Thursday, February 28, 2013


"But Corin will be the King, then Father," said Cor.

"Nay, lad," said King Lune, "thou art my heir.  The crown comes to thee."...

"Oh dear," said Cor. "I don't want to at all.  And Corin--I am most dreadfully sorry.  I never dreamed my turning up was going to chisel you out of your kingdom."

"Hurrah!  Hurrah!" said Corin.  "I shan't have to be King.  I shan't have to be King.  I'll always be a prince.  It's princes have all the fun."

"And that's truer than thy brother knows, Cor," said King Lune.  "For this is what it means to be a king: to be first in every desperate attack and last in every desperate retreat, and when there's hunger in the land (as must be now and then in bad years) to wear finer clothes and laugh louder over a scantier meal than any man in your land."   --C.S. Lewis, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Horse and His Boy  pp. 239-240 
When I read these words, I stopped.  I went back and re-read and then re-read them once again.  I began to consider them deeply as they pertain to leadership.

Do leaders, kings, presidents act as King Lune describes?

Do those who are looked upon as leaders exhibit these same qualities?

Willingness to lead into battle?

Be the last in retreat?

Dress to the hilt and laugh while sharing in the sorrows and hurts as a nation is hurting while eating less than those who have the least to eat in such a suffering land?

Yes, I could point fingers at presidents.  And governors.  And CEO's.  And bishops.  And popes.  And those of any particular political persuasion.

But I would do better to look at myself.

How do I measure up with such leadership?

Am I willing to bear such burdens?

Am I willing to put my own safety and security on the line to lead the charge, to cover the retreat, and to bear the same burdens that those I lead bear?

In some ways, yes.

In others, no.

I do not know the poverty of some of my members.  I do not know what it is like to live paycheck to paycheck.  Partially it is because of how we manage our money as a family.  Partially it is because I am well cared for by my congregation.  I do not eat fillet mignon; yet, neither do I subsist on rice and beans.  Generally, I eat middle class fare as I am middle class.  When times are tight for the least of these, my congregation doesn't hesitate to help out, but I certainly do not change my diet.  In this, I do not measure up.

But in other respects, I do try to implement such leadership.

I have told my congregation that I will not ask anyone there to do anything I will not be willing to do myself.

Therefore, I am seen at various times:

Taking out the church garbage.
Washing dishes after a meal.
Taking off my collar and engaging strangers in public.
Disciplining my kids in the middle of worship.
Teaching children's Sunday School.
Taking time for prayer.
Saying "no" to being busy just for the sake of being busy.
Realizing my limitations and refusing to work every evening and jeopardize too much time with my family.
Tackling difficult subjects like divorce, pre-marital sex, universal Truth, our relationships with those who believe differently, etc.
Working on other people's property to improve it even when not expected of me or for little personal gain.
Getting my hands dirty with the behind the scenes work at the church--the stuff many people do but are not seen doing and rarely getting appreciation for it.

I say this not to boost my own resume, but as a description.  I don't do such things to be recognized by my congregation or by any particular person.  I do it because I believe that is what a leader does.  He/she works with people in service to help them discover their own strengths and abilities so that they may use them in service to God and to one another.

It does little good for a leader to pontificate without proper action.

Does this mean I do things perfectly?

Certainly not.

I am a hypocrite at times.  There are times when I say something then do quite the opposite.  I know that I am doing wrong.  I do not wish to do it, but I do it anyway.  Wretched man that I am.  A man named Paul felt the same way, but he, like I know the grace and mercy of God.

And it is because of that grace and mercy that I dare to say that I am a leader.  I dare to "lead the charge against the gates of hell with a bucket of water."  Not because I believe I will do any good, but because I believe that leaders go first.  Equipped with the grace, mercy, love, and power of God, we dare to take the first risk and then protect everyone if that risk fails as we fall back.

Princes may have all the fun.

But leaders have the joy of responsibility.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Where is the Anxiety?

I rarely catch a cold.

Usually, I'm very healthy, and I believe it's mostly because I can regulate my anxiety very well.

Oh, but I caught one this past weekend.

It started coming on Friday around noon, was full blown by that evening, and caused me to function well below normal on Saturday.

Sunday morning was our monthly Gospel Service. 

I sing lead. 

Uh oh.

Mucinex + Affrin nose spray + two shots of whiskey + numerous cough drops = being able to muddle through without too much distortion.

Today, things are getting better, but I am wondering where the anxiety was creeping up.  Where was the stress level elevated.

I partially know the answer: for the past three weeks, I've had meetings or church work scheduled every night of the week.  On a couple of those weeks, I bugged out of choir practice because I wasn't going to spend every evening doing church work.

Was I anxious about bugging out on something I should be doing?

Possibly.  Even likely.

I believe such is the cost of actually changing how one does things.  In years past, I would have pressed on and worked every evening regardless of the cost to my family time or my personal time.  I would have "sacrificed" for the greater good of the congregation.

Well, that was before burning out last year.  I know better.  I know that one must take time for one's family and self now.  One must cut back on other things even though those things do carry some importance.

Yet, this was going against how I usually did things.  This was doing things differently.  In the back of my mind the question still rang, "What will others think about you bugging out of these things?"

I've been working at beating back that question with a big stick.  But it's difficult.  It's difficult to change one's ways.  It's difficult to change from an over-functioner to a regular-functioner.  It's difficult to scale things back after doing things one way for so long.  I think this is where the anxiety came from.  I think this is why my immune system was a bit down instead of being up to its usual challenge.

Through time, I'll adapt.  The questioning will go away.  I won't wonder as much about what others are thinking.  I will be confident in my decisions to walk away from certain things because I simply cannot do it all.  The anxiety will fade, and I won't get sick as much once again.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Fired for Pre-Marital Sex

From the things that make you go, "I wonder how this will turn out?" department.

A woman was fired from San Diego Christian College because she had pre-marital sex.  (Story here.)

Now, she's suing the college. 


Let the battle begin.

The culture where pre-marital sex is not only permissible but is oftentimes encouraged versus an institution of the church which adheres to the principle that sex outside of marriage is sinful.

It's obvious that the church is losing this battle society wise, but will the legal system punish the institution for firing this woman.  Now, I understand that the only way they were able to find out that the gal was having pre-marital sex was that she ended up pregnant.  That in itself presents an intriguing conundrum.  How can the college (or any particular institution) figure out if it's male employees are having pre-marital sex?  There isn't exactly an obvious sign for that one, is there?  That might complicate the college's legal battle here.

It is worth noting that the woman in the video said she felt that the college's actions were not "Christ-like." 

What does that mean?  What would the "Christ-like" action look like?

Would it be to say, "We disagree with what you've done, but you can keep working.  We will not adhere to our policy or the covenant you signed when you went to work for us."?

Would it be to say, "You are a sinner and condemned to eternal punishment for violating the sixth commandment."?

Would it be some other route?

I believe it's important to remember that as Christians, we know that we are forgiven.  We know that Christ absolves us of our sins the moment we confess them and ask for forgiveness.  This is not in dispute.

But does forgiveness mean there are no consequences of sin?

That is where things get a bit more interesting. 

Sin has consequences.  Real-life consequences.  I believe the pain of those consequences is a means by which we are taught that we shouldn't do such things again. 

When my daughter was about two or so, we went to eat at a Mexican food restaurant.  Grandma and grandpa were along for the ride, and my daughter wanted to sit next to them.  When the waiter brought our food, he said, "Careful, these plates are hot."

Not only did the waiter give us fair warning, so did grandma and grandpa.  They told my daughter, "It's hot.  Don't touch."

But as kids are wont to do, she touched the plate. 

There was wailing and gnashing of teeth. 

We soothed my daughter as much as possible, but then we all looked at her and said, "So, do you think next time you are going to listen."

My daughter has not touched a hot plate since.

Lesson learned.

In the circumstance of the woman who was fired, losing her job is one such consequence.  She broke a covenant.  There is no doubt of that.

But now, there are some other problematic things:

1. At six months of being pregnant, how will the woman pay for the delivery of the child?  Will she be able to afford or find medical insurance to ensure the safe delivery of her child?

The woman's firing will lead to much financial hardship because of this.  Is making her pay exorbitant medial fees for the delivery of her child inflicting too much pain--even if that pain helps her learn?  That is something to be wrestled with.

2. By terminating the woman, there is now little or no means for supporting the child.  The church professes to be pro-life.  Is the church willing to support this woman's child now that it has taken away her means of living?  Perhaps the college is no longer willing to keep the woman in a paid position--that is fair according to the covenant she signed, but is sentencing her to time on the government's dime through welfare the answer?  I'm not sure.

3. Was the firing done compassionately?  Did they tell her, "We forgive you, but there are consequences to your actions.  Your job must be forfeited.  Yet, your actions do not cause our love and support for you to cease.  We will help you seek employment elsewhere.  We will help you procure health care for you and your child.  We do not approve of what you did, but we will act with the compassion of Christ."

As you might tell, #3 is my preferred option.

Sound too lavish?

Take a moment and re-read the story of the Prodigal Son, and you tell me.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: Stand Firm

I dreamed that I was hiking in the mountains. It was a clear and gorgeous day. The mountain air was refreshing. The flowers were in bloom. Birds chattered. As I walked through a valley, I began to hear the trickle of a mountain stream. It was music in my ears causing me to laugh out loud, filling me with pure, unadulterated joy. Soon, I came to the stream. It gurgled and leaped over small rocks and boulders. It was clear and pure.

I stopped by its banks. The air had warmed from the morning coolness and was rapidly becoming hot. "How nice it would be," I thought "to wade in the water and cool my feet."
I took off my shoes, placed them in my backpack and put on the water socks I carried for just such an occasion. I waded into the stream, and the coolness sent a shiver up my spine. It took a few moments, but I finally became used to it.

There was ample sand in the bottom of the creek to justify walking in it for a while, so I did. Ah, the beauty was overwhelming as I walked through that valley. Yet, as I walked, I noticed something. I noticed the stream had eroded the soil in that valley. Before long, the walls of the creek towered above my head. I didn’t become too concerned. There were ample handholds and footholds. I knew I could easily climb out.
I wasn’t done enjoying the coolness of the stream and the beauty of its sound.

But then something started happening. The water began rising, rapidly. I knew I needed to get out, but before I could make my way to the bank to climb out, the water was waist deep. I knew I was in trouble. I began to wonder if this were the end. I was fortunate; however, the water stopped rising at my mid-section. Yet, it still swirled around me, threatening to knock me off my feet and take me under.

I considered my options.

Reaching the bank was impossible. The swirling water would knock me off my feet for sure and send me sweeping downstream. There was no telling how far it would carry me and because of the power of the water, it was sure to drag me under. There was no climbing out.

I could try to swim with the current. I could try to make it to a place where the bank was lower and the current was lessened. If I went along with the stream, it was possible I could eventually get out. But as I thought about it, I dismissed it for the same reasons as trying to reach the bank. Mountain streams are too unpredictable. I could easily be slammed against a rock or be dragged under. Going along with the flow was not an option.

I thought about pressing onward into the current. I thought about fighting the power of the water. As I pondered this, I felt the weight of the current against my stomach. I felt its power, and I knew this too was impossible. I knew this too would not work because in a matter of minutes, my strength would be exhausted from the fight. I would become too tired, too fatigued. It was useless to fight the power of the stream because it was simply too powerful.

And so I came to my final option: stand firm. Be patient. Wait and let the stream’s power subside so that I could eventually climb out. There was no need to go along with the flow. There was no need to fight against the current. Stand firm and let the waters flow around. Let the danger pass, and then I would have plenty of strength to continue on. I shuffled my feet until I found a solid rock to brace my feet against, and I stood firm. I waited. The current impacted me, but because I had a strong foundation to rest against, I was not moved.

It seemed like an eternity. It seemed like hours upon end, but the stream finally abated. The current returned to normal. It chuckled and laughed along again. The fear had passed, and I could continue on. Since I was already wet, I stayed in the stream, and was rewarded with more beauty, more joy, and more peace. During the turmoil, this was not the case, but having gone through that rough place, I appreciated the beauty even more.

"Stand firm in the Lord," St. Paul says in our second lesson from the book of Philippians. "Stand firm."

It is important to remember the St. Paul is, in all likelihood, writing this book while he is a prisoner. In all likelihood, Paul knows he is facing persecution and death in a very short amount of time. He is not writing from a place of safety or security. The waters are foaming and surrounding him; threatening to drag him under. And he has choices ahead of him. He knows he will be dragged before the emperor to give an accounting of his faith. He knows he will have to choose what to do..

He could go along with the flow. He could renounce Jesus as Lord and say that Caesar is lord. He could save his own life, but what sort of witness would that provide to others? Perhaps he could save his life, but what would that do to his soul? What would it profit him to save his life for a few more days or months? Would he be able to continue to have any credibility as a proclaimer of Jesus Christ? Going with the flow was not an option.

He could become combative. He could fight the stream and try to wade against it. He could argue and whine and complain. He could make his case and demand that Christianity be accepted and that if it were not, believers would forcibly rise up and seek to overthrow Rome. But such actions were not in accordance to how Jesus called His disciples to act. Rising up and fighting was not Jesus’ way. The cross was. Trying to fight upstream was not an option.

Stand firm in the Lord. Stand firm upon the foundation of faith.

Paul does not renounce his faith. He does not become combative. He becomes a witness of the Gospel to the emperor, and it cost him his life. Yet, even though it cost him his life, Paul entered into a place of eternal glory. The promise of God is to see one through. Even though death might take us, God’s promise of eternal life reigns supreme.

Most of us are not facing the dire circumstances of Paul. Most of us do not have our lives on the line, but at times we too are surrounded by streams of rushing water. We too find ourselves faced with the choice of fighting against the stream or going along with the flow. We face the choice of being taken along with culture, society, our peer group or what have you, or we face fighting that same culture, society, or peer group. In either circumstance the decision is a tough one.

Or, we find ourselves in the midst of a devastating situation. A loved one dies. A job is lost. Income is substantially reduced. The waters rise, and we are overwhelmed. We again have a choice. Do we allow the tide to sweep us away carrying us to depths of despair and hopelessness? Do we try to fight it by burying the pain down deep and making it look like we are fine and dandy even when we know we are not? Do we bury it and exhaust ourselves trying to make ourselves look strong? Either decision seems bleak.

Or, do we stand firm in the Lord? Do we stand firm in our convictions yet continue to associate with our culture, society, and peer group? Do we stand firm in the hope of Jesus Christ and allow the streams to swirl around us knowing that God will deliver us?

Paul believed in those promises. He believed God would take care of him. He believed that the waters would subside, that the journey would continue, that he would reach the ultimate destination and place prepared for him. Those promises helped him to stand firm. May they help you as well. Amen.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

I am Going to Work

Tomorrow, I am going to work.  It will not be work involving a computer, cell phone, desk, pencil, book, or any sort of high tech toy.  It will not involve counseling or writing sermons or blogs or books. 

Tomorrow, I will, as I have done in the past four weeks, take part of my Friday to perform manual labor.

Since discovering I like to hunt, several members have invited me to their ranches to enjoy the sport.  I have taken them up in their offer, and in each place, I have taken the time to put in several hours of manual labor.

At one ranch, I planted a clover patch to improve the hunting.
At another, I have cleared out right aways and fence lines.
At another, I am putting up a feeder to attract hogs for removal.

Last week, as I was cutting Yupon and chopping down small cedar trees, I began thinking, "Why?  Why am I doing this?"  No one is expecting me to put in this work.  No one is telling me I have to do this in order to enjoy hunting on their property.  Most of the folks are content to just allow me to hunt without having to expend any physical labor or cash on my part.  So why do I feel the need to jump in there and work?

As I examined my motivations, there were a few that popped up.  I will begin with perhaps the most selfish:

1. I need some time for manual labor during the week.  I have found that I think more clearly after taking the time to truly work my muscles.  I need to chop weeds with a hoe, wield an ax, or cut with clippers.  I need to use up the accumulated cortisol within my body which is produced when dealing with anxious situations.  As sweat pours down my face, I know it is removing toxins and allowing my body to purify itself.  When you work at a desk and sit visiting people throughout the week, your body doesn't do much of this work.  And it needs it. 

2. I am expressing my gratitude to those who are letting me hunt.  Throughout my years of seminary training and in meeting with mentors and other experts, I have been told repeatedly that it is important for pastors to have a hobby outside of their church.  I really didn't have much of one.  Sure, I involved myself with playing computer games for a number of years, but I wasn't a serious gamer.  As I have aged, I no longer can lose myself in playing those games either.  I needed something else.  Going through burnout brought that need further to the surface, and I do not think it a coincidence that I was invited to start hunting as I was reaching that critical point.   My congregation members who are letting me hunt probably have no idea just how therapeutic it has been and how healing it has been for both my body, mind and soul.  I am truly grateful for this opportunity, and I want to express it by hopefully improving their places.

3.  That is a perfect segue into the final reason I believe I am working.  There is something within me that drives me to improve things; not only things that belong to me, but especially things that belong to someone else.  When I was growing up, my parents repeatedly told me, "If you borrow something, try to return it in better condition than when you received it."  That is sometimes awful hard.  I was once loaned a Jeep in mint condition.  Of course I washed it and cleaned it before returning it, but the only thing I could think of to improve it was to leave a six pack of Shiner Bock in the back seat!!!  Sometimes, you've got to be creative.  Sometimes, you've just got to use some muscle.  As I work, I enjoy seeing a difference being made.  I enjoy seeing plants sprout up.  I enjoy seeing clear fence lines.  I enjoy seeing clear right of ways.  I enjoy seeing a ranch owner pleased that the pigs that were tearing up his property are getting removed.  I do not have a lot of financial means to help neighbors improve their property, but at this stage of my life, I do have energy and some muscle left.  It pleases me to use it to help my neighbor.

As I sweat tomorrow, I will no doubt think about what I am doing and why.  I just hope that those who are allowing me to work realize the blessing it is to me to be able to do such things.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Slowing Down

Tonight I will be delivering the first sermon in my Lenten series entitled, "Slow Down."

This series is born out of observation and experience.

I've forced myself to slow down. 

I had to.

Last year, I went through a period of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion.  Experts label it burnout.

It sucks.

In the midst of a growing congregation with many demands, I had to define what was most important--what deserved most of my attention.

And I had to let go of other things.

I had to slow things down in my own personal and professional life or risk consequences to my health and well being.

Furthermore, it would not only affect my health and well being, but the health and well being of my congregation.

The Biblical witness testifies to this.  It's one of my core stories that helps me form my pastoral identity:

13 The next day Moses sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening. 14When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, ‘What is this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people stand around you from morning until evening?’ 15Moses said to his father-in-law, ‘Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16When they have a dispute, they come to me and I decide between one person and another, and I make known to them the statutes and instructions of God.’ 17Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘What you are doing is not good. 18You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You should represent the people before God, and you should bring their cases before God; 20teach them the statutes and instructions and make known to them the way they are to go and the things they are to do. 21You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain; set such men over them as officers over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens. 22Let them sit as judges for the people at all times; let them bring every important case to you, but decide every minor case themselves. So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. 23If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace.’  Exodus 18: 13-23
 Now, obviously, I didn't do such a good job of this earlier.  Sometimes, one must learn a difficult lesson the hard way.
I think I did.

I've slowed down and turned things over to those who are gifted to handle them within the midst of the congregation.

It's working well and changing how things are working. 

I no longer feel the weight of the congregation resting upon me.  It's a shared burden.

I no longer invent things to keep me busy.  If I have finished my required work, I go home, hunting, to work in my garden or other such activity.  I get plenty of interruptions by phone or text when I'm technically not on the clock.  I have learned to beat guilt back.

I have learned to have Sabbath moments throughout the week.  I'd love to devote a full day to God, family, and rest, but I generally don't get those opportunities.  I have to take them when I can, and if that means leaving the office for an afternoon to go and sit in the peace and quiet of a deer stand while reading a theological treatise on my Kindle--I do it.

Society seems to compel us to work and play and involve ourselves in activities until we are literally exhausted.  I do not believe this is healthy.  I do believe we cannot change society and therefore must change ourselves and how we operate.  I do believe if we get caught up in society's busy-ness, we will not hear or see God as often as we should.  I therefore believe it is up to us to make adjustments so that we can be aware of His presence in our lives.  I also believe we cannot stem the tide of what society does, and that if we try to swim upstream, we will only wear ourselves out.  Instead, I believe we can stand firm in our resolve to carve out time to slow down.

This Lent, I am giving up busy-ness.  It's actually something I've been trying to give up for quite some time, but now, it's a concerted effort.  One that I hope will not end at Easter.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Defense of Marriage: Part II

Perhaps I have no credibility after yesterday's post.  :-)  But even if I have just a shred, then perhaps I can continue on in my defense of marriage began last week.

After strongly coming out in support of two parent families and the institution of marriage, I did get some feedback including some commentary about single parent households.  Such feedback isn't surprising and is actually appreciated.  It generally went along these lines:

Are single-parent families wrong?   No.
Aren't there instances where it is better for a child (or children) to be raised by a single parent?  Yes.
If a person chooses to stay single, is that wrong?  No. 

As has become the case in our society, whenever you take a strong position on an issue, there is a response that points out the exceptions to the rule.  I have no problem with that because there are always exceptions to the rule.  A mathematician by the name of Kurt Goedel showed this to be the case with any system of thought.  This is why we can never fully legislate our way to morality or close the gaps where people can cheat.  There is always a loophole.

But that is a bit beside the point.   The point, however, must be addressed in regards to single-parent families and the Church's response.  And if you will please stick with me, I will be taking the long route to get there.  It will take some time, but it is important.

If you engage in any sort of moral/theological/biblical interpretative argument these days, at some point and time, you are bound to encounter this response:


I have come to the conclusion that this statement is used as a sort of "trump" card these days.  Underlying the statement, I believe are a couple of assumptions generally: 1. I'm not winning this argument, so I'm going to bug out in a way to save face.  and 2. No one knows the Absolute Truth, and I'm going to let you know about it.

The first assumption cannot really be dealt with, but the second is important to address.

It is true that no one knows the Absolute Truth.  To say that one does means that one totally and fully knows God and totally and fully knows the mind of God.  I believe there was only one such human who had that ability, and He was actually God Himself.  We are much too limited.

Yet, just because we do not have the Absolute Truth does not mean that it does not exist.  St. Paul says that we "see in a mirror dimly" meaning, we can see there is something there, but we can't see it with absolute clarity.  Furthermore, we must also admit that some opinions/interpretations/perspectives are better than others.

That might seem sacrilegious in our particular neck of the woods.  How can a person claim that one opinion/perspective/or interpretation is better than another?  Aren't they all equal?

Hardly.  In fact, I'd submit that almost no one believes this.

If you say that you do, then you must admit to me that you believe that Adolph Hitler's views of the world and reality are on the same level with Mother Teresa's views of the world and reality.  You must admit that Adolph Hitler's way of improving the world is on the same level with Mother Teresa's way of improving the world.  Do you want to go there?

I am sure that most rational people would not.  Therefore, I have finally discovered what several much smarter people have discovered before me.  The statement, "That's just your opinion/interpretation/perspective," is not the ultimate trump card that it seems.  My response to this statement now is, "Yes, but not all opinions/interpretations/perspectives are created equal.  We must decide which is closer to the Truth."

That leads us to the necessity of debate.  We must be able to articulate why we believe one particular route is better than another.  We cannot be satisfied with simply saying, "Well, that's your opinion.  I have mine.  We must agree to disagree."  Wrong.  That is intellectually lazy.  It fails to resolve any issue and allows for much confusion as to what might be good, better, best or even bad, worse, worst.

Again, perhaps this is sacrilegious in our society.  No one really wants to talk in degrees about things because then someone might actually have to admit that what he or she is doing is not optimal.  Ah, but how will we progress and make things better if we are not willing to admit that the way things are are not optimal?  How will we make things better if we are not willing to admit that we are not acting in the best possible manner?

We cannot.

And so, we arrive back at marriage.  There is nothing inherently wrong with being single.  You can be very fulfilled in doing so.  Yet, if you are single and choose to have a child and remain single so that you can be fulfilled, I do not believe you are acting in the best interest of the child.

If you are married and are in an abusive relationship or your spouse is committing infidelity and you have children, it is likely better for you to divorce and raise your child(ren) in a single-parent household.  Yet, we must admit, this is not optimal.

Nearly every study concurs: children raised in two parent households are better off financially and socially.  This is the most optimal unit for caring for children and preparing them for life.

I do not think the church should dial back its rhetoric in its defense of marriage.  Perhaps, since 54% of children are born out of wedlock these days, we need to ratchet it up a bit more.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: Fundamentalism and Faith

What comes into your mind when I say September 11 and religion? Most likely, you will probably think of the hatred displayed by Islamic fundamentalists.

What comes into your mind when I say Branch Dividian, Waco fire, and religion? Again, most likely you will think of religious fundamentalists.

What comes to your mind when I say the crusades and Spanish Inquisition? Once more, you will probably think religious fundamentalism.

Now, a curve ball. What comes to your mind when I say the Amish and religion? At this point, you probably are envisioning men and women wearing black and white sitting peacefully in a church with horses and buggies parked outside. Did religious fundamentalism pop into your head? Probably not. Why?

You see, I have a suspicion that in our media driven society, we are being socially conditioned to see religious fundamentalism as inherently violent and dangerous. While I cannot offer any hard, scientific proof: from the things I have read and from the feeling in my gut, I sense that anyone who has a hard, unchangeable belief is viewed with reservation if not out and out contempt.

"Don’t you know such hard, unchangeable beliefs lead to violence?" one might be asked.

And they would be correct in asking such a question. Most of the examples I listed at the beginning of this sermon are indeed examples of religious fundamentalism that led to violence. There is no doubt that some forms of religious fundamentalism lead to hatred, violence and a disdain for any other sort of belief or doctrine. Simply put, religion has been the cause of violence and warfare and still is in parts of this world. One cannot escape that fact.

But here is another question that I believe we must wrestle with: does religious fundamentalism necessarily lead to violence? Can one be a fundamentalist–can one hold unchanging beliefs strongly, passionately, unwaveringly, without hating someone who is different?

I believe these questions are important for Christians to answer in this day and age. For we live in a society that embraces diversity of thought and appearance. And because the society embraces diversity of thought and appearance, it is very leery of anyone or anything that proclaims to have the Truth. And that poses a problem for Christians.

St. Paul writes eloquently in our second lesson this morning, "If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. 11The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. 13For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’"

This begs the question: what about those who do not believe in Jesus in their heart and confess Jesus’ name with their lips? What happens to them? These particular questions arise quickly because of Jesus’ own proclamation about himself in John chapter 14 where He unabashedly says, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Now, I also know very well that Jesus says the following words, "Do not judge because you will receive the same judgement that you give to others." I’ve said before that Jesus isn’t talking about whether or not we judge a particular action. We can call murder wrong and sinful. However, we must never say that a murderer will rot in hell. To judge a person’s eternal soul is not our job. Never has been. Never will be. That job is specifically for God Himself. So we must begin answering the question about those who do not believe by saying, "Well, we don’t know what will happen to them. That is up to God."

Unfortunately, that’s not what has happened historically. Remember the examples of religious fundamentalism I listed above? Because there has been this conditioning–this leading us to believe that those who claim to have the truth also embrace hatred and violence–if you begin to proclaim that Jesus is the exclusive way to God, then you are automatically assumed to hate anyone who doesn’t believe exactly as you do.

But it is an assumption. Let me say that once again. It is an assumption. It doesn’t necessarily follow. How can I say that.

Let’s go back to Paul for a second. Paul writes, "If you believe in your heart and confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord, then you will be saved." This statement is true, but it is incomplete. For Christianity does not allow a person to stop there. Christianity does not allow a person to simply say, "I believe. I say Jesus is Lord. I’m done." No. Not by a long shot. You see, Christianity also says the belief leads to action. Again, belief in Jesus Christ, leads to direct action in our lives.

And what kind of action, you might ask. We believe that the Holy Spirit works in us and on us to transform us into the image and likeness of Jesus. This means that as we grow in faith, our words and our deeds mirror Jesus’ words and deeds. We strive to talk as Jesus talked and do what Jesus did. It is no small task–an impossible task in fact to achieve this side of heaven. Yet, it is important to recognize this because Jesus’ teachings and actions give us guidelines for how we are to interact with others. Which, simply put, if you really believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, how you live your life will reflect this.

And here’s the kicker:

Jesus didn’t say, "I am the way and the truth and the life, now, hate and destroy those who don’t believe in me."

Instead, Jesus said, "Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you."

Jesus didn’t say, "I am the way, and the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me, so therefore, everyone else is going to hell and you can treat them like garbage."

Instead, Jesus said, "Love your neighbor as you love yourself."

Jesus didn’t say, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me, so therefore, if there is a fellow Christian who doesn’t share the exact same belief as you, cast them aside, do not talk with them until they believe exactly as you do."

Instead, Jesus said, "By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

You see, fundamentalism isn’t a problem because people have too much faith. It’s a problem because they don’t have enough faith. It’s a problem because people stop at belief and do not follow through on transformation–of seeking to become like Christ. And when people actually put their exclusive faith into action, the world changes.

The Roman empire was a place very much like our current nation. They allowed religious freedom and tolerance–at least to an extent. They had a long list of acceptable, state-approved religions, and they were very tolerant of one another. But suddenly, an upstart religion came along that proclaimed to be exclusive. They proclaimed to know the truth. They proclaimed that Jesus was Lord.

This religion was persecuted within the Roman empire–unmercifully at times. They were not acceptable, and part of the reason was their intolerance of other beliefs. But things changed over time, and one of the greatest events that brought about change was the advent of a plague. As the plague spread into towns, people fled. People of all those acceptable faiths ran to save their lives. But who stayed? The intolerant, exclusive Christians. It was they alone who stayed to care for the sick and dying–risking their own lives to show compassion to others.

That’s fundamentalism at its best. If you believe in your heart that Jesus rose from the dead and confess with your mouth that He is Lord, you will be saved. But if you also live your life putting into practice what your Lord taught, then you are something more. Then, you are truly a disciple. Amen.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

In Defense of Marriage

Oh Valentine's Day.  How I loathe thee.

It's another Hallmark holiday in my book.  No good reason to have it other than to sell chocolates, stuffed animals, lingerie and help someone turn a profit in my book.  But this isn't a blog about Valentine's Day.  At least not today.  Today, I want to talk about marriage.

Recently, the assistant to the bishop in our synod posted a question on our Facebook page.  Paraphrased it reads, "Based on the fact that 54% of children are now born out of wedlock, what does that mean for the church in the U.S."

I didn't respond.  Too much anger welling up within me to respond.

You see, I am old fashioned.  I believe that children should be raised within the bounds of a married couple.  The fact that 54% of children are born out of wedlock tells me at least a couple of things:

People are not waiting for sex until they find their spouse.
Those 54% of kids have the odds stacked against them socially and economically.
The institution of marriage is in decline--for a myriad of reasons not the least of which is a media driven part of society which demeans it.
The church is doing a darn poor job of influencing the surrounding culture regarding sex, marriage, divorce, and the like.  And there are those in the church who themselves attack the very foundations of sex, marriage, divorce, and the like.

For someone who sits where I sit, it causes me anger.  I would probably be better off not even posting this blog, but I'm going to do it anyway because I feel strongly about the institution of marriage.  I feel strongly about the institution of family and child rearing within a family.  I feel strongly that the church and it's representatives should be leading the charge saying that 54% of children born out of wedlock is unacceptable and that we should be calling for much, much more that just "safe sex." 

Side note: It's quite mysterious to me to hear people complain about abstinence teachings and that they don't work when it is oh so obvious that what we are currently doing now in promoting safe sex is working oh so well.  O.K.  I'm turning the sarcasm off now.

I will leave you with a couple of news stories and opinion pieces that I've found helpful. 

Here's a secret -- marriage is America’s most effective anti-poverty program

A Man's Top 5 Reasons to Get Married

And to prove "safe sex" teachings have failed:

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Slow Down

Thus says the Lord in the book of Joel, "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God."

A Catholic priest working in an inner city was walking down an alley one evening on his way home when a young man came down the alley behind him and poked a knife against his back. "Give me your money," the young man said.

The priest opened his jacket and reached into an inner pocket to remove his wallet, exposing his clerical collar. "Oh, I'm sorry, Father," said the young man, "I didn't see your collar. I don't want YOUR money."

Trembling from the scare, the priest removed a cigar from his shirt pocket and offered it to the young man.
"Here," he said. "Have a cigar."

"Oh, no, I can't do that," the young man replied, "I gave them up for Lent."

Yes, it’s funny in a sort of warped kind of way. We laugh at the hypocrisy. We laugh that a thief would steal and commit assault on the one hand while giving up tobacco on the other. We snicker and think to ourselves, "I would never, ever do such a thing."

Oh, really? Do you not think that you and I are not capable of such hypocrisy? Do you think that you and I are really so consistent in our faith? Do you think that you and I do not share the same traits and qualities of that would-be thief?

Let me take a moment to remind us all here this evening the truth of the Christian faith. In Romans, chapter three St. Paul writes unabashedly, "For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We can change the tense of that sentence, and it will still ring true, "For there is no distinction since all are sinning and falling short of the glory of God."

You and I have no room to laugh. You and I have no room to snicker. You and I stand here this evening having been reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return now being reminded that we are sinners!
There is no escaping that reality. Yes, each of us have been saved by the grace and mercy bestowed through Jesus Christ, but we have not arrived at the fullness of that grace. We have not arrived at the fullness of that mercy. We have not been completely transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus. It was He who commanded us, "Be perfect even as your heavenly Father is perfect." And we know, deep down within us, that we aren’t there. We know, with every fiber of our being that we have not arrived. We know in the deepest places of our hearts that evil still lurks there; waiting to ensnare us and lead us down the wrong pathways.

Oh, and if we are truly honest with ourselves, we know that there is no way to eradicate this dark part of us. We know there is nothing we can do to root it out completely. Some of us have tried. We’ve tried to expel the darkness so that we are full of light. We try changing our courses in life. We try to enact Christ’s goodness and peace and faithfulness in our lives. For a time, we might even be successful. For a time, a sin that we confront might seem to recede into the background, but before long it surfaces. It comes out once more. Old, ingrained habits are hard to break.

"Return to me with all your heart," says the Lord, "with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing."

Yes, there is good news. There is good news that despite our brokenness, God is merciful. God is gracious. God is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God relents from punishing. Why? Why is God so generous? Is He simply allowing us to get off scot-free? Is He so wishy-washy that He excuses our sin without recourse or cost?

No. Not at all. For God knows we deserve death. God knows we deserve to perish. But God does not want this for us. God does not want His prized creation to suffer eternal torment, so God sent Jesus–a part of His very self–to take on that punishment, the punishment we deserve.

Perhaps this is an old fashioned, out of date idea for you. Perhaps you believe God should just forgive and forget, and that there should be no substitutionary atonement. So, if you believe this, do you think if someone rammed their car into yours that one escapes payment? Do you believe that if a wrong is committed, there should be no justice? Do you believe that if someone has hurt you emotionally, no price should be paid? Of course, most of you don’t believe that at all. When a wrong is committed, payment is demanded–either by the person who committed the wrong or by the person who suffered the wrong. If it is the person who suffered the wrong who pays, then it is called forgiveness.

As we enter Lent, we are called to reflect upon the great cost God paid to obtain forgiveness. We are called to reflect upon the death of God, who took upon human flesh and carried our sins to the cross. And we are called to confront our own sinfulness which nails Jesus once again to that cross day after day after day.

Of course, usually we don’t take the time to contemplate this. Usually, we are so busy rushing from one event to the next. We occupy every waking moment with doing things: web browsing, work, social events, extra-curricular activities, shopping, dining out, partying, or what have you. Our calendars are full and overflowing, and at the end of the week we are so worn out and worn down that we crash and burn.

You see, I believe that one of our sins as a society these days is that we have come to idolize time. It is at a premium, and we have to do as much as possible lest we be seen as lazy, slothful, incompetent, or unfulfilled. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself, when is the last time you said or thought to yourself, "I have nothing to do," and you were glad about that?

And so, before we can confront all the other parts of our heart which are darkened, I believe we must begin confronting our need to stay busy. I believe we need to begin confronting our fear of silence and solitude. I believe we need to confront our fear of being still and quiet–of remembering a time before cell phones and games and apps which occupy our minds even when we are alone and actually have the time to think and observe what God may be up to in the midst of our daily lives.

This Lent, I intend to slow down. I intend to carve out space for quiet and solitude. Already, I have had to give up a couple of nights of choir practice, much to the chagrin of Janice. But my evenings have filled up with work related items. My kids need their dad around at least one night per week. Slow down. Be. Be a father. Be a mother. Be a child of God.

Slow down and return to God. Confront your sin. Ask for God’s healing touch in your life. Be at peace. Amen.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

I Have Faith in Humanity: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

I just recently finished Gerda Weissmann Klein's memoir about surviving Nazi Germany: All But My Life

In it, I found that she dared to raise questions that I myself have had when thinking about the Holocaust and the terrible atrocities committed by the Nazi's.  Klein asks: 

Why did we march?  Why did we let them slaughter us?  Why did we not try to fight back?  What difference would it have made if they would have killed some of us?  We were dying anyway, and they would kill the survivors sooner or later in any case? 

Our group shrank to a quarter of it's original size.  Why should I hope?  I thought.  Why should I be free and the others dead?  Why should I think that I should be the privileged one?  But these thoughts were dangerous.  I had to hope.  I had to go on to the end.  (Kindle Locations 3103-3118)
In some ways, I wish this quote had come first, but if you notice the Kindle locations, you will see that this quote is the second one that appears in her book.  She actually answers point blank earlier in the book, but I wanted to include the above quote as well because of its power.  She also writes:

Why?  Why did we walk like meek sheep to the slaughterhouse?  Why did we not fight back?  What had we to lose?  Nothing but our lives.  Why did we not run away and hide?  We might have had a chance to survive.  Why did we walk deliberately and obediently into their clutches?

I know why.  Because we had faith in humanity.  Because we did not really think that human beings were capable of committing such crimes.  (Kindle Location 1469)
Many academics and others, pre-World War II believed that humanity was on an upward swing toward a more just and better society.  They believed that every day, things were getting better and better.  The Enlightenment had lifted the chains of religion and superstition allowing us to shift away from the wars over religious doctrine.  Being free would mean we could achieve our unlimited potential.  Progress was the catchword.

But this worldview was shattered first by World War I and then by the discoveries of the atrocities of World War II.  Faith in humanity was reduced to rubble by these events.  Oh, it still exists in certain places.  There are still some who buy into the ideology that we are still on a path of progress and that such evil either cannot or will not ever happen again.

But I personally believe this is a delusion--a denial of the true reality of human nature.

You see, I have faith in humanity.  I have faith that there is goodness in humanity; that there is compassion; that there is justice; that there is a desire for peace and prosperity for all.  Yet, I also have faith that humanity has a dark side; that it contains within it evil, hatred, prejudice, selfishness, and a willingness to kill those who do not conform to one's own point of view.

Put it another way, I believe that within each and every one of us is a Mother Teresa and an Adolph Hitler.

Does that offend you? 

Good.  I will not offer any apology.  You should be offended.  I am offended at myself.

It is my particular point of view; a point of view shared by Orthodox Christianity, that every human being is both saint and sinner.  Every human being is capable of great good and great evil.  No one can escape this reality.

Some people are shocked by senseless death like the school shooting in Newtown, CT.  Not me. 
Some people are shocked by the greed of banks who seek to make a fast buck and contribute to financial meltdown.  Not me.
Some people are shocked by racial hatred and prejudice.  Not me.
Some people are shocked  and dismayed by partisan politics.  Not me.
Some people are shocked by people who fly airplanes into buildings.  Not me.

Nothing surprises me when it comes to the evil that humans are capable of doing.  Nothing.  I know my faith.  I know my history.  People are capable of evil.  Even the sanest of individuals has been known to suddenly snap.  Evil is a present and tangible reality.  Some people don't like the term anymore, but I really don't care.  I call it from the perspective of faith--it's Sin: both the things that we do and the nature that is within us.

And I know no amount of law giving and law making will prevent it.

God tried that approach.

He tried giving the Law and asking people to adhere to it. 

And what happened?  Did people follow the Law?

That's a rhetorical question.  So, God had to seek a different path.  A different way.

The Law led to death.  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

But Christ came to bring the answer.

Christ came to offer a different way.  That way is revealed in the Good Friday/Easter Sunday paradox.

Today, we begin preparations for that event.  Today, we stop to ponder our fallen, human nature; to ask for forgiveness; to combat the sin within ourselves by repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love; to prepare our hearts to receive the Good News of Easter.

Yes, I have faith in humanity, but it is surpassed by my faith in Christ.  For humanity still commits atrocity, but Christ has promised to rectify it.  For this I hope.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Collar-less Christians

On Sunday morning, I wear a uniform.  Perhaps I am a little more laid back than many of my other clergy colleagues in that I wear blue jeans and boots, but every Sunday, I still wear a black, button-down clergy shirt with a white clerical collar.

Sometimes, I even go all out on our Gospel Sundays and wear a black coat and a felt hat, but that's become pretty rare.  Yet, the uniform is still there.

In the past couple of months, a couple of clergy colleagues have written in their blogs the reasons they wear their uniform during the work week.  Their arguments are very persuasive, particularly the one by Rev. David Hansen who compares wearing a clergy collar to a policeman wearing his or her uniform--you don't necessarily look for a policeman until you really need one, and then the uniform helps you find one.  Duly noted.  Pastor Hansen backs up his analogy with a story of a hospital visit when he was approached by a family who was losing a loved one.  Because he was wearing his collar, the family approached him, and he was able to minister to them during the end of life issues. 

I do not deny the power of Pastor Hansen's argument.  It's real.  It's true.  It almost makes me want to wear my collar during the work week.

But I have a story of my own to tell. 

Yesterday, I headed to the hospital to visit one of my members who was undergoing treatments for a rare disease.  After a visit and prayer, I headed to the elevator intent on driving down the road and getting some lunch.  A gentleman had arrived moments before and had pushed the elevator button ahead of time, and as luck would have it the elevator arrived just as I walked into the waiting area.

I turned to the gentleman, and as is my wont at these time said, "Thank you for pushing the button and waiting so that I didn't have to."

That elicited a smile as we entered the elevator together.

On the way down, I struck up a conversation expecting it to last maybe a minute or two--until we reached the hospital lobby and went our separate ways.  I asked, "Do you have a loved one in the hospital?"

I have become accustomed to asking that question in hospital elevators--except when there is obviously a person who works at the hospital, then I ask, "Rough day today?"  I ask because there is always a chance to offer Christian compassion at these times.  More than once, I have entered into conversations, albeit brief, about God's power to heal and the need for prayer with families and individuals, and this circumstance was the same--but different.

The gentleman replied, "Yes, but it's about at the end.  My aunt is 92 and we're looking at hospice."

I responded, "I'm sorry to hear that.  In some ways, I understand.  I've walked through such things with a lot of people."

The expression on his face meant he was looking for an explanation.

I said, "I'm a pastor."

Then, the floodgates opened.  "My aunt was very religious.  Do you get out here often?  Do you think you could stop by and see her?  She'd probably, really appreciate someone praying with her and letting her know someone is there at the end?  Will you be here later this week?"

The elevator reached the bottom floor.  I said, "I actually won't be in later this week, but I will be happy to go and see your aunt right now and pray with her."

We pushed the button and headed back up all the while conversing as he filled me in on his family, his aunt, his uncle who was retired Air Force who was disabled in WWII, how the uncle had died and how he hoped the two of them would be reunited.  "They call my aunt Grace," he ended.

I went to Grace's bedside.  She had been given a morphine shot and was quite out of it, but she still responded when I called her name.  She said, "Yes," when I asked her if she would like me to pray for her and with her.  And I did.

After I prayed and Grace was sleeping, I gave the gentleman my name and phone number.  I also got his so that I could contact him later this week.  Who knows what will come of this in the days to come?

But I did think about this incident at length yesterday afternoon and evening.  I thought about the ministry that God used me to perform at this hospital.  And I thought about my role as a clergy and how I wasn't wearing a collar.  And I thought about all the people who are believers in Christ, who are collar-less Christians who don't have clergy uniforms who still make up the priesthood of all believers.  And I thought about how God desires to use all of them--as well as those of us who are clergy--to minister in and to this world.  And I wondered, "How will folks know we care if we are not marked--if we do not stand out in some form or fashion?"

Of course, the answer was plain as day--WE MUST MAKE THE FIRST MOVE.  We, as collar-less Christians, can only be identified if we are willing to take the risk, ask questions, engage other people.  That is the biggest difference in the ministry performed by Pastor Hansen and myself.  Neither is wrong, but one method says, "I'm here if you need me.  You can find me by how I look."   The other doesn't wait for the other to initiate conversation, but seeks out the other--engages other people looking to uncover need when someone may be too afraid to ask. 

Again, let me stress this, both methods work in providing ministry.  However, I will stick with going collar-less. Why?

If the Church's primary job is evangelism...
If all of God's people are called to engage in that job...
If most of God's people are not easily identifiable because they don't wear a uniform...

Then, they must be willing to break through those initial fears and take risks to engage others--in hospitals, in offices, in schools, in grocery stores, in restaurants, at Little League fields, and wherever else their lives lead them.  They must be willing to talk to strangers, in a non-threatening manner, asking questions to break the ice so that some form of relationship can be established--then, once those initial barriers are broken down, perhaps a need will be uncovered.  THIS IS NOT EASY!!!   IT IS EXTREMELY DIFFICULT!!!

I know.  I don't wear a collar.  It's hard to engage another person and get under the superficial litany that we engage in on a daily basis.  You know, the one where you walk up to someone and say, "How's it going?"  They respond, "Fine.  How are you?"  You say, "Fine," and then the conversation is over.  It's easy to make an attempt to be friendly.  It's harder to truly engage another person.  It's harder to be exposed to their raw emotions--anger, grief, pain, frustration, or even happiness, joy, jubilation, elation.  The former because it's depressing.  The latter because it can lead to jealousy.  Yet, in order to engage in our calling, I believe we must take that risk.  We must be willing to make ourselves vulnerable.  Only then, can we truly minister to those who are in need.

And we have to take the first step.  Collar-less Christians have to begin the process instead of waiting for others to simply come up to us.  We must be attuned to another's body language.  We must be willing to break the ice, ask different questions, lead with different greetings:

Do you have a loved one here in the hospital, nursing home, rehab center, etc.?
Having a rough day?
You look happy.
Are you new at this job?
I know you put up with a lot of stuff, I hope I'll be easier on you.
You look like you're having some difficulty.  Can I help?

The other day, I was stopped at a gas station.  A minivan drove up next to my car with an elderly couple.  A military bumper sticker was on the back.  The elderly woman got out to fill her car.  The elderly man was apparently too week or handicapped.  I asked the woman, "Would you like me to clean your windshield?

She responded, "Yes, that would be fantastic."  As I began cleaning, she said, "Now, you don't want anything for it, now do you?"

Laughing (instead of getting offended), I said, "No ma'am.  Nothing at all."

She said, "You know, this world would be a much better place if more people acted like you."

I said, "Who's going to change the world if we don't?"  That stopped her in her tracks for a second, but I think my words ring true.

It will be collar-less Christians--those who are willing to engage others, show kindness, caring, and God's love, who will make that difference.  I am learning how to be one such collar-less Christian outside of Sunday morning, and I hope to share my experiences and equip others to go and do likewise.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: Transformation on the Mountaintop

Fred Craddock, a well-known preacher and scholar, tells the story about a young minister who visited an elderly woman in the hospital. She was quite ill, and was gasping for breath as he entered her room. He decided to keep the visit short and not tire her. He asked her, "Would you like me to pray with you?" She nodded yes.

"What would you like me to pray?" he asked.

"That I would be healed," she replied.

The young minister gulped – but he prayed, "Lord, we pray for Your sustaining presence with this sick sister, and if it be Your will, we pray she will be restored to health. However, let us accept Your will, so that whatever the outcome she will know that You are with her, every step of the way."

As soon as the prayer ended, the woman's eyes flashed open, she sat up, threw her legs over the side of the bed, stood up, stretched out her arms, and said, "I feel better! I feel a great deal better! And with that she walked out of the room, headed down the hall toward the nurse's station, shouting, "I'm healed! I'm healed! Look at me! I'm healed!"

The minister staggered out of the room, went down the stairs, exited the hospital, and when he reached the parking lot, he stopped beside his car, looked heavenward and said, "Lord, don't ever do that to me again!"

Ah, yes, we chuckle at this little story. It is indeed humorous, especially when it happens to someone else. But I want you to think a bit about this story and ask yourself, why did this young pastor say what he said? After experiencing a miracle, a mountain top experience, why did this pastor say, "Lord, don’t ever do that to me again!"? Why after coming face to face with God’s power and might did that pastor want no more of it? Let’s play with this a little, shall we?

Mountain top experiences are part of our life of faith. Stories about them are shared all throughout the Bible and throughout the history of Christians. Stories abound about when God has revealed Himself in one form or another: through miracles, through experiencing God’s presence, through speaking in tongues, through healing that cannot be explained medically, and through many other forms and fashions. These experiences and stories cannot be verified by science. Science requires that an event be replicable. The miraculous isn’t replicable. It happens at certain times and in certain places for reasons quite mysterious to those even of the deepest faith. But I am convinced that they happen. I’ve been a part of a few of them. They are overwhelming, to say the least.

I mean, even in our Gospel lesson this morning, the mountain top experience was overwhelming for Peter, James and John. They were invited to go up the mountain with Jesus, and when they got there, something miraculous happened. Jesus was transformed right before their eyes. He didn’t look like that peasant man who was once a carpenter in Nazareth. Now, before their eyes, Jesus was revealed as the Son of God. Jesus’ robes became dazzlingly white. Ah, but that wasn’t it. Suddenly, there stood, not just Jesus, but two other figures, both revealed in their heavenly glory: Moses and Elijah! As the three of them stood before Peter, James and John, Peter is overwhelmed. He wants to say something, anything to capture the moment. "Lord, it is good for us to be here, let us build three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah."

What a stupid thing to say in the midst of seeing such a miraculous event! But it’s not surprising. We’d all probably fall into such stupidity seeing such a thing transpiring right in front of us. We’d all probably be overwhelmed and at a loss for words.

But the miraculous, mountain top experience was not done yet. Suddenly, a voice from heaven proclaimed, "This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to Him!" That signed, sealed, and delivered the deal for the three disciples who were with Him. We are told that once they came down off the mountain, "They were silent and told no one what they had seen." Of course they didn’t. It was difficult to put into words what they had seen. It was difficult for them to wrestle with what had just happened to them. It was difficult because that experience on the mountain had done something to them deep within their very hearts and souls. It shook them to the core.

Just like it did that young pastor. Seeing God’s hand moving upon this earth shakes you to the core. It changes you. It transforms you. The disciples were silent. The young pastor told God to never do that to him again. Both were reeling from that mountain top experience. Both were wrestling and coming to grips with experiencing God.

You see, my brothers and sisters, that’s the key with mountain top experiences: you actually experience God and His work. You actually feel, sense, know, are touched by God, and on the one hand it’s exhilarating! You feel extremely blessed. You feel connected to the Holy One. You feel uplifted and secure that God is real, that He is active, and that He is a part of this world and not apart from it.

Ah, but after the mountain top experience is over, things change because you are changed. God is no longer something one can talk about as an intellectual pursuit. God is no longer something to be debated. God’s Word isn’t something to just bandy about back and forth as one seeks to understand what this "really" means or doesn’t mean. No. When you have a mountain top experience, God really does become real, and you no longer can keep God at arm’s length. You can no longer just go about business as usual. Your perspective changes. You know that Scripture isn’t something just to be studied: it’s something to be lived.
You know God isn’t something to be debated, but is someone to love and be loved by. You know that your life really doesn’t belong to you but is connected to God and living for Him and with Him and in Him. These are the transformations that happen on the mountain top.

And not everyone is comfortable with those transformations. Not everyone wants to have their hearts and minds transformed in such a fashion because that means changing the way they move and operate and think in the world. It means no longer living one’s life for one’s self but in service to God and in service to one’s neighbor. It means giving up what I want and seeking, praying, and discerning what God wants. This is why that young pastor said, "Lord, don’t ever do that to me again." This is why the disciples were silent.
They had been transformed. They were forced to change. Perhaps this is not all bad. Sometimes God transforms us slowly, piece by piece and bit by bit. But sometimes He uses a mountaintop experience to bring about that transformation. And really, it’s not such a bad thing. Just wait until it happens to you. Amen.

Through Burnout and Back: Knowing Your Limitations; A Reflection on Pope Benedict XVI's Retirement

I awoke this morning to find the headline on the Drudge Report: Steps Aside.  There was a picture of Pope Benedict XVI walking away from something.  In this case, Matt Drudge wanted to give the imagery of walking away from the papacy.

In the article, Pope Benedict says he is stepping down because he is essentially too old and in too poor of health to handle the job.

Now, I am sure someone out there will begin circulating conspiracy theories about the "real" reasons the Pope stepped down.  I'm sure someone will try to link a whole bunch of circumstantial evidence a la Dan Brown to prove the Pope has lost his faith and discovered that Jesus was married and had several children.  (O.K., my Roman Catholic brethren and sisteren, if you cannot recognize sarcasm when you see it, please know, I will save you from embarrassment by moderating your comments and making sure they do not see the light of day.) 

For yours truly, the admiration I feel for Pope Benedict has skyrocketed immensely.

There is something within many of us clergy that pushes us to exceed the limits of our physical, emotional, and spiritual selves.  There is something within us that is always willing to go the extra mile no matter the cost to our bodies, our families, our friendships, and even our congregations.  Oftentimes, this leads us to burnout...or worse.

My readers know my struggles with burnout chronicled in this blog last year with the titles: Through Burnout and Back.  There are many lessons I have learned in that experience, and not the least of those is to recognize my own limitations.  I had to learn that I cannot do everything, and now, I simply won't do everything.  I set limits on what I do and how I operate at my job--even though the demand is there to do more.

Demand is one thing.  Being faithful is another.  If I cannot function because I am physically, emotionally, and spiritually spent, I am not helpful to my congregation or to my family or to anyone.  If I cannot think properly because of fatigue or if I am overwhelmed by emotions, I cannot make reasonable decisions.  If I cannot function at a healthy level, not only will I hurt myself, but I will drag my congregation down with me.

I have heard some folks say that "you functioning at 50% is better than you being gone."  But I disagree.  Look at sports teams where an athlete is only functioning at 50%.  The opposing team focuses on that weakness, and exploits it.  If it's football, they run or pass at the hurt athlete running that person ragged until he drops.  In basketball, you run isolation plays to exploit the weakness.  Whenever a member of the team is functioning well below capability, it's time for the coach to take that person out and put in a replacement who functions at 100% until the starter gets well.  That's the reality of how things should work in the sporting world.

And what happens if it doesn't?  What happens to athletes who coaches and others give medications to so that they can overcome their pain?  What happens to athletes who push themselves when their knees are weak or harmed?  Ask Robert Griffin III.  Either RGIII or Coach Shanahan should have taken him out of the game when he was limping around, not functioning at 100%.  Because neither the coach or the player would realize his limitations, RGIII's suffered a devastating knee injury.  Hopefully he will recover and be able to return to his amazing football prowess, and hopefully he and his coach will learn a lesson.

Which brings me back to Pope Benedict.  This man realized his limitations.  He realized he did not have the capability to function at 100% in the job he was called to do.  Rather than hurt himself; rather than hurt the Church; rather than push himself to an early grave, he stepped down.  He knew that someone with more energy and strength was needed. 

My hat is off to you, Pope Benedict XVI.

I wish I would have learned that lesson earlier, but rest assured, I know it now.  Thank you for providing an example to all of us to know our limitations and know when to let go.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Urban "Civilization"?

I read a very intriguing article by Larry McMurtry in the recent Texas Monthly Magazine.  This particular magazine is dedicated to the urbanization of Texas.  According to the latest census figures 85% of the population of Texas now lives in urban/suburban areas.  From the perspective of most of the magazine authors, this is a good thing as Texas is now climbing its way out of the pits of ignorance, crudeness, and independence into a new day of intellectualism, interdependence, culture, and civilization.

As a country preacher, I find the magazines embrasure of this movement a bit head scratching.

First an acknowledgement, it is very true that one gets exposed to a massive variety of things when heading into urban areas.  There is fine dining.  There is opera, ballet, and other forms of "higher culture."  One engages and sees many different people and cultures and is forced to have one's world-view expanded.  There are museums filled with information and pieces of nature and science and discovery.  There are buildings dedicated to art and artists.  There are centers of learning like colleges and universities where the mind can be expanded and trained.  One has almost instant access to grocery stores, movies, hospitals, restaurants, and other such venues.   Perhaps this is enough to say that cities are indeed centers of civilization.

But I am not so sure.

I lived in the city and suburbia for a while, and while that realm does have all the above, there are things that make me wonder where indeed things are more civilized.

1. In the country, you know your neighbors.  You know people in your community.  In some ways, you are more isolated, but in many other ways, you are definitely more connected.  When I lived in urban/suburban areas, I had little or no contact with those living right next door to me.  Doesn't happen that way in the country.

2. In the country, you have more room.  There's actually open spaces.  There are no subdivisions with 3000 square foot houses built on 1/16th of an acre lots.  There are no apartment skyrises where people are literally stacked on top of one another.  There are fields and meadows to walk and run in.  There are trees that are hundreds of years old, and most of them are not in danger because someone wants to put in a mall or a restaurant. 

3. It's quiet.  No sounds of cars traveling up and down the roads at all hours of the night.  No sirens--well, very rarely since volunteer fire departments don't have that many calls per day.  No airplanes constantly buzzing over.  No one playing loud music at all hours of the night.  You can actually hear birds and cows and horses and donkeys and the wind whistling through the trees.

4.  There are no concrete jungles.  Enough said.

5. The highest crime and murder rates in the U.S. are found in cities with a population of over 250,000.  While there is crime in rural areas, it pales in comparison.  Conclusion: more people = higher crime rate.

6. While cities have museums and places to get a glimpse of nature, rural folks actually experience nature.  They care for crops.  They raise animals.  They get their hands filthy and are in touch with the very essence of what makes grass and trees and plants grow.  They realize the power of nature and how humankind relies upon rain and wind and sun to help produce the very things that feed the world's population.

7. People in the country produce the food that the people in the city eat, and they do it for poor pay, little recognition, and in spite of city folks regulating the heck of what they produce.

8. You never hear about people traveling to the city to find peace and quiet.

Oh, I know there are a few knocks to living in the country.  There is still some prejudice.  People cling to their guns and to their religion (but because of it we neither fear God nor man.  We love God and are prepared when man goes astray).  We aren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but take a look at that list of items once more and answer this question: which do you think is actually more civilized? 

Long ago, I made the remark after accepting the call to serve in Cat Spring, "I'm heading back to civilization."  Guess there's no mystery in what I think.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

We Must Obey God Rather Than Men

I have often argued that the Church must refrain from seeking to influence government through the political process.  Perhaps I should make myself a little clearer.

Too often, in the U.S. particular Christian movements have become aligned with political parties.  The Religious Right cozies up to the Republican Party.  The Religious Left closely associates itself with the Democrats.  I've had pastors and other Christians repeatedly point out how one party is closer to following Christ than the other.  It is what it is, but I, frankly am quite uncomfortable with such coziness. 

When one throws one's support fully behind a political movement, it becomes very hard to criticize that movement or things the movement chooses to do.  It is better, in my estimation, to be politically neutral when it comes to support of one political party versus another so that one has the freedom to call a spade a spade and confront injustice wherever it may arise.

Case in point.  Several years ago, I went off on the government's installation of full body scanners in airports.  I argued then, as I argue now, this is an invasion of privacy and lessens the dignity of human beings by allowing someone to essentially view them naked without any probable cause or without their consent.  Such things began in 2007 under the Bush Administration--a Republican administration, and I was under no compulsion to support this measure just because of party affiliation.

Today, I raise my voice (or, at least my blog) in opposition to something that came out yesterday in the news.  The current administration released a memo outlining why it believes it is legal, moral, and right for them to kill American citizens with drone strikes without due process.  I read a very good expose on the memo in The Guardian--a British newspaper of all things!

Essentially, the President and his inner circle become judge, jury, and executioner without presenting evidence to anyone but themselves.  They have already used this power to kill three Americans including a 16 year old boy

I have only heard one other clergy other than myself condemn this memo.  Not a single other has raised any sort of opposition to it, and I can't help but wonder if it is because so many of my fellow clergy, at least in the ELCA supported President Obama and the Democrats with zeal and gusto in the last two elections?

The idea that an American citizen can be killed without due process is very disturbing.  The idea that the justification for the killing is an assumed relationship to Al Qaida or another like organization even if the person is not actively involved in combat but MAY, mind you, MAY be planning attacks against America, is disturbing.  There is an awful lot of leeway in such commentary.  Leeway the Guardian article articulates very, very well.

Now, I do not believe our U.S. government is Christian by any stretch of the imagination.  It hasn't been for quite some time even if the basis of our laws in the U.S. are founded upon Christian principles.  To go after the U.S. government for not acting in a Christian fashion is ludicrous.  But my Christian faith will not allow me to let this slide by without some sort of commentary. 

We know that absolute power corrupts.  We also know that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  The ultimate power this side of heaven is to decide whether or not to take someone's life.  This memo grants such absolute power to a small group of people who are heavily guarded and who answer to no one. 

Is anyone else disturbed by this?  Is anyone else disturbed by this seizure of power? 

I'm calling this one as I see it: It's wrong.  Period.  I can't support it even a little bit.  Not that I can do much, but I will join my voice with any other who seeks to put restrictions on this power including taking it away.

Government has a job to do, and it's authority comes from God.  But when government abuses its authority and does things which are contrary to God's will, we in the Church have an obligation to say, "No."  Or as St. Peter once put it, "We must obey God rather than any human authority."  (Acts 5:29)

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

My Favorite Super Bowl Commercial

It shouldn't be surprising since I am country and a preacher.  Ram's "God Made a Farmer" hit home.

I hearkened back to those summer days when I walked miles with a cotton hoe in my hand or a sprayer full of Round-Up on my back.

I hearkened back to those days riding on the counterweights of my grandfather's Ford tractor, jumping off to pull weeds as he cultivated the cotton.

I hearkened back to running through the milo field, cutting off the heads of Johnson grass, picking off sunflowers and buds, and then pulling out the stalks.

I hearkened back to picking cotton to ensure that my grandfather would get the first bale in the county for once in his lifetime.

I hearkened back to driving around the cotton patch at dusk, looking for weeds, listening to the wind blow through the leaves, feeling that same wind on my face, and sensing the deep peace that washed over that cotton field as the sun set.

I hearkened back to playing on the farm and climbing up, down, around, and under the tractors and farm equipment.

I hearkened back to listening to farmers talk about their lives while working at a grain elevator during harvest.

I hearkened back to the day when my grandfather showed me God was in the cotton.

I hearkened back to eating at the dinner table with my grandparents and parents, sinking my teeth into chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, corn, and cake for dessert.  Still am not sure I can beat grandma's chicken fried steak.

I hearken back to sleeping in the recliner after a long morning's work with socks blackened by thick, dark soil; waking and pulling shoes over those dirty socks; and heading back into the fields to work until dark.

I hearken back to the time of quiet in those fields where God and I had many conversations and there was nothing else to listen to but His voice.

God made a farmer, indeed.  He made many of those in my family, and alas, there are only a few left.  At least I carry the memories, and I hope to be able to instill a small portion in my children. 

In the recent Texas Monthly Magazine, attention was called to the fact that 85% of Texas' population now lives in urban areas--surrounded by noise, and concrete, and exhaust, and people stacked on top of one another.  Those of a spiritual nature have to literally carve out quiet space, usually indoors, to find a connection to God. 

I was blessed.  I had a cotton patch.  And a grain field.  And wide open spaces.  And calloused hands.  And sore legs.  And a sunburned neck.  And a place where God called.

And I answered.

Because God made a farmer...

God also made a pastor.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Sunday's Sermon: No Excuses

Why is Jesus important to you?

This was the question one of the presenters at the theological conference I attended earlier this week asked a group of clergy. She asked everyone in attendance to take a moment or two to respond to this question with people sitting next to them. She was met by silence.

In some ways, this isn’t remarkable. Many times, those of us who belong to mainline denominations have a difficult time talking about our personal lives of faith. We have a difficult time talking about what we believe and why we believe it. If I were to ask you this morning to turn to the person next to you and tell that person why Jesus is important to you, odds are, you would pause too. You’d probably have a difficult time finding something to say. Those are just the odds, even though there are exceptions. As I said, the fact that the question was met with silence isn’t all that surprising.

It may not have been surprising, but it was a bit disconcerting. This room was not filled with doctors and lawyers and ranchers and teachers. It was not filled with nurses and retirees and stay at home moms. It was not filled with teenagers and college students and elementary school children. It was filled with pastors and church workers. It was filled with people who held degrees in Bible and theology and youth ministry and worship music. The room was filled with men and women who talk about Jesus all the time, and yet, despite this, when the presenter asked the question, there was silence.

Head scratching to say the least.

Why is it so hard to answer such a question? I mean, we are people of faith, or at least we proclaim to be. We say that we are followers of Jesus. We say that we come to Him for salvation and forgiveness and that He is a part of our lives. So why is it so difficult to share with others why Jesus is so important?

I understand that faith is deeply personal. I understand that it goes to our core identity. I understand that sometimes it is so deep and so emotional that trying to express it in words becomes very, very difficult. From early on, many of us have seeped in a culture which regards faith in just such a fashion. Our culture tries to make faith matters as personal and as individualistic as possible. It is quite alright to believe in something, but it is not necessarily good and right to share that belief with others or to convince them that they should believe as we do. This pervades our culture.

And yet, our culture bumps squarely up against the reality of our calling as Christians. That clash can be a bit unpleasant at times since our faith really does not allow for us to remain private. Our faith drives us out into public to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. In Matthew 28, Jesus spoke these words to the disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always to the end of the age."

This is formally known as the Great Commission. It is spoken not only to Jesus’ disciples on that hillside two thousand years ago, it is also spoke to you and to me this day. It is placed on our hearts as something we are called to participate in as we respond to the great mercy, grace, and love that God has first shown to us.
Of course, whenever we hear this calling, many of us think we have to go out into the streets and consult strangers and begin giving our testimonies. Perhaps that is part of the call, but I’d like to suggest something a bit more radical. What if this proclamation isn’t just for strangers, but it is for friends and family members–it’s for your children and grandchildren–its for those you have known for a lifetime and have walked many a mile with in your journey on earth.

You see, the presenter at this conference was talking about passing faith down to our youth. She wasn’t talking about engaging a host of unbelievers and atheists. She was trying to get us to understand the importance of helping another generation of Christians come to see the importance of Jesus, and she said what many of us know–kids oftentimes model their parents. And if we as parents and grandparents don’t model our faith to our kids, how will they come to see it as important?

Hint: they won’t. Neither will anyone around us. If we can’t share why our faith is important within our families–those we are closest to; how can we expect to even begin sharing it with those whom we barely know?

Oh, and I know now that the difficulty begins. How do I talk about this stuff with my kids? How do I know what to say? How do I share something like this with kids who may not even care? How do I break through the communication barriers? Or even scarier: I’m really not sure why I believe what I believe. I’m not sure why I know it’s important. I might do more harm than good. Perhaps it’s better to be silent and leave it up to those who are better at it than I am.

All throughout scripture there are those who had these same thoughts. All throughout scripture there are those who didn’t want to share God’s word with others for the exact same reasons. Jeremiah was one such person, and part of his story is shared in our first lesson. God was calling Jeremiah, and Jeremiah didn’t want to go. Jeremiah didn’t want to speak. Jeremiah believed he was too young and too inexperienced to do the task God had appointed.

But God replied, "Do not say, "I am only a boy"; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. 8 Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.’ 9Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth. 10 See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."

Hear again the promises of God given to Jeremiah and know those same promises hold true for you–"Do not be afraid for I am with you to deliver you. I put words in your mouth, and I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant." God has given us power and promise! We have no excuses!

Why is Jesus important to you? After giving it some thought, here is my response:

I cannot imagine my life without Jesus. I’ve personally seen too much of the brokenness in our world. I’ve seen children who were laughing and playing one day lying in a hospital bed debilitated the next. I’ve seen people eat up with cancer and in tremendous pain. I’ve seen families broken by divorce. I’ve seen widows and widowers torn up by the grief of losing their spouse. I’ve seen extreme poverty and anger and malice. I’ve known people who so overcome by despair took their own lives. Week after week, I get at least three or four phone calls asking me to pray for people whose lives have been turned upside down by loss of job, disease, or death. Week after week, I’m exposed to the broken nature of humanity.

And I know I can’t fix any of it. I do not have the gift of healing to restore people to health and cure them of disease and sickness. I cannot keep couples from separating when they no longer wish to be together. I cannot take away a person’s grief or worry or agony. I can’t defeat death or even postpone it. And if all of that stuff were the end of it, then I would be in despair.

And that’s where Jesus comes in. For He promises two important things: first to be with people in the midst of their suffering. He never leaves us or abandons us when such things happen in our lives. And, secondly, He promises to one day fix what is wrong, and not only to fix it but to make every wrong right. Because Jesus died and was raised from the dead, there is now the promise that suffering, pain, cancer, divorce, death, anger, malice, poverty and whatever else you want to throw in there will not be the end. Christ will make all things new. Yes, I see brokenness, but through Jesus, I have hope, and it is a hope that gives me strength, courage, and an unwavering desire to serve Him in my life. This is why Jesus is important to me.

I had plenty of time to think about such a thing this week. Do you have time this week to think about why Jesus is important to you? Do you have time to dig down and wonder why you believe what you believe? Do you have time to put your thoughts together so that you can pass your faith on to another generation and tell others why it is you believe what you believe? Before venturing out and trying to tell anyone why you believe Jesus is important to you, spend some time thinking about it. Spend some time putting your thoughts together. That simple step is a beginning. It requires nothing but some brain power. And putting it together will enable you to begin following the Great Commission Christ gave to each and every one of us. No excuses. Amen.