Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Advent Lessons

December 12, 2017

Advent.  Adventus.  Coming.

These words are my stock and trade this time of year.  This is the Christian life in general, but in Advent we focus on this reality.  We are a people who are waiting and anticipating  a coming, an arrival, a return.  We all nod in agreement.  We’ve been through this before.  Sometimes for years and years and decades and decades.  This is who we are, yes.  This is what we do, yes.  Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

But sometimes – perhaps oftentimes – this feels perfunctory to me.

Yes, come Lord Jesus come.  But in the meantime, I have presents to order and bills to juggle during the Christmas season.  I have obligations at work and the additional obligations of social functions and other activities after work.  I have children who want to hang Christmas lights outside and a tree to purchase for inside.  I wait but I forget that I’m waiting because there is so much to be done.  And while the reality of my waiting does impact not just what I do but how I do it, at times the anticipation factor seems very, very muted.

But I’ve learned a lot about waiting this Advent.  More perhaps than ever before.  In the last week and a half our part of the country has been ravaged by fires.  They seemed to erupt all at once, in multiple places throughout the southern and central portion of our state.  Power outages and fast moving flames created an uneasy tension and fear.  How far would the fire spread?  While other fires around the state were quickly contained, the one nearest us raged on, growing to the fifth-largest in state history and threatening multiple communities, including our own.

For the last week and a half I’ve fumed in frustration trying to find reliable and updated information to keep my family informed as well as my congregation.  There have been discussions with my wife and family about what-if scenarios.  Every night and morning I’m scanning multiple sites to try and cobble together a picture of the situation.  I want to ensure that my parishioners and my family are as safe and informed as possible.  It’s easy to get lost in an emergency and panic.

I know what waiting feels like.  Waiting for news updates.  Waiting for reliable information.  Waiting to hear if someone in the affected areas is safe.  Every day is shaped by the reality of wanting to know the best information and make the best choices possible.  Every day is marked by wanting to be prepared.  I don’t know if the fire will come, but I know it might and I want to be ready for it.

Advent.  Adventus.  Coming.

How much I have to learn still about waiting for my Lord.  Craving his Word each day as the guiding power that sustains and centers me, allowing me to make wise decisions and good choices.  How gracious He is in leading and teaching me, calling me day by day always back to his promises and his Word, always waiting for me to remember what I am waiting for.

Come, Lord Jesus, Come.

 

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Reunions and Other Missings

November 6, 2017

 

Sonny sits by his window and thinks to himself

How it’s strange that some rooms are like cages.

Sonny’s yearbook from high school is down from the shelf

And he idly thumbs through the pages.

Some have died, some have fled from themselves.

Or struggled from here to get there.

Sonny wanders beyond his interior walls,

Runs his hands through his thinning brown hair.

~ Paul Simon, The Obvious Child ~

 

This Saturday past was my 30-year high school reunion.

I wasn’t there.  As I wasn’t there for the 20th or the 10th.  I flew out of high school a bat out of hell, swearing never to return, never to reminisce, never to idealize the living hell that had been four years of my life.

But time is strange and treacherous and this many years out there was an actual a tug, a curiosity that bordered on yearning at moments.  Who were these people now?  For that matter, who had they been then?  I hate that I was curious.  I’ve stayed in touch with the people I was close to in high school beyond the constructs of class reunions, a group of folks I can count on one hand.  We talked briefly about meeting up at the reunion.  I said I wouldn’t go to the reunion but I would come into town to see the rest of them around it.  In the end it came to nothing and I don’t think any of the others went.

Pictures of the reunion have fluttered across Facebook since Saturday night, and I’m relieved that I didn’t cave in to the passing of years and the desperation for connection across the decades.  The people in those pictures were strangers.  Not just strangers in the 30-year removed sense, but strangers even in my memories.  I knew some of the names but they were not people I ever hung out with in high school.  I only shared classes with a few of them.  I might as well have walked into a room full of complete strangers for all the reminiscing I would have been able to do with those folks.

Out of a class of 900 there were maybe 40 people there.  They had things to relive together, I presume.  Shared memories and experiences.  I would only have shared a coincidence of timing with them, and geography.   We were in the same walls for the same four years and passed through similar classrooms at alternating times of the day.  But the memories aren’t there.  Only the reminders of who I used to be, or who I wasn’t, and I hang out enough with those shadows plenty already.

It looks like everyone there had fun.  I certainly don’t fault them for going.  Part of me is jealous they could share things together that I can’t.  Or perhaps time smooths over the different social classes and standings so folks who never had much in common 30 years ago are suddenly long lost brothers and sisters.  Perhaps the ache for who they were is so strong such incidentals mean little compared to seeing a name and a face that might remember who they were, might be able to give some insight or a reminder of a forgotten incident, rekindle a forgotten feeling.

As for me, I have to side with Thomas Wolfe –  You Can’t Go Home Again. Or perhaps you can, but I can’t.  Why deny the obvious, child?

Intergenerational

October 23, 2017

I frequently lament – and testily disagree with – our Church culture (maybe it’s yours too?) that stresses and exalts youth and young people.  It struck me that in some ways it’s like only wanting to talk about Jesus as a baby.  Youth, the future, it’s so beautiful and innocent.  It’s also not very challenging.  It doesn’t demand that you do what it wants, the way it wants.  It demands accommodations, but leaves  us in large part in control of things.

Jesus didn’t stay a baby and it’s interesting we know so little about his youth.  We are led to move beyond the wistful hopefulness of gazing at a helpless baby and impossibly young parents, to being challenged to discipleship by a fully-grown Lord and Savior.  It’s easy to simply focus on Christmas and disregard Lent and Easter.  Many Christians do exactly this, and it’s undoubtedly as ill-fitting and misguided as trying to orient a congregation to lure in young people who will stay and propagate and continue the congregational life.

Last night we had another great Happy Hour.  Several new people in the mix.  A musician from our congregation, laboring to hash out a jazzed-up version of A Mighty Fortress on saxophone with an acoustic guitarist.  A potential love-interest for one of our regulars.  A couple from our congregation who visited once a long time ago but, despite their own work with college-aged people for years – have insisted that they’re “too old” to come and hang out.

I got to have conversation with a couple of the guys.  One talking about his relationship status (or lack thereof).  Another curious about the fascination with Christian community that has driven my wife and I all our lives together.

We have a strange and I suspect unusual dynamic on Sunday nights.  Our house has become home to these dozen or so people.  They don’t worry about knocking or ringing the door bell.  They come right in and know they’re welcome.  They bring their friends, roommates, co-workers, and potential love interests.  They add their gifts of food and beverages to the mix and find their seat at the table to join in the next round of whatever game is being played, or wander out back to talk by candlelight, or find a seat off to the side waiting to see who wanders over for quieter discourse.

While my wife and I are well-acquainted with college and young adult ministry, the last time we were actively involved in it we were a lot closer to their age.  Now we’re not.  We’re more like parents.  But sufficiently different.  Different enough that they feel comfortable to be – at least as I imagine it – themselves.  Who they are right now, with these people, in this stage of life.  They don’t have to adopt or fall back into the familiar roles and rituals of being son or daughter at home.  They’re just Derek or Kenny or Brooke at our house.  They can be the adults they are becoming with adults who don’t have preconceived notions or hopes about who those adults should be.  It’s a different conversational dynamic, a different dynamic of identity.

They often talk about how much they value not just being around my wife and I as people their parent’s age, but how they also enjoy hanging out with our kids as adopted, much younger siblings.  And they also have voiced how they appreciate having others who are even older attending and hanging out.  Gleaning perspectives and insights from those who are much further down the path of life than the rest of us.

I wonder how many opportunities and options there are for this sort of dynamic.  Without the power dynamics inherent at work or school.  Just people of different ages and backgrounds gathering together with the understanding that everyone there wants to be there, and wants good things for themselves and the others.  A place where the peace of God the Holy Spirit in Christ flows underneath us like an underground river that occasional surfaces in song or theological discourse.  Something we all at one level or another float along on or dip our feet and toes into, even though our doctrinal understandings might be more fluid than the Holy Spirit himself.

It reminds my wife and I of L’Abri, which has served as an inspirational lighthouse of sorts as we seek to navigate the sometimes treacherous coastlines of Christian community in various incarnations.  I still draw great insights from reading Francis Shaeffer’s works (book review soon to come).  I don’t know if our following along side his footsteps will ever develop into anything quite so formal as his teaching and lecture sessions, I believe that God the Holy Spirit is at work in our informal Sunday evenings, and pray for the guidance as to where to place our next footsteps, trusting that however that might look, it will continue to advocate for multigenerational interactions that convey the faith and refresh it regularly.  In doing so I pray we faithfully follow from the manger to the cross to the empty tomb to the Day of our Lord’s return!

 

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.

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.