Pastor Chuck's Takeaway

Monday morning theological reflections

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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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Going Downtown with Jesus

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

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

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

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Burying the Hatchet

What is this? The popular expression “burying the hatchet” originated in Native American history where two warring parties, represented by their respective chiefs would literally put their tomahawks in the ground to indicate a truce had been established, hostilities had ceased. So in our culture, we use the phrase to signify where there was once animosity and bad blood, there is now peace, that “we’ve buried the hatchet”. Or at the very least, an interruption in the conflict, an agreed upon ceasefire in the combat. In my experience, it is both surprising and sad, how difficult it is for Christians to “bury the hatchet”. Especially, since the Lord’s Supper is all about forgiveness. The night before he was crucified, Jesus gathered his people, including Judas who’d betray him, Peter who’d deny him, and the rest of the disciples who would abandon him. After being crucified on Good Friday and rising on Easter Sunday, Jesus comes back to these same cowardly followers saying, “Peace be with you”, meaning you are forgiven and we are reconciled. So we greet each other during worship to remind each other that baptized in Christ we are restored and reconciled to God and each other. This may be the biblical reality, but many of us struggle to live that out.

What does this mean? For the past year, I’ve been involved in a messy dispute between two congregational members in my previous parish. They had agreed to share housing, one as landlord and the other as renter, to live under the same roof. When both sides felt as though their agreement had been violated by the other, what ensued were harsh words, ugly interactions, hurt feelings, and hardened positions. I tried without success on a couple of occasions to mediate between both parties, both of whom, I consider my friends as well as parishioners. All this drama  was going on within the church family. I commend the congregation for not taking sides and trying to support both of our people. How wise! How mature! How Christian! Finally, legal action was taken, drastic changes did happen, and we are on the other side of it now. The Thursday before I departed Vinland Church, I made a point of inviting both of my friends to have our own “Last Supper” (it was actually lunch) together. So over a bowl of PHO soup, we sat together in peace because the hatchet had been buried. I told them both how much I appreciated their capacity to make amends, grace to remain friends, and witness to the kind of forgiving friendships Christ calls us to.

What is the takeaway? Those of us who have been around the church for some time, know how necessary and how frequently we need forgiveness to heal our relationships and heal ourselves. In my tenure as a pastor, I’ve been in the midst of some conflicts, some major and some minor. At times, differences have been trivial, sometimes titanic. But, feelings get hurt, relationships become broken, and trust is betrayed so the defenses go up and positions are hardened. Thank Jesus for forgiveness. Its one of the the most extraordinary gifts of the gospel. Where else can you be in a heated conflict with others turn around and break bread together as brothers and sisters in Christ? As we gather under the cross, kneel or stand at the communion rail, open our hands to receive bread & wine, let us not forget that we are each forgiven sinners call to forgive each other as we have been forgiven by Christ. I had a conversation with an engaging young man who inquired what Paul meant when he wrote of receiving the Lord’s Supper, “A person ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink of the cup”. Perhaps, Paul means examine ourselves to make sure we’re extending the same mercy to those who’ve hurt us with their words or actions as Christ extends to us at the Lord’s Table where all hatchets are to buried forever.

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Farewell Vinland, Hello Peninsula

What is this? What a whirlwind! Ten days ago, I was sitting with my family at a movie-themed (Yes, I love movies) farewell at Vinland Lutheran. Such kind, caring, and grace-filled people! There were tears of sadness, songs of humor, abundant laughter, and even a beer flash mob. My favorite part was when the full house was asked to “Who here did Pastor Chuck baptize? confirm? marry? serve on a mission trip? and who here did Pastor Chuck ask to do something for the church?” For that last question, almost everyone had their hand up. I loved that. You get a feel for what 16 years of cumulative pastoral service means, so much grace. Four days later, I had my first sit-down with Peninsula Lutheran’s secretary  and congregational Vice President to get some of the basics. Within an hour or two, I am on overload with hand-outs, names I won’t remember, and save-the-dates. So it goes when you begin anew. It is difficult to describe, I am sad about departing a familiar place with some dear friends I will miss. But, I confess I am also energized about a new challenge among some equally grace-filled people. What makes me most hopeful is the conviction that God has called my family and I to this place at this time for the ministry.

What does this mean? Ecclesiastes offers a sampling of events and moods that make up human life, “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 up, a time to weep and a time to laugh”. And so it goes on with fourteen balancing pairs. Ecclesiastes almost wasn’t included in the Hebrew Bible because it was too stoic and depressing. Personally, I love this Wisdom Literature because it wrestles with the meaning of life and for those of us in the faith who honestly struggle with questions of meaning, it gives us a voice, too. Here, God’s Word tells us that there is an appropriate time, in the Hebrew it is translated “suitable” or “beautiful”. The reason this is such essential wisdom for us is that we need to give up our sinful illusions that we are actually in control of our time. Time like money, relationships, health, and talents are gifts from a merciful God. All of this stuff, including pastoral ministry, does not ultimately belong to us. It is “ours” only on loan, only for a time. Perhaps, the best we can do is to give thanks for time given, live with our limitations, and honor the seasons of our life.

What is the takeaway? On Labor Day Monday, a friend helped me move boxes and boxes of books, furniture, mementos, and assorted travel bric-a-brac from my Vinland office to the Peninsula office. That explains the the mother lode of boxes, books sprawled, and overall office chaos. When I was all moved out of Vinland, I locked the door for the final time, and left the key behind. I just sat in my car for a few minutes reflecting on this hinge in time, this crossroads where I say a fond farewell to the sisters and brothers in Poulsbo and a hopeful hello to a new (to me) collection of saints in Gig Harbor. At my final worship at Vinland and at my first official leadership meeting at Peninsula, I insisted on a prayer I believe sums up our journey of faith, “Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ, our Lord”. That is such a powerful prayer for mortals like us to pray, because it confesses our lack of comprehension and control (“ventures we cannot see the ending”) and yet boldly goes anyway because (“Your hand is guiding us”).

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What is this? Last month I was in Washington D.C. for a week of study. Being a pastor for twenty-plus years, I’ve done my share of convocations, conferences, and theological seminars. I confess, there comes a time when you begin hearing many of the same themes over and over. So I always find it a challenge to locate new opportunities that will both instruct and inspire me in my pastoral call. Through friends, I was able to connect with an alternative learning experience with Church of the Savior in D.C. The founder, Pastor Gordon Cosby, had served as a military chaplain in WW II. While he was heroically carrying wounded soldiers off the battle field and presiding at so many funerals, Cosby decided that these young people had not been sufficiently prepared in the faith to face eternity. He resolved that when he returned he would begin a church, a racially-integrated church (remember this is the late 1940’s) based on high commitment, intense community, and with a vision to change the world. Pastor Cosby died a few years ago at age 94, but his legacy continues. Though their membership is small their impact on D.C. is astonishing.

What does this mean? My week of continuing education consisted of  four parts. First, I interviewed ministry leaders such as their director of Faith and Money Network (outreach to churches and persons to be stewards of their possessions) and leader of the Cornelius Corp (seeking race reconciliation). I was taken aback by their level of commitment and quality of their faith. They seemed like humble Super Christians. Second, visited their ministries that take on such global struggles through patience, prayer, and faith. Third, I attended many of their small groups (that function like twelve-step meetings with mutual accountability). I heard remarkable stories of people in recovery alongside some of the long-time saints of Church of the Savior. Clearly, their life and faith was immersed in a strong, vital sense of community. Fourth, I was able to spend some time with the lead pastor reflecting theologically and practically about how this might translate to a local congregation like the church I serve. It was like a spiritual and theological banquet that I am still digesting and processing. In speaking to the various ministry leaders (those Super Christians), they were very careful to say theirs is another way not thee way to be church.

What is the takeaway? Coming back from experience is a little like returning from watching Seahawks mini-camp to my flag football team to inspire and instruct us in how to play the game.  Ironically, on the day I write this blog on the “Super Church”, I enjoyed the cholesterol-laden Men’s Breakfast, I’m presiding at a graveside service this afternoon, and performing a wedding tonight. Ordinary pastoral tasks that I do enjoy (maybe not all on the same day). This full day of congregational ministry reminds me that I thank God I am called to serve a congregation versus what is called specialized ministry, like a hospital chaplain or the kind of work my colleagues are doing in D.C. Perhaps, that is the key to unpacking my experience, to focus on how is God calling us as a congregation and as individuals to serve the gospel in this place and time. One affirmation I took from my D.C. experience is the church’s (with it’s Southern Baptist roots) serious commitment to the “priesthood of all believers” (originally begun by Martin Luther). In congregations like mine we need to take that more seriously and work to encourage, challenge, and even hold each other mutually accountable to live out that calling through prayer and community.


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“Risen” or Reason

What is this? The movie “Risen” is like a throwback to old biblical epics such as “The Robe” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. At the same time, it proceeds like a modern TV detective drama such “CSI” or “Law & Order”. Joseph Fiennes, who also played Martin Luther in another religious movie, is Clavius, a Roman enforcer who does Pontius Pilate’s dirty work. Pilate commands him to supervise Jesus’ crucifixion and then secure and seal up the “King of the Jews'” tomb. This is all a precaution that the Pharisees’ insist upon, lest Jesus’ body be stolen by his disciples and they claim that he is risen. Surprise, surprise, surprise (remember Gomer Pyle on the Andy Griffith Show), Easter morning the body of Jesus is gone, the guards have fled, and we have a mystery on our hands. Pilate orders Clavius, you want to call Clavicle, to find that body and capture those disciples. So in true “CSI: Jerusalem” style, Clavius investigates, interrogates, and even excavates recently buried bodies in search of Jesus. Finally, in a house-to-house search, Clavius sees the risen Christ face-to-face and comes to faith.

What does this mean? The movie is a little clunky but they do get this aspect of faith correct. It is not an empty tomb or a missing body that stirs faith in the resurrection. Rather, it is an encounter with the risen Christ. John’s resurrection account has lots of running, seeing, and investigating, but no one has “real” faith until Jesus meets and greets Mary in the resurrected flesh. Like all of John’s post-resurrection stories, it is somewhere between shadowy and surreal. This goes to show you cannot reason your way to faith, convince another to believe, or believe for someone else. Christianity is a “revealed” religion. You simply can’t see it until it is revealed to you by the Holy Spirit. You don’t find God, Christ finds you. It wasn’t that Doubting Thomas didn’t want to believe. He believed, but he only believed in what he could see. And before he met the risen Christ later, all he saw was death, failure, and destruction. Like Thomas, when Mary hears her named called, her eyes of faith are opened. The most miraculous thing about Easter might be Jesus returned in person to forgive those who failed him.

What is the takeaway? That’s Easter! It wasn’t just that Jesus was raised from the dead. It was that he was raised for us. He returned to his friends, revealed himself to them, and empowered them to see and to believe. Our world has such a narrow view of what is real, what matters, and what is possible. For all our technology and education, I wonder if we are actually seeing less and missing more. We lift up innovation, good will, and the immortal human spirit as pathways to salvation. Yet, we are so blind to our own sin, deny our morality, and are oblivious to our incapacity to save ourselves. The Easter gospel is here to open our eyes, our hearts, and our lives to the God who won’t go away and won’t give us up! In Scripture, in the church, and in our own faith, we are reminded that nothing is over until God says its over. On Good Friday, we truly see the heart of God revealed to us. Our sin and rebellion does not mean it is over. And at Easter we find that God’s love cannot be stopped even by death and hell. He is risen means that God’s love is beyond reason, above analysis, and by grace, irrevocable.





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“Spotlight” on Sin

What is this? The Oscar-nominated movie “Spotlight” tells how the Boston Globe newspaper broke the story leading to the infamous January 6, 2002 headline, “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years”.  In what is a great detective story and a superb newsroom drama, we walk side-by-side the investigative reporters of “Spotlight” in their search for the truth about clergy abuse in Boston. All the reporters are locals and have some connection to the Catholic Church. As they seek to uncover the facts, interview the victims of clergy abuse, and put some light on this scandal, they come up against layers of corruption and cover-up. At one point, an advocate for the Presiding Archbishop counsels editor “Robby” Robinson (played to perfection by Michael Keaton), “You don’t want to do this. These are good people that do good things.” The story gets at the systemic nature and infection of evil that not only perpetuates the abuse of children, but also maintains a code of silence in order to protect the treasured institutions and their beloved leaders. The movie starts slowly but picks up steam accelerating to the climax. This is personified by Mark Ruffalo’s character, reporter Michael Rezendez, who moves from being the dogged investigator to a rumpled maniac to chasing down cabs and yelling at his boss. Finally, the truth is made public. While the story was not really a revelation to Bostonians (most looked the other way) the extent of the evil was a significant shock.  In a particularly emotionally-packed scene, the first edition hits the streets and different Boston citizens are absorbing the traumatic news as the scene moves from coffee shop to pub to back porch. In the background a children’s choir softly and tenderly sings “Silent Night”. It is gut-wrenching. Within the year of the scandal breaking, the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law stepped down in disgrace. In a statement he confessed, “To all those who have been suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes, I both apologize and ask for your forgiveness”. Pope John Paul II gave him a post at the Vatican where he remains.

What does this mean? Evil hides among the good. Scott Peck in his excellent book, “People of the Lie” writes, “One good place to look for evil is in the church, not because the church is inherently evil, it’s just that the church is where evil tries to hide itself among the good”. Today is Ash Wednesday, what I find to be a sobering and refreshing day as the Season of Lent begins. Psalm 51 sums up the mood for the service, “I know my transgressions, for my sins are always before me”. Tradition says that King David penned Psalm 51 in the aftermath of his affair with Bathsheba. David’s sin of adultery would lead to the murder of Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, and a royal cover-up. Not unlike the Archbishop’s efforts to protect the Catholic Church in the clergy abuse scandal, the King operates as if he is above the law, protecting the royal institution the Lord has established, and perhaps David believes he’s beyond God’s reach. Then the Prophet Nathan comes to door, shining the spotlight on the King’s sin, evil, and corrupt spirit, declaring, “You are the man!” That is pretty much the point of Ash Wednesday, “You are the man! You are the woman! You are the people!” We are confronted with our sin. We are also confronted with mortality. Kneeling at the communion rail, you receive the sign of the cross on your forehead with ashes, and are reminded, “You are dust and to dust you shall return”. There won’t be a full house for Ash Wednesday service tonight. Just about everyone considers it too dark, confessing sins, acknowledging mortality, and dwelling on death. Personally, I find this day necessarily humbling, refreshingly honest (I know my transgression, too), and strangely hopeful. There is something about not having to masquerade as morally superior anymore. I don’t have to pretend I have it all together, hide my sins, or operate as if I am death-proof. I’m not, neither are you. The reason we dare be candid about our sinful condition and open about our fleeting mortality is because of who God is. That is the only reason we can kneel before God, confess our secret sins, get ashes on our forehead, and approach the cross.  Because of who God is!

What is the takeaway? I love how David prays to God, honest, humble, and, right to the merciful point. Listen to his opening line in Psalm 51, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out all my transgressions”. In other words, “don’t judge me based on my many sins and chronic sin condition! No deal with me based on who you are; merciful and compassionate, and who I am in relationship with you; your child”.  If and only if, we approach God with that kind of blatant honesty and no-holds-barred vulnerability, will we know the depths of God’s mercy. The cross isn’t there to comfort us, it is there to discomfort us, to remind us that for us to be forgiven requires a severe mercy. We begin by taking sin seriously. With great integrity, “Spotlight” shows the pain, cost, and trauma brought on by the sinful abuse, not just to the victims, but also to horrified Catholics who grieve their community sins. When we are honest about sins, let alone our mortality, it’s pretty painful and not very pretty to behold. Psalm 51 is the most commonly used psalm because David gives words to the guilt, sin, and unworthiness that infects us and plagues us all. The mighty king is on his mortal knees, “I have been sinful from my birth”, “cleanse me and I will be clean”, “wash me and I will be as white as snow”. David speaks for all us mortal sinners. I know when I am in trouble with the Almighty, I turn to David’s confession because it is so full of hope. In total, there are four words for our sin and transgression in Psalm 51. At the same time, there are nineteen verbs for what God will provide a repentant heart; like “create a new heart in me, O Lord, and renew a right spirit within me”, “restore to me the joy of your salvation”, “Let me hear joy and gladness, let the bones you have crushed rejoice”, and “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise”. Whether it is the institutional church or Israel’s kingdom, ordained clergy or the chosen king, Roman Catholics or ELCA Lutherans, young people or feisty seniors, Ash Wednesday is an invitation to new life in the crucified and risen Christ. Everyday is Ash Wednesday!