Thursday, December 31, 2009

Put Down the Excuses

"Fish or Cut Bait"--a common phrase often used when relationships have grown increasingly troubled or have been stuck for a long time. Either fish, and move ahead with it and commit to it, or cut the bait, recognize that it is over, and move on. Quit dabbling, quit pretending, quit making excuses for delaying the decision. Make up your mind.

I think Jesus said something like this to people who said they wanted to follow him but that they had other things to do before turning that direction. One young man mentioned that he needed to bury his father first. Jesus gave a reply that seems pretty rough to us modern folk--something along the line of "let the dead bury the dead--you come with me. Now." Keep in mind that in Jesus' day, to "bury one's father" does not mean that there has been a death and they are waiting for the relatives to show up in order to stick him in the ground. Rather, that man's father was very much alive and might have many more years to live. The son was waiting, perhaps with less filial affection than he pretended to have, so he could enjoy his inheritance before turning his mind to things that really mattered. Like most people, however, this man sought comfort with considerably more passion and determination than he was willing to offer the Son of God.

The quest for comfort seems so harmless. What could be wrong with getting what we need to be well-padded first and then turning our attention to our spiritual lives, to eternal salvation, to making sure that injustice is addressed and the degraded ones be given a hand up and the means to live with more dignity?

Except Jesus said, "first, look for the things of God--then you'll have everything else. But when you look for everything else first, you'll end up with nothing at all."

I made a list recently of the reasons we float for taking the easy road to comfort first.

  • I'm too busy.
  • I'm too old.
  • I'm too young.
  • I've heard it is all a myth--why bother to find out for myself?
  • I'm not able to believe.
  • I'm not good enough.
  • I'll do this later, after I've had my fun.
  • God is mean and hateful.
  • Religion is destructive.
  • The church is full of hypocrites.
  • I'm too sophisticated.
  • It's just a power play on the part of church leaders.
  • Look at all the damage the church has done.
  • I'm too much of a screwup.

It's time to put all these down for a while and just look at Jesus. Jesus, the king of kings and lord of lords who says, "I am a very different king and lord. I will not take your power, but I will give you power. I will not take your joy and happiness, I will give you joy and happiness. I will not stomp upon you, but you may smash me--and I will still say, 'Father, forgive them because they just don't know what they are doing.'" It's time to say yes to the God who says, "I know I'm too much for you, so I'll just leap into your space and time continuum and become touchable. Come, let's talk. Come with your doubts and your disbelief's and your anger and your sorrow and your happiness and your pleasures and your busyness and let's see what we can do together. Step away from what you think is comfort and come to me. I'm here to complete you and offer you real comfort and wholeness, not to destroy. But you've got to come. I won't make you."

I know I've got my excuses for delaying the important things in life. Eventually, those excuses will bury me. Jesus offers real life. In order to receive it, we do need to actually fish--not pretend to do so. Just something to think about as we enter yet another calendar year.

Monday, December 28, 2009

"Do you not know . . .?" so begins the biblical writer with this reminder: "Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit." Our physical selves, these hodgpodges of muscle and bone, blood and fat, brain cells and eyelashes, together constitute a place of holy habitation for the Spirit of God. What simple act would show welcome to this honored guest whose presence generally remains unacknowledged?

There's an old, old song called "Count Your Blessings." The easy tune bounces along with words long out of fashion: "Count your blessings, name them one by one, Count your blessings, see what God hath done! Count your blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done."

This simple act showers hospitality on the Holy Guest: Say "thank you." In other words, just count those blessings. Name them, number them, nod your head up and down, nix negativity for a bit. Can you breathe today? That's a place to start. Do you have a choice of clothes? Wow--that's a big one. Most in the world don't. Can you name a friend? Then you wallow in riches. Does your heart still pump? Then savor the miracle of life!

Dip your toe into this water of thankfulness. Try it each evening before drifting off to sleep. Say to the Spirit of God that lives within you, "thank you." And then call them out, count them, and sleep the sleep of contentment. You will be amazed at what God has done.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Eve at First UMC, Krum

Here in Krum, the snow was coming down heavily by 1:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Trustees appeared, braving the 40 mph winds and stinging snow. They strung a set of Christmas lights along the driveway to guide people into the parking lot and away from the drainage ditches. Others were inside, mopping up melting snow carried in, preparing for the services.

Our 4:00 service was intended especially for children, and they were given the opportunity to act out the story as I told it. Because of the weather, a number of our older members as well as about 20 visitors came as well. The worship center filled just to comfort level. As we spilled into the greeting area afterward for cookies and punch, we were shocked to see a foot-high snow drift in front of our main door. Drivers came under the portico to pick up children and slid to uneven stops. Even on our level parking lot, few left without some spinning of tires. Several people got stuck or had an otherwise very difficult time returning home. The phones rang unceasingly with reports.

I decided to have my worship director, Damon Downing, call all the musicians and choir members and tell them to stay home. I phoned all the others who were serving in any capacity at the 7:00 service and told them not to come. When I reached my verger, that faithful woman was out scraping her car, planning to show up and serve no matter what. One of my greeters, an 88 year young man from Denton, was also planning to brave the weather. They do love Jesus and their church. 

An informal church phone chain was formed, and a church wide email went out as well. At first, Damon and I planned to do an abbreviated service should anyone actually come at 7, but at 6:15, I suggested he leave as well. My husband, The Rev. J. Keith Cupples, was slowly making his way from Dallas and I figured the two of us could handle a service should someone come. 

At 6:55 p.m. a family originally from upstate New York fought their way through growing the snow drift outside the door into the greeting area. Keith walked in a minute later and I was grateful for his safe arrival. Both had seen multiple vehicles stuck in ditches on the sides of the rural roads here. 

The family that came have experienced significant challenges in the last few years and there are clearly more to come, so I was honored and touched to lead the very much stripped down service for them. They are not a singing family, so Keith's voice was our music, and the service was peaceful and powerful. An 18 month old toddler said a joyful "ooh" at the lighting of each candle and his innocent delight infected us all. After their departure, I wandered through the building, turning off lights and lowering thermostats. Keith then began to play the piano in the already dark worship center. I was just listening to him and enjoying the moment when I heard a commotion at the door. 

Entering were the two adult sons of my dear friend and former church secretary, Nancy Pollard, who had died just 48 hours before. Brian and John had come to check on me. We had talked earlier and they alone knew I would not be able to get home if Keith got stuck and could not get here. It had taken them three and a half hours to drive from Fort Worth. 

I had spent countless hours with this family this past six weeks helping them through these difficult end of life decisions. I offered soothing comfort to Nancy, as her brain became more and more clouded with the rapid, and now unchecked advance of cancer. In this way, I honored the promise I had made a year earlier to her that I would see her through the very end. In the process, I had become especially close to these men, who are just a few years older than my own three sons, all thousands of miles away this Christmas.

After some conversation, Brian and John requested Holy Communion. I quickly agreed, put out the communion elements and donned again my vestments. Their family flows with musical talent. Their dad, Marvin, has a Ph.D. in musical conducting. Nancy had a trained operatic voice and had sung in multiple performances around the United States. These two men shared in that talent, so the four of us, Brian and John, Keith and I, sang Christmas carols together. I tasted heaven as I listened to those three singing men harmonize with my small voice thrown in for the melody. We enjoyed together the power and love of the table of holy communion. The service ended in the already darkened and rapidly cooling worship space with candlelight and "Silent Night." Clearly, angels filled our space. Peace and hope transformed our joint sorrow and grief.

Keith drove me home over the slick, deserted streets, somehow getting up our ice-covered driveway, the steepest one in Krum. Snow drifts two and three feet high filled our back yard. We welcomed Christmas Day at midnight by worshipping together and toasting one another with a exquisite glass of wine given to us by a friend. It was a glorious Christmas Eve here in Krum.

The Rev. Dr. Christy Thomas, Pastor
First UMC, Krum
"A Pastor's Thoughts:"

Saturday, December 19, 2009

The Questions of the Season

At this time of the year, what is are the questions in my mind?  For me, it is hardly, "What am I going to get for Christmas."  I've already got plenty and the receiving of gifts, while quite enjoyable, doesn't really occupy much of my thinking.

How about, "What am I going to give?"  Now, that's a question more in my mind, but most of that has already been taken care of.  Gifts for grandchildren have been purchased and sent off and the adults have chosen to forego gift-giving in exchange for a great meal and less stress.  

Another good one is "Who will I get to see this Christmas?"  Most of my family is scattered around this world this year, but my church family and special friends are here--and those I will get to see. Much joy there. But this is still not the driving question.

Perhaps closer to my heart is:  "Does this world really matter to God?"  Even more, "Do I matter to God?"  The answer to that question forms the core of the Christmas moment.  Here enters the presence of all that is holy and powerful in the form of that which is vulnerable, touchable, yet still worthy of adoration, the Christ Child. 

In effect, God says, "Let's talk.  Let us enter into conversation together.  Come, you who are carrying so much.  Come, you who are so busy.  Come, you who are so worried.  Come, you who have worked yourself into soullessness.  Come, find peace and hope. Come, find healing and connection.  I have humbled myself, taking on human form so we can talk.  Come, all of you.  You are welcome in my presence."

So, enter into worship on Christmas Eve.  At First United Methodist Church here in Krum, we'll have a very casual Children and Family service at 4:00 p.m. (if you want you children to help act out the story, have them there by 3:40).  We'll sing and tell the story and have cookies and punch afterward. Then at 7:00 p.m., we'll engage in more formal worship, share the bread and cup of communion, and remind ourselves that we are the light of the world while we sing "Silent Night" to the gentle glow of candlelight.  All other churches in the area will also hold services.  Pick one, go, and enter into conversation and hear the answer to the question, "Does this world really matter to God?"  See if you hear what I hear!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Prayer Letters

Prayer Letters

It was a quiet Friday morning.  I slept late, knowing I need the extra rest as I've fought cold after cold all fall and am clearly not treating my body well.  

As always, I woke to spend some time in prayer, offering thankfulness for another day and then way too quickly, moving to what I'm so prone to:  the complaining prayers.  The ones that effectively say to God, "Get with my program here and make it quick."

I let the dogs out, and retrieved the newspaper, reading it over breakfast and hot tea and then headed to email and to consider the rest of the day.  

I did the usual deleting of newsletters I subscribe to but didn't want to read today, tossed out the ones from airlines trying to get me to book holiday flights and companies where I've made online purchases seeking to entice me to buy more. 

There were two emails left, both from people I've known for a number of years and who spend their lives seeking out the lost and offering them the hope of salvation in Jesus.  In both cases, I've promised that I would faithfully pray for them and their work.  So I opened them, read them carefully, and re-entered the place and discipline of prayer.  

One letter involved a group of people who live in the Pacific Northwest, an area of the country that has long been extraordinarily unreceptive to the hope of the gospel.  There is a loosely connected group of people who have moved there, are finding jobs, settling themselves and their children in these communities, and seeking in quiet ways to offer the kingdom of heaven to those around them.  

The other is from a friend who lives in Kazakhstan, half-way around the world from here, and works with a group of people doing much the same.  

Life is hardly easy for any of these folks.  Precarious finances, health problems, little structure to guide them--all adds up to a very strange and challenging way to live.  But they are driven by what they themselves know and have experienced:  the realness of the grace of God that has brought reconciliation and freedom to them.

As I prayed, I thought about upsidedown-type life that those who seeks the grace-filled place called "the kingdom of heaven" live in.  It's a place of giving, not getting.  The rewards are often not immediate, but when they come, when someone who was wandering in spiritual devastation somehow discovers the power of a life reconciled to God, then those rewards surpass just about anything else.  These people touch eternity with their lives.  History may not record them in books or newspapers or magazines, but history will know them because they brought light and hope which will then be passed to others. 

Are you called to this kind of life?  Many are, but many don't respond to the call.  It's too hard, too stretching, not comfortable enough.  But if you are, and if you respond to it, no other way of living satisfies.  It's the best and most joyful path of life, both now and in eternity.

Does the World Need a Savior?

What are some of the problems we face as those who inhabit our planet?

Let me list a few:

1. A worldwide political system that permits millions of people to suffer desperate poverty and hunger with few options for relief and improvement.

2. An economic situation so bad here in the US that illegal immigrants are now receiving money from those they left behind rather than sending money back to their families. In other words, those who, at great danger to themselves, crossed borders in order to find better lives now find themselves far worse off than those they left.

3. More on the economic front: the mortgage and banking industry meltdowns continue to have ripple effects on those not directly involved, and it is the most vulnerable of our society that are being badly hurt. Those on the bottom rungs of the financial ladder, who live from paycheck to paycheck, but still could just manage, now find their working hours cut back or jobs completely eliminated. With that, their precarious stability is crashing, and with that crash comes another ripple of financial distress for the businesses utterly innocent of wrongdoing.

4. A simply disastrous health care system in the United States for anyone who is not covered by some sort of health insurance policy. Add to this a national diet and life-style that are destructive to health and well-bring, and we have a set-up for a major health-care implosion.

5. A great loss of civility in public discourse, and that lack of civility rules in private discourse as well. Kindness and patience seem to have disappeared.

6. Our children are being sexualized at a younger and younger age. Innocence, play, and good use of the imagination seem to be lost arts among more and more of our over-scheduled and over media'd children and youth. 

7. A growing indifference to the development of strong moral and spiritual lives, including the extremely necessary disciplines of self-reflection, self-control, self-awareness and the recognition that there is a greater reality than that which we can see, hear and consume.

All this is just a teacup in the oceans of trouble. Does this world need a savior? Yes, and I believe that God has sent one. 

Each year, we gather on Christmas Eve to enter again into the mystery of the Incarnation, where a holy and what often seems an inaccessible God takes on human form and says, "Let's talk about this. There's a different way to live and there is a different way to die and a different way to find life again after death." 

I think the mystery of this time is God's invitation to conversation. Let's consider joining that conversation and becoming even more fully those who bring healing, not more pain, to the world as we too, know of our need for a savior.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Benign Tolerance?

Systemic child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Irish Orphanages, the climate change email scandal, the Tiger Woods marital mess: what do these three apparently disconnected things have in common?  Simply this:  the human tendency to compromise the truth and to then do damage control rather than come clean and address the real core of the problem.  

In each case, people have violated public trust by ignoring their stated baselines of moral behavior.  The Roman Catholic Church stands strongly on respect for human life.  However, incontroverable evidence now shows that such respect apparently did not extend to children housed in multiple orphanages run by Roman Catholic priests during the middle to latter half of the 20th century.  Scientists pride themselves on intellectual honesty, and insist that they deal with facts, only facts. Unless, however, those facts do not line up favorably with the current theory in vogue.  Tiger Woods publicized himself up as a boring, clean-living dedicated athlete.  It is now looking like much of his clean public image covered years of unfaithfulness to his wife.

Now, I'm not interested in pointing the fingers at these three situations and piously saying, "There but for the grace of God go I."  What a nasty statement that is!  All of us have discrepancies between our public statements and our private behavior and actions.  Everyone one of us stands very much in the need of the grace of God.  We're no different--just less public in our behavior and less likely to see the tatters in our souls held up to world-wide scrutiny.

The question for me today is: What does God's grace really look like?  Many people see grace as a kind of benign tolerance of one another's peccadilloes and personal preferences and a decidedly non-judgmental stance toward the decisions of others, even if such decisions seem somewhat misguided.

Let's try that on for size here.  Do we just dismiss those serving in ordained ministry with a decided taste for hurting children as just having a personal preference for such things?  Or suggest that scientists who hide or twist evidence that call into question pet theories only somewhat misguided, especially when their pronouncements will guide public policy for years to come? Or write off Tiger Woods' preference for multiple sexual partners while systematically lying about it as simply private behavior that affects no one else?  What hogwash.  We are rightly horrified by such things.

So "benign tolerance" and "non-judgmental" doesn't seem to work so well as a definition of grace when the peccadilloes of others build mountains of hurt and destruction. 

Grace is much deeper than that.  Grace says, "Look closely at your souls.  See them in the light of powerful and justice-loving holiness.  Speak truth about yourselves, and find yourselves free to leave behind that which is destroying you and others.  Seek the face of God and know forgiveness is yours when you bring a repentant heart." 

Christmas is just around the corner now.  That is the time when Christians celebrate something called the "incarnation."  This is God saying, "I've sent the law and the prophets, and you didn't listen.  So I will bring myself to show you the way of true reconciliation.  I will come in complete weakness and humility, not in power and public adulation.  And I will live grace.  In this grace, the only sin that can't be forgiven is the one that won't be acknowledged because you have excused it with the personal peccadillo of 'I'm not perfect--cut me some slack.' Instead, come, speak truth and find freedom in me."

Grace:  we all need it.  The process of maturity, that which Jesus calls, "Be perfect as your Father in heaven is perfect," is one of bringing into harmony public pronouncements of who we say we are and what we believe into the private, tiniest details of our private lives.  A grace-filled life does not run from scrutiny and exposure, but embraces them.  For such exposure reminds us of this, "here, because of the grace of God, I am."

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Christmas Lights

As much as I really prefer longer days and more sunshine, I also enjoy the magic of the early darkness and the Christmas lights that are appearing on many buildings these days.  Those decorations often look bare and a little forlorn during the sunlight hours. Yet when darkness falls, the forms take shape and the spaces are filled in with the glow from the lights.

The tiny bulbs generally used each put out very little light on their own, so many are needed to produce much of an effect. When they are massed together in creative patterns, they brighten faces and bring delight to passers-by.

This past Sunday, we were talking about some of our favorite Christmas traditions.  One mentioned the Christmas Eve candlelight service that most churches offer.  Generally, at the end of the time of worship, the space is darkened, and the worship leaders will light their candles from the Christ Candle and then walk down the aisles, lighting the candles of those in the end seats. Quickly, the light spreads all through the meeting space as candles are lifted and we sing the familiar words of "Silent Night."  The words themselves bring us to the center of hope and holiness as we sing of the holy infant, of heavenly glories streaming around us, of redeeming grace coming from Jesus, Lord, at his birth. 

Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon Virgin Mother and Child
Holy Infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night!
Shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar
Heavenly hosts sing Alleluia!
Christ, the Saviour is born
Christ, the Saviour is born

Silent night, holy night
Son of God, love's pure light
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Sometimes choirs will offer a descant such as this one as the congregation sings last verse:  "Peace, peace, peace on earth and goodwill to all. This is a time for joy, this is a time for love. Now let us all sing together of peace, peace, peace on earth."

Just hearing the music in my mind as I reread this words brings a sense of peace to me.  Peace--how we need it.  Peace, more than the cessation of war, it is the sense of holy connection among us. Peace comes from acting on the knowledge that we are all part of a family, and that our own lights shine better when we are connected to the lights of others.  Christmas lights--may we find peace each time you and I see them.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Day Before Thanksgiving

It's the day before Thanksgiving, 2009. I had intended to just have a lazy day, relaxing, reading, drying what seems like bushels of basil I'd harvested from the garden before what I figured would be the first freeze of the season.

Mid-morning, my phone rang. Unfamiliar number--no name with it. When I answered, the voice introduced himself as someone I had known years ago, and had recently seen at a gathering for my and his parents Sunday School class. He was clearly in distress, and quickly told me the story. His brother's stepson had been in a horrific car accident the night before. Multiple spinal injuries, and if the young man did live, there was no question of there ever being mobility again. The young man will be a complete quadriplegic, with no movement possible below the neck. We spoke a few moments, and I promised prayer and support.

A few minutes later, I received a summons to go to church and help fold a newsletter that needed to go out this afternoon. After a few moments of internal grumbling, I headed up there. But not before checking my phone and seeing a text message about a young couple who had just experienced their second miscarriage in two years and were grief-stricken. 

There were just three of us folding and labeling the 500 newsletters. One, a sweet and wonderful senior citizen, spoke of her gratefulness that her daughter, diagnosed a year ago with fast-acting leukemia, had finished all her treatment, including a bone marrow transplant, and that things looked good for her. Then she mentioned her son, now on his third round of chemo for his cancer, but still managing to go to work each day. In the meantime, the phone rang with one of the many calls I get a week from people asking for money to pay utilities and/or hotel bills. Sometimes I wonder if these folks are reading from a prepared script--it seems that I've heard the same story over and over again. 

Later, I spoke with my youngest son who said that he was having a showdown with his firm. He has consistently worked 12-15 hour days for over a year now, and had reach his limit. He was preparing for a trip to Peru, Machu Pichu, and the Amazon Jungle to get some space and time to think about what he really wanted in life.

In addition to this, several of us were planning on a "orphan's" Thanksgiving meal. All who don't have family, or want a smaller family to celebrate with a larger group, are invited to the church tomorrow for a meal. We have no idea how many are coming. This, in my opinion, is true Eucharist--the giving of thanks around a table where all bring what they can, and eat what they need. Someone asked, "What if a lot more come than we are prepared for." I said, "We'll have a miracle then. There will be enough no matter what we do."

The day: a series of problems, pain, anguish, love, service, questions and not a lot of answers, and a strong undercurrent of thanksgiving. No easy answers to life's complex challenges. 

I used to think there were. Just believe the right things, trust God, "let God and let go," operate out of the laws of attraction, etc. etc., and everything will all fall into place. No, it doesn't. So, is the world held together in Christ? I hope so. Because there, and only there, is hope. Hope that resurrection does follow death and darkness. Life does triumphs over death. Yes, I do hope so.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Christmas Appeals

My desk is covered with appeals for funds. Most of these are organizations I have supported regularly or sporadically in the past. I have huge respect for what they do. Some are for educational institutions, but most are for agencies who work to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the prisoner, release the captive, give sight to the blind. For the biblically literate, those phrases speak of the prophetic call on the life of Jesus when he first began public ministry. Later in the Gospel messages, Jesus clearly states that those are also the tasks of those who say they are God's people.

When we work together to relieve suffering, we come close to moments of transcendence. We go beyond ourselves into a greater sense of both our humanness and our greater than human selves, that is, the image of God stamped up us.

We don't have to look hard to find suffering. It sneaks or comes slamming upon every single sentient creature. The fight to keep ourselves free from suffering, pain, sadness, blindness, hunger, and imprisonment motivates most of our work, our addictions, our play, and our distractions. It's also why is it so much fun to fall in love. In the hormonal and emotional high that comes with the initial phases of romantic love, suffering is swallowed in joy and delight. The presence of the beloved so lights our eyes that everything glows from the spill-over of romance. We float for a while, and glory in the respite. Eventually, however, the suffering of others and the suffering of our own souls will again poke into consciousness. Again, we enter the round of escape by work, play, distractions and addictions. 

Is there an escape from this cycle? Well, unless and until there is a new heaven and a new earth, and until God does indeed wipe every tear from our collective eyes, no. For now, we can buffer ourselves from pain in every way possible by riches, comfort, ignorance, self-gratification, and any other means we can think of and it will still make its presence known. Alternately, we can open ourselves to it by active engagement in the relief of suffering in others, and find that much of our own melts in the process. 

Take an inventory: who are the happiest people you know? Are they the richest? Most comfortable? Most accomplished? Most beautiful? Best-dressed? Most talented? Most adulated? Most popular? Perhaps, at least briefly, they may find happiness. But the most consistently happy people are those who actively relieve suffering in others. They volunteer at animal shelters, work with abused children, adopt or foster those whom no one else wants. They feed the hungry, clothe the naked, work to release those who are held captive. This does not mean they ignore their own needs for clothing and food and freedom, but that those needs find a different perspective and take on less importance.

So, back to the many appeals for help on my desk. Almost everybody I know has experienced some financial challenge this year, and many faced devastating ones. Our first tendency at this point is to give into fear. The fear: there will not be enough. Those who are least likely to reach this point are those who had little to begin with. But those who had more, and who saw it dwindle, find fear a constant companion. Fear begets greed. We clench our fists, put a tight hold on our giving. And we die in the process. We become less human, more animalistic, taking first what we need for ourselves, caring less about the larger community and the greater good.

I know I face that temptation. It's been a tough year. And I've decided to choose the transcendent way. I will give more, not less. I will recognize that when I chose my temporary comfort over the larger needs of this inter-connected, suffering world, that I will lose my soul in the very act of protecting it. This is not an easy choice--it has taken much internal wrestling to get here. But it is the right one.

Let's unclench our fists, and get free. Yes, we will have less. And we will also have much, much more.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

To Say "Thanks"

I recently received a note from someone I knew years ago but have not seen in decades. The last time we had spoken, we had discussed our mutual interest in what it might mean to live as Christian people, giving much more than simple lip service to the things we said were vitally important to us. 

He wrote to me about that conversation, "That time with you made so much difference in my life. I became much more active with the faith, began taking Christian studies during my senior year at college, and continued to make God the center of my life on through law school and then in my work life and family life. I think of you often because I appreciate you so much. In my mind God really used you as a channel to help me. My renewed relationship with God really did grow out of those very brief moments around you. I think that most of us never realize just what a big difference we can make in the lives of others. You made a huge difference in mine. Thank you so very much!"

How honored I was to read these words, "you made a huge difference in my life." To whom might I also say such words? There are dozens, hundreds of those. I think of my grandparents. My paternal grandmother used to rise at 4:00 a.m. every morning to write letters to each of her grandchildren, surrounding us with love, speaking to us of faith and faithfulness. My maternal grandmother, who lived with our family, and helped me learn to read by sharing with me her devotional magazines. My parents, knowing the importance of high quality education, made sure both my mind and my soul were nurtured and fed.

Beyond relatives, there were a myriad of caring teachers from school and church, youth directors, mentors and friends who offered support, correction, guidance and stimulating discussion. How many there were! And my guess if this: if any of these good people do remember me at all, they probably thought at the time that their words were falling on deaf ears. I was a hard nut to crack during my adolescence and early college years, full of rebellion and generally indifferent to spiritual things. 

Today, I spill over with gratefulness for them. They were the hands and feet and voice of Jesus for me. They lived grace for me and for a lot of others as well. Those unsung heros, rarely if ever thanked and probably often frustrated and in despair over me, changed my life, one drop of love at a time.

It's Thanksgiving week. Instead of the often perfunctory "I'm thankful for the food today" that often suffices to honor this brief season before the Christmas purchasing and activity frenzy takes over, why not sit down and write a note of thanks to someone who impacted your life and showed you the face of God in some way? It would be one of the best gifts you could ever give.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Touch of Healing

The Healing Touch
On an average day, what did you touch that someone else has already touched--or will touch after you?  

Consider a day at work or school.  If the entrance doesn't have an electric eye and automatic opening device, then you touch the handle to open it.  If you go up or down stairs, you will probably at some point grab the handrail.  If you use an escalator, you will probably balance with the ever-rotating hand hold at some point.  Elevators mean you will punch the button to call the elevator and then punch the button to get to the desired floor.  

If you purchase something and use cash, you will handle the bills and change offered to the server and then do the same with any bills or change coming back.  Paper money just teems with bacteria, by the way so anyone who handles it regularly touches thousands of other people per day just by that work alone. 

 If you use a public restroom, you will probably have to open the door to get in and then open and close the door to the stall and, unless it is an auto-flush, you will also have to use the handle to flush the wastes away.  And then re-open the stall and touch the handles on the faucet and the soap dispenser to wash away the dirt (we can only hope so, anyway).  Finally, you touch the door handle to exit the space.  Public diaper changing tables anyone?  Do we really want to know?

If you go clothes shopping and try on garments, have you ever considered that someone may have tried them on before you--and left their bacterial mark on them?  Shall we even talk about grocery cart handles?  Or foodstuffs in grocery stores that someone might have picked up and then put back for you to pick up later?  At the very least, the stockers had to touch them.  What about the magazines at the check out counter that you peruse and return when in a long, slowly moving line?  

If you work in any office environment, have you considered who used the copy machine, phone or fax before you?  Computer keyboards are notoriously filthy.  

Since we all now check ourselves in at airline kiosks, try not to even guess how many people used that terminal before you put your code in for your boarding pass.  And who used the tub before you for their stinky shoes? As for the airline, bus, or other public transportation seats--I urge you not to picture who sat there before you.  Trust me, it didn't get a steam clean between occupancies.  

ATM's anyone?  How many grubby hands touched it just the hour before?  Same with the canisters that drive-in banks use.  

Watch out for that light switch--goodness only knows what the previous people who flipped it on or off carried on their hands.  

As for paying for purchases, most of us swipe our own credit cards these days. but not always--and the hand that just took it had also just held dozens of others.

Consider the restaurants--somebody wrapped that silverware that comes to your table.  Someone else at the very least breathed on the food that was served to you--and probably handled it as well.  

Doctor's offices anyone?  Who DID read that out-of-date magazine before you picked it up?  Or used the pen on the counter to sign in before you picked it up?  

It's not a huge leap to real germaphobia here.  In truth, each of us lives with millions of bacteria colonies all over us.  Viruses live in airborne droplets; danger lurks around each corner.  That is the nature of life.

So, I'm suggesting an alternative to retreating to a world that insists on being germ free.  Instead of focusing on how much bacteria you are being exposed to each day, and how much you are exposing others to your own highly bacterially-colonized hands and body, consider how much goodness you can give away with each encounter.  

Try offering a silent or spoken blessing each time you touch anything, offering gratefulness to God for the privilege of living in a world where we can touch each other, where we can go to school and work and shop and travel and interact with one another.  Pray for the person who sat before you and who will sit after you.  Thank those who serve you and handle your dirty money in exchange.  Spend time praising the Holy One for the mystery of our human bodies, so complex and amazingly able to stay healthy most of the time despite continued assaults on it.  We'll never get rid of the germs, nor should we.  But we can turn curse into blessing and touch the world with healing.  Sure beats turning into a tortured hermit.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Where Do You Start?

What is your basic truth about the nature of God? Is God good? Happy? Angry? Close or far away? Does God like you? Dislike you?

These may seem like silly questions, but the answers we give determine how we do, or don't, relate to God. It also determines how we read the Bible and the answers we find, or don't find, about life, God, salvation, heaven and hell and a host of other things.

A wise theologian once said, "Where you enter the Bible is also the place where you will exit." I heard that phrase at a lecture years ago as the speaker encouraged us to engage in theological wresting over a contentious point of order: whether or not women had a place in church leadership, especially as ordained clergy or in the senior pastor role.

For example, do we assume that from the beginning women are supposed to be subordinate to men? Do we assume that hierarchy and "chain of command" reside within the very nature of God and therefore that human society must be also also be arranged in such a way? If so, we will read that assumption into the the Bible to support that idea.

Alternatively, do we assume that such subordination emerged as an aberration from the ideal of the experience described in the Garden of Eden? Do we think that male and female were both created fully in the image of God and are meant to partner with each other and with God in the unfolding of creation? Then our reading and interpretation would lead to very different conclusions. Both beginning points can claim biblical support--we have to choose which one we stand upon. Then we must see if that stance is consistent with what else we knew about God from our years of Bible study and the practice of living as faithful Christians.

In the last few days, I was thinking about those questions and others because of an email conversation with a dear friend. She is quite certain I've gone off the heretical edge. Her words express significant concern that I may lose my salvation and end up in hell. As she and I write about our respective positions, I find another set of assumptions that must be surfaced, examined and tested to see if they hold together.

Those assumptions go back to the questions I wrote at the beginning of this article: what DO we think is true about the very nature of God? What is our starting point when we think about God?

For example: Is God's main purpose to save only the few who manage to figure out exactly the right words and right beliefs to allay God's looming wrath? Does God then send everyone else to eternal damnation and punishment? Or does God genuinely like the created world and the beings inhabiting it and so is interested in offering to all opportunity of healing, salvation, wholeness and eternal life, which is defined by Jesus as knowing God? In other words, is God in love with us or is God in anger with us? The starting point determines the end. If we start by believing that God is angry and only willing to let a few in, we end by condemning anyone who doesn't believe like us, since pretty well any person with any belief in God or an afterlife is sure he or she is going to make it to heaven.

Recently, a young man sat in my office explaining why he avoids attending worship services. He related the story when as a teen he brought a modern translation of the Bible to church one day. His pastor took it and held it up as though he were holding a snake or some other despised object. He then soundly berated the young man for having such a horror in his possession.

Now, that's a great picture of a God who starts with anger. Basic assumption: There is only one tightly defined way to God. That one way has to be understood and communicated only in archaic language using a Bible which was translated from less reliable manuscripts than more modern and scholarly translations now use. In other words, don't use your brain, don't think very hard, and learn the moves to the dance that please this angry God before it is too late.

That really loves 'em into the kingdom of heaven, doesn't it?

I grew up certain that God was angry with me. Many people I know have that same experience. That kind of thinking leads to a life of fear and apprehension, little joy or confidence and almost no courage to make bold decisions. What if I'm wrong? What if I make a choice that displeases God? What horrors will await me then? Best to play it safe and make no mistakes.

What a shut down life that is! The Bible narratives tell us of people making bold stands for God, of challenging fights against injustice, of arguments and disagreements that eventually led to greater understanding. How can one be bold for God while living in terror than one wrong step or one's questioning of the "approved" belief structure will lead to the uttermost darkness and everlasting torment? It is the power of love that encourages boldness and the redemption of the world, not fear-producing anger.

Examine your own starting place. If your starting place indicates that God is angry with you, consider the possibility of re-thinking that. Awareness that God really does like us is a big step to loving God in return, and that really is eternal life.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Recalculating . . . recalculating . ....

Recalculating . . . recalculating . . . recalculating

Thanks to my frequently over-generous husband, I have a GPS device (global positioning system) to guide me when I'm heading someplace unfamiliar. I rarely use it, as I enjoy a good sense of direction and read maps well. However, on a couple of recent trips to out of town locations, I decided to see how it worked.

A soothing voice supplied succinct instructions (that female voice coming out of it means I must refer to this device as a "her" rather than an "it") and I docilely complied. Of course, at some point, I deviated just a bit--to stop and get something to eat, or fill up with fuel. Immediately, I would hear the "recalculating . . . recalculating . . . recalculating . . ." message and then she would spit out a set of instructions to get me back to the original route. When, on occasion, I refused to comply with her recalculated instructions, she would eventually give in and offer a new route--but always with the same destination in mind.

I discovered that she gives instructions to turn or merge on a highway only about a mile before reaching the turning or merge point. Otherwise, she stays silent. Nothing, no words, no feedback. I found when I was driving a long distance on a highway that I wanted her to say something like, "You are doing great--heading in the right direction. Good job!"

I was little spooked to discover just how much she knew about me. A friend who was riding with me on one trip could look at her and tell me exactly how fast I was driving--and therefore know my compliance level with the posted speed limit. She (the device, that is) seemed to have a very good handle on exactly when I would arrive at my destination, clearly taking into account how well I was observing the speed limits.

I kind of liked her (the device, that is) but there was something about the periodic announcements that she was "recalculating" when I made an unanticipated turn that made me consider just how much the GPS device is like God. After all, isn't God always working in our lives to redeem our various mistakes and misdirections--as though there is a constant celestial "recalculating" going on? I've never particularly held with the theology that there is one perfect path that we are ideally intended to follow. Nonetheless, I do sense that there is a consistent goal--that of becoming fully in the image of God, and therefore living as more developed human beings, able to love openly and give thoroughly and grow into socially, emotionally, volitionally, and spiritually mature people. We take so many bypaths on the way--and just like my GPS, God consistently and patiently recalculates and seeks to get us heading again toward the goal.

Then there was the lack of feedback while I drove on the same highway for an extended distance. Where was the pat on the back? Yet those who have gone deep into the heart of God and have intentionally chosen lives of transformational holiness have in common this experience: the dark night of the soul where it seems impossible to hear the voice of God or sense that Holy Presence. I seem to have this insatiable need for someone to say to me, "Good job!" I want to hear those words of affirmation from someone else. But the call to maturity says, "Learn to trust yourself as one who has practiced the holy habits for years" during those times of silence. Much soul shaping takes place in the quiet.

Finally, there was what seemed like to me only last minute instructions to turn. I wanted to know miles ahead of time that a turn was imminent, but she disregarded my desires. I only found out a short time before the change of direction. How like life that is! We really don't know the future, however much we might like to think we can control it. Instead, the turns come and our job is to go with them, finding our bearings again in the new direction before us.

Recalculating . . . recalculating . . . recalculating . . . we all do it all the time as we engage in life and death matters. I find comfort in knowing that the Creator takes my twists and turns into account and continually offers me direction to the goal, even when I choose the ways that may not be the best or straightest of paths.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Rhythms of Life

Every year as the days shorten and the weather cools, I find that I tend to sleep longer and more soundly than I do during the warmer months that coincide with longer days.  I used to think there was something wrong with me when this happened--that I suffered from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and that this was a problem that needed to be fixed.

Sometimes, however, with age comes wisdom.  Last week, I was teaching a Bible lesson to our middle school youth and was seeking to help them enter the world around the time of Jesus.  We gathered around a makeshift campfire (actually, two candles since it was pouring down rain outside), sat in the darkened room, ate middle eastern flatbread and olives, and talked about what it would mean to have only one set of clothes, and to sleep on the ground with just a cloak to cover them.  I also reminded them that they would go to sleep when it got dark and get up when the sun got up.  With no artificial light, their wake/sleep patterns would be in sync with the light/dark/day/night patterns of nature.

Most people today in the modern, electrified world live almost completely out of harmony with those patterns.  The scourge of Daylight Savings Time means that hardly anyone gets to awaken with the dawn, but must get up in deep darkness in order to be on time for work or school.  The process of gradual awakening with the coming of day has been almost completely eliminated.  With 24 hour TV programming, combined with the ever available Internet and with many businesses open 24 hours a day, events and tasks normally done during daytime hours can now be performed any time of day.  Plus, employees must now work those overnight hours, their bodies endlessly out of harmony with nature's pattern.

Scholarly research now coming out indicates a link between the disruption of those normal wake/sleep patterns (called the circadian rhythm) and ill health.  In addition, many researchers are seeing a connection between inadequate sleep and weight gain.  It seems contradictory, for one would think that less sleep would mean more calories burned.  Yet the correlation is strong:  more and better quality sleep does apparently lead to weight loss.

This came to a head with me recently as I realized that my growing fatigue was making me vulnerable to infectious agents that my normally healthy body should have been able to fight off.  In the midst of battling what I assume was the flu, I was reminded that God spoke from the beginning to the human need for rest and refreshment. 

One of the most ignored of the Ten Commandments is the one that calls for honoring the Sabbath.  I would suggest that hardly anyone today ever considers taking a day of real rest.  Ideally, such a day starts with joyous worship, so that we acknowledge from the beginning that God is our provider. We may find our rest more fully when we intentionally enter into the heart of God.  Worship is then followed by meals freely shared with others, games and laughter, naps and conversations, left-overs and serenity, all followed by restful long hours of simple sleep.  Almost all normal tasks are set aside--it will all be there the next day anyway. 

What would it be like for us to set aside the clock and have no demanding "I've got to be there by then" schedules for the day?  What would happen if businesses were to actually shut down on Sundays, such as Hobby Lobby and Chick-fil-A do now? What would happen if the organizers of youth sports teams would say to the children and families: "If we can't get it all in on the other six days, we are demanding too much.  It's time to start honoring you as families and the Sabbath rest again."  What would happen if all of us started recognizing that we are made in the image of God and that living out of that image means we honor our physical bodies with rhythmic and regular rest, worship and play needed for our well-being?

What would happen?  We might just take a big step to solving the national health crisis.  Not a bad idea at all.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Fear, the Worst of Them All

"If I had known this was a even a remote risk that we could be walking down that midway and the dart would end up in my daughter's eye, my eye, I would never go there," she said.

This was a quote in a Dallas Morning News article made by a woman who was attending the Texas State Fair and who was injured when a stray dart from a Midway arcade game hit her eye. It's a nasty injury, and her full recovery is uncertain. But it's the response that gives me pause. If she had known there was even a remote risk . . .then she would not have gone there. Even the tiniest risk would have meant no possibility of enjoying the pleasure of a day at the Texas State Fair. That fear response that shuts us down.

Fear: Of all the emotions we humans are capable of feeling, I believe fear holds the prize for the worst of them all. We can grieve with anguish and weep with loneliness and sadness and shake with anger and somehow work our way through all of this. But when fear taunts us and paralyzes us, keeping us from action and risk and the possibility of love and light, then we come closer than any other time to experiencing hell on earth.

Hell, very simply, is the absence of God. The forces of the God-empty place suck all of life into a black hole. Where God is absent, there cannot be love. Fear chases away the possibility of love because it tells us, "circle the wagons, keep yourself safe, and don't think about anyone else but you and that which is your own." Love by its very nature brings risk, for love opens us up to being touched by a much wider world and getting hurt as we venture out. If God is perfect love, and perfect love does indeed cast out all fear, then the victory of fear is the loss of the power of love.

What are some of your fears right now? I bet I can guess a few of them, because the majority of fears have one cause: the fear that there will not be enough. Not enough money, not enough love, not enough health, not enough energy, not enough comfort, not enough courage, not enough time, not enough success, not enough power, not enough strength. Frankly, things do look pretty grim when we look at the world around us--and it is easy to leap to fear in response.

I also know how easy it is to give into my fears and to let them shut me down. When fear rules my heart, I become the active invitation into hell as I ask others to share my fears with me and come into my God-empty places.

How do we get free from fear? How do we leave that God-empty hell behind and find again the God-filled place? If getting to fullness depends upon external circumstances of things going our way, we have few, if any, hopes at all. Only a tiny number of people can so manage their lives that they can eliminate anything that makes their lives uncomfortable or fearful. The proper term for such people: "tyrants." They are most unpleasant to be around since they reach that point by killing everyone around them, either literally or metaphorically.

If then, fear can only be relieved by destroying others, then fear ultimately wins anyway, because someone will always come along who can then destroy us.

Surely there is a better way that does not depend upon the external circumstances of our lives, for they will always challenge us. Instead, I look for a way that is based upon the internal presence of real love, with a light so powerful that all darkness, and the fear that goes with darkness, is banished and we are set free. Jesus kept telling his followers that such a place was all about them, already here, not waiting for some point in the future, but they had to have eyes that could see it and ears that could hear it.

I think we find that place through the act of relinquishment, of releasing the benefits of being fearful. I speak of benefits because being afraid does have some. It gives excuses for not going forward, for staying stuck, for refusing growth and maturity, for demanding safety above all things. for addictions that numb the awfulness of our fears. By laying those things down, ungrasping our hands, leaving behind gilded cages of safety or festering chains of harmfully addictive behaviors, by looking death in the face and saying, "You have no power over me because I know there is a resurrection around the corner," we take the steps to fullness again.

We are made to be free people. When we are not, when we let fear win and we enter the dungeon of God-emptiness, we lose what it really means to be human.

I know this, and I still struggle with it. It's just easier to be afraid. But thanks be to God, we can get free if we want to.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Windshield Wipers and the Kingdom of Heaven

Last week, while running errands one day during the rain, I noticed that my windshield wipers were badly worn and needed replacing. I knew I needed to get them replaced before I left this past Monday for a seminar in Little Rock, Arkansas. But, as often happens, life intervenes, and I just forgot about this necessary task until late Sunday afternoon. Then I panicked--weather reports indicated I had a long drive in the rain in front of me and it was very likely that those worn wipers presented a real hazard.

I headed out to a local auto parts store, praying that I could get what I needed and that I could figure out how to change them out (I really am mechanically impaired--this is not a joke). Now, auto parts stores are really foreign territory to me--I just don't know the language or the layout. With great trepidation, I opened the door and hoped for the best.

Within seconds, a nice young man offered to help. He quickly checked to see what kind I needed, and then asked to look at the car itself just to make sure that the current wipers weren't some sort of propriety device that a standard replacement wouldn't fit. He then explained the various options and made suggestions as to price and quality. When I mentioned I was concerned about actually replacing them, he said, "I'll be happy to do this for you."

A few minutes later, I had paid for the wipers and we headed outside. This kind young man explained the process of replacing them, showing me what he did and how he did it. I took a bill out of my purse to offer him a tip and he said, "you don't have to do that." Of course I didn't, but I had just experienced a moment of real grace and wanted to return that grace to him. I told him how much I appreciated it, and that it was my privilege to offer him a small recompense. He then agreed to take it and laughingly said that I had bought his dinner that evening.

The next morning, I headed out to Arkansas, driving in a light mist almost all the way. As the wipers kept my windshield clear, I kept thinking about how simple this kingdom of heaven stuff is sometimes: be kind, gain expertise in your workplace and offer that expertise freely to others, and be graceful in giving and receiving.

Life is not always that simple, of course. Most of us face big challenges, sometimes on a daily basis. But practicing these kingdom principles of kindness and expertise and grace in giving and receiving will affect everyone around you. Small ripples can become big waves, a breath of wind can gather speed and blow fresh air into stale crevices, enough tiny streams coming together can turn into a mighty river that changes the countours of the earth. Just a place to start learning a new habit. . . and we all need a starting point.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Who Do You Want to Influence Your Chi...

Quickly: you've got a choice. Who would you like to have the most influence on your children? 

First option: Whoopi Goldberg and Roman Polanski and the famous people in the film industry who think this pedophile did no wrong.

Second option: quiet, hardworking people of your local church who donate their time to nurture and care for them, teaching them about the Bible and about their specialness before a holy God.

You've got five seconds. What will it be?

Still undecided? Let me refresh your memory: in 1976, Roman Polanski, famed and admired film director, drugged and sexually violated a 13 year old girl and then fled the country when it appeared he might have to do significant jail time (note: this is not an “alleged” crime—he admitted what he did.). Now that the US has finally caught up with him, the film industry is shocked, simply shocked, that such a major talent should have to be brought to justice. Here is Whoopi Goldberg's take on what he did:

“I know it wasn’t rape-rape… All I’m trying to get you to understand, is when we’re talking about what someone did, and what they were charged with, we have to say what it actually was not what we think it was…

We’re a different kind of society. We see things differently. The world sees 13-year olds and 14-year olds in the rest of Europe… not everybody agrees with the way we see things…”

Would I want my 14-year-old having sex with somebody? Not necessarily.”

So, have you had enough time? Again, here is the question: Who do you want having the major influence on the children growing up in the world today? The Polanski/Goldberg/Film Industry crowd who work diligently to see to it that innocence is lost while your young teens are encouraged to become sexualized as soon as possible and who find it acceptable to violate young girls? Or the unnoticed but faithful people who will actually give themselves away to offer to your children the possibility of seeing that the kingdom of heaven really is all about us.

I'm just disgusted. It's time to wake up, folks. Stop feeding to your children the lie masquerading as TV and film entertainment that glamorizes promiscuity. At least show to them that there are other ways to live and to appreciate the bodies we have that give life to the Spirit of God living in us. For six months, give equal time to media and to moral/spiritual instruction of your children and see which is more valuable. So one hour of prime time TV equal one hour in church or Sunday School. Even it out—and watch the difference. It really is time to stop this madness. This has gone too far.

Monday, September 21, 2009

"I Think it is Tacky."

I had just shown to a friend of mine a page in a catalogue that was selling "communion wafer and juice sets." According to the ad copy, churches purchasing these sets gain "the convenience of offering the elements of communion in one easy to use container." These sets are a combination of "communion juice and wafer in an airtight double sealed package to extend shelf life and ensure freshness." Her response: "I think it is tacky."

What a sanitized world we live in! Between "the sky is falling" swine flu epidemic to new instructions on how sneeze (into one's elbow, please, NOT one's hand), to the nastiness of MRSA and the realization that thousands and thousand of people die in hospitals, NOT because of their original complaints but because they pick up infections there, it is a wonder that any of us even shake hands with anyone else without immediately cleansing ourselves again afterward.

I recently read an article on how disgusting church microphones are because the users actually breathe on them when speaking or singing. Of course, the writers of that article were suggesting that, as a regular user of a church sound system, I might want to purchase my very own microphone, at significant cost, of course, rather than letting some other highly germinated person use mine or me use someone else's.

But to go back to the communion sets . . . when we observe the Lord's Supper at church, we tear pieces off a common loaf of bread and then people dip those pieces into a common cup before consuming them. It is the commonality that is so important. We often sing, "We are One Body" when engaging in this special act. We are connected to one another, we share a meal, we come together to receive it. This service of communion must be celebrated in a group setting--it can't be done alone. There are intentional responses back and forth as we all affirm together the greatness of God and the mystery of our faith.

Are the communion juice and wafer sets "tacky." Yes, when fear and commerce (they are also expensive) push their production; no, when they may on occasion be a common sense response to an emergency situation.

Keep in mind that fear will quickly drive us all apart, just as fear of infection drives the common act of holy communion into the neatly packaged juice and wafer sets. Fear so isolates us that we learn to live not trusting others, putting up barriers, refusing entrance into our homes and lives and interiors those who might change us or threaten us.

Is it possible to live a sanitized life in isolation from other human beings? People are messy--so if we can keep them at a distance, perhaps our own lives will be less vulnerable to infection from others. However, ultimately, all of us have to recognize that our own lives are messy, too. Every one of us wanders from darkness to light and back again. We can move in a single moment from glorious generosity to tight meanness of soul and pocketbook. We can, and we do, both love and hate those with whom we are in closest contact.

Certainly, modern sanitation saves millions of lives. I don't want to go back to drinking dirty water or having open sewage flowing in the streets. But I often wonder if this same fear that keeps people we don't know or who are significantly different from us at a distance also keeps the Spirit of God at a distance. It is impossible to enter into contact with true holiness and not feel threatened. Always remember that the first things angels say when encountering mere mortals is, "Do not be afraid."

I believe the choice to leave fear behind is a choice that opens to us the possibility of heaven. And that's where I want to live.

Manners and the Hope of the Future

In the last few weeks, the national news has picked up multiple stories that illustrate a general loss of civility in public discourse and action. Three items in particular struck a nerve: Congressman Joe Wilson's poor conduct toward the President of the United States during a presidential speech; esteemed athlete Serena Williams' inexcusable language and aggressive actions toward a line judge in the middle of a tennis match; and musical star Kayne West's utterly boorish behavior at the Video Music Awards. Three privileged people who simply should know better than that. But they clearly don't.

Manners and common courtesy are not options for anyone if we are going to live in any kind of harmonious community together. We simply must put limits on our behaviors in the name of the common good or chaos and anarchy will reign. Even animals know that--dogs will take their place in the pack order, bees and ants work in cooperation with each other, chimps will defer to one another as necessary to preserve the order of their family groupings. But some human beings seem to think that those rules don't apply to them--and we are all the poorer for it.

I don't want to live in some sort of restrictive world where we are chained by archaic rules of acceptable behavior imposed upon us by a privileged few who think they have that power. That would be the world Edith Wharton wrote about in "The Age of Innocence." Interesting to read about or observe on a movie screen, but a little overly binding for most of us. However, there is an underlying premise that still rings true: our externally expressed manners are reflective of our interior lives and of our upbringing. Those who do not know how to behave in public will pay a price. School administrators and teachers are noting an increasing lack of understanding of appropriate classroom behavior that enables everyone to learn. Jobs are lost over poor table manners; reputations marred by unacceptable public actions. Too many people are learning to their regret that by letting it all hang out on Facebook or some other social networking site, they have jeopardized their employment and romantic futures.

Here at our church in Krum, we're working to do our part to help our young people learn what is necessary for success in this life as well as hope in eternity. Starting Wednesday, Sept. 30, we being what we call our "Midweek Miracle." It's like Vacation Bible School in that we combine play, music, education, and meal into a program that develops the whole child or youth. We teach them table manners and how to eat family style and converse with peers and adults at a meal. They learn the elements of Bible that are absolutely essential for educated people to master. They engage in play and music that doesn't demand that they be experts as children, but instead encourage all to participate and to learn to support one another.

It's a great program. The cost is only $10/month, and that includes a weekly meal and all other materials. The value can't be measured. Bring your children, grandchildren, neighbor children, all children and youth from first grade through middle school, to the church at 1001 E. McCart on Wednesday, Sept. 30, right after school. Come and learn about this adventure, and let us help you bring up these children in ways that will serve them well the rest of their lives. Help ensure their future by building into them now the joy of civility and learning at our Midweek Miracle. For more information, check out website at or call the church: 482-3482.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

What is a Christian?

What is a Christian? Who get to call themselves "Christ-followers?"
What are the absolute essentials, the non-negotiable aspects, beliefs
and behaviors of Christianity?  The story below is one possible answer
to this complicated question.

I recently received an email from
some special friends of mine, Anya and Sergey, who live in in a country
with a predominantly Muslim population and who seek to offer the words
of grace about the good news of Jesus Christ. Anya was telling me about
her passion to serve Muslim women and her decision to learn more about
their faith before asking them to learn about her own religious life.
She wrote to me about a woman who grew up in a Muslim family, strictly
practicing all the requirements of that faith, including the extensive
fast during Ramadan and the wearing of the all-covering robes. As Anya
came to know this woman, she also read a book called Waging Peace on Islam. The author, Christine Mallouhi, is a Christian woman living with her Muslim family in the Middle East. Mallouhi writes:

...our religious traditions are not
the Gospel and may actually have little relationship to the Gospel
message and even be obscuring it. Following Christ does not mean
joining the Christian culture... It does not require leaving one's
family and people. To follow Christ does not require one to take a new
Christian name, or to wear a different style of clothing. Nor does it
require using the symbol of the cross, nor worshiping on a certain day,
nor a certain style of worship... It does not require adopting new
wedding, birth or death traditions. Nor does it require eating
different foods, ... or celebrating certain holidays. ...None of these
cultural expressions are essential to following Christ.

After a recent conversation with her Muslim friend, Anya wrote
this:  "Imagine my surprise when towards the end of our meeting she
told me
that she came to this lesson to tell me that she couldn't call herself
a Christian, because in her culture and her family being a Christian
had a very negative meaning (associated with the Russian culture and
the Russian Orthodox church). She reassured me that she relied on
Jesus, the Son of God in her salvation and that she was very relieved
to know that following Him did not require betraying her family. She
left home hoping to talk to her old grandmother about Jesus and her
eternal hope in Him. Her grandmother is a practicing Muslim who does
all the things that Quoran requires, and does
this all because of the fear of punishment from Allah if she doesn't."

Anya concluded, "If our conversation happened a year ago I would be
considering this friend a Muslim who doesn't want to follow Jesus at all
costs, but now I'm able to see that Jesus accepts every person who
comes to him with repentance and trust and not just those who follow
the set rules that I'm familiar with or used to."

I so much like what Anya wrote here.  She is looking upon the heart,
bypassing the externals which most of us focus on.  Anya newly
discerning eyes saw a repentant heart, trusting in Jesus for
forgiveness and wholeness and she rejoiced--for this young woman has
been found. 

Who is a Christian?  Is it those who look the part, following the
external signs of the faith, sporting Christian symbols, carrying their
Bibles, dressing in certain patterns, following a set of rules that
define it?  Sometimes yes.  And sometimes no.  Ultimately, the question
must go much deeper:  Do we have hearts so transformed by grace that we
willingly follow Jesus where ever that may lead? Do we take up our cross
daily?  Do we love our enemies and go the second mile for them?  Do we
forgive as we wish to be forgiven?  Frankly, it's easier to stick to
the externals.  But it is the internal life that opens the door to the
heavenly places.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Green Pepper Heaven

I carried my morning cup of tea into the backyard early today to drink it in the quiet and relative cool of the day.  My dogs, at least for this morning staying nearby and not clamoring for one of their "let's run away" ventures, wandered around the backyard hoping for new smells.  I heard a slight cracking sound and looked around.  Jake, the very large yellow lab whom I've often described as being quite handsome but remarkably stupid, had broken off a branch of a green pepper plant.  While I watched, he carried the branch to the middle of the yard, a nice comfortable grassy spot with the morning sun dappling through the tree branches.  There, with amazing grace and obvious pleasure, he delicately picked a pepper off the branch and eagerly bit into it.  After finishing the first one, he found several other peppers on that heavily laden branch.  One by one, he consumed each of them. 

Being somewhat overrun with green peppers right now, I didn't mourn the loss at all.  However, I was intrigued by his enjoyment and extreme pleasure in the moment.  He simply received what was made available to him, receiving without guilt or concern about paying it back, or whether there were strings attached to the gift.  He just received it, savored it, and filled his tummy with it.

What I did experience was a moment of real jealousy.  Jealously over this animal's enjoyment of something that was also there for me to enjoy, but I had missed it.  I had come out this morning heavily laden in spirit and troubled in soul.  My time of prayer had not brought me relief.  Why?  Could it be because I didn't just receive it?  Could it have been there, ready for the picking, the savoring, the enjoying? 

Are my worries and burdens legitimate?  Don't I have both a right and responsibility to carry them?  Or, is it possible that I can cast all these cares upon God, and find peace that passes understanding, the peace that only God can give?  The peace that God gives reminds me that I am a part of something grand and glorious, the healing of the world, the cosmos, by the grace and love of God made manifest through Jesus Christ. The kind of peace the world around me tries to provide works from this very different message, "Get enough stuff, make enough money, put enough barriers around you and your own and maybe you can keep the troubles out." 

As I was watching Jake's deep enjoyment (and perhaps he's not quite as unintelligent as I thought!), I kept hearing the words of Jesus that we say today when observing the Lord's Supper:  "Take, eat, this is my body which is given for you."  Take, eat.  Receive.  Take, eat.  The gift has been given.  Take, eat.  Find God's peace in this moment.  Take . . . eat . . .

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Celebration

A party, a reunion, a feast, a celebration: all different words to say pretty much the same thing: a gathering of people for some special occasion.  The occasion could be as small as two people sharing a snack or thousands and thousands gathering together for a huge party.  We are preparing to have our own party here.

Five months ago, the United Methodist church here in Krum changed the location of its meeting place.  After over 80 years in the sweet and memory-filled building at 2nd and W. McCart, we moved to our new spot at 1001 E. McCart, just a mile east.


We're still moving in and getting settled, worshipping, working, gardening, and building friendships together.  Now it is time for our celebration.  It takes place Sunday, September 13, at 10:30 a.m. At that time, the building and its furnishings will be officially consecrated.  A consecration reminds us that these physical objects have a special use: to help us see more clearly that the God-filled life is not just something that happens in eternity, but something that exists right now, right here, right around us and in us and through us.


Does a consecration make something holy?  It depends on the definition of "holy."  One definition reads this way: "entitled to worship or veneration as or as if sacred." That definition doesn't fly here.  The building is not to be worshiped, nor are the furnishings.  They are to be used.  The purpose of the consecration is to recognize that these things are devoted to the service of God.  The service of God encompasses all of life, not just what happens during the hours when we intentionally come together for a time of guided worship, which is what most Sunday services are about.


The problem with a word like "consecration"?  The formality of the word tends to push people away rather than invite them in.  The truth here:  we're having a party, a celebration, a time of happiness and singing and fun.  Mixed with this will be times of prayer and words that provide entrance into heavenly living and sight.


So this is an invitation to you, the people of Krum.  Come party with us.  Join us on September 13 for brunch from 9:30 to 10:15, take a look at the building that is here to be used for multiple church and community purposes and then gather for this worship celebration.  The Bishop of the North Texas Conference, Earl Bledsoe, honors us with his presence and his preaching that day.  I invite you to honor us with yours as well.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Juvenile Court

Earlier this week, I sat for a while in the Denton City Juvenile Court, just as an observer.  A court official called out names.  Each name was repeated into a room behind the court. Then the young offenders, dressed in shapless and ill-fitting jumpsuits, would walk in, their hands touching behind their backs, elbows akimbo, and join family members standing before the judge.  Each had spent at least the weekend in juvenile lockup, some longer than that.


After initial instructions by the judge, the charges against each youth were read.  Some attorneys were present, but most were unrepresented by legal counsel. 


After stern admonitions by the judge, some of the youth were released to parents or guardians. Others were deemed too dangerous to be released, and were detained pending further arrangements.


I sat in complete stillness and prayed for each individual, each family.  I watched faces full of anger and frustation, grief and sorrow.  I saw a few of the mechanics of a complex legal system seeking to cope with youth who had transgressed the boundaries of normal society while seeking also to preserve the boundaries of legal protection for these young people.


How does it happen?  What has gone so wrong? What will these youth become as they move into adulthood?


I don't know the backgrounds or the family histories here.  I can safely assume, however, they each young person had a place to live that offered a confortable bed for sleep, adequate if not abundant food and clothing, and multiple entertainment options. 


After returning to my office, I saw an article about young girls in the South African country of Swaziland who work at deslolate truck stops in that impoverished and ill country (one-third of the population is infected with the H.I.V. virus). The writer interviewed a 16 year-old orphan named Mbali, herself H.I.V. positive.  She said, “I have nowhere to sleep unless I find a man.” She added, “Sometimes I don’t have money and food for two days. A man without a condom will pay more, so obviously I say O.K. because I need money. I am so tired. These men are so rough.”  


The interviewer found herself unexpectedly moved emotionally by this young woman's story and burst into tears.  Here's what happened next:  "Mbali held my face and said, 'Don’t cry!' She hugged me. How absurd can life be? A 16-year-old, H.I.V.-positive orphan was comforting me while I wept. It was a strange way to carry on an interview, but that’s what we did. I asked her what she needed most. 'Someplace safe,' she said. 'Someplace to be a girl. Someplace where I won’t have to have sex with men anymore.'


What a strange world.  The rebellious and angry youth in the courtroom today seem to have cavalierly thrown away the places that would look like a heavenly haven to Mbali and the many others in her awful situation.  She and others like her would treasure the opportunity to live a life with parental support and restrictions. 


Are the homes that those youth in the juvenile court today come from perfect and lovingly supportive of the challenges of growing up?  I seriously doubt it, mainly because I have yet to see that perfect home and family. 


I know that growing up is hard.  I wish we all did it better than we do.  A simple moment of sadness here--there's just got to be a better way.


So I am troubled as I observe and read about these things.  I have no quick and easy solutions. I do know, though, that the people, whether youth or more mature in age, who have actively served in areas of extreme underprivilege tend to receive life with considerably more gratefulness and happiness than those who just take what is given and then demand more.  I just want to be one of the grateful ones.



Monday, August 17, 2009

Getting Rich with Jesus

There's an article in this past week's NY Times that quickly made its way through a circle of colleagues and acquaintances: The opening paragraph reads:  "Onstage before thousands of believers weighed down by debt and economic insecurity, Kenneth and Gloria Copeland and their all-star lineup of “prosperity gospel” preachers delighted the crowd with anecdotes about the luxurious lives they had attained by following the Word of God."

As I continued reading the article, my frustration and anger grew. This is all so very wrong.

Keep in mind that there are multiple manifestations of the Christian faith.  With the Bible widely available, and study tools accessible to anyone, people can, and generally do, pick and choose which parts of it to emphasize and which parts to ignore.  The Bible is a complex book, written thousands of years ago with multiple authors and in cultures and contexts radically different from our own.  

The longer I study the Bible, however, the more convinced I am that this book does open to us the way to God.  Also, the deeper I move into the Scriptures, the more I become aware that I am capable of understanding very little about the mystery and magnificence of that which we call God, or Creator, or Divine, or The Holy One or any other term we use.  My finite mind cannot wrap itself around that which is infinite.

As my humility has grown--for in my early years I was sure I had all the answers--so has my willingness to admit that I might be wrong about some things. Viewpoints of others, even when radically differing from mine, may have a solid foundation in biblical truth and should be treated with holy generosity.

Nonetheless, on this point I take my stand:  the "prosperity gospel" described in that article is not just a travesty of what is taught in the Bible, but I believe it that it cannot be properly called "Christian."  These few very, very rich "evangelists" (an evangelist is one who announces the Good News of Jesus Christ) systematically prey upon the poor and disadvantaged, sucking funds from them in order to maintain lifestyles that can only be described as gluttonous in their materialistic excess.  All this talk of private jets and expensive clothes and jewels and lavishly decorated estates and fancy automobiles finds no basis in the life of God's people as described in the Bible. 

How can those who function as spiritual black holes, feeding their unending greed for material things by preying upon the financially precarious and vulnerable, possibly be loving others the way they love themselves?  

My own life contains considerable luxury.  After all, a flip of the faucet gives me hot and hold running water; thermostats keep the house and workplace at comfortable temperatures; toilets flush on demand and toilet paper is soft and plentiful; food spills out of my cupboards, partly because of the overflow from the garden, which I can keep watered without having any rain fall. A machine washes my clothes, another washes my dishes.  My mobile phone and laptop computer mean instant connection to pretty well anyone anywhere.  And just about everyone reading this column has those same luxuries. 

However, the moment I see these luxuries as evidence that God loves me more and is blessing me more than someone who doesn't have them, or that I have more faith than the "less blessed" person does, I tread on shaky theological ground. Instead, my luxuries give me a different obligation. I must recognize to those who have much given to them also have much expected of them.  Any response other than gratefulness to God and generosity to others in the light of such blessings will quickly destroy the soul.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Parking spaces and bermuda grass

There are few things more precious in Texas during August than a parking spot in the shade.  It means some relief from the horrid heat when re-entering the car after some time outside.  So, when I pulled into a parking lot recently and saw that it looked like there might be a hint of shade in one empty parking spot, I was delighted.  What good luck!

However, when I reached the spot, I discovered that the car already there had deliberately parked over the line in order to maximize the shade for his/her car.  In other words, he/she had taken two spaces and hogged the available shade.  

Now, I understand the desire for a shady spot--after all, I was delighted to think that there was one for me.  But to take up two spots and not even share the shade with someone else?  To take all the blessing to oneself and not leave any for another?  It seems like such a selfish act.  What's the problem here?

This event came on the heels of several hours spent in a flower bed where I had let the weeds take over.  Between the heat, and an unusually heavy summer schedule, I had neglected to keep on top of them.  So, when I finally decided I couldn't stand it any longer, I began to tackle what I knew would be at least 12 to 15 hours of hard work getting it cleaned out again.

Most of the problem was bermuda grass--wonderful for the yards, horrible for flower beds.  It's invasive and persistent and nearly impossible to eliminate.  As I dug down, working on the deep roots with their almost impossible to break hold on the dirt around them, I had to consider the nature of bad habits that get as entrenched in our lives as this bermuda grass is in the wrong spots of the yard. 

I believe it is possible to become so used to our destructive habits that living that way becomes normal rather than abnormal.  I suggest that the person who needed the two spaces for the shade (and it was a compact car, by the way) may be so used to thinking, "I'm going to get what I want when I want it and don't care whether anyone else gets anything at all" that it never occurred to him or her that there might be another way, a way that would lead to greater freedom and beauty in life.  Selfishness works that way. Like bermuda grass, it is invasive and persistent and nearly impossible to eliminate.  All children go through a period of being very selfish.  All loving and competent parents and care-givers work hard to help children learn that persistent selfishness leads to a very lonely and unhappy life and that joy comes from giving, not grabbing.  

Bermuda grass has it's very useful place.  Healthy care of the self--a way of being "self"-ish that leads to good health and balanced life also has a very useful place.  Either one of them out of place or out of control cause significant problems.  I'm just reminded on this hot August day that I need to watch for the persistent, invasive sins that can so easily take over without constant attention to the larger picture which calls for a repentant heart ready at all times to be receptive to cleansing grace.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Hearing the Cry

"We have not heard the cry of the needy."  This is a phrase in the general confession of the church that we often pray as we prepare our hearts and minds to receive and grant forgiveness.  "We have not heard the cry . . ."  This phrase took special meaning this past Sunday. A young woman, Brittany Burrows, who had just spent most of last year as a volunteer worker in an orphanage in the Congo in the central part of Africa, spoke of her experiences there.


The orphanage itself was a rotting building of five rooms, and housed about 30 children, mostly boys.  There were a few bunk beds, not nearly enough, and no mattresses. The children who had a bunk just put a blanket down over the metal wires; the rest slept on the floor. No mosquito nets, and malaria was rampant.  Hardly any food--essentially one meal a day of non-nutritous corn meal.  No shoes, no bedding, no medications.


At one point, Brittany asked some of the children what they were most thankful for.  Each one said, "I'm thankful to be alive."  Brittany was a bit frustrated at their answers--she thought they were just echoing one another and not being creative or really thoughtful about them.  But it wasn't long before she discovered something:  they were indeed lucky to be alive and rightfully thankful for it.  In their short lives, they had seen and experienced much horror and seen a lot of death.  Yes, they really found life itself, with all its deprivations, a real gift.


For the first time in her life, Brittany experienced real hunger.  She told me earlier, "I lived on beans and rice the whole time I was there.  I would walk down the street and try to buy food, but it is very expensive and I didn't have enough money.  I was hungry the whole time I was there."


During this past year, our church here sent enough money to purchase mosquito nets, mattresses, bedding, shoes, a stove and freezer, food and a number of other things for these children.  The reality, however, must be faced:  a lot of what we helped purchase has probably been stolen by now, taken by those who think their own cries are most important than the cries of these needy orphans. 


This is a terribly broken world.  We who are privileged with full stomachs and closets bursting with clothes and who busily rent storage units to keep our unused but oh so necessary stuff must start hearing the cry of the needy and seek to fill empty stomachs.  More than that, we must work with courage to fight the kind of injustice that perpetuates a system where over 1000 children die per hour somewhere in the world of starvation. 


May God have mercy on us if we don't.  We're going to need it when we face the Holy One and are asked, "Why did you let them suffer?"

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Purists and Potterers

Despite my best efforts, a rosebush planted this spring in the backyard of the parsonage has died.  Now, when I purchased this one, it was part of a multiple purchase of roses.  Some were climbers I had bought before and knew took little care and would grow well.  Others were what are called "knock-out" roses, bred to be easy to grow and with little trouble.  Another were called "Peggy Norman" roses--so hardy that they were still blooming and thriving after Hurricane Katrina and have been propagated multiple times, with the sellers donating money for continued rebuilding in New Orleans.  I splurged on a ground rose that I figured would cover a really bare area and look good.  Then, with my cart nearly full, I passed a set of extremely aromatic yellow/peach colored roses that caught both eye and nose.  

The informational sign promised exquisite flowers and enticing aroma and I just couldn't resist.  It was also delicate and demanded a lot of care, which it didn't get.  And so it died.

Now, not too long after I purchased those mostly easy care rosebushes, I read an article by a real rose professional, a purist where roses are concerned.  He turned up his nose at the kind of roses I had bought.  They were too easy to grow, he contended, and they lacked the spectacular aroma of some of the far more difficult and demanding ones, the one he cultivated.  

He is right, of course.  I don't have the highly aromatic roses, because the one that would have provided that is now dead.  In truth, I'm just a potterer, and most definitely not a purist where my garden is concerned.  I potter around the yard and flowerbeds because it is wonderful exercise and great for my soul.  I love watching seeds come up and seedlings take root and grow.  I'm totally delighted in the unbelievable taste of my homegrown tomatoes.  My dogs have also discovered how good they are, so it now becomes a morning race to see who can get to them first.  I don't begrudge them their treat--there are plenty for all of us.  My kitchen counter is covered right now with lovely yellow squash and I made some delicious marinara sauce recently using my abundantly producing basil and oregano plants.  But those are my victories.  There are lots of defeats.  I've yet to grow an edible cucumber, and my peppers just don't have good flavor or texture.  I routinely kill bedding plants and weeds are really getting the better of me in some of the landscape beds.  

I could do all of this better, with more skill and more attention, doing a far better job fertilizing, spraying, searching out new and even more difficult plants, and studying horticultural principles.  But being a potterer is good enough for me.  It nurtures; it provides; it gives me great pleasure.

Many of us have heard the statement, "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing well." While that sentiment may push people to excellence, to "purity,"  it has has kept many from trying things, because they knew they couldn't do something well.  Years ago, someone said this, "If it is worth doing, it is worth doing poorly."  Such words seem shocking, but I think make more sense.  If it is worth doing, then it is worth trying to do it--even if we don't do it particularly well.  We may get better at it; we may not.  But we lose a lot more by not trying than by going ahead and giving a shot at it, even if we muck it up.  What would I have lost if I did not at least try to grow some things?  Again, I'm really not a particularly good gardener--but the joy from this!

Sometimes I wonder if people stay away from exploring their spiritual lives and their relationship with God because too many purists have scared them away.  "Your worship and prayer must look like this!"  "You must believe exactly like I do!"  "You've left the straight and narrow.  God will get you for that."  "Here's your list--be sure each item is checked off daily.  Otherwise you won't grow spiritually."  

It might be a good thing just to be a potterer in the spiritual life.  Taste it, try it, make mistakes, explore the possibilities, run into some dead ends, and find the joy in the experience. Let us leave the fear behind of not being a "purist" or doing it well, and just see what happens. Remember that the potterer is the same thing as an amateur--one who does the task or plays the game or performs for the love of the experience--not the pay or status or other rewards.  The blessing is in the doing--and its all worth a try.