Jun 28, 2012

Celebrating Transitions: The Fourth of July

The Fourth of July marks a transition between being part of another nation’s colonial holdings and becoming an autonomous nation. This next week, we celebrate the freedom afforded by the Declaration of Independence. On July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress voted in secret to approve Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and thus a new nation was born.

We often celebrate transitions—between being a student and being a graduate; between being single and being married; between working and being retired; between living and dying. Truly, change never really slows down, but we must meet it head on. My guess is that the better we handle and understand change and transition, then the better we thrive as God’s people.

What people in the original American Colonies had to decide was whether they could trust the promise inherent in a new vision of the New World, or whether they could simply continue to abide business as usual from the British crown. Of course, we know the rest of the story and how it turned out.

For believers today, the transition of vital importance is the one from being an autonomous person to becoming a faithful believer who relies exclusively on God’s grace, mercy and forgiveness. Those who are genuinely mature understand Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). The more mature we are  the more we recognize that we are dependent on God as children of God. We worship a God who offers us, in many ways and places, the absolute love by which all children thrive.

Jun 14, 2012

A Picture of Baptism

At our confirmation service in May, I described a story as an example of baptism. Someone asked me about it later and so I will put it in print in this blog.

A friend, Jerry Chism, and his family once visited Kansas City, Missouri. Outside a hotel there is the Crowne Center Plaza, used for gatherings like concerts and picnics. People can walk across this area that looks like a large patio with park benches surrounding the open space. An unusual fountain occupies this open area. Flush with the concrete is a series pipes having perhaps 50 jets of water spaced at regular intervals. Streams of water at set intervals shoot upward at least 20 feet—like a geyser.

One hot, muggy August day this plaza-like area teemed with construction workers, families having picnics, tourists and workers from various shops out on break. Danny, Jerry’s five-year-old son, unexpectedly walked into the fountain as it began to shoot up. Adults watched Danny frolicking in the water and laughed at his antics. Suddenly, some bystanders joined the five-year-old in the makeshift water park. Soon, 15 adults and many children followed Danny into the jets of water. They all got soaking wet. After several minutes, the jets stopped spraying and everyone left.

When Jerry told me this amusing story, I realized this is a wonderful image for baptism. In an instant, unplanned and unpredicted, people from all walks of life united in the fun and joy of the water. They neither knew each other nor sustained any relationship after the event, yet this moment united them.

In our baptism God unites us with people across the globe and through the centuries in ways that we rarely appreciate. Those who enter the water do so regardless of rules or politics or age or financial issues or religious conflicts, or anything else. The water connected all these people and nothing separated them from each other while they were in the water. Baptism too is like this.

May we remember our baptism and thank God for it!

Jun 7, 2012

Plagiarism and Pastors

When I first arrived in Arlington eight years ago, I received (more precisely my predecessor received) four independent offers to “take the load off of overburdened pastors.” That week’s mail was not so atypical for pastors of large churches, who get a lot of mail we don’t need.

Back to the original point—how was this unburdening to be done? Through the prepackaging and marketing of some church program or another, thereby freeing up the minister’s valuable time for other pressing matters. Curiously, two of the four pieces of “junk mail” involved offers for weekly sermon preparation “kits,” complete with pastoral prayers and responsive readings for worship. The other two pieces proposed guidance on stewardship drives and confirmation training. My bias concerning the last two was that if we did a better job with confirmation, then we wouldn’t need to be so anxious about stewardship drives.

For many preachers, this type of plagiarism is a real temptation. It is not easy to steal enough time to preach faithful sermons to our congregations. Clearly, with the advent of the Internet and the overabundance of sermon “help” now available, plagiarism is a valid concern. Yet, I deeply believe that only the pastor as preacher can preach well to her or his individual congregation. In the church of Jesus Christ there is never one size that fits all. Rather, it is in the particularity of God’s word that the church grasps and lives out the gospel word.

Each pastor and congregation has a particular and blessed relationship that no one else can imitate. Most pastors, in any event, do all those other ministerial tasks so they may preach the word. Therefore, we can have confidence that no preacher will be so dull or unmotivated as to let the temptation for shortcuts weaken effective preaching. At the same time, preaching is a task that is so difficult we never do it by ourselves. Congregations, the scripture, other pastors and life experiences all converge as voices that the preacher listens to with discernment in preparing a unique word for distinctive congregations.

Pray for me as I continue to practice the “art of listening.”

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