Archive for December 2015

Ephesians 1:3-14

To write well, I avoid the passive voice. Or to put it the wrong way, my writing is becoming less passive. Yet, when Paul greets the church at Ephesus with the rich and sonorous, ‘blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…’ everything he says for the rest of the page is passive. It has to be this way. God already is fully blessed by His nature and totally the gift-giver in our relationship with Him. We are like young children on Christmas Day, requiring fourteen minutes to tell of all the things that we received, but since we are not yet active in the real world, can’t point to a single thing that we have given back. So, Paul goes fourteen verses listing the gifts we have from our relationship with God through Jesus Christ.


Imagine a child in a car seat with a little plastic steering wheel. That’s us. We have entered the New Year with someone else driving the issues that will really matter for us in the year ahead. Our health, our family unity, our safety, our daily bread and our weekly rest; all God. Paul is one of those rare voices in our lives that points to the steering wheel in our hands and says, ‘it’s plastic and not connected to the control arms of our vehicle, but that’s okay.’


In Ephesians 1:11, Paul passively uses the most politically incorrect word in the Bible; “…having been predestined according to [God’s] plan.”  I don’t think he does this in hopes of creating theological divisions in the church. The racism, colonialism, and classism propagated for the last 20 centuries by Christians who take pride in their birthright, is not Paul’s fault. Quite the opposite, all Christian service is laid on a foundation of utter humility. We are like recovering alcoholics who say:  

1. We now admit that we are powerless over life — that without grace, our days quickly become  unmanageable.

2. We believe in a Power greater than ourselves who can fully restore us to sanity and love.


It is only after laying this foundation, that Paul is able to tell the Ephesians about his active love for them; his prayers and his hopes of being helpful to them in their spiritual growth. 


This year, I am humbled and particularly mindful of grace. I felt fully in control of the upcoming holidays and my life on December 15th. The next day my wife was hospitalized and straddled the doorway between this life and the next until the day before Christmas. By God’s grace, we now take things one day at a time. And looking back, I am aware that those moments when I have been most loving and helpful to those around me, have been when I have admitted openly that the steering wheel in my hands is plastic, and then added, that I am okay with that. Thank God.

I'm okay with God driving
Christmas 2
New Years
Luke 2:41-52

We only have one childhood story about Jesus, that of his amazing the elders in the temple. I’m not really sure what this story tells us about Jesus, or his Home-Alone-ish family, but its context deserves some reflection. A couple times a year, people would pilgrimage to the temple. Diaspora Jews would make these trips less frequently, perhaps, once or twice in a life-time. We have little in today’s world that is equivalent to this. As someone who cares about mental health, family systems, and healthy transitions, I think this is our loss.


Imagine what it would be like to put your faith into motion by walking seventy-five miles. Parents would be explaining to their children, as they schlepped across the Judean Hills, just how important religion was. People who had lost loved ones, would work through their grief as they walked. Newly weds would explore their new relationship, with each other and with their new extended families. There would be deep discussions about the things that mattered. There would be songs. The fellowship of God’s people would be made visible.


During the holidays, we all tend to complain about our family obligations. The truth is, it’s not that we have too much at Christmas that takes us away from our routines, it’s that we have too little. Perhaps our celebrations are maddening — but life without the centering effect of pilgrimage is also crazy. Some of the healthy effects of pilgrimage can be experienced in smaller doses, if we value the work that a structured spiritual experiences does in our lives.


Further, we should plan for the year ahead. Can we shift our vacation times so that they do more than just remove us from work? Can we incorporate the religious pilgrimage into the way we navigate transition and respond to life’s critical moments? How can we rediscover the wisdom of walking with a crowd.

In 2001, I had my life altered by a religious pilgrimage
Christmas 1
Health Insurance Debate

Wednesday, I drove my wife to the emergency room with what had been, only an hour before, a minor condition. Within a short time after arriving, a doctor said to me, “It is a good thing that you brought her in when you did.” Why did I bring her in when I did? Because we had health insurance. If we were uninsured, as we had been back in the 1980s, I would have held off. It’s just a bug, it will pass. My dithering may have been fatal.


Moses says, “See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Before the Affordable Care Act, neither of our adult children had health insurance. Today, many popular politicians are committed to rolling back Obamacare and choosing death, over life. Further, some states deny medical services to those who cannot document that they are here legally. I believe that healthcare is a basic human right.


As I write this, the doctors are waiting for lab work to come back to determine the nature of my wife’s infection. Each year, there are more and more ‘super-bugs’ that are resistant to antibiotics. The science behind this problem points to America’s agri-business, which uses carelessly uses antibiotics to speed livestock to harvest and lessen the effects of over-crowding. Competitive market pressures lead farmers to choose death. It may be only a matter of time before an apocalyptic order strain get’s loose. Moses would call that a curse.


Lately I have come to believe that all choices are linked. Moses is calling us live with  humility and generosity, such that, whether we are responding to our neighbor’s need, or deciding upon which presidential candidate to support, or buying hog feed, we will prayerfully weigh whether life is affirmed or cursed in some small way by our choice. God grant us all, wisdom and grace in this.

Be careful in desiring a King, see 1 Samuel 8

The problem with Trump is that he doesn’t live in a world where he can see a woman in a hijab, shepherding her children onto the school bus and think to himself, “hey that family shares my hopes and dreams.” The problem with our country, is that 30% of the people want to live in Trump’s world. It’s a world where language is used to hurt, not heal, where might makes right, and where public service has been forgotten. It is the land of a people who desire a king (1 Samuel Chapter 8) and a man who says, “I’m smart enough for the job.”


The framers of the American Constitution labored to design a system which would resist being co-opted by self-centered, populist, king hopefuls. They divided the authority of the federal government so that the judicial branch would keep us progressing towards higher standards of justice and equality (the replacement of slavery by civil rights required a hundred of judicial action), a congressional branch would serve the common good and the concerns of those who work for a living, and the executive branch that would represent us gracefully in the world. This model proved so innovative that most countries have adopted it, and many are now surpassing the United States in providing equal rights to their citizens and prosperity for their middle class.


Our two party system is not mentioned in the constitution. It is instead, one of those complicated add-ons that by and large serves the intentions of the founding fathers. A similar thing could be said about church denominations and the religion that Jesus designed. People who desire to be King, challenge the political process from time to time. One can look with trembling at Germany in the 1930s. I watched the movie Trumbo this past week, which portrayed the mess created by Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch-hunt, and realized that equally passionate craziness can be found in the anti-muslim rhetoric of the leading Republican candidates. But, to find someone who matches Trump in his dangerous personal charisma, you have to go back to the 1890s and look at the Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. Fortunately, the system beat him twice in his run for the presidency. 


In the church, we look for a non-anxious presence, or an interim minister, to heal things when they get this dysfunctional. Perhaps, cooler heads will prevail as an inconclusive primary season leads to a brokered convention in Cleveland. Anybody for printing some Romney/Ryan 2016 t-shirts?

Luke 3:7-18

John the Baptist doesn’t make any friends by calling everyone brood of Vipers. Now note that Jesus doesn’t contradict John. To understand their shared message, we need to focus on what is healthy and not, relating to pride and shame. What would John, or Jesus, make of the boast, “I am proud to be an American” or the current rush in France to buy tricolor flags since the Paris attack?


Shame is related to who we are, as opposed to guilt that involves what we do. We can have false pride relating to both who we are (things outside our control) or relating to things we have done (boasting of our accomplishments).  John tells the good Jewish people who come to him, not to have unhealthy pride in the fact that they are “children of Abraham” (Luke 3:8). Similarly, I don’t think we should have false pride in the fact that we were born Americans. If I had been born 10 miles south of where I was, today I would be speaking Spanish and worrying about Mexican politics. False pride is sinful and can lead to a lack of compassion.


I suspect, but it is not recorded, that John the Baptist welcomed and spoke graciously to non-Jewish immigrants living near the Jordan River. Jesus certainly showed compassion and ministered to those who were shamed. That is, he honored those experiencing the inverse of the above, false pride about things you have no control over. We have very little control over our race, nationality, age, sexual orientation, or gender. To be shamed for any of these is a bad thing. To be caught in a war, or some other crisis that causes one to immigrate, is an unfortunate circumstance that deserves our compassion.


John’s sermon makes it clear that there are some things that we can do, and be proud of. We can share a coat with someone who is underdressed for the winter (Luke 3:11). We can strive to do our job, whatever our occupation may be, in a way that honors God (Luke 3:12-14). Such things are their own reward. When we think that being good saves us, or that we should get stars in our crown because of our behavior, then we fall into the other trap of pride, self-righteousness.

How Shame and Pride relate to each other
Advent 3
Saying No to metrics is like saying No to Monsanto

Ask yourself, “Why am I in ministry?” Most of us are here, not because of a single mind-blowing worship experience, but because our hearts were quietly, over time, nurtured by the Holy Spirit. There is a Way of the spirit which we simply desire more of. There is a Way that is more compelling than riches, or the fleeting entertainments of this world. How many of in our church or place of service might be compelled by the same motivation? If the number is as low as a dozen, from out of the hundreds that we break bread with, are these people too few to be considered? What if we shaped our ministry towards increasing this number? What if, for the sake of authenticity, we commit ourselves to not exceed any religious authority that isn’t justified by our own personal experience of God?

    Think of a lab rat running a maze for some scientific experiment. Early on, it discovered the most wonderful cheese. Now it is committed to learn and run complicated patterns for the sake of this cheese. Then the institution begins to randomly withdraw this cheese from the maze. What do you, or the poor mouse, do? Run faster! I define burnout as the spiritual state of a church leader who continues to run the maze of institutional expectations and job requirements, but has given up all hope of ever finding cheese.

    Burnout is too narrow a term for this difficulty. The biblical expression is that we have grown weary while doing good, and that we have lost heart. Paul, in the sixth chapter of Galatians, displays his concern for the internal attitude of those that work in the church. He compares us to farmers who have a choice as to what seed we plant. Paul says that we should be deeply respectful of the organic process that sustains our spirituality. Today we speak of farmers being stuck in a system where they must plant genetically modified corn and then use Round-up to control their weeds. To do that which looks prudent on the outside, but we know in our hearts to be wrong, wearies the soul.

Luke 3:1-6
Isaiah 40:1-11

Every four years our country makes a show of sending the presidential candidates through the rural villages of Iowa and New Hampshire. For a few fleeting moments, common people seem to matter. They have a voice in Ottumwa.  Individuals in Concord can ask the next president if he or she knows the price of a gallon of milk. Yet the Bible speaks about the voice in the wilderness as being something more than just symbolic. We are all made to travel through wilderness from time to time. Life is enriched by trauma and displacement. There the soft voice of God has a chance to rise above the static. John the Baptist isn’t just a foot note in the story of Christ. He is an embodiment of all the reasons that God sends us out into the wilderness.


I am hoping that the candidates learn some humility during their trek through small town America. Jesus and the multitudes went out into the wilderness to see John the Baptist. Since they walked, it took some time.  Advent is intended to be this way. Our experience should teach us the deep and quiet things of life. We should enter the New Year more rooted than we are today. Similarly, the candidates for our nation’s highest office should reach Super Tuesday on March 1st chastened by what the most reflective rural folk have said to them. One can only hope.


The voice in the wilderness may be for us that relative we are not looking forward to seeing this holiday season. The voice in the wilderness may come to us late at night, when we ask ourselves if we are really ready to have God pitch his tent among us. The voice in the wilderness may already be on the lips of thousands of Syrian refugees. I don’t know. But I plan to stop and listen.


Sit in the brush arbor until you see the beauty of the empty place
Avent 2