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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.

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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.

 

I wrote in the encyclopedia

Image result for Dr. Martin Luther kingWhen I was a kid our family had the World Book Encyclopedia. I can remember the day the boxes arrived.  Along with the boxes full of olive green colored books full of knowledge just waiting to be discovered, there was an additional set of books.  Childcraft: The How and Why Library.  My familial claim to fame is that I read through the entire 15 volume set of Childcraft books, sometimes by flashlight under the covers into the late hours of the night.   But I digress.

We had strict rules in our home about using the encyclopedia.  One of them was to not write in these volumes.  They were for our education.  But one night I broke the rules and to this day I am not sorry I did.  I was 9 years old on April 4, 1968.  I was just beginning to understand the horrors of the world around me.  A few months earlier I heard my father teach about the end of the world and the return of Christ.  This had been prompted by the Six Day War in the Middle East. I had figured I would not make it past the 6th grade before Jesus came. My uncle was sending letters every now and then from the base in Vietnam where he was stationed.  I would see the casualty count every evening on the television.  It was a bit frightening as a kid.

Then on April 4, 1968 the news came across the TV that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.  I was not fully aware of the issues.  I sadly admit that race relations was not a hot topic in our family and not always were the conversations such that I would want to repeat.  But in my 9-year-old mind I knew that something was terribly wrong, and I had to do something.  So, I did.  I wrote in the encyclopedia.  It was all I could do at that moment.

I quietly went downstairs and found the correct volume of the World Book Encyclopedia.  I looked up the entry for Dr. King. And as a confused, sort of frightened, not fully aware of his world 9-year-old, I completed the date line.  April 4, 1968.  I looked at it for a few moments and then put it back.  That moment never left me.

It has taken the next 50 years of life to begin to understand the power of that moment in my life.  I have had to learn and understand and honestly admit the sin of  ͞white privilege from which I have benefited.  I have had to work to understand that every human is a creature, made in the image of God and needs to be treated that way. I have worked to teach my children that reality.  I have had to apologize to friends for offensive statements made.  And I have rejoiced in the richness of life of the many friends of color that God has graciously allowed me to have.  Friends who have helped me, challenged me, encouraged me, and by their very lives taught me the value of celebrating differences.

I was in the middle of this 50-year journey when, as an adult, I was visiting my folks in Kansas with my own young family.  I wandered to the basement one day and found the World Book Encyclopedia.  I pulled the J-K volume off the shelf and opened it to the entry of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  As I found the slightly faded date I had written I found myself deeply moved. I knew then that this would be a life long journey of living the words of Dr King to never judge someone “…by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  May I never forget the lessons that I have learned and continue to learn in a journey that started when I wrote in the encyclopedia on the fateful day 50 years ago.

 

Lines

Long-line-in-the-sand

I am working on a sermon series in 1 Corinthians.  It strikes me that one of the key themes in the book is a call to oneness.  The Corinthian church was in many ways a divided church.  They were divided over who was the best Bible teacher.  They were divided over who had the better spiritual gifts. They were divided because of lawsuits.  They were divided between the wealthy and the poor.  They were divided over issues of morality.  They were divided over the proper way to conduct a worship service.   You name it and it seems they were divided over it.

It is one thing to have differences and distinctions.  But it is quite another to draw “lines in the sand” and offer absolutely no room for compromise or healthy conversation.  This is especially true when we draw lines that God has not drawn.  A former professor once told me that the older he got, the smaller his list of “things to die for” became.  I am finding that very true in my own life.  I am finding the list of things and even some once held doctrines, are maybe not as important as I originally thought.  Before those who know me freak out, let me assure you that I am still deeply committed to the deity of Christ, and the authority of Scripture, and the fact that salvation based on one’s faith in Jesus and that alone, and the basic tenets of the Christian faith.  

 

That being said, I continue to work to be defined by what I am for, instead of what I am against.  It strikes me, and I know I am not the first to make the observation, that when any of us draw strict lines to define what we are against, we tend to expend much more time and energy maintaining those lines, than we do in accurately representing the person and character of Jesus.  I go back time and again to that fact that Jesus reserved his harshest words for those who, in an attempt to protect truth, ended up drawing such thick lines of separation that they lost sight of the truth they sought to protect (see Matthew 23).  Maybe that is why I am so sensitive to the reality of the divisions in the Corinthian church and how that theme relates to us in the 21st Century.  

As I study 1 Corinthians again, I am asking myself the following questions:

  • What lines have I drawn in my life?  
  • Are those lines clearly drawn in the Bible?  
  • Does the effort I spend defining and defending my lines take away from or enhance my learning to love God with all my being and love my neighbor as myself?
  •  Do I have the courage to erase a line and admit it was not a right position to hold?

Just some things I am thinking about these days.

Thoughts to my fellow parents of millennials

For some time now I have been thinking about putting these thoughts down.   My main audience is my fellow Christ following, parents of millennial children.  We all know who we are and the rest of you can read along.  First of all, I have not, do not, and will not join the chorus of those who “bash” the millennial generation.  Since my wife and I have reared three millennials, it seems counter-intuitive and just plain wrong to bash children who are the products of boomer parents like me.  If I have any critiques in how a generation has been reared, I have no further to look than in the mirror.   The fact is I not only love my own children I love the millennial generation.  And, going out on a limb here,  God does too.   

Lately, I have been thinking about a generation of children who grew up in church, went to Sunday School, youth group, retreats, youth camp, missions trips, and all the typical stuff associated with American conservative Christianity.  But now they seem to be “drifting” and we boomer Christian parents who only wanted the best of our children are in different stages of freaking out.  Our millennial offspring are not really going to church.  They are asking hard questions.  They are searching for answers in places that don’t square with all we have been taught.  In a word, I believe they are trying to make sense of their faith, in terms that they can understand and not just willing to settle for platitudes, formulae, and pat answers.  So, my friends, may I make a suggestion?  Relax.  “It’s okay.”   Let me put it more to the point: You are not bad parents.  You have not failed.  You have not lost your kids.  I know it is unnerving to hear their questions and to see where they are searching for answers. But I urge you to simply be a listener and a constant affirmer of your love for them and trust God with them.  And yes pray for them.   

How can I say all this? Well, one thing that I have noticed in conversations and by observation is that in many cases, there is a lot of communication going on between boomer parents and millennial children.  One thing many boomer parents have done well is to create a safe atmosphere for conversation.   I know parents who have had substantive conversations with their children.  They have listened.  They have assured their children that they love them and nothing will get in the way of that.  In a word, they have been safe.  How much better can it get than when parents give their children room to find God in an atmosphere of safety and love?  It is important that young people make their faith their own.  That will mean that the path they take will be very different than the path I took.  That may mean that their path could get a bit messy.  It may mean that their path could even look like they are straying from God, and in fact, they may stray from God for a while.  But I for one believe God is big enough and aware enough to handle that. 

 As we relax we may need to take a hard look at ourselves and actually repent.  What?! How can I say that?!  As I think back on the focus of a lot of our teaching in the past 30 years (and I point to myself as a pastor for all that time) we have often presented a sanitized version of the Godhead.  We emphasized God’s goodness, provision, protection, and love.  We often focused on a holiness of God that looked like a list of activities.  We tended to put people into categories and it often seemed that God disliked the same people we disliked. How convenient.  The message that was often heard, even if not spoken was, people who agree with us theologically, politically, socially, etc. are the people of God.  Everyone else is an “outsider” who needs saving.   What happened to our kids?  Life.  Our children grew up.  They went through the motions that were supposed to result in Christian bliss and then their friend from the youth group overdosed.  The kindest most authentic person they knew told them she was gay, and she was kicked out of the youth group.  They realized that sometimes church leaders do sin.  They started caring about the environment, and the poor, and the foreigner and all too often the church in which they grew up didn’t embrace them or their concerns. And sadly, when they did ask questions they often were treated not as honest inquirers but as rebellious kids who needed to repent.   

Unfortunately, we can’t change the past, so what now?  First of all,  rest in the fact that you have done the best you knew how with the knowledge and resources available to rear your children.  Trust your parenting.  Secondly, keep the lines of communication open.  It is important to keep talking.  Thirdly, rest in the fact that God is not shocked by the questions and paths that our children may be exploring.  If you and I still believe God is able, then that ability extends to his being able to speak into the lives of our children.