Tales of a Midwest Lutheran on the East Coast

Sunday, October 27, 2013

"We're moving to Trenton!"

 “We’re moving to New Jersey!”

Almost 2 ½ years ago, Beau and I found out that we were being called to an awesome synod on the East Coast. But the reactions we got were… interesting. Our friends and family took the news ranging from “That’s nice” to flat out “Why would you go THERE?” To resident New Jerseyians, it would be reasonable to be affronted by such reactions. How dare they judge a place they’ve never lived, or probably have never visited? But to those who live elsewhere, there is only one image that New Jersey conjures up: gritty industrial sprawl populated by rude people (ala the show “Jersey Shore”). Of course now, I have had first-hand knowledge that this state is not (all) like that. New Jersey is unique, and beautiful, and diverse.


“We’re moving to Trenton!”

Trenton? That place we read about in the paper with violence happening nearly every day? That place with the abandoned buildings and dangerous streets and drugs and gangs and corruption and problems and people who don’t look like us? “Make sure you are careful.” “Don’t go out at night.” “You might want to get some Mace.”*

(You see what I did there?)

Beau and I want to discover sides of Trenton that few people dig deep enough to see. Because in between those articles in the paper about drugs and violence, there are also stories about people trying to help, trying to make Trenton a better place. God’s up to something in this place that seems to have been abandoned by the leadership of this state. Beau will be devoting himself fully to this exploration and I will be accompanying him as much I am able, along with my normal pastoral ministries at my congregation. 

But it's going to be different. Some things are going to be challenging, and others will change. Like my commute. My commute has not just increased in time, but it has increased in socio-economic range: on my way to church I now pass multi-million dollar houses and homeless people on the street. Every day now I get cultural whip-lash, but I fervently pray that I will never not see the injustice in it. 

Pray for us. We're going to need all the help we can get!!

*Of course Beau and I are going to be careful. This kind of situation is not one to take lightly. We have been so thankful to all of those who live and work in Trenton who have given us some really good advice, which we gratefully accept. It is when general advice is offered, coming from a place of fear, from those who have had little to no contact with the city that I frankly find grating. I was completely unprepared for all the unsolicited advice. We may be crazy for doing what we're doing, but we're trying not to be stupid about it!! 

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Grandpa's Last Gift

As an ordained minister, I have the blessed and humbling privilege to witness important and personal moments in the lives of families, some of whom I barely know (some of whom I get to know well). Some of these moments are so raw and so personal that no other person would ever be invited to see such a moment, not in a million years. And yet, here I am, invited to pray with families as their loved ones are dying, as people struggle with illness and recovery, and other times to join in celebrating the union of two people in matrimony (which I did for the first time last weekend!).

But is one thing to be the (mostly) calm, gentle minister in their midst and then go home to my own whole and unsuffering life, and it is quite another when trauma hits on a personal level. Last month my Grandpa had a massive stroke that left him paralyzed and unable to speak or swallow. It should have taken him the moment it struck, but by some blessed design, my grandpa was able to spend twelve days saying goodbye to his very extensive family. I was able to fly back to Wisconsin and spend five precious days with him and with my family.

The greatest gifts that my grandpa gave to me were those days I was able to be at his bedside, holding his hand, reading to him from his devotional, laughing about favorite memories, reading to him some of my past sermons about the farm. Being with someone who is dying is both holy and disconcerting, and a gift I was able to share with my family is what I had learned over the course of my seminary education and eighteen months of ministry. But it was Grandpa who did the teaching this time, teaching us how to hold his hand and not let go, teaching us how to understand what he wanted to say to us with his eyes, teaching us what a life well lived looks like, teaching us how to die well.

Every grief is different and the same. Having experienced this grief of mine has made me a more compassionate and aware human being, though it is still painful. But that is also where we tend to find that God is most visible, leaning on our family and friends for support through the tough times. And that's what transforms them into something beautiful.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Sermon 10/6/13: A Trip to the "Faith Store"

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

One time a friend’s four year old daughter expressed her desire for world travel. She went on and on about places she would like to see, and then asked her father to take her.  Not wanting to directly disappoint her, he told her that such trips cost a lot of money, which they didn’t have at the moment.

“But why can’t we just go get more money?” She asked.

“Because money doesn’t work like that.”

She thought about this for a moment. And then, smiling at her own genius, said, “I know where we can get more money! We can go to the money store!”

If only it were that easy.

But if there were such a thing as “the money store,” I would hope that right next door would be a business called “the faith store.”

For all the times that we give the disciples a hard time for being clueless, I think I’m actually with them on this one. For them, following Jesus was not like watching your favorite weekly series where you tune in for an hour and then life goes on until the next episode. For them, following Jesus was a daily reality, where they constantly heard Jesus saying very difficult things, like: “Whoever does not hate father and mother and yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”  Whoever exalts themselves will be humbled.  Take up your cross and follow me. Count the cost. I bring not peace to the earth, but division. No one can serve both God and wealth. Or, as you just heard, if your friend wrongs you and repents, you must forgive, even seven times in a single day.

Yikes, Jesus. This is a far cry from peace on earth, good will to all humankind. This kind of life that Jesus has called his disciples to (which by the way includes us too!) is hard. It’s uncomfortable. It causes our friends to think we’re weird. And it’s doesn’t always feel “good.”

So the disciples for once acknowledged their own feelings of inadequacy. They were self-aware enough to question if they truly had what it takes to live such a life. They counted the cost, and felt that their faith-account might be running a little short of the necessary funds. And they are smart enough to go right to the source in order to request their faith-deposit.

After all, they have heard Jesus talk of almost nothing else – “your faith has made you well,” “oh where is your faith?” “You faithless generation,” “blessed are the faithful slaves,” “Whoever is faithful in little is also faithful in much.” Jesus is setting the bar high, and the disciples just want to make sure they’re “ready.” After all, Jesus said “ask, and it shall be given to you,” right?  It might not be a bad idea to put a little faith in reserve – you never know when you’re going to go through a tough time and might need that little extra faith surplus.

Now, of course we all know that faith is not a tangible thing that can be measured. Have you ever seen a faith scale? Do you measure it on pounds or in grams? Can you count how much you have? Does it have volume? Can you put the excess in storage? Can you make a faith withdrawal or deposit?

And yet, the first thought that crosses my mind when I encounter a difficult challenge or something is not going my way, is: I must not have enough faith. If I had enough faith, this would be much easier. If I had enough faith, I wouldn’t feel so anxious. If I had enough faith, I would be able to see what the heck God is up to at this time in my life.

So what do I do? What is the prayer that leaps so easily from my lips? “Lord, increase my faith!”
Because more is better, right? Think of that AT&T commercial where that that random lone adult in the kindergarten classroom asks the children “who thinks more is better than less?” They all of course raise their hands. When asked why, one girl responded “when you really like it, we want more!” Because if 3G is good, then 4G is better! So if faith the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed can make a tree jump into the ocean, what amazing things could the faith of a walnut, or a baseball, or a pumpkin do? How much then, is enough faith? When do we stop searching for the elusive “faith store”?

I heard that “The Wizard of Oz” is coming out in theaters in 3D – because if 2D is good, then 3D is better! But if you remember anything about that movie, recall that all through Dorothy’s journey she was searching for something – a way to get home – and the whole time she had in her possession the very thing she needed. But in her worry and hurry, she never thought to wonder about the amazing powers of those magic shoes she wore.

Bigger is not better, because it is in life’s small victories that faith is made visible. If you got out of bed this morning and are here – congratulations! You have at least a mustard seed of faith! And that tiny speck of faith is enough, because your speck of faith and my speck of faith and all of our specks of faith combined can really add up to something amazing.

It’s a bit ironic, isn’t it, that in the United States the wild mustard plant is considered a noxious weed. In my youth, plenty of hours were spent as a family out in the alfalfa fields, dragging 5 gallon buckets behind us filled with weeds we already picked. But it had to be done.  However, if we put the task off for too long, the mustard would go to seed. And we knew that this had happened, when, as we yanked the mustard plants from the dirt, flurries of tiny yellow seeds fell like snow to the ground, hundreds of them from each single plant. And each of those tiny seeds promised that in a year’s time, a fully formed mustard plant, laden with seeds would be ready for us.

Somewhere along the line, a mustard seed of faith got lodged in you.  And like Timothy, in your life and in my life we have our own Loises and Eunices and their specks of faith that helped to get us here. And even before that, before even time itself, this gift of faith had already been given, and it was just waiting to be revealed through the death and resurrection of the one in whom we have placed our faith, Jesus Christ.  And this was done out of love for us.

You can’t love in the theoretical. There needs to be something or someone on whom you bestow that love. And likewise, trust cannot exist without something or someone to trust IN. Faith, then, for us is both loving and trusting in the one who has called each of us to a holy calling, which, according to The Message translation of the letter of 2nd Timothy, “We had nothing to do with it. It was all HIS idea, a gift prepared for us in Jesus long before we knew anything about it. But we know it now.”

And like Paul writing to Timothy, we too can know the one in whom we have put our trust. And so we can fully devote ourselves to following him in all that we do. We are the slaves – devoted servants in the name of Christ – who go about the Master’s business, so that when something does go well with us, we are able to point beyond our tiny speck of mustard seed faith to the one that we serve.

I pray that you like Timothy would guard your tiny mustard seed faith, and that you would not be surprised that someday you may find yourself to be a Lois or Eunice in the life of someone else. AMEN.