Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Relationship Tightrope

As everyone who has ever sought to enter into a loving and committed relationship with another human being has learned, the actual living out of that relationship can be fraught with difficulties. Living in a loving relationship is a gloriously complicated enterprise. And one of the things that makes it so complicated is that we often think we must make the other person in the relationship happy. Trying to make someone else happy can certainly be compared to the act of walking on a tightrope, a skill that takes much, much practice.

Let's assume for a moment, however, that you have had a great deal of practice and are pretty accomplished at the art of tight-rope walking. After all, most of us have been in relationships of some sort for years and should have learned most of the tricks by the time we are functioning adults.

As anyone who has been to a circus knows, the dangerous tightrope walk is done under controlled circumstances. The rope is inside a tent, so there are no weather vagaries to deal with, and there is a good, strong safety net spanning the entire length of the tightrope. Even the most experienced performer falls frequently, especially when learning new skills.

When beginning to learn this skill, the tightrope is close to the ground and there is a lot of support. Eventually, it get higher and higher and the skills of the performer becomes greater and greater. At some point, however, an imbalance in the situation may lead to a tumble.

Now, to keep to the comparison, let's make a list of demands that are often placed on a relationship that is based on making someone else happy. Unfortunately, those demands, while they may seem innocent, may be causing just enough imbalance in the situation to lead to a dangerous fall.

Pretend with me for a while that the items in parenthesis happen in parallel with the requests for attention and support, that is, the requests to “make me happy.”

I want you to be very interested in me and to show that interest by frequent phone calls, with inquiries about my life and work and family.

(Wind is starting to blow outside the enclosed tent where the tightrope walker performs.)

I want you to so desire to spend time with me that you often arrange your schedule to make sure it matches mine so we can be together with much frequency.

(A rope-eating virus invisibly lands on the safety net and begins to multiply.)

I want you to be fully supportive of my own demanding work that when I come home exhausted and uncommunicative, you simply honor that with quietness and grace and then you rub my shoulders and fix me a healthy snack and give me adequate space before engaging in any other way.

(Circus master decides to delight the onlookers by raising your platform from which you step out onto the rope to the highest level available-higher than you've ever walked).

I want you to anticipate what I need without my having to ask.

(Wind picks up even more outside and begins to infiltrate some weak spots in the canvas tent, bringing some slack to what should be a very tight rope.)

I want you to be grateful for the little tasks I do around the house that make your life more comfortable.

(Tightrope walker starts having trouble keeping his/her balance but decides to keep going and not risk a loss of face by turning back or asking for help or renegotiation.)

I want to be adored spiritually, mentally, socially and physically.

(Rope eating virus weakens several spots in the safety net and the increasing wind permits some of the virus particles to land on the tightrope itself.)

I want you to be completely understanding of all my moods, and never try to fix me when I get into a down mood. However, you should try to distract me, but be very understanding if I snap at your proposed distractions.

(It starts to pour rain outside and the canvas roof leaks. Wind speed dramatically increases.)

I want you to have a highly successful career but make sure you have plenty of energy for me.

(Somebody's blackberry goes off in the circus tent and warns of a tornado in the immediate vicinity.)

I want you to get much public recognition for your hard work and for your salary to rise competitively as a result of those recognitions.

(Rope eating virus leaves several large spots of the safely net radically weakened but the weakened areas are invisible.)

I want you to completely open your heart mind and soul to me and let me in whenever I want.

(Tent poles begin to sway and rain lands on on the head of the tightrope walker.)

I want you to be physically and mentally healthy, taking plenty of time for yourself as you need it, but being sure to explain kindly to me when you need that time, plus I want an ETA as to when that self-time will be over and you can resume playing close attention to me.

(Audience begins to panic and leave in droves. Rope eating virus weakens the tightrope and it loses even more tension.)

I want you to spill over with joy when you see me, and yet see me off on my travels or other times away with support and generosity. I also want you to miss me excruciatingly while I'm gone, but to use your time well so you can concentrate on me when I get back.

(Despite heroic efforts and high skill level, the tightrope walker falls, expecting to be caught by the safety net, but lands on one of the weak areas. There is just enough intact net to break the fall before the tightrope walker lands on the ground. still alive, but greatly injured.)

Does any of this sound familiar? It's the common problem with so many relationships—each wants so much of the other, but doesn't always see that by having those needs met, they may be causing the other to crash. Personally, I think one of the most dangerous phrases is the English language is “I want to make you happy.” Or even worse, “I'll do anything to make you happy.”

It should never be our responsibility to make another person happy. Happiness is a personal choice. When it becomes dependent upon the actions of another, the ability to make that choice is lost. Now, it is the actions of other (or perceived actions of others, or even worse, the perceived motives behind the perceived actions of others) that brings happiness or unhappiness. When we start examining the motives of others, we leave behind one of the greatest definitions of love, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

If love really believes all things, then love does not go around suspiciously checking out the motives of others, or trying to manipulate someone else to “meet our needs,” but instead graciously puts up with anything, operates out of trust, looks for the best, and keeps going to the end. This is how we want God to love us. We would serve that desire best by learning to do this for others.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

A Year of Truth-Telling

The news has reverberated from coast to coast—the apparently widespread use of performance enhancing drugs among major-league baseball players. If this does turn out to be true, such activity is hardly a surprise by those on the inner circles of these places. It may not have been talked about openly, but lots and lots of people had to know. Many superstars may have their records sullied because of these revelations. Just for a moment, I wonder how many others took such substances and hoped for superstar status but never made it.

In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with looking for a competitive edge, as long as, of course, such edge is legal. I’ve read some who made a comparison with this illegal substance use and pro-golfer Tiger Wood’s choice to have laser surgery on his eyes, resulting in better-than-normal vision. Writers and pundits who pushed the comparison and suggested the two actions are essentially the same overlooked two factors. First, laser surgery is legal. Second, and far more important, Mr. Woods did not hide the surgery, did not claim he never had it, or in any other way that I’m aware of lived a lie because of it. It’s the living the lie that causes the problems, not wanting to get better and better at our given specialties.

Part of just being human is that live out of a tendency to lie about ourselves. Frankly, we lie a lot about ourselves. We diminish our faults, exaggerate our virtues, and work very, very hard to make sure certain parts of our lives never come to light. Many people have so much guilt because of hidden deeds and unacceptable thoughts that they find themselves bound up by the lies they have told to keep these things hidden away. People who claim to “tell it like it is” generally have eagle eyes where other people’s faults lie or secrets are hidden. They are willing to shout those things to the hilltops but are strangely silent about their own.

I read once that it takes seven additional lies to cover up for the first one. A moment of choosing not to tell the truth then can take on a life of its own, with more and more untruths necessary in order to keep the first lie from being found it. Think of the amount of energy that goes into such actions! We have to remember who we told what to and who we didn’t tell and constantly be on our guard in case we are found out. That’s pretty draining.

I think it would be interesting to make 2008 the year of truth-telling. This becomes the year when we seek to live in such a way that we can quit lying and hiding and covering up. Instead of expending all that energy in keeping a lie afloat, that energy can be used for much more productive things. We could develop a new hobby, relax more fully, have much more fun, discover that we are people worth liking, get a whole new understanding of how much God really does love us, and wake up in the morning with a light heart and a hopeful attitude. Doesn’t that sound nice?

The key to this truth-telling is that we must tell our own truth—not what we think someone else’s truth is. It sounds like a fine point, but everything hinges on this. Real truth telling calls for a deeply integrated life. It’s a life that carefully examines how we ourselves really do want to be treated and then deliberately and intentionally sets out to treat others that way.

For example, if you really think that your ideas and thoughts should be heard with respect and interest by others, then truth telling consists of working very hard to hear and be interested in the ideas and thoughts of others. That’s real truth—not jumping down someone else’s throat when they didn’t do it the way you wanted them to. If you want your time or space or special interest to be honored, then telling the truth about it makes sure that other’s time and space and hobbies are honored. If your truth says that you really do want to the world to dance only to your tune, then practice dancing only to someone else’s tune. You might discover that your truth needs some fine-tuning.

What do you say? Shall we give this a try? Sure beats being found out the hard way about the lies we’ve been telling.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Disruptive Birth

It's nearly here now. Next Sunday, December 23, marks the last Sunday in Advent, that time of waiting and preparation so we are ready to receive the gift of the baby in the manger. Of course, not many of us have taken the time we need to get our hearts fully prepared. I, of course, am one who, though full of good intentions, just didn't take all the time I had planned so I, too, could be in a state of complete readiness when I come to adore the baby.

On the other hand, it is not all that hard to adore babies. They are amazing little things—innocent and sweet and just a whole lot of trouble with a tendency to disrupt all our normal routines.

I wonder if that is one of the reasons that God chose this truly strange method to break into human experience. God comes as a baby, innocent, and sweet and just extremely disruptive.

I have been pondering recently a generational quirk in my heritage. The women, especially on my paternal side, all tend to have two babies within a year and a half of each other. One time when I was learning something about my family history, I saw that this tendency went back at least four generations. Now my oldest son and his wife have followed the pattern. Their second son, Samuel, was born about five weeks ago, just 17 months after the first, Joshua, made his appearance.

Now, I could have told them that Joshua would not take kindly to Samuel's birth. Joshua, very much used to having the world ordered to his satisfaction, is a typical demanding, manipulative, charming self-centered toddler. Simply adorable, of course, as all our grandchildren are. But still . . . he has a strong need to be the center of his parents attention. Samuel's birth has been very disruptive to his little self-centered world. Just as my second son's appearance was to his older brother's world, and my sister's appearance to my own world. Yes, these babies were quite disruptive to our natural tendencies to be self-centered.

As I said, I could have told them this, but why bother? We all have to learn these things for ourselves, and by the time I could have told them that, this new life was well along in his mother's womb. Personally, my oldest son was such an easy charming baby that I assumed it was all because I was such a wonderful mother, so why not have another? After all, it was clear I was a great gift to the art of mothering! Boy, did my second son upset my over flattering picture of my mothering capabilities! Yes, that disruption again.

So, I'm thinking about the baby we keep singing about in the well-loved Christmas carols like “O come, let us adore him,” and “Away in a Manger” and “O Holy Night.” This music is full of terms of love and gentleness and hope and sweetness and the goodness of God. But we don't often sing of the disruption caused by this very strange way of God's entering human life. Think about it. Mary's and Joseph's plans have gone completely awry. Surely their families must have felt much disappointment with the too-soon birth of their grandchild. Some middle eastern men who lived by studying the stars suddenly leave everything behind for several years in their search to make sense of something in the heavens/ Their searches lead them to a poor family in odd circumstances. The king of Judea, Herod (not a nice man at all), decides he so doesn't want his life disrupted that he orders the slaughter of a lot of little children to ensure his own claim to the throne. All this is very disruptive to the ways we think God should enter the world of humanity

Then this baby grows up and turns out to be nothing like the kind of Savior that the people want. He favors the poor and the sinner and the outcast and those with no place in polite or ordered society. He castigates the religious and upright people. He dies the death of a criminal, and his body disappears after his death and his followers cause all sorts of chaos with their wild claims of resurrection. Very disruptive indeed. Not at all what is expected.

It does seem that the entrance of holiness into that which is non-holy causes all sorts of disruption. Instead of hearing words like, “I love you so much that you don't have to change anything,” we hear, “I love you so much that you must undergo deep transformation in order to be able to fully understand it. If you really want to receive this love, your life will never be the same again.” I think most of us would rather hear the first statement than the last. But the last one is a lot closer to the real message of Christmas—and it's wonderfully disruptive.

So, have a merry Christmas—and let the entrance of the baby throw things off just a bit. You'll never be sorry you did.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

We Did It!

Something very profound has happened at Krum United Methodist Church. Before I tell you what happened, bear with me a minute while I explain how we are governed. The United Methodist Church is a connectional church. By that I mean that no one church functions independently from others in the larger United Methodist connection. Churches in geographical areas are grouped into what are called “Annual Conferences” and each conference is divided into districts which are overseen by District Superintendents. Krum United Methodist Church is part of the North Texas Annual Conference, and we are in the Dallas-Denton District (or, as we on the north end prefer to call it, the “Denton-Dallas District.”

Every year, each United Methodist church must hold what is called a “Charge Conference.” These meetings, presided over by our various District Superintendents, are generally somewhat sleep-inducing meetings where an interminable numbers of reports are produced, the business of the church is presented, the pastor's salary voted on (there are NO secrets where clergy salaries are concerned!), and the names of those who will lead the various committees for the next year are announced. Yawn.

But there was not a single yawn in evidence when we gathered this past Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Despite the rapidly lowering outside temperature, the basement Fellowship Hall in our historic building at the corner of 2nd and W. McCart was filled. Thirty one others, who for various reasons could not attend, had indicated they wanted to vote in absentia. What was going on? Where did that huge amount of interest come from?

As many who live in the Krum area may know, there has long been a sign on a ten acre plot of land on the north side of 1173 between the NorthStar Bank and Dodd Intermediate School. That sign has read, “Future Home of Krum UMC.” Well, my friends, the future is now. After years of prayer, planning, hard work, faithful and sacrificial giving, and a determination to follow where God leads, this loving and courageous group of Christians have said, “It's time to build.”

In early 2008, construction will begin. So many prayers have been answered here.

The current building is full of beautiful memories. A loving and generous group of people have met here for worship and service and education and life together for over 80 years now since the basement was first built in 1924. In their words and lives, they have proclaimed the good news of Jesus Christ to this community and to the world. Now, we are preparing to do so in a way that will be far more accessible and hospitable. No more stairs, lots of bathrooms, light and bright nursery and children's areas, big and well-equipped youth room—we are grateful that all this will come to pass. But the same loving and generous people will meet for worship and service and education and life together. Come join us. Your soul will rejoice and be glad.

Monday, December 03, 2007

“The Hope of Peace”

I fixed my washing machine last week. Now, to some of you, that would be no big deal. But for some of us mechanically impaired, this was MAJOR ACCOMPLISHMENT. Those who were at church on Nov. 25 heard the truly pitiful tale of my complete inability not only to change a flat tire but to even recognize that I had one. (If you want to hear this sad tale, go to the church website,, click on the “listen to messages” tab and find the Nov. 25th one. As a friend of mine said after hearing it, "Christy, there are angels in heaven set aside just to watch over people like you!").

OK, to get back to this washing machine. My husband bought it from his parent's estate. Here's how my sister-in-law described the purchase of this machine. "When Mother walked into the appliance store, the sales associate thought, 'All right, the sucker has shown up. I will sell her the most expensive, most complicated machine ever built.'" And thus she, and now I, ended up with a couple of intriguing Swedish-made machines. Admittedly, they don't take up much space and the washer uses very little water and does get the clothes excruciatingly clean. That's the good side. The bad side is that I had to read a 30 page manual just to figure out how to turn it on. I was so excited when I lowered my time from 45 minutes to only a few seconds to start a basic cycle. It's still another story when I want to do something more complicated.

Anyway, it quit draining last week. The electronic display said something about a fault in the drain line. Since I'm convinced that MY drain lines are simply faultless, I decided to do with the washer what I do with my computer when it gets recalcitrant—turn it off and turn it on again Three tries later, I got the same message. Three days later, with my clothes still locked in the washer, since it stubbornly refused to release the electronic lock in its undrained state, I began to get just a little concerned. Laundry was piling up, and I suspected generous mildew growth was taking place in the receptive damp environment.

I phoned the national service desk—the one advantage to such an EXPENSIVE appliance is that extremely nice and friendly people are available 24 hours a day to solve problems like this. A kind young man, and I feel sure I reminded him of his mother, expressed full confidence that I could fix the problem and explained exactly what I had to do. Simply open a little trap door and clean out a filter there. He said that probably just a little water would drain out when I did and to be sure and put something under there to catch it. Please note, I had NOT told him I had restarted the machine three times after the original error message showed up. Possibly, I should have mentioned that one little fact to him. I will refrain from describing the slight panic that hit when water simply gushed from the trap. And didn't stop gushing for quite a while. But the floor in my laundry area is now quite clean—and I really, really needed a working machine after that.

Nonetheless, I persevered, found $1.87 in loose change there, and joyfully listened later as the machine ran through its cycle, draining merrily away at the right time. What a sense of accomplishment!

Since I strongly believe that all things are connected in some way or another, I knew there was something for me to learn from this. I’m sure many have heard of the “butterfly effect”—the idea that a butterfly flapping its wings on one side of the world can affect a hurricane on the other side. This idea reminds us that there is no such thing as an isolated or a neutral act. Everything has consequences. Every interaction with others, every decision, every piece of work done or undone, every prayer offered or unoffered, every act of kindness or unkindness—they all add either add to or subtract from the hope of the Kingdom of God.

As we are in this time of Advent, the waiting time as we prepare to receive the Savior so generously sent by the Father, it becomes a good time to ponder the eternal consequences of our thoughts and actions, from such simple things as this little repair to such large things as beginning a war. On the day this article will be published in the Krum Star, December 7, we also remember that day that “lived in infamy”—for December 7 is the day of the horrific Pearl Harbor attack that killed so many and changed the world forever.

I want to be one who stands for peace, and I know there can be no peace with others until there is peace with God. The ability to make this simple repair brought peace to my house. Perhaps as we get ready to receive the hope offered by the birth of the Holy Child, we can also gain more ability to make peace with others. It would be a worthwhile goal.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Control or Surprise?

Genetic engineering—it is now part of our present, not the future. Soon and very soon, well-off parents-to-be will be able to make a list of the traits they want in their offspring, arrange for the contraception to take place outside the womb, and accept only the embryo that has the proper genes to fit their order.

Kind of scary, isn't it? I wonder what my parents would have ordered if they have been able to do that before I was born? I'd still be a girl—they already had birthed a son, and my dad wanted a daughter badly. But surely my hair would have been far less curly, I'd have extensive musical gifts (my father's favorite phrase about my voice: “You can't carry a tune in a bucket”) and I'd be at least four inches taller. I also hope I would be more organized, but don't know yet if there is a gene for that.

What I would have ordered had I been able to do that with my own children? Would I have born three sons? Surely I would have picked a daughter somewhere along the line, but which of my sons could I possibly envision my life without? Not one, of course. They are each so precious, and I have been enriched beyond words by their births and lives. Would I have liked them not to have suffered from asthma? Yep, that one is easy. And yet, much of that suffering also shaped their lives and mine, teaching us patience and faith in God and persistence and compassion and reminding us often daily of the fragility of life. Those are such good gifts. On the other hand I would have liked for my oldest son to be able to carry a tune!!!

As I ponder these thoughts, I'm aware that it is easy to be afraid of this move to manipulate our genetic makeup by science and decry it as against God's will.. Christian people have struggled with scientific discoveries like this for recorded history. It wasn't all that long ago that pain relief for women in childbirth was seen as distinctly anti-biblical because of an interpretation of a passage in Genesis that suggests that God WANTS women to suffer in childbirth. But even so, is it God's will be to able to order our children's genes to fit what we think we want?

That's a tough one.

I suspect the real issue here is the human need to be able to control, or at least think we control, our lives and our future. We want to be able to think that we can make things safe enough that we can actually insure our happiness and comfort. One of the ways to do that is to control our environment as much as possible. After all, is anyone reading this upset about the use of central air conditioning on 100 degree days or an efficient heating system now that it has turned chilly?

I was thinking about our need to control the universe when I heard the rain start to fall on Saturday morning. What a glorious sound that was. We are way too dry again, and rain is such a blessing for us. Will we ever be able to really control the weather? We can predict it with some accuracy now (but no one guessed that it might snow on Thanksgiving Day!), but controlling it is a very different thing. I have a feeling we will live at the mercy of weather for many, many lifetimes in front of us.

I think that is a good thing. If nothing else, our inability to control weather can remind us that we humans really are not all that powerful. We can't stop a tornado, or create a noisy thunderstorm or cleanse the oceans with hurricanes or create new islands with volcanoes (OK, that's not exactly weather, but you get the idea). We think we're important—but we're not all that powerful. Not really. Not even when we can play with genes.

So, maybe we should consider that there is something a lot more powerful in our universe, and consider whether that powerful something just might be interested in us, in our souls, in our redemption, in our present lives and in our future life. Maybe, just maybe, that powerful something, whom we call God, may even be interested enough to enter our experience in the form of humanity. Maybe, just maybe, a baby was born in strangely inauspicious circumstances a long, long time ago. And maybe, just maybe, that baby offered the possibility of peace on earth.

Maybe, just maybe, we need to get ready to receive that peace. Maybe, just maybe, God is full of surprising love and chooses to express it in surprising ways. Just something to think about while we try to order our lives so we don't have any surprises.

Monday, November 19, 2007

“Shop and Prepare”

It’s the day after Thanksgiving, and the shopping frenzy has begun. Actually, some stores opened late in the evening on Thanksgiving Day, and many others opened at midnight or 1:00 a.m. this morning. Those who create economic indices will be watching carefully to see what kind of money was spent today. By Monday, the business sections will be full of comparisons and prognostications. Was this year better or worse than last year? Will retailers end in the black? How much will the sub-prime mortgage crash affect consumer willingness to spend during this holiday season?

Many churches, on the other hand, will be imploring people, “Don’t forget what Christmas is all about! Remember, ‘Jesus is the reason for the season.’” We’ll be saying, “Slow down—this is a time of preparation for the birth of the Savior.” We’ll also be saying, “And if you really feel the need to spend a lot of money, for goodness sake, don’t forget to give some to the church! Or at the very least, remember the homeless and hungry in the process of filling our already over-filled houses with even more things we really don’t need.”

This tension between church and society over this holiday is not new. When Oliver Cromwell and the Puritan Party came to power in England in the middle of the 17th century, all Christmas celebrations were outlawed. I also understand that anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit in Boston in the mid-to-late 1600’s was fined! All this came from their Puritan heritage. The motive was good. They wanted the people to remember the entrance of the Savior to the world with reverence and awe. But the means were awful—legislation that tells people they can’t celebrate will never, ever work.

Personally, I think we need to honor both traditions. It’s the church’s job to encourage us to recognize that the world does indeed need a Savior and to use this time to prepare for it. That is why we call this season “Advent.” It simply means “Coming.” The Sent One is soon to arrive. It’s a time to decorate with greens for the evergreen is a sign of life and hope. The wreath that many hang on their doors is the circle that represents the eternality of God. Just as the circle has no beginning or end, in God there is no beginning and no end. The Advent Candles, three violet ones and one rose-colored, will be progressively lit, adding one each Sunday. These remind us that the Light of the World is indeed coming and we need to get ready for that.

But it is also a time set aside to let loose with parties and joy and giving and relaxation and vacations. It’s a time to consider others and fill food pantries and go into a baking frenzy and enjoy multiple sports activities and take a break from work and school. It’s a time to spend money, plan surprises, and express our hope for the future.

So, let the party begin. Shop well, have fun with the preparations, and come to church each week in Advent. Take a couple of hours each Sunday to open your hearts anew to the Savior. Plan on attending a Christmas Eve worship service. Prepare your homes AND prepare your hearts. You can do both and I hope you will.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Transformative “Thank You”

Wow, Thanksgiving is already upon us. School is out for all of next week, academic pressure is off for a little while, and many will travel for family gatherings.

For years and years, my sister and I have prepared a very formal Thanksgiving meal at her gracious home in Plano for the extended family. The best linens, china, silver and crystal emerged from their normal storage spots to endure the yearly washing and preparation time. This year, after a rather tumultuous summer and fall for both of us, and the growing realization that what people really wanted to do was snack in front of the TV and watch football, we changed our plans. Everything will be disposable—when the meal is over, we’ll pick up the four corners of the plastic tablecloths and tie them up and place all in the trash can.

Clearly, this will be much easier on the cleaning crew (read: me), but I also know we are putting behind a cherished tradition and will miss the beauty of the exquisite table settings and the quiet and extended conversations that often took place around them. However, in the last 13 months, four of the five elderly people who sat around that table have died. Both of my husband’s parents, my father and my sister’s mother-in-law have all gone on to new life in the glorious and unveiled presence of God. My mother is the only one left, and frankly, she always thought my sister and I were a bit crazy to put on such a show anyway.

So I suspect that tradition has now passed. And other things are different. Traditionally, my three sons have all managed to get back to the Metroplex for this holiday. But my oldest son’s wife has just given birth by C-section this week to their second son and the trip will be too much for them. Middle son, wife and five month-old daughter should make it, but they rightly need to split time with her family. Youngest son needs to explore the seriousness of a relationship he has formed with a lovely young woman and so will celebrate Thanksgiving with her family in Florida this year.

Changes, changes, changes. They happen to all of us. And I hope that each of us will take time this week to ponder them and say “Thank You” to God for each of them, no matter how welcome or unwelcome those changes may be. A “Thank You” like that is a transformative experience. It slows us down for a moment, encourages just a bit of reflection, and reminds us that, while we may not be able to direct our lives just the way we’d like, we can still receive life’s experiences with grateful hearts and find the goodness and hope in them.

So my prayer for all who read this post: “May the love of God the Father, the grace of God the Son, and the communion of God the Holy Spirit surround each of you in your time of thanksgiving, family, food and fun. Go in peace, dear friends, and find all joy in this holiday. Amen and Amen.”
The complexity of spiritual health

I was thinking today how very complicated it is to live a spiritually healthy life. Certainly a spiritually healthy person’s center can be quickly articulated: someone who loves the Lord God with all heart and mind and strength and soul, and one who loves his or her neighbor as the self. That’s health all right. But how does anyone get to that point?

At our midweek Bible study yesterday, a group of us began to wrestle with some words in Luke 6 that form the core of Jesus’ ethical teachings. The ones that tell us to love our enemies and always return good when treated badly, and to stop being vengeful.

How against human nature such words are! We all want to punch out those who are hurting us or are hurting those whom we love. Jesus seems to be asking us to receive the hurts, not as passive doormats, but as those actively seeking to return good for evil.

At one point in this very powerful discussion, one person vocalized what we were all beginning to see more clearly: this path leads to the cross. It took Jesus there and we have to go there as well. Again, we must go not as passive victims, but as those actively seeking righteousness. And we must never forget: Easter Sunday ALWAYS follows Good Friday.

As we ended our study in prayer last night, we knew that Jesus had been in our midst. Love flowed around that table as a group of beat-up people facing multiple challenges again said, “I’m Yours, Lord. Thy will be done.” The kind of peace that really does pass understanding settled, however briefly, upon each of us. What a luminous moment.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Problem of Female Pastors

Here’s a link to an article in Christianity Today, a well-known and well-regarded publication, about a visiting pastor in Finland being charged with criminal discrimination because he refused to serve with a female pastor.

This article provoked a number of comments. Below is one of them, copied exactly as it was written from the comments page:

Feminism is a damnable form of modern paganism and idolatry. And Christianity Astray magazine is wicked and apostate for its promotion of it. Even the form of your questionaire shows a decided bias and promotion of Gnostic feminism. But you will all find out on the Day of Judgment when you are cast into hell just how important 1 Cor.14:34-35 and 1 Tim.2:11-15 are to the Gospel of Christ. Feminists and all those who support female leadership in church and government will burn in hell under the wrath of God. 1 Cor.6:9-10 and Rev.21:8!.

OK, what do you think? Is our whole church going to burn in hell under the wrath of God? Is this what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about? By the way, the two passages the writer quotes to uphold his position read this way in the NRSV:

1 Cor 14: 34-35
women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Tim 2:11-15
Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.

And yes, I’ve fought this battle before and am happy to dialogue about it. Would love to hear your thoughts

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Infectious Laughter

A few weeks ago, I was in Montreal, Canada, enjoying a few days with my oldest son, his wife, and their 16 month old son, Joshua. The four of us drove one day to Quebec City and were exploring the Old Town, the fort and city that had been built hundreds of years ago on the Saint Lawrence River.

Joshua was just learning to walk, and I was shepherding him around the tourist-packed cobbled streets while his parents were in one of the shops. As is typical of children that age, he had decided he no longer wanted to hold my hand, demanding to explore freely without grandmotherly restraint. Suddenly, he realized that his mom and dad were not in sight. He began to get anxious. Just at that moment, my son appeared about 25 feet away. He knelt down and opened his arms wide as Joshua moved toward him. A look of delight spread over Joshua’s face and he began to chortle with an uninhibited belly laugh as he carefully balanced himself on the uneven cobblestones and made his way to his father. Nearly everyone on the narrow, crowded street stopped and watched this happy, giggling infant get swept into his daddy’s arms. Joshua’s own laughter infected the entire crowd, and they, too, began to laugh. Truly a contagious moment of light-hearted joy. The son reunited with the father, swept high into the air in those safe and loving arms, all panic gone, replaced with unhampered love and comfort and unrestrained laughter.

What a picture of heaven! Surely it is a place of delighted laughter, infectious joy, and thrilling reconciliations as we are met by the Son, swept into the arms of our Father, and discover the complete fullness of the Spirit. Fear disappears, heavy hearts find complete relief, and from our mouths flow words of praise and adoration.

It all makes me think that those moments of unrestrained laughter serve as doorways to the gracious presence of God. There have been movements around the world when “holy laughter” has taken over congregations. Someone finds himself or herself so infused with the joy of heaven that he or she starts laughing and can’t stop. The laughter leaps from person to person until all are consumed with joy.

I was worshipping with such a group one night. It was a five day retreat where all of us engaged in the disciplines of silence, study, fellowship, and worship on a set schedule each day. After the last worship service of each day, no words were spoken again until the next morning when we gathered again before breakfast. There the cantor would sing “O Lord, open my lips” and we would all respond with “And let me sing forth thy joy.”

This particular night, it was time to begin our final worship time and prepare for the silence to follow. Just before the opening words, someone got the “holy giggles.” Those giggles spread throughout the room. Each time the worship leaders thought things were calm enough to go forward, someone would start laughing again and the whole room would break up. This continued for about 30 minutes. We were simply taken up in the joyous presence of God that night.

Yes, these moments are foretastes of heaven. May we all experience them often!

Sunday, November 4, we will celebrate All Saints, a day in which we honor those from our church who have passed from glory to glory in this past year. As we remember the past, we will also take time to look into our future. Memories of our past inform our future. A life without memories is a life without direction. Think about it. How could you do anything you do if you did not have memories to direct you? There are stories of brain injured people who have no memories at all—everything has to be relearned from moment to moment. There is no past to inform the future, and no forward movement can be made. While living in the present in a good thing, being stuck in the present is not. The proper honoring of our memories gives us impetus to create new ones.

I had a professor once who spoke of “cellular memories” and the phrase really struck me. He had a sense that there are lots of memories built into our souls that we are not really conscious of but which very much affect how we live and the decisions we make. It was his guess that those memories go back for generations and generations. It makes sense—there are memories built into our DNA. They surround us, influence us, sometimes they bring good, sometimes harm. But they are there.

When we worship together, I often have a sense that there are hundreds more people in the room than we see physically around us. Each of us brings with us powerful relationships and these people in our lives are present mentally. Sometimes when I’m alone in our Sanctuary, sitting quietly, I have a sense of thousands and thousands of prayers embedded in the walls. Memories, joys and concerns, hope and despair, friendship and isolation, wedding delights and funeral sorrows. They are all there. When we move to our new location, we’ll need to infuse the new worship space with another set of memories. And it is very, very important that we not lose the special history of our church in the process. The saints who went before us have helped to create the saints who walk among us. And that is what we will do for the next generation. It’s our gift to them. May we do this with grace and generosity.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Out the Car Window

It was highway trash pick up day. Those so inclined to participate met at the Krum United Methodist Church building at 8:00 a.m. this past Saturday. Here, we were presented with bright orange vests and large plastic bags. Several people who had not participated before joined us, and were quickly given instructions: leave cigarette butts and dead animal carcasses in place. Everything else needs to be picked up. Stick an extra bag in your belt—when the first one gets full, leave it by the side of the road. Then we divided into two teams, one going north on FM 156, and the other going south. We’d meet somewhere in the middle.

Glorious weather accompanied our task. The full moon was still high in the western sky when the sun appeared to dissipate the early morning chill. The cows grazed contentedly. Trains passed. Cars raced by. We slowly worked out way through the grass, wet with morning dew, the moisture seeping through everyone’s shoes and socks.

Because the team was larger than usual, especially on the south side, a second smaller team followed the first group and was able to pick up what was missed on the first sweep. We enjoyed some good-natured ribbing about the first team’s lack of observational powers as the second sweep still managed full bags of highway trash.

Bottles, cans, cigarette packs, rags, dog collars, gloves, plastic straws, cups and lids, pieces of tire, rebar and chair-rail wooden trim. That was our haul. Twenty large bags of it in one not particularly heavily traveled two mile stretch. All of this represents the dark side of our throw-away society. Don’t need it; it’s just too much trouble to find a trash can or recycle bin; just pitch it out. We do it to trash. And we do it to people whom we find inconvenient or difficult to love. Just toss ‘em away. Let someone else take care of it.

I do wonder sometimes if God finds humanity just too much trouble to bother with. We are indeed, after all, a troublesome and rebellious people. Few really pursue lives of intentional holiness and sacrificial love for others. Most of us are caught in “me-ness,” a place where our own needs take such a high priority that the larger world almost disappears from sight. We ask others to be responsible for our actions and our thoughtlessness rather than living out of an integrity-filled place of personal responsibility.

So what if God has just tossed us out of the celestial equivalent of a car window? What would the world be like without the constant invitation from the Holy One to enter into a place of forgiveness and reconciliation? What if only darkness reigned, and all light were snuffed out? That is the description of hell. But God has not yet rescinded the invitation to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Light beckons. The Holy One calls. May we all respond with thankful hearts.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Two Prayers--and a Problem

Two people want to pray. People can certainly pray anywhere, but these two decided to go to a place where prayers are routinely said. There is definitely something that enhances prayers by going to a place that really is set aside for such activity. The atmosphere may quiet the spirit, the whispers of other prayers, long since said, may still inhabit the space, pulling us toward a transcendent experience.

A really fascinating book, just released, called The Year of Living Biblically tells, among other things, how the regular practice of prayer brought a sense of inner belief that has never been there before. So, regular prayer does have benefits. Some do find time for this vital spiritual discipline.

These two men have decided to do so. They have arrived at the designated place of prayer. One walks in with much confidence. He exudes a personal assurance that many envy. That type of person walks in a room and immediately “owns” it. The space belongs to him, even if he has never seen it before. He knows his power and everyone else knows he knows. Charisma. He’s got it. Everyone acts glad to see him. The energy immediately rises.

The other, however, slides in furtively. Will he be well-received? Too many times, the “no” in answer to that question has bounced off the blank and unwelcoming faces to his fearful brain. He looks around, not sure where to stand, not really wanting to be noticed.

The first man, we shall call him the Confident Man, speaks boldly to God, and cares not who hears his words. He knows his goodness and has no fear of letting others know.

The second man, and perhaps we can call him the Mousey Man, barely mumbles his prayer. The last thing he wants is for others to hear him. He knows he needs God; he knows his unworthiness.

We all know the story—the Confident One leaves with his prayer unheard; the Mousey Man’s prayer goes straight to the heart of God. So we all want to identify with the Mousey Man. But there’s a problem here. Aren’t we supposed to approach the throne of Grace with confidence? Hasn’t Jesus paid the price? Aren’t we supposed to have a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ? Doesn’t that give us the right to approach God with familiarity? As in, “Hi there, Daddy. Time for my wish list!”

More later . . .

Friday, October 19, 2007

On Needing Sleep

Every generation and every culture has its own triumphs and makes it own mistakes. We can often see both the triumphs and the mistakes in our child-rearing practices. In the early parts of the 20th century, prevailing wisdom insisted that a child be picked up as rarely as possible and little physical affection given. From that, a generation of structured, emotionally detached parents emerged. Then we had Dr. Spock and the invasion of what was called “permissive child rearing.” Here, parents imposed fewer and fewer limits on children. Such methodology helped produce the group called “baby boomers,” most of whom have some very interesting memories of the late 60’s and early 70’s when the drug culture went wild and enticed these undisciplined ones into a life of “free love” and excess. I would also suggest most boomers have not really recovered from that—excess (as in excessive consumption, excessive wealth, excessive food, excessive need for therapy) continues to govern the lives of many of that generation. This is the generation of people who thought they could have it all. They were, of course, seriously disappointed.

The current crop of parents, many of whom are children of those excess-driven boomers, now put their stamp on child-rearing. Their children enjoy and/or suffer from an excess of scheduling and ambition. We are seeing a generation of highly accomplished young people, often combining high levels of expertise in academics, athletics, the fine arts, and community or even world service. Yes, they are doing it all.

And just as the baby boomers paid a price for their generational excess, so are those in this young generation paying the price for having it all in their way. They are living with a huge sleep deficit. No one is getting enough rest, and there now seems to be a very strong correlation between inadequate rest and growing obesity, growing numbers diagnosed with ADHD, growing depression, and growing debilitating stress.

Just sleep. People need to sleep more if they really do want to accomplish more. It seems so counter-intuitive. Sleep less, study more, do better, use more calories, stay more slender. That’s what we think. But perhaps, just perhaps we are wrong.

The urge to compete, to win, to dominate, underlies much of the culture of excess, whether we see excess consumerism or excess accomplishment. Human beings spend a lot of time comparing themselves to others, wondering whether we make the mark and how we can move higher in the rankings. This is not necessarily unnatural—the same thing happens in much of the animal world. However, there is a difference between healthy competition and unhealthy competition. There is a difference between a soul that looks forward toward the call of God with the goal of perfection in love and one who looks over his or her shoulder, afraid that someone else might catch up or pass by. One is motivated by love; one is motivated by fear.

Perhaps we need much more rest and down time than we think. Perhaps we need fewer things to do and more time to be. Perhaps we need time to pray and contemplate the glory of God and our part in this created order. Perhaps we really, really need good sleep in order to accomplish anything worthwhile. Perhaps, just perhaps, the Scriptures are right when they call for a holy day of rest, a time with family, a time to worship and regenerate. Perhaps, just perhaps, we’ve got a few priorities out of line these days. Just something to think about . . . when there is time to think.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Religious News: homemakers and hucksters

Sometimes just reading religious news brings up enough bile to act as a weight loss tonic. First, let’s start with this one: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and its homemaking degree. In case you’ve missed it, check out this link:,0,900610.story

In truth, I’m somewhat in sympathy with the idea—homemaking does indeed need to be recognized for its value. There have been numerous estimates made of how what it would cost to replace the services of a full-time mother and home-maker, especially when there are very young children involved. It’s a bundle—but the current work climate has not seen fit to honor those who fill that role.

But this also brings up the difficulty of interpreting Scripture for today. Does it teach in a timeless manner that males are the absolute ruler of the household and that women should live subservient lives to them? Or is that a culturally bound situation that illustrates the overall and more important principle that we must honor and give respect to all: women, men, slaves and free, pagan and Jew.

Now, while we’re in the middle of debating that one, we can move to the latest scandal in the world of the celebrity, way-too-rich Christian superstars. This time, the finger is pointed at Richard Roberts, President of Oral Roberts University and his wife, Lindsey. If you have not seen the information about this, you’ll find links to all the documents here:

I hope none of this is true. But if it is, may God have mercy on us all. What a laughingstock Christianity becomes when people without depth of character or well-integrated holiness of heart, mind and hands are elevated to serve as public faces and spokespersons for our faith.

Makes me want to weep.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Information Cascade

I just read the phrase, “Information Cascade” and I find myself intrigued. An “information cascade” happens when one person answers a question wrongly but with a lot of confidence, the second person to answer it isn’t sure enough to disagree so goes along with the first person, and then the third person, who may indeed have the correct answer, decides to agree with the first two because he/she assumes that both can’t be wrong. Things just expand from there, with this wrong answer taking on more and more credibility until some courageous person finally says, “The emperor has no clothes.”

The particular context in which I saw the phrase “information cascade” came from some research findings that apparently refute the long-held idea that dietary fats were the direct cause of heart disease. For almost 20 years now, nutritionists and physicians were absolutely sure that low-fat diets would slow down the progression of heart disease. Now it looks like they were all wrong. Whew! Pass the butter and the well-marbled steak, please. It’s time to indulge again.

What particularly fascinates me is the willingness of the crowd to follow the first one to speak with authority, even when they sense that something may not be right. It’s age-old peer pressure operating again, but with such subtlety that it goes unnoticed much of the time.

I look at the world around me and wonder how many absolutely wrong ideas we are following because it is easier to just listen to the one speaking with authority rather than find out for ourselves and also to trust our own thoughts.

There’s definitely a challenge here—uninformed thoughts lead to uninformed opinions. Just because we think something doesn’t make it right. But just because someone else thinks something doesn’t make that right either.

Those who attend the Krum UMC know something of my own spiritual journey. I’ve longed to know God and to serve God since my early 20’s. At that point, I knew there was something far greater that I and that “something” certainly represented creative power and redeeming love. In my early years as a Christian, I spent much time trying to find absolute certainty. I wanted to know exactly what to believe, how to believe it, and how to convince others to believe the same things since I was so sure I was right.

I’m still pretty sure I’m right. God is love; God is full of creative energies; God is interested in the redemption of all of creation through Jesus, the Sent One, so we might live most fully and die most courageously and be prepared to spend eternity in glory.

I’ve also discovered that in many ways, I’d just as soon follow the crowd, whether they are right or not. This is the lazy way for me to discover who God is and what God wants from me.

Right now, the “information cascade” in church growth movements has been saying, “the bigger, the better.” The more bells and whistles, the more “contemporary” we can make our worship, the more successful we will be. It’s so easy to buy into this. Go big, go fancy, make worship entertaining, let the people be spectators and walk out feeling good and maybe they will leave a lot of money in the offering plate so the church can buy more bells and whistles.

But then I start looking more closely at Jesus, this Sent One, the One who came to show us most fully the creative and loving God. Certainly, he attracted big crowds, but the majority of his time was with those who were not just there to be entertained, but were there to learn and to enter into the discipleship relationship.

Disciple is an old-fashioned word. There doesn’t seem to be a contemporary equivalent. I’ve tried using “mentor” but it just doesn’t work. There’s too much distance there. Discipleship is more demanding, more intimate, more transforming, more connected. It’s a higher calling. And it is what Jesus asked his own disciples to do—to make disciples of others. Disciples may be followers, but they do not follow the crowd, going along with others because someone spoke with confidence and it just easiest to agree. Disciples use their brains and thinking powers with integrity and independence.

Right now, we’re doing a series on Sunday mornings about the marks of a Christian. So far, we’ve talked about obedience. This Sunday, October 14, will be about thankfulness. On the 21st, we’re going to talk about justice. These are all hard words, and evidence of a big and powerful calling. There is also laughter and joy and good memories and so much else that folds into the life of a disciple. It’s a life lived to deep fullness and rich beyond imagination. The “information cascade” on church life right now may say, “come and be entertained.” But the real truth is: come and be transformed. It’s a lot more lasting and a lot more fun in the long run.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Controversy Brewing in Krum

We've got a brouhaha brewing in Krum, TX. Sounds like trouble in River City, folks. What on earth are we going to do about those people who live here but don't speak English? Isn't that just terribly rude and lazy? After all, we are educating their children at taxpayer expense.

And yes, the above statement is a bit tongue-in-cheek.

I've just re-read the letters to the editor in the Krum Star the last couple of weeks. In doing so, I sense that two distinct issues are being confused.

The first issue concerns language: there are people in our community who do not speak English. The second issue concerns illegal immigration. Evidence suggests that the majority of illegal immigrants are indeed from Spanish speaking countries.

But it doesn't necessarily follow that someone who speaks only Spanish is in this country illegally. And if we as a community don't separate those two issues, we're going to end up being known as a place that doesn't just lack hospitality for certain people groups, but one that is more actively hostile to them.

In my opinion, when we become hostile to the sojourner, to the immigrant, to the one who has come to the US to try to make a life that is better than the one being left behind, we have lost the essence of being citizens of the United States. Not to mention those who violate basic tenants of Scripture.

I know that I have my own bias here. My daughter-in-law is from Bogota, Colombia. My son met her when he was assigned to work there for a period of time by the consulting company he works for. He had gone to the trouble of learning Spanish several years before, so was comfortable working in South America.

The two were married in 2003. Since that time, Jonathan and Adriana have followed all the rules set in place to ensure that people immigrate legally. They've hit obstacle after obstacle after obstacle. Twice now, we've had to appeal to our congresspeople for help. The first time, someone from Joe Barton's office got things going. The second time, Jonathan appealed to Senator Hilary Clinton, as they were then living in New York City. In the meantime, they had hired an attorney, made interminable phone calls, compiled boxes full of documentation, and still nearly ran out of time before her presence in the US would be illegal. These two highly educated, literate people could barely work their way through the system. How on earth do those do it without a solid educational and family base to help? I really don't know.

Furthermore, unless we come directly from Native American stock. all of us are descendants of immigrants. As it happens, some of my ancestors actually came over on the Mayflower. But they were still immigrants.

And I'm betting only a few who came on the Mayflower went to the trouble to learn the languages of the Native Americans they encountered and upon whose good will they were dependent.

I'm not excusing laziness in learning languages. But the laziest people in the world for learning new languages are those of us who live in the United States. I was recently in Montreal, Canada. Montreal is part of French Canada. All signs are in French. Everyone speaks French. I don't. I can read it, but I can't speak it. At all. If people there hadn't been hospitable enough to speak English, I would have been out on a limb--with no one to rescue me. Couldn't have given instructions to a taxi driver, done the marketing, toured the Notre Dame Cathedral, talked with the pediatrician who was treating my grandson, or ordered a meal in a restaurant.

Illegal immigration is indeed a problem. But we've also got one. Let's talk about some possible solutions.

Monday, October 08, 2007

"Thank you!"

"Joshua, can you say, 'Thank you?'" I wonder how many times I said this to my 16 month old grandson on my recent visit to Montreal. His parents and I are all seeking to instill in him good manners and what we hope will be a deeply ingrained and almost automatic response when someone does something for him. Please and thank you. Por favor y gracias. S'il vous plaƮt et merci. Bitte und danke. Prego e grazie. In any language, they are beautiful words. For Joshua, whose mother is from South America and whose father, my son, is moving them to France in January, he needs to learn these words in at least three languages if he is to employ this basic social skill in his many different environments.

We ask our children to use these words even when they don’t feel particularly grateful and have no particular desire to exercise social graces. Why? I think that because the very vocalization of the words can dramatically influence how we are experiencing life around us. Using the words, “thank you,” when someone gives us something, be it a gift or a compliment or the grace of a forgiving heart and spirit means that we really do receive the gift. Saying “Thank you” acknowledges the giver and the gift offered. It also indicates that the receiver is aware that a gift has come and has been actually taken to heart.

Sometimes I wonder if we give less then whole-hearted “thank you’s” because we fear a hidden agenda on the part of the giver. Or because we don’t want to be on the receiving end, sometimes the less-powerful role in interpersonal relationships. Or we don’t want to be in some way obligated to the giver.

Gifts freely given, of course, should not obligate the receiver. In human interaction, however, it does seem that many gifts are given with a lot of strings attached. When those strings are yanked, a lot of emotional pain can roll out.

The Gospel of Luke tells a story about Jesus healing ten lepers, but only one returning to say, “Thank you.” Why only one? Jesus asks that—what happened to the other nine? To be a leper in first century life meant living on the extreme ragged edge of society. It meant being untouched and untouchable. Imagine a life with no hugs, kisses, handshakes, friendly smiles of welcome. Consider what it would be like to be shunned from every gathering, to be continually hungry, begging for your very existence. So healing meant a full re-entrance into community life. It meant welcome and family and corporate worship and celebration and a chance to work and contribute to the larger good.

So why only one? What really happens when we say, “Thank you?” I’d be interested in any ideas you have on the subject.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Paperwork, Procrastination and Panic

Paperwork, procrastination and panic—they touch each other, each pushing the other to greater heights—or depths, depending on one's perspective. And I, along with countless others, polished the art of procrastination to a mirror finish by putting off collecting my tax information until this past week.

It all seemed so easy last spring. A simple filing procedure meant six more months until this moment. Six months! A lifetime, surely? Or perhaps just a fleeting moment.

Certainly, my conscience was twinging in June. But no . . . more important tasks awaited. A very busy summer with my father's final illness and death, the birth of a new grandchild, work on the new building plans for Krum United Methodist Church, unexpected repairs to the current facility—all demanded and received my attention. Taxes were always there in the back of my mind. I kept trying to push them out, even knowing at some point I'd have to face them.

Unfortunately, clergy taxes rank high on the complexity scale. It's not a question of getting the W-2 and a few other things together and asking for some quick help from a professional. For clergy, itemizing is not an option. It's a necessity. Everything demands careful documentation. Every contribution, every expense, all miles driven—it adds up to a lot of paperwork. I really, really, really don't like paperwork—especially meticulous work like this.

It gets worse. My husband, also a clergy person, has such a gift for procrastination that I'm often in awe of it. I look like a paragon of paperwork efficiency compared to him. Normally, I'm the one asking him to get his documentation together so it can all go to the accountant. This time, he is the one who has asked repeatedly—and kindly—for me to finish. Yes, panic was growing when I finally forced myself to sit down and work. The taxman had come.

Slowly, a picture of my financial life began to appear on my computer screen. I see where money is spent, saved, given, wasted. My panic begins to fade as my confidence grows that I can face this. I have the ability to wrestle this jumble of charts and files and odd pieces of paper into a respectable package for the accountant. As the panic fades, my gratefulness grows. I don't make a lot of money, yet all my needs have been met. I rejoice in the opportunities that came my way to give generously. I saw that the more generously I gave, the more freely God was able to give to me. Somehow in the midst of very busy work and tight finances, I managed a trip to Australia to see my first born grandchild, a quick jaunt to California to witness the wedding of a beloved step-daughter, and a sweet vacation with my husband, packed with special memories. Some money was set aside for retirement, little spent on clothes, more spent on books, my major indulgence.

The task was done. My long-suffering husband arrived home, a pizza, my favorite comfort food in hand. I felt this giant sense of gratefulness. Time to say, “Thank you, God, for Your provision in my life. Thank You for taxes, for a government, no matter how flawed, that provides freedom in thought and deed. Thank You for a patient husband and competent accountants. Thank You for the opportunity to give generously, and receive the fullness of Your powerful love.” Giving thanks. What a relief! And what a way to find the presence of God in the midst of piles of paperwork, panic and procrastination.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Call to Obedience

“If only I had faith . . .” When there is an “if only” statement, it is generally followed by a “then” statement. So what is the “then” that follows the “if only I had faith” statement?

Here are some possibilities:

  • “Then” my prayers would be answered.
  • "Then” I would ace my exams.
  • “Then” I would get well.
  • “Then” I would win the lottery or get a raise.
  • “Then” my children would be OK.
  • “Then” I would find the love of my life.
  • “Then” my spouse would be nicer to me.
  • “Then” I’d lose some weight.

Lots of options for our “then” statements here.

I wonder what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they said to him one day, “We need more faith. Tell us how to get it.” (Luke 17:5, New Living Translation). Perhaps they were asking for more power in order to bring healing to others. Or for more willingness to lead sacrificial lives. Or for an ability to really forgive others. Not too long before, Jesus has reminded them that every time someone asks for forgiveness, they are to offer it. That’s a tough one for most of us. Definitely takes a lot of faith to do that. And all of these possibilities seem like reasonable requests for an increase in faith.

But Jesus certainly doesn’t give the kind of answer most of us would like particularly well. He just tells them that if they had even a tiny bit of faith, they could do anything they wished. What they really needed was to learn to obey God.

Hmmm. This is kind of like me saying, “Hey, God, one of my sons is moving to France next year and I’d really like to learn French—how about giving me a gift of speaking in that language?”

Then God responds, “What a great idea! I’ll definitely give you that gift, Christy. Here’s what you do: take several classes the language, start listening to teaching CD’s when you are in the car. Read French literature when you want to relax a bit and plan on several months in some French language immersion classes. Before you know it, you’ll be speaking it beautifully! That’s my gift to you.”

Ouch! That’s a lot of hard work! I just want it handed to me, all nice and neat, no effort required. Nothing like exposing my laziness! I suspect that’s what Jesus had in mind here when speaking to his disciples. “You want the easy road—but I’m calling you to the road of obedience and hard work. It may be tougher in the short run, but the long run rewards are so much greater.”

So, will I make the effort to learn French? Probably not. I admit it—I just want the result without the hard work going into it. But there are areas of my life where I will make the effort—and one of those is seeking each day to have an obedient heart toward God. That is worth the hard work. Hope you’ll join me.

Wishing Death or Wishing Life

A recent article in Time Magazine speaks of a well known writer’s crusade against anything religious. Here’s how it starts:

Christopher Hitchens once devoted an entire book to portraying Mother Teresa as a phony, so perhaps Billy Graham got off easy when Hitchens described him, in a recent C-Span appearance, as "a self-conscious fraud," who didn't believe a word of what he preached, but was just in business for the money. The celebrated atheist, whose latest polemic, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, is firmly entrenched on the bestseller list, also called Graham a power-worshiping bigot who made a living by "going around spouting lies to young people. What a horrible career. I gather it's soon to be over. I certainly hope so." (,8599,1662757,00.html)

I’ve only read parts of Hitchens’ latest book, so I can’t speak fully to his argument, but I do know that he thinks religion is the cause of most of the horrors in the world. In some ways, he may be right. Most thinking people are pretty horrified at the toll that religious wars have caused. There is just something about the nature of our religious beliefs that often leads to extreme intolerance and even hatred and violence. No question that it is disturbing.

I also know the other side: the enormous amount of good that has been done in the name of religion. Here, Christianity leads the pack. I have no clue how many hungry have been fed, naked clothed, prisoners visited, immigrants welcomes and sheltered, or hospitals built and maintained in the name of Jesus because people know that God’s call on them is to relieve suffering wherever they find it.

Now, are good things done by those who have no religious beliefs? Of course. But the argument holds the other way as well. Horrible things are done by people who have no religious belief.

I wonder sometimes if Hitchens is raging not so much against religion but against the power of the human soul to do evil. There’s certainly plenty of evidence to support that contention. What fascinates me about the quote above is that Hitchens’ freely wishes death upon another person, i.e., Billy Graham. He himself in that statement is guilty of just as much evil as anyone else who has wished death upon another person, whether that person is doing it in the name of religion or some other cause. Like most of us, however, it looks like Hitchens has a well-developed ability to stay blind to his own shortcomings while feeling very, very free to point out anything he doesn’t like in others. And to feel free to wish something upon others that I’m betting he doesn’t what to happen to himself.

John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, spent his life seeking to be a true Christian. He knew that such a goal meant much more than saying words that brought eternal salvation. He knew there must also be a component that actively sought to do powerful and transformative good in the world around him. He was not afraid to examine those parts of his soul that might wish death upon another person and then to actively repent and learn to give life instead. Sometimes that is a very difficult process. It means an active and sometimes personally painful choice to love those who differ violently from us. It means doing what Jesus did—going to the cross for others by saying, “Father, forgive them for they don’t know what they do,” in the midst of our own suffering.

I ache for the Christopher Hitchens’ of the world, for those people whose only exposure to religious thinking has been that of hatred and intolerance and rigidity and an inability to be graceful. How sad that those called Christians have failed to live out our call to love one another as Jesus loves us. Unfortunately, I’m betting that these words from Hitchens that were quoted in the Time Magazine article will lead to more hatred poured out upon him by those acting in the name of Jesus. That would only vindicate him. Surely God’s heart breaks when we refuse to love, no matter how painful it is. It’s time to change this pattern once and for all and learn to give life, not death. That is the way of Jesus.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Little Things Matter

I love reading advice columnists. Many letters from those seeking advice start with a phrase something like this: “My wife/husband/child/parent/significant other is charming, good-looking, adorable, nearly perfect in every way but. . . ”. The “but” often indicates some behavior, generally but not always done in private, that the letter-writer finds offensive or disgusting or horrifying or immoral or simply troubling and not resolvable.

Sometimes the letter-writer just needs to learn some tolerance and lighten up a bit. Often, however, that bit of questionable behavior indicates a deep crack in the soul that ultimately destroys hope of a loving and respectful relationship. I remember reading once that a person should never marry someone who treats restaurant servers poorly. Seems like such a little thing. Yet, it is often the little things that truly show character. And someone who treats wait-staff with disrespect will probably also treat others with disrespect—including spouses, children, parents and co-workers.

Here’s another phrase I’ve often heard tossed around: “The devil is in the details.” I actually prefer turning it to read, “The angel is in the details,” but both phrases say the same thing: little things really do matter. Have you ever been bitten by a fire ant or dive-bombed by a persistent mosquito or buffalo gnat? Suffered with a tiny piece of sand in your eye or a struggled with piece of food caught between your teeth or a splinter in your finger? What about being infected with the virus that causes influenza or an illness much worse than that? Tiny things. Big impacts. Sometimes, life and death impacts. Yep, those little things matter.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is recorded as having made these comments: “If you're honest in small things, you'll be honest in big things; if you're a crook in small things, you'll be a crook in big things. If you're not honest in small jobs, who will put you in charge of the store?” (Luke 16: 10-12, The Message Translation).

These words make it clear even more clear: those things that are so often dismissed as “little” or “unimportant” matter. They matter a lot. They reveal the essential health or unhealth of the soul. Our soul-health is the measure of the state of our movement toward becoming Christ-like, the goal of all who call themselves by the name, “Christian.” A truly Christ-like person is willing to be held accountable for all areas of life, not just those that are put on for public show.

A counselor who works with pastors a great deal once spoke these words to the members of a class she was teaching: “There is one way I can tell if a pastor is getting into trouble. It is when he or she feels free to dip into the doughnut money and justifies it by thinking, ‘I already give so much anyway—I deserve to get something back.’” Noting the shocked look on the faces of her students, this wise counselor went on to explain. Such a tiny little visible compromise generally means that something major but deeply hidden is very, very wrong. Often, that major issue can be kept secret for years. The public side of that person looks untarnished and good. Nonetheless, that darkness will ultimately come out and leave a lot of devastation in its wake. The devil, or the angel, really is in the details.

We’re going to talk about this more on Sunday in a message called, “The Ethics Breaker” as we look at a really challenging story about a dishonest man who ends up getting a big pat on the back. Come join us—everyone is welcome to be a part of our worship at Krum United Methodist Church, W. McCart and Second Street.


Thursday, July 19, 2007

From Dust to Dust

I was hurriedly running an errand when my phone began to buzz. Grabbed it and saw a text message from my youngest son with these cryptic words: “I am safe from the fire. No worries.” Now THOSE are words intended to calm a mother’s heart! Right. Heart rate probably reached 200 in those few seconds.

I stopped the car, tried to phone him and couldn’t get through. A few minutes later, he reached me and said, “We think there was an explosion in our building. I raced down 30 floors of my building and there is smoke everywhere. Check the news and you’ll find out more. I’m walking 40 blocks home—subway system is shut down. Phones barely working—probably can’t get through again for a while. Don’t worry: we’re all safe.” “All” in this case, meaning he, his two brothers, my two daughters-in-law, and my two grandchildren, all of whom live and work in Manhattan.

Well, I checked the local news in the car, and heard nothing about some sort of terrorist attack in NYC, so I figured it must not be too bad. Got home and discovered that there had been an underground transformer explosion on the corner where my son worked and it was so massive that it shook the buildings nearby. However, I was intrigued to notice that the Australian News Service reported that a building had crumbled to dust! Fortunately, they were seriously overstating the case.

But there was dust everywhere. Photos showed it billowing out of the ground. And all this forcefully reminded me again that we as humans are but dust ourselves. In the grand scheme of things, our lives are so very, very short. In the Bible, we are compared to grass, growing one day and thrown into the fire the next. Poof. All gone, disappeared, mostly not remembered.

I am one of those with the more melancholy temperament who is prone to ask, “Why are we here? For what purpose do we exist?” Some, of course, have concluded that there is no real meaning to life. If that is the case, why not live fully for one’s own pleasure, with no concern about how the pursuit of that pleasure may affect others? I find that conclusion both disturbing and destructive. It leads to a hopeless societal structure and to a hollow individual structure.

I believe that God, the Creator of All, has very much given purpose to life, and especially to that life called “human”—for it is humanity that is meant to image God to the world. We, in our lives and loves, in our work and service, in our fun and families, are meant to show the world the wholeness and the holiness of God. And when each of us individually returns to dust, we have the privilege of leaving a heritage that is marked by goodness.

That sounds like a life worth living.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Why Easter? What is this all about? What is “Holy Week” anyway? What’s the big deal? Is there more to this than plastic eggs with little surprises in them and new clothes? Although I’ve been a church-goer most of my life, the much of the reasoning for this spring celebration with the changeable date escaped me most of that time.

The week starts off with such joy--

We’ve seen it—Jesus entering the holy city with victory and adulation! What excitement we feel in this triumph! We sing together with joy over the hope set before us. Surely with this adulation and victory, all enemies will be vanquished, and peace and victory soon arrive. People praise the name of God with great hope. Hearts beat with anticipation with the expectation that God’s glory will soon be revealed.

Surely this is the time when all oppression lifted forever.

And yet, there is a chill in the air. There is a menace in the shouts of triumph and victory. What is this undercurrent that casts a shadow over the joy? God’s Beloved Son is about to be crowned King, Lord, ruler over all. But . . . what do these voices say? What are these irate shouts that silence the songs of joy?

The words pour from outraged throats—we hear them, first in whisper, then growing louder and louder. The words “crucify Him, crucify Him” penetrate the laughing crowd. The sounds of angry whips and pounding nails beat as drums underneath the songs of hope.

Surely something is wrong. What is the will of God here? Isn’t it for victory? Isn’t it to crush all enemies under God’s feet? How do we stop the blackness coming our way? Why doesn’t God stop this? The words, “Crucify Him:” grow in power. More voices join in—even some of the ones who had sung praises just a few days before. Where is God? Doesn’t God see this happening to the Son?

Things spin out of control. How can we understand? Will this ever make sense?

Yes, this week is the time when Christians all over the world seek to remember the events of that first week as events unfolded and tragedy and blackness overtook the world. “Crucify Him!” they cried. And on the blackest of Fridays, all hope appears to die. Yet even then so see the tiniest glimmer of hope when these words flow forth, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Yes, why Easter? Because God loves too much to leave us in death. Why Easter? Because God gives life. But at such a cost. Let us go into this week of remembrance with grateful and expectant hearts. The Resurrection is just around the corner. At Krum United Methodist Church, we will have services at 7:00 p.m. Monday-Friday evening, April 2-6, to encourage that remembrance and prepare us for unimaginable joy. All are welcome to join us.

Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas, Pastor
Krum UMC,