Dear Mom, You're More Important Than You Ever Knew

Elliana with her mother and well on the way to recovery

Elliana with her mother and well on the way to recovery

Warning: this blog is personal and raw in places.  God blessed me with that kind of week.

 My daughter Elliana had major surgery for a second time in her very young life earlier this week.  I don’t tell you that because I’m looking for pity.  I’m telling you to give you a little context for my thought life.  And there was a lot of thought.  If there’s anything I’ve learned about hospitals over my many visits as a pastor and now the few I’ve had as a dad, it’s that you have time to think there.  You may not have much else, but you do have that.  The hidden blessing in that is that you can’t stuff away spiritual and emotional hurts.  You have to deal with them because they stare you in the face. 

 I didn’t even realize that’s what was happening to me until it happened.  We were sitting in preop actually having a pretty good time.  They give little kids happy juice before surgery so Elliana got a little goofy and that led to some pretty good belly laughs together.  Then it was time to pray as a family before surgery.  The millisecond I reached out to God in the intimacy of prayer my voice cracked and there it was – all kinds of emotions rising in me.   That’s when I realized I was hurting for my little girl. 

 There are many surprising things about God.  Perhaps one of the more surprising ones is that in moments like I described he hides himself.  He didn’t reach down and hug me from heaven, supernaturally comfort me, or wipe away my brief fit of tears with his divine finger.  I’m not the only one to notice this phenomenon.  It is the way God commonly relates to us.  He goes unseen and un-sensed.  Isaiah talked about it in his great prophetic work.  He said, “Truly you are a God who hides himself, O God, and Savior of Israel.” (Isaiah 45:15) Later one of the great church fathers, Martin Luther, even coined a term for this phenomenon.  He called it the hidden God.

 And, yet, as I worked through my thoughts I was reminded that God was there and he was at work in powerful, beautiful ways.  I want to highlight just one of them.  He was showing love and care to Elliana through her mother.  She comforted her, held her, kissed her, prayed for her, and sang to her.  If you think about it, he often works that way.  I can see it in my own mother.  She was on bed rest for months so my twin and I could get a good start in life.  She put Band-aids on my scraped knees.  The list could and should go on for eons.  My mom was my mom.  In my mom and in Elliana’s mom and in all Christian mothers you catch a glimpse of something totally divine.  You see God’s heart at work.

 Martin Luther talked about that.  He talked about how our callings are really “masks of God,” where we see God working through people to love and serve us as the perfect Father he is.  Do you see that? It’s why immediately after God gave us commandments about how to relate to him (commandments 1-3), in the very next breath he gave us a commandment about our parents.  Parents are that important because they are God’s representatives (one of his masks) to his little people.  That’s what I treasure so much about being a dad.  I get to show my little princess how the Great, High King feels about her.  And I get to do to it everyday. 

 I remember sitting with my Seminary president just before I graduated.  He said a number of things to me, but I remember one of them particularly well.  He said, “Show them Jesus.”  And I understood what he meant.  By the life I would lead and the love I would show, I would show people God.  No, I’m not calling the pastoral office or fatherhood or motherhood a sacrament or anything like that.  I’m simply pointing out that these people are God’s representatives and, therefore, God is hiding his service and care to us in the people who minister to us.

Do you see that? You may not have sensed God hugging you when you scraped your knee, but he gave you a mom who would.  You may not have seen God pick you up from school every day for over a decade, but he gave you a mom who would.  God may not have physically changed your diapers or helped you with Algebra, but he gave you a mom who would.  Moms give and sacrifice, give and sacrifice.  And then they do that some more.  In that giving and in that sacrificing, God is working out his love and care for you.

 That’s what makes that calling so incredibly holy and important.  Christian mothers don’t do what they do to preserve their genes, as evolutionary science would have us believe.  Christian mothers do what they do because they are people created, sanctified, and motivated by God to do what they do.  That’s also what a Christian mother desperately wants her kids to know about her.  She wants her kids to see that her love is God’s love and God’s work.  After all, that’s whom she works for – the God who redeemed and loved her first.

 So here’s what I propose this Mother’s Day weekend.  Make a deduction about God based on the love of mothers.  That’s actually not such a new idea.  It’s the same deduction Jesus had us make when he pointed out in Matthew 7 that if evil fathers give good gifts, just imagine the gift(s) he will give as the perfect Father.  Yeah, make that kind of deduction.  If broken, sinful mothers kiss away tears after a surgery...  if they fiercely stay by their child’s side...  if they hold a hurting body...  if they turn on Dora or get the nurses attention...  if moms do that, just imagine what kind of God would create, redeem, and motivate moms to do that.  Make a deduction about the God who underpins all Christian mothers.

 Dear Mom, that’s what makes you more important than you ever knew.  You represent the God you love.  You were God’s mask to show me that a being exists who loves me more than you ever could (imagine that!).  You were a mask of the God who loved me enough to not only give me a mom like you, but a brother like Jesus.  You were a mask that helped me see that my God has a love that moved him to enact a plan to ensure a future where there is no more surgery or pain.  You were a mask that taught me about the God who transcends even a mother’s love to give my family (and yours too, dear reader!) a guaranteed future of life and life and life.  Happy Mother’s Day, world!

MOX Project, Aiken, and what the gospel has to do with it.

It started back on February 21st.  In what was probably the most benign of the headlines recently associated with MOX, the Aiken Standard announced: “Nuclear administration consultant looks at MOX contract options.” In reading the article, I tried not to read too much into it, but it still felt sinister that nobody was supposed to know who the consultant was.  We had a pretty good guess – a guess that seemed to raise the stakes and, therefore, the tension around the visit.  According to the Weapons Complex Monitor (a periodical whose purpose as far as I can tell is to read the tea leaves and get the inside story on DOE sites), the analyst was a big player at the DOE who was brought out of retirement to visit MOX.  Pretty hard not to read into that, right?  A big player is brought out of retirement.  Why?  To make a big play.  At least that’s how it played out in my head.   

Then this week happened.  It was a steady drumbeat of news and analysis.  The Associated Press reported that President Obama’s budget proposal “winds down federal funding for a long-delayed project to turn weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear reactors.” The very next day the grave and serious headlines rightly began in the Aiken Standard.  We heard, “Obama’s proposed budget threatens MOX project.” Then it was the memorable quote from an official, “Proposal to freeze MOX ‘Smells like Yucca Mountain.’” The week for me turned into a crash course in lingo useful in this community.  I learned new terms like “cold stand-by,” what the acronym MOX actually stands for (Mixed Oxide Fuel Fabrication Facility), and what the project wants to accomplish.  If I understand it correctly – I probably don’t – the MOX project will transform material from nuclear weapons into something that energy companies could possibly use.  And, yes, I did choose my words carefully there.  Someone working the MOX project told me that there are no buyers waiting in the wings for the material right now.

I don’t think all of the highlighting, analysis, or focus that this issue has had of late is overdoing it.  It is without any hyperbole at all when I say that I believe this is a terribly big deal for Aiken.  I bumped into a guy the other day that I know works down at the Site.  I asked him, “What are people saying about MOX?  Do they think this is just political posturing or is this real?” It didn’t take him but 2 milliseconds to say, “Oh no.  People are worried.  This is serious.” How serious is it? I found out the next day.  The Aiken Standard reported, “The well-known statistic that one job at SRS represents 2.5 jobs in Aiken County has organizations like the economic partnership on edge. The MOX project alone employs about 1,800 people at SRS which, if extrapolated by the statistic, translates to about 4,500 jobs in the County.” Or to say it as David Jameson, our local chamber of commerce president, says it, “When the Site gets a cold, Aiken gets pneumonia.”

I know.  I know.  All of this has been talked about in other circles.  It has been shared around water coolers, over dinner, behind closed doors, and right on the front page of the Aiken Standard.  Nothing of what I’ve said or written is really very enlightening or helpful in any way.  But maybe what I say next will be.

First I want to admit something.  A couple days ago, I sat down at the table with my early morning cup of coffee, spread the paper in front of me, and read the headline, “Smells like Yucca Mountain.” In that moment, it was not my sense of smell that was activated.  Instead, I felt the familiar stab that uncertainty can bring, the cold stab of anxiety.  A couple months ago, I chose to move my family away from a life we’d come to love to start a church in South Carolina.  Now I wake up as a new Aiken resident and I’m told that this community that I’ve now come to love, pray for, and fight for may be staring at a difficult future.  Not to mention the fact, that it’s a lot more difficult to get a new church going in a community that might catch pneumonia.  So, yeah, I reacted and I reacted quickly to that headline.

I’m guessing I’m not the only one.  As personal as it may be for me, I’ve been thinking about the 1800 workers and their families who could be directly impacted.  What toll did it place on those families to get this steady drumbeat of news this week? How many tension headaches did it evoke? How many late night conversations about “what to do if…” were had between husbands and wives? How many checked their home valuations on Zillow to see if maybe it was time to unload their property before a possible local downturn? How many kids slept a little less well because they sensed stress in parents who did their utmost to hide it? I have no idea.  If you, dear reader, see yourself here, then read on.

It’s time to line up our thoughts with the facts.  And, yes, this is the part where I’m going to make distinctly Christian claims about reality.  First, let’s understand the nature of the world.  It appears Darwinian.  It appears chaotic.  Stuff happens.  There’s even a more colorful bumper sticker along those lines.  Let’s understand though that the world appearing chaotic and unordered doesn’t actually make it so.  The Bible argues in the exact opposite direction.  In other words, things may very well appear random and haphazard from our perspective.  One guy gets cancer.  Another guy who seems so similar in circumstances and behavior doesn’t.  One day you get to work hitting only one light on the way.  The next day you hit 10 and you end up late.  That’s apparently random, but not actually random.  We don’t have the over arching, supreme view of everything.

You know what happened to me yesterday?  I ordered a breakfast bagel at Dunkin’ Donuts on Whiskey Road and they forgot about my order.  Apparently random, right? So I ended up standing there fiddling with my iPhone.  When I looked up I saw another guy burning time too so I struck up a conversation with him.  Turns out he’s a guy from Wisconsin who used to be a churchgoer who isn’t now.  And yes, if you didn’t know, I happen to be a pastor from Wisconsin starting a church.  So I’m literally standing there with my jaw on the floor going, “God, you are so not random.” The problem for us is that we – oh so rarely! – are able to pull back the veil like that.  In fact, most of the time when I try I bet I’m wrong.

And, yet, the truth still stands that there is nothing truly random or chaotic about this world.  Here’s the claim that the Bible makes along those lines, “… he (God) marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands.  God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any of us.  ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:27-28)” In other words, it is the biblical worldview that God moves people around and places them in specific contexts so that they would know him.  Do you see what that means? Because MOX is going to shape the size of this community and whether people are able to live in it or not, God is totally invested in it.  Tell me that’s not amazing.  Let me reiterate that to help bring this point home.  The ultimate being in this universe is totally invested in the outcome of MOX.  Totally.  And why?  Because he’s totally invested in you knowing him.  He is, in fact, so invested in you that he’s willing to arrange world history just the way he has so that you are where you are right now.    

Now I want to make an important application of this fact.  I’d like to do it by going back to a quote from David Jameson in the Aiken Standard, “It appears that MOX is a pawn in a world championship chess match.” I love that.  I think it’s so true.  It does appear that we’re witnessing a chess game.  Red state vs. blue executive office.  One agenda vs. another agenda.  That’s how it appears.  What’s not so apparent is that God is using those opposing chess moves to save people.  The gospel tells us that.  God's check mate in this particular game will drive us towards him.  In other words, if MOX will further God’s interests in rescuing people, then I have no doubt it will be here long and secure into the future.

Honestly, I can already see how God has used this issue with MOX to rescue me.  The truth is that when I hear that the city that means so much to me may have a difficult future it bugs me.  A lot.  The anxiety and uncertainty that come with a vision of that possible future drive me to the one thing I know is certain in this life.  It’s this: I know that the God who controls and rules all of the events of this community, region, and world loves me.  He loves me despite the fact that my little heart can feel so unsure.  He cares for me despite the truth that sometimes I am tempted to believe this world is more Darwinian than ordered.  And I know that because of one great historical fact.  God did not spare his own Son for my anxieties and uncertainties.  He sent Jesus to make me his own and cover me with forgiveness and give me the ultimate certainty that God is forever for me.

Or to say it like the biblical writer said it, He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32)” That’s where I’d like to close this little blog entry.  The articles in the Aiken Standard point out that we have a lot more questions about MOX right now than answers.  That’s so true.  What does “cold stand-by” actually mean? What is President Obama actually after? Will our local leaders and politicians find a way to keep MOX funded? Questions, questions, and more questions.  I’d simply submit this.  Of all the questions that need answering, the one question that will give us confidence for our personal futures and that of our community is one that frames the issue correctly.  We’ve been given that question in the Scriptures.  He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him graciously give us all things?  If you’ll notice, that’s a question meant to get used on the soul.  That’s why it’s rhetorical.  So go ahead.  Ask yourself.  If God loves you so much that he did the far higher, far more important, and far more painful work of securing your eternity with his own Son, don’t you think he’ll do the much easier and temporary work of providing good labor, shelter, and a place to raise your kids? Finally, that’s the right question to ask as we gaze at Aiken’s future.  And by the way, we already know the answer.

Door Held Open

I’ve been reading through the book of Revelation in my personal devotions.  Incredible book!  It’s horrifying, comforting, devastating, and awe-inspiring all wrapped into this tight little bundle of twenty-two chapters.  Most of the book is jam-packed with apocalyptic visions of what’s happening right now in our world.  I am champing at the bit to teach the book at Peace Lutheran.  It won’t be long now until we get this church going and we can do stuff like that.  Yeah!

The first part of the book is what we want to talk about today.  You know what goes on there?  Jesus preaches to churches.  Yes.  Seriously.  Jesus himself preaches to churches.  In fact, if you have a red letter Bible it’s all red through that section.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that if Jesus is going to go to all the trouble to preach after his ascension into heaven he must really want us to think about it.  In particular, Jesus wants us to be thinking, “What does this say to me about my church?” Or perhaps a better question might be, “Of the churches that Jesus speaks to there, which one is most like mine?”

If you’ve read Revelation, you’re probably saying to yourself, “Please, please, please tell me that we’re not like Sardis.  And I’m begging you to tell me we’re not Laodicea.  Anything but Laodicea.”  I’ve got good news.  I believe we’re like Philadelphia.  For the more technical readers out there, I could build a detailed exegetical case, but now is not the time for exegesis.  Now is the time for a brief church blog.  So allow here just a few similarities that I noticed.

Here’s the first similarity: we have “little strength.” Our mission counselor was here a few weeks ago and joked with me saying, “Church plants have everything going against them.” He said it with a grin on his face, but in that moment I knew he was right.  We have everything going against us in the church world.  Think about it.  We don’t own a gorgeous building in the community.  We don’t have much recognition and we don’t have many members yet.  By anybody’s estimation we have little strength.  That’s just honest.

Here’s the second similarity: we hold to Jesus’ word.  I know.  I know.  Every church says that.  What church worth their salt would say any differently? And yet, holding to Jesus’ teaching is an incredibly important part of Peace Lutheran’s identity.  There’s even a name for it.  We’re not just called Lutherans.  We’re called confessional Lutherans.  We’re so serious about what the Bible says that we have written confessions of what we believe the Bible means that are now over 500 years old.  That’s different from anything else I know about in Aiken.  The Philadelphians were like that.  They held to Jesus’ word like nobody’s business.

Now comes the fun part.  You know what Jesus said to this little church that held like nobody’s business to Jesus’ word?  He said, “I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut.” Do you see what that must mean? That church has something that Jesus desperately wants people to have!  In fact, that church has something that Jesus wants others to have so badly that Jesus makes a promise.  He says that he is going to see to it that no one can shut them down.  He’s saying, “You have a message that I died to make true.  You have held to it.  I want people to have it and know it and believe in it so badly that I myself will hold the door open for you.”

That’s how Jesus rolled in Philadelphia and that’s how he’s rolling in Aiken too.  It's been amazing to watch.  He’s introduced us to people.  He’s shown us places.  He’s paving the way.  That's how he's held the door open here in Aiken.  It’s grace, grace, and more grace as we’ve worked to get this church started.  And why? Because Jesus wants people in this community to know the message we hold to: the gospel message that brings real peace to real people.  Don’t miss tomorrow’s meeting.  We’re going to talk about ways we can walk through the door that Jesus is holding open for us.

On Mission.

It's been said that first impressions are everything.  I'd have to think about that a bit more to decide if I agree with that completely or not.  What I do believe is undisputed is that first impressions are important.  And they don't take long to form either.  In the home buy experience some say that people make a decision about a house within seconds of entering it.  It's not so different with people.  It literally takes seconds for a person to come to some observations and get an impression of another person.  There's fun, challenge, and adventure in that.  There are downsides to it too in my experience, but not so far in my experience at Peace Lutheran.

We've talked.  We've laughed.  We've gone out for dinner or coffee and even gone to church together.  I've appreciated that I never got the impression from anyone that "We just need to get this whole meet and greet thing done with." It's just been good.  And, honestly, my family and I needed that.  Parachuting in from a distant, different place leaves a person wondering how they'll be accepted.  But from our perspective it's gone so well that we're hoping first impressions really are everything.  

And now comes the fun and the challenging part.  Now we start to live life together, care about each other, and get on mission together.  That's what tomorrow night's meeting will be covering.  We're going to start talking about what we're going to be all about and begin to get a grasp on how we might do it.  I hope you can tell I'm excited.  See you tomorrow!