#CancerSucks

teal ribbonCancer sucks.

Are there any two words written that were ever more true?  Is there anyone that read that sentence and didn’t think, “Yep, it sure does.”  It sucks more than the suckiest suck that has ever sucked.  Sorry about the 10-year-old mouth, but I think most would give me a pass.

My Mom has cancer.

Those words were hard to even type.  It’s not something I ever wanted to say again.  Six years ago her ovarian cancer went into remission.  Six doses of chemotherapy spread out over three week spans knocked it out. We hoped it was knocked out for good, but we have already established the sucky nature of cancer.

After my Dad told me the news, these are the things I did:

I cried. I sobbed full force, white-knuckled into my pillow. I know cancer. Cancer and I work in a lot of the same places. I can meet cancer at a hospital, or at someone’s home, or in a conversation at church, and I seem to know what to do. I’m not saying that I’m altogether comfortable with cancer, but we’re familiar. This time though, I wasn’t ready. I thought we had an agreement.  Cancer isn’t supposed to bother me at home, but like I said, Cancer sucks.

I hugged my wife, because it was her turn. We seem to take turns being strong in moments like this. It is strange, but I seldom recall a time when we were both crying at the same time. Someone told me once that I’m supposed to be the spiritual leader of our home. That’s bullshit (again, sorry about the language, but my emotions are pretty raw). We are partners. Sometimes I’m strong and confident and fearless and protective and all that stuff. Sometimes I’m not.  Sometimes I’m fragile and raw and broken. Sometimes she kicks me in the ass, and says, “Get up. Suck it up, and get after it.” Sometimes she holds me, strokes my head, and lets me just be broken. It seems like she always knows when she needs to do either, and I love her for this.

We went to our friends house. We have good friends. We have the kind of friends with whom we can play “Cards Against Humanity,” and hold nothing back. Nuh-thing. We share the big celebrations like weddings and births and C-League Volleyball championships (Go Spiking Vikings).  We share the mundane stuff of life like carpools, Tuesday dinner, red wine, and school plays. As soon as I was able to stand, I needed to see our friends. We’ve already buried two parents together, and they know more than anyone that there are somethings that even my lucky rocket-ship underpants won’t help. At their house, the conversation went something like this:

“I just found out that my Mom’s cancer is back.”

“That sucks.”

“Yep.”

Sometimes friends have the perfect words for the moment.

A couple of weeks passed before we were able to tell anyone beyond our very small circle. Finally yesterday I emailed the prayer chain at our church. I’m not sure why I was resistant. Sometimes I feel like a character in Harry Potter, afraid to say the name of You Know Who for fear that speaking it’s name will give it power.  Or maybe I can’t let go of ill-gotten notion that as a pastor, I shouldn’t be vulnerable. There are people in the church that are in need of care, and I how am I supposed to care for anyone when I’m hurting?

The text I’m preaching from on Sunday is 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, and starts with these words, “Rejoice always. Pray continually.  Give thanks in every situation because this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” You’ve got to be kidding me. (I typed and then deleted a certain expletive in between the words “be” and “kidding me” about five times. I decided to go with leaving it out, so you can re-read that sentence and put it back in, if you so choose).

Rejoice always? That’s going to be a hard sell.

That, however, might be the point. Rejoicing always isn’t about skipping along in a land of rainbows and gumdrops. Praying continually is not about kneeling, folding my hands, and closing my eyes to the world. Giving thanks in every situation isn’t about denying the parts of life that just plain suck.

I rejoice in the life my Mother has lived, and I rejoice in the life she continues to live. I rejoice in her strength. I rejoice in her faith. I rejoice that she just called me from Sam’s Club to ask if I needed a new top coat. “Yes,” I said as I paused from writing this very blog. “My overcoat is blue, and it would be nice to have a black one for funerals.”

You see, I deal with cancer all the time. Truth be told, we had no deal. I knew all along that cancer goes where cancer is not welcome. I’m not rejoicing in its return. Yet in the midst of all things I give thanks.

I give thanks for a Mom who gives me more than I could ever imagine. I give thanks for her partner, my Dad, who taught me that its okay to take turns being strong. I give thanks for my brother and sister, for getting the teal bracelets and the Christmas gift. I give thanks for my own partner, for being strong enough to hold me up from time to time. I give thanks for my daughters, who teach me every day about grace. I give thanks for my friends, who right now are probably thinking, “I thanked your Mom last night.” I give thanks for my church, who didn’t get an invulnerable pastor. They deserve better.

calvin

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An advent letter to my congregation

christmas eve candleDear Church,

This is our first Christmas together, and I cannot tell you how excited I am for Christmas Eve.  Every year, there are two moments I most look forward to at Christmas.  One is my daughters coming down the stairs on Christmas morning, pausing for a picture, then slowly making their way to see what magic transpired under the tree.  The other is singing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” as the lights are slowly turned down and the candles are lit in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve night.

I know that Easter is supposed to be the big day. Singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with the throngs and the organ and the lilies and the spring air at Easter is pretty special, but it is Christmas that touches my heart like no other. I know that Christmas is wrought with commercialism, consumerism, and a secularity that some mourn.  Maybe that is why that moment is so special to me.  It is so needed.  It is that moment where nothing matters but joy.  I can block out the noise and the fear and the distractions.  Sure, “Silent Night,” has helped contribute to a falsely idyllic understanding of Christmas, but I’m okay with that.  It is a song that can end war, even if only for a moment.

I get a pretty special view for Christmas Eve.  I get to stand up front and look out at the faces of those gathered.  I can close my eyes and see it through the years.  I can picture each of the congregations I’ve had the awesome honor to serve.  I can see the faces of those who have supported me, shaped me, challenged me, and molded me into the man and pastor that I am today.  I can see the faces of young and old, woman and man, single and married, healthy and sick.

I can see the faces of people lit by the glow of a small candle as we sing those holy words, and I’m very much looking forward to singing it with you.  We haven’t been together very long, but things are going well.  No church is perfect, but I believe that I am right where I need to be.  Already we’ve laughed and cried together.  Already we’ve dreamed of a Kingdom future, and mourned the loss of pillars.  Already we’ve eaten too much, shared some of our scars, worried a little, and stumbled through some movements.   Already I can see the excitement and the energy.  I can see good things happening.  I can see people being fed without asking first if they deserve it.  I can see invitation that is born from joy, not fear.  I can see welcome.  I can see grace, and a desire to share lives,  not just small talk and pleasantries.  I can see the Body of Christ, redeemed by Christ’s love, reaching out into the world.

Incarnation.  That is what Christmas is all about.  It is the coming of light in a world of darkness.  It is God breaking through all of the barriers.  It is strength and power and might redefined in the form of a newborn baby.  Christmas is peace, love, joy, and hope.  And just as that candle spreads from the table in the sanctuary to those that are singing in the pews, Christmas is the light of Christ spreading into the hearts of the faithful, and being carried out into the world.  It is not about “happily ever after.”  It is about the presence of God in the midst of real life.

It is a reminder that right here in the world is a promise that God is with us.  Right here with the cancer is hope. Right here with the struggle and upheaval is peace.  Right here in the gathering of Christ’s people is joy.  Right here with our fellow humans, hurting, sinning, and falling, is love.

So I’m waiting for Christmas Eve, and not altogether patiently.  I’m waiting to wish you a Merry Christmas, and to see your face lit by the glow of a candle.  It’s my favorite time of year, and I’m so glad we can do this together.

In Christ,

Your pastor

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Two Rivers United Methodist Church

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A service of Communion for Advent

The following is a liturgy I wrote for use during Advent.  Permission for use in worship is granted.  A note that it was “written by Robb McCoy, at http://www.fatpastor.me”; would be appreciated.  If you’re going to use it, I also love hearing about it in the comments below, but that’s not necesarrt.  The musical settings found in the liturgy are Copyright 1990 Steve Garnaas-Holmes. Published by The General Board of Discipleship of The United Methodist Church.  The links are to a pdf file.  Some of the Words of Institution are also from the United Methodist Book of Worship.

Communion Liturgy for Advent

One:      In this season of expectant waiting, we are invited to Christ’s table here and now.  Coming to Christ’s table is a way to experience the grace of God.  Therefore it is open to all.  The only requirement is a sincere heart.  The only barriers to the table are created in our own heart.  So we come together as a people to confess our sins to God.  We confess as a people because we all fall short of God’s plan of perfect love.  We do not confess to avoid punishment.  We confess to free our own hearts and minds, so we may remove the barriers we build between ourselves, our God, and our brothers and sisters.

All:          We confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.   We go about our lives as if Christmas is an event to be celebrated, but not lived.  We hear the good news, but do not heed it.  We turn away the holy family for there is no room in our hearts.  We hear the cry of the expectant mother, desperate for care and a place to lie, but listen instead to the carols.  We see the lowly children, born in mangers among the filth of the world, but we look instead to the decorations.  We hear the call of the Angels to come and worship the newborn King, but we bow down to the idols of our culture.  Forgive us, we pray.  Forgive us and free us for joyful obedience.  Remove the barriers that we construct, and empower us to be a people doing the real, gritty, holy, graceful, loving work of Christmas every day. In the name of the Holy Spirit, we pray.  Amen.  (pause for silent confession and prayer)

One:      Out of the wilderness a voice calls out.  Prepare ye the way of the Lord.  Prepare ye the way of love.  Prepare ye the way of forgiveness.  The Christ child was born in the midst of darkness.  The waiting is over.  Christ may be born today in your heart.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we are all forgiven.

All:         Joy to the World. Amen.

(Musical Setting)

One:      The Lord be with you

All:         And also with you.

One:      Lift up your hearts.

All:         We lift them up to the Lord.

One:      Now let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

All:         How good it is to give thanks and praise.

One:      It is good to give our thanks and praise.  It is a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to you, God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  You create the world from chaos.  By simply speaking, you set the cosmos into motion, and create all things from the dust of stars.

All:         Blessed are you, O God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth.

One:      God of many blessings, you called out a family to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.  You gave them a land, and promised to make of them a great nation so that all of the nations of the world could be blessed.

All:         Blessed are you, God of Abraham and Sarah.

One:      God of salvation, when the people were but slaves in Egypt you called upon your servant Moses.  You gave him the power to speak salvation to the Pharoah, and led your people out of slavery.  You led them over the water, and helped them Passover into freedom.  When the people were hungry, you gave them food from the sky.  When the people were thirsty, you brought forth water from the rocks.  When the people were no people, you gave them the Law.

All:         Blessed are you, God of our salvation.

One:      When the people asked for a King, you anointed David to be a just ruler. Though flawed, David united the people, and you promised to be with his line forever.  When the Kings rebelled, as you warned them they would, you anointed the prophets, who called the people back to obedience.  The prophets spoke the truth to power, and called the people to remember who and whose they were.  The prophets warned the people of the consequences of injustice and false worship.  When the people fell into exile, the prophets spoke words of hope and restoration when all around them, there was nothing but despair.

All:         A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!

One:      You promised the coming of an anointed one, who would lead the people to peace and righteousness.  You promised that the descendant of David would rule forever.  You promised that out of Bethlehem would come the Prince of Peace.  You promised the coming of your Kingdom, when “swords would be beaten into plows, and spears into pruning hooks.”

All:         “But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

One:      John the Baptist came, telling the people to “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven!”  John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. People from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River came to him. As they confessed their sins, he baptized them in the Jordan River. And so now we come, having confessed our sins, searching for the Holy Spirit to come and fill us with expectant grace.  We come to be transformed by what has already come, and waiting with hope for what is to come.  We deck our halls with joy, but it is our hearts that truly matter.

All:         Prepare the way of the Lord in our world.  Prepare the way of the Lord in our communities.  Prepare the way of the Lord in our churches.  Prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts.

One:      And so, in hopeful anticipation, we give thanks to you, God of Creation,  God of Abraham and Sarah,  God of salvation, God of the Law, God of King David, God of the Prophets, God of hope and deliverance, God of John, and God of us all.  We join in praise and come together to sing unending hymn of the saints of glory.

(Musical setting)

Holy, Holy, Holy Lord.  God of power and might adored, heaven and earth are shining bright with the glory of your light.  Loud Hosannas now we sing. In the highest they may ring. Blessed is the coming one. Christ Emmanuel your son.  Glory in the highest. Holy God, your name is blessed. 

One:      Holy are you, and holy is your Son Jesus Christ, who is the Word made flesh.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who is the one to whom John pointed in the wilderness.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who was born to us in a manger, for there was no room in the inn.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who came to show us the way to your love.  He proclaimed good news to the poor.  He restored the sight to the blind.  He called the children to his side, taught the women, ate with sinners, and called out the religious leaders blinded by the letter of the Law.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who was betrayed by those who loved him.  Who was persecuted by those who feared him.  Who was crucified by those who thought that his death would be the end of him.

 

All:         Holy are you, and Holy is your Son Jesus Christ.

One:      Who, on the night in which he gave himself up for us, he took bread, gave thanks to you, broke the bread, gave it to his disciples, and said:

All:         “Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

One:      And when the supper was over, took the cup, gave thanks to you, gave it to his disciples and said:

All:         “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the new covenant, poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

One:      And so, in remembrance of these your mighty acts in Jesus Christ, we offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving as a holy and living sacrifice, in union with Christ’s offering for us, as we proclaim the mystery of faith.

All:         Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.

One:      Pour out your Holy Spirit on us gathered here, and on these gifts of bread and wine. Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.  Make us a Christmas people, secure in what has come, and hopeful for what is yet to be.  By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.  Keep us vigilant in our Advent waiting until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet. Through your Son Jesus Christ, with the Holy Spirit in your holy Church, all honor and glory is yours, almighty Father, now and forever. Amen.

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Zacchaeus was a wee little man?

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed.  This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel.  This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho.  You can see from it's shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

Sycamore trees in America are tall, grand trees that are not easily climbed. This type of Sycamore is found exclusively in Israel. This particular tree is found in Netanya, about 50 miles from modern Jericho. You can see from it’s shape though, that it would be quite easy to climb.

The Gospel of Luke tells a short story about Jesus and a man named Zacchaeus.  It is found in Luke 19:1-10.  I included a link to a site called Bible Study Tools, where you can read two different translations of the story.  The two translations are going to be important, but we’ll get to that shortly.  If you’re not familiar with the story, it is a very simple episode of a short man named Zacchaeus meeting Jesus.  Zach is not only short, but he is a chief tax collector, and a rich man.  When he encounters Jesus (from in a sycamore tree so that he could see) Jesus tells him to get out of the tree because he has to come over for dinner.  The people in the crowd grumbled at this because they weren’t big fans of tax collectors.  As a response to the crowd’s grumbling, and perhaps more importantly, in response to Jesus’ invitation, Zach declares, at least in one translation, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  Jesus responds with praise and repeats the theme of the Gospel of Luke, that he “came to seek and save the lost.”

The story, as told above, is a great story of conversion.  As the traditional interpretation goes, Jesus inspired something in Zach to make him change his ways.  By inviting himself over, and including him in the community, Jesus inspired Zach to change heart.  He re-examined his relationship with money, and decided to live a more righteous life.  This is a reasonable story, and one that is surely good news.  Even with this traditional interpretation, there is some radical love going on here.  First of all, Jesus offered grace to Zach before there was a conversion.  This can be read as a story of God’s preceding grace (or prevenient grace, if you want to use a $20 Methodist word); the kind of grace that comes before we do anything about it.  Jesus indeed came to seek and save the lost.

There is even a sweet children’s song to go along with it, although the song has little to do with conversion.  I read one description of the song that says it is a “reminder that even small people are important.”

Short Jesus

Short Jesus

Recently though, I’ve come to see Zach a little differently.  First of all, while it is clear that someone in the story is short, the truth is the Greek is ambiguous as to who the short one is.  Zach climbed in the tree, so everything thinks he’s short, but read that sentence again without assuming that Jesus is the tall hero with long flowing brown hair and perfect complexion.  “He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd.”  If a short man was walking in the midst of a crowd, he would be hard to see.  In other words, climbing a tree would be helpful to see over the crowd whether Zach was the short one or Jesus was the short one.  We just assume Zach is short because the hero of the story is never short (unless the hero is a hobbit).

This is really a minor issue.  Jesus’ height isn’t really an important issue, but I believe it reveals to us the way we bring our own assumptions to the text.  We assume that Jesus is the tall one because we want our heroes to be tall, dark, and handsome.

The fact is, we bring our own assumptions to a lot of parties.  Another assumption is revealed in the translation issue I mentioned earlier.  Most translations have a simple word that, at least in my mind, alters the meaning of the story.  After Jesus invites himself over to Zach’s house, Zach says, “I will give…”  The Common English Bible, however, leaves out that little ‘will.’  This is a fact that David Lose pointed out before the Common English Bible existed.  In fact, the ‘will’ is left out of the King James and the RSV as well.  It seems like more modern versions of the text have shaped the story the way we want it to appear.  We want this to be about conversion.  We want this to be about how Jesus’ grace changed the heart of a terrible tax collector, because then the story can be about someone else.  It can be about those terrible people that gained money in illicit fashion, and now must repent.  It demands nothing of the reader.  Since none of us are chief tax-collectors, t’s so easy to simply see others in the role of Zach, and leave ourselves with a gentle reminder that all are indeed welcome to the table.

If Zach’s declaration is not in the future tense, then the story feels different.  Instead of Zach changing his heart because of the grace of the savior, we have him defending himself against a grumbling crowd.  It turns out, he’s been doing what John the Baptist had told him to do.    Back in Luke 3:12-13 we are told that John the Baptist was baptizing tax collectors.  They asked him, “What do we need to do?” John replied, “collect only what you are due.”  It seems like Zach was doing just what cousin John had taught them.

Now, the focus is not on the heart of that dirty-old tax collector.  The focus is on the heart of the grumbing crowd.  Remember too, that “all who saw it began to grumble.”  Not the Pharisees and their letter-of-law strictness.  Not the chief priests and their holier-than-thou attitudes. Not even the disciples, and their always-a-step-behind bumbling.  All of them. Zach is not confessing a change of heart to Jesus, he is defending his honor to the grumbling crowd that assumes he is not worth their time.

The uncomfortable truth is, the story of Zacchaeus reveals more to us about our own grumbling hearts than it does about his own.  It’s no longer easy to see Zach as some wretch who was saved by Jesus’ compassion.  Instead, we are forced to see him as someone who was excluded from society because – dare I say – the assumptions that were made.  Who else do we refuse to see?  Who else do we judge by their credentials, and deem unworthy?  How many times have we seen the grace of God, and thought, “he doesn’t deserve that.”  How often do we grumble without knowing?

Zacchaeus wanted so desperately to see Jesus that he was willing to risk humiliation.  He was willing to venture out into the crowds that would surely reject him.  But it was not Zacchaeus who saw.  Instead, he was finally seen.  He was seen by Jesus – spotted there up in a tree, not exactly a place of dignity and respect.  He was seen by the unforgiving crowds.  He was seen by those who would do their best to not see him.  Maybe in the end, that’s all any of us really need.  To be seen, not as a job title or a resume.  Seen not as a role to fill, or a caricature of what others think we should be.  Simply to be seen, as one who was made in the image of God.  To be seen simply as one who fails and wins, who cries and laughs, who has lost and loves.  To be seen by Jesus, even as we risk humiliation and scorn, and be invited to come to the feast.

Listen to the Pulpit Fiction Podcast about Zaccaeus

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2014 #AdventRun to Bethlehem

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

According to google maps, the journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is 166 kilometers, or 103.2 miles.

CLICK HERE TO SUBMIT YOUR RUN

In 2013, we had our first Advent Run/Walk to Bethlehem.  As a way to promote living well in the midst of a season that is notoriously difficult on healthy habits, we went on a run together.  The goal was to honor the journey of Mary and Joseph by running the 103 miles it takes to get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We promoted the run through this blog and at The Pulpit Fiction Podcast.  We asked people to log in their runs and walks online, and shared updated results a few times between Thanksgiving and Epiphany.  The results were phenomenal.  Even though I bowed out early because of a terrible chest cold, the 2013 Advent Run had 23 different people log 67 different runs for a total of 255 miles.  The runs took place in 14 different states and London, England.  Our longest runner was Jessica, who ran 30 miles.  My Pulpit Fiction partner Eric ran 6 times for just over a marathon (27.2 miles). We reached our goal of 103 miles in just two weeks, so we created a challenge goal.  We decided to honor the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt (as told in the Gospel of Matthew) and go 333 miles.  We didn’t make that goal, but I think that is a good goal for 2014. Here’s how to participate: Follow this link, and then book mark it.  This year we added a “Group” option.  If you are a part of a church, club, or class that wants to participate in the #AdventRun, then tell people to enter their group name.  We’ll compile individual, group, and total miles. You won’t be able to register a run/walk until Thanksgiving – November 27.  We’ll keep it open until Epiphany – January 6. Follow The Fat Pastor on Facebook

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The greatest sync since The Dark Side of Oz

A lot of awesome stuff happened in 1989.  The Berlin Wall fell.  The USSR ended their war in Afghanistan.  A brave man stood in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square, inspiring millions in the hopes of democracy.  The Velvet Revolution produced free elections in Czechoslovakia.   The Boys of Zimmer won the NL East.  Montana to Taylor won Superbowl XXIII.   Taylor Swift was born, and there was a National Aerobics Championships.

Tonight, my daughters and I enjoyed a spirited dance party to Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off” in our kitchen.  After finding this video, my only question is, “how did they get a camera in our kitchen?”

Seriously though, this video is truly amazing.  It was posted on my Facebook as a link from Huffington Post.

Unfortunately the Huffington Post article, and the maker of the video incorrectly identify this aerobics championship as the 1989 season.  This is actually the 1988 championship.  It was hosted by Alan Thicke, and apparently, this happened too:

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The Open Table

Click on the picture to see a part of Amy's house concert.

Click on the picture to see a part of Amy’s house concert.

It was a nearly perfect night.  Ever since, I’ve been thinking, “Can we do that again?”

We gathered in at our home.  It was the first cool night of autumn, and we started the night with some chili and hot apple cider around a fire pit.  Then we came inside.  There were 15 friends sitting in couches and chairs around our living room.  Amy Cox, a talented singer-songwriter with a heart for Jesus and a passion for justice, brought her guitar, a mic, and a small speaker.

She sang.  She told stories.  The kids came and went as they pleased.  The older ones stayed upstairs, listened to the music and whispered to each other in their own little world. The younger ones came and went, going from the floor to the basement to play when they felt like being more rambunctious.  The littlest ones stayed in laps and arms – not necessarily the laps and arms of their own parents.  At one point I looked around at this group of people, all of whom I care for deeply, and my heart was warmed.

“This,” I thought, “is church.”

It was a holy moment, one which I want to re-create.  My wife and I have talked since.  “Do you think we could do that again?”  And time and again our answer is, “I don’t know if we can, but we need to try.”  Unfortunately, Amy Cox isn’t available.  She’s busy planting a church in Virginia, and I wish her success.  She was able to come through the Quad Cities on a cross-country trip to San Diego, and I’m so glad she was able share a night with us.

Luckily, I have some friends with some musical talent, and I’m hoping we can create something together.  Picture this:

It’s a Thursday night.  People come to our house at 6:30.  Hopefully everybody’s had dinner, but we’ll have some small snacks, wine, coffee, and we’ll just chat for a little while as everyone arrives.  Eventually, we’ll write down something for which we would like prayer, and throw it in a basket.  All are invited to share if they’d like, but don’t have to.  We share a brief time of prayer and silence.  Someone with a guitar leads sings a couple of songs.  Some sing along.  Some of the kids stick around for the music.  Some have gone down to the basement to play.  Someone reads a passage of Scripture.  I talk about it for ten minutes or so.  It’s not really a sermon – more like a guided discussion.  We wrap up the discussion, then we talk about a mission or ministry – local or global – and take an offering for it.  Sometimes instead of an offering, we might put do some kind of hands-on mission.  Then I get a nice loaf of bread and grape juice, and we share in Communion.  We sing another song or two, and go home.  Before we leave, everyone takes one of the prayers that was written down at the beginning of the night and we promise to be in prayer for whatever we draw over the course of the week.

This is my vision.  It is kind of scary to put it out there like this, but I do so because I wonder, does anyone out there have a similar experience?  What kind of worship have you experienced outside of church walls?  What is the value of gathering in homes?  What are the pitfalls?  I’d love to hear from you.

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The Great Cloud of Witnesses

Hebrews 12:1-2: So then let’s also run the race that is laid out in front of us, since we have such a great cloud of witnesses surrounding us.  Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.  He endured the cross, ignoring the shame, for the sake of the joy that was laid out in front of him, and sat down at the right side of God’s throne.

harvested fieldIn churches around the world, on All Saints’ Sunday, the names of the dead are read.  Bells are tolled.  Portraits are shown.  Years of birth and death are printed.  Candles are lit.  Songs are sung.  This is the day that all saints are remembered.  The saints of the Church are remembered, and their names are spoken.

At the eve of winter, before the Advent season has begun, as the leaves are dried and fallen, and the fields lay bare, we celebrate all the saints.  At the eve of winter, when the wind feels a little stronger, and the grass starts each morning with a glistening sheet of frost, we look into the face of death.  The winter is coming.  The temperature will continue to drop.  The night will get longer.  In the midst of this changing season, we pause.  We stand.  We face the cold winter wind and in defiance, we speak the names of those we have lost.

We stand and face the coming reality.  In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death.  We stand together facing the twin realities that we have all lost someone, and that we all face the same end.

In a culture hungry for immortality, we come together on All Saints Day and proclaim the good news that all will die.  Everywhere you look, there are those avoiding death.  Vampire and Zombie stories are insanely popular.  What is their common theme?  They revolve around the ability to cheat death.  All around, there are schemes – plans, pills, and procedures – to avoid aging.  Is there any stranger relationship we have in our culture than we have with aging? I cannot think of anything people try so hard to at the same time do and avoid.  So we mock a celebrity for getting saggy arms, or wrinkles on their face; and then we mock them for having plastic surgery.

On All Saints’ Day we can come together and acknowledge our own mortality.  And we name those we mourn. We say the words, and there is a physical response.  There is a release when we speak the name of those that have died.  So often, we hold in our memories and emotions.  We keep them bottled up, and often forgotten.  We’ve been told over the last year – or longer – that we should be “over it.”  It is doubtful anyone actually said the words, “get over it,” to someone who is mourning.  We hear it nonetheless.  We hear it from life that goes on.  We hear it from routines that settle back in.  We hear it in empty chairs that are never filled, phones that no longer ring, and arms that no longer embrace.  And so we get over it.  We move on, but never quite the same again.  When we speak the name, it is a chance to stop pretending.  Stop pretending that we have “gotten over it.”

Speaking the name is a chance look at death and say, “I will not forget.  She will not die.”  Death is no less a reality when we speak the name of those that we mourn, but when we gather for worship in the midst of death, we know that it does not have the final say.  We continue to run the race that is laid out in front of us because we know we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses.  The death of a mortal body that falls to the ground is no more the end of  life than the death of a seed that falls from a tree.

So we gather, surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses.  We gather, surrounded by the saints of Christ.  We gather, singing the songs of the ages and reading the words of hope and healing.  We gather, praying to the Spirit that lives in us all, surrounds us, strengthens us, and empowers us.  We gather in the midst of life, and yet surrounded by death.  We gather and face the cold wind, and we are warmed by the hope of resurrection.  We are warmed by love that is eternal.  We are warmed by the assurance that nothing may separate us from the love we share in Christ.

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Five Reasons I celebrate Halloween

trick or treat jesus

Jesus doesn’t want pencils or Smarties either.

1. It is fun. Candy. Decorations. Costumes.  What’s not to love?   Why do we search for eggs on Easter?  Why do we watch fireworks on the Fourth of July?  Why do we hang stockings on Christmas?  It’s fun.  It is a day to celebrate with friends, family, and neighbors.  Kids love to play pretend.  They love to dress up as superheroes, cartoon characters, magical creatures, and yes – even monsters.  Today I picked up my daughter from school, and you know what I saw?  Elsas.  So many Elsas.  And storm troopers, clowns, ninjas, jesters, Harry Potters, minecraft guys, princesses, and batmen.  More than this though, I saw smiles.  I saw kids running and playing and laughing.  I saw Dads holding little hands, asking “did you have fun?” and an exuberant, “Yes” in response.  I saw teachers giving hugs and kids sharing candy.  Halloween is fun, and in a world that is full of plenty of real-life monsters, a little bit of fun is a good thing.

2. It builds community. On my block, Halloween is a great community building experience.  All the families come out and enjoy the evening together.  We bring food.  We have bonfires.  The kids play, the adults talk.  We get to know each other.  The neighborhood I live in now is the first place I’ve lived since where I grew up that I know the names of everyone on my block.  A big reason for that is that the neighborhood embraces Halloween.

Secret Reason #6 - Strangely warmed pumpkins. I carved this bad boy by hand at youth group.

Secret Reason #6 – Strangely warmed pumpkins. I carved this bad boy by hand at youth group.

3. It is a chance to mock death and evil, not celebrate it.  OK, so now I’ll get a little deeper. At every graveside service I have ever officiated, I have read these words, “Death has been swallowed up in victory.  Where, o death, is your victory? Where, o death, is your sting? But thanks be to God, who gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  I could make the argument that Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve, is an important Christian holiday.  It comes on the eve of winter, when death is impending.  Yet it is only through this death that we have a harvest.  It is “when a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”  Death is something that is universally feared.  Halloween is a chance to look straight into that death and laugh.  It is on the brink of death, just as we enter the valley, that we can stand in the assurance that we shall fear no evil.

4. Reverse Trick or Treating. In years past, we have used Halloween as a chance to raise awareness about fair trade chocolate.  If you want to be upset about Halloween, then be upset about the part of it that really matters.  Get upset that it is the most popular season for buying chocolate, and that most of the chocolate bought on Halloween is made by child slaves.  I’ve written a lot about Fair Trade Chocolate. Every Halloween, I try to use it as a chance to teach people about the value of fair trade chocolate.  We glue little chocolates from Equal Exchange to postcards explaining some bullet-points about the chocolate market, and hand them out to people as we go trick or treating.  It is a small thing, but it is a way to connect a fun event to a real issue. and hopefully, some people learn something along the way.

5. Jesus said, “Lighten up.”  Ok, so he might not have said that, but stay with me for a second.  In the Old Testament, God and the prophets tells the people over and over again to “fear the Lord.”  Most modern readers of these texts bristle at the idea of a fearful God.  They, and I count myself among them, remind people that biblical fear is more about reverence.  “Revere and respect the Lord,” is fine translation.  Now, jump ahead to Jesus, who went around saying “fear not” or “don’t be afraid,” a lot.  If we look at the OT understanding of fear as reverence, is it possible that Jesus was saying, “Be irreverent.”  In other words, “lighten up,” or “have a sense of humor.”  So, maybe this is a stretch.  I don’t have time to do the proper word study, but I do believe that Jesus appreciated life.  He wants us to have it abundantly, and sometimes that means having a great time with friends, family, and even strangers.  So, Happy Halloween everybody.

Listen to a great podcast about the Church and Halloween

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Help me invite Amy Poehler to be on my podcast #AmyOnPulpitFiction

amy poehler

Dear Amy Poehler: You are amazing. Please come on our podcast. #AmyOnPulpitFiction

Yesterday I read this story from a website called Deadline.  It is painfully short, so I’ll sum it up for you: The greatest TV show ever is coming.  OK, so that’s not exactly what it says, and I don’t know if Amy Poehler’s newest project will live up to my expectations, but I am excited about the possibilities.

My wife and I love Parks and Recreation. It is smart, funny, poignant, and touching.  It is full of lovable, flawed, believable, and honest characters.  I could go on and on about how much I love that show.  You can bet that every episode of its upcoming final season will be appointment television for my wife and I.  And now Amy Poehler is in production of a show for NBC with a similar style that is set in a church.  Imagine it: Nick Offerman as a member of the trustees.  Aziz Ansari as the youth pastor.  Aubrey Plaza as the secretary. Rob Lowe as the District Superintendent. Adam Scott as the finance chair.  Chris Pratt as the leader of the praise band (Church Rat).  

So here’s the part where I ask you for some help.  If you are as excited about this as I am, then do me a solid.  Go on twitter and use the hashtag #AmyOnPulpitFiction.  You may or not be aware of the fact that I co-host a podcast called Pulpit Fiction. It’s a weekly discussion between my friend Eric Fistler and me. We talk each week about the Bible, pop culture, sermon writing, the church, and other fun stuff.  We’re just two good friends who are pastors talking about the Bible.  In addition to our weekly podcast, we do periodic Thursday Night Specials.

During these Thursday Night Specials we interview authors, musicians, and other awesome people.  We’ve had some great conversations with Adam Hamilton, Rachel Held Evans, Nadia Bolz Weber, and Jennifer Knapp.  We want to talk to Amy Poehler about this new show.  It would be incredible.  It’s a long shot, but it would probably be the coolest thing I’ve ever done in my life.  I’m not sure if Amy is on twitter.  The closest thing to a personal twitter account she has is @smrtgrls.  Her partner in producing the show is Aisha Muharrar.  Her twitter handle is @eeshmu.  Today I sent a letter to 3Arts Entertainment in hopes that it would somehow get to Amy.  Any help you can give us in getting noticed would be greatly appreciated.

So please, right now, go to Twitter and ask Amy and/or Aisha to be on Pulpit Fiction.  Tweet something like “@Smrtgrls and @eeshmu So excited about your new project, please go on @pulpitfpodcast to talk about it #AmyOnPulpitFiction”

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