Layman's Walk

Hey Pop

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Hey Pop,

It’s been a year since you left us. I’ll admit, it’s been a lot harder for Mom — infinitely harder — than it has been for me. Don’t get me wrong, I still miss you. Kari and the kids miss you, too. But I think I see a bigger picture.

You were never one to shy away from the talk of death. You always made us aware, even as kids, that death was the ultimate end for everyone in this world. While you never confessed a faith of sorts, you also acknowledged that there had to be something bigger than us. I always took comfort in that — I think partly because it was outside of any established religion or belief system. It was just something you felt in your own being.

Mom is still misses you terribly, and I can appreciate that. She doesn’t see what you saw ahead in the same way: a redo of all the treatment, travel, pain, and general misery that would be repeated with the hope of a few months of good times, only to be repeated again and again, each time being less effective until you died. She doesn’t see your leaving was a gift of freedom to her: not being relegated to being your nurse, stuck at home every day of her retirement, suffering alongside you.

Of course, Mom would have gladly chosen that–your being here, that is, and tending to you. She’d have rather stayed by your side through all that might have come if you would have just stayed here. She constantly laments it not the case.

I knew how you felt about the end of life. You never wanted to be sick for long. You never wanted your bride to be your nurse. You never wanted pity from me or Christina or your grandkids over your condition.

I’m still convinced –100%– that you knew what was coming and what you were doing. I remember the day in 2021 when Isaac performed for Pumpkin Idol. You felt terrible that day and when I came back from the performance, I took a nap on the couch in the family room. You moved to sit right across from me and when I woke, you said, “Little nap?” It took all you had to speak that day because your throat was so dry. I should have seen what was coming. I’d have talked so much more. I’d have asked so much more. I’d have hugged you so much tighter.

I thought it odd to see you watching me sleep, but in hindsight, I’d have done nothing different with my own children had I known my time was near. To watch over a person you had made, sleeping at peace, knowing they would be ok once you were gone had to give you a sense of peace (and hopefully satisfaction). At least I hope it did. I wish I had the awareness that I have learned in the year that followed. I may have understood what was happening that afternoon: you were saying “Goodbye.”

The last year has brought an abundance of changes. I hope you would be happy about most of them. Mom is much more social. She enjoys meals with family and friends, has her fair share of wine at PK, and walks with her girlfriends. She’s finally getting that bum hip replaced next month, so I’m sure she’ll be even more active in the coming year. She still wants a “girls’ trip” with Chrissy and Kari and I’m sure she’ll get it.

I finished my year-long pastoral internship on August 31. It was so strange to mourn your death as I started this. Today I can hardly believe my internship has completed and you’ve been gone a year. I know you never cared much for religion (at all), but I sure hope you’re happy that I’m preaching a message of love and forgiveness in spite of people’s failures and faults and not a message that condemns them for their screwups while ignoring my own. I hate religious hipocracy as much as you do. Thanks for instilling that in me so strongly.

I guess that’s about it. Chrissy and the kids are at the duplex across the backyard in Flanagan while Kyle is at MIT. I’m really glad Mom has her and the kids for the next year, especially after them having been so far away for so long and with our impending move.

I did my best to do all you asked of me to take care of Mom and the “business end of dying” that we had discussed multiple times. The “Zulu” file on the computer was really helpful and made things much easier than they would have otherwise been. Thanks for that. I began tending to it the day you died per our agreement.

I’ve had a few dreams with you in them over the last year, but all we do in them is argue. That probably says more than I’d like to admit. Some damned head shrink would probably have a hayday with that. But I’ll always remember the phone ne call from you when Addie was about two years old, telling me not to make some of the same mistakes you made. That call really changed my approach to parenting and helped me get some help I really needed at the time.

I still blow-up at my kids more than I should–though they arguably still deserve it. But more often than not, I collect myself, call them in, apologize and try to explain my emotions. You didn’t do this when I was a kid, but your guidance led me to do this. It has made me a better father.

I tell them I am far from a perfect father, but I’m doing my best to do better than you did. This isn’t a slight, but a huge compliment to you. I know how you were raised, and I know how you raised me. After all you took as a kid, you never laid a hand on me other than the occasional spanking — and those were always more than deserved. You did better than those before you, and I’m so fortunate that you did. My goal was to continue in your bettering example.

You did such a good job at improving on your own upbringing with me and I only hope I do as incrementally a good job with your grandkids as you did with me.

Well, not sure what else to say or how to end this, so I’ll just say:

“It is what it is. See you when I get there.”

I love you, Dad.

Brett

Layman's Walk

Endings and Beginnings

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This past week has been both incredibly rewarding and emotionally draining. I didn’t realize it this morning when my mind, spinning with the thoughts of a hundred topics, anticipations, and anxieties jerked me out of my sleep and refused to give me any reprieve. I should have simply arose from my bed then and started to write my thoughts. Now that over eight hours have passed, what had been catalysts of overwhelming emotional responses have dwindled into things that seem more manageable in the daylight. Still, many of them continue to have, “free rent in my dome,” so I think expressing them would be helpful.

The following are the random emotional ramblings of someone who is saddened at the end of something wonderful, excited and looking forward to the future, and also worried about the effects of my decisions on others who I love very much.

I graduated from Luther Seminary this past weekend–just in case the multiple posts on social media by me, my wife, and my mother somehow blissfully passed by your news feed. While I have “walked” for graduation, I’m technically not 100% finished until my internship at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Springfield concludes on August 31.

The days of August 31 and September 1 have played such interesting roles in my life over the past twenty-plus years. It was on August 31st in 1999 that Kari and I had our first kiss as a pair of 17-year-olds; the following day we were an “item” or whatever it is that high-school kids call their boyfriend or girlfriend now. Two years later, right before 9/11, we were engaged.

Many years later, September 1 would be the day I started seminary and received my first tattoo at the hands of my cousin in Colorado which permanently displays my faith on my person. A short four years later it was the day I started my internship. This coming August 31 will be the official last day of my formal five years as a student at Luther Seminary.

This is what we celebrated this past week. After five years I have (will have) finished my longest foray into higher education. I earned my bachelor’s degree in three years, and my MBA in eighteen months. Five years is the longest I have worked consistently for a specific end result.

And what an end it was! The excitement and pride I felt as we left the graduation ceremony and were met by the faculty of the seminary, lined up on both sides of us as we exited Central Lutheran Church, applauding for us and smiling were overwhelming. I have such fond memories of these people who have taught me so much and expanded my capabilities of thought and faith. Many of them I had for only one or two courses over these five years, and to have them recognize me and congratulate me by name meant the world. I look up to these people with the highest esteem.

Then I caught up with my family, who had journeyed with me to St. Paul on June 1 to spend some time there together before the graduation activities of the weekend. My incredibly supporting wife, Kari, who keeps me centered when I am drawn off-kilter, and my four kids–Addison, Isaac, Evan, and Abigail, and my mom, Carol, who is not just awesome because she’s my mom, but has helped out so much as I (and now Kari) are pursuing calls to Christ’s church.

Notably absent was my dad, Brent, who died almost nine months ago. It’s strange to look at a family photo and not see him in it. Dad was anything but religious. I know he believed in something, but he was certain that if another human being was convinced they had a monopoly on the truth, then that person was full of something else entirely. He and I never really talked much about my calling. I had walked away from a lucrative career to pursue it. Being the sole earner for a family of six, this move certainly had to seem illogical, regardless of how much consulting business I had. I can say this confidently because it even seemed illogical to me at the time, though I knew in the core of my being it was the right decision.

I realized as I thought about how this journey began, that it was bookended with the deaths of close loved ones. Just three months after Kari and I attended Luther’s Dokimatzo (Discernment) Weekend in April 2016, Kari’s mom died at 54. Just a few months shy of my 40th birthday and less than one month into my culminating internship, six and a half years later, my dad died at 66.

If ever there was a clear message about the importance of making the most out of our lives–and doing so in a way that values relationships with one another, with being present with those who we love the most, and ignoring the worthless things the rest of the world tells us we should focus on, it was this.

And I am truly grateful for my family–for my extended family, my in-laws, my parents, my kids, and for Kari. How she and I ended up with the four compassionate, loving, thoughtful, intelligent, and talented kids we have, God only knows. They each have such an interesting mix of their mother and me, and while they are so alike in many ways, their individuality and their growing and maturing personalities are nothing short of amazing to me.

As I approach the end of my internship and look forward to my first call as an ordained congregational minister, it’s my kids that cause me the most anxiety. First calls generally involve moving. Five years ago when I started seminary, the kids were gung-ho. For a 9, 7, 4, and 3-year-old kid, moving is exciting and five years is a lifetime away. But with the prospect on the horizon as Addison enters high school and Isaac enters Jr. High, opinions about moving are nowhere near as positive. And this is where my own anxiety flares up. My kids, like me at their ages, are already not thrilled about going to church a lot of the time. The idea that “church” is what is going to make them move and leave behind friends they have had since they were very small leaves them with a very negative opinion of the church.

It is, of course, the hope of both their mom and me that if we move, once we have settled in, things will work out. All four of our kids are approachable and friendly. I’ve no doubt they will all make fast friends wherever we go. I only hope this experience does not dampen their own growing spiritual lives. My own attempts at discussing this with them generally fail, as who wants to discuss their pain with the person they see as the cause of it?

As with anything in life, change is inevitable. People grow. People learn. People move. It’s how it works. And it can be painful. This last week, my family stayed in an upstairs duplex that I stayed in for two weeks during my last January intensive at Luther in 2020 before the pandemic hit. It was truly two of the best weeks of my adult life and I got to spend it with some of my favorite people on earth. As I looked around the place as we departed on Monday morning, it was with a sense of sadness and loss, knowing that my likelihood of returning to this place where I had shared so much joy with such good friends was slim, and even less likely was the chance that I would stay there again with those people.

This is the way life is. Everything has a beginning and an end, an end and a beginning. This applies to all the various chapters of our lives and to life itself.

May we spend that time in appreciation for whatever it is around us and in brotherly love with one another, neither yearning for what has passed or vying for what might be in the future, but in the present, in this day that God has made and has given to us to live.

Layman's Walk

The Longest September

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It may be October 22, but it has taken me this long to be able to think about all the events of the past six weeks to put “pen to paper,” so to speak.

September 2021 was a month of tremendous change.  On the first, I began a full-time internship with the disciples of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Springfield.  This has been a tremendous joy over the last six weeks and I am both thrilled and thankful to have them as my “teaching congregation” during this final year of my seminary training.

Taking a full-time internship meant quitting my job, which was a big step.  Not because I hadn’t quit a job before, but because I was walking away from a position I liked at an organization I was quite fond of.  And it paid well, too.  I have been the breadwinner in my house since Kari and I were married and voluntarily walking away from that resource was a real challenge for me.  My internship pays—but all of that is standardized across the ELCA and, as you might have guessed, with the title “intern,” you can imagine it is not much.  This isn’t a “Woah is me” statement; we knew this was coming and had prepared for this year knowing what we were getting into.  But like jumping out of an airplane, there’s a difference between gearing up and taking the leap.

Kari also started working outside of the home for the first time since Addison was about six weeks old.  (That’s 13 years for those who are counting.)  She’s working three days a week as a teacher’s aide at Lincoln Elementary.  She works primarily with students who need some extra help in some way or another and she is both enjoying it immensely and excelling at it.  This experience combined with the master of arts in Children Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary will be extremely beneficial as she looks to be a youth leader for a congregation in the future. I am so incredibly happy for her and immensely proud of her.

Of course, with new jobs come new responsibilities and new schedules.  So we are slowly adapting to new life patterns and trying to figure out how to best meet the needs of ourselves, each other, and those of our four children.  There never seems to be enough time in the day and I rarely seem to have enough energy.

In the first month of my full-time work in ministry, I have had so many opportunities to be present with people–both in joy and in suffering.  I have already participated in funerals of three people who have died in tragic ways—all too young, and all so, so sad.  As someone who will be a pastor, I must learn how to be present with people in their grief while not being overcome by it.  But these were hard.  I grieved with these families.  I found myself identifying with all of them vicariously and strongly.  And when I was done with my responsibilities with each service and found myself in private, I wept.  I was overcome with the sadness these families were feeling.

All of this was coupled with the sudden death of my dad on the 21st.  He managed to ruin my favorite Earth Wind and Fire song. Now my lyrics are “Do you remember, the 21st night of September? I was wishing that I was a pretender, while waiting for planes at Midway.”

(I use [dumb] humor as a coping mechanism.  Probably partially to how much my dad literally joked about death.  I’m sure it was a way to make light of the inevitable.)

After having spent the remainder of that week (Tuesday night through Sunday) grieving heavily and surrounded by family and friends, I thought I had processed his death and come to terms with it.

I haven’t.

Stupid songs, characters from movies, old stories, random memories put lumps in my throat or turn me into a blubbering mess.  It passes, usually in a few minutes, but I’m reminded that I’m not done with this yet—even though I thought I was and had hoped I was.

As a person of faith and one who is going to be a pastor, I have approached this through the lens of God’s grace and the promise of the resurrection.  This is well and good and has been very helpful.  But it doesn’t make me not miss my Dad.  It doesn’t stop me from lamenting for times gone by and opportunities missed.  But it does make some of my best memories even sweeter because I know there is hope for life in Christ and that our deaths on Earth are not the final chapter.

But it doesn’t change the brokenness of my world and the loss I feel in my life.  Or in the lives of others. There is so much sadness; so much misery.  There is so much grief and loss.

I attended a grief group for the first time a week or so ago—primarily as a learning opportunity—but I could not help but have my heart break for those who shared their stories.  I would imagine this was partly because of the grief I was experiencing myself, but oh my—how little we realize the grief and suffering that those around us are experiencing.

Friends, please, please be kind to people—especially those who you feel are being especially mean or rude.  People everywhere around us are experiencing grief and trauma and we are so rarely aware of it.  Sometimes they are trying to hold their feelings back and they express themselves in ways they normally wouldn’t. Because those strong emotions will not be stifled.  They will come out–in some way, shape, or form.

Please Just give them grace.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.  Show them love–even when they seem unlovable.

It won’t make the world perfect by any means.  But it will make it just a little bit better.

 

I’m done rambling for now.  But I feel a lot better.    🙂

 

God’s peace to each of you.

Brett

Layman's Walk

See You When You Get Here

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Tuesday, September 21, 2021 was one of the worst days of my life.

Yesterday, my dad died.

While he had been suffering from mucosis-fungeoid (a very rare full-body skin cancer) for several years, he took an unexpected turn. Suddenly, he was gone.

Kari, the kids, and I had just spent Labor Day weekend with my folks. Dad and I fried up some fish and other goodies. The eight of us had a round-robin cornhole/bags tournament. We played several games of six-handed euchre. It was a lovely weekend.

Just this past Friday, mom and dad had come over to Morton for the pumpkin fest. Dad was doing much worse than he had just a few weeks prior. All of his skin was so dry, including his throat—making it really hard for him to eat, drink, or even speak.

He had stayed at my house that afternoon while my mom, Kari, and the kids went uptown to the Pumpkin Festival. I got home not long after they had left. I had been at a funeral in Springfield that morning.

I spoke to dad and was surprised at how hard it was for him to speak because of his dry throat. He was sipping water from a bottle. I saw down on the couch opposite of him to watch some TV with him and I fell asleep—I was exhausted from the morning. When I woke up, he had moved from the chair to the couch opposite the one I was laying on. When I woke up, he was just watching me. He said “Little nap!” as I woke up and I chuckled saying I was apparently more tired than I realized.

Shortly after, everyone else came back home. Dad seemed tired too, and quietly got up and walked to my room and fell asleep in my spot on my bed. We woke him a little later when Mom was ready to head home. Dad was so tired and weak I had to hold him up by the arm to walk him to the car and lift and turn his legs in for him. I buckled his seatbelt for him and told him I loved him and he told me he loved me. Those were the last words we exchanged.

Mom called me at six yesterday morning in a panic saying she was at the ER and they were asking whether to intubate Dad. She said they told her he wouldn’t survive regardless. I know my dad had always said he wished for a quick death. The idea of life as an invalid, or suffering from a long-term disease, or being in a nursing home were personal hells for him, but I couldn’t bear to just let him go so quickly, so I told me to have them get him on a ventilator.

He had fallen unconscious before the ambulance had arrived at their house and he never regained consciousness. Chrissy got the call from Mom at 1:00 a.m. local time in Honolulu and took the earliest flight available to Chicago. She wouldn’t land until about 10:30 that night. We tried to keep Dad alive until she could get there to say goodbye in person. We had held the phone to his ear later that morning for her to talk with him.

As the morning moved into afternoon, even the medicine being used to artificially prop up his blood pressure was becoming ineffective. Mom and I each had some time alone with Dad, and not long after, his blood pressure began rapidly falling and his pulse when from a steady 115 bpm to an irregular 60, then single digits, then none. He died at 2:42 p.m. with Mom and me at his side.

I haven’t fully processed all of this yet. My grief comes in fits and starts. There have been moments of overwhelming sadness and moments of strength and determination. I suppose I will oscillate between these two poles for a while.

While I am fully confident in the resurrection promised to us in our baptisms in the death of Christ, it does not relieve one’s grief. It does not relieve one of the empathy they feel when a loved one breaks down as their grief shreds their heart and they cry with guttural sobs. It doesn’t stop the overwhelming emotion one feels when they see a beloved relative they haven’t seen in some time walk up with open arms offering a strong and comforting bear hug. It doesn’t take away the today-pain. It lessons it, and gives me comfort conceptually and spiritually, but it doesn’t fill that void that has been riven open in my heart. Those wounds are still real and they are miserable.

I have sadly received my membership card to the club that no one wishes to join, that of people who have lost a parent. I know there are so many people who share this experience—and that almost all people will eventually, but it doesn’t make my own experience any less painful.

But as my dad would say, “it is what it is. See you when you get here.”

Layman's Walk

The Struggle of Forgiveness

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This is a rough transcript of a sermon given on September 13, 2020, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Peoria, Illinois.  This sermon, like most I deliver, is given extemporaneously–that is, prepared in advance, but delivered without notes or text.  For me, this allows more room for the Holy Spirit’s influence during the delivery and helps the message to be more conversational and contemplative, though at the expense of the readability of a transcript.

Peace,

Brett


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Forgiveness.  One of the most significant tenants of our Christian faith, and probably one of the most difficult aspects of it to embrace and follow.  Jesus tells us today that we are not to forgive in a manner where we’re keeping track of how often we do it. Peter asked Jesus, “If a member of the church sins against me, how many times should I be willing to forgive that person? Should I be willing to forgive them the first time they do something against me? Or maybe two times? Or maybe even up to seven times?” Jesus answers him, “No.  Seventy times seven times you should forgive.”

In the Jewish faith, the phrase “seventy times seven” would have been understood in the way that we understand “infinity,” or we could understand it as “continuously.” Jesus says to Peter, “You’re not to forgive them just a certain number of times–you are to forgive one another continuously and infinitely!” The reason Jesus tells Peter that is because God forgives us continuously and infinitely!  

Now, this idea of forgiving one another continuously, freely, and infinitely goes beyond just a theological concept.  Think about a marriage–a good marriage, or a family that is close and cares for one another, or a community that loves and cares for one another.  Forgiveness is an integral part of that: continuous and never-ending forgiveness. I know this for a fact. My wife isn’t here but she would tell you that, yes, forgiveness is a constant thing in making a marriage work. Forgiveness is a constant thing when making a family stick together. Forgiveness is a constant thing in keeping a community together. 

My friends, our world is so fractured in part because of a lack of forgiveness. When it’s little things–somebody speaks or says something that comes across to you in the wrong way, somebody discards a gift that you had given them–those things sting, but those things are also small and they’re easy to forgive.  It’s really tempting to want to stop thinking about how we’re commanded to forgive one another at that level. But the forgiveness that God gives to us and the forgiveness that God calls us to share with one another goes way beyond that–to the things that are really challenging, to the things that we think are impossible.

We just commemorated the 19th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack. For me, that was half a lifetime ago, but I remember where I was. I remember how I felt. And I remember how I wanted to react to that. I will tell you it was not with forgiveness–it was with anger! It was with aggression! It was with fury! But my friends, it’s those things where God still calls us to forgive!

Now, I expect that for a lot of you (and for me, too) hearing me say “God calls us to forgive those who do evil against us,” and that this extends to the people who perpetrated that atrocity probably does not sit well with you–and it shouldn’t. Forgiveness, my friends, is not easy. It’s not easy. It is easy to say, “Those people–how could we forgive them!?” But God calls us to do that anyway. 

Forgiveness, in its most perfect form, is what stops the never-ending cycle of human violence and revenge. When humanity seeks revenge and seeks to get even, all it does is continue to cause pain, and hatred, and death. Those things are the opposite of what God wants for us.

In our personal lives–not just these big societal things–there are times when people abused or treated very, very poorly.  The question there is, “How does someone forgive somebody who has treated them atrociously?”  We also have to think about forgiveness as not being equivalent to being a “doormat.”  If someone mistreats us, we have the capability to forgive but to also do what’s necessary to prevent that from happening again. 

When we forgive, we are letting something go from inside ourselves. We’re getting rid of resentment and hatred and saying, “that has happened and I am going to make sure that it doesn’t impact my future in a way that it’s in my heart and mind every day.” It’s good for us to forgive–not just for the person we are forgiving, but for ourselves

In that last part of the passage from the Gospel, Jesus says something that is kind of grating. He says, “Unless you can forgive one another, your God will not forgive you.” He talks about how that slave was handed over to be tortured until he can pay his debt and used that as a threat that this is what God would do to those who do not forgive their brothers and sisters from their hearts. Now that’s a really scary concept, but hear me out on this. When we hold grudges, when we refuse to forgive, when we grab ahold of that anger and rage we squeeze it and we live in it, is that not the torture Jesus is talking about? When we live in that, we torture ourselves.  Jesus is saying that by forgiving, we are able to let that go. We’re able to find the peace that we can’t find when we hang on to that anger.

I know this is challenging. But we have a model for this. We have a model in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who while on the cross, looked down on those people who had abused him, who had mocked him, who had called him every terrible name in the book, and who were now murdering him–and begged God the Father to forgive them.  That is the model for forgiveness that our God is calling us to. My friends, I know it is not something that is easy. It is something that leaves us conflicted because we know that this is what we’re being called to do as God’s people, but as human beings, we also know how much we want to have wrongs done against us righted.

I’ll leave you with this thought. God forgives us infinitely and calls us to do the same. As children of God, when we forgive others, not only do we release them from their binding, but we release ourselves from the anger and resentment that binds us–it’s good for us as people when we forgive. Knowing that we are made in the image of God, what does that tell us about God’s motivation for forgiveness? God forgives us because it’s part of the goodness of God’s nature. God calls us to do that same difficult work for ourselves, for our families, and for our neighbors. 

We have a lot of forgiving to do. I look at our world around us, and I look at the infighting between various groups of people, and to me, I see a world that is calling out, begging for people to forgive one another.  Will we ever truly be able to do that? Maybe not until God’s reign fully comes. In any case, forgiving is how we can do our part to experience God’s kingdom in the here and now.

Go in peace. And if you are carrying resentment or anger against your sister or your brother or your neighbor, make peace with them. Remove yourselves from the torture that we do to ourselves by refusing to forgive. Do so “seventy times seven times;” do so continuously and infinitely as God does for each and every one of you and for me. God grant it for His sake. 

Amen.

Layman's Walk

Warning “Label”

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This is a rough transcript of a sermon given on August 23, 2020, at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Peoria, Illinois.  This sermon, like most I deliver, is given extemporaneously–that is, prepared in advance, but delivered without notes or text.  For me, this allows more room for the Holy Spirit’s influence during the delivery and helps the message to be more conversational and contemplative, though at the expense of the readability of a transcript.

Peace,

Brett


Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

“Who do they say I am?” That’s the question that Jesus asked his disciples in our Gospel lesson this morning. I’d like to turn that question around and ask, “Who are you?” “Who are we?” “Who am I?” 

We live in a world full of labels. Everything is labeled, including people. We’re labeled by our gender. We’re labeled by our race. We’re labeled by where we live. We’re labeled by our income. We’re labeled by our talents. We’re labeled by our strengths, and we’re labeled by our weaknesses. Sometimes, we’re even labeled by our sins. Those labels come from society at large and from the people that we are around, but they also come from within our own hearts. 

Today, Jesus asks, “What’s the label that they put on me?” And they said, “Some people think you’re John the Baptist, or Elijah, or some other prophet.” Jesus then asks a much more important question, which isn’t, “Who do others say that I am?” but, “Who do you say I am?” 

I find it ironic that Peter is the one who answers this question, and he answers it so succinctly, and so strongly, and so correctly. It’s the “correctly” part is the part that impresses me the most because if you read through the Gospels and you read about the disciples’ interactions with Jesus, I think you can’t help but conclude that for twelve people that hung out with Jesus every day for three years and heard everything he said, they get the answer wrong–a lot. But not in today’s story. In today’s story, Peter hits the nail on the head! He says, “You are the Son of God.  You are the Messiah.” Think of all the things that Jesus was labeled in his time–whether it was people thinking he was the return of John the Baptist or Elijah, whether it was people who thought he was an amazing rabbi, or that he was a rabble-rouser, whether it was people who thought he was just a healer or a miracle worker, or the people, like the Pharisees, who entertained that he was of the devil–there were all kinds of labels put Upon Jesus. But there was only one that had any real importance: “You are the Son of the Living God. You are the Messiah, the Savior.” 

There’s a lot that we can learn about the labels that we apply to each other and to ourselves. I think that is of particular importance in our world today. We are in one of the most tumultuous times in recent history. We are in a time of health uncertainty, of economic uncertainty, of political uncertainty, educational uncertainty.  We’re not sure when the next shoe in 2020 is going to drop! We can be concerned about all those things and we can worry about the differences that we see in ourselves and in others, how we classify one another. The label that we should all be most concerned about is that we are each “a child of the Living God.” Not just that we as individuals are children of the Living God, but that every other person that you see here today is a child of the Living God–and they are every bit as good and, yes, as bad, as you are and as I am.  And not just the people here, but throughout the entire world! Humanity was created in God’s image and each and every human person has that same “child of God label.” So when we interact with each other, do we do so using a label that we or someone else has assigned that person?  Or do we interact with that person in the context of the most important label, that they are “a child of the Living God?”  Under that label, we are all equally condemned by God’s Law and we are all equally redeemed by God’s grace and forgiveness.

I don’t say this to minimize the differences between one another here in this Beloved Community, or within the community at large, or throughout the world. Differences are what make the human tapestry so beautiful and so wonderful. As Paul talks about that in our reading from Romans today–he speaks of how each person has been gifted from the spirit with something unique, that each of us is a part of the body of Christ. And all the parts are important.  The part of the body that is the mouth or brain are not more important than the foot or the little toe. They are all needed.  Take a part of your body away and you will miss it no matter how minor you thought it was. Take away a person who is a part of the body of Christ in the whole body suffers there as well.  

There is no question that we live in challenging times collectively as a Community of Faith and individually. There’s plenty of stress, there are plenty of worries, and there is plenty of blame.  Ultimately, just as when Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter said, “You’re the son of the Living God, the Messiah!” so we are called to see ourselves as children of that living God.  And regardless of our differences, regardless of the labels that we apply, we are to see others as beloved Children of the Living God. 

At the end of the Gospel, Jesus turns to Peter and says, “On this rock, I will build my church.” It’s often understood that when Peter is told this, Jesus is referring to Peter himself as “The Rock” on which he will build his church. It is not surprising that people understand it this way because Peter’s name literally means “rock.”  (If he were around today, we might call him “Rocky.”) But I often think that it is Peter’s confession upon which Christ builds his church.  It is the confession that Peter gave when he said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  It’s that same confession that we all repeat together each week that is the rock upon which Jesus builds his church–that confession that he is the Messiah. 

That, my friends, as it is every Sunday, is the Good News that we share. We could have had a god who looked down, saw a humanity that was wholly imperfect, and turned their back and walked away. Yet our God said, “No–they’re still worth loving. They’re still my children, and I will be their God.” When we have times of doubt, we can look to Isaiah who tells us to seek the rock from which we were hewn, where it is we come from.  We are followers of Christ. We were hewn from the same rock that the disciples were hewn from.  And that, my friends, is the label that we should care most about: Children of the Living God.”

May God’s peace that surpasses all understanding be on your hearts and minds.

Amen.

Layman's Walk

#NailedIt

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If you happen to be one of the two or three people who read this site regularly, you’ll notice that I have completely failed and at least one of the things I set out to do during this season of Lent: that is to post something everyday. Unfortunately, friends, the fact of the matter is that I don’t have anything that important or astounding to say. (And I’m also kind of lazy, and never fulfill my New year’s resolutions either, so no big surprise here.)

I also haven’t managed to do the exercising that I thought I was going to do, but I did make it almost 3 weeks if you count the week before Lent when I was experimenting without having anything alcoholic to drink. However there have been some life changes this month of relative significance that I thought necessitated a celebratory cocktail.

In any case, my failure to meet the goals I had hoped to during this season of Lent remind me of something even more important: that God’s grace is something that we do not earn. No matter how hard we try, no matter what goals we set, no matter what we do, we are incapable of doing what is required and being who we should be. But God is okay with that. And that, my friends, isn’t just good news–it’s fantastic news.

Jesus mission didn’t end with the cross because people were perfect. It went there because even though we were so imperfect God loved us anyway. Jesus even loved the people who had condemned and who were crucifying him so much to endure it that they too may receive the Love and forgiveness of God.

So when you and I screw up, when we fall short, it’s important that we remember that our failures are not the end. God has the end in God’s own hands.

Thank God it’s not on me to get it right. Because just like so many other things in my life, I’ve #NailedIt.

 

Layman's Walk

Mandelbrot and Mystery

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After my mentioning of Carl Sagan yesterday, I looked on YouTube for some videos of him.  I found a very interesting special that featured him, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke from the mid-1980s. 

I greatly enjoyed their hour-long discussion which attempted to allow regular folks like me to begin to understand the magnitude of the universe.  During the show, Dr. Clarke demonstrated the Mandelbrot on what would now be considered an ancient computer.

Today, we can find not only images, but many videos illustrating the Mandelbrot Set, such as this one:

I’ve always felt a connection between mathematics and the divine.  The Mandelbrot Set is, to me, a prime example of this connection.  No matter which way you zoom on the set–inwards or outwards–it continues forever in a repeating and recursive pattern.

That’s really all I have to say; I’m just intrigued by the mystery of both.

Peace,

Brett

Layman's Walk

“You are star stuff, and to star stuff you will return.”

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One of my favorite quotes is by astrophysicist and cosmologist Carl Sagan.  At the end of one of the episodes of his iconic series, Cosmos, he looks directly into the camera and tells the viewer, “We’re made of star stuff.”

I find this concept particularly poignant on Ash Wednesday, when churchgoers are reminded that “[they] are dust; and to dust [they] shall return” as the mark of the cross is made on their forehead in palm ashes.

Each year I find this ritual quite moving.  It reminds me that my imperfect and sinful life on earth is finite and that I, too, will ultimately die and my body break back down into the simple elements. (We, too, are physically just atoms after all.)  More so, it reminds me that everyone will experience  death.  Regardless of how we die, we will all still die.

Seeing the black cross on the heads of all these people really stops a person in one’s tracks.  Not only will I die, the person I don’t know that well will die too.  So will my dearest friends.  So will my parents and relatives.  So will my wife.  So will my children.  I couldn’t help but stare at the forehead of my youngest son who, after a long day, fell asleep in the pew during tonight’s church service with the same black cross on his forehead.  I was reminded that he, too, will some day die.

Of course, this ritual is not meant only to remind us of each of our own worldly deaths to come, but to remind us and refocus us on the importance of Jesus Christ’s own death and resurrection–the promise that when we each die, that death does not have the final say.  To the Christian, this reminder of our own demise becomes not a sign of destitution but a sign of comfort and hope.

I like being able to find parallels between elements of my faith and the general world around me, thus my Sagan-ean twist on the words I heard said to so many people tonight.  I am a person of faith who also reveres science.  I firmly believe that the human capacity for critical thought and reason are gifts from God and that we should and must use them to discover all we can about God’s creation–our cosmos.  As such, when I have the opportunity to draw a connection between science and faith–or even the broader secular world and faith–I love to do it.

As we pulled out of the church parking lot tonight, I was pondering how all people who have ever existed and all things that have ever existed in the universe are all composed of what is essentially “recycled atoms” that have originated from distant stars and how everyone and everything I have ever known will ultimately return to that state same state of “dust” or “star stuff.”  As I turned on the radio, I heard the 2019 cover of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” by Whitney Houston and Norweigan DJ Kygo.  Yes, the 2019 cover of a 1986 song featuring an artist who died in 2012 using vocals recorded in 1990 and a backing track created nearly 30 years later.

Again, in my appreciating seeking the holy in the secular, I was reminded that while our earthly deaths are certainly permanent, they are not final.  We have a hope in Jesus Christ who preached and demonstrated the higher love that God has for our entire cosmos. 

Walk in the higher love of Jesus Christ and be at peace with your star-stuffiness.

Brett

Layman's Walk

Fat Tuesday! (Or Mardi Gras!)

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While I certainly cannot compare my low-key antics with those in the Big Easy or Carnivale, I am enjoying my Fat Tuesday before the Lenten season begins tomorrow.

While I’ve never been much for “giving up” something for Lent, this year, I am intentionally making a point of focusing on making concerted changes in a variety of areas on my life for specific reasons.

#1 – No Alcohol

With the exception of the wine served at Holy Communion, I am abstaining from alcohol for the entirety of Lent.  People who know me well know I enjoy good beer (and even not-so-good beer).  However, I recognize that it is unhealthy, it makes me sluggish, and that I don’t need it.  So, I’m going to experiment with having no alcohol for forty days and see how I feel at the end.  Maybe I’ll go back to having a beer or two or a couple glasses of wine with a good meal or with friends at a gathering.  But maybe I won’t.  I am also quite aware of the calorie count associated with most alcoholic drinks.  Considering I weigh the most I have in my life, I could certainly stand to shed a few pounds.  Abstaining from my malty beverages should help with that as well.

#2 – Practice a Lenten Devotional

Just because someone is preparing for ministry doesn’t mean their spiritual life is just as it should be.  I often find that I am too quick to jump into the business of the day and neglect setting aside time with God.  As such, I am  making a point of leveraging a daily Lenten devotional to re-instill my daily morning ritual of prayer and thanksgiving.  I will be using a devotional created by Luther Seminary, which can be found here if you’d like to use it. It’s relatively brief, so there’s no excuse for not using it daily.  I plan to use this devotional with my family at the end of each day before bed in addition to my morning routine.

#3 – Attending to My Writing

I started this blog a few years back with the intention of chronicling my journey to ordained ministry and beyond.  Frankly, I’ve done a pretty poor job doing that.  Writing is a good practice for anyone, especially if you need to be able to communicate to others in a meaningful and clear way.  In addition to being somewhat therapuedic, writing this blog helps me to hone this skill.  (And hopefully others might find some value in it as well.)  As such, I will post something every day during Lent.  I hope it will be particularly insightful, but no guarantees.  In any case, I will post something–maybe brief and frank, maybe long and insightful–but something.

#4 – Move This! (Shake that Body!)

No, I’m not part the 90’s electronic group Technotronic but I will be taking their advice over the next forty days:  I’m gonna “move  this.”  I am not one who likes to exercise.  I hate the idea of “working out” or doing physical activity only for the sake of doing physical activity.  However, I have found enjoyment in activities as simple as taking the dog for a walk.  So, I will be implementing a practice of walking Shortie (our Carin Terrier) when the weather permits, and doing some other upper  lower-body focus work.  This is because, today is not only Fat Tuesday, it’s lose-some-fat Tuesday.

 

Whether or not you choose to do anything during the Lenten season, do me a solid favor and help keep me accountable.  While none of this seems too hard, it will definitely be a challenge for me.  But if Jesus could do forty days in the wilderness, I think I can do forty days of  this.  If not, I have some serious #FirstWorldProblems.

 

Peace,

Brett