I was a guest on Pulpit Fiction this week!

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this before or not, but one of my first sermon prep activities each week is to listen to the Pulpit Fiction podcast, hosted by two pastors (Robb McCoy of Two Rivers United Methodist Church in Rock Island, Illinois and Eric Fistler of the First Congregational Church of Crystal Lake). This podcast features commentary, music, and conversation based around the weekly lectionary readings and other topics relevant in the church and wider world.

One of my favorite segments each week is when a guest gives a brief commentary on the Epistle reading for the week, called Voice in the Wilderness.

Well, I asked if I could be added to that rotation and this week was my week, so go to the Pulpit Fiction site and listen (my segment is close to the beginning, but I’d encourage you to listen to the whole podcast).

I’m going to attach the script I used below, as well. As I said on the podcast, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this text. Being that I was limited to between two and three minutes, I had a hard time saying everything I wanted to say and I’m not totally happy with what I did say because I thought of better comments after the fact.

I probably should have mentioned that texts such as this one (particularly the context around it) have been used to promote slavery or, at least, to promote complacency to the status quo (rather than working against slavery). The same can be said in terms of how the letter speaks of submitting to authorities and leaving it all in the hands of “the one who judges justly.” I think this is best read in light of the wider witness of Scripture which teaches us to stand up for the oppressed, to welcome the stranger, to work against injustice rather than merely submitting and be complacent. The ultimate message then of this text, I think, is that we should not give into the temptation to seek vengeance or retribution, but we should resist injustice and oppression in peaceful and non-violent ways.

So anyway, here is the script from my “Voice in the Wilderness” segment. Let me know your thoughts:

I think the lectionary has made a deliberate choice to avoid something unpleasant by choosing verses 19-25 of First Peter chapter 2. Just one verse earlier, the author writes that slaves should submit to their masters. Really, several of the preceding verses and those following mention submitting to authority in one form or another, so I think it’s important to keep this wider context in mind when reading this passage.

Moving on to the reading itself, in this season of Easter, as we continue to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord, this reading’s  focus on suffering and submission to worldly authorities might seem like a step backward, retreading the ground of Good Friday again. Even when removed from the context of the verses around it, this is still a less than pleasant passage. I see this as a reminder that following the Good Shepherd is not always an easy road to take. We are reminded that Christ himself suffered on our behalf and in following him we can expect that we might be met with resistance from worldly authorities as well. The writer is calling us to respond to such opposition in a Christ-like manner.

So I don’t think the suffering or the hardship is meant to be the focal point of this passage, though. I think the heart of the passage is found in the last four verses, particularly verse 23 which says, “he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly.” In our own interactions with one another and with the wider world, the author is saying that we should do the same, entrust ourselves to God instead of repaying evil for evil or violence for violence. I’m wondering, though, in the face of violence, oppression, suffering, and displays of military and political authority in our world (and there are plenty of examples of all of these in recent headlines), what does it really mean for us to, like Jesus did, entrust ourselves to the one who judges justly?

John 11:35

As I was planning my sermon for this Sunday, I do what I always do.  I read the text several times, read some commentaries and listened to the Pulpit Fiction podcast, and then wrote a rough outline of where I wanted the sermon to go.  I had what I thought was a really good plan, and I immediately wrote about 700 words, a pretty good start.

But then I continued to read some more commentaries online and had an entirely different idea speak to me.  With so much progress already made (and a sermon I still thought was good and faithful to the text), I decided to put the second idea on hold, maybe for another sermon some time in the future (maybe in three years when this text shows up in the lectionary again).

At the same time, though, I know myself. I know that I won’t remember my current thoughts three years from now, so I thought I would capture a bit of my current train of thought.

I’ve heard countless stories of confirmation classes or youth group Bible studies where students have been asked to choose a favorite/most personally meaningful Scripture passage to memorize and to explain why they chose it.

Of course, John 11:35 is a popular one: “Jesus wept.” Two words (even in the Greek).  Most students who choose this verse do so because it is so short and therefore easy to memorize. They don’t choose it because it is meaningful or important to them. But I would argue that this verse carries a tremendous amount of theological weight in its two short words.

Thinking about this reminds me of my favorite chapter in the William Faulkner novel As I Lay Dying.  Early in the book, the young character Vardaman catches a fish and the fish dies. The book deals with the topic of death by shifting its narration between different members of a family as they cope with the death of the mother. Vardaman, trying to come to terms with his mother’s death, connects the dots in a strange and unique way, leading to the shortest chapter in the book, being one sentence made up of five words: “My mother is a fish.” In his young mind he is trying to cope with the concept of death as best as he can-he knows the fish is dead, and he knows his mother is dead, so he connects the two deaths together as a means of dealing with a situation that he cannot understand. There are essays and journal articles numbering in the thousands of words written to analyze the content of that five word sentence, and I have always been fascinated by the literary device used here, of saying so much in so little words, of letting the readers fill in the blanks for themselves.

“Jesus wept.” Two words, but they are not insignificant. I’m sure there are entire books written about the meaning present in these two words.

There is debate about what, exactly, Jesus was weeping about. He could simply be weeping over the death of his friend, or he could be grieving alongside Mary and Martha and the community, but some scholars argue against this possibility because he knew that Lazarus would live again; he knew the sign he was about to perform. Another possibility, then, would be that Jesus is weeping in a more universal sense over the power of death in the world, the collective burden of grief and sense of hopelessness that humanity as a whole feels under the grips of such an insurmountable obstacle-an acknowledgement, perhaps, that raising Lazarus is an individual solution while countless others who have died before and after were not risen as this man was.

Either way you want to look at it, whether it is a deeply personal grief or a universal, collective grief, or even some combination of the two, the message seems to be the same to me: Jesus knows what it means to feel human grief. Jesus understands our suffering, sadness, and grief and, really, shares with us in the entire scope of human emotions and experiences, both the good and the bad. Jesus smiles when we smile, laughs when we laugh, and yes, he weeps when we weep. He is the Lord of life (and death) and will be present with us in all seasons of life.

Two words, but so much is said in those two words. And what I have written here is just scratching the surface.

When you read this story of the raising of Lazarus and read verse 35 in light of the story and the wider context of Scripture and life, what do these two words mean for you?

Jesus for President?

We were traveling in Texas last month, driving through the San Antonio area on the way to New Braunfels where I was preaching that Sunday morning.  We passed several churches on the way.  Many of them were what can be called “mega churches.”  On the outside, these tend to look more like shopping malls than places of worship and their worship spaces (not usually called sanctuaries) often look more like amphitheaters and concert halls.  These churches we passed had huge, tall signs on the side of the highway with bright, clear LED lighting (I couldn’t help but think that those signs probably cost as much as my yearly salary…)

One such sign had the image below flash across it followed by the title of that Sunday’s sermon (part of the ongoing “Jesus for President” series) and a larger than life picture of the pastor.

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I’ve heard the phrase “Jesus for president” before, and I know there is at least one book written by that title, but seeing it displayed prominently on the billboard-sized sign advertising a local church’s services was surprising to me.

The Jesus I have come to know in my personal (as well as “professional”) reading of Scripture would have no interest in running for president.  Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God and its ultimate supremacy over the kingdoms and rulers of this world.  Jesus never wanted to be the king, ruler, or president of any nation on earth.

In fact, he is tempted with such power after his 40 days in the desert.  Satan offers Jesus all the kingdoms of the world (in a scene that has always reminded me of the “everything the light touches is our kingdom” scene in the Lion King) if Jesus would worship him and Jesus refuses saying “Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.”  Jesus refuses two things here: he refuses to worship Satan, choosing to worship only God and he refuses to take possession of the kingdoms of the world, choosing instead to serve God.

The Kingdom of God and the kingdoms and national leaders of this world are, naturally, at odds with one another being that, regardless of how well-intentioned our politicians and leaders may be, there is always a struggle for power and wealth involved; I don’t think anyone who has gotten so far as actually running for President has done so purely out of an altruistic wish to serve the people of the nation.

Jesus isn’t concerned with worldly power or wealth.  His Kingdom is concerned with equality, liberty, freedom, grace, and truth, the things that our nations strive for but can never fully grasp.

I visited the “Jesus for president” website to see what sort of message this campaign is actually trying to get across.  From what I read, the ultimate point of the sermon series and advertising campaign is simply to say that, no matter who is in power in our nation and world, for Christians Jesus is the one who should be receiving loyalty and praise.  The nations and rulers of this world are temporary, while the Kingdom of God is forever.  From a theological and eschatological standpoint, this is not a bad message.

The problem is in the details.

On jesus4presidentsa.com, there is a section outlining the “candidate’s platform.”  A lot of what is said here seems positive enough, like saying that Jesus’ immigration policy would involve care and compassion for refugees and foreigners, but some if not all of the “policy statements” put words in Jesus’ mouth.  In the gospels, there are little to no statements from Jesus concerning such things as a clear definition of marriage or discussions of race relations, so it is not possible to outline from the gospels what Jesus’ policy would be on most matters.  Also, the things that Jesus said in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas two thousand years ago may or may not be the same things that Jesus would say if he was ministering to twenty-first century Americans.  When we set out to definitively state what Jesus would have to say about any given issue I think more often than not we end up projecting our own personal beliefs onto him instead, especially when we pick and choose verses and pluck them from their context.

There is another major issue I have with this campaign and that is the decision to use the slogan of a certain actual presidential candidate.  The paragraph below is taken from the main page of the site (I made the referenced statement bold for emphasis):

“Jesus for President is a series devoted to examining how Jesus intends for the church to live out our faith, which is of great importance in our current time in America. We truly want to make America great again, but Gods plan for this to take place has always been the people of God living out our faith in a way that demands an explanation to the watching world.”

I saw this phrase show up somewhere else recently, too.  This past week I received a postcard at one of the churches I serve.  I copied it below with the name of the organization retracted:

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This brings me to the three biggest problems I have with both of these campaigns.

  1.  I have a problem in general with the idea of “making America great again.”  Is there a time in the past when America was objectively greater than it is now?  In what ways?  Surely we have made tremendous progress in terms of civil rights in recent history.  Maybe there was a time when partisanship was not as big of a deal as it is now, but otherwise I cannot think of a time in our country’s past that is objectively “greater” that we can aspire to reach again.  I would prefer to look ahead to the future rather than attempting to relive some imagined grandiose past.  Also, I don’t believe that God is particularly concerned with “making America great again.”
  2. Prayer is a major part of the Christian life.  We are called to pray, but we aren’t called to be self-centered in our prayer.  Jesus clearly said, “pray for your enemies, bless those who curse you.”  It’s fine to pray for our country, but we certainly should not neglect to pray for the entire world, even and especially those nations which oppose ours.  In our country we have this false belief that God has uniquely blessed the United States in ways that he has not done for other nations.  I believe that God loves and cares for all people and all nations equally.  Americans don’t receive some special favored status from God; we are not his “chosen people” like the Israelites. That honor goes to all who are members of the church, regardless of nation or ethnicity.
  3. By choosing to use that phrase, these organizations are showing an inherent bias for one candidate and party platform over another.

I don’t want to put words and ideas in the mouth of Jesus, but I am pretty certain that the below statements would be true:

Jesus was not/is not a politician.  Jesus does not hold the United States in high esteem above other nations.  Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican.  Jesus calls all of us to pray, not only for ourselves, but for the whole world.

So, yes, pray for our country as this election season comes to an end, especially as we await the results this evening.  Pray that we would be more compassionate, forgiving, and loving, less greedy, self-centered, and power hungry.  And pray this way for other nations, too, because Jesus is not our president, nor is he interested in running.  God is the God of every nation and his Kingdom will outlast and overcome all that divides us.

Two sincere questions

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Again this week I am posting something that has been on my mind for some time.  The text in italics below has been sitting in my Google Drive folder for months (the first edit was on May 10), only visible to me, with the title “Dangerous Facebook post.”  I planned to post this to Facebook, and invite a discussion in the comments section (if you are reading this from the Facebook link, feel free to comment there or on this post itself).

I hesitated.  I initially wrote all of this in Facebook’s “status update” field, but then second guessed the posting and copied it to Google Drive while I decided whether I wanted to go through with the post or not.

I haven’t been able to get these thoughts out of my mind.

These thoughts won’t leave my head particularly during such an anomaly of an election year, where we are being given two (or more) very different views from candidates concerning the identity of our nation and how best to represent that identity moving forward.  There has always been a divide between the two major parties, but this year that divide seems to have grown exponentially.  So I feel that my first question below is a valid one to think about in this election season.

This led me to think in similar ways about recent debates and schisms, and the overall sense of divisiveness, in the world of the church, particularly as denominations like mine (the PC(USA)) and others (Methodists, ELCA Lutherans, etc.) have decided to be inclusive as far as ordination and marriage are concerned, ordaining and marrying people regardless of sexual orientation (among various other factors).  There is major backlash against such changes.

For those who don’t know this about me, I fall far more on the side of inclusion because I believe that we are first and foremost called by God to love, to love God and to love each other (“our neighbors” is how Jesus puts it) and, whenever possible, to read the Bible in light of this calling.  I do not see theologies and policies which choose to exclude people from full participation in the life of the church over sexual orientation (or any other factor) as promoting love above all else.  In my current ministry setting, in one of the most conservative presbyteries in the country, I am certainly in the minority on this.

A Quick side note: Dr. Steven Tuell at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary has been a major influence on my understanding of all of this as far as the Bible is concerned.  He has written several great articles about how we should read what the Bible says about all of this on his “The Bible Guy” blog.  I still have questions concerning the Bible’s take on sexuality and how we should respond to that in the twenty-first century world, but here are links to two of Dr Tuell’s posts that have been very helpful to me in forming my own view:

How to Read the Bible, Part 3: The Bible Isn’t Flat

How To Read the Bible, Part Eight: Show Invisibles

With all of that said, here (finally) is the original post, composed of two questions, one concerning the United States and one concerning the church:

I’ve been thinking about posting this for quite a while, but I’ve been hesitant because I know some people will be uncomfortable with what I’m implying, but this has been eating at my heart for a long time.  I would welcome civil dialogue with anyone who has responses to the questions asked below:

  1.  In a country that has life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and equality “for all” as some of its founding principles, why is it considered “liberal,” “progressive,” “radical,” etc. to support legislation and candidates which promote such ideals?
  2. Similarly, as far as Christianity goes, in a religion founded to follow in the footsteps of the “Prince of Peace,” The God who is “Love,” why is it considered “liberal,” “progressive,” “un-traditional,” etc. to support theology and action which seeks to promote peace and love among all people and to speak and act against theology which does not promote such things?

I am asking these questions sincerely, and I have some thoughts as far as answers go, but I would like to know what thoughts others might have on this.

“Guns and Religion”

It has now been several months since I last posted on this page.  There are several reasons for this, but the two main reasons are:

  1.  I’ve had the content of today’s post in mind for a long time, but I have been hesitant to write it because I know I am dealing with a topic today that many feel strongly about, and I know that many people who read this will likely not agree with my stance or rationale.  But I knew that if I shelved this post and worked on others, I would just never actually write this one.  I didn’t want to do that.  Also, for those of you who have differing views, that’s fine.  We are all free to think for ourselves and come to different conclusions.  Please don’t take personal offense if I disagree with something you strongly believe.  Instead, post a (civil) comment and continue the discussion.
  2. Every time I would think to sit down and write, another event or news story would occur that added new information and perspective to the topic.  You’ll notice that I am linking to several news articles and videos today.

With these introductory comments out of the way, let’s get on with the actual content of today’s post.

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I saw the image above in the ads of the Saturday edition of the New Castle News, alongside the typical grocery store sales ads and RedPlum coupons.  It was an ad for Henry Repeating Arms with a mail form to receive a free sticker and catalog.

The full ad had the following text below the image, next to pictures of some of the company’s firearms:

“We at Henry Repeating Arms believe in our God given religious freedom and our right to bear arms. We are proud, not ashamed, to embrace two of our country’s greatest gifts. During this past presidential election folks like us were mocked for our beliefs, but we know better. It’s simple. We believe in God, Our Country and Our Freedoms. If you do too, we’d love to hear from you. If you don’t, that’s fine too – it’s another freedom we’re proud of, and we apologize if this ad has offended you.”

I certainly was offended…

I was offended on a few different levels.  First, this statement is in response to something that Barack Obama stated during the election campaign in 2008.  Ever since then, those on the conservative end of the spectrum have held these words against the president.  This ad is originally from 2009, but it was likely re-used this year after Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump in which she again (kind of) quoted the original statement.  The problem is that President Obama did not mean the statement to be taken the way that it was.  Here is what he meant: “Obviously, if I worded things in a way that made people offended, I deeply regret that,” Obama said in a phone interview on Saturday with the Winston-Salem Journal. “But the underlying truth of what I said remains, which is simply that people who have seen their way of life upended because of economic distress are frustrated and rightfully so.”

He continued, “People feel like Washington’s not listening to them, and as a consequence, they find that they can only rely on the traditions and the things that have been important to them for generation after generation. Faith. Family. Traditions like hunting. And they get frustrated.” -source: http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2008/april/obama-they-cling-to-guns-or-religion.html

Everyone seems to have taken the statement very personally and negatively when the president actually simply meant to give voice to the frustrations that people have and the traditions (whether good or bad) that they fall back on in the midst of frustrating and difficult times.  It’s like people would be saying: “well, I don’t have a job and my financial situation is still terrible, but at least I have my faith, my traditions, and my freedoms.”  That’s not anywhere near as bad a statement as it has been portrayed.  I do not appreciate when statements made by politicians, or anyone else, are removed entirely from their context in order to make a point (look at what happens when we do this to the Bible, as well…)

Second, and more importantly, I was offended by the matter-of-fact nature of the text and image, as if this position is the only rational and faithful way of looking at the right to bear arms.  That image of having a gun in one hand and a Bible in the other seems to be entirely incompatible with my understanding of the gospel.

I don’t often like to use this statement in legitimate arguments, but do you remember those WWJD bracelets from the ’90s?  I think this is an appropriate time to ask “What would Jesus do?”

I don’t think Jesus would ever be seen carrying a gun on one side of his waist and a Bible on the other.

I don’t think Jesus would ever be seen carrying a gun at all.

I am fairly certain that Jesus never advocated in favor of violence.  Yes, there are passages where Jesus says that violence and division and war will come as a result of his coming into the world, but he means that those who oppose his kingdom or do not recognize him for who he is will react in such a way.  He does not advocate that his followers instigate or participate in violence.

The one who teaches us to “turn the other cheek” would not want us to fight gun violence with more gun violence.

For me, my understanding of the gospel leads me to the conclusion that I should not own a gun. However, if you’re a Christian who owns guns for hunting or personal protection, that is fine. It’s your right to do so as a US citizen.  But please never hold your gun and your Bible at the same time.  Please understand that the gospel is a message of unconditional love and that it advocates for peace no matter the cost.

When I first thought about writing this post, it was shortly after the tragic nightclub shooting in Florida where a man acted out of hate in killing 49 people who happened to identify as LGBTQ.  I saw some awful things posted on social media in the aftermath.  Sure, lots of people reacted sympathetically, but I saw so many hateful responses as well.  People who commended the shooter for “doing God’s work” and some even saying that the real tragedy is that he didn’t kill more “sinners.” (here are a couple examples: http://www.washingtonblade.com/2016/06/13/twitter-reacts-to-orlando-shooting-with-sympathy-others-tweet-hate/)

Of course, though, there are always people posting nonsense like that online, so that should not be surprising.  But what gets me every time there is another gun-related tragedy (and there have been several since I began thinking about this post) is that gun sales increase dramatically in response.  I know that the sales of the weapon used in the nightclub shooting, the AR-15, went up significantly in the days following.  The logic is that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” where obviously the one making that statement sees himself as the objectively “good” guy.

To me, that is terribly flawed logic.  There are no “good” and “bad” people.  There are just people.  And those people either have weapons that are capable of killling other people or they don’t.

A while back I read stories of churches that implemented concealed carry policies for their congregation, meaning parishioners could bring their guns to worship with them (this one involves a state law allowing such practices: http://www.kiro7.com/news/mississippi-governor-signs-law-allowing-armed-church-members/218754414).  I’m sure the intention was to protect the congregation from potential outside attacks, like the one that occurred last year.  But not long after, I saw this story and a few others like it: http://6abc.com/news/man-killed-in-north-wales-church-shooting-idd-/1306937/

“‘There was a disturbance. It escalated into an altercation between two church members,’ said Steele.

Steele says that led one church member to shoot Braxton at least once in the chest. He wouldn’t identify the gunman, but says he is licensed to carry a concealed weapon.

‘The investigating is ongoing. We’re going to have to determine whether the shooting was justified under the law,’ said Steele.

Steele wouldn’t elaborate on how the shooting could be justified. He says he doesn’t believe Braxton was armed.”

This is definitely not what Jesus envisions for his church.

I believe that Jesus calls us to further peace in all circumstances, even if it is difficult, even if it seems like violence would be the logical response.  The gospel is all about overcoming evil, violence, grief, death, and sin by remaining peaceful, loving, graceful, and kind in the face of such brokenness.  That is what Jesus did.  That is what he calls his church to do.

I want to share one more story with you.  This one is different.  This one doesn’t end in anyone getting killed.

“The winner of a controversial AR-15 rifle raffle by an Oregon softball team is a Lake Oswego church reverend, who now plans to destroy the weapon. . .

‘I hate that we live in a world where a girls’ softball team feels like they have to raffle off a rifle to get enough money to go play a game,’ he said. . .

When he made it public that he planned to destroy the weapon, he received threatening messages.

‘I always had two goals,’ Lucas said standing among the pews at Christ Church Episcopal Parish. ‘One was to help the softball team get to California to play in their tournament, and the other was to just have one less gun and that’s what my faith leads.’

Lucas said he’s working with local artists to transform the weapon into a positive message.

‘Do something creative with something that is so destructive,’ he said of his plans. ‘That might speak to people’s opportunity, to just take one small step, just do one thing to change our conversation.'” (Go here to read the full story: http://katu.com/news/local/winner-of-girls-softball-teams-raffled-rifle-is-church-reverend)

Maybe it’s a bit of proof-texting, but I feel that Isaiah 4:2 is an appropriate response: “. . . they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

Yesterday marked my first Easter Sunday as a pastor.  For years, pastors, teachers, and mentors have commented on how difficult it can be to preach an Easter sermon.  I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that most churches have visitors and out-of-town family members who will likely only attend that one time during the entire year.  You want to make sure you say something worthwhile if this is your one chance.

I didn’t really take that sentiment into consideration, because such emphasis on saying something “worthwhile” in one sermon can minimize the importance of all of the other 51 sermons given in a year.

But there is another reason that I think Easter Sunday sermons are difficult, and I opened mine by calling attention to that:

I think there is no amount of preparation that can be done to truly make a pastor ready to preach an Easter Sunday sermon.  The message of Easter is far too significant for our words to capture, but year after year, we have to try.  Today marks my very first attempt.  

As I said on Maundy Thursday, there are occasions when pastors try to do something new with a sermon, to tell the congregation something they have never heard before or to explain the gospel in a new or unique way.  Easter is not the time for that.  On this holiest of holy days, it’s best to let the gospel speak and to not let our own words get in the way.  

I kept my Easter sermon brief for that very reason.  I sincerely believe that there is no combination of words that I could come up with that would adequately describe the Easter event, so I mostly let Luke’s account of the resurrection stand on its own merit.

But, I had to say something, right?  I suppose I could have read the gospel, said, “this is the Word of the Lord,” and sat down.  But it is part of my duty as a pastor to preach, no matter how inadequate I think my words are.

When I was having trouble deciding what I wanted to say, a group of preschoolers helped me.  The rest of this post will consist of the second half of my Easter sermon.  The first half was mainly just a recap of the gospel reading, so if you need the context read Luke 24:1-12.

Most of you know that my wife, Heather, is the director and teacher of our church’s preschool program.  Last weekend we were in the car going somewhere and Heather was beginning to plan the preschool’s lesson for Thursday.  She decided to dedicate the whole lesson to Easter, being that this would be their last class before the holiday.  She knew that she wanted to explain the whole  story of Holy Week to them, not just tell them about Easter Sunday, so she was thinking of ways to talk about Palm Sunday and the Last Supper, but when it came time to think of ways to talk about the events of Good Friday and Easter, she asked for my input, being that I’m the one with a seminary education.  

I took a significant amount of time to think about it, because these kids are 3 and 4 years old.  They likely have not had much exposure to the idea of death, and resurrection can be a hard concept even for adults to wrap our heads around.  But at the same time, I didn’t want to underestimate these kids.  I’ve gotten to know all of them over the course of this year, and they often surprise me with how smart they are.

I eventually settled on telling Heather to emphasize Easter more than Good Friday, because I think the best way to handle Good Friday with preschoolers would be to keep it simple, to say that Jesus died for us.  I told her to relate what Jesus said to his disciples, that he loves them, and us, enough that he would lay down his life for our sake.  

Well, as it turns out, these kids were very much aware of the fact that Jesus died for us and that he did this out of love for us.  Heather told me that whenever she has talked about Jesus with them throughout the year, they always mention that he died for us.

But, then she moved on to tell them about the resurrection.  She told them, “You know what, Jesus didn’t stay dead.  Three days later he came alive again!”  

She couldn’t get any more words out before all of the kids started clapping and cheering and celebrating.  

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For the rest of class that day the kids were incredibly happy and celebrating because Jesus is alive and didn’t stay in the grave.

So, why is it that we look for the living among the dead?  

It’s easy on Easter Sunday to see that the resurrection makes a difference for us.  Jesus was raised from death to life so that we can have new life in him.  That is the good news that the whole New Testament proclaims.  So why do we live our daily lives exactly the same as people have been doing for thousands and thousands of years?  Why are we so comfortable in the old life that we forget about the new life that Jesus has given us?  Why do we try to find new life in the realm of the dead?  God is always in the business of making all things new.  God is always doing new things among us.  Why do we cling so tightly to the old?  Why do we not shout for joy and clap our hands and celebrate when we hear about the new life that Jesus brings, like those preschoolers did?  

That, friends, is all I have to say on this Easter Sunday.  Why do we look for the living among the dead?  I pray that each and every one of us would be on the lookout for signs of the resurrection in our lives and in our church, that we would let go of the old way of life for the sake of our risen Lord.  And it’s also my prayer that we wouldn’t confine the celebration of the resurrection to today, or even to the season of Easter.  May we shout for joy all year long because we know that our Lord and savior is alive and is at work among us.  Amen.

Another interesting phone call

 When I came into the office this afternoon, I noticed that I had a missed call on  the church phone from Saturday.  The message was from someone named Tommy who said he was calling in regard to a death.  He asked for me by name to call him back.

One thing that was strange was that the area code for the number looked unfamiliar to me.  So, before returning the call, I decided to run a quick Google search on the number.

One website had a few reports for this number listing it as a scammer and about a dozen “missed call/unknown number” reports.  I decided to call back anyway, but to proceed with caution.

I spoke to a man who sounded like he was under a great deal of stress.  He said he had been in our church with his wife and two daughters back in October.  I had no specific recollection of this, but I was out of town most of October so I thought it was likely he may have attended while I was out of town.  He said his mother had been killed in a drunk driving accident and that he had been in the process of cleaning out her house when he just had to remove himself from the situation.  So he and his family drove for about 100 miles and then their car broke down.  He needed to get the family on a Greyhound bus to get back to New Castle, but that he was short a little over $100.  He asked if I could help.

I responded by saying that there are two problems: 1. I don’t really have $100 that I can just give away.  My family is not in the most secure of financial situations, so $100 is not a small amount of money for us.  2. Even if I did have that much money, how would I get it to him on the side of the highway in Florida?

He told me to go to Rite Aid and they would be able to send the money to Greyhound.  I said that I have to be at the church all evening, so I can’t just go to Rite Aid.  Then he asked if I had internet access and told me to log on to Western Union.  Major red flag, there.

Tommy began to appeal to Scripture, and said that everyone is always empathetic and sympathetic until it actually comes time to “do” something.  He does kind of have a point there.

Eventually, after I apologized a few more times for not being able to help, he got very agitated and said that his family will end up dying there on the side of the road and then said “bye!” and hung up.

I began writing this post immediately after putting the phone down.  This is not what I planned to write about this week, and this is not how I expected to spend my afternoon, but I was a bit shaken up by this encounter and decided that this would be the best way to process the situation.

Thinking back, this man was far too detail-oriented to be sincere.  He told me intricate details of every aspect of his story including a detailed breakdown of the cost of the bus trip and the different highway routes that they would need to travel as well as an account of what exactly happened to his car, a ’92 Oldsmobile.  He even said that he found the church bulletin in the totaled car which his wife pointed to as a “sign from God.”  That, more than anything, was a red flag, being that he called me the first time over 48 hours ago but spoke of the breakdown as if it had just occurred before I called him.

But, despite that initial Google search labeling this number as a potential scam and the many red flags during the conversation, I can’t help but think: what if this man and his family really did need help?  The church does have a “pastor’s fund” that I am given discretion over to help parishioners or others in times of urgent need; I guess I technically could have sent this man $100 from that fund.  But, I am accountable for this money to the session of the church.  I take the responsibility I’ve been given over that fund seriously, to the point that I have actually never utilized it in my eight months here.  Again, though, what if this man really did just lose his mother to a drunk driver?  What if he is stuck in Florida with no car?

How would you have responded to this situation?  Did I handle it the right way?

Thinking back, I should have asked him for his mother’s name.  He said the funeral was this weekend; I could have looked up an obituary to verify.  Although, even that would not prove anything; if I can Google an obituary, so can he.

Regardless of whether this man is legitimately grieving and going through a struggle with his family or he is a scam artist, I will be keeping Tommy in my prayers today.  God knows the content of his heart, and God knows his needs. I pray that his needs will be met and that he will place his faith in God, no matter what circumstance he finds himself in.

One closing thought.  At one point in the conversation, Tommy said he doesn’t know where the verse is but he knows the Bible says, “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  I told him that, actually, that is something that people think the Bible says but it actually doesn’t (the verse that people use to support such an idea actually refers to temptation specifically [found in 1 Corinthians 10]).  I found his response to that to be really interesting, and so I will leave you with it: “You know, I guess that actually does make sense.  If that were true then we wouldn’t have a need for a savior, would we?”