Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Hard Words. But True

January 8, 2022

If you are responsible for raising children right now, read this. Or read it if you know someone responsible for raising children. If you take your Biblical Christian faith seriously and need to guide young people towards their future, ready it. It’s blunt. And maybe bluntness is something we need a bit more these days.

Law and Guilt

January 4, 2022

I don’t keep in touch with many folks from my high school days. A handful of close friends tenuously held together by intentional and not-so-intentional mini-reunions is about it. But I have another friend that has done an incredible job of keeping in touch over the years, and taking the opportunity to get together for lunch or dinner whenever we found ourselves in similar parts of the country. So it was that we were meeting the following day, Thursday, for lunch at a Mexican restaurant she suggested.

She asked me to choose a place to eat initially. I opted for a small Mexican restaurant nearby. I’d never been there but the reviews were good and the place looked pretty authentic, as opposed to the more Americanized places. But she nixed the idea because of Covid considerations. She wanted to sit outdoors, which was fine by me.

Then the night before she sent a short e-mail. Her daughter back in South Carlonia tested positive for Covid, and my friend had obviously spent a lot of time around her in the days before her trip to Arizona. My friend didn’t have any symptoms but wanted to warn me in case I preferred to cancel. I didn’t, and we met as planned.

There were tears in her eyes as we sat across the table from each other. Tears of frustration and anger and fear. We did everything right. And yet her daughter had Covid. My friend’s husband had tested negative, but still the great fearful illness had infiltrated their careful defenses. Their double-dose vaccinations. Their isolating. Their fastidiousness in wearing masks. Her daughter had tearfully asked on the phone the night before if her mother was angry with her that she got sick. My friend was angry, but not with her daughter. She was angry with all the people who hadn’t been careful. Hadn’t vaccinated. Hadn’t isolated. Hadn’t insisted on masks everywhere.

Though she didn’t say it, she was angry with me, as I fit into those categories. And in the carefully constructed Covid mythology, if you followed the rules and did what you were supposed to, you could avoid the virus. Except for those people. The people who for whatever reason opted not to follow every twist and turn, scientific, political, social, calculated or arbitrary, designed to keep people safe. Healthy.

It was a striking conversation. My heart went out to her. And I gently reminded her that there are no guarantees in life. That doing all the right things might be a very good idea, but certainly could not ensure a perfectly predictable outcome. She knew this to be true, and yet she couldn’t get past the anger and fear that the efforts she and her family had made, the sacrifices they had made, were not enough to protect them.

So this article struck a chord with me, and does a better job than I might in explaining the theological metaphors illuminated in this very un-theological Covid crisis. It’s worth a read.

It isn’t that trying to do the right thing is wrong. It’s just that in this very fallible and sinfully broken world, there is no clear, perfect right thing. Nothing we can hold onto and cling to as justification for ourselves, as protection for ourselves. Nothing outside of us, nothing inside of us. Only Christ can do this for us. Can promise us to be enough. And that requires us to let go of whatever we’re clutching to and cling to him instead, acknowledging in that action our terrifying frailty and the transient and brief nature of our mortal lives.

Christianity and Aliens

December 29, 2021

I was more than a little surprised the first time someone asked me (prior to my career change to the ministry) whether I believed in extraterrestrial life and what the Bible has to say about it. My response then is more or less my response still – the Bible doesn’t preclude the possibility of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos, but nor does it lead us to expect it. The person who first asked me this was convinced that John 10 and Jesus’ talk about other sheep was a veiled reference to alien life. I disagree with his interpretation of that passage as I’m pretty positive Jesus is talking about peoples here on earth beyond just the Jewish people rather than aliens.

At the end of the day, as a Biblical Christian if it were demonstrated that there is intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, it wouldn’t alter my faith in any way as it would not in any way contradict Scripture. NASA found similar responses recently from representatives of the major religions of the world.

Actually it was Ray Bradbury who first got me to think about this topic. He wrote several short stories dealing with the possibility of alien life and the theological implications of such a discovery. Would such aliens need salvation? His short story The Fire Balloons considers what that might mean. In the short story The Man Bradbury suggests that Jesus would – if there were life on other planets – visit those planets as well. C.S. Lewis also prompted consideration of this theme with the first two books of his Space Trilogy.

It’s good for NASA to ask these questions and invite formal discussion on the topic, just as it’s good NASA continues to scan the skies. I just don’t think the biggest problems of any discovery of extraterrestrial life are likely to be theological in nature.

Nerding a Bit

December 22, 2021

I guess if I’m not to be proclaiming from the pulpit our Lord’s birth and how our celebration of that should be a pointed reminder that He’s coming back and that’s what we should be waiting for every day, I can at least geek out a bit regarding the winding and complicated nature of evil that is never so simple or isolated as we’d like to think.

For the Tolkien fans out there, a consideration of perhaps Peter Jackson’s biggest failure in his overall magnificent film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.

Where Is the Spotlight?

December 14, 2021

I was sitting around the other night with a group of folks, all church-going Christians. All Lutherans, even. And they started telling a story. This story involved an associate pastor at their church – a very large, successful church by contemporary church standards. This associate pastor was a gifted preacher and teacher and also had a gift for working with young people. During his time with the congregation, focused on outreach to youth, large numbers of youth were attending the various programs offered by the church. Some of them were bringing family members as well. All seemed good and wonderful.

Then this pastor took a Call (a job offer of sorts, in our vernacular) to another congregation in another state. While it wasn’t stated explicitly, the implied result is that the youth attendance dropped dramatically. And now the congregation was in the position of determining what sort of person they ought to Call as their next associate pastor. And the consensus of the folks gathered there was that they needed someone very charismatic who could once again be a draw to youth.

Not an atypical story by any means. I’ve heard variations on this story in recent years. A beloved pastor retires and through careful planning and a five-year transition plan, leaves the congregation in the hands of a known and vetted pastor. And yet within a short span of time the congregation begins to shrivel and die. Vibrancy disappears. The new pastor isn’t this or that. The new pastor doesn’t have the same gifts as the older, retired, beloved pastor.

These aren’t congregations that I would imagine to be flimsy in any sense of the word. I know some of these pastors personally. I know their depth of character, their lives of faith, their excellent knowledge of the Word of God and their understanding of what the Church is as the Body of Christ. Yet somehow, when they retire – sometimes after decades of service to that congregation – the congregation begins within just a short time to shrink and shrivel.

What is the Church? What does it mean to be part of the Church and more specifically part of a congregation, one small piece of the Body of Christ? What does that entail? Where is the spotlight? I ask that question not as a condemnation of these retired pastors, as though they intentionally sought to be the center of the life of the Church. They weren’t and aren’t. They worked hard to emphasize discipleship and to instill in people an understanding of what the Church is, an understanding that goes back to 1 Corinthians and St. Paul. An understanding that the particular pastor is not what matters. What matters is Christ. The spotlight needs to be on Jesus, not on St. Paul or this pastor or that pastor. And what is apparently happening these days is that despite pastors who recognize this and try to practice this, at the end of the day (or their service), it turns out that for their parishioners, the spotlight really was on them as the pastor. Somehow what they sought to teach and instill in their parishioners never really took hold. Or, as the parable of the sower, took hold in a rather superficial way that only lasted until the pastor retired and people were disenchanted with the replacement.

Something is missing. Something is not getting communicated. Or more accurately, something is not taking hold. As a result, the Church has a tendency to utilize worldly wisdom to determine what sort of pastor they need to have in order to remain healthy and vibrant. And yet the irony (at least in my denomination), is that the health of the Church and congregation ought to be maintained even when the pastor is less than capable. Martin Luther designed an entire teaching curriculum to assist fathers and parents to teach their children the essence of the Christian faith in case they weren’t getting it on Sunday mornings, and in the understanding that even if they were getting good preaching and teaching Sunday morning, Sunday morning wasn’t enough given the plethora of other voices and ideas encountered or dominating their lives the other six and a half days a week.

Christ is what matters. And a healthy congregation needs to recognize that the pastor’s sermon and Bible study on Sunday morning cannot bear the weight of the faith, or even the weight of holding a congregation together. The Church is where the Word and Sacraments of God are rightly received, but that narrow definition is inadequate and always has been. The closing verses of both Acts 2 and Acts 4 make it clear that the Church was more than just a once a week gathering, and that the emphasis was on Jesus and his teachings rather than the particular rhetorical or empathic gifts of the teachers.

Somehow this needs to be communicated once again, so that Christians might draw strength and nourishment from their communion with one another, focused on Christ. Not to the detriment or diminishment of corporate worship or the Office of Holy Ministry or the Sacraments. But that these things might be more rightly revered and cherished. Somehow our programs are missing this, and pastors retiring from successful decades of service are forced to watch (or hear about) how their former parish is withering away.

Thoughts?

Breaking Silence

December 8, 2021

Perhaps the best way to break the long silence here is not with my words but someone else’s. Thanks to The Mockingbird for sharing this beautiful poem.

The Mercy of God

A poem by Jessica Powers, a Carmelite nun (1905-88):

I am copying down in a book from my heart’s archive
the day that I ceased to fear God with a shadowy fear.
Would you name it the day that I measured my column of virtue
and sighted through windows of merit a crown that was near?
Ah, no, it was rather the day I began to see truly
that I came forth from nothing and ever toward nothingness tend,
that the works of my hands are a foolishness wrought in the presence
of the worthiest king in a kingdom that never shall end.
I rose up from the acres of self that I tended with passion
and defended with flurries of pride:
I walked out of myself and went into the woods of God’s mercy,
and here I abide.
There is greenness and calmness and coolness,
a soft leafy covering
from judgment of sun overhead, and the hush of His peace,
and the moss of His mercy to tread.
I have nought but my will seeking God;
even love burning in me is a fragment of infinite loving
and never my own.
And I fear God no more; I go forward to wander forever
in a wilderness of His infinite mercy alone.

Book Review – Old Man and the Sea

November 4, 2021

Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

I’d read this back in one of my high school literature classes. It’s not a complicated little story so it wasn’t as though the intervening decades clouded the storyline or the outcome. But as part of our less-connected, wi-fi-unpredictable life for the moment reading together as a family has come to the forefront. The place we’re staying had a copy and I knew it would be good for everyone to experience it.

I like Hemingway, but his sparcity can be exhausting at times. Where Bradbury or other authors bury you in similes and metaphors and adjectives, Hemingway remains terse, no doubt a throwback to his days in journalism. The story is slow, as slow as being stuck in a boat at sea alone for days on end, trailing a line connected to a massive, unseen fish below. I would likely be tempted to tighten it up a bit, but tightening it up ruins the entire point of the story. You feel the interminableness of Santiago’s situation. You feel his hope as well as his wariness. You admire his stolidity.

His dedication is to a code of manhood rapidly being erased in a Western culture intent on desexing and unisexing everyone and everything. No doubt he is dubbed as an example of toxic masculinity in college literature classrooms on two continents. How foolish, to risk his life on such an uncertainty, against overwhelming odds. Yet Santiago’s decisions are set by larger forces than himself and he seeks only to measure his mettle against them, just as he continually measures his own pain against the pain reported of his beloved DiMaggio. Does his suffering come close? Does he measure up?

If you haven’t read this for a while go back to it. As a father of boys and young men it is helpful to show traditional masculine qualities evaporating in the world around them. Like other much longer epic works it highlights the importance of doing what you know to be right and proper despite the potential loss you may personally suffer in doing so. Some things are worth dying for. Some battles should be faced squarely that the stories may be told and passed down to younger generations who will one day have to face their own giants, whether under the waters or in the stars or in their own hometowns.

Book Review – Muslims, Christians, and Jesus

November 2, 2021

Muslims, Christians and Jesus by Carl Medearis

Gifted to us by life-long Bible translators, this book offers personal insights in how Christians can meet and build relationships with their Muslim neighbors. The author speaks with confidence and experience in this regard, sprinkling the book with real life anecdotes about interactions with a variety of people in a variety of settings.

It’s clear Medearis’ overriding concern is to demonstrate that Christians and Muslims can co-exist, can be loving and good neighbors, and can engage in meaningful religious discussion based around common elements of Christianity and Islam. Towards this end he would much rather sidestep some of the most awkward conversation points that might arise, preferring to encourage his readers towards that common ground. This is important to keep in mind. If you’re inclined to see discussions with others primarily as an opportunity to engage in debate – whether academic, historical, or theological – you will probably be less than thrilled with Medearis’ approach.

For someone unfamiliar with the basics of Islam, the Qu’ran, or Islamic history Medaris’ suggestions might not raise any eyebrows. And even as someone with at least a passing familiarity with each of these areas, I’m willing and able to give Medaris a lot of latitude as his goal is not confrontation but conversation, and this is desperately needed at all levels and all over the world! Combatting an us-versus-them attitude is not only unhelpful but contrary to the command of Jesus to love our neighbor.

Medearis purports both anecdotally and directly an attitude that promotes the idea of spirituality against religiosity. Only by refraining from some of the broad connotations of spirituality and thinking of only the worst excesses and abuses of religiosity can I come close to sympathizing with his position, which I think I find ultimately to be either unhelpful to Christians or dishonest to them. I understand his emphasis on Jesus only to be particularly helpful in cross-cultural discussions, but it falls short ultimately as a way of living the Christian life. Only by attempting to live life as an isolated Christian without meaningful Christian community can such a Jesus only theology work, and such an isolated life is contrary to Jesus’ own practice and the direct instructions of the Bible.

Medearis does a good job at introducing the basic tenets of Islam, providing a brief historical overview of Muhammad and Islam and explaining differences between the three major sects of Islam.

This is a good starting reference for Christians who feel led, or interested, or realize they have an opportunity to build a relationship with a Muslim person. His insistence on doing so not as a means to an end but simply as a fulfillment of the command to love our neighbor is admirable. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for meaningful, deep, and sometimes complicated and difficult religious dialogue down the line. It just acknowledges that’s not where things should – or can – start.

One Last Time

October 30, 2021

I relented sometime in the last year and watched the musical Hamilton after my youngest two memorized literally every song and sang them incessantly. And while I’ll be the first to admit I’m no fan and therefore a poor critic of musicals, it impressed me thoroughly and I’m glad for once I didn’t let my stubbornness get the better of me.

We were listening to one of their Spotify playlists the other day and the song One Last Time came on. Take a moment to listen to it if you haven’t. It’s beautiful. Not just musically but in what it talks about. I won’t pretend to know whether it accurately reflects how Washington and Hamilton interacted as Washington retired, but I think it captures some of the core elements rather well.

President Washington retires rather than seeking an additional term. Rather than assuming the leadership mantle for life and becoming a beloved King he settles for the fleeting role of statesman. He sees that in his leaving office he has a unique opportunity to model to Americans – and the world – what democracy can really be. To give it flesh and bone or, perhaps more accurately, an empty office to fill.

Hamilton is understandably stunned and skeptical, to say the least. How counterintuitive, to follow a course of action that will widely be misunderstood as weakness when in reality it is in fact the strongest course of action Washington could possibly choose to follow. To take the risk that people will watch and learn, or in the mantra of Hamilton, that history has it’s eye on him.

I’ve found this song compelling in recent weeks. The lyrics haunting. Much has changed in my life this year. Much uncertainty. But perhaps the strangest of all those changes was stepping away from a group of people I had loved and served for nearly 11 years. Stepping away from brothers and sisters in Christ because I felt it was the Holy Spirit’s desire for them and for me that this should happen.

I’d never had to do that before. I’ve left employers before in the corporate/professional and academic worlds. Such comings and goings are expected. You miss some people and not others. And in nearly all of those situations I left knowing things would go along mostly unchanged. I was part of a larger entity. My departure wouldn’t substantially affect the organization.

That’s both true and untrue of a pastor and his congregation, a shepherd and his flock.

The nature of pastoral parish ministry is of necessity and privilege a very personal one. As one of my first seminary profs waxed eloquently about for the better part of an hour, a pastor performs a καλου εργου, a noble task. Pastors are privileged to be part of their congregant’s lives in an intensely personal way rarely afforded to those outside immediate family. We are privileged to be present shortly after births as well as shortly before deaths. We stand with people in their moments of greatest joy as well as deepest sorrow. This privilege is not afforded to us because of us personally, but rather the office we bear, the duty and responsibility of shepherd. Caring for the sheep. And that means getting to know them, just as a good shepherd can tell every sheep from another and knows their personality and quirks.

For eleven years I was invited into their lives. And then one day, I left.

In one sense they remain the congregation, the flock, and my departure doesn’t significantly alter that reality. They begin the process of finding a new shepherd. But in another way, the congregation was shaped by my service as shepherd, just as they had been shaped by other shepherds over the last century, and as they will, God-willing, be shaped by their future shepherds.

It’s weird to go from knowing the intimate details of their lives to not having contact with them. There’s a balance of sorts to try and maintain, to ensure I don’t become problematic in their duty of receiving a new shepherd, in not preventing them from grieving (or rejoicing!) and moving on. And not knowing where that balance line is, my communication with them has been minimal, to say the least.

And that’s hard.

I worry and pray for them, in some ways as I worried and prayed for them while I served them. Most of those prayers don’t change, and to them are added prayers for their protection and wisdom and peace as they prepare to Call and receive a new shepherd, and prayers for that shepherd that he will know them and love them even better than I attempted to.

There’s also the human, most likely sinful aspect, of wondering what the long-term effects of my 11 years with them will be. What did they learn from me while I was with them? How was I a good shepherd and how did I fail them? And what did they learn from my departure as well? Did I teach them how to say good-bye, as Washington sings to Hamilton? Meaning did I model for them things that will be helpful as they move forward as individuals and a congregation? I wonder. I worry. I pray.

I can think of lots of things I wish I had done differently. I can worry about whether I was right to deal with this sheep or that sheep in this way or that. I can imagine how things might have differed had I opted for alternate courses of action, more firmness here, more gentleness there. But I can’t change any of those things now. Now they move on, one way or the other, for better or worse for their time with me, just as I move on changed for my time with them. We each have to follow the Holy Spirit’s calling in our lives the best we can.

My consolation in all of this is one day we’ll meet again. No longer as shepherd and sheep or pastor and congregant but simply as brothers and sisters in Christ. Fellow heirs of the kingdom of heaven. By the grace of God I pray I conveyed that hope and certainty to them over the course of 11 years. Not perfectly, obviously. But always pointing to the one and only Son of God as the best and most perfect one to not simply emulate but trust in with every moment of our lives, every circumstance. Because only He can handle those highs and lows, those doubts and misgivings and uncertainties and regrets. Only He can redeem them all until his return when we’ll never need to learn or teach how to say goodbye again.

Book Review: Serving Well

October 25, 2021

Serving Well: Help for the Wannabe, Newbie or Weary Cross-Cultural Christian Worker by Jonathan and Elizabeth Trotter

Recommended by a friend who had it recommended to him, this is not my favorite read. The style is not one I’m very fond of, overly friendly and informal with useful tips interspersed with emotional self-disclosures. I think this book probably has some very helpful advice to the various groups the title highlights, but it’s the sort of helpful advice that isn’t really useful until you’re in the midst of a situation, and then you’ve got to figure out where that particular nugget of wisdom might be. Major sections are organized by what you might want to know or think or feel before you go, as you’re leaving, once you arrive, before you leave, and as you return to your country of origin.

There’s some good advice in here, or at least it makes sense. There’s also plenty of stuff that isn’t helpful for an analytical person like me. Others may find the personal and intimate approach very appealing.

If you like relational sort of heart-to-heart writing you may love this. And those of you with overseas experience already may find it really quite helpful. But it’s not going to be helpful to me at this point, and therefore probably not the first resource I would reach for down the line.