Thursday, January 31, 2013

Being at Peace

One of the drawbacks about leaving lectures at Theological Conference and sitting at the feet of the Master is that sometimes He actually speaks and leads you to consider what you really truly believe and what you really and truly practice and desire.

In the past few weeks, I have been confronting a reality about myself and what I want and the reality of what God wants.  Now, I'm not talking about doing what God needs me to do.  I think I've been following His lead on this for quite some time.  However, I am talking about dealing with some desires that reside deep within myself.

It's confession time, and I ask my congregation members to please understand that this has nothing to do with you and your actions toward me as your pastor.  You are truly a blessing to me.  Bear with this post and read to the end.  Perhaps, then you may understand better.

While it is my intent and purpose to follow Christ and what He calls me to do as a clergy, I much more clearly understand that He isn't concerned with what we do.  I know He cuts to the heart, and He made me look deep down within to see where my heart lies and what it truly desires.

As I read once more Timothy Keller's The Reason for God, I was hit hard by the following statement:

On the Cross Christ wins through losing, triumphs through defeat, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth through giving all away.  Jesus Christ turns the values of the world upside down...

This upside down pattern so contradicts the thinking of the world that it creates an "alternate kingdom," an alternate reality, a counterculture among those who have been transformed by it.  In this peaceable kingdom there is a reversal of the values of the world with regard to power, recognition, status, and wealth.  In this new counterculture, Christians look at money as something to be given away.  They look at power as something to use strictly for service.  Racial and class superiority, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, yearning for popularity and recognition, these normal marks of human life, are opposite of the mindset of those who have understood and experienced the Cross.  Christ creates a whole new order of life.  Those who are shaped by the great reversal of the Cross no longer need self-justification through money, status, career, or pride of race and class.   So the Cross creates a counterculture in which sex, money, and power cease to control us and are used in life-giving and community-building rather than in destructive ways. (Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.  Kindle location 3048)
You see.  I believe what Keller says here is true.  I have preached and proclaimed this.  To an extent, I have lived parts of it.  But what about deep down.  Do I desire this?  In my heart, is this the desire that I have for myself and my life?

I climbed down into the recesses of my heart and considered things I had said in conversations with others in the previous week.  Here are a few:

"I'm envious of you and those like you who have ranches and property.  I want that too."
"In the ELCA, because of my more conservative theology, I have reached the limits of my upward mobility."
"I'd love to be the pastor of a two or three thousand member congregation and get the chance to preach to thousands on a given Sunday."
After hearing about a Methodist pastor who had a $275,000 salary.  "Man, I'm in the wrong denomination."

What are some of my heart's desires?  Power.  Wealth.  Status.  The exact opposite of the desire of those affected by the Cross of Christ.  Deep down, I want to be wealthy.  I want to have status.  I want people to believe I have something worthwhile to say and that I am an effective apologist and defender of the Christian faith.  I want people to change their minds after engaging me and my thoughts (see Who is missing in that statement?).  

After reading Keller's statement, I noted this in my Kindle, "O.K., Kevin.  Stop grousing and longing for the big congregation and the self-importance and perceived influence you think it will bring.  Stop longing for material wealth in the form of a ranch and winning the lottery so you can feel financially secure.  Stop dreaming of being more than "just a country preacher " and blossom where God has planted you.  Don't just assent to your faith intellectually.  Let this go into the depths of your being.  Be at peace with who you are instead of what you think you are supposed to be.  Truly embrace the counter-cultural nature of this faith you are called to."

I felt no depression writing that statement.  I felt no guilt for my desires.  I felt like Christ confronted me in a kind, loving, gentle way and said, "I'm here to cleanse this from you.  I'm here to free you from all of that so you will be at peace.  My plans for you are my own.  Release all of this into my care and instead focus on what you know to be true.  Concentrate on growing in your relationship with me.  That is enough."

And I truly knew this to be trustworthy.  I thought about where I am and what I am doing.  I thought about my congregation and what I am allowed to do as I serve as their pastor.  I thought about the opportunities that have opened up for me and my family in the last couple of years.

I don't own a ranch, but there are several congregation members who allow me access to theirs to hunt, work, relax and get away from the office.

I don't have a  two or three thousand member congregation, but I have a mid-sized church that truly cares for people in the community and seeks to make a difference in what they do.  I know my people and have developed some deep, personal relationships--relationships that would be impossible in a large congregation.

I don't have status within my denomination or synod, but I am respected in the surrounding community by many because I don't compromise my basic principles--yet, I love, care and show concern for those whose principles are different than my own.

I don't have great material wealth, but I have enough.

I am just a country preacher, and that is enough.

As I was driving back to my hotel Tuesday afternoon after these events took place.  I filled my car with gas.  I looked at the powerball lottery sign that read $115 million.  For an instant, I thought about buying a ticket.  I had plenty of one dollar bills.  But as I walked toward the doors of the convenient store, I just smiled.  I handled my business and walked out without a ticket.  There was still a bit of desire, but it was overwhelmed with something greater:

I was at peace.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sitting By Streams of Living Water

I know.  I know.  Yesterday, I was supposed to be sitting in a lecture hall at the Tri-synodical theological conference.

I was supposed to be listening to experts who would tell us about how church needed to be done in this fast paced, technological age.

I was supposed to be listening to experts who would advise me about how to connect with youth and their parents who are stretched by endless activities and "busy"ness.

But I felt a deeper need.  I felt the need to sit at the feet of the Expert Himself.  I feeld the deep down call to sit beside streams of living water which would help me connect to the streams of living water which gush forth from Christ Himself.

I drove up the Devil's Backbone and to Perdenales Falls State Park where I could sit and listen and be in the presence of Christ.

I have no doubt that many of my colleagues get nourishment from sitting in lecture halls having folks give advice to them about what it means to do church these days.  I have no doubt it stimulates their hearts and minds.  But such things are not restful for me.   They do not give me near the nourishment I need at such events. 

Oh, I usually attend a lecture or two so that the trip is justified, but at nearly every event in January that I attend, I slip off and find a place where human voices are not heard.  I slip off and find a place where the only sounds are provided by wind and/or water.  I slip off to listen to a different Voice.

While many of my colleagues were listening to lectures, I listened to this

 ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, “Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.” --John 7:37b-38

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: How Well Do You Remember Our/Your Mission?

How many of you who were here remember last week’s sermon word for word? Quite a few hands. That’s not surprising considering the length of the sermon. It was only four words, "Do what Jesus says."

I know with a few folks it caused some consternation. I received comments from "That sermon was great!" to "Next week’s sermon better be fantastic." To "Why in the world would pastor do that to us?"

Let me begin by asking this question: I’ve been serving as your pastor for eight and one-half years. Can anyone here this morning honestly tell me you’ve remembered even one sermon in it’s entirety that I have preached in those eight and a half years except for last week’s? I didn’t think so.

So, in effect, in eight and a half years, those of you who have heard me preach before can only remember one sermon in its entirety that I’ve preached, and that sermon was only four words long; didn’t dig into any long biblical or theological scholarship; didn’t include any cute or funny stories; didn’t have any profound new insights into the Christian faith, or what have you. Is that what I’m hearing this morning?

Now, before you start feeling guilty or something or wonder if we should even have preaching in church anymore, let me say that I don’t even remember any of the sermons I have preached in their entireties. I can remember bits and pieces. I can remember stories I have told, but I cannot recall them totally. In fact, the words of this sermon are written in my computer over at the office, and I am quite sure that if you went over there and read that sermon, there would be quite a few differences between what is on that computer and what is coming out of my mouth right now. So, don’t feel bad. It’s hard to remember such things, and there is a reason why.

Recently, in a continuing education class, I was taught that our brains have difficulty remembering any sentence or saying longer than four words. Sure, if we take the time to memorize something over and over and over, it might stick; but the reality of our world in this technologically driven society is that our brains can’t handle anything more than four words or less without really focusing. This is why many corporate brands these days have very short vision statements. You can see this on the list I included in your bulletin this morning. Many of those names and statements are probably very familiar to you. When someone says, "Wanna get away?", your brain probably flashes to Southwest Airlines. If someone says, "I’m lovin’ it," and you have children, you probably groan because the kids are probably wanting to go to McDonalds. If you hear "Just do it," even in the midst of regular conversation, you probably think of Nike. These four word or less vision statements become ingrained in our brains, and they stick with us–just like that four word sermon stuck with many of you this past week.

Which brings me to the next question. Without looking at the bulletin before you, can you tell me right off the top of your head, quoting word for word, our vision/mission statement? Can you tell it to me in it’s entirety?
If someone asked you what we were trying to do and be and accomplish in our congregation, could you answer them without missing a beat? If someone asked you what our purpose was as a church, could you respond, "Oh, we are actively reaching out as a strong Christian influence in our community by showing God’s love through kindness, caring, and involvement with others inside and outside our community of faith." And do you think that other person would remember that?

Now, I’m not knocking our mission statement. Not in the least. In fact, it’s a doggone good one. It’s one that governs me in the decisions I make as pastor of this congregation. It governs me when I deal with those making requests to our community care fund. It governs me when people ask me what ministries we should do. It gives me the parameters of how I believe I am called to operate and function as your pastor. And I don’t think we should change it. But is there a way to get across who we are and what we do as a congregation in a simpler manner? Is there a way to convey our mission so that others can remember it as easily as those of you who were here last Sunday remember my sermon?

You see, we are not as fortunate to be living in the time that Jesus was preaching and proclaiming. In our gospel lesson, He stands in front of the congregation in the synagogue He grew up in. He is handed the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus reads, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor." Now, hear me when I say this, in Jesus’ day, when He began reading, nearly everyone in attendance that day knew the rest of the text. For when Jews received their religious education, they were required to memorize large chunks of scripture.
They knew their Old Testament texts much better than we know the Bible today. Because they lived in an oral culture, they could remember better.

The people gathered knew this text was about the coming Messiah. They knew it was about the year of Jubilee. They knew it was something every Jew hoped and longed for. And Jesus, after reading it said, "Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus in not so many words said, "Listen up folks, this is my mission. This is why I came to earth. I came to institute these words from the book of Isaiah. I will bring release to the captives, sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor."

And we know that Jesus followed through on that mission. When they remembered Jesus’ saying these words and then saw the work Jesus did, there was no mistake. The people knew that Jesus had a mission and that He was working to accomplish it.

We are not lucky enough for people these days to remember 51 words exactly. We are not lucky enough for people and even ourselves to remember 10 words exactly. Our brains are programmed for four or less.

So, what does that mean for us? What does that mean for our congregation? Here’s just a thought and an experiment. On the same insert of all those company names, on the back you will see two questions: one regarding this congregation’s mission and the other regarding your personal mission. Take a few moments now and give those two questions some consideration. Before the end of the service, fill them out. Tear those pieces of paper in half, and please give me the one about the church. The other, keep. Put it in a place where you will see it often in the coming month. Then, after that month is over, see if that vision and mission you have for your life has had any impact upon how you live. The results just might be surprising.

Jesus was clear about His mission and vision, and it changed the world. Perhaps we might not change the world, but what impact do you think we as a congregation might have in our community if we had such clarity of our mission and could articulate it as easily? What impact do you think we might have in our daily lives if we had such clarity on what our mission and vision for our lives was? As the Taco Bell sauce label says these days, "If you never do, you’ll never know." Amen.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Funeral Sermon for Raymond Zaskoda

John 11: 32-43
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’ 38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

If only.

Thursday morning, I called Anita to check on Raymond and see how things were going. I wanted to go out and visit them personally, but a sore throat, a telling sign of an oncoming cold prevented me from doing so. Raymond had just come home from the hospital a few days earlier, and he didn’t need any sort of cold or infection, especially one from his pastor.

Anita told me that Raymond wasn’t feeling too well. That he was weak and having a bit of difficulty breathing. He wasn’t hungry. She was wondering what to do. Should she take him to the emergency room? Should she call the hospital and see what they said? Should she just wait until a scheduled doctor’s appointment the next day? All these questions we asked and wondered about, and we finally decided to call the home health people and see what they said. Perhaps if only I had been insistent that she take Raymond into the emergency room, he would still be here today.

But I am not the only one wondering if only. Later Thursday afternoon, Rita and I talked about band practice and whether or not we would need to actually have it. Our conversation turned to Raymond once again. Larry had been calling and trying to get Raymond to go to the hospital since he wasn’t doing well. If only Larry had managed and forced the issue…

And if only Anita would have been able to get Raymond to go. The first thing she said to me when I walked into the house Thursday night, Friday morning was, "If only I had insisted that he go."

If only. If only Raymond would not have had a doctor’s appointment the next day anyway, and if only he wouldn’t have been believed he could just wait until then. If only he wouldn’t have had the open heart surgery. If only the doctors would have gone through the vein instead of cracking his chest. If only. If only. If only.

"Lord, if only you would have been here, my brother would not have died." Mary said these words 2000 years ago as Jesus came to visit. Mary’s brother Lazarus had fallen ill. They sent for Jesus, but Jesus didn’t come right away. Jesus tarried, and Lazarus died. He had been buried for four days. The if onlys were flying fast and furious.

We do this to ourselves a lot, you know. We wonder what would have, could have, should have happened. We wonder how our lives would be different if we would have changed this or that or the other. We wonder how it all would have worked out if we had taken a different path or made a different choice. If only.
But interestingly enough, Jesus doesn’t play the if only game. Jesus doesn’t ask those kinds of questions. Jesus doesn’t live in the past and consider all the different possibilities. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is here to reveal God to us and show us how God operates.

Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb, and as He is being led there, He takes notice of everyone’s grief. He is genuinely moved by their sorrow. He is genuinely touched by their mourning and weeping. Jesus is not detached. In one of the shortest Bible verses in Scripture, we are told, "Jesus began to weep." God knows our pain. He knows our sorrow. He understands all that we are going through. God is not unmoved by our plight and the things we go through.

Which means, my brothers and sisters, God knows what we are feeling right now as we gather. God knows what is in our hearts and in our minds. God knows that we have lost a friend, a father, a grandfather, an uncle, and a husband. God knows we grieve this loss. God knows the pain each and every one of us feels.
And God weeps with us, shedding tears as Jesus shed tears so long ago.

And perhaps this is comfort to some. Perhaps it is enough to know that God weeps with us and understands our pain and sorrow and misery. Perhaps it is enough to know that God is not unmoved by our suffering, but God is not finished. There is more to the story.

Jesus is taken to the tomb where His friend is buried. He has them remove the stone. The stench, I am sure was overwhelming. I am sure some thought Jesus had gone out of His mind. But Jesus was here to show God’s power. Jesus was here to show God’s reality. Jesus was here to show God’s promises to you and to me, and He was going to reveal to us how God handles death.

"Lazarus!" Jesus yelled. "Come forth."

The dead was raised to life. Lazarus came forth. And Jesus commanded that Lazarus be unbound and released.

This event of course was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own resurrection—a resurrection to life eternal. And through Jesus’ death and resurrection, you and I have been made His brothers and sisters so that you and I will share in the same glory that He shares. Yes, that means, you and I will be raised from the dead. You and I will have eternal life. You and I will know the joys of going to be with God and spending eternity with God. God doesn’t just weep when we weep; He promises to wipe away those tears and transform our mourning into dancing. That won’t happen instantaneously. We will still have to wait until God chooses to bring this about fully, but we hold onto that promise, and we hold onto it with our entire being.

The if onlys will continue to raise their heads. But, we must beat them back, instead choosing to focus on the future instead of the past. And now, please allow me to give you a glimpse of that future.

This Thursday, Anita was trying to get Raymond situated in bed. She was trying to prop him up when he reached out, caught his breath, and then breathed his last. Raymond died there in her arms, suddenly, unexpectedly. Tears of grief and sadness flowed.

But one day, Anita, you will see Raymond again. You will be reunited with him before God and before all who have gone before. He will have arms held up in waiting for you, and you will embrace. He will be able to tell you that he loves you again, and you will never miss hearing those words. You will have tears then too, but they will be tears of joy as this pain and sorrow is completely taken away. And then you, and Raymond, and the host of heaven along with all on earth who believe will join the feast which has no end. All will be made new, and no one will ever say, if only. Amen.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Justice, Rights, and Responsibility

This post was inspired by a thread started by my Bishop Mike Rinehart on Facebook.

Mike posted a pic of Martin Luther King, Jr. in iconography style with the quote, "I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law." - MLK

What followed was a very interesting conversation that somehow meandered into the realm of health care.  Snippets follow:

Roger DeFrang: Does that apply to me having to pay for the extra costs of Obamacare too

Michael Rinehart: That's called justice Roger.

Roger DeFrang: As you know, my brother is the senior partner in a tax law firm and he has now read all 2700 page of Obama Care because it is his business and he has to know it and he says that it is loaded with taxes and to think that the President told us it would stay revenue neutral.

Michael Rinehart: But the poor will have health care. That's called justice. I know some people don't want the poor to have health care. I am not one of those people.
Roger and Mike have more of an exchange with Roger bringing up the idea that some men end up having children with multiple women who end up in the welfare system

Michael Rinehart: Roger, in the Lutheran Church we believe in this thing called saint and sinner.

Roger DeFrang: I hear you Mike, if you father several children with different mothers and let welfare pay for it you are saint but if I don't like paying for it then I am a sinner, do I have that correct?

Michael Rinehart: No, you don't.

Roger DeFrang: Okay lets try it this way....people who keep bringing children into the world with no way of supporting them have no responsibilities and only those who pay the cost have responsiblities? (sic) Now don't tell me about educating about protection Mike, I am 67 years old and back in the day, we knew that if you messed around without protection the girl could have a baby...that is not a new scientific discovery. I believe that we need to help those in need, I really do. I got into some financial trouble before I was married and my mother stepped in helped me out and we set up a plan and I paid her back but if during that time I would have driven into the driveway with a new car....well, she would have killed me. I got into trouble and she made me take responsibility. That is really what I am saying..if you have two children and you have no means to support them by all means we will help and should help but don't have any more to add to our burden and if you have children and get welfare than maybe you need to give up the smoking and drinking and use that money on the children...our problem with welfare isnt' the cost of helping people but the fact that we give them help but don't force them to take responsibility.

The conversation, unfortunately, ended here, but, man, what an exchange!  I my estimation, it really lifted up some of the real issues regarding the dynamic which takes place between individualism and collectivism or the role of the individual along with the role of society.

Mike and Roger showed this dynamic with health care.  It can also be seen in the debate about gun control and a host of other issues facing our nation and churches.  Where does the balance lie between personal and societal responsibility?  How do justice, rights, and responsibility all come together even when sometimes, there is a clash between those entities?

One of those clashes becomes evident in the exchange between Mike and Roger.  Mike argues, as I think any good Christian would argue, that caring for the poor is Christian charity and a matter of justice.  This is quite inescapable if one reads Scripture and follows the teachings of Jesus.  There is a continual call for compassion, care, concern, and justice for the widow, orphan, and oppressed.  However, I don't ever get the sense from Scripture where such acts are meant to make another dependent upon us.

It is built into the very fabric of nature that a body seeks out its lowest energy state.  Quantum Physics shows this almost unequivocally, and if someone else is doing something for us, we will almost gladly allow someone to handle it because it relieves us of having to expend energy to handle the responsibility ourselves.  When we allow others to handle that responsibility, we become dependent upon them, and if by some chance, they try to hand that responsibility back to us, then there is almost a universal response of anger and frustration toward those who are withdrawing what they were first willing to give.

If we understand the world to work in this fashion, then both Mike and Roger are correct in their assessment of things.  Both are articulating very real issues within our world and nation.  Both are speaking out of their faith convictions.  But what is the solution?  What is the compassionate thing to do?  What is the tough love thing to do?

I am not sure.

I have two thoughts, though, that might help.  In my Bowen Family System's Training, I hear often that mature societies focus on talking about responsibility instead of rights.  Perhaps a change in questions are needed when talking about issues.  Let's get away from what folks have a right to do and not to do and start asking, "What is our responsibility?"  Responsibility forces us to ask the questions of what we should and should not do versus asking ourselves what we can and can't do based upon laws which may or may not be just.

Second, I believe we should actively strive to end any sort of dependency upon ourselves by others.  This might sound a bit cruel at first glance, but please allow me to delve into something I was taught over and over again while undergoing my theological studies in college and seminary.

Throughout my years of higher education, I heard over and over again the call that the Church should be the "voice for those who are voiceless" and that we should speak on behalf of the "poor and oppressed."  I bought into this for a while, but then began to consider something a bit different.  Is it better for the Church to be the voice for the voiceless or to help the voiceless discover their own voice and give them the courage to use it?   

I vote for the second.

The balance between individualism and collectivism is one that has existed throughout the history of humankind.  It is not going away anytime soon.  I think in order for things to work out, we need to get beyond dialogue and discussion and passing laws and policy and instead begin to define ourselves in such a way that we are able to realize that the solutions are both/and instead of either/or.  

I wish the discussion between my bishop and his friend would have continued.  It would have been interesting to see if it would have ever reached that point. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The $1000 Prayer

As a congregation we have a special fund which we use to help those in need throughout our community.  As fate or coincidence or what have you would have it, it's called the Community Care Fund.

In my 8 1/2 years of service to St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring, this fund has been used for many, many purposes.  Through it we have helped pay medical bills, light bills, water bills, provide food, purchase fuel for travelers, help people travel to funerals, and pay rent.  Usually, not a month goes by that we don't get some request for assistance.  And we almost always help.  Almost.

There are a few times when I and those helping have discovered that we are being manipulated.  That's never a fun experience.  Once I was threatened by a person who was "going to call a lawyer in New York City" to force the church to help a woman who I believed was milking the system.  The person's comments helped me stick to my resolve in this case and assistance was withheld. 

Other times, I really haven't been sure.  Those times, I've always approved or asked my council for approval to offer assistance.

There is one woman we've helped numerous times who falls in this category.  Over the years, she has asked for help several times.  The amount she asks for is never huge.  It rarely extends into triple digits.  Every time, I've approved her for assistance.  After the third or fourth time, I've had my doubts as to whether or not the assistance we have provided should be given or not.  I've wondered if she was milking the system.  We never received an acknowledgement for helping.  Never had any sort of personal connection been made.  Even though my secretary and I had visited with this woman, sometimes at length, it never seemed like a relationship would develop.

And I wondered if it ever would.  The woman I am talking about is of a different ethnicity, and there are barriers between our respective ethnic communities that run deep.  At times, there is still a tangible distrust that can be felt.  As a father of two, bi-racial girls, I can tell you that we receive a few glances that tell us such barriers are still around.  Fortunately, such looks have not come from my congregation, yet within the surrounding community, they are there.  I am positive this was part of the reason it seemed like relationships weren't forming.

Over the years, we have probably helped this woman out to the tune of close to $1,000.  And it's taken that much time and that much money for something substantial to happen.

Last week, this woman asked for assistance once again.  It was her light bill which ran just under $100.  I approved the expense, and my secretary called the lady to let her know we would send a check to the light company.  That's when things turned.  The woman asked if "the pastor would call her.  I'd really like him to pray with me."  My secretary texted me her number as I was making a hospital call.

On my way back, I made the phone call and ended up talking to her son.  The woman was in the middle of dialysis and couldn't talk.  I left my name and number and told him that she wanted me to call her and pray with her.  He told me he would relay the message, and I thought that was the end of it.  Usually, no one calls back.

Not this time.

The next morning while sitting in the office, the phone rang.  It was the woman we helped.

"I need you to pray for me," she said.

"Yes, ma'am.  I will, but what exactly should I pray for?"

"Well, I'm on dialysis and it's really taking a toll on me.  I need strength to go through this."

"I will definitely do that.  Are you in line for a kidney transplant or anything like that?  My grandfather received one years ago, and it made a huge difference for him."

"Yes, I just got on that list.  It would really be nice."

"I will include that in my prayer.  Is there anything else I can pray for?"

"Yes, you can sure pray for my financial situation.  I want to work, but I can't with this dialysis.   I've applied for disability, but that's taking a while.  It could be weeks before I get anything.  Pray that I can get the strength to go to work."

"Yes ma'am.  I will."

"And I want to thank you and your church for all the help you've given me."

"You are welcome.  It is our pleasure to help out when folks are in need.  Would you like me to pray for you now?"

"Yes, please."

I prayed for this woman lifting up all of her concerns before the throne of God.  Not everyone might think that this prayer was worth $1,000, but I believe it was a small price to pay to break through barriers, establish relationships, and enter into a place of trust and compassion as we were connected through our mutual relationship in Christ.  I do not believe we are capable of changing the world by enacting laws or other such measures.  Such tactics, while important in making legal distinctions, do nothing to change the underlying relationships, and it is these relationships which deserve our attention.  Time, energy, and money factor in to our ability to reach out with the good news of Jesus Christ and bring about reconciliation between individuals and communities.  If we are not willing to pay the price, so to speak, such reconciliation will not happen, and I believe we will not have as many opportunities to spread the Gospel

To the generous people of St. John Lutheran Church of Cat Spring, thank you for giving me the opportunity to experience such a thing.  It gives me hope that not only do we make a difference materially but in the spiritual lives of others as well.  For we are more than just a charitable organization.  We are a spiritual organization that seeks to bring God's Word to people as we offer charity.  In this case, it all came together.  Let us pray this will not be the only instance.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: A Sermon Challenge

Before preaching the below sermon, I sent out a church-wide email inviting people to remember the sermon in its entirety from one week to the next.  I let them know there is a rhyme and a reason for doing what I am doing and to bear with me as we went through it.  Next week, I will provide the reason I did what I did and its implications.

Sunday's Sermon:

Do what Jesus says.  Amen.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Unintended Consequences a.k.a. Think Before Your Knee Jerks

A couple of my posts on the gun control debate have invoked quite a bit of commentary.  In the midst of that commentary, a thought came clearly into focus.  It was a bit disparaging.

I am a student first of Jesus and in the past 16 years of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST).  This theory focuses on a person/leader managing his or her own anxiety in the midst of emotionally charged situations.  It tries to help a person retain clear thinking in the midst of emotional processes, think differently, stand one's ground when faced with initial resistance, and become more defined in what he or she believes.

Now, BFST is not the be all and end all.  There are some points where I must disagree, particularly in that BFST doesn't like talking in terms of right and wrong.  There are just some things that I think are right and others that I think are wrong.  Neither does BFST like to talk in terms of absolute Truth.  Can't go in that direction.

Yet, there are times when BFST hits the nail on the head, squarely, decisively, and unerringly.  One such place is in the reaction of systems when a person/leader/group tries to force something upon it.

Parents get this.  All of us have dealt with children who we ask, beg, beseech, command, and threaten to do a certain task.  Within moments, we find our child doing the exact opposite for no rhyme or reason. 

In the church, many clergy and leaders have focused in the past several decades at stopping the continued decline of mainline denominations.  Despite their focus and best efforts, the decline has continued.  Despite knowing all the facts, figures, data, and reasons for said decline, no one's been able to stop it so far.  BFST comes true again.

And this is where gun control comes into play.  Since Sandy Hook, there has been a concerted move to offer more gun control measures including seeking a ban on assault weapons and high capacity clips.  Instead of taking time to think through a response to the shooting, these calls were almost instantaneous. 

And what has been the result?

Out of the knee jerk reaction, gun sales on assault style weapons, high capacity clips, ammunition, and most all other sorts of guns has skyrocketed!  Guns are flying off the shelves right and left.  You almost can't find an AR-15 in stock anywhere.  High capacity clips are sold out.  Ammunition is being stock piled.

So, in effect, instead of being patient, allowing things to settle down, and having a debate less driven by emotion and driven by facts and reason--more assault rifles, more high capacity clips, more hand guns, and more ammunition have been added to the public circulation.

Am I happy about this?

No.  Not in the least.  I don't believe guns are the problem or the answer.  I begrudge no one the right or desire to have a weapon, but I'm not in favor of weapon ownership born out of emotion and a desire to have one because "they aren't going to let me have one."  I'm not in favor of weapon ownership born out of fearfulness. 

Just about every year at some point in the Revised Common Lectionary, a text from the second chapter of book of Isaiah is read:

2 In days to come
   the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
   and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3   Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
   to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
   and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
   and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
   and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.

While this day certainly has not arrived, I believe such a world should be worked toward.  I'm not buying an AR-15 any time soon.  Neither am I going to purchase any high capacity clips.  I'm not afraid of my government or of someone coming to take my weapons.  I use them as tools: to provide food.  They are of little protection to me as they remain locked in my gun safe and out of the hands of my children.  I pray I never, ever have to use them against another human.  It is never God's intent for us to kill each other.  Period.  Although He forgives us when we do.

I hope He forgives the people of our nation for loading up and arming ourselves to the teeth when it's really not necessary.  I hope He forgives all the knee-jerk responses. 

We've managed add a whole lot of weaponry to our nation instead of actually deal with the root cause: fear, anger, hatred, and the hardness of our own hearts. 

I was asked in one of the comments whether or not I still believed Jesus was the answer and bringing more people to faith in Him.  Now, more than ever, I say, "YES!  And God grant me the strength, courage, and opportunity to profess it!"

Thursday, January 17, 2013

It All Depends on the Questions

I have been intrigued by the debate in our nation since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary.  The anxiety since that shooting has rested on guns, but that anxiety is now starting to shift some--although I don't know how much--toward conspiracy theories.  Of course, as I pointed out yesterday, conspiracy theories are more about trusting your sources than they are about anything else.  And I think one of the greatest problems facing our nation today is the lack of a source of information that anyone can trust.

Oh, I know that some folks trust particular sources of information, but I do not think there is one agreed upon source that folks believe they can turn to so that they may get come clarity and understanding about a particular issue.  More than a few times when posting on message boards or on social media, sources are challenged with commentary like, "That's a conservative website or organization.  That's a liberal website or organization."  Never mind what might be said is true--it is the underlying agenda which people point to in their deliberations.  

Now, this might be getting closer to the heart of the matter of trust because I think everyone and every organization has an agenda.  Everyone and every organization has something they are trying to accomplish; however, I'm not so sure everyone and every organization is abundantly clear on what it is they are trying to accomplish.  Let me clarify that statement a little more.  Perhaps some people are clear about what they are trying to accomplish internally, but externally, they are unable or unwilling to articulate it clearly to everyone else.

Let me try to tackle this from the perspective of the questions one tries to answer.  As it is still a hot topic, I will use gun control. 

Depending upon which question one is trying to answer, one will come up with vastly different solutions.  Depending upon what one is trying to accomplish--what vision one has, one will come up with very different approaches to another who is trying to accomplish something quite different. 

How does this play out in a real scenario?  Well, let's deal with a couple of problems and the questions they pose.

Problem #1: Mass shootings. 
Question about #1: How do we prevent mass shootings like Columbine, VA Tech, and Sandy Hook?

If this is the problem being addressed and the question posed, the solutions become easier to come up with.  If I were to address this problem and offer my solution which would prevent, as much as we can, such a thing from happening, it would be thus: a complete ban on all guns except muzzle loaded weapons which could be used for hunting, defense, etc.

Why would I offer this solution for prevention?  Nearly all guns on the market require minimal time to fire and minimal time to reload.  I can load four cartridges into my hunting rifle in fifteen seconds or so.  A gunman who can load this fast can still kill a lot of people in a short period of time.  Similarly, a person with a revolver who has a fast loader can accomplish just as much carnage.  To really and truly minimize the damage of a mass shooter, we would have to restrict firearms to those which take a full minute or so to load.  Hence: muzzle loaders.

Problem #2: Lessening Gun violence
Question about #2: How do we curb gun violence in our nation?

If this is the problem being addressed and the question being posed, there is a much different response beginning with the fact that gun violence has been on the decline since the 1980s.  You might never know that watching television and reading the news, but none-the-less, I assure you, it is correct.  You can easily do a search and find this out at your convenience.  For those who are convinced our society is more violent than at any other time in our history, I hope this is eye opening.

So, if lessening gun violence is the overall goal, perhaps we could say we should do nothing.  It's already falling; however, if we want to precipitate it's decline, then perhaps closing some loopholes on background checks (private sales at gun shows, for instance) would be appropriate.

Problem #3: Saving Lives
Question about #3: How can we prevent murder and save peoples' lives?

If this is the problem being addressed and the question being posed, another response is required.  Given that the murder rate is pretty much the same per capita across the board for industrialized nations, the solution to the problem is much deeper than any sort of weapon control we can impose.  Dealing with murder means we have to address the hearts and minds of people as those who commit murder are often capable of doing so with all sorts of tools. 

Referencing above's point that the murder rate is on the decline and has been for two decades, then perhaps we could say we are already doing something and we simply need to stay on course.

After going through the above process, think about the swirl of debate on this issue in our nation right now.  Which questions are being bandied about?  If you listen to any of the dialogue, you will hear every question and every problem introduced at some point of the discussion.  Of course as our minds process all these different questions, different solutions keep popping up, and we cannot seem to get any clarity on what we are really trying to accomplish.

Here's my two cents: it's about clarity in what we are really trying to accomplish.  I'm not sure we've even asked the questions clearly.  And since we don't have clarity, we're forced to come up with our own answers--and of course, that leads to chaos, debate, anxiety, etc.

But it's not about guns, as I said earlier.  It's about trust.  Who do you trust? 

Is it possible to be clear about what we are trying to accomplish?  Is it possible to be able to articulate what we are trying to do and the questions we are trying to answer?  Is it possible to lay our underlying assumptions on the table and invite people to come and see what we have to offer?  Is it possible to allow folks the freedom to accept or reject what we have to say without trying to strong arm them?  Is it possible to allow them the freedom to accept or reject what we are actually trying to accomplish but at the very least allow them to know what that agenda is?

It all comes down to clarity, I think.  Clarity about what a person and organization is trying to accomplish and the questions they are trying to answer.  Such clarity is often missing in our discussions. 

I hope I might personally work at being clear--with the questions I am trying to solve and what I am trying to accomplish in life and in work.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

On Conspiracy Theories

A few days ago, a Facebook friend posted a video which calls into question the events surrounding the Sandy Hook School shooting.  I watched it, and decided the subject was best left alone.  I wasn't going to talk about it, blog about it, or reference it in any conversation on my part.

Then a congregation member saw the video and pointedly asked me if I had seen it, if I would watch it, and what my thoughts were.

Perhaps this response is a bit chicken-$*!#.  I mean, I could jump right out there and say that such conspiracy theories are invented by crazy people who have too much time.  I could go the other direction and say that such a thing wouldn't surprise me in the least as governments and people love power and will do anything to get it.  But perhaps another direction should be taken.  Perhaps one should seek understanding before jumping to conclusions.

William of Occam gave a tremendous gift to philosophy and science when he penned the tenet which has now become known as Occam's Razor.  For the purposes of this blog post, I will state it as such:

All things considered, the simplest explanation is the best explanation.

Case in point: I walk into my office one morning to find the light is on.  No one else is in the office.  I was the last person out the night before.  I don't remember turning the light off.  The simplest explanation is that I forgot to turn out the lights. 

Of course, I could assume and believe that someone came in the middle of the afternoon or night and turned the light on to confuse me.  I could try to build a case for such an ordeal.  I could interview anyone and everyone who has keys to the office and see if they turned on the light.  I could try to find out if someone broke in and turned the light on.  But in each of these cases, I am having to answer a whole lot of extraneous questions and do a whole lot of extra work when the simplest answer is probably the best answer. 

If a particular theory or understanding of events leads to a lot more questions that have to be answered instead of leading to a satisfactory answer, go with a simpler theory.  That's Occam's Razor in a nut-shell, and an important principle to try to understand the world by. 

Therefore, the next question is: does Occam's Razor render all conspiracy theories mute?

In some ways; however, there is that little snippet that I purposely kept in the definition that some omit: All things considered. 

Here is where the problem lies.  Is it possible for us to consider all things? 

The answer, as I have come to see it is, no.  We cannot consider all things for oftentimes we are left without critical pieces of information.  And if the information is not there, our minds will fill in the blanks.

Perhaps you think I have gone off the deep end with that statement.  But rest assured, I haven't, and I can offer you proof that even you have a blind spot and that your mind fills in the blanks.  There is a simple experiment you can do that will show this.

It's called the Blind Spot Experiment.  Try it yourself. 

If you actually did the experiment, you will find two interesting things:

1. There are things right before your eyes that you cannot see.
2. Your brain fills in the blanks (if you did the test, you will notice the shapes disappeared and not the paper itself!)

The implications are exactly as I stated before.  We do not see everything.  We cannot consider everything, and our brains will fill in the blanks so that we come up with a cohesive picture.

Now, if we apply this knowledge to conspiracy theories, we begin to see an answer as to why they proliferate.

In the instance of the Sandy Hook School shooting, there are some things we can consider, and some things that we cannot consider that our brains will seek to piece together.

For instance:

1. We know that initial reports differed greatly from the final reports of the incident.  If you go to Youtube and watch some of the initial reports, you will see that the story changed drastically.  Our brains ask: why?

2. We were not privy to any images of dead children, body bags, blood, bullet holes, carnage, etc.  Because we didn't see it, we are relying upon those who did.  The ultimate question is: are the sources to be trusted?  The brain demands an answer.

3. The sources who tell us about what went on at Sandy Hook are generally government sources and media sources.  Again, all things considered, are these sources seen as reliable, or is there some doubt as to their veracity.  The brain wants an answer.

If no answers are forthcoming and blanks are left, the brain naturally fills them in.  It will take other pieces of connected and perhaps related information and plug them in to form a coherent story.  Even if that story has questions, if that story seems to offer a more satisfying, coherent picture, the brain will stick with that story.

It's the way our brains work, folks!  And much of it has to do with whether or not we trust our sources of information.

For those of you who are Christian, such is even the case with those who question the veracity of our central tenet: the resurrection of Jesus.  One of the main arguments brought against the truth of the resurrection is that Jesus' followers staged the resurrection as a conspiracy to keep Jesus' teachings alive as well as the movement started under His leadership. 

Of course, if you read enough (A good book is Gary Habermas/Michael Licona's The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus), you will see the conspiracy theorists raise more questions that must be dealt with thereby failing Occam's Razor.  However, even with Habermas' book and the case he makes, the real issue boils down to just how much you trust the sources of information.

It is very true that in our society and in this day and age, there is more than a bit of questioning about who one can trust for good information.  We know not all information is presented.  We know some information is intentionally kept from us.  We know our brains can't handle the amount of information that gets thrown at us on a daily basis.  We know some people have ulterior motives.  We know some intentionally leave out information and only present us with the information they want us to hear.  We know we have blind spots and that others have blind spots as well. 

So, what is the truth?  What is reality?  How can we know certain things happened as reported when even our own brains might be deceiving us?

Well, yours truly makes sure he listens, observes, watches, and engages with people and opinions and pictures from all across the spectrum.  Yours truly knows he has a blind spot and that it is usually people who disagree with him who see what he misses.  (O.K. enough of the third person stuff.)  I engage stuff no matter how outlandish it is, and then I ask myself, "Is this reality?  Is this something I want to hear and believe in because it gels with my worldview?  Is this the simplest explanation?  Does this gel with something I feel and believe, or does it gel because it is real?"  Sometimes, I have to take a lot of time to wade through all this stuff.  Sometimes, I have to do an awful lot of thinking, and listening, and researching before I can come to a conclusion.  Sometimes, I have to admit, I don't know the answer because I don't have all the information and until that time when that information becomes available, I must reserve judgment. 

This is the way I operate.  This is how I function in a world, which as I say in the tidbit about myself, "tries to cover up the truth."  And so, I keep on searching for that elusive thing called truth, no matter where it might lead.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

I Will Not Negotiate!

I have watched with interest a dynamic playing out in Washington, D.C. in the past couple of weeks.

Immediately after the "Fiscal Cliff" deal, House Speaker John Boehner essentially said "I'm not going to negotiate with the President face-to-face anymore." 

Yesterday in his press conference, President Obama essentially said, "I'm not going to negotiate with the Republicans anymore." 

Yours truly said, "Hmmm."  Such commentary has become increasingly familiar in our society, and I would like to submit that the President and Speaker of the House are simply playing out the emotional processes which are at work in our society--processes which have their roots deep within the emotional processes of our nation.

Thinking back to the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies essentially broke away because no one wanted to negotiate.  Folks in the colonies were adamant that taxation without representation was wrong.  Folks across the pond thought the colonies should be good vassals and do what they were told.  An impasse ensued.  Parties turned their backs on each other, war ensued. 

I would argue, at this stage, after spending more than a few years with Bowen Family Systems, that the taxation without representation issue wasn't the issue.  It became the binding mechanism which gave an excuse for war with England, but the issue ran much deeper--it was something deep in the emotional process and a failure to deal with the forces of togetherness and separation.

Similarly, in the Civil War, such processes were at work.  Sure, slavery was an issue, but it wasn't the issue.  State's rights were an issue, but they weren't the issue.  Whether or not the U.S. economical and political agendas would be set by industry or agriculture was an issue, but it wasn't the issue.  Again, the emotional processes of togetherness and separation were rearing their heads.  War ensued.

These forces of togetherness and separation are constantly working within our society.  You can tell when they are bringing things to a head when polarization occurs--when people become consumed with either/or thinking.  Emotional outbursts become common.  Negotiation ceases.  Blame gets thrown around.  People use the accusatory "you" instead of defining self with "I".  Anxiety spikes.

In my class, we asked the instructor, "What is something that can help diffuse this anxiety and let it out of the system?"

His reply, "War usually is a good one."  (Not that he was calling war good, mind you.  But, in the history of the world, war is a tremendous expulsion of anxiety.)

We replied, "Any other alternatives?"

Well, there are other alternatives.  Those of us who take this class know this.  Our instructor knows this.  But it is the implementation of such alternatives that are quite difficult; for like it or not, most of us are caught up in those emotional processes which are coursing through society.  Most of us are caught up in the anxiety of society as well.  Most of us find ourselves wound up about hot button issues and clamor to do something about it.  Most of us worry about the future and what we see coming.  Some have even gone so far to suggest the Union should break up--don't laugh.  Conservatives after the last election aren't the only ones saying such things.  Don't believe me, take a look at my posting on Another D@mn School Shooting and see what commentator Gary says about such matters.  He's an admitted left hand side of the fencer.

So, what are those alternatives?

Leadership--the ability of leaders to stay connected with others while maintaining their principles and values.  Having a clear vision of where one wants to go, and articulating that to the best of one's ability--inviting others to join, but allowing people to disagree and walk away from that vision.

Asking different questions--Usually, we get caught up in trying to offer the same answers to the same questions.  It takes thought, creativity, and imagination to ask different questions.

Changing self instead of changing others--When you operate within a system, changing your own stance affects everything around you--if you maintain connectedness.  Simply acting or thinking differently will impact others.  The unfortunate corollary is that the system will try to bring you back to the way you were acting previously.  The ability to maintain one's stance while staying connected in the face of resistance is important.

Realizing you are responsible for your self and not for others--this can be difficult for those of us in "helper" professions.  We want to help people, ease pain, be compassionate.  Sometimes, the most compassionate thing is to allow people to work through their own emotional pain and suffering instead of trying to fix things.

These are just a few items that Bowen Systems Theory tells us about.  I find them very compatible with Christianity and much needed in the cultural milieu that surrounds us. 

I have often said that Christianity is not about how you treat the people who agree and are like you, but how we treat those who are different from us in their beliefs and actions.  Fundamentally, God could have cut us off and stopped negotiating with us and we with Him.  We didn't follow His law and were deserving of punishment and death (the ultimate cut-off in negotiation)--and in fact, there are several instances where God threatened this very thing.  We don't like following God's law and way of doing things because 1) it's hard and 2) it's a lot more fun and easier doing all those things which are self-centered.  For centuries, God operated by trying to punish us and make us follow the law, but God recognized the futility of doing this, so He changed His stance.  He sent a Savior who took our sin upon Him.  Instead of punishment, through Christ, we were given freedom.  And now, we have the choice to abuse it or use it to fulfill God's purposes.  It was a fundamentally different way of doing things.  It raised different questions and prompted a different way of interacting with the world.

This is a message I believe the world, especially the U.S. needs to hear.  Unfortunately, we in the church are not immune from those emotional processes affecting our nation.  We too are experiencing polarization around issues.  We too are affected by all the political debate. 

Is it possible to break through such things?  Is it possible to break through the "I will not negotiate!" attitude and maintain relationships even through disagreement?

Yours truly wouldn't still be a part of his particular denomination if he didn't believe it was possible.  It can be done.  It's difficult, but I think it's worth it.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: He Has Called You By Name

The prophet Isaiah begins chapter 43 by relaying to the people God’s Word. Isaiah writes, "But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine."

What does it mean to have God say to you and to me, "I have called you by name."?

First, I believe it means that God has called us and claimed us in the waters of baptism. He has given us the forgiveness of sins and has shown us the path to a new way of living.

King Duncan, in one of his sermons relays the following illustration: Some of you may have seen the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. This is a whimsical retelling of Homer's Odyssey set in 1930s Mississippi. Three hapless escaped convicts--Everett, Pete and Delmar--are hiding out in the woods, running from the law. There they encounter a procession of white-robed people going down to the lake to be baptized. As they move toward the water they sing, "Let's go down to the river and pray." As the baptism ceremony begins, Delmar is overwhelmed by the beauty and the mystery of this rite. He runs into the water and is baptized by the minister. As he returns to his companions, he declares that he is now saved and "neither God nor man's got nothing on me now." He explains that the minister has told him that all his sins have been washed away. Even, he says, when he stole the pig for which he'd been convicted. "But you said you were innocent of that," one of his fellow convicts exclaims.

"I lied," he says, "and that's been washed away too!"

Later the three convicts steal a hot pie from a window sill. The one who felt that his sins had been washed away returns and places a dollar bill on the window sill.

Delmar wasn't made perfect by his baptism any more than any of the rest of us are made perfect by our baptism. But he was conscious that it was time for him to make a new beginning. That is why in understanding baptism we begin with the washing away of our sins. Having God call us by name begins in exactly this spot.

But there is more. Secondly, when God calls us by name, this means He wishes to continue communicating with us. He wants to help us make our way through this messy world. He wants to offer us comfort when we are in pain and suffering. He wants to give us discernment when facing difficult choices. He wants to affirm us when we make the correct decisions. He wants to let us know He is watching out for us even when things don’t necessarily look all that great.

But, you might wonder. " If God wants to communicate like this, why am I not hearing Him? Why does it seem like God is silent so often? How come I seem to be missing His guidance and instruction?" These are good questions and not to be taken lightly. There are occasions when God is intentionally silent allowing us to come to conclusions on our own, just as a good parent tries to give his or her children the opportunity to make their own decisions. But there are many occasions when it is we who are at fault and who are not listening.

For instance, there is a story which occurs back when the telegraph was the fastest means of long-distance communication. The story tells about a young man who applied for a job as a Morse code operator. Answering an ad in the newspaper, he went to the address that was listed. When he arrived, he entered a large, noisy office. In the background a telegraph clacked away. A sign on the receptionist's counter instructed job applicants to fill out a form and wait until they were summoned to enter the inner office.

The young man completed his form and sat down with seven other waiting applicants. After a few minutes, the young man stood up, crossed the room to the door of the inner office, and walked right in. Naturally the other applicants perked up, wondering what was going on. Why had this man been so bold? They muttered among themselves that they hadn't heard any summons yet. They took more than a little satisfaction in assuming the young man who went into the office would be reprimanded for his presumption and summarily disqualified for the job.

Within a few minutes the young man emerged from the inner office escorted by the interviewer, who announced to the other applicants, "Gentlemen, thank you very much for coming, but the job has been filled by this young man."

The other applicants began grumbling to each other, and then one spoke up, "Wait a minute--I don't understand. He was the last one to come in, and we never even got a chance to be interviewed. Yet he got the job. That's not fair."

The employer responded, "We sent the summons on the telegraph in Morse code. The rest of you didn’t hear yours; however, this young man came back to be interviewed, and the rest of you stayed put. He understands the code already. Thank you for your time."

Just like that telegraph in the background was beating out a message that some couldn’t or wouldn’t hear, God is very often speaking in the background of our lives. Many times we are either too busy or too focused on other noises to hear His voice. But the good news is that God does not stop trying to communicate. God does not cease to offer up His voice, mostly that still, small whisper that reaches out to you and to me. Because He has called us by name and has given us the promise at baptism, He won’t desert us. He won’t stop trying to reach us. He cares that much.

Finally, when we realize He has called us by name, has forgiven our sins, is seeking to communicate with us, and when we finally hear Him, we find meaning in life and a purpose for doing what we do.

There is an old story about Mozart, I think it was, (it could have been Beethoven, but I am not sure as I am recalling this from memory), who one day went to visit a friend who had lost her husband. Seeing his friend’s grief, words escaped him. He had no earthly idea what to say to console her in her grief.

So, Mozart sat down at the piano and began to play. Through the piano, he poured out his feelings for his friend. He poured out his grief and his wish to console her even though words escaped him. He played and he played. After he was finished, he offered his friend a few words of goodby and left.

Later, the woman expressed just how meaningful Mozart’s visit was. His music had touched her heart and soul and brought her great comfort in the midst of her grief.

Now, perhaps Mozart was frustrated by his lack of words and wondered if he even made a difference by his visit, but the truth of the matter is that God used Mozart’s gifts, his talents, his abilities to make a difference in the life of his friend, and, of course, in the life of music.

When we hear God’s voice and understand our own gifts and talents are our gifts from Him to used within our sphere of influence, we find ourselves delighted in what we are doing. Sure, at times we may become frustrated and wonder if we are even coming close to making a difference, but if we are listening–if we take the time to look at those most affected by what we do as we use what God has given us, we will indeed come to a deep satisfaction with our lives knowing we are serving God and serving others. And we sense that satisfaction all because God has called us by name. Amen.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Another D@mn School Shooting

This time it happened in California.  You can read the story here.
Normally,  I don't do this,  but for the sake of argument, let's play the blame game.  Who is to blame for this shooting?
Please note, I did not ask who was responsible.  The shooter is obviously responsible for his own actions.  What I am after is who or what to blame.  Let's list some possibilities:
We can blame the shooter himself to begin with, who obviously didn't have very good coping mechanisms.
Yet,  I don't think we can stop there because we get our coping mechanisms from our families.  Therefore we can blame the shooter's family for not doing a better job of raising their kid.
Oh, but wait, how we raise our kids is often influenced greatly by the surrounding culture and peer group as well as our families.  Therefore, we must spread some blame to the family's peer group as well as any the authors of any books the family read pertaining to parenting as well as any television counselors the family saw and followed concerning child rearing.  And we must blame previous generations for instilling their thoughts on child rearing on the shooter's parents.
Yet, this seems inadequate considering the student said that he was bullied.  Doesn't the bully share some of the blame?  Shouldn't he be held accountable in some fashion as he contributed to the circumstances leading up to the shooting?
And if we learn such bullying behavior in our families,  then doesn't the shooter's family deserve some blame?  And, of course,  this family was influenced by their peer group and the surrounding culture and previous family members as well.
But what about the school and the teachers and coaches?  Shouldn't they have been more proactive in watching the dynamics between students?  Shouldn't they have been more diligent in observing how athletes treated others?  Shouldn't they have caught this before it had a chance to escalate?
And what about the other students?  Did they not have opportunity to either address the bullying themselves or reach out to the bullied to offer support, compassion, or care that might have prevented this from going too far?
Or what about Hollywood which revels in telling stories about the weak guy who became strong and exacted revenge upon those who bullied him in the first place?
What about those violent video games which stimulate those portions of our brains prone to violence and make killing entertainment?
And what about the ease of the shooter to obtain his brother's shot gun?  Shouldn't the ease of access to the weapon share some of the blame?
Oh, I guess we can begin blaming the NRA for its stance on the right to bear arms.
And where was the Church or other organized religion in this ordeal?  Why weren't they reaching out to the shooter to show him another way of handling being bullied?  Why weren't they reaching out to the alleged bully football player teaching him that strength is best used to protect instead of inflict harm?
Is there anyone else we can add to this list?  I am quite sure it has not been exhausted yet.  I haven't said anything about blaming the media, Democrats, Republicans, or even God.  I'm sure I could spread some blame there as well.
But perhaps I don't need to.  Perhaps you have already come to see the point of this post.  Perhaps you have come to see the futility in placing blame.  But I have no doubt there will be a myriad of pundits once again trying to assessed it and fix the problem.
But the problem is actually quite complex when trying to assess blame and then fix.  Once again it boils down to human nature and the way the world works.  This is why when people stop and think after tragic events, they often come to the conclusion that nothing really can be done to solve the problem.  You and I cannot fix what is wrong with the world or what is wrong with humanity.
The best we can do is turn to the One who can and beseech Him to get busy working on His promised transformation.  And, it would behoove each of us to remember that transformation is desperately needed within us and that as such transformation occurs within each of us, it slowly but surely addresses the problem -- piece by piece, individual by individual.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Pausing Before Acting

I deal with situations of grief and loss.  A lot.

I deal with people who lose spouses.

I deal with people who lose children.

I deal with people who get diagnosed with cancer.

I deal with people whose children suffer strange illnesses and debilitating attacks.

In every circumstance, there is an initial stage of doing and working through the emergency circumstances of what is/has happened.  And then the hard work begins--working through the next several months/years of grief, depression, anxiety, acceptance, and healing.

One thing has emerged in nearly every circumstance.  There is one piece of advice given to nearly every person who has lost a spouse or child or suffered through a long ordeal of fighting a disease:

Do not make any major decisions for at least six months!

I am not the only person making such a recommendation.  Grief counselors and others offer this advice on a regular basis.  My members who have worked with hospice tell of receiving this counsel, and it is wise.

The reasoning behind the counsel is that when going through emotional turmoil, we don't think clearly.  We don't make decisions based on logic, reason, or what may be best.  We are not operating with the full capacity of our brains.  We tend to be locked down in the brain stem which is reactive instead of pro-active.  Time is needed to allow clear thinking so that better decisions can be made.  Those who follow the advice usually are very, very thankful that they did.

Which brings me to dealing with societal issues.

Looking at how our society currently operates leads me to believe we should put a six month moratorium on making major legal decisions after some sort of national tragedy. 

Our knee jerk response to 9/11 led us into giving up freedoms Americans used to enjoy.
Our knee jerk response to Hurricane Katrina led to playing blame games instead of dealing with the real problems of infrastructure.
Our current knee jerk response to the Sandy Hill school shooting is filled with heated emotion and rhetoric.

I have even read reports citing lawmakers rushing to implement things "before the public has a chance to settle down and memories fade about the events."


When I hear such talk, I hear, "get stuff done while the emotions are running hot!" 

Would any sane person offer the same sort of suggestion to a grieving widow?   Not a chance.

Why is it that politicians and others want to spring into action immediately following a tragedy or something that causes immeasurable grief instead of being patient, allowing the hot emotions to run their course, and then thinking through that which should be done?  Why is it that something must be done now, now, NOW! 

I have been blessed with a congregation full of people who take time to work through things.  Several ideas we have considered  one month at a meeting were quickly disregarded the following month as thought was given.  What seemed like a good idea one week was put down two months later as it was given consideration before voting.  Even in deciding to hire new staff, our congregation took months to deliberate it.  Generally, this has led to wise decisions that were in the best interest of the whole.  Not everyone agreed, but taking time to deliberate, to think, and to wade through makes all the difference in the world.

Is it too much to ask for such patience when addressing complicated issues?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Another Year, More Lessons Learned

It has been customary for me on my birthday for the past several years to reflect upon the previous year and the lessons I have learned in that year.  I am several days late in that reflection as my birthday fell on my day off.  That day off was spent in preparation for my eldest daughter's birthday the following day as well as our immediate family's celebration of her birthday.  Then, came the extended family's party.  The next day was church and the last day of hunting season.  Monday is usually posting my sermon from the previous Sunday, so as events unfolded, I finally find the time to post such reflections--four days late.  Oh, well.

Here's my thoughts on finishing up my 38th year and beginning my 39th:

1. The biggest lesson came in experiencing burnout.  That really, really sucked, but as I look back, it was probably one of the best things that could have happened to me.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Going through burnout helped me grow tremendously as a father and husband, as a person, and as a pastor.

  • As a husband and father: I vividly remember an episode that happened as I entered the initial stages of burnout.  I had hit the emotional wall and in some ways began toning out and shutting down.  My wife made the comment, "I can see what's happening.  It's just like back in Seguin before we left.  You are starting to shut down and aren't having fun."  Right then, I made a promise internally and externally.  I looked right at my wife and said, "This time will be different.  I will not take things out on you or on our family.  I will not bring work home.  I can't do that to you or the kids."  And I didn't.  I worked on being a better husband and father in that respect.  I wouldn't allow the burnout at work to affect my family, and I don't think it did.  In fact, it made me re-emphasize the importance of my family and the calling I have to be there for them.

  • As a person: I really and truly learned to prioritize.  I really and truly learned that I cannot change anyone but myself.  I really and truly realized that making disciples is more about strengthening one's own relationship with Christ instead of trying to make others do such a thing.
Prioritizing: I was trying to do too much.  I realize that now.  I realize it is not my job to do everything but to focus on the things I am supposed to do.  As I worked my way through things, I knew my most important priorities were following Christ, passing my faith down to my kids, and reaching out to those who don't live in a relationship with Christ.  I started looking at all I was doing and started making adjustments so that these priorities took precedence.  Somethings have been cut out.  Some things get less attention, but for my health, the health of my faith, the health of my chilren's faith, and the health of my congregation and it's faith, it must be done.  I've realized being spread too thin distracts from the most important things even if some feel attention is lacking.

Changing self and making disciples: I have a dream about my congregation.  It's not just a dream for my congregation, but for the entire church.  I, like others, long for a church full of people who long and yearn to make Christ the ultimate priority in their lives.  I long for a church where people are passionate about making disciples.  I long for a church where people are enthusiastic about inviting others to church, welcome them with genuine hospitality, truly care for those both outside and inside the walls of the church, and are uber generous to the point where bills are paid and there is plenty of money to give away--even frivolously.  I dream of a congregation growing exponentially because it puts into practice these tenets and refuses to get bogged down in controversy or anxiety or animosity or brokenness.  I dream of a church that says, "We have more important things to do than squabble over such matters.  We have a message to tell that can change lives and change the world!"  And the church does it.  And thrives.  And grows.  And has a sense of purpose, and joy, and peace.

I thought it was my job to make all that happen.  I got caught up in the idea that I had to work super-hard to bring such a dream to fruition.  I know that can't happen now.  I know the harder I try to make people fall into line with such a vision, the further from reality it will become.  I know the harder I push people to be like I want them to be, the more they will refuse.  Not because they don't necessarily share that vision, but because people don't like being told how they should and shouldn't be and what they should and shouldn't do.  I recognize there are boundaries.  So do most folks, but there is a great difference between voluntarily doing what one should do and being told one has to do it! 

I understand my role as a pastor is not necessarily to make people do what I think they should do, but to let them know what I am working toward--to invite them to be a part of the process--and to love them, genuinely and truly love them, even if they choose not to participate in that process.  It is my job to change, not my congregation, but myself.  It is my job to be open to the Spirit's prompting to become more like Jesus--as imperfectly as that process is--and follow Him showing others the same love He showed me.  And as I change, as I do my own part to reach out for that dream of the church, others may catch that vision and work toward it as well.  But even if they don't, it's okay.  I'm not called to change others, just to love them.  It's God's job to make that change occur.  I need to get out of the way. 

It was a hard lesson to learn, but I really believe I am better for it now.

  • As a pastor: Because of the above, I spend less time trying to manage all the details of life in my congregation.  I've worked to become more and more "hands off" with what is going on in the congregation.
At first thought, this might seem counter-intuitive.  Why in the world would a pastor draw back?  Why in the world would a pastor stop involving himself in all the different decisions being made in his own congregation?  That doesn't sound like leadership.  That sounds like an abdication of responsibility.

Perhaps it is.  Perhaps.  And in some ways, it is an abdication; however, I realize that I lost sight of something very important--something I understood when I first arrived in Cat Spring.  It is my job--whenever it occurs--to leave this congregation in better shape than when I first found it. 

What would happen to this congregation if every decision had to run through my desk?  What if people felt like they had to have my approval for every little jot and tittle of ministry that they wanted to do?  What if people didn't feel like they had the freedom to make their own ministry decisions?  And what if I was actually doing all the work and preventing people from handling the business of the church?  What if I handled all the stuff because it was just easier for me to do it?  I was already there?  People didn't "care" as much as I did (that's really a stupid thought in all reality)?

If a congregation's mission and ministry hinges on a pastor, then when that pastor leaves or retires or what have you, then the mission and ministry collapses.  Plain and simple.  Therefore, in order to leave a congregation better than when I found it, it is paramount that the mission, ministry, and decision making revolve around the people in the pews and not the pastor.  I can serve as a guide, as a resource of Christian thought and doctrine, as a proclaimer of God's Word and an administer of the Sacraments; but I do the congregation a great injustice if I try to "do" all the work of the congregation.

Somehow, I lost sight of that.  Somehow, I felt the need to do more and more.  I took on too much responsibility.  I was not being a good pastor.  I had to change.

And I did.  I'm working much harder at "being" instead of "doing."  I'm working much harder at cheering on my congregation members as they step up to the plate and do the work God has called them to do.  Case in point: this past Sunday, we were taking down Christmas decorations, and a member approached me concerning the star at the top of the tree.

"It bothers me we don't have lights on the star.  It's bothered me for several years.  Do you think anyone will get mad if I take the star and put lights on it?  Will they plug it in next year?"

I replied, "I'm not going to tell you not to do it.  If you want to put lights on that star, go for it!"

It might seem like a little thing, but someone is doing something for the church.  Someone is actively getting involved.  Not necessarily in an earth shattering way, but in a way that enables this person to take pride in doing something this person feels he/she can do.  And with a little start, putting lights on a star can translate into serving on the Altar Guild--which could translate into being president of the Women of the Church--which could translate into serving on church council--which could translate into asking the congregation to support a poor family or a ministry going on around the world. 

As a pastor, I have rediscovered the adage: GET OUT OF THE WAY AND LET THE PEOPLE DO WHAT THEY CAN DO TO SERVE GOD.  Don't try to force them.  They will do their part.  It won't necessarily be the way you do it, but there are more than a few ways to skin a cat.  Be their pastor.  Don't do their work.  Lead and guide.  Give them permission to be and do as God calls them.  Love them, let God change them if that is His plan.  Don't be arrogant and think you know what is best for everyone in your congregation--be humble.  Pray.  Preach.  Laugh.  Learn.  Teach.  Love.  Be there when called.  Show compassion.  Strive to be like Christ.  Dream.  Seek first God's Kingdom, and everything else will follow.

Again, a tough lesson for someone who wants to do, who wants to accomplish.  But a lesson learned. 

All this, and just from going through burnout.  There are more lessons I learned this past year, but this post is getting a little long.  Perhaps more will be added later.  Until then...