Being a Dad Rocks #47

Aiden, my oldest, got in the car with me. We drove down the block to their cousin’s house. Emma, the youngest, rode her bike, pedaling for all she’s worth.

“What do you say, Aiden? Should we slow down and let her win?”

“Yeah.”

So we do. Aiden hops out, and runs inside to play. Emma takes off her helmet, breathing hard but smiling.

“How’s it feel, Daddy?”

“How does what feel?”

“To lose.”

On Forgiveness: a sermon and remembrance of Robin Williams

Primary Text: Genesis 45:1-8

In the words of Patch Adams, PHTHBBBBTTTT!

I think that one’s still my favorite. “O, Captain my captain,” was good, but Patch is my fave.

Why is it that the funniest ones are so often the saddest? The death of Robin Williams left everyone with questions, and no limit to the number of people providing commentary. The best one I found was by a guy named David Wong, a stand-up comedian and editor for Cracked magazine. David understands comedy from the inside, and this is how he describes it:

“At an early age, you start hating yourself. Often it’s because you were abused, or just grew up in a broken home, or were rejected socially, or maybe you were just weird or fat or … whatever. You’re not like the other kids, the other kids don’t seem to like you, and you can usually detect that by age 5 or so.”

He goes on to explain that many of the greats learned comedy as a coping mechanism, as a way of gaining control. And the more troubled they are inside, the better they become at projecting that false front into the world. So much so, that if you have a funny friend, and one day they stop being funny around you, that may actually be the first day you truly meet. It means they finally trust you enough not to put on a show.

That’s interesting to me, because humor is about expectations. Raising them. Breaking them. When we create or reveal an incongruity, we cause an “aha!” in the mind of the other person. Like when your preacher stands up in the pulpit and goes, “PHTHBBBBTTTT!” Like the first joke Aiden ever told me.

“Hey Dad, did you know I can jump higher than a mountain?”

“You cannot, silly.”

“Can too. Cuz mountains CAN’T JUMP!”

It’s that moment where your brain snaps to a new perspective. You know you understand. You know you were meant to understand. It’s one of those amazingly rare moments of direct mind-to-mind communication, and it feels so good. It catches you by surprise, and you laugh. Can’t help it. Which is why it works so well as a defense mechanism.

It’s like the world’s gentlest form of mind control. You reach into someone’s brain, and you force them to see things in a new way. Today’s story doesn’t have much comedy in it, but it does feature forgiveness, and I believe those two are twin sisters.

Instead of seeing the world in a new way, and passing that vision to other people to make them laugh, with forgiveness, we see ourselves in a new way, and when we pass it on, it makes people cry.

Most people are under the mistaken conviction that forgiveness is something you do to people. That’s how the language works, right? I. Forgive. You. Subject, verb, object. But try that in real life. Someone hurts you, really hurts you. “I forgive you?” No. I don’t. I can say it, if you’re my mom and you threaten me, but I don’t really mean it. I hurt! How could I possibly mean it?

Just like comedy, it requires a shift in perspective. Look at Joseph, from our reading today. You know the story. His brothers sell him into slavery. He winds up as a house servant in Egypt. He could have quit. He could have believed what every other person in his life was telling him. But he didn’t. He lived out his values. He lived as if his life had meaning. And he excelled.

He became the head slave, manager of the house, but then the lady of the house got him thrown in jail. Once again, he had plenty of reason to quit, every person in his life was telling him he was nothing. Worse than nothing. He wasn’t just a slave, he was a convict. And yet he continued to live as if his life had meaning, as if he had value. And once again, he excelled.

Now, he’s gone from rags to riches, manager of the entire kingdom, and he sees his brothers. They’ve come to beg for bread. But he remembers what they did. Everything that happened to him. It was all their fault, so he has them all thrown in prison because killing them would be over too quickly.

What?

He forgave them? That’s ridiculous. They sold him! Everything he went through? How is that even possible?

It’s possible because he’d already shifted his perspective. They treated him like a slave, and he said, “No. I’m a child of God.” They treated him like a criminal, and he said, “No, I’m a child of God.”

When he finally sees his brothers again, he never says, “I forgive you.” He says, “Don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves for selling me here.” He’s worried about them! From his perspective there’s nothing to forgive. He says, “It wasn’t you who sent me here, but God.” Once his perspective shifted, forgiveness just happened. He didn’t have to fight it. He’d spent years doing that work, and by the time his brothers showed up, it was already done.

That’s how we forgive. We do the work of redefining ourselves. Whatever happened to you. Whatever you did. That does not define you. It is not the end of you. Every day, you get to choose. Every day, you get to see yourself in a new way.

And when you live as if you matter, when you live as if you have value, when you live as if the world could be better than it is, you wake up one day and discover that victim label is too small for you, and forgiveness already happened.

Last week, I told you that Christianity is not something we force on other people. It’s still true. Running around telling other people they have to forgive is like the world’s un-funniest joke. “You need to be more forgiving. You should be a better Christian. Nya nya nya.” PHTHBBBBTTTT! We know that guy. I’ve been that guy. Don’t be that guy. Christianity and force don’t mix.

That’s doesn’t mean we go it alone. The reason most people are not amazingly funny is the same reason most people are not great at forgiving. Shifting perspective is hard. Especially when it involves looking at yourself. We have a natural, built-in, biological blind-spot.

By show of hands, how many of you are better than average drivers? Isn’t that stunning? Somehow, 80% of you are better than average. How is that possible? All the bad drivers go to some other church? All the good drivers are locals and the bad drivers are tourists? It’s possible. It’s a bit more likely that we have a hard time seeing ourselves honestly.

We need help. You ever notice that you’re funnier when you’re out with really good friends? You’re more forgiving too. I’d lay money on it. You know why? Because they know you. They let you see yourself through their eyes. And that shift in perspective frees you to forgive. Yourself. And other people.

Most of us aren’t like Joseph. There’s a few out there. Nelson Mandela types. Martin Luther Kings. You throw them in jail and they come out stronger. But most of us need help. Especially the funny ones. The harder they work to make us laugh, the harder we have to work to push past the facade, to love the human underneath. And even then, forgiveness isn’t something we do to people. It’s something we have to accept for ourselves.

Robin Williams had everything. Loving family. Financial security. Fame, acclaim, and the respect of his peers. Accomplishments and awards. And none of it was enough, because no matter how many times he reached into our minds and shifted our perspective, he couldn’t shift his own. No matter how many times people spoke love into his life, he couldn’t believe it.

What do we do with that? Three things. First, surround yourself with people who make you laugh, and dare to believe they might be right about you. Next, immerse yourself in the life of Jesus and dare to believe he might be right about you. And then, every single day, invest yourself in the life of another human being, and dare to believe you might be right about them.

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Pastoral Resignation Letter

Dear First Congregational Church,

I write this letter of resignation with both sadness and hopefulness. For almost five years, this church has been a second home to me and my family. It’s been a great joy serving as your pastor, watching your children grow, and learning with you.

If this seems sudden, or surprising, that’s because it is. Many of you have predicted I would leave someday. If I remember correctly, those predictions started about a week into my work here. But none of us expected it would be today. All I can say to that, is when opportunity calls, you have to make a choice, or miss your chance. A former employer called Jess out of the blue with a great job offer. We turned it down, and they called back with a better one. We talked about it, we made the decision as a team, and we firmly believe it’s the right choice for our family.

If you want to come visit in Janesville, you’ll find it’s not nearly as lovely as it is here. The winters are colder, and there’s less snow. The lakes are green, with mucky bottoms, and the sand isn’t nearly as soft. What you will find is lots and lots of our family. Aunts and uncles, grandparents, and a big pile of cousins.

Knowing you, some will be worried about me not having a pulpit to fill or a congregation to serve. Don’t worry. I’m not. I’m perfectly capable or raising a ruckus if I need to, and after almost 15 years in ministry, I’m looking forward to trying something new. I meant it when I said I’m both sad and hopeful. Not just for me, but for you.

I’ve said all along this is an amazing church, and I still believe it. However much I feel sad at leaving you, I also feel that much confidence (and more!) that you will continue to grow “in wisdom, and stature, and in favor with God, and with humanity.” Pastors come and pastors go, but the congregation continues.

This letter, and the announcement on Sunday, August 3, start the transition. Which would tentatively make August 31 my last Sunday, depending on the decision of the Prudential Board. You can expect more communication from them as this process unfolds. For myself, and on behalf of my family, thank you.

Sincerely,
Rev. Rob Brink

Freedom! A sermon for Independence Day

Primary Text: Romans 6:15-23

Independence Day. The day Americans celebrate their freedom from tyranny by drinking beer and blowing stuff up. In American, freedom means the right to do whatever you want. Thoughtful Americans add, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s freedom to do what they want.” Not only is this circular, it’s also not biblical.

How many of you have ever heard someone say it’s okay to do something they know is wrong, because God is going to forgive them anyway? It’s the old deathbed confession trick, right? You live life however you want, and then it a last-minute you pray, “Jesus, I’m sorry. Amen.” And he’s got to let you in, right? That’s totally a thing. Jesus is a nice guy. He’s gotta let me in.

There’s only one problem. It’s a lie. Not Jesus being a nice guy. He is! No normal, non-broken person looks at someone they love and thanks, “Wow. That is one amazing human being. I love them so much, I think I’ll punch them in the face. I’ve always wanted to punch someone in the face, and now, at last, after years of friendship, I’ve found someone so loving, so gracious, so forgiving, that I could punch him right in the face and know that they will forgive me. Finally!” Kapow!

It’s ridiculous. And yet we’ve all said it. Like that guy who parked in my spot last year. I introduced myself and do you remember what he said? “Yeah, we saw the sign said pastor’s parking. But we figured you’re a pastor so you have to forgive us.” Kapow!

They said it, I believed it, and it’s a lie. He didn’t park in that spot because I’m a pastor. He parked there because he didn’t want to walk four extra blocks. He doesn’t care if I forgave him. He’s just a regular human being who will do the right thing as long as it isn’t harder than the other available options. Then why did he say it? And why did I believe it?

Because it’s easier than facing the truth. Paul asks the church in Rome “Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means!” Doing whatever you want and then apologizing on Sunday is not okay. Even in Bible times they knew that.

But he doesn’t just say it’s wrong. He says it’s a lie. “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you will obey?”

When we run run around doing whatever we want, we are actually slaves to our own passions. When we run around chasing the American dream, we are actually slaves to consumerism. When we dance to the tune of whatever controls us, we are already slaves.

I told you it was uncomfortable. And it leads us strange places. If we were slaves to sin, does that mean we are now slaves to God? God is a slaveholder? Paul admits it’s a weak metaphor. He says, “I’m using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations.”

Slaves were about as common as a BMW or a Cadillac. A sign of status, but not something that would make you stare. So Paul grabs that as an example. When you obey like a slave, you already are one.

And to summarize Paul loosely, “How’s that workin’ for ya?” Sin is not breaking a rule and getting away with it. Hee hee hee hee. Sin is what ever kills you. Even if it kills you slow. Even if it only kills your soul. Sin is whatever kills you, and when you know it and you do it anyway, the metaphor Paul uses is slavery, the slow death that eats away at your humanity.

And what do slaves need? A lecture? Someone to tell them slavery is wrong and they should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps? Do slaves need a motivational speaker? Someone to teach them the power of positive thinking? Slaves need two things: hope and help. And they need them yesterday. Thankfully, I know a place built on infinite hope, and practical help. Yes, you can do it on your own, but again to quote Paul, “How’s that workin’ for ya?”

If you park in my space will I forgive you? Yes. But that won’t help you stop being a jerk. If you drink yourself stupid every night and then pray for forgiveness on your deathbed, will God still love you? Yes. But that won’t fix your liver. When I have a hard time being a better dad, or a better husband, will my family forgive me? Probably. They’re awesome like that. But that’s not what I need.

I need parents who will come alongside me, people I trust enough to be honest, people gentle enough to be helpful. I need people who’ve already walked that road, who can show by their example what might be possible. We need people who love us enough to tell us the truth, who love us so much that they’ll speak it so we understand. That’s real help. And it happens here every week.

And hope? Paul says, “The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sin pays wages. As much work as we spent getting into trouble, it’s going to take at least that much work getting out again.

The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life. Sin is work, but life is a gift. We didn’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. God loves us, and that settles it. That’s the secret that kicked this whole conversation off. God loves us. Does that mean we can go do whatever we want? Sure. You can hold firecrackers in your teeth too. But I wouldn’t call it freedom.

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Sermon on Matthew 10:24-39 Not Peace, But a Sword

Primary Text: Matthew 10:24-39
Video Here

“Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.”

If you are a Christian, and you are paying attention, these words ought to trouble you. I’ll go a step further. If these words don’t trouble you, I don’t think you can honestly call yourself a Christian.

Jesus Christ, the guy you claim to follow, the guy you claim is your Lord, the guy you say is God, says, “Anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever does not take up their cross (which was not a pretty thing that hangs around your neck, it was a torture device) and follow me is not worthy of me.”

Which means any disciple, any real disciple, who loves their family and doesn’t want to die, has a problem. The traditional way of getting around verses like this is simple. You just don’t read them. That’s how human beings deal with things we don’t want to hear. We stop listening. We do whatever we want to do, until life intrudes on whatever it is we’re doing.

Let me offer you another option, one with a little more integrity. Let’s completely reverse that point of view. What if we walked into church expecting to be confronted? Because the thing about truth is it surprises you, it doesn’t do what you expect.

My wife surprises me every day. My children surprise me every day. My job surprises me every day. Because they are real. Rather than limiting themselves to the size of my current smallness, all of those things are challenging me to grow. Not because they try to, just because they exist.

So here’s the question of the day. Do we come to church looking to be affirmed, or confronted? Challenged? Or comforted. Because that’s what Jesus is doing today.
He’s been teaching and preaching, performing miracles, and he’s collected this pile of followers. Now it’s time to separate the looky-loos from the true disciples. Who’s really in, and who’s just along for the ride? I’ve found two ways I can read this text with any kind of authenticity.

I have to interpret it, because if it’s a flat, straight, literal reading I think I’m out. If Jesus were to come back, put a gun in my hand and tell me to shoot my own mother, I don’t think I could do it. If God gave me Abraham’s choice, your faith or your son, I think I’m done.

But what if we put this back into it’s historical context? At this time Christianity is a Jewish splinter sect. That’s how all this got started. Jesus was a Jew. The disciples were all Jews. The collection of followers, they were all Jews. And the instant we step out from underneath the umbrella of Judaism, become our own separate religion, Rome is coming down on us like a hammer.

Jesus sees all this coming, and he warns his followers. If you’re really my followers, expect to get what I got. If you read it that way, it reads differently. “What if your mom turns you in? What if your own children turn on you? What is someone you love calls for your humiliation, your excommunication? Your execution? Is that the end of your faith?”
That’s the first way I can read this with some level of authenticity. The only problem, is it’s completely outside of my experience.

I’ve been a Christian for as long as I’ve been aware of Christianity. My mom dragged me to church, and I’ve never, in my life, been persecuted for my faith. You hear someone say that on the TV? On the radio? “We’re being persecuted. Christians in America are being persecuted!” Baloney. Get over yourself. You have no idea.

This is a newsletter from Pastor Philip. He’s the leader of Indian Community Fellowship, our mission emphasis for this month. And in the middle of all of these stories, about training new pastors, and teaching a woman how to sew so she can become self-sustaining, there’s a tiny little picture, mismatched chairs, and a hand-painted sign that says ICF.

The title is, “Get out!” The article reads, “This is the house church which was attacked on the first day after the new Indian government was elected. A few people came at 10 AM and said ‘do not worship here from today on… get out of here right now… this is your first warning.’” And they ask us for their prayers. That’s persecution. We have no idea.

But there is a way I can read this that speaks to where I live. Again, you have to put it in context. In that culture, in that day, family ties were the social order. Remember the 10 Commandments? Honor your father and mother. If America wrote the 10 commandments, I guarantee that would not make the list, but for them it was central. When you are little, your parents will train you up, and when you are grown, you take care of them. This is the pattern of their life. It’s the glue that holds their society together.

So when Jesus says, “I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother…” he is upending the social order. The old way of doing things is not good enough any more. Just because someone in authority says you have to do a thing, doesn’t mean you do it. To be a follower of Jesus, your moral compass must point to something higher than, “because I said so” or, “I was just following orders.”

I don’t think I’ll ever face a firing squad, but this hits me right where I live.The standing order of the day is to buy junk you don’t need to impress people you don’t like. The standing order of the day is to overeat while others starve. The standing order of small-town life is don’t make waves. Guilty on all counts.

For the most part, American Christianity has made peace with our society. The two things most Christians are willing to fight about are what? Homosexuality. Maybe the death penalty. And abortion. Everything else, we just go along with whatever everybody else does.

But Jesus did not come to bring peace. He came to confront us, to challenge us, to grow us into something worthy of his name. Jesus cane to put a stake through consumerism, and conformity, and the thousand other tiny fears that bind us and keep us small.

So how do we make this real this week in our lives? My challenge to you is to do one hard thing. Think about it for a little bit, and let your fear be your compass. Your fear is pointing you directly toward the thing you don’t want to do. Maybe, you don’t want to call someone and apologize. Maybe, you don’t want to speak up for what’s right. I don’t know what it is, but I do know you are not the only one facing that problem. I guarantee it.

So, if you already know what you need to do, and you want help, one thing you could do is write it down. Use the little bulletin tear-off. Or pick up the phone. These are your fellow travelers. They’re all walking the same road. They all heard the same text. They’re all being confronted by the same Lord. So call one of them. And if they tell you exactly what you are expecting, exactly what you wanted to hear, hang up the phone and call another one. And keep calling until you find one brave enough to tell you something that stretches you, that challenges, you that confronts you. That’s how you know they are real.

That’s how we know our friends are real, our church is real, our faith is real. When they don’t just comfort us, when they don’t just tell us what we want to hear, but when they confront us.

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Hey Teens, this post is for you

Just last week our youth group watched “Mean Girls” in honor of the 10 year anniversary of it’s release. It’s been 10 years, and it’s still relevant. Doesn’t it make you wonder what might have happened to those plastics after they graduated?  This study suggests things might not have gone so well for them.  There’s plenty of scientific language, but the short of it is that engaging in risky behaviors when you’re young as a way of being cool, correlates with higher risks of problems later in life. You aren’t just “getting through school,” you are setting a pattern for you life.  Having the courage to be yourself might hurt your in-school popularity, but out in the real world, it’s going to be an asset. Be you!

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