Anniversaries

July is a month of anniversaries for me. July 1 I began my third year as pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church. July 1 also marks the beginning of my twenty-third year as a pastor in The United Methodist Church.

Hard to believe it has been that long. Truthfully I think sometimes how little I have really learned :-) I have joked that I have one year of pastoral experience repeated twenty-two times.

I could say the same (boy, just ask my wife) about marriage. Next Tuesday, Dana and I will have been married twenty-five years. THAT is even harder to get my mind around. Are we that old??? I have been married longer than I was unmarried. Wow.

Often anniversaries cause us to look back (as I am doing above). We should give thanks for the years we have enjoyed with our spouse, in work that we love. I wonder, too,  if we ought to look ahead on these days as well.

The future is the only thing we can change, the only place where we can grow. Yes, it flows out of this present moment. But the past is immutable and while a source of gratitude it can also be a fertile ground for regret and pain.

In the future God awaits. In the future there is a place for change. In the future I can be a better husband, a more faithful pastor, a more deeply committed follower of Jesus Christ.

Here’s to many more milestones and anniversaries! And the future that contains them.

 

“This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.”

Jeremiah 29:11 – The Message

 

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Freedom and Faith… Funny Things

We live in funny times. Freedom is a word at the core of our American credo. But we may disagree more than ever on what it means. Freedom for one person sounds like something entirely different to another. We will hear it used a great deal the next few days as Independence Day comes around once more.

What does freedom mean for the Christian? What does freedom have to do with our faith?

On Monday of this week, Donald Miller posted the following on Facebook –

“God doesn’t try to control people. And He’s the only one who actually can. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there for us.”

We muse about freedom from the power of sin and death, freedom from anxiety and fear, freedom to live abundantly in a world of scarcity. All true. But at the core of our faith, in some sense, is human freedom. And the fact that God apparently submits to that freedom in not controlling us divine power might allow.

Donald Miller’s point is about our inability – and what should be our unwillingness to try – to control others. But it begins with the observation that God leaves us absolutely free. Free to say “no” to God’s gracious invitation. Free to reject what Christ offers just as freely. Free to take the other road, the road much traveled, the road that leads to suffering and death.

Human freedom may be the greatest power in the universe as it turns out to be the only thing greater than the power of God (at least in the realm of individual and corporate decision-making).

Freedom’s greater power comes when it is surrendered in love, gratitude, and wonder to the only One to whom we should submit our freedom. Something to consider as we celebrate another year of freedom in our land. And to think about what it says about our earthly ideas of freedom perhaps.

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The Humility (Humiliation?) of Song

music-wallpaper-4-wideHow many times have I heard from the s 52neat next to me in the car, “Dad, please stop singing.” or ‘You are so off-tune!” or “You know you are singing off-key?” Well, no, I don’t. I suffered through years of music in elementary and middle schools. I recognize the notes on a page. I know what many of the basic music terms mean. But as I often tell people when they ask “Do you play an instrument?” I answer “Yes, the radio.” Making my mouth or a piano produce music is another thing entirely.

Like many people, music moves me. Certain songs bring me to tears – because of a memory they evoke… because of the power of the words… because of the beauty of the music itself. But I cannot, try as I might, make music of any sort. Except through something that plays the music another person has produced.

It’s humbling. I can do many things well. Not this. And not, truthfully, as many things as I think that I can. When I hear someone sing beautifully in worship it not only moves me toward God but reminds me of my limitations. I cannot do it all. I cannot do much of it. I have gifts and passions and experiences that are praise-worthy and that some others may want but lack. But I cannot do all things or even most things well. Just listen to me sing!

I need – we need – other people. As a human being, I need others to live a complete life. God has made the world and human personality this way. We need faith but we also need fellowship. We need our Creator but we also need his creatures.

Now let me turn up the music so you can’t hear me sing… !

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I Love Puzzles

In seminary, one of my favorite professors said that she had become an Old Testament scholar because she loved puzzles. I love them, too. Nothing is more relaxing than the daily Jumble in the newspaper. Or trying my hand at a logic problem.

I wondered at this, though… what do puzzles have to do faith or the Bible? Isn’t it all clear, obvious, easily understood? Right…

puzzle-piecesThere are things that are clear: Love your neighbor as you love yourself (Matthew 22:36-40) for instance. But wait. Who is my neighbor? What does it mean to love her or him? What does it mean to love that person as – in the same way – I love myself? Oh. So maybe there are questions buried in this life of faith, even in the things that seems simple or straightforward. And this doesn’t even touch on those passages of Scripture and doctrines of faith that do not make sense on the surface. Or whose application to our lives is less clear than their application to the people who first heard and believed.

Eugene Peterson has written -

“Our lives are not puzzles to be figured out. Rather, we come to God, who knows us and reveals to us the truth of our lives. The fundamental mistake is to begin with ourselves and not God. God is the center from which all life develops. If we use our ego as the center from which to plot the geometry of our lives, we will live eccentrically.”

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Pentecost Silos

Last Sunday Christians celebrated Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit on the first disciple of Jesus who had gathered in Jerusalem. As Luke relates the marvel of that day:

“And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind,
and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.”

Acts 2:2-4 NRSV

Pentecost reminds us of so many things…promises so many things. Among them, I think, is the desire of God to overcome barriers of language and culture and race (and all sorts of other ways we describe and define ourselves). The first disciples came from a relatively small and isolated area in contrast with the broader world in which they lived. On that day. God’s wonderous deeds were proclaimed in ways that all could hear and understand. The barrier of language was overcome by God for the sake of the mission of the church to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus. Not for unity in and of itself but for the sake of the mission.h

I wonder if today we are not as isolated as they. Except ours is self-selected. We have hundreds of cable channels – we can watch the news and other programs that already reinforce what we know and think to be true. The same can be said for newspapers and magazines. And the Internet? We can read what we want from whom want. Is it any wonder that our politics and our culture… and our churches.. are so polarized?

I wonder, too, if it won’t take another Pentecost to overcome our self-imposed and chosen silos? For God to overcome the issues that separate us (at least in my United Methodist Church). For God to let us hear what we can understand, to hear people with whom we might not agree and from whom we would normally self-separate.

I wonder this for the sake of our mission. How can we proclaim the Good News with authenticity and power when the world sees us as divided and divisive (at least within our tribes)? How can we proclaim a transforming faith, a resurrection power, when we can’t get along with other Christians of the same tribe let alone across the boundaries of tribe and tradition?

Perhaps only by the power of the Holy Spirit falling afresh upon us – shaking us from our foundations and re-enabling our mission? Even so, come, Holy Spirit.

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Turning Things On Their Heads…

This week’s post is a continuation of last week’s (Women Near and Far) on violence against women. One of the ongoing human battles is over status – who is above whom? Where am I (or where is my group, gender, race) in the order of things? How do I move up the ladder to a higher status with more power, prestige, and privilege?

The question of women and violence is part of this larger question. It also touches on race and class and ethnicity. A friend has also suggested that one of the reasons that some of us struggle with same-gender relationships is that they can’t figure out who is in charge if both partners are the same gender (which presumes, of course, that men are over women).

As you might expect me to say, this struggle for place goes back to the beginning of all things. After the Fall (Genesis 3), God says to Eve –

“‘I will make your pregnancy very painful;
in pain you will bear children.
You will desire your husband,
but he will rule over you.’ (Genesis 3:16 CEB)

While I know this Scripture has often been used “to put women in their place,” I wonder if it is not a reflection on the sinful state of affairs more than a judgment on Eve? In other words, Eve desires her husband but rather than mutuality and love what will hold is a new relationship (and not the best one) of status and power? I am not an Old Testament scholar but it seems to me that none of the consequences of the story as we have it are God’s intentions – including an order of things that has always led to corruption and abuse and violence.

And the story goes on… and on… and on. Cain and Abel fight over whom God loves more. Men with multiple wives find themselves in squabbles over which wife is more favored. Jacob and Esau end up in a blood feud over who has the birthright – in other words, who is the one who inherits not only the stuff but the name and the title! And that is only the first book of the story. Let’s just say it doesn’t get better from there.

And then comes Jesus. Who turns things on their heads. Whose mother, Mary (a woman no less!) says of him before his birth:

  He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52 CEB)

Jesus’ humbles himself to the point of surrendering his life. God’s purposes come to fruition not in Jesus exercising power or asserting his status or taking control. But in humility, in submission, and in love. In forsaking the perks and privileges and powers of his status.

Too often we apply these ideas to our personal lives rather than seeing them as God’s ideal for broader human life and culture. It’s why we (we collectively and we men) can mouth the words but fail to see and prevent and speak against the violence against women (and children and people who are of other races and ethnicities too). It’s also wrong… and so clearly not God’s will as revealed in Jesus Christ.

One more week on this and then on to other paths.

 

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Women Near and Far

WARNING — this is a lot longer than my normal modest posting. It is also a complex and troubling issue worth commentary.

The questions of woman and men, violence against women, patriarchy, equality vs. complementarity, have beenon my radar recently. The world still waits to see what will happen to the kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls. Closer to home people are grappling with the violence perpetrated by Eliot Rodgers against women and men but in the context of a manifesto against women that has echoed around the world. My Twitter feed has been filled with heart-breaking, soul-baring, and shocking revelations by women about the violence and misogyny they have experienced (If you are on Twitter, the hashtag for these posts was #YesAllWomen. If you didn’t see it, you need to take a look).

As a husband and the father of both young adult women and a teenage boy I have a conflicting mix of emotions and thoughts. We have taught our girls to be independent and stand up for themselves. Both of them have faced violence from boys they dated who thought it was fine to behave in such a way. Thankfully nothing like the things I have seen and heard on Twitter of late. But a frightening and troubling in and of themselves.

As the father of  a son I am convicted that I have not been more forceful and clear with our thirteen-year old about this issue. Or as a pastor and a Christian. A friend and colleague posted on Facebook yesterday (which I am quoting at some length here with her permission):

“Men who are raising sons: where is your voice?  in the news

What are you teaching your sons in word and example, so no women is ever speaking of them when they tell their stories of harassment, fear, danger and violence?

Women are fully human people. They are in charge of their bodies and their lives. They owe you nothing just because you are a man. Women are not objects for your self-gratification. My sons grew up in a household of equal human partners as parents. “

I couldn’t have said it better myself… but I have not said it myself enough. Nor, and this is where I feel the conviction of  the Holy Spirit, have I examined my life and marriage and parenting and relationships for these insidious and corrupting ideas. Where have I perpetuated in humor, for instance, these beliefs that lead to violence? Where do the things I say and do reinforce the views that allow men to do such horrible things to women? Have I done them myself ? Not at the same level of violence but in word and silence? I am not sure I like the answers.

There is more to consider here and I thank the aforementioned colleague and friend for dialoguing with me a bit this morning. She always makes me think and I am seeing where some of these issues of power, position, control, etc. are bigger than this question alone.

My personal theology is grounded in a large degree in Genesis 1 where we hear these words:

God created humanity in God’s own image,
        in the divine image God created them,
            male and female God created them.” (Genesis 1:27 CEB)

This glorious beginning very quickly falls to pieces. Far too often we have lived in the story that follows rather than into God’s desire to renew and redeem and restore this heritage that comes from our very being made in the divine images – men and women, male and female. God spoke and it was so. Too ofter we – I – have lived out of the Old Adam’s tale rather than the New Adam of Christ.

It is past time we speak and seek more to make it so. More on this one later…

 

 

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Memorial Day Thoughts

Memorial Day is not a Christian or spiritual holiday but rather a civil one. It does not mean, however, that is has no spiritual significance.

I don’t usually post other people’s stuff but today I post something from someone whose work and writing I admire, Ed Stetzer. Last Memorial Day he posted the following –

 

“At times like this, I’m always struck by the teaching of Jesus where he said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). And, yes, I immediately connect that to Christ. In other words, on a day when we remember those who gave their lives I’m drawn to dwell on the fact that Christ laid down his life.

So, thank you soldiers– past and present– for the freedoms you protect. And, thank you that because of those freedoms, we can tell the good news of the gospel of the perfect one who laid down His life.”

(It comes from this blog post — Memorial Day:Bought with a Price, May 27, 2013. It is worth reading the entire post!)

At our best, we as human beings reflect in our character the image of God in which we are made (Genesis 1:27). The sacrifice of human beings for the good of others, as Ed Stetzer so well articulates, reminds me of the sacrifice of Christ. In our fallen, broken world the lives of some are often lost that others may live and thrive. Our Christian faith tells of One who gave his life for all and not for any one nation or cause.

I thank God for those whose sacrifices allow me to live, worship, preach, and pastor in freedom.

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Step by Step… Can’t Turn Back

Continuing my thoughts from this original post, I have been thinking about the journey of faith. It is always a step-by-step progress. A day, a step, a moment at a time.

Recently my thoughts have turned to the reality that journeying with Christ does not include an escape plan, a route by which we can return to where we were. There is no going back. Jesus says, for instance, to one man “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62 NIV) 

It’s hard to admit but sometimes I want to go back. I want an easier way, one with fewer demands, more centered on me and what I want. (Full-time ministry complicates this reality to be sure but it is more about being a Christian than a pastor). I wish that I could just do what I want.

But the path of Christian discipleship doesn’t have a U-turn. Following God never has. The people of Israel couldn’t go back to Egypt – but they sure wanted to return.

But we can’t go back because we aren’t the people we were when we started. We can’t unthink, unexperience, undo what has brought us to the next step.

And God is not behind us. God does not live in the past but in the present. In the next step. Not always comforting and sometimes overwhelming. But true.

Take the next step… God is there.

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Spiritual Orienteering

In a world before GPS (and still in Boy Scouting and other outdoor groups), people learned to navigate in steps. In orienteering, for instance, you would navigate using a compass and map from point to point. No electronic map to show the route from start to finish… no rerouting on your phone if you get off course.event_75121022

There is no spiritual GPS – God has not upgraded. The journey of faith is a step-by-step one. A journey that demands we focus on the steps before us. We know the destination (which is, by the way,  a Person rather than a place – more on this later) but at the moment we aren’t there. We only know the points that we have traveled and the point toward which we are traveling next.

For Christians, the Bible, the traditions of the church, our faith communities, the still small voice of God’s Spirit are all spiritual orienteering tools. Our compasses and maps. Our destination is God Himself.

This metaphor humbles me. I can’t know where others are on the map. They may be following a different set of points. Their map may be different even if the destination is the same. They didn’t start where I did (nor did I start where they did).

It also means that the journey right now matters. I can’t get to where God leads me without traveling point-to-point-to-point on the route. Shortcuts end up leaving me lost or confused.

Wherever you find yourself today on this journey, attend to the steps you are taking. To the next point you are trying to reach.

 

The Lord makes firm the steps
    of the one who delights in him… (Psalm 37:23 NIV)

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