Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Through Burnout and Back: Burnout or Flameout?

I had an interesting conversation after worship this Sunday.  A respected gentleman took me aside and said, "Pastor, I've wanted to say something to you because I follow your blog.  I don't think you've got burnout.  When you've burn out, you've got nothing left.  I think you've flamed out.  There's still plenty of fuel down there, and you've got a lot left in the tank."

I think the guy is dead on.  He knows.  He's been doing the same work for over 30 years, and he admitted he finally burned out.  There was nothing left.  He was in the process of retiring because he had nothing left to give. 

I know technically, this is a matter of semantics.  Burnout is the common terminology used for someone who has reached a point of physical, mental or spiritual exhaustion due to prolonged stress or frustration in the environment where the person works or spends much of his/her time.

Recently, we clergy have experienced a lot of it.  It wasn't always the case.  In the past few months, even some highly visible sources of information have begun talking about it:

NPR

The New York Times

The New York Times again

Huffington Post

I think most of my colleagues would agree with me in stating we love doing the Lord's work, but it's awful hard.  Nearly all of us have a passion and a desire to follow Jesus' instructions and strive to imitate Him while striving to care for His flock.  There is something that burns within us all (the Holy Spirit) which compels us to work in this profession, and we mostly strive to do our absolute best.

Yet, despite this burning, we grow weary.  We grow frustrated.  Part of it is our own expectations of what we would like to see happen.  We want our congregations to grow.  We want them to thrive.  We want them to become places where God's Word is "living and active and sharper than any two edged sword."  Most of us want dynamic places of worship; active youth and Sunday School programs; people who genuinely care for one another and for those who are not members of our churches--who embody the attributes of Jesus; and people who care enough about one another to work through differences with each other.  We envision communities of faith which revolve around God's Word and Sacraments; communities which produce people of character and hope.  We long for such things.  We toil for such things.  We sacrifice for such things.  We invest our time, talent, and treasure in our congregations hoping some of our passion will rub off and folks will catch the vision of God's Kingdom as we strive to articulate it and put it into practice in our own daily lives.

And we watch, sometimes in horror, as it seems like our words and our actions have very little impact.

Most congregations continue to decline.
Some grow, level off, and then start to decline.
Some simply hold steady.

For the most part, we clergy blame ourselves and we think we aren't working hard enough.  So we redouble our efforts, and before we are even aware of it, we crash: physically, emotionally, and spiritually.  Burnout.  Flameout.  Whatever.  It's all the same.

But the fire within us doesn't die.  We're still passionate about God.  We're still passionate about His work, but we wonder why it seems like few share that passion.  We wonder why people consistently choose other things over worship and Christian education.  We wonder why when we offer forgiveness and overlook peoples' faults some members of our flock hold onto grudges and refuse to worship because of something we might of said or some other member of the church said to them.  We wonder how and why congregations go from enthusiastic about helping their communities to turning inward and bickering amongst themselves.  We wonder how and why congregations reach a certain point and refuse to grow any more.  And most of us, because we haven't lost the fire, begin searching for some place else to rekindle those flames.  Few try and stay to work it out in their current congregations.  It's just easier, especially since one feels like one has nothing left to give.

But is it possible for those flames to be rekindled?  Is it possible for pastors and congregations to recognize such things together?  Is it possible for pastors and congregations to examine themselves and realize they are both share culpability when it comes to this phenomenon of clergy flaming out?  Is it possible for each to change the way they respond and act? 

I frankly don't know the answers to those questions.  They are bigger than me.  What I do know about myself is this:

#1. I'm nowhere near the nasty place I was at several months ago.
#2. Neither am I fully healed.
#3. The fire still burns deeply and passionately within me to do the Lord's work.
#4. I've had to look at myself and define what I believe the Lord needs me to do and how that plays out in my life as a pastor, as a father, and as a husband.
#5. I've had to look at what I am doing and not doing in my congregation, and I've had to redefine my role in light of #4.
#6. I have no idea if the steps I am taking will make any difference what-so-ever.
#7. But doing something different (#6) is better than trying to do the same things over and over and expecting different results.
#8. What those results will be, I have no idea.  It's all in the Lord's hands.
#9. If indeed, I have managed to place it all in the Lord's hands, everything will be o.k. and the flame will be rekindled.
#10. I'd prefer not to think of the alternative if #9 isn't true.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Abundance Over Scarcity

I would like to begin my sermon this morning with an illustration I came across this week during my research. It’s told by Grace Imathiu in her sermon titled, "A Picnic on the Mountainside." She says:

A few years ago I served as pastor of Lavington Church in Nairobi. One day three young men came to my office. Although they were cheerful, they looked tired and wore out. Their tennis shoes were dusty and their clothes needed a wash. The first thing they asked when they came into my office was whether they could sing a verse of "Amazing Grace" in their language. They sang acappella in parts. It was so beautiful. Sounded like angel music, the kind of singing that tugs at the soul and brings tears to your eyes out of the blue. And then they told me their story. They were university students from Rwanda, 23-year olds. Two of them had been medical students. When war broke out in their country, they had escaped with only the clothes on their back and the song in their heart. They had walked for weeks without a change of clothes with no place to sleep. They had often gone hungry, they said, and they had no clue where any of their family members and friends were. They said they had learned to be grateful for their life each day and they had begun singing "Amazing Grace" as a prayer as they walked. They had seen so much violence and death and cruelty that they could not find words to pray so instead they sang "Amazing Grace" as they walked and they said, "God knew and that was enough."

On that afternoon in my office, these three young men had come to church asking for assistance. They said they had found a room to rent for eight U.S. dollars a month. They said they did not need beds; they would gladly sleep on the floor. They were asking our congregation to help them with a month's rent. Eight dollars and some money for food, a total of $12 a month. I asked the three students to come back in a few days so I could meet with the church leaders, and when I met my church leaders, they all agreed it was a great ministry. But someone talked about the budget. Someone said $8 was not a lot, but if you multiplied by 12 months, the next thing you know, it would be impossible. And someone else suggested a very Andrew-like idea. "Let's have a special project," they said. "Let's have a special offering. Let's tell the congregation about the situation, have these young men sing one Sunday morning, and whoever in the congregation is willing to help, could donate outside the usual tithing and offertory." The church leaders talked late into the night. Some were even concerned that so many refugees were in the city that the word would spread our church was involved in paying rent and buying groceries and we would be swamped with needs. Some wanted to keep church and revivals only a spiritual level. No picnics, no food, no dinner.

As I listened to my church leaders, I learned so much about the myth of limited resources. We often think there's just enough for some of us. Some have to go without. We're worried we'll run out, but guess what? God's world has enough for all of us. Someone has put it well, saying, "There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed."

I thought about Grace’s story quite a bit. I thought about it in light of our Gospel lesson this morning about Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 men plus women and children. I thought about it in light of how the disciples reacted to Jesus’ question, "Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?"

Philip responded, "Six months wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for each of them to even get a little bit."
In other words, "Jesus, are you out of your mind? We don’t have that kind of money. We can’t provide for all of these people. Our resources are limited. Be more realistic, Lord. Think about what you are asking."
So often in our churches, we are confronted with the same sorts of deals Grace’s congregation members faced and what the disciples faced. As we look around this world, we see glowing needs. We see poverty. We see destruction. We see people’s lives ruined by natural disasters, by recession, by poor choices, and by illness. The need is overwhelming at times.

And many times, we are asked to help. Many times our congregations are approached by individuals and by groups with their hands out asking, "Please, can you spare anything to help us?"

And how do we respond? How do our congregations, our denominations reply? Usually in one of several of ways. Either we react by saying, "Well, if we help you, then we’ll have to help everybody. And we just don’t have the resources to help everybody." Or, we react by saying, "Well, our congregation supports such and such a ministry. Please go to them to receive assistance." Or, we react by saying, "The job is just too massive for us, we need to let the government step in and handle things because they have all the equipment, resources, or what have you to make a difference." Or, we even respond, "Well, you made some poor choices to lead up to this happening. Perhaps you should learn from your mistakes and make better choices next time." Think about these reactions as you hear Phillip say, "Lord, six months wages wouldn’t buy enough bread for these folks to even have a little bit." And think about them when you hear Andrew also say, "This little boy here has five loaves of bread and two fish, but what are they amongst so many?"

What are they amongst so many, indeed? Andrew believes in scarcity. Andrew believes there is only so much to go around. Andrew believes we can’t make a dent in the enormity of the hunger that exists around us. And most of the time, we’re just like Andrew. We believe there’s only so much we can do, so much we can give, or so much we can say.

Of course, we know the rest of the story, and we know things work out much differently than we tend to think. We know how Jesus isn’t affected by scarcity. We know Jesus brings the power of God into the equation. "Make the people sit down," He commands. And they do. He takes the loaves. He takes the fish. He blesses them and begins distributing them. And all are satisfied. All eat their fill. And when the clean up ensues, 12 baskets full of bread are collected. From such a small start, there is an abundance in the end! The cup, or in this case, the baskets, truly runneth over! With Jesus, there is no such thing as scarcity. There is an abundance.

I am reminded about a Lutheran congregation in Houston. Yes, it’s an ELCA congregation. It was a struggling church in a changing neighborhood. It had been on the decline for numerous years with no prospects of increasing membership. The congregation’s average age was climbing and greying. So, the pastor who was there did something radical. He said, "Looks like you’ve chosen to die. Let’s die well."
He convinced the remaining members they should work to give away the church’s assets. They should invest in the community. Reaching out, they started finding out community needs and spending money in copious amounts to help their neighbors. And guess what happened?

As they began doing God’s work and giving away, the church became revitalized! Instead of a continuing decline in membership, folks from the community began attending. They began getting involved in the process of giving what they had away. And the congregation found out something quite interesting–they couldn’t out give God. It simply wasn’t possible. Each time they tried, more came in to make the Lord’s work happen. The congregation found out what Phillip and Andrew found out in our Gospel lesson–what Jesus knew as He asked the question–when it comes to doing God’s work, there is no scarcity. There is always abundance. And now we must ask ourselves, do we live our lives as if this were the case? Amen.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

You Don't Know Sh*t From Shinola!

July is beginning to wind down.  In just a couple of weeks, football practice fields will be full of kids donning helmets and pads, running, jumping, and hitting each other as they prepare for the upcoming high school football season.

I remember those days, and as I look back at them at almost 40, I can unequivocally say: I MUST HAVE HAD SOMETHING WRONG IN MY BRAIN.

I've become much too comfortable in my old age to even think about going out in 100+ degree weather and running like that.  And when my knees creak and I feel a twang related to football injuries, I wonder if I'd do it again given the chance.

If I knew my knees wouldn't tweak from time to time, perhaps I wouldn't, but if Coach Garza would coach me again, I'd consider it.

Now, Coach Garza wasn't exactly what you would call a polished coach.  He was who he was.  His language got colorful at times--even in front of large crowds on the sideline.  Apparently, there were a few folks who didn't quite like that.  Coach wasn't always the most articulate person either.  Some coaches have a way with words, and snippets of their speeches are long remembered by players.

The most memorable thing Coach Garza said, at least to my recollection, was, "You don't know sh*t from shinola!"  Usually he made that comment when one of us made a mental mistake at practice.  (Side note: it wasn't until after high school that I found out shinola was shoe polish.  Anyone else ready to admit they didn't know and were too afraid to ask because it might have made you look stupid?)  Do I remember any other sorts of words of wisdom?  Can't say that I do.  I do remember one day at athletics where he tried to explain to us the cost of having a kid out of wedlock.  Of course, he might of had some ulterior motives since his daughter was attending high school with the rest of us.  ;-)

But despite such things, I can tell you this: Coach had a way of motivating us to play and play hard.  Being a very small 3A school at the time, we didn't exactly have a whole lot of talent.  No one ever said, "Oh, Odem.  Yeah, that school has a lot of athletes!  They're big, fast, and strong."  I can guarantee, those words were never uttered about us.  We were usually never the fastest team on the field.  We were usually never the strongest team on the field.  We were never usually the biggest team on the field.  But most of the time, we were the team with the most heart on the field.  When it came time for football, there was a reason we were called the "Scrappin' Owls."  We were going to scrap.  We had to in order to overcome our lack of size, strength, and speed.  We won our games with heart and soul and not so much with talent.

And who helped bring that heart and soul to the surface?  Who helped keep a group of testosterone filled high school boys focused and full of the desire to play hard and to the best of our ability?  Coach Garza.

Sometimes he'd do it with a laugh.
Sometimes, he'd piss you off.  At least once, I was ready to quit.
Sometimes, he'd throw down the gauntlet at you.

I remember after a close loss to one of our rivals, Taft.  I had dropped a couple of passes that game, and during our debriefing, Coach looked at all of us who were receivers--and I could have sworn he was looking right at me--and said, "Who's gonna catch the ball when we throw it?" 

I knew what he was getting at.  I knew he was singling out those of us who dropped passes.  I knew there was a finger pointing at me.  It was a challenge, so I said, "I will."

And I did.  Made all district Tight End/Wide receiver three years running.  Motivation accomplished.

Each of us, he treated differently, but he tried to instill the same thing in us all: ganas.  You can call it heart.  You can call it desire.  You can call it attitude.  There's no sufficient translation from the Spanish to English.  It was a deep seeded desire to do what it took--within the rules--to win.  It meant playing through pain--in my case a broken finger my senior year.  It meant playing your technique correctly so that you could out perform someone who was bigger and faster.  It meant being creative and adjusting your routes just enough to get open.  It meant getting more out of yourself than you ever dreamed possible.

Coach had a way of getting that out of you.  He had a way of making you dig down deep and tap into resources you didn't even know you had available.  He helped make you a winner--even if the scoreboard showed the opposite.

That's a lesson one eventually has to learn in life.  I was lucky to learn it through my time playing sports.  For that, I'd do it again.  And if Coach yelled at me and said, "You don't know sh*t from shinola!"  At least now, I'll know what he's talking about.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

God Versus Baseball: Why God Wins

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about baseball versus the Church and how many folks are choosing athletics over congregational worship these days.  It is my firm belief that worship should come first regardless of aspirations toward playing professional baseball or football or volleyball or what have you.  It is my firm belief that even though the Church is a flawed institution and oftentimes leaves folks disenchanted, upset, hopeless, etc., the One the Church worships is none of those things.  Unfortunately, we have oftentimes allow the flawed institution to get in our way of worshiping the One the institution is supposed to point toward, and it is He whom we come to meet and hear and revere--not the pastor, people sitting in the pews, the building and property, or the politics of how a congregation is run.  It's important to focus on God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and what they expect.  When we do so, I believe we see they trump baseball or what have you in a major way.

1. As I said yesterday, athletics demands something out of people.  Money, time, dedication, etc.  Once you buy into athletics, you find yourself committed, and one is loathe to turn away after the investment.

However, God's demands actually far outweigh athletics's demands.  Don't believe me?  Well, just because most congregations don't place any demands upon members doesn't mean Christ doesn't place demands upon His followers.  Here's just a few of them:

#1. Perfection.  (Matthew 5:48)
#2. Mercy.  (Luke 6:36)
#3. Loving one's enemies. (Matthew 6:44)
#4. Turning the other cheek when struck. (Matthew 6:39)

Oh, let's just stop all this stuff and get down to the brass taxes of what Jesus demands.  He wants your entire life--not just morality--not just justice--not just an hour of worship on Sunday morning and a few moments of prayer time during the week.  He wants you.  All of you.  Remember the story of the rich man who came to see Jesus:

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 18Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honour your father and mother.” 20He said to him, ‘Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.’ 21Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money* to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ 22When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.   (Mark 10: 17-22)

God demands your life--far more than athletics could ever think of demanding.  Now, God doesn't punish us directly for not giving Him our entire lives.  If He did, none of us would be walking around; however, there are definitely consequences for not putting God first.  Things tend to fall apart and quickly.  Yet, when folks' lives are spinning out of control they start wondering, "Why?"  Well, how well are you putting God first?

2. Athletics offers the hope of the next game; the next season; and the chance for the underdog to win. 

But there are still losers.  And when your body doesn't work anymore, athletics drops you off at the corner.  Sure, you can coach or follow your favorite team, but when all is said and done, athletics offers a false hope.  Games end.  Teams disappoint.  Coaches become involved in scandal.  Players abuse their bodies and sometimes abuse the relationships they enter into.  Brokenness rears its ugly head time and again.  Sometimes the pursuit of money causes dedicated fans to become sick of the sport.  (Raise your hand if college football's pursuit of money has turned your stomach more than once.)

With God, hope reigns eternal.  That's the main promise of the resurrection.  Everything looked really, really bad on Good Friday, but Easter revealed the promised ending.  No matter what evil may befall us.  No matter how many shootings go on in theaters or schools or in parking lots.  No matter the disparity between rich and poor.  No matter how many die of starvation.  The final word and say will belong to God.  The final word and say will be good.  The final promise is a renewed and restored creation to the way it was meant to be.  There is not a hope in next season or the next game which may or may not turn out well.  There is a sure and certain hope. 

3. The final one is a bit more difficult and even troublesome.  In athletics, one can measure progress.  One can see one's self getting stronger, getting faster, throwing harder and with more accuracy.  Some of this is due to the body's naturally getting stronger as it grows.  Sometimes people don't have to work very hard to see the results, and since matter tends to want to stay at it's lowest energy state, many folks are very happy seeing progress without much investment.

Yet, there are two things of note here.  First, the best athletes go through a lot of pain to get better.  In order to get stronger, they have to lift weights and tear their muscles so that they can rebuild.  They have to push themselves to exhaustion so that their bodies can grow in stamina.  Some are not willing to push themselves in this manner, but the best of the best train and have pain to attain greatness.  Secondly, even pushing themselves to the limit, eventually, everyone hits a ceiling.  Age creeps in and strength wanes.  Drugs can push this off until further in life, but there are limits to how far one can progress.

There is good news and bad news here for those of faith.  The bad news will be offered first: in order to grow in faith, one must experience pain as well.  Spare me the televangelists and others who believe Christianity is a painless way of life.  Spare me those who say Christianity leads one to be pain free, evil free, and full of unceasing happiness.  It doesn't happen that way.  For to grow in faith, one must undergo pain.  It's not pleasant.  The saints in their works express this.  Why is it so painful?

In Christianity, we are at war with our very nature--our very identities as homo sapiens.  We are born with the capability to do great good and also great evil.  For most of us, we keep the extremes in check.  Rarely does one do great good things.  Mostly we do small good things.  Conversely, most of us do not do great evil.  We do small evil things.  As we seek to grow in faith, we go through pain as God cleanses the bad from us.  He changes our identity.  He changes our very nature, and that is painful.  Some can't handle the pain.  Again, most athletes don't push themselves to really and truly become great--neither do most Christians.  It's a sad fact, but a true one.  But if you are a "glutton for punishment", or in the case of Christianity, a glutton for transformation....

There is no limit to growth in faith.  As we age, our cellular processes break down.  We age.  Our muscles no longer respond as quickly.  Our strength fades.  But those of faith who pursue growth find there is no ceiling.  How could there when the ideal is to become like Jesus?  In fact, some of the most mature Christians I have known are those who are facing end of life issues.  They are people wracked with the pain of cancer or some other disease.  They are people who have lost loved ones and buried children.  They are people who have walked through hell on earth and have a peace that passes all understanding.  They would never look down on you.  They would never be conceited in their spiritual growth.  They are immensely humble because of what they have endured and gone through, and they radiate God's light and love.  They themselves would tell you they are still growing, still learning, and still striving to love like Jesus, and they know they will accomplish this goal only after crossing the threshold of death. 

While athletics offers the opportunity to progress, there are limits.  In Christ, there are none to one's spiritual growth.

In all ways, God triumphs over baseball.  Not likely it will change the dynamics of those who choose to pursue athletics in this day and age.  But I can hope, can't I?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Aurora Colorado: I'm Not Surprised

Why write about this days after it happened?

Why not sooner?

I wanted to process a few things.

I wanted to watch the reaction to the events that unfolded at that midnight showing of Dark Knight Rises.  They were typical.  Predictable.

- An outcry of support for the victims from all corners and all places.  I know many in the Church were lifting up victims and their families in prayer.  Lutheran Youth at the National Youth Gathering in New Orleans offered special prayers and tweets.  My Facebook feed had several postings of thoughts and prayers heading to Colorado.  Such things always come when tragedy strikes.  They show what is good and noble about the human family. 

- Blame and spin.  Calls for tighter gun control hit the press followed by counter calls that if more people in the theater were armed, fewer people would have been killed/wounded.  Political theater.  Nastiness.  Using tragedy to promote agendas. 

- Asking why.  A lot of times this plays out in the blame and spin section.  Is it a societal problem (guns, glorification of violence, absence of clear cut morality)?  Is it an individual's problem (the shooter went nuts, was a loner, a sociopath)?  Is it a combination of both (crazed individual enamored with violence who had access to guns)?  Oh, we could spend a lot of time analyzing this one and get absolutely nowhere.

Christianity offers an answer to such events: sin.  Yep.  That unpopular three letter word.  S-I-N. 

Face it folks, our world is broken.  It was created good.  It was created to function properly, but it got warped.  There are still plenty of good things to see, to experience, to do and be a part of.  Yet, there is also the dark side of reality--the place where greed, jealousy, anger, frustration, sadness, hopelessness, disease, and other such things congregate and make life miserable and instill fear and trembling into many.

We would like to think we can control this darkness.  We would like to think we can push it back and conquer it.  We impose all sorts of laws believing they will make things better.  But have they gotten better?  Really?

It is true we are living in a time of relative peace and prosperity.  Violent crime has actually been on the decrease.   Conflict on a global scale is non-existent.  This is good.  Yet, despite these things, most folks don't feel safer.  They don't feel relaxed.  In fact, many believe the exact opposite is the case.  Why?

S-I-N.

You see, not only is the world broken.  We are too.  We live in fear, in worry.  Fearful and worrying about what? 

That what WE have and what WE like will somehow be taken away from us by X.

(X= what ever boogyman you would like to put in its place: robbery, cancer, the government, you name it.)

When we become totally focused on ourselves and lose sight of a larger reality--bad things happen. 

S-I-N.

The Judeo-Christian scriptures have multiple stories attesting to such things.  The earliest was the story of Cain and Able.  Cain becoming jealous of Able's relationship with God commits the first murder.  "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain asks.  Well, no.  You are not your brother's keeper, but you have a responsibility not to purposely harm him or take what is his.  "Uh oh."

Some may argue that God should have simply diffused the situation by giving Cain the same amount of attention He gave to Able, but this misses the point.  The point being, some of our actions are pleasing to God, and some are not.  In Cain and Able's case, God judged their very attitude's and found Cain's lacking.  Is it right and good and just to reward an evil heart?

No.  Of course not.  God could not reward Cain for his attitude because his attitude wasn't godly.  And Cain continued down the path of ungodly behavior.  From the darkness of his heart, he struck out in anger against his brother.  He thought he could pacify that anger by getting rid of the perceived source of it.  But in reality, killing Able brought about no change.  Cain had to be changed from within. 

This is where we begin having a difficult time as a society.  We don't like the notion that something is wrong deep within us.  We don't like the notion we are broken.  We don't like the notion that something within us must change and that despite our best efforts we are unable to make those changes ourselves.  Deep within us anger, fear, jealousy, hatred and other such things dwell.  Perhaps we can keep a lid on them for a time, but as pressure mounts, they will erupt.  And when they erupt, people get hurt: emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

As we look at the recent shootings in our nation from Columbine to Aurora, we see young men who snapped.  Research shows how they were withdrawn, recluse, loners--sometimes picked on and bullied.  They were perfect candidates to turn inward--incurvatus in se.

Martin Luther expounded on this in his Lectures on Romans and described this state as: "Our nature, by the corruption of the first sin, [being] so deeply curved in on itself that it not only bends the best gifts of God towards itself and enjoys them (as is plain in the works-righteous and hypocrites), or rather even uses God himself in order to attain these gifts, but it also fails to realize that it so wickedly, curvedly, and viciously seeks all things, even God, for its own sake."  (source Wikipedia)

When all revolves around us and our desires and our wishes, several things can happen.  We either go to extreme lengths to get what we want regardless of the consequences to others, or upon failing to obtain what we want, we snap.  Bad things happen.  S-I-N.

Such is the history of humanity.  Any history book will attest to this although they will avoid the term sin. 

And what is the cure?  Can we overcome sin?

Not this side of eternity.  Events like Aurora will continue to happen.  This is why I am not surprised by them.

But are we left without hope?  Are we left to just accept such acts?

No.  But we must be willing to acknowledge a few things.  We must willingly acknowledge there is something fundamentally flawed with our nature as human beings.  We cannot sugar coat ourselves with placates like "I'm O.K., You're O.K."  We must be willing to seek one who is not broken to teach us how to look outside our selves and give us healing.  Of course, as a Christian, I believe I know the One who can do such things, but you already knew that.

Baseball Versus the Church

At times, I consider year round baseball (especially here in Texas) to be the bane of Sunday morning worship.  More and more I seem to see parents of children choose softball, baseball, or some other athletic venture over worship on Sunday mornings.  In some ways, I understand.  Consider the following:

1.  Athletics demand investment by parents and their children.  Parents shell out a lot of money for their kids to play sports.  There are usually fees to be paid to the association.  Some have to buy uniforms.  Parents have to pay for equipment.  Once you start investing money into something, it's hard to walk away from something you paid for.  But it's not only money.  Athletics demands investment of your time.  If you don't practice, you don't play.  Doesn't make any difference what other commitments you might have in your life--the sport comes first, and if you want your shot, you've got to pay the price.

Contrast that with the Church.  What demands do most congregations make on their members?  Usually, we make it as easy as possible to be a part of a congregation.  Mostly, it's because of our theology of grace.  We believe a Christian's response to the good news of Jesus Christ should flow naturally without compulsion.  Worship is such a response.  Monetary giving is such a response.  Continued learning and growing is such a response.  It's not mandatory.  God's not going to stop loving you because you cease doing these things.  And, honestly, there's not much reprisal in congregations either.  My own congregation's constitution states that the requirement for keeping one's membership is to worship at least once per year and give a single contribution to the church of time, talent, or treasure in that year.  Technically, one could worship one time and give one dollar and be a member in good standing.  And some folks don't even fulfill that!  Yet, has my congregation ever dropped anyone?  You guessed it.  Nope.  Essentially, most congregations demand nothing out of their members.  They ask them to pay no price.  They leave it up to the responsibility and generosity of their people.  And when the rubber starts hitting the road, the one place that makes no demands gets left behind.

2. Athletics elicits an emotional investment and offers hope without major disappointment.  No baseball team heads into a game thinking, "We're gonna get beat, and get beat badly."  Sports is chalk full of stories about the underdogs taking out the heavily favored.  There is always an Appalachian State ready to defeat a Michigan.  It happens over and over again.  Hope is never lost.  And, even in defeat, there is always the next game or the next season.  And even if one is at the end of one's tenure, everyone knows someone has to win and someone has to lose.  If you end up on the short end of the stick, that doesn't mean you have to give up your love of the game.  Because there is only one winner, you expect to come out on the short end at times, so there is no overall disappointment.  It's part of the game.  Furthermore, when it comes to team playing, players, coaches, and (some) parents realize they have to cooperate and make sacrifices for the good of the team.  They know and understand it's not about me.  There is no I in team.  In order for a team to function in athletics, not everyone can be the superstar.  Someone has to sing harmony.  Someone has to do the less glamorous dirty work.  Someone has to bunt and move the runners on even if thrown out.  Sacrifices and giving up of expectations are part of the overall process to ensure a good team--and ensure victory.

Contrast this with our congregations--especially here in the U.S.  How many folks are willing to emotionally invest in their congregations?  How many folks are willing to care deeply about the fortunes of their home church and work diligently to make it thrive?  How may people care more about what they can do for the church instead of what the church can do for them?  How many people realize disappointment is a part of congregational life as well? 

The politics and divisiveness of the culture has invaded the sphere of the church, and many congregations and denominations have divisions within along cultural lines.  Unfortunately, these divisions get played out as issues arise in congregations and denominations.  Votes are cast.  Some people win.  Some people lose.  As this happens over and over again, people become more and more emotionally distant from their congregations.  Two things eventually happen: either they just quit or go and join a different congregation whose ideas align much more closely with their own.  It's much, much easier to quit the team and find another when it comes to church--especially if I don't invest emotionally in it.  And, if I don't emotionally invest in it, I have no reason to search for hope.  I have no reason to look forward to another year or another "season."  I can allow disappointment to govern how I feel about a congregation because I can either quit (seemingly without consequences) or join another team (who usually is all to happy to see me).

3. Athletics stresses the importance of practice and working hard to get better.  All kinds of contraptions exist to make a person a better thrower, catcher, batter, kicker, or what have you.  And a whole lot of people take athletics seriously enough to devote hours of their spare time to do these things.  (See reason #1 and #2 above.)  They have a drive to get better so the team can be better.  They are willing to put the time and effort into their sport.  It's rewarding to see one's pitching speed increase; one's accuracy get better; and one's 40 time decrease.  There is something satisfying in being able to say, "I'm doing better."

Contrast this with life in the church.  Are we ever told we're doing better?  As I think about my life as a pastor, I wonder how many times I've told someone, "You know, I've really seen you grow in your faith walk."  (I'm wracking my brain on that one.  I'm not sure I've ever said it.  This is not good.  Of course, no one's ever said they've seen me grow either.  That's not good as well.)  Yet, how many of those of us who are church goers invest the time in being better Christians?*  How many folks use the tools of discipline to grow in their discipleship: prayer, fasting, Bible study, worship, service, confession, solitude, etc?  How often do we reflect upon our days and say, "Yes, I've seen my ability to care and be compassionate increase!  I've seen my ability to be generous increase!  I've seen my trust in God grow!"  How many of us put in hours of work to strive to be better Christians and church members?

* One must be careful here.  There is often a tendency among many Christians to believe that because we excel in some areas of good works--in morality, in giving, in justice, etc. that we have a right to hold our heads high.  One must always remember two very important things: 1. A Christian never fully overcomes sin in this lifetime, and this should keep us humble.  2. Jesus himself showed that a sinless life did not lead to conceit or lording status over another, but it led to self-sacrifice, love, and forgiveness for those who were sinful.  If being a better Christian means being more like Jesus, then no Christian should ever hold another in contempt.

I see and understand why athletics oftentimes takes precedence over congregational life.  Yet, will I change the way I operate in my congregation?  Will I suddenly start demanding that people give and worship and attend Bible study, etc.?  Will I harp on people for skipping church?  No.  Adults make choices.  I have to give them freedom to make those choices even if I don't agree with them.  I cannot control others; I can only control myself. 

At one time, athletics was very important to me as well.  I would have chosen them over congregational worship at a heartbeat.  But I had parents who put their feet down and said, "Church comes first."  For better or worse, I will follow in their footsteps with my children.  I'm sure I'll endure their wrath at some point, but I want my children to understand what is most important in life.  God is first.  Even when it seems like athletics offers more. 

(Tomorrow, God Versus Baseball--Why God Wins)

Monday, July 23, 2012

Sunday's Sermon

As I read over our Gospel lesson from this morning, I was struck by the crowds of people traveling to meet Jesus. I mean, think about the significance of what they are doing in this snippet from the book of Mark.
First, remember, these folks have left their jobs to be with Jesus. Why is this so significant? Well, because most of these folks are the working poor. They have almost nothing, and in order to simply eat, they must work. Every day was needed to scrape together even a modest amount of income so that they could pay off their taxes to Rome and, if they were lucky afford staples so that they could feed themselves and their families. Taking even one day off was a luxury most of them could not afford. And despite this, they traveled to meet Jesus.

Second, remember a lot of these folks were considered to be sinners. When Jesus arrived on the scene, people believed you could measure how much God loved you. You could measure it by how much wealth you had, how much health you had, and how much status you had with the movers and shakers of the day. If you were poor, it meant God hadn’t blessed you because you were a sinner. If you were sick or maimed or had leprosy, it meant God gave you the illnesses because you or your family member had sinned. If you didn’t have status with the movers and shakers it meant God had destined you to a life of servitude because you were not worthy. The majority of the people who came to see Jesus fit just these categories: the poor and social outcasts. They had been taught that God had rejected them. But they also knew Jesus was from God–they hoped He would speak to them, to heal them even though they had been told God didn’t love them. Even with these seeds of misgiving sowed in their lives, they traveled to meet Jesus.

Finally, there were those in society who tried to paint Jesus as the bad guy. They worked diligently among the people spreading rumors and falsehoods. They tried to tell everyone Jesus was actually demon possessed and crazy. They tried to tell everyone Jesus was a servant of the devil. They tried to tell everyone that Jesus was not a prophet of God because He didn’t follow the Mosaic Law. Rumor after rumor was started about Jesus to discredit Him and make Him look bad. But many more people ignored the rumors than heeded them. Many more people traveled to meet Jesus.

Why? Despite all these things which built walls intended to keep people away, crowds and crowds of people traveled to see Jesus. They ran around lakes to beat boats to the opposite shore. When He arrived in a particular area, word spread like wildfire so that Jesus and His disciples didn’t have time to eat. When they were in need of rest, the crowd still sought them out. Entering a town or village meant immediate bombardment with people bringing the sick and ill and paralyzed. Tons of people flocked to see Jesus breaking down psychological, emotional, physical, and religious barriers to do so. Why?

As I read these texts, one thing jumps out at me. And it might not be what you expect. Of course, we know Jesus brought God’s Word to the people. Jesus told them of God’s great love for them despite the fact the rest of society considered them sinners. Jesus told those who were sick and ill, "This illness isn’t caused by sin. God isn’t punishing you. God loves you." Jesus told those who were poor and widowed and orphaned, "God hasn’t turned His back on you. In your poverty, God is with you, and you will be blessed with riches." These things, I am sure won over some converts, but there was something that solidified Jesus’ place in the peoples’ hearts. Not only did Jesus tell them that God loved them, He showed them. He healed them. Jesus touched them, and their illness left them. They grabbed the hem of His garments, and they were healed. Illness, disease, and demon was rebuked by Jesus, and people were restored. Healing made the difference.

As I contemplated this, I began to wonder about the church today. I began to wonder about how people act toward congregations and worship services and activities a the church. I began to look around and see if people travel from all over to see Jesus. I began to wonder if people stop all the other things demanding for their attention and travel to be with Jesus on Sunday mornings or any other time Christians gather. I began to wonder if people cast aside rumors about pastors and other people of faith and head to worship services. I began to wonder if people break through psychological, emotional, physical, and religious barriers to enter the doors of our congregations to meet Jesus. And I wasn’t convinced they were doing so. I wasn’t convinced people make the same effort to get to church that those people made to see Jesus.

And before I asked the question of why, I asked myself this, "When is the last time you thought about going to church to experience healing?" Think about that for a moment.

Now, I’m not trying to come across as one of those Benny Hinn types. Not by a long shot. I personally don’t put too much faith in that sort of healing. In fact, I’m actually right there with Larry the Cable Guy when he talks about such things in The Blue Collar Comedy Tour. He says, "You show me in the Bible where the Lord comes up to somebody and smacks them in the head. That ain’t nowhere in there, not even in the red words. And them’s the important ones." No. I’m not talking about those kind of faith healings. If God chooses to heal that way, I’m sure He can. But what I would like to talk about is healing in the since of being made whole.

It’s really important to understand Jesus’ healings in this manner. Not only did Jesus heal a person’s physical ailment, but He healed that person’s relationship with God and with the community. Whenever Jesus healed a leper, He showed the leper and society that God loved this person. Jesus showed the leper was forgiven and was in a right relationship with God. By curing the disease, the leper could return to society, to work, and to his family. Healing meant restoration in mind, body, and spirit. All worked together to make a person whole–to really bring about healing.

And if we think of healing in this fashion, again, I ask the question, "When is the last time you thought about going to church to experience healing?" And here’s the question that started to bother me a little more, "Are our congregations places where people actually experience the healing touch of Jesus? When people walk through the doors of our congregations: broken, hurting, humiliated, angry, estranged, questioning and hopeless, do they find the compassion of Jesus? Do they find the hope Jesus gives? Do they find a peace that passes all understanding? Do they find a ray of light in their darkness? Do they find someone, anyone who will tell them, "Jesus loves you. Jesus cares deeply for what you are going through in your life right now. Jesus wants to show you He cares, and He wants to reach out and touch you to bring you healing. Jesus wants to make you whole and give you strength to face what you must face."? Do hurting people find healing in our congregations?

And what if our congregations became such places? What if our congregations became places where people could walk in with their pain; with their frustration; with their stress and anxiety and find healing? What if they knew they could encounter a group of people willing to pray for them and touch them and have compassion upon them no matter what they had or hadn’t done? What if they knew they could encounter Jesus just by simply walking through those doors back there and into this worship space? Would people travel from miles and miles around to see Jesus? Amen.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Why I Consider Myself Orthodox: Part 2

Orthodox Christianity does not apologize for its beliefs.  It stands firm in its convictions.

When Jesus says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me." (John 14) Orthodox Christians believe it.

When Jesus says, "So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions." (Luke 14)  Orthodox Christians believe it.

When Jesus says, "Go and sin no more."  (John 8)  Orthodox Christians believe it.

When we profess in the creeds:

God exists and created the universe.  We believe it.
Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  We believe it.
He was crucified, died and was buried.  We believe it.
He was resurrected on the third day.  We believe it.
The Holy Spirit is a part of God worthy of worship.  We believe it.

Orthodox Christianity does not seek to water down its beliefs or tenets because a world caught up in relativism wants it to.  Orthodox Christianity does not seek to get rid of classic doctrine because it somehow seems unpalatable or unrealistic according to science and reason.  Orthodox Christianity stands firm on its convictions because those convictions give them an identity.  Orthodox Christians realize they get their identity from Christ alone, and to say anything else or water it down is anathema. 

To some, this is reprehensible.  It comes across as inflexible--fundamentalist according to some.  It comes across as arrogant.  It comes across as exclusive. 

It can be all of those things.

It can also be argued that when Christianity becomes inflexible, fundamentalist, and arrogant, it becomes intolerant toward people of other faiths, demands they convert to Christianity, and failing conversion, allows (or even supports!) violence, suppression, and hatred.

These things have certainly happened in the past and present.  The Spanish Inquisition was a case in this centuries ago, and more than a few homosexuals have endured the wrath (emotionally, physically, and spiritually) of Christians who go down that path.  Religious fundamentalism and fanaticism can certainly lead us toward darkness, deceit, and sin.

However, there is always a tendency to point out the extreme cases and forget about the opposite side of the story.  Few would argue the Quaker people are not fundamentalists in their beliefs; yet when is the last time you saw an Quaker physically attack someone who didn't believe as they did?  Did you say, "Never."?  Why?  Well, a big fundamental of the Quaker way of life is non-violence.  Fundamentalism does not by necessity lead to violence.

IT ALL DEPENDS UPON WHAT YOUR FUNDAMENTALS ARE!

Orthodox Christianity recognizes something very important, and again, I quote Tim Keller in The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism:

At the very heart of their (Christians') view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness.  Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them.  It means they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents.  p. 20

Orthodox Christianity recognizes this about Jesus.  It also recognizes that all human beings are made in the image of God.  It also recognizes Jesus' call for humility in acting toward others:

"All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."  (Matthew 23) 

"Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful."  (Luke 6)

"For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you;  but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses."  (Matthew 6) 

Orthodox Christians who take these teachings seriously will hold tenaciously and unapologetically to doctrine, but will exert kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and humility just as their Savior did.  They can't help but do so because of their relationship with Jesus. 

I am Orthodox because I believe without doctrine--without core belief and understanding, we have no identity.  The Church just becomes one more organization in the world which says, "Belief doesn't matter as long as you do good things and be nice to each other."  Such an organization will go the way of the dinosaur.

But an organization that knows itself, knows its beliefs and then practices them with humility and conviction.  Well, that type of organization changed the world once.  Is changing it now, and will change it for years to come. 

Can that happen again in the U.S.?

If it's Orthodox, I believe it can.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why I Consider Myself Orthodox: Part 1

Oh what a tangled web is weaved in the Church.

My bishop posted this article on Facebook:  Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?

Another response to this article was written by Diana Butler Bass: Can Christianity Be Saved?

Finally, another post on Facebook gave the perspective of a betweener: Liberal Christianity, Conservative Christianity, and the Caught-In-Between

Mind numbing in one regard as the Church in the U.S. tries to get its head around its steady decline.  Liberal/Progressive Christianity has been on the decline for quite some time.  Conservative Christianity has recently joined the party.  The Roman Catholic Church would be in the same boat except for Latino immigration. 

What is going on?

From my perspective, the Church in the U.S. mirrors the culture.  The culture has been severely divided by the Media Complex which seeks to purposely drive a wedge between people.  Red state/Blue state is the norm.  Republican/Democrat.  Liberal/Conservative.  Tea Party/Occupy Movement. 

Honestly, most folks find themselves somewhere in between all that garbage; yet, when it comes to our politics, we can't find a middle ground because of the extremes.  The Church has come to mirror the society. 

As Rachel Evans said in her blog:  But the reason I struggle to go to church on Sunday mornings is because I generally feel like I have to choose between two non-negotiable “packages.” There are things I really love about evangelicalism and there are things I really love about progressive Protestantism, but because these two groups tend to forge their identities in reaction to one another— by the degree to which they are not like those “other Christians”—Sunday morning can feel an awful lot like an exercise in picking sides.

In a little discussion about this matter, I posted these words:   IMO...it's not about conservative/ultra conservative but about orthodoxy. Bishop (Shelby) Spong [cited in the first NYT article] in a very real way declared war against Christian orthodoxy, and we see the results. Orthodox churches welcome a democrat with a gay child just as... they welcome a republican who has been divorced six times. Why? Because even in their adherence to the understanding of sin and human nature, they practice the humility of Jesus.

I think my quote deserves a bit of expansion.

I'll begin by drawing from Timothy Keller's introduction to his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  He talks at length about starting a new congregation in metropolitan New York :

Many of my early contacts said that the few congregations that had maintained a following had done so by adapting traditional Christian teaching to the more pluralistic ethos of the city.  [Relativism]  "Don't tell people they have to believe in Jesus--that's considered narrow minded here."  They were incredulous when I explained that the beliefs of the new church would be the orthodox, historic tenets of Christianity--the infallibility of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the necessity of spiritual regeneration (the new birth)--all doctrines considered hopelessly dated by the majority of New Yorkers.  Nobody ever said "fuggedaboutit" out loud, but it always hung in the air.  p. xiv

Keller started the congregation anyway, and by the end of 2007, it had more than 5000 attendees and had spawned over a dozen other congregations in the surrounding area.  The average age of these worshipers is 30, and 2/3 of them are single.  (p. xiv)

Now, I am sure that those readers who are more leftward leaning at this point will jump up and say, "Ah, just another conservative, fundamentalist congregation that is using feel good gimmicks to make people attend."

You haven't read Keller.  He describes just what is happening among these folks and how the congregations provide an alternative to the surrounding, bipolar culture.  He calls it a "spiritual third way."

...these younger Christians are the vanguard of some major new religious, social, and political arrangements that could make the older form of culture wars obsolete.  After they wrestle with doubts and objections to Christianity many come out on the other side with an orthodox faith that doesn't fit the current categories of liberal Democrat or conservative Republican.  Many see both sides in the "culture war" making individual freedom and personal happiness the ultimate value rather than God and the common good.  Liberals' individualism comes in their views of abortion, sex, and marriage.  Conservatives' individualism comes out in their deep distrust of the public sector and in their understanding of poverty as simply a failure of personal responsibility.  The new, fast-spreading, multiethnic orthodox Christianity in the cities is much more concerned about the poor and social justice than Republicans have been, and at the same time much more concerned about upholding classic Christian moral and sexual ethics than Democrats have been.  (p. xix-xx)

For someone like myself, such thought is refreshing, nourishing, and right on the money since I have never felt comfortable with so called "liberal Christianity" nor "fundamentalist Christianity."  Orthodox.  The title fits, and it works.

If one considers oneself orthodox, there is no getting around the concept of justice and care and concern for the poor. 

If one considers oneself orthodox, there is no getting lax about sexual ethics and morality.

If one considers oneself orthodox, one finds both of these areas central to the transformed Christian's life.  And, as an extra added kick in the gut, one also finds the impossibility of perfection in these areas.

Orthodox Christians know the reality of sin, not just in the things we do, but in who we are as people.  As I explain to parents who are getting their children baptized, "We baptize infants not because of what they have or haven't done.  For goodness sakes, they don't know the difference between right and wrong.  How could they?  We baptize them because of what they are.  They are born selfish.  Everything in that child's mind revolves around him.  He is the center of his universe right now.  When he's uncomfortable, he expects you to take care of him.  When he is hungry, he cries and expects you to take care of him.  When he is dirty, he cries and expects you to take care of him.  You are there to serve his every need.  Now, you could call this selfish trait a survivalist thing that evolution has put into us.  I won't dispute that, but the fact remains, that child is the center of his own universe.  And when you believe you are the center of the universe, who is God?"

Sin isn't just about what we do--it's about who we are.  In Lutheran terms, we say we are both saint and sinner.  It's a state of being, not just about what we do--and there is no escaping it this side of eternity.

Such a realization does not or should not allow us to become arrogant in what we accomplish in our works.  Such a realization does not or should not allow us to come across as holier than another person.  Such a realization does not or should not allow us to become conceited or to think we somehow completely have the right beliefs, right thoughts, and right actions.  All of these things get warped by the selfishness which resides within us, and try as we might, we can never overcome our selfish nature.  All one need to do is try.  A colleague of mine once invited his confirmation students to go five minutes without sinning.  Some of them tried by locking themselves in a closet in the dark.  Things might go well for a few moments, but then a thought would pop into their heads--a thought driven by human nature, and it was back to the drawing board.

This knowledge of self--the knowledge of our own sinfulness brings us to our knees.  We know we do not have a leg to stand on when it comes to being judged by God.  We know we stand convicted by Him.  This is why, when we see someone else acting on his or her sinful nature, we have compassion.  We recognize someone who is in the same boat as we are.  We know something is wrong in that person's actions as well as our own, but we do not set out to offer correction as if we are somehow doing better than that person.  We offer the same thing that has been offered to us: forgiveness and a chance to try to do things differently next time.  And knowing we have failed and continue to fail at that second and third and fourth chance, we approach another with the utmost of humility.

I get the sense that much of this humility is severely lacking in "liberal" and "fundamentalist" Christianity today, and yes, I am aware of the judgment I am rendering.  I suffer from that human nature stuff too.  Yet, I do not wish ill to happen to either "side."  Enough has already befallen as it is.  What I hope for is a realization that each is right and each is wrong just as I am right and I am wrong.  We must be able to humbly engage one another and engage the world around us knowing our shortcomings and knowing the One who gives us strength to love despite those shortcomings. 

Orthodox Christianity confronts sin with no apologies, but it seeks to do so in a manner of humility and compassion.  It's a tough path to walk.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The House of God: Part 2

Perhaps the most controversial of laws in The House of God is the last one: The delivery of medical care is to do as much nothing as possible.

Samuel Shem illustrates this law toward the end of his book when a wealthy hospital donor is admitted to the hospital with rectal bleeding.  The main character diagnoses him with something that simply requires bed rest for a couple of weeks.  There are no tests ordered.  There are no invasive procedures done.  The patient's own healing processes are allowed to take charge, and the patient recovers fully.  Not only that, but the patient fully realizes what the doctor did and invites him out for a pleasant weekend.  The patient even makes the remark that by essentially doing nothing, he got better faster (he had been admitted several times previous to the hospital). 

Of course, as I thought this one through, I wondered just how that would fly in congregations.  Can you imagine the thought of reporting to your vestry, your council, your board, or what have you, "This past month I did as much of nothing as possible."?  Can you imagine the fireworks that would fly?

But let's process the thought for just a moment.  Let's think about some of the core, central components central to living the Christian life.  In particular, let's think about the majority of the Christian disciplines: prayer, fasting, study, worship, silence, solitude, and the like.  How many of these things are labor intensive?  How many of them require doing essentially nothing? 

How would it fly if a pastor, priest, deacon or what have you, reported to the vestry, board, council, "This past month, I spent 20 hours a week praying for the congregation, fasting to grow in my relationship with God so that I could better preach His Word, and sitting in solitude with no distractions to better hear God's voice.  I spent 10 hours studying God's Word in scripture and reading other Christian authors to learn more about the One I serve and am leading this congregation to serve.  I spent the remaining 10 hours making phone calls, visiting the sick and shut in, writing my sermon, and administrative tasks."  How would such a report be welcomed?  How would a report of, "I spent the majority of my time 'doing' nothing." go over?

Oh, but what about all of the tasks of the congregation?  What about feeding the hungry?  What about making sure all the shut-ins get visited?  What about preparing Bible study?  What about checking on members who haven't worshiped in a long time?  What about making sure the facilities are in working order?  What about being in public and inviting folks to come to our church?

These are important tasks, to be sure.  But if the pastor, deacon, priest is doing all that stuff, what is left for congregation members to handle?  How do they also take responsibility for the livelihood of the congregation?

Maybe we clergy don't spend enough time doing "nothing": praying, fasting, studying, listening to God and His Word.  Maybe we try to do too much fixing and meddling.  Maybe this is why we burnout so quickly.  Maybe this is why we lose so much steam.  Our congregations tend to do pretty well without us telling them what to do and trying to make them do things, and perhaps when we try to make them become something they are not, well, perhaps that's when most of the bad things happen.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The House of God

During my second week of vacation at my parent's house, I was scrounging around for some reading material.  My dad walked up to me and asked, "Have you read The House of God?"

"No."

"Read the first chapter, and then read the introduction," he said.

I never read the introduction.  I just started reading.

I finished the book in three days.  This is no small accomplishment considering we made a trip to the museum, a trip to the beach, and a trip taking my grandmother to the doctor all while keeping three kids occupied at grandma and grandpa's house.  The book was a phenomenal insight into the stresses doctors face on their internships--and the inhumanity they often go through during the process.

As I read through the book and saw what was taking place in the life of the main character, I started making all sorts of applications to other jobs as well.  It was eye opening to think of the possibilities.

For instance, one of the "rules" stated in the book was, "The patient is the one with the disease."  Corollary: not the doctor. 

This rule may seem a bit inhumane, but it's necessary.  If a doctor owns every problem of every patient he or she sees, then that doc is an emotional wreck.  Imagine allowing each thought you have to be dominated by each and every symptom your patient has.  Imagine if your patient dies and you feel 100% responsible for that death even if that person were suffering from incurable cancer.  Could you handle such a burden? 

Of course, I immediately translated that into church work: can I as a pastor own my congregation members' problems?  Can I own whether or not my congregation grows or declines?  Can I own the financial situation of the congregation?  For certain, I play a part in the process--as does a doctor--but is it mine and mine alone?  And if I tried to carry it, what would happen to my physical, mental, and spiritual psyche? 

Hmmm.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Trip Around Memory Lane

Yesterday, after taking my family swimming at the pool in my home town, I took a trip around memory lane.  Yes, I use the word "around" purposely because this particular trip took us around Owl Square in Odem, TX.  As I drove, I couldn't help but think about the numerous times I, and others, had to run around this square of road.  I hated each mile because I am not a runner.  Running does not lead me to that happy place of extra blood flow and endorphins pumping.  It hurts me, but I digress.

Owl Square is one square mile, which, in my day, contained all of the facilities of Odem-Edroy Independent School District.  Every year, when I visit my parents, I drive around the square to see what changes have been made at my alma mater. 

The changes are significant.

No longer are there the wide-open playgrounds where as an elementary school student I played flag football and soccer.  I can remember taking a soccer ball to the face more than once, and I recall how we had a goal of being able to kick said ball into the tennis courts at the far end of one of those playgrounds.  I'm not sure why this was such a thrill to do as a kick onto the tennis courts resulted in an automatic appropriation of the ball by the teacher and an end of the game.  Yet, as kids are wont to do, the thrill came before the thought of consequences.

A band hall now stands on one of those playgrounds and a computer lab on another.  It's hard to picture kids these days having the absolute freedom to play such games like we once did.

Most of the playground equipment I grew up on is gone as well.  Honestly, that's not such a bad thing.  Those monkey bars resulted in more than a few bruises and several broken arms that I'm aware of.  Yet, we learned caution and care when traversing such things--an art form my children have a tougher time learning due to all the safety regulations these days.

The actual school buildings I attended are still there, but they have been surrounded by more additions.  My little school doesn't look as little with these additions.  As I mentioned before: a band hall, a computer lab, junior high expansion, a high school science lab, new softball and baseball field, and a new gymnasium.

That's pretty significant expansion for one of the poorest school districts in the state.  How did we ever manage without such things back in the day, 20 years ago?  It's amazing so many of my friends from high school have gone on to be so productive considering the disadvantage we had compared to larger, more wealthy school districts. 

Now, of course, that comment was a bit sarcastic in nature.  One thing I know about those I went through school with, there is a reason we were called "Scrappin' Owls."  We scrapped.  We clawed.  We worked--well, some of us slacked off, at least in Spanish class.  It wasn't going to make a difference to us if we didn't have all the extra facilities and stuff.  We had teachers who helped us dream.  Who taught not to the test but to the reality of life and education and college preparation.  Their names still resonate with me: McWhorter, Davenport, Higginbotham, Toomey, McKinney, Cass, Lugaresi, Bucholz, and of course, my dad: Haug.  (Sorry to slight my junior high and elementary school teachers.  I do remember you too, but one must remember audiences have shorter attention spans now-a-days.  They tend to get lost in a litany of names.  Don't worry, Mom, you rank right up there!)

I've come into contact with many of my friends from high school on Facebook, and they're all making their way through this world.  They're all contributing to society and doing stuff that makes the world go round.  Not necessarily anything earth shattering, but important stuff in it's own right.  And a lot of the foundation for doing what they and I are doing was laid right there at Owl Square--where I just took another trip around memory lane.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Beach Day

This afternoon, weather permitting, it will be family afternoon at the beach.

I know my kids will absolutely love it.  They've always loved it.

Me.  Not so much.

If I had a nickle for every time I told someone I was from near Corpus Christi and then heard, "I bet you love the beach," I'd be a rich man.  For some reason people assume because you grew up near the beach that you actually like it.  (Personally, I believe the comment says more about the person's love of the beach.)

They tend to get shocked when I reply, "No."

"Why?" Usually comes next.

I go into my laundry list:

The sand gets everywhere.
The beaches in Texas aren't all that great.
The water is murky.
Mosquitoes make their presence known in abundance.
The salt air corrodes your vehicles and makes things deteriorate more quickly than normal.

Most folks don't get it.  I understand there are many, many people who see the beach as magical.  The roaring of the surf provides soothing background music.  Pelicans flying in formation produce "aw's".  Wading in the water makes a person calm.  Watching the sun rise or sun set over the water is a spiritual experience.  I get it.  I really do.  It just doesn't quite do that for me.  Not in and of itself.

Is there beauty?  Sure.
Is there calm?  Sure.
Can people experience something greater than themselves there?  Absolutely.
I guess when you grow up with such a thing right in your backyard, you don't quite see it that way.

What I will take great joy in, however, is my children's joy.  That's something to treasure.

I'll laugh and grin as they laugh and grin while jumping waves.

I'll sit back and take pride as they build their sandcastle, and I'll gladly jump in and help when they ask me to.

I'll smile within as they look for sea shells and chase crabs and perhaps a sea gull.

Just because the beach isn't magical for me, doesn't mean I can't enjoy that it is for my kids.

Kind of reminds me of a scene from a move I watched recently on Netflix: The Immortals.

Theseus' mother is murdered, and an oracle tells Theseus he must bury his mother according to the custom of her belief.  Theseus replies, "I do not believe in her gods."

The oracle replies, "It doesn't matter what you believe.  What matters is that she did."

And so, we will pack up my GMC Yukon.  We'll slather down the kids with sunscreen.  We'll make the hour and a half drive down to the national sea shore, and we'll go to the beach.  Not necessarily because I love it, but because my kids do.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Will We Ever Learn?

One more scare bites the dust.

Just like the Y2K "virus."

Or the world ending in 2000.

Or Harold Camping's prediction of the end of the world.

Interestingly enough those who have predicted a doomsday of some sort have something in common: they've all been wrong.

So why do we continue over and over again to buy into this stuff?

Why do we continue to believe such dire predictions and give them air time?

Why do we buy into all the folks who tell us, "Change or else these things will happen and you will be in dire straits!"?

Why do we forward emails promising blessings or curses?

Are we simply that gullible?

One of these days someone might actually get such a prediction correct, but I guarantee you, it will be more of an accident than not.

Take a lesson from history.  Realize all such predictions have come to naught.

Don't worry.

Don't give such predictions the time of day.

Live in faith.  Not fear.

(Note: one could argue that because of the diligence of computer users checking their systems--I did--this doomsday was prevented.  Point taken.)

Monday, July 9, 2012

There's No Place Like Home

For a week, I get to stay at home with my folks.

Well, it actually hasn't been home for roughly 20 years since I moved to college, but deep in the recesses of my mind, I still consider it to be home.

Things have changed mightily since I spent the majority of my time here, but that's not a bad thing.

No longer do I get to hug my parents first when we arrive.  That designation now belongs to my children as they rush to hug their grandparents.  I just stand back and smile.

During the daylight hours, I no longer get most of my parent's attention.  It's given to their grandchildren because, well, the kids demand it.  I just stand back and smile.

My room isn't my room anymore.  It's a computer room and spare bedroom.  Most of my memorabilia is gone.  But the plaque on the door proclaiming this to be Kevin's territory is still there.  I just stand back and smile.

No longer do I have to worry about school or chores or asking my parent's permission to do anything.  Instead, this is a place of refuge--a place to put the worries of work away.  I can just stand back and smile.

My home town has changed over the years.  Several places are now closed down: the local auto dealership; several gas stations and restaurants.  But there is now a community swimming pool.  The park has great playground equipment for my kids to play on.  The bank and post office look exactly the same.  I just stand back and smile.

There will be several trips in the next few days: to grandmas house; the beach; museums; Port A.  My kids will be worn out, but they will enjoy every moment with their grandma and grandpa.  I'll take it all in and just smile.

For a week, I'll have plenty to smile about as I relax with mom and dad, my wife and kids.  No schedule.  Few interruptions. 

There's no place like home.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Health Care and the Church #2

The website "Living Lutheran" picked up my blog on "Health Care and the Church" which I posted about a week ago.  There have been a  few folks who commented on the post, and a few of those comments are worth responding to.

One in particular grabbed my attention regarding the concept of social justice particularly taking care of the widows and the poor.

First, to deal with a major assumption:

Some folks assume that when you criticize some aspect of a law, you are against the law completely.    For certain, the health care law passed by congress and deemed constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court has some very good things: allowing parents to carry children on insurance until the age of 26, forcing companies to spend 80% of consumer's premium dollars on actual health care instead of overhead, striking down bans on those with pre-existing conditions, striving to make sure as many people as possible have access to health care, and other such measures.  I'm personally in favor of such things.   They make sense to me in the areas of compassion and justice.

However, I have a hard time believing one of the core pieces of the Affordable Health Care Act--the individual mandate--is in accordance with Lutheran theology on theological principles and on justice principles. 

The theory goes, everyone will need health care at some point and time.  Forcing everyone to purchase health insurance will expand the pool of those insured dispersing the risk associated with health care and thereby lowering the price of health care in the long run.  That's the theory in a nutshell, but let's take a look at reality and who will actually bear the cost of this.

#1. Will it be the "rich"  (just a note: I'm not particularly fond of using divisive language like rich/poor, black/white, etc.  I find it creates more problems than it solves and actually tears communities apart)?  Unequivocally, I think we can say, "No."  Those with means generally have health insurance already and are well taken care of.

#2.  Will it be the poor?  No.  Government subsidies and Medicaid will take care of the poor as they already do.

Who does that leave?  Who will bear the brunt of the individual mandate?

Folks like my brother-in-law who makes too much to qualify for Medicaid (and probably wouldn't seek it out because he wants to earn his way and not rely upon the government) but doesn't make enough to purchase health insurance because of the cost.  For him, it will cost less to pay the penalties (ahem, tax) than purchase health insurance; yet because of his situation, this $95--to begin with--is still a hardship. 

Folks like others I know who do not have health insurance who have had to undergo surgery or other procedures who work out payment plans with the hospitals.  Rather than purchase insurance, they chose to roll the dice and when it came up snake eyes, they took responsibility and worked to pay their medical bills.

Is it just to make such people purchase something they do not desire?

Is it just to make such people--who take responsibility for their decisions--pay a penalty for a choice that impacts only themselves?

Is it just to force those who slip through the cracks--who are neither wealthy or poor to bear another financial burden in the midst of rising food, energy, and fuel prices?  Is it just to squeeze the middle class even more?  

In my estimation, it is not just at all.  It's not taking care of the widows and orphans.  It's not taking care of the poor.  It's hitting those right smack dab in the middle who tend to struggle to stay above water. 

(I am aware of one study that has been done on the numbers of people the individual mandate will affect.  It claims by simulation that 6% of the U.S. population will be affected by this mandate.  Commentators have called this number "small."  I remember when unemployment was at 6% or below.  I never heard anyone say that number was small by comparison.  18.5 million isn't a small number by any stretch, and as noted, these are neither wealthy or poor people.  They are those who struggle the most to make ends meet, and the individual mandate has just made it that much more difficult.  Justice?  I don't personally believe so.)

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Through Burnout and Back: Really Taking a Break

I'm currently on vacation, and for the second such vacation in a row, I am taking a real break.

You see, for several years, I didn't do a very good job of taking such breaks.  I believe it helped contribute to burning out

My family and I still traveled away from Cat Spring and visited family and friends; yet, there was still a connection to the church and work: the cell phone.

You know, that technological blessing/terror that has evolved into a hand held computer complete with email, voice, text, and internet.  Our quest to "stay connected" has evolved into just that.  We're always connected.  We can't get away.  We stay tethered no matter how much distance we put between ourselves and work.

For more vacations than I can remember, I'd answer the phone when it rang even if the caller ID showed it was a church member.

I'd return texts.

I'd read emails received from the church.

On several occasions, I would hear about the death of a church member and spend more than a few hours in funeral preparation during my scheduled vacation.

Not anymore.

From now on, I'm really taking my breaks.

No more returning texts.

No more checking church related emails.

I'll check my voice mail when folks call.  If there is a major emergency that requires my attention, I'll return the call. 

Back in the "good ol' days" one could check out.  Leave.  If you wanted to leave a contact number, you did so, but if you weren't staying at a family member's house or a particular location, folks had to wait until you returned.  Vacation was truly vacation.  You could really take a break.

It's back to the good ol' days for me from here on out. 

When you've encountered burnout, you have to do it.  You really need your breaks.  They turn into times of healing that way instead of continuing the process of working--even when hundreds of miles away.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Happy Independence Day

This country is going to hell.

At least that seems to be the message one gets if one listens to much of the media coverage of politics.

The right side of the political spectrum believes we're heading into socialism.

The left side believes corporations have bought the government and everything decision is made to benefit the 1%.

Web sites pay folks to scan through all the headlines of local and national papers to come up with the most outrageous ways freedom has been limited or abused.  The new normal is to uplift the abnormal.

It's led to quite an interesting dynamic within the good ol' United States of America. 

I've talked a few times in this blog about the relativity of truth and its consequences, and such relativity, in my estimation also impacts the psyche of a nation.

For you see, in my opinion, relativity has had a major impact on the "American Dream."  From Wikipedia:

The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States; a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement" regardless of social class or circumstances of birth.

Now a days, if you ask six people to define the "American Dream" you will get six different answers.  The relativists among us would celebrate the diversity of the definitions and tell us to appreciate the cultural nuances that impact each definition.  They would, of course, say there isn't a wrong way or a right way to define the "American Dream."  And, lest I leave anyone out, there are those who would say we need to trash the "American Dream" for something more equitable and just since a good portion of our society doesn't ever get the chance to realize such a dream.

There is a problem with such a diverse understanding of what it means to have the American Dream.  When there is no agreed upon definition of such a dream, and there is no clear way to define what is right and what is wrong, it leads to competing groups striving to impose or achieve their own understanding of this dream.  And when those competing visions clash--it isn't pretty.

In the long run, it leads to nastiness.  In the mid 1800's, it led to war.  In our time, it leads to severe distrust, anger, frustration, and a whole lot of protests--which in actuality do very little to change the status quo--which of course leads to more distrust, anger, and frustration.

Is it possible for the U.S. to have a solidified vision of the American Dream?  Is it possible for the U.S. to grasp a picture of the future where all the diversity within the nation is unified in a common goal or understanding? 

Maybe.

In the midst of the celebrations today, maybe it'd be good to pause for a few moments to think about the possibilities of such a dream.  Maybe it would be good to reflect upon how our nation could once again get passed the red state/blue state ideological divide.  Maybe it would be good to reflect upon how we can grasp an idea of an American Dream that galvanizes our resolve to lead the world and be a picture of the land of the free and the home of the brave--a place that leads in the example of human rights and possibilities.

I take great pride in being a citizen of the U.S.A.  I'm proud to celebrate this nation's birthday today.  I hope to leave it just a little better once I am gone.  It's a responsibility I feel since I've been privileged to live here. 

Happy Independence Day.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Christian Generosity

There is a story that I came across many years ago about two brothers. These brothers each lived on the family farm and raised crops for a living. One brother never married and had no children. He was content to be a bachelor and live a life of solitude. The other brother married and was blessed with four children. The families were close and spent much time together.

One evening, the single brother thought to himself, "I live a blessed life. I have more than I will ever need to see me through my years on earth, but my poor brother. He has four children to take care of and provide for. It’s not fair that I have so much abundance and he has to struggle. I know what I will do. I will sneak out during one night per week. I will take a bag of my grain and give it to him so that he will have extra to provide for his children."

And the brother did exactly that.

On the other hand, the married brother thought to himself one day, "I am blessed beyond measure. I have four strong children who love and care for my wife and I. They will help me expand my farm operation, and they will take care of me when I am no longer able to work because of old age. But my poor brother. He has no one to look after him or help him with the farm work. He will have no one to take care of him when he is no longer able to work. I know what I will do. One night a week, I will take him a bag of grain so that he may have extra money to save for the future when he has no one to care for him."

And the married brother did just that.

Over time, both brothers were very surprised to see that their stores of grain remained unchanged. Both kept this knowledge secret from one another for fear that each would become upset.

Yet, as fate would have it, one night, both brothers met as they were carrying sacks of grain to each other’s house. Immediately they recognized what had been taking place and how each brother had thought about the other’s need. They embraced one another deeply and returned home knowing they would never want as long as each was alive.

This story popped into my head this week as I read through our second lesson from the book of 2 Corinthians chapter 8. In this chapter, Paul is encouraging the church in Corinth to remember its fellow churches in Jerusalem. As best as we can reconstruct from history and the tenor of this letter, the church in Jerusalem had fallen on very hard times. There had been a drought in Israel, and it decimated the income of the church there. The Christians were in dire need.

The church in Corinth was, by all accounts, a pretty wealthy church–or at least it had more than a few members who had means. This church wanted for nothing in that regard.

Paul saw the need in Jerusalem. He saw the abundance in Corinth, and he believed it was a match made in heaven. He asked the church in Corinth to share their wealth and give to the church in Jerusalem. As we look at the text, we will see that Paul is not commanding them to do so. In verse 8, Paul says, "I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others." Paul wants to see just how deep the faith of the church in Corinth runs. He wants to see if they are willing not only to talk the talk about being Christian, but he wants to see if they will indeed walk the walk. Will they seek to use the spiritual gift of generosity? That is what Paul wants to see, and he begins to argue why they should.

First off, Paul reminds them of what Jesus did for them. In verse 9, Paul says, "For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." Jesus died on the cross for those of us who are Christian. He gave His entire life for us to save us from sin and death. He did so without cost to you and me. This gift Christ gave was free. Paul reminds us of this, and by doing essentially says, "This is the price your Lord paid for you, can you remain selfish knowing what Christ was willing to give?"

Then, Paul hits them with the second reason they should give. Verse 10 and 11 reads, " 10And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something— 11now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means." In the previous year, apparently the Corinthians had talked about sending a gift to help out the folks in Jerusalem. They may have even sent a little bit, but Paul tells them, "Finish the job. It doesn’t reflect well on you to say you’ll do something and maybe even do a little bit of it and then quit. The Church of Jesus Christ doesn’t look good when it only does something half way or just gives lip service to what it thinks it should do. Words are cheap. Actions are not. Just do it."

Finally, Paul combats that worry that still arises today in many churches and Christian households. "What if we give and then we need later? Shouldn’t we just save for a rainy day?" Paul says this is not the way of faith. Faith takes a different path. Beginning in verse 13, "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between 14your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. 15As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’" Put another way, "The church in Jerusalem has a need. You have the means. Help out. A day may come when the situation is reversed. You may be in need. The church in Jerusalem has means. They will help you out. Such is the way of Christ. We care for one another in our times of need. We rely on God to provide even if He uses other churches–and other people–to take care of things. Saving for a rainy day is not an option. Caring for your brothers and sisters in Christ who are in need is the only option."

Perhaps this is a very good lesson for you and me as well as we read through this text from 2 Corinthians. It helps us understand why we stay connected to the church–not only with each other here, but to the church at large. We are mutually caring for one another as Christ cared for us. And we are setting an example of how a community can live out the reality of heaven on earth–where all rely upon God and have what they need. And how does that look?

I am reminded of another story I heard long ago. It’s one I’ve shared with you before but will share again. One day, a man was approached by God. God asked the man what knowledge he would like to have. The man said, "Show me what heaven and hell are like."

God asked, "What would you like to see first?"

The man replied, "Hell."

In a flash, God and the man stood in a large banquet hall. A feast was laid out with all the most succulent dishes. The freshest fruits were surrounded by the finest cuts of meat. Steam rose from the most delicious vegetables. The most gorgeous desserts were scattered throughout the table.

The man thought to himself, "This doesn’t look too bad."

When dinner time arrived, the guests of hell walked in. Immediately, the man noticed something odd about the residents. They had no elbows! All sat at the table. At the Devil’s command, they began trying to eat, but because they could not bend their arms, the residents of hell kept shoveling the food onto the floor. No one could eat a single bite. None were ever satisfied at this banquet of food.

After watching this scene in horror, the man cried to God, "Enough, please show me heaven."

In a flash, God and the man were taken to another place. It was exactly as it looked in hell. There was the same banquet hall; the same food; the same chairs; the same table; the same everything! The man was astounded.

He was further floored when the residents of heaven walked in. They too had no elbows! Confused, the man looked at God. God just winked.

After all sat at the table and gave thanks to God, the residents of heaven began to eat. But there was a major difference between heaven and hell. In heaven, the residents fed each other.

Now go, and do likewise. Amen.