What Does it Mean to “Go Back”?

For the past few months, as we have been preparing to return to a regular schedule of weekly in person worship, I have found myself caught between desire for routine and a drive for innovation. There is something so comforting about routine. Stepping into a familiar situation can sometimes be the spiritual and emotional hug one needs. I am the king of routine: I have had the same Christmas dinner for nearly 20 years now (homemade pizza), I used to drop a deposit off at the bank on such a regular schedule that one day I was late, and the bank called to make sure everything was OK. So, a big part of me wants to step right back into Sunday mornings as if nothing had happened—to sit in my same seat, do the same motions, fall into the same routine we were in before, get back to normal.

But I also recognize that it is foolhardy to think that there can ever really be a return to the old normal. We are not the same people, RiverTree is not the same church, our community is not the same community, our nation is not the same nation as it was the last time we were together in Selvidge, in March of 2020. To try to recapture that old normal, would be to ignore 15 months’ worth of hard growth and tumultuous change. 

The million dollar question we (and countless other churches) are asking is: how do we balance that comfort of the familiar with that understanding that things have massively changed. We don’t want to prize our own comfort and nostalgia to the point that we become irrelevant. But neither do we want to change and innovate so much that we are unrecognizable from what made RiverTree such an amazing church family in the first place.

Our year plus as a virtual church family gave us a unique opportunity to step back and evaluate not only what ‘church’ means but also how we ‘do’ and ‘live’ church on a week-by-week and day-by-day basis. During this time, we have been forced to get creative with just about everything we do. Some things worked amazingly well (our virtual book club and painting nights), while other things did not work at all (remember quarantine cooking? Apparently not, because no one watched them, ha ha!). One of my biggest fears, as we transition back, is losing that creative spark we fostered so well over the past 15 months. I want us to be a group of people, a church family, that is not afraid to share ideas, is not afraid to be creative, and is not afraid to fail.

I wish I had the perfect answer to this riddle. But I don’t, and I would be a little wary of anyone who says that they do have it all figured out. But I am excited to work on figuring this out together, with all of you. “In what ways should we stay the same?” and “In what ways should we innovate?” are questions I want us to wrestle with as a church family. Let me know what you think, I would love to hear from you all!


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Let’s Talk About the Problem of Evil

Starting in January, we began on a journey preaching through the entire book of Matthew. A huge benefit of this type of series is that it means we cannot skip over any passages that don’t make for nice clean sermons. The downside is that we are forced to wrestling with some passages that we might rather want to leave alone. This week we hit the first of those passages: Matt. 13-23. These verses tell of Herod’s plan to kill Jesus, the holy family’s flight to Egypt, and the resulting murder of all the male toddlers in and around the town of Bethlehem (an event sometimes called the Massacre of Innocents).

 

Now, it just so happened that this last week was also a family service, meaning it was geared toward and starred more of a younger audience. For obvious reasons we did not focus on the massacre of innocents in a special kids’ service. Rather, we focused on how God protected Jesus and the family by telling them to flee. This is a valuable and important lesson to learn—that God protects us. But a keen reader will instantly notice the dozens of children that God did not protect. How can we say God protects us when we read about the genocide of an entire toddler population?

 

I will start out by saying that there is not a clean, simple, and satisfying answer to this. This question is one with which I, myself, constantly wrestle and struggle. The answer most often given to this question is that God has a larger plan and works everything for good. Now, I do believe this is true. But simply stating that as a response to something as awful as the mass murder of toddlers is just cold-hearted and lacking any kind of compassion. If you were to give a that simple answer to someone grieving the loss of a child, you more than likely would be punched—and justifiably so! Sometimes the correct academic and theological answer is not the correct loving answer.

 

Despite this, how I answer this question for myself is wrapped up both in the idea of God’s divine plan and our limited understanding of its scope. I would argue that God prioritizes protecting our soul’s over protecting our bodies. Later in Matthew, Jesus tells us that we do not need to be afraid of the ones who can kill our body’s but rather we should fear the one who can destroy our soul (10:28). This hits on the notion that our time on Earth is so limited in the grand scheme of our everlasting existence. But, because we are not God, we can’t wrap our minds around anything that big. As a result, we focus on the here and now with all of our passions and mental strength.

 

Think about when you were in third grade. Can you remember the things that caused you stress? What were the day-to-day things that were your entire world? For most of us, we can’t remember. This comes from gaining a larger perspective. We can look back and realize that third grade was such a small part of the grand story that is our life that most of what happened there just fades into the background. But in the moment, while we were living them out, they were the most important things, nothing mattered but them.

 

Now, please hear me. I am not trying to callously compare genuine heartbreak and loss to a third-grade spelling test. I am in no way trying to mitigate our current feelings of loss. I am trying to illustrate how our perspective of time is so small compared to God’s and how our earthly lives are so small compared to our eternal souls. Yet they are all we know; they are all we can know right now.

 

Like I said at the top, there are no easy, clean, or 100% satisfactory answers to a question like this. But this is how I currently handle the problem of evil at this point in time. I believe that God’s top priority is protecting my soul and I believe that through Jesus I do not have to worry about the safely of my soul. While we all walk through deeply painful times of heartbreak, loss, and pain on our time here on Earth, all of that is wrapped up in the briefest of salvos across the duration of our eternal lives.

 

Please, I want to hear how you approach this question. The problem of evil is one we will never fully answer on this side of glory. How I wrestle with it will be different from how you grapple with it. Let me know what has brought you the most comfort in the moments of heartache in your lives. 


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A Case for the Horror Genre

I have, for the longest time, been a lover of the horror genre. It might seem weird for a pastor to love horror, but I think that well done horror is some of the best entertainment out there. Good horror creates environments for exploring deep, complex topics and emotions. It can give grounding and footholds into conversations that often are too esoteric for people to bring up in everyday conversation.
 
For example, the Netflix series Hunting of Hill House is less about jump scares and ghosts and more about healthy verse unhealthy ways of dealing with loss and remorse. Don’t get me wrong, there are ghosts galore in the series. But the scenes that resonated the most with me were the intimate moments between the siblings. It is was in these moments where the true power of the series shone through and it moved from a simple haunted house story to a story exploring just what it means to mourn.
 

In addition, some of the absolute best horror comes with genuine moral messages, that invite the reader/watcher to examine themselves. One of the earliest moral messages I remember from a horror story came from Alvin Schwartz’s collection of folklore tales: Scary Stories 3. One story is about Herold the Scarecrow and how Herold is completely mistreated by his owners. Eventually Herold comes to life and takes his revenge. The underline message here is that we ought to show compassion for others or, put another way, that you reap what you sow. This is a notion we see several times in the Biblical text: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap,” (Galatians 6:7) or “The wicked earns deceptive wages, but one who sows righteousness gets a sure reward,” (Proverbs 11:18).

Some horror authors are deeply religious in their own personal lives and they use their writing as ways to express and share their beliefs. Take Mary Shelly for example. Her most famous work is the novel Frankenstein. Many people today forget that that the book had an alternative title The Modern Prometheus. In Greek Mythology, Prometheus is a Titan who defies the other Gods by gifting humans with fire, elevating humans to god-like status. This same idea is at the core of Adam and Eve’s fall. Their desire was to be like God, so they ate the forbidden fruit so they could have God’s knowledge. Pride is also at the core of Dr. Frankenstein’s story. He tries to assume the power to create life. His ultimate goal is to ascend to the same level as God, an endeavor that only leads to pain and ends in death. Shelly is warning the reader that the same pride that led Adam and Eve to turn away from God is still in all of us and we need to rely on God to tame that pride.

Horror often gets a bad rap. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot of bad horror out there! But when it is good, horror can be a wonderful introspective tool. So this Halloween season, I would encourage you to not write off horror wholesale. If you are up for it, investigate a good horror movie or book. You might find that it sparks some amazing theological conversations.


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How a German Sci-fi Show Stole Two Weeks of my Life

 
I mentioned in a sermon a few weeks ago that I recently finished up the last season of a German sci-fi TV show called Dark. This show has left me wrestling with questions of free will vs. fate. It is basically all I have thought about in the two weeks since I finished the show.

Now before I go on, I should say that there will probably be some mild spoilers in this. So if you are worried about that, go watch Dark and then come and read this. With that out of the way, the main premise of this show involves time travel and time loops. We are introduced to the show’s main character, Jonas, as a teenager. We follow his adventures and it is not long before Jonas runs into a man simply called the Stranger. Eventually, we learn that the Stranger is Jonas from 33 years in the future. They have an emotional scene where teenage Jonas is locked up in a bunker and the Stranger (middle aged Jonas) comes and talks with him. The Stranger refuses to let Jonas out, reflecting that if he lets Jonas out that he will not be able to follow the same path to eventually become the person standing outside the bunker. The first 2 seasons of Dark hint at this idea of free will vs. fate. Is the Stranger freely choosing to leave Jonas in the bunker, or is there an underlying fate that is controlling his actions? As the show goes on, we are introduced to the antagonist of the show – an old man named Adam who is horribly scarred. Now, as you might have guessed, Adam is Jonas from 66 years in the future.

Now, here is where things get really interesting on the free will vs. fate front. For a large stretch of the show we see Jonas teaming up with the Stranger to try and stop Adam. They both see Adam as evil, a twisted old man who is trying to destroy everything. But remember, this show as all about time loops. So throughout the third season, we watch as each of these characters turn into their older selves. We watch Jonas slowly turn into the Stranger we first met in season one and we watch the Stranger slowly turn into Adam. The transformation from the Stranger into Adam is especially interesting because we watch as one of our hero slowly shifts his thinking to become the very thing he fought for so long to defeat.  Here we realize that this cycle from Jonas, to the Stranger, to Adam has happened over and over again in a seemingly endless loop.

So this transformation brings the question of free will verse fate right to the forefront of this show. Does the Stranger have any real say or genuine freewill in his life? Or is he simply fated (or predetermined) to always become the evil Adam? (I am over simplifying plot elements here, but you get the main idea). This question of free will vs fate or predestination is one that Christians have been debating almost since the beginning of the faith. Different denominations set up camps closer to the free will side or closer to the predestination side. I feel like most people end up lost somewhere in the middle—seeing both powerful positives and harmful negatives in both arguments.

I really wish I could lay out an answer for this. But to me personally, the most frustrating part of a debate like this, is that there is no way of 100% answering it here on earth.  I don’t think we can have an answer on a question like this short of standing with God at the end of all things. But that does not stop us from wrestling with it. Maybe that is why I like sci-fi so much, because it so often gives us handholds to propel us into these hard topics. I mean my favorite movie of all time, Terminator 2, is another one that sits squarely on the free will vs. fate fence. Is John destined to lead the humans in a future uprising over the machines? Or is it as John himself says, ‘there is no fate but what we make for ourselves”?

I feel like this post has not really said anything, it has simply just been me musing. But I want to hear from other people. Where do you all land in the free will vs. fate spectrum? Does it even matter (which is a whole other debate that we could be having)? Am I ridiculous for losing almost two weeks of my life obsessively thinking about this (I am going to go with Yes)? I would love to hear what you think. Now, I need to go watch something else to clear my head. Talk to you all later!


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Why am I so Bad at Resting?

One thing I have had the privilege of doing during this ‘stay-at-home’ time has been to talk with a wide array of people. A good chunk of my time has been spent simply listening to people tell their stories. In some form or another, everyone has talked about what they are doing to fill time. Now granted, not everyone is seeing their free time go up, some people I talk to mention that they actually have more responsibilities now than, say, back in February. But however much free time people may or may not have right now, everyone seems to enjoy talking about what they are doing to fill that free time.
 
This got me thinking, why do we, as humans, have the constant desire to fill up every moment of the day? I am in no way excluding myself from this. I absolutely cannot stand having extended periods of free time with nothing planed or no tasks to accomplish. If I have free time, I create artificial tasks for myself to do. Things like story writing, podcasting, or even translations. Now, some of these could be classified as fun. But for the most part, they are work. Why would I (and other people) voluntarily do work when they don’t have to?? Even things that on the surface should be fun, like video games, we can turn into a chore. Last year I did a play through of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and on more than a few occasions Kristine, my wife, would ask why I was playing if it was making me so angry. I would grunt through gritted teeth that I was having fun and it was relaxing, while at the same time wanting to toss my controller across the room because the stupid gyroscope puzzle shrine is impossible, WHY WOULD YOU MAKE SUCH A THING NINTENDO!!!! Deep breath *in* and *out* OK I’m better now. We can even turn watching TV or reading into work. ‘OK if I start now, I can finish this entire season today’ or ‘if I read 7 chapters a day, I can get through the whole series in 2 weeks.’
 
Most of us recognize just how important times of rest or nothingness can be. One of Jesus’ most clear and to the point promises is “Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Going further back, one of God’s earliest instructions to the people of Israel was to take regular Sabbaths. Yet when we are presented with times of rest and Sabbath, we do not take advantage of them. We insist on creating tasks to finish and items to cross off a list.  Maybe it has to do with how infrequent times of relaxation are? We feel like we must fit a week’s worth of relaxing activities into one day, which then makes for one over-packed-not-restful-at-all day. Maybe we all have a nagging voice in our heads that makes us feel bad when we are not doing something? I’m sure there is a deep theological discussion here about how this is somehow a reflection of being ‘made in the image of God.’
 
I wish I had an answer to the question, ‘why are we so bad at rest?’ Honestly, if it did, I would have a best-selling book on my hands, and I would be swimming, Scrooge McDuck style, through all the money. But I don’t have an answer. All I can say is that it is a strange and frustrating conundrum. We know we need rest, yet we seemingly actively work to avoid it. Maybe the best thing we can do is toss it to God. Ask God to help us be better at rest. It might be a cliché answer, but in this case, it might be the thing to do. Otherwise we could easily stress ourselves out over not resting properly, thus continuing the ever-vicious cycle.
 

I want to hear from you. How do you rest? Do you find yourself filling your rest time with ‘jobs’ that prevent you from genuinely resting? What ideas do you have to move forward and engage in actual and true rest? 


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Reflections on Fear, Hatred, and Division in Our Time

I have been struggling with what to say and how to respond to this week’s release of the Ahmaud Arbery video. The video is truly gut wrenching. This incident has stoked the flames of an ever-smoldering fire. A fire that has been burning since before our country ever was. I am writing this mere miles away from a civil war skirmish location. A war that, according to the history books, created a country where everyone was equal, where everyone had the same chance of life as anyone else.
 
What makes me qualified to speak on the topic of racism, hatred, and injustice in America? I am a white-male, living a comfortable and safe life, seemingly far removed from the notions of racism and intolerance. What give me the right to rant about this? In many ways, nothing. I have never been openly discriminated against in any meaningful way. Nor have I have never openly been treated different because of my skin, race, or gender. I go running through my neighborhood several times a week, never once has it ever crossed my mind that it might be a death sentence. My biggest worry when I run, is a driver taking their eyes of off the road to answer a text message. Never have I thought of this as a privilege. Until now. Now, groups of people are scared to go out into their own neighborhoods, fearing becoming targets of hatred.
 
As sad as it is, Ahmaud’s case is not unique or even that uncommon. For instance, since the start of our present Corona pandemic, the number of hate crimes against Asian Americans has risen sharply. The perpetrators of these acts are afraid of what is going on and are looking for a scapegoat. I think you could argue that fear is the underlying cause of a majority of hatred. When events like this come into our public ethos, we rally and cry for justice…for a while. Then we move on to the next thing. Whether we realize it or not, that is a privilege. We have the option to move on to the next thing.  We have the option to not think about it. This is not an option for many in our country. For many, this is an everyday reality that constantly beats on their door.
 
Wherever you stand on the political spectrum or on this topic as a whole or even on this particular incident, the fact is that everything is not OK. We have groups of people fearing each other. This fear is festering and boiling over into rage. So what do we do? How do we address this root fear? These are divides that have been ebbing and flowing for decades even centuries, so I think it would be foolhearted to think that we can completely fix them in a month, a year, or a decade. But that should not prevent us from taking a step forward.
 
So back to my earlier question: what makes me qualified to speak on this topic? I believe the answer is simply mere willingness—willingness to admit my privilege, willingness to take a step, willingness to learn, willingness to try and move forward. So today (May 8) the day that should have been Ahmaud Arbery’s 26th birthday, take a small step forward. Reach out and listen to someone with a different story than you. It does not matter your location, race, gender, faith, or economic situation, take this as an opportunity to be willing to listen to someone else’s story. If the root of this situation we find ourselves in today, is fear. Let’s take one step to address that fear. Most often we fear what we do not know or understand. Celebrate Ahmaud and the 100s of other Ahmaud’s today, by doing something tangible to move us forward. Simply be willing to reach out and listen, learn, and understand those that are different than yourself.
 
 

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A Light in the Darkness

The current social distancing and isolation as a result of the current pandemic has certainly has a drastic impact on people’s every day lives. From minor annoyances, like March Madness not happening, to real life altering problems, like job loss or sickness. However, something else has drastically changed (or was renewed); and that is the amazing power of a rallying community seeking to do good. Now, I am in no way seeking to minimize or ignore the real and genuine hardships that are going on right now. That is the last thing I want to do. There are many articles, reports, blogs, and social media reflecting on the earnestness of this situation. These issues should not be hidden, and those articles should be written. We need to continue to see how this is negativity impacting those around us. But that is not what I am thinking about right now. Today, my heart is warmed and my soul is refreshed by all the amazing acts of generosity, selflessness, and honest heroism I am seeing happening every day.
 
The first people that need to be highlighted are medical personal. I am amazed by the near universal call to arms that has been upheld by our medical professionals. Hearing the personal stories of friends and colleagues who are at the forefront of this outbreak has been touching and powerful. People have told me they have not seen their significant others in days (one person weeks) because they felt an obligation to stay and help as much as possible. Another person sent me a picture of the back of her ears. They are bruised, scabbed, and raw from the constant, persistent rub from the nylon face-mask attachments. Everyone I talked to is beyond tired and desperately wanting this to all be over. But every single one of them seemed determined to not give up and to dig as deep as needed to win the day.
 
Individual people are stepping up to help in any way I can. There is an app called ‘Nextdoor’ that acts as a kind of digital bulletin board for local communities and neighborhoods. I have been blown away by the number of people posting asking if anyone needs help. People are offering to go grocery shopping for high risk people who should not leave the house. Some are offering free services, like digital tutoring for kids transitioning to distance learning (while we are on the subject of school, teachers have on the whole been amazing coming up with a whole new way of teaching and in some cases an entire new syllabus basically on the fly). Still others are voluntarily offering to give away perhaps the most valuable of commodities right now—toilet paper.
 
Businesses are doing what they can to help in this time of crisis. Grocery stores allocated specific hours for elderly and immunodeficient people. Breweries switching space, money, and person power to making hand sanitizer instead of beer. Even cable companies (normally the bane of most people’s existence) are trying to help by offering free movie channels during this time of isolation. These are just a few examples of people that are stepping outside of their normal pattern and extending themselves for the betterment of those around them.
 
So, while there is no denying or minimizing all the negative impacts the Coronavirus is having, it has also brought us together as humans. It has, for a brief moment, put our everyday problems, disagreements, and barriers into perspective. It has highlighted the best parts of humanity—the willingness to join hand-in-hand (metaphorically of course—6 feet apart!)  and declare that we will protect those who can’t protect themselves and we will care for anyone who need it. I can’t tell you how much all of this has lifted by often overly pessimistic and skeptical heart.
 

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