Monthly Archives: December 2014

Sermon, Christmas Eve 2014: “Peace.”

Text: Luke 2:1-20

My dad had this really bad habit of staying after church and talking to everyone for a really long time! Growing up in the Minnesota farm country, church was the place farmers took a break from work to worship God. But perhaps more important to them, it was to catch up on all the latest news from the neighbors – milk prices, comparing who had the better harvest, and of course….the weather, always the weather. I remember one Christmas Eve being no different. The service ended and once again my old man was talking to all the other farmers about how milk prices were too low, and of course, how cold it was. Enough of that, I thought. I put on my jacket, gloves, and hat and headed out into the winter night to walk 1/2 a mile down the road to our house.

I remember two things about that walk: One, it was cold. Like “what the heck was I thinking” cold. The kind that makes your lungs hurt when you breathe it in, that makes your eyes water and your eyelids freeze. The second thing was on the way, I stopped to adjust my hat and randomly looked up and noticed the sky was really clear. So clear in fact that the stars in the sky were probably brighter than I had ever seen them. I remember stopping in the middle of that dark, quiet country road to my house and simply taking in that night sky…and I felt this sense of total peace just wash over me completely.

People like to talk about how the holiday season of this past couple weeks is the most chaotic, busy, and stressful time of the year. But honestly, I think that life is often like that all of the time. We all face so much in our daily lives, and we spend most of our time with heads down, noses to the grindstone, trying to get ahead, but in all reality, just trying to catch up. As the years have past and I’ve gotten older, I realize I don’t look up at the sky much any more…and I find myself longing for that moment of peace I found out on that country road….but then I think: Peace on earth? Peace among humanity? When I look all around me and what’s going on in the world and in our nation, I think….not so much.

[I sing this] Peace on earth, peace on earth, did the angels waste their words……

I was listening to this song two days ago as I was thinking about what to say to you all tonight. And I think it says perfectly where we live most days: in between the longing for peace in our lives, but so unsure of where it will come from and when it will come. We pray to God for peace, and we say we have faith God will deliver it, but the promise of peace…..are they empty, wasted words? Is it an empty promise?

I sometimes think so….and then I look up.

I look up to the night sky and realize that the same sky I looked at as a kid is the same sky the shepherds looked up to on that first Christmas night. It was on that night that they heard the good news: a savior is born to us, God coming to be with us……and through this child, also brings this promise:

[I sing this] Peace with God, peace with God. Offered through one Holy child. Even when this life is hard, there can be peace with God. There can be peace with God.
Tonight, this story reminds us that we no longer face this world alone….there can be peace with God. God sends a savior, his son – Jesus, who is our peace. And when the hardness of life causes us to keep our heads down, our noses to the grindstone, trying desperately to catch up, longing for a sense of peace…..all we have to do is look up.

All we have to do is look up each and every day and see that God is with us, Christ is with us: In the words and actions of others, in seemingly ordinary places and moments and things…..if we simply look up, we’ll sense it, and we’ll discover that God, that peace….has found us. That can be hard to do most days….because I don’t know about you, but in a day or two, it’s back to our hard lives, back to putting the nose to the grindstone, back to catching up.

But, maybe just for tonight it’s enough to look up and discover that God and God’s peace is all around us – a piece of bread, a cup of wine….a candlelight, words of a carol…..and the presence of this small gathering in this place, we confess and we pray:

[sing] peace on earth, peace on earth, did the angels waste their words? Everywhere, raise this prayer: let there be peace on earth. Let there be peace on earth.

God’s peace be with you…..Merry Christmas. Amen.

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“I Hate Christmas” – A Pastor’s Confession

I’m supposed to be writing a Christmas Eve sermon.

But I’m not.  I’m wasting time writing this blog post instead.

I’m not really sure why, but I’ve always had this problem with Christmas…..the whole holiday just bothers me.  I suppose it could be the commercialism; the buying gifts; the parties; the excessive eating, drinking and baked goods; the lights that go up for a couple weeks, wasting electricity and then being taken down quickly afterwards; the cheesy non-stop Christmas songs; and all the “happy excitement” of traveling and spending time with people.  Frankly, I’d rather be celebrating Festivus.  Airing of grievances, feats of strength…now that’s a holiday I can get my mind around.

Yeah, I’m a Grinch.  And while you could just chalk this up to the cynic in me, a bit of holiday-induced depression, even now as a pastor, I still have this general disdain for Christmas.  I’m struggling, thinking about going to church, leading worship and giving a message that will “proclaim the gospel” when in all actuality what I say won’t really matter. People just want me to be a good host, and I have this not so minor dread of having to be all shiny and happy…..and around all the happy people – the regulars and those that simply come to church now and on Easter.

I hate Christmas.

As I sit here and think about why this is, I realize that today I presided over another funeral today.  I made a couple visits to shut-ins, with one man greeting me as I arrived with, “It’s good to see you Pastor.  I thought today was the day…and I’m so ready.  Why won’t the Lord just take me?”   I think about those people like this man, tucked away in assisted living and nursing homes, alone, briefly visited by their families for an hour, two hours, and then…alone.  I think about the funerals I’ve done this past 2-plus months – 6 to be exact – and families will be without their loved ones for the first time.  I think about all the people who still suffer – homeless, hungry, impoverished.  I think about those who will experience violence – a not so silent night around the world.

I think about all this…..and I think: Merry Christmas?  Fuck that.

I hate Christmas.  But I realize the Christmas I despise is something so disconnected from what I understand who God is and what God is about.  I want Christmas to be something so much different. But I realize for many out there, Christmas is a time to forget about their problems and the problems all over the nation and world.  For one day, you just don’t have to think about it.

But I can’t do that.  I feel a sense of shame and remorse when I try….because suffering is still very real in our world.  People are alone.  People die.  People still struggle.  That shit doesn’t go away.  And Especially on this day, I can’t turn away for all of it.

So I seek for something else during this Christmas Day.  Perhaps a sense of peace that my soul simply will not feel during this time of year, and having struggled with it my whole life, probably never will.  Yet I long for it – I long for a sense of peace outside myself that I simply cannot bring to bear on my own.  Honestly, I don’t expect I’ll experience it – but each year, I hope for it.  And for me, that’s enough.  It’s enough that I keep myself tuned to it, expecting it in places I might overlook:

A quiet sanctuary.

A smile as I stop by the gas station for a cup of coffee.

A moment or two being fully present with my wife that my life never seems to grant me.

Looking up at the night sky and being overwhelmed by the sense that indeed, I am not alone, and neither are all those people I worry about either.

I still hate Christmas.  But in the midst of all the damn busy – the rush, the chaos, the annoying optimism and happiness, I seek peace in this story about a child born over 2,000 years ago that people say….was God – the one who promises to bring peace to a world that needs it.

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Sermon 21 December 2014: “Life is not disposable.”

Text: Matthew 18-25

I’ve been serving as the “unofficial chaplain” to the wrestling team at Old Dominion University for the past month and a half….the head coach contacted me because he discovered that faith is important to a lot of his athletes, and he wondered if I could help out with that.  So each week I do a bible study and bring communion to about 8 guys on the team – bringing church to them.  This past week, we discussed the issue of having the right to die of your own choice.  We discussed the story of Brittany Maynard, a 29-year old from Oregon who chose to end her own life in the face of terminal brain cancer.  For some of you in the pews, it’s the same story we discussed a couple of weeks back during our Theology Thursday gatherings.

Should a person have the right to end their own life, especially when faced with intense suffering and pain?  The wrestlers had a very unique perspective.  It’s one thing to lose or fail or suffer in the face of impossible odds….but the worst thing you can do ever is give up; quit.  The guys’ major problem with Brittany’s decision was that she quit.  “You always keep fighting” one guy said.  Giving up, putting, whatever you want to call it….for these wrestlers it’s simply not an option.

What’s interesting about the sport of wrestling is that In the face of difficult circumstances and odds, wrestlers will willingly enter into suffering, trial, and pain….often without questioning why.  It becomes a way of life.  I don’t think that’s so common in our world today…and so I asked them why they were so willing to live life this way.  And after a lot of discussion and ideas, we came up with this:  For these guys, life means something….it means so much that you just simply don’t quit.  You don’t give up.  You don’t resign yourself to that; you don’t disregard life like that.  You only get one life, and it means something. You just don’t throw it away.  Our lives are not disposable.  

Today’s story from Matthew’s gospel is his version of the Christmas story – only 7 verses long.  The version that is the source of Christmas programs with their cute animals and costumes, and of the nativity sets we have in our homes – that comes from Luke’s gospel.  Matthew’s Christmas story is one of crisis; Joseph is faced with a difficult choice: do I divorce my wife or not?  Do I dispose of her or not?  I think the choice is difficult for Joseph because he’s caught between two worlds.  One, according to the law of the day, he was well within his right to divorce Mary.  In fact, he could have done so publicly and with little regard for her life or dignity.  Yet on the other hand, the story tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, and unwilling to expose her to disgrace.  And in that system, the best decision he could muster was to “dismiss her quietly.”  The best he could do is dispose of her without causing a scene.  But is that really a “good choice?”

And for human beings today, caught between trying to not destroy the other person yet living in a world that accepts disposing of and replacing people so easily, maybe Joseph’s response is the best we can muster too. However, life is not disposable.  Maybe that’s a really obvious statement.  But think about the world we live in today: everything is disposable – diapers, silverware and dishes, coffee cups and drinking containers, mops and paper towels.  It’s more convenient and efficient – saves time. If we don’t like our current “thing,” we replace it.  Take Cellphones for example.  Current cellphone not making you happy or working for ya? Trade up and get a new one….and dispose of the old one.

But apply a disposable, replaceable mentality to people – it sounds ridiculous right?  But think about it….because it happens. People are fired from their jobs because there’s a more efficient way to make more money for the corporation.  Kids who have played together for years on a sports team are broken up, some of them told they can’t play with their friends anymore….go find something else to do. You can unfriend or unfollow people on social media.  Someone hold different beliefs, or just simply is annoying? Tell me to take a hike, cut them off and let them know why in the process.  Heck, you just go find people who agree with ya.  Divorce is as simple as heading downtown and filling out the paperwork.  Death becomes a decision you make.

Now I’m not here to say businesses don’t have the right to make money or sports teams don’t have the right to win games at all costs.  I’m not saying there aren’t cases where you need to end relationships, especially when abuse enters the picture.  And I’m certainly not saying that those who end their lives because the pain and anguish are simply too much; that for some, mental illness and the stigma we still have as a society around it doesn’t lead people to such a despairing choice…..that such people are “quitters.”  I’m just saying, In a world where people & relationships become disposable things, whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of that….no matter how nice or civil the process or how you try to rationalize the decision in your head….it sucks.  Plain and simple.  And if this is the system, this the way thing are, and we’re stuck with that, then human beings….we’re definitely in need of an intervention.  We desperately need to be saved.

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins…..they shall call him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’”

The announcement of this savior……Jesus saves Joseph.  This not yet born Jesus saves Joseph from a system that forces him to resolve to dispose of Mary and instead frees him to take Mary as his wife, and as hard as that choice might be, as much as he might be criticized and suffer for not disposing of Mary at all…..it’s better than disposing of her. It’s a better choice because Mary’s life matters and carries meaning….she bears the savior of the world inside her, the One who is God with us; God saving us.  Such an act – the gift of God’s presence and salvation that gives meaning to our lives…..is an act of love.

This 4th Sunday in Advent we light the candle of love.  And we are reminded as Christmas comes that the Christmas story is about a God who loves the world so much that in Jesus he comes to be with us so that we might be saved from a world and the lie that all life is meaningless and disposable.  God’s love offers us a new reality, a new way of living, a choice……that shapes our communities, our relationships, our view of others; our view of ourselves.  In the midst of the next few days – which can be chaotic for many with traveling, and last-minute shopping and planning; hard for those who struggle with darkness and loneliness and loss….perhaps this promise of a savior, of God coming to be with us, reminds us that this time of year and our lives do have meaning – life is a gift, never to be disposed of.  Amen.

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From the Mat: Weekend Word

When Joseph awoke from his sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. ~ Matthew 1:24 (Read Matthew 1:18-25 for the whole story)

 
Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is different.  It’s about Joseph, learning that his new wife, a virgin, was pregnant with a child.  What to do?  His society at the time told him this was a disgrace to him, and according to Jewish law, he could divorce her without any reason.
But Joseph was a good man – “a righteous man”  the story tells us – and so not wanting to submit her to shame, he decided to divorce her quietly.  And that’s what we resolved to do.  But I wonder, was he taking the easy way out?
Last week, we talked about why wrestlers are willing to face and take on pain, adversity, suffering, and trials.  “Quitting isn’t an option” was one reply.  It’s just not in the nature of the beast, was the consensus.
But there are those times, when faced with those things, perhaps we are just a little less confident in our choices.  We’re a little less confident, even when we decide to enter into those tough situations.  And while maybe our choice isn’t quitting or giving up outright, our lack of confidence in a way, is “taking the easy out.”  We short-change ourselves without even knowing it.
It is in those times, perhaps we need reminding, and intervention…and we need saving. The angel’s announcement to Joseph is all of those things.  It reminds him of the larger picture – why it’s important for him to take Mary as his wife, and this child in her womb as her son.  But it also is an announcement of a savior to Joseph – that God is with him in this, and no matter how hard the public humiliation might be on his end, God is with him in this, and that is where true confidence is found.  As the passage goes, “If God is with us, who can be against us?”
This story is a reminder, an intervention, and an announcement of good news for you too.  Remember why it’s important to face those hard things – it’s who you are, as a person, and as a wrestler.  But also know the good news that God is with you – this Jesus, a savior for the world, and for you.  And in that, I hope, you find all the confidence in the world.

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Sermon 14 December 2014: “Isaiah 42 & the Promise of Despair.”

Text: Isaiah 42:1-9

It was back in 2003, and we were headed out on pre-deployment workups. We were getting underway to go to Groton, CT to do work in the navigation and tactical trainers, one of the many certifications we needed to get in order to deploy later that fall. I had duty that night before, and early that morning one of the enlisted sailors in my division, one of my second class petty officers, asked me if he could go home to grab a couple things he needed before we got underway later that day. He had duty too that night before, we weren’t getting underway until closer to noon that day, and he lived in government housing 5 minutes away. I thought, “why not?” and granted his request.

About 45 minutes later, after I was relieved from duty and headed off the submarine to grab a few things myself…..and I saw my second class petty officer coming back to the boat, nothing in hand. As I got closer, his face was blank and pale….I asked him, “You get what you needed?” And he replied, with little expression, “Nope…..it was kind of hard to think about that after I caught my wife in bed with some strange guy.” And he walked right past me back onto the boat.

The hard part was that we needed to take him underway with us, because he was a vital part of our navigation and battle stations team. That was hard for me and many of the guys onboard, because we felt it wasn’t the right decision. He should be at home getting help, fixing his marriage.
But I think the hardest part in taking him underway is that was knew he was in shock, we knew he was suffering…..and we had to see that constantly. In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 500 feet below the surface, in a metal tube a 100-yards long and about 36 feet around, we couldn’t avoid it…..we couldn’t avoid him. His suffering….his numbness, his silence, the blank stares…..his despair, was right there in front of us.

Our passage from Isaiah 42 is a classical Advent passage…..a promise of a suffering servant. And most Christians interpret this person to be Jesus Christ, who does indeed suffer for the world on the cross to establish justice, peace, salvation…all that stuff. But I guess what’s caught my attention was the images in verse three. A bruised reed, a dimly burning wick. When I hear that I think about people like my second class petty officer….people who are experiencing life in such a way that it breaks them, it snuffs out any notion of goodness or hope in their lives. I think about people who are in the midst of despair.

Here’s the thing about despair: it’s more than simply feeling depressed, sad, hurt, or disappointed. It goes beyond that. For Israel, despair is the reality of exile in Babylon – the city of Jerusalem and the temple destroyed along with their homes, and being shuttled hundreds of miles away to a foreign land with no hope of return. Likewise, despair is finding your wife in bed with another man when you go home to get a toothbrush. Despair is losing a job you really needed to make ends meet. Despair is looking in the mirror and seeing a worn out, worthless piece of crap staring back at you. Despair is sitting in a hospital, seeing and hearing your loved one wail and wince in pain, being told there’s nothing to ease it – you just have to wait it out.

And I guess when I think about people experiencing despair in that way….what exactly is good news? What exactly is gospel?

This past week during our Wednesday text study, the topic of people of despair came up, and we asked each other this question: Despair….are you drawn to it, or do you try to distance yourself from it? When you come across people in their moments of despair, when it’s right there in your face, do you feel strangely drawn to them, or does it make you uncomfortable and want to distance yourself from them?

Back to that underway and my second class petty officer….throughout that underway, I grabbed a tactical manual or my laptop, sat with him and worked on tasks while he worked on things. Sometimes I’d just head down to the spaces when I knew he was working on a piece of equipment or on watch. We didn’t say a whole lot, I didn’t really ask him how he was doing, and when we did talk it was usually about duty or our upcoming certifications. But from time to time…..he’d start talking, “I just don’t understand sir, why did she do it, and was it so bad she couldn’t even wait 2 more hours until there was no doubt I was out to sea?” I’d sit there in silence, because honestly, I had no glimpse of an answer to make sense of that…..and then he’d finish with, “Thanks sir, it’s nice to know I’m not alone.”

I’m not alone.

So often, we make gospel out to be an answer, an idea: justification by grace through faith. Unconditional salvation for all. Libration and freedom for the oppressed. But for us, gospel is a person – it is Jesus Christ. It is Christ, the suffering servant who comes to the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks….those who are in the midst of despair that brings a darkness and hell that seems never-ending……and is Emmanuel, God with us. Christ, a person, the suffering servant who does not cry or lift up his voice with unhelpful advice or meaningless cliches…..but just simply stands with us. Christ is the one who draws near to those in despair because on the cross, he bore suffering and despair himself.

Are you drawn to those in despair or do you remain distant? People’s despair is certainly uncomfortable, but I wonder if perhaps on some levels, we’re not drawn to it….drawn to stand alongside them because we know what despair is, what it feels like, how it breaks us…..and what we so desperately want is for some one to come stand alongside us.

This 3rd Sunday we light the candle of Joy – Christ is our joy this Advent season. We rejoice for Christ the suffering servant – the One who is our joy in the midst of despair. Christ, who calls us to to be suffering servants in the world – as church, as disciples…..so that all might know gospel, Emmanuel, God with us.

We are not alone. Amen.

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From the Mat: Weekend Word

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in his was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not over come it. ~ John 1:1-5

 
I love this passage; one of my favorites.  The words are like poetry…..beautiful language.  It just sounds so….hopeful.  Comforting.  Reassuring. They inspire confidence in something….something bigger than yourself.
These are the longest periods of darkness of the year – in earlier times people actually believed that forces were at work.  Darkness often brought fear – real and imagined.  Today, we don’t really fear darkness – at least physical darkness.  But perhaps we fear darkness of another kind.  Insecurities.  Doubt.  Failure.  Struggle.  All dark moments indeed.
But this passage from John assures us that the Word that spoke all into being, God, is with us.  God is not only with us, but he brings light into our darkness.  Whatever you’re facing today – on or off the mat – God will shine light into it.  What feels life sucking, God will breathe life back into it.  God promises that the dark moments of our life will not overcome us.  That is a promise we can trust; it’s something bigger than yourself.
My prayer is that you each see God’s light shining in your lives, revealing those things and moments where life feels as it should – a gift.

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First-Call Pastor Stuff: Two Questions

This past few months, I’ve been talking to a lot of my friends on first calls, like myself.  Most of us are now a year, two years into our calls, and we’re finding that the communities and congregations we’re at are well – hard.  Really hard.

The reality of first-call is a lot like professional sports drafts: you have little control over who picks you and where you go.  Of course, you interview with congregations and you always have the right to say no to a particular congregation – but the reality is that you really don’t.  Like Eli Manning &  John Elway – you can say you won’t play for a particular team and you’ll get another, but you’ll be villanized in that process.  Frankly, most first calls, while optimistically we say they’re matches, the reality is that there’s a lot of shit under the surface that will make the call really difficult.

I realize that’s not always the case for every person – there are cases where it works out (Troy Aikman & Peyton Manning anyone?) and the first call pastor and congregation have a nice sustained tenure together.  But I think a lot of us, when the honeymoon period is over with our congregations, when we’re feel like we’re in over our heads with the leadership challenges facing us and the congregation, when we acknowledge that fact that first-calls only last 2-3 years minimum and 5 years on average, the question comes up: “Should we think about leaving?”

And that’s a hard question, because most know that just doesn’t affect us; the congregations we are considering leaving are the congregations we also love and care about.  There is the reality of uprooting family for a move, and of course, the dreaded conversation with the bishop none of us want.  (Because we know he or she will convince us to stay, even if it’s not the right thing)

I won’t lie – this is me.  This past year of ministry was a hard one.  When I think of the challenges facing my congregations, the challenges facing me in leading them, I do feel like I’m way over my head.  There are other factors as well – dream opportunities have come up, the lack of support among colleagues, and frankly, being far away from family.  This past year though, I wrote two questions on a notecard:

How are you feeling?
Do you know why you’re here?

I use this as my discernment.  There’s four ways this can play out:

  1. Positive feeling/I know why I’m here.  No explanation needed.  This is the sweet spot.
  2. Positive feeling/I don’t know why I’m here.  It’s likely I need to redefine my role with the congregation, and a vision/mission needs to be established.  This area means everyone likes you, but you’re not doing anything to really empower the congregation to be the church, to be stewards of the ministry God has entrusted to them.
  3. Negative feeling/I know why I’m here.  Yeah, it’s rough, but I know I’m needed here.  I know that God has a role and place for me here.  Is it painful?  Yes.  But I also know there’s a realistic future God has presented, and I have a role in that.  Putting things back in perspective, remembering why I’m there relieves some of the dissatisfaction and stress being felt.  It’s also time to perhaps have a frank conversation with the congregation about ownership and mutual support.  It’s a time to make sure I’m making time for my personal life too.
  4. Negative feeling/I don’t know why I’m here.  If this is the case, then my feelings are a sign that either I’m not the person the congregation needs.  My skill set and what I feel called to just simply aren’t a match for what the congregation needs.  I’ve  either got compassion fatigue or they’ve tuned me out.  I know if I ever get here….then I know it’s probably time for me to leave.

I’ve found this to be a really helpful way to assess things.  And while I’ve felt a range of emotions this past year, as the honeymoon wears off and reality sets in, I do know this: I haven’t reached #4 yet.  Which means I should probably stick around a bit longer.

First call is hard, and it can be isolating.  But not everything needs to be hard and chaotic.  Sometimes it just takes two questions, to make sense of it.

 

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