so highly, they are above such things.

However, what if the exact opposite is true?  What if someone's ego is actually too small and such suggestions, comments, critiques, and the like actually threaten that person at this level?  What if such a person's ego is too small to have developed a very important quality called humility?

As I reflected upon my own life, the times I reacted harshly to criticism and suggestion were the times I was not being humble; I was not being mature; I was threatened by such suggestion.  However, as I have (hopefully) grown and matured, I have become less threatened by critique, criticism, or suggestion.  In fact, I have come to welcome such things--especially from those who know more about a subject matter than myself.  Simply put, as my ego has grown and I have become more comfortable in my own skin, the less I react and get upset by those who disagree with my point of view or those who offer me another way of thinking about or doing things.  Maturity has taught me the value of humility.

So, am I correct in such thinking?  Do those who react strongly suffer from too much ego or too little?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

North Carolina, Gay Marriage, and How Tolerant are You, Really?

One of the big splash news stories, more because it causes controversy than anything else, that hit last week was North Carolina voters passing a measure banning gay marriage.  It was interesting watching the reaction in the blogosphere and on Facebook.  It was even predictable to an extent--same faces were saying the same things as usual.

I really don't want to delve too deeply into the issue of gay marriage in this post.  My congregation members know exactly where I stand on this issue and why.  I'm not going to rehash those things for a number of reasons mainly because when it comes to arguing the merits of such things, rational and civil discourse has generally been abandoned.  Most of the time folks are governed by their beliefs instead of any sort of factual stuff.  And whenever you try to engage entrenched beliefs...well, remember this sermon?

What interests me in this particular arena right now is the head scratching attitude of the extremists in the debate.  I personally see some blatant inconsistencies in what such folks say and then what they actually do in practice.  An example from both extremes will suffice to illustrate what I mean.

More than a few times, I have seen self-proclaimed Christians holding signs which say, "God hates fags!"  I've also heard such folks say some very derogatory things regarding homosexuals.  Such folks believe homosexual behavior is a sin and is condemned by God.  Granted, a plain reading of the Bible leads right to this conclusion, but a plain reading of the Bible also does not lead to the behavior exhibited by such people.  I mean, all one need do is look at the actions of Jesus who threw cultural expectations into the wind to eat and drink with sinners.  He did not condemn them, but, as exhibited in His encounter with the woman caught in adultery, He saved their lives, gave them forgiveness, and told them to sin no more.  More than a few Christians are more than willing to jump to the "go and sin no more" part without even attempting to do the first two steps.  Such inconsistency really, really bugs me.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I removed myself from a Facebook friendship upon the request of one of my classmates from high school.  After the North Carolina vote, she put as her status a request of her friends who didn't approve of homosexual marriage or those who hate gays and were ignorant of the nature of being gay to unfriend her.  Since I do not support gay marriage from a biblical point of view, I honored her request--not of my own volition, but because she demanded it.   I found it a bit head scratching that someone who was fighting for acceptance and tolerance of her child would be intolerant of other people's beliefs which are grounded in their religious understandings--even intolerant to the point of isolating herself from people who believed differently.  I found this to be extremely inconsistent, and it bugs me.

I have had to eat humble pie more than a few times in my life and in my career.  I have had inconsistencies pointed out in my belief and behavior.  Each time, I have been ashamed of what I have done and have worked to change either my belief or my behavior.  Such a thing is very difficult.  I have also come to realize and learn that no matter how much I try, there will always be an inconsistency somewhere in what I say I believe and what I do.  Some would call this sinful.  I know I do.  Such self-knowledge leads me towards humility, and God knows I often even struggle with being humble. 

Yet, such humility and self-knowledge has also led me to a place where I am comfortable being around people who hold differing beliefs than myself.  I can enjoy their friendship and their challenges when it comes to issues we don't agree on.  I may not change my belief, and the other may not change his or hers; yet, it matters not because of the terms of our relationship.  The relationship is more important than the difference in belief.

Unfortunately, in our society today, ideology more often than not severs relationships.  If someone doesn't agree with our stance, then banishment is in order.  There is not a willingness to accept the other person and allow God to work on him/her (or on us for that matter).  It's a shame really.  A poor witness to Christ, really.  And extremely intolerant and inconsistent.

Monday, May 14, 2012

We All Want Progress---C.S. Lewis

Had to share this quote:

You might have felt you were ready to listen to me as long as you thought I had anything new to say; but if it turns out to be only religion, well, the world has tried that and you cannot put the clock back.  If anyone is feeling that way, I should like to say three things to him.

First, as to putting the clock back.  Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do?  But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks.  We all want progress.  But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be.  And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer.  If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. --Mere Christianity, Kindle Edition.  Location 563-572

Chew on that a little bit.  I know I am.

Sunday's Sermon: Freedom, Responsibilty, and Joy

This past winter, I was given the opportunity to go deer hunting for the first time in a long time. I enjoyed it immensely including the time spent just sitting quietly with nothing to do except watch deer grazing in the pasture. During such moments, I found myself thinking about a whole lot of things, including something I found quite ironic. I thought about how, back in Europe hunting was restricted. The nobles "owned" the animals in the forests and were the only ones allowed to hunt without obtaining permission from anyone. The common person might be given permission to hunt from time to time, but he certainly wasn’t free to do such a thing whenever he wanted.

Then, the new world was discovered. Immigrants began flocking to this new land, and one of the things they discovered was a land teeming with game. And, there was no longer anyone there telling them when they could and could not hunt. If a family needed meat, the hunter headed to the woods whenever he needed to so that he might provide for his family. He experienced freedom in being able to hunt, and most folks were exceedingly happy about this.

As I sat in my blind, I reflected how things had changed. No longer are we free to just hunt and fish anymore. We have to get hunting licences. The state mandates certain times and seasons for hunting certain animals and catching certain fish. There are regulations and safety courses and all other sorts of things which must be followed to enjoy this sport. We are no longer free to hunt and fish as we wish. We have come full circle in a very real way.

Struck by the irony of this, I wondered how it was that we went from complete freedom in how we were able to hunt in this country to being governed by all the rules and regulations. Did we just accept this? Did anyone complain about losing their freedom and get angry they could no longer use their land and resources as they pleased? I mean most of us value freedom very highly, and we don’t particularly like it when our freedom gets imposed upon.

I mean, if you watch the news or read the newspapers, take a gander from time to time at the editorials and letters to the editor. How often do you hear complaints that our freedoms are being taken away? How often do you hear stories about our rights and liberties being stepped on, usually in the name of safety? How often do you hear people say that we simply need the free market to work, and that will solve many of our problems? They are there in abundance if you look.

There is something deep within each and every person, I believe, that longs for complete and utter freedom. There is something deep within us that longs to break through boundaries, to say the sky is the limit, to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and no one can tell me otherwise. There is something within us that believes if we could ever achieve such a thing, then we would truly find joy, and peace, and contentment, and happiness. Ah, if we could only be free.

Yet, if each and every person actually believed this and achieved this, what would this world be like? If everyone was acting out their own freedom and wishes and desires, would we be able to get along with one another? If no one had any boundaries, any rules, any commands to follow, could we even have a society?

No. Without rules and boundaries, we would have anarchy. Anyone who has been exposed to such conditions knows there is no joy when anarchy reigns. There is no peace. There is no contentment and happiness. The reality of life is that we need boundaries. We need rules. We need some regulations. Without them we have no safety and security. Yet, there is also such a thing as too many rules and regulations. For with too many rules and regulations, one becomes burdened down and loses freedom. That would be called tyrany.  So, how can we find the balance?

Let’s first remember that as Christians, we have been given absolute freedom. I know this might be a little hard to grasp, but that is the reality of God’s grace. St. Paul wrote eloquently about our freedom in the book of Galatians chapter 3. Please listen closely to this,

" 23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith."

 Paul says forthright, if we break God’s law, we will not be disciplined for it. There is no punishment. Wrap your head around that for a moment. Essentially, you are free to do whatever you want because you won’t be disciplined for it. Ah, but would that be wise? No. Not at all. In fact, we know that just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. So, what should we do?

In Matthew chapter 11, verses 28-30, Jesus says this, "28"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Now, in the rabbinical tradition of Judaism, a rabbi’s yoke was his teaching. A rabbi’s students, or disciples, would pledge to carry his yoke–his teachings–his way upon them. So, what is Jesus’ teaching?

In our Gospel lesson today, Jesus says this, "9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. 12"This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you."

To responsibly live as Christians, we follow Jesus’ commands. And those commands are summed up in that we are called to love one another as Jesus loved us. Therefore, we are called to be imitators of Jesus Christ. We are called to shoulder the responsibility of following His commands, and by doing so, He tells us we will have His joy in us and our joy will be complete. But how is this possible? Can following rules and commands and taking upon ourselves such a responsibility really be joyful?

It can. Here’s an illustration of just how. Today is Mother’s Day, and I remember what happened just before my wife became a mother and I became a father. It was just over seven years ago in January of 2005. We had been prepped by Aggieland Pregnancy Outreach in College Station, TX that we would be parents on January 5th. My birthday is January 4th, and we decided to celebrate it a day or so early because of the newly expected arrival. At the spur of the moment, we decided to eat at Pizza Hut in Sealy and then drive to Katy to take in a movie.
As Dawna and I sat at the table, eating our pizza and enjoying conversation, I remember clear as a bell saying, "You know, in a few days we won’t be able to do this anymore. We won’t be able to just do stuff spur of the moment. Our lives will change."

In a real way, I was saying, "We won’t have as much freedom anymore. We’re going to be tied down by kids."
Dawna replied, "Yes. But it will be a good thing. We’re ready for this."

Dawna’s response acknowledged the truth of what I said, but she also knew that by taking upon ourselves the responsibility of parenting, we would find a joy beyond what we knew with just the two of us.

Good parents know this. Good parents know that when they have children, they are giving up freedom and taking on responsibility. Good parents know they are bound by certain rules and commands and regulations–to raise their children, and protect them, and provide for them. And yet, good parents find that even in giving up their freedom, they find something immeasurable as they raise their children–they find massive amounts of joy.
Most of your mothers likely did. Most of you who are mothers likely do, and they provide us a wonderful illustration of what Jesus tells us today: if we want to find true joy, then we will find it when we obey Jesus’ commandments, especially when we love one another as He first loved us. Amen.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Does the Bible Still Matter?

Interesting opinion article from Fox News regarding the use and importance of the Bible. 

I'd add a couple of other tidbits as to why people don't often read their Bibles more:

1. They try, but they try to read it as a novel instead of a collection of books.  Things go o.k. for the book of Genesis and most of Exodus, but once folks start into Leviticus, the game is over.  Even I get bogged down and tired of reading all the codes and laws in that area.  Whenever I am approached by someone who wants to read the Bible, I point them first in the direction of the stories:

Genesis, Exodus, Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, 1 &2 Kings, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Acts.  Get a good feel for the events in these books, and then start trying to wade through some of the other writings: the Epistles, the Prophets, the Psalms, and Proverbs.  Finish up with the legal stuff and visionary stuff: Revelation, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Ecclesiastes.  Reading the Bible in this manner is a lot easier and makes things a little more understandable in my estimation.

2. Folks want to read the Bible, but have a hard time understanding a lot of what is there.  Maybe not because the text is difficult to explain (although there are quite a few head scratchers and concepts which require some deep thought), but because everywhere you turn there's an expert authority who claims to know what the text does and doesn't say.  --And before anyone points it out, yes, I know I claim to be such an expert authority.  I get irony.--  A person may read something very plainly in the text, and then when he/she goes and talks to a pastor or professor, one of the first things the pastor/prof says is, "Let me explain to you what that text really means..."  More often than not, this leads to frustration on the part of the person trying to read the Bible.  If this part doesn't say what I think it says, what other parts aren't exactly straight forward?  What if I need the whole thing explained to me?   Why read it if I need all this explanation?  And so on. 

Yours truly is of the opinion that one does not need a biblical scholar or pastor to interpret everything.  I belong to a strain of Christianity which believes the Holy Spirit leads a person to interpret the text plainly in the language of the person reading said text.  (Martin Luther--the 14th Century monk, not the U.S. reformer, coined that thought.)  Yours truly knows that many biblical scholars have built in assumptions governing how they read and interpret the Bible, and these assumptions are "educated guesses."  Even in the grand scheme of things, educated guesses are guesses none-the-less and may or may not be accurate. 

3. Folks want to read the Bible, but when they actually start digging in, they find it's hard work.  There are some places within scripture that are difficult to wade through.  The Bible has it's own language and idioms and terminology.  It may be printed in English, but sometimes it still seems like Greek.  Frankly, some folks are lazy and don't want to spend the time to work through such things.  I understand.  I'm the same way with Shakespeare.  Yet, for me, the Bible is important enough to wade through in such a fashion. 

The above thoughts are merely that: my thoughts.  They may or may not be factual.  It's really an educated guess, but a guess none-the-less.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Is Intelligence Overrated?

Perhaps in business.  At least according to this article.

Apparently, the ability to think logically and technically takes a back seat to one's ability to act maturely, with integrity, and with care and concern for one's body.

In some ways, I wholeheartedly agree that intelligence can be overrated.

I absolutely love telling the following joke:

A congregation president went out to visit one of the older members of the congregation who happened to be a farmer.  The president caught the farmer out in the field, and as they stood in the cotton patch, the president said, "Bob, you really need to come back to church."


"Well, you need to come hear our new preacher.  He's fabulous."

"What makes him so special?"

"Well, he's got a BS an MS, and a PhD."

Bob spit in the dirt and says, "That settles it.  I ain't never coming to church as long as that feller is there."

"Why not?"

"Well, we all know what BS stands for.  MS is just more of the same, and PhD is piled high and deep!"

Indeed, intelligence is no certain judge of ensuring one's success in a given job or enviornment.  Yet, if intelligence leads to wisdom, then that is another matter. 

I would argue that wisdom incorporates all four of the things the article talks about: IQ, EQ, MQ, and BQ.  And wisdom is something that seems to be sorely lacking in our world today.  More and more folks gravitate to either their hearts or their heads and miss the balance between the two that leads to wisdom.

I could at this point delve into the biblical concept of wisdom, but instead, I'll close with a little story provided by one of my members one afternoon:

There are three types of people in this world.

1. Those who learn and come to understand by reading.

2. Those few who learn and understand by observation.

3.  And the rest of those that have to pee on the electric fence in order to learn.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Few Wow Moments

Sometimes it's hard to imagine the emotional roller coaster that is pastoral work.  I posted last week about a rough day, and unfortunately, those days have been frequent here of late.

It seems like every time I turn around, another one of my congregation members is being stricken with something.  Heart troubles, ATV accidents, cancer, weird medical stuff, you name it.  The sheer number of things in proportion to the size of the congregation I serve is quite head scratching at times--borderline depressing at others.

Yet, I am heartened by the resilience of my congregation.  They continually respond over and over again with generosity, prayer, and support.  They really strive to make a difference in the lives of others.  For instance, just a few highlights of what my congregation members are doing to support and help those stricken by illness and suffering (names are left out because most folks are practicing Matthew 6:1-4):

1.  We've been praying for a young man who is stricken with cancer and has not long to live.  He is not a member of this congregation, yet I know of at least $1000 which has been given to his family for him to do some enjoyable things in the midst of his cancer treatments.  He has also received numerous cards from members of the church that have meant the world to him and his family.

2. A young girl in a neighboring town is fighting brain cancer.  A couple of our members have worked diligently to offer support for her and her family--selling tickets to a fundraiser for her medical bills and keeping the congregation mindful of her need of prayer.  Once again, folks in our congregation have responded and given lump sums of money in support. 

3. Within our congregation a couple of folks have been experiencing some difficult medical situations.  One had no insurance (but thankfully has some now) and the other has insurance but limited income.  Anonymous donations were given to both of these families, and both were extremely thankful for what was received.  (I wish I could actually go into more detail, but I have made promises of confidentiality.)

4. Yesterday when visiting a member who has been diagnosed with cancer and who was awaiting a procedure to stop a bleeding ulcer, who happened to be there in support of him and his family but another couple of the congregation members offering their support and prayers during this stressful time.

5. This Sunday, those who donate their Thrivent Choice Dollars to the congregation, without hesitation, donated $1000 to help defray the medical expenses of a young member of our church whose leg was crushed in an ATV accident.  In addition to this, they fielded a request from the quilters who send much of their work to Lutheran World Relief and to the Krause Home in Katy (a home for abused children).  The quilters asked for $50.  The group gave $100.

6. Not only does my Women of the ELCA group send out cards to those who are ill and grieving, but many within the congregation do too.  I found this out in the last couple of days as people were asking for the addresses of a couple of our hospitalized members.  I even received a thanks for the church's sending out of the hospital names because people want to make a difference.

I'm not trying to brag by putting all this stuff out there.  God knows, Jesus warned us against such things in Matthew 6, but there are two main reasons I write about this today:

First, no one tends to see this stuff happening.  It's all behind the scenes.  More than a few times I've heard comments about congregations failing to support needs in their community and even amongst their members.  My congregation is doing it, and I am proud of them.  Just about every Sunday, I preach and urge them to be a witness to Jesus Christ.  I would be remiss if I didn't also let them know when they are doing a good job.

Second, I need to type this for myself as a reminder.  When you are running from person to person, from family to family who are experiencing these trials and tribulations, you start getting a warped perspective of life.  You start to think only these bad things are happening, but there is more to reality than just these troublesome events.  There is God working through people to make a difference.  My little church really, really does this.  Sometimes I don't think I take the time to fully appreciate this when I'm running around.  I'm doing that now.

And when I stop and see what they do, all I can say is, "Wow."

Monday, May 7, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Abiding in Jesus

Take a look at this block I am holding up. Now, I am going to drop it. Why did that block fall to the floor? I knew you’d say gravity pulled it down, and you are right. Gravity acted on the block and pulled it down to the floor, but there’s another way to look at why the block fell. Do you know what it is? There is a principle of science which says matter tends to exist in its lowest energy state. When that block is lying on the floor there, it is in it’s lowest energy state under these circumstances. It doesn’t want to be up in the air because that requires more energy. For instance, if I bend down and pick it up, I am exerting the energy it takes to keep it elevated. If I set it here on this piece of wood, the wood is actually exerting energy to keep it aloft. Once I take such things away, the block falls right back down to the floor. It seeks out the lowest energy state unless something else acts upon it.

Now, what does this have to do with you and me? Could this principle of science actually have something to tell us about human nature? Well, maybe it does. Maybe there’s a connection. Let’s think about it for a moment.
How many of you have ever tried to loose weight? Anyone out there? There are a few hands being raised into the air. For those of you who have tried to lose weight, have you ever hit a plateau? Quite a few hands there as well. I know this very well in my exercising. At first, there’s a decent weight loss, and then wham! I hit a wall. For weeks, I’ll stay at the same weight level, and it’s monumentally frustrating. Why the plateau? Well, perhaps, just perhaps, our bodies have hit an energy state they are very comfortable in, and the only way to break through into the next level is to exert more energy. And for those of us who have exercised in this manner, you know when we change the routine and do things differently–change the amount of energy we expend, we break through into the next level.

Let’s apply this principle of science to some human behavior. If you could have everything you needed given to you without working for it, how many of you would take it? Be honest now. I know most of us grew up with a hard work ethic instilled into us by our parents and others, but if you could get money just by sitting on the couch, would you do it? Yep, I guessed so. Most of the time, we’d like to accomplish a lot by doing the least amount of work. Abraham Lincoln’s wonderful quote about tree chopping comes into play here. He was once asked what he would do if he had to chop down a huge tree, and he replied, "I’d spend half of my time sharpening my axe." It’s easier to sharpen an axe, and when the axe is sharp it takes less time to cut through wood. Plain and simple and right in line with this principle of science.

Another application. How many of you in your work environment or other place like it when some person full of energy and vitality comes in and starts challenging you or others to do things differently? How many of you react positively and jump at the chance? Most of the time, not so much. Most of the time we’re happy staying right where we are because we are functioning in the lowest energy state. Whenever someone comes in to challenge things, it makes us more than a little uncomfortable.

It’s really not hard to see that even as people we like staying at the lowest energy state possible. We put off doing things we know we should do. We tend to find the paths of least resistence. We tend to slip into the same habits and same tendencies that we have always done. It is only when we find some sort of motivation, some sort of extra energy that we finally make changes, and this, my brothers and sisters, is where I believe our faith comes into play.

Jesus tells us this morning in our Gospel lesson that He is the vine and we are the branches. He says, "4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

Abide in Jesus. Why?

Because apart from Him we cannot bear fruit? Why?

Bearing fruit is hard work and it goes against our nature. It’s our nature to take things easy–to find the path of least resistence–to stay at the lowest energy state.

But take a listen to the fruits of the Spirit which are listed in Galatians chapter six: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, generosity, gentleness, and self-control. Those traits are not easy traits to incorporate into our lives. In fact, the fruits of the flesh tend to come more easily. Those are listed there in Galatians too.

19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.

I mean, whenever someone does something you don’t like, do you find yourself acting in a spirit of love. Do you seek to understand why the person might have done what he or she did and give allowances, or do you get really, really ticked off? Which is easiest? Whenever an issue arises within a congregation, an organization, a community, a nation, do we tend to seek patience in working things out, or do we draw lines and have factions? Whenever we see someone get a reward, do we have a spirit of joy for that person, or do we slide into envy? When life throws devastating curve balls at us, is it easy to remain faithful, or do we turn to that age old stand-by of drunkenness, carousing, and things like these? What do you see most of when you look around society? Which is the easier path?

And which one are we, as followers of Jesus called to take? Are we called to stay in the lowest energy state, or to rise above it? Are we called to go to a higher level?

Of course we are, but where will the energy come from to get there? Where will we find the strength to rise above what comes naturally? Will it come from us? According to Jesus, no. Not by a long shot. We will not bring ourselves out of such things–only He can do it. Only He can give us the strength to bear fruit. Apart from Him we can do nothing.

And so we pray this day that we may be found to be abiding in Him. We pray that we may find ourselves rooted and grounded in Christ that we may overcome our natural tendencies and produce fruit which is pleasing to our Father in Heaven. Amen.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Re-evaluating Some Things

For over 12 years I have studied Bowen Family Systems Theory.

I first delved into this train of thought on my internship by reading Ed Friedman's Generation to Generation and Friedman's Fables.   There are many concepts of this way of looking at life that I have found extremely helpful as I have fulfilled the role of pastor in the congregations I have served.

I believe being as non-axious as possible as a leader is important for the health of a congregation.

I believe in being well defined as a leader.

I believe one's family dynamics has a very strong role in how one interacts with others within a given system.

I believe in taking responsibility for one's self and not taking on the anxiety of another; although one can certainly strive to be helpful in dealing with another person's problems.

I believe it's important for a person to state what he or she believes without forcing someone else to believe the same thing.

These are just a few snippets of the way of thinking that have made life a lot easier in the role I function in.  Yet, there have been some disturbing criticisms I have come to see with the train of thought--criticisms which are making me re-evaluate whether or not I want to continue in the study of said theory.

Right and Wrong

Bowen family systems theory teaches a person to focus on the characteristics of the system and not on the behavior of individuals within the system.  A condensed version of this train of thought is found in Friedman's Fables under the title "The Friendly Forest."  In this short parable, a tiger moves into a forest full of other animals.  Most of the animals are happy because their forest didn't have a tiger; they are now more diverse.  However, the lamb has an issue.  The lamb isn't so happy about the tiger being there.  The lamb really gets nervous when the tiger comes by and growls and looks at her.  She complains to her friends about the tiger, but they tell her she's too sensitive.  After all, the tiger hasn't hurt her physically or anything.  Perhaps she needs to communicate with the tiger and work things out.  As the story winds through, Friedman ends with this:

Though one of the less subtle animals in the forest, more uncouth in expression and unconcerned about just who remained, was overheard to remark, "I never heard of anything so ridiculous.  If you want a lamb and a tiger to live in the same forest, you don't try to make them communicate.  You cage the bloody tiger.

In one of our classes, we discussed this parable and its implications.  One of the questions given to us was, "If the tiger eats the lamb, whose fault is it?"

Is it the tiger's fault for doing what he does?

Is it the lamb's fault for not leaving?

Is it the rest of the animals' fault because they refuse to do anything about it?

Of course, a tiger is a tiger.  He's eventually going to eat the lamb.  Is he right in doing such a thing?  Is he wrong for doing what he does? 

Extrapolate this thinking into society and onto an understanding of morals and values.  Can one hold to Bowen Family Systems Theory and be a proponent of morals, values, justice, truth, and so on?  I'm not sure--especially since Systems Theory tends toward self-definition and not societal definition.  This is problematic.


One of the other tenets of Bowen Family Systems Theory that I have begun to find problematic is the idea of homeostasis. 

The definition of homeostasis for BFST is this:  The tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence

This understanding is rooted and grounded in the biological/ecological understanding of homeostasis.

As my teacher says, "Systems imitate life, and we need to be aware of this."

There is one problem with this train of thought: life doesn't do homeostasis.  It's always in flux.  As far as we know, it always has been.

Delving down to the quantum level, this becomes plain as day.  Nearly everything wants to stay at the lowest energy levels possible.  This is true even in the atom.  Within the atom, electrons stay at certain levels, but they can only maintain staying at those levels because protons shoot between them and the nucleus to keep them in "orbit."  If those photons didn't do what they do, the atoms would collapse.  At the quantum level, things cannot be static or else they collapse.  The fundamental organizing principle of the universe is to be moving and interacting. 

Now, how does this come into play with BFST?  I'm not sure.  I've got to think it through.  Some might not even care.  "Just use what you find helpful and don't worry about the rest."  I could approach things that way, but I personally like integrity throughout, and I'll have to work it through to see if such a thing can be had.

We'll see.  I think things can be tweaked to make things work out, but at this point, I haven't thought through it enough.  Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Enough is Enough

I have been taught to listen to my body.

Normally, I'm as easy going as can be.  I don't get my feathers ruffled.  I keep a pretty good monitor on my anxiety and am able to keep it at a pretty low level.  I can tell when my anxiety is raised a little bit: my sleeping is affected.

It's been about two and a half to three years since I've had a night like I had last night.  Too many things happened yesterday which affected my anxiety level.  The flesh was willing and needing to rest, but the brain kept me awake until the wee hours of the morning.  (And then it didn't help when my daughter came in complaining of a nightmare saying that it kept coming back and she didn't want to go to sleep anymore.  After a few minutes in bed with us, miraculously, she fell back to sleep.  I wish it would have taken me that short of an amount of time.)

Several things impacted me yesterday including: an extremely unique (at least for me) hospital visit; a Matrix moment; and a deep reflection upon a train of thought I have adhered to for years--a reflection that is making me rethink the whole shebang.  There's too much to include in one blog post, so I'll break it up into a couple.

A Unique Hospital Visit

Usually, hospital visits are pretty routine--even when involving minors.  Most hospitals are very good at protecting their patients, especially children, therefore they make you sign in each and every time you visit.  Healthbridge Children's Hospital, where I visited yesterday, is no exception.

I remember vividly signing in yesterday.  (You might wonder why I am going to go into such detail here, but you will understand later.)  I walked up to the desk, and said hello to the woman behind the counter.  She was wearing a grey pants suit with a purple blouse.  She was Hispanic with shoulder length straight, black hair.  She asked me what room I was visiting, and I replied, "...... room 407."  I said this as I was signing into the register.  I printed out the date, my name, relationship to the patient, looked at the white clock on the wall and noted the time of 12:25.  The lady then said, "Just fill out a visitor tag."  I did and then placed my hands underneath the hand sanitizer--a requirement for all who enter.

I went down to the room to find a social worker visiting with the patient's mom.  They'd like to get the young man out of the hospital and home to do his rehabbing, but things didn't quite work out, much to the chagrin of everyone.  We visited a little about this and a few other things.  The patient slept through much of this conversation.  About 30 minutes into my visit, the nurse came in to give the patient some pain medication.  He woke up at this point, and we were able to do some more talking.

That's when I noticed the bandage on his leg was soaked with blood.  I pointed it out, and that's when things got a little chaotic.  The thing wasn't supposed to be bleeding, there was a bulge on the guy's leg, and the doctor was called in.  I told the patient's mom, "Take a picture."

She said, "I don't have a camera.  Do you?"

"Yep."  For the first time ever in my career, I took a couple of photos of a wound.

The doctor came in and looked at the bulge and ordered an x-ray.  Mom asked me to stay for a while so that she could make some phone calls.  The situation was a bit tense for a while. 

Finally, things settled down.  It was time for me to leave.  I said my good-byes and promised continued prayer.  I headed back to the front desk, and that's when I had...

My Matrix Moment

I picked up the pen laying on the sign in/out sheet and looked for my name.  I couldn't find it.  It wasn't there.

I scanned through the list again and didn't see it.  I didn't see my name.  I didn't see "Pastor" listed anywhere under "Relationship to Patient."  I flipped the page back and looked.  I flipped to the next page and looked.  Nothing.  I probably looked like a complete idiot standing there, but I was truly at a loss at this moment.

Now, I know the brain can play tricks on you.  I know you can believe you have done something and really haven't done it.  It's happened to me more than once.  But I know I signed in.  I had proof in the visitor's tag pasted on my shirt pocket.  But where was my name in the register?  I have no freakin' clue. 

Is it possible I completely missed it even after looking at the page three times?  I guess so.  If that is the case, then that record has my name signed into it two times because I repeated the entire sign in/out on the next page.  I left that hospital scratching my head.  It was just too weird, and I am still trying to figure it out.

Enough Is Enough

After having endured all of this and having my mind thrown into complete chaos, I jumped into my Mustang and headed toward home.  I called the patient's grandfather and had a conversation with him.  I checked my email and found another member's son was scheduled to have his heart checked out the following morning, and prayers were being asked for.

I called his mom and received permission to send out a church-wide email asking for prayers.

While I was leaving a message on this woman's phone, I received a text.  Another major prayer request that I must keep confidential. 

At this point, I was done.  I'd like to say at that point, the Good Lord and I had an intense conversation, but there was no conversation to it.  It was more like a one way flow out of my mouth toward Him.  "What in the world are You up to!!!!  I'm tired of this cr@p.  It never ends!  Are You trying to test me, my congregation, my people?  When is all this stuff going to let up?  Is this some kind of demonic attack against Your people here?  Help me out here; I'm almost at my wit's end!"

This afternoon, I'm driving to one of my member's ranch to sit on the front porch to see if God has anything to say.

Ah, if only this was the extent of why my mind wouldn't turn off.