Thursday, October 27, 2016

What if Reformation Day never happened?

Waking up is one of the oddest feelings in the world. Our mind is still working while we are sleeping, but our state of consciousness is gone, so waking up is a re-acclimation with our current state of reality. This can be positive if the night and days leading up to that moment were positive, or negative if your days and hours have been full of challenging moments. I hardly pondered this when I was younger, but as an adult who has responsibilities to handle every day, it is a common thought. I wake up and first take inventory of my behaviors, problems, and most demanding jobs. Yet no matter my current state of affairs, I am relieved of all my burdens because of the Reformation and All Saints Day. I know, you’re probably thinking I’m a crazy pastor because I think of the church year with such importance, but hear me out.

As a church body, we have let the church year and its importance fall off the map because we quit explaining its relevance. In nine and a half years of being a pastor in a conservative denomination, I have come to this conclusion: I want to explain it more. I want to practically proclaim how the traditions of the church are relevant still today.

Let me take us back to the time of the Reformation, and let’s snatch Luther out of the picture to see how 2016 might look if the Reformation didn’t happen, and how that would affect All Saints Day. – Zap. Luther & the reformation never happened. — Now jump ahead to 2016 – I’m in my bed, waking up after a night of sleep. Getting my consciousness about me again, I take inventory of my behaviors, problems, and most demanding jobs, and I’m miserably disappointed. I have always been hard on myself, but now I have little or no relief. I begin my morning routine anxiously awaiting confession. I head to Mt. Calvary Catholic Church and I confess my sins and failures to another priest. I leave, paying my indulgences and praying that my family will make it out of purgatory and into heaven. I’m still unsettled, but I have to carry on.  Occasionally my thoughts drift, and I realize I’m trying to convince myself that I am a faithful man of God. But it’s easy to see that I’m just lying to myself, so I fall back into my prison of sin, saving every penny to buy indulgences and waiting for the opportunity to confess my sins again so I can feel a brief moment of release.

Now comes my “Back to the Future” moment, where Marty enters the reality of Biff taking the almanac and changing his entire world.  If you are not a “Back to the Future” person, it is like the United States without Independence Day. It is the United States without the freedoms we enjoy.  As you look back at the 2016 morning described above, you might think that it is far fetched. Surely the Reformation didn’t really change all of that? Yes it did!

The church had once stolen the freedom that Christ came to give. It had put people back in the bondage of sin, and the plague of never feeling forgiven. It changed how people see the saints; the faithfully departed were still in their sins even after death. If left that way, All Saints Day would not be a celebration, but another burden. We would be trying to free our ancestors from the consequences of what they had done. But, in our current reality, Reformation and All Saints Day speak of the freedom Christ came to give, and the promise of true freedom in heaven!

Now, because of the Reformation, I can wake up, inventory the previous days events and hear the Holy Spirit speak, “You are forgiven and you are mine!” With that assurance, I am able to quickly move to the vocations God would have me do with the gifts He has given. I quietly celebrate with those who have died, that they no longer take inventory of anything, and I wait upon the day when my consciousness will have no sin, pain, or sorrow.

So why don’t we talk about the Reformation and All Saints Day? Honestly, I think we have just assumed that our current generation could care less about church history, rather than speaking to its relevance in our current culture. In my personal mission statement, I debated long and hard about referring to Scripture as ancient words. My coach even challenged me on it. I think too often we think of celebrations like this weekend as ancient, and at times, we even think of Scripture that way too. But if we adopt that point of view, we miss the hope, promise and freedom they give to our current reality.

Reformation and All Saints Day are pinnacle celebrations in the church year. They speak of the freedom we have in Christ. They speak what Jesus has done for us, and they proclaim to our sin burdened lives that we are free because of the work of Jesus. They remind our burdened conscience that one day we will no longer wake up taking inventory of our sins, but rejoicing with all the Saints.

Discipleship Go: Pray 1

Friday night was lasagna night at my house. I am not a huge fan of making lasagna just because of the time it takes. I know some of you might be thinking, “But you like cooking?” Yes I do, but to me lasagna is basically spaghetti with cottage cheese. (Sorry ricotta lovers. I’m still old school, the way my mom made it.) You have the sauce, meat, and noodles, and then you bake it. It lengthens the process of a basic meal. It is not that I am opposed to lasagna, but rather the work involved to make something that I could do in less time. I make a baked spaghetti dish to use spaghetti leftovers, and it is basically the same thing. My kids have recently been watching Garfield, so they have been curious about lasagna. (Lasagna is Garfield’s favorite food.) They’ve had it before, but they just don’t remember. My mother-in-law usually makes it for us in the winter. One day Gavin said, “Dad, can we make lasagna?” to which I responded begrudgingly, “Yes.” Then came the plaguing question of when.  “Dad, are we going to do it today?” he would ask. I tried to explain the work involved, but it was still hard for him to understand.

Finally, this past Friday, we had lasagna night. I made my sauce as I usually do, giving it the two hours it needs to cook. I got the meat ready and added it to the sauce. I did cheat a little, though, by getting the ready-to-bake noodles. Since the kids were all interested in making it with me, I set up stations so that everyone could help. Abby and Gavin made little lasagnas, and Jacob and I worked on the big one. Gavin was so excited, but yet critical because his lasagna didn’t look exactly the same as the one in the show. I told him that it was partially because he made a little one. That just meant he wanted a piece of the big lasagna so that it looked the same.  

Gavin knows he can ask me for something, within reason, and I will try and fulfill it. I may even fulfill it in a better way than what he asked for, like by being able to make his own personal lasagna. If I were in the pattern of not fulfilling requests, there would be no need to ask, or annoy me about when it will happen. Gavin was confident I would fulfill his request, even if his pouty face or repetitious words weren’t displaying that message leading up to lasagna day. On lasagna day, my words were confirmed, and so was what he has come to know about his dad.

Jesus is even better than that. He fulfills exactly what He says and always takes care of His children. When Jesus opened the door up for prayer and constant communication with God, we got the chance to talk to Him at any moment. The more we learn about Jesus the more we know and see how He fulfills His promise in our lives. We pray with expectation and anticipation that God will provide. As God refines us through His Word, our expectations and anticipation are rarely disappointed. And if we are disappointed, perhaps we should take an honest look into our hearts, where we might find selfish and sinful desires.

Every day we wake up, we can start our day in dialogue with God. This is an awesome blessing! The world can be such a bleak place, but our dialogue with God reminds us of how Jesus fulfilled exactly what He said, and He will continue to do that in our lives. When we talk about Pray 1, we talk about not forgetting to talk to Jesus during our day. Communication with Jesus is a very important blessing that can easily fall to the wayside in the busyness of life. When we incorporate Pray 1 in our lives, we are able to refocus, and be reminded of Jesus’ deep love for us.

Discipleship Go: Read 1

I make sure I never read something twice. I am just kidding of course, but generally speaking, once I read a book I put it aside. There are always new books to read. There have been books that I didn’t want to end, but yet I hurried though them because of the excitement I felt when reading each page. I have my favorite authors and anxiously wait for their new books to come out. Yet, despite these exceptions, reading is a chore for me and not something I usually look forward to doing. So, in this series when we say Discipleship GO: Read 1, I know for me it means I have to set reading plans, find Christians books, and find a system to keep me on my Read 1 path.

This whole series has been about finding the passion and excitement of being a disciple. Yet, I would be dishonest if I didn’t admit that some of these are challenging to get passionate about. Sometimes Discipleship GO just means putting systems in place and taking steps to grow in these areas. One important step in Read 1 is setting a standard from an early age. My family is by no means perfect, but we try to read the Bible with the kids before we say bedtime prayers. We read from an age-appropriate Bible. We started with a simple, short one, and now have progressed to a newer Bible that has questions for the kids. Yes, there are days when I am tired and we skip the Bible and just do prayers, but we try and keep this in our routine.

This year Jacob is in second grade and has to read for 15 minutes every day. At first this was annoying. He would sit next to me and ask about every other word. Honestly, I was struggling with how to do this with him when I felt like there was always something else I could be taking care of in my house. Those 15 minutes seemed like a long time. But since the beginning of the year, Jacob has come into his own. He sits down and reads by himself now, keeping track of what he reads on his reading log. At least 3 times a week he seems to read the Bible. I bet his teacher is thinking to herself, “Of course, the pastor’s kid is reading the Bible for his reading log.” The truth is, he chooses to do it – on his own. He just quickly grabs the Bible and starts reading, no prompting from me. I’m thrilled he chooses to do this on his own. This is where & why the steps of Read 1 are important to me. Taking time to intentionally think about how to incorporate this into our daily lives means it is now something our kids, or those who are close to us, find as normal and perhaps they’ll start doing on their own too.

This weekend we continue our discipleship series talking about taking steps to put God’s Word in our life every day.  That is what Read 1 is all about. We want to regain the passion in our discipleship walk, so how can this be done when we read and reflect on God’s Word? Also, what is unique about God’s Word as compared to other books?  For starters, it is powerful, unlike any other, and one we’ll want to read again and again.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Discipleship Go: Love 1

Last Saturday was a very full of day for me. I had many people on my agenda to Love 1. To be honest, it started the night before when Mindy and I hung out together after the kids went to bed. It’s our normal Friday routine. Sometimes we reflect upon the week, sometimes we watch a show, and sometimes the week has just been too long and we head to bed early. Our date nights are cheap, but important. As I write this blog, I can’t forget the person I have been blessed with and called to love first. Ministry is busy, and at times I can forget to love my spouse as the first part of Love 1. My wife is busy serving others also, and at times, the day is so full of loving kids and families that it is overwhelming. Friday nights can be a haven for both of us.

Saturday morning I woke up early and headed to a cross-country meet with the boys. It was in St. Charles (blah)!  My mid-county arrogance and annoyance was kicking in with having to drive to the other side of the universe (well, at least to the other side of St. Louis). Thankfully, the boys’ race was first, which meant they would be done in plenty of time for the next thing on my agenda. Jacob and Gavin raced together this time. Jacob was in first place most of the race. As he started to loose his lead in the final part of the race, I could feel my adrenaline kicking in wanting to help him. He still finished second. It is so incredible to see how fast he is, especially since none of this skill came from me. After he finished and my heart calmed down, I knew I needed to cheer on Gavin as well. Gavin was near the end of the pack. To be fair, he is a Kindergartener who snuck into a first and second grade race. It was certainly a different feeling watching him than watching Jacob. When I got home Mindy pulled me to aside and asked if I cheered for Gavin too. I answered yes, but then had to ask myself if I had cheered for him enough?  Was I Loving 1 to both of my sons?

I then turned my attention to the funeral, which was now only a little over an hour away. I transitioned from Word of Life clothes into a collar, and began rehearsing all the stories in my head and processing how all of the readings went together. I began thinking about the husband and his two sons and the other people who would be there, and preparing my heart to lead people in worship and help them see Jesus. I was asking Jesus how to Love 1 with everyone I came in contact with at the funeral.

After the funeral, I headed home to try and rest. As my eyes closed, my head began preparing for the wedding I would officiate that evening. I began thinking through the story of this couple and how their relationship developed. I was also thinking through the history of Jeremiah (from the Old Testament), and picking out elements to explain in the message that would help make the connection between God and His relationship with the church, and how that is similar to a couple who is getting married. At the wedding, I was sitting on a bench deep in thought when the groom came up to me. He almost had to shake me to wake me from my thoughts and preparation; I was so entrenched in making sure I was (& would be) Loving 1 with the bride and groom and everyone I came in contact with.

Thankfully, not every Saturday is like this one. But on those busy days, I am deep in thought about each relationship even more than a normal day. My deep thought is actually an informal regular dialogue with God. Recently, some people have asked me to define intentional relationships. That got me thinking about one of the greatest issues in the church—that often times once we learn something, or sanctification (which means to be made holy) has done its work, we move on. We unconsciously assume that others can grasp the ideas in our head, or pick them up just because they see glimpses of us modeling them. The stories I share aren’t just pastoral duties; they are stories about what God has taught me about being a disciple of Christ. If you are a businessman or woman, you could have similar thoughts on how to do your job and yet care for people. As a parent, it is undeniable that our thoughts are on our kids’ care, guidance, and discipline.

In week 2 of our Discipleship GO series we focus on Love 1. How is this different from intentional relationships, which is a part of our values at Mt. Calvary? It isn’t any different! Values help describe characteristics we hold up as body of believers, but Discipleship GO is all about acting on them. Love 1 is asking, “What does it look like when we act on the faith and values built in us?” In Romans we hear Paul share with us how to care for those who are weaker. We are all weaker in different moments, and we all need love. Jesus and His work exemplifies Love 1. We now share Love 1 by loving those people in our lives. It can look different in any and every situation, but as we open ourselves to dialogue with God (who created all mankind) and listen to Him, He will guide us to how we can love His people.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Discipleship Go: Worship 1

  I just don’t think that a shirt like that was doing anything to get across the concept of loving our neighbor, but rather separating us further. And by separating ourselves, we might never get a shot at witnessing to certain people. I get that people were expressing their faith by wearing these t-shirts, but I wonder if it really had the desired effect.
I have never been a fan of cheezy Christian T-shirts that are a spin off of some current trend. One from the past I most despised was, “A bread crumb and fish,” which was ripping off “Abercrombie and Fitch.” Yes, I worked there and had some of their clothes, but that wasn’t the reason I disliked it.

I say all this because I am cautious about ripping off current cultural ideas for a sermon series. If I do barrow the trend, I want to make sure we are not making fun of the idea, but seeing the positive in it. If we can connect what is positive and see how it fits with our desire to share the faith, it can be a great idea.

So, this month’s theme is Discipleship GO taken from the Pokémon GO trend right now. Forgive my explanation if you are familiar with it, but for those who aren’t, Pokémon GO is an app for your phone or tablet that has you going all around the city looking for different Pokémon characters. It has led many Pokémon GO players to church parking lots because they are open spaces, which are good for finding characters and holding virtual battles. The main thing this app did was reignite the passion of the Pokémon community. Pokémon came back on the radar after many years of silence. This type of product revival is not a new concept. I learned about it in marketing class, and it happens all the time. Sometimes products have a good season, but then you have to dream up a new concept or way to use the product to help them come back on the radar.

We know the church and the Word of God will always be alive and relevant. At the same time, we know culture will continue to go in a direction that may take it off peoples’ radar. As we fight to make sure people are aware of God and know who Jesus is, we really want them to see their need for Jesus. This is very fitting with the concept of the Pokémon GO trend. We want people to be passionate about seeking out Jesus! We want them to come alive again and reignite their desire for a closer relationship with their Savior! This is why this series is called Discipleship GO!

Personally, what are the areas you continue to work on everyday to grow as a disciple of Christ? As a church, we have been talking about four specific areas to grow in for several years now: Worship 1, Love 1, Read 1, and Pray 1. We begin with Worship 1 and ask ourselves, “In this current world, how do we make Worship 1 a priority again & reignite that passion?” This week our Romans passage emphasizes that it is a blessing to worship Jesus. It is easy to lose the importance of worship in our crazy world, but worship provides a place to receive forgiveness, grow with others as the body of Christ, and to receive rest as we hear the Word and receive His sacraments. This week we take time to see how worship begins our Discipleship GO journey.

Electing Values Elected: Service

In all of my time in ministry, my absolute favorite place to serve Jesus has been in Belize. There are many aspects I loved about my trip to Belize. First, I was able to experience it with my friends during my final year of seminary. We fell in love with the country together as we shared many special moments. Secondly, it was a place where people were excited to hear about Jesus. And finally, it seemed like a dream to be in this beautiful place in the world serving Jesus. I had a college seminary professor who once said we should all move to the beach, read Greek, and serve Jesus.

The first time I was in Belize I met a man and his wife who left their lives in America to move to Belize for retirement. It sounded like the perfect plan—after you have lived your life, go someplace beautiful to spend the rest of your days. Not to mention all the people you could share Jesus with in that new place.  It sounded like a plan I wanted to live out as well.

Now years later, I haven’t given up on that dream, but I’m more realistic. God has allowed me to be a city kid, one who has grown up in the suburbs of the cities in America. Along the way, He has shown me how small to medium-sized churches work. While I may have my own ideas of where I want to serve, in the quiet moments of life I take time to ask Jesus to lead me to my next place to serve according to His plan. Maybe one day He will fulfill my dream of serving in Belize, but if not, I know He knows best.  I have lived enough to know that sometimes my dreams are not the best for me, and end up in disaster.

My whole ministry, I have tried to help people develop a desire to serve, while looking for the opportunities to serve within the context of the situation. Blending these two focuses together can be quite challenging. Yet, in our current culture, service is one of the key ways people connect with the church. People have a passion for service, perhaps more than in years past. This will only continue to get stronger with our younger generations. So, how do we find areas to serve that fulfill us and yet serves our community? How do we invite new people into our acts of service so they can hear the words of Jesus too?

In our final week of this series, we lift up the value of service. We say it every week—Ordinary People…Extraordinary Servants…Now Go B1. The B1 model was built to help discipleship happen in our lives. (Next month we will talk about those elements again.) One area of discipleship that pairs up with our values is service—Love 1. Yet we wrestle with what kind of service to do, what our community needs, and connecting our passion with that service. This week in our reading, John talks about encouraging the people who are walking in truth, and then encouraging them to love one another. He wants them (and us) to serve and love others in real ways, ways they can see the love of Jesus. By fitting the service with our passions, we can speak love in our context and to our community.

Psalm 37:4 has always been a favorite verse for me on this topic.  It says, “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” God will give me the desires of my heart, but I have learned that sometimes He changes my heart to match His desires. Which one is it for you today?  

Electing Values Elected: Intentional Relationships

College taught me a lot about intentional relationships. It was the first time I was truly able to have control in my relationships. Sure, kindergarten through high school I had friends and was not forced to be friends with certain people, but I certainly had a limited number of places I could pull from. I had friends I went camping with, and ones I would hang out with on Friday night, and yet we don’t talk anymore. Our only contact is that we can see each other’s updates on Facebook. Sad, right? Well, I never really chose those friends; they were just there.

Starting off in college I was put into a dorm, therefore those guys became my “friends.” Most of them had different interests than me, but that was where I was placed. As a freshman, I was also learning to navigate through this odd experience of being in control of my choices. I decided what to do on a Friday night and who to hang out with. As time passed I was drawn to other people with whom I shared more in common. By my sophomore year I was more settled, confidant in who I was, and establishing friendships that would stick with me for life.

As I was writing this blog, my best friend from college called. We met sophomore year and had common interests in music, faith, and sports. Music still bonds us as we talk about new albums coming out. It was once easy for us to be friends. We could just walk across campus and hang out.  In our final year of school we even lived together. Our friendship has lasted a long time, but it hasn’t been easy.  We had our seasons we had to work at, like when I was in Seminary and he was in the Marines, or when I was married and he was still single. During those times we had to talk about how our friendship would survive. For a long time we called each other at least weekly. On vicarage, he came to see me. As life got busy, we intentionally had to focus on the relationship to stay friends. We had to be intentional about how to connect.

In college this wasn’t hard for me.  I didn’t consider it work. I connected with people that had similar interests and we hung out. If the relationship didn’t fit common criteria I had chosen, then it just naturally drifted away. But as an adult, I’m not surrounded by hundreds of people going through a similar experience, so I must make intentional decisions. What was once easy now became hard.  And to make matters worse, I got married. (Oh come on. I bragged on her last week; a quick shot is ok.) The only reason it is worse is because my wife brought her way of making friendships into our relationship, and we are much different in this aspect. This brought me to a shocking conclusion – I cannot have intentional relationships with everyone I want to. Maybe I should have realized this was the natural progression of things, since I’ve been through enough broken hearts in my life. I juggled my friends like spinning plates. I wanted to evenly keep up with all of them. As marriage and ministry came, I realized this was just not feasible. Then I threw kids into the mix.

One of the most powerful moments of realization came at the end of my vicarage. There was a husband/wife couple I became good friends with. We hung out every single week. This is very typical of my extroverted nature, to find friends and grow close fast. When I left, the husband asked me what our friendship would look like now, and I said, “When we see each other it will be like I never left, but in the meantime, it may feel distant.” His wife and I had a much different conversation. I was sharing with them how I was going to play basketball for the Seminary team, and she was almost arguing with me that I would not have enough time to do that. What she was implying is how I was not going to have time for them now. This may seem odd at first, but it has everything to do with intentional relationships. I was the one who left, and their world changed. She was hurting, and wondered if it would ever be the same.

John knew he had groups of people God had allowed him to connect with. He had groups of people he could build intentional relationships with. Sometimes we bite off more than we can chew, and have so many relationships that it is too much to handle. Sometimes it is the reverse, and we lack patience in seeing if a relationship will develop. Either way, it is absolutely for certain that God knows relationships are important in our lives. He built us to seek them out. The word “intentional” can even mean praying for friendships and relationships. I know that may sound like something only someone who is “weak” would do. The truth is, Jesus is in my relationships, and as we walk through life with other people, we see Jesus work in them and us. John was also intentional about asking God about the details of those relationships. We take time to ask ourselves questions about who God is putting in our lives to build an intentional relationship with. It may not be the people we think, and therefore at times it can be scary. But just like anything in this life, when we see Jesus guide and direct an area, we see Him show up, and it is much better than we could have humanly ever imagined.