Oct 9, 2018

Church, Vets, or Pets?

Between my wife and I we juggle three jobs, two major educational programs and three kids each with a different sport. Our schedule is crowded and we embrace it. However sometimes it is hard to set priorities. I am inviting you into a glimpse of my Saturday schedule for this coming weekend.

For about six months I had planned to attend the Fall Meeting of the Houston Association of the United Church of Christ. Our denominational family has 16 congregations in the Houston area. We meet twice a year. 5 lay members plus the clergy of all our churches are invited to come and live our covenant commitment with one another. This meeting is being hosted by St. John UCC, located at 4606 Mangum Road, Houston, TX 77092. Lunch will include spaghetti, salad, kimchi, garlic bread, and dessert and will cost $5 per person. Please RSVP to ucchoustonassociation@gmail.com Registration begins at 8:30 AM and a short worship begins at 9:00 AM. Following worship we’ll have a business meeting that will include approval of the minutes from the Spring Meeting, a 2018 Financial Report, the 2019 Budget, and a presentation about the grant given to the association by Bethel UCC. St. John will present a program entitled “Local Church Leadership Points.” It will deal with a variety of leadership needs within the local church and include questions and discussion from those present. The association meeting will conclude with lunch. This is an inspirational time and for me also a professional obligation. High priority on the scheduling scale.

As a military chaplain I make it a point to stay involved with veterans organizations in the community. Our local VFW Post 3903 also has a good portion of our church membership in its ranks. They are my second option for this coming Saturday: VFW Post 3903 will be having a breakfast for Veterans 7-10am at 1903 1st St., Rosenberg, Texas 77471. All veterans in the greater Fort Bend county area are welcome to join them for a time of food and fellowship. With free food and good company, this one is hard to pass by. Also there will be booths from other vet organizations educating about benefits. This one is sure to be yummy and important.

Finally there is Bark in the Park. A church member is heavily involved with the local arts community and she is in charge of the dog festival in downtown Rosenberg. Besides the dogs in the park, this event will feature a street fair with lots of live music, food trucks, vendor booths, art cars, art receptions, puppet shows, jugglers, and special appearances by both an autumn faerie and an autumn queen. I find it crucial to get involved with our thriving downtown community. It’s such a fun place to be.

To be honest, I haven’t decided where I’ll be yet. Discernment is an important spiritual exercise as Paul reminds the Corinthians, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, so that they may be saved.” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33) It almost sounds like Paul would be pressuring me into the following madness: Be at the VFW at 7 am to eat breakfast. Rush into Houston to make it on time for the Association meeting. After lunch head to downtown Rosenberg and relax with the puppies. If I wanted to please everybody I could try to pull that of. But honestly, I would not be fully present anywhere because my mind would always be in the car already, driving to the next thing. So I’ll stick with Paul’s first phrase there, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God.” I will probably do one thing and do it right – to the glory of God. I still haven’t decided which one. But where are your priorities: Church, Vets, or Pets? I look forward to seeing you on Saturday wherever that may be!

Oct 2, 2018

Be a Responsible Citizen

The deadline for voter registration in Texas is fast approaching on October 9th. Please check with the secretary of state that you are properly registered. Why would a pastor have to remind me of that? Church is not supposed to be political! Well, I am following the example of the Apostle Paul reminding the Romans to be responsible citizens:

“Be a good citizen. All governments are under God. Insofar as there is peace and order, it’s God’s order. So live responsibly as a citizen. If you’re irresponsible to the state, then you’re irresponsible with God, and God will hold you responsible. Duly constituted authorities are only a threat if you’re trying to get by with something. Decent citizens should have nothing to fear. Do you want to be on good terms with the government? Be a responsible citizen and you’ll get on just fine, the government working to your advantage. But if you’re breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren’t there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That’s why you must live responsibly—not just to avoid punishment but also because it’s the right way to live. That’s also why you pay taxes—so that an orderly way of life can be maintained. Fulfill your obligations as a citizen. Pay your taxes, pay your bills, respect your leaders.” (Romans 13, The Message)

The greatest danger to our system of government is when citizens do not do their part and the most formidable thing you can do to fulfill this commandment is to vote. You know the consequences of what happens when you don’t:

There is a biblical example of that as well. If you don’t follow Romans 13 and check your voter registration you may end up with worse than Taco Bell – the beast of Revelation 13:
“The Beast had a loud mouth, boastful and blasphemous. It could do anything it wanted for forty-two months. It yelled blasphemies against God, blasphemed his Name, blasphemed his Church, especially those already dwelling with God in Heaven. It was permitted to make war on God’s holy people and conquer them. It held absolute sway over all tribes and peoples, tongues and races. Everyone on earth whose name was not written from the world’s foundation in the slaughtered Lamb’s Book of Life will worship the Beast.”

Sep 2, 2018

Always review your Amazon Subscribe & Save Subscriptions

We mostly drink home-made lattes. So finding a good deal on espresso is important in our house. Amazon absolutely outdoes local retail. So for quite some time I had a coffee subscription with them.

Today I got an email with a price alert:
The new price for four bricks of Lavazza was supposed to be $20.89 (after 5% discount). The price has increased from $17.20 since my last delivery. Now with inflation I found a price increase acceptable but still wanted to double-check if I got the best deal available. So I looked the item up and a one-time purchase was $19.29 and a subscription $19.66.

I sent this dilemma to Amazon Customer Service with two questions:
Why is my subscription more expensive than a new subscription?
Why is the subscription more expensive than a one-time purchase?

I received a prompt reply but it is even more disturbing: “In this case, you can cancel this subscription and resubscribe at lower rate.”
I did and now I got it at $18.31. All of a sudden the subscription was cheaper than the one-time purchase. So a little negotiating saved me roughly 10%. No big deal, you may say whether I pay $18 or $20 for my coffee. But please keep in mind: Amazon has 310 million active customers. If every subscriber is overcharged 10% it becomes a big deal really quick. Lesson learned: Always review your Amazon Subscribe & Save Subscriptions.

Aug 23, 2018

The Mindset List: Class of 2022

At the beginning of every school I go looking for the new edition of the Mindset List. The list was initiated in the early days of the internet and has been a popular component of back-to-school talks, faculty orientations and sermons for two decades.

This year the following items caught my special attention:

“Among their classmates could be Madonna’s son Rocco, Will Smith’s daughter Willow, or David Bowie and Iman’s daughter Alexandria.”
– That makes me feel really old! I mean seriously, the Fresh Prince is old enough to have a college-aged daughter. Ouch!

1. They are the first class born in the new millennium, escaping the dreaded label of “Millennial,” though their new designation—iGen, GenZ, etc. — has not yet been agreed upon by them.
– Labels! Isn’t interesting how we find it comforting to put everybody in a tiny little well-defined box? How do you talk about yourself? How do you talk about others?

3. They have always been able to refer to Wikipedia.
– Truth! What is wisdom and where do you find knowledge? Yes, Wikipedia has done a great deal of making solid information available to the masses. But where do you find solid education and profound critical thinking these days?

9. Same-sex couples have always found marital bliss in the Netherlands.
– LBGT! Let that sink in. This generation has never known a world where marriage equality was not a reality. It is not new, it is not radical but a proven reality for 18 years.

14. They’ve grown up with stories about where their grandparents were on 11/22/63 and where their parents were on 9/11.
– Shared trauma! Every generation has its shared trauma. This one brings home what generation you belong to. Our common pain is what defines us.

18. The Tower of Pisa has always had a prop to keep it leaning.
– Resilience! The tower of Pisa has been leaning forever. But for this entire past generation it just could not hold its own weight anymore and needed to be propped up. Every person’s perennial wounds are like that. We may need pain management, crutches, anti-depressants, anything, to keep us going. And that’s okay.

34. Starbucks has always served venti Caffè Lattes in Beijing’s Forbidden City.
– Openness! I must admit, this one convicted me of closed-mindedness. I still have this image in my head of China being a protectionist totalitarian regime. The mental image of coffee in the Forbidden City opens my mind. This generation has only seen an opening culture in China for their entire lives. Let me learn from them how to see goodness.

42. Mass market books have always been available exclusively as Ebooks.
– Newness! I love my Kindle but for me it still feels like a recent thing. College freshmen grew up on Ebooks. It takes time to adjust to a new normal. The Mindset List is a powerful tool to bring awareness to what has been normal for an entire generation. Is surely changes my perception and I hope it changes yours.

Aug 18, 2018

Rules rule according to Ignatius

I’m oddly attracted to Ignatian discipline and Catholic tradition. Since my dad went to a Catholic boarding school you could say I am reliving my father’s cloister days. I thrive in highly structured environments. I like rules and Ignatius of Loyola is the Master of rules. He wrote his “Spiritual Exercises” in 1522-1524. That was a pivotal in his life. He had just converted to Christianity and had not received any formal education yet. At the time Ignatius had a raw, uneducated faith. His soul and spiritual was full of passion but still raw material. He was longing for clear guidance and reliable boundaries.

On the 161 pages of the Exercises the word “rules” appears a whooping 121 times. Along the way Ignatius provides prayer schedules, rigid examens and a best of the Bible. His program is designed for thirty days. It is supposed to be a full-time engagement. Most people are not able to take a whole month off to reexamine their lives. That’s why Ignatius was gracious enough to write a rule providing an exception to the rule for busy people. According to the Nineteenth Annotation, “A person of education or ability who is taken up with public affairs or suitable business, may take an hour and a half daily to exercise himself.”

You should give this traditional spiritual exercise a try. Examining yourself, praying, discerning, relating to the Gospel, those are all helpful things to gain some perspective.

Jul 18, 2018

In the Louvre and in the Image of God

We just came back from a two-week trip to Europe full of family celebrations with birthday parties and a wedding. Also we took a two-day trip to Paris. Please keep in mind that Paris is as far from my German hometown as Dallas is from Houston, it’s really not a big deal. I have been to Paris multiple times before but this trip was the first time for me to actually go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and inside the Louvre Museum.

The Louvre is huge. It houses 35,000 pieces of art on 652,000 sq ft. But most people just come for one painting: The Mona Lisa. The Louvre has giant wall paintings, hundreds of sq ft big, telling entire dramas of human history. The world’s greatest artists are represented. The halls are lined with billions and billions of dollars worth of the finest art. But for one reason or another, the biggest crowds are drawn to that one room where you have to elbow your way to the farthest wall just to catch a brief glimpse of this letter size painting of a young woman looking at you.

That’s all the Mona Lisa is: a young woman looking at you. But that’s also where her magic comes from. Depending on how you look at her, she will look back at you. Some say she looks friendly, some say she looks mad. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Humankind has known that since the beginning: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

You are a different piece of art, unlike the Mona Lisa. God is the artist who created you. Mona Lisa will just look back at you the way you look at her. What goes around comes around. The invitation from God is a different one: See yourself as the image of God. That way you cannot discard yourself. That way you cannot bow before any idols, because you are created in the image of God. You are wearing God’s face on your face. You are God’s beloved creation. Your image is worth more than the all the artwork of the Louvre combined. Pick up a mirror, look at yourself, and behold the image of God.

Jul 9, 2018

Spiritual Summer Reading

For the summer everybody has book recommendations for you. I am no different. Every few years I re-read a true classic. And you know when I am talking “classic” I really mean “ancient”. St. Augustine finished his “Confessions” around the year 400 CE. Augustine of Hippo is probably the most influential teacher of the Church. In this autobiographical work he describes his journey into Christianity. The conversion story part is a pretty easy read. The book is long, consisting of 13 books itself. And I don’t read it fast. Sometimes I may lay it down for a week and think about how Augustine’s life is similar to mine. I invite you to start reading now and take your time. Then at the end of the summer let’s get together and share how Augustine’s spiritual journey has impacted yours. The Spiritual Summer Reading wrap-up session will be on Sunday, August 26, at 9am at St. John’s UCC in Rosenberg, Texas.

You can get The Confessions of Saint Augustine for free at Project Gutenberg. But honestly that 19th century translation is not very approachable. Barnes & Noble has an edition in their Classics Series for under $10. And of course you can always find it on the e-reader of your choice.

As you read and travel this summer, don’t forget to take a look at your inner being: “And men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought.” (Augustine’s Confessions, Book 10).

Jul 3, 2018

When in the Course of Human Events

“When in the Course of Human Events” is that most popular opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence. Usually I have skipped over them coming to the good stuff about liberty and America. This year these few words caught my special attention.

The first word of the Declaration of Independence is “When”. It is not a theoretical, moral declaration but one that happens in a particular time and place. “When” is a temporal clause not a conditional one. It does not say “If in the Course of Human Events”. “When” means the present turmoils are something that is part of life. Major breakups, separating from your family of origin, leaving the old behind is something that regularly and normally occurs in the course of human events. Abuse happens, the reaction happens. Freedom needs to happen. Revolution needs to happen. That’s just how life is.

These words are part of the “Course of Human Events”. This declaration is not divinely inspired. It is a human document. People were hurt by people and react in human fashion: They express their pain, they state their case and they follow through. That’s what humans do. Action causes reaction. That’s just how life is.

This year the opening phrase of the Declaration of Independence reminds me that life goes on. This human, messed up life, just as it is.

Over the past few years I have reflected on this important document in other contexts:
2017 Brexit 1776? – Happy Independence Day!
2016 A decent respect to the opinions of mankind
2015 Obergefell v. Hodges
2014 Don’t Mess With Texas
2012 Declaration of Independence pushing for immigration

Jul 3, 2018

Let’s eat apple pie and celebrate liberty

I am called an American. My certificate of naturalization says so. It also lists my “country of former nationality” as Germany. Now what makes me an American? I eat apple pie, I speak English, I have a propensity for liberty. That’s good enough, right? Well, wait a minute. This whole hemisphere from Cape Horn to the Arctic is called America. Since I did not go to school in this country I had to look up why that is.

Please join me on that search and meet Amerigo Vespucci. He was an explorer who landed in the New World in 1502. Vespucci demonstrated that Columbus was wrong when he thought he found a shortcut to India. Vespucci showed that this is a truly new continent and that is how the latinized version of his first name became the name of my citizenship. Amerigo became America. Amerigo Vespucci was born in Italy, naturalized into Spanish citizenship and worked for the Portuguese government. That’s what America is all about: We wear our national identity lightly. The places we live and the identities we hold are subject to change. You are single one day and in a relationship the next. Then you may turn into a parent. All of sudden loved ones are gone. Nothing ever stays the same. Most Americans even hyphenate their self-classification: German-American, Czech-American, Anglo-American, Mexican-American and so on. America in its very name carries the notion of being from somewhere else. This land is not truly your land or truly my land.

The facts that I eat apple pie, speak English, and have a propensity for liberty – those are all things of this world. And as such they are only of secondary importance as 1 John 2:15-17 reminds us:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world—the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world. And the world and its desire are passing away, but those who do the will of God live for ever.”

So this Fourth of July, let’s eat apple pie and celebrate liberty. But let us also remember that these desires are passing away. Only God’s love remains.

Jun 29, 2018

Fleeing vs Staying according to the former Archbishop of Canterbury

Ever since I left my parents for college I have not lived in a house for more than two years – except for the current one – it holds the record of four years! I have been used to moving a lot. In some cases it was a “running to” in others it was a “running from”. This movement has solid ancient precedents. The desert fathers and mothers of the early church are well known for moving away from it all. But of course their movement is also one of running from and to at the same time. They left everyday life in order to find solitude. But they also receive visitors and students. Rowan Williams beautifully unearths the story of Abba Arsenius and Abba Moses. These ancient saints gave the book its title. One sat in complete silence with the Holy Spirit, while the other was in a large group sharing honey cakes. Solitude and community are both equally important. And even going to the desert as an hermit does not change that dynamic. Eventually the former Archbishop of Canterbury offers a compelling reframing of what it means to flee or to stay. Fleeing like the desert fathers and mothers left civilization is hardly running from. They intentionally avoided distraction from the inner work they had to do. They avoided other people’s projections. They were running to focus and intentionality. In the final chapter Williams makes the case for staying. Just because routine gets boring or just because you start feeling an itch to move after a few years does not mean you should follow it. Of course the grass is always greener on the other side. Ultimately Williams succeeds in separating the concepts of fleeing and staying from a localized understanding. You can distract yourself in your community and miss your actual purpose. You can move half around the world and still be stuck in old unhealthy patterns. As long as movement is not about avoiding what needs to be done but a movement into development work it is good. As long as staying is not just laziness but enhances focus it is good. You should read Silence and Honey Cakes. It is enlightening and charming with cute British phrases like “shan’t”.