Pastor Tommy's Blog

You can access Pastor Tommy's past blogs from 2023 here.

  • VBS - June 27, 2024

    This week, our church is in the middle of Vacation Bible School (VBS). I don’t know whether it’s because I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church or because I grew up (at least physically) a very long time ago, but back then, VBS wasn’t a thing.

    In fact, I was first introduced to it just a few years ago at my first pastoral appointment in Jarrell. And, since then, for a variety of reasons, I haven’t really been able to participate. At least until this year. I am so excited!

    There’s just something about kids. Don’t quote me on this, but my favorite part of being a pastor is when I get to do the children’s sermon. Part of it is the adventure. You never know what they’re going to say. A couple of Sundays ago, Kirsten was doing the children’s sermon and, before Kirsten could even get started, one of the kids said, “I’ve got a question about Jesus ….” Afterwards, Kirsten said she was sorely tempted to point at me and say, “Ask him!” It’s always like that with kids. You never know what they’re going to say.

    But even better than that, they approach faith in such a … well … childlike way. For the most part, they haven’t yet had a chance to get jaded by all the difficulties and disappointments the world throws at us. They very rarely respond to my insightful and pithy observations with an eye roll and, “yeah, right.” Rather, they are typically genuinely excited and open to learning about the spiritual component of what it means to be a human being. They haven’t yet categorized the world into “the stuff that’s gonna get me ahead v. all that other fluff.”

    And I’m not the only one who approves of children’s approach to faith. Jesus had something to say about it too. One time, his disciples asked him who would be number one in the kingdom of God. I’m sure they expected (or at least hoped) he’d say, “Peter” or “John” or “you apostles.” Instead, he said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:3-5). Humility. Willingness to not have to be right.

    You gotta love those kids!

  • Transformation - June 20, 2024

    And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

    ​2 Cor. 3:18

    I read the other day that what we devote our attention to is who we become. Or, to put it in spiritual terms, where we put our attention determines which god(s) we worship. Jesus said it this way: “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matthew 6:21).

    Or, to put it in terms of our prayers, to the extent we pray for vengeance on others, we become more vengeful. To the extent our prayers are all about giving us what we think we need, we are apt to become more self-focused. To the extent our prayers are dominated by asking for things, whether for ourselves and others, we become more prone to think of God as a cosmic vending machine (and maybe not even a very good one if we don’t perceive that many of our prayers are answered). To the extent our prayers assume God is remote and separated from us, that is increasingly how we will come to view God.

    But, to the extent our prayer is focused just on God—on becoming closer to God, on resting in God, on becoming more like God—the more we will be transformed to actually be like God; the closer we will become to Christ; the more we will see Christ in others and in the world around us. Kind of like when you are thinking about buying a particular car and suddenly you see everyone else driving that car, when your attention is fixed on Jesus, you start to see Jesus everywhere. We are invited into an encounter with God beyond the realm of language and logic and, in the process, become transformed.
  • Ask - June 13, 2024

    “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

    Philippians 4:4-7

    As the apostle Paul is wrapping up his letter to his friends in the Philippian church, he tells them to petition God—to make their requests known to God. In other words, he tells them to ask God for what they want.

    And then he gives them the “why.” The reason they should ask God for what they want is so they may not only experience the peace of God which transcends all understanding, but may also be guarded—protected—by that peace.

    I think what he’s telling them is that a lot of our anxiety and lack of peace results from us thinking and acting like we are in control; like we know exactly what we need and when we need it. And if we are responsible for making those things happen, of course we’re going to be anxious. Of course we’re going to lack peace.

    But when we turn our wants and needs over to God in the certainty that He is supremely good, wants and knows what is best for us, and is perfectly capable of making that happen, there’s no longer any reason to be anxious. God’s got this. We are beloved children of God and God’s going to give us what we need, God’s going to take care of us. Or, in the words of the apostle Peter, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
  • God is Amazing! - June 6, 2024

    God really is amazing! God simply spoke and the universe came into existence. God breathed and the stars were born. God is responsible for everything we see and everything we don’t see. God created it all.

    Which, frankly is hard for me to imagine. I’m not good at building stuff. I’m great at the demo part of any home improvement project, but woe betide the person who is counting on me to put it all back together. I once tried to build a simple shed and the outcome was quite unfortunate.

    Now, I know people who are really good at building stuff. They talk about that time they built a house, and then that other time they built a house. But none of those folks can hold a candle to God. God is really amazing!

    God is, to put it mildly awe-inspiring. When we just take a minute to think about it, we can’t help but be blown away by God’s power, and might, and majesty; by the beauty and intricacy and inter-relatedness of everything God created.

    Yet we too often take it all for granted, don’t we? We walk around in this amazing world God has created for us as if we’ve somehow earned the privilege. Instead of spending every waking moment in wide-eyed wonder, we walk around with our heads down, angry or confused by the last thing we saw on the cable news.

    Which is why it is so important that we regularly set aside time to meditate on God’s greatness and majesty, and the greatness and majesty of the creation God has given us to live in. In prayer, we have the opportunity to rejoice in God’s power and God’s goodness towards us, and to express our praise, not just for what he has given us, but far more importantly, just for who He is.

    So, take a moment right now to contemplate just how awesome and amazing your creator God is.
  • Rasslin' - May 30, 2024

    Last Friday evening I attended big-time professional wrestling. Ok, maybe not “big-time.” Maybe not even medium-time. The event was held down the street at Barrow brewing and there was no admission fee. But it was still a blast.

    Now, I have to admit that this was the first time I’ve seen pro wrestling since I was a little kid watching Jose Lothario and Ivan Putski on TV. But watching last Friday night, it was as if the years melted away and I was a little kid again.

    But this time, I noticed something that I must have missed as a kid: all wrestlers are not created equal. As it turns out, there are good guys and there are bad guys. This became apparent when the first wrestler was introduced: Al E Gator (from Louisiana of all places!). The announcer didn’t seem too fond of Mr. Gator and the crowd picked up on it, with a few folks even yelling “boooooo.” Then the announcer enthusiastically introduced his opponent, a fine upstanding young man (whose name I unfortunately missed), who was very polite and kind to both the announcer and members of the crowd. Well, as you might expect, the crowd welcomed him wholeheartedly. And, as the match played out, it appeared that the crowd’s intuition regarding these two wrestlers was right. Mr. Gator behaved like a cad, while the fine young gentleman turned out to be, well … a fine young gentleman.

    And this same pattern persisted from one match to the next. There was always a bad guy and there was always a good guy. And we in the crowd always seemed to find ourselves cheering for the good guy and against the bad guy. It was almost as if it had been orchestrated that way.

    And as I sat there during that first match, loudly calling along with the rest of the crowd for the painful death of Mr. Gator at the hands of that polite and kind young man, something occurred to me. It occurred to me that Mr. Gator might not really be all that bad after all. In fact, he might even have several little Gator hatchlings back home in Louisiana, who love him very much. I began to wonder whether it might be possible that I was being manipulated; that my outrage at Mr. Gator might be manufactured. Nah! Couldn’t be. I’m too smart for that.

    It seems as if us human beings have a real tendency to pick sides; to separate into “us” and “them.” And it struck me that pro wrestling might be a reasonably entertaining and mostly harmless example of that tendency. In a lot of ways, it’s no different (although considerably lower-budget) than superhero movies. We’re introduced to the hero(s). We’re introduced to the bad guy(s). And the rest is history.

    Unfortunately, there are also a lot of not-so-entertaining ways this predisposition is lived out. We’re living through one of those right now, as we careen towards our next national election. We’ve even seen the same thing happen in the church over and over again, pretty much from the get-go and continuing to the present. It isn’t enough to have different political opinions or Biblical interpretations, there have got to be good guys and bad guys. I’ve got to be right, which means you’ve got to be wrong.

    But that isn’t how we were created to live. When Jesus was asked the secret to eternal life (which us Christians believe is the whole point), he said love God and love your neighbor. And, in case there was any confusion, he went on to clarify that your neighbor isn’t just the person who lives next door to you, or the people you play pickleball with. It’s everybody. Jesus even went so far as to say, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).

    Which I take to mean that God’s kingdom isn’t all that much like pro wrestling. It isn’t good guys against bad guys. It’s just us. And I think that might even include Mr. Gator (despite the fact that he’s from Louisiana).
  • Recharging - May 23, 2024

    I own an electric car. I bought it to do my part in the shift to cleaner energy (it certainly wasn’t because it was cheap). And it doesn’t hurt that the car is crazy fun to drive! The acceleration! The corners! It’s actually a small SUV but it drives like a sports car. So, I just love the (relatively rare) opportunities Kirsten gives me to drive it.

    And it’s super convenient most of the time. Just plug it in when you get home and it’s got a full “tank” of juice the next morning—about 300 miles, which is more than enough range for 90% of the driving we do. Never having to stop at the gas station is not a bad thing.

    Of course, there’s the other 10% of the time. A few times a year we take road trips. And when we do, we’ve got to stop at fast-chargers. At any given charging station, at least one of the chargers is almost guaranteed to be broken, and since electric cars are being added to the roads a lot faster than chargers are being installed (at least right now), there’s usually a line for the chargers that are working. It’s inconvenient and even a little painful. (But it is an opportunity to practice slowing!)

    This week, I’m starting a new sermon series. It’s on prayer; why it’s important and how to do it. And it strikes me that prayer is kind of like driving my electric car.

    For one thing, when I’m doing it right, prayer is crazy fun. I mean, what’s not fun about connecting with the creator of the universe. The sense of peace and joy and love when I’m resting in God’s presence isn’t comparable to anything else.

    Of course, sometimes prayer isn’t quite a fun. It can even seem like a pain. There are days when I just really don’t want to do it. (Although, it usually turns out those are the days I need it most.) There are days when I just don’t feel like I’ve got the time (although that’s usually because I haven’t been intentional about setting aside the time). I’ll freely admit that sometimes prayer is kind of a grind. It’s as if I’m going through the motions. It’s like I’m waiting in line behind a bunch of yahoos who don’t know how to work a DC fast charger. But it’s in pushing through the tough times that I get to the good times.

    And finally, like transportation, prayer—staying close to God—is important. (I would argue it’s maybe just a tad more important than driving to the grocery store for a—purely hypothetical—gallon of ice cream.) Jesus said humanity doesn’t live on bread alone, but on every word from the mouth of God (Matthew 4:4). And, just like my car doesn’t go without being charged, without prayer, we don’t go … or at least, we don’t work the way we were created to work: in loving, joy- and peace-filled relationship with God.

    So, just like my car needs to be recharged pretty much on a daily basis, we need to “recharge” our spiritual batteries through regular prayer. I can drive our ICE truck days and even weeks without having to get gas, but our electric car needs to be recharged pretty much every day. And it’s the same for us. Each one of us was made to plug in and be recharged with the power and presence of God regularly through prayer.
  • Pentecost! - May 16, 2024

    This Sunday is Pentecost. For a long time, I just saw Pentecost as another one of those special Sundays that showed up occasionally on the church Bulletin, along with World Mission Sunday or Youth Sunday. I think a lot of people still see it that way.

    And I’m not sure why that is. There are several truly pivotal events in the history of our Christian faith. There’s the whole history of Israel, leading up to the birth of Jesus, as documented in the Hebrew scriptures. But without Jesus, there’s no Christianity. So, there’s Jesus’ birth, which we celebrate at Christmas. But, if that birth were the end of the story, there wouldn’t be much of a story, would there? Jesus’ birth doesn’t stand by itself. It only matters in light of his life, his teachings, his example. And even those probably wouldn’t make much different if it weren’t for his death on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter.

    All of that is supremely important. But would we even know about Jesus if not for Pentecost? It wasn’t until God’s Spirit entered into Jesus’ followers that they left the upper room. It wasn’t until then that they started to share his story outside their own circle. It wasn’t until then that they started to share the Good News of New Life available in Jesus with people in those people’s own languages. In other words, it wasn’t until then that Jesus’ message began to spread. It wasn’t until they got the Holy Spirit in them that the Good News started to get out.

    We were created in God’s image and, as the apostle John tells us, God is love. God is relationship. We were created to exist in relationship—connected—with one another and with everything else, just like God does.

    But we’ve got a tendency to do the opposite. We’ve got a tendency to live in our heads. To make it all about us and all about our fears and anxieties; to be like those disciples, hiding out and hanging out with one another, unable or unwilling to reach out.

    That is, until they got some of God in them. That Pentecost event was like a rocket launch. Up until then, the rocket was on the launch pad. Who knows how long it might have stayed there, but if it just stayed there, eventually, it would have started to rust, to fall apart. But when the Holy Spirit showed up, the rocket launched. And now, we’re at 4 billion people who claim to follow Jesus, and counting.

    Pentecost is a big deal. It’s the birthday of the church. But it’s also a reminder of who we are. Like I said, we have a tendency as human beings to live in our heads. To live in the fear and conformity of the world around us; to not make any waves. But on Pentecost, we’re reminded that that’s not who we were created to be. We are the church. We are the body of Christ in the world. We are the carriers of the Good News of New Life.

    Too much, these days we’re sitting in our own metaphorical upper room, sharing with one another the stories of Jesus, even singing songs of praise and worship. But if that’s all we’re doing, then what’s the point?

    So, this Pentecost, let’s take this opportunity to refocus ourselves on the key to everything—on God’s Spirit; on the New Life that is made available to us through that Spirit; and the New Life that’s just waiting for us to share it with those around us so it can keep spreading and growing, until it reaches not just to Jerusalem, not just to Judea, not just to Samaria, but to the very ends of the earth.
  • Sick Day - May 9, 2024

    I’m sick. And I HATE being sick. I’ll admit it. I’m a big baby when it comes to being sick. I don’t like the stuffiness and the aches and pains. I don’t like all the snot. I don’t like not tasting my coffee because of the congestion. There’s nothing good about being sick.

    Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. For the last several weeks I’ve been preaching about how our culture’s addiction to hurry is bad for us spiritually. Ironically, this coming Sunday I’m preaching about slowing down. And as I sit here, utterly immobile, with my sweats on at 75 degrees, I realize that slowing down may be my least favorite thing about being sick. I’m forced to slow down. I’ve got to rest. In looking at my calendar, I realize I’ve already missed three events that I wanted to attend and I’m probably going to miss a 4-5 more before I’m feeling better. And then there are the other stuff that I may not want to do, but will eventually have to get done. I’ve got places to go, people to see. I can’t afford to be sitting here on the couch!

    One of the reasons I think I suffer with an addiction to busyness is that it helps me create for myself the illusion that I’m in control. I’ve got all these things I’ve got to do and if I don’t do them, the world might just quit spinning. But being forced to slow down brings me face to face with the fact that there is a whole lot in my life that I can’t control and was never intended to control.

    And that’s OK. God said, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). There’s only one God, and it’s not me. So, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to forced to slow down once in a while.  

  • The Insidious Chicks (a good name for a band) - May 2, 2024

    The other day I did something I haven’t done in a while. I went to Tractor Supply. Don’t ask me why. OK, I’ll just say it had something to do with a baptism and a defective kiddie pool.

    And as I entered, I was greeted by an old friend: that comforting smell of polished leather, denim, rubber hoses, and animal feed, with a fine whiff of garden chemicals. And as I walked, I was serenaded by the tiny yet insistent sound of the little chicks. I was home.

    There’s just something about Tractor Supply. Now, normally, I would have taken my time and savored the selection of garden supplies and clothing that always seems far too broad to fit within the physical footprint of the store. I would have wandered the aisles, cataloging all the devices, foods, tools, and chemicals that I really needed to buy.

    But I was on a mission, so I went straight to the stock-tank section, identified what I needed, and came straight back to the cashier stand. Ok, maybe not straight back. I did stop on my way to look over all those cute little doggie toys. And I did actually pick up some of those Country Butcher Natural Dog Chews©. Hey, they were on sale. And they’re all natural!

    I’ve been working on my sermon for this Sunday, which is on simplicity. The idea is that we don’t need as much money and stuff as we think we need. And it occurred to me that I might not have really needed those Country Butcher Natural Dog Chews©. (But they looked so appetizing … and they were right there in front of me!)

    The point of my sermon for Sunday is that our consumer culture is geared to make us dissatisfied with what we have (or don’t have). It’s just geared to make us dissatisfied in general, and it invites us to address our dissatisfaction by buying stuff … like Country Butcher Natural Dog Chews© … or nice cars. It suggests to us, usually not too subtly, that if we will get these things, we will be satisfied and happy; our lives will have meaning.

    But that’s not ever how it plays out. Once the magic of the insidious Tractor Supply fragrance and the sound of those cute little chickies had worn off, I was kicking myself for getting those stupid bones. The dogs didn’t need them and I certainly wasn’t going to eat them. It reminded me of the last time I got a new car. I was so excited in the moment. But it wasn’t too long before I was kicking myself for the dent in my bank account from the car (and from the insurance), as well as all the worry associated with keeping it clean and intact and safe and secure.

    Jesus said, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” (Matthew 6:25-27). The more stuff we’ve got, the more likely we’re going to be worried about it and the more worried we are about it, the more distracted we’re going to be from embracing the New Life that Jesus offers us.

    And Jesus wasn’t just blowing smoke when he was talking about those little birds. That’s how he lived: “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). Jesus didn’t let his stuff—or the people pushing the stuff—control him.

    And, as his followers, I think that’s a good lesson. We need a lot less stuff than we think we need. And we need to remember that the more stuff we have, the more distracted we get from really following Jesus. He said that too: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God“ (Matthew 19:24). Not impossible, just difficult.

    I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to give up the occasional visit to the Tractor Supply, but next time I go, I’m going to try and be better at resisting the siren call of the insidious chicks.

  • Surprise! Suprise! Suprise! - April 25, 2024

    I’m surprised a lot. Last October, I remember being surprised that Halloween was just around the corner. Then, about halfway through November I turned around and discovered that Thanksgiving was almost upon us. Which, of course was followed by Advent and Christmas. I shouldn’t have been surprised by any of that, but I was. Enter the new year and before I knew what had hit me, it was Ash Wednesday, followed almost immediately by Easter.

    Now, on one level, I know these things are coming. They come every year. I’ve got spreadsheets where I plan this stuff out. But somehow, these sorts of events always manage to sneak up on me.

    It’s like there’s a part of my brain (that seems to be growing), for which every day is a brand new day. Regardless of what the rest of my brain knows is coming, I repeatedly find myself thinking, kind of like Gomer Pyle: “Surprise, surprise, surprise!”

    I can relate more and more to the saying, “The days get longer, while the years get shorter.”

    Part of this is probably attributable to just getting older. I read the other day that part of the reason time seems to speed up as we get older is that, in order to avoid overload, our brains tend to only store new events and experiences. And, as we age, we experience fewer and fewer new things. As a result, the days seem long, since everything tends to be the same ol’ same ol’. While the years seem shorter because with each passing year, we experience fewer and fewer new things.

    That’s probably part of it, but I’d like to think it’s not all of it. The Jesuit priest, Richard Rohr, talks about four stages of spiritual development: cleaning up, growing up, waking up, and showing up. Cleaning up is what most of us grew up with in church: rules of conduct; lists of do’s and don’ts. Growing up is the process of spiritual and emotional growth … understanding and integrating the reasoning behind the do’s and don’ts into our selves. Waking up begins when we have a spiritual experience through which we connect deeply with God; through which we no longer see ourselves as isolated within our own selves, but as integrally connected with God, others, and the world. And finally, showing up happens when our understanding of the interconnectedness of life and Spirit overflows into active engagement with the people and the world around us as an expression of the love that is God.  

    The way I see it, this progression is a progression from “doing” to “being.” It’s a progression from measuring our value by what we do, to understanding our meaning and value simply in terms of the fact that we are in relationship with God and one another; understanding ourselves as beloved children of God and brothers and sisters to one another.

    Now, I definitely have my “spreadsheet” days; days when I’m all about cleaning up myself and all the problems of the world around me. But I like to think (and hope) that I’ve been doing a little growing; that I’ve been doing a little waking up; and that I’ve been doing a little showing up. In other words, that I’m spending more time simply “being” who I was created to be. And I’d like to think that might be part of the reason I seem to be getting surprised all the time.

    Which makes me think of something C.S. Lewis wrote. Early in his life, he rejected the idea of God. But then, he felt a spiritual pull and began to study religions. At some point during his study of Christ, he wrote (in his book, “Surpried by Joy”) that he was (surprise) “surprised by joy”; surprised to find that faith isn’t about dutifully following rules and intellectually assenting to various doctrines, but is about the joy (and hope, and peace, and love) of the new life that Jesus came to bring.

    So, maybe surprise isn’t such a bad thing after all.

  • Hail! - April 18, 2024

    We had a pretty bad hailstorm last week. I haven’t experienced anything like that before. The hail was huge. It was coming down with incredible speed and force. And it just wouldn’t stop; it kept falling for a good 30 minutes, alternating between pea-sized and baseball sized. And it was LOUD. It sounded like several baseball teams up on the roof hitting it as hard as they could with their bats. It was pretty scary.

    Oddly, in the midst of all that chaos, one of the things I remember most vividly is the response of my dog, Ginger Ruth. Now, our other dog, Buster Ruth, couldn’t possibly have cared less. It might as well have been a still, sunny Summer day. He just slept through the whole thing.

    But Ginger. She was terrified. She always gets that way during a storm, and this wasn’t just any storm. Now, you might think that being terrified, she would jump into my lap or Kirsten’s lap to be held and comforted. If you thought that, you’d be wrong. She will sit near one of us, but she definitely doesn’t cuddle. She’ll allow us to pet her as she shivers and shakes, but she’s too stressed to even acknowledge it. And then, if one of the bedroom doors is opened, she’ll make a bee-line either under the bed or into the closet, where she’ll stay until a few hours after the storm has passed.

    I feel sorry for Ginger. She really is pitiful, sitting there, shaking and shivering, unable or unwilling to receive any real comfort in the midst of her distress.

    But then, I think a little and wonder whether I’m any different. My tendency, when faced with the storms of life, is to withdraw—from people and from God. When things are good, getting and staying close to God is (relatively) easy. When things are hard, not so much. I way too often reject God’s comforting arms and make a bee-line under the metaphorical bed.

    But there’s one big difference between Ginger and me. She may reject the comfort, but she instinctively heads to safety. She somehow knows that the bed and the closet are the safest places in the house.

    But for me—for us—as we face life’s storms, our comfort IS the safest place. Allowing our fear to send us into hiding from God not only robs us of the comfort and peace that God’s Spirit can provide, it actually puts us in danger. It’s when we’re trying to power through on our own—when we’re keeping ourselves far from God—that we’re most susceptible to give in to depression or despair. The further we take ourselves from God’s comfort and peace, the greater the danger that we’ll be tempted to go even farther. It would be like Ginger, instead of running under the bed, running away, out into the hail storm.

    We’re all going to face storms. I just hope not too many of them are like that hail storm, but we’re going to face them. The question isn’t whether we get hit—life is hard. The question is how we respond.
  • My Smartwatch May Be Smarter Than I Thought - April 11, 2024

    A few years ago, I got a really fancy watch for Christmas. It tracks my heartrate, my running data, my hiking data, my walking around during the day data, my sleeping data. And recently, it got a software update that enables it to track my napping.

    I’m a strong believer in napping. I think the world would be a much better place, and humanity a much nicer group of people, if everyone took 15-20 minutes out of their day to take a nap.

    That being said, I have a lot of days where, for whatever reason, the nap just doesn’t happen. Too many meetings, too many upcoming projects or events to work on, and before I know it, I missed my window.

    But here’s something interesting. On some of those days when I miss my nap, my watch tells me I got one anyway. You see, every morning, I have a time of prayer and meditation. And, apparently, sometimes my watch mistakes my meditation for napping. Now, I’m pretty sure that my meditation doesn’t (usually) involve actual sleeping. But, when I’m doing it right, I often do experience the sort of peace I could only otherwise get in sleep. My body relaxes, my breathing and heartrate slow. My watch thinks I’m taking an early morning nap.

    Now, just a minute ago when I said I take naps, some of you were probably jealous. But others of you may have experienced a moment of mild (or not so mild) disapproval. The fact is, unlike a lot of other cultures, ours isn’t about naps. It’s not about downtime. It’s about productivity. It’s about being “on” 24/7.  

    But the folks who know about these sorts of things tell us that this always being in a hurry, always having something to do or somewhere to be, isn’t good for us physically or mentally. The data shows that as the pace of our lives continues to accelerate, we’re sicker and more depressed than ever before. We need naps—and regular sleep—for our mental and physical health.

    But this always-on way of living is especially bad for us spiritually. The Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10). God decreed a day of rest for God’s people: the Sabbath (20:8-11) (the longest of the 10 commandments, by the way). When we’re always distracted with other stuff, it’s hard to think about, or be with, God.

    All of which leads me to think that my watch may be on to something. Napping and meditation really aren’t that different. Both support our physical, emotional, and mental health. Only spending regular, intentional time with God goes a step further. It doesn’t just support our physical life. It enables us to experience and nurtures the new and abundant life that Jesus came to make available to us. It enables us to slow down and experience the love that God has for us and asks us to share with the rest of the world.

    Who knew Garmin was so smart?

  • Dead Possom - April 4, 2024

    Kirsten and I took the dogs for a nice little hike last week. The temperature was perfect. The cloud cover was perfect. The trail was perfect. In fact, everything about it was perfect. At least until we got back in the car. Then we noticed a stench. One of the dogs must have gotten into something when we weren’t watching. Interestingly, by the time we got home, we’d gotten used to it and didn’t think anything more about it.

    The next morning, I went through my usual morning routine with Buster Ruth, which involves lots of scratching and petting. Then, a while later (and no longer at home), I noticed a smell. I sniffed my hands and nearly gagged. I smelled like a dead animal. I washed my hands, but I guess I must have rubbed them on my clothes, because I still smelled. It wasn’t until I got home, took a shower, and changed clothes that the smell finally went away.

    We live in a world that is losing its mind. Literally. God created us for relationship—to love God and one another. And God created us for cycles of activity and rest (eg, wake/sleep, work/Sabbath). Yet our culture seems to be hurtling with ever-increasing speed towards a norm of isolation (or, at best, the shallow echo-chamber of social media) and more and more ways to stay continually active and distracted, 24/7.

    I’ve read in several different places recently that you become what you give your attention to—you become what you do. Which makes sense. For instance, I speak English because that’s the language I listened to as I was growing up. I like to read (or at least I did until Seminary!) because I was exposed to lots of reading opportunities growing up.

    And so, we’re presented with a choice. We can give our minds, bodies, and attention to the culture around us, which embraces and inculcates attitudes of isolation and distraction that are anti-God and at least as importantly, anti-human. Or, we can turn our attention to God and how we were created to be—at rest in God, and in love with God and one another. That choice determines who we will become.

    Another way of saying it: If you lie down with dogs, you’re gonna get fleas. (Or, in my case, if you wrestle with a dog that’s just rolled around in dead possum, well …) And, in case you’re wondering which is the right choice, dead possum smells really bad.

  • He is Risen - March 28, 2024

    I was talking not too long ago with someone at the coffee shop, and she said something I thought was quite profound: Jesus didn’t die so we could treat people the way people treated him.

    In just a few days, on Good Friday, we’re going to remember the sacrifice Jesus made for us. My first instinct is to understate the extent of that sacrifice by saying something like, “It can’t have been easy.” But that’s far too weak. It had to have been a vicious, unbearable, never-ending nightmare. Beaten black and blue and bloody, then forced to carry his own heavy cross, then hung up on it until he asphyxiated, all the while knowing it’s not because of anything he’s done—he’s enduring it for the sake of the ones killing him. That’s beyond the sort of sacrifice I can even realistically imagine. But he was willing to do it for us. To save us.

    And it’s tempting to leave it there. To stop at the “saved” part. To accept his sacrifice almost as if we were entitled to it. To acknowledge that, yes, we’re not all we’re supposed to be, we fall short, we do stupid and mean and selfish things. But we’ve been forgiven, so it’s all good. Thank you, Jesus.

    But, as we all know, Good Friday isn’t the end of the story. Because come Easter morning, Jesus was no longer in the tomb. He’d been resurrected. He’s been born again into a new life. Jesus’ passion isn’t just about his death. It’s not just about a transaction through which he substituted himself for us and got our sins forgiven. It is also—and especially—about new life. It’s about transformation.

    It’s not just about saying, “Thank you, Jesus,” and then going on with our lives as if nothing had happened. It’s about becoming different and new through the presence of God’s Holy Spirit within us. As my friend said, it’s about being transformed from the sort of people who wouldn’t think twice about persecuting and even killing someone who dared to preach a Gospel that challenged the cultural narrative of selfishness, violence and hate. It’s about being transformed into the type of people who are willing to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44) and put our lives on the line for our friends (John 15:13).

    So, let’s remember that this Easter. Jesus didn’t die so we could treat people the way he was treated. He died, and was raised, so we could be transformed into His image. He is risen, and us with him. Hallelujah!

  • Guardrails - March 21, 2024

    Kirsten and I went on a little mini-vacation to Vancouver, BC last week to celebrate her last spring break as a teacher. We went to visit our daughter, but figured that as long as we were there, we might as well check out some of the most spectacular scenery there is.

    And it was wonderful. Our visit coincided with a break in the usual pattern of cold, dark, cloudy, and rainy. For virtually the entire trip, it was clear. The sky was blue, the clouds were minimal, and we could see not only the trees, but the snow-capped mountains that started practically right outside my daughter’s house.

    One of the places we went had a gondola that took us from sea level to about 2,500 feet. At the top there was a suspension bridge. The picture above doesn’t nearly do justice to the view. It also doesn’t do justice to just how high the bridge was over the valley below. I would have been a looooong fall.

    Of course, there were pretty high hand-rails to make such a fall unlikely, but as I walked across, I wondered …. As it was, I was able to stay pretty much in the middle of the bridge, except when passing someone. Then, I would have to move over right next to the railing. No problem. But as I did so for about the third time, I wondered how that would work if the railing wasn’t there. For that matter, I wondered whether I would have even been able to keep myself in the middle of the bridge if I didn’t know the railing was there. One thing I did know was that I never would have ventured out on that bridge without the railing.

    It’s getting close to the end of Lent. Just a week-and-a-half left. In my church, we’ve been studying the Apostles’ Creed during Lent. And, as I look back on my experience on that suspension bridge, I can’t help but compare it to the Creed.

    Now, stay with me here. Just as the railings kept me from falling off that bridge, the Creed acts as the guardrails that keep us centered in our faith. It consists of statements of faith that have stood the test of time.

    Now, I could probably have navigated that suspension bridge without the guardrails under perfect conditions—it would have been terrifying, but I probably could have done it. But one strong gust of wind, some sort of major distraction, or someone coming at me from the other direction … I might well have ended up way, way down, a mangled heap on the valley floor.

    Likewise, a lot of us might be able to keep the basics of our faith in focus without guardrails, at least for a while. But it is so easy to get distracted. It is so easy to gradually come to associate the cultural givens in which we live our everyday lives with our faith.

    Which isn’t to say that the Creeds are a doctrinal straitjacket. To the contrary, the creeds lay down the basics of our faith, not the extent of it. There is still a lot of room for different understandings of what it means to follow Jesus. I mean, look at the ever-expanding number of Christian denominations, which manage to find plenty of things to disagree on within the guardrails.

    Which gets me to thinking our faith might not be so much like a narrow suspension bridge. Maybe it’s more like the Golden Gate bridge. There are still guardrails to prevent us from plummeting to a horrible death, but there’s also a lot of room in-between to find our own way to the other side.
  • Drilling Down... - March 14, 2024

    It was probably 20 years ago that I was on a mission trip with my hero, Phil Dendy, and he introduced me to the brand-spankin-new Makita lithium-ion drill/impact driver set he’d gotten for $150 at the Home Depot. I think we were building wheelchair ramps and the set came in really handy because the batteries lasted a long time and charged super-fast. It was like a revelation, and tool-envy immediately set in. So, as soon as we got home, I got me one. Phil has since moved on to bigger and better things, but I’ve still got that Makita set, and it still works great.

    I’ve been thinking a lot the last few weeks about the church. What’s our point? What’s our purpose? For most of my life, I thought of “the church” as the place some people go on Sundays to worship; to get a little Jesus and meet some friends. And there are a lot of people who still believe this. For them, their faith revolves almost exclusively around showing up to a worship service a few times a month.

    But the more I experience the church, the more I realize that the hour or so we spend together every week worshiping in the building we call the church, while important, isn’t nearly all of what it means to BE the church.

    I think the church is a lot like that Makita lithium-ion drill/driver set. It’s not made to sit on a shelf, it’s made to do stuff. When we worship, when we pray, when we meditate, it’s like we’re getting recharged. And as anyone with a Makita litium-ion drill/driver set (or a cell phone) can tell you, the point of getting recharged isn’t just to get recharged. I don’t plug my drill battery into the recharger just so I can have the satisfaction of knowing I’ve got a fully charged battery any more than I plug in my phone at night so I can enjoy knowing my phone is fully charged. I charge it so I can use it, so I can do stuff with it.

    Which isn’t to downplay the importance of getting charged. If the drill or the phone isn’t charged, it won’t work. Likewise, our worship (and our small group time) is an opportunity for us to come face-to-face with God and to experience God-breathed community. It is an opportunity to do what we were created to do, which is to love and praise God, while loving one another. I’ll go so far as to say that it is a critical component of any healthy faith life. We cannot do faith by ourselves. But if that is the extent of our faith life, it’s pretty much like charging that drill battery and then putting it on the shelf. I might get a nice charge out of it, but how is that going to help anyone else?

    The point of getting charged isn’t to get charged, it’s to do stuff; to go out and do God’s work, to feed the hungry, provide water to the thirsty, build libraries. But that’s only part of it. The other part is to share the charge. At this point, I’m pretty sure I’m stepping over the overextending-the-analogy line, but it’s like sharing your battery with someone who needs it. Maybe even loaning them your charger.

    C.S. Lewis puts it in terms of epidemiology: we are to be “little Christs,” vectors of God’s grace, infecting everyone we meet with God’s grace so they can become little Christs too. We don’t do that in the building we call “church;” most everyone there is already “infected.” We use our time there to prepare, for sure. We renew the mind of Christ within us, we offer one another support, encouragement, and instruction; we get ourselves good and charged up.

    But that’s not where the real work happens. The real work is outside.
  • I am not a plumber. - March 7, 2024

    I am not a plumber, although that doesn’t prevent me from thinking that I am. Several years ago, I put a new shower valve in our kids’ bathroom. It wasn’t nearly as simple as I thought it would be, requiring that I sweat and solder copper pipes back in the wall behind the shower. But how hard could it be, right? So, after considerable expense and effort, I finally got it finished. And it worked fine for a few weeks. Then we noticed some water on the floor. Turns out it was a little harder than I thought.

    A few years later, I decided to change out our hose bibs, which were beginning to leak. One of the bibs didn’t come off very easily, but with some effort and the application of no small amount of force, I finally got it off. A few days later, when I was a thousand miles away at a seminary class in Florida, my daughter got out of bed and said, “the floor is squishy.” Turns out I applied just enough force to create a small split in the pipe. Tens of thousands of dollars and an entirely new floor later, it was fixed right.

    You would think after experiences like those, my ardor for doing it myself would be a little dimmed. But not so! Not too long after those incidents I installed a water softener. Which, I will have you know, worked just fine … at least until we sold the house. We didn’t give the buyers our contact info.

    Part of my motivation for wanting to do things myself has always been to save money. And sometimes, like the gambler who hits the occasional jackpot, it actually turns out that way. But I figure I’m several thousands of dollars in the hole over the long term.

    However, I think the real reason I like to try and do things myself is because I like to do things MYSELF. I like the idea of being independent. I like the idea of not having to rely on anyone else. I don’t watch those doomsday prepper shows. But it’s not because I think they’re stupid. Rather, I fear I may become addicted and start doing that stuff myself.

    So I was convicted not too long ago in a book my study group, where our reading went into great depth exploring the foundational Christian idea that we are NOT independent. We are social beings. We need one another. We were created for relationship. God is love, and that love is so abundant and overflowing that it could not be contained. By its nature, it needed to be shared outside of itself, so it created the universe, and us. We were created for a relationship with God, with one another, as beings created in the image of God, and with the universe that God created. It’s all interdependent and tied up together.

    One of my favorite biblical images makes this point. St. Paul compares the church to the body of Christ. We’re all different, and that is good. What kind of body would we be if we were all thumbs. Everyone’s got gifts and everyone’s gifts are important. We don’t have to do everything. We shouldn’t TRY to do everything. We don’t have to feel guilty or inferior if we see someone who seems to have it all together and seems to always be doing great things for the world. On the other hand, it does mean that we have an obligation to do what we can do.

    In our culture, we tend to view freedom as independence; as freedom FROM: freedom from constraint; freedom from being told what to do; freedom from other people; freedom from having to call a plumber to fix something I can fix myself.

    But I don’t think that’s what God means by freedom, and I don’t think that’s the sort of freedom we were created for. We were created to enjoy freedom TO: freedom to give ourselves to God; freedom to give ourselves to others; freedom to turn away from our obsession with ourselves, our comforts, our wants; freedom to live in a world where we are not constantly preoccupied with keeping other people away from our money and our property and ourselves; freedom to become who God created us to be.

    When I think about it, I know that as much as I would like to be an island, I’m not, nor can I be. I need the plumber (and the floor guy and the painter) to come and fix my do-it-myself projects. I’m glad there are plumbers, and bakers (donuts!) and even lawyers. I’m glad for my wife, Kirsten, and our kids; for my family; for my friends; for my congregation; for my community. Whether I am often willing to admit it or not, I need them, not just to take care of me and do the things I cannot do, but so I can be the person I was created to be; so we can share our lives and through those shared lives, create something larger and more beautiful; so we can enjoy the sort of new life that Jesus promises.

  • "Choices, Choices" - February 29, 204

    The other day was another one of those bad days. Objectively, it was a beautiful day. But I wasn’t rejoicing in it. In fact, it was one of those days when I could effortlessly identify major character defects in pretty much everyone I met. And a lot of people I didn’t meet as well. All I had to do was see their vehicle, or their house, or their dog, and I could tell they weren’t even worthy of my disdain.

    Now, I knew this was not right. So, I argued with myself:

    Self: That person’s a jerk. I can tell by just looking at him.

    Better self: you know that judgment and pride are wrong. And anyway, you’ve never met that person.

    Self: But he’s a jerk.

    Better self: Come on, maybe introduce yourself. Get to know him.

    Self: I don’t need to. He’s a jerk.

    Over and over again. Now, like I said, I knew this was not good. So, every time I did it, I begged God for forgiveness. But then I kept on doing it. It was like a case of temporary insanity with no apparent triggering event.

    When I finally got home, I didn’t know what to do. In a prior life, I would have cracked open a beer. And then another and another. I contemplated some Netflix bingeing. Or digging into a quart of Blue Bell. All time-tested ways to make a bad day even worse. But in a brief moment of lucidity, I decided to take the dogs for a walk.

    I don’t know what it is about being outside; for me it’s kind of like an anti-depressant. The sun, the big sky, the dry grass and the green grass, the bare trees and the green trees and the trees losing their leaves. The sound of the wind swishing through the bare branches and rustling through the brown leaves. The seemingly boundless and effervescent energy of the dogs. And some time alone with God.

    Now, the impact wasn’t immediate. But slowly, imperceptibly, things changed. My mind changed. My spirit changed. By the time I got home an hour later, I could have encountered even the jerkiest jerk and retained my equanimity. All from taking a walk.

    Life is a series of choices. That’s the gift God has given us: choice. And the person we become is the cumulative result of those choices. In my life, I’ve probably made more bad choices than good. But at least that day (and, I believe, with some nudging from God) I made the right one. And I hope that one choice will inform some of my future choices, leading to some more, better choices in the future.
  • Going Underground - February 22, 2024

    Last Friday, the dogs and I were beginning our walk when I noticed a puddle in the area between my yard and the neighbor’s. I walked over to investigate and discovered what looked like a big hole I hadn’t noticed before, completely filled with water that was flowing into our yards. The hole seemed to be between my meter box and the street, so we called the water company.

    I had plans and so wasn’t able to be there when the water guy showed up, but the next day when I looked at the hole, it was dry. I couldn’t figure out how it had gotten that way because nothing was dug up, there were no signs of repair. Then I looked across the street and saw that our neighbors’ meter box had been dug up. Apparently, the leak had originated there but rather than pool in a low spot in my neighbor’s yard or flow over the road, the water had gone underground and popped up again in my yard.

    I think the same sort of thing happens in our lives. Stuff happens, and because we don’t have the time (or the inclination) to deal with it, we push it underground, maybe thinking it will stay there. But like the water from my neighbor’s broken water line, it doesn’t. It’s got to go somewhere, and it’s eventually going to come out. For me, it used to be on the highway. Someone cuts me off or doesn’t let me merge and I lose it. One of my favorite things to do was get right on the offender’s tail and stay there until my nemesis had learned his or her lesson … or until I came to my senses, whichever came first.

    Social media (and our increasingly polarized and fragile culture) has made it easier for us to see this principle in action everywhere. People regularly flying off the handle and starting flame wars over the smallest and most inconsequential things, not so much based on the thing they’re venting their rage over, as it is something they are unwilling or unable to resolve within themselves.

    Now, I don’t do the tailgating thing so much anymore, and I try to minimize my exposure to the social media and cable news rage machine, but I still encounter the same principle in my life in more subtle ways. Pride, judgment, resentment. All of it projected onto others who may or may not have done anything to deserve it, but actually flowing from something unresolved in me.

    We’re now in the season of Lent, which is a time for us stop and reflect on what’s most important in our lives. It’s a time for a little introspection; a time to dig in and maybe find some of those things that we’ve shoved underground—some of the things we’re holding onto, whether we know it or not; to find them and to get rid of them; to give them to God. Lent presents us with a choice: to hold onto all that stuff (which inevitably separates us from the peace and joy of Christ), or to let it go and connect more closely with the eternal One who loved us into being.
  • I Hate Squirrels - February 15, 2024

    When I was a kid, some squirrels chewed their way into our attic. It took a while for us to figure out that the pitter-pattering sound wasn’t just squirrels on the roof. During their sojourn in our attic, the squirrels did a fair amount of damage to the insulation, the ductwork, and various wires. Once we figured out they were there, it took months and months and months to get them out. Every time we thought we had them under control, they would manage to somehow chew their way back in. I think we ended up replacing part of the roof and installing thick, stainless steel vent screens. From then on, every time my mother saw a squirrel in the road, she would swerve, often with some moderately deranged invective, to hit it. A few times she actually got one. My mother hated squirrels.

    Now, I had pretty much forgotten about this dark episode in my family’s history until a few months ago. Kirsten and I have an old truck that we use mostly to haul things and serve as a backup when one of our other cars is in the shop. It’s been a really good truck over the years and mostly problem free. That is, until the squirrels found it. One afternoon I was going to use it to haul some brush, but it wouldn’t shift into gear. After several hours of YouTubing (and some lunch and maybe a nap), I finally located the problem. Squirrels had gotten into the engine compartment who knows how long before, had made themselves a nice little nest, and had chewed through some wires.

    I fixed the wires and went on with my life. A few months later, the truck wouldn’t start. I immediately lifted the hood and spotted a new nest, right in the middle of a what looked like a wire explosion. One tow job and $750 dollars later, we got the truck back. My mechanic said to put mentholatum on the wires and mothballs under the engine compartment to deter the squirrels, so that’s what I did.

    Then, a few weeks ago, several of the truck’s warning lights started to blink. Turns out the mentholatum trick works, but only if you put it on ALL the wires. The squirrels had simply moved to the other side of the engine compartment.

    I now understand my mom’s antipathy towards squirrels. In fact, I guess I’m carrying on the family tradition. I hate squirrels. Everything about them. Their cute little chipmunk faces and their fluffy little tails. The precious way they sit on their hind legs and hold their food in their cute little front hands while they eat. I hate them. And I think the squirrels must sense this, since they seem to stay out of the road when I’m around; they don’t even give me the chance to veer and hit them. I hate squirrels with the intensity of a thousand burning suns.

    And as I contemplate my undying desire for all squirrels to die tragic and painful deaths, I realize that I wish I felt the same way about sin. And, just so we’re all on the same page, my understanding of sin is anything that separates us from God. Not just the big stuff like theft and murder and lying, but everything.

    In our church we just finished a worship journey where we focused on generosity and giving as a spiritual practice that draws us closer to God. And as that journey progressed, I began to realize that while generosity can be a spiritual practice, like any other spiritual practice, it can also become an idol. I came to understand that for me, it had become a rote exercise; a stand-in for actually seeking a closer relationship with and experience of God’s love and goodness. It had become sin.

    And that got me to thinking about my prayer life. Over time, I have developed a fairly detailed schedule that includes devotions, Bible study, prayer, and meditation every morning, which is obviously a good thing. But more frequently than I would like to admit, this exercise too turns into a rote exercise. It becomes something I just need to grit my teeth and power through so I can get some real work done for God’s kingdom.

    And, even worse, most days, once I’m done with that morning prayer time, I pretty much forget about God for the rest of the day. I do my work. I check the news feed on my phone (way too much). I do all the other stuff we all do to distract myself from the One who loved me into existence. At least until right before I go to bed, when, day after day, like a newborn with no concept of object permanency, I realize once again that I spent the better part of my day trying to get away from God.

    I don’t think I’m unique in this. And what really gets me is that I’m pretty much OK with it. I ought to hate it. I mean, the creator of everything that is—bigger than the universe and older than time—loves me so much that he wants nothing more than for me to spend my day with Him. And tiny little me can’t seem to make it happen. I ought to hate this even more than I hate squirrels. But I don’t.

    Now, the point of this reflection isn’t to beat myself up, or for any of you who can identify to beat yourselves up. It’s just a recognition—especially appropriate as we head into the season of Lent—that there’s always room for improvement. Until we reach perfection, there’s always going to be something we need to repent of—to leave behind—in order to draw closer to God.

    So, here’s my prayer for today: God, help us all to flip the script of our lives. Help us to hate the things that distract us from your presence at least as much as we hate squirrels.
  • God is Good - February 8, 2024

    I nearly killed my dog the other day. Not on purpose, of course (although sometimes she tempts me). I was putting out bait to kill the mice that have been feasting on the wires in my truck and decided to put one in the back yard for full coverage. Less than 5 minutes later, I noticed the bait housing was gone. I went around the corner and there was Ginger Ruth, chewing on a shredded mouse-bait-housing, with little green crumbs covering her mouth and the remains of the housing.

    I would like to say I responded all cool and everything, like Fonzie from “Happy Days.” Aayyyy. Unfortunately, I responded more like Lenny. I freaked out. My gut clenched and my mind shut down. But finally, after several moments of mindless, pointless wandering, the gears started turning again and I took Ginger to the vet. They got her fixed up in no time.

    As I write this, Ginger is laying in her bed looking at me. She’s been her normal, alternately hyperactive and comatose self ever since she recovered from the medicine the vet gave her. I, on the other hand, am still a mess. I like to think of myself as a reasonably calm and emotionally stable person, but this event nearly did me in. Waiting helplessly to find out whether my dog would live was like being encased in giant suffocating cotton balls, while at the same time lying in a bathtub with a low-voltage electrical charge passing through it.

    Now, as I was waiting, I knew I should pray. But I had a hard time stringing together the thoughts and words. So, I just said over and over, “Please, God.”

    Now, I realize that in the grand scheme of things, this was a pretty small event. I know so many people who have been through so much worse with friends, family members, spouses, and with far different outcomes. Sometimes the outcome is precisely the opposite of the prayers.

    I’m reading a book now on theodicy, which is a churchy word for why bad things happen to good people (and why good things happen to bad people); why some prayers are answered with miracles and so many prayers don’t seem to have any effect. And, as it turns out, there are lots of logical philosophical explanations. Suffering builds character and Christlikeness (which, to a point, is true, but not very satisfying for those who are suffering). A lot of the time when we pray, we’re praying for stuff that’s really not good for us and God knows better (like if I were to pray for a lifetime supply of as much ice cream as I can eat). Similarly, God knows everything, so God knows when (and how) to answer or not answer our prayers for our ultimate good. And there are lots more.

    But what it all boils down to in the end is, “we don’t know.” It’s a mystery.

    Now, there are some things we do know (or at least that I know). What I do know is that God is God and I am not. God is love—ultimate goodness—and I am not. God is all-powerful, and I am not. And I know that even in the difficult times—like when all I can think is “please, God”—it helps to know that there is an all-powerful, perfectly good God there with me, grieving with my grief, laughing with my joy, and loving me through it all.

  • I'm His Favorite - February 1, 2024

    Several years ago, one or the other of my siblings (I’m pretty sure it was Becca) started giving a particular kind of Christmas and/or birthday present to my parents. I think it started with a T-shirt that had her picture on it, with the words “Favorite Daughter” underneath. Not at all a middle child thing.

    Anyway, this gift-giving strategy has spread to other members of the family, so at any given family gathering where gifts are involved, there’s likely to be at least on “I’m the favorite” gift given and received.

    Which brings us to last Sunday night. We were celebrating my sister Patti’s birthday. A few weeks ago, Kirsten came to me literally giggling. She found this place online that makes coffee mugs that are black at room temperature, but when they’re heated up—for example by hot coffee—they lighten to reveal whatever is underneath. So, Kirsten’s idea was to put a picture of her on the cup, along with the text “Favorite Sister in Law,” and give one to both of my sisters. She’s been giddy with excitement for the better part of the last 2 weeks as she waited to give these gifts to my sisters. And it only got worse, so that by Sunday, she could hardly contain herself.

    Now, Kirsten was very sneaky about the whole thing. When she presented the mugs to my sisters, she said they came highly recommended by HER sister; that this particular brand actually enhances the flavor of coffee. And since Kirsten’s sister is pretty fancy-pants, my sisters bought it.

    Then, Kirsten schemed with just about anyone she could scheme with to be able to be there when one or the other sister drank some coffee. So, there we were after dinner, and my niece asks her mom, Patti, the birthday girl, if she’d like a cup of decaf. Patti says yes. Kirsten was practically vibrating as the coffee was poured. Eventually the cup changed color and there was Kirsten, the favorite sister in law! Everyone, especially Patti and Becca AND Kirsten had a good laugh.

    Which, of course, got me to thinking about God. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church, he says that nothing can separate us from the love of God (Romans 8:38-39). In one of the apostle John’s letters, he says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And then, of course, there’s the fact that we are all God’s children, created in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). What this means is that we are ALL God’s favorites. We know this from that famous verse in John’s Gospel, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believed in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). God doesn’t just love me or you, my town or your town, my country or your country. God loves the world–everyone. We’re all God’s favorites. Who knows, maybe God has billions of t-shirts (or coffee mugs) with our pictures on them, saying “I’m God’s Favorite.”

    But here’s the thing. Jesus came as an expression of God’s love to give everyone eternal, new, abundant life. But there are a lot of folks in the world who don’t know this. They haven’t gotten the t-shirt or the mug yet. They need to hear that they’re God’s favorites too. They need to know that, no matter what, they are loved.

    And here’s what I pray. I pray that we can help them to get that message, and be as excited about it as Kirsten was.
  • The Hike - January 25, 2024

    In my sermon last Sunday I was talking about generosity. And in doing so, I used the metaphor of a walking path to illustrate how we should seek to progress—move down the path—in our generosity as a critical aspect of our spiritual growth. And as part of that discussion, I threw in, sort of as an afterthought, the fact that I had hiked on Saturday. I said it would have been kind of silly to drive all the way out to the park, put on my hikin’ shoes and knee brace and jacket and water carrier, step onto the hiking trail, and then just stop. The point of the hike is to … well, hike; to move down the path.

    And for some reason, that hiking image has stuck with me. It seems like a good metaphor not just for generosity, but for our whole lives. You may have heard the saying, “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.” It’s the same idea. We were made to grow. We were made to move. It’s what’s behind John Wesley’s (and the apostle Paul’s) focus on growing more and more into the image of Christ.

    But here’s the thing. When I hike, I don’t just keep going. At some point, I turn around. I may just do an out-and-back or I might do a loop, but at least so far, every time I hike, I have managed to always end up back at the car so I can go home and rest.

    Our culture does a great job of keeping us busy; keeping us moving; keeping us distracted. We’ve got to work ourselves up the ladder of success. There’s always a better, higher-paying job; a bigger house in a nicer neighborhood, a cooler car (or Jeep or truck), prettier clothes. Or, failing that, there is ALWAYS something new to check out (and usually get outraged over) in our social media feed or news scroll. There’s always something to do—or at least be distracted by. But there’s not a lot of time for rest; not a lot of time for contemplation and reflection.

    Which, of course, isn’t right. God created us to move and grow. But God also created us to rest. It’s right there in the middle of the 10 Commandments (and, by far, the longest and most fully explicated of the 10 commandments): keep the Sabbath.

    And this is where the hiking metaphor shines. Because rest—looping back to the car and heading home, getting enough sleep and recovery, or spending time alone with God—is an integral and vital part of our path. It’s a big part of how we grow. Now, this may seem ironic or counter-intuitive, but if you’ve ever done any sort of sports training, you know that rest is necessary. If you do nothing but run all-day every day, you’re going to get injured. If you do nothing but go, go, go all-day, every day, you’re going to burn out. If you don’t believe me, just ask some high-school kids.

    We need to rest. We need the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. We need it for our families, we need it for our school or jobs, and we need it in our spiritual journeys.

    And so, this morning I pray that before you head back out onto the trail, you will intentionally carve out a moment or two for rest, for peace. And that, in the process, that you may move closer to who you were created to be.
  • Created to Give - January 18, 2024

    This week at the church I lead, we’re starting a new sermon series on generosity. It’s actually  more than a sermon series. It’s an intentional effort to get us all to reorient our understanding of what it means to give.

    And so, for some reason, I’m sitting here this morning thinking about the mission trip to Belize I got to be a part of back in October. It was an incredible spiritual experience. It reminded me of my first “real” mission experience in Juarez, Mexico. I distinctly remember thinking, “This is what I was made for,” and I have felt that same way every time I’ve participated in any sort of service activity, whether for a few hours or a few days, whether in the town where I’m living or in another country.

    And there’s a reason for that. It really IS what I was created for. It’s what YOU were created for. According to the Bible, we were all created in the image of God. And that God, in whose image we have been created, is love (1 John 4:8, 16). In case you missed that, God IS love. Love isn’t something God does, it’s who God is; God’s identity. And that love is fundamentally about looking out for and taking care of one another.

    God’s ultimate demonstration of this love took place when he sent his Son into time and space to live among us—to give of himself as he served and healed the high and the low, the outcast and the insider, the poor and the rich. It took place when that Son, Jesus, died in order to make new, abundant, full, and eternal life possible for the whole world. It took place when that Son was resurrected in defeat of the forces of darkness and death.

    That’s the image we were created in—the image of ultimate love and generosity. So, when we give from our material resources, our skills and abilities, our time, and our service, we are living into who God created us to be. Or, to put it in terms I’ve heard recently, we’re (really) living our best life.

    It is also, however, not normal. It’s counter-cultural. It’s a little weird. Because the world we live in wants us to think it’s all about me. It seems to be sliding ever more quickly into a lowest common denominator formula, with the LCD being me, myself, and I.

    But every time we give sacrificially, every time we participate in some way to help someone else, we push back against this slide into spiritual anarchy. And, in doing so, we become just a little more who we were created to be. So, my prayer today—for me and for you—is that we will find opportunities to be a little weird; to live into our true selves.

  • Be Like Ginger Ruth - January 11, 2024

    Kirsten and I went to the park the other day. She was riding her new bike with her friend Jennifer. My bike was (already) in the shop so I got to walk the dogs. There are lots of different trails at this particular park, and it didn’t make sense for us to try to stick together since I was walking, so we pretty quickly parted ways.

    And what happened then was interesting. We have two dogs: Ginger Ruth and Buster Ruth. And their reactions to being separated from Kirsten could not have been more different. Buster Ruth didn’t even notice she was gone. He’s not the brightest of bulbs, so it could have been an out of sight out of mind kind of thing. Whatever it was, he didn’t miss a beat as he searched the trees and grass and brush for things to eat or chase.

    Ginger Ruth, on the other hand, was not pleased. Up until that point, she was right there with Buster, sniffing out everything that could be sniffed. But when Kirsten rode off, Ginger went after her, maybe to bring her back or maybe she figured it would be more fun running with the bikes than plodding along with me. In any case, Ginger would have stayed with Kirsten if I hadn’t called Ginger back. Then, as I continued on with the dogs, Ginger would stop every 30 seconds or so with her ears up, looking in the direction Kirsten had gone. At one point, she actually caught sight of Kirsten about a half-mile away and took off after her. Again, Ginger would have sprinted the whole way if I hadn’t called her back. She continued to do this—occasionally checking in the direction she thought Kirsten must have gone—for pretty much the whole two-hour walk. And meanwhile, Buster was just … well … Buster. He did manage to find a few smelly things to chew on, so there’s that.

    Which makes me think about my walk with Christ. Sometimes, I’m like Ginger. I’m always looking to see if I can find him—in the people or the circumstances around me. And if I get a glimpse, I’m taking off across whatever lies between us just to get closer.

    But, if I’m being honest with myself, most of the time I’m like Buster—eyes down, sniffing around to see what’s going on right in front of me, not that concerned about where Jesus is and what he’s doing, much less about anyone else.

    And, I think that if we’re not careful, that’s the case for most of us. We are immersed in the everyday, mundane aspects of life in the world from the moment we wake up in the morning to when our heads hit the pillow in the evening. We’re also constantly bombarded with toxic messages of hate or shame or both. And it doesn’t take any effort at all to pay attention to that stuff—it’s staring us in the face all day, every day.

    But it takes intentionality to be like Ginger. It takes intentionality to focus our gaze beyond what’s right in front of us and look deeper; look farther. In Ginger’s case, her searching after Kirsten is based in love and devotion.

    And I think it’s the same with us. We are going to search for what we love and are devoted to. If we allow ourselves to become devoted to the anger, hate, and shame that’s always in front of us—with just surviving until tomorrow—then that’s all we’re ever going to see. But the more we manage to look beyond what’s in front of us and find what our hearts were truly created to love, the better we get at it.

    So how about you? Buster or Ginger? I think I’m going to go with Ginger on this one.
  • Happy New Year - January 4, 2024

    Happy New Year! I am sitting here in absolute shock that it’s already here. It is a new year! 2024! I mean, it was 2023 just a few days ago. And it seems like 2022 just a few days before that. How can this be?

    And you know what the new year means, right? New Year’s Resolutions. With the changing of the calendar, I guess we are just naturally nudged to look at our lives and change those things about ourselves that we feel may have gotten just a little out of whack over the last year. And, of course, a lot of those things are things we’ve been doing for the last month and a half as we prepare for the end of the year: eating, finding excuses not to exercise, spending; things we tell ourselves will be ok because we’ll take care of them next year.

    I used to be big into the resolutions. I would get to the end of the year and feel guilty for all the screw-ups of the prior year, so I would draw up a list and prioritize it and get all excited about it. I would visualize how I was going to change my life for the good by just eating better and getting more exercise and reading more and working harder, while spending more time with my family, and ….

    Of course, it never worked out that way. I would get busy. I would get distracted. I would get tempted. And, before a couple of months had elapsed, I was back where I started. And worse, because now I had the guilt and shame of failure on top of the fact that I had been too weak to change my situation.

    So, nowadays, I’m not much of a resolution person. Part of it is just avoiding the inevitable guilt and shame. But I think a bigger part is that I realize I’m not going to be able to change anything on my own. It may just be me, but I’ve finally come to the realization that I’m just not smart enough to know exactly what needs to be changed, or strong enough to make it happen.

    So, as a result, I’ve whittled my list down to just got one resolution. And it’s not even a New Year’s Resolution. It’s an every day resolution; one I pray every single morning. It’s a prayer that, at least for today, God will enable God’s love to become more a part of who I am that God will transform me—even if just a little bit—more into the image of Christ; and it’s a prayer that through that love, God will be able through me to transform the world around me into the world God wants it to be—even if just a little bit.

    And I pray the same for all of you. May the new year not just be happy, but may it be filled with Joy.