Soul Business

I will be celebrating the 34th anniversary of my ordination on June 11th. I was a Chemical Engineer before I went to seminary, and I served as a church organist for sixteen years. I worked in the rather cut-and-dry world of industry where bottom lines and annual reports dramatically shaped decisions and where mistakes were sometimes unforgiveable. But, in the course of my years, I’ve also met people, both living and dead, who shaped the ways that I think about life and especially the ways that I think about ministry.

My Bishop once warned me that I need to be careful to avoid allowing holy things to become ordinary, and I remember that every time I preside at a worship service. Martin Luther used to tremble when he held the chalice during Holy Communion because he remembered that the chalice is a Cup that contains the very blood of Christ that brings us the forgiveness of sins. Father Joel Nafuma, an Episcopal priest, taught me that strong and healthy ministries are built upon the effective sharing and utilization of spiritual gifts, not just upon finding people to do things that need to be done around the church. Jesus has taught me that life is filled with an abundance of holy moments when God connects with ordinary people, and that the life-bringing mission of the Church will always spring from the command of Jesus to “get out there and make disciples” in new and relevant ways.

Those of us who remain connected to the Church need to remember that we are in the Soul Business. I never really know how God will use the words that I preach, but I trust that God is at work every time I step into the pulpit. Sunday School teachers and those who work together to make Vacation Bible School possible don’t always know how God is going to use the seeds that they plant when little children gather to hear that they are loved by a God they might not even know. Have you ever considered the fact that there are people standing beside you in worship who need you to be there because they’re not able to sing the word “Alleluia” because of something that’s happening in their lives that you don’t understand? We are in the Soul Business when we welcome people and embrace them during these challenging times. We are in the Soul Business when we listen to each other and when we do something as simple as prepare a meal for someone who is homebound. We’re in the Soul Business when we worship and gather around the Table of the Lord where the Risen Jesus comes to us in a Holy Meal. And, yes. We are in the Soul Business every time we help people discover and celebrate their spiritual gifts, and enable them to find ways to use their gifts and talents in life-giving and personally-fulfilling ways to glorify God.

We sometimes forget that we are in the Soul Business. It’s easy to hurry up and “get down to business” without taking some time to pray before a meeting. It’s sometimes easy for the people, who volunteer to welcome folks when they come to worship with a smile, to forget that they may be offering the only smile that a person has seen in a week. It’s sometimes easy to forget that doing something as simple as lighting the candles on an altar, turning the lights on, or preparing an altar for a worship service allows other people to pause for a time of prayer before the service begins. It’s easy for the people who assist in worship to forget that every time a lesson is read during a worship service the Word of God is being spoken to God’s people. It’s easy to forget that every time wine is poured during Holy Communion the forgiveness of God is extended and received by those who have gathered.

I, sometimes, get tired. You, sometimes, get tired. We all have times when we don’t want to commit to doing one more thing because we are busy. It’s easy to reduce church budgets to a set of line items that can be trimmed and reduced with little thought about the effects that less funding will have upon life-giving ministries. And yet, Jesus’ call to each and every one of us is still one that is being extended today. We are called by our Lord to offer that friendly smile and welcome people who come to worship. We are called to take time out of our busy lives to visit the sick, to prepare meals for the homebound and to extend our compassion by doing things as simple as offering our care and support during a visit to a funeral home. We are called by the Holy Spirit to be a Church that keeps its eyes focused upon mission, upon new ways to share the message of God’s love, upon the fact that young people still need to hear the story of Jesus from the lips of Sunday School teachers and still need to hear about the love of Jesus at Vacation Bible School, and upon the fact that we have been called into the life-changing business of touching souls by Jesus Christ. Holy moments occur when we pray and study the Bible together. God stirs our hearts when we envision ministry as being about far more than bottom lines and quarterly reports. The Holy Spirit propels the Church toward an exciting future, even in these quickly changing times, as we keep our eyes upon God’s plan for our lives, for our communities, for our nation, and even for our world.

We must never forget that we are in the Soul Business. The ministry that we do together can touch and shape the lives of people in ways that nothing else can. And when we gather in prayer, in worship, in times of learning, and in times that we devote to caring for others, we must continue to remember that we are doing God’s work with our own hands because the things that we are doing bear testimony to our faith and bring God’s love into the world.

Little Prayers in Big Times

Have you noticed that everything seems to be really big these days?

COVID-19 moved onto center stage 18 months ago, and it’s almost as if the pandemic has swallowed up everything else in our lives. We have witnessed the abrupt end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan that was destined to end badly from the very start. We are hearing about uncontrollable fires burning in the Western United States. We are hearing about Hurricane Ida leaving a trail of destruction behind it. We witnessed an angry mob taking over our Capitol building on January 6th; and now, we are hearing threats about even worse things to come.

There is an old saying (actually, an old curse) that reads: “May you live in interesting times.”

Think about people who lived through the Worlds Wars. Think about people who lived during the American Civil War when people in the United States became so deeply divided that they killed each other. Life was difficult in the time of Jesus. Roman soldiers (think “a foreign army”) had taken over the country. Words of insurrection and rebellion were being quietly whispered behind locked doors and in the streets. People were being told how to live their lives by religious authorities. People who broke Roman laws were crucified.

And yet, even during a time when things around Him were so big, Jesus continued to move around among the people and Jesus continued His ministry, didn’t He? In Mark 7:25, a woman came to Jesus because her daughter was possessed by a demon – even while words of insurrection and rebellion were being whispered all around her. In Mark 7:32, a group of people brought a man who could not hear to Jesus – during a foreign occupation.

Are you still praying for yourself and for people that you know and love in the midst of all of the big things that are happening around you, right now? Maybe you know someone who is fighting cancer or struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe you are trying to stay sober or keep away from addicting drugs. Maybe your boss has turned into a tyrant and you are thinking about quitting your job, but are afraid that you might not be able to find another one. Maybe you are struggling with loneliness. Maybe you are afraid to send your kid(s) back to school. Maybe you are a frontline healthcare worker who is weary, right now, and who is tired of watching so many people die. Maybe you are discovering that your “Golden Years” are not really as golden as you thought they would be.

I want to encourage you to pray this week and to remember that the prayers you offer are as important to Jesus as they are to you. I want to encourage you to lift your voice, to pour out your heart, and to speak what’s deep inside of you trusting that God hears you and wants to touch you and those that you love with healing power. Perhaps, in the midst of challenging times, it would be helpful to begin each new day by sitting quietly in a chair or by kneeling, by taking a deep breath and by saying, “How good, Lord, to be here.” (Mark 9:5) And, after you do that, simply stop and rest and know that Jesus is near. Feel the peace.

You see, it’s not about who you are or about whether you believe the right things about God. It’s not about whether you somehow deserve to be heard by God in a time when everything else around you seems to be so big. Jesus listened to a Gentile woman as she prayed for her daughter during challenging times, and Jesus listens to you when you pray for people that you know and love. Jesus listened to a group of people who prayed that He would heal their deaf friend during a time of big disruptions and chaotic change, and Jesus is listening to you as you bring what concerns you before Him in prayer.

Prayer works because Jesus loves you.

Prayer works because, even as you live your life in a world where everything seems to be so big, Jesus is listening to your voice and continues to invite you to lift whatever’s in your heart and on your mind before Him, right now.

Verbal Emission Standards

I began my career as a Chemical Engineer. I helped to design pilot plants – small versions of larger chemical plants that were going to be built in the future. I worked with computer programs that simulated what would happen as chemicals traveled through the plant, so that I would know what kind of products and emissions were going to be produced. And this was important to me because I was interested in protecting the environment.

I first became interested in protecting the environment as a child. I remember sitting at the McDonald’s in Baden, Pennsylvania and watching orange dust from the steel mill across the river settle onto our car as I ate my cheeseburger. The hillside behind the lead smelter where I worked was totally devoid of vegetation because of the poisonous emissions that had been released by the plant.

But now, being environmentally conscious is all the rage, isn’t it? We are concerned about what comes out of the tailpipes of our cars and burning coal has become taboo. We are supposed to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs and set blue cans filled with recyclables at the end of our driveways each week. Scientists have become increasingly concerned about greenhouse gases as rivers that supply drinkable water to tens of millions of people fall to record lows. We even send cleanup crews out to pick up trash along highways because some people just roll down their window and throw trash from the moving car.

Jesus was, also, concerned about emission standards. He once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside will defile. It’s the things that come out of you that can defile.” It’s not the types of food that you eat or the things that you decide to drink that can make you unclean in the eyes of God. What makes you unclean are the things that come out of your heart and that, eventually, come out of your mouth: Your verbal emissions.

We are living in strange times, aren’t we? People are on edge, and little things are suddenly becoming big things. A lot of people don’t care about how they are using their words, and social media has made it even worse because it’s easy to type words onto the screen of an electronic device that you would never speak to someone face-to-face. Political debates are destroying friendships, are dividing churches and are even tearing our families apart. The space between “being on my side” and “being on your side” has become, for many of us, a nearly impossible chasm to cross.

Today, as a pastor, I’m telling you that it needs to stop.

We need to work together, as God’s people, so that the way that people are using their words these days doesn’t become normalized and an acceptable part of our society. We need to stop defining ourselves only in terms of “us” and “them” and believing that verbally attacking “them” (whoever “them” may be) is OK. As Jesus people, we need to be drawn back to the base of the Cross where Jesus calls us to confess whatever part we have played in creating the divisions around us; and then, we need to repent and change course. As Jesus people, we need to hear God’s call to look for the good in each other, to encourage and build each other up, to search for what we still have in common when we disagree, and to do our best to speak words of truth to each other in loving ways.

I guess that there is still a Chemical Engineer inside of me. But now, my calling as a pastor is to speak as clearly about what comes out of our hearts and out of our mouths as I used to speak about what escapes from a chemical plant’s smokestacks.

Jesus once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside of you can defile.” St. James once wrote, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak. And remember: If you think that you are religious and do not bridle your tongue, you are just deceiving your heart and your religion is worthless.

Let’s think about those words as we move through the coming week; and let’s, also, allow those words to lead and guide us as we live and interact with each other in these strange and unusual times.

Our Stories and Our Faith

Our life together, as Jesus people, is built around stories. We gather on Christmas Eve to remember God as Immanuel – God with us in every situation and circumstance of life. We celebrate Easter by listening to a wonderful story about Jesus being raised from the dead; and, on that day, we remember that, even after life and death have done their worst, God is going to raise us up new and whole. Perhaps, you remember a well-known story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only five barley loaves and two little fish. Maybe you remember the story of Noah’s ark. Our life together is built around stories.

I have been drawn into the story of the Exodus many times during the pandemic that has so dramatically reshaped our lives. I came to appreciate Moses more deeply as I came to see him as a man who didn’t think that he had the ability to lead God’s people into the future. I came to understand the challenges that the Israelites faced as I listened to people calling me to move in many different directions during a time when I am not always sure what’s best. God has called me to come to Mount Sinai, where I have removed my shoes and spent time in the presence of the Lord in times of daily prayer and devotion. I have even come to understand what it was like when the Israelites looked back and saw the Red Sea closing behind them. There was a sense that God was closing a chapter in their lives and that the only option was to move into an unknown future.

The story of the Exodus bears witness to God’s ability to lead us into an unknown future that is good; and, this week, I would like to encourage you to reflect upon that story. The Church still has many unanswered questions, doesn’t it? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when some are worshiping inside our buildings and others are worshiping at home? How can we continue to share the message of Jesus with young people during a time when parents are not sure that it is safe to bring their children back to Sunday School? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when we are being called into deep and destructive divisions? How can we continue to move forward with faith during a time when many things we have trusted in the past are changing or fading away? Here are some things to think about:

  • The story of the Exodus reminds us that, in times when we are afraid and uncertain, one of the first things we want to do is go back to a time and place in the past when we felt safe. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic.” (Numbers 11:5) I remember days when we needed to put extra chairs in the aisles during worship, so that everyone could sit down. I remember days when my Dad told me, “If you are too sick to go to church, you are too sick to do anything else today” and he meant it. But times are changing. Today, only about 16% of Americans regularly attend in-person worship. What does that mean to us as a community of Jesus people? What can we learn about ourselves as we think about the Israelites creating an idealized picture of a past that they wanted to recapture even while God was leading them into the future?
  • The story of the Exodus also reminds us that God is a God who provides manna in the Wilderness (Exodus 16:13-14). The Hebrew word “manna” means: “What is this stuff?” We don’t always fully understand what God is providing as we journey into a new future. Some folks asked: “What is Zoom?” last year. I never imagined being able to create a Christmas and Easter service using DaVinci Resolve 17. We have been learning how to use YouTube Live. We have been learning how to get a copy of our weekly bulletin into people’s hands by creating a link on our church’s webpage. Sermons that have been preached at Christ’s Lutheran Church are now being heard in 36 countries. We have been using new camera equipment to enable people in California, Texas, New York, South Carolina and even Germany to join us in worship. 2021 is a year when we all need to be asking: “What is this stuff?” What tools and what opportunities is God providing, so that we can move from where we are right now to where God wants us to be? “What is this stuff?” that God is providing to help us to share the message of Jesus with others?
  • And lastly, the story of the Exodus reminds us that leading God’s people into their unknown future is not an easy task, and that those who are trying their best to lead the Church during these strange times need people to come alongside of them as they stand on the front line (Exodus 17:10-12). I often speak about leading the Church through these difficult days as drinking from a firehose. There are few decisions that are easy. People who serve us as bishops, as pastors, as Church Council members and as leaders of every sort have never done this before. Just picture Moses standing with his arms in the air knowing that God’s people win as long as he holds his hands high in the air and that they falter when his arms begin to drop. “How long can I keep doing this?” he surely asked himself. And we read that Moses did his best even when he was weary. But the story of the Exodus tells us that the battle was won after Aaron and Hur got a stone, so that Moses could sit down. And then, Aaron and Hur came alongside of Moses and physically held his weary arms in the air and the day was saved. What a story!

Our life together, as Jesus people, continues to be built around stories; and, this week, I want to encourage you to think about the story of the Exodus. How can we work together to live into the future that God is setting before us during a time when many of us want to return to our idealized picture of a past that no longer exists? How can we work together and move forward in our lives and ministry during a time when we are continuing to ask, “What is this stuff?” as we see what God is providing? And how can we continue to live well with each other and faithfully support those who are trying their best to lead us through a time that none of us could have ever imagined?

Vision and Mission

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission.

A food bank’s mission is to get groceries into the hands of hungry people. The mission of a women’s shelter is to provide a place of refuge for women who want to escape their abusive partners and to help those women get a fresh start. Some non-profits focus upon helping people who are homeless or upon preparing meals for people who are no longer able to cook. Jesus created the Church to be a community that spreads the good news of God’s love and to be a community that makes disciples.

A lot has happened in the last year.

We have not been able to gather in groups, and we have needed to stop doing things that we once considered routine. Churches locked their doors and worshiped online. We have all embraced technology in new ways. Zoom became more than what happens when you push your automobile’s gas pedal to the floor. Social media has become rather antisocial. We have become a bit harsh with each other as we’ve grown weary, and we have become people who are more bothered by little inconveniences. We are tired. We’re not sure that we want to make even small commitments. We are grieving because some of the things that we once considered important in our lives have changed, or even disappeared. And, of course, we are all asking, “What’s next?” Will things that we have enjoyed return? Will our churches, non-profits and other organizations survive? What can we do to move into a brighter future? Where do we need to focus our energy?

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

Think about a local food bank that stops distributing food. Think about a women’s shelter that stops providing a place of refuge for abused women. Think about a church that is so concerned about getting people to come back into a building (in a nation where only about 16% of adults regularly attend worship) that it loses sight of the fact that it can spread the good news of God’s love and make disciples using new and exciting technology. These are times when churches and non-profits of every kind need to be focused upon why they exist. These are times when churches and non-profits need to understand and articulate their mission clearly, and when churches and non-profits need to be focused upon what they have to offer and upon what they have been created by God to do.

The Bible says that people perish when there is a lack of vision (Proverbs 29:18). Vision gives birth to mission. Mission gives birth to passion. Passion gives birth to excitement and energy. Excitement and energy give birth to growth and vitality. Growth and vitality can create even more expansive understandings of an organization’s vision and mission, which can lead to even more excitement and energy and growth and vitality.

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

And, with that in your mind, I want to conclude by asking: “If you belong to a church or if you choose to participate in the life of any non-profit organization, how would you define your group’s mission?” “What is God calling you to do?” “What value are you bringing into the lives of those you serve?” These are critical questions we need to ask as we continue to emerge from these challenging times and as we prepare to move forward with hope, direction and focus in these quickly changing days.

Framing

My wife enjoys buying picture frames in antique stores.

She has a keen sense of observation and an even more deep awareness of how picture frames can enhance the things that we hang on the walls in our home. She, also, leaves many picture frames hanging on the walls in antique stores because she does not like the frame, or because she decides that a particular frame will not enhance our home décor.

Do you realize that you frame things every day?

You frame everything that happens in your life, and then you decide whether what has happened is good or bad, beneficial or harmful. We all think about life in certain ways because of our past experiences, because of our personality, because of the ways that we’ve learned to interact with others, and because we want to continue to be a part of groups that are important to us.

But the challenge is that how we frame things affects the ways we interpret almost everything that happens in our lives.

Think about a story from the life of Jesus. Jesus taught and healed people in the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus preached in Galilee, cleansed a leper, healed a person who was paralyzed, calmed a storm, and even raised a little girl from the dead. And Jesus tried to do the same thing in Nazareth – his own hometown. But then framing became a challenge. We read that people were astonished by Jesus’ teaching (Mark 6:2), and people were amazed by the incredible things that Jesus was doing. But all of a sudden, people began to put a different frame around what was happening. “Is not this the town carpenter?” (Mark 6:3) “Isn’t this the son of Mary, and a man whose own brothers and sisters are still living in town?” (Mark 6:3) And, suddenly, people who were astonished by what Jesus was doing became offended because of the way they framed things. In fact, Jesus even says to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4) And it is all because of framing. The ways that we interpret what happens in our lives are always shaped by our past experiences. And, when we put a nice frame around the things that are happening to us, all is well. But when put an ugly frame around things, we can be drawn into conflicts, disagreements, and broken relationships.

The way you frame what happens in your life is often far more important than what has actually happened.

You are far more likely to be drawn into conflict with people when you wrap things that happen in an ugly frame. You are far more likely to close your ears to the thoughts and opinions of people who disagree with you when you frame everything with an “us” versus “them” mentality. The frames that we put around the actions of other people can be shaped by our biases about the color of a person’s skin, the language that a person speaks, the religion that a person embraces, or even the place of a person’s birth. Ugly frames can be created by political differences, by different visions of the future, by a fear of the unknown, and even by the always-shifting sands of time that bring unwanted change.

But framing can also help us to live our lives in a better way.

We can try to remember that most people are trying to do their best in life even during times of conflict. We can try to unravel the “us” versus “them” type of thinking that is so prevalent these days and try to listen more carefully to the ideas and opinions of others. We can try to remember that people who have a different skin color, who speak another language, who embrace a different religion, or who were born in another county have experiences in life that we do not fully understand. We can try, as the 16th Century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, suggested, to put better-looking frames around the things people do by trying to interpret their actions in the best possible way.

And so, I would like to challenge you to think about framing this week.

What kind of frames are you putting around things that happen in your life? How are the frames you put around things affecting your relationships? How are the frames that you put around large groups of people interfering with your ability to see that we have been created by a God who tells us that we all have both dignity and worth? How can the frames that you put around the things that create conflict in your life be changed, so that times of conflict can lead to deeper levels of understanding and appreciation for people who do not always agree with you?

Independence Day

Americans will celebrate independence and freedom this weekend. America’s Founders dreamed of a nation where people would have a voice in their government, and they created a Democratic Republic where government officials are elected by the people and serve for a specific term. Many folks try to trace the roots of American freedom all the way back to the day when King John “Lackland” signed the Magna Charta in 1215 AD, but the comparison between the Magna Charta and the American Declaration of Independence is a bit of a stretch. America was founded upon representative government, and the earliest dreams for American life were build upon the idea that we all have the right to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness.

The Bible speaks about freedom, independence, and liberty in several places. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Jesus also says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36) reminding us that He came into the world to set us free from the power of sin and death that we cannot escape in any other way. And lastly, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about our personal freedom, as Christians, in a different way (I Corinthians 8:1-13) as he speaks about whether Christians can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Corinth was a very unusual place in the time of St. Paul. Corinth was a major city where people came from all around the known world to sell their products. Corinth was, also, a place that was religiously diverse. There were hundreds of temples in Corinth, so that people who wanted to worship their god could easily do so. St. Paul even talked about the fact that the Greeks had build an altar to an unknown God (Acts 17:23) because they wanted to make sure that all of the bases were covered. And this created a big problem. Christians who wanted to eat meat did not know if the meat had been carved from an animal that had been sacrificed to another god hours earlier. Early Christians struggled because they were trying to figure out what it means to be free in Christ while they also tried to be careful to avoid eating meat that had been offered to other gods.

St. Paul’s response to this dilemma was an interesting one. He reminded the Corinthians that he had been set free by Jesus, and that he could celebrate his independence by eating meat without worrying about where the meat originated. Imagine St. Paul simply eating a hamburger on July 4th without worrying about its source. Christians do that all the time even though people from other religious traditions would never do that, right?

Then St. Paul throws in a twist. He reminds the Corinthians that he is free in Christ to eat his July 4th hamburger; however, because he sees that doing that is causing other people around him to feel uncomfortable, he says, “I’m not going to do it.” In fact, St. Paul writes: “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block for the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” (I Corinthians 8:9-10) What St. Paul is saying is: “I have freedom and independence, but I need to be sensitive to others when I am exercising my personal rights and liberty.” St. Paul reminds us that personal freedom and liberty are wonderful things; however, as we live in community with other people, we need to live in ways that are considerate and respectful of others. This is, also, an important part of good citizenship.

And so, as we celebrate our independence, liberty, and freedom on July 4th, let’s also remember that we live in a diverse nation and that living well with each other is always built upon the foundation of respect and care for others. We have been set free from tyrannical government, but our nation is still built upon creating community with each other and caring for each other. We are free in Christ, and we live in a nation where we have many rights and personal freedoms to celebrate, but our Founders also realized that our nation can only be strong and healthy when we continue to respect and to care for each other.

Winning – After the Election

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So, it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)

The church in Corinth was traveling through a difficult time when Saint Paul wrote these words. Some people believed that their spiritual gifts were better than spiritual gifts that God had given to other people. Saint Paul was under personal attack because everyone remembered the things that he had done before he became a Christian. Deep divisions had crept into the Church. Christians were busy suing each other. Sexual immorality was common, and some people believed that they were free to do things that other Christians did not think they should be doing. It was a real mess!

I find myself writing this message to you about two weeks before we elect the President of the United States and many members of Congress. It has been a hard election cycle. People in our nation are deeply divided, and many relationships have been pushed to the breaking point. I, sometimes, feel very overwhelmed when I listen to the news and hear about our continued struggles with the coronavirus. I miss having the chance to see people in worship and the opportunity to visit with them in their homes. And many people in our nation are asking about what is going to happen next. Are there going to be protests and violent clashes, no matter who is elected? What is November 4th going to be like? What are we going to do to mend the fabric of our society? What role will the Church play?

A handful of my ancestors came to America with John Winthrop in 1630. A small fleet of wooden ships filled with Puritans sailed to America and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony about ten years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. I often think about what it must have been like to listen to John Winthrop remind people that they had come to America to establish a new society that would shine, like a “City on a Hill,” and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I often think about the fact that, just a little bit more than sixty years after the Winthrop Fleet arrived, Puritans were hanging people who had been accused of witchcraft in Salem.

America has never been a perfect place. What many people today call the “American Experiment” has been a journey filled with ups and downs. People in America fought two wars together (and sometimes against each other) to gain national independence. Family members fought against each other and even killed each other during a bloody Civil War. Americans stood beside each other and found their way through the Great Depression. Some of us remember violent clashes that erupted during the Vietnam War, the murder of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots that marked the early 1970’s, and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. And who can forget the horror of 9/11? The “American Experiment” is built upon the hopes and dream of many people, but the “American Experiment” has not always been easy.

We are people who live in a diverse nation that is filled with many ideas and beliefs. We do not always agree with each, but we have always worked together as a nation to find a path forward. We live in a society where many people have stopped trusting each other and where many people no longer trust the institutions that have made our nation great; and yet, surveys still indicate that nearly half of all Americans trust the Church and look to it for guidance and direction. This is a time when we need to stand together and to live into John Winthrop’s vision. This is a time when we need to shine as the “City on a Hill” that John Winthrop said would shine as a beacon of hope in the world. We are one. God has made us one. Jesus continues to work in our world to draw people together into one body called the Church. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we call ourselves a nation that is indivisible, and that is filled with liberty and justice for all people. These are fundamentals. Humanity has prospered and our nation has thrived in times when we have drawn close to each other and when we have worked together with hearts and minds that are committed to a common purpose and a common good.

I do not know what the next few weeks and months are going to bring. But I do know that we can move into a bright future, as individuals and as a nation, when we stand together and emphasize the things that unite us and make us one. Jesus once told us that a house that is divided against itself cannot stand, and those words are as true, today, as they have even been. The last 250 years have shown us that the great “American Experiment” can work when we are committed to working together and to finding the things in life that continue to bind us together in a world where other things are trying to tear us apart. And that is what I want you to think about no matter what happens on November 3rd, and in the days and months that follow this year’s Election.

We need to be looking for the threads that bind us together as Christians and as citizens. We need to remember that maintaining relationships with other people is, often, far more important than being right. We need to listen to each other. We need to care about each other. We need to remember, as Saint Paul once wrote, that we are one body – not only as Christ’s Church, but also as a nation.

May God bless you and may God bless our land in the coming weeks and months.

Handling Conflict – Part 3

I have been encouraging you to think about conflict in my last two posts. I have encouraged you to keep the line between what happened and your interpretation of what happened clear. I have, also, encouraged you to try your best to interpret the actions of other people (even when they hurt you) in the kindest way. I have, lastly, encouraged you to think about what I’m calling your End Game. Is what happened to you the result of what happens when two less-than-perfect people interact with each other and step on each other’s toes, or is what happened to you the result of ongoing physical or emotional abuse? If you have decided that you want the relationship that you have with another person to continue as you travel through a time of conflict, Jesus has some wonderful words of guidance to offer you.

Jesus lays out a path toward conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20.

Jesus speaks, firstly, about going directly to the person who has hurt you before you drag other people into the conflict. As I’ve mentioned before, there may be a difference between what happened and how you have interpreted what happened. You may discover that the person who has hurt you realizes that he/she has done something wrong and wants to apologize. You may discover that the person does not even realize that something has gone wrong. It’s always best to go directly to the person who has hurt you during a time of conflict (unless some sort of emotional or physical abuse has occurred and you have a reason to fear for your safety). And remember: When Jesus lifts this first step toward conflict resolution before you, the End Game is to “regain” your brother or sister. Most people appreciate honesty and being given the chance to apologize when they have done something wrong, and most people will become defensive when they know that you have been talking about them behind their back. And so, if you are moving through a time of conflict and if you have been hurt or put off by the actions of another person, try going to that person first.

Jesus, then, speaks about what we should do if talking with the person who has hurt us does not work. Jesus tells us to take one or two other people along with us when we talk with the person who has hurt us. But even this sage advice can become problematic. Think about this second step as a paring knife. Paring knives can be used to pare a piece of fruit or to slice an apple. But a paring knife can also be used to open an envelope, to open a cardboard box, or even to cut plastic. The second step that Jesus recommends is just like that. We can reach out to one or two people who are level-headed and fair, or we can search for some allies. We can reach out to one or two people who are willing to listen to all of the people who are involved in the conflict, or we can select one or two other people who will simply take our side. When you try to get someone involved in a conflict that you are having with another person and to simply take your side, it is called “Triangulation.” And the neutral person can be one of your friends, your spouse, your pastor or even a counselor. But “Triangulation” does not work; in fact, “Triangulation” usually paints the person that you have asked to help you into a nearly impossible corner and will, most likely, deeply affect your relationship with that person, too. And so, if you believe that the person who has hurt you isn’t taking you seriously, you may need to take one or two neutral people along with you the next time that you talk with the person who hurt you. And please remember, again, that this step in the process is designed to help you to “regain” your brother or sister.

Jesus, lastly, talks about what to do when the first two steps in the process fail. Jesus talks about taking it to the Church; and, by “taking it to the Church,” I don’t think that Jesus means that we should stand up in the middle of a worship service and create a stir. Congregations have councils and elders who can provide a listening ear during times of conflict. Many Christian congregations have Mutual Ministry committees that can be consulted during times of conflict with church staff members. Many Christian congregations are a part of a larger denomination and have a bishop or president who can be consulted if an alleged incident of clergy misconduct occurs.

The road back to reconciliation becomes more and more bumpy as more and more people become involved in the conflict. If your End Game continues to be reconciliation and the restoring of the relationship, this final step should be considered as a last step in a longer process. People tend to become more and more defensive as more and more people are pulled into conflicts. The option of gracefully apologizing and searching for a path forward may disappear if too many people become involved and the person who has hurt you feels like he/she is being painted into a corner. But, sadly, there are times when things need to be taken to another level and when the relationship itself may need to end. And that’s why Jesus includes this step forward in His teachings about conflict.

In closing, I would like to lift one last idea before you.

Conflict can be difficult and can involve many different dynamics. But, at every step in the process, we need to ask ourselves: Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes? It is hard for us to open our hands and to let go of things that people have done when they hurt us. It is always going to be tempting to talk about other people behind their backs and to search for allies when we believe that we have been treated unfairly. But, sometimes, people are genuinely sorry about what they have done. People who have hurt us may offer an apology at any point in the process that Jesus provides. And so, as we move through the process that Jesus describes, we need to ask ourselves whether an apology is sufficient. Porcupines cannot unstick each other. A piece of fine china can be glued back together; and, while it will never be the same, it can be good again. And so, again, you need to ask yourself: What is my End Game? Do I want to be right, or do I want to be reconciled? Am I willing to let go of the hurt and disappointment that I’ve experienced, or does the path back no longer exist? Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes and is sorry about what happened? These are all questions that only you can answer. Jesus provides a process that we can use during times of hurt and conflict, but the process will only work if we are willing to allow it to work.

Jesus Promised

I’ve been taught to trust in the promises of Jesus.

I believe that death is not going to be my end because Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, and those who believe in Me are going to live again, even after they’ve died.” I believe that I’m going to go to Heaven because Jesus promised me that He’s gone ahead of me to prepare a special place where I will live with Him forever. Perhaps, you trust that Jesus is walking beside you every day because Jesus once said, “I am with you always, even to the End of the Age.” Jesus also gave another promise. He said, “I am going to build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

What did Jesus mean when He said that He’s going to build His Church and even the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it? What sense do you make of this promise of Jesus when it seems that there are many prevailing powers opposing the ministry of the Church? Can we use these words, today, to assure us that the specific congregations that we attend and support can never fail in the same way that some Christians assume that Jesus will never allow them to become infected by the coronavirus while they are worshiping and singing hymns without masks? What sense do you make of this promise of Jesus in the midst of a time of dramatic change, both inside and outside of the Church, and during a time when many individual congregations are closing?

It seems to me that we can make sense of this promise of Jesus by doing three things:

First, we need to begin by remembering who made the promise. Jesus is with you today, and Jesus continues to be with the Church as well. Individual Christians and even specific congregations have not been left alone to make sense of our changing times. Jesus is with us as we read our Bibles and pray with each other. Jesus has promised to lead us and guide us and direct our ways as we move through changing times. The Holy Spirit once worked in the life of St. Paul by closing and opening doors in front of him (Acts 16:6-10). Rely on the One who has given us wonderful promises and you can never go wrong.

Second, we need to remember that God has a long history of leading people through times of change and uncertainty. Think about the people of Israel being led out of the land of Egypt when all that they wanted to do was return to the “Good Ol’ Days” of slavery when they were given free cucumbers. Think about the people of Israel living in Babylonian captivity and longing for the day when God would bring them back to Jerusalem after their exile. God has a long track record of leading people safely from one place to another and that’s what God is doing in the life of the Church, right now. Trust in the God who is leading you and you can never go wrong.

Finally, we need to remember that, when Jesus gives us a promise, Jesus gives us a promise that He’s not going to break. The Church is built upon the foundation of God’s love and faithfulness. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one that proclaims timeless truths like love, forgiveness, hope, and the dignity and value of all people. Specific practices and ways of doing things in churches may need to change with the passage of time, but the Church that’s build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and that has rooted itself in timeless principles will endure. Trust in the One who doesn’t break His promises and you can never go wrong.

We may not have all of the answers that we need right now, but our faith calls us back to the Great Source of God’s promises and to the timeless values that will endure. Jesus once said, “I am going to build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” And today, I’m willing to trust in that promise. And I’m willing to put all of my eggs into one, single basket that’s carried by the One who gave us those promises. Are you?

Listen to this week’s message: “The Mighty, Prevailing Church”