Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Rosh Hashana

September 20, 2017

I’m so excited, as I’ve been invited (along with my family) to attend Rosh Hashanah service tonight at the local synagogue.  I’ve been fascinated with Judaism ever since reading Chaim Potok’s The Chosen (and going on to read most of his other works, including his beautiful Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews).  Obviously the strong historical and theological linkins of Christianity and Judaism lend themselves well to this fascination!

But I’ve never been able to attend a service before, and I look forward to this opportunity!  Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year, and occurs 10 days before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

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August 21, 2017

I woke up this morning pleased to say I didn’t know when the eclipse was happening today, but grateful that I wouldn’t have to hear about it any more.  I glanced at the sky as I headed out for the day, as the eclipse was supposed to be happening.  But it was a beautiful grey cloud and fog cover that hid the sun completely from my view.  I wondered how many disappointed people there were around the country who had built this moment into some sort of personal epiphany, and would have their hopes crushed by the equally wonderful but too familiar beauty of clouds.

It’s not that I’m not interested in nature, but I automatically distrust things that become an obsession in our media and culture.  The moon passes in front of the sun as it has innumerable times.  But now because we can communicate and plug in 24/7 it becomes an Event.  Perhaps an even greater Event than in the days when we picture uneducated peasants looking up at terror and imagining a dragon consuming the source of light and warmth and hope.

The Eclipse isn’t going to change your life.  It’s not going to provide you with fulfillment, or happiness or meaning.  At best it’s a distraction for the vast majority of folks.  For a small percentage it might serve as inspiration towards a particular vocation.  But what we don’t need is another distraction from the issues that need to be dealt with, whether personally or communally.  I wish we could get as excited and committed to dealing with those things as we apparently are with having the proper eclipse-viewing gear.

Semantics Matter

August 16, 2017

Words mean things.   They’re important.  So I applaud it when someone points out the real meaning of words.   In this case, a popular actress calling a nation out for murder rather than lauding it for some sort of medical progress.

Patricia Heaton made an important Tweet in response to media news claiming that Iceland is eliminating Downs Syndrome.  She pointed out the difference between eliminating something and killing everyone who suffers from it.

Well said, in 140-characters!

Home

August 6, 2017

I had to ask the last of our happy hour attendees to leave about an hour ago.  One (the one who doesn’t drink!) was falling asleep on the couch with the dogs .  But the wife and kids are getting up early in the morning for a birthday boat ride to and a day of hiking on Santa Cruz Island, so I needed to empty the house and get them to bed.  People started arriving around 6pm this evening.  This isn’t everyone who was there, but it gives you an idea:

Our daughter tells us there were 21 people here tonight (including our five family members).  We didn’t know most of them.  Six are weekly regulars.  Of the rest, one or two have visited once or twice over the past year and a half.  The others were first time visitors.

There were actresses and actors fresh from small indie performances in town and trying to figure out how to position themselves for a Big Break.  Missionary kids from Eritrea the Ukraine.  Aspiring doctors, a sailing captain, a future lawyer, two Swiss exchange students, several talented musicians previewing songs from an upcoming debut album, a future professor and a few undecideds.  All in their early 20’s, all a long way from family.  A cross spectrum of ideologies and personalities, but our friends knew that they would be welcomed and honored in our home, greeted by our kids and our dogs, handed some AMAZING cocktails (thank you to Ruth for the sake!!!), and welcomed to just be.  I probably didn’t converse with a third of them more than to get their drink order.  Talking with everyone every Sunday isn’t always feasible.  But I conversed with one guy on the difference between Lutheran and Reformed theology.   I planned with another couple I’ll have the privilege of marrying in two weeks.  I received updates on short-term work and travel plans from another person.  I watched my kids help keep the food supplied and deliver drinks.  I heard my oldest son joking and telling stories.  I washed a lot of dishes.  Some of them twice.

I may have misgivings and feel inadequate in describing what happens on Sunday evenings to other people.  I may be exhausted at the end of an 18 hour day.  But it’s a beautiful place to be.  A bit chaotic at times, but that’s sort of the nature of Christ’s love.  We always know what we’re getting with Christ’s love, but we never quite know where that will lead us or how it will change us or who it will connect us with, whether for an evening or a lifetime or, by His grace, an eternity.

 

 

Radio Silence

August 2, 2017

I have made a living for most of my life by speaking.

I only paused today to consider the wonder of that as an introvert and someone far more comfortable listening rather than talking.  Yet here I am, after years as a corporate IT trainer, then as adjunct faculty at a private university, and now as pastor.  I’m expected to talk.

But as I sit down this afternoon in front of a microphone and a rudimentary recording setup, I realize how awkward it is to speak when I’m not sure what to say.  Where to begin.  And how, most importantly of all, to draw a complete stranger on the other end of a radio or an iPhone or some other listening device into a conversation.  I’ve made my living off of speaking, but that speaking is enriched and formed by a continual process of listening and interaction.  When I’m staring at a blank wall and a microphone, it’s almost overwhelming.  I want to run away, much as I used to want to run away from social settings and groups of people.

God has an amazing sense of humor.

This radio thing is going to be harder than I thought.  At least to start with!

Romans 8:18-30

July 20, 2017

The Epistle lesson in Year A of the 3-year lectionary cycle in use with many Christian congregations and denominations is this section from St. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians.  Actually, it overlaps slightly with the reading for next week, as the section is broken (atrociously!) in the lectionary cycle between verse 27 and 28.  But for this discursus, I’ll deal with what the proper section should have been – verses 18-30.

Paul has masterfully developed his theme of justification exclusively by the grace of God the Father through faith in the atoning sacrifice of God the Son, Jesus the Christ.  He’s laid out how the Old Testament clearly shows this has always been God’s way of working.  He’s discussed the role of the Law now for Christians, not as a condemning force that consigns us to death in our sins, but as the good and holy Word of God that guides and protects us as we live out our lives of faith.  He’s made it clear that the Christian life is fundamentally different than whatever life we might have led before being brought to faith in Jesus.  This may necessitate some rather major changes in how we think, speak, and act.  Paul does not preach cheap grace – whereby we keep doing what we want trusting in Jesus as our Get-out-of-hell-free card.  The Christian is able to strive towards holier living because of the indwelling presence of God the Holy Spirit within them.

But the reality is that we will never be fully freed from sin in this lifetime.  There will be a war within us every day of our lives between the sinful desires that are still part of us and the righteous and holy part of us made possible through faith in Jesus the Christ.  Yet we struggle on!  And part of that struggle, Paul mentions at the end of verse 17, is that we will suffer in this world.  Suffering is a topic Paul has already briefly mentioned back in Chapter 5:1-5, where he discussed that for the Christian, suffering is never fruitless because God who is with us and in us and for us will use periods of suffering to further define and refine our character.  While we don’t crave suffering, if and when we encounter it we do so in the knowledge that God is with us and working in and through us.

Now in Chapter 8 Paul comes back to the topic of suffering.  It might seem that we who are striving after God should somehow be protected from suffering and persecution in our faith, but this is not the case.  Suffering for the faith or because of the faith is often part of the Christian life (despite the historical anomaly that is America over the past 200 years).  How is the Christian to deal with this suffering?  Certainly in part, she should remember what Paul said back in Chapter 5 – that God is working in and through and despite our suffering and therefore we should actively look for and expect such work, not simply the elimination of our suffering.

Here in this section of Chapter 8, Paul lays out three reasons why the Christian should be able to endure suffering while still praising God.  Firstly, whatever suffering we endure is brief compared with the vista of eternity that we continually cast our gaze towards.  Our culture insists that our life is really just the timespan of life as we know it, maybe 100 years or so if you’re lucky, so you better make it count.  More accurately, our culture says that really the most important and vital part of that lifespan extends from about 16 to 30, so you need to make those years count.  Have fun!  Experiment!  Follow your bliss!  Ignore the massive damage this can do to you and those around you!  Don’t stop to think about the long term!

But the Christian seeks to maintain the Biblical perspective – our life is a gift of God that we seek to enjoy but more specifically to use as an opportunity to praise and worship him.  This life does not end at death but continues into eternity.  So if in this life we practice restraint and self-discipline, it is not a waste – it leads us towards something far better!  Likewise, if our existence here and now entails suffering, we know that it is only for a period of time.  By keeping this perspective, we have one means by which to endure the suffering in our life.

Secondly, the Christian can endure suffering is brought out in verse 26 – we do not suffer alone.  The Holy Spirit of God is always with us and doesn’t simply passively abide within us but is active in his intercessions on our behalf.

In the midst of suffering we may be bewildered, frustrated, angry.  We may be unable to focus or concentrate our thoughts, to the point where we aren’t even able to pray!  This might be a terrible thought for us – are we abandoning God because of the suffering in our lives?  Because we’re too frazzled or absorbed in our pain to pray?  By no means!  God the Holy Spirit himself is praying and interceding on our behalf.  Beyond the level of words and articulations, without our actual involvement, even.  We are never left alone, and God himself knows – because of the suffering of Jesus – how deeply suffering can affect us and disrupt our routines and abilities.  So we endure suffering knowing that God is with us and for us and within us at all times!

Paul’s third reason that the Christian can endure suffering is in verse 28 – we know that God works all things for good for those who love him.  This is a restatement or summary in some ways of Paul’s discussion in Romans 5:1-5.  God is at work in us constantly and pervasively, and suffering does not change this but in fact may offer unique opportunities for such divine work.

We need to be careful in our interpretation here.  Verse 28 is not saying that suffering is not real, that evil is not real, that we are simply deluded or misinformed about what goes on within and around us.  The Bible never denies the reality of suffering and persecution and evil, and we never should as well!  But if we suffer in such a way, the Christian rests assured that the suffering cannot separate us from God’s love.  It does not eclipse his goodness to us.  And if we trust in him, one day we will be able to see how He was at work in us during our suffering – upholding, shaping, molding, pruning.  Again, we don’t look for suffering, but when we encounter it, we do so knowing that God is not absent in our suffering, and therefore our suffering has actual meaning – a meaning exactly contrary to the intent of that suffering when it is imposed upon us by those antagonistic to God and to our faith in Christ.

The Christian suffers as no other person can or does suffer, because we can endure it through our faith.  We do so knowing that the suffering will only last so long, and then we will be free of it – perhaps temporarily but certainly eternally!  We endure knowing that God the Holy Spirit is within us interceding on our behalf even when we are unable to pray.  And we endure trusting that regardless of the type or source of our suffering, God is capable of working good things in and through and despite it.

All of this leads Paul to a concluding section of praise and confidence to and in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, before he moves on to a different topic in his letter.  This is such an important thing to me as a pastor, and as I come alongside people in the midst of very real suffering.

Today I visited one of our elderly, home-bound members.  I’ve been calling on her since I arrived at this parish seven years ago.  And in that time she has transitioned from a somewhat independent and mobile woman, full of the confidence and capability that I believe marked her whole adult life, to first a homebound woman and now a woman in her upper 90’s who requires 24-hour care and is physically a shadow of her former self.  She is often confused, and sometimes bewildered.  She speaks often of how she just wants to die and go to be with God.  I’ve talked about our times together before.

I wonder why it is that God has not called her home.  But Paul’s words in Romans 8 are important to me as I minister to her, and as I imagine spectres of my own future as I talk and pray with her.  He has not abandoned or forgotten her.  And while she and I may not know his reasons and timing, we need never trust his goodness and love.  I trust He has his reasons, and one day I’ll be at least better able to understand them and see their perfection.

Path to Success

July 15, 2017

Thanks to Gene Veith’s always-excellent blog for steering me towards this study and this commentary on it.  The Reader’s Digest summary is this – if you want to avoid poverty, the best thing you can do is complete the following steps.  Complete all of them and complete them in order.  Skipping or rearranging them could be disastrous:

  1. Graduate at least from high school
  2. Start working full-time
  3. Get married
  4. Only after getting married do you have children

Once upon a time this was common sense and it was reinforced culturally.  Nowadays these steps are likely to be dismissed out of hand, but the statistical data presented in the study is pretty impressive.

 

Perspective

July 10, 2017

I struggle for proper perspective.  What is the best use of the limited time, resources, and talents which God has entrusted to me?  How do I balance personal enjoyments with the larger picture of what really matters in life and eternity?

Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.

This quote by 17th century Christian Nicolaus Zinzendorf really caught my eye when I first encountered it through Facebook a week or so ago.  It summarizes what my job as a Christian and a pastor is.  But it flies in the face of the culture that affects me daily, a culture of narcissism, where 15 minutes of fame is no longer adequate and insatiable social media technology holds the promise of enduring fame/notoriety.  Along with the accolades and likes and followers and money that we associate with such popularity.

None of this lasts.  We all know it.  Or perhaps what we hope is the fame lasts even after we’re gone.  That we’ll still be the talk of the town, a relevant meme, an inspiring memory even after our death.  Fame becomes a form of immortality.  Unable to conquer death on our own, we seek to at cheat it the only way we can – by hoping our memory lives on after us.

Zinzendorf spoke to missionaries – men and women committing their entire selves to the perpetual sharing of the Gospel.  It wasn’t glorious work.  It never has been and never will be, although we certainly have found ways to make segments of American Christianity more resemble a popularity contest or an American Idol show or a TED presentation.  But what matters isn’t temporary glory.  The stakes are far higher than that, and God’s people need to bear this in mind daily.

I’m not called to pursue fame.  I wasn’t ordained in order to boast about the number of friends I have on Facebook or how many people follow this blog.  I sought – and was granted – the title of minister of religion so that people’s lives might be changed.  And getting a late official start in this vocation, I don’t have the luxury of time to indulge in things that might make me feel better about myself.  Pursuing a doctoral degree.  Writing a book.  Perfecting my 8-ball game.

I hope that it’s not laziness, though.  This gut-feeling that what matters aren’t the letters after or before my name.  The continual struggle of feeling inadequate.  I could spend more time and money to try and work through those issues, but in the meantime I lose precious space and time to actually share the Gospel with people who need to hear it.  Perhaps this is the thorn in my flesh (or at least one of them!) as St. Paul understood (2 Corinthians 12:1-10), whereby our sinful ambitions and the attitudes of the world are set on their head so that we end up only boasting in Christ.

And in doing so, we receive that which we sought on so many other terms and through so many other means and institutions.  We receive eternal life, and the promise that we will never be forgotten.  That we will be known throughout all eternity through the grace and forgiveness of God in which we placed our faith and trust.

I Blessed a Boat and I Liked It

July 2, 2017

The coffee shop is usually pretty quiet on Sunday mornings when I stop in about 6:30 am, en route to a final few hours of preparation before morning worship.  There are a couple of regulars huddled behind their laptops, but it’s sparse.  Not being a morning person I’m not terribly engaging, but that’s OK as the employees know me and don’t require a lot of interaction.

This morning when I asked the girl ringing me up how she was doing, she smiled as a new song came on.  She then went on to do something that I thought was very kind.  I don’t know if you’re into Beyonce or not, but this is her new album.  It’s very unlike any of her other stuff and, well, it’s epic.  I appreciated that she took the time to give me a little information about the song rather than a generic I like this song.  It probably doesn’t require rocket science to look at me and determine that I might not be a Beyonce fan, but she shared a bit about herself as well as the music, and I appreciated that.

I headed out to my car with my tea and bagel.  As I climbed up and in, I saw framed in the open space wedge between my car door and the frame of my car the face of a man coming out and looking directly at me.  My hearing isn’t what it used to be, so I presume he had tried to get my attention and failed.  As I started to get out, he apologized and asked with a sheepish smile if I would bless his boat, pointing to his beater car with a large outrigger canoe mounted to the top.

Tom proceeded to tell me he grew up Catholic back East, was now currently the caretaker of a well-known local ruined castle (literally), and restored wooden boats for fun.  He was going out in this newly finished boat, along with his two dogs.  I asked him how far out he could go in it, and he said if it was properly equipped, he could sail to the islands 20 miles off our coast.  But he prefers to stay within 100 yards of shore because he’s come close to death on the ocean several times in his life.  He was interested in a blessing – if it wasn’t offensive – as he has a healthy respect of God’s waters and the creatures of the deep.

Some went down to the sea in ships, doing business on the great waters;

They saw the the deeds of the Lord, and his wondrous works in the deep.

(Psalm 107:23)

I’ve never served a rural congregation, where the blessing of fields and animals and other accoutrements of life off the land is de rigeur.  Barring a (mostly) humorous suggestion that I bless our team’s pool cues years ago, I’m not asked to bless things very often.  I explained that I am Lutheran, not Catholic, but that I’d be happy to say a prayer for him and his boat.  And I did.  And it was nice.  I should have given him my card, but at least he is reminded of who it is that goes with him as he pushes out through the waves.

Mercy Killing?

June 30, 2017

The Western world grapples with the fear of suffering.  Not simply our own, actual suffering, but the suffering of others and our own hypothetical suffering.  The idea of having to suffer offends our sensibilities.  There is no purpose to it.  And so we demand that we have the option to opt-out of suffering and along with that we demand the right to opt other people out of their suffering so that we don’t have to suffer along with them.

We term this mercy.

Here is what mercy now can look like.  Parents of a child born with congenital health issues for which there is no cure or treatment are being told that the government has decided to end their child’s life – in the best interest of the child.  Despite the fact that the parents do not want their child to die.  Despite the fact that there is experimental treatment available out of the country that could change the conditions for which the child is being sentenced to death.  Not only this, but now that their appeals for out-of-country treatment have been denied, the parents are also being denied the right to have their own child die in their own home, rather than in a hospital.

I’m still trying to see where the mercy is involved in all of this.  Perhaps because I don’t suspect that mercy is really what is being demonstrated.  Efficiency.  Expediency.  A rigorous attention to detail, the rule of law.  Bureaucratic policy.  But not mercy.

This is happening in Great Britain.  The country, as one observer notes, that fought against the Nazi’s and their insistence that some lives (other people, more specifically) were not worth living and therefore the government could decide to end those lives.  This is where we end up without a moral compass or baseline, without anything that limits our ability or tendency to define and redefine even such beautiful words as mercy until they mean the very opposite of why we find them beautiful.

This redefinition is evil.  It is evil because it reduces humanity to a matter of expediency and personal preferences, carefully sanitized in legalese and policy-speak.  It is evil because it holds the dictates of a human being or institution as ultimate and final, without recognizing that such beings and institutions are inherently unable to provide a single, permanent baseline from which to operate.  So the decisions made today may be completely opposite the decisions that would have been made 50 years ago, or the decisions that might be made 50 years hence.

We (Christians) are being inculcated to sympathy with this evil.  I find the seeds of it even in myself, despite being older and less prone to direct means of subversion and brain-washing (like schools).  We are being wooed towards sympathy because of our own fears and hopes and wishes.

Yesterday I visited one of our long-time members who is homebound.  She has been homebound for the past seven years, by and large.  Over those years I have brought her Communion and led us in simple worship together.  She is an amazing woman.  Her mind is sharp, her will is formidable, she is articulate, cultured, and refined, and she has a zest for life that would be admirable in a person a quarter her age.

When I saw her two weeks ago she was having a good day.  We shared Communion and prayer.  I could see much of her through her condition.  When I went yesterday, however, it was a bad day, and I could see so very, very little of the woman she is.  She was fearful, her words slurred and at times indecipherable.  Her fear was palpable and audible, her weakness striking.  She didn’t know who I was, or who the woman caring for her was, or where she was.  She begged to go home while sitting in her own living room of 50 years.

I left asking God why He didn’t take her yet.  She has been ready to go for years.  Her faith is strong, but her mind and body have been subverted and twisted by time.  What point is there in having her linger, I wondered.  I even flirted with the thought that perhaps God was being unkind to her in this.  She deserves to die.  It would be a blessing to her.  It would be merciful.

Merciful to whom, I suddenly thought.  Perhaps it would be merciful to me, so that I didn’t need to keep going to see her.  Merciful to me so that I wasn’t made uncomfortable by her condition and deterioration, fearful that I might one day be in her place.  Merciful to me in that I wouldn’t have to accommodate myself to her limitations, and that I could leave feeling happy and care-free, to go about my daily routine and duties, rather than struggling with mortality and the damnable reality of sin and death that lurks within my own frame.

She is still herself.  She isn’t less herself, or less of a human being, than she was two years ago or twenty years ago or eighty years ago.  She is entitled to all the same love and care and concern.  Is it harder to be with her?  Yes.  Which is perhaps why it is all the more important to be with her.  To come to grips with the effects of sin in our lives.  To seek to love her consistently and care for her consistently, rather than simply deciding that at some arbitrary point or in some arbitrary state of mind or body, she is no longer herself, no longer deserving of the life that God himself has given and sustained her in.  Perhaps part of the blessing of suffering is that we learn to see past and through these things, both in ourselves and others.

She is not defined by her dementia.  She is not defined by her physical frailty.  She is not defined by her suffering, and neither she nor I have the right to redefine her as such and cease to see her for what she is.  Beautiful.  Alive by the grace and wisdom of God.  And therefore an opportunity to love and practice mercy with in the truest and best sense of that word, rather than the senseless way our culture wants to redefine it.  Perhaps as I continue to care for her in this way, it will better prepare me to care for others in similar conditions, and will further prepare me – inasmuch as may be possible – for me to endure that condition should it become my own one day.

Mercy, like hope, isn’t necessarily expedient.   But we are in a dangerous place without either.