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.