Monthly Archives: December 2012

Advent Devotion Week 4 – “Life is a Gift”

The Narrative Lectionary readings are as follows:
Sunday, 23rd: Luke 1:26-45 (Announcement of Jesus’ Birth to Mary)
Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-20 (Birth of Jesus)

I can’t take it anymore.

It has been a rough Advent season for me to this point. There is a lot of saddness and tragedy affecting me, both personally and in the world. And that’s enough for me, on its own. In light of so many things, the response we get….is a war of words.

A war over gun rights and gun control.
A war between conservative and liberal Christianity. You can sense it in commentaries. And in statements like this: God in Schools (2)

I hate that this kind of stuff bothers me when normally, it doesn’t. But I can’t take it anymore. Not when I lost a dear mentor of the faith last week. Not when I learned that a seminary classmate and friend lost his long battle with cancer this morning. Not when I think of all the kids and families not just in Newtown, CT, but around the world, that experience tragedy and pain every day.

As I read these readings for the 4th week in Advent and for Christmas Eve, I think about these unlikely pregnancies, and Christ’s humble birth into a tumultuous world, and I think about what God might be speaking to us through these well-known stories today.

And for me, all I can think about is my older sister and her newborn son, born just about a month ago….I think about how for a couple years she and her husband tried to concieve a new life – and not being able to time and time again – and then, as they decided to give in vitro fertilization a try, they received the news: they had conceived life on their own. And now, in all her fear and wonder, she holds this brand new, delicate life in her hands. And I watch my sister with great joy as she experiences this for the first time, knowing just how precious this life is to her…..a gift.

Life is a gift. Did you ever stop to think about that? Life is a gift from God! And it’s a delicate and fragile one at that – the world has been telling me that pretty straight up this past couple weeks. And human life is so precious to God, that he is willing to take on the very form of humanity as well, willing to risk taking on its delicateness and fragility, subjecting himself to the pain, suffering, and death of being human so that we may also know the joy, the value, of wonder of life – life that God alone gives, life that God creates “in his own image, both male and female, he created them.”

That is the good news for this week of Advent, and the good news of Christ’s humble birth into this world for us today: a reminder, and proclamation to us from God, that God gives life as a gift. God is with us when the frailty of that gift becomes a reality in our lives, and God promises that this gift of life is everlasting in relationship with him.

There will be a time to debate gun control, and a time for theological debate. But for now, in light of God’s good news, the only thing that comes to me is, “Life is a gift.” Christ is our Light in this world, shining in our hearts and in all dark places, revealing to us the truth about life in this world, and revealing to us perhaps, just how important life is to God – our lives, the lives of our loved ones, and the lives of all people in this world.

Life is a gift. That said,

I think I’m gonna hug my wife a little tighter today,
text and call friends and family, and check in on them,
go workout with one of my wrestlers today,
honor lost brothers in Christ in my own way,
give thanks for their witness to me,
and hope my life points to and witnesses to Christ’s light working in their lives, and in this world, that
Life is a precious gift from God.

And hopefully, that’s enough.

the-light-shines-in-the-darkness-faith-lang

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From the Mat: Dealing with Pressure

There I was, sitting with one of my athletes after he went 0-2 in a tournament.  He obviously wasn’t happy, and well, he shouldn’t have been.  But I saw it; I saw it on his face.  And I saw it on the face of a couple other guys whose results weren’t as expected during the tournament.

I remember competing myself…and how much pressure I put on myself.  It’s natural; I think  it’s unrealistic to tell our athletes not to put pressure on themselves, and think that will solve things for them.  They all deal with it, and they all do it.  I get it – when I was competing, everything I did on the mat seemed like a life or death situation.  It was my world.  I wanted to get into the starting lineup; I wanted to get onto the podium.

It’s tough wrestling for our program: 20-plus straight years of top 4 finishes at the National Tournament, 11 time National Champions as a Team in the last 20 years; a run of 5 or more All-Americans for 20-plus years.  It’s a lot of pressure for our athletes, but they know that coming here; they come here because they want that, they want to be part of the success that comes with that.  But still, it’s a lot of pressure.

Between the self-inflicted pressures our athletes put on themselves, and the pressures that outside forces put on them: program tradition, parents, peers, a sports culture focused on winning, and so on, I wonder,

Are we as coaches imposing unneccessary pressure on our athletes?

Pressure isn’t a bad thing; sometimes you need to apply it, especially when an athlete becomes complacent, or starts to take on the role of the victim – when self-pitty, laziness sets in.  But I don’t think that’s the majority of the athletes we coach; I know it’s not the case for our guys at Augsburg.  They’re not on athletic scholarships – it’s Division III.  They’re there because they want to be, for the most part, and they’re working hard towards their goals, on and off the mat.

But those stresses and pressure of being a college student-athlete are enough….I think as a coach, we have to look honestly at ourselves and wonder, if we’re adding to that unnecessarily.  I remember when I started coaching, I thought every athlete needed to run through walls like me.  I pushed my athletes, and pushed myself as a coach….until I realized how exhausted I was, and how my athletes weren’t making any gains.  Pressure….leading to unrealistic expectations, leading to burnout.

Back to my athlete who went 0-2…..here’s now I responded.  “You’re putting too much pressure on yourself.  Wrestling is supposed to be fun….it’s something you should enjoy.  I coach, I stay involved in the sport because I love it.  When the day ever comes I get to hate it, I’ll quit.  There are way too many other things that are important to me in this life, I don’t need wrestling if all it’s going to do is make me miserable.”

Maybe you agree or disagree with what I told him….but I believe what I said.  Wrestling is just that; something you love, but not life or death.  My self-worth, my being isn’t tied up in it.  And neither should we impose that on our athletes, ever.  In light of what’s been happening in the news lately, and what goes on around the world daily, I think that puts a wrestling match in perspective.

Coaches, use whatever self-reflective tool you need to hold yourself accountable.  For me, that’s my faith – that the work God calls us to in the world is supposed to be life-giving, both to ourselves and to others.  But as you evaluate your program here in whatever phase of the season you’re at (for us, it’s mid-season), make sure you evaluate yourself.

PS: There’s some other great thoughts around this subject and others from Mark Schwab, Assistant Wrestling Coach at University of Northern Iowa.  You can check out his blog here.

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Advent Devotion Week 3, continued. “Endings & Beginnings”

Earlier this week, I posted a devotion for this 3rd week in Advent. You can take a look at it here. The basic theme is we’re hearing a lot about “the end” that looms in our lives – the fiscal cliff, getting through the holidays in one piece, unemployment, war and unrest around the world. People, all of us, are looking for a word of “good news” in that – a way to endure the end, stave it off, or at least prepare for it in a way so when it comes, we can diminish its affects on our lives.

But is that really good news? And this good news in Isaiah 61 – “Good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the captives, prisoners, and those who mourn,” is it really any better than the good news we get offered by other places in the world? What makes this announcement of good news any better, and what difference does Advent’s message of Christ being born into our world make for our lives today?

I think it’s a good question….because when I think of how prominent “endings” are in my life, and the feelings of sadness, uncertainty, and fear they cause, I wonder myself how the good news of God in Isaiah, the good news of God in Jesus’ coming into the world, works to change things like Scripture tells us. This past week, in a conversation I had with the associate pastor at my internship church, we asked ourselves the basic question, “What difference does the message of Christmas make, especially since Christ has already come? What’s are we supposed to be observing in Advent anyway?”

And that takes me back to endings, because I’ve experienced a few this week. Recently, the President of my Seminary announced his resignation – one that came amidst the news that the Seminary will finish the year with a $2 million deficit, and the financial picture doesn’t look great right now. Lots of talk about additional cuts and even, the seminary closing itself – a looming “end.” And, this past week, Pastor Paul “Chip” Gunsten, assistant to the Bishop in the Virginia Synod, ELCA, died suddenly this week. Part of Pastor Chip’s responsibilities was to oversee all candidates for ordained ministry…folks like me. For the past 5 years, Chip has supported, guided, challenged, and offered friendship in my own journey through seminary. He and his wife Kris were on the same trip to the Holy Land I took in 2010 – where I learned Chip had been recently diagnosed with cancer. And a couple weeks ago, at my interview for approval to become a pastor in the ELCA, Chip was right there next to me, as he has been for so many others.

I probably don’t have to state too much that I’m profoundly sad at the loss of Chip. Yet in my sadness, I also have this deep sense of thanksgiving – thanks for the life and relationship God allowed me to share with Chip. Thanks for the life I’ve shared with others in meaningful conversations this week. And in all this stands God and his promise in Christ, that in our sadness, our darkness, and even death, there is peace, light, and resurrection on the otherside. In Christ, there is always a new creation, new life waiting. In Christ, the “good news” is not the end, but the beginning is near.

The message of Advent for us this week is one of beginning: Christ’s birth into this world reminds us that God is about creating a completely new beginning in the world, not just a survival plan to get through the endings we face in the world. This new beginning in Christ is just that, a start – a start of a journey, a life in which God is with us in all aspects of life – ups and downs, security and uncertainty, joys and sorrows, life and death. Advent is the reminder that Christ shines light into the dark endings of our world and lives, and reveals to us exactly where and in what things we find true, abundant life. Light and life that brings hope, joy, peace, justice and love. This Advent, “good news” is announced to all people – Christ is our light. Alleluia! Amen.

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Advent Devotion Week 3 – “Good News”

Isaiah 61:1-11 is reading for the 3rd Sunday in Advent for the Narrative Lectionary.

Have you paid attention to the news lately? Do you know what’s going on?

THE END OF THE WORLD IS NEAR!

Yup, it’s December 21st. If you need some proof, you can click here. You only have a week or so left, which may be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it….

Let me just say that I AM NOT preparing for the end of the world. One, I don’t place a lot of faith Mayan calendars and ancient predictions. Not my thing. But, if you are paying attention to the news, to what people have been talking about and how they are responding to it, it does seem like the end of something is near.

– The impending “fiscal cliff.” The end of financial security, back into an economic recession.
– The government situation in Egypt. The end of democracy for those in the Middle East.
– Unemployment in our country. For many, the end of a way of life, and for many, an end of their self-value and worth, tied up in what they do.
– The holiday season. You got your shopping done; your parties planned? You’re running out of time! The end is near! (Which reminds me, I haven’t even begun to start shopping yet)

Perhaps you don’t see it, but I think under the surface, there is a sense of “the end” in our lives and world. A sense of fear. A sense of dread. A sense of anxiety. A sense of hopelessness. And in the midst of feeling “the end” looming, we all are searching for answers and finding solutions on how to deal with it.

In response to a poor economy & the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, kids are searching for answers…. from Santa.

In response to the stress of the holidays and of life, people – church people – are seizing the opportunity to offer advice – lists of “to do’s” to make it through the holidays. Some take matters into their own hands, and find ways to cope.

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Caption: “An Advent Calendar I can get onboard with.”

We’re all searching for answers…a piece of “good news” that will stave off, or at least diminish, the feeling of “the end” we all sense coming down on us at some level. And honestly, most of us are willing to listen to just about anyone who might bringing such “good news”: politicians, friends, experts, friends, media, and even the church and its leaders. I think that’s pretty honest and normal. But, how well are those voices, and their answers relieving your fear and dread? How well are they creating a sense of peace and hope? How are these voices and their answers, speaking a word of “good news” into our lives..good news that matters, makes a difference?”

The prophet in Isaiah speaks, “The Spirit of the LORD GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor…”

Often times, this passage gets interpreted to mean simply a political/social reform – the lowest and marginalized of society will be lifted up and made powerful by God. God cares and acts for the marginalized and lowly. And I certainly think that message is in there…..but it’s only a part of what God intends. What God announces as “good news” is so much greater and complete – so much beyond what we ourselves could ever imagine. God’s proclamation of good news to us is a promise that God will act and God alone will bring a new way of life, of living, of relating – for all people. What God promises…..is a completely new beginning.

Yet it’s also a mystery as to how that will happen. Just as no Mayan calendar or ancient prediction can tell us when God will act, the proclamation of the prophet in Isaiah 61 makes no promise of when God will act either. What it does assert that God will act, and that God’s action will make a difference in the way never before seen – it will bring a complete hope. A total peace. A lasting comfort and joy.

That is the message of Advent. The good news God offers is the promise a new beginning: a beginning that begins in the birth of the newborn baby Jesus into a chaotic world. Not something that will simply stave off or lessen the impact of an impending “end;” but a completely new beginning. A beginning that begins and ends with God; a life begun and sustained in the grace, love, peace and justice that we all yearn for, and only God alone can provide.

Maybe among the many voices and messages offering “good news” in a world fearing an impending ending, it’s God’s turn to speak. This Advent season, the world is about to turn, and God is about to turn it. For this is God’s proclamation of good news to us today and everyday: In Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, “The Beginning is near.” A beginning of complete hope, peace, love, justice, and abundant life for all.

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And perhaps, as people of God who place faith and trust in this good news, maybe we are “anointed”as well – appointed and called to witness and share this good news with the world, a world that needs to know such a new beginning – a beginning from God, is near. Amen.

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“Back to Basics” Leadership

This past week in wrestling practice, we used the term “Back to Basics” with our athletes. After competing this past weekend, we had seen a lot of our wrestlers had gotten away from their plan of attack on the mat, and doing some of the basic technique that we’ve been drilling since the beginning of practice. So it was “back to basics” for all of them – to simplify their approach and how they’re wrestling.

But, as I’ve thought more about the term, I realize “Back to Basics” has more to do with one’s mindset and philosophy than it does technical fixes or problem solving. This past week in of my seminary classes, a couple of Lutheran pastors who have served and led large churches (4000+) spoke in our class. One of the questions raised to them were: “What are your ‘non-negotiables’ as you approach leadership and ministry?” In other words, what basic values or principles are they committed to, and that guide their leadership, their way of relating with people and the way they think?

And on the mat, the first thing we did with the athletes wasn’t going over specific technique. Rather, we first reiterated our philosophy of wrestling at Augsburg College – our takedown philosophy and our approach to wrestling on the top and bottom positions on the mat. Mindset and philosophy.

So all this thinking on “Back to Basics” and “non-negotiables” has me thinking: What are your basic commitments as a leader? What mindset and philosophy do you bring to your coaching, work, or ministry as a leader, and how do those commitments shape how you communicate, relate, and lead others? I think it’s a question worth asking, because it keeps us grounded on what our aim is, as a leader, as a community, as a team, an institution, etc.

One word about “Back to Basics” commitments though: I’ve noted, both as a wrestling coach and as a future pastor, that those commitments are clear, but they are also flexible enough to allow people to grow and develop in the ways they need to. For example, one of our takedown philosophies is “Always on the attack.” Yet, based on the person’s abilities, how that gets achieved is different. It allows for different expressions. Ministry is no different. If you hold the commitment that church is a community of God, for instance, is it expansive enough to allow for people to live out their vision of community based on the tenants of faith?

Some of my commitments are pretty practical. Some are more theological and faith-based. But those commitments shape the basics of both how I coach my athletes and how I relate as a pastor to God’s people. I invite you to get “Back to Basics” and to think about your own “non-negotiables.” I’d love for you to share what yours are as well….because collaboration is one way we get better at this and grow as leaders.

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Advent Devotional Week 2 – Joel: “Repentance” & “Homecoming”

The Narrative Lectionary reading this week is from Joel 2:12-13, 28-29.

So I have to give you a litte background on the Book of Joel. The prophet was speaking to Israel and Judah just after the Persians had allowed them to return back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. However, not all is rosy for them on their return. There’s a threat of a “swarm of locusts” (actual locusts? invading army? no one knows for sure) coming (1:4), a sign to Joel that the people should repent. “Return to the Lord your God,” (2:13)

Repentance seems a bit out of place here. That’s a theme we typically take on at Lent. Repentence, or turning towards God, is something we do in light of the recognition that we’re with Sin, that as a result, we all die. (“The wages of sin is death.” ~Romans 6:23) But, repentance during Advent, during the Christmas season? This is supposed to be a joyous, hopeful time of year….it’s the holiday season. People travel home to be with family. College kids come home after a long semester for a break. This is a happy time. A time to celebrate with everyone, not a time for Lenten repentance.

College was a time of homecoming for me as well. Since I had chosen to attend college on the East Coast, my return home to Minnesota was significant; I didn’t get home often because I was so far away. I remember looking forward to the time to rest. I remember looking forward to our normal Fuller family holiday traditions; to Christmas Eve worship at my small little rural church; and to seeing people I hadn’t seen in so long.

But then, while I was on the plane, this sense of dread started to come over me. And as I got off the plane, into my dad’s car and traveled home, a profound saddness swept over me. Something wasn’t right. What should’ve been such a joyous time, became a moment of darkness for me. Darkness that not only hurt me, but my family as well, because neither of us at the time understood it.

Looking back, I realize that my mom’s alcoholism & parents’ divorce, and the stress I felt being out East for school were now a part of my life and now, my holidays. No longer were my childhood expectations of a joyous Christmas real, rather it was the saddness that I had grown up and that there was brokenness in my family –  that was my new reality. It made everything on the surface of celebrating Christmas – the joy and warmth – seem fake and meaningless.

It was similar for Israel and Judah so long ago….expectations of a joyous return to Jerusalem, only to come to the reality that after 200 years of exile, their native land had changed. The threat of locusts (or, an army of a rival nation) their new reality. And those realities brought on a sense of darkness, a darkness in which people would abandon God’s promises of hope and joy, leading ultimately to, lost faith in God altogether.

But God speaks into that darkness. See, God’s word to Israel and Judah through the prophet was a call to repentance in Joel. But, the call to repentance was to remind the people who God was, that God had not abandoned them. “Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.” That’s the whole of verse 2:13.

God’s call to repentance is a call for people to “come home” – not in the sense of returning to a land – but to a relationship: a relationship with the God who loves lavishly and constantly, and who deals with us with grace rather than punishment.

That reminds me of a song….

Settle down, it’ll all be clear
Don’t pay no mind to the demons
They fill you with fear
The trouble it might drag you down
If you get lost, you can always be found

Just know you’re not alone
Cause I’m going to make this place your home (~Phillip Phillips’ “Home”)

This Advent is a time of repentance. God’s announcment through Joel is the same announcment through Jesus’ coming into the world. The call to repentance is a call of homecoming. And the words of one of my favorite hymns puts it so well,

Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling,
Calling for you, and for me….
“Come home, come home!
You who are weary come home.”

In the midst of the darkness that this season, that this hectic time of year can bring, may you hear God’s call for you…to “come home” – come to the One, the Light that shines in the darkness, who has come, and always comes to you, with grace and love. Amen.

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Advent Devotional Week 1 – Daniel & the Lion’s Den

I’ve written a couple devotionals in the past for Advent….mainly for college-aged folk, something for them to reflect on while they’re at college.  Some food for thought, so to speak…because Advent (along with the Christmas holiday season) puts us in a reflective mood.  So I write this with them in mind, but it’s for all those whose faith is along the lines of the theme of this blog – they wrestle with the ways their faith plays out in this world.

This Advent devotional series will be based on the Narrative Lectionary from Luther Seminary.  My internship congregation is using it with positive results.  Since I just thought of doing this today, I’m posting a bit late.  Typically I’ll post on either Wednesday or Thursday prior of the Sunday text in question.

1st Week in Advent – Daniel 6:6-27

Daniel & the Lion’s Den is one a familiar story for most – Daniel gets thrown into a den of lions by King Darius.  God shuts the mouths of the lions, thus saving him, and King Darius believes in Daniel’s God.  It’s one of the first stories you learn in the Bible.  I remember learning it as a kid.  I remember singing all sorts of upbeat and cute songs about it.

But there are themes in this story that have serious undertones.  Lots of Negro spirituals were written about the story because it talked about God delivering faithful people – a theme that would’ve spoke heavily to people in the bondage of slavery.  It’s a story about subversive forces, and the influence and use of power to persecute innocent, faithful people – a theme that would speak to those persecuted for their faith in God.

But the latter theme leads me to ask this question, “Is our faith being threatened?”  In our North American context, is North American Christianity being threatened?

I think it’s safe to say Christians and Christianity in the United States is not being persecuted and threatened the way it is in other places around the world.  So the typical question that leads to only dealing with feelings not only cheapens what others around the world are experiencing, but it cheapens our own experience.  So let’s place that aside for now.

Again, is our faith being threatened?  In our North American society, faith and religion is becoming a matter of personal choice, and one we can’t impose on others.  “Faith is a private thing” – that’s something that gets said in the name of religious tolerance.  But I think such a notion is more subversive than that.  Because embedded in that is a notion that manifests itself in statements like this:

  • “I’ll tolerate your beliefs, but don’t you dare bring them into the workplace.”
  • “You can believe what you want, but don’t you dare say a prayer on your own in front of people.”
  • “Separation of church and state must reign supreme.”

This is much different than speaking out against proselytizing, against imposing faith as absolute law, using it to justify judgment and persecution of others.  This is a thought that pushes faith to the margins…and right over the cliff of irrelevance.

The story of Daniel and the Lion’s Den highlights the threat when we buy into the notion our faith is to be kept silent in the name of religious respect and tolerance.  In the end, you’re faced with a choice: deny your faith altogether because the world tells you it is irrelevant, or be forced to reject the world altogether in the name of your faith.  One way leads to godlessness.  The other, to religious fanaticism.  And I don’t hear a word of hope from God in either of those messages.

Daniel and the Lion’s Den indeed highlights a God who delivers the faithful, but God delivers so that we may live boldly and confidently in the world, not so that we’re removed from it.  Faith like Daniel’s is a faith that allows us to face the real dangers and threats to our life in this world – isolation, fear, death, hate – so that we continue to live life abundantly and freely in this world, not shrink and isolate ourselves from it.  Such a faith calls us to witness to others simply though the way in which we live our lives, and being humbly honest about how faith in God guides and gives shape to it.

And during this Advent season, I think it’s a good place to start our reflection, because the holiday season many celebrate has a dark side to it – the frantic pace, the commercial messages, the darkness of depression, the threat of suicide.  I know I’ve felt them, and I’m sure you have too.  I think people are wondering how to live in the midst of it, because as much as our world wants to hide and deny our dark side, we all know it still exists, and it threatens our lives in serious ways.  A God who promises deliverance so that we might live freely and abundantly in this world, so that we might give life to others through our witness and service – that is a message of hope.

Questions                                                                                                                                                                                                            What ways does the good news of God’s deliverance bring life and light into our lives and world?                             In what ways do you feel called to witness in your own life this good news, in a world where it is being threatened and pushed to the margins?

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