Giving Thanks for Nothing

As Thanksgiving fades into the rear view mirror, and we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Christ child, I’m reminded again what a crazy, crazy time of year this can be.

There are parties to attend, and maybe one or two to plan. Decorations to put up, perhaps a train set to assemble too.  Christmas cards to send, maybe some to email, maybe some to facebook. And then there are the gifts.  We’re told that now is the time to BUY, BUY, BUY. It’s the only way to show our love for others.  Every Kiss Begins with Kay (jewelers), dontcha know.

And then there is Black Friday, designed by marketers to kick off the Christmas season by getting you to head to the stores.  Except now we have Gray Thursday, aka Thanksgiving Day, where stores  open to start the sales (or is it Christmas?) season off even earlier. We can’t even take a day off to give thanks for all we are *already* blessed with anymore. No, instead we’re told to head to the stores, in search of more stuff, for us and our loved ones. The cycle repeats.

With all this in mind, this Christmas season, I’m taking a different approach. Instead of being thankful for all the somethings we have, instead, I’m thankful for nothing. The nothing of curling up with a good book, or snuggling my wife and our children. The nothing of conversation with a dear friend. The nothing of looking up to the heavens, enjoying the stars and the sky, and wondering what it is God has in mind for such a small being as I.

All these things are nothing, society may tell you. And yet, to us, as Christians, a people of Silent Nights, Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men they are a vital way we live into the world around us.

May your holiday season be filled with a heaping, overflowing, abundance of nothings. And may you be blessed by each and every one of them.


First sermon: Reformation Rage

Today was a special, special day. I had the opportunity on Reformation Sunday – a major festival in the Lutheran world – to deliver my first sermon!   Many friends were there, the congregation was supportive as always, the whole experience is something I’ll never forget.  If you’re curious, audio of the sermon is here along with text, so listen or read, pick your poison. Enjoy!


In 1995 alternative rock group The Smashing Pumpkins released their album Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness.  The album debuted #1 on the Billboard top 200, going on to sell over 5 million copies in the US alone. The hit single from this album, Bullet With Butterfly Wings, went on to win a Grammy award for best performance. That song prominently features these sad, sad lyrics:

Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage,

Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved,

Despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage. 

Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, describes the album as being “based on the human condition of mortal sorrow.”  There must be something in our culture that makes us feel trapped, unable to escape our cage.

Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday, and the leader of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, all those years ago.

Luther knew of rage, and for much of his youth it was directed inward. First it was a rage of not living up to expectations – his father wanted him to be a lawyer, and paid good money for Luther’s education to follow this path. Later his was a rage of more expectations, expectations he thought were from God.

Luther, living in a monastery at the time, worried much about sin, and that he may have committed it.  Luther was trying to save himself, through good works, and would apologize to God through confession whenever he failed.  Often Luther would awake the head monk in the middle of the night to confess.  At times Luther was so obsessed with his sins he would practice self-flagellation, or whipping himself as punishment.  Painful stuff.

So why all this extreme behavior?  Because Luther believed that if he passed away without confessing all his sins that eternal damnation would await.  A cage of impending hell, that’s quite a cage to be holed up in.

Fortunately, after deeply studying the bible, Luther had an ahh-haa moment…

Theologian Gerhard Forde summarizes the insight from this moment like this, saying:

What shall I do to be saved? The answer is shocking. Nothing! Just be still, stop talking, and listen for once in your life…Listen to what God the Almighty, creator and redeemer is saying to the world, and to you, in the death and resurrection of his Son! Listen and believe!”

And with this new understanding of grace and salvation the personal reformation of Martin Luther had begun.  Luther, now aware of this grace, and free from the rage he experienced in mind and body, set about to share this message with others.  It wasn’t widely accepted or appreciated by the church at the time, so he wrote and posted the ninety-five theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral in 1517.

Luther, a man of the people, encouraged those around him to spend time each day studying the bible and in prayer. He also challenged the Catholic church on their use of indulgences – that’s where people would pay the church to forgive sin.  By this understanding people would also pay the church to avoid hell. For Luther, as is for us, we are free through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our cages have already been opened, our self-rage washed in grace. Salvation is ours, just believe, nothing else.

The gospel reading from John today connects with Luther’s ahh-haa moment too. In the gospel reading Jesus speaks to a crowd, telling them to remain faithful to his teachings.   “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” Jesus reminds us. There are no modifiers here, no works to do for salvation, only a simple equation: believe, know the truth, be free.”

Reformation isn’t something stuck in the past with Jesus 2,000 years ago or with Martin Luther 500 years ago. Reformation can be here, and now, and personal.

I was raised in a Pentecostal church, which taught Christianity a bit differently than what we understand as Lutherans.  Our Pentecostal brothers and sisters in Christ believe in the speaking of tongues as a gift of the Holy Spirit, and also emphasize public faith healings.  It made for a dynamic way to experience church as a kid. But Pentecostals, at least in the 1980s, were also largely known for something else:  preaching about the ills of homosexuality. I distinctly remember the pastors of my youth speaking about AIDS being a punishment from God for a sinful lifestyle.  It never made much sense to me at the time, I mean, where was this God of love we were taught about in Sunday School? This disconnect, between an angry, punishing God and a God of love is a large reason I walked away from any form of Christianity for many years.

My personal reformation towards something new began in college. By chance I went to a Lutheran university, and was blessed to date, and then marry, a good Lutheran girl (hi Kathi!)

As part of our engagement we went church shopping, with a goal of finding a faith community that worked for each of us. At some point the Lutheran concept of being saint AND sinner, that both reside in us at all times started making sense.  When I stumbled on a good explanation of Lutheran grace, that God forgives, always, and salvation is ours, always, I was hooked for good.

It was also during this time that a few guys from my college fraternity would take the 45 minute drive each year to Notre Dame University. Their goal?  To nail Martin Luther’s 95 thesis to the door of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It a silly thing to do, for sure, but I took away another message: reform is still happening in our world today.

Our Lutheran denomination, the ELCA, has engaged in reform of this sort, and in some very specific ways.  We believe that God calls all to be in community together as a people of faith. We believe God can call anyone to lead our congregations, be they black or white, male or female, gay or straight.  From the pulpits to the pews, *All* are welcome. This, for me, brought me out from the Christian cage of my youth, away from a God of judgment to a God of love.

While I was freed from this cage, and happily embraced our Lutheran community at St. Michael, God wasn’t done with me yet.

Two years ago I thought I had it all, a loving family, a great church, a roof over my head, the stability of a good paying job.  I had recently been promoted at work, was now managing a team of employees, and stayed busy climbing the corporate ladder. Our goal was clear, upper management told me, do whatever it takes to increase profits. Nothing else matters.

In this cage, more works brought more money.  In this cage, people were only as important as the revenue they represent. My rage this time came out as a dark clinical depression. Deep down I knew, despite the values corporate America was asking me to embrace, that relationships, that people, really do matter.

Then one night, from a hotel room in Chicago, my personal ahh-haa came. I was busily typing away at the keyboard, preparing for a sales presentation the next day. The topic? How to increase profits.  I decided to take a break, and listened to a favorite sermon from Pastor Weiss on the internet. The sermon, from Easter day 2012, is a retelling of the garden of Eden, and has the theme but you don’t need points.

We’re caught up in accumulating points and have lost our way, so the story goes. Instead, our role on earth is simple, we are to dance with our Creator, dance with creation, dance with each other, and be in deep relationship with the world.

Hearing this, from a hotel room in Chicago, while working on a presentation all about collecting points –  points with big dollar signs attached to them – brought tears streaming down my face. But you don’t need points! I remember shouting at my laptop.  My personal reformation, and release from the cage, had evolved yet again.  Since then I walked away from a career in collecting points, have decided to pursue ordained ministry, begun seminary classes, and have dived even more into the life of the church at St. Michael.  This moment – of yelling at a laptop But you Don’t need points! – is a large reason I’m standing here today.

So what about you? What cages, what rages do you need to be released from? Is it a cage of self-loathing? A rage of broken relationships? A cage of longing for more, but not knowing how?

Know the truth, Jesus reminds us, and be free. Amen.


Top Ten Church Bulletin Typos

Churches can be funny places, really funny, sometimes by complete accident. Below are the Top Ten Church Bulletin Typos, as reported by current clergy.

#10 Bulletin announcement: Today is Breast Awareness Sunday. (eradicate cancer and get more men to church – WIN WIN!)

#9 Gospel reading: From Paul’s letter to the genitals. (We can confidently say Paul wrote with – and to – cahones)

#8 After the sermon: A moment of silence for prayer and medication (Particularly important for those really long sermons)

#7 Wedding bulletin hymn:  Sin and be glad (Unholy matrimony Batman, now that’s something to sing about!)

#6 Infant Baptism: We welcome Jimmy, the sin of Fred and Freda Smith (Mom and Dad followed pastor’s instructions and had fun, but they were really hoping for a girl)

#5 Litany of the Saints prayer: Joseph of Aromatherapy (does he also deal in Essential Oils? Are they from Arimathea?)

#4 Christmas Day hymn: Angels we have heard on high, sweetly sinning o’er the plains (wait ‘til you hear about what they were doing *under* the plains)

#3 The Words of Institution, in Spanish, the word ‘cuero’ instead of ‘cuerpo.’ Translation: This is my leather, given for you (jacket, sofa or handbag?)

#2 Maundy Thursday service: The ladies of the altar guild will be stripping on the altar (Well that could make for a very Good Friday)

#1 Bulletin announcement: Naked goods can be brought to the parish hall (Canned goods or nice cans? …and another great way to increase attendance)

Bonus Newsletter typo: Dear members and fiends (what if the church members are fiends?)


Haiti – Part 4 – Jubilee

Earlier this month, Pastor in Pajamas traveled with a group of six to assist with a Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the Village of Hope, a school in Haiti our congregation supports. Each night our group gathered for a meal, shared in a short devotion, and spent some time reflecting on the day. I led three of the devotions, drawing from the themes of Creation, the Promised Land and Jubilee. For more on our experiences in Haiti, rewind to Part 1 – Haiti – Jesus is Alive!

The final devotion of the trip was on the concept of Jubilee. I first learned about the concept of Jubilee in a class on the Pentateuch, aka the first five books of the Bible. What was this passage of scripture that united the likes of leaders from various faith backgrounds including the Pope, the governments of 40 countries, and pop culture icons like Bono from the rock group U2 toward a common cause?

Jubilee is a concept that most recently entered into our culture with Jubilee 2000, an international coalition that called for the cancellation of third world debt by the year 2000. Over 40 first world countries participated in this debt cancellation, coinciding with the Great Jubilee, a celebration of the Year 2000 by the Catholic Church. To party right in the church world it helps to invite more people to the party.  To do that sometimes requires we roll out the red carpet to those in need as was done here. As a person of faith these efforts are something to be proud of.

Shall we invite a few more people to the festivities?

Shall we invite a few more?

After introducing Jubilee briefly for our devotion and asking who had heard of it – about half of us had, half hadn’t – we read Deuteronomy 15:1-11. The text outlines the crux of it; every seven years debts among people are forgiven, and land is returned to the original owner. Verse 11 summarizes this approach to eradicating poverty with “since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”

During discussion, one person talked about how they view Deuteronomy 15:2-3, which suggests that forgiveness of debt during Jubilee is “not exacting it of a neighbor” and “of a foreigner you may exact it.” At face value this could be considered that Jubilee would only apply within countries borders, or among neighbors, and not apply to foreigners. In light of the shared history of Europeans colonizing Haiti and bringing slaves from Africa we could consider that this brought together two cultures in our hemisphere, and that we have shared a common identity for over 500 years. Based on that, and particularly considering the short distance from Haiti to South Florida, we spoke about the possibility that could consider ourselves neighbors more than anything else.

Another person mentioned that after the 2010 earthquake many governments and banks had forgiven debt, including Italy, Canada, Brittan, France, the US, and the World Bank. In addition other countries provided help medically and financially after the earthquake; in a way the concept of Jubilee was being applied as part of the disaster response. We then closed with a Haitian prayer:

 We are on the edge of the mountain
 Which keeps caving in from erosion.

 Day by day, more is caved away.

 In the world, we are on slippery ground;
 we are standing on the edge
 of a caving-in mountain.

 Speaking about who and what we are won't secure us.

 For safety, we must step up to higher ground."

Fast-forward to our current religious climate stateside. The book unChristian reviews a survey conducted among adults under age 30 in the US with no religious affiliation. The survey found the most common perceptions of present-day Christians among this group are anti-homosexual (91%), judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%) and too political (75%). The book also notes that nine of the top twelve perceptions of Christians from this study are negative. From this they conclude that “Christianity has an image problem” and then focus on detailing the issues and discussing possible solutions.

What does this have to do with the concept of Jubilee? A lot, potentially.  After returning home from Haiti and reading up on Jubilee some more I ran across this story from February 2014:

“Student and community groups of different ideologies and faiths gathered together in unity to support Jubilee USA Network’s fight against global poverty Wednesday night.

The event, called “Berkeley United to End Global Poverty,” brought together Berkeley College Republicans, Cal Berkeley Democrats, the Jewish Student Union, the Muslim Student Association and Cal Veterans Group to engage in a discussion about international debt relief.

Jubilee USA Network, the main sponsor of the event, is a bipartisan coalition of 75 national organizations, including but not limited to church and Jewish organizations, labor, environmental and human rights groups.”

Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Republicans and Democrats. Veterans groups and Berkeley college students. Faith-based, grass roots efforts united by common mission to address poverty, environmental and human rights issues. Joined together by texts written over 3,000 years ago. Texts about Jubilee, that, up until modern times, may never have been practiced. Ideals from an ancient culture that are only now beginning to be realized.

Instead of being known by the labels “anti-homosexual” “judgmental” “hypocritical” and “too political” what if efforts like Jubilee are what our faith communities are best known for? What if we aspire to be known for what we stand for instead of what we stand against? Forgiveness of debts is a radical concept in our largely capitalist, for-profit world, radical enough that it can bring together peoples from a wide range of religious backgrounds toward a Higher purpose.  Perhaps this is what God is doing in the text of Jubilee, taking us back to core Judeo-Christian values still relevant today to move our ailing faith communities forward.

Croix de Bouquets, Haiti

Croix de Bouquets, Haiti

Haiti – Part 3 – The Promised Land

Earlier this month, Pastor in Pajamas traveled with a group of six to assist with a Vacation Bible School (VBS) at the Village of Hope, a school in Haiti our congregation supports. Each night our group gathered for a meal, shared in a short devotion, and spent some time reflecting on the day. I led three of the devotions, drawing from the themes of Creation, the Promised Land and Jubilee. For more on our experiences in Haiti, rewind to Part 1 – Haiti – Jesus is Alive!

For the second devotion we started with a brief history of the country. By chance some of the early history is covered in an unrelated book I brought along for casual reading, Brian McLaren’s Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? In it, McLaren summarizes Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the island of Hispaniola in 1492, which is now shared by two countries, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.   Once Columbus arrived, the exploitation of the indigenous people there, called the Taino, began. The book notes that many of the Taino:

“were murdered or raped, or chose suicide instead of being maimed, attacked by dogs, skewered on poles from anus to mouth, or shot…of the estimated 300,000 Taino alive when Columbus ‘discovered’ them in 1492, about 12,000 remained in 1516, fewer than 200 in 1546, and zero in 1555.”

As the Taino genocide continued, there was a need for cheap labor to develop the land, so Europeans from Spain and France brought slaves captured in Africa.  Slavery was so prevalent that by the end of the 18th century over 90% of the population traced their roots to Africa. This led to an uprising against France in 1791 that culminated in the only successful slave revolt in modern history, giving Haitians of African descent their own democracy in 1804. European powers at the time had essentially killed off one indigenous people in Haiti, the Taino, and enslaved and relocated another group of people from West Africa to replace them.

From this short history the devotion moved back to current times. Taxicabs in Haiti, called Tap Taps, are individually owned brightly painted buses and pickup trucks.  From the ~15 hours of travel on the roads I experienced this week no two Tap Taps were the same. The designs on the Tap Taps varied greatly, with many including Christian phrases, Bible verses, Vodou symbols, and other hand-painted logos of well-known brands like Nike, Coca Cola, and the NBA.  Vodou is a tribal religion common in Africa and is practiced by ~50% of Haitians, often right alongside Christianity.

Many Tap Taps reference a Bible verse prominently above the front window of the vehicle. My takeaway from these verses, which are also commonly found on business signs and vendor stalls that line the roads, is that they represent a personal theology of the owner. In a way it could be considered a public expression of how people understand themselves and their culture, through the eyes of their faith. These aren’t small bumper stickers like we see in the US, they are large, bright, permanent expressions of belief that function more like moving billboards.

One of the most common verses I saw during the trip written on Tap Taps was Exodus 14:14, which reads “The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to keep still.” This verse showed up all over Haiti during our trip: we saw it on six Tap Taps, three commercial vehicles, two restaurants and two grocery stores.

Tap Tap with Exodus 14:14 prominently displayed

Tap Tap with Exodus 14:14 displayed

After reading the verse the group was asked to consider why this scripture could be so important to Haiti. We then read the passage that follows Exodus 14:14, continuing on from verse 15-25. Before reading I encouraged people to consider replacing the word “Israelite” with “Haitian” and replacing “Egyptian” with “European” while listening to the text.  Verses 15-24 details Israelites fleeing from the Egyptians hot in pursuit. Moses then parts the Red Sea and the waters collapsing on the Egyptians causing them to panic. Verse 25 ends with the Egyptians saying “Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt.

The conversation after this reading was riveting. Several people felt that in Exodus 14:14 Haitians could see that God fights for them, both in the slave uprising 200 years earlier and continues to fight for them today. This theme resonates in a softer way when considering two other common phrases that reference the New Testament that appear on Tap Taps, commercial vehicles and business signs, in the native Creole, “Merci Jesus” and “Christ Capable.”

Another person mentioned that the Exodus verse could also reference the present Haiti, and may give comfort to a people that often find themselves in turmoil. With an average age of 22 this is a young country: this next generation may view this verse as a way to do great things with God on their side. Where is God here? As many understand it God is blessing a chosen people, the Haitians, in their new promised land. We then closed with a Haitian prayer:

“Lord, How glad we are That we don’t hold you, but that you hold us.”

Craft project with the kids that tells the story of the ten lepers

Craft project with the kids that tells the story of the ten lepers