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.