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Sermon 11 June 2017: St. Timothy Lutheran, Norfolk

Text: Matthew 28:16-23

As some of you know, I’ve been away from parish ministry this past year, serving as a Navy Chaplain.  And it’s always interesting who frequents my office.  About a month after I started, a Navy doctor, young guy, Lieutenant, stopped by.  He asked, “do you have a second Chaplain?”

As we sat down to talk he shared with me that he had volunteered to do this individual deployment to Afghanistan because “I knew it would be good for my career. To serve in a combat zone, practice good medicine, maybe even save a couple lives, would be more than what I was doing in my current assignment at the Naval Clinic.  I could do all this good stuff over the course of the year, get a good fitness report and likely a couple medals for serving in a combat area and for personal commendation, and I’d be set.”

“But that’s not what happened.  I got along well with the Head Surgeon, and my Commanding Officer.  I did good work and they told me I did good work.  But I didn’t get a great fitness report at the end of the tour.  It was pretty average.  I didn’t even get a single award either.  The goal was that this tour would help me promote faster, and now I head back to my home command and probably have fallen behind there too.  So what am I supposed to do now Chaplain?”

You have probably heard today’s text before…..known as the Great Commission.  Jesus tells his followers to “go and make disciples, baptize, and teach them.”  And for most Christians and churches, the Great Commission gets treated like a set of marching orders…..making disciples, baptizing, and Christian education become the “mission” of the church.

I wonder if we don’t all do the same thing ourselves – individually and as a community of faith.  We treat the Great Commission like a set of marching orders with distinct goals in mind.  And if we achieve the goal, then we’ve achieved mission success.  Grow and increase membership.  Baptize more babies for the report to the Synod.  Group the youth group, Sunday School, adult education, and get more kids confirmed. But, what does it mean when we fall short; what happens when we fail?

Falling short and failing to achieve goals never feels good, and it’s certainly not good news.  It’s not gospel.

So what then to make of the Great Commission?

Recently, because of the wear and tear I’ve put on my body as an athlete, I’ve taken up swimming.  One of the sober things I’ve learned about swimming is you just can’t “power through” it; it takes patience and relaxing in the pool.  I’ll just be honest: I’m not very patient by nature, and I’m definitely not very good at swimming. I am slow.  I am inefficient.  I’m sure that the high school lifeguards at the Rec Center pool get a kick out of me thrashing around in the water, plodding along in my sad attempt to propel myself from one end of the pool to the other.  Even when I think I’m getting better, along comes a person well into their 60s and 70s who jumps into my lane and literally swims circles around me…..and I am reminded once again just how bad at swimming I am and that no matter how hard I try, I’m probably not going to be winning any Olympic medals any time soon.

But here’s the thing: I’m finding I love it.  I love the challenge, the sense of trying something new, and of course that my joints don’t hurt when I’m done.  I’m finding that as bad as I am now, and the while I may never be good at swimming, I simply find joy in getting into pool, feeling my muscles work, losing myself in the rhythm of my own pace and breathing.  I just find joy in the task of swimming itself.

And perhaps that is what the Great Commission is for us: not a set of marching orders, not a list of goals to achieve.  The Great Commission is a gift; it is a vision of life for the church that brings an immeasurable sense of joy.  To walk alongside others together in our faith journeys, to celebrate baptism and the mystery of God’s grace bestowed on the baptized and to celebrate their joining to Christ and the church, to teach others, or perhaps more witnessing to others about the grace and love of God made known in Jesus Christ – that life is our joy.  To simply live out the Great Commission is our joy.

And on this Sunday, we celebrate the Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and not as a solution to a theological equation.  The Trinity, three in one and one in three, is a divine mystery.  It doesn’t make sense.  Yet it’s beauty and wondering comes in the idea of a sort of divine dancing where there is no defined beginning or end, but that God in the Trinty gives us a vision of a life where we are so caught up in the life of God, and we are also so deeply caught up in the life of one another.  Faith is living out this divine relationship, so connected to God and so connected to each other.  That is our joy.

The Great Commission and the doctrine of the Trinity are given to us so that we might have great joy in living the life of faith itself, not its outcomes.

And even then, the Great Commission and the Trinity aren’t good news.

The good news comes in Jesus’ last words: “And remember, I am with you always, until the end of the age.”

No matter if we live or die, rise or fall; if we succeed or fail as a church.  We belong to God, we belong to Christ, and we belong to each other.  God is with us, and that is truly good news!  Amen.

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Sermon 14 August 2016:The Problem of Loyalty

Text: Luke 12:49-56

Grace and peace from God our Father, and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. I’m a guest this morning, filling in for Pastor Harry and as a guest I come bringing peace to you! (Note: I picked this up drew it and started waving and pointing it at people!) 

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I bring peace and unity, not division! I come to bring comfort, not uneasiness and fear!  Now perhaps you’re not really believing my message of peace….which might have to do with me waving this sword around and pointing it at you. Words of peace are pretty thin when accompanied by fear, aren’t they? In fact, it probably feels more like coercion; they feel more like a demand.  And it seems, at least to me, there’s a lot of those messages going around these days:

“Let’s make America great again!”

“It’s time to put a woman in the White House.”

“hashtag: [fill in the blank] lives matter”….filling in the blank how we see fit.

And Christians seem to be caught up in it as well: “As Christians, we need to unite and take a stand.”

I’m one of those people who likes to engage on social media, and I get drawn into some discussions online…..probably against my better judgment. At least that’s what my wife tells me! This past week I found myself in such discussion where a lady was asserting – no, insisting – that very last sentiment to me.  There’s a war on Christianity in America, and we need to rally together to make sure Jesus and the church don’t lose.  I pushed back on that notion because as a Christian, I just don’t think I’m at war with anyone.  In response to my pushback, she questioned my loyalty to Jesus.

A couple things came to mind as I hear Jesus’ words from our text this morning: one, we got it backwards.  He said, “Do you think I came to bring peace to this earth?  No, rather I come to bring division!”   I think Jesus is giving us a warning: there’s a danger when the promise of peace and unity is connected to a demand for loyalty. Yet there’s another danger here: if we somehow reason Jesus’ words as a challenge to where our loyalties lie, then the demand for loyalty shifts from humans to God. If God demands our loyalty in exchange for peace and unity, then it has implications for God’s character – who God is.  God is one who demands our complete and total loyalty – or else. And unlike the demand that comes from humans, the implications aren’t just for this world….they’re also eternal.

I wonder this morning if Jesus isn’t asking us where our loyalties lie, but rather Jesus is challenging the very notion of loyalty itself.

Some of you may have seen the movie “42”.  It’s the story of how Jackie Robinson became the first African-American to play Major League Baseball, breaking the color barrier in baseball. I re-watched the movie recently, and what struck me is that the rule about no African-Americans in Major League Baseball was an unwritten one.  Actually, it wasn’t a rule at all: it was loyalty to the long-held belief that Major League Baseball was and should remain a “white man’s game” and there was no place for the African-American in it.  Loyalty to that belief lasted until Branch Rickey, owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided to sign Jackie Robinson – against the better judgment of his advisors and peers, and despite warnings and threats by many.  During the movie, it was apparent that Ricky wasn’t sure how bringing Robinson into baseball would turn out.  All he knew was that the loyalty to the idea that black players should be excluded from Major League Baseball was killing his love of the game. And so he took a chance, a leap of faith perhaps, on playing Jackie Robinson….and the rest is history.

The thing about loyalty is that comes at a cost.  We tend to judge and seek sameness, limping along fearing that if we let the unknown or that which is different into our lives, it’ll be the death of us.  But the thing about loyalty is that sides are taken, lines are drawn, and we entrench ourselves with the group.  All this sounds a lot like….war. And in war people take up arms, whether it be words, which do damage but have their limit, or what’s becoming too common in our world today, people are choosing to pick up real weapons.  One thing’s certain when it comes to war – pain and suffering.

Perhaps this morning, God isn’t demanding our loyalty. Instead, God invites us to be faithful.

Faith calls us to look beyond ourselves and our sameness to a greater world around us, a world that God created, loves, and redeems…all of it.  Faith calls us to a life of sacrifice and love for the sake of others – especially those we fear and things we don’t understand.  Faith calls us to stop doing violence to ourselves and others.  Faith calls us to run the race – not to win, but with perseverance. Faith is the call to trust – and nothing more.

In a time where powers and forces are preying upon our fears, creating paranoia, then demanding our loyalty under the premise of peace, let us look to the pioneer and perfecter of our faith – Jesus, the One frees us from the bondage of loyalty and its demands. Jesus, the one who is faithful to us….and that faithfulness is a promise that costs us nothing but gives us all – the very peace and joy and freedom we seek for ourselves, for each other, for our nation, for our world.  Amen.

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Just another blog on leadership….

….or maybe not.

Talking to most pastors, leadership conversation usually centers on the quality of what one does.  It’s about HOW one leads, HOW one gets people or an organization to do what it’s supposed to, or how we put it in my line of work, what they’re called to do.

But I believe leadership is about YOU – the leader.  It is fundamentally about WHY you lead and WHO you are.  That is what is known as character, or integrity.  The best leaders are able to answer the “why” and “who” questions, and aren’t afraid to honestly reflect and wrestle with them.  I ask myself: “What can I learn?” versus “Was I successful or a failure?”  I know the first question is an exercise on reflecting on one’s character.  The second, I’m not sure what it’s about fully, but the temptation to be dishonest with one’s self and shift blame is present.  Considering the last almost 3 years of pastoral ministry, I thought I’d pass on some of my learning to you leaders out there for something to chew on.  So without further ado…..

1. There are usually 2 sides to every issue….or 3. Or 5.  When people bring their “issues” to me, I remind myself that it’s simply their perspective.  You know the old adage, “there’s your side, my side, and the truth.”  While it’s important to always here someone’s story and perspective, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should accept it as objective, absolute truth…..because there’s always another side to the story.  In today’s world, it’s acceptable to overreact to every issue,  and we’re learning the outcomes are divisive and tragic.  I’ve learned not accepting the first, second, or even the eighth side I hear slows me down and allows me to be a non-anxious presence, rather than an anxiety-producing one.

2.  Don’t let people steal your joy.  I am one of those rare pastors who doesn’t derive my sole joy in life from my job. (Note sarcasm) Each of us has something that brings us sustained, unlimited joy in our lives.  It’s that thing that keeps us going.  No one but you and I are responsible for making room for it, however; it’s ours, and if we’re not careful, we can let people and distractions steal it from us and we become a shell of who we really are.  Worse yet, we become unhealthy and unfit to lead.  Sure, there is a degree of sacrifice that comes with being a pastor, but you’re not called to be a martyr. Don’t let people steal your joy.

3.  Lead out of acceptance, not affirmation.  I used to be one of those people who sought affirmation of others to define my self-worth.  However, affirmation often is hitched to the wagon of success.  What happens when that wagon departs and you’re left holding failure?  I’ve learned that people’s praise is often fleeting…tied to their expectations, their level of satisfaction, and their definition of success.  Acceptance is taking things at face value.  It’s knowing who you are, your limits and capabilities, what you can offer and what you cannot.  It’s also knowing – and accepting – the same in those you lead.  Acceptance is not holding on to things too tightly, because they’re not really yours to begin with.  Acceptance is understanding leaders aren’t in total control, which leads me to a couple supporting ideas:

  • Accept failure as simply consequence of decisions/actions vice an indictment on you, and learn from it.
  • There are limits to what’s within your control; but be ok taking control of what is within the sphere of your role.
  • As a leader, you often get what you earn, good or bad.

Finally, acceptance has led me to understand that only standard I need to evaluate myself by is God’s.  The minute I cannot be true to who God has created and called me to be, is to be in denial of what’s truth.  Acceptance is accepting that good news as…truth.

4.  Whether you succeed or fail, know why.  Any fool can get lucky and hit the jackpot.  Conversely, fools also tend to pass blame when failure comes.  In either case, it’s leadership by shotgun approach and totally random.  Good leaders at their core are intentional about learning – they take the time to know why something succeeded or failed.  When success comes, they can replicate it.  When failure results, they can learn and change.  Leaders who know why things succeed or fail (or take the time to discover it) provide stability and wisdom to the people and places they lead.

5. It is important to have a fundamental belief in the people you lead and the community’s mission/vision.  Perhaps a softer way to say this is “you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole.”  But it’s deeper than that.  People and the church deserve your best.  If cynicism sets in to the point where you don’t believe in people or the community’s ability to give their best or to fulfill what God has called them to, then it’s time for you to leave.  That doesn’t mean you’re a jerk nor that there’s something wrong with your people.  It’s just a sign that perhaps it’s time for you both to part ways before apathy – or worse – sets in.

6.  Compromising doesn’t mean compromising who you are and who you’re called to be.  Know your “why.”  This has two parts.  Let me start with the first one: compromise.  There is a big problem in congregations, and that is the idol of “nice.”  People hold up this idol and compromise becomes the sacrifice at the altar of “nice.”  What it means is that the leader always should “be nice” and thus be a compromiser.  What this compromising ends up being is that the leader and their decisions are subject to the expectations, satisfaction, and definition of success of others.  Over time leaders compromise what they are about and the ministry they feel called to do.

That leads me to the second part of this.  I think compromise runs rampant when leaders forget their “why.”  One’s “why” is as simple as what makes you get out of bed in the morning.  It’s the motivation behind what you do, your call, your reason for existing.  Whether it’s comfort, apathy, fear, or a host of other things, the result is we tend to forget our “why.”  That’s when we start compromising – ourselves and our vocation.

This isn’t an exhaustive list.  What other things do you think are important when it comes to thinking about leading with character or integrity?  What does it mean to you to lead with one’s character and integrity intact?

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Reflecting on Diversity & Orlando

“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 attended my Synod’s annual assembly this past weekend. (For you non-churchy types, think Comicon meets TEDTalk) Since I’m no longer serving my congregations, I came primarily representing our Synod’s “Tapestry team” – a steering group focused and dedicated to the reality of and need for diversity and inclusion in the church. We presented to both the adults and the youth, and held a lunchtime discussion. During the course of the discussion, one person said, “I’m tired of all these conversations. I’m tired of just talking about how we want to be diverse and include others. We need to do SOMETHING, and we need to do something NOW.”

That statement is reflective of a plea that exists not just in our church, but also across the nation. The recent tragedy of the largest mass shooting in the United States has people demanding some action be taken now. If you’re connected to social media, just check your news feed or the top trending hashtag. People are tired of yet more tragic news. They are frustrated by the inaction of our institutions and leaders. And, they are voicing it – loudly.

So what do we do? Should we listen to political and social voices that have chimed in, and loudly, and to an extent, certain religious leaders have also done so? Should we act out of their calls for action?  I’m not so sure. If we think of our response as followers of Christ, I think our only response is this:

“I see you.”

I talked a lot this past weekend about the need to see and engage “diversity in context.” More often than not, we are great at seeing what looks, sounds, and lives like us. We retreat into the comfort of sameness when events happen that are such a departure from the routine of our lives. However, when that happens we – intentionally or unintentionally – put up blinders that prevent us from seeing those who are different from us. Those who differ in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socio-economic status and class, religious beliefs, gender, and age become invisible to us. We twist tragedy into something more palatable, rather than the gruesome truth it bears. When victims of marginalization and violence become invisible to us, we further marginalize and exclude them.

To see another is to acknowledge not just their existence, but also their very humanity. When we see people, we also see the reality of their lives, including the tragedy, injustice, and violence that exist in it. When we really see people in this way, I believe our hearts are so moved that we see Christ in them, and empathy becomes our response. In our empathy (not pity or sympathy, there is a difference) we begin to ask questions like,

“What does healing, justice, or reconciliation look like for you?”
“What do you want to happen?”
“What does this feel like for you?”

Saying “I see you” moves us from marginalizing the invisible to sharing their humanity, giving them a voice, and ultimately liberating them. Saying “I see you” is doing the work Christ calls his church – calls each of us – into. Whether we’re talking about the victims of the Orlando Shooting, the victim of rapist Brock Turner, or the diversity in our context, “seeing” is doing as Christ has done for us. If we make our default response mirror our political and social leaders, if we constantly keep responding with “this is what I think needs to happen” or make about some issue disconnected from the people and event, then we make this all about us, and not about those who have been marginalized. And even worse, it marginalizes and makes them even more invisible to us.

Jesus said, “I see you” to so many in his ministry: blind beggars, tax collectors in trees, and women at wells, to name a few. We know how that turned out! In being church and Christ-followers in the world, then let us continue this ministry that sees the unseen and refuses to push them further into the obscurity created by self-interest, agenda, and ideology. Let us say, “I see you” to those invisible in the world knowing that Jesus has seen us in our own baptisms, and continues to see us today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sermon Pentecost Sunday 2016: “Gifts & the One Thing”

Text: Acts 2:1-4 & 1 Corinthians 12:1-13

I consider Pentecost to be part of the “Big 3” of the church liturgical year along with Christmas Eve and Easter worship.  So the Pentecost story in Acts 2 is a big deal, and a pretty extraordinary story: violent rushing wind, tongues of fire, people speaking in foreign languages yet able to understand each other.  Perhaps our imaginations often form this image of a massive gathering of people experiencing all this – the first megachurch was born! Only thing is, that’s not how the story goes.  If you read a bit earlier in chapter one, it’s just the 12 disciples, Jesus’ inner circle, who were present.  Jesus has just ascended to heaven, leaving the disciples a bit lost and wondering what was next.  This is the setting for event in Acts 2 we just read.  My point is this: the Pentecost story, where the Holy Spirit bestowed gifts on Jesus’ closest followers, happened in a house, as scripture tells us.  It wasn’t the birth of the megachurch, but rather the first Pentecost occurred in a small church.

I can resonate with that notion, because Pentecost moments where God changed and empowered me happened in small churches.  It’s places like small Balsamlund Lutheran Church in Aldrich, Minnesota, population 41, worshipping about 25 folks.  I grew up in that churh and learned a few things, like playing games of red light, green light on the church basement stairs, going through Sunday School with my sister and one other kid as my grandma, our teacher, simply opened up he bible, read from it and we talked about it. I watchedold men tell stories and talk about the weather and farming, and played organ through my high school years.

It was tiny little Christ United Methodist Church in Groton, Connecticut, worshipping about 35 folks a Sunday, where I spent three months at Submarine Officer Basic Course.  In my time there, I played guitar for children’s ministry, discovered my love for discussing theology with the pastor in the parking lot after worship, and learned the church could be a home away from home that I could escape from the demands of memorizing countless information about submarine systems and tactics.

It was little Redeemer Lutheran Church in North Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I began to discover I had a gift and passion to minister to the lost, to those who are shut out and excluded from the church because of realities such as race, social and economic class, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, and gender.  My heart changed in such a way where I knew just exactly how important this good news that Jesus came to seek the lost, to suffer with them, and raise them up to new life so that they might know they are not alone and that their lives are a gift.  It was at Redeemer I began to discover what it meant to be a pastor in this church.

And then there’s you.  St. Andrew and Holy Communion Lutheran Churches in Portsmouth, Virginia.  And it is here where I was allowed to learn and grow as a pastor in this church.  And even more than that, I’ve learned that church is about struggling, challenging, wrestling….and embracing, laughing, caring, and loving…..and staying fully engaged in the present, trusting that God has our future because God promised that in Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross.  It is in these two tiny little churches that I discovered in a very Pentecost way that the Gospel, the news that God send God’s son Jesus to die on a cross and be raised three days later so that we might be free from sin and death and fear actually matters. It’s not a bunch of bible stories nor is it a bunch theological ideas. The gospel matters in our life today.

In all these little churches, it was through the gifts of others – through YOUR gifts –  that God changed me. Being church is about God giving gifts and God putting those gifts to work so that others may experience Pentecost in their lives.  Now, sometimes those gifts are hard to see in ourselves, whether it’s because of our humility or we just don’t know….so sometimes it takes others to see the gifts in us.

I have a little gift for you this morning: something not so much to remember me by, but something to remind you….remind you of the gifts that exist in you, gifts I have seen at work, and gifts through which God changes lives. And it is these gifts – your gifts – working together as one body that [place the cross at the center] make CHURCH, THE CHURCH. And note there’s plenty of white space on the board to add new names and new gifts as you see them.  This display is yours to keep, a reminder, and an answer to this: What is church, and what does it mean to be church? This board is my final answer.  YOU are my final answer.

I know our time seems short….only 2 years and 7 1/2 months to be exact.  It has been quite a rollercoaster, hasn’t it?  We’ve packed a lot of life into that time, I think….wrestling and struggling with things that I don’t think other churches typically have the courage to do.  I’m proud we’ve done that together.  And then there’s all those questions….I’ve probably asked too many questions, and maybe there’s a small part of you that’ll be happy knowing I’m taking my questions with me….but my questions have sparked your own questions. We’ve asked those questions of each other and I think because of that, we both grew in faith.  Yet, as our journeys continue on separate paths, there are other questions left to answer, ones that come with uncertainty or fear of the future, and perhaps ones where you also wonder just how God might use your gifts as church, or doubt God has use for them at all.

But there is one thing we don’t have question or doubt.  And to explain that a bit further, I’d like to sing one last song for you.  You can follow along with the lyrics on the insert in your bulletin.

[One Thing, by Paul Colman]

YOU are church.  It is the gifts God has given YOU that make you church and being church is about the ways that God puts those gifts to work .  If you ever doubt that, let this board be a reminder of that.  But when even that’s not enough, and those questions and doubts linger, never doubt or question what’s at the center.  It is this One Thing that matters, it is at the center. It is our hope and it is a reminder that you are not alone, that your lives are a gift, that God loves YOU. And so do I.  Amen.

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Sermon 8 May 2016: “Jesus rose from the dead: A confession.”

Text: 1 Corinthaians 15:1-26; 51-58

“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son our Lord.  He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.  On the third day he rose again….”  On the third day he rose again.  Jesus rose from the dead.

These words might sound familiar to you: it is our confession of faith, the words of the Apostle’s Creed. We say them every Sunday, and we’ll say them again later in worship today. But I wonder, what difference does this confession that Jesus rose from the dead make?  Why is it so important that Paul insisted on the Corinthians’ faith was in vain if they didn’t believe it?  What makes the news that Jesus rose from the dead so powerful and life-changing for our lives today…..what makes it gospel?

I wonder if the notion of Jesus actually coming back to life after lying for 2 days in a tomb isn’t a bit ridiculous for us today.  This isn’t some story of resuscitation in the news where someone was clinically dead on the operating table and then miraculously comes to.  Jesus suffered and died.  His body was beaten and broken, and they stuck a spear in his side and all his blood and fluid came out, and it lay there wasting away for two days.  Jesus was dead.  And then he came back to life.   Jesus overcame and was victorious over suffering and death.  God is certainly powerful enough to resurrect Jesus, and certainly is powerful enough to resurrect us too one day.

Yet, I think we still remain skeptical.  We spend so much time in this life avoiding the reality of death.  We exercise, eat right, avoid putting certain chemicals into our body or breathing them, and take medicine and undergo procedures that will in theory keep us alive as long as possible.  Or, we try to cram as much “stuff” as we can into this life – you only get one life, is how the saying goes.  Yet, death and suffering still exist in our lives. It’s impossible to avoid and we’ll all face it someday.  I think whether consciously or subconsciously, we know that.  Death and suffering is a part of this life.  We see it in the news, and it comes near us as well.  That is true for me; this past week, for example.

One of my wrestlers, a great kid, and who’s looking forward to his senior season, learned his parents are separating and divorcing, and he’ll have to face that.

Countless friends and people I care about face illness and disease that bring with it the reality that they face death – their own mortality.

A friend of mine celebrates this Mother’s Day mourning her stillborn child of a couple month ago.

There are sons and daughters who mourn because they have no mother to celebrate and honor today.

And there are congregations facing uncertain futures in unfavorable circumstances.

It makes you wonder…..is there any hope found in trusting in the news of Jesus rising from the dead?  Is there any power in the notion that a man, who was God, rose from the dead?  What kind of victory did Jesus win for us exactly?

Eric Greitens, a former Navy SEAL, spent a portion of his life doing humanitarian work around the world after he left the Navy.  His travels took him to India, where he worked in one of Mother Theresa’s homes.  Now you probably know that Mother Theresa served the poor in India, but did you know that the beginning of her ministry, and a good part of it that still exists today, was running a home to help the poor die?  Greitens served in one of these homes, where the nuns who worked there would help the poorest of the poor die with dignity.  Patients were seriously physically ill, some severely mentally ill, and all coming from the streets and sewers of India.  The nuns cared for these people, tending to their illnesses, washing them, and feeding them, but also living with them – laughing, singing, doing chores in the home together, and praying together – as these poor faced their death, and eventually, dying with dignity. Greitens came across one little boy who could barely walk.  He had come in from the streets, crippled at birth and so malnourished he contracted an incurable disease. But every day he would greet Greitens by saying “namaste.” Fascinated with Greitens, he would follow him around the home, brightly exclaiming “namaste” over and over.  Saying “namaste” is a greeting in Hindu, much like our hello, but it translates to“The Spirit in me sees the Spirit in you.”  It is saying, “I see the divine in you.”

To see the divine in another, perhaps, is to see Jesus in another.  And to minister and care for others in the face of death so that they may die with dignity – it is a mystery, but perhaps that is the victory that’s won.  Jesus rose from the dead so that we might know that the divine exists in this life – God takes on human flesh.  God is with us in this life.  God is with us in death.  And Jesus overcame death so that we might know that death is not the defining end of human life, but rather, just another step in it.  Our lives are much bigger in the eyes of God, and the promise is we will one day be raised from the dead along with our loved ones and all people just as Jesus has been raised.  Death is not an end, and in this life we simply face it – with God, with each other – caring for each other, and living with each other.  Mother Theresa understood this in her lifetime….she had faith in the power that one day, God will raise us all just as God has done with Jesus.  A mystery indeed, but a victory won.  The victory is that we have been liberated from the clutches of death; we have been liberated from the fear and pain that death causes.  We have been liberated from death, so that we may life NOW.

So let us confess today and every day that Christ has risen from the dead.  Yet in saying these words, let us also confess the power in them: “Oh death, where is thy victory?  Oh death, where is thy sting?”  Amen.

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Bi-Vocational Pastor: Your Fundamental Belief in People

I’ve been coaching the sport of wrestling for over 12 years now.  I’ve always enjoyed working with athletes, teaching them the sport, about life lessons, and helping them achieve their goals.  It is truly satisfying work, but I noticed something disturbing in myself about 9 years ago – I found myself spending increasingly more time focusing on our best and most talented wrestlers, and less time focusing on less gifted ones.  In fact, I found myself seeking ways to avoid those less gifted kids, even though the level of commitment and desire to get better was the same from both groups.

It is natural for us to spend time with those who seem more responsive to our coaching and leadership efforts.  If we’re honest, we do so because we derive a sense of satisfaction, a measure of success and reward for ourselves.  I don’t see this tendency to be the problem.  What I do see as the problem is that if we dig a little deeper into the why, it raises this question:

What do you fundamentally think about people?

What I found for myself 9 years ago is that deep down, I simply thought less of my less talented wrestlers.  They weren’t worth my time and energy because there was a lower probability that they would achieve what I had defined as success.  As I dug deeper into my fundamental beliefs and attitudes about people, I discovered I viewed my talented wrestlers through a similar lens.  They were worth my time because they were a commodity that would ensure my success and self-worth as a coach.

I recently listened to a podcast by a popular non-denominational pastor who began to talk about the lifestyle choices of the people near the church they were discussing.  He described them as a “challenging context.” He and his partner could not comprehend why these people wouldn’t want to have families, why they seemed more interested in their dogs and drinking coffee, and “secular things.”  In fact, they even went as far to suggest they felt threatened, that their “perfectly normal” life of having a wife and 4 kids was looked upon with scorn by these people.  Yet clearly in their minds, that is the life that God desires for all of us!  These people “need God” and it validated their attractional ministry to in the premise their lives were somehow “lacking.” 

 I also sat in a church-related meeting where one person, encouraging the rest of the group to reach out to families in the community, suggested that this was desirable because “each of those families….that’s $1,000 right there.” Enough said right there. 

Now if you were one of the people these folks were referring to, and were a fly on the wall for those conversations, would you want to be part of their community of faith?

What you fundamentally think about people will affect how you interact with them.  And those fundamental beliefs will show through to people, regardless how “nice,” “welcoming,” and “well-intentioned” you try to be.

Our tendency towards sameness when it comes to who we surround ourselves with blinds us to this fact.  It deceives us into believing there is something wrong with the other, and creates an “us versus them” mentality.  Even worse, we think “they” don’t notice. The truth is, people are smarter than you and I think.  People are always watching and evaluating, and they are especially evaluating leaders.  I know 9 years ago my wrestlers were watching, just like they continue to do so today.  The same is true in my role as pastor and Navy chaplain.  You don’t have to like every person, and you don’t have to treat each person the same.  You do, however, have to hold a universal belief about the worth and value of human life.  What that is for you, I’ll leave that up to you to decide for yourselves.   I do know, however,  your integrity and effectiveness as a leader depends on your answer.

 

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