Category Archives: Christianity

Stations of the Gospel. Good Friday reflections through Luke.

Begin

Setup: This is the first station. It should be found just inside the door. The rest of the stations can lead through hallways toward the sanctuary of the church. Signs clearly marking the numbers of the stations, and arrows to assist people will be helpful.

Find a copy of Bach’s Magnicat in D Major. It is readily available on youtube. Set it up to play loud enough to be able to hear for several stations.

Instructions:

Playing in this room right now is Bach’s Magnificat in D Major. This triumphal and haunting music was inspired by Mary’s song as found in Luke. The word magnificat is Latin for magnify, which is the traditional first line of the song, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

The piece is about 30 minutes, and will be playing on continual loop.  You may sit and listen for as long as you would like.

Luke 1:39-55

Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

Mary said

With all my heart I glorify the Lord!

In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.

He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.

Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.

He has shown strength with his arm.

He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.

He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.

He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, just as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

Rest One: Baptism

Setup: Place a bowl of water on a small table. Consider saying a prayer over the water, perhaps from the baptism liturgy, or just a simple word of thanks for the water of life and blessing for all who pass through during this exercise.

Instructions:

You are invited to dip your fingers in the water before you, and place a drop on your own forehead. Feel the water, and remember your baptism.

Luke 3:3,  10-11, 21-22

John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.

The crowds asked him, “What then should we do?”

He answered, “Whoever has two shirts must share with the one who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.”

When everyone was being baptized, Jesus also was baptized. While he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit came down on him in bodily form like a dove. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

Reflection

This journey begins where Jesus’ journey began—at the water. The water of baptism is a sign of rebirth. To be baptized is to die to your old self, and to rise out of the water as a new creation.

In the United Methodist Church we baptize infants, not because they are sinful and need to be cleansed, but because they are members of the Body of Christ, and are worthy of being marked as such. At baptism, the Holy Spirit makes a special claim on a person. This is aclaim that cannot be revoked. There is never a need to be re-baptized. The first one counts. No matter what.

From here we will proceed through Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching, betrayal, and death. We will reflect on these things, and may encounter trouble along the way. Know that through it all, your seal as a Child of God is complete. You are God’s beloved.

Rest Two: Life and Ministry

Setup: Print this picture, which are available under Wikimedia Commons bread and fish

Instructions

Look on the back page of this booklet. This is a picture of one of the earliest forms of Christian art. The fish, not the cross, was the first symbol of Christianity.

Luke 9:10-17

 When the apostles returned, they described for Jesus what they had done. Taking them with him, Jesus withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. When the crowds figured it out, they followed him. He welcomed them, spoke to them about God’s kingdom, and healed those who were sick.

When the day was almost over, the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so that they can go to the nearby villages and countryside and find lodging and food, because we are in a deserted place.”

He replied, “You give them something to eat.”

But they said, “We have no more than five loaves of bread and two fish—unless we go and buy food for all these people.”(They said this because about five thousand men were present.)

Jesus said to his disciples, “Seat them in groups of about fifty.” They did so, and everyone was seated. He took the five loaves and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them, and broke them and gave them to the disciples to set before the crowd. Everyone ate until they were full, and the disciples filled twelve baskets with the leftovers.

Reflection

You cannot separate the life of Jesus  from the bread and the fish. One of the only stories that all four gospels tell, it is clear that feeding the hungry was a vital part of what Jesus did. The people came looking for life, and he gave it to them in the form of loaves and fish.

This was so important that the earliest symbols of Christianity was the fish—a reminder of how Jesus responded to those in need. The need today is no less demanding. There remains thousands of people in our midst who are hungry. They hunger for bread, comfort, forgiveness, and fellowship. Pause for a moment and ask Jesus what we can do, but know that his answer may be, “You give them something to eat.”

Rest Three: Prediction

Luke 9:18-23

Setup: A chalkboard or pad with newsprint and markers. This should be placed right outside the door of the sanctuary. This is the last rest station before entry into the sanctuary. Last year, we left the board up for Easter Sunday.

Once when Jesus was praying by himself, the disciples joined him, and he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”

They answered, “John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others that one of the ancient prophets has come back to life.”

He asked them, “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Peter answered, “The Christ sent from God.”

Jesus gave them strict orders not to tell this to anyone. He said, “The Human One must suffer many things and be rejected—by the elders, chief priests, and the legal experts—and be killed and be raised on the third day.”

Jesus said to everyone, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross daily, and follow me.

Reflection

Notice this story comes immediately after the feeding. People have noticed that there is something incredible about Jesus. He is clearly a man worth following, but he wanted to make sure they understood the cost. Following Jesus is not just about overflowing baskets and great wonders.

Jesus understood that what he was teaching and doing would get him into trouble with the authorities. He understood that they could not let him live, and he understood that his mission could not be thwarted by their acts of violence. It was not an easy thing for the disciples to hear, and it is clear that while Jesus lived, they never fully understood.

Instructions:

Jesus asked Peter, “Who do you say that I am?” On the chalkboard in front of you, answer this question. Who is Jesus?

Rest Four – Sunday: Entry

Setup: On a table near the back of the sanctuary, leave a couple of palm branches from Palm Sunday’s service and place a couple of rocks.

Luke 19:35-42a

They brought [the donkey] to Jesus, threw their clothes on the colt, and lifted Jesus onto it. As Jesus rode along, they spread their clothes on the road.

As Jesus approached the road leading down from the Mount of Olives, the whole throng of his disciples began rejoicing. They praised God with a loud voice because of all the mighty things they had seen. They said,

“Blessings on the king who comes in the name of the Lord.
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest heavens.”

Some of the Pharisees from the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!”

He answered, “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.”

As Jesus came to the city and observed it, he wept over it. He said, “If only you knew on his of all days the things that lead to peace.”

Reflection

This story is usually described as “Palm Sunday.” It is on this day that Jesus entered Jerusalem. Jesus taught the people what peace looks like. It looks like aligning your heart and your actions. It looks like letting go of materialism. It looks like letting go of bitterness. Peace is not an easy journey. The Pharisees wanted to keep quiet in the name of what they called peace, but “true peace is not the absence of tension. It is the presence of justice.” In one moment Jesus is a part of a wave of celebration. In the next, he weeps, for he knows the cost of true peace, and he knows the people will not tread that path.

Instructions:

On the table is the palm branch and the stone. Even while we yearn for peace, are we willing to cry out? What story of justice, mercy, kindness, or sacrifice is within you? Can you hold it in? Will even this stone cry out if you don’t?

Rest Five – Monday: Confrontation

Setup: On another table, place a bowl or offering plate with a few coins in it. This station asks people to leave some money behind. Someone should check it periodically so as to remove the temptation of someone taking money from the unattended dish.

Luke 20:20-26

The legal experts and chief priests were watching Jesus closely and sent spies who pretended to be sincere. They wanted to trap him in his words so they could hand him over to the jurisdiction and authority of the governor. They asked him, “Teacher, we know that you are correct in what you say and teach. You don’t show favoritism but teach God’s way as it really is. Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”

Since Jesus recognized their deception, he said to them, “Show me a coin. Whose image and inscription does it have on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

He said to them, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” They couldn’t trap him in his words in front of the people. Astonished by his answer, they were speechless.

Reflection

In the Gospel of Luke especially, Jesus is deeply concerned with our relationship with money. It was after Jesus disrupted the commerce of the Temple that the leaders decided that they had to kill Jesus. Here, he affirms all of their fears.

In front of you are a handful of coins. Those who wanted to be rid of Jesus tried to use money to trap him. It didn’t work. How many of us who follow Jesus however, are trapped by our money? Some social critics have said, “We print ‘In God We Trust,’ upon the god in which we trust.” How much truth is in this statement?

Instructions:

If you so desire, you may leave some money here (the plate will be checked periodically so as large amounts of cash will not be left unattended). Whatever is left here will be given to the church’s Samaritan Fund, which helps local people in emergency need.

Rest Six – Thursday: Supper

Setup: Place chairs around the Lord’s table, leave a broken loaf of bread and a cup (or several small cups) of grape juice. In our setting, the Table was stripped on Thursday night, so this quite easily accomplished.

Instructions:

Take a piece of bread off of the loaf. Please, don’t be shy. Take a good piece. Take off a piece that you actually have to chew. Eat it slowly. Taste it. Drink the cup of grape juice. Allow the sweet tang to fill your mouth. Breathe deeply as you chew and as your drink. Read this story as you eat your piece of bread. Really—take a big piece, even a second piece if you want. It’s okay. Remember, it only took two loaves to feed 5000.

Linger here with the bread. Linger here with the story. Hear Jesus’ words and know that YOU ARE THE BODY OF CHRIST. Read them again and know that YOU ARE FORGIVEN.

Luke 22:14-23

When the time came, Jesus took his place at the table, and the apostles joined him. He said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer.   I tell you, I won’t eat it until it is fulfilled in God’s kingdom.” After taking a cup and giving thanks, he said, “Take this and share it among yourselves. I tell you that from now on I won’t drink from the fruit of the vine until God’s kingdom has come.” After taking the bread and giving thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”In the same way, he took the cup after the meal and said, “This cup is the new covenant by my blood, which is poured out for you.

“But look! My betrayer is with me; his hand is on this table. The Human One goes just as it has been determined. But how terrible it is for that person who betrays him.” They began to argue among themselves about which of them it could possibly be who would do this.

Post Script

As you were eating, did you notice who else was invited? Jesus knew that he would be betrayed by Judas, and what did he do? He broke bread with him. Sometimes the hardest part of the Gospel is realizing who else is invited to this table.

Rest Seven – Thursday: Denial

Instructions:

Simply read this story of Jesus’ trial. Do not read it all silently. Read Peter’s words, the ones in bold, out loud.

Luke 22:54-71

After they arrested Jesus, they led him away and brought him to the high priest’s house. Peter followed from a distance. When they lit a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them.

Then a servant woman saw him sitting in the firelight. She stared at him and said, “This man was with him too.”

But Peter denied it, saying, “Woman, I don’t know him!”

A little while later, someone else saw him and said, “You are one of them too.”

But Peter said, “Man, I’m not!”

An hour or so later, someone else insisted, “This man must have been with him, because he is a Galilean too.”

Peter responded, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about!” At that very moment, while he was still speaking, a rooster crowed. 61 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter, and Peter remembered the Lord’s words: “Before a rooster crows today, you will deny me three times.” And Peter went out and cried uncontrollably.

The men who were holding Jesus in custody taunted him while they beat him. They blindfolded him and asked him repeatedly, “Prophesy! Who hit you?” Insulting him, they said many other horrible things against him.

As morning came, the elders of the people, both chief priests and legal experts, came together, and Jesus was brought before their council.

They said, “If you are the Christ, tell us!”

He answered, “If I tell you, you won’t believe. And if I ask you a question, you won’t answer. But from now on, the Human One will be seated on the right side of the power of God.”

They all said, “Are you God’s Son, then?”

He replied, “You say that I am.”

Then they said, “Why do we need further testimony? We’ve heard it from his own lips.”

Rest Eight – Friday: On the Cross

Setup: Lay down a bowl full of nails. I bought the largest ones I could get from the hardware store. They are really better described as spikes.

Luke 23:32-43

They also led two other criminals to be executed with Jesus. When they arrived at the place called The Skull, they crucified him, along with the criminals, one on his right and the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” They drew lots as a way of dividing up his clothing.

The people were standing around watching, but the leaders sneered at him, saying, “He saved others. Let him save himself if he really is the Christ sent from God, the chosen one.”

The soldiers also mocked him. They came up to him, offering him sour wine and saying, “If you really are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Above his head was a notice of the formal charge against him. It read “This is the king of the Jews.”

One of the criminals hanging next to Jesus insulted him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”

Responding, the other criminal spoke harshly to him, “Don’t you fear God, seeing that you’ve also been sentenced to die? We are rightly condemned, for we are receiving the appropriate sentence for what we did. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Jesus replied, “I assure you that today you will be with me in paradise.”

Reflection

There was not just one cross on Calvary. There were three. Jesus was hung next to two nameless men.  We only catch a glimpse of them at this, the worst possible moment. One joins the crowd and insults and mocks the man next to him. The other seeks peace, even in the midst of agony.

One cross gave us a savior. Three crosses gave us a church. Following Jesus does not take away the pain of the world. Our life journey will always be a struggle. We can choose to respond with anger and bitterness, or we can seek grace and healing. Always, Jesus will meet us with forgiveness and love.

Instruction

If you’ve ever chosen bitterness and anger, pick up a nail. Say a prayer of confession. Lay your burdens down at the Cross.

Rest Nine – Friday: Death

Instruction

Hold the nail in your hand as you read. Press it into your hand or wrist. Not hard enough to hurt you, but hard enough to feel it as you read.

Jesus came so that we may have life. He came to tear down walls and divisions which we are quick to build. He came to feed and heal. He came with forgiveness and grace. His power was not war or coercion. It was love. He died not because God needed him dead, but because we could not let him live. The World could not understand his power, so the Romans nailed him to a cross because they thought that would be his end.  They believed that the humiliation, shame, and death that came with the cross would erase Jesus of Nazareth forever.

Luke 23:44-49

 It was now about noon, and darkness covered the whole earth until about three o’clock, while the sun stopped shining. Then the curtain in the sanctuary tore down the middle. Crying out in a loud voice, Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I entrust my life.” After he said this, he breathed for the last time.

When the centurion saw what happened, he praised God, saying, “It’s really true: this man was righteous.” All the crowds who had come together to see this event returned to their homes beating their chests after seeing what had happened. And everyone who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance observing these things.

Instruction

As you leave, stop by the baptismal font. Touch the waters again. Baptism is death and rebirth. There is no resurrection without death. Go forth knowing that through it all, your seal as a Child of God is complete. You are God’s beloved. On that hour on that day, the world embraced the dark. Today is Friday, but Sunday is coming…

The Stations of the Gospel through Mark

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Music, Art, and Speakers for Peace, Justice, and Hope

The fourth Lion and Lamb Festival is coming back to the Quad Cities on September 17, 2016. Musicians, artists, and speakers are coming together for a full day of inspiration. From its inception, the Lion and Lamb Festival has endeavored to bring people together to talk, learn, sing, and grow together. Its purpose is to create community, and to encourage people to put their faith into action. At its foundation is a love of Christ, and a belief that faith should matter to people. Faith in a God of love, justice, and mercy should inspire people to take action. We are called to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

Apply to be a part of the Lion and Lamb Festival

I’ve been to every Lion and Lamb Festival, and without exception, what I remember most is friendships. At each one, I met extraordinary people. I met authors, musicians, parents, and people of faith who are growing. I met people who wanted to experience the world, and make a difference. I’ve created lasting friendships with people I met at Lion and Lamb Festival, and that is why its happening again this year. We want to create a place where people can come together and connect to each other and to God’s higher purpose on all of our lives.

In September, we will gather at Camp Milan Retreat Center for the second time. Camp Milan is a part of the Quad Cities, only a few miles from Moline and Rock Island. There will be a full day of concerts on an outdoor stage. A large grassy area is shaded by huge oaks. There is a small playground for kids and volunteers will lead kids activities inside, too. There’s even a basketball court to blow off a little energy. Local food trucks will be invited to provide great meals and sweet treats. Inside  the retreat center, speakers will share their stories. They will talk about their work, their service, and their ministry. Artists will be given a chance to talk about their inspiration and sell their work.

The Lion and Lamb Festival is named for a part of Scripture where Isaiah describes a time when peace will transcend even the natural laws. There will be a day when swords will be beaten into plows, and even mortal enemies will lie down together. The Lion and Lamb Festival looks forward to this promise knowing that the arts are our best way to get there. The arts are a way for people to be connected, and to imagine a future of peace. Creators, dreams, and those who believe that music and art can change the world, you are invited to come and be a part of something. It’s not something big – at least not yet – but it can be something great.

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“Breaking the Silence in Church” downloadable brochures

I have created three brochures. They are free to download and print. While they have United Methodist imagery and information, I believe that they could be useful in any congregation. I have placed copies of these brochures in our bathroom – a place where someone could take one inconspicuously, and in our regular information display.

The brochures are pdf files and ready to print. They come in a bundle. Just click on the link below.

Breaking the Silence brochures (three brochures, six total pages)

 

Breaking the Silence Sermon Series

Mental Health: Silent No More

Suicide: Nothing Separates

Domestic Violence: Call Police, Not Pastor

 

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Breaking the Silence (part 3): Domestic Violence

Domestic ViolenceThis is the final part of my three part series called Breaking the Silence. It was an emotional set of sermons, each dealing with important topics that have too often been ignored in the Church. I am in the process of creating brochures to go along with these three sermons, so that others can get the facts and help loosen the stigma that so often keeps people from getting the help they need.

For domestic violence, there seems to be an important Biblical understanding that needs to be addressed and reshaped. The nature of marriage and divorce has often been used to keep people, especially women, in abusive relationships. The sermon below goes into more detail, but it should be said that the Biblical understanding of a marriage is that it is between two people who are in a covenant relationship to be mutually submissive. When some cherry-pick Scripture to read “wives submit to their husbands,” they often leave out the surrounding paragraphs which are inevitably about love and kindness. The Bible describes relationships built on mutuality, not hierarchy. Secondly, a divorce does not end a marriage. Violence ends a marriage. A divorce may be the legal ending of a marriage, but a covenant relationship of love, respect, and mutual submission is broken not with a signed document, but with spiritual, emotional, sexual, or physical abuse. There are other ways that a marriage may end, but in regards to this issue, too many women have been trapped inside a destructive relationship in the name of “saving a marriage.”

If you are in an abusive relationship, I implore you, save yourself. The marriage is already destroyed. Call the police and get out, then call the Pastor to seek healing.

Breaking the Silence Series

Mental Health: Silent No More

Suicide: Nothing Separates

Domestic Violence: Call Police, Not Pastor

 

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Prayer of Confession for Mental Health

This is a prayer of confession that we used during our three-part series called “Breaking the Silence.” It covered three weeks with three different topics of which the Church has not, historically, been helpful. Mental Illness: Silent No More; Suicide: Nothing Separates; Domestic Violence: Call Police, not Pastor.

 

All: Holy and gracious God, we confess to you our role in harming those who are already suffering. Stigma is an ugly word, and it is one that we have created with our cold shoulders, lingering stares, and unhelpful whispers. Forgive us for creating a world where those who suffer fear the very help they so desperately need. Enlighten us with new understanding, empathy, and compassion. By the power of your healing Spirit, help us to stand with the most vulnerable among us. Lead us to shalom.

(Pause for silent confession)

One: Hear the Good News: Christ came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly. In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.

All: By the grace of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven. Amen.

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Suicide: Nothing Separates

This is my sermon from January 24, 2016, preached at Two Rivers United Methodist Church in Rock Island, Illinois. It is about the importance of compassion and care for those that are both contemplating suicide, and for families who have endured it. Any conversation about suicide must begin with the truth that “nothing [not even suicide] can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

If you or someone you love is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call 1-800-273-8255.

Breaking the Silence Series

Mental Health: Silent No More

Suicide: Nothing Separates

Domestic Violence: Call Police, Not Pastor

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no matter how much

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Mental Illness: Silent No More

This is my sermon from January 17, 2016 at Two Rivers United Methodist Church in Rock Island, Illinois. The Church needs to do more to help fight stigma attached to mental illness. I want to thank Sarah Griffith Lund for helping me come to a deeper understanding of this issue.

Breaking the Silence Series

Mental Health: Silent No More

Suicide: Nothing Separates

Domestic Violence: Call Police, Not Pastor

Listen to our conversation with Sarah Griffith Lund, the author of Blessed are the Crazy, in this Pulpit Fiction episode.

STIGMA IS UGLY

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The Gospel According to Pixar: Toy Story

I doubt it was an intentional allusion, but did you notice what shape these two form? Look familiar?

I doubt it was an intentional allusion, but did you notice what shape these two form? Look familiar?

Where do you find meaning? This is a big question. It may be THE big question. What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of living? You may not realize it, but this is the question of the Toy Story saga. Over three incredible movies, the characters of Toy Story are searching for meaning.

The toys, especially the two main characters, Woody and Buzz, at different times face existential crises searching for meaning as they come to grips with their own mortality. Their mortality is wrapped up in the life of their owner, Andy. In the first movie Buzz faces the reality of being a toy and not a Space Ranger. In the second movie Woody has to choose between “immortality” in a museum, or life with a kid who will eventually grow up. In the third movie all of the toys face their impending loss of purpose as Andy goes to college.

When Woody meets Buzz, Woody is a sure and determined leader of the toys. He knows his purpose. He has a laser focus as Andy’s favorite toy. When Buzz shows up his status is threatened. To make matters worse, Buzz has delusions of grandeur. Woody mocks Buzz because Buzz believes that he is a space ranger. He comes to Andy’s room convinced that he is on an alien planet, and must find and defeat the evil Zurg.

Buzz faces a crisis when he realizes that the storyline of his life isn’t real. It is just a storyline for a TV show designed to sell toys. He is one of thousands of Buzz Lightyears” that line supermarket aisles. It is Woody who convinces Buzz that his purpose is far grander than defeating Zurg.

“I can’t help anyone… I’m not a Space Ranger. I’m just a toy. A stupid, little insignificant toy,” says Buzz.

“Whoah, hey, wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a Space Ranger,” Woody exclaims.

“Yeah right.”

“No, it is. Over in that house is a kid who thinks you’re the greatest. And it’s not because you’re a Space Ranger, pal. It’s because you’re a toy. You are his toy.”

Woody redefines Buzz and gives him purpose. No longer does his purpose revolve around catching the evil Zurg. Instead, it is to be with a boy. Toy Story ends with Woody and Buzz realizing something about their purpose. Woody is not defined by his status, and Buzz is not defined by his ‘job.’ They are both defined by their relationship to Andy, and to each other.

In Toy Story 2 it is Woody who has the crisis when he discovers that he is not just a toy, but that he is a collectible. His value is altered, and he is faced with a decision. He can define himself through Andy, where his value will inevitably deteriorate as Andy grows up and plays less with his toys; or he can define himself as a collectible and be a part of a museum forever.

Knowing that Andy will eventually “put him away,” he decides to go with immortality at the museum. Fearing that he has been kidnapped, Buzz and the other toys go on a perilous adventure to find him. Risking everything for the sake of their friend, they finally find Woody, and the following scene ensues:

We witness Woody’s change of heart when he is reminded of who he is. He is reminded of the mark that was placed on him by the one who loved him more than all. He is reminded of the love of his friends, and the fact that they were willing to risk everything for him.

Jesus, when speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper in the Gospel of John tells them this, “This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved you. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:12-13, CEB). Jesus had a firm grasp on the transforming power of love. He said these things to the disciples when he knew that his time on earth was coming to a close. He says these things to them even while he knew that his path led to the cross. He told them they were his friends. He told them to love each as I have loved you. He told them there is no greater love than to lay one’s life down for one’s friends. Then he went out and did it.

That’s the kind of love that can transform hearts. That is the kind of love that can make people stop on their tracks and reconsider their path. Another way of putting it: It’s the kind of love that can cause you to repent, and believe that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Woody’s heart was transformed by the love of his friends. In all my time as a writer, pastor, and Christian, I don’t think I’ve ever convinced anyone to Christ. I don’t think I’ve ever persuaded anyone to repent. If I’ve done anything, I’ve loved them to Christ. If I have done anything, I have loved people to a deeper understanding of God’s love. I’ve written, preached, talked, teached, but nothing counts as much as the times that I have been a friend. I’m not sure I’ve ever laid my life down for a friend, but I have laid down my time. I have laid down my own vulnerability. I have laid down my compassion and kindness.

More importantly, when I have had moments of doubt. When I have questioned everything. When I have wondered aloud about my own purpose, it has never been a well-constructed argument that brought me back. It has been the time, care, kindness, and love of friends that has reminded me. There have been times when competing ideas of the purpose of my life have waged a war in my mind. Like anyone, I have had late nights wondering about where the value of my life may lie. There are times when I’ve been lost, but every time there was someone there to remind me to look down at the bottom of my foot, recall who and whose I am, and come back to my purpose: to love.

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The Gospel According to Pixar: Finding Nemo

Dear Daughters,

On your first day of Kindergarten I wore sunglasses. It was a sunny day, but that is not why I wore the shades. I wore them because I didn’t want you to see. I didn’t want you to see the redness in my eyes or the tears flowing down my cheeks. Your mother and I walked behind as you and your sister walked together, hand in hand, toward the school. It looked so big, and you looked so tiny. Your head seemed to barely peak over the top of your backpack, which was wider than your body even though it carried only the lunch I had just made for you.

You walked to the big lot where all the other kids were waiting. Other parents. Other sunglasses. I wasn’t embarrassed of my tears. Everyone who knows me knows that I a crier. You even know it, but not today. I didn’t want you to be thinking about my tears. You had enough to deal with. You found your line. We gave you hugs and waited for your teachers to come. And she did. The line of kindergarteners started to move. Some of the parents walked with their little ones. It was a first-day exception to the rule that I was not aware of. I didn’t know that we could walk in with you. So Mommy asked. She bent low and said to you, “Do you want us to come with you or do you want to go alone?”

“I want to go alone,” you said. And into the deep blue you swam.

Into the deep, fraught with dangers on all sides, you ventured. There, kids could be mean to you. There, teachers could crush your spirit. There, cafeteria chaos loomed. There, I would not be able to scoop you up if you called out, “Daddy uppy!” There, into the deep you swam. There you ventured out, wanting to go alone. Needing to go alone. It is possible to be both overjoyed and terrified at the same time. For in that moment I was joyful that you were ready. I was so proud of my brave, independent, smart little girl; and I was terrified for my precious, vulnerable, sensitive little girl. So I waved, and I watched you as long as I could. Then you were in the building, and somehow I went about my day until it was 3 p.m., and I found that you had survived.

Finding Nemo is about a Dad, Marlin, trying to find his son, Nemo. Along the way Marlin bumps into Dory, a wonderfully optimistic fish with an extremely short attention-span. She reminds Marlin that when things look difficult, the best thing to do sometimes is “just keep swimming.”  Most of the story of the movie is of their adventure. They engage much danger along the way, encounter strange creatures, and develop a lasting friendship. Meanwhile Nemo is made a pet, trapped in a tank in a seaside Dentist’s office. Here, Nemo makes some unlikely friends, draws on his own courage and teamwork. Eventually, Marlin and Nemo are reunited, and through the power of teamwork and positive thinking, they are freed from a fisherman’s net.

It is a wonderful adventure, but it is easy to forget how it all started.

I get Marlin. Here, on Nemo’s first day of school, he is rightly worried. Maybe he goes overboard, but I understand his desire to protect his son, and I cringe at Nemo’s open defiance. Marlin knows that the deep blue is a dangerous place. He knows that something as simple as touching a boat can get you killed. I struggle with the same emotions as Marlin. I think every parent does, and I don’t expect it to get any easier. The dangers just seem to get bigger as life goes on. In the end, all I can do is trust.

I trust that the things your Mom and I have taught you can hold true even in the midst of hardship. I trust that you feel my love and my presence even if I’m not there at your side. I trust that there will be others that care about you that will guide you on your way. I trust that there will be friends who will love you for who you are. I trust that your own strength and resourcefulness will surprise you when you need it. Above all, I trust that the same shepherd who guides and protects me through the darkest valley is the same shepherd who will watch you too. If I am to claim faith in the Scriptures, and find solace in words like the 23rd Psalm for struggles in my own life, it means I have to find solace in them for you as well. Even though you will walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil. For the same rod and staff that protects me, protects you as well. Surely goodness and mercy pursues you as relentlessly as it pursues me, too.

Holding onto this is the only way that I can let go of you, and letting you go is precisely my job as your father. The only way for you to become the amazing women that God has created you to be is if I allow you to venture. I have to allow you to get lost, to play in the rain, to have your heart broken, to scrape your knee. You both have so many gifts. You have incredible kindness and curiosity. You are ferocious and gentle. You are passionate and loyal, and sometimes agonizingly stubborn. So go out into the deep blue.

Explore. Fall. Imagine. Sing. Bless. Feed. Dance. Play. Read. Love. Fail. Forgive. There will be hard days, and sometimes the best thing to do is just keep swimming.

Through it all know that no matter what, I will pursue you with as much goodness and faithful love as I can.

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Where faith begins

forked pathA long time ago I heard a pastor say, “The Christian faith begins when you realize that you are sinner in need of salvation.” I feel like that is a very sad place from which to start.

I grew up as a kid with an innate knowledge of my own sin. I had no problem seeing where I fell short. I had a clear understanding of my mistakes and shortcomings. I wasn’t a particularly bad kid, but I was a regular source of frustration for my parents, teachers, and my self. For a long stretch of my life I spent every night in bed worried about what I had forgotten during the previous day, and fearful of what trouble was awaiting in the morning.

I had no problem realizing that I was a sinner in need of salvation, but that is not where my faith began. My faith began the moment I realized I was loved by God, no matter what. My faith began when I came to understand that the love of Christ was not just offered to those who achieved. The grace of God was not offered to those that had good grades, were good at sports, remembered to do all their chores, or had in some other way earned it. When I learned that the grace of God was offered especially to those who did not deserve it, my heart was strangely warmed. My moment of conversion was no particular moment. It was the growing understanding that I was loved, and that no matter where I went nor how far I wandered, when I came home my supper would be waiting for me. And it would still be hot.

Once I learned that I was loved, I realized too that I was gifted. There were things that I could do that could be of use. My gifts might not have been the same degree or kind as others, but they were gifts nonetheless. No Pastor, my faith did not start when I realized I was a sinner in need of salvation. I begin from a very different place.

I begin from God creating all things, and calling them good. I begin from Jesus rising from the baptismal waters to hear God proclaim, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” I begin from Jesus telling the lawyers that greatest commandment is to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength… and to love your neighbor as yourself.” I begin from Jesus reminding people that “when you did it to the least of these, my children, you did it to me.” I begin from “God is love.”

And from there, I move outward. I still see my sin. I acknowledge the many ways that I choose to be selfish over selfless. I choose to ignore the plight of the poor, and I shrink from standing up to injustice. I understand how I participate in sin every day by reaping benefits of a system that keeps me in comfort and others in poverty. I feel the ache of disappointment when I spend my time frivolously, and spend my money unwisely. I feel the sting of pain when I turn away from my daughters, or turn toward them too harshly. I have a firm grasp on my own sin, and maybe that’s why as a pastor I don’t pay particular attention to yours.

When I started from my own sin, I was starting from fear. I was shackled by shame. I was paralyzed by my own shortcomings.

When I start from God’s love, I am opened to my own gifts. I see more clearly where God’s love is not the lived reality, and I mourn. And I act. I am motivated by love, not shackled by fear. I still fall short. I see my mistakes, but I no longer go to bed fearing them. Instead I lay my head down knowing I am loved by God, and tomorrow I will have the precious gift of loving others. Instead of fearing how I will fall short, I have hope for the love I can live into.

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