Wednesday, March 30, 2011

On the Couch

Sitting in my office right now is a young child, three years old. He's adorable, polite, much loved and in a lot of trouble right now. That's why he is sitting on my couch. For our Children's Day Out program, "Pastor Christy's Couch" is the worst of punishments. All other means of gentle correction have failed and the young one has chosen to continue in behaviors that are problematic to the health of the larger classroom and to his own development.

The child on the pastor's couch has no toys, nothing to distract or do, except to sit and, one would hope, to reflect on the behavior that brought them there. Now, this particular child has begun to sing to himself, songs about God he has learned in our program. I listen to him singing "Here I am to help you, you are my best friend," and I can't keep myself from smiling.

All the children who make their way here are really charmers. They are creative and sweet and I love them.  I am also the power figure in this particular disciplinary situation and work very hard not to coddle them.

"Old Macdonald had a farm" is now coming from his mouth. I periodically glance his way to make sure he has not left the couch, but do not interact with him otherwise. By the way, did you know that Old MacDonald had a dinosaur and a frog?

He just started bouncing on the couch, so it was necessary to remind him that he did not have the privilege. He was in trouble. He quickly stops and lies down, and now is whispering the song instead of singing out loud.

Gentle correction. Firm boundaries. Without these things, a child cannot grow into a responsible adult. God must do the same with us.

Gentle correction: often a question that hits hard from someone we trust; a sense in our spirit that something is just wrong; the withdrawal of a friend or loved one who will no longer tolerate our behaviors; an event that shakes us up and gives us impetus to re-evaluate who we are and what we are doing with our lives; a time of reading Holy Scripture where we see that our lives really don't line up well with the call to love God and to love our neighbors with all our hearts, our minds, our strengths, and our spirits.

I suspect this young one will spend most of the morning on the couch. It will be a trial for both of us. I will learn from him. I hope he will also learn. God is patient, and so am I. But the patience of God does expect resulting repentance. So does mine.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rainy Days

Some of the hardest words in Scripture come from Matthew, chapter 5, as part of the Sermon on the Mount:

"You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect."

I was thinking about these words today, as we are seeing the first rain in over a month. I've often heard the phrase that God "sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" interpreted as though God makes bad things happen to both righteous and unrighteous people. 

However, that completely misses the sense of the passage. Jesus tells us here that God's common grace is extended to everyone--not one soul is left out. No matter how bad a person is, the sun will still rise for that very one the next day. No matter how wicked, rain will still fall. No matter how bad our enemy may be, we are still constrained to love that person. That is our calling.

Rain is a blessing, something to be welcomed.

However, in our culture of comfort and climate control and search for perfect living conditions, sometimes we see rain as a curse. After all, rain snarls traffic and spoils baseball games. Enough of it means many outdoor recreational activities have to be canceled and children are stuck inside for the day. Splashing rain dirties windows and soils freshly washed cars. It makes puddles and mud spots. Animals and children track dirt inside on muddy paws and shoes and we've got to find umbrellas and raincoats to go out.

One summer when I was living in Wichita Falls, we were enduring a long drought. Day after day, I'd hear the weather announcers cheerily declare another day of sunshine and frown at the possibilities of rain coming. I kept saying, "How did we get these so mixed up, that we'd rather crops die and rivers dry than miss a day of outside play?"

Rain is a blessing.

It gives life.

I've been doing some work in my garden recently. I had brought into the house a couple of ferns last fall, wanting them to live over the winter so I could replant them this spring.  Unfortunately, I pretty well forgot about them--I had placed them in a rarely used bedroom. I think I watered them only twice in four months. They dried up and certainly looked like goners.

I took out the dried root balls and soaked them in water, just in case. It seems like it took only a few minutes until I saw some green appearing from those dead-looking roots. They are now in the ground, soaking up the softly falling rain. Perhaps they will indeed give forth life again.

Rain is a blessing.

It gives life.  Just like Jesus.

We need more of both!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Our Christian Controversies

Why do we dislike each other so?

The author of an article called "Bloodlust" published in The Chronicle of Higher Education states this: "The most decisive antagonisms and misunderstandings take place within a community. The history of hatred and violence is, to a surprising degree, a history of brother against brother, not brother against stranger. From Cain and Abel to the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the civil wars of our own age, it is not so often strangers who elicit hatred, but neighbors."

The Christian world is certainly proving this true with the word war that erupted over the publication of Love Wins by Rob Bell, a Michigan pastor. Even before publication, people who just knew what Bell would write were quickly labeling him a heretic. After publication, I'd read posts saying, "I've not read the book yet but . . . " and then the writer would go on to say how far off base Bell is.

I have read the book. I think Bell asks good questions. I have asked the same ones myself. I also spent many years in the Evangelical world and so know why Bell is having to ask those questions.

In my opinion, Bell is Arminian in theology (humans cooperate with God in our salvation) but much of Evangelicalism, especially those who have labeled Bell's views as heretical, spring from the Reformed camp (God will save whom God chooses), a much tighter place that gives less room for doubt, questions, exploration and mystery. By the way, this superficial overview of the significant differences between the Armenian and Reformed viewpoints gives only a starting point to the controversy. Key point: both claim to base their theologies on the revealed word of God, the Bible, but come up with startlingly different conclusions.

Bell sees multiple salvation stories in the gospels, more than just the John 3 narrative which speaks about being born again. There are actually four salvation stories in a row there: Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, a royal official from Capernaum, and an invalid in Jerusalem. Only Nicodemus is told he must be born again. The others receive very different words from Jesus--yet each appeared in those stories to begin their journeys to redemption. Why, if being "born again" is a necessity, didn't Jesus tell each of the others that important truth?

Bell notes something else I have often taught: if you have only the Gospel of Luke in your hands, something that would have been a real possibility in the early years of Christianity, you would be hard-pressed to find anything in there about believing rightly, but a huge amount about breaking down barriers between in-groups and out-groups and acting with justice and mercy.

Essentially I hear Bell asking this: "Is there really a wideness to God's mercy?" A valid question, indeed!

Furthermore, as Bell notes in the acknowledgments, he has read much C.S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books. Lewis, a British scholar and Anglican, has often been called the darling of the Evangelical world. However, a careful reader of one of Lewis' most fascinating books, The Great Divorce, will recognize that Lewis was asking the same question as Bell and coming with similar answers: God's mercy is wide, BUT, humans are partners in the hope of redemption. We have the option of choosing or refusing.

So, why must we form these factions? Again the author of the "Bloodlust" article notes, "Unfortunately, however, our brother, our neighbor, enrages us precisely because we understand him. Cain knew his brother--he 'talked with Abel his brother' --and slew him afterward."

The ultimate hope of just about everyone I know is to be both fully known and fully loved. For the most part, we manage to do just the opposite. No wonder we need a Savior who offers a very, very, very, very wide hope of mercy.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Auto Correct

OK, I started laughing so hard I nearly spilled my cup of tea.  I was idly surfing the web for a few minutes and came across an article about some of the really awful auto-corrects that the IPhone makes when people send text message without checking just exactly what they texted.

They are hilarious and most are very, very dirty.  This is the one that left me almost gasping for breath afterward:

Remember, laughter really is good for us, Lent or not!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Hiding Doesn't Work

Going now into the third week of Lent, I find myself face to face with the human tendency to keep our truths well hidden, both from ourselves and others.

We see this taking place on an international stage as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi continues to make pronouncements that are difficult to swallow about the situation in Libya.  He asserts that he is much adored by the people of that troubled country, where he has announced, "Either I will rule you or I will kill you."

Then there is Charlie Sheen, the talented and amazingly self-destructive actor, who speaks a version of truth that many who know him appear to have some trouble swallowing as accurate.

The challenge with truth-telling is that most of us want to tell the truth, or what we think is the truth, about others, but are less likely to want to speak it about ourselves. So Sheen calls the writers and producers of his TV show unspeakable things, but seems to see himself as a version of the Master of the Universe. Not a whole lot different from Col. Quddafi's public pronouncements. The rest of the world is evil and out of control and spaced out on drugs, but he himself? Well, he, of course, is a sane and much loved ruler of his people.

Most of us do the same thing, although generally on a smaller and less newsworthy scale. We spin public versions about ourselves in order to hold onto a carefully built outward image and also to keep from having to face sometimes painful inner truths.

Our personal spin jobs work for a while. In time, however, both the energy needed to keep them up and the internal discordance that they bring will wear us down. Only truth ultimately sets us free.

I watched part of a movie recently--it was so poorly done that I gave up after a short time--that showed a world where people spoke only truth. The movie portrayed a cold, cruel place, with no social graces, no softness or play. The person who learned to lie discovered a big social advantage over those who spoke "truth."

However, I don't think real, holy, God-centered truth looks like that. Real truth says, "I know I cut myself a lot of slack, and excuse a lot of my own behaviors, so maybe I should give others that same kind of space."  Real truth acknowledges both our shortcomings and our accomplishments. Real truth shines the bright light of exposure on our own souls. Real truth pushes us to find the things that frighten us the most and helps us to see how that fear keeps us from loving God and loving others.

We hide because we fear what will happen if we don't. We hide from our real truths because it is easier to pretend all is OK. We hide from our doubts, disappointments, and betrayals because we are not sure we can embrace the pain of facing them fully. We hide from our sins so we don't have to really forgive the sins of others.

At our Ash Wednesday service, we sang, "It's Me, It's Me, O Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer." Now, while the song uses questionable grammar (it should be "It's I" not "It's Me" but it just doesn't have the same ring!), the sentiment works: using this time to recognize that we ourselves are the ones in need of prayer. Too often, we spew hatred of others that actually reflects deep self-loathing. We hold grudges because we refuse to believe that God chooses to offer forgiveness to us. We choose fear over courage, thinking it will keep us safe, and we end up in binding chains.

The words of Jesus: You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free. A true Lenten journey.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Hope of Spring

The hope of spring:  it amazes me each year.

Saturday morning, as I promised myself, I headed to the yard to begin the process of cleaning out the flower beds and see what needs to be done next.

Last year, I had planted three unusual crepe myrtles, a low-growing, small variety with cascades of lavender blooms appearing in the hot weather.  They didn't do particularly well last year--fairly normal for newly planted landscape foliage, but by late fall, I wasn't sure they would survive at all.  I guessed they didn't make it through the winter--going into those really cold days could easily have been too much for plants already stressed and fragile.

I was surprised to see that one of them showed some leafing out Saturday morning.  The other two looked very dead, and I began to mentally consider what I might use to replace them.

I was completely shocked when, about three hours later, I looked at those other two plants and saw tiny leaves popping out all over.  In just a few hours, and very, very early in the year, in my opinion, these three young plants said, "I'm alive, I'm well and I will produce this year!"

In just a few hours, what looked dead sprang to life.  I checked them again this morning--there are certainly some dead branches on those young plants, but it very much appears that they will do well.  I'll trim them in a few more days, and then watch and see what happens.

Spring is always a sign to me of Resurrection hope.  Lent is the time for the trimming of my soul. Every soul needs it, mine very much included. 

How is your soul trimming coming?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Second Saturday of Lent

Today, the second Saturday in Lent, I shall spend as much of the day as possible in the garden at the parsonage.  I hope by late afternoon to be extremely dirty, tired, sore and with a stronger sense of the things I use to protect myself from entering the kingdom of heaven.

On Sunday, I'll be telling the story of the man who comes by darkness to talk with Jesus.  I'm going to tell this through the eyes and ears of Jesus' disciples, who themselves were surely very confused by this man they had decided to follow and yet who led them in such a strange path.

He was supposed to be a holy man, but he made sure a wedding party was overly supplied with the really good vintage wine, so probably encouraged drunkenness, and then he turned into a madman at a place of worship and cost a bundle of people a bundle of money.

Then, this rich, powerful guy approaches Jesus, and instead of doing what is right, as in raising as much money from him as possible so Jesus' message could be spread most effectively (after all, it costs a bundle to hire runners to go from one end of the kingdom to another bringing people to these major events so lots and lots of people can hear straight from the horses' mouth), Jesus tell this guy to give it up and become a baby!!!!  

Something way out of whack with this picture.  Or, something way out of whack with the way we are doing it today.  

Friday, March 18, 2011

Second Week of Lent

Into the second week of Lent, I find myself distracted from the time necessary to really do the important self-examination necessary for real repentance.  A continued battle with severe allergic response, which exacerbates the constant problem of projects unfinished, has very much affected me plans. That, actually, I suspect, is what is making this Lenten journey even more enlightening.

I have learned that a quick "I'm sorry" or a "I'll fix this later" does absolutely nothing to bring about real transformation.  For me, it is a question of facing squarely those things, and I sometimes call them "my demons," that routinely separate me from kingdom of heaven living.

The problem with calling them "my demons" is the tendency to see them as outside me, when I very much believe they are inside me, they are an integral part of me. A Lenten season that pushes me closer to those demons also gives me greater insight into my soul.  

Ultimately, the goal is not to eradicate the demons, but to love them into transformation.  

I grew up in a theological world that suggested I needed to eradicate the demons.  That I needed to leave parts of myself behind.  Ultimately, that led to an internal dissonance where I knew that I had said that I had "left them at the altar" but I also knew they were still there.  That's called "lying."  And I got stuck.

I personally am far better off to speak real truth:  these are my demons.  They are part of me.  And as I learn to love them, see them as integral to me, and embrace them in light-filled and exposing love, then I begin the process of transforming them.

Hiding from them or pretending they have been left behind just doesn't seem to do the trick.  They always come back, often seven times more powerful than before.

It is in the struggle that I sense the Holy Presence of God, with me, in me, around me, above me, before me, beside me, under me.  Together, we seek a resurrection life, whole and holy.

My lifelong journey.

Second Week of Lent

Into the second week of Lent, I find myself distracted from the time necessary to really do the important self-examination necessary for real repentance.  A continued battle with severe allergic response, which exacerbates the constant problem of projects unfinished, has very much affected me plans. That, actually, I suspect, is what is making this Lenten journey even more enlightening.

I have learned that a quick "I'm sorry" or a "I'll fix this later" does absolutely nothing to bring about real transformation.  For me, it is a question of facing squarely those things, and I sometimes call them "my demons," that routinely separate me from kingdom of heaven living.

The problem with calling them "my demons" is the tendency to see them as outside me, when I very much believe they are inside me, they are an integral part of me. A Lenten season that pushes me closer to those demons also gives me greater insight into my soul.  

Ultimately, the goal is not to eradicate the demons, but to love them into transformation.  

I grew up in a theological world that suggested I needed to eradicate the demons.  That I needed to leave parts of myself behind.  Ultimately, that led to an internal dissonance where I knew that I had said that I had "left them at the altar" but I also knew they were still there.  That's called "lying."  And I got stuck.

I personally am far better off to speak real truth:  these are my demons.  They are part of me.  And as I learn to love them, see them as integral to me, and embrace them in light-filled and exposing love, then I begin the process of transforming them.

Hiding from them or pretending they have been left behind just doesn't seem to do the trick.  They always come back, often seven times more powerful than before.

It is in the struggle that I sense the Holy Presence of God, with me, in me, around me, above me, before me, beside me, under me.  Together, we seek a resurrection life, whole and holy.

My lifelong journey.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Info Overload from Conference: I am Going on Strike

At least a dozen times a week (or at least it seems like it), I get an email from the district office or the conference office (or even more often, a copied one from the district office which has already gone out from the conference office) with one or more multiple attachments saying, "make sure that your laypeople, leaders, mission teams, church members, etc. get copies of this."

I am going on strike again this.


This is ridiculous.  There is absolutely no reason why any information pertaining to Conference or District Events, including Lay Speaking Ministries, Mission Interests, UMW, or anything else, can't be posted on the Conference website with electronic registration forms. Then a link can be sent to local churches, and that link, which one hopes leads to a well-designed and usable web page, can be electronically distributed to relevant and interested parties.

It's a massive waste of paper, time and energy for each local church to have to figure out how many of these things to print, to try to get them in the right hands, and then to throw away the unused extras when all this can be done electronically.

We get these full color brochures and flyers to print out.  Our church intentionally doesn't own a color printer and, even if we did have one, the costs of printing these things is prohibitive.  So it all gets printed in black and white, looking awful and unappealing.

A simple link which could then go out in our church e-news, or to a target group, would effectively see to it that the proper information is available and is accessible to those who need it.

Folks, this is not rocket science.  This is just basic common sense.

I'm on strike.

I hope others will join me.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

And We Want Things to Stay the Same

Just in case you haven't heard this yet, this link will take you to a news story that speaks of the earthquake in Japan as having such an impact in its redistribution of land mass that speed of the earth's spin has actually been increased.  Of course, that is the invisible side of change that is also devastating Japan, washing bodies all over the shore, leaving people without food, water or shelter and exposing them to radiation.  

And yet I often hear, "We've got to stop all the changes!"

How?  How can we ever stop all the changes? I know I'm specifically thinking of the church here and the one or two persons who will say to me "Lots of people have talked with me and they are all upset with you over all the changes!"

My response:  their argument is with God, not with me.  Yes, I bring changes, but that's because I'm a living being, just as the earth is a living entity, and living beings and living entities by necessity change and bring change to everything they impact.  These people who don't want change also bring their own changes--but those very changes are far less often acknowledged or recognized for the blessings/problems (depending upon a person's point of view, of course) they may cause.

Many of us, especially as we get older, have some memory of a "perfect moment" in the past, where every single thing was exactly as we may have wanted it.  By the way, I think this "memory" is what drives the ridiculous push to these outrageously lavish and expensive weddings that have spawned the bridezilla movement, but that is another story.  Anyway, those "perfect moments" are often remembered very differently by others and, I do believe, never actually existed.  Certainly, there are moments of luminescence that transform ordinary reality.  I've been privileged to experience a few of those. However, they can't be repeated, choreographed or forced.  That's part of their power.

But, back to the present. Within all of us is both the longing for some stability AND the need for change and variety and growth. No one wants the endless winter.  Even perfect spring days will eventually wear on us for we need to move to summer and harvest; we need life and death, the breath in and the breath out.

I also don't want to excuse change for change's sake, or something done just to keep people off balance. That, in my opinion, is unhealthily manipulative change, and does not unite people.

However, I do say this: to keep fighting to keep things the way they were, when the present is not evil or bad just somewhat less desired for ourselves or our cherished routines, may also eliminate the possibility of the Spirit of God entering in and working out soul transformation.

Just my thoughts while still in the first week of Lent, and while pondering the unfolding tragedy in Japan. What can we learn from this?

Monday, March 14, 2011

An Easier Way, Second Look

Put yourself in this place: stretched to the limit, emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually. You are tired, hungry, scared, emptied out, and are facing something huge, huge, huge.  Life-changingly huge.

It could be the night before an exam that will determine graduation or expulsion, a big presentation at work, a decision that will radically impact your life and the lives of those you love the most. You know the task before you will take everything you have—and there are no assurances that you will prevail, succeed, overcome.  Yet, you know you must do this.

Then someone, apparently kind and compassionate, aware of your travail and the challenge before you, comes and says, “I can make this work for you! Here, take my hand, and let me show you an easier way.” 

What would you do?  What would I do? 

That's what Jesus faced, when, after going public as God's prophet and beloved son, sent to bring salvation to the world, headed to the wilderness for extended fasting and prayer. There, at the point of extreme exhaustion, fatigue and hunger, the tempter showed up and said, "Let me give you what you want, without all the pain."

The tempter's offers were legitimate: necessary food, recognition of who Jesus was, and the ultimate reward that would come anyway--all the kingdoms on earth.

All Jesus had to do was compromise one tiny, little thing. Just one thing:  worship the tempter, that which is not holy, not god, instead of the Holy God of all creation.

No big deal. Just one little thing.

But Jesus knew who he was. He knew why he lived and what he was to do. Surely he knew his chosen path would not lead to immediate reward, or ease of physical travail, or ego-stroking recognition. Surely, he knew it was going to be a painful, heart wrenching journey of anguish, betrayal, loss and pain.  But he stayed the course, because he loved. Above all, he loved.  He loved because he was the human manifestation of love.

I, for one, am completely grateful. I, also for one, know I don't hold up nearly so well to the common temptations. The temptations to satisfy my physical cravings, to be recognized, to have power and to satisfy my wishes for those things now, even though it will cost more later.  All of these have all those temptations. Grab what we want and grab it now. Be popular; rise to the top of the heap; be the most this, the best that; gain the competitive edge that leaves everyone in our dust.

Again, these temptations pull on legitimate needs and desires. These needs and desires drive economies and build sports teams. They enhance the arms race so weapons are bigger, better, more destructive. These drives also, when properly put into service of a Holy God, feed the world, free the oppressed, create medical miracles, spur generosity, enhance creativity, and fill us with love, energy and the hope for the future.

This time of Lent, for me, is to look closely and see where I will indeed chose the easy way out, the compromise of the soul, in order to reach ends that are legitimate, but . . . at what cost?  I invite you into that journey of self-examination with me.  To know the truth about ourselves is to know true freedom to love God and our neighbor.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Basketball Head Redux

I was sitting outside yesterday afternoon, trying to read, still very much in the throes of this bad allergy situation that has brought about my "basketball head" response.  It appears now that I'm reacting as badly to the medicine given for relief as I was to the original attack and am feeling decidedly unwell.

As I sat out there, a bee began to buzz around me.  I took alarm--a bee sting right now probably would do me in.  I'm sensitive to insect bites anyway, and am obviously way out of whack with anything even remotely called "normal" immune responses.

And so I ask, "How shall I now live?"  Do I start reacting in fear to every possible harm?  I ask, "How can anyone prevent tragedy perfectly?"

Of course, I am deeply wrapped up in what has happened in Japan.  From what I can tell, Japan is possibly the best prepared nation on earth when facing natural disasters such as this huge magnitude earthquake.  People drilled in disaster response, staying calm, as prepared as possible, buildings are properly built, seawalls maintained.  Yet, it growing chaos over there, with probably thousands killed, millions homeless, and a nuclear power plant that has suffered a lot of damage--and may have to be encased in concrete and sealed forever to keep deadly radiation leaks controlled.

I'm back to the uncertainly principle:  we simply cannot protect ourselves against all contingencies.  We will try, however, because life is valuable and should not be wasted.  Life is valuable because God created it, and holds it, and loves it and is Life Eternal.  Yet, there is more.

Last Friday night, my husband and I had a powerful and loving conversation about life and death issues. We were both weeping gently, speaking of the fact that we are now really having to face our own mortality much more strongly.  Neither of us has any fear of death; we both look forward to the resurrection life and fullness of love in the Holy Presence. 

Yet we both know too well of the pain of loss when someone we love leave this physical body behind.  It's real and it hurts.  And it is a part of every single person's life.

Without that awareness of loss, I doubt that any of us would really know what joy and real life feels like.  

So, I came in.  The bee is probably still buzzing happily out there.  I will, naturally, return to work in my garden as soon as I can, but not at this moment.  But I also say, "I will not live in fear."  That would be death even as I would be claiming life.  And that, I choose not to do. 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

An Easier Way?

You are exhausted, hungry, vulnerable, and getting ready to start what you know from the outset is going to be a difficult, if not impossible, task. 

You feel stretched to the limit, emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually. 

It could be the night before a final exam, a big presentation at work, a decision that you know is going to radically impact your own life and the lives of those you love the most. You know the task before you will take everything you’ve got—and there are no assurances that you will prevail. 

Then someone, apparently kind and compassionate, aware of your travail and the challenge before you, comes to you and says, “I can make this work for you! Here, take my hand, and let me show you an easier way.” 

What would you do? 

Would you listen? Would you think, “Thank goodness—a savior has shown up? Someone who really understands what I’m going through?” 

Or would you say, “No shortcuts for me. No pre-assured victories on my plate. No matter what this costs me, I will take the high road.” 

More, tomorrow, March 13, 2011, in worship, First UMC Krum. Holy Communion, 9:30; 9:55-10:00 break; 10:00 a.m., service resumes with music, children's time, and message.

Don't forget daylight savings time begins tomorrow!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Disasters Hit, Instability is the Rule

I didn't turn on the news this morning or check any online sources, so am just now learning about the earthquake in Japan and the tsunamis to follow.  Here's a link to a NY Times article on it.

Every time I hear of another natural disaster like this, my heart breaks for the devastation.  Lives lost, those alive generally terrified and extremely confused, rescue operations mobilized but often delayed because major transportation channels are affected.

We know of these things almost immediately these days because of our electronic communication abilities.  Amateur videos are already being posted of the disaster.  Seeing it happen almost is real time brings the awfulness of this straight to my consciousness.

Christian people call one another to prayer. And so we do. In one way or another, we are connected to those people, so far across the globe. There is no such thing as isolated tragedies--when one of us is hurt, we all are.  But even as I write this, I know there will be those who will seek to profit from this.  The good in us responds with compassion and action. The greed in us, however, often gets the headlines and hinders recovery.

I want to say to God yet one more time, "How could You?"  But that's silly. We live on a planet that is constantly changing.  Earthquakes take place all the time. Volcanoes still erupt. Hurricane and tornado season are just around the corner, as they reappear each year.  

To insist on stability in an inherently unstable world is to take the step, in my opinion, into insanity. No matter how much we might want it, and just wish we could stop changes that make us scared or uncomfortable or force us to consider a much wider world with its huge amount of suffering, we cannot have it.

We can have our grounding in a Holy God, however. God's mercies never stop coming--and we get to pass those onto others. 

To do good--this is the calling of God's people.  To do good, to relieve suffering, to embrace the changing world held together by Christ in full glory, to hope for the fullness of perfect love to flow to us and from us--that is what I stand on, even as I will do whatever small part I can to bring healing to this place.

The Exercise Paradox

Here's a bit of health news that some of us less exercised people might like to read.  This research (which shall probably soon be contradicted vigorously by some other research) suggests that too much intense training may actually damage heart muscle, leading to earlier deaths, not prolonged health well into old age.

Hear! Hear!  I say.

OK, not exactly, but the point is this: we can become addicted to anything, and that includes excessive exercise. Even things that look good can become downfalls when they take over our lives.

I think that is one of the major purpose of Lenten disciplines: see what it is that has taken over our lives, even if it is a "good thing" that keeps us from worshiping only the Lord God.  Do we worship the "perfect body?" Do we focus all energies on the "perfect relationship" or "perfect house" or "perfect job?"

Or, where pastors are concerned, are we so focused on leading the "perfect church" that we've forgotten that being set apart for holy leadership is often the first step in the journey that lead to the cross, to the place of total loss, to the darkness of hell, until we understand that it is only God that gives the resurrection and only God that is worth worshiping, not our own accomplishments.

I do believe God calls us to be accomplished people, to move toward perfection in love and excellence in tasks.  I also believe that when those things become God, rather than the actual Holy One, that all we do ends up being useless, or even destructive.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Let the Children Lead Us

The children came forth in droves to have their foreheads marked with ashes last night as we formally entered Lent in preparation for Easter.  Close to 50 children and youth from our LOGOS/Midweek Miracle ministry along with parents and others from our church community and neighborhood, participated with both solemnity and hope.

I found it hard to hold back tears of joy as I had the privilege of imposing those ashes onto those beautiful young faces and upon those who are now preparing for Easter yet once more as they have for over 80 years.  With that many children in the service, I had very much simplified the liturgy, but still sought to give the essentials of this season. Parents told me afterward that their children appeared to grasp the essence of the time and learned much and the more experienced adults did not seem to mind.

When I gave the invitation to come forward, I asked them to come, not by rows, but as God led them to come.  Within seconds, two children sitting in the back rose from their seats, and led the procession. Their mother followed, and then, as the Spirit of God hovered over the room, the rest came up.

Later, we prayed together the Lord's Prayer.  The voice one of our smallest children, a not-quite three year old, who has been learning that prayer this year in our Children's Day Out program, rose over the voices of the rest of us, as he enthusiastically recited that prayer from memory. 

This is what we are about--passing on the faith to the next generation, as they shape the church to come. We disciple them, love them, teach them, encourage them, correct them, and love them sacrificially so they can do the same, yet with their own personalities and culture stamped on the churches they will create.  

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Redemption Through Reading

I just read a riveting article about a college teacher who had a murder suspect in her classroom for a semester.  The article, "Prime Suspect, Second Row," can be found here (only for five days, through March 14, after that only for subscribers of The Chronicle of Higher Education website).

The young man, handsome, poised, well-dressed, was a prime suspect in the ax murder of his father and the attempted murder of his mother.  The professor knew the family and had known this young man from his youth.

It was a course in English Literature. The professor knew that many of the students were aware of the status of the murder suspect, and were struggling with having him in the classroom. She wrote,

As I considered eliminating one story after another, however, I confirmed what I had sensed would be the case: Every story on the syllabus had some degree of relevance to this crime and to these students. Each story seemed crucial for students to read and for me to teach. In fact, the course came to seem like an emergency measure, something akin to academic triage. The universal truth and central questions within the literature invariably circled around some aspect of this student and the crime. In the end, I believe the stories we read helped many of us achieve some degree of understanding of the horror that had taken place in our community.

The article touched me because it showed so clearly the power of story and our ability to understand ourselves better through literature.  I know that the stories found in Holy Scripture are there for that same transformative reason. 

This morning, at our 7:00 a.m. Ash Wednesday service, I briefly told the story of King David's life before he wrote what we now know as Psalm 51, that powerful hymn of contrition.  David's sins were great: adultery, lying, murder.  They left him devastated, as do all breaks with holy and responsible living.  In his story, in his actions, his growing awareness of the devastation that his decisions brought on him and his people, and in his repentance, we may also find our own stories.

I suggest we pray this Psalm as we enter our time of self-reflection:

Psalm 51:1-17 (New Revised Standard)

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. he sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

A broken and contrite heart:  a gateway to grace, to receiving and giving forgiveness.  That's what we are looking for during Lent. 

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Power of Party

For several weeks now, we've been making our way during worship through the Exodus story. I have noted that God periodically calls the people to stop their ordinary work, and take time to rest, worship, AND have parties.

In New York City this past weekend, my youngest son, Daniel, married the lovely Ashley.  Despite working with a very tight budget, they decided to throw great parties for family and friends, many of whom traveled significant distances for the wedding.

Dan and Ashley also had a lot of apprehension about the gatherings, as it necessarily included people who have been estranged from each other. Both sides of the families had experienced divorce, and there were unresolved feelings and unhealed relationships floating in the air.

Also, with Daniel's family from the Dallas area, and Ashley's from Florida, and the wedding in NYC, few immediate family members had met one another. Ashley's mother and I made our first acquaintance on the day of the rehearsal dinner.

The wedding and the reception were held in a loft in mid-town Manhattan. High ceilings with windows all around permitted light to flood the space; ancient but still workable plumbing and lighting fixtures set the scene. Everything: floors, chairs, tables, were painted or covered in white, which set off the simple flowers chosen for decor. It had a funky elegance, and was very welcoming. 

A photo of my oldest son, Jonathan, and his wife, Adrian, from Colombia.

They splurged on a caterer, and the food was fabulous. Inexpensive but drinkable wines and beers were freely available, along with plenty of non-alcoholic beverages. Sound from Dan's IPOD provided the dancing music over a good sound system.

I sat at a table with my Colombian in-laws, loving the opportunity to catch up with them, even with our mutual language limitations. From there we watched the dancers, briefly joining them. Periodically, one of us would move around the room, chatting with long-unseen relatives, and introducing ourselves to new acquaintances.

Nearly everyone there is a church-goer of some sort. My two NYC sons are involved in planting a new congregation in Manhattan and many of their friends were in attendance. The Colombians  are all Roman Catholic. Daniel had attended Baylor University, and many of his Baptist friends were there, as well as Baptist relatives from his father's side of the family. My sister and her husband are members of the Anglican church.  

Despite the differences, for the time of this celebration we were a unified group.  Disagreements and misunderstandings disappeared in the moments of joy. We joined together to honor the holy covenant that Dan and Ashley entered.  

This is the purpose of party. Party connects us to one another. When we see God as a holy party-pooper, and suggest that we must always be serious and sober-minded and overtly religious and hard working, and sure we've got the final answers to life questions, we dishonor God's name. Yes, life is often serious and we must approach many of our challenges with our faith informing the hard work before us. 

However, life loses flavor when we leave behind the need to party and play and laugh and and connect despite our differences and disagreements. 

In the Christian year, we have now entered Lent, a time set aside for more sober thinking about ourselves and the sins that bind us and keep us from holy freedom. I would suggest that one of those sins is our refusal to receive from the hand of God times to rest, worship and to party. Easter Sunday, the day of resurrection and new life where only death seemed possible before, is the day of ultimate party.  Let's prepare ourselves for that day and see how we can receive it most fully and with the greatest of joy.

Monday, March 07, 2011

That Is Not MY Face!

“That’s my pastor--whoa! What happened to your face?” Yes, what did happen to my face that would bring such a response? A very reasonable response, by the way, considering the circumstances.

By late weekend, I was in the throes of a huge allergic reaction and my face had swelled to the size of a basketball. Red, blotchy, very painful and getting worse. I had been in NYC for a son’s wedding (fortunately the worst of this happened after the wedding), and by the time I arrived in Dallas, it was looking, and I was feeling, really awful.

I should have just gone to the emergency room on the way home from the hospital . . . but I was just sure that some home remedies would work.

They didn’t. I headed out for help this morning. 

I’m lucky as this kind of swelling can be life-threatening if it goes to my tongue and throat. For me, it is just making me look really, really weird, and giving me the opportunity to practice NOT scratching. When the itch becomes unbearable, I grab a bag of ice and hold it on the itchy spot. It provides some relief. It also means I don’t sleep much, as I’m constantly being awakened by the itching and reaching for the ice.

I’m also aware of how much of my identity--and pretty much everyone’s identity to some degree--is affected by my physicality. Most people respond to faces--we learn at early ages to read expressions and figure out what people are thinking by what their faces show. This is why those with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism have such trouble with social interactions: their particular brain structure does not give them the ability to read faces and to pick up social cues from them. 

I look in the mirror and think, “That’s not MY face!” I know that when I venture out in public again (it will probably be several weeks before I’m back to normal), people are going to react to my appearance. Ihere will be questions and comments.I  My husband, “Did you get stung by a bee?” My sister, “You were looking worse and worse, and I’ve been worried.” The pharmacist didn’t say anything but was clearly upset when the medications I needed were not in stock and wouldn’t be in for 24 hours. My malady shows itself immediately. 

People who have been around me know I don’t particularly like the popular representation of Jesus that shows him as a blue-eyed, light skinned, long-faced, gentile. I’ve often wondered if God the Father said to God the Son, “My boy, we need to get you into the flesh before cameras, movable type, newspapers TV, the Internet and especially smart phones hit the market. Otherwise, we’ll have people worshipping your image in no time flat, and forgetting that image is nothing. The redeemed and sanctified soul is everything.”

Well, image is supposed to be nothing, but we humans do get caught up in ours. Since mine is WAY OUT OF WHACK right now, all I can ask is, “Be kind and try not to make too much fun of me.” I’ll do my best to find my sense of humor in this experience.