Does God Tweet???

I have posted a blog asking this very question on the State of Formation website that I’m a contributing scholar for.

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Sunday’s sermon (if you were snowed in)

Rejoice, Christmas is almost here.  Rejoice, tis the season.  Rejoice for all that the Lord has given you and all that we give back.

Rejoice, it is Gaudete Sunday.  The 3rd Sunday in Advent.  The pink candle.  We are only one candle away from Christmas… rejoice, you should all be excited!

We were supposed to have the Christmas program this morning.  A time of youthful excitement, singing, and rejoicing for the arrival of Christmas.

Do you remember the energy and excitement you had as a youth?  Remember the utter exhaustion you had waiting, and waiting, and waiting, until Christmas Eve or Christmas Day would arrive and you could open the presents under the tree?

What the advent season does for us as Christians, especially as young Christians, is to set a precedent for patience. We learn patience through the tradition of waiting.  Hoping for Christ to come and save us.

Patience.  Easy to say, hard to do.

The words from James ring true.  Be Patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord.  The farmer is anticipating rain after planting a crop.  It may or may not come when you expect it.  It may not come at all.  You can grumble about not getting the right conditions, but what good will grumbling get you?

The coming of our Lord was truly a test of patience.  Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  This 100 mile journey, with the pregnant Mary likely on the back of a camel or donkey, would’ve been a true test of patience.

But patience, waiting, anticipation doesn’t always provide the result we expect in the end.

Mary patiently made it on this 10 day journey, feeling every bump and every kick in her womb.  Eagerly waiting to arrive in Bethlehem where she could find a nice room to finish her waiting and rest.  We know how that story turns out—no room in the inn, off to the stable.  We’ll hear that story in 12 days and 4 and a half hours, in case you’re counting down to Christmas Eve.

Do you think that Mary, in her patience, expected this result?  We lift up Mary as the mother of our savior—a symbol of purity, beauty, peace.  Do you really think she was happy, late in her third trimester, that she wouldn’t have the “luxury” of even being able to give birth to Immanuel in a room but instead out with the animals in the barn?

Poor Joseph probably felt guilty that he couldn’t provide a better place for her to lay down and rest and have the baby.  Ultimately, the baby was born, the beautiful baby.  But after a long wait, there is no way that this was the way or the place they expected the baby to be born.

Do you remember a Christmas gift you were hoping for?  When I was in 4th grade, it was the Super Nintendo.  I already had the regular Nintendo—with Super Mario and Duck Hunt.  At school, all my friends talked about was the Super Nintendo—with better graphics, cool games, and, as video game systems go, it was the latest, newest, best version.  I laid down hints for my parents that were subtle, and not so subtle.

I remember how excited I was when I saw a box under the tree that was the right size.  The large package had my name on it and was even wrapped with my mom’s wrapping paper, it MUST be the Super Nintendo.   As I opened the rest of the gifts that Christmas, I noticed that it was still under the tree until everything else was unwrapped.  The anticipation was driving me crazy.

Finally, my mom handed it to me.  The last gift.  I shredded the paper, I’d even planned out my reaction and how excited I was going to be when I saw that it was the video game system I had planned on getting—I had to ACT surprised, even if I knew what it was.

I had a reaction all right.  It was a coat.  A colorful, warm coat.  A practical gift.  We don’t always want practical—sometimes we want exciting.  Often, when we are patient, and wait, and expect what is coming—they don’t meet our expectations.  We don’t always get what we expect—good or bad, things don’t always work exactly as we plan.  But through experiences like this, I learned that I had to be grateful for what I received.

Imagine how John the Baptist must’ve felt.  John, as we read in Matthew’s text, is in prison and sends word to Jesus “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”  He had to be thinking, Jesus, are you the Messiah, the Savior, or am I just going to be disappointed again?  Am I in prison in vain—has this all been a waste of my time?

Jesus tells them to go tell John about the blind, the lame, the lepers, being healed.  It was right in front of them—but they couldn’t see that the Messiah was here.  Then Jesus reminds them of what the prophets said —“See I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”  The way is prepared.

The way is prepared indeed.  James reminds us of Christ’s suffering.  We are waiting for Jesus birth because we remember the promises made through his death.

James says to strengthen our hearts.  Get ready.  Don’t grumble about what you think you deserve.  We don’t deserve Christ, but through grace we receive him.  Remember Christ is all around you—be unselfish in the midst of consumerism and capitalistic craziness.  Put money in the Salvation Army bucket.  Give away coats to Goodwill so your neighbor won’t be cold.

As Luther Seminary professor Dirk Lange so eloquently puts it, “slow down, seek first the kingdom of God, be attentive to one another, let all things happen in and for God, then all else will be given, God will grant all in God’s time.”

Be patient.  The patience that I’m speaking of is the joy, hope, and love that comes in this season.  It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again, Christ is the best gift you will ever receive—the most practical AND exciting.  Christ is our gift that we keep on giving and giving and giving.  Year after year we hear the story, we are patient to hear the good news.  Rejoice, the wait is almost over… until next year!  Amen.

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What being naughty means this time of year

Spoiler alert… if your kid is old enough to read and believes in Santa Claus, close down this window and open again in a safe place.

We put up our Christmas tree on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.  After being out of town for the holiday, no sooner had we unpacked our things from the trip than we started unpacking and putting up the tree.

My four year old daughter Adina is much more helpful this year as she’s older and more patient.  She enjoyed helping my wife hang decorations and the lights.  When the tree was decked and the living room was complete with nativity scene, stockings, and decorations, it was time to get ready for bed.

And time for the Elf to make an appearance.

The Elf, you ask?

Why the Elf on the Shelf, of course.  Last year, our family started the tradition of having our own elf come stay with us through the advent season, watching our daughters every move throughout the day, and then reporting back to Santa Claus each night, just making it back each morning in a different spot in the house.

Our daughter loved the Elf.  She named it “Elfie” and quickly learned the rules.  You can’t touch the elf or she loses her magic powers to fly and tell Santa.  You can’t be naughty in front of the elf or she’ll tell Santa.  If you’re nice in front of the elf, she’ll tell Santa that too.

You can talk to the elf, however.  When Elfie made her appearance this year, I asked Adina if she’d talked to the elf yet.  I left the room to see what she would do.  “Elfie, for Christmas I want the dollhouse.  The biiiiiiiiiig dollhouse.”  She’s already picked it out at Target.

What does being naughty entail in our house?  Touching the tree.  Touching ornaments on the tree.  Trying to pick up her little brother or sister.  Not listening.  Not doing what she’s told.  Basic stuff.

The idea behind this elf is fantastic.  The creators, Carol Aebersold and her daughter, Chanda Bell, put the book and doll together to help explain why kids have to be nice for Santa and how Santa is able to keep up with all of the kids around the world.

But what do we have to say about this, theologically speaking, from a Lutheran perspective?  More importantly, what might Martin Luther have to say about being naughty or nice?

Part of me wonders what we are creating with our kids when we make them paranoid of every single move they make and the ramifications of their actions.  Are we teaching our kids that any false move can result in poor results?  Do we really hold up these standards and not give our kids presents because they’ve been “bad”?

From a parents perspective, getting our kids to have incentive to not get in trouble seems great.  But if you think about it as if there’s an omniscient being who can make a decision about whether or not you are worthy of receiving a prize, suddenly the theology behind this elf, or Santa, becomes a bit cloudy.

Who are we responsible to?  Santa, or to God?  When our kids are older, do we suddenly say “Gotcha, Santa’s not real!  But Jesus/God is, and now you have to be good or God will be mad at you.”

Ultimately, what is our moral responsibility in how we deal with Santa Claus? Are we confusing our kids further by telling them that things aren’t real after years of using these characters to push good behaviors?  Don’t be naughty or Santa will put coal in your stocking.  If you’re bad, the Easter Bunny will hop right by our house.

In my tradition as a Lutheran, I can’t help but be torn by how we deal with Santa Claus.  I grew up without Santa being a big deal in my house.  As a pastor’s kid, I’m not sure if it was a deliberate choice by my parents out of religious belief or personal belief, but Santa was never real for me.  I learned quickly that if I pretended, however, I could get more gifts by having a stocking filled in the morning.  My mom played along until one Christmas, coming home on break for college, it was empty.  I was devastated—no more toys!

Now as a parent, I wonder how the message of grace is perceived when dealing with Santa Claus, my Lutheran tradition, and how I teach my children.  Martin Luther used the phrase Simul Justus Et Peccator.  A follower of Christ is simultaneously saint (righteous) and a sinner.  A Christian doesn’t rely on their own actions but uses Christ’s redemptive work as a gift—we love, share, thank, give (basically, we are nice), because we are given a gift to do so through Christ’s death on the cross.  We don’t have to do all of these good things to counteract all the naughty in our lives.

Luther’s theology of countering the idea of good works wasn’t meant to say we can be bad and no matter what, our sins are washed away.  Instead, by grace, we are loved—given a gift we don’t deserve, and our response as believers/Christians/humans living in a broken world, is to love.

How do we teach our children to love, no matter what, in the Christmas season?  Is there a way to acknowledge the fun of the season and go along with the Santa story while also setting an example of how to love one another and not confuse our Santa with our Savior?  Is grace a contradiction to naughty and nice?

At the end of the day, if we treat our children with love and respect, then using Santa or the Elf as a behavior modification/incentive seems harmless to me.  The theological implications of the Santa lie isn’t something that most grown-ups would jump to and if a child does go there, this is a chance for a parent to explain what faith, love, and being a good neighbor mean to them.

As my supervising pastor, Marty Ericson, suggests, it’s not the churches place to spoil the secret of Santa.  This is a secret that should be ruined by friends at school or when the parents are ready—not in a children’s sermon or from the pulpit.  What the church can do in this season is reinforce a message of grace and hope, love and renewal.

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A Thanksgiving Message

Sermon from Wednesday evening service, 11/24/10

Happy Thanksgiving to you this evening.  Tomorrow you may celebrate with food, family, football.  Some will travel across town, across the state, or stay comfortably bundled in our own homes.  Perhaps you will get the ads out of the paper and lay out an intricate map of which stores, which products, and which deals you will be seeking out on Friday morning.

I told a friend that I was preaching on Thanksgiving Eve.  His response was, “that’s a religious holiday?”  He did not recall his devout Catholic mother bringing him to services as a kid.  It has become a civil holiday in our country, but the roots of Thanksgiving are indeed important for us to remember as we gather tonight.

When we think of Thanksgiving historically, the first images that may come to mind are those of the Pilgrims.

While it is disputed when Thanksgiving day got its origin, the modern Thanksgiving that we celebrate takes its origin from 1621 at Plymouth Plantation in Massachusetts.  The celebration was modeled after European harvest festivals that the settlers would’ve brought over with them.

Those who celebrated that day were the Pilgrims, the name that stuck with them much later—but those folks were undertaking a pilgrimage from England to New England.  They sought religious freedom and a land of their own.  In England, they were known as Separatists—a name that isn’t particularly flattering.  They were non-conformers and different before nonconformity and being different was cool.

They didn’t hold the same beliefs as the Church of England and those who disagreed were subject to the penalties of the 1559 Act of Uniformity.  If you skipped church, you were fined!  Wanna find more jobs in today’s economy, find people to enforce that law.  In 1593, two Separatists were executed for sedition—killed for resisting the established authority.  Nowadays, if you are in mainstream media and you aren’t resisting established authority, nobody’s listening to you.

So, the Separatists wandered.  By 1607, a group made it to Amsterdam.  Over the next several years, however, the new land and new culture was wearing off on the kids of these settlers, and they were becoming more Dutch.  For this pious group of Christians, the ultra liberal Dutch were a threat to their existence.  They needed to uproot again.

Thus, the Mayflower. In 1620, a group of just over 100 boarded this now famous ship and sailed to present day Massachusetts.  Between landing in November and the following March, only 47 were left.  The Governor, William Bradford—who took over in 1621 for John Carver after he passed away, wrote about the experience.

It was Bradford who used the name “Pilgrims” for his group.  He was quoting Scripture.  From Hebrews.  “They were pilgrims & looked not much on these things; but lift their eyes up to the heavens.”  They could’ve returned to their home country of England, back to the persecution and injustice, but longed for a better life.  They longed for America.

When they made it to the harvest that year, they celebrated.  They finally had the freedom they longed for so they ate a feast.  They praised God for surviving the journey, surviving the winter, and for providing for them.

Their story is not that different from the one we heard in Deuteronomy of the Israelites.  They came to the land that the Lord promised.  They possessed it, settled it, and then they took the first fruits of the land they harvested and they gave it to God.

But the journey was difficult.  The Egyptians, much like the Church of England, treated them harshly.  The LORD brought them out of Egypt to the land of milk and honey.  The Israelites had a chance to turn back, but Moses kept leading them to the promised land.  Then, when they got to the land, they offered up thanks.

In the midst of our lives, we struggle.  The economic uncertainties have put pressures on us individually, as families, as a state, and as a church.  We offer up donations to the Food Shelf tonight.  This entire month, Como Evening Prayer has been devoted to praying for the hungry and those who provide for the hungry.

And if we think we are fighting for our own survival, on our own, we’re always going to have a burden weighing on us.  We may say Thanks for the resources we cling to… but we are missing the Giving—the sharing of ourselves, our first fruits, our abundance.

We have a promised land too.  We have a land of milk and honey.  John’s gospel is a reminder of where our priorities should be as we breeze by Thanksgiving and roll into Advent and Christmas.  Jesus said, “I am the Bread of Life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

No matter what trials and tribulations we face, we get the greatest meal of all through Christ.  We get to taste the bread from heaven.  We are never hungry and our thirst is always quenched.  Through all life’s hardships, through the fears, the worries, the sadness, the pain… Christ is always there.  The Word is always at our side, comforting us when our reality isn’t rosy.

Through the persecution and the difficult journey’s, the pilgrims and the Israelites persevered.  They saw Thanksgiving as a real reason to rejoice.  More than just a break from work or school between Fall break and Christmas, Thanksgiving is a real reason for us to rejoice too.

Thanks to our culture, we often forget the reason why we celebrate Thanksgiving.  But Thanksgiving is more than just a religious holiday.  It’s a great reminder of the difficult journey we take.  The journey that leads us to the promise—the promise of Christ, our Bread of Life.  Amen

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First posting for State of Formation

Check out my first posting on State of Formation, a new blog in which I’m a contributing scholar

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Good food and better food

On Monday’s, the men’s crew that counts the offerings rotates who brings the cookies.
On Tuesday, one of the quilters always brings treats for their break.
On Wednesday, let’s just say Sue Brogger works her magic with the delicious evening meals.
On Thursday, it’s off to Perkins for the Men’s Bible Study breakfast.
On Friday, more treats from the team that puts together the bulletins.
On Saturday, if you’re here, there’s certainly food at a wedding reception, anniversary party, or whatever event happens to be going on.
On Sunday, you’ll find coffee, lemonade, and donut holes between services.

Do you notice a theme? You can, and likely will, be fed spiritually and literally when you walk onto church grounds.

When we get together, there is an element of hospitality that focuses on food with our fellowship whether it’s at Como Park Lutheran or within our own homes, the community, or serving at Our Savior’s shelter.

Do you come to church just for the coffee and donut holes? Do you come to Theology on Tap just for the beer? Do you show up on Wednesday nights just for Sue’s cooking? It’s what goes on between the bites that stick to your bones. That’s why, when the coffee’s gone, the conversations continue with a friend you haven’t seen all week. On Wednesday night’s, people are still visiting long after the dishes are put away.

Eating is something we do, every day. When we can incorporate food and dining with our fellowship, service projects, and worship, it is a natural fit.

There is one more meal that we have on the first and third Sunday’s of each month. It’s a meal we have at the end of every Como Evening Prayer service. It’s the Lord’s Supper. This meal won’t fill your grumbling stomach. But it will fill your grumbling spirit.

When you are having a tough week at work or have stress from a friend, a family member, or a bill you have to pay, remember the hospitality of this meal. Remember that you aren’t alone and have a companion to share this fellowship with—you are sharing this meal with Christ.

As we enter this holiday season, there will be plenty of treats to share as we come together with friends and families. But remember the fellowship and hospitality that goes with it. Be thankful for those who provide and those who share. Be willing to share of your own gifts through cooking or give a listening ear in a time of conversation. Remember the best food of all and be thankful for the sacrifice that Christ went through to prepare it.

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Theology on Tap

Theology on Tap started in October, so perhaps this blog should be named “Closing Time”. Theology on Tap was not my idea—in fact, when I told a friend that this was one of the things I’d be doing this year, he laughed “but John, you don’t drink.” While it’s true I don’t drink very often, the prospect of meeting on a monthly basis with mostly young (and some young at heart) members was very appealing. By meeting at a restaurant or bar, it was thought, more natural conversation in a less formal or intimidating environment could occur.

This was definitely the case.

We had 13 people at our first meeting at the Chianti Grill and I had prepared a scripture passage and a bunch of leading questions to facilitate discussion. It turned out I didn’t need them. By asking the group to introduce themselves and to state the first website they go to each day, the two tables each got into some interesting areas, including observations about what people put for their religion on Facebook—which lead to whether or not denominations matter and questioning if we are raising kids to not go to church because of our choices of sports, music, or education groups that take precedence over church activities.

One of the most important things that Theology on Tap does is it brings us together in dialogue around fellowship and it starts with a disclaimer that all of us come together with different views and opinions, but we are to be open to each others ideas and respect one another.

What I learned is that the group came prepared to talk and was genuinely interested in dialogue with one another. We touched on inter-religious dialogue and the place of politics and how they function in the church. The upcoming meetings will go behind introductions and we will start to delve deeper into what it means to be Lutheran in the world and what we are up to when we aren’t in church. We will focus on scripture and apply it to our lives and the world around us.

If this sounds like a conversation you could feel comfortable joining, or even if it sounds like something that might push you out of your comfort zone, come to the table. Come join the discussion. Come with a friend, a co-worker, a neighbor. Come to O’Gara’s Bar & Grill on Wednesday, November 10th at 8 p.m. Come, you are invited.

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