Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Maddy O

Names have always been important for Mindy and me. When we had our first child, a son, we knew picking the right name was a big deal. I love Jacob from scripture and therefore that name holds special meaning for me. Not only that, but I had a buddy in college that we called J and I loved that too. Thus, before Jacob was born his name and his nickname were set. We also like to use our family names. Jacob is Jacob Karl, with his middle name being my dad’s. Gavin is Gavin James, because his middle name is Mindy’s dad.  Not knowing if Abby would be our last kid and only girl, we doubled up. Abigail Miriam is Gail for Mindy’s mom, just spelled differently, and Miriam for my mom. Naming our fourth child, a girl, was extra challenging for multiple reasons, one being that we had used up both girl family names on Abby. If we had a boy we could use Rod, my mom’s husband and father to me, but it wasn’t going to be that simple. Finally, one day while I was writing my blog, Mindy sent the name Madelyn Olivia to me and I immediately fell in love with it. The nickname took seconds to come up with, and soon she was Maddy O.

We talked to and about Maddy like she was already here. Jacob, Gavin, and Abby would talk about Maddy’s toys and pray for Maddy. I would have late night talks with Maddy, which drove Mindy nuts because as I called out “Maddy O” she would move like crazy kicking inside Mindy. Maddy was, no doubt, a part of our family. As we made it through Christmas, we got closer and closer to Maddy’s arrival. Mindy had one last ultrasound to check on a concern. I was not planning to go with Mindy to the doctor for the mere fact that we didn’t expect anything unusual. It was then she called in a panic letting me know that Maddy was dead. The thoughts that ran through my head were unbelievable. Mindy’s words to me were, “Will, I need you to be strong for me!” I rushed to the hospital after I knew my kids were covered, trying not to show my emotion to them. I instructed their uncle to still come over with my nieces so my kids would forget where their parents were and what they might be doing.

Over the next 24 hours I patiently waited for Mindy to deliver Maddy. While I had done this 3 times before, this time it was completely different. Usually joy is helping to prepare us for the journey, but in this case, it was fear of what was about to happen. Throughout the night Mindy and I waited and tried to distract ourselves. We were blessed to have Emily, Mindy’s sister, by our side. With Emily’s nursing skills and relationship with Mindy, she was a great asset to help us through the worst day of our lives. When the nurses first said this would be the hardest day of our life, I wondered if that would be true because of all the hard things I had dealt with thus far, but after I watched Maddy be born, I realized they were right.

Deciding whether to hold Mindy’s hand during the delivery or to watch Maddy come out was a tough one, but I decided that I wanted to do what I had done with our other children, I wanted to watch Maddy come out and hold her. I was Maddy’s daddy and therefore, while already in paradise, I knew I must treat her body with the same respect I treated my other kids, knowing that this is the little body that will be renewed in heaven. In times like this it helps to rely on my theology because I can recite the answers in my head. “This body will be in heaven one day!”

I did my job. I stayed strong for my wife and my family. I pressured myself to be that way because I knew people would be watching. Those are the vows I took when becoming pastor – people will watch your faith so walk the journey of faith. It is no doubt my faith was needed more than any theological truth. It was in my faith I trusted – in the very grace of God. It was in my faith that death became a little more real that day. Since the graveside was private, very few people got to see me crumble. As Rod made the sign of the cross upon the casket and poured dirt over it, I fell to my knees in front it. Finally, the show was over in my head and I could do whatever I wanted. Those are my favorite parts of graveside ceremonies. When death is in its most powerful moment and you are putting that body into the ground, we are reminded that it is because of sin we must face this. Yet it is then that we make the sign of the cross upon the casket and recite the Lord’s prayer. We speak the words He taught us – reminding us of His promises.

The next days I felt a numbness I had never felt before. There are few moments in life that have made me lose my composure. Sure, I was taught it was ok to cry as a man, but being a pastor often means holding it together. Painful days, moments, and hours came as Mindy and I walked the journey. We continued to follow what I knew to do next, properly walk through grief with counseling and side by side with each other and our kids. Mindy seemed to grieve harder than I did, which is typical since she carried Maddy. I thought nothing of it. Honestly, in the days afterwards, when it was bitter cold, I began to think of all the things that Maddy wouldn’t have to face in this life. I also began to realize that she would never disappoint me, unlike my other kids who will face sin and temptation in this life. It made me realize the blessing for Maddy to go home early, and made me think I was only being selfish to want her here with us. I did what I always do; got my systems back in place (like going to church that first Sunday) and moved forward. I tried to rush back to normal.

Three and half months later I was faced with a harsh reality. When I was 21 my dad died. There was a lot going on in my life at that time. My Dad and I never saw eye to eye and I always felt pushed to be more perfect with him. That last year of his life was the worst. My Dad had promised that God told him that he would be healed. I found those promises written on a piece of paper in his Bible. My dad had lied to us earlier that his cancer was in remission, so what seemed shocking to my brother, sisters and I was something he knew all along. This was his way of living – lying through life. At the visitation I was fully ready to convict all his false prophet friends who said he would be healed, until I talked with my grieving step-mom who shut me down. I expressed few tears at the funeral. During that same time, Rod went through an extreme illness, which meant that my mom was not there for me during my time home from school for the funeral. When it was over I rushed back to school and back to life. My buddies, my girlfriend, and a few others became my counselors. I was more focused on my dad’s horrible theology and if he was in heaven than the pain I was going through. I locked up the grief of my dad like a dragon in my basement and I moved on. I focused on my dreams of being a pastor and getting married.  When the dragon made too much noise, I would unlock the basement and kick him in the face. I would remind the dragon that he was never allowed to show his ugly face. He had caused enough pain in my life and, once and for all, I was done with him. But time and time again he would make noise, and every time, I returned to the basement to give him the kick he needed to know he was not allowed to speak.
Then one day I had to lock a baby dragon in that basement with the big, mean dragon. The baby dragon was so cute. The baby dragon reminded me of why I hated the big, mean dragon so much. Unfortunately the big, mean dragon and the baby dragon had something in common, but I couldn’t kick the baby dragon in the face. I loved that baby dragon. Eventually it came time to unlock the basement and deal with the grief of both of my father and Maddy. For awhile I refused to accept this reality, but one day I gave up fighting. Letting the baby dragon live in my house, meant the big, mean dragon was there too, and he kept knocking stuff over. It was time to deal with him.
 It’s hard to believe that a stillborn child can save your life. It’s hard to believe a stillborn child can help you face something that you have fought for 13 years to keep hidden. It’s hard to believe a baby you don’t get to hold can make you feel again. In this world, we can pretend to believe that sin does not impact our lives so deeply, but time and time again we are faced with the reality of sin, pain, and death. It is in those moments we have two choices: lock it up, or remember why Jesus came – so that sin and death would no longer hold the victory. Thanks, Maddy, for teaching your father to feel again, for reminding me how much I need Jesus, and why being a father is so important to me.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


Every year we come to Good Shepherd Sunday after a few weeks of focusing on the response to the resurrection. Good Shepherd Sunday is a reminder that we need a shepherd. It also reminds us that we are like sheep – not something we necessarily want to be like. Recently I learned that if sheep are flipped upside down and stay that way long enough, they will die. In that position a sheep’s organs start to shut down, which leads to its death. These are the types of facts that make us shy away from wanting to compare ourselves to sheep.

As we watch culture change, it is evident that we are followers. New trends like smart phones, smart watches, and other devices catch on like wildfire. I can hardly be in a meeting or any office waiting for an appointment without watching people check their phones. In the deep moments when I am reflecting on life I ask myself what we did before smart phones. Recently I saw that my brother-in-law had a record player, and again I reflected on when music was less portable than it is today. Sure, this shows our desire for convenience, but it also shows us our following nature. If you listen to conversations around you, you will find people encouraging others to watch their favorite show or eat at one of the restaurants they love. We want to be leaders, but like sheep, we are followers looking for a leader. Unfortunately, we find that all our human leaders eventually fail us. We see how, if upside down long enough, their organs fail. Anyone of us, upside down long enough in our behaviors, see our lives begin to fail.

This brings us back to the most important part of this Sunday. No matter what is going on in our lives, we need a great Shepherd, or leader, to guide us. And while we try time and time again to follow those leaders in our world we think will be great, we eventually see their fallibility. This is not true with Jesus, of course. He is the shepherd who will lead us back to the safety of the pen or the home we truly need. Yet so often we find ourselves in the pastures of life trying to follow a voice other than His. On Good Shepherd Sunday we are reminded that Easter is the source of our salvation, but it is in our repentance and trust in the Good Shepherd that we find the path to our eternal home. The hardest part is admitting how often we follow other people and ideas in this life. Once we come face-to-face with this reality – how easily we follow others to the point of being flipped upside down and even to death – then we are ready to understand why this Sunday is so important.  In the weeks after the resurrection as the disciples discovered the disorientation of this world, they found themselves right where we are – seeking a leader, a shepherd, a Savior to rescue us from our weak and easily disoriented nature. This week we reflect on our deep need for a Good Shepherd, and how that is none other than Jesus Christ!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

A Peace Meal

When I was a boy we used to go to Roaring River. It was a trout hatchery.  They would release all the fish at once and you would see all these trout swimming right in front of you. The kicker was you were not allowed to use live bait. Fishing there was one of the most annoying things I have ever done. I remember the time I caught my first fish. It was proceeded by my dad yelling at me for something I did wrong. I went from tears to joy, and then we sat down to eat the fish. Honestly, I didn’t think it tasted that good, and you know me, I love a variety of food. Maybe my palate was not as diverse at that time. For me, Roaring River was more about the huge water slide we rode down with a mat than it was about the fishing. It was awesome! Watching a million fish not take your bait, that was miserable.

Now fast forward to my college days. My Aunt Bea, who lived in Chicago, would help me out sometimes by picking me up from the airport and taking me back to school. My favorite memory of my Aunt Bea and Uncle Wally was the swimming pool they had in their house (they did pretty well). Once my Uncle Wally took me to a restaurant where I had Dover Sole for the first time. The memories of Roaring River all came back to me, but he convinced me to give the Sole a try. Wow! I thought I was eating the most amazing food I had ever tasted!

Today’s lesson includes fish. When I think about Jesus eating fish, I think of Dover Sole, not the trout at Roaring River. This is an important distinction for those who don’t like fish. Fish stands out for me in this passage for two huge reasons. First, Jesus is eating. He is revisiting one of the last deep moments He had with the disciples as they remember the upper room and the Last Supper. Think about all the memories that possibly came flooding back to the disciples’ minds as they see Jesus and eat with Him again. How many casual meals have they had with Him? Many. There were also those “big event” meals, like the feeding of the five thousand, dinner with Zacheaus, and of course, the Last Supper.  They could also be remembering all of the comments Jesus made at the Last Supper and how they all came true. Second, seeing the fish reminded them of how many of them gave up their livelihood as fisherman to come and follow Jesus, and now how they were asked to use those skills to fish for men. Fish was a way they made money, but it also reminded them of their personal family meals. If you have ever met a fisherman, you know how well they cook fish. This is not Long John Silver’s fish; it is the real deal, even without all our modern day seasonings and supplies. I am pretty sure these guys knew how to have a pretty great fish fry.

When you think about everything fish meant for them, it helps broaden our prospective to the richness and depth of what Jesus was doing. He was letting them know that He was living, but more than that, He was taking one of the most powerful foods of their lives and bringing all the craziness that had recently happened into context. Fishing also meant peaceful, quiet mornings. Now that Jesus was there with them, they could rest again and truly be at peace.

This weekend we will take some of these thoughts even deeper by asking ourselves some questions. In our lives, with what foods or in what places do we find Jesus? Where can we rest in the fact that Jesus knows us so well that He knows exactly what we need? It isn’t just the disciples Jesus walked with everyday; it is all of us! He is walking with YOU everyday!  He knows what you need to see Him do in your life, just like showing up for the disciples cooking a fish breakfast. But, I remind you, the disciples never prayed for fish, Jesus just knew. He is surprising like that.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Locked Door

The door was supposed to be locked, but then he came in!

I was at the top of the stairs waiting to see what this guy outside our front door would do next. As I moved to Abby’s room for a better look, he came in! What?! Downstairs Mindy said, “Excuse me,” and I, well, said nothing. I was such a bad husband in that moment.  All I did was believe in hope – hope that it was all just a mistake and not something that was going to end badly.

Hope is a misused word in our society. It makes us think of children and happy faces, but hope is about eternity. The day when Jesus comes back will be the day when my wife won’t worry about some guy who comes into our house. It will be the day when the war with sin and pain is over. I can’t wait for that day.  That is what hope is truly all about.  Easter gives us a glimpse of eternity, but in the meantime, we have to go back to living in this painful and sinful world.

After Jesus’ resurrection the disciples were together in a room behind locked doors when Jesus appeared to them. The door being locked and Jesus coming in wasn’t supposed to be a fearful thing for the disciples, but rather a glimpse of eternity. A glimpse of the very thing He promised them, always to be with them and to never leave, and the very things to come, like when they would celebrate together in heaven. But they were afraid, afraid because, like Mindy and I, they lived in world where bad guys do come into houses. They lived in a world where church leaders had agendas. They lived in a world full of tax collectors stealing. They lived in world where there was a reason, like there is for us, to keep the doors locked.  

Seeing Jesus do amazing things was not foreign to the disciples, but it was shocking nonetheless. When Jesus came in it surprised them tremendously. He surprises us too, because His amazing grace is still shocking – even today.  The disciples remembered that Jesus came to give them eternity, and they fought in a world of darkness to tell others about this great gift of life.  Though at times they may have grown tired of fighting, it became their most important work.

So today we begin, or better yet resume, that fight of celebrating Easter.  Let His amazing grace shock us once again, and motivate us to share the gift of shocking grace and eternal life with the world.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

We just don't understand_Easter Edition

Some things I don’t understand.  If a dear church lady was still with us today, she would be happy that her husband came back to trusting Jesus and her son is seeking Him also, but why did it take her dying to make it happen? One of the quietest men in our congregation was one of our greatest supporters. A son who took care of his mom for 15+ years is left to find a job after her death. Hours of time are spent on people who lie about their financial situation, begging and trying to steal money. My Dad spent his life being away from us, but then at the end begged me to be by him. I’ve spent months now asking myself why she had to die. I never imagined myself looking at a painting in my living room of my child who wasn’t living.  I don’t understand.

When we read scripture we realize that even the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was about to do those days leading up to His death & resurrection. When I’m in the middle of struggling with personal sin, it doesn’t make sense to me what is happening or why I’m being attacked.  So often we want to put life in compartments that have meaning - this is happening because of… or this will happen as a result of… It is one way we try to make sense out of it all.

Our life was never meant to be confusing or not understandable. The life we were supposed to have – what God originally planned for us – was so much greater than what we get. What we get is a life stained by sin.  We can mourn the life we were supposed to have, but then we have to move into the place of accepting that this life is different, and find out what God intends for it now. Make sense? Not really, because no one understands what life was supposed to look like before we sinned. Honestly, most days we spend so much time on the sin in front of us – the poor behavior, illness, or pain – that we forget about what God truly intended.

Now we are at Easter.  For me as a kid, Easter was new suits and egg hunts. It was a 5 am wake up call and a service where the sun blinded my eyes. As a pastor, Easter is a reminder of what I can’t fix – the sin, the hurts, and the pains.  It is a reminder that no matter what happened this year that I couldn’t understand, God does. He knows.  He understands.  In that there is peace. I know I talk about peace all the time, but truly, is there any other way to deal with this world? I can’t make sense of all these crazy things that happen every year, and then I get to Easter and it reminds me that I don’t have to because Jesus does. He loves me through the toughest things in life and provides the answer. The answer is Him. The answer then was an empty tomb that nobody quite understood.  The answer today is the same empty tomb – a tomb meant for death that instead signifies life.

This year Easter seems a little more meaningful to me.  Though I still don’t understand Maddy’s death, I know that Jesus came to die, and rise again, so that my daughter can live!  Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

We wish to see

Last weekend Abby had us carry her all over Chicago. I know, right now you are probably thinking that she is spoiled. Well, she might be. Mindy and I had discussions about whether we were going to do it or not, but in the end, Abby won because she couldn’t see. Abby is little, as you know, and therefore she was missing a lot of neat things. One of her key moments was looking at the stingrays. Even though the floor was glass, she wanted me to lift her up to see the stingrays. When I did, she was so thrilled to see the designs in the water and all of the colorful pieces in the aquarium display.  Only then did she realized how amazing it was that she could see the stingrays under her feet too!

This weekend our text (John 12:20-43) is all about seeing Jesus. It isn’t more than 3 sentences into the reading when it says, “Sir, we want to see Jesus!” I am pretty sure all of us have a long list of things we want to see. We want to see things that will impact our lives. It might be a physical thing or just something that we know will help us. So often we beg God to let us see this or that. The truth is, Jesus has so much for us to walk through before He lets us see this or that. While some of the pieces may fit together in our heads, the reality is that we desire to see things we can’t understand long before Jesus chooses to reveal them to us in His perfect timing.

Palm Sunday was one of the key “I want to see moments” for the people of Jesus’ day. Their minds were starting to put together just who it was they were getting to see. They were so thrilled to see Jesus – God sent to them – that they waved palm branches and put coats down to make a path. Now the problem was, as with most things in life, the thing they wanted to see (Jesus) didn’t live up to their expectations (to be an earthly king). Likewise, the things we want to see often don’t live up to our expectations either. Why? Because we are sinful people who have selfish expectations that a broken world can’t fill, and sinful eyes that are not ready to see the way that God really works.

This weekend we take time to celebrate and remember what the people saw and celebrated that first Palm Sunday. We also step into Holy Week as we take time to reflect on everything that we will see and hear this upcoming week. Finally, we take time to repent, and then see what God truly has for us when He sent Jesus to this world.

High Priest

One thing is for sure, when it comes to scripture, we find ourselves asking tough questions like what does this mean to us today? One of my greatest heart cries is to help people understand scripture in context of today. Hebrews is one of those books that can often be confusing due to its deep connection to context and history. Not living in the same context as the people then, and not being very knowledgeable in those areas, we often miss the deeper meanings. Talking about the high priest can fall into that category.  It is a concept that is just foreign to us.

I was at CVS this week and I saw Jamal (a CVS employee) for the 100th time (I end up at CVS often for one reason or another) so I decided to talk to him. Before this day, the closest we had gotten to talking was when there was a seven foot guy in front of me, and Jamal under his breath said to me, “I think I just met a basketball star.” This day, however, I decided to make small talk. I asked him how much he worked and he told me he works both at this store and the Lindbergh store. He told me he was trying to go back to school, but he was working so much. I asked where he lived and he told me that he lived in Ferguson. I was shocked that he drove all the way in to both of these places to work. Then I asked him what it was like to live in Ferguson, and he said he wouldn’t let his daughter come there. He said that some nights his mom comes and stays with him so that she knows he is safe. Jamal also said there are certain areas where it is like Iraq. His lease is over in July and he will be moving out of there. Talking to Jamal gave me a vision of a world I’ve only barely gathered from the television. He exposed me to something I would have little to no knowledge about unless I asked. All it took was me taking interest in getting to know and understand his world.

I find the same thing is true with scripture. So often we don’t look deeper or do our research to figure out what each piece means – to understand their world. When we take a look back at the world of Israel, we can find out what were the key things that were important to them. It was important to have the high priest do the job he was doing – asking for forgiveness on behalf of the people. On the chest plate of the high priest was the name of each tribe, and he wore this when he went into the Holy of Holies. It was their way of bringing each tribe into the sacred chamber where God was. The high priest was someone who was very important and much needed. So, when Jesus became the high priest, He was taking over the lead role of the person they relied upon to represent them and their sin, making an animal sacrifice in order that they could receive forgiveness. This connection, Jesus becoming the new high priest, was not difficult for them to see. For us it is much more challenging without some of the history.

Another reason it is important do to your research is for when people ask you about it. I know I am a pastor, but over the years I get asked more and more questions. I find the more I am asked, the more I research and prepare myself to answer. Each piece of preparation allows me to be ready when those questions pop up. This happened just Saturday night at my brother-in-laws engagement party. Someone wanted to know more about communion, and the difference between the denominations. I responded by helping them see the differences between the Catholic, Lutheran, and Protestant religions. Every little bit that we know and understand regarding Biblical/religious history is important for us as we prepare to be Extraordinary Servants in this world. This week we take time to see why Jesus being our high priest is so important.