Friday, December 12, 2008

Low Reserves Revisited

Well, the challenging week continues, but I'm beginning to see some daylight.  I took yesterday off, declined to meet with some people over important issues because I knew I shouldn't trust my insight in this exhausted state, and then worked outside in the flower beds for much of the afternoon.  I cleaned out the beds with summer/fall plants, now dead from front.  Onto the compost heap.  I looked sadly at the house plants I had put on the front and south facing porch, thinking it might protect them adequately from the more extreme cold and realized many hadn't made it.  Each of those houseplants had a history.  Many came from the funerals of my mother and father in law, two years ago.  Others were rescued from my mother who systematically kills every plant ever given her. Another is a now 8 foot ficus tree I had grown from a 1 footer, acquired about five years ago for my office.  That ficus may make it, but another is gone.  So, more onto the compost pile.


Then I began to pull some weeds from the new beds we put in this past fall, and started placing newspaper down and covering it with compost to put a good barrier against others growing.  Didn't get too far--just don't have the physical strength right now to do too much.  But being out in the sunshine helped. Getting a few things cleaned out helped.  Tossing things on the compost heap helped.  All part of the cycle of life--even the most tenderly cared for plants eventually die, but in their death, they can bring life again.


My grandson in France seems to be responding to the huge doses of powerful antibiotics being pumped into his system, and all are cautiously optimistic.  The church administrator at my church has very likely experienced a miracle of healing.  A diagnosis of rampant and quickly fatal liver cancer from two and a half weeks ago is suddenly, "Well, the biopsy shows NO signs of cancer, but I don't trust it and want you to have another." 


In a couple of hours, I'll head to Dallas to do a wedding rehearsal and enjoy an evening there along with what should be a beautiful wedding on Saturday.  My Beloved, as always loving and supportive, has agreed to take the lead in this wedding and just let me be the tag along.  He's really better at these than I am, and I will ride gratefully on his strength for these two days.


My sermon for Sunday is ready and waiting for me on my pulpit.  My article for next week will be sent to the newspaper editor soon.  There's a sense of completion here that really helps.  I know I still need a long, long break, much sleep and sunshine to really recover again, but have a sense of hope again. Thank all of you for praying.

Bless and Curse Not

A few weeks ago, a horrific terrorist attack left a number of people dead and wounded in Mumbai, India. I didn't pay a whole lot of attention to this--it was just another piece of bad news filling the newspapers and airways. My inner response, "It doesn't really affect me anyway." Then I got an email from my oldest son who has been doing some graduate work in France. One of his classmate's father was injured in the attack. Although the whole description of the attack is too long to print in full, here is a snippet of what happened after the terrorists entered a hotel restaurant and began to shoot:

"The terrorists then rounded up anyone alive (about 20 people) and made them climb the service staircase to the 18th floor. On reaching the 18th floor landing they made the people line up against a wall. One terrorist then positioned himself on the staircase going up from the landing and the other on the staircase going down from the landing. Then, in a scene right out of the Holocaust, they simultaneously opened fire on the people. My father was towards the center of the line with his two friends on either side. Out of reflex, or presence of mind, he ducked as soon as the firing began. One bullet grazed his neck, and he fell to the floor as his two friends and several other bodies piled on top of him. The terrorists then pumped another series of bullets into the heap of bodies to finish the job. This time a bullet hit my father in the back hip. Bent almost in double, crushed by the weight of the bodies above him, and suffocating in the torrent of blood rushing down on him from the various bodies my father held on for ten minutes while the terrorists left the area."

After further description of the horrors and the eventual rescue of the four who survived this particular attack, my son's classmate wrote this:

"How do we fight such hate? How do we inject humanity into such monstrosity? How do we convince those who think they kill in god’s name that no God would condone such barbarity? How do we maintain our own values and humanity when faced with such hate and provocation?"

Yes, how do we fight such hate? Do we fight it with more hate? With more violence? With escalated wars? There are no simplistic answers here and I'm not naive enough to suggest them. But it surely does answer the question that many Christians are encouraged to ask during Advent, that time of waiting for Christmas. The question: "Does the world need a Savior?" How do you answer it? What will you do when the Savior appears? What will you do when the Savior appears and is not what you expected? What will you do when the Savior appears and instead of destroying your enemies he says, "Bless those who persecute you.  Bless and curse not." 

Just a few words to ponder as we prepare for a week of celebration, family, gifts and fun. Be sure and attend a Christmas Eve service--hear again those words and remember, "Christ the Savior has come!"

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Even Fewer Reserves

So, yesterday morning I write about my state of being so empty.  Yesterday afternoon, my son who lives in France phoned to tell me his youngest son, Samuel, is in the hospital in Fontainebleau with a high fever that they can't bring down and a possible kidney/bladder infection.  I told Jonathan that he developed something like that when he was four or five but no cause was ever found.  Later, Jonathan phoned again and said that the pediatrician over there would like the medical records of what happened to Jonathan in the early '80s.  So I began to make phone calls to see if they could be retrieved.  Little luck so far. 

So, here I am, a pastor who knows how much comfort is found in sharing such things with others and asking for prayer.  And I find myself almost paralyzed by the need to ask for that kind of support, although I have let a few know about this.  I suspect this is both a symptom of my deep exhaustion and a wish not to focus attention on myself when there are so many others who need it.  I have a memorial service to do this afternoon for a family whose mother died Sunday morning.  I spent many, many hours with this great family, finding myself blessed by their love for their mother/grandmother (seven children, and a huge number of grandchildren, great's, nieces, nephews, in-laws, etc.).  I want to give them all that they deserve in this time of final goodbyes.  These are such holy moments, times when we are especially open to the probing, cleansing love of God.

It can and should become a time to focus on the glory of God.  I have heard so many grieving people say to me, "Does (the deceased one) know what we are doing?  Does she/he see how much we loved her and are trying to honor her memory?"  I would say, "I'm betting they don't care--they are so caught up in the presence of the true unveiled glory of God that that of us which lives after death before the physical resurrection is really uninterested in whether you got the details right of the service."  The services are not for the one who is dead, but for those who are living, who much come to a place of peace about their loss and prepare to move in and live in ways that honor the memory of the one they loved so.

So, guess I'd better get to work.

If you do read this, however, please pray for my grandson, Samuel.  All of us are worried about him. 

Monday, December 08, 2008

No Reserves

It's a tough, tough time for the nation.  We are well into a huge economic crisis and the people who are going to get hit the very hardest are those living on the edge with no reserves to fall back upon.  The more vulnerable ones live paycheck to paycheck, sometimes even taking out payday loans to cover emergencies--and those loans have unbelievably damaging interest rates, thus pushing already precarious financial positions into real calamity.

No reserves--that's the problem.  Nothing to carry us when blow after blow comes.

That is how I'm feeling right now.  No real reserves after a very challenging few months as well as a very blessed few months as pastor here.  I serve such a wonderful church.  These dear people offer themselves as examples of Christ Incarnate in their joy and service and loving response to all coming their way.  Even so, the energy drain continues on me, and everyone knows it.  And I just can't figure out how to get filled up again.  It's like the financial crisis--a precarious situation moves over into real calamity when there are no reserves to call upon.

It's easy to list the challenges and responsibilities on front of me.  And frankly, most clergy would love to be in the situation I'm in--and therefore I have a very hard time complaining about it, although of course I do. 

We'll know more later this week, but I do believe we have seen a healing take place in one of the members of my church.  This morning, spending time in prayer before being able to find the energy to leave my bed, I was thinking about the time that the woman with the long-lasting hemorrhage touched the edge of Jesus cloak and Jesus felt the energy go out of him as she became well.  Of course he would rejoice in her healing--and did so with gracious words of invitation into his family of faith.  But was he exhausted afterward?  Perhaps that is why his ministry was so short--those few years in which he gave all was all he could possibly muster.

I have long held that healing can only take place in extreme cooperation between God and the person in need of it.  It cannot be outwardly imposed on someone who really, really doesn't want it.  Many say they want it, but few really do.  Many are called, but few are chosen.  Few really, really want the kind of holy responsibility that comes with being healed by the hand of God.  Few truly wish to live a well persons in a world that encourages sickness of heart and mind and soul and body. 

Will God restore my reserves?  Or better, is God interested in restoring my reserves?  I think so.  But I don't think God will fill my well any more than financial accounts miraculously turn from red to black just by wishing it.  It takes cooperation.  It means lining myself up with holy habits that promote the rebuilding of the reserves:  rest, sabbath, time to read and reflect, time outside, laughter, order--in many ways, being a bit more selfish with my time and energy.

No quick fix here.  Wish there were. 

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Oh! You better watch out!

"Oh! You better watch out, You better not cry, You better not pout, I'm telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town! He's making a list, He's checking it twice, He's gonna find out who's naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town! He sees you when you're sleeping, He knows when you're awake. He knows when you've been bad or good, So be good for goodness sake!"

The words to that song drive me over the edge where Christmas is concerned.  It's sung as some innocent children's song to get our little ones ready for the celebration, but those words are anything but innocent.  They turn a made-up person into a god, and a mean and vengeful god at that.

There was a real Saint Nick, as far as we know.  But his story is far from the current Santa Claus myth.  The original was a man who inherited a great deal of money and gave every bit of it away in order to relieve poverty and suffering.  He didn't "know when you've been good or bad."  He just heard of those who needed help and used all he had to offer it.  Those actions are quite fully reflective of the nature of God's love and grace for a suffering world.  The words to the song above can be used to scare children into what they perceive as goodness.  Santa becomes an all-present eye with all knowledge about all people who is busy tossing people, especially children, out of any hope of receiving gifts.  Such words are actually threatening when taken literally.  Such a distance from a God who is far, far more interesting in loving us to holiness and faithfulness in mind and heart and hands!

I think Christmas celebrations are lots of fun, and the idea of a holy saint who comes around and offers gifts to children is delightful.  Such an idea helps make the bridge to recognizing a holy God who offers us the chance to become children of God and inheritors of all that God has and is.  But this song and much Christmas advertising and some Christmas movies turn Santa into God rather than seeing him as a human representative of God.  Santa is not God.  At its joyful best, Santa represents God's goodness and generosity.  At its worst, Santa is the stand-in for uncontrollable human greed because the focus is on what we get rather than what we give.

I wonder what it would be like if Santa would take children on his knee and ask them, "What would you most like to give to someone else this Christmas?"  Or, "What could you do for someone this Christmas that would show them how much you love them?"  If that were to become the focus, the letdown that often comes on Christmas morning as overly stimulated children who have focused only on what they get often say, "Is that all there is?"  It could easily change to, "What more can I give today?"  Even young children can be taught the real joy of giving, of how much fun it is to serve someone else, of the satisfaction of relieving suffering in some way.

I'm working on hanging in. Just feel slammed by learning just a week ago that our church Administrative Assistant has a fast growing and always fatal liver cancer. No warning, symptoms only started a week before the diagnosis. Aggressive treatment may buy her some time. Right now, it seems to be harder on me than on her. She's just been doing this work for the church for a short period of time, but we had already formed a good friendship and it quickly deepened in the hours we spent working together.

Last night I spent a couple of hours at the hospital with a large and loving family who are watching their mother die of lung cancer. They needed me to break open the conversation with her so they could all start talking more freely and honestly and lovingly. It was a powerful time of prayer and healing and love and support, and, naturally, left me even tireder. I so understand why Jesus kept needing to withdraw to the mountains for prayer and why the people followed him when he did. Words of honest love are so hard to find--we're busy putting Christmas wrapping on gifts of decay and deceit instead.

Did have a lovely day yesterday with my 17 month old granddaughter. She's the first child of my overwhelmingly brilliant middle son and I know that people have been holding their breath to see how much of that will be manifested in this child. She's adorable and was loving with me even though she has not seen me for nearly a year. She did say what I think was her first complete sentence yesterday. As I was changing her poopy diaper, I distinctly heard her say, "I made poop." That's got to be a classic statement of the human condition. Great place to start.

My Beloved husband is being incredibly supportive as he sees this melancholy crushing me to the ground right now. We've both learned to treasure it and hold it carefully when it hits. I had thought it might not be so bad this year since I live in a house with so much more light, and I'm very much affected by the shortened days. I was exceedingly wrong.

Yet, tomorrow is the first Sunday in Advent. It's the season of watchfulness, of waiting, of wondering if God really is on the move. Good timing for me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Nov 18, the day before Charge Conference

I finally finished all the Charge Conference reports on Sunday.  Later that night, with some help from my Beloved, I wrote my newspaper article about the process.  You can read it here:  I really dislike forms--most of them don't make much sense to the way my mind works, so having to work through multiple ones, and ones I consider very poorly designed, has been very, very frustrating.


Tomorrow, the District Superintendent will be here and he, along with however many of the congregation show up (and I don't expect many) will hear a few of those reports, they'll vote on whether they will or will not approve my salary for next year, and whether we will change the name of the church from Krum UMC to First UMC, Krum.


I wonder about this vote on my salary.  A decent raise was recommended by Staff/Parish, and the Finance Ministry folded it into the budget, but it still has to come before the church for discussion and approval.  I was at a clergy luncheon meeting yesterday and spoke with a friend of mine who is pastoring a troubled church in a Dallas suburb. She said that she was informed by her Staff/Parish committee that they wanted to cut her salary by more than half and go to a part-time clergy person. She, of course, informed her District Superintendent, who came down pretty hard on my friend, suggesting that she might want to re-think her call to the ministry of the ordained.  I found this response shocking--the problems at that church have been a long time in the making and this friend has been there only since June.  Anyone with any knowledge of systems and institutional life and the change process knows that no quick fix works there. 


Anyway, to get back to the salary situation--what if there are those who don't like what I'm doing--but who won't speak with me face to face about this--decide to use the Charge Conference as a way to indicate their lack of confidence in me and both speak against and vote against the raise?  I know I"m still wrestling with these unseen undercurrents that I just can't seem to bring to the surface, and that doesn't help right now.  But it surely does seem like this simply helps put pastors on a performance basis--either do what the moneyed people of the church want, or be prepared to be embarrassed.  I don't know if there is a better way to handle this or not.  I just know I feel so exposed about this.  No one else has to disclose their salaries, but I most definitely must.  Very awkward.  Probably as awkward for them as it is for me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

50% Approval Rating

As I continue to ponder the challenges of being a pastor, I find myself really, really bugged by something.  I recently heard from a friend who is pastoring a small, struggling church in the Midwest.  She mentioned that she has only a 50% approval rate by the congregation and was not sure of her future in the church or in the ministry as an ordained clergy (she is not United Methodist, but is part of a denomination where she must receive a call by a congregation in order to serve as a pastor).

The more I think about this, the more appalled I am.  How on earth is it kingdom of heaven living--or to use a term that may speak better to us, how it is "with-God" living--for a congregation to take a poll and ask them whether or not they "approve" of their pastor?  This turns the pastorate into a popularity-people-pleasing treadmill, and the only outcome is death, both for the clergy person and for the congregation.

It's not the congregation's job to "approve" of their pastor.  It's their job to come together as a community of those who are called by the name of Christ and figure out how to live as disciple of Christ in a world that makes it pretty darn hard to do that.

Now, this doesn't mean that they have to agree with their pastor, or even like their pastor.  It does mean that they had better learn to love their pastor, however, and to treat that pastor in the way they wanted to be treated.  This also doesn't mean they put up with shoddy work by their pastor.  There are performance standards for every occupation, and we as clergy certainly need to live and work out of high expectations.  High expectations always seasoned by grace, of course. 

If I have to make decisions as a pastor concerning the direction of this church, and those decisions are based on whether the congregation will approve of them, I will be less and less likely to make the hard ones that God often calls us to make.  Ones like insisting that if we are going to be disciples of Jesus that we really do have a cross to pick up, and we really might have to give up everything they own if we want to save our lives.  Those are not the kind of words that bring high approval ratings.  They probably helped to send Jesus to his agonizing death. 

The pastors with the highest approval ratings are those who run cults with an iron fist and stamp out disapproval with shunning, expulsion, torture, or other methods of making sure that dissent is not tolerated.  I'll pass on that.  I want to grow a congregation of mature, adult Christians who own their own spiritual lives and have learned to discern for themselves how the Spirit of God is working.  They may not approve of me, and I may not approve of them all the time, but if we really are mature, we'll sure honor one another and trust that God is working through all of us, not just through some power-brokers who decide who stays and who goes by the level of approval. 

 I just find this whole approval rating thing distasteful.  Would surely like to hear from others who might be able to shed further light on this.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The Case of the Paranoid Pastor

While I was working out in the yard today, on this gorgeous November afternoon after a glorious morning of worship at my church, I felt the tentacle of paranoia began to wrap around my soul and pull me into that place of darkness and fear.

I've been re-reading the past few days the beautifully written book called "Leaving Church" by Barbara Brown Taylor, an ordained Episcopal priest who decided to leave her parish and her life as a priest.  Our stories are eerily similar at the moment.  Both of us pastoring in small towns, both seeing some success, although hers is considerably more than mine and I doubt that I'll ever be in demand or known as the "preacher of the year."  However, someone did come to church this morning because they listened to my messages online and wanted to experience them in person.  Both of us really eaten up by our positions and by our ministries.  Both of knowing that no matter how much we do, it is never enough.  

It is never enough.  There is always someone I won't have visited adequately in the hospital, someone who didn't find grace in my words and actions, someone whose special moment I forgot; always sermons inadequately prepared, articles hastily written, paperwork undone.  Always someone I've disappointed so egregiously that they've decided never to come back to this church as long as I am pastor here.  

I know there are rumors floating around, people not coming to worship because they are unhappy with other people there, or, more likely, with me.  I also know that while I may be doing a lot of things right, it is rare that I will hear about them.  And I will often not hear about the things I'm doing wrong until there is an explosion and someone says, "You mean you didn't know about this?"  People talk around me, not to me.  And all I know is something is wrong, something is off kilter.

And yet we had this really wonderful morning.  Much joy, much connection with the holy moments.  Many things are coming together, plans beginning to see the kiss of the Holy Spirit on them.  

But I'm worried, and having trouble get past it.  All I can do is wait this out, wait until someone speaks, wait upon the Lord in prayer and supplication, wait.  Wait and know that this is God's church, not my church.  Wait until someone is willing to break the silence.

Interesting time.  

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Political Discourse

We are a bruised nation.  We're bruised economically, we're bruised internationally, but mostly we're bruised internally.  We're bruised because the uncivil discourse that characterizes most political campaigns bruises and soils our individual and national souls.

While it may not be articulated in exactly this way, the sentiment seems to be growing:  if people of local, state and national prominence can speak of one another so distastefully, get away with it and even win elections doing it, then we can get away with it in our more intimate interpersonal encounters. 

I've lived through numerous presidential elections.  After each one, people will say, "Stop the negative campaigning." But it never happens, because the game is to win at all costs. So what if the cost is littered reputations, piles of innuendo, and downright lies spoken and written?

Of course, after the elections, the winners and loser always say all the right things.  Everyone shakes hands, and talk about taking the high road to local, state and national cooperative politics.  But I contend those bruises have infected us so deeply that a few words spoken after the multiple hits are no more than extra-heavy makeup over an infected sore.  All surface--and with no change to disease-laden bacteria brewing beneath the temporary cover-up.

It is utterly ridiculous to insist that what we are exposed to does not affect how we think and act.  A recent study suggested that young girls who watch the kind of TV shows that indicate no restraints upon the expression of sexuality are more prone to become pregnant long before they are ready for the responsibilities of motherhood.  Almost immediately, the results of the studies were disputed, saying that it was more likely that sexually active teens were drawn to sexually permissive TV programming.  Right.  God forbid that parents might have to take responsibility for watchfulness over the TV viewing habits of their offspring. God forbid any of us might really want to pay attention to the slow corruption of our civility when we unconsciously model that which is beamed into our eyes and ears by the ubiquitous presence of ever-on media.

Sexually oriented media rarely if ever present moral and sexual restraint as normal, but as something to be fixed as quickly as possible.  In the political arena, the profound lack of civil discourse is now presented as normal. That normality bruises us all. This infection underlying our bruised souls denies the restraint and thoughtfulness demanded by truly civil discourse.  Our infected souls laugh at words of Jesus that read like this:  "You're familiar with the command to the ancients, 'Do not murder.' I'm telling you that anyone who is so much as angry with a brother or sister is guilty of murder. Carelessly call a brother 'idiot!' and you just might find yourself hauled into court. Thoughtlessly yell 'stupid!' at a sister and you are on the brink of hellfire. The simple moral fact is that words kill'"  (Matthew 5:21-22, The Message Translation). 

Words do kill.  And we are rapidly killing each other.  It is time for us who call ourselves civilized to begin to act like it in every area of our lives. This is especially true for call themselves both civilized and Christian.  For the Christian is more literally a "Christ-follower."  One who follows Christ knows the power of words to heal and the power of words to kill.  Let us be the ones to actively re-introduce the world to truly civil discourse, with words that give life, rather than death. 

Did you agree with the results of the last elections?  Then season your agreement with humility.  Did you disagree with those results?  Then choose your words of disagreement with caution and undergird them with the rules of civil discourse.  See if you can breathe life to your own ideas without having to bring destruction to others in the process.  Let us be a truly civil people and heal the infection that has left many aching with pain.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Your Headlights are Off

"Did you know that your headlights weren't on?"  That's the first question that popped out of my mouth after a frustrating 30 minutes trying to find a friend of mine who was supposed to meet me at a restaurant in Frisco.  Her reply, "At least I was driving on the right side of the road.  Give me some credit!"

She's been living in England for three years, and had flown in for a short vacation.  All her plans were made at the last minute, so our own get-together was hurriedly planned and not well-thought out.  As I discovered later, she doesn't have a much of a sense of direction, so my instructions, "go north on the Tollway to the exit and then go back south on the service road" only confused her.  Thanks to cell phones, we we're finally able to get to the same place. But it was dark, and in her borrowed car she had no idea that the headlights didn't come on. As she said, "I was driving with the light from the streetlights."

During our conversation, she mentioned a difficult decision that was before her.  She had been turning to many others for guidance with this, but was getting a variety of opinions and still found herself torn and undecided.  For some reason, she could not trust her own soul with this, and the conflicting words from friends left her very disturbed.  I suggested that perhaps she was driving with her headlights off--using the light from others rather than turning on her own light so the path was better able to be seen.

I'm not sure she appreciated my suggestion, but think that a lot of people do just what she seemed to be doing.  We want to seek guidance from God, but are so untrusting that we can actually hear God's voice for ourselves that we rely on streetlights from others rather than our own headlights to move forward. That works while we are on well-lit and well-traveled roads.  It becomes very problematic when we move off the popular street onto less well-traveled spots. 

Finding the general guidance of God is pretty easy:  loving God with all that you are and then loving your neighbor as yourself.  Those are the main streetlights that light our paths.  It's the specifics of loving God and neighbor as self that can get pretty confusing, and the way we love God and others is different for each person.  That's why we've got to use our own headlights as well as the streetlights. 

So how do we turn on our own headlights?  I remember first hearing a very, very famous preacher and scholar getting ready to talk about finding the will of God.  I was just starting my years as a graduate student and I, along with hundreds of others, sat waiting with our pens poised to write for wisdom that would change our life.  The famous preacher said these things, "Pray, read your Bibles, and go to church."  We all looked at him with some dismay.  This is all?  Isn't there some mysterious way into the mind of God where we would know exactly what to do. 

Not really.  If you want to drive with your own headlights on, that's what you do:  pray, read your Bible, and go to church.  After a while, you'll begin to know the mind of God, and the road will become very clear.  It was a piece of good advice I've never forgotten.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Continuing Thoughts on "The Stories I Hear"

I find myself still shocked by some of the events and conversations of last week, and others that are continuing this week.  Every pastor, when coming to a different church, no matter what the circumstances, gets to enjoy a honeymoon period.  Everyone is on good behavior, and we're all hoping the best will happen.  We look at one another with generosity and often hide some parts of ourselves and our thoughts for fear of being unloved if exposed.  So, while honeymoons are great, real lasting love doesn't begin to develop until the honeymoon is over.

The honeymoon is over here.  Hurt feelings, disagreements, tensions, things that almost look like rudeness are surfacing now.  That's OK--this means a new level of openness and vulnerability is happening here.  Again, a time for real love, not pretend love, to develop.  So, I ask myself, why am I so shocked?  I'm hardly new to church life.  I know these things happen.  What's going on?

I keep returning to the purpose for the existence of the church.  In the United Methodist Church, we say that we exist to "Make Disciples for Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World."  That statement opens doors to multiple questions.  First :  What does it mean to be a disciple?  Second, what on earth do we mean by the transformation of the world?  Third, isn't there anything here about being "saved?"  Fourth, what about the people who come to church who have no interest in being a disciple of Jesus Christ, however we are going to define it? 

Church entry standards are very low.  But Jesus' requirements for being a disciple seem awfully high--like leaving everything behind and laying down our lives for one another.  Or, to put it simply and scripturally, loving God fully and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.  I'm just not seeing the last one happen real well right now.  And I know myself well enough to know that I have to start fixing this by looking very, very hard at myself.

We have such expectations of one another in the church.  Expectations that we will really act according to the law of love, but mostly those expectations are laid on others while we assure ourselves that we always act from love.  That, of course, is a load of baloney.  Most of us fail to love ourselves well at all, so we look for others to do that for us, blind to the fact that the lack of healthy self-love means we absolutely cannot love anyone else in a way that brings any glory or holiness or honest connection in our relationships to each other.

More on this later, because I'm aware at this moment that my own lack of self-love is hindering my writing and thinking process.  It's time to take care of some important tasks that indicate real love.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Oh, the stories . . .

"Oh, The People You’ll Meet And The Places You’ll Go”. . . that’s the title to a Dr. Seuss book often given to people who are changing something in their lives—a graduation from high school, or perhaps a new job, or the first time to travel to someplace very different.
It’s a celebration of possibilities and future.

“Oh the stories you’ll hear and the heartbreak you’ll know”. . . .That’s my current paraphrase of the book title as I consider the life of being a pastor.

After two and a half years here, I have a sense that the congregation has begun to trust me and to invite me more into their lives. They tell me their stories. They give me the pictures of their lives.

Each story flows with rich colors.. Bright colors of happiness and fun swirl around somber colors of heartbreak and struggle. Each life creates a unique painting, and each stroke of color adds to the whole.

Each life painting differs radically from all others. Some are like the Old Masters, serious, rounded, hinting of a stability and perhaps desperation behind them. Others are like modern impressionists, more wild and open to multiple interpretations. Some seem simply two dimensional, not yet well explored. Others go so deep that an infinite universe is contained in them.

My own life gains color by those stories. My mind hosts a repository of secrets and confidences, kept there forever, swirling around, clashing against each other. Today, those clashes have brought me to a point of understanding why Jesus wept over Jerusalem, saying he longed to gather them under his arms, as a hen does her chicks. For I am weeping with my own anguish today.

Stories fill in the background and open our eyes to motivations and reasons for actions and words. Often, one small piece of us collides with one small piece of another person and then misunderstandings abound. The piece we just ran into is without setting or understanding of the whole. It is like the proverbial group of six blind people describing an elephant: The one who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.

When we interact with just a piece of another person, it’s easy to say that person is a solid pipe or a wall or a rope, and not know that such a person is all of those and a whole lot more besides.

As a pastor, I get to interact with the sorrowful, painful, anguished, and sometimes rabidly unrepentant sinful sides of others. These are the facets rarely presented freely when in public, and I hold the privilege of seeing these things very seriously. Thus the secrets forever sealed in my brain.

But when I see someone else proclaiming judgment on another, “She’s a rope; he’s a tree branch” without understanding the bigger picture, I want to cry out, “Stop! You don’t know enough to make this pronouncement!”

“Stop!” I cry. Stop. Stop deciding that you know the hearts and motivations of another when hurts they may have brought your way were probably wholly unintentional. And if they were intentional, then the person doing such actions is in need of passionate prayer, for such a one sits at the edge of hell, nearly lost from God. Why are we so eager to push people further into that hell rather than invite them back into the “with-God” life? Why, I cry out though my tears, are we so ready to discard people into the junk heap when we find ourselves with a bruised toe or bleeding head from these collisions? Are we eager to find ourselves in that junk heap—that place of malodorous waste, steaming with the bacteria of decomposition? I doubt it. I really, really doubt it.

Yes, I sit here and weep today.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Much is Given, Much is Required

A few days ago, I saw someone with whom I had developed a friendship several years ago. I remember being so intimidated when I first met her as she walked into the room where we had a joint meeting. This educated, articulate, poised, elegantly dressed, tall, beautiful, wearing pointy-toed high heeled shoes women entered and I thought, "We'll never have anything in common!" Later, I discovered that she had been raised by doting well-to-do adoptive parents who had given her everything possible. Nothing like a set up for a spoiled, self-centered adult who expected the world to jump at her tiniest wish!

But she choose a different path. From her earliest memories, her parents instilled in her the words of Jesus, "To whom much has been given, much is required." As I began to know this fascinating person, I discovered that she intentionally lives from those words. It's didn't take me long to discover that her actions match her beliefs and that this exquisite woman possesses a beautiful soul of genuine humility and that a spirit of generosity radiates off her.

In her humility, she doesn't deny that she is privileged. Humility doesn't lie or pretend something that is not true. Humility acknowledge gifts given and then figures out how to live generously as one so gifted. More, humility recognizes that the gifts will quickly become distorted if they are not given away. Someone who has been given the gift of music in voice or instrument or ability to compose lives with most humility when that gift is used to bring pleasure to others, not when it is hidden under false modestly and never displayed to the glory of God. Someone given the gifts of prosperity, whether material or social or spiritual or emotional or physical gives the greatest glory to God when that prosperity is freely passed onto others.

I suspect it must be hard for her to continue to be a giver. I also bet she is often misunderstood, just as I began this acquaintance by misunderstanding her and assuming she would use her gifts to establish a position of superiority. That misunderstanding is common simply because it is rare to see that kind of humility.

We all have heard the phrase, "the rich get richer." The rich certainly have more possessions and seem to continue to accumulate them. But I wonder just how rich they really are. In our country and culture, we have spent a number of years seeking to consume as much as possible. Consumption--the purchasing of more and more toys, clothes, homes, cars, experiences, drugs, health care--is what actually drives our economy and serves as outward signs of being rich. If the current climate of fear coming from the financial markets integrates more fully into the American psyche, that kind of consumption is going to come to a pretty rapid halt. And when it does, what becomes of a society that has forgotten to live like my friend has? A society that is focused on what it can get for itself rather than what it can give to others simply because we have been given so much?

Every time I am around this friend, I am prompted to look at my own life and see how I can live even more generously. As people of God, we are often taught that we can and must see the face of Jesus in the poor and the impoverished and the suffering of the world. I am in complete agreement with that. Jesus knew suffering and the Scriptures are full of admonitions to care for those left out of societal comfort. I also suggest that it speaks well of us when we recognize that we are rich and privileged--even in the midst of economic crisis--and that others may be blessed when they see Jesus' face in our actions and responses to others. It is a holy and noble calling for everyone.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Zero Tolerance and the Kingdom of Heaven

I recently became involved in a situation in the schools here where a student rightfully deserved disciplinary action for an inappropriate behavior.
Everyone, parents, teachers, administrators, even the student, agreed the behavior was wrong. Everyone agreed that there needed to be connection between action and reaction. But there the agreement ended. The parent and I both felt the context had not been fully taken into account, that the context itself provided significant mitigating factors and that the disciplinary action levied, which was quite severe, failed to take that context into account. The school district disagreed and the disciplinary action went forward. The “zero tolerance” doctrine was invoked and, according to school officials, their hands were tied.

Lord willing, all will recover from this situation. But it won’t be an easy recovery. And, as always, situations like this push me to think about the way verses in the Bible are used and what “zero tolerance” might mean for people who seek to live the “with-God life,” understanding that the prayer, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” is meant to be taken very seriously.

What are some of the standards of behavior that are set before us in the Bible? Frankly, they are pretty darn high. In fact, perfection is actually required. Try reading from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 5. Jesus clearly states that no one gets into the kingdom of heaven unless they are even more righteous than the most righteous people of that day. And then he gives some examples of really righteous living. Try a couple of these on for size:

"You know the next commandment pretty well, too: 'Don't go to bed with another's spouse.' But don't think you've preserved your virtue simply by staying out of bed. Your heart can be corrupted by lust even quicker than your body. Those leering looks you think nobody notices - they also corrupt. "Let's not pretend this is easier than it really is. If you want to live a morally pure life, here's what you have to do: You have to blind your right eye the moment you catch it in a lustful leer. You have to choose to live one-eyed or else be dumped on a moral trash pile. And you have to chop off your right hand the moment you notice it raised threateningly. Better a bloody stump than your entire being discarded for good in the dump.

Now, that is zero tolerance for you. Even a lustful look means get rid of that eye, or a gesture of anger against another person—cut off your hand.

Since I’ve not seen many one-eyed/one-handed people who got that way because they really wanted to live righteously—and in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit I’ve still got both my eyes and both of my hands—it is pretty clear that no one really takes these commands literally. Too bad—if we did, it just might end lust and violence, two of the biggest scourges on the earth today. But we don’t, because we cut ourselves a whole bundle of slack. And we really hope that the gospel of grace in Jesus Christ is true, because if it is not, every single one of us is facing an eternity of total separation from a holy God.

But how do grace and forgiveness operate in the face of a real wrongdoing? Is punishment given? Or is it just all swept under the rug because we are forgiven? I think we need to understand that grace does not mean not looking fully at the truth, even when that truth is painful to face. Wrongdoing, injustice, harmful actions and thoughts must be addressed. As they are exposed to the holy light of a loving and graceful God, sorrowful repentance opens the door to being able to receive the forgiveness so freely offered. Yes, there are consequences to sinful behavior. But in the world that seeks real “with-God” living, consequences are meant to bring about reconciliation, not further separation. Those who have experience the freshness of grace bear those consequences as holy scars, knowing that they lead us to greater riches in God’s place.

The most holy among us are not those who have sinned the least—because there just isn’t anyone who can live up to the standards set by Jesus. The most holy among us are those who acknowledge the ever-present nature of sin. They have received with open arms both the forgiveness given by God and the command to go forth as those alive to God and dead (or at least dying!) to sin. It takes guts and courage to do this. To my young friend who is experiencing what I do see as the ridiculous extreme of the zero-tolerance policy, I say: “You can survive this—and come out stronger for the experience. But if you are looking for fairness in life, know you will always, always be disappointed. Look for grace instead—and freely give it away when you get it.”

"We" are Building Flowerbeds

“Hey, my sweetheart, why don't we get the back flower beds finished today?" So while my long-suffering husband graciously begins the heavy work, (I'm a GREAT supervisor), I start dreaming about the beautiful flowers and shrubs I will someday plant. Yes, "we" are building flower beds and slowly transforming the landscape of the parsonage where I live all the time and he lives some of the time when he is able to get free from his own church responsibilities. Parsonage: a place where the parson lives. The "parson" is a somewhat old fashioned word for a clergy person, a pastor of a church. Both of us feel strongly that even though we, as pastors, will never own the places we live, we still have a responsibility to hand them back in better shape than we found them because we are stewards of these houses. So, "we" build flower beds. My husband is indeed a long-suffering man, full of grace and kindness.

Handing something back in better shape than we received it is the basic responsibility of a steward. Human beings are stewards of this created world--we have a responsibility to God to care for creation. A good steward returns to the owner the property in better shape, not worse. Better--not poisoned, not trashed, not desecrated.

This is hard work--being a steward, and not always particularly rewarding. We're going to hand to someone else the fruits of our labor. As far as my husband and I are concerned, this reality is that we don't own this parsonage and never will. This home has been entrusted to me as the pastor of this church, and goes in time to the next pastor. But this is also a good picture of our responsibilities as stewards of the world at large. We don't own the world--all of creation is ultimately in the hands of God. It has been entrusted to us as temporary stewards and will be handed on to our children and grandchildren. What will we hand on to them?

I remember well the first parsonage I ever lived in. I drove up to a house with one of the worst looking yards I had seen. Mostly weeds, a few bedraggled shrubs, tires tracks digging gouges in the yard where a wayward car had missed a turn and skated over the front yard, a west facing patio in the back with no covering, no protection from the blistering summer sun. Five years later, we left a yard full of good grass, flower beds so rich with organic material that they'd grow anything, and a patio covered with green vines that provided protection from the sun on all but the worst days of summer. Did it stay that way?

No--without loving attention, weeds will take over. And they did at that parsonage.

Yes, there is sadness there--so much creative energy down the drain. Makes me wonder how much sadness God must feel when we make choices that leave our world in worse shape for those following us. And then it makes we wonder how much joy God must feel when we choose to be good and faithful stewards to this world and leave it in better shape for those following us. Personally, I'd live to be one who increases joy, not sadness. What about you?

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Silent Treatment

When my Beloved and I first married, I told him that one of the things I most appreciated about him was his willingness to honor my silences. Those were the times when I was very much enjoying just being with him, but had no need to make conversation. The silence itself became communication. It indicated comfort, peace, awareness of one another without the need to know interior thoughts or keep the space between us filled with words and chatter.

This goes both ways, of course. As I wish my silences to be honored, I get to honor his. Naturally, that becomes the more complex task. Because when he chooses silence, my gut reaction is “I’m getting the silent treatment.”

Yes, the “silent treatment.” Does anyone not know what that is? It’s that time when someone whom we consider significant in our lives (parent, spouse, child, friend) turns the cold shoulder to us and will not speak or communicate for a period of time. Often that period of time extends until the one on the receiving end of the silence changes behavior in some way or another. That kind of silence is the classic power play—used to manipulate another into changing something or there will be no restoration of communication and connection.

Since all of us need to feel connection with those significant people, the silent treatment can be a way to promote change, but it is not an especially effective way. The change that results is generally given grudgingly, with the “I promise not to do that again” made with fingers crossed behind our backs. Even worse, the anguish experienced in the silent treatment means we may lose our ability to savor silence, whether it comes from God or from those around us.

Noise assaults us everywhere. Sirens, talk radio, road noise, IPOD’s blaring in headpieces, screaming fans at athletic contests, phones ringing without ceasing, people yelling at one another. Not all sounds are bad, of course. I find few more pleasant that that of a toddler’s joyful belly laugh, or a piece of exquisite music exquisitely played, or that of my Beloved calling to me or the voice of one of my friends or relatives on the phone. But even those pleasant sounds can overwhelm us when we chose not to find periods of real silence.

In silence we find the place to do necessary self-examination. When God seems silent, we have the opportunity to discover the real depth of our faith. In silence, we can find the joy of being alone without being lonely. Only those who know the joy in being alone can offer themselves freely to others in companionship, for then companionship becomes a gift, rather than a demand to fill the void of loneliness. In silence, we may actually hear the still, small voice of our God calling us to a place of love and repentance and re-connection. In silence, we may discover with each other a communion that makes verbal communication look crass and cheap in comparison. In silence, we may truly learn to honor one another the way we wish to be honored. In silence, our salvation may come upon us and make us whole.
Daddy's Closet, Sabbath Rest

It’s been over a year since my father died, and my sister and I made multiple attempts to come to my mother’s house so we could go through his clothes and give them away but were never up to the task.

We finally made it this past week and made reasonably quick work of what we needed to do. My dad has been quite the clotheshorse in his day, and still had some nice suits hanging in the back of his closet. As we were going through his things, I was struck again by the contrasts in his life. He had always taken good care of his clothes. Until dementia got to him in the end, everything was always carefully hung up or folded. Good use of shoe trees meant that his shoes tended to last a long time. But the piles of paper that plagued him . . . oh my.

After we finished my father’s closet, my mother invited us to consider tackling what we had privately called her “Fibber McGee” closet. For those too young to know, “Fibber McGee and Molly” was the name of a famous radio show from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. The “closet” was a running gag about an overstuffed closet they periodically opened and then, after being buried by a cascade of stuff, decided that they needed to “clean out one day.”’ Of course, that day never arrived.

For us, the long awaited day had arrived. Bravely, my sister and I ventured in. Bags of clothes long meant to be given away were placed in the garage sale stack. Unidentifiable and broken things headed for the trash. A bag of old photographs now sits on my desk, waiting until I can go through them and see what might be worth keeping. Nothing too hard—we were working rapidly and efficiently.

And then I found stacks and stacks of notebooks, mostly 8 ½ by 5 inches in size, many blank, but others with notes that my mother had made over the years. Lists of things to do, ideas for the Sunday School news column she has written weekly for 40 years now, detailed planning for the house she and my dad built 25 years ago, drafts of letters that she was writing

Paperwork, as some of you know, is my family nemesis. All of us struggle with keeping it under control, deciding what to toss and what to keep. Genetically, I figure I have no hope since both my mother and dad had the same tendencies. And so I opened these notebooks with these snippets of my family’s life, and was immediately mesmerized. Nothing earth-shaking, just bits of memories flooding my brain from the words on the page.

It was with great reluctance that I sent some of those notebooks to the recycling pile, knowing I’ve lost some memories here. But there is no way I can go through all those. And I, who have in one form or another saved the thousands and thousands of pages I’ve written over the years, must realized that no one is going to go through all that as well.

However, I also know that those memories have made me what I am today. It is those memories that drive me to say, “We must bring the children to church so they will have memories of being in a place where they experience the real love of God.” I know how many activities are pulling at each family today. I have a pretty decent understanding of the challenges parents face when saying “yes” to one place and “no” to another. But I have an ongoing concern when the “no” keeps being church for children. There will never again be such a good time to teach them of the power of God’s love and the place to receive the grace and forgiveness that we all need. These kinds of memories leave an inheritance for generations, and I fear they are about to be lost for many. How God must weep over this loss of shared memory. When we gave up resting on the seventh day, we gave up a lot more than any of us realized. It is very sad.

Monday, September 29, 2008

You Can’t Have It Both Ways

“Did you hear about . . .” so began the phone conversation where my husband informed me about the arrest of a clergy person in suburb east of Dallas. No, I had not heard. I had been experiencing a challenging work day and had not turned listened to the news on the radio nor had I read the morning paper thoroughly.

When I did find the news reports, my insides began to churn. A young clergyman had been arrested for trafficking in child pornography over the Internet. He apparently admitted that he was the person behind the screen name used for the deed. It is possible we’ve seen just the surface of a life lived with one foot in the world of grace and hope and the other wallowing in horrific and disgusting activities. Just the beginning of the inevitable exposure of yet another person who thought he or she could live a double life and get away with it.

You, and I, really, really can’t have it both ways. We cannot live and work in positions of trust and be systematically betraying that trust in our shadow lives. People have tried this from the beginning of recorded history. It might work for a while, perhaps even years. But at some point, the light will overcome the darkness and all will be exposed.

It’s the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde syndrome: the good doctor by day, serving, learning, experimenting; the nasty destroyer at night, using the cover of darkness to release the cruel and debased side of his personality. He was eventually destroyed, as are all who try to live such a decided double life and never reach the point of sorrow and repentance because of it.

All of us have a shadow side, the parts of us we’d rather not come to light. Some, like the clergy man mentioned above, choose to indulge their shadow side. They become destroyers, and are especially destructive to those who trust them most fully. Others seek awareness of their shadow sides. They discover that by facing it and courageously bringing it into a position of accountability to others, it is possible to live in the light. They become healers. It is a hard battle—only the foolish and ignorant suggest any easy path to wholeness. But we’ve all go the choice to make.

The most famous example of someone who gave into his shadow side from the Bible was King David. This gifted and wonderful king decided he could wantonly take another woman, have her husband killed when a pregnancy resulted, and just get away with it. After all, he was powerful and had done much, much good for the nation. Surely people would overlook this one little crossing of the moral line.

But God does not, nor ultimately can we ourselves. Those choosing to hold onto the double life enter a vicious downward cycle of self-hatred and self-indulgence, expending massive amounts of energy covering their tracks, all while trying so maintain exterior respectability and trustworthiness. The drain on the soul increases with each episode. Lying replaces truth, in time eventually shoving truth out completely. The double life kills, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. But it always kills. That is its nature.

We really can’t have it both ways. We can seek wholeness and singleness. Those are other words for heaven, living in the light of the saving grace of our Lord. Or we can continue in duplicity and brokenness. Those are other words for hell, which is separation from our God, from our own souls and from those whom we say we love. We really, really can’t have it both ways.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Two Skunks in the Room

“If there had been two skunks in the room . . . .”

I was talking with my pastor-husband about my sermon on this past Sunday. I described it as one so bad that even I couldn't listen to it again and had refused to post it on the church website. I have a faithful following of all of five people who download my sermons weekly and didn't want to inflict this one on them. My beloved husband reminded me of our drive back to Krum Saturday night through the smell of skunk and suggested this description , “If there had been two skunks in the room to perfume the air, I'm sure my sermon stank more.”

OK, we all get a strike out every once in a while. Or actually, we get them pretty often. Saturday night, we had watched the SMU Mustangs take a terrible beating at the hands of the TCU Horned Frogs. By the beginning of the third quarter, most of the SMU students in attendance had already left the stadium. We managed to stay until early in the fourth quarter, and then we jumped ship as well. What had been almost a sell-out crowd at the beginning of the game had shrunk to a handful of SMU loyalists and a fair number of exuberant TCU fans.

So what did the Mustang team do on Monday? Did they all quit? Did they declare the glass half-empty and then see no place for hope or improvement? After all, they lost. We could even say they “failed.” Or, did they see the glass as half full? Did they show up at practice, watch the game films in all their painful honesty, evaluate their mistakes, and then get back to work? I'm guessing they went back to work.

We live in a world that shuns failure. We see it as the worst thing that can happen rather than something that may open up to us a whole new world of possibilities. We think we should avoid failure at all costs, and see success as the only thing that counts.

But in the Kingdom of Heaven, we've already all failed. The Bible makes this quite clear: we've all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Everyone one of us. Then we learn three words that transform failure into something very different: grace, forgiveness and reconciliation. By appreciating grace, receiving and giving forgiveness, and engaging in processes that lead to reconciliation, success is birthed through failure. By taking those three words fully into our lives, ordinary people do extraordinary things. Ordinary people, you and me: we are the ones who do these extraordinary things: we love our enemies, we do good to those who harm us, we forgive those who hurt us, we turn the other cheek, we go the second mile.

I work hard at my sermons. People who attend worship deserve to hear the best that I can offer. Sometimes I do manage the home run—and sometimes, despite determined efforts, much time, disciplined study and prep time, it just doesn't come together. I strike out. A failure. Either an opportunity to wallow in failure or to celebrate grace.

Each of us has significant failures in our lives. Each of of us has blown it multiple times. That's the nature of life in a broken world. The real issue is not the failure itself. It is what we will do with the failure. Will we beat ourselves up and label ourselves “failed”? Or will we get back in the game again, by the means of grace, forgiveness and reconciliation?

The invitation from God says, “Try the kingdom of heaven way. Here, and only here, does the half-empty glass turn into the place of promise and possibility.”

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Wedding Planner

In the last week, two different people approached me about the possibility of serving as the pastor who would officiate at their wedding ceremonies.  Neither were members of my church, but that is where the commonality ended.

Like many other clergy, I will not perform a wedding without fairly extensive pre-marital counseling.  I might not be able to talk someone out of a marriage that I think is unwise, but I can at least offer some tools to help the couple work through the inevitable problems that will arise.  A wedding also involves making sure the bride and groom get the kind of ceremony they want, writing the wedding message, orchestrating the rehearsal, performing the ceremony itself and often attending the reception.  On occasion, it also means cleaning up the church afterward to make sure it is ready for church services the next day.  I estimate that all this takes between 20 and 30 hours of my time.  Weddings also mean working on Saturdays, and generally Friday evenings as well because of the rehearsal, so they cut into the few precious hours I have with my husband.  So, while I'm delighted to serve church members this way, I have to think it over before agreeing to do a wedding for those outside this church. 

The first request came from a couple who sit in front of my husband and me at the SMU football games we attend each year.  We've both had those seats for three years now, and enjoy exchanging pleasantries with each other, but never learned each other's names.  The bride-to-be approached me by email with great respect, telling me how much they especially enjoy my husband's good voice when singing the SMU Alma Mater, knew that what she was asking was an imposition, and told me that she would consider it a great honor if I would perform the ceremony, scheduled in December at the chapel on the SMU campus.

The second request came from someone who had found the church on the Internet, told me that she was looking for a church where she could be married late in October and asked to use the church and for me to perform the ceremony.  She gave the impression that this was her last choice, and that she was pretty desperate.

In both cases, I emailed back explaining my policy of not doing marriages without premarital counseling and offered dates when these sessions might take place.  The young woman from SMU immediately agreed to the suggested schedule and offered graceful thanks for my willingness to do this.  The second person said that the times I was available were inconvenient to her and asked me to meet on weekends, effectively meaning that I would give up multiple days off in order to make sure her wedding took place at minimal inconvenience to her.  There were no words of thanks, no particular respect given to the many years of training and education necessary for me to be in the position of being able to perform a wedding ceremony, and no understanding at all that her schedule was not the only one that mattered here.

I found the differences in these two requests to be intriguing, and perhaps insightful as to why our prayers to God may often go unanswered.  How often do I go to God demanding that God perform on my time schedule?  How often do I insist that God give me what I want when I want it?  How oblivious am I to the fact that getting what I want when I want it might be detrimental to the well-being of others?  I believe God's love for us is so powerful that it pleases God to give good gifts to us.  Could it be that God's pleasure in giving good gifts increases when we chose by our words and actions to give honor and praise to God?  Could it be that God gets tired of our demandingness and might appreciate a little gratefulness?  It makes sense to me.

The rest of the story here--I will be doing the wedding for the couple from SMU.  But after a few emails back and forth with the other bride-to-be, I chose to decline to perform the ceremony.  I most sincerely hope she found a place and a pastor, but I decided not to re-arrange much of my life for her.  I made this decision sadly.  Let's hope we can all learn something from this.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The Mysterious Movement of the Spirit

This past Sunday, we who were in worship got to experience a moment of mystery and joy together. After learning that the children in the orphanage in the Republic of Congo where Brittany Burrows is serving as a Volunteer in Mission for a year had no mosquito nets, no sheets on their beds, and little food, Charles Willison decided to scrap his planned children's message.

The Spirit moved him and he responded.

He gave each of the children a quarter and then offered them several options for the use of that quarter. They could certainly keep it and buy something for themselves. Or put it in a piggy bank. Or perhaps they could see if anyone in the congregation would be willing to take that quarter in exchange for a $10 bill or a check for $10 in order to purchase one of the 30 mosquito nets needed by the orphanage.

Charles asked for those in the congregation who might be willing to make such an exchange to raise their hands. He then sent the children out to hand over their quarters and pick up the money and checks.

I wish you could have seen what I saw. Hands up all over the place. People quickly reaching for their checkbooks and looking to see if they might have the cash on them to make the exchange. The children busily ran back and forth, exchanging their quarters for the pieces of paper, each representing the hope of health for an impoverished child across the ocean. The children ran out of quarters, and many gave up their exchanged quarters so others could participate in this magical moment. Joy filled the air as it became clear that Brittany would be able to buy the nets she needed.

That money was set aside to be counted separately from the general offering and from the communion offering. About an hour after the service was over, our faithful counters gave us the results: over $1000 was given! I immediately emailed Brittany and told how much had been raised and told her to buy the nets. She wrote in response:

Oh my goodness that is so wonderful!! This is huge news, these kids have never had mosquito nets and the rainy season is about to get here so malarial mosquitoes will be swarming. This is a miracle! I haven't looked into prices yet, but I think we might even be able to buy sheets for them with that money, maybe some other things too, at least food. Wow ...I am overjoyed. I'll be sure to take plenty of pictures so they can see what their money did.

Thank you, you wonderful congregation. God nudged and you responded. Lives have been saved and children across the world have been blessed. We'll never know the fullness of this blessing, but just imagine that one of those children who will now be spared the devastation of malaria might someday be the one who finds a way to feed thousands or a way to cure cancer or becomes a politician who fights for justice and righteousness. We'll never know . . . but God does.

Thank you.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

“A Better Life?”

“We want a better life for our children.” I wonder how many times this phrase has been spoken by the various political candidates as the presidential race goes into hyper-speed. Each time, I also wonder what that means. I know I have said the same thing—I too want a better life for my children. Or at least I say I do. But what is it that I want to be better?

If it means a safer, more physically comfortable one, one without major life challenges, or without experiences or want or hunger or thirst or poverty or risk-taking or failure, we are setting ourselves and our children up for disaster. It is those very challenges that develop character and create better people.

You may have heard about the nine-year-old New Haven, Connecticut baseball player, Jericho Scott, who was recently told he had to leave his league team because he pitched too well. Rationale from the parents on the teams that inevitably lost when they played Scott’s team went something like this, “He’s too good. Our children get discouraged when they have to play against someone that good.” By the way, it was couched in terms of safety—he might hit one of the children with his 40 mph fastball. Note: he has yet to hit a child with a wild pitch. But, of course he might.

Oh my, how sad. So what happens when these children face other obstacles in life where they are outmatched? Do mommy and daddy insist that those other obstacles just disappear so their little one never has to be discouraged? Probably—all in the name of giving their children a better life. Such a scenario guarantees weak, unchallenged, unmotivated children who do not know how to keep trying, or how to get up again after failure and learn something from it.

Many bad things might happen, just as this talented youngster might someday throw a wild pitch and end up bruising the batter. Do we create a better life for our children by protecting them from the things that might happen or do we create a better life for them by equipping them with wisdom and education and experiences that will give them the resources to face life’s complications? Of course, this is not always an “either/or” situation. There are things we need to protect them from in order to be good parents and grandparents and caregivers. I would suggest, however, that to protect them from failure, from feeling bad, from losing to someone better or more skilled, from being hungry or thirsty on occasion, from wanting something and not getting it, from knowing that all living things must die for the world to go on, will end up with a group of young people with almost no internal equipment to face their lives.

No matter how much we wish to deny it, we live in a world that seems full of random events. Hurricanes will form during hurricane season—and some of the will land in populated areas. Tornadoes, floods, volcanic eruptions, even meteor strikes, cannot be controlled or avoided. They happen. If nothing else, wild weather always reminds us that our hope of controlling the world—or making a perfect life for our children—is simply an illusion. Instructions found in the Bible about rearing our children insist that the best gift we give our children is the gift of wisdom. In this way, the ‘better world” is one in which they use that wisdom to face their hurricanes—or better pitchers—and become stronger and more capable in the process.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Lies or Truths?

There is a form of literature called “hagiography.” Somewhat like a biography, it is the telling of the story of a person’s life that deliberately accentuates his or her sainthood, or special gift of goodness and closeness to God. That kind of writing idealizes a person. No one can tell the full story of someone in a biography, but the hagiography intentionally picks and usually exaggerates the supernatural connection and decisions and accomplishments that seem beyond those that most normal humans can do.

Several weeks ago, I wrote an article for the Denton Record Chronicle musing on the song, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.” Today, I believe that in addition to our love, people will also know we are Christians by our willingness to tell the truth about ourselves. In other words, we as Christians must stop being our own hagiographers.

I write this because of my disgust over a recent YouTube segment. I will not reveal the details except to say that someone I knew was being introduced by a well-known TV evangelist. The evangelist said things about this individual which cast the person in a glowing, holy light of special insight into and heroic obedience to the will of God. Implication: “you, too, can be blessed this way if you will make the same decisions.” But it was, at best, a highly sanitized stretch of the reality. At worst, it was a pack of lies. I don’t know if the speaker didn’t know the truth, or if the individual had presented this version of life in this new setting. I do know that this was hagiography at its best—or at its worst, as the case may be.

It’s hard work to live as a Christian. It takes discipline and practice and repetition and intentionality to consistently live in the holy light of God and to speak truth. We all battle the human tendency to hide and blame others and be irresponsible and to stretch the truth so we look better. The entrance into the Christian world of grace and intimacy with God brings with it the understanding that since we have been reconciled to God, then we must also reconcile with the world around us. That kind of reconciliation demands that we forgive as we have been forgiven, that we love our enemies, serve others with generosity and lay down our lives for those who don’t deserve it. Not one easy thing to do among that list, and every single person fails repeatedly in the process of learning to be a mature and integrated Christian. It is grace, not our performance, that keeps us going. It is grace that gives us the courage to pick ourselves up yet once more, dust ourselves off, know that God still loves us, and head out again to offer bold righteousness and transforming love to the world around us.

When we write our own hagiographies and set ourselves up as models of Christian living and say, “See, it’s so easy. Do what I do and you will get all these blessings,” then we have done a terrible disservice to the community around us. By our lies, we set people up to be disappointed with God.

I admit that this tirade is clearly aimed at those who preach the “prosperity gospel,” particularly the TV preachers. They parade behind unimaginable riches, gleaned from the nearly empty checkbooks of the vulnerable people they prey upon. With perfect hair and teeth glaringly white, clothed in expensively tailored clothes, having traveled in comfort in private jets, they say, “Send me more money and you, too, can live like this. Because if you are not, God is not blessing you.” And it is all a lie.

Jesus said, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.” Well, let us get free from those who would prey upon the vulnerable. Let us get free from those who write their own hagiographies and then preach riches as blessings. Let us get free to love.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Homework and Grace

School has started and we’ve all seen much buzz about the Dallas Independent School District’s new grading policy. My first reaction, like so many others, was simply one of horror. It looked like school administrators were removing any incentive for students to complete homework on time—or even bother to turn it in--or study for tests the first time around, knowing they could take them later without grade penalty or other repercussions.

Later, however, I took the time to read the whole thing, not just the snippets announced on the news or printed in the paper. Reading the whole report much more clearly shows the intent: let’s find a way to help our students learn the material and pass their courses. Let’s make sure that parents know what is happening. Let’s offer the second chance that every one has needed from time to time and see if this will help keep young people in school until they have mastered the basics of education.

The school district is trying to implement what is basic to the Christian world, what I’ve often called “the do-over.” It’s the “do-over” that shows us the grace of God. It is the nature of the good news, announced by the angels on the night of Jesus’ birth: a savior has come and this savior reconnects a broken world and broken people with an unbroken and holy God. In the Incarnation, i.e., the act of God taking on human form, the impossible becomes possible. In the Incarnation, the ultimate “do-over” takes place. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus give the ultimate second chance. And I don’t know one single human being that has not needed a lot of second chances.

However, most of us will ask at some point: when do we stop giving those second chances? Especially when the pattern seems to be set: no preparation, no forethought, no mindfulness, no consequences, and continued failure, be it academic or moral. Again, when I first heard of this policy, my immediate thought: no employer will ever again want to hire a graduate from the Dallas ISD. I myself am a proud DISD graduate, so this is not a pleasant thought.

Who would want to hire someone who always assumes that someone else is going to clean up his or her messes? Who wants an employee who has never taken real responsibility for personal failure and expects the system to always smooth the path in front without ever having learned the lessons from the past? Nobody—nor is this what the new homework/test policy advocates. But is this what the church teaches with its emphasis on the grace of God and the endless forgiveness promised by the good news of Jesus Christ? Is that what we get: a free “bye” on responsibility because we live in a world of grace?

I can just hear the Apostle Paul yelling out, “May it never be!” For the first century Christians asked the same question: If grace is so free, and if grace grows even more when we sin irresponsibly, then let’s sin with abandon!!!!! No, for then one has only seen just the surface of a grace-filled life. Real grace offers much more than that. It offers not only the second chance, but also the opportunity to grow through that. Real grace is only understood when we face squarely the messes we have made and then do two things: First, we acknowledge the sorrow of the wrongdoing and ask for forgiveness—which is freely given by God. Second, while walking with a light and free step in the midst of that forgiveness, we receive the consequences and discover growth opportunities through them.

In other words, we grow up. There are times when it looks like much of the world has forgotten that childhood is not supposed to last forever. But more on that another time. In the meantime, let’s just all do our homework and study for our tests. If we mess up, let’s hope that the second chance does appear, and receive it gratefully when offered. And then be sure and give that second chance to everyone else. That could change your life.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Church At It's Best

Why bother with church? Why take the time to get involved in something that seems to have little practical value, takes up time, requests your contributions, and asks you to offer worship and praise and adoration to a Supreme Being whom you cannot see or touch and who often seems confusing and invisible?

Well, I can think of dozens of reasons for all people to engage in the discipline of good faith development, but there is one that has particularly struck me this summer. As I wrote several weeks earlier, it has been a summer of sorrow for me as I’ve both presided over and attended many funerals, as well as hearing about severe illnesses of good friends. After I wrote that column, another beloved member of our congregation died. I found myself unable to stop my own tears of grief for days and days afterward. It just seemed too much loss.

In the middle of that sadness, I also saw the church at its best. The loving community moved forward to show the hope of the kingdom of heaven in support, action, prayer, worship and comfort. As we mourned our loss together, that outpouring of love and service also pulled back the curtain just a bit so that we could see more clearly what it really is like to live in the unfathomable loving presence of our God.

There are three major transition times in people’s lives when the tendency is strongest to turn to a place of worship: birth, marriage and death. Shortly after a child is born, many parents, whether regular church-goers or not, will seek either to have the child baptized or dedicated, depending upon the church tradition. At the time of marriage, many people, whether regular church-goers or not, will seek out a church and pastor for the ceremony, recognizing that marriage vows really are sacred and need to be celebrated in a place of worship. At the time of death, many families, whether regular church-goers or not, will turn to a pastor or request the funeral home to provide one in order to have a place to make sense of their loss and find hope for the life to come.

But church at its best happens when, at the time of life’s transitions, the church community is already in place. The word “family” takes on a whole new meaning. People you have served with and worshipped with and eaten with and sometimes even argued with then come forth to stand with you, offer hugs and meals, extra care and multitudes of prayers on your behalf. Church at its best means that many arms are extended to hold you up when you lose the strength to do that for yourself. Church at its best means that a call to begin a prayer chain will within hours create large circles of comfort and help, even from those whom you barely know, simply because you do worship together. Church at its best means you will later give that same gift to others when the transition moments of their lives take their breaths away as well.

Church at its best is better than anyplace else because it is the doorway to the place of true grace. Church at its best happens when people bring both their own best and their own worst into the community and experience together the transformation of grace offered through Jesus Christ. Church at its best happens when we bother with church.