A Life of Stress Towards a Life of Community

There never seems to be a deficit in advice on how to be a pastor.

Throughout my ministry, I’ve received both good and bad advice from fellow pastors, friends, family members, and even the occasional upset individual. It comes with the territory. As with all things, it seems that we have more opinions than we have answers.

One of the worst pieces of advice I’ve received is never to allow your congregation to know when you are hurting. It’s the extreme of the best practice to make sure you have appropriate boundaries between yourself and congregation, so as not to become overly dependent upon your congregation for your own self-care. That is important, however taken too far and we never allow our congregation to see our struggles or burdens.

As many of you know and probably have guessed, since June I have struggled with the diagnosis of autism for Noah. It has broken me as a father and I live in a constant state of stress and nervousness as a result.

This really hit home for me, recently, when our family visited an autism support group’s fall festival. I was on edge the entire time waiting for Noah to be judged by the other parents. I waited for him to run away from us and have to chase him down in an unfamiliar place. I waited for him to be treated as an outside. I waited for what we’ve experienced in other places and I was on edge.

This was among people who are the most comfortable and approachable with autistic children, because they, too, are raising their own children with autism, and yet I found myself on the edge. Just imagine, then, how I am in other situations and settings.

I live waiting for Noah to have a meltdown, for onlookers to stare at us when Noah it happens in public, and for people to distance themselves from us because it is easier to ignore someone than to engage them. I’m not saying this is good, but I am saying this is where I’ve been for some time now.

What I have recognize is how easy it is for us to hide from what we are truly dealing with. It is easy to respond to questions of “How are you doing,” with a simple “I’m fine,” even when we are not, because we just want to be nice. We seldom let people in to how we are feeling or how we are handling life’s challenges.

Perhaps it is to our own weakness. I wonder how much more honest and open our communities would be if we were able to be transparent with one another without fear of someone judging us, distancing themselves from us, or offering a thousand words of advice without ever really hearing what we’ve said.

I truly believe there would be more understanding of challenges that we all deal with if we were truly able to live in communities where it was appropriate and healthy to share how we feel. If we truly want to value community, as is one of our values at Ogden Memorial, then it means creating places where people can be their true self and not just the self we present to one another in polite society. True Christian community offers space for pain, struggles, and, yes, weakness, so that we can share our burdens with one another.

Christ calls us to lean on one another, and so my prayer is that we will be that for one another here at Ogden Memorial. Imagine what a difference our corner of our community and world would be if we lived out as a community that was willing to share with each other our true struggles in love.

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How Should We Respond to Sexual Assault

Perhaps like many of you, I sat glued to my television and live stream on my computer as Christine Blasey Ford testified about an alleged sexual assault that took place while she was in high school. The accused person in the assault, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh, would testify later that day.

It was a moment that recalled the Anita Hill testimony in 1991 regarding then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It was also a moment that brought up pain for those who have been the victims of sexual assault, their families, and others.

Personally, I cannot imagine what it must have been like for Ford or Kavanaugh in that moment. I cannot relate to their pain, because I have not experienced that for myself. Yet, their testimony and the conversation regarding sexual assault – not just in the past week but, truly, in the last few years – has been on my mind. The question I keep thinking about is this: How does God call us to respond to these moments?

Statistics tell us that more that one in five women and one in 71 men will be sexually assaulted in their lives. The vast majority of these assaults, more than 60 percent, will never been reported to the authorities. Only a handful of the reported assaults, between 2-10 percent, are deemed to be falsely reported.

Those numbers tell us that we likely know someone, whether they have told us or not, who has been the victim of either a sexual assault or an attempted assault. This is something that is close to home for us all.

However, our primary response is often to politicize or demean the accusations. I know this from first-hand experience.

In 2006, I was a reporter for what was then known as the Pope Center for Higher Education Reform in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. My role was to cover higher education issues and stories for a libertarian-leaning organization. During that time, the Duke Lacrosse case began to make national news. As a refresher, members of the Duke lacrosse team were accused of sexual assault, only to be exonerated after a lengthy political and judicial process. One of my editors wanted me to push hard on the story, because it was what people were talking about and it was in our backyard. There was a faint connection to higher education policy, even though we largely dealt with public institutions.

I felt uncomfortable with the story. It didn’t feel like it reached the standards of what our organization was about – discussing policy and classical liberal arts education. The editor won, and I found myself at Duke University covering protests related to the case. It was not a story I look back on fondly. I am left with the feeling that we covered the story simply to play “gotcha” journalism with Duke University during a time of deep confusion and anxiety. It was a bad situation.

That moment reminds me of other reactions to sexual assault allegations. We will often use “boys will be boys” language to dismiss allegations that we deem to be unfair or unnecessary. The language casts boys and men as sexually-focused individuals who cannot control their inner needs. At the same time, we will tell girls and women that “if you wouldn’t dress that way” nothing would happen to you. This language dismisses women as mere objects instead of God’s beloved. Neither response is what God calls us to be about, but these are often the reactions we see expressed in the moments after a sexual assault allegation is raised.

We can, and must, do better.

I believe God calls the church to do better in our care for people regarding sexual assault. The Great Commandment teaches us to love God and to love others as ourselves. Our love for others comes out of the commitment and unconditional love God shares with us. We are to love others and value people in the ways we would want to be treated. This is especially the case when it comes to hearing the pain from those who have dealt with sexual assault.

The church, and those who seek to follow in Christ’s footsteps, should be a safe place where we give a listening ear to victims of sexual assault. We should be a place where victims can express their pain and have a community of support who will listen to them, comfort them, and support them unconditionally. The church should be a place of love, and grace for victims of sexual assault.

As well, the church should and must be a place of grace and hope for those accused of sexual assault. We must be willing to offer the accused a chance to express their story, to offer repentance, and redemption. We are, after all, a grace-filled people who seek the resurrection’s hope of second chances for all people.

In all situations, though, we must be willing to pray for the victims, the accused, and their families. At the same time, we must do a better job expressing grace-filled sexual ethics that start at the basic desire of love, respect, and treating each other as we would want to be treated. We must take leadership in creating places of safety and grace, so that our communities will be a place where all people are treated and valued because of their sacred worth in God’s eyes.

This is an important time for our nation, but I believe it is also an important time in our witness of God’s love in these areas. May we share the kingdom ethics in treating others as we would want to be treated.

The Story of Exodus: Love God … Love Others

Ten words. Ten statements. Ten Commandments.

No study of the Book of Exodus would be complete without taking a look at these hallmark statements, given to the people of Israel by God at Mount Sinai. These words are familiar to us. We have hung illustrations of these words on our walls. We have established much of our understanding of law and justice around these words. We have watched Charlton Heston receive these words in “The Ten Commandments.”

As familiar as we are with these words, we often wonder what they mean for us today. The commands set up questions about their application for our lives and how we should interact with them. Are they words that we are to follow? Are they marks that define our lives? Or are they words that have no bearing on life today? What are we to do with these Ten Commandments? Continue reading

Enough: Cultural War is Tearing the Church Apart

One of my favorite songs we often sing at church is “They’ll Know We are Christians By Our Love.” It was written by Peter Scholtes and describes the church’s mission to share the love of Jesus Christ.

This verse of the song is quite powerful.

We will walk with each other, We will walk hand in hand,

We will walk with each other, We will walk hand in hand,

And together we’ll spread the news that God is in the land.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love,

Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

What saddens is me is how often we do not live out these words. Often what we share with the world is the message that we will only walk with each other as long as we share beliefs, practices, and understandings of faith, and that we will not walk with those who disagree with us. Continue reading

The Era of Extremes Has Influenced Our Theological Discussions

I believe we are living in an era of extremes. We are living in a time where we are more likely to see our differences than our commonalities, especially when it comes to our ideas about life.

This shouldn’t shock anyone. Our society has been impacted by our deepening political polarization. For decades, we have been more interested in “left versus right” than coming to a consensus. We define truth by what is expressed by our favorite media outlets, which often share our ideological views. Even more, we have become distrustful of others who do not share our opinions. With each passing election, we have become more divided and the trend does not seem to have an end in sight.

All aspects of our lives have been impacted by this polarization and era of extremes. This includes our theological discussions. The era of extreme living and polarization that we see in political interactions also impacts how we view others within the body of Christ. We have made discerning the truth and love of Jesus Christ into a battle of “theological left” against the “theological right” with the winners inheriting the keys to the Kingdom of God.

Instead of focusing on making disciples of Jesus Christ, we concentrate our energies on making theological straw men out of those we disagree with. This happens when we take something said by someone we disagree with and turn it into an articulation of what is wrong with that person’s theological views, often without the appropriate and needed context. We also have the tendency to build up theological leaders as representations of the worst of the worst or examples of what is wrong with the church. In both ways, and many others, we are too busy talking at each other than talking with one another. The inability to see our theological opposite as our brother and sister in Christ prevents us from growing together in what it means to follow God.

What pains me is that we are more like the Pharisees and Sadducees than we want to admit. The Pharisees and Sadducees were  focused on defending their own views than they were about truly being the people God had called them to be. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we can become overwhelmed with defending our own views that it clouds our witness and ability to serve the kingdom. Our perspective must be the other way around. In serving the kingdom of God, we must strive to see each other not as opposites but as common partners. If we cannot do this simple task, it will not matter how strong our views are because they will be lost in our inability to love others.

The fact of the matter is that people are watching us. If all they see out of the church is a group of people who reflect political squabbles than the kingdom of God, then what message are we sending to the world about the church or about Christ? People will not hear us when we say that in Christ is love and truth if we do not share that same message with our theological opposite.

This era of extremes will continue for some time. My hope and prayer is that the day will come that it will not longer impact the church and how we view each other in the kingdom.

The Lance Armstrong in All of Us

Lance Armstrong is the epitome of a head scratcher.

On one hand, you have a disgraced global ambassador for the sport of cycling. Armstrong built his career around the image of being the one clean racer in a sport filled with cheaters. That house of cards has crumbled in recently, especially with Armstrong being stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and his admission, yesterday, that he used performance enhancing drugs. Armstrong also aggressively pursued anyone, from competitors to employees and friends, who tried to expose the light on his drug usage.

Then there is the other side of Armstrong. The side we want to celebrate. It is the side of a cancer survivor who created the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised millions in cancer research. It is the story of a man who is an inspirational figure for thousands who live each day with cancer, either personally or through a loved one.

Armstrong is not the first celebrity or athlete to have a complex story. Ty Cobb was a great hitter, but a man of questionable ethics. Tiger Woods will go down as one of the greatest golfers of all time, but his life and career crumbled when he admitted to multiple affairs. Mike Tyson was a great boxer, but his personal life made you forget his skills in the ring.

Armstrong might be the most complex of them all. A man identified with cancer research and perseverance in times of difficult is also a man identified as a cheater and someone who was willing to destroy others to save himself. For all the good Armstrong has done there is an equal amount of wrong decisions that make us question his character.

So, who is Lance Armstrong?

That is the question we are all asking today. We do not have to wait for the Oprah Winfrey interview to be televised to come up with an answer. Lance Armstrong is just like us. He is a person capable of doing tremendous good and tremendous evil.

This makes him a great ethical study. When faced with moral decisions, do the means (our acts) justify the ends?

Don’t get me wrong, I find what Armstrong did a sin and wrong. It is sinful the way Armstrong abused others and lied to people to protect his image. But, I believe we have more in common with Armstrong than what we might believe or want to admit.

We are not just identified to him as fans or admirers, but as people who must make moral decisions in our jobs and at home. Each day we find ourselves wrestling with our actions and the end results wondering if we made the right choices. While we may never know the pressure of competing in a sport where cheating is rampant, we each know the daily pressures of our jobs and what is expected of us. So, the question becomes posed as much to us as it is being posed to Armstrong.

When we do things that are morally wrong but our acts lead to results we can all support, are we justified in making the decision that we did?

It is a question that gets to the heart of what it means to live out our callings as followers of Christ. Our lives are to be a reflection of the character and love of our Lord. This doesn’t mean we are perfect everyday, but that we are striving toward reflecting the life of Christ in our lives each day.

Our desire to live for Christ calls us to reflect on our actions and the choices we make. The decisions we make may not always be the morally correct one, even if it leads a result that is honorable. I cannot steal from my neighbor, for instance, to feed and clothe a hungry person. I cannot lie to my boss even if it means that I get a promotion that would offer financial stability for my family.

Each day we are faced with moral questions about what it means to follow in Christ’s footsteps and live in this world. To be honest, we are not always going to make the right choices. I include myself in that. However, our hope is that we live each day with the desire to live for Christ, to make the right choices, and to be obedient to God’s desires and love for us.

Sunday’s Sermon: Living Generously

One day, a Salvation Army volunteer stood at a street corner ringing his bell right next to a big red kettle. It was the first day of the Salvation Army kettle drive. The volunteer was hopeful that the people who were out shopping would respond generously and get the campaign off to a good start.

Most of his shift was just like any other. People passed by. Some gave. Others acted as if he was not there. He was used to it. He had spent 15 years on that corner. He had seen it all.

Except, he had never seen what would soon take place. Two separate acts of giving would leave him confused and puzzled.

First, there was this unusual donation by these two men. Before they donated, the volunteer could hear them having an intense discussion. They were arguing about who could give the most. He could tell these were two rich men. They dressed well and carried huge wads of cash with them. Once they reached the kettle, they started competing with one another by donating bill after bill. This went on for some time and a crowd started to form around the kettle. It only made them give more. The volunteer enjoyed the show. He estimated they contributed more than $1,000 in their “competition.” Money, he knew, that the organization could use it to serve others.

Moments later another person approached the kettle. She was different. She was dressed in old clothes. Her jacket had holes in it. Her pants were dirty. The volunteer knew her. She was a homeless woman who often begged for money on that same corner. He assumed she was going to ask for money and he was going to give her enough money so she could eat.

When she arrived at the kettle, her hands were tightly clinched. She was holding something. Looking at the volunteer, she slowly opened her hands to reveal two pennies. It was all she had. The homeless woman never asked for lunch money. Instead, she placed both pennies in the kettle and walked away.

The volunteer stood was puzzled and in disbelief. He wondered, “What could make someone who has nothing be so generous?”

It is a question we may be asking as well. What makes someone be generous? When we think of generosity our thoughts might turn to the Christmas season. We define generosity as giving a gift to someone. At its basic level this is correct. But, what if generosity is more than about giving a gift? What if generosity was a way of life?

These questions come out of our Gospel reading today from Mark 12:38-44. Jesus is making one of his final public appearances in the Temple court before his arrest. As he is teaching, he notices people donating money. It was likely for an offering to support the Temple’s activities. He sees some rich people giving a large offering. He also sees a widow who gave all she had – two coins – to the fund. Jesus draws a contrast between these two acts by saying it was the widow who gave the biggest gift. Why did Jesus say this? Wasn’t it the rich person who gave the largest gift?

Our basic instinct is like our Salvation Army volunteer. We believe it was the rich who gave the biggest gift. Their donation would have the biggest financial impact. Jesus does not tell us how much they gave, only that it was more than the widow’s gift. So, why is hers the biggest?

Jesus is not focusing on the amount that was given, but on something much deeper. He is looking at their motivation for giving.

It is likely that the rich gave to the Temple offering because it was a religious requirement. This likely centered on the idea of the tithe. Deuteronomy 14:22-23 says a tenth of all crops were to be set aside and brought to the place of worship. In other words, a tenth of what we have is to be given back to the Lord as an act of worship in praise of what God has done in our lives.

Jesus isn’t concern about how much they gave or that they are following the command to tithe. Instead, Jesus is looking in their heart and showing their motivation. Their only concern was to do what was expected. It was a budgeted exercise of looking at what one hand and making a proper gift. In being driven by expectations, Jesus shows that their giving was outwardly focused on what they had to do to be considered a “good person.”

Giving that is outwardly motivated is based on a few assumptions. One assumption is that we own our money. I worked hard for it and I have earned it. Another assumption is that we can choose when we give. If it is my money, I can decide when I want to give and how much I can give. Giving becomes defined as something we do after everything else has been paid.

For the most part, I think this defines how many of us look at giving. We see giving as a choice. We look at our budgets, examine our resources, and decide if we can give, regardless if it is to the church, our families, or even a charitable organization. This attitude says generosity is something we can turn on or off based on our choices. Regardless of our choice, we likely see giving as a one-time activity that is separated from everything else that we do.

What if our acts of generosity could be deeper? What if giving was not a one-time event, but a way of life? What if our giving was like the widow instead of the attitude of the rich?

Much like the homeless woman, the widow had two small coins that she gave to the Temple collection. It was all she had. We can assume she was in poverty. She shouldn’t have been. The Law required that the community care for their widows. Earlier in our passage, Jesus suggests this wasn’t happening. He says the religious leaders were cheating widows out of their property.

If she had so little then why did she give? Shouldn’t she have saved the money and cared for her needs? That is likely what we would have done. Jesus doesn’t answer these questions. Instead, he looks at her heart and sees why she gave. Jesus finds that her motivation was based on something much deeper than the rich givers had experienced. She gave because of her love of the Lord.

The widow lived generously by giving her entire life to the Lord. It was an act of faith. For her, living generously was a response to what God had done in her life. Her response was to give all she had to the Lord. This wasn’t simply a financial act of giving. The widow gave her entire self to the Lord and in response to God’s gifts shown to her.

That gift from the Lord is the gift of life. It is the gift of salvation from our sin through faith in Jesus Christ and recognition that Christ died for us on the cross. It is the hope of a transformed life in Jesus. The gift of salvation is given freely to those who believe in Jesus Christ.

The widow had a deep love of God and a faith that transformed her entire being. She wanted to share that with others. Because God had blessed her life, she wanted to bless others as well. In making her offering the widow wasn’t thinking about expectations. She was giving her entire self as an act of faith. It is possible she was guided by the words of Hosea 6:6. Here, the prophet tells us that the Lord desires our that we give our total devotion to the Lord and not simply focus on expectations of giving.

God desires that each of us live generously as a response to what the Lord has done for us. Each of us have been blessed in indescribable and amazing ways. Through faith in Christ, we are recipients of salvation and grace. It is the greatest blessing we could ever receive and we are called to share this with others. This is a daily sharing of ourselves in response to God’s love.

To live generously means we must allow God to change our assumptions about giving. We need to recognize that what we have is not ours, but God’s possessions. Our gifts, talents, money, and resources were given to us because of God’s love for us. We are called to be stewards or caretakers of God’s resources. The decisions we make are not about how best to use our money, but how best to care for what God has given us. Modern theologian Mirosvlav Volf writes that if our possessions were given to us by God then this should inspire us to live generously.

Living generously isn’t about one-time gifts, but about a way of life that blesses others. Though big and small ways, we seek to bless others because God has blessed us. Generous living changes the attitude of our giving from “this is what we do” to “this is who we are.” There are many ways we can live generously through our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. Our generosity does not have to be a big financial gesture. The smallest gestures of a genuine heart can be used by God to bless others and help them to see God’s love in their lives.

We live in a time where living generously is uncommon. We are more driven by living for ourselves or our own desires than we are an idea that God loves us and therefore we should love others. Yet, if we live this way, I believe the world and our communities will see some amazing things.

Imagine the difference each of us in our two churches can make if we lived each day with the desire to be generous because God has been generous to us. Even though we are small in size, the difference we could make in our communities would be breathtaking and inspiring. It would be kingdom-oriented giving that would share the message of Christ’s love in real and lasting ways.

Perhaps, the words of the homeless woman might help us to see this more clearly.

Before she could walk far away, the volunteer had to stop her and ask why she gave. The homeless woman looked at him and smiled. She said, “My son, I have more than I could ever ask. I have faith in God. I have a warm place to lay my head at the shelter. I have food there. I am blessed and I am thankful. Even though I have little, I want to share what I have with others. Maybe they’ll know that God loves them too.”