Tag Archives: theology

An Ally Every. Single. Day.

Back in February, I “came out” as it were as an “open and affirming” chaplain. It’s had an interesting effect on my ministry. Over the last few months, after leaving the prison and going to my mid-career Army chaplain school, it’s been revealing just what that means for me.

1. It means being an ally every day – for example, yesterday, when I took this picture in front of the Circular Church in Charleston, SC, one chaplain made a comment about the “interesting colors.”

God is still speaking

I replied by saying how cool it was that when this church said they welcomed everyone, they meant it. Another chaplain made a comment about the size of the church, something like, “Well, no wonder they are dying since they left the truth” – or words to that effect. I gently questioned if he was saying that there were not conservative churches dying across the country? Then pointed out that this church, unlike many others, had been around since the 1600s.

 

Progressive Church

Conversation quickly moved on.

I’m not a quick-witted person; I wish I had zingers that I could throw out there, but I’ve realized that the best way to advocate for others is to simply tell the other story, counter the embedded narrative and to do it in love.

2. It means being gentle and allowing people to grow in their time. Not everyone is ready for their theology to be drastically confronted. To be clear, I am much harder on chaplains than any other group since they, of all people, should understand treating others with dignity and respect – and should be able to handle having their theology questioned. Sometimes, I’m gentle in poking holes in arguments or reflecting what a statement might sound like to an LGB* Soldier – other times, I just lay it out there and watch the sparks fly.

Either way, I try valiantly to couch all advocacy in love.

But bullying – that I confront. There is too much to loose.

3. It means saying it out loud. I’ve talked to more chaplains about this subject than any other. Saying, “Well, look. I’m open to everyone, if they would just talk to me, reach out to me, they would find that I’m a loving and caring individual.”

That’s not enough.

And it’s not going to happen.

Here’s the thing: when dealing with those who have been battered and bullied by theology and churches for this long – we need to be clear and direct about how we, as clergy, will interact with them. If you are truly welcoming, then say it and be specifically inclusive. Let people know who you are welcoming to, and how you will treat them when they come to you. Put up signs. Make statements.

Sign

4. It means being an ally for everyone. I have found that it’s not just LGB* Soldiers that need an ally – I try to use my limited status, power, and responsibility as an Army chaplain/officer to be an ally for all minority groups I come across. Minority faith groups need intentionality. Women, other ethnicities – it means separating from a joke, even the well meaning ones – because joking from a position of power and majority sounds an awful lot like bullying.

It means saying something.

And that is where it’s actually the hardest.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned about being an O&A chaplain is this: being an advocate for others requires more than just big statements and signs on my door, it means taking the small opportunities to talk to others, challenging assumptions, and lovingly letting others know:

You are welcome here.

By the way, this blog inspired me to write this morning. Good thoughts.

*I say LGB since the Army has yet to allow Trans Soldiers to serve openly, though it’s looking at the problem.

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Hope (part two – from prison to the Tomb and beyond)

Speaking of the afore mentioned hope

There was no such hope for the two women that approached the tomb that Easter morning. (Matthew 28:1-10) There was no comprehension that anything was going to happen outside of their own suffering. They had hope that Jesus was going to be some kind of king, that Jesus would bring some real change to the world they lived in. But that didn’t happen. After all the talk, all the prophecy, all the miracles, all the hype, Jesus came to Jerusalem and nothing changed.

Nothing changed. Nothing.

The Pharisees still walked to and from the Temple, praying on the street corner. The Sadducees still were the elite. The Sanhedrin still ruled in Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate was still procurator of Judea. The Romans were still the power. The Zealots were still on the run, still hiding. The disciples, for all their talk, were in hiding.

The world on that Sunday morning was still the same. Nothing had changed.

At least nothing they could see.

Actually, the world had changed. Resurrection had come.

Their hope was based in their reality. No matter how much Jesus had been with them, spoken to them, shown them miracles they couldn’t explain, their life was still profoundly attached to the reality they knew.

So they went to the Tomb. To sit. To remember. To think on what life had been for the last few years. To reset. To think about what to do next. To grieve.

There was no better tomorrow. There was only suffering. Today.

They had limited vision. They only saw God working in a way that made sense to them. We do the same thing with our hope, we put all our eggs in one basket and see God working in a way that makes sense to us. We know that it’ll work out because the Army will send us where we need to go, we’ll get that promotion, that family member will come around and see life the way I see it, time will start happening the way I want it to – I have hope but my hope is built around my life.

Only God does not work like that. We can’t make God work the way we want God to work. NO amount of hoping will make it so. God’s plan is not bound by a world that makes sense to me. Truth is, we have no idea what comes next. We can look to the past to reassure us that we’ll live, but then, the moment may still hurt.

So the hurting women came to grieve.

This passage plays out as a drama – there is an earthquake, the guards “become as dead men,” an Angel says “do not be afraid. Sometimes our salvation brings fear. We need our God to assure us that in the midst of it all, it’s going to be ok.

They were grieving and needed hope. They needed a vision for they were dying. They looked to Jesus for Salvation but that didn’t happen so they came to the Tomb to wait.

I’m wondering what they did with Jesus’ words. I wonder if, in those moments before the earthquake, they thought about what Jesus had said. That he planned on going to Jerusalem, where he would die and rise again. I wonder if they talked about what that would be like. I wonder if they believed it.

I wonder if they set their mind on the heavenly reality. I wonder…

The Apostle writes to the early Church, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

We have the resurrection. They didn’t. We have the benefit of looking back on their reaction thousands of years later and wondering about them. They didn’t.

But the challenge of looking heavenward still remains.

Too often, our vision, our hope, is earth centered. It is human-focused. We see only what we want to see. We see only what we are looking at and when we do that, we miss what God is doing. We miss the possibilities in God. I wonder what I have missed because I only could see what I wanted to see. I wonder what you have.

Seek the things that are above…” Actively do it. Actively seek. Make it happen. Saints – where are you looking? What are you seeking?

I wonder if they had been seeking a risen Lord – would they have looked somewhere other than the Tomb? I wonder if we tend to look for God in the last place we saw God instead of a new place with the earnest expectation that God is present and alive, actively moving in this world – in our lives.

I wonder how much extra pain we end up with because we’re looking in the wrong place for a God who is doing something we don’t even imagine is possible.

This Easter – hope in God.

Look Heavenward. Seek heavenly things. Look for what God is doing and imagine what God might be doing beyond my reality.

So that you too might be able to say, I am in sorrow right now, but I know that I will make it.

For if God is with me, who can be against me?

Hope is stronger than memory.

Salvation is stronger than sin.

Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness.

Reconciliation is stronger than hatred.

The open tomb is stronger than the bloodied cross.

The Risen Lord is stronger than the dead Jesus.

We are the Easter people.

We are the people of hope.

We are the people of the empty tomb, the Risen Lord, the new life in Christ.

– Kennon L. Callahan, Ph.D.

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How “Open and Affirming” has impacted my ministry thus far

So, it’s not been quite a month since I posted my little sign on my door.

My emphasis on inclusivity has had an interesting, though anecdotal, impact on my pastoral care. I’ve noticed that those coming to see me have “gotten to the point” faster than in the past.

I don’t know if other chaplains or counselors have experienced this phenomena but it’s been true of my pastoral care wherever I’ve been a chaplain and even more so in prison. It goes like this: the individual requests an appointment. They come into the office and we spend significant time in the “joining process.” We talk about what we have in common, where we’ve served, likes/dislikes and theology. We do this gentle dance where I ask about what we’re there to talk about and they, passive/aggressively talk about everything under the sun but what they are really struggling with. I sense this, probe, and sense that they are not quite ready. It used to frustrate me but I’ve come to understand that it’s just their insecurities bleeding to the surface. If I try to rush it, it just gets worse. So, patiently, I wait till they trust me.

That’s the thing about trust – I can’t convince people that I am trustworthy – I can only be trustworthy.

This goes on for the majority of the hour then, after I note that it’s been a great talk and we can schedule another appointment – boom! Out it comes. The real issue. The deeper presenting problem. The shameful secret. Then, we’re out of time and I am in the position of choosing to address it or wait till next time.

Generally, I ask why it took so long. The answer is almost universal – they were concerned that I would judge them. That I would condemn them. That I would “think they were crazy.” It’s so normalized for me, I’ve come to expect it and plan for it in my pastoral counseling.

What I have noticed in the last month is that the “flash to bang” time has been less. Much less. I not only hung the sign on my door but also in the direct line of sight with those who sit in my office. There has been this neat moment when it catches their eyes and they read it. Silently. Take a deep breath and we get to the meat if the issue so. much. faster.

This last Sunday, I preached on the subject of how the Christian interacts with the world. I worked with the story of the Samaritan woman. I asked my congregation if Jesus judged the woman. Of course not. He said what was true for her but not in a condemning or humiliating way. He does not seem to have a need to call out her sin and make sure that she sees it. Of course, it is an assumption on our part that Christ considered the five husband thing a sin. He simply says what is true and she perceives that she is in the presence of a prophet.

Sometimes, we’re so intent on “taking a stand” and “calling sin, sin” that we miss out on the relationship that is forming. I challenged my prison congregation to focus on the “love the sinner” part and let the Holy Spirit take care of the sin part. I wondered what relationships we miss out on because we’re so committed to calling out the speck in our brother’s eye. I wondered what blessings we were missing out on because we refuse to interact with those whose charges we do not like or choices we do not approve of. I wondered what the “other” might have to say to us that would give us hope and encouragement but we were so bent on them “knowing where we stand” instead of just loving people for people’s sake.

I ended by reading my little sign.

After the service, (there were two) no less than ten different inmates wanted to know more about the Disciples of Christ and the response was overwhelmingly positive and affirming. In both services, inmates who know me and those who didn’t were coming up and thanking me. Clearly, it was water to thirsty souls.

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O Church, how limited you can be sometimes…

The Church is in constant need of reform. Recently, a fascinating conversation took place on my facebook page about the Independent Baptist Church movement. I am a product of that movement. I went to those schools, I was trained in that hermeneutic and learned my homiletics there as well. Like most who leave an all-encompassing movement like that, I did so because of intense personal hurt. When I needed grace, I got law. When I needed love and acceptance, I got rejection and judgement.

As a chaplain and pastor now for well over a decade, I have come to realize that this phenomenon is common to all institutions in the Kingdom of God. Heck, it’s not even unique to the Kingdom! Its an institutional thing. I’ve watched it happen in the Army and in other types of organizations.

Just as predictable as the cycle is, so to is the reality that reformation will come along as those involved follow Christ. At it’s best, the Church is a community that provides encouragement and support for everyone. It’s the whole, “no difference between the Jew/Greek/Male/Female/slave/free idea. I was so angry for so long at fundamentalism. Now, I accept them for who they are. I hope they grow. I hope they experience grace. I am sad often when I experience them bound by their rigidity. It is no more fair for me to judge them for their paradigm (limited though it be) then it is for them to judge me for mine.

I’m a believer that there is room for ALL of us in the Kingdom.

That said, I do not have time or space in my life for mean people. And I’ve experienced mean people everywhere.

Christianity, at it’s best, will be about love and authenticity.

During my CPE residency, I was given this illustration. It was very helpful to me.

Imagine you needed 75 cents for a coke and you went to your dad for that 75 cents. He reaches into his pocket and produces 50 cents. He offers it to you. You get angry, 50 cents is not enough! You need 75. Your father gets angry and says, “but this is all I have, I don’t have any more!” Hurt and pain ensues. You keep demanding 75 and your father only has 50 cents. It’s all he can give. You storm off determined to find it elsewhere. Your father sighs and collapses into his chair, broken that he did not have what you needed.

Later, you realize this reality and give grace to your father. He gave you what he had.

It’s how I now feel about fundamentalism. It gave me what it had. Admittedly, it was not enough and I was so hurt in the process and I’ve seen others very hurt. I’ve also seen great good in people. They try hard. Perhaps they could do  more. But then, who am i to judge. People would not be fundamentalists if it did not fill a need (or assuage a fear) in their lives. I hope they experience some grace. At least, they will get it from me.

In the prison context that I currently minister in, I minister to unchurched and barely churched most of the time. I often get the question, “why are there so many denominations?” There are many answers to that question but last night I drew this on the board to illustrate how movements become institutions in need of reform become movements that become institutions in need of reform, become movements….

Cycle of the Church

I hope my children extend the grace I need someday when they are experiencing the limitation of my theology…

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WWI and Hell

One my favorite take always from my Clinical Pastoral Education experience is the recognition that the Pastor/minister/spiritual person is expected to be, as Christ, a “person of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” I often use this line now as a recognition of one the functions of a chaplain – we are familiar with the journeys of suffering (or at least ought to be) and can help those that are traveling it as the wilderness guide helps those wandering through the unknowns of grief.

I am often asked about the afterlife. Of course, I only know what everyone knows – it’s a fog – no one really knows, they can just interpret the vague references in the Bible and other sacred literature.

I’ve started reading NT Wright’s Surprised By Hope which looks into the Christian orthodox view and seeks to help others understand.

He makes this observation:

“…the First World War produced not only a great deal of sudden death but also much reflection on its meaning. Some historians have suggested that belief in hell, already under attack from theologians in the nineteenth century, was one the the major casualties of the Great War. There had been so much hell on earth that people couldn’t believe that God would create such a place hereafter as well.”

Fascinating.

What a great example of life impacting theology. As they struggled to make sense of the idea that God would further punish someone who suffered so greatly in life impacted how they then thought about the afterlife.

I wonder if levels of suffering impact a person’s conclusions about things like “eternal conscience suffering.”

It also has me wondering about how Liberation Theology had concepts of Heaven rendered as liberation from the oppressor whereas the general American paradigm sees Heaven as a place to get the opulence denied in life. Streets of gold, mansions on a hillside…

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Nicely played Steward. Nicely played…

Luke 16 

He was hired to manage people and property. That’s his job. Make money for his master, the landowner. Pause.

In the preindustrial world of Jesus, agriculture is the heartbeat of the economy. The chief issue at play in the economy was who controlled the land and who had the power to extract the surplus. In this case (Luke 16) the landowner had the power and the steward (manager) had the responsibility to manage the agricultural production on the property. In the case of this story, the debtors (who rented/worked the land) owe the master produce – olive oil and wheat. Money, in peasant economies, was neither the only nor the primary medium of exchange. The Steward will pay regardless if the peasants produce or not. Go.

But he was terrible at his job! He squandered his Master’s money. The property he was given to manage has produced and he has not managed it appropriately.  Now, he’s going to pay. Pause.

The verb translated “squandered” here is the same word that is used to describe what the Prodical Son did with his inheritance – wasted it. Threw it away. Took the blessing and responsibility from his father and spent it on worthless things. The passage does not say what the Steward did to squander the money, I suspect it does not matter, what DOES matter is that it’s time to pay up and there’s nothing to pay.

It’s worth noting that the Mishnah, postbiblical tradition in Jewish literature, identifies three kinds of renters: those who pay a percentage of the crop, those who pay a fixed amount of the crop, and those who pay in money. This passage speaks of the second kind. They need to pay regardless of what the ground produces. A risky business after all. If they do well, they will have a great year since it’s settled up front what they owe, if not, it’s coming out of their savings or debt. And it’s not a small amount. The amounts in question underscore the rich man’s wealth. The first debtor owes one hundred “baths” of oil. Since a bath is equivalent to nine gallons, this man owes nine hundred gallons of olive oil. The second debtor owes one hundred “kors” of grain. Estimates of the size of a kor vary from 6.5 to 10-12 bushels, and even Josephus gives inconsistent reports as to its meaning. Nevertheless, a hundred kors of grain would have been a large amount. The rich man and his debtors were dealing in large commercial interests therefore, and not in household quantities. Go.

The master returns angry. He calls the Steward to himself – you’re fired. You can’t produce. You are fired. The Master shows mercy to the manager. After all, he had the right to have him fined or imprisoned. He does neither, just lets him go. The steward’s reputation will proceed him and he’ll not find work anywhere else. The Steward is in chaos. What will he do? Where will he go? It’s not like he can go apply at the Synagogue for unemployment! He’s simply out of a job, out of a home, out of security, and out of time! He’s too old to dig (read: work) and too proud to beg! Desperation creeps into his thoughts.

Except… he’s not out of time. A plan forms in his mind. There is some hope here if he plays his cards right. Pause.

A Steward, or an Estate Manager, was entitled to a commission. He was entitled to a fee for each transaction, which itself was recorded, principle and interest, in a public contract. There is no way that he could extract a fee of 50% as peasants would immediately inform the Lord that of the extortion. If the Lord and the Steward were in cahoots, there would be revolt. What he does here is described as “shrewd” or brilliant, or terrible based on how you see it. Go.

The Steward realized that he had a window of opportunity to write new contracts with the peasants before they realized that he was no longer the Steward. He rushes out and speaks to the debtors. You owe the master 100 measures of oil? Make it 50. You owe the master 100 measures of wheat? Make it 80. The peasants love him! They begin to dance in the streets! They begin to praise the master’s generosity! What a great year it’s going to be!! The Steward has never been more popular. Pause.

Here’s the brilliance – by renegotiating the contracts, he has set the Master up. If the Lord rescinds the legally binding contracts because they are unlawful, he will alienate the renters AND the entire village who are out singing his praise. If he allows the contracts to stand, he will lose money but will gain honor. And in the ancient Mediterranean culture, honor is better than money. To some extent, it IS money. The good favor received from these transactions will carry him far in the economy of the time. That said, it’s still going to be a touch year. The Steward, though now unemployed, can turn to his former clients and make claims on them for favors as he needs them since everyone knows who “arranged” the deals. Nicely played Steward. Nicely played. Full Stop.

So. Now we ask the obvious question – why?

Three possibilities:

1. Steward is a worthless manager, also corrupt, so in response to getting fired, cheats the master out of the contracts. He sends a blanket email to everyone in the company and does not use BCC declaring that they are all… wait, I’m jumping ahead a few centuries…

2. Steward was acting righteously by excluding any interest figured into the debt.

3. Steward reduced the debt by his own commission – however, no steward gets half as we’ve already discussed.

Whatever the reason – it costs the landowner a significant amount of money. The mere fact that he does not have the faithless steward killed on site probably reveals a good deal about how wealthy this guy was. Seems like the owner looks at the big picture and decides that there are better things than money – honor being one of them. So he commends the steward… and then has him escorted off the property.

Jesus follows this up with what seems to be a sarcastic comment – make friends with unrighteous mammon and you’ll be welcome in that world but it’ll cost you. Is that the kind of person you are? Slave to money?

Faithfulness and honesty. These are bywords of the person who desires to live a “kingdom life.” They can be described as faithful and honest in all their dealings. You can live shrewdly but there is a reward for that – emptiness, separation from the service of the master. There are more important realities than things and money – there is faithfulness and honesty.

Notice the conclusion:

1. A slave cannot serve two masters.

2. If he does, he’ll hate one and love the other or despise one and love the other.

3. We cannot, as servants of God, serve God and wealth. The two do not go together. This is not to say that wealth is somehow bad or that Christians should immediately give everything they have away and move into socialist communes (although, to be fair, the early Christians did…) – it is to say that if wealth is driving you, God certainly is not.

It is reminiscent to me of Ephesians where Paul admonishes the Christian to be led by the spirit of God (rather than drunkenness).

One of the marks of a Christian is that they are faithful regardless of the size of their paycheck or responsibilities. Our faithfulness is not about a measurement, it is about our faithfulness.

This week, you may be called upon to “defend the faith” but probably not. It is more likely that you will be challenged – even today – to be faithful in what God has called you to be. Will you help another on the road of life? Will you offer a listening ear to someone suffering? Will you defend that person who is always getting picked on at work? Will you be patient with your children? Will you be honest in all you dealings? Often, we say we want to have God challenge us to greatness – I’m wondering if we’re actually ready for it.

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Meditation on “Suffering Well”

Text: Acts 9:1-20

I’ve been into a song recently: “I Vow to Thee my Country,”  a British patriotic song, created in 1921, when a poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice was set to music by Gustav Holst. I’ve loved the tune long before I ever knew it is also a song because the music of Holst has so long entranced me.  The words are very obviously an English patriotic song:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

 

I heard my country calling, away across the sea,

Across the waste of waters she calls and calls to me.

Her sword is girded at her side, her helmet on her head,

And round her feet are lying the dying and the dead.

I hear the noise of battle, the thunder of her guns,

I haste to thee my mother, a son among thy sons.

 

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

“Her pride is suffering.” This line jumps out at me. Just like this phrase jumped out at me in our Text, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 1:16) God will show Saul how much he will need to suffer after taking the name “Paul.” In other words, “don’t worry about making Saul suffer Ananias, I’ve got that well in hand.” God, in order to accomplish God’s work on Earth through this newly minted Apostle – will show Saul suffering.

Is God’s pride suffering?

Suffering does in fact become a point of pride for us. Why do we do that? We even give it badges and tabs – airborne badges are not significant because someone jumps out of a plane (anyone who goes to a vacation spot can skydive with minimal instruction) it becomes something because of the school that goes with it. The suffering.

This is true across cultures. Suffering is worn as a badge of pride. If, somehow, a group can attach some kind of ribbon, award, t-shirt etc to suffering – hey, if we take your picture and put it on the wall, would you eat some kind of “ghost-pepper-habanera laced-pure gasoline-donut?” We do this because there is a measure of pride in our suffering. It’s that pride one gets when they are like, “I had all my children in a barn on top of hay with no anesthesia.” Look at me – I suffered through. See the badges on my arm? See the ribbons on my chest? I was there!

Suffering is a way to distinguish the truly motivated from the “posers.”

Suffering has been, for ages, a way to prove your worth. Show you are serious. Demonstrate that you are for real. Something to aspire to. Something to revel in.

Those who have “been there” often minimize the sufferings of others since they “weren’t there.” Sometimes suffering becomes politicized and abused – images of suffering become the stuff of commercials.

Suffering is cheapened. The video of the Soldier coming home to see their loved ones becomes something used to sell cars and insurance. A cheap shot – appealing to the emotions.

There is physical suffering. Mental Suffering. Spiritual suffering.

But the best suffering, the suffering deified in books, plays, and movies is that which suffers for another. We tend to see suffering as a way to get past politics and religion. Suffering somehow validates the message and the messenger.

It was suffering that brought down the british empire in India. Suffering that ended eras of discrimination in this country. Collective suffering has ended bitter wars. Of course, it is also suffering that extends them when people talk about the idea of “we can’t end it – think of the blood and treasure already spent…”

There are really only two kinds of suffering:

1. The Suffering that is a part of the human condition – the suffering that we all have because it’s just a part of life. The suffering that is necessary because to have happiness, you must have sadness. To have pleasure, you must have pain. To have the beautiful flowers of spring, we must have clouds and rain. One does not exist without the other.

The Four Noble Truths of Buddhism recognizes the reality of human suffering. The first truth is that there IS suffering, the second is the origin of suffering, the third is the cessation of suffering and finally the path to cessation of suffering.

Life is full of suffering. To suffer is to live. We can fight it, we can avoid it, we can shape our lives so as to discourage it as much as possible, we can muddle through it but in the end, everyone will suffer.

I spent Friday at Kansas University listening to a professor talk about depression – how it is actually, like obesity, a disease of civilization. It is a disease of affluence and abundance. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors (we know this by studying those who still live in those types of societies) knew nothing of depression. Depression comes because of our comfort. Even when we shape our lives to absolute comfort, that pursuit alone can be suffering.

2. The second type of suffering we experience is the suffering that comes as a natural consequence to the choices we make. Those choices can be good and we can suffer as a result or bad and suffering can still be there.

All this is in anticipation of a phrase from our Text this morning that jumped out at me. In Acts chapter 9, Luke recounts the salvation of Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul has been about the business of persecuting those Jews who are challenging the established norms of power. Those people who are challenging the powers that control Jewish life through religion. Their leader was dead, they have been driven out of Jerusalem and now, Saul gets permission to pursue holy war against them in Damascus.

Of course, the more power is applied to the problem, the greater the problem becomes. Saul, on the road to Damascus has a classic trance experience. He sees a bright light, hears a message from God that changes his entire paradigm about the world around him, and finally interprets the experience as a calling to do something about it.

Of course, no one would believe him, why should they? He went all Gestapo on them! He CAUSED great suffering.

Ananias is afraid and should be. There is nothing about this situation that is a good thing. The man God is telling him to visit has been killing his people. Killing. In that situation maybe I would be tempted to rebuke this evil spirit that is calling me to interact with evil. Clearly can’t be a message from God!

Ananias goes. He accepts the calling by faith. In so doing, he plays a pivotal role in the Christian story. With Paul, the whole thing changes. With Paul, the whole thing shifts. What if Ananias had said, “no?”

Here’s the phrase, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” God will show Paul that suffering is a part of this calling. The Message puts it this way, “And now, I’m about to show him what he’s in for – the hard suffering that goes with this job.”

The suffering that goes with this job.

Why does Luke want us to see this? To know this? Because so much suffering has already happened. Think about it, there is really only one way for Paul to show that he’s not up to evil purposes and the testimony of Ananias is only going to go so far! All this hearing messages from God isn’t going to convince people who are full of fear! Paul will suffer as a natural consequence of his choices and that suffering will validate that his has truly been called of God.

You see, over the centuries, one of the things that has consistently validated the testimony of Christ-followers has not been dogma – it has been “suffering well.”

It is a hard saying no doubt but that does not make it any less true – when we suffer and maintain our testimony, our beliefs are validated.

Suffering is talked about, recorded, and struggled to be interpreted throughout the Scripture and it is beyond the scope of this morning to address it fully but we will look at one passage – I Peter 3. In this text, Peter writes to a church that is starting to experience what suffering really is all about. He assures this new Church that when they suffer for God, it is good. It is right. It is a blessing – so long as it is done with a clear conscience. So long as they are in the right and suffering it is a privilege.

Maybe you could even say, “Her pride is suffering.”

Of course, if you are suffering, as Paul notes, because of murdering, theft, or “meddling in others business” then you’re on your own! Good luck with that because there isn’t much to be gained there!

Here’s the thing: We love to claim that our suffering is of Christ, for Christ when sometimes we’re just suffering the natural consequences of our poor choices or the ramifications of our actions. If we are jerks and people don’t like us, it doesn’t validate the message of Christ, it just makes us look like jerks. When the Body of Christ acts like little children and throws a temper tantrum every time we don’t get our way and people start treating us accordingly, it does not have much to do with bearing the Cross.

Cancer is not a test from God. Diabetes is not a test from God. Failing one’s APFT is not a test from God. It is suffering, but not from God. How you respond to these types of suffering is, however, a profound testimony of faith.

Saints, suffer well. Know that Christ has suffered from you and before you. Many have walked the paths you now tread. Some have walked them and validated the message of their faith, others (like me) have walked those paths and come up a bit short. That’s ok. Everyday is a new opportunity to be the Body. To demonstrate the Love. To enjoy the blessing of walking through this life with Christ.

We all suffer. Anyone looking at these words are either recovering from, about to start, or are deep in the throes of suffering. Part of being in the Body is that we do not have to suffer alone. We are in Christ and with each other. Let us support one another and encourage each other as we muddle through this life, suffering well.

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Christmas Sorrow

Christmas Tension – how do we celebrate joy in the midst of such pain? 

(This year, Christmas 2012, was the year that a gunman killed 27 people in an elementary school, 20 of them children, because he was mad at his mother. What follows is the Communion meditation I wrote for service that Sunday, 16 December 2012. Memorial Chapel, Ft. Leavenworth, KS )

As we approach the Lord’s Table this morning, we do so struggling with the tension of celebrating the Christmas season with all the bells and lights and food while there are dozens of parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, friends and relatives mourning the tragic killing of their loved ones. Children have died and children are not supposed to die.

There is raging on the internet. Sorrow in the streets. Fear in the hearts of mother’s and father’s who are wondering if they should even send their children to school. I know this fear for I have this fear. There is no small amount of hopelessness and helplessness that there is no way to even end this problem. I read just this morning that two more shootings have happened in this country. People are wounded and dying. Is this how we solve problems in this country, at the point of a gun? It is senseless, it is tragic, it is frightening.

Has God left us?
Has God hidden his face from us?
Has God any power whatsoever?

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wondered this as he watched his nation descend into madness. The North and the South were not agreeing. Politicians who should have been solving problems were digging in, bulwarking their beliefs behind cannon and musket. His son went to war and was wounded in battle, returning home to never walk again.

“For what?” Longfellow wondered. “Where is the peace?”

Every year during the war, on Christmas, the bells of churches would ring calling for a ceasefire, for peace. At night, after the holiday had passed, the guns would start anew and more would die. On Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow wrote the familiar lines in response to the horror of the bloody fratricidal conflict in general and to the personal tragedy of his son, Lieutenant Charles Appleton Longfellow, who was severely wounded in November 1862. Has God heard? Has he forgotten? Does God care?

Yes.

God knows sorrow. Knows senseless death. Has a broken heart for us and for our children.

CHRISTMAS BELLS

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head
‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said,
‘For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.’

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.’

There is hope in Longfellow’s words. Therein is strength.

As we approach this Lord’s Table this morning, we remember that Christmas is not really about the bells, lights, food, and four-day weekends. It’s about a child that was born with a mission, a child born who would sacrificially die to cleanse sin from the world, giving us an example of true peace. When Mary sees old Simeon in the temple, he tells her prophetically that “a sword would pierce her heart…” in relationship to her son. In that moment, Mary sees that there is more to the story than just a baby. In the midst of joy there is often pain. As there is here, at the Table.

All are invited to claim Christ. Let us come to the Table this morning, remembering Jesus’ sacrifice as we remember his birth.

Now, I will tell you the story as it was told unto me, that the Lord Jesus, the same night in which he was betrayed took bread…

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Christ the King and how we fail to live that truth.

Procurator Pontius Pilate was a career statesman. His star was rising when he got the assignment to Palestine. He was the fifth prefect to oversee the land and after a brief stumble early in his career had shown some talent in leadership. Legend has it that his mother was a pictish girl from Scotland and his father a minor Roman official. Whatever the story, getting the assignment to rule in Palestine was potentially a step towards greater things in the Empire. I wonder how coming from humble stock, scrapping your way to the top of the heap impacted his style of rule. What little we have of his leadership show a man who is capable of exercising force though not the shrewdest of politicians.

Pilate was the leader of an occupying force in an occupied land. He was sent by Rome for one purpose, rule the little known, little understood, but somewhat important little land of Palestine. He was the face of the mighty Roman empire. He spoke for the Emperor, Tiberius. His hold on the land was not strong. Only a foolish leader would think that they could rule in that area without some struggles but so far it had not been terrible. As occupied lands went, Israel was not the best nor the worst that he had been involved with over his rising career as a statesman.

Our text this morning finds him in Jerusalem, overseeing the chaos that was Passover. Thousands descended upon the city from all over the world making it a melting pot of potential danger. Last year had been a bit of a disaster. There had been unrest during the celebration which had boiled over into violence. The Procurator, dealt with it as he had the power to, putting it down with the force he was comfortable wielding. It was not remembered kindly by the populace, Luke would remember it as the day that the “blood mixed with the sacrifices…” It would become the signature event of Pilate’s time as Prefect – insurrection put down with violence. He has to do so several times, each with more energy until finally, it was an insurrection put down with such force in Samaria that resulted in his getting called back to Rome.

There would be no such bloodshed this time. He was convinced that he could hold the city from itself. These Jews were a volatile people. Why couldn’t they just settle down and become Roman? Others had. It seemed like those that he served with, the other prefects, none of their lands had the kind of unrest that his had. Every year it was something else. Someone else. Rising up and rebelling. All they had to do was pay their taxes. Really. That’s it. At the end of the day, Rome was not interested in the Jews becoming Roman, of worshiping their gods and taking their traditions. Tiberius, as all Caesars before, was interested in one thing – money. Bring home the tribute. In exchange, we’ll give you peace. The Pax Romana – Roman Peace – was to be the payoff.

To accomplish this, Pilate had been given several Legions to command but most of his forces were auxiliary forces who, scorned by their brethren, served the occupying Empire. He had brought them with him to Jerusalem. He would have Romans by his side. He was not confident in the Auxiliaries to do exactly what they were told. He had paid a political price for that last year when the riot was put down during Passover. The Jewish face of the Empire, Herod, had smeared his name a bit in court as a brutal man though his rule was no more or less violent than the last. He wished Herod would get it into his head – Tiberius would never trust a non-Italian to speak for him. So Herod served Pilate and Pilate served the Prefect of Syria and he served Tiberius. This is the way of Empire. This is the way of the kingdom of the world. Everyone serves someone and everyone serves themselves.

Peace and money. This is all. This is all anyone ever wants. Money to do as they will and the peace to pursue it. The way of the world, the way of kings and kingdoms. So had it been for centuries and so it would remain for eons to come. Money and peace. The latter to be thrown to the side in pursuit of the former.

It was that peace that was threatened the day that the Sanhedrin came into his hall to condemn this peasant carpenter from Nazareth. They knew his weakness. They knew that his hold on the city was tenuous at best – in they came with their accusations of zealot, rabal rouser, and rebel. What was he to do? He had heard the reports. This Jesus, Yeshua they called him, had been notorious for some time. He had spies and informants moving with this crowds as he had drawn closer to Jerusalem. Herod had some dealings with another prophet of sorts, John the Baptist, and it had not gone well so Pilate was understandably treating this Yeshua thing with kid gloves.

He had stood by and allowed the Prophet to enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He had heard the back brief from his centurion about how the poor and slave class saw in the peasant carpenter some kind of King. He heard how they brought out branches and even threw their coats – the only outer garment they owned – on the ground so that the feet of the donkey would not touch the ground. Such was their devotion. Perhaps there was something to what the Sanhedrin was saying. He never trusted them. They claimed allegiance to Caesar and the Empire but he knew better. They cursed the ground he walked. It was always like this. In trying to maintain some semblance of “what used to be” they tried theological arguments, trickery, archaic legal arguments under their religious law, character assassination but in the end, they capitulated to the only real power in the world. Roman power. They brought their theological issue into the very seat of secularity to be judged by a secular Prefect. What little respect he might have had for their monotheism, their puritanism, their law-abiding, was blasted as they called upon all sorts of arguments to get him to “do something about that carpenter.”

And what had Jesus done? Healed some people? Called them names? Pointed out their hypocrisy? How did Jesus’ teachings hurt them in any way? People were paying their taxes – not just to Rome but also to the Temple. They were getting theirs. What they were not getting was respect. Yeshua was calling them out for what they were – power hungry, greedy, abusive. People liked Jesus. It threatened their power. It threatened their place in society.

None of this really mattered. Who really cared whether or not some widow put money into the temple tax box? So what if these men in their clerical class lived off the poor? As long as the tribute was paid to Rome, peace would come by the sword. Peace would remain in Jerusalem. These Sanhedrin only mattered to Pilate as they stood in the way of another peaceful Passover. They would play their part in the pageantry was was Jerusalem and he would play his – at the end of the day, money went into the chest and the chest went to Rome. If religion was a part than fine, whatever gets the job done. That is the kingdom of the world. That is the kingdom of mankind. That is life. So be it. Jesus would come to court.

He had tried to pawn his problem off on Herod but the crafty politician would have none of it. He could not pass the issue up the chain or the Prefect of Syria would put a bad word before the Emperor. Perhaps Pilate could not do the job, perhaps he should be replaced. No, he would deal with it. Here. Now.

Jesus enters the court. Pilate saw the abuse. He saw the blood, the bruises. Whatever had taken place last night had not been kind to the peasant. He looked exhausted. Caiaphas had been clear in his accusation – Jesus had threatened the rule of Roman Law. They could not execute him, only the Romans could do that. Pilate saw through it, he knew their charges were bogus and false. He called them out, “Judge him according to your laws.” But they would have none of it. They wanted death. Death was to be the price of peace.

Pilate goes straight for the jugular – “Are you king of the Jews?” Silence reigns. Everyone hears the real question – are you a rebel? Are you a zealot? Do you claim leadership of the Jews? Jesus looked at him in the silence. Quietly, through bruised lips he says, “Are you asking me this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate smiles. Only these people would respond like that. You can’t get a clear answer from anyone in this miserable land.

“Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?” Pilate is annoyed. There is no danger in this man, give me something, anything and I can toss him in jail for a little while, protect him from these priests who want to kill him and wait till the whole thing blows over. He didn’t bite.

“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king. not the world’s kind of king.” Pilate stares at him. What was he talking about? Two kingdoms? Man’s kingdom? What other kind of kingdom could their be? Money, power, land, respect – that’s the only kind of kingdom there was and everyone, including these religious leaders, wanted a piece of it. But he wasn’t a part of that? He didn’t want money or power? What?

“Are you a king or not?”
“You tell me. Because I am King (not a king), I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for truth, recognizes my voice.”

More opaque comments. What is wrong with these people? Why kill? Why did he ever want to be a leader? He could have been a farmer, comfortable on his land in middle Italy, sending grain to Rome for festival but no, here he is in dirty, dusty, smelly Jerusalem discussing truth with a poor Jewish carpenter prophet.

Exasperation. “What is truth?”

There was no saving this man. He wouldn’t even save himself. In a last ditch effort he offers the crowd a murder or the harmless Jesus but they take Jesus. Let him die than. Let him die for peace.

Two kingdoms. Pilate is king of one. It’s the sexy one. The grasping one. The one people dream and work toward. Its the one where you work hard, please who you have to please, pay your dues and maybe one day, you too can retire to the beach somewhere and tell your stories. This kingdom is marked by constantly searching and seeking for wealth and glory. It is temporal. It is subjective. It is here. Now.

The Jewish leaders wanted it. They wanted it to remain status quo. They had abandoned (as Jesus was so fond of pointing out) their obligation to care for the community, the poor, the widow, the orphan, to establish a high caste. A learned caste of scholars and clergy. A class separate from the poor they were supposed to serve and instead very focused on how many miles a person could walk on the Sabbath. What? healing a man on the Sabbath? This has never been done – it does not matter that it helps people, it violates some obscure interpretation of an ancient law – anathema. “Kill him,” they said. What threat was he to them? When had he ever threatened their lives? Perhaps their livelihood but never them, never their families. They had tried to get rid of him through theological arguments. They planted people to question him publicly, they called him out, drug his name through the mud but in the end, they couldn’t stop him. They couldn’t change what was clearly changing. Life, as they knew it, was never going to be the same. They were becoming irrelevant. “Kill him,” they said. So they went to the Law. If all else fails, we can use the secular courts to maintain the past. We’ll lobby congress, we’ll throw money at it, we’ll make laws and change laws and throw out the bums that won’t get it done. We’ll make mountains out of molehills and destroy whoever stands in our way. But their heart showed out. Their hatred marked them and instead of their legacy being that they cared for those around them, that they represented the best of the Kingdom of God, that they showed the world what it was like for a people to commit to God, they demonstrated that they were just like everyone else. They were just as corrupt. They were just as depraved. The lusted for power and killed to hang on to it.

Have you made the connection yet? The Church does the same. At it’s best, it is the kingdom of God. At it’s best, it cares for those that are in need, for all that is holy and right. At it’s best it is the body of Christ in the world. When people come into contact with a Christian, they come into contact with Christ. But then, they get lost. They get entranced. They get sucked into the lie that money means influence and influence means power. They take the calling of God to serve and twist it to be that by making money on the backs of others I am serving them. By having power, I am serving them. All is fair if Abortion is at stake. I can hate others, be spiteful and destructive if it just keeps two people of the same gender from “getting married.” (contracting with each other for tax benefits etc) What are we doing? What is truth? What kingdom are we serving?

Who are you serving? Live your convictions. Live what God has called you to be and do but my friend, do so in the reality of God’s kingdom – a kingdom of love, care, peace, joy, patience, gentleness… – do so in a kingdom marked by sacrifice and love rather than hate and animosity.

Christ is the King. We are his servants. Let our service be marked by the fruit of the spirit rather than the fruit of the world.

Amen.

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That moment. Of Fear.

It was that moment.

I looked up from mowing the lawn and my three year old son was standing on the side of the road. A busy road. We live on the top end of a blind turn coming up hill. There is no shoulder. My son stood on the sliver of gravel between the blacktop and the overgrown grass by the ditch that runs between the driveway and the blacktop.

I was scared.

I yelled. I hollered over the lawn mower so in reality it was more of a scream. He looked up. I could see the confusion in his eyes.

It has been noted the men use the word “confusion” where there are deeper, more significant, undesirable emotions that want to be said but we are not at a place to say them.

I realized that I was screaming over the mower which was still running. I let go and shouted a warning to my son, “Stay where you are at, don’t move!!” I ran to him. Not realizing until later that I was running down the road in the middle of it between any unsuspecting drivers and my boy. I reached him in seconds that seemed like minutes. Dangerous minutes.

We live down a hill. We have a “back yard” at the bottom of the hill and a “top yard” by the road behind a fence. There is one, unmovable rule about the top yard, you can’t go past the fence. Ever. Never ever. The road is too busy.

I took him by the hand and we walked briskly back down the driveway.

When we got there I knelt down and looked at him. “Son, you can’t go by the road. You just can’t.”

He looked up at me and there were tears. Sudden, immediate, big tears rolling down his little, red cheeks. The angry, scared, hurt cry followed. I hugged him to my chest, tears in my own eyes. I was so scared. So afraid of what might have been. He was scared. Scared of his daddy who had yelled so loud, so angrily.

I held him until he was done crying and my heart was done racing. It took a minute. After trudging through the woods investigating some dragon tracks we found, the relationship was restored and all was well with the world.

Its like that with God sometimes. We experience the Divine yelling, screaming for us to get out of the way. Move. Stop doing what we are doing – because its hurting us and hurting God.

Fear not. All is well. Just get out of the road. Move away from the danger. Let God hold you close. It’ll be ok. All is well.

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