Monthly Archives: July 2011

Shine – David Crowder Band (from 7/24 8:30am Worship)

In worship last Sunday we looked at Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount, “You are the light of the world…” (Matthew 5:13) and explored our call to share Christ’s light with the world.  In concluding the 8:30 service we showed David Crowder Band’s, “Shine” video.  Several people have commented about it this week and I wanted to share it here as a reference for those who weren’t at the 8:30 service.

Every time I watch this video I appreciate it a bit more than I had previously…

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07 24 31 Salty and Bright

My sermon from July 24th, 2011 based on Matthew 5:13-20.  4 of 5 in “Calling and Community” series.

This morning we continue our series, “Calling and Community.”  I outlined this series wanting us to begin our time together as pastor and congregation by thinking about some big questions, questions that we will continue to revisit over the course of the coming months and years.  The questions at their core are, “Who are we?” and “What are we doing?”  Ultimately each and every one of us wants to be able to answer these questions for ourselves on an individual level, but as a community of faith it is also important that we be able to answer them collectively.

Over the course of the last three weeks we have begun an exploration of God’s call on each of our lives and the fact that, in our baptism, we are called to be in ministry to the community around us.

Three weeks ago we began be going back to the very basics of our Christian faith, the reality that God loves us unconditionally.  We talked a bit about how God’s love is claimed when we are baptized.  You’ll remember that in our baptism God claims us as God’s own, God forgives us for all of the ways in which we have fallen short, and that God offers us a new beginning.  We talked about the imagery of a drop of water falling into a pool and causing ripples.  Our baptism is that event, that drop of water and the world around us, our friends, our families, our co-workers, should experiences the ripples as our baptism is lived out.  In response to God’s unconditional love, we are called to share that love with the world, to serve and to be in ministry.

Two weeks ago then, building upon the idea of our call to be in ministry that comes in our baptism we talked about the power that community has to impact our lives.  Through two stories from our community we explored the ways in which community can give life and heal and build up as well as the ways in which community can cause harm, and tear down, and alienate, and oppress.  You’ll remember that we talked about the choices that we all have to make in terms of how we relate to one another and engage in our community and how these choices ultimately shape whether community brings life or death.

Then last week we began a more practical exploration of the ways in which we’re called to live and the things we’re called to do as we seek to be in ministry to and with the community around us.  I pushed you last week, to think about the dynamics and relationships within this congregation.  I named that sense that I had that on a number of levels there is a lack of trust in this congregation.  And we looked at Jesus’ words calling us to first be reconciled to one another before we present our offerings to God.  On the most practical level I challenged you all to be cautious of an “us” vs. “them” mindset and the language that often accompanies that way of thinking.  In order for us to fully live into who God is calling us to be as a community, we must be united in our ministry.  This doesn’t always mean we’ll think exactly the same, but it means that even in the midst of different opinions we’re called to live with a sense of unity.

Now I heard from several of you last week who felt like I stepped on your toes a bit last Sunday.  I was relieved to hear that most of you who felt that way seemed appreciative of the pushing that I did.  Interestingly, I didn’t hear any negative feedback, which kind of made me wonder if people were just being too nice and so didn’t want to complain to me, but rather just talked to anyone who would listen…  I hope this wasn’t the case, but you never know…

In conversation with several of you who felt like I did hit some nails squarely on the head last week, I shared a management philosophy that I often try to incorporate into my ministry.  I have heard it said that a good manager will alternately pat people on the back and kick them in the tail, pat people on the back and kick them in the tail.  To couch that in more theological terms, I understand Jesus’ ministry to have been about comforting the afflicted as well as afflicting the comfortable.

We all exist within this complex web of feeling both comfortable and afflicted in different situations in different relationships every day.  And so as your pastor there will be times when I’m here to pat you on the back, to encourage you and support you, to remind you of God’s love for you and hope for you.  And there will be times when I provide you with a bit of a kick in the tail to challenge you to step out of your comfort zone.

Last week’s sermon was clearly more of a kick in the tail sermon and I hope that you spent some time chewing on the challenges I put before you.  Today the message that I hope we might take away from Jesus’ teaching will fall a bit more to the pat on the back side of things.  So I invite you to relax and sit back as we dig in.

Again this week we turn to some of what Jesus had to say in his Sermon on the Mount.  At the very beginning of his public ministry as it’s recorded in the book of Matthew, Jesus sits on a hillside with his disciples gathered close and a large crowd surrounding them and says, “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.”  And this morning I want us to explore what it is that these statements mean to us today as those who seek to live our lives following Jesus.

“You are the salt of the earth.”  Jesus made this statement to a crowd who would have heard it in a variety of different ways.  In this culture salt was used as a sacrifice, it was a symbol of fidelity and loyalty, the act of eating together was referred to as “sharing salt” and signified a binding relationship, it was used for purification, as a preservative, and as a seasoning.  When Jesus spoke these words to the disciples and the crowd gathered there that day, they would have heard what he was saying at all of these various levels.  They would have understood that as disciples they are to do and be all of these things.

As disciples today, we can hear in this simple statement, “you are the salt of the earth,” as a call to do and to be all of these things as well.  But it is the idea of being seasoning that I particularly want to address this morning as we think about the call that this text places upon our lives as disciples today.

Heather’s family loves popcorn – real popcorn.  The tradition is to make it with a generous amount of oil in a stir-crazy popper.  While the corn is popping the butter is melted and the popped corn is drizzled with butter and finished with lots and lots of salt.  It is delicious.  Sometimes, I’ll pop a couple of kernels into my mouth before all of the salt is added and it’s really plain.  It has a crunch, but the flavor is pretty underwhelming.  What really makes the popcorn good is the added salt.

In many ways life can seem like popcorn without salt.  It’s ok, but not great.  Life is full of stresses and we’re busy and we work hard and we never seem to have all of the time we’d like to do things for ourselves and to connect with our family and friends…  And sometimes when we do connect with them it still seems like something is lacking, like the conversation only exists on the surface because we don’t have the time or the energy we’d really like to engage in a deeper level of conversation.  As disciples we called to be salt for the earth, we are called to share God’s love that has been given to us as an incredible gift, and we’re called to do this in ways that enhance the flavor of life, our lives and the lives of those around us.

As we think about and dream about the future to which God is calling us (both as individuals and as a community), the other metaphor that Jesus uses in the Sermon on the Mount can provide us with some helpful imagery to understand our call.  Jesus tells his disciples that they (and the Gospel tells us that we) are to be the light of the world.  If you have ever attended a candle-lit Christmas Eve service I imagine you have had an opportunity to observe a beautiful representation of what Jesus is talking about when he tells us to be the “light of the world.”

It is traditional that, at the end of a Christmas Eve service, the sanctuary will grow dark.  Oftentimes any candles in the altar area are extinguished as well.   And in the midst of that darkness, one lone candle enters the worship space, often processing slowly down the center aisle.  That light, of course, is symbolic of the light of Christ coming into the midst of darkness, the darkness of the world and the darkness of our lives.  Slowly then the light is passed from candle to candle until the entire congregation stands, raising the light of Christ above their heads.  As they do, the light of Christ illuminates the room, casting out the darkness.  It is a beautiful and powerful representation of the fact that we are to be light for the world.

It is not difficult to think of dark places in the world today.  The news of our economy continues to be terrifying for many.  Fighting continues around the world and our men and women continue to be engaged in conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Disease and hunger and war run rampant in countries all around the globe.

Unfortunately, we need not look as far as the large global scale to find examples of darkness.  They exist all around us as well.  Families are struggling to survive.  Children are hungry.  Women are abused and abandoned.  Homes are foreclosed. Lives are torn apart.  This week our community experienced another tragic death and a memorial to a fallen soldier in our community was vandalized at the VFW park.

The reality, though, is that we need not even look outside of ourselves and our relationships to find examples of darkness; jealousy, hatred, selfishness, greed, these dark realities live in our hearts and our souls causing pain on a number of levels.

There is so much darkness in the world, in our communities, in our relationships, and in our own lives.  And Jesus says to us, “You are the light of the world.”

One of the beautiful realities illustrated by the Christmas Eve Candle ritual, is that the light is not ours.  We don’t have to create it.  We don’t have to make it happen.  It is a gift, that comes before us, is passed to us, and that we are invited to share with the world around us.  Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, tells us that we are to be the light of the world, but we also know the good news that Jesus is the light of the world.  We need not be Jesus; we need only to receive the light that is given to us and then to shine the light for the rest of the world to see.

Before we moved to Tongie at the end of June I was living in Lawrence and serving the Easton and Southern Heights United Methodist Churches in northern Leavenworth County.  2 or 3 times a week I drove through Tongie as I went up to those churches and I made it a habit of stopping and visiting with people in different businesses here in town.  I often began by simply saying that my wife and daughter and I would be moving here over the summer and would ask people to tell me about the community.

After we chatted a bit I would say, “What can you tell me about the churches in town?”  Usually they could tell me something about Sacred Heart or West Haven or The Christian Church, but rarely did they mention our church.  I would usually then identify myself as the incoming pastor of the United Methodist Church and on several occasions’ people struggled to identify the church I was talking about.  I was in businesses up and down 4th St. here and people weren’t sure what church I was talking about when I mentioned the United Methodist Church…

Jesus’ teachings about being salt and light for the world are invitations to a way of life.  My hope is that being a part of this community of faith is and will continue to be an important part of your lives that brings you joy.  My prayer is that there will come a time in our future that when people ask local business leaders and people in the community about churches, they’ll be quick to tell them about our community of faith.  My hope is that people would say, “those United Methodists in Tongie are a really neat group of people.  They are active in serving the community and helping other people.  They do fun things with one another and invite others to be a part of them.  It seems like there is always something going on there and they are some of the nicest people I know who really live out their faith in humble and sincere ways.

We are called to be salt; to be seasoning, to enhance our communities and the world around us, to bring out the richness and nuance of the life that God created us to live.

We are called to be light, to shine the light of Christ that has been given to us into the dark places of our own lives, our community, and our world.

And again, living as salt and light are two of the many ripples that should grow out of God’s love shared in our baptism…

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07 17 11 First Be Reconciled

My sermon from July 17th, 2011 based on Matthew 5:21-24 & Matthew 18:15-17.  3 of 5 in “Calling and Community” series.

There is an Irish expression that I learned this week and I wonder if any of you are familiar with it.  “Chancing an arm.”  Anyone ever heard this before?  I hadn’t either until this week.  Let me share the story…

It is said that in 1492 two prominent Irish families, the Ormonds and the Kildares, found themselves embroiled in a bitter feud.  As tensions increased and ultimately turned violent the Earl of Ormand, his family, and his followers, took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and bolted themselves in.  As the siege wore on and the Earl of Kildare tried harder and harder to destroy the Earl of Ormand he began thinking about what was really happening.  Here were two families who worshipped the same God and attended the same church and lived in the same country.  The Earl of Kildare suddenly had an epiphany and decided that the feuding was foolish.

The Earl of Kildare cried out to the Earl of Ormand and explained what he was thinking.  He told the Earl of Ormand that he wanted him to come out, that he would not seek revenge or do him harm, that he simple wanted the Earl of Ormand to come out so that their feud could be over.  The Earl of Ormand was skeptical and refused, he thought the Earl of Kildare was simply scheming.  And so the Earl of Kildare grabbed his spear and chopped a hole in the door with it.  (You can see the door here as it is displayed today…)

And after he cut this hole in the door, the Earl of Kildare thrust his hand through the opening.  Can you imagine the tension that must have hung in the air in that moment?  Two bitter enemies had been fighting and the only thing that separated them was this door, a door that now had a hole cut in the middle of it.  And through this hole one of the enemies sticks his arm not knowing how his adversary will respond…  From this noble act comes the phrase, “chancing one’s arm.”

This morning we continue our sermon series, “Calling and Community.”  Two weeks ago we had the opportunity to remember our baptism and at the same time to remember the fact that in our baptism we are called into ministry, that we are called to serve the community around us.  We talked about the ripples should be present.  We talked about our baptism as the central event that happens, that causes the splash.  And we talked about the ripples that should then be felt and noticed by our families and our friends even in subtle ways because of who we are because of our baptism.  You’ll remember I emphasized the fact that God loves us.  Unconditionally.  And we are called through our baptism to share that love with the world.

Last week we began some conversation about the power of community.  Through two different stories from our own community we looked at the power that community has; the power that community has to save and to build up and to heal as well as the power that community has to alienate and tear down and cause pain.  You’ll remember I invited you last week to consider the type of community that is being built by your actions and by how you are living.

And so today and for the next two weeks we are going to explore some more of the nuts and bolts of living out our calling in this community of faith as well as in the greater communities of which we’re a part.  The basis for our time together these three weeks comes from the teaching that Jesus did in the Sermon on the Mount as it’s recorded in the Gospel of Matthew.

In Matthew the Sermon on the Mount serves as the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry.  Matthew tells us Jesus’ birth story, the visit of the wise men, John the Baptist’s proclamation about Jesus, Jesus’ baptism, and Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.  As Jesus returns from that time of testing he begins a ministry in Galilee by calling the first disciples to follow him and then by addressing a large crowd with the Sermon on the Mount.  This teaching is a rich and complex exploration of what it means for us to live in community with one another.  Specifically today we turn to 5:21-24 where Jesus says…

 ‘You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,* you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult* a brother or sister,* you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell* of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister* has something against you,leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister,* and then come and offer your gift. 

A couple of weeks ago we began our time together by remembering that we are called as Christians to share our gifts.  Really at the most basic of levels, that’s the core of what a local church is; a group of people who gather together to pool their time and their talents and their financial resources.  All of us are called to bring our gifts together, to present them before God through this church.

Something that Jesus says today is crucial for us to hear as we do this work together.  Jesus says that when you go to present your gift before God if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you you’re supposed to go to them, to first be reconciled, and to then go and present your gift to God.  Yes we’re called to bring our gifts together as the body of Christ.  But today we hear Christ say, “First be Reconciled.”

Let’s take just a minute and make sure we’re all on the same page regarding what we mean when we say reconciled or reconcile.  The word reconcile is a compound word from the Latin consisting of the prefix “re” and the root “concilare.  Now “re” of course means again.  “Concilare” means to make friendly.  The most literal definition of reconcile is to make friendly again or to bring together again.

Reconciliation is also a concept or a term that we’re familiar with in terms of banking.  We reconcile our accounts and our records to make sure that our books match the bank’s books, to make sure that we’re all together, that we’re all on the same page.  To be reconciled means that we are again brought together with one another, that we are all on the same page.  And before we bring our gifts to God Jesus calls us all to first be reconciled, to be made friendly again, to all be on the same page.

There is no doubt that we are called to be reconciled to one another, but like many things the gap between understanding that it is supposed to be done and actually managing to do it is significant.  I think that part of the problem for us is cultural.  Here in the Midwest we pride ourselves on being nice and polite.  So when someone says or does something that bothers us, we don’t want to be rude, we don’t want to hurt their feelings.  So instead of telling the person how their actions hurt us or offended, we go and tell everybody else who will listen about how upset we are by what THEY did.  Anyone have an experience of a scenario like this…?  Friends, I know that we all know this, but this really isn’t a healthy or helpful way for us to interact with one another.

Though not a part of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus addresses this very thing a bit later in the gospel of Matthew.  In chapter 18: 15-17 Jesus says, ‘If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

When something is bothering you that someone else is doing here in the church, Jesus calls you to address them directly, to talk with them, to engage them in conversation.  Jesus tells us that we are to first do this one on one.  If we can’t resolve the dispute we are then to take a couple of others from the community to go with us as we again talk to that person.  Then, and only then, if you fail to reach resolution, then the issue should be talked about in the larger community of faith.

Last Sunday I had an experience that was a perfect example of this direct communication that we are called to share with one another as a part of a healthy community.  As the meal was winding down after church last Sunday Jean Hill came to me and asked if I was responsible for the sno-cone machine that had been down in the kitchen.  A friend of mine had loaned it to the church for Tongie Days and VBS and in the midst of moving and getting settled I ended up leaving it downstairs in the kitchen longer than I had intended.  I told Jean it was mine and she asked nicely if I could get it out of the kitchen soon as it was in the way for various UMW functions.  It was a simple conversation that lasted no more than 30 seconds and gave me the reminder that I needed to get the sno-cone machine out of there and back to it’s rightful home.  Easy, right?

Now, in other situations, in other churches, I have experienced that same kind of questions, “hey, is this yours, it’s kind of in my way and I wonder when you might be able to get it out of here?” handled in very different ways.  Can you imagine how these conversations are sometimes handled?  A person could complain a whole bunch to a whole bunch of different people and gotten all of them worked up and complaining as well.  An incredible amount of energy could have been spent on talking about why our new pastor can’t get his act together and get this sno-cone machine out of our way.  I commend Jean for handling the situation so well and so directly.

To be honest though, over the last weeks and months I have sensed that communication isn’t always quite as direct and clear in this community of faith as it was when Jean approached me last week.  This week I was able to finally name for myself some of what it feels like is going on.  It seems there is a lack of trust within the congregation, but that you don’t even know that you don’t trust each other and you don’t really even know who it is that you don’t trust.”  In a variety of conversations with a variety of different people I have heard a lot of very similar statements.  Have you heard or been a part of or maybe even said anything like this recently…”

“We don’t know what they’re doing.”  “We don’t know why they’re doing it that way.”  We don’t think they should be doing it that way.”  “If only they would do it this way (the way that we do it) then things would be a lot better…”

In those statements I hear this assumption being made that the person speaking clearly understands what he or she is doing and why, but questions what “they” are doing.  Now please hear me clearly, I want not to be critical of this church in any way other than lovingly.  This is a phenomenal congregation made up of wonderful people with incredible potential.  But there seems to be this lurking suspicion or lack of trust.  And it exists in a vast variety of places.

We have all been and are all loved unconditionally by the very God who created us.  Again, this is the good news.  This is the very core of what brings us together.  God’s spirit is offered to us each and every day as a source of strength and a guide.  In our baptism that love is claimed as a gift and then with that gift comes a responsibility, we are called to share that love with the world.  We are all called to be in ministry to the community, but Jesus says, “First, be reconciled.”

I don’t think we can all even consciously name what side of the door it is that we stand on.  And I don’t think we even know for sure who it is that is on the other side of the door.  But I do think there is a sense of us and them and some kind of door that divides us…  And we need to be careful.  We need to be intentional about how we interact and communicate with one another.  And so I invite you as we respond to God’s love and as we discern and dream about who we are called to be as a community of faith, cut a hole in that door, stick your arm through, and see who is on the other side and how they respond.  We are called to be reconciled to one another, even if it means chancing or risking our arm.

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Chancing One’s Arm

The Door of Reconciliation on Display Today at St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin

From my sermon on 7/17/11…

It is said that in 1492 two prominent Irish families, the Ormonds and the Kildares, found themselves embroiled in a bitter feud.  As tensions increased and ultimately turned violent the Earl of Ormand, his family, and his followers, took refuge in the chapter house of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and bolted themselves in.  As the siege wore on and the Earl of Kildare tried harder and harder to destroy the Earl of Ormand he began thinking about what was really happening.  Here were two families who worshiped the same God and attended the same church and lived in the same country.  The Earl of Kildare suddenly had an epiphany and decided that the feuding was foolish.

The Earl of Kildare cried out to the Earl of Ormand and explained what he was thinking.  He told the Earl of Ormand that he wanted him to come out, that he would not seek revenge or do him harm, that he simply wanted the Earl of Ormand to come out so that their feud could be over.  The Earl of Ormand was skeptical and refused, he thought the Earl of Kildare was simply scheming.  And so the Earl of Kildare grabbed his spear and chopped a hole in the door with it.

After he cut this hole in the door, the Earl of Kildare thrust his hand through the opening. Can you imagine the tension that must have hung in the air in that moment? Two bitter enemies had been fighting and the only thing that separated them was this door, a door that now had a hole cut in the middle of it.  And through this hole one of the enemies sticks his arm not knowing how his adversary will respond… From this noble act comes the phrase, “chancing one’s arm.”

Yesterday I named for the congregation that I sense there are many doors that separate many people in the congregation from one another and that, in many ways, they’re not even aware of it.  I invited people to acknowledge those doors and challenged them to chance an arm for the sake of reconciliation so that we might as a community of faith do the work to which God is calling us.

Are there doors that exist as barriers between you and others in your life?

Are you willing to chance an arm for the sake of reconciliation?

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Stranger in a Foreign Land

I am now close to two weeks into ministry back in Tonagnoxie, the town in which I grew up.  To date it has been an incredible start and I feel very blessed to be here.  There is a wonderful energy and incredible potential within the church.  Many many people have welcomed me home and in so many ways I feel that I have returned home.

Last night as I met with Staff Parish I jokingly commented that I am feeling like a stranger in a foreign land when it comes to my time in the office.  You see, over the last several years I have moved almost exclusively to apple products; I carry an iPhone and I use a MacBook (on which I do use Microsoft Office for Mac).  That said, my new office has a nice laptop that is relatively new.  It runs Windows 7, an OS with which I am completely unfamiliar.  It does not have Office on it, rather it has wordpad and Open Office, two word processing programs with which I have next to no familiarity.

I am a relatively competent computer/tech guy, but yesterday it took me several hours (and a break for lunch) to put together some simple letterhead and to write a letter.  Tough stuff for a guy who isn’t all that patient, especially with himself!

I will work through the technical bugs and get to a place of efficiency with which I am more satisfied, I have no doubt.  But, this whole experience has me thinking… how many people have experiences in our churches like I have had in the office these last couple of weeks?

How often do people come to our churches comfortable with and skilled at a particular operating system for living only to find that not only do we do things differently, but we don’t provide the clear instructions and tools to help them learn to live within and be comfortable with the new systems?  As we learn to live within the operating system of the Kingdom of God there are new ways of speaking and acting and living that are and will feel foreign to many.  I know that I will seek to be more intentional about providing helpful guidance and tools and support to those moving into new environments after my experiences of the last week.

When have you felt like a stranger in a foreign land?

What things have you found to be helpful when you have felt this way?

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07 10 11 A Tale of Two Cities

My sermon from July 10th, 2011 based on Deuteronomy 30:11-19Mark 2:1-12.  2 of 5 in “Calling and Community” series.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way…

These are the opening words of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. (slide)”  Dickens’ Tale is a classic piece of literature.  My favorite definition of a classic comes from Mark Twain, does anyone know how he defines a classic…?”  Classic: a book which people praise and don’t read.

So in the interest of full disclosure I will confess that I have never read Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities.”  Those opening words however, man those words get me.  It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

Twice this last winter I connected with high school classmates and in both instances I walked away struck by the power of their respective stories.  And over the last weeks and months, as I have reflected on our calling as Christians and what it means for us to live out that calling in community with one another, I have continued to come back to and reflect on those stories.

And so this morning I want to share those stories with you, changing the names of those involved, of course.  And as I share these stories I invite you to continue reflecting on who it is that God is calling you to be as an individual and who God is calling us to be as a community of faith.

Our first story is about Ralph.  I don’t think there was a Ralph in high school during my time there so that seems a safe enough name to use…

I reconnected with Ralph last December during a time when I had just begun conversations with our District Superintendent about the possibility of me coming to serve here in Tonganoxie.  I remember asking Ralph what he thought of the possibility of raising kids here.  Ralph’s response really knocked me off my feet…

Ralph didn’t hesitate to say, “Tonganoxie was a great place to grow up and I would raise kids there in a heartbeat.”  He continued by making the bold statement, “That community saved my life.”  I asked him to clarify a bit and he did…

You see Ralph didn’t have a great family life growing up.  His mom had a number of issues and was probably emotionally abusive toward him.  I remember Ralph receiving next to no support from his mom for anything that he did.  His mom wasn’t there for concerts or plays or football games.  In fact she was downright antagonistic regarding his involvement in anything extracurricular.  She was mean and nasty.  It wasn’t pretty.  But, the people who knew who Ralph was also knew who his mom was.  This was an important part of how this community came to be life giving for Ralph.

He said people knew him and knew his mom and felt sorry for him and were willing to go out of their way to be helpful for him.  In a bigger community like Lawrence or KC he explained, he would have just been a number, that people wouldn’t have known his story and that they would have simply looked at him as another punk kid.  He earnestly believes that had he grown up somewhere else people would have been less patient and supportive of him, that he likely would have gotten into some serious trouble of some kind and that he would not have been able to achieve what he has, that he would not be the person that he is today.

In today’s Mark reading we encounter a story of Jesus healing that reminds me a great deal of Ralph’s story.  Picture this scene, Jesus is in a home and the crowds are surrounding the home to the point where no one can get into the home.  A man who has been paralyzed for years is carried toward the home by his friends with the hope that he might encounter Jesus and be healed.  As they come close, however, they realize the incredible magnitude of the crowds.  These friends refuse to give up hope though and they climb up on the roof of the house, tear a whole in it, and lower the man down into be healed by Jesus.  Mark explains that when Jesus sees the faith of these friends, he heals the man who has been paralyzed for such a long time.

Mark tells us that this man is healed because of the faithfulness of those around him, of those in his community.  Ralph believes that growing up in a community where people knew him and knew his family, literally saved his life.  He sums it up simply by saying, “that community saved my life.”  It was the best of times…

The second story I want to share this morning is of a guy we’ll call Peter.

Peter works in downtown Lawrence and I ran into him this winter.  We chit chatted a bit about life and conversation turned to growing up in Tonganoxie.  He was a bit younger than me and I had forgotten that he actually left Tongie partway through high school to live in Lawrence.  He explained that prior to his Junior his parents divorced and everyone suddenly wanted to be in his business and offer him advice and it was just too much for him.  Surely people were trying to extend care in a helpful way, but he found their investment in his life, especially at that point, to be too much.  It felt like people were meddling.  It felt like people were gossiping.  It felt like people who hadn’t been that interested in him or in his life previously, were now sticking their noses in his business.  Peter’s experience of this community was that it was stifling and oppressive.  He couldn’t wait to get away from it.  It was the worst of times…

My guess would be that these two stories capture the experiences that many have with our great town.  For some community can be life giving and sustaining.  For others it can be alienating and oppressing.  This tension that exists within communities is the core of much of the conversation in the book of Deuteronomy.  As a whole the book of Deuteronomy talks about the history of faith as the basis for a communal faith.  The book of Deuteronomy contains foundational principles of community and it contains extensive conversation about the role of God in the community and the covenants that God’s people are invited to participate in as members of the community.  This entire tension comes to a focus then in verse 19 that was read just a bit ago, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life…”

Ralph and Peter both grew up in this same community during the same period of time.  Yet their experiences of this community were as different as they could possibly be.  One found the community to be life giving and affirming while the other found the community to be stifling and oppressive.  One remembers the community fondly as a great place to live and the other can’t imagine ever coming back to be a part of this community.  These two had seemingly very similar experiences, but they were really quite different.

You see, the type of community that Ralph experienced, a community that is life giving, requires hard work and investment up front.  People knew him and cared about him and invested in him in ways that were helpful and nurturing.  Peter’s experience was that people never really had that much interest in his life until his parents got divorced.  At this point the people who he really didn’t know engaging in his life in felt strange and uncomfortable.  It seemed to him that people were more interested in being in the loop and having the latest dirt than they really were in helping and supporting him so he found their engagement to be alienating and painful.

So what does all of this mean for us?  It means that whether or not people experience our community (the greater community of Tonganoxie as well as our community of faith) to be life giving or life draining depends, in large part, on how we live in community and engage one another.

We are called to be a community that in the words of Deuteronomy, chooses life.  We are called to be a community that takes the time to truly get to know one another and that supports, cares for, and nurtures one another in real and authentic ways.  We are called to know one another and to be engaged in one another’s lives so that when the storms of life do hit we are able to be present and supportive in truly helpful ways.

Thursday evening I had the opportunity to spend some time at the high school following the news of the tragic accident that took the life of a student in our community.  I spent an hour or so there with students and administrators and as I prepared to leave I ducked my head into to the office to introduce myself.  As we wrapped up our conversation I asked Principal Carlisle if he yet knew anything about services for the student.  He did not and shared that the family had left town.

At first I couldn’t understand why the family would leave town, but then I realized I was making some assumptions.  I was assuming that the family would have experienced the support of community in the ways that Ralph had while growing up.  I assumed that the family would find the support of this community to be helpful and even maybe healing in the midst of their terrible tragedy.  I was making these assumptions, but realized they weren’t fair to make.

I don’t know why this young woman’s family left town Thursday afternoon, but I imagine it could be that they were experiencing this community in much the same way that Peter did.  It could be that all of a sudden a whole bunch of people who hadn’t shown much interest in them to date were all of a sudden sticking their noses into their business.  It could have been that though people were reaching out with good intentions it felt stifling and invasive and even painful.

I have to wonder, when tragedy strikes those around us, will they experience the support of the community to be the best of times or the worst of times.  And again, it’s up to us.  When we interact with those in our community we have a choice set before us, to choose actions that lead to life and healing or that lead to pain and isolation.

The good news, friends, is that God loves us unconditionally.  And as we seek to live in community and to make this community the kind of place where people experience God’s life giving love, we don’t go at it on our own.  The very God who created us, who seeks to save us, and whose spirit guides us every day is with us always.  And so I pray that you may be filled with God’s spirit so that we as a community of faith might be empowered to do the important work of sharing God’s love with this community and with the world.  It is my hope that we will play a part in the best of times.

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h’s Big Announcement

These last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind of activity with the move, my first Sunday, the holiday weekend, and trying to settle into rhythms and routines in a new home, new church, and new community.  It has all been WONDERFUL and I do intend to get back into a regular rhythm of blogging starting next week.  However, h has a big announcement to make and I wanted to share it here in case you missed it earlier in the week.

Yup, that’s right.  h will be a big sister sometime in early March!  Stay tuned…

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