Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 4: The Zax

Zax_in_prax

The north-going Zax and the south-going Zax cross paths in the prairie of Prax.

The Zax are lesser-known Seuss creations.  Found in one of the smaller stories within the Sneetches book, they are two creatures full of certainty.  Their paths intersect one day in an open field.  One is going north.  The other south.  They run into each other, and refuse to yield.  Each Zax is certain of his path.  He is certain that there is no other way to go.  There is no room for east or west.  Both dig in, ready for a wait, ready to hold fast to their certainty for as long as it takes.  As they stand there at a face off, a funny things happens.  The world around them goes on.   The story ends with the north-going Zax and the south-going Zax standing face to face, with the world all around them changed.  There are buildings and roads, even a bridge that goes over them.  All around them is progress, leaving behind the Zax and their certainty.

zax standoffAssurance is a virtue.  I’m not sure certainty is.  Certainty is built on the promise that I am right.  It inspires us to dig deeper trenches, and defend certainty at all costs.  Certainty regards new facts with suspicion.  It does not adapt well to change.  Assurance is built on the promise that I am loved. It is a source of hope and inspires confidence.  Assurance allows freedom for challenge and growth.  I think the world could use more blessed assurance and less religious certainty.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a warning.  “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven,” he says (Matthew 7:21).  Faith is not about checking a box.  Faith is not about making your claim, saying a formulaic prayer, and thinking that your ticket has been punched.  “Only those who do the will of my Father will enter,” he continues.  He closes this long sermon, one in which he told them some pretty radical stuff, with a reminder that nodding their heads in agreement, even shouting a few ‘amens’ wouldn’t be enough.  I can imagine after this sermon, the people filing by Jesus, shaking his hand warmly and saying, “Good sermon, teacher.”  The Kingdom of Heaven is about more than knowing what is right.  It is about living each day as if the things Jesus taught actually matter.

The Christian life is not easily defined, and it is not easily lived.  It starts not with having all the answers, but with having the courage to ask the questions.  Religious certainty is built on having all the answers.  It is about picking the right Bible verses to memorize, and standing firm on the right side.  It is built, above all, on being right.  Yet Jesus himself called out those who wanted to draw such clear lines.  To those who memorized all the right Bible verses, he declared “You have heard it said… But I say to you.”  He threw doubt upon all that their institutions and religious righteousness had been built on.

Instead he called people to struggle with real problems.  He called people to fix upon the spirit of love that transcended the letter of the Law.  Instead of offering certainty, he offered assurance.  Assurance that the entirety of the Bible could be summed up with a commandment to love.  Assurance that the sinner is welcome at the table.  Assurance that treating one another with love was more important than being right.

Blessed assurance gives me the strength to love.  It gives me the confidence to be vulnerable.  It gives me the safety to adventure into uncharted territory.  Assurance inspires me to go to new places, meet new people, and try to find new ways to encounter what transcends all things: God’s love.

Jesus closes his Sermon on the Mount with a simple metaphor.  “Everybody who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like the wise builder who built a house on bedrock.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew and beat against that house.  It didn’t fall…  But everybody who hears these words and doesn’t put them into practice will be like a fool who built his house on sand.  The rain fell, the floods came, and the wind blew against that house.  It fell and was completely destroyed” (Matthew 7:24-27)

Certainty is built upon the promise that I am right.  It does not respond well to shifting winds or changing times.  Assurance is built upon the promise that I am loved.  With that foundation, I can stand against any storm.

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 3: The Sneetches

sneetchesThe Sneetches are such silly creatures, aren’t they?  Two groups of yellow bird-like creatures lived on a beautiful beach.  Some have little green stars on their bellies.  Some don’t.  That’s when the trouble begins.  The star-bellied Sneetches believe that the star upon their belly makes them “the best Sneetches on the beaches.”  They enjoy much fun and frivolity, but don’t let their plain-bellied-brethren join in their reindeer games.  Enter Sylvester McMonkey McBean.  He has just the contraption that will solve all the problems of the plain-bellied Sneetches.  The plain-bellied Sneetches pay just three dollars to enter the machine, and come out the other end with stars upon thars.

This is only a momentary victory, as natural-starred-Sneetches maintain that they are still the better Sneetches.  Sylvester comes in again and offers some help.  For only ten dollars per Sneetch, they can enter the machine and have that pesky star removed.  Chaos ensues.  The Sneetches get so caught up in adding or removing their stars to keep up with the trends that eventually even they cannot keep up.  Eventually, Sylvester leaves, his pockets properly lined.  In the end, “all the Sneetches forgot about stars, and whether they had one, or not, upon thars.”

It would be easier to dismiss the Sneetches as silly, superficial creatures if we didn’t see ourselves so clearly in them.  Once again, Dr. Seuss presents us with a fun-house mirror.  Bent to stretch out the image to absurd proportions, but mirror-enough to recognize ourselves.  The Sneetches remind us of the absurdity of our divisions.  They remind us of the stars for which we long.  They remind us of the anxieties with which we wake every day.  The anxieties that sit in the pit of our stomachs.  The anxieties that keep us awake, that diminish our appetites, that affect our relationships, and cripple us with fear for of what we don’t have.

The Sneetches worried about whether or not they had stars upon thars.  And we can look out those silly Sneetches and laugh, until we start noticing the stars upon others that we wish we had.  I see the Corvette parked in our neighbor’s garage.  I see the parents whose children are always so well-behaved.  I see the blogger who is selling advertising and the podcasts in the top 100.  I see the churches with the talented praise bands and the powerful music, and the preachers biggering their churches.  I look down at my own belly, and there is no star.  And to boot, it’s a little too big.  Look at those guys at the gym who have six-packs, not stars, upon thars.

And then I hear Jesus.

“Therefore I say to you, don’t worry about your life,” and the needle on the record player amplifying my anxieties gets lifted off with a terrible screech.

Before he can finish the sentence, I want to scream.  Don’t worry about your life? What is that supposed to mean?  My worries are valid.  My worries are righteous.  Shouldn’t I be in better shape?  Shouldn’t I want a bigger church?  Shouldn’t I want more readers, more listeners?  Don’t I deserve to do some biggering of my own?  And then I hear myself.  And I pause long enough to let Jesus finish.

“Don’t worry about what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear.  Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes?” (Isn’t there more to you than the whether or not you have a star upon yars?)  “Look at the birds in the sky.  They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns.  Yet your heavenly Father feeds them.  Aren’t you worth much more than they are?” (Matthew 6:25-27)

“I guess”, I think.  But still, that seems absurd.  God is the one who gave us the ability to think about the future.  And with the ability to think about the future comes the ability to worry about it.  So am I supposed to stop saving money?  Should I spend my pension?  Should I get rid of my refrigerator?  How far am I supposed to take this?

“Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life?” (Matthew 6:28) Maybe there is a difference between preparing for the future and worrying about the future.  Being a good steward of what has been entrusted to me is different than wrangling out every last penny so as to hoard my blessings.  It seems possible to have a pension without being a slave to it.  There is still room for generosity, kindness, and contentment even in the midst of preparing for a rainy day.  If I can let Jesus’ words seep into my crippling anxiety, I can realize that biggering is not what life is all about.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ long explanation of the Kingdom of Heaven.  This Kingdom that Jesus describes defies simple explanation.  Yet at the same time it seems to come back to one thing: love.  “No one can serve two masters.  Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be loyal to the one have have contempt for the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matthew 6:24)  What do you love?  Do you love God, and seek first God’s kingdom?  Or do you love status, or money, or power?  When we operate out of anxiety, we let our fears rule, so we serve whatever quick fix might offer us an illusion of security.  But when we operate out of love, and truly let Jesus be our Lord, we learn that security lies not in the fragile, decaying, dying things of this world.  When we operate out of love, we can stop worrying about the stars we don’t have.  Perhaps more importantly, we can stop guarding the places where we have stars. We can loosen our grip on the stars upon ours.  When security rests only in the eternal, life-giving, resurrected Christ, generosity, justice, and peace start to seep in.

The Sneetches were convinced that having a star upon thars was all that mattered.  They knew that if they could only have what the others didn’t then they’d be okay.  So they gave everything they had to the one who offered them security.  He offered them a quick fix, a walk through a machine, and a star upon thars.  Eventually though, they learned.  They learned that the security they sought in the mark on their belly was empty.

The question remains, will we?  Can we learn to stop searching for easy answers?  Can we learn to let go of our anxiety over what is or isn’t on our bellies, in our garages, in our pews, or in our bank accounts?  Can we learn to stop putting our trust in a false sense of security?

Can I?

Can I learn to love God first, and let all else come later?  Can I learn to seek first the Kingdom of God, and then my pension?  Can I learn to let go, loosen my grip, and let God’s grace fill in the gaps?

Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow @FatPastor on Twitter

Get a Love God. Live Well. Do Good. sticker

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Sermons

Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 2: The Lorax

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.

truffula treesThe Lorax is a cautionary tale.  It opens in a land that is gray and foresaken.  There are stumps littering the countryside and smog fills the sky.  There is a city off in the distance, but the only remnant of life in the desolate land is a tower.  A boy ventures out into this wilderness in hopes of hearing the story of how it all came to be.  Once he gets to the tower, a man named Once-ler tells the story.

One day long ago, Once-ler happened upon a beautiful land full of trees, animals, birds, and fish.  The trees, he finds, can be harvested to produce something he calls a “thneed,” and a “thneed is a something that everyone needs.”  Immediately upon chopping down one of the truffula trees, a little orange mustachioed creature appears, “I am the Lorax,” he declares. “I speak for the trees.”  The tale that is spun is a familiar one.  While the Once-ler “biggers and biggers” his operations, and “biggers and biggers” his profits, there are unintended side effects.  The animals have no place to play.  The fish have no place to swim, and the birds have no place to fly as the waste from the Thneed factory lays waste to the land.  Despite the Lorax’s loud protestations, the Onceler keeps going, with employees to feed, he needs to make thneeds, and cares for little else.  Finally, the last truffula tree is chopped down.  The Lorax lifts himself out of the place, and the Once-ler’s tale seems to come to an end.

UnlessBack at the “present day,” the business-tycoon-turned-hermit puzzles over the little monument that the Lorax left behind.  It is a small pile of rocks with one word, “Unless.”  Finally, Once-ler seems to understand the Lorax’s cryptic message.  “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better.  It’s not,” the Once-ler tells the boy.  With that, he throws down to the boy a seed.  The very last truffula seed.

Dr. Suess is famous for open-endings.  So often he allows the reader to finish the story.  Here, the reader is thrust into the role of the boy hearing from the Once-ler.  After finishing the book, I feel like if I shake loose the pages a seed might fall out.  Surrounded by desolation and despair, a small monument stands as a shrine to hope.  This book is a clear warning about economic growth at the expense of ecologic disaster.  Whole sermons can be preached on the stewardship of the earth, and the importance of protecting the brown barbaloots and the humming fish.  Instead, I focus the two worlds that Seuss once again presents.

Last time we looked at Yertle the Turtle, and were reminded that in the Kindgom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle name Mack matters.  Seuss showed clearly two ways of understanding the world.  One was to climb to the top by any means necessary.  The other was to care about those on the bottom of the pile.

In The Lorax, Seuss presents us with two ways of understanding the world.  There is the way of the Once-ler, whose primary goal is to bigger his profits.  He cares nothing about the future implications of his actions.  Even his name reveals what he values – using something once.  In the end, he winds up separated from the community, with nothing but disaster surrounding him.  Then there is the way of the Lorax.  The Lorax understands community.  He values the interconnection of all things, and speaks up for those who have no voice.  Once there is no community, the Lorax can no longer exist in that place.  Two value systems.  You might say, two kingdoms.  One where once rules.  Another  where community matters.

When Jesus came to preach about the Sermon on the Mount, he did so in community.  He gathered with the crowds, and told them something they may not have been expecting.  Surrounded by crowds who were desperate for healing, he spoke these words, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13-16).

The Kingdom of God is one where the community matters.  It is where the voiceless are given a say.  It is where the sick are healed, the blind are made to see, and the lame are made to walk.  It is where those at dis-ease are made whole again.  “The Kingdom of God is at hand, and you are light of the world.”  Those that were gathered were not valued because of what they could perform, or what they could provide.  They had no standing or status.  They were not a part of the Roman system of tribute, hierarchy, and patronage. They were valued for more than what they could make once.

Jesus came to teach us and show us what the Kindgom of God was all about.  So he gathered with the crowds and told them that it was up them.  “Let your light shine before the people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heave,” Jesus declared.  He reminded the people that the Kingdom of God is at hand because of their very presence, not in spite of it.  “Unless,” he might as well have said, “Unless people like you, you who are the salt and light of the world, care a whole awful lot…”

Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow @FatPastor on Twitter

Get a Love God. Live Well. Do Good. sticker

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity, Sermons

Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount, Part 1: Yertle the Turtle

Theodore Geisel, the man millions know simply as Dr. Seuss, was not a religious man.  That doesn’t mean that his work didn’t have deeply religious themes.  I’m currently working on a sermon series called “Dr. Seuss Tells the Sermon on the Mount.”  It is a five-part series where I go through Jesus’ most important teaching, as found in the Gospel of Matthew, and relate the texts to different Dr. Seuss classics.  

yertleYertle the Turtle was a king.  He was the king over all he saw, but he was dissatisfied.  He wanted a bigger kingdom, so he decided he needed a higher throne.  From the higher throne, he would be able to see farther, and rule over more territory.  To satisfy his need for a higher throne, he order a few turtles to be stacked upon each other.  From atop this throne of turtles, he could expand his kingdom.  Over the course of increasing his reign an insignificant turtle on the bottom of the throne named Mack asked for some relief.  He was granted none.  Higher and higher the turtles were stacked, and yet Yertle was never satisfied.  Eyeing his vast empire, he noted he wasn’t the highest creature in the sky.  Perturbed by the presence of the moon, her ordered a thousand more turtles for his thone.  All the while poor Mack on the bottom of the stack was aching with a sore back.  Finally, Mack cracked.  Actually, he burped.  And the tower of turtles came toppling down.  Yertle fell into a puddle of mud, where he reigned all that he could see, which wasn’t very far.

Yertle understood the power of a kingdom.  He understood only one thing that matters: more.  More turtles, more land, more power.  He didn’t care how he achieved more, and he paid no heed to some poor turtle named Mack.

Jesus lived in a time when the power of kingship was clear.  The stack of turtles under the King was high indeed.  So high that the King named Caesar called himself the son of God.  All the people that gathered on that mountain understood that kind of kingdom.  They understood what it felt like to be on the bottom of the stack.  It was a crowd of Macks that gathered that day.

Then Jesus stood in front of the crowd and told them about another sort of Kingdom.  He told them about who was blessed and who wasn’t, and it was different from anything they had known.  In the Kingdom they were used to, it was easy to tell who was blessed and who wasn’t.  Yertle was blesssed.  Mack wasn’t.  Then Jesus stood up and said “You who are poor…  You who mourn… You who hunger and thirst… are blessed.”

“You, Mack.  You are blessed.  You who have been piled on.  You with sore backs.  You who are neglected, mistreated, and set aside.  You are blessed.  You who see that the world is broken and want to speak up.  You who are left heartbroken by the pain of others.  You who long to be in community.  You who want to know the heart of God, and strive for something greater than the letter of the law.  You are blessed.”

Jesus declared that the Kingdom of God was at hand, and in the Kingdom of God, even the burp of a lowly turtle on the bottom of the pile matters.

Follow the Fat Pastor on Facebook

Get a “Love God. Live Well. Do Good.” sticker

Follow @FatPastor on twitter

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Find your voice for mothers

Healthy Families Healthy Planet

Click on the logo to apply for a Healthy Families Healthy Planet training seminar in Peoria, Ill. on Sept 6.

There are two little girls that I pick up out of bed almost every morning.  One of them is sitting in my office, cradling a stuffed turtle in her arms.  She is giving it kisses and singing it to sleep.  Now she has another little toy that her imagination has transformed into a bottle.  She wants to be a Mommy.

It may happen someday, and when that time comes, I will be a worried, emotional, joyful, wreck.  I pray that for her, like her mother, the decision to become a Mom will be completely hers.  I pray that she becomes a mother at a mature age, with a loving partner, and has access to health care during and after her pregnancy.  I hope that when she gives birth, it will be in a clean environment, surrounded by experts, and access to emergency treatments.  I know that giving birth is one of the most dangerous things a woman can do, and I will never take for granted the loving care with which she will be surrounded.

I won’t take it for granted, because I know that there are millions of women worldwide that do not have such care.  They do not have control over when they will be married, or when they will become pregnant.  They are valued for little more than the children they can produce.  They are forced into pregnancy too young, and once they have a child, their only option is to become pregnant again.  They are misinformed about how to avoid and delay pregnancies, and once they do become pregnant, they have little guidance about how to have a healthy child.

Giving better education and access to maternal health and family planning is a moral imperative.  This is from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s page about maternal health: 

Every year, complications from pregnancy and childbirth claim the lives of nearly 300,000 women and permanently disable many more, mostly in developing countries. Mothers suffer primarily from hemorrhage, sepsis, obstructed labor, and disorders caused by high blood pressure.

In addition, more than 2.6 million babies are stillborn, another 2.9 million die before they are a month old, and many suffer neurodevelopmental disabilities and impairments. Most neonatal deaths are caused by preterm birth, asphyxia during birth, and infections such as sepsis, pneumonia, and meningitis.

Effective, low-cost interventions are available, but they are not reaching all of the women and babies who need them. In developing countries, many women deliver at home and rarely see a trained healthcare provider before or after the baby’s birth. Skilled providers in poor countries often lack access to current tools or do not use them. Families may not seek care or follow medical advice.

This is why I am an ambassador for the Healthy Families Healthy Planet project.  HFHP is a partnership between the United Methodist Church and the United Nations Foundation.  The mission of Healthy Families Healthy Planet is to give mothers a voice.  Far too many women have no voice.  They have no advocate.  HFHP is trying to change that.  Two years ago I went to a training in Ohio.  I sat in awe of the powerful women that I met.  I wondered at that meeting if there was a place for me in this project.  

When I thought of my girls, my wife, my sisters, my friends who have given birth and never once wished they had a plastic sheet to lay across their dirt floor as they went into labor, I found my voice.  As I learned about complications that women I know and love faced and survived that would mean certain death in other parts of the world, I found my voice.  As I practiced my elevator speech, learned addresses of Congressional offices, watched documentaries, and met with Congressional staffs, I found my voice.

I am one father, and I have big dreams for my daughters.  As I realized that my dreams were not just for them, but for the daughters of the world, I found my voice. I am one father.  I am one voice.  I invite you – father, mother, brother, sister, son, or daughter – to find yours. 

On September 6, there is a Healthy Families Healthy Planet training seminar in Peoria, Illinois.  Follow the link below (or linked to the logo above) to read a little bit more about the training, and apply to come.  There is no cost for the training.  It starts at 9 a.m. with breakfast and ends at 6 p.m. with dinner.  Come and pray.  Come and learn.  Come and share stories.  Come, and find your voice.

Apply here for the training in Peoria on September 6.

Follow Healthy Families Healthy Planet on Facebook

Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook.

Follow @FatPastor on Twitter.

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity

the Bible under my bed

I still have that red Bible with the frayed edges.

I still have that red Bible with the frayed edges.

I found it under my bed.  I know, not the best place to keep it.  I have no idea how it got there, but one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had with my Bible came the night I found it under my bed.

I was living alone for the first time in my life.  A graduate student in a small apartment with a strange roommate, it was probably the most lonely I’ve ever been.  I missed my girlfriend.  I missed my friends and family.  I had some nice co-workers, but the relationships were still at the very superficial level.  I was about six weeks into a two-year commitment.  When I decided to go to graduate school, I thought two years wouldn’t be too long to try and have a long-distance relationship.  On that night though, sitting on my bed feeling sorry for myself, two years seemed like an eternity.

For reasons which I cannot fully explain, I decided to clean my room.  I started at side of my bed, picking up clothes and books and whatnot.  I looked under my bed and found the red book with gold letters on it surrounded by dust bunnies.  I felt a little guilty that my Bible had been pushed that far back under my bed.  I picked it up, and held it for a moment and decided that cleaning my room could wait.  I crawled back on my bed, and felt compelled to read.  I didn’t know what to read.  I didn’t know where to start, so I started at the beginning.

I had never really read the Old Testament before.  Seminary was still in my distant future, so I knew nothing about JDEP, historical criticism, or a post modern hermeneutic.  I simply read the stories.  They were confusing.  The story of Noah was redundant and seemed to contradict itself.  It was boring.  Seriously, do I really care about the sons of Ham?  It was troubling.  Abraham did what to his son?  Yet I kept reading.  I also found the stories to be direct, and easier to follow then I thought they might be.  It all read like a TV drama.  As I read I found myself eager to read more.  Then I read this line:

“So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.” (Genesis 29:20)

The words stopped me.  I read them again and again.  I drew so much comfort from that little verse.  The truth is, Jacob was a pretty unsavory character.  In my Pulpit Fiction Podcast, we’ve been blasting Jacob as his story has unfolded through the lectionary.  He was pretty much a scoundrel.  The story from which this verse emerges is a sordid affair that wouldn’t do very well in modern romantic comedies.  Yet at the same time, there was something so pure about this notion.  There really isn’t a lot of romantic love in the Bible.  There are a lot of property exchanges.  There are relationships fraught with deceit and unfaithfulness.  There are some strange tails men claiming their wives are their sisters.  This particular story finds Jacob marrying Rachel’s sister and Rachel, nevermind the fact that Rachel and Leah are his first cousins.

The fact of the matter was, in that moment, I didn’t care about any of that.  I didn’t need to know the cultural context of marriage.  I didn’t need to understand the source criticism of Genesis.  All I knew was that I was hurting.  I was lonely.  I missed the woman I loved, and somehow that verse spoke to me.  A pain was lifted.  It wasn’t erased, but I was able to look at my situation from a new perspective.  Call it the Holy Spirit.  Call it the power of the Living Word.  In that moment, the Bible spoke to me, and I was renewed.  Did God move me to clean my room?  Did God direct me to look under my bed?  I don’t know, but a couple of years later, my sister read that verse at our wedding.

That is the power of the Bible.  That isn’t to say that the deeper, more scholarly approaches to the Bible aren’t helpful.  I believe in using all of the tools of scholarship, archeology, sociology to dig deeper into the Bible.  I love looking at Scriptures from different cultural contexts, and I try to be aware of the lens I bring to the Scripture.  I believe that the Word of God is made more fully alive when we bring our own understanding of tradition, reason, and experience into it.

But sometimes, encountering the divine is as simple as opening up the book and reading.  Sometimes we can have an encounter with God through the Bible that is free of trappings.  On that night it was just me and my Bible, and I was made new.  That is an important reminder for me as I surround myself with commentaries and studies.  Sometimes God’s grace comes through a scoundrel, and a simple and eternal message of love.

Follow the Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow on Twitter

1 Comment

Filed under Christianity

There will be people there waiting for you.

I don’t think this was the exact motor we made, but they looked like these.

It was a hot factory in Elgin.  We were building electric motors that would be used in hospital beds.  Every morning at 7 am we would come into the factory and walk by the big thermometer.  It regularly read over 90.  My first job in the morning was to go into the huge walk-in ovens and take out parts that had been baking all night.  All of the jobs in the factory were monotonous.

Take part out of box. Sweat. Place part in machine. Pull handle. Put part in different box. Wipe forehead.  Repeat.

It was my first job out of college.  I found it through a temp agency.  I had a degree, but was going to start in the fall as a graduate assistant in Edwardsville.  The job was basically a filler.  I had left the world of college.  I had known that world well.  In that world I had a loving girlfriend, good friends, a familiar community, respect of my professors, and a good part-time job.  In the fall I would be entering a new world.

It was a strange new world with an unfamiliar city, a new boss and co-workers, and a strange roommate.  I was full of trepidation, and I had plenty of time with my own thoughts and worries.

One day I was sitting at table putting together the little motors, and started talking to one of my co-workers.  She was a tiny African American woman in her late fifties.  She had skinny fingers, with wide knuckles and big round glasses. She was the kind of person that was easy to talk to, easy to share with.  Or maybe I was just in need of an ear other than my own.

“In the fall I’m moving to Edwardsville, a city near Saint Louis,” I told her.

“Oh, there are lots of black people in Saint Louis,” was her bewildering response.  I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just said, “Oh, that’s good.”

Then she said something I’ll never forget.  “God will be with you,” she stopped what she was doing and looked at me.  “There will be people there waiting for you.”

Sarah and my Dad helped me move into my apartment in Edwardsville.  Their leaving was one of the saddest, most lonely moments of my life.  I cried that first night.  On the second night I bought a copy of a comedy to help me keep my mind off my sadness.  I cried that night too.

Eventually, things got better.  I adapted.  I liked my work.  I liked my classes.  I liked my boss and co-workers.  Then I tried to go to church.  I went to a Methodist church near my apartment.  It was my first time going to a church that was not the one I was born and raised in.  I was nervous. I felt out of place. I knew no one.

The hymns were familiar.  The order felt right.  The sermon kept my attention (though I have no idea what the topic was).  The pastor, Rev. Michael Smith, had a warm and gentle spirit, and I liked his humor and insight.  I sat next to a gray-haired woman who smiled at me at the greeting time.  She asked me if I was a student.  She told me there was a lunch downstairs after worship, and invited me.  I was a grad student on a tight budget, so I wasn’t going to pass up a free meal.

From the New Bethel UMC Facebook page

Soon after my first worship experience at New Bethel UMC, another older lady arrived at my apartment and handed me a loaf of bread.  She didn’t ask to come in, and didn’t stay to chat.  I went back.  I learned about an upcoming soup dinner.  So I learned how to make soup, and brought it.  I started going to choir practice and to a weeknight Bible study.  I discovered much about myself and the Bible in that study.  I learned that I had some insight into the Scriptures, and was able to help people gain understanding even while I was searching myself.

There was no one in that congregation that was my age.  There were no student ministries.  There was no praise band.  There were no brochures.  There was bread.  There was soup.  There were earnest people singing, studying, and enjoying each other.  When Sarah came to visit, we would go to church together.  When Sarah left, I would still cry.  That pain never left, but the utter loneliness melted away.

One night, while I was working in a gas station trying to save money for an engagement ring, my pastor came in.  We chatted for a while.  Somehow it came out that I had felt a call to the ministry many years before.  He told me we should have lunch, and he had a book to give me.  That was the official start of my ordination process that culminated 10 years later in a Conference Center in Peoria.

It wasn’t long into my time at Edwardsville that I remembered my friend’s words.  “There will be someone there waiting for you.”

It turned out she was wrong.  There was a whole church waiting for me.

Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow @FatPastor on Twitter

2 Comments

Filed under Christianity

A journal entry from 12 years ago gave me goosebumps

photoWhile packing up my house last month I came across a notebook I had not seen in many years.  I didn’t recognize it at first.  When I opened it up, a torn page fell out.  On it was an entry into a journal that I started to keep in 2002.  At the time, I was 24 years old.  I was living with my wife of eight months in a two-bedroom apartment in Peoria.  I was working my first full-time job as the head of the Children’s Book section at Barnes and Noble.  It was a great job, but I had felt frustrated.  I first heard the calling into ministry at age 15.  It was my Mom’s idea, and try as I might, it was an idea I couldn’t ignore.

My wife and I had found a church which we kind of liked, but it was difficult to get involved more than an occasional Sunday worship.  Working retail hours made it difficult to plan more than a couple of weeks out.  It was nearly impossible to join a Sunday school class, or the choir, or any of the regular things that help get acclimated into the life of a church.  So I started to pray.  I prayed that God would help me find a new job that would make it easier to get involved in church again.

Shortly thereafter I found a four-line ad in the Peoria Journal.  A small church about 30 minutes away was hiring a part-time Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries.  I applied.  “I have no experience.  No training.  No qualifications,” I told the interview team.  “There is no reason you should hire me, except that I think this is what I’m supposed to be doing.  And I think I’d be pretty good at it.”  They believed me.  They took a chance on me, and hired me.  Here’s the first page of my journal before starting at Mackinaw United Methodist Church.

March 6, 2002

I bought this book because I am about to embark on a remarkable journey.  It is a journey I have been waiting to make for quite some time.  On sunday I will be introduced to the congregation of Mackinaw United Methodist Church as the new Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries.  My sister once told me that she believes I have a story to tell.  I have a feeling this is going to be quite a story.

In a few days I will begin the toughest, most demanding, and most important job I’ve ever had.  Right now I’m excited because I think I can be a very good youth minister.  I have a lot of energy and enthusiasm.  I feel like I can relate well to teenagers because I will respect them as individuals.  I think I have a lot of insights into the Bible and a strong-enough faith to instill it into others.  I feel like I will be able to lead a group of young people to Christ.  I have a lot of good ideas.  Right now I feel as if I’m ready to dive in and start shaping lives.

At the same time I’m terrified.  I’ve never really done anything like this.  I don’t know the Bible that well, and I have no idea how to teach others about it.  I have no idea how I’m going to answer tough questions.  I still have questions myself.  Is homosexuality a sin?  Can you be gay and be saved? Are all Muslims going to hell?  What about the people who have never heard of Jesus, where do they go? Are we near the end times?  What if they see through me and realize I’m just a big impostor?  What if they see I have no idea what I’m doing?

On the job training is one thing, but we’re talking about souls here, not putting a book on the wrong shelf.  This is the most important job I’ve ever had, by a long shot.  I mean, second place isn’t even close.  Since I was 15 years old I’ve known that this was my path.  I’ve always felt it was a part of God’s plan for my life, but it was always somewhere in the future.  Well, it’s still in the future, about four days into the future.

Like I said, I’m about to embark on a journey.  Tomorrow I will meet with Rev. Dan to start figuring out some details of my job.  I have a feeling I’ll be figuring out the details of this job for some time to come.  “The first year as a youth minister for a totally untrained young man.”  It could be an interesting story.  I’m looking forward to writing it.

Those Mackinaw kids will forever hold a special place in my heart.  They’re all grown up now.  College, jobs, marriages, kids.  They were an amazing collection of young people, and Sarah and I have stayed in touch with many of them.  We were in Mackinaw for a year and a half before we decided to go to seminary.  Saying goodbye to those kids and that church was a difficult time.  Yet we left with so much joy at the time we shared, and so much hope for what was to come.  I’m now serving in my fourth church since Mackinaw.  Each goodbye was difficult.  Every hello has been a blessing.

12 years later.  Joy and hope.  Goodbyes and hellos.  A few questions answered. A few lessons learned. I’ve started as the Pastor of Two Rivers Church in Rock Island.  I’m still figuring out the details of this job, but I’m having a blast writing the story…

Like the Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow @FatPastor on Twitter

 

4 Comments

Filed under Christianity

Prayer for Illumination

I’ve long said that the motto of the United Methodist Church is best read as a call to action.  It is not a descriptor so much as a call to action.  I take the word “open” to be a verb.  It is a call to action to do all that I can to open hearts, doors, and minds.  Including my own.

A prayer for illumination, to be read responsively in worship before the reading of the Scripture.

One: Open our hearts

All: That the Holy Spirit may move through the reading of the Word.

One: Open our minds.

All: That we may hear again the story of salvation.

One: Open our doors

All: That all may know the love and grace of Christ.

Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow @FatPastor on twitter

Leave a comment

Filed under Christianity

The Dad Life (2:04 is me, to a T)

It’s the Dad Life, and I wouldn’t trade it for any other.

follow the Fat Pastor on Facebook

Follow @FatPastor on Twitter

Leave a comment

Filed under Media, Personal Reflection