Saturday, August 31, 2013

John the Baptist...gets it!

Get it?” That is a curious question that can refer to all sorts of things. It can mean: “Did you go and get what I asked you to get for me?”  It can mean: “Did you receive the email or text message I sent to you?”  It can be the question asked after someone does not respond to a joke: “Did you get the meaning of the joke I just told you?”  It can be the exclamation of excitement when a riddle, puzzle or problem is solved successfully: “I got it!”
When I have traveled to other countries and cultures, there have been times when something happened that did not make any sense to me, and I clearly “did not get it.” I have painful memories of growing up and feeling culturally awkward with my peers, and being told that “I just did not get it!” There are few harsher criticisms of someone than to say “he/she just doesn’t get it.” In a working environment that might mean not having the skill set to do the job or be a contributing member of the team. In a social setting it might mean behaving inappropriately.
But “getting it” is a sweet experience and a high compliment. There are many skilled people who “get” what their job is and do it with excellence and delight. There are some people I can go to with vexing problems and situations who I know “get it” when it comes to what it means to be a pastor in today’s world.
Getting ready for worship this Sunday has been so much fun because I have been reacquainted with someone I was familiar with, but had not been around for a while.  That person is John the Baptist. He is so familiar to Christians. He is like wallpaper to our Gospel stories. We know where he fits and what he does. He is the baptizer of repentant crowds and the reluctant baptizer of Jesus. But as I read the text (John 1:19-34) over and over again I realized that John the Baptist is one who “really gets it” when it comes to Jesus.
Read the story over for yourselves a couple of times. What are the indicators you see that reveal John the Baptist as “getting it?”

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Gift of Time

I don't think about my age very often. My busy and active life and pastoral presence to young people and old people make me feel as a contemporary to whomever I am with. I don't ask about people's ages and numbers have never been my strong suit (to say the least!). 
But this weekend has been an incredible gift. Time has been stampeding through my brain. Our son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter are visiting at the same time as my father-in-law (and our middle son visited last week as well). So in the photo above are four generations from age 90 to 1 1/2 years old! 
Yesterday afternoon Isaac was asking my father-in-law John about his grandparents. Now John has a mental clarity that I'll never have. He went back in time and told stories to Isaac about his grandfather's birth in the 1880's and their migration from one city to another in Georgia and Tennessee. We were hanging around in territory just after the Civil War while Elise was scampering on the patio. She could conceivably live till 2113...that's a 233 year potential memory span all in one space. 
The joy and energy is palpable with the innocent wonder of Elise, to the family and career building of Isaac & Anna, to Martha and my love of family, traveling and good meals, to John's full account of past family affairs. This is fun!  

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Psalm 80: a lament

I don't do lament well. I like to solve, move forward, and find the positive. During a recent pre-marriage conversation with a young couple, the young woman (a marriage therapist) reflected on her experience of men and women dealing with pain. She said something to the effect that women, by and large, are more comfortable "sitting in the dark places longer" than men are. Hurrying out of darkness or pain too soon, she said, hinders therapy. I've been chewing on that idea all week. "Sitting in the dark place" long enough to do something healthy.
So the text for this Sunday is from Psalm 80, which is a communal lament. I've been reading and re-reading the text. What has happened is that I'm seeing more brokenness and pain around me than ever before. On Friday, waiting for the arrival of my father-in-law's flight, I watched a foursome (an older couple and a younger couple holding a baby). The younger mom handed the baby to the other woman, who I assumed was a friend or parent. The older woman received the baby, wrapped it in a blanket and they walked away. The younger woman radiated pain. I could see her face redden and her shoulders slump. Her husband wrapped his arms around her and she burrowed into his neck as I saw him whispering words into her ear. Her shoulders shuddered as he just held her.
What happened? I'll never really know. But what I guessed is that she was a surrogate mom handing off her child to the persons for whom she bore it and gave birth. It was all lament.
I've been following the unraveling of Egypt and Cairo in particular. We heard from a friend, recently returned, of the fear and terror among believers caught in the violence, watching church after church burned to the ground.
"Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved" vss 3, 7, and 19

Saturday, August 10, 2013

VBS; nightmare or dream?

Vacation Bible School (VBS) just ended at Montecito Covenant Church. This form of VBS is called Noah's Half-Day Camp and has been in operation for almost 30 years, beginning the summer before my immediate predecessor arrived. It is based on "Noah'a Ark" with each age group gathered around an animal: kangaroos, parrots, wolverines, etc. About 120 elementary and junior high kids filled the campus every day with two sets of loud music and energetic singing (see band below), followed by rotating activities like arts & craft (my wife Martha led with a team of helpers), sports, missions, a dramatic bible story, class time and snacks. It roared to life at 8:20 with staff announcements and devotions and then collapsed in exhaustion around 12:30 p.m. when the last of the volunteers left the campus (often to take much needed naps!) 

 The dirty little secret I have is that I have not always liked VBS. It seems like elaborate child care for other church children and youth who rotate through sequential VBS all summer long. It takes enormous energy and time to plan, run and recuperate from. And at the end of the day, the children and family return to their churches promising to come back next year.
Is this what the church is called to do? For a number of years I did not think so, until I encountered Noah's. At the recent camp, we had 10 men as teachers, volunteers and leaders. Several took vacation days to step in. A number had no children at home, but did it because they felt called. A number of women did the same thing, stepping out of professional life to step into the lives of children. The band was wholly made up of MCC youth and Noah's alumni, investing back into the sound of Noah's. 
High school and college students woke early in the summer (amazing!) to pour themselves into these little lives! 
I am tired and I did not teach any classes but wandered around with a cup of coffee blessing kids and teachers. But I now think this is discipleship at its best! It's one-on-one time with children and adults in a safe and healthy community creatively exploring what it means to follow Jesus and trust God. I would not miss this for the world!

Friday, August 09, 2013

Life-lesson from VBS

            It was the only place I did not visit this week during our church VBS called Noah’s Half-Day Camp. The place was a big open field above the church on Westmont campus where kids played all sorts of sports. So today, the last day, I walked up to watch an “innocent” game of tag. Each kid was given five clothespins to pin to the back of their shirt. Within the boundaries of the field, they were to “steal” as many clothespins off of the back of others as they could and pin them onto their shirts.
            At a whistle, the field erupted in running and squealing as kids simultaneously lost clothespins from their shirts and gained clothespins from the shirts of others. Then my eye caught one, frantic little girl who was bound and determined to not lose any clothespins. She was on the lookout for anyone running hear her, constantly spinning and dodging to avoid other hands reaching for her clothespins. The more she ran defensively, the more worry and fear filled her face. She could not evade attack and loss. But she had no joy in getting clothespins from others. Other kids counterbalanced their losses with gains, because they were running forward.
            A defensive life is a fearful life. If all my energies are spent on not losing, I have already lost. Hebrews 12:2 gives us the word to set our eyes on Jesus as we run the race forward, not backward. 

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


It surprised me. It was at the end of a jail service on a very warm Sunday night. The library was filled with thirty men. The singing was strong that evening and their audible response to my preaching was lively. As usual, I closed the sermon with a prayer. When I said “In Jesus name Amen” the room erupted in applause. They stood up and applauded. Me? My prayer? The service? God? What?
            It got me thinking about the slow creep of more and more applause in worship and services. Every wedding today ends with applause after I introduce the couple to the congregation. That never happened years ago. After the introduction, the organist would start the recessional and the couple and wedding party would walk out of the sanctuary to music, not applause.
            Applause is peppered throughout worship services. If a young person gives a testimony to what God is doing in her or his life, the congregation applauds. Most recently a young woman sang a most beautiful song as an offertory. It was deep and reflective on the gift of Christ’s sacrifice for us. As she sang, I was brought into one of those prayerful places with God. When it was over, you guessed it, applause.
            The question is this; is applause a disruptive response that come from the secular world of performance or is it a spontaneous and participative form of congregational worship? Our culture does not do silence very well. We need background music, noise and imagery. To respond to something in silence is increasingly foreign. But isn’t good body life communicative and responsive? Isn’t appreciation a good thing to share and show? Hasn’t worship been sullen and introspective too long?
            What do you think?

Friday, August 02, 2013

Why We Hate Poplar Trees

My family heritage comes from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Many of my forebears were lumberman. Both my father and uncle loved the white pine forest of Upper Michigan. A favorite family excursion was to pack a picnic lunch and hike deep into the forest, following old logging trails, maybe toting along a .22 rifle or B.B. gun to practice. We found wild wintergreen leaves to chew and picked fern fronds to fend off mosquitoes. My dad was an expert in identifying the tree varieties of the Midwest. But he hated one kind of tree, the poplar. In fact, he did not even call it poplar, but "popple" said with a burst of negative energy, like "pop!"
Routinely, around our family cabin in Michigan, my dad would cut down any poplar tree that dared to grow. He cultivate all varieties of pine, birch and hardwoods like maple. But poplar trees were treated like weeds. They needed to be cut down quickly before they invaded the space of other good trees. So, over the years, I took this as a matter of known fact, that poplars were "bad" trees, meant to be cut down.
My brother Tim and I have discussed the many uniquenesses of our dad over regular phone visits. And this poplar hatred has been one. Today, Tim solved the mystery of why we hate poplar trees. In an extended phone visit to my dad's brother, Eldon, Tim heard a family story we did not know. My grandfather, E.R. Johnson, emigrated to the United States from Sweden when he was 8 years old with his parents. E.R.'s father, August Johnson, experienced devastating famine. To extend bread dough, many Swedes cut down poplar trees and scraped out the moist insides of the bark to make something known as "bark bread." While healthy, it was bitter and sour and became a visceral reminder of famine and hardship. While not overtly talked about (Swedes don't talk overtly!!) this deep animosity to the poplar tree was imprinted in both my dad and uncle. Mystery solved!

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