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.”