Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Project: Stop calling me your “Shepherd.”

“What is a pastor?”

Good question.  Heck, I don’t even know…..and I’m a pastor.  So I figured I’d recall some of the folks I come across in my daily life, those who know I’m a pastor, and see what they think:

My wrestlers: “Hey coach, am I supposed to call you Father Fuller?”

Um, I’m not a catholic priest, or an orthodox one for that matter.  But it makes sense that people think pastors are priests – they perform certain religious acts.  They provide certain religious services.

We put on and provide worship services.  We baptize people; we give communion.  We visit the sick and the shut-ins when requested.  We do weddings and funerals.  We teach bible study classes.  And for my wrestlers, I’m sort of the “religious expert in residence” that answers all their questions about religion.

I don’t think that’s what a pastor is – it’s what a pastor does, sort of – but I’m ok with that.

What I’m not ok with…is the notion that as a pastor, I’m a congregation’s “shepherd.”

It’s the prevalent image used by CEO-minded pastors all over.  Here’s just one example.  This takes on all sorts of names: “Shepherd-leader,” “We want you to shepherd us,” “Tend to the flock…” and for me, it’s more than a bit nauseating.  As a pastor, let me say that I am NOT your shepherd…and you DON’T WANT me, or any other pastor for that matter, to be your shepherd.
Here’s why:

1.  Sheep are one of the most helpless and stupidest creatures on the planet.  While we didn’t raise sheep on our farm growing up, I remember a nearby neighbor having them.  They seriously can’t do much at all – they have no awareness or sense of anything – they just follow along in the flock, eat what you give them, will simply freeze when scared.  And let’s not forget the things are pretty much blind.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think you want me thinking of you that way.  And I don’t want to think of you like that.  If a sheep is what your image of what a life of faith is about – then you’re selling yourself short.  You’re dumb, lazy, incapable of thinking anything on your own.  Discipleship isn’t an active life of loving God and your neighbor, it’s doing what you’re told.

2. Shepherds aren’t exactly gentle with the sheep.  You might think that the staff the shepherd’s carrying is sort of endearing, but think again.  They don’t gently guide the sheep.  The poke, prod, yank, and beat the sheep with it.  Gotta keep em in line ya know.  Gotta keep em within the flock.  Gotta keep em going the direction the shepherd wants them to go.

And to think of a pastor that way is dangerous.  It’s dangerous because then the church and ministry is about the pastor deciding everything.  It’s dangerous because then the assumption is the pastor is the only one who is communicating truth – which usually means the pastor’s interpretation of the bible is passed off as truth.  The pastor’s leadership then is all about influence – influencing people to accept their interpretation of the bible and God, to do ministry according to their vision, and to live according to their view of what it means to be a Christian.

The pastor as shepherd means you NEED the pastor – and you can’t live out Christian faith without their influence.  It also means that as shepherd, it’s assumed the pastor needs no shepherding themselves – in other words, the pastor’s word is not to be challenged, and you can essentially justify overworking your pastor because he never needs tending to.

3.  There’s only ONE Shepherd.  And the Bible tells us that’s Jesus.  A quick word search of the New Testament shows that the Shepherd of humanity, of the church, of the disciples…is Jesus and only Jesus.  Humans are made overseers (Acts 20:28) by the Holy Spirit, but they are never themselves the Shepherd.

Jesus as the Shepherd keeps ALL accountable – pastors and communities of faith alike.  It’s means that the pastor can NEVER be a shepherd….and their leadership should never use the shepherd model.  In short, it’s crap.

So, what the heck is a pastor then?

Here’s my take:  I offer this quote from author Jaco Hamman.

“As a congregational leader, you are called to mature into an authentic person secure enough to enter deep into your emotional, spiritual, and relational life. Achieving this ability allows you to create space for friends and strangers as you welcome them to the body of Christ and beckon them on a similar journey into themselves and towards a deepening understanding of God.”

In other words, you are inviting others to take part in a life of Christian discipleship that you yourself have taken part in…..but unique to their own personhood.  As pastor, you are called to fulfill a unique role in walking alongside people in this life of discipleship.

Another example: going back to my wrestlers, I hope to invite them to take part in the sport I love so much.  I walk alongside them in their own journey through the sport – the discipline of competition and training; the physical, mental, and emotional battles.  I can’t do that for them; I can only hope to help them find their way in the sport, and be present and support them when they want to give in and give up on it.

Maybe that’s as clear as mud….but it sure as hell beats being someone’s shepherd.  Besides, sheep are stinky…….

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Tunnel Tolls on the Mind

Since I’ve moved here, there seems to be one subject with folks I talk to in Portsmouth that seems to always strike a nerve:

Tunnel tolls.

Let’s get a few things out of the way: the tolls are coming.  The way they came about are sketchy at best.  Starting February 1st, the whole region will be paying tolls for crossing two major access points into the City of Portsmouth: the Downtown Tunnel and the Midtown Tunnel.  Apparently there are alternative routes that are both “reasonable” and “free” for people to use.  But, if you factor in costs of operating a car and gas, both are neither reasonable or free.

Right or wrong, legal or illegal though, the reality is that the beginning of these tolls, which will be a reality for the next 56 years, is that it will affect real people.  As a church, that’s our chief concern.  We can’t do a whole lot about the politics, laws, and legislation (or in this case, lack of) that made these tolls a reality.

What we can speak on though, is the lack of regard for people – both on how this affects their lives and for how people are thought of.  The first one is pretty simple to comprehend (see the link to the article about people above).  There is an economic impact that will affect the livelihood of folks living in the region.  But it will affect people on a deeper level too.

In P-Town:
– The elderly who receive home health care may see a decrease in that care, because their are less workers, and less quality health care aids available.
– People at or near self-sustaining with their income will likely fall below that, considering the average costs of cross the tunnels for work.
– A growing and developing downtown area will see a decrease in business and development.
– And if you look at a map, the tunnels are the major access point into the city.  Without them, it essentially cuts off Portsmouth from the rest of the Hampton Roads region.  Tolling them, cuts Portsmouth off economically from the rest of the region.

The second issue has to do with Elizabeth River Crossings, the company that is contracted to do the project.  To promote the EZPass method of tolling, they have an aggressive ad campaign going on both radio and TV, encouraging people to buy an EZPass, and that “it’s the most efficient and affordable way to go.”

But when I watch and listen to ads such as these, I can’t help but feel insulted.

Apparently everyone who opposes or dislikes the tolls is an penny-pinching, unintelligent, unreasonable, ridiculous, idiot.  Because they would resort to idiotic extremes to cross – motorcycle ramp jumping, hand gliding, motorboat, rubber raft, snorkeling, to name a few – rather than use what the company thinks is a no-nonsense, no-brainer, easy and fun way to go – the tolled tunnels.  Apparently, if you were an intelligent human being, you’d come to the conclusion that using an EZPass is not only logical, but actually fun and enjoyable.

And that is dehumanizing.

For anyone or any company to reduce someone, to insult people’s intelligence by telling them how they should feel is dehumanizing.  It doesn’t show a shred of respect or regard for the other, for their personhood.   Because there’s plenty examples – more extreme than this one – when an institution or ideology dehumanized people, and the results were black marks on human history.  African-American Civil Rights.  Nazi Germany.  Westboro Baptist Church.

I’m not saying that the tunnel tolls are the same as these examples.  Not even close.  But I do know this:

We get that the tolls are a reality, and there’s little we can do about that.
We get that we’ll probably have to buy an EZPass and pay the tolls.
We don’t like waiting in lines, so some of us will buy them after February 1st when the tolls begin.
We get that they’ll probably become a way of life and we’ll adjust to that.

But what we don’t have to change is our opinion that we think they’re wrong.  And we don’t have to change how we feel…we don’t have to like them.

For that, people of faith can never stand.  God speaks out against dehumanization because God values humanity.  We may not be able to enact worldly change, but we can enact change by giving voice and making sure there’s space for that voice to be heard.

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Sermon 26 January: Psalm 27 & Our Fear of Living

The text for Sunday was Matthew 4:12-23.  But I decided to preach on Psalm 27:1, 5-13 instead.

“The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”

So yesterday [Saturday], once again I spent an afternoon in a high school gymnasium coaching at a wrestling meet.  We’re nearing the end of our regular season, and these last few final matches are a time to be fine tuning, to establish a consistent game plan during matches, to fix any technical mistakes with moves or strategy.  And yesterday was a day of ups and downs….we have a young team, lots of kids who are starting on varsity for the first time, and who frankly, haven’t been wrestling for very long.  And so while some are coming into form and are wrestling really well, others are struggling.

And honestly, most of their struggles don’t bother me too much, because they’re out there battling it out, working as hard as they can even though the wins aren’t coming.  The ones that concern me the most are the one who well, seem to be holding back.  They put in all the same work; and some of them are the more talented and experienced wrestlers on the team.  But they’re struggling…struggling with fear, holding back when it comes to battling it out come match time.

 “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?”

The opening words of Psalm 27 jumped out at me this week….at about 10pm last [Saturday] night.  Because as I thought of some of my wrestlers who are struggling with things right now, it made me think about the church and people in the church today…..and I wonder if perhaps it isn’t the same way – as much as we say we have faith, as much as we participate in worship, read devotionals, come to church regularly….we still hold back.  We still seem to live with this sense of fear.

And as I think about my wrestlers and their struggles, as I think about the struggles we all go through as people of faith, I think we hold back, not so much out of a fear of failure.  I don’t think we hold back so much because we’re afraid of the presence of darkness and difficult moments in life.  Speaking from what I know about myself and other people I’ve come across in my life, we humans can endure a lot; we can take it; we can carry burdens pretty well; we’re a resilient bunch.  I think we hold back because honestly, we’re afraid of the light.

One of my favorite professors at seminary would talk about Psalm 27, and what it meant to him.  He had gotten cancer at a young age, and in his high school years they had to amputate both of his legs.  And in the midst of that trial, he would say he was never really afraid of dying…..what he was really afraid of, was living.

We was afraid of what life might look like for him.  Would he be able to have a full life without his legs?  Would he find meaningful work, would he find someone to fall in love with, and get married to?  Would he be able to have children?

Everything he was told and what was true about himself both physically and emotionally said that all that and more was possible.  But he found himself doubting….he had no legs….all those things he hoped for his life…..he held himself back from hoping.  The promise of a full and meaningful life…..it seemed too good to be true.

 “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom (and what) shall I be afraid?”

I think a lot about you all…..no seriously, I do.  I think about you all as individuals living in this world, and I think about you all as a congregation.  You are on my mind a lot, and not because it’s simply my job to be thinking about you.  And as I think about you today, I wonder, what holds you back?  If we are people and a church who come to worship week after week, confessing that Jesus, the Lord is our light and our salvation, what is holding us back from living fully into that good news?

Because to live into the promise that Christ is our light and salvation means that fear plays no role in our life of faith.  It doesn’t mean fear gets magically erased, or that we deny that fear really is powerful sometimes.  What it means is that in the face of that fear, the God’s promise casts light on God’s vision of life for us.

 It means that such fear can and has been overcome by Christ’s death and resurrection, so that we might know that nothing – suffering, pain, isolation, death – holds us back from truly living as God intended.  And that’s not something we have to wait around for, wallowing in fear until the day we die and go to meet our maker, it’s something we can live into know with confidence and courage.

 “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?  The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom (and what) shall I be afraid?”

My professor went on to say that Those opening words of Psalm 27 gave him comfort and courage….TO LIVE.

And this gives us a vision of what the church can be too…..the church is a place where people come together, seeking God, seeking light in the darkness of fear.  The church is a place where all those fearful that the good news of Jesus Christ is simply too good, too hope-filled, and perhaps being cynical, too optimistic to be true gather together in community and together strive in faith and trust to live……live into this hope.

We follow Christ into each other’s fear – we take time to share openly how we feel, we listen to each other, and together we courageously find a way forward, letting Christ lead us. We work through differences, we acknowledge the ways we’ve been hurt or doubt, and we open ourselves to new possibilities revealed to us by the Holy Spirit – both in ideas and thoughts and dreams and to people of all backgrounds and walks of life – because we are people who seek courageously for God and courageously live in faith, knowing because of Christ, nothing holds us back.  This is God’s vision of the church.

And the church is a place that invites others outside our community to join us and take part in this way of life – a way of following Jesus – a way of discipleship.

Last week, I had you write down where you saw Jesus and why you came to this church.  I compiled a list of everyone’s responses.  A couple things I want you to get out of them: One, I hope you read what your fellow congregation members and are affirmed, hopeful, and challenged by their words as I was.

And two, consider those responses on the list, ask yourself: “What’s holding you or us as a congregation back?  What is holding us back from a life of encountering Jesus, from following Jesus, from truly living with and for each other?  

As you consider these questions, my prayer for you is simply this: Go in faith, be of good courage……Jesus, is our light and salvation.  And in the face of all fear….in Christ may nothing hold you back.  Amen.

Speaking of those lists….those were responses that came out of asking each congregation: “Where do you see Jesus in your lives?” and “What do you value/why do keep coming to your respective congregation?”

For your own reflection, I’d ask you this: “What about church keeps people away? What barriers exist to encountering Jesus in churches today?”  Feel free to post a comment!

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Sermon 19 January: “Evangelism ain’t so bad….”

So a note about my sermons….no sermon in written form can convey what I hope to in person.  For me, they’re a conversation more than anything.  That said, I try to format my writing as much as possible to convey the same meaning.  It might seem a little choppy to you, but in the end, I think it’s more faithful to what I hope to share.  ~Pastor Aaron

Readings: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-12, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9, John 1:29-42

My wife Kelly has a special talent: pointing out stuff that’s important to her, bringing them to my attention.  And, she is really, really good at it – she points out that I don’t put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher, she points out that I forget about 70% of the things she tells me….and she points out the fact it’s not socially appropriate to walk around in public with my sweatshirt tucked into my sweatpants. (Long story…..one of our first dates and it’s a wrestler thing)

All kidding aside, I really appreciate that side of Kelly.  By pointing out things important to her, and inviting me to experience them for myself, it’s honestly changed how I look at the world, making me aware of things I hadn’t considered before.  And I’m better for it.

I think in our gospel story today – and really all of our readings – we see that same gift – the gift to point things out & invite others to experience them.  John the Baptist identifies Jesus for the crowds, and Jesus’ future disciples – “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  And that does something….people start following Jesus around.  And those who have Jesus pointed out to them and see him not only follow him, but they do something else: they go tell others what they have seen.  They invite others to “come and see” for themselves.

We have a name for this in the church: “evangelism.”  Now I have to admit, “evangelism” isn’t well thought of these days – for a couple of reasons in my mind.  One, we often equate it with “conversion.” Evangelism is often imagined as Pat Robertson on the 700 club, “bringing people to Jesus,” or standing on a street corner telling people to accept Jesus and get saved – or else.

But that’s not how evangelism works in the story today.  There’s no need to bring people to Jesus – he’s already there, among them.  There’s no need to worry about whether people are converted to faith or not – even Jesus doesn’t seem too interested in that.  All John the Baptist and others who encounter Jesus do is point out where Jesus is present – and like Jesus, invite others to “come and see” for themselves.

And if you ask me, that makes Evangelism pretty easy.  All we do is simply share where what’s important to us – pointing to Jesus at work in our lives and together, leaving space to consider what the means for our lives.

It’s so easy in fact….that a kid can do it.

I do chapel every week for the preschool [at Holy Communion].  Two weeks ago, I gave them assignment: “Where do you see Jesus this week?”  And this past week, I asked them for their answers.  And here’s what they came up with:

In their hearts,
In their brain, (He meant it literally, I think they meant mind, but never argue with a kid)
In their preschool,
With their eyes,
In their eyeballs, (weird)
In their grammy and grandpa,
On the cross.

Ok, I think we have a budding theologian in preschool…because his answer actually connects to the story, and tells us something about who Jesus is and why he’s so important to people.

  “Look – the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

Jesus, the Lamb of God, is the one found on the cross.  The one who bears the sin of the world – God found with us in suffering, pain, isolation – the brokenness of the world and life.  John and the disciples point to the One who is present with us in this life on earth – God in the flesh – in all things, but especially, the things that separate us from God.

And pointing to this Lamb of God is not only important because God is present, but because “he takes away the sin of the world.”  The cross also promises the hope of resurrection – that God promises the hope of new life.  The brokenness of this world and our lives doesn’t have to define and destroy us.  It doesn’t rule over our lives. Pointing to the Lamb of God is to point to the One who in bearing all things with us in this life, makes all things new.  To “come and see” the Lamb of God is to be invited to consider and explore what it means to be in relationship with a God who desires to give life abundantly to a humanity he loves so deeply.

And since we’re talking about evangelism, I think it’s important to consider where we see the Lamb of God in our midst. So, we’re gonna try a little exercise. [I handed note cards out to the congregation at this point] On one side of the card, I want you to write down your answers to this question: “In what places, moments, or people do you see the Lamb of God in your lives?” Where in your life can you point to Jesus’ presence?

Now I’ll ask this: how many of you wrote “church?”  Not a bad answer…but let’s explore it a bit more.  So on the other side of your card, I want you to answer the following question, “Why do you keep coming to this church, week after week?”  If this church is important to you…..what keeps you coming back here, why do you call St. Andrew/Holy Communion “your church?”  If you’re new today, or recently have been coming, what led you to this church in particular?

Now I want you to take a look at both sides of the card, and ask yourselves this: If we are people seeking this Lamb of God in our lives and in our church, and we see Jesus in these things, is it worth sharing? Is it worth pointing out to others and inviting them to “come and see” this Lamb of God in our midst?

I think so…while I believe there are things we can do better and God convicts our hearts of those things, I also believe we have good things happening here and good people here doing all sorts of good things in the world.  Things that point to what important to us – our relationship with God.  Things that invite people to “come and see” – to consider this Lamb of God who enters deeply into all parts of human life and offers hope and new life in relationship with him.

This past week, I started a blog…..”Lutherans in P-Town.” And my hope is as much as it is for all of you, it’s a way to evangelize – point to where we see the Lamb of God in the world, and invite people to come and see and walk with us in faith.  It’s a tool….because not all of us can talk about faith so openly, and so you can share the blog – point people to it – as a way of sharing what’s important to us & invite people to consider that for their lives.  It is a way to share with others where we see God in our midst, a God who in Christ enters deeply into our lives and the City of Portsmouth.  It is a way to point out where we see Jesus moving and acting to those who because their suffering and brokenness is so great that they cannot see him…..pointing to God’s faithfulness in Christ to them, even when perhaps they themselves cannot be.

But I also hope that today, you know that God is evangelizing to you in Jesus Christ – pointing to God’s love and grace that makes all things new in brokenness and inviting you to come and see in faith, each and every day.  Amen.

I collected those notecards from folks who wished to share their thoughts…..look for a blog post later this week on what they shared!

 

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Starting things Off: Names & Identity

So, as I start this blog, I suppose the question is “why?”

Why am I doing this?

There are lots of reasons of course….but the #1 reason is “because people don’t truly know who we are.”  

Lutherans aren’t a well-known thing in these parts – what I like to call the “northern-most part of the Bible Belt.”  We’re surrounded by Methodists, Southern Baptists, Mega-Nondenominational churches….and a whole host of others.  Like these brothers and sisters in Christ, we do confess and believe in the important, core elements of Christian faith – Jesus Christ. (Which by the way, is the answer to about 95% of questions in Christianity)

But Lutherans are a bit strange compared to our counterparts.  We’re sort of obsessed with the cross of Christ, and not in some “if you bear yours like Jesus, you’ll be a better person for it” sort of way.  The cross is a big deal to us because there’s a whole lot of honesty in it.  It says that life is a place with deep suffering, brokenness, and pain in it.  It says that to be human is to experience these things in the ways the manifest themselves in our lives – illness, damaged relationships, financial stress, addiction, selfishness, pride.  Life contains death, and to be human is to experience death.

But the cross also contains this honesty: God sends his only Son into the world to die on a cross.  God sends his Son to share in life with us deeply – and that means God knows and experiences suffering, brokenness, and pain.  And God speaks a word of life and hope into that – resurrection.   Through God’s grace and love, shown in Jesus on the cross, we are made new.

Being Lutheran is not about a life of moral or spiritual perfection; but rather, trusting that the cross is true.  In other words, faith.

And that brings me to the other identity issue: “P-Town.”  It’s local-speak for Portsmouth, Virginia, where our churches are located.  Where we live.  However, those that don’t live here, “P-Town” is a derogatory term – it’s a place full of crime; it’s dirty; the people there are all homeless and old; no one wants to live here.  And then there’s that whole issue of racism that no one seems to talk about……

Here’s the deal: We love our city.  We love P-Town.  We love living here and the beauty that does exist in our city.  We’ll admit there’s problems here; all the things I mentioned above exist.  But the cross says God still loves the people who experience those things.  God loves the City of Portsmouth, P-Town.  God loves its people, and as God’s church, so do we.

So here’s the point of this blog: It’s to highlight who we are and what we’re doing – as Lutherans living in P-Town – the City of Portsmouth.  Check out our “Who We Are” page & feel free to follow us on Facebook.

And hopefully in all this, we can shed a little light – God’s light – on our city and in the world.

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The Project: “Mistakes are not Good…”

……when you keep making them over and over.

I’m coming up on 4 months in with my congregations at the end of the month. And if I were to sum up how it’s going, I’d say overall pretty good – but with the usual ups and downs that come with getting to know each other. They make mistakes, I make mistakes – we’re learning together and trying to listen to each other the best we can.

But there’s one mistake I keep making over and over: I tend to “jump on them” when they say certain things that seem “out of the box” when it comes to understanding what the church is and what ministry is about.

Let me give you a little background: both congregations have recent histories containing conflict and unhealthiness. They are both experiencing what many churches are experiencing today – declining and aging membership, burnout among those present, limited resources, and little to no children or youth in their congregations. And, like most churches, they are accountable for some of that, and some of it is simply that times have changed and a disconnect exists between the life of their church community and the community that surrounds them. Part of the understanding in calling me to be their pastor is that I might walk with them, and push them as needed, to imagine God’s mission and ministry for them in new ways and to new people.

Because of all this, sometimes they say and do things that don’t make sense, or seem out of line with the wide welcome of God’s grace and love. And that’s when it happens: I make the mistake, I jump on them.

Now, two things: they are pretty gracious with me. They do get defensive from time to time, but they will listen and do their best to take things to heart. They appreciate the honesty, even if it is blunt at times. And, I’m usually pretty quick to apologize, to acknowledge I’ve pushed a bit too far, been too harsh, too insistant. I will usually pull back and say all things are a choice, it is not my way or the highway.

But honestly, I’m tired of apologizing over and over, and honestly, this is a case where mistakes are not good; making the same mistake over and over. It doesn’t matter if I’m right; it doesn’t matter if it’s explained away by my passion for ministry or that I see great potential in an opportunity. It doesn’t matter that I’m in my first call as pastor and that I will make mistakes. It doesn’t matter because it’s void of any love or caring.

So I’ve got some work to do….on myself. Time to start making less mistakes….the recurring ones. Time to start loving a bit more, and being right a little less. Time to start entering relationships with openness, rather than coming in, ready to fight. That’ll be hard for me – I’m hard-headed, and heck, I’m a wrestler, conflict and struggle are a way of life in some ways. But those are just excuses…..

…..excuses that try to dismiss the fact my mistakes are not good. And to keep making them will do a lot more harm than good.

If there’s a silver lining, it’s this – perhaps through sharing my stupid mistakes, you might avoid them yourself. And that would be pretty damn cool if that’s what came out of all this….that, and me not making stupid mistakes anymore.

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The Project: “Wrestlers, Funerals, & Eternal Life”

So, here I go on my New Year’s resolution, “The Project.” I’m trying to really stay away from blogging about ideas and positions….which is really about trying to influence the way people think. I wonder, as I share stories of people – people who make me feel something, draw me into their humanity – and what I learn from them, I might actually encounter God.

This past week, the grandmother of a couple of my wrestlers (all brothers) passed away this week. While their grandmother was older in years, the death was not expected, and like most deaths that are unexpected, the experience and grief is distinctly different. This past week, it’s been interesting interacting with all three brothers – experiencing their grandmother’s death in their own ways: their personalities uniquely different, and their roles in their family unique as well.

I attended the funeral yesterday – held in a beautiful colonial-style Presbyterian church down by the beach Oceanfront. And rather than have the minister preach – two of her grandkids gave eulogies.

One of those eulogies came from one of my wrestlers – the oldest of the brothers. And he gave a beautiful tribute to his grandmother, listing “10 things her learned from her.” And the list was touching – things like hospitality, empathy, curiosity. Things that weren’t so much lessons, but aspects of her personhood.

But it wasn’t those things that caught my attention the most. At the end of his eulogy – adding almost like an afterthought – my wrestler said, (this isn’t a word for word quote) “I beleve that eternal life is about younger generations living out and carrying on the things your life stood for. Eternal life is about those things living on inside the lives you touched. Don’t worry “ba” (his name of affection for his grandmother), that’s definitely going to happen.”

And almost immediately my mind went here: “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

These are words from the 15th chapter of John’s gospel. My wrestler isn’t a regular churchgoer, but I think he was on to something: perhaps eternal life is more about relationships that transcend time, rather than a far off place. Maybe eternal life is what parts of others’ lives inside us and what parts of us live inside others.

Maybe, as John’s gospel says, eternal life is about Christ abiding and living in us – his teachings, his birth, his death and resurrection, and most importantly, the grace and love of God that he witnessed to. Maybe, eternal life is just as my wrestler said it – just as we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us, so we let others abide in us and we in them deeply, richly, beautifully.

Lastly, I’ll just say thanks to my wrestler – for being a witness of God’s abiding presence to me. And as I was leaving the funeral, I heard a knock coming from one of the darkened windows of one of the cars out front. The rear door opened, and there were all three of my wrestlers, smiling and waving, saying “Hey Fuller, thanks for coming coach.”

And I’ll just stop there, because that probably says enough.

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