Monday, May 29, 2017

Should we stop inviting people to join our Jesus Club?


I'm a big Richard Rohr fan. This meme is one I've seen before, but this morning I posted it on Facebook because I need to take it to heart. I forget this truth over and over again and I need the reminder. 
As you may know, I'm in the first year of a new call. That means I'm navigating a sea of expectations--some my congregation is expecting of me, and some I'm expecting of myself.
Since coming to Ascension, a number of people are returning who have been away for a while. This brings me great joy, but it leads to stories about why they disappeared in the first place, and those stories are often about how the congregation or the previous pastors didn't meet their expectations. With a new pastor comes a fresh start, but I'm aware of the fact that the same expectations may still be in place, and I wonder how long it will be before I don't meet them.
One of the expectation traps I fall into is the one that says, "We need to grow." It's shorthand for, "We need to grow numerically so that we're around for a long, long time." It's what every congregation and every pastor wants. And it's killing us.
Since I've come to Ascension, we've only received a handful of new members, and lately I've been obsessing over it. We aren't keeping pace with the deaths and the people who have moved away, so we're loosing ground. Ascension is the first congregation I've served where this has happened and it has me rattled.
We're doing all we can to stop the bleeding. We're following all the expert advice on how to get people in the door and hang onto them once they arrive. I keep telling myself it's early, it will turn around, but then I succumb to the fear that is lurking in the recesses of every mainline pastor's mind these days--the fear that the congregation they're serving is going to be one of the many to bite the dust over the next few decades. It's happening all around us, and I'm afraid it's making a lot of us a little crazy.
That's why I'm always thankful when someone like Richard Rohr comes along to give me a whack upside the head, reminding me that the whole point of being a Christian is not serving an institution, it's following Jesus and allowing him to transform our lives.
Why is it so easy for me to forget that? I get sucked into a culture of scarcity and fear and devote myself to maintaining the institution; I've become a slave to expectations that have nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus never tells us to build enormous edifices, design great websites, offer services of worship that are major productions, have dynamic youth programs, or sermons that make our listeners want to stand up and cheer. He says, "Follow me."
That's not to say that we should be satisfied with mediocre ministry. We offer our very best to a God who has given us all we have. But we need to be clear about our purpose, and our purpose is not proving we're a church worthy of a future. Our purpose is following Jesus.
Maybe we need to stop inviting people to come to church. Maybe we need to stop taking attendance on Sunday mornings. Maybe we need to stop working so hard to get people to join our Jesus Club. Can you imagine what it would be like if we expended that same energy inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting one another as we walk the Jesus Way in the world, as individuals and as a community? I wonder if we can do that as long as the Church as an institution exists.
Here's the irony. If the Church continues to engage in this struggle for the survival of the fittest, we're as good as dead. But if we can be about inviting people to follow Jesus and supporting them on the Jesus Way in the world, I suspect we will grow and thrive. (Maybe it's a variation on "Whoever wants to save their life must lose it.")
Yes, every once in a while I need to be reminded of that, and I need to adjust my expectations accordingly. I'm not a pastor called to save an institution. I'm a pastor called to invite, encourage and support others who are, along with me, followers of Jesus. I trust as long as I'm doing what I'm called to do, God will do the rest.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Why I can't keep my mouth shut

I’m one of those people who has trouble thinking inside my brain. It’s like my thoughts need to breathe, and they can’t when they’re trapped within the confines of my skull. So, if I’m ruminating about something, I need to talk about it, or write it down, or do something to get it outside myself, where I can examine it and turn it over and tweak it until it looks like what I’m thinking (at the moment, at least).

As an external processor, I recognize that many people in the world around me are internal processors. For a long time, I tried to emulate them, assuming that was the normal way people share their ideas. But I’ve grown suspect of words like normal, and I’ve decided that I can only be who I am. Who I am is an external processor.

Internal processors formulate their ideas into thoughts before they reveal them to the world. I suspect most of them believe that’s the way everyone else thinks. When they spend time with someone like me, they may wonder why I feel compelled to say everything that pops into my head, why I don’t think things out before I speak. I want them to know that I AM thinking things out, but I need to do that WHILE I speak.

Back when I worked with Bishop Bob Kelley, he conducted all his correspondence with a Dictaphone. He’d record what he wanted to say, word-for-word, and then a secretary would later listen and type his words. I couldn’t imagine ever doing that. I would be going back and changing what I said so many times that it would be exhausting for both of us. I love word processing on a computer screen because I can read and re-write what I have written again and again before I'm satisfied with what I’ve said. If I tried to think like Bob Kelley, my head would explode!

For much of my life, I’ve envied internal processors. It’s a lot safer to share your thoughts when you can clearly own them than it is to share thoughts in process, thoughts that aren’t fully formed. We external processors open ourselves up to the possibility of being misunderstood. When we speak, we’re vulnerable.

Early in my ministry, I was figuring this out. Sometimes in meetings, I kicked myself for saying too much. Then the next time I would try hard to keep my mouth shut, and I kicked myself for not saying enough. I finally arrived at the conclusion that I’d rather kick myself for saying too much than for saying too little. And really, for someone like me, that makes sense. If I’m engaged, if I’m a part of the process, I can’t keep my thoughts to myself.

Being an external processor presents challenges for me as a pastor. I am not good off-the-cuff. If I don’t write down what I intend to say, I can go someplace I didn’t plan to go in a split second. On Sunday mornings, this happens regularly during announcements, or the children’s sermon, which are unscripted. I routinely jump down rabbit holes or say things I ought not to have said. Oy! It can be difficult for folks who expect their pastor to be diplomatic and in control of every word she speaks. With me, that just ain’t gonna happen, so unless they’re open to adjusting their expectations of a pastor, I’ll probably leave them bewildered and scratching their heads, asking, “What was THAT?” (This is just one reason why I really need to serve a congregation that's forgiving and has a sense of humor.)

It may not always be easy for people who work with me. As their pastor, they may expect me to give definitive declarations that they can accept or reject, and then we move on from there. Instead, what they often get are random thoughts that I’m still processing. I expect them to add their own thoughts to the mix, and then together we can figure out how we'll move forward. It’s called collaboration, and for me, it’s the only way to do ministry. It’s creative, and it involves everyone in the process. The results are always more fruitful than they would be if I sat in my study and came up with a final product all on my own and prescribed it to others.

I’m blessed to be serving in a setting where, for the most part, collaboration is expected. My external processing is truly a gift. I work with a staff team that listens to my ruminations on a daily basis. They help me sort through my thoughts and there is synergy when we put our minds together. The same is true for congregational leaders, although they aren’t as readily available to me when I’m thinking through a new idea. My way of external processing works well in a congregation where decisions are made collaboratively and all God’s people contribute to the ministry we share. I know the Spirit can work within the confines of our individual skulls, but she seems to thrive in an environment where she is free!

So, I’ll keep doing what I do. I won’t keep my thoughts to myself and I’ll invite others to join me. God will work with that. I’m counting on it.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

13 Reasons Why: 13 topics to consider

I’m reading blogs from a number of people who are upset about the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why. The criticism is harsh. Some are saying that it glorifies suicide, encouraging teens to consider it a viable option, or that it advocates suicide as an effective means of exacting revenge on those who have wronged you. They are advising parents not to let their teenagers view it.  

I had to find out what all the fuss is about. Last weekend, I was finishing up my post-Easter vacation week and I binge-watched 13 Reasons Why for two days. To be honest, I don’t know if I would have been able to watch it any other way because it was written in a way that always pulled me forward into next episode, and I couldn’t turn it off.

I do not agree that it glorifies suicide. The suicide scene was so terrifying that I had to look away. In the book, Hannah kills herself with pills. In the film, she slits her wrists. I don’t know how anyone could have watched this scene thinking it’s a cool thing to kill yourself. It was horrific!

I found it to be an engaging show that I really wished I could have watched with teenagers. If you’re the parent of a teen, I won’t say that you should let them watch it. But I will say that, depending upon the maturity of the teenager and your relationship, this film offers an opportunity to explore some important topics, and I can imagine that you might have many hours of good discussion while viewing it together.  

If you have teenagers in your home, and if you would like to take your relationship to a deeper level by watching and discussing 13 Reasons Why together, let me offer some possible fodder for discussion. It seems only right that I should offer 13 topics to consider.

1.       High school is depicted as a cruel, heartless place in this series. It’s a wonder anyone survives it. Is it really this bad? Is the social status of students (jocks, nerds, etc) a reflection of larger society or is high school a unique environment? Is the pressure to get into the right college an ever-present threat? Are friendships more important than doing the right thing? How are girls treated differently than boys? Are teachers as clueless as they appear in this series? From your experience, what seemed like a true depiction of high school and what was false?

2.       The bullying in this film seems over the top. Is this the way high school really is? Hannah isn’t the kind of person you would imagine being bullied; she is bright, smart, pretty. What does this say about people who are the targets of bullies?

3.       There are so many kinds of fear in the film: fear of being exposed for who you really are, fear of being rejected, fear of being perceived weak… As you think about each of the main characters, what they are afraid of and how does that fear drive their actions? (As a person of faith, I can’t help but think about how faith, which is the opposite of fear, might have made a difference. I noticed the absence of faith in the film.)

4.       I wonder if Hannah might represent more than one young woman in one high school. Is she like a composite character who experiences what so many other young women experience: harassment, objectification, slut-shaming, unwanted groping, rape? Are these common experiences among young women? Hannah seems hyper-sensitive to all of it. Nothing goes unnoticed. Is she more aware than most? Or is this just what it looks like when a young woman is paying attention?

5.       Consider the credibility of the narrator. Hannah doesn’t always tell the truth. For example, when Zach receives a note from her, she describes how he crumpled it up and threw it on the ground. In fact, he kept it. Does she see the world through a distorted lens where everyone is against her? Is her thinking twisted because she’s depressed?

6.       In her mind, Hannah knows how her narrative will end from the beginning of the first tape. Does she make the tapes, which she leaves as an extended suicide note, to get revenge, or to justify her choice? What is her motivation for making the tapes? (That may be at least as interesting to consider as her motivation for ending her life.)

7.       Does anyone in a healthy state of mind decide that it makes sense to solve a temporary problem with a permanent solution like suicide? Or is it the choice of someone who is depressed, someone who experiences so much pain in life that they would do anything to make it stop? How much do you know about depression? If a person is struggling with depression, how can we give them permission to talk about it?

8.       It’s important to talk about suicide. You don’t plant the idea in someone’s head by talking about it. The best thing you can do with someone who is contemplating suicide is talk with them about it. Often, simply hearing oneself say the words out loud is enough to make sense of the thoughts. Do you know what the warning signs are for someone who is contemplating suicide? (You can find this by doing an easy internet search. Every person, especially every teenager, should be aware of these signs to watch for in their friends.)

9.       Some people fear that teenagers will watch 13 Reasons Why and be persuaded to commit suicide. Is that giving teens enough credit? They see actions in movies all the time they know are wrong and they know better than to copy them. In fact, if people are worried about young people copying the actions they see in movies, aren’t there are much worse movies that you should ban from their viewing—movies that glorify violence, racism, misogyny, illegal drugs, casual sex…? And don’t the destructive behaviors in this film clearly come with consequences? (which is more than one can say for a lot of movies, TV shows, video games, posts on social media)

10.   The main character in the series, Clay, considers suicide himself, but he decides against it. How was he different from Hannah in the way he reaches a different conclusion than she does?

11.    Clay makes the statement that any one of the people Hannah exposes on her tapes could have changed the outcome—if any one of them had helped her, she would still be alive. Is that fair? Is it true? When someone takes their own life, who is responsible?  

12.   Tony has a sense of loyalty to Hannah throughout the series that may be hard to understand. He's bound and determined to honor the wishes of a dead person, even when they don’t make sense. How important is it to keep a confidence when someone is in danger, or to protect someone you love at great cost to others? As a loyal friend, was Tony complicit in Hannah’s craziness?

13.    In 13 Reasons Why, the high school students live in their own world, which is completely closed off from the adults in their lives. The adults are not perfect; they make mistakes. But most of them care deeply about their children. Despite this, the teens do everything they can to hide information from their parents and teachers. The adults are expected to have superpowers and pick up on subtle clues, and the teens expect to navigate their struggles on their own. Does this ring true for you? How might 13 Reasons Why have played out differently if the adults and high school students had talked to each other about what mattered?  


Saturday, April 22, 2017

In the Big Cathedral

My understanding of God the Creator has been greatly enriched by studying about the spirituality of the Celts. In Celtic spirituality there is a love and amazement at creation. They refer to the world, the out-of-doors, as the Big Cathedral. An enclosed building like a church, they would call a Little Cathedral. If you travel to Celtic lands today, you will see high-standing outdoor crosses, which are a reminder of the worship they held outside where they could experience the beauty of nature. This earth that God has created is our Big Cathedral.

When you look at it like that, our lives aren’t about getting up in the morning and doing what we gotta do so we can come home and go to sleep and get up in the morning and do the whole thing all over again. We’re in the Big Cathedral here. In that context, living in the Big Cathedral, our lives are worship. But, what if you’re living in the Big Cathedral, yet fail to notice?

A reporter several years ago carried out an interesting survey on the street. People walking by were stopped and asked, without looking up, to describe the sky as it was on that day. Do you know that only a very small percentage of the people could do it with reasonable accuracy? God’s presence is all around us, but most people don’t take the time to notice or appreciate it.

I confess that I’m often among the unappreciative. Still, there are times when I can’t help myself. I have to take note of the wonder of creation in my presence. Like when I’m bowled over by:

 A gorgeous sunset.
 A big fat yellow moon.
 The misty ridges of the blue ridge mountains.
 The branches of a naked, gnarly tree against a clear blue sky.
 The first bright green buds of spring.
 The sound of seagulls and waves rolling onto the beach.
 The wagging tail of my dog when she greets me at the door.
 Rainbows that always seem to surprise me.

Perhaps the most amazing part of God’s creation is what I see looking back at me in the mirror every morning. This is a creature that has been set apart from all the others. In the Genesis creation poem we read, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness…” I’m never quite sure what that means. It’s puzzling. The second part of the verse is clearer to me, “…and let them have dominion over…” all creation. God created humans to be in loving partnership with him for the ongoing care of creation. (Maybe that’s what it means to be created in God’s image.)

I wonder if we’re so often oblivious to the marvels of creation all around us because, if we really saw them, we wouldn’t be able to ignore our responsibility as partners with God in the care of creation. But what if we did? What if we saw our lives as worship in the Big Cathedral?

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The resurrected Body of Christ


 Preached at Ascension Towson, Easter, 2017.

“He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.” That’s the message the angel told the women to proclaim to the other disciples. And they hightailed it outa there. 

They were full of fear and wanted to make some distance between them and that empty tomb. But they also were about to explode with joy. This was amazing news and they couldn’t wait to share it. They had a mission.

Suddenly, they were stopped dead in their tracks. It was Jesus himself!

They threw themselves at his feet and grabbed hold of him. And then, Jesus gave them the same instructions they had heard from the angel, “Don’t be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.” 

And they did see him. The resurrected Jesus. A lot of people saw him. Like the women at the tomb, they spoke with him, and they touched him. It wasn’t just a resurrection of the soul. It was a resurrection of the body. 

We take comfort in that because at Easter Jesus defeated the power of death, not just for himself, but for us, too. And we trust that, when we die, there is a resurrection in our future as well. But what if there’s more than one way to look at this resurrection of the body stuff. What if it’s not just about something that will happen to us one day, after we die?

There’s another way Jesus’ resurrected body is revealed to us. And to get at that, let me share with you a bit of Lutheran theology, that is really just something that you can read about in the Bible. 

In Lutheran theology, being a Christian is never just about Jesus-and-me. We don’t have a personal Lord and Savior whom we carry around in our pocket. We Lutherans are really big on what we call the Priesthood of All Believers. We don’t stand before God alone, but we stand with others who receive God’s Word of grace with us. In fact, that grace comes to us through our brothers and sisters. Like the women in the Easter story, other believers bring the gospel to us and we bring it to them. 

We stand together as a community. We support one another on our faith journeys. Together, we discern what God is calling us to do in the world. And together we do it. It’s not just about Jesus and me. It’s about Jesus and us. 

And here’s the really big thing about the Priesthood of All Believers. The Bible describes this unity we share with the metaphor of a body. We are the Body of Christ. As Teresa of Avila wrote so eloquently back in the 16th century:
“Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world.
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless people now.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, we are the resurrected Body of Christ. 

Of course, the Body of Christ doesn’t just gather in this place as an end in itself. We gather to be strengthened through the love we share with one another, through the hearing of the Word, the Meal we receive, through the music that sends our spirits soaring, through the gratitude we express to God with our words and our hearts. During this time when we meet in this place, we are nourished as Christ’s Body so that we can be Christ for the world around us. 
  • When we’re welcoming the stranger at worship, or advocating for the stranger in our community, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re providing lunches for the homeless, or tutoring students in an underserved school, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re welcoming neighborhood children into our nursery school or supporting Lutheran Campus Ministry, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re sending quilts to provide a loving embrace for those who feel abandoned, or praying for brothers and sisters in Nicaragua, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re caring for aging parents, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re exercising justice and compassion in our place of business, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re speaking out on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re offering a word of compassion to the forgotten, the brokenhearted and the lonely, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
  • When we’re acting in love for the least among us, we are the resurrected Body of Christ.
Whenever we’re doing the work of Christ in the world, we are his hands and his feet, and his eyes, and his mouth. We are the resurrected Body of Christ.

“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus said. “Go and tell my brothers and sisters to go to Ascension Lutheran Church in Towson. There they will see me.”

Friday, April 14, 2017

Honoring the one who hung on a cross

Can there be any doubt that Jesus was all about love? We know that he took the humble form of a servant when he walked this earth. He got down on his knees and washed the feet of his disciples, including the one who would betray him. He taught us to pray, not just for our friends, but for our enemies as well. But the most telling act of love he gave us was his death on the cross. It was love that put him there, and even while he was dying, he remained true to who he was, offering a prayer of forgiveness for the very people who were crucifying him.

How different the story of salvation would be if Jesus had cursed those who nailed him to a cross where he would slowly bleed and die. But, of course, that’s not what he did. Knowing that those who had crucified him were, in a sense, damning themselves by their actions, he spoke on their behalf. He asked God not to hold their sin against them. He responded to their hatred with love.

One of the amazing things about Jesus’ prayer of forgiveness is that he offered it without anyone requesting it. So often we think that forgiveness is offered only after the person who has wronged us comes to us and asks to be forgiven. But no one asks Jesus for forgiveness in this scenario. Instead, he offers it with no self-acknowledgement of their guilt whatsoever. He forgives them when they might not even realize they have anything to be forgiven for.

Is there someone in your life you have had trouble forgiving? Have they done something that has hurt you so deeply you can’t find it in your heart to forgive them? Have you been waiting for them to come to you and apologize first?

Forgiveness isn’t only for the one who is forgiven; it also benefits the one who does the forgiving. Why not honor the one who hung on a cross and offered forgiveness in an act of pure love by praying the same prayer for those who have wronged you? Carrying a grudge is a terrible burden to bear. It’s time to set yourself free.

Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.

In the night in which he was betrayed...


Maundy Thursday, 2017.

In the night in which he was betrayed…

Those are the words we use when we consecrate the bread and wine for the sacrament of Holy Communion. Have you ever thought about why the Words of Institution begin like this? 

In the night in which he was betrayed
The betrayal Jesus experienced in the context of his last supper cuts right to the heart of what this meal means for us whenever we receive it. If Jesus had instituted this sacrament at any other time, it wouldn’t mean what it does for us. It had to happen in the night in which he was betrayed.

Have you ever been betrayed by one of your closest friends? After opening yourself up and becoming vulnerable to another person, to have them abuse the trust you placed in them and stab you in the back can cause more pain than if that person had beaten you to a pulp. 

If a person claims to love you and turns around and hurts you deeply, you probably want to do what most of us want to do in that situation – you want to hurt them back. You wouldn’t choose to spend your last night alive with that person. Especially if you knew it was his betrayal that was going to lead to your death, a death you didn’t deserve.

You wouldn’t include him on your guest list as you gather your loved ones for one last meal together. You wouldn’t treat him with all the love and compassion that you show to all the other guests at your table. You wouldn’t get down on your hands and knees and wash his feet. You wouldn’t break bread with him and offer him the same blessing you give to all the others who have left everything to be with you. Certainly, you wouldn’t give yourself, your very body and blood, to this one who betrayed you. But that’s what Jesus does, isn’t it?

He offered the wine, his blood, to all of them, including the one who had already betrayed him to the chief priests. Judas had gone to them and asked, “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” And they paid him off with thirty pieces of silver. From then on, he was looking for an opportunity to betray Jesus. 

No doubt, that’s what Judas was thinking about as he sat down to eat that night with Jesus and his friends. He felt the weight of the silver coins in one hand while he received the broken body and the spilled blood of Jesus in the other. Judas was wondering if this might be a good time to betray the one who was handing him his very life.

It’s hard to believe that Judas could have turned on Jesus like this and gone through the charade of participating in Jesus’ last meal with his disciples. What’s even more unbelievable is that Jesus himself knew exactly what was going on, and he still gave himself to the one who already had been paid to have him arrested and killed. 

As the story unfolds, we watch Jesus making a point of letting Judas know that he knows. “Very truly, I tell you, one of you will betray me,” Jesus tells his disciples. When they want to know who it is, he says, “It’s the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” So he dips the bread in the dish and gives it to Judas.

Now, only one of the disciples understood what was really going on at that moment. Jesus said to him, “Do quickly what you are going to do.” So Judas got up from the table and left.

I’ve often wondered why Jesus didn’t dismiss Judas at the beginning of the meal. Why did he wait until after he had shared such an intimate time with his closest friends? I imagine it might be like having your family gathered around your deathbed and seeing your arch-enemy standing there in the midst of them. A deeply personal last time to be with the ones you love the most would be ruined. In the same way, Judas had defiled this holy moment. If Jesus knew what was going on, it would have made more sense for him to ask Judas to leave earlier, so he could have been excluded from this loving encounter with his followers. But Jesus intentionally chose to include Judas. 

As the story unfolds, we learn that Judas isn’t the only person present at the meal who will betray Jesus. One by one, they will all fall away. When Jesus is arrested, three times Peter denies even knowing him. After Jesus is crucified, they all hide out for fear of being recognized as his followers. Not only did Jesus share his last supper with the one who would betray him, he shared his last supper with all who would betray him. And yet, he loved every one of them enough to give them his very self, his body and blood. 

This same Jesus loves us enough to give us his body and blood, too. Just as he didn’t turn any away at the table on the night when he was betrayed, he doesn’t turn any away at his table ever. Even for the one who may be holding thirty pieces of silver in one hand, Jesus still gives his body and blood to be taken in the other.

Lest any of us think ourselves unworthy of receiving the body and blood of Christ, we need to go back to the night when Jesus gave us this holy meal. From the very beginning, it was shared with people who were unworthy of the gift. And that’s what makes it a sacrament, because it is all about God’s grace poured out for the undeserving.

No matter how strong or weak your faith may be, no matter how much or how little you read your Bible or pray, no matter how well you’ve done at following Jesus or how miserably you’ve failed, no matter who you are or what you’ve done – Jesus offers you his body and blood. And the more unworthy you may feel about receiving it, the more it has been given for you because it is given for the forgiveness of sins.

The forgiveness of sins isn’t for perfect people. It’s for people like Judas, who betrayed him for thirty pieces of silver. It’s for people like Peter who promised he would never leave Jesus and then turned around and flatly denied even knowing him. It’s for people like the disciples who cowered in fear as soon as Jesus was taken from them.

It’s a meal given for the unworthy, and no one is excluded. It’s a meal where all are loved and forgiven. It’s a meal where all are offered the gift of Jesus himself. 

And lest there be any doubt about it, we’re reminded of this fact as we gather around the table to receive Christ’s body and blood and we hear again the words that recall for us how this meal came to us from the beginning. In the night in which he was betrayed…





Friday, March 24, 2017

...We also ought to love ourselves.

"God help me to accept the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is." When I saw that little printed poster in the bookstore at a women's retreat center, I knew I had to have it. It's framed and hanging in my office at the church. 

I know I'm too hard on myself. It's been a lifelong struggle. Some would call it a self-esteem issue. I've come to the conclusion that it's deeper than that. It's a spiritual issue that affects all the relationships in my life, including the relationship I have with God.

A few months after I was divorced, my brother asked me to officiate at his daughter’s wedding. I was happy to do it, but then on the day of the wedding I almost had a melt down. 

I looked out over the congregation that had assembled, and I saw both of my older brothers with their wives; each of them had married his childhood sweetheart. I remember going to their weddings when I was just a kid. After all these years, they were still married in solid relationships. I also saw my younger sister sitting beside her husband; the two of them had an extraordinary relationship that I had always envied. And there I was, standing before them, giving a wedding homily about how to have a happy marriage. I felt like they were looking at me naked, with everything exposed that I tried so hard to hide.  

From the wedding ceremony we went on to the reception, where all the couples were dancing and I wanted to disappear. I can’t recall ever feeling like such a failure in all my life. That moment seemed to reinforce every negative thing I had carried around about myself for as long as I could remember. Particularly, that I wasn't worthy of the love another.

The irony was that, as much as I was feeling judged in that moment, none of my siblings had judged me. They were kind and loving and did everything they could to help me through the day. My judgment had come from within.

If you’re anything like me, the most difficult person to forgive may be yourself. I have a hard time letting go of my past mistakes, particularly those times when I may have hurt someone I care about. In fact, I'm able to accept the forgiveness of God more easily than I can forgive myself. 

Do you know how arrogant it is to refuse to forgive yourself? It’s like saying, God doesn’t really know much, because I know best and I know who is and isn’t worth forgiving. So it’s my pride that keeps me from forgiving myself. And, come to think of it, it's my pride that keeps me from forgiving other people who have wronged me as well. If God forgives, who am I to think I know better than God? 

Over the past decade or so, I've tried to make it a daily practice to forgive myself. I know that it's traditional for Christians to confess their sins and seek God's forgiveness, and that's cool. But I never have a problem with that--the God forgiving me part. My difficulty is in forgiving myself.

When I'm all caught up in my crankiness...when I find fault with pretty much everyone around me...when I'm resentful or wallowing in self-pity, underneath it all is the problem I'm having with forgiving myself. That's why the practice of self-forgiveness has become so important for me.

I suspect I'm not alone. For many of us, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. The good news is that although it may feel like this self-destructive viewpoint is holding us captive, by the grace of God, we are free. It's a matter of seeing ourselves through the eyes of the God who loves us. And here's the real kicker. In those times when it's all too much, and we fail miserably at loving ourselves, God forgives us even for that.

1 John 4:11 says, "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another." For myself and other people like me, consider a bit of a twist on the text. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love ourselves.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Thank you for praying

I can’t speak for all pastors, only this one. But I want to tell you that I love it when people don’t ask me to pray.

You know how it so often goes. You’re at a church event, it’s time to eat, and suddenly, all eyes are on the pastor, waiting for her to pray over the casseroles and the jello salad. Or a family in the congregation invites the pastor to their place for dinner. They all sit down at a table covered with piping hot food, they place their napkins on their laps, and then someone says, “Pastor, will you pray for us?”

Now, I know that for a lot of people this is a way of honoring their pastor, and I can appreciate that. But I have to tell you that whenever laypeople pray in a public setting, my heart soars. And when they don’t automatically turn to me and expect me to be the pray-er, I always notice. Hallelujah! They're not looking to me as the professional holy person in our community. They realize that I’m no more holy than anyone else, and God doesn’t hear my prayers above others.

The other night I went to dinner at the home of some Ascension folks, that moment came, and I cringed inside. But no one looked to me. Our host offered a table prayer, and I immediately felt a rush of relief and joy. In fact, I was so overjoyed that I wanted to jump up and kiss him, but he is a married man, so I restrained myself. I'm sure no one sitting at the table realized how much his prayer meant to me.

Occasionally, I’m praying with someone who is homebound or ill, and after I’m done praying for them, they continue with a prayer for me. This has only happened with a handful of people I’ve known in 40 years of ministry, but when I hear them praying for me, it brings me to tears. I’m grateful to them for their prayers, but I’m also grateful to them for recognizing that they, too, can offer prayers of healing for their pastor. Yes, we're all in this together.

I do appreciate it when people show respect for me as their pastor, and I realize that I hold a unique place of honor within our faith community. But it’s not all about me. Other people can pray. Other people can visit the sick. Other people can teach. Other people can preach. Other people can make important decisions. Other people can lead. And if we’re going to faithfully go where God is leading us, the more we share this ministry we’ve been given, the further we’ll go.

This idea is actually one of the pillars of Lutheranism. We call it the “Priesthood of all Believers.” It’s a part of our understanding of Baptism, which is when we all become ministers. The Lutheran Church has taught this for hundreds of years. My experience has been that most Lutherans ignore it.

For Lent this year, during our Wednesday evening services, people from the congregation have planned the worship experiences, and they're leading them. I’m sitting in the pews with the congregation. Yes!

Prior to worship, we get together for a soup supper. On the first Wednesday, before we ate, someone asked me to pray. I started to do it, and then I thought, no, if I pray tonight, they’re going to ask me to pray every night and I don’t want to become the official pray-er. “No, I changed my mind,” I said. “I think someone else should pray.” I expected there to be an awkward silence, or a lot of hemming and hawing around as we cajoled someone else into praying, but that didn’t happen. Immediately, someone stood up and prayed. It felt to me like she was waiting for the opportunity.

And I was a very happy pastor. It’s not just about me being relieved from saying a prayer. It’s about being part of a faith community that understands what it means to be a part of the priesthood of all believers. Thank you for praying!




Saturday, March 4, 2017

Dealing with the Divide - courage, caring and Christian community


We did it. This morning at Ascension, about 30 of us pulled our chairs into a circle and we listened to one another. It wasn’t easy. For some, it took every ounce of courage they could muster just to be there. And I’m thankful that our Christian community meant so much to them that they felt called to show up.

Last Sunday I challenged the congregation in a sermon to put Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount about reconciling with one another into action. I talked about the elephant in the room since early November when our President was elected. Despite strong feelings, we have avoided talking about it. We have been polite, but we have avoided looking one another in the eye, and that is not what the life of reconciliation looks like.

And so, this morning we gathered to listen to one another, for the purpose of understanding. We didn’t gather to argue, or to convince one another that we’re right and they’re wrong. As we shared with one another, we were reminded of all that we have in common as God’s people. And because of that, we were able to listen to our differences and acknowledged them, forbearing with one another in love.

The morning was not without discomfort. We began with prayer and a reading of Ephesians 4:1-6. Then we went over some basic ground rules for our time together before splitting into two groups. This was the most difficult part of the morning. For some, it meant “outing” themselves among those who had no idea how they had voted in the presidential election. I had been concerned that there might have been only a few who had voted for DJT at our meeting. It turns out that was not the case. The group was close to evenly divided.

The two groups separated. Each was assigned the task of compiling a list of 5-10 things they wanted the other group to understand about them. As I floated back and forth between the two, I was taken aback by the raw emotion within both groups. Had this really been such a good idea, after all? I had to keep reminding myself that, without openness and honesty, there is no genuine community. Yes, it’s painful, but it’s the only way to go.

After they compiled their lists of things they wanted the other group to understand about them, I asked them to get inside the heads of the people in the other room and come up with what they imagined the other group would say about themselves on their list. That seemed to be easier for them, although I could see that this process could have taken all day. They had plenty to say among themselves, where they felt safe.

Then came the scary part. We got back together and we compared lists. Those who didn’t vote for President Trump had a list of things they wanted those who did vote for President Trump to understand about them, and vice versa. The telling part of the exercise was the second part where each group had done a pretty good job of guessing what the other group would be saying.

At the top of both their lists, there was a clear statement about how much it means to them to be people of faith. And that, of course, was the point. We’re all people of faith.

This is what it looks like to be in Christian community. Ascension gathers under a wide, wide tent. Our diversity isn’t obvious to the naked eye, but we are certainly diverse. No one is denied a place under that tent. This isn’t easy to accomplish in our divided society, but by the grace of God, we do it. I hope the people of Ascension can appreciate how extraordinary they are.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to end the morning. I thought of praying, or going back to the text from Ephesians. But when the time came, I knew exactly how we needed to conclude our time together. We gathered about the altar and communed one another with the bread and wine. And then we offered God’s peace to one another. When we said, “Peace be with you” we looked one another in the eye, and we meant it.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Help! There's an Elephant Sitting on the Baptismal Font!

Preached on Sunday, February 26, for the people of Ascension Lutheran, Towson MD.

This is an unusual Sunday for me because I’m not preaching directly on the text for today. Instead, I’m feeling compelled by the Spirit to address our context. That context is the nexus between the Sermon on the Mount, entering the season of Lent, and the negative drain of the world around us that is sucking us into a downward spiral of us against them.

For the past four weeks of the Epiphany season, we’ve been in The Sermon on the Mount. We’ve talked about how God’s Reign is a counter-cultural experience that Jesus calls us to be a part of.  It differs radically from the values of the world around us in the way we treat one another, ourselves and even those we perceive to be our enemies. 

Week after week we’ve heard Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount and you have respectfully listened in as I’ve wrestled with those words out loud from the pulpit. And week after week, while we’ve made our way through the Sermon on the Mount, there’s been a big ol’ elephant in the middle of the room, sitting right on top of our baptismal font. Have you noticed it?

Now, I don’t mean to use that image in the political way. The elephant is not the GOP. The elephant is the thing that we’re all aware of, but it makes us so uncomfortable that we choose pretend it doesn’t exist.

The elephant I’m referring to is the divide between us regarding partisan politics. I know some of you cringe when you hear the word politics from the pulpit, but to ignore politics is to ignore what’s going on in the world around us. And when we ignore what’s going on in the world around us, what we do in this place becomes completely irrelevant. 

I didn’t think it could get worse than it was during the presidential campaign, but over the past few months, the political divide in our country has grown wider. I’ve had this sense that it’s become the unspoken subtext of every sermon I preach. I don’t even bring it up, and many of you assume I’m talking about it. Especially as we’ve been cracking open the meaning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. 

But Jesus teachings are never about endorsing a political party or a specific candidate. They are about turning away from the ways of selfishness, violence and injustice, and toward the Reign of God, which is where Jesus tells us true life is found. 

Face it, if the world around us followed the teachings of Jesus, it wouldn’t be in a such a mess.

But here’s the thing. We’re Jesus people here. We may not always get it right, but we’re a part of this community because it is our hearts’ desire to follow the way of Jesus. 

In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, and that includes us, that other people will know we’re his disciples by the love we have for one another. Think of our congregation as a little love laboratory. We’re practicing love with one another so that we can also share that love with people outside our community. In other words, if we don’t get it right here, we’ll never get it right out there…

I know that many of us have trouble with conflict. We may choose to avoid it, or deal with it sideways, rather than head on. As followers of the Jesus Way, that’s not how we deal with conflict. We don’t just ignore it, or agree to disagree. Because when we do that, we may be okay on the outside, but we’re harboring evil in our hearts. 

That’s why Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount that it’s not enough just to refrain from murdering another person if you’re thinking the worst about them in your heart. 

Jesus teaches that when we’re at odds with one another, instead of trying to stick it to them, we turn the other cheek, we go the extra mile, we pray for them. And then there’s that part about making peace with one another before we bring our offerings to God. Within our community, we’re always about the business of reconciliation. We can’t seek a right relationship with God when we are in a wrong relationship with one another. 

As followers of Jesus, that means we have to deal with the elephant. We can’t march on through the season of Lent as if it weren’t there. 

Some people in our congregation support the policies of our President, some of us support some of his policies, and others have trouble seeing how he’s capable of doing anything good. Some of us are cheering his leadership, and some of us are scared to death. That is what it is, and we aren’t going to change it. But what’s of concern for our community is not the way we think and feel about our president, it’s the way we think and feel about one another. 

We all share the pews on Sunday mornings. We raise our voices in song together. We exchange the peace with one another. We eat and drink at the same table. And we do all this while we avoid looking one another in the eye. 

There’s an elephant in the room when we gather together. And it’s not going to go away until we address it. 

Christ calls us to be reconciled with one another. The way to reconciliation is not by avoiding conflict, or agreeing to disagree. The way to reconciliation is through understanding. We need to listen to one another. We need to feel free to express ourselves, knowing our words will be respected and received in love. We need to open our minds and our ears – listening to those who don’t see things the way we see them. 

Right now, our world is so polarized that this seems impossible. But we’re set apart from the rest of the world. We’re a microcosm of the Kingdom of God, God’s little love laboratory on York Road. Because we’re in Christ, we can do something the world is incapable of doing. And we can model what reconciliation looks like, as a shining City on a Hill. 

So, I’m challenging us to be reconciled with one another as God’s people. Choose to do something during the Lenten season to better understand those who seem so far away from you right now that everything within you is telling you that you need to remain as far away from them as possible. 

Lent is not about giving up chocolate. It is about reconciliation-- restoring relationships. Our relationship with God, our relationships with one another.

·         We can repent of our demonization of others.

·         We can have a meaningful one-on-one conversation with someone we’ve been avoiding.

·         We can seek forgiveness from someone we’ve wronged.

·         Most of all, I hope we can grow in our awareness that, within Christian community, it is always more important to be loving than it is to be right. 


Now, some might be quick to tell me that people in Baltimore don’t do that. Or people who grew up in your family don’t do that. But I will be quick to say that how we were raised, or where we’re from, or the way we’ve always done it is completely irrelevant. As followers of Jesus, reconciliation is exactly what we do.

To help with the process, next Saturday morning at 10, we’re offering an opportunity. We’re going to have a time for listening and understanding.

Our time will be structured. There will be guidelines. You will have the opportunity to say as little or as much as you feel moved to say. The purpose of our time together will not be to argue or to convince others that we’re right and they’re wrong. The purpose is reconciliation. It is to a time to listen and to understand. We will never agree about everything. But you don’t have to agree with someone to understand where they’re coming from. You don’t have to agree with someone to love them. 

We can faithfully live out the life Jesus is calling us to embody, and strengthen our community for the sake of the work Christ calls us to be about in the world. It’s the only faithful way to remove the elephant from our worship space so we can get our baptismal font back.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Resist, yes!

A couple weeks ago, I had chapel with the four-year-olds in Ascension’s nursery school. I've been teaching them Bible stories that every kid oughta know this year. This particular day we were on the story of David and Goliath. Since Goliath was the ultimate bully, I seized the opportunity to talk with them about bullying, and that's how I introduced the story.

“Does anyone know what a bully is?” I asked. Several kids raised their hands.

“A bully is when somebody takes your toys and won’t give them back,” one little boy said.

“That’s true,” I said.

Well before I knew it, we had jumped down a rabbit hole. Someone else talked about how a bully breaks into your house in the middle of the night and they steal all your toys. And they all had ideas to share about that. About burglar alarms, and what they would do if someone broke into their house, and how they would keep them from their toys. My point had been totally derailed.

But I sensed that the kids were genuinely afraid of someone breaking into their house in the middle of the night and stealing their toys, so I said something that, in hindsight, I know wasn’t the smartest thing to tell a room full of four-year-olds. I said, “I don’t think anybody is going to break into your house at night, but if they did, the last thing they’d be looking for is your toys. They would take computers and T.V.s and jewelry. But not your toys.”

First of all, what I said did little to allay their fears. And second of all, I was reasoning with them as if they were adults. Not a great response on my part.

But what I really took away from this little conversation is that, for them, the most valuable things they owned were toys. And the worst thing someone could do to them was take their toys. That was their greatest fear.

Fear is a powerful motivator, isn’t it? How often does fear drive our decisions as adults? We may not be afraid of someone taking our toys, but we’re afraid of them taking our families, or our jobs, or our standard of living, or our way of life. And our behavior is driven by a fear of losing something that is valuable to us, something someone else may take from us.

We have a name for those we fear, that name is them. From a very young age, life becomes a struggle between us and them.

We don't all have the same them that we fear. Them may be the government, or people who don’t look like us, or people who worship a God we don’t recognize, or people who disagree with us, or people who aren’t from around here, or protestors in the streets, or Republicans, or Democrats… Who is them to you?

The word resist has been used a lot these days by people who oppose the direction our government is taking us as a nation. I’m tuned in to that resistance, although I have some problems with its effectiveness as a method for true change. 

For starters, I know that whenever I am resisting them, it contradicts who I’m called to be as a follower of Jesus. The Jesus way of being in the world is not about us and them. In God’s Reign, us and them does not exist. We have no need to prove ourselves superior, to keep those who aren’t like us as far away from us as possible, or to act vindictively toward those who would do us harm. (Yes, I’ve been spending some time in the Sermon on the Mount.)

My other problem with the resistance is practical. As long as our resistance is focused upon them, and we demonize those who disagree with us, we widen the great divide that threatens to destroy us as a nation.

Resist, yes. By all means resist. But what we need to resist, above all else, is not them. It’s them-ing. I’m convinced that until we stop them-ing others, we’ll never truly find a way out of this mess we’re in.