Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Five Years Ago…

My mother passed away after battling and succumbing to ALS. Here she is, just three months before her passing. It’s hard to believe it’s been five years already.


The last couple of weeks there has been a lot of social media attention on ALS, primarily due to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Frankly, I’m somewhat ambivalent about it. I think it’s great that this disease is getting widespread attention, and if the “stunt” helps raise funds (which it appears to be doing), the I’m all for it. I don’t know that I’d do it. I think just sending money is perfectly fine.

I’ve seen comments, too, from detractors, and that’s fine. If you think it’s a dumb stunt, or self-aggrandizement, or whatever – fine. You’re entitled to your opinion but it seems that so far, the results have been mostly positive. You can watch the blooper reels and go pout in the corner.

My ire is reserved for those who criticize and attack the ALS Association for their support for embryonic stem cell research. Really?! Go sit on some nails or something! Pour cement into a bucket and set your feet in it and wait until its sets! Go stick a plastic bag over your head and find out what it feels like to not be able to breathe! Gah!


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Your most valuable testimony (for others) isn’t your conversion story

imageI’ve been through a number of witnessing and evangelism courses/classes that taught the importance of having a “personal testimony.” Some of them taught a formula—e.g., B.C. (before Christ) + Conversion + A.C. (After Christ)—that I should follow. It was to be written out and practiced so I could give it on a moment’s notice without any hesitation or doubt.

I don’t think this is necessarily bad. But I also think it isn’t enough. It’s a good starting point but it shouldn’t stay there.

I’ve also heard many testimonies over the years. Many of them are of the dramatic kind—I was a terrible person, my life sank to the lowest circle of hell, then I encountered Jesus and he rescued me. Now my life is completely different.

(If you are a new Christian, the rest doesn’t yet apply. But read on to keep your eyes open for developing stories in your life.)

Again, not necessarily a bad thing. But when this is the only story that gets told over and over, and when this experience happened decades ago, the audience begins to wonder, so what has God been up to in your life since then? It also adds to the idea that public testimonies are supposed to be of the dramatic kind. It stigmatizes Christians who never have had such a dramatic experience. And finally the way these testimonies are told, it often glamorizes (whether the speaker intends to or not) the life B.C. It subconsciously creates the desire to have a dramatic life B.C. just to have a grand testimony.

Christians were saved. We are being saved. And we will be saved in the future. This is the paradox of salvation. We are made right and holy when we first come to Christ. Yet we are still being made right and holy. And the fullness of righteousness and holiness await in the future.

I believe the most important testimony that others want to hear is: what has God been doing since your conversion? What has God been doing in the last couple of years? What is God going right now? What struggles, trials, doubts, and failures have you experienced recently that God has brought you through and out of?

You can begin your story with your B.C. + Conversion + A.C. – especially if you’re speaking with someone who has never heard that part of your story. But don’t stay there. Make the main part of your testimony about your recent and current life. Yes, it means you have to be more vulnerable. You have to risk giving a part of your heart and emotions to someone, someone who could betray you. But I believe doing this will speak more strongly than merely a story from the distant past.

It’s valuable to know that God can save people from the deepest pits of despair. But I believe it is more important for people to know that God is walking among us in our common, everyday lives.

Monday, August 18, 2014

We tailor our stories

I’ve noticed lately that I can tell a story involving the same set of events in many different ways. And if the same person listens, they might conclude that 1) I’m telling stories of different but similar events, or 2) I’m not very good with recollection, or 3) I’m lying.

In telling stories, I tailor what to spend more words detailing, what to omit altogether, I might change the order of things to fit the theme, I might change the setting (for sensitive stories), etc. Time also changes the stories. I might have one perspective and interpretation just a few weeks or months from the event and a very different one years later.

The gospels aren’t historical accounts. They are stories. They have an audience with specific needs and contexts. The authors put them down in ink many years after the events. They are interpretations and theologies. They may contain facts, but they aren’t facts.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Global Leadership Summit 2014 #GLS14

gls14Willow Creek Association (WCA) celebrated 20 years of the Global Leadership Summit this year. The Lutheran Church was able to be qualified as a “mission” and receive a special $25/person rate for the two days. The Summit was done via webcasting. We had a bit of an initial problem with synchronizing the schedule and time zones (for some reason, most of the world forgets that Alaska is on its own TZ). Once we had that figured out we were actually able to speed through the day by shortening the breaks and going on to the next session at our own pace.

There were only a handful of us who attended. This I think was a genuine tragedy because of the quality of the speakers, the provided materials, and the content of the Summit. [Getting on my soapbox.] If anyone thinks their day jobs don’t allow them to spend two focused days on personal development, they shouldn’t be in leadership. [Off soapbox.] This leadership certainly includes businesses and churches and their identified and visible leaders, but it also includes anyone who “leads” a team, whether that be a workgroup, a small group in church, a ministry, a volunteer group, or yes, even a family.

One of the concerns about a conference like this is that by looking at the speakers and topics, it might appear that the message is targeted toward large organizations and their executive leadership. Nonsense! The Summit is not about organizational development, it is not about managing. It is about learning how to improve personal relationships with others so that a person can learn to be more effective in leading their teams, whether it be just one other person or a global corporation of thousands. It is about developing the art of communication when it seems particularly difficult.

Another concern is whether it is “too secular” or “too religious.” Some churches might have the idea that there is little to be gained from listening to secular business leaders. You might be surprised how many of the top effective leaders profess Christianity and do their best to live up to Christian ethics in their whole lives. Yes, there were non-Christian speakers. But to say that only Christians can speak truth to other Christians is the exact kind of arrogance that makes Christians ineffective in speaking to the world.

Was the conference religious. Certainly. WCA and Bill Hybels makes no excuse for it or tries to downplay it. Worship music plays between sessions. There is prayer. Some speakers are very much Christian pastors and preachers and they speak as they would in their churches. Is there a call for people to salvation? Very much.

The request is for mutual respect. It is a Christian and church environment, and it is organized with a Christian focus. At the same time the organizers know that the rest of the world has much to offer the Christian community. Likewise, I’d hope the Christian community has something of value for the non-Christian world that can be applied apart from specific religious trappings. My perception was that the first day had more in the way of non-sectarian presenters. The second day seemed to be more evangelical and where a gospel call was more prominent.

I took notes for each presenter, but rather than recapping my notes here is the link to the GLS14 blog that contains a synopsis for most of the presentations (plus other entries).

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Digital Storytelling Workshop

This Monday through Wednesday, I had the rather unexpected opportunity to participate in a digital storytelling workshop led by Dr. Jason Ohler. It was unexpected because I had been anticipating a fairly uneventful and quiet week. But on Monday morning as I was sipping coffee I got a text message informing me that there was a spot available in this workshop and was I interested. I had no idea what it was about. I asked and got a very short response. It sounded interesting enough to find out, so I went and discovered that each participant would be putting together a 3-5 minute multimedia story of some aspect of their lives. I looked at my calendar and saw that I had the period available, so why not?

The workshop was hosted by Petersburg Mental Health Services and the participants were mostly their clients. I’ve been their client for a short period, volunteer with some of their grant programs, worked as a contractor for them – so I fill a number of roles for the agency. Telling one’s own story can have significant and valuable therapeutic effects.

The question for me was what could I tell about myself? As we went around with our initial introductions, I mentioned how over the course of the last couple of years I had become more outspoken on the issue of women’s rights and feminism, especially within the church setting. That seemed to resonate with a number of individuals in the room.

I worked on brainstorming and listing topics and pivotal moments in my life. Nearly all items seemed related to one another in some way. I showed Jason the list and after a few minutes suggested that my experiences with isolation, bullying, and rejection had made me more sensitive to seeing other types of marginalization and rejection around me, and that my interest in feminism could be traced to my various life experiences. With that as the broad thesis, I went to work.

The workshop was held each morning (i.e., half-days for three days). The first morning was introductions, coming up with a storyline, and writing the story. The homework was to collect photos and images that could illustrate the storyline. The second day consisted of recording the story and putting together the video timeline. The third day was finishing up the video, rendering it, and viewing the final results.

The results were touching and poignant. They described the struggles, victories, and hopes of each participant. It was a way to bring coherence to events from the past and place meaning into them as seen from the present.

For me I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the room that first morning. By the end I saw that my experience with religion resonates with others, especially with women who may have been a part of it themselves. This workshop was a way for me to show to a handful of people that there are other ways of expressing religion that don’t require a population group to be silenced and controlled. I hope that I was able to demonstrate that people can grow away from patriarchy and misogyny, however great or small.

Most of all, I hope that without any evangelizing, I was able to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to the group.

I was given the encouragement to continue my work as a Jesus Feminist in advocating for the equality of women and men in church and society.

I did all my work on an iPad and an iPhone. It is amazing how much technology has advanced, even in the last handful of years, that allows full video production to be done with just a couple of mobile devices. You no longer need a full production environment. Anyone can do something like this. The door is wide open for others to come forward to tell their stories.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sermon: Walking Together In the Storm

Thesis: Christ’s authority guarantees that he will provide the strength to bring to completion all that he commands his disciples.

Lectionary: Year A, Proper 14
Gospel Text: Matthew 14:22-33 (ESV)
Sermon Audio
: 30 minutes

The original plan was for Pastor Bob to be away on his annual summer solo kayak trip today. I had agreed some time ago to preach for him at the Presbyterian Church today.

But due to rain and winds, the better part of prudence cut his trip short and brought him back into town last night. However, a kayak trip and a few hours afterwards aren’t necessarily best preparation for a sermon so he was grateful to be able to sit with his wife in the pew this morning during the sermon while I spoke.

The overall worship preceding the sermon contained much thematic material about boats, sea, and storms and it was a perfect introduction to what I had selected for today.

As far as the sermon, it focused on how this passage can be seen as a metaphor of the Kingdom of Heaven – it is here already, but not yet in its fullness.

A brief synopsis

The gospel tells us that the Kingdom of Heaven has come, at least in part. But when we take a look at the world, the news headlines, our personal lives, our churches, the state of Christianity, we wonder where that kingdom is. Religion seems so often to be a divider. Is there any value to religion? It is sometimes tempting to abandon it and find something else. What does today’s story have to offer as we struggle with the “already” but “not yet”?

"Po vodam" by Ivan AivazovskyWhile in the present, partial kingdom disciples receive commands from Christ. In this story they receive the command to take the boat to the other shore. They are physically separated from him, and “demons” may try to take advantage of that to hinder and prevent the disciples from carrying out Christ’s commands. But Christ does not leave his people alone to fight the battles by themselves. He comes, sometimes in rather unexpected ways, to renew courage and strength. Some may ask for and receive commands to “walk on the water” in ways that others don’t, and the sight of “demons” may raise fear. But the cry for salvation is always answered. Together, hand in hand with Jesus, disciples are able to walk in the storm. When Christ and his people are finally united, the kingdom arrives in its fullness, the demonic winds are ceased forevermore and “the other shore” is reached. What Christ has commanded, he has provided all that is needed to fulfill. Not only that but he has demonstrated his complete authority over forces that arise to oppose the fulfillment of his commands.

Christians today need to remember that Jesus walked with Peter in the storm. The storm didn’t calm immediately. But the presence of Jesus was enough to renew courage and faith in Peter. Part of the Christian commission, a command, from Jesus to his disciples is in turn to make more disciples (c.f., Matthew 28:18-20) in the same way Jesus did. A way for Christians to do that is to use the example given by Jesus in today’s story: go to where the storms of lives are and offer helping hands, strength, courage, and faith; and walk with those who are struggling in their trials.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Sermon Prep: Walking on Water

I’ll be speaking at the Presbyterian Church this Sunday. On one-off sermons like these I tend to go to the Lectionary unless there is another topic dear and pressing to my heart. The Gospel Text for this week is Storm on the Sea and Walking on Water.

The first thing I noticed as I read and re-read the passage was how “wind” seems to be personified. It reminds me of the Creation and Flood accounts where “wind” and “sea” (representing chaos) play a prominent part. They are also the raw materials from which the world is created and re-created. So perhaps there is a sermon along those lines.

Fear is another strong presence in this passage. Fear vs. faith is certainly a tried-and-true approach that a sermon can take.

I looked at a number of commentaries, study notes, and notes from preachers, and topics and approaches are all over the map. This diversity makes focusing on what and how to approach this text that much more difficult.

When I am working with a text where a thesis doesn’t immediately scream out to me, or where there seems to be many approaches to take, I often diagram the passage and color code significant motifs that I think I see to try to organize what I think the author may have been trying to communicate. What I give below is what I see in this week’s passage. It doesn’t make it any easier to settle on a sermon approach, but I think it is a start.

Matthew 14:22-33 (ESV)


22 Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go before him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.


23 And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone,


24 but the boat by this time was a long way from the land, beaten by the waves, for the wind was against them.


25 And in the fourth watch of the night he came to them, walking on the sea.


26 But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, "It is a ghost!" and they cried out in fear.


27 But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, "Take heart; it is I. Do not be afraid."


28 And Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water."


29 He said, "Come."  So Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus.


30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, "Lord, save me."


31 Jesus immediately reached out his hand and took hold of him, saying to him, "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"


32 And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased.


33 And those in the boat worshiped him, saying,


"Truly you are the Son of God."



  • Authority of Jesus
  • Spiritual responses
  • Alone/together
  • Wind
  • Personification of wind - demons?
  • Jesus' actions toward his people
  • Disciples' actions
  • Fear



Created with Microsoft OneNote 2013.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Oregon Trip Photos

Fifty images from our July 2014 trip to Oregon and back. These fifty are the ones that most appealed to me.

I used onOne Software’s Perfect Photo Suite 8 to edit the photos. What I discovered during the process is that the Photogene app on the iPad does nearly a good a job for far less effort and time (and cost!).

Memorial Service Video (PDX)

Memorial service for Eloise (Elly) Sauls, held at Sunset Christian Fellowship in Hillsboro, Oregon on July 27, 2014.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon: “You Give Them Something to Eat”

Saint Anthony Catholic Church (Temperance, MI) - loaves and fish muralLectionary: Year A, Proper 13
Gospel Text: Matthew 14:13-21 (NRSV)

Thesis: Jesus did not simply do compassionate deeds; he was compassion in his whole being. As his disciples, our walk with Christ should include growing from merely doing compassion to embodying compassion in this world.

Sermon Audio: 27 minutes

I was asked to fill in at the Lutheran Church while Pastor Mike is away on vacation. The text for today was the story of Feeding the Five-Thousand, aka the Loaves and Fishes.

This is such a well known story and because it is found in all four gospels, it comes around to preachers rather frequently. Should I just settle for preaching what has been preached over and over, or could I find something new in this story?

As I read the account in Matthew, I became more and more unsettled, uncomfortable, and troubled. This is not merely a miracle story or a story with a feel-good premise about God providing for all our needs. This is a story about discipleship training in the area of compassion. The disciples seemed to have a lack of it and Jesus is trying to teach them how genuine compassion acts. It is also a story of Jesus instructing the disciples about what the Kingdom of Heaven is like and on the part they are to play in it.

When this story is read from the perspective of the disciples, it is not a quaint little story but a difficult one that demands much from all who call themselves Christian and followers of Jesus Christ.