Archive for the ‘Ministry’ Category

No Surprises

October 9, 2017

This morning I drove out to the state university to see if I was given a slot for the next eight weeks on the campus AM radio station.  I can’t say I was terribly surprised to not find my name on the list.  Several people had two hour shows, but there was apparently no room for me.  C’est la vie.

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Sharing Community

October 9, 2017

Last night we had three new people come to Happy Hour.  Friends.  Former roommates.  Classmates.  The connections weren’t always clear to me in the blur of looking after 13 or so guests.

Happy Hour continues to grow and evolve.  We’ll be losing our two founding members before the end of the year, a prospect that none of us are happy with, yet we’re also excited for them as they continue to discover the trajectories in their lives.  But we have plenty of other folks stepping up and stepping in.  More people are bringing food items to share which broadens the experience further and adds to that sense of belonging.  It is becoming less something that they show up at, and more something that they participate in.

One of our stalwarts brings a variety of musical instruments with him each week, whether it’s a banjo or a mandolin, an electric guitar and amp, a miniature steel drum – there’s always something new to throw into the mix with our bongos and guitars and ukuleles.

The evening wrapped up about midnight when I kicked the last 3-4 folks out after they  finished up the games our kids taught them (Jungle Speed and Dobble – lots o’ fun!).  Watching our three kids play games and laugh with these people who are becoming more like older brothers and sisters is beautiful.

Change is hard, but so is remaining static.  It will be fun to see what the coming months hold with this group!

Making Up Is Hard to Do

October 2, 2017

You see it on social media all the time.  Those pithy little encouraging quotes about how you should just ditch anybody in your life that disagrees with you about anything because you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.  Life should be an unending stream of positive affirmations and warm fuzzies, and if anybody doesn’t fit that mold, you don’t need them.

Yet the Bible calls us to a fundamentally different understanding of life and people, radically re-oriented not around ourselves but around a man who lived and died and came back to life 2000 years ago.  In professing faith in that series of events and the reality that He did those things for us, we give our lives over in obedience to him and what He tells us about how to live.  We no longer get to define our life by how warm and fuzzy and affirming it is, because our Lord warns us that “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you” (John 15:18).  And we no longer get to simply throw people out of our lives when they do or say something we don’t agree with because our Lord commands us “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15).

But this is really, really, really hard work.  Supernaturally hard, I would argue, and possible only by the grace of God (whether the people involved are aware of this or not).  And last night at Happy Hour, we got to see and participate in such a miracle.

Two of the young men who come on Sunday nights hit it off badly when they first met a couple of months ago.  Unfortunately, the friction of that first meeting has lingered and in the last two weeks has erupted into very angry comments from one of them towards the other.  I wasn’t there last week to see it, but fortunately I was there last night to see it as it unfolded.  And more blessedly, I wasn’t the only one.  With the help of a couple of other people and by the grace and wisdom of God the Holy Spirit, we were able to begin interjecting ourselves into the situation in order to shift it from an angry outburst into an opportunity for personal sharing and learning about the parties involved.

This went on for at least an hour.  It seemed like six hours!  Each of the two had a chance to share about themselves and one another.  They sought input from the three of us as to what we saw and heard going on.  We discussed possible reasons for the way these two rubbed each other the wrong way.  They hugged and affirmed their love for one another, exhibiting a mutual commitment to learning how to deal with one another.  By the time everyone left just before midnight, I was exhausted, but also excited.  The group had accomplished something important together, and I think that God was glorified in that process.

I’m sure that things will still be strained.  The two people involved operate very differently.  But we can now work with them as necessary to call them back to last evening and their commitment to one another.  I look forward to seeing how the coming weeks play out in their interactions.  Awkward, undoubtedly, but hopefully improving over time!

When Things Click

September 18, 2017

Last night we had a dozen people (in addition to our family of five) for happy hour.  And for what felt like the first time, I was able to have a series of meaningful discussions one on one with people in the midst of the overall hullabaloo.  We had people around until almost midnight, and there was a lot of time for good interactions.

There was the guy who wanted to know how I could say in my sermon that morning that I had no doubt that the events in Genesis – specifically the Joseph story – were historically accurate.  We were able to talk about history and documents and whether it’s more reasonable to assume an attitude that none of it can be true because we can’t prove it’s true, or whether we trust what it says because we don’t have good reason not to.

I got to speak with a young woman who desperately wants her younger brother to move out West, in no small part so he can come on Sunday nights and begin connecting to people in various ways.

I was able to facilitate another young man who is preparing for bartending school by letting him make a variety of drinks for people instead of me doing it all.

I got to speak to someone who helps out with music at our church about increasing and diversifying the types of music and the number of people we get involved.

My wife was able to have a side discussion with a newly married young woman on the sensitive issue of birth control and the risk considerations of utilizing pharmaceutical methods.  I was able to talk with this same young woman about coming to church instead of pretending that Sunday happy hour is church.

Part of what was different last night was that I deliberately made myself sit down in the fray for an extended period of time, which allowed for different people to gravitate in and out and engage in conversation, instead of me focusing solely on making drinks and washing dishes and doing all the things that a host does.  Part of the draw for Sunday nights I think is that they are intergenerational.  People get to interact with our kids as well as my wife and myself, and they want those opportunities.

And of course, one of the best parts of every Sunday night is the post-event debriefing, when my wife and I sit or collapse with a cup of tea and recount our various observations and interactions, comparing notes, encouraging one another, tucking bits away mentally for future reference if needed.  It’s the best part of the evening to sit with my best friend in the world and my partner in life and talk about how good God is!

Mixing Up the Mixers

September 4, 2017

Last night was a wonderful happy hour.  One of my concerns about the community that has been forming on Sunday nights at our house is that it is almost completely made up of graduates from the local private Christian university.  Thus a lot of those stories and experiences form a major portion of the conversations that go on.  It’s more of a historically oriented discussion about who people were and what people did, which makes it difficult for my wife and I and others to join in.

But last night the mix was more even, with almost half the folks not coming from that school.  These weren’t regulars but folks that are part of our church community about half the time.  Plus one of the folks there last night is new to our area and worshiped with us for the first time that morning.  I invited he and his wife and he showed up.  It was cool to see him comfortable mingling, so much so that he stayed over four hours, until things started wrapping up!

The Epistle lesson for yesterday was the final sections of Romans 12.  Verse 13 includes an exhortation to show hospitality.  I never know how hard to emphasize this.  Obviously, our family is tuned in to this particular spiritual gifting and find it both beautiful and important.  It’s also exhausting – particularly after a week filled with people.  But it’s part of who we are.  But as a culture we seem more isolated, more fearful of people we don’t know well.  Less inclined to open our homes to someone that we don’t know.

I don’t know how hard to push people on this.  There are many types of giftings, after all, and certainly hospitality is not one that everyone will share.  But it’s also one that rarely if ever gets talked about in our larger culture or even within Christian community and church.  It seems like something we ought to be examining more closely since it’s not part of our larger cultural practice.  Welcoming the stranger and showing love to people is intimidating but also so rewarding.  Every week we’re reminded of how important this simple thing is – being available, being willing to welcome people into our home to show them love with food and drink.

How many people out there have this gift and are using it?  And should we be talking about it more?  Not in the sense of pressuring others to do likewise, but in terms of reminding the body of the value of this seemingly simple act?

 

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.

 

 

Authentic Community?

August 6, 2017

I’ve shared a bit about how I’ve struggled, internally, with the concept of Christian community.  More accurately, I’ve struggled with how other people might want to define Christian community.  What makes it valid, legitimate, authentic?  There are no shortage of answers to those questions.  I’m sure that some folks would define Christian community as centered in worship, but then that begs the question of how is worship defined?  Is worship always and only defined as the Divine Service of Sunday mornings?  Is worship only where the Word or Sacraments are explicitly presented, or can these form the backdrop, the living context in which human beings are gathered?  Does Christian community only exist when acts of service are performed?  But how do we define acts of service?  Is it only reaching out to the socially or economically marginalized?  Or does it involve nursing and nurturing people through heartbreak, through disappointment, into joy?

Perhaps the confusion isn’t the nature of community so much as the nature of ministry.  If a congregation supports an outreach, a ministry to a group of people, what does this mean?  Are there explicit or implicit assumptions and expectations?  Is that outreach only valid when a certain set of criteria are met?  Or is just loving people and being together enough?

It seems that in most church-sponsored ministry, something gets done.  What if there are no tangible outcomes?  No quilts made?  No bags for the homeless stuffed?  No meals prepared?  No funds raised?  Not that any of these things are bad, of course!  It’s wonderful that God’s people are motivated to show love in so many ways!  But is such a tangible outcome the only criteria for a ministry?

As pastor I feel an obligation – a reasonable one – to be a good steward of my community’s resources.  Certainly those resources that are allocated to my work in various ministries.  Perhaps that’s what makes me most uncomfortable, the worry that some might view a ministry as pointless or irrelevant – ultimately as a bad investment for not meeting certain expectations.  On the other hand, I also feel it’s important to model what I believe the life of faith looks like.  Imperfectly, to be sure.  But intentionally as much as I can.

There are various ministries described in the Bible, but the command is ultimately to love our neighbor and to love our God.  That means I need to be comfortable – and encourage others to be comfortable – simply in loving one another.  When opportunity and interest present themselves to be of tangible service in some way, wonderful!  But love is often intangible, expressed in word and presence rather than in product.  Much like our Lord comes to us in worship – in Word and Sacrament, promising us that the Holy Spirit within us has drawn us into community.  His community.  Not based on what we do but who we are in faith.

So I have to trust that it’s enough to just gather, with gathering being the main point.  Joy in one another and the peculiar vibe created around family and friends, food and drink.  The simple enjoyment of the Lord’s good gifts on so many levels.  It isn’t always easy.  It’s definitely work (at least being the hosts and preparing for the gathering each week!).  But it’s work I enjoy and look forward to, never knowing quite what is going to happen, who is going to be there, and how we will be blessed through and in it.  But never doubting that we have been blessed in it, that we are, and that we will continue to be.

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.

 

Hope Isn’t Expedient

June 27, 2017

In my line of work I hear a lot of difficult stories.  People moving through hard experiences.  Illnesses.  Family difficulties.  Broken relationships.  Unexpected adversities.

I’ve realized over time that the people who tell me the storytellers break down into two basic categories – those who want hope, and those who want help.  While these two things often are found together, they aren’t necessarily always.  But often the distinction is driven by the person speaking – I am either someone who conveys real hope, or I am someone to help them with a particular situation.  I am part of a bigger story and picture filled with hope, or I am an expedient means to an end.

The people in my community are in the first category.  Maybe they’re members of my congregation.  Maybe they’re regulars at Sunday Happy Hour.  They are present in community aside from any particular need.  Needs arise, to be sure, and when possible the community gathers around to try and meet the need.  But when the need passes or is met they continue in the community, seeing that community and their place in it as part and parcel with having their needs met but also as a source of hope and strength and comfort.  They see their needs as part of a larger picture that can best (and I would argue only) be met through intentional, consistent Christian community.

Community teaches us that struggles come and go.  Joys arrive and depart.  There remains a steady underlying reality that contextualizes these things and makes them respectively easier to bear and more enjoyable.  Our troubles are less overwhelming in some degree because we are a part of other people’s lives and know that they have troubles as well.  Our joys are heightened as we are able to share them with people who know us and care for us.  One day we are helping someone in need, the next day we are the ones who are being lifted up in care and prayer.

Other people I meet randomly are only looking for a temporary fix.  They need help with their car insurance, or this month’s rent, or groceries, or a bus pass.  Many of these are to some degree workable.  I’m blessed to serve a community with some assets set aside to help and care for people in need, and it is a wonderful experience to be able to do so.  Whenever it is appropriate, I encourage these people to join us for worship.  I ask if they have a community of faith or another support network that they can draw strength and encouragement as well as tangible help from.

Overwhelmingly the answer is no.  Not only is it no, they don’t want this.  They won’t come to church.  Won’t go get help at a shelter.  What they see is a very limited and specific need and what they want help with is that particular need.  Perhaps I can and will help them or perhaps I can’t or won’t, but they aren’t interested in hearing anything that extends beyond that particular need to the larger picture.  Despite the fact that my community is willing and able to help them, they don’t see any value in the community itself, only what that community might provide them at a single point in time.

Recently our community provided a young family in need with $1500 in a matter of three days.  All from members who desired to be a blessing and help.  The family isn’t part of our church, and from my limited talk with the guy, not a part of any Christian community – though desirous of one.  In the three days between their request and me delivering the check he was in constant contact.  Sending pictures of his daughter, etc.  As soon as he received the check, he cancelled the appointment we had set up for the next day.  For the last month he’s talked about rescheduling but something always comes up.

We didn’t help this family so they would join our congregation (though of course I’m always hopeful!).  But we did help them out of love first poured out into our lives from the Son of God.  We did it in faithfulness to how God wants us to live, and out of love for this family as part of that witness of faith.  And, we did what many individuals and even other communities could or would not do.  It baffles me that this man wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about and getting closer to our community.

The objective reader may point out that we’ve simply been taken advantage of.  Scammed.  Used.  Conned.  And this is of course possible (though for some compelling reasons I don’t think so in this particular case).  I’ve certainly helped other folks that I was sure were feeding me a line of bull  But even if that were the case, wouldn’t a con artist be interested in learning more about a group of people so willing to give of themselves?  To be sure, I don’t want con artists in my community.  Not if they’re insistent on remaining con artists.  But I do want con artists in my community so that the Holy Spirit might actually change them.  The early Christians were noted for their love and care for one another in adversity.  Now people are hopeful or even expectant of such love, but they see it only in terms of a particular need at a particular time, not as something which might transform their lives through the power of God the Holy Spirit.  And for those who aren’t con artists, who are really in need, I want them in our community to see the power and love of Jesus at work in tangible ways.  I don’t think you can experience that and not be affected by it at some level.  St. Paul and St. James clearly think you can’t.

Perhaps that is, in part, what keeps some people from community and the hope of real change and improvement.  Perhaps change isn’t really what some people want.  They simply want expediency.  This particular need met.  When the next particular need arises, they’ll figure out how to handle that.  But this issue here and now, and nothing more.  Not hope.  Perhaps they are so beleaguered are entrenched in their ways of thinking and being that it isn’t possible to even imagine something more or better.  Which means I should probably be praying more for them, that they would recognize what their greatest and deepest need truly is, and who alone can provide them not simply with help, but with hope.

 

Happy Endings

December 9, 2016

I saw Mike again this morning.

It’s been probably six months since he arrived at the Rescue Mission to begin a year-long residential recovery program for drug and alcohol addicted men.  He only lasted a couple of weeks there.  I had asked them to consider him, and while my request probably didn’t amount to much, I felt bad for recommending someone that wouldn’t complete the program.

I had hopes for a happy ending for Mike.  I had hopes that he and I could continue to grow together in the faith someplace other than jail.  I had hoped that despite a lifetime of drug addiction he could enter the Rescue Mission and receive the help he talked about wanting.  I had hopes that he could graduate clean and stay clean.

My happy endings are rather high bars, but I’m learning to lower them.

It’s that I’ve changed my mind about what would justly constitute a truly happy ending, or that I’ve accepted a life of addiction as somehow acceptable or desirable for anyone.  I haven’t gone soft on what ought to be, but perhaps I’m learning to look for the silver linings more in the storm clouds.   I realize that not everyone is going to have the happy ending I wish they would.

So it was a happy thing to see Mike this morning in jail.  Not at church, not at the Rescue Mission.  But at jail.  It meant that he’s safe for the moment.  He’s in familiar territory, a place that he knows very well.  Those are good things.  It means he’s not on the streets.  Not cold.  Not strung out.  Not vulnerable to a bad batch of dope or the transient cruelty of other street people or the random pedestrian or driver.

I know Mike will get his happy ending someday.  I know we’ll see each other in a better place through faith in Jesus Christ.  But for now I’ll content myself with this passing happy ending.  He’s safe today.  We could pray together today.

And for Mike, maybe that’s enough to be thankful for right there.