How Not to Die

IMG-2755While walking through a bookstore recently, I saw an end-cap display featuring this book: How Not to Die. Curious, I looked the book up on the web and I found this synopsis: The vast majority of premature deaths can be prevented through simple changes in diet and lifestyle. In ‘How Not to Die,’ Dr. Michael Greger, the internationally-renowned nutrition expert, physician, and founder of NutritionFacts.org, examines the fifteen top causes of premature death in America-heart disease, various cancers, diabetes, Parkinson’s, high blood pressure, and more-and explains how nutritional and lifestyle interventions can sometimes trump prescription pills and other pharmaceutical and surgical approaches, freeing us to live healthier lives.

The title, of course, is misleading. There is no way to avoid death. Death comes to kings and beggars, Hamlet declared. No one escapes death. What a lovely thought that we might—or might postpone it.

Dr. Greger’s claims of longer life is not unique. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of books and websites claim to have the answer to how to prolong life. And perhaps these techniques actually do make a difference—for some. Perhaps the often-extreme suggestions for modifying diet and lifestyle actually will extend one’s life—for some. Still, we will all die. It is inevitable.

As a pastor, I have had the experience of being present when many people were facing the end of their lives. Some faced their imminent demise with grace and gratitude, often welcoming death as an end to their suffering. Others fought the coming of death with fierceness and even anger, unwilling to give up one moment sooner than necessary. I have seen both these behaviors in Christ-followers and I have seen both in non-believers.

We all fear death to some extent. Death is as mysterious as life itself. It is fearful and almost unimaginable that someone who lived, who is loved, who is here, is suddenly no longer here. All that made that individual unique in the history of humanity ceases to exist. Where did s/he go? Does s/he continue to exist in some form? What form? Will we see her/him again? Or is this life all there is?

As people of faith, we believe there is something beyond death. Whether this post-death existence is physical or spiritual is truly unknown. Many Christians believe in a physical afterlife, which is why cremation was frowned upon for so many years. More Christians, I think, would say that they believe in some sort of spiritual eternal life, without being sure what that means, since we cannot conceive of ourselves existing without physical form. One devout Christian told me that she believed that eternal life was expressed in one’s offspring and in the impact one had on the lives of those around you—and how those qualities were passed on.

One thing is certain: in spite of Dr. Greger’s provocative book title, we will all die. And none of us knows what happens next. For my part, I trust in the presence of a loving and merciful God, and therefore, I do not worry about what comes after this earthly existence. I trust that God will be there—wherever “there” is—just as God is here for me (us) now. And anything—any existence—in which there is God will be good.

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God-Giftedness

May19Promo (1)-page-0Yesterday, we had the privilege of blessing and farewelling of our church’s musicians, who is leaving in order to attend graduate school in Philadelphia. We also were blessed by him, as he played for us in worship and offered a free community concert. You can listen to his one-hour program by clicking here.

When I came to St. Peter five years ago, I learned that we had four accompanists for our three services, each playing several times a month. One of those accompanists was a 16-year-old high school kid. I recall thinking: a 16-year-old? How desperate was St. Peter that they hired a 16-year-old? I soon discovered that Chase Castle was an exceptional musician, truly gifted by God. Although he was young, he was faithful, committed, and hard-working. I had the privilege of watching him and his music mature over the next five years, as he studied for his undergraduate degree in organ performance.

Many of us will miss Chase but we rejoice that he will continue to grow and develop his gift. I know that some congregation(s) and many people will be profoundly blessed by his music in the future. Most importantly, as a man of faith, Chase will continue to glorify God with his music.

But Chase is not the only person gifted by God. In fact, God has given everyone certain gifts. People of faith (hopefully) seek to use their God-giftedness to glorify God and serve the world. St. Paul writes: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor. 12:4-7)

For me, the key verse is the last one: that the gifts of God’s Spirit are for the common good. After all, God chooses to grant us gifts, but it is up to us to choose how to use them. We can use God’s gifts solely for our own benefit. Or we can choose to use our gifts for the “common good,” that is, to benefit others, in addition to ourselves.

How has God gifted you? With music or art or wisdom? With compassion or generosity or patience? With a love for children or the elderly or the creation? With financial resources or culinary skills or the ability to solve problems? With leadership or hand skills or prayer? Whatever our gifts, God calls us to use them for the sake of others. This is one of the ways for us to bear witness to our faith in and gratitude for Jesus Christ. By using our God-giftedness for the common good, we bring honor and glory to God’s name.

With what has God gifted you? How are you using your gift(s) for the common good?

Rumble Strips

Roadway shoulder rumble stripsRumble strips—we all know what they are: those annoying grooves along the edges of highways that make our wheels/cars rumble when we veer too close to the edge of the road. Of course, rumble strips are intended as a way to alert the driver, who may have dozed off or got distracted, that they are getting off track and need a course correction.

As I rumbled a bit along I-80, giving wide berth to a semi who was straying into my lane, it occurred to me that rumble strips are a great spiritual analogy. I couldn’t find a way to work that in any of my recent sermons, so you get a blog entry instead.

I’m sure the analogy is obvious. When we get distracted from what is truly important in life, we sometimes need a “rumble strip moment” to startle us back to attention and to get back on the right road.

I had a recent “rumble strip moment” when conversing with colleagues. Without oversharing, let’s just say that I was being a bit of a downer, whining about my situation. A colleague friend rather bluntly said that such an attitude would not result in good ministry. My friend is not usually so confrontational. She’s often the first one to voice words of support and empathy. Not this time. This time she called me on my whining and she was right to do so.

Since that conversation, I have thought about her words several times, especially when an entirely different person said much the same thing to me five days later. It’s obvious that I needed “rumble-stripped” back on course.

It seems to have worked. I feel back on track, my attitude has been adjusted, and I am facing the coming months with more energy than I’d had before.

Let me add that I do not necessarily believe that “rumble strip moments” are from God. They may be. But mostly I think God lets us make our way, even if we end up in a ditch somewhere. When we feel rumble-stripped, it’s probably our own wisdom or self-knowledge coming to the fore. God’s role is to be present with us in all things, to support us when we need it, to lift us up when necessary, and to offer forgiveness and second chances when we deliberately aim for the ditches.

How about you? What part of your life might you need a “rumble strip moment” to get back on course? Wherever that may be, know that God is always present on the journey.

 

He Is Risen! But Not Yet!

risenOn Wednesday of Holy Week, I drove by a local church and on their electronic sign I read: “He Is Risen!” “Not yet!” I said as I drove by. “Give him a few more days.” After all, we celebrate the resurrection of Christ on Easter Sunday. We still had Good Friday before us—the commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion. How can we celebrate Christ’s resurrection until we have faced his death?

In my previous congregation, there was a mega-church in that community who offered Easter worship services on Good Friday. Apparently, their services on Easter Sunday were so packed that they had to schedule extra ones: two on Good Friday, three on Holy Saturday and four on Easter Sunday. Obviously, this church did not even recognize Good Friday as a Holy Day worth remembering! Again: how can we celebrate resurrection until we have faced death?

There is no resurrection—no new life—without death and loss. We see this in nature all the time. A plant grows and flowers and then loses its beauty and leaves and it either dies or goes into a sort of hibernation, mimicking death. Often, as the plant is dying, it releases seeds. And then when the conditions are right, it comes back to life, or the seeds grow, and the cycle is repeated. So, too, with living creatures. They are born, grow, flourish, and then die and their remains become part of the earth, nourishing other creatures and plants into new life. Jesus used the plant life-cycle as an example of this important process of death-into-resurrection: Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. (John 12:24)

We cannot truly appreciate and celebrate the resurrection of Christ and all it means without facing the suffering and death that came first. Mind you, I am not one of those theologians who believe that it was necessary for Jesus to undergo a painful death or that the amount of pain he suffered was necessary for salvation. That’s all nonsense. The amount of suffering and pain that Jesus endured was not a God-requirement for salvation: Jesus’ suffering is a direct result of human sinfulness and hate. People caused Jesus to suffer, not God.

If Jesus had been mercifully beheaded or had died of old age or disease, it would not have mattered. What mattered was the resurrection—the restoration of life and the promise of eternal life. The resurrection made Jesus’ death different from all other deaths.

And we cannot have resurrection without death. So while we may prefer not to dwell on the death part, it is Jesus’ death that made the resurrection possible and which defined the meaning of the resurrection for us. Life is stronger than death. Love is stronger than hate. God is strongest of all.

So if you are in a Good Friday time in your life—a time of loss or uncertainty or fear or abandonment—trust in the strength of God to bring you out of Good Friday and into resurrection and new life. We might prefer to skip the Good Friday’s of our lives, but without those Good Friday’s, we will never know the true promise and power of resurrection.

Emptying

kenosisYesterday I preached about emptying oneself, as St. Paul says Jesus did (Philippians 2:6-11). In Paul’s view, Jesus emptied himself OF himself so that he could be filled with God and God’s will. I encouraged my congregation to empty themselves during this Holy Week walk—to empty themselves of fears and worries and anxieties and the things over which we have no control. I suggested that we especially try to lose all those things that clutter up our lives and interfere with our sense of the holy. I said that if we were emptied, then we could be filled with Christ, and his peace and love and mercy, instead of all those other unhelpful things.

As I was preaching this yesterday, it occurred to me—as it often does—that I was speaking to myself. I’m the one who needs to let go of all that stuff and let myself be filled with Christ. In my case, that would be all the Holy Week “stuff” that has been so much on my mind in these past days. I don’t mean that I should simply drop everything. None of us would be happy with that outcome. However, the stress that I place on myself, the worrying about every little detail, the fear that something will be wrong in the bulletin or on the slides or in my leader’s book: these are the things that drive me crazy and in the end are mostly unimportant. Of course, nobody wants a sloppy, thrown-together worship experience. But when I let these little details overwhelm the true Holy Week experience, I am depriving myself and my congregation of a pastor who is focused and calm and spiritually present.

So this week, I will try to follow my own homiletic advice: to empty myself of worry and unimportant details and unnecessary stress. I will try to make space for Christ so that I might feel his peace, his joy, his love, his mercy instead of my anxiety and stress.

As we walk towards the empty tomb, let us do so as empty people, filled only with Jesus.

Timing

lots-of-clocks-1725x810_28340_32673Have you ever shown up for an appointment or event and it turns out that you had the wrong date or time for it? I’m guessing the answer is probably yes. We’ve all done it.

Sometimes I get the date or time wrong because I have written it down wrong—or in my case, entered it incorrectly in my electronic calendar. And because I was wrong from the get-go, I don’t feel quite so silly when I show up on the wrong date or at the wrong time. I can just say, “Oh, I put it in wrong.”

But the much more embarrassing times are when I’ve got the right date and time in my calendar, but my memory is wrong. I will get something fixated in my head—”10 am on Friday”—and either don’t bother to check my calendar or think I already have—and then it turns out that my memory is wrong and I’m not at the right place at the right time.

This happened to me just a few days ago. I was sure I had a meeting on a Sunday afternoon and I planned my day and activities around that impending meeting. When the meeting time came and went and no one showed, I checked my calendar—and the meeting was scheduled for the following Sunday. Duh!

And to make things worse, I had prepared all the material I would need for the meeting several days before. So I had thought for several days that this meeting was coming up and therefore I was wrong not just for that moment, not just for that day, but for the entire week. Talk about feeling foolish!

Now when these things happen to me, it makes me a bit paranoid for a while. Believe you me, I’ll be carefully checking all my meeting dates and times for the next few weeks. But eventually I’ll stop being so careful and I will inevitably slip up again. And be embarrassed again. Ah, well.

It’s good to know that we have a God whose timing is always right. And I don’t mean this in a deterministic “God has an unalterable plan” sort of way. I mean God’s timing is always right because God is always present and active, no matter the situation. There isn’t a “right time” for God because God is always here. It’s our timing with God that sometimes gets off. We are the ones who don’t hear or see God’s activity in the world and in our lives. We are the ones who miss the God-moments and who gloss over God’s movements and who take for granted God’s blessings.

But God’s timing is always perfect because God is always. Always present. Always listening. Always strengthening. Always blessing. Always comforting. Always loving. Always forgiving. Always, at all times, in all circumstances.

And that’s something you don’t ever need to worry about entering into your calendar. (Although I supposed you could set up an all-day, every day recurring event “God…”)

Who’s There?

ash-wednesday-cross-liturgy-of-550910Sometimes I am alone in the church at night after others have left. As is true in all buildings, when one is alone and quiet, you can hear things that are not noticeable at other times of the day when you are busy or there is more activity. Buildings creak and groan. There are clicks and knocks and sometimes scraping noises. Heating and air conditioning systems kick on and off. Clocks tick and tock. Sometimes the carillon rings. At St. Peter, there is even a sort of “ghost” story about a bathroom light switch that self-activates when no one is near it. I’ve seen it happen, although I did not see the ghost.

I’m not a believer in ghosts, but I will admit that sometimes, the noises spook me a bit. And that’s not because of the possibility of ghosts—if there are ghosts, I don’t think they could do any harm to the living. No, it’s because it makes me wonder if someone else is in the building. The other day, I was certain I was alone and then I began to hear a noise that sounded like footsteps, but very stealthy. So I quietly crept out into the narthex only to be startled by the custodian—who was also startled, because he thought he was alone in the building.

People are often afraid to be alone—and not just because of spooky-sounding buildings. People are fearful of being alone for many reasons, but I think one of those reasons is that we are not sure we want to be alone with ourselves. If we are alone, we might realize things about ourselves that we’d rather not realize. We might have to face our shortcomings and failures and sins. If we keep busy, stay around other people, self-reflection can be avoided.

Yet here we are, getting ready to begin another Lent season. Lent, and in particular, Ash Wednesday, is a time for self-reflection and confession. It’s a time to face the truth about ourselves, to acknowledge our shortcomings, both personal and spiritual, and to seek God’s forgiveness. It is a time to commit to making healthy changes in our lives—to get rid of unnecessary stuff, to focus on deepening our relationship with God, and to clean our spiritual houses.

It can be painful, this self-reflection stuff. Yet all of us can benefit from facing the truth of who we are—with all our beauty marks and our warts. Only when we face the truth can we commit to changing those less-desirable traits that make us reluctant to be alone with ourselves. With God’s help, true transformation is not only possible—it is inevitable.

May God bless your Lent journeying with healthy reflection, true repentance, and joyful resurrection.