Sunday Observation

I believe in the Holy universal church.

“I live a much more Christian lifestyle than those supposed Christians who meet at that church down the road.”

This sentence has been rolling around in my brain all weekend. I can’t seem to shake it. It was the beginning of a listening session that I was able to be on the receiving end of. The hurting woman told me about the horrible bitterness she had encountered at the church she was talking about (luckily it wasn’t the church I am pastoring), she told me that she didn’t have much respect for Christians, or for church politicking (me either).  She rounded off by telling me that she would never understand why people would waste the time going to church. And finally she looked at me and asked what I was doing in New Zealand. I kind of chuckled and told her I had come over for work, and I half hoped she wouldn’t ask what sort of work I was doing.

She did ask, and I then got to tell her about how I was so serious about being a Christian I had become a professional one. Just kidding. But really I told her that I was working at a church in the area. I told her that we believe that things like shame and guilt and hatred and pain don’t have to stick with you for your whole life and that we believe there is healing from that. But at this point in the conversation I could have told her she had won the lottery and she wouldn’t have heard me. She had checked out of the conversation.

So I find myself wondering about church today as I preached the sermon, and as we prayed the prayers, and as I listened to my wife lead us in singing on her ukulele, and as we recited the creeds, and as our small congregation gathered for tea and bickies afterward.

It is of course trendy right now to say that the church is not the building, but rather it is the people inside who make up the church. I can’t help but wonder if this sentence has lost its meaning to many people. What does it mean to be the church anyway? What does the church do? Why the church? The church has always been, and I believe always will be known for her habitus; our embodied disposition. Those things that we do. When we love our God and our neighbor in actuality it is love that we become known for. Maybe try giving a listening ear or a hug if it is welcome.  However if we simply meet together as a social club that is sometimes full of bitterness and church politics each week then chances are good we will become known for that disposition. If we gather and talk about all the things that Christians don’t do, then we will become known for that. If we gather and don’t talk, or don’t listen, or don’t celebrate, then I think you get the idea.

Maybe you’ve asked the same: “Why church?” It is a legitimate question. One that doesn’t always have an easy answer but I think novelist Flannery O’Connor speaks to it,

“I think that the Church is the only thing that is going to make the terrible world we are coming to endurable; the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed”

Sometimes, when a person in my congregation will come to me and tell me they are frustrated and tired and about ready to give up on God, I won’t know what to say. I don’t know what to say a lot of the time, and I don’t know why frustrating, and horrible and hurtful things happen. I don’t know the answers to these things, but I do know how to hug, and I try my best to listen, and I try to be the body of Christ.

Maybe you’ve decided that you don’t need the church, and maybe you’re right. But I think its only because the church you’ve encountered isn’t the church that God has envisioned for God’s people. 

Maybe you are hurting today, and frustrated, and ready to give up. If this is you, please know you’re not alone. Please let me (or someone near you) listen to you and hurt with you and be the body of Christ.

Part of His plan?

Do you think God takes sides? I’ve heard people say about this election that “It’s all part of God’s plan.” I can’t help but wonder if those people would say the same thing if the other side had won, or if the president-elect had been a black man, a Muslim, or a member of the LGBTQ community instead of being a straight rich white guy. Most of us would probably say it wouldn’t be any different and most of us would claim to believe in a God who is Love.

This notion of a God who is exercising a non-discriminating love towards all people should stand as a healthy protection against racists who do not believe God really loves dark-skinned people. It also should stand as a healthy protection against white evangelicals who instinctively feel (even when we deny it) that God is more concerned about us than about the unemployed workers who flock to Mexico City every day. Or at least surely we must be more blessed than them… right?

There is something false and unbiblical about this view of God’s relationship to the world’s peoples when we pit groups against each other and ask whether God is equally the God of the military dictator and those who are murdered by that dictator. Does God have the same disposition toward the victim of a plant closedown in Akron, Ohio as toward the members of the Board of Directors who shut down the plant (with no concern for what would happen to the workers)?

Maybe your God is aloof from such things; any other God would be a God who chooses sides. And surely a god who loves everyone wouldn’t choose sides would he? It might not be so hard for the biblical writers to imagine though. Let’s take a look at Exodus 1:8-14; 2:23-25; 3:7-10.

the people of Israel became so numerous that the whole region of Goshen was full of them. Many years later a new king came to power. He did not know what Joseph had done for Egypt, and he told the Egyptians: There are too many of those Israelites in our country, and they are becoming more powerful than we are. 10 If we don’t outsmart them, their families will keep growing larger. And if our country goes to war, they could easily fight on the side of our enemies and escape from Egypt. 11 The Egyptians put slave bosses in charge of the people of Israel and tried to wear them down with hard work. Those bosses forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses,[a] where the king[b] could store his supplies. 12 But even though the Israelites were mistreated, their families grew larger, and they took over more land. Because of this, the Egyptians hated them worse than before 13 and made them work so hard14 that their lives were miserable. The Egyptians were cruel to the people of Israel and forced them to make bricks and to mix mortar and to work in the fields.

23 After the death of the king of Egypt, the Israelites still complained because they were forced to be slaves. They cried out for help, 24 and God heard their loud cries. He did not forget the promise he had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, 25 and because he knew what was happening to his people, he felt sorry for them.

I am the God who was worshiped by your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Moses was afraid to look at God, and so he hid his face. The Lord said: I have seen how my people are suffering as slaves in Egypt, and I have heard them beg for my help because of the way they are being mistreated. I feel sorry for them, and I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians. I will bring my people out of Egypt into a country where there is good land, rich with milk and honey. I will give them the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live. My people have begged for my help, and I have seen how cruel the Egyptians are to them. 10 Now go to the king! I am sending you to lead my people out of his country.

We have a class struggle happening here. Two sides pitted against each other. Can we claim that this is God’s will? That one class would trample on the other classes? One side is forcing the other into slavery, but then God steps onto the scene. He clearly takes the side of the oppressed people. And we see in scripture that he always takes that side.

So is this “all part of God’s plan”? The whole earth is under the dominion of God and this is affirmed by Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper who wrote,

“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”

We have no reason to doubt that God is in control. The real question on my mind is this: “If God is in control, does that mean he approves of everything that happens?”

Part of the life of the Christian is to be in the center of the will of God. So if the answer to the above question is “Yes”, then God has chosen every single national leader, and has appointed them with approval. In this scenario, the military dictator who kills hundreds of thousands is appointed by God. The problem with this answer is that it runs counter to the character of God. It should then be noted that while God’s authority is absolute, his approval is not.

Drew Griffin once wrote “Everything that we do in our lives, every vote that is cast, every leader that ascends, all of it happens under the providence of God. However, God’s sovereignty does not give us license for sinful choices.” We are called to be the hands and feet of Christ. We are called to defend the oppressed. We are called to stand up for the voiceless.

So God firmly remains in control amidst the chaos. Are we off the hook because “It’s all part of God’s plan”? Is it enough to rest securely in that control?

 

Sunday Confessional: May 15, 2016

I confess that I think we have gone too far with technology.

“Just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world.” This lyric from the 80’s hit “Don’t Stop Believing” stands to speak directly into the culture of today. Winston Churchill once said that we shape our buildings and then they begin to shape us. This is painstakingly obvious in the way we structure our communities. We build huge houses made for one family, and then we attach garages so we never need to go outside. We never have to see our neighbors.

The same is happening with technology. We have shaped our technology so well that we no longer have to sit in the same room as our family in order to have a conversation. Or when we are in the same room, we don’t need to use our voices. We now live in an age where we are “alone together”, which is the title of a book written by Sherry Turkle. She writes,

“Technology promises to let us do anything from anywhere with anyone. But it also drains us as we try to do everything everywhere. We begin to feel overwhelmed and depleted by the lives technology makes possible. We may be free to work from anywhere, but we are also prone to being lonely everywhere. In a surprising twist, relentless connection leads to a new solitude. We turn to new technology to fill the void, but as technology ramps up, our emotional lives ramp down.”

In 2002 Wilco wrote the lyrics, “Our stories fit into phones.” It is scary how true this has become.

So what do we do? Has the landscape of the world become so bleak? What can I do as a father to help my kids grow from children into adults who are not “alone together”? What do you do?

I don’t think that the outcome is necessarily so bleak. I think we can BE the church. A community of people that remembers they are part of the mission of God. As a father I am going to pray that my boys never know a moment in their lives apart from the people of God. I am going to pray that the church is woven into their tapestry of their lives. I’m going to work hard to model the church to my boys. I’m going to place my hope in a saving God, a creating God, a sustaining God.

I’ve made my confession, now go and make yours. And think about who you can reach out to this week (in person).

The Joys of Parenthood

Parenting at any stage is fraught with trials and joys. Sometimes it is easier to see the blessings than it is at other times. This weekend was one of those times that I really had to look for the joys of parenthood. I’m not sure why…It might have been because of that time during our trip to Michael’s when my toddler climbed out of the cart and ran away only to be found a few seconds later by an employee. Or maybe it was the time when the dishwasher didn’t drain. Or maybe it was the time I opened the dishwasher that hadn’t drained and water went everywhere including leaking into our room downstairs. Or maybe it was the three year old in the backseat who kept wanting to argue with everything I said (even when I wasn’t talking). Or maybe it was something else, but I found that I had to search for those hidden gems of parenting joy this weekend. I found them in that moment when both boys are strapped in their car seats with the doors closed and I haven’t yet opened the driver side door. Or the moment of peace when my toddler falls asleep in my arms. Or the moment when I realize that both boys have officially fallen asleep and a quiet hush falls over the house.

These joys of parenting that I found this weekend were all centered around the same thing. It was all about finding peace in the chaos. Did you know that our bodies release a chemical in times of stress that acts as an analgesic, this is called stress-induced analgesia. The stressed body can produce powerful pain blockers that are similar to those found in illicit drugs. This can have the effect of numbing aches and pains that may slow the body down. They also can have the potential to numb a persons emotional range. So, truly it is possible to become addicted to stress. Maybe you’re a person who is constantly busy and stressed out, maybe you want to stop being stressed but can’t figure out how to say “no”. Does it seem hopeless? Keep hope, dear one, for God has given us a way out. In fact God has actually gone so far as to model a way out of this stressed lifestyle.

In the book of Genesis we see the narrative of creation in which God creates for six days, and rests on the seventh. This day later became known as the Sabbath. God, in his infinite goodness and wisdom, modeled this day. A twenty-four hour period of rest which, incidentally, is also the exact amount of time it takes for this stress-induced analgesia to completely leave the body.

Remember to find that rest, find that peace, and the joy in life. The peace that is life giving, that helps us to find those moments of joy. Walk in the peace of the Lord.

Sunday Confessional November 8th

I confess that my story is often told in one way, but there are usually two versions.

The Facebook version

This week I had the opportunity to be a loving husband and allow Abigail to take a couple days to retreat. She spent five luxurious nights, and six beautiful days on her retreat while the boys and I got to enjoy some quality time in Northern Ireland. Every day the boys and I would wake up to see the sun rise and take our time getting dressed before going about our daily activities. On Saturday we got to go to a friend’s birthday party. On Sunday we went to church, and then the boys helped me set up for the marriage course. Later on, my youngest helped me serve tea and coffee to all of our attendees. On Monday we went shopping for our week’s groceries, and then decided to go again Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday because my boys just love fruit! I think they’ve turned into precious little “fruitarians”. My oldest voiced how much he loved me and how much he wanted to stay home with me and Moses instead of going to school. After the boys went to sleep on Thursday, their mama returned home from her time away. What a week!

A Different Version

Saturday morning at 4:30 am found our boys wide awake as we took Abigail to the airport for a conference. She was gone for six days! Every day while she was gone, the boys woke up well before the sun rose, and getting them dressed made me realize why God led me to become a wrestler in high school. After the airport we went to a birthday party where my boys ate their weight in sugar. On Sunday we made our way to church and the boys went to creche while I got some much coveted alone time. Later that day we went back to church to set up for the marriage course. Hosea ran around moving the tables into a giant ‘A’ and Moses clung to me. My youngest then cried his way out of creche and insisted on me wearing him while I served tea and coffee. On Monday, even though I felt crazy, I went to the grocery store on my own with two boys and we tried to get everything we would need for the week. The boys ate MY weight in fruit that day, requiring us to brave the store again the next day. And the next. And the next. My oldest refused flat out to go to school, and it took twenty minutes of negotiating to get him into his uniform and out the door, all while holding Moses. My youngest finally fell asleep about an hour before mummy got home and woke back up in time to see her. What a week!

We rarely let people see our struggles, but it’s important to know that struggles are real, and common. For everyone’s Facebook story, there’s another story that goes along with it. It is important to note that neither version of this story holds the full truth, but when they are put together they show a more realistic picture than when separate.

I’ve made my confession, now go make yours.

October 27th Devotional

“For we know, brothers and sisters loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord’s message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath.

-1 Thessalonians 1:4-10

Pray and ask God to further your understanding of what He wants you to gain from this scripture.

What would it look like if all the believers in the area knew about your faith in God, and they considered you a model? Maybe you live your faith out in such a way that this is the case. Or maybe you wish you did. One of the important things to remark on with this scripture is that the Thessalonians had someone that they themselves were imitating. They had a person who they were working to be more like, someone they knew was striving to be like Christ. Paul, the author of this book, also wrote a book called 1 Corinthians where he writes to encourage the believers to “imitate me as I imitate Christ”. Finding a person to emulate can make a big difference in your relationship with Jesus, being a person to emulate is important as well! Go forward and work towards being a model!

Lord, You love us to stand in your sight upright and with such gentleness in us that some other will yearn to win its power.

-Hebridean Altars

October 26th devotional

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Luke 18:9-14
Pray, ask God to reveal himself today through this scripture.
How often am I the pharisee, full of a self-righteous hubris that causes me to be unable to see the richness of God in others? I would often fall into this trap when I used to do orphan care. Orphan care is so obviously a great and wonderful thing to do to help the world. I think most people can agree that orphan care is a good thing to do, so it was easy for me, when I was immersed in caring for orphans to look around at people who were not necessarily doing orphan care and think about how good I was. But the truth of the matter is that I am not good. Only God is good. I am like the tax collector and when I finally come around to seeing that, then I am able to live more acutely in the mercy of Christ.
Deliver me from self-truthfulness.
In the frequent days in which I must do battle with
Myself for foe
Arm me with a constant trust in Thee
-Hebridean Altars

Grace and peace to you from God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Sunday Confessional Oct. 25

I confess that I’m not slowing down.

I’m a stay at home parent. I’m also a full time student, and I work at a church where I am being mentored by the pastor (as part of the degree program). You know that scene in Star Wars, the one where the Millenium Falcon goes into warp speed? I often feel like that is what is happening to my life. Sometimes I get to the end of the day, and I feel like it’s been super long. I’m tired from having chased my three year old around or held my one year old all day. When I do get them down for nap/quiet time, I either work on a sermon or a paper for school, or if I am super good I get a craft ready to do with the boys when they get up. When I experience those days and bed time finally rolls around, I look back on the past 24 hours and I am speechless (and breathless). The days seem long when I’m living them, but the months are falling away like a tree shedding its leaves for winter. I want to slow down life. I want to, but I just need to figure out how. Recently I was reading a text for one of my classes and came across a really good concept that I want to share.

Author Tracy Balzer, writes about finding rest from all the noise in our lives;

“Perhaps we should consider when we last experienced true silence. It may be difficult for us to say with any accuracy, because we’ve gotten so used to the hum of electricity around us that we don’t even realize that we live with a constant level of noise…When did I last drive my car without the stereo playing? When was the last time my family and I sat around the dinner table with phones, dishwasher, and television turned off? None of these things are evil. But could it be that the many layers of noise we dwell in have numbed our sensitivity to the still small voice of God?”

As I write this I let myself listen for all the levels of noise that exist all around me. I can hear the hum of the refrigerator, the electricity of the lights, the WIFI modem, the computer fan, levels and levels of noise that I never really notice, all working in harmony to numb to the presence of God in my every day existence.

I think maybe I can slow down by being intentional with what I allow myself to take in. By taking a day of rest, where our family turns off our cell phones, and powers down the computers, and really listens for God. I think this could become a weekly event. Does it make you uncomfortable to think about turning off your cell phone for a full day? I know, I know, how would you be able to check facebook, your email, craigslist, gumtree, or the scores of that sporting event? Do you know that theres actually a word for what I am describing? It’s called a Sabbath. Not just a weekend day where we go to church, but a day completely plugged into God. Would you like to join me in carving out time to celebrate this day? To turn off and unplug electronics, to refresh our spirits, rekindle our passions, renew our minds and bodies, and reconnect with God and those we love.

Pilgrim or Tourist?

Recently I had the opportunity to engage in a pilgrimage of Celtic Irish history. It was an experience I will remember forever. You see, tourism and travel is an enormous industry today. I read so many blogs where the main goal is to see more of the world and to travel, to really get out of your comfort zone and experience something new. This idea of travel and tourism made me wonder if there was a fundamental difference in what I was doing as a pilgrim, and what thousands of others were doing as tourists.  Were tourism and pilgrimage all the same thing, simply rebranded and renamed? Something in my spirit told me that there was indeed a difference, and yet it took me some time to really put my finger on what that difference was.

During our pilgrimage we began on the slope of an absolutely beautiful mountain near an area called Glendalough. This place is made famous because of a pilgrim known as St. Kevin. We walked down a path that had been beaten by the footsteps of many who had come before us. The path followed a stream right into an ancient monastic village. We had scheduled to meet with a tour guide who would tell us the history of Glendalough and, while we waited, I looked around at the incredible beauty that shot out from every blade of grass and every leaf of the trees. The mountains rose and fell all around us, and a babbling brook coursed its way toward a pair of lakes that it helped to feed. I took a deep breath and could smell the freshness of nature. Simply standing and being was, in its own way, an experience that allowed me to worship Jesus. Directly above me grew several canes of blackberries, which tasted so sweet and refreshing. I lost track of time as I picked blackberries and prayed to God. Before I knew it, our Guide had arrived. His name is Father Michael and he is a retired priest of the Catholic church. He began by blessing our group with a blessing of solitude:

“May you recognise in your life the presence,

power and light of your soul.

May you realise that you are never alone

that your soul in its brightness and belonging

connects you intimately with the rhythm of the

universe.

May you realise that the shape of your soul is

unique,

that you have a special destiny here,

that behind the facade of your life there is

something beautiful, good and eternal

happening.

May you learn to see your self with the same

delight, pride and expectation with which God

sees you in every moment.”

-John O’Donohue

Then we began our journey into the heart of Glendalough. Father Michael encouraged us as we walked to go forward in silence. It was in this silence that I was able to really reflect on the constant presence of God in my life. He led us to the first lake which holds some personal significance to me. My wife and I took our first picture together at this lake nearly ten years ago. Then our guide led us up into the mountains where we got to see where St. Kevin may have lived. Our guide told us the tale of St. Kevin and the blackbird:

“And then there was St. Kevin and the blackbird.

The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside

His cell, but his cell is narrow, so

One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff

As as cross beam, when a blackbird lands

And lays in it and settles down to rest.

Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked

Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked

Into the network of eternal life,

Is moved to pity: Now he must hold his hand

Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks

Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown

And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow

Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?

Self-forgetful or in agony all the time

From the neck on down through his hurting forearms?

Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?

Or has the shut-eye blank of underearth

Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?

Alone and mirrored clear in loves deep river,

‘To labour and not seek reward’, he prays,

A prayer his body makes entirely

For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird

And on the river bank forgotten the river’s name”

-Seamus Heaney

Hearing of the discipline that St. Kevin had was a powerful lesson to begin our pilgrimage. Each of us was paired with another group member and made to be prayer partners. After hearing the tale of St. Kevin we split off to pray. We were pilgrims together, and we were learning that the Celtic Christians of old had a deep revere for nature. They also had a respect for the darkness in each one of us. They would have operated with the knowledge that O’Donahue wrote about,

“We are always on a journey from darkness into light. At first, we are children of the darkness. Your body and your face were formed first in the kind darkness of your mother’s womb…Your birth was a first journey from darkness into light. All your life, your mind lives within the darkness of your body. Every thought that you have is a flint moment, a spark of light from your inner darkness. The miracle of thought is its presence in the night side of your soul; the brilliance of thought is born in darkness. Every day is a journey. All creativity awakens at this primal threshold where light and darkness test and bless each other. You only discover balance in your life when you learn to trust the flow of this ancient rhythm. Ultimately, light is the mother of life. Where there is no light, there can be no life…Life is the secret presence of the divine. It keeps life awake. The soul awakens and lives in light. It helps us glimpse the sacred depths within us.”

Our pilgrimage began as something more. Something different. The Latin name for pilgrimage is peregrinatio, which when translated can mean either “pilgrimage”, or “voluntary abandonment of home and kin for ascetic purposes”. As Balzer puts it, we were seeking to identify with Christ in his death. Just as Christ let go of his divinity to fully embrace humanity, so the pilgrim would let go of his beloved land to follow Christ. It is this relinquishing of all that one holds dear in order to follow Christ that separates a pilgrim from a tourist. Abigail and I are pilgrims, following after Christ everyday.

“Pilgrim, how you journey

one the road you chose

to find our where the winds die

and where the stories go.

All days come from one day

that much you must know,

you cannot change what’s over

but only where you go.

One way leads to diamonds,

one way leads to gold,

another leads you only

to everything you’re told.

in your heart you wonder

which of these is true;

the road that leads to nowhere,

the road that leads to you.

Will you find the answer

in all you say and do?

Will you find the answer

in you?

Each heart is a pilgrim,

each one wants to know

the reason why the winds die

and where the stories go.

Pilgrim, in your journey

you may travel far,

for pilgrim it’s a longway

to find out who you are….

Pilgrim it’s a long way

to find out who you are…

Pilgrim it’s a long way

to find out who you are…”

-Enya: A day without rain

Sunday Confessional

4 Oct 2015

I confess that I’m really struggling to find a light hearted confessional this week. I’ve been searching my soul and I find it difficult.

I keep thinking about all the injustices in the world that I should write about. I think about the 153 million children that are currently labeled as orphans. I keep thinking about the immigration detention centers in Dilley, Texas that seem to operate more like a concentration camp that anything else. I keep thinking about the mass shootings that are plaguing the United States. Or I think about the mass flood of refugees. I keep thinking about all this and I find myself struggling. I find myself looking to the only true source of comfort that I know. I find myself looking to God. I find myself saying to God “Why don’t you do something Oh LORD?” and then I take a minute and I listen to God say “I did, I made you.”

And do you know what? God made you too. He made all of us so that we could work together to serve Him.