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Layman's Walk

The Joy of Games with Kids

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Yesterday, my oldest daughter was at a youth group event for the night (Be Like Jesus).

Once the littler kids were put to bed, my oldest son saw the opportunity to play a game with Mom and Dad!

If you know me, you’d know I’m a gamer.  I love video games, board games, card games, serious games, leisurely games–basically all games.

Isaac decided he wanted to play “Beat the Parents,” a trivia game that puts (as you have probably deduced) the kids against the parents.

Since Kari and I were taking on only one kid, we had two pawns to move across the board while our son only had one.

What does this story have to do with anything?

So glad you asked!

In Matthew 19:30, Jesus says, “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Now, in full disclosure,. I know that the application of this verse that I’m going to use is at best a stretch and at worst, a joke.  However, I think the concept helps us to reconcile a concept we have difficulty understanding: aparrent paradoxes in scripture.

My wife and I are both competitive when it comes to games and our children are no different.  

We arguably could have beaten our son in the game we were playing, but he does the normally win. (You read the part about our being very competitive, right?)

But last night, he was within reach of victory, so we gave a few extra hints for his last question and he cinced the win.

If you could have seen how excited he was, you wouldn’t have believed it.

We have played so many games with just him or with him and his sister where he hasn’t been the winner (Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, etc.)

Seeing him celebrate a win, even one that was slightly in his favor, was a joyous occasion that boosted his confidence and made him believe it was possible for him to win. (I’m convinced his biggest obstacle to this point was his thinking he couldn’t ever win.)

And it was this that made me think about Jesus’ statement.  He didn’t say the last would be first and the first would be forgotten.  The last will get the joy of being first, and the first will also receive joy, just after those now before them.

This was how I thought about playing our game. Our son, who could have lost, was made first and Kari and I took a backseat to his victory.  

But at the end of the evening, we all received the same joy we had hoped to receive: a fun time with each other.
Again, I realize this is a distant interpretation of this message.  But if you’re trying to understand that “first is last and last is first” paradox, this might give you some insight.

It helped me.

Peace,

Brett

Layman's Walk

Don’t Believe Everything You Think

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This is good advice I received from a friend several years ago.

And I was reminded this morning to take my own advice.

According to Dale Carnegie, “When you’re wrong, admit it quickly and emphatically.”

Well, I was wrong.

This morning I reviewed a Facebook post I had made last night, and after having slept on it, I realized that I had made quite a mistake, and determined that I needed to pull it down.

Mmmm…..who doesn’t love the taste of crow? (I don’t, but this isn’t the first time I’ve eaten it–and God knows it won’t be the last.)

My post was in response to a video I saw of Pat Robertson, a well-known and controversial televangelist, who claimed that the result of the election was “God’s will” and anyone who opposed the administration or its policies were “opposing God.”

I was immediately incensed by this and quickly pecked out a response to the post, which I put on this blog’s Facebook page, describing how God did not determine the election, and thus any resistance to the acts of the administration certainly did not go against God’s will. I compared the election results to the results of the Super Bowl and claimed God had as much of a hand in one as the other, and that God’s level of involvement was none.

I fell for the televangelist’s red-herring, argued the wrong point, and missed the opportunity for something of greater relevance and meaning.

My error was in stating that God had no hand in the election, or frankly, in the Super Bowl. As unlikely as I personally think it is that God directly intervened in either of these, who do I think I am to claim it one way or the other? Do I comprehend the mind and ways of God?

No, I do not. And making a comment that implied I did was not only incorrect but wrong.

And that’s why I get to have the filet of crow special for lunch today.

In hindsight, I should have left the post up and put a response to it, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to get around to writing a coherent response until much later in the day and I did not want anyone else to read it, make the same error that I did, and further share my wrong to others.

I mentioned that I fell for the red-herring and missed the bigger point. Here it is:

It is irrelevant whether God determined the outcome of an election, a game, or any other purpose.

There are things that happen in our world that could be influenced by God, and things that are not. Reading scripture, we see examples of events where God intervened, including in the selection of Israel’s leaders.

I also personally believe that God does not have a direct hand in everything that happens in our world. I don’t believe that a loving God intentionally subjects a child to abuse, a person to cancer, or anything like that. I believe those things occur as a result of creation’s (read: our universe’s) separation from God, but not as God’s direct action.

Having said that, I do believe that God is more than capable of taking those bad things that happen and using them for good.

I’ve heard stories of cancer patients finding themselves being closer to their families, being more loving people, and truly appreciating life at a level they had never experienced prior to their diagnosis.

I’ve read accounts of people who have been through terrible abuse and affliction, who emerged on the other side as stronger, more powerful people who have become role models and activists who help others.

In the case of the televangelist’s claim, I cannot say whether the result of the election or any event is influenced by God’s hand.

But what I do feel confident in claiming is that God can use the circumstances that exist in our world for good.

And in the resistance I have witnessed to some of the inhumane and un-Christ-like actions of the current administration, I see that goodness sprouting like a lily from a barren field.

And that’s because God is good, all the time.

I was reminded not to believe everything I think. Sometimes the conclusions we rapidly come to are not the ones we need to come to.

And sometimes, that also applies to our long-held opinions and beliefs as well.

God did bless humanity with the ability for critical thought. We should use it.

Peace,
Brett

Layman's Walk

The Enigma Who Was Alan Turing

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A few weeks ago, I watched the movie The Imitation Game on Netflix.  It’s the story of Alan Turing, the man who lead a team of Brittish mathematicians who broke the Nazi encryption system known as Enigma.  This group’s work was top secret in the highest degree and the story wasn’t declassified until the 1970s.

I’d definitely recommend you to watch this show–the acting is great. The plot is exciting.  Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Mr. Turing is outstanding.

One thing the movie strikes on, sadly, is how poorly society treated this incredibly gifted and talented hero–because he was gay.  During the World War II era, homosexuality was illegal in Great Brittan and after the way, Mr. Turing was convicted of this “crime” and was forced to undergo chemical castration.  Side effects of the treatment and the torment he faced eventually led Alan to take his own life.

And because his mission was top secret, no one knew of his contributions to the Brittish and the Allied Forces.  No one knew it was he who was responsible for bringing down Enigma.

Great Brittan had persecuted a man that no one realized was a national hero for a wholly unworthy reason.

 

Pope Francis recently stated that Christians should apologize to gay people and others that the church has historically oppressed.  I hope you were as happy to see this as I was.  Christians owe that apology to any who have been hurt by the church.  It’s exactly the opposite of the church’s mission.  Christians are called to love others, not to condemn them.

 

But how often do we do similar things to others?  I have often wondered:

“How many wonderful people have I overlooked for reasons that were immaterial, petty, or just plain stupid?”

“How much talent has our society missed out on because we have ostracized people for ‘a good reason?'”

“How much greater could our world be if we were to focus on inclusion and the merits of each individual, rather than excluding that which we see as different or strange?” 

I know I’ve done this myself.  I see it happen in the world around me.  Have I missed out on a rich friendship because I overlooked someone for foolish, petty reasons?  Have people with the potential for greatness been shut out, denied rights or opportunities because he or she were deemed “unfit” by society?

 

In the 1940’s, the Allies were fortunate to have Alan Turing–a genius ahead of his time–to crack the Nazi Enigma code.  Alan’s work is often given credit to enabling the Allies to shorten the war, save millions of lives, and even to ultimately prevail over Nazi Germany.  (Forbes, NYT ).

 

The machine he made that broke Enigma became known as the first “Turing Machine.”

Today we call them “computers.”

 

Peace,

Brett

 

Layman's Walk

Jekyll and Hyde

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Back in, oh, probably 1997 or so, a student-teacher of either my chorus or band director introduced me to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical “Jekyll and Hyde.” (I think his name was Josh? Maybe? Heck, it’s been twenty years.)

The following year, our high school chorus took a trip to Chicago to see the show. While the soundtrack had already sold me on the show, actually seeing it cemented it as one of my favorite musicals.

The score was driving, fast-paced, largely in minor keys, and gave the lower-registered instruments of the orchestra a lot of the focus. It really did a great job of highlighting the darkness and evil associated with the J&H story. Interspersed within the dark musical themes are brief bursts of excitement, joy, anticipation, hope, love, and even lament that are sung in bold anthems and passionate ballads by the lead characters.

In this version of the story, Henry Jekyll is an impassioned physician who is desperately seeking a cure for his father’s dementia while trying to balance the life he has with his fiancee, Emma.  Upon having his proposal for treating his father’s illness rejected by the Board of Governors, he decides to inject himself with the solution as a test candidate.  This results in an extreme change in Dr. Jekyll’s behavior as he “becomes” another person, Edward Hyde.  Mr. Hyde is someone who has no qualms about sinister behavior and operates solely on his primitive impulses and desires.

The musical highlights the duality of humanity, as expressed in the characters of Jekyll and Hyde in a theme that is heard throughout the show:

There’s a face that we hide
Till the nighttime appears,
And what’s hiding inside,
Behind all of our fears,
Is our true self,
Locked inside the façade!
 
So, what is the sinister secret?
The lie he will tell you is true? –
It’s that each man you meet
In the street
Isn’t one man but two!
Nearly everyone you see –
Like him and her,
And you, and me –
Pretends to be
A pillar of society –
A model for propriety –
Sobriety
And piety –
Who shudders at the thought
Of notoriety!
 
The ladies and gents here before you –
Which none of them ever admit –
May have saintly looks –
But they’re sinners and crooks!
Hypocrites!!!
One or two
Might look kinda well-to-do –
Hah! They’re bad as me and you,
Right down they’re boots!
 
I’m inclined to think –
Half mankind
Thinks the other half is blind!
Wouldn’t be surprised to find –
They’re all in cahoots!

As the lyrics imply, it’s not only Henry Jekyll who is fighting a battle within himself–good vs. evil.  In fact, it’s the battle that takes place within each of us–conflicting desires and wants, knowing right from wrong and still consciously making the wrong decision, or even simply unconscious behaviors and habits that are based on selfishness, greed, passion, or anger.

I bring this up because this idea of “each man you meet on the street is isn’t one man, but two,” is precisely one of the recognitions of the Christian faith, particularly as defined by Martin Luther.

It is high time that we as Christians not only recognize this truth but ensure it is applied to our lives and our congregations–and in how we treat other people.  Luther held that a Christian is someone who is “saint and sinner at the same time.”  Yes, the idea is a paradox, but it makes sense.  We are both at once saved by the grace of love of Christ, yet continue to exist in an imperfect universe, with imperfect minds and bodies that will continue to be disobedient, regardless of how much self-discipline we possess.  This understanding is not to be taken as an invitation to engage in immoral behavior.  However, it does illustrate that those who profess a faith in Christ will still screw up, sin, do wrong things, have lustful or hateful thoughts, hold grudges, and otherwise exhibit behaviors that are “unChristian.”

It is critical that this idea is at the forefront of our minds as we deal with others.  When we as Christians exclude the “other,” we are not drawing a line between “them” and “us,” we are drawing a line between “us,” and Christ.  Remember that Christ came for the sinner–the thief, liar, the adulterer, the murderer.  He did not come for those who held themselves in high regard; in fact, he repeatedly spoke against those people.

When we selfishly draw lines between “us” and “them,” Jesus will always be with “them.”

When we look at someone and judge them harshly, we must remember that we are no better than they are.  Whatever the other person’s “problem” is, we have plenty of our own baggage as we are most certainly still sinners while we strive to be saints.

The fact is, we are “both evil and good.” Wearing a “facade” and pretending otherwise is foolish and wrong.

Even as Christians, we are still both Jekyll and Hyde; Saint and Sinner.

And so is the rest of humanity.

 

Peace,

Brett

Layman's Walk

Sick Day

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Well, it was a very long day. The Gosteli Traveling Circus (as Kari and I like to call our family) got hit with a flu bug today and it was pretty rough.

But to take a page from my wife’s book about finding the positive in everything, I can list several things for which I’m thankful about today.

  • No one was in much of a hurry to do anything, so we finally slowed things down a bit instead of rushing around like crazy.
  • Addison, who was lucky to be feeling the best of all of us sick people, took on some major responsibility today and insisted that she feed the kids breakfast and lunch so Kari and I could rest. She went on to help out in a variety of other ways as well. We are so proud her for her empathy and generosity. When we told her that it really wasn’t necessary, she responded that this is what Jesus would do, and doing these things made her happy, too. What a kid.
  • I was reminded that work and other projects will survive without my undivided attention. It’s OK to take the necessary time to take care of yourself. And this isn’t just when you’re physically ill. Consider you mental, social, and spiritual wellness also.
  • I’m grateful for the quality of relationship that Kari and I have. While not an earth-shattering event, dealing with a sick family and the frustrations associated with it is a challenge. But we, even in our gross, ill, arguably stinky state, want to cuddle up at night and be as close as we can as we fall asleep. God has truly blessed our marriage.

Life is good. God is good.

Peace,
Brett

Layman's Walk

Jesus Was a Refugee: How We Christians Treat Them Speaks to Our Faith (Or Lack Thereof)

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“‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’”
— Jesus Christ, Matthew 25:41-45

“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.'”
— Matthew 2:13-15

“It’s hypocrisy to call yourself a Christian and chase away a refugee or someone seeking help, someone who is hungry or thirsty, toss out someone who is in need of my help.  If I say, ‘I am Christian,’ but do these things, I’m a hypocrite.”
— Pope Francis

“Seek to help our brother and sister refugees in every possible way by providing a welcome…Show them an open mind and a warm heart…It is necessary to guard against the rise of new forms of racism or xenophobic behavior, which attempt to make these brothers and sisters of ours scapegoats for what may be difficult local situations.”
— Pope John Paul II

On the Statue of Liberty, the “Mother of Exiles,” about which we Americans so proudly speak, is a plaque inscribed with the words:

“Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

 

I’m not really sure there is much else to say about this.

Jesus himself (a brown-skinned, Palestinian Jew mind you) commands us to help the least of these. He himself was a refugee whose fled persecution from King Herod when he was a child.

Two recent Popes (J.P. II who was known as a conservative and Francis who is a liberal) have called out the importance of protecting immigrants and refugees. Even if you are not Catholic (and I’m not) this is a strong message and meaningful message, especially to Christians.

We are a nation of migrants, immigrants, and refugees. (We often think of the Pilgrims, who were precisely that, but they were just one of many groups of refugees.)

Our own monument calls for the most persecuted and wretched to come to our country.

Jesus calls us to help and serve all. No exceptions.

The least of these,” He says. Not the ones you like, or find palatable, or who are from select countries, or those of a specific political persuasion. And certainly not just to those of your religion, denomination, sect.

Show Christ’s love to all the world–no exceptions.

Peace,
Brett

Layman's Walk

“Jeremiah was a bullfrog.” And Jesus “had mighty fine wine.”

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Ok, Jeremiah wasn’t really a bullfrog.  (In fact, that catchy lyric in the Three Dog Night song was actually just supposed to be temporary.)

But Jesus was a rebellious, smart-alack, troublemaker for pretty much everyone who was in any position of authority.

(And at least once, he had some mighty fine wine — at his mother’s request, nonetheless).

We often think of Jesus as this soft-spoken, easy-going, happy, kind, wouldn’t-say-a-harsh-thing-to-anyone kind of person.  And it’s not that he wasn’t these things, but he sure was quite a bit more.  I often think that one of the reasons we have seen such a decline in male participation in our churches is because we have turned Jesus into a big wuss.

There’s no question, his message was one of love–but it wasn’t a weak love.  It was a tough love.  And sometimes, even an angry, passionate love.

Yes, Jesus told us the greatest commandments were to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” and to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22) He even went so far to say that every other law and prophecy told hung on these two simple statements.

He was the one who described himself as the “good shepherd.”  He also said to “let the children come to me,” and that you must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven.

And that’s what people generally think about Jesus.

What people often forget is that Jesus was a courageous rebel who took on the leaders and world powers of his day directly and forcefully and didn’t quit until they killed him!

He upended the “system!”  He went against all the norms of his religion (the Jewish faith) and he basically told Rome, “you can have your little kingdom here–God is still in control regardless.”  He completely messed with the heads of everyone who was in power in his society.  He literally raised up a revolution that would not just excel past the murderous jealousy of the religious leaders, but that actually overtook the occupying kingdom of Rome.  (Familiar with the term “Roman Catholic?”  That’s where it comes from.  Jesus’ teachings spread so far and to so many people, that the Roman Empire adopted Christianity as their religion.)

I find so often that people don’t think about the radical that Jesus was.  And yes, he was a “radical!”  He was outside all the norms, he went against all of the establishment and said, “I’m the one who is right!”

Here are some of the things Jesus did as a rebel, as a protester, and as someone who claimed the way that the leaders of his time behaved was backward and wrong.  However, instead of using the terms for the Jewish and Roman leaders of his time, I’m going to paraphrase to reference modern religious and governmental institutions as best as possible, so you might see the parallels between what a historical and a modern-day Jesus could be.

(Please keep in mind, the situations I propose are purely hypothetical.  Also, I am not necessarily trying to draw comparisons between those parties in the bible story and those in my illustrations; I’m simply trying to draw comparisons in the situations.)

Read the following and tell me this guy wasn’t a tough, bold, brave, and “manly” man.  (I won’t even go into his physical suffering and death, and the strength of his faith and love that allowed him to forgive his own killers even as he died.)

Jesus Cleanses the Temple (Matthew 21:12-17)

Jesus walks into Lakewood Church in Texas. Lakewood is the church led by millionaire pastor Joel Osteen.  (Here’s a picture of his $10.5M home.)  Jesus looks around. In the church, there are all kinds of books and goods, from which the profits of the sales go at least partially, if not directly, to Osteen.  Jesus sees this and is enraged at how the pastor of a church has enriched himself beyond belief through the sales of goods and the Sunday collections from his congregation.  He snaps and yells at all those people manning the sales tables.  He chases after them and runs them out of the building.  He then moves to the merchandise display cases and trashes them, flipping tables, knocking over product stands, pulling posters and fliers off the wall.  He screams for all who can hear him to stop perverting God’s church–that is it not a place for profit and that its leaders should be modeling humility, love, and forgiveness–they should be helping the poor and those in need–not enriching themselves on the backs of its congregants.

Jesus Denounces the Scribe and Pharisees (Matthew 23:1-36)

Jesus decides to crash a national gathering of a mainstream church denomination.  As the leaders are attempting to speak, he interrupts them from the crowd of thousands with a group of protesters and claims that those in power are illegitimate.  Among the claims he and his demonstrators make:

Church leaders and members place all kinds of rules and responsibilities on their congregations, but they themselves do not follow them.

Church leaders and members make a big show of what they do in “God’s service,” yet fail to do anything for the poor, the needy, and others who most desperately need God’s love and the help of their fellow humans.

Church leaders and members get wrapped up in a single social issue and as a result, miss the bigger picture and the bigger problems and needs that they should be addressing.

Pilate Questions Jesus (Matthew 27:11-14)

Jesus is arrested by federal agents due to charges that have been made up by his enemies, including that he has been planning a coup to oust the elected officials.  While under intense questioning from the agents, he does not break down and cry and beg for them to go easy on him.  Nor does he get furious and attempt to discredit his accusers.  In fact, he’s so strong and confident in his mission that he simply answers questions with a smart remark or simply remains silent and sturdy under intense scrutiny.

Casting the First Stone (John 8:1-11)

(In this example, we’ll pretend Jesus is the white guy as so many people picture him as being instead of a brown-skinned, Palestinean Jew.  It’s necessary in order for this analogy to work.)  Jesus encounters a lynch mob in 1950s Mississippi that is preparing to hang a young black man for courting a white woman–something in that time was considered impermissible, yet a victimless “crime.”  Before the mob has a chance to serve up their “justice” for the young man’s “crime,” Jesus is not only brave enough to stand up to a mob of people with murder on their minds (who could have just as easily killed him, too, without a second thought), but then also convinces them to leave the young man unharmed and to go about their business.  Once the mob disburses, Jesus then counsels the young man, making sure he is ok.

Now, I realize some of these stories I’ve made up might sound a little, well, strange, out of left field, and maybe a little absurd.  I get it.  That’s ok.  But do me a favor: with the ideas I’ve shared in mind, read the actual scriptures that are linked to each of them.  You’ll see that Jesus was no wimp.  He was BOLD.  He was STRONG.  He was BRAVE.  He was more than willing to stand up and speak truth to power, fight for what he knew was right, and oppose injustice and hypocrisy wherever he saw it.  Even in these acts, love was his motivation.  But just because love was his motive and mission, it certainly did not preclude him from being righteously angry, being brave, and speaking truth to earthly powers–no matter how mighty those powers were.

You might say he was a “straight-shooting, son uva gun.”

So if and when you think of Jesus, remember—Jesus was BOLD, BRAVE, and STRONG.  Know that the love of God is the ultimate power and that in the end, the only things that remain will be faith, hope, and love–which is the greatest of all.

And by no means, is love weak.

Peace,

Brett

Layman's Walk

What makes a “pastor?”

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I find this question intriguing at times–and for a number of reasons.

As a kid, my mom always took us to church; my dad wasn’t much for it. Looking back, I think one of the reasons was because of the hypocrisy of the individuals in the congregations he knew (including, regularly, those I demonstrated) and the artificial elevation that some pastors received. (Dad, if I’m talking out of school on this, say something and I’ll correct it.) Having said that, this was always one of the things that kept me at arm’s length from what I have since started calling “Ameri-Christianity.” In that vein, my dad did me a major favor.  But there will be more on that at a later time.

I hold no fault with my father for his views–none; if anything, his questioning, his calling-out of the, well, B.S. that he saw in his own world that was being committed by Christians made me think critically about myself and my own faith. At the time, it may have weakened me. It made me question my credibility as a “Christian.”  It made me think hard about what I claimed to value and how my actions often did not reflect those values.  Ultimately, I think it made my faith stronger because what I ended up learning was how imperfect we all are and how hypocritical we can be. (“Do as I say, not as I do.”)

I recall my dad talking about a few local pastors he had come to know through casual acquaintances from being about town. One such pastor was Richard Jumper who was the pastor at the Disciples of Christ church.

I didn’t know Pastor Jumper, as I had already left for college at that time, but I did know his congregation. We at the United Methodist Church had conducted joint Sunday Schools with the DoC church in my youth and I had been the organist/pianist for them when they needed a substitute while I was in high school. They were, as my congregation was, small, loyal, and as imperfect as anyone else I knew.

But I’m getting off track here.

My dad always liked Pastor Jumper because he was someone who he could engage in conversation about the real world. He was someone who didn’t come across with some “holier-than-thou” garbage, and his efforts were simply friendly–he wasn’t out to “convert all the heathens,” per se.

I have often reflected on this as I’ve considered the pastors I’ve known–both those I’ve admired and those I haven’t been particularly fond of (for which I will equally claim fault as I assign it).

What I have found, is that people often make the mistake of assuming that the pastor is somehow in a position that makes them superior to others.

This is utterly FALSE.

Sure, in the nature of human-organized religion (as in any human organization) there are bureaucratic mechanisms that keep order and we leverage them in our churches.

And there certainly is value in the incredible amount of training that pastors receive and the knowledge and experience they possess.

But, this does not make the pastor “above” anyone else.

He or she is only a human; no different than any other in the congregation or in the world.

Perhaps, as in some cases, the Spirit has guided them from very early in their life and that individual has made fewer “big mistakes” than others.  Of course, it’s not as though God is keeping score.

In many cases, pastors come from lives of chaos, of trouble, and from places we would never think God would go to gain a follower, let alone a leader.

The Apostle Paul is one of my favorite historical examples. This was a man who was literally persecuting and murdering Jesus’ followers until Christ confronted him while he was journeying to Damascus.

And he was changed. Transformed.

From a murderer of those who preached the truth (“Love one another as I have loved you.”), Paul became one who proclaimed that truth even unto his own death.

That is the miracle we share; that transformative power of Christ’s love for each and every individual–in each and every person.

Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, the founder and pastor of the House for All Sinners and Saints is my favorite modern example.  I truly look to her as an example of God’s transformative power.  Spend a few minutes reading her story and see if you are not amazed at God’s work in her life.

No matter how screwed up you think your life is; not matter what you have done or what you didn’t do that you should have, God loves you.  You are valuable.  You have tremendous worth.

No one is any different from anyone else. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23).

And this includes sinners who are church leaders and the sinners who make up their congregations.  They are no better nor any worse than what we consider the “worst” of us.

As it was once told to me, “We [pastors] are simply fellow beggars who have found a meal and a warm place to lay our heads, and we’re inviting all the other beggars to come join us.  That is all.”

Christ’s grace and peace are for all–no restrictions or reservations.

Peace,
Brett

Layman's Walk

Putting It Out There

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As incredibly excited as I am about starting this journey towards ministry, I have admittedly been rather quiet in my discussions about it. I’ve shared this only with my immediate family, some very close friends, and my church congregation. Well until I started this site, I suppose.

Frankly, I’ve been quite nervous to share it. If you’ve read my “about” page or my post about my call, you’d know that I do not consider myself to be worthy of ministry. So I’ve been hesitant to speak of this to those who might question my decision or my motives. I suppose this illustrates most clearly where my shortcomings in my faith exist.

However, this morning’s Old Testament reading really spoke to me. It was the beginning of Isaiah 49:

Listen to me, you islands; hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me; from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me into a polished arrow and concealed me in his quiver.
He said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand, and my reward is with my God.”
And now the Lord says—he who formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to him and gather Israel to himself, for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord and my God has been my strength—he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
This is what the Lord says—the Redeemer and Holy One of Israel—to him who was despised and abhorred by the nation, to the servant of rulers:
“Kings will see you and stand up, princes will see and bow down, because of the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

There are many interpretations of this scripture, but one of the things I learned in my synodically authorized ministry training was to listen to not only what the scripture says historically, contextually, and critically, but what it says to me spiritually.

To me, on Sunday during its reading, it confirmed to me my call to ministry and what I have felt God pushing upon my heart to pursue.  The idea that this was a path God had chosen for me before my conscious decision–even before my birth, the thought that he kept me until his time was right, and that he might use me as a medium to share the Gospel, I find exceptionally humbling.

The response that I would give to such a claim is, “I have labored in vain.”  Literally, all I have ever really done in my life has really been for me, about me, and to the benefit of myself, and for my own personal gratification and benefit.  I can truly say that to this point, I have spent my strength for nothing. (For what is it for a man may inherit the whole world, but lose his soul?)  I deserve nothing if not condemnation, but instead God has provided me with a reward–a purpose, and a mission.

He has called me to be one of the team who works to bring people to faith in Christ, to let my light shine for Him, that others might see.  He does this even knowing that when Christ claims his throne, the kings and rulers of the world will relinquish their power to Him, without the aid of any human.

I love that idea and seek to do all I can to spread Christ’s message of love and salvation for all of humanity.

Peace,

Brett

 

Layman's Walk

My Call

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It was when I began attending First English Lutheran Church in Peoria, Illinois that my faith was rekindled and I began to have a passion for Christ and His message that I had not previously experienced. The birth of my children left me in awe of what God can accomplish through mere humans.  My pastor, James Lillie, suggested I began serving as the assistant minister during services, a role I was humbled to be asked to fill and one I continue to embrace.

One Sunday when Pastor Lillie was absent, we had a synodically authorized minister serve as a supply pastor. (A synodically authorized minister — or SAM — is a fancy name for a lay minister.  It’s someone who has gone through some formal training and has been given permission by the bishop to perform services.)  After church that day, I asked him about how he had come to perform this role and what was necessary for someone like me to do it. Roughly three years later, I had completed the synodically authorized minister program, preached my first sermon, and learned how much I loved proclaiming God’s grace to others.

It was around this time that I began to feel a tug on my heart towards ministry. I tried to ignore it initially, thinking it was just residual excitement from delivering a sermon, but it never went away for long.  On Mother’s day of 2016, I was the supply pastor at First English for all three Sunday services. I received many accolades from my fellow congregants, several joking that we should halt our pastoral call process because they would like me to fill the role.

When I returned home that afternoon, I had a feeling I had never experienced. I was energized, in awe of the Holy Spirit working through me in those hours, and felt the pull towards ministry in a much stronger way. This feeling again, I tried to attribute to my own excitement and not of God trying to encourage me. But this intense feeling did not go away either.

Thinking I was half-crazy, I sat down with my wife one night and told her about the feelings I was having.  I thought she would be able to help me rationalize them away. After all, I have a great job at a Fortune 50 company, a nice private technology consultancy, a mortgage on a home (in which I had just invested a significant amount of money), and four children ages eight and under who we still needed to raise and provide for. Surely, she would help me see how illogical this was and put this idea to bed.

However, that was not to be the case. I could barely finish speaking when she jumped in. “I’ve been feeling the same thing! I hadn’t said anything about it because I thought you would just dismiss it, but yes! I can’t believe you brought this up.  I really feel that God is pulling you in this direction and that God is giving me the will to encourage you in this.”

Again, being a very pragmatic person, I suggested we not make any rash decisions and instead continue to think and pray on it and determine whether or not this was really what we both thought (and knew deep down) it was. When neither of us felt differently a few weeks later, I called Pastor Lillie and asked to meet.

Once I had explained to him this same story, he smiled and said, “Yep. That’s it.  It won’t leave you alone and the only way you can satisfy it is to listen and follow.” We discussed some of the mechanics of pastoring a congregation—the typical workday, the responsibilities, the trials, the blessings.  The following month, I would have similar conversations with others at my synod’s annual assembly. (A synod is kind of like a district of churches.)

In early August, I attended a synod candidacy meeting. For the most part, this meeting helped me to solidify my position that this pursuit was something I should continue. However, I did feel a very strong hardening of my heart when we discussed how graduating seminarians are “assigned” to synods and then “told” where they’ll be going for their first call.  I am a very independent person and have been for my entire life.  It really sat wrong with me to think that I would not dictate whether or not I move, sell my home (which will have a significant financial impact on my family, as I will never get out of it what I have invested in it), and leave my community on the whim of someone I don’t know.

Frankly, I felt pretty pleased with myself about this.  I think deep down I was happy I had finally found something to silence the voice I heard calling me to ministry, something that would overpower it—my desire for independence, control, and financial well-being. If some bishop thought they were going to dictate my life, well, that person had another thing coming. Finally, permission to put this silly idea to bed and continue down the familiar path I was already on in my career and my life, even if it were a path I was not particularly thrilled with either.  At least it was “the devil I knew.”

Then one of the pastors at the meeting made the following comment: “Keep in mind, this discernment process should be somewhat challenging. There will be aspects you find difficult, that produce doubt. You’ll receive comments from people that are both affirmative and discouraging. Discernment is weighing these things and it should not, and will not, be easy if done correctly.”

I thought about all of this as I went home that Saturday afternoon and discussed it with my wife. I prayed about it and waited. For a little over a week, I thought I had reached the end of this path.  I remember thinking one afternoon as I was taking a walk, “Oh, it was something fun and interesting to consider. A neat little fantasy that allowed me to imagine taking a completely different path than the one I am on. But alas, it has concluded, because I’m dead set against moving, the financial repercussions, and upheaval this could cause in my life.”

 

I was so close.

 

And then it returned.

 

“Oh, ‘ye of little faith.’  Do you really think that God would lead you into something that was awful?  There’s a whole world out there, most of which you know little to nothing about. Do you not think God has a wonderful plan for you?  Your family has already said they were willing to take the chance—why aren’t you?  Because of moving?  No, because of selling your home—that’s what it is. Poor little rich man, afraid to take the risk—to sacrifice something of worldly value for something that could be so. Much. BIGGER. There’s a story about you—don’t you remember?  About the rich man who wanted to follow Jesus but couldn’t give up his worldly goods and went away sad for it?”

Yes, I remember.

 

“Well then—where is your faith?  Is your faith in your home, in your financial position? Or is it in the God who blessed you with all these things and has so many more wonders in store for you if you would just listen and follow?”

My faith is in God.

 

“Then go on this journey.  It’s not a ‘drop everything today’ journey.  But come and learn, and see, and understand what is waiting for you.  Will it be an easy path with butterflies and rainbows every day?  No.  But is your life like that now? Of course not.  This is an opportunity for a life that is rich in spirit, serving God and serving others. That question you ask yourself, “What is it that I do in my profession that actually makes a difference in the lives of others?”  It’s one that frustrates you because the answer is often, “little or nothing.”  You know that this new path will be all about making a difference in people’s lives.  You have already experienced the satisfaction and happiness generated from serving other people and serving God—making it your life will be so much more fulfilling than you can imagine.”

Yes, it will.

 

And there it is—after having doubts and trying to drown out the call I was feeling, it was back and stronger than it had ever been. Between the inner call I feel in my heart and the amazing amount of encouragement I have received from others, I truly feel that God has put this on my heart for a reason.  It’s still veiled, but I can understand some of it—enough to know I need to pursue it.

 

In September 2016, I began the formal candidacy process in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and on December 14, 2016, I was accepted into Luther Seminary’s Distributed Learning program.

 

The journey continues.