Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections


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Apocalypse Almost?!

What is this? Mark 13 is often called the “little apocalypse” as it provides Jesus’ own  abridged version of the cosmic events brought to us in the mysterious, mind-bending book of Revelation. Apocalypse means disclosure or unveiling, its when the cosmic curtain is pulled back and we get a sneak peek from heaven’s perspective. The view from Mark is violent and unsettling, “Many will come in my name, claiming ‘I am he’. You will hear of war and rumors of war. Nation will rise against nation. There will be earthquakes in various places and famines. These are the beginning of birth pangs.” Mark writes during the reign of Rome’s most perverse rulers, Emperor Caligula. The temple in Jerusalem was razed, Christians were persecuted, and families were torn asunder by conflicting loyalties. The world was coming undone. Everything was falling apart. To experience such violence, mayhem, and uncertainty was to suffer apocalypse to the bone and to the bedrock of your being. Leaving you in a perpetual state of shock.

What does this mean? Earthquakes in Mexico, mass shooting in Las Vegas, Hurricane Harvey in Houston, White Supremicists in Charlottesville, Hurricane Irma in Florida, no power in Puerto Rico, potential nuclear conflict on the Korean Peninsula, all coming to us up close, personal, and continuously in HD on our big screens. Apocalypse Almost?! How shall we respond? Does Scripture offer us any insights? What would Jesus say? The first thing I think Jesus would say is turn off the television. To constantly take in such doom is to be filled with dread, leaving us immersed in our own powerless. One of the curses of technology is that all the wars, natural disasters, and human evil are funneled right into your brain. So step away for a while. The second thing Jesus would say to us is to continue to do what you are able to make a difference for the gospel. So many things you cannot control, but some things, good things, you can indeed, do. Work at the food bank, join a mission project, pray for the world with renewed determination, and, most importantly, come to worship weekly to hear the BIGGER STORY of the gospel. We need to hear, sing, pray, and receive the good news of Jesus Christ to remember whose we are. Here, HE restores my soul, HE refreshes my life, and I am anchored with HIS promises.

What is the takeaway? Maybe it feels like apocalypse on a global scale, but let us not forget we have all been through our own apocalyptic experiences and/or accompanied  those we love; the shattering loss of someone dear to us, the volatility of unemployment, the violence of divorce, the seismic shock of a cancer diagnosis, the fear of a family member being seized by addiction, storms of church conflict, or the naked vulnerability of mental illness. I’ve had my own Armageddons; family alcoholism, congregational infighting, my own depression, and my son’s autism. At such times, I find it a matter of spiritual life or death, to remember GOD IS FAITHFUL AND STEADFAST. I know this for a couple of reasons. Number one, this is my experience in my relationship with Jesus. When I am in the middle of the storm, I may doubt, waver, and be in want, but God gets me through. Only when I look back, do I realize that God’s grace was sufficient as promised. That leads to number two, God’s promises are shared, specified, and certified in Scripture. My grace is sufficient for you. I will never leave or forsake you. Nothing can separate you from my love. You have eternal life. HE who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Christ Jesus. Apocalypse Whenever, I belong to Jesus.

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Charlottesville, Detroit, and Golgotha

What is this? Hard to miss the anger, hatred, and violence at the White Supremicist protest in Charlottesville last month. Whether you call it Neo-Nazi, the Ku Klux Klan, or the Alt-Right movement, it is sheer evil that claims Jews, African-Americans, and other ethnic and religious groups do not qualify as real Americans or even real people. If you are like me, you are still stunned, saddened, and sickened that this public rally happened in America in 2017. Recently, a controversial, graphic, and disturbing movie, “Detroit”, directed by Kathryn Bigelow (“Hurt Locker”, “Zero Dark Thirty”) was released. The story, based on true events, is set during the Detroit race riots in 1967. The black working class neighborhoods have become a powderkeg. Amidst the looting, fires, and sirens, the National Guard has been called in. The action zeroes in on the Algiers Hotel, where twelve African-American men and two Caucasian women seek refuge from the chaos in the streets. As the result of the a police raid on the hotel, three black men are murdered and everyone else is brutalized as racist officers aggressively take control in the name of bringing peace to the emergency. It is so difficult to take in such racism, inhumanity, and evil. You are torn between being drawn deeper into the story and having to looking away from the calculated, cold-blooded violence.

What does this mean? It seems every white character is wearing a uniform of some kind. While not all are as clearly prejudiced as the purveyors of violence and murder, they do not stand up to the officers in charge. Makes you wonder if their passivity is as big a sin as the pain inflicted on innocent victims. Critics give “Detroit” mixed review. The action is riveting, the characters are convincing, and it is a story worth telling. But, some say it is hollow, lacking coherence, and over-the-top with violence and victimhood. I am glad I saw the movie, as disturbing as it was. Evil and racism are hollow, hateful, and evil is by nature chaotic, incoherent, and bend on destruction. Check out the Book of Revelation if you’re not sure about that. I don’t know how you tell as story with that magnitude of evil and expect logic, clarity, and some resolution. Don’t expect in this blog either. Maybe we have to witness the evil of Charlottesville, hear the story of the Algiers Hotel, seriously listen to the marginalized, the victims of prejudice, to comprehend the depth of the evil in our midst. With some trepidation, I recommend “Detroit”. In the same way, I’d encourage you to read “Stand Your Ground” by Reverend Kelly Brown Douglas. Douglas is a black, female pastor who traces the American history of white exceptionalism that fuels racism.

What is the takeaway? As “Detroit” is difficult to watch so “Stand Your Ground” is difficult to read. Douglas speaks as an African-American mother who has struggled with the number of young black men that have been shot Trayvon Martin int eh name of our “Stand Your Ground” culture. My sense is her voice is prophetic, calling the white church to repent of our participation or at least our passivity in the systemic evil of racism. I will say, I certainly was convicted. Of what? Of not being more aware, more discerning, and more outspoken about the racial evil that still haunts our nation. Some have said that slavery is our America’s original sin, or perhaps, brutally taking the land from the Native Americans. Granted, this is our American History (as in the past), but what do we do about it now? Like you, I wrestle with what God would have us do. I was fascinated by the response of the Free Speech (looked like an Alt-Right) rally in Boston, where it seemed like the overwhelming numbers of counter-protesters were mostly silently yet surrounded, and by and large, silenced the voices of hate. This seems in line with Jesus’ silence int he face of evil, persecution, and death, especially in Mark’s Gospel. Martin Luther King claimed non-violence is a forceful response to such evil. Douglas catches me off-guard when she compares the cross with the lynching tree, “Lynching is about power standing its ground against anyone it deems a threat. It is a deadly reminder to a suspect community of its proper place in society.” (Interestingly, “Christianity Today” September issue, has the lynching tree on its cover.) The very same thing could be said of the Roman cross that Jesus was hung on at Golgotha. The good news is God takes the crucifixion tree and makes that into the tree of life. So may God continue to inform, indict, and inspire us to embrace his transformative life, death, and resurrection in Christ! Gustavus Gutierrez claims that salvation is the cure of sin in this life.

 

 


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Friendship is Sacramental

What is this? I’ve always counted heavily on my friends. This is partly due to necessity, as my parents weren’t as supportive as I’d have liked growing up. Among the Orthodox, the sacraments are also known as “the mysteries”. Sacraments are essentially ordinary, earthly stuff, like bread and wine, that God uses as a vehicle, like Holy Communion, to deliver divine grace to his people. God has blessed me with an odd assortment of good friends and my sense is I’ve been a good steward of these friends. Last week, I was in Seattle, basically goofing off, so I lined up some man-dates with some old friends. My two o’clock was a “church friend” (who reads this blog so I must tread carefully). Bill is a gifted leader, wise mentor, and has become a good friend through our work together at my former congregation in the 2000’s. Over a beer we chatted about family, ministry, travel, politics, and laughed about some of the “characters” and “experiences” from our church past. What I appreciate about our friendship is we are truly brothers in Christ, share a common vision for what it means to be fathers, friends, and to be faithful in Christ. I always come away refreshed. My four o’clock man-date was with a “party friend”. Jimmy and I go back to the college days of the 1980’s where we were roommates. A former marine and body-builder, Jim used to encourage me as he started me lifting weights. Being a good Christian, I was hesitant to look in the mirror like all those really vain guys, like Jim. But, he wouldn’t have it, “Come on Chuckee, look in the mirror, like what you see!” I remember post-college getting together when we were both looking for real jobs. With our college degrees, I was working at a car wash and he was clerking at Penny’s.

What does this mean? So here we are thirty-five years later, sitting in a Bellevue nightclub where he is part-owner. Jimmy is worth millions now, due to his incredible gift for sales and connection with Amazon. We talked of glory days, laughed about all the trouble he got me into in college, bragged about our kids, reminisced and reveled in the fact we picked up right where we left off in 1983. What I value about our friendship is beyond the all the good times, we really are good friends. Some friends you have, so many things may go unsaid, but you communicate anyway. My six o’clock man-date was with a “loyal friend”. Rob and I were both single dudes in the 1990’s, both came out of Portland posse, we called ourselves “the pickies”. Yes, there was a reason we were all single at the time. When I moved to Seattle in 1996, Rob was there when my moving truck arrived, gave me the tour of Seattle, and was a constant companion as we navigated single life in Seattle. Rob is one part professor, one part leisure guy (he gets six weeks vacation), and one hundred percent good person. I always learn when we talk politics or economics, live vicariously through his single adventures (not that I’d ever go back), and appreciate the security of having a long-time, loyal friend. I am not sure you get to choose your friends, at least the really good ones. God just kind of surprises you with a coincidental meeting, a shared experience, or common passion, like sports, ministry, or laughing out loud. That afternoon line-up was both historical and hysterical.

What is the takeaway? The bible says precious little about friendship, but there are a few notable stories and quotes to consider. On his way to the throne of Israel, David had to contend with a paranoid, vicious, and insecure King Saul. Ironically, David’s very best friend, Jonathan, was King Saul’s son and next in line to be king. Yet, Jonathan chose friendship over kingship, even incurring the wrath of his father. 1 Samuel says David and Jonathan were knit together, their futures were intertwined, and together they made a covenant to each other. Eugene Peterson writes, “Friendship is a much underestimated aspect of spirituality. It’s every bit as significant as prayer and fasting. Like bread and wine, friendship takes what’s common in human experience and turns it into something holy. A friend is one who enters our life, is leisurely enough to find out what’s going on in us, is secure enough not to exploit our weaknesses or attack our strengths, recognizes our inner life and understands the difficulty of living out our inner convictions, confirms what’s deepest within us”. There is no doubt in my mind, that I am blessed with an exceptional spouse. When Jimmy met her, he called her “stellar woman”. One of the best gifts she gives me is the freedom and support to keep up with my friends. Never have understood the way some married couples, in an unhealthy way, cling to each other, as if to suffocate the relationship of any outside contacts. My friends make me to be a better father, husband, and pastor. In John’s Gospel, Jesus says something quite extraordinary, “There is no greater love than this, that a man should lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends, if you do as I command you. I call you servants no longer…I have called you friends.” In Christ, we are workers, worshippers, brothers, sisters, subjects, but also friends with God. Give thanks for the friends (church, party, or loyal) you’ve been given, they are God’s gift to you.


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Going Downtown with Jesus

What is this? The final week of June, a mission team from our church ventured out of the Gig Harbor bubble to serve. Everyone saw us coming from a long way away, because we were wearing loud red tie-died mission shirts. We started locally, at the FISH food bank, doing some painting, sorting, and odd jobs. I appreciated the fact all the members of the team were “gamers”, in that they’d gladly jump in wherever they were needed. Our cook, Diane, was even willing to be copilot to the pastor-van driver weaving in and out of city traffic. I did grow up in Chicago (“you call this a rush hour”). The next day we were serving on Capital Hill in Seattle at a community lunch that serves 150-200. On this particular day, there were almost as many volunteers as patrons, but somehow they did find stuff for all of us to do. I was in the “dish pit” with an African-American guy about my age from Detroit, who had been living on the streets, had been a long-time customer at the community lunch, and now was determined to give back, by overseeing volunteers like us washing dishes. Most of our people were face-to-face handing out silverware, serving ice cream, clearing dishes, trying to strike up conversations with the patrons.

What does this mean? I first served at this community lunch twenty years ago. That was three churches ago. Some things haven’t changed, they even have the same coordinator, who has been there 31 years. The people who come, yes, a few I recognize from the 90’s, are mostly homeless, lots of veterans, many with mental illness. The meals are served out of Central Lutheran Church, but it is a government program, that invites volunteers of church-related and more secular organizations, such as the Scouts and public schools to help. Everyone who shows up gets a meal, no expectations, besides don’t start trouble. This is quite different from programs like the Union Gospel Mission, that require that those who come for help must sign a covenant, committing to long-term changes. My experience with Union Gospel Mission has been positive. They are organized, practical, have immense resources. and make a huge difference for the gospel. You need both approaches. What amazes me is for so many of these wounded warriors, lost souls, and homeless population that come for a meal, it is the smile, greeting, and innocent voice of the youth that minister to them. In some ways, they hear that as Jesus speaking to them in their troubles, “we’re glad you’re here”, “would you like some ice cream”, “have a good day”. For a people who often feel so invisible, it is a soulful validation that they matter.

What is the takeaway? For me, the most intriguing place we served was the Recovery Cafe downtown right next to Amazon’s sprawling development. This cafe is open from about noon to 6 PM for people in recovery. Most of these are or have been homeless, come to this remarkably comfortable space for meals, coffee, socializing in a safe place. Two of our students and I talked at length with BIG JOHN, he is like the godfather of the cafe with his booming voice, long history, and rapport with all the customers. He said he had been an alcoholic for decades, actually set up his homeless base camp right across the street in, what is now, the cafe parking lot. There he slept, partied, and wasted a lot of life. Then they started construction on the cafe, it was really noisy. So he wandered over and asked the workers, “What was all the racket for?” “Sorry for the inconvenience, but we’re building a place for people to gather who need help with addictions”. With that, he returned to his spot. A year or so later, John hit bottom, so he joined AA that happened to meet in the same building as Recovery Cafe. We talked church and John replied, “What I know about God is grace, but I had to make the decision to seek help”. I couldn’t resist pointing out that is seems God, anticipating his battle for sobriety, had conveniently built the Recovery Cafe and a building for his AA group right across the street. And God also decided to create in him a clean heart to help others with their recovery just as he had been helped. We all laughed at the grace of God in the midst of busy downtown Seattle.


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What are Fathers For?

What is this? There was a study done that researched and characterized the negative consequences of missing fathers that culminated in a book Life Without Father. Sadly, too many fathers are missing in action due to divorce, custody battles, or they never married the mother of their child. My father has been an epic impact on me in many ways, mostly delightful, some adverse. Far and away the most significant gift my father has given me is his determination to try to be involved and invested in my life. When my parents divorced, Tuesday was “visitation night”. At the time, my father lived an hour away but he was at our doorstep almost every week to take my two sisters and I out to the YMCA, pizza, movie, mall, didn’t matter. Dads (like moms) are called upon to be lawgivers, guides, cheerleaders, providers, comedians, coaches, confidants, and drivers. These days I serve often as the “driver”. For Mark, he insists on sitting in the back so I feel like the chauffeur. For Caroline, I am more like “The Transporter” (Jason Stratham character) because we must hurry, hustle, and hasten not to be late while this chirpy future driver chides me for my driving and eating habits. Being a parent isn’t so much about sharing expertise as experience-sharing. While we must prod our children to grow, reassure them of our love, do our duty to provide, our call requires we must also do our best to be plugged into what is going on. My father, at age 83, continues to grow as a father.

What does this mean? For my seminary internship, I lived and learned about ministry in Singapore for one year. It was a time of personal exploration and evolution, that was also immensely lonely. My father arrived to find many of the stories I’d shared via letter (I wrote 400 aerograms that year) were not stories. There was a big rat roaming in the apartment yard  (“King Rat”), geckos in my apartment, and the oppressive heat. But, also extraordinary food, the Christian faith on fire, and a fascinating microcosm of an interfaith, multicultural, and multilingual mix in this city-state. This wasn’t exactly his thing, but he was there with me. Every morning he’d find the Denny’s nearby to read the newspaper. When dinner approached he’d say, “Why don’t you find us a steak place?”. I made the mistake of promising my Singaporean friends that my successful father would gladly buy EVERYONE dinner. My father wasn’t about to do that. Mid-visit, he saw an advertisement for a getaway to Bataam, an Indonesian island not far away. So we made an overnight trip to what we designated as “Fantasy Island” (this was 1992) to escape King Rat and my sweltering apartment. My father’s visit was an unforgettable and refreshing oasis for me.

What is the takeaway? Now if my two sisters read this blog (Sue and Sara, are you out there!?), no doubt, they’d remember things differently. Certainly, there have been times when I felt disappointed, disturbed, and like it was just so difficult to communicate. In high school and college, there was a low point as my father was more harsh than helpful when it came to sports and dating. But, then he’d surprise me, like when, in keeping a deathbed promise to his mother, he agreed to pay my way to seminary. As I try to be a father to two very different middle schoolers, it feels like I’m losing credibility by the day. Recently, I told Mark I loved him and he replied, “I don’t care”. Last week, I was the proud father as Caroline received the prestigious “Falcon Award”, for being the ultimate teammate on the track team. Twenty-four hours later, Elizabeth and I were informed “you guys suck”. In response, I’ve doubled-down in my prayers for our family, told myself this is an imprecise project, and remember my own struggles with my father. As parents and children, we all need lots of grace. The beauty of baptism is ultimately the child is God’s responsibility. As hard as it is to do, fathers and mothers need to balance the gravity and limitations of our parental responsibilities. We are certainly significant, no matter what our children may say in a given moment, parents always matter. At the same time, we cannot believe in Jesus for them, program behave, or ultimately control our children. In fact, our final goal is to guide them to a place where we can let them go into the world, as ready as we can get them. What are fathers for? To bless, to buy $tuff, to battle, to oblige, and to be there, for Jesus’ sake.


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Celebrity Religions

What is this? World religions have always fascinated me. In a culture that fawns over and follows celebrities, it’s rather interesting the diversity of religions they claim as their own. Lots of Scientologists working in Hollywood, such as Tom Cruise, Juliette Lewis, and John Travolta. I recommend the HBO documentary, “Going Clear”, to get a taste of just how possessive this “religion” is. Judy Dench and Ben Kingsley are both Quakers. George Lucas says he’s a “Buddhist Methodist”, thus the devotion to “The Force”. Mel Gibson and Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christ”) are traditional Catholics, as is J.R.R. Tolkien, who penned the Lord of the Rings series, that is steeped in Christian theology.  Tennis star, Serena Williams is a Jehovah Witness. I was surprised to learn Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, is an agnostic. The Simpsons has some of the richest theology on TV. Pop star, Brittney Spears, has a Christian Life Coach, something I have never heard of before. Janet Jackson is a Muslims, Gladys Knight a Mormon, while Uma Thurman and Richard Gere are Buddhists. I did locate a Lutheran, Director John Woo, of Mission Impossible II. 

What does this mean? Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature- have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” My take of that quote from Romans is that the world is filled with revelation – what God has revealed in- snow-capped mountains, crying infants, cold beer, sandy beaches, and good sleep- are all signs of his grace and witness of the Creator’s bountiful and beautiful bonanza. Religions, as I understand them, are also disclosures of God’s truth and activity in the world. The really important point to this post is REVELATION IS NOT SALVATION. So while we can see God’s fingerprints in the stars, people (even celebrities), and towering trees, that does not save us. It is possible to experience the divine in religious activity and mysterious encounters, this does not equal the salvation of the soul. Does the gospel of Jesus Christ make exclusive claims? Listen to Acts 4:12, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to humankind by which we must be saved” and John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me”. That sounds pretty clear-cut, but it is not that simple either.

What is the takeaway? It is a mighty marvelous reality that God is plenty busy and boldly active in creation, religion, and through art, music, and literature. It’s hard to argue against the case that the divine is glimpsed in these earthy elements. This is My Father’s World. Living in Singapore for a year, where it was ten percent Muslim, ten percent Hindu, fifty percent Chinese folk religion/Buddhism, fifteen percent Christian, and the remainder something spiritual, it was a real learning experience. Friends came to visit, we checked out the Buddhist and Hindu Temples. There were plenty of lively inter-religious conversation. I even attended a cult bible study for new recruits. What is obvious is there is a great human hunger for God, deep thirst in our souls, and an irrepressible need for something more than ourselves. This reality also comes across in conversations with hurting parishioners in my office, banter with a stranger at a pub, and in my own heart of hearts. Yes, we go seeking our own eclectic spiritual nutrition but mostly what we get is religious junk food, narcissistic nonsense, or even divine food poisoning. Do Christians have the right answer and good news for salvation? Certainly, that is my stance. We also have the huge and humble responsibility to share the gospel with a hungry world. But, the best news is we have a God who has come down in Christ and is determined to have his way with the world. I don’t know who is saved and who is not, that is God’s business. Like you, I hope all people are saved at the New Heaven and New Earth. But, God who even invites a criminal on a cross to be in paradise with Him, is a surprising God who is active, intentional, relentless, and merciful in the mission to make us whole.