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.