Monday, December 24, 2012

Christmas Sermon

Sermon for 12-24-12
Text: Luke 2:1-20

Let us pray:  God Incarnate, God with us, enter into our lives this day and every day.  May the Good News of Jesus Christ claim our hearts and give us hope in the midst of our everyday lives.  Amen.

I’m going to share something with all of you.

I’m a bit of a Scrooge.

I have a strong stubborn streak, and whenever I’m faced with expectations about how I’m supposed to act or be, I get bucky. 

I get bucky about Christmas.

The expectations are overwhelming.  I don’t enjoy wrapping presents (I said it!).  I don’t like crowds, so taking the kids to see Santa is painful.  I don’t like being told I’m supposed to be cheerful and happy.  Sometimes I am happy.  Sometimes I want to be grumpy at Christmas, or sad, or disappointed or tired.

I get caught up in the idea that somehow I am holding Christmas up—holding it all together. That if I slip and let something fall, Christmas won’t be right.  What if I don’t get the Christmas cards out on time?  What if I don’t get that favorite cookie made?  What if I don’t get that present mailed?  There are so many expectations and so little time, and that makes me grumpy.

Christmas is hard to pin down because each one can be so different, and it changes as we get older.  

Some Christmases can never be replicated.  I’ll never again have a Christmas like the one when I was in elementary school—when Santa brought me a red-haired Cabbage Patch doll named Jill. 

I’ll never again have a Christmas like the first time I led Christmas Eve worship as a pastoral intern in Boise, ID and I went out to Olive Garden with the Associate Pastor between services and my husband and I spent a quiet Christmas Day together—just the two of us—our very first Christmas together as a married couple. 

I’ll never have a Christmas like my first leading a congregation in a church in a tiny town, when a young boy came back to my office with me after the service, chatting the entire time.  When we came back to the sanctuary, everyone was gone, including his family (his parents and his grandparents each assumed the other had taken him).  We waited together in the dark and quiet church, looking out at the cold and snow.

And now I have Christmases with my own kids, which brings a specialness of its own.

I know you can all share a multitude of Christmas memories.  Each Christmas is different, and we collect Christmas stories as the years go on.

I’ve spent Christmases full of new and profound grief, Christmases spent sleeping as I recovered from intense college finals weeks, Christmases when my whole family got the stomach flu and threw up together, Christmases trying to blend two families, Christmases changed by divorce, Christmases ending old traditions and starting new ones.

Christmas is full of memories, hopes, dreams, expectations, stress, disappointment, joy, strife, and grief.  As we get older, we realize many of the Christmas songs we love are full of longing and feel bittersweet.  The Christmas hymns we sing are full of memories and carry history in our hearts and as we get older they become bittersweet as well.  

Christmas is fickle, and every year is different—some years are great and some years aren't so great.

But one thing is always the same.

Every year, we hear this Christmas story from the book of Luke.

Every year, we hear about Jesus arriving in a humble stable to people just like us, people harried and not quite ready for his arrival.  The angels visited a group of shepherds, who were people on the outskirts of society, able to give nothing. 

Jesus doesn’t come after we have it all together.  Jesus doesn’t wait to arrive until after all the presents are wrapped and under the tree and the house is clean and ready for guests.  Jesus doesn’t wait until we’re appropriately cheerful and full of the Christmas spirit.  Jesus doesn’t wait until our relationships are mended and we’re finally nice to that uncle who we have to invite over for the holidays. 

Jesus doesn’t wait until our faith is strong.

Jesus arrives in the middle of all of it.  God chooses Mary and Joseph as his parents, people who are young and unsure and scared—and who aren’t ready for him.  God surprises the shepherds while they sleep and watch over their flocks on the hill. 

Christmas is not about us.  We’re not holding it up.  Even if we have the worst Christmas ever, even if we don’t buy a single present or bake a single Christmas cookie, God arrives.  Even if the hardships of life bear down upon us and we feel like we’ve completely given up on God, God arrives in the midst of it all and says, “Do not be afraid.  I bring you Good News.  For this day a child has been born for YOU, who is Christ the Lord.  All is well.”  God hasn’t given up on you.

It doesn’t matter what kind of a Christmas you’re having.  If you’re having a wonderful Christmas this year, be thankful and blessed.  If you’re having a terrible Christmas, be lifted up by the hope and new future given to us all by the birth of a baby boy.  May God’s unconditional love surround you and give you comfort and joy this season.

Now let’s keep singing and rejoicing, no matter what.


Monday, December 17, 2012

No One Could Blow Them Out

Before worship yesterday, I pondered what I would say about the horrific events in Connecticut. The children were leading worship so I wasn't preaching.  I decided to light two candles on the altar in remembrance (thankfully realizing 28 lit candles wouldn't mix well with wiggly, excited kids) and say some brief words at the beginning of worship.  I wanted to be vague (so I wouldn't scare any children) and talk about how our act of worship--led by our children--was our way to stand in the face of unimaginable violence.

When I stood up in front of the congregation to say my opening remarks, I directly faced the kids bouncing around at the entrance to the sanctuary, waiting to process in.  They sparkled with energy (not only because many of them wore itchy shiny gold halos).  I could almost see the cloud of nervous joy rise up like dust around their feet.  They were safe, enjoying life, and surrounded by people who love them.  My gratefulness at this simple morning overwhelmed me and the emotions were too much.  I stood in front of the congregation without words, and we wept together in grief and thankfulness for the lives of our children and children everywhere.

I'll never forget how the children led worship yesterday--not because it was perfect but because it was profoundly meaningful.  I'll remember the twins who geared themselves up to say their lines by taking a moment to breathe deeply and say "Okay!" to themselves.  And the girl who ran past the microphone, barely getting her line out before disappearing into the pews.  And the girl who stood an extra moment in the spotlight, grinning out at the crowd.  And the boy who tripped over his flowing robe, and the girl who spoke so eloquently I had a vision of her as a future teacher, and the boy who said his lines so earnestly, and the sisters with the matching pigtails and smiles, and the boy who took a bit longer than the rest to line up to sing, and the tiny girl who stole the whole show.  And the words of Scripture, words of hope and prophecy reminding us to love our neighbor, read by children's voices.

After worship, I became distracted by conversations and a long meeting.  When most people had left, I turned out the lights in the quiet building.  I noticed two candles still burning on the altar.  No one could blow them out.

Monday, November 26, 2012

8 Lessons I’ve Learned After 8 Years of (Mostly) Solo Ministry

I’m not a seasoned pastor by any means, but this list is full of what I’ve learned at the beginning of my career in ministry.  The lessons, both painful and enlightening, are still fresh in my mind, so here they are, written as for a new pastor:                 

1. Network.
Having a group of other pastors to talk honestly with and glean ideas from is essential.  If you aren’t part of a weekly text study, join one.  If you can’t find one, start one.  It'll be your lifeline and your weekly sanity check.  The resources you’ll share and receive will be invaluable.  My first call was in a very rural area and the pastors in my text study shared my weekly frustrations, lonely days and celebrations.  I developed a beloved friendship with a wise pastor whose passion for rural ministry still showed after 40 years.  Recently my family and I visited him and his wife in their new retirement home.  We hadn’t seen each other for a few years, but the continued warmth and support was evident as they served us a special lunch and he set up his trains in the basement so my son could play.  You’ll need the help and support of fellow pastors, and a few of these relationships become sacred.  Be active about searching them out.            
2. Listen to friends and family.
You’ll also need to be intentional about keeping up your friendships outside the church and spending time with your family.  Ministry lends itself to living in a bubble and it’s important to leave it periodically.  Get some real-world perspective.  Have fun.  If they think you’re working too much, burning yourself out, or becoming weirdly focused on liturgical traditions/writing down every single sermon illustration you notice/rehashing a conversation with a congregation member, you are.  Listen to them.   
2. There will always be another Advent.
I remember planning my first liturgical season.  I was convinced it had to be the best! Lent! Ever! After a few seasons of this, I realized there will always be another Advent—that’s the beauty of a church year.  Pace yourself.  Church work is a marathon, and if you run at a sprinter’s pace you’ll tire quickly.  You don’t need to find room this year for every beautiful confession or every single Advent hymn. 

4. Failure is the only option.
Get comfortable with spectacular, public failure because you’ll experience a lot of it.  You can’t preach most Sundays for many years without preaching a terrible sermon.  And by terrible, I mean a sermon you preach as quickly as possible and immediately burn.  I guarantee you’ll plan some wonderful programs and no one will show up.  The bulletin will have embarrassing misprints and you’ll forget the name of the baby you’re about to baptize.  All of these are great learning experiences and will only make you better prepared for what’s ahead.  They’re painful but necessary.  They also make you appreciate the programs that do work and the sermons you’re very proud to preach.  And don’t forget the Holy Spirit works mysteriously in the midst of it all.  Pastors need lots of grace, and ministry doesn’t let us forget it.

Besides, parishioners love to see your human side and tease you for your mistakes.

5. Ministry is all trial and error.
Don’t let the failures get you down.  Risk is an essential part of ministry.  You’ll take all sorts of creative, personal, and public risks.  Often you won’t know what works with a congregation until you try it.  If no one shows up for a program, use that information to hone your future planning.  If you try something and many people get angry, you’ve discovered an area of passion. 

People will complain and grumble.  Trying to please them all will paralyze you and your ministry.  Let go and embrace risks as an individual and as a community.
6. Strategize.
So many people want so much of my time that I need to do lots of prioritizing—and saying no.  Know what’s essential.  I once had a rural pastor tell me there are three things every pastor needs to do: preach the best you can, visit people in their homes, and love their kids.  I find if I faithfully do hospital and home visits, preach thoughtful and well-prepared sermons, and honestly engage the youth of the congregation I serve, I receive a lot of grace when it comes to evening meetings and bulletin misprints.  Good preaching takes time, and that means something else has to give.  Every context is different, but you’ll need to find out what matters most to a congregation—and you—so you can prioritize.

Play up your strengths and interests and recognize your weak areas.  Don’t just go with a canned Confirmation program.  What interests you?  Do you love world religions or pop culture?  Are you a musical or movie or sports buff?  Incorporate your passions into your teaching and preaching.  If you’re excited about a topic, chances are the congregation will be too, and you’ll all have more fun.  Look for people with different strengths than yours and let them handle your weak areas.  You’re not expected to do everything, even though we pastors like to think we can.

Enjoy the slow weeks.  You’ll have lots of crazy weeks with funerals and retreats and Holy Week (sometimes all in the same week).  When you encounter one of the magical weeks without Confirmation or sermon planning, take an afternoon or an extra day off, and enjoy it.  And for goodness' sake, take all your vacation!

7. Find good feedback.
You need good feedback to hone your skills and tap into the congregation’s passions.  You’ll need to double-check your missional direction.  Find a few trusted people in the congregation to give you honest, helpful, constructive feedback and check in with them often.  Be careful they don’t become feeders for congregational complaints.  Rather, use them as your eyes and ears in the congregation.  What’s working well?  Why is a certain area lacking energy?  Let them take the pulse of the church for you.

8. People like to feel useful.
Stop prefacing requests with “I’m sorry, but…” or “If you’re not too busy…”  This has been the hardest lesson for me to learn.  I don’t like asking for help.  It’s been difficult for me to realize I’m inviting people into opportunities to serve, and many people like to feel useful.  By depending on the same few people I know will say yes, I end up with burned out volunteers.  Reach out and give new people the chance to participate.  Don’t be afraid of failure or people saying no.  Just keep asking.  Better yet, find people who have the gift of invitation to support you.  At one church I served, one woman recruited over 100 Vacation Bible School volunteers every year.  It was her ministry.  What a blessing! 

I end with a bonus lesson that overarches this whole list: trust your instincts.  You can read a ton of books about evangelism, pastoral care, preaching and administration.  Yes, there is always more to learn.  But only you know the church you serve.  You know their points of pride, their insecurities and their idiosyncrasies.  Trust yourself to translate what you’ve learned into their context.  Sometimes you need to leave the books on the shelf and go your own direction.  Just like your own list after eight years of ministry may look very different than mine.

Ministry is exhausting, unpredictable, and frustrating.  It's also exhilarating, profoundly meaningful, endlessly creative, and full of joy.  Pray for strength and patience, and know you’re not alone.  Take good care of yourself.  And remember—in the end it’s God’s ministry, not yours. 

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Links for the Weekend

Stewardship’s been on my mind, so here are some great links about finances, giving, and living a meaningful life:

Do you want to give to the victims of Hurricane Sandy?  ELCA Disaster Response is one option.

I’ve been turning to The Simple Dollar for practical tips on finances and living a meaningful life.

How charitable are our communities?

Stressed that Christmas is only six weeks away?  Check out these six steps to a relaxed Christmas.

Exhaustion is not a status symbol.

And some random links:

Mark Hanson (presiding bishop of the ELCA) asks us the important question now that the election is over—now what?

Is church—as we’re currently doing it— not working?

If you don’t know about Rachel Held Evans, you need to.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Sermon for Sunday, November 11

This sermon was informed by the book Ministry and Money by Janet and Philip Jamieson--a wonderfully practical book for pastors.

Text: Malachi 3:8-12

Let us pray:  Giving God, grow in us generous hearts.  Help us to give, not out of guilt or only obedience, but out of joy and freedom, knowing you bless us with all we need.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

When I first began planning for this eight-week Stewardship series, I wasn’t so sure about it.  Eight weeks is long time.  I worried some of you would get very tired of it.  I was afraid it would begin to feel like an eight-week-long fundraising effort.  In the midst of a presidential election, it could feel like overkill.

Yet I’m learning a lesson.  Stewardship is such a broad topic and covers so many parts of our Christian lives that I’m starting to feel like an eight-week series may be too short.  It’s a relevant and essential topic.  Stewardship is so basic to what we believe as Christians that it seeps into every area of faith.  As Lutherans we believe God blesses us first with mercy and forgiveness, and we live out our faith in response to those gifts.  It’s the same with Stewardship—God gives us gifts and talents and everything we need, and we give them away faithfully and joyfully. 

Stewardship is also relevant because it addresses the power money has over us in our everyday lives.  We make choices about money each day.  We worry about it.  It makes us feel stupid.  We feel trapped by it.  We enjoy it. 

The church has something very important to say about money.  As a theologian, I have something important to say about money.  If the church doesn’t talk about money, we’re missing a huge part of people’s lives.  There is a strong relationship between our faith and our finances and we need to discuss it.

So often we like to think of money itself as sinful.  Rather, money is neutral.  It’s simply a tool.  What we do with it reflects the state of our hearts.  We can allow it to have power over us, or we can use it to make a difference in the world and give us great joy.

Today’s Stewardship theme is tithing.  Here’s what I think about it, and here’s how I use the concept in my own life.

Tithing hasn’t always been easy for me.  When my husband and I began our first calls in small rural congregations, we had a lot of student debt that challenged and still challenges us in our ability to give.  For a long time I felt extraordinarily guilty about not being able to tithe.  My giving wasn’t joyful because I always felt badly that it wasn’t up to a tithe.  That magic 10% number haunted me.  It didn’t allow me to enjoy what I was giving. Yet we move closer and closer to our goals every year (even exceeding some), and we’ve found that the more we give, the more we want to give.  But we’ve forgotten about tithing.  Once we all reach that 10% number, why stop?

I know what the struggle to tithe involves.  I don’t think the concept of tithing is meant to guilt and shame us.  It’s an Old Testament concept—we heard it in our text from Malachi today.  Jesus barely talked about tithing, and it was only in warnings about religious hypocrisy—don’t claim you tithe just to impress others.  Tithing hasn’t always been the way the church has raised funds.  It’s actually a more modern concept from the past 100 years or so.

Here’s what I think about it:  It’s a good guideline.  It’s a great goal.  But it’s not meant to shame you.  It’s not an obligation.  And it’s not a graduation once you get there.  For God isn’t Lord over just 10% of our belongings.  God is Lord over all, including the other 90%.

I like the idea of a tithing as a spiritual discipline.  It’s something we practice doing—and it’s not always easy.  Tithing is meant to be inspiring, not shaming.  It’s meant to be exciting, not a heavy burden.  It’s meant to be a source of joy and not guilt.  It’s meant to free you, not entrap you in impossible expectations.  Give what you can, and pray that God will allow you to give more and more as you grow in this part of being a Christian.  Rejoice in what you can give, for God will use your gifts.  Our reading from Malachi says, “God will open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”  God calls us to tithe, but I believe God will use whatever we give as a blessing to others and the world.

Of course, I think Christ the King is a worthy cause.  I believe in what we do here, or I wouldn’t be giving my career to the mission of this congregation.  I’ve seen lives changed by what we do.  Our mission is not to stabilize the budget, although we are responsible to keep it balanced.  Our mission is to make a difference, to eliminate suffering, to empower and heal people and families, to build relationships, and to spread the gospel.  Don’t give to the budget.  Our budget is a tool to foster our mission.  Give to the budget that allows us to do our mission.  Give to help us connect, and teach, and keep.

Give so we have a warm and welcoming building where people can come to have their children baptized, watch them get married, and bury their loved ones.

Give so kids have a safe place to come with people who care about them as they learn about what God means in their lives—and that they are important and valued children of God.  We make it a priority to have a Youth and Education Ministries Director.  Give so she can continue to empower the congregation to grow in its youth and education ministries.

Give so our musicians can continue to bless our worship with wonderful music.

Give so our outreach ministries can continue.  As a congregation, we tithe 10% of the money we take in each year.  As a congregation, we experience the freedom and joy of knowing God’s blessings aren’t something we need to keep all for ourselves.

I believe in what Christ the King does. There are countless other ways Christ the King lives out its mission.  I also believe in your generosity.  If you want to increase the mission of this church, please consider increasing your gifts—even by a little bit.

And don’t only give to the church.  Give to whatever makes your heart burn and ignites your passions.  Stewardship isn’t just about giving to the church.  It's a way of life!  Stewardship is about living generous lives that know freedom and joy.  What are you passionate about?  Is money holding you back from following your dreams?  Trust in God and take the leap!

May we all continue to grow into the freedom found in living generously.  May we hear God’s call to live with open hands.  One way to really make your faith feel real is to give—give what you can, and ask God to inspire and challenge you in your future giving. 


Monday, November 5, 2012

A Prayer for Election Day

Listen to me, God.

I join in the chorus, loudly: I’m so tired of political ads.  My 2-year-old picked up the phrase, “I’m sick of this,” from hearing me say it every time an ad fills the TV screen or blurts through the radio, the announcer sounding so serious, as if I’ll trigger the apocalypse if I vote for the wrong candidate.

I feel anxious every time I hear about a poll.  The pollsters and slick media faces want me to worry, because it’ll pull me into the vicious circle.  Worry.  Get more information.  Worry some more.  Watch TV more.  Listen to the radio more.  Worry.

I wonder how I’ll feel on Wednesday morning.

I know what I want the results to be.  I know what I don’t want them to be.  I don’t trust those who think differently than me.  They don’t know the real story—the real consequences for their decisions.  They haven’t thought it through, because if they really, really thought about it, they’d see it my way.  They’d see I’m right.

The hardest part for me is realizing I’m not in control in a flawed system that will dictate my life.  I feel like the results of the vote will sit in my living room and I’ll have to walk around them like the beanbag chairs my kids drag around.  I’m out of control as I try to choose between two flawed candidates and vote on two flawed amendments.  Why can’t it be clear-cut?

I put it in your hands.  I don’t give you much, but this I will lay in your lap.  Gladly.

Give me strength, courage and compassion as I make the leap in the voting booth tomorrow.  Help me to think about those without a voice, because I need to speak for them.  Give me thoughts of children’s faces and those who are vulnerable and forgotten.  Is your Holy Spirit in the voting booth?  I hope it is.  Please, let it be.

On Wednesday morning, give me peace.  I’ve spent so much time thinking I’m right that it’s going to take me a while to stop thinking everyone else is wrong.  Be patient with me.  I’ll need courage as I embrace the decisions of the community—whatever they may be.  Give me compassion for my neighbor, even the one with different political leanings.  He came over yesterday to help us move furniture, offers the use of his snowblower and is a good neighbor.  Help me remember. 

But please, don’t put out the fire in my gut (is that the Holy Spirit too—or my pride?).  There’ll be another election soon.


Thursday, October 25, 2012

Be Proud

A couple of weeks ago, I sat having tea at the home a dear member of the congregation I serve.  She talked to me about her husband of many years.  She told me of his strong faith and dedication to the church, and then she said, looking me in the eye, “I’m very proud of his faith.”

I haven’t been able to get that out of my head.

I’m reminded of the big (almost obnoxiously so) photo of my husband and me on our wedding day that hangs in our bedroom.  As I get older, I’m surprised at how young we look and how much time has gone by since our wedding day.  Our wedding guests wrote notes to us on the mat surrounding the photo.  I treasure them all, but one hits me in the gut every time I read it.  In the midst of lovely words like love always, best wishes, and congratulations, it says be proud of each other. 

So often we forget to be proud—not only in our marriages, but in all our relationships.

So much is packed into that little saying—be proud of each other.  Celebrate each other’s accomplishments.  Look for the best in one another.  When times are difficult, affirm.  Words of praise need to be part of your regular conversations.  Remember how fortunate you are to be together.

I think of the way I get embarrassed when my son says, “You’re the best mom in the world.”  I immediately think of why I don’t deserve it.  I think of the too many nights in a row he ate chicken nuggets.  I think of the week he wore the same outfit to school for several days (probably one day more than he should have).  I think of every reason why I don’t deserve such sweet, sincere words of praise.

Yet what if I believed those words?  What if, in his world, I’m the best mom for him?  I can forget about the days I can’t remember the last time he had a bath.  Instead, I’ll think of what I do well—baking cookies with him, starting dance parties in the kitchen, and reading him stories before bed.  I'll remember it every time I tell him I'm proud of him and see his delighted smile.

What if our churches were places of praise?  What if we focused on being proud of one another?  We'll look at someone sitting on the other end of the pew and see the best.  We'll celebrate each other's accomplishments and lift up each other's gifts.  In the midst of all this affirmation, we’ll live into our best selves.  It’s not a simple fix to bigger problems, but I think it’s a start.  What if we said to one another, “I’m proud of your faith?”  These are grace-filled words.

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ.--1 Corinthians 1:4-7

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

But You Do See, Lord!

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? Psalm 10:1

A telemarketer called our home this week at the exact wrong time. I was cleaning up from a tragic attempt at making enchiladas (throwing most of them away) and finishing up a difficult evening with my kids. I don’t know why I decided to answer a toll free number—knowing it would be a salesperson—but I did. In the course of our conversation the telemarketer became rude and sarcastic and I lost my cool. I let her have it—waxing poetic about her unprofessionalism and rudeness as only a preacher can do—and hung up on her. I’m not proud. It was a completely thoughtless, emotional reaction on my part. Thinking back on it, I may have been setting myself up for a fight as soon as I looked at the caller ID.

I sat down after the conversation, my heart pounding and my hands feeling shaky. I knew I overreacted. After a moment of silence, I said out loud, “I’m angry.” This anger has been building for a while. I had no idea I was feeling it until I lost it on the phone—because often it’s easier to yell at a captive stranger than to address the real reason (or person). I’m angry. I’m angry at people who don’t call me back. I’m angry at teachers who do call when I want to live in the illusion that my sweet son is the most well-behaved and brilliant student in his class. I’m angry I feel guilty every time I take a few minutes to myself. I’m angry I filled two big buckets with green tomatoes from my garden last night because my dog wasn’t here to eat them all before I got around to picking them. I’m angry no one pretended to like my enchiladas. I’m angry that, for all of this, I have no one to blame. I’m angry I blame myself for far too much. I’m angry at life.

So often we think good Christians don’t get angry—and good Christians certainly don’t get angry with God. We assume anger is unnatural, evil, impolite and unfriendly. It is when it’s not expressed or felt but stuffed into an already too-full emotional suitcase. It’s evil when it leads to abuse and pain. When we don’t recognize our anger, it manifests itself in depression, anxiety, and unfortunate interactions with telemarketers.

Anger is also a great sign that something is wrong with our lives or with the world around us. Righteous anger leads us to action on behalf of those we feel are mistreated or systems we feel are corrupted. It forces us to look at our lives and recognize what needs to be changed. It opens our eyes to the truth. It acknowledges our pain.

When we don’t acknowledge our anger at God, it leads to a rift in our relationship. God already knows what’s in our hearts—God recognizes inauthentic prayer. God breathed life into the world and the heavens. God came to earth as Jesus Christ to suffer, die and be raised, breaking the course of history and giving creation a new future. Certainly God can deal with our angry thoughts and prayers.

Thankfully (so thankfully), our faith in God isn’t dependent on our fickle and fast-changing emotions. Our God is the solid foundation, the rock of our faith. When we feel hopeful one day and hopeless the next, God stays put. We’re secure in the love and faithfulness of a God who keeps God’s Word.

But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief, that you may take it into your hands; the helpless commit themselves to you; you have been the helper of the orphan. Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers; seek out their wickedness until you find none. The Lord is king forever and ever; the nations shall perish from his land. O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek; you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed, so that those from earth may strike terror no more. Psalm 10:14-18

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sermon for September 23, 2012

Text: James 3:13-4:3,7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

My favorite part of the gospel reading for this week is when Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what they were talking about as they walked to Capernaum—and the disciples are silent.  They were arguing over who among them is the greatest, and when Jesus confronts them they immediately clam up. 

This is human nature.  I like this story because I can relate to it as a parent.  I know when my kids are getting in trouble because they're quiet for too long.  If I can hear them, I don’t worry.  But if they’re too quiet I immediately start searching for them.  Children instinctively know— at a very early age—to be quiet when they're doing something that will get them in trouble.  We adults do it too.  Isn’t it the worst feeling when someone calls you out on something, and you have no idea what to say?  When you feel shrunk into a corner, exposed, and you know your silence is only giving you away?  When we know we are doing something wrong, silence becomes our protective shield and our crutch.

The disciples have been following Jesus, watching him heal, teach, and even be transfigured.  What do they talk about as they walk down the road soon after witnessing Jesus heal a boy with a demon?  What do they discuss immediately after Jesus tells them for the second time that he will be killed and, after three days, raised to new life—news that will change the course of history?  They argue over who among them is the greatest.  If the people who followed Jesus—who lived, walked, and did ministry with him— couldn’t escape selfish ambition, how much harder it must be for us!

Their silence speaks volumes. The disciples are silent two times in our gospel reading for today.  The first time is after Jesus reveals his near future full of suffering.  They’re afraid to ask him questions.  The second time they’re silent is when Jesus catches them arguing.  Might this be a lesson to us?  In both instances the disciples are too proud, too afraid to look stupid, too scared to speak, and so they say nothing.  They can’t admit their vulnerability.

Ambition is ingrained in our culture.  We reward it.  I’m reminded of this every time I watch a competition reality show on TV.  I’m always amazed at the contestants trying out for a singing competition—an area so competitive that they have a sliver of a chance of becoming famous, even if they win.  They are so dead set on this being their only chance in life.  They are convinced that winning this competition and receiving fame will turn their lives around, even though we know for a fact that fame doesn’t make life any easier or more fulfilling.  I think about ambition as we look forward to watching the Emmys tonight—an over-the-top celebration of recognition and reward.  Many of us are ambitious in our own ways.  We want to be the best at our profession, the best parent, and the best at whatever hobby we choose.  We use ambition to cover up our insecurities and fears.

Today’s text from James speaks directly to our need for ambition (from The Message):
“Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.”

We can insert any ambitious need into this text and it still works:
Boasting that we are smart isn’t smart.  Twisting the truth to make it sound like we’re successful isn’t success.  Boasting like we have tons of friends isn’t friendly.  Twisting the truth to make it sound like we have everything together isn’t having everything together.

We could even take it further:  Boasting that we are a good Christians isn’t being good Christians.  Twisting the truth to make it sound like we’re compassionate isn’t compassionate.

James and Jesus call us out on our need to succeed, to compete, and to impress.  Just like the disciples, we grow silent when we have to admit our vulnerabilities and our weaknesses.  We use silence as a way to cover up what we don’t want others to know.

Thankfully, Jesus and James lead us down a new path.  Jesus completely refocuses the disciples by bringing a child into their midst. Here, he says, this child—the lowest of the low, the most vulnerable, least successful, least knowledgeable person in our culture, is who you need to welcome and honor. And just like that he turns everything on its head.  The argument about who is the greatest ceases to matter, and the disciples are called to live a new way.

James says:
Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”

Wisdom is full of gentleness, understanding and mercy that treats all people with dignity and honor. This opens up a whole new way of living for us. We’re released from this need to be better than others.  We are no longer trapped in the vicious cycle of comparing ourselves to those around us.  We are free to share our insecurities, vulnerabilities, and mistakes—and to find life and power in doing so!

Christ doesn’t look for who is the best or the greatest.  Christ shows us that true power comes from vulnerability.  He made himself vulnerable on the cross, to the point of death, to bring about a new kingdom in this world—one we are living out right now.  This new kingdom that isn’t afraid of vulnerability or looking stupid or failing.  This kingdom encourages honesty, truth and new identity in Christ.  It refocuses us and helps us look outside ourselves to the needs around us.  We’re called not to be the best, but to love.

If you are sitting here today thinking, “I’m not successful.  I’m not smart enough.  I’m not compassionate enough.  I’m not wise enough.  Look at those around me!  How will I ever compare?” Welcome to the club! The church has a new word for you.  You are valued because God loves you as God’s child.  We are precious in God’s sight because of who we are—completely, sins and all.  We look to others with the same compassion, and we find joy in humbleness.  As James says, “Get down on your knees before the Master; it’s the only way you’ll get on your feet.”


Wednesday, September 19, 2012


I’m prone to restlessness.  It often lurks in the back corners of my mind, interrupting me throughout the day.  My years in school, complete with multiple moves over a ten-year period, trained me to enjoy transition.  Without the periodic anxiety and thrill of moving, I get restless, especially in the fall as I watch others go back to school and jump into new beginnings.  It’s a bit of my old life rearing its head to nip my feet as I again drive the same roads between church and home.

So I try to appease it.  I plan fun vacations and weekend getaways to new places.  I take up new hobbies (this summer it was riding my new bike).  I create a stack of new books to read.  I look to meet new people.  I move the furniture in my house.  I purge belongings.  I drive a new route between church and home.

All of these activities are fine and healthy.  In the past, they’ve worked well for me.  But now I’m approaching four years at the same place with no move in sight—the longest amount of time I’ve stayed still since I moved away from my parent’s house at 18.  I’ve watched staff and congregation members come and go.  And I’m still here.  And I’m not appeased.

I’m restless.

Let me say this:  I have no plans to move or change my job.  My husband and I are incredibly blessed to have calls near one another that we both enjoy.  We love our city.  Our son goes to a great school and we are so grateful for our daycare provider.  We are content, fortunate and thankful.

So why am I restless?

The restlessness haunts me.  Then this week I picked up Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor and re-read it.  I remembered him talking about his restless years—those six years (three years into his first call) he calls The Badland Years.  He became my pastor this week as I read his process of moving from restlessness to finding life.  And I realized something.

I’m in the middle of a refining fire.

Sometimes restlessness is a very good indicator of the need for change in one’s life.  But for me, it’s a sign of my need to grow, to reach a new spiritual maturity—to let go.  It’s easy to plan more vacations and to dream about the next move.  It’s much harder to settle into daily life—the same routines, annoyances, chores, and arguments day after day—and appreciate its rhythms.  For so many years I’ve missed my daily life because I’ve always been thinking about the next change.  Now I’m challenged to find contentment where I am.  I’m finding it difficult.

I feel the fire, the painful change, and the pruning of my soul.  Restlessness is a cruel tempter.  Adrenaline is quickly addictive.  Yet now I need to work on acceptance, patience, and trusting the Holy Spirit.  I want to simply be with people.  I need to embrace prayer and ritual.  It’s time to let the fire consume me, for out of its ashes will come new life.   

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Lip Flap

As much as I don’t want to admit it, I have politics on the brain.  It’s hard to keep myself away from the constant coverage of the big party conventions.  Yet politics is not my favorite pastime.  I’ve been turning MPR off because the unending political talk is exhausting.  I find politics boring, frustrating and inauthentic, so I’m not the best person to engage in political banter. 

I find politics to be talking for the sake of talking.  People who spend any time in conversation with me (or hear me preach) know I am succinct.  I don’t use more words than necessary.  I physically run away from small talk.  Roger Ebert recently wrote about a concept Gene Siskel introduced him to called Lip Flap--or talking without saying anything of use.  He describes its purpose as allowing “people to sneak up on the moment when they would sooner or later have to actually engage their minds.”  When I read this, I thought, “YES!” Someone finally gave words to the frustration I’ve felt for so long.

Politics is all Lip Flap.  It’s people talking to fill space, often with no point and no direction.  It’s also people talking without authenticity.  The debates are useless in my mind, because (on my worst days) I feel like I’m sitting and listening to discover which person is the more charming liar.  Oh yes, I know I sound like a cynic.  But this system makes me crazy.

I’m also a preacher.  I’m someone who spends my days and weeks crafting oratory from my very heart and being.  I stand and share my deepest values and beliefs with a group of people on a regular basis.  Although I’m relaxing more, I still ponder each word in my sermons as I put them on paper.  Every sentence counts.  It's easy for me to feel superior and put down politicians.

It’s painful to know our current political system is fractured and incredibly polarized.  It makes me feel hopeless, insignificant and sad.  It's even harder for me to admit I participate in the polarization by becoming cynical and hard-headed.  But as a citizen, I know I need to listen.  As a person of faith, my ears need to be open to find clues to what others around me are thinking and feeling.  My animal reaction to politics is to bury my head and wait until November is over—to only listen to people with whom I agree and keep the radio on the Top 40 station.  But I can’t.

Jesus engaged in political talk.  He listened to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, even though he didn’t agree with them.  Darn.

Our political system is also a reflection of our larger society.  We’re all becoming more fractured and polarized—even (not so shockingly) the church.  Peter Steinke, a nationally-respected scholar in church conflict for many years, has noticed this change within the church.  Over the years, he’s watched congregation members become more interested in being right than finding compromise.  People hold on more tightly to their ideas and opinions at the expense of the community.  This trend is everywhere.

The Christian Century reports that clergy in Tampa, FL and Charlotte, NC, the sites of the Republican and Democratic conventions, issued a statement called “The Common Witness.”  The statement “acknowledges the wide political division in the country, encourages those involved in the political process to argue respectfully and not use religion to garner votes, and invites prayers for peace.”

How easy it is to forget when we have no words to say due to anger, fear, frustration and sadness, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  I sigh for the hungry poor, the unemployed, the prisoner, and the vulnerable.  I sigh for the oppressed, the forgotten, the children, and the failing systems.  I sigh for a country more intent on being right than on finding a compromise.  I sigh for my own attitude.   

I pray our prayers make a difference.  And on my better days, I pray with thanksgiving for those who serve in the political arena.  I pray for patience and hope.        

Monday, August 27, 2012

Two Funerals and a Dog

Last week I officiated at two separate funerals (one for a dear co-worker) and I lost my beloved dog.  It’s been a week of feeling vulnerable, trying to wrap my mind around how fast life can change, and absorbing the permanence of death.  It’s been a long few days but they have not only been filled with heart-aching grief.  They have also been filled with support, love, and the promises of God.

The hardest part of this week was guiding my six-year-old son through his first experiences with profound grief.  He came with us to the funeral of his great-grandpa a few weeks ago.  It was his first exposure to death, to a body, and to the rituals surrounding grief.  Then the quick loss of our family dog (who was with us for eight years) left him in a tailspin as he tried to grasp what it meant.  We had to put our dog down late in the evening after a swift illness, and I couldn’t sleep at all that night knowing we would have to tell our son in the morning.  My fierce protective tendencies made it tough for me to share news that would cause him pain.  Later that day, when my best friend called to ask me how I was doing, I remember saying, “Grieving for a dog is difficult, but helping a six-year-old grieve is really, really hard.”

It may sound strange, but being present with other grieving adults (and children) gave me the comfort of community last week.  It reminded me I am not alone.  Grief feels like such an intrusive stranger—and throws us into such unfamiliar emotions—that it’s easy to feel isolated as others continue on with their lives.  At the funerals I was able to connect with others experiencing similar emotions and to witness parents struggling to comfort their children.  I saw kids dissolving into tears one minute and playing the next, which reminded me my son’s expressions of grief are universal and natural.

I often get asked if it is appropriate to bring children to a funeral or a visitation.  I always say yes—but don’t push them.  Children need ritual.  It’s important to take away any mystery and help them feel a part of a community.  They benefit immensely from watching us model how to grieve, process and express emotion.  At one of the funerals last week, children played around a casket filled with loving notes, bracelets and crafts they made for their grandma, whose body lay inside.  All the children sat on the floor together in the front during the service at the funeral home.  They cried, laughed and clung to each other as the adults did the same behind them.  When they remember their time of grief, they will remember being included, saying goodbye, and being surrounded by many arms willing to hold them.  

But oh, is it ever hard to walk with children through grief—and maybe some of that’s because they don’t let us look away from our own grief.  They teach us.  They need us to cry with them and to talk endlessly (at least in my son’s case) about death—yet I’m also able to give him the hope of God’s eternal promises.  My son’s reminders to grieve are such a gift.  Every morning my son greets our dog by name, and he says goodbye to her every night before he goes to sleep.  Even though I feel pain in my chest knowing he is missing her, it reminds me that I miss her too, and that it’s ok to make her a part of my life in a new way.  And there is always Good News.     

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Beginning and End

My Tuesday morning last week was one of the countless reasons I love being a pastor serving a small(ish) congregation:

At 10am, I officiated at the burial of a 97-year-old woman.  There were six people in attendance.  Four of them were part of a family who were her next door neighbors and took care of her for 23 years—10 of them in a nursing home.  It was one of those bright summer mornings when colors seem clearer than usual.  We gathered quietly in the cemetery, feeling as if we had the whole place to ourselves.  We placed our hands on the casket and prayed for her peace and rest.  A mischievous (and/or) angry squirrel dropped acorns on us from the oak tree branch bowing low over our heads.  To close the service, a smiling teenage girl played us out with “Goodnight, Irene” on the ukulele and we all sang along (we skipped the really sad lyrics).

An hour later, I was in a hospital room holding a day-old baby girl with a head full of black hair (and at least one cowlick).  I held her a little longer than I should have, then gave her to her mother before saying a blessing.  Her parents bowed over her and we prayed, alone in the hospital room, with the sunlight pouring in the window.  I placed my hand on her tiny head--a hand that only minutes before had been on a casket.

Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End.

Some days I have the best job EVER.   

Monday, August 6, 2012

Happy Church

I’ve been seeing the idea of gratitude everywhere for a few years (if not more).  We’re told naming three things we are grateful for each day will improve our blood pressure and mental well-being.  We’re told that positive people are more successful.  Looking at life from the perspective of gratefulness seems to be a big trend—and a good trend.  I believe living with gratitude in our hearts really does make a difference in how we live.

Why aren’t we doing this in the church?

I feel assailed by reports that the mainstream Protestant church is flailing.  Numbers are down.  Giving is down.  We’re losing the new generation.  New pastors are having trouble finding calls.  Internal struggles leave us discouraged.

I know there is truth to these reports.  I know we can’t ignore them.  I know we need to address what is happening with open eyes and be proactive about moving the church forward.  I get it.

But I can’t live this way every day.  I am so tired of feeling anxious and threatened and feeling like I’m hanging on by my fingertips.  I’m exhausted by watching the church down the road pull in members—without even trying, it seems—while the congregation I serve has to choose between what it wants and what it can afford.  I’m drained by hearing reports of job cuts and empty sanctuaries and dying Sunday Schools.

And I’m not just tired—I’m moving into an even more dangerous place—I’m getting bored.

We are encouraged to discover our strengths, to find gratitude each day, to live from a place of joy.

I want to do this with church too.

We waste so much energy thinking about what we are not, we forget what we are.  What if we started keeping church gratitude journals?  What if we celebrated all we do, instead of constantly looking at what we don’t do?  What if we noticed the ministry that is already happening instead of thinking, “We’ll be a successful church when…”?

We don’t get anywhere by hating ourselves.  Hate brings out competitiveness, pettiness, and belly button gazing—and it’s boring.

Joy and gratitude bring out generosity, acceptance, truth, hope, confidence—and they are energizing.

I feel when we as a church are so hard on ourselves, constantly comparing ourselves to other congregations and denominations, focusing on where we seemingly fail—we are teaching people to judge themselves, their families, their lives and even their bodies in the same way.

Let’s live as a gratitude-soaked church.  Let’s rejoice when one hurting young child feels accepted and loved by an adult in Sunday School.  Let’s celebrate when a few people quietly and faithfully serve at a local homeless shelter.  Let’s laugh at ourselves and have fun together and reach out with confidence in who (and Whose) we are.  Let’s get rid of all our insecurities so we can open our arms to those who bring in new ideas and perspectives.  Let's make mistakes and try scary things and enjoy being the church.

Let’s stop thinking—and worryingabout ourselves.

And most of all, let us be thankful to God for the countless blessings we receive—and for the blessed challenge of being God’s disciples.