Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections


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What if Covid-19 Changes Nothing?

What is this? This post was inspired by a recent Christian Century article. I want to acknowledge that I am “borrowing” and “revamping” it for my own pastoral purposes. As we are six months into pandemic, you hear two competing ideas. On one hand, people are anxious to get back to normal. This is about the economy, social life, and getting out of isolation. We want our lives back. On the other hand, people are declaring we will be forever changed by this crisis. There is almost a longing for our world to be transformed, much like the Greatest Generation was shaped by the Great Depression. Yet, when we experience seismic events like 9/11, school shootings, hurricanes, Iraq War, and the latest doomsday report on climate change, collectively we don’t seem to budge much on our lifestyle choices. The same could be said when you and I experience our own personal apocalypses like a heart attack, divorce, bout of depression, or financial collapse. In the aftermath, we will say, “things will be different after that”, but do we really make any meaningful changes? As for me, I am torn, I look forward to getting back to normal, to going to the Y, meeting friends, and worshiping without masks. But, part of me wonders if I am squandering this “opportunity”. Yes, maybe this is an opportunity to grow and change, or more biblically, repent and reorient. And what about our nation, will we seek to grow and change, to not just acknowledge racial injustice but take substantive action to change? Or will we revert to our default self-preoccupation and preserving comfort?

What does this mean? In one of his more obscure parables (Luke 11: 24-26), Jesus tells the story of a house that has been vacated by an evil spirit. In this parable, the house is symbolic for your life and what occupies your life. Evidently, the evil spirit was forced to evacuate against his will, presumably by God. But, the problem is once the house has been cleansed and restored, that there was nothing meaningful to occupy the house. So the demon that was originally ousted, comes back to the house and brings some demonic associates along and it is one wicked party! The final condition of the house is way worse than it was before the exorcism. The power of that story is that, tragically, it is so very applicable to earthly life. Consider a woman who is an alcoholic, is able to finally stop drinking, but cannot or will not fill her life with a life-giving alternative. In AA, they use the phrase “dry drunk” for a person who stops drinking but maintains the same behaviors. Getting sober is more complex that simply abstaining from alcohol. You don’t have to have an addiction to relate to the story. Sadly, in our sinfulness, this is the way things are, we don’t want to really change our attitudes, behaviors, and assumptions, even if it hurts others, even if it hurts us. We prefer to live in denial or distraction or deception rather than hear the hard truth, be compelled to repent, and make demanding changes. This isn’t limited to racial justice, although that is very much before us with the Black Lives Matter movement. What about your need to have a thankful heart or the way you take your spouse for granted? Isn’t God calling you to be less critical and more encouraging to your congregation? For me, the pandemic challenge for change has been around my need to be in control. Ever since life, in general, shutdown in March, I have been going through withdrawl from my controlism.

What is the takeaway? At first, I was apoplectic as I had to cancel a calendar full of adventures; Mexico Mission, Canadian fishing trip, and Mediterranean cruise. Perhaps, you had to abruptly change plans, as well. I am a slow learner, so it has taken me months to let go of my need to map out the future and see growth at the church. Through no fault or effort of my own, I have accepted my current lack of command of the world. Not unlike, Jonah in the belly of the whale, I don’t have much choice. But, when the pandemic finally spits me up on shore, when we are back to “normal”, how will I be different, will I be different? Will my controlling demons return to take up residence in my house? This is the crux of this time, a question of faith. I guess you could say there is a third competing idea in the mix, that this is a time of apocalypse. Apocalypse means “unveiling” and “disclosure”, and biblically speaking, it refers to revealing the spiritual truth of what is going on? What is God up to in this pandemic? I, for one, do not think God is punishing us for our sins or about to shred the sky so Jesus can come again in glory, although that would sure be a nice surprise. One thing is for sure, I certainly feel humbled by the pandemic, as I am confident you do, as well. Heavenly reminder, YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL. And if anything is being revealed, it is the inequalities, inadequacies, and injustices, that we are content to leave hidden from sight. It has also revealed amazing and awe-inspiring acts of kindness and mercy. Terrible and beautiful truths are being revealed to us in these apocalyptic days. Could the worse thing we do in response to the pandemic, after an effective vaccine is distributed, for us to go back, unchanged, to our normal lives?


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Saying Farewell during the Pandemic

What is this? This last Monday, our family gathered with the rest of Elizabeth’s family to say farewell to her mother, Lavonne. We rendezvoused on Guemes Island, across from Anacortes, at a small cemetery on the island for Lavonne’s committal. We drove round-trip for six hours for what amounted to a ten minute service. It was all worth the time and effort because it was so important. During this pandemic, one of the cruelest realities is you cannot have an authentic funeral service, without compromising the worship and limiting the crowd size. Funeral homes now have to wear Personal Protective Equipment like goggles, face-shields, and gowns. At our church, since the pandemic, we have had four people who have died, who are all “on the list”. For a long time, society has increasingly come to believe that death is an expected event, a biological inevitability, no more and no less, that must simply be faced bravely. Beyond this, there are no cultural or religious meanings to be extracted. Death may make us sad, but whatever responses of memory and mourning result, these are personal, inward, and fleeting experiences. So more people are choosing the “no service” option. The reasoning is this grieving business is best handled privately, without the charade of a public ceremony. “I don’t want to trouble my family.” Christians believe there is such a thing as a good death and that should be remembered at a good funeral in community because that is worth the trouble.

What does this mean? According to Thomas Lynch, “A good funeral is one that gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be”. The dead need to be moved from the place of death to the place final disposition. This all sounds so mundane and mechanical, but it matters. With so many funerals on hold, families are keeping the cremains of loved ones at home in the interim until an appropriate time. In Genesis, the patriarchs make their offspring take an oath that they will do whatever it takes to get their parents’ bodies and bones back to Canaan. Genesis 35:29 “Then Isaac breathed his last and was gathered to his people, old and full of years. His sons, Esau and Jacob buried him.” I actually preached on that passage at my own mother’s graveside as we buried her next to her parents in Indiana. Place matters. The only patriarch who was not taken directly back to Canaan after his death was Joseph, he was actually embalmed. However, 300 years later, at the Exodus, Moses retrieved Joseph’s body (not sure there was much left) and took it along to the Promised Land, so even Joseph got there. For Christians, your baptism is completed at your death. So when God’s people gather at a graveside, they accompanying a fellow saint “all the way” into God’s everlasting arms.

What is the takeaway? What does it mean “to get the living to where they need to be”? As a pastor, I hear families say things like “I need closure” or “we’re looking for resolution”. Grief is never as need and tidy as the popular Kuebler-Ross five stages of grief. Nor can grief be reduced to psychological symptoms like depression, anxiety, and despair. It is far more dynamic and complicated than that. For the living to get to where they need to be, they must REMEMBER. As I am using the word, to remember means more than do not forget. To receive Holy Communion, to do this in remembrance of Jesus, is to not just to recall Christ’ death and resurrection. We receive salvation, and go out refreshed, seeking to serve in Jesus’ name. In the church, we remember the poor, remember our baptism, and, also, remember the saints. A good funeral is where saints gather, where there is laughter and tears, where the life of the one beloved by God is put into perspective, is understood in light of eternity and through the lens of the death and resurrection of Christ. Where we are confronted with our own mortality and the transience of life. Unlike some pastors, I think there is a place for sharing of stories and memories during a funeral service. But, it must not overshadow the eternal story of God’s sovereignty and Christ’ victory over death we share through our baptism. Thomas Long writes, “In the Christian faith we do not seek closure as much as we pray that all our lost loves will be gathered into the great unending story fashioned by God’s grace.” That is where we want to be.

 


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Pandemic: To Blame, Repent, or Rush In?

What is this? A prominent Texas church rented a billboard for commuters to see, “Is the coronavirus a judgment from God?” Good question. Reactions from Christian pastors to the pandemic has really run the gamut, ranging from blaming our godlessness to a humbling call to repent to rush back in to normalcy because God has your back. Pastor Ralph Drollinger who leads a bible study for President Trump’s cabinet wrote on his blog that disease is “God’s consequential wrath on our nation”. His message is when you violate God’s precepts you will suffer consequences, aka: there is hell to pay. Pastor Tony Spell of Baton Rouge has defiantly refused to shut down his congregation, rather inviting people to gather for singing, dancing, slaying of the Spirit, and, pandemic or not, even laying on of hands for healing. He declared, “The bible tells to lay hands on the sick and they shall recover and will continue to do that without the fear of the spread of any virus”. I admit there is biblical basis for both sides, but both pastors take it to an irrational extreme. Yes, Scripture has stories of judgment when, unrighteousness has consequences, like Sodom in Genesis and Egypt in Exodus, but these are actually complex stories that cannot, or at least shouldn’t be simplified to justify your narrow view. What really surprises in those bible stories is just how merciful God is, in the midst of judgment.

What does this mean? The other extreme basically suggests that your faith is God’s insurance and armor against suffering, disease, negativity, and inconveniences. Given the experience of Job, Jesus, and all the saints, Christians are not invincible just resilient. Again, there are stories in Scripture of miraculous healings and divine protection, but to universalize that is foolish and potentially, dangerous. Historian John Meacham was asked about churches rushing to reopen in a pandemic. He simply said, “I don’t believe the Christian Church has ever taught us to be intentionally stupid.” Having said all that, I choose door number three, “Repent!” In Luke 13, Jesus is asked to explain why some unfortunates were killed by Pilate’s soldiers as they worshiped. In his answer, Jesus also includes some victims that were crushed under a tower that collapsed in a natural disaster. Jesus is covering the waterfront for human suffering, human evil and natural disasters. Whether it is the Holocaust or lynching, earthquake or hurricane, pandemic or police brutality, Jesus’ answer is “Repent or perish!” Jesus is not very pastoral, he is downright perturbed. What gives? Think of this way, we come off pretty presumptuous, “God, with suffering like this, you owe us an explanation”. Jesus is turning the tables, “Listen up, God is the Creator and Judge, so friend you owe God an explanation”.

What is the takeaway? The bible doesn’t bother to explain evil or justify suffering. God just works with that reality on the way to salvation. Remember, God make the sun to shine on the good and bad, the rain to fall on the just and unjust. We live in a world that is fallen, unfair, and random things happen. Not everything happens for a discernible reason. This doesn’t change the reality we are blessed, God gives daily bread and beauty is all around. When we are in way over our heads, like during the current pandemic, or more personally when someone we love has cancer, we are desperate to know why and what’s next. Jesus is telling us, instead of looking for an answer, someone to blame, or some super power to transcend our troubles, we are to repent. We tend to associate repent with groveling, regrets, and extreme guilt. Not so, to repent is to come to your senses, to turn around and turn to God. True repentance spends less time looking at the past and saying “I’m sorry” and more time looking to the future and saying “Wow!”. To repent means you are positioning yourself before God to begin anew. If this pandemic is here because of divine judgment, natural origins, or human causes, the answer is way above my pastoral pay grade. But, one thing is for sure, the pandemic has humbled us, caused us to slow down, reflect on our mortality, and shaken our daily lives. It is a good time to repent, to humbly enter the presence of Our Father in Heaven. As I mentioned earlier, I am amazed how much grace and mercy is found in biblical judgement stories. If you read Genesis 19, it is hard to believe how patient and persistent God’s angels are in saving Lot, who doesn’t look like he actually wants to be saved.  In the Exodus, as the plagues escalate on Egypt, it is remarkable how God repeatedly offers Pharaoh a way out, but he’s not interested. If you work your way through Revelation, it is startling how many times it looks the world is going to finally end. Then, God says, “No, not yet. More people will repent”. This happens over and over and over, witnessing to God’s dogged determination that as many as possible will repent, so God can save them by grace.

 

 

 


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Six Things I’ve Learned during Pandemic

These are unprecedented times, as the Covid 19 pandemic marches on. It has been seven weeks since Governor Inslee brought the hammer down on the Shelter-in-Place order. I fully support the reasoning behind it, but it still feels like domestic incarceration. The best biblical analogy is the OT concept of exile, when the Israelites were uprooted against their will to leave in a strange land. Exile is being in a place you don’t want to be and that is where we are currently. With such a complete disruption of our busy lives and facing an uncertain future, while we wait and hope, I do believe I have learned a few things.

1. Workers we often regard as invisible are indispensable. I am talking about the grocery clerks and stockers, custodians and cleaners, food processing plant and farm workers, hospital and assisting living nurse’s aids, garbage collectors, delivery drivers, and restaurant workers. We couldn’t function as a society without these valued workers.

2. The Tiger King is worthy pandemic viewing. Every night my daughter Caroline and I rendezvous at 8 PM to watch a Netflix series. I was reluctant at first, but she convinced me to watch the infamous “Tiger King” with exotic animals and the ultimate showman, Joe Exotic. We have moved on to a series on David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Yes, it’s not classic Christian entertainment, but in these stressful times, we all need to be distracted.

3. It is so unfair that people are dying alone. Since the hospitals and assisting living facilities have been in lockdown, I have had several people who have died without the comfort of pastoral care. The best I have been able to do is offer a prayer over the phone, when these dear sisters and brothers are facing eternity. In Genesis, God said it is not good for people to be alone. This is especially evident, when a fragile person desperately needs a hand to hold at end of life.

4. I am a total loser when it comes to technology. Like every church, we are doing our best to provide online worship. This means that this old dog actually has to learn some new technological tricks. I am fairly good at playing TV pastor in front of the camera with an empty sanctuary. But, ask me to upload, download, boatload, or payload, and I pretty much revert to a preschooler’s capacity to comprehend, let alone complete the task.

5. Families have proven remarkably resilient. I have been surprised how well my own family has adjusted to house arrest, Caroline sleeps until noon, Mark is stockpiling treats, and Elizabeth has read a library of books. They put together a tremendous 60th birthday party for me, can you say ice cream cake. I was also blessed by the church’s drive-by and 40 flamingos planted in the front yard. From what I have been hearing from others, many families are likewise adjusting and making the best of this difficult time.

6. The Church is engaging in both imaginative and faithful ministry. For all the stereotypes of being unwilling and unable to change and adapt, the church has been remarkably creative with online ministry and utilizing social media to reach out in this time of isolation. At the same time, this is a perilous time for churches to persevere given the economic and social realities of the pandemic. Yet, the truth is the church has always existed precariously, whatever the historical climate and social situation, we are forever dependent upon the God of grace.


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You NEED an Inner Circle

What is this? There are times in his ministry when Jesus takes only his inner circle with him to share significant experiences. Peter, James, and John accompany Our Lord to the top of Mt. Tabor for the Transfiguration, to the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader, to raise his daughter from the dead, and to the Garden of Gethsemane to keep watch the night before his crucifixion. Given the magnitude and miracles involved, these are way beyond significant. Peter, James, and John are Jesus’ inner circle, this is his personal posse within the larger group of disciples. An inner circle is defined as a small, intimate group, more of “my people” and less of “clique” as I am using it. In the last six months, I have become a member of two small groups. One is an eclectic collection of pastors, from different traditions with diverse personalities and varied faith stories. We meet monthly and our agenda is mostly to share what is going on in our ministries, families, and our own souls. This group has been an absolute godsend, I had not realized how much I needed a healthy colleague group. Just by the nature of pastoral work, it is a lonely profession. People will unload their troubles, confessions, and fears. Your responsibility is to keep that confidential and you do carry that load, no matter how well you are able to compartmentalize. With these colleagues who understand the struggles and stresses, I feel free to let go of the pastor role. That is hard to do.

What does this mean? That is an essential element of an inner circle, a safe place with safe people where vulnerability is possible and grace is evident. Jesus’ inner circle was a safe place or at least they had the freedom to fail. They all fall asleep at Gethsemane and Peter denies Jesus three times. This morning I attended an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. I do this a couple times a year to remember my family history of alcohol. I am always refreshed with the raw honesty and humble nature of AA. These people are in the fight of their lives, so they come together with fellow survivors urgently trying to follow the 12 steps, are accountable to each other, and continue in recovery. Always amazes me how prevalent Higher Power is in AA conversation, which I, of course, believe to be Jesus Christ. The Church has much to learn from AA about small group ministry. I also meet with a group of men from our church that are trying to grow in faith and character. We use an article on a topic like regrets or legacy as the basis for our study, then try to share insights and offer comments to build up the group. This is a more directed agenda, where our common purpose is to not just share but to intentionally move forward in our life of faith. Like an AA meeting, a key theme has been, as our trust level progresses, to call out one another’s or confess our own arrogance. Time and again, at the heart of these inner circles it is so essential to learn humility and be transparent. Only then are you actually teachable, available to learn something, maybe even change.

What is the takeaway? In Genesis, God says it is not good for man or woman to be alone. This is not just about marriage, it’s also about community. For most of us, we have a crowd where we circulate, like church, school, or workplace. Genesis is talking about more intimate relationship needs. You and I need an inner circle, a band of brothers or an assembly of sisters, a small group you can call “my people”. Whether you are a parent, pastor, or plumber, you need a safe place with select people who you know are on your side. Getting together with your crew can be like a time-out from all your demands, duties, and difficulties. My son, Mark, has a regular Friday afternoon appointment in Silverdale with his ABA therapist. While he is at his therapy I am often at my therapy session eating chicken wings with some old friends from my former congregation. This group is more about fellowship than faith formation, more focused on laughing than learning. This group of guys is just for fun, to catch up, inhale the wings, and remember the we were cool, we are cool, and we will always be cool, or so we tell each other. With all these small groups, where do I find the time and energy to accomplish pastoral tasks, take care of family responsibilities, and make a living?! Well, my answer is without my inner circles, I don’t believe I could be a good pastor, fulfill my obligations as a father and husband, and have much fun making a living. Who is your inner circle? Who are those people you can really count on? When you are lonely (and we all get lonely) whose company do you seek? If Jesus had an inner circle, you need an inner circle.


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Cutting Ourselves off from Creation?

What is this? When I was growing up in suburban Chicago, our family lived on six acres and had lots and lots of critters; four horses, two dogs, 10-12 chickens, a sheep, 8-10 cats, and even a runaway or rogue turkey who joined our chickens on their roost. Testing, messing and blessing the animals was a highlight of my adolescent day. During the summer, like many of you, I was gone all day swimming, playing sports, and getting into trouble. With my trusty red Schwinn with the cool banana seat I would cross the highway to the badlands to be with the bad boys of Wildwood subdivision. Nowadays, our family and my children are securely shielded and sheltered in our suburban cocoon with three big screen (32-inch used to be a big screen). We are located two blocks from Target and three Starbucks, a quarter-mile from Costco, and half-mile from the Y. It is all quite convenient and consumer-friendly, but we have cut ourselves off from critters, creation, and even yard work. The Homeowners Association has a crew that comes in and tidies, trims, and manicures the grounds back to HGTV quality, kind of like the night-cleaning crew at Disneyland that sterilizes the Happiest Place on Earth. Well, three years in Pleasantville and I am ready to revolt. I vow not to drive down to Target anymore. Kidding, we still walk the two blocks to Target. But, I miss the badlands and wild woods. There is something about our faith, our soul, our humanity, and our God that requires we spend time in the outdoors, commune with creation, and recapture the reality we are part of something bigger than we are, connected to God’s grand garden and cosmic playland.

What does this mean? Dr. Robert Louv wrote a controversial book, “Last Child in the Garden”, that makes the case our children suffer from “nature-deficit disorder”. He argues because parents are too fearful of the outdoors and it is all too easy to get caught-up in screen time, that our kids are lacking time in nature and an appreciation for creation. Further, Dr. Louv claims that our children pay a price, experience more depression and less health, as a result. He has his detractors, for sure, but there is something to this, and not just for the kids. As adults, families, and youth, being in creation restores us to sanity, puts us back in touch with our spiritual center, and locates us in relationship with Our Creator. Genesis tells us we are both created in the “image of God” (chapter 1) and from the “dirt of the earth” (chapter 2). We shouldn’t be surprised that living with our war on germs, climate-controlled everything, and partitioned off from the wild woods has blighted our souls. Tricia Gates Brown writes, “Species loneliness denotes the way human beings have cut themselves off from the nonhuman species inhabiting our world. In our desire for dominance and self-gratification we have put ourselves in solitary confinement, and in the worst cases, become tormentors (and terminators) of all things nonhuman. We have deprived ourselves of a love relationship with nonhumans (and God’s creation).” Strong words, for sure, but there is some hard truth there. It may be unintended and unnoticed or maybe we are just uncaring and unrepentant. Our lifestyle and consumption has made us lonely and our lack of creation care comes with a hefty price, if climate change is all we fear.

What is the takeaway? My mother use to say “What is to become of us?” Good question. It is refreshing to see pastors and churches are taking more of prophetic stand when it comes to creation care, it is a biblical concern. So many evangelicals hold on to an end-of-the-world theology that says the world is going to burn up or blow up soon and Jesus will bail us out of this mess at the rapture. That is just irresponsible. Revelation tells us Christ will indeed usher in a new heaven and a new earth. Meanwhile, instead of putting together timelines and blueprints from unrelated verses so we don’t get Left Behind, we should plunge into some of the really compelling yet mostly undiscovered Scripture about creation. Check out the end of the Book of Job. After Job has suffered so and debates his long-winded friends, beginning with chapter 38 God the Cosmic Artist shows up in a whirlwind. Annie Dillard comments on God’s rhetorical rampage describing his beloved creation, “The Creator loves pizzazz. The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. The speech out of the whirlwind would seem to suggest that God does indeed exhibit a certain style, and admire it in the creatures”. We need to bond with that kind of bible lesson, it puts us in touch with “fear of the Lord” and deep goodness of creation. As for me, I have decided to go to the indoor Y less and start walking the hills, shores, and trails of the abundant Northwest more. Only in the wild woods can we rightly contemplate Psalm 8, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, WHAT IS MAN THAT YOU ARE MINDFUL OF HIM, THE SON OF MAN THAT YOU CARE FOR HIM? YOU MADE HIM A LITTLE LOWER THAN THE HEAVENLY BEINGS, AND CROWNED HIM WITH GLORY AND HONOR”. Amen.


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The Business of Busyness

What is this? My first Mexico mission trip, circa 1987, my friend Ken and I were trading off driving our 15 passenger van loaded with kids & hauling a trailer. Back in the day, it was truly the Wild, Wild West; driving single lane roads, dodging big trucks, alert to local drivers on a suicide mission, all while trying to stay together as a caravan. Ken is high-strung in the car. When in the passenger seat and a turn is coming up, his volume will escalate, “left, LEft, LEFT!!” or “no, No, NO!!”.  He’s more intense behind the wheel. When we finally arrived at our mission site, Ken’s eyes were bloodshot and we had to peel his fingers off the steering wheel. That is a good image for the busy schedules so many of us try to sustain. We have family counting on us, appointments to keep, work to to, friends to keep up with, church responsibilities, emails, texts, and calls to return, not to mention, get enough sleep, try our best to eat right, exercise, pray, and just plain survive. Just like my friend Ken, there we are clutching the steering wheel with bloodshot eyes, with grim determination to get to our destination. And if we miss a deadline, goal, or opportunity, our souls are in an uproar, “no, No, NO!, NOOOO!!. Yet, this is how we choose to live with a strangle hold on our time and tasks. Notice how when someone asks how you are doing the new stock answer, “Busy”, as if being busy was the equivalent of being worthy.

What does this mean? Why do we do this? Where is the joy? First, some basics, time is a gift from God, that you and I must manage. We are stewards of our time in the same way we are stewards of our money, health, relationships, and so on. Scripture mentions both Chronos and Kairos time. Chronos is chronological time, years, days, minutes we keep track of with calendars and clocks. Then there is Kairos time that essentially means “the time fulfilled”. This is God’s time, when God decides the time is right, such as when the Messiah is born in Bethlehem. Ecclesiastes says, “God has made everything beautiful in its time and put eternity into the hearts of men”. I remain unconvinced that time-saving devices save much time. They sure do cost money. There are robot vacuums, Fit-Bits, coffee pots with timers, and I just saw a new combo tread mill and computer desk (looks dumb!) Busyness has become a barometer of are we valuable enough, productive enough, and worth enough. David Zahl writes, “busyness remains attractive because it does double duty, allowing us to feel like we are advancing down life’s path while distracting us from other, less pleasant realities, like doubt, remorse, and death. When we move rapid-fire from task to task we minimize the mental space available for personal reflection and painful feelings, at the same time accruing extra points (being productive-valuable-worthy enough), whether it be material, emotional, or both.” Guilty! To motivate and move myself through the day, especially when I am dragging, I am constantly keeping score of what I’ve accomplished. As Paul Sehgal writes, “The most purely, proudly American genre of writing might be the to-do list”.

What is the takeaway? After experiencing six student suicides in a year, Penn University did an on-campus study to get to the bottom of the crisis. In the final report they cited “Penn Face” as ‘the practice of acting happy and self-assured when sad or stressed’. Their analysis surmised that students lived with the ‘perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor’. Thus they wore ‘Penn Face’ until some students couldn’t live with the pressure any longer. I would say that that kind of relentless pressure to look, work, and relate like you are perfect goes beyond Ivy League campuses. In the church, we can wear our “Sunday Face” like armor so others won’t see us sweat, sin, suffer, and especially as lazy. The impact of unremitting busyness is big-time- sleeplessness, heart disease, high blood pressure, shorter life spans, not to mention general exhaustion. So how do we get out of the business of busyness? How can we let go of our need to validate our life by performance? God’s answer to this age-old idolatry is the Sabbath, that literally means “to cease”. To honor one day in seven to stop running around like everything depends on you, it doesn’t. Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath and gives it for our sake, for our health and wholeness, physically as well as spiritually. It is so simple, even a pastor can enjoy Sabbath rest. Take one day, consider it your tithe of time to worship, rest, give thanks for stuff like time, just be, and be ruthless in keeping it. I have heard the Sabbath compared to a knuckleball in baseball, kind of slow, wobbly, and keeps us off-balance. Actually, that is from one of my sermons. In a world that keeps pressing, pushing, prodding, producing, and performing, we need the Sabbath Slowdown to save us!


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Religiosity Still Reigns

What is this? People who say that religion is declining, even dying in America are not seeing the bigger picture. Yes, worship attendance is down in most churches and when it comes to religious preference young people most often indicate “none”. What they are missing is that religious fervor has merely migrated to secular causes and activities. We have simply traded pieties, exchanged deep devotions. Our personal commitment and zealous energy is now directed to our politics, parenting, the environment, healthy living, the workplace, our pets, travel and leisure. Secular and sacred religion both have common elements; social organization with like-minded believers, feelings and motives like mystery, guilt, conviction, passion, and call to action, and a world view that provides purpose, gives meaning, and the justifying story of your life. I have a good friend who owns and operates a Harley Davidson repair shop so I have come to meet his circle of friends, a wonderful group of guys, so many of them clients. They wear the Harley jackets, t-shirts, and leathers, plan on the next day they can collectively “go for a ride”. They find great sport in ridiculing other motorcycle brands. They are very religious about their motorcycles. If I examine my own life, I find I am very religious about things like fitness, I go to the YMCA five or six times a week. I am zealous and passionate about travel, even competitive when others talk about all the places they have been, “I’ve been to Nepal (so there!)” Lately, I find myself getting as self-righteous as a Pharisee when a server wants to tell me what micro-brew to order. I can sound like an evangelist when the topic turns to prescriptions that I hardily endorse.

What does this mean? Jason Mitchell writes, “JUSTIFY is the key term. Our convictions about politics, our pets, climate change, or our investment in an exercise class are not forms of idolatry, but they could be. Rather, they are activities from which we are trying to derive our ultimate value. Religion is defined as what we lean on to tell us we’re okay, to attribute to ourselves that we are enough”. At first, that sounds a little extreme, “activities from which we are trying to derive our ultimate value”, “tell us we’re okay”, “attribute to ourselves that we are enough”. However, when you begin to count the cost, the time, and the investment of some of our “interests”, it is staggering. Caroline played volleyball on a traveling team for a season. It was like joining a cult; cost $$$$, sucked up the weekends, ridiculous expectations, and even the parents were a kooky clique. I do need to interject this, God has given us such a rich array of gifts, activities, work, and ways to play so we can enjoy, learn, and be blessed in this life. Amen. I delight in watching the NBA, having a cold beer with friends, seeing the Holy Land, swimming a few laps, and reading a good book. Yet, these good “horizontal” gifts were never, ever meant to be elevated to godlike importance. I confess the gift that presents itself as the greatest temptation as a means of justifying my life is the ministry. Retirement is not that far away and I am thinking that is going to be a very difficult transition for me. Ironic isn’t it, it is in serving the church, I am in danger of setting up my God-given call as my ultimate value, trying to confirm that I am enough and I am okay. Even sacred stuff can be an idol.

What is the takeaway? All these “horizontal” activities are good for earthly enjoyment and worldly fulfillment. However, we must turn to the “vertical” source and substance of God for our enoughness. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in God”. In 2019, we continue the restless quest for what only God can provide. The religious impulse is to “DO SOMETHING” to justify your life. For those inside the church or other religions in extremes can translate into keeping the rules, over volunteering, be consumed by a hyper-dogooderism, and make your home a monastery. Not much grace in that. For secular religions like politics, parenting, video gaming, and environmental concerns, it can be just as suffocating, self-righteous, dogmatic, and exhausting. Not much grace in that either. Participants are still trying to “DO SOMETHING” to justify their lives. Whatever your religion, you are subject to a law that says “DO THIS” and it is never, ever done enough. In what is a remarkably profound explanation of the power of addiction, Dr. Vincent Felitti writes, “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works”. That makes our problem sin, our compulsion to prove ourselves worthy, to do something that will assure we are okay. Fails every time. And insanity is doing to the same thing the same way and expecting different results. So that brings us back to grace. Christianity invites us to receive our enoughness, which is Christ’ own enoughness, as sheer gift. Our Christian practices and pieties are organic fruit of our enoughness, not the stuff by which we earn it. This is what Christmas comes down to, Jesus shows up. Being born among us the Christ child does something that justifies us, on the cross forgiving us, at the empty tomb destroying death so we can finally relax. By his grace alone, we are okay and enough.


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Faith Under Pressure

What is this? I was always turn up the volume for Queen’s classic, “Under Pressure” when it comes on the radio, “Pressure pushing down on me, pressing down on you….It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about, watching some good friends screaming, ‘LET ME OUT!” We are all under pressure, some of it of our making, some of it just the way life rolls, and there are seasons of life where you feel like screaming, “Let me Out!” I am not at that place (yet) but this fall there is lots of stuff and lots of stress. I’ll unpack that as we go along. Jesus says, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food or clothes”. Paul flat out says, “Don’t worry about anything”. Is it blasphemy to find the advice almost laughable? Don’t worry about anything, it is so difficult not to worry about everything. Where to begin? Things at church are not just busy, but “crazy busy” as a friend likes to say. This is, for the most part, a good busy. We are in the midst of a capital campaign, experiencing growing pains, dealing with staff turnover, and some of our seemingly immortal saints are aging fast. Plus, I am always recruiting for our Mexico Mission trip to the orphanage next spring break (we still have room for you!) and trying to pressure additional pilgrims to join our Cities of Paul trip next summer (Come on, this is THEE pilgrimage. Family and friends welcome). Watching cable news is a real stresser, too. We are so politically tribal, me too, but I do keep that to myself at church. Has our nation ever been this divided?! I find myself working hard to hand over my upset to the Lord of the nations. I am having a real hard time with the decision to pull out of Syria when the Kurds have been such faithful allies. Better not go down that rabbit hole, “terror of knowing what the world is all about…..”

What does this mean? Elizabeth’s mother died this week. Lavonne was the kindest mother-in-law one could ask for, she secured my undying affection when she purchased an extraordinary trip to Nepal for Elizabeth and I to accompany she and Jim. In true Berentson fashion, the family has been faithfully keeping vigil as she died at home, full of faith and surrounded by the people who loved her best. I am honored to preside at her service next week. With Elizabeth so consumed with helping with her mother, I’ve been trying to keep our kids clothed, fed, clean, and free of lice. Now that she has her own car, Caroline is pretty much self-sufficient, besides me filling her gas tank. I did go shopping with her for a Homecoming dress, you will love this, to Good Will (her choice) where she bought a dress for $12. I even picked up a sport coat for $10 and a matching tie for $2. As Elizabeth says, “you have to love the GW!” Mark is more work. I try to be home, because he likes to give me a play-by-play of his day, “I said good-bye to Jackson, got a Rice Crispy treat at the Hawk Shop, and refuse to give Caroline a hug”. We have started taking Taekwondo at the Y and don’t tell him, but some horseback riding will begin soon. Who knew parenting was so exhausting?! My best friend, Dave, who is the brother I never had, is having quite the time, too. He is doing an admirable job of transitioning his parents to assisted living in Chicago from his home in Portland, so we check in on each other.

What is the takeaway? Alright, enough blabbering about all that, here is the takeaway. In fairness to Paul, after he says don’t worry about anything, he adds “but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving make your requests known to God”. With all that is going on, I’ve been surprised how grounded I feel. Most of it God’s grace and I get a hefty dose of that when I spend time telling God how lost, lacking, and vulnerable I am at the moment. Mercifully, God is faithful, sufficient, and steadfast. Why does that surprise me, I have no idea. Another God-given avenue for decompressing for me has always been and especially now, good friendships. Whether it is on the phone with Dave, eating chicken wings with old friends from Poulsbo, or texting my sisters it makes all the difference to know your people are on your side. NEVER WORRY ALONE! As surely as Jesus is present in bread and wine, Jesus is present in our friends and family in an almost sacramental way. Lastly, I do find joy in the routine of my life and work. Monday is sermon day so I am home alone working on that. Never grow tired of writing. Our whole family not only goes to bed by 9 PM, but we are diligent in getting to the YMCA, so that is a matter of survival. I do like to pray in the pool, waters of baptism you know, it gives me a physical release and restores my spiritual equilibrium. Yes, there is lots of stuff and stress, but I am surprised that I am doing okay, mostly because I stay to my routine, count on my people for support, and know Christ is there as my rest and refuge. Not sure what storms and stress you have, but don’t worry alone and trust great is God’s faithfulness. Amen.

 

 

 

 


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Sojourners in Need of Sanctuary

What is this? In the August issue of National Geographic, the Big Idea column was titled, “We are all migrants”. The author makes the case that as human beings, we are all of us, are on the move from youth to adulthood to elderly, from one location to another, one relationship to another, and one job to another, and so on. The columnist calls out the current political division between “natives” and “migrants”, encouraging us to realize that, ultimately, we are all migrants and refugees dealing with change, sorrow, and trying to find our way. Therefore, we need to have more empathy, understanding, and acceptance for the migrants that come to our borders, work in our cities, and live in our communities. While I certainly agree with his extended metaphor that we are all refugees on some level and, as a society, we need to be more hospitable to immigrants among us, I don’t find much hope for real change in his appeal for a better world if we somehow tap into our potential and try harder as humanity to be more tolerant and kind. Sorry, Lutheran pastor here, prone to skepticism and real about sin. The bible,  human history, and my personal experience confirm we simply do not have the capacity to “evolve”. The gospel is blunt, you, me, and the cosmos need a Savior.

What does this mean? I have always loved the biblical metaphor from Hebrews 11 that as people of faith we are travelers, sojourners, and aliens in this earthy life. I say that because I fancy myself a traveler, enthralled with exotic destinations like Lebanon and Singapore. I suppose I am a sojourner, in that I have lived an itinerant life, at least before marriage. I was constantly on the move, never quite settled, restless for new experiences. An alien, in that I have been shaped by a troubled family, bouts of depression, our son’s autism, and God’s mercy in the wake of such difficulties. Maybe we are all a mix of that, thrilled with the new and novel, restless and relentless in pursuit of inner peace, and wounded and worn down by our earthly losses and liabilities, and hopefully healing and growing through it all. Abraham is lifted up as our father in the faith, “even though he didn’t know where he was going, by faith, he made his final destination the promised land, so like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents….for he was looking forward to the city (New Jerusalem) with foundations whose architect and builder is God”. What fueled Abraham’s faith to live as a sojourner was hope from heaven, that is fulfilled in Christ Jesus. Yes, God came down, born into poverty to an unmarried couple, forced to flee to Egypt as a refugee to escape Herod’s reign of terror, working a blue-collar job, living under Roman occupation, before becoming an itinerant preacher, angering the religious establishment, rejected by the very people he came to save, then dying a condemned criminal on the cross, and finally raised from the dead through the miracle of the resurrection.

What is the takeaway? Jesus (Our Savior) has been where we have been; a refugee on the run, working for a living, having good friends, rejected by people he loved, moving from place to place, enjoying a good party, and, at times, feeling alone, full of sorrow, and wondering if God had abandoned him (on the cross). This matters because Jesus has also gone to where we will be one day, post-resurrection. Jesus is our great high priest, who mediates between the worldly sojourners and the Heavenly King. Paul says our citizenship is in heaven, so to help us get from here to there, we need Jesus to advocate for us. That means Jesus prays for us (see the Apostles Creed). We need Jesus to direct us, the Holy Spirit is our local guide, to get us home. And we need Jesus to be our sanctuary even as we are on the move. Jesus is a place of refuge, our constant companion, forgiving, energizing, and equipping us for holy work. As we move from birth to death, baptism to resurrection, from this life to the next, we need to rest, refresh, and reconnoiter with fellow sojourners, around the cross to worship and receive bread and wine to continue the journey. Back to the National Geographic column, there is something powerful and particular, that we are all migrants on the move. With Jesus as the First Refugee of the Coming Kingdom, may we lean on Him to guide and get us there. And along the way, may the Spirit give us the grit and grace to be merciful and generous to our fellow travelers, remembering they are a lot like us.