The Great Teacher

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The lectionary text is Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16. The Spiritual Gift of the Week is “Teaching.”

Today’s Spiritual Gift is Teaching. It’s a lovely coincidence that this gift is today, right at the beginning of a new school year. Certainly schoolteachers are among those who have this spiritual gift, and I for one am very grateful to the schoolteachers who taught me over the years, and the teachers who continue to teach my children, and the teachers who have taught all of you. In some ways, we are who we are because of the schoolteachers we’ve had. Teaching school is a tremendous responsibility, and a high calling. Thank God that some of you are gifted with this gift, and called to use it.

I can remember when I was training to be a pastor, I met someone who was training at the same time to be a schoolteacher. He and I talked about our future careers, and something interesting happened. I told him was in awe of teachers, that I knew that I couldn’t do what they do, for hours each day. He told me the same thing: that he was in awe of pastors, and that he could never what we do. As we talked, we discovered that we each knew that we’d face challenges in our careers, but we each felt equipped to deal with them. And in in that moment, I understood on a new level what it is to have a calling. He was called to be a teacher, just as I was called to be a pastor.

So I was very surprised a few months ago, when I completed a Spiritual Gifts Inventory. I discovered that according to the inventory, my greatest spiritual gift is actually the gift of teaching. That made no sense to me. But then I realized that there are a lot of ways to be a teacher. Coaches, nurses, counselors, social workers, youth group leaders, grandparents, all kinds of people can be teachers. And I guess the way I do my ministry, the way I function as a pastor, is in the style of teacher.

But I’ve learned that teaching doesn’t always happen the way we think it does. Thirteen years ago, I was teaching confirmation class at another church. The class that year had about 20 students, and among them were a few who were…shall we say “challenging.” One evening, I planned to teach them about the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not kill.” I planned to tell them that that commandment is about a lot more than murder. Luther wrote that the fifth commandment means, “We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life’s needs.” I planned to tell them about killing someone’s spirit, how sometimes it can feel like a little part of us has died because of the cruel or insensitive actions of someone else. That killing other people’s spirit is what we’re commanded not to do in the Fifth Commandment. I had some great activities planned. I put a lot of prep into it, preparing what I thought was a really powerful lesson.

But the class went badly that night. The kids were out of control. My great examples crashed and burned. And I went home that night feeling miserable. Feeling like I was a terrible teacher. Feeling that because of me, they’d never learn about this. Feeling like I’d failed them, failed the church, maybe even failed God.

But the next morning, I went into the office, and there was a message on the answering machine for me. It was from the mother of one of my students. She said that her son Jay was very upset about the way some of the students acted that night. And he wanted to let me know that he enjoys the class. Jay felt that some of the students were killing my spirit, and he wished they wouldn’t.

Now, that felt great to hear. I had succeeded! He got it! But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I hadn’t actually taught Jay anything that night. But he got it anyway. He got it because of the way things happened. Because I lost control over the class. Because the Holy Spirit came into that moment, and taught him. He learned very well what the fifth commandment was all about. And by asking his mother to call me, he obeyed that commandment. He helped and supported me. Jay may have heard my words that night, but it was the Holy Spirit who taught him. And the Holy Spirit taught me that sometimes teaching happens despite the students, and despite the teacher. The Holy Spirit reminded me that I am not the real teacher; the real teacher is Christ himself.

Thirteen years later, Jay might remember that class. I don’t know. He might remember me. I don’t know. But I bet he remembers what he learned that night about following Christ through compassion and caring. And I know that I remember it. Because Christ taught Jay and me that.

The author of Hebrews wrote in our second reading today: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you; consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Remember your teachers, I think he’s saying. Remember those who taught you. Remember them, but the focus isn’t on remembering their teachings. Because teachings fade. And teachings change over time. Instead, remember their life and their faith, and imitate that faith. Because faith is forever. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. Jesus Christ is the great teacher, the teacher of us all, and while the teaching may change, and it has over the centuries, the teacher does not. The specifics may change, the way that we are called to go, the things we are called to do, the people we are called to be, may change, and they have. But the Great Teacher does not change. The grace and love that that teacher pours out on us does not change.

Thanks be to God for all teachers, and the things they have taught us. Thanks even more for their lives and their faith, and the way they have shown us God’s grace. And thanks above all for Jesus Christ, the Great Teacher, who is the same yesterday and today and forever. Thanks be to God.

Featured image from Boston Public Library, accessed at https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/8270518444.

The Things I Want to Do

I want to read. I have lots of books just waiting to be read, and I want to be a reader. I want my kids to see me reading, and emulate me. I want to know more than I know. I want to be the kind of person who is always growing, always reading, always learning. I sometimes do this. But lately, I haven’t been.

I want to walk. I have a pedometer, and in the past, I’ve been really good at getting about 12,000 steps a day. I’ve had a habit of just walking around the family room in our house, while watching television or reading on my Kindle. I would love to go out and walk along the Plainfield Rail Trail, or just putz around Lake Minsi or Bear Swamp. I sometimes do this. But lately, I haven’t been.

I want to have fun with my family. I sometimes do this. But lately, I haven’t been.

I want to write. I sometimes do this. And just in the past few days, I’ve finally been getting back into it.

I’ve been in a pretty low place lately. I think it happens in the summer. Depression hits some people seasonally. I think wintertime is a common time, but for me it tends to hit in the summer. Maybe it’s partially because I just hate being out in the sun when it’s hot. There’s nothing worse than 90 degree humid weather, with the sun beating down. Just add some clouds, and I’m much happier. But sunshine in the summer? Yuck. It gives me a headache, hurts my eyes, and just makes me hot, sweaty, and grumpy.

I want to do these things, but I just can’t find the motivation to do them. And as much as I do want to do them, my desire to sit around, play video games, and browse the web is stronger right now. I feel horribly lazy, but I know that it isn’t really just that. Depression can look like laziness, and while I don’t deny that I am lazy often, this is more than just that. It’s just so hard to talk about this, so hard to do anything about it. I’m not even really enjoying the little I’m doing. Everything just feels so grey and numb right now.

I know this will pass, but it’s really hard to see that right now. I’m not asking for help, just sharing where I am.

Snapshots of My Depression #10: Standing Outside a Broken College House With My Walkman in My Hand

This is one in a series of posts I’m calling “Snapshots of my Depression.” These are memories of times in my life when my mental illness manifested itself in one way or another.

The title of this post is a direct reference to a song entitled, “Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in My Hand”. It was released by the alternative-rock band Primitive Radio Gods when I was twenty years old, at just about the height of my appreciation and love of popular music. I immediately latched onto the song. It has a haunting melody, a hypnotic rhythm section, seamless samples, and lyrics like this:

Am I alive or thoughts that drift away?
Does summer come for everyone?
Can humans do as prophets say?
And if I die before I learn to speak
Can money pay for all the days I lived awake
But half asleep?

Heady stuff for a college student with deep thoughts and identity issues. A few years later, when my future wife and I started dating, she remembered this song, and she told me that it reminded her of me. (Funny thing is…a big part of why it reminded her of me was because she misheard some of the lyrics. The chorus consists of a sample from B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get”: I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met. She misheard this as: I’ve been downhearted baby; I resisted it. She told me that that misunderstanding was a big part of why she thought of me. That’s kind of touching, actually. But anyway…)

I bring this up is because there were always songs like this for me, songs that spoke deeply to my soul, songs that felt like they were written for my soul to sing, songs that stirred my soul to sing in tune whenever I heard them. “Counting Blue Cars” by Dishwalla. “Digging in the Dirt” by Peter Gabriel. “Learning to Fly” by Pink Floyd. “One” by U2. “Come Undone” by Duran Duran. “Somebody” by Depeche Mode. “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, and then by Johnny Cash. Roughly 15% of everything Barenaked Ladies ever recorded. Just to list a few. I bought the CDs with these songs. And I listened to them. Over and over and over and over. I collected these songs together, and made mix tapes for myself. Sometimes these mixes were called “Myke’s Mood Music.” Every year or two I would update this “MMM” with a few new songs I’d discovered. Slowly, over time, these mixes became a mirror to my soul, and I put my ear to that mirror over and over and over and over. In the car, singing along at the top of my lungs. While walking, alone in my own headphone-centered world. (I always carried extra batteries with me whenever I walked…I would not be caught without my music.)

And I distinctly remember listening to MMM while standing out on the porch of Bernheim House, the college-owned house I lived in for three years. I remember standing there, with my Walkman in my hand, the tape turning slowly as my brain waves synchronized with it. The words and music entering my ears, and finding a home in my soul. The echo chamber of my mind resounding with the same rhythm from outside. It felt good. It felt right. It felt numb. It felt miserable. It felt like me. I’ve been downhearted baby, ever since the day we met.

I remember standing out there on the porch, Walkman in hand. My friends knew to just leave me alone. When I had that Walkman out, there was no talking to me. I wasn’t available.

I was running over the same old ground; what have I found? The same old fears.

I stood there scared; I stood there strange; I stood there wondering if anything in my life was ever gonna change.

I’d close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment was gone. All my dreams passed before my eyes, a curiosity.

Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earthbound misfit, I.

The thing about depression is that it can sometimes be like a blanket. A blanket that covers you and keeps you warm and protected. It can be cozy in there. Sometimes it’s not just that you can’t pull your way out (which you can’t), but sometimes you just don’t want to. The melancholy is soothing. Calming. Hypnotic. Addictive.

So…where are my headphones anyway?

 

Kentucky 2017!

On August 21, 2017, something amazing will occur. The moon will be precisely between the earth and the sun, and this will cause a total solar eclipse.

I can remember several eclipses that have occurred during my life. When I was about six, my father woke me up before dawn to see my very first lunar eclipse. We walked down to the parking lot of our church, and watched as the moon gradually disappeared from the sky, and then reappeared, as the earth’s shadow slowly covered it and then moved away. (I also remember that he then took me out to breakfast afterward…I believe it was my very first Egg McMuffin.) I remember in high school my best friend Steve and I used to go into the cemetery near my house to watch lunar eclipses. I remember lying in the football field at college with my friend Nick to watch one. Lunar eclipses were always special. Kind of uncommon, happening about once or twice a year. And when they happen…anybody on the night side of earth can see it (clouds permitting). But solar eclipses…something entirely different.

Continue reading “Kentucky 2017!”

God loves YOU

This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning. The second reading, which I focused on, was Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16. Another focus was the spiritual gift of “Faith.”

Faith. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That’s what the author of Hebrews wrote. The assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.

Look up on a cloudless day, and you can see the sun. It doesn’t take faith to believe the sun is there. You can see it. Look into someone’s eyes. It doesn’t take faith to believe there’s a person in front of you. You can see them. But does Christ live within that person? That takes faith. You can’t prove that. You can’t see that. You can only believe that through faith. Sometimes faith is easy, and sometimes it’s hard.

In some ways, I find it easy to have faith. I have faith that God exists. I have never seen God. I’ve never had a vision like some people describe. But I have faith that God is there. And that faith is strong.

And I have faith in grace, which is God’s love freely given. I have faith that God loves every single one of you, and not just in some abstract way, like “God loves everyone.” I have faith that God loves you, exactly who you are. That Jesus died for you, exactly who you are. That you are accepted by God,  that you are loved and forgiven and called by God, exactly who you are. That you don’t have to do a thing to earn it. I have never seen that grace. I have no proof that it’s true. But I have faith in it. And that faith is strong.

The faith I have in God and in God’s grace isn’t something I’ve done or earned. That faith itself is a gift from God, so I suppose that means that I have the Spiritual Gift of Faith. I’m blessed that way, I suppose. I guess.

You see, there’s the rub. There’s where my faith falters, every time. There’s where my doubts come in, every time. I don’t have faith that God loves and forgives and calls me. Does God love you? Yes. No question, no doubt. But me? I just don’t know.

And I know that that is nonsense. How can I believe that God loves and forgives and calls every one of you, but not me? It makes no sense. It’s irrational. But that’s faith for you. I have faith that God loves you, and I will proclaim that with my dying breath. And I mean it. God’s grace is astonishing. I don’t care who you are, what you’ve done, even if I don’t feel that I can love you, I will tell you that God loves you. That God has depths of forgiveness and love far deeper than my own, far deeper than anyone’s. God loves and forgives and calls you. But say the same about myself?

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. And I will tell you, I don’t have that assurance, that conviction about God’s feelings toward me. And maybe that’s why it is so important to me that I tell you how much God loves you. Because I don’t want you to feel the way I sometimes do. I don’t want you to have the same doubts I do. And also because I know that the times when I do believe it, the times when I do have faith that God loves me, those are times when I hear it from other people. Like the time when a seminary classmate of mine forgave me for something insensitive and hurtful I had done years earlier. I felt God’s forgiveness in that moment. I felt grace. Like the time I arrived at the courthouse at just the right time for someone in need. She hugged me in tears, saying, “I’m so glad you’re here.” I felt God’s calling in that moment. I felt grace.

I know from experience that the moments when I do experience God’s grace, the moments when I actually do believe in God’s grace for me, are moments when other people show it to me. And maybe that’s why I talk about God’s grace so often with you. Because I want you to hear it over and over and over again. God loves you. God forgives you. And God calls you to make a difference. I want you to hear that, just in case you’re like me.

And maybe that’s also why I feel so strongly about publicly proclaiming a welcoming statement to a group of people who have been told by others that God doesn’t love them. Why I feel so strongly, and why it gets me so worked up, and why I sometimes go too far talking about it. Maybe it’s because I have a voice inside me that tells me that God doesn’t love me. A voice that tells me that God’s love is for others. But not for me. And that voice is so strong.

I really hesitated to preach this today. I really hesitated to tell you this. Because nobody wants a pastor who needs to be coddled. Nobody wants a pastor whose faith is so weak that he needs other people to tell him God loves him. But it’s the truth. I don’t know…maybe it’s like a heart surgeon who needs surgery. I don’t care how good a surgeon you are, you need someone else to repair your own heart.

Am I making a mistake in preaching this? Quite possibly. But I wonder, I just wonder, if maybe it is good to preach this today. Because I wonder, I just wonder, how many of you can relate to this. I wonder if one or two or twelve or maybe even all of you know what it’s like to believe that God loves and forgives and calls everyone else, but not you. If you do, then hear me again: God loves you. God forgives you. God calls you.

And maybe we just need to keep telling one another that, and keep finding ways to show one another that.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. I pray that you have the assurance, the conviction, that God loves you. That God forgives you. That God calls you to make a difference. I pray that you have faith in that, and tell others that good news.