Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections


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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.


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Incarcerated Mothers

What is this? A few weeks ago, the core of our proficient praise team and a few guests including me, spent a Sunday evening at the Purdy Women’s Correctional Center. We were there to help lead worship and get a taste of the women’s prison life. It is a high security facility so there was plenty of razor wire, check points, and correctional officers we passed by on our way to the chapel. The most heart-wrenching scene was the public area for visitation, witnessing incarcerated mothers spending precious minutes with their families as Mother’s Day approaches. What would you talk about in this very public, very gawky, closely surveiled space with your most intimate relations? When the imprisoned mothers, daughters, and sisters began trickling into the chapel, they were extra loud, quite casual, and full of joy. This was as much because it broke up the tightly regulated day as for assembling to sing, shout (there was lots of that), and clap (that, too) for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with 75 or so fellow inmates in the House of the Lord.

What does this mean? This was a tough yet tender crowd. But, then the singing began. Some exceptional talent from our congregation, both revved up and settled down this mob of mothers. Somehow, all that energy and estrogen in the room was redirected to worship. As I have shared with our church leadership, I have been dazed and amazed by the talent, passion, and expertise of our church’s music leaders. It was on full display in this full house, many of them felons. My own soul soared as my spirit soaked in simple lyrics sung by ascending voices. This from a guy who is not a real fan of praise music, period. But, that may be changing fast. Yes, many were a-clapping and a-singing along. There were some that were socializing, oblivious to the gospel in song. Others were on an urgent mission to get the elusive bathroom pass. Others were going through the motions. In other words, the congregation was like a microcosm of the world. Maybe the singers represent the church trying to praise, persuade, and proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. All this in the midst of noise, distractions, disturbances, and indifferent public.

What is the takeaway? The music made a dent in the indifference, the gospel gained traction. There were actually two services so the worship music was as much endurance as excellence. The praise team persevered in their praise. The real gospel game-changer came when an incarcerated mother shared with the community that she was being released this coming week. Apparently, she had gotten pregnant, was then imprisoned, then had her child, and had to surrender the baby’s care to family on the outside. This joyful witness of mother and child to be reunited set the stage for a time of personal prayer. Empowering Life is a ministry to the Purdy prison led by Joan Nelson on the administration side and Sharon Peterson on the relational side. Sharon is like this whimsical mother of the prison, think Mary Poppins, and, at the same time, sort of an Apostolic wild-card, think John the Baptist in colorful leisure wear. Under Sharon’s leadership, women came forward for an extended time of one-on-one prayer. Meanwhile, the weary praise team kept the music cranking. The whole worship experience came full-circle, from hullaballoo to holiness, from chaos to closure, and burdened to blessed. The mothers and daughters walked out knowing Jesus loved them.


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The Operating Room

What is this? Forgiveness has been described as “spiritual surgery”. By the grace of God, to be able to have the grudge that grinds you down, the hurt that hounds you, and all that toxic resentment miraculously removed is more or less a surgical procedure. Last week, the eleven members of our Mexico Mission team ventured to Guerrero Vincente, about four hours south of the border on the Baja, to serve, work, and learn at the orphanage there. We were exposed to children and teenagers that had such tragic stories to tell as to how they landed at the orphanage. Sometimes, the Mexican social services brought them as a last resort. Other times, parents voluntarily surrendered custody of their children, some of them newborn, because they couldn’t afford to provide or the families had destructive issues around addiction and/or criminal activity. One can only imagine the personal trauma, abandonment issues, and general troubles that such a family history would inevitably lead to for these young people moving into the future.

What does this mean? At the beginning of each day at the orphanage, there was chapel that included lots of singing and some remarkable sharing. The youth had been away the previous week at camp and were sharing of their experiences. Many of the students spoke of attending a workshop, “the operating room” that  triggered a life-changing difference. Some of the students would begin sharing by saying that they thank God for protecting them through the night and sleeping in a safe place. Makes you wonder about what they went through at their family home. A few revealed that in “the operating room” they felt the presence of God as they were confronted with the need to forgive their mother for discarding them or their father for being an addict. Yes, coming to the orphanage was for the best, but their mother and father are still their mother and father, their family is still their family. I cannot emphasize enough how young, vulnerable, and what innocent victims these children were and yet, by the grace of God, they were able to forgive, or at least begin the prayerful and painful process. As is often the case, the person who is healed the most by forgiveness is the one who forgives.

What is the takeaway? So many of us have our own painful history with our families. I would guess our experiences are not as traumatic as the children or maybe yours is. We carry grudges, harbor resentment, and still feel the residual pain of decades ago due to our parents. I was taken aback by the willingness and wisdom of the spiritual leaders to have these young people take on such a powerful and pervasive core issue almost immediately upon arriving at the orphanage. There is an audacity to their faith, that God is Christ can actually affect healing at such a core level to such wounded individuals. And yet, there is such spiritual wisdom to begin by removing obstacles and healing the hurts to build a new foundation. I remember when I had hip replacement surgery. My part was to show up and submit to surgery. When I woke up the doctor said you have a new hip. It was like a new beginning. So it is with forgiveness as spiritual surgery. In Christ, we show up before the cross, submit to his care, trust his grace to do its’ work, that opens the way for a new future. The process is painful, as we witnessed in the vulnerable and pained faces of the young people, but the healing is real and freedom is the big miracle. On our last day at the orphanage, I stood up at chapel and shared how much these testimonies of the children had personally impacted and encouraged me. And I added that as an adult who grew up with alcoholism in my family, that healing is possible and God is faithful. To which many in the crowd echoed, “Amen!”


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Getting around the Big Blue/Red Divide

What is this? Earlier this month, I was having coffee with a friend in Seattle. He was sharing with me his plans to bike across America this summer. Beyond the obvious physical challenge, he also plans to spend time in local diners, shops, and taverns in hopes of gaining a clearer understanding from people who live in “red states”. He summed it up this way, “I live in this blue bubble of Seattle. I just don’t grasp how people in red states see the world. So I want to find out for myself”. America is at the height of partisanship, at least in my lifetime. The Big Blue/Red Divide in America partitions churches, neighbors, friends, families, and Christians, too. It’s Trump vs. Hillary, Fox News vs. MSNBS, conservatives vs. progressives, and urban vs. rural. Sadly, we are more than happy to go to our respective corners with our fellow Reds or brother blues. There we can retell, rehearse, and reinforce our side’s narrative sequestered in our side’s echo chamber. Having political conversations in the church can be problematic yet something of a prerequisite to grow community. It’s time to get around the Big Blue/Red Divide.

What does this mean? The April issue of the “The Atlantic” had an article “Breaking Faith” with some surprising revelations about American politics and faith. The so-called voters’ revolt away from traditional party choices, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders, signal deep discontent, anger, even mourning among Americans. “The culture and economy have shifted in ways that have marooned them with traditional aspirations unrealized in their real-world lives. (True for Red and Blue) The worse Americans fare in their own lives, the darker the view of the country.” That is pretty straightforward, but here’s the thing. Among white working-class, culturally conservative Americans who are disengaged from the church experience less economic success, more family breakdown, more resentment and pessimism, than those who remain engaged in faith life. Now what I found most shocking, a huge number of those voters who identify as evangelical that voted for Donald Trump, seldom or never go to church anymore. So we shouldn’t make much of the statistics that say that Christians voted for Trump. On the other side, “Black Lives Matter”, unlike the Civil Rights Movement under Dr. Martin Luther King, has not sprouted out of the African-American Church. Such social and political movements are becoming increasingly secular-based than faith-based. Our Blue/Red rift is more economic and political than religious and faith-related. Time to be more personal.

What is the takeaway? I saw a book review for “Strangers in Their Own Land” by Arlie Russell Hotchschild that intrigued me. The author is a Berkeley progressive who chose to travel to the oil and gas country of Louisiana to meet Tea Party supporters over the dinner table. And this book, with the tagline “Anger and Mourning on the American Right” is the product of her months-long research. It’s not just about the facts, it’s about feelings. Hochschild writes out of personal interactions with middle-class folks, “They feel confused and betrayed, because the rules of how the world is supposed to operate have changed. The narrative through which they’ve made sense of life no longer seems to apply. Worse, their narrative, their experience, and their very lives is discounted. The narrative they believe is about patience, hard work, putting up with pain and difficulty, being optimistic, and being faithful to family and faith. This will lead to realizing the American Dream of prosperity and security”. We can all relate to those hopes and dreams as Americans and empathize with the feel of betrayal and grief that the world is leaving you behind. I applaud my friend for his biking expedition to see and hear for himself. This is something that should move us all to reach out across the aisle whether it is Congress or the congregation. Our church has “Dialogue on Draft” where we meet at a public house and tackle polarizing topics from faith to politics to family to the apocalypse. Perhaps, a very real way to witness to the reality of Christ in the world is to be willing to listen and learn versus hiding in our partisan echo chambers. Recently, I attended a gathering of meeting your Muslim neighbors. At one point, I stood up turned around and greeted a man, “Hey, you are a real live Muslim”. We both chuckled. In Christ, listen to our neighbors; Republican and Muslim!

 


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“The Shack” Attack

What is this? “The Shack” is a global best-selling book that ten years after publication has finally made it to the big screen. Like the book, the film-version has stirred plenty of controversy. Some claim it is heretical, others warn it is dangerous for impressionable Christians. Having read the book and seen the movie, I say go check it out, as long as you keep in mind “it’s just a movie”. Consider “The Shack” art not doctrine, in that it is there to provoke thought, spark your imagination, and inspire questions about faith, life, and the Trinity. The story is about a married father “Mack” of three children in Oregon, who has been overcome by a great sadness. His youngest daughter was abducted and killed during a family camping trip. His grief, guilt, and anger with God have driven him inward and he has distanced himself from his family. His best friend, his wife, and his children, all have strong ties to Jesus and church. Mack mysteriously receives a note, signed by God, inviting him to return to the shack (the scene of the crime). Against all reason, Mack cannot resist the urge to go, desperately hoping to find some healing for his deep pain.

What does this mean? The real action begins when Mack makes it to the abandoned shack that is transformed into God’s B & B. There Mack meets the Trinity in a very human and very relatable form. “Papa” is a middle-aged, biscuit-baking, African-American woman (played by Octavia Spencer). Jesus is a young, Jewish man with a big beard and bigger smile who uses his carpentry skills to build something important for Mack’s healing. The Holy Spirit is a tall, slender, serene, Asian woman who helps Mack see his life as a garden that needs tending and tenderness. This is where you either love or hate the movie. You may hate it if your faith is offended by a God that is so accessible, so down-home, and in some ways, too schwarmy. “Papa” is over the top, at times. There is one hokey scene where Mack and Jesus are joyfully running together atop the lake?! These are the times, I wanted to stand up at the theater and publicly disavow the movie’s Jesus. Or you may love it for those very reasons. With all the mystery, might, distance, and detachment, we associate with God, some of us are hungry for meeting God in an earthly locale, maybe not as laid-back as Papa’s lake cabin. Personally, I loved and hated it (for reasons already cited). What I really appreciated were some very human rites that Mack experiences that bring healing from on High, not unlike the sacraments. To help him begin to let go of his grief, Jesus helps him through a simple yet sacred ritual. To engage his anger with God, Mack talks directly (prayer?) to the Father (Papa). The Holy Spirit gets him to dig into the garden (his life), to learn we grow in faith by practicing faith.

What is the takeaway? Perhaps, the most basic takeaway is who God is NOT according to the “The Shack”. God is not a cosmic force devoid of personality or power. The Trinity is not a cosmic killjoy who smirks when we feel pain. In fact, it is engaging when Papa, Son, and Holy Spirit are in the same room, as they seem to delight in each other, operate with a certain harmony, and find their place within the whole. It is so difficult to grasp and teach the concept of the Trinity, in words, print, or film. Yet, “The Shack” gives us something to contemplate. That itself, may be worth of price of your movie ticket. Something that the world, including church-goers, simply don’t comprehend is that God is a relational God. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, communicates and communes with some rough, rowdy, and questionable characters, like Jacob, the con-man. And at Christmas, God comes all the way down to Bethlehem, taking on flesh and blood, living an earthly life, enduring worldly sorrows, knowing hunger and happiness, befriends people like Zacchaeus and Mary Magdalene, and going to the cross and grave, for the sake of our relationship with us. In the church, we meet our brothers and sisters in Christ. And in eternity, we will be reunited with all of God’s people that have gone before us. There is a mysterious passage in Hebrews, that speaks of the necessity that Jesus experience weakness and suffering so he is qualified and equipped to be our high priest, our intermediary with God the Father. “Every high priest selected to represent men and women before God and offer sacrifices for their sins should be able to deal GENTLY WITH THEIR FAILINGS since he knows what it’s like from his own experience.” AMEN.

 


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Don’t Bet Against God

What is this? If you are a sports fan, we have been through a year for the ages. The fourth quarter comeback of the New England Patriots over the Atlanta Falcons, down 28-3 to a 34-28 victory, is just the latest miracle in the past twelve months. In the NBA finals, with Lebron James carrying them on his back, the Cleveland Cavaliers came back from being behind 3-1, to defeat the Golden State Warriors. During March Madness, Villanova won the NCAA basketball championship on a deep three-pointer at the buzzer. In college football, Clemson toppled Alabama with one second left to win the National Championship. And my favorite story line, the Chicago Cubs who hadn’t won the World Series in 108 years, come back from three games to one, to beat the Curse of the Goat, to defeat the Cleveland Indians, in an unforgettable seventh game. I had turned the TV off, I thought it was over. I could go on about Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky in the Olympic pool and Leicester City overcoming 5000-1 odds to win the Premier League in Soccer in the British Isles.

What does this mean? So maybe you don’t think its been a good year for politics, but you have to love the drama, plot-twists, and shocking comebacks sports have provided this past year. Hey, that reminds me of a bible story or two or three. Since Lent is coming up fast, think of it as the preseason for Easter. My favorite biblical stories are when the underdogs are so far behind, the situation looks impossible, and God’s people are either crying or complaining, and then God shows up. How about Abraham and Sara in need of an heir in the form of a baby, but they are 100 and 90 respectively. But, God shows up and baby Isaac is on the way. How about Moses and the liberated Hebrews who are on the end of a peninsula (think Point No Point if you live on the Olympic Peninsula) with Pharaoh’s chariots bearing down on them? But, God shows up, separates the Red Sea, drowns the Egyptians, and leads the Hebrews to the Promised Land. How about the Prophet Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones looking for signs of life? But, God shows up and it’s the ankle bone is connected to the foot bone, suddenly hearts and beating and lungs are pumping, as those dry bones and dead bodies are filled with breath and life. Don’t bet against God!

What is the takeaway? Maybe you need to read this as much as I need to write this. This week I am presiding at two funerals and writing reflections for a third that I can’t attend. It is an occupational reality, pastors deal with death all the time. It’s easy to get bogged down thinking death is the final and ultimate reality. When that happens to you or me, it is a good time to go to the bible where impossible is an inconvenience to God and death is more of an annoying detour than a final destination for the Almighty. One of my favorite stories is from the Book of Judges where the wimpy Gideon is put in charge by God to defeat the mighty Midianites (at that time they were like what Alabama is to college football). Gideon is guy more full of fear than faith. Nevertheless, he does amass an army of 32,000 warriors to fight the Midianites. But, God shows up and says, “That’s too many men. You’ll take the credit. Send all the fraidy cats home”. So 22,000 go home. But, God says, “Still too many”. Soon Gideon’s gang is whittled down to 300 and, big surprise, they go on to rout the baddies, thanks to a real “Act of God”. God seems to enjoy  miraculous comebacks, saving underdogs whether they’re complaining or crying, and overcoming the impossible to show us who’s God and who’s not. That is why I like Lent so much. We worry about the future and fear death, and it leads to the Easter Gospel, “Don’t bet against God!”