When anyone leaves the church—either for a short time or never to return again—it is not a good thing. Parishioners and clergy, alike, struggle with this unfortunate situation—it’s difficult to accept (not that it should ever be accepted). A little over a month ago, a couple around my age that had recently moved to town began worshipping with us. Along with being new to the area, they were also new to the Lutheran church and quite adolescent to the Christian faith. Despite all of this newness—and the fear and anxiety that usually accompanies it—they continued joining us. As I began talking with them, they both voiced interest in being baptized. I was so excited I felt like I was glowing like Moses coming down from Mount Sinai after having spoken with the Lord. From the way they talked, they felt affirmed by our congregational community to begin their new life in Christ here with and amongst us. So, I initiated an adult catechumenate class where we would talk casually, get to know each other, discuss Baptism and Holy Communion, and get them acquainted with the people of our congregation, the ministries of our church, and the traditions of our denomination. They seemed so excited about making this community their home as they sought to begin their faith journey. Then, suddenly, they abruptly stopped attending worship. I tried calling them to make sure everything was ok. No answer, nor response. Aware of my confusion and pain, my wife tried to reassure me: “Perhaps they’re out of town” and “Maybe they got busy.” As each day—and now weeks—went by I felt more and more like I had failed these two people who looked and sounded so eager to respond to the gift of faith given to them by the Holy Spirit, and to live in the fullness of God’s grace shown for each of them in the Crucified and Risen Christ. More than some selfish gain for the church, we were on the cusp of evangelizing to people who very much described themselves as being previously unchurched. It felt like I was responding, in a very real way, to Christ’s call to be “fishers of people” (Mk. 1:17). And yet, right before we could take the next step, it all slipped through my fingers like sand—the worst part being I had no idea why. The people of the congregation had been (from what I could see and hear) very warm and welcoming (while not too overwhelming) to this young couple. What had we (I) done wrong? Did I not move with enough eagerness to baptize them as soon as possible? Were they saying something under the surface that I was not paying attention to or could not hear? Did I say something that served as a stumbling block for them? I’ll be honest: this couple—and their lives of faith—have been weighing on my heart and haunting my dreams for the last couple weeks. Still very new to all of this—and the inevitable disappointments that can accompany ministry—I know this situation is bearing, perhaps, more weight than it should. Yet, I cannot help but wonder: “What if?” and “Why?” My hope—below my great despair—is that I didn’t, somehow, act with closed ears—missing an opportunity to “listen and understand” and participate in the Holy Spirit’s work of gathering all people into the one body of Christ. My prayer—continually in my heart and on my lips—is: Lord, calm my heart and help me to trust that you are working in this situation even when I am not involved and cannot see it. Continue to place on this couple’s hearts the gift of faith that they may know your love for them in the Crucified and Risen Christ. Amen.
Most church council meetings begin with the same thing: a devotion—which invariably means me—as pastor—talking and/or teaching, with others only responding when directly called upon. Last night’s monthly council meeting, however, began differently: with listening. Instead of commencing with me offering some Scripture or wisdom to guide our discernment and decisions in the business of the church, the voices heard were those of everyone else in the room. Don’t get me wrong, I can talk; if need be, I can fill the void of silence with plenty of noise. Yet, dwelling in silence—waiting and listening to another person is a far more difficult (and yet meaningful) task than talking. The change last night served as an exercise (or personal devotion of its own kind) for me in listening to others. Restraining from talking (which was no easy task), I listened to each council member.
One of the temptations I have recently discovered as a new pastor is blindly assuming that parishioners—church council members even more so—have an infinite availability in their personal lives to accomplish any and all church-related tasks immediately. I’m really not sure where or how I picked up this assumption. It’s not as if the tables were turned I would be able to hold up to such an unrealistic standard. Nevertheless, recently I was perturbed about a discrepancy between (someone else’s) results and (my own) expectations; and like God shoving me off of my self-assembled pedestal, it hit me (or perhaps I hit it): “What was I expecting? This person has a busy life: Monday through Saturday.” In that moment, shame washed over me like a shower I had desperately needed—washing away my self-righteousness, with grace seeping into my cleansed pores and filling me from bottom to top. The more I reflected on it, in the days that followed, I thought about how I had never asked that person what their Monday through Saturday life consisted of. I had not taken the time to learn about who they are below the surface. I had just assumed (and we all know what assuming does) that everyone else worked on church-related stuff all weeklong like me—the foolish pastor.
I hope (for the sake of being in good company) that I’m not the only pastor who has ever fallen entrapped in such a nonsensical thinking: a vocational amnesia (if you will). Therefore, instead of starting another church council meeting with me trying to give something to others or attempting to shape their thinking, this time I left the teaching to everyone else. I sat there, and I listened. As each person around the table shared, they told me about their Monday through Saturday lives. I heard people talk about work, ranging from farming hundreds of acres of corn and soy beans to teaching a classroom of rambunctious elementary students five days a week. I heard about families, and the daily demands and expectations they bring. I heard about volunteer involvement with community organizations. I heard about personal hobbies that bring a sense of accomplishment and renewal. As I sat there quietly listening, I was enlightened in a way that can only be attributed as a work of the Holy Spirit. I learned about each person in new ways: who they are, what they do, where they go, how they navigate their days and weeks, and why they do everything. I learned about the many different facets that drawn together form a life. I learned about the places, people, and work that is all informed by these devoted people’s faith. I learned about what all life happens before I see them enter into the sanctuary and after I see them leave worship on Sundays. And, I began to learn—at a very basic level—what Jesus meant when he instructed those around him: “listen and understand” and “all those who have ears to hear, listen.” From this enlightening exercise (or devotion), I pray that the Holy Spirit continues to work in opening my ears and closing my lips as I learn who the people are—Monday through Saturday lives included—that God has blessed me to work alongside in this church.
Explaining the First Commandment: “You are to have no other gods,” in his Large Catechism (1529) Martin Luther asks the question: “What does ‘to have a god’ mean, or what is God?” His answer, almost five hundred years later, remains convicting: “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol.” Another way to say this is a god is that which we trust to give us life and meaning. Therefore, if God is the one whom we trust give us life and meaning—then, indeed, God is our God. Yet, if an object (such as money) is that which we trust in to give us life and meaning—then, it serves as our god. An idol is not confined to being a statue or picture, but can consist of anything that controls and shapes our life. The difference, then, between God and an idol is that God actually does give us life and meaning, whereas an idol remains empty--leaving us feeling empty as well. As such, idolatry is to trust in something or somebody other than God.
A week and a half ago, I decided to take a short sabbatical from Facebook. Multiple reasons led to my temporary unplugging from the social media world. One in particular was a growing awareness of how often I was logging on. I had gotten to the point where I was on Facebook 20+ times a day, just to check if I had any new notifications. My attentiveness to “virtual relationships” had well exceeded—and perhaps even taken away from—my communication and care for real life relationships with family and friends. One day, it suddenly hit me: Facebook had become that which I was trusting to give my life meaning and worth. Whenever I would post something and not receive any responses, I felt disappointed; likewise, whenever others would “like” and/or respond, I felt a sense of value. Unconsciously, I had taken a good and convenient source of communication and created an idol out of it. No longer was this social media serving as a helpful tool; but, now, I had begun to use it to determine my self-worth. With regards to the First Commandment, Luther calls us each to: “Search and examine your own heart thoroughly, and you will discover whether or not it clings to God alone.” Not until I was able to take a step back from it, did I realize how I had let it control and shape my life. In a way, Facebook had become an addiction—my emotions hinging on it, and others’ comments determining my self-worth. When I finally realized how it was shaping my daily life and emotions, I felt so ashamed. Needing to break the chains of idolatry and turn my attention back to God and the gifts of my family and friends, I decided to take a break from the social media. Those first few days were tough. With each day, however—as I refocused my attention to more meaningful things, such as my prayer life and relationships with my wife and son--I began to feel a change. That which I had been searching for on Facebook was physically present around me—and had been all the while.
Martin Luther reminds us--affirming God’s grace and goodness: “We are to trust in God alone, to look to him alone, and to expect him to give us only good things; for it is he who gives us body, life, food, drink, nourishment, health, protection, peace, and all necessary temporal and eternal blessings. In addition, God protects us from misfortune and rescues and delivers us when any evil befalls us. It is God alone (as I have repeated often enough) from whom we receive everything good and by whom we are delivered from all evil.” Is there something in your life that seems to be controlling and shaping all that you are—yet only leaving you feeling empty and worthless? What would it look like to take a sabbatical from this thing, examine your heart, and discern what or who is functioning as God in your life? Perhaps you are being called to log off your idols and return to the Lord your (only) God.
I by no means have all the answers. As one who wrestles with his faith regularly, I bring with me tons of questions. I believe asking questions is a good and necessary part of our faith and life together. I also believe Christ calls us to question all those things that don't make sense. God has created us to think, to learn, and to grow. As I seek to question things I don't understand, may the Holy Spirit fill you also with a yearning to ask the tough questions in your life.