Life, Death, and Resurrection

I was asked a couple of days ago how I was doing. It’s Holy Week – the busiest week of the year for a pastor and a church. There are many worship services and other activities going on this week. It’s easy to loose track of what day it is and what is happening – let alone figure out what to say at each service.

But my answer was, and is, that Holy Week is my favorite week of the year. I love Holy Week for many reasons.

I love Holy Week because it is expresses this central core of Christianity – Life, Death, and Resurrection. There’s no way to avoid it. I know that many Christians will have gone to the Palm Sunday service where they sing Hosanna and wave palms as Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly and then skip everything until Easter morning when they will hear about the resurrected Jesus.

But gosh – they are missing out on some of the most important parts of this week. Maundy Thursday with it’s command to serve, to do communion, to love one another. Good Friday with it’s confrontation with death. Easter Vigil with the story of God’s relationship with creation from the beginning to the resurrection.

Each of these days is rich and full. Their messages force us to deal with unpleasant realities and things we would rather not deal with. But dealing with them is important.

Yesterday I was invited to do a presentation on Dachau concentration camp – a place I had visited while I lived in Europe a few years back. This was in a school. And it was Maundy Thursday. What a fitting day to do a presentation on such an unpleasant and disturbing topic. Again, we are forced to deal with the reality of hatred, fear, and death.

These things roam in our world, do we see them for what they are or are we too afraid to identify them, to speak up because it wouldn’t be nice.

This Good Friday, I challenge you to see the reality of fear, hatred, and death that is around us. Not to run from them, but to look at them in the eye. To see what they are really about. And to proclaim Good News in spite of them anyway.

Reactions

I’ve been watching the reactions and responses to Notre Dame Cathedral burning. Many are sad by the event. Some look forward to seeing it rebuilt. Within 24 hours, almost $1 billion was promised to do just that. I wonder if the millionaires who committed funds actually go to the Cathedral. I don’t know.

Some people have been going around saying things like – use that money for the poor. It could make a big difference.

Still others have gone to vigils to mourn this loss. Many French people see the Cathedral more as a national symbol than anything else.

Still others have used this event as a way to raise awareness about the three African-American churches that burned recently because of arson.

I have just sat back and watched. I think all of these folks have valid points. And I yet I wonder – does anyone see the irony of having a major cathedral burn during Holy Week?

This is the week Jesus went to Jerusalem and changed everything. He went from life, to death, to resurrection.

Notre Dame went from life to death in a short period. And I wonder what resurrection will mean for this Cathedral. And for the church is represents.

The church has gone through many challenges – most self-imposed and sinful. It has suffered, but not really died.

Yet, you can’t experience resurrection until you have gone through death.

The Cathedral has experienced death. And is now ready for resurrection. But like Jesus after Good Friday, it sits in a tomb. The shell of what once was is like a tomb. Death of a Cathedral. Yet, I wonder what God is up to. I wonder what resurrection will look like. I wonder what the eye witnesses will report. I wonder how God will encounter people.

Holy Week Truth isn’t pleasant

David Brooks, a columnist for the NY Times, published an opinion piece this week entitled, “Five Lies Our Culture Tells.” I highly recommend this article.

Here are the five lies he has identified:

  1. Career success is fulfilling.
  2. I can make myself happy.
  3. Life is an individual journey.
  4. You have to find your own truth.
  5. Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

The power of this piece is that Brooks names the lies that our culture tells us and that all too often, we have bought into. These aren’t just lies we tell ourselves. They are alternate gospel narratives that ultimately proclaim a message that “I” and “my success” are most important.

This isn’t new. It’s a gospel narrative that has been around for a long time. The individual parts may vary, but the core of the message is always the same – you are god and you are in control of your destiny.

Today we hear similar cliches that proclaim that same message – “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” In other words, it’s up to you to figure it out – you are in control. “Only the strong survive.” “The ends justify the means.”

Jesus dealt with this same alternate gospel in his day too. The whole message of the reign of God is in direct conflict with the lies of the alternate gospel.

The Gospel of Jesus tells us that our worth doesn’t come from what we do, but rather whose we are.

The Gospel of Jesus proclaims that happiness is not the ultimate purpose in life – rather to be in right relationship with God and others, and to serve God and others.

The Gospel of Jesus tells us that we are part of a larger family – the family of God, not lone rangers on our own.

The Gospel of Jesus proclaims that Jesus is the way and the truth.

The Gospel of Jesus tells us that the poor and less successful are favored by God and that we are to do what we can to empower them so they can be fully who they are created to be, and so that the community is whole.

Holy Week presents some unpleasant truths that we have to deal with – the reality of false gospels, and that following Jesus is uncomfortable because it conflicts with our culture.

They may not be pleasant truths – but they are the truth and Jesus proclaims it to us to live into.

Holy Week and conflict

This week is referred to as Holy Week in the life of the church. It is the week in which we go from the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem through his death, and ultimately to resurrection.

And all through this week, there is conflict.

It starts with Jesus entry into Jerusalem. It is a conflict of expectations. Jesus enters the city on a donkey by himself. Where is his army that will free Jerusalem from the Romans? Are they hiding in the hills waiting to strike? The people cheer “Hosanna” – set us free. They claim it in reference to their bondage to Rome. But Jesus knows their bondage is much greater than just Rome – it is the bondage of sin and death. He comes to set them free from sin and death. Rome will fall, but it’s just not nearly as important as conquering sin and death – things that have been around much longer than Rome and will be around longer than Rome could ever hope for.

The conflict continues – Jesus goes to the temple. He flips the tables of the money changers. He fashions a whip and drives the animals out. This causes a stir – will a riot break out? The temple authorities are exposed as being nothing more than agents of the empire – existing to maintain the status quo of oppression.

The conflict continues – Judas, one of the twelve who follows Jesus, agrees to hand Jesus over in exchange for 30 pieces of silver. The conflict comes to a head during supper on Thursday of this week and culminated with the kiss of betrayal in the garden. A sword is wielded and an ear is cut off.

The conflict continues – Jesus is brought before the Sanhedrin for a trial. He is spat on. Heresy is proclaimed. Blood is desired. Jesus is turned over to the empire for the death penalty.

The conflict continues – Pilate and the crowd disagree on how severely to punish Jesus. But the anger of the crowd is more powerful than the empire’s puppet authority. Blood is desired. Hatred is unleashed.

The conflict continues – As Jesus hangs on the cross, there are two criminals crucified with him. One insults Jesus. The other tells him to knock it off.

All week long, there is conflict. Jesus’ very being and presence causes conflict.

Yesterday I saw this conflict play out in many ways in our own time. Conflict over politics. Conflict over policies. Conflict through insults. Conflict in comments on articles. Degrading other people. The world is addicted to conflict. It is like a drug.

And here we are – Holy Week. The conflict ramps up. We are called to a different way of living and interacting. Not in conflict, but rather the way of self-emptying peace. Peace isn’t a destination. It is a way of being. A way of being that is different from the way the world prefers to operate.

Peace also isn’t avoiding conflict either. It isn’t turning a blind eye to conflict and injustice. Peace is staying in the midst of it and offering something that conflict can’t offer – new life. Throughout the Holy Week, Jesus never runs away – he faces the conflict head on. And keeps offering new life, over and over again. Some take him up on the offer. And other reject him and what he has to offer.

We live in a conflicted world and a conflicted time. But the reign of God is unfolding in our midst. The time of conflict will end. Peace is reigning. It shows itself. Often we only embrace it when we are tired of conflict. Better then than never. Peace stands in the midst of conflict, especially this week. It doesn’t run away. And those who offer peace will shake conflict and those addicted to it to their very core. But those who embrace peace will keep going forward, offering peace to all. Peace is a vision of new life.

Ministry happens

Ministry happens in unexpected places sometimes. Sometimes it happens when you are waiting in line at the grocery store. Sometimes it happens at a bar. Sometimes it happens at the gas station. These are places that many don’t expect it to happen. But maybe we should.

Why do we expect that God will be absent from these places? As if God is limited into where God will work and be. Too often we place limitations on God – that God will only be in worship in a church building, if we are fortunate. And even then, so often we make God jump through so many hoops that it is an actual miracle for God to show up where we claim God could show up.

Why don’t we expect God show up at a bar, or in a line? Not holy enough? Hmm.

“And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples.” (Matthew 9:10, NRSV).

See, Jesus did stuff that was unexpected. And often got in trouble with the powers that be. He dined with people he was not supposed to be hanging out with.

“When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’” (Matthew 9:11, NRSV)

I think too often we extend this limitation on God into our own lives too. Is God limited to certain areas of your life? Is God welcome to poke around with your finances? Or better yet – control them? How about when it comes to sex? Or children? Your job/vocation/calling? Education? Your health? Your relationships?

Or do we limit God to an hour on Sunday morning when we feel like showing up to church? Is the rest of the week ours to do what we want with it?

What do we expect of God?

What would happen if we lowered the walls we put up to God? What if we threw out the expectations? I wonder what kind of impact that would have on us. I wonder what kind of impact that would make on the world? It would probably change in unexpected ways.

If you could change one thing about church…

…what would it be?

Go beyond the worship service. There have been numerous articles and battles about worship styles. I’m not talking about that. What would be something fundamental that you see that needs to change? I’m not talking about things that you would like to see change – church shouldn’t be about meeting all your needs. No, I’m talking about much deeper things here. The things that you identify may very well be things that you don’t really want to change, but you know they need to.

A secondary question would be – what is most important about church? Again, I’m not talking about the worship style. When you look at the bigger picture of church, what do you identify as most important? What is the one thing that you would identify as essential to church being church? Without it, church is something else. What would that one thing be?

A third question is this – What is the actual obstacle to making the essential change you identified in the first question, while placing emphasis on the thing you identified in the second question? What is the real obstacle? Again, go past the obvious answers – go much deeper to foundational things. To things that are not material in nature.

A fourth question is this – what gives you great joy about church? What is it that allows you to encounter God? What is it that allows you to hear and experience Good News? What is that thing?

Last question – what are you going to do with these questions and answers? When? With who?


Homelessness is…

A lot more complicated than most people realize. It’s not your fault. Most likely, you don’t know anyone who is homeless. Most people who are experiencing homelessness don’t go around proclaiming it. It’s often viewed with an element of shame here in the US.

Homelessness is complicated. Typically, a series of events and circumstances came upon a person that led to them being homeless. There isn’t a nice easy path that involved. Usually it’s a combination of many different things.

Maybe it started with a health issue – something that ended up costing the person their job. Even if they wanted to work – the situation might not allow it (and many people who are homeless do want to work, or actually do work – often in full time jobs). There are many health issues that require someone to remain out of work. If you don’t work, you don’t earn money and you end up losing the place you live.

Maybe it started with a break in a key relationship – maybe a marriage, a parent/child relationship, etc. A serious break in relationship could cause someone to leave their home and not recover from the loss.

Maybe it started with car trouble. If you don’t have reliable transportation (and don’t live somewhere with good public transportation), it’s possible that car trouble could cause someone to lose their job.

Maybe it started with getting behind on a bill or two. The bills piled up and then finally came due. And then the person’s credit score nose dived. Good luck getting into decent housing with a terrible credit score that shows a history of unpaid bills.

The possibilities are endless.

Here’s what I do know – offering a solution of “if they would only get a job, they’d have enough for housing” is an easy answer to a complicated situation. And really not an answer at all. I only wish “if only they would get a job” would be the solution.

But what do you do for someone who is already working a full time job and can’t get housing? What do you do for someone who has no reliable transportation? What do you do for someone who has health issues? What do you do for someone who is doesn’t even fit the definition of homelessness according to HUD, yet is really homeless? In that situation, a person is limited in the help they can receive. But staying in an unpleasant shelter is better than literally going homeless just to get on a waiting list. Especially if a child is involved.

Homelessness is not easy. There are no easy simple answers typically.

Flying J nights are…

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If you have followed this blog for any length of time, then you know that one of the ministries of the church I serve is our Flying J ministry.

Twice a month we head over to the Flying J truck stop where we do laundry with people, make sure people can get showers, and eat a meal and worship with people at Denny’s. Our target audience are the homeless and poor. We primarily work with those who live in their vehicles in the parking lot and those that live in the motels along the Carlisle Pike. We’ve been doing this for a bit over a year.

The ministry has grown over the year – both in terms of the number of people we work with as well as our partnerships. We are grateful for these partnerships. Representatives of Community Cares, the emergency shelter in town, comes regularly. This evening we had representatives from UPMC to assist people with applications for insurance and SNAP.

So now that you are caught up, let’s turn to the title.

Flying J nights are…

They are joyful and joy filled. Each time we gather, we are surrounded by people who are grateful. There is a great deal of gratitude.

During our informal worship at Denny’s we have an opportunity for everyone to offer up a prayer – whether it be a petition to God or a thanksgiving. More often than not, the pray intention is a thanksgiving.

Flying J nights are humbling. How else can I feel when I get to know people who are homeless? Getting to know these people is very humbling. It causes me to think when I complain about something going on in my life.

Flying J nights are a foretaste of the feast to come. When we sit at the tables and share communion in Denny’s I can’t help but think about the feast to come – a feast of plenty. I can’t help but think of Jesus’ Beatitudes –

 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Source – Matthew 5:3-12, NRSV

Flying J nights are inspiring. I draw inspiration from the people who come to help. They come, consistently. They offer something inspiring – love. They pay attention to people who are so often forgotten or ignored. We spend time with people. We get to know their names and their stories. We try to figure out ways to assist people. We eat with people. We laugh. We share in gratitude.

Flying J nights are a group of people being church. The Flying J ministry is a definition of what it means to be church. To love, to build community, to share Good News, to commune together, to be cleansed, forgiven, and fed. To be fully who we are called to be. It may not be what the world expects or thinks much about. But it is what we are called to nonetheless.

Flying J nights are beautiful. How else can I possibly describe it?

Discernment

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Discernment is one of those great churchy words that people know what it means, but have a hard time defining it. It’s also often one of those churchy words that gets used and abused.

There are times when discernment is just not an appropriate word to use. A better word is usually – decision.

And there are times when discernment is really the only word that makes sense to describe what you are attempting to do.

One definition I found is: The act or process of exhibiting keen insight and good judgment.

That’s not too bad. But it’s missing a couple of key elements – God and listening.

Maybe my definition of discernment would sound something like this: The act or process of listening to God and being aware of the Holy Spirit in order to gain keen insight and good judgement.

Pastors use the term discernment when they are considering a call to a congregation. And it’s a good fit for something like that. The call process is a job interview, but not. It’s much more. It’s the process in which a congregation and a pastor are discerning – listening to God, being aware of the Spirit. It is patient. It is not rushed. And often, it is ambiguous – taking paths that are unexpected. Sometimes a small phrase is said by someone in the process and it sparks something that lets a pastor and/or congregation know that this is right.

I believe that discernment happens in many ways for many people – they may not even realize it. I think some of the more common ways in which discernment is appropriate occurs for things like vocation and jobs, relationships, location, faith matters, etc. The summary version would be – at times when there is a significant change possible in someone’s life. Those are times of discernment. Those are times we should want to hear God and to be aware of the Spirit.

Discernment isn’t easy. Sometimes it isn’t even fun. Discernment can be disconcerting. It can also offer a sense of clarity – even just a small sense of clarity. Regardless, discernment draws us in closer to God. And that’s what makes it worthwhile.

The Jesus we prefer

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What kind of Jesus do you prefer? How about the 12 year old Jesus in Luke 2? Everyone loves that Jesus. I think most parents can relate to the situation and feel for Jesus’ earthly parents. Jesus, the pre-teen, trying to find his own voice, doing things by himself. In the end, he is found and I’m sure scolded, and then listens to his mother and follows along dutifully. We like when Jesus listens to us and follows us. Following, adolescent Jesus is handy to have.

Or maybe you prefer the Jesus of John 2? This would be the wedding feast of Cana where Jesus performs his first miracle in this Gospel – changing water into wine. Of course it only happens after his mother does the motherly thing and suggest he do something without actually calling on him to do something. Besides, this is Jesus making more wine for a party. Who wouldn’t want this Jesus in their life?

But what about the Jesus who is rejected in his own hometown in Luke 4? He preaches a sermon that the people don’t want to hear. And that’s putting it mildly. We’re told that they carried him off to the edge of the cliff at the edge of town, intending to throw him off the cliff. People don’t like to be told things they don’t like. It can cause a backlash.

What about the Jesus of Luke 6 that asks – “Why do you call me Lord, Lord, but do not do what I tell you to do?” Or the Jesus of Matthew 16 who says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This isn’t a well liked Jesus. This is the Jesus we often would rather just ignore because he is making demands on us that go beyond being friends. This is much more. It’s like Jesus wants control over our life or something.

We, like those who heard Jesus, get upset when Jesus won’t listen to us and obey us.  Too often we would rather silence him and throw him off the cliff. Or just send him elsewhere.

But that’s not the choice we get. We don’t get to choose which Jesus we get. Jesus comes and makes demands on us – not because Jesus has a big ego or needs affirmation or is a narcissist. Nope. We get a Jesus who makes demands because he loves us in unbelievable ways. And Jesus wants us to be all in. He might not be the Jesus we prefer, but he is the Jesus that we need.