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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Fifty And Fed Up.

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Is the world today the way you thought it would be back 10 or 20 years ago?

Mine isn’t.

In some ways, that’s for the better.  I didn’t think we’d have Iphones or Alexa or Impossible burgers.  I’m surprised that there’s great strides in the treatment of HIV, and that they’ve found a vaccine for Ebola.  I am daily grateful for Netflix, and the wonderful people of my church.  Not in that order.

But yesterday, my 50th birthday, had me feeling almost despondent.  Shut down.  Not the way I wanted to feel.

I let two crises get the best of me.

Crisis #1:  Impeachment proceedings.

I’ve not been able to watch the televised proceedings, and so instead I’ve relied on a Smartnews App on my phone, which I’ve since removed.  It shows headlines from 50+ news sources, both on the left and the right, and updates every 20 minutes or so.  I’ve been spending an unhealthy amount of time–hours every day– reading headlines and articles and refreshing and checking and fact-checking and on and on and on.

It’s gotten so ugly, the fighting and smearing. Such vitriol! Such careless throwing around of “facts”.  And remember when “can’t we just get along” didn’t elicit sneers?

I started thinking about civil war.  I started wondering if that’s where we’re headed.

Crisis #2:  Denominational Mayhem.

In the United Methodist Church, everything is up for grabs.  Once again, polarization has pushed people to one of two main sides, with little help for reconciliation.  Talk has veered from compromise to separation. Despite people’s best intentions, it would take some miraculous work at the 2020 General Conference to keep us together.

Once again, this threat of civil war looms large.

So when I woke up on my 50th birthday, it was into a world I had never expected.  A world where my country and my church both threaten destruction.  Funny, I’d always thought that by the age of 50 my maturity level would have finally caught up with that of my government and my church.   HA!

I want you to know I had a lovely birthday, for the most part.   But there were a few hours there when I dropped the ball.  I dropped my hope.  I felt like giving up.

And now you’re up to date.  I’m 50 and I’m fed up.

I want to tell you about how I got all my hope back…

But I haven’t. Still working on it.

I’m definitely a quart low in the hope department.  I look around the world with my pentagenerian eyes and see so many other things that seem broken. Sometimes it’s too much.

At 50, I thought I’d be able to fix anything.  I thought I’d feel accomplished and powerful.  I thought I’d have gained some supernatural trait called wisdom that could help my world stay Civil, without the threat of War.

My comfort today is Psalm 42, one of my favorites.  When I read these words I am reminded that I am not the first to feel this way.  Somebody else has wrestled with the same thing.  The refrain about hope,  in vs. 5 & 11, invites me to make that my refrain as well.

No witty punchline today.  I just invite you to read this Psalm and remember that the struggle is real, and that God is ever with us.

Psalm 42[a][b]

For the director of music. 

As the deer pants for streams of water,
    so my soul pants for you, my God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
    When can I go and meet with God?
My tears have been my food
    day and night,
while people say to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”
These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One[d]
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng.

Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

My soul is downcast within me;
    therefore I will remember you
from the land of the Jordan,
    the heights of Hermon—from Mount Mizar.
Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.

By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

I say to God my Rock,
    “Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I go about mourning,
    oppressed by the enemy?”
10 My bones suffer mortal agony
    as my foes taunt me,
saying to me all day long,
    “Where is your God?”

11 Why, my soul, are you downcast?
    Why so disturbed within me?
Put your hope in God,
    for I will yet praise him,
    my Savior and my God.

 

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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BAREFOOT!  A collection of my favorite devotions from over the years, complete with study questions.  Perfect for individual reflection or group discussion.  Get yours on Amazon!

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What’s on your mind?

secrets

The Israelites secretly did things against the Lord their God that were not right.
-2 Kings 17:9a

I’m not a mind reader.  But I’ve thought about it. 🙂

I think it would be fun for about two minutes.  I mean, who wouldn’t want a chance to crawl around in somebody else’s brain?

But then… you’d start picking up everybody around you…

“I just stole $300, and nobody even knows it’s missing.”
-or
“I wonder what she looks like au natural?”
-or
“Can people tell I’m on meth?”
-or
“Sometimes I wish my dad would just drop dead.”
-or
“I’ve got everybody fooled that I’m a nice guy.  I’m not.”
-or
“I wonder if he suspects I’m having an affair?”
-or
“I’ve been shortchanging my employees for years.”

Okay, not every thought in every head is a sinful one, like these are.  Some of us may be filled with wholesomeness and butterflies.  (If you come across somebody with a mind like that, you’ll want to get close to them!) Many of us have our share of secret sin.  Notions we wouldn’t even want our best friend to know about.

Wait…have you been thinking you’re the only one? Heavens, no!  It happens all the time.  Indeed, today’s verse from 2 Kings comes at a time when the Israelites have blown it big time.  Their secret deeds have stacked the deck against them, and this whole group of  people are sent into exile.

The moral is pretty simple:  There are no secrets from God, and sin leads to exile.  Honestly, those Israelites weren’t just being punished by God, they had brought it upon themselves.  Sin, by its nature, creates separation between us and God.  It’s the worst consequence of sin, and we bring exile upon ourselves.

If that were the end of the story, you and I would have long since withered away.  Luckily for us, God IS a mind reader, and knows our faults, and guides us to ask for forgiveness, and regeneration, and the power of Grace.

Luckily for us, there is a future after exile.  We may not always be able to sense what it is, but as we learn to be faithful, we learn to walk healthier paths.

We learn to be more concerned about the contents of our own minds, rather than our neighbor’s.  Ultimately, we learn to take on the mind of Christ.

You’ll be happy to know that I have no idea what’s on your mind.  Unless you feel like telling me, I’ll never know those things you’re keeping to yourself.  And unless you’re willing to be open-minded with God, who already knows all about you, your sense of exile may only expand.

The Israelites went to Assyria…

Who knows?  You could end up in a situation

just as Assyrious.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Outrage Us.

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When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. –Matthew 28:31

As a vegetarian, I was thrilled when Burger King unveiled the Impossible Burger.  It’s so good, and tastes just like meat.

That is not what this devotion is about.  This is about the feeling I had when I went to get one this weekend, and was told that they were out.

I was outraged.  How hard can it be to keep their menu items in stock?  Why wasn’t the woman behind the counter more sympathetic with my plight?  You’ll be happy to know I didn’t dress her down–it wasn’t her fault, after all.

That wasn’t my only brush with outrage this week.  I have a news app on my phone that shows some 50 headlines from a variety of sources.  I scrolled down, reading about impeachment, racism, and another shooting.

Outrage, outrage, outrage.

In fact, most of the headlines activated some level of outrage in me, enough so that I began to wonder if outrage has become my most developed sense.  Not only me —  I see outrage everywhere I look.  I see it on the left and on the right.

I was kind of surprised to find the word “outrage”, or a form of it, popping up in scripture.  The best example, from Matthew, is a story Jesus tells about a debt-ridden man who begs for his freedom and is granted it.   Then, he promptly demands the repayment of someone who owes him, and shows no grace or patience.

Matthew says that the man’s fellow servants were “outraged” when they saw his hypocritical actions, and they told their master about it.  Things didn’t end well for him.

I get that outrage can  produce results, but it also presents a problem in today’s world.  We have SO MUCH outrage in our society, and can find justification for just about any of it, no matter what side of polarizing issues we may find yourself.  Is it healthy?

Is it God’s desire that you and I barrel through life fueled by righteous anger?  Is that the best humanity has to offer — a plague of complaining?  Is outrage the path that will lead us to God’s Kingdom?

I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I don’t think this is the epitome of human development.  At the same time, there are lots of things in this world that seem offensive, immoral, even unconscionable.  How do we possibly deal with all that, especially when two people sitting together in the same pew can be outraged about opposite things?

Here are four thoughts that come to me:

  • Like the other servants in the story, we can bring our concerns to our Master, God, understanding that we may not be able to fix every problem in the world, but we are not alone.
  • Sometimes there are powerful reasons for feeling outrage.  Instead of just stewing in our angry juices, there is a time for marching, calling congress members, writing letters, and more.
  • There is a chance that our outrage only shows us half the story.  Listening and learning may confirm or deflate these strong emotions.
  • Perhaps the only way for polarized groups of people to find some common ground is to cultivate relationships with people who aren’t, on the surface, like us.

Outrage is a powerful emotion, but it’s also a seductive one.  If the only way we see much of the world is through rage-tinted glasses, we will miss out on the beautiful — albeit complex — creation God has gifted us. God can show us a better way.

After all, with God…

even an Impossible burger is still Possible.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Listening To October

Today, one of my favorite songs.  Perfect for this week.

Press Play, and listen, with a few of my suggestions below.

  • Much of this song is instrumental.  The pictures above don’t really matter, but the music does.
  • As you listen, take a few deep breaths, and picture your concerns, your possessions, your obstacles as if they were leaves, falling down from a tree.
  •  Here are the lyrics Bono sings:
    • October

      And the trees are stripped bare

      Of all they wear

      What do I care?

      October

      And kingdoms rise

      And kingdoms fall

      But you go on and on

  • As the song concludes, remind yourself what (who) is most important and eternal in your life, and rededicate yourself to God through prayer.
  • Now go and have a glorious October.

—————————————————-
Wow.  I really needed that today.

U2?

Have a great week,

Mitch