Monthly Archives: September 2012

The Uncomfortable Nature of Hospitality

Last week, I led an adult mission trip to the western tip of Virginia, Lee County.  (By the way, the trip was though the organization Appalachia Service Project.  Great organization!)  Our group spent the week digging a trench and installing a retaining wall to help with drainage around the house and installed insulation on the bottom of the house to help with heating and cooling.  There are 12 people living in about a 900-square foot house….and moisture is causing mold in the house.  Our work assisted in improving the quality of life and health of the family.

Now, there are many pros and cons to short term mission trips like this.  Those arguments have been laid out and analyzed, both the social and theological implications.  And I don’t want to get into that here.  What was probably most striking for me, and what I am wrestling with the most, is the notion of hospitality – how it was given and received.

The giving wasn’t hard.  Our group, our congregation, prides itself on extending hospitality to the stranger – to the one who comes from the outside, the one who may not have the abundance we have, the one who comes, seeking relationship with us.  We extended hospitality in many ways, from speaking with the family, to our service project, to being as open and inviting as possible for the sake of relationship with the family.

Yet, receiving the hospitality of the family was a different matter.  I can recall countless times that family offered us water to drink, a snack to share, a chair to sit on, and thoughtful gifts.  One of our couples on the trip celebrated their 26th Anniversary.  The family learned of this, and upon returning from some errands in town, generously gave the couple some cookies they had bought….”we would’ve bought a cake, but we couldn’t find the right one.  I hope this will do.”  And, like their offers of water, snacks, gifts, this gift was met with a response of awkward acknowledgment at best.  We were all often hesitant and uncomfortable in taking up their generous offer to be gracious hosts to us throughout the week.

That raises a big question for me: “What is so difficult about receiving hospitality from others – neighbors, particularly strangers, and especially those we perceive to have less resources from which to offer hospitality?”  My church (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), among other churches, stress welcoming and inviting the stranger – open doors to the church, the Christian community.  But yet, we’re hesitant to receive hospitality from those we want to welcome and invite – not entering through their open doors, their community.   In fact, I’d even go as far to say we are unwilling and in some ways, unable to receive hospitality from others. If that’s true….what is that saying to those strangers and neighbors that we so want to share God’s love and be in relationship with?  The answer to that question would suggest many things, one being their hospitality isn’t a worthy gift.  It has no value to us.

That makes me uncomfortable….because it’s a bit condemning for not only me, but for the church I love to serve, and for the faith I confess.  Being welcoming and inviting is certainly important for Christians and for the church today.  But I think we’d do well to address our inability to receive hospitality from the other – the integrity of our faith, how the other experiences God through us, and our own pursuit and longing for transformational relationships, is at stake.

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Why Faith Matters…..Vulnerability & Courage.

It’s been a privilege and really great to read the responses from others about “Why Faith matters” to them.  Guest blogging works!  But, I realize, as I conclude that section of my blog, I haven’t given folks my own answer.  And honestly, I hesitate to do so.  There are a lot of reasons I suppose….I figure no one wants to hear that; it seems like I’m giving the “right” answer; I have to get the last word.  But if I’m really honest, the reason is….because I’m scared.

My whole life, I’ve struggled with the notion of being in control.  I think that’s why I loved sports so much growing up: I loved the idea that I could work towards success, and I seemingly had complete control on whether that success happened.  I could train harder and run a faster time; I could win more wrestling matches.  I like success, and the feeling of being powerful that comes from it.  I like knowing I was able to make that happen.  Disclaimer here: What I’m not going to say is that success and control are evil, that I saw the error of my ways, or that I’m ashamed of my pursuit of power.  I’m ok saying that because for the most part, my issue with control, power, and success didn’t work exploit or harm others (at least intentionally, or that I know of).  It was more because deep down, I wanted to supress that dark feeling, a really powerful feeling, that honestly….I was powerless.  I wasn’t in control….if people knew my weaknesses, if I showed them, I’d get exploited in the end. Scared.

And throughout my life, that has had a serious effect…mainly on my relationships with others.  Because in the end, I felt like letting anyone in, being vulnerable with others would lead to the inevitable conclusion that I’d be rejected in the end.  I’d be a failure.  To be honest, it’s why I probably didn’t acheive what I could have on the wrestling mat, it’s why a lot of my relationships in the past failed, it’s why the isolation I feel more than I admit to often turned into a reality.  I chose to close myself off, not take risks – because being vulnerable lead to exploitation.

That was a bit lengthy….but necessary for answering “why faith matters.”  Faith matters for me because the Gospel, the good news, is that we are assured of God’s enduring presence, a relationship, through all things in life – moments of death and resurrection, isolation and friendship, sorrow and joy.  That’s it.  The gospel message of the Christian faith is nothing more than this truth.  We’re promised no matter how we perform in the game of life, God will remain in relationship with us – one that doesn’t exploit or shame us at that.  To be certain, we experience serious consequences of our actions of rebellion, we are held accountable for our actions and attitudes towards God and other people, (that is a dynamic of not only faith, but with relationships in general) but the relationship remains intact always.  The point of faith isn’t whether God will bless me with his presence or not.  The point of faith is that has already blessed me with his everlasting presence. 

That’s comforting for me, hopeful.  I find life in that.  Faith matters to me because if I’m assured of that relationship, I can actually be vulnerable – with God, with others; in my life and in the world.  I can take risks in relationships, I can dare to use my talents and gifts to bring life into the world, I can be honest with others….and I can dare to expect the same from others.  In short, this faith in a God who is always present with us – fully revealed in Jesus Christ – compels me to be courageous in being vulnerable with others, because it’s in and only in being vulnerable can we ever expect to share true, abundant life with others. 

Faith matters….so that I might have the courage to be vulnerable with others.  So that I might be life-giving as a person, so that I might give life to others.

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Remembering & 9/11…..a small thought for today.

I will always be reflective on days like today, 9/11.  Part of that is probably due to my service to this country as a member of the Armed Forces….but another part is because I believe remembering and reflecting on the events of 11 years ago tells us something about God and the nature of faith.  So here’s a small snippet, some “food for thought” as you continue on your day:

As the events of 11 years ago fade from our memories, as we move on with life, it’s important to remember.  Remember that terror always exists in the world to hold us captive – not just people flying planes into buildings either.  It’s kids bullying other kids in schools, families who don’t know where their next meal is coming from, people with deep-seated fears of being alone, spouses and children who hold their breath everytime their loved one goes in harm’s way to serve another (medics, police, firefighters, not just military).

And it’s remembering that being freed from that terror always comes with great effort and cost – and at the center is faith, faith that gives courage to enter into suffering, tragedy and terror in order to bring reconciliation and hope into the world.  It’s faith that God demonstrates in the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God, who went before us out of faithfulness to us. 

I give thanks today, to remember that terror and tragedy never have the final word.  Grace, hope, reconciliation, and love – the very Word of God – does.

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Why Faith Matters…..Challenged to Believe.

Wes Kimball is a former youth of mine, starting his first year at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN.  Wes is a young man I think, who’s pretty wise and insightful beyond his years.  I think he highlights something important here: we all believe in something; it’s how we’re wired.  That may be ourselves, God, the world, etc., but we all believe in something.  The call is to examine what we’re believing in, and whether that is life-giving and hopeful to us in all moments of life.

To me, faith matters because it challenges our beliefs. If we lived day to day having God give us messages directly the way he did to Noah or Moses, there would be no need for faith. We’d have solid proof that God (and through Him, Jesus) existed. However, because we don’t get that divine phone call, we have to rely on our beliefs, and our faith.

In our daily lives we are challenged by everyone, scientists, friends and family, about why we believe what we believe. The easy answer is our faith allows us to believe it, but for those without faith, this only brings up more questions than answers. My faith has been founded because God has gotten me through annual trials and tribulations for the past thirteen years, and to this day had never let me down, or left me in a worse position than when I started.

Everyone’s faith is their own, and as much as we can try to relate with those of others, we cannot connect with theirs’ because it is between them and God. I was talking to an incoming High School student last week, and he believes solely because he has grown up in a Christian family; however he has never had any reason to doubt because he has never been tried. As he gets older, he’s going to face death, drugs, abandonment, I pray that he doesn’t but the odds aren’t in his favor. His faith has a foundation, however if he stops culturing it, when the trials come, he’ll be washed away by the storm.

That is why faith matters. As terrible things happen in your life, you need to have that spiritual support to make it through the challenges. It’s like a woman who lives on an island in a river with her child. One day a terrible storm comes, and the raging river engulfs the island. She tries to get to shore keeping he child above the water the whole way, but as the child get to shore, the mother drowns. Jesus died to save us from this storm, and our faith in him needs to be there to get us through the storms, so that we don’t drown.

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Why Faith Matters…..Breathing.

Over the course of my “vacation,”  I received two other reflections on “Why Faith Matters.”  Here’s one from Kerri (Wadzita) Clark, a Seminarian on her internship in Boone, NC (she attends Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, PA).  I’ve known Kerri and her family for several years now…and faith definitely runs through and through them – essential, like the air we breathe.

Faith, to me, is like breathing. Essential, but not always conscious. There are certain times that my breathing is thrust into the center of my attention, like at times when I’m swimming laps and the distracting things are all blocked out. Instead, my focus is on a pattern – stroke, stroke, turn head, breath. Other times my breathing is less labored, such as when I’m falling asleep, and I take deep breaths just for the curiosity of feeling how big my lungs will go. Still other times my breathing is joined with others’, such as in choir, when breaths are noticeable for their absence of sound, and we are all one breathing unit guided by the director.

My faith is this way, too. Sometimes it’s just me. I look at a sunset, at a storm, and feel God’s majesty. I hear sad news of a professor’s diagnosis with brain cancer and have the freedom to ask why and the comfort to not always need an answer. I read Scripture and reflect on hymns and check in with God every so often to see if this calling to serve God’s people as a pastor is still where I need to be. Other times, really most times, my faith functions as one breath among many. I pray and read and recite and sing alongside others, some who I know well and others I’ve yet to meet. I share work and conversations that open me up to so many new stories, and even when we aren’t specifically talking about God or religion or salvation, that’s still part of it.

I can’t imagine life separate from faith; it’s like breathing. I don’t know why I was raised in the family I was. I don’t know why faith “stuck” even through the tricky growing-up-and-exploring years. But I know that God loves us, and that I’m blessed to learn new ways to share that and also receive it from others. My faith is not something I’m conscious of all the time, but, like breathing, it gives me life.

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Back At It….and a thought along the way.

So, it’s been about a month since I posted anything…I’ve been a bit busy this past month.  Here’s what I was up to:

  • Team preached with a good friend.  It was awesome.
  • Got married to an amazing woman, among amazing family and friends, in an amazing place – my family farm and the church I grew up in in Central Minnesota.
  • Got a bunch of folks from my internship congregation (suburban) and myself to go to a Block Party in North Minneapolis. 
  • Went on a 10-day honeymoon through New England and Quebec. 
  • Went through the experience of my dementia-suffering mom going in and out of hospice.  Close call.
  • Got to preach on the Song of Solomon this past weekend at my internship congregation.

And just like that, the last year of my seminary journey started with classes today.  And with that, I’ll start preparing for another wrestling season, trying to get that elusive National Championship that’s escaped me my whole life!  So, I’m busy.  I’m back at it…and I’d have it no other way!

So here’s my short thought:  Something I struggle with is the notion of blessing.  People – religious or not – are always talking about being blessed.  I’m a bit more cynical – the whole blessing thing, well, isn’t my thing.  It seems like something to say when things are going really good in life, you’re successful, properous, have abundance.  It’s something people say who often live in denial of the world’s problems.  It’s something people say out of jealousy – “I’m so blessed that I’m a person of faith…not like those suckers who don’t live right/are poor” or “those greedy, rich suckers who don’t help others/are self-centered.”  Blessing just seems so cheap.

But this past month, I guess I’ve gained some new insight or something….because for one of the few times in my life – and I might even go as far to say as the first time – I feel blessed.  My friend, an ordained pastor who presided over our wedding ceremony said these words, “Look around you, look at all these people here….you are not alone.”  I AM NOT ALONE.  There are people, whether I deserve it or not, whether I like it or not, whether I believe it or not…..who choose to be in relationship with me.  These are people who love me for no other reason than they value our relationship; they see the best in me.  For the first time in my life, I get what it means to be blessed…blessed to have meaningful relationships, relationships that are visible signs and reflect the relationship between myself and God. 

Because our relationship with God is the same….this is a God, through Jesus Christ, chose to have a relationship with me.  The promise from God is: YOU ARE NOT ALONE.  And while life may throw many uncertainties and trials along the way, to be blessed is to be loved by a God who does so for no other reason than I am a child of God.  God sees perfection in imperfection.  To place trust and faith in that….that is what it means to be blessed.

And so, I’m back at it…..blessed by God, blessed by the life and relationships I have with others.  Blessed to be a blessing to others in this world.  Thanks be to God, Amen!

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