The Musings of a “Seeker-Disciple”
Over the years pastors and preachers have used the monthly newsletters or weekly bulletins to communicate with their parishioners. In this digital age of webpages and personal blogs we find a new way to communicate the Good News. These are articles that have been written with my congregation of Messiah Church in mind. Messiah Church is such a wonderful community of faith – giving, reaching out, tolerant of other beliefs, selfless – these I believe are the qualities of a disciple of Jesus. Thanks for visiting my blog. My wish for you is the one that Jesus wished for all people – that you may find peace.
God is Always – Here
Nearly 35 years ago I had a spiritual director at the American College in Belgium by the name of Father George Hill. George was a Massachusetts “kid” who grew up on the East Coast and spent his final years at Manhattan College as chaplain of students. Sadly, he died much too young a few years ago at the age of 67.
In my last year of seminary Fr. George gave me a book to read, The Desert in the City by Carlo Corretto. I still have it on my shelf. Mr. Corretto’s contention is that we all need to go to the desert to pray. Jesus went to the desert often and as disciples of Jesus we too must at times retreat to the desert to find God. Coretto believes we do not need to go to the literal desert, but to the desert that is all around us every day. He believes that the desert can be found even in the confusion and noise of the world around us. He contends, If peace and quiet were a pre-requisite of prayer, the poor would never be able to pray. I agree with Mr. Coretto. I have travelled to Third World countries and often their sense of faith, the vibrancy of their worship, the joy they exemplify puts our First World to shame. They have deep vibrant communities of prayer and yet their world is hardly silent! There must then be a way of praying, a place of spirituality in the everyday, fast paced world we live in.
Corretto maintains that we have to be able to pray in the life that we are given now, where ever that life is. He says if God is truly God, then we have the chance to experience God 24 hours out of 24 hours – for God is all around us. Coretto goes on to say: It is not by fleeing that you will find God more easily, but it is by changing your heart that you will see things differently. The desert in the city is only possible on these terms: that you see things with a new eye, touch them with a new spirit, love them with a new heart.
Just a few days before Christmas only a few months ago, I found myself at the Walmart on the Eastside of Madison waiting for my daughter and some of her friends to finish their Christmas shopping. I stood near the layaway area and closed my eyes. I concentrated and listened to the sounds around me. I heard the beeping of scanners, cash register drawers opening and closing, the squeaking of wheels on shopping carts, the cries of infants, scolding parents, background sound of music playing through store stereo speakers, jingling of keys, crunching of plastic bags, the conversation of dozens of people – a wonderful cacophony of sound! I began to wonder if this isn’t the desert in the city that Carlo Corretto was referring to. Is this not the change of heart that he was calling for? Maybe I just need to see the world with new eyes and to hear the call of God with new ears. Can we not find God wherever we are if we still our hearts and look – and listen?
At this time in the church year we have moved from preparations for Christmas to preparations for Easter – oh how the year flies by! The Season of Lent is that time to retreat once again to the desert in the city. It seems to me that Lent is that moment when we are called to enter more deeply into the world around us and not flee from it. The desert, where God is found is all around us especially in the crosses. Perhaps you will find yourself frustrated by the craziness of family life, with too much to do and so little time for yourself. Pause amidst the craziness, close your eyes and listen. Remind yourself that right here in cross of life is God. This is our hope and our faith. Perhaps you will be in a doctor’s office for yet one more appointment, one more treatment, one more blood draw or chemo treatment or session of physical therapy. Pause amidst the seemingly endless wait of medical treatment, close your eyes and listen. Remind yourself that right here in cross of life is God. This is our hope and our faith. Perhaps you will find yourself frustrated at work, or overwhelmed by stress, or like me waiting at the checkout in Walmart. Pause amidst the craziness, close your eyes and listen. Remind yourself that right here in cross of life is God. This is our hope and our faith.
The challenge of Lent is to enter more deeply the world around us, and the crosses that are a part of each of our lives. We are challenged to listen and look for God. We are called to live the desert in the city. God is here. God is always here. God will always be – here.
The Indwelling God – Feb. 2018
In the past couple of weeks I have shared thoughts from two of my theological heroes. On Christmas Eve I shared a story by Jim Wallis, a Christian writer and political activist. And then on the second Sunday after Epiphany I told of my encounter with Henri Nouwen, the great Dutch theologian, writer, and teacher. There is a third spiritual writer that challenges me every time I read his work, a Franciscan Friar named Richard Robert. Fr. Rohr lives in the legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi. This is one of my favorite stories and reflections from his writings.
Where Is God?
“When I was on retreat at Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani Abbey in 1985, I had a chance encounter that has stayed with me all these years. I was walking down a little trail when I recognized a recluse, what you might call a hermit’s hermit, coming toward me. Not wanting to intrude on his deep silence, I bowed my head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as we neared each other, he said, Richard! That surprised me. He was supposed to be silent. How did he know who I was? Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. Tell the people one thing. Pointing to the sky, he said, God is not ‘out there’! Then he said, God bless you, and abruptly continued down the path.
The belief that God is out there is the basic dualism that is tearing us all apart. Our view of God as separate and distant has harmed our relationships with sexuality, food, possessions, money, animals, nature, politics, and our own incarnate selves. This loss explains why we live such distraught and divided lives. Jesus came to put it all together for us and in us. He was saying, in effect – To be human is good! The material and the physical can be trusted and enjoyed. This physical world is the hiding place of God and the revelation place of God!
Far too much of religion has been about defining where God is and where God isn’t, picking and choosing who and what has God’s image and who and what doesn’t. In reality, it’s not up to us. We have no choice in the matter. All are beloved. Everyone – Catholic and Protestant, Christian and Muslim, black and white, gay and straight, able-bodied and disabled, male and female, Republican and Democrat – all are children of God. We are all members of the Body of Christ, made in God’s image, indwelled by the Holy Spirit, whether or not we are aware of this gift. Can you see the image of Christ in the least of your brothers and sisters? This is Jesus’ only description of the final judgment (Matthew 25). But some say – They smell. They’re a nuisance. They’re on welfare. They are a drain on our tax money. Can we see Christ in all people, even the so-called nobodies who can’t or won’t play our game of success? When we can see the image of God where we don’t want to see the image of God, then we see with eyes not our own. Jesus says we have to love and recognize the divine image even in our enemies. Either we see the divine image in all created things, or we don’t see it at all.
Once we see God’s image in one place, the circle keeps widening. It doesn’t stop with human beings and enemies and the least of our brothers and sisters. It moves to frogs and pansies and weeds. Everything becomes enchanting with true sight. We cannot not live in the presence of God! We are totally surrounded and infused by God. All we can do is allow, trust, and finally rest in it, which is indeed why we are saved by faith – faith that this could be true.”
I love this reflection by Fr. Richard Rohr. As I wrote, he lives in the legacy of St. Francis of Assisi. It was after all St. Francis who proclaimed The Canticle of the Creatures. He sang that the wind was his brother and the moon his sister. Francis believed that the birds and the fish and every creature of the earth were part of his family. He insisted that every breath he took was infused with the breath of the Divine One. This is Franciscan spirituality. For the next 40 days perhaps this should be our spirituality as well.
It seems every Lent I challenge myself to practice the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. This year I want to use these disciplines to remind myself of Fr. Rohr’s reflection. When I pray I will remember that I sit already in the presence of God – God indwells – in me, in others, in every creature of the earth. Prayer is about recognizing the Divine in and around me.
When I fast, when my body yearns for food, I will remember that in every morsel of food and sustenance, God is. Every time I gather to dine with family or friends, there is the presence of Jesus. In the smell of coffee and the taste of bacon, in every vegetable, in every bite – within my body, especially in my physical body, God is!
And finally in those moments when I give alms (gifts to the poor) I will remember Matthew 25, the God who comes to us on the margins of the world. I will recall that every gift is a gift to God, and every person is my brother or sister, and we are one family of God. The disciplines of Lent should be reminders of Richard Rohr’s reflection, and the example of St. Francis of Assisi – God is all around us.
A New Start – January 2018
Many years ago I received a gift in the mail from the Bishop of South Central Synod of Wisconsin, a book of poetry that was sent to all our synod pastors. It is a wonderful reflection on ministry by a Lutheran pastor named Gary Puckett entitled On Living in the Township of Heaven. Well written, often touching, sometimes profound, Gary writes about the ‘holy’ moments of life, the kingdom of God that can be found within the ordinary. As we begin this new year – that is our journey as well.
Put new calendars on the walls
Misdate the checks that pay the bills
Resolve to be more resolute
It’s a new year
It’s a fresh start
Farm out the kids
Shake out the rugs
Take out the trash
It’s a clean house
It’s a fresh start
Dig out the sidewalk
Fill up the birdfeeder
Watch for fresh tracks in the yard
It’s a new snow
It’s a fresh start
Shed an old grudge
Make a new friend
Do something everyone knows you won’t
It’s a new life
It’s a fresh start.
I think Gary touches eloquently on the holiness of the New Year and its connection to the reign of God, or rather, the township of heaven. It’s all about new beginnings. The ministry of Jesus was primarily a ministry of newness, of granting newness and new starts to people broken by their pasts. People followed Jesus because in him they discovered a God who forgave sins, and absolved weaknesses, and offered those who followed a new life and a fresh start. Those who followed Jesus discovered that in the township of heaven every moment of every day, every step and every breath was a chance to begin again, to turn away from sin and to start over. And it was in this newness that they found their joy!
Every January as we celebrate the New Year, there is an echo of the reign of God. And if we listen well we will discover that echo in all of the ordinary moments that make up our lives. If we listen well that echo will be found in even the most broken, destructive and difficult times of this new year. If we listen well we will discover that we are living in the township of heaven – that God is walking with us and beside us, always encouraging us to forgive ourselves and others; to turn away from sin and believe in the Good News; to stand up and walk; to live a new life; to make a fresh start. This is truly Good News! For all of us here at Messiah and for all Christians, every day carries the promise of New Year’s Day. Remember this when you become overwhelmed by the darkness of the world. Remember this when you are disappointed by your life, your children, your spouse or your situation. Remember this when death is at your doorstep and darkness threatens to overwhelm you. Remember this – In the township of heaven God is always inviting us to start again!
Behold I make all things new.
A Sacred Space – December 2017
Joseph Campbell is perhaps the greatest scholar of religion and mythology in the 20th century. This work has inspired generations of scholars to look more deeply at the truths of religious ideas. He once said: A sacred space is where you discover yourself over and over and over again. This past August I traveled to Leuven, Belgium where I had first come into contact with the work of Joseph Campbell. It was fun being back in my old stomping grounds – meeting old friends, making new ones, traveling to the places and spaces that were once sacred to me so long ago.
On the first night of the religious conference we gathered in the chapel of the American College. As soon as I walked into the space a thousand memories flooded back to me. I remembered the first time that I ever preached – it was in this very chapel. I was so frightened, nervous and scattered and I remember the presiding priest telling me as we walked out – get out of your own way Jeff and allow God to use you. And the words just came!
I remembered receiving the ministry of reader on the 125th anniversary of the college and having the honor of meeting the King and Queen of Belgium. I remembered the nights that I practiced music in the chapel preparing for the Sunday Eucharist. I would stand in a semi-darkened church and play and sing as my voice reverberated through the empty space. I recalled the daily Morning Prayer, the community gatherings for communion, and Sunday evenings at night when we would gather in candlelight to begin a new week of study and learning and sing our Evensong. This chapel held so many memories for me – it was truly a sacred space.
I took my place in the congregation on this opening weekend worship and the space resounded with the marvelous sound of 60 people singing All Are Welcome, one of my favorite hymns. On April 14, 2000 Melissa and I chose this hymn as we walked into St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Neenah to begin our life together as husband-and-wife. At that moment more memories flooded back to me. Making a home with Melissa, the birth of our first son Benjamin, moving to Madison and accepting the call to Messiah Lutheran Church, the birth of Joey and the adoption of Rachel, the growth of this church the laughter, the singing, the joy of Sunday mornings and so much more! The American College Chapel that it been a sacred space for me so long ago became a sacred space for me again – it was reminding me of who I was – not only priest and pastor but more husband and father and friend! A sacred space is where you discover yourself over and over and over again. I found myself again!
In just a few short weeks it will be Christmas Eve and our sanctuary will be packed for sure. It is every year. And every year I hear a few pejorative comments about those folks who only come on Christmas and Easter. Those comments never come from me – I love that folks come back to this church. This is their sacred space! I think people come back here to remember that community is our deepest need as human beings. I think others come back here to remember that in the chaos of their lives, amidst all the changes, there are some eternal truths that never change, that God is love and those who live in love, live in God. (1Jn.4:16) Others come here and need to be reminded of their youth and Christmases long ago, and still others because they feel close to those who have died, and others to remember that they aren’t dead yet and God will still be God to them. And nearly everyone comes on Christmas Eve to hope again for peace on earth and goodwill toward all.
In the end I love the Christmas Eve liturgies, and the packed church, and the brilliant carols – and I will never complain about the crowds even if some come only once or twice a year. All of us need to return to our sacred spaces wherever they are and be reminded of who we are – children of God. Messiah Church is a sacred space, a holy place and we believe a dwelling place of God. A sacred space is where you discover yourself over and over and over again. Merry Christmas my Messiah Family!
Doing Small Things – Oct 2017
Professional speaker Jim Cathcart often shares a certain story about how our lives impact those around us. One day, during a layover at the Atlanta International Airport, Jim found time for a snack in the food court. All the tables were filled and several passengers, himself included, stood in any available space to eat.
Then Jim noticed a busboy working his way through the crowd. His shoulders were curled forward and he kept his head down. He moved through the crowd from table to table barely making eye contact with anyone as he cleared away the dirty dishes. Well the sight of this overworked and anxious young man filled Jim with an overwhelming sadness. For someone this young to be so burdened by the weight of work didn’t seem right. He knew that there was something he could do or say to reach out to this young person.
When Jim finished his food and disposed of the trash, he approached the busboy. “What you are doing here sure is important,” he said. “Huh?” the busboy replied. “If you weren’t doing what you are doing, it wouldn’t be five minutes before there was trash everywhere, and people would stop coming here,” Jim said. “What you are doing is important, and I just wanted to say thanks for doing it.”
The busboy began to smile. His posture became more erect and he began to make eye contact with those around him. A few choice words had served as a reminder that he was worth much more than he realized.
I think that this is a wonderful story to recall as we come to the end of September. We begin yet another new year of Confirmation and Sunday school, pre-school and adult scripture study, committee meetings and social gatherings – it will be an autumn filled with busy church activities. As exciting as autumn is, it also brings with it a certain “frantic-ness.” So often people become dismayed by the passing of the summer months and wonder where all the time has gone. They get discouraged by the amount of activities and so often feel like that busboy in the story. They end up walking through their days with shoulders curled forward, barely making eye contact with the world around them. Yet right here in the “frantic-ness” is our chance to share the Good News. Like Jesus who was always able to remind people of their infinite worth, so we too can become bearers of healing. It doesn’t take a great effort to pass on a compliment, share a smile, or take a moment to chat. It doesn’t take a tremendous effort to remember someone’s name, remember someone’s birthday, or introduce yourself to a stranger. It doesn’t take a heroic effort to lend a helping hand, to exercise patience, or offer to listen. These are the moments of Good News that we can share with each other in this season of autumn.
I think it was Mother Teresa who once said: “Holiness does not consist in doing great things; but in doing little things with great love.” If we pay attention to the little things, the small kindnesses, the brief exchanges everyday we can make a difference in the lives of so many people. Watch! They will stand up straighter. They will begin walking with heads held high. Their eyes will be brighter. A few choice words will serve as a reminder that they are worth much more than they realized!
Enjoy these last days of Summer my friends. Peace. Pastor Jeff
What Will People Remember? September -2017
I like those words. I’ve seen them attributed to Maya Angelou, H. Jackson Brown and others – still, whoever first said them, they ring true. We honor and love and remember those people who made us feel honored, and loved, and remembered. It is certainly true in my life.
I remember attending a funeral a number of years ago for an old priest well into his nineties. His name was Fr. Lambert Scanlan. He had retired when he was 70 years old and had good health for more than twenty years. He was known around the Diocese of Green Bay as the Ambassador to Pastors – he spent nearly all his time driving around to different churches of all denominations and just dropping in to talk to the pastor. I remember the day he showed up at my office. He came unannounced and waited patiently outside until I had a chance to see him. He sat down with no great agenda other than to meet me and ask me if I was happy. After 30 minutes of conversation he gave me a hug and told me that I was doing great work for the Lord and promised to pray for my happiness. That was how he spent 20 years of his life, moving from pastor to pastor, waiting for their time, talking and praying for them.
So here I was at his funeral, and the church was packed. There were pastors from so many churches and denominations in attendance and many of his fellow priests as well. When it came time for the eulogy what amazed me was the fact that no one spoke of his nearly 55 years of service to the church. No one commented on the two churches that he helped to build, or the school that he brought to life, or the thousands of marriages, baptisms and funerals over which he presided – NO – what people talked about were the final 20 years of his life when he was too old to work. Over and over again people spoke about those gentle visits where he lingered over easy conversation and inquired about their happiness. They remembered his waiting, his words and his hugs.
As I sat in the pew listening to the eulogies, it suddenly occurred to me that what we value most in life is not productivity but presence; not talent but time; not genius but gentleness. This Ambassador to Pastors had done, in his retirement years, his best ministry. He was a man of presence and time and gentleness. Everyone remembered how he made them feel.
I think that Lambert Scanlan understood the ministry of Jesus. As I read the stories of Jesus I think this is what attracted people to the Lord. Jesus never seemed to be in a hurry. He took time to speak with lepers calling to him from the side of the road. He took time to call Zacchaeus down from the tree to speak with him and eat at his house. He took time to chat with fisherman, and meet with tax collectors and listen to the pleas of Samaritan women. This is the predominant theme in the ministry of Jesus – he had time for people. And because he made them feel honored, and loved, and remembered, they in turn honored him, his followers loved him and to this day the church remembers him!
As we enter this month of September with all the flurry of work and school, I’m trying to remember the lesson of Fr. Lambert Scanlan. I want to be productive to be sure, but I wish even more to be really present to the people who come into my life and to my wife and children who share my life. I want to use my talents wisely to be the best pastor that I can be, but I wish even more to be a person who offers time to others. And certainly I want to be a good administrator who others see as competent and intelligent, but in the end I want even more to be known as a man of gentleness and kindness. In the final analysis what we value the most are presence, time and gentleness. I know that Fr. Scanlan would agree and I’m sure if he were still around he would give me a hug and ask me if I was happy. He’d be pleased to know – I am.
A Story and a Moral – August 2017
There is an old fable that goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a group of frogs that were traveling through the woods when two of them fell into a deep pit. When they discovered how deep the pit was, the frogs at the top yelled down and told their two stranded mates that they were as good as dead. The pit is deep and you are so very small. We’ll pray that you will have a peaceful death for you have no chance to make it out. Goodbye dear friends. The two frogs ignored the comments and tried to jump up out of the pit with all their might. The other frogs kept telling them to stop, that they were as good as dead anyway. Finally, one of the frogs took heed of what all the others were saying and gave up. He fell down and died.
Now the other frog continued to jump as hard as he could. Once again the crowd of frogs at the top yelled at him to stop the agony and the pain, to give up and just die. Still, the little frog jumped even harder and finally, amazingly, on what what an unbelievable jump, he made it out. When he got out, the other frogs said: Did you not hear us? The frog wasn’t sure what they were asking and explained to them that he was deaf. While they were telling him to give up he thought they were encouraging him the entire time. Do you know the moral of the story? There is power of life and death in words!
Old fables sometimes carry a great deal of wisdom, and there is certainly gospel wisdom in this one. The ancient Hebrews believed that words had the power to create and destroy. The word that the Hebrews used was Dabar – a force that was dynamic, filled with energy and power. Dabar – the Word – is used hundreds of times in the scriptures. In the book of Genesis the Hebrew people had God creating through the power of Dabar. It was Dabar that came to Abraham and Sarah in the desert, Dabar imprinted on the tablets of the Ten Commandments, and Dabar that comes to all the prophets of the Old Testament. The Old Testament scriptures constantly point to the power of Dabar – the Word. God’s word is burning and irrepressible fire (Jer. 20:7-9), like a sword (Is 49:2) or a hammer (Jer 23:29); it is able to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to ruin, to build and to plant (Jer 1:9-10). It makes sense then, that in the early Church the first Christians pointed to Jesus of Nazareth and saw in him Dabar – he was the Word! Throughout all of scripture God’s words have power. And if God’s words have power – so do ours.
I am so often reminded in my own life of how a word of encouragement or affirmation can transform a day that is dreary and difficult into a moment of beauty. I am also aware of how a word of criticism can cast shadows on even the most glorious day. Words can destroy us, or words can lift us up. Every day we exercise more power than we know. So many people come into our lives each day and how we use our words can make a tremendous difference in their lives. Do we choose words of kindness and peace? Do we try to affirm others whenever we have the chance? Do we challenge our children, friends and family with words of gentleness and a sense of encouragement? Like Dabar in the Old Testament, each of us exercises a dynamic power in the words we choose to use. Use words that build up. Use words that help others. Use words that give life. Remember – your words have power!
The Very Last Time? – July 2017
Only yesterday, I ran across an article by a father of three grown daughters. His name is Anthony Mullinax from Greenville, South Carolina. He was writing about the passing of time and how we so often take life for granted. He writes:
There are so many daily joys for the parent of a young child; for example, pushing their swing; trotting them on your knee; playing ‘horsey,’ etc. Then one day it dawns on you that you aren’t doing those things anymore – they’ve outgrown it. You realize that somewhere back there was the very last time.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have savored the last occurrence of each of those childhood games a little more. I would have lingered a little longer at the swing. I would have trotted my knee a little longer that last time. When we played horsey and that inevitable, gleeful plea came, ‘One more time, Daddy, one more time,’ I would have crawled across that floor on my hands and knees until only sheer exhaustion made me drop.
Now certainly as a father of adolescent children I was touched by the writing of this dad from South Carolina – I wish I savored more intentionally the little moments with my children – when they were still very little. My children have outgrown pushing them on a swing, and trotting them on my knee, and playing ‘horsey.’ And I share this man’s insights with you this month because in a certain sense his wisdom applies to all of life, and my life now as I struggle with the ‘teenage-rearing years.’ How often we take moments of life for granted. How easy it is to move through our days and treat all the little things of life with a mundane casualness. How often we forget the miracle of life itself. Yet if we knew that that this moment, right here and right now, were the last time that we would hold the one we love, or laugh with our best friend, or revel in the beauty of a sunset, or smell the fragrance of a flower – I mean if we knew that this were the last time – Oh how we would cherish this moment!
I think Jesus in the gospels is always trying to remind his followers of the preciousness of every moment. Whenever he spoke about the reign of God being within them, or told them to live like the lilies of the field, or shared with them the abundance of miraculous food, Jesus was teaching them about the miracle that is life. He was always trying to show them that this moment, and this breath and this time together was free gift and should never be taken for granted. Isn’t that what he meant when he said, ‘the reign of God is upon you?’
And perhaps this is why the season of summer comes to us each year as a gospel moment of grace, a time to remember that the reign of God is indeed upon us. Perhaps the lazy days of summer remind us to slow us down and to savor each moment as if it were the very last time. We know of course that the days of warmth and sunshine, the days of vacation and recreation can not last forever – but neither does this life. Enjoy these days of summer. But even more, cherish the people you love right now; believe in the miracle of your every breath right now; watch the sunset, smell the flowers, listen to the sounds of the world around you right now – as if it were the very last time.
Peace! – June 2017
I think that one of the best newspaper cartoons of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. Recently I saw one that made a deep impression on me. One day Calvin and Hobbes come marching into the living room early one morning. Calvin’s mother is seated there in her favorite chair. She is sipping her morning coffee. She looks up at young Calvin. She is amused and amazed at how he is dressed. Calvin’s head is encased in a large space helmet. A cape is draped around his neck, across his shoulders, down his back and is dragging on the floor. One hand is holding a flashlight and the other a baseball bat.
What’s up today? asks his mom. Nothing, so far, answers Calvin. So far? she questions. Well, you never know, Calvin says, Something could happen today. Then Calvin marches off, And if anything does, by golly, I’m going to be ready for it! Calvin’s mom looks out at the reading audience and she says, I need a suit like that!
That’s the way many of us feel as we read and watch the news and deal with life’s ambiguity. Sometimes this world seems quite violent and people seem to be at each other’s throats. A suit like that would help, so we can say with Calvin, Whatever may come my way, I’m going to be ready for it! Bring it on!
Well, I don’t have a suit like Calvin’s though I wish I did. I wish I had a suit of armor that could protect my children from harm, and my world from the darkness that so often surrounds us. I wish I had a suit of armor that could protect my friends and family and congregation from pain and problems, disease and death. Of course I don’t. Still I do have a word! It is the word in the Season of Pentecost – the word that Jesus shared so often in the Upper Room, a word that John’s Gospel uses so many times, a word that is used in the bible over 400 times! Peace is the word I share with you. Jesus in the Upper Room just before Pentecost says: Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.
There is a defining phrase in that statement. One that tells us what kind of peace it is that Christ gives us. The defining phrase is: Not as the world gives. Do you see how that defines God’s peace? The world promises peace through the rule of law. Law and order is the only way for a society and a people to experience peace, and law and order must be kept by the aggressive use of force and threats of punishment. That’s the only way that the world can bring about peace.
God however, offers peace in a different way. Jesus tells his disciples that if they obey his command of love, if they open their hearts to tenderness and mercy, and if they trust in the promise that they are loved and treasured beyond measure, then the Spirit of God will come to them and make a home within them. The home of God will be in their hearts. Do you see the difference in Jesus’ promise of peace? The peace of Christ will come not by force but by choice. This is the difference. The world’s peace is peace through strength. Christ’s peace is peace by surrendering to God.
Those first disciples on Pentecost surrendered to God. Their lives were filled with darkness and disease. They faced trials and tumult. They lost their friends and their families and even their lives but still they had peace! They had peace because they followed the command of love. Their hearts were filled with peace because they lived with tenderness and mercy. They faced death with great peace because they knew that God loved and treasured them and would never abandon them. They chose to surrender to God – and they found peace. And we can find peace too.
When we cannot fix what is hurting our child, or stop our loved one from dying, or cure our disease – we can surrender everything to God and love those near to us. When we cannot fix our world, or heal our climate, or bridge the racial divide – we can surrender the future to God and act with mercy and tenderness now. When we cannot bring order to the chaos of our lives, or the chaos of our relationships, or the chaos of work and family – we can surrender to God and trust that we are loved and treasured more than we can ever know. We can find peace. It is a choice we can make every day – to surrender our lives to the One who created us. Let go, let God, and find peace.
Let’s Pretend – May 2017
Pretend that every person you meet has a great sign hanging around his or her neck that says: ‘Please make me feel important.’ If you respond to that message you’ll be successful in sales and more than, that you’ll be successful in life.
I used this quotation just a few weeks ago when I talked about my father-in-law. I spoke at his celebration of life, the Vigil before his burial. As I mentioned to the assembly that gathered to celebrate his life that evening, I admired so many things about my father-in-law – his love of his family, his curiosity about the things of life, his affection for friends, and his fidelity as a husband. Still I first met Dick Nelson, Melissa’s father, in the early 1991 at the Newman Center in Oshkosh. He and Elaine had come to visit their daughter in college and I admired him immediately as a good salesman. I always admire people involved in sales.
It’s odd thinking that a pastor would admire people in sales isn’t it? And yet in a certain sense “I” am in sales. I don’t do it for money of course, or to build a business, but I do sell an idea, a vision one might say, of the kingdom of God. I try to remind people that this vision will meet their deepest needs. I speak of the love of God it comes to them in Jesus Christ, and more, proclaim the kingdom to which they belong. I sell that vision every time I preach. And so I spoke of my admiration for this salesman I’ve come to cherish and love. You see my father-in-law always made me feel important. He made everyone feel important and that’s what made him successful in sales and successful in life.
There is a story about a young boy of five years old who went to dinner with his family. As the waitress went around the table taking orders the young boy called out: I want honey mustard! His mother spoke over the top of him and said firmly: What he wants is three chicken strips and a few French fries and small lemonade. The boy said again: I want honey mustard! The mother again spoke over him: Oh and please make sure that the chicken strips are cooked completely through and not too many French fries. But I want honey mustard! Said the little boy. The mother again spoke: Now that’s enough honey and the waitress moved onto the next person. When the dinner came, the plates were presented to the patrons and the little boy received his chicken strips, his French fries, a small lemonade and a small cup of honey mustard with a miniature umbrella sticking out – the type used in specialty drinks. The waitress winked at him and began to walk away. Suddenly the little boy jumped out of his chair and ran to her, hugging her tightly. When he came back to the table his mother asked why he had hugged the waitress. His response was joyful. She thinks I’m somebody!
Now there is someone successful in sales and successful in life! I like to think that Jesus was the world’s greatest salesman. Wherever he traveled he seemed to make people feel important. He would walk up to simple fisherman and tell them: Come and follow me and I will make you fishers of men and women (Mt.4:19). He made them believe that they had a purpose in life bigger and broader than they could ever imagine. He would see a leper at the side of the road and he would proclaim: Stand up your faith has made you well (Lk.17:19) He made those thrown to the margins believe they too had a place at the table, in the Kingdom of God there were no disposable people. He would say to a tax collector: Zacchaeus come down from the tree for tonight I eat at your house (Lk.19:15. Jesus made people feel important. He reminded them of the vision of the kingdom of God where everyone has a place at the table.
That is the mission we all are called to in the season of Easter. Perhaps when we leave the church each Sunday we should pretend that every person carries around their neck this huge sign that says please, please make me feel important. How desperately every person needs to know that he or she is cherished by God, and they have a purpose that is bigger and broader than anything they can ever imagine. Every person you meet needs to be reminded they have a place at God’s great banquet table.
Make people feel important. Why? Because they are important – to God. Live this way, and like my father-in-law, you will be successful in life. You will be spreading God’s life.
To Bring Beauty From Ashes – April 2017
There probably isn’t a young person in our congregation who hasn’t read J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter Series. The books have become the best-selling series of all time and have sold over 400 million copies. The films based on the books have grossed nearly 8 billion dollars! By every measure J.K. Rowling has been a stunning success. Still, at one point in her life she considered herself a failure. In 2008 Rowling gave the commencement address to Harvard University where she spoke of that feeling.
She told the story of being in her late twenties and struggling to make ends meet with a small child. She had already failed at her marriage; she had no job steady enough to pay the bills and Rowling and her daughter were nearly homeless. She was frightened, alone and almost without hope. She recalled that story and then said this: The fact that you are graduating from Harvard suggests that you are not very well acquainted with failure. Believe me when I tell you though, I was the biggest failure I knew.
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more to me than any qualification I ever earned.
I admire J.K. Rowling’s understanding of failure and I share her story and words with you this month because in the season of Lent the scriptures urge us to embrace our failures and to rise from the ashes. That is our theme in this Lenten season – to bring beauty from ashes. In this month of April we encounter a number of great scriptural characters who hit rock bottom, who are stripped away of the inessentials, who cease pretending that they are anything other than what they are. The Samaritan woman at the well, the man born blind, Lazarus in the tomb with Martha and Mary weeping outside – these are the characters we encounter just before celebrating the new life of Easter. Each of these people is similar to Ms. Rowling. Only when they hit rock bottom, only when they released their fears, only when they found a firm foundation in God’s great love for them – only then were they free to rise in beauty, to soar and be resurrected!
If this is their story, this is our story as well. So often in my ministry I’ve listened to folks tell me their stories of failure. There is the alcoholic who lost everything – his family, his friends and nearly his life until finally at rock bottom he discovered the God who would never let him go. There was the woman in prison who stole from her company and in the end stole years from her own life but at rock bottom discovered the God who would always give to her freely without cost and without merit. There are the folks who lost their jobs, and others who lost their marriages, and so very many struggling with mental illness who almost lost their minds – all of them were at rock bottom until God found them. Each of these people were stripped of all that was inessential and stopped pretending that they were anything other than what they really were – maybe imperfect, maybe failures, maybe at rock bottom – but loved and freed by God. This is the resurrection. This is the story of Easter. This is the beauty that arises from ashes!
Whatever you are facing in your life, whatever darkness surrounds you, whatever the failure or ashes – remember the promise of the cross – God will one day raise you up in beauty. This is the promise for us and for the world. Happy Easter my friends!
“The”Question – March 2017
One of the finest spiritual writers in the last fifty years was a man named Anthony de Mello. Like Jesus’ own use of parables, de Mello often turned to stories to explain the religious issues of our time. In a little book called One Minute Wisdom he shares this story:
One day the Master asked his disciples, What, in your opinion, is the most important of all religious questions?
He received many answers Does God exist? Who is God? What is the path to God? Is there life after death?
No, said the Master. The most important question is: Who am I?
Who am I? How can this be such a great religious question when for me anyway, the answers are pretty simple? Who am I? I am a husband and father. I am a pastor and preacher. I am a musician, a singer, and storyteller. I am an extrovert who enjoys people and loves to laugh. I am deeply emotional and can get angry quickly. I enjoy sports and theater, going out to dinner with Melissa and spending time with Ben, Joey and Rachel. This is who I am – not a very difficult question right?
Still, de Mello’s parable is getting at something much deeper than the hats I wear, or the jobs I do, or the hobbies that I enjoy. The most important religious question is Who am I at the deepest core of my being? Who am I apart from my relationships and work – apart from my talents and titles? Who am I when I stand stripped of everything that I use to define myself? Who am I?
Each year as a church we celebrate the Season of Lent to get us back to this question. The scriptures that make up the Lenten services are readings about people who discovere who they are. We read each year about the people of Israel wandering in the desert, King David standing accused of murder before Nathan the prophet, Jeremiah and Isaiah calling out for repentance and justice, the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the man born blind, Lazarus, and so many others – these are the characters of our Lenten journey and all of them share a great secret. The secret is simply this – they are completely, absolutely and utterly dependent upon God! The characters of Lent understand who they are. They know that they are imperfect and broken. They realize that they have made terrible mistakes. They understand that their lives are not what they should be. They have come to realize that their one hope is God and God alone, and thus they are completely, absolutely and utterly dependent upon God.
So every year at this time we are asked to fast and pray and give alms (something for the poor) not because these things are good in and of themselves – NO! We do these things to remind us of who we are. When we fast from food we remember that all food is a gift from God, and that every bite we eat and breath we take is sheer grace and gift. When we pray we remember that we are not worlds onto ourselves but that we are creatures standing before the Creator. When we give to the poor we remember that all of our possessions and all of our wealth are given to us that we might give to others. Everything we do in the Lenten Season reminds us of our dependence upon God and God alone. This Lent my morning prayer every day will begin with this question: Who am I? In my fasting, in my praying, and in my giving, perhaps I will realize what the great characters of scripture realized – that I am imperfect and broken, yet loved more than I could ever imagine and given a future greater than I could have ever hoped for. Who am I? I am, as you are, completely, absolutely and utterly dependent upon God!
LETTING GO! February 2017
A couple of times this winter Rachel and I have gone over to Tenney Park to make use of their wonderful ice rink and warming house. What a beautiful city in which we live! The last time we were there, Rachel and two of her friends were hitting a hockey puck around when a young boy came up to talk to them. In no time at all four of them were playing a pick up game of practice hockey. Each girl would take a turn shooting at the net with the young man serving as goalie. After Rachel’s friends had left the young boy continued to hang with Rachel, talking and giggling.
Knowing that young girls do not want their fathers hanging too closely by when speaking with boys, I gave her a bit of distance. Still, being a father of boys I kept a close eye on them. Sometime later, after the young man had left I skated over to Rachel and asked her about the young man. He’s a good looking kid, I said. Yes he is, replied Rachel. He is from Chicago Dad and his name is Michael. He’s in town for a hockey tournament and he was showing me how to play hockey. He said I should come to his game. He has nice hair and beautiful eyes. He’s not my type though. I was shocked! I shot back, You have a type? Here was an epiphany moment – a moment when I realized my little Rachel was growing up. Soon there will be other boys, and more stories, and lots of types! My heart ached for a moment knowing there will come a day when I will have to let her go. I suppose that is what parenting is all about – teaching, trusting, and then letting go.
So much of life is about letting go. In Jack Kornfield’s Buddha’s Little Instruction Book he says – In the end there are only three things that matter: how much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you learned to let go.
I think this is what Jesus was talking about when he proclaimed that wonderful line from the Gospel of John, Unless a grain of wheat falls upon the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. Jesus knew that as human beings we cling to so much. We cling to our angers our hurts and our old wounds. We cling to our failed relationships, and dead end jobs. We cling to people and we cling to things and only when we learn to let go, only when we learn to die to ourselves, only then do we ever discover true freedom and real life!
And so I am making a resolution. I realize that it’s a strange time to make a New Years resolution with one month of 2017 already behind me, but until that moment on the rink just a week ago I didn’t have a clear resolution to make. Now I do. I want to let go. This year I want to look at some of the stuff in my life, possessions and things, and let go. I want to travel a bit lighter and free myself from so much clutter that fills my living spaces. I want to buy less and enjoy what I have more. I want to let go.
I want to take stock of some of the unresolved angers and wounds that I carry within my heart and forgive myself for carrying them – and more – forgive those who have been the source of those angers and wounds. Life is too short for grudges. I also want to move away from my first instinct of judging others and the constant need to share my opinions. In doing this I’ll be more attentive to listening and trying to understand first. I need to give up a sense of self-importance and ego. I want to let go.
Most of all, I want to remember this year that my children do not belong to me and Melissa is a gift from God. I choose to remember that this parish too is not mine, nor this ministry, nor this moment – everything belongs to God alone. I am going to try to be a bit less controlling as a parent, husband, friend and pastor. I want to let go.
Perhaps if I work on letting go now, someday (hopefully a long time from now), I’ll be able to let go of Rachel with grace on her wedding day, and trust that whatever type she has chosen, she will be loved and cared for. I have to stop clinging. We have to stop clinging. Only when we learn to let go, only when we learn to die to ourselves, only then do we ever discover true freedom and real life!
No One is Beyond Redemption – January 2017
I read a religious blog every week that often challenges my ideas on faith. It is called Unfundamentalist Christians. A few weeks ago, just before Christmas, a young theology student named Zach Christensen published a wonderful post on a Christmas gospel that we rarely ever read in church. It was originally posted on December 6th and as we begin a new year I thought I would share this post with you.
This past Sunday, many people began celebrating Advent, the season in which the majority of Western Christian churches commemorate the birth of Jesus. As we progress toward Christmas, there will be a many sermons preached about shepherds, wise men, innkeepers who are total jerks, and unplanned visits from angels. However, there is one passage from the birth narrative of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew that I think truly captures the meaning of Christmas.
In Matthew 1:1-17, there is a genealogy of the family tree that led up to Jesus. If you have ever read the Bible, you usually skip this part (at least at face value, it is about as interesting as reading a phone book). Why would the author lead with something like this? But there is something included in these verses that is not often noticed.
Over the course of the genealogy, the writer deliberately includes the names of four women. In a patriarchal world that considered women to be second-class citizens or property, this was an extraordinarily radical thing to do (if you read all of the other genealogies in the Bible or from any literature from the time, none of them include women). More importantly, the women included are not what anyone would ever expect.
In verse 3, the writer lists Tamar. In the book of Genesis, Tamar was widowed, disguised herself as a harlot, was taken by her father-in-law (Judah, who did not realize it), and bore a child named Perez. By the standards of their day, this was considered incest, and is a terrible Sunday school lesson. The next woman listed, in verse 5, is Rahab from the book of Joshua, who was a prostitute, and bore a son named Boaz. The third woman listed is Ruth (who has a book of the Bible named after her); she seduces Boaz, they marry, and have a child. The fourth woman listed (though not by name) is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, with whom King David had an adulterous affair, which resulted in the birth of King Solomon. This is the lineage that eventually led to Jesus.
The author decided to open his whole collection of stories about Jesus by saying that he descended from the incest of Tamar, the prostitution of Rahab, the seduction of Ruth, and the adultery of Bathsheba. Why would anyone ever open a book this way? The reason is this: all of the moral failures of the people who preceded Jesus did not stop God from achieving his purpose. Indeed, they all ended up being important points in the story.
The early followers of Jesus realized that God can bring something holy out of any human shortcoming, inadequacy, or evil. If God was not hindered by these people, surely God has not bailed on you because of your mistakes. The grace of God revealed in Jesus reaches farther than our deepest vices, and it sets us free to extend grace to one another. When we see the way that God has loved us by emptying himself, we are empowered love others in this same way.
The message of Jesus is that no one is outside the love of God, that no one is beyond redemption, and that this God did not give up on the world, but chose to enter into the turbulent human experience as Jesus in order to reconcile the world to himself. That is what Christmas is all about, and that is Good News.
This is Good News for a New Year isn’t it? No one is beyond redemption! This year in those moments when I fear for the future of our world, when I worry about our country or the state of our politics, when I worry about my children and those I love – I will remember this post from an insightful young man. God will continue to work through the mess of this life – and more – somehow, somewhere God will be found in the midst of the mess. As Zack said well. This is Christmas. This is Good News!
Love is the synthesis of contemplation and action, the meeting-point between heaven and earth, between God and humanity.
NATIVE AMERICAN PROVERB
Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.
EUGENE H PETERSON
Religion is a very scary thing, because a pastor is in a position of power. And if you use that power badly, you ruin people’s lives, and you ruin your own life.
Just as a candle cannot burn without fire, men cannot live without a spiritual life.
The real enemies of our life are the ‘oughts’ and the ‘ifs.’ They pull us backward into the unalterable past and forward into the unpredictable future. But real life takes place in the here and now.
PHILO OF ALEXANDRIA
What God is to the world so parents are to their children.
OLIVER WENDALL HOLMES
The greatest thing in the world is not so much where we stand as in what direction we are moving.
CORRIE TEN BOOM
Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow. It empties today of its strength.
People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know that they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind.
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart.
JULLIAN OF NORWICH
If there is anywhere on earth a lover of God who is always kept safe, I know nothing of it, for it was not shown to me. But this was shown: that in falling and rising again we are always kept in that same precious love
If the only prayer you pray in your entire lifetime is thankyou, it will be enough.
This is what Yahweh asks of you – only this; to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.
FRANCIS OF ASSISI
Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.
A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.
I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all, but whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.
I long to accomplish a great and noble tasks, but it is my chief duty to accomplish humble tasks as though they were great and noble. The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of the tiny pushes of each honest worker.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
We shall have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.
ST. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM
I know my own soul, how feeble and puny it is: I know the magnitude of this ministry, and the great difficulty of the work; for more stormy billows vex the soul of a pastor than the gales which disturb the sea.
The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?
I want it said of me by those who knew me best, that I always plucked a thistle and planted a flower where I thought a flower would grow.
MOTHER TERESA OF CALCUTTA
We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.
POPE PAUL VI
And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ. (Evangelii Nuntiandi)
MAHATMA GANDHI The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong.
If you have much, give of your wealth; if you have little, give of your heart.
Everything that is done in the world is done by hope.
I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I do know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.
You must give up the life you planned in order to have the life that is waiting for you.