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?”