Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Luther or Patrick?

Here's a fun little quiz for St. Patrick's Day, which falls almost one month, to-the-day, after the church remembers Martin Luther (February 18).

The two men are separated in time by a millennium, and they likely never crossed paths geographically. Can you tell which of the following facts and quotes applies to St. Patrick and which to Martin Luther?

A. Two personal letters are all that survives from his own writing.


B. Over the course of his life, he became closely aligned
with a few local rulers and princes.


C. He was notorious for refusing to accept gifts from
kings and nobility.


D. He was kidnapped and held as a slave.


E. He was kidnapped and held in a fortress for safety.


F. One legend about him involves a walking stick
turning into a live tree.


G. One legend about him involves an ink well thrown at the devil.


F. He often referred to the Franks as ‘pagans.’


H. He often referred to the Pope as ‘the antichrist.’


I. The cross typically associated with him
is known as a cross pattèe.


J. He used a white flower to teach a lesson
about God’s joy and peace.


K. “It would take too long to discuss or argue every single case, or to sift through the whole of the Law for precise witness against such greed. Sufficient to say, greed is a deadly deed. You shall not covet your neighbor's goods. You shall not murder.”


L. “By God's grace, I know Satan very well. If Satan can turn God's Word upside down and pervert the Scriptures, what will he do with my words – or the words of others?”


M. “Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world.”


N. “If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me.”


O. “O Comforter of priceless worth,
send peace and unity on earth.”


P. “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit,
Christ where I arise”

By almost any normal reckoning, the two men--Patrick and Luther--had very little in common. They lived at completely different times in world (and Christian) history and were therefore affected by very different geopolitical events. They lived in very different places, spoke different languages, chose different lifestyles. Luther was an Old Testament scholar and had spent some time in a monastery and law school. Patrick was a lowly shepherd and then a slave who spend most of his adult years on the frontier. If it were possible to put Luther and Patrick together in the same room for a while, they probably would have had a difficult time understanding one another, (although they would have probably enjoyed a beer together).

Yet...their words and actions were remarkably similar! The same themes of God's grace and Christ's constant presence arise from both men's witness. Both of them speak to us through the ages with resounding clarity, offering up the gospel as the way of life that leads to salvation. What a powerful statement of the unifying power of the Holy Spirit! What a comforting example of how God leads his people with a steady vision of love in the midst of the church's great diversity--and in the face of the world's great adversity!

So, today, raise a pint in memory of all the saints who have gone before us, be it an Irish stout or a German lager, and in thanksgiving to the Lord they served, who is "the same today, yesterday, and forever" (Hebrews 13:8)!


Friday, January 30, 2015

The Lord's Prayer lesson

As a pastor who has been involved with a lot of youth ministry over the years, I have logged many hours in the church and on retreats with other peoples’ youth. And as a person who has worked primarily with the upper end of the youth age spectrum, I have not had as many opportunities to work with elementary and pre-school-age children. That is why the last three Sundays were a bit special—and slightly awkward—for me. I found myself spending time in a series of Sunday School lessons on the Lord’s Prayer with my own two daughters, ages 6 and 8.

The lessons had an inter-generational aspect to them, which is something I am familiar with. However, it seemed a bit strange to participate from the perspective of one of those undersized chairs, seated between my daughters on the receiving end of the lesson, rather than from the front of the class as the leader. In short, I loved it. I hope I get to do more of them.

In one class the children were asked to draw pictures (or one picture) to illustrate the petitions (or a petition) of the Lord’s Prayer. After that, they were challenged to re-write the Lord’s Prayer in their own words. Although their end results were impressive, my first thought was that the second task—the re-writing—would be a little too difficult for them.

But there was a well-thought-out point to it that I hadn’t picked up on, even though I was participating in it: when the kids struggled to take the original words and re-phrase them (and they did), the parents were right there to help them say it another way. As a result, we adults had to think a little more critically about what we mean when we say the Lord’s Prayer. 

What I took from this lesson was that one of my daughters focused far more on the drawing-and-coloring segment while the other one really concentrated on the verbal part. At the end, they both presented their final products to the class with absolutely no nudging on my part. Throughout the process, neither of them let themselves be influenced by my pastor-y answers to things. They were hard at work, and it was clear my theology wasn't that important at the moment. I was simply supposed to be their helper. And as far as the 6-year-old was concerned, even that was too much. I was to be an observer.

Another class involved making “prayer pretzels.” The kids rolled out the dough and crossed the two ends so they looked like arms folded in prayer. Anytime you let kids work with edible crafts you’re bound to have a good time. Again, it was a bit of a challenge to get the dough to do what we wanted it to. But the work of it reminded me of the work of prayer. It should take some effort and even repetition, and, like dough, it can be twisted and molded to suit the occasion.

While the pretzels cooked, we listened as someone read a book of the Lord’s Prayer that took each of the petitions and laid them out in a series of illustrations that told a story about a little girl and her father as they help an elderly neighbor in their community. The plot is simple, but it still takes some serious thinking to tease out how the words relate to the pictures. It was one of those children’s books I’ve seen dozens of times in many church libraries, but this time it took on more meaning. There they were, my two daughters teaching their learning partner to sit down in that small chair and, at least for the moment, be a father and not a pastor.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Ten Commandments for Teaching Children

Let me say this up front: the main content in this post is not original. I wish I could claim it as my own material because it's brilliant and helpful, but I can't. Not at all. It is something that someone else thought up, and I merely received somewhere along the line of my career...either in a seminary class or in a continuing education seminar somewhere. Its origin is a mystery to me, but it has been a source of wisdom and learning for me through the years, especially when it comes to giving children's sermons and leading pre-school chapel.

For about five years, I had it taped to the outside of my office door at church, but earlier this year I moved offices and it got misplaced in the shuffle. I looked for it frantically, coming up empty-handed each time. Finally I broke down and tried to Google it to see if it existed on-line somewhere. Unbelievably, nothing turned up. Eventually I contacted two former professors to ask them if they recognized the title or remembered distributing it in one of their classes. Again, nothing. I was crestfallen. I couldn't think of how I'd ever be able to re-create this list on my own.

Then, suddenly, it turned up today. I was in the process of looking for another important document and, voila! there it was lying on my desk, about one-foot from the back of my computer. It was upside down, but it had been in my line of sight the entire time. Thank you, Jesus! (By the way, I found the other paper, too).

So, I'm re-posting it here because I don't want it to go missing again. If I make a digital copy of it, I can access it wherever I am and whenever. Also, others may find it as helpful as I have. And...now it's on-line somewhere! In the meantime, perhaps I need to come up with a list of my own: Ten Commandments for Keeping Track of Important Papers.

Here are the Ten Commandments for Teaching Children (source unknown)

1.  Give every child a chance to be a part of the lesson with special emphasis on the use of the senses.

2.  Make everything as non-threatening as possible.

3.  Be patient with children.

4.  Allow the children to control the time you spend on the lesson.

5.  Always use open-ended questions.

6.  Give children ample time to answer questions.

7.  Don't expect "standard" reactions and "standard" answers from children.

8.  Always accept divergent answers.

9.  Be sure to encourage observation.

10.  Always look for ways to extend the lessons and activities.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sonnet: Matthew 22:15-22

It's been a while since I've been able to sit down and work on one of these. But the ordination of a friend and member of my internship committee this coming Sunday presents a good excuse. I'm glad to hear that Nathan will be one of my ecumenical clergy colleagues now (he's Mennonite), even though I've considered him in many way a mentor and "pastor" since I've known him. His counsel and encouragement was critical for me during my internship year in Cairo, Egypt. He will be a blessing to whichever congregation he serves. I'm glad he's being called into this ministry.

Another trap, another clever test--
The priests would like to see this Rabbi snared
By his own words and, in a moment, pressed
To have his true allegiance thus declared.
A coin that bears the mark of Caesar's face--
This relic of an empire's legal tender--
Provokes the thought in ev'ry time and place:
To whom will God's redeemed their tribute render?
But Caesar's not the only lord who's spoken
Or stamped an image on the human story.
The empire may deserve that copper token,
But our own lives are minted from God's glory!
           And by this Rabbi's grace we heed the call:
           A gladsome tax--reflecting Christ in all.

Phillip Martin © 2014

Thursday, June 05, 2014

"Do What You Love"? I don't think so.

Last night we had our youth group’s annual Party for the graduating seniors. It has become a tradition to hold a dinner party for each year’s graduating class and present them with a gift and a letter. I’ve started to think of this informal gathering as a baccalaureate of sorts, a chance for the church to offer some intentional reflection on the next step in their lives. I usually read a verse of Scripture and offer a few words of my own. Here’s what I tried to say:


“Do What You Love.” It has become a common mantra these days, especially when it comes to motivating and inspiring people who are graduating or contemplating a new career. The sentiment has been around for a while, but Steve Jobs made it popular during a famous commencement address he gave at Stanford in 2005. As far as mottos go, it’s pretty compelling. I can’t disagree with that. After all, who can argue with love? If love is at the core of whatever it is one is doing, what could be wrong about it, right? If you’re trying to discern your future, who could think of a better guide than your love?


Actually, I don’t think “Do What You Love” is a very helpful mantra, and I think there is a better guide for discerning your future. As you prepare to graduate, I’m not going to advise you to “Do What You Love.” That doesn’t mean I don’t think you should do what you're good at…or that I don’t pray for your happiness…or that I think you shouldn’t seek to love. What it does mean is that, for all its attractiveness, primarily seeking to “Do What You Love” is not going to be a helpful motto for you in the long run.


First of all, let’s be honest: you’re going to have to do a lot of things that you DON’T particularly love, and some of you may even end up in careers or jobs that you don’t find particularly invigorating. You’re going to have to do them anyway, and you may need to end up learning to love (or at least appreciate) the things you find yourselves doing because they provide for your family, or because they’ll open doors for you further down the road. In fact, doing some of the things that we’re not too crazy about often end up making us better, more well-adjusted people.


However, the main reason I don’t find “Do What You Love” to be a helpful motto is because it turns out to be a very self-centered, narcissistic viewpoint. It puts all the focus on you. “Do What You Love” really listens only to itself. I’m concerned that, more often than not, it will teach you to care really only for yourself and your own needs. “Do What You Love” essentially puts you at the middle of everything.


And you’re not at the middle of everything. God is at the middle of everything.


To see what I’m trying to say, look no further than Jesus’ example. I’m sure he would have loved to go anywhere other than Jerusalem where he knew he would undergo great suffering. I’m sure he would have loved to slip away from that destiny under cover of night and go live a life of private fulfillment elsewhere. Yet he sought to listen to God’s call instead. I’m not sure we can say that Jesus thoroughly loved the cross experience, but there was love in it. Love for the world. Love for you and me.


Therefore, I would like to modify this short, popular “Do What You Love” motto in a way that I think actually will empower you to use your gifts and lead you to a fulfilling life: “Listen to how God calls.” As you move from here, listen to how God calls you to pay attention to the needs of others. Listen to how God calls you to use your gifts for the sake of the world. Listen to how God calls you to sacrifice every once in a while—your time, your energy, your treasure—and not just so that you can get ahead somewhere down the road. God calls us to sacrifice so that our lives become a real part of how God is making the world better in Jesus Christ. That’s where the love is. And I believe that you and I both can respond to that love and be a part of how that love continues to work in the world. Listening to how God calls each of us to this type of love is key. That goes not only for the grand sweeping arc of your lives—your career, your decisions regarding family—but also for each little moment on the way.


Don’t forget that listening to this call will involve the help of other people who are also striving to do the same. If you don’t know how God is calling you to serve others and use your gifts, then the community of Jesus’ followers can help with that. If you don’t even really know what your true gifts are yet, that’s OK. What better place to figure them out than hanging around those who believe you have them and can point them out to you? So, as you leave high school and youth group, don’t forget to make yourself present on a regular basis among the people who acknowledge that there is a God who has suffered in love for us and calls us to respond. In a life that in fact involves doing plenty of things that you don’t love you will find yourselves in plenty of situations where you’ll need the support of Christ’s people.


So, remember that God is really at the middle of everything, and that following only the desires of your own love can start to push you there instead. Listen to how God calls. I wish I could tell you that it will be easier than just doing what you love, but I can't. It will probably, many times, be more frustrating. But, in the end, it will be more fulfilling. You might not always get to do what you love each and every day, but if you listen to God’s call something even better will happen: God will be doing what God loves…through you.




Monday, May 19, 2014

Sticks and stones

We have come to that time of the year when people share and post speeches and quotes and memorable quips that they’ve heard and read. Whether it’s the sage advice dispensed in commencement addresses, the admonition pronounced in baccalaureate sermons, the tokens of wisdom inscribed in yearbook covers, or the speeches given by valedictorians that are imbued with equal amounts of nostalgia and hope, it seems that the end of the academic year offers plenty of opportunities for people to offer or listen to words...words that have the power to inspire and form imagination and shape lives. I even ran across a website today that claims to have sorted through hundreds of commencement addresses given at universities and colleges over the past century or so and sifted from them the pithiest one-liner nuggets. It is interesting to me that in this age of the digital, CGI-enhanced screen we still choose to punctuate major life events with someone standing up at a podium and talking.
Words are my stock and trade. By virtue of what I do for a living, I find myself delivering sermons, writing personal notes, and teaching classes on a very regular basis. I do a lot of talking and writing. Despite all the effort and time I throw into those things, however, sometimes the most important (or most damaging) words I ever offer are the terse expressions of sympathy in the midst of a crisis or the off-hand remark I make in passing after worship. Whatever the scenario, in the back of my mind rings the wisdom of a theology professor who taught us to pay very close attention to the particular words we use, especially in the study of theology, because ultimately that practice is a reflection of how we pay attention to the Word of God that is to form our lives.
All this, and yet I often get cynical about how much famous quotes and memorable lines really matter. Words, after all, aren’t everything. Actions matter greatly. Fancy rhetoric can only mask inauthenticity for so long. And people who quote things all the time get annoying. Besides, I'm keenly aware that a great many words—including a heaping helping of my own—are just meaningless bluster meant more for the pride of the speaker and his or her need to be remembered than they are for the edification of the listener. Furthermore, placing so much weight on eloquent turns of phrase can diminish the contributions of those who may not be as articulate or those who are never really given a chance to speak.
Nevertheless, all this talk about speeches and the imparting of wisdom has caused me to reflect on the fact that certain phrases and quotes have been very influential in my own life. I can’t deny it. There have been a few choice passages that I’ve come across, often at critical points in my life, that have had a profound influence on my well-being, my identity, and my ability to move ahead. I have been reflecting on these quotes and passages lately and thought I’d offer them here. This is not meant (I hope) to imply any narcissism or self-divulging on my part, as if my navel-gazing has produced wisdom of which others should be in awe, but rather just a way of taking honest stock of certain words that I’ve heard or read that have, like it or not, stuck with me for a long time.
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” (accredited to Eleanor Roosevelt) This alone got me through large portions of high school.
“Live in the moment.” (Ward Williams, a guy in my high school orchestra and drama club who graduated two years ahead of me) He actually directed this quote to me, and it helped me realize that I was spending too much time resume-building in those days.
“Deal with it!” (Mr. Huie, Middle School teacher and drama director) Mr. Huie would shout this to us while we were in the middle of a class presentation or play practice whenever we would start to focus on something that was going wrong or were beginning to complain—rather than making do and getting on with things.
“I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. And so it is with you…we are in charge of our attitudes.” (Charles Swindoll) This, along with a larger portion of the whole passage, was printed inside of the manual for the first job I ever had. I didn’t realize it until now, but it’s basically a longer riff on Mr. Huie’s wisdom above.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away. Behold, everything has become new.” (the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:17) This was the verse I chose for my confirmation. I can’t even remember where I found it. Maybe off a page of ‘inspiring Bible verses’? I doubt I was tuned in enough in 9th grade to have heard it in a sermon or read it on my own. Regardless of where I got it, I’m glad I did. The grace of Christ always makes things new. Over and over. Second chances abound. It’s amazing.

(no mediocrity)
(Emmett Wicker) More of a visual than a quote, this was handwritten on a large piece of posterboard. The speaker used it as his object lesson for our last pep talk before the first batch of campers arrived on my first summer on camp staff. He didn't tell us what the M stood for until he had been talking for a while. It was very effective rhetorical device. It was a great motivator and it has inspired me  at least to aspire to perfectionism in all of the jobs I’ve had (not that I’ve succeeded).
“What you are should speak so loudly that people cannot hear what you say.” (Dr. Martha Roy, in a paraphrase of Ralph Waldo Emerson) Perhaps this is ironic. It’s a quote that downplays quotes themselves. Character is more complex than just what comes out of your mouth. Dr. Roy, the 87-year-old matriarch and organist of my internship congregation in Cairo, embodied this quote, and yet—again, ironically—she may have been the most eloquent person I’ve ever met.
“Thank you, dear Lord, for this good life and forgive us if we do not love it enough.” (Garrison Keillor). This is the final line of one of his stories from fabled Lake Wobegon, State Fair. I listened to Keillor quite a lot growing up, but this one I heard when our English teacher read it to us in class one day. It is not very profound, but for some reason it is my favorite piece of writing of all time.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Quick Questions for a Dogwood on My Way to Work

Who is here to admire you but humans?
Do the birds? The squirrel that just darted in front of my car?

Who made you, and whatever for?

But more to the point:
who made admiration?