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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Alexander Meets His Uncle

Alexander paused just short of ringing the doorbell and turned to look at his mom. "Mom, do we have to do this?" he asked her.

His mother looked down her bumpy nose at him and her face began to turn red. "Alexander! Do not make me repeat myself! This is our big break! This is what we have been praying for all along." She straightened her dark blue blazer and brushed some of her brown hair back behind her ear. "Behave yourself. Act responsibly. Treat him with respect and whatever you do--do not ask him how he got his money!"

Alexander sighed and turned back to consider the imposing entry. Before he could ring the bell the door was opened and a maid wearing--Alexander had to do a double take--what you would expect a maid to wear stepped aside and with a welcoming gesture said, "Please come in."

The cool air was a welcome relief from the sweltering Florida summer as they stepped inside the grand foyer. Alexander inhaled deeply and heard his mother do the same as they surveyed their surroundings. The foyer had a cathedral ceiling with a painted mural on the ceiling of the heavens high above them. A staircase wound its way up the far wall like a wild vine while amidst the oversize sofas, cherubs and flowers stood on pedestals throughout the space.

"This way please." The maid said kindly as she led them into a room off to the right. They followed her through the arched doorway and took their seats on the sofa offered them. The room was decorated with paintings alternating between depicting naked women and green fields. Alexander sniggered.

"May I get you a drink?" She asked them.

"Coke please."

"Sherry." Alexander's mother replied in a haughty tone. He rolled his eyes. His mother had never, he was quite sure, ever drank sherry. She had only said it because she thought that was what rich people drink. She had told him that a hundred times before as they grew up.

Life had not been easy for Alexander. It was just him and his mother. She told people she worked in the service industry because she thought it sounded professional, but everywhere they lived she always ended up being a waitress. Usually in a slimy 24 hour diner and during the night shifts. They always ate food from the diner she would bring home and Alexander hated it. But his mother claimed she couldn't stand to go cook anything in the kitchen because she slaved over a hot stove at the diner. Alexander knew that was a lie but knew better than to speak his mind.

For the fourteen years of his existence he had always heard about his uncle. His mother would go on and on about how rich he was, about his lavish parties that the newspapers would sometimes write stories about; his famous speeches, his multiple mansions and most importantly about his piles and piles of money and their total absence of it. And his mother never failed to remind Alexander that she was the only living relative and that her brother should take pity on them and give them money. "He has money" she would say, "and we do not. It's that easy. Why should I slave away in a hot kitchen and make next to no money while he throws parties in the South of France? It is not fair."

The maid handed his mother an odd shaped glass with an amber liquid in it--sherry he supposed--and handed him a fizzling glass. "Thanks" he said.

Then the letter had arrived. It was an in over-sized cream color envelope with the yellow forwarding stamp from the post office. Thankfully, it had found them at their current address. As soon as it arrived his mother knew what it contained. She didn't go to work. Instead she sat on the recliner, staring dumb founded at the envelope while quietly mumbling to herself. Finally she opened it, stood up suddenly and exclaimed, "NEXT WEEK! Alexander, he expects to see us NEXT WEEK!"

Next week had arrived. As Alexander sat there, feeling out of sorts in the new suit his mother had forced on him he tried to decide how he felt. Most of the time he didn't care about meeting his uncle or his uncle's money. But if he were honest with himself, that most likely was because his mother was so strongly in favor of it. And he also wouldn't find living in one place for an extended amount of time. He would like to eat real food and of course, he'd like it very much if his mom would be awake during the day and home at night.

"I can't wait to do nothing" he heard his mother saying quietly to herself.

Then of course there was the great mystery of how his uncle ever made all this money. His mother never stopped talking about how much money he had--and how much he continued to make--but she would never answer the question "How did he make that money?" Her response was always the same, "Now, now Alex, that is a rude question. Never ask no one how they made their money."

A shadow fell across the entry and Alexander looked up and for the first time in his life saw his uncle in the flesh. He was tall, his hair was slicked back and he wore a white polo shirt with Bermuda shorts and exuded an air of class. A gold ring on his pinky twinkled in so many different ways simultaneously that Alexander knew it must house a sizable diamond.

"Silas!" His mother exclaimed as she stood up and smiled. "So good to see you!"

Alexander's uncle sighed, seemed to draw on some inner strength and nod to himself before responding, "It is good to see you too Leanna." He walked into the room and stood directly in front of Alexander. "Does your son have any manners" he asked Alexander's mother.

"Stand up!" She hissed at him under her breath. Alexander stood and mumbled an apology and held his hand out. His uncle took his hand and squeezed it hard as he shook it, with his gray eyes staring searchingly into Alexander's. The feeling was unnerving. Alexander figured he must have found what he was looking for because he could have sworn he heard his uncle quietly mutter "good."

They all took their seats simultaneously and Alexander noticed his uncle was now holding a drink in his hand that hadn't been present there before.

"Alexander. As I am unaware of what your mother has told you I am going to assume you are ignorant of the impending changes in your life and will fill you in. After me, you are the only living male of the family. As your mother has done absolutely nothing with her life and I have done so very much, it seems a complete waste to let my money go to the government when I die. So you are going to move in with me here; you will go to a preparatory school and eventually go to an excellent college. You will one day inherit my money and also inherit my legacy and take up my cause. Do you have any questions?"

Alexander shifted in his seat and looked down at his coke, trying to take it all in. Little bubbles of CO2 floated to the top, quietly popping at the surface. He was never very philosophical but it seemed there was something very similar to the fate of those bubbles of CO2 and his life as it currently stood. They had no say in their role, they just did what they were supposed to do and eventually popped and fizzled into nothing. For his entire life he had had no say in anything but just did what he was supposed to do. And so, it seemed, it would continue. "Well, what about my mom?"

His uncle sighed again. "Maria" he said as he shook his now empty glass--when had he drank that?--with the ice cubes clanking against the glass. The maid hurried over, took his glass and then quickly returned with another one. "If it is your wish then your mother will move in with me and you here--though," he turned and faced her, "the first embarrassing mistake you make and you are out!" He turned back to Alexander, "but of course, she will always be amply provided for." To his shame Alexander's mother said nothing in her defense, and neither did he. "Any other questions young man?"

Again, Alexander found himself struggling with the news and stalling for time to digest it. He looked around the room at the paintings, the gilded furniture, the crystal ware on the drinking cart, the maid, the sconces and imposing fireplace and marveled that this would be his home. "Well, you mentioned a cause. What is your cause?"

His uncle blanched at this question. "What is my cause" he asked incredulously. "Have you told him nothing about me, Leanna?"

"Well I... of course I... many stories..." She trailed off.

"Unbelievable." He turned and looked at Alexander. "My cause my dear nephew, is the poor." He waived ambiguously in the direction of the maid Maria. "And pleasure." He smiled wickedly at Alexander.

"That cause, of course, is one in the same. The poor can't experience pleasure like other people because pleasure is only found in material objects and material objects cost money. I think everyone should be able to enjoy life like I enjoy life and I think everyone should have access to money like I have access to money. So I make donations to organizations and individuals who think like I do; I make speeches occasionally, do what I can to educate the public ." He smiled benevolently.

Alexander tried his hardest to not choke on his drink. The poor! He thought. What does this man know about being poor? Has he ever been evicted from an apartment? Had he only eaten one meal a day and that provided by the school? Had he been dumpster diving or had the electricity shut off or enter a church with his mom and sit there while she goes on and on about how she loves Jesus just so she can't get a tank of gas? His entire life they had been poor. Poverty was all he knew. And here was his uncle, sitting on a sofa larger than Alexander's last bedroom talking about how he cared about the plight of the poor!

Before he knew what he was doing Alexander heard himself say, "How did you make your money?"

His mother inhaled audibly but his uncle's face lit up like the sun.

"Oh good question! That is my favorite topic!" Then his uncle tittered. "It started in the 60's. You know, everyone was all about free love, equality, all of that stuff. One day, this silly little tune came into my head and I wrote it down. I thought, 'Hey Silas, this is pretty good' so I copyrighted it. First lesson Alex--make sure you own the rights to everything you create. So anyway, I wrote this song and it is about how nice it would be if we got along and there were no poor. All fluff--but people loved it! It became this instant hit!"

"You're a rock star!"

"Not anymore. I haven't toured in decades. There is no need and I never enjoyed it. The funny thing is that millions of people, millions Alex, agreed entirely with the message of my song and paid money to own a copy of it and in the process paid me millions and millions! Every time the news plays it in the back ground of some David and Goliath story, every time a TV show or movie uses it in a sound track, every time another band covers it, 'cha-ching!'" He laughed out loud now. "Oh it is such a joke! Don't they see? They agree with the message of the song, they cheer when I talk yet they simultaneously pay money for my songs and pay me to speak and support this life style. Fools!" He suddenly became somber. "Alex, always remember this: anyone can succeed if they put their mind to it." He ended this advice by looking dismissively at his sister. "Now, any more questions?"

Alexander sat silent, unsure of what to say or do.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On the borderlands of death

Michael Flynn, author of one of my favorite blogs (and books!) became quite sick recently and suffered, among other things, septic shock. Only he could turn such an event into a way to highlight Easter's triumph over death.

"However, when the Son of Man returns, will he find faith on earth?" Luke 18.8

Indeed he will and may we all have such faith. Please keep his recovery in your prayers.

You can read his account here

Friday, March 9, 2012

Christmas Eve

For my first Christmas Eve sermon I did a narrative sermon. The story was based on the perspective of the shepherds who witnessed the angels joyful celebration over the birth of the Son of God. The sermon was well received and I have decided to share it the text of it here.

The inspiration for this style came primarily from the Rev. Steve Norden. During Advent, he usually (maybe always?) does a first person narrative sermon. This sermon, as you will soon read, is not from the first person perspective but it is a narrative sermon.

Focus Text is Luke 2.8-20

Baruch leaned closer to the hot coals and gave them a slow, steady breath of air. He watched as the pale embers turned a bright, crimson red. Suddenly, the dry kindling piled above the embers flared to life and Baruch sat back on his haunches, satisfied. “Ahh, brother, as our friend Isaiah has said, ‘The people shepherding in darkness have seen a great light.’” He looked around at his companion, Itzhak, and smiled.

Itzhak turned his stare from the sheep grazing around them and considered his brother Baruch. Baruch was the oldest of the three brothers. As was common among shepherds, family relied upon one another for assistance. Their father had been a shepherd and had raised all three boys to follow him into the fields. But their father had long since gone down to sheol. Baruch was the oldest and most boisterous. Usually, being the eldest brings with it responsibility and somberness but Baruch was continually in a joyful mood. His bright mood contrasted with his dark, cracked skin and black, full beard. His teeth flashed white as he smiled and by the light of the growing fire Itzhak could see the ornery light gleaming in his eyes.

“You would be wise to not make light of the prophets, Baruch.” Reuben’s voice reached them before he was visible. Shortly afterwards he emerged from the darkness and stood there by the fire. Reuben was the youngest, but he was as tall as Saul and continually reciting to himself the words of the prophets and Moses. He lived for the great stories of his Jewish father. Though the youngest, Reuben towered over all of them, and fittingly was usually out amidst their flock standing guard. His rod hung from a loop on his belt and he held his shepherd’s crook as though it was the Rod of Aaron.

Itzhak, the middle child, was left with the burden of keeping the peace and keeping everyone focused on the task at hand. He sighed, “Reuben, who is protecting the sheep? Your watch is not yet finished. Baruch will fetch you when it is your time.”

Reuben was quiet a moment before responding. “I have gathered the bramble together. The pen is secure; the sheep are safe for the moment. The God of our Fathers, blessed be his name, is the great shepherd. And I brought you dinner.” As he finished saying this he tossed a dead rabbit which landed beside Itzhak and disturbed the dry ground.

Baruch smiled and started to thank him but was silenced by a fit of coughing from the dust. Itzhak stood. “Thank you Reuben. Now go; Baruch will fetch you when your watch is complete.”

Reuben turned to go when suddenly white light flashed. All three brothers cried out in pain as the light blinded them. The intensity of the light died down and they were able to see again, but as their vision came into focus it seemed to the three brothers that it was noon and not dusk. As they looked around in stunned silence, trying to figure out the source of the light, a man appeared in their midst.

He was extremely tall: taller even than Reuben. The light seemed to be emanating from his very skin. Fear gripped their hearts; Baruch cried out and cowered on the ground and Itzhak turned to run. Only Reuben, with the courage of a shepherd, raised his foreboding rod with the intention of clubbing the intruder.

But then the stranger spoke: “Fear not.” His voice was filled with power. The ground seemed to tremble and all the earth go quiet, as if holding its breath. The steady bleating of the lambs could no longer be heard. Even the gentle breeze seemed to have stopped. Reuben lowered his rod, Itzhak turned back and even Baruch looked curiously at the stranger. “For behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” The stranger paused and starred intently at each shepherd for several moments. As his gaze lingered they could feel their fear disappearing and being replaced by pure joy. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.” At this announcement Reuben let out a cry of joy, “Blessed be the Lord of Israel who is faithful!” The glowing stranger continued: And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

Immediately, the light surrounding the three shepherds was eclipsed by an even brighter light shining down from the heavens. The stars were no longer visible, instead replaced with thousands upon thousands of luminous beings, their bodies emitting a pure white light. The most beautiful sound the shepherds had ever heard reached their ears, it was as though the perfect tune had been matched with the perfect words and the resulting song was the epitome of musical achievement.

The luminous beings praised God and sang in a harmonious round, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” The song continued for several minutes as the shepherds stood, transfixed, with their faces turned heavenward watching the angels sing praises to God to celebrate the birth of the Messiah.

As quickly as it had begun it was over. The illuminated choir was replaced with thousands of stars and a dark sky. The shepherds were once more standing around a small fire. They stood in silence for several minutes, digesting the news they had just received and waiting for their eyes to adjust to the sudden return of darkness. Silence enveloped their world. Reuben was the first to break the quiet: “Brothers, let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us!” He was already reaching for his sack that contained all of his worldly goods.

Baruch was in complete agreement. “The prophet Isaiah was right!” He said, sounding both surprised and embarrassed at the same time. “We must see this child who will free us from the Romans and restore the kingdom!”

“Wait!” Itzhak’s voice, hard as stone, broke into their reverie. Years of automatic submission to Itzhak’s leadership kicked in and both Baruch and Reuben stopped and waited. Itzhak turned back to consider the lambs in the field and the sheep dogs moving among them. He had worked hard to nearly triple the size of the flock his father had left them. Years of sacrifice and dedication had resulted in a flock that was nearly large enough for Itzhak and his brothers to hire help and stop spending their nights sleeping under the stars or inside of their tent when the weather was unbearable. Within a few years, the flocks would be in good enough shape that the Temple might even purchase them. Between robbers and predators Itzhak knew that to go, at night to Bethlehem, would certainly result in disaster for the flock. All of the hard work, all of those years, would be thrown away.

“My brothers, we have our responsibilities here. The heavenly messenger did not instruct us to go and see the Messiah—he was just informing us of his birth.”

Reuben stepped forward and exclaimed, “We have seen the glory of God! We must go and see this child!”

“No,” Itzhak firmly replied. “We must stay here.” He gestured out at the lambs. “We must watch over them and protect them. This is the shepherd’s life. We live a selfless life—what you are suggesting is selfishness. We are not loved by our brethren, what makes you think the parents of a newborn will be happy to see dirty shepherds? Besides, you saw the multitude of angels in the heavens—everyone around here did too—surely that message was not merely for us. There will be numerous people searching for this…baby in a manger. When morning comes, if you still have a desire to see a new baby, then you can go. But not tonight.”

Reuben looked between his two brothers for a moment. There are times in life where lines must be crossed; where decisions must be made that will have far ranging consequences for how one will live their life. Reuben realized that he was facing just one of those moments. All of his life he had lived outside in the harsh elements in the countryside around Bethlehem. He had fought off wild beasts and robbers and slept on the stony ground in front of the bramble gate countless nights.

But that had not been his true life. While his body was present, going through the rhythmic actions of a shepherd’s life, his mind and heart had always been consumed with the stories of his people. As he would gaze at the flocks he would think about Jacob and Laban and the way Jacob had tricked Laban into giving him the choicest of his flock. And he would think about Jacob wrestling God in the Jabbok River and gaining that magnificent blessing. He often thought of Jacob and his relationship with his son, Reuben, and wondered if their relationship had been as distant as the one he had experienced with his father.

As he wandered the lonely, stony hills he thought of the young shepherd David who had slayed the great Goliath with a smooth stone from his sling. Reuben had never been very adept with the sling: he was all brute force and relied upon his strength and close range combat. David though, David was the source of legend. He thought of David’s rise from shepherd to the greatest king Israel had ever known.

But most of all, during the times of long solitude among the flocks Reuben thought about God. He thought about this God who had chosen Israel. He thought about this God who obviously was in control of the universe and yet seemingly did so little to right the wrongs Reuben saw daily: pain and suffering, tears, illness, the savage cruelties of nature and death. He often wondered where God was in the midst of such a cruel world. Perhaps that was why Reuben lived in the stories of his people so enthusiastically. In the words of the Prophets he was continually reminded of a God who agreed with him: all was not right with the world and one day God would make things right.

Reuben thought about how this God who so often seemed to be absent would suddenly appear, either directly or through his heavenly messengers, to make announcements and promises that evoked a sense of awe. He thought about God appearing to Abraham and promising a blessing of incomparable wealth; he thought of that same God appearing to Moses and the subsequent Exodus; of the angels who aided Daniel when he was in the fire; of the encouragement Samuel received to anoint David and the promise made to David about his future son. Through events such as that Reuben had been comforted with the knowledge that though God seemed absent he was steadily working towards something beautiful.

Now, Reuben realized, his years of living in these stories were coming to their climax that very evening. Today, the Angel had said, today in the city of David the long awaited Messiah had been born. The angel had also said he was Lord! Was this not the purpose of his life?

Reuben looked Itzhak in the eye. “Stay if you like Itzhak. There are times and places where God calls us to remember that he is more precious than all treasures. You may remain here if you want and watch over your sheep or you can make the decision to come and see this child who is Christ the Lord. As for me, I must see this child.”

Baruch spoke up, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.

But Itzhak remained behind. Shortly after his brothers left he took a burning log and carried it to the gate of their pen and built a new fire. Then he lay down with his body across the opening, his back to his sheep and stared out into the great darkness beyond the flames. For a time he mulled over the events of the evening wondering, “Had it even really happened?” Itzhak had been given the privilege of witnessing the greatest miracle in the history of the world but was unwilling to make a journey in faith to Bethlehem, for fear of losing what he had already gained in this world. He looked back at his sheep again, hoping that his future would remain secure throughout the night.

Years later, that baby born in Bethlehem would say, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

Tonight, we await a celebration of materialism. Tonight, we await a celebration of our salvation through Jesus Christ. On this night, of all nights, let us do not get lost in the pursuit of worldly possessions and pleasures; but instead let go of that which is holding you down or keeping you from joining in with the shepherds and going in haste to see this child, who is Christ the Lord.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Two Great Articles

I received this month's Christianity Today in the mail yesterday and there are two great articles that I I thought were worth sharing.

The first article is by Mark Moring and is about the upcoming ABC show, GCB. Mark does a great job of using the premise of the show, gossip in the church, to encourage everyone to ask the question, "Do I ever do that? Am I guilty of gossip?" This article is so well written, and also eye opening to how greatly the major sin of gossip can make the church look like hypocrites to the outside world, that I am now considering watching the show even though I had previously not had any desire to see it. You can read the article in its entirety by clicking here.

The second article is by my favorite contributing author to Christianity Today: Leslie Leyland Fields. Leslie takes a humorous look at the small, controlled, portion sizes of the communion and wonders if we haven't become legalists in following Paul's instructions to the Corinthians and thereby have missed the fact that the first Lord's Supper was just that, a meal. That article is found by clicking here.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Pastoral Theology II: Not the Messiah!

Last week I caught some sort of nasty sinus/cold bug/virus circulating in the area. I got pretty sick, pretty quickly, and was down hard. My inability to do anything church related got me thinking about the high turnover rate in ministry.

In seminary you learn about burn-out in ministry and how "85% of seminary graduates entering the ministry leave within 5 years and 90% of of all pastors will not stay until retirement." Those are pretty astounding statistics! So one of the main thrusts of my seminary education was to insist that ministers make sure they take plenty of "me" time away from their church. I have separate issues with that approach which I will deal with in another entry.

But I realized something while I was sick and an awareness of it can only be helpful in the fight to stay alive in ministry. The pastor is not the Messiah!

As I laid there on the couch, going mad because I was missing programs and unable to be a part of the ministry of the church I finally realized, "This church has been here for hundreds of years before you and will continue you to be here long after you are gone (provided this doesn't happen). You are not their Messiah."

I think often times the problems that occur for pastors and for churches arise from a false understanding of the role of the pastor. The pastor is not the Messiah; their job is not to save the church from low attendance or financial difficulties or "stuck in the rut" programs and definitely not to save them from their sins. These are all things that only God can do. Now he can do them through the minister, but it is still God at work. So what does the pastor do?

Three Stories, One Theme

At my ordination ceremony, Pastor Peter Nenadov* preached my ordination sermon. In that sermon he said something that I have clung to during times of anxiety thus far in my ministry experience. He said "Nathan, you have nothing to prove, only something to proclaim." Many times I have reminded myself that I "have nothing to prove but something to proclaim."

The Rev. Kevin Neal moderated my first session meeting, in which I was really only an observer. In his devotions he read from 1st Timothy 4.11-16. He reminded the session, and myself, that my role was to preach and teach the gospel and to do so with boldness, despite my youth. The kerygmatic theme reappears: the pastor proclaims the gospel of Jesus Christ--that is the pastor's job.

Finally, at my installation service the Rev. Jefferson Ellis preached a sermon on John 3.1-21 with special focus on verses 14-15. My role, Jefferson stressed again and again, was to point people to the cross. My role was to point people to the one and only one who could save them from their sins.

Maybe seminary education should focus more on what the role of the pastor is instead of focusing on "self-care." If we better understand exactly what it is we are called to do, then pastors are in the position to say "yes" and "no" much more effectively and decisively. So many problems arise for pastors and the church when the pastor says "yes" to far too many things which have nothing to do with the proclamation of Christ. The proclamation then gets watered down, distorted or minimized and their energy goes by the wayside.

Pastoral theology insight #2: The Pastor is not the Messiah. The role of the pastor is to proclaim the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and point people to the true Messiah. The role of the pastor is to teach about Christ and what he has done and not prove oneself. If pastors focus on their role as teacher and preacher more, and churches focused their expectations more on God and less on the pastor, we might be able to lower that turnover rate in ministry to below 50% while simultaneously leading people into a deeper, fuller and more meaningful relationship with the true Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

"Therefore, let all the people of Israel understand beyond a doubt that God made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah!"Acts 2.36 ISV

*I never reference something anyone said or use anyone's name without first obtaining permission from that individual.