Back to School Fashion

How is it possible that three little words can cause so many mixed emotions?  Mutter them aloud in public and you’ll get all sorts of responses – some parents may rejoice with glee and do a little dance (all the while fighting back tears, hoping no one will see), while most kids will hang their heads and grimace in pain and dread.  It’s that time of year, though: Back to School.  It is that time, with squeaky new shoes and a backpack full of supplies (most of which they will never use), when children of all ages drudge back to class for another year of book reports and pop quizzes.

During the decade-plus that I served as a youth minister, I noticed that each new school year was marked with a new fashion trend.  I also remember that when I was in the tenth grade we all wore pink polo shirts with the collars flipped up.  We thought we were so cool.  But the next year pink polos were definitely out and everyone was wearing parachute pants with zippers all the way down the side.  I’m not quite as hip and cool these days, and so I’m not exactly sure if this year I’m supposed to wear tight, ‘skinny jeans’ or big, baggy jeans with my underwear showing out the top—I’m more than a little confused.  The only thing I know for sure is that if I stepped on a local campus I’d get laughed at if I wore a pink polo and parachute pants!

If, like me, you aren’t sure what the latest fashion might be, let me point you to something that never goes out of style.  In Paul’s letter to the church in Colassae he suggests that “as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience… Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”   For over two thousand years those who look the sharpest in the eyes of God are not necessarily the ones with the trendiest clothes, but those decked out in compassion, kindness and love.  You may not find that type of fashion in the pages of Cosmo or GQ, but you will most definitely stand out as the best and the brightest to the One who matters the most.

Finally, let me also pass on some beauty tips I came across from ‘Dear Abby’ a number of years ago:

For attractive lips, speak words of kindness.
For lovely eyes, see the good in people.
For a slim figure, share your food with the hungry.
For beautiful hair, let a child run her fingers through it once a day.
For poise, walk with the knowledge that you never walk alone.

What makes us truly beautiful is not what we wear, but who we are beneath the fashion of the times.

Suggested Summer Reading List

Now that summer is upon us, hopefully you have settled into a slower pace and are finding moments to relax.  My hope for you is that you’ll be able to take some time to read a good book at the beach, in the mountains or just in the back yard.  With that in mind, I want to recommend a few books that I will be reading and want to invite you to join me.  And then, let’s get together, maybe have a cup of coffee or lemonade and talk about how they spoke to you.

What Is the Bible?: How an Ancient Library of Poems, Letters, and Stories Can Transform the Way You Think and Feel About Everything by Rob Bell
So if you know anything about me, you know that I read everything that Rob Bell writes.  He’s one of my favorites and is always compelling.  In his latest release Rob goes deep into the Bible to show how it is more revelatory, revolutionary, and relevant than we ever imagined—and offers a cogent argument for why we need to look at it in a fresh, new way.  As one reviewer writes, “it's a quick, easy read. Easy, that is, until he says or asks something about how you view The Bible in a way that twists your brain in brand new ways.”

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott
Another of my favorites is Anne Lamott.  She’s an incredible writer that has the ability to make you laugh and make you cry.  Sometimes in the same sentence.  Her latest is a powerful exploration of mercy and how we can embrace it. Full of Lamott’s trademark honesty, humor and forthrightness, I’m told this book is profound and caring, funny and wise—a hopeful book of hands-on spirituality.

Moses: In the Footsteps of the Reluctant Prophet by Adam Hamilton
I read just about everything that Adam writes. Which is a lot; he’s quite prolific.  In his latest, he retraces the life of Moses from his modest birth and rescue as a baby to the courts of Pharaoh, from herding flocks in Midian to leading his people out of Egypt.  By looking at this reluctant prophet who grew in his relationship with God and by the end of life had successfully fulfilled the role he was given, he invites us to look at our own reluctance and how we might become more bold in our faith and lives.  (Spoiler alert: I see a future sermon series in this!)

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant
After the sudden death of her husband, Sandberg, COO of Facebook, felt certain that she and her children would never feel pure joy again. “I was in ‘the void,’” she writes, “a vast emptiness that fills your heart and lungs and restricts your ability to think or even breathe.” Her friend Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton, told her there are concrete steps people can take to recover and rebound from life-shattering experiences. We are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. It is a muscle that everyone can build. 

Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church by Carol Howard Merritt
Raised as a conservative Christian, minister and author Carol Howard Merritt discovered that the traditional institutions she grew up in inflicted great pain and suffering on others. Though she loved the spirituality the church provided, she knew that, because of sexism, homophobia, and manipulative religious politics, established religious institutions weren’t always holy or safe.  In this book she offers an effective plan to help those suffering from wounds inflicted by the church find spiritual healing and a renewed sense of faith.

The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our "Correct" Beliefs by Peter Enn
Enns offers a model of vibrant faith that views skepticism not as a loss of belief, but as an opportunity to deepen religious conviction with courage and confidence. This is not just an intellectual conviction, he contends, but a more profound kind of knowing that only true faith can provide. 

That’s what will be on my nightstand this summer.  What about you? If you have recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them! 

 

“Wholly Weak”

When you look at the gospels you notice that they all move fairly rapidly.  But when we get to the events of the final week of Jesus’ life everything slows down, and we get great detail.  In fact, in John’s narrative nearly half of the gospel is dedicated to the final days.  It is almost as if gospels are mostly introductions to the passages about what we’ve come to call Holy Week. 

The week ahead will be filled with great emotional ups and downs. Look at all that goes on this week.  There is a parade, palms, shouts, confrontations, predictions, Passover, betrayal, denial, nails, thorns, crucifixion, abandonment, pain, death, burial, quiet, numbness, Sunday, light, surprise, hope, love, eternal laughter.  It is truly a strange and wonderful time.

As I stand at the beginning of this Holy Week, aware of what it will entail ― of all that it will ask of me, and ultimately offer me ― I’m feeling wholly weak.

As a result of all emotional ups and downs of this week, we unfortunately end up with a watered down version of this sacred time.  But with that we can’t fully experience and feel deeply the true spirit of Easter.  We try to maintain an even keel throughout this week and end up only partially joyous. 

This is simply true because we try to avoid the humiliation and painful parts, opting instead for only the good stuff.   My friend, colleague and mentor, Richard Wing, once told me: if you do not get in contact with Friday, you cannot dance on Sunday!

Rabbi A. James Rudin was asked to speak in a church on Good Friday, and declared Good Friday as belonging to both Christians and Jews.  The text for both is the verse, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).            

Rabbi Rudin said, “I share an aspect of Good Friday with you because of a simple but powerful Jewish imperative.  Once, the story goes, the beloved rabbi was nearing death.  Gathered around the dying rabbi are many of his disciples.  They cry in unison as they proclaim their great love for their spiritual leader, but the rabbi musters his last strength and tells his students. ‘You have constantly professed your love for me, but not once, not once have you ever asked what hurts me.  If you do not know what hurts me, what causes me pain, how can you truly love me?’”                 

As we gather together this week let us ask one another, “What hurts you?”  What we will discover in people from all kinds of religions and backgrounds is the thread that binds the human family together.  After sharing what hurts, without others trying to heal or fix it, we will discover in ourselves our very own Easter.

May God bless us as we follow the many moods, paths, contradictions and triumphs that make this week sacred for us.

Lean Into Lent

Soon we will begin making our way through Lent.  For thousands of years, Christians have used this season as a time to examine our lives, our relationship with God, and ultimately our faith.  During this time we try to strip away all the pretense and illusion.  We devote 40 days to remember what its like to live by grace alone and not by what we can supply for ourselves.  This, perhaps more than anything, is a time for us to give up the illusion that we are, ultimately, in control of our lives! 

When you think about it, this season is among the most countercultural and subversive in the church year!  Confession of sin, focus upon death, honesty about temptation – these matters do not come naturally to us.  We live in a success-worshiping, power-seeking, feel-good culture.  We do just about anything and everything we can to avoid doing the difficult, honest work of Lent.  We try to numb the pain and steer clear of anything that seeks to prove we aren’t all powerful.

But I want to invite you, instead, to lean into Lent.  Rather than run from it, walk towards it.

During this season, think of this as a time where our true selves are examined.  One reason why church can sometimes be uncomfortable is that here we confront so many of the truths about ourselves that we spend so much of the rest of our lives trying to avoid.  Here, in this season, with God’s help, we try to tell the truth about ourselves.  And sometimes the truth hurts.

Some of the greatest, most important work of our lives is coming to terms with the illusions.  It is important to figure out what is fantasy and what is reality; what is dead and what is alive; what is sacred, and what is profane; what is real, honest, worthy of our work and our efforts and of our lives, and what is not.

I invite you to join me in this journey through Lent when we gather together and lean into the difficult truths about how hard it all is, how real life is, and admit that church doesn’t fix it – but gives us a place to go in our brokenness and find people who will hold you in our pain and in our joy.  That, more than anything, is what it means to be church. 

Wishing you a difficult, fruitful Lent.

Now the Work of Christmas Begins

Another Christmas has come and gone. We have bought presents, received cards, baked cookies, and added to our waistlines.  It seems, at times, doesn’t it, like a lot of work?

But what now? What do we take away from this holy and sacred season that demands so much of us, yet offers us even more? Do we return to the normal, the regular, and the everyday, relieved it’s over and eager to return to our everyday lives?  Or do we allow the sacred that has been born anew in us to give shape to the way we live and love neighbors?

The song that we used as our guide through Advent, “Where Are You Christmas,” ends with these words:

If there is love in your heart and your mind
You will feel like Christmas all the time

And that’s the hope, isn’t it?  That the sacred moment we experienced as we lifted candles and sang “Silent Night” will live within us throughout the year.

Civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Howard Thurman once wrote a poem called “The Work of Christmas,” that reminds us why we stand on the side of love throughout the year:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart

As we move into the New Year may the holiness of the holidays inspire us to keep up the important work of Christmas alive in our hearts and actions.

The Discipline of Anticipation

We are making our way into the holy, sacred season of Advent.  It is a season of preparation and anticipation of the in-breaking of God, who comes to us, always, in the most unexpected and surprising of ways.

For thousands of years, people of faith have taken this month to prepare for the birth of the Christ child.  For, as the great mystic Meister Eckhart once asked, “What good is it that Jesus came two thousand of years ago if he doesn’t continue to come now?”

We live into this season with an anticipation that is marked with hope and longing.

Advent is important because all too often we get bogged down in the daily routine.  We find ourselves burned out, bruised or betrayed and we slowly begin to lose the ability to anticipate or be filled with wonder and awe. 

Advent, however, is a season when we open ourselves up to God and invite God to come into those places where our hearts have lost the ability to be filled with hope, anticipation, wonder and awe. 

Joseph Bottum once wrote, “What advent is, really, is a discipline: a way of forming anticipation.”

I love that image; that Advent is the season when we practice the ‘discipline of anticipation.’

Throughout the year when we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” it’s often said as a future hope. Yet this time each year, we spend a month remembering that it was a fulfilled promise.  When Jesus came to live among us, as Emmanuel, God-with-us, he showed us that he is what Laurence Hull Stookey described as, “the God who keeps promises yet loves surprises”.

Over the next several weeks I hope you’ll heed the invitation to practice the discipline of anticipation and open yourself up and invite God in.  I hope you’ll join us we’ll enter into this season together—a season filled with Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love—seeking God’s presence and promises, yet keeping open and flexible to whatever God might surprise us with.

For, once again in the words of Frederick Buechner, “If you concentrate for just an instant, far off in the deeps of you somewhere you can feel the beating of your heart.  For all its madness and lostness, not to mention your own, you can hear the world itself holding its breath.”

Many blessings on your journey to Bethlehem,

The Science of Happiness

Later this week many of us with gather around tables, lavishly set with abundant food, with family and friends and share in our gratitude and thanksgiving.  While that event may not be good for our waistline, it will be incredibly beneficial for our emotional health.

Psychologists have scientifically proved that the greatest contributing factor to one’s overall happiness is not how much money they make, the amount of fun they enjoy, or even the number of friends they have, but rather how much gratitude they show.  There is a profound connection, it turns out, between happiness and gratitude.  As it turns out, expressing thanks is one of the most effective ways to increase happiness.

I recently watched a video put out by the people at Soul Pancake who looked at this research about the connection between expressing gratitude and levels of happiness and replicated the experiment and filmed it for us to see.  They gathered together some subjects and gave them a test to rate their current level of happiness.  They then had them think about a person who was incredibly influential in their lives, and write down why that person meant so much to them.  At that point they thought the experiment was over.  But it wasn’t.  They then had them call that individual and read them what they had written! 

Before they let them go, they gave them one more ‘happiness test,’ mixing up the questions so they wouldn’t know they were taking the same test twice.  The results were remarkable.  The experience of expressing their gratitude had a profound effect on their level of happiness.  And, interestingly enough, the person who had the most significant increase was the one who had previously tested to be the least happy!

I encourage you to take a few minutes to watch the video.    Watch it, and see if you can make it through without shedding at least one tear at the beautiful sight of the folks in the experiment telling an important person in their life how grateful they are for them.

The power of this truth shouldn’t be surprising to Christians. We live in a faith tradition that overflows with wisdom about the importance and potency of gratitude.  Consider how often the Apostle Paul, for example, begins his letters with an expression of gratitude for the community to whom he writes.

Part of this is simply that Paul knows and follows the conventions for writing letters in his day, where offering a word of thanksgiving near the beginning of the letter was expected. And yet each letter is specific to its audience, speaking a particular word of gratitude that not only commended them but also increased Paul’s joy.

And so we know that expressing gratitude brings a double joy, enriching both the listener and the speaker. We know this, but how often do we take the time to actually do it?

So go ahead and take seven minutes to watch the video. You won’t be disappointed. It’s moving, it’s poignant, and it’s true. And then, after watching the video, take a few minutes to tell someone why he or she matters to you. Pick up the phone, take the time to write out a note, send an email, put it on your Facebook page. You’ll bring a measure of joy and happiness to the one who thank… and to yourself as well.

And to you, the community of faith that is the First Christian Church of Concord, “I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3-5).

Happy Thanksgiving!

Communion with Sprinkles

Yesterday I went to visit Maria, a precious 4-year-old girl in my church who's been in the ICU for the last 3 weeks with meningitis (for the 2nd time in 9 months). She asked me, "Kruss, do they still have donuts at church?" I said, yes, sometimes we have donuts.

She said, "Maybe you could bring me one. Tomorrow. Chocolate with sprinkles."

Even after 20 years I still don't know much about ministry. But I do know that when a 4-year-old in the ICU asks you to bring chocolate donuts with sprinkles, you show up with chocolate donuts with sprinkles!

"Kruss is spoiling me," she told her mama, with a smile from ear to ear.

Today I had communion in the ICU. We had chocolate donuts with sprinkles. And the joy of God was visible in Maria's smile.

Suggested Summer Reading List

This week marked the official start of summer, though the kids have been out of school for a few weeks.  Hopefully you have settled into a slower pace and are finding moments to relax.  My hope for you is that you’ll be able to take some time to read a good book at the beach, in the mountains or just in the back yard.  With that in mind, I want to recommend a few books that I will be reading and want to invite you to join me.  And then, let’s get together, maybe have a cup of coffee or lemonade and talk about how they spoke to you.

Available Hope: Parenting, Faith, and a Terrifying World by Julie Richardson

Julie is one of my dearest friends and I am incredibly proud her for writing this book.  It has been a labor of love and I can’t wait to jump in and enjoy this.  In it she invites us to examine our own life and discover our struggles, which actually make us stronger – and better parents. She helps us find courage and live out our beliefs and values as we speak up on behalf of those who have no voice.  Through it she invites us to realize how our own transformative relationships can help build a better tomorrow, together, with our children.  I just recently purchased an extra copy of this for the church library.

 

How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living by Rob Bell

So if you know anything about me, you know that I read everything that Rob Bell writes.  He’s one of my favorites.  In his latest release Rob shows us how to pursue and realize our dreams, live in the moment, and joyfully do the things that make us come alive.  He lays out concrete steps we can use to define and follow our dreams, interweaving engaging stories, lessons from biblical figures, insights gleaned from Rob’s personal experience, and practical advice.

 

Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work by Dave Isay

A few weeks ago I was listening to a podcast in my car in which Isay was interviewed about his work with Storycorp, a national project that instructs and inspires people to record each others' stories in sound (do you ever wish you had a recording of your grandmother telling you the stories of her childhood? This project helps do that sort of thing).  As soon as I arrived at my destination I pulled out my phone and ordered this book!  It is simply a collection of unforgettable stories from people doing what they love.  Some found their paths at a very young age, others later in life; some overcame great odds or upturned their lives in order to pursue what matters to them.

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Gilbert and am excited about this book.  I’ve drawn inspiration and empowerment from her books for years.  In her latest she digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear.  In so doing she invites us to tap into a life of wonder and joy.

 

Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered by Martin Copenhaver

A friend recommended this book to me and thought it might be something that I can turn into a sermon series.  And that’s exactly what I’m going to do!  Later in the summer I’ll be doing a sermon series on some of the questions that Jesus asked his followers, and continues to ask us.  Asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and teachings. In fact, for every question he answers directly he asks—literally—a hundred.  This book looks at the questions Jesus asks—what they tell us about Jesus and, more important, what our responses might say about what it means to follow Him.

That’s what will be on my nightstand this summer.  What about you? If you have recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them! 

What's So Good About Good Friday?

When I was in college and things got a little crazy, mixed up and strange, a friend of mine used to tell me, “Irony can be so ironic!”  That quirky phrase stays with me today.  And now, when things in my life don’t quite add up –  when things get a bit crazed and don’t appear to be as they seem –  I think back to what Perry would always say, “Irony can be so ironic.”

One of the most ironic titles that we use in the church is Good Friday.  I never understood why we would refer to the day that the Messiah was denied by his friends, humiliated in front of his followers, and then crucified on a cross as Good!   The question begs to be asked: What is so good about Good Friday?

Thomas Moore tells the story of a pilgrim on the road who comes across a group of monks working on a stone building.  The pilgrim stops and begins a conversation with the abbot who is watching the monks work. “It is good to see a monastery going up,” says the pilgrim. 

            “They are tearing it down,” says the abbot.

            “Whatever for?” asks the traveler in utter disbelief.

            “So we can see the sun rise at dawn,” replies the abbot.

The irony of Good Friday smacks us right in the face when we consider tearing down a monastery in order to have a clear view of endless sunrises.  As people of the resurrection it is easy to skip over the difficult work of Lent, and the pain and suffering of Good Friday.  But without enduring the cross and the crucifixion, we cannot truly understand the ultimate beauty of the Easter sunrise. 

Frederick Buechner, one of the most prolific theologians of our time, points out that other religions and faith traditions lift up as their symbols the beauty and light of a six-pointed star, a crescent moon, and a lotus.  But the symbol of Christianity, a faith that boasts of love and kindness, is a cross, an instrument of death.  What could be more ironic?  

But Buechner goes on to point out that the cross suggests, at the very least, hope.  The hope of a people longing to see the dawn of a new day.  A new day that brings with it opportunities for resurrection and reconciliation.  A new day that brings with it the hope that death is not the end of the story but rather just the beginning. 

May your life be filled with eternal Easter sunrises!

Lent Isn't About Denial; Its About Transformation

This week we begin our journey through Lent.  For thousands of years, Christians have used this season as a time to examine our lives, our relationship with God, and ultimately our faith. 

It’s not uncommon for people to give something up during this season in order to refocus our lives on God.  By fasting from certain things, we practice dying to ourselves and those things that distract us from living more fully.  But I wonder if sometimes we lose sight of the purpose and the reason we do these things, and therefore miss out on the meaning of Lent.  The question becomes, “what are you giving up for Lent?” as if that is what the season is about. We end up denying ourselves something for the sake of denial. We give up chocolate or Facebook, thinking the act of denial is the purpose of Lent. And we end up missing the point.

But Lent isn’t about denial; it is about transformation.  Transformation is about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace.  

Author and Blogger Julie Clawson once wrote this:

Transformation is about letting ourselves be filled with God’s presence so that we can be shaped by God’s grace. Our acts of kenosis — denying ourselves in order to empty ourselves enough to allow God to fill us — are means to an end. They are disciplines that prepare us to be transformed. We deny ourselves so that we can be reborn as new creations — to live more fully as the kingdom citizens God desires us to be.
So I am very tentative in choosing what disciplines I will follow during Lent to open myself up to God’s transforming power. I’ve discovered that for me personally, legalistic denial for the sake of denial often achieves the opposite purpose. Giving up coffee doesn’t make me a better follower of Christ, it just makes me more irritable. Giving up Facebook doesn’t help me build community in the body of Christ; it simply helps me as a detached introverted person creep further into my shell. Those disciplines don’t assist me in emptying myself in order to let God in; they simply fill me with more of me.
I’ve come to learn that in order to become more fully the person God wants me to be, I instead need to make sacrifices that actually allow me to achieve those ends. Often those sacrifices are less about personal denial, and more about following disciplines that encourage me to love others more.

Keeping this in mind the question shifts from “what am I giving up for Lent?” to “what can I do to allow God to transform me this season?”  This allows us to focus on the ultimate purpose behind why we engage in certain disciplines, lest we miss their very point!  

With this in mind, I offer 40 ideas to observe Lent.  These are just ideas and suggestions – some my own and some I’ve gleaned from others.  Try one each day:

1.    Invite people you love but don’t spend enough time with over for dinner one evening.
2.    Write a note to someone just because. Try actually writing it and putting it in the snail mail.
3.    Choose a single day to focus on how many times you say the word, “I”.
4.    Place random Post-It notes with encouraging messages around your house for your family to find.
5.    Put a list of things for which you are grateful in your pocket.  Take it out and read it every time you find yourself complaining.
6.    Do something nice anonymously.
7.    Reread your favorite book or the book that you first fell in love with.
8.    Make a list of three things you do well and enjoy doing.
9.    Spend at least 30 minutes with someone under the age of 5, or over the age of 70.
10.    Have a conversation with someone you wouldn’t normally talk with.
11.    Call someone with whom you’ve had a falling out and make amends.
12.    Clean out a closet and donate the stuff you don’t use to charity.
13.    Go for a walk in your neighborhood and pray for everyone you see.
14.    Do something that you’ve been putting off or trying to avoid.
15.    Make a donation to Week of Compassion or our church’s ‘Helping Hands’ fund.
16.    Pray before every meal.
17.    Read “Learning to Walk in the Dark" and join our Lenten study group on Wednesday nights.
18.    Collect your pocket change and give it to a good cause.
19.    Commute in silence.
20.    Pray for someone you need to forgive.
21.    Eat a meal of only rice and beans – while you eat, pray for the hungry of the world.
22.    Send a note to someone in your church or family that could use encouragement.
23.    Write a prayer to God explaining some of the habits and behaviors you want to die to.
24.    Go a day without sending text messages or email – and instead just call.
25.    Plant flowers.
26.    Fast from the radio or music while in the car.
27.    Take a nap.
28.    Don’t check email for 24 hours.
29.    Pray for your neighbors… especially those you don’t like.
30.    Take flowers to someone ‘just because.’
31.    Go for a walk.
32.    On a clear day drive to the top of Mt. Diablo or Grizzly Peak.
33.    Greet another as your dog greets you.
34.    Write a thank you note.
35.    Fast from listening or watching the news, and notice if your anxiety level changes.
36.    Choose one day to pray five times – at 9a, 12p, 3p, 6, and 9p – as our Muslim friends do. 
37.    Don’t go out to eat and give what you would normally spend anonymously to someone you know who needs it.
38.    Read that book you’ve been meaning to read.
39.    Pray for the person behind you in the grocery store.
40.    Call your minister and volunteer to help in a project or ministry around the church!

As we make our journey through Lent, may we choose disciplines and practices that help us become the kind of people God desires us to be.  May they bring life, and not a burden.  And may you live so you are able to love… and love so you are able to live. 

Faith, Hope and The Force

I still remember the first time I saw Star Wars.  I was ten years old and it was one of the most exciting, compelling things I’d ever seen.  I wanted more and went back to see it four times before it eventually left the theaters.  I then read the book.  

I remember waiting anxiously for the next movies in the series to come out.  And, like many (most), I remember being disappointed when the three movies of the “prequel” never lived up to the hype of the first three.

And now, its back.  One could argue that it never really went away.  This story that captivated me as a boy, is now something that I can take my kids to, and have them be enraptured by the story. I love that this is a story in which the entire family can find meaning. My mom recently told her grandkids about taking their father to see the original in the theater. I don’t recall a movie with a more intergenerational audience than The Force Awakens.

Recently, with the hype of the new movie and with some prodding of some friends and colleagues that I started to think more about the Star Wars universe as a way of understanding theology.  One of the hazards of being a preacher is always asking yourself, “Is there a sermon here?”  In the Star Wars story, I discovered a whole series.

The story of Star Wars, of course, is the epic battle between good and evil.  This is the story of the human race from the very beginning.  We’ve found that darkness and light are in conflict with one another; that there is inside of every one of us this same battle.  Each of us has this tendency towards the light, this sense that we should walk in the light and do what is right.  And yet at the same time there is this part of us that leans towards darkness; that finds it easy to hate, gossip, to have indifference to the suffering of others, to give into fear so we don’t do what we know is right. In every one of us there is this battle going on.

I love the idea that in the Star Wars films this idea of the Force is present.  The Force is this force that is at work in the world, trying to head human beings into doing what is right, good, and just and encourages and empowers the knights to fight for what is right.  Could Obi Won Kenobi’s description of the Force be more appropriate for God? “The Force surrounds each and everyone of us.” 

Issues we face today such as the struggle between good and evil, sacrifice, self-denial, the greater good, and embracing mystery are all present. Both the Bible and Star Wars have much to say about these parts of life.

I’m looking forward to working with friends on this new sermon series that begins this Sunday, January 10.   All of our scriptures come from Jesus’ early life and ministry in the Gospel of Luke (what other Gospel would you use?).  You can read a little more about this series by clicking here.

My hope and prayer is that we can see our hearts captured by an old story that’s just as meaningful and relevant today as when it was first written, and that we can see just how God surrounds all of us.

 

The Advent Saint

As we enter into the season of Advent, I want to share a story that a friend of mine recently told me.  It seems that back in the second half of the 3rd Century a child was born to very devout, Christian parents in Patara, an important port on the Mediterranean Sea in Asia Minor (now in modern Turkey).  This boy was named Nicholas, after his uncle who was a priest and served the abbot of a nearby monastery.  

Sadly, Nicholas’ parents died of the plague when he was a teenager.  He went to live with his Uncle Nicholas and the other monks of the monastery.  When his parents died, however, they left him a large inheritance of money.

Here’s where the story gets interesting.  In that same city there was a rich man who fell on hard times.  Now poor, he had three daughters who were old enough to be married.  In those days a young woman’s family had to have something of value – a dowry – to offer prospective bridegrooms.  The larger the dowry, the better the chance a young woman would find a good husband.  Without a dowry, a woman was unlikely to marry.  Without any money, this poor man’s daughters would most likely be sold into slavery, or worse.

Word of the family’s trouble reached Nicholas.  Using part of the money received from his parents, he secretly went to the family’s home at night.  He tossed a bag of gold through an open window and it landed in a stocking left before the fire to dry.  You can imagine the joy that next the morning when the bag of gold was discovered!  The first daughter was soon married.
    
Not long after, another bag of gold mysteriously appeared and the second daughter was married.  The father, now very curious to know who the secret gift-giver was, kept watch during the night.
    
A third bag of gold landed inside the house and the watchful father leaped up and caught the fleeing donor.  “Ah, Nicholas, it is you!” cried the father.  “You have saved my daughters from certain disaster.”
    
Embarrassed and not wishing to be known, Nicholas begged the man to keep his identity a secret.  He said, “You must thank God alone for providing these gifts in answer to your prayers for deliverance.”

Later this young monk would be consecrated as a Bishop of Myra.    Bishop Nicholas lived his life in service to God.  He was a protector of the poor and helpless, an advocate of justice for people in need, and a defender of the Christian faith.

He was so beloved that long before the Roman Catholic Church started the process of declaring saints in the late 10th century, Bishop Nicholas was known as Saint Nicholas.  He died on December 6, 343, a day now known around the world as St. Nicholas Day.  Many children in Europe, especially Holland, leave carrots and hay their shoes for the saint’s horse the night of December 5, hoping he will exchange them for small gifts.

Nicholas is the Advent saint who shows us that while waiting for Jesus’ birth, we are called to be gift givers, showing generosity to those in need.  In the spirit of St. Nicholas, may we quietly go about doing helpful things for people in need and for those we love this Advent season.

Wishing you hope, peace, joy and love this Advent season.

A Question that Could Change Everything

Not long ago I was reading a blog post by a young woman by the name of Allison Vesterfelt.  She asked a poignant question that really got me thinking.  The question was: What would you do with your life if you didn’t have to worry about money?

That question, she explained, has challenged her to really see things from a different perspective.  The first time that question was posed to her she was a grad student, living on a tight budget funded by a part time job and student loans.  Concern about money was part of her daily reality.

How much does that cost? 

How much will that be? 

I can’t afford it.

What made it worse is that everyone around her didn’t seem to have to worry all the time.  They had nice apartments and never seemed to grimace at menu prices while eating in restaurants. 

But she did worry. 

The truth is most people do, whether they admit to it or not. 

Since that time in grad school, Allison has allowed that question to guide her life in profound ways.  She eventually got to the point where she decided not to allow her worry over money keep her from living the one life entrusted to her, and hold her back from doing what she wanted to do -- and who God was calling her to be. 

In that process, she says, she learned a lot about money.  First, she learned that, if you worry about money when you don’t have it, you’ll worry about money when you have it.  She used to think, as a struggling student, that the only thing that could make her quit worrying about money was to get more of it.  But that wasn’t the case.

She finally came to the realization that the worry over money, ultimately, has little to do with circumstances.  Despite all of the calculating, obsessing, worrying, the real issues are more than monetary.  She also learned that money is a bad motivator, and sometimes leads us to do things that aren’t good for us.  Or not do things, as the case sometimes is.  Money is a powerful motivator, she says, but not always a good one.

What she suggests is that we “change the way we think about money, and submit ourselves to an economy not driven by dollars but by love, integrity, community and compassion.”

In the life of the church we spend a lot of time wringing our hands, worrying about paying the bills and funding the budget.  I often wonder about what it might be like to not worry so much about money; how might that energy that we spend worrying could be better used doing ministry.  Maybe an important question that we might ask ourselves, and God, is: what would we do as a church if we didn’t have to worry about money?  If our only limitations were our imaginations, who would we serve?  What would we do?  How would we go about doing ministry?

I’m incredibly thankful for the people in this church that worry about balancing the budget and paying the bills.  And I’m also very grateful for all the people that contribute generously so those folks have the funds to do all that.  We are incredibly blessed by the faithfulness and generosity of so many. 

But as we move forward in ministry, and discern what God is calling us to do and be in the year ahead, may we allow ourselves to wrestle with that question that could change everything:  what would we do differently if we didn’t have to worry about money? 

My sense is that in the answer to that question are the very things God is inviting us to do.

 

Why This Church?

Adam Hamilton is a United Methodist pastor and author who lives in Kansas City. He speculates that for any church to thrive and grow, its members must be able to answer the question, "Why this church?"  Being able to articulate that gives a community of faith clarity of its mission and vision.  So for us, we must be able to answer the question, "Why First Christian Church, Concord?"  Why this congregation and not one of the many others in this area?

For me, this is why this is my church home and why I feel called to serve this church.

History

It may seem strange to begin with history, but our shared history is powerful. Those who have served before me have, in many cases, had a profound impact on my life and continue to shape my ministry.  To innovate with any integrity, a church must sit on a solid foundation, and this community of faith has had and continues to have a powerful witness in our community and the world.  For 129 years this congregation has been open to the spirit of God moving among us and shaping us into who God would have us become.

Inclusivity

This is a congregation that believes strongly, passionately that all are welcome in the family of God.  We boldly claim that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news for all people.  And when we say that we know that “all means all” or it means nothing. Blacks and whites, Gays and Lesbians, Native Americans and immigrants, Liberals and fundamentalists and even bald white guys, are all invited to the table of Jesus Christ – or no one is.  It is that basic belief that enables us to boldly claim – and put into practice – that we are an Open and Affirming congregation.

Witness to the Community and the World

I carry with me an image of the church as a filling station where people are filled and sent out into the world to make a difference.  In many ways, that is what we are about.  We strive to make the world more peaceful just as we do great work in the community and the world. From our hosting SHARE to our relationship with Wren Avenue Elementary to our mission trips to Mexico, to cooking and serving meals each month at the North Concord Shelter and hosting the Winter Nights shelter, to our support for Disciples Mission Fund and the Week of Compassion we are making a difference.  I also love the stories of what our people are doing day to day in your own lives to make a difference.

Commitment to All Generations

It is a gift to be a multi-generation congregation. It is becoming rarer to see a church reflects a healthy population of people in each generation. We work really hard to achieve that. Our youth and children's ministries are providing a nurturing, loving environment for the younger generation to grow in faith.  We are also taking steps and seeing progress in making this a church that the millennial generation will not only feel comfortable and challenged to be a part of, but one where they will be eager to invite others.  And we are taking significant steps to serve and nurture our senior adults in very intentional ways. 

People

I can think of hundreds of stories to tell about our people, about you. You are a grace-filled people who seek to be inclusive, challenged, and loving of one another. Your journeys are diverse, just as your sorrows and joys are diverse. Each and every week, as I look out at our congregation, I am reminded of how incredible you are. You are a beacon of hope in this world and each and every one of you embodies the love and grace of God for me.

What about you?  How would you respond to the question, “Why this church?”  In the next few months we’ll be inviting some of you to share publicly why you choose to make this your community of faith.  I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Let Us Soar!

Last week I was fortunate enough to attend, on your behalf, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). This is our biennial gathering of our denomination, at which members from around the United States and Canada gather to conduct the business of the church. Its actually much more fun than it sounds. In many ways it’s like a family reunion.

During the business sessions there were some resolutions that were discussed and voted on. (In our denomination, we take “sense of the assembly” resolutions that say what the people in attendance think about important things. They’re not rules or doctrine; they’re a somewhat reliable pulse-check on the denominational diehards who still show up for biannual assemblies.) There were resolutions on gun violence, racism and violence (in response to the shootings in Charles-ton), and being welcome and inclusive of people with mental health issues, among oth-ers. These resolutions are available online and copies will be available in the church office if you are interested.

The theme for the assembly, Soar! was based on Isaiah 40:31, “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles…” In that text we are challenged to embrace the cataclysm of evolving post-religious culture, to let go of the comforts of the nests, and with the breath of God inspiring, to soar!

This message flying into the fray is both pastoral and prophetic. Rev. Dr. Sharon E. Watkins, our General Minister and President challenged our church saying, “We could do much more if we if we would quit worrying about survival — we must put mission first.” In the midst of her State of the Church address she challenged us to do just that, “The time has come to lighten our load and tighten our focus — on mission! I am inviting our church, in all its expressions, to join in a conversation on God’s mission for Disciples today.” In so doing she presented a denomination wide initiative that they are calling Mission First! Created to address the need to find a new shared focus in mission. More information will be coming soon and the ministry is rolled out, but in the mean time, you can read more here.

The preacher on the final night was Rev. Adam Hamilton, a Methodist pastor from Kansas City. He, too, was both pastoral and prophetic, challenging us as Disciples to be willing to take bold risks for the sake of the gospel. He pointed out, "It's hard to soar when you love the nest more than you love flying."

Friends, “the Lord gives power to the faint, and strength to the powerless,” therefore, let us gain loft from the Spirit and soar! Soar not for congregational or self aggrandizement; rather soar for the stakes of dehumanizing, oppressive, and isolating realities are too high for too many of our neighbors for us to remain in the nests of comfort, indecision, or indifference. Let us soar!

Grace and peace,

Russ

Suggested Summer Reading List

We’ve reached that point.  My kids can now tell me exactly how many days of school are left before summer vacation (though, truthfully, a couple of them have been able to tell me since mid-January).  Now that summer is almost here, for many of us that means its time to take some time to slow down and relax, maybe even read a good book at the beach, in the mountains or just in the back yard.  With that in mind, I want to recommend a few books that I will be reading and want to invite you to join me.  And then, let’s get together, have a cup of coffee and talk about how they spoke to you.  Heck, I’ll even buy the coffee!

 

Pre-Post-Racial America: Spiritual Stories from the Front Lines by Sandhya Rani Jha

Sandhya is a friend and colleague, and was our guest preacher last week!  She’s written an incredibly powerful, engaging book that invites us to look deeply at one of the most divisive issues in our culture today.  In a way that only Sandhya can, she uses the powerful tool of storytelling to speak prophetic truth in the most disarming way and takes us on a tour of the rocky landscape of race and faith in this country. 

 

Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church by Rachel Held Evans

Evans is quickly becoming one of the most powerful voices in the church today. Like millions of her millennial peers, Evans didn't want to go to church anymore. The hypocrisy, the politics, the gargantuan building budgets, the scandals--church culture seemed so far removed from Jesus. Yet, despite her cynicism and misgivings, something kept drawing her back to Church. And so she set out on a journey to understand Church and to find her place in it.  This is a memoir about making do and taking risks, about the messiness of community and the power of grace; it is about overcoming cynicism to find hope and, somewhere in between, Church.

 

It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario

As a war photographer, she gets asked this question a lot: “Why do you do this?” In her new memoir, Addario wrestles with this question — and she asks it not just for the reader, but it seems for herself.  Her story is inspiring, heartbreaking and an eye-opening look at what it takes to reveal events from the other side of the world.  What she does, with clarity, beauty, and candor, is to document, often in their most extreme moments, the complex lives of others. It’s her work, but its much more than that: it’s her singular calling.

 

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

I realize I’m a little slow to the game in this one, many of you may have already read this.  It is already the #1 New York Times–bestselling story about American Olympic triumph in Nazi Germany.  It’s an irresistible story about beating the odds and finding hope in the most desperate of times—the improbable, intimate account of how nine working-class boys from the University of Washington showed the world at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin what true grit really meant.  The team was composed of the sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, and they were never expected to defeat the elite teams of the East Coast and Great Britain, yet they did, going on to shock the world by defeating the German team rowing for Adolf Hitler.

 

Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray and Still Loving My Neighbor by Jana Ries

Ries sent out on a quest to become more saintly by devoting an entire year ("a year-long experiment") to mastering 12 different spiritual challenges, including praying at fixed times during the day, exhibiting gratitude, observing the Sabbath, practicing hospitality according to the rules set by St. Benedict, abstaining from eating meat, and amply demonstrating her generosity. But nothing turned out as planned.  Can you relate to that?  It's clear from the start of this very funny memoir that Riess means well. But as she readily admits, she's a spiritual failure.  There are lots of books that will teach you how to be a success.  This one may show you the benefits and advantages of falling short.  As one reviewer writes, “is surprising and freeing; it is fun and funny; and it is full of wisdom.  It is, in fact, the best book on the practices of the spiritual life that I have read in a long, long time."

That’s what will be on my nightstand this summer.  What about you? If you have recommendations for me, I’d love to hear them! 

Is the Life You are Living the Life that Wants to Live In You?

We have entered into the season of Lent.  For thousands of years Christians have used this forty-day period leading up to Easter as a time to examine our lives, our relationship with God, and ultimately our faith.  

The forty days (not including Sundays) reminds us of the 40 years the children of Israel spent in the wilderness after their exodus from Egypt.  It also commemorates the forty days Jesus spent in the desert between Jericho and the Dead Sea, where he was tested by the devil.  It is certainly no time for the timid.  Lent is the time to ask the most difficult questions we can about our lives:  who we are; what it means to be people of faith; who God is calling us to be; what we value and hold most dear.

A number of years ago I was in the midst of a difficult time in my life.  I felt stuck, frustrated, confused.  I remember sitting down and trying to explain it to a friend.  I told her I was searching for something, I just wasn’t’ sure what.  “More than anything I just want to be…” but I couldn’t find the word.  It wasn’t that I wanted to be happy, comfortable, and content.  Those words didn’t quite capture my longing.  “Authentic?” my friend blurted out.  In that moment it was as if I’d been humming a tune that I couldn’t quite place song, but she began to sing it!

I wanted to be authentic.  Genuine.  Real.  Present.  Alive.  Fully awake in this world.  Fully here.   It wasn’t that I wasn’t alive – I was living, I just had the profound sense that the life that I was living was not the life that wanted to live in me. 

I wanted to be human, in the fullest sense of the word, which means that I am truly in touch with my Spirit – that piece of divinity that’s been placed within me.  And I wanted to that part of me to be in touch with that piece of the divine that has been placed within those around me.

I knew that this journey was going to take risk.  I also knew that I had no other choice.

As Joseph Campbell, one of the greatest writers on matters of faith and spirituality once said, “the spiritual imperative to be our selves is so strong that the soul would rather fail at its own life than succeed at someone else’s.”  That’s where I was. 

Perhaps you feel the same way, and share the same longings.  Maybe there is a tugging within you that leads you to feel the life you are living is not the life that wants to live in you.  That you are done pretending.  That God has bigger dreams for you. 

If so, my prayer for you during this season of Lent is that you will find the courage and the strength to ask the difficult questions.  That you’ll do the hard work of the soul to discover your true self; that you’ll find your own unique path – the one the God has just for you.  And that you will begin, perhaps for the first time in your life, to fully live.

Peace to your Lenten path,

Creating Sacred Space For Doubt: Remembering Marcus Borg

Last week the world lost one of the greatest and most important theologians of our time.  Marcus Borg was a professor, theologian, and a prolific author that really helped this generation rethink and recapture the true essence of the Christian faith. 

With books like The Heart of Christianity, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and Speaking Christian he invited us to rethink what had Christianity had was meant to be, instead of what it had become.   As Disciples pastor Erin Wathen wrote last week, “he shook the dust off of the Church’s most deeply held beliefs, drug them out into the light of day, and was not afraid to say… Where did this come from? Who gave it to us? Is it true, and does it matter?” 

Though he questioned the Bible and many traditional beliefs and teachings of the Church, he never lost his passion for the spiritual life or his faith in God as “real and a mystery.”  As such, one of his most important gifts was modeling doubt.  He saw the act of asking big questions and challenging the traditional views not the opposite of faith, but a very important element of it.  In a wonderful tribute piece in the Christian Century this week, Katherine Willis Pershey wrote, “Borg modeled how to doubt faithfully, how to believe rationally, and—most importantly—how to move ‘beyond belief (and beyond doubt and disbelief) to an understanding of the Christian life as a relationship with the Spirit of God.’” 

marcus-borg.jpg

Though some saw his progressive take on scripture as an abomination, to many of us it was a revelation that gave us the permission, and the tools, to create a faith of our own that, well, made sense; one that we could own.  In so doing, he offered a lot of skeptical, struggling people a way back to faith and church.  By creating a sacred space for doubt at the heart of the Christian faith, he made room at the table for those who didn’t always fit the space that the traditional Church created for them.  To this day, many progressive Christians identify Borg as the person who made space for them to return to—or remain in—the Christian faith. 

In his book, Speaking Christian, he writes this, “So, is there an afterlife, and if so, what will it be like? I don't have a clue. But I am confident that the one who has buoyed us up in life will also buoy us up through death. We die into God. What more that means, I do not know. But that is all I need to know.”

Today I celebrate his life, knowing that he now fully knows what it means to live a life of faith and to die into God.

Aiming at Success

In a recent sermon I hinted at the terrible burden we place on our children when we say to them, “I just want you to be happy.”  Not that wishing happiness for them is a bad thing, but it needs to be said that happiness, like other blessings, comes as a by-product when we are focused on living out the life God calls us to live; being the person God created us to be.

It was Viktor Frankle, the death-camp survivor, who helped me see this.  In his landmark book, Man’s Search for Meaning he writes,

Don’t aim at success.  The more you aim at it and make it a target the more you are going to miss it.  For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued – it must ensue.  It only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself…  Happiness must happen and the same holds for success.  You have to let it happen by not caring about it.  Listen to what consciousness commands you to do: go out, carry it out to the best of your knowledge and then you will live to see that in the long run success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think about it.

Not long ago I was having a conversation with a colleague about ways to get our churches to grow.  We talked about programs and strategies, none of which seem to work with the effectiveness we hope.  It then dawned on us that putting effort towards growth, like aiming at success, is the wrong effort.  Perhaps the best way to “grow” the church is to focus instead on living out the call placed upon us to be the church that God created us to be, giving ourselves to causes much bigger than our own.  When we do that growth will ensue but only because we stopped thinking about it.

I don’t think it’s an accident that we have all been brought together in this place at this time.  I can’t believe that God would bring us together with all of our talents and resources, and that the ultimate thing that happens is that we all feel better about ourselves!  I have to believe that God brings us together to effect massive change in our community and in the world that ultimately leads people to looking at this congregation and saying, “Jesus is real.”

I give thanks for all of you who gather with a willingness to give to something much bigger than yourselves and carry out the call that has been placed upon our lives.  For as we do, success will follow, people will want to join us, and the world will be a better place for all.