Author Archives: Randy Ehle

Prisoners of Hope

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“Prisoners of hope.” It’s not a phrase you hear very often. Prison, especially in the ancient world in which these words were written, is not a place one normally associates with hope. Yet here is the phrase, in the middle of a prophecy (Zechariah 9:9-12) that held hope for the exiled Israelites and holds hope for us today. It is a Messianic prophecy—the foretelling of a coming Messiah, a savior—fulfilled in part on that first “palm Sunday” when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the foal of a donkey.

But as is true with so many Biblical prophecies, this, too, finds its fulfillment both Now and Not Yet; it has been fulfilled, and it is yet to be fulfilled. For while Jesus the Messiah did indeed “speak peace to the nations,” his rule is not yet “from sea to sea and from the [Euphrates] River to the ends of the earth” (verse 10).

That is what we long for: peace. Messiah’s rule. We long for an end to war and the flag-draped caskets we receive in return. We long for an end to the threat and fear of more war, of bigger, badder wars. We long for an end to violence against women and innocent children, the broken homes and broken lives left in the wake of that violence. We long for an end to racism, to the wrongs done to men and women only because of their skin color or birthplace. We long to send our children to school without wondering whether theirs will be the next to be ripped apart by gunfire on national television.

Today we celebrate the hope of Palm Sunday. But just as the partying crowds some 2,000 years ago were blissfully unaware of the brutal death just five days away, so we, too, shut our eyes to the death that surrounds us. We long for peace … but just like those long-ago crowds—who wanted Jesus to throw off the Roman occupiers—we put our hope in laws and and lawmakers and governments instead of in the Prince of Peace. We are prisoners indeed, but not prisoners of hope if our hopes are set on these long-failed institutions.

And just as Zechariah’s prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus then but is still yet to be fulfilled, we can bring peace to our world now even while we wait for peace to come finally in Jesus Christ. Prayer is needed, but prayer is not enough. Laws are not enough, but laws are needed. 

Today, on Palm Sunday, if you profess to follow Jesus Christ, speak out for peace in Him – and for peace in our nation – and for peace in our world. Let your worship of the Prince of Peace not be undermined by your worship of a weapon of war.

The End of A Road … maybe

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It’s only been a couple years, but somehow it seems longer – and somehow much shorter. Two years after stepping in front of a classroom for the first time, that part of my journey is coming to an end. Soon I will be back to a different kind of teaching, as a pastor, leaving this role of teaching, which I have discovered to be a different kind of pastoring.

Living on only in my memories and a few hastily-scribbled notes will be several hundred kids whose lives have been woven briefly into mine. If my whole life were to be displayed as a tapestry, this time, these kids, would be mere threads…yet they would stand out bright in the midst of an otherwise dark spot somewhere in the middle of that image.

As is the norm for substitutes, most of my assignments were for just a day or maybe two. Often, my role seemed more babysitter or classroom monitor than teacher. The day was a success if no one got hurt; if they actually learned history or math or what “obligation” means, that was a bonus. My biggest hope on those days was that students would have what a mentor of mine calls collisions with righteousness: a fresh breath, a teacher who didn’t belittle him; a teacher who saw through her teenage mask to the value and potential hidden within.

But twice I was given the chance to be with classes for multiple weeks, first with fourth graders and then with seventh. Each time I got to know more than a hundred students, learning their names, matching them to faces that will long be engraved on my heart. I learned how hard is the work of a teacher – work that goes far beyond the labor of planning lessons, clawing coherent sentences out of kids who prefer video games and sports and dance over agriculture and urbanization in medieval China.

I learned how important are those moments of going off topic—”bird walks,” some teachers call them—because those bird walks just might take us into territory that one kid out of 130 needs to see to give them life and hope. I’ve been able to talk graciously about homosexuality and comparative religion. We’ve scratched the surface of human trafficking and how a 12-year-old might learn tips from the samurai to protect herself against an adult aggressor. I’ve tried to break the awe kids seemed to have about seppuku, the ritual suicide practiced by samurai to guard their honor; and encouraged kids to speak up when a friend says they’re having thoughts of suicide. (That one may have been effective far more quickly than I ever dreamed.)

And, of course, we’ve had some fun. While role playing scenes from Imperial China we met the fictitious Empress Ping Pong (or was it Empress Ping from the Pong Dynasty?). When we moved to Central America to learn about the Maya and the civilizations that influenced them, like the Olmec, we met an anthropologist named Don, immortalized in a familiar song: “Olmec Donald had a farm….” We’ve learned about cultural exchange, cultural diffusion … and, well, cultural confusion (which is what happens when seventh graders suggest that Europe’s knights were led by people from Japan!).

Teaching has been a cultural immersion for me. I’ve had students from Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Germany, Japan, Philippines, and a few from the U.S. I’ve learned, almost, to say good morning in Arabic – which sent the 12-year-old twin girls from Syria who tried teaching me into near hysterics when I repeated exactly what I heard! (Thank you is much easier: shukran.) I was introduced to Frankenstein by a class of Honors English students. I laughed with a fourth grader who learned for the first time that the cute dogs with the bad reputation are called pit bulls, not pipples! (But if I were ever to get one, I’d name it Pipples.)

When I stepped out of the classroom on my last day, I said good-bye not just to the 127 kids I’ve been with most recently, but to all those who have loved, accepted, laughed with, and maybe even learned with me: Cassie, Clara, Nick. Emma and Emily. “Mad Dog” Madison, Duncan, Mohammed, Muhammed, Yousif (all of them!). The 3rd graders from Ms. Bradbury’s class, 10th grade Honors English students at Christian High, all the kids in 3rd through 8th grades at Fuerte and Hillsdale and LFCS. The students at my daughters’ (and niece’s) school who call me not just Mr. Ehle, but Father, Dad, and Uncle Randy.

To all of you, I say: Thank you. Gracias. Danke. Arigato. Merci. Shukran

The Long and Winding Road*

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With both apologies and gratitude to Sir Paul McCartney and his mates in the Beatles, the long and winding road is an apt description of the journey my family has been on for the past four years. What began as a somewhat uncertain yet anticipatory search for a Lead Pastor role melted into a desert meander through loss, death, grief, depression, questioning, doubting, and more. Yet milestone after faded milestone seemed to confirm two things: first, we were on the right path; and second, that path was leading to a pastoral role. Specifically where the path would lead was an unanswered question.

When God leads people on a journey, there’s always a purpose. Sometimes the purpose, or the path, or both, seems harsh, as with Jonah’s three days living as seafood or the ancient Israelites’ forty-year wilderness sojourn. Sometimes the purpose is simply to train, sometimes to discipline, sometimes to strengthen or transform. Sometimes God uses the journey to refresh and restore, as with Elijah after his battle-to-the-death with the prophets of Baal.

During our journey these past several years, God has been doing some hard work in my life, chiseling off rough edges, testing my commitment to his purpose, leading me from pride toward greater humility (a journey nowhere near complete). One of the most profound shifts I’ve seen in myself is a desire to love—really and simply love—whatever community he might call me to lead. That desire hasn’t always been there for me; so often, I’ve looked more at what I can change in a church than what I can love.

This weekend I stood before the congregation of a small, 150-year-old church in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains. After my message (from Colossians 3:12-17), they were going to vote, as all good Baptists do, on whether it was God’s will for me to be their next pastor. With the ten new members being received that morning, the congregation stood at about 50 people – three-fourths of whom are over 65. I could count the children’s ministry on one hand…maybe with a finger to spare. The youth group was doubled in size by my daughter’s presence.

As we were getting ready for church that morning, my wife asked me what percentage I was looking for if we were to say yes to the church’s call. The number in my mind from the start had been 89%; I don’t know why, that’s just what came to my head and planted itself there. Eiley wondered if that was too high; What if it’s only 85%? Or 80?

The vote was overwhelming and humbling: unanimous! That is so unlike my past experience with churches, especially Baptist churches (my tribe). I have heard people say they always vote No just on principle! (I’m not sure what principle that is.) But this small body of hope-filled followers of Jesus is united in their desire to have me as their pastor and to lead them into the next phase of their life—of our life together.

And so, our journey takes a new turn. With a church called, ironically (and appropriately), The Journey. I wonder where this long and winding road will lead.

 

*Photo of Paul McCartney’s High Park Farm in Scotland copyright and owned by Stuart Brabbs. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:High_Park_Farm._-_geograph.org.uk_-_434107.jpg

Christmas Gifts

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The house is still as the sun peeks slowly over the eastern horizon. The pungent aroma of onion cooking for quiche mixes discordantly with the sweet smell of gingerbread in the oven. Packages sit under the Christmas tree – for a few more moments, at least. And I sip coffee and read from the prophets Isaiah and Micah, and from John (“the disciple whom Jesus loved,” as he was wont to describe himself, unnamed).

Yesterday I pondered the responses of Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph to their respective visits from Gabriel, the Messenger of God. Disbelief. Bewildered trust. Obedience (though undoubtedly mixed with practical questions about honor, integrity, and righteousness).

Today’s readings are filled with prophetic hope for a derided nation, honor for a forgotten village, longing for salvation and rescue from enemies. Promises of a Savior, Rescuer, Judge; of justice and the restoration of an ancient, royal city.

The baby whose birth we celebrate today may not have been exactly what people had in mind when they read the stories in the antiquated scrolls. As he grew up, as he began his work, as the work seemed to end on a brutal Roman cross… the disappointment and disillusionment only grew.

Today—Christmas Day, 2017—the likelihood of disappointment and disillusionment is just as real. The peace we heard about in yesterday’s Christmas Eve sermon is elusive not only in the nation but even in our families. The justice promised with the coming of the Messiah seems as distant now as Micah’s writings from two-and-a-half millennia ago. No wonder the gifts that ring our trees have taken center stage: they’re here, real, tangible…even if they, too, often carry a degree of disappointment.

The work for justice, righteousness, and peace that began in a stable in Bethlehem (and long before then)…; the work that reached a climax on a cross on Calvary…; the work that a ragtag band of men and women were left to carry on…; that is our work, our task, our mission.

The wise men brought the newborn King gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. It’s said that the gold symbolized his royal lineage, frankincense represented the worship due him, and myrrh foretold his sacrificial death. Perhaps this year, we can offer gifts to Jesus, as well. Perhaps we can offer a tireless striving for justice in our communities, nation, and world; perhaps we can live lives of righteousness – not legalism, but right living on behalf of others; perhaps we can work to bring peace into our families, workplaces, schools, communities.

What gifts will you offer this Christmas?

Worship Together

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There is a transcendence in coming to God in his throne room, something far bigger than us—something bigger, indeed, than all of creation, all of history, all of time—because God is bigger: God himself transcends creation, history, time.

Yet there is an intimacy in worship, as well, a closeness to the father that is warm and secure and comforting. It is as if we are sitting at his very feet, or even curled up as a child in her daddy’s lap.

Corporate worship, the body of Christ coming together to worship, has the difficult task of bringing a diverse group of individuals into both a transcendent and an intimate relationship with God. Worship leaders are charged with this task, which they seek to accomplish through music, prayer, the Word, and service: heart, soul, mind, and strength. Yet these are not incongruous or even distinct elements, but each serves and enhances the others. When we make them distinct, we do a disservice to ourselves, our churches, our congregations…yes, we even do a disservice to God.

As interdependent as these elements are, however, I want to address just one of them: music. 

Music touches the heart, the emotions. But far from merely touching the heart, music actually leads the heart. And a key role of music leaders is to lead the heart—and the hearts—of the congregation either into the transcendence of God’s throne room or the intimacy of his lap … or sometimes both, for even in the closeness of an embrace we get a sense of the Father’s bigness; and in that, we gain a sense of protection and security.

And yet so often, in our culture-driven desire for bigness—big concerts, big sounds, big lights—we lose the sense of God’s transcendence which is so much bigger than anything we can manufacture. The amplified sounds of the band’s instruments and voices fills the auditorium, deafens the ears of the congregations, mutes their voices. We sing in silent syncopation with the band, unable to hear even what comes from our own lips. We are awed not by the Seraphim of Isaiah’s temple vision, but by the percussion of the bass and drum.

Even in songs of would-be intimacy with our Savior, the electronically-boosted voices of the band drown the gathered song of the worshippers. We find ourselves yelling about the quiet place of rest.


Worship in all its forms and voices should be focused on and directed to God alone. When Christ’s body comes together, no leader ought to take the place of the One whom we gather to worship. Yet all too often, those called to lead the congregation—whether in music, in prayer, in the Word, or in service—do exactly that, and so steal the rightful place of God.