Category Archives: Missional Thinking & The Church

Searching.

This past Sunday morning, I decided to make my way down to the congregation I belonged to prior to heading off to seminary. It was an important and formative place along my journey: they cared for me as I mourned my dad’s death in 2006, they allowed me to lead youth ministries and serve on the church council as a layperson, and it is where I ultimately decided to attend seminary and become a Lutheran pastor.

It was a good worship service.  The sermon was great, I saw and chatted with familiar faces, but I left feeling very much that I no longer belong at this congregation. It’s a feeling that has been all too common this year as I continue to sit in pews in Sunday’s, listening to the preachers words, receiving the sacrament, and while appreciating how connected everyone else around me seems to be,

I find I’m still searching.

At this moment in my life, I’m not sure why I keep going.   Perhaps it is to capture a sense of nostalgia, an old familiar feeling.  Perhaps it’s because the longing I feel is really a desire to be able to sit in a pew, look around, and say to myself, “This feels like home.”  I don’t think that’s quite right though.

 

I’m discovering that for this part of my journey, being a vagabond of sorts when it comes to churches and belonging feels right.  It has actually been life-giving to simply appreciate a faith community is on its own terms, without having to feel the weight of expectation that my attendance leads to homesteading there.  For someone who has been overly critical of what churches are or aren’t doing, there is something freeing in that process.

I haven’t ruled out being surprised.  I haven’t ruled out that one day, I’ll want to be part of a church long-term again.  For now, I’m comfortable being a transient presence, I’m comfortable simply appreciating things as they are, in the present moment.  I’m content to be encountered by God rather than seek to have an encounter with God.

I’m comfortable searching.

 

 

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Churches & Leadership today: What we won’t talk about, but need to.

I was on my summer internship doing hospital chaplaincy, and I had the opportunity to serve on the palliative care team.  Palliative care, for those who aren’t familiar with the term, is an interdisciplinary approach to caring for patients and families with serious illnesses and injuries.  I was assigned to a case where an elderly women had suffered a massive stroke, and was in a coma.  Her recovery unlikely, her children faced the difficult choice of removing life support and placing her on hospice.  As the chaplain, I sat with the family, offering an empathic ear that listened to their concerns and sadness about their mom’s state, I mediated arguments between the siblings and their spouses as they accused each other of less than honorable motivations and past hurts, and did my best to gently and as pastorally as I could steer them toward the decision that made the most sense: place their mother on hospice and say their final goodbyes.

Well, this went on for 3 hours as we waited for the palliative care doctors.  I was getting nowhere with the family; in fact, I felt like things were going backwards.  As my frustration mounted, ticked off that my very pastoral presence wasn’t bringing calm into the situation so that a rational choice could be made, the palliative care doctors finally walked in.  The practitioner, with just as much empathy and genuine care, said, “I’ve reviewed your mother’s situation and health and I can tell you in my most honest medical opinion, she isn’t going to make a recovery.  My only question to you is, what would your mother want in this situation?”  The siblings agreed to take their mom off life support and place her in hospice.

My initial reaction: “You’ve got to be kidding me.  You just roll in and in 5 minutes get the family to make the decision I spent 3 hours trying to get them to make?”  After reflecting, I learned a important lesson about the necessity of varying skillsets and roles on teams.  What the family needed in that moment was “outside my lane” as a chaplain.  The doctors, as compassionate truth tellers, were the people they needed, with the information and expertise they needed to make their choice.

Many of us are well aware of the challenges facing ELCA congregations (and likely all denominations) with respect to shrinking membership, resources, and a lack of pastors for the number of vacant calls.  There are a lot of faithful, smart folks who are working to address these realities.  However, I think there is one reality out there that many of us know, but aren’t willing to acknowledge:

There are a number of congregations out there that are no longer viable.  

The reasons vary, but the reality is the same: while God always promises God’s people a future and a life with it, the same isn’t true for congregations.  While we certainly don’t know the timeline or shelf life, as God’s people are pulled in new and different directions and the context around them changes, the communities they create will be affected.  The truth is, just like our own lives, congregations also may come to a point where their life comes to an end.

I think part of the problem is that we don’t have a healthy way to talk about this.  It’s kind of like the person who didn’t exercise enough or eat right through their lives.  Maybe that’s part of their demise, but the causes when we’re facing the end aren’t worth dwelling on.  It’s about facing and living through the ending with grace and dignity, not making a list of regrets and shortcomings that brought on the end. Also, it isn’t about clawing tooth and nail for survival, right to the bitter end. 

I digress.  My point here is to raise the issue that we don’t really have the appropriate skillset or role in our current leadership structure to deal with issues of viability and end of life with congregations.  We have mission redevelopers, developers, Directors of Evangelical Mission, assistants to synodical bishops for conflict resolution, and intentional interim pastors.  However, these are roles that assist congregations in transition, not facing a choice about whether to continue on or not.  None of these roles directly addresses the issue of viability and end-of-life with congregations for whom that is a reality.

Do we need a “palliative care” type role among our current pastoral leadership models to address congregations facing serious issues as they face the future – God’s future for both God’s people, and for congregations?

Do we need a pastoral skillset to lead congregations through discernment of their viability?  Do we need compassionate truth tellers who will assist and empower congregations and synod leadership to make an informed decision about the congregation’s viability?

I believe that God is calling us into a conversation about this, and it’s one we need to have no matter how much we’re unwilling to admit more than just a few of our congregations are facing the question of whether or not they’ve reached the end of God’s mission for them in their current state.  If we start with God, then we know that there is a future for us as God’s people; our faith doesn’t die with our congregation, but rather it is the beginning of something new.  The truth is – and we know this – new life often can only happen when we first put to death our own fears and need to survive.

As people of faith, death AND resurrection is who we are.  It is the same for congregations.  We, both individually and communally, often avoid the first.  We need leaders who will come alongside and help us with the issue of viability we simply won’t talk about….but need to.

 

 

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“What EXACTLY does this mean?” – 500th Reformation Anniversary Thoughts

Since fall last year, my email inbox has been flooded with advertisements and invitations to events, lectures, and gatherings to celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  This milestone holds a special place in the hearts of Lutherans because our founding namesake, Martin Luther, was the catalyst for this Reformation that included many different voices and theological perspectives.  In short, what happened 500 years ago was a pretty big deal.

So while I’m not a big fan of nostalgic gatherings that rehash and reenact history, nor am I fan of the topic of  how 500-year old confessional doctrine ought to be relevant, I don’t begrudge those for whom those things matter.  Yet I’ve found myself asking this question with respect to the 500th Reformation Anniversary lately,

“What EXACTLY does this mean?”

What does this mean for us NOW?  In her book “The Great Emergence” (Baker, 2008), the late Phyllis Tickle suggested that every 500 years, a significant reformation happens in the church universal, and that we are living in one of those times today.  If that’s true (and I believe that it is), then we’re in the middle of a great reformation ourselves, just as Martin Luther and other Reformers founds themselves in the early 1500s.

I don’t want to talk about The Reformation. I want to be part of the one happening now. 

I don’t think I’m alone in my belief.  Most of us are aware of the changes happening around and in our congregations and how those changes are affecting our communities of faith.  We’re aware of the issues – membership decline, diversity, justice, millennials, evangelism, hospitality, worship forms, shifting leadership….the list goes on.  We’re also blasted to the point of over saturation with blogs, books, and articles presenting solutions to all these “big” issues facing the church.  The understanding of reformation is “do this, or die.”  I don’t know about you, but that’s fear-based rhetoric meant to capitalize on our anxiety about an uncertain future most of us feel ill-equipped to handle.

I’ll spare you the suspense: this is not another blog presenting another “big idea” to “the big issue” that’s plaguing congregations these days.  I do want to say that while my current call has me disconnected to the day-to-day of congregational life, it’s always on my heart and on the forefront of my mind.  What does it mean to be a church and a person of faith living in the midst of perhaps another great reformation?  Where do I even begin to start imagining what God is calling us all to be and do as church within it?

I honestly wish I had a profound answer to these questions.  I did come across this great quote one of my favorite seminary professors posted on social media the other day:

“An evangelical church which looks upon the doctrine of justification by faith as a self-evident banality one no longer needs to dwell upon because other problems are more pressing has robbed itself of the possibility of arriving at solutions to such problems. It will only tear itself further apart. If the article on justification is removed from the center we will very soon no longer know why we are and must remain evangelical Christians. Then we will strive for the unity of the church and sacrifice the purity of the gospel; we will expect more from church order and government, from the reform of ecclesiastical office and church discipline, than these can deliver. One will flatter piety and despise doctrine; one will run the risk of becoming tolerant where one should be radical and radical where one should be tolerant.” ~ Hans Joachim Iwand (1959)

What exactly does this 500th Anniversary of the Reformation mean for us today?  For those like me, it means that more than remembering what happened 500 years ago. We want to honor it by being part of God’s reforming work today.  For me, like Luther, our conversation and discernment needs to start with God and not us.  Like Luther, it’ll take a lot of courage to break free from our tribal mindsets and come together to think on the idea from Iwand’s thought above.

I want to be part of reformation today, but one grounded in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, a movement we do together, grounded in humility, courage, and love.

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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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“I am not welcome….” Reflecting on race, ethnicity, & the Lutheran Church

Last week, the Pew Research Center released its survey of racial diversity across various religious groups in America.  What may be a shocker to some (but not to me) is that the church denomination I belong to, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is the second least racially diverse across America.  You could make the case it is THE least racially diverse since the group below it, the National Baptist Convention, has been historically and still is, an exclusively an African-American church.

My church, the ELCA, prides itself on its efforts to be more racially diverse and inclusive of other ethnic groups.  Wanting to give my church the benefit of the doubt, I did a little further investigating and according to 2012 data compiled by the ELCA, it reported about 8.5% of its membership was made up of other ethnic groups.  The Pew Research survey reported about 4% of the ELCA’s membership is made up of these same ethnic groups.  Therefore, as a church body, we’ve actually decreased in diversity over the last three years. As an Asian-American in this church whose ethnic group is just as diverse (pretty much if you are not white and hail from the continent of Asia and the Pacific Islands you’re lumped into the “Asian” category), this is what I hear:

I am not welcome in this church.

The majority voice of the institution that is the ELCA receives me because I was raised up in its predominant cultural heritage.  I was raised on dairy farm in central Minnesota, adopted by Scandinavian parents, who were Lutheran.  Like many Asian adoptees, my own cultural identity, along with cultural norms and values, was replaced by a predominantly white one.  My pursuits in higher education and my work ethic are hailed and respected by white privilege in a form of racism and discrimination known as the “model minority.”  However, since I started seminary in 2009 and became a pastor in the ELCA I have become increasingly aware of those moments when my racial identity has me standing outside this church.  I have increasingly felt the force that is white privilege acting upon me in this church when I find myself wrestling with the contradictions and hypocrisy of the cultural identity of my childhood, along with its norms and values, compared with who I am today……wrestling that quite franky, has been raised by my experience and participation in my church, the ELCA. I know I have been subjected to forms of racism and discrimination throughout my whole life, but never before have they been so explicit, and myself so aware of them, until the start of seminary through present day. 

I feel it when I’m asked to take pictures for publications because I’m “the kind of person we think would be the right fit and would represent who we are as Lutherans.”

I feel it when I watch one of my congregations long for more youth, yet ignore a newcomer who is an African-American teenager, to the extent where the majority of them don’t even know his name.

I feel it every time I speak out in concern and anger from a place of my own experience, and I am met not with questions seeking understanding, but rather statements demanding my silence and questioning my loyalty to the institution.

I felt it this past Sunday morning while worshipping as a visitor at an ELCA congregation, and looking around me and seeing that I am the only person of color in the room.

I, along with many others, are not welcome in this church.

I will admit, this has been a summer in which I’ve given into my feelings of frustration and anger towards the institutional church – the ELCA.  Some of that is founded, and some of that is my sinfulness, my lack of grace towards the church.  However, as I sit here and reflect on my feelings and what this all means, I still assert that I, just like so many other ethnic minorities, am not welcome in the church.  Sadly, other people of color are experience the unwelcome of the church in more tragic and overt ways than I have. Yet, my deeper reflection has led me to understand that perhaps the meaning behind that statement is just a revelation of reality, rather than a critique that requires a solution of the ELCA which I am a part of.

The reality is that the ELCA is historically a white church – German and Scandinavian immigrants to be exact.  It is a church that values higher education and gives power (we make them clergy) to those who possess those credentials.  It is a church that has always been more proud of its cultural and theological tradition rather than thrusting itself into the unsettling, reforming work of the Holy Spirit.  It is a church that historically has given itself to efforts that focus on the spiritual and communal well-being of its existing members rather than all out evangelizing to those outsiders around them. 

The reality is that my church isn’t overtly racist, it’s just not and has never been divserse. What exists is a passive form of discrimination though the existing culture, values, and structures of privilege – white privilege.  And I think my mistake has been to put the church on trial without understanding that I’ve misplaced my trust in the hope that people will make the church a more welcome place for people of color – for people like me. Perhaps what I ask for is simply an impossibility given who we have been and who we are as a chruch. It isn’t a welcoming institution for people of color – there is little that celebrates the ethnic and cultural heritage and values that are a part of who we are.  My reflection has led me to believe that I should be more gracious towards the non-divserity of the ELCA…..and the subconscious resistance to do the work necessary to make it a more diverse church. My failure has been to place my trust in the hope that people can be the great author and catalyst of change in the church – and we full well know what happens when we place our trust solely in the efforts of humanity. 

What I’ve come to understand that my trust must be placed in the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I may not be welcome in this church by established human – ie. white privilege – standards, but I belong.  I belong because in Christ, a place has been made for me.  In Christ I am joined to the community of God for who I am, not by the standards devised by people who have enjoyed their long-standing place within the institution and see no need to act with a sense of urgency to change that.  Despite all that is real and true about this church, the fact remains that in Christ, I do belong.  That is where my confidence comes from, that is where my voice comes from, and that is where my courage is founded in. I follow Christ….the experiences unique to who I am racially, culturally, ethnically, and the thoughts, ideas, questions, and wrestling that coincide with that have a place in the church as the Kingdom of God here on earth.  In my understanding of belonging comes an appreciation for what the Lutheran church gifts to me – a theological tradition that helps me make sense of the particularity of my experience as an Asian-American adoptee.  The gift is not a sense of welcome and inclusion into a cultural majority of institutional privilege and power that I can never be a part of simply because of who I am. 

I may not be welcome.  But I know I belong….because I know who and whose I am.  That should be my focus, and that is enough.  And I hope for all those who find themselves standing outside the welcome of this church because of their questions, their ethnicity, their race…..they might find a sense of renewed faith and belonging in faith in Christ, not the empty boasting a promises of human progress. 

My place, like many people of color, is a particular one within the church. It may not – and it may never – be within the institution’s privileged places, but it is always a place of belonging established by God’s grace made known in the cross of Christ. May we be so bold as to live courageously in the knowledge of that gospel truth. 

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Violence & Hatred: When Prayer Isn’t Enough

 I am writing on my own behalf, and the thoughts and opinions expressed are my own and not necessarily those of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the U.S. Navy or the Navy Chaplain Corps.

I’m angry.  I’m frustrated.

Last month, I was proud of those I call brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.  When the news of the Emmanuel AME church shootings in Charleston broke the morning after they happened, within the day there were many speaking out against violence and hatred caused by racism on social media as the facts of the victims, shooter, and events became known.  Many individuals spoke out; we were shocked that this happened in the church, that among the victims were those who had relationships with the ELCA, and that the shooter himself was a member of an ELCA congregation.  Even our own presiding bishop, Elizabeth Eaton, released a letter speaking out about how racism is a problem in our nation, and that we need to start having conversations about racism – to be honest and speak out.  “This happened to our own” we cried. I was proud to call myself an ELCA Lutheran.

But today I’m not so sure.

Yesterday, yet another shooting occurred in our nation, this time in Chattanooga, TN.  The shooting was directed at a Navy Operational Support Center where Reservists like myself perform their training and service to the nation.  As the facts of the victims, shooter, and events were released, I was shocked. Four Marines were killed….those I call brothers and sisters in our Navy and Marine Corps.  The shooter, who held a twisted, radical view of Islam that in his mind justified his hate as jihad – Holy War.  More violence happening as a product of extreme hate and fear.  Since I’m in training right now and my time to see what others are saying is limited, it wasn’t until last evening I finally got around to see what others were saying.

Virtual radio silence. I scrolled pretty far down, and rapidly on Twitter and Facebook. Nothing.

I was angry.  I was frustrated.  And so I lashed out on social media myself.

Of course, my anger solicited responses from those in my denomination. I will admit, people correctly questioned and called out I unfairly unleashed a harsh critique against my church, the National Youth Gathering it is holding currently, and its official words on social media.  I own that.  However, it was many of those individuals I call brothers and sisters that disappointed me.  And it was this sentiment that got me:

“It was mentioned.  It was prayed about a number of times.  What else do you want us to do?”

I am no longer angry.  I am no longer frustrated.  I am disappointed.

Just a month ago, my church spoke out against violence and hate.  Yesterday and today, my church continues to fail to do that same thing in the wake of Chattanooga.  But hey, they prayed about it.  They’ve done their part.  What else do you want us to do?

Now that I’m a bit removed from my emotions, I think I can answer that question.  What I hope for is that we recognize violence and hatred in this case and have the courage to speak out against it.  Radical religious belief is just as dangerous as racism in this country.  In fact, it might be more so because it has global ramifications.  ISIS, al Qaida….formally recognized terrorism that gains momentum from such attacks as the one yesterday, whether it originated from these groups or not.  I want us to talk, have conversations about religious fanaticism being just as dangerous as extreme racism.  I am disappointed that we as a church are unable to say anything to our nation about our Muslim brothers and sisters who are peaceful, and to call others not to perpetuate a new form of racism that could result in retaliatory attacks on Muslims and mosques.  I am disappointed because the death of military service members who volunteer to give their lives is a subtitle in our nation’s consciousness.  We do it because frankly, we’re too scared to call the shooter what he really is because he is muslim – and not white.  We feel sorry for the Marines and their families but we don’t want to feel too much, because that might mean we support what they do.  Our progressive values are in conflict with the reality of violence and hatred.  I am disappointed because their death seems to be only worthy of a 2-3 minute moment of silence.  We use prayer as a way of passing the buck on our responsibility as people of God to speak prophetically into what happened in Chattanooga even though we know exactly what happened there.

What I am not saying is that prayer isn’t appropriate.  We should and need to pray to God in times like these…just as we did with Charleston. But we have work to do.  Religious extremism and intolerance is a new “ism” that poses a threat to a just and peaceful world that God desires for us all.  It may not be as old as the ties of racism, but it nonetheless should demand our attention.

That is what I want from you, oh individuals in my church.

I realize the deaths of 4 Marines may not be as personal to you as the deaths of 9 African-Americans in a church.  Yet, we can no longer pick and choose when we decide to speak out when violence and hatred drop on our doorstep.  I don’t think Christ gives us that luxury.  We have to acknowledge it, speak prophetically against it, engage in conversation to learn and listen as we proclaim Christ’s resurrection and grace as a way forward – and that God calls us to work alongside God in that coming reality.  Prayer isn’t enough anymore – I believe Christ demands more from us as disciples of the cross.  We have to do that….or risk becoming a church that’s more inclined to be guided by the self-preservation of our progressive piety rather than by Christ crucified and raised.

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An Easter Sermon for the Cynic

Text: Matthew 28:1-10.  

So, I have a question for you: What did you expect when you showed up here this morning?  When you woke up this morning, maybe earlier than normal, put on nice clothes that you don’t typically wear, you came here and are still a bit sleepy and groggy ……but, what did you expect?

Today is Easter, and I suppose it’s a day of happiness…one of those few days during the year when we can shove all our problems and all the tough stuff happening around us into a closet in our minds and for one day, forget about it and pretend none of it exists.  It’s Easter – lilies and a brightly decorated sanctuary, traditional hymns, a breakfast, maybe an Easter egg hunt, everyone all dressed up – let’s be over the top happy this morning!  And that’s the problem I have with Easter.  All of it just seems a little too artificial. What happens when we wake up tomorrow morning?  What happens to all that stuff we shoved in the closet?

Ok, this is probably NOT what you expected this morning – a downer of a message.  But, for those that don’t know me so well, I am a pretty big cynic.  And sometimes, it gets the best of me.

But when I think about all that stuff we shoved in the closet….we still have problems.  Violence in our country and world caused by hatred and prejudice of race, sexual orientation, social class; a sense of entitlement that somehow we deserve more and more, even if it comes at the expense of others….I think about how the ways that church and people who call themselves Christian will act totally opposite of what the church and Christian faith is about – it gets ugly sometimes.  I think about recent deaths, some of them coming well before the person’s time.  I think about these things and I’ve come to expect well, nothing.

That’s just how life is.  I take it at face value and all the stuff that weighs on my mind and that there is nothing that will change any of it – that’s what I expect.  Maybe you feel that way too and in that way, you’re just as much the cynic as I am.

I wonder if we really expect anything out of the Easter story of Christ’s resurrection.  Oh, we say that we believe the whole thing’s true…..but I wonder if we really believe up and against the things that weigh on our minds, events that shake our very core that news of an empty tomb actually holds any real power to change things.  Maybe the whole story of Jesus’ death and resurrection has just simply become background noise in favor of our Easter celebration of happiness.  Secretly, we’re just as cynical to the notion of a God who does anything to change the world as we are cynical to the way the world is.

Yet it’s this story of Christ’s death and resurrection – the Good Friday and Easter story – that the cynic in us needs.  Because the proclamation of Christ’s death and resurrection is God did this because the world needed saving – we need saving.  We need a savior, not a personal one to pay off the balance owed on my bad behavior account, not a savior who magically erases all the bad things in the world so we can be perpetually and delusional happy.  We need a savior who will proclaim to us that our self-righteous piety, denial of ugliness in the world, justification of attitudes and actions out of fear and a need to self-preserve doesn’t win the day – rather, they get put to death on a cross. Weakness, vulnerability, brokenness, honesty – our very humanity, what makes us truly beautiful – is resurrected.  That is what is saved.  We need a savior who removes the cloud of cynicism around our hearts and minds so that we can see something good in the world.  The Easter message is that our cynicism is put to death….so that we not only see beauty in our lives, but expect it.  We can expect beauty to show up……because God shows up.

Yesterday, I went to the memorial service for a sailor who I served with in USS JACKSONVILLE, about 10 years ago.  He had made his journey the hard way, growing up in the rough part of Atlanta, starting as an enlisted sailor and was currently an officer.  But now, here he was, dead at 38 years old, collapsing suddenly…leaving behind a wife and three young boys.  There were tributes to his life, people giving stories about Daniel that I had never known.  Two of them were from a brother and sister in their 20’s.  Daniel had taken on the role of surrogate father for them when they were teenagers, caring for them, pushing them to go to college, keeping the on a positive course.  Here they were, giving tribute to how Daniel had done all these things, and then they each turned to his wife and boys and said, “I promise you….in the ways Daniel was a part of our life, always there for us, I promise I will be there for you too.  You’re our family, and I promise to take care of you and be in your life the way Daniel was in ours.”

And there it was….just this beautiful moment.  A moment made beautiful because not even the sadness and finality of Daniel’s death could stop the love he had for others from being lived out.  It wasn’t Daniel’s death that made this moment beautiful, but his life.  It was a life and legacy that will live on in the love he shared in his life….and I believe with all my heart that in that beautiful moment – God showed up.

The women who came to the tomb weren’t expecting a whole lot that first Easter morning.  They expected to see a closed tomb with Jesus cold dead body laying inside.  Death and disappointment was their expectation.  But oh what a morning….the earth shook, their worlds turned upside down, the tomb was empty. When they heard the announcement that Jesus had been raised they ran from that tomb in both fear and wonder to tell the disciples that death was defeated, life had won the day and Jesus had risen from the dead, and on their way Jesus appeared before them – he showed up.   And nothing was ever the same.

And oh, what a morning it is for us today….Christ is risen and in that is a power big enough to save us from our cynical selves.  God’s Easter reality puts to death our fear and prejudice and hate that clouds how we see humanity…..and we are left to see nothing but beauty and goodness in each other and in ourselves.  Christ is risen, he is risen indeed.  God is among us, God has shown up…and you can expect….expect nothing will be the same.  Amen.

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