From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL

Author Archive

School Shooting – Do I Have To Say Something?

I don’t know about you, but I am sick with the school shooting in Newtown; and I’m sick with the “news” coverage; sick with the quick analysis, sick with the rush to be first, the political posturing, with politicians and media cashing in on tragedy, the “key facts” and “what we know” articles when we have little clue what the “key facts” really are, and “what we know” is little more than “what we think we might know”. There is a strong voice in me that thinks the most appropriate response to this tragedy is humbled silence – to shut the hell up in the face of this, and incidentally to encourage others, especially our politicians and media folks, to shut the hell up too. It’s the beginning of repentance, which Jesus recommended in the face of tragedy (Luke 13:1-5). But what did he know? He wasn’t trying to stay in office, or be first with the news…

At the same time, I’m a pastor and I can’t be in this just for myself. Some of my sheep may be as sick as I am with this, but there are other sheep (many of them teachers and school administrators as well as parents and kids) who are hurting. I can’t abandon them. So I’ve been struggling the last few days with what to say to my sheep – especially what to say on Christmas Eve. It’s a poignant and emotional time anyway, but this year it’s almost unbearable. How do I give comfort without falling into the same cheap quick analysis that irks me from others?

Please pray for me, that I would bring some truly good news next Tuesday evening. If hearts are open, I very much want to preach the gospel.

In the meantime I’m sharing below what I wrote for our church newsletter. As you’ll see it reflects my scattered thinking, but I think it reflects where my heart is being pointed. I hope you might draw some courage and humlity from it too.

From The Pastor

As I write this, the airwaves are still full of news and chatter about the school shooting in Newtown, Conn. Perhaps by the time you read this, some of that will have died down. Or maybe not – the media has quite a taste for the tragic. Right now I’m still sorting through my own responses – anger, deep sadness and sorrow, denial and avoiding are all roiling around my heart vying for ascendancy. It’s very confusing, and I need to have something sorted out before I preach on Christmas Eve!

What can I say to you to give some comfort and help? These are the thoughts that keep recurring to me, and I offer them here in the hope that they may help anchor you in troubled and horrifying times:

  • The news media is a dangerous thing to listen to. In the rush to be first much gossip and misinformation is being disseminated. Listening to it will only increase the confusion and sense of chaos. Jordan Kern said at a recent SYF meeting that she tunes the “news” out for a while until things have settled down and the gossip and innuendo are sorted out from the facts. I think there is great wisdom in that;
  • Evil, the Darkness, is real. It’s not simply the absence of good, or the absence of education or regulation or legislation. There’s a malevolence and insanity to it. It’s not a metaphor, it’s real and causes real pain and horror and death. As Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12 “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. “;
  • We are fundamentally helpless in the face of this malevolence. Perhaps we have been taken in by the illusion that we can master anything if we only apply enough money, technology, education or diplomacy. If so, perhaps this incident will wake us up to our deep vulnerability that will not be conquered by any human effort;
  • Instead of calling prematurely for ways to “fix” the problem and be in control, we need to be compassionate for those who suffer every day in broken homes and broken lives. If we all are as vulnerable as I think we are, we need to be caring and compassionate for others every day, not just when terror reveals our vulnerability;
  • Jesus was asked about this sort of thing (Luke 13:1-5). His response may not seem very sympathetic but note that He’s not talking to the victims of tragedy but to those who ask Him about it. Perhaps they’re media types who just want to get his comments. Maybe they’re scholars who want to figure it all out. In any case, here’s what Jesus said: “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? 3 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? 5 No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

He casts no blame on Pilate or the tower builders. Nor does he explain why the tragedies happen. He points to His hearers’ need to repent. If I had been in that group, I would have noted that He didn’t invite the media to repent, or the makers of violent movies and video games, or the political parties or government or schools to repent. He invited me to repent. So in the face of tragedies that I cannot master or explain, of what do I need to repent? Of my acting as though tragedy will never happen to me? Of my need to be in control? Of my need to find someone (else) to blame? Of my illusions of invulnerability? Of my living as though I don’t need God desperately every moment? Of thinking that the way I live has no effect on others? Of thinking I’m less sinful than others? Of living for myself?

Of what do you need to repent, and run to Christ for mercy? He welcomes such people you know. It really delights Him (Luke 15:7).

Now in the face of all this darkness and gloom, there is one more crucial thing to remember: “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John1:5). We may be confused or upset, but God is not. The cross shows us that He works in the very darkest of events for our good and His glory. Perhaps even now He is working in you to make you more tender, more compassionate, more humble, more open, more honest, more resolute in the faith.

I can’t explain everything. But I can repent of my selfishness and trust that in doing that, His light will shine through me.

How about you?

Finally, one more note – in looking for some history on school shootings, I found that there have been several tragedies of equal or larger scale of which I was not even aware (see here for a list – of these 10, I was aware of only 3). One more thing of which to repent.


This Sunday December 23: Advent 4 and Choral Cantata

This coming Sunday we mark the fourth Sunday of Advent with our choral cantata at both services. Again this year it’s quite a large choir. They’ve been putting in many hours of work and rehearsal to make this a fine presentation. Here’s a bit of the promotional material that describes the cantata:

Combining the passion of Celtic musical traditions and the joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, Season of Joy offers a spectacular collection of new and beloved seasonal songs that will perfectly complement any Christmas program. Acclaimed arranger/orchestrator Daniel Semsen has brilliantly married traditional Celtic instrumentation with a vibrant contemporary sound. Featuring four new songs by Keith and Kristyn Getty, this one-of-a-kind musical combines such Irish classics as “The Wexford Carol” with exciting new Celtic-inspired arrangements of Chris Tomlin’s “Emmanuel (Hallowed Manger Ground)” and Travis Cottrell’s “Jesus Saves.” A standout offering is the stunning overture, which features fiddles, penny whistles and bagpipes. No less than one dozen familiar carols artfully weave their way through the work, inviting your congregation to fully join the celebration.

I’m not familiar with all the names, but I know Keith and Kristyn Getty write beautiful music which we’ve sung before.You can hear audio clips by going here and scrolling to the bottom of the page.

So I encourage you to come and join us in celebrating this season of joy.

This Sunday December 16: Advent 3

We’re continuing our Advent series on the songs in Luke 1; this coming Sunday we’re looking at the song of Zechariah:

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying, 68  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70  as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71  that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; 72  to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73  the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” {Luke 1:67-79 (ESV)}

The entire passage is only two sentences in Greek, which makes it tricky to translate. But it clearly divides into two major sections:

  • verses 67-75 are about God and what He’s done; there is an implicit reference to Jesus (v. 69 “a horn of salvation”)
  • verses 76-79 are about John and what he’s going to do; there’s also an implicit reference to Jesus here also (v.78 “the sunrise shall visit us from on high”)

There’s a lot that can and should be said about Zechariah’s song, but this Sunday I’m going to focus more in Zechariah himself. He’s the instrument which God is playing here (v. 67) but this is no porcelain virgin girl being played. Zechariah is an old guy. He’s been around a long time. I suspect when it comes to Temple politics he’s just about seen it all. He’s also childless, so he’s at the end of his family tree line. An old guy, who gets chosen to be God’s instrument. And that changes him. It gives him a future where there was none, hope where there was none, and a reason to sing about it.

So let’s hear it for the old guy gospel!

See you Sunday.


6 Strong Men

One of my favorite ads from the Episcopal Church – different layout but same idea.

Caption: Will It Take 6 Strong Men To Get You Back To Church?

Possible Easter Ad?

Here’s an ad I found via Google, from Lakemount Worship Centre in Ontario. I get a charge out of smart-aleck ads – being prophetic in a not-too-much-in-your-face way.

What do you think – too smarty for Freeburg?


This Sunday December 9: Advent 2

We’re continuing our brief mini-series on the “songs” of Luke 1. Last week we looked at the “unsong” of Zechariah; this coming Sunday we focus on the Magnificat, Mary’s song:

“My soul magnifies the Lord,47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55  as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

Luke 1:46-55 (ESV)

Notice how Mary starts and sings a little about “me”, then sings a lot about “he”. Almost the entire song is about God: who He is (vv. 49-50) and what He does (vv. 51-55). There’s much here to see, but for Sunday I want to focus on just a few things:

  • Mary considers herself blessed, and she is blessed – but it’s with a blessing that doesn’t look like one in the eyes of the world. In our day being pregnant before marriage is no big deal. But in her day it was a giant deal. Women, much less girls, didn’t count for much. They didn’t have a career path, or education to point to for their value. What a 14-year old girl did have was her virginity. It was a badge of honor so to speak. That, in the eyes of the world, is going to be taken from her – and that is going to put Mary at risk. There’s the risk of losing social standing, the risk of being cut off from family relationships and other social blessings. And there’s the real risk that Joseph may exercise his right to have her stoned to death. Some blessing! But as I look over the entire Bible, it seems to me that God’s blessing does not come without risk.
  • Nevertheless Mary considers herself blessed, so much so she sings about it. How so in the face of the risks she’s taking by saying “yes” to God? Because what she’s received she sees as so far more valuable than social standing that to her, she’s losing nothing.
  • Look at the character of God Mary sings about – vv. 49-50. God is mighty, holy, and merciful. I’m going to say more about that on Sunday, but consider this: those three attributes must come together if we’re ever going to be saved. God is holy enough that we need saving; mighty enough to actually save us, merciful enough to want to do it.
  • The actions of God – notice all the reversals: rich to poor, low to exalted, full to empty, empty to full. Where are you in your life? Got it made? It’s all goooood? Careful – God’s gonna knock you down. Or are you sick of yourself, aware of not only your need but the desperation of your need? Good news, then: He’s gonna pick you up, lift you up, fill you up.
  • Finally, what’s Mary singing about? The gospel – the good news that comes from outside of us, for us; that reveals that we are far more needy than we ever thought, far more loved than we ever imagined.

Sing it Mary!

Porky Pastor Project Wraps Up

The numbers are in! 44 of us joined together to lose weight over the past 8 weeks, using any means or methods we chose (actually we started with 54 but some folks dropped out or just didn’t weigh-out). Now we’ve weighed out and we lost…..drumroll….weight for it (ha)…246.8 pounds! 11 of them were mine! So we’ve equivalently lost a person I guess. I don’t know who the “biggest loser” was, but they lost nearly 30 pounds. Wow!

So now our pledgers need to do their part. If you pledged, or if you just want to make a donation, send your contribution marked “Porky Pastor”. I’d very much like to present this gift to KinderCottage before Christmas as they can surely use it.

BTW if you’re not familiar with KinderCottage, or if you are but would like to get updated, check out their website here.