Heavenly Water

Last weekend my daughter and I ran a 5k race together, the Hope Run. That annual event is sponsored by a local hospital, and is connected to area elementary school running clubs too, so there’s lots of kid and parent pairs involved.  And the race helps support local hospice, all in all it’s a really neat concept.

Running is a hobby of mine – I love it – so when our favorite first grader joined the running club, at her elementary school, in Florida last year I was thrilled. The two of us started jogging together soon after, and, with a few weeks of practice with pops she had gone from running a mile all the way up to a 5k distance – that’s a splash over three miles.

Even cooler to me is this: as an 8-year-old, she’s officially a faster runner at this distance than her 43 year-old dad. Which makes for a proud papa, albeit a humbled one 😊

Now the two of us hadn’t jogged much in Iowa since we arrived here last August. Between spending time to get settled last Fall, and the ridiculously long, and cold winter we former Floridians somehow survived (#ThanksIowa) suffice to say our energies for a while were directed elsewhere.

But when she came home from school six weeks ago, with a certificate for a free entry in this race, a reward earned from running club, I knew it was time for us to enter another race together. And time for us to hit the road to practice up for that race.

Our first jog together this Spring started a little later in the morning than usual. I’d slept in that Saturday, and by the time I got downstairs and asked her to get ready for the jog it was approaching 9:30 in the morning. And temps were already approaching the mid-80s. Now I don’t normally bring a water bottle when jogging this distance, tho my daughter likes to have one. In our haste to hit the road I totally forgot to bring it.

You can likely imagine what happened next. With the late start, and high temps still rising, and no water to cool down, she let me know, fairly quickly, how she felt. Hot, tired, thirsty. And not exactly having fun.

We got through that run, the two of us, but it wasn’t pretty. And as a parent I realized I’d really screwed this one up. I should have planned our jog together much, much better.

Our second run a few days later was entirely different. We started at 6:30 in the morning, three hours earlier, and temps were a good 15 degrees cooler. And this time I remembered to bring the ice water. Even more we took the time to plan where we’d break to enjoy that water.

And her affect during this second jog? It was entirely different. She smiled, she joked, she seemed relaxed, clearly enjoying the experience. She didn’t get winded or too hot either. When we stopped mid-way for our water break she took a good long swig of the ice water, let out a deep Ahhhhhhh, and exclaimed, “heavenly water!” “Heavenly water!”

She couldn’t have been happier. I knew, in that moment, that all of her earthly needs had been met. So much so it felt, well, downright divine. This time perhaps I’d done a better job at parenting.

Earthly Needs
The text from Matthew 6 is a story about a different Father, a much better Father, a God the Father. And unlike this earthly father here, God has a much better track record when it comes to caring for his children.

In the text we’re reminded simply not to worry.

Do not worry about your life. Don’t worry about what you’ll eat, or drink, or your body, or what you’ll wear. Instead we’re asked to strive for the kingdom of God, and focus on that. And when we do? All these other things will be given to us as well.

It is this look into the nature of God that I find really, really comforting.

As an earthly father I find myself torn at times. Torn between going with what *I’d* like versus making sure my kid’s needs get met. I enjoyed sleeping in that Saturday morning, for sure. But while I slept in it got hot, and that made for a tougher jog. Even worse I defaulted to *my* preference, of not bringing a water bottle, and completely forgot that  our daughter really appreciates having one.

Parenting, at best, often seems like a series of trial and error. I seriously screwed up with that late, hot, waterless run. Your father is sorry kiddo. And your father will remember to plan better whenever we run again. That’s a promise.

Heavenly Care
I think God the Father is more like that second run that we did.

God never sleeps in at the expense of the kids. Instead God checks the temperature before we head out. And God jogs alongside us, throughout life, with us every step of the way.

God doesn’t forget our earthly needs. Things like food, and clothing, and yes, certainly water. God here too, always has our back.

And God doesn’t fail to plan. Instead God has marked out a path for us well in advance. God knows when we need a break. God encourages us to rest, to replenish, to celebrate the Sabbath.

As was then 2,000 years ago is still true now: as a people we love to worry. The next time you feel the urge to worry I invite you to consider this Matthew text.  Instead of spending all that effort worrying, strive first for the kingdom of God. For when you do you’ll find yourself jogging alongside your Creator, stride by stride, with a much lighter burden than you currently carry. And all those earthly needs you normally worry on? They’ll be met. And the result will be downright heavenly. Amen.

Father’s Day at the Border

As I wake this morning and look forward to celebrating Father’s Day, a day often marked by gifts like breakfast in bed, power tools, handmade cards from little hands, golf outings and phone calls home, it’s difficult not to be reminded of the growing humanitarian crisis happening at our border.

As a father we want what is best for our children. From working hard to making sure our kids have enough to eat to ensuring they have a roof over their head, caring for our children, in ways great and small, is what we’re called to do. My family recently moved from Florida to Iowa, and I’m reminded of the many criteria my wife and I used to make that decision. Will our kids get a quality education? What is the crime rate in the area? Will they have access to caring community through societal staples like church, summer camps and Girl Scouts?

And yet these are luxuries compared to the horrors many families now face when they choose to head north seeking asylum in our land.

As a pastor I find our government’s recent use of sacred Christian scripture to justify human rights abuses appalling. As a people of faith we are called to welcome the stranger. And called to love our neighbor as ourselves. And whatever you do to the least of these? You know, like separating kids from loving parents? You have done to me, Christ says.

As a citizen I find this deepening crisis deeply disturbing. At one point in our nation’s history we celebrated an ideal that invited the tired, the poor, the huddled masses to our land. That ideal is now gone, replaced with policies that not only deny those same people but then separates them, tearing father and mother from son and daughter.

Our nation likes to lift up a shared love of God and country. As a Christian clergy let me implore you to prioritize the former. Our faith tradition is steeped in examples of people that found themselves on the other side of the law of their land for just cause.

Jesus spoke out against societal and religious injustice all the way to the cross. The apostle Paul, author of much of the New Testament, wrote many of those texts from behind bars for living out his call. Many German pastors were vocal about the atrocities of World War II; some were imprisoned, others killed. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr, who challenged our notion of the American dream with his own, often found himself behind bars for speaking truth to power, and ultimately paid a far greater price.

Perhaps the time has come again to do similar.

As you enjoy Father’s Day 2018, with all the privileges, freedoms and joy it contains, I ask you consider the fathers, and mothers that have none of that and desire more for their family. And then find themselves separated from the people they love the most, their children, separated by the government you and I claim as our own.

As a parent, and a person of faith, I ask you to act on behalf of these families, made in the image of God, and called good by design, just as much as you and I.

Speak out to the leaders of our land. Let them know this is not ok.

Write to your elected officials.  Tell of the pain this causes to you and so many.

Organize, walk, and march.  Make sure your voice echoes what good, Christian family values really look like.

While I pray your actions aren’t met with violence or incarceration know your voice won’t be welcomed by all. And that’s ok. But creating light from darkness, hope from despair and bringing life out of places of death is what we Christians do.

May the Holy Spirit nudge you to now go out, and do the same.

The Master Gardener

I’m an awful gardener. Or maybe it’s just a lack of interest; we all have our hobbies, and this particular one isn’t mine. But my wife Kathi? She *loves* gardening. Our long (long!) winter has now finally thawed, making room for quickly greening trees, grass and foliage. As a result, her interest in our little corner of God’s world has been piqued. By all accounts our first Iowan spring has encouraged her green thumb, she’s been chatting up ideas for how best to cultivate this new life growing all around us. It’s been fun to watch.

First she thinned out our bed of irises. Then she noticed a thin patch of grass, then bought, applied and watered grass seeds to fill the space in. After that she encouraged both of us to tackle the backyard planter. That planter was an absolute mess, so we removed dead leaves, pesky dandelions and dense undergrowth, just to see what would happen.

And as a result? Our iris bed looks perkier, the bulb-to-soil ratio now much better aligned for stunning results in the coming months. The grass seeds are starting to pick up, more water will transform the space from parched to lush. And that messy backyard planter? There were several hostas and bleeding heart flowers hiding in there that, now freed of weedy competition, are really starting to take off.

So while I don’t enjoy the tasks of gardening I absolutely appreciate the result of her efforts to get our yard in tip-top shape. What before was either overgrown, or undergrown, or disorganized and dying is now cleaned out, and starting to take shape in some really splendid ways.

The Master Gardener
Fortunately our spiritual lives have a master gardener, ready to get their hands dirty, ready to do all the hard work for our benefit. In John 15:1-6 Jesus refers to himself as the vine and God as the vinegrower. And master gardener God knows what should be in the garden of our lives and what shouldn’t.

At our best we are grafted into the vine of Christ, growing with, and one with, our savior. When that happens we blossom, new life springs forth, we bear much fruit. We are spiritually strong, we are emotionally healthy, we are closer to God’s original design. But to arrive at that requires some introspection.

What weeds within need to be removed? God stands waiting, gardening trowel at the ready, prepared to pluck those distractions out.

What branches in you don’t bear fruit? God is here, shears in hand, prepared to prune areas that have long since died.

What barren patches of soil in your soul clamor for more? God brings the seeds of life to plant, and the watering can to grow those seeds into fullness.

This spring and summer as you dive into the messy work of tending to your earthly gardens I ask you to keep an eye on your spiritual garden too. Ask God to show you the areas that need some tending. Ask God to do what God does best, plucking, pruning and planting in just the right places. And then sit back and receive the blessings of new growth, splendid colors, and renewed joy in your life, right alongside Jesus Christ, just as God intends.

Bleeding hearts in our backyard

Pentecost Peace

A message about baptism, Pentecost and mass shootings.

I have a confession to make. Until about 10pm last night I had planned to recycle a Pentecost sermon I’d written a few years back and deliver it again to you today. Now before you judge too harshly pastors do this on occasion, especially if you have given the message in another setting as far away from Iowa as, oh, perhaps Florida 😊.

My reasonings for a recycling job this weekend were simple.  First, I’ve been sick with a spring cold for a few days, with energy running low.  And second, for the past two days I’ve been at synod assembly, that’s an annual church gathering of Lutherans. And those two days of gathering ate up a chunk of time normally used to craft a message. The conclusion seemed obvious: recycle and call it a day.

The message I’d planned to deliver until yesterday is a personal favorite, Shut Up and Dance, all about the Holy Spirit being your divine dance partner. It’s light, it’s playful, it’s fun. It connects to a music video that gives me shivers of joy. Perhaps that message will be delivered in Iowa one of these days.

But two things happened yesterday that hit me hard enough to want to reconsider that sermon recycle.

The first was the mass shooting at Santa Fe High school in Texas, where ten were killed with another ten wounded. It’s difficult personally to preach light and fluffy when our current news cycle is dripping in blood.

The second thing that happened is I got convicted. Sitting at our synod assembly, with a theme of water and the witness, my mind wandered back to the basics of our faith.

The water symbolizes baptism; I heard story after story of the promises God makes to us, whether we’re infants, youth or adults. God comes to us in those baptismal waters, claiming us as beloved children, and tasking parents, godparents, congregations, and the entirety of Christ-followers on our planet to lift up and care for that child. We are called to teach those we baptize in the faith, and called to protecting them in this world, just as God cares for and desires good for each of us.

The witness is what we do with this gift of baptism. When we know that God sent his son to model how we are to live in this world, and sent his son to the cross, to cover all the brokenness and atrocities we commit on each other, past present and future, so that we may live, in harmony, with our Creator, well that’s really good news. And that news needs to be shared.

When the Spirit descended on the upper room that night, as you heard in our reading from Acts 2, moving in wind and fire, it lit a movement that spread this good news to the farthest reaches of our globe. It is this moment we refer to as Pentecost.

It is this same Spirit we speak of in our baptismal liturgy that says “For in the beginning your Spirit moved over the waters and by your Word you created the world, calling forth life.” And it is that same Spirit whereby those who are washed in the waters of baptism are also given new life. And it is that same Spirit that calls to us to help usher in a new kingdom, one not grounded in violence toward each other. Instead we’re called to usher in a divine kingdom, a kingdom of new life. A kingdom of peace.

Pentecost Peace
In light of Pentecost, where the Spirit moved, spreading the message of Christ throughout the world, and in light of yet another mass shooting, and yet another mass shooting in our schools, my mind wanders. It wanders to one of the bigger challenges our society faces. In the aftermath of the school mass shooting in Parkland Florida earlier this year a new hashtag went viral on our social media: #neveragain.

Yet here we are, another mass shooting in our land. #Neveragain turns into #herewegoagain. And again. And again.

We live in one of the most highly educated countries in the world. And yet, for all the advanced degrees and brains this country possesses, our smarts haven’t been enough to fix it.

We live in the richest country there is, home of Google, Amazon and Facebook, oh my, and yet our vast wealth hasn’t been deployed in ways that solve it.

We live in arguably the oldest democracy still standing, and yet our political will remains unable to address it.

And there are more Christians in America than in any other country in the world. Yet our faith, at least in terms of how we’ve been practicing it, well it doesn’t seem up to the challenge.

To What End?

From that I can only conclude this: that our collective brains, our vast wealth, our beloved democracy and our cherished civic religion, none of it is enough. Something else is needed. Perhaps what’s needed is an elixir that stirs us from within. An elixir that removes fear, replacing it with peace. An elixir that tears down the barriers we place between us, giving us new languages that unite. An exlir that thaws us from the numbness of violence and ignites us with a heart to take action for peace.

We need a Pentecost moment in this country, a movement of the Spirit, in many ways, but today let’s just focus on one.

Mass shootings are not according to God’s plan. And when we turn a blind eye to them we fall short of God’s plan for peace and harmony in this land.

Put another way: we’re missing out.

God’s Spirit is here, and always has been, blowing us in ways that cause us to care for one another, from birth to baptism all the way to when we meet our Creator and beyond. But I’m not sure we’re always paying attention to God’s Spirit. And that’s really too bad.

Because when we fail to notice the movement of the Spirit we miss out on reclaiming the beauty of this world, a divine and peaceful kingdom that God so deeply wants us to be part of.

Let us pray.

Dear God, we confess. We have not loved you with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We have relied on our brains, and money, and politics and civic religion, and turned to them, instead, to answer the problems of our day.

We acknowledge that really hasn’t worked out too well.

Forgive us for not placing you first. Forgive us for not remembering you come to us in the waters of our baptism, and are always by our side. Forgive us for not bearing witness, to your restorative plans for this world, through your son Jesus Christ.

Send a Pentecost moment to this land. Help us to be led by your Spirit to be part of the solution, be it by petition, policy, protest or prayer. Grant us peace in our land. Protect our children from the violence we perpetrate on each other.

And, when our leaders tell us our problems are too complex to be solved, remind us otherwise. For we know you are a God that separated night from day, a God that can part the seas, and a God that brings life out of death. You are a God of miracles. And with you all things are possible. For all this we pray. Amen.

Don’t Forget Love

A year-end confirmation homily.

We have forgotten love.

That’s the conclusion pastor and author J. Barrie Shepherd comes to. Shepherd’s book Aspects of Love is a 125 page analysis that breaks down the meaning of 1st Corinthians chapter 13 into multiple, bite-sized pieces. If anyone can take what amounts to a few paragraphs of scripture and turn it into an entire book, well, a pastor can. No worries, I won’t do that here 😊

Yet turning less than 300 words of scripture into a book of this length does suggest the topic, love, is not as widely understood and embraced in our culture as perhaps it should be.

Perhaps it needs to be talked about a little more.
Perhaps it needs to be explained a little more
Perhaps it needs to be practiced a little more.

I’d suggest that a good capstone conversation, for a year-end confirmation celebration, could well just focus on that one word: love. So while your confirmation learnings to date certainly haven’t forgotten love – God’s love is the central theme for all of scripture – specifically remembering love seems like a fitting way to conclude.

Context of Love
This particular chapter, 1 Corinthians 13, is widely used in all sorts of settings.  A member of our congregation, Helen,  selected this text for her final earthly church service; her funeral was held earlier this year. For Helen, who was 95, the love chapter represents a life fully lived, a life lived in love toward others. And a life transitioning from seeing in a mirror dimly to an existence of seeing fully. Seeing the divine, face to face.

During Helen’s funeral I found myself thinking back to my wedding; we used this scripture the day my wife and I said our vows, many couples do. Wondering how many others share this memory I asked those gathered for the funeral to raise their hand if they had used this passage for their weddings. A full 2/3 of the crowd either nodded or raised a hand.

While the love chapter is found much more often in the context of a wedding than a funeral I’d suggest the author’s original intent is a better reflection of the latter. Weddings celebrate the love of two people, a romantic kind of love. But Paul wrote this text to a congregation in turmoil; there were gifts aplenty in the church he wrote to. But for some reason the members of the church of Corinth just couldn’t get along.

And while we could certainly talk about the importance of love in how we treat each other, at church, I think the application is much broader than that. Just as a funeral is a celebration of what was, a celebration of how a person lived into the world, and a celebration of what is to come, completing confirmation represents a transition of sorts. And that transition is all about how you live, every day. And it’s all about how you express your faith in the world around you, every day. This text is a great way to do just that.

Consider this your confirmation life hack: the tricks to the trade that will serve you well for decades to come. So what are these tricks to the trade of life? Using the language of the love chapter let’s dive in.

1 Corinthians 13
If you speak eloquently, using the crispest of language, the finest of literary tools, and the rhetoric of a highly trained linguist, if you do all that, but do not have love, all those words are just idle, unwanted noise. As a pastor who loves to put together a well-crafted message, egad that is convicting. We must start with love; or none of the rest matters.

If you can see into the future clearly, have the highest of IQs, and can re-imagine the world, and can then re-make the world with what you imagine, but do not have love, guess what, it all means nothing. This set of traits, as lofty as it is, reminds me of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Brainy, a technological prophet, and a doer, he has changed the world. But even the likes of Mr. Zuckerberg needs to show love to those around him for any of it to mean a thing.

And if you give away all you have – that’s the best of philanthropists – yet do not have love, much is missing. If you somehow find yourself a martyr, God forbid, yet do not have love, much is lacking. For if you give away your money, or give away your life, and do not have love? In that giving you gain zero, zilch, nada.

So what is love? Paul continues.

Love is patient; love is kind.
(Not envious or boastful)
(Or arrogant or rude)

(It doesn’t insist on its own way)
(It isn’t irritable or resentful)
(It doesn’t rejoice in wrong)
Love rejoices in truth.

Love bears all things; believes all things;
Love hopes all things, endures all things.

Bear, believe, hope, endure. Don’t settle for the darkness that may appear before you. Look behind it, through it, within it, within yourself, within others, always searching for the light.

Jesus did that with every waking moment during his time here on earth. He recognized the darkness, but then forgave, then showed love, to all. As a result he drew others to himself. He drew others to the light of God. Model that.

Faith, hope, and love are the big three, Paul writes. But the greatest of these? Love.

To our 8th graders, as you move from middle to high school, as you continue to grow from adolescence to adulthood, don’t repeat the mistakes of prior generations. Don’t wait until marriage to begin trying it out.  No, I’m not talking about *that.*  And don’t wait until old age to reflect back on what could have been.

Our parents desire it.
Our friendships flourish with it.
Our churches crave it.
Our schools often lack it.
Our careers could sure use it.
Our families fail without it.
Our politicians seem devoid of it.
Our world aches for it.

Don’t forget love.  Amen.