At the Casket of a Newborn: A Lenten Reflection

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Yesterday for the second time in my life I stood over a casket that was only a couple feet long.  I had to be there.  The word “had” is such a modest word, designed to be over used and yet I use it here reluctantly and carefully.  I did indeed “have” to stand there.  Nothing external compelled me, only the internal bonds of friendship forged over years of shared experiences with the father of the infant who lay in the casket.  My friendship with Camden was so deep and so suddenly profound that I told many, “I couldn’t NOT be there.”  I had to come.

We arrived to the funeral forty five minutes early and walked into the sanctuary, which happens to be “ground zero” for my spirituality.  It is the sanctuary where I worshiped weekly for nine years during my youth.  It was the sanctuary where my friends and I played ridiculous night games.  It was the sanctuary where I spent hours in prayer and the sanctuary where I was ordained.  That sanctuary holds some profound mysteries.

It’s the season of Lent and so the sanctuary also held the colors and slogans of this time of the liturgical year.  The purple hue was everywhere.  A giant wooden cross, much longer than the casket, hovered over us on the platform.  Decorated cloths held pictures of crowns of thorns and nails with the words of Isaiah woven into them.  “He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities.”

And there right in the middle of it all, was the infant laying in a casket.  And here, right in the middle of my own Lenten journey, was the infant laying in a casket.

Ten short, but tortuously long days earlier her heart had stopped beating during delivery, sending the family and friends into a downward spiral of grief.  I personally read the news in a grocery store parking lot, where I sat in my car for a good ten minutes crying before mustering the strength to go into the store.

Ten days later here I was, standing in Lent, staring at a two foot long casket unable to keep myself even remotely composed.  I wanted to turn around, wipe the tears from my eyes, tell a joke or two and flee back to sunny Utah where I could bury myself back in the drudgery of daily ministry.

Yet as I said at the top of the post, I “had” to be there.  I had to stand there and look at it and cry because this casket is a profound piece of the Easter story that we tell and commemorate every year, even every Sunday.

As I sat there looking at it through tear blurred eyes, I could not escape from the fact that there is something desperately wrong with the world in which we live.  It is as if the casket was calling out, “Houston, we have a problem.  Heaven, we have a problem!”  And as I contemplated the mystery of the infant’s casket, I realized the problem it proclaims goes much deeper than human behavior.

In fact, this Lent I have been thinking a lot about the Galilean Pharisees of Jesus’ time, these people whose job it was to fix people’s behavior.  In the Gospel of Mark we see them partnered with the politicians, known as the Herodians.  They were strange bedfellows for sure, but they had one great thing in common, other than their mistrust of Jesus.  Both of them sought to build religious and political systems and structures to mitigate personal behavior in the hopes of fixing what is wrong with the world.

Then I thought about Jesus who wept at his friend Lazarus’ tomb.  Lazarus didn’t die because of human behavior.  He died because, in the words of the Apostle Paul, “the world has been subjected to futility.”

All of us, from every dot on the spectrum from sinner to saint, carry that futility with us in our bodies and every once in awhile that futility makes itself plainly evident, as it did for my friends on the delivery bed two weeks ago and as it did for my sister five years ago when my niece died of SIDS.  The Pharisees would have chalked the casket up to “secret sin.”  But we know the truth.  This infant did not die because of sin.  This baby died because of a world subjected to futility.

How ridiculously powerless we are in the face of that futility.  In fact, how absurdly powerless all of our pastors, all of our politicians, all of our churches and businesses and universities and clubs and committees and manuals and TV shows and pharmaceutical pills and self help books and rules and laws and systems and structures and so much more are when faced with the casket of an infant!

This Lent, at the casket of an infant, only the almighty God, maker of Heaven and Earth and Jesus Christ his son, savior of Heaven and Earth can break the chains of futility and unleash the tide of Resurrection.

Come oh Easter.

Come oh Christ.

Come oh God.

This world desperately needs you and only you.

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Photo courtesy of my friend Robin Wheeler.

Ash Wednesday Reflection 2017

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Hey everybody.  Sorry this is a day late but I was unable to post this yesterday because the day got shorter than expected when I spent two hours running and then 1 hour trying and failing to make ashes for our Ash Wednesday service (more on that in the next few days).

But the following is a very cleaned up version of what I tried to share during the homily portion of our Ash Wednesday service last night.  I hope you enjoy it even if it is a day late!


 

The first time I observed Lent, it had nothing to do with Easter.  It was September of my Junior year of high school.  My youth pastor had awakened in me a desire to pursue a holy life and I wanted to work on becoming a better person.  So on August 31st I hatched a plan that for the 30 days of September I would give up television, movies, video games and secular music (which meant the Oldies station).  I would read at least three chapters of Scripture a day, compliment five people and do one act of service.  And I would keep a journal of it all for accountability’s sake.

So for the entire month of September, that is what I did.  I kept a yellow notebook journal with lists of every good deed, every compliment, every Scripture passage along with some written thoughts.  It was in my hands at all times.  People would ask about it but I would not tell them what it was because it was my secret.  Also, I knew even then the whole thing was pretty nerdy.  But the project itself went well.  I didn’t miss one compliment, performed 30 small acts of service and didn’t relapse to the television or the oldies station.

It was only a few months later, in late January, that I found out about Lent, the forty day period for fasting, discipline and prayer.  Since the yellow notebook project had worked so well I decided to do it again for the forty (actually forty six) days of Lent.  This time I used a red notebook and once again I didn’t miss a day, even the Sundays which are supposed to be “feast days.”

I repeated it again the next September and the next Lent after that.  I planned on doing it forever until the crazy, hectic schedule of college life put an end to it.  I have still celebrated Lent every year, just in less intricate ways.

As I have been thinking about that first September with that yellow journal, I have also been reading, “The Patient Ferment of the Early Church” by Alan Kreider which everyone really must read.  Kreider devotes a large section to the early church’s catechesis processes whereby everyday Roman pagans became tried and true and baptized Christians.  Kreider reminded me of what I have always known, that Lent was not originally conceived for the mature Christians.  Lent was more a part of the evangelism process than it was the discipleship process, though it certainly said a lot about discipleship.  Today Lent is something the mature, Super Christians do but originally it was designed for brand new, not yet baptized Christians who wanted to know more and be more like Jesus.  The forty days were intended to help these new, curious Christians figure out what Christianity was all about before they committed their lives to it by baptism.  In short, this forty day period of discipline, fasting and prayer was the means by which they were apprenticed into Christianity.

Over time each new Christian was expected to have a mature mentor and eventually those mentors began fasting during Lent as a way of journeying alongside and bearing with the new Christians.  Over time even those who were not mentoring new Christians began fasting during Lent as well so that they too could be with the new believers.

I don’t want you to miss the very profound point that all illustrates.  Even though Lent was not intended for them, the mature Christians commemorated it every year, not as a sign of their Christian maturity, but as a sign that they were willing to be weak to help the weak.  Once a year they wanted to pretend to be brand new Christians again.  They wanted to arrive at Resurrection Morning as if they were experiencing God’s grace for the very first time.  They were willing to “start over” as it were on their faith journey and become as children again, taking forty days to remember their sins and experience their weaknesses so that on Easter morning they could share more fully in the baptism of the new believers.

This is relevant for us because I have noticed that a funny thing happens as we mature in the faith.  As we get further and further away from our own baptism we begin to forget about grace.  The further we get from our “come to Jesus” moments, the more we forget the true nature of grace and the true meaning of our baptism.  Put another way, as we mature we become self righteous and proud, forgetting that we too were once wretched. Therefore, the ashes tonight are not signs of how mature our Christianity is, but signs that we want to remember our beginning, return to our roots and be humbled by our weaknesses again so that grace can grab hold of us anew on Easter morning.

For me, this means that when I receive the ashes tonight I am once again a junior in high school with all the awkwardness that comes with.  I am sitting again in my room on a hot August night, facing my own weaknesses, ashamed of own my sin and humbled by my own inadequacies.  Once more I am 17 years old and feeling the weight of holiness’ call and not quite sure what to do about it.  So I fast a few unhelpful practices, vow to commit a few helpful ones and take up a yellow journal, all so that I can work out my own salvation because, after all, it is God who is at work in me to will and to act according to God’s wonderful purposes.  And, as I did so many years ago, I again trust only God to deliver me to a grace filled Easter morning.

Yet One More Reason Why Preaching (And Coaching) Are a Fools’ Errand

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A few years ago I was coaching Cross Country.  We were doing one of those workouts that required my athletes to work hard the entire workout.  To those of you not trained in distance running, most workouts require runner’s to start slow and build up.  But this wasn’t one of them.  I wanted them to work hard the whole time.  And they knew it.

Yet they were dogging it.  We were doing repeats and their times were not anywhere near what they were supposed to be.

Then the last repeat came and, because they knew it was the last one, finally ran faster than I had even wanted them too.  They crossed the line with these big grins on their faces as if they had done something special by running so fast for 1 repeat.

I was irate.  They knew they were supposed to be running that hard the whole workout and yet they lounged around and waited for the last one to suddenly run.  YET THEY WERE PROUD OF THEMSELVES?!?!?!

So I let them have it.  To this day I am not sure if I should have or not but that doesn’t change the fact I did.

I preached one of my best, most passionate sermons.  I explained to them that they had set great goals for the year.  I clarified over and over that I believed in their goals.  I emphasized that I wanted nothing more than to see them succeed.  Then I let them know that lazy workouts would destroy all of that.  There was no reason to dog the repeats until the last one other than apathy and apathy has no place in sports!  I came close to repeating the Apostle Paul in Corinthians, “And you are proud?!  Should you not be ashamed?!”

They rolled their eyes at me and then half jogged, half walked a cool down back to the school.

All but one of them.  My hardest worker, a young, energetic and goofy kid aptly named “Timmy” ran next to me the whole way back.

“I am sorry, coach!” he said over and over.  “I didn’t mean to slack off.  I really try so hard to do what you say.  I hope you are not too mad and I promise that I will do better next time.”

His sincerity was both admirable and humorous.  Timmy’s workout had been incredible that day.  He had nothing to be sorry about.  I was proud of him almost always and super proud of him that day.  He had worked hard while the upperclassmen slacked off and that is not easy to do.

Don’t miss the irony:  My lecture had gone completely ignored except by the one person who hadn’t even needed to hear it.

That is an irony I face almost every Sunday.  After a few songs, an offering and some announcements, I get up for 20 to 30 minutes and, borrowing from Moses in Deuteronomy 30:19 “Set before them life and death, blessings and curses.”  Then I urge my small congregation to,  “Now choose life!  That you may live.”

Then the people who have all ready chosen life long ago and have walked a better holiness than I yet have, tell me, “You know Pastor, you are right.  I need to do better.”

And those who I am the most unsure about, whose lives spew forth the darkness, roll their eyes and say, “Yeah, whatever,” and look back down at their phones.

And I am not complaining about this.  I have learned that these types of ironies keep me incredibly humble.  Here I am setting the table of life and death as carefully as I know how.  Then I present it to the people and no matter how hard I try, those all ready alive look at it and feel guilty.  Then the dead look at it and feel nothing, shrugging their shoulders.

But I’m just the waiter, discharging the duty ascribed to me by the master chef.  If I was the chef I might be a bit more offended but I am not.  I am just the humble servant who, to be honest, hopes more Sundays than not my sermon will be completely forgotten by Tuesday.  I would rather they forget my paltry words and live a life worthy of the gospel than the other way around.

So I have set the table.  I have scattered the word and that is what God requires and what God will reward.

I think Jesus even told a parable about this.  A farmer went out to sow his seeds.  .  .

Golden Globes, Football, Fiscal Years and Epiphany: A Tale of Liturgical Seasons

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My church kicked off the season of epiphany in style this morning with a fun Epiphany introductory video I made with some kids.  Then we sang the traditional We Three Kings, followed by a bunch of fun upbeat songs about “light.”   Then we read the lectionary Psalm (#29) together and talked about what it means to be in Jesus’ fan club.

But I have to be honest and admit that now Christmas is over, Epiphany is one of the last things on my mind.  Instead, this first month of a New Year is weighed down by seasons of another sort.

My news feeds are saturated with stories of the Golden Globes, reminding me that for the entertainment industry this is Awards Season, a time filled with what we might call liturgies of human glory and honor.  In fact, if I was a bit more of an arrogant Hebrew Prophet I would call the awards shows worship services to the idols of vanity.

So too my social media feeds remind me that the NFL is providing another season, or rather a post season.  This week we watched the first of the teams falter in their quest for dominance, a liturgy itself of human strength and cunning.  And we watch and wait to see which team will rise to the top.  150 million will watch the last match, which is a bit more than the number of people who voted for a US President just months ago.  The angry Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those games worship services, worship to the idols of violence and competition.

Then there is this other thing weighing on my heart and, mostly, mind.  My church ends its fiscal year on February 28th this year.  With the close of a fiscal year comes a mountain high list of responsibilities.  We have numbers to crunch, vision to share, a new board to elect and goals to set, all of which will be accomplished with no less than 1 dozen business meetings.  We might call these a liturgy of institution.  The arrogant, angry and overwhelmed Hebrew prophet in me is tempted to call those meetings worship services themselves, worship to the idol of human control and manipulation.

Yet today was not just the first Sunday of Epiphany.  It was also the Baptism of our Lord.  The Gospel text for today was Matthew 3, that famous story where Jesus begins his ministry by entering into the waters of the Jordan River.  John the Baptist didn’t know quite what to do with Jesus in the water and I don’t either.  Baptism is for sinners.  Jesus had not sinned.  The waters are for the spiritually dead.  Jesus was more spiritually alive than anybody has ever been.  The sacrament is for humans.  Jesus is the Son of God.  Yet here is Jesus, wading into the waters of death, sin and chaos and beginning his ministry right where we are at.

In a way the Baptism of Jesus reenacts the incarnation.  This might be why Mark and John leave out the manger, in favor of the water.  In the baptism waters Jesus is taking on flesh again, taking on the unique position of being a human after Adam, a human represented by all humanity’s shortcomings.  This is a God entering into sin and death as one of us.  Like the manger, this is Immanuel, a God with us, a God among us, a God meeting us in our human liturgies of award shows, violent competition and financial reporting.  Here is God in the flesh, come to redeem us from the life taking, death dealing liturgies of the world and light up the better way which is the only way, the liturgy of the cross and the resurrection.

So my hope this Epiphany season is that God will enter into our awards shows, our sporting matches and our business meetings and bring new Epiphany so that our feet can stay on the path of life!

What’s a Sunday Pastor To Do After Election Tuesday

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I am exhausted.

Last Saturday my nose clogged up due to allergies or some minor head cold.  The next day I preached a sermon, then jumped in my car and drove 320 miles at high speeds to make it to a district meeting by 5pm.  I made the mistake of drinking caffeine at that meeting which combined with the clogged nose to give me a very sleepless night.  I spent all day Monday and Tuesday in meetings and then.  .  .

Well, let’s just say I didn’t sleep Tuesday night either.

I drove home Wednesday and have done my best to get through this very interesting week without losing my mind.  Judging by national headlines and my Twitter and Facebook feeds I have been more successful at staying sane than many Americans.  But I have been on the verge of going crazy all week long.

In fact, as I sit here listening to my worship team practice this morning and running through my Sunday morning checklist, I find I am compiling a list of “I have never’s” in my head.

I have never wanted to drink or drug myself silly so much in my entire life.

I have never wanted to listen to the demons of “anger, rage, malice and slander” in my entire life.  After all, everybody else is doing it!

I have never wanted to take off for the hills and live a technology free, social media free, people free, Amish, Monastic type lifestyle in my entire life.

I have never wanted to run for political office so much in my entire life.

I have never felt more compelled by my call to be a missionary in the United States in my entire life.

I have never been so confused about what that call looks like in my entire life.

I have never felt so completely unsure of myself and yet so completely sure of God in my entire life.

The More You Read, The Less You Know

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A bit under a year ago I made the big, hairy, audacious goal (BHAG’s as they are called) to read 100 books over the 2016 calendar year.  It was a hard goal to commit to and has been a harder goal to pursue.  Right now on August 22nd, I freely admit that I will never do this again.  On January 1st I will gladly drop back to my usual pattern of reading one book a week.

The books I have conquered have not all been easy 100 page self helpers with one point chapters.  Over the last month I completed Martin Luther’s 350 page “Bondage of the Will” and read three systematic theologies all running over 300 pages.  In addition, I have kept to my usual pattern of reading 2 or 3 news articles a day, every issue of TIME magazine and a few religious periodicals as they become available.

Since it is August 22nd, I should also freely admit I am not sure why I am doing this.  Initially it had something to do with the fact that I did second grade twice.  Since then I have always felt like I was a year behind my fellow colleagues.  This is the year I catch up!

The reasons for the BHAG go deeper than that.  Every older pastor I respect has impressed upon me that pastors must read and that they must read a variety of books from a variety of fields and perspectives.  On the same note, I know several pastors who don’t read, or only read very selectively, and almost to a person their ministries, especially their sermons, are theological disasters.  Some of them pastor large churches but they are peddling cheap forms of consumer religiosity, not the deep truths of God’s Word.  I don’t want to be them, even if it means being a small church pastor for the rest of my life.

With that said, the more I read the more I distrust reading.  In fact, over the last several months I have come across several quotes by historical figures who themselves read very widely and deeply.  Yet at the end of their lives they recommend Christians just read the Bible.

A.W. Tozer, who wrote 40 books himself and was known for reading several more, is one of the more blunt ones.  In sermons he preached towards the end of his career that are now published as “Life in the Spirit” and “How to be Filled With the Spirit”, he recommended his congregation not read too many books other than the Bible.  He argued that we could trust his judgment in this because he had read so many books himself.

I am quickly agreeing with Tozer.  It is quite possible that in the very near future I will tell my congregation, “my job is to read books so that you don’t have to.  And trust me, that is a great act of love and sacrifice on my part!”

What Tozer may have known is that the more you read, the less you know.  It has all ready been commonly said that the goal of an education is not intelligence or rote memorization of data or even acquisition of a skill, but humility.  One of the jokes told to us in college was that if we graduated thinking we knew something, my alma mater would have failed me and I would deserve a $100,000 refund.  Sadly, I know some of my classmates who deserve the refund.  But the more you study, read, memorize and practice, the more you realize you don’t know anything.

There is a vast universe of information out there of which the smartest of us have only grasped an iota.  The more I read the more I discover things I was flat out wrong about, or had not even the slightest idea existed.  The more I read, the more I know that I know not.  Everything I thought was true proved wrong by another turn of a page.

Also the more I read, the more I realize the authors don’t know what they are talking about either.  They are almost as limited as I in their grasp of reality.  Take Martin Luther’s “Bondage of the Will” where he quotes Romans at length.  Over the last century new archaeological findings from the 1st century Roman empire, including several written documents, have proved most of Luther’s exegesis of Paul misleading.  On top of that, the holocaust awakened scholars to the long neglected awareness of 1st century Jewish thought and literature.  Post holocaust we understand Paul was much more Jewish than Gentile and our Gentile readings of his letters are incredibly inaccurate.  Poor Martin Luther didn’t know that.  He was a victim of his time and place and of the information he had available to him at the time.  Because of that he also advocated for the Holocaust centuries before his followers would actually carry it out.  One Lutheran historian noted that you can’t blame him for his antisemitism.  He was merely acting out of the common sentiment of his time.

Aren’t we all?  I too am a victim of my own time and place and so are all of the many authors whose books I have been devouring these last months and years.  Don’t even get me started about present day “journalists” who seem to be more victim to their context, which in this case is internet clicks, than anybody has ever been!

Realizing this to be true, what could I possibly say from the pulpit on Sunday?  We might be wrong about everything?  There is a futility to existence that I know not how to answer?  Don’t ever read anything by anybody because they are probably wrong?  Martin Luther was a heretic?  John Wesley probably was too?  But don’t worry, you and I are definitely worse than either which is why we keep their stuff around and insist that at least our pastors study them!

All of that may be good, especially for our time and place where people are growing increasingly arrogant about what they assume to be true.  However the second half of Tozer’s advice rings truer.  The Scriptures are far more profound than anything I have yet discovered.  The Scriptures ring truer, reveal more and inspire us to virtue more than any other document yet produced.  I have spent my 32 years on this planet studying them, memorizing them, learning their languages and I have yet to discover their depth. And I am sure that I will spend the next 40 to 50 years of my life continuing to pore over them only to continue to discover new territories of God’s wisdom and grace.

For this reason, the more I read the more I find myself quoting books from the pulpit, but not to say, “See here, this author has something to teach us.”  But to say, “See here, this author maybe should have read Scripture more closely.  See here, this author might have been wrong because Scripture teaches something else.”  Or on a more positive note, “See here, I didn’t read Scripture well enough and this author pointed out to me something I had missed in the text.”  “See here, our God is greater and more loving than even Luther or Wesley or Tozer or Lewis or Chrysostom or even our modern day authors have yet discovered!”  They help us dig a bit deeper but Scripture reveals to us that there are much greater and deeper ravines of God’s great love yet to explore!

After all, Scripture teaches us over and over that it is not about what you know, but it is about who you know, that all loving but all encompassing, great three in one, one in three personality we label God and the Hebrews called YHWH!

See here, I read many books so that I can continue to encourage you to spend your life reading the one Book and getting to know the one God!

As I Prepare to Preach on Pentecost Sunday

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The wind is blowing a gentle breeze outside.  As I type these words I can hear its swooshing sound and see the trees outside my office sway.  Three Sundays ago the wind was blowing at 50 miles per hour and I was at home sick while my associate preached.  At that point I was a little bit sad Pentecost wasn’t then because God’s Spirit is breathe and God’s breathe is 50 miles per hour and more mighty.

As in answer to prayer the wind is still blowing today, albeit with much less force.

The wind blew my hair as I unlocked the doors of the church this morning.  I was reminded that the church is the content of the breath of God.  The Spirit is the breath but as the Spirit breathes, we are what it pulls in and then sends out.

In the same way that when I take a breath I am pulling in some weird mixture of Nitrogen, O2 and CO2 (among other things) and then breathing out a similar mixture, but with more CO2 than O2, the Spirit breathes in this weird mixture of holy and sinful people and then breathes those people out, but with more holiness than sin.

As I stepped in the door I turned to look at the two giant trees that grace our front lawn.  I was reminded that they also breathe in and breathe out only their breath is the reverse.  They give us more oxygen and through it more life.  We give them more carbon and through it more life.  They do our part.  We do ours.

I have always appreciated the trees for that very reason.  Without them, we have no life.

What I have not always appreciated is that my breath is just as valuable to them as they are to me.  Without my breath they die.  Without my gift they wither.

Today, on Pentecost Sunday, we remember that glorious day when God’s breathe blew over all creation.

In spiritual (Spirit-ual) worship we are breathed into God.  In benediction we are breathed back out to all creation.  We are breathed in sinful and breathed out holy.  However, we are not breathed out for our own benefit or own pleasure.  Holiness is not for the benefit of the saints, in the same way that my CO2 does nothing for me.  Holiness is for the benefit of the creation, for all creatures of our God and Kingdom.

Pentecost happens so that the saints may heal the hurting.

So that the saints can fix the broken.

So that the saints can love the unloved and unloveable.

So that the saints can reconcile the enemies.

So that the saints can comfort the afflicted (and yes, afflict the comfortable)

So that the saints can adore the ugly and entertain the lowly.

Pentecost happens so that a Holy people can redeem the world.

Happy Pentecost Everybody!