Deepening Our Close Relationships

Deepening Our Close RelationshipsFor Valentine's Day! Deepening Our Close Relationships! Published in the February, 2020 Reporter newsletter of St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

February offers a good month to talk about how to deepen our relationships with the ones we love. Whether it’s with our intimate partner, our adult children, our best friend, or someone we would like to know better, it’s often hard to know how to talk about things that matter.

When Dan and I made the decision for me to stop working full-time and stay home while our children were small, we knew it would be a big change in our marriage, but we were not sure what would change or how. Daniel was three, Jacob and was one and Leah was just a twinkle in our eye when I resigned from my call in Kansas City. I had been ordained and serving congregations for eight years and we had already been married for seven. 

In order to navigate this big change and talk about the issues as they arose, we decided to seek the help of marriage counselor. After we talked about our life, relationship and family in our first session, the counselor looked at us and said, “Well, you are good work consultants.” It was a kind way of saying that we were lousy at emotional intimacy. Ouch. 

He gave us a question to ask each other regularly to remain more emotionally connected and sharing about things the mattered. He talked about how tempting it is at the end of the day to talk with our spouse or friends about the details of our life—what we did at work, who we talked to, where we went for lunch and what we ate. It seems like we are sharing ourselves, but these details really have nothing to do with who we are on the inside, how we feel or think, or what’s happening in and around us. 

So here it is, the magic question that has changed our marital conversation and the question we still ask each other 22 years later: “What is the impact of _____ on you?” For example: "What is the impact of that meeting on you and your work? What is the effect of our kid’s behavior (or choices, changes, growing up, getting taller than you, looking for colleges) on you? How is your parent’s visit impacting you? What is the impact of your dad’s illness on how you feel about yourself?" 

These kinds of questions help us reflect on our how daily experiences are changing us on the inside, and how those we love are changing and growing as well. Without these conversations, many married couples, best friends, siblings, parents and children arrive at a new stage of life, (like the empty nest or post-college relationships) and no longer know their spouse, child, or best friend like they used to or like they thought they did. 

This month we celebrate love—but what we really want to focus on is emotional intimacy if we want that love to last a lifetime. So try asking about the impact of events, changes, meetings, illnesses, and so on, to experience growth in emotional connection with those you love!

 

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What The Lord Requires

What The Lord RequiresMessage for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany on Micah 6:1-8 and Matthew 5:1-12 given on February 2, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

When I was in late elementary school, I remember going through a time when I cried myself to sleep at night because I could not say the Lord’s Prayer perfectly. I had picture in my mind that went with each phrase of the prayer, and I would try as hard as I could to imagine each image as I said every petition of the prayer with no break in concentration and no distracting thoughts. Every time I got distracted or the pictures in my mind did not flow smoothly from one to the next, I would feel like a failure and start over and try again. I never did pray it perfectly.

It’s so easy to reduce our faith to trying to please a God who seeks perfection, unreasonable devotion, and only offers us a moral code of “Do’s and Don’ts.” God has a case against the people of Israel according to the prophet Micah and they too, assume God is looking for perfection. A perfect sacrifice, just the right kind of worship, the perfect prayers and rituals to appease and please God:

With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

How great and perfect does my offering and worship have to be? Micah describes a covenant lawsuit and calls the mountains and the foundation of the earth to witness the testimony. God asks, Why are you making me the bad guy? How have I worn you out with my demands? Let’s review what I have done for you—I liberated you from slavery in Egypt, I sent you brilliant leaders to help you through the wilderness, and I led you to the promised land. You were protected crossing over the Jordan—from Shittim in Moab to Gilgal near Jericho—and when the Moabite king planned to curse you, you were blessed instead. You can hear God saying, “and the problem is…?”

It’s almost like a parent having a rant at a kid who feels put upon: “I put a roof over your head, I feed you, do your laundry, drive you everywhere and pay for all of your activities, so please, put your phone away at the dinner table, and stop texting or playing video games when I am talking with you!”

Just like any other loving parent, God’s not asking for perfection—God asks for a relationship. God asks for conversation, for attention that arises from intention about what matters. What matters is not being perfect, not getting it all right, not worshipping in just the right way, not praying perfectly, not bringing the biggest offering, not being a flawless teen or adult—but rather a relationship with God is what matters most.

God liberated Israel from slavery to have a relationship with them, as individuals and as a nation. And when God’s people put relationship with God first, then all other relationships, and all of life fall into place after that. That’s why the first 3 Commandments of the 10 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God, (You shall have no other Gods before Me, Do not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, Honor the Sabbath day and keep it holy). Because when we give our first relationship with God focus—all other relationships follow, so the next 7 commandments are about our relationships with others: don’t steal, lie, cheat, murder, covet and so on.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

This isn’t a checklist that we can mark off at the end of the day. God wants a no-holds barred whole-soul, give him everything you’ve got, full-person relationship. God simply wants you—all of you.

To walk humbly with God is to live with an intentional relationship with God every single day—through prayer, through daily conversation—both speaking and quiet time to listen. People ask me how much time they should spend in prayer—but the issue with putting a time frame on it, is then we are back to counting and perfectionism. In order to give your relationship with God greater attention with intention, and you are like the teenager with laptop on and a cell phone in your hand, what do you think you need to do? Think about your best human relationship—how much time do you spend in daily conversation? I have never known a good marriage where someone said, “I talk to my spouse ten minutes a day, give them a gift twice a year, and we’re good!” During our midweek Lenten worship on Wednesdays, we will practice different types of prayer that open us up to grace and deepens our relationship with God.

The prophet then shows us that justice and loving kindness flow from our relationship with God. Micah pushes us away from the bean-counting faith of childhood that attempts perfect prayers and offerings, and opens us into a vision of communal wholeness that arises from receiving God’s liberating love that frees all who are oppressed—whether from systemic injustice or the prison of our own hearts and minds. A life that lives for justice, advocates for the immigrant, the widow and the orphan, and extends kindness to everyone regardless of who they are—comes from a heart that is rooted, connected, allied, and defined by a relationship with God.

Jesus embodies this same theme in his Sermon on the Mount. It’s a very jarring message. He lifts up the poor in spirit, those who are mourning, the meek, the merciful, the persecuted and the pure in heart as the ones receiving the blessings and fullness of the reign of God. Those who are down and out, suffering at the margins, on the bottom side of the social power balance are not only blessed, they are “enviable!” We are to admire and emulate and want to be like them. Why? Because they are so close in their relationship with God.

All the false notions of self-sufficiency and control and power and winning and being in charge have been stripped away. They cannot pretend any longer that they don’t need God, that a relationship with God doesn’t matter. The meek, the mourning, the persecuted, the poor in spirit know—they know the only way they will make it through today and on to tomorrow is because of their relationship with God. It’s so deep and rich, you can see it on their face even when they are suffering.

There is no illusion about from where their strength comes—it only comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. Their source of strength and peace is something to envy, admire, and seek after, calling us to spend time in whole-soul relationship with God making ourselves available for a relationship that transforms us from the inside out—that’s what it is to walk humbly, with intention, in a relationship with God on a daily basis.

Jesus’s vision for the kingdom echoes Micah’s. For when our life is defined and ordered according to our relationship with God and not according to the world’s values, then it becomes easier for us to live in the alternate vision of communal wholeness that arises from receiving God’s liberating love in Jesus Christ that frees all who are enslaved to sin. Then the Beatitudes become not just about who has a blessed relationship with God, but how Jesus calls us to live as disciples who are defined by the one true God who sent his Son to save and redeem us and the whole creation that witnesses our testimony.

God calls us forth from our deep relationship that defines and sustains us to be the peacemakers, to work for justice and righteousness for those who are oppressed, to comfort those who mourn, to stand with meek, to do the work of anti-racism in ourselves, in our church and in our society, and to be persecuted for the sake of doing right by those who are at the bottom. We do this work by building relationships the way God has done with us!

Rather than a burden or something we fear, living to make God’s kingdom a reality here on earth becomes exciting and energizing and hopeful because we are fed by a constant stream of steadfast love and forgiveness that flows from the cross of Christ to our very soul. And we know that when we are in the most need, the most pressed down, the most challenged, the most meek and poorest in spirit—that’s exactly where God does her best work by making us the most blessed, enviable people who bear God’s love in the world.

What does the Lord require of you? Not perfection, not the best or the biggest offering, just yourself—your whole self. The only perfect way to pray is to show up. God shows up for us every time and blesses us to show up for others so that the kingdom might be realized here and now.

 

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All Are Welcome

Joseph RoweMessage for Epiphany 3 with Testimony from Joseph Rowe on Matthew 4:12-25 on January 26, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church, Richardson, Texas

Everybody was drawn to Jesus—everyone from the whole region came. Matthew’s Gospel is focused on conveying Jesus as the fulfillment of the promised Jewish Messiah—we hear that the quotation of the Isaiah.

But even so, Matthew also lets us know that it was not just the Jews who were immediately drawn to Jesus. All kinds of people came from everywhere—Gentiles, foreigners, people from the Decapolis which were the ten cities to the southeast of the Sea of Galilee. Everyone came—people who were paralyzed and disabled and suffering from all kinds of afflictions—people whom Jesus will call “blessed” in the next chapter in the Sermon on the Mount.

It was as if Jesus put out a banner and said, “All Are Welcome” to come and hear the good news of God’s love.

For several years—well before I became the pastor here—this congregation has worked at becoming inclusive and welcoming to everyone. Today at the Annual meeting, we are going to consider another small step forward in being even more clear about what we mean when we say, “All Are Welcome.”

All Are WelcomeWe started out the Epiphany season talking about the importance of testimony, so I have asked Joe Rowe to share some his story with us today. Joe has lot of experience of what it feels like to be both excluded and included.

Because of his experiences, he serves on the “All Are Welcome” Team to ensure others really do feel welcomed at St. Luke’s, and that we continue to do everything we can to ensure that people know our welcome includes them: 

I’ve been a member here for over a year. I’m going to tell you some things about my life because my experiences with exclusion have made me hate the idea of excluding anyone from anything. Bear with me. I’m not having a pity party. I’m a happy person, but I think my experiences with exclusion are relevant to our mission as the church. It really doesn’t matter why others exclude us, it hurts just the same.

I’m seventy-two years old. As a person who’s been physically disabled since I was five when I had polio, I know all about being excluded. I never physically attended school until I went to college. The doctors were afraid I’d catch something and the schools at that time were totally incapable of accepting someone like me. “Cripples” were expected to stay home out of site, and I did. My parents, however, wanted me to have the same opportunities as other kids. Some years, my mother taught me herself, some years, I was connected to a classroom by a newly invented speakerphone, and, some years, I had a homebound teacher who showed up an hour a week to give me assignments.

What I didn’t have was other children in my life. I never had a friend from school until I was in college. I never went to a prom or a pep rally. I never had a locker. It hurt. I was excluded. Sometimes for practical reasons, but more often because I just wouldn’t fit in. I loved science. I turned half our garage into a chemistry laboratory when I was eleven. When I was in high school in Dallas with a homebound teacher, the superintendent of schools ruled that I could not be allowed in a science lab because of the danger and that since science was a required subject, I would not be allowed to graduate. My parents uprooted my family, and we moved to Arlington where they had agreed to let me graduate.

I did graduate and decided to go to college at UT Arlington. I pretty much aced the SAT exams and qualified to skip the first semester of English and math. I selected physics as my major. Then, I was told there was a problem. Science was out of the question, and they weren’t sure they could admit me at all. I would have to convince a specially appointed panel of three deans to admit me. The inquisition was brutal. It was determined that I could be admitted conditionally only if I majored in business with my status to be reviewed every six months. I didn’t like the terms, but I accepted them. I eventually graduated as the first business student with a 4.0 grade point average and did the same when I earned my MBA. There had been many obstacles for disabled students at the University, so I helped lead student protests that resulted in positive changes. (To read how Joe helped make UT Arlington a barrier-free campus, please click here.)

When I finished my MBA, I thought I’d have the world on a string. The college had publicized my accomplishments, and I had a letter congratulating me from the President of the United States. The economy was booming. My classmates were getting multiple offers for jobs paying five thousand a month or more. I applied to over two hundred companies and was not given a single interview. 

My brother worked for Ross Perot’s company, EDS, and persuaded them to talk to me. They hired me at $850 a month. To make a long story short, I was no longer excluded, I finally “fit in.” I was judged by what I could do rather than what my limitations might be. I was surrounded by people who came from totally different backgrounds. Most of them were veterans recently returned from Vietnam. Somehow, though, they fully accepted this socially immature crippled egghead as one of them. We worked our butts off together, and we drank way too much together. For the first time in my life, I felt not just welcomed but invited and appreciated. I had a second home. I worked there for twenty-nine years until I took early retirement to stay home with my mother, who had developed Alzheimer’s and needed me. When she died, and EDS was failing, I began looking for a job elsewhere. I’m still looking. I’m excluded again.

I joined St. Luke’s because I felt truly welcomed, and because I felt this was a place committed to doing the same for every other human being that God has made. That is not the case with all ELCA churches. In the early eighties, I was a member of Christ Lutheran when they totally remodeled the sanctuary at great expense, only to find that they had not provided a single place for a person in a wheelchair. I left.

People who are different in obvious ways make all of us a bit uncomfortable. I led multiple local organizations working for the rights of people with disabilities in the seventies and eighties. I discovered, to my own dismay, that I was uncomfortable around people with disabilities different from my own. I was guilty of the very thing I was fighting, but I got past those feelings. Now, it is 2020. The Americans with Disabilities Act is thirty years old. Being excluded because of my disability ought to be over, but it is not. I love music. I was a season ticket holder of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and the Dallas Summer Musicals for decades. I’ve always had a ventilator on my chair. Three years ago, the symphony made it clear that they would prefer that I only attended certain concerts they would select because people were complaining about the noise of my ventilator. They were very nice and polite about it, knowing that they could not just exclude me because of the law. Early this year, the Dallas Summer Musicals did the same thing, relegating me to the lobby to watch on TV. In my younger days, I might have defied them, but at this point in my life, I never go anywhere I don’t feel fully welcomed.

There are words on the altar behind me that state, “All Are Welcome.” The word “all” doesn’t leave us any wiggle room. I am glad to be part of a church that is willing to let people know that the “All” includes me, and it includes them, no matter who they are. Jesus was not welcomed by the church and its leaders. He was so unwelcome that they had him killed. I also know that he defied the rules of his society to welcome the unwelcomed. Whether they were Samaritans, beggars, lepers or anything else, He invited them to join His kingdom and be his disciples who fish for people. I am glad to be a part of the church who does the same and makes sure everyone knows that “All” includes them.

 

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The Lamb of God and Systemic Liberation

MLK Day 2020Message for the 2nd Sunday of Epiphany and Dr. Martin Luther King Sunday on John 1:29-42 on January 19, 2020 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

He had everything—the world was his oyster. Beyers Naude’ had been a pastor in the white Dutch Reformed Church in the South Africa for twenty years, he came from a prominent family, and many speculated that one day, he would become Prime Minister of South Africa. Throughout his life, he had been indoctrinated with two beliefs:

1. The divine order of apartheid and the separation of races;
2. A theology of a privatized faith in a God who cared only about personal sin, and that the Gospel was not at all political or communal.

In the 1950’s Pastor Naude’ had seminary students who worked with him and they visited and preached in the Black African townships outside of Johannesburg. They would come back and tell him stories that things in their country were wrong, very wrong. They reported that the people were desperately poor and suffering and that this must not be what God wanted for them.
This troubled Naude’ because he was taught that when you live according God’s order, life should be good, so he went with the students to see the townships for himself. He then did thorough study of the Scriptures to discover if God’s word really did order the separation of the races. After an exhaustive study, he concluded that all he had been taught was a lie.

In 1960, after the Sharpville Massacre, an event where South African police shot and killed 69 protesters, most of them in the back, Naude’ renounced apartheid. The next day, he was kicked out of his congregation, and became a man without a church, without a people, without a country, and without a community. Why? Because he realized that to follow Jesus, the “Lamb of the God who takes away the sin of the world,” is to fight systems of sin, to overturn societal injustice, and to dismantle laws and structures of oppression that benefit one group of people and press down others into untold suffering.

Naude’ discovered that the great sin of the Western church is to preach of our alienation from God only as our own personal wrong-doing. This understanding of sin results in us turning a blind eye to the structures of oppression in society in which we participate, that benefit us while dehumanizing, marginalizing and even killing others.

While Naude’ was taking a Christian stand as a follower of Jesus, the “Lamb of God” in South Africa, Dr. Martin Luther King, was taking a similar stand in this country—challenging all of us to see sin structurally in the systems of society that let some in and keep others out, rather than viewing sin as just a list of my failings for the week.

Like Beyers Naude, Dr. King saw an inseparable link between the Christian faith and the responsibility to change unjust laws and policies. In the Black church tradition in which King was raised, people’s material condition was not separated from their spiritual condition. King was raised with and preached a message of liberation for both soul and body. His understanding of Christianity demanded a critique of the political order and required social action to bring about justice for the poor and marginalized.

While we have grown accustomed to a private, personal Christianity, Jesus’ ministry in John’s Gospel calls us to oppose systemic sin and work for liberation for all people. This may not seem obvious as you listened to me read our Gospel text today. But this becomes apparent when we remember the story in Exodus about the Israelite’s flight from Egypt where they were slaves for 400 years. God sent Moses not simply to preach about personal sin, but to liberate God’s people from bondage in Egypt. God sent 9 plagues to persuade Pharaoh to let the Israelites go—but those hardships did not convince Pharaoh to dismantle the oppressive slavery that benefitted Egypt and oppressed the Hebrews.

The night of the 10th plague—the death of the first born, the Israelites were instructed to kill a lamb, and place its blood on their door frame—over the top lintel and down the sides, so the angel of death would “pass over” their household. They would be spared from death that night as they fled from Egypt. The Passover festival of the Jews celebrates the liberation of their whole nation from an oppressive system of slavery.

So when John the Baptizer calls Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he is reminding us of the liberating event of the Exodus and freedom from the sin of slavery. John announces Jesus as one who brings not just forgiveness for individual wrongdoing, but as the Lamb who brings communal liberation from oppression.

When Andrew and Peter hear John call Jesus the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” they immediately follow Jesus—so that they can join him in his liberating work. This is the full implication of what the Gospel-writer of John means when he says, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” There is not oppressive sin system great than the Word made flesh who is the light of all people.

Jesus offered free health care and healing regardless of age, gender or nationality; he fed people who were hungry without asking if they deserved it or had the right papers; he held up enemies as examples of faith and called us to love them; he treated women with equal dignity to men; he refused to fight violence with violence; and he over-turned the tables of the money changers at the Temple who made faith a commodity that some could afford and others could not. Jesus worked against every unjust structure of his time, and did not participate in any system that oppressed others.

Historian Jemar Tisby writes “To King and many other Christians, racial justice was core to the biblical message. Racial segregation and the other ills it created — like the wealth gap, unemployment and under-education — were an affront to the image of God in all people. Christians had an obligation to transform the systems and laws that allowed racial inequality to persist…King wanted to see people of faith empowered by their belief in Christ and his example, to fight for the ‘beloved community.’”

Many of the issues of under-education, the wealth gap, and issues of poverty continue today along with others like the mass incarceration of black men, and the criminalization of refugees. In every situation of injustice, the Lamb of God, who frees us from all systems of sin and human brokenness, calls us to ask ourselves, “what does liberation from this oppression look like? How does Jesus, the Lamb of God call me to participate in the salvation that brings justice and helps to build the beloved community?" Some suggestions for today:

• In addition to giving out Hunger Helpers lunches to the homeless, we also work with Faith in Texas which is advocating with our local leaders for affordable housing in our region.
• While supporting the St. Luke’s Women’s health kits, school kits and layettes for Lutheran World Relief, we call, write and become relentless advocates for changes to immigration policy, keeping families, together, treating people humanely, taking care of unaccompanied minors. We support our denomination in advocating for international policies that address the systemic violence that cause people to flee their native countries to begin with.
• In addition to praying for Puerto Rico, we can call our representatives to push through resources to support people who have been devasted by storms and now earthquakes, and that delaying resources to our Spanish-speaking territory is an unacceptable form of racism.
• We can join our new book study of Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US and work to dismantle racism in our own church.

When Beyers Naude’ publicly renounced apartheid, he lost his entire white community, but he gained something far more precious. Jesus liberated him from the oppression of sin to dwell in the Kingdom of God. He was embraced by a community he never imagined would accept him—black south Africans. He followed Jesus, the Lamb of God into the work of liberation, and when he died, “Uncle Bey” as the Black South Africans called him, was given the longest funeral procession in the history of South Africa.

Today when we sing at Communion, “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world” we commit ourselves to the One who liberated Peter and Andrew, who liberated Beyers and Martin, and who liberates us, not only from our own personal sin, but from the systems that oppress us and others. And as we are fed at his table, we are given the strength to share this ministry of liberation, so that every man, woman and child might exclaim, “Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

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Quotation of the Week

The church does not have a mission in the world, God's mission has a church in the world.

 

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