21 May 2020

Thankful for small and large joys

I've had a hard time these last few weeks, primarily on account of the challenges of life in a pandemic (still) combined with extra projects at work, along with a very strong desire to read or play computer games so I can finally "get some time for myself."

Normally this time of year - after the joys and challenges and hard work of the semester - I'd be going away for a few days for a vacation. Or at least planning and looking forward to doing that since I've learned that I do better if I step away a bit. Now we're in a pandemic, and the whole summer before us - a time when usually there's a lot of extra freedom for adventures and visiting - is a large unknown. And I'm finding it hard.

When I acknowledge that things have been hard, I give myself space to be a little less frustrated with myself when I don't accomplish as much as I wish I would each day (and so also try to escape from the frustration less). I also have space to acknowledge that in the middle of the challenges of daily life, there are a lot of small and large joys - often connected to the little whose presence is both exhausting and a delight.

So I give thanks for watching her jump in rain puddles (with either Matthijs or I as witness), for getting to plant tomatoes with her, for having her ask me to tell her stories about Jesus, for the fact that Matthijs and her bring me coffee (and cake) each morning as I work, for the joy I have in watching Matthijs and her together. To share that joy, here are a couple of pictures.
Our day out to a nearby state park (and no, it wasn't really warm enough to be in the water)

Jumping in puddles
My morning coffee and cake every work day.

12 May 2020

Your kingdom come, your will be done: theory vs reality

Awhile ago, Mockingbird posted an article by Grace Leuenberger about how the current situation reveals some of our assumptions about control. While we pray for God's will to be done, what we really want is to make the plans ourselves and then expect God to come through to make them good. As we continue to practice 'social distancing' (stay home, stay safe here in Michigan),
her words feel even more true today as I struggle with giving up some of my desires again today:
"Your kingdom come, your will be done. Many of us have prayed this prayer. But I wonder if I prayed it like it was a joke. True, but with an asterisk. True, but able to be retracted. True, but with a laugh. True, but. Maybe we’re finding out all of this—this life, this world, and the chaos of it all—really was about Christ and his kingdom. But the joke has turned out to be not so funny. Why? Because . . . I think many Americans—myself included—are seeing how accustomed we became to being king, how much we made our independence essential to our existence. . . . Maybe our independence is not essential to our wellbeing. Maybe travel is not the only way to see and understand more. Maybe investing in stocks and 401Ks isn’t the way to a secure future. Maybe the people we’ve looked past are the ones whose lives will point us most to Jesus. Maybe the prayers we only half meant are the prayers God will answer most clearly. Maybe these days will prove to be Kingdom-building, Kingdom-coming."

09 April 2020

Maundy Thursday - Thoughts on John 13

Two years ago I preached a sermon on John 13:1-15,34-35. The following are some thoughts from that sermon:

A number of churches and people continue the ritual of foot-washing on Maundy Thursday. If you have ever participated in a footwashing ceremony, you know that it’s a bit of an awkward experience. Feet are known, at worst, for their smell and, at best, for their usefulness in getting you around. There is something uncomfortable about getting on one’s hands and knees and touching someone else’s foot – or having someone touch your foot.

When we read this passage, we can easily gloss over the awkwardness of the footwashing. As everyone wore sandals and the roads were dusty and filled with garbage and animal dung, foot washing was an ordinary part of life back then. But if we look at the text, it doesn’t sound like what is happening is ordinary in any way.

The text describes in detail the foot washing. It describes how Jesus lay down his clothing to put on a serving towel. Within a few hours from this moment, Jesus’ clothing would be replaced with the kingly clothes in which the soldiers mock him and then his clothes would be stripped from him on the cross. Like Jesus lays down his clothing to wash his feet, Jesus, as the good shepherd, would lay down his life for his sheep. [cf John 10]

Jesus lay aside his clothing, poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. We recognize the strangeness of the actions through Peter’s interruption. Peter asks: Lord, are you really going to wash my feet? Even after Jesus assures Peter that he will later understand, Peter still adamantly refuses to have Jesus wash his feet. Even when Jesus makes it clear to Peter that refusing to have him wash his feet was the same as refusing to have any part with Jesus – even then, Peter doesn’t stop protesting. The protest simply shifts from Peter demanding that Jesus not wash any of him to demanding that Jesus wash all of him.

Peter’s response is perhaps not the most surprising part of the passage. After all, we, too, have the tendency to extremes. Often we live as people who don’t believe we need our feet washed – we act as if we’re fundamentally good folks who just happen to have some quirks. Or, we tend towards the other extreme – overwhelmed by how we have failed or seeing ourselves as worthless in God’s eyes. We so often forget the role of water in our lives – the power of the baptism in which we are brought into the community of God and Jesus’ continued ability to wash us of our sins.

The surprise in the passage is how Jesus responds. He does not sigh in exasperation at Peter’s extremes, nor at how the disciples don’t seem to recognize who he is and his love for them. Instead, Jesus simply explains what it means to follow him.

After showing them what love looks like, he explains that they, having had their feet washed by their Lord and teacher should now go out and wash one another’s feet. Later in the text, he puts this slightly differently. Just as Jesus had loved them, so they are to love one another.

Jesus’ love extends grace to them as they don’t understand; yet the grace also includes the invitation given in the footwashing – that they might have a part in him. While Jesus is not standing in front of us with a bowl of water to wash our feet, the invitation to have a part with Jesus extends also to us.

Having been washed by Christ, we are then invited to do as Jesus has done. Jesus has washed away the smelliness of our sins but has also reminded us of how our sinfulness doesn’t define us. We, just like our feet, have a purpose. We are to love as Jesus has first loved us.

The text notes that this is a new command, but it is hardly a new idea. Loving one’s neighbor was an important part of the Old Testament law. [Leviticus 19:18, 35] The newness of the command is not in what it is telling us to do but about how we are to go about it. Because of Jesus’ love for the disciples – and us – we are able to go out and live fully into the impossible command of loving our neighbors – not on our own strength but because of Christ’s deep love for us. Just like Jesus’ feet were anointed, so Jesus’ footwashing anoints us to the work of sharing the good news.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

08 April 2020

2 Kings 5 in the time of COVID-19

When I started washing my hands so much that they dried out for the first time in my life, I started pondering 2 Kings 5, especially v. 13 where Naaman's "servants approached and said to him, “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”” 

The following are some of my thoughts: 

If I had been asked to do something hard,
I would have done it with conviction.
Especially if it meant saving someone’s life.
Luther argues that we are not to flee from plague.
We, especially us in ministry, are to ‘remain steadfast before the peril of death.’
Tending the sick would be like tending Christ himself

But instead I am asked to wash my hands again and again.
Singing some silly song so I do it long enough.
And to stay home and stay away from other people.
Where are the heroics in that?
It seems so little.
And even almost cowardly.
As if I’m afraid of illness and death.

Yet if it’s so little,
Why do I chafe under these requirements?
Why do I protest against it so strongly?
Why do I want to turn away in anger, like Naaman in 2 Kings 5?
If I had been commanded something difficult, would I have not done it?
How much more then, when only this little is being asked of me?
Wash, be clean, keep others clean.

Wash and be clean.
Rearrange the way you look at the world.
For Naaman, the command was an invitation.
Humble yourself,
wash yourself in the dirty river of this other country,
follow the seemingly arbitrary commands of this prophet and his God.
Recognize that all your best efforts cannot save you.
God alone does the impossible.

Wash your hands, stay home.
Let go of your plans.
Recognize how little control you have over the future.
Deny yourself
Trusting that God can use this seemingly small effort to save lives.

Naaman returns to the prophet healed.
Deeply thankful, ready to make a great sacrifice.
Except he is not allowed to pay for the gift he received.
A reminder again
that no matter how mighty we are
God does not need our help.

God meets us in our humanity
The gracious gift of a piece of earth so that we can align ourselves with God
While not needing to give up everything in our lives.
An ancient sort of technology.
Allowing Naaman to remain with those he cared about.
While continuing in thankfulness for the gift he received.

Our gifts today are internet, computers, zoom and Netflix,
Keeping us connected to those we love
Allowing us to keep meeting together.
For the request to stay home is hardly easy.
Being human means being in community.
The lack of physical presence
Requires each of us to go a little against who
We are created to be.

Naaman didn’t learn humility in a day.
It started with the quiet voice of a servant girl
And the humility required to listen to her.
It all began with a stranger.
A foreign captive in Naaman’s house.
Who spoke up and was heard
Who brought words of hope
A promise of the impossible

In a time when distancing makes helping hard
When every other could be a potential threat
And even those I love
Are disrupting the order of my life.
How does one keep loving and listening?
When I’m turning in on myself
With barely enough energy left over for me,
How do I care for those who are part of my communities?
my next door neighbors?
Let alone the foreigner
and the potential threat.
This illness that spreads through being connected.
How does my physical distance
Not become emotional and spiritual distance?

But that is not what the servant girl did.
She spoke up.
Naaman listened.
Elisha intervened.
God acted.
And so the impossible happened.

Stay at home. Help others.
It sounds so simple.
Yet, just like with Naaman, it asks so much more of us.
It sounds like nothing heroic,
except to throw my whole life into chaos
Rearranging all of our schedules,
Cancelling all my plans,
Confronting me with how little control I have,
Offering up my whole life to you.

The command has become the gift.
Let go of my efforts.
Trust in those of God.
And look forward to the day when this experience
Is behind us.
When we once again live fully in community.
And this experience is like the dirt that Naaman brought home.
A complicated piece of truth
To remind us of what we ought to be bowing down to.
Not our own control and plans.
But the one who controls all.

04 April 2020

For such a time as this

When the wonderful person who has become your daughter's 'borrowed oma' gives you jello, which she'd gotten from lovely old lady who had to downsize and didn't want it to go to waste, you take it and say thank-you.

Despite the fact that you can't imagine ever wanting to make jello with your child and you marvel at how old the jello actually is, you cover it in a plastic bag and put it in your cupboard. And let it sit there for another year or so. Because you hate to waste food and you never know. 

After all, you might just end up in the middle of a pandemic when making jello with a 2-year-old sounds like a fantastic idea and you're kind of curious about how well powdered jello lasts after 25 years...

25 March 2020

Finding words for the sadness

I know I am not the only one who has been crying in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Finding words to describe the sadness has been hard, though, as there are so many emotions present right now as we experience the chaos and challenges brought about through COVID-19. Emily Newton at the Mockingbird gives words to some of the many reasons we are crying:
We cry for the changes to our immediate daily lives and the growing pains that have come as a result. We cry because we are limited. We cry for the uncertainty, the fear, the anxiety present in our spaces, the isolation. We also cry for our world, healthcare workers, and the hospitalizations and deaths that have come and will continue to come, both afar and close to home.
We also cry because this crisis has brought about unexpected gifts: a recognition of the friendships and community I have, the joy brought to us from our small child (and my joy in hearing her interact with Matthijs), and the sense that I am using my gifts to pastor well and bring hope and comfort to people's lives. But all of these gifts do not erase the hardness of having normal life upended, being physically separated from others, or the loss of life that this illness has already brought and looks to be coming to people closer to me.

O Lord, how long will you forget [us]? Forever?
How long will you look the other way?
How long must I struggle with anguish in my soul,
with sorrow in my heart every day?
But I trust in your unfailing love.
Excerpts from Psalm 13 (NLT)

03 March 2020

Remember you are dust

Once again I heard the words, "remember you are dust," when I received the ashes on Ash Wednesday. And then I witnessed our small daughter also receive ashes and hear the words that she is dust. She is now old enough to realize that this experience was unusual. As we returned to our pew, she kept looking at her father's forehead and mine, noticing the dark cross on them. She was clearly wondering and trying to figure out what was going on. To explain it to her, I told her that this cross means that we belong to Jesus. 

To be reminded that we are dust is to me a reminder that we belong to Jesus - and that our time together also belongs to God. My time on earth and her father's time on earth and even her time on earth is limited. No matter how hard I strive, how careful we all are, or no matter how much I wish it were otherwise, I cannot prevent us from being hurt or any of us from experiencing loss. That is a sobering thought: a humbling realization of my own human mortality. I'd rather live in denial. Yet, in remembering that we are dust, I am also pushed into recognizing how thankful I am for my life (and loved ones) and remembering how much I need to trust Jesus and take comfort in knowing that we do belong to Jesus.