Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections


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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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Costco Epiphany

 What is this? The Slocums, whether by nurture or nature, are a thrifty family. This is reflected in our history of television ownership. When you marry you are merging budgets, histories, households, lifestyles, families, faith life, and your worldly possessions. When Elizabeth and I married, we had one eight-inch television between us. She had purchased it for $50 or so in the 1980’s and it was always a prerequisite for my roommates to have good TV’s. As our kids have grown, we have gotten by with various boob tubes. A few years ago, I purchased a 30-inch TV from Good Will for $15. The hard part was carrying the 300-lb. behemoth home. But, once it was hooked up it worked fine. So you can imagine every time Larry or Barry or Jerry the Cable Guy showed up at our house for a service call, our GW set and that 8-incher (we still have) were subject to ridicule, “Check that out, I haven’t seen that since the 1980’s.Yuck,  yuck.” Well, now we’re living in a brand new house, nestled in suburbia, with Target and Starbuck’s only two blocks away, we finally took the big TV leap.

What does this mean? So after some scouting and retail reconnaissance, I went out to Costco. Our banker, Elizabeth, had authorized me to purchase two big screens. The last time I went out to buy a TV, a 27-inch screen was considered a big screen. Things have changed, the cable guy (yes, we take advice from Comcast) said we needed a 55-inch screen for our living room mantle. So I marched into the wholesale house with one of the orange carts that feels like you are steering a barge. When I asked for help, the nice sales gal used words like degrag, scalability, pixel, and bandwith in her first three sentences. I had to stop her and ask, “Let’s start over. I need a really big TV. What would you buy if you were me?” She ushered me over to an enormous Samsung that I promptly loaded on my barge. Next I picked up a petite (32-inch) TV to complement the Jumbotron. As I wheeled my wagon of electronics through Costco, fellow customers were smiling as if I had surely drunken the Consumer Kool-Aid. So I ponied up big-time at the cashier with my new cashback Visa card, pretending this was a cost-conscious decision. When I walked out the guy who checked the receipt said, “How are you doing today?” I thought for a minute and I said, “Poorer, that’s how I’m feeling.”

What is the takeaway? I share that because there are moments in life when you realize things have changed. Look back on your own life and you can remember your own Costco Epiphany. When Elizabeth and I first starting going out, I was gathered at Burgerville with my single friends for my birthday. In the midst of the burgers, shakes, and bachelor banter, it dawned on me that I was ready to get married, finally. I call that my Burgerville Moment when I pondered that I’d been doing this for decades and if I didn’t move on the current opportunity with Elizabeth, I could be doing the Burgerville birthday parties for decades to come. My Costco Epiphany was not as vital and as life-changing as the Burgerville Moment, but it was a clear indicator that this was a new chapter for our family. Proverbs 3:5-6 from the Message states, “Trust God from the bottom of your heart, don’t try to figure out everything out on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go, and He’s the one who will keep you on track”. In my experience, we will make a decision or begin a new chapter or go through a significant change, and only after we have actually been at it for a while, that it finally registers that this is really happening. That the old has passed, the new has come, that we have taken the plunge and time to boldly go where God has called you to be. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do and everywhere you go (even Burgerville and Costco) for God will surely keep you on track.

 


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Powerless Parents

What is this? As a young person, I was a real pain, at least for my mother. It wasn’t that I was out partying or smoking or vandalizing property. No, not me, I was out praying and serving and worshiping Jesus. Soon after my parents divorced, I gravitated to a Baptist Church that was good in so many ways; good friends, solid community, and grounding in faith. The problem was, you put together that adolescent sense that “I know everything” with the kind of certainty that the Baptist Church promotes and that is double trouble. My mother was the everyday target of my well-intentioned but decidedly Baptist bludgeon of a witness. I shudder to think of what I would say, “Mom, if you don’t accept Jesus, you could go to hell. I only say this because I love you”. Yes, I was a defiant son who thought he had all the answers. Now, I have two adolescent children and it is true what they say about what comes around, goes around. With our recent relocation, the transition has been most difficult for my 12-year-old son, Mark. He has autism, so he is always in a high state of anxiety anyway. Sadly, this move has positively messed with his world and he blames me. Mark makes no secret of the fact he’s angry with me, there’s nothing I can do to be forgiven, and that’s just the way it is, for now anyway.

What does this mean? So Mark has not hidden his animosity for me, I’ve been bludgeoned by his words. I know full-well that he has autism so his unfiltered communication is not new. Nevertheless, it hurts, because he is my son. To be a parent, at times, is an extremely powerless place to be. Even when they hate you, you love them. Even when they disown you, you can’t give up on them. Even when they are too busy for you, you can’t help but be thinking and praying for them all the time. Even when they disappoint you, you are more worried you are disappointing them. They keep you up at night and in a constant state of anxiety. Since becoming a Dad the metaphor of God as Our Heavenly Father has taken a radically different meaning for me. I remember when Caroline was born and rocking her to sleep. It was such a paradox. One one hand, this baby was so totally dependent on Elizabeth and I to provide, protect, and help her progress in her young life. On the other hand, she was now the center of our universe. Whether by nature or nurture or both, we could no longer be primarily concerned with ourselves. It just wasn’t possible, we needed her to need us and to be faithful to the call to be her parents. If, in our limited capacity as mortal parents, felt that way, HOW MUCH MORE is Our Father in Heaven committed to us as his beloved children.

What is the takeaway? And that is good thing for me, because I have been a defiant child of God and a real pain to the Father in Heaven. I have been argumentative, treated God with contempt, wandered away periodically, and done my best to ignore the Almighty. I wonder, forgive me if this is heretical, if God experiences, in some sense, the kind of powerless that earthly parents experience. To hear and reflect on Good Friday, when the Son of God cries out, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?” And the Father’s response is an earthquake, at least in Matthew, that suggests some kind of cosmic reverberations, perhaps, a heavenly parent’s expression of raw grief and sorrow. There is a popular proverb that says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and he is old he will not depart from it”. Some hear that as a promise or a formula to guarantee success and stability for their children. In a book that I have come to love, “Dumb Things that Christians Believe”, the author takes this parental prescription to task. For good reason, the proverb is a proverb not a promise. Anyone who has been through the parenting process knows there are no guarantees, no formulas, and no real control. You do all you can to instill values, encourage growth, make sure they know you love them, and then you turn them loose. Ironically, that is the goal, but you always want to make sure they know your door is always open. Perhaps, that is simply the nature of love, you are not in control. Being a parent keeps you praying, hoping, worrying, and not sleeping. But, God in his mercy does provide, does promise that we are never alone, and that his grace is sufficient for us. In baptism, we are all God’s dependent children. Thankfully, his door is always open for us.


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Nowhere to Hide

What is this? Terrorism is everywhere or so it seems; hostages in Mali, shootings in Paris, bombing in Beirut, and attacks in Tunisia. Or so it goes on the round-the-clock cable news channels. Governments including the superpowers are not quite what to do beyond scramble the fighter jets, round up the usual foreign suspects, and declare martial law. Clearly, the objective for all this well-orchestrated and sporadic violence from ISIS and Al-qaeda is to generate fear, and it is working big-time. Yes, there is reason to be worried, be on heightened security alert, and exercise caution. I do believe some of the reactions from governments, politicians, churches, and individuals have been excessive; create a Muslim registry, buy yourself that assault rifle as an early Christmas present, increase airport security again (man-up holiday travelers!), and batten down the border hatches. My sense is that this “fortress” mentality is not just on a global scale but also locally, parentally, and spiritually. We have become so obsessed with safety and security, I wonder if we have lost the capacity to enjoy the moment God has given us. We “double-check” our insurance, drive SUV’s that could survive a roadside bomb, load up on pills and prescriptions, and double-down on surveillance and security. We see so much horrific violence and hear tragic stories basically because we watch too much TV. Then we assume such events are imminent and in our own neighborhood. So we fortify our houses, avoid risks like the plague, and keep our children overscheduled and out of trouble. Sadly, some churches have gone “fortress” to the extreme; preaching fear, predicting doom, and promoting themselves as the “True” church. This is the congregational equivalent of declaring martial law. Stop thinking for yourself, do as the preacher says. Our mission is to insulate ourselves from all the sin and evil “out there”.  The problem is in the name of Jesus you have just abandoned grace, peace, and hospitality.

What does this mean? As followers of Jesus, we are called to a different response to the trouble around us. National Public Radio had a story of a woman named Diane Latiker who lives on the southside of Chicago. Around her property she has a series of stones as a memorial for many young people who have died in the city’s street violence. Most of the neighborhood she lives in has decided to install iron bolts and close the shades in response to the sirens and shots that ring through the night. Diane Latiker has opened her home for “Kids Off The Block”. She and her husband have eight children of their own but now they have over 50 in their care. They offer tutoring and mentoring programs, but what makes them different is they have created an oasis in Chicago’s inner city. Latiker, who was named one of CNN’s 2015 national heroes, has leveraged her fame to gain generous support from churches and agencies. From these generous patrons, she now has a full-court basketball court next to her house. During the interview, six boys ages 9-10, knock on the door and ask if they can play some hoops. Diane Latiker talks to them for a few minutes and invites them to have fun. So you can hear them laughing, trash-talking, and running around in the background. One of the boys tells the interviewer, “Diane makes us feel safe”. This is in a neighborhood that is actually plagued with violence and danger. Yet, the Latikers have asked “what can we do?” and taken steps to make a difference for some of the refugees of the Chicago streets. Instead of a fortress, theirs is more of a friendly refugee camp on the Southside. I have always liked the image of the church as a refugee camp. That metaphor fits our congregation. We have refugees from the Roman Catholic Church, recovering alcoholics, exiles from the evangelical tradition, and assorted characters and eccentrics. Given some of the losers, lawbreakers, and personalities Jesus hung with, I think we’re being faithful to the gospel.

What is the takeaway? This past week I was one of the drivers for our youth group scavenger hunt. There were probably 20 young people divided up into four groups to go door-to-door looking for a long list of items and collect some canned food, too. In my van there were five youth; one girl whose mother is on drugs, another girl whose parents are going through a harsh divorce, there was a transgender kid who brought a friend who may have been transgender, too. I confess I am not very adept at that kind of identification. Then there was my son who struggles with autism, Mark. So another parent and I watched with fascination as they went door-to-door introducing them as “the youth group”. The four other students were already friends but I appreciated how they included and took care of Mark. The transgender kid was from the neighborhood so when Mark would roam ahead to knock on the door there was a word of warning, “that is not a safe place to go so let’s keep going”. After an hour, we were back at church with our collection of canned food and worthless junk we had collected for the scavenger hunt. West of Poulsbo, where our church is may not be the southside of Chicago, but it has its own social dangers and junior high violence. One of the most daunting things for students these days, is given the omnipresence of social media, there is nowhere to hide. When I was in junior high forty years ago, it was difficult but at least I could go home and hide out in peace. Not anymore, because of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram you are always “on”. I shared my whole-hearted appreciation with our youth director affirming her ability to include kids on the margins. Our church doesn’t always get it right, anymore than the youth group. Yet, I do rejoice when we have youth group like that, where “the poor in spirit” and social refugees are welcomed and woven into the body of Christ. Before the cross of Christ, we’re all equally broken and equally beloved.

 


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Glimpsing My Child’s Future?

WHAT IS THIS? I am the guy with the big fish above. Last summer in Ontario, one slow, relaxing morning while fishing with my cousin, I hooked this monster Muskie. When I got this Leviathan near the boat, my cousin got squeamish, “I’m not bringing that in the boat, it’s too big. I’ll just cut the line.” At this point, I started yelling, “You’re not going to cut the line. Get the net! Get the net!” My cousin was casually trying to get his lure out of landing net. My next move was going to be to jump into the water and take Leviathan with my bare hands. Finally, I grabbed the net and gave my cousin the rod and reel. I swooped my Master Angler into the boat, snapping the flimsy landing net in two. He weighed in at thirty pounds and was fifty inches long. The whole time I was hooting and hollering with extreme joy and exaltation. This was definitely a catch of a lifetime for me. I am clutching my takeaway.

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? Two of my favorite images from Jesus’ parables are The Treasure Buried in the Field and The Pearl of Great Price. In Matthew 13:44-46, Jesus tells these stories back-to-back to emphasize the surpassing value of knowing and receiving the gospel. The kingdom of heaven is LIKE a man who locates a treasure in a field so he joyfully sells all he has and buys the field. The kingdom of heaven is LIKE a merchant in search of pearls. When he discovered the ultimate pearl, he went and sold all he had and purchased the pearl. These two very short parables in just three verses give us a picture of what it is to be the baptized, to know the Lord Jesus Christ. A couple of things I takeaway from these stories. First, take note that in both stories the great treasure comes unexpectedly in an everyday place and time. We have a man digging in a field, a merchant doing some shopping, (and a pastor doing some fishing.) Second, they act immediately to secure the treasure (“Get the net!”) and do so with great joy. My hope in writing this blog is to offer a weekly takeaway to encourage you.

WHAT IS THE TAKEAWAY? As the header on this blog entry it says, “Glimpsing My Child’s Future?”. Like all parents, Elizabeth and I worry about our children and their futures. Caroline began 6th grade and Mark, who struggles with autism, is in 5th. Frankly, we worry more about Mark than we do Caroline. It is a wild ride with an uncertain future for families with children on the autism spectrum. Much of my prayer time is spent, quizzing God about what the future will be like for Mark. Recently, a couple, not connected with out congregation, came to me for counseling. They have a couple of autistic children and is has intensified their marital relationship. The husband is a good-looking guy, about 30, in the military who is probably on the autism spectrum himself. I found him engaging, humorous, and humble despite all he had achieved and all he hoped to accomplish in the future. Coming out of a stormy family background, he is now married, raising young children, doing well in the navy, and settled. His life and family are not perfect, but then whose is? After our conversation, I reflected that perhaps that might be a glimpse of our son, Mark in twenty years. I told God that I could handle that and that brought me comfort in the midst of anxiety, prayer, and uncertainty. Your children, may not have autism but they have their own struggles and as parents you have your own anxieties. For me, I consider that meeting as a reminder that while the future of our children is uncertain, that baptized into Christ, God has promised to sustain, keep, and ultimately save our children. God also offers this merciful promise to sustain, keep, save parents, as well as keep us sane.

(I think) THIS IS MOST CERTAINLY TRUE!