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Archive for May, 2014

 Poor Stewardship

Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. Ezekiel 34:2a-4

I have found myself in positions of stewardship since 6th grade, when I was the Chief Crossing Guard for my school. My responsibility was to assign a trained crossing guard to each intersection around the school before and after classes. In the days before paid, adult crossing guards, the 6th grade class shepherded the younger children safely across the streets. Being appointed the Chief crossing guard was an honor of sorts, I suppose, but it seemed a lot of responsibility at the time.

A shepherd stewards the sheep in his or her care – leading them to food and water, keeping them safe from predators, healing their wounds, and reuniting them with the flock when they wander away. Near the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Peter that those who love him (Jesus) will feed his sheep. Good stewards take their responsibility seriously, understanding it to be a holy calling. There are numerous examples of solid, sacrificial stewards in our history: Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale to name a few. They used the power, authority, gifts, and talents available to them for a higher purpose – lifting others up – and not allowing the allure of personal gain to deflect them from their calling.

The writer of the book of Ezekiel proclaimed God’s judgment on the poor stewards of his day, calling them shepherds who used their sheep for personal gain. These were harsh words directed at the behavior of the unethical “shepherds.” Although I know there are excellent and faithful stewards in our world today, it seems the poor stewards – the ones who steal from their charges – are more likely to be glorified. News stories abound about greed in the C-Suites and Boardrooms of corporations. Many people consider an honest politician to be an oxymoron. Ministers and Elders of churches too often treat themselves as being among the needy in their care. Is this type of behavior the norm today? I do not believe it is. My point, however, is that the examples of stewardship we are most likely to find in the news are examples of poor stewardship. God calls us to be faithful stewards, using the resources available to us for the care of those in need. As in Ezekiel’s day, we are to strengthen the weak, heal the sick, and lead the strays back into the family.

Come home to church this Sunday. Find a flock to join…or a flock to tend.

 

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 Compassionate Emptiness

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5-8

 Most days, my life is very full. I wake up early, eat breakfast, and read the newspaper. I drive to work and enter a whirlwind of meetings, phone calls, emails and, well, work. In the late afternoon, I drive home, where there is yet more to be done. Evenings go by in a flash until I can no longer hold my eyes open. I fall into bed, exhausted. Many of the people I know feel the same way. With such full lives, how can we make room for anything beyond the urgent, pressing demands of the moment? Unfortunately, many things of critical importance will not demand our attention, such as spending quality time, in sufficient quantities, with our children and our spouses. Spirit-building activities like spending time with God in prayer, contemplating scripture, and immersing ourselves in silence, are among the common casualties to a busy life. That which seems urgent will crowd out that which is truly important, unless we are intentional about our priorities. We may not realize what is of greatest value in our lives until we find ourselves in crisis.

Even when we make time for others, we are often so distracted that we are never actually present with them. When our minds are occupied by reports to write, phone calls to return, and the image we present to others, we are unable to fully attend to the emotional needs of those most important to us. We may hear the words they say, yet never catch the feelings behind the words. If my cup is already full, how do I make time for others? How do I put myself in a position for God to speak to, or to influence me? To truly listen to another means I am willing to be influenced, willing to allow my mind to be changed. If we cannot sufficiently empty our minds to allow new ideas and insights to enter, we close ourselves off from being influenced, improved, or blessed by others. At the same time, we deprive others of the opportunity to be blessed by us.

I first heard the term Compassionate Emptiness in a class on Servant Leadership. The context was that we must empty ourselves of all distractions, worries, and thoughts in order to be fully attentive to, and to understand what is on the mind or heart of another. That type of emptiness is compassionate because others desire and deserve our full attention. In the context of our relationship to God, we must empty ourselves for God’s love and compassion to enter us. Either way, emptiness is a prerequisite for compassion.

Come home to church this Sunday. Empty yourself and be filled!

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Won’t You be My Neighbor?

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second (command) is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these. Mark 12:30-31 

Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun, like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now.  — Fred Rogers

My children were not among the tens of thousands of children who watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on a regular basis. The show, however, was a regular feature on television for 33 years. At the beginning of each episode, Mr. Rogers would sing the song, “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” as he came through his front door. He would put on his cardigan sweater, and then sit down to put on his sneakers. After he was comfortable, he began an informal visit with his (mostly) young audience. Fred Rogers – both in character and in real life – preached love, acceptance, and gentle living. He received training as a Presbyterian minister, so his focus on virtues, values, and the respectful treatment of others should not come as a surprise.

In one of his simple and profound writings, quoted above, Mister Rogers stresses the importance of recognizing the action implied in love. Too often, we relegate love to emotion and to romance; and while those are important expressions of love, they are not necessarily love’s highest expressions. Jesus, too, focused on the act of loving, saying we are to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. To love, both God and our neighbors as ourselves, is the greatest of all the Biblical commandments.

During this season of graduations, imagine a commencement address given by Jesus or by Mister Rogers. There would be no shallow platitudes such as, “Be all that you can be,” or “Go forth and prosper,” or “Seize the day!” There would be no cheerleader-like chants and no sports metaphors. Equally absent would be tired clichés and forgettable advice. I believe a graduation speech given by Jesus or Mister Rogers would be straightforward. The focus would be on relationships – with God and with others – and the words would be about love. The words of love would be couched in caring for and about others – being a good neighbor, particularly to those less fortunate than we are. There would be no flowery descriptions of dreamy, fairy-tale futures. There would, however, be direct instruction for a focused present – a moment-by-moment, single-mindedness that assures its own glorious future, beside our God and with those we love.

Come home to church this Sunday. Won’t you be my neighbor?

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Delicate Honesty

So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.

Ephesians 4:25,29

Many years ago, I served as the interim director of a hospital department while recruiting took place for a permanent candidate to fill the position. One of the key supervisors in the department resigned during my tenure. Although I did not encourage her resignation, I believed the new director would have an easier time establishing him or herself without this particular supervisor in place. After she announced her resignation, a hospital executive came into my office, accused me of intentionally driving this supervisor out of the organization, and clearly let me know his opinion that I was setting the hospital back many years by my reckless actions. This exchange bothered me, as the executive was one I held in high regard. While I appreciated his direct honesty, his assessment of the situation was entirely incorrect, and his harsh approach to sharing his opinion negatively affected our relationship for many years thereafter.

In her book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes, “Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest but delicately honest.” In my work example above, the executive was authentic – he was truly frustrated and concerned with the departure of the supervisor, but he was not appropriate – he did not take the time to learn the facts prior to leveling such sharp criticism. He was honest, but in a brutal, and uncharacteristic manner.

Clearly, being truthful is important. Paul tells the people of the church in Ephesus to “speak the truth to our neighbors” because we are all interconnected. He goes on to instruct that we only say “what is useful for building up, as there is need.” That sounds like a warning against idle or hurtful talk. Finally, he writes that our words should “give grace to those who hear.” Those communication standards are much higher than most of us observe in our day-to-day speech. Repeating Sheryl Sandberg’s point, communication is most effective when we are both appropriate and authentic. Personally, I am much less careful about my words at home than at work. I believe I have my priorities reversed. While it is important to tend to what we say wherever we are and whomever we are with, the power of words magnifies around those we love. Being delicately honest is difficult, but it is a key to being an effective communicator, as well as being a loving companion.

Come home to church this Sunday.

Greg Hildenbrand

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Obedient Service

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? Romans 6:16

Faith without works is not faith at all, but a simple lack of obedience to God. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Slavery has a long and horrendous shadow. Although legalized slavery ended in the United States 150 years ago, traces of its oppression linger. Even today, we know of entire groups of people enslaved to others. Slavery is about property and property rights. When someone is a slave, another person owns him or her, as one owns a piece of property. Presumably, the owner of property can do whatever the owner wants with his or her possession, without regard to the impact on the possession itself. A slave’s sole purpose is obedience to the master.

One of the recurring realities referenced in Scripture has to do with slaves and their masters. Some interpret these references to imply that God approves of slavery. I do not believe that is the case. Slavery was, and continues to be, a reality. That slaves and masters are referenced in the Bible is no more affirming than the references to kings and tyrants – they were common elements of the landscape of the times.

Slavery is evil when one is enslaved to another of the same nature, particularly when the master does not have the best interest of the servant at heart. In a sense, employees are slaves to their bosses, in that they are expected to be obedient to the mandates of the boss. The fact that an employee can walk away from an oppressive employer, however, makes that relationship significantly different. The concept of slavery takes on a completely different nature when one willingly becomes a slave to a superior being, such as becoming a slave to God. Paul tells the Romans that we are slaves to whomever we obey.

Jesus was a slave to God, obedient even to death on a cross. Although that act of service brought new life to us, the act itself was one of obedience to God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologist of the last century, wrote that true faith requires acts of service because faith calls us to obedience to God, and God calls us to acts of service. A vibrant faith leads us to willingly enslave ourselves to God. Service is not something we do for the less fortunate because they are less fortunate, but something we do out of obedience to our master. In the words of Bob Dylan, “You gotta serve somebody.” The foundational questions are: Who is your master? and Whom do you serve?

Come home to church this Sunday.

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