Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pastors' Puppy

Many of you know that we have long shared our home with a lovable, increasingly elderly, mostly black, mixed-breed dog named Smokey. We have occasionally discussed adopting another dog, but never made any decision to pursue the idea.

About two months ago, as Ray was driving from home to the church for a meeting one evening, he saw two dogs running loose by the road. In a hurry, he told himself that he would stop on the way home if he saw them. But later, in the dark, he didn’t see them. The next morning we were riding together on the way back to the office, when he suddenly pulled the Jeep over. There they were. With the help of some dog biscuits as bait, we were able to coax one small white puppy to us, but the other, larger dog evaded us.

We took the pup straight to the vet’s office and after a busy morning of bathing, deworming, shots, and flea treatment, she was ready to go home and meet Smokey! It took us a few days to settle on a name, but SuzyQ had entered our lives!

She seemed very smart, learning quickly to sit for a treat, enjoying a good cuddle, and sleeping very soundly, but she didn’t learn to answer to her name or come when we called her. After a couple of weeks, we realized that is because she can’t hear us. Now that the vet has checked her again, we are certain that she is indeed deaf.

So now she is training us and sometimes trying our patience, as the usual commands like “Come” and “No” have ABSOLUTELY no effect. Instead we are learning sign language. Fluttering fingers get her attention, a pointed index finger means sit, shaking your finger at her means no, and a thumbs up is “good girl!” The challenge is often in getting her attention, so that she will see the signals. For now, large arm gestures usually work during daylight, and Ray is teaching her to follow the beam of a flashlight so that we can call her after dark.

Needless to say, the joys and frustrations of housebreaking a puppy are keeping us busy. Now about 20 pounds and 18 weeks old, the vet told us to expect that she will double in size. That will make her about the same size as Smokey when she is full grown, so we are busy trying to teach her good habits while she is small!

We have to remind ourselves that -unlike the familiar saying - she isn't ignoring us, she really is deaf! One thing is for certain: SuzyQ has certainly provided a distraction for us from the busyness of ministry.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Seeing the kingdom of God

Some Facebook friends and family members 'heard' me lamenting about the sermon that just refused to be written last Saturday evening. At their request, here is a portion of the sermon that finally emerged after I got out of the way and let the Holy Spirit work. In a time of struggle in our congregation, our denomination, and the whole world, it was a profound joy to declare that God's kingdom is indeed visible!

Ezekiel 17:22–24
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.

Mark 4:26–34
[Jesus] also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."

He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

There is something we pray for every week in worship, maybe even every day in our personal prayers, yet we don’t have any idea what it really means – or what it would really look like. That something is the kingdom of God. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. But which one of us has any idea what God’s kingdom really looks or feels like? We may have a good idea of the outcomes we hope for when we plan and pray, but we don’t know God’s will.

In the gospel text for today, we find that Jesus has already gotten his ministry organized. In the first three chapters of Mark, we read that he has been baptized by John; he has announced that the kingdom of God has come near; he has called his first disciples; he has been on a preaching tour of Galilee; he has already begun his healing ministry. He’s been very busy.

Now he has returned to Capernaum and begins teaching large crowds by the sea. Such an extremely large crowd has gathered, to see him and hear what he has to say, that Jesus gets in a boat and puts out onto the water and begins to teach the crowd gathered all along the shore.

So what does Jesus teach – and how? He begins teaching about the kingdom of God; but he teaches in parables. This fourth chapter of Mark begins with the familiar parable of the sower, and an explanation for that parable.

You probably remember that story. Seeds fall on the path, on rocky ground, among the weeds, and on good soil. Those on the path are snatched up by birds. Those in rocky ground start to grow, then wither away. Those among the weeds are choked out and yield no grain. Only the seeds sown in good soil flourish and finally produce a plentiful harvest. Jesus later explains what he meant to the disciples, describing each situation in terms of people who hear the word of the Lord and their responses to that word.

Then we reach today’s text – two short little stories that are practically riddles. Stories that can be very difficult to understand. And this time, no explanation is included in the gospel. In the gospel text for today, we have two short little stories that are practically riddles. Stories that can be very difficult to understand.

What do those parables tell us? How can we understand or recognize God’s kingdom through those two short little stories? Is the kingdom of God present now, in times of struggle and strife? Here’s one way we can understand them:

First: The kingdom of God is growing and changing even when we don’t understand how it happens.

Second: The kingdom of God is like a small country church which grows and flourishes and through its life does the work of the Lord, providing ministry for the least of God’s creatures. Ministry like feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, and caring for the sick and the grieving.

What does the kingdom of God look like or sound like? How does the kingdom of God affect us here and now? All I can do is to share these examples with you:

I recently saw the kingdom of God at work in a large group of people – over 500 of us - who gathered from across the entire state at synod assembly to worship God and serve God together in spite of our differences of opinion about serious issues facing the church.

I’ve seen the kingdom of God in the company of those I have visited this week, as I have listened to their stories of pain and fear, and then prayed with them and shared Holy Communion with them, rejoicing in God’s love and grace.

I saw the kingdom of God Friday afternoon and evening, in a group of people that worked together to prepare, serve, and clean up after a meal in our fellowship hall; and in the group of people who gathered to enjoy that meal and support the youth ministry of this congregation.

I saw the kingdom of God Saturday, in the smiles and service of small groups of people who gathered to feed the homeless and help with projects here at church.

I have heard the kingdom of God in the music and laughter and conversation and prayer shared at the table in these gatherings.

Where have you experienced the kingdom of God this week? What stories can you tell others? Of course, we don’t see the fullness of the kingdom yet, but it has already drawn near and we definitely see glimpses of it if we look for them.

We see the kingdom of God when we gather to do ministry together in groups, large or small, for the benefit of others. We see the kingdom of God whenever we gather for prayer and study, when we cultivate the “good soil” and nurture the seed of the word.

We see the kingdom of God when we gather for worship and ministry together even when we don’t all agree about the important issues. We see the kingdom of God – we are the kingdom of God - at work in the world in our prayer and service, study and worship. The kingdom of God is growing and changing even when we don’t understand how it happens. The kingdom of God will yield a surprisingly plentiful harvest, in God’s time, according to God’s will.

Want to learn just a little bit of Hebrew? Co amar Adonai. That’s the beginning of today’s first reading from Ezekiel. Co amar Adonai. Thus says the Lord. When we read those words in the Old Testament, we know that God is speaking directly to the chosen people.

And in this passage we read a promise of what God will do. A promise of surprising things, in a text that sounds much like the parable of the mustard seed combined with a touch of the Beatitudes:

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will do surprising things… I will take a sprig and create a new tree, and cause it to grow into a noble cedar. Everyone will be able to take shelter in the shade of this mighty tree.

All the other trees will know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I will surprise people by drying up the green tree and making the dry tree flourish.

And the final line, the reason we know that it can happen:
I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.

Co amar Adonai! Thus says the Lord!. The almighty God, creator of heaven and earth has declared it so – and he will do it.

We can pray gladly for God’s kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done. God will cause surprising things to happen. God will bring a bountiful harvest from unexplained places. God wills it, and it will be so. Thanks be to God.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

What does it mean to be Lutheran and why does it matter?

That sounds very much like the title of an essay I had to write in seminary, but this one has more to do with the state of Lutheranism today as written about in this article: http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Communication-Services/News/Releases.aspx?a=4153

This topic was brought up at our recent synod assembly, and the bishop said that in a recent survey, over 50% of the Lutherans surveyed responded that Yes, they had to do something to receive salvation. Our message of grace has somehow been trampled by the prevalent American version of Christianity that believes we somehow control our own destiny.

Martin Luther is most likely rolling over in his grave (or would, if he could), to find that in a mere 500 years, all that he argued for in the reformation was being lost to Americanism (or simply ignored). For Luther, it is only by God's grace that we are saved, for we are incapable of saving ourselves. In his response to the third article of the Apostles' Creed, Luther writes, "I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith..." In other words, not only can we not work our way into heaven, but without the Holy Spirit, we cannot even believe in heaven.

For far too long, the Lutheran church has tried to compete with other denominations by becoming just like them. If the church across town has a program that is successful, then we had better have one too, no matter what the theology of the program. Any time we remove the liturgy, or reduce the liturgy, to become more like "that other church," we not only remove a vital part of who we are, but we lose the theology that makes us Lutheran. The liturgy helps us to remain grounded in who and whose we are. It keeps God at the forefront of our worship, not the band or the choir, or whatever else we have changed to "bring more people into worship."

This is not to say that just being Christian is not important - it is, and professing Jesus as Lord and Saviour is just as important for us as it is for our brothers and sisters in other denominations. However, we need to remember that as Lutherans we bring something to the table that is unique, and important. We bring the understanding that we are who we are not because we choose to be, but because God chose us. We understand that life is not about finding Jesus, but is a product of being called and claimed. Jesus is not lost, and when we need God in our lives the most, God is already there - not waiting for us to find him, but waiting for us to acknowledge his presence.

There are many things about being Lutheran that are good, and which have helped keep Christians on track for over 500 years. Maybe it is our moderating voice that has helped others to remember that it is by God's grace that we are saved, not by our works. It is by faith that we believe, and that faith is a gift of God, not of our own doing. It is God who finds us when we are wandering in the wilderness of life, not we who find God.

So - what does it mean to be Lutheran? It means that we are saved by faith, through God's amazing grace, and not by anything that we do or try to do. We are both saint and sinner - at the same time. We constantly fall short of the glory of God, and stand in need of God's abundant mercy.

Why does it matter? Because we all eventually realize that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, earn salvation. As Lutherans, it is our calling to remind our brothers and sisters that life is not a contest to see who can do the most good so that we will be saved, but life is a response to God's amazing grace and we do as much good as we can because we know that God has already washed and claimed us in our baptism, fed us with the body and blood of Christ at the communion table, and has readied a place for us - not because of what we do, but so that we will know God's love, and so can share that love with one another.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


It is telling that there has not been a post since Lent. In between Lent and Pentecost, there was the great 50 days of Easter, and not a word was written here. One of the reasons might be that we have been very, very busy. Another might have something to do with an uncertainty about what to write and share in this space.

This has probably been the most difficult Easter season of my life. From the understanding that Easter is not one day (just like Christmas is not one day), but a season of the church year where we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus not once, but many times, it should have been a joyous time. Two things have hindered that this year.

The first is the same that I wrote about during Christmas, Advent, and Lent - that is, this being our first year through the cycle of the church year in this place, where some traditions are the same and some are different. The learning curve has been huge, and there has been much time discussing, learning, researching, and planning for all things to happen in some reasonable, liturgical sense.

The second is that we have hit one of those points in our ministry where there are some who are not pleased with what we are doing. While a small number, they are vocal. Any time conflict arises in the church, it takes a tremendous amount of energy to deal with it. While this is not over, and is not really for public discussion, it is only fair to mention it in response to all of you who have wondered why the blog has not been more active. The reason is simply that there are not enough hours in the day, or enough energy in either of us to deal with everything else and still post something there. Neither of us are the type to publicly air disagreements, especially not in a forum where we are the only ones with a voice, so you won't get any details here. Suffice it to say that we are in the midst of a difficult time and your prayers would be appreciated.

Now that I've told you what is going on in our lives, maybe we can post some thoughts (which may not be as upbeat as we would like) and you'll understand where we are coming from. On the up side, serving God amongst his people here continues to be a blessing to us (even on the bad days), and we look forward to being able to devote all our energy into positive things.

Last week was the NC Synod Assembly, and was a great opportunity to listen, learn, meet old friends, make new friends, and see just how big and wonderful is this body of Christ that we belong to. Even amidst the many discussions about sex and policies of the church, we were able to worship together and leave proclaiming Jesus as Lord! Alleluia!