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Pulling Weeds

It sounds silly—I know it—but the first time I visited Wartburg Seminary as a high schooler (and where I would eventually attend 6 years down the road), the thing I most fell in love with was the grass. Wide, soft, deep green blades. Inviting passersby to stop, remove their shoes, and walk about freely. A gentle bed upon which to rest one’s tired teenage body while soaking up some vitamin D in the courtyard after sitting through group sessions on youth leadership that felt like eternity. There were many other wonderful things about that place—but I remember the lush grass around the school’s signature Martin Luther statue, because it was so different from that which I’d grown up with down here in south Texas. Brown and patchy. Starving for water. Tough ground unviable for laying strong roots. Sticker burrs and pernicious weeds. Anyone brave enough to enter such terrain without the proper footwear was taking the risk of sore soles into their own hands—quite literally. Certainly no manicured lawn you might find on the cover of Better Homes & Gardens. Of all places, it was in Iowa that the phrase holy ground took on new meaning for me.

Sunday, as we pulled into the driveway upon our return home from church, I looked out at our front yard with disgust. Weeds. Everywhere. Ugh. Whether by a burst of energy left over from the morning’s coffee or out of fear our landlady might drive by and see an unkept lawn, I went out and started pulling up the unwanted annoyances one by one. Progress was slow, but after a while I had a mound three feet in diameter and nearly as tall of thistles ripped from the landscape. Itchy and irritated hands—signs that what had been removed was no good in the first place. Dirty fingernails. A parched palate in need of some cool refreshing water. An achy back begging for some extra-strength Tylenol. An overwhelming feeling of accomplishment. Ground that had been covered and starving for sunlight—now reclaimed. Voiding that which was noxious and threatening so that tiny toes might dig into the dirt and grass, running around playfully. Clearing the ground feels like cleansing it. In spite of their size, weeds aren’t something to be disregarded. Covering and constricting anything within reach, they bear the potential to ruin the whole lot. Sieving is an endless job.

As a kid, I was taught to reach down where the plant met the ground and firmly grasp at the base of the stem under all the pokey leaves, so as to get all the roots out. Sometimes, however, those pesky boogers just break off—further taunting you. Haha, not this time. I’m here to stay! Now, different people deal with weeds differently. Some meticulously yank out each one. Makes for tedious work. Others just mow ‘em down. Quick and easy, right? Then there’s those who are proponents for pesticides. Poison works wonders. And, finally, there’s the plain ole avoidance. It’s not so bad. I don’t have the time or energy. I’m going for the backyard jungle-look. With the exception of ignoring it, we all know what happens when you ignore a thistle. It sprawls out over the surrounding carpet grass—stealing rays and starving the vegetation beneath it to death—all the while pollinating into a hundred little headaches across one’s yard. On this side of removing all the sod and putting down AstroTurf, weeds always return—it’s just a matter of when and where.

So what’s a person to do when faced with a weed? Is one strategy better than another? Pull? Plow? Poison? How do you go about addressing the particular nuisance without harming or jeopardizing the greater ecosystem around it? Is there any smidge of value—something to be gained—in having it there in the yard, or does it only threaten everything in the vicinity? Weeds come by many names, different sizes, shapes, and colors. Dandelions. Thistles. Oxalis. Burdock. Pigweed. Crabgrass. Clover. Deadnettle. Ivy. Knowing no one can spend their entire life by the window, watching and waiting for the next weed to pop through, what’s the best practice for dealing with weeds? Is the ground worth keeping, or is the matter merely something to be overlooked as the norm? Are we content with sticker burrs and brown patchy grass, or are we expected to be better stewards than that? Perhaps the question is less of what to do and when we’ll finally stoop down, dirty our hands, and say enough is enough. What is being lost when we let weeds overtake the yard? Just asking for a friend 😉 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!

– Pastor Andrew

Why are you apologizing?

Staring at my t-shirt as I walked in—trying to decipher its supposed subliminal message—the employee behind the counter asks: “So what does that sequence of symbols mean?” Ugh, I know where this is gonna lead. Well, he asked, so here goes. Unapologetically, I translate the simple graphics for him: “The water drop is baptism. The book is scripture. The chalice and bread are communion.” A pause of silent uncertainty on what exactly to say next. You could see his face flush with shame. And just as I had called it in my mind: an unsolicited apology followed. With embarrassment in his voice, as if needing to confess a crime, he sheepishly responds: “Yeah, I haven’t been to church in a couple years…I should go back…” Oh, ok. Is he bracing for me to condemn or confront him? What do I do with this? Absolve him of something not really needing forgiveness? Brush it off as no big deal? Probe him on the reasons for his hiatus and psychologize what this all means about his faith, or lack thereof? Frankly, all of these responses leave something to be desired, if not dreaded. Either way—AWKWARD. I wish I could tell you this was a first of its kind, but honestly, it happens more often than one might expect. Why is it that people feel obligated to apologize for being absent from church?

Disclaimer: I’m not looking for nor need an apology from you for your absence—no matter weeks, months, or even decades—from church. That’s just not part of what I consider to be my pastoral duty. Open to a conversation? Sure. An apology? Not necessary. Sorry 😉 You have your reasons for being away, not that recess from congregational life (momentary or extensive) is always intentional. Sometimes it’s as basic as not bearing priority in one’s life or being void of pull towards engagement. That’s not a judgment against anyone. Right or wrong, it’s just the truth of the matter. There’s all kinds of reasons for this—shifting external demands, mounting internal stress, not having an established routine of church involvement, and the list goes on. I had a parishioner in Nebraska who rarely darkened the door of the church, but was one of the most faithful people I knew in the community. Standing in his smoky shop, surrounded by big rigs needing immediate attention, we would talk about who Jesus was for him, where he felt God present in his life, and how his faith informed his daily life. He apologized to me a myriad of times for missing worship—at least half a dozen each time we visited. I came to realize over time that his absence had to do more with an overwhelming guilt regarding past mistakes and an inability to relinquish that so as to enter into loving community with others, and less to do with a disinterest or devaluing of the church. You don’t have to be sorry for demons, we’ve all got them. That’s not to say sleeping-in after an all-nighter changing out a transmission or just a lack of passion for the music of an early morning service weren’t factors one time or another. Regardless, I don’t remember Jesus ever asking for an apology from anyone he met who wasn’t a regular at the synagogue or Temple.

So why is it we feel compelled to apologize for whenever we’ve missed church—whether intentionally, for good reason, or even not? Have, we the church, unknowingly mastered the art of guilt? I know more than a few people (clergy included) who would silently nod in affirmation. Is it something subconscious within our faith formation? Now remember kids, if ever you get caught being away from church you need to feel really really bad about it and look remorseful before being readmitted into the body of Christ! That’s absurd. Still, it’s what’s been heard and internalized by at least a few somewhere along the way. Are we pastors more intimidating than we realize? While some of us might possess a certain air of over-inflated authority (not naming anyone, lest I be added to the list), none should ever wear the clerical so tightly as to mistaken keeping attendance rolls with serving God’s kingdom. Could it be just an innate part of our constant need to not disappoint others? Is it less about the particular community or religious setting, and more of a personal reaction of anxiety? Lord knows we all can say some dumb things when caught off guard or put on the spot. Don’t believe me, listen to the responses well-intending people say to those grieving the loss of a loved one. Comments can range from confusing to downright cringe-worthy. Maybe, when faced with our not meeting others’ expectations—or more appropriately our perceptions of others’ expectations, we assume the most fitting or only acceptable (forgivable) response is to apologize. Might the apology, though spoken aloud, be less for the other person and rather intended for ourselves—meant to remain inside, yet given breath before we can withhold it? You don’t owe the church, much less a pastor, an apology for being absent. We’re not keeping tabs on you; and if we were, that’d be a whole other issue. Next time you or someone you encounter apologizes for being away from the church, I encourage you to question the reason for that response. Why are you apologizing?

– Pastor Andrew

Cow Patties, Kids, & Camp

Weaving through mounds of manure like a soldier trying to avoid landmines as they cross over no-man’s land into enemy territory, I followed after the program director and her dog out to the field where our students were doing their low ropes activities. From one pasture to another, through a gate, around a barbed wire fence, gently over some ground softened by recent rains and stamped with hoof prints of the nearby longhorns. Ah! That was a close one. Almost stepped in trace of Ranch’s more permanent residents. It would’ve smelled sure and certain doom for my Vans. Before they were in sight, we could hear the murmurings of strong-willed young men instructing one another on the best possible approach to remaining balanced. Little chance they were practicing yoga out here. As we brushed past prickly pear cacti and under wind-blown trees that I can only assume are cedar, we happened upon a scene with significantly more yang than ying. Thud. Creeaak. Thud. Back and forth. Teeter. Totter. I’ve got an idea! Well, how about… Or, what if we… The group’s task: move everyone from one side of the giant pivoted platform to the other with as few touches on the ground as possible. One…Two…Three…Four…Five… The smile on my face was one of both nostalgia—I’ve been in that moment before as a camper myself, and humored admiration—witnessing our youth grow through struggling together with what it means to be a team, communicating efficiently, and working cohesively towards accomplishing a goal.

As someone who pursued youth ministry in college (what at the time was consolatory substitution to a difficult call in ordained ministry—a whole other story), more than a few times my efforts to go and meet kids where they were felt like scanning the horizon and cautiously tiptoeing through a field full of bull—well you get the point. At any given moment, I was inches away from stepping in a hot mess. And I can attest to gettin’ my shoes dirty at least a couple times in such situations as both a seminary intern, and since then pastor. It’s no easy task engaging with youth—not because of the kids per se (although let’s not place the credit entirely elsewhere), but mostly on account of the atmosphere they daily find themselves trying to balance upon. Thud. Creeaak. Thud. With the countless demands divvied out by school, extracurriculars, and simply wrestling with what it means to be a kid nowadays—whose own bodies, relationships, and futures are changing minute by minute—it’s no wonder the balancing act can feel overwhelming if not impossible. My own adolescence was filled with much teetering and tottering, side to side—Bump. Scrape. Bang—sometimes with no solution in sight. To the ageist assumption that kids have it easy these days—HA!—it’s rough being a kid as much now as ever. The field is different, indeed; but no less trying. In this ever-changing age as much as ever before, the church is being called upon to look out into the world, see and hear the struggles of our youth, engaging them with compassion and care, and responding with an alternative model to the vain and empty ones promoted by the world around them.

I’m a huge proponent for camp. I wholeheartedly believe camping ministry impacts and transforms lives—because I’ve experienced it firsthand. My faith is what it is today, in part, because of my attending camp—not just as a kid, but also since then as an adult and leader. It is in that unique place—the outdoors of God’s beautiful creation—surrounded by fellow youth and accompanied by joyful leaders, where kids can find some of their greatest formation and growth along the journey of faith. As a child of this synod, my faith was nurtured most significantly by my time(s) spent at camp with others. Along the trails talking to others my age, playing games and singing songs that pointed to a deeper message, learning the language of faith through worship and Bible studies. Camp was, for me, fun, safe, encouraging, unassuming—a special (holy) place away from the demands and craziness of everything else. The feeling of the Holy Spirit working within me arises each time I return to camp (no matter where it may be, Carol Joy Holling in Nebraska, Chrysalis in Kerrville, Ebert by Harper, or others)—even now as a pastor. Camping ministry is one of the greatest gifts of the church. That being said, (I wrestle with it, but) camp is not beloved by all. Honestly, it can be difficult for those who have never been away from home before. It is in this unique space, however, where kids are able to encounter God in new ways and given tools to help them in the balancing act of life. I believe we owe it to our kids and the nurturing of their faith to take them to places like camp where they can be met by Christ in ways otherwise unexperienced. They will, if not already, have to one day maneuver their ways through the manure. Camp is not a one-size-fits-all fix for all of life. Yet, it is good soil through which faith grows. As we start looking into the summer programming, I would encourage you to talk with your kids, grandkids, and other young people about considering a trip to camp. It’ll change their lives—take it from me.

– Pastor Andrew

Confronting Pastoral Misperceptions

On the sixth day, God created humankind in God’s image, according to the Lord’s likeness. Every day since then, humankind has been tirelessly creating, and recreating, images of what a pastor should be, each according to their personal opinion and liking. There’s a great many identity misperceptions surrounding the pastoral office, some quite honestly brought on by ourselves but countless others pressed upon us by others on the outside piously peeping in to offer their self-righteous two-cents. (Forgive me if I sound a bit snotty towards a topic that never seems to grow old, the cedar’s got me congested.) A pastor should be… A pastor should do… And a personal favorite of mine: A pastor CANNOT… Often, the most critical of responses regarding a pastor’s portrayal or function comes from those either most deeply rooted in the congregation or even closest to the individual themselves. Unfortunately, more times than not, people’s ideas of a pastor’s semblance seep out in heated rhetoric when said minister (unknowingly, and perhaps unintentionally) deviates from the elevated [heavenly] image of the clerical role (uncommunicated) in a person’s mind. *cue the sound of fragile ornamental conceptualizations shattering, like that of glass breaking* If only someone could calculate all the wasted time and energy spent in formulating and force-fitting distorted pastoral identities on individuals who are seeking to respond to the Spirit’s call to follow after Jesus in discipleship by means of serving God’s people. No doubt it would surpass what could’ve otherwise been spent solving paramount problems. I doubt I’m the first to say it, but let me join the choir of bursting the bubble, breaking the myth, and setting the score straight, that pastors don’t have everything figured out. At best, we try to practice what we preach—never fully mastering the very mores we seek to help equip and encourage in others. Our lives are not perfect, much less problem-free. We wrestle certainly no less with feelings of disappointment, doubt, and disdain than anyone without a Master of Divinity degree. Pastors are as equally sinful and broken, called and commissioned, forgiven and saved, as every one else. 

None of this is to say that pastors are above accountability or exempt from the call of discipleship Christ extends to all followers. A pastor is not the first-string Christian, cream of the proverbial crop, or one whom has been gifted a greater share of the Spirit—extra divine. This misperception is a result of loaded phrases like being a godly person. A pastor is one who has heard, discerned, and is actively seeking to respond with faithfulness the call of the Spirit to follow after Christ Jesus and work alongside others in living likewise, through proclaiming the gospel and administering the sacraments. (I’m sure any of my esteemed colleagues could argue a different, more accurate definition that clearly connotes what is a pastor.) We still share the same baptismal vocation as other members of the body. Our role within God’s work in the world differs in the particular means we are entrusted with in sharing the grace of Christ Jesus, professing the love of God, and building up the communion of the Holy Spirit. Thankfully, we aren’t the head which is responsible for moving the rest of the body—that is reserved for someone far more faithful. If anything, ordained ministry is not an ascension but rather humble lowering of oneself to go and meet people in the depths—shining a light of hope and promise amidst the darkness, assuring them that Christ is present working resurrection life even when he isn’t easily seen or felt. And frankly, we don’t always succeed in our ministry—from time to time we miss the mark and fail miserably at it. The laying on of hands upon a candidate at their ordination is not some mystical transfer, deposit, or multiplication of sacred power. Look! I’ve got magic hands now! No, it is, for us in this tradition, both a symbolic demonstration of conferring authority but also a time of communal prayer for the Spirit’s guidance upon the person taking on this particular call of service to God’s people. Last I checked, my ontology (nature of being) did not change the night I was ordained a minister of word and sacrament. Somedays I might be a little bit more full of myself than I should be; but honestly, I’m no closer to heaven or full-understanding of God’s will—nor should I be—than the man or woman who hasn’t stepped foot in church for whatever reason. I am called and expected to live a life of prayer and study in scripture and community with others—but even this can be a daily struggle. It’s no church cakewalk.

This topic came to mind because, quite frankly, the other day I was faced with a stinging criticism—which has weighed heavily on my heart and mind ever since then—regarding my not fitting another person’s image of a pastor. The word used was hypocrite. In so far as I am a sinful and broken person, daily and desperately in need of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness for me in Christ Jesus—I confess to resemble that remark. In spite of my pastoral role, I hope to never mislead someone, anyone, into believing that I am better than them, much less holier than thou. To fall into that fallacy would be like entering into an inescapable black hole (or perhaps the Quantum Realm for my Marvel friends). Don’t be fooled; my being called and ordained to serve the church neither means I’ve mastered inner peace (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GmmrrfJKY7I) nor am without struggling from time to time when it comes to practicing central tenets of the faith such as forgiveness. Have yet to find the vaccination from doubts or distress. If you need witnesses of my wrestlings or wrongdoings, I’m sure there’s a whole host of people that could vouch in corroboration. For me, a big part of being a pastor is being honest and open of my humanity and shortcomings for the sake of meeting others with empathy where they are and embodying the Lutheran belief of simul iustus et peccator (we are at the same time just and sinful) as we seek to journey through this life together. It’s a fine line to walk, but a pathway I hear many say they long for in a leader. No less than anyone else, I need to constantly (and continually) hear and receive Christ. Beneath the fancy vestments, past the hordes of theological books, titles and (mis)perceptions aside, pastors are human. Regardless what you think a pastor should be, do, or otherwise not, I encourage you to ask yourself why you believe what you believe about the office. Is it something you were told by others? Does your image of a pastor have basis in your interactions or reactions to one (or more) whom you admire or despise? Or is it possibly something deeper within ourselves—pointing toward traits we long for personally? Might the image we cast on another be the very one we secretly wish for ourselves? At the end of the day, I pray the abundance of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness through Christ Jesus be poured out through the Holy Spirit upon us all—laity and pastors alike.

– Pastor Andrew

Out with the Old, In with the New

I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. It’s been at least a decade or so since I’ve even tried to attempt one. Usually by about mid-January I’ve thrown in the towel. Not happening. I knew that was a dumb idea! I’m sure this says something about me on fifteen different personality scales. Lack of commitment. Shortsidedness. Complacency. So when that bandwagon comes by each year, I just wave it along. No thanks, not for me. The rest of you have fun with that. Now, this is not to say I’m less than excited about a new year. 2018 was so last year. Aside from writing out the incorrect year for the next three and a half weeks, I’m looking forward to what the future of each new day holds for my family and I, our congregation and community, and the world. New opportunities. Second chances. Something I could never have imagined or expected. It won’t all be perfect. The foggy uncertainty of each new year always eventually settles to reveal both goods and bads, joys and pains. And in the blink of an eye, what could be happens and is immediately stamped into the annals of time past. Not a single year has gone by in the history of the world without at least one person, or more like a couple billion people, exhaling in relief. Thank God that year is over, it was the worst. I remember hearing this from my dad at the close of 2013—the year my grandfather died, among so many other trying situations. We clinch our teeth in eager anticipation, perhaps a smidgen of anxiety, and crowning hopefulness that this might be the year—for what exactly, who knows. With champagne/sparkling grape juice, a kiss for our beloved, and fireworks (party poppers for us in town or with frightened furry friends), we let the confetti loose and await whether or not the new date will bring with it glad tidings. Out with the old, and in with the new! Sounds so good, the church should use it 😉

In all seriousness, newness is core to our theology in the Lutheran church. In baptism, we believe, joined with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ the old sinful self dies and the new Spirit-filled person is born. What was is no more, and what is and will be is completely reformed by the power of the Holy Spirit in the grace, love, and forgiveness of God for us through the Crucified and Risen Lord. Martin Luther encourages us to remember our baptism each morning when we awake and wash our faces—with the refreshing water passing over our skin, recalling the promises made and gifts freely received upon our holy washing. Full forgiveness of all your sins. God’s limitless love. Freedom from the enslaving powers of sin and death. Unmerited membership within the body of Christ. Life anew today, tomorrow, and in the time to come. A vocation of proclaiming Christ through one’s life, caring for all the world, and working to bring about God’s peace and justice here and now. The theme of newness fills our scriptures. John, near the end of his Revelation, prophetically points to the one who is seated upon the throne and speaks a word of promise for all of creation to hear: “See, I am making all things new” (21:5). The church proclaims this reality: Christ is always making all things new! This change is more than just annually. No need to wait til 2020 for the next opportunity. Daily, we experience (and embody) an out with the old, and in with the new transformation. And just as it isn’t dependent upon the calendar, nor is it based on the faithfulness of our personal resolutions. Thank God! This gift is freely given to us, not contingent upon what we say, do, or otherwise avoid—no strings attached—but simply received by trusting in the One who took on life and death on our behalf so that we might share in a resurrection like his. Newness is fundamental to who we are as Christians.

Ok Andrew, so it sounds like we’re off the hook—back to your lack of commitment, shortsightedness, and complacency? Touche, but no. The temptation with grace is to think it ultimately means (allows) unaccountability, however, that is a unfortunate misunderstanding. Our newness does not safely sterilize and separate us from the rest of the world, but rather drives us fully back into it—within its depths, darkness, and disdain—in order to respond with love and service for our neighbor(s). The salvation we receive in and through the Crucified and Risen Christ makes our lives resolute (purposeful) in sharing with others the same grace, love, and forgiveness we ourselves have received. Our holy vocation, entered into through baptism, to share the good news of Christ Jesus in word and action is not a looming task, dreadfully looked upon, that must be accomplished religiously so as to just maybe make this day/week/month/year/life the best ever. Rather it is a blessed joy we are invited into, to participate in with one another, using our varying gifts equipped by the Spirit , helping to bring about God’s will in the world as it is in heaven. This doesn’t mean everything is suddenly perfect. Still we feel the sting of death on this side of the resurrection. But in the new opportunities, second chances, unexpected and unimaginable, we encounter glimpses of God’s kingdom breaking into our midst. Our newness in Christ births hope within us—not for a particular day or year, but for healing and wholeness, for peace and justice among all peoples, for renewal and resurrection, for life and love intertwined into one. This hope dissipates our anxiety and fear, and fills us with praise and thankfulness for what God is God is doing here and now. Out with the old, and in with the new! 

– Pastor Andrew

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

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