Please Be Seated

This message was given at First Congregational Church of Lake Worth, friend and Pastor Jason Fairbanks was out of town and gave me the opportunity to cover Sunday morning todos at his congregation, a most excellent group there.  The message is a reflection on the text from Luke 14:1,7-14.  Enjoy!

Show of hands, who here has ever planned a wedding reception? Or at least been married and played a role in planning your reception? Many of you, right? Weddings, and the receptions that follow them, are part of the fabric of our culture. It’s been fifteen years since my wife and I planned ours, tho after chatting the other day about our planning the memories came rushing back. As the host, for the big day, you want things to go just so. Thus all that planning.

For our reception first there was the booking of the site. We wondered, would our guests be willing to drive from the church we married in, in Michigan City Indiana, for half an hour to the reception site, in Valparaiso? We didn’t know, and nervously booked the room hoping they would. Most, but not all, of our guests did. Then there was the task of selecting food. For hors d’oeuvres would a tray of cheeses and a tray of fruit do it, or did we need to add a veggie tray too? For the meal were two options ok, or did we need three? And did any of our guests need a vegetarian option? Then there was the music. We ended up having a Jazz trio during hors d’oeuvres and the meal, and then had a DJ after that so everyone that wanted to could dance the night away.

A big decision, at least for us, was whether to have, or not to have, an open bar. Financially, that’s no small thing. After some debate with my now-wife, and some shuffling around of our wedding budget, we decided to go with an open bar. Reflecting back on that night, and considering our friends and family, at least many of them, that ended up being a very good call.

And then there’s the important task of assigning guests to tables. At least that’s how we did it for our wedding. But before you can assign people to tables you have to hone in on who plans to attend. Who’s RSVPed, who hasn’t, who needs to be bugged, again, and again, and again, for their answer. My wife and I reminisced about putting all our guest names in an Excel spreadsheet and trying to figure all this out with precision.

The task started out simply enough, initially we aspired to assign tables based on who would get along together and who wouldn’t. After that initial sort we found ourselves considering all sorts of other criteria, and asked ourselves all kinds of questions, all designed to yield, we hoped, the optimal table assignments for everyone. We asked questions like who did we think would dance? They should be near the dance floor. And who did we think would leave first? Perhaps they should go closest to the exit doors. And – this is a fairly important one – who among our guests had temperamental bladders? They, of course, should be seated closest to the bathroom. It was our attempt at making a perfect, wedding utopia.

Assigned Seating
In speaking with my wife about our wedding reception, which ended up being super fun and memorable, we couldn’t remember any overly large drama when it came to seating assignments, at least as far as we know. But that isn’t always the case.

To help prepare this message I asked Facebook friends to think about the wedding receptions they’d organized and to share stories about how people were assigned to tables, and how it all worked out, be it good, bad, or ugly. And share they did, within a few hours of posting on Facebook I was knee deep in anecdotes, some of them insightful, others just plain funny. Here’s just a small sampling of wedding reception seating stories that people shared.

Friend Mary remembers that her son was not too good with RSVP’ing for weddings when he was in his 20s. Once, he showed up at a reception, after driving for three hours, without an RSVP. This wedding reception also assigned guests to tables, and there was no place for him. The bride’s family, not wanting to turn him away, squeezed him in at the back table with the band. And even tho he was seated at what some might consider a lower ranking table it turns out he had a pretty good time. Last summer, when her son had his own wedding to plan, and needed to assign guests to tables, Mary tells me he finally understood the purpose of sending in that RSVP. Lesson learned.

And while not quite a wedding, seminary friend Sara describes a high end diplomatic function she went to in Eastern Europe once, where her American boss, who was aiming to impress, selected three ‘low number tables’ for colleagues and families to sit at. But the organizers of this function didn’t do things the way Americans do – low table numbers at our events are often for the important people. Table 1 is the wedding party, that kind of thing.

Instead, the tables were numbered somewhat randomly, and those low number tables had no special meaning. Even worse, it turned out that tables one, two and three were right next to floor-to-ceiling, loud, humongous audio speakers. All that effort to select what was assumed to be the best seats in the house, Sara tells me, and they ended up at tables where they couldn’t even hear themselves speak. She describes that night, and that experience, as embarrassingly awful.

College buddies Joel and Kate recall accidentally placing a vegan couple with the daughter of a chicken farmer.  You can almost imagine what kind of conversations they had.

Unassigned Seating
But not all wedding receptions have assigned seating. Shari remembers going to a wedding reception, without assigned seats, when her youngest daughter got married. The reception was the first mandatory post-divorce gathering she’d had with her ex. She watched, and chuckled a little, as her ex’s family all clamored for the best seats at the reception. Meanwhile, Shari and her husband walked around visiting guests and enjoying the company of friends. Her ex and their family got their seats of honor, she remembers, but were surrounded by others who also mostly cared about snagging those special seats. She on the other hand, had the freedom to enjoy the company of the entire room, seeing many friends and neighbors she hadn’t seen in years. Let them have the seat she concludes, freedom to travel is so much richer.

Friend Nicole chose not to do seating arrangements for her wedding, including not having assigned seats for herself and her husband. She figured if her own guests wouldn’t let her sit, well, then they shouldn’t be at the wedding anyways. And, what do you know, when the newly married couple arrived at the reception they found themselves without a seat, at least until some friends got up so they could sit down. But that didn’t end up mattering much, Nicole tells me, because mostly she and her husband, that special evening just danced and danced and danced.

So what do you make of all these wedding reception stories of who sits where on the big day? Thinking on this some it almost seems like there’s a certain social order we tend to be drawing from, or at least our own personal versions of a social order. As hosts we draw on this assumed order when assigning guests to tables. As guests, when we get to pick where we sit, there’s a decision to make – do we try and snag those primo spots, or just sit wherever and enjoy the festivities? Decisions, decisions, decisions.

Scriptural Seating
Two thousand years ago many people of Jesus’ time placed a similar value on where they sat for wedding receptions. The gathering Jesus found himself at in our gospel reading also did not have assigned seats. And, while scripture doesn’t specify, I’d wager that the wedding that’s described didn’t use RSVPs either. But, similar to modern-day receptions, ancient reception-goers also loved to vie for the best seats in the house.

Palestinian wedding feasts in biblical times often featured couches where guests would recline, with the center couch being the place of honor. Similar to our weddings, the host got to pick who sits where. The center couch went to the social elite, according to their wealth, power or office.

Jesus, at this gathering noticed people coming in and choosing the places of honor, and told a parable about going to a wedding reception. “Don’t sit down in the best spots, in case someone more distinguished than you arrives,” he says. Why not? Well, because then the host may come to both of you and say hey, give this person your place. That sounds like an incredibly uncomfortable social situation, at best.

It reminds me of stunts I’ve tried to pull in airplanes at times, and this is a bit of a confession. Every so often, when stuck in the middle airplane seat on a long flight, I’ll try to casually get up and slide into another open seat, hoping to go largely unnoticed. Those aisle seats are the best, they really are. But then, on occasion, the person holding the ticket for the seat I just plopped into arrives. Oops! That seat wasn’t ever mine to begin with, and now I’ve got to sheepishly get out of that great aisle seat, lower my head in shame, and head back to the middle seat I really didn’t want in the first place. I hate it when that happens.

This moment, of embarrassment, of shame, of being put in my rightful place, which sometimes really is the middle airplane seat, is exactly what Jesus is trying to help us avoid. And really, that middle seat entitles me to those same crappy airline pretzels anyways, what was I thinking trying to pull this stunt?

Instead, Jesus offers us this: sit at the lowest place, so that when the host comes, they may say, friend, move up higher, and you will be honored. Keeping with our airplane seating shenanigans, that’d be like choosing to sit in the back row of the plane, picking that middle seat, you know, the one near the bathroom, and hoping, really hoping, a flight attendant will come up and offer you a spot in first class. That, my friends, this alternate way to live into the world around us that Jesus suggests, is radical, radical thinking.

Jesus concludes the parable by saying that all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. In a way, this passage is the biblical doppelganger to the parable of the laborers, in the vineyard, of Matthew, chapter 20. In that passage Jesus concludes that the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. This kingdom he keeps referring to, one that humbles the exalted, exalts the humbled, puts the last first and the first last, it’s so very different than what we’re used to. In our culture it’s all about number one, and looking out for number one, a notion that Jesus time and time again turns on its head.

Pay It Forward
But Jesus wasn’t quite done with teaching at this wedding reception just yet. Next he turned to the host that had invited him, saying, “when you host a meal, do not invite your friends, or relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return. With that guest list, you would be repaid. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid in heaven.”
This concept, of doing something for others that can’t possibly be repaid, is the central theme of the movie Pay It Forward that came out in 2000. To give you a sense of what this film is about I’d like to play the trailer for the movie.

“Is it possible for one idea to change the world?” this trailer asks. Is it? In the movie, the boy, played by actor Haley Joel Osment, has an idea for a 7th grade social studies project. His idea is simple, help three people, who in turn help three others, and so on, but there’s a catch: the help has to be something really big. Something the person you’re helping can’t do by themselves.

We watch as an unemployed reporter witnesses his car being totaled. Within seconds, out of nowhere, a lawyer walks up and gives him a brand new Jaguar. Trying to figure out what this is all about the reporter tracks this pay-it-forward movement, and from that learns:

• The lawyer’s daughter, suffering horribly from an asthma attack, was helped earlier by a gang member. The gang member had given up his place in line in the Emergency Room, even though he was bleeding from a gunshot wound.
• The gang member was helped earlier by a homeless woman. This homeless woman helped him escape being arrested by the police.
• The homeless woman had been helped earlier by her daughter. The daughter had sought out her mom in an effort to reconnect with her grandson.
• And finally, the daughter, played by Helen Hunt, was helped by her son, the seventh grader that came up with the idea in the first place. What did he do? As part of his efforts to begin to pay it forward, indirectly, he’d helped mom get back on the road to recovery from a nasty addiction to alcohol.

Kingdom Seating
What if this idea, of helping others that can’t possibly repay you, what if that, as Jesus tells us, is the key to being blessed in the here and in the hereafter? When we volunteer at the homeless shelter, we pay it forward, to those many in society deem as less than. When we tutor a child, on our own time, without pay, because we feel called to give back, we model Christ, letting the children come to us to be blessed. When we give to aid organizations, to help people halfway across the globe – people that we’ll likely never meet – again, we help to pay it forward, and play our part in healing a broken world.

In these moments, when we help others, without any expectation of being repaid, and without regard to age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, orientation, social status or creed; we invite them all to the grand reception Jesus describes. Perhaps in these moments, where all are not just welcome, but all are present, and are cared for, all have a seat at Christ’s table, perhaps in these moments we catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God that is to come. And perhaps, in these moments, we bring that kingdom a little closer to earth, in the here and in the now. May it be so.  AMEN.

please be seated


My final message during internship, given at Holy Spirit Lutheran on August 7.  

How do you say goodbye to someone you love? Five days ago, on Tuesday morning, I spent three hours sitting in front of my laptop, searching for a theme, an angle, a metaphor, anything, to help pull together what, for me, and hopefully for at least some of you, has been quite a year.

And after those three hours of internet searches, coupled with more than one glance to the heavens, trying to find that magic elixir that would pull together this message I had nothing. Zilch. Nada. Nothing. Feeling frustrated I headed to lunch. On the drive over to the local Subway it hit me, this question, I mean really, how *do* you say goodbye to someone you love? The message this morning is an attempt to do just that. No guarantees. I still haven’t figured this out yet, and never may.

You’d think I’d be better at this. One year ago, almost to the day, on August 9, 2015, I said goodbye to my home congregation of five years, St. Michael Lutheran in Wellington. That, too, was hard. And, kind of surprisingly, it doesn’t make this goodbye, after only one year with you, any easier.

We knew, you and I, that our time together had a certain starting and ending point. That’s how internship goes, it’s usually a one year gig. Yet that knowledge, that certainty, that hope of closure hasn’t made it any easier for me to get my head around. Perhaps you feel similarly.

It would have been so much simpler if this year had been rather ho-hum. I could have said bah, the year is done, I’ve paid my dues, now it’s to move on to bigger and better things. And it would have been *really* easy if it’d been a truly awful year, filled with strife and conflict and unmet hopes. In that parallel universe I could have simply thrown my hands in the air and said GOOD RIDDANCE! Thank goodness that awful mess of a year is done.
But our time together has been none of that. It hasn’t been ho-hum. It hasn’t been awful. It’s been, well, fairly amazing to me. And met or exceeded my wildest dreams. All that is to say, this fairly amazing year has made this goodbye, to someone I love, you, the people of Holy Spirit Lutheran, really, really difficult.

Favorite Goodbyes
So, with this starting point, of the difficulty of saying goodbye, I went back to the internet, in hopes of finding how other wiser, smarter people have said their goodbyes. After reading over 300 goodbye quotes from the interwebs– the first link had 229 of them – I found a couple that spoke to me, that in some way describe this goodbye, between you and I.

“Why can’t we get all the people together in the world that we really like and then just stay together? I guess that wouldn’t work. Someone would leave. Someone always leaves. Then we would have to say good-bye. I hate good-byes. I know what I need. I need more hellos.” ~Charles M. Schulz

“Promise me you’ll never forget me because if I thought you would I’d never leave.” ~A.A. Milne (of Winnie the Pooh fame)

Scriptural Goodbyes
After hitting the internet, still trying to figure out how to say goodbye, next I headed back in time, to search ancient scripture, to see if there were clues there on how best to do this. If there is any mere mortal in scripture that figured out how to say goodbye well it has to be the Apostle Paul. He wrote up to thirteen of the letters of the New Testament, and each one of them was to a community he’d either lived and worshiped with or hoped to visit soon. These were communities he knew, wanted the best for, and loved. My personal favorite goodbye from Paul’s letters is at the end of 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, we heard that text read earlier. In this goodbye Paul encourages; he gives us seven tips, phenomenal advice on how to live the good life – the Christian version of the good life.

First Paul implores us to rejoice always. We rejoice here on Sunday mornings in our worship, it’s great. Let me encourage you to take this rejoicing with you, to your homes, your work, your play. In all things you do, rejoice. Next, pray without ceasing. This seems almost impossible, but in the message I gave six weeks ago you heard one way, to do just that, by using an evening prayer, the Daily Examen. Give thanks in all circumstances, Paul suggests. That was a central theme from the sermon series you heard this past month from Pastors Frank and Steve. What do you do when you’ve done all you can, and life is not turning out how you’d hoped? As crazy as it seems scripture is clear: give thanks in those moments too.

Fourth, do not quench the Spirit. We covered this, together, you and I, recently as well, just last month. When the Holy Spirit calls you to the dance floor, and asks you to put aside selfish ambition, to set aside your need for control, and instead let her take the lead, the next part is easy: simply Shut Up and Dance.

Do not despise the words of the prophets, Paul continues, but test everything. This is a tricky one. Perhaps that suggests we should be open to new voices, new outreach, new places the Holy Spirit is asking us to go. You do this well, continue to seek this newness out. Finally, hold fast to what is good; abstain from every form of evil, Paul concludes. Deep down we know, what our faith deems good, and what evil lies in wait to keep us from this goodness. Hold fast to this goodness. And celebrate the Christian version of the good life that comes with it.

Reflecting on the Past
So we’ve heard about goodbyes from the Apostle Paul, even Charlie Brown and Winnie the Pooh, but you may be asking yourself, that’s all well and good, but how do you, Pastor Ryan, say goodbye?

One way is with stories, to reflect on our time together. Internship is all about learning, at least ideally; here are four things I learned these past twelve months.

(1) Try on costumes early. (And really, what is it with having your intern wear so many costumes? While here I’ve been an Easter bunny, a Thing, Batman, and was even asked by Pastor Frank to strip and change wardrobe right up here, in front, one Sunday morning). This was a rather unfortunate learning, to try on costumes early, tho certainly an important one. This Spring the Pre-school held a snuggle up to reading event and invited the Pastors to serve as guest readers. Cool, I remember thinking, this will be fun. Even better we were encouraged to wear a costume if we fancied. Before I knew it Maureen Lay produced a Dr. Seuss Thing 2 costume her daughter Olivia wore for Halloween the year before. It was a size medium, which isn’t too far from my current size large frame, so I *assumed* that would be just fine.

What I didn’t realize was this was not a men’s size adult costume. Was it sized for women? Or for youth? I don’t know. What I do know, is that, when I first tried it on, all of 10 minutes before reading time, well, it barely fit. And showed various folds, nooks and crannies that most days are not something I typically display in public. The show went on, of course, and there were more than a few chuckles, perhaps even a gasp or two. My hope is any photos or videos from that evening have been properly disposed of. And if not? Well, that’s probably good blackmail material. Lesson learned, try on costumes early.

(2) The Holy Spirit really does hover over the water.  And no, we’re not talking about when Pastor Frank had me hover over the dunk tank water while your children threw balls at a target to, well, dunk me, tho that happened this year too. I experienced this Holy Spirit hover, right over the water, with many of you, on the Juno Beach Pier, first during the Christmas Eve Eve service, and then during two Easter Sunrise services. What an amazing experience it is to celebrate the birth of Christ and then later his resurrection, right there hovering over the Atlantic Ocean, among God’s creation of sea, sand, and sky. Among sunsets and sunrise we worshipped, together, celebrating all Christ did and continues to do for us. These pier memories will stick with me for many years to come. You are a truly blessed people to be able to celebrate these moments in such a picturesque setting.

(3) God’s children need care. I knew this before, you know it too, but taking a trip to Haiti this year was a reminder of how important this work we do, in the name of Christ, really is. This Spring I joined Pastor Frank and 10 medical professionals, including our pharmacist Kelly Parra and our dentist, Dr. Chris Ricker, for a weeklong trip. We brought much needed medical and dental skills, equipment and prescription medication too, and while there treated over 700 patients at an area church and school. Each day brought new challenges, new opportunities, new healing. Each evening the team gathered for devotions to reflect on all these moving experiences.

Members and friends of this congregation sponsor 80 children at the Village of Hope school in Haiti. That’s just a huge number for a faith community this size, you’re definitely plugged in to this effort. A highlight of my trip was seeing a mother bring her nonverbal four-year-old daughter to the clinic and request prayer. After praying together the child was seen by one of our doctors for further diagnosis and a referral. That moment, of prayer and medical care, sums up the purpose of these trips: doing what we can to heal one little corner of a broken world, all in the name of Christ.

(4) Finally, I learned that God is at the bar. Getting the church out of church buildings, and into the community is a passion of mine, and something I was just dying to try in new ways this year. Many of you were interested too, and together we did things like bible studies at a sports bar, and attended offsite gatherings with names like Beer & Carols, Mardi Gras Beer & Hymns, Baseball Beer and Hymns and, finally, Bar Church. We did two of those. To pull any of this off takes a lot of support, faith, and conversation. And then you need musicians to really pull it off in style. So thank you to the pastors, the staff, the council, the dozen musicians that have been involved and all of you for continuing to be open to this; together we shared some success, we created some energy, we had some fun.

But, more importantly, we brought the church to the world in new ways. Over 200 people attended Bar Church last month, a mix of HSLC members, friends, and the bar community from Brewhouse Gallery and the Kelsey Theater. And together, these blended communities did church, singing together, praying together, hearing a message together, supporting a domestic abuse shelter together, taking communion together. Our culture and our faith communities are evolving, and evolving fast. Churches are not part of the fabric of society like they were 50 years ago, or even 20 or 10 years ago. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, for taking risks with me, to reimagine one shape that church could take in the coming years.

Looking to the Future
So what’s next? Tomorrow morning I fly to New Orleans, to be part of the ELCA’s national assembly over the next five days, and learn about the inner workings of our denomination. I’ll also network some, with the goal of landing a great first call congregation; you know, like this one.

This Fall, I’ll be back home, in Loxahatchee, which is just west of Wellington, and will take a couple of last classes before graduating with a Master’s in Divinity in December. I hope to preach once a month or so in other local congregations. I also plan to visit other faith communities, to try and glean new ministry ideas that could come in handy in the future.

And then there’s September 28. That’s the day the ELCA refers to as “Fall Assignment.” I’ve submitted paperwork on types of faith communities and geographies our family feels called to. Congregations looking for a first call pastor fill out paperwork too. And then a group of 40 people that includes Bishops, regional and seminary representatives, and people from the national church get together and review this paperwork, gathering on September 28, and assign graduating seminarians to one of 65 synods in the US.

Kathi and I hope to land at a larger congregation that isn’t too rural, so we could literally end up anywhere in the country. Which is both exhilarating and terrifying. Once you’re assigned to a synod the Bishop connects you with a congregation and interviews begin. And then there’s call committees, councils and congregational votes, all those exciting steps this congregation went through last Fall to call Pastor Steve. This first call, wherever it is, could start as early as January 2017. Our family will take any and all prayers about this, particularly on September 28. So thank you in advance for that.

So what about your future? Where do things go from here? From what I’ve seen of Holy Spirit Lutheran you’re in for one amazing ride. After a three year search you’ve found an associate pastor, Steve Winsor, he’s super fun to work with. Pastor Frank is amazing, as always, my sense is he’s still got a bit left in the tank, don’t you think? You do amazing ministry here, both locally and internationally, it’s exciting to see how much you impact the world around you. The strategic planning survey, focus groups and retreat weekend led you to four initiatives, that, over time, will enhance your communication, expand your ministries, expand campus building space, and help you transition leadership of many key roles here at HSLC in the coming years. You can be sure Kathi and I look forward to keeping up with you from a distance, by Facebook, email and websites, whether we land nearby or migrate north to some distant land.

Help From My Friends
So how *do* you say goodbye to someone you love? After struggling to answer that this week I’ve decided I can’t. I don’t know how. This year we have done so much together, we have laughed, cried, dined, sang, grieved, communed, talked, travelled, and yes, on occasion, drank together too. We’ve praised our Creator and Savior in the high times and the low, and everywhere in between.

And in those times, somewhere I realized what had happened. In this year you and I became something. We became friends. You and I have become good, good friends. Your friendship, support and love have had a tremendous effect on me; never discount that. You have made this year what it is.

So if it’s ok with you, your intern pastor would like to close with a bit of song from the pulpit, one last time. The song is from the Beatles, you may also know it as the theme song from a 1980s tv show: the Wonder Years. It has indeed been a Wonder Year.

What would you think if I sang out of tune,
Would you stand up and walk out on me.
Lend me your ears and I’ll sing you a song,
And I’ll try not to sing out of key.

I get by with a little help from my friends,
I get by with a little help from my friends,
Going to try with a little help from my friends.

What do you do when your love is away.
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do you feel by the end of the day
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

No I get by with a little help from my friends,
Oh I get by with a little help from my friends,
Yes I get by with a little help from my friends.

To quote pop-culture, super-Lutheran Garrison Keillor, of Prairie Home Companion fame:

Be well,
Do good work,
Keep in touch. Amen.


A Guy A Girl A Serpent and A Deity

Originally performed July 15, 2016 at Bar Church, held at The Kelsey Theater, and sponsored by Holy Spirit Lutheran in Juno FL.  I’ll post about all the fun craziness that is Bar Church soon, promise.  Enjoy!

During Bar Church artist Kirsten George painted her impression of the message, her final artwork is below.  More of Kirsten’s work can be found online at Five Second Skate Gear. Thanks Kirsten!

Original painting, completed during message by artist Kirsten George.
Painting by Kirsten George.

Shut up & Dance: REMIX

Songs can be remixed, sermons can too.  I originally prepared the Shut up and Dance message over a year ago for my home congregation, St. Michael.  The message today was done for my internship congregation, Holy Spirit, and features new personal narrative, new scripture passages (Ezekiel 37:1-14 and Acts 2: 1-8, 12-18), a new video, and a reworked open and close.  Either listen or read below.  Enjoy!

Family dance
Do you like to dance? Boy, I sure do. Many cherished memories during my past 41 years on this earth involve dancing through the most important moments of life.

When Kathi and I married 15 years ago, our first dance was to UB40s version of the song Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. You know that one, at least many of you should, it’s a classic. And apologies to the Elvis fans out there, Elvis recorded it first, tho UB40 recorded it best. We picked that song, Kathi and I, and that version, because that’s what was playing in the background during our first kiss, way back when, twenty one years ago, in the Spring of 1995. We were in a gazebo near college in Valparaiso Indiana, it had begun to rain ever so softly. As we leaned in for that first kiss that song echoed in our heads. Kathi and I wanted to bring that moment, and that song, with us into our first dance, and into our marriage for years to come. So far so good.

These days our favorite dance moments involve our kids. When you have a two-year old and a six year old, and they start to get crazy at home, doing all those things young kids can do like yelling, fighting over toys, basically running around with their heads cut off, putting on some music, and having a family dance, acts as a magic elixir to soothe the savage beasts that sometimes go by the name of Hannah and Graham. Within moments of putting on that first tune, all that youthful energy is focused and transformed, into joyful dance.

Hannah is a spinner most often, elegant and carefree, flowing to the music, sometimes with mom or dad, sometimes solo, moving with ease right alongside the music. Graham is more of a jumper, and a head banger, my guess is when he gets to college he’ll enjoy some hard rock, alternative rock or perhaps some heavy metal. And when he goes to concerts he may well hop into the mosh pit and join the fracas, just like his daddy did, back in the day.

For our entire family, music, and the dance it encourages, serves as a release, from our daily cares, from our anxious moments, into a place of motion, of peace, of life.

This concept of motion, and the life it brings is part of scripture from the very beginning. In the creation story found in Genesis 1, verse two, the Spirit of God moved over the waters, before God separated the darkness and the light. Other translations say it a little differently, that the Spirit of God hovered, swept over, or came like a mighty wind. In each, the takeaway is the same: motion precedes life.

Ezekiel’s Dance
The passage from Ezekiel 37, the story of bringing dry bones to life, is another one of those moments where motion precedes life. The translation we’re using today, the Message, says it like this:

“GOD grabbed me. GOD’s Spirit took me up and led me around a lot of bones! There were bones all over, bleached by the sun. God’s Spirit said to me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O GOD, only you know.” 4 The Spirit said to me, “Prophesy over these bones: ‘Dry bones, listen to the Message of GOD!’”

5-6 And then God told the dry bones, “Watch this: I’m bringing the breath of life to you and you’ll come to life. I’ll attach sinews to you, put meat on your bones, cover you with skin, and breathe life into you. You’ll come alive and you’ll realize that I am GOD!”

And that’s exactly what happens. Ezekiel prophesies over the bones and God moves, putting bone to bone, attaching bones with sinews, putting meat on those bones, covering it all with a new coat of skin. And then God’s Spirit breathes into those bones, bringing life out of death. Re-creating what had been horribly, horribly broken. Taking stillness and finality and moving it into a place of motion. Making it possible for God’s people to dance, once again.

“God grabbed me”, scripture says.  “God’s Spirit took me up and led me”. It almost reminds me of a middle school prom, with boys sheepishly on one side of the room, and girls on the other. And in the middle of all that awkwardness, hope and expectation, God’s Spirit grabs you, takes you, and leads you into the dance. Hold on to that thought, of being grabbed, and led by the Spirit, we’ll come back to that a bit later.

The Apostle’s Dance
Our text from Acts 2 is another one of those moments where the Spirit’s motion precedes life. Many of those gathered in the upper room that day had traveled, worshiped, served, performed miracles right alongside Jesus for three years. And then, over the course of six weeks, they experienced his death, resurrection and ascension into heaven. At that point Jesus was no longer with them, at least in bodily form.

Imagine what those gathered there that day might have been thinking. Where did he go? When will he return? What should we do now? If I were there I’d likely be afraid, not knowing what to do next.

Then, in the midst of all those unknowns, an amazing thing happened. A roar of wind entered the room, and flames of fire danced over each person, filling them with the Holy Spirit. Those gathered spoke in new languages, be they Jew or Roman or Greek, and were understood by everyone, regardless of their native tongue. When the Spirit moved that day it broke down the walls that divided them, and us: walls of language, of ethnicity, of nationality, of religious differences, and birthed the Christian church in its place.

The Holy Spirit was in motion that day, in a big way, taking these early Christ-followers from a place of uncertainty, and of fear, and moving them into joy, into motion. From there the apostles went out into the surrounding countryside, teaching people all Christ had taught them. The apostles were guided out into the world that day by the Spirit, to bring this new hope, new life, and new motion to all of creation. That same Spirit continues to move in our world today.

What amazes me about all of these Holy Spirit stories is how the Spirit shows up, in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected of ways. Before creation was even created, the Spirit was there, moving over the waters. In the midst of a valley of dry bones, the Spirit was there, breathing new life into what had been long since dead. In the upper room, among uncertainty and fear, the Spirit moved again, bringing with it joy, unity, and purpose.

In my own life, the Spirit moved, unexpectedly, last Spring, and it totally caught me off guard. I’d like to share a little bit about that experience, and what it now means to me.

Personal Dance
The day started out normally enough; I found myself in traffic, driving to work. My work at the time was the role of a chaplain intern, as part of CPE, or clinical pastoral education. As a chaplain intern my job was to visit with people on hospice, and provide spiritual care for clients nearing death. CPE is another one of those seminary requirements designed to crack you open, to immerse you in new experiences, and to help you process your own baggage, before becoming a pastor and helping people to overcome theirs. And yes, you all have baggage, everyone does, it’s part of the gig.

Anyhow, there I was, driving to a chaplains meeting, and listening to the secular, FM radio. I remember hearing the song, Shut up and Dance, by the group Walk the Moon, starting to play. You may be familiar with this one as well; it was pretty much the most popular song out there last summer.

At the time of this personal epiphany I’d heard the song a few times before, and remembered liking it, but something in this particular moment struck me in a new way.
In this song I now heard the Holy Spirit, and understood a major depressive episode I’d had a few years ago, and saw it in a new light. The song hit me hard enough that I sat there, in the car, driving on the Turnpike, and was moved to tears.

It may sound strange, but I’d like to share with you what these lyrics now mean to me. To take this journey into new meaning I’d like you consider a Holy Spirit calling us away from our baggage, our brokenness and towards a new walk, or perhaps a dance, with the divine.
We’ll go through the lyrics line by line.

In this story the Holy Spirit is feminine. In Hebrew the word for spirit (ruach) is feminine. Some view the Spirit in masculine terms, or with no gender at all, and that’s just fine. But in this story, to fit with these song lyrics we’ll consider a feminine Holy Spirit. Song lyrics will also be shown on the screen to help you follow along.

The song begins (lyrics are in bold): Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me. When hearing this I’m reminded of when I was agonizing over whether to keep my job in corporate America. At the time I was absolutely miserable, in a downward spiral of a depressive fog, and needed release. Don’t you dare look back the Spirit beckons, just keep your eyes on me, she says. We’re going somewhere new.

This conversation with the Holy Spirit continues: I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me! This is so typical. I want to follow Christ, I want to be led by the Spirit to new and exciting places, but my selfishness, my brokenness, well, it still takes the lead. Look, there I go again, trying to tell the Holy Spirit how to do her thing. It’s like when Jacob wrestles the angel to get his blessing. I want that blessing, but I want it my way. You’re holding back, I say to the Holy Spirit, give me that blessing! She corrects me, directly, yet elegantly, Shut up and dance! Shut up and dance with me!

The song moves from conversation to realization: This woman is my destiny, She said oh oh oh, Shut up and dance with me! We’re being led by the Holy Spirit. Not just to dance with the divine. But to leave our pride, our selfishness, our sense of control. To leave all that, to push it aside, and to dance, letting the Holy Spirit take the lead. That’s no easy thing, we’ll need frequent reminders to drop our perceived need for control. And to Shut up. To be at peace with following. To dance with the Spirit.

The lyrics then take me to another time of personal darkness:  We were victims of the night, the chemical, physical, kryptonite. Helpless to the bass and faded light. Have you ever found yourself a victim of the night, tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep? Lying awake, not able to find the peace of a full night’s rest?

While in my dark fog of depression I sure had this problem. Sleep was elusive. I felt like a victim, suffering, and in mental anguish. I felt alone. But the Holy Spirit suggests otherwise. *We* were victims of the night, she says. WE. We are not alone.

The chemical and physical effects of depression are inescapable. Depression is commonly linked to low levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that regulates mood, memory, appetite and sleep. That’s pretty important stuff. Too little serotonin can’t help but have physical effects, like not being able to sleep. And withdrawing from friends and family. At the time this was my world.

The kryptonite reference is a curious one. Kryptonite is the radioactive element that takes away all of Superman’s powers, making him weak and vulnerable. This is not unlike the effects of depression, which for a time took away anything I’d call a semblance of life.
But that all sounds very dark and horrible; and there is more to the story than that. I’m reminded again that *we* were victims of the night. Me and the Holy Spirit. Having some all-nighters, hanging out together. Perhaps the chemical effects of depression, the effects that drew me away from certain things, were drawing me toward something new. Like this offer to dance.

The lyrics then find fate is in play: Oh we were born to get together, born to get together.  We are all born in a fallen, broken state. Separated from God from the beginning. Trying to find our way back into the Garden of Eden, back to relationship with our Creator. But how? Jesus paid that price, covering our brokenness and faulty nature, restoring us to newness of life. What now? We dance. We dance into the world around us with our new dance partner, the Holy Spirit. Why yes, it’s beginning to make some sense to me, we *were* born to get together, each of us, finding new life as we dance with the Spirit.

Perhaps this is the right time to begin, the song suggests: She took my arm, I don’t know how it happened. We took the floor.  Finally, the dance has begun! It’s the Spirit that reaches out, taking your arm, leading you into the world. Do you know how it happens? I can’t say that I do. I do know this: the more I let her lead, the more adventure there is. The more fulfilling life becomes.

The lyrics then offer a reminder: She said: Oh don’t you dare look back just keep your eyes on me, I said you’re holding back, She said shut up and dance with me!  My takeaway from her reminder? There will always, always, ALWAYS be that voice in your head that wants you to take the reins back. To take the lead. To ignore the Holy Spirit, and do things your way. But we know, each of us, what happens when we try and play God. Nothing overly good. Shut up, the Holy Spirit says. Dance with me!

The story then ends with a look ahead: Deep in her eyes, I think I see the future. I realize this is my last chance.  Dancing with the Spirit is a very intimate, personal thing. And when you do it, your future will change. You will see it differently. You will never be quite the same. And while I don’t think this is my last chance to dance with the Spirit it’s a good chance. And an opportunity I don’t plan to pass up.

You’ve heard stories from scripture, a few personal stories too, but what about you? What about you? To help you answer that question I’d like play a video that uses this song, Shut Up and Dance, in a super fun way. In it you’ll see 88 different dance scenes from various movies; you’ll likely recognize a lot of them. As you watch, and listen to the lyrics, meditate on what this dance with the Spirit may mean.

Do you like to dance?  Boy, the Holy Spirit sure does.  When she asks you to dance, to be her partner, will you stand up, and follow her to the dance floor?  And if you do, will you let her lead?  Shut up and dance, the Spirit whispers.  Dance with me.  Amen.

Finding God in All Things

A message about you, your Creator, and finding relationship with God in the midst of a busy, busy world.  Read on, or listen, below.

Childhood Prayers
Good morning! Today we’re closing out a June sermon series on prayer, Pastor Frank gave the first two messages earlier this month. Now my childhood memories aren’t nearly as good as his, so I can’t recite favorite prayers from growing up. Can’t do that in English and definitely can’t recite prayers like he can in German. But Kathi and I have two small children, Hannah is six and Graham is two. You might have seen them running around on some Sundays out on the patio. There’s something about raising kids that brings prayer back into the center of life, at least for us, in new and wonderful ways.

These days, our family prayers are most frequent, and most animated over dinner; Hannah just loves to pray, she asks to all the time. We recorded her giving a prayer the other day, and it sounded a little like this:

Dear God, thank you for a wonderful day, God,
and I hope you have a nice day, God,
and I really am excited for summer camp tomorrow,
and I hope everyone else has a good day too. Amen!

And at that point, after Hannah has prayed, our entire family raises our hands to the heavens and shout, together, AMEN! You should hear Graham, man that two-year-old can really belt it out, such fun. AMEN!

Did you hear how Hannah approaches prayer? First she gives thanks to God. Then she expresses hope, that God would have a nice day. Next she shares excitement for the future – summer camp was right on the horizon. She wanted God to know how happy she was about that. And she closes with a prayer for everyone, that they, too, would have a good day. A good day just like she just had, and that she hoped to have again.

Hearing my daughter, who just finished kindergarten, throw down a prayer like that, it melts a daddy’s heart.

When it’s Graham’s turn, and again he’s just a toddler, prayer takes on a different form. His go-to prayer these days is the Superman prayer. Have any of you heard that one? This one is a song, sung to the Superman theme, of course, and goes something like this…

Thank you Goddddddd,
For giving us foooooodddddd,
Thank you Goddddddd,
For giving us foooooodddddd,
And our daaiiillllyyyy bread,
That we maaaaaayyyy be fed
Thank you God!
For giving us foooooooooood.

Isn’t that great? In it we give thanks to God for giving us sustenance, for food, for daily bread. It’s a simple thing, this prayer, and for a two-year-old it’s an early reminder that there is more to our existence than what is in front of us. It’s an intro into the very nature of God; that God cares for us, and meets our most basic needs.

Later at night, when the crazy fun of dinnertime has waned, our prayers take a different, quieter form. At her birth our oldest child, Hannah, was gifted this little Precious Moments angel. Most every night for the past six years, after bedtime stories are complete, Kathi or I will press the belly button of the angel with Hannah, which gets the angle talking and recite this prayer together –

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
May angels watch me through the night,
And keep me in their blessed sight.

It’s an important ritual for Hannah at this point. And if we forget to say the prayer she’ll remind us, making sure we’ve located the angel and pressed that button so we can pray together. There is no getting to sleep for her without that prayer. This, too, is a simple prayer, a request for the Lord to keep us safe as we sleep, under the watch of angels until the new day dawns. The budding faith of children, in all its simplicity, is a beautiful thing; Kathi and I continue to be blessed to see, appreciate and enjoy our kids as they express faith like a child.

When prayer gets tough
But what happens to our prayer life as we age? When life gets busier? More complicated? When responsibilities increase? When we worry about more than how much fun we’ll have the next day of summer camp? As we grow and develop into adults, our prayer life too needs to grow, and evolve, from the faith of a child into a mature, adult faith. But that’s easier said than done.

And then there’s our scripture reading from today, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. In chapter 5, beginning with verse 16 Paul gives all sorts of excellent advice to the early Christian community, encouraging us to always be joyful. And to be thankful in all circumstances. And to hold on to what is good. But there’s a really tough one, in this text, at least for me. Never stop praying.

Never stop praying? You might be thinking to yourself, but Pastor Ryan, how does one even do that? I have a spouse, and kids, a job, and friends, you know, I’m busy. I have a life. And that certainly is the reality for most of us. Think about all the various moments in life. The notion of constant prayer, in the middle of everything seems, well, impossible. For example, when it’s Sunday afternoon, and the Chicago Bears are playing the Green Bay Packers, and da Bears score the winning touchdown as time expires, well, my mind, by default, is all about football. And not so much about prayer.

If your intern pastor is honest, really honest, he’ll tell you prayer isn’t exactly one of his super strong spiritual gifts. As part of the process to get ordained there are a lot of steps, you’re asked to do a lot of things. One of the areas our Synod – that’s the local governing body for Lutheran churches – asked me to work on a couple years ago was my piety. That’s a loaded word, piety, I had to look it up, it means “reverence for God or devout fulfillment of religious obligations.”

I do like talking about beer a lot – and that’s a quick plug for the next Bar Church on Friday, July 15 at the Kelsey Theater, doors open at 6pm – so maybe with all this beer talk the synod figured, well, this kid needs to work on his piety, heh.

To do that I went and spoke to a spiritual director last year for some insight. “So my synod said I need to work on piety,” I told her. “What do you recommend?” She responded with a question of her own, “well, how do you pray?” “I don’t view prayer the way a lot of people do,” I replied. “Prayer, for me, is more of a constant conversation with God, trying to open myself up to what God is calling me to see, to do, throughout the day.” My spiritual director didn’t know quite what to make of that at the time, and we agreed to meet again and revisit our talk of piety and prayer.

When we got together next, she greeted me excitedly, saying, “I really thought about what you said, and have something that I’d like you to try.”

What she shared with me is the Daily Examen, which is an evening reflection on your day. St. Ignatius, who founded the Jesuit order of Catholics about 500 years ago noticed that the Christians of his day, just like people today, just like you and I, were busy. And not able to pray often throughout the day. So he developed and encouraged those in his community to add structured prayer to their daily routine.

What I’d like to do is lead you through this Daily Examen, as an example of a spiritual exercise, right here, this morning. The Examen takes 10-15 minutes, not too much time – we’ll be a bit quicker this morning. The examen serves as a prayerful reflection on the day that has just closed. And helps prepare you for a peaceful night’s sleep, and gets you ready for the new day that is to come.

The first step in the examen is to find a quiet place. In your home that may be your favorite chair, or with legs folded, sitting on a yoga mat. Personally I have a sofa that is wonderful to use for this. You want to be comfortable, but not too comfortable. If you find yourself snoring, or end up with drool on your face, well, it might be best to find a new spot.

But here, in the sanctuary our options are a bit less flexible than at home, so we’ll go through the exercise right here in your seat. The examine is typically done at night, tho since we’re still early in the day reflect on yesterday and anything that has happened this morning. After describing each part of the prayer we’ll have some silence, about 15 seconds for you to reflect. I know, this may seem odd, and that’s ok. We’re practicing something new. So take a deep breath and relax.

If you could, bow your head, and close your eyes as we begin. This is just you and God, together, nothing else.

The Examen
First, identify a moment of gratitude. Name one moment you are grateful for today. Remember how you felt in that moment. Notice those feelings and simply be grateful for them, knowing that all gifts come from God.

Next, ask for freedom. We long for freedom from the things that often trip us up, distract us, or bias our judgements. Pray that the Holy Spirit give you vision to be free, truly free, of those things. Pray this so we can see events in our life as they are, not how we’d like them to be. Or even how we experience them to be.

Then, review your day. Try to recall the events of this day, almost as if you were watching a movie. What happened when you woke up, visited with friends, or traveled to church? Who did you encounter? Notice your feelings – positive and negative, throughout the day. Reflect on these significant moments. These are the events God is trying to tell you more about. Examine these significant moments more deeply.

Finally, talk with God. Tell God anything that is on your mind. You might express gratitude. Or ask for forgiveness. Or look for God’s help for a particular trouble. This is your time to be with God, who already knows your needs. Our prayer exist to change us, not to change God. This is our moment to be proactive in seeing who God most wants us to be. The examen then closes with a familiar prayer; some people like to say the Lord ’s Prayer to close out the exercise. You may now open your eyes.

You’ll find, if you incorporate this prayer into your daily evening routine, that, over time, you’ll begin to see the presence of God more often. And see God in the big moments of your day, the small moments, and everything in between. My experience has been this awareness, of God’s presence, will begin to change how you see yourself, how you see others, how you see our communities, and how you see God active in the world around us.

Perhaps that is why this daily examen is also called the prayer for Finding God in All Things. This takes us back to Paul’s lofty, seemingly impossible, challenge that we never stop praying. But if we see God, truly see God, present with us, at all times in our day, perhaps this ideal, to never stop praying, is not so impossible. For when God is in all things, when we notice God all around us, and stay in constant conversation with our divine Creator, our very life becomes the prayer. Amen.

St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Ignatius of Loyola