Tuesday, December 24, 2019

To Be Seen

Every year when I do my Christmas quiz for the open house I come up with a theme.
This year's theme is Women at Christmas.
So I spent time looking for trivia questions about what women have contributed to Christmas.
I thought maybe that women invented the ornament, or Christmas lights, or the candy cane, or something.
What I found was not much.
I went home and told my wife (Vicki) about my struggles to find something about Women at Christmas.
I remarked, "I guess Christmas is a male holiday."
She said, "That is because the women are doing all the work. They are cooking, cleaning, shopping for the gifts."
This would explain why I found lots of articles written for women about how to survive the holidays without going crazy.
It is a sad commentary on our world.
That the contributions of women get pushed to the back and forgotten.

This week as I was making Swedish meatballs for our Open house it brought back lots of memories of my mom making Swedish meatballs for Christmas.
In my memories the snow is falling, we are listening to John Denver's Christmas album.
I also have memories of my mom being really intense this time of year.
I didn't appreciate it at the time, but I can see why.
My dad was like most men of his generation he didn't do much around the house.
He didn't cook, clean, or do much of the caring for us kids.
He went to work, kept the fire going, and watched sports.
Vicki and I have a more equitable system, but I can tell you she still does much more in our house than me.
Our family doesn't run without her.
She keeps so many things in her head.
She knows all the school events, the doctor's appointments, the things that need to get done on a daily and weekly basis.
It is amazing.

I know that my mom and Vicki would tell you that they do it out of love.
Love for their kids, their husbands.
But I wonder today if us men have really done a good job of acknowledging the heavy load that is placed on women?
Have we understood what it is to be put in the background, to get little credit for the little things that make all the difference?
Do we really see the women who make the world work?
Or are they just in the background, doing what we think they should do?

It is important question.
Because what we all desire in this life is to be seen.
That is how we know that we are loved.
When someone else takes time to acknowledge our contributions, to say thank you, to appreciate us.
When someone else sees our struggle, our pain, then we know that they love us.
In our relationships it is important to see the other person.
If it is a friend, a lover, a wife, a child it is doesn't matter.
It is important to see the other person.

Let me tell you why.
Because to really see someone else, to really understand them.
It takes time.
Time to listen to them.
Time to sit and get to know them.
Time to watch the contributions they make.
And time is precious to us.
So if you take the time to see someone you show them that you love them, that they matter to you.

It also takes us giving up what we think is the right thing.
It takes us setting aside our own self to really understand another person's perspective.
That is what real love looks like a giving of one selves idea of right and wrong for someone else.

This is what happens at Christmas in our relationship with God.
God in Jesus Christ comes to "be with us".
God takes time and comes down to earth to listen to us.
To watch the things we do.
God through Jesus takes time to sit and get to know us.
God comes to see the world through our eyes.
God sees how we struggle, and how fearful we are of never being truly seen.
Or worse our fear that we are seen and not loved because of who we really are.
In Jesus Christ, God sees us.
God sees you.

Right now God sees you.
God sees your pain, your hurt, your work, your effort, your love.
God sees your sins, your quirks, the things you hide from others.
God sees all the little things that go unnoticed by others.
God sees us in all of our complexities.
God sees us.

That is what I cling to all the time.
That because God sees me even at my worst, and still loves me, I am loved.
I am seen and known and loved.
You are seen and known and loved.
God is with us!

That is the real Christmas message.
That is the message that angel brings Joseph.
God sees Joseph's struggle.
God sees that he is afraid.
Joseph cannot see the woman in his life correctly.
He sees her through the lens of the culture around him.
That women are meant to be property for men.
Joseph can only see Mary through the patriarchal structure of his day.
This is why his solution to her pregnancy is to do what that structure requires.
(We will give him credit for doing it with mercy.)
But it is still a problem that he can only understand his finance through that lens.
God sees what Joseph cannot, and sends the angel to correct his understanding.
God sees the truth.

I will confess to all of you that as a husband there have been times when I have overlooked my wife's contributions.
There have been times when I didn't see all the things she does for our family.
There have been times when I didn't appreciate her as I should.
She somehow forgives me for it, and we find ways to love one another.
This is the power of God with us.
We learn to see each other through God's eyes.
We learn to set aside cultural expectations and really understand one another.
We learn through our lives how to love more deeply by taking time to be with each other, and really see one another.

If you are in a relationship with someone.
Whether or not that is married or friendship.
Let us not overlook those people in our lives.
Let us take time to really see them.
If you are like me and are a married man, please love your spouse.
Really take time to see her, and understand all the little things that she does out of love for your family.
Let us not forget that without women there would be no Christmas.
Without Mary's willingness to give birth to God's son there would be no Christmas.
Without women in our lives who do all the behind the scenes work we wouldn't have celebrations with friends and families.
Maybe men invented Christmas lights, and ornaments, and candy canes, but women made it all possible.
This Christmas let us see as God sees.
Because when we do we love as God loves.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Joy Came Down!

The day that my family spread my father's ashes was a really sad day.
We scattered them at the memorial chapel that is about 1/3 of the way up what is called Jackman's ridge at Camp Calumet.
We had just spread his ashes in the form of a cross.
We began walking down back to our cars.
We were all crying.
My younger sister Bethany turned around and with tears in her eyes said, "Was it me or did Dad's ashes look like cat litter."
We all started laughing.

I tell this story this morning as a way for our us to see the difference between joy and happiness.
I was not happy that day.
I was the saddest I had ever been.
But I was joyful.
In my heart, in my soul, I was joyful to have had a Dad who always showed up for me.
I was joyful to have two sisters who keep me grounded.
I was joyful to have a mother who is strong in faith.
I was joyful for the love of all the people that came to my Dad's funeral.

Happiness is determined by outside factors.
Happiness is a mode we are in based on what is happening around us.
Joy is not.
Joy is something that that comes from within in us.
It comes from our hearts and souls.
It is cultivated there.

Happiness is about how we take in the world.
Joy is about our spiritual nature.
We experience and see this at Christmas time.
We might experience the happiness that comes from decorating a tree, a party we go to, sharing a meal with family, a present we get or give.
Joy comes from knowing in our hearts and souls that God has come to dwell among us.

Joy comes from knowing that Jesus is the one we are waiting for.
Joy comes from seeing past our present reality to the coming of the kingdom of God.
To seeing the blind see, the lame walk, good news preached to the poor.
Or the dessert bloom with life.

Because let us be honest some of us might not be "feeling" Christmas this year.
For whatever reason.
We might not feel jolly.
We might not feel merry and bright.
We might not want to listen to another Christmas song that tells us what a wonderful time of year it is.
We might instead feel sad, lost, tired, burnt out.
We might feel like a desert.

Certainly the people of Isaiah's time were feeling that way.
They felt like all had been lost.
That God had punished them for their sins, and left.
But Isaiah tells them that God will restore them.
That in the desert there is still joy, because God is still there.

Can we believe that this season?
Can we find the joy that is in our hearts our souls?
Can we see beyond the lights, the trees, the presents, the songs?

This morning I would like to offer some advice.
It is actually not my advice.
It was advice I saw in a Ted talk byAmanda Gore about finding our joy.
She suggests a couple of things.
One is to stop!
Stop judging.
Stop judging yourself, stop judging others.
Instead listen.
Listen to your heart.
Listen to other people and what they are going through.
In doing this we learn to be thankful.
To have gratitude for our lives and those around us.
Second, drop into your heart.
Get out of our heads and into our hearts.
There we know truth and it brings us peace.
Because in our hearts we find gratitude, hope, compassion, and forgiveness.
And from these things spring joy.

Her Ted talk was not religious.
But if we think about what she said it mirrors things that we learn from Jesus.
Jesus has told us to stop judging others.
Jesus has told us that the truth sets us free.
Jesus has told us that being thankful is an essential spiritual discipline.
Jesus has given us hope.
Jesus has showed us compassion.
And Jesus has given us forgiveness, and called us to forgive others.
In Jesus we find joy.
Because Jesus taps into our hearts.
Jesus gives us joy.
Jesus  is joy.

This week I was texting with a friend.
He has been having a hard time with his pastor this Advent because his pastor was preaching that Advent is about darkness, hell, death, and heaven.
He was craving a message about joy.
I asked him what I should say to you all today about joy?
He said, "God created us for joy, so enjoy what you were created for."
This is what Isaiah is trying to get the Israel to see.
That in creation there is joy.
That in life there is joy.
This is the message that Jesus brings us too.
We miss it because we are afraid.
We are afraid of what we might lose.
We are afraid of what someone else has.
We are afraid and miss joy.
We might even miss the joy that comes with knowing Jesus.
With knowing that he came so we might know the truth.
The truth is that you are loved beyond your knowing, that you are created for joy, that there is no reason to be afraid, because God's got us.

Do you know that this Christmas?
Do you know how much God loves you?
I hope you do.
Because that always is what blows my mind this time of year.
That God, the most holy god, the ruler and creator of the universe, came to dwell among us.
That God came to be a fragile human baby!
And God did it all for us, so that we would know how loved we are.
That spiritual truth brings us joy!
And nothing can take it away.

That is what made it possible for me to have joy on what was the saddest moment of my life.
And regardless of what is happening this Christmas season I hope that you have joy.
Joy that comes from your heart and soul.
Joy that comes from knowing that our savior has come!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Christmas Stumps

A couple of weeks ago someone on their way into church said to me, "I really miss your tree."
"So do I"
The tree that once stood tall near our driveway was a great tree.
My kids played in it when they were little.
It provided shade in the summer, was beautiful in the fall.
Now it is just a stump.
The day it came down I watched as they pulled it down.
It came down with a mighty thumb and shook the church.
I wish it could still be there today.
I love trees and I am sad when they have to go.
But like all things nothing is forever.
All things have a impermanence.
The longer you live the more you understand that reality.

Christmas is like that.
It changes over time.
And then it repeats.
You go from being a kid and all the magic and wonder that it entails.
You become a young adult and it loses some of the magic.
And then you have your own kids and you recreate that magic for them.
You grow old and celebrate it through grand kids.
Or you celebrate it quietly with only a couple of people close to you.
Things change.
It is why I am obsessed this time of year with keeping traditions.
Because they give me the illusion of permanence.
Maybe you have your own that do the same thing for you.

What the Prophet Isaiah has been telling the people of Israel is that there state will end.
It will end for the same reason that all earthly empires end.
They become too big, too concerned about keeping power.
King Ahaz no longer believes that God will protect Jerusalem.
So he prepares for war.
This is the beginning of the end for Isaiah.
He already knows what is coming.
He knows that war will bring destruction.
He knows that the tree is about to get cut down.
And that at the end all there will be is a stump.

Amazing thing about nature is that it always finds away.
If you cut down a healthy tree it will want to live.
This week at Bible study someone told me this story.
She cut down a tree in her yard.
A little while longer and it started to sprout a shoot.
She cut that off.
And a little while longer it did it again.
Finally her daughter told her, "Mom that tree wants to live."

We planted a tree in front of the church in honor of our former organists June Iffland.
That first winter a piece of ice feel from the roof and cut it in half.
I thought for sure it was dead.
I thought we should buy and plant a new tree.
Someone on council said, "Pastor let's wait and see."
Sure enough it grew.
This summer it actually had something like a pear on it.

And so Isaiah tells the people of Israel that after the destruction all will not be lost.
There will be a shoot from the stump.
Life will go on, the people will go on.
Isn't that the promise of our faith.
Isn't that the promise of Christmas.
That in the middle of the darkest time of year.
When the sun is not shining.
When things seem bleak and lost.
In that moment God shows up.
In a manger.
In peace.
In love.
In hope.

That is what propels us forward this time of year.
That is the hope.
That out of the stump life will find a way.
That things don't seem like they are going well, but God is going to find a way.

We need that don't we.
No matter who you are, or what your station, I guarantee we are all working on something.
We have all had some sense of loss this year.
Maybe we have lost a loved one.
Maybe we lost a job.
Maybe we lost our sense of ourselves.
Maybe we lost a relationship.
Maybe we lost our sense of security.
Maybe we lost what makes the world make sense to us.
Whatever it is we have experienced loss, because that is what it is to be human.
To live all the time with that sense that things are impermanent.
That things will change.
Trees get cut down.
Lives are altered.
And all that is left is stump.
And then God comes along and tells us wait not all is lost.
There will be a shoot.
Something new is growing.

This message is not just about our individual lives.
Isaiah was not talking about individuals but the whole community.
The whole world.
And the same is true for us.
Not only do we individually need salvation and redemption, but we need it as a people.
Our country needs it, because we have lost our way.
Just the other day it was reported that a teenager died of the flu while in a detention center.
The Flu!
That should bother all of us.
It should bother us as if that was our own child and we didn't get them to the hospital on time.
We should want better for our neighbors.
We should want justice for them too.
And so we hope today for the stump to shoot a new tree that will grow.
That the one who comes to rule will be filled with love for the poor.
Will be filled with knowledge and fear of the Lord.
We hope for the day when things will be put right, and where teenagers don't die unnecessarily.
Because my redemption and salvation is tied to yours, and everybody else who shares this impermanent human life.

It is the season of hope.
We wait for the sun to return.
We hope that out of the stump will come a shoot that will grow and bring restoration for our lives.
We hope for Jesus Christ to come so that we might know justice, peace, and real life.

I miss the tree by our house.
I wish it was more than a stump.
But the stump reminds me of the impermanence of the world, and the hope that comes from God.

I hope this season for a new life that comes from knowing Jesus Christ as the one who is the shoot from the stump. 

Sunday, December 8, 2019

The Mountain Vision

Yesterday on our way back from spending time with our family up north we stopped at Target.
I stopped for a second and looked around.
I realized that it had started.
It does every year.
Almost immediately after Thanksgiving it starts.
The pace quickens.
We know that time is limited.
There is lots to do.
For the next 25 days we will be shopping, wrapping, cleaning, cooking.
We will be going to parties or hosting them.
We will be doing what we do this time of year.
All to provide something for our loved ones, and for ourselves.
Cultural Christmas is about finding joy during a season when the sun is out less.
It is a meant to give us joy.
I hope it does for you.

But this morning as we gather here in this place I want us to take a moment to pause.
To leave all the things that need to get done, that weigh on this time of year, and I want us to take a deep breath.
Because we don't come here to be busy.
We don't come here because we can't see through gloom to find joy.
We come because we have a vision for a new world.
This is not how we talk about Christmas in our culture.
As people of faith this is part of our Christmas.

It is the vision that Isaiah gives us this morning.
It is the mountain where all people come to learn about God.
It is the place of peace.
The place where we beat our guns into plowshares.
Where we lay our weapons down and study war no more.
It is more than merely our own comfort and joy, although it includes it.
It is the world transformed before our eyes.
It is a world different from the one we experience now.
That is what we wait for.
And that is what we hope for in this time.

I was thinking about this vision of the world.
It is the vision that we need together this morning.
I know that tomorrow we will go out and do all the other stuff.
But while we are together today let us not lose sight of what we are about.
I want to share some visions I had this week about this mountain top experience that God promises us.

This past week we hosted Family Promise.
It is a small piece of helping people that experience homelessness.
But when we started it, I would go around town talking about it with people.
And I would sometimes be asked, "What if there are no people that need this program?"
My response every time was, "That would be fantastic!"
We didn't help start family promise so that we could have a program for homeless people.
We started it in hopes that one day it wouldn't be needed.
That every family could get a good paying job, have affordable housing, and have health care.
I don't know if you have talked to any of the families that stay here but I can tell you that you can make all the right decisions and still experience homelessness.
That is the vision of the world I want to live in.
Not one where we have families moving around every week and living on a cot.
Not one where people like me "volunteer" to help.
Of course we don't live in that world yet.
So the faithful response is to volunteer.
The faithful response is to do what is in our hands to do.
But that is not the end of it, because I believe in God's faithfulness to the vision of a better world.
In this season when we celebrate a family who couldn't find room in the inn, when we celebrate the birth of our homeless savior, let us have a vision of a better world with Jesus.
Let us be faithful to that world, to the mountain where we all go to learn about God's ways.

This week I came across this classic coke commercial.
(Play video)
How many people remember this commercial.
Funny thing is that I wasn't even born when this commercial first aired, but I still remember it.
I know that the point of it is to make us buy Coke.
But it also gives a vision of the world on a mountain.
It is a vision of harmony.
A vision of people from different religions, nations, races, cultures coming together.
Isn't that our vision of God's future.
That is what is so amazing about Isaiah vision is that a prophet of Israel tells people that the promise of God isn't just for Israel, but for "all nations".
In this season when we celebrate the birth of our savior who came for all people, when we remember a middle eastern Jewish man who was the son of God, let us hold to the vision of the mountain that includes us all and that holds us all.
And when I say all, I mean it.
Not just the ones we like, but all of them.
To be faithful to God's vision is to have it include all people.
Because this time of year is about peace.
The prince of peace is coming into the world.
God is faithful to the vision of all people coming to the mountain.

And finally I want us to think about all the preparations we will go through this season.
I want us to think about what is it all for?
Is it to simply satisfy some need in us to feel better?
Or is something else going on.
Do we do it because we are creating a small slice of the mountain here in our lives?
We are searching for the deeper meaning.
We are searching for the mountaintop.
The place where God will find us, and restore us.
The place where we will learn God's ways.
Is it that we are searching for peace?
And peace seems to be so far from us.
Within our homes, within our hearts.
Within our world.
We are searching for peace.

Can it be that what we really need is justice?
We need the world to be more equitable so that we don't feel this guilty.
We need the world to be good not just for my family, but really for all families.
We need the mountain top.
We need the vision of what the world can be when we learn the ways of God.
A world where all are fed, clothed, and cared for.
A world where all are at peace.
A world where all are included.

That is what we wait for this season.
That is what we ask God for us to be faithful to this season.
And we believe that God is faithful to our world.

I don't know if we can stop the quickening of the pace.
I don't know if I can even stop it in my life, forget the rest of the world.
But what I do know is that I can make this season about more than that.
Here in this place with you, we can wait for something more.
we can be faithful to something deeper.
we can celebrate God's faithfulness to a better world.

So this Christmas season may we be faithful.
May we celebrate that God is faithful.
And may we share Isaiah's vision of all people going up the mountain to learn God's ways.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Things They Didn't Teach Us In Seminary

I belong to a Facebook group called, "Things they didn't teach us in Seminary."
You can imagine that it is a pretty long list.
Everything from, "How to fix a cloaked toilet" to "How to read a financial report".
Those are the obvious things.
I was discussing this at Bishop convocation with one of my colleagues.
I was telling her that the thing that has struck me recently about being a pastor is how deeply you get into the pain of life.
They really don't teach you that at seminary.
At  least not to the degree that you encounter it once you are in the ministry.
Or at least not the degree I have encountered it.

For example, tomorrow I will be doing a funeral for a family whose 23 year old daughter died of a drug overdose.
I wish I could tell you that was the saddest part of the story.
This young woman had a really hard life.
She lived in what is best described as hell.
Never really having a steady home.
She was abused by men.
She never found her place in the world.

And that was just last week.
It doesn't account for all the other things that I hear.
Divorce, marital infidelity, alcohol addiction, Sexual abuse, domestic violence, depression, anxiety.
The world we live in can be very hurtful.
It can be hard on people.
And the depths of people's pain is real.

This is the problem with Christ the King Sunday.
We hear about Jesus as the King of the universe.
And we think of the image that we have always lived with.
A God who floats above the world.
A God who solves all the problems we have.
We think of a king sitting on a throne, giving orders, and having them followed.
We think of a God removed from our problems, because he simply sits around making demands that have to be carried out.
It is why I really dislike this Sunday.
It would seem to reinforce our ideas of that God.

What saves it is that our Gospel reading is of Jesus dying on a cross.
That our God does not float above the world's problems.
Our God enters them.
Our God experiences them.
Our God knows the hurt of being human.
Our God knows the complicated reality that we find ourselves.

The only theological thing we ever have to remember is that Jesus died on a cross.
Through that lens we can view everything we face.
Because what I think people really struggle with is the idea that God might not be there for them when things are not going well.
I hear it all the time.
"Where was God when my daughter started doing drugs?"
"Where was God when my sister died?"
"Where was God when I lost my job?"
That might be the most common question I get.

And the answer is on the cross.
Right there with you, with your loved one, with us.
In the pain, in the sorrow, in the loss.
Right there next to them.
Because Jesus knows the pain of the world.

And we don't have to hide it from him.
Because the other truth is that we try to hide away the less pleasant things from one another.
We try to pretend like everything is all good.
And some of that is appropriate.
We are not going to tell a stranger our real problems.
And maybe even from those we love we want to protect them from what is going on.
And that is brilliance of Jesus Christ.
We don't have to hide at all.
Not the worst part of ourselves.
Not the parts that are nasty, and revolting to other people.
We can take it all to Jesus.
And Jesus will nod and say, "today you will be with me in paradise."
Even if you are a thief.

This is why I consider it an honor when people come to me with whatever they are struggling with.
It is because they trust me with those things.
They trust that I will give them the grace they crave.
Maybe that is what surprises me the most about it all.
I never thought coming out of seminary that people would tell their pastor their deepest darkest secrets.
I just assumed that people went to church to put on a show, for the music, or to be seen.
But that isn't true at all.
People come because they really need Jesus.
They need the good news.
That God's love and grace are bigger, more powerful than whatever it is that you are going through.

On Monday at the funeral this will be my message to the family.
Because I could see them wanting to make sense of it all.
And I can't tell you why she got hooked on drugs.
But I can tell you that she was a beloved child of God.
I can tell you that God has loved her into eternity.
I can tell you that she rests from all the struggles that she faced on earth.
I can tell you that God's grace is bigger than any addiction.

And that is the message of Christ the King Sunday.
We will not always have the easiest lives.
We will face things that we don't talk about.
We will be faced with harsh realities of living on this side of heaven.
The depths of the pain that people experience is beyond our comprehension.
But God is on the cross.
God is in our pain.
God has experienced anything we could experience.
Abandonment, betrayal, oppression, injustice, loss, pain, hurt.
God has taken it all on God's self.

That is the King that we worship.
Not the one who sits on throne demanding things of us.
Not of one who solves all our problems, or stops everything bad from happening to us.
But one who loves us enough to go to the depths with us.

Come to think of it they did teach us that in seminary.
Luther called in the theology of the cross.
God is found in the pain of our lives, not in the victory.
However, I now see it more clearly.
I see it in real lives that I have the privilege  to pastor.

In your life if you are in pain, if you experience the reality of a harsh and sinful world.
I hope you will always remember that God is right there with you.
That Jesus died so we would know that we are never alone, that God is always with us.
Jesus died so that we would know the depths God goes through so we know of God's love.
Jesus died so that we might live here now, and know the grace and love of God.
They taught that is seminary too, and we live it here together in this community.