Evening Prayer-January 13, 2021

Since people don’t seem to read blogs anymore I have no idea if anyone is reading this particular blog. I wanted to start posting some of the daily prayer videos I’ve been doing from my church. If you are looking for something to help you with prayer, check out the Midweek Vespers. In these crazy days, we need some time to pray to God because we need it. We really need it.

This Is Who We Are

“This Is Who We Are” Mark 1:4-13 Baptism of Our Lord January 10, 2021 First Christian Church Mahtomedi, MN Preached at First Christian Church on January 10, 2021. “This isn’t who we are.” President-elect Joe Biden said these words in the aftermath of Wednesday’s assault on the US Capitol. Politicians like to say this during events like this.  I know more often than not the people who say this mean well.  They want to say that as Americans we aspire to higher goals and that what happened is something that is uncharacteristic of who we are as Americans. This phrase comes from a good place. It’s also incredibly wrong.  This is who we are.  This is who we are as a nation. Because if you are African American like I am or Native American or Japanese American, you know that our nation has a dark side and far too many times that dark side has shown up to harm persons of color, LGBTQ Americans, and others.  For some of these people seeing the images of a mostly white crowd running amok within the walls of the US Capitol, a place where I once worked, nod their heads and say “This IS Who we are.” This is not all of what the United States is all about.  If it was, then we as a nation are without hope.  The words found in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution matter to us as Americans. As a nation, we strive to live up to better ideas and many times we do. But let’s not kid ourselves.  A century ago, three African American men were lynched in Duluth under trumped-up charges of rape.  Later this year, we will commemorate a century since the Tulsa Massacre which killed an untold number of African Americans in what was called Black Wall Street. This is who we are. We are sinners.  We fall short. We commit evil. We are not okay. In Mark, John the Baptist comes around preaching a baptism that led to repentance, to change their lives. One day, Jesus comes.  That had to come as a shock to John because Jesus had nothing to repent of.  But he baptizes his cousin anyway.  When he comes up from the water, the sky splits and the Holy Spirit comes into him.  It is then a voice that claims Jesus as the Son of God.  It is there that he is given an identity as our savior. This is who Jesus is. When we are baptized, we are claimed by God. This is who we are.  You and I are Daughters and sons of God. But we still sin.  We fall short.  We are claimed by God, but let’s not forget that we are sinners saved by the grace of God. Because we are claimed by God in spite of our sin, we are called to act. After Jesus was baptized, he went into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil and then went into his ministry, because he knew who he was. Our theme for Epiphany is “For the Sake of the World.” It’s a phrase that comes from our Lutheran sisters and brothers and it says the church exists for the sake of the world.  Churches exist as people who are baptized and claimed by God to go out to proclaim justice and preach reconciliation.  This is who we are. In light of the storming of the capital our baptism matters. We are called into a ministry of reconciliation and Lord knows we need it.  As a congregation, we need to find ways to give space to where people can listen to one another. Our baptism compels us to move from the sidelines and join in God’s work of justice and reconciliation. What happened this week is a wake-up call for the nation and the church. What we saw is a reminder that this is part of who we are as a nation.  We saw rioters, bullies and a President out that want to spread fear, to use the words of God, but worship an idol. That is who they are. But we at First Christian have another identity. Claimed by God, we have a role in preaching God’s love and justice to our nation and our world. We will be talking about this more because we must.  It is time for us to live out our baptisms. It doesn’t matter how small we are in number or how much money we have in the bank. It is time for you and I to live up to who we are in the eyes of God. We are the children of God. This is who we are.  Let’s start acting like it. Thanks be to God. Amen. Listen to the sermon podcast.

2020, God and Flint, Michigan

The year 2020 hasn’t ended yet. Unfortunately, we still have a few days in the year. Very few of us will be looking back fondly on this year of a pandemic with over a quarter of a million dead, tons of canceled events, massive numbers of jobs lost, racial strife, and an incredibly divisive election that did damage to democracy. There was nothing good about the year 2020.

Right?

A few years I was back in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. As I drove down Dort Highway on the east side of town a memory came back to me. The memory was from the 1970s when I was in grade school. Up and down Dort Highway, auto carrier trucks would lumber down the road. The trucking company had it’s main garage on this side of town and you would see truck after truck filled with Buicks and Chevrolets going to all points. That memory came back to me forty years later because as I drove down this road, I realized that those carriers no longer lumbered down the road. They hadn’t driven on that road for years. It was a reminder that things had changed.

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One of the ubiquitous car carriers with Buicks in the early 1970s. Photo by Dan Dosser.

What changed in Flint was the massive downsizing of General Motors over the last 30 years or so. In the late 70s, General Motors had 80,000 employees in the Flint area that worked for them. Today, there are around 8,000.

Such a massive change brought changes in Flint as well. Once well-kept houses were now trashed. Stores closed and people moved away. The city has gone through two periods where they were deep in debt and the state had to come in to help right the ship. One of the times the state intervened led to the now-infamous Flint Water Crisis where the water supply became contaminated with lead. Flint had a population of nearly 200,000 in 1970, shortly after I was born. Today it is around 99,000. The city that I grew up in was prosperous. It wasn’t perfect, but people took care of their homes and life seemed great. That Flint no longer exists. All that’s left are the memories.

I’m a minister, so it’s not a surprise I would go to the Bible to see if there are any parallel situations we could learn from. Turns out there is a powerful example. The Israelites came back from exile and had to face that the good old days were long gone. The book of Ezra focuses on homecoming. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians around 585BC. It was a Babylonian policy to drive the people from the land to another place. So for 50 years, the Israelites had to make a living in a faraway land. During the exile, Babylon fell. In its place, a new empire took over: Persia. It was during the reign of the Persian King Cyrus that it was decided that anyone who wanted to could go back to their homeland and live. Their homeland would be under Persian control, but it would still be home. So, a number of folks decide to make the journey back.

The Israelites return to find Jerusalem in ruins and their temple, the center of Jewish life was destroyed. It was time to rebuild. It took a while, but after a while, the temple was completed. When the people of Israel came together at this momentous occasion, something interesting happened. Among the young who had no memory of Judah and Solomon’s temple, there was excitement. They now were home and had a place to worship God.

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Flint’s 235-acre complex known as Buick City was in operation from 1904 until 1999. The facility was demolished in the early aughts. Public domain.

But the older Israelites were sad. They knew of the splendor of Jerusalem of old. They had memories of the old temple and this wasn’t it. This temple was a bit smaller than the old one. It certainly wasn’t as fancy as Solomon’s temple. For these folk, they could only feel a profound sense of loss. The grandeur of the old temple, with the Ark of the Covenant, was never coming back. The days when Israel was a free and prosperous nation were long gone. They had to live in this new reality, and it paled in comparison to their memories.

Change happens. But just because it happens, doesn’t mean it is always welcomed and it can be quite painful. Change can be bewildering and scary. For those Israelites that had memories of their grand past (which wasn’t all that grand), it was hard to face reality. That’s why 2020 has been so difficult. These days people cling to familiar or live in extreme denial. Everything that we once knew, everything that seemed certain is now no gone. Nostalgia tells us we can go back to what things once were. It gives us a sense of safety and comfort when the world has changed.

But nostalgia is tricking us. We can’t go back. We can only go forward. We can’t regain the past, we can only reach for the future. Easier said than done.

While we can’t go back in time, and neither could those Israelites. When we go back to that festival in the book of Ezra, we find something interesting. The cries of joy and pain were so that no one could tell the difference. The passage never says that the old Israelites were wrong to weep. It just says they weep. They are happy to be back home after decades away and they are hopeful in seeing a rebuilt temple even if it isn’t as grand as the old temple. But in the midst of their joy is a lot of pain. For them, this wasn’t a time that was simply joy or simply pain, it was both. It was bittersweet.

Bittersweet. What better word could define 2020? We’ve lost a lot in 2020. There is nothing wrong in grieving for that which we lost. We mourn because we can’t be near the ones we love. We mourn because we live in a new reality that pales in comparison to the old. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is one that has changed all of our lives and we are left with a lot of bitterness because we have lost the life we once had and maybe people we loved.

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Volunteers in Minneapolis clean up the ruins of an Arby’s restaurant that was burned down in the riots that followed the killing of George Floyd. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

But there is also sweetness in this year that we see as so dark. And it has truly been dark. But there have also been signs of hope in this long year. It’s the people who would clap for first responders. Or the grandmother that lives next door to me that gave up her job so she could be there for her grandchildren as they took part in distance learning. It was the army of volunteers that I saw in Minneapolis with brooms in hand trying to clean up parts of the town that were overcome by rioters in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. It was the communities of faith that had to learn how to pivot and become virtual overnight and still find ways to be church while apart. It was people visiting with friends over Zoom or socially distanced outside in the summer air. It’s the sign of those trucks filled with vaccines for COVID-19 rolling out of those warehouses in Michigan. There is a lot of pain to be found in 2019, but there is also much joy.

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Flint Farmers Market. September 2018. Photo by Dennis Sanders.

I still miss not seeing those auto carriers as they made their way down Dort Highway. I miss what it represents. I miss that old Flint. But that is not the only story about Flint. There is another story of hope that is growing up right alongside this sad story of decline. If you walk down Saginaw Street, the main drag downtown, you will see some change taking place. For a long time, downtown Flint wasn’t a place you really went to unless you had business to do. But as I walked down the street that late summer day, I saw a number of cafes with outdoor seating available. The area seemed to be buzzing with activity. We could walk over to the Flint Farmer’s Market which moved into new digs in downtown. Nearby, the University of Michigan-Flint continues to grow, bringing in students not only from Flint, but from around the world. Another university has bought up property nearby and are working at beautifying the area. This is the new Flint, one centered on what some have called “Eds and Meds” meaning the focus is on education and medicine. This is still a Flint in process. I have no idea what’s coming down the pike for my hometown, but it’s fascinating to see this new Flint come up from the ground. So, even when my heart sinks passing by the old Buick plant where my Dad worked for nearly 40 years and stare at a barren field, there is also a sense of hope because there is something new taking the place of the old. There is still a lot to be done in the city, but it looks like maybe my hometown will have a future, after all. It’s just not the one that most of us who grew up in the old Flint are accustomed to. There is sadness at what has been lost, but a slight sense of wonder about the green shoots starting to appear.

We need to grieve what has been lost in 2020, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have joy as well. Life is many times a mix of happy and sad times. We need to feel them both.

Featured image: The first Chevy Corvettes roll of the line in Flint, Michigan- June 1953. Photo courtesy of Chevrolet.

This essay originally appeared at Medium.

With Malice Towards None

The following is my reflection for the Midweek Vespers service. You can watch the video below.

“Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

Colossians 3:13-14

It’s almost over.  We have still have a few states that are still yet to be called, but hopefully, in the next 24 hours or so, we should know for certain who is going to be the next President of the United States.  

Even though I’m a pastor, I’m not going to pretend that I didn’t have a favorite in this race.  I did.  But I don’t want to talk as much about the election than about what happens afterward.  How do we live together as a nation?  How can the church be a Christ-like example to our nation and world?

We are a nation that is bitterly divided ideologically.  Liberals and conservatives look at each other with open contempt and as a nation, we seem to have less and less in common with each other.  We don’t understand each other.  I have to be honest, I’ve had my moments where I wondered if I should bother to reach out to those that planned to vote for the other candidate. It’s not any better in the church.  Churches tend to line up around politics.  More often than not, we tend to mirror the world instead of providing an example.

I’ve seen a number of people, including pastors that tend to downplay the calls for unity believing them to be a way of ignoring injustice. 

God of course, calls us to do justice.  The issues we have talked about including the separation of immigrant children from parents demand that we speak out.  But God also calls us to love our enemies. Paul’s letter to the Colossians calls us to be tolerant and forgiving.  Even after a hard-fought campaign, we who are followers of Jesus are called to tolerate and forgive others and at the end of the day be united in Christ.

As Christians, we have to be agents not just of justice, but of reconciliation.  We have to find ways to heal the bonds that have been broken by politicians and even by ourselves.  Sometimes that means going beyond who is in the White House and figuring our what is God calling us to do.  Yuval Levin, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, notes that some of what needs to be done rest on what we are being called to do at a local level. He writes in the New York Times:

“It can begin with a simple question, asked in little moments of decision: “Given my role here, what should I be doing?” As a parent or a neighbor, a pastor or a congregant, an employer or an employee, a teacher or a student, a legislator or a citizen, how should I act in this situation? We ask that question to recover relational responsibility.”

We live in a time where we are so divided that we want the other guy to be responsible.  But we are responsible for each other.  We are our sister and brother’s keeper.  

I’ll end today with the last paragraph from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, given a month before the end of the Civil War and his assassination because it seems so fitting at this moment.

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the

right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we

are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the

battle, and for his widow, and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and

cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”

May it be so.

Everything and Nothing At All.

Every Wednesday, I do a Midweek Vespers video where we come together for prayer and reflection. I will start posting them here on Wednesdays. Below is today’s video.

Midweek Vespers is a time when we gather to reflect and pray for our world. Join us each Wednesday at 5:30 PM Central fccsaintpaul.org

This week’s episode: From Matthew 19, Jesus meets a well-to-do young man who asks what he needs to do to have eternal life. Jesus’ answer? Everything and nothing at all.

Jesus drives a hard bargain, doesn’t he?  A young man comes by to ask what he can do to obtain eternal life.  Jesus repeats back to him the law, which the young man said he had followed since he was a child?  Then, Jesus asks him to sell all he has to poor and then follow Jesus.  That was too much for the young man who walked away sad.  

One of the questions that I have is why did the young man ask the question anyway? He had followed the law, but he seemed to think he was still not doing something right.  When Jesus throws him for a loop, that is usually interpreted as his holding on too much to his possessions.  There is some truth to that, but what if this is also showing that using the law as a checklist will never bring salvation.  The young man did everything that was required of him, but when Jesus told him to give everything to the poor, he realized how high the cost would be and for him the cost was far too much.

Jesus didn’t come to get rid of the law, but to bring it to fulfillment.  Using the law in the way the young man did would never bring the righteousness he longed for.  Jesus was asking him to see the law in a different way- as a relationship with God and with his neighbors. The grace of Jesus Christ doesn’t take away the law, it helps us to see it in a different way.  

A rich man can’t enter heaven, not without the grace of Jesus.  The young man believed he could do it with his hard work under the law. But that wasn’t going to work when it asked so much of him.  

So, what about us?  We still tend to  think that doing things is what brings us salvation.  However, it is only Jesus that can save us.  The apostle Paul shares in 1 Corinthians 13 that even if he gave everything it would not amount to much.  “If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”  

Grace doesn’t do away with the law, but it changes its meaning.  Following the law is about relationship and not about getting brownie points.  We can get off the treadmill that keeps us trying to please God and others and enter into the gracious love of Jesus.

What must you do to gain eternal life? Everything and nothing at all.

The Church Has Left the Building

If you heard my sermon from last week, you know I talked a bit about how we have been church in these last few months. The coronavirus has forced us to move the church into a virtual model. We are learning how to use technology for worship, fellowship, and coming soon, Bible Study.

While I know many of you would like things to go back to normal, that isn’t happening any time soon. As long as COVID-19 is still not under control, it is hard for us to get back into our building without putting people at high risk.

So, what is God calling us to do in this place at this time? Because, while we can’t worship together, we are still a church. But how do we do that?

As we head into fall, our new worship theme will be “The Church Has Left the Building: Love God, Love Church, Love Neighbors.” We are focusing on Matthew 16:13-20 where Peter confesses Jesus is the Christ.

First Christian Church of St. Paul isn’t closed. Instead, the church has been dispersed throughout the Twin Cities Metro area. So how can this church that is without a building remain faithful to God and serving our sisters and brothers? How do we live out our confession as Jesus being the Christ?

During the fall we will look at how to love God, love church, and love neighbors during this time apart. How do we fellowship during this time? How do we pray for each other? How do we continue to give our offering not simply to meet the budget, but as part of our discipleship to God? How do we help our neighbors who are suffering from lack of food or housing at this time? How are we a witness of inclusion and love in a time when we are so divided?

We will try to answer those questions and more starting on September 13. This fall we will be reminded that the building isn’t First Christian Church of St. Paul. We are.

Finding God in the Drive-Thru Lane

What is God up to?

I’ve been hearing that phrase over and over lately.  It’s the focus on a book I’m reading, the Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves.  It’s the sense that instead of engaging in the business of ministry as if it’s all up to us, Purves wants pastors to step back and let go.  God is the one that saves and redeems and it isn’t us.

I will admit, that frustrates me.  You are taught all these skills in seminary and the culture around us tells us very plainly that if we aren’t doing something that can bring in more people to come to worship, then it’s all our fault.  

I’ve been at my congregation now for seven years and in those years we haven’t really grown much over that time.  It’s hard for me to not wonder if I’m doing something wrong.  Am I praying enough.  How about reading the Bible.  I need to start a Faith on Tap!  

But wondering what God is both intriguing and maddening. It’s intriguing because finding out what God is up to means trying to be attentive to what God is doing in our world and especially in our neighborhood.  What have we missed by being so involved in busy work?

But looking for God is also scary, because it feels like quietism- meaning just end up doing nothing and waiting for God to do something.

Maybe that’s not what it means.  Maybe it means living our lives and observe how God worked in our lives and the lives of others. 

This past week, I was in a drive thru lane waiting to get my food.  I come up to the window ready to pay for my meal when I find out that someone, probably the person that was ahead of me, paid for my meal.  It was fascinating that this happened to me once, but it happened TWICE.  Two times I was in a drive thru lane and twice someone paid my bill.

I do wonder if I should have done a good deed and paid it forward for the person behind me.  I didn’t and I wonder if should have. What was God up to in those moments? What does it mean for my life or for the ministry I’m involved in.

Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote in early 2019 about the church is worried about our church.  Churches are shrinking, budgets are tightening, people are leaving.  We want to know what we can do an we spend time at conferences wondering what we can do to help our congregation grow. 

But Eaton thinks we are asking the wrong question.  We should be answering what God is up to. She quotes from Isaiah 43 about God doing a new thing and are we open to seeing it. Can we see that new thing happening or are we trying to recreate a past? Eaton writes: 

If we want to attract people to our congregations to rebuild a memory, God will not bless our efforts. But if we—grabbed by the Spirit in baptism, changed by the word, intimately and lovingly connected to Jesus and each other in communion, and set free by grace to serve the neighbor—invite all people into true life, then we shall become part of the answer.

This takes attention and devotion. Worship, prayer, Scripture study, generosity and service—not in order to save the church, but in response to the new life God has given us in Christ.

What we are being called to do is basically to live our lives faithfully.  Go to worship. Pray daily.  Serve others.  As she says, we don’t do this to save the church and we shouldn’t be spending time “saving the church.”  What we are called to do is live a life of thankfulness to the new things God is doing.

I still don’t know what that paying forward meant, but maybe it’s reminding me to be thankful to God’s work in the world.  

I pray that I not tie myself in knots in trying to “save the church.” I can’t save this congregation because it was never mine to save.  But I do want to take the time to live out my ministry and see God working in the world.  Who knows? It might lead to a renewal of my church and maybe your church as well.   

Damage Report!

Like a lot of congregations, First Christian has been worshipping apart since March. It’s been going okay, though I’m glad I had some skills in video editing before this all hit. I wanted to share with you a sample from last week’s service. The first is a video from the sermon by my friend Rob. The second is yours truly giving the prayer. If you want to see the full video, go over to the church website. I hope it’s good news to your soul.

Brayden’s Big Break

Nonesuch is a video I do each Friday reflecting on the sermon text for Sunday. Below is the written version with the video below. There is some difference in the two, so read the reflection and then listen to it.

I’ve been thinking a lot about coming to terms with my Aspergers and possible ADHD ever since I was let go from my tentmaking job two months ago.  When you have neurological differences that can make it hard to work and participate in society, you start to wonder what in the world can you contribute to the betterment of the world?  

There are reasons that someone like me might wonder if they matter in the world and that’s because of how the world treats them. People make fun of you.  Or they get mad at you.  And they give up on you.  You live with this sense of shame and start to think you are a failure.  Someone who is always going to fail at what they do and disappoint everyone around you.

This coming Sunday I’m preaching one of my favorite texts, Romans 12:1-8.  In my sermon, I focused more on verse one, but the rest of the passage has some good stuff.  I want to read verses 4-8:

4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Paul is telling the church that everyone in the community has different gifts.  There isn’t a gift that is more important than another.  All of the gifts of the community are part of the body of Christ.  

I think that means a lot.  Maybe Paul didn’t have any idea about persons with disabilities when he wrote this passage, but I think it has a lot to say about the modern church.  Because it tells us that everyone is part of the body of Christ, even those people who have autism or ADHD or dyslexia.  The world sees them as failures, but God sees them as people created with value. 

One of the things I never knew about Vice President Joe Biden is that he stutters.  You wouldn’t have known that because he has trained himself to manage his stuttering.  When he was young, a teacher at school made fun of his stutter.  The teacher happened to be a nun.  It was his mother that brought him back to school and tore the nun a new one over her behavior.  Because his mother stood up for him, he was able to help a young boy named Brayden Harrington who also stutters.  Biden met the 13-year-old in New Hampshire and gave him some pointers in how to deal with his stuttering.  Last night, Brayden spoke on national television about his visit.  He did it stutters and all.  It was one of the bravest things I’ve ever seen.  We saw a kid that realized that he mattered.  It didn’t matter that he wasn’t “normal,” he had gifts to share.

If you are part of a congregation, know that there are probably people in your congregation who stutter or have some sort of neurodiversity like autism or ADHD.  Let them know in some way that they matter. Help them participate in church life. Be patient with them as they express their gifts. Always, always let them know that they are loved by you and most importantly, by God.  You need to do that because in their lives, they are usually told that they don’t matter. They need to know that they can contribute to the body of Christ because they are part of the body of Christ. 

So, to Brayden and everyone who has been told they don’t fit or have made to feel ashamed of who they are, know that you are loved by God and you have something to contribute to the mission of God.

Below is the video version of this post.