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


Unrecognized Gifts

Over time I’ve come to learn (and believe) that entitlement, like atrophy, has a way of setting in when our motions of joy and thankfulness become irregular. As a child, I hate to say, there was no limit to my wants. Sadly, I probably could have supplicated Santa into submission with everything I wanted. I want this…I want that…I want…I want…I want… For longer than I’d like to admit, this was my way of thinking—the world revolved around me, or so I thought. (I say this not to point the finger at my parents, but rather naming my own adolescent attitude for what it was.) It took moving away, engaging with others who did not share my view of me being the center of everything, and having my vision reoriented towards the importance of why instead of how much that I began to see Christmas in a different light. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy receiving things as much as the next person. I’m no more immune to covetousness than anyone else. These days, as I look back into the blurry history of Christmases past, I’m beginning to see more clearly other, unrecognized gifts that went unacknowledged amidst my self-consumption in opening this and acquiring that. So much I failed to see—right before my very eyes. Gifts I missed, though priceless still more valuable than anything I ever got. As I come to this now from the other side—a parent of two young children, whom I want to give the world—I can’t help but think (ashamed) of the way I was, wonder what I should do for them (not a solicitation for advice), and hope that they never get to the place I resided in for far too long.

As I sit here in my office—less than a week out from Christmas—I’m reminded of a handful of people for whom I still need to shop. Each year I swear I’ll be better about not procrastinating on getting gifts for others, but it never fails how the calendar constantly gets away from me. Yet, in spite of the temptation to wander into any number of department stores or mindlessly search online through Amazon for the perfect something, I know those are really the lesser of the gifts shared this season. It’s all too easy to overlook and disregard the ones that aren’t wrapped in bright paper, fluffy bows, and tagged for me, me, me. I need to ask myself: What are those unrecognizable gifts that deserve a word of acknowledgment, thanks and praise? The gracious generosity of countless individuals around my family and I. Joy in my relationships and work. Basic necessities I don’t have to question. The freedom to be me, even if a festive jacket offends a few people on Sunday 😉 Being able to trust that I am heard and held up by others as valuable within our shared community. But honestly, when I think about these unrecognizable gifts they each bear familiar faces. A colleague, without whom, nearly nothing I do would be possible. A friend who has stood beside me from afar through ups and downs, twists and turns, many moves and endless questions. A spouse whose patience and love continue to surprise me, like the first blossoms of Springtime. A relative whom I struggle with, and yet cannot imagine not having in my life. These are but a few of the many gifts that can be missed when my sight is misplaced. What, or who, are the gifts in your life that perhaps have gone unrecognized recently? A relationship that has ceased, yet still bears fruit in unforeseeable ways? An unexpected act of kindness that caught you completely off guard? The laughter of a conversation that warmed your heart for days afterwards? A person whom you see weekly, whose care and diligence to detail actually serve as an unrealized comfort in your daily life? So many gifts stand right before our faces, and somehow we miss them for what they truly are for us.

The baby born to Mary is no less an unrecognized gift for us. Yes, right now we sing in wonder: What child is this? The other eleven months of the year, however—when we’re not running as hastily the rat race of consumerist cheerfulness (or so we presume)—do we see him for who he is and what he does? Are we truly aware of the gifts the Incarnate One so freely gives to us? Do our lives mirror that which we receive in this Christ child come among us? I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest: no, not always. All too often these gifts of God go unrecognized in my sight. Still they’re there. The grace, love, and forgiveness. In spite of my many times not seeing or acknowledging them for what they are, it’s all always been present from the beginning and remains irregardless. My inability (dare I say, unwillingness) to recognize them right before my face neither voids nor forfeits these gifts. They are the new reality that permeates outward from the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus. These gifts exist in plain sight. Not dependent upon my words, actions, or lack thereof. Love. Peace. Hope. Joy. These words we assemble this time each year as interchangeable parts of our holiday decorations, are more than just blue banners hanging from an Advent wreath. They are gifts given to us daily. Do you see them active in and around your life? How might you acknowledge them, giving thanks and praise for these (among other) unrecognized gifts? As we enter into Christmas this next week, may we look with fresh eyes to see— beyond all the pretty presents—the many gifts around us. May we give thanks to God for them, sharing our appreciation even with these gifts themselves. God blesses us with far more than we will ever fully know—not just in possessions, but also our relationships. I guess what I’m saying is I want (cause there’s always another to be had) you to see and know you are blessed. Thanks be to God for the Christ child and the countless other unrecognized gifts he gives to us!

– Pastor Andrew

No Room Inn Here For You

It was a sobering conversation. There in the colonia classroom surrounded by Solidaridad students. Nearly every one of them named a relative, perhaps even a parent, or someone else they know who has made the journey northbound. Some of the stories candidly closed with a semblance of Moses at the end of Deuteronomy—said person dying before ever crossing into the Promised Land. At least one of those present had considered for herself leaving Juticalpa to search out the, albeit empty, dream that so many still wish to embrace. Seated in a loosely-shaped circle, with over a dozen middle and high school students, we told them: stay, don’t go. It wasn’t the rhetoric we in the U.S. have recently sought to plaster in the minds of foreigners: there’s no room for you in here. Rather, our words in that time and place had to be carefully chosen and meticulously translated, so that the right message might be heard. With grimaced faces and torn hearts, we hoped that the tough message would be received for what it was: a loving warning. Telling a bunch of teenagers (no matter their context or culture) NO, NO, NO, just wouldn’t suffice. They needed to understand why these gringos from afar were so passionate about the topic at hand. It may be hard to believe, but you’re actually safer here at home than anywhere along the pathway or within the States. Even if you make it past the border—and that’s a BIG IF—there’s still no guarantee that you will find work, good paying, worthwhile work. The perceived land of flowing milk and honey is not all as it’s portrayed to be, for some it’s actually spoiled and crystalized beyond consumption. It’s not that we, sitting here with you, don’t want you there. Really your wellbeing matters more than anything else. Words that so many generations have clung to as a radiant beacon of hope for the rest of the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me” (Emma Lazarus’ New Colossus), are being called to question amidst actions and policies right now that speak quite differently. To gloss over this current reality would be the same as personally leading these kids into harm’s way.

As we draw ever near in our Advent waiting and watching to that Christmas narrative we all know so well—the baby Jesus born in a barn, surrounded by a bunch of tamed cute and cuddly animals (or so we fantasize)—a parallel between there and then to here and now is striking. Surely I’m not the only one seeing this! We gloss right over the clause immediately following the birth of the Christ child—because there was no place for them in the inn (2:7b)—romanticizing it like Bethlehem was busy that weekend with a conference and all of the local hotels just so happened to be full. Ah shucks. Every other mile down Caesar Lane another neon sign glowing bright red: No Vacancy. Well, silly Joseph should’ve planned accordingly, perhaps checking on Expedia, Kayak, or Trip Advisor before making the trip with no lodging set. How careless of a stepfather! Dang shame that little Savior boy had to enter into the world in a manger, but at least the nativity looks so precious up on my mantle—could’ve been much worse. We’ve commercialized the image of Christmas that we bury the unfortunate truth behind it under bright smiles, twinkling stars, and soft figurines—redefining the story from a beautiful tragedy to instead resemble a jolly Disney fairytale. There was no room for them, not because the local Super 8 was all booked up, but on account of a “we don’t serve your kind here!” A pregnant unwed teenager and her confused boyfriend, not from the area, probably broke and not able to afford much if anything, coming in and looking for a place to give birth. Hmm, I don’t think so. If you must, take that around back where it can be hidden away and won’t offend the paying patrons. No place for the holy family meant quite literally “there’s no room for you in(n) here!” Instead of warm hospitality, they found themselves met with cold disregard. A damp and drafty shanty for the animals—not the safest or most sterile—would have to suffice for the setting in which the Son of the Most High would enter into the world. Nothing says we don’t want you here quite like being pushed out to a foul and filthy barn to give birth to your firstborn child.

Well, there’s always a need for inn-keepers. Or at least that’s what we on the inside—policing who all can enter, stay, leave, and how—like to think. Our united national history seems to be just one episode after another of determining and discussing who’s in, who’s out, and why the distinction is necessary. If we’re honest about it all, fear is always the driving force behind such separation. We fear losing our jobs, land, practices, wealth, etc. to someone else. We fear change to the system that supports us in particular, and thus losing our control over it all. We fear our thoughts, beliefs, and way of life becoming contaminated, diluted, looking even slightly different than how we’ve worked so diligently to fabricate them. We fear having to look up beyond ourselves and take into consideration the needs of our neighbor who is unlike us in any way. The voice of there is no room in here for you is ultimately that of fear speaking in and through us. Fear segregates one ethnicity away from one water fountain or restroom to another lesser option. Fear inters a particular group into camps to be monitored amidst uncertainty. Fear bans the entrance of certain foreigners based solely upon the misconception of their home country. Fear locks borders and looks upon asylum as a devious loophole. When we function by fear, we act with anxiety. And yet, in spite of our continual fear, this is the very setting in which God chooses to enter into the world. Unwelcome while still unborn, pushed to the margins, made to dwell immediately among the unclean and unsightly. In all the mystery of that holy moment, it’s still a wonder that we pursue to keep others (who themselves resemble the Christ child more than we Anglos) at bay and away. There’s no room for you in(n) here! The narrative of our words and policies rival that of the story we so long to hear of when Love came down. Are we really so blind, or just bullheaded?! When we turn a family away at the border, we ultimately turn a blind eye on the holy family desperately in need of a place to stay, rest, and refuge. There is, indeed, room for you in(n) here. Welcoming you with open arms and hearts does not weaken but rather strengthens us as a whole. The stranger claimed neighbor is truly Christ in our presence. Have we made room for Jesus in our decorations, and yet not in our hearts, minds, and communities? What does it say of us when we hear the birth of Jesus, but still press for more and more barriers between us and our neighbors? Can we really listen with faith for God’s Word made flesh among us while we react with fear to anyone who doesn’t mirror ourselves? Hope is standing at the wall. Promise is waiting in a tent along the other side of a checkpoint. Grace longs to be received for more than just cheap labor. Love is eager to be born. Is there any room for them in(n) here? I believe so.

– Pastor Andrew

Racism & A Cross-Cultural Lesson on Trust in Honduras

You’ve done it too, and chances are you didn’t even notice it. Racism. Now before you respond with disdain in the form of a mental expletive or make your way for the exit out of this page—HOLD ON and hear me out. For the sake of illuminating a response that shouldn’t be (but is all too often) hidden away in the darkness of disregard, let me shed some light on a recent personal instance where it hit me like a (much-needed) sack of coconuts that I was sliding into a mindset of ignorance and insecurity—ultimately isolationism—fueled by an overwhelming feeling of incompetence. Education by self-degradation? Perhaps, I pray, hearing of my wrestling with racism—because we all face its temptation—and some revelations on it might make you more mindful of its welling up within you, and draw you to change your thinking and renew your response in similar such situations. To profess one’s complete and utter innocence void of candid self-reflection is to propel the wheel of injustice upon which we ride—all the while disregarding the ominous pathway forward over the cliff. STOP!!! I believe self-awareness is key to breaking the chain of hate and violence we continue to drag along through history—binding us, and hindering life-giving relationships with one another of which God truly intends for us. We must confess ourselves, sinful and broken, if we are to live fully in the forgiveness of Christ Jesus who makes us, our relationships, and all of creation whole.

Yesterday, was filled with visits talking to deans and admission representatives of four different universities across Juticalpa, Honduras. What a blessing to see how education is growing in this area as young people are encouraged to learn, prosper, and better themselves, their families, and community. Accompanied by our gifted and gracious translator, Juan Pablo, we were able to talk with these various individuals about programs offered, term schedules, course costs, matriculation provisions, degree/certification/license requirements, scholarship funding, additional education aids, and career potentials. Each conversation was simultaneously difficult yet humbling. It’s tremendously trying to sit with someone and only be able to understand a handful of words here or there. Having taken Spanish classes three times over high school and college, I’m ashamed to admit that my knowledge of the language is still muy pequeño. On the other hand, if open to the situation, the conversational barrier can bring a person to a new level of respect and awe—for both those who communicate differently than oneself, and those who are able (and willing) to bridge cultures. Sitting there on the couch across from two of the university’s administrative leaders, my mind began to wander into a place of anxiety. What exactly were they saying? Could I be sure they weren’t talking about me—how stupid I surely am? How could I trust what was then being communicated with me? And in a moment’s notice, with what felt like a snap of the fingers, a voice chimed in my head. What is wrong with you!? Why are you going there, assuming the worst? Why can’t you trust them? Like a flood of sweat rushing down my face from the 80 plus degrees with 90 percent humidity, shame washed over me. I had been welcomed into this time and space with exceeding hospitality—buenos dias! mucho gusto!—and now I, the pastor, was failing to listen with grace and faith. Hear me say this as nothing more or less than a penitent confession: I was wrong in that moment. I sinned in not giving my newly-met neighbors the benefit of the doubt and trusting their words for what they truly were: assistance and care. Though not malicious, my thoughts there were, unfortunately, racist. For this, I am truly sorry.

I wish I could say this was the first and only time I’ve ever met someone who looks, sounds, or lives differently than me with this mental response. To do so, however, would be a heinous lie. This way of thinking, and the responses that often accompany it—Why can’t you just speak English? If you come into MY country you should learn to talk in MY language! (ironic, me being the one who can’t speak their language in their country)—are symptoms of a system we, privileged Americans in particular, have inherited and continue to pass down to future generations. What’d you get for Christmas, Timmy? A new bike? No, just some confusing systemic racism—but boy does it burn bright! This sad truth, no less prevalent than any other time in history, sure seems to be more explicit now than previously. No amount of affluence has been able to separate me from its affect than on anyone else. We each and altogether, whether we realize, admit it, or not, are simultaneously the cause and effect of racism. A vicious circle we many times inadvertently help to form—round and round we go, where we’ll end up no one knows…nor wants to confront. Frankly, it doesn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) take a 1,300 mile trip to a foreign country to figure all this out. Ignorance is bliss; but a change in context has a way of melting away that sweet treat into a hot sticky mess. Our ignorances and incompetencies feed our insecurities (and vice versa)—isolating us, instigating idolatrous ideas of inferiority. We fear what we don’t immediately understand, what we refuse to learn, what we struggle to master. In a country so ripe with faith, it was clearly a work of the Holy Spirit to be met by a crucifix with the Crucified Jesus on it some minutes after just having distrusted my neighbors. For this very reason, Andrew, I died—to forgive you, to free you from such racism, to draw you into relationship with those who look and sound differently but also receive my gifts of grace and love. 

What is one to do with this? How are we to change our response from that of fear to instead trust? For me to try and offer some full-proof answer to the question would appear to disregard that I, myself, am still a part of the problem. Hence my personal confession. How fitting that this is an educational trip—learning more about the ministry done by Austin Helps Honduras, while also engaging with students and their families about their ongoing pursuit of education supported by their scholarship sponsors. An immediate answer to the question (if there is one) seems to be education. Meeting with others of differing cultures—relationship formation. Learning the language—honoring unfamiliarity as beautiful and valuable. Being shaped by the struggles of another—compassion. These are steps in the right direction. Incarnational, they force us to move beyond our comfort zones, diverge from our unquestioned assumptions, and truly meet the other for who they are—a fellow beloved child of God, no less deserving of love, respect, and trust. None of these means of engagement are ever mastered. At best, consciously practiced with peace and patience. Yet, before we can make this effort we must begin with confession and forgiveness. There’s a reason why, in the Lutheran Church, we start worship with this before anything else in the liturgy. Without first humbly admitting ourselves sinful and broken, guilty of hurting our neighbors in thought, word, or deed, we can’t fully receive and live in the good news Jesus proclaims: we are loved unconditionally, forgiven freely, and called to reflect these gifts in our daily lives and relationships with others. We need to own our racism—confessing ourselves in need of Jesus’s transforming cross, dying to our idolatry of ourselves and our particularities. If ever the kingdom of God is enter in our midst, we must continue to work diligently in dismantling all those systems that keep racism rampant and educate ourselves and one another to approach difference in appearance, race, language, and culture as something to be celebrated and affirmed, not feared or despised. God gives our neighbor, especially those different from us, not to be afraid but rather blessed by them. Let not ignorance, incompetence, insecurity, or isolation prevent you from encountering a blessing in another.

– Pastor Andrew

Advent: Let it Take Hold of You

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The irony of hearing this classic Christmas tune played overhead while simultaneously seeing images of teargas fired on immigrant families trying to cross over the southern border for asylum should hopefully not be lost on us. Department stores open with extended hours and GIANT DEALS that cannot be passed up. Humanity, on the other hand, appears to be on short supply—dignity for one’s neighbors in need is on extreme back order. Get me more compassion, pronto!!! As pre-manufactured joy is flourishing (likely also Made in China), real flesh and bone hope diminishes with these darkening days. It can’t get here quick enough. The question is: What will the it be when it finally arrives? That new must-have item I’ve desperately been coveting ever since I first saw it blasted on every other commercial, or perhaps the long-awaited incarnate one who will bring about change—complete cosmic transformation—now and in the time to come? Not a moment too soon, this coming Sunday brings with it the season of Advent which marks the beginning of a new year in the church’s calendar. Whereas the world around us is gearing up for the end—in celebration of Christmas, the close of another tax year, or for some the perceived apocalypse; we are starting anew cross-eyed, with one looking to an unexpected birth that begins the gospel narrative, and the other an undisclosed return transitioning to the next more glorious chapter. Which is clearer? 1? Or 2? 1? Or 2? Beyond all of the decorations and traditions, with its blurred lines Advent can leave a person feeling dizzy. Remind me again: are we talking about back then and there, here and now, or some future time God knows where?

What in the hell are we doing?!?! Just when you think this crazy train has finally arrived to its last depot, the black smoke spews out from the stack sky-high yet again. All aboard! Last stop: sure and certain damnation! Is anyone else tired of pinching themselves to wake up? Seems like we’re taking Dante’s Inferno literally as we keep carving new sub-terrain levels on our quest for the bottom. How fitting, that amidst our self-inflicted despair, the Spirit of Change would draw us into a time of eager anticipation and communal hopefulness. With each passing week of Advent, we light one (another) candle to watch for Messiah—waiting for the coming Christ child, who promises to bring us forgiveness and life anew. This, however, is but half of the season’s intent. Simultaneously, as we pull out our Precious Moments nativity scenes and argue about when the bearded wise guys from the East join the picture—wait til Epiphany!—we are encouraged to set our sight, with the eyes of dreamers (not to be confused with DACA), on that unknown day when the Crucified and Risen Christ will return to raise the dead, renew creation, and restore God’s kingdom here in our midst. Days like today, I imagine God is receiving an abundance of prayers appealing to expedite the day of the Lord. Can you overnight it, please? Advent is a critical time in the life of faith where we wrestle with how God chooses to enter into the world—a helpless baby born in a barn—and yet also promises to return again as the firstborn of the dead and ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev. 1:5). In this nebulous time, we stand betwixt and between (to use a former professor’s favorite phrase) our present despondence and God’s illuminating future.

This December, before you get all bent out of shape regarding what design your Starbucks Christmas cup dons or up in arms about keeping Yeshua in X-mas, enter into Advent. The news will continue to be fed (dare I say, fueled) by the endless nonsense going on around us. God-willing, the sun will continue to rise and set as it has so many times before. The holiday cheer will inevitably seep in, like frosting between the seams of an amateur assembled gingerbread house. I know we’ve each got our lists of to-do’s and we’re checking them twice (every hour…at least). Don’t fast forward through this most critical part. Let the season of Advent take hold of you like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Snatched by the spirit of Christmas Past, enter into the scene leading up to that holy night—filled with its twists and turns, chaotic characters and surprise settings. Enlightened by the spirit of Christmas Present, step back in this moment and look out into the world around you with fresh eyes to see and question today. How did we get here? Is this as God intends us to live? Why do we continue to silently let these despicable things happen? Led by the spirit of Christmas Future, let your imagination loose to ponder with faith what God is bringing about and where we are being called to plug into this unfolding work of the gospel. Advent is much more than preparing for 8lbs 6oz newborn infant Jesus. It’s a time for us to hold up to the light what is in prophetic confrontation and hopeful expectation of what is to come. The sin, death, and despair we know all too well is not the final picture. Peace, resurrection life, hope made manifest—these are the promises of God’s future that we cling to in this present time as we await the one who is making all things new again. Be aware, Advent is coming. Let it take hold of you.

– Pastor Andrew

Cut Back on All the Thanksgiving Gratitude

Let’s be honest: gratitude isn’t always a given for everyone around the proverbial table. I confess, there are times when my thoughts, feelings, or words are less than thankful. Just this past weekend I was faced with an occasion where the topic of discussion was thankfulness and as everyone shared blessings for which to celebrate, all I could do was silently sulk on recently losing something priceless and irretrievable. A pretty sad sight I was—Pity Party for 1. To pose as being thankful in a moment when my heart wasn’t there would’ve felt downright fake. At the risk of scrooging Thanksgiving, sometimes the assumed gratitude we so ceremoniously attach to the holiday can feel like forcefully injecting a syringe full of high fructose syrup into a frozen hard Butterball. That’s not how it works! I’m not saying we throw out the supposed reason for the season. But I wonder if we’ve made thankfulness into just another adorned dish alongside the green bean casserole, cranberry sauce, and Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls—waiting to be consumed and later bemoaned for overindulgence? Or, is it still that weathered oak table hidden beneath the bright decorative cloth—holding it all up not just once or twice a year on special occasions, but day after day after day? Why is it that we seem to overemphasize gratitude on this national high holy day? Is thankfulness just a moral centerpiece we pull out from storage, dust off, and display this time of year to further inflate our egos—look how grateful I am (!!!), or is it a means of temporarily humbling ourselves before we go crazy in Amazon Priming others’ affections? Thank you God for free shipping! In deep-frying our increasingly overly-processed gratitude, we’ve domesticated it into just another commodity to be bought, sold, and consumed instead of being our daily response to grace.

Well so much for inviting Pastor Pessimist over to join in the festivities… I’m not saying I won’t celebrate as much as the next person. So long as history repeats itself and I haven’t lost my love of food, I’ll be glutton for punishment. But beyond the turkey trot, the question remains: Is our thankfulness just a sign of the season, or a more fixed foundational part of our daily lives? It’s not a matter of whether or not we should be thankful. Even amidst my first world problems, there’s no doubt in my mind that I have more than much for which to give thanks and praise to God. This past week (long story short) my phone was stolen and with it I lost six years worth of pictures, including the birth of my boys, baptisms and weddings, relationships and ministries from the two churches I served in Nebraska, family vacations, friends, cheeky random pics, my gorgeous bride. ALL OF IT GONE. (I know. I should’ve backed it up to Heaven, er, I mean The Cloud.) Needless to say, I’m pissed off at myself. Yet, in spite of feeling robbed of all those personal memories, I still have with me (most) all of those subjects. With the same breath I lament this irretrievable loss, I must also express my overwhelming gratitude to God for these whom the Spirit has brought into my life, the experiences we’ve shared, and the memories that can still be recalled. I am blessed. Truly blessed. Blessed beyond belief. I’ve been gifted with a wife who loves me more than I understand. Two boys who fill my heart with as much if not more joy and happiness than they drive me crazy, and that’s saying a lot. 😉 Our families who love and support us along the way. A faith community that is nurturing. Work that is both tremendously enjoyable and exceedingly fulfilling. Friendships that are mutual and sustaining. Health that allows me the freedom to do just about anything. Means and resources to care comfortably for my family. The gift of faith that forever binds me to a Crucified and Resurrected Messiah, who loves, forgives, and remains with me always, in spite of my daily blunders and endless bouts of sinfulness.

So long as I have all, any of those blessings, or even just the breath in my lungs, the only appropriate response is thankfulness. God, who is good and gracious—giving us all that we have and hold in our lives (not to be confused with a spiritual Santa Claus, we would most certainly all number the naughty list)—is always the primary actor in this relationship. This means that God and God’s blessings are not, in any way, dependent upon us, but ever precede our supplication or gratitude. Our response is just that—a response. Even our faith (trust) in Christ Jesus, which is itself a gift from the Holy Spirit, when acted upon is a response to what has already been done on our behalf and freely given to us—with no strings attached. Our whole lives are but a simple (not to be confused with simplistic) response to the Triune God—Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—who is the Ground of our very being. If ever our response of gratitude becomes less than daily, if not minute to minute, than we have misunderstood/misappropriated from whom all blessings flow. Thankfulness is more than just an temporal, occasional, or seasonal response. It is a fundamental part of our identity as receivers of God’s gifts. We are not grateful in order to gain more blessings, but as a result of all those  we already receive by the endless grace of God. At a most basic level, every breath we take is not just a gift from God but is also an opportunity for us to respond with praise and thanksgiving. I’m not trying to pu pu platter all over your bird feast. Nor am I saying drain off the excess gratitude before passing around the gravy boat. What if, instead of making such a big deal about it on this one day and treating it like turkey sandwich leftovers the other 364, we all were to begin each day with a word of thanks? What affect might it have on us, our relationships, and communities, if we were to search out and utilize every opportunity to share our gratitude? Might it transform the world to resemble more the kingdom of God? Feast on the abundance of God’s rich blessings not just this week, but each and every day, and may your response of thankfulness be just as regular. We all are so blessed. Thanks be to God!

– Pastor Andrew

Thinking About Our Narrative

It was a hair past noon. We were sitting at the second booth in from the door. He had ordered a grilled chicken salad—dressing on the side, and I burnt ends with fries. *Cue mouthwatering* Famous Daves BBQ at L and South 120th. It was conveniently just around the corner from his work and we both loved their food. Sitting there sipping on my glass of sweet tea (though no southern, half a bag of sugar, make your lips smack sweet tea), he said to me: “I’ve been thinking about our narrative.” I knew he would bring tremendous leadership to the position, with gifts of unique insight regarding the community and wisdom on how to try new things with care and creativity. His humble ability to look at and discern the ways a group, in this case a congregation, coalesces and coheres for the sake of a common mission blew my mind. I had mostly suggested the lunch for the sake of visiting casually and getting to know better my parishioner. He, on the other hand, was on another (deeper) wave length—processing through what message we as a congregation in rural county Nebraska, right outside of the BIG CITY, were hoping to send and how we would communicate it to not just those within the building but also our neighbors beyond the church. Suddenly out on the table before us, it sat there, begging to be cut into and consumed—a colossal question: What is our particular accumulative story as a community of faith, worth sharing with others, honoring our identity and pointing towards our outreach? I think about that unexpected conversation from time to time, especially when people share with me their personal stories and the Guiding Spirit inevitably moves us to think about the uniqueness of each individual story, how the Body of Christ is formed from the knitting together of these many narratives, and their affect/effect on/by the the gospel narrative at the heart of the faith that binds us.

Again, yesterday, it happened. Over Mediterranean bowls, at a new-to-me place, on the west side. As he tells me about his education, some of the eclectic jobs he’s worked, and a personal passion fueled by his faith and core values, there the Spirit is—HELLO!—like a switchboard operator, connecting calls by putting plugs into particular jacks. Swapping stories, we were now part of one another’s narrative. Each time I visit with a parishioner, I’m amazed by their unfolding life story—this occasion was no different. Absolutely fascinating. Many hours later, I’m still in awe. And for whatever reason, the Spirit drew both his and mine to converge in this time and place through our congregation. Crazy to think the church—St. Martin’s in particular—was the means by which our paths crossed. At many and various points throughout the conversation, names and faces came to mind as I was listening—similarities in others’ stories, shared experiences, ideas of how So-and-so could connect with or complement this person on such-and-such. Relationships elucidated, other new ones imagined. It is in these holy moments that two things are made explicitly clear to me. First, I am reaffirmed that being invited into and blessed by hearing people’s stories is what most gives me energy in/for ministry. As an introvert, I thrive on one-on-one encounters. And as I learn more and more the make up of our congregation, I feel it helps me to speak faithfully in my preaching, teaching, and leading in this context. Secondly, I am reminded how a BIG PART of my work as a pastor is to be a curator of narratives. I am entrusted (privileged) with people’s personal ins and outs, and with confidence I am to handle them with care—keeping them safe, continually learning from them and, when appropriate, letting them contribute towards something that might encourage, inspire, or comfort others. These stories impact how other narratives are heard and shared, just as they each represent the impact of a myriad others.

So, then, how does the narrative of Jesus fit into all of this? Though it’s not an ever-changing story, in its unfolding it changes us. The spoken Word takes claim of its listeners and draws us into it—to live in, through, and as a result of it. We are grasped ahold of and redefined by this story in a way that our identities, relationships, and purposes—all that we are is rewritten new. The church orders its life around and from this living narrative. Everything from our liturgical seasons to the fundamental practices of worship and milestones of the faith journey are impacted by Jesus’s story. It is efficacious and relevant across borders and generations. The story of the Crucified and Risen Christ gives us life both in the present and the promise of new life in the future time to come. Amidst a sea of narratives, each competing for our attention and allegiance, the gospel narrative is the only sustaining message. Instead of those messages of scarcity, deficiency, and uncertainty we so often hear, the story of Jesus speaks abundance of grace, perfect love, and confidence in God’s future. Whereas the world tells us to buy the constant narratives of fear and despair, Jesus’s freely gives to us hope and promise. The church’s message to the world should be: Your life won’t be the same—but not in the way we’re so use to hearing and conditioned to believe. Instead of the usual “buy this…eat this…believe this…” the Incarnate One says to us: “freely receive this…be fed and nourished by this…trust this…” The narrative of Jesus binds individuals and communities together across time, place, and differences as one in Jesus. Just as this story is still ongoing, it does not allow us to remain complacent or cemented. It draws us outward, beyond ourselves, to go, engage, hear, and be changed by the stories of others—adding another thread to the growing tapestry of the Body of Christ. More than just our mission statement—most don’t even know what that is, its purpose, or importance—what is our particular accumulative story as a community of faith, worth sharing with others, honoring our identity and pointing towards our outreach? What is your story? How is the Spirit weaving it into this congregation? How has the narrative of Jesus shaped yours? I bet it’s an amazing story worth sharing. I hope you will.

– Pastor Andrew

Resurrection? Gasp! What?!

Let me tell you what, nothing sucks the air out of a room quite like telling a group of people the thing we’ve all been taught our whole lives is not scriptural. Gasp! What?! Oh no Pastor, that can’t possibly be right! I know what you’re thinking. “No you didn’t. Did you really?Not in so few words, but more or less yeah. The silence throughout the sanctuary was so heavy in that moment you could’ve heard the palpitations of a few dozen parishioner hearts skipping a beat. I mean, I didn’t come out guns a blazin’ screaming: “you’re all wrong!” though I’m sure some still heard it that way. So what was the scandalous subject of which I coyly corrected the congregation? Sex? Money? Politics? No. No. Nope. Something far more audacious and perplexing—resurrection. Arguably the most neglected doctrine of the church, with green vigor I sought to sermonically set it straight on All Saints Sunday. *liturgical facepalm* In a season when everyone’s already on guard politically—drawing hard and fast lines, erecting unscalable walls, shading differences in varying primary colors; I figured it wasn’t too tall a hill to climb. Confusing attitude for altitude, I guess I should’ve known better. Those beliefs we learn in adolescence, critically assessed or not, are clinched onto most tightly and not easily changed. When our core (in this case, Heaven) feels threatened, how quickly the response mirrors that of warding off mall kiosk solicitors: “No thank you. No thank you. I said, NO!” Still, I’m convinced that the church has been given the greatest gift of hope, for which most people either haven’t heard or don’t believe—but desperately need proclaimed.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, what do we believe happens after death—and why? What about this topic makes us dig our heels in with great tenacity? Is it out of resolute confidence or a latent fear? Many, if not most of us, have been taught or told that immediately upon death, a teeny tiny unblemished piece of us—the soul—leaves the body, escaping this wretched world, to float heavenward to a perfect peaceful place above the clouds. There, we reside in rich harmony for eternity with all those whom God has called to himself within the pearly gates along roads of gold. This is the long-held desire for countless people. Yet, when we delve into passages like Daniel 12, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15, and Revelation 21 (among countless others), we find a different, more fully-fleshed hope. The Christian hope shaped by scripture is that Jesus, the Crucified and Resurrected Christ, who in the sight of the apostles ascended toward heaven, will one day return to set all things right here in this place. On that unknown day, we confess, God will raise from their resting places those who have died, all will be given new transformed bodies—free from disease, decay, and death, and we will be reunited face-to-face with our loved ones. But the good news doesn’t stop there. John of Patmos, in his revelation (the one, singular, and only), shares the vision he is shown of a new heaven and new earth joined together as one—God’s home among humanity. God, the Creator of all, does not wait on us to climb some escalator of righteousness up to him, but rather in grace comes and takes up permanent residence with God’s people here. All things are made new—which means death and its miserable company are of no need any longer. Crying and mourning, sorrow and sadness, will be but a faint memory of the past. The goodness of God’s initial creation, the loving work of a Father’s hands, is redeemed and restored in this beautiful picture. The concern is of more than just God regaining a minuscule fragment within us, and discarding everything else as unworthy and useless. Through his death and resurrection, Christ reveals for us God’s limitless love for all of creation in its entirety—including you and I—and God’s intention of bringing back to life all that has been broken and died.

We, Christians, owe it not just to ourselves but all those whom we share this life with to dust off this brilliant gem of hope and let it reflect with radiance the light that illuminates the world. With all of the narratives of anger, fear, and despair swirling around us on a daily basis, the hope of the coming resurrection is a breath of fresh air, a promise worth clinging to amidst the tumultuous storm of uncertainty. The gospel doesn’t end with a lifeless body hanging from a cross, but mysteriously looks with nothing other than faith towards an empty tomb that had been occupied just days earlier. Ours is a physically Resurrected Christ, who gives us both new life in the present and the promise of resurrection in the time to come. I’m not debating the existence of heaven. Nor am I suggesting I possess full detailed knowledge of God’s plans. We confess the biblical hope after death to be resurrection. God’s final word is life, life anew, together with God and one another! This does not mean we are without questions—what, when, where, how? We could spend our whole lives combing (as many do) for the answers to these questions—trenching through and through the old hare’s hole, searching for a secret nowhere to be found. While we wait for that glorious day, we rest our hearts, minds, and bodies in the why answered in the cross of Jesus. Why the resurrection? I wholeheartedly believe, and scripture affirms, the answer is because God so deeply loves you and I, this whole wide world—all that which God has created. Beginning with the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, God is putting the whole cosmos—every single molecule—back together in restoring the beauty first worked by the Creator’s hands. This gives me hope—hope to live by daily, hope to be shared with the hopeless, hope to work in bringing about the kingdom of God in this time and place. Before you run off, like I’m trying to sell you some scam, ask yourselves: What is lost in believing in the resurrection?

– Pastor Andrew

A Response to the Most Recent Mass Shooting, Tree of Life Synagogue

How much longer, O Lord, will we submit ourselves to this distorted normalcy of mass shootings? Will we ever arrive to a day where the news doesn’t begin with or contain in some form damning phrases like “it has happened yet again” and “another shooting,” or are we destined to dwell permanently in the valley of darkness? Are we that desensitized from our self-created crisis in these recent years, or have we surrendered to denial our hearts, minds, and hope—letting blatant hate and violence take the wheel, driving the bus straight to hell? Can we address gun violence with common sense and consistency—ending this nightmare, or are we simply doomed to kill ourselves and those around us with passivity, clinching white-knuckled onto a piece of parchment written on 250 years ago for which we seem to rest our ultimate (dare I say, idolatrous) trust? Our schools and synagogues, malls and mosques, city centers and churches are stained with the blood of silent resignation. Fear has become constitutional to our social fiber—to the point that more and more we resemble less our Creator. We are perpetually anxious and morbidly afraid. Where next? What this time? How do I respond? The only thing we can be sure of, unfortunately, is that continuing down this pathway it will inevitably happen again. It’s just a matter of when. We know why, but still remain unmoved by it. Each instance is another episode in a never-ending story we can neither turn away from watching unfold nor are willing to confront with real change.

Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh, PA), and the deaths of 11 parishioners during Shabbat morning services at Tree of Life synagogue this past week, is not special. The only thing unique in it all is our shameless response as a society. Silence. Partisan script-reading. Suggestions that armed security would’ve or could’ve prevented it. The cyclical surge of people reacting out of fear by purchasing firearms. If any of this offends, than perhaps there’s still hope. When the news no longer pierces us, leaving an ache deep within our gut, then we know despair has become terminal. As we draw near to All Saints Sunday this next week, remembering all those who have died and looking with hope to that unknown day when Christ will return to resurrect the dead and join heaven and earth into a new creation, the trauma of this recent mass shooting should sit even more heavily on our faith. This event was first and foremost a hate crime against our Jewish kindred, from whom we receive the majority of our religious heritage. Our testament to Jesus does not separate us from this premeditated violence, but rather further convicts and challenges us to speak prophetically in the face of hate and work more diligently with people of every religious expression towards shalom throughout the world. How can we share in praising and proclaiming Baruch atah Adonai (Blessed are you, Lord our God), when our lives, actions, and lack thereof do not bless but instead curse God’s good creation with each senseless death? It seems that we have sacrificed the dignity of human life upon the altar of misperceived safety and control.

As I’ve said elsewhere before: I don’t have all the answers. What I do have is something between a diminishing optimism and enraged hope. Our failure as a nation to address with honesty and empathy the problem at hand is permanently stamped in history. There’s no erasing it. Future generations, if there are any to be had, will look back to this time dumbfounded by our heated rhetoric and hesitant response to an otherwise obvious question. We have demonstrated ourselves enslaved to fear and distrust, shackled to our weapons. With each new shooting the relevance of our words becomes increasingly diluted—another tear rolling down the cheek of a perpetually drenched face of grief. My anger with all of this, however, is coupled with (and cannot be separated from) hope marked by the faith I cling to in these times of pain and uncertainty. Death, dying, and decay are not the final words. The Crucified and Risen Christ Jesus promises us new life. Our Christian hope, with its roots in ancient Pharisaic Judaism, is that that unknown day when Christ returns all the dead will be resurrected and given new transformed bodies. On that day, we will be reunited with our loved ones in a new heavens and new earth. Every tear will be wiped away and death will be no more. All things will have been made new by God. There will be no need nor place for fear or hate, no reason to argue or tremble. God will dwell, here in this place, with God’s people. This hope is not about escaping or ignoring the trauma at hand, but meeting it face-to-face and saying enough is enough. We will one day be judged for our responses in this life, and therefore, we are called to stand up for life, here and now. I pray for the Spirit to transform our hearts and minds. This is not how God intends for us to live—frightfully wondering if we or our loved ones will be the next gun-related casualty. Hope keeps us from being consumed by the terror around us, but it also fuels us to work for change. My hope is that we may never hear the words “mass shooting” ever again. My hope is that Christ forgives us for our silent resignation amidst rampant hate and violence. My hope is that, though this is likely not the last time, we will not wait any longer to speak and act for change in our gun-crazed culture. My hope is that the Spirit moves us to live and serve in the face of pain, suffering, and death as witnesses to the Risen Lord. My hope is that the resurrection to come is not hindered by us here and now.

– Pastor Andrew

Mega Millions, Idolatry, & Stewardship

What would you do with the money if you won a billion dollars? Over the past week this question has been posed and pondered by millions of people across the nation as the Mega Millions climbed beyond its namesake to a historical high: 1.6 billion dollars! Pictures of lines circling convenient stores, reports of people waiting hours to eventually purchase their lucky ticket. Grand declarations of what individuals would do with their earnings: debts paid off in full, nest eggs set aside, and extravagant purchases. With each additional zero, the nation’s craze over the lucrative pot seems to be ratcheted up a notch. The other day at church, when the conversation turned to the lotto and one parishioner was asked by another what he would do if winning it, the response was: “I’d call my CPA and tell em, ‘We’ve got problems.’” *Laughter ensued* The truth of his statement, however, is glaring. If any one of us were so unfortunate as to win the jackpot, our life would surely be changed—yet, not as gloriously as we might wishfully expect. What is it about this ludicrous payday that has us so mesmerized—like looking into the hypnotic eyes of Kaa the Snake, paralyzing prey powerless? Is it a symptom of a deeper disease, or does it point to a larger sociological problem in need of a new approach?

Instructing the disciples, Jesus declares: “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48). Knowing what immediate exceeding wealth often does to a person, one might amend it to read: those who receive much have greater chance of losing it all and more! I remember a classmate in high school who came upon a lofty settlement which only a couple years down the road contributed to his untimely death. I’m not saying I haven’t given thought to the enticing question. What would I do with a billion dollars? I won’t lie—I’d love to pay off debts accrued, ensure our children debt-free education, guarantee ourselves an unencumbered early retirement, enjoy some otherwise unaffordable niceties, support ministries and missions doing good work across the globe. But honestly, would I follow through with all of these aspirations? Probably not entirely. Lest we forget, they say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The interesting thing about that list of wishes for my dreamt riches, and maybe you already noticed it, is that they’re all about ME. Even when it’s about giving toward someone or something else, the thought is not completely altruistic. The thinly veiled temptation remains to make it about my gift, my affect, and finally turning it into my achievement. No matter where you stand on gambling (because regardless the name that’s what it is), its insatiable allurement points to a deeper idolatry—focusing on ourselves above (and at the expense of) all else. Incurvatus in se.

We can neither write this off as a way of the world outside of the church—disregarding it in our constant private pursuit of holiness, nor swiftly swing the hammer of judgment with instant and unbridled condemnation—sharply convicting people into changing their ways or else. There is a problem, but perhaps an answer is more difficult than picking the right six numbers. Like shining a black light upon our deep dark hidden desires, in spite of the façade the invisible ink of our idolatry glows hauntingly bright. More and more, the conversation keeps circling back to money/wealth. Who’s got it? How much? Where’d it come from? When’s my turn to get rich? So we hear and see about these “get rich quick” schemes and double down just waiting for it to rain Benjamins. This covetousness—looking and wishing for what others (appear to) have—is, at its very root, idolatry. We’ve replaced the slogan on our dollar bill, “In God we trust,” with putting our faith in the printed paper itself. In misvaluing money (creation), we in turn devalue the Creator. When money no longer functions as a gift to be used as a means (among countless others) in daily living and instead becomes the end sought after, we fail to live as God intends for us—shackling ourselves in servitude to an empty promise, and throwing the key away. Theologically, the whole matter points to a question of stewardship. All things, every blessing—our selves, relationships, time, and finally even possessions of every kind—is entrusted to us by God. All that we have and hold ultimately belongs to God and is on loan to us. Like the man and woman in the garden of Eden, we are called merely to tend to God’s gifts—not lose ourselves in them. It might be strange to think of the Mega Millions jackpot being God’s money; but beneath all the glitz and green, this too is a creation of God that we can either steward responsibly or squander poorly. With the word that a winner has been identified, maybe we can all take a break, breath, and back up to see the situation for what it is. I’m not saying whether or not you should buy a lotto ticket. But what if we were to change the question we ask ourselves in this and other such situations, adjusting the focal pronoun me to the more faithful owner, God. Instead of wondering what I would do with a billion dollars, if given the chance how could I let God and God’s purposes determine how such a blessed opportunity can and should be shared and/or used? Feeding the poor. Lifting families out of poverty. Ensuring equal opportunities for children across various communities. Eradicating deadly diseases. Renewing creation to be livable for all who inhabit it. Pursuing enriched life together. Both the needs and possibilities are endless. What is God calling us to do with all that God gives us?

– Pastor Andrew

An Alternative Community of Trust

These days trust is so hard to come by. Watching the news each day, we wonder if we can trust the validity of its many and various claims. As public figures stoke our fears and anxieties, we question the trustworthiness of our neighbor. With reports of corruption and deception, our trust in particular institutions and organizations is shaken. Every time we are faced with a crisis, our trust in God is put to the test. Some days, trusting loved ones, let alone ourselves, can be a task all in itself. Trust can no longer be assumed, if it ever was in the first hand. The inability to trust what cannot be seen has become sharpened to the painfully dangerous point of unwillingness to trust what is not fully agreed upon. Like credentials required for relationship, we treat trust as if it must be laboriously earned and regularly renewed. If ever elapsing or expiring, it can be nearly impossible to regain. We struggle to trust those who look and live differently than us. To trust anyone who thinks or expresses themselves adversely from us is unfathomable. More and more, opinions and beliefs are deemed the enemies of trust. One run-in with someone of opposing views/ways—Fool me once, shame on you. I will not be fooled again!—and immediately we become the frightful disciples following Jesus’s death, hiding behind locked doors and fearful hearts. How can we trust this one who passes through walls, calls us by name, and shows his scars to be touched? That’s not enough for me to trust him! When trust is lost, tribalism and isolation seep into the vacuous void pried open by despair. We wonder if and how much we can trust those around us—colleagues and classmates, family or friends. The neighbor—no matter who they are—is a stranger, guilty until proven trustworthy. Even when I’m clearly in the wrong, the temptation is still there to discredit and distrust the other. Without trust, we are relationally-reclusive and spiritually-suicidal—unable to live life as God intends for us with those whom we are given as companions along the journey.

All that we say and do as the church is built upon trust. Without it, our message is less than good news and we become just another institution alongside countless others. This foundation distinguishes (not to be confused with separating or elevating) us, as a community, from all others. Each time we gather together—whether for worship, service, study, or fellowship—we do so trusting that it is God’s Spirit who draws and binds us into community with one another. The sacraments, baptism and communion, are means of grace we receive in faith—trusting that Christ is present in that very place and time, freely giving us God’s gifts of love, forgiveness, and new life. The various parts of worship we participate in are engaged with trust that God hears our prayers of both praise and petition, we are valued members of the body, and the Spirit empowers us to take all that we have received to share out into the world. At a fundamental level, each time the congregation corporately confesses its sins and hears the presiding minister’s response of speaking God’s full forgiveness, we are trusting this word of comfort and hope to be efficacious. We trust our leaders to lead and guide us into faithful discipleship, just as we trust our fellow sisters and brothers of the faith to love and support us throughout the entirety (highs and lows) of life’s journey. The gifts we give in thankfulness we trust will be stewarded appropriately. The ministries we invest ourselves in we do so trusting that—no matter how great or small—they are helping in part to bring the kingdom of God into the world, here and now. We trust what we hear and learn to be no less true than the practices of compassion and empathy we instill in each generation and seek to model daily. Whenever we profess our faith—either publicly or privately—it is spoken and demonstrated out of a personal trust in the message itself. All of this is grounded upon what God has first done for us in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit gives us the gift of faith to trust this scandalous event has significant meaning and purpose for us—in the present and future. To remove trust from the picture would leave it cold, coarse, and calloused.

With trust waning in this time—causing us to question where we can find it, if any place—it’s tempting to make it the equivalent of a super secret handshake checked at the church door before admittance. To do so, however, removes grace—upon which trust stands. Forced trust is nothing more than coercion in sheep’s wool. One simply cannot invest, much less experience, the fullness of congregational life without trust. Its absence, in either giving or reciprocating, makes a burden of the church upon a person. So, how do we invite others into this alternative community of trust, respecting that trust is neither easy nor immediate? Many of us have probably experienced church(es) in such a manner where trust feels wanting. If our trust is guarded, perhaps it is because of an encounter in/with the church that left us dismayed and distanced, hurting and hopeless. For those whose trust has been battered and broken—either by individuals or the church itself—how do we meet them where they are and speak resurrection towards what has died? By what means do we nurture trust for people along different points of the faith journey—new and just beginning, timidly recovering, continually questioning? Unfortunately, too often we just try to respond with the pre-packaged: “You just gotta have faith (trust).” Such a declaration can miss the mark on empathy or explanation with regards to the complexity of trust in the life and community of faith. And still we wonder: Can we trust those whom we worship alongside who likely differ from us in one way or another? Is the church, with all its sin and brokenness, trustworthy? These are questions, I believe, that we people of faith (trust) must wrestle and sit with—individually and congregationally. If we are to truly live into Christ’s call to be an alternative community of trust in the world, we must hold trust up as core to who we are, what we do, and why. Do we trust God to give us the words to speak hope amidst such contagious fear and anxiety overwhelming us? How do we communicate a message of trust in Christ worth trusting amidst its apparent death today? I believe the world around us is looking and listening, watching and waiting, to see how we will respond to these critical questions in this crucial time. I trust the Spirit will continue to stir our hearts and minds on what it means and looks like to be an alternative community of trust.

– Pastor Andrew

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