Friday, July 22, 2011

Being a jerk

A lot of Jesus' sayings will make you feel better if you apply them to your life. But the single most comforting thing Jesus said is this:

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you."

In other words, if people are mad at you because you're telling them the truth, you should be happy...because THEY CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH!

If you don't recognize this, it means I'm old.

 This is helpful for any Christian. If people are angry with you and attacking you because you're telling them about Jesus, that means you're blessed! Logically, the more angry you make people, the more blessed you are. So if everyone is mad at you all the time, that means you're just about as blessed as someone can get! Right?

There's no question that this theme appears through the whole Bible. Almost everyone in the Bible who tries to deliver a real message from God to people ends up getting in trouble with their neighbors and friends. Meanwhile, the false prophets who tell everyone that life is going to be just great--they're the ones who get fame and fortune. There are a few exceptions, but most of the time, people who tell their friends and neighbors about God get laughed at, thrown in pits, and occasionally killed. So when Jesus says that people who get persecuted are blessed, he's on to something.

Those of us who are trying to follow Jesus really do need to be careful about being too respectable. I've noticed that preachers--whether they're liberal or conservative--tend to preach their most hard-hitting sermons about sins that are going on outside the church. Liberals preach about social justice to people who already believe that we should take care of the poor. Conservatives preach about sex and drugs to people who already believe that they should be faithful to their spouses and never drink. None of it really challenges the people in the church...and so preachers can pretty easily avoid persecution. Wherever you are, you'll find that when you really challenge people to change their lives, you'll make a lot of people mad. So what Jesus says is clearly true.

But at the same time, we're supposed to be changing lives--all of us, not just the preachers. When we tell people about Jesus, the point isn't to make people mad, it's to encourage them to turn to Jesus. If you're only making people mad, then you're not really being persecuted for "Jesus' sake." Persecution is supposed to be a side effect of real ministry--not the only effect of real ministry. So while we shouldn't be afraid of upsetting people, we always need to make sure that we're reaching people at the same time.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

For my friend...

A couple of months ago I got started on a conversation about God with one of my friends which got dropped into the middle of a Facebook thread. She's an atheist, and she raised a question that goes back more than 2000 years, to a guy named Epicurus. Epicurus was a Greek philosopher who decided that most of what people thought about "the gods" was ridiculous. He upset a lot of people, and so most of his works have been lost. I'm not going to quote him, but I think this is a decent way of saying what he thought:

If you pray to the gods, you're acting like the gods needs your help to find out what you want. If you make some kind of sacrifice to a god you're acting like the god can be bribed into doing what you want. That's  really disrespectful. We can't do anything to hurt or help a god and it's egotistical to think that anyone who's actually a god is going to spend time rewarding and punishing us for what we do on this planet.

What do you think? I'm going to share my own response to this in a couple days--but I'm also going to write some much more down-to-earth stuff.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Starting a conversation

Blogging is one of those things that I've been meaning to get around to doing for a long time. Before I was a preacher, I never imagined that anyone would want to read my thoughts about life. But now, people show up every week and listen to me talk for 15 minutes--that's about 1800 words, way longer than any blog post. When I put it that way, it's a little surprising to find out that anyone ever listens to any sermon, when someone tells me "I enjoyed your sermon," it's positively astonishing! A blog entry is a lot shorter than a sermon, and you can read it instead of listening to it. So I figured, why not?

But when I actually sat down to write something, I find myself stopping. I get what you'd call "writer's block." It's one thing to talk to one person, or even to write an article for our church newsletter or our small-town newspaper.  But blogging--putting something on the Internet--stopped me in my tracks. And it took a lot of reflection before I could see why. It's not putting ideas out there for strangers that's's putting ideas out there for friends; all my friends at once. See, whatever label you would put on someone, I can tell you about the time I've spent with someone who uses it: from fundamentalist Christian to pagan to atheist, pinko to Tea Partier to apathetic, all the way out to weird labels like transhumanist, Rennie, and Evangelical Lutheran. They don't talk to each other in person, but they can all find this online. So I imagine all those different people and try to write something that everyone can "get."

That's probably not possible...but it isn't necessary either, is it? Because this doesn't have to be about Pastor Alan sharing wisdom; it's supposed to be about us...a lot of people who have nothing in common except a belief that truth is better than deception. So while I'll be writing here no matter what the rest of you do, I really hope that we will have some real discussions—not debates in the usual Internet sense, but exchanges where people with different ways of looking at the world see each others' perspectives, and their own, a little more clearly. Let's see what happens next.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Why I'm doing the happy dance

I've noticed a tendency to say just enough in a Facebook/Twitter status update to give people ideas. I didn't mean to be just takes a lot more than a line or two to explain what's on my mind. But I posted an update last week that deserves to be expanded on: Alan is doing the happy dance because my church is really a church. What the heck does that mean?

If you've seen the church building, or even pictures of it, you might think it's strange for me to have any doubts. Central Christian is as churchy-looking a church as you could ever hope for: stone walls, steeple, big stained glass windows, high roofs. How could it be anything but a church?

The thing is that a church isn't a building at all. In the New Testament, a church is a group of people--a group of people called together by God to be "the body of Christ." That's a tough phrase to explain, but I think it means that a when you run into a church--a group of people--you should get a glimpse of God working in the world. When you meet a church, you should be able to tell that something incredible is moving within and through them--and that presence of God should cut across all the different human categories: race, style, age, dress, money, class...if you walk into a church, you can be surrounded by people who are nothing like you and find out that you're right at home.

The sad truth is that a lot of the groups of people who meet in impressive religious buildings aren't churches by that definition. And I was pretty sure that my church really was a church, but it was hard to know because "everyone" in my small town has known that Central Christian is a church for the right kind of person ("right" in this case meaning "at the top of the social ladder in Connersville, Indiana). And those prejudices were strong enough that it's taken months before people who were really on the outside came in--people who, if you took a picture of the church, you would be able to pick out of our usual crowd.

Now those people didn't "come in." People don't just come in to a big, impressive, church building. They practically have to be dragged in--not by force, but by a deep and powerful caring. People don't accept that invitation to "come to church" doesn't mean anything unless they already believe that you--the person doing the inviting--really cares about them.

But after that...I watched the people in my church walk up to the strangers who came to see them, smiling, welcoming them, and being genuinely glad that they were there--not because they would add to the church, but just because they wanted to share the joy they felt with another person. They made God's presence known to those visitors, those strangers, who left saying, "I want what those people have." What do we have? Nothing of our own...just God. And so there's one more person today who got a little taste of what God can do, thanks to this church that I've been given the chance to serve.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Sermon Riff: Follow Him

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1:16-20)

What could be more straightforward than this story? Jesus tells people what to do, and they do it. Peter, Andrew, James, and John decide to put all their trust in this wandering holy man, just because he says "follow me." And they do it right away, without debating, delaying, hemming or hawing. They just go.

This is, at the most basic level, a story about what it means to be a Christian. Here at the beginning of the oldest story we have about Jesus, we learn that Jesus calls us to follow him. Being a Christian is, first and foremost, about following Jesus--not just living according to his teachings (which is hard enough), not even living according to his example (which is even harder), but following him on the journey that he took--a journey that led him from life to death and from death to new life.

So naturally, this is one of the passages preachers turn to when they want to tell people, "get off your butts and get moving!" Thousands of sermons have been given reminding us that Peter, Andrew, James and John were not special people, and if they could do it, we can too.

But...Peter, Andrew, James, and John didn't have any idea what they were getting into. Later in the story, when Jesus tells Peter that he's going to end up on the cross, Peter "rebukes" him--corrects his teacher! James and John try to get special seats in heaven. Based on the things that we learn about them in the Bible, it seems like they thought that following Jesus was going to give them a chance to be high muckety-mucks in the "kingdom of God" that Jesus was always going on about--dukes or lords or something like that. They didn't find out about the whole self-sacrifice part of it until later, and they weren't very happy about it when they did.

But Jesus' first disciples certainly had a different kind of faith in Jesus. By all accounts, they were pretty ordinary people without any special skills or remarkable traits. But they believed that Jesus had the power to make them special, to make them remarkable. They didn't just have faith that Jesus had power to do amazing things, but that Jesus had power to make them do amazing things. Even if these uneducated, self-centered fishermen didn't understand what they were getting into, it was pretty clear that they were going to end up doing far more than people like them were supposed to be capable of. They didn't just trust Jesus to lead them. They trusted Jesus to give them what they needed so that they could follow him.

And it worked! They just got up and followed, and in following Jesus, they gained the ability to do things that were totally impossible. Later on, we read that Peter and John healed people—not through their own power, like Jesus did, not by saying, “get up and walk” under their own authority, but in Jesus name, as Jesus’ followers. And when they were arrested and brought before the learned, the judges, the clergy, they spoke up in ways that uneducated fishermen like them weren't supposed to be able to do. Following Jesus turned out to be a lot harder than they ever imagined...but they gained the strength and the power to do those hard things, to work miracles and speak truths that they never could have reached under their own power.

And this is the great invitation that we receive. If we choose to follow Jesus, if we go on that journey with him, we will have to give up things that we hold dear--our reputations, maybe our relationships, perhaps even our lives. But the more we give away the paltry things that we value so much, the more room we give to allow God to fill us with strength, comfort, joy, peace, beyond what we can possibly give ourselves.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


This isn't my sermon; I'll post that tomorrow. But since I've been thinking about things I haven't been doing, I thought it made more sense to post this tonight, and celebrate success tomorrow. And that way I'm still committed to getting at least two days in a row on here...

My favorite computer game is Spider Solitaire set to high difficulty. I've been playing for years. It took me months to win a single game. Lately, I've been really excited because I'm winning about 10% of my games. I'm thrilled to be at the point where I only fail 9 out of 10 times.

I've never minded losing games like that--and, in general, I'm pretty comfortable with failures of all kinds. Self-help types will tell you that we have to take risks in order to grow, and that a risk--by definition--will sometimes lead us to fail in the things we're trying to accomplish. And I can see how the lessons from my failed jobs, failed projects, and failed relationships have contributed to my non-failures later on. And for pastors, accepting failure is even more important. I'm supposed to be changing lives, and if I ever get to the point where 10% of the people I meet go away finding that their lives have changed, I'll be totally thrilled.

Lately, I've needed to be comfortable with failure just to make it from day to day. My to-do list--the list of things that I've failed to get done--is huge and not getting shorter. If I went to bed with that failure weighing on me, I wouldn't sleep. Like I haven't touched this blog in 6 weeks, even though I've had all sorts of things I've wanted to say. And I haven't failed to find time for other things--like the Spider solitaire I mentioned earlier. If I hadn't posted a Facebook update demanding that random people hold me accountable (thanks Radegund!), I wouldn't be doing this now.

So there is such a thing as being too comfortable with failure. Sometimes we need to fail in order to learn and grow, but sometimes we just need to reject failure, try harder, and get it done. Lately I've gotten back in touch with some family members who I didn't talk to for about 8 years. They're all wonderful people, I missed them the whole time, but for one reason and another I just never managed to make even a single phone call. I got over it and started talking to some of my cousins...just in time to get a call last week from one, who told me that my aunt--an aunt I used to be close to--was being admitted into hospice. She's suffering from cognitive problems bad enough that she wouldn't benefit from a visit. So, my cousin said, I should just plan to come for the funeral.

I'm never going to talk to my aunt again. I can gain wisdom from this experience, I can talk to my other aunts and close friends, use this experience to teach others, find forgiveness, and decide not to beat myself up about it, but I can't talk to my aunt ever again. I wanted to, but I failed.

Maybe it's because I've led three funerals in three weeks, but I've been acutely aware that failure is failure. Every broken relationship, every wasted hour, every unworthy word and deed--each one uses some time and some energy that we can never get back. And so while we need to be comfortable with failure, we can't be too comfortable--to forgive ourselves, but also to challenge ourselves.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Sermon Riff: Getting in Trouble

Even though this is Inauguration Day, I’m still learning about how to get caught up on blogging. So this is really my riff on the sermon from Sunday, two days later. Anyway, Inauguration Day is going to take a day to process, so you can check in tomorrow.

Of all the civil holidays on our calendar, it’s particularly appropriate that Christian churches celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. King is the only Christian minister who is honored with holiday by our government, and he’s honored for his ministry. King’s life and his social activism was formed by his faith in God. In 1954, before the Civil Rights movement, before the Montgomery bus boycott, when King was just an up-and-coming young preacher, he preached a sermon that included these words:

I'm here to say to you this morning that some things are right and some things are wrong. Eternally so, absolutely so. It's wrong to hate. It always has been wrong and it always will be wrong…no matter if everybody is doing the contrary. Some things in this universe are absolute. The God of the universe has made it so. And so long as adopt this relative attitude toward right and wrong, we're revolting against the very laws of God himself.

That conviction was the basis for King’s work. His belief in equality, in love, in justice, was rooted in his belief in God—God who had established laws of right and wrong that bound all humanity, whether they believed it or not. He confronted human lies with God’s truth through his words, but even more through his actions. King brought about change by forcing the violence, hatred, and lawlessness that had built segregation out of the shadows. He forced the sheriffs to use their clubs in the daylight, and the Klansmen to make their speeches on national television—and when the true nature of segregation was displayed in the open, millions of white Americans were shamed into changing it. All that truth caused trouble, but the truth always does. Jesus was very clear about that, and told his followers that commitment to the truth would always cause trouble:

Count yourself blessed every time someone cuts you down or throws you out, every time someone smears or blackens your name to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and that that person is uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—skip like a lamb, if you like!—for even though they don't like it, I do…and all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company; my preachers and witnesses have always been treated like this. (Luke 6:22-23, The Message)

So if you’re witnessing to Jesus, you’ll get in trouble. And if you’re not getting in trouble, then you’re not witnessing to Jesus. That’s a tough message to hear, because none of us like to get in trouble. But a life of trouble is exactly what we’re called to live, if we’re serious about being followers of Jesus. Of course, that applies to me as much as you...and I hope you'll have a chance to hear about some of the trouble I get into in the months ahead.