Monthly Archives: September 2015

“For you, Narrative Lectionary Preacher”: Sunday October 4th

The text is really long this week.  I mean really long.  It’s hard to know where to go, what to include, or maybe just do the whole thing and see where it gets ya!  (Will they fall asleep?!)  What’s a preacher to do?

I’m thinking of a different approach this week.  The Exodus story is one that many in the pews, even the least biblically familiar, will know.  They’ve seen the 10 Commandments, Prince of Egypt, or the horrible Exodus:Gods and Kings movie with Christian Bale (Apparently Moses talks like Batman?!.  But do they know the Exodus story – the forgotten one?

There’s something interesting happening in this first chapter of Exodus.  It’s a forgotten story, or perhaps one that’s not told frequently.  What does it mean to have no memory of “better times?”  This goes beyond wishful, nostalgic thinking, but rather is a reach into a history where a life of freedom, mutuality, and respect was present – true community.

But now has come the time where in Egypt there is no memory; “a king arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.”  The result: people are in slavery, in bondage.  They longed for better times.

However, there are signs of blessing.  “The more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied.”  And that brings us to this little known story about two Hebrew midwives, whose seemingly small (and pretty clever and bold) action becomes the catalyst for a greater story: the Exodus story of liberation we have all come to know and to love.

Where I am going with this?  How are things with your people, your congregation this week?  Does it feel like there’s no memory of a “better time?”  Are they held captive in the present by struggle? Conflict? Loss? Wishful thinking?  I wonder if these things and many more cloud us from seeing the blessings of God at work in our lives and communities of faith.

Now, how we recover that memory of a better time is a mystery to me.  I’m not even sure in my own context, much less feeling confident to suggest anything for yours.  That is your task, preacher, and I know you will preach it well.

But Shiphrah and Puah’s story asks an important question: “Who are the catalysts in God’s kingdom, doing God’s work in seemingly small ways that serve as the start of something greater?”  Do people see themselves as catalysts, God working through their small actions?  What might that look or feel like?

I wonder if this little known story, brought back into our memory, helps us recover a sense of our own memory of those “better times” when we could say with certainty and joy “Thanks be to God!”  I wonder if these little known midwives, might help us imagine ourselves as catalysts in these times where we’re held captive by our memory loss.  As the familiar campfire song goes, “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…..”

Blessings to you as you preach the old, old story….remembering God’s promises and re-membering people into a sense of belonging and mission as God’s chosen, the Body of Christ.

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Sermon for 27 Sept 2015 on Genesis 32 and why we wrestle

It was the talk of the summer: DEFLATEGATE.  You NFL fans out there know what I’m talking about but let me recap: the New England Patriots, last year’s Super Bowl Champions, were accused of deflating footballs below the minimum pressure allowed by the NFL rules.  A deflated football, according to the investigators, was easier for Patriot QB Tom Brady to grip, making him more accurate with his throws and therefore, gave him and his team a competitive advantage.  The most compelling evidence was that one football was a whole 2 pounds per square inch (psi) below the minimum pressure.

How much pressure is 2 psi?  By comparison, a can or bottle of soda is pressurized to about 30 psi and earth’s atmosphere – the air we’re breathing and sitting in right now – is at about 14 psi.  It’s not much….in fact, if you go check your tires’ pressure after church this morning you’ll probably discover they’re under inflated by 2 psi, and you probably didn’t even notice.

So why the big deal?  Because people hate a cheater, that’s why.  But the cheating – or not cheating – isn’t the point this morning.  The point is this: looking for opportunities to gain an advantage, that’s the objective of all sports.  It’s true: the aim is to maneuver, strategize, do whatever is necessary – within the rules, usually – to gain a competitive advantage over one’s opponent.  Teams and individuals seek out opportunities to beat their opponent – exploit weaknesses, capitalize on strengths, devise strategies, collect scouting reports, and make in-game adjustments.  The goal is to win after all, right? Football, baseball, basketball, soccer….even wrestling, that’s the name of the game.

Speaking of wrestling……you could say that Jacob is a wrestler.  That’s what Jacob has been doing his whole life – seeking opportunities, maneuvering to gain an advantage.  He gets his desperately hungry brother Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of soup.  He tricks his blind, old father Isaac to bestow the family blessing on him, rather than his older brother.  He strikes a bargain to work 7 years for Laban’s daughter to gain as a wife, only to be tricked by Laban and given his older daughter Leah – the less attractive one; why the Bible thinks it’s important to mention that detail, I have no idea, but it’s in there.  So he works another 7 years for Rachel.  Jacob even maneuvers with God….in Genesis 28, God promises to fulfill the blessing of his ancestors – the same blessing Jacob stole – and Jacob responds by hustling a deal with God: “IF you will do all these things for me and prove you are with me…THEN you will be my God.”  Heck, Jacob even came out of his mother’s womb, gripping the heel of his older brother Esau, probably trying to pull him back so he could be firstborn! Jacob is a wrestler, all right, seeking every opportunity to gain an advantage, and upper hand.

You have to wonder if that’s exactly what Jacob expected out of this wrestling match with God in our story today.  Jacob’s facing the worst possible scenario: he’s returning home and gets news that Esau, his older brother he stole his blessing and birthright from – is waiting for him with 400 men.  Jacob’s afraid, and I’m guessing he’s thinking, “Esau is pissed, and he’s coming….with 400 ARMED men.”  So Jacob sends his wives and animals and kids….everything including the kitchen sink ahead of him, hoping it calms Esau down.  Seeking an advantage.  But if you’re Jacob, that’s no sure thing….so he wrestles with God through the night and you have to wonder if Jacob the wrestler is once again trying to wrangle something out of God that will give him yet another advantage in this pickle of a situation he’s facing with Esau.

So why tell you all this today?  Here’s the thing: wrestling to gain an advantage on your opponents works well in sports.  But in everyday life and relationships?  Not so much.  

Think about it: such a life of wrestling like this….winning is great, but at what cost?  To be always scheming, plotting, devising……to always be suspicious, fearful, threatened……to be constantly on the hustle, looking for the right opportunities to gain that upper hand.  To be obsessed with winning, with getting your way, being in control – what does it get you? I guess having wrestled through life like this before, I can tell you: it’s exhausting.  It leaves a wake of wreckage behind – ruined relationships and communities; you make enemies; and you suffer some injury yourself.  And it’s never-ending; one big vicious cycle where all you’re left with is your need to win in the end.

And like all of his wrestling to this point, this match is never-ending, lasting through the night….and Jacob’s left exhausted and limping.  But unlike all of his other matches, the outcome of this one is different: while Jacob’s wrestling with God, he finds God wrestling right back with him.  God’s taking hold of Jacob, this opportunist, this advantage-seeker and hustler, this wrestler….and God gives Jacob a gift – the gift of a new name: Israel, God’s chosen.

Most of you know that I’m a wrestler and wrestling coach….32 years of doing both, in fact.  And it’s not much of a secret that this is my favorite story in the Bible.  I’ve probably given just about every talk and sermon imaginable on it.  Yet as I stand here today in front of you, wondering what in the world I could say about it that would matter to you today, let me share this with you: when it comes to wrestling – whether the sport or in life – it’s not the results that matter.  If it’s about outcomes, then it indeed becomes all about winning, advantage, and self-righteousness.  We’re just a bunch of Jacob’s – opportunists caught in a never-ending wrestling match where we end up bitter, disappointed, paranoid, and broken.

The point of wrestling is the wrestling itself.  We wrestle…and we find a God who in return embraces us through it all and reminds us who we are and who we belong to.  That is good news.  God wrestles back with us, and never lets us go.  That is a promise.  And it is in this good news and this promise God gives us the greatest gift: resiliency.  I had coffee with a good friend the other day, and afterwards she sent me a note saying: “Thank you for the morning chat….you give me food for thought and let me know that I’m not alone in the daily struggles.” Here’s something I’ve learned in my relatively young life: wrestling is simply a part of life; it doesn’t go away.  But when we wrestle in this way, with God and with each other, God’s gift of resiliency breaks the cycle of endless wrestling to gain advantages in order to win. Resiliency reminds us the struggle won’t destroy us; resiliency reminds us we’re not alone.  Resiliency allows us to trust and love rather than give into our fear and paranoia; our need to control, our need to be right….our need to win.

So for all of you out there today all coming in with struggles of your own, and for the struggles we face as part of the human race and that we face in our little church: wrestle.  But not like Jacob….don’t wrestle to win.  Wrestle in faith; wrestle in resilient grace and love and wrestle…. as God’s chosen.  Amen.

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“For you Narrative Lectionary Preachers…” A wrestler’s commentary on Genesis 32

This week’s text on Jacob wrestling with a strange man (or God, angel, whatever you want to think) is probably my favorite story in the Bible, and for obvious reasons: I am a wrestler.

There are many excellent commentaries on the Genesis 32 story, including Vanessa Lovelace’s on Workingpreacher and David Lose’s on names.  But I’ve never really read or heard anything about this story from the perspective of those who know the act of wrestling intimately and well – the wrestler.  So let me humbly (or perhaps, not so humbly) add my 2 cents.

The change of name is a challenge for me, at least in the way of how I think Christians are often led to think about change. The name change leads to the notion of a new identity, a new self, and a radical change that I find that can be problematic, at least in how our society thinks about personal change today.

There are many in the pews (and many I minister to) who think that we fundamentally change as Christians.  We become something different – usually for the better. The issue for me is that if that’s the case, then the name change – this story – is about an outcome. Christian faith then becomes an opportunity that holds self-serving benefits.  We become perhaps like Jacob – an opportunist.  This wrestling match is nothing more than another opportunity for Jacob to work another deal in his favor, to gain an advantage in the messy situation he faces with Esau.

The thing is, the name might change, but the person necessarily doesn’t.  I think of baptism, for example.  I sprinkle a little water on a baby’s head and that’s powerful, but the truth is that baby’s still going to cry, need their diaper changed, and keep their parents up late at night. Going back into Jacob’s story, later on in Genesis the names Israel and Jacob are still used interchangeably suggesting, perhaps, that Jacob’s name might have changed, but he’s still a bit the heel and scoundrel….the opportunist.  Such a reality for us today can be kind of sobering – and turn us away from faith.  So, what to make of this story?

This is where a wrestler’s perspective might be helpful.  Wrestling is a strange sport.  You spend hours and hours training, cutting weight, preparing.  You are in control of your world, and seemingly the outcome, more than in any other sport.  It’s what I love about wrestling…but it also creates one of the biggest moments of fear within you, because you realize the truth that no matter how much you’ve prepared, there is still a chance you might lose.  The other guy might be better.  The referee might make a bad call.  Time might run out on you at the worst time.  An injury might occur in the midst of bodies being tangled up and put in positions bodies are not meant to be in.

The truth is, no matter how much control you think you have, you realize how little control you do have – you might lose.  The anxiety of the reality can be paralyzing.  I used to get nervous before matches….paralyzing-like nervousness.  The unknown of the outcome would work me up to the point I would want to throw up; that’s how nervous I got.  I didn’t even want to go out and wrestle the match, the fear so great, so arresting.  It was an endless cycle – a painful one.

Over time, I realized that I still had to go out there on the mat – I had to perform; I had to wrestle the match, win or lose.  Yet over time I realized that while the result would be different, I never really changed – I was the same person whether I prevailed over my opponent or not on a given day. Wrestling became something I embraced each time I stepped out on the mat. Over the years, I’ve learned that wrestling has given me an incredible amount of resiliency – the ability to function despite my anxieties and fear.  

What then do we make of the name change?  The power of that move, in my mind, comes in understanding the role of wrestling in the life of faith.  A change of name isn’t an opportunity for a radical change of life, but rather it symbolizes God’s blessing of breaking the cycle of our endless advantage seeking.  The change of name breaks the cycle of opportunity seeking and hiding, and instead is God’s bestowal of the blessing and gift of resiliency – faith to face what’s ahead, outcome unknown.  Faith is resiliency that allows us to wrestle – to live.

In a world where so often people prefer desired outcomes without struggle, what does it mean to see wrestling in our life as a gift in which as we grab hold of God, we find God grabbing hold of us, and revealing fundamentally who we are – both sinner and saint.  It is the saint, however, that defines us relationally with God and breaks us, perhaps, from the cycle of paralyzing fear that affects us much like Jacob.

The question we can ask people to wonder with us about is where do people seek resiliency or what does such resiliency that comes through a life of wrestling look like?  In short, when it comes to faith – is the struggle worth it?

I’m sure folks have their own stories to tell…..just like if you ask any wrestler – myself included – they’ll have more than a few “war stories” of their own to tell.

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“What my brief Facebook exile taught me”

Well, it lasted about two weeks.  In that time, some very interesting responses from folks, and a couple good, honest conversations too.  I’m back on Facebook – probably to the satisfaction of some, and the annoyance and disdain of others.  I thought I’d share a few things from my exile – what it taught me.

  1.  Cutting myself off from my Fantasy Sports group was a major no-no.  We’re a group of pastors who have fun bantering back and forth about Fantasy Baseball & Football, ask for advice about ministry, support each other when things are hard, and of course, lots and lots of sarcasm and picking on each other.  My buddies were not happy that I disabled my Facebook account….it’s a lot like leaving your fraternity, I suppose.  (Although I despise fraternities; that’s who I spent my college days picking fights with on the weekends) At any rate, withholding my weekly comments picking on people, supporting my friends, and spreading rumors and “honeybadgering” people so they would trade with me withheld my fellowship with people I call friends.
  2. It gets annoying when your wife asks you repeatedly if you heard about the latest news about your friends…..news you could have only gotten on Facebook.  “Did you see that article?”  “Did you hear that such and such did this and that?”  No honey….that’s why I went off Facebook in the first place.  “Oh, that’s right.”  What you learn is you realize you’re missing out, at least on the good stuff.  The ridiculous stuff.  Call it a case of FOMO.
  3. Apparently Instagram and Twitter also think I should be back on Facebook.  Hell, half the stuff on Twitter I can’t see because it’s linked to Facebook posts.  And Instagram…..I can only handle so many selfies, pictures of pets and babies, and my wrestlers being the knuckleheads they are (wrestling season can’t get here soon enough)
  4. But I was happier…and more tuned into the actual world.  You start to realize that how much time you waste on Facebook daily.  And it was nice not seeing everyone post their favorite tabloid news source stories and comment on it as if it was a reliable news source that we should all be buying into.
  5. The battery on my phone lasts a whole lot longer.  ‘Nuff said.
  6. I had no way of getting hold of any of my Navy friends while I was up in DC this past week.  And I really wanted to go to that Washington Nationals game last Thursday…..

Ok, all humor aside, let me explain MY reasons for the self-imposed exile.  I didn’t like who I was becoming – I was ashamed of who I was becoming.  I think I just reached a point where I was interacting with everyone on Facebook in a way that I was ashamed of myself and my own conduct.  Because of that, I needed a break – for me.

That being said, I still hate the way we interact with each other in society today, whether it be social media, or even face-to-face interactions.  I wonder when did we became a bunch of people who cared more about being personally validated and dispensing a vigilante-style justice in the form of our words?  Maybe we’ve always been that way – the whole human sin thing – but it just seems worse than ever, and I have to believe it wasn’t always this way.

When we disagree or don’t understand another, when did we move from asking “Why did you say that?” or “What did you mean?” to “How dare you think that; you should be ashamed of yourself.” 

The wrestler in me recalls that you can only change what’s in the locus of your control.  I can change my behavior.  I can hold myself accountable.  I can ignore the toxic shit that people post and what comes out of their brains.  I can’t control anything outside of that.  And I can also remember my #1 view on life:

Life is a gift.

Considering how my life has turned out in this world, I should understand that better than most.  And perhaps I should be proclaiming and bearing witness more to that.  Life is a gift – that means there’s room for speaking on things like racial justice….but I should probably consider my volume and intensity when I do because some people can only handle so much.  It means I should focus on those moments where God uses me, where I get to do some amazing things and get to be with some amazing people.  As a good friend reminded me, “People don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.”

It also means that I’ll still be that guy who pushes and challenges people out of comfort zones.  I’ll still insist that we need a world where people need to live with integrity, humility, honesty, and with conviction.  We still need to be people who remain vigilant in a world where too often horrible things happen and go unnoticed.  I’ll insist we need to be people of great courage and character, committed to actually working for what matters rather than just talking about it. I’ll insist…..because life is a gift.

I don’t know where you might be with the state of things today, but a social media exile can be a good thing – it just can’t last forever.  At some point, you have to join the human race again.  That’s true for all of us….even this curmudgeon of a Lutheran Honeybadger.

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Signs of the Apocalypse: A “Dislike” Button on Facebook is a Bad Idea

So apparently the day us normal people have been dreading is around the corner.

Facebook is working on adding a “dislike” button.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg explains that this is something people have been requesting for a long time, citing the example that people want an option when someone posts the death of a loved one.  That’s something people want to express their sadness and condolences, not “like it.”  Hence, a “dislike” button.

However, would it really work that way?  Writer and Filmmaker Jon Ronson suggests something to the contrary.  His TED Talk from June, “When online shaming spirals out of control” is well worth 17 minutes of your time to watch:

Jon Ronson TED Talk

Surveys and studies have been done over the past few years, chronicling the link between frequent social media use and higher rates of depression and suicide in teenagers and college students.

All this evidence is great, but here’s my greatest fear: in a time when our self-worth is already being eroded in way too many ways, can we afford yet another avenue for that to happen, and on the most widely used social media site in the world?  Of course, the “dislike” button itself is not the problem, rather it’s our all too sobering penchant to build up our own self-worth by degrading others.  We noble as Zuckerberg might think, and as good intentioned as we think we are, the truth is, when the chips are down, the majority of us would rather hit that dislike button so that people might know – we think they suck.

I wish I knew a way forward….having recently disabled my Facebook account, I can’t say that I’ve missed it all that much.  This news about a dislike button does in fact feel like a sign that the Apocalypse is coming; we just that much closer to destroying the humanity in each other and the humanity in ourselves.  Frankly, I don’t really have a whole lot to offer in the way of a solution or resolution.  I know we need to teach and advocate for more responsible and accountable use of social media from ourselves and each other…..but again, I just don’t think we’re all that good.  I know I’m not.

For now, I think it’s just enough to seriously take the time to think about the implications that when someone posts about a new job, a picture of a new haircut, numerous selfiies, “check-in” somewhere, and of course offer their social and political opinions….with the click of a button we can destroy those less resilient souls out there.  With the click of a button we can crush the life from those who are so starved for affirmation that they would be vulnerable enough to seek it in the toxic environment of social media.

A “dislike” button….it’s a bad idea.  Plain and simple.  And Lutheran HONEYBADGER’s Facebook exile will continue, for now.

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Looking for a Third Way – Saying Goodbye to Facebook

So I have to say goodbye to Facebook.

It culminated over the weekend, as yet another post from a good friend made my blood boil to the point I had to respond.  My better half (my wife) warned, “I’d leave it alone if I were you.”  But of course, I couldn’t.  Damage done.  Rant posted.  War of words continued over private message, and because of my anger, I probably lost a friend.

As I sit here and think about my anger and the aftermath, I realize there is something troubling about the rhetoric on Facebook these days.  It’s not just about sharing articles and information; it’s also accompanied by a suggestive narrative said in the name of “proclaiming justice” or “being prophetic” or “exposing the truth” or “calling out/naming sin.” The rhetoric, however, is a toxic one; it’s one without a whole lot of grace – especially for the other.  Apparently shaming is a justifiable way of enacting social, institutional change…..and a change of the heart.

And I just can’t buy into that.

For my friend, and others like him, there needs to be a higher sense of responsibility and accountability for what they say.  If you proclaim justice, for example – or at least the notion of Christian justice – it needs to be done with grace and a commitment to the other.  “Love your enemies” wasn’t just some cute thing that Jesus said.  He actually meant it, literally.

But, as I sit here and point the finger, I realize I have three others pointing back at me.  I realize that well, shit, I’m just as if not more guilty of saying things irresponsibly, not holding myself accountable.  So that’s why I’m saying goodbye to Facebook – because of my own sinfulness, I need to take a step back and figure out a better way.  I’d even say it’s vital – because it’s affecting me physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.  I have to find a way to change my own rhetoric, for my own sake.

And that brings me to the other reason I’m saying goodbye to Facebook: I need to quiet my mind from the endless cackle of toxic voices.  I need to distance myself from the constant stream of venom that is the “justice” narrative in our country.  I need to take the time to listen – to others, to myself, and above all, to God.  I need to do this because I need to find a Third Way beyond the polarizing either/or categories that define our society and life these days.  Maybe instead of being the thundering prophet who speaks from on high, I need to simply strive to be a better man.  Maybe instead of always voicing what God is speaking into our issues and realities, I need to actually listen to what God has to say.

I need to look for this Third Way – God’s Way of how Grace redefines the ways we talk about and deal with the issues and realities of our world.

So goodbye Facebook….for now.  I don’t know when I’ll be back.  Some of my friends say the social media world still needs a good Lutheran Honeybadger…..but while Jesus loves this ass, being an ass all the time isn’t what God wants either.  


In the meantime, you should probably call/email/text if you need a little Honeybadger humor in your life.  That, I can do.

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