Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The Sustenance of Community

Moment of confession: I’m not doing as well as I wish I were. Now, I am sure I’m no different than most, but just because I’m a pastor doesn’t mean I can’t be honest and vulnerable about the fact that this seemingly-unending season of Covid has taken a massive toll on my body, mind, and Spirit. 


It’s exhausting. It’s confusing. It’s saddening. It’s different. It’s disorienting. And it just won’t stop.


And the fact that there’s no definitive line on the horizon and we don’t really know how long before things will return to “normal” has just added to my struggle during this time. There’s indecision and doubt personally—tough decisions about school and work and family and vacations and holidays—but there’s also indecision and doubt professionally and pastorally—tough decisions about what we should be doing and how to keep people safe and how much we should be moving forward into new dreams and ideas.


And when you combine the existential exhaustion with the potentially-crippling indecision and disorientation, that makes for a nasty concoction. I covet your prayers.


But as I’ve processed why, despite all that we currently face, my spirit hasn’t ultimately been broken, I think it all boils down to the blessed community in my life. What has sustained me amidst this earth-shaking season? I think it ultimately comes down to having people in my life that can help shoulder the burden and lighten the load during this weird time. My family. Our church family. Our dear friends. All a blessing and encouragement to me during this rough moment.


Community is what sustains. We need each other. We can’t do this alone. And I’m so grateful to have a support system with which to weather this storm. 


So, let’s start by giving thanks for the beautiful network that is gathered around us during this time. But let’s also not neglect the power and strength of our community right now. Let’s be vulnerable with one another. Let’s be willing to tell each other our struggles. Let’s not put on a brave face and just grin and bear this rough patch. Let’s commit to helping and being helped. On your good days, find someone else to encourage and assist. But on your bad days, be willing to own the struggle and ask for help. Because we’re all fighting a great battle right now and we could really use one another, more than ever. Let your community sustain you through this time.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Unknown Enemy


“An enemy is a person whose story we have not heard.”

The origin of that quote is slightly ambiguous*, but I’ve been thinking about those words a lot recently. I don’t think of myself as someone who has enemies, but I certainly don’t struggle to find people I disagree with, am annoyed by, or dislike. I don’t (usually) treat them badly, but I also don’t always engage them with love, hospitality, and a desire for relationship. It’s a character flaw that I constantly work on.


And this unhelpful attitude resurfaced a few weeks ago. 


Many of you know that I play basketball a few times a week and we have a pretty set group of regulars that normally attend. But, being a college town, with each new school year we often see a few new players arrive at the gym. And one of those newcomers has been driving me crazy. 


He’s good—don’t get me wrong—but he’s not as good as he thinks he is. He rarely passes the ball, he shoots way too much, and he’s generally not fun to have on your team. When on his team, I often find myself checking out of any possession that ends up in his hands, knowing that any effort at getting open will be an exercise in futility. And (moment of confession) it even got so frustrating one day that I found myself subconsciously shouting out, “Pass the ball!” 


That’s not good. That’s not kind. That’s not pastoral. And something needed to change.


But that’s where this original quote comes back into play. I realized that the one thing I could change in this scenario was not the other guy, but myself. I had made him an enemy, but I didn’t even know him. I hadn’t taken the time to ask him questions, hear about his life, and make him feel welcomed into our little community of amateur hoopers.


And now that I have, it’s a whole lot harder to treat him as an enemy. I know where he’s from and what his family did for a living. I know what’s he’s studying at MSU and what he wants to do with his life. And while there’s still plenty of relationship-building to be done, just the little amount of time I have invested in hearing his story and starting to know him as a person has diffused my anger and turned him from an enemy to a potential friend. At the very least, he’s no longer a monster and finally a person.


I fervently believe this idea: that ‘an enemy is a person whose story we haven’t heard.’ So, in our quest to live and love more like Jesus, who constantly taught and consistently lived an ethic of enemy love, let’s start our enemy-loving-endeavors by simply getting to know them and hearing their stories. It’s a radical posture in a world that loves to create enemies out of one another, but let’s welcome this radical invitation to hear, know, and love our enemies.


*some call this quote an old Jewish saying, while others contribute it to Gene Knudson Hoffman (a Quaker Peace Activist)


Monday, August 24, 2020

Taming the Tongue, Guarding the Heart

This Sunday I preached about the power of the tongue—the potency of our words and voices—to either build up or tear down; advocate or condemn; unify or divide; speak love or hate. The biblical writer, James, speaks of the immense power of our tongue by using three analogies: a bit in a horse’s mouth, the rudder of a ship, and a spark that can set a forest ablaze. Like each of these metaphors, our words are loaded with potential for incredible impact. This gift must be used with great care, or it can easily be destructive.

But one observation that was cut from my sermon for lack of time was the biblical idea that our tongues are intimately and inseparably connected to our hearts. Jesus says that what comes out of our mouths originates in our hearts: “For out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). We can’t divide the two. Whatever is inside us will eventually and inevitably ooze from our mouths. Words of encouragement, honor, unity, and love cannot proceed from a heart of discouragement, shame, division, and hate. Essentially, we are what we say.

 

Which is why we can’t just contain our mouths, but must also guard our hearts. We must tend to what’s deep down inside, knowing that those thoughts and emotions will eventually emerge, for better or worse. We can’t just publicly regulate our words, but must privately regulate our character. We might get good at keeping those dark and insidious thoughts and feelings stuffed down within, but we can’t perfectly contain them forever.

 

I was thinking about this recently in the baseball world, as a TV commentator for the Cincinnati Reds was caught uttering a highly offensive homophobic slur, live on air. It was in-between games of a doubleheader, he didn’t know the camera was rolling, and promptly issued a public apology for his hurtful comment. But the problem wasn’t just that the words escaped past his lips; the problem was the thoughts and feelings that produced those hurtful words were in his heart in the first place. The fact that these words were uttered at all that means that there’s some hatred and bigotry deep down inside that he hasn’t dealt with and owned up to. He had obviously done a good job, thus far, at hiding his thoughts publicly, but he hadn’t done the hard work of actually exposing and reforming his heart.

 

Jesus wants all of us to be in alignment with the ethics of his new kingdom. It’s not enough to manage our speech; we must also transform our hearts. Jesus is looking for complete, holistic followers, so let’s be committed to aligning both our hearts and our tongues with his beautiful new way. If there’s anything in our speech that doesn’t sound like Jesus’ speech, let’s do away with it swiftly. But let’s also do the hard work of examining our insides, calling out the depravity, and journeying toward a more holistically faithful existence.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Invitation to Amazement

“Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

 

I’ve been reflecting on this Abraham Joshua Heschel quote for the past week, and it continues to haunt me with its beauty and wisdom.


This past Sunday, I preached from Jeremiah 29 about the life we called to live in exile. In a world—then and now—where the temptation is to complain, blame, and ultimately check out of really living, the invitation from Jeremiah and God is to put down even deeper roots, faithfully embed ourselves within our exiled existence, and really live. When we find ourselves as outsiders or outcasts, different than the world in which we live, the calling isn’t to wait it out until things get better, but to live deeply and faithfully in the here and now, partnering with God in bringing about the hopeful future He has in store. 

 

As God says to the Israelites then, he says to us now, as well:

 

“Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

 

The prophets, Jeremiah and Heschel, are essentially saying the same things, each inviting us to a renewed presence and awareness in our lives. Be here. Notice the world. Take nothing for granted. Wake up to the wonders around you. Approach your existence with a general sense of curiously and awe. 

 

I find myself inspired, by each of these speakers-of-truth, to a new sort of faithfulness amid this Covid Exile—committed to being a presence of blessing through intentional faithfulness. Together let’s work for the peace and flourishing of our community, partnering with God in the redemption and restoration of our world. Let’s not check out of really living just because life has gotten tricky. Let’s use this opportunity to be the presence of Christ for our friends, enemies, neighbors, and world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Practicing the Third Way

I preached a fun, but challenging, sermon this past week—about Jesus’ invitation to choose a radical, alternative Third Way whenever we are faced with the old, stale, ineffective binary options. I challenged us to be curious and creative in how we think about our engagement with other, and especially those who differ from us.

And yet, that’s really hard to actually do. Truthfully, I’m terrible at it. I regularly fall prey to the black-and-white, either/or, us vs. them mentality that currently plagues our world.


And yes, the radical way of Jesus is quite challenging, but sometimes we overthink it—and I was reminded of that by the words of this simple meme: “let’s respond with grace, even when others don’t.”

 

When I first read that simple phrase, I was floored by how perfectly it aligned with my sermon. Of course! What better Third Way could there be than grace?!

 

In a world of keeping score, holding grudges, negative political ads, Facebook fighting, bench-clearing brawls, and literal wars, grace is the most radical, transcendent, third way of living imaginable.

 

So, I need not say any more. As followers of Jesus—the one who came to bring ultimate mercy and forgiveness—let’s be people of grace, even when others aren’t.


[also, you can check out the whole sermon HERE]

Monday, July 27, 2020

A Life of Gratitude

If you’re like me, it easy to get bogged down, during this time, with the new stresses, anxieties, and inconveniences that regularly bombard us on what seems like a day-by-day basis, if not hour-by-hour. There’s family worries and work worries, church worries and school worries. There are events canceled and decisions postponed and new information to digest with each passing day. There are extra problems to solve and plans to make and children’s emotions to care for…all while the normal responsibilities of the daily grind continue to demand our attention.

It can all be too much to handle.

But, in the midst of this overwhelming time, what I’m trying to foster today is a spirit of gratitude. Despite the craziness and chaos that Covid has brought us, I’m finding that there are still reasons to be grateful. Despite the difficulty of living, parenting, and pastoring during this time, there are still a plethora of reasons to pause and give thanks.

I have a job. There’s food on my table each night. My family is healthy. No one from our church has gotten sick. I mean, there’s even little things—like the fact that we’ve had beautiful weather for each of our outdoor worship gatherings thus far.

Just in the last 10 days alone, I've been able to spend time at Templed Hills, play softball, ride mountain bikes, and have picnics, play games, and go for walks with my family. Life is hard right now, in so many ways...but it's also really good.

I can get bogged down with the burdens and neglect the blessings.

So, during this season, would you join me in striving to pause each day and give thanks to God for the blessings of this life? I’m not good at it…so I need your help. Let’s be committed to an awareness of God’s goodness and a posture of thankfulness. Would you join me in striving for a life of gratitude?

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

By Whatever Means Necessary

In my sermon on Sunday, I was forced to leave out one idea due to time—but it’s still worth mentioning. I preached about a fun and familiar story in Genesis 28, where Jacob is running from his angry brother, lies down to sleep for the night, and proceeds to have his infamous dream about a stairway to heaven. In short, he wakes from the dream, realizes that God has been in his life all along and he wasn’t aware, and his life is forever altered.

There’s an interesting idea from this story, however, that I didn’t have time to explore. I find it fascinating and noteworthy that Jacob is used to being so controlling, conniving, and manipulative, but this encounter with God happens when he has no control over the situation: while he is asleep. Jacob is a trickster; shyster; scam artist. He’s constantly working the angles, taking advantage of people, and finagling his way into things he doesn’t deserve. He’s used to always being in control, but here, this encounter just happens to him. He has no say over it.

This whole incredible encounter happens while Jacob is asleep. He finally has no control; he’s not in charge; he can’t trick his way in or out of this one. It’s like God is saying, “If you won’t stop masterminding your life and your world (which, by the way, isn’t working), then I’ll just have to enter your life through some other way. I’ll have to visit you when you can’t control the situation.”

Which makes me think of Romans 8:28 – “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” God doesn’t necessarily make all things good, but He is relentless in His effort to work for the good of His children—and that’s what He’s doing with Jacob. If Jacob won’t give up his control and stop his abusive and manipulative behavior on his own, then God is willing to get creative in how He might get Jacob’s attention.

This little subplot of the story helps remind us that we aren’t ultimately in control anyway, so we might as well not try to be. God will not relent. He will never stop pursuing us—beckoning us back into right relationship with himself and the world—the same way the Prodigal Father never stopped pursuing his wayward son. And God will use whatever means necessary to finally get our attention.

Jacob is invited to finally stop running—to surrender to God’s will and way—and that is our invitation as well. May we never have so tight of a stranglehold on our own lives and agendas that we are unable to hear, see, and sense God’s often-gentle tug on us to live into his better plan.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

A New Center

"The Church is not to be found at the “center” of a left/right political world. The Church is to be a species of its own kind, confounding both left and right, and finding its identity from the "center" of God’s life.”
~ Rich Villodas ~

I can’t get this quote out of my head. It’s from over a year ago, but is even more relevant today as our country is more politically divided than ever and we rapidly approach another contentious election. 

It is difficult to understand and embody our social and political roles in the world as Jesus followers, both individually and collectively. We (sometimes subconsciously) ask ourselves silly questions, like “How would Jesus vote?” or “What political party would Jesus prefer?,” usually in an effort to justify our own side. Most of us wrongly assume that Jesus would be on *our* side of the political spectrum—that our party’s platform is the most biblical and spiritual. And even those who avoid this false dichotomy of seating Jesus in the front row of one party’s national convention or the other, often find themselves arguing that the politics of Jesus are actually found somewhere in the center of the American political spectrum—essentially contending that Jesus was a Moderate.

But Rich Villodas’ quote from above reminds me that Jesus’ platform was not to be found on any human-made political spectrum. Jesus transcended the patterns of the Roman world into which he was born. His way continues to baffle, surpass, and overshadow the ways of the world. And His church is called to do the same.

"The Church is not to be found at the “center” of a left/right political world. The Church is to be a species of its own kind, confounding both left and right, and finding its identity from the "center" of God’s life.”

We don’t play the games of the world. We march to the beat of a different drum. We are invited into a new, strange, counter-cultural way of being human. And this oddly beautiful, provocative, and enticing way of life all originates from a center grounded in the will and way of Jesus.

We’re not called to just sit the fence between two polarized parties; nor are we to avoid the political realm altogether. Instead, we are invited to enter the divided and divisive fray of how the world is best organized as a different sort of animal, rallied not under an allegiance to the power-hungry ways of the world, but the lovingly sacrificial ways of God. 

The church is a strange breed. We follow a different authority, live under an alternate set of ethics, and adhere to a distinct set of practices. As Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat write in their shockingly brilliant book Colossians Remixed, “In our worship we tell and retell another story than that of the republic, hear another word proclaimed, eat an alternative meal of remembrance, pledge allegiance to another sovereign, and sing hymns, psalms and spiritual songs that set our imaginations free for another way of life, another politics.” Which is why we continue to gather together each week, as the book of Hebrews instructs, because each time we do, we remind ourselves and declare to the world that there is another way of existing—a better, more kind, just, and loving way of existence.

So, in this season of tension and strife—with a crazy election approaching, church members on alternate sides of every issue, and even families divided over party platforms—may we, as followers of King Jesus, not fall prey to the temptation of choosing one broken, human system over the other. Nor may we find ourselves comfortably perched in the center of this political divide, refusing to actively engage our world. Instead, may we double down on our commitment to being a new kind of people, with God’s life and Jesus’ way firmly rooted as our center.