Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections


All Our Losses

What is this? Last week we received a very gracious bereavement card that had hand-written acknowledgments, “It’s never easy to lose your best friend. May your happy memories bring you comfort during this difficult time”, “I am deeply sorry for your loss She will be missed by many”, “So sorry for your loss”, “It’s never easy to lose your best friend. May many happy memories of JELLY BEAN bring you comfort during this difficult time”. JELLY BEAN is our deceased guinea pig and the card was from the veterinary clinic where we had him euthanized. Our society has a schizophrenic relationship with grief. When Princess Diana dies in a traffic fatality we make her burial site a global pilgrimage destination. When our pets live and die we feel more freedom to express our affection and anger than we do with some of our own family. So many people harbor grief and sadness refusing to acknowledge or seek healing. The best explanation for depression (I have struggled with depression for years) is grief and sorrow that has been denied and in a way becomes frozen until symptoms of depression surface; insomnia, darkness, and lack of motivation. There are people who may have never grieved in a healthy way, I have had difficult family history. The reality is grief is a healthy, God-given response to significant loss.

What does this mean? Historically, grief has been considered a character flaw, personal weakness, or being psychologically warped. Grief is typically associated with the death of a loved one. Yet, there are many other ways we experience loss. We may experience the loss of identity through divorce or retirement, financial or material loss, physical loss such as the capacity to drive or mobility, the death of a dream, and relationship loss. We suffer and experience loss because we are limited from birth to death, all that we love is limited, and our attachments are temporal. Our society in general and men in particular, work very hard to project a self-reliant, sturdy, and “I-ain’t-got-no-sorrow” persona. We may use chemicals, materialism, be overly optimistic, busyness, and even biblical cliches to mask and avoid our grief. We had an old car that had a broken ‘check engine’ light that caused me endless anxiety. Finally, Elizabeth put a strip of black electrical tape to cover it up. If I couldn’t see it, then it wasn’t there. We operate much the same way with our grief. We cover it up with alcohol, compensate with work, discount the severity, rationalize that time will fix it up, and get lost in screen time. We will mask the symptoms, put on a happy face, rather than tending to the difficult emotional, spiritual, and soul work that will actually bring healing.

What is the takeaway? I don’t have clinical or prescriptive answers for what is deeply human. However, what we do have, what God has given us are the psalms. The psalmist knows about grief, “Why are you so downcast, O my soul, and why are you so disquieted within me?” There is honesty, urgency, and struggle in this grief-filled question. The disquiet within is a compelling thirst for God. When we are frightened by our mortality and overwhelmed by our losses, we need to pray our grief, direct our mourning in God’s direction. Notice how Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, “If is possible, let this cup pass from me. Yet, not my will but your will be done”. And on the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”! In the midst of loss and fear of abandonment, Jesus prays his grief, fear, and loss. May this encourage us to do the same, for us to bring our pain, loss, and suffering to the cross.Years ago, I did a funeral for a woman who I had visited for a long time. Only when she died, did her daughter tell me that she had been widowed five times and her other daughter had committed suicide. I think she died of a broken heart. My point is we often, I didn’t in that case, have any idea of the depth of pain or degree of loss others have experienced. The psalmist responds to his own question, “Hope in God, for I shall again praise him, my help and my God”. To the lament of despair the answer is hope. Hope is our fuel for the future. Hope is not optimism, doesn’t from within, but comes from the Almighty, the God of hope and faith, death and resurrection. Amen.


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The Bully Pulpit

What is this? Years ago, I preached a sermon titled something like, “America Bless God” that tried to talk about how Christians’ first allegiance is actually to Christ not to the country. While we love America and have a duty as citizens, as the baptized we are called to kneel before the cross. For the most part, people appreciated my trying to speak to the balance between faith and patriotism. One anonymous dissenter put a small American flag in the bed by our reader board. This happened during the crazy busy Advent and Christmas seasons, so I confess I overreacted. I went about my ministry, paranoid and suspicious, as to who was in on this conspiracy. Feeling I was betrayed by some Judas in the parish and denied by some Peterson in the pew, I felt compelled to call an emergency church council meeting so we can get to the bottom of this plot to discredit the pastor. When leaders were gathered around the table in crisis mode, they all waited for me to share why my pants were on fire. So I explained my concerns. These were wily, veteran leaders in the church who had seen it all. I knew they would know how to deal with this treachery in God’s house. They conferred for a few minutes and declared, “You really need to go on vacation”.

What does this mean? For me that was a grace moment, where people listened to me spout about my suspicions and wisely encouraged me to keep perspective. The Good Lord knows we need more of that with all the shouting, shunning, and calls to shut others up. The current election season highlights how  vicious and venomous our communication has become while we make such little effort to actually listen to each other. Democrats and Republicans are both lacking in any real effort to discuss problems and debate policies. After the third and final presidential debate last night, I was watching CNN for debate commentary. First of all, they have ten people on the panel including both Republican and Democratic advocates. All these commentators were talking over each other just like the Trump and Clinton. In the background were a group of Trump supporters with blow horns promoting their candidate. Talk about a communication breakdown, it was chaos. Sadly, some of this kind of vocal bullying and lack of listening has made it’s way into the church. Obviously, people have strong opinions, they care a lot about the church, and many are anxious about the future of the church, that goes for Peninsula Lutheran, too. And all of that is both understandable and admirable. However, for us to hear what God is saying in our midst, let alone each other, we need to discipline ourselves to be quiet long enough so we can listen to what is being said. Even in our prayers, especially in our prayers, let us listen to what Our God and Father is saying to us. God is still speaking, if we will listen.

What is the takeaway? This month during a low-key stewardship push, we’ve assembled at homes for a series of cottage meetings. The purpose is straight-forward, to give me an opportunity to become more familiar with the people of Peninsula and ask what is our purpose in being here. To quote Peter Drucker, “What is our business?” I’ve been delighted by the turn-out and, more importantly, with the discussion. People have shared heart-felt concerns over past conflicts, expressed both appreciation for our enduring legacy and anxiety over our aging membership, remembered some treasured saints of the church, and committed to pray and to move forward. The takeaway is when you know you are heard it is empowering and encouraging. As the new guy, I realize we will be having some difficult congregational conversations around budget, mission, and social issues. We need not fear those kind of challenging because “the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ”. Just as Jesus is bound up with us so we are bound up in this church together. Our relationships, as sisters and brothers in Christ, is NOT based on our politics, our piety, or our personal beliefs. No, we are the body of Christ. We’re stuck with each other, and you better get used to that, eternity is a long time. The good news is that with that reality firmly established in Holy Baptism, we have the freedom to challenge and encourage each other on whatever topic. The key being we treat each other with respect, honor each other’s faith, and realize that we are not saved based on our particular position on a social or biblical issue. To help us practice this kind of conversation, you are invited to SEVEN SEAS BREWERY on Monday, November 14 at 5 PM. We have a room reserved and our topic, “Is America a Christian Nation?” Should be fun, should be a learning experience. Leave the blow horns at home.

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Bears, Beers, and the Fridge

What is this? Some years ago, NBC news reported that an intoxicated black bear passed out on the lawn of Baker Lake Resort in Washington state. Apparently, the bear had gained access to the coolers belonging to campers and downed a case and a half of Rainier Beer. Using his claws and teeth he punctured the cans before drinking up. The ranger on duty reported the bear had passed on the entire stash of Busch Beer also present. After sleeping it off in a tree, the park rangers relocated the bear to a safe distance. I remember growing up with television shows like Andy Griffith with the charming town drunk, “Otis”, who helped himself to the Mayberry Jailhouse keys to sleep it off in the cell under the watchful eye of Deputy Fife. The message was that drunkedness could be seen as harmless, even humorous. And that alcoholism is a regrettable but certainly not a significant social evil. Sadly, reality tells us otherwise. It is my conviction that every family, including mine, is impacted one way or another by alcoholism. As a pastor, I’ve walked with so many broken people, witnessed too much family tragedy, and presided at too many graveside services with alcohol as the culprit. It is not just the pain by alcoholism but the lives not fully lived.

What does this mean? Recently, Sports Illustrated had a special issue dedicated to “Where Are They Now?” The article that caught my eye was about Richard Perry, aka “The Fridge” who starred for the Chicago Bears under Coach Mike Ditka when they won the Super Bowl in 1986. Being from Chicago, I have to root for the Bears. I remember I was working as a youth director in Portland, Oregon on Super Bowl Sunday during the telecast. So I skipped worship with two youth and watched on the church’s TV as the Bears crushed the Patriots 46-10. Fridge started on the defensive line, was popular in the locker room, and even at 330 lbs. a running back at times. Post-Super Bowl, Perry received more endorsements and celebrity gigs than Walter Payton. He was truly a freak athlete. At 6’2″, 330 lbs. he could easily dunk a basketball, could power clean 370 lbs., and was a lifeguard at a local pool as a teenager. Alas, now at age 53 the Fridge weighs in at 450 lbs and spends his days sitting in his White Hummer H2 drinking alcohol with his drinking buddies from his hometown of Aiken, South Carolina. He suffers from diabetes, concussion-related mental issues, and he’s basically broke. When asked about the present state of affairs, he replies, “I’m home and I’m happy. I ain’t got no plans. I’m just gonna relax and take my time.”

What is the takeaway? The real tragedy of Perry’s alcoholism is that it has cheated him out of living his life fully. The Fridge has been given remarkable talents, personality, and opportunities to enrich his own life and the life of others. Instead, at age 53, he is a heart attack ready to happen, an alcoholic inviting death, and, is so often the case, his family is going down with him. My confirmation students love Psalm 104:15, “God makes ….wine that gladdens the hearts of men, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart”. The biblical message is clear, God gives us wine, etc. as a gift, “to gladden our hearts”. Like so many other God-given gifts from food to work to sports to money to sex, we are sorely tempted to elevate them from gift to god, displacing the real God. Whether the addiction is chemical, work, shopping, or eating, it is a kind of possession that happens. I wouldn’t quite say demon possession, but I have known some alcoholics who have come close. So it is a bit of a quandary, we have these beautiful, bountiful, earthy gifts, God gives us to enjoy. At the same time, we are to be vigilant that the gift given doesn’t become our master. What I have always loved about Luther and Lutheranism is the capacity to unapologetically embrace the goodness of God creation and God’s gifts. Amen. So I say give hearty thanks and enjoy with the author of Ecclesiastes, “Eat, drink, and be merry, these are the gifts of God”. Yet, be mindful. My uncle stopped drinking altogether a few years ago. When our family asked him why, he simply replied, “For me, it gets in the way”. That’s good wisdom. When the gifts get in the way, they’re not a gift. They’re a trap.

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On Time

What is this? Way back in the olden days, the 1980’s, I had to be sure to be at a happening New Year’s party or at least with happening people. Now it is lights out by 10 PM no matter what’s happening (or not) and see you in the morning New Year. But, the New Year is still an engaging time to pause and consider the passage of time. To reflect on where you have been, where you are, and where you (hope) you are going. The theologians at Sports Illustrated offered a sage column on time that I am borrowing a few lines from to ponder. “It flies and it drags. Its precious and its wasted. It’s on my side and it’s passing me by. We have too much of it on our hands and not enough in a day. It’s endless and it runs out. It’s a gift and a thief. It heals all wounds and we have to kill it. For kids, whole summers whoosh by in a blur, while the final five minutes before school dismissal last an entire geological epoch. To the parents of young children, the nights are long and the years are short. We are told that time waits for no man and we’re told that time stands still. Which is it? Perhaps, time will tell. Most of us wonder, “Where did the time go?” Ecclesiastes is a Wisdom book buried in the Old Testament that is deeply concerned with the significance of time. Maybe you recognize some of this from any number of musical numbers that invoke this poetry. “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven; a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance….” Such timeless words that ironically point to how transitory our time is on this earth. Some say Ecclesiastes is too depressing and downright cynical. But, there is also refreshing, serious honesty here. Frankly, we need to be humbly reminded in the New Year God created us as finite beings with limitations including time.

What does this mean? As the baptized we live a kind of contradiction. Ecclesiastes tells that “God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has set eternity in the hearts of people, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end”. It’s as if we have been given a sense of past, present, and future, but not the capacity to comprehend what God is up to among us. On one hand, we have been allotted so much time by a gracious God to live well, love our people, complete certain tasks, honor our commitments, keep the faith, and try to leave a legacy. That is a lot and on top of that you don’t know if you will be given 38, 68, or 98 years. So we pray for daily bread and grace, go out by faith and try to live today. On the other hand, God’s Word declares we have eternal life and are guaranteed a place on the day God finally puts all the divided, finite, brittle, broken, and dead (us) pieces of the cosmos back together as harmonized, unified, forever glorified in the day of Christ Jesus. So we are saint and sinner, sinful and mortal yet forgiven and destined for eternal life. Plus, we are trying to relate to God of whom the bible says, “to Him a thousand years is a day and a day is a thousand years”. Meanwhile, the same bible confronts us with the earthly reality that we are like dust, grass, and vapor. My point is it is difficult to find a healthy balance between heaven and earth, to be abundantly present in this day and be prayerfully aware of eternity. Most of us fall into the ditch of being too consumed with this world, our worries, and what the future will bring.  Our struggle is we don’t give enough attention to heaven. When we do that, we often feel the frustration and futility that Ecclesiastes specializes in pointing out, “What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid upon men”.

What is the takeaway? Time is probably the God-given resource that we struggle with most to manage. So what can we do to be faithful stewards of time for our family, friends, churches, and still have time to have fun? Is there a place for grace, any room for freedom when it comes to counting down to eternity. Yes! The call to follow Jesus is to reorient our lives around the expansive baptismal life we have been given. We need to embrace the resurrection life so we are able to make sense, make decisions, make plans, and make peace with our time. I look back on time I wasted worrying, working and playing too much, wanting a different life. I cannot redeem it so I waste more time regretting, grieving, or trying to relive it. To see time as sacred and short-lived I find it helpful to receive Holy Communion often. This is God’s omnipresent feast of grace. Jesus says do this in remembrance of me. The Christ event impinges on the present. The pastor declares, “This IS the body and blood of Christ given for YOU”. In that moment, God in Christ is with you, redeeming your time as well as your soul. And Jesus also says, “I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until I drink it with you in the kingdom”. Rituals have power, especially the means of grace we receive in the sacraments. In the ordinary of bread, wine, and water we meet the extraordinary and miraculous mercy of God. This helps us see our story in the gospel story, our time in the context of Christ. This last week one of our church’s all-time saints died, a 90 year-old, Rebecca Clearman. I happen to be there at her house with her husband of 70+ years,  and family. Before she departed for the hospital, Rebecca, Jack, and I had the Lord’s Supper. Here she was on the threshold between heaven and earth, mortality and eternity, and it was exactly what she needed. She was afraid, mostly for Jack, but in the midst of this I said, “It’s going to be okay, you’re going to be okay, Jack is going to be okay”. She relaxed, Sometimes, by grace, time is up.

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New Year’s Absolution

What is this? We are in the age of “digiphrenia” according to author Doug Rushkoff in his book “Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now”. In 2015, more than ever we reward multi-tasking and are encouraged to be in too many places at the same time. Everywhere you look people are looking down. Not up to heaven or even eye-to-eye to see each other, but down. They are texting, tweeting, Facebooking, gaming, buying, and distracting themselves. Rushkoff, who is a media guru, claims we are always on urgent mode, of the moment but not in the moment, resulting is a kind of “desperate immediacy”. He says society has been duped into pursuing unrealistic and unsatisfying goals related to time and productivity. Maybe our embrace of time-saving technology like smartphones is our way of trying to combat the feeling that our time on earth is short, fleeting, limited, and, often unmanageable. Or our “digiphrenia” may just be an escape from the reality of our faulty, fickle, and mortal lives. There is a kind of confession that comes with New Year’s resolutions. We admit we are not the kind of people we want to be, we hope to be. We are not as slender, cheerful, thankful, confident, motivated, or productive as we would like to be or think we should be. That this spikes at the New Year is not a big secret. Advertisers for diet programs and products spend more in the first two weeks of January than the rest of the year combined. Most of us truly want to turn our lives around.

What does this mean? Time is how we measure our mortality. When we are young time can be a source of illusion. We feel like we will live forever. Baby-boomers like me tend to deny, fear, or try to get a grip on controlling time. We avoid talk of death and/or pack the calendar in an attempt to get it all in. We may remain in urgent mode (excuse me while I check my messages) so we don’t miss anything or cling to hopes of eternal youth through fitness (I plead guilty on that last count). Psalm 90 is the ultimate reminder of our mortality. The tradition says that Moses wrote this shortly before his death at a ripe old age as he watched his people cross into the Promised Land. Verse 12 is a savvy prayer for the New Year. “Teach us to number our days aright, so we may gain a heart of wisdom.” To be wise about our time means we have to be honest about our limitations. We need the eternal context. Moses prays, “Before the mountains were born, or you brought forth the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God.” Not only does God transcend time but God is the Giver of time. We do well to receive time as a limited resource and a gift. Just like our possessions, personal relationships, health, and talents are supplied by a generous God so is our time. When the Psalmist is asking for a heart of wisdom, this is not secret knowledge or even being a good time manager. Rather, he prays for the capacity to accept his limitations, let God be God, and receive time as a gift.

What is the takeaway? Time is short. I know, quit saying that. Moses begins his prayer, “Lord, you have been our home throughout all generations.” To get a grip on time we best be grounded in that reality. God is our refuge, home, shelter, and belonging place for his people from the very beginning. Apart from that, apart from God, we’re in trouble, and this psalm becomes a bummer in a hurry full of futility. Until we own the reality that we are like dust and grass, we are not ready to live realistically, creatively, or reverently. Until we confess that we are fragile, faulty, and unfaithful, we are not prepared for eternal life either. At a graveside service (talk about experiencing your mortality) Paul’s words give us perspective and promise, “If we live we live to the Lord, if we die we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s”. Rooted in our belonging to Christ, helps us see the time God has given us, not just in light of eternity, but in light of the resurrection. That helps Moses to hound God at the close of his prayer, “May the favor of the Lord our God rest upon us; Prosper the work of our hands for us, yes, prosper the work of our hands.” Sure, we are mortal. Yes, time is short. However, God is our belonging place and the one who blesses the work of our hands. Instead of New Year’s resolutions, consider New Year’s absolution offered through the death and resurrection of Christ. Your baptism is a Genesis-like event; cosmic, complete, to the core. You are a child of God. You are forgiven. You have eternal life. Begin 2015 with a new beginning, refreshed in faith, may God prosper the work of your hands!

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What is this? My buddy tells the story of when his older brother, Mike, came to visit him for the weekend. The morning he is departing, Mike notices a minute leak coming from the kitchen sink. Mike fancies himself something of a home repair guru. Seeing an urgent need and an opportunity to be the helpful older brother, Mike takes decisive action. Just a few hours before his flight was to depart, he was immersed in dismantling his brother’s sink. As the time slipped away, he came to realize that this project would not be done in time. But, Mike felt good that he had helped identify the problem and begun the work of fixing it. Now that he had to catch his flight, the rest was now up to his brother. After he called the plumber, took time off work, and paid the $300 repair bill to reassemble the faucet and return the kitchen to a functional state, my buddy was wishing he had stopped Mike from “helping”.

What does this mean? You can imagine the feelings of frustration and anger welling up inside if that happened to you. Never mind all the good intentions “this is what big brother’s do”. The fact that the help imposed was more vandalism than valuable is obvious. It makes me think of times when well-meaning folks have tried to impose their help upon me through the giving of unsolicited advice. Like Mike, they clearly care and seeing a problem, they are eager to jump in. The problem is that we need to wait to be asked for our advice. This gives the other the dignity and distance to work it out their way. No doubt, the giving of advice might make the giver feel good. But, sometimes, like Mike, a bigger mess is created that is left for others to clean up. Plus, the person you are trying to help may deeply resent the invasion of privacy and be left wishing they had stopped you from “helping”.

What is the takeaway? This topic is personal to me. Not just because I’ve been stung by well-intentioned advice-givers. Lately, I find myself looking for opportunities to hand out advice and play “the expert”. I have been asking God to help me put a cork in it. Most significantly, I am trying to resist the temptation to step into my junior high daughter’s business with loads of advice and admonitions. Proverbs 21:23 warns, “He who guards his mouth and his tongue, keeps himself from calamity.” You could sum that up as 1) Think First and 2) Talk Less. Lord, help us to withhold our helpful advice from others until we are asked. Lest I be remembered like the woman buried in an English country churchyard, whose tombstone reads, “BENEATH THE STONE, A LUMP OF CLAY, LIES ARABELLA YOUNG, WHO, ON THE TWENTY-FOURTH OF MAY, BEGAN TO HOLD HER TONGUE.” Amen.