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“What Must I Do to Inherit Eternal Life?”

Hoffman-ChristAndTheRichYoungRuler23nkjasc90-largeThis sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on October 14, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost and is based on the lessons for the day, Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 and Mark 10:17-31. 

Today’s gospel lesson is another provocative story that may very well cause a little squirming. Several years ago, I was having lunch with a a wealthy member of my suburban congregation; we got to talking about scripture, about how to live as a Christian in the world. He said something that has stuck with me for a long time: “Some of Jesus’ words I like, some I find hard, but the one that I have the hardest time with is the one about how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. I came from nothing and I’ve worked hard for what I have. I don’t think it should keep me out of the kingdom.”  It’s hard for me to argue with that notion.

I want to put at the center of our reflection the question this rich young man asks of Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

The content of the question is odd. In a sense, it’s an absurd question. You can’t do anything to gain an inheritance. To inherit something is by definition passive. If my father has an inheritance set up for me, the only way I get it is for my father to die. Then it comes to me. I haven’t done anything for it. My father might choose to give it to me before he dies, but even then, I have done nothing; I simply receive. So, from the very outset, the young man is going in the wrong direction if he wants to discover anything about eternal life.

There’s something else a little odd.  How quickly Jesus changes the subject from eternal life to how the rich young man is to live in this life. If the man is asking about salvation, if he’s asking about his relationship with God, Jesus answers his question by urging care for his neighbor. It’s the same thing that seems to be going on in the lesson from Amos. The relationship between the nation of Israel and God is broken. The symptoms of that broken relationship are not what the people are doing directly to God, but all the ways that they are living out an oppression to their neighbors, especially the poor. Did you catch all the references to justice and oppression in that reading from Amos? The leaders are trampling on the poor, exacting oppressive tax burdens on the poor, offering and taking bribes and showing favoritism when bringing cases before judges. It seems that for both Jesus and Amos, the sign of God’s presence in the community is communal justice, a focus on furthering the common good and caring for the most vulnerable.

And that’s where things get difficult for our young man. See, there are apparently obstacles to the life that Jesus offers to this rich young man, obstacles that have continued from the first century to the 21st century. For both him and us, one of the most serious obstacles is our possessions. My friend that I referred to earlier had a bit of nervousness about that. What if Jesus’ words are true? That’s where the squirm factor comes in. Some of hearing this story this morning are even by your own standards wealthy. Probably many of the rest of you would not consider yourselves wealthy; yet chances are you have stuff, and you have money and you have some interest in either keeping that money or making more of it. And maybe you yearn for more stuff. Even beyond that, simply by virtue of being born in the western world, we are among the wealthiest people on the planet. Compared to the rest of the population of the world, we are probably among the 1%. So, for all of us, Jesus’ words are a warning. What we have can serve as a serious obstacle to life in the kingdom of God. Here’s how that works: If we are determined to hold on to what we have, if we place what we have at the center of our lives, if that’s what we think gives life meaning and purposes, if our stuff and our money become the measure of what life is all about, if our stuff and our money are what we are clinging to for security, then we are holding on to only a fragile and hollow shell of life. Jesus encourages a willingness to let go of the fraudulent and collapsible supports for life, those supports that are epitomized, but not limited to wealth. Believe me, there is a long list of things we are tempted to rely on. No wonder the rich young man went away sorrowful; no wonder the disciples threw up their hands in frustrated despair and asked, “Then my Lord, who can be saved?”

Exactly. I don’t intend to soften Jesus’ words about the difficulty of the rich man entering the kingdom of God. In fact, I think the whole point of it is the impossibility of it, and the accompanying miracle of God calling us into God’s family. So often in Mark’s gospel, Jesus makes the impossible possible. He feeds a crowd with a few loaves of bread and some fish. He restores sick and dead children to life. A destitute widow deposits her last coin. And in perhaps the most unlikely miracle of all, God takes the crucifixion of God’s Son and turns it into the event that brings life to the whole world. We are reminded again in the first few words of this gospel lesson that Jesus is on a journey; he is heading to Jerusalem; his face is turned resolutely to the mission before him. There in the holy city,  by his death and resurrection, God would bring life to you, to me, to the whole world, indeed to all creation.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Nothing, except to open our hands and hearts to receive the transformed life that God offers to us, a life grounded in the love and grace of God, a life grounded in our own baptism into the death and resurrection of the Crucified One.

What that looks like is that we don’t have to hold onto our possessions with white-knuckled anxiety. We don’t have to live in fear. We don’t have to cling to things because we know that our life does not consist in things. Elsewhere, Jesus says not to worry because God cares even for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and everything else will come along.

A number of years ago, the congregation where I was a pastor was doing some work in Haiti. We partnered with an organization and some local Haitians to help build and improve an orphanage and school in one of the poor neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince. While in Haiti, we lived and worked with people who had very, very little. No running water, the simplest of homes, clothes that were hand me downs from the US, and no assurance that there would be food on the table tomorrow. Yet, I observed that these were people of deep faith. They relied and trusted on God to care for them today and tomorrow. I must confess that my abundant possessions get in the way of that kind of trust. Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and everything else will come along.That’s the kind of life I yearn for.

What must I do to inherit eternal life? Thanks be to God that this morning, yet again, the Lord Jesus invites us into a new life where we center our lives completely apart from all the things we are tempted to build them around: wealth, career, family, pleasure, prestige, and the rest of the long list. Instead, he offers us real life, to center our lives in the goodness and grace of God, to be transformed once again so that both our lives and our possessions become seeds for the kingdom.

This Is Hard Stuff

This sermon was preached at Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay, Wisconsin on Sunday, July 15, 2018. It is based on the Revised Common Lectionary lessons for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost, Amos 7:7-15, Ephesians 1:3-14, and Mark 6:14-29.

beheadingofjohn

I know what you’re thinking. How is he going to wrestle a sermon out of the beheading of John the Baptist?  I agree. This is hard stuff, these lessons. Give me a good text full of promises, the kind that brings peace and comfort. Give me a story about the way God loves us, a story full of that unconditional grace.  Give me something that I can walk away from feeling good.

Instead we get a prophet who is sent to speak harsh words of judgment to those in power and another that gets beheaded for answering the same call. This is hard stuff, these lessons.

The beloved John the Baptist is executed by beheading. King Herod, the powerful ruler of Judea, gets stuck in a complicated relationship with John, with his wife, and with his stepdaughter. Herod is at odds with his wife over John the Baptist and at odds with John the Baptist over his wife. When he throws a party, has a few too many, and loves the dancing of his stepdaughter a little too much, he makes a boast to the crowd.  “As payment for her fine dancing, I will give Herodias anything in my kingdom.” His boast brings more than he bargained for. Goaded on by her mother who was, of course, Herod’s wife, the fancy-dancing child, Herodias, asks for John’s head.

Or consider Amos, the farmer, the keeper of the fig trees, not a prophet by vocation, but called to speak to the halls of power. His word of judgment threatens the religious and political establishment of Israel. Amaziah, the priest at Bethel, reports to King Jereboam that Amos has conspired against him and prophesied his death. For being true to his calling to follow the Lord, Amos is branded a threat to homeland security.

What binds John and Amos together is their mutual commitment to doing what God asked of them without qualification, without reservation, without question. Even when it meant going against the cultural grain, against popular opinion, and even when it had to potential to bring them great harm.

This is hard stuff, these lessons. It’s hard to be that kind of Christian, to be that kind of church. It’s easier and safer just to accept the status quo, to look around and say, well, that’s just the way it is, and to excuse ourselves — the problems are too big, the power too great, and like they say, you can’t fight city hall.

Will Willimon is a contemporary theologian who has written a ton about the church in these days. He used to be the Dean of the Chapel at Duke University and then went on to serve as a bishop in the Methodist Church. As bishop he used to get around to visit a lot of congregations. He’d often ask folks what they thought the work of the church is and what they thought the work of the pastor is. Invariably, people would answer that the purpose of the church is directed at their own needs — to bring them comfort, to help them in their struggles, to let them know they’re loved and valuable.

That’s what we want. And knowing what some of you are going through, it seems perfectly logical to proclaim a word of comfort and leave it at that. It’s a whole lot easier than speaking out and taking action against all that rails against God’s justice and God’s righteousness, against God’s intentions. This is hard stuff, these lessons.

They’re hard, in part, because they challenge us against our own self-absorption and complacency.

Self-absorption is a cruel and sinful disease. The relative prosperity and prestige with which many of us are surrounded can be crippling to our relationship with God. In this beautiful room, we can begin to think that our ministry begins and ends here. In our lovely homes with their beautiful Door County address, we can begin to believe that it is we who have provided for ourselves. In the vast variety and abundance of this world, we can begin to believe that somehow it all belongs to us. And we can so easily forget that we are called to be a part of God’s people for the sake of God’s intentions and purposes.

Complacency is the disease of sleep-walking through life, of believing that nothing I could do would ever matter in the big picture. Complacency is to sing “Jesus love me, this I know” without ever getting to the part which asks, so where would he have me go.

That’s why we need a savior. Not a cheerleader or a pep-talk, but a savior. One who can free us from our bondage to self-absorption and complacency. John’s execution is a foreshadowing of the death that Jesus would face at the hands of the misguided powers of empire and church. His body would be nailed to a tree and placed into a tomb. In his body, he would carry our own self-absorption and bury it. His death and resurrection bring our own dying to self and rising to new life in God. God has come among us in Jesus; God has delivered us from the tyranny of the self and freed us to live for God and for others. What God has made us to be is described in poetic paeans of praise in the lesson from Ephesians. Listen:  God has blessed us with every spiritual blessing; God has made us holy and blameless; God has adopted us as God’s daughters and sons and provided us redemption, the forgiveness of our sins according to the richness of his grace.

In this grace, we have been predestined for works, so that our lives and our work are part of the purposes of the One who has called us. It’s his power, not ours, that enlivens our work as church. We are not just do-gooders; we are the body of Christ through whom God intends to work. Viewed apart from the eyes of faith, we have nothing to offer when speaking to power or facing the big problems of our community and our world. But wrapped in the death and resurrection of Christ, we offer ourselves for God’s use. We are called to be a threat to the worldly powers that perpetuate the status quo of injustices and oppression. Like Amos, we are amateur prophets, injecting tension into the status quo because we know the way thing are is not the way things should be. 

The great rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that the office of the prophet in Israel was to remind the king that his sovereignty was limited, that over any pronouncements that the king might make, the pronouncements of the Lord and the justice of the Lord have the final say. When our sole focus is on our own need and our own place in the world, we lose sight of where are are placed in the greater creation and who has places us here. We already know we are cherished and will be cared for; from that vantage point, we keep our eyes peeled for the surprising ways God may be at work in the world.

Ordinary people like us do God’s work and enact God’s vision of the kingdom. In 1976, Millard and Linda Fuller worked with Clarence Jordan and began a project to build 42 homes for low income families outside Americus, Georgia. Since then Habitat for Humanity has built over one million homes, touching the lives of five million people. Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan Illinois was begun in 1882 when Pr. E.J. Homme opened an orphanage in Wittenberg, Wisconsin with a vision to take care of orphaned children. Today, LSS touches the lives of over 100,00 people through 263 programs at 188 sites in 115 communities throughout Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. A weeks ago, 30,000 ELCA youth and adults descended on Houston, a city ravaged last summer by Hurricane Harvey. High school students — teens — touched a city with the love of Christ.

This is hard stuff, these lessons. They are a reminder and an encouragement that our lives are not our own. When I bless children at the communion table, I tell them, “You belong to Jesus.” Christ has made a claim on you for the sake of the world. We gather in this room to be sent out — as prophets, as the hands and feet of Jesus. No one is exempt. All are called. As the Lord said to Amos, so the Lord says to you, “Go.”

A Big, Beautiful World: A Review of Creation Care, by Douglas and Jonathan Moo

I care deeply about the care of creation. And I care that the church cares about the care of creation. While I believe in general, it has taken us too long to join the conversation, there are some theologians who are calling us to account. This review of Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World,  by Douglas Moo and Jonathan Moo first appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is reprinted here with their permission.  

In the midst of the cacophony of strident voices in contemporary American politics and culture, one of the loudest strains of shouting back and forth across the fence is with regard to environmental issues, and particularly climate change and human causation. In the midst of the debate, what does the church have to say, and what must the church do? The father and son co-authors, Douglas and Jonathan Moo seek to answer those questions in their new book, Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World.

They begin from the premise that God has given us a big,  beautiful world to live in. As human creatures, we respond with wonder and praise. From that premise flows the notion that it is our responsibility to care for that creation. With regard to the calling to care for creation, the authors frame their discussion around these two specific questions:  1) What do we mean when we talk about the care of creation? and 2) Why is it important to talk about it?  The short answer is that Christians are called to care about creation because we worship the God who called creation into being. Then they go about grounding their apology for creation care in scripture. They seek “a strategy for biblical interpretation that is broad, integrate, and creative.” While acknowledging that both culture and science contribute to our understanding of and response to the call to care for creation, they spend little time on either and a great deal of time laying out scriptural support for creation care.

Our call to care for creation is rooted in the notion that we are always seeking to become who God created us to be. Our care for creation is an inescapable part of who God has created us to be. The human dominion over creation is subsumed under the reign of God, and that reign defines the priorities and purposes of creation care.

The authors spend a significant amount of time and ink relating creation care to Jesus’ new reign. They do so because this is really at the heart of their apology for the Christian call to creation care. “In Christ, we see the breaking in of God’s kingdom on earth, a kingdom in which old enmities are abolished and peace is established between God and humanity, humanity and the earth, and human beings and each other.”  Here, the Moos unpack in some detail a number of New Testament passages which speak of new creation, suggesting that part of the new creation is that God will bring all things — the created order included — into an appropriate relationship with himself.

Consistent with their view of the goodness of creation and that God is in Christ reconciling all things to himself, they argue against a cataclysmic, disaster-induced ending the present order. Instead, the eschaton will bring a renewal and fulfillment of this creation; therefore, it is of critical importance that humans steward well this created order. “Creation is not just the stage on which the story of redemption takes place; creation is an actor in that story.”

After a long apology for the biblical mandate for care for creation, the final few chapters of the book move to how the church and individual Christians might contribute to that work. Of necessity is the Christian call to Christlike daily living, which includes appreciation and care for creation. Only in the penultimate chapter do the authors talk about the urgency of the human-induced crisis with regard to environmental degradation. In the face of this crisis, Christians must live faithful lives and form faithful communities that care about the earth. That faithfulness comes in being more aware of the natural work and to contemplate purposefully and engage actively with that world.

The authors write from within the Evangelical community, and the work is intended for that community. In both style and substance, the book is written for a community in which belief must be grounded in specific references to the Old and New Testament scriptures and in the detailed interpretation of those passage.  In seeking to engage that community — and it seems to me that a subtext of the work is to engage that community without causing offense or controversy — the authors don’t push hard and they don’t challenge. There is no attempt to sound an alarm, nor do they paint a dark picture of the consequences of failing to act. It’s a straightforward argument for Christians to take seriously the call to care for the created order. The book is part of The Biblical Theology for Life series published by Zondervan which is intended to bring “groundbreaking academic study of the Bible alongside contemporary contextualization and proclamation.” I would not characterize this work as anything groundbreaking in terms of academic study. (For groundbreaking academic study, I’d be more inclined to look to Larry Rasmussen’s Earth-Honoring Faith or Sallie McFague’s Blessed Are the Consumers.)

On the other hand, the authors have brought a scriptural proclamation to the matter of care for creation and have placed that care squarely into the context of the faithfulness of the church and her individual members. For an introduction to the Christian call to care for the environment, and for a carefully organized apology for the same, especially for those who might not be inclined to perceive the urgency and importance of the stewardship of creation, this might be just the book to read.

The Deep Challenge of Faith Formation

faithformation

(This review first appeared in The Englewood Review of Books.)

Andrew Root. Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2017.

If you’re sitting in the chair of the lead pastor at your church, and this book came across your desk, you might be tempted to pass it on to your youth pastor or the staff person in charge of the children and family programs. And if you’re sitting in either of those two offices, you might be tempted to put it on the tall stack of books that will offer you one more way to tweak your programs to reverse the slow bleed of people away from a church in decline. All three of you would be wrong.

This book is part cultural critique and part theology, combining to open a new way to think about faith formation and the future of the church.

Most anyone who works in or around the church is familiar with the notion of Moralistic, Therapeutic, Deism. It’s the concept that emerged out of the sociological work of Christian Smith and became known in church circles through the work of Kenda Creasy Dean. The individualized, consumer spirituality represented by MTD has cut loose faith formation from the fundamentals of the Christian faith. Root accepts that critique of the church and for the first part of the work offers a detailed explanation of how we got here. He argues that as a culture, we’ve become obsessed with youthfulness, not as a way to honor or form the faith of our youth, but as as a culture-wide ethos out of which flows a drive for authenticity and fulfillment. From that false and empty well comes the church’s notion that if we could only keep youthfulness in the church, we could help people become more authentic and at the same time revitalize our churches.

Root is working out Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age for the broad task of faith formation in the church. Taylor makes a distinction between 3 different kinds of secularism, and Root seeks to unpack the implications of those distinctions for the work of faith formation. In Secular 2 (Taylor’s language), there is a competition between religious space and non-religious space; the church is constantly battling to maintain its hold on religious space. Faith formation becomes a battle to keep the youth participating in congregations, thereby maintaining our hold on that particular religious space. In Secular 3 (again, Taylor’s language), the facade of religion is held onto, even when we as a broad culture have given up on the idea that there can be any connection to the transcendent. Faith is simply the grasp of a set of cognitive truths that inform how we live ontologically in this world.

As an answer to the above, Root spends the second part of the book exploring Paul and how Paul’s understanding of faith helps us to seek connection with the divine in a culture that has lost any hope for transcendent experience. Basing much of this part of the work on the new Finnish interpretation of Luther and justification, especially Tuomo Mannermaa, “faith is a death experience (the cross) that leads to new life (resurrection).” What makes this faith possible is the real presence of Jesus as the minister who comes to us and even comes alongside us in our own experiences of brokenness and lostness to give us his very person as new life. Relying heavily on the great Christ hymn of Philippians 2 and the Orthodox understanding of that passage, Root explains how “the shape of Jesus’s ministering person is hypostasis (union of personhood) and kenosis (humble self-giving), leading to theosis (transformation into being a minister as Jesus is minister).”

Against a culture that eschews transcendent experience, Root argues that we experience transcendence when we stand alongside and minister to our neighbor in their own death experiences (brokenness, lostness). In doing so, “we find the real presence of Jesus, meeting our person with his own, infusing our being with Jesus’s own being as we share in the being of our neighbors humbly acting as her minister.”

The church, then is the household of ministry, and faith formation is centered in the church as the place where people receive the ministry of Jesus and then are sent into the world to minster to their neighbor. “The only thing the church offers the world is ministry! And this only thing, as we’ve seen, is everything. It is the very location of Jesus Christ; it is the energy to turn death into life and make us new beings who have our being and action in and through ministry.”

That ministry, he concludes, is lived out in three distinct dispositions for the church: gratitude, giftedness, and rest. Everything the church does in ministry — all of which is, ultimately, faith formation — is centered in these three distinct dispositions.

Don’t come to this book looking for lists of concrete steps to be taken to improve faith formation in the church. Don’t come looking for ways to tweak what you’re already doing to make it more appealing or more effective. You won’t find any of that.

But do come to this book ready to read slowly, to think and reflect upon the whole enterprise of faith formation from the cradle to the grave, and why the cognitive, programmatic approach that we’ve used for so long isn’t working. Come ready to be challenged and to call into question long held assumptions, and the plethora of bandaid approaches to the complex challenge of being church in this post-Christian time. No question, this is a challenging book; Root is reflecting on the difficulty of trying to connect people with God in a culture that is far more interested in the development of individual fulfillment than a life given over to divine service. I suspect that were we to take seriously Root’s diagnosis of a MTD church, we would blow up our present programs and start from scratch.

My fear is that the technical nature of the book and the short supply of practical tips will keep those who most need to read this from diving in. I hope I’m wrong and that this book will be widely read. One doesn’t have to agree with all of Root’s conclusions or even his sometimes too generalized arguments about how we got here. The rethinking of faith and the resultant reconsideration of how the church does faith formation could be transformative for our congregations. I also think this is one of those books that would be most fruitful if read in conversation with others facing the same challenges — as a staff, as a clergy or other church worker cohort. What holds great promise, in my opinion, is precisely the fact that he doesn’t offer a to-do list at the end of the book. Rather, because each context is different, each congregation with different people, different gifts, different traditions and different theological sensibilities, it becomes the responsibility of each of us to determine how we will each work to make our congregations households of ministry, and thereby deeply and substantively form the faith of our people, for the sake of God’s intentions for the world.

In the preface, Root indicates that this is the first of three books that will explore points and theories within Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the implications for Christian ministry. Even as I continue to reflect on this one, I can’t help but eagerly look forward to the next two.

Watching the Ice Melt

For the past week we’ve been been living in a temporary home just a block or so from Garrett’s Bay at the very northern tip of the Door County peninsula. The daily change of the ice and water on the bay has been a source of endless fascination for me.

When we arrived on Saturday, March 25, the bay was mostly covered with ice. It wasn’t a clear, unbroken sheet of ice; rather chunks that seemed as if they had long been broken and fused with the heating and cooling of the outside air. 

Later on in the week, a north wind blew in and the ice got scrunched up close to the shoreline as if a big snow shovel had entered the mouth of the bay and cleared the ice off most of the water. (Wish I had  picture of that, but didn’t think to take one.)

When the wind stopped blowing, the scrunched up ice loosened up again and a big patch of it floated out into the open water of Green Bay.

The warm temps over the weekend dramatically hastened the melt. You can see from these pictures just how much difference five days makes. 

Now this morning, the ice has pretty much disappeared from bay. For the past few days, temperatures have been pretty consistent through the day and night, hovering between the mid 30s and mid 40s. Still I find it astonishing that the ice the virtually disappeared in just 12 hours.

It’s raining today. Wonder if that will be enough to melt the few remaining chunks. You can be sure I’ll be watching.

Of Ending and Beginning

img_0140As a Christian pastor, death and resurrection are pretty real things to me. Jesus’ death and resurrection lie at the heart of the faith I proclaim. In the lives of the people I serve, I am routinely invited into deaths and resurrections of persons and families, though none of them are ever what I would call routine. They are always holy moments.

Death and resurrection imply the reality of endings and beginnings. I have entered into a zone of vocational ending and beginning, a kind of death and resurrection. After a long period of conversation and discernment, I have accepted a call to a new congregation. I will be moving from the western suburbs of Chicago to Door County, Wisconsin to serve as pastor with the people of Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in Ellison Bay. (If anyone is interested, you can read the letter I sent to the people of Faith Church announcing the acceptance of the call.)

This is now the 4th transition I’ve made as a pastor from one place to another, this one at the end of a 15 year tenure. They are always fraught with emotion. As a pastor, you become invested in a place and in the people there. People invite you some of the most intimate and vulnerable times of their life. You get to be part of their celebrations, their heartbreaks, their milestones and their disappointments. In December, I spent the wee hours of the morning two nights in a row in a room with a dying man, his wife, his daughter, and two of his granddaughters. It was a holy moment as the people who loved him most dearly sat vigil with him, sending him across the river to the Promised Land. Somehow, they wanted me to be there. In January, I presided at the wedding of a woman who had known deep disappointment when a previous engagement was called off just before the wedding. When she and her beloved pledged themselves to one another, I got to share the moment with a better than front row seat, so close that their joy spilled all over me.

Take these moments and multiply them by hundreds, and one begins to see how deeply embedded a pastor becomes in the life of a congregation and the people who inhabit it. The moments come and go; one savors the moment and moves on. I don’t mean to suggest they are unimportant. They are extraordinarily important; yet they come with such regularity that I never really spend much time dwelling on them.

Except that now as I prepare to leave, so many moments come flooding back. I look at a family in the pew on Sunday morning and I get a flashback of the funeral we did for Dad, or the time when the infant child who’s now in high school spent weeks in the hospital suffering from seizures. When I get an email from a former congregational president wishing me the best, I recall the capital campaign for which we shared leadership and how much I learned from this wise, faithful man.

One also gets to work with people for the sake of God’s larger purposes in the world. Now as I leave, I see with such clarity the great ministry that the people of this congregation do, the way we have made an impact in the community and in the lives of real people.

In the weeks to come, I will say more about where I am going, but for now, I am beginning the long, heart-wrenching process of saying good-by to people and a congregation that I have grown to love so deeply. We will remember together. We will savor these moments. We will laugh and cry together. And we will give thanks to God for prospering our work together.

When a colleague heard I was leaving, she sent me a Facebook message reflecting on her own pastoral partings, reminding me that as the Sent Ones, we love deeply but loosely. I like that phrase. Encapsulated in it is the transient nature of life. I picture life as a moving stream heading towards the ocean. For a time, we get to float along with the same people. Then the current changes and we get diverted to other channels in the same river, together, yet apart.

I had not anticipated that I would be leaving Faith at this point in time. Yet, the Spirit blows where she wills. She had created a restlessness that has found opportunity for a reset, to enter into a new season of life and ministry, and to do the work that I love in a landscape for which I have long yearned.

So, a heart-wrenching ending and a life-giving new beginning. Always held together in the love of the One who has called us his own.

Christmas. If not Merry, then Blessed and Hopeful

15439961_10211363540473869_796496761573532180_nA cold winter chill has settled into our little spot on the earth. Snow covers the ground and the temperatures are a bone-chilling cold. For those of us in the northern hemisphere winter and Christmas go hand in hand. Even the songs tell us to wish for a white Christmas.

It’s easy to romanticize the cold of winter while sitting next to the fire with a soothing cup of hot chocolate. But the cold and snow can’t be romantic for everyone. Some have to work in it. Some even have to sleep in it. And some wonder how they will stay warm when there’s no money to pay the gas bill.

On the one hand. . .on the other hand.  Life is always a little like that. The good and the bad. The romantic and the reality. The pain and the relief. The sorrow and the celebration. The light and the darkness. The manger and the cross. The cross and the empty tomb.

We are vulnerable creatures, subject to the physical realities of time and disease. While some families celebrate coming together for Christmas, some know the acute pain of separation. Our Advent and Christmas observances are somehow of one piece, one complete woven fabric, with Good Friday and Easter. The manger is never very far from the cross. And the cross is seen in it’s fullness when we can also see in the three-day distance the empty tomb.

Christmas begins the story of God taking on our vulnerability, our pain, our sorrows, our joys, and our celebrations. The Word becoming flesh is God’s commitment to the inherent vulnerability of humanity, God’s commitment to the entirety of what it means to be human. The death of the Son of God is one location of that commitment. But so is womb of Mary, the stable, and the manger. This is what God chose. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. The habitation of God with us brings us a life that is real life and a kingdom that is love and peace and freedom.

Regardless of how much things appear to be corrupt, corrosive, cruel, and confusing, there is another reality at work. God has come among us. God has inaugurated a new kingdom. So, in spite of the hurt we might be bearing, there is hope. The immaculately conceived Christ-child is conceived also in us so that we might be the agents of the kingdom for the whole world.

If Christmas cannot be merry for you, may it bring blessing and hope.