Sharing Thoughts on Faith, Ministry, Daily Life, Etc.


The Thorn, An Unexpected Blessing

Confession: inherently, I am not the most patient person. I’ve come a long way over the years, but I’m nowhere near others who come to mind—humbly standing in the background as pillars of peaceful restraint. To borrow the clever phrase of a former parishioner: patience is not a flower that grows in every garden. Though I have other gifts, for some reason, my plot doesn’t contain the rich soil needed to bear the delicate produce of patience. Still, it’s a practice that I’ve learned and grown in significantly these past few years since both becoming a parent and serving as a pastor. Whatever temperance others claim to see in me, if any, can best be attributed to the gracious modeling and wise teachings of those closest around me. Actually, if I’m completely honest, some of my most influential formation with regards to becoming more patient in the realm of the church has come from a thorn in my side that I acquired in my first pastorate. You could say, perhaps ironically, a particular person who made my life very difficult for much of my time in my first call inadvertently taught me—dare I say, blessed me with—one of the greatest lessons in learning patience. Though very much a piercing nuisance, since then she has become for me an unexpected gift in how I (should) enter into situations with grace and pause.

Towards the end of his second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul vaguely refers to a thorn in the flesh (12:7-9) that he has recently received. Over the years, biblical scholars have offered a wealth of educated guesses as to what this thorn of Paul references. Is it something physical—illness, an impediment acquired along the journey? Is it something mental or emotional—a burdened conscience or depression from continual struggles and strife? Is it something spiritual—temptation(s) as a result of personal or professional trials and tribulations? Is it relational—an individual or group painfully hindering him in his ongoing work of proclaiming the gospel? It’s unclear as to what exactly is this tormenting pain for the apostle. In his brilliant book, Paul: A Biography, N.T. Wright moves beyond the speculation, suggesting instead: “What [Paul] does say, and it’s worth more than all the actual information we could have, is what he had learned through that experience” (316). Whatever the disability or weakness, through it Paul learns, grows, and sees more clearly how God’s grace works through powerlessness. The pain Paul feels from this wound penetrates also through what could be blissful blindness. That which Paul claims Satan has intended to torment him, actually serves to become a blessing in disguise—a tool for ministry.

If you had said to me four years ago: “Though you can’t see it right now, this deeply hurt and compulsive person who is treating you harshly in ways that speak more about herself, is actually going to be a tremendous blessing to you in learning and growing personally and pastorally” I would’ve called you CRAZY. There was no way for me—green out of seminary, and still very wet behind the ears—to see then and there that the pain that felt so agonizing from that one person was a lesson in listening, loving, and letting go. Now let me interject with a crucial disclaimer: I have, by no means, perfected patience. Those who know me best—and my immediate family can attest to this—will vouch for this being a daily work in progress. Sometimes it’s one step forward followed by three back. Patience is no less a practice painstakingly kept up with than medicine is for the physician—never mastered, at best it becomes habitual. We never run out of opportunities to test it though. God blesses us with countless occasions to practice patience; and if we are fortunate, our eyes are opened at just the right time to see the situation for what it is and what it potentially may become. I would be arrogant if I were to use this space to list off all the times I’ve portrayed perfect patience with others—it would also be an embarrassingly short ledger. Others have been far more faithful than me in this discipline, and yet look for no accolades.

My point in all of this, if there is one to be found, is that I’m (slowly) coming to learn that sometimes in the struggle there is a lesson to be learned, a gift to be received, a revelation to be shared. At the risk of affirming the cliché, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger (which I don’t buy, and in some regards despise)—maybe what I’m saying is even a thorn in the flesh can serve as a means to learn, grow, and be transformed. I don’t know if that’s the same as a silver lining as much as a trust and hope in God’s providence or the prevailing work of the Holy Spirit in and through all things. Not all pain and suffering—no matter how great or small—bears some good or redeemable qualities. Some of it is simply random and meaningless. I’m not a it’s all part of God’s plan kind of person, but rather more of a maybe there is something to be taken away/learned from this kind of person. That being said, however, sometimes the pain, if not ignored or disregarded, can serve to open our hearts and minds—if not our physical eyes—to see the situation before us more clearly and respond more faithfully than we otherwise would. It’s taken me a long time, but I give thanks to God for the thorn in my flesh that I would have never hoped for—she, too, has taught me something very valuable.

– Pastor Andrew

Camp Nostalgia: Thinking about Places and Spaces

The night sky was as blue as the sea, and deeper yet. In the distance, the roar of a hundred and forty kids belting out praise in evening worship. Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!!! Deceivingly cool for early August, the temptation to close my eyes and doze off was peacefully overwhelming. With the scent of cedar wafting, nostalgia set in with each inhale. Sitting there against the cement pillar with my feet hanging off the ledge, I was mildly disoriented by how certain structures, including this one—the Chapel/Cocoon—had shrunk from its towering size in my memory of them. Or perhaps I had grown since those distant times recalled. Gazing out as far as I could dimly see, peppered throughout the landscape of my childhood was change and newness. Like a pendulum, my mind began to swing back and forth between reminiscing and imagining. In an instant I was 12 years old again. Having just slurped down a slushy from my cuppie, I ran across that wide open field—it felt like forever—so eager to jump into the pool. And just then, as if someone had flipped a switch—CLICK—my train of thought suddenly shifted to wondering what my oldest son will see, experience, and internalize when he comes to camp for the first time here in a few years. His future memories may share a minute resemblance of mine, but likely they will differ drastically as this place is transformed over time. This leaves my heart feeling heavy.

It makes sense why people grow so attached to structures that when the idea is broached of them changing, even in the slightest, it feels discombobulating if not personally threatening. We all, regardless our generational designation—attach meaning to particular places in our lives. It can be decades later, walking into a specific space and just a faint smell sets off mental alarms as the past comes rushing into the present with the force of a tsunami. One moment it’s today, and the next you find yourself knocked back into yesteryear. For me, much meaning, forming the bedrock beneath my adolescent faith formation, resides off the winding rollercoaster of Upper Turtle Creek Road that turns sharply into Camp Chrysalis. I can still recall being wedged in the back of our church’s white 15-passenger van, gunning it full speed down the slope and over the low bridge before launching up the other side which meant camp was literally around the corner. I couldn’t get here soon enough. With each passing day, however, the remembrances become hazier from forgetfulness. Still, a holy piece of them is buried deep within me. This feeling must be the same intoxication others feel for church buildings when the discussion turns toward renovation or—God forbid—permanent closure. What?! That’s more than limestone, brick, or wood paneling—it’s my religious history, my faith upbringing! You can’t take that away from me! Change is inevitable—no matter our acceptance of it, or not. And many times, change is necessary—even critical. The gulf between what was and in some ways still is from what is becoming and may come to be, is at best a perilous pass through densely impenetrable fog across choppy seas. Navigating it is no cake walk.

As I ponder on this more, hours later, I know the camp is doing great work in stewarding its gifts and caring for the property appropriately which means making updates as are needed along the way. I am so thankful for the leadership at Cross Trails Ministry. Late to the conversation of resigning past buildings and making tough though hopeful decisions on new different structures, I can respect how emotionally trying each step forward can feel for all who bear any, even the smallest, connection with this space. My youthful yearning is pierced as I wonder if and where disposable Kodak camera pictures from that memorable time might be stored away; but I also know the space made the memory that the place serves to house. That’s a crucial distinction: the space—filled with friends and counselors, activities and experiences, love and support, altogether—made the cherished memories that are housed in this particular locale. If ever I confuse the space with the place, I risk missing what made it so special in the first place. Though the place will change little by little over time, the spirit of the space will never change. This is holy ground, where holy people are being gathered together by the Holy Spirit to transform lives in the love of Jesus amidst the beauty of God’s good creation. Whatever may change in the months and years before and even after my children get to attend camp here, my hope and prayer is that they may encounter Christ in this space—shaping their lives of faith as it did mine.

– Pastor Andrew

What’s Your Non-Negotiables in Worship?

The word worship evokes certain thoughts and feelings, unique per person. When we think about it, particular places come to mind. Sights and sounds flood the senses. Faces are remembered from across time and space. Emotions well up within oneself—for some joyous ecstasy, for others painful scars. It binds us, in part, to the transcendent; while still evading our full control, an elusive work of the Spirit. Worship is a term that cannot be divorced of its weight and meaning—whether positively or negatively. The vast variety of churches peppered across the American landscape alone affirms that no two groups, much less two families, share the same understanding of what worship means or resembles. Back in college, I and a friend of mine coordinated a symposium on the topic of ecumenism (a fancy word meaning the study of diversity in the church and subsequent work towards unity). I remember one of the speakers, a United Methodist pastor, lecturing on the theme of worship wars. Not only do we differ on our ideas of worship, but the pages of church history are filled with the wounds of fights over what we unapologetically believe worship should look like and how it should be done. No single congregation is immune from these discussions or debates. Worship, with its forms and fashions, means something to us—as it rightly should. This past week, a lively meeting with the worship team here got me thinking about the question: What’s your non-negotiables in worship?

The question, though not devoid of theology, is really one of personal discernment. At the risk of leaning too far over and being swept away by the raging river of consumerism that surrounds us, it seems imperative to reflect on what we, individually before then considering it communally, hold as fundamentally irremovable from our understanding (dare I say, image) of what defines worship. What makes or breaks worship for us? What, if it’s significantly changed or missing, makes worship a stumbling block? And foundational to these and other such questions: WHY? Why are these characteristics of worship, for us, unalterable? For many of us, it’s a blend of tradition and nostalgia. This is not to say it is wrong or bad, but that our non-negotiables are many times influenced by a past—familial, religious, or in additional historical ways. For others, a deep epistemology is tied to it. We might hold to something as being of exceeding importance based on its theology, command in Scripture, or perhaps a personal conviction. On the flip side, praxis plays a role—the meaning is found more within the practice than behind or beneath it. All of this is to say, consciously or not, we have reasons for what we deem as being of ultimate versus penultimate importance within worship.

Now, obviously the risk in asking this question is mudding the waters to the point that everyone is out digging their own private wells—turning the very communal gathering of the faith into something demarcated, individualized, and finally isolated. Check your liturgical baggage at the door before entering!! Is it possible (or worthwhile), I wonder, for us to enter into the conversation clearly conveying our personal non-negotiables for worship—honestly laying it all out on the table, looking and listening to the needs of others, and considering new and renewed ways of worship—without tracing trenches in the sand and retreating to our separate tents? There’s a meme online that shows a church marquee with an exhaustive list of worship styles offered in the congregation behind it—poking fun at the attempts by some to be all things for all people. On this side of offering a ritual buffet, I think we must ask ourselves what matters most in worship and why to then hopefully enter into conversation with one another about how we might work together to bridge the gaps. This may take shape in the endless search of a happy median—a safe baseline per se, or it may look like implementing different styles of worship from time to time, constantly checking the congregational pulse. We can neither assume that our preferred style of worship serves all, nor pretend that we know what speaks most faithfully for different people—each with their own unique faith backgrounds and journeys.

What might you consider your non-negotiables for worship? When you think about worship and its impact on your life of faith, ponder on what makes it so for you. Recall not just the instances that left you nourished or hoping for more, but also those which left you dissatisfied and hungrier (or hangry) yet. What was it that made the difference? What might have been missing? What do you consider crucial to your worship experience? Is it the sanctuary space—a certain look, with visible images distinguishing it from all other worship places? Is it the music—a register of particular music (hymns or songs), accompanied by particular voices and/or instruments? Is it the mood immediately felt upon entering in—shaped not just by sights, sounds, or smells, but also relationally? Is it a comfort in familiarity—knowing that the order from beginning to end won’t deviate from a set pattern? Is it the how—the manner by which things are done? Is it the message—proclaimed by leaders, echoed in various means throughout the service? Is it what is freely received weekly, or perhaps what is offered in thanksgiving by the assembly? Is it something tried and true, or new and spontaneous? What may sound like an Amazon wish list is a candid call for self-awareness. Such questions are, in my opinion, the first step in thinking about what we do in worship, why we do it, how it can be done in a variety of ways. I encourage you to wrestle with what your non-negotiables are with regards to worship. Discuss it with family and friends. Pray on it. Let these questions percolate in your heart and mind the next time you enter into worship. Share your thoughts on them with the worship team and staff. Thanks.

– Pastor Andrew

Board Games, Indoctrination, & Wrestling with Navigating Through It All

Sitting there on the living room floor—quickly trying to change my toddler’s diaper without covering myself in its mess—I hear the soft pitter-patter of our five year old at the table behind me setting up a game of his, Pop! the Pig, for us to play altogether. All day he’s been asking if we can play it. Clasping the new diaper closed and turning to get up, I find Aidan standing on his chair—like a medieval town crier making a public pronouncement—very maturely instructing the rules of how the game is to be played, though to no apparent audience. A flock of memories fills my mind. A smirk stretches across my face. Board games are a big part of our family life. Four years ago I was introduced to the vast world of board games by some colleagues of mine in Nebraska. Yeah, I, like most kids, played the garden variety ones. Candy Land. Monopoly. Battleship. Clue. But really my repertoire was quite limited—as I quickly came to learn. My eyes were opened to the likes of Settlers of Catan, Rampage, Ticket to Ride, Camelup, among countless others. #nerdmoment So over the past few years as our oldest son has gotten older and wanted to be just like daddy, we as a family would go to a nearby game café to play board games. From time to time, my wife and I will reminisce on the memories the three, and later four, of us made playing games while sipping on coffee or hot cocoa at Spielbound in Midtown Omaha. Games like Kids of Catan, Animal Upon Animal, and Trouble, to name a few. Since moving to Austin, we’ve found more places to patronize—playing games new and familiar. On our recent trip to Wyoming for a wedding, we stopped by a handful of different game cafes across four states—making new memories—all because playing games together has become so important to our whole family. Such recreation/intellectual stimulation is of priority for us. For better or for worse, our oldest (and soon likely our youngest too) has become indoctrinated in playing board games as not only important, but also formative.

Kids are smart. They pick up on things. It only takes a little bit of repetition for them to form muscle memory. Habits are formed with each re-occurrence. Just as I’m a firm believer that parents are the primary educators for their children, the same can be said about the family’s place and power in establishing what is important, if not priority, within the child. It’s not just communities of faith, education systems, or even the media that indoctrinate our children. We, ourselves, possess the greatest role in influencing and programming what our kids believe to be most important. I see it in my oldest on a daily basis—for instance, his love for Star Wars—and the same can be said of various youth I’ve met and worked with over the years. A child’s belief system—filled with its meaning making and firm non-negotiables—is ultimately shaped, in some form or fashion, by us the adults in their life. It’s not a criticism, only an observation. Whether constructively or not, we inform the core belief system by which our children grow to (dis)function by as adolescents and later adults. Psychology affirms this truth as studies show that we are most intimately conditioned by our family of origin experiences. This observation mustn’t have been hidden from the likes of Martin Luther, who five hundred years ago sought to encourage and equip parents to teach their children the core tenets of the Christian faith using the Small Catechism. Luther knew full-well that faith formation and biblical literacy are best sown in the home and nurtured by the church—the opposite is not impossible, but far more trying. No less important than a father helping walk his daughter through her algebra homework, that which is taught in church is at risk of not taking root if it is not also regularly modeled at home in word, action, and lifestyle. Our kids are always being taught something by what we say, do, and don’t. The question is really what is being internalized.

One thing I’ve learned in my short time thus far as both a parent and pastor is caution in condemning the, many times unconscious, choices of parents on behalf of their children. Parents and kids today are faced with so many increasing demands on them from all sides. Society and culture have not been modest, nor kind in what is communicated—sometimes quite blatantly—as being of ultimate importance in the lives of children. Many times the perceived promises of adolescence are realized in adulthood to be empty lies. A multitude of messages are competing to gain our attention and investment. I’ve encountered too many colleagues who—rightfully enraged by the matter—rashly respond equally demanding and judgmental. The past privileged assumptions of faith and church being untouchable have died with the rapid maturation of our coveted consumeristic culture. We all are, in part, to blame for this reality. On the other hand, we do a great disservice to families in the church when we heap blame and shame on parents and children for being indoctrinated in other civil and cultural belief systems. All of us function by our inherited/learned priorities. The question, I believe, we must each ask ourselves and wrestle with is: What is of importance to me and my family, and how do I communicate this to my children? This is not some passive way of pointing the finger, because to do so would leave three others back in my direction (try it and see). For those eager to shape their children’s life in constructive, though complex, ways, the challenge of navigating through it all is real. The whole matter is nothing short a holistic wrestling—physically, emotionally, mentally, religiously, educationally, socially, etc. I feel for those struggling with this question. I know my wife and I are on the bank of its murky waters. It’s something we must each wrestle with regards to attending worship and Christian education, participating in the life of a congregation, and simply embodying our faith in our daily lives. I’m not sure there is an answer to it all, perhaps at best we can encourage and offer room for honesty, sympathy, and new means to meet people where they are and long to be. It’s a complicated game, with no clear strategy in sight.

– Pastor Andrew

Holy Friendships

Coming off a whirlwind, three-thousand mile road trip across seven states, I have to admit: I’m feeling pretty renewed. Yeah, my back’s hurting from the many hours cramped in our little Honda Civic. My heart, though, is refreshed. The vacation was spontaneously built around a wedding I had been asked to do for a friend up in central Wyoming. So it wasn’t all play. Yet, neither was it entirely work. The greater majority of the trip was spent visiting family and friends, nurturing relationships. Playing board games with a relative at a downtown Kansas City establishment. Bowling, arcade games, and shuffle board with a friend and his son, whom distance prevents us from seeing more often. Sipping on scotch and discussing ministry—past, present, and future—with dear friends and colleagues. Laughing, celebrating blessings, and reminiscing on joys shared, over enchiladas and margaritas with a family of former parishioners. A quick coffee and little chaos shared with another family whom we love. Hiking in the overwhelming beauty of the great outdoors with a couple we’ve called friends for nearly as long as my wife and I have been married. And before it was all said and done, new relationships were formed as a friend was joined with his spouse in marriage and two families grew a bit bigger. My back is heavy with the ache of a long car ride, but the rest of me is still high on the excitement of these get-togethers, or holy friendships if you will.

I’ve been marred in the past by “friendships” from both college and seminary that over time proved to be defunct. Some fell apart as distance separated us and the comfort of proximity dissipated. Others were victim to staunch opinions unwilling to make room for difference or diversity. Still others got lost amidst the dusty wake of time gone by. Honestly, it left me jaded—each one a further dull ache. Investing in a relationship that turns up bankrupt is defeating. I say this knowing full-well that I’ve been on both sides of the equation. There are relationships I have failed. I believe each of us knows all too well this feeling—of being let down, and in turn missing the mark when called upon by another. Monday afternoon on our trek homeward bound, somewhere south of Sweetwater, Texas, along Highway 153, as I looked out along the horizon—physically fatigued, eager to be done driving—holy friendships came to mind. I pondered the pain I feel from broken relationships—void of meaning and mutuality. I considered these relationships in my life that energize me. I wondered what makes a relationship holy, or wholistic. We are created, called, and equipped to be in relationships—with God and one another. With this in mind, what characteristics make for a holy friendship? For me, it is marked by a life-giving nature. Holy friendships are not life-zapping—physically, emotionally, or spiritually draining. Rather, they serve to fill up our cup without diminishing that of the other person. These are the relationships that renew and reorient us when we’re feeling weary and overwhelmed. Holy friendships are mutual—give and take happen freely without coercion, demand, or score-keeping. Subconsciously, they function by a fundamental understanding that I do not gain anything without first wholeheartedly giving myself to the other. I receive far more when my focus is selflessly placed on building up my neighbor. Those which meet the other where they are—listening, caring, and supporting them—are affirming and complementing relationships. There’s likely a dozen or more qualities that any one of us could list off that fit the descriptor of being a holy friendship. What would you consider makes a friendship holy?

I give thanks to God for those individuals whom the Spirit has placed in my life who are holy friendships. Their love and care for me ultimately points towards their faith in Christ. They are vessels by which God abundantly pours out God’s love for me. Not just personally, but also professionally as a pastor, I depend upon these life-giving relationships. The mutuality of these holy friendships assures me that I’m not alone—that I’ve got people near and far who care about me and are eager to support and affirm me. In the difficult times, these (among others) are the people I turn to for love and encouragement. They build me up, which drives me to do the same for them and others. Whether over a board game, drinks, or even in the hustle and bustle, my holy friendships are crucial to my well being. Who are those in your life that could be considered holy friendships? What makes them this for you? Might others view you as such for them? How can we serve to build and nurture holy friendships with one another, so as to care for each other and strengthen the body of Christ?

– Pastor Andrew

Somewhere Between Egypt and Canaan

The endless work—growing expectations, lessened resources. Slavery—bound against one’s will to a particular place, captive to its rulers and foreign gods. To step out of line was detrimental, if not deadly. Egypt was no place to live, only a curse to endure. Still, it was the only home known by generations of Israelites who were born and bore families there ever since the enslaved Joseph first arrived and was sold to Potiphar. Though he was later freed and appointed to the powerful position of vizier, Pharaoh’s right hand man, this all changes for his descendants following Joseph’s death and a new head honcho. The special provisions first enjoyed by the earlier Israelites had since dried up in the arid land, leaving only a persistent perspiring brow of ceaseless labor. Theirs was a life of suffering enslavement. There was no need for a rearview mirror upon their liberation from Egypt led by Moses, whom the God of their ancestors had chosen to lead them out and into a new land. Yet, when the going gets tough, it’s hard not to look back and wonder what if. These stiff-necked people had an insatiable tendency to respond with rubber-necking. Every temptation, trial, or tribulation left them gazing westward, wishing with mis-prescribed rosy red sunglasses to return to the good ole days that never really existed. Perhaps Egypt wasn’t as bad as it seemed. Anything’s gotta be better than this desolate, deserted, dump to which crazy Moses had led them. Only a few chapters after their marvelous exit from bondage, the people are neck-deep in a cycle of complaining, eager to turn back to the past, even as God hears their cries and repetitively provides life-giving sustenance. “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3). “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (17:3). Continuously turning to look back, again and again, over forty years of wandering is sure to leave one with a mean neck cramp. Hopefully this promised land flowing with milk and honey will bring with it in-network chiropractors too.

It’s nearly impossible to see forthcoming blessings when your sight is wrung towards the past. There’s no telling what Canaan, the land God promises to give to God’s chosen people, will entail. It could be the most beautiful, bountiful land—blessing posterity beyond belief. The hope, regardless what awaits them, is that the Lord is bringing about this change in scenery for the people’s good. Yet, transition is scary—scary as hell. The fear of the unknown—what could or may not come to be—can contort the memory of what was, disfiguring it unrecognizable. Amnesia displaces anamnesis. A nightmare recalled as a dream is just an empty lie. The means lead to the end, but it is also along the means that the end can be lost amongst the wilderness of anxiety and depression. This is not to say every past is Egypt. Neither is every future Canaan. Rarely, if ever, can we draw such clear black and white distinctions; but we can be certain there will always be some varying shades of gray along the way, between one place and the next. Candidly, right now I’m somewhere between Egypt and Canaan. The place I left was neither laborious nor imprisoning, it was a tremendous blessing. Where I’m at—just footsteps beyond the Jordan River, within the foretold land—is itself no less of a blessing. I am thankful to God for both where I began and to where I have been led (again by the Spirit). Somedays I find myself looking back—not because anything is wrong with where I’m at, but simply out of the struggle of change and acclamation. My neck’s hurting. Pastoral whiplash. No one ever said it would be easy transitioning from first to second call. Lord knows I’m blessed with a great company of saints surrounding me in this sojourn—gifts from God in those who saw me off from Nebraska, gifts from God in those who welcomed me into Austin, gifts from God in family and friends lovingly accompanying me along the journey. I am truly blessed. I am not alone. I have great colleagues empathetically caring for me as I painfully crawl through Sinai. The call to serve in this place is one for which I am immensely thankful. My heart, though, still hurts—not because of anyone or anything, but just as part of the change.

Perhaps there’s a reason why wandering takes so long. If you’re just trying to get from A to B, the road from Egypt to Canaan shouldn’t take a fraction of the four decades Israel spent on the pathway. It takes time, however, to truly and wholeheartedly get from somewhere you’ve been—for better and/or worse—to a new place. Neck-deep in our culture of instant gratification, instant relief, and instant results (among countless other immediacies), the journey seems unnecessarily burdensome. Ministry is not completed overnight. More than less, the journey of faith is spent somewhere between Egypt and Canaan than ever residing comfortably in either place. Whether along the arid stretches of Sinai or in the tossing boat traversing the Great Lake from one side, to the other, and back again—we are called to be on the move. Sitting still for extended bouts of time is not something modeled very much in our Scripture. The beautiful challenge and tiresome blessing is received along the way. Too often we await the glorious gift of transformation atop the mountain—wondering when the cloud of divine presence will engulf and transfigure us with holy brilliance; but really we all know the true change takes shape in the murky depths of the valley of the shadow of death. Is not resurrection mysteriously revealed along the perilous trail of suffering and death? I find comfort in how the Israelites recall Egypt many times later in the Hebrew Scriptures—all within the context of thanksgiving and praise for what God has done, is doing, and promises to do for the people. Remembering Egypt does not make Canaan any less promised or plentiful. Egypt, no matter how horrible it was (or wasn’t), is never forgotten. It is given it’s necessary place in the mind of Israel. Without it, Canaan would not bear its particular place in the history of God’s holy people. What was ought not to be forgotten, or what is to come is not worth anticipating. The wilderness—as much as the people would rather avoid or altogether forget it—is that which binds Canaan to Egypt. The space between these two places does not separate, but rather connects them. Somewhere in the sand and silt, during the hot days and cold nights, at the foot of the mountains and along the forested areas, is the tie firmly holding heartache and hope, pain and promise, death and new life together into one. Who knows how long it’ll be along this sojourn—hopefully not forty years. In spite of the pain of change, maybe it’s not so bad being somewhere between Egypt and Canaan. My hope and prayer are that, whether by a pillar of fire or in the person of Jesus, God remains with me along the journey. God is with me—in Egypt, throughout the wilderness, and no less nor more in Canaan. This I trust.

– Pastor Andrew

Confusing the Branches for Roots

Have you ever tried planting a tree upside down? Aside from being a silly sight, I cannot imagine it working too well. You’d be left with a strange scene that looks like it was ripped from the reels of a Tim Burton film. Burying the branches—big bare roots pointing sky high—the tree would fail to take hold, and thus die. It’d be a matter of time before the barren snag collapsed. Now I never took BIOL 340 Plant Structure and Classification in college (nor would I ever, science is just not my subject); but I do think, regardless your major, it’s probably fairly common knowledge that there’s a certain way trees work based on their anatomy. Roots function in fastening the tree to the ground, absorbing water and the crucial nutrients that feed it. Therefore, a tree without roots is unable to live. It is dead, decomposition for insects, fuel for the fire. Branches, on the other end, serve their own different purpose. Atop the tree, branches bear the twigs and leaves which take in sunlight, give forth pollen, bear fruit, and offer shade. No less important than its’ hidden anchor below, branches simply cannot substitute as roots. The whole tree from top to bottom and trunk in between is reliant on the roots serving as its foundation. We can all agree: to confuse the branches for roots would be devastating for the seedling altogether.

Beyond botany, what if we were to use the tree as a metaphor for ourselves? We, too, have roots by which we are grounded and receive the fundamentals crucial for life. From there, grows outward our sturdy trunk of identity, with various-sized shoots of branches, twigs, and leaves. The most outer parts are important in themselves, but they do not function the same as the foundation. What are the roots, feeder or perennial, in your life? On the other end, what could be considered the more pliable (sometimes flimsy) though still connected branches? Where is our faith in Christ positioned among all of this? What place do Scripture and Sacraments have within the living organism? How do we envision our relationships, vocations, commitments, thoughts and opinions in this image? With the exceeding polarization in our society today—if you disagree, turn on the news, pick any channel—I have to wonder if we’ve lost track of or forgotten what are our roots. Or have we idolatrously confused the lesser with the greater—planting ourselves upside down and seeking sustenance through inappropriate means, tapping from the wrong source? We appear so infatuated with what’s red, pink, or blue, who’s liberal, moderate, or conservative, which way is right, center, or left, that it seems we have tried to transplant ourselves inversely. Bunches of dead and dying trees hardly constitutes a forest. Are we letting particular branches of personal pride or partisanship define our root of faith? What is feeding, and thus shaping, what? A brittle, fractured tree is a sign of lacking minerals, starvation. A dead tree is neither good for spreading pollen for future growth nor producing fruit to be eaten, but only mulch and fertilizer.

Our faith is, and should be, that which shapes all else. It is the root from which every branch grows and flourishes. Just as the rings of bark on a tree tell stories of seasons past—showing when the timber was affected by drought, fire, or even healthy rainfall—the many areas of our daily life speak to whether and how our roots are absorbing living water and critical nutrients or not. If ever we get to a place where our politics are shaping how we read the Bible, instead of the other way around, we need to check our roots. Likewise, when personal gain precedes caring for the needs of the neighbor, such is a sign that the aquifer has become contaminated. Topsy-turvy trees are no more useful for the ecosystem than we are to the world around us if our sight is bent downward onto ourselves. Our ethics today demonstrate an obscene ignorance, if not blatant arrogance, in confusing our branches with the roots. As we and those around us call into question appalling remarks made by our leaders, reprehensible policies put into motion by our government, and shameful silent disregard by us the people, we ought to keep in mind that there is no need for bad trees. They don’t remain standing for long. Perhaps the axe needs swinging if we no longer function as we are created to be. When a branch is cut from the trunk, new sprouts can shoot forth. The Apostle Paul speaks of grafting new branches where others have been removed (Romans 11:16b-24). Only God is able to bring about new life out of the dead stump of Jesse (Isaiah 11). If we remain bottoms up—roots rotting in the wind—death is most certain. Only God, the One who raised Jesus from the grave, can bring new resurrected life to trees that have died and decomposed. We call out to God—Creator, Sustainer, and Renewer—to reposition us for sustained life. Only God can bring us to new life—fulfilling the divine promise to make all things new. We pray that God may cleanse and nourish the forest with rains of forgiveness, blowing what is loose and dead away with winds of change, and if need be, setting us ablaze that we might grow anew. God of all, set us, your creation right—so that we might live with one another and serve all—with our roots in fastened in you and our branches showing your grace, love, and mercy. Amen.

– Pastor Andrew

You’re Using Your Bible All Wrong

Have you ever been sooo blessed as to have someone quote Scripture to you as a passively aggressive means of condemning, insulting, judging, or otherwise being rude to you? :/ Me too! Nothing makes me want to open a Bible and delve in headfirst more than such an overwhelmingly snobbish roundabout act of “evangelism” (Read: immeasurable unmitigated sarcasm). There’s just not enough digits on my hands and feet, or the person next to me for that matter, to count the number of times I’ve experienced such religiously circuitous engagement via biblical misuse. Aside from how it personally makes me feel (PO’ed to say the abbreviated least), this kind of narcissistic weaponized scriptural warfare gives Christianity a bad name—ironically by way of its own adherents. It does less than no favors toward drawing people to the gospel. Who in the history of the world has ever said: “Oh, that cleverly chosen chunk from the Bible you used to insult me was so appealing. It just makes me want to be a part of your convicting movement!” Frankly, such textual flagrance demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of how the Bible should be read. If ever we open and engage holy writ for the mal-purpose of decontextually using it against our neighbor—whomever they are—so as to destroy them in any way and thereby assuage our ego, then it’s safe to say we’re using the Bible all wrong. To put it plainly: The way in which we use Scripture speaks volumes of how we understand its purpose.

Despite how many approach it, the Bible is not some stockpile of spiritual ammunition stashed away—ready for the use of bringing about cataclysmic change so as to reform our opponent(s) in our own (sinfully twisted) image. Conspiring to use the inspired Word in order to spire ourselves above others really only serves to expire any means for God’s goodness and grace to be (transpired) spoken and shared through Scripture. The Bible is the living, breathing, continuing story of our faith; it’s not an outdated, irrelevant history book. Through it, we receive a multitude of voices across centuries and regions—each confessing their faith about who and where God is, what God is doing, how God’s presence and work affects them (all of us), and why all of this is so important. It’s filled with stories of creation, birth, and life together; and yet it is no less marked by stories of pain, suffering, and death. One doesn’t have to look too far to see very confusing accounts of hate-filled divisiveness. Still, these such passages cannot overshadow others of immense beauty, reconciliation, and hope. If looked upon as an unconnected assortment of passages, if not individually segmented verses, then yes, we can just take a piece from here or sentence from there, blow off the contextual dust of time, and carelessly heap it like hot dung at those whom we wish to shame. We, however, are not monkeys at the zoo and Scripture—no matter how hard it may be to grasp a hold of—is not a hot mess. Drawing on the image of the Christ child swaddled laying in a manger, Martin Luther goes so far as to say that all of Scripture is the cradle that holds Jesus. The Bible—Old and New Testaments together—points to the Son Incarnate, the Crucified and Risen Lord. It is a confession of faith; not a proof of superiority. It is a means by which the Spirit speaks of God’s grace for us in Christ Jesus; not a tool with which we’re expected to dig a moat around us and our “flawless” beliefs. How often we hear the Bible used to visibly demonstrate the speck in another’s eye, but in doing so we lose sight of the lumber yard housed in ours. Our use or misuse of the written Word shows the weight it bears, if any, in our faith and daily lives.

If we feel so inclined to rip phrases, sentences, and passages from Scripture, like children tearing petals from a flower—she loves, she loves me not, she loves me, she loves me not…—then what if we were to do so for the purpose of communicating grace, love, and forgiveness? Instead of pulling the rug out from beneath the other, what if we sought to use the Bible to build up and care for our neighbor? To the one who remarks “Well Jesus did it…” such a response shows itself fraught with holes of self-righteous selectiveness. If we’re using the Bible in a manner other than nurturing faith, spreading love, or instilling hope, I have to wonder what is our motive. When in doubt, err on the side of grace. Perhaps consider a few telling questions. Am I serving to build up the kingdom of God through what I’m quoting from the Bible? Does this verse comfort or convict my neighbor? Why do I feel so compelled to contribute this particular passage in this instance? And if nothing else, keep in mind mom’s proverbial question: How would you feel if someone was to say that to you? When we use another’s (Scripture’s) profession of faith to undermine someone, we actually devalue its original intention—which is to point toward a good and gracious God. More than a few people over the course of history have been dissuaded away not just participation in congregational life but altogether from faith in a loving God, all because of others’ misuses and abuses of the Bible. It is the church’s unintended and yet most used weapon. The temptation is great, but the lasting effect is far greater when we beat people up with keenly selected Scripture passages. Guilt, grief, and atheism are but a few of the scars many wear from Bible bashing. The prophet Isaiah’s call (2:4) to beat swords and spears into plowshares and pruning hooks bears a message we need to hear with regards to this topic. For us today, it reads: “And God shall judge among Christians, and shall rebuke many people; and they shall beat their snide snippets of Scripture into words of love, and their self-righteous citing of the Bible into means of grace; no person of faith shall lift up the Word against anyone else, neither shall they continue in these heinously idolatrous ways any more.” How are you using your Bible?

– Pastor Andrew

Shifting from Ownership to Discipleship

A frustrated father—unconsciously channeling the memory of his own adolescence, and seized by a voice from the past—yells at his young son in the backseat to stop talking. In a fraction of a second, the hot flood of anger turns ice-cold to a flush of shame. He doesn’t mean or expect for the little boy to sit silently the whole time. At a loss for the right words in that tense moment, the dad simply blurts out the first thing that comes to mouth (and not mind). Really what he meant—though what’s been spoken cannot be unsaid—was that he needed his son to quiet down a bit. Rolling off the tongue and propelled through the lips at a rate quicker than his conscience could kick into gear—the impact is like a slamming door which both sends shrills up the spine and conveys a clear though crippling message. An impression has been made on the little one’s mind. It will shape his thinking and actions, more or less, from this point forward. At such a young age, he’s been sorely inducted into a familial cycle reaching back many generations—one that is nearly impossible to break, and will haunt him when he too one day regretfully repeats it with his future kids.

I wonder, is this not all that different from what the church has done (and in some ways, recklessly continues) to its parishioners over time? Seeking an immediate and lasting result, the church brashly presses upon members (many times with guilt or shame) that they take ownership of particular tasks and ministries within the congregation. It must be done, and if they [insert: YOU] don’t do it then who will? This has served the church extensively over time. Yet, just as Martin Luther reminds us that we are most tempted to make idols of what we love, so also we run the risk of strictly legalizing that which is graciously given to us to simply steward. Therefore we create a dichotomy not so easily overcome, a sinkhole swallowing up those innocently standing by. Each side is eager to serve; but what is being communicated from generation to generation stands in the way. Those established within the faith community long for additional help in what they do—some wanting to pass on the baton, others eager to spread the work (because many hands make for light work, or perhaps more hands make for a wider impact)—but can many times come off as angry by others’ lack of commitment or struggle actually asking for the help. On the other hand, those new to the congregation seek to be a valued part of the greater whole but either feel unwelcome or upon entering are given hard and fast rules (The potatoes for the soup supper must be cut to this exact size—no larger, nor smaller!) with inflexible parameters which only limit involvement and stifle excitement to participate. The problem is one we all know from experience—one which many of us have experienced, wrestled with, and perhaps even unconsciously precipitated.

Without throwing the baby out with the bath water, the billion-dollar question seems to be: How do we shift from ownership to discipleship within the church? Cautious to not further the growing gap, how do we change the lens through which we view what we are called to do in, through, and as the church, so as to better reflect the foundational why beneath it all and thus become more open to including new faces, hands, and ideas? It’s not easy. I’ll be the first to say that when I help envision and implement something, it becomes my baby. It’s tough not going full-fledged Momma Bear when someone threatens to take away, change, or even just criticize (much less critique) that which I’ve helped to create. Momma bears mean bad business! And rightfully so. You put yourself into this, in much the same way that we invest ourselves into our families, work, and other meaningful parts of life. Yet, this all is based on a sense of ownership—it’s mine. What if we change the narrative to instead function by a more biblical ideal, such as discipleship? Jesus calls those who follow him not to take control of the ministry being done. They are disciples. This term is much more freeing. Discipleship is not defined by what one has done, but rather whom one follows. The tie that binds is not objective, but relational. Discipleship can be done individually, but it functions more fully—more richly and more beautifully—when it is communal. There is a vulnerability that comes with it (ugh!), because one must learn to listen and trust those around them. Yeah, it’d be easy not having to work alongside know-it-all Peter, the overly-confident brothers James and John, or shady Judas; but discipleship ultimately focuses on trusting Jesus as the leader/head of the body/Christ to lead, oversee, and guide it all—even as we make mistakes, fumble, and flat out fail. When we function by a sense of ownership in the church, it’s tough making room for the Spirit to enter in and stir about new life in our self-made, single occupancy ego bungalows. When we serve as disciples, however, we open wide the doors and windows, knock down walls, and take off the roof for the Spirit to creatively move to and fro.

The call to be disciples is not easy. At the end of the day, our names are not the ones plaqued in gold on the ministry—it is Jesus’s work, which we are invited to share in. It’s gravely tempting to make certain tasks and ministries in the church ours—to determine the only way things can and should be done, to guard the gates of who can and cannot enter in to participate, to take credit in success instead considering faithfulness. The challenge we, the church, are faced with is to break the cycle. Christ calls us to set ourselves—our desires and attempts to take control—aside. Drop them like nets at the shore of the Great Lake. Lay them down at the foot of the cross. The Spirit gives us a gift we many times struggle in using appropriately: faith. It’s not about trusting in our own ways, but rather trusting the One who calls us, leads and guides us, makes us new, and binds us with others, to give us everything we need to do his work in the world. How might you, in your participation among the church, respond to Christ’s call to shift from ownership to discipleship? What does that look like? We are given a narrative to embody and live out daily. Take up the call to be a disciple, and follow after Jesus.

– Pastor Andrew

Why You Should Stop Using “God’s Plan”

There are things that people say which make me, as a pastor, cringe. Among these are decontextualized concepts and misquoted passages ripped from Scripture, self-help mantras sanitarily devoid of God, and strange pseudo-Christian statements that, like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, are part secular, part otherly religious, part pastoral Tylenol. When I hear them spoken, whether directly to me or in passing to someone else, I get that uncomfortable tense feeling akin to jumping headfirst into the ice-cold Comal River. Every muscle within me tightens up, my brain starts scanning for snarky responses, and if I’m fortunate a timely distraction or the right dose of patience intervenes hindering a senselessly polemical debate from igniting. Near the top of The List is the oft, overly used coping device: “God’s plan.” We’ve all heard it. And unfortunately, many of us have said it either fearfully unsure of what else to say or overcome by guilt to speak some timeless truth that will serve as a divine Band Aid. Generally, I hear the phrase spoken once a week. Some time ago, scanning the radio, I heard a rap song come on with the chorus repeating “God’s plan.” Needless to say I changed the channel. In some ways, to respond with prophetic declaration of God’s private schemes is more rote for us than professing the words of the Ten Commandments, Apostle’s Creed, or Lord’s Prayer. Playing the childhood game of Operation on the Bible, we carelessly grope and grab at individual verses like Jeremiah 29:11 and disregard everything around it. BUZZ! BUZZZ! BUZZZZZ! Far from what we intended, we actually end up with a lobotomized Bible where the pages only serve as a cold condensed catalog of neatly compartmentalized individual maxims.

Speaking a word of hope to those Jews exiled to Babylon, we hear God say to the people: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope” (29:11). After the prescribed time of Babylon’s rule, God will then be accessible—rescuing the chosen people and restoring them. It is a promise of hope clung onto amidst devastating despair. Though they currently dwell amidst harm and great uncertainty, the Jews receive this sure and certain word that the future is bright, not bleak. This single verse, when trimmed of its surrounding fatty content, washed of its gamey context, and neatly packaged as something else; therefore serves as nothing more than faux meat, scriptural Spam. Yet, time and time again, we use this and other such hand-picked passages to formulate the extra-biblical idea of “God’s plan” which we then market as some commercialized cheap, empty grace to seal our sores and ease us of practicing empathy. It’s like My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s version of Windex—just put it on anything! Still, we have become so married to this concept that we tout it around as a badge of the faith and haphazardly fling it on others. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. If such is true, I have a feeling our reckless use of “God’s plan” as a coping device fills in the gaps of that horrendous highway project. When we assume to know what God’s intentions or strategies are or portend to understand such mysteries, we actually only serve to break the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” We do not know God’s plans for us, or for anyone or anything else for that matter. We cannot begin to fathom the endless intricacies of God’s heart or mind. To do so, places us in the role of or above God. We can only trust, hope, and pray that God’s plan—if God even does have a plan (scary thought, I know)—is one of grace and goodness before and beyond all of our sin and brokenness. Outside of what we experience in the cross of Jesus, we are not divine mind readers with authorized purview into God’s soon-to-be doings.

As people of faith, whose identity is reshaped/reformed in Jesus, who reveals God to the world, we need to put to rest—or better yet, put to death—this sordid response of “God’s plan” for ourselves and others. Whatever God’s plan may or may not be it will or will not be. Instead, I believe we are called to live in the moment, walking with faith in Christ who goes alongside us all the way. We are called, I believe, to physically reside with those hurting, displaced by doubt, and otherwise trying to make sense out of this crazy life—not slapping every situation with the same ole stamp of spiritual and emotional disconnect. We are called to be Resurrection People, meaning living by hope and therefore sharing and spreading this same hope for others—hope in God’s pervading presence, hope in the endless love and forgiveness of Christ Jesus, hope in the Spirit’s creative work of resurrection both daily and on the day when the Crucified and Risen One returns to make all things new. God is working healing and wholeness amidst our pain and suffering, bringing about good in spite of the bad, and setting up hope before us to guide our footsteps forward. You don’t need a keenly dissected Bible verse to tell you that. Look to Jesus, the One who willfully enters into the hurt, shame, and sorrow of others, who took all of the same onto himself to continue embracing and embodying the good news of God’s grace and love for the world. See and trust in him, who in life, death, and resurrection gives hope and promise of new, eternal life to all people. We cannot imagine the infinite designs or arrangements God has for the whole cosmos. We, however, are given a most wondrous gift in faith to trust the One whom we cannot see nor understand. Lay down your desires, fears, and speculations regarding “God’s plan” and live by faith, hope, and love.

– Pastor Andrew

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