Thursday, August 15, 2013

Rough Around the Middle

Rough Around the Middle

 My wife couldn’t hide the sadness in her face.  I’m not sure if she even wanted to.  We were about to go out and get yogurt with our three kids after dinner to celebrate the kickoff of another new school year.  However, I spent that evening in an apartment with someone else’s kids whose mother had been arrested earlier that day.  Her children had been home alone for hours.  The confusion on their faces when I opened the door of their apartment was sincere.  When the four year old saw me he said, “It’s Jesus!”  His older brother corrected him, “It’s not Jesus.  It’s Pastor Scott.”  “What are you doing here, Pastor Scott?”  The truth is I was there to wait with them until their mother made bail and could make it home.  So I had come with Happy Meals in hand and a little lie about their mother’s car trouble.

 I kept staring at his Tag Heuer watch.  It was a beautiful watch.  I thought to myself if I could have any watch, it’d be that one.  I was looking at his watch to avoid looking at the tears coming down his face.  Less than four years in and his marriage was teetering somewhere between joylessness and divorce.  This handsome, very educated professional saw those as his only two options.  I saw him and his wife the next Sunday though sitting across from a man and woman that had been married twice as long as this young couple had been alive.


 "You need to come to church with us one Sunday.  They take that $h!t f#*king serious.  It’s awesome.”  I had never quite heard someone invited to church like that before.  But that’s how my buddy, who up until the last couple of months had never been to church, invited a mutual friend of ours.  I kept my mouth shut as this buddy of mine described the “Time of Preparation” we have in between our welcome and announcements and the beginning of our worship.  In this time at our traditional service our organist will play for a minute or so allowing everyone a chance to focus their hearts and minds on God.  I always assumed that nobody really understood what that time was for.  But in describing it he said, “At first it’s all like, ‘Hey everybody!  Welcome to church.’  And then they’re like, ‘Before we start though, we need to get f#*king ready.  We’re about to worship the God of the universe so prepare your hearts.’”  At this point our mutual friend looked at me as if to say, “Is he serious?”  To which I responded, “Yeah, it’s kind of like that.” 

 We have a large Sunday School class that recently had a high percentage of African Americans in it (30% or so which is high for Presbyterians).  I was told that while in that class a white man weighed in with a very conservative take on the Trayvon Martin / George Zimmerman verdict.  There was disagreement.  My first thought was, “Uh oh.  Can we handle this?”  I was worried about the potential fallout.  Could we handle that kind of issue and stick together even with differing opinions?         

 Preaching gives one a unique, visual vantage point.  I see it all.  Two weeks ago I saw a man who doesn’t believe women should hold positions of authority in the church sitting a few feet away from a woman who believes very strongly in gay marriage.  In that same service I saw a Congressman sitting a few feet away from a person who would never vote for him in a million years.  I saw a tattoo artist sitting next to a 90 year old matriarch of the church.  I saw a family sitting next to a felon.  There are people who can’t afford to go to the doctor sitting feet away from those who have elected to undergo cosmetic surgery.  Dirty blue jeans, Armani suits, people who hitch rides, people who leave multiple cars at their second homes- this is all part of a shift that has been taking place over the past few years in our congregation.   


From the pulpit I love to look up and see these diverse stories gathered under a common roof.  It feels like the kingdom of God.  But in worship it is easy to be smooth around the edges.  We have enough in common to be there together.  But what happens when the family knows it’s sitting next to a felon?  What happens when the grandmother realizes that the nice girl that has been sitting in front of her for the last few weeks is an addict?  What happens when folks discover the stuff that’s just below the surface- that we fundamentally disagree about Trayvon Martin or gay marriage or our president?  Do we shake the hand of the man any differently when we hear him use the “F word” to describe how excited he is about preparing to worship the God he has just come to know and love?  How will the blue collar worker who puts in 55 hours a week treat the single mother of three on food stamps when he finds out she’s not even looking for a job? 

 The reason most congregations are homogenous is because true community is rough around the middle.  Once we start to move centripetally from the smooth edge of cordiality we’re in for a bumpy ride.  Real people are messy.  The only way for a community to handle the rough middle is to believe in a gospel that’s bigger than our baggage; to trust that a greater truth than our uniqueness is the commonality that we share in our redemption. 

I think that’s what Paul is getting at when he writes to the church in Philippi, “I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with one another in the Lord.”  (Philippians 4:2).  We may not agree about personal issues or social issues.  We may have problems with too much wealth or with what leads to poverty.  We may struggle to value an addict or criminal.  Our politics and preferences will run afoul to each other.  Our neighborhoods and incomes may be the difference between night and day.  But if we agree with one another in the Lord, then these differences need not divide.  Beware of the homogenous church.  It’s the community that is rough around the middle which believes in a gospel big enough to sustain it.  If our gospel isn’t bigger than our politics then it’s a false gospel.  If our gospel isn’t bigger than our tax bracket then it’s a false gospel.  If our gospel isn’t bigger than breast augmentation or prison tattoos then it’s a false gospel.  At the end of the day, if we can’t agree with one another in the Lord, then our Lord is too small.  And a Lord that small isn’t worthy of our gathering together to worship him anyway.


Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Parenting Anchors and Sails

Every child’s a miracle.  Well, if that’s true, then for my son Ebenezer it’s even more true.  His coming into this world stumped the medical professionals.  The problem is that he knows he’s a miracle.  He’s heard it his whole life.  Eben is mostly convinced that he is the awesomest kid on the planet.  His enthusiasm and optimism knows no bounds.  Literally.  One day we went to a local park to launch some small, solid-fuel rockets.  On the way over there he asks, “Dad, do you think it will make it to the moon?”  On the way to enter our first Pinewood Derby he asks, “How big do you think our trophy will be?”  His baseline assumption for anything that interests him is “I am probably awesome at this.” 
And here’s the rub.  He’s a normal kid.  Estes rockets don’t go to the moon.  Our pinewood derby car was average.  And he throws a little like a girl.  (Full disclosure: he might actually be a genius.  I’m just happy that he doesn’t know that IQ is something for him to think that he’s awesome in).  The parenting gauntlet involves daily statements like, “I really do like that story you wrote, Eben but no, I will not look into finding a publisher for your book Ninjas Don’t Eat Lunch.”  It is not right to dampen his spirits.  It is also not right to have him try out for American Idol one day convinced he’s the next Rick Astley.  Some kids need to be told this rocket is not good enough to go to the moon.  And if you want a rocket to go to the moon then work your rear off in physics, math and chemistry, become a rocket scientist, and build a better one than this.  The great thing about Eben is that he eyes the horizon and it doesn’t seem that far away because he’s all sails. 
On the other end of the self-perception spectrum is Tate.  His basic presupposition is that he’s pretty terrible.  While Eben asks “Will this rocket make it to the moon?” Tate asks, “Will this thing even fly?”  Hang around our house long enough and you’ll see Tate run down the hall screaming, “The family hates me.  Everybody hates me.  The world hates me.  Everything is a butt.”  When he does this my wife and I usually grin at each other because it’s funny.  Then I go to him and let him know that none of that is true; that we love him; that it doesn’t matter that his sister beat him in Mario Kart; that his value comes from a place in which Wii game performance is not taken into account.  But he can’t hear me. 
The good thing about having a kid as grounded as Tate is that he has fire in his eyes.  He pushes himself because he knows he needs to.  What he sets his mind to do he will give it everything he has.  He’s a fighter.  There is great strength in him because he’s all anchor.   
So, if you’re keeping score, that means I have one son who thinks he’s a combination of Chuck Yeager, Mario Andretti, and J.K.  Rowling and the other who thinks he’s a combination of a stomach virus, a traffic jam, and a pen that’s out of ink.  To the one, I have to remind him that he hasn’t done enough to reach the moon.  To the other I have to build his spirit by letting him know he actually could. 
Then there’s Tyler, my daughter.  When I say that her hair looks nice she doesn’t assume I’m suggesting she be a model for a shampoo ad.  She takes it at face value and finds delight in it but not identity.  When my daughter didn’t get the role she wanted in a school play she was not diminished.  The real disappointment in her voice sounded like contentment by the time she was done telling me how her audition went.  Tyler possesses both a sail and an anchor in wonderful balance.  The challenge is that she often uses neither.  She’s content in the current.  No need to dream.  No need to fight.  Much of her life involves furled sails and a dry anchor.   
At the end of the day I am a father of three opposites.  Hegel would be proud that at once my progeny represents the thesis, the antithesis, and the synthesis.  Each of them demand nuance in our parenting- from the way we encourage to the way we discipline.  Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor.  At the end of the day every child needs to understand that there is a sail and an anchor and that they need both.  Parenting is the joyous work of helping them discover both and imparting the wisdom that allows them to know when to use each.         

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Peter, Come Home

The last eight weeks I have been slogging through a tough, fifteen-week sermon series in the book of 1st Peter.  I haven’t enjoyed it.  1st Peter is a bit odd to preach through.  I didn’t think it would be.  I like the book devotionally.  I just haven’t enjoyed it pedagogically or homiletically.  This fact has been weighing on me.  I actually told my associate pastor, “I don’t like 1st Peter.”  That seems weird for a pastor to say.     
However, I may have caught a second wind at the half way mark of this first Petrine epistle by way of my 11 year old daughter.  Taking her to school yesterday she asked me to put on Mumford and Sons.  I obliged.  Then she told me about a dream she had.  In her dream the band Mumford and Sons had a woman singing back-up harmonies.  Then she told me that in her dream they were singing a song about Peter (the one in the Bible).  I asked her if she could remember what the song was like.  She couldn’t.  She did remember the title of the song though.  “Peter, Come Home”.  Brilliant.  I had been praying for that same thing.  I just wanted this letter of his to fit, to make sense, to “come home.” 

I felt oddly comforted by this vague dream of my daughter’s.  Then I did a strange thing.  I wrote a song for her, and me, I guess.  I’m not a musician.  I’m not even a poet.  That did not stop me from writing my daughter’s dream.  The rough, folksy, acoustic, wordy, reflective, and harmonic lyrical stylings of Mumford and Sons and the Avette Brothers banged around in my mind as I wrote.
So, I guess I’ll ask you to listen to this song.  It’s about Peter- A disjointed man who loved Jesus and wrote a disjointed letter about Jesus’ love.  I’ll need you to provide the music.  And however you play the music in your mind, make sure someone in your band has an unkempt beard that may or may not smell like a craft beer.  (And if one of you musician types want to take a crack at it, I'd love to make my daughter's dream come true.)

 Peter, Come Home

In the dark you seek in vain
Casting bad seed.
O, fruitless pain
What will she say
When it’s empty again
And you’re hungry for more
Than what fills nets
So lost and poor
Of all but regrets
From a life you chose
With this void of hopes
Casting yourself like Jonah
In your mind, swallowed
By sea and creature to go…

             Simon, come home
            To this place of calm
             Seas and love.  Come sleep
             In the arms of the steady One

Haggard and deprived
Of humility and pride
You clean in vain
A web stretched and frayed
By the futility you claimed
On dark Galilee
But new day is burning
Hearts through words
Spoken by light
From One you never knew
You were looking for
This One who found you
With a voice of thunder
And shalom to be…

  Simon, come home
              To this place of calm
              Seas and love.  Come sleep
              In the arms of the steady One

This narrow street
Trodden, rock-bled feet
Roll on to mountain peak
You are found and lost
In bright glory and fire
To be quiet and shine
As you follow and lead
Bruised knees, granite seas
Of confession and denial
And it’s not you on trial
Who eat food never caught
On shores of redemption
When I’ll send you to feed
I know you love me…

              Simon, come home
              To this place of calm
              Seas and love.  Come sleep
              In the arms of the steady One
             Peter, come home
             To this place of calm
             Seas and love.  Go seek.
             For My Kingdom’s coming home

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mini Flash Wins Every Time

A red blur interrupted my peripheral peace.  I kept my face in my book.  (Alright, not my book.  I kept my face glued to the screen of my iPhone as I played Tiny Wings.  But let’s pretend it was actually a book; a book with words like tolutiloquent).  The red blur interrupted my periphery again with the silence of a hobbit and the speed of a mongoose.  Then it was on me.  A mask wearing, nylon clad pygmy superhero was pummeling the back of my hands that were covering my face.  I was a super-villain and I didn’t even know it.  (That’s the worst, right?  At least the Joker and Lex Luthor knew that it was coming.)  Here this whole time I thought I was a good husband, loving dad, and grateful pastor and it turns out I was actually the arch enemy of Mini Flash.  How did this happen?  Was this the end?

Then in a moment of clarity I grabbed the closest thing I could find and swung as hard as I could.  That pillow must have had some magical powers because Mini Flash flew off the side of my bed and like a hobbited cat with no legs, landed softly on his face.  Then, in a rare moment of cowardice and unchecked emotion for a super hero, Mini Flash ran away in the blur that brought him crying for his mother.  Turns out I’m an awesome super-villain. 

What is that thing in a kid that gets transformed by the costume?  When an adult puts on a costume one of a few things is going on.

1.        They are going to a party with a lot of booze- I mean a lot of booze.
2.       It’s Halloween and they are in that odd 7% of adults who really get into Halloween- booze or not. 
3.       A Trekkie convention, Comic Con, or some other themed gathering of gifted kids and home schoolers.      
4.       And then there’s, you know, couples costumes.

But at no point do these adults actually think they possess super powers or Klingon DNA.  It’s a costume.  However, in a child an existential shift occurs when the spandex, mask, and cape go on.  This existential transformation even has metaphysical implications.  All things being equal but the costume, I’ll bet dollars to donuts that my Mini Flash son beats his non super self in a foot race.  I can see it now…  It’s a Usainian moment as Mini Flash’s arms spread out looking left and right cruising the final 20 meters in a victory over himself sans the flash mask.  (All kidding aside, I’m going to test this when I get home.  No, not by cloning my son.  By using a stopwatch, you goof ball.  I’ll post results).

I think that’s kind of what Jesus was getting at when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these… anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  Children believe.  And their belief has wings on it.  And belief with wings on it is what the Bible calls faith. 

One of the great pictures of the gospel comes from Jesus’ story of the prodigal.  You know this story.  Kid number two asks for a share of the inheritance.  He goes splitsville to an ancient Mediterranean version of Vegas.  What happens there stays there including the money.  He’s destitute and ashamed.  He heads home simply wanting to be a slave in his dad’s house while working on a great contrition speech.  His dad sees him, runs and hugs him, and doesn’t even let him finish the speech.  Without hesitation the dad tells a servant to bring a new robe, sandals, and the family signet ring.  And they set toward the house for a party in the kid’s honor.  Wait, what? 

But that’s the gospel in a nut shell.  We’re selfish and messed up.  God loves us anyway.  And he puts Jesus’ own robe, sandals, and signet ring on us and says I’m throwing a party for you.  We have been clothed with the righteousness of Christ.  We have been credited with his obedience by the grace of the Father. 

Most Christians simply don’t believe that.  I look at my son and I see a funny little kid in a spandex outfit that thinks he’s Flash.  He looks at himself and thinks, “Dude, I’m a super hero.”  And Jesus looks at me and says, “If you want to truly know me, you need a little more of what Flash over there has.  He gets it.” 

Galatians 3:27 says, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.”  The truth is, if I actually believed that, I’d run a little bit faster. 

God Speed,

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Amazing Race

Sundays begin around 3:45 AM for me. My alarm is set for 4:00 AM but I rarely get to hear it go off. Usually my sermon has roused me by then. By 4:30 AM on Sundays I am showered and dressed. Going through my mind is an energizing hybrid of prayer and preaching. (Let it be known that by this time I have not typed a word of my sermon. But don’t be confused by this. A sermon is never done until it’s been preached. Any preacher worth their salt, even if they have had a manuscript of their sermon done since Tuesday, will know that a sermon is in some ways a living thing. And until it has had a chance to live those brief moments of its proclamation then it has been something less than a sermon.)

My sermons incubate in the pages of relatively expensive, Italian, leather-bound journals. Those pages receive the observations of my study, the wrestling prayers of my discernment, random thoughts and ideas for flow, illustration, and how it all fits into a much bigger picture. However, in my thinking, the sermon is still a thing that all of this is only hinting at. It’s like I’m trying to listen in on a conversation from across the room filled with the noise of my own invited distractions. And no matter what gets scribbled into my journal or trapped by Microsoft Word early on Sunday morning, those things are still not my sermon.

Whatever it is I wind up typing and printing out feels more like a leash for myself anything else. “Lord, do more than I have done,” is the only right prayer to pray for one who would hope to preach. That is not to diminish the hard work of good study and the wrestling over creative inspiration. However, if God were bound to the limits of my study and creativity then I would sooner choose to be mute than aspire to channel His Word through my own grit and whim. Study and creativity are my service to God. It is the least I can do. But Lord help the church if God’s work through the proclaimed Word is tethered to the least I could do.

Then I preach with ice-cold hands. Every Sunday. Sometimes I remember how to preach and sometimes I forget. But I am always glad it’s over even though I am humbled to have done it. Even when I am driving home after worship, regardless of how I well or poorly I think I have executed the task, I ask God to continue to speak to his people. It feels nice to be out of the way.

Eighteen hours after getting up I'm usually sitting on the couch with my wife watching The Amazing Race. The Amazing Race is a reality TV show in which teams of people race around the globe day after day trying to make it to the end. We watch them exhaust themselves on a race where no one knows what is coming next. They fight, they fail, they succeed. Some are not good enough to stay in the race. Some continue on. They do their best with what they are given. Each week it’s a new adventure- every team hoping they have what it takes to run one more leg- to move on. Each team that makes it seems road-weary and relieved. Every week it’s the same. Every week it’s different.

And that’s the way my Sunday ends.


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Confessions of a Sports Fan (and Pastor)

I root for Tiger Woods. I root against Tim Tebow. And I’m on the Lin bandwagon.

Sunday afternoon I paced back and forth in front of my
television as I watched Tiger Woods finish his final round at the Honda Classic. Other than the fact that he didn’t win, it was vintage Tiger. And I loved it. My daughter Tyler has always been my golf watching buddy. Sunday it
was fun for us to watch Tiger play like the old Tiger. It felt like the good ol’ days that I thought were gone. I wasn’t thinking about his infidelities and hubris. And to be honest, I never gave any thought to whether he was a good husband or dad “before the accident”. Truth be told, I don’t really care now. I never cared if he was
a role model. I didn’t need him to be. My kids don’t need him to be. Sure, a couple of years ago when my daughter asked me what people were saying about Tiger Woods, I cringed a bit when telling her that Tiger started acting like he was married other women besides his wife (serial adultury and dirtbaggery are tough to explain to an eight year old). That’s why I don’t root for Tiger Wood’s personal life. Just his golf life.

I root for Tim Tebow’s personal life. Not his football career. I am a Seminole. He killed us when he was at Florida- roostering up and down the sideline with garnet field paint on his face pumping his team up. I shudder to even mention it. I root for him to lose. At football. But I would be deeply saddened if he took ABC’s bid for him to be the next Bachelor. It would break my heart if he started making out with a few desperate gold-diggers in front of millions of people. It’ll never happen. And that’s why I root for his personal life. I hope he tanks in the NFL. And I’m pretty sure he will. I also hope he goes to prisons and shares Jesus with folks. I hope he spends years in the Philippines with orphans and widows. I hope he dethrones Mother Theresa in the “Least of These” Hall of Fame.

I’ve got a bad case of Linsanity. I love him. I love the story of a really good basketball player who was overlooked in high school, college, and the NBA because he is Asian. I love the fact the he didn’t quit, that he worked his butt off, and that he finally got his. I loved the pride that I saw in so many of my Asian American friends when ESPN was Linsane in the membrane for two weeks. I jumped on the bandwagon for what he was doing for the game of basketball. And when I found out later that he was a devout Christian who was considering career ministry, it didn’t faze me. I didn’t like him more. I didn’t like him less. I just worried about him more. Overnight fame, the promise of millions, and New York City are a terrible combination- every time. I would hate for Jeremy Lin’s sports success to infringe on his faith success- which is usually in a much healthier environment when it is incubated in struggle.

I want God’s Kingdom to grow through the work of His church. I enjoy sports. Those things do not mean I root for Christians to succeed in sports because they’re Christian. That also doesn’t mean I root against worldly pagans in sports because they’re worldly pagans. God will glorify Himself as God sees fit. If he does it through humbling a vain golfer, elevating a mediocre quarterback, or having the world notice an unnoticed point guard then that’s God’s business. However, God can also glorify Himself in the empty success of vanity, in the humiliation of one of His children, and in the train wreck that comes from overnight fame. I want God’s glory to shine. I don’t care so much how He chooses to do it. So in the meanwhile, Go Tiger! Fail Timmy! And hold on tight Super Lintendo!