Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections

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Surprised By Hope

What is this? Surprised by Hope is a fascinating book by a popular biblical writer, N.T. Wright, that has the audacity to try to spell out what actually happens at resurrection. It is a hefty read, slow at times, places you will disagree, and Wright probably speaks with too much confidence about the unseen and unknowable Easter mystery. Nevertheless, it gets you thinking, hoping, even looking forward to eternal life. Wright tells a funny story of a wife who smuggled a can of aerosol hair spray into her deceased husband’s casket just prior to him being cremated. Of course, the result was a detonation. In some ways, that is what Easter is; detonation, demolition, explosion, implosion, and blowing up our cosmic and eternal enemies- sin, hell, the Evil One, and death. Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we’re set free to live and embrace a new future, a hopeful future. If there is one thing lacking in our young people, our churches, our families, and our nation, it is hope. Hope is not optimism, that is more of a human-generated positivity, more-or-less wishful thinking, with a lame and limited power source inside me. Hope is a gift from God, it comes from outside of us. Like the kind of peace, joy, and resilience the bible lifts up, the kind of hope God provides is not dependent on circumstances and emotions but based on grace. It give us what we need for a tomorrow we cannot control.

What does this mean? Lewis Smedes offers some helpful insights about biblical hope in his simple yet profound book, Keeping Hope Alive. Smedes begins by saying Our Creator has bred hope in our bones, it is our fuel for the journey as we move into a future we can imagine but cannot control. Christ is our fountain of hope and Easter is the gusher that keeps on giving, sustaining, restoring, and replentishing us on the way, all the way to eternal life. There is a solid saint in our congregation that’s been given a grave diagnosis. Sandy is sixty-plus, hospice has been called in, and she is constantly surrounded by  her very loving family. I come out on Mondays, we check-in, speculate on heaven, share some Scripture, pray, and have the Lord’s Supper. Sandy is so at peace, resting in hope, I am constantly amazed. Doesn’t she know death is approaching?! I trust the resurrection, too. But, I’d be way more worried, not just for myself, but what about the people I love. It can only be attributed to the peace/hope that passes all understanding. It doesn’t make earthly sense. Smedes suggests hope is a spiritual power that keeps us striving to achieve things we hope for and keeps us waiting for the things we know we cannot achieve.

What is the takeaway? Hebrews sums it up this way, “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see”. 1 Peter adds, “In God’s great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”. A couple of details there clarify what is hope and what is not. As the baptized, we are born into a story, a way of life, a company of believers, all sojourning toward a common destiny, where every step is immersed in hope. Not because we can know or control the specifics, but because we do know and can trust the Good Shepherd who restores our souls and guides us in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Early and often in my relationship with God, I was disappointed when my plans, prayers, hopes didn’t come to fruition. I had followed what I thought was the biblical formula, name it and claim it. I learned the hard way that “faith is being sure of what you hope for”. Now, I hear that as having confidence in biblical hopes; God’s promises, worship helps me grow, eternal life, I am forgiven, loved, eligible for good things, and have been given work that matters. Christian hope does not mean my path will be smooth, my career productive, my children a success, or I will live to a ripe, old age. None of that worked out for Jesus, did it. Hopeful people live by faith, not by fate, ready and relaxed in God.


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Making a Difference?

What is this? The Reverend Billy Graham died this week at the age of 99. Born the son of North Carolina farmers, Graham was ordained in 1939 and launched his evangelical ministry in 1950. Talk about making a difference, his sermons were translated into 48 languages. The Billy Graham Evangelical Association estimates his crusades were broadcast to 185 nations and reached 215 million people for the gospel. His global reach even provided him opportunity to preach in the forbidden kingdom of North Korea. In the biography of Louis Zamperini, UNBROKEN, the author Laura Hillebrand, recalls Zamperini’s conversion to faith at a Billy Graham Crusade. Zamperini, a WWII veteran, had survived a brutal experience in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. When he returned to the United States, Zamperini was haunted by such violent memories. He became addicted to alcohol. His young wife insisted he join her at a Billy Graham Crusade. There he was miraculously, and more importantly, completely healed of his alcoholism. His faith not only stuck with him, but grew his whole life long, all beginning at a Billy Graham Crusade.

What does this mean? I thank God for Billy Graham, I am a huge fan. His spiritual impact is up there with Mother Teresa, St. Augustine, and Tim Tebow (tongue-in-cheek). Yet, I confess, as a pastor, it is easy to feel insignificant by comparison. Who have I impacted? I’m not in anyone’s biography as a change agent for Jesus? Am I making a difference? Yes, pastors are competitive when it comes to being effective, although “ministry” is so hard to measure. Same goes for teaching, parenting, giving, serving, and being a friend. Being the insecure people we are, we are anxious, as Christians, about are we doing enough.. My impact seems so trivial, especially compared to her. Let’s be clear, it is God’s purpose that you and I make a difference for Jesus’ sake. We are blessed in order to be a blessing. In my twenty-five pastoral years, there are few more rewarding experiences as seeing one of God’s people utilize their gifts and see tangible results. Amen. Having said all that, I want to emphasize what Jesus says (Matthew 10:42 MSG), “It’s best to start small. Give a cool cup of water to someone who is thirsty, for instance. This small act of giving or receiving makes you an apprentice. You won’t lose out on a thing (reward from God)”. What I am getting around to saying is that our call is to be faithful in small things, everyday tasks, and familiar relationships. I invite you to reflect on your own life. Who impacted you primarily? It probably wasn’t Billy Graham, Oprah Winfrey, or even Tim Tebow.

What is the takeaway? As a pastor, those who made a real difference in my life and ministry formation were local pastors. In high school, Pastor Carlson was my Baptist pastor with a passion for outreach and a jolly sense of humor. In him (and his sons) I experienced the joy of the Lord. At a Lutheran camp where I served as a counselor fresh out of college, Pastor Bob Quam was a change agent for me. He was a quirky guy with thick coke-bottled glasses, but he made a Lutheran out of me and witnessed to what it is to serve Jesus. Working as a youth director in my 20’s at a large suburban Portland church, Pastor Mike Foss was a mentor and a friend. Such a dynamic pastor with so many parish demands, he always took time to listen to me. My first call was to Silverton, Oregon where I partnered with Pastor Frank Wilson. Frank was such a faithful pastor of quality character, who PATIENTLY instructed me in grasping the power of the sacraments. At my previous parish in Poulsbo, there was a retired pastor, Bob Winkel, who was so wise, content in his own pastoral skin, and quotable at council meetings (“Well leaders, here is what we should do insert Bob Winkel quote” then Pastor Chuck takes credit). God has used these typical pastors to shape me significantly. So I am sure it is the everyday people who have made a difference in your life. I guess Billy Graham was an “unenthusiastic Christian” at age 16. His father insisted on daily bible readings as part of their Presbyterian faith. But, only when an unlikely, itinerant preacher named Mordecai Ham came to town in 1934 did Graham truly hear God calling him to faith, to follow Jesus, and to launch a remarkable evangelical ministry. Who knows you may be the next Billy Graham’s Mordecai Ham?

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Forgetting to Remember

What is this? One of thee most moving sites our group experienced in Israel on our November pilgrimage was the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. Set appropriately, on the Mount of Remembrance in Jerusalem, it has nine chilling galleries of photographs, works of art, multi-media presentations, and personal items found in the camps and ghettos. There is the Hall of Remembrance where the ashes of the dead are laid to rest and an eternal flame burns in commemoration. The Hall of Names includes over 3 millions names of Holocaust victims. The Children’s memorial is dedicated to the 1.5 million children that died under Nazi Germany. I was wowed by the technology utilized, no expense was spared. For good reason, as the purpose of the museum is to make sure that future generations do not forget. Coming away from our two hour experience, the names ring in your ear, the faces emblazoned in your memory, your heart is broken, you can’t help but weep. Some things as human beings, we forget at our own peril. For Christians, we are called to remember the darkness like the Holocaust and the goodness like Easter.

What does this mean? Yet, we have such a difficult time remembering what is worth remembering. Inundated with so much information, swamped with social media, plied with facts and figures, subject to 24-hour cable news, we are drowning in knowledge and communication. Plus, if you are like me, you tend to retain some inane statistics or trivial facts. I still remember when I was a sophomore pitcher in high school, I was 10-0 and I had an ERA of 0.63. Wow, was I good! That is a long time ago, and as my best friend Dave always reminds me, “nobody cares”. Remembering is a central task for Christians and the church. As I am defining it, memory is our storehouse, personal archive of experiences, images, and knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. To remember in one sense is to recall facts, events, and even emotions. But, in the sense I am referring to is to bear in mind, remain focused on a significant reality or perspective. To remember the Holocaust means, as humanity, we must never repeat that inhumanity. So to remember in this sense means to realize and respond to a relationship (your mother), event (your baptism), or a future reality (Christ is coming again). Biblically, to remember means to live based on, to honor, to follow God and God’s way in Christ Jesus.

What is the takeaway? Scripture is loaded with remembering, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”, “Remember me, according to your great mercy”, “God will remember their sins no more”, “Do this in remembrance of me” and “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy”. To remember is the church family’s vocation. That is why Sunday worship looks like so much repetition. We need regular rituals like crossing ourselves, creeds we internalize, weekly communion, and hear again the absolution. Why? Because, we sinners forget all about the goodness of God, our dependence of the Great Giver and Forgiver, and the bounty of grace we receive in Christ. I find one of the realities with youth ministry is that unless their faith is constantly reinforced it will simply erode away. Most young people turn away, not because they reject Jesus, but their faith is not being fortified in fellowship, study, and forgiveness. I am amazed how sturdy a believer’s faith is when they commit to lifelong faith practices. There was a great saint of our church who was suffering in an advance stage so Dementia. I visited her one time. She unlocked her door and found another resident sleeping in her bed, like the Three Bears. After shooing her out the door, we sat together. She could not remember my name or her name, for that matter. However, she recited the Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and Twenty-third Psalm with me, perfectly. We shared communion as a way of remembering that Jesus will never forget us, our names and faces are emblazoned on His heart forever.

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The #MeToo Movement is Seismic

What is this? Let me begin with a big disclaimer, I am a middle-aged, white male in America. I won’t try to claim any spiritual credibility on this issue because I am clergy, either. I’d say that I have at most; impressions, literary commentary, & female family & friends who have shared of their experience. In terms of sexual harassment & assault, I’ve heard dark stories of violence, abuse, and shame heaped on women in pastoral counseling sessions. Beginning with movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, the early advances of #MeToo began sending tremors throughout the entertainment world (Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, even Garrison Keillor). The dominoes continue to fall there and now in Congress (Roy Moore, Al Franken). Call it an uprising, a revolution, or a social justice movement, but it’s about time. That feels strange coming from a white male who has been a part of the larger systemic problem. When in seminary, I was quietly eating lunch by myself in the cafeteria. A group of women were writing a letter to editor of the seminary newspaper expressing their anger with sexist treatment from the faculty. Looking for signatures, they surrounded me. Admittedly, I was a little intimidated, but I signed it because it was the right thing to do. Later, when it came out in the school newspaper, mine was the only male signature among seventy-five. My friends were giving me a bad time. I responded, “Just like Moses said to Pharaoh, “Let my people go!”

What does this mean? The God revealed in Jesus Christ, is for our freedom. Not only for Christians to be forgiven and freed from sin, but for slaves to be liberated, creation to be unshackled from exploitation, racism to be shattered, and for women to realize full gender equality. This movement has been hampered by the fact, the bible is, in many ways, a patriarchal book. Yet, in Christ’ ministry, women were at the core of the action, serving as key leaders. And when Easter arrived, it was the women who were chosen to be witnesses to the resurrection. This is scandalous, because women weren’t authorized to serve as witnesses in Roman courts. Why? Because they were women. But, Mary, Mary Magdalene, and other females were chosen by God to testify to the most important event in history. There is something enormously liberating when a courageous woman testifies to her experience of sexual harassment or assault as truth. It breaks the conspiracy of silence, validates her pain and person, and empowers others to step out of the shadows. A woman shared with me her former husband had physically abused her, putting her in the hospital, due to her trying to warn him about his drug and alcohol addiction. She wept, but I think they were tears of freedom, she was out of that prison of a relationship.

What is It’s early, but I have been taken aback by how powerful and precipitous this movement has advanced. Once an allegation or two is out there, it is Ba-bam, the perpetrator is gone. My hope is this will not lead to miscarriages of justice, but is says something for how short the fuse is for this behavior now, and that’s a good thing. My sense is this not a short-term effort but a seismic crusade that is already changing the way things are. I saw a story of a New Jersey county commissioner who was mocking the women’s march in 2016, he was quoted as saying, “Will the women’s protest be over in time for the women to fix dinner”. A 32 year-old woman, Ashley Bennet, an ER psychiatric screener, was offended by his comments so she decided to run against him in the next election. This November, she beat Carman by ten percent of the vote. Hallelujah! Power is good or bad, depending if it utilized for self-aggrandizement or helping others thrive. Like the Good Samaritan, we have a God-given responsibility to welcome the stranger, help and heal the underdog, and speak out against injustice. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer at Facebook, told the NY Times, “People need to be afraid not just of doing these things, but also of not doing anything when someone around them does it. If you know something is happening and you fail to take action, whether you are male or female, especially you are in power, you are responsible, too.” That is another way of keeping Jesus’ command to “Love your Neighbor”!

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The Voice that Matters

What is this? I have been fortunate to travel overseas. In many foreign lands, native vendors have used all kinds of approaches to try to sell me their goods. In Mexico, the children were dispatched with their gum, crowding my car. In Kathmandu, the peddlers would follow silently for great distances, hoping I would buy their trinkets. In China, a merchant gave me a cigarette, that I felt obligated to smoke or be considered rude. But, all these would-be sellers are mere pretenders compared to the expert Egyptian vendors we encountered this month. They came in multitudes, at some sites they outnumbered the pilgrims. I was taken by the diverse voices and divergent tactics they utilized. At the pyramids, one guy was captivating with his American jargon, “Come, friend, I have the whole enchilada, the whole smear”. Some were just outright aggressive, grabbing an unsuspecting tourist’s cell phone, quick take a picture, “Look you are holding the Sphinx” and demand money, “That is $3”. These vendors and their voices were such a distraction, they caused us to lose focus on the leader, to stop listening to her directions.

What does this mean? Others were beyond intimidating. A woman in our group took a picture of a guy’s camel. He and two of his friends, chased her down, making her panicky. When I intervened, they were physical, saying, “She owes us $5”. The guy I remember most clearly was Sufin of Saquarra at the Step Pyramid. Right before we got off the bus, there was this sense of dread that you are going into battle, a mind-control contest, don’t look the vendors in the eye. For some of our pilgrims, it was more a matter of flight instead of fight. Sufin of Saquarra was a friendly guy, who showed me photos of his family, relentlessly yet almost reverently pressed me to buy his book. He followed me around, I did have my photo taken with him and paid him. Not sure who won the mind-bender match. This long story of vendors is my way of leading us to consider all the competing cultural and personal voices we are subjected to on a daily basis. As God’s people, we are supposed to listen for a specific speaker. Jesus declares in his speech about being the Good Shepherd, “the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought all his own he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him, because THEY KNOW HIS VOICE.” Hearing HIS VOICE is the key.

What is the takeaway? From the moment we wake up in the morning, like the tourists getting off the bus, we may dread going into battle with the world, entering into a mind-control contest of our own. Martin Luther suggested the right way to begin each day is to start at the sink, splash water on your face, and remember your baptism and whose voice you need to hear above all others. Good advice, for we are inundated with vendors selling us health, beauty, prosperity, or the promise of security. Some of the voices are tempting, they come across as genuinely interested in your welfare and with it. We have the whole enchilada, here. Some are just aggressive, the voices of shame, guilt, and you simply aren’t good enough. You can feel pursued and threatened like my friend who ran out of fear. Maybe the most malicious voices can be like Sufin of Saquarra, personal, pesky, yet potentially poisonous. They draw us into destructive decisions, unhealthy habits, and away from the Good Shepherd’s voice. This is a primary challenge for living a life of faith that is grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So God commands us to remember the Sabbath Day, to listen for the one voice, hear his Word, pray in his name, and to ground ourselves in the one story that matters. That is the only way we WILL HEAR HIS VOICE.





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For All the Saints

What is this? All Saints Day is upon us. It is feast day in the church year where we remember all the saints who’ve gone before us, as well, as the saints currently residing in our churches, schools, workplaces, neighborhood, families, and in our lives. Not only are saints simply forgiven sinners, they are not as pious and spiritual as you think. We are a pretty motley crew. Some are quirky, some are worriers, some are downright annoying. Nevertheless, in Deuteronomy God call his people his peculiar treasures. The truth is, they’re ordinary, everyday people who’ve been touched by God’s grace. That is what makes them the walking, talking, mobile yet holy sacraments God intended. When people wonder if the God up there is there for me?, God sends in saints/sinners like us to show them in an earthy way that the God up there IS THERE FOR YOU. This is the God we know through Christ Jesus, who gathers his own motley crew of disciples. There is Peter the impetuous, Martha the industrious, and Zaccheus the petite. In the OT, there is Esther the teen queen, Isaac son of laughter, Jonah the runaway prophet, Rahab the prostitute.

What does this mean? This is God’s no-cut program where all the sinners get to trade in the old sinful life for new life in Christ. Luther called this the Happy Exchange, good deal for us, for sure. The thing is despite all the lavish mercy, holy peace, sacred joy, and resurrection power stowed in each of the baptized, you wouldn’t know to look or listen to us. So you have keep your eyes open, because God’s work in, among, and through the saints is kind of sneaky. So on this All Saints Day, I’ve been considering some stealth saints I’ve come across. Growing up in my Baptist Church, there was Pastor Holmgren with the iron handshake and humble spirit, who claimed at 85 he was beginning to get the gospel. At Christikon Camp, there was the dweebish, bookwormish, and stubborn pastor and camp director who God utilized to make me a born-again Lutheran and future pastor.  On my internship in Singapore, there was Pastor Lim’s mother, who took it upon herself to try to crank my sprained ankle under the guise of Chinese medicine. With a towel in my mouth, Mother Lim sadistically wrenched my ankle while Pastor Lim and his daughter laughed with delight. All these unorthodox characters are numbers among God saints.

What is the takeaway? At my first call in Silverton, Oregon there was 93 year-old Helen Poverud. As I struggled with being a pastor, especially in the fishbowl of this small town, Helen was my sounding board, confidant, and urged me to get marry, lest I end up like her two bachelor brothers she had to nurture. There was also Ken, a gay man who died of Aids in his 40’s. He loved to mortify when we’d go the movies, pretending we were on a date. He also showed me what it means to live with grace in the valley of the shadow of death. At the church I served in Poulsbo, I witnessed two saints, Rebecca and Beachie, will our friend who was in the depths of despair, back from emotional hell, itself. Who says grace can’t be robust, resilient, and intimidating?! I’m telling you brother, this was  resurrection, I mean Lazarus-like out of the tomb! There was a dying saint, waiting for heaven, Barbara who said, “Pastor, I’ve been waiting for this all my life”. Most recently, there has been this sweet yet abrasive homebound woman, Marguerite, who tells me the story almost every time I visit of how her son died from addiction. In her despair, she prayed and prayed to God. She is convinced that Jesus showed up in her apartment to console her, “You have done all you can do. I have your son now”. And she is genuinely at peace. She’s been a timely witness to me as the parent of an autistic son, Jesus has all his children. And one day, we will all be gathered around throne of the Lamb. The stories we will tell!



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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.