Bah Humbug to Black Friday

One of my least favorite days of the year is creeping up on us.  This Friday is the dubiously named Black Friday.  The Friday after Thanksgiving that officially begins the Christmas shopping season is a day I wish I could skip over completely.  This is the day when many stores traditionally opened their doors early in the morning to welcome throngs of deal-thirsty hordes looking to bring an early,  efficient and economical end to their Christmas shopping.  I say “traditionally” opened their doors early because it’s beginning to sound more and more quaint when stores wait till Friday to actually open.  More and more are choosing to open later on Thanksgiving day to give Christmas shoppers a less sleep-deprived (and possibly less horde inducing) option for shopping.  Well, I am here today to stand up and say…

Bah Humbug to Black Friday.

Now, first of all let me apologize for using such strong language and secondly offer a clarification.  I’m calling Bah Humbug on the day, idea and practice of Black Friday not on all the shoppers participating.  I have dear friends who go shopping on Black Friday and brave the onslaught.  Some even find a perverse pleasure in the whole endeavor.  I will try to avoid calling  judgment down on the people standing in obnoxiously long lines and will be focusing more on the concept and idea of Black Friday.

I’m calling Bah Humbug on Black Friday for a very simple reason.  It is all a gimmick and a farce.  An empty promise given for the hope of something greater.  In fact, Wikipedia states that the word Humbug refers to, “a person or item that tricks, deceives, talks, or behaves in a way that is deceptive, dishonest, false, or insincere.” Ebenezer Scrooge famously called “Bah! Humbug!” on Christmas in Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol proclaiming that it was some kind of fraud.  How does Black Friday trick and deceive us then?  Well, to help me illustrate this point I’m going to reference a parable that Jesus told  in the Gospel of Luke.

Then Jesus said to them, “Watch out! Guard yourself against all kinds of greed. After all, one’s life isn’t determined by one’s possessions, even when someone is very wealthy. “Then he told them a parable: “A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ This is the way it will be for those who hoard things for themselves and aren’t rich toward God.”
Luke 20:15-21 (CEB)

Black Friday encourages the consumerist culture that is growing rampant in America all while personal savings are decreasing, credit card debt is increasing and people are working harder to make up for the difference.  While in the parable the man is wealthy, I think there is a deep application for all of us here.  After his large harvest the man says, “Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.”  This man falls prey to the old temptation of “bigger is better” and that these bigger barns he built out of his success and wealth will make him feel secure and happy.  Sadly, this ends up not being the case because regardless of the size of his barns and the amount of wheat inside, his life was not secure and he missed the greater potential to invest his life in God rather than things.  We fall prey to the same temptation when we think that a special Christmas present or a great deal will solve a problem, make a kid happy (for more than a week), or somehow cover over the fact that we are financially struggling.  We fall prey to the illusion that if I can show up on Christmas morning with that one awesome gift, then the troubles of the world will fade away.  What I think this parable is getting at is that stuff, whether in barns or under a Christmas tree, will not cause problems to disappear and instead reveal a glaring mismanagement and misappropriation of our time and money away from things that truly matter.

Instead, the alternative is what Jesus recommends in on of my favorite verses:

“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Matthew 6:19-21 (CEB)

The focus of our wealth and the gifts we give should not be for our own benefit, to make ourselves feel secure in this life or for the hope of encouraging (actually, bribing) someone to love us more.  All of that fades, the happiness of a brand new gift wanes as brander newer gift comes over the horizon.  This is the humbug of Black Friday.  Next year there will be another Black Friday with offerings of newer gifts than what we chose to spend money on this year.  Next year there will be new desires, new temptations, new wants to spend money on in the hopes of impressing and bringing a short lived joy to a loved one.  Instead, let us choose to resist the empty promises of Black Friday and invest in good gifts that cannot be taken away or replaced.  Gifts that reveal the goodness of God, gifts that lead to the strengthening of relationships and gifts that may not be bought with money but with the more precious commodity of time and our presence.  Spend time with your family doing Advent devotionals, eating and/or cooking meals together, watching your favorite holiday movie or playing a game.  Spend time with your friends over coffee, “adopt” those who may be far removed from family and friends during this season or serve in the numerous holiday events at your church or in your community.

Don’t invest your time and money in a long line wrapped around a large department store with the hopes of getting a “good” deal on a “great” gift.  Rather, invest your time and money with friends, family and your community offering gifts that can make a lasting (possibly eternal) impact.


Loving People in a Way They Feel They Can’t Be

A previous post referenced something that I heard on the OnBeing interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber.  As I said in that post, the OnBeing podcast is one of my all time facorite podcasts.  Some of the things that are said in Krista Tippett’s interviews move me like few things can.  Full disclosure, I have cried in my car a few times listening to the podcast and what I want to talk about today is no exception.

In the interview with Nadia she discusses how her church, House for All Sinners and Saints, in Denver is a sort of haven for those who might not be welcomed elsewhere.  A church of misfits, if you will, where everyone is welcome regardless of what you look like or where you’ve come from.  With her rise in notoriety, however, more “normal” looking people started coming through the doors and Nadia confessed that she struggled with that.  She wanted to keep the vibe of the church what it was and having “normal” church type people sitting in service was sort of cramping their style.  The church began to discuss this issue and one of the church regulars stood up and made this statement (which is a quote from the podcast):

“As the young transgender kid who was welcomed into this community, I just want to go on record as saying I’m glad there’s people who look like my mom and dad here. Because they love me in a way my mom and dad can’t.”

I’ve sat on this quote and post for a while.  It is honestly still causing me to push back some tears and emotions as I write this. For whatever feelings you may have with LGBTQ issues and the Church, this has to be the most beautiful, honest, heart wrenching and devastating sentence I have ever heard. On one side there is the loving acceptance and welcome felt from the church community at House for all Sinners and Saints.  On the other side is rejection and betrayal of love by this kids parents.  Very simply for this kid, love was found where it was probably least expected (the church) and it has been denied where it was most needed and expected (the family).  I am encouraged by the love expressed by the church and am saddened at the hurt and loss of love from the family.

But, this is the most beautiful thing about the Church.  Where the world fails and hurts us, the church has the capability to bind up our wounds and bring healing.  The church should be a haven for those who are hurting and possibly ostracized from a broken society that pushes the exceptions to the margins saying “we can’t help you”. Granted, the Church can do the very opposite and fails in very extreme and hurtful ways.  The problem is, when the church fails us it’s just like a family member failing us.  The place we thought was safe and healing becomes unsafe and extremely hurtful.  This is a problem that needs addressing (but that would take a different post).  When the Church is working as Christ intended, then it is a gloriously and miraculously healing community. While it might make absolutely no sense to those watching from the outside as people from all sorts of backgrounds, economic status, ethnicity, gender and age come together to work communally, it is a fascinating mystery that it works. It can be healing to those hurt and redemptive for those feeling like outsiders.  The Church can love people in a way they feel (or that they have been told) they can’t be.

Matthew records this peculiar statement of Jesus which I think highlights this point.

“Those who love father or mother more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who love son or daughter more than me aren’t worthy of me. Those who don’t pick up their crosses and follow me aren’t worthy of me. Those who find their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives because of me will find them.”
Matthew 10:37-39 (CEB)

One of the things I think Jesus is getting at here is there is an opportunity for a better community when we are able to see and serve outside the boundaries of our usual “tribe” or “family.”  When we are able to see the rest of the world outside of our normal “boundaries” then we can participate in this greater vision of community and a non-Babel separated world.  Following Jesus means following not for the sake of our families and friends, but for the sake of those outside of our family and friends who need to be restored to community.  Loving those who need a new and better vision of “family” and “friends” than what they have experienced in the past.  The Church as a community truly demonstrates the redemption the Gospel proclaims when we operate outside the status quo of society and carry our crosses in service to those Jesus loves.  When we follow the advice of the prophet Micah to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8) and listening to James’ advice for true expression of our faith by caring “for orphans and widows in their difficulties” (James 1:27) we are doing God’s work in the world and loving as Christ has called the Church to love.

Jesus replied, “Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?” He stretched out his hand toward his disciples and said, “Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my Father who is in heaven is my brother, sister, and mother.”
Matthew 12:48-50 (CEB)

When we can take the love we typically reserve for our families and begin to share it with the world, then we’ll truly be loving people they way Jesus loved them…in a way they feel they can’t be.

I Am a Freelance Minister


So, I’ve made one of my biggest changes in life and ministry outside of getting married and having a child.  As of last Sunday I stepped away from the church I have been attending regularly since I was born.  I have been actively involved and serving at the church since High School and served on staff as the youth pastor for seven years.  Recently I have been leading Sunday morning services as needed and have been teaching a regular Sunday school class.  Things have been good, very good as church life goes.  Visitors to our church say it is one of the most welcoming, we have had minimal drama,  consistent and awesome pastoral staff, and a generally great community of faith.  Some might think I am crazy to leave such a great community and there is a small piece of me that constantly says I’m crazy too.  However, I have been feeling a little restless over the past year after graduating from Fuller Theological Seminary and have been doing a lot of soul searching over what the next step might be.  I have applied to positions at other churches and nothing has really come to fruition.  For almost the past 5 years my 9-5, “payin-the-bills” job has not been with a church. The last year has been spent working in said non-church job while holding my Masters of Divinity from Fuller which when explained to my coworkers always elicits a confused tilt of the head and usually some questions about the church I attend. If I was honest with myself, I was usually questioning the whole situation myself.

I struggled with my desire to be identified as a minister (church work, Masters of Divinity) but always feeling like I had to identify or explain myself as my income was not derived from ministry work. When asked what I do for a living, I would explain my secular job first and then explain my volunteer ministry work second. I wished it was the other way around, but I felt compelled to identify myself from where my bread was buttered…and it slightly was depressing me. Then, I had a sort of epiphany.

I was attending the Unconference (Unco for short) at San Francisco Theological Seminary and we were discussing this temptation to identify ourselves by income stream and the confusion that arises when you try to do otherwise. Trying to explain that what you “do” is not where your money comes from can elicit equally confused head tilts that people were already giving me. But…if we truly feel called to this ministry thing, why should we identify ourselves any other way? Does our job as ministers have to be tied to our income stream? Is there an alternative? Thankfully, we agreed that there was, and my new friend Tripp Hudgins proposed the idea which I inspires this post today.

I am a freelance minister.

While, my 9-5 job may not be overtly ministry related (not within a church or with a church organization), I can always be a freelance minister.  In a way, I  always have but I have never really had a name for it.  Once people find out I’m a minister, they will usually start some kind of faith related discussion.  Some will ask me questions about family or friend issues, others will stop me in the hall asking for prayer. I have a sort of unofficial pastor status with many people here and I’ve never truly appreciated that role.  Funny thing is, I’ve done this with so many other things in my life and I’ve just never applied the concept to ministry.  I freelance photography and graphic design from time to time because they are things I enjoy.  Why not give the same consideration to ministry? So, as I move into this new path of the sacred journey I’m on (thanks Carol Howard Merritt), here is what being a freelance minister means to me:

  1. I am not limited to ministry in a special time and place.
    It’s easy to expect ministry to be done at church.  However, I think we sadly miss the opportunities for ministry outside the walls of a church building. My goal is to try and not miss those opportunities, especially at work and in my neighborhood.
  2. I am not limited to ministry with a special group/tribe/set of people.
    I interact with different groups of people all the time.  One of the things I’m uniquely positioned for now is to serve those groups in their own unique ways and maybe even try to bring them together from  time to time.  Sometimes, the people who need the most ministering to are those who wouldn’t set foot in a church on Sunday. I will try to not restrict my ministry perspective to people who enter a church or who know the language spoken there.
  3. I am not (should not and will try not to be) limited by income source as a validation of vocation and ministry.
    If this ministry thing is something I truly feel called to, then income shouldn’t be the way to validate it. Income and money can come from all sorts of places but I shouldn’t fall into the temptation that what I “do” is determined by what fills my wallet.  Perplexed head tilts aside, ministry effectiveness is rarely determined by financial success. Ministry is about people and as long as I am open to serving people, the opportunities will more than likely be endless.

When Jesus called his disciples, they left their homes, their families, their fishing nets and boats.  They left what was safe and their known source of income to follow around a poor traveling teacher. Jesus told them, “Don’t be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people.” (Luke 5:10).  As I step away from what I’ve known to be safe and reliable, there is a twinge of fear in my heart, as I’m sure there was with the disciples.  However, I pray that my eyes would be more open to the people and opportunities around me. I pray that I can learn to see people as Jesus taught his disciples to see them.  I pray that I will no longer define myself by my income but instead by the people I am able to serve and the lives I can touch.

Minivan Theology

One of my previous jobs was a delivery driver for a home health care company.  I used to joke with friends that I was a drug runner, completely legal of course.  It was a great job as I spent minimal time in an office and warehouse and the majority of my day driving. Today’s post is inspired by one set of drivers that I came across quite regularly while delivering and still do from time to time.

The Wreckless Minivan (or SUV) Mom.

Granted, I witnessed all sorts of reckless drivers and moms driving in minivans are not all reckless.  But, the women recklessly driving a large passenger and cargo capacity consumer vehicle brought me much confusion and consternation while driving.  With few exceptions, they were some of the most careless, speedy and impatient drivers on the road.  To make matters worse, they would generally be driving this way while carrying the precious cargo of their own children and probably a few of their kids’ friends.  One specific example comes to mind where I was waiting in a turning lane to turn left across oncoming traffic.  As I was about to turn, a minivan full of passengers whips around me to make the same left hand turn in front of me. I resisted the strong temptation to tailgate them and non-verbally express my frustration.  When the anger and frustration subsided, I started to really be confused by the whole situation.  What would cause someone to drive that recklessly with a minivan full of passengers, most of whom I assume were family?  What was so important that they were choosing to not only put their own lives at risk but also the lives of everyone else in the vehicle? It just seemed crazy and reckless.

I was recently thinking about this situation again, mainly because something similar happened, and my seminary trained mind began to think about theology. I asked myself how often we “drive” similarly with our theology and religious practices. Do we care for and transport our Christian family with a similar recklessness?  Do we just want to get people “in the van” as quickly as possible so we can move on?  What about the other cars and passengers around us?

Sometimes I feel like we treat our theology and religious beliefs or practices in essentially the same way.  We get a bunch of people in our “van” who share our beliefs and then speed our way down the highway of life. We feel safer in the van because it’s larger than all the other cars on the road.  We wonder why no one is driving as fast as we are and essentially see everyone outside the van as an obstacle to get around, hindering our forward progress. They are obviously wrong, if they were right they’d be driving like me.  Or, even better…they’d be in my minivan.  Don’t they know we’ve got important places to be?  We’re on a mission from God.

The problem is, it does not seem that Jesus ever thought this way.  It was the Pharisees who were recklessly throwing around their theology.  They would blow by people without a care as to why they might not be in the van or why they were “driving” slowly.  Jesus never sees other people as obstacles to get around.  He always pulls up alongside them to see what’s going on.  Jesus stoops down towards the woman caught in adultery, he approaches the woman at the well, he calls Zacchaeus down from the tree, he appears to Thomas and Saul, he calls Judas and Matthew to be disciples, he pulls a sinking Peter up after he walked on water, he also forgives Peter and then cooks him breakfast, he forgives those who crucify him and tells the thief next to him that he will be with him in Paradise.

Jesus isn’t driving a minivan trying to get people in and avoid obstacles and make it to his destination on time.

He’s driving a tow truck.  Pulling over whenever he needs to in order to help others who might be having problems.  He’s not avoiding people as obstacles, he’s looking out for them.  He’s also not trying to get them into his van using candy or some other kind of trick or “stranger danger” method.  He’s looking under the hood, figuring out what they need and putting them back on the road again.  If necessary, he will also give directions to the lost. The goal is not to get people “in” per se, but to help them get going again and headed in the right direction.

So, next time you find yourself annoyed that someone is going slow or preventing you from getting to your destination, take a second and maybe try to understand what’s going on in their car.  Next time your find yourself frustrated about another person’s theology, questioning their “personal relationship with Jesus”, or quietly condemning them to hell, take a second to “pull over” and see what’s going on.  Maybe there’s more to the story than what you see and what you feel.  Maybe, just maybe, when you see things from their perspective, from behind their “wheel”, you’ll understand how they got to where they are at.  Maybe you’ll finally see the dents in your own car or discover that your headlights are out.

You might even discover the problem is more with you than with them.