Saturday, December 22, 2012


Phew! December 22 dawned and I am here.  I trust you are too. I actually have not seen another person (other than my wife) this morning. But, the sun is shining brilliantly and the snow is hosting an art show of brilliant light and mysterious shadows.  Oh, and I just saw a bird.  Esperanza!

While shopping in a grocery store in Mexico I came upon a man who wanted to give us a tour of the Mayan ruins which were the source of the “end of the world” phenomenon that just ended.  I declined the tour offer, but I asked him about the sign that was doing most of his advertising for him. It displayed in bright big letters: “Esperanza 2012”. He explained that, for the Mayans, of which he claimed to be one, 12.21.12 was not the day the world would end, but it would be the dawning of a new era marked by Esperanza, a Spanish word meaning hope.  His English was much better than my Spanish, but not good enough that we could have a real dialogue about Esperanza. What I wanted to know is how he understood Hope. Did he mean a Hope in God, or Mayan gods, or Christ, or some other religious figure?  I couldn’t get my question asked plainly enough, but what I took from his remarks was that, starting today, December 22, 2012, a new Esperanza would inhabit the world.

I had pretty much forgotten that conversation until I read about the 20,000 people gathered at the Mayan tourists spots yesterday to witness the end of the world or, failing that, something spectacular. They should have talked to my tour guide, I guess, and saved themselves a lot of time and money.  But, the people seeking something new were not just in Mexico. Reports tell us that in France a group waited for a secret space ship to come out of the mountains to carry them to safety. In China, some Christians declared that Jesus had returned as a Chinese woman, another one of many stories that Jesus has returned and is living with and leading a small group in some remote place.

What human need manufactures these myths and fables?  We all have a need for Esperanza hard-wired into our brains, I think.  What drives people to flock to churches on Christmas Eve? Esperanza!  All of the myths are take-offs of the one true Hope: the God Child who snuck in through a woman’s womb on some unknown evening in Bethlehem is making the grandest return entrance our minds can imagine on some unknown day, and he’s coming for me and for all the Esperanza-filled believers who lived from the beginning of time until its end.  That’s what Christmas means to me, and I hope, to you.  God gives us just enough hard evidence to feed our faith that this is the One Truth.

I guess the guide was right: on Dec. 22 I am filled with Esperanza!  God has once again proved that he is beyond our man-made myths and calendars.  My Esperanza is built on nothing less.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

God Questions

Slaughter of the Sandy Hook Innocents.

“I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled.  Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us.” (Habakkuk 3:16)

When Job lost his children to unexplained evil he confronted God.  God does not need a defense attorney.  God Himself answered from the whirlwind.  God’s answer to Job’s questions was a long series of God Questions which tell Job, in essence, “God is able.” When confronted with unspeakable, utterly senseless destruction of life, we can ask, “God if you are able, why do you not act?”  And Jesus will weep with us as we cry out, “If you had come earlier they would have lived! Where were you?”  We weep, bitter tears of great sorrow, springs of water spilling from broken hearts through eyes that flow like broken faucets. Unable to find words that could have any meaning to the survivors of the Innocents, we embrace them in a universal spiritual community.  And we lift our eyes to the heavens with them and cry, “Why?”

And then there is another question we need to ask, “What should we do?”  What should we do when we live in a nation of people who spend a Friday night collectively wondering what it must be like for the Mama and Papa and Grandma and Grandma and big sisters and brothers of the Innocents?  How can they face Saturday?

The Church must act.  If we think God is doing nothing to stop the violence, perhaps it is because we are doing nothing when we, the Church, need to do something.  I do not know, today, what that “something” is.  But I know that God questions me, demands of me that I do something.  The battle against Evil is our battle too.  God asks, “In the name of God, what are you doing to protect tomorrow’s Innocents?” Are we willing to be the courageous Church that speaks for the One Mighty to Save, to do something that will finally “deliver calamity to the nation that has invaded us”?  We wait for God’s Advent, yes. But, perhaps God too waits for us to act, to finally do something.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"This Little Light of Mine"

Today marks the first day of Hanukkah, an eight day holiday for people who observe the Jewish faith.  Like most Jewish holidays, Hanukkah contain elements and traditions which were carried over into the Christian faith.  What I especially like about Hanukkah is the focus on light, which is so important to Christians during the season of Advent when candles are lit each week as we celebrate our season of waiting.  Hanukkah is not about waiting, though. Hanukkah is about celebrating God’s miraculous restoration of the Jewish Temple for worship of God.

In the year 168 B.C. (or B.C.E.) the Syrian-Greeks soldiers took control of the Jewish Temple and turned it into a place to worship  the Greek god, Zeus. The invaders outlawed Judaism and forced Jewish people to break Jewish religious laws. Eventually a group of the oppressed Jewish nation rose up to rebel.  They famously reclaimed possession of the Temple.  When they entered the Temple they wanted to re-dedicate it to God by purifying it with ritual oil, a process which would take 8 days. However, there was only enough oil for one day.  It would take 8 days to press olives and create new oil which could be burned. But, in faith, they lit the one day’s worth of oil that remained. The miracle of Hanukkah is that the oil burned for 8 days and so the Temple was miraculously rededicated to God’s glory. Since that time Hanukkah is observed over an eight day period by the lighting of a Hanukkah menorah, properly known as a hanukkiah.  It has nine candles, one for each day of the holiday. The candles are lit after sunset, and each day’s candle is lit by the “ninth” candle, called a “shammash.” This candle, the “helper” or “servant” candle is then used to each the candle of the day.  The hannukiah is displayed in the window of the Jewish family which lights it, not to light up the house, but to light up the world.  It is not a light to see within, but a light to remind the world of God’s miraculous power.  And so the Jewish community has been to the world, a constant reminder that God is a God who keeps his promises; a God who stays with his people through their times of sin and in their times of obedience.  God is a God who rebuilds and restores.

As you see lights around you church or city during this next eight days, think about them as evidence that God is still doing miracles. And if you meet someone who is dwelling in darkness this holiday season, won’t you be a “shammash” for her?  Give the gift of the light, hope in a  God who miraculously renews. And watch her light up. 

Saturday, December 1, 2012

"Rinse and Repeat"

“See You at the Top.” Do you recognize that saying?  If so, you are in the business of selling something, or you took a self-help class somewhere along the way, or maybe you are just widely and well-read.  The phrase is the title of a well-known motivational book written by Zig Ziglar in 1975. Mr. Ziglar died this week at the age of 86.  I never heard Mr. Ziglar speak nor did I read any of his works, but I am sure I was influenced by the “movement” he helped to create.  Maybe it was Dale Carnegie or Norman Vincent Peale, or maybe it was one of the disciples of this one of them, but someone made a set of cassette tapes with lectures on it, designed to listen to while driving.  There was a time in my life when I commuted 240 miles round trip, so I had lots of time to listen to tapes.  One of those tapes recommended the practice of starting each day saying positive things to yourself as you looked deep into your own eyes in the mirror.  This technique was the subject of a very funny Saturday Night Live skit (“I am good enough and smart enough and people like me.”)  But, even though the comics made fun of it, the technique worked, at least for me.  I do believe that the first step to succeeding in just about anything is persuading yourself that you can and you will succeed.  You can laugh at the skits, as I do, but if you try it , you will be laughing at the face of success.

A newspaper article about Mr. Ziglar explained how he came to his profession. As a door-to-door seller of cookware he motivated himself with the positive thinking affirmations of Dr. Peale.  But, before he  heard of Dr. Peale, his widowed mother had given her young son, Zig, regular positive sayings which grew out of her devout Christian faith, which sayings got them through the many struggles of the Depression era in which they lived.  The article concludes with a response that Mr. Ziglar gave to a question about the fact that much of his speaking and writing was repetitive.  His explanation was this, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing-that’s why we recommend it daily.”  I don’t know what you are seeking in your life, but I do know you likely won’t find it unless you hunt for it every day.

If you desire change in your life start today by getting rid of one bad habit and starting one good habit.  Work at it every day for the rest of the year.  God works in us as we make room for God to work in our hearts and minds and spirits.  True success, bringing and finding peace in this life, can be yours, but you need to believe that first.  Start every day by reminding yourself that God’s “got your back and your front”.  Find a community of faith to offer you regular cleansing.  And then, I will see you at the Top!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Postscript, or "Which Story Do You Like Better?"

My wife, Jill, works at the local YMCA.  On the Monday following last week’s entry she got to her work computer and for the first time read my posting about Carl and his practice of calling me after reading  “Saturday Stirrings”.  For Jill, Carl is “Uncle Carl”, her mother’s brother.  Jill’s family grew up spending lots of time with Uncle Carl’s family, holidays and vacations and more.  Jill was not able to travel to Uncle Carl’s memorial service, where most of the extended family was gathered,  because air travel was against doctor’s orders due to a medical issue. So, as Jill finished reading my posting about Uncle Carl she was feeling sad and a bit guilty about not attending the celebration of her Uncle Carl’s life, even though she knew she could not safely make that trip.

But, on this particular Monday, due to some short staffing at the YMCA,  Jill had to forego her usual duties of financial management so she could help out answering the telephone at the Y. Just as she finished reading the Saturday Stirring post about “Carl’s not Calling Today”, with tears streaming down her face and while filled with conflicting emotions of grief and guilt and sadness, the phone was ringing. Being the good and dedicated employee that she is, she answered the telephone: “Thank you for calling the YMCA, how may I help you?”

The voice on the other end says, “This is Carl, I believe you called me.”

Jill sat there is stunned silence, not having a clue what to say next.  Was Carl calling today?  Who had called someone name Carl on an early Monday morning?  She tentatively asked “Carl” some questions, but he didn’t have any name of a person who called. He wasn’t calling to register himself or a child for a program.  Perhaps he was calling for details on the Thanksgiving Day Run?  “Yes,” Carl said, “perhaps that is what the call was about.” “Well, let me give you the voice mail of the person handling that.”  Carl replies, “Thank you. You have been a joy to talk to.”  Jill spent the next couple of days trying to track down who “Carl” was. No one remembers calling anyone by that name. The person who handled registration for the run didn’t recall getting a voice mail from “Carl.” And who ends a conversation with a stranger at the Y by saying “You have been a joy to talk to” anyway?

Was this a God-moment, when some God-directed voice was given to Jill as a mystical reassurance? Or was it just “chance”, it just so happened that someone named Carl called at that very moment? 

“Which story do you like better?” 

“So it is with God.”  (The Life of Pi)

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Carl's Not Calling Today

Carl was a member of the Pilgrim Community of Hope.  I send this series of writings to a “listserv” of people who signed up to receive it.  Readers include people of the Christian faith, the Jewish faith, and, what I would like to call the “discovering faith.” The goal is to stir the faith of the readers, to get people thinking about their faith.  Sometimes I get replies from readers, and sometimes I get cards or personal feedback.  But there was one person on this list who sometimes had to have immediate interaction on an entry. That was Carl. Carl lived on the east coast, in the city of Brotherly Love. He was a retired minister, having served for a long time in a church near “Philly.” After his retirement he spread his ministry about through arts groups and, in particular, working with a church in the city.  This gave Carl confirmation, I think, of the kind of God he had given his life to serve. He saw in the work he did in his later years what it meant to be the church in some wider and deeper way than he had before. 

Carl, being an early riser and living in the east coast, would receive these “Stirrings” as soon as I hit “send”. Sometimes, within several minutes of my hitting the send button the telephone would ring. I would do my best to get to the phone before the ringing would wake up my still sleeping spouse.  And then we would talk. We would talk about that day’s writing and about how Carl thought I was right or wrong in my take on the topic.  It was kind of like getting an immediate grade from a kind professor. And then we talked about life and ministry and politics.  Carl wasn’t much for small talk, so we spent most of our time talking about what it means to be a “pastor” in this crazy world.

Carl’s not calling today.  I’m sad for me and happy for Carl. Carl died and now Carl lives.  During his last calls we talked about his getting ready to die.  He assured me that, as a person of faith gets older, as the body of the person stops being able to do the things the mind wants to do, the person of faith starts yearning for the next life.  It’s not about “giving up”; it’s about “living into” the future, to which the entry door is death.  If I could summarize the lessons Dr. Carl taught me during our calls it would be this: God’s grace enlarges our minds so that at the end of life we worry less about fences and rules and walls-and we focus more on gates and exceptions and ladders.  This is the God Carl learned about until he finally got to meet him.  Our little Pilgrim Community of Hope is smaller and poorer today; but the Community of Heaven is richer.  Goodbye, Carl.  I know you’re not calling today, but, talk to you soon.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Keeping a Kingdom Perspective

Well, we have survived yet another “most important election in our lifetime.”  Half of the people are satisfied. Half are not satisfied.  Some of the people who claim religious affiliation are nearly apoplectic over the outcome. Others are delighted, but worried that the promises they heard won’t be fulfilled.  I have lived through many “most important elections” in my lifetime and found, surprisingly, that the next one carried that same burden and promise.   We should believe God’s will was done last Tuesday, but just what does that mean? On this, I am sure, we cannot all of us agree.

So just how should people with a religious affiliation, or, more directly, a God-oriented worldview, react to an election of the President of the United States of America.  When you read that title typed out in full it is pretty impressive, isn’t it? Do you remember when you were a child and your parents or grandparents always spoke about the president as just a man, but they showed great respect for the President of the United States of America?  Well, whether you remember that or not, I do think that is the correct biblical response to any elected official, but especially to the most powerful political office in the world, which is what is still is.  Paul, in his letters, instructs the early church to obey the government leaders, to live peaceably among their neighbors.  They were taught to be the finest examples of citizens in the land, even when they were the “immigrants”.  I guess, especially when they were the immigrants, because that is really what God’s children are in this world. We who claim the status of being a chosen and loved child of God are just passing through. We are pilgrims on the way home

So, while we want to be God’s instruments in the world, as stewards of the earth’s resources, as providers for the poor, as friends to the lonely, we want to be good citizens as well.  I also thought about the Bible’s teaching on citizenship like this: “If the church leaves the government alone then you have a better chance of the government leaving you alone.”  God-fearing people should be involved in politics and should be advocates for God’s agenda, but let’s remember, even God’s people cannot agree on what God’s agenda actually is in this world.  But, we do not want the church to be the government nor the government to be the church.  There are plenty of current and past examples of nations which have and are trying this, always failing.

As you process the outcome of this election, do your best to respect the office, even if you cannot respect the office-holder. Live as good citizens, and live as good children of God.  And then remember that the Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.  I believe that God, in his providence, uses politicians and citizens to further and promote the day when the Kingdom will be fully revealed.  Live in that hope.  We are a people who will always be living through the next “most important election in our lifetime” because the only leader who matters won’t be elected. He is the King. Just you wait!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Define Neighbor

Say you lived next to Burt and Tillie.  One day Burt and Tillie’s house is struck by lightning and it burns to the ground.  You look out your window at the destruction and, as you look to what used to be the back porch you see them. Burt, Tillie and their cat.  They are wrapped in a blanket to keep warm from the cold penetrating their pajamas. You see that they, Burt and Tillie, not the cat, have slippers on.  They look stunned. They aren’t so much weeping as just in shock.

So you wander over to the neighbor’s house and you try to think of what to say.  What are you thinking? You have known Burt and Tillie for a long time. You know them as good, hard-working people who take care of their house and family. So, are you thinking, “I wonder why God punished them with a lightning bolt?”  Are you thinking, “I am sorry it happened to you, but better you than me?”  Are you thinking, “Do you think insurance will pay for this? What is an ‘act of God’ anyway?”  What you finally settle on to say is, “How can I help?”  They answer that they don’t know where to begin; they lost everything in the fire. But, they tell you, they are happy they got out of the fire alive.  You nod in agreement that escaping death by such a means is one good take-away.

You stand there a while longer, staring at the destruction, shivering with them.  You’ve asked how you can help but they haven’t come up with an answer. You realize you have a full day of activities planned. So, you say, “Well, I am really sorry for all of this. I can’t imagine what it must be like. But, like I say, if I can help, let me know.” And you walk away.

You get home, turn on the television and see the film footage of the fire. Turns out your neighbors have made the news.  Someone has started a relief fund for Burt and Tillie to help them get back on their feet.  Money is starting to come in, they say, from people all over the viewing area.  “Well,”, you think, “now they will be taken care of. That makes me feel better! They’re going to be fine.  I sure am glad I told them how sorry I was for their loss, and I even offered to help. That’s what a neighbor is for, right?”

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"And in the End..."

I wonder if Paul McCartney got it right.  “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  The couplet, which finished off the Abbey Road album, is often misquoted, or mis-remembered with the version remembered by John Lennon, like this: “and in the end, the love you get is equal to the love you give.” Is love something you take, or is it something you get? Is love something you make, or is it something you give?

In a few hours I will deliver a memorial sermon as I try to help family and friends understand what to make of the life of my friend, Albert.  I have spent these last days remembering my times with Al as we talked about politics and sports and theology and living and, most to the point, dying. Al has been dying for the better part of two years, suffering from a diagnosis which he and I knew was terminal.  Yet he fought. Hard.  He didn’t fear death. He didn’t welcome the thought of dying, but he didn’t fear death. He believed with the apostle Paul that to die is “gain.” What lies ahead is better than what we leave behind. But, he fought hard to hold onto life as long as he could because of his love for is dear wife of over 50 years.  On his 50th anniversary he knelt before her and asked his children rhetorically, “Isn’t she just as beautiful as the day I married her?”, which he followed with a spirited version of “I Love You Truly.”  He fought hard to be with his children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren for as long as he could because he loved them and he knew they didn’t want to lose their dear “Papa.”  The love you make; the love you give:  it comes back to you.  Al lived in the knowledge that God loved him and preserved him, so the only question for Al was this: “How then shall I live?” His answer was to serve rather than to be served; to serve grace and mercy and love.

But, now it is in the end.  Sort of.  Al and I talked a great deal about what heaven will be like. We agreed that we had no concrete idea. But, Al concluded after having lots of time to think about “next”, “God has been good to me in all my life, so why doubt that whatever is next, that it won’t be perfect.”  In the midst of his dying in pain that the medication could only mask, his faith sang, like Job, “I know that my redeemer lives…in my flesh I shall see God.” That vision, that song, sustained him during the long nights while he still saw only dimly.  It sustains me this morning. 

My friend wasn’t perfect. Who is?  Certainly not me.  And that is his point. In the end, the love we get, the love of Jesus, is greater than the love we give.  It is a love we take alright, like we get a gift we didn’t deserve, but, if we are humble enough, we take the gift anyway.  And in the End, the love we take is much more than equal to any love we can “make”, that is, offer to God or our neighbor.  The good news is that God doesn’t keep score.  In the end, that is what my friend, my mentor, taught me as he died. Don’t fret over the details of religion and politics and “whatever.” Focus on this: God is love. Jesus loves me. And in the end, that is better than any song any human, even Paul McCartney, could write.  It is a song that was written long before the Beatles.

Al, I am still singing it. Thank you, my dear brother.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

God's Cheerleaders

I was thinking about cheerleaders.  Leaders of cheers.  Which implies that there is something to cheer about, that there is someone to be cheered on, and that there is an audience who would cheer more effectively if only they had someone to lead them.  When I was in high school, now more than forty years ago (ouch!), cheerleaders were a well-recognized, small and somewhat exclusive group of girls. Some of them knew that and acted accordingly. Some of them just were really enthusiastic and genuinely liked to rally the team and lead the cheering crowd.  Cheerleading has undergone quite a transformation in the last forty years.  It is now a televised team sport.  Many girls who would have been cheerleaders are now the athletes for whom others cheer.  And now there are girls and boys who lead cheers, performing complex acrobatic feats.  So, I was thinking, what in the world would make cheerleaders controversial enough to make the national news.  And then, there it was, a story that comes straight from the home of Friday Night Football in Texas.  Texas, where God, high school football and cheering all go together as naturally as Sunday morning praise choruses anywhere else.

The cheerleaders of Kountze High School hand painted some banners that quoted the Bible, proclaiming, for example, “If God is for us who can be against us”.  Some of the banners are called “run-throughs”, because, oddly enough, the team runs through them as they enter the field to, you guessed it, loud cheers.  Setting aside the question of whether Paul ever envisioned that his Spirit-inspired words would be used to encourage high school football players to try harder, this seems to be an innocent event. Unless of course the Freedom From Religion Foundation gets wind of this activity, which it does. The FFRF folks then demand the banners which quote God must stop since this is government activity. The school, fearful of an expensive lawsuit, directs the cheerleaders to stop using the banners. The Kountze cheerleaders go to court and draw a judge up for re-election. And, before you can say “Go Team” the judge decides that the banners are the free speech of the cheerleaders  who made them, not the public school.

Which all reminds me of the time Jesus was entering town and the local cheerleaders were shouting cheers and waving branches. The authorities were offended and told Jesus to tell the crowd to stop cheering for him, to which Jesus replied, “I tell you, if they keep quiet the rocks will cry out”, invoking the prophecy of Habakkuk, who goes on to say that the “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters covers the seas.”  God’s Cheerleaders. Everywhere. Just try to stop them.