Friday, April 29, 2005

Life change and changing lives

One of my preaching mantras is that, when I preach, I always want to preach for life change. I want to do my best to ensure that God's people have something in their heads when they leave that will eventually work its way out to their hands. Even if its something just as simple (simple???) as resting more securely in God, I want them to have it. Exegetical sermons, doctrinal sermons, textual sermons . . . they can all give great knowledge--which IS important--but they also have to make a difference in the lives of God's people. Knowledge, by itself, is not enough. There must also be faith, and faith is a living, active thing.

So should I be surprised when God expects more of me? If I want to be His instrument to change people's lives, should I not also expect Him to stretch me, to mold me, to challenge me? Why then do I resist His shaping hand?

It so often feels as though He is using a hammer and chisel to shape me. I'd prefer to be molded like soft clay. Perhaps . . . just perhaps . . . life change is hard because I'm hard. You can't mold solid rock with your bare hands, and God isn't the type to use the wrong tool for the job.

If I want to be used to make an impact, I need to be prepared for God to shape me first. It's as simple as that. Doesn't mean I have to like it or particularly enjoy it . . . but I want it all the same. I suppose the opposite--that God will let me be if I don't want to do anything particularly meaningful--is also true. But while that may mean more comfort for the moment, it would also mean dying the thousand deaths of the coward . . . too afraid to be anything other than small . . . too afraid to trust radically in God.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Two sides of the same (blasted) coin . . .

On the one hand, do they realize that they're not telling the whole truth? They'll tell you that pastoral ministry is all about preaching the word, offering the comfort of the Gospel . . . but they won't tell you about the people who want results, not comfort. They won't tell you what to do when people don't think that being a simple preacher is enough. Here we are, giving this new crop of green-horn pastors the official "Go out and change the world for Jesus!" speech, and we're not telling them they've only been equipped for less than half of their job. Someone's got to tell these new guys that people can be hard to deal with at times, that there are times when there aren't any win-win solutions, that--for crying out lout--that they are gonna get hurt. Hurt bad, some of 'em. "Pastoral ministry is all about preaching the Word and offering the comfort of the Gospel," indeed.

But yet, on the other hand . . .
What they don't tell you is that the Gospel works wonders even on yourself. That it is a live, active thing, and it spreads through ever fiber of a person's being. The hurting are healed, the ones who cry out have their tears dabbed away . . . hearts are made new again . . . lives are restored . . . things are set right in a deep, deep manner that can't always been seen, but it can always be felt. All this from the Gospel, and all this despite the best (worst?) efforts of those sinners known as the pastor and the people. "Pastoral ministry is all about preaching the Word and offering the comfort of the Gospel" . . . Indeed!!

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Dude, it's a Dell!

Odd that I'm a full-grown adult male, wife and children, and I still have an unnatural desire for toys.

I am right at this moment quite literally sitting at my desk, staring out of the window, and waiting for the UPS guy to show with my new Axim PDA from Dell. It should have been here yesterday, because that's when all my wife's stuff showed up. She got a new computer, because the old one was about as mesozoic as a computer can be. But did my stuff show? No. Had to call UPS and Dell and talk to at least 4 different people. But now that the handy UPS tracking website says it's actually on the truck and scheduled for today's delivery, I sit and wait, a child trying to catch a glimpse of Santa Claus.

. . . wonder if the UPS guy ever gets cookies and milk?

Sunday, April 24, 2005

The doctrine of vocation

As I've been doing recently, the rather long post that follows is my sermon from today, April 24th. Read on to hear about the Lutheran doctrine of vocation.

In today’s sermon I want to depart from tradition just a little bit. Typically in the Lutheran church we’d hear a sermon based upon one of the three lectionary readings for the day, a sermon that would tie in with the appropriate season of the church year. But in our church service today we have an illustration that is too good to pass up. So, instead of preaching on a specific text, I’d like to take the opportunity to speak on a specific doctrine. I’d like to speak today about the doctrine of vocation.
The catalyst for why I’m thinking about vocation today sits before you. Today in church, our fine organist Ron Linkswiler is embellishing the worship service with three Organ Exaltations. With his abilities as a musician and his position as the church’s organist, Ron is offering us something special. Not for himself or his ego, and not because we all are so deserving of it, but because it is one way in which Ron can serve us through his God-given vocation as a church musician. What I’d like for you to do today is consider how you can serve your neighbor through your vocation.
“Vocation” . . . that’s a word we need to stop and define. Typically in our culture today, when someone wants to know what your vocation is, they want to know what it is you do for a living. We have vocational-technical schools that teach a trade or a skill, and we think of that sort of thing as a vocation. But that’s not the way I mean it now. The theological sense of the word “vocation” is really very broad. “Vocation” embodies not only what you do for a living, but touches all the facets of your life.
Each of us is unique. Our lives have very different situations. None of us have identical vocations. For example: In my lifetime I’ve been an “employee.” God placed me into a company where it was my responsibility to provide technical support for my fellow employees. If I didn’t do my humble work of support, they couldn’t do their work, either. My vocation as “employee” demanded that I serve not only my employer but also my fellow employees by providing the best support I could.
But I am also father to Kaleigh, Zachary, Nicholas, Luke, Shawnae, Caleb, and Gabriel (did I get all them?). None of you can claim that responsibility—it is mine to bear. God has placed me in the vocation of “father” to these children, and that vocation demands that I serve them by sheltering them, clothing them, feeding them, and raising them in a Christian home.
But I am more than just “father,” I am also—today, at least—preacher. God has placed me in this pulpit, and for today at least the responsibility of preaching is mine to bear. God has placed me in the vocation of “preacher”, and that vocation demands that I serve you by proclaiming God’s message to you.
Three different roles in my life . . . three different vocations. They are unique and specific to my life, and in each of them I have a responsibility to serve those whom God has placed around me.
The first key to understanding vocation is understanding the unique places where God has put you, so let’s just work that out for a minute. Let’s start with the easy stuff—What do you do for a living? Are you the top dog? Are you the low man on the totem pole? Are you somewhere in between?
--Is there any way in which you have been given the official capacity to serve someone?
--Are you a mother or a father? Are you somebody’s child?
--Are you a Sunday School teacher?
--Are you a Bible study leader?
--Are you somebody’s friend?

Take all those and kind of add them up . . . you’ll see that God has placed you in not just one but several circles of influence. Places where you have responsibility to others . . . but more than that, places where you can be of specific service to others. That’s of what vocation is: places where God has put you so that you can be of service to others.
So, the first key to understanding vocation is understanding the unique places where God has put you. The second key is understanding what it is to serve.
We can understand true service by thinking of an experience that is common to all of us: eating in a restaurant. Think of two people: the best waiter or waitress you’ve ever had . . . and the worst. What’s the difference between the two?

I think the difference between the two is that the one made it obvious to you that he or she wanted you to have the best experience possible at that restaurant. That waiter, that waitress, they went above and beyond to ensure that you were served well. They give you the impression that they would want that even if they weren’t working there for a living. A bad waiter just makes it obvious that he’s there to collect a paycheck, and that you are nothing more than a means (or maybe even an obstacle) to that end.
When we serve in our vocation, it is the same thing. Our service is to be always directed completely and totally towards the one we are serving. You understand? When you are in service to your neighbor, it is wrong to keep casting one eye back over your shoulder and say, “Are you watching now God, did I do a good thing God, huh? Huh? Huh?” NO!! We don’t serve our neighbor in order to curry favor with God, but because our neighbor needs our service! We don’t serve our neighbors so that we can offer them as some sort of good work to God, but we serve our neighbors so that we can become God’s work to them.
Who gets the credit—the hammer or the carpenter? In the same way, our God-given vocation isn’t done to bring accolades upon ourselves, but it is done in order that God may work in another’s life. We are simply the tool.
I’ve mentioned two parts of vocation: knowing the unique places where God has put you and understanding what it is to serve. Those can be difficult to understand at times, but the third part of vocation is easy. The third part of vocation is why.
Why serve others? Because God first used others to serve you. It doesn’t matter who you are, if you are in this church today it is because God made you someone else’s vocation. God used someone in your life—a father, a friend, a relative—God used someone in your life to serve your needs. Maybe those needs were physical, maybe they were spiritual, maybe financial, maybe relational . . . but God used someone to serve those needs. God used those people to serve you.
That’s what God Himself does, you know? God—the almighty, all-powerful God over all—God serves you. Before you could even ask for help, God was on the case . . . serving you by sending His Son . . . dying your death . . . forgiving your sin. Nothing else mattered to God except for your desperate need for life with Him. In Jesus Christ, God made you His vocation.
Think about that for a minute . . . in Jesus Christ, God made you His vocation. You were so special to God that He offered His services to you, knowing full well how great the cost would be to Himself. And yet He served you in a way that was specific to your needs . . . giving His only Son so that you, and your family, and your friends could have everlasting life with Him. That’s pretty amazing, isn’t it? That in Jesus Christ God would become our Servant.

. . . and there you have the written portion of the sermon. I finished by tying it all together--the three parts of vocation being 1) knowing where God has placed you, 2) understanding what it means to serve, and 3)the reason why we serve . . . because God first served us.

Saturday, April 23, 2005


My recent decision that I was facing--the one where the seminary said I could either take another internship or sit and wait while they decided what to do with me--that caused me a lot of internal strife. I just KNEW I should stand and fight, because that's what a brave, risk-taking man would do. Taking the internship seemed like backing down to me, it seemed like shrinking back from a fight. It seemed like the coward's way out.

Now, I'm still fighting with myself a bit on this, but I realized that I wasn't afraid of fighting--I'll go to the mat if I need to--but I was afraid of . . . being afraid. I felt that if I chose the internship (which is really the wisest and wiliest option, all things considered), I would do so because I was afraid to fight. I felt that I would get stuck in a routine of fear, of always playing it safe, of ceasing to live for fear of taking risks. You understand? My biggest fear was that I was fearful.

Some really wise man (I honestly can't remember who--isn't that awful?) once said "All we have to fear is fear itself." I think at the time he was intending to provoke courage into action. But I also realized that it sometimes takes a brave man to make a seemingly "safe" choice. Sometimes it takes real guts to say, "I could fight . . . but I'd be losing much more than I'd gain."

I could fight for my ordination, and I believe I'd have a right to do so. But in the process I could lose a lot of things. Taking the internship--though it seems to be the "safe" way out--means that I still get to minister, than I get a paycheck which provides for the family, and I am still on track for ordination. Those sound like FAR better options than scrapping it out just because I'm afraid of myself thinking I'm a coward.

So, the moral of this story? Courage comes in unexpected places . . . and sometimes takes unexpected shapes.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Problem of Pain

Stumbled across a brother pastor's blog today. He had mused upon why pastors quit a few days ago, and his blog and his thoughts are quite striking. Go give it a read.

Why do pastors quit? Because they are tired of trying to be invisible. The pastor's job is to be invisible, to have people see Jesus instead of him. It's to point people to the One who can truly save them . . . and yet people often spend all their time looking to their pastor, to force him into the open, to make the Invisible Man someone to be clearly seen . . . to look to him instead of to Him. Let me say it clearly: YOUR PASTOR IS NOT JESUS!

I want nothing more than my people to know Jesus. To love Jesus. To trust Jesus. To recognize their need for Jesus. But what gets in the way is when they fail to recognize that I need Him too. Yes, I, I myself, I NEED JESUS. I fail. I sin. I make a mess out of things. I need to apologize. If you want to get real earthy for a minute, then understand that the bathroom stinks when I leave, same as it does for you. For the love of God, please do not make the mistake of looking to me for your salvation!

Chief of sinners though I be,
Jesus gave His life for me.

That doesn't change because I'm the guy preaching. Yes, I'm there for you. I want to minister to you. I'll do my best to point you in the way in which God would have you walk. I'll even be God's voicebox, His mouth, and His hands for you--I'll let Him act through me. But I can't be God, and in fact I'd kill you if I tried to be. I'd kill you because I would be offering a fake god, a false gospel . . . a gospel something entirely other than the true Gospel you are offered only in Jesus Christ. By trusting in my false gospel, you'd die. And I'd be guilty.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Not too surprisingly, at times I felt helpless . . .

That's what a friend of mine told me today. I had thanked him for listening to my tales of woe and for his wise advice, and he replied that while he was happy to listen, he had wanted to do something, that he had felt helpless.

Inaction can be frustrating. Standing by and watching a friend's life turn inside-out is something akin to witnessing an auto accident from the street corner. You sense the impending danger and from that moment on the drama unfolds in excruciating slow motion, a hideously realistic movie playing out in front of your disbelieving eyes. You are locked into the role of an enmeshed observer . . . participation is both thrust upon you and denied you at the same time. Frozen in place, your brain overloads in sensory trauma, and all the world fades away except for the tragedy that will forever be etched in your memory. The inability to act denies us the mental defense to later say "Well . . . at least I did the best I could." The inability to act, to engage, to do robs us of the last vestiges of our deluded thoughts that we can, after all, control our lives.

But . . . is that really what happened? In those few moments his friendship allowed me what I so desperately needed: To expose myself to emotional risk without fear of emotional damage. He allowed me to be myself, to feel and not to hide. With my friend, I could be afraid . . . and it was okay. With my friend, I could be frustrated . . . and that was alright, too. With my friend, I could also be confident . . . and he didn't have to ask which emotion I was truly feeling, because we understood it was all of them at once. With my friend I could at long last take my heart from its secure iron lockbox, place it on my sleeve, let it all hang out, and get some precious relief from the awful burden of feeling constantly on guard.

Did my friend do something for me? He most certainly did. He felt helpless, but the reality unseen is that in those few moments he became God's divinely chosen instrument of comfort and wisdom in my life. Do something? More than be a friend? More than give his ear? More than spend his time? Could anyone--truly--could anyone do more than that?

Not hardly, my friend. Not hardly. What he perceived as frustrating inaction I gladly accept as treasure, more valuable than silver, more precious than gold.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

You are a sheep . . .

What follows is my sermon from today, April 17. It's a longish post for me, so read on at your own peril. ;-)

You are a sheep.

Just close your eyes for a few moments, and imagine that you are a sheep. Well, a flock of sheep I guess would be more accurate. That’s not too hard, is it? After all, today is Good Shepherd Sunday, and the Bible is filled with images comparing God’s people to sheep.
So, you all are sheep. Now, what are your sheep-y needs? You need sheep food. You need sheep shelter. You need sheep protection . . . and you need sheep guidance. Where are you going to get that? From the other sheep? Is there a head sheep we can look to, some sort of super-sheep that will look out for us?
I don’t think so. The other sheep are just pretty much the same. Sheep, as a rule, are not particularly bright, and a flock of sheep all put together is a bit dimmer yet. So what we need is a shepherd.
So, now imagine a shepherd—he can be anything you want him to be, tall, short, thin . . . whatever. The important thing is that he’s a shepherd, that he’s watching out for us sheep.
Since he’s watching out for us, he’s going to make sure he leads us where we need to be in order to get the things that satisfy our sheep needs. Now, I suppose that this shepherd could just herd us all together into a pen, but I think that our imaginary shepherd wants better for us. So he calls us out of the pen and we follow after him. And he leads us up, up, up. Up to a fine, soft meadow where we can stop and rest. A little spring is bubbling up nearby so we can get a cool, refreshing drink. NOT a rushing river—it would be too easy for one of us to get swept downstream—but a nice spring of quiet water. It is a refreshing place to be in.
And our shepherd, he takes us from place to place just like this. We follow him day by day as he leads us from one good place to another. The paths he chooses are firm and sure, and he moves with a quiet confidence of one who knows the mountains well.
Well now, that sounds rather nice, doesn’t it? Kinda makes me want to be a sheep. To have a nice, quiet, ideal life filled with pleasant things, good food, and nice, sheepy friends. Could anyone argue with that? If we could just stay on the mountain top forever, we’d live out a good life. If we could stay on the mountain top . . .
But . . . I didn’t say we were staying on the mountain top, did I? No, what I said was that our shepherd leads us from one good place to another. And I don’t know a lot about sheep, but I do know that once a flock of sheep gets to a nice, lush pasture that that pasture isn’t going to be good for very long. The shepherd knows that we can’t stay on the mountain top forever, so he leads us from one good place to another. And to get to the next good place, our faithful shepherd is going to have to lead us through the valley.
It’s rough in the valley, sometimes, did you know that? On the mountain top we had great food, fresh water, open country, and an abundance of light. But in the valley . . . who knows what could happen? The valley is in the shadow of the mountain. And it can be a deep, dark shadow. A shadow so thick that it feels like it’s taken a life of its own . . . no, that’s not right, because it doesn’t feel like life at all. The mountain top—that feels like life. But the valley—that shadow grips our hearts like death itself. And our shepherd is leading us down into it.
Let’s not be coy about this, now—the valley is a dangerous place. It’s full of things that like nothing more than a few sheep for breakfast. And the darkness is so thick that we won’t even be able to see the dangers very well. Down there in the valley we’ll find the sure, firm paths the shepherd is choosing are harder to see, and if we’re not careful we could lose our way. If we’re not careful we could get separated from our shepherd. Down there in the valley we’ll find wolves in sheep’s clothing—wolves just trying to mix in with the flock until they can pick one of us off. Oh, they’ll look nice enough . . . until you get up close. Down there in the valley we’ll find thieves and robbers—sheep hustlers, if you will—and they’re going to want to steal us away from our shepherd, to take us to their pen, and we’d never see the mountain top again. Down there in the valley is not a place for sheep to be alone. It’s just not safe.
But down there in the valley is where our shepherd leads us. Should we be afraid?
Our shepherd is a good shepherd. He’s taking us from one good place to another, and the valley is on the path between the two. Yes, the valley is dark. Yes, the valley is scary. No, I can’t tell you how long of a journey the valley is . . . but I can tell you that our shepherd is with you in that dark, dark valley.
The valley is full of real dangers, but our shepherd is prepared to deal with them. One, he’s got a weapon. Now, this isn’t quite right [a baseball bat], but you get the picture. Our shepherd carries a rod with him. His is probably something like this . . . but his is coated with iron. And anything that is going to go after you is going to have to get by him first. Those wolves? WHACK! Sends them off scampering and whining. Thieves and robbers? WHACK! Leaves them looking like they got beat with the ugly stick . . . which they just have. Anything that comes out of the dark, anything that is going to threaten the well-being of us as his sheep—our shepherd is right there to deal with it. In the words of Teddy Roosevelt, he speaks softly, but he carries a big stick.
But the rod isn’t for us. Sheep don’t get clubbed when they get out of line. Our shepherd also carries his shepherd’s staff. A long, graceful staff with a curve at the end. The rod is for beating off attackers, but the staff is for guiding us sheep back onto the straight and narrow path. The staff keeps us grouped together. Yes, I suppose that some sheep might get a small whack with the staff now and then, but it’s to keep us all in line. The rod defends us sheep against attackers, but the staff guides us in the shepherd’s way.
And as we travel through the valley of darkness, our shepherd uses both of them for our benefit. We’ve left one mountain top, and we’re heading to another. But to get there, we’ve got to pass through the valley, and if we’re sheep—which we still are—knowing that our shepherd has both a rod and a staff is a comfort to us.

But what if you weren’t a sheep?
What if you were just another person living in a messed-up world, just doing your best to get by? What if you had nothing but a dream that maybe, someday, somehow, you could be a sheep, that a shepherd would appear and pull you out of the valley and bring you to a place of green pastures and quiet waters? What if your life was stuck in the valley, and you weren’t sure if you could ever get out on your own?
Our shepherd is a good shepherd. He’s taking us from one good place to another, and I want you to remember the valley is on the path between the two. Yes, the valley is dark. Yes, the valley is scary. No, I can’t tell you how long of a journey the valley is . . . but I can tell you that our shepherd is with you in that dark, dark valley. I know it because I’ve seen it. I know it because I’ve lived it. And more than that—I know it because God promises me in His word that it’s so. You have God’s promise that no matter how dark the valley is, that no matter how dangerous the path has become, that no matter how afraid you are of what is up ahead, God has already been there, and He is protecting you and He is watching out for you and He is leading you on a path that will take you to from good to good, and there is no way the valley is going to stop Him from getting you to where He wants you to be!
Jesus Christ knows about pain, and He knows about danger, and He knows what it feels like to be dragged through Hell and back . . . because He did it all. He did it all on that cross. He didn’t come down off that cross on His own . . . they took Him down because He was dead. He was dead—rejected by God and condemned for sins He never committed—ours. He laid His life down for you, and for me. He laid His life down for His sheep. But He took His life back up again in victory and in power, and it is through His life that we will have life with Him forever. He is your shepherd.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Saturday, April 16, 2005

When life hands you lemons . . .

I always hated that happy, sappy saying. I imagined some perpetually chipper cheerleader type with a permanently fixed smile peppily saying, "When life hands you lemons . . . make lemonade!

Yep, I always hated that. Until I realized just the other day how you make lemonade. You know how you make lemonade? You take those silly little citrus fruits and squeeeeeeeeze the life out of them, crushing the hapless fruit in your bare hands until every bit of it's precious juice has been drained out, the pulp sacs burst and empty. You wring that dumb little yellow thing until you can't get any more out of it and then you discard it's lifeless, worthless shell, tossing it carelessly aside because it is no more use to you whatsoever.

. . . I feel quite a bit better about that saying now.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Reality unseen

Could you pray for me?
He said as he walked into the office.
I need a friend . . . I feel so lost and alone. I'm unsure and afraid.
Could you pray for me?

Could you stand by me?
He said as he walked through the door.
I need a companion. I've lost my way and my feet are slipping.
Could you stand by me?

Could you talk with me?
He said as he came into the room.
I need someone to understand me, to hear my side of the story.
Could you talk with me?

And yet once again I stretched out My hands,
I stepped into his shoes,
and through his ears I heard.
Yet once again I used this humble pastor as My instrument to comfort a man's troubled soul.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Ramble alert!

Did you ever think about a God who makes water? I mean, there it is, the most basic and universal liquid known to man. Colorless, tasteless, odorless . . . and yet somehow the most satisfying, the most thirst-quenching sip of something icy and cold that you could ever manage to get your lips on.

But if that weren't enough, this tasteless liquid becomes the basis for a seemingly endless parade of permutations. We add a bit of this or that to common and universal H2O and we get Coke, beer, tea, coffee, Kool-Aid, grape nehigh, Gatorade, fruit juice (from concentrate), and so on. An endless list of liquids that are as diverse in taste and appearance as they are in purpose. Heated water cooks my food and creates a delicious broth in the process. Frozen water chills my drinks and allows me to freeze a sweetened dairy liquid into ice cream. Hot water from an elevated tap makes a relaxing and cleansing shower, or, if you combine that with an *ahem* intimately connected married couple it can make for a rather intense water-based experience. When combined with the Word, that same plain rain can cleanse sin--filled stains. In Spain. On the plain.

It's just . . . oh, I don't know . . . odd, I guess. God gives us something basic, something simple like water, and allows us to use it in every single facet of our lives. To me, it seems at once profound and commonplace at the same time.

. . . huh . . . that's kinda like life, isn't it?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

On Being and Growing

These past few days have been a time of intense self-evaluation, but they have also been a time of re-connecting with my friends here at the seminary. I realize now that through the process of my personal emotional pain and situation, God has been able to bless others through my words, my experience, and my presence. I have been given much to consider and many tools to make me an even more effective pastor and leader, and I have been reminded--both on this Forum and here in person at the seminary--that I have many, many good and faithful friends.

I am growing . . . probably much more so than I would have known was possible. I have retained my integrity and yet been receptive to change for the better. I am weary and more than ready to be home once again in the arms of my wife and children.

But it has been good, darn it. God has actually proved Himself more than faithful to His word, His promise that all things work together for the good for those who love Him. All praise be to One who is the author and perfector of our faith. To Him be all glory and honor, and may I always serve the God who first served me.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

End of an era

I don't think that's too much of an overstatement. The Pope is dying. This man, an acknowledged leader around the world, a man who has led the world's largest Christian religious community for decades, a man who has held the ear of government leaders the world over . . . he is dying. And the world will move on. Is it too much to ask that we stop for just a moment, that the world pause and give thanks to God for what this man has accomplished?