I have been gamified

Screenshot_20180423-093933Gamification is a thing. Does it belong in church, in the life of Jesus’ disciples?

To the left is a screenshot of gamification in action. My favorite bible app, Youversion, offers this kind of encouragement to open the app daily.

I have to admit, this works on me.  You might notice that, according to the screenshot, my longest streak was, at the time, 51 days.

Youversion is not the only place I go to read the Bible.

Gamification isn’t subtle, but it isn’t judging, either. I have to tell you, as I see the “current” number climb, I am a bit more encouraged to remember to open the app.

Some may think this is improper motivation to read the Bible.  To them I say, guilty as charged.


I shouldn’t need the minor dopamine hit of seeing numbers climb and occasional stars flying across the screen to “reward” me for opening the app. I shouldn’t need any outer motivation at all to open the Bible and read it.

But sometimes I do. And sometimes it is just enough of a reminder that, having then opened the scriptures, my motivations about other things for the rest of the day are improved.

I think I might like the idea of gamification after all.


Thoughts and Prayers

ringing-icon-on-a-mobile-phone-showing-smartphone-call_fkJ4m7vd.jpgOver the years, I have gotten to the place where I don’t blog in a reactionary way as I once did. But the school shooting in Florida last week has gotten me thinking.

Ok, that’s not exactly right. The Parkland High school shooting has gotten me praying and thinking – trying to find something to do besides praying and thinking. yes, I have been praying and thinking about what do to beyond praying and thinking.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, I hear a cell phone notification tone during Young Disciples Time at our 8:30 am worship service. It wasn’t too loud; actually, not really loud enough to be distracting.

But loud enough to get me thinking.

You see, I was already determined to focus the pastoral prayer that morning on inviting God to challenge us, God’s people, followers of Jesus, to do something as a response to the incredible rise of school shootings.

We need to pray, this is beyond question. But it seems that at times like this – especially as there are SO MANY times like this! – to say we should pray can become a cop out.

“Well, I’ve prayed, I don’t know what else I can do!” we might be tempted to say.

And then the notification tone. Which, of course, made me check my phone. It wasn’t on silent!  I quickly, simply, silently, switched it to silent.

I did not pray and ask God to silence my phone.

That would have been missing the point entirely of God having created us in God’s own image and calling us into partnership for stewarding creation.

I can, of course, pray and ask God to help me remember to silence my phone. But it makes little sense to leave such a thing to making a request of God when there is something I can do.

So: I don’t know exactly what we are going to do as Americans about the tragedy of school shootings, but I know prayer can’t be all we do.

We must at least remember, as we pray, that prayer is communication between us and God.

We talk, God listens.

God talks, we listen.

Not always necessarily in this order.  ( we who recognize prevenient grace would likely have to admit that some of the times we pray we pray in response to the Holy Spirit’s urging.)

When we dare pray about school shootings, I feel pretty confident God is going to answer us.

Are we ready to hear what God has to say? I don’t know for sure. But I do know that if by “praying” I mean “tell God how bothered you are about ______ and leave it up to God to fix it,” I’ve not actually come to grips with what prayer is.

IncarnATE 2.0

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table
Christmas Eve Sermon, Dec. 24, 2017

A long long time ago in a pastoral appointment far, far away….

There was a bible. Actually, there were a lot of bibles. That church, not unlike this church and almost every other church, had invested in a bunch of bibles. I don’t know if “bunch” is the technically correct group term for Bibles. You know, like gaggle of geese, pride of lions, congress of crows or committee of vultures (You gotta love those last 2!).

Anyway, this church had quite a few bibles. A pantsload of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload. You get the idea.

One of these bibles, at least only 1 to my knowledge, had an error.

I’m not talking doctrine here. Get your mind out of the theological gutter.

I mean the cover was put on backwards. And, therefore, upside down.

Which, I don’t mind telling you, was more than a little frustrating, at least for me, when I’d open it to read it.

I know, plenty of us read the bible on your phones now, and your phone has this little thingamabob called an accelerometer. The accelerometer is what turns the screen the right way when you, maybe, pick your phone up upside down to read the bible.

This bible that I’m talking about didn’t have an accelerometer.

So, you know how sometimes youth find things funny that other people might not think are funny? And you know how sometimes youth have this built-in alert system that catches all us adults when we do something that we would ordinarily tell youth they shouldn’t do?

Well, here’s how that works. With a totally hypothetical story:

Just say, maybe, you were the pastor at a church that had bibles. Bunches of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload of bibles. And 1 of those bibles had an error.

YES, I still mean that the cover was applied backwards. And upside down. Come on!

And just say that, as the pastor, you were, one night, leading a youth bible study, and happened to pick up this particular bible and open it to read from it.

And it didn’t have an accelerometer in it, so you opened it upside down when you thought it was right side up.

And then imagine, because, again, this is all hypothetical, that before you stopped to think about it, you slammed the book shut and tossed it across the table.

And then imagine you said something. Something you might regret as the words were coming out of your mouth.

Something like, “I hate this book!”

Again, this is all hypothetical. Except that it actually happened. I was there. I saw it.

Yep; that pastor? That was me.

Didn’t see that coming, did you?

So those youth had caught me, their pastor, saying, about a bible, “I hate this book!”

I am SO thankful I had enough of a relationship with those kids that they laughed it off. They knew I didn’t actually mean that about the bible.

And for the rest of my years there, they never let me forget about it!

And you might wonder why I would tell you that story tonight, on Christmas Eve.

I told you that story because I think it can help us understand the scripture for tonight.

The Christmas story. You might say it is Luke’s Christmas story, which would be true, but perhaps misleadingly so – Luke is the only one with an actual Christmas story.

Matthew comes close, telling us about how the angel appeared Joseph (we don’t get Mary’s side of the story at all), then skipping to “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem….”

Luke gives us the details. But do we really want details? I mean, we don’t need the bible for details; we make up our own! Many of us include the wise men in the story, though they appear in Matthew, not in Luke, and came looking for the babe as much as two years after the birth.

But, really: who wants a 2 year long Christmas pageant?

So: we usually end up reading in one of two ways. The first is like this. https://youtu.be/suowe2czxcA

The second is like this: https://youtu.be/BqpJvey-7-s

I worry that we make Christmas either a sappy, sentimental thing for kids or a anachronistic stepping stone on the way to something else.
Honestly, I don’t think, and there is no indication, Mary felt very sappy. Giving birth is hard work – I’ve witnessed it!  And when Rachel was about to deliver Eliza, one of our favorite songs came up on the playlist we’d curated for the morning.

I lovingly and gently pointed it out. Rachel, in the process of delivering her first child and having had no pain killer, wasn’t feeling “loving” or “gentle.” In retrospect, I can’t blame her.

Pretty sure Mary wasn’t in the mood for hosting a “live nativity scene” either. Doubtful that was a silent night.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Christmas Pageants. But, folks,  This incarnation thing isn’t JUST that.

There’s one thing that probably did happen that first Christmas that I’ve seen at most live nativity scenes. At least the one with animals. Instead of just standing there like a petting zoo, the donkey, or one of the sheep,, will likely relieve itself just when you don’t want it to.

Hey, donkey, that wasn’t in the script!

Which brings me to another point. We tend to read the Christmas story like it was a stage production. As if Luke’s gospel had been written in heaven from the foundation of the world, and finally, here and now, Mary, check, Joseph, check, Bethlehem, check. Places, folks – and – action!

Luke is telling the story after it unfolded, not writing the script for how it was to unfold.

Which leads me to George Washington in the Dodge Challenger. That’s a different kind of in car nation.

We tend to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as though it only really happened so that he could die on the cross about 33 years later.

That’s getting the story out of order and reading something that happened later in history onto an event that happened before it.

Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world.  But that “slain from the foundation of the world,” a phrase we get from Rev 13:8, is more a reference to the character of God than to an event that happened.

In other words, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t a story about what happened to Jesus, but about who Jesus is.

Jesus, God incarnate – that is, in human flesh, is a God who suffers at the hands of the powers of the world.

Jesus, born an innocent, fragile baby, is another picture, at the other end of his earthly life, that tells us the same thing about God. That God comes to us, that God’s hope for saving the world, come powerless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of those created in God’s very image.

At this end of the story, vulnerable, powerless God receives care and love and attention. Born to a lowly woman – a woman who has powerful introspective and reflective thoughts. If you doubt it, check back into 1:46-55, or  you catch it here in verse 19: “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”

What God was doing in that first Christmas God has been doing since the creation of the world, and God continues to do today. Tonight. In the morning.

You remember, don’t you, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the ONE TREE God had told them not to eat? God comes walking in the garden (do you worship a God who takes walks in a garden?), and they hide because they are “naked and ashamed.” God calls out, “Adam, where are you?”

Like God didn’t know?

No: like God is a god who comes to us, a god who came to the world God had created, as humbly and vulnerable and powerless as possible.

Because you love someone, you don’t approach them in power. You approach them humbly and with vulnerability and powerless as possible.

And that’s the way the Bible actually tells the story. My prayer is that tonight, and in the morning, you and I will hear it that way.

Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden table

FrustrATE to DecorATE

First message in our Advent Series:Empty wishlist for Santa Claus laid on a wooden tableI was on the phone the other day with a customer service rep. I don’t remember what it was about, but that doesn’t really matter, does it?

The CSR was handling the issue very well. So well, in fact, that it was one of those things that, even if I couldn’t get the outcome I wanted, I would have to have admitted I was treated very well.

Except that I ALWAYS opt out of those “brief survey at the end of this call” things. I don’t trust myself to be mature about them.

So everything is going along swimmingly, when she says, “the Mrs.” As in “you and the Mrs.”

Wait, what?

I’m pretty sure I’ve never referred to Rachel as “the Mrs.” I don’t think I’m opposed to the term, or offended by it, but it strikes me as a bit quaint and antiquated.

And some of you are probably wondering, “Well, Steve, if you weren’t bothered or offended by it, WHY do you still remember it?”

Good question. Sometimes I am so easily distracted!

I am learning (finally!) what some of my buttons are. For example, when I hear anyone disparage young people simply because they are young, I pull out my soapbox and let loose.

I suppose it comes from memorizing 1 Tim 4:12 as a youth: “Let no man despise thy youth; but be thou an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”

I memorized it in King James English.

So; if you disparage youth, I am going to react. If you blame the problems of the world today, or even the problems of youth today, on youth, I’m probably going to go off.

There I am, distracted again! (Squirrel!)

So. Anyway. Where were we?

Oh, yeah: Mark 13:24-37.


Many of us are distracted by apocalyptic writing.The destruction, the vivid imagery, the dire tone all play well to our media-and-entertainment-and-cgi-engulfed culture.

We get so caught up in the vivid imagery that we miss the message.

Apocalyptic was (or is?) a style of writing in the bible. We find it in several places in the OT, three of the gospels, and, of course, Revelation.

Originally, “apocalyptic” meant “revealing.” It comes from the greek word “apocaluptein” which means, literally, “uncover.”

It has come to mean, though, “describing or prophesying the complete destruction of the world.”
“resembling the end of the world; momentous or catastrophic.”

How did it come to this?

Because, I think, we are both easily distracted and quickly frustrated.

Does talk about the end of the world frustrate you?

Does graphic imagery about the end of the world frustrate you?

You may be thinking that it excites you, rather than frustrates you.  That’s ok, and I’m not out to make sure everyone is frustrated, but have you considered this:

This morning’s text, Mark’s account of Jesus’ apocalyptic Olivet Discourse is approaching 2,000 years old. And, within this morning’s reading is this: I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until all these things happen. (verse 30).

So, whatever Jesus is talking about has already happened.

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. Some of you already have all your decorations up and your shopping done. Some of you don’t bother with decorations and have barely given shopping a thought.

And, besides the lights and trees and angels and sleighs and mangers, besides the Black Friday onslaught and Cyber Monday and exchanging Christmas wish lists, there’s all the parties. And the family gatherings.

And this probably isn’t new, but my memory didn’t hold it from before, but the internet is offering us ways to have decent family conversations at our family gatherings.

While I don’t remember that, I do remember a time, almost 30 years ago now, actually having this thought: “I hate Christmas.”

It was my 2nd year out of seminary, my first on the staff of a church large enough to have an associate pastor. I was that associate pastor.

There was so much going on!  And I don’t mean just so much going on at the church – though there’s plenty of that! – there is so much going on in church, in family, in family finances, and if all that weren’t enough the year is coming to a close AND the way we’ve decided to situate all this, days are growing shorter as we approach Christmas, and the increased darkness naturally dulls our moods and dims our outlook.

What a frustrating combination!

While we sing this is the “most wonderful time of the year,” some of us cannot wait for it to be over!

So, what is the Christian response? Maybe, “suck it up” works in your family, but that’s not a message that I think resonates with people.

In fact, no. Maybe you were always, or often told to “suck it up” when you were younger, but that’s not how Jesus approached people who were frustrated or hurting.

So that’s not how we are going to approach people who are frustrated or hurting.

Jesus didn’t tell this story, this apocalyptic story, this end-of-the-age story intending to frustrate his disciples, but, rather to give them hope.

Advent isn’t intended to be frustrating, but a time to build hope toward a celebration of Immanuel, God WITH us, God incarnate in human form!

If you hate this time of year, this series is especially for you. If you love this time of year; you have already worked through all your frustrations, or, perhaps, you don’t have any, I want this series to be for you as well.  

Today, in our efforts to follow Jesus better today than yesterday, and to prepare our hearts, our minds, and our souls for celebrating Christmas, I invite you to move from frustrATE to decorATE.

Though we are distracted by the vivid imagery of Jesus’ words in Mark 13, if we can take a breath and step back, we see that he closes with what is really important – with what he wants his disciples to take away from the session.

“Stay Alert!”

How can we stay alert if we aren’t already alert?  What if we are so distracted by the apocalyptic language – and maybe frustrated either that we don’t understand it or that it hasn’t happened yet, that we can’t get to alert?

Here’s a hint about what Jesus was talking about. Did you catch how in verse 35 Jesus says,

Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know when the head of the household will come, whether in the evening or at midnight, or when the rooster crows in the early morning or at daybreak.

There’s that pattern evening, midnight, early morning, or when the rooster crows,and at daybreak. Mark repeats the pattern in the following chapter: 14:17, Jesus begins the Last Supper with the disciples in the “evening.” then, in the garden, Jesus goes to pray and comes back to find them sleeping. Why? It was this middle of the night. Third, Jesus is arrested, and Peter denies him when the rooster crows. Finally, Jesus is taken before Pilate in the morning.

Something about the pattern of the end that Jesus tells us about in 13 is mirrored perfectly in the events leading to his death in the following chapters!

Some of what Jesus was talking about, some of what he was encouraging his followers to “stay alert” for, was about to happen.

For whatever else remains, you and I join the original followers of Jesus in expectation and anticipation. And frustration. We want Jesus to come and finish the job!

Can you admit that Jesus frustrates you? Have you had a conversation with God recently in which you’ve expressed – or shouted – how frustrated you are when or if things don’t work out the way you thought they should – the way it seemed clear as day God wanted them to turn out?

Frustration is a theme in Mark’s Gospel… Every time Jesus heals someone, he tells them, “Don’t tell anyone.”  In fact, in chapter 9, in Mark’s version of Jesus’ “Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? Passage, when Peter answers, “You are the Christ,” Jesus ordered them not to tell anyone about him!

And, right after that, Jesus starts teaching them that he must suffer. And die.

In expected Peter fashion, Mark tells us, Peter “scolds Jesus.”

Jesus tells Peter, “get behind me,” and concludes the teaching with this:

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. [(‘take up your cross’ didn’t mean have people look at you funny if you bow to pray over your meal at a restaurant. It certainly didn’t mean face the abject persecution of having someone say “happy holidays” rather than Merry Christmas!” ‘Take up your cross’ meant, as Bonhoeffer reminds us, that “Jesus bids us come and die.”)]

Welcome to frustrATE!

In response, I invite you to decorATE.

I don’t mean to take a second mortgage out on your house to try to win the HOA’s Christmas decoration contest.

Our HOA gives offers up to 5 $100 prizes for best decorations in the development. Several of our neighbors spend at least a couple hundred each year in pursuit of a $100 gift card.

That’s not what I mean by decorate.

Here’s what I mean: find a way, make a way, to inhabit the world you inhabit. Make the time, the effort to be still and know that God is God.

The point of decorating is not to win contests or gift cards. The point of decorating is to oo and aw. To have the space around you settle you, suggest peace, help you just to be.

Can you just BE this close to Christmas?

I am coming to learn that I am not very good at just BEing. Well, I’ve known for years I’m not good at BEing. I’ve come to learn relatively recently part of the reason, and part of the solution.

I don’t decorate.

From my earliest days of living on my own, I’ve had little to no sense of style or decoration. Ok; honestly, I’ve had little to no sense of being willing to spend any money at all to support a sense of decoration.

If it were left to me, all the walls of our house would be the same color – whatever color they were when we moved in.

One of them would have a picture on it. Because that’s all the wall art I had ever actually purchased.

It’s an Ansel Adams print. His Mount McKinley Range, Denali National Park picture.

I saw it once and was blown away at the majesty. First thing I saw was the mountain range across the bottom. Any mountains look big in texas, right? And the clouds floating over them. Then, and it took me a second to catch it, then you see the next level of mountains, snowcapped, rising behind and above that coastal range.

Then you see – or then I saw, THE MOUNTAIN shrouded in clouds, rising as high as the clouds themselves.

Seeing that, pondering that, decorating one wall with that gives me some perspective on how small I am and how big God is.

And that helps me BE.

I don’t know how much decoration you need to help you be. I am pretty sure it doesn’t require your bankrupting yourself. In fact, a lesson from the Psalmist, and a lesson this Ansel Adams print would tell me if I took the time, is that creation – the natural world around me – might be decoration enough to draw me back, out of my frustration, to a place I can recognize God.

I got home from running an errand last Saturday and tried to get seamlessly back into putting up Christmas decorations. We had arrived home about 6 the night before, from a great week away for Thanksgiving. I had a long, slow run, longer than I’d run in several months. Just before the errand I had gotten out the trees that replace the hibiscuses that stand watch at our front door. So I brought in the groceries, put them away, and went back out through the garage. I went that way on purpose because next on my agenda was to replace the autumnal doormat at the front door with the one we had put in the garage.

So, I picked it up, went out the garage, turned the corner, and was reaching down to pick up the matt as I turned, and noticed there was a brand new doormat there already!

So I went and asked Rachel, as I often do, when we had gotten that.

When we were at Aldi a month or so ago, You and I. Together. Shopping. And we saw that mat, and we talked about how worn out ours was. And we decided, together, to buy it.

Even when there is decoration, I can miss it!

Probably because I am so easily distractible and too quickly frustrated.

Don’t frustrATE


Catch yourself running ragged and BE. Notice creation. Look for beauty. Slow down.

So decorATE. DecorATE your soul with peace that passes understanding, even at this time of year.

Loving Las Vegas

A hand reaching out of a puddle in the forest.I’ve never been to Vegas, but after the mass shooting there last night, they’ve been on my mind and heart this morning. Enough that I posted this to Facebook this morning:

Praying for #LasVegas, and for a country that can seemingly agree on nothing except that we should pray.
Maybe that’s the best place to start.

Of course, sharing such a sentiment gets “likes” and positive comments.

And, then I read this post from my friend Jared Slack:

the fact there we’re all secretly hoping Stephen Paddock (Vegas shooter) is a by-product of our political/religious rivals is the problem.

After that bounced around in me for a while, I realized a potential shortcoming of my post.

I left it too easy for us to end up just praying for the other. Sure, “others” like victims, victim’s families, friends, residents of Las Vegas, the shooter and his family, friends, etc.

But if all we all agree to do is pray like that, for the other, whoever the other might be, I think we give in to remaining caught in this tragic cycle of simply agreeing to pray.

What if we moved a step further?

What if we invited God, in our prayers, to help us see the steps we, ourselves, can make beyond the impasse of only agreeing that we can and should pray?

If we remain in our place, disagreeing with so many others about so much, and only willing to agree to pray, I believe we find ourselves in the place of the Pharisee in this story from Luke 18

Jesus told this parable to certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust: “Two people went up to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of everything I receive.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He wouldn’t even lift his eyes to look toward heaven. Rather, he struck his chest and said, ‘God, show mercy to me, a sinner.’ I tell you, this person went down to his home justified rather than the Pharisee. All who lift themselves up will be brought low, and those who make themselves low will be lifted up.”

I hereby commit to continuing to pray for Las Vegas, victims, victim’s families and friends, Stephen Paddock, his family and loved ones.

I further commit to finding, meeting, interacting, and listening to some of the “others.” for whom I am praying. Let’s call this reaching out.

When I reach out, the place for me to reach out from is the recognition that something or some things about me and the way I view and move in the world might be part of the problem.

I am reaching out not only to help, but for help.

2017 version of Community Bathrooms

community bath 1 (2).jpgIn 1982, I made a conscious decision to move away from a dorm with semi-private bathrooms to a dorm with community bathrooms on each floor.

And I never looked back.  Ok; the bathroom set up wasn’t the reason I chose the other dorm (It helped they had installed air-conditioning over the summer).

Community was different in dorms with community baths.  Not in a creepy way, but in a way that comes sui generis from sharing tiolet, shower, shaving, washing space with a larger number of people.

We had challenges from time to time. I don’t actually remember having my stuff stolen while I was in the shower, but it may have happened. I also don’t remember stealing anyone else’s stuff while they showered. That may have happened, too.

But what I do remember happening was the shared vulnerability of such common spaces had the effect of each of us treating one another with at least a modicum of respect.

So, as a few of us chatted over coffee this morning, and remembered the days of community-bathroomed dorms, someone said, “I bet they don’t have those any more.”

Oh, but we do.

I don’t know if colleges do, but I contend that social media is the community bathroom of 2017. Except that, not realizing it, many of us have not yet learned to treat others with the modicum of respect deserved when an eclectic and random (you might have chosen your roommate, but you didn’t chose who got to live on the floor)

It took us some time to adapt to sharing the space of the community bathroom.

But not as long as you’ve been on social media!