Runaway Empathy at the Village Inn.

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Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.  –Romans 12:15

There’s a guy two tables over.  He’s eating by himself.

His wife died last year, and this is the one fun thing he does each week.  He goes out to Village Inn on Friday nights, and orders the catfish dinner.  And as he eats each bite he tries to be happy.  He jokes with the waitress, but I can tell it’s an act.

This lonely man, by the way, is a figment of my imagination.

I mean, yes, there’s a guy eating dinner over there, but I can’t tell from here if he’s happy or sad.  I can’t tell if he got the fish or a stack of pancakes.

I can’t tell squat!  But that doesn’t stop me from soaking up all kinds of sad vibes that probably don’t even exist.

It’s a little game I play called “runaway empathy”.  Ever play it?  It’s where you turn your receptors on soo high that you feel the feelings of everyone around you. Sometimes I’m right, and sometimes, like tonight, I’m mildly out of control.

I mean, I really am quite empathetic.  It’s one of my gifts.  I couldn’t tell you what color shoes you’re wearing, but I bet 8 times out of 10 I could guess how you’re feeling today.

What can I say? Some people are good at noticing details–I can read auras.

There are plenty of folks who are like this.  Maybe you.  Somehow in our development we just learned to hone that skill.  Or maybe we were born to be sensitive like that.

I don’t really know where it comes from, but as a pastor, it’s a skill I can use.  Teaching a group, counseling a troubled soul, running a staff—empathy serves me well, except when I overuse it at Village Inn.  Or take people’s emotions too personally.  Or even feel someone else’s feelings instead of my own.  These are things I have to watch out for all the time.

This is one of those standard examples of having a gift from God, and then using it poorly.  Can you relate?

Maybe you command air-tight reason, usually to your benefit–but when it comes time to be intimate with a loved one, you just can’t shut your brain off.  Runaway logic.

Maybe you’ve got the quickest, sharpest tongue, which is good for a lot of laughs, but when it’s time to be serious, you’re just plain tone deaf. Runaway sarcasm.

Maybe you’re an expert at free-living, at the detriment of order.   Runaway chaos.

It’s actually a very good and healthy thing to emphasize your strengths.  They will take you far in life.  But stress, anxiety, negligence and arrogance can take you past your natural limits, into something quite unhealthy.

Whatever runaway gifts you have to keep ahold of, remember that regaining your focus on God will quickly reframe things.  Remember, Jesus used his gifts carefully and responsibly, and he made time daily for recharging.

My dinner at Village Inn was a wake up call to dial it back, and that was good for me.

I took a deep breath, and watched the guy as he left…

It looked like he was smiling.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Candy Dust to Dust

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You’ll never believe what happened when Valentines Day and Ash Wednesday fell on the same day, back in 2018.

Here’s what happened:

I had left the house in a rush, grabbing my stuff and wishing my wife an “I love you!” as I ran for the door.  I had to make it to church in time for the come-and-go imposition of ashes. We decided not to have a service this year, opting instead for a couple hour-long spans when people could come to the church, receive ashes and a devotion booklet, and be invited to pray in silence.

There were already a couple people sitting in pews waiting when I got to the sanctuary.  I dropped my stuff in the front pew and reached in my satchel for my vial of ashes—and it wasn’t there!  Instead I found a bag of Valentines candy.  Little candy hearts I was going to pass out to my staff and family that evening.

I stood there, paralyzed, as another person came into the sanctuary.  The man walked down the aisle right to me, brushing away his hair so I could impose the ashes that I didn’t have.

Panicking, and not knowing what else to do, I ripped open the bag of hearts, grabbed one, and placed it in the man’s palm.  Looking down, we read together what it said:  “Be Mine”.

He looked at me, startled.  Straight-faced, I muttered, “Repent and believe the Gospel.” He slowly turned away, as if trying to decide if he was supposed to eat it or not.

There was a line now.  The woman behind him stepped forward, and tentatively held out her hand.  I pulled another one out.  It said, “Hot Stuff”.  Obviously that wouldn’t do, so I popped it in my mouth, said a silent prayer, and pulled out another.  “True Love.”  That was more like it.

“Repent and believe the Gospel,” I said, placing it in her hand.  She smiled.  That was a good sign. The line was all the way down the aisle, now.  Would I have enough appropriate hearts to pass out?  I said another silent prayer.

The next one surprised me: “Have Faith”.  The one after that said, “I Forgive.”  Amazed, I pulled another and gasped.  It said, “Died 4 U”.  People were leaving with tears in their eyes now.  I had to wipe a few away myself.  In later days people would tell me it was the most moving Ash Wednesday they could remember.  Believe me, I gave God all the credit.

As the last person left the sanctuary, I looked down in the bag.  One heart left.  Bracing, I pulled it out.  It said “Dust 2 Dust”.

Indeed.  Wiping the candy dust from my hands, I sank down into the pew and began my own Lenten journey.  I tried to quiet my mind, but the thought wouldn’t leave me…

If God could make Valentines Day into a meaningful observance of Ash Wednesday,

What might God do with April Fool’s Day and Easter?

Have a good week,

Mitch

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Christians and Karma

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One person gives freely, yet gains even more;
    another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty.

A generous person will prosper;
    whoever refreshes others will be refreshed. –Proverbs 11:24-25

Ever say things like, “Well, you get what you deserve”, or “These are my past deeds coming back to haunt me”, or “I must have been really bad in a past life?”  I say this stuff, too, sometimes.

Maybe we would make good Hindus, or Buddhists.  Words like these reflect an ancient concept present in both of those religions, called Karma.

Karma is the idea that your good and bad deeds will reward or punish you in the life to come.    There’s something about the notion of Karma, with its multiple lifetimes and black-or-white morality that can be very alluring to us as Christians.

I’ll find myself playing the Karma game when things go wrong.  I’ll think, “I deserve to be punished like this.  I wasn’t faithful enough before.”   As if Karma somehow evens things out.  I’ve heard other people say, “There’s equal amounts of Good and Evil in the world, and this is just the Devil getting his due.”

This is all kind of a Westernized view of Karma.  The Hindu and Buddhist concepts are much more nuanced, I’m sure.  But when Christians think in terms of Karma, they run the risk of ignoring Christ, which is a shame, because Christ plays by far better rules:

  • Christ offers GraceEven when we don’t deserve it!
  • Christ offers Eternal Life present with God.
  • Christ offers Goodness that forever tips the scales against evil.
  • Christ offers Companionship when the road is hard,
    Second Chances when we mess up, and a
    Reason for Living that is so much more than simple spiritual accounting.

Even though there are passages, like the one from Proverbs, that can make it sound like the Bible is talking about Karma, ultimately they refer to a God who is an ever-present blessing to us, in good times and bad.  We believe that, because of God, the universe is fundamentally skewed towards Grace.

Instead of trying to win at life, as if it’s some cosmic game of Chutes and Ladders,  Christians are called to boldly take every step–even the hard ones, because their path is illuminated by the Light of Christ.

Personally, I think Karma is a pretty interesting idea.  I’ve even wondered about past lives and reincarnation from time to time.  Hinduism and Buddhism both have a great many things to offer and teach us.

But I’ve got no plans to change my colors and abandon Christianity.

Which means, I’m definitely not a…

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Have a great week,

Mitch

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since my last confession.

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Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. –James 5:16

It happened again today.  I watched three more church members crossing the street and walking into the Catholic church down the way.  That was 8 people now, over the past few days.  What was going on?

I decided to find out.  I pulled on a hat and trench coat so as not to be easily recognizable.  I walked the short distance to the Catholic church and stepped inside.  It was a nice enough building.  I’d never been inside before.

Just then I caught a glimpse of my church members darting into the sanctuary, so I followed them.  I slouched down into a pew in the back, and watched them sitting over to the side.  Then, one at a time, they stepped into the small door on the side.

It was the confessional!  My people were sneaking into the Catholic church to take confession!

Confession was developed long ago, in the early years of Christianity, as a way of responding to James 5:16, above.  A regular, private, personal confession of sins, heard by a Priest.

When the reformation came, Protestants objected to confession, saying “Who says Priests are qualified to forgive sins?”  And some of the penance they prescribed included indulgences — basically a “pay you or your relative’s way out of salvation” scam.  So Protestants did away with the practice, replacing it with…not much.

Today?  According to an article in the Boston Globe, less than 2% of Catholics go to confession regularly.  And 3/4 don’t go at all.  Confession has become, for many Catholics, and unwelcome sacrament.

But what about us Protestants?  After 1,000+ years of very little opportunity for confessing sins, aside from the occasional corporate prayer, the idea of having someone to hand our heavy loads to doesn’t sound half bad.

Based on the actions of my (fictitious) parishioners, I propose a trade.  If Priests are willing to listen to our confessions, we’ll do something nice for the Catholics.  Give up red meat on Friday during Lent, maybe?  Treat our communion elements a little more carefully?  Something like that.  What do you think?

After my parishioners left the sanctuary, I made my way up front and climbed into that little box.  Finally I said, “It’s been…uh…at least 47 years since my last confession.”  Then I just kind of laid it all out there.  The little things that had been bugging me.  The big weights I was tired of carrying.  It felt really good.

But afterwards, I realized that I really could just ask Jesus for forgiveness directly.  Or talk things over with a friend.  Why hadn’t I made this a priority? I’ll admit I did feel a lot better, but not because of that confessional.  I felt free because I’d made space in my busy life to accept Christ’s freedom.

Let this be a reminder to us (Protestants and Catholics alike) that confession IS good for the soul.  Whether it involves talking to a priest or minister, or sharing with a good friend, or praying with a congregation, or holding nothing back from Christ, guilt is something too many of us carry around.

Put forth the effort and let it go.

Throw it away like a Hail Mary.

(I’m supposed to say 7 of those)

Have a great week,

Mitch

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Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. –Exodus 20:8

It was one year ago today that the World Council of Churches met and made an audacious proposal to the rest of the world:

They suggested that we add an eighth day to the week.

Since it was their idea,  they decided to call the day “Sabbath-Day-OK-This-Time-We-Really-Mean-It”.

The scientists said “Sure, time is a human construction, and we can make it whatever we want.” So they eliminated January and February from the calendar, and did a few more tweaks here and there, and got us back to 365 days a year.

Non-churchgoers loved the idea of an extra long weekend every week. Business owners found that their productivity stayed strong as worker morale improved.  And as for  Christians, celebrating their “Sabbath-Day-OK-This-Time-We-Really-Mean-It”?

Attendance went down.

That’s right. Attendance figures just came out for the past year, and worship in American churches has dropped another tenth of a percent.

It would appear that with more time on the weekend people just did more stuff. More visiting with the grandkids. More time for yardwork. More camping trips or sleeping in.

A tired-looking president of the World Council of Churches issued a statement just moments ago:

“Well, fellow Christians, we tried. We cleared a whole extra day for you to keep the Sabbath, but you just keep doing other things! As of today I am resigning my position. I’m looking forward to a nice long break, and this weekend I plan to go visit my grandkids.”

Rumors of a proposed ninth day of the week movement has met with much criticism. As one Christian said, “Honestly? I think they could add five more Sabbaths every week and it still wouldn’t make a difference. Worship and rest is still a priority for people, but it’s just not the only priority, and not always on Sunday. I love to go to church, but I’ve got other things I want to do, too. So I do my best to balance it out.”

And so, the Eight Days A Week movement, as it has been called, was a success for everybody except the people who proposed it in the first place. Lately, there’s been talk about moving back to the old system. People miss Martin Luther King Jr Day and Valentine’s Day in particular.

As for my humble take on things, I think the church is going to be okay, and I think Christians are going to be okay, but not without some tough times along the way.  Our society has definitely steered away from notions of Holy rest and worship, things God says we clearly need.

I predict people will still gather for worship on the Sabbath, but maybe we need to focus our efforts towards teaching people how to be Holy…

on the other six days.

Or seven.

Whichever calendar you’re using.

Have a good week,

Mitch

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Hypocrite in Untraining

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“I do not sit with the deceitful, nor do I associate with hypocrites.”  –Psalm 26:4

“Yes, you do.”  –Mitch Todd

Is it true?  Are Christians hypocrites?

To find out, I followed someone home from church this week, just to see how hypocritical they actually were.

Here’s a summary of my findings:

  • On Sunday they were a model citizen, until they started shouting obscenities at the game on TV.
  • On Monday, they told their spouse about something from work, and made it sound like they were the hero, when they really weren’t.
  • On Tuesday, they turned the channel away from one of those “starving children” commercials, so they wouldn’t be convinced to give.
  • On Wednesday, they went well over the speed limit.
  • On Thursday, they didn’t tip a waitress, because she brought them the wrong drink.
  • On Friday, they visibly tensed up when someone who didn’t look like them brushed past them at the store.
  • On Saturday, they made a little too merry, and said a few things they probably shouldn’t have.

Nothing earth-shattering there, but everyone of those actions represents some type of hypocrisy.  As Christians, we’re not supposed to exaggerate, or turn a blind eye, or break the law, or treat others rudely, or act out of fear, or over-indulge, or speak carelessly. Right?

That (imaginary) church member should know better!

Every day we have an opportunity to represent Jesus Christ in this world, and every Sunday we declare our desire to do just that. And every week, in small ways and great big ways, we fall short.  We all do this.

Most of our shortcomings are the kinds of minor things anyone might do, but when Christians, who proclaim to live according to a higher authority do them, it’s a glaring misstep.  It’s hypocrisy at its finest.

Here’s the deal: Despite what many might think about our religion, we haven’t arrived at some perfect destination.  Rather, we’re on the journey of a lifetime.  A journey to become more and more like Christ.

Methodists call this sanctification.  To be made holy.  The journey has twists and turns, road-blocks, U-turns and slowdowns, but God willing, we grow in our faith.

We’re hypocrites in “untraining.”

It’s like a sign I made years ago. It said,

“Yes, I’m a Christian.
Yes, I’m a hypocrite.
Yes, I’m working on it.”

When others look at me, I want them to see a reflection of Christ.  But when I fail at that, I want them to see someone humble enough to admit it and try again.  Worship at its best instills in us that kind of humility.

On Sunday morning, when you come to church, don’t pretend to be something that you’re not.

Admit it–you’re a hypocrite!

But take a look around…

you’re in good company.

Have a great week,

Mitch

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NOTE:  As we continue prayers for Texas and the Houston area, I invite you to donate to the United Methodist Committee on Relief.  This organization is among the first on the ground and the last to leave when disaster strikes.  Donate through them by visiting UMCOR.

 

Seeing, and Nazi-ing.

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Your eye is the lamp of your body. When your eyes are healthy, your whole body also is full of light. But when they are unhealthy, your body also is full of darkness.  –Luke 11:34

I have sympathy for Nazis. But by no means does that make me a Nazi sympathizer!  In fact, there are few groups in the world that disgust me as much as they do.

With their marching, and swastika waving, and saluting, not to mention their racist, fascist words and actions, I might be persuaded to punch one in the face, and I’m a man of peace!

Remember that scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazis open up the Ark of the Covenant, and the Spirit comes out and basically smites all the Nazis?  Well, I don’t really think that’s something the Holy Spirit would do, but I can’t help but cheer. 

I try not to hate, and it makes especially little sense when that hate is directed towards a “hate group”, but groups like the Nazis, and the KKK, and ISIS make me want to scream in rage.

Oh, you too?  Alright, let’s leave a little space here for some primal screaming.  Ready?  Go!

(scream)

Okay.  I feel a little better.  I, for one, angry as these hate groups may make me, have to be sure not to just stuff down my emotions and ignore them. I think it’s okay to let it out, but as a controlled burn, not a wildfire.  I think we have a right to be angry, but not give in to hate.

So how is it that I can feel sorry for these jerks?  These walking, talking time bombs of intolerance?  Isn’t that like having sympathy for the devil?  (Rolling Stones reference, by the way).

No, it’s having sympathy for people who don’t see the light.  Who don’t see light at all.  As Jesus mentions in the passage above, people whose eyes are unhealthy, and all they can see is darkness.

What damaged their eyes?  What caused these folks to see such hate?

Maybe it was their parents.  Racism is often a passed-down trait.  They were raised to hate and fear types of people, and so they do.

Maybe it was their situation.  Maybe they need somebody to blame for their social status, or their poverty, or their unemployment.  Or course, that makes it sound like Nazis and other racists come from the lower class alone.  Racism, so to say, does not discriminate.  It can be found in all levels of society.

Maybe they never heard of God.  Or never learned to see the good in others.  Maybe they willfully stared at the wrong things, dark things.  Or saw hatred as a way to get ahead.

I don’t know why Nazi’s choose Nazi-ing (“Not Seeing”) the light of God in all God’s people, but I can attest, that light is there.  Even a Nazi is not immune from the power and love of God’s light.  There is hope.

So, although I find myself tensing up in frustration at the sight of a swastika, I just keep praying for a little of God’s light to break through.

Maybe, instead of a full-on smite, the Spirit can give those Nazis

a painful, yet eye-opening sunburn.

Have a good week,

Mitch

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