Hard Decisions

When a struggle presents itself within a Christian community, those involved often grapple with questions regarding the appropriate response. Too often we can mistake a nice response for the right response; it is easier to ignore a situation than it is to address it. I first learned this lesson as a counselor at Lutheridge. It seemed every week gave me an opportunity to politely ignore situations that arose in the community or to address them, whether that be a camper whose desire to always give the answer was prohibiting others to shine or even that a coworker’s (or my own) actions were somehow to the detriment of others. Although hard decisions to act are difficult and are inevitably open to scrutiny, we attempt to make these decisions as humble yet faithful disciples. To not address a problem that is affecting the Christian community simply because it is easier/politer not to act is to ignore the calling we find throughout St. Paul’s writings regarding Christian communities. That truth remains even when we move to issues larger than camp cabin dynamics, such as struggles regarding finances and decisions that impact peoples’ lives.

I graduated from Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS), which is merging with Lenoir-Rhyne University (LRU). I happen to also be a graduate of LRU, which is also a Lutheran institution, yet I do not let that cloud my opinions on these matters other than the fact that I know the university takes pride in being an institution of the church when other colleges/universities shy away from their ties to the church.

Because of its finances, the doors of LTSS would have closed within a few short years if something did not happen; that was a matter of math, not speculation. Yet, the fact that a merger has taken place does not automatically mean financial issues are resolved. A part of resolving these financial matters was the recent discontinuation of faculty positions, which is also tied in with LTSS’ own restructuring of their curriculum and graduation requirements.

* Hard decisions are made.
* Lives are changed.
* Emotions rise.
* Accusations are made.
* The seminary’s doors remain open.

All of these are true and should be acknowledged. We should pray for all whose lives are affected. We should pray for those whose opinions on the matter differ from our own. We should all rejoice that God has provided a means for the seminary to remain a faithful institution. Finally, we should be thankful that God has called people to positions who must make these hard decisions. I do not envy these people, and I am certain that others would fair no better if they were called to make decisions under such circumstances.

Rather than imagining those who make decisions with which we disagree in negative terms (such as flippant and sneering), we should consider the possibility that those Christians who are placed in those positions were sincerely prayerful, fully knowing the ramifications of their decisions, and perhaps even shedding tears over what lay before them. That does not mean we must agree with those decisions, nor does it mean that we cannot criticize those decisions, but it does mean we have no right to question the level of faith of those individuals that God has called to make these hard decisions.

Faithful Father, you call us to be faithful to you in all of our lives and we often struggle with how that is to be. Stir your Spirit within those whom you have called and placed to make faithful decisions in your Church, whether those decisions affect camp cabins, seminaries, denominational bodies, or anything else in your kingdom. Help us to see your presence and your work even when we are uncertain of those decisions made. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Coffee and Christ

Yesterday was the end of the annual “Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.” To commemorate the week and to heed its call, an event was planned at Furman University (where I assist the Lutheran campus ministry) during which anyone from any tradition could come together for a time of fellowship and to pray for unity. It wasn’t anything grand, just simply an hour set aside for coffee, snacks, prayer, and friendly conversation.

I do pray that the Spirit will work through the ecumenical committees that are tasked with seeking common ground between the various Christian traditions. Yet I do believe that the Spirit is most truly at work when local ecumenical fellowship takes place. Jesus has always been present in the midst of the people and not just in the midst of the religious leaders, so perhaps it is over coffee — not conference tables — that Christ does and will do his most ordinary and extraordinary work to reunite his church.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Fish Fat

My wife and I recently were planning a weekend trip in North Carolina. We had caught wind of a biodiesel co-op in Pittsboro named Piedmont Biofuels. We wanted to visit the co-op because we had purchased two diesel vehicles this past summer in order that we can drive on cleaner and renewable fuels. I have never cared too much about having a fast car or a behemoth truck, but I think it is really cool that people can get from point A to point B solely on the power of a restaurant’s waste vegetable oil.

At the co-op, we met Lyle. Lyle was covered head-to-toe in congealed fish fat, which was a result of working hard that day turning a nutraceutical company’s leftover and solidified fish fat into fuel. I had never thought of fish having a lot of body fat, but there are apparently scores of drums storing this stuff in a field somewhere, and instead of letting it go to waste, Lyle is turning it into fuel that is cleaner to burn than petroleum.

Although Ginger and I were only passers-by and not members of the co-op, Lyle graciously agreed to let us top off our Beetle and fill up some jugs for our other diesel. A conversation ensued in the midst of all this, and when we mentioned that we were both on the path to become Lutheran pastors, Lyle responded, “When is the faith-based community going to get on board with this stuff?” He was referring to projects that seek to care for the environment, and not destroy it. “When are you going to shift from dominion to stewardship?”

I knew exactly what he was critiquing, and I agree with him. How many times have we thrown away food that either could have fed someone or turned into compost for our farms? How many times has a gathering of a couple dozen people generated so much trash that we need to make a few trips to carry it all to the dumpster? Yet, because we recycle some office paper, we say we are good stewards. I feel that it is too easy for us to follow the ways that society teaches us, yet we as Christians are called to live out the New Creation here and now, which inevitably is a call to think creatively in the midst of this world. One example of that is creatively thinking of ways to be better stewards of God’s creation.

“I’ve been to churches that host protests against the building of an impending landfill nearby, yet at these protests the churches will serve all their snacks on Styrofoam plates and aluminum cans that go directly into the trash,” Lyle continued.

The prescribed gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 25:31-46; it’s the story about the king and his separating the sheep and the goats. Too often we hear this story and we are told, “Therefore, act like sheep.” Yet, that misses a central point of the story: we will all be surprised. Both the sheep and the goats (who, by the way, looked so similar to each other in Israel that it took a trained eye to distinguish them) are surprised to learn how their actions have and have not served the Lord. It is true that the king in the gospel lesson does not say, “Truly I tell you, just as you dabbled in congealed fish fat to steward the least of my creation, you did it to me.” However, in the creation-stewardship sense, all of us may one day be surprised to learn how some people have been walking closer to Jesus this whole time.

Sheep Dogs

As I write these words, there are bishops, seminary presidents, deans, and a sprinkling of other church folk who are gathered together to discern where God seeks to send the ELCA’s spring 2011 graduates. The result will be that those graduates will soon learn to which region of the ELCA (there are nine regions) they are assigned. Depending upon each region’s methods, the graduates will learn within the next month to which synod they are assigned.

My wife and I are deferring our entrance into the assignment process until next year in order that both of our names can be submitted together. However, our beloved classmates are surely experiencing a range of emotions during this week. You may already know that the term pastor comes from a word meaning “shepherd.” Of course, the Church has only one shepherd, Jesus Christ, so I’m inclined to think of the role of rostered leaders — in particular, pastors — as another distinguishable role in the relationship of shepherd and flock: the sheep dog. Every analogy has its weaknesses, yet this is my gift to my fellow classmates at LTSS and Trinity during this week: my prayers that you will trust that God has equipped you with everything you require to be those faithful sheep dogs that are needed in his flock.

We offer ourselves, one way or another, to try to work for God. We want, as it were, to be among the sheep dogs employed by the Lord Shepherd. Have you ever watched a good sheep dog at work? He is not an emotional animal. He goes on with his job quite steadily; takes no notice of bad weather, rough ground or of his own comfort. He seldom or never stops to be stroked. Yet his faithfulness and intimate communion with his master are of the loveliest things in the world. Now and then he looks at the shepherd. And when the time comes for rest, they are generally to be found together. Let this be the model of your love. ~Evelyn Underhill

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Does a seminarian contemplate in the woods?

I spent this past weekend doing some backcountry camping with my longtime friend, Justin. We hiked the Ridge Trail, which runs the length of the Cumberland Gap park and — including some side trails we took to get water — was a 20-mile hike.

One conversation that Justin and I had while on the trail was how there is no quantifiable reason to do this hike. We weren’t discovering anything new; if we wanted to get from A to B, we could have driven it instead of struggling up and down mountains in the mud; we weren’t doing anything that deserved accolades upon our completion; etc. etc.  Any reason mustered for doing this hike could easily be achieved by doing something else.

Yet, we did it and we knew that it was worth it. Perhaps the reasoning for this is because of our love for returning to our childhood scouting adventures and our love for spending time together. The sore feet, soaked shoes, bear growls/droppings/prints, cold sleep, and trail food were all worth it in the end because of the unquantifiable nature of love.

How much greater and how perfect is the love that God has for us and all of creation? There is no quantifiable reason for God to become incarnate and to suffer the cross, but somehow — in the end — it can only be explained by love. A love that is so great and that is constantly at work to bring you, me, and all of creation into a perfect union with itself… no matter what.

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Every New Beginning…

…comes from some other beginning’s end. In case you don’t know, the title of this post and the first words of the entry come from the song “Closing Time,” by the band Semisonic. It has always stood out to me as a line that carries a lot of practical wisdom.

It’s been over a month since my last post, which stated that I planned to post more frequently. “The best laid plans…” My wife and I have been busy wrapping up my internship in Inglewood, CA and gearing up for her internship in Columbia, SC. The ending of my internship has brought many things to mind: the aforementioned song, the number of goodbyes that I’ve had to say both now and during the last three years, and the annual process of packing and moving everything I own, just to name a few.

When this internship first began a year ago, I created a file on my computer that I titled, “Insights.” Basically, over the course of the year, I inserted in that file various insights that I received from interning with New City Parish (NCP). These are only some of the insights included in that list, and I share them with all the church — clergy, seminarians, laity, whomever — in hope that they will benefit ministries elsewhere.

  • 5-Year Rule: the pastor and congregation must work diligently to remain no more than five years behind the changes of the immediately surrounding community. So if we see that — for example — some Latino families are moving into homes down the street or that there is a new Korean restaurant and some of the stores now have signs in Korean, that means that our congregation’s ministries should reflect these changes in no more than five-years. NCP congregations aren’t perfect at implementing this rule, but it is efforts like these that have kept a Lutheran presence in the inner-city of Los Angeles throughout the ethnic changes of our neighborhoods during the past several decades.
  • All people have a voice and a right to have that voice heard in the church.
  • We celebrate the things we can do, and we do not lament the things we cannot.
  • If the community fails its youth by deciding to no longer provide them with avenues for organized activities, the youth will organize themselves… usually in violent ways.
  • “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
  • Don’t assume that if we do a new ministry that it will bring people in the doors or meet a need in the community. Did we take the time to ask and learn from our neighbors what their needs really are?

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

Future-Oriented

I had a visit today with a long-time member of my internship congregation. It has been a pleasure to minister with her during this year, and I say “with her” because the ministry shared between us is not a one-way street. During this visit, I brought various thoughts to the conversation: questions about her family, her personal history, and even reflecting on this year-long internship of mine. Her questions and statements were about where my wife and I are moving to, what lies ahead of us, hopes for her children, etc. What took me a while to recognize was that I was being past-oriented and she was being future-oriented. I don’t want to claim those are how the two of us always reflect upon the world around us, respectively, but it will suffice as an example.

You see, so often we in the church are past-oriented; we reminisce about the good ol’ days, how things have changed, and what is wrong today with our city/congregation/world. Yet this visit today reminded me that the major voices in the New Testament understand the church as a future-oriented community. I don’t mean that — and neither do the major voices of the New Testament, in my opinion — in the way that the owner of a van I recently saw probably understands future-oriented: every square inch was plastered with signs stating that Jesus will return to judge us on May 21, 2011, and that you could buy his book to know what to do about it. [I feel that is wrong on numerous counts.] What I mean by “future-oriented” is that our hope lies with God — not a romanticized past — and with the work that God promises to complete.

What does “future-oriented” mean? I hope to further explore the answer in upcoming posts on this blog. But I will close by saying that it is my belief that if our understanding of God’s future is misguided and shaped more by American pop-religion, as opposed to having it shaped by the overall Biblical witness, then we will miss many of the glimpses of God’s future when they are gifted to us now. That last sentence will make more sense… in the future. :)

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

[Please allow me to finish by apologizing for my absence during the last several weeks. I was back in South Carolina, enjoying a vacation, and then trying to play catch-up with various work and other projects. It’s my hope to post once or twice a week on this blog, and I’m sorry that the silence since my last post has stretched to be this long.]
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