Saturday, December 28, 2013

"Your Best Day Ever?"

One of my stress-busters during the “holiday season” is to watch syrupy, formula Christmas movies with my wife, Jill.  She selects the best of Hallmark or Lifetime, all of which follow pretty much the same plot. Someone loves Christmas; someone else threatens to ruin Christmas; a “miracle” happens to transform the “Scrooge” character so that he or she saves Christmas. And I cry at the end every time. I cannot help myself. I see it coming but, anyway, bam, they get me.  Besides the redeeming value of taking my mind completely away from everything else for 90 minutes, every once in a while there is a memorable line, like this one spoken by the Christmastide fan to the Scrooge-character: “What was your best day ever? When you don’t know you can fail; you can smell it; taste it; you know you can hit it out of the park?”

Which got me thinking about what was my best day ever?  What is the meaning of “best” anyway? Does it mean “most memorable”? “Most life-altering?” “Most fun?” And then I started wondering, would my best day ever be a day about what happened to me, or what happened to someone else, someone I love?  Is “best” defined by the best slice of pizza I ever ate or the best hotel I ever stayed at or the most romantic night I ever had with my wife?  It is really hard to select one day out of a 59 years.  The easy answer, is of course, my wedding day, and the days my children and grandsons were born.  But, for purposes of this quiz, let’s exclude those days.  What were the elements of your best day ever? Why?

I find it easier to reflect in shorter blocks of time. Like today: I am going to spend the day with our son and grandsons watching the Badgers play basketball in Madison. Or Christmas Eve, listening to our daughter share a Christmas meditation and two daughters in the faith meditate in word and song about the incarnation. Or Thanksgiving Day, having spaghetti in the box meal with Jill in a hotel room followed by a winter walk in the downtown area looking for stores opening early.  All “best days.” 

As you reflect on the year gone by, was there a day or a few days which jump off the calendar at you? Who was there? Where were you? What were you doing?  And then say a prayer of thanksgiving for that experience, for the blessing of God upon that day, that time, those people.  On you.  And wonder, is my best day ever still to come?

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sunday Dec. 22 Worship Service at Hope Church

As we were unable to have worship at Hope due to weather concerns, I am posting the summary of the elements of today's worship service. May you join your heart and voice with mine as we worship our God and the Child who is King!

Advent IV

*Be silent as you prepare to receive the WORD...O Come Thou Dayspring, Come. Emmanuel...God is with us.

*The Word is brought forward to remind us, Christ has come, Christ is coming again.  All of the Advent Candles are lit, save for the Christ Candle.

*Our help is in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth. Grace mercy and peace to you from God our Father and his Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ!

*O Come, Desire of Nations, bind All peoples in one heart and mind. Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

*Good Christian Friends, Rejoice with heart and soul and voice; Give ye heed to what we say: News! News! Jesus Christ is born today!

*Psalm 80: Hear us, Shepherd of Israel...Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us Lord God Almighty; make your face shine on us that we may be saved.
*Matthew 1:18-25; The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!

*Thou Didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown when thou camest to earth for me. O come to my heart Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee!

*Father, we confess that we have failed to see the signs; that we have put our own spin on your signs of peace. Amen.
Friends, your sins are forgiven today, from the cradle to the cross the sign of peace is carried to your heart. Now, go and bring signs of peace to your neighbor.

*We worship again Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. Bring a friend who is seeking the calm promise of Christmas Eve as we celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ.

*We pray this day for safe travel; for healing; for a healing presence among the people of Hope; for the message of peace to heal strife-torn places. We pray that Christ, the Blessed Child, the Risen King, would be praised in the darkest places. Let your light shine upon us, Emmanuel! We pray with Christ, Our Father....

*Isaiah 7:10-16; The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

*Sermon: Signs of Peace
King Ahaz was troubled as his enemies came to de-throne him and destroy Judah. He fancied he should submit to the invading enemy. But, Isaiah offered a solution: ask God for a sign that he will bring peace! Ask for any sign, from the heights of heaven to the depths of hell. But Ahaz was too proud, too fearful, to seek a sign from God. He, the king, would provide the solution.  So, God sends a sign anyway, "the virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel (God with us).  God was with the remnant of Judah, but Ahaz and his nation were defeated.

What troubles stare you in the face today? Where are you looking for solutions? Where do you seek peace? God is sending you a sign this day. Will you see it? Will you seek to understand the beauty of this simple and amazing sign: God sent his son to take on your flesh and to live in your heart. God is with you. Do you see the sign?  God will conquer your enemies if you will receive the sign of peace.

A sign does not create faith though. God still expects you to step forward in faith. God expects you to trust him in your journey. Where do you need to trust God's direction by faith today?  Then, after you step forward in faith, God will send you a sign to confirm that your faith was well-placed.

Joseph doubted whether to stay with Mary, the mother of the miraculously conceived child. But, he was reminded, this pregnancy is the will and act of God. So, he married the young girl, the virgin mother.  And so, the sign of peace given to Ahaz was lifted up again: God is with us. Trust God to make a way.

As it was with Joseph, so it is with us: do we hear the angel speak; do we trust the Spirit's action? If so, then God will send a sign to confirm God, this is of God.

Jesus is with us. Now, and in the hour of our death, and then in the hour of our new birth.  Look for the signs of peace that confirm Jesus is here: 5000 meals offered in First Hope Meals. 5000 hours of companionship and prayer for our Kids Hope kids.  Mary Justus starts a little wave of peace-giving, one person at a time.

There are signs of peace all around us. Will we be blind, like Ahaz, and trust our worst enemy? Or will we be faithful, like Joseph, trusting that God knows what he is doing in your life, and that whatever it is, and wherever it takes you, God is with us.  Look for the sign of peace in your life this week. God is with you! Amen.

*I heard the bells on Christmas Day: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men."

*The Lord Bless you and Keep you; Accept God's Love; Be confident in your faith and hope; and Carry the Light of the Cross. And on this final Sunday of Advent, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with....

*Let There Be Peace on Earth


Saturday, December 21, 2013

"Imagine This!" Rated PG-13

Mrs. Claus was in top form.  Her audience, consisting of daycare kids ages 2-5, were in awe that Mrs. Claus had taken time to visit them. And, what with Christmas Day being so close, of course Santa was not expected to be there in person.  Mrs. Claus acknowledged the Elf on the Shelf, recalling for the children the work he had done so well at the North Pole before being dispatched to be Santa’s eyes and ears in the daycare center. The curious children asked the questions about the reindeer and flying around the world and a dozen other topics which gave evidence to their being true believers.  All except for one little girl who stood quietly in the back of the room.  She eyed Mrs. Claus with great suspicion, for she had the appearance and voice which looked just too much familiar, bearing an eerie resemblance to the lady from the front office who sometimes comes to talk to the adults running their daycare.  And anyway, perhaps the little girl wondered, how exactly did Mrs. Claus get here if the reindeer are at the North Pole?  Well, the time came for Mrs. Claus to head back to supervise the final preparations for Santa’s big day, so she bade farewell to the children.  All except the doubting little girl who now slowly approached Mrs. Claus and as she got close she peered into her eyes, just double-checking if this was the front office lady or not.  And then she reached up with her tiny arms and put them around Mrs. Claus’ neck and hugged her tight saying, “Thank you so much for coming. I am so glad you are real.”

Now, here’s why this is rated PG-13: Mrs. Claus is not real.  One day reality meets our imagination, and one day, sometimes with a boom and sometimes like a slow dawn, we learn it isn’t so.  But, we, or least I, never want to be the one who tells a true believer that it isn’t so.  Imagination is, after all, the beginning of faith.  You see, children of the Most High God are introduced to the concept of a God they cannot see; and Christian children are introduced to the idea of the baby Jesus, at about the same time they first meet the red-suited couple and their little helpers.  They imagine it all. And they have no reason not to believe any of it because Momma or Grandpa says it’s so, and so it is.  But then, one day, we all learn the Claus’s are not real.  And then something amazing happens: the God, the Jesus, we imagined becomes more real.  Born inside of us is a faith which knows that God, that the Baby and his young mother Mary and her trusting husband Joseph are as real as Papa and Grandma told us.  Oh, sometimes we wonder where God is, and maybe if he is.  But the gift of the Spirit is a sign just when we need it that the Gift in the straw is real.  We may approach the stable doubting,  needing to look someone right in the eye, just double-checking. But then each Christmas we finally are able to say, “Thank you so much for coming. I am so glad you are real.”

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Let It Rain (or Snow)

I am not any longer going to pray that the rain (or snow) stays away.  Not that God doesn’t listen to prayers about when I would like for it to rain, because God listens to every prayer.  It’s just that God knows more about the weather needs of the world than I do.  This is a big step for me, and it is much easier to write this in the middle of December than it will be to live it out in the middle of June when I have a big golf match planned and the forecast is for rain.  My practice has been, for years, to pray for sunshine during the day and rain at night because that is most convenient to my lifestyle.  But, from now on, God, let it rain. (And for those of you reading this in winter climates, you can add, “Let it snow.”)  It’s all a matter of perspective.  Is rain (or snow) good or bad, a blessing or a curse?  To the snow shoveling crowd, snow is no fun. To the snow-shoeing crowd it is the necessary ingredient to a great day outdoors.   To the golfer who went south for golf trip, rain is a real downer, but for the farmer there waiting for the drought to end, rain is answered prayer.  So, God, send your blessing, send your healing rain (or snow). This is my new prayer.

What made me think about all of this was watching Nelson Mandela’s memorial service.  Thousands gathered to hear world leaders honor the memory of one of the all-time greatest heroes of transforming reconciliation, and it was raining.  It was pouring down rain.  And the harder it rained, the louder the crowd cheered. Why? Well, didn’t you know that when it rains at someone’s funeral it is a sure sign that this person’s life was blessed by God to be a blessing? The thing about moisture from the sky is that it doesn’t discriminate.  And that is why it was so fitting that Nelson Mandela’s memorial service was drenched in rain.  Here was a man who lived a life imagining ways to bring healing to broken relationships.  And the great thing about doing social healing work is that the blessing is given to all who are touched by it, the friend and the foe, the good and the evil.  When Jesus says that the Father sends the rain on the righteous and the unrighteous, his simple point is, love your friends and your enemies. (Matthew 5:43-47) God sends the rain (or snow) and the blessing it is abounds to all.  God sent his servant Nelson to bless one nation, and the world benefitted.

So today, why don’t you celebrate the rain (or snow) by raining down love and compassion?  Who do you know could use a little healing? Go. Call. Be the blessing rain.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Why The Night Was Silent

When in awe
be silent
be still
know God
is  God

My dear friends…are you waiting for God? Maybe God is waiting for you…to be silent; to listen in the silence; to know God. This is to know awe-filled peace.  This is Advent.

“The way this world works, people are very apt to use the words they speak not so much as a way of revealing but, rather, as a way of concealing who they really are and what they really think, and that is why more than a few moments of silence with people we do not know well are apt to make us so tense and uneasy…. we start babbling about anything just to keep the silence at bay. But if we can bear to let it be, silence, of course, can be communion at a very deep level indeed…”

- Originally published in The Hungering Dark, Frederick Buechner

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Silence, PLEASE!

Silent places are difficult to find.  I relish the moment when it is the first day of a vacation trip and I have found me seat on the airplane, the day’s sports section in hand, as I sit back and I hear nothing but the muted sound of the jet’s engine. Now they say that may change as they allow people to speak on mobile phones while in the air.  I cannot imagine the conversations and loud, shrill voices I will need to endure.  Profit-making for some business has persuaded the government that silence is not a safety feature needed at 30,000 feet.  Wait until the first physical attack happens caused by the woman trying to quiet her baby while the drunk man behind bellows to the ‘love of his life.” Maybe I will need to take up hunting. I am not a hunter, not because I oppose it, but because there are other things I prefer to fill the “hunting hours” of my life.  But many hunters I know tell me that as they take up their places today in their favorite trees the true success of the hunt has already happened…they have found silence.  The leaves fall. The critters crunch the underbrush. Peace is found in the quiet of the woods.  Now, what happens in the deer hunting cabin may be less quiet, but that is another story.

Simon and Garfunkel wondered about these Sounds of Silence, when the air is filled with “people talking without speaking/people hearing without listening.”  Prophetic words, don’t you think? Do we avoid silence because we need to make sound to prove our worth, to give life meaning? Or, do we fear silence, because of what we might hear in those sounds of silence. For people who pray, the constant challenge is not telling God what we want or need to say, but rather listening in the silence for God’s reply.  We fear the answer, perhaps.  We cannot fathom the silence of a God who speaks only when the time is right and when we can hear. So, we keep on talking, filling the silence with sound.  Thus my challenge to you: Find a silent place, and quietly mediate there for five minutes on this verse from Lynn Unger’s poem, Boundaries.

Listen. Every molecule is humming
its particular pitch.
Of course you are a symphony.
Whose tune do you think
the planets are singing
as they dance?

Saturday, November 16, 2013

He Didn't Get to Grow Weary

The men wore silk top hats, the women their best dresses.  The prior evening’s snowstorm threatened to undo the entire event, but the winds of change were more powerful than the storm.  So, he ascended the podium, hat off now, looking so young, so dapper in his black jacket, silver vest,  with a silver tie adorning his crisp white shirt.

The speech early on had a captivating illustration designed to inspire a new generation about the passing of the torch.  This early word picture captured the ears of the listening crowd, even the world. Through another twenty-two paragraphs he tried to inspire.  The speaker, now almost preacher, began paragraph twenty-five with a fist gently pounding the podium. And then, as he got to the second half of the sentence he raised his right index finger, slightly bent, and with his distinct accent he spoke his most famous words. The crowd behind the lectern didn’t seem to hear or notice the moment, but for one man. He was a large man with big ears who possessed a keen sense  of greatness, and as the words echoed over the open air this astute listener raised his head and looked surprised, no-he looked aware,  that he had just heard a man declaim generation-changing sound:

 “…ask not what your country can do for you-ask what you can do for your country.”

A much too short time later he would speak no more.  Another man famously wrote something like “Do not grow weary in doing good.”  The generation which as children first heard the “ask not” words is getting ready to retire.  I wonder if we, if I, have grown weary in doing good. I wonder if we have become a people who have forgotten what it is we are to “ask not” and if, instead, we have become a generation which insists that our country now “do for me”.  A sign of “growing weary in doing good” is that the questions which we ask change;  the range of people we seek to care for, to love, grows more and more narrow until our sole concern, as with infants, is “me.”

I wonder what question John F. Kennedy would inspire us to ask today.  I wonder, had he been given the chance, if he would have grown weary of doing good.  Have you?

Saturday, November 9, 2013

How Big is Heaven?

Eleven billion “Earths”?  The scientists who spend their work weeks looking for life-sustaining planets are telling the rest of us that there could be 11 billion planets in the Milky Way which have the right elements to sustain life. Water is necessary for life to exist. Now, the author of Genesis did not have an Ivy League education, but when that author wrote that in the beginning the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters it seems you could believe it was (a) a lucky guess; or (b) the first recorded insight into what the really brainy guys and gals have now confirmed: life on a planet needs water.  But, the Bible isn’t a science handbook, and that isn’t the point of Genesis 1. Still, isn’t it is fascinating how science just keeps drawing closer to finding God? But, this isn’t my point for today.

My point for today is that for water to exist on a planet it needs to be made of the right material (rock; iron) and it needs to be in a habitable zone. That is, it must not be too far from nor too close to a sun. If it is in the “just right” zone, then water can puddle up. Now, the scientists have made an educated guess that they are 11 billion “suns” which have a related planet just like our Sun and Earth.  You can see these with your naked eye on a clear night. Just think, when you see that star twinkling in the sky at night, that could be your future home!

When I don’t have enough other things to think about I wonder about this: with all the people that have lived in time, when Jesus Christ returns and makes the Earth new where will all of the people live? So I think about  the size of the oceans and deserts which could be made habitable.  But wouldn’t we all have to live in big skyscrapers?  So news of this discovery of a potential 11 billion Earths became a “light bulb” moment for me.  Who says that God needs to limit the new Earth to one habitable planet. Why couldn’t the new “Earth” be plural? And since we are dealing with eternity, the fact that my kids live on a planet 12 light years away won’t bother me because I have all the time in the world (literally) to get there.  Which all goes to say, don’t worry about it, right? God will make a way.  This is not the only life we will know. That is the point.

How big is heaven? Big enough. For you. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

"When the Saints Come Marching In"

Soon to be a Walt Disney movie: Dia de los Muertos.  The folks at Disney tried to trademark the phrase, which means “Day of the Dead”, but they ended their efforts after public outrage, including that of one clever artist who drew a cartoon of a “fanged ‘Muerto (Mickey) Mouse.’” (WSJ 11/1/13)  Apparently the idea of a dead Mickey drove home the point that trying to claim exclusive use of what is becoming an international celebration was not a good idea.  You see, on this Saturday 35,000 people are expected to attend what may be the world’s largest gathering designed to honor the dead at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.  People are going to party in celebration of the dead spirits which some believe come back to earth on November 1 and 2.  Those who believe in this event build altars to their departed loved ones, waiting for their spirits to come to the party. The participants dress up in special masks and clothing. They dress out the trunks of the departed cars with memorabilia and the favorite drinks and food which they enjoyed in life.  Nestle, the chocolate company, is attempting to break the Guinness World Record for the largest Day of the Dead altar in the U.S. using female skeletons (“Catrinas”) enjoying their Mexican- style products.

Now, if this all sounds an awful lot like Halloween, it is not the same celebration.  Halloween was designed to keep the spirits away on October 31, so  people would dress up in disguises so as to avoid detection by the roaming spirits who might be looking for them.  Churches held special “All Hallow’s Eve” services to ward away the spirits until the dawn of All Hallows (Saints) Day on Nov. 1, which was the celebration of the saints in heaven, which was a prelude to All Souls Day on Nov. 2, which was a celebration of souls who had not yet quite made it to heaven but were on the way.  These are all practices which go back to at least the 500’s.  The more things change…you know the rest.

Human beings sure do spend a lot of time thinking about what happens to people after they die.  Is there life after death and if so, what does it look like?  I have no idea what the folks at Pixar Animation Studios are dreaming up for a movie about trying to attract roaming spirits on Dia de los Muertos, but I have a funny feeling it will create yet another challenge for parents who are trying to teach the truth to their children: when the saints do come marching in, it will not be as spirits. The saints, and that’s all who believe, will have perfect flesh and bones bodies designed to live forever, and they are arriving on the day of the living.  Now, that would be a movie worth watching.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Neighbors, Enemies and Reformation

Should the church love everyone?  Should church members love their gay and lesbian neighbors? Is the question of whether people of the same sex should be married be one which creates a “culture war”? Should the church be a combatant in “culture wars”? What is the Message of the ‘church’ anyway?

What should the church encourage its members to be at war over? Who is the enemy of the church? More  precisely, who is God’s enemy? Who gets to define what God wants the world to be like? Where do we get a definition of “neighbor” for today’s world?  What got me thinking about all of this was an article I read about Russell Moore, “the principal public voice for the Southern Baptist Convention”, which claims about 16 million members making it the country’s biggest evangelical group. (WSJ, 10/22/13) What I say isn’t going to change “society”. What my denomination, which has less than 200,000 members, says isn’t going to make much of a difference to the world. But, when the voice of 16 million people starts talking, that voice can move the needle of public opinion. Mr. Moore told his 45,000 churches that their gay and lesbian neighbors “aren’t part of a public conspiracy.” He said that same-sex marriage “shouldn’t be seen as a ‘culture war’ political issue.”  Is this the language of 21st century reformation or accommodation? Who is the enemy the church is engaged with in battle? Is the “war” over who’s in and who’s out, or is it against “principalities” beyond our sight?

I am writing this on the last weekend before October 31, which is a major date you will likely celebrate, right? No, not the celebration of chocolate and costumes (both of which I enjoy), but the celebration of Reformation Day. Of course, only a tiny fraction of people will wake up on October 31 and say with joy, “It’s Reformation Day!”  To all except the most devout Lutheran and Reformed folks it probably has no meaning, and some would argue we should just abandon its remembrance because it recalls a time of deep division (dare we say “religious war”?) rather than the unity for which Christ deeply prayed.  To which I reply, if the church is called to unity, somebody, no-“most-bodies”, didn’t seem to get the message.  What happened?  The “church”, by engaging in “culture wars” for the last 40 years, has mangled the Message of love, mercy, grace, forgiveness, hospitality.  Russell Moore is no Martin Luther, nor is he trying to be. But, on Thursday, as you eat your candy bar, wonder what our Message is today. Who is the enemy we are called to defeat and who are the people we are called to love as neighbors?  If we understood that distinction, would the church look different?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Selling Bears

Gummi Bears, anyone? That’s the question which drove Hans Riegel’s life. Mr. Riegel took over the family business in the 1950’s and used the post-WW II boom in Germany to expand upon his father’s kitchen creation, a brown bear-shaped chewy candy.  Mr. Riegel recently died, and his death prompted a newspaper remembrance in which he was quoted as saying: “I love children; they are my customers. I have to be informed about what they want to nibble, what they think, the language they speak.” (WSJ, 10/16/23) Mr. Riegel turned what he learned from children into a multi-billion dollar company that has 6000 people involved in making 100,000 Gummi Bears a day in 15 locations around the world. His success was built on understanding what children (who would become adults) like to eat for a treat.  Yet, of course, what he also needed to do was get the parents to make the purchase for their children. His wisdom, it seems, was in creating a product which met a child’s desire and satisfied the parents that Gummi Bears were a good choice for the treat portion of their children’s diet. But it all begins with the children: understanding what they nibble, think and speak.

Perhaps you have heard this comment by modern parents of young children: “I am going to let my children decide about their religion when they grow up.”  I was recently speaking with a prospective parent who told me that her problem with that philosophy was that it reflected a viewpoint which says “whether and what a child should believe about God is less important than a decision about what a child should eat.” Brilliant.  Should parents not be as concerned about whether their children will grow up with an affection for “bread and wine” as they do with a love for Gummi Bears? Certainly we need to discover what children spiritually “nibble, think and speak.”  But, first we need to reach the children, and that means persuading today’s parents that their children really do (or should) want to “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” We need to persuade parents that the gift of God which comes wrapped in children’s bodies carries with it a duty to incorporate their children into God’s community from their infancy.

Paul admonished Timothy to recall the lessons of Scripture learned from infancy (2 Timothy 3:14).  Learning the truth of God’s love is a lesson intended for children, right? Then,
why is it so much easier to sell Gummi Bears than it is to give away Bread and Wine?

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Stop Reading. Start Doing.

What? You are reading this?  Perhaps you missed the title line, Stop Reading. Start Doing!”  Do, please stop.

Oh my.  You are still reading? There is so much more you could be doing with this 5 minutes of your life? Like what, you ask? Mitzvah, for one. Mitzvah is a word which describes a Jewish concept of kindness. Mitzvah should be a “balanced and considered” act to be effective. (Wikipedia, “Random Acts of Kindness”) So, you could sit down and think about it; plan it out; don’t go to extremes. But doing something kind makes the world a better place, and that is, after all, one of the goals you have, right? To leave the world a better place because you were here?

Bob Votruba is taking this to an extreme, but I guess in a good way. He got rid of his house and his business,  got a bus, and took off with his dog to create a million acts of kindness. You can go to his website:

I am not suggesting that you sell your possessions. I am making one simple suggestion that you do one random act of kindness today. I am not against balanced and considered kindness. I am all in favor of people investing their lives in doing good. But, let’s face, you are not going to sell your possessions to ride the country on a bus, right? So how about this:
-Open your address book on your computer or phone
-Choose a name at random, really at random (without thinking about who or why)
-visit that person, or telephone that person, or email or Facebook that person, and say, “I was thinking about you. How are you? No, really, how are you?” Then listen.

Do something to make someone’s life more special today. Don’t delay, or you won’t do it. Right now…change the world! Please, stop reading. Start doing.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Creating Joy in the Cemetery

Keith was alone. Sitting in the chapel, mourning the loss of his wife, he was alone and lonely.  His prized possession, a sparkling, powerful 1958 Chevy Bel Air, with only 50,000 miles on it, sat outside. But Keith had lost his rider with whom he could share the joy of another time. He looked out the windows of the beautiful chapel, and, seeing two couples seated by the pond in the middle of the cemetery feeding the ducks, envy was added to Keith’s loneliness.  “Look at those lucky fellas”, Keith thought.

Seated there, feeding the ducks by the pond, Ted and Doris, and Doris’ brother, Reggie and his wife Jan, were well aware of the irony of their location. Ted, in pain from the spreading effects of mesothelioma, had gone with Doris to be with Reggie, suffering in even deeper pain from fast-advancing bone cancer.  Ted and Reggie compared notes, about cancer and pain and living and dying, talking with an understanding only those who are living with their diagnoses can.  There in the cemetery, with the beauty of creation around them, surrounded by bodies awaiting the promised resurrection, they were waiting.

And then they heard the ’58 Chevy. Keith approached to find out what was happening here by the pond. When Keith heard the stories of Ted and Reggie his envy was gone. And there, surrounded by these four new fast friends, so was his loneliness gone.  They started swapping stories of 1958 and big cars.  Keith: “One woman in her 80’s came up to me and asked if she could sit in the back seat. I said, ‘sit in the front.’ ‘No, I prefer the backseat’, she said. So she sat in there, alone, eyes closed for a long time. I worried something was wrong, when she finally emerged with a smile. ‘Everything all right?’ I asked. ‘Oh yes’, she replied, ‘just reminiscing.’” And they laughed. Hard. So, off they went, five new friends, for a ride around town. And an hour passed by with nothing to think about but the humming engine and backseats and friends and life.

Ted, telling me this story, said, “Bill, you know I believe in my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I believe that had to be a Holy Spirit moment.” “Why?”, I asked. “Well, because for one hour this man, who I never knew, showed up and brought us all… (pause, finding the words, then gesturing with arms wide and palms up)… joy!” Silent nods. Big smiles.

Where two or three are willing to gather, to listen, to swap stories; out of the mist of death, community creates life, and with it, joy. The ministry of “being present.”

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Money and Love

Pop quiz:  you are a wealthy family visiting a Disney theme park which allows families with disabled children to move to the front of long lines at the rides.  Do you (a) rent a mobility device and tell you child to ride it pretending to be disabled; (b) hire a disabled tour guide to be a part of your “family” so you appear to have a qualified family member; (c) write a note to Disney thanking them for showing your kids the true meaning of hospitality?  You are probably not surprised to learn that many people chose (a) or(b). How do people think of these schemes? Do they have any sense that the lesson they are teaching their children, “you can buy your place in line”, is the wrong one?

I read about this story in a column by Bob Greene (WSJ, Sept. 26).  Mr. Greene makes these and other points in reporting that Disney was changing its policies on giving access to families of children with disabilities because wealthy families had devised more scams than Disney could prevent.  At the same time I read this story I was working my way through the advice Paul gave his young protégé, Timothy, about how to pastor wealthy people in his congregation.  One of the commands to be conveyed was that “those who are rich in this present world (are) not be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain… .”  So I thought maybe posting a sign with these words at the front of the ride lines would be a good idea. Of course, that would lead to a lawsuit from those who love wisdom but hate its source, namely God.   But, I digress.

So, later that day I am writing to some friends in our church asking for a meeting to figure out how to keep our low-income free meal program going given that our primary funding source was cutting our future support in half.  This ministry is expanding to meet a growing need at just the time that our funding is disappearing. Now what?  One of the people on the ministry team replied, “we will make up the shortfall.” This was an offering of thousands of dollars.  It was generous beyond my hopes.  And I thought of the rest of Paul’s instruction: “Command (those who are rich) to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age.” And I thanked God for this friend who gets it: wealth is a blessing from God to be used to bless others.

Money isn’t the issue. Love is the issue.  How you use your money shows who you really love.  And for the wealthy and truly wise, there will be the blessings of a place in line.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A Brother's Love

Ryan looks and sounds like most eight year old boys.  His sister, Amber, does not look or sound like most eight year old girls.  Ryan and Amber are twins.  When their mother asked them to write their Christmas letters to Santa she discovered a love story that became a national sensation in the campaign against school-yard bullying.  You perhaps know the story. Ryan writes to Santa, telling Santa that he no longer wants his remote control car and helicopter. Instead, he would like Santa to end the  bullying that his sister suffered each day, mostly on the bus ride to school.  The line of the letter which caught my eye was this one:

                      I prayed that they will stop but god is bisy and needs your help.”

Of course, God is not busy, not in the sense that we know “busy.” God isn’t bound by space or time and thus, by definition, God never has “too much to do” so that he cannot care for the “Ambers” of the world.  And (I trust you are not letting your small children read this) there is no Santa Claus to do God’s work. There is Ryan, though.

The point is that Ryan ended up doing God’s work. Ryan made a sacrifice out of sheer love for his sister.  That is what a brother’s pure love looks like: “I am not asking for my car or helicopter because it would be a better gift for me to see my sister left alone.”  This is how God chooses to be alive in this world, living in and through Ryan, and you.

Diana Butler Bass, in “Christianity After Religion” quotes poet Wendell Berry’s “The Vision”, a poem about how the world will be transformed.  It ends with the line: “This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its possibility.”  In thinking about the life of the spiritually-focused church, Bass concludes that “(t)he hard work is the possibility”. She sums up the role of the church today like this: “the goal is to perform the reign of God in and for the life of the world.” (p. 239)  We are the performers of God’s reign.

This is the lesson of Ryan’s message of sacrificial love for Amber: he was performing the reign of God. Amber didn’t need Santa. She had Ryan.  Live the possibility of love.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Casting and Chasing Shadows

As the autumnal equinox draws near, if you take your sunrise walk or run on a road which runs due west you have a sense of running with the sun and toward a shadow, a very long shadow.  But you can never catch that shadow, no matter how fast you run.  The shadow is longer and always ahead of you.  The sun creates a path and a goal.

Which is what I saw one morning this week soon after I had learned that my good friend’s father had just died. John Steven Gabrielse was the last of the founding members of a what has grown into an international contracting firm.  John and his co-founders started out literally digging ditches and grew from that humble beginning a company that has employed hundreds and which one of John’s sons and a grandson continue to grow with their partners.  John cast a long shadow. He was a good worker, but more than that, he was a man of a steady and strong faith.  Both his work and his faith cast these shadows which all those who followed after him can follow and never catch.

What gave John the ability to cast that shadow, he knew, was that he was always running with the Son.  There were of course the usual hard times that come with running any business, and raising any family.  No life is without some darkness. Yet, on this earth, the darkness is always dispelled by the light of the faith which fuels our journey. For John and his co-founders, the company they built moves steadily forward, following the shadow John’s life and faith cast.  John’s journey west is over. His life of faith is now rewarded with the white robe and crown awarded to those who cast long shadows for the Son on this earth. But what for those who remain?

It falls to each of us to faithfully follow the example of the Forerunner.  Think about someone who cast a long shadow that you still follow.  But more than that, commit your life to running with the Son at your back. Like John,  cast a long shadow that those whom you love can chase all the way home.  This is a life worth remembering.

And then one day we will all be together, walking in under the “welcome home banner”, where there is no more sun, for God will be our only light.  And the shadows will be no more, for we will dwell in perfect light. Forgiven, redeemed points of light, surrounding the Son.  The chase will be over. Life begins… 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

A Weekend in Bed?

I suppose that there was a time in my life when the prospect of a weekend in bed would have sounded like a perfect way to prepare for the following week.  There must be many people for whom that is still a dream. I write this because the advertisers for a national hotel chain have taken to reaching out the public with a bed called “The Heavenly Bed.”  They are so confident of their approach to this marketing campaign that they have a registered trademark on the word “Heavenly”.   The copyrighted slogan they use is “A Weekend in the Heavenly Bed Makes it Easier to Come Back to Earth. Make Monday Better. Book a Westin Hotel.” 

It is marketing campaigns like this that make me feel the country is not nearly as opposed to God as some surveys suggest.  Would you spend millions of dollars developing a campaign around a bed called “Heavenly” if people didn’t believe in Heaven? If the week was “Hell”, then make the weekend “Heaven.”  That only makes sense if people know what those words mean and the concepts to which they refer.  So, the national surveys must show that while church is not popular, God still is. Thank God.

But who is left that can spend a weekend in bed, even if it is a slice of Heaven? Among people like me who try to figure out how to get people to think about God for one hour out of forty-eight, this is  a big question.  The church’s “customers”, like the hotel’s customers, are often busier on weekends than on weekdays.  Between sporting activities, family trips, home repair projects, charity runs/walks, Monday is often the relief that comes from the weekend, rather than the weekend serving as the “rest” for the week.

What a weekend in bed cannot offer, even for those who take advantage of this slice of heaven offer from Westin, is rest for the “spirit.”  Maybe that is the campaign someone needs to develop for the “spiritual but not religious.”  What you really need to make Monday better is the confidence that comes from knowing there is a purpose to your work week other than chasing the dollar. What you really need to know is that there is a meaning to life that you find only in serving God and Neighbor. What you really, truly need to hear on the weekend is that Someone loves you just as you are.  There is a Heavenly rest for you, for today and Monday. But you won’t find it in bed.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Welcome to Kindergarten!

I tried to reassure my grandson that going to Kindergarten was no big deal.  One of my assignments during my vacation was to accompany my youngest grandson, Joshua, and his father to orientation day at his new school.  The Kindergarteners were to wear a yellow shirt to school that day, and I offered to wear my yellow golf shirt to help Joshua feel like he had a friend as he entered the room.  I told him he could introduce me to his teacher as his twin brother, Billy.  This strategy did not seem to console Joshua. In fact, the entire idea of having Grandpa Bill going to Kindergarten was adding to the pressure of the day.  But, off we went, Joshua in his yellow shirt, a bag full of supplies in Daddy’s one hand, and Daddy’s other hand firmly grasping Joshua’s tiny twitching fingers.

Kindergarten.  “Child’s garden.” When the term was first coined in 1870 by a German educator the goal was to provide a place where children would be nourished, like plants in a garden. (Source: Wikkipedia, “Kindergarten”)  Joshua’s teacher turned out to be this pleasant young woman with a big smile and a soft voice. If you were casting a movie part for a Kindergarten teacher, this woman would be a perfect fit. I was very happy that this was one of the teachers providing nourishment to our little plant in his new little garden.  Orientation began by “signing in” on an electronic whiteboard, where your name changed color on the board when you pressed it.  I didn’t see a “No. 2” yellow pencil anywhere.  Maybe it was a good thing Joshua hadn’t allowed me to be his twin brother after all.  I am not sure I would have passed orientation.  Another orientation task was to identify the place in the garden where one could “play house.” I spied this wooden house, opened up so you could move furniture around the rooms.  Of course, this was the wrong answer, as the place one “plays house” was an entire corner of the room set up as a play kitchen.  This was not his grandfather’s kindergarten.

I spent the rest of that day thinking about the millions of children heading off to the first day of school. And I thought about the thousands of teachers preparing classrooms and learning names and faces and getting ready to prepare kindergartners to become presidents and postal workers and pediatricians.  Can there be a greater occupational joy than helping brand new plants flourish in a strange new garden?  Can there be a greater responsibility than being the one of whom tiny mouths will utter, “teacher says…”? The nation’s future is about to, for the first and only time,  walk into a “child’s garden”. Thankfully, there are teachers and a Teacher we can trust to nourish them.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

"Love Persists"

It was a quiet summer supper with my wife, watching this cartoon movie, “Brave.”  A really long time ago there was an ancient and now lost kingdom in which there lived a king, a queen and their strong-willed daughter, who was the princess. The princess gets upset that her mother doesn’t really understand her so she wishes (to a witch) that her mom would change. The problem was that the princess forgot to tell the witch what exactly she wanted her mother to change into, so what she, the mother, changed into was a bear.  The king, husband to the queen and father to the princess, hunted the bear, not understanding of course that this was his wife, the queen.  But, just in the nick of time, the princess discovered that she loved her mom the way she was, so she stitched up the tear she had cut with a sword in the fabric of their family quilt.  As the sun was rising, the princess wraps the bear, her mom, in the restored quilt, thus saving the queen from living her life as a furry bear. The bear is transformed into the mom, now wrapped in nothing but the family quilt, and the princess and her mom and the king share their restored love. The end.

Which left me plenty of time to read Garrison Keillor’s quirky novel, “Pilgrims, A Wobegon Romance.”  Margie loves Carl, her husband of many years, but Carl has lost interest, or so it seems, in Margie.  Margie heads off to Rome on a pilgrimage taken with her neighbors and husband, hoping there to re-kindle Carl’s attraction to her. Margie finds love in all the wrong places.  Until Carl rediscovers Margie.  But is it too late for Carl and Margie?  There the pilgrims are, standing amid the ruins of the Forum in Rome, and one of the pilgrims bemoans the fact, that we all, no matter how glorious our past, will one day just be ashes.  “…(T)he enormity of it stunned him. All your life you strive to accomplish something. Aim for the stars. And for what? For nothing.” But maybe the stars aren’t the thing to aim for, Pilgrim.  Margie and Carl return to the ice-covered streets of Lake Wobegon and there Margie finds what she has been looking for. Not in some wild affair; not in the ruins of ancient civilization, but there, on the icy streets surrounding her plain house which was home, she and Carl found that, really, they did love each other just the way they are. The end.

Which left me thinking about how sometimes we want someone to change and that this will bring us joy and happiness and peace.  But we should be careful what we wish for, because we might get a bear instead of a mom, and then won’t we be sad.  And sometimes we think that if we just could go to some new place, there we will find the love we thought we lost.  But, if we are blessed, we get back home in one piece and find love never left, we were just looking in all the wrong places. The beginning.

Ruined civilizations and broken dreams come and go.  Love persists. That ancient story that never gets too old to tell. Or to experience. And that, Pilgrim, is God’s Story.  Now, go give someone a hug.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

"When a Heart is Healed" Part 2

One of the repercussions of being confined to a hospital room after you have had suffered a heart attack is that you get to listen to a parade of professionals remind you of how you go into this pickle.  The circumstances and the setting for the delivery of such messages are ideal because, let’s face it, your body forces you mind to pay attention after someone has been poking a wire around your heart.

The most inspiring and difficult challenge for me came from Wendy Dion.  Wendy’s “sermon” delivered to me, a captive audience dressed for the occasion in my hospital gown, was the importance of finding balance in my life.  She summed it up with a phrase something like this: “If you don’t make time to be well you have to take time to be sick.” Boom!  A “brick between the eyes” message.  She knew that I really wanted out of that hospital room so I could get back to my life.  Her message to me was pretty clear: make time in your life to be well or you will be forced to take a lot of time dealing with being sick. And I hate taking time to be sick.  The next part resonated with me really well: “you need to engage in some spiritual practices each week if your body and mind are going to be in balance.”  I can do that. In fact, people pay me to do it!

But then came the right hook out of nowhere:  “You can’t work seven days a week and say your life is in balance.” Pow! Kaboom! A direct blow to the solar plexus.  And she had corollaries to that bit of wisdom: “You can’t watch bad news seven days a week and be in balance. You need to find outlets for service to others that refocuses your attention.”  Wendy of course was echoing ancient wisdom here, but it is as relevant, and maybe more so, today than it was when Moses and Jesus walked the earth.  We need Sabbath-times in our lives.  And Sabbath isn’t doing “nothing”: it if refocused time, time focused not our ourselves or on earning money or pleasing people; but time focused loving God and loving our neighbor. So, I shutting off my laptop and going for a walk.  Why don’t you join me?

Will you join me this week in trying to find that elusive balance in life?  Physical exercise. Spiritual exercise. “Me” time.  “Others” time. Rest.  Is your plate filled with a healthy portion of each serving?  Because when we live our lives out of balance, eventually we will fall down and hurt ourselves. Thanks for the sermon, Wendy!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

When a Heart is Healed, Part 1

So, I had a heart attack this week. A mild one, praise Jesus.  And now I am home. My being here was not a sure thing 48 hours earlier. I am trying to process this event; this “major life event”.  On the one hand, my own cardiologist, Robert Huxley, has done thousands of these procedures.  What’s one more? No big deal. On the other hand, he put a stent in my right coronary artery. Mine.  Big deal, right? He showed me the pictures of my heart and his handiwork. I told him, “Look, doc, I know this is science, but to us mere mortals, this is a miracle.” He shrugged it off as another day at the office. My mind and my heart beg to differ, doc; you did some really amazing and important work. In one day I learned how many people it takes to heal a heart: doctors, nurses, pharmacists, nurse aides, nutritionists, rehab specialists, dieticians, administrators, clerks, people to deliver food and clean rooms.   The next time I pray with someone facing a medical procedure I will have a much more informed prayer than “help the doctors and nurses.”  It takes a dedicated, coordinated, well-trained crew of people who love what they do to heal a heart. And it sure helps if they are nice people.

I suppose this is my way of saying “thank you”, and I realize how truly inadequate words are.  My one hope is that the people who treated me knew that we had one more team member working with them.  I believe that.  I got myself sick.  God, through his servants, got me well.  How can I say thanks to the God who heals my diseases, but more importantly, heals my soul? I echo the Psalmist:

Praise the Lord, my soul,
All my inmost being, praise his name.
Praise the Lord, my soul,
And forget not all his benefits-
Who forgives all your sins,
And heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from the pit
And crowns you with love and compassion,
Who satisfies your desires with good things
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

And so it is.  Thank you.  Amen.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Why Didn't God Make Us More Like Pigeons?

I was reminded recently of my childhood neighbor whose hobby was raising pigeons.  The reason people raise pigeons is that they have a unique ability: when properly trained they always find their way home, and without detours.  For 3000 years pigeons have been used for everything from sport to military operations. The French gave a medal of honor to one  bird credited with saving 100 lives. The work of Le Vaillant, flying through German bullets and gas-filled skies to deliver news back home was deemed worthy of the Cross of War. Until quite recently French pigeons were used to deliver blood samples from the hospital to the lab, proving faster than vehicles at the task. Today there is some debate about whether to upgrade the French Defense Ministry’s dovecoat  which has 150 birds as a defense against the shutdown of communications systems.  China has gone even further than France, building a dovecoat of 50,000 birds which are trained by 1,00 trainers.  The fascination with pigeons in China led one racing hobbyist to pay $328,000 (!) for one pigeon. (Source: Wall Street Journal)

This all is made possible by one unchangeable fact, when the sender releases the receiver’s pigeon, the pigeon will fly through storms and heat and cold with a single-minded purpose: get me home to the one who trained me and cares for me.  Wouldn’t that be a comforting certainty for parents of teenagers about midnight on Friday: the child will come home, you can go to bed.  And it would save a great deal of angst among parents of toddlers who walk through malls in fear of little Suzy straying. But, as we know, our tendencies as humans to stray from home doesn’t end when we become adults.  We may be home physically, but emotionally and psychologically, we stray far and wide from the “homes” we have made with spouses and friends.  And centuries ago God sent prophets to his people to remind them, “I formed you, I trained you to walk, I fed you, won’t you please come home.”  The need for that message exists still today, perhaps more than ever. People have forgotten, or maybe never knew, their spiritual homes. So we keep on flying down so many different paths, thinking each one will finally bring us home to joy and peace, when all they really lead to are dead-ends.

Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”  Maybe if God had made us like pigeons, where we couldn’t take any other paths than the one back to our home with God, then we wouldn’t need prophets. Do we have the ears to hear God’s call to our souls, and the courage to fly straight home to our rest?

Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Opposite of False

I spent much of Friday trying to find something I could write about Ryan Braun which would be worth the effort.  Every time I would get close to a worthwhile thought about the lies and deception of Mr. Braun, the opposite of what he represents appeared before my eyes. The truth was revealed.

I was thinking about how easy it must have seemed to Mr. Braun, gifted with rare athletic skill, the owner of a multi-million dollar contract, charming and head-turning handsome; how easy it must have been for him to believe that he could turn a lie into reality.  He really believed, I guess, that he could charm his way out of an outright lie about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.  I was ready to conclude that everything in his public life is now suspect.  And just then, right before my eyes on my morning walk,  were three deer, two adults and one fawn, still with white specks on its fur. I stopped. They stopped. We  all stared.  I raised my hand and pronounced God’s blessings on their heads. And they glided away, feet barely touching the dew on the fairway. And I thought about how creation always outshines our human-made false “reality”.

Later that morning I was preparing to bless a group of missionaries about to head off for 10 days.  I was thinking about the smear on the Brewers, Mr. Braun’s team (for now); how their recent success is tainted by his lies.  But just as I was working up good line of indignant anger, I saw a little brother being peeled away from his farewell hug for his big sister.  Letting her go, he said, “This is the worst day of my life.”  And that became the truth that I could not stop thinking about, how life-changing a good “family” can be. I raised my hand and blessed that family, the mission group and their vehicle, and they all went off to tell the truth to strangers half-way across our nation.

I came home at the tail end of a thunderstorm.  I was thinking about how the “Braun” jerseys now read “Fraud” across the back. I wondered if it was worth telling a lie. I was listening to the awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping choral movement of Beethoven’s masterpiece 9th as I pulled into our driveway. I saw in the house window the reflection of a rainbow which had appeared behind me at the trailing edge of the storm. With the perfect notes rising and the perfect colors dancing I decided I didn’t need to write about Mr. Braun’s false reality when all around me is truth. Luther got it right,  “God’s Truth abideth still.” God’s Kingdom is forever. And that is the opposite of false. Hallelujah.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Oh What a Tangled Web!"

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." - Sir Walter Scott

I have been living a lie. A big lie. Well, some people would call it a white lie. But, frankly, even with my best word search tools, I can’t find the version of the Bible which reads: “Thou Shalt Not Lie (except for little white lies.)”  And after this experience, I can see why God went to all the trouble to carve this command on the Top Ten list.

You see, today is a very big day in my wife’s life, a BIG birthday. No, I will not reveal how big. I will just say that I got married as a junior in college, and my bride was of “marrying” age. You do the math. Now, as this big day approached I had to come up with some really big surprise. I knew the one thing that my wife would love is if our children and their spouses and our grandsons would all be here. Getting them here was easy. The surprise was not. Which is where the web of lies became necessary.  The problem is that over the course of two months the lie had to get bigger and bigger, and the number of people who had to play along grew.  In the last days I was making fake hotel reservations, doctoring the pages to make it appear we were going away for the weekend.   And each time she would bemoan that “Too bad the boys can’t come to see their grandma on her birthday,” we all would need to create a complicated fabric of untruths, each of us trying to remember who said what and when. Add to the weekend a surprise dinner party, and now the big lie involves 14 adults. Some of my wife’s best friends haven’t called her in a week for fear of spilling the beans! And whenever someone would say something contrary to the agreed upon outline of deception, I needed to come up with even more devious and deep, dark stories of deception. All of which was resolved in joy and tears when children and spouses and those little boys showed up out of “nowhere” last night. 

But I think God, and Sir Walter, got it very right.  Just don’t lie. The web gets tighter and tighter.  And pretty soon, the whole deception hangs on one tiny strand of the vast web which, if it breaks, will cause a bigger mess than getting a spider in your hair. After this experience I cannot imagine the pressure that must exist from living a real lie. I don’t want to find out, and I strongly recommend against it. Well, actually, God’s words on the subject are a little stronger than a recommendation. And one day we can ask God if deception which has a greater good as its end is breaking the commandment or not.  I am not going analyze that right now, because the big birthday surprises are still coming.  And that’s no lie.  Happy Birthday, dear. (Don’t worry; she never reads these until Monday. That’s what she tells me anyway. That’s the truth, right dear?)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

"Where Did All the Money Go?"

Jason Trigg is working very hard to earn as much money as he can.  I am trying to think of what is the opposite of that goal.  Working as hard as I can without worrying about how much I make?  Or, working as hard as I need to work in order to meet the needs I have?  Or how about, I am working as hard as I need to work to pay for all of the “wants” I have added to my list of needs? Which of those options describe you? There are certainly others ways to describe why we work, but our work choices:  how hard we choose to work and why,  do say a great deal about us.

Which brings me back to Jason Trigg.  Mr. Trigg is a smart guy with very marketable skills, being a graduate of the prestigious MIT computer science program. (Christian Century 6.26.13) What is unique about Mr. Trigg’s vocational choice is not that he is working as hard as he can to make as much as he can, but that he is doing so for the express purpose of giving away as much money as he can.  The story I read explains that Mr. Trigg works at his Wall Street hedge fund company so that he can give money to his favorite charity, Against Malaria Foundation, which estimates that a gift of $2500 saves one life.   The philosophy behind this approach to work is that it is just as important, if not more important, to give money so that Africans can dig wells than to actually go to Africa to drill them.  The whole concept of “mission” work moves from “going to Africa” (or wherever you might see a need) to sending money so that the people there can help themselves.

Now, this isn’t to say that mission trips are not important. They are important and they do serve a valuable purpose. But, frankly, in today’s world there are fewer and fewer people who are able to take time during their “work years” to take even a week for a mission trip.  So what if we thought of our “work” as our “mission.” What if we could see our hours clocked behind a machine or a computer or a lawn mower as a contribution to saving a life?  Then, when at the end of the month we ask where all the money we earned went, we could smile because we would know that we worked as hard as we  could to give away as much as we can.

Why will you work this week? What will you do with the money you earn?  Would you like your job better if, like Mr. Trigg, your goal in making money was to give it away?

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Too Many Fireworks?

There were celebrations in the streets, fireworks included.  Joining the celebration were a dozen fighter jets, leaving trails of colored smoke representing the colors of the flag. The people were jubilant, shouting, singing, hugging.  Yes, it was quite an independence day.  Wait a minute, didn’t this all happen just last year?  I wonder if this is going to happen every year, or if at some point the people might decide that there is such a thing as too many fireworks.

That’s what I would be thinking if I lived in Egypt.  President Morsi, the man who was the symbol of the return of democracy to Egypt in 2012 is now a political prisoner. The military responded to the protests of the people  against the president they had elected.  Of note, for our purposes, is the fact that Mr. Morsi was a religious man.  He was a former leader of a group called the Muslim Brotherhood.  It is too early to know, but was the mix of religion and civil power too much for the people, or for the military?  Would the “people” really rather be ruled by the military?  What were the Egyptian revolutionaries protesting against, what freedom did they seek?

Which is what I was thinking on a spectacular July 4th in the United States, a day when the nation where I live was engaged in days of fireworks to celebrate not that the president was in jail, but that the nation was still, 237 years (!) later, free from the tyranny of an unelected government.  What exactly is it that holds the United States of America together for 237 years while Egypt’s revolution didn’t last but a year?  I began my 4th of July reading the Declaration of Independence.  It is a mostly timeless piece of political brilliance.  The power of the government rests in the “consent of the governed.”  It sounds a note of caution: “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light or transient causes”, and that a people should “suffer…while evils are sufferable… .”  I think the U.S. persists because the vast majority get that idea.  But, for me, the most brilliant move of the revolutionaries is that they did not impose a state religion.  They knew that politics and religion are a dangerous brew which can boil over at any time.  They knew that their “unalienable rights” came from “their Creator”; they acted “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”; but they understood that human freedom means religious faith is a personal relationship with God and not a matter of governmental dictate.  So, as I watched the fireworks this year, I celebrated this truth: no president, no congress, no army, can choose my God for me.  And that is a truth worthy of fireworks forever.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Talking Chairs

There it was, sitting on a raised platform, centered in the concert hall to give the best view of the orchestra, this massive white chair with lots of space all around so as not to be bothered by the wiggles and noises of the common-folk in surrounding chairs. The crowd, assembled and seated, dressed in their best, waiting for the guest of honor, was about to be shocked.  For when the time arrived for the first notes of Beethoven’s music to fill the concert hall, instead the air was filled with the sounds of confusion, for the guest of honor was a no-show.  Pope Francis again refused the honor of the Pope’s Chair.  In fact, this time, instead of refusing to sit in his chair, he didn’t enter the hall at all.  The Empty Chair had a message from the Pope: “Don’t honor me; honor God.  I have work to do.”  At least that is the message I heard from the chair.  The Chair was talking alright, telling the Vatican and the world that this humble messenger of Christ had other priorities, that his call to serve is not fulfilled in big white chairs in concert halls.

What will the chairs you are offered seating in this week be talking about? What if, before any of us went to sit down in a chair, we would ask ourselves, “Is this a chair that Jesus would sit upon today? What is the message that is sent to others in the room if I leave this chair empty?”  The answer might be surprising, for Jesus spent a great deal of his recorded ministry sitting among people whom the religious leaders shunned.  Jesus sat in the synagogue and in the Temple. What is the message of his filling those chairs? But Jesus also sat next to women and men whose activities wagged the tongues of gossipers. What would have been the message had he left empty those seats?

You can send a powerful message from the chairs you choose to fill or leave empty this week. What will the chairs you leave empty tomorrow say about you? What will the chairs you fill next Friday be saying to those around you?  The chairs you are invited to fill will keep talking.  What they will say about your life and your priorities is up to you.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

"A Tale of Two Debtors"

Mary couldn’t remember how it happened, but she owed the bank $100,000, more than she could expect to repay in a long, long time. Harry could remember how it happened: he made one bad investment and now he was $10,000 in debt.  What Harry didn’t know was that with interest and penalties he also owed $100,000. What Mary knew, and what Harry didn’t know, was that their bankers were about to foreclose on their homes, and then they both would be penniless and homeless.  Well, Barry the Billionaire was looking for some people to help. He was that kind of guy. His wealth was literally higher than the heavens. Barry spent his time in coffee shops and country clubs, and it was in these places he overheard both Mary’s and Harry’s stories. Barry invited Mary and Harry over to his house through their respective friends. Mary was ashamed to go, but it was a free meal. Harry spent some money he didn’t know he didn’t have and bought a fine suit and shoes and showed up at Barry’s, ready to impress.  After dinner Barry informed Mary and Harry that they were officially debt free. Mary fell on the ground, crying and laughing, and from there, on the dining room floor, she grabbed Barry’s feet and, well, let’s put it this way…Barry’s shoes changed color from her tears.  Barry, bemused by Mary’s foolish behavior, told Barry, “Say, thanks. You know that wasn’t necessary…I only owed $10,000…and I was about to pay it off. But, thanks, bud, and if I can ever do anything for you, let me know. Gotta run.”

Mary was at Barry’s what seemed like every weekend after that. “What can I do for you? Barry, please let me do something!” “No need, Mary,” Barry said. “But I sure do appreciate your coming over to visit every weekend. It’s nice to know that you remember.” “Remember!”, Mary said, “I know I will never be able to forget your saving me from ruin! I just wish I could do something for you.”  “Well, if you insist,” he said, “if you would help your struggling neighbor cover her groceries bill this weekend, I would appreciate it as much as she will. But, don’t feel obligated. Do what makes your heart sing, and that will make me smile!” And that’s just what Mary did. Everyone smiled.

Harry, over time, forgot all about Barry.  He heard about Mary’s old bad habits and Harry was, frankly, upset that Barry included Mary in the same invitation that he had extended to Harry. “What kind of fool would help out someone like her!” Harry never went to see Barry again, although he did think about visiting him sometimes. “But,” he thought, “I really didn’t ask for his help, and I could have covered that little debt.”  As Barry thought about Harry he smiled…or was that the look of a man about to cry?


Saturday, June 8, 2013

Graduation Day

We are in the season of graduation events: the ceremonies, the speeches. And don’t forget the parties.  I’ve been listening to parents and grandparents of high school graduates discuss their plans for celebrating this moment.  What seems clear to me is that, just like it was in 1972, the manner of celebration reflects the personality of the graduate and the parents.  In reality, sometimes the parents are much happier that high school is over than is the graduate.  Some graduates dread being the focus of a party, and they dread even more the thought of crossing a stage while a thousand eyes stare at them.  Some graduates love the attention, and believe it is even more well-deserved than it is.  So I got to thinking about these questions: (1) Comparing your life today to the life you imagined on your high school graduation day, is your life about what you had expected or is it different than you then imagined and why did that happen? (2) Knowing what you know today about life after high school, if you could tell a class of graduates one thing about their life to come, what would it be, and why?

Here’s my speech:  Congratulations. You got to first base.  Enjoy the moment.  You are not finished with learning; you have learned how to learn and to start living.  You do not win the game standing on first base.  Start planning on how you will be able to circle the bases. You will need help from your teammates: family and friends. You cannot advance to second without someone’s help.  And plan on getting a new jersey about half-way through. The clothes you wear today probably won’t fit in another 20 years. That’s OK.  Your body doesn’t define who you are. But you will need to be physically fit to get to third base, so don’t hurt your body with too much of anything. And let’s face it, some things just shouldn’t be ingested if you want to keep on living. You will find that running the base paths of life is a lot more fun if you have someone you love running alongside of you. Find someone with whom you want to share the joys and sorrows of the journey home.  Figure out why the Bard wrote that a rose by another name is still as sweet.  Drown in the joy of the choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th. When you trip, let someone help you up. When you come upon someone who has fallen, be the hands and feet of the One they need. The past was never as bright, nor is the future ever as dark, as you imagine: get a grip. Don’t fret over the goals you miss; celebrate the milestones you reach; when you wander off the path, come back between the lines. You cannot get Home alone.  Persist in your journey. Do not give up. Let the party begin.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

"...I Swear It's Not Too Late"

“To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time of peace, I swear it's not too late!”  (Pete Seeger/The Byrds)

I was reminded of these lyrics at the funeral of a friend, Flossie. She died “too soon”, following shortly after cancer took over her body.  I was waiting in the greeting line and heard her husband, John, say to the guest ahead of me, referring to his wife’s death in her mid-60’s, “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but it is.” King Solomon couldn’t have said it better, I thought.  As I moved up the line and took his hand I felt this overwhelming mix of emotions, grief for him; “how could I stand here if this was my situation”; and a half-dozen other thoughts.  I asked him about the funeral brochure for his wife, which contained Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and the final line of the Byrds’ version of Seeger’s song. “Flossie wanted this printed”, he explained.  That was Flossie, still preaching to anyone who would listen.

I got to know Flossie from my days in politics. She was the one volunteer every candidate wanted, a dedicated, untiring activist.  She was a special part of our lives, giving vision and life to our campaigns.  And, while our lives are long past our political days, we both remembered so gratefully all Flossie did and her indomitable spirit. My wife helped me to identify one additional reason why I was so emotional about Flossie’s death. We had known she was sick for several months, but we never did make room in our lives to go say “thank you” one last time. “There will be time to do that ‘next week.’” And now it was “too late.”  We committed to each other, “never again.” We are not going to wait until it is “too late”  to tell people we love them, to thank them, to be with them.

  But maybe it’s not too late. Maybe Someone will get Flossie the message. Maybe Flossie’s final sermon was, in some unintended way, for me that day: “You can still make peace…it’s not too late.” So, here goes: “Thanks for everything, Flossie!  You are a special person to us, and we will keep reminding people of what you lived your life to teach:  ‘A time for peace, I swear it’s not too late.’”

Peace and Shalom,


Saturday, May 25, 2013

I Wonder What Happened

I will never know what it is like to be in a war. Not a physical one anyway.  I am too old to be drafted now. My ‘number’ didn’t come up in the 1970’s before the Vietnam War ended and the draft ended.  The “draft.” Now isn’t that a term that has taken on a whole new meaning for the last couple of generations.  The only draft our children know is the NFL Draft, or maybe, the NBA Draft.  I remember the usual fantasy games as a boy (okay, into my early adulthood) where I would imagine graduating from West Point and starting the long climb to “Yes sir,  General Te Winkle.”

Knowing what I know now I see that I have reason to be thankful that my ‘number’ never came up. But, as I talk to widows of veterans and veterans from  the past wars of the U.S.; and as I talk to our brave men and women who serve our nation now,  I have questions.  I wonder what it would have been like.  But, then I don’t want to know. I can see enough in the movies to know that this was not a life to be desired. And yet, this life, this life of serving in the military, remains the life for which the world’s freedom makes such overwhelming demands.

I remember talking to a veteran one night. “What did you do in the war? Did you have a gun? Did you have to shoot it?”  Since I asked those questions I have learned that these are very inappropriate questions to ask of any combat veteran. There are some things you do not bring to mind, and this topic is one of them.  Of course, I was just a young boy  when I asked those questions, the days when I did not know that these questions were off limits in polite society, and especially among families.

But they, these men and women who went places I do not want to go; these men and women who are required to do things I would not, could not, do; they, these heroes, are the very reason I can write something like this and send it over the world wide web without fear of someone knocking on my door to arrest me.  Still, I wonder what happened to that man, the secrets which he took to his grave.  I wonder what happened in those buildings in Italy you walked through, wondering if you would get shot in a moment or if you would come back to become a man, to become my Dad.  Will our little Memorial Day salute do you justice? Or is resting with God justice enough? 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Living in the Seam

“Our country is in big trouble. I don’t know how we will get out of this mess.” So my friend said to me.  He was referring to the latest “crisis of confidence”, namely the Internal Revenue Service tagging of certain groups for extra scrutiny.  He said that he was at first inclined to ignore it, but then he thought, “Well, if you give the government unchecked power, that is how Hitler got his start, right?”  Oh my.  Trying to talk my friend “off the ledge”,  I offered, “you know, we have survived times like this before.  We survived Watergate, so we certainly will survive ‘IRS-gate.’”  He asked, “Did we survive it? What about all of this hate and anger and lack of trust among our government officials and people around this country?” So I offered up a brief history of how President Ford offered up forgiveness, and then the country elected President Carter, who was incapable of any serious ruffling of feathers. And then we had everyone’s favorite grandfather, President Reagan, followed by everyone’s iconic “bad uncle”, President Clinton, with the two Bushes fitting in there somewhere. So, I offered, “we will survive this time too.”  The genius of our nation is that it can survive bad government and bad people.

My friend used that comment as a segue into some observations about how difficult life is in general, which led into a discussion about some details in his personal relationships, about children and grandchildren, all of which raised doubts in his mind about how stable life really is anymore. Yet his situation gave him, he said, an understanding about how tough life had become for the “least among us.”  If the “working poor” could see a way through to the future, certainly he, comfortable financially and vocationally, should find a way to see a brighter future.  I suggested that our ability to have hope for this life is all a matter of perspective: do we have a long enough view, a view that includes this life and a life that never ends? He replied that he didn’t think he had that kind of faith.  He really wanted to know that “it”, this life, his life, his child’s life, his grandchildren’s life, that these lives would be all right.  And that is the problem, or the opportunity, don’t you think? This is where faith meets life: my child is suffering;  my grandchild seems so lost;  I don’t see any hope for our country. Which means, really, I am afraid; I don’t see any way out for my family, my employment, my country.  But some people see with a longer view, people of faith who can see by the gift of the Spirit that what is and what is to be are not the same.  This is the hope that faith produces,  and this is what we rehearse when we meet God together in worship.  I told me friend of some people who worship with us who face seemingly overwhelming odds, and despite this life, or maybe because of the overwhelming odds that this life offers them, they come to worship desperately wanting someone to tell them they are loved, that Someone is really in control, despite all appearances to the contrary.

Have you ever seen clothes that are a bit too tight, or are a bit too worn? Inspect the seam and you see that with one wrong move the seam could tear wide open.  But, if the thread is strong enough it won’t finally give way;  it will instead hold the two sides of strained cloth together, despite the stress.  That is the work of the Spirit today.  The Spirit overcomes the crisis of confidence in the future of our nation, of our families, of our own lives.  The Spirit holds this life and the life to come together, sometimes seemingly on the thinnest of threads. But the thread of hope will not break.  Cannot break.