Not the holiest, but holier than thou.

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But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do;  for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.” –1 Peter 1:15-16 

Let’s gather up all the members of our church.  The ones who come every Sunday and the ones who stay home.  Let’s all get together and line up in a straight line.

Line up!  In order from most holy to least holy!

Now clearly, Margaret should be the most holy.  She’s made cookies for everyone in the hospital for the past 50 years.  After that, we should put Jason in.  He’s 15 years old, and he never gets in trouble.  He sings in the adult choir and speaks up in Sunday School, and he’s even nice to his younger sisters.

There will be arguments, and some contentious voting, about who goes where.   Who is the most holy?  Is it the church member who has the most scripture memorized, or the one out in the community, loving their neighbor? One way or another, we’ll figure it out.

As we near the end of the line, there’s some predictable grumbling. Nobody wants to be thought of as less holy than everybody else.  Just the same, we assign numbers for all folks in line, including ourselves.  You got #234.  I got a more respectable  #211.  If you’d like any tips on how to be a little bit holier, just ask me.

As we look up towards Margaret and Jason in front, we see them waving their number cards at the rest of us.  It takes a moment to see that Jason’s number is a #3, and Margaret carries a #2.

Wait–where is #1?

#19 has some high powered binoculars.  Looking far in the distance past Margaret, she sees the vaguest dot of a figure.   #4 and #26 are long distant runners, so they volunteer to scout ahead.

They return, out of breath, with some news you’ve already guessed.  #1, the Most Holy of all, is Jesus.  His holiness is so far beyond every one of us that the numbers we carry seem silly.  When it comes to being holy, we’re all at the back of the pack, together.

#310, last in line, throws down his number, and begins to walk toward Jesus.  “I’ve got a long way to go.  Who’s with me?”

And so, we all head towards Jesus.  Little groups made up all kinds of numbers.  Different paces, different obstacles, but one communal goal:  Not to be holier than the folks next in line to us.

Just to be holier.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Bad Deal. Good God.

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Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. –Genesis 25:34

Esau walked into the house and there was his brother, Jacob, making a delicious smelling lentil stew.  His brother said, “I’ll give you a bowl of this stew if you give me your birthright.”  Jacob was always trying to make deals like this.

Esau laughed and said, “I’m hungry, Jacob, but not THAT hungry!”

No wait, that’s what he should have done.  Instead, he raised his fork, and forked over his dad’s inheritance, his leadership and position in the family, all for a bowl of steaming lentil goodness.

Bad deal.

What are some of the bad deals you’ve made?

  • Jan and I bought a used car from a high school kid without taking it to a mechanic.  7 minutes into taking possession of it, flames began to pour out underneath the hood.  Jan got our money back, but that’s a deal I wish we’d never made.
  • When I lived in Kansas City, some guy was going door to door selling alarm system contracts.  We signed up for a 6 year monthly plan, which they held us to…even though we moved after 4 years.   Man oh man I wish we hadn’t agreed to that deal!
  • And more than once upon a time, I’ve given up my birthright, just like Esau.  I’ve turned my back on the blessings God’s given me to do something…stupid.  Self-destructive.  Selfish.  Or even just because I craved something else.

Yep.  I’ve made some bad deals.  I’ll bet you have too.  Well the Good News is that Esau recovered, as can we.  It wasn’t like God was out to get Esau, but more that Jacob was willing to move his life in a direction Esau wasn’t yet ready or willing to take. Bad deal or not, God never gave up on Esau.

Years later, the two brothers unite on a field.  Jacob is ready for bloodshed from his angry brother, but Esau is gracious and forgiving and beautiful.  I don’t know if God so much as helped Jacob steal his brother’s birthright, as he helped set these two young men on faithful courses with their lives.

Bad deal. Good God.

There are many lessons to be learned from the story of Jacob and Esau, but one of those lessons should NOT be that God is some kind of a used-car salesmen looking to take advantage of our shallowness.

Rather, God can work through us even when we’re gullible, shallow, and impulsive.  It was a bad deal, to be sure, but Esau came out alright.  As did Jacob.

The next time you agree to a bad deal, (and there will be a next time) don’t let it eat your lunch.

You’ll likely be hungrier for Good News next time,

so don’t stew in your juices about it.

(if you have a good pun using the word ‘lentil’, I’d love to hear it)

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Could You Handle 800 New Years?

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The days of Adam after he became the father of Seth were eight hundred years; and he had other sons and daughters. –Genesis 5:4

Somewhere between 2019 and 2020, I’m sure somebody shot off some fireworks.  Someone stupidly fired a gun in the air. The whole world celebrated.

I didn’t hear any of it.

I slept. Not out of boredom or depression or anything like that.  I was just sleepy. And not that interest in watching another ball drop.

And…I already had a good idea what I’d wake up to in 2020.  Sure enough, on the other side of a decent night’s sleep, I found the exact same guy staring at me from the mirror.

There I am.  Overweight.  Wart on my foot.  My beard is crooked.  Thus begins another year with myself.  Been there, done that.  Too much anxiety.  Too much a perfectionist and too dismissive of details.

I’ve been around this track 50 times now.  I’ve learned that crossing the Dec.31st finishing line doesn’t really change me.  I may create a few resolutions this year (2 days a week at the gym?), but I know darn well I rarely keep them.

My question is:  How in the world did Adam do it?  800 new years, and that’s only the years AFTER his Son Seth gets born.  Basically, Adam had upwards of a MILLENNIUM to live with his flaws, his idiosyncrasies, his crooked nose, and a curious predilection for low hanging fruit.

Oh, and a messed up world.

Would you even celebrate New Years if you lived to 800?  Or would the years all run together into one prolonged eye roll?  I’ve been awfully eye-rolly lately…

And so, at first I greeted New Years with a yawn, and not because I slept through it.  I felt a little bit…done with it.  Yeah, yeah, new year, new decade.  I’ve been here before.

But I clearly haven’t.  No one has.  I think sleep makes me forget, and a little time with God helps me remember:  We are on the threshold of something new.  Something unprecedented.  This is untraveled territory, this day — every day.

The notice of this week as “New Year” is totally arbitrary.  Just a date on a calendar someone picked, long ago, and we stuck with it.

But we’re not STUCK with anything!  I don’t care how old you are, 8 or 8o, or 800, each new day is for you to explore.  It’s unlike any day that has come before.  On New Year’s Eve, while I was sleeping, the exciting thing that happened was that God was claiming me for another day.

God claims me for all the days, for all the ways I change and grow, and all the ways I stay the same.  For all my bad jokes and all my brilliant ideas.  For the resolutions I make, and the ones I’ll probably break.  God is in it with me for the whole 800+ yards.

I may have slept through the ball drop, but I didn’t miss the important things.  The God of 2019 is the God of 2020, is the God of all time.  And God, through Christ, has invited you and I on the journey of our lives…however long they last, and beyond.

I don’t know why we don’t live as long as Adam did.  Maybe lifespans were measured differently.  Maybe God was still fine tuning creation.  Maybe it’s just a dramatic depiction. Since we never hear from Adam again, it’s possible he lived the rest of his life in boredom or frustration.  It’s also possible he opened himself to receive a marvelous life of challenge and growth and joy.

That’s the one I choose to believe. That’s the new year God wants for me.

I’m going to live 2020 with a little more optimism than last year. A little more faith. After all, if God can do all this while I was sleeping…

I can’t wait to see what happens when I’m wide awake.

Have a great year,

Mitch

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If This Were Your Last Christmas

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Last week, my wife Jan and I drove to Wichita to watch one of our favorite movies on the big screen:  A special 75th anniversary showing of “Meet Me In Saint Louis”.

It’s a delightful film that we watch every Christmas.  The film takes place over the course of several months, but the climax occurs on Christmas Eve, when Judy Garland sings the immortal song, “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”.

The lyrics begin:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be bright

It’s beautiful, but do you know what the original lyrics were, before Judy threw a fit to have them changed?

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last

It may be your last???  Can you imagine such a sentiment in such a joyful film?  And what if it were true? Picture loud speakers blaring, “Breaking News! This may be your last Christmas. Proceed accordingly.”

How would you respond?

If someone told me I’d have no more Christmas in my life, I’d be more sad than anything.  No more presents?  No more family gatherings?  No more candle light service? These things are supposed to be forever!

Well hang on.  Do you know there was a time when Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas?  Like the first 300 years after Jesus death! That’s right.  The celebration of this holiday did not exist until Pope Julius made it a holiday in 350CE.

And I’m sure you know that December 25th is not actually the day Jesus was born.  The date was probably picked to coincide with other festivals occurring around the winter solstice.  Some say Jesus was born in the Spring, but who really knows?

And although gift-giving has been associated with Christmas at various times down through history, it wasn’t until the Victorian era that present exchanges began to resemble what we do today.  Similarly, Christmas Carols evolved down through the ages before many of the songs we sing began to take shape in the 1800s.

Each of these components had a “first”, back in history, and they may also face a “last” some day in the future, but none of these pieces add up to Christmas.  If we lost every present, or cookie, or party, or even the date on a calendar, none of these could signal a “last” Christmas.

The thought behind those “It may be your last” lyrics may actually be towards the “Merry” part of “Merry Christmas”.  It may be a suggestion that you’ll have future Christmases, just not  “Merry” ones. Perish the thought!

No, really!  Perish that thought — let it die right where it stands.  Christmas — and especially a Merry Christmas — requires so little of us it’s almost effortless to achieve.  Christmas requires Christ.  Christmas is merely a reminder of an all encompassing, eternal gift Christ has already given.  It’s ours for the taking; we need only be open to receive it.

At the heart of Christmas is the one gift that truly keeps on giving.

So bake your cookies with abandon.  Sing those carols — out of key is perfectly acceptable.  Hug your loved ones, and wave at your neighbors.  Every year the celebration changes some, and that’s a beautiful part of life.

But enjoy Christmas without fear of losing it.  You already have it to keep and to share.  Christ is warming your heart even now as you trim your tree, or wrap your gifts…

and don’t forget to enjoy the Garland.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Would You Hire This Advance Man?

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He’s rugged.  He’s wild.  He’s likes to dunk people in the water.

He is, of course, John the Baptist.

This, THIS is the best Jesus could do for an advance man?  A big scary looking dude wearing a shirt made of camel’s hair? A guy who lives out in the wilderness, and munches on locusts???

In a word, he’s scary.  Right?  Bordering on dangerous.   Would you let your kids head outside of town to play with Sasquatch?  Or Grizzly Adams?  Or Hagrid?  (Okay, that last one might be kind of cool).

It’s hard to comprehend a WORSE person to pave the way for Jesus’ coming.  I mean, wouldn’t you want someone more approachable for such a job?  Somebody with decent grooming skills?  Somebody with a good sales pitch worth listening to?

Oh wait.  John may not have worn a slick suit and $200 loafers, but he had an incredible sales pitch:

“After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”  Mark 1:7-8

Here’s this powerful wilderness man speaking about somebody even more outside-the-norm who is coming.  Somebody more powerful, more connected.  In other words, John says, “If you think I’m wild, just wait.”

Perhaps it was John’s unlikely appearance that actually appealed to people.  Or perhaps they thought they saw a resemblance to Elijah.  Or perhaps he looked less imposing standing up to his waste in the water.

John wasn’t just ranting, out there on the outskirts of town.  What he called people to was down right sacramental. The baptism he provided offered hope in ways people were deeply aching for.  A new start.  Forgiveness.  A personal connection with God.  John offered these things people were desperate for, using a method and a locale that took them far outside their normal lives.

Heck, he was such a good advance man that the person he was barking about, Jesus, actually showed up for a dunk in the river, too.  If that’s not validation, I don’t know what is.

So here’s the thing.  You and I tend to sanitize Christmas.  Just take a look at the nativity scene set up in your house, and you probably won’t see a Grizzly Adams-looking figure stuck there between the shepherds and the kings.

But John is as much a part of the Christmas story as any of those other figures.  He represents the break from the status quo.  He reminds us that the beginning of a new story can and should be a little scary.

But if John gives you pause, that’s just to get your attention.  There’s no need to retreat in fear.

He’s the advance man, after all, and he’s all about hope.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Under Your Bed

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“No one lights a lamp and hides it in a clay jar or puts it under a bed. Instead, they put it on a stand, so that those who come in can see the light.  –Luke 8:16

We have a slim plastic container with out-of-season clothes.  We have a wooden closet door that’s come off it’s track.

We have an inordinate amount of dog hair.

What’s under your bed?  Cob webs?  Single socks?

Monsters?

It’s that last one that really interests me.  We talk all the time about children fearing monsters under their beds, but adults do too.  The monsters just change.

Really, most of my deepest fears are monstrous, even if they are difficult to visualize.  Under my bed lurks the fear of losing a loved one.  Feeling stuck in life.  Nuclear war.  Major health problems.  Losing my faith.  Being rejected and unloved.

Those are some from my Top 10 list.  What are yours? Monsters tend to haunt us most at night as we try to sleep.   From under the bed we hear a taunt, or a muttered worst case scenario, or the chilling moan of hopelessness.

Yikes!  Should we take a deep breath, dive under the bed, and expose all those scary things to some light?  Makes sense to me, but Jesus specifically says ‘No’ in today’s scripture.

Don’t hide your light under the bed.  Don’t waste your light there.  Instead, he recommends letting that light blaze before others.

Do you think he’s right?  Should we just ignore our lurking fears and go all publicly shiny? My first instinct is to say Jesus is wrong, here.  Experts say that we can’t help other people until we help ourselves.  You know, the old airplane instruction:  Put on your own mask before you assist others.  Is Jesus on the wrong track?

Ah, but on second thought, Jesus isn’t really saying you should cower to your fears and let them fester down there under the box springs.  He doesn’t mean you should never wrestle with your demons.  On the contrary.  You should drag them out of the shadows, and show them who’s boss. Go to therapy.  Talk to a friend or a pastor.  Journal. Pray in church or in your comfy chair.  Get to work for the Kingdom.  With all that faithfulness, monsters don’t stand a chance.

Anywhere is a better place to work on your monsters than under the bed. You do not need to ruminate in the dark before you can share the light of Christ with the world. No, shine brightly and your monsters will come to you, ready to submit. And you’ll be doing more than just helping yourself.  You may ignite something in people all around you.

Remember, a light under your bed can illuminate Dorito crumbs and dust bunnies,

but a holy light held high can push back a world of darkness…

including yours.

 

Have a great week,

Mitch

 

Quitting my calling for a job.

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CALLING: a strong inner impulse toward a particular course of action especially when accompanied by conviction of divine influence

JOB: a regular remunerative position

(Miriam Webster’s Dictionary)

I don’t think I could tell you the difference between a crescent wrench and a tree saw, but for some reason, I have this recurring fantasy that plays in my head:

I want to manage a hardware store.

I don’t want to own it.  And I’m not talking a monstrosity like a Lowe’s or a Home Depot.  Just a nice family hardware store, decked out with handy tools and old wood floors.

There wouldn’t be that much to manage.  Mostly, I’d be the one behind the counter, making duplicate keys for people, and pointing them to aisle 5 where the duct tape is.

And a couple times a month, I’d take my medium-sized paycheck to the bank, and say hi to the woman behind the counter, Jan.  We’d smile and wave knowingly–just two hard working folks, doing their jobs.

I think the only credible job I ever held was my first one.  At the age of 15 I ran the tractor at my parent’s church in Rochester, Michigan, pushing snow out of the way.  It was good, honest work, and I was lousy at it, but I put in my time, and got my paycheck.

After that, I worked at a movie theater (free movies and popcorn), and at a library (nothing ever happened there).  Oh, there were a couple other ones, like a 4 month stint at a dysfunctional computer store, but really, I was just coasting by, until…

I found my calling.  To be a pastor.  Honestly, I had a sense of my calling since I was 5 years old and drew a picture of myself standing behind the pulpit.  My parents were both pastors, so really, the language of “call” was more common in my home than the language of “job”.

So once I was old enough, that’s where I went.  Into the ministry.  A life’s work built around serving the Kingdom of God the best that I could.  I went to lots of school (and accumulated lots of debt) and jumped into a complicated system where I didn’t even get to pick where I would serve.  Folks higher up in the denomination knew of my gifts, and (hopefully) respected my calling, and put me where I could best serve.

I’ve loved having a calling.  It’s meant a life of meaning and purpose, at least most of the time.  It’s meant being part of something bigger than myself, and guiding parishioners to discover their calling, too.

Yeah, I learned long ago that you don’t have to be a pastor to respond to a call.  Just as God spoke to Samuel out of the Ark of the Covenant, that dark night in the church, God can speak to anyone, and anyone who commits themselves to a life of discipleship is, indeed, answering the call.

And still, some weeks I’d love to give it all up, for something simpler, easier.  When church conferences loom and funerals start to stack up, and attendance is dropping despite my best efforts, I hear that siren song:

It’s the sound of chicks, penned up in the back of the store.  The sound of the bell over the front door as Jan from the bank comes in.  They need a couple keys made next door.  Simple.  Easy.

Then she asks me what I’m doing Sunday, and invites me to church. And, wouldn’t you know it, I feel that old sense of calling, leading me back to this office, and this desk, and my list of church-y things to do.  And I realize I’m right where I need to be.

Not in the church, although I’m happy here, but in God’s hands.  That’s a choice of holy, focused living that calls to us whether we’re a pastor, or a hardware store manager, or anything else.  Calling is different from a job–you can even have both at the same time.

Have you paid attention to your calling, of late?  It is Holy Spirit-given companionship and guidance,

steering you back into God’s Kingdom

in spite of all life’s Highs…

and Lowes.

 

Have a great week,

Mitch

 

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