Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Church Being the Church

I know I shouldn't marvel at it.

I know I should expect it.

But every time it happens, I get this deep swelling sense of pride that I belong to an institution--actually it's more than that--a body of people who care for others and come through time and again and again.  The consistency that I see in my congregation with helping others is nothing short of marvelous.

We were hit the weekend of Thanksgiving with the news that one of our young members had contracted a staph infection that went sceptic.  Within 36 hours of the first phone call I received, the 27 year old had died.  It hit the congregation pretty hard.  For most of us, a young person dying seems pretty senseless, and most folks knew that the family who suffered this loss also lost a daughter tragically years ago.  Grief was heaped upon grief.  Old wounds that never fully healed were opened once again.

But that was just part of the story.  The family who lost their son was not a family of means by any stretch.  They make too much to be on any government assistance, but they don't make enough to take care of all the things they needed to take care of--like so many families in our nation now.  When tragedy strikes, and money is required to pay for services (hospitalization, funeral expenses, etc.) there are no savings to dip into.  There's nothing.  Nada.  Zip.  Not only is there grief, there is tremendous stress financially as well.

The congregation I serve responded immediately.  Hours upon hearing the news, we had already set in motion the wheels to cover the family's funeral costs.  They did nothing exuberant.  They chose cremation.  The local funeral home worked with them to help them out.  (Right now, I'm going to give a shout out to all our local funeral homes that I've worked with here: Knesek in Sealy and Bellville, Schmidt in Bellville, and Henneke in Columbus.  These folks are tremendously good folks.  They aren't corporate, and they each have a heart and compassion for the folks they work with.  They aren't after as much as they can get from grieving families, and I'm proud to know and work with each of them.)  The expenses for the services amounted to right at $3,300.  That's pretty inexpensive for funeral services, but it was still much more than the family could afford.

In less than a week, contributions amounting to $2,300 have already come in.  More is on the way that I know of.  I don't anticipate contributions to fall short, but even if they do, the congregation council has already agreed to cover the rest through our community care fund. 

Compassion.  Generosity.  Caring.  Without a second thought.

Time and again, I have seen this from this congregation.  Time and again, I am thankful for their response to such matters in life.  I am proud to serve as their pastor and humbled by their example. 

For my congregation members who read this may I have the audacity to quote Jesus, "Well done good and faithful servants!"

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Evolution of a Pastor

Yesterday, I discovered something about myself.  Something I didn't anticipate.  And in the strangest of places.

At a funeral service.  The service at which yesterday's post was preached.

As part of the services I offer for those who are deceased, I invite the family to choose someone to give a tribute.  It's similar to a eulogy.  Usually, I've had no issues or problems.  Once or twice, someone's gotten a bit carried away, and I've felt hackles rising on the back of my neck.

Yesterday, that almost happened again.  The family had chosen one of their relatives to offer a tribute, and I must say, he did a great job.  But there was a last minute discovery.  The young man had journaled and written a prayer.  His mom wanted that prayer read at the funeral, and they asked a friend of the family to read that prayer.  The friend was not an ordinary friend: he was a Southern Baptist preacher.

Now, in my neck of the woods, the Southern Baptist tribe of Christianity handles things in a very particular fashion.  They are who they are, and even though they are my brothers and sisters in Christ, there are more than a few things I disagree with them on.  This is not the time to go into those issues, and for the most part they have no bearing on the Truth that we each proclaim Christ, we each desire to fulfill the Great Commission, and we each desire to reach out with the Good News of Jesus Christ.  We each have very different methodologies of doing so; however.

The preacher began with these words or something very similar, "Pastor Haug, you might think about being a little more careful about who you let say a few words in your church."

The hackles began their slow rise.  After all, I am slow to anger, and this was a family choice--not my own.  However, the hackles still started to stand at attention because the family had simply asked him to read a prayer; not preach a sermon.

Yet, this man had his way of doing things.  He sincerely believed he had a call to preach God's Word, as I sincerely believe I have a call to preach God's Word.  He read the prayer, and then launched into his mini-sermon.  (I have to give him credit in that he kept it relatively short--for a Southern Baptist.)  Oh were there some moments in there that would have made me cringe in the past.  "I believe in the triune God, and I believe in the Bible and it's complete inerrancy.  There are no contradictions in the Bible, and it is perfect."  "If you ever wondered if you were a sinner, I'm telling you, you are.  All have fallen short of the glory of God."  "Jonathan's in a better place, and I'm not mad about that.  I'm mad that he got to go there before I did because it's such a wonderful place.  He wouldn't want to come back here, that's for sure."  "Make sure you believe in Jesus so that you can go there too."

For those of you who read my sermon yesterday, you know this is not how I handle such moments.  You saw clearly articulated the theology I believe and preach to families and loved ones and strangers who are grieving the loss of someone who died way too soon.  The contrast between the theology I believe I have been led to articulate and the other preacher's theology is stark.  A few years ago, I would have been steaming mad at this guy's audacity to preach such doctrine in "my" congregation.

But something has happened to me.  Something that has changed me from deep within.  I realized it yesterday about half way through the Baptist preacher's commentary.  I've evolved into something different than I was.  I hope it is a good thing.

For as the anger started to rise, there came two thoughts--two things which helped me relax and be at peace.

The first thought was, "Who are you to say what should and should not be preached in a church at a given time.  This isn't "your" church, it's God's church.  There is a very high probability that there is someone sitting in that congregation this day who needed to hear the words this man is preaching.  While you may not agree with them; while you may detest them, there is at least one--perhaps many who find comfort and solace in such thoughts.  It is a good thing he is speaking."

The second thought was, "Let him preach what he needs to say.  You have the pulpit next.  You have been given words.  Preach them.  Folks will hear and see the contrast.  If there are unchurched people out there, if the other preacher's words were unsatisfying to them, yours will cover it.  Don't be threatened by others who preach, be confident in your own calling to preach God's Word.  It's not up to you to convince people one way or the other.  It's the Spirit's."

The Word was proclaimed yesterday.  Dare I say that I perhaps proclaimed it better?  Oh, there is a part of me which would really, really like to say that.  There is a part of me that would gloat and say in a childish fashion, "My theology and sermon was better than yours."  But that's quite immature.  That's not what God intends out of His people.  Perhaps a few years ago, I would make such comments without a second thought.

But not now.

What God intended for everyone else at the funeral by having two sermons yesterday, I do not know.

What I do know is that God showed me I do not need to be threatened, and that I can embrace something that once would have made me quite angry.  Whether or not this a good thing in the long run, I do not know, but I do know I am not the same as I once was.

I have evolved. 

Perhaps some might also say, I have grown.

I hope so.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Funeral Sermon for Jonathan Surovcak

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t be here today.
In a perfect world, parents don’t bury their children.
In a perfect world, people don’t die in their 20's.
In a perfect world, infections do not flare up and kill a person.
In a perfect world, children are not left without one of their parents.
In a perfect world, these things just wouldn’t happen.

But we do not live in a perfect world. Not by a long shot. This world that we occupy is broken, and you don’t have to look very hard to see it. Generally, it’s right in front of you–almost on a daily basis. Oh, and lest you think I am talking about the images you get through your television and computer and smart know, the images and stories of natural disasters, of famines, of murders, of robberies, and other such news items...let me say this, while those things do show the brokenness of our world, you and I know we don’t have to look at such things to see it. Evidence is right here, in this room. It’s among you in your relationships and how they play out. You see it not only in your life, but in the life of your friends and your family. You see how seemingly senseless things happen. You see how people struggle and work only to have things happen which set them back time and again and again.

Those of you who knew Jon knew this to be the case with his life particularly in the last several years. I met Jon eight years ago when I started serving this congregation, and around me, he was always quiet, unassuming, not willing to say too much or enter into too much deep conversation. He generally seemed to be a happy-go-lucky sort of guy. Shortly after I got here, he approached me about doing a wedding for him and Stephanie. I remember well the day that took place. He was truly happy. He was excited and full of joy. With the exuberance of youth and marrying someone he truly loved, the world seemed full of possibilities, full of potential, full of the thought they could accomplish whatever they dreamed of.

But it was not to be. Life became a constant struggle for Jon. He’d get a job. Generally, he was a hard worker, but he performed manual labor. And sometimes, when you work manual labor, your body takes a beating. Jon’s did. He required several surgeries, and surgeries plus recovery time meant an inability to work. An inability to work meant an inability to get paid. An inability to get paid meant an inability to pay bills, and that makes life tough. Really tough, especially when you are trying to provide for a family. Jon seemed to catch a break. Just when he’d get a job, something happened where he got hurt. It was a vicious, vicious cycle, and it cost him–it cost him dearly.

In a perfect world, your body doesn’t break down when you are working.
In a perfect world, parents can provide for their children.
In a perfect world, bills get paid and families enjoy plenty.
In a perfect world, relationships don’t get broken.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Jon experienced all of those things, and it hurt him deeply. Life spun out of control. He made some poor decisions. Things caught up with him, and even his body spun out of control. In a one in a million chance, he developed an infection that took his life. And so, we are here today, grieving. Grieving the loss of a man all too soon. Grieving the loss of potential. Grieving the loss of a second chance. Grieving the fact that we live in a broken, broken world.

And the sad part to this tale is the very fact that we have been unable to fix this broken world. Despite all the technological/scientific advances; despite the billions of dollars spent to end poverty and hunger and cancer and depression and give us protection; despite the insights into human behavior and psychology and the medications we can now get for such matters, we still haven’t come close to fixing what is wrong with the world. And so we grieve that we cannot even fix this broken, broken world.

And sometimes, at such times, we ask ourselves, "Is this it? Are we destined to live in this broken, broken world with no hope of things getting better? Are we destined to stay on that horrible treadmill of struggle without the possibility of fixing things?

No. That would be called despair. Some people accept this as a possibility, but people of faith do not.
People of faith cling to something that sometimes fades, something that sometimes becomes extremely faint, something that sometimes seems to disappear altogether, but when looked for is found. And sometimes when it is found, it blossoms into a solid foundation on which our lives are founded–a foundation which helps us walk through this broken, broken world. That something is called hope.

For you see, hope is the eternal voice of the Church. It is the message of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christians believe that Jesus entered into this broken, broken world to show that God loves it; God cherishes it; God wishes to save it and redeem it and bring it into a new place, a place of beauty, a place of perfection. Because we as human beings cannot fix this broken, broken world, God set in motion a plan to redeem it and restore it into what it should be. The major step in this process was sending God’s only begotten Son, Jesus the Christ, into the world–not to condemn the world but to save it. And how did Jesus do it? Jesus, took on our flesh. Jesus took on our blood. Jesus suffered just like you and I suffer. Jesus died, just like you and I will die. Jesus went through agony to show us that God understands our suffering. God knows what it means to lose a child. God knows what it means to be battered and bloody and bruised. God knows what it means to do everything right and still find yourself hated and despised. Yes, God knows our suffering and our pain, but there was more to it than this. There was the resurrection. There was the gift of eternal life and the promise of more to come.

The disciple John described what is to come in the words of Revelation 21-the text we read just a few moments earlier, and in this text, he paints a picture of what will happen on that day when God fixes this broken, broken world: the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Everything that caused suffering; everything that caused death; everything that caused hurt and pain and agony will be taken away, and God will rule over all with peace; with justice; with mercy; and with love. These things are trustworthy and true for a person of faith. And in this place, God will gather all the saints of every time and place. God will gather Jonathan and Tiffany and all those who have gone before. God will reunite us with them, and we will live in a world as it should be. This is our hope! A hope that Jonathan now experiences.

"But," you may object, "how does this help us now? How does it make this world any better? How does this help us deal with our grief
and our sorrow
and our pain
and our suffering
and our difficulty
and our troubles?

Are we just supposed to sit and wait for all of this pie in the sky? What about right here and right now?

People of faith do not just hope for this reality–they try to live it. People of faith believe God is present with them now. People of faith believe that God dwells with us now. People of faith believe God empowers us to bring that reality to a world that desperately needs it. People of faith believe that God uses them–their hands, their fingers–to wipe the tears from people’s eyes now. To show compassion now. To show mercy now. To bring justice now. To do all of these things imperfectly, but as a fore-taste of the hope which is to come.

Today, we grieve in an imperfect world. We grieve the loss of a loved one and friend, but God has empowered us to wipe each other’s tears this day and in the days to come. God has made His presence known to us through Jesus Christ. God has painted a picture of a reality in which we will one day share when this broken world becomes perfect. And so, yes, we grieve, but we do not despair. Instead, we live in hope. Amen.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: No Fact Check Needed

What is truth?

That was Pilate’s question to Jesus. It’s an age old question apparently.

Mercifully, the election season ended on November 6th of this year, and for at least a few months, we will be spared television ads and radio adds from politicians striving to get our votes in any way, shape, or form they are able. Intriguingly enough, in the past several years, a new phenomenon has arisen: the Fact-checkers. These folks supposedly look at what candidates for office say, and then research whether or not they are telling the truth. Of course, in the last election, you had folks fact checking the fact checkers as well. It was quite interesting as I studied and reflected upon what was going on throughout the election cycle.

I actually even blogged about it at one point, and I asked the question, "Why do we need fact checkers?" I mean honestly, why do we need folks to take the time to ascertain whether or not someone is telling the truth? Has lying become an acceptable thing in our culture? In a word, yes. Yes it has. And despite the fact checkers, someone can still lie and get away with it without recourse.

After one of the debates and listening to what the candidates’ had said, I decided to do a bit of fact checking myself. I decided to dig into one of the issues that had arisen. Now, I’m keeping the exact issue under wraps at this time because I’m not in the dissing one particular candidate or the other mode. There’s no place for that in a sermon, but there is a place for truth. And I eventually discovered the truth. I found one candidate’s original words on a topic and discovered those words had been warped and twisted by the other candidate in a gross and inappropriate manner. Simply put, a candidate lied boldly and without remorse simply to get elected. And what chapped me even more was the fact checkers didn’t check the lie appropriately.

"What is wrong here?" I thought to myself. "Why is this lying taking place? Why have we come to accept it? Why do we continually elect people to office who we know to be untruthful? Who we know are not being fully honest with us or with one another? What has happened to truth, to honesty, and to integrity?"

Jesus stood before Pilate and unabashedly said, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." Pilate asked him, ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Here’s an interesting tidbit for you. In the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the word truth appears 95 times in the New Testament. Of those 95 times, the writer of John uses the word truth 21 times–nearly 1/4 of the times the word truth appears. All throughout the Gospel of John, Jesus talks about bringing the truth from the Father, and in one very famous text, Jesus says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except by me."

Jesus was not ashamed of the truth. Jesus spoke the truth without reservation, without concern to what would happen to Him. In John chapter 6, it cost him many who had followed Him. He also famously said in John chapter 8, "If you are truly my disciples, you will continue in my Word, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free." Of the four gospels, John blatantly and purposely holds the truth before our faces no matter the cost to himself.

Perhaps this is what separates Jesus from politicians, from used car salesmen, and from ourselves. For, I think if we are honest enough with ourselves, we find that we too stretch the truth. We too are not always honest in what we say and how we outline the facts. For you see, most of us want to paint a nice portrait of ourselves. Most of us want to be liked. Most of us don’t want to get ourselves in trouble. Case in point my willingness earlier in this sermon to refrain from talking about which candidate said what. We don’t necessarily want to offend anyone else. We want to be well thought of, and so we refrain from speaking the truth.

One more case in point, is there any man here who when asked by a woman, "Does this dress make me look fat?" would actually tell the truth?  I think I made my point right there.  God forbid that anyone ever come up with the ability to fact check our true thoughts and feelings. For then, all hell might break loose. Someone might even get angry enough to kill us.  Can you imagine the woman who just asked that question fact checking the guy's thoughts?  "Wait a second here, let me look at the telestrator on your forehead....hmmm...'Yes, it does, and you could stand to lose a few pounds.'  Where's my frying pan?!!!"

What is truth? For many of us, it’s whatever makes us look better in the sight of others or makes us feel better about ourselves. It’s whatever helps us to get what we want or perceive we need. For many of us, it’s a willingness to say just enough without revealing what we really feel or think.

For that’s exactly what happened to Jesus, wasn’t it? That’s exactly what took place when Jesus unabashedly and unashamedly proclaimed the truth, wasn’t it? Jesus came into the world to announce the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. He proclaimed forgiveness of sins to those who repent. He ate with rich and poor, those considered clean and unclean, those who were considered saint and sinner. He proclaimed
God’s goodness to those who were both near and far away. He proclaimed that all needed forgiveness and all needed to forgive each other. He pointed out hypocrisy. He refused to compromise on what was right or shirk His mission from His heavenly Father. And it led to the cross. It led to His death. No wonder more people don’t tell the truth. It very well could lead to death.

Which is why Jesus is the perfect King of kings and Lord of lords. He did not come to this world to please everyone. He did not come to this world to make everyone like Him. He did not come to this world to seize power and lord it over anyone and everyone. He came to reveal to us the fullness of God’s love. He came to reveal how God’s kingdom operates: how there is healing, how there is forgiveness, how there is compassion, how there is generosity, and hope. He came to serve and humble himself, emptying himself and being obedient unto death, even death on a cross. And it is by that death that our King brought to each and every one of us true freedom–freedom from fear–freedom from death. Our King died so that we might live and have full confidence that God will care for us and provide for us no matter what happens in this life.

"What is truth?" Pilate asked.

Pilate couldn’t see that the truth was standing right in front of him. Pilate missed it.

On this Christ the King Sunday, may your eyes be opened so that you don’t. Amen.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

One Month and Counting

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.  No blogging tomorrow or for the rest of the weekend.  Time for giving thanks to God, spending time with family, and quietly slipping out into the woods to hunt.  Hope everyone enjoys the day and resists the temptation to cut into family time to go shopping at Wal-Mart, Target, and all those other retailers who are more concerned with their bottom line than honoring the holiday.

And when you are celebrating, may you not worry one whit that today marks one month until the supposed doomsday apocalypse according to some readings/misreadings of the Mayan calendar.

I mean, honestly, who really gives a darn about this stuff?  Who really worries about such doomsday predictions?  Oh, I know there are a few people out there who seem to get really worked up about the end of the world and all the catastrophe that is supposed to take place, but really.  I mean, take these two statements of truth home with you:


Yep, you got it.  Every catastrophic prediction given by fanatics in science and religion has been wrong.  Every so often someone comes up with some dire prediction (usually associated with zeroes in the yearly date, but not always) from God telling someone the end will occur on such and such a date (Harold Camping) to the earth is heading into another ice age (Global cooling in the '70's), and every time, those folks have been wrong.  Out of the millions of such predictions, no one's gotten it right.  Take comfort in that.  Of course, one of these days, someone is actually going to get it right, and the end of the world will occur, but it will be a random chance prediction--nothing that is absolute.  You'd likely have a better chance of taking a deck of cards, shuffling them thoroughly, and then dealing four perfect hands--giving all four players every card in each suit, than predicting the end of the world.


Face it, if the world were ending, there's nothing you can do to stop it.  If it is the sun going supernova; if it is a massive movement of the tectonic plates; if it is Christ's return, there's nothing you can do about it.  You're not going to head things off at the pass.  You're going to get burned to a crisp, drowned in a tsunami, taken up to heaven, or what have you in whatever scenario takes place.  If the end of the world occurs, you are going to die.  So am I.  The real question is whether or not you are prepared to die.  Are you afraid of death?  It is both a blessing and a curse that we humans have the ability to contemplate our own demise.  Some worry endlessly about it.  Others, not so much.  As people of faith, we should know better.  The only reason I fear death and would like to put it off for some time is my desire to be there for my family and help provide for them until they are able to do so for themselves.  Time and again, I have preached that death is not the end for those of us with faith, and I have seen time and again those with strong faith face death with peace.  Essentially, we are powerless in the matter of death.  It will happen.  It is unavoidable.  It is better to make peace with this reality.  Once peace is established, life becomes sweeter.

In some ways, this particular end of the world story wouldn't even be a story if it were not for a media which continually likes to keep people scared and angry.  In my humble opinion, there's a bit too much of these emotions running around.  In my humble opinion, such scare tactics belong to Halloween or in the movie theaters--places where reality is checked at the door and we live in fantasy for a few moments or hours. 

Life is a wonderful gift from God.  There are too many good things to marvel at, to be filled with joy by, to ponder deeply in one's heart, and to reflect in silent wonder upon.  May these things fill your heart and mind this Thanksgiving, and may anger and fear disappear for more than a few moments in the coming week, months, and years afterward.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Changed Life, A Changed Perspective

When you look death right in the eye, your perspective changes. --Kevin Haug

Well, perhaps I didn't coin the phrase, but I did a Google search and didn't find any attribution.  Let it stand for the time being. 

I said this a week ago today standing and visiting with one of my church members who just recently lost her husband to cancer.  Life has changed substantially for her--as it does for most everyone who loses a spouse.

For, you see, when people join together in family units, they take on roles.  They take on responsibilities.  A pattern develops as they go through life performing a sort of dance.  One may cook while the other cleans.  One may handle the discipline while the other handles the nurture and care.  One may handle the finances while the other handles upkeep and maintenance on the building.  One may handle the indoor chores while the other handles the outdoor stuff.  One may handle roughhousing with the kids while the other handles the delicate matters that arise with interpersonal relationships.  Most unconsciously ease into such roles, and the dance becomes seamless.  Oftentimes, folks don't even think about such matters.  They are just doing it, and it works.

The death of a spouse destroys all those roles and responsibilities.  Suddenly, one spouse is left to take care of all such matters.  Life changes, and it changes drastically.  And when you've walked your spouse through that dark valley and stood by his or her side when she draws that final breath, not only is your life going to change, so is your perspective about life.

Suddenly, things that once seemed major are minor.  Things that used to cause angst and worry are meaningless.  Listening to coworkers and friends gripe about not having anything to do on Friday evening or how someone is making rude comments on their Facebook wall become like nails on a chalkboard. 

"Really?" you ask yourself.  "Is this what consumes your thoughts?  Is this all you have to complain about in life?"

When you deal with life and death matters, such items become trivial...meaningless...a waste of mental energy.

There are more important things in life.  Unfortunately, death has a way of bringing those things to the front.

I've walked with more than a few folks through this process.  I've stood by the bedside of members who died.  I've looked death in the eye more than a few times.  Every time gives me pause.  Every time gives me an opportunity to rethink my own priorities.  Every time I commend someone's spirit to God, on the way home, I cannot wait to grab my children, hold them tight, hug my wife, and spend some time being a better husband and dad.  I worry less about politics and natural disasters and how the Dallas Cowboys are playing (yes, I am aware of the link between the last two of those items).  Such matters are out of my control.  Such matters will always be around.  Such matters really matter less when one considers they have little impact on one's life--at least compared to the impact one's family, friends, and relationship with God has on one's life.

Such matters become paramount.  All the rest fades away. 

Unfortunately, you have to look death in the face for this to happen.  I hate to see people whose lives are thrown into upheaval because of such a thing, but I rejoice when they hold onto hope; when their faith is made stronger; and when they receive a new perspective on life. 

When you look death in the face, it changes your perspective.

Hopefully, for the better.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: Do Not Be Alarmed

Several years ago, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks did a comedy skit called the "2013 Year Old Man". In the skit, Reiner interviews Brooks, who is the old gentleman. At one point, Reiner asks the old man, "Did you always believe in the Lord?"

Brooks replied: "No. We had a guy in our village named Phil, and for a time we worshiped him."

Reiner: You worshiped a guy named Phil? Why?

Brooks: Because he was big, and mean, and he could break you in two with his bare hands!

Reiner: Did you have prayers?

Brooks: Yes, would you like to hear one? O Phil, please don't be mean, and hurt us, or break us in two with your bare hands.

Reiner: So when did you start worshiping the Lord?

Brooks: Well, one day a big thunderstorm came up, and a lightning bolt hit Phil. We gathered around and saw that he was dead. Then we said to one another, "There's somthin' bigger than Phil!"

There’s indeed something bigger than Phil. There’s something bigger than you or me. There’s something bigger than this church. There’s something bigger than our world. There’s something bigger than our universe. There’s something bigger, and those of us who believe know this something to be God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is something outside ourselves, completely other, completely unknowable except for the fact that He chose to reveal Himself to us through His actions and particularly through His Son, Jesus Christ. There is something with enough power to raise a dead man from the grave and change the course of history through that action. There is something bigger than Phil.

There is something bigger than the temple in Jerusalem–the same temple the disciples were admiring recorded in our Gospel lesson today from the book of Mark. They were impressed. The temple complex was huge. We can see pictures of the size of the boulders that were used when we pull up pictures of the wailing wall in Jerusalem today. Massive is a good word to use. Impressive feat that they moved those things without the aid of the heavy equipment we use today. They constructed this massive building–God’s house on earth, and there were apparently other large buildings right next to it. The disciples gawked and pointed this stuff out to Jesus.

But Jesus wasn’t impressed. Jesus wasn’t moved by the sight of those stones. Jesus knew there was something bigger. He, himself and the things He was doing were more impressive than those buildings. Jesus, in an almost flippant manner dismisses the disciples’ amazement. "Do you see those stones? Not one will be left upon another. All will be thrown down."

I’m sure this got the disciples’ attention. I am sure of it because Mark tells just that once they got Jesus off alone, they asked Him, "Lord, when is this stuff going to happen?"

Then, Jesus lets it rip. "Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is the beginning of the birth pangs."

There is something bigger than this world, and one day, He’s coming back. There will be an end to history. There will be an end to this time and space. And here are a few things to watch for.

Nation rises against nation.

Kingdom rises against kingdom.

There will be earthquakes.

There will be famines.

And this is just the beginning.

Usually, at this point someone is always willing to point to certain goings on around the world. "Pastor, this past week Israel bombed the Gaza strip, and there is a rising of nation against nation out there. We’ve seen and heard about a lot of earthquakes recently. Scientists tell us global warming will lead to famine. Is this the beginning of the end. Don’t you think we are living in the end times? Should we be worried?"

My response: We’ve been living in the end times for a long time. Nations have always risen up against nations. Kingdoms have always risen up against kingdoms. There have always been earthquakes. And as we look at the globe, we know that somewhere is always experiencing a famine. These signs have always been around. But why ask if we should be worried?

I mean don’t gloss over those four words Jesus spoke in the midst of His response to His disciples. They are right there in verse seven. They are plain as day, "Do not be alarmed."

Do not be alarmed.

But how? How can we not be alarmed? How can we not be worried? How can we not be anxious? All this stuff is bad. War is bad. Killing is bad. Famine is bad.

Yes. You are right, but there is something bigger. There is someone bigger than all that stuff. There is someone bigger than war. There is someone bigger than killing. There is someone bigger than famine. There is someone bigger than death itself. And the real question is: how much do we trust Him and His promises?
Let me ask that again: how much do you trust God and His promises?

This is the key question.

Do you trust Him when He says He sent Jesus into the world to die for you and your sins?

Do you trust Him when He says that because of Jesus death and resurrection, He has adopted you as a son or a daughter?

Do you trust Him when He says that because you are His son or His daughter that He has prepared a place for you; that you will share in eternal life with Jesus THE Son?

Do you trust Him when He says seek first God’s kingdom, and then all the things that you need will be granted unto you?

Do you trust God so much that you don’t worry about politics or elections or war or famine or destruction or buildings or what have you? Do you believe that He’s bigger than all that stuff? Do you believe God has your back and will take care of you? There’s something bigger than Phil. Indeed there is, and so let us trust and act on Jesus’ words, "Do not be alarmed." Amen.

Friday, November 16, 2012

When to Help and When to Stop

As Christians, I believe it is our calling to care for our neighbor.  Jesus was about as clear as a bell on that teaching.  No one I know of argues about that teaching.  Folks just have different ways of implementing it.

Sometimes, I wish Jesus had been a little more specific in His teachings.  I wish He'd have given a few more guidelines and helpful hints like: "help your neighbor when he is in need, but don't let him take advantage of you."  Or, "Give to everyone who is in need, but you don't have to give them everything they want."  Or, "When it becomes obvious your neighbor is trying to take advantage of  your good nature, gently tell them you will not help them anymore."

Such teachings would be immensely helpful when working with people who ask for assistance.

Our congregation has a community care fund, and we aren't bashful about helping folks out.  Not only do we help our own members, but we unhesitatingly help out those in the community who seek out help with rent, utilities, food, or even medical expenses.  I think the vast majority of my members are very proud of this ministry and our willingness to help others through it.

But it can be trying.  Very trying.  If you have ever worked with those in need, you know very quickly how word spreads that you give assistance.  Pretty soon, you get repeat customers, and that's where things begin to get sticky.   Sometimes those folks get pretty demanding, and sometimes even nasty in their responses.

I  had one woman who had asked for assistance four or five times.  The last time she submitted a request, she started having friends call the church to try to influence us.  Finally, she had some guy call who said he was "calling a lawyer in New York city" to sue us and make us pay her bills.  She didn't get assistance.

Recently, I've had another lady request funds.  Our congregation has already helped her with rent twice.  We've given $540 of assistance.  Nary did we receive a thank you or a "God bless you for your assistance."  Not that we are looking for such things, but they reveal the character of the one you help.  This month, she submitted a request for $595.  Apparently, she was no longer receiving unemployment benefits and rental assistance.  Her landlord had jacked up the price of her rent to its normal cost, and she wanted us to pay it. 

My secretary fielded the call, and the lady didn't even say please or address her in a pleasant tone of voice.  It ran right in line with the previous time when she called and said, "I need y'all to pay my rent."   Not only was she manner less, she lied.  She said we had only helped her once before.  When confronted with the facts (and the knowledge that we had her requests on file), she suddenly remembered.  In the conversation, my secretary said it became almost blatantly obvious this woman had obtained a job only to garner her first paycheck so that she could re-apply for unemployment.

Assist or not?

Jesus said, "Give to everyone who begs." 

I try to honor His teachings.  On behalf of my congregation, I do not want them held accountable for sinning when they know what Jesus said.

But I'll be d@mned if I'm going to continue to help someone game the system.

I approved $50.  That's it.  Some will say it's too much, but, again, I'm letting Jesus guide here, not my own desires to tell her to find help someone else.  Plus, I can't lie and say we don't have the funds to help.  We do.  Two sins don't make something right.

My secretary called the woman and told her we could help to the tune of $50.  She was pissed.  Probably not as much that we were only giving $50, but because she got caught in what she was doing.  Tough. 

There comes a time when a person has to realize that giving help can make another dependent upon you.  There comes a time when a person has to realize that the selfish nature of humankind will arise and try to take advantage of people of good natures.  There comes a time when the best way to help another person is to stop helping and force that person to take the initiative to care for themselves.

Sometimes its tough to discern that point.  Sometimes it's hard because it seems so contrary to what Jesus calls us to do.  Yet, I do believe that one truly sometimes loves one's neighbor by telling that neighbor no.  I think in this case, it was appropriate.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Funeral Sermon for Clarence Himly: WWII Vet and Uber-Generous Guy

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
About a month or two ago, I walked into Crossroads and sat down on one of the stools at the bar. Clarence was there, and he wanted to talk. I’d had several opportunities to visit with him since he’d moved back to Cat Spring. On several of those occasions, he talked about missing Irene and Jannette. Losing two people in one lifetime who you loved deeply takes a toll. But on this particular day, Clarence wanted to talk about something else, something that brought him great joy.

"Pastor," he said, "let me tell you something. I enjoy giving. It makes me happy." He then talked about an incident that happened right there in Crossroads. A family had come in, and they had a little girl with them. She was hungry. She wanted a snack, but mom and dad didn’t have money to pay for it. She really wanted something, but time and again, her folks said, "No. We don’t have money for it." Clarence said he felt for that little girl, so he reached into his wallet and paid for that little girl to have a snack. Clarence said, "You should have seen the look on that little girl’s face, Pastor. It was worth every penny. It really made me feel good. I’ve been blessed, Pastor, very blessed. I’ve got plenty to share, and it makes me feel good, and it makes others feel good too." And Clarence meant what he said.

Somewhere along the line in his life, Clarence discovered what it meant to be generous. He discovered how blessed he was and how he could make a difference in the lives of others by spreading that joy. He discovered how much the Lord loves a cheerful giver, as our second lesson proclaims, and Clarence discovered the tremendous blessing that God gives to those who give.

"Oh," you might say, "that was just a snack for a little girl. That wasn’t much."

Well, let me tell you a little something about Clarence as his Pastor. About six months or so ago, we decided to turn one of the rooms in the church office into a prayer room. Clarence was so enthusiastic about the idea of a prayer room that he drove up to my house, honked the horn until I came out and handed me a $1000 check to help pay for the room. He was delighted to give.

"Oh," you might say, "that was just one instance."

Well, yes, but it wasn’t the end. A few months ago, the eternal flame holder right back here broke. We needed a new one. After recommendations from the Altar Guild, Council approved the purchase of a new electric eternal flame with the cost of up to $500. A few days later, Clarence came into the church office. He left a $500 check. It was shortly after he did this that I ran into him at Crossroads and we had the conversation I began this sermon with, although I’ll add one bit that I didn’t say earlier. Clarence chewed me out in a rather nice fashion by saying, "Pastor, why did y’all approve that from the Memorial money? Why didn’t you just come to me? I’ll take care of that. You don’t need to spend that other money."

And Clarence wasn’t just saying this. He meant it. Believe it or not, just over a month ago, at our council meeting, we found that we needed some extra funds to finish out the prayer room. Council approved $1000 out of the Memorial Fund to cover those expenses. Guess who showed up and gave us another $1000 check?

Paul wrote it in 2 Corinthians. I read it earlier, but I will say it again, "The Lord loves a cheerful giver", and what Clarence discovered is that when one gives and one is generous, one is cheerful. The two run hand in hand.

Just ask Bonnie and Lisa and Sherry and Shirley and Morgan and Makenzi and Blake and Brooke and Shane and Meagan. They will tell you what PoPo did for them. They will tell you how generous he was in buying his granddaughters candy and go-karts. Ask them if he helped pay for "medical expenses" or if deer had bounties on them. They will tell you about PoPo having a dollar here or a dollar there just to give out. Why? Because, Clarence was generous. He had a kind heart and a desire to make others feel good.

Why am I emphasizing this so much this morning? Aren’t there other things that I could have spent time talking about? Couldn’t I have talked about how when he moved back to Cat Spring it took Trixie–the little dog up at Crossroads–and him a few weeks, several pairs of pants, and a pair of Dickies overall’s–to evolve into a peaceful co-existence and then a great friendship? Couldn’t I have talked about his military service and his love of country? How he served in World War II and earned three bronze crosses and how he was touched greatly by being able to attend the Veteran’s Day programs at Bellville Elementary last year? Couldn’t I have talked about his love of gardening and dancing and how he taught Bonnie to dance while listening to Lawrence Welk on Saturdays and teaching all his grand children to dance by taking them dancing when they were young? Well, yes, I could have emphasized all those things, and I guess I just did in a fashion, but I wanted to emphasize Clarence’s generosity because his generosity helps us to see God’s generosity.

For, my brothers and sisters, we who are Christian believe that God has been quite generous to us. And I’m not just talking about all the possessions and talents and money that we have. Yes, we certainly believe that God has provided us with all of these things, but God’s greatest act of generosity was the gift of eternal life that He has given to us through His Son, Jesus Christ.

For you see, because of sin, we were alienated from God. We were separated from Him, and despite the attempts of generations of people, that gap could not be bridged. God longed for reconciliation. God longed to have the brokenness restored that once existed between Him and humankind, and as it became painfully obvious that humanity could not mend that relationship; God knew that He was the one who had to act. And so, God sent His one and only Son into the world–not just to teach us the right ways of living, but to give Himself as a sacrifice for many. When Jesus died on that cross, He gave everything. Jesus was completely generous, and God raised Him up to show something very, very important to you and to me. Christ was raised to show us that reconciliation had taken place and that death was not the end. Let me repeat that: death is not the end. Because of Jesus’ generosity, death has been defeated, and those who believe in Him share in the gift of eternal life.

This is tremendously good news. It changes the nature of how we view things. It means that even though we gather today to mourn the fact that Clarence has died; we do not say goodby. It means that because Clarence believed in Jesus Christ and was adopted by God, Clarence has gone to be with God, and those of us who share that belief will one day share with Clarence and those who have gone before the great gift of eternal life. We will see Clarence and Irene and Jannette once again at the banquet which has no end. This is why we can say with confidence as the Psalmist did, "You will turn my mourning into dancing!" It’s all
because of God’s generosity–a generosity that Clarence helped us see. (Read obit)

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The End Times

Just finished my sermon for this Sunday.

It's based upon Mark 13:1-8: the beginning of "The Little Apocalypse" or Jesus' teaching of the end times. 

No, I'm not going to lay out in today's posting what I will preach this Sunday.  I'm going to ask a poignant question--one I didn't raise in my sermon for Sunday because it's a very, very heady one.

Here is a proclamation about our faith: God is eternal.  This means, God is beyond time.  It also means God has no past, no present, and no future.  God encapsulates all three of these tenses at once. 

Now, here's the fun part: Since God encapsulates the past, present, AND future, has the end times already occurred from God's perspective?  And if it already has AND we are called to strive and see things from God's perspective, why in the world do some people worry so much about said end times?  God's already got it taken care of.  It's already done, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Living in Hope

Just over five years ago, I received a call as I was returning from out of town.  A congregation member informed me that his brother and sister-in-law had to take their daughter to the hospital.  She was very sick.

I remember parking at the hospital at exactly the same time the mother arrived at the hospital.  To say she was distraught would be an understatement.  Through tears she cried, "What is wrong with my baby?"

We went to the room.  The little girl's pediatrician was/is my children's pediatrician.  I knew her, and I knew she was good.  But she wasn't specialized enough to handle what was going on this day.  Something was dreadfully wrong.

The little girl: R, had been admitted into the hospital with a urinary tract infection.  These were commonplace since she had a minor defect that would be corrected later in life.  Every instance before, she had been given anti-biotics, responded well and gone home.  Initially, this is exactly what happened.  But suddenly, R's condition deteriorated.  She went from improving to lethargic.  She began vomiting.  There was copious amounts of mucus and a dark substance that looked like bile.  After one episode of vomiting, the pediatrician did a minor test on it.  It wasn't bile.  It was blood.

"That's it," she announced.  "You are out of here."  She began taking all the steps to get R down into Houston.

The girl and her mom rode the helicopter.  The rest of us drove.

We ended up at Memorial Herman Children's Hospital in the medical center in Houston.  Family and friends gathered and waited anxiously for the specialists to check R over.  The head neuro-pediatrician arrived and thoroughly checked her over.  Not liking what was going on, he said they would have to keep her in ICU for two weeks and closely monitor her.

I remember being in that room.  I remember looking at the crib/hospital bed that looked an awful lot like a cage.  I remember R's parents, distraught, worried, extremely concerned about their daughter.  I remember praying with them and the tears that rained during the prayer.

It really sucks to see a child in such a predicament.  It takes a toll on you even if you aren't related.  As a father of a girl who was only a few months older than R, it particularly hit home with me.  My prayers seemed to have a little bit more urgency.

I didn't head straight home.  I stopped at the local tavern for a beer.  There are just some days when such a thing is necessary.  They are very, very few in my life, but this was one. 

In the next few days, I remember thinking often of R and her family.  I remember being out mowing the lawn after hearing a report.  I remember praying, "Lord, take care of R.  Let her live.  If it means that this congregation stops growing and that we level out, I don't care.  (We were growing by leaps and bounds at the time.)  Let her be with her mom and dad.  Don't let her die."

R didn't die.  She survived.  There's still a debate as to exactly what happened to her, but the results left no doubt.  R had suffered some sort of attack on her brain.  Portions of it had been permanently damaged.  Would she ever walk and play again?  Would she ever talk again?  Would she be able to communicate?  Would she remain comatose, non-responsive?  No one really knew. 

In the past few years, progress has been made.  It's been slow, and there have been a few setbacks.  One doctor was convinced R had a genetic disorder, would never get better, and would die if she contracted any type of cold or flu.  The doctor was wrong.  Thankfully.  Responsiveness returned.  In fact, better than responsiveness.  R has one of the most contagious smiles.  It infects a room whenever she is brought in.

And, she communicates!  Doctors were amazed after R's parents took her in for an evaluation.  They said, "She's all there.  She knows stuff."  This was kind of an anti-climactic answer for her parents.  They knew this, but the doctors had to discover it themselves.

Now, another problem presented itself.  If this little girl was there mentally, why couldn't she control her limbs?  Why couldn't she talk?  It was because of the part of the brain that remained damaged.  But was there anything that could be done to perhaps give her a shot to regain all function?

Through the marvels of medical technology (and I believe God gives us the knowledge to discover such things to help in the process of healing), a possibility arose.  Surgeons could drill through R's skull and implant electrodes.  These electrodes could be attached to a control system that would stimulate certain parts of the brain.  If everything worked correctly...  If everything aligned perfectly, R could get some or all control back.  She could experience some major healing.  It was a one in a million shot for the parents, but it was a shot they were willing to take.

Today is that surgery.  Today, we live in hope; hope that a miracle will occur.  And even if the surgery does not bring about a total recovery, there is still hope that one day one may be found--a new innovation, a new drug, a new way of doing therapy.

In the years that I have served as a pastor, there is one thing that generally helps people overcome difficulty after difficulty--they tenaciously, stubbornly, and with a reckless abandon hold onto hope.  Sometimes that hope bears visible fruit, and it is my sincere prayer it does in this circumstance.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: A Lesson in Contrasts

She was practically invisible. No one really would have paid much attention to her. She stood in line waiting her turn to approach the temple offering plate. Her duty to God was overriding her growling stomach. "The Lord will provide," she kept telling herself. "The Lord will provide."

In her hands she held the last bit of money in her possession. There was nothing left. Since her husband died, she had barely managed to keep a roof over her head and food on the table. Somehow, there was always something to eat. There was always just a little bit of money left after the Roman soldiers came to collect taxes. There was always enough to pay the temple tithe. She barely eked out an existence cutting corners wherever she could. But now, there was nothing left to cut. Now, there was nothing left of the money she and her deceased husband had scraped together. The temple tithe this time would claim it all. "God will provide," she kept murmuring to herself.

She reached the plate, and released the coins. They clattered in. The priest overseeing the spectacle didn’t even really look at her. There was no thank you. No blessing from God. Nothing. She might as well have been invisible. She turned away, "God will provide." She wondered if her statement of faith would be true, and she wondered how long it would be until her next meal–if it ever came.

In another line, a man reveled in the attention he was getting. He and his friends made their way into the temple laughing and conversing with one another. Plenty of other temple patrons stopped to view the spectacle. Obviously, these men had something to smile about.

"It was a good, a very good month this month, was it not?"

"What month hasn’t been a good month?" said one. All laughed.

Their robes glimmered with threads of the finest silk. They were some of the finest tailored clothes in all of Jerusalem. Rings of gold and silver adorned their fingers and toes. They were well groomed, and their bellies protruded just a bit from obviously having a little too much to eat at the table.

"Time to give to God the things which are God’s," the men shouted out. "God has blessed us mightily! Thanks be to God."

They approached the plate. Each held their hands up high and allowed the coins to rattle in the plate as they fell. It seemed like they fell for quite some time. The priest’s eyes widened as each man dropped his offering. As each man finished, the priest spoke, "Thank you for your generosity. May God’s blessing go forth with you this day and always."

The men politely acknowledged the priest and then turned to head out the exit. They began speaking about the returns on their upcoming investments. They spoke of the feasts they would be holding and the rich foods and drinks they would be consuming. They spoke of being blessed by God to enjoy the finer things of life. "God be praised!" they shouted as they walked through the door. And as they turned, each one walked right past a lonely widow woman, with tears streaming down her face, hands folded, mumbling the same words over and over and over, "God will provide. God will provide. God will provide."

No one noticed.

Except Jesus.

Jesus has a habit of noticing such things. Jesus has a habit of noticing the people society and religion overlook. Jesus has a habit of shining the light of God and exposing those who many think are invisible.

He turns to His disciples and says, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on. Her very life."

There was no doubt in the disciples’ mind as to the point Jesus was making. This widow no longer had money to pay for food, for taxes, for her shelter, for anything. She would be forced to beg, or to become a prostitute, or be forced into jail for not being able to pay her taxes. They heard her murmuring, "God will provide. God will provide. God will provide." And they wondered, "How? How will God provide for this poor, forsaken, lonely widow, who has nothing, nothing at all?"

And then disciples looked at the men in their fine robes walking away from the temple talking about how blessed they were. They recalled Jesus’ words spoken just before He pointed out the widow to them, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

They thought about Jesus’ comment. They thought about those wealthy men. They thought about the priests standing over the treasury. "How much of that treasury is used to provide for these widows?" the disciples thought. "What if those who gave out of their abundance each gave some to this widow? Just a fraction of what they gave to the temple would provide for her for years. This widow should not have to be crying here in faith. She should be able to turn to the priests, to the scribes, to her fellow believers and find all that she needs. But who will pay any attention to this widow? Who will see her? Who will realize her need when the priests and those with means overlook her?"

As I think about this story recorded in the book of Mark and I think about its message to us today, I think about those whom are overlooked. I think about those who are in need. I think about those who are nearly invisible in our society today. I think about those who are hurting, physically, emotionally, spiritually, and who are hurting in their wallets who have nowhere to turn. I think about how they are often to proud or too ashamed to ask. And I think about how the church can respond to their needs. I think about how as a church we are called to make a difference in the lives of such individuals. I think about how God has gifted the church with wealth so that we can feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. I think about how God can and does use us to provide.

Today’s lesson is a lesson in contrasts–a contrast between those who have and those who have not. But it is not a condemnation of either. It is a condemnation of those who refuse to acknowledge the clear command of God to care for the widow, the orphan, and those in need. The wealthy gave to God as they were instructed. The widow gave to God as she was instructed, but the priests did not do as they were instructed. They did not bless or care for the one in need.

As a congregation, I believe we must be mindful of our calling. We are called to proclaim the Word of God. We are called to administer the sacraments. We are called to pass our faith down to the following generations. And, let me stress this, AND we are called to make a difference in the lives of those who are in need by showing compassion to them, providing for them when they are in need, and by showing them that God takes care of them. He just sometimes uses us to accomplish that task. Amen.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

One Amazing Trip to McDonald's

Yeah, I know.  Everyone's favorite restaurant.  NOT!

But, hey, when you have kids ages 7, 6, and 4, and the place has an indoor playground, you make sacrifices.  Your taste buds aren't exactly happy, but they get over it.  And sometimes, just sometimes, amazing things take place.

First off, we ran into a fellow pastor, his wife, and their two daughters.  It was neat to hook up and exchange information.  Our kids hit it off instantly and played with one another for 30 minutes on the play scape.  The beginnings of a friendship?  Possibly.  Hopefully.  Time will tell.

Then, the big one.  A God-moment I didn't see coming.  A God-moment bundled in a Dallas Cowboy's fanatic named Johnny.

Johnny and his wife took their grandson to Mickey-D's to play and fellowship with other kids.  He and my son played for a chunk of time, and my son even helped the little guy get his toy after dropping it under the slide.  Johnny struck up a conversation with Kevin, Jr., and of course, my wife and I became a part of the conversation as well.  Johnny was a hugely gregarious fellow who loved to talk with people.  A typical extrovert.  I'm not as extroverted as I once was.  I prefer more intimate encounters with folks: one on one types of conversations where we can connect without distractions.  Too much extroverted time actually drains me these days.  Ah, but all this is besides the point.

As we were preparing to leave, the pastoral identity card came out.  Usually, I try to keep that card under wraps since is usually is a conversation stopper.  I can't remember how the card got played, but it led to a very significant moment.  Johnny found a fellow believer, and he spilled his story.

In 1997, he was in a major automobile accident.  He died twice.  Once in the Lifeflight helicopter, and once at Brackenridge Hospital in Austin.  He was in bad, bad shape.  Stuck in ICU, he was fighting for his life.

A few days later, his mother was admitted to Seaton Hospital because of difficulties of dealing with her son's circumstances.  She was there almost a week.  At the end of that week, she asked the employees to call her husband and her pastor.

They walked in, and she had a tremendous smile on her face.  A smile that would not abate.  She looked at the two of them and said still smiling, "It's o.k.  I am going to go be with the angels now.  I'm going to go help Johnny."  Immediately after speaking those words, she died. 

Johnny continued, "An hour after my mom died, the nurses said I woke up, and I woke up talking to my mom."

Johnny said point blank, "It changed my life completely."  And he described how.  This man had experienced a miracle--a life changing circumstance that spurred him onto a life of faith. 

Of course, I didn't discount his story.  I believe such things happen.  My family has its own walking miracle, and I see him everyday.  My son who was conceived without any form of fertility treatments.  My son who was conceived even when a reproductive endocrinologist told us it would take a miracle for such a thing to happen. 

So many people have such stories.  Too many times they don't get shared.  On one amazing trip to McDonald's, they did.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An Unconventional Read of Yesterday's Election

Before yesterday, this was the status quo:

A Democrat President.
A Democrat controled Senate.
A Republican controled House.

After the election, the result was thus:

A Democrat President.
A Senate more strongly controled by Democrats.
A House more strongly controled by Republicans.

Not only did Americans bless the status quo, they strengthened it.

In such a weak economy...
with such partisan rancor...
with legislative gridlock...
with formidable challenges looming on the horizon...

how could such a thing take place?  How could the status quo not only be kept but strengthened?  How is it that we "baptized" gridlock?

Here's my take.  There's an old scientific axiom that states a body at rest tends to stay at rest until acted upon by an outside force.  Since the advent of quantum mechanics, we know that no object is ever at "rest."  It's constantly vibrating.  Photons are constantly shooting between the levels of atoms keeping electrons elevated and what have you.  There's really no such thing as resting at the quantum level.  However, things do seem to be at rest.  They do tend to want to stay at a certain level or state.  Therefore, the axiom has been rewritten in a way to say, "any system tends to stay at its lowest energy state."

Think about that for a moment, not only in the quantum level, but in any level of any system.  Is it any wonder some businesses stay at one size no matter what they do?  Is it any wonder churches and congregations tend to stay at one size?  Is it any wonder our bodies reach certain plateaus when exercising?  When systems reach a certain energy state, they tend to want to stay there.  It's the way systems work.

My take on our current situation in our nation is that we have reached such a state.  There is gridlock.  Not a lot gets accomplished one way or another.  And the system wants to stay that way.  Moving one way or another will require it to expend tremendous amounts of energy, and as the axiom states--systems don't exactly desire to do that.

I know I'll hear all types of spin on this election.  Folks will blame the media.  Folks will say that one portion of the society doesn't want to work and wants to be given stuff.  Folks will say the wealthy are being selfish and don't want to release their wealth.  Folks will say the Republicans messed up.  Folks will say the Democrats did just enough to win. 

I personally think the blame game is worthless.  It doesn't take into account the system and it's desire to stay right where it's at--at a level where it doesn't have to expend much energy.  How else do you explain such a strengthening of a system which for all practical purposes is just staying in place?

Sunday's Sermon: You Can't Have a Good Church without Good People

Leading up to our 85th anniversary celebration last Sunday, I was privileged to read Herbie Kollatschny’s update to our congregation’s history. He did a very nice job compiling things and going through many of the sources available to put that thing together. If you have internet access, I would like to encourage you to go to our website, click on the church history link and read through the documents there. I hope you find it as interesting reading about this congregation as I did.

Reading about our congregation’s history led me to reflect upon the many, many church histories I have read in my years as a seminary student, intern, and pastor. As I reflected upon these things, I started to see a common theme in those histories. For the most part, they center on a few main things. Can you guess what they might be?

1. Who the pastors were; when they arrived, and when they left.

2. What the worship attendance, Sunday school attendance, and other such groups attendance were under said pastors.

3. When the congregation undertook a building program and how much they paid for those buildings.

Sometimes, such topics make for very, very dry reading. I mean, there’s not a lot of action involved in such things. And as I thought about that, I wondered why these things seem to be the main foci of our church histories. Why do they focus on the pastors, the attendance, and the buildings? In my estimation, there is something gravely missing in such histories: the people–congregation members, congregation leaders, and those who work behind the scenes to make the church function and work.

You see, I am under no such illusions that it is the pastor who makes or breaks a church. As I said last week at our pot-luck dinner, "Pastors come and go. One day, I’ll leave or retire just as many have before me, but the people here will remain. And you cannot have a good church without good people. I do my part, but each of us must do our parts together and well in order for the church to thrive." I said it, and I meant it. I still mean it. Without good people, you cannot have a good church.

For eight years, our congregation has thrived. We’ve had a few bumps, but whereas many churches of the Lutheran persuasion aren’t holding their own or doing too well, St. John has continued to be a welcoming congregation; has managed to make its budget; and has reached out into the surrounding community and even around the world to make a difference in the lives of others. Good churches–good people do good things. Stop a moment to consider some of the good things we have done in the past eight years since I’ve been here.
We paid off the church debt.

We made use of the community care fund to care for the Johnson family when they lost two homes to fire and April Johnson was dying of cancer.

We raised money for the Grinde family to help them pay medical bills when Corrine endured treatments for cancer.

We spearheaded a movement in the community to build the Washburn home to help provide for Clifford Washburn who has been disabled from little until now.

We raised thousands of dollars to help defray the cost of Remington Reichardt’s medical bills after she suffered with an illness which attacked her brain.

We have made countless payments out of our community care fund paying electric bills, rent, food, and other items of need for the poor and needy in our community.

We raised over $30,000 to help buy motorcycles and provide health care for people in the Central African Republic.

We gave $10,000 to victims of last summers devastating wildfires here in Texas.

We’ve provided for Christian Patterson and his family following his accident and subsequent surgeries.

We’ve participated in Operation Christmas child every year since I’ve been here reaching out across the world through this ministry.

We’ve participated in providing Christmas gifts for local children through Austin County Outreach and now the Salvation Army.

You know, I could go on. There are other things I can list. I can talk about those of you who volunteer for the Sealy Christian Pantry. I can talk about those who have given money secretly to those who are in need or who suffered in our community. I could talk about the many volunteers who set up our ministries with our youth; who visit our shut-ins; who bring food for funerals and organize the receptions we offer families during their times of grief; those who work on the altar guild. Good Lord, do you realize how much good you accomplish through your work here at the church? Do you realize how much you do?

And you do realize, I haven’t been the one telling you to do these things, don’t you? You do realize, paying for all these things hasn’t come from my pocket solely, don’t you? You do realize my part in all of this stuff is minimal compared to the investment you make in this congregation, don’t you? I do my part, but you certainly bear much of the burden. Looking at all this, is it any wonder why we have grown as a congregation in the past eight years? Is it any wonder why folks wonder what is going on in our congregation when we are out in our community announcing all this stuff that we are doing to directly affect the lives of others?

You can’t have a good church without good people. Period. It won’t happen. I don’t care how good a preacher you have. I don’t care if he or she preaches the best sermons in the world. I don’t care if she or he is the most compassionate person in the county. I don’t care if he or she is funny or entertaining or extremely talented. If the people of the congregation do not care and participate in the life of the church, the congregation is doomed. It will not prosper.

That means, if our congregation is prospering, we have good people. And where did you learn how to be good people? Where did you discover what it means to follow Christ and do deeds that are in line with His Spirit and nature? Did you just absorb them from the air? Did they just pop into your mind? Did it just hit you one day that these are the things you should be doing?

Probably not. I won’t discount the fact that such things could happen, but the reality for most of us is that we were taught by those who went before us. As a congregation, we were taught by those church members who founded the Nicolai Church. Their faith was passed down from generation to generation to many of you. Others of you who have moved out here recently had family members and church members teach you such things. You watched them and saw how they conducted themselves in relationship with others. You saw the things they did. You saw the respect they had. You saw their goodness, and you began to imitate it.
You picked up on the good qualities of those who went before, and you put those into practice into your lives. And now, you are doing the same thing for others. Your actions are being noticed whether you like it or not. You are right now leaving a legacy for those who will follow in this congregation and for those who will move somewhere else. They will take what they learn right here and right now with them. This is the reality of life.

And it is the reason we set aside a special day in the church to recognize the saints–those who have gone before; who have passed their faith down to us and who now wear the heavenly crown of glory. Their goodness has been passed down to us, and it has made a difference in our lives. And now we have a chance to pass that goodness to the next generation. Without good people you can’t have a good church. Let us thank God for those good people who went before us, are with us now, and who will follow after us. Amen.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

A Wasted Vote?

It's election day here in the U.S.A.  A little later this morning, I will be exercising my right to vote.  I can remember at a rather young age asking my mom and dad who they were voting for.  They never would say.  They kept strict silence on who they voted for saying it was their vote, and no one really needed to know who they voted for.

Yesterday, my children brought home from school a paper instructing us to visit with our kids about the election today.  We were asked to talk about the candidates, who we were voting for, and why we would vote as we would.  There was an immediate clash between how I was raised and this assignment given to my kids. 

I didn't talk to my kids about the election last night as I wrestled with this dilemma.  You see, I think I understand a little more why my parents refused to talk about who they voted for as I was growing up.  They wanted my sister and I to learn to think for ourselves when it comes to such matters.  They wanted us to formulate our own opinions and thoughts about those who were running for office.  They didn't want us to be carbon copies of their thoughts and opinions.  They wanted us to be able to do our own research and come to our own conclusions.  I very much respect my parents for this.  So, how could I pass such a thing down to my own children in light of this school assignment?

This morning, I talked to my kids.  I told them it was election day.  I told them who the candidates were.  I tried to explain, as best as I could what the two main candidates stood for.  I explained to them they would have a mock election at their schools today.  Then, I said, "Usually, Mom and Dad don't talk about who we vote for.  This is a person's personal decision.  When it comes time for you to vote, you will make your own decisions and not base them on what we think.  It's your job to do it yourself.  And just so you know you have options, you can tell your teacher that your Daddy is writing in a candidate and is not voting for either of the two main candidates for president."

My girls understood, and I was proud of them.  We did have a rather interesting moment when my middle child said, "Barak Obama doesn't like white people."  One of her classmates had given her that little nugget, and my wife and I had to take a moment or two to dispel that notion.  I know some folks honestly believe that opinion, but I have been taught to follow Luther's explanation of the Eighth Commandment in the Small Catechism when dealing with folks.  I had to inform my daughter that such comments were unacceptable without firm proof.

Yet, I wonder how their teachers will react when they hear one of their students say, "My daddy isn't voting for either one.  He's writing in a candidate."  I wonder if they think I'm wasting my vote.  I know a few folks who I've informed believe this to be the case.  I don't.

Instead, I feel like I am truly exercising my right to vote.  I feel like I am not settling for less than I believe is needed in a leader.  I feel like I am putting down on paper the person I feel is best qualified and who my conscience leads me to believe is an overall better fit to lead our nation.  Much of the reason I do so comes from my deeply held convictions as a Christian, and I find neither candidate matching the principles of my core beliefs.  So, rather than settle, I write.  I argue, I am fiercely independent and will not be swayed by any particular group.  That's just the way I operate.  I know folks who strongly support either candidate, and that's fine.  We'll see whom the electorate picks tonight or in the next coming weeks as a probable recount is in store.

I'll cast my vote shortly, and as far as I'm concerned, it counts greatly. 

Monday, November 5, 2012

I Turned the Game Off

At the 1:48 mark of the second quarter just before halftime.

The Cowboys were tied 6-6 with the Atlanta Falcons.  They were playing an undefeated team on the road.  They were 3-4 to start the year.  Hardly ranking as an elite team in the NFL.  There is one rule of thumb when you are facing such a situation: go for broke.  Be aggressive.  Throw caution to the wind and let things rip.  Play to win.

The 'boys had moved to midfield after being stuck at their own 2 yard line.  They faced a third and long one from about their own 48 yard line.  They ran their running back to the right side for just a slight gain.  It was fourth and inches.  They lined up with their "beef" formation.  And they tried to get the Falcons to jump offsides.  Timeout.  Punt.  Game over, in my estimation.  I turned the t.v. off.  Jason Garrett was playing not to lose instead of aggressively trying to knock off an undefeated team in its own house.  When you play not to lose, you lose.  Period.

Not surprisingly, I woke this morning to find out the 'boys lost.  The tag under the headline said it all: "Falcons find a way to win, and Cowboys find a way to lose."  Enough said.

Am I an armchair quarterback?  You bet.  At least at this point I am.  Perhaps things would be different if I had a micro-managing owner breathing down my neck.  Perhaps I would be caught up in the moment and frozen by circumstance.  Perhaps I would be scared to make a mistake and avoid risk.

But usually, I take that chance.  Usually, I trust those who I work with.  Usually, I wade in and do things unconventionally.  Is there a chance for failure?  Yep.  Been there.  How do you think I got myself burned out earlier this year?  But is there also a chance for high reward?  Yep.  Been there too.

Playing to win leads you to take some knocks.  It leads you to failure at times (witness Bill Belichick's decision to go for it on a fourth and two from his own 28 a few years ago against the Colts).  But no one questions Belichik's acumen as a head coach and his record.  He plays to win.  Period.  That's one of the reasons the Patriots are so successful.  They don't avoid risk.  They take calculated ones.  One's which increase their chances of winning.  My gut says Belichick goes for it where Garrett punts.

It's one reason the Patriots are winners.  The Cowboys lose, and why I got plenty of sleep last night.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

For All the Saints

Today is All Saints Day.  We will actually celebrate it in the church this Sunday, but as is the case with quite a few festivals, the day of celebration does not necessarily occur on the traditional day of worship.  Today, I've been reflecting upon those saints who have been most influential in my life of faith. 

Interestingly enough, at the top of the list are no clergy.  No heroes of the faith (think Mother Teresa, Martin Luther, Augustine, St. Francis,  No televangelists or widely known authors.

At the top of my list of most influential people in my life of faith are family, particularly my parents and grandparents.

Actually, this probably shouldn't be a surprise.  Most people receive their knowledge and understanding of faith from their closest relatives.  Sometimes it's a mentor or pastor or good friend, but mostly, it's family.

My family was particularly strong when it comes to the importance of faith.  As I was maturing, sometimes this bugged me, even angered me, but now, I have come to appreciate the lessons learned and the wisdom gleaned just by being a part of my family.

My dad's dad showed me what it meant to be saint and sinner.  He was a WWII vet and dry land farmer.  He could cuss with the best of them, hold his liquor, think he was the only one who was right about a given topic even in the face of other evidence, and would stay home from family gatherings if asked to cease smoking out of respect for someone who was allergic to the smoke.  Yet, despite this, he believed he had experienced a miracle from God and proclaimed it one morning to my home congregation--shaking up a traditional Lutheran service in the process.  He made no bones about telling an ag extension agent why he didn't carry crop insurance, "If God wants me to have a crop, I'll have a crop."  And he showed his grandson how God was in the cotton. 

My dad's mom showed me the quiet faith of prayer and action behind the scenes.  When my great-grandmother on my mom's side passed away, her funeral was held at our church.  I remember walking into the fellowship hall seeing my grandmother putting out food.  I made a remark about her being there, and she said, "This is what we do to help out."  The lesson stuck as did her silent prayers lifted as she did her cross stitch and sewing.

My mom's dad was a Lutheran pastor.  He never shied away from talking church.  When I was ordained, he presented me with my stole and laid it around my neck.  He gave me his communion kit and his set of stoles that I might now wear them.  As Elijah passed the mantle to Elisha, so my grandfather passed his mantle down to me.  A heavy burden?  Not so much.  More a privilege.

My mom's mom was an old fashioned pastor's wife.  She was strict about prayer and watching your language.  But she showed kindness, compassion, and a whole lot of understanding to her grandkids.  One of my most favored memories is the day we were visiting up in Arkansas shortly after our second child was born.  Grandma rocked Kaylee on her lap and sang "Jesus Loves Me" even in the midst of her mind beginning to fail.  That song wouldn't depart from her, and I have the video of that event.  I cannot wait until my children can grasp the significance of it.

My mom.  Too much to talk about.  She taught me how to truly depend upon God and His guidance.  She taught me the value of prayer.  She taught me the necessity of watching what words come out of my mouth (couldn't even say "fart" around her when growing up without getting a really, really dirty look).  She helped me discern the difference between religious fanatics and true believers, and she taught me how to take time for discernment when seeking and understanding God's will.  To this day, she still offers her timely advice and support in the midst of all the things I go through as a public servant of the Almighty.

My dad.  Again.  Too much.  Much too much.  Dad taught me how to pray-based on his own conversations with God.  I learned how to wrestle with the Almighty and not hold back when it comes to laying out the difficult questions of life.  I learned from dad how to listen to God's voice, "You'll know it when you hear it."  Dad taught me humility as he constantly reinforced in me how pastors are human--no better than anyone else and no worse than anyone else.  Dad taught me to think, to consider multiple options and ways to approach a problem or issue.  He taught me to listen to those who have more experience and follow their lead instead of being headstrong and determined to do it my way.  And he taught me to stand on conviction--to go against the flow even if you are the only one, and particularly to do it when you believe you are right.

Looking back at my family life, it is no wonder I am who I am as a pastor and as a person.  I was surrounded by tremendous people of faith, and perhaps one day I will be seen as such as well.  I can only hope the lessons I learned and the wisdom I attained from those who have gone before, I can share with my children and my children's children--and perhaps anyone else who views me as a trustworthy servant of the Lord. 

There are still many others who I have learned from and am learning from, and this day as well as quite a few other days, I give thanks to God for them. 

For all the saints...