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A lesson from a fallen branch

Had I been fully awake, I would have known what had just happened. I have cut down trees and heard them fall many times.   But at 5:00 am on a Saturday morning, the sound was downright eerie.  It was sort of a “WHAAAAOOOOOMPH” with a bit of an echo.  Charlene and I were both in that space between asleep and sort of awake and simultaneously said “What was that?”  I went to the window and looked out into the predawn light and realized after a second that I could not see the street.  And then I exclaimed, “Oh my gosh we have a tree down!”   The largest branch, almost 30 feet long, from a very old, very tall silver maple had fallen across the roadway.  Fortunately, it was very early, none of our neighbors were yet out for their walk, and no cars were driving by.  No property was damaged.  

The day before had recorded heavy winds, at times gusting to over 60 mph.  But that tree and that branch had survived tornados and microbursts.  So why now?   It wasn’t until the sun was fully up and I could see more clearly that I realized what had happened.  Over the years that large branch had slowly rotted away.  I could easily poke my foot into the end of the branch.  At what was the top part of the branch that no one could see from the ground there was a crack that was so long and wide I could stick my whole hand into it.  The branch looked good, and still had leaves on it, yet it had lost its support and stability.  It had weakened from the inside out.

Recently, I re-read Madeline L’Engle’s book A Severed Wasp.  It is a unique novel that builds on an earlier character of L’Engle’s named Katherine Forrester.  Now in her seventies and retired Katherine Forrester Vignera finds herself in New York City preparing for a benefit concert for her friend and retired Bishop Felix Bodeway.  At one point conversation between friends revolves around an essay by George Orwell in which he recounts severing a wasp that was sucking jam from a piece of bread.  The wasp was unaware of its fate until it tried to fly away. The conversation then revolves around how so many like the wasp are unaware of their brokenness.  It is Bishop Bodeway who concludes “One we recognize that we’re broken, we have the chance to mend” (pp. 53-54).  I would add that we often don’t recognize that we are broken until we face stress in life.  Like my poor tree, it looked fine until it could no longer withstand the stress of sustained winds gusting up to 60 miles an hour.  I had no idea that it was that broken because it looked sturdy.  What does it look like for you and me to be truly sturdy, to have a life foundation that can withstand the high winds of stress?

In what is known as the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew chapters 5-7, Jesus gives his listeners word picture after word picture that reveal the character of one who claims to follow Jesus.  At the very end of that sermon, he tells the listeners that when we put his words into practice as we live out the characteristics of kindness, forgiveness, commitment,  unconditional love, generosity, faith in God’s provision, and communication with God in prayer that we have a solid foundation.  His final word picture is two builders (Matthew 7:24-27).  Each built a home.  Imagine for a moment a house built with whatever the latest amenities of the day were available.  Each builder was proud of what they had achieved.  However, there was one difference.  One house was built on a foundation of stone.  The other was built on a foundation of sand.  When the stress test of nature came in the form of rains, flooding, and high winds, only the house on the solid foundation stood.  The house built on sand collapsed.

For many of us, this is such a familiar story that evokes songs sung in childhood and even in adolescence.  But don’t let its familiarity cloud the significance of the lesson.  So many of us look so good on the outside, we have all the accouterments of success in our culture.  But like my tree branch, we are hollow inside.  We do all we can to fill the void and it seems to swallow up all our efforts.  I often will joke with my wife after a compliment that I know I am only as good as my last win.  That is a joke in our relationship (I am pretty sure), but it is not a joke when effort and externals become our goal.  When life is about my efforts and my achievements, then I really am only as good as my last win.

Take a few minutes and give careful thought to your foundation.  What is really the foundation of the way you live?  How does what you claim to be your foundation hold up under the “sustained winds” of stress that hits you seemingly out of nowhere?  What holds up the “house” you are building?  What would cause it to collapse?  

Last Friday, as we went to bed it seemed that our tree was standing tall.  But by Saturday morning the stress of the wind had been too much and it took a mighty fall.  It had collapsed under the weight of trying to hold up when it was actually hollow.


Thoughts on longevity

Charlene and I are sitting here in Eastern Europe days before I am about to perform a second “destination” wedding in less than a year.   This past September we were in Hawaii.  It is not that we planned these trips and yet one could say we did.  Here is what I mean. A long time ago as a new youth pastor I read an article that outlined a plan for a five year stay in a youth position.  While I understood what the article was trying to communicate, to a profession that statistically had an 18 month shelf-life,  I rejected the concept for my own life and ministry.  It seemed to me that if I determined my end date in advance, I would be limited in what I did, the goals I set, or even the depth of my relationships.  So, in concert with my wife, we committed that we would stay in the position where God called us until we were certain He was moving us on.  That led to what has become a journey of longevity in ministry.  We were involved in youth ministry in the same church for 12 years, first as volunteers and then paid staff; until God led us to transition to a different role in that church. Three years later God called us to leave the town and church we had called home for 15 years and take a pastorate in the Western Suburbs of Chicago.  We went from a multi-staff church of roughly 600 to a small church with one pastor and sometimes a youth pastor.   We went from a rural community to a suburb of a major city. There were many changes and adjustments.  As I write this we have been leading our small church for over 25 years.  Today I am reflecting on longevity.

When one stays where they believe God has placed them, for as long as God desires there are both challenges and victories, struggles and joys, disappointments and blessings, all wrapped up together.  But all in all, there is a unique fruit to longevity in ministry that is undeniable, and only realized in time.  We have had the privilege, like this week of officiating the wedding of a young lady we more or less watched grow up.  In fact, we officiated her parent’s wedding.  How does one put a premium on that kind of privilege?  As I was contemplating this post, a few days ago our doorbell rang.  I answered to door to another young person inviting my wife and I to a high school graduation party.  We were there when this now young adult was born and now, she stood before me “all grown up.” 

Ministry.  Longevity.  Privilege.  Reward.  I could rehearse story after story but all too often they would be stories that would mean a great deal to my wife and me, more than they would anyone else because we were there.  I could also rehearse the pain and sorrow of being closely involved in the lives of people in a broken world.  I could replay the many doubts in my own mind as to why I was staying, along with the times I thought about just walking away.  I can recount the times I have been questioned by others regarding my tenure as they wanted me to consider if I had stayed too long.  And yet here we are in this moment, in this place, resting in the presence of God and enjoying His grace in this privileged time.

If you are reading this and you are “just” a layperson in a local church, you are very important.  You are the one who encourages your pastor.  You are the one who receives his or her ministry. You are the one who raises your hand to volunteer.  You are the one who prays for your pastor even when you may not know what he or she is experiencing.  You are part of the reason that longevity is possible. 

If you are reading this and you are a pastor, in whatever role that you fill in your church, bear this in mind:  Longevity, is not access to power.  The news media, and blog posts are replete with accounts of pastoral abuse and that reality should break our hearts and call us to account.  The scriptures are replete with God’s anger over shepherds who abuse the sheep.  Longevity is service for the sake of obedience to God.  Longevity is pouring your life into another, then watching as they choose to walk a different path.  And when they have walked away, you do it all over again with another.  Longevity, is then being there when the prodigal returns and you give them yet another chance.  Longevity means that you stick it out when the budget is suffering and the numbers are going down, because you know in your heart God has put you in this place for this time.  Longevity for me meant that I had to work to ignore the siren call to church growth metrics and grandiose visions and simply turn my focus to the people to whom I had been called.

Is it worth it?  That is a question we each can only answer for ourselves.  I can honestly say, that for me and my wife as we prepare to participate in this life changing event of a young lady we have known for her whole life, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”   And yet, next week we may need to revisit the core of our calling and obedience again when we face an equally disappointing situation.  We will need to remind ourselves that even in that new struggle we are where God has placed us until He says otherwise.  That is the heart and reality of longevity.

Ministry.  Longevity.  Privilege.  Reward.

Appreciating the Simple Christmas Story

I am sure that nothing I will say in this post is earthshaking or new.  This is one of those “I just have to say it” posts.   Those of us who celebrate Christmas and rejoice over the birth of Jesus Christ, have also taken on a whole host of romantic notions about the birth of Jesus that, well just aren’t really there.  Now I know that what I am about to say, may upset some who think I am taking the meaning out of Christmas.  But I have found that there is more meaning in trying to ascertain facts then there is in romanticized notions.   By the way I will add some resources for further reading at the end of this.

Let’s just start with the obvious.  Mary and Jesus did not have halos.  I know radical right?!?  Mary was an ordinary Jewish girl who was asked to take on an extraordinary task.  Jesus was in his birth just like any other Jewish baby boy.  If you want a biblical reference try out Hebrews 2:17.   Historically, we know that there was a census in Palestine at around 2 B.C. (BCE).  That is most likely the year Jesus was born. 

The longest narrative we have in the Bible regarding the birth of Jesus is found in Luke 2.  And I have found it interesting how basic this narrative is.  In fact it is so basic that many have sought to “zhuzh it up”  with some color.  But maybe our best approach is to just let the text be the text.  Radical right?  

So we have no evidence that there was a donkey.  It is not mentioned.  In fact, as a veteran of several donkey basketball games I can personally attest that a man who truly loves his wife would never let her ride on a donkey while pregnant.  Not to mention that according to Luke 2:24 Mary and Joseph offered “a pair of doves or two young pigeons,” which was what people who could not afford a lamb were able to bring as a sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 12:8).  So how could they have afforded a donkey?

We have no evidence that Mary was going into labor as they arrived in Bethlehem.  This makes for some great drama, but Luke, a medical doctor, does not include such a detail.  He simply writes, “While they were there the time came for the baby to be born” (Luke 2:6).  So the notion of a poor 15 year old girl bumping along on a donkey for 90 miles trying hard not to push as she comes into town around midnight, may need to be reimagined.

And that leads us to where they were staying.  In a land in which wood for major projects had to be imported it was not a wooden stable, with a slanted roof.  It was definitely not in the basement/cave of some Bethlehem hotel with a cranky desk clerk who would not give them a room.  The word that was translated “inn” in so many of our older translations of the Bible is actually a term that means “guest room.”  It is most likely that Joseph and Mary stayed with relatives.  The premium put on hospitality in that culture would demand that someone take this couple in.  According to scholars and archaeologists the average house in that region, at the time, was a small square structure with a flat roof.  Sometimes a room was added on for a guest room.  In the main room, all activity took place, including sleeping.  At one end of that main room was a section that may have been dug out a bit and had a door where the family’s livestock would be let in at night for protection.  Troughs, or mangers were often dug out of the floor to keep the animals fed and relatively quiet during the night.  Mary could well have given birth in the main room (not an uncommon occurrence) and the small trough or manger may well have been place where she laid the baby.  

I could go on, about ways we have romanticized the shepherds, and notions of perfect spotless lambs being swaddled and protected, but that may be too much to swallow.  Let’s just leave it with this.  Maybe we should just marvel at the fact that God the Son, chose to enter our world, to go through the birthing process, to dwell on this earth as a human being, for the express purpose of being the atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:9-11).  That in and of itself is an amazing reality.  Had God wanted us to know all the specifics he would have told us.  But maybe we can be satisfied to let what was unsaid, be unsaid and marvel at what we actually know. 

Here are some interesting links and even a book recommendation for your own study should you desire:

Jospeh’s Simplicity Was Actually Maturity by Archer Niyonizgize

Debunking Popular Christmastime Myths by Chad Bird

Why Was There a Roman Census at the Time of Jesus’ Birth? by Alyssa Roat

Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels  Kenneth E Bailey (InterVarsity Press, 2008).

Words Matter

A response to January 6, 2021

I remember teaching my very first college class.  After introducing myself and giving a bit of my background and training I launched into my first lecture.  As I observed my students feverishly taking notes as I taught, I had this thought: They really believe me right now.  I think as a young 20 something it was one of the first times in my life that I understood the simple yet profound truth that words matter.  As a pastor for nearly 36 years I have been reminded time and time again that words matter. 

In Proverbs 18:21 we read, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”  Words not only matter words are powerful.  I hope will not soon forget that on January 6, 2021 the world witnessed the destructive power of words.  Yesterday, as I watched the live stream of the tragedy in our nation’s capital, I found myself shaken, angry, and deeply saddened.  And it was not lost on me that it began with words.  Words matter.

I went to sleep last night knowing that I needed to use my words given to me as a gift from God to speak into what our world witnessed.  I woke up this morning with that same realization.  I have read what many have already uttered or written.  From my perspective as a pastor the question is simply this, how should a person who claims to believe and follow the teachings of Jesus respond to this?  Three not so profound thoughts come to mind:

Use your words wisely and carefully.  As humans we have been granted the gift of speech.  Another verse in Proverbs tells us “The words of the reckless pierce like swords, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” (Proverbs 12:18).  We have witnessed in living color the horror of reckless words.  We can’t change that.  But we can each individually choose to use our words, spoken, written, posted, texted, Tweeted etc. wisely.  There has been a lot said over the past four years about white evangelical Christians.  I would simply say this, if you claim to follow Jesus, then you need to make sure that the words you use truly reflect the Jesus you claim to follow.  Your words must be words of love, even in correction, healing, and peace.  Words matter.

Be a person of peace.  Jesus made it abundantly clear that those who would follow him should “Love their enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44).  Over the past 5 years I have heard and read more vitriol than I can remember coming from “christians.”

I use the small “c” and quotes because the kind of anger and venom I have heard and read over the past five years, does not reflect the person of Jesus Christ.  God calls us to be people of peace and to leave judgment up to him.  “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).  The operative term in this verse is “as far as it depends on you.”  I am responsible before God to be a person of peace.  The rest of that chapter reminds us that God will avenge and we are to be people to show love, grace, and practical kindness to those who would be our “enemies.”   A person of peace understands that words matter.

Don’t confuse politics with Jesus.  I once had a conversation with a gravelly voiced itinerant preacher from North Dakota, a distant relative of my wife.  I don’t know how we got on the topic of politics, but his words ring in my ear to this day.  “Scott, I used to be a Democrat because I thought they were for labor.  But I soon realized they were just out for themselves.  So, I became a Republican because I thought they had conservative values. But frankly they weren’t any better than the Democrats.  Now mind you, I vote in every election.  It is my duty as a citizen.  But every election I do the same thing.  I just write in Jesus.  Because he really is the only answer.  If we would just follow Jesus and forget about politics, it would all work out.”  There is not a law that comes out of Washington D.C. that is going to impact eternity.  There is not a law that will be enacted in any state in our union this year that will change anyone’s heart.  There is not a city ordinance that will impact anyone spiritually.  Pray for our leaders, pray for the peace of our country, but don’t put your hope in political rhetoric or systems.  Don’t ever confuse politics with Jesus. 

What we witnessed on January 6, 2021 was ultimately the result of reckless words that had been part of the national conversation for years.  When you and I as individuals determine to live lives that truly reflect the clear teachings of Jesus we will realize that we can be used to help others, and maybe even change lives.  Because words matter.

Looking back, to move forward

As I woke up to our clock radio this morning, I heard the on air talent celebrating that we made it through 2020.  That same sentiment was in many Facebook posts I read as I scrolled through.  Probably more than at any other time in which I can remember people seem to be putting a lot of hope in the new year.  It seems we are breathing this collective sigh of relief.  And there is some hope on the horizon but frankly, our hope for those of us who follow Jesus should not be in a vaccine.  Like so many others I have been reflecting on 2020 and have come up with just 5 reminders.  They aren’t necessary lessons learned, but just familiar realities that have been highlighted for me over the past 12 months. 

One of the sentiments from many as we peer into 2021 seems to be “It can’t be worse can it?”  I think of a line from that great theologian Homer Simpson at the beginning of The Simpson Movie several years back, when Bart exclaimed: “This is the worst day of my life!”  To which Homer replies: “Worst day so far.”   I truly hope as we put 2020 in the rear-view mirror that it is the worst year of our lives and not just the worst year so far.  But who knows?  And that is my first reminder from 2020.  I really don’t have a clue.  No one could have predicted what we have been through collectively since early this past year.  While there have been cataclysmic events, and natural disasters in the past an invisible virus that shut down the world is not in our collective realm of experience.  I don’t really have a clue what to expect in 2021.  I have hopes, and dreams, and plans, but I need to hold those all up in a open hand before God and realize that I need to live each day to its fullest.   I really don’t have a clue about the future, but my God does.  I rest in him.

How many of us wish we would have invested in Zoom last January?  Wait.  How many of us even knew about Zoom last January?  In this past year I have learned how to set up a Zoom meeting so that I could lead an interactive Bible study.  I have put my B.A. in Communication: Broadcasting to work, speaking to a lens hoping someone is watching, and then editing the video each week after our Facebook Live services.  My wife and I have communicated with our children and our grandchildren and our friends and church members via Zoom.  Can you imagine going through 2020 without our technology?  But there is the second reminder for me: Technology is just a tool.  While it is great to be able to interact with loved ones, friends, and business colleagues via technology, we have realized how exhausting it is to carry on a conversation in which one cannot really see hand gestures, or body language.  It is frustrating when Wi-Fi speed slows down and we get choppy sentences.  Technology is great, but it is just a tool.  I have been reminded more than ever how important real, live, in person, face to face communication is.

And with that I have been reminded anew of this fact: Relationships are a priority.  There is a lot of talk about returning to normal in the new year.  But I hope that I will never lose sight of how important relationships are.  We each need one another.  We were not designed to live in isolation.  In Genesis 2:18 we discover that there was one part of God’s creation that he determined was not good.  As he surveys all he has done God states: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  Since the beginning we were designed for relationship.  The struggles with loneliness and isolation due to the pandemic of 2020 have emphasized for all of us the priority relationships should take in our lives.  I know for me I am even more committed to building and enhancing my relationships.

But it is not just individual relationships that matter. Community is important. Just as we need individual relationships, we need the broader community.  I think what has grieved my heart more than anything this past year has been to realize afresh how divided we really are.  Politics have divided us.  Race has divided us.  Even the pandemic has divided us.  And all too often we have allowed our differences to be barriers to scale instead of tables where we could sit, and listen, and share, and learn, and build community.  I am personally a firm believer that every human being on planet earth is created in the image of God.  As a result, I have a deep conviction that I should treat every person regardless of race, ethnicity, political persuasion, religious affiliation, or sexual orientation with dignity and respect.  It is okay to agree to disagree.  That is the essence of community.  It is not okay to denigrate another person because we don’t see eye to eye.  Everyone has a story and everyone should have the opportunity to tell their story so that we can find those areas where we can work together to build community.

Community reminds me of my interdependence on those around me.  And my faith reminds me that I am dependent.  I am dependent on God who walked with me through 2020.  I am dependent on God who is already in 2021.  I am dependent on Jesus Christ who entered our global community as many celebrated at Christmas.  Since I have no clue as to what the future holds, I am dependent on the one who says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega…who is, and was, and who is to come, the Almighty.” (Revelation 1:8).  On January 26, 2020, I stood before our congregation and said these words, “In this new year we will each need to reimagine what our church looks like.  It is going to be a different year for us all.”  I had no clue at that moment how true those words would be come.  But I learned in the coming weeks how much I needed to depend on God who did know what would come.

As we enter this new year may we each learn from the lessons of 2020 and then strive for a new normal. One that depends on God, builds healthy interpersonal relationships, and fosters true community.


Learning to Lament

I am learning to understand a prayer language that for many of us as western Christians has all but been lost.  My guess is that many of us only used the term “lament” as we read through the book of Lamentations, if we read through the book of Lamentations.  In fact, my guess is, that like me, many of us only know one small portion of Lamentations and that is the portion in chapter 3 verses 21-26 that has the words “…for his compassions never fail, they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”   It is from these verses that the favorite hymn Great Is Thy Faithfulness was inspired.  I have nothing against Thomas Chisholm’s hymn.  I love to sing it. It has been one of those hymns that has offered hope and a promise of God’s presence for many. But if this hymn is our experience with lament then we have missed the depth and the power and the soul searching reality of this prayer language.

This morning, I am still processing the somewhat sudden death of a friend and colleague that Charlene and I had worked with nearly every Thursday evening during the school year and on Monday evenings during the summer.  Our common goal, our common passion was to connect with and resource educationally an underserved community in our affluent city.  On Thursdays we worked together in a tutoring program that our late friend started over 30 years ago.  We considered ourselves the “newbies” having only been part of the program for the past 11 years.  Today, due to the pandemic and changes in the policies of the subsidized housing authority and now the loss of our friend we don’t know the future of the program.  Lament is the prayer language that grapples with compounded loss in any form.

Am I grieving?  Yes.  But I find that grief is only part of the process. In fact, this morning the Spirit reminded me that grief is the emotion of loss and lament is the language of loss.  We need both.  I need to hurt, and allow myself to feel the loss, and experience the hole in my heart, and wonder what then next step is.  I also need to believe that God is big enough, and loving enough, and caring enough, and patient enough, as I cry out “Why?!?”   And sometimes that is an angry cry.  While I know in my heart that the “Why” questions are largely unanswerable; I also know that God gives me the space to ask them.  Quite frankly this is an odd place for me to be, because as a pastor, I am in one sense required to be the strong, compassionate, listener with the words of comfort.  But today I can’t shepherd myself and I again cry out “Why?”   I tell myself that it is okay to not be able to shepherd myself, but it really isn’t.  And I keep crying out to God.  And I believe that it okay for me to ask God the why questions; because it was okay for Jesus when on the cross he quoted a lament psalm and cried out to his Father, “My God, My God why have your forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1).  And like me he did not get a response.  God gives us the space to lament, to cry out, to wonder why and to cling to the hope that his presence is enough for the moment.

The loss of our friend is compounded by the losses we have faced universally due to this global pandemic. And all loss is significant to the one who is facing it.  Lament, as a prayer language gets that.  Lament gives each person room to tell their story and the God who gave us lament listens. Because He knows your story is important, especially to you, and it needs to be heard.  Sometimes I don’t need anyone to fix it or me, I know I don’t need that now as I grieve and express my heart.  I just need to be heard.  My story is important.  So is yours.  My loss is real.  So is yours.  The loss of walking across a stage and receiving a diploma is real.  The loss of getting family together for a celebration is real.  The loss of joining together and sharing in the grief of a funeral, because of social distancing is real.  The loss of power after a storm is real.  The loss of not having our school year start that way we had envisioned is real for students, parents, and teachers.  The loss of a friend who had a passion to see underserved children educated for 30 years is real.  And lament is the prayer language that gives us the opportunity to express our story and our loss in real, raw, gut wrenching terms, because that is what we feel.  It is real.

One final thought as I am a neophyte in learning this prayer language.  Those who have faced loss and without maybe knowing the term have entered the prayer language of lament know a fact that may be hard for some to accept time does not heal.  Lament is the prayer language that helps us understand that.  As we move beyond the loss, as we recycle through the various elements of grief, as we learn to adjust to new normals, we find that it is through lament that we can express to God our frustration with the changes that we did not choose.  It is the prayer language of lament that gives voice to our hope that somehow God will make sense out of this fog we find ourselves in.  It is in lament that we express our desire for things to be different. 

I have a long way to go before I have an understanding of this prayer language called lament.  But for today, just pouring out my heart on a computer screen has been a good first step.  I am learning to trust God enough to tell him what he already knows, how I really feel.  And I find from the exercise of that gut level honesty with God, there is in some unique way an inner strength that helps me just get through this moment of today. 

How Perspectives Change…

My Dad was a pastor.  Hence, I am a PK (Pastor’s Kid).  Our family lived in a parsonage (some of you may call it a manse) from the time I was 6 until after I went away to college at 19.  My sisters and I were thankful that we did not have to live next door to the church.  We felt sorry for other PK’s we knew who had to live next door to the church.  We thought that had to be boring, and mundane, and lonely.  We at least had a neighborhood.  I have been pretty open about the fact that for the longest time, I never wanted to be a pastor; I never wanted to live in a parsonage; and for sure never wanted to live in a parsonage that was next to the church.

Since August 4, 1996, I have lived with my family in a parsonage, across the parking lot from the church where I have served as the pastor (Once you have finished laughing at me you can read on).  I have never seen this arrangement as God getting back at me.  It is more accurately, God changing my heart to be obedient to him regardless the circumstances.  I am fully aware of the sacrifices of no equity and needing to get permission to do home improvement projects.  I am also very blessed to serve a congregation who gives me and my family space respecting the parsonage as our home, and not just a second office.  I am blessed by leadership that wants to make sure that we have a decent home in which to live and grants budget money for the improvements that need to be done.

Just today, I had another change of perspective.  As our world is in the middle of a pandemic, many are doing all they can to stop the spread of the coronavirus (COVID 19).  Our State of Illinois was ordered by the Governor to “shelter in place” which began just a few days ago (3/22/2020).  Only essential personnel are able to be out and about for work, and the rest of us are supposed to stay home unless we need groceries, of have medical needs such as appointments or prescriptions to fill, and we can get gasoline, or go for a walk.  Many are working from home and children are all doing e-learning which is adding more stress to many parents.  It is a challenging situation but best for the common good.

ImageBut I live across the parking lot from the church I pastor, and I am at the time being a solo pastor.  I spend most of my days alone in my office, save for appointments, and errands, and a quick lunch or a cup of coffee.  Now there are virtually no appointments, few if any errands, and I make my own coffee.  But I live across the parking lot from the church.  I can go for a walk and end up in my office.  I sit in my desk chair.  I have my books.  I am in a familiar environment.  I am more content than I ever thought I would be.  My perspective has changed.

In Philippians 4:10-13 the Apostle Paul finally gets to the point of his letter to the church at Philippi.  He is thanking them for a financial gift.  But he reminds them that while he is grateful, he also has all he needs.  He tells them that he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (4:11).  He tells them that he has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (4:12).  What is the secret?  Dependency on Christ (4:13).  Paul’s circumstances do not define him.  His relationship with Jesus does.  The realities of the coronavirus does not define us; relationship with Jesus does.  I am fortunate that in his wisdom God put me in a place where working from “home” has, more or less, been my lot for 23 plus years.  But that does not define me.  A parsonage does not define me.  Being a PK or even a pastor, husband, father, or grandpa, does not define me.  My relationship with Jesus is what defines me.

I keep looking for lessons I can learn personally from all that our world in going through.  I want to learn these lessons for myself.  And today the lesson for me is to see how God has so changed my perspective to the point where I am content in a place, I once thought I never wanted to be.  To put it another way, I learned today that contentment is far more, and dare I say, completely bound up in my relationship with Jesus, than any circumstance in which I find myself.  I think I was somewhat aware of this.  But it took a walk across the parking lot in the middle of a “shelter in place” order due to a global pandemic to open my eyes to how God had been working all along to change my perspective.

When it seems there is no way out…

I grew up in church.  My father was a pastor, making me one of those Pastor’s Kids (PKs).  When the doors were open to the church we were there, mainly because we were the ones to unlock the building and turn on the lights. So, name a Bible story and I have heard it.  And that can be a problem.  All too often those of us who have “grown up” in the church and think we know all the stories have a tendency to accept the sanitized “Sunday School” version and can miss amazing aspects of God in the story.

For the longest time, I had missed the amazing grace of God in a very familiar story told in Sunday School classes throughout the country.  You find the story in 2 Kings 5.  It is about a commander of the army of Aram.  His name was Naaman.  Is it coming back to you?   He had leprosy.  In his household was a young girl, who had been taken captive from Israel, and was now serving his wife.  She had mentioned to her mistress that the prophet in Samaria, referring to Elisha could heal her master.  Naaman goes to the king with this news and the king sends him to Elisha.  The prophet just sends a  servant to tell Naaman to go dunk himself seven times in the Jordan River.  After a lot of fussing and sputtering and arguing with hi s advisors, Naaman complies and he is miraculously healed. 013-elisha-naaman

He goes back to thank and pay Elisha for is services.  But the prophet refuses to accept payment.  So, as we hear the story in Sunday School, he leaves and heads home.  Elisha’s servant chases after Naaman and tells him that the prophet has changed his mind, and he receives a bit of payment that he keeps for himself.  Of course, he is found out and he suffers.  Our Sunday School moral is to trust God and not take stuff that isn’t ours.  And these are good lessons and good things to do.

But we miss a very important point of the story if we just gloss over the things we have heard.  It is found in 2 Kings 5:17-19.  Naaman has accepted the fact that Elisa will not receive payment, so he makes two requests.  First, he asks if he can take as much dirt from Israel that a pair of mules can carry.  In that time many felt that worship of a deity was limited to the place they called home.  So, by taking the soil, he was in essence taking part of the God of Israel with him.  Elisha chooses to not correct this notion. Naaman has a very immature faith, but it is still faith.  And his commitment is to only worship Israel’s God from now on.  So Elisha grants the request.  A lesson we can all learn about letting people mature in faith at God’s pace, not ours.  But the second request is one I want to focus on.  Naaman asks for understanding, and grace, whether he can fully articulate it or not.  He is the trusted servant of the king.  The king is old.  The king worships a god known as Rimmon.  When the king goes in to worship Rimmon and is leaning on Naaman for support, Naaman must bow before the altar of Rimmon with the king.  He is troubled by this, but knows it is his reality.  So he asks, “…when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.” (2 Kings 5:18).   Elisah responds, “Go in peace.” (v. 19).  

That is grace!  That is God understanding!  That is something to get excited about!  When you or I are in situations that are uncomfortable and yet we don’t have a clear way out of them, we have a God, who knows our heart.  This is by no means a license to do whatever we want.  It is, however, a freeing reminder, that God is fully aware of the awkward circumstances that sometimes surround us, and he knows that our being in the situation is not the same as our agreeing with the situation.

As we enter the Holiday season, many who follow Christ are going to find themselves in situations with which they struggle.  Maybe that is you.  You are already thinking about how you might graciously say “No” to an invitation, but nothing is coming to mind.  There are just times when  you just can’t get out of the situation.  Sometimes you have to step into that which is uncomfortable and sometimes you wonder if God really understands and will forgive.  Naaman’s experience says a resounding “Yes!”  God knows your heart and he knows your desire and he knows your predicament.  And when you feel there is no good choice, he says “Go in peace.”


Don’t walk off the beach

It was a simple request; one I had heard many times before.  “Hey Scott, would you proofread my paper?”  I had worked with this particular student since he was in second grade and now, he was in high school.  This young man was a refugee, resettled in the United States through  World Relief DuPage/Aurora, in cooperation with  Refugee Resettlement Program of the United States State Department.starfish parable

I sat down to read the paper and literally had to fight back the tears as I read a synopsis of his life story.  He wrote of hearing machine gun fire as his village was overrun by rebels.  He wrote of the death of family members at the hands of rebels and the nightmares that sometimes still haunted his sleep.  He wrote of the many people who had helped him along the way.  And asked the question: “If I had not been able to come to America would I have gotten an education? Would I have learned to play soccer?”   For me it was heart rending, for him it seemed more or less matter of fact.  I made a few corrections and told him it looked good.  “Okay thanks!”  He submitted it to his teacher electronically and bounded out of the room, “See you next week!”

That was several years ago, and I have not been the same since.  I have supported the cause of refugees.  I have led our church in opening our facilities for Citizenship Workshops where immigrants from all over the area come to complete their citizenship papers.  I have been trained to facilitate the completion of some of those papers.  I have been amazed at what someone will endure and how long they will wait to become a citizen of this great nation.

But that night put a face to the process, and I was changed.  I could not stop thinking about the millions of children just like my young friend who would languish for years in refugee camps where the conditions are deplorable.  In recent days I have thought of children trekking across rugged waste land, swamps, and forests hoping to make it to a place of safety, and I am moved.

God consistently reminds us to take care of the most vulnerable, as he also cares for them.  In the Bible they were the “widows, orphans, and foreigners” (Lev. 19:33-34; Dt. 14:28-29; Ps 68:5; Mal 3:5; James 1:27).  I cannot save all, or provide for all, but I can do my part when I can. One thing, I can do for sure is use my voice.

I have learned from my friends who are involved in ministry to immigrants and to refugees that there is the real threat that the United States of America could completely shutter the Refugee Resettlement Program in 2020.  Already we have reduced the number refugees allowed into our country to historic lows.  Many who have been negatively affected by this reduction, are brothers and sisters in Christ fleeing persecution for their faith.  As a follower of Christ, I cannot be silent and let this continue to happen in silence.  We must be a nation of compassion.  I must be a person of compassion.  I must be a pastor of compassion.

It is very important to bear in mind that I am focusing my thoughts here on refugees.  People who have fled their countries for their very lives and have gone through the most rigorous of vetting processes, that can take a couple of years.  (This website includes a good graphic of how the vetting works Refugee Vetting Process).

I have heard the protests that we can’t save or help everyone.  I agree.   But we should not then just turn our backs on all of them.  There is an old, overused story about a man walking along a beach in which hundreds of thousands of starfish had washed up on the shore.  A little boy was walking along and tossing starfish back into the surf so they would live.  The man, with a typical air of adult practicality said, “Son you can’t possibly save all these starfish, there are just too many.”  As he tossed yet another starfish into the ocean the boy simply said, “I made a difference to that one.”

If our current administration chooses to go the route that many are fearing they will go and closes the Refugee Resettlement Program, then as a nation we have simply walked off the beach.  I for one cannot stand by and let that happen without adding my voice to the many who, more eloquently than I, are pleading with  the administration to not only keep this program, but return it to previous levels so that our nation can lead the way in compassion.  For the sake of my young friend, and millions like him. Don’t walk off the beach.  In the name of Jesus.  Don’t walk off the beach.

Lessons from a Weak Leader

Weak Leader (Chess)In reading and reflecting as I slowly work my way through Matthew’s Gospel, I have oddly enough had some thoughts about Herod Antipas.  I come from the standpoint that we learn from bad as well as good examples.  In Herod as portrayed in Matthew 14:1-12 and the parallel passage Mark 6:1-29 we can see some characteristics of a weak leader.  While Herod, no doubt, has absolute power in his small “kingdom” that encompassed Galilee and Perea he displays for us the characteristics of a weak leader.   Let me explain.

We are told in Matthew 14:3 that some time earlier Herod had arrested John the Baptist.  The reason?  John had gone public denouncing the marriage of Herod to Herodias.  Herodias had been the wife of Herod’s half-brother, Philip.  According to Dr. Michael Wilkins in the NIV Application Commentary on Matthew.  Philip and Herodias were private citizens living in Rome.  Herod Antipas visited Rome, met and fell in love with Herodias, while being hosted by his brother Philip.  She demanded, that Herod divorce his wife and then the two of them were married.  What Wilkins also points out was the Herodias was also Herod’s half niece (Wilkins NIV Application Commentary, Matthew p. 511).  So John spoke out against this incestuous marriage and was arrested.

Weak leaders do all they can to silence any criticism.  Criticism is hard to hear.  Criticism can sometimes be unjust.  Criticism makes us uncomfortable.  And yet we have a choice.  We can ignore it.  We can even, like Herod, seek to silence it.  Or we can respond to it and let it make us better.  Dawson Trotman is credited with the quote “Lord, show me any kernel of truth in this criticism.”  That is the response of a strong leader.  Strong leaders look for how they can grow when they are confronted with truth, or even criticism.

Weak leaders celebrate themselves.  Herod threw himself a birthday party and at that party the daughter of Herodias performed a dance for Herod and his guests (Mt. 14:6).  Mark’s gospel says that following the dance Herod offered her whatever she would want, up to half his kingdom (Mk 6:22-23).  The girl went to her mother for advice on what to ask and was instructed to request the head of John the Baptist.  She did as she was told. Weak leaders make grandiose declarations with little or no thought of the consequences. Herod was out to impress his guests.  He gave no thought to the fact that he did take time to listen to John, even while he was in prison (Mk. 6:20).  His thought was on the fact that he made a grand declaration and wanted his guests to be impressed the he was a man who “kept his promises.” Strong leaders don’t throw parties in their own honor.  Strong leaders also weigh the impact and the consequences of their words.

Matthew tells us that Herod was afraid of the people and so he was reluctant to put John to death (Mt. 14:5).  But now he had an excuse.  It was no longer his decision.  He was honoring his promise to Herodias’ daughter.  One could say that Herod self protectively changed the narrative.

Weak leaders work to change the narrative, so others are to blame for their actions.  We are told in Mark’s gospel that Herod was distressed but he could not go back on his promise.  The circumstances he had created helped him changed the narrative. Strong leaders take responsibility for their actions and accept the consequences.

As I reflect on this man with great power, who showed himself to be a weak leader, I am given pause to look in the mirror and ask God to show me where I need to be stronger.  We can each learn not just from good examples but from bad examples as well.