Remembering Aunt Darla

My Aunt Darla was one of God’s special beloved.  The medical community has words to describe her – nonverbal, neuro-atypical, differently-abled, and more hurtful words – but to us – to me – she was just a loved and special part of our family.  Many people in my family have a special connection to beloved children of God like Darla, and I never ceased to be amazed at the love and compassion that she was shown by people I would not necessarily describe as loving and compassionate otherwise.

That ability to connect with her did not come easily to me, or maybe not even at all.  I always felt that love for her, but that connection was not my gift (which saddens more than a little today).

But in her I saw a special gift I pray for myself: an ultimate vulnerability, a complete lack of mask or deception, fully bringing everything about herself to every moment.  I pray and dream of the moment where I can bring half of my true self to anything; she just naturally did it.

She was a complete and whole beloved child of God, no need for correction nor fixing.  I do not say that she had an easy life – or a pain-free life – but she was beloved exactly as she was.  I could not always see that, but I know it to be true.

Last night my Aunt Darla passed away from COVID-19.  She spent a week on a ventilator but was, ultimately, too weak to recover.  Thankfully my grandparents were able to spend the last moments with her, but most of that time they had to stay away.  I don’t know if she knew what was going on before they sedated her, but I know it had to be very confusing to be without anyone she knew in those last moments awake.

For the past week or so, a verse from Matthew has not been far from my mind: “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:40 CEB)

I know Darla was well cared for her entire life – my grandparents, the staff at the facility she lived, the doctors and nurses who cared for her at the end.  Those people are light in this world, a reflection of perfect love.

On Friday my family will be wearing red – her favorite color – and you are welcome to join us, but I more hope and pray that you can find your way to do for the least and the lowest.  Protect the most vulnerable, support the most downtrodden, lift the most beaten, sacrifice your own desires for the needs of those whose needs aren’t fulfilled.

“Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’” (Matthew 25:40 CEB)

You will be dearly missed, Aunt Darla.  I pray I can someday reflect as much of Christ’s love as you did.

– Robby

Opening Too Early

I will start this by saying that, if I have unfounded fears, I will very publicly eat my words.  I, like everyone else, pray that this all declines and life can resume.  I want to, in four weeks, say, “I was wrong, and my fears were unfounded.”

But my observations of history, the current trends, and the words of experts make me thing that we have not found the end of this and a second wave will happen as we open back up.

I first must say that I do not have an argument against everything people have said about the downsides of closing.  Yes, closing has exacerbated socio-economic problem.  Yes, closing has exacerbated mental health issues.  Yes, limiting elective surgeries – and declaring some necessary surgeries elective – has exacerbated and risked lives.

No one can – or will – argue the truth of these issues.  They are real.  We may wildly disagree on how to mitigate these realities, but we all know they are real and serious.

When someone says that we should not reopen too soon, they do not argue we should ignore these realities or sacrifice those suffering from these realities for the good of other people.

Our concern lies with the second wave because the second wave will also exacerbate these things, likely exacerbating them longer than if we had just stayed closed long enough.  Opening too early will not have a lasting positive effect.  It will temporarily relieve it, but the ensuing wave and closing will re-exacerbate everything, and for longer because the second wave is always worse than the first and will force a longer closing.

I must address something else.  I have seen zero debate about this.  I have seen virtue signaling, accusations of “vileness” and “hatred,” name calling, and blinding anger.  And, as a confession, I have been as guilty as anyone.

Accusing each other of disregarding the needs of the least and the lowest without actually naming their ways and simply angrily repeating your concerns – or worse, parroting the talking points provided to you by people who care not at all about the least and the lowest but benefit greatly by those least and lowest returning to work – will not help and will only sow divisions in this time of isolation.  And frankly, it does not move us to a better understanding of what we should do.

I will not say much publicly on the issue as I have been doing, but I will covenant with everyone that when I do, I will address what I see, why I disagree with it, and do so without accusations and name calling.  I ask that you do the same.

We can get through this, we can find a path that addresses the pandemic and the societal problems exacerbated by it, and we can do so without hatred, but we must actively and intentionally do so – and maybe sacrifice our own desires and needs in the process.

Peace,
– Robby

Pastoring in the Tension

I hate the profession of pastoring right now.  There, I said it.  I love being a pastor, I love caring for people, I love preaching – even when I must preach a difficult, prophetic sermon – I love the church I currently serve, I love this call.  But holy crap, we have found ourselves in a terrible time to try to pastor to people and the larger church.

Just open your Facebook account.  Today Iowa still has not declared a final count for the Caucus, President Trump gave the State of Union Address last night, and Nancy Pelosi ripped her copy of his speech in half after he finished – after he refused to shake her hand before he started.  Oh, and the impeachment vote will happen today.

What did your friends say about these things?  Or, for the pastors who might hear this, your parishioners?

I saw both Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump revered as the second coming of Christ and feared as the arrival of the anti-Christ.  I saw conservatives and liberals derided as stupid evil and deified as the saviors of our nation.  I saw discussion not happening and hyper-partisanship ending all dissent.

This morning, before I even got out of bed, I saw these things.  Long before I even got to the office to contemplate worship for the week and how I address another long list of unique things I have to address less some thought leader recommend people leave my church – or rather, I have to decide what gets addressed and what I cannot speak to – I saw all these things.

And, just by pointing out the hyper-partisanship, someone will inevitably accuse me of “Enlightened Centrism,” a code-word for complacence in evil by not choosing to fall in line with a side.  I cannot win; I will fail every purity check of the left and the right, and I will always be the “problem” despite my desire to do something right.

We live in a time were people celebrate a former moderator of the General Assembly publicly endorsing a candidate and publicly accusing other candidates of a whole host of evils – and publicly stating that people voting for any other party doom the nation.  And, when I say this, someone will accuse me of being an Alt-Right white-supremist.  How dare I question the actions of someone like that?

Pastors, I have a question for you: do you see any pastoral sensitivity in anything we do in 2020?  Recently, at a meeting where the group would vote on the proposed direction for the presbytery, a vocal activist equated being conservative with being evil to prove their point in a room of fairly liberal church people – and my parishioner, a moderate conservative trying to figure out her place in this church, sitting right beside her.

What the Hell should I do?  Do I stand up against the prevailing winds because I want pastoral sensitivity and for us to deal with our internal hyper-partisanship so we can more effectively reach out people who have loving hearts and misguided minds?  Do I just let the prevailing winds blow the church as they want because the ultimate goal lines up with the message of Christ despite its problematic language and method?  Do I even get to call it problematic when the problems come from isolating people the larger American church has largely coddled in decades past – and I see it as unhelpfully driving people away from the message instead of convicting them to change?  Do I just give up, sit in my little corner, do what I can to move the needle slightly toward love in maybe one person in the congregation I serve, and just be okay with that?

As I pain over that tension, I also have to provide pastoral care to people.  I know thought leaders say we worry too much about pastoral care, but I guarantee you the woman whose husband forgets who she is when he stands will not hear anything about whatever soap box the larger church demands I stand on today.  I guarantee the man who had to make the difficult decision to put his wife in a care facility because he could not longer care for her – and then had an appendectomy within two weeks – will not hear my prophetic message.  Or even make it to church.

Some people God called me to care for vote straight-ticket Republican, some straight-ticket Democrat, and they all need care.  My sermons, my social media presence, my speaking about politics will affect their ability to receive care from me.  I do not have a pastoral care staff.  I have some volunteers, but they are not trained in any real way.  They all have professional and personal lives outside the church.

When someone stares down death – either their own or a loved-one’s – I am it.  I believe they give me more leeway to accept my care when I get a bit feisty in the pulpit than I acknowledge, but I know a line of “too far for this moment” exists and I refuse to participate in pastoral ministry that does not at least acknowledge were my people are and what they can hear in a moment – and then receive the care God called me to give them afterward.

I find myself likening this profession to a tightrope walk, which itself just lends itself to the difficult beauty of this calling, but a thing has happened.  Thought leaders have demanded we do not spend time on that tightrope and only worry about staying apolitical for the sake of providing care or worry about having a prophetic voice and find someone else to provide that care.

You know where the tightrope is easiest?  On the edges, off the actual rope.  If you refuse to balance the multiplicity of this calling, of course you can just say whatever you want from the pulpit without any sort of sensitivity or just not rock the boat in your sermons because you always think about the hospital room and the funeral home.

I think the profession used to rejoice – if privately lamenting – the balancing act we must do and the tension we feel between all our callings.  Or, at least I thought that when I started seminary.  Now, though, I only see thought leaders and “important pastors” pretending that all pastors have staffs, budgets, and opportunities to do all the activism and prophecy – and condemning pastors who have pastoral work to do.

Pastors, I have another question: how many of you actually feel supported?  Hopefully your spouses, partners, and families provide some support, but who actually feels supported in their ministries – and their struggles in this soul-killing tension – by colleagues, regional ministers, or church leadership?  Or, like me and so many others that I talk to, feel like they have to do it all alone and no one cares about their struggles – and they do not even have a place to express those struggles at all?

Pastors, I have yet another question: how many of you have received the answer, “Find a Therapist, Spiritual Director, or Coach,” when you express frustration over your lack of support?  How messed up has the church gotten that we say that you need to pay for the support you need?  We preach in a time of hyper-partisanship, provide pastoral care for people we need to preach a prophetic message to, and then must pay for someone to care about our struggles.

We have to choose to pastor in the tension – or choose not to.  I just do not know how we sustain this.  Or is it just me?

Peace,
– Robby

All are Reflections of God

I would never consider myself an ally.  I do not have the strength to stand up like my stronger colleagues and march with our LGBTQ+ sisters and brothers, especially in the complicated political time and place that I find myself.

I know “complicated political time and place” is nothing more than an excuse, but it is my excuse and I love it!

But in this month, as we remember Stonewall and give opportunity for those who society relegated to the shadows to stands in the beautiful light of day, I have a thought rolling around in my mind:

How can anyone looking at themselves in the mirror and see themselves as made in God’s imaged and then look at another human being and see them as an abomination somehow less than and not made in God’s image?

I will not go into the exegesis and theological discussion of homosexuality and sin – much, much smarter people than me have tackled that task already.  I simply want to know how anyone can look at someone else and believe God did not make them in God’s image.  I want to know how you can choose one thing you perceive as sinful and that one thing makes someone an abomination while God still loves you despite the host of sins that tarnish your soul.

I recently had coffee with a college friend and, like you always do, we started to reminisce and talk about who we were back when.  She pointed out that, in college, my politics never lined up with my desire for compassion and love, and I often did feel the tension between my “conservative Christian politics” and my actual Christian values.

I never fully owned the title “conservative”, but I always found myself leaning toward Republicans.  I started to believe the little racist things like “I want White Entertainment Television!” and “Affirmative Action is just as racist as the racism it’s trying to fix!”  At the same time, I still believed in loving people and felt compassion for the marginalized and the outcast.

I think the first crack in my conservative politics came from Acts.  I grew up with the knowledge that “socialism is evil and just ‘Communism-Lite’”, but readings Acts give you a very different view of communal living and resource sharing:

44All the believers were united and shared everything.  45They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them.  46Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity.  47They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”

My conservative beliefs came from people who held the Bible as the ultimate truth and yet praised the values of unfettered and unregulated capitalism that encouraged the abuse of workers so the wealthy could have more.  Throughout the gospels Jesus gives special care and consideration to the poor and broken, yet the very people who claimed Christianity supported politics that harmed those same people Jesus took special care of.

As I dug deeper – and also started seminary – I found myself moving left (in American political terms).  I found myself realizing my broader theology did not line up some of hotter single-issue position that I held.  Relevant to this month, my position on homosexual ordination did not line up with the broader theologies of universal brokenness and everyone being made in the image of God.

(I hadn’t quite gotten to a point where I would see homosexuality as not sinful; it takes me time to change, like any good Presbyterian.)

It still, 8 years later, fascinates me how vitriolically and hatefully people started treating me.  I would have still considered myself conservative (in black and white terms) at that point and yet I failed the “Good Christian” check of needing to see homosexuals as sinful and homosexuality as a choice.

And mind you, I hadn’t even touched the waters of non-binary gender or other sexualities.  I had failed them – which, even typing it, seems asinine – and I needed to either fall in line or accept my relegation as a liberal heathen.

As I continued to study, to learn, and to grow, I kept moving left.  I recently attributed this movement to the centerline moving right, but I have also walked left, I suppose.  We have values in the United States that we claim as Christian that often exist outside the prevue of scriptures but more often exist in conflict to the words and ideals of Christ we have recorded in our scriptures.

Not the point, though.  The larger point exists as this: as I have grown and learned, I have come to realized that God made every person – of every sexuality, gender, and race – in God’s own image, and every one of them has the capacity to minister and share God’s word.  No one exist who does not reflect the image of God despite our own personal biases, bigotries, and discomforts.

I have not gotten to the point where I do enough to call myself an ally, I fail “Woke Checks” on a constant basis, I am certainly not liberal enough to be trendy or traditional enough to be orthodox, but I see you, I love you, and I want you to share God’s word in a way that I can’t.

And to my sisters and brothers who can see someone as anything other than a reflection of the creator: how?  And how dare you?

Peace,
– Robby

 

 

 

 

Self-Care and Novocaine

I need to confess today.

Actually, I confessed multiple times last week, but today I confess publicly:

Before Thursday, when I found myself with zero choice, I had not seen a dentist since age twelve.

Going to the dentist after so long scared me.  The actual dentistry did not scare me–the needles and drills and scraping sound terrible but also restorative–but the cost and the shame scared me.

I have ignored broken teeth.  I likely need numerous root canals and fillings.  My teeth look like they haven’t been cleaned in nineteen years–and I owe a gracious “Thank you!” to everyone for not mentioning it.  I will need to some something expensive about the salvageable teeth.

Do you know how much shame I feel writing that?  I asked my nurse sister about interactions between amoxicillin and pseudo-ephedrine–because I cannot just have dental problems, I also need to have sinuses that act up concurrently–and I prayed she would not ask me the doctor prescribed me amoxicillin so I would not have to confess I had not seen a dentist in nearly two decades and only found one out of extreme pain and swelling and that the visit included Novocaine and antibiotics, which only means one thing.

I also have two kickers: one, I have had continuous dental coverage for the past five years and spotty but at least occasional coverage for the past thirteen, probably some before I know nothing about; and two, my wife works in the dental field.

I have no reasons aside from shame and fear.

The fear comes from cost.  I will not spend a lot of time griping about dental costs and how worthless dental insurance is beyond cleanings and x-rays and how it should cost more to receive dental implants in the United States than to take a month off of work, live in Europe for a month, and receive dental care from a UCLA-trained dentist.  It really should not cost less to do it twice in Europe than once in the United States.

No, not an exaggeration or hypothetical.  Literally know someone who did it and had that exact cost experience.

A realization fascinated me as I drank my chocolate malt for lunch because Novocaine: no one made me feel ashamed at the dentist.

They acted confused and shocked a dental lab technician’s husband had not seen the dentist in so damn long, but they did not shame me.  They had, and have, the goal to get me back in to clean and x-ray my teeth and chart a plan of attack to get my mouth healthy.

How much suffering had my shame and fear caused me?

I believe I stumbled upon a thing, not unknown but also known widely discussed.  We do not go to counselors because strong people can take care of themselves.  We do not go to doctors because we fear blowing sicknesses out of proportion and hypochondria, or we need to improve our self-care to justify having a doctor try to fix our problems.  We do not admit our exhaustion because good pastors/ministers/church leaders/parents/teachers/… … … do not get worn out given our amount of work.  We do not admit that we need help with our faith and our church life because a strong, faithful Christian would not need it given our place in our faith journey.

Eventually it festers until we do not have a choice and we have to let the giant needle go in and have the blade and pliers remove we we maybe could have salvaged had we just taken care of it initially instead of letting it get so bad it risked hurting us irreparably.

Or worse, letting it fester long enough to hurt us in a way we cannot recover from in.

We have a problem, though.  My dentist appointment went as well as getting a tooth ripped from your mouth can go.  The last time I saw a doctor, though–after going to the ER because my indigestion tried to convince me my heart would explode and that doctor telling me a thirty-year-old can no longer not have a primary care physician–the PCP gave me zero answers to any problem I brought to her.  We did no actual diagnostics because the blood work came back normal, and all of my stomach issues were chalked up to my weight and she told me losing weight would solved them if one possible diagnosis ended up being correct.

I realize the level of my obesity.  I have struggled with my weight for 23 years, more and more as I age, and I know some minor weight-loss and mildly alleviated some of my symptoms, but never fully and never some of the newer symptoms I have.

The doctor did not try to actually find a problem, instead just making it about my weight.  Even if we can blame the weight 100%, I need to know what the weight does to my body instead of implying fat people just get heart burn and stomach pains magically because of fat.

Many times, when you try to help yourself and seek the help of someone who has the skills to help you when you cannot help yourself, that skilled person shames you for needing help in the first place.  The idea of “Pick yourself up by your bootstraps!” guides so many in positions to help.

“If you just do the right things, the bad things will stop.”

The church does this, too.  We forget about the cross and the empty tomb, instead making people think they can be good enough–or not good enough–for church and for the help that the church provides.  We forget we need of Jesus in our own lives and something higher than ourselves saves us, too, and we believe people need to lose enough “sin” weight before we can take their needs and problems seriously to try to help them.

We see some people as “fallen” and others as “hopelessly fallen” even though we all are “hopelessly fallen.”  We contribute to the shame that makes people not want to seek help, instead opting to suffer until they cannot suffer the pain any more and succumb to it.

We withhold love to those we deem unworthy and shame them for their unworthiness.

We need to take care of ourselves and reach out for help when needed.  We need to admit when we are inadequate to fix our problems.  We need self-care and care from outside ourselves.

And we need to be open to caring, not blaming and shaming but just trying to help.  We need to love without reservation or requirement.

Also, Novocaine is terrible and even though it far outweighs the alternative, it is terrible.

Peace,

– Robby

Stand Up Against Your Allies

Beginning Notes: For the second time since starting at Grace, I used a manuscript.  I use a manuscript when the words will not come to me as I prepare or when I need to choose my specific words–and not just my thoughts–before I begin to preach.

This Sunday I needed to choose my words carefully and thoughtfully.  I only trust myself so far when anger and sadness guide my voice around what we treat as a political issue when politics should have nothing to do with it.

If I traverse a minefield, I want a very specific map drawn out for me.

Unlike most weeks, I preached exactly what you read here (with a couple of minor edits for my sanity).


Sermon on Matthew 25:34-46 – Stand Up Against Your Allies

I often need to ask myself these questions I ask you today:

“How do you respond when your friends and allies do horrific things?”

“Do you speak up when those whom you align yourself do terrible things?”

“How do you respond when atrocities become politicized and evil becomes a bargaining chip for the powerful?”

“Are you willing to provide witness when you see evil, or do you cower or, worse, justify atrocities to protect the atrocious out of loyalty?”

I chose to preach on this passage today, Sunday, June 24th, 2018, to respond to the world.  I rarely choose a passage based solely my own heart—and rarely reuse so quickly—but the spirit directs me and a phrase, “the least of these,” has not left my mind in ten days.

I believe we live in a unique and abnormal time with unique and abnormal challenges.  Today we have challenges beyond the growing pains of the progression of time and how we change the ordering society.  I sound alarmist to myself, and I want you know to know that I doubted the wisdom of including this thought of unique struggle, but I need to say it: we live in a unique and abnormal time.

Despite the uniqueness and abnormality of our current world and political climate—and the difficult challenges we stare down today—our call remains the same.  The call of the gospel does not change, and the example of Christ does not change.

I want to reflect deeply on Jesus’ words the spirit placed on my heart.  “…whatever you did for one of the least of these [sisters and] brothers of mine, you did for me.”  Whatever you do for or to the least, you do directly for or to God.

Very simple and very convicting; God judges us most strictly on our treatment of the lowest and least amongst us.

Jesus gives a list of “the least”; the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger—translatable to “the exile, the immigrant” or “the foreigner” or even just “the guy who wandered up to you on the street”—all qualify as the least.

Your treatment of them is your treatment of God.

If we do not dig below the surface of that list, I have nothing to preach about.  We joyfully and intentionally do what we can with what we have here at Grace.  We do not always know the exact right course of action—especially now as we discern the practical expression of our mission “Following Jesus . . . Serving Others”—but we strongly desire to help.  We feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, provide resources to clothe the naked, and we open our doors to the stranger.

We desire to help and comfort the least of God’s children.  I do not qualify, and I do not downplay.  I will not take that away from this congregation.

Let us start to dig below the surface of that list a little bit.  Nothing on that list immediately strikes an uncomfortable nerve.  We just fill in the blank of “Why?” that Christ left blank with “Innocent Neediness,” but Jesus makes no mention of innocence or guilt in his least.

The list feels different if we fill in the “Why?” blank with something:

  • The hungry because they gambled their entire paycheck away.
  • The stranger filled with hate.
  • The thirsty because they spent the money for the water bill on heroin.
  • The naked by choice and situation to make money.

These seem lower than the innocently struggling.  They fight losing battles—battles of sin and battles of illness and addiction—that make them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger, and they cannot claim innocence, at least in part.

Jesus did not say the innocent when he said the least and yet we condemn the guilty whose actions have made them hungry, thirsty, naked, and a stranger.  We convince ourselves they deserve their situations and feel sinful helping them.

We can dig deeper.  Each of these make us uncomfortable but we have not politicized these pains—at least not yet.

Let us go a bit deeper.  How about these “least”:

  • The victims of violence and terror who thirst in the desert, fleeing to a place they believe will provide them hope.
  • Those in rags who hope to find a land of plenty.
  • The hungry who seek a home that does not have abject poverty.
  • The infant stranger ripped from their parents’ arms.

How do we treat these least?

Do we compassion and love for them, or do we dehumanize them and see them as animals?

Should they receive the treatment of people—as human and deserving as us, just different in situation—or the treatment of pawns in a vile political game?

Do we love them, or do we hate them?

I do not speak of immigration policy today.  I know I cannot fully discern the right policies of who can and cannot enter our boarders.  I cannot give you a Christian and scriptural immigration policy for the United States.  I believe we must not divide ourselves on political lines in that discussion, but I understand the positions of a completely closed and completely open border, and we must find a policy that does good while also providing protection.

I do not speak of immigration policy.  I speak of policies that dehumanize anyone, that treat humans worse than most dogs, that describe a people as roaches, that indefinitely inter anyone, and that do anything to separate a child from their loving and safe parents.  Those policies do these things to God because they do those things to the least of God’s children Christ spoke of—the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the stranger.

Doing harm to the least does harm to God.  Politicizing harm and insulting outrage at doing harm to the least politicizes harm and insults outrage at doing harm to God.

Do you respond in horror or do you turn a blind eye and downplay doing harm to the least of God’s children?

Sometimes we cannot directly help with resources, but we can witness to good and evil and speak out against evil, or we can turn a blind eye.  We can feel outrage toward atrocity, or we can ignore forced and intentional pain and suffering and look away.

What you do for the least of these—speak up or turn away—you do for God.

What are you doing for and to God?  Amen.

Born of God

Sermon on 1 John 4:7-21 – Born of God

A revelation washed over me Friday.  Not a new revelation, but a reminder from God.

My grumpiness defined last week.  Poor communication and my desire to achieve “Super-Pastor” status came to a vicious head when Alan asked me to lead communion at presbytery and gave me two days to prepare the liturgy.

If you spent any time in the church this last week, I need to apologize to you.  I complained way more than the situation warranted.  I allowed that one request to define and ruin my week.  I felt angry, frustrated, and miserable; every day I wanted to scream at nothing in particular while I worked in my office.

Despite me and my drama, the Spirit use my labors to give me God’s reminder.  As I put together the liturgy, a verse jumped out at me and reminded me of why we do this, why I do this, and the wonder communion should give us: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” (Psalm 34:8a NIV) I knew immediately that verse need to lead the liturgy because it reminded me something.

That first Sunday we worshiped without Sue, nothing quite went to script but the Holy Spirit made her presence loudly known.  Tamara and Cathy played wonderfully, I remember giving a good message, we laughed with joy, a wonderful service just appeared from our struggles, and I, for the first time, fully felt the awe of leading communion.  I remember I could not stop smiling.  I worried smiling did not fit into proper communion decorum, but that worry could not stop my smiling.

I still have the new-pastor shine on me, but I know that communion will remain one of my most joyful; I truly felt like I lead our meal with Christ that day.

We over-complicate faith and church.  Good Presbyterians will rip anything apart to its smallest piece so we worry greatly about what bread we use and which kind of bread matches best with our intent when we gather around the table and how big the pieces should be cut or if we should cut them at all before the service because are we taking or giving and does it feel natural or manufactured and continue ad nauseam until the pastor bashes in head into the brick wall.

Like I said, we over-complicated faith, and frankly, I might as well stop using the plural pronoun.  Over-heady and borderline-insane Presbyterianism defines me.  Wanting perfection and high-gloss shine on my pastoral ministry defines me.  Tearing apart every action, complicating every decision, and second-guessing every step I take defines me.

I forget that God, first and foremost, called me as “Loving Pastor.”  Not “Super Pastor,” not “Perfect Pastor,” not even “‘Acts Like an Adult Over 50% of the Time’ Pastor.”

God calls me as “Loving Pastor” above all else, and I correctly and fully respond to that call 27.6% of the time.

If someone sees and recognizes a Christian, what do they recognize?  Do we—or should we—wear signs around our necks labeling us “Christian”?  Do they know our God by the ichthyses on the back of our cars and Christian radio blaring on our speakers?  Do we show ourselves as Christians by knowing what words to say in worship and what times the stand?

Do those things define a Christian?

Bubble-bursting time.  I know people who wear the label of Christian like badge of honor, have all the paraphernalia, only have the right music coming out of their speakers, and attend church every week that drive people away from God.  I have examples in my mind, but we do not need my examples; I have confidence each and every person who reads knows that person, and we each have numerous examples.

The label means nothing without love.  If someone recognizes you as a true Christian—a true follower of Christ—they recognize your love.  Your theology and ichthys means nothing without love.

I realized—or remembered—we should define Christianity by love.  Christianity as a label requires a few other things—those things often dependent on who currently fills the pulpit—but without love, those other means nothing.

We have misplaced our concern with making sure we believe the right thing and aligning our belief with the doctrines of the particular church.  Yes, belief itself gives life, absolutely—believing God in the form of Jesus Christ walked amongst us and willingly gave his life for us gives me hope in the midst of this dark and frightening world—but without love, it means nothing.

Love with doubt—even profound doubt leading to unbelief—still has God present and means something; faith without love means nothing and does not have God.

What is God?  God is love.  Period.

You cannot be Christian—even if you proclaim faith and do the proper things and know the words and have the appearance of righteousness—if you do not love.

Interestingly—and really, really obviously—the letter says nothing about theology beyond basically believing in Jesus, and absolutely nothing about orthodoxy or proper denomination or church attendance.  It does not say God requires absolute and rock-solid faith.

It does say, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”

God gave birth to all who love.  Read through the rest of the passage.  It literally defines true faith as believing in Jesus and, almost more importantly to my eyes, showing love.  The author really wanted to drive that point about love home.

Love or you do not follow Jesus and do not believe in God.  Period.

Do you see Jesus as call to love, or as a weapon and path to power?  Do you see God as love, or as vengeance against those you hate?

Did God give birth to you, or did the Earthly desires of greed, power, and hatred?

You answer this with what you worry about.  Do you worry most about looking righteous or showing love?

You know the correct answer.  You know your actual answer.  Do they match?

Show love; mark yourself as born of God.  Amen.