Church is pretty simple

Church is a pretty simple thing when you get to the core of it. Church is about being with a group of people who want to be disciples – to learn what Jesus taught and to go and do it. We open the bible and read what Jesus said.

Here’s the part that gets complicated. Church is full of broken and sinful people. Dare I say hypocrites? And boy oh boy, the leaders of the church, like the pastor, are no exception! (being a pastor myself, I can say that with a level of authority).

So how does this brokenness and sinfulness make things complicated? Well, often it makes us focus on the wrong things. Or it causes us to beat ourselves up pretty good because we failed at something related to this. Or is blurs our vision. Or it makes us uncomfortable. Or it causes us to compare ourselves to others – seeing how they are worse than me. Or it confuses us into thinking the institution is what’s most important. Or we get distracted by money. Or we fight over little things that don’t matter. Or we forget about the fact that we, and everyone else is made in the image of God. Or…all of that and then some.

Church, as a concept is simple. But because church is people, it’s complicated and messy.

Thank God that God is the business of restoration, forgiveness, mercy, grace, transformation – life, death, and resurrection.

While the concept of church is easy, and the reality is messy and complicated, it all sums up to this – it’s worth it.

Can we stop pretending?

Can we stop pretending that our national policies and attitudes about foreigners and immigrants are based on what it means to be a Christian? If you want to be upset with me for asking this question, your problem isn’t really with me. It’s with God. Below is the Scripture passages about what God thinks about the subject.

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 22:21

“You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 23:9

‘Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God. – Leviticus 19:10

‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. ‘The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God. – Leviticus 19:33-34

‘When you reap the harvest of your land, moreover, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field nor gather the gleaning of your harvest; you are to leave them for the needy and the alien. I am the LORD your God.'” – Leviticus 23:22

There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the LORD your God.'” Leviticus 24:22

‘Now in case a countryman of yours becomes poor and his means with regard to you falter, then you are to sustain him, like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you. – Leviticus 25:35

“He executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and shows His love for the alien by giving him food and clothing. “So show your love for the alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:18-19

‘Cursed is he who distorts the justice due an alien, orphan, and widow.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ – Deuteronomy 27:1

The LORD protects the strangers; He supports the fatherless and the widow, But He thwarts the way of the wicked. – Psalm 146:9

and do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another.’ – Zachariah 7:10

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts. – Malachi 3:5

For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ “Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? – Matthew 25:35-46

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:2

Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; – 1 John 1:5

Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. – Romans 12:13

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Galatians 5:14

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. – Galatians 3:28

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. – Romans 13:10

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, – Ephesians 2:19

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” … -Luke 10:25-37 – the parable of the Good Samaritan

Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. – 3 John 1:5-8

Grasping the need

“…genuine grief and lament is a sign of repentance. Grief is the doorway to repentance. Without grief we will not come anywhere near comprehending the depth of the problem nor will we have a profound enough grasp of our need to repent. Unless we enter into that place of grief, it is too easy to just jump into solutions without having realized the depth of our sin. And if we haven’t recognized the depth of our sin, we will think that our lives are shaped by our choices rather than our habits and ever our addictions. It will be too easy to thing that if we just tweak our behavior here and there, things will change. And any solutions that assume our choices are the only problem will be shallow. “

(Excerpt taken from pg. 176, of Romans Disarmed, by Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh, 2019.)

We do confession and forgiveness at the beginning of most of our worship services in the Lutheran tradition. I see it as one of the most important parts of worship. Yet, too often I wonder if too many people just say the words without understanding what they are doing or saying. Has it just become a part of the service that we do without thinking about the importance of it? I don’t know.

I was drawn to the quote above because in my experience, there is great truth and wisdom stated. I see the need for grief in our current immigration system and how we treat immigrants. There is a need for repentance that goes far beyond the current debate and situation. We aren’t even touching the real issue around immigration – just a symptom.

As a nation, we have struggle with immigration since our founding and even before. Which is ironic given that we are nation made up of immigrants. Yet the cycle that persists is that one group of immigrants is devalued and treated poorly. After a generation or two, that group is considered to be a part of the culture and they in turn haze the next group of immigrants. And the cycle continues.

But why?

So much brokenness. Why do we insist on brokenness? Why do we insist on devaluing and dehumanizing any group of people? So we can think of ourselves as somehow better? Is that really what it’s about? Are we really that shallow and insecure?

If we ever want a better immigration system and treatment of immigrants, it will need to start with grief, just as the authors state. It will require for us to acknowledge that there is a need to repent and to change. Not in little things, but in habits of action and thought – changes in attitudes and worldviews. Until we can imagine a different world that what we currently live in, we will persist in our brokenness.

Immigration is not the only challenge that we face that is broken and requires us to grieve and repent and change. It just happens to be the hot topic right now. It is the topic that gets an emotional response from people. But like all things that cause an emotional response, it won’t last. It can’t. Emotion can only take a person or a culture so far until you are emotionally spent or distracted by something else that causes an emotional reaction.

There are other ways to handle immigration. But that requires imagination. Until we are willing to acknowledge how broken we are – to acknowledge the reality of where we are – we can’t begin to imagine how it can be different. In any journey there are two points that are most important – the starting point and the ending point. Knowing those two things allows you to craft the journey. Right now, we refuse to acknowledge our starting point and we have no idea where the end point is.

I’ll listen…

I talk with a variety of people each week. When I think about it, the range is far and wide. And I hear about some people who are afraid to talk to a pastor, or this pastor specifically, for any number of reasons. Some think they know my politics and think that my politics will determine who I am willing to talk with and who I will not talk with. You likely don’t really know my politics (it’s complicated) and regardless, I’m not going to let politics get in the way of offering pastoral care. That’s just stupid.

Some might think that a pastor, or this pastor specifically, might judge someone based on what they have done so they are afraid that I’ll condemn someone for whatever it is they are confessing. If that were the case, I probably wouldn’t be talking with anyone – we’re all guilty of something, some sin, some brokenness. That includes me. And anyway, I really don’t need to condemn people – people are pretty good at knowing when they have screwed up. They are often beating themselves up far worse that anything I could ever tell them.

Regardless, I want to be really clear. And the best way to do that, is to just state it plainly.

Who ever you are, whatever you have done – I’m willing to listen. You are welcome to reach out – especially when you are in need.

If you are straight, LGBTQ+, unsure, married, single, divorced or anything else please know that you are welcome to talk with me. I’ll listen.

If you’ve had an abortion or think that abortion is the greatest sin ever, you can talk with me. I’ll listen.

If you are conservative, liberal, Democrat, Republican, third party, or no party, or not even registered to vote, a Trump lover or an AOC lover – I’ll listen to you. I’ll offer pastoral care that is needed.

If you are rich or poor, I’ll listen.

What ever is going on in your life – you are welcome. You are welcome to reach out. I’ll listen.

And there’s a good chance that I’ll do something else. I’ll probably tell you that I don’t know the answers and that sometimes life sucks. But you are not alone. I’ll proclaim grace to you because everyone needs to hear these words – grace is not getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve.

You are welcome.

Bootstraps

“You need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this phrase before. The intention is that you need to be self-sufficient.

I’d like to challenge the notion though. I don’t believe anyone is self-sufficient or ever has been. It’s a lie. You literally can’t get through the day without having been helped in some way, shape, or form, by someone else. If you drive, you are driving on roads that someone else built, in a vehicle that was designed by someone else, and built by someone else. Every day, you are touched by many people and what they do to make your life easier. This extends to food, housing, transportation, technology, entertainment, knowledge, family, etc. But if the intellectual argument doesn’t make you question this old saying, try this:

Put on a pair of boots. (or some kind of shoes with laces). Now sit on the floor.

Now try to get up without doing anything else beyond pulling on your shoelaces or the things (straps) that you loop the laces through.

Go ahead, I dare you to.

If you can do it, then I’d love to see video proof.

So why do we think something that is impossible to do is good advice for people who are down because of poverty, brokenness, and other challenges?

We can’t make good assumptions that someone can just get up and get going and improve their life because we are capable of doing that in our current station in life. We don’t all start at a level playing field in life unfortunately. And often we have no idea what someone has been through just to get to where they are now when we encounter them.

It’s much easier to get up by someone pulling you up, than it is by trying to do it yourself. And often, that’s what we actually experience – whether we want to admit it or not. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s one of the most Christ-like things we can do – to pull someone up, to empower someone.

Something has to give

It’s a common statement that no one, when they are at the end of their life, has ever said that they wished they had worked more in their life. The most common regret is that we worked too much and not spent enough time with family and loved ones.

It is also a common American belief that our economy should constantly be growing. But for the economy to grow, it requires more work – time away from family and loved ones.

The two ideas are in conflict with each other.

While we claim to value relationships and people over profits, we put into practice a different set of beliefs. Another way of saying this is that we are believers in relationships, but functioning producers. We produce, so we can consume.

This is a far cry from what God has made us to be. God didn’t create us to be consumers who would never be satisfied. Pharoah demanded more bricks. Pharoah demanded work seven days a week. God offered Sabbath – resting from producing so that our identities would not be falsely tied to what we make. Rather our identities are tied to whose we are. Sabbath is counter cultural in our American culture.

Unending growth comes at a cost. It turns people into commodities. But that growth has to be paid for somehow. The initial payment is in labor and resources. The deeper cost is brokenness, health, exploitation of resources, disorders, anxiety, power struggles, etc.

Believing in unending growth means that you can never be satisfied. That there is never enough. That there is a constant war for resources going on. That the only the strong survive. That the ends justify the means. These are not Christ-like ideals or beliefs.

Christ-like ideals and beliefs are different. As St. Augustine said – there is no rest, until we rest in God. We worship a God who gives us satisfaction and rest. We worship a God who is abundant and tells us that there is more than enough for everyone. We worship a God who brings peace. We worship a God who values the weak, the outcast, and the poor. We worship a God who judges the means.

Something has to give. Is it our beliefs or how we actually function? Let us be congruent. Let us be honest.

Resistance

What is it about humanity that we resist things?

Why do we resist change, even though change is a guarantee in life. Our bodies change – there isn’t anything you can do to stop that. But somehow we think we can create environments that are resistant to change. How foolish.

Why do we resist doing things that are for our benefit? There are real-world consequences to this. Regardless of your beliefs about climate change, doesn’t it just make sense to be good stewards of the environment? We have to live here after all. And there is that whole biblical imperative about being stewards.

Why do we resist following what Jesus tells us to do – especially if we claim to be Christians, followers of Jesus? Why is it that so many followers seem to have no qualms about ignoring what Jesus says? If these same folks had the same level of devotion to Jesus that they had for _______, imagine what the church would be like. Imagine what the world would be like. You can fill in the blank with any number of things. For some, it might be a sports team, for others it might be money, or the flag, or work, or whatever else.

Why do we resist seeing how connected we are to one another? While we think we are totally independent of one another, we aren’t. You couldn’t make it through a single day, an hour even, without being touched in some way by at least one other human being somewhere. Why? Because you probably didn’t build your own house, pave the road you are driving on (let alone build your own car), grow all of your food, or make all of your technological and material things. I’m willing to bet a million dollars (money I didn’t create), that at the core, there is not a single person on the planet that is totally independent. So why do we resist being interconnected?

Why do we resist…

Nothing I say

Nothing I say will change a single mind. That’s just reality.

Nothing I write will convince anyone to agree with me. That’s also reality.

Nothing I do will cause another person to change. That’s certainly reality.

Seems a bit hopeless and pointless when it’s put this way. But really, it’s quite freeing.

All I can do is be open to change myself. To be a better person. To treat others better. To live the way of peace. To show respect, whether it is deserved or not. To love the unlovable. To forgive. To show an alternative to hatred and fear.

This coming Sunday Jesus says to wipe the dust off your feet if you are not welcomed in a place. Not everyone will be open to hearing you. Not everyone will be open to change. Many will not in fact. Changing is often about not being in control.

So the question is this – in the midst of fear and anger and hatred, in the midst of a sea of anxiety, what do I do/say/write?

You are not alone. There is another way. Death does not have the final say. Fear, anger, and hatred are empty and unsatisfying.

I can’t change someone else. I can barely be open to change for myself many times. But maybe that’s all we need – a willingness to change, to be transformed. To encounter God.

What I learned…

I just returned from a two week vacation. Here’s what I learned.

  1. It’s important to get away. And for me that requires two weeks once a year. It takes me one week to really unplug. I leave the computer behind. I only pull in email so that I can delete most of it and it doesn’t pile up while I’m gone – but really I only keep what is absolutely necessary for when I return. That means of the roughly 1500 emails I received in the last two weeks, I kept about 60 that need to be dealt with. The rest were trashed.
  2. It’s important to literally get away. For me that means we literally go somewhere else. And the farther, the better. Going away means being unavailable. How can I possibly do something for someone when I am miles and miles away. This allows me to relax and enjoy the time away – I don’t trouble my mind with could of’s and should of’s.
  3. I love to travel. This isn’t a new learning. It’s more a reminder. On this trip we did discover something though – we like to travel deep. There are people who like to travel wide. To each their own. Here’s what I mean. We came across a couple who was traveling to many different parts of Maine in order to see more of the state. We traveled and set up shop in just three locations – with one location being our home base for half the vacation. We wanted to explore specific locations and really get to learn about the area. There are positives and negatives to each of these travel philosophies. The key is to understand and accept which one is most fulfilling to you.
  4. Unplugging is vital. I already talked a bit about this. But there’s one other aspect of this that is important. For the last two weeks, I have no idea what happened in the world. And I don’t want to know really. My mind needed time to rest from the distractions and hustle and bustle that is never ending in our world. I needed time to just be present and away from the onslaught of “news.”
  5. Listening. Being away is also an opportunity to listen to God. Even in the midst of lots of activities that a busy family of six has on vacation, it is different. Our schedule was different. And that difference allows me to hear what God is saying – to me, to the church, the world, the poor, those in power, etc. God has a lot to say, if only we would listen. We can hear God when we close our mouths and stop typing and tweeting for a bit.
  6. Seeing the world differently. Getting away allows one to adjust their eyesight and their hearing. You see things that you didn’t notice before. You see and hear the underlying beliefs and attitudes. You see through the shallowness of some things. You see these things for what they are. You see what you are confronted with and this allows you to ask questions of what God is calling you to do in response.

What’s your job?

I’m a pastor. That means many things to many people. There are many varying expectations about what it means to be a pastor and what a pastor does.

I’m not going to list all the things that I do as a pastor. But I will say this – there is one underlying thing that is the foundation for everything that I do. It is the summation of my job description.

My job is to make disciples.

Everything relates to this. My job isn’t to entertain. It’s not to do the ministry on behalf of everyone in the church. My job isn’t to save the institution. It’s not to keep people comfortable in their thoughts and beliefs.

My primary job is to make disciples.

And guess what – that’s your job too.

How I go about it may look different from your way. But both of us together have the same job – to make disciples. Jesus said so in Matthew 28. It’s the great commission.

I can’t emphasize this enough. My job is not to save the institution. Here’s why. If our focus is on saving an institution, then really we aren’t doing what we are supposed to. Plus, when we focus on saving the institution, what we really focus on is maintaining the status quo – maintaining things as they are. An institution exists for it’s own survival too often. But it certainly doesn’t have to.

If, instead, we focused on doing our job – making more disciples – you know what happens? The institution doesn’t get caught up in the argument over what is off limits and how much change it will allow. When the focus is on our purpose of having an institution, then the institution willingly adapts and changes to meet the needs. It transforms in order to support the movement and purpose. In other words, it thrives. And it is healthier as a result.

When we focus on trying to save something, it’s usually a sure sign that it won’t last because our focus is on the wrong thing. The reason for there being an institution is far more important than the institution itself.

For those of you who care about saving the institution of the church hear this – your best bet is change focus. To let go of trying to save the church and instead focus on living out the mission of the church. It is in being the church and carrying out the mission of the church that the institution of the church will survive and thrive. It will look different, no doubt. But the important thing is that the institution will have found it’s appropriate place in the life of faith – supporting the work of the mission of God.