Archive for the ‘Vocation’ Category

Schrödinger’s Meth-Head

July 21, 2019

Almost exactly a year ago I created a Schrödinger’s Meth-Head situation that is still ongoing.

Schrödinger is  famous for a thought experiment involving a cat in a sealed steel box with a bit of radioactive material inside along with a hammer and a small glass vial of hydrogen cyanide.  If a single atom of the radioactive material decayed, it would trigger a mechanism that would drop the hammer, shatter the vial, and the cat would die from the poisonous gas.  On the other hand, if no atom decayed, the cat would remain alive.   There was no way to know the status of the cat without opening the steel box.  The cat effectively would remain both dead and alive simultaneously (effectively) until somebody could verify the status.

I have no idea what happened to that young woman.  I still pray and like to think she got on the bus and did the right thing.  Nothing in my experience with recovering addicts in the last year leads me to think this is very likely.  But I can pray it is.  That she’s in recovery, getting the help she needs, moving on with her life.

I’m undecided as to whether I like this status of not knowing.  It is what it is.  And ultimately, regardless of whether she made it home or not, I can pray that her life is better today than it was a year ago when our paths crossed.

So I do.

Reading Ramblings – July 21, 2019

July 14, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Sixth Sunday after Pentecost ~ July 21, 2019

Texts: Genesis 18:1-14; Psalm 27; Colossians 1:15-29; Luke 10:38-42

Context: Two women, separated by roughly 2000 years but perhaps little else. Both tending households. Both given the unique opportunity to serve the Son of God (I side with those who see in Old Testament accounts of a physically present God a pre-figuring of the Son of God, Jesus). Each one listening in to a conversation the Son of God is having with someone else in the household. Each one preoccupied with their duties yet hoping perhaps for something more. So many different nuances in these passages. Hospitality. Domesticity. The presence of God with his people, and the love and care of God for his people even when they are focused on other things.

Genesis 18:1-14 – The assigned reading only goes through the first half of verse 10, indicating that the intended focus is on Sarah serving, rather than the divine exchange with her regarding a promised son and clarifying the relationship between this passage and the Gospel. However the story is so classic that it seems a shame not to finish it out! Sarah is busy with her duties. Her husband sits at leisure with his guests. She does all the work, yet Abraham has the honor of being the host who presents the meal to his guests. Yet as Sarah labors behind the scenes, seemingly unnoticed, it is clear that she is not unnoticed. The Lord inquires of her. But this is hardly necessary. The Lord who created Sarah knows her better than she knows herself. And He loving passes over her dishonesty and incredulity. More important things are afoot, and Sarah is remembered thousands of years later because of them and the promise that she would bear in the birth of Isaac.

Psalm 27 – The assigned portion of this psalm is just the second half – verses 7-14. Again I believe this is done to narrow the focus but I prefer to read complete sections of Scripture rather than fragments whenever possible. These words might well have been spoken by Sarah or Martha in their hearts, but the texts are silent on the matter. Likewise the texts are effectively silent as to what prayers Sarah and Martha might have prayed and waited for answers on, though Sarah’s thoughts in Genesis 18:12 might be interpreted as evidence of many years of frustrated prayer. The emphasis in the latter half of this psalm is patience, trust not only in the Lord’s care and presence but his timing, which may not always line up with our own preferred timelines. The psalmist faces adversity in the form of enemies. If this is a psalm of David then it might refer to the rebellion of his son Absalom. But the main emphasis for the speaker is rightness with God, proper worship and contemplation of the divine more than a particular prayer for deliverance. Deliverance is presumed: the Lord is capable of delivering the psalmist from any situation, and while the psalmist prays for such deliverance from this present situation (vs. 5-6), the psalm as a whole is more an assertion of the Lord’s ongoing and eternal goodness, and the importance of right relationship with God as the foremost concern.

Colossians 1:15-29 – I’m not sure why the assigned reading skips vs. 15-20. Yes, it’s a discrete unit of thought and therefore easily removed, but if the point of lectio continua is to read portions of Scripture in whole, it makes no sense to exclude this. And in fact, what appears to be a tangential discussion of the nature of the Son of God is in fact very important in tying together the assurance of forgiveness and redemption in v. 14b with the reality of who the Colossians used to be in v.21. It is because of the eternal and divine nature of the Son of God, Jesus the Messiah, that the Colossians can rest assured of their grace and forgiveness. These are real things they can trust because of the reality and trustworthiness of God the Father himself, acting through and in God the Son. It is our faith that binds us to these promises.

But invariably the focus is drawn to vs. 24-25. What is Paul saying here? Were Christ’s sufferings somehow insufficient or inadequate? Is Paul adding to what Christ accomplished, improving upon it, extending it somehow? We must be careful with the language here. The concept of affliction is never associated with Christ’s redemptive death. Jesus dying for our sins on the cross is never described in Scripture as an affliction. But the nature of his public ministry might well be described as a long series of afflictions(Matthew 8:20, etc.). And Jesus makes it clear to his disciples that they will likewise endure many things for his name (Matthew 10:25, etc.). So Paul’s meaning here might be better translated as furthering the afflictions which Jesus suffered, just as many of the faithful over the centuries have endured terrible things for the sake of Jesus’ name. Paul’s sufferings in this respect have no bearing on salvation – they are not meritorious for the forgiveness of sins as Jesus’ afflictions and suffering and death were. But they are instructive to those who come after, just as Jesus’ personal ministry style was instructive to those who came after. All this to the end of making the Word of God fully known (v.25).

Luke 10:38-42 – The Gospel reading is the centerpiece text on any given Sunday. I’m not sure I’m completely comfortable with this, as it might mislead people somehow into thinking that it’s really just the red-letter aspects of the Bible – the things Jesus specifically said or did – that are somehow qualitatively better than the rest of Scripture. It might be said that they are oftentimes clearer, clarifying Scriptural interpretation for us, but the entire Bible is the Word of God. Yet it is true that the Old Testament points forward in various ways to the incarnation of the Son of God, and there is a logical rightness to making this incarnation the focal point.

Once again the woman in the domestic setting, providing for the needs of her honored guests. But it is not just a guest but the Son of God she serves, and as such He knows her and her concerns, perhaps a long history of sibling jealousy or small skirmishes based on personality differences. And yet clearly there is more to it than this, as Jesus declares in v.41. Martha has many things on her mind, perhaps perpetually. Yet only one of those many things is important, and only one of them sits in her house, present and tangible, teaching and sharing. Surely this is more important than a meal?

Notice that Jesus doesn’t tell Martha to quit making the food and come in and sit down. It isn’t what she’s doing that’s wrong, but rather how she’s feeling, and her desire to compel her sister to the same priorities as herself. Rather than reinforcing Martha’s request that Mary come and help her, Jesus makes it clear that He will not do this, but rather affirms Mary’s priority. Compare this to Psalm 24. David had many things on his mind as well but he knew what was most important. It is this Martha has lost sight of.

Jesus is the one needful thing. Our acts of service are demonstrations of love of God and neighbor and the world has need of them. We can’t all sit at Jesus’ feet 24/7. But even as we labor in our vocations, we can keep our eyes fixed on him, knowing that what we do ultimately is for and because of him. This should guide not just our actions but our motivations and attitudes.

Pumps & Systems

July 9, 2019

That’s the name of the magazine.  Really.

Thanks to Lois for sharing this article with me.  It’s a brief story about Mike Rowe, the guy who became famous for a show about dirty jobs and has gone on to become a leading proponent for re-introducing the trades to upcoming generations who are almost exclusively steered towards a 4-year degree – and the associated debt which more often than not goes along with it.

It’s something we continue to talk with our kids as they get older (17, 14, and 13) and look to the future.  As a former university faculty member I value education greatly.  But I also know there are many ways to learn throughout your life that don’t require the debt and other issues associated with a 4-year degree.  I worked my way through my undergraduate degree because back then you could still do that with part-time jobs.  Now even if you go to an in-state public school you aren’t going to be able to work and pay your way through it.

There’s nothing wrong with considering the trades.  Lord knows we need good, honest plumbers, electricians, and all manner of other folk to survive, and this is a beautiful way of loving your neighbor as you love God.  It isn’t necessarily for everyone, but neither is college.

I hope more and more folks will consider all of their options – or all of the options for their kids and grandkids.  You don’t need a college degree to be intelligent.  You don’t need six figures of student loan debt to be well-rounded.   You just need to know who you are and how God has gifted you.

People of the State

June 26, 2019

Our state legislature is considering adopting an assembly concurrent resolution encouraging religious leaders to reject conversion therapy and not recommend or promote it within their circles.  ACR-99 has no binding effect – it does not create a law.  It’s simply an encouragement from both houses of the state legislature indicating the hope of the people of the state.  The governor is not required to sign an ACR, but I’m sure he will sign this one.

What I find interesting is how religious leaders are encouraged to act in the best interests of the people of the state by rejecting conversion therapy as an option for people with same-sex attraction.

I’m a citizen of the state, and yet I’m being told my best interests arbitrarily are not to be considered.  Likewise, those desiring conversion therapy in hopes of mitgating  or eliminating same-sex attraction are being told that their best interests are not considered, despite them being citizens as well.

Religious leaders do  not interact with people primarily in terms of their citizenship of a state or a country for that matter.  At least in the Biblical Christian understanding, ministers are ultimately to deal with people as children of God.  Creations and creatures being their most fundamental identity rather than the state flag on their drivers license or their voter registration cards.  And as such, how I interact with people will be driven by that level of identity understanding, not the whims of the current cultural or political climate.  It is not possible for me to adequately love people – as the ACR indicates – reliably from any other source or through any other identity.

I haven’t had to refer anyone for counseling for same-sex attraction issues.  Yet.  But I take issue with the state implying I should take my cues on how to do this from them rather than from the Word of God.

Church Seeks Pastor

June 17, 2019

That was the title of a mailer I received a few weeks ago.  Unsolicited, I might add.

It’s a slick, good looking 4″x6″ mailer card. Sturdy.  Full of pictures of smiling people of all ages and nationalities in a variety of presumably service settings.  The sort of thing I imagine is quite effective in some denominational or non-denominational circles, but hardly in mine.  At least, as far as I know.

It shouldn’t be surprising, I suppose.  In a day and age where many American churches have adopted all sorts of ideas, assumptions, practices, and language from corporate America, why not solicit for a new theological CEO the same way?

In our polity, congregations in need of a new pastor coordinate with regional officers of our denomination who provide a list of vetted names to the congregation for their explorations.  The congregation can get names from other venues, but that’s frowned upon by our officers.  While we affirm the Holy Spirit’s guidance and involvement in all of this, we effectively spend a lot more time on politics and other human endeavors than we do in prayer.  If the Holy Spirit would just send us memos or something, it would be a lot simpler.

Though I’d argue a lot less comfortable, as well!

This methodology of advertising for a pastor is questionable at best, in my opinion.  Anyone can curate a few photos and come up with a perky-sounding description of the congregation.  And for a pastor in a difficult parish or situation, how tempting would it be to say What the heck?  Why not just send them a note and see what the Holy Spirit does?  And while I won’t ever claim the Holy Spirit couldn’t work in a situation or through a means like this, it amps up the human aspect more than I’m comfortable with.    I’ll trust they’re working this through the more established or traditional avenues as well, but this was a new approach to me.

No, I won’t be responding!

Book Review: Peculiar Speech

June 6, 2019

Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized by William H. Willimon

 

This was another suggested text for the preaching workshop I attended in Chicago this week.

(As an aside, if you preach regularly to the people of God, consider checking out this resource – Craft of Preaching.  They sponsored the event, but also provide some good theological resources for those called to proclaim God’s Word.)

This is a fantastic book.  Willimon’s style is enjoyable.  He’s a deeply intelligent man able to convey his ideas in understandable ways without sounding condescending.  He has some fantastic things to think about if you preach to the people of God, not the least of which is to remember that you are preaching to the baptized, to people who are ostensibly the people of God.

My one complaint is that – particularly towards the end of the book – Willimon drifts increasingly into ideas of the Church as adversarial to the powers and structures of the world.  Of course this is true.  But choosing to be adversarial rather than simply preaching the love of God the Father in God the Son Jesus Christ through the power of God the Holy Spirit can be problematic. Yes, the Church must never allow itself to be coopted by the powers of this world (something the Church is very poor  at), but we must also as the Church proclaim the truth and reality of Romans 13.  The Gospel is subversive by its very nature, but if we begin to glory in that adversarial quality, we risk sins of pride and disobedience.  It is truly a difficult line to walk sometimes, particularly in times where the expectation of defiant and inflammatory rhetoric tempts us to grandstand.

Otherwise, there is a lot of good food for thought here if you preach on a regular basis!

Book Review – Justification is for Preaching

June 5, 2019

Justification is for Preaching, Edited by Virgil Thompson

I recently attended a preaching workshop in Chicago.  It was a great workshop, but like most workshops, if there’s a reading list, the workshop is more or less a rehash of prominent ideas from the reading list.  This workshop was no exception, which is both good and bad.

This was one of the suggested texts, a collection of essays in a jubilee volume celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Lutheran Quarterly.   As with many such collections, the essays vary greatly in tone and helpfulness, ranging from the very esoteric and academic to wonderfully applicable theological nuggets.  If you’re a fan of Oswald Bayer or Gerhard O. Forde, they figure prominently and repeatedly in this collection.

I very much appreciaged Forde’s essay Forensic Justification and the Christian Life.  There he grapples with one of the challenges in Lutheran theology – how to describe the Christian life in such a way that it does not either render the Law toothless and optional, or contradict a very Biblical theme of God doing all of the real work of creation, redemption and sanctification.  He picks up on St. Paul’s language of saint and sinner for this.  Typically, we emphasize that we are born anew in Christ through faith and baptism and maintain a sort of dual identity  of saint and sinner throughout our lives, with the sinner gradually, more and more weakening as the saint in us grows.  We are typically exhorted heavily towards this end, or we tend to de-emphasize it in order to better highlight the work of Jesus in our justification and redemption.  Forde does a good job of offering a third alternative where the in-breaking kingdom of God within me expands over time within me, so that the sinner in me is eventually completely squeezed out (at death or our Lord’s return).  The emphasis is the ongoing grace of God the Holy Spirit at work in me, rather than my bulging faith-muscles.  Very helpful.

Also of interest was Forde’s article Preaching the Sacraments, where he discusses the connection between preaching and the sacraments (defined as confession, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper in Lutheran circles) and the importance that preaching not undercut the Sacraments.

If you like theology, and particularly if you are called to a vocation of preaching (or perhaps if it is your vocation to listen to sermons!) this is a helpful book.

Don’t Forget the Seed

May 30, 2019

Last night’s Bible study was very instructive.  We were working our way through the parable of the sower in Mark 4.  Before we continued on to Jesus’ explanation, I had the class flesh out what they thought the various aspects of the story represented:  sower, seed, path, rocky soil, weeds, good soil, etc.  Good conversation and some good insightful answers that often paralleled Jesus’ own explanation.

When Jesus’ disciples ask him to explain the parable to them, he defines the seed as the word.  What did the disciples make of this explanation?  If we assume Mark’s gospel is more or less chronological, this comes pretty early in Jesus’ ministry and the disciples would likely presume the word to mean what Jesus was proclaiming himself in his ministry – the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.

At which point the hearers might have wondered what the gospel, the good news, really was.

I asked the class what they thought Jesus meant by the word in his explanation of the parable in Mark 4.  One said the commandments – this is how you ought to live your life.  Another thought love was the word.  It was clear there was a struggle.

These are answers we like – that the word is basically instructions, insights, secret tips on how to live our best lives now.  Variations on familiar themes.  Encouragements, exhortations, pleadings, even threats – do what you know to be right or else!  Those are things we can deal with.  We can’t fulfill them, of course, but we can allow ourselves to be whipped into a frenzy for short periods of time, believing we can and must and will fulfill them.

But that places the word in ourselves.  We are the answer, the solution, the key to a bountiful harvest in our own life.  We would essentially be Buddhists.  Or Hindus.  Or Muslims.  Or secular humanists.  Or pretty much any other belief system on earth, all of which ultimately place the responsibility for change and accomplishment, for enlightenment or obedience squarely on our shoulders.  Do it.  Discern it.  If you do, you can be proud of your accomplishment (though this is a relative accomplishment, in relation to other people but almost never our own metrics, let alone  God’s!).  If you fail to do it, it’s your own fault and you deserve what you have coming to you.

Only the Bible gives us a word that is outside of ourselves.  Completely, totally, forever outside of ourselves.  And that Word is the Word made flesh, the Son of God, Jesus.

So I wrote out John 3:16 on the board for the class, suggesting that this is a good encapsulation of the good news, the gospel, the word, the seed.  Then, substituting whoever or whosoever with an actual name, I repeated this verse to every single person using their name.  I gave them the seed.

How easy is it to talk about the seed, to reference the word but never define it, never spell it out?  How easy it is to presume that everybody understands what Jesus means by the word, when even his own disciples probably didn’t get it.

This is my job, and I need to remember it and break it down as simply as possible as often as possible.  I’m scattering seed.  It’s not my seed.  It’s not my job to make the seed grow – I can’t do that.  I can simply scatter the seed.  Explicitly.  Spelling it out, as it were, to make sure people actually get the seed.  Are they a well-worn path or rocky soil or full of weeds?  I can’t know that for sure, and I may not be the one to discern that.  But I cast the seed.  If that person is a hardened path with no crack for the seed to fall into, I pray someone else, at another point in time  will cast the same seed again, when perhaps the ground will be more receptive.  That someone else will scatter the word again, when the soil is less rocky, or when more of the weeds have been pulled.

But for the love of God, make sure to preach the Word!  Clearly.  Without assumptions.  Spell it out.  Make it personal and specific.  Make sure you don’t pass over good soil and toss out lint or chaff or anything other than the seed of God, the Word of God!

Agenda-less

May 15, 2019

What a beautiful reminder of the possibilities when things aren’t overscheduled or over-planned.

Wednesday evenings I lead a Bible study.  It started out for people in my congregation who couldn’t make the mid-afternoon weekly study.  We started with one set of topics.  But over time, those folks quit coming, while another group began attending.  A group of three to seven ladies from a local drug & alcohol residential recovery program began coming.  It’s a slightly different group each week, so I’ve had to keep the programming relatively loose.  At times, I worry that our time together lacks direction or purpose on any given evening.  And other nights, I’m reminded of how God can step into situations where there’s a gap.

Tonight there were three ladies who came.   I know these three ladies.  Shortly after they arrived in the program (in one girl’s case – the next day from her arrival)  our family began opening our home each week to the ladies from this program, having three of them over at a time to help cook & eat dinner, to hang out, play board games or video games, and just be part of a family for an evening.  They’re committed to a year-long recovery program that takes some of them out of their families for  a long time, and a chance to just be has turned out to be a welcome thing for them.  Who knew?

But also on hand was a woman from a Friday Bible study I lead at the retirement and assisted living community next door to us.  She’s attended Friday Bible studies for probably five years now – ever since I started offering them there.  She’s 96 years old.  She’s lived long enough to begin worrying about her siblings and now children dealing with cancer and death.

One of the recovery ladies started out, when I asked tonight if there was something they wanted to talk about, simply asking for help.  Her sponsor told her today she thought there was some sort of block between this girl and God that was inhibiting her relationship with God and threatening the success of her recovery.  She was understandably frightened by those words, even as she  acknowledged that she’s suspected this herself for some time.  It was frank and open and honest.  Humble and vulnerable from a young woman known much more for her mischief.

Her honesty set the tone for the evening.  One of the other recovery ladies shared about how she’s been looking for work now for several weeks as she enters the final phase of the recovery program.  But so far her diligence has only resulted in rejections.  And the rejections are piling up and she’s having trouble dealing with them.  Rejection isn’t any fun.  And rejection after seeing your life transformed must be even harder.  She shared – both as part of her story and as encouragement to the young woman who had just shared her difficulty connecting with God – that her way of re-connecting was to look at plants and flowers.  To study one particular one up close, observing it in detail, and that this would lead her to eventual worship of the One who must have created it.  She spoke more this evening than in the entire nine months I’ve known her, and her honesty was breathtaking.

The third lady shared how she had just been admitted – by surprise and two weeks early – to the final phase of the program, and that she’d be starting a transition class at the local community college in the summer but was looking for work in the meantime.  Once again she shared and was open in a beautiful way.  She shared about the way her mother loves her, and is so excited for the new possibilities in her life now that she’s free from her addictions.

Finally the older woman from next door spoke.  She’s a very shy, private woman.  But it was obvious she was delighted and touched by meeting and listening to these younger women.  She talked about how she could relate to each of their struggles, as she had already lived through each of their stages of life.  She offered words of simple encouragement, even as she shared a little of her own struggle in having a husband and siblings pass away before her, and now watching even some of her children struggling with disease.

I heard more tonight from these ladies than I have in months or years.  After I prayed for them each, they exchanged hugs with the older woman, as they were touched by her care and concern for them.

It’s so easy to worry all the time about schedules and plans, agendas and objectives.  Tonight was a beautiful reminder of how God can work in the spaces we leave open.  That given the opportunity beautiful things can and do happen, opportunities to give him thanks and praise as He draws us together in unexpected ways.  I’m grateful for that humbling reminder that it isn’t about me, or about always doing or teaching, and that listening is critical.  When the opportunity arises, listening can be holy work, or more accurately a holy blessing.

Thank you, Lord.

 

 

Missing the Obvious

May 13, 2019

It’s funny how sometimes you don’t see the simplest things right in front of your face.  It’s nice when you can think of it as funny, when missing the obvious doesn’t kill you or cause disaster of one form or another.  But when you can appreciate the irony of how wrapped up we are in ourselves that we sometimes forget who we are.

Thinking through possibilities for the future for my congregation and family, it struck me today that these considerations all come through the aspect of me.  It was not a pleasant thought at first.  After all, who am I?  Certainly, my ideas and hopes and dreams and whatnot should be more objective than that?  Certainly, how I cast a vision for things should be clear to others as the logical, reasonable way forward?

Yet that’s not the case.  Whether I like it or not, and I don’t.

The cult of personality in our culture is so strong and pervasive that I recoil from it as often as possible.  I’m not here to promote me.  Yet in the process of doing what I do, I do it as me.  And therefore, how I do it is different than how anyone else might do it.  This might not be true in some vocations, but it’s true in mine, and I have to deal with it.  Acknowledge it.  Come to grips with it.  Try not to let it destroy me.  Try to determine if what I propose for others is really as reasonable as it seems to me.  The danger of the I overreaching is always crouching nearby, waiting for an opportunity.

So that needs to be taken into account.  The vision I have may not make sense – at least initially to others.  There’s no way to really escape from that.  It may not be a bad thing, but it’s something very pertinent and real to bear in mind.

There’s so much more to learn, even in just the basic, simple, obvious things.