Holy Days


Yesterday was a special day.  It was our anniversary…of sorts.  Three years ago, yesterday, I was wheeled into surgery to remove a brain tumor.  It is, ironically, a day of which I remember very little…yet it is a day that I will never forget and a day that redefined my life and relationships forever.

Our lifespans are each filled with many special days.  Days of discovering a terrible illness, surgeries, births, deaths, and weddings.  If that weren’t enough we often find ourselves commemorating these special days year-after-year.  Yet, our lives are not only made up of “special days.”  A birth of a child is special, sure, but so is the next day as you hold that child or watch a grandparent hold the child for the first time.  A lost tooth, first crush, first day behind the wheel:  these special days begin to grow together.  We begin to realize that every moment of life is a celebration of that first breath and how we live our lives will give meaning when we come to our last breath.

The same is true of Christ.  His Easter resurrection could not have been without the last breath of Good Friday.  Good Friday’s meaning was amplified by a triumphant re-entry into Jerusalem which we celebrate as Palm Sunday.  None of the events from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday could be celebrated without a small child born in a manger.  But these special days would not have held so much meaning without the daily work of Christ: healing, loving and community building.

Too often, I think, we focus on Easter and Christmas to the detriment of Christ’s daily works. Christ’s life was not primarily about one or two days or moments.  These special moments shaped our relationship with God, certainly.  These days were pivotal in human history, absolutely.  Yet, these times are inexorably tied to the daily life and acts of Jesus the Christ.  These “special days” lack specialness without the daily work of the Messiah.

In fact we don’t have high holy days in the Christian tradition.  Each Sunday is an equally important Holy Day because we remember not just a Jesus on a Cross but also a Jesus by a well in Samaria, healing a man at the pool of Bethsaida, raising Lazarus from the dead and calling fisherman from their nets by the sea. Each sunday celebrates the specialness of Jesus Christ on Earth:  his birth, death & resurrection, of course, but also his life of love and message of peace & justice.

I pray that as we approach each new day of faith we would model our lives after Christ:  living each day in pursuit of love, peace & justice.  That we would strive, each day, for a closer relationship with God and celebrate that relationship week-after-week on Sunday mornings!

The Burden of the Pharisees

Today’s Scripture:  Matthew 23:1-7

Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and his disciples,  “The legal experts and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore, you must take care to do everything they say. But don’t do what they do.  For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others. They make extra-wide prayer bands for their arms and long tassels for their clothes.  They love to sit in places of honor at banquets.  They love to be greeted with honor in the markets and to be addressed as ‘Rabbi.’

Today isn’t going to be an academic study, so much, as a devotional look at this scripture.  I came to my devotional time and found myself in Matthew 23.  Boy did that take me down a notch!  If anyone likes being called teacher or rabbi, it’s a pastor, especially us young pastors who sometimes feel we have to gain visibility and respect…

Hmmm.  Well, let’s look more closely at this one line:

For they tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry. They put them on the shoulders of others, but are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do, they do to be noticed by others.

I know a few modern day pastors that are like this and I strive to not be like them.  Oh, but yet they are often well-liked by their congregations.  How is that?  Pastors who tell everyone what terrible sinners they are and make long list of prohibitions “tie together heavy packs that are impossible to carry” are, in fundamentalist circles, often beloved.

I’m all about setting high expectations for the faithful, but there are two caveats:  1.) I’m one of the faithful.  That means: I have to live by the expectations as well!  2.) God’s expectation of us, it seems, is first and foremost that we should love others and God.  It is hard for me to effectively tell other people (in a prescriptive formula) how they ought to do it without modeling it.  It is better that I should attempt to live out my faith as I share that faith from the pulpit!

The problem with the pharisees is often a problem we have today.  We prescribe other people’s faith without living out our own faith.  As a people of the book we would be wise to set it down once in a while and live out the love we so often read about and stop creating ineffective burdens that weigh down our congregations.


Joy in Ritual?

My wife and I divide up many of the household chores and share responsibilities, normally, but since my first surgery on February sixth I have been very limited in what I can do. Over the last few months I have not had to put dishes in the dishwasher, do laundry, mow the yard…well, actually, I haven’t had to do anything but sit in a chair and take occasional walks! My normal routines and practices have been interrupted and the longer I go without doing them, the more difficult it is for me to start again.

Yesterday I finally unloaded, loaded and unloaded, again, the dishwasher. This was the first time I’ve done any sort of chore for quite some time. The really embarrassing thing is that it isn’t even a real chore. I mean, if I’d washed dishes in the sink that might be a real chore, but I just rinsed some dishes off and set them in a machine. Yet, this insignificant task seemed horrendous. I put it off all morning until I knew Carrie would be returning from work, and, finally, when I was at the eleventh hour, I went about a task that, in that moment, felt tedious and painfully slow.

How is it that a task could become so difficult when it is a routine I’ve done a million times and never felt particularly burdened (that I can remember). Well…now, to be fair I need to think back to when I first moved out on my own and had dishes to do (and no dishwasher). The dishes often mounted up and it often came down to eating on paper products before I would get around to washing dishes (I was a terrible bachelor).

Perhaps it is in the routine that tasks and ways-of-living become familiar and do-able. Perhaps, in forming a routine, we make a task more personal and intimate and, in doing so, make it tolerable, if not pleasurable.

The first time we make a bed or pick up clothes or change a diaper or run a vacuum… the list is infinite…. The first time or the first few times we do something we are bound to find it more difficult, but the more often we do it, the more it becomes part of our life-ritual, the more easy and familiar it becomes. One of the best examples is exercise, I think. It was easy to motivate myself to go to the gym the first time, but the next few times it was terribly difficult. I got home from work and I already felt exhausted. The last thing I wanted to do was walk over to the gym and wear myself down further, yet, once I got through a week or so of going to the gym, it became a highlight. It wasn’t until it became a ritual that I could enjoy it and I began to look forward to it!

In our lives of faith we have the same issue. If you are a church, synagogue or mosque-goer, then you may recognize this. If you skip worship one week, it is easier to miss it the next, and getting back to your faith practice becomes harder and harder. Prayer is the same way. Perhaps that is why muslims pray so often and methodically. By praying seven times each day they have built prayer into their life-ritual. The prayer becomes both familiar and easy, in a way.

For many, dare I say most, Christians it is more difficult to pray. We don’t have the ritual. Maybe we’ve developed a practice of saying a prayer before a meal or at bedtime, but do we interrupt our day for prayer or does our day follow our prayer cycle? I’d wager for most Christians it is the former!

I think practice is important in all that we do, if we want balanced and healthy lives. During my most recent stay in the hospital, I was feeling very sore in bed. I mentioned it to my physical therapist. She got me out of bed and tried to move my legs, but they couldn’t move more than a few degrees without pain. My muscles were tight from lying in bed all day everyday for so long! My legs were used to walking and bending and running. They were used to a certain practice, but they were out of practice. If any of you have gone to the gym, biked, or run further than you are used to, then you know what I mean. You’ve had the opposite experience as I: you went beyond your usual practice or ritual.

In life we need balance. If we want to start a new faith practice it is important to do so in a measured and responsible way. We should begin praying, reading the bible, or worshipping in a way that is tenable (sustainable). If you’ve not had a regular prayer life, then starting 20 times a day is likely not sustainable as a new practice, but finding one or two times during your day (or even 7?) might be. Finding 10 minutes each morning or evening to read the Bible is more likely to be sustainable, for most people, than trying to read a chapter everyday.

On the other hand, if we drop our habit, even for a day, we risk atrophy. In any of your life-practices, this is good advice I would wager. If you are a person of faith, I especially commend to you that you heed this advice and develop healthy practices. It maybe difficult, at first, but it will grow you, strengthen you, and help you in all of your other facets of life.

Images found at:  http://allwomenstalk.com/ & http://www.thegospelmatters.com/, respectively.

Resurrection & New Life: God At Work

Meet Andrew Mortonson

My guest blogger, today, is Andrew Mortonson.  He is a member of First United Methodist Church in Green Bay, Wisconsin and is active at the Wesley Foundation at the University of Illinois in Urbana/Champaign (UIUC) where he will (in August) finish his Masters degree in Aerospace Engineering.  …And I am really proud of Andrew’s most recent announcement:  He has already gotten a job with Rolls-Royce as an Engineering Associate after graduation!

Beginning to See God at Work

Today’s Scripture:  Luke 24:45-49

There was always a plan – a reason, a goal for tomorrow. I had always known the next step in life and was always fully prepared to take it. I had a stable family, good education, and a loving church home. I knew where I would go to college since before I started high school, and there was never really any question I would get in. I was blessed in many ways as a child. 

I grew up in the church, and for a large part, my faith was always laid out before me. Unlike many of the other kids my age at church, I learned and grew in my faith and continued being an active participant after confirmation. Being an active Christian wasn’t necessarily the cool thing to do, but in a Christian community like Green Bay, you never are really challenged in your faith. I often found myself in more discussions with other denominations, especially Catholics. 

When I went to college, I moved into a fraternity, and most of my influences were anything but Godly. I continued to succeed in school, but I felt incomplete and often alone. The summer after my freshman year, people from my home church asked me if I had found a new church to serve at school. When I admitted I hadn’t, they often encouraged me too look, or gave suggestions. I agreed that I would look at the Wesley foundation on campus, partly just to keep people off my back. I fortunately found a new home and gained many new supportive friends.

For the next two years, I felt like I knew where I belonged. While I occasionally struggled with friends and classes, I knew that God was providing for me. However, in my senior year, that feeling began to fade. I thought I had lost God’s call; I wasn’t really sure what my future path should be. I graduated college with Honors, but like far too many people that year, I had no job, and returned to live at home. Once again, I felt very much alone. Even though I was living with my family and had many loving people around me, I was completely lost.

I can understand what the Disciples must have felt around the crucifixion. Only a week before, they entered with Jesus triumphantly into Jerusalem. Going to serve with Jesus was not easy, but I’m sure after a while, they all felt like they were where they belonged. Only a few days later, they were lost, and felt very much alone. 

My story did not turn around in just three days, yet I know that even in those times, God was working in my life. I began to get involved in the praise band at my home church, and the other members often helped remind me that I was not alone. But the real point where I began to see God working was when one of the women in the church came up to me and started asking me details about my life. She knew that I had been looking for a job, and she wanted to know what kind of job, and what I was interested in. Then she told me that she needed to know all of this so she could properly pray for me. She prayed with me, and hugged me and promised me that her prayer group would continue to keep me in her prayers. 

It was about this time that things started to turn around. I applied to grad school and began to attend that fall. Through the two years that I have been studying, I only recently was assured funding for the remainder of my program, but I trusted wholly in God. Within a few months of returning to school, I began dating the woman who became my fiancée, and now within the last week, I was offered a job after graduation. Almost exactly the position I had wanted three years earlier. 

After Jesus arose on Easter, the Disciples went on to spread the gospel throughout the world. But they needed fellowship and support from other believers, and to fully place their trust in Jesus. In the same way, I could not be where I am today without the prayers of family and friends and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Even more, I know that I can impact the lives of others simply through words of prayer and support. At our lowest points, the promise of God’s perfect grace, through the resurrection, allows us to put all of our faith in Him. In Luke 24, Jesus appeared before the disciples who had gathered after the crucifixion. 

“Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’” Luke 24:45-49 (NIV)

**top image found at:  http://imlivinginadream.wordpress.com/2011/06/13/on-101-goals/
**image of Andrew Mortonson found on his Facebook.

Today’s Scripture: 1 John 1:1-2:2

We will look more closely at just a few of these verses:

2 The life was revealed, and we have seen, and we testify and announce to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. 3 What we have seen and heard, we also announce it to you so that you can have fellowship with us. Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. 4 We are writing these things so that our joy can be complete.

Think about it for just a moment. It would not have been very difficult to believe in Christ just after the resurrection. Oh, it might have been difficult to believe, i suppose, but it had just happened! I mean, if there was a time when it was easier to believe, that would have been the time, right? If we read the gospel of John we find that Christ has appeared to the disciples. It seems assured that Christ has, indeed, risen from the dead!

But for the next few generations of Christians it must have been increasingly difficult. There were not any gospels for a while and stories were handed down, but Christ wasn’t there to be seen or touched.

The problem that becomes apparent in this scripture is that people were mixing up the message of Jesus Christ and so 1 John attempts to put the message of Christ back into order. “We have seen,” and “we testify…to you.” Those who knew something about the life and death of Jesus are writing these words to ensure future generations of Christians will understand the message of Christ.

Resurrection and New Life is not just for one time or one group of people. The message of New Life in Christ is for all times and all peoples. This letter is written to us that we might know Jesus’ love. Christ overcame death and so might we!

What Would Jesus Tweet?
Image found on HuffPost

I’m going to steal some words from Leonard Sweet today:  It’s not a question of whether Jesus would have tweeted or not.  It’s a question of what Jesus would tweet.

You see, Jesus engaged in the community of the day and, I believe, continues to engage.  It’s not a question of whether God would use twitter.  God is using Twitter and Facebook and Google…the church may not be, but God is present and active in community and our community is ever-shifting to the internet.

Today we have to ask ourselves a lot of questions about how we are going to communicate as a church.  We seem to think, these days, that the goal is to get our church on the internet and that will be ‘good enough.’ Maybe a website or a facebook page will get more people to come to us…where the real church is (behind a big stone wall).  No.  Not good enough.  We have to take our experiences of Christ into our online communities if we are to live out our faith authentically.

Do we remind people not just to “like” the church (which, btw, is waaayyy luke-warm) with our bulletin or do we ask people to check-in to show their friends they were at church.  Do we put an informational announcement out on our facebook page or do we RT (re-tweet) the pastor or church friend so that our followers become her or his followers?

What the “Googler” generation has grown up in (and what us older people may never catch onto) is a culture about relationships.  It is not just about what we say, but, just as importantly, how  we say it.  The church needs to delve into the relationship-building connections of the web.  We need to become more social and less institutional…and we need to find authentic ways to share God’s love with the people of this world.

Pain & Empathy

Recently I told someone that I’ve had a headache since February 7 and the person responded in a way that I felt they were minimizing me, “Oh, now, come on, Scott…” they said.  No.  I won’t come on.  Seriously, I’ve had a headache since February 7.  A two centimeter (in diameter) piece of my brain was taken out and my head has hurt consistently since.  Sometimes it feels like what I’d call a “normal” tension headache and other times I find myself completely debilitated.

Usually it feels like there is a rubber band connected between my temple and the back of my head and sometimes it feels tight and “pops” with pain and other times, especially after I’ve taken medicine, it feels looser and less-noticable.

I say all of this not for pity, but with a point in mind.  Even before I was a pastor, my life has always seems to intersect with people who were hurting.  That’s not a bad thing to me, btw, but there have been many people I have sat (or stood) with and heard words like:

“My back just always hurts”
“Every since my surgery I can’t sleep”
“My sciatica keeps me from _______.”

Before my own recent experience, I guess I tucked these people into my prayer list and must have thought “oh, that’s too bad for them.”  I could sympathize, I guess (I could feel bad for them), but I had never felt pain that wouldn’t go away so I couldn’t empathize.

Pain in my life has always been fleeting.  In a way, that is weird to say.  Before this surgery I might have told you that I had experienced pain, but I, now, don’t think I had.  Oh sure, I have had headaches from time to time and I’ve had spasms, cuts, bumps, bruises and sores…   but I had never before experienced pain that wouldn’t go away and pain that  doctors simply called, “expected.”  Think about it: that means that there is nothing to do about it.  Pain that just “is.”

What I realize is: many of the older members of my congregation, especially, know what it is to have pain that just ‘is.’  Pain that is expected and pain, for which, there is nothing to be done.  Before a few months ago, I would have prayed for these prayer concerns without knowing anything of what they have felt, but now I have empathy for what these people endure.  I feel a pain inside that doesn’t simply go away or subside.

I wonder if that is why Christ was so willing to die upon the cross for us?  Until God felt our human pain, until God has walked a short distance in our shoes, God could not entirely understand us:  could not entirely love us as God wished to.  Perhaps, by feeling our pain, God and humanity could dwell within one another and have wholeness in a way that we could not otherwise experience!

As we come into Holy Week and as we consider what it means for us that Jesus suffered, we need to consider what it means that we should love others as Christ loves us.  Does that mean that we must suffer as others suffer?  Does that mean that we must experience what others experience?  Does that mean, as people of faith, we must open up our hearts to feel ‘the other?’

Just What Is Needed

   Like I’ve already written, people, today, don’t need to sift through large amounts of information.  If I want to find out the top news stories of the day I can just bring up my personalized igoogle page and I can see the top viewed news stories according to the search engine, I also have a module that shows me the featured CNN stories and Al Jezeera.  I no longer have to go to multiple websites, not to mention a newsstand.  I also no longer need to leaf through all the pages of a newspaper or watch an entire news program at 6 or 10.  This may make me lazy, but it also makes me a twenty-first century young man.

    Hulu has further developed this trend with entertainment programming.  I no longer need to be at home at a particular time during the week to see my favorite show, nor do I need to worry about missing an episode.  I simply login to Hulu and all of my favorite shows are queued up and ready to go.  It doesn’t matter if it is CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, Comedy Central, etc.  It also doesn’t matter if it is a Monday night or Thursday night show.  I get what I want, when I want it.
    The newspaper industry is floundering because they are still operating on the old paradigm that people will pay 75 cents to get the news from their paper.  Many people, of course, have subscriptions that the paper would come directly to them, but in our information age news the next morning it is already old.  More importantly, people have to seek that information through a subscription or going to a newsstand.  And it is only from one source for each purchase or subscription.
    As a church we still see the world through this old paradigm.  We think people will seek out a particular church and only be concerned for what that church’s materials and perspectives.  Even more peculiarly we, as churches, still seem to think that people will tack up the calendar from the bulletin or newsletter on their fridge; will surf to the web calendar several clicks into the church site; or, more surprisingly, think that people have a paper calendar they are writing everything on.  What people really have in their pockets -many at least- are PDA’s, or more likely internet connected cell phones.  What people are beginning to really value is calendars that are delivered directly to them.  Our church offices should be using calendars that can be subscribed to directly by our congregants so that our calendars are sitting side-by-side with theirs (such as google calendar)….but I’ve partly digressed from my point.  And the whole staff and leadership, more importantly, has to buy into this system.
    The church needs to stop using proprietary website stuff.  No more calendars that can only be viewed online or need to be updated by one particular person with web design expertise.  Videos should not be put on the site in such a way that people must go to the website to see it.  Youtube (or vimeo), google calendar and other avenues of communication that people are already using should be implemented, instead.  If we do this then, yes, the website can be more dynamic and more up-to-date for people who go there, but more importantly the stories and content are out on the web for people to stumble across, to subscribe to, and to share on social media with friends.  Why not setup the church website with “share” buttons so that stories, photos and videos can easily be shared to their facebook, youtube, twitter and email friends?

    The church has to get outside of the old paradigm.  We have to take our story outside of the new boundaries of church:  the church website.  …and don’t forget we’re taking stories and faith, not information!