Saturday, August 12, 2017

"There's Gonna Be a Great Day!"

When I was much younger I had a favorite audition song entitled "Great Day." I loved the upbeat tempo and message: "When you're down and out, lift up your head and shout, there's gonna be great day. Angels in the sky promise that by and by there's gonna be a great day."

I didn't know much about being "down and out" when I was young.  At this stage in my life I see how "down and out" it is possible to get. I live in this traumatic time with many people. Some are family. Some are friends. Some are members of the congregation I serve. And some are strangers, at least until they walk into my study at church.

One visitor was an older man, unemployed and disabled, a single parent to a teenager. He needed a gas card. He told me how he sometimes made money singing and playing his saxophone.  I invited him to audition for me in the sanctuary. So, there the two of us were, in a dark sanctuary, he singing a song he wrote and I serving as audience and potential employer.  After his audition  I gave him the gas card and invited him to perform for our congregation.  After a long discussion he stunned me by handing back the gas card. He said, "I'll be back for that when I come to sing in your church." 

A second visitor was a tall, fit man who looked for all the world like a "success".  What I found out was that he was recently "down-sized" when his position was eliminated. He was married and has seven children.  But, he wasn't there asking for anything from the church. Rather, he was using his time ("all I have is time right now") to explore how he and his wife could best use their "God's Storehouse" fund. On top of their tithe to their church, this couple took extra money, bonuses or gifts, and put them in a separate account to bless people in need.  They had vowed to never use it for themselves. So, though he was unemployed, he was looking to give his savings away.  Rarely have I met a better example of a person who lived out his belief that, though he was presently down and out,  "angels in the sky promise that by and by there's gonna be a great day."

The ultimate "great day" is  going to happen when Gabriel blows his famous horn.  Until then it takes a little effort on our part, and probably a shift in vision from “down” to “up”, to make a

day great. What step of faith are you willing to take today to prepare yourself to receive the promised great day?

Saturday, August 5, 2017

A Lesson From 'The Mooch'

Your mouth is a window to your brain (and maybe a doorway to your heart).

When you work for the President of the United States of America, and when your job is to be the lead communicator of the White House’s ‘message’, what comes from your mouth really matters. So, if you display a ‘potty-mouth’ to the world, well, you get the picture.  You won’t be the mouth of the office of President for long because when you speak it is not just your own voice the world hears, it is also the voice of the ‘Leader of the Free World’ and all that that description entails. From Australia to Zambia, the world hears the string of expletives and wonders.

The lesson for those of us who claim to speak for God is a very basic and simple one: “remember who you are.” I borrow this idea from John Stott in his commentary on Romans 6.  Stott writes, “It is my conviction that our heavenly Father says…to us every day: ‘My dear child, you must always remember who you are.’”  His point, and mine, is that our conduct, our language, as people who claim to represent God matters, to all who hear us, especially to God.  God is not going to ‘fire’ us as his children, but he very well may ‘fire’ us from being his spokespersons.

I suppose it could be argued that the language of Mr. Anthony Scaramucci (the ‘Mooch’) was excusable because he didn’t understand he was on the record, and he was angrily defending the President. I don’t buy it.  What comes out of your mouth should not be measured by whether you are on or off the record, because, frankly, with God you are always ‘on the record’. There are proper ways to be forceful in the defense of the one we serve.  A profanity-laced tirade is not one of them. So, I applaud the President and his Chief of Staff for sending the right message: he doesn’t speak for this office.  Should he be forgiven for his indiscretion? If he is remorseful, sure. But actions have consequences, as they say, and now he lives with those.

I know that the use of profanity, especially words based on sexual acts, has become a ‘normal’ way of speaking for much of society.  However, of this I am sure, God is not impressed.  If your goal is to ‘fit in’ with society then you need to decide how to do that in a way that doesn’t reveal that you have forgotten who you are: a child of God, sent forth into the world not to ‘fit it’, but to redeem culture for the One in whose behalf we speak.

Or, to quote the children’s song: ‘Be careful little tongue what you say…”  Remember who (and whose) you are.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

42 and You

“Why is number 42 up there?”, Wil wanted to know.  The thing about taking young children to a Major League Baseball game is that there are so many distractions you should assume you will miss most of the actual game on the field. But this is how they learn to love the game, I hope. We had already talked about the names and numbers surrounding the field at Miller Park, home of the Milwaukee Brewers. I explained how I had seen Yount and Molitor and Fingers play, and that I listened to Uecker call radio play by play for decades. But what about “42”, he wanted to know. There was no name, just the number. I explained that “42” was Jackie Robinson’s number, and that he was the first African-American to play Major League Baseball. My other grandson, Joshua, asked why his number was in gold. I explained that it is a special number, since Major League Baseball retired his number, and now no one may wear it ever again, because they want everyone to remember who broke the color barrier. “What’s the color barrier?”, he asked.

I thought that was a good sign.  The idea of a “color barrier” was foreign to his way of thinking.  He goes to school with children of all skin colors; he plays soccer with boys and girls of all skin colors; and he worships with people of all skin colors.  So, what in the world would a color barrier be, and what would it be for?

One goal of the church should be to become a model where the very idea of color barriers, or any of the other usual social barriers, are foreign to our way of thinking.  Whether race or gender or national origin or economic class, or any other distinctives, they are all barriers that the church must help tear down.  The Bible gives us all the authority we need to know that God hates barriers, beginning with the first barrier between “Jews and Gentiles”, and continuing with every other barrier humans can erect.  “There is no difference”; that is an essential part of the gospel (good news) we are sent to teach and model.  This is what it means for the church to be countercultural, to go against the grain of cultural ideas which grow from fear and are used to justify barriers.

God is still looking for people to be the Jackie Robinsons who are willing to break barriers, and for the gatekeepers who will give them an opportunity.  Who are the people still separated from society by barriers that God wants torn down? Are you willing to be or to speak for the next “42”?

Saturday, July 22, 2017

When Someone is Drowning

Jamel Dunn was drowning.  He had been distraught. He apparently waded into a large pond-like body of water. We don’t know what his intent was, but we do know that after a time he became afraid of dying. He called for helped. He screamed for someone to rescue him.

A small group of teenagers, ages 14-16, were standing across the body of water watching Jamel grow weaker. They heard his voice, his pleas for assistance.  They turned on their cell phone and, rather than calling for help, started videotaping Jamel drowning.  They called out to him with words to the effect, “You shouldn’t have gone in there.”  After Jamel died, still laughing, they said, as if congratulating themselves, “we could have done something for him but we didn’t.” And they laughed some more.

The legal authorities explained that there were no laws requiring someone to help a drowning man. That doesn’t surprise me. As a former legislator I can confess that there are some wrongs you just cannot imagine you would need a law against.  There is a standard in the law which says “this shocks the conscience of the court.”  It won’t apply in this situation, but it is likely that you want it to apply; it is likely that you want some means for the legal system, on behalf of Jamel Dunn and you, society itself, to say, “we cannot let such disregard for life to go unpunished.”

I have no evidence for this, but I believe that this act of disregard for life would shock the conscience of every society.  To watch a child of God die without intervening, when you had the tools to do so without even endangering your own life, must be abhorrent to all sane humanity.  Why would that be true? Because, I believe, God has placed in the minds, the consciences of all of his created ones, God’s own image. (Genesis 1:26).  People are as close to God as their conscience; we, as created beings, know “right” from “wrong” without an act of Congress. (Romans 1:20)

And if we have this understanding as those made in the image of God, what does that tell us about God, the “image-maker”?  When God sees someone drowning, do you think God stands by telling the angels, “He shouldn’t have gone in there?” Or do you believe that it is the very nature of God to send One to save those who have gone in too deep?   

If you saw Jamel Dunn drowning you would have done something to help him, right? In the same way, when God sees someone is drowning, Jesus saves. You know that’s true, don’t you?

Saturday, July 15, 2017

When Flowers and Ministries Die

As I walked into worship last Sunday I noticed that the two Sundays old flowers were fading.  I should have removed them, I thought, but, they still were serving their role of brightening up our worship space.  Yesterday I noticed that the now three week old flowers had died. Petals were falling. The stems were leaning.  Life was gone.  I tried to carry out both vases in one trip to maximize time on a fading Friday, but with no free hand  I could not catch all of the falling petals. I had to make my way back along my path to collect the pieces, one at a time. But I needed to clear the way.

Earlier in the week I sat with some friends as we talked about the end of a ministry.  There are lots of ways to talk about dying ministries.  Let’s give it more time; let’s give it a new vision; let’s wait for God to do something new.  I ended up being the voice who had to say, “It’s time is over. Let’s bring it to an end.”  That is a good way to become the least popular person in the room very quickly.  But, in the circumstances of that particular ministry, it looked to me like the ministry was not just wilting. The petals had fallen. Now we just needed to decide whether to throw out the flowers or let them stay in the vase, pretending that they were still beautiful flowers.

Sadly, my mind has been full of thoughts about dying ministries this summer.  Why, I ask, would God would allow ministries that seemed so full of life and energy at one time to now die.  My minister friends remind me that we need to be “pastoral” as we approach these “end of ministry” situations.  There is truth to that. But, how do we know when it is time to carry the flowers out of the sanctuary because their purpose has been fulfilled? Does God allow good ministries to die, like flowers, because their purpose in the church has been realized?

Tomorrow when I walk into worship there will be a new vase full of bright flowers. The flowers, like the baptismal waters, will be a sign of life springing from death.  I wonder if God allows some ministries to die because there is something new, something full of life, that God is bringing into existence to take its place?  It is painful and messy to clean up that which was beautiful and yet has now died. But perhaps the act of picking up the petals one by one is a way of grieving what has died and preparing the path for what is life.

When flowers and ministries die the best the church can do is to prepare the way for God’s resurrection story.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

No Tailgaters in Heaven

Why do otherwise normal people act like crazed maniacs when driving their cars?  You might imagine that the answer to this important question requires a complex analysis funded by a grant from the Department of Transportation.  I don’t think so. I think the answer is obvious.  People are evil by nature.  You see, for a Calvinist, understanding human conduct is easy.  People are sinful by nature. Oh sure, they will say things like, “I am basically a good person” and give you a few examples. But, get them behind the wheel of a car? Forget about it. Their true nature is revealed.

And here’s the thing: the people who are the victims of random tailgating get caught up into the web of bad behavior too.  They are the ones who start thinking evil thoughts about what they would do to the evil tailgater if they weren’t such a good religious person (or afraid of getting shot).  They start to imagine what it would be like to just tap on the brakes and get a million dollar verdict for the injuries the tailgater caused by rear-ending them. 

It turns out that the drivers in my home state of Wisconsin are ranked as the 5th most rude drivers in all the United States.  That’s what the folks who did the Kars4Kids Survey said. (Maddie Koss, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 7.6.17)  I am not surprised. In my experience, I have been tailgated by people of both genders and all age ranges, although it seems that the drivers ages 16-25 bear much of the blame. Who says I am not becoming a grumpy old man?

I have been studying Paul’s letters to the early churches and he makes big deal about how all of us are sinners who need a Savior other than ourselves. If we need proof, he suggests, just look around.  No matter how much we try to become perfect by doing good, we just cannot get it done. We don’t love God perfectly, and we certainly don’t love our neighbor as we ought.  If you drive the speed limit in the left lane of any highway for a half-hour you will witness the basic “badness” of humanity.  Because people who love their neighbors don’t tailgate and people who love their enemies don’t think evil thoughts about the child of God tailgating them. 

That’s all the evidence I need to confirm my belief that our human nature needs God’s nurture. Heaven’s Highways will have no tailgaters. But, do you think there will be speed limits?  Uh oh.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

When Social Security Writes

The letter had to be a mistake, I figured.  Why would those nice people at the Social Security Administration send me this letter telling me that I needed to contact them right away in order to get my Social Security payments started?  I called the SSA and spoke with a very nice woman who, when looking at my records, said, “Happy Birthday almost”.  I said “thank you”, and then I told her I was confused about why they were writing to me.  Her best guess was that, because I was about to turn 63, they were letting me know that if I was ready to start my payments I needed to get an application filed.  I assured her that I had no desire to “retire” just yet. She told me, “Well, in three years you will be eligible for full benefits.”

Three years.  That got my attention.  I have three years left until I have reached the age when the government says I should stop working.  Thirty-six months until society will tell me it’s time to quit the commute and all that happens at the other end of it.  Now, I fully understand that, for many, maybe most people, they want to retire from their work routine and take advantage while they can of the rest of what life has to offer. I am all for that for those who need or want to take advantage of that change in life’s direction.  But, for me, I already am doing what I want to do when I retire. In fact, I am so comfortable in my “work” that most of my friends are constantly asking me how I am enjoying retirement. “I am not retired!”, I tell them in an exasperated tone.  

Three years, my friend at Social Security told me. Get ready, buddy.  So now I am focusing. Focusing on what I want to accomplish in the next three years, or if circumstances permit, a few more beyond. Three (or so) years to “finish well.”  What can I do to touch lives in some meaningful way before I can do so no more?

Today I am going to officiate the spreading of the ashes of a friend of mine of the same age who was taken by disease.  She was focused during her dying years, focused on her family and friends and on dying well.  Her last three years of life were a testament to the power of “focus” that comes from the desire to finish well.  To be focused on finishing well, whether it is a career or life itself, carries with it the promise that makes it all worthwhile, that we shall behold Him face to face, and hear the “well done” that is reserved for the faithful servants.

Thanks for the letter.