Saturday, December 20, 2014

Gift Wrapping 101

Gift-wrapping is another one of those tasks which divides the human race: you like to do it and are good at it; or you think the idea of wrapping gifts is goofy and you despise the task.  I fall into the second group. I like buying gifts. I love the people to whom I give the gifts. I despise wrapping gifts. Now, you need to know that I buy 7 gifts each year: one for my wife, one for each of my four children (two by blood; two by marriage); and two for my grandsons.  Some years, if I see a good dog toy I buy two more for Rocky and Peanut, our grand-dogs, but they just don’t seem to get into the whole Christmas thing. They like to tear at paper though. So, maybe I will buy 9 gifts this year. But that’s it. My wife takes care of the rest, bless her. And she take a day off to wrap them.  Seriously.  I, on the other hand, take 15 minutes on Christmas morning to wrap my gifts with whatever wrapping paper is left around the house, and I fill in the gaps with the plentiful newspaper around my chairs. ( Yes, I still read print newspapers.)  There is never any doubt when it is time to open gifts which come from me and which are from “Santa”.  Thus it was and it ever shall be. I can live with the shame.

Some years I think that I will try harder, despite my inability to understand the purpose of gift-wrapping.  So when a late night talk show host had on the winner of a national gift-wrapping contest ( I am not making this up…there is a national contest for gift-wrapping; oh my) I was trying to write down his special technique to which he gave the acronym “WRAPS” (clever, huh?).  Each letter stand for a step in his award-winning process.  “W” is for width, “R” is for ridges, and so forth.  The last one, “S”, was a stretch in that it stands for “special”, but what he really means is the bow on top. I will tell you that the national talk show host did put a beautiful wrap on the box by employing this nationally-awarded technique. What-ever. Gift-wrapping 101 is not going to change my life, I fear.  But it did get me thinking: where did this gift-wrapping idea come from?

I don’t know, but if I was forced to give an answer I would say it comes from the story about a young girl who gave birth to a baby in a barn, a baby she was told was the Son of God.  I picture Joseph and Mary scrambling for some water with which to wash the baby boy and then, staring at him strangely thinking, “this is what God looks like?”; and then,  at his first cry, Mary takes him to her breast while Joseph runs to his travelling gear for the clean cloths they brought along ‘just in case’.  “She wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid in in the manger.” With trembling hands and dripping eyes, I imagine, the perfect gift was wrapped like no other gift since.  Keep on trying.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Singing in the Shower Joy

You cannot manufacture joy.  You might be able to make yourself or someone else happy, but you cannot set out to make yourself joyful.  I encountered a restaurant sign which invited me to spread joy by buying their gift certificates.  While my purchase of the gift certificates would bring the restaurant owner happiness with another sale, and while my giving the certificate would make the recipient happy to have a free meal of food they enjoy, and while even I might be happy to have made someone else happy, I don’t think there is any joy being spread around in this transaction.  I don’t believe I can manufacture joy for myself or anyone else by trying to make joy happen. No, there is an essential difference between happiness and joy. Happiness might be “two kinds of ice cream”, like the Charlie Brown song says, but that isn’t joy.  Joy is something else. Joy is what you happens to you when you encounter something so unexpected, so startling, that it makes you feel like you are dreaming; that your mouth fills up with laughter; that you start singing even though you don’t consider yourself a singer. (Psalm 126)

THE JOY BEYOND the walls of the world more poignant than grief. Even in church you catch glimpses of it sometimes though church is apt to be the last place because you are looking too hard for it there. It is not apt to be so much in the sermon that you find it or the prayers or the liturgy but often in something quite incidental like the evening the choral society does the Mozart Requiem, and there is your friend Dr. X, who you know thinks the whole business of religion is for the birds, singing the Kyrie like a bird himself—Lord, have mercy, have mercy—as he stands there among the baritones in his wilted shirt and skimpy tux; and his workaday basset-hound face is so alive with if not the God he wouldn't be caught dead believing in then at least with his twin brother that for a moment nothing in the whole world matters less than what he believes or doesn't believe— Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison—and as at snow, dreams, certain memories, at fairy tales, the heart leaps, the eyes fill. (F. Buechner, Glimpses of Joy)

In this season of waiting for light, may you find so much more than momentary happiness. May you instead be surprised by joy. May you be blessed to have revealed to you something so totally unexpected that it your heart leaps, your eyes fill. May you be startled with a vision so powerful that the mere memory of it makes you want to sing in the shower at the top of your lungs.  May your song be that of the angels: Let heaven and earth rejoice!  The gift of Love is revealed once more. To you.  

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Who Are You Waiting For?

Everyone is waiting for something. Sometimes we wait so long we can just, well, give up.  For example, I have been waiting for two weeks for my television provider to arrive to fix the equipment which allows me to watch my TV.  At first I waited anxiously, almost desperate because I could not envision missing my favorite team’s sporting events. I called; I emailed; and I repeated each step very, very often.  Now, well, I have been waiting so long (relatively) that I am ready to give up. Life without television cannot be that bad, right?  The waiting has become an exhausting experience.  Maybe I should give up waiting and move on to something else. 

But that would be giving up.  I know that, one day, it will fit into someone’s schedule to fix my TV. He will show up at my door.  The waiting has changed me. What has really changed in me as I wait is the decrease in my anxiety. I used to be really angry about this waiting (My anger is justified because they are messing with my Badger Basketball games!) But that has diminished too. You see, I have been assured by the “specialists” who have taken my calls that they “understand my frustration, and we will help you as soon as possible.”  How truly comforting to know that, at least, I am understood by someone.

But what if my repair technician is never coming. What if he is just a character in a well-crafted story. The trucks they drive around can be seen just few miles from my house, but, what if they are being driven by imposters; or what if they just don’t come to my neighborhood. What if the repair technician is just a myth? What if I wait a month and no one shows up. Well, you could say, get a new television provider.  No, no, that’s not the point. Don’t you see? I am waiting for what I have been promised.  And I am not giving up. I am sure there is some very good explanation for why I am waiting for what seems to be such an easy solution: just  get in your truck and drive to my house!  But, I guess, the solution that seems so easy to me must not really be so easy.  There must be some reason that I do not understand; there is some reason for my waiting which I cannot fathom because I do not have all of the facts.  Maybe what I need to do is learn more about how to wait without giving up.

Everyone is waiting for something. Everyone is waiting for someone. Unless they have stopped waiting. What are you waiting for? Who are you waiting for?  Don’t stop.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

J.J. and the Family Conference

J.J. Watt was destined to be on world-class hockey player. The next Gordie Howe, perhaps, or even the next Great One, Wayne Gretzky. There’s no question that the boy, J.J., had the skills to play hockey. His coach told a reporter that J.J. was besting the best of future professional players on national all-star teams. (SI,11.17.14, T. Layden)  Yes, it seemed, J.J. Watt had the elusive mixture of both outlier-skills and outlier-desire, a formula which for any life career almost guarantees world-class success.  Today, J.J. is not a professional hockey player. Why not? Well, the third ingredient to world-class success was out of his control: outlier-opportunity.

J.J.’s parents both had good jobs, Dad as a paramedic and Mom as a scheduler for a contractor. They were blessed with three sons, all promising skaters.  But then the picture became more clear: Mom and Dad and the three boys were a family in name only. Putting three boys on three touring hockey teams was fun and rewarding. But it was expensive. And, more than that, it was preventing the Watt family from being a family. So, Dad and Mom called a fateful family conference. J.J. was finishing 7th grade and his parents forced him to put family over hockey.  The family met and talked it over, and while it was “tough for all of us”, according to Dad, it was “a massive thing” for J.J. The 7th grader “cried for an entire day.”  Did the parents give in? Nope. They insisted that the boys find a way to have fun in ways that allowed the family to function.

Do we blame the parents for denying the hockey world the next “Great One”?  Are Canadians cringing at the thought of what might have been? Or do we applaud the parents for being parents?  Sometimes it is just no fun being the adult in the room. Sometimes it can be devastating to tell children, especially teen-agers, that the path they are on isn’t a healthy one, if not for themselves, then certainly for the family. What has happened to the family?  We could blame “youth activities gone bonkers”, or we could blame the pressure created by society on parents to forget that the purpose of having children is to create a family.  What the world needs is more family conferences.

J.J.’s life went on. You can find him on the cover of sports magazines; on television commercials; and hanging with movie stars.  The best over-all professional football player in the world wanted to be a hockey player.  But Dad and Mom wanted him to be a son and brother first. They taught their boys priorities.  Some parents they are.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Fascination with Fire

How surprised do you think the first people were who made a fire? I am guessing that they had seen fire happen naturally, and they wondered how they could make that happen.  Somewhere and somehow they must have seen a spark or a flame and they were so curious about it, they figured it out.  We human beings have a history with fire, a history that dates, we assume, from our earliest days, and without a lot of change in the basic idea.  In fact, “sitting around the fire” is, I surmise, one of the ways that we most closely mimic the first human beings in Africa who figured it out. Not much has changed in a million years (or whatever time you want to assign to the first fire.)  We humans have “improved” and “advanced” many inventions in the course of our history, but we still love the fundamental idea of gathering ‘round the fire on a cold night.

Why is that, do you suppose?  Well, Alison Gopnik (WSJ, Oc.t 11-12) writes about the findings of one scientist who studied how people change their behavior when they gather  around the evening fire.  They just become different people when the focus shifts from the busyness of the day to the slowness of the night.  People’s “talk was transformed”” by the fire. She writes, “Fire gave us the evening-too dark to work but bright and warm enough to talk.”  What happened to that kind of evening?  I suppose before there were books to read and televisions to watch and computers to absorb our minds, what could we do but sit and talk around a fire.  The art of storytelling no doubt developed in the evenings too dark to work but bright enough to talk.  The children would need to be entertained; young couples would need to be romanced; patriarchs and matriarchs would tell stories of “remember when…”; and maybe something else used to happen when the whole village had to sit around the fire which made night warm enough to talk.  Maybe the fire burned away the anger and hostility that the day’s work had stoked as people looked each other in the eye through the flames.

 I wonder if that is what it was like when the night faded and the day dawned and Jesus met the man who had abandoned him in his darkest hour. I wonder if it was the dancing of the flames on that night becoming day, as the soaking wet Peter warmed his body by the coals of the cooking fire, that allowed Peter to raise his eyes to look his friend in the eye and confess, “Lord, you know I love you.” “Then feed my sheep” came the reply, and the world was never the same.

What ever happened to that kind of evening, to that kind of fire?  Look, do you see the flame? Do you hear the question? Do you feel the fire?

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Should We Know Who Shot bin Laden?

In a world where we see Andy Warhol’s prediction that “everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes” coming true before our very eyes, isn’t it interesting that a firestorm has erupted over “who killed bin Laden”?  To review, a team of Navy Seals attacked terrorist Osama bin Laden in his compound. and Seal shot the bullet which killed Mr. bin Laden.  Descriptions of the night-time raid have come out, even in book form, and that was controversial enough. Recently one person, Robert O’Neill, identified himself as “The Shooter”. He has been called many things for making this claim, including “liar.”  A spokesperson for his former employer states that Mr. O’Neill’s disclosure violates an unspoken rule in the military, i.e. do not seek personal attention for your actions taken while in service.

What strikes me about this debate is how different the attitudes toward military service have become in the last 40 years.  I grew up in the “Viet Nam” era. That war was unpopular, to put it mildly.  The saddest part of that chapter of our common history may be the fallout for the Viet Nam-era veterans. Their return home was, often times, a horrible one. Even today there are many of these vets who would not want to describe their service on CNN even if CNN wanted to broadcast their story.

So what has changed? Is it the “enemy”?  Did the fact that bin Laden orchestrated an attack on the United States make him the enemy we all wanted dead?  Perhaps that is it. But perhaps there is a bigger change in understanding going on in our common attitude toward veterans.  Mr. bin Laden put a face on the “enemy”.  It was the fact that we live in an era where his face was made recognizable to the entire western world as the latest incarnation of evil.  What I hope we can begin to understand more deeply is that evil has a face.  Hate and intolerance and injustice, taken to the extreme, become the bin Laden’s of the world, and sadly, someone needs to shoot it dead.

That is best undertaken as a team effort.  I do not think we should know who shot bin Laden, because the truth is, the people of the United States did.  One man pulled the trigger of the gun we put him there to shoot.  My thinking on war has evolved since my draft-age years. I hate war. I hate evil more. I think God does too.  Maybe today is a good day to hug a vet.  You don’t need to know what they did, or whether they wanted to do it. They answered the call we put on them. And to that Team, we say, “thank you.”  Until wars end and peace reigns, may there always be men and women who accept the mystery and complexity of the call to serve as a team for freedom’s cause.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

What to Tell the Children

This past week I had the luxury of spending a day at a seminary library.  This for me is like a shoe-lover spending the day at a shoe factory outlet; or an outdoor-devotee being assigned to shop all day in Bass Pro-Shop.  I did have a particular study subject in mind for the day, but, as you might imagine, being surrounded by thousands of books, I had to do a little hunting.  I pulled down volumes ancient and new, reading snippets and looking for gems worth noting.  One such gem came from a book called Confessing the Faith (D.J. Hall 1996 p.29).  “I simply do not believe in the inevitability of progress. I consider such a belief not only non-Christian but an alternative to Christianity.”  The footnote attached to this quote cites back to Kurt Vonnegut reflecting on a college library: “This library is full of stories of supposed triumphs, which makes me very suspicious of it.…It’s misleading for people to read about great successes, since even for middle-class and upper-class white people…failure is the norm.  It is unfair to youngsters particularly to leave them wholly unprepared for monster screwups and starring roles in Keystone Kop comedies and much, much worse.” (Hocus Pocus, 1990, p. 33)

The discovery of these quotes was juxtaposed to my earlier viewing of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  I enjoyed the movie, but the point of the original book, that all children, even those in Australia, have very bad days, gets lost in the movie version. The plot turns on Alexander making a wish that his entire family would suffer one of his very bad days and the “wish” comes true.  While the plot change makes for a funny movie, it loses what I think is the redeeming part of the original story: “hey, kids, life is not fair or fun every day.”  I suppose children eventually learn that on their own, but the message is important enough to tell them it early and often. 

That’s what I learned this week: we all get to star in the tragic comedies of life at some point.  In fact,  things don’t always get “better.” That’s the wrong word, though. Things don’t always “progress” as our human hearts desire.  All things, even our lives, come to an end.  Which is why we need to tell the children the companion truth: “Yet…God is a God who is committed in love to the good end and consummation of creation.” (Hall, p. 29) God makes promises which are unconditional and non-revocable.  We should tell the children that too: God sends a boat to save us in the storm.  The essence of our faith is not that bad days don’t happen; but that when they happen Jesus is the one at our bedside promising us a better beginning tomorrow.  The movie we star in today may look like a tragedy, but the movie of your life has a sequel with a cast of thousands and that movie never, ever ends. You are one of the stars. I promise. No, God promises. Tell the children that.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"Playground Wisdom"

Tuesday was one of those days when I had to talk a long walk.  A couple of days earlier news had come that a friend had taken his own life.  The next day I learned of another good friend’s diagnosis of cancer.  Yet the sun was warming the cool fall air.  So I walked. I walked along the boardwalk which follows the river bank. I saw fish jump and geese land.  I saw the leaves dying, the evidence of which was their spectacular beauty.  It’s a wonder, isn’t it, that God chose the leaves of trees to paint for us a different picture of dying?  Do you doubt that the fall’s dying leaves will become spring’s baby buds?

On my return route, having thought for quite a while now about why my friend who died had lost all hope; pondering why cancer is so indiscriminate a disease; I took the upper route, which took me past a park.  I see children, middle-school aged, I guess, all in their black tee shirts and shorts. A gym class takes his charges outside today. The lesson plan is to have the children learn to toss a football. Groups of 3 or 4 children tossing a football back and forth, Mr. Teacher standing in the middle of the park, looking at me walk by and looking at the children and the footballs falling on the ground. Does Mr. Teacher have the look of someone who is lost or losing it? I cannot decide.

The 20 or 30 children toss and toss the footballs.  I begin to gain new admiration for the fact that there are enough passers to populate all of America’s high school’s football teams. I see now future quarterbacks today, for there is not one completed pass in the entire time of my viewing. One boy is throwing the ball off on a 45 degree angle. A girl tosses a wounded duck falling 10 feet short of her classmate target 20 feet away.  Another girl tells her mate, “You can throw the ball, but you can’t throw it where it’s supposed to go.”  The mate, who I envision as a future philosophy professor, exclaims, “Well, at least now we know our strengths and weaknesses. You can’t catch, but you can tell me what I am doing wrong. I can throw, but not in the right direction.” Toss-thud. Toss-thud. Toss-thud…

Maybe the philosopher quarterback got the point of the day’s lesson plan.  “At least we know our strengths and weaknesses.”  That might be enough to save a life.  In my weakness, Lord, make me strong.  My strength is in you, Lord. My hope is in you, Lord.  Lord, teach me to believe that you care for dying leaves and baby buds. And me.  

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Finding Mr. Murray

When Ted Melfi decided to write his movie “Mr. Vincent”  he had one lead actor in mind, Bill Murray.  Bill Murray, he surmised, would be the perfect fit for the role of the gruff, self-absorbed Viet Nam vet whose life is redeemed by a child. (WSJ 10.3.14, D. Steinberg)  Mr. Melfi’s problem was that he didn’t know how to find Mr. Murray and Mr. Murray doesn’t like to be found, especially by a first time screen writer/ “wanna-be” director.  But Ted was sure that he needed Bill if this movie was going to be what he envisioned.  So Ted starts calling around Hollywood. (This is a true story.) He finds a producer, who he knew from other work, who had worked with Bill, who finally agrees to give out Bill’s 800 phone number. That’s it. An 800 number.

Ted starts calling the 800 number and leaving messages.  The 800 number is an answering service with a recorded voicemail voice telling him to press 5 and leave a message. This went on for a couple of months.  Finally, after leaving long voice mails describing the role and the movie and begging for a call back, one day an attorney calls Ted and direct him to send a one page letter describing the role to a post office box in New York.  A few weeks pass and Ted receives instructions to send the script to Martha’s Vineyard, and then a few weeks later to send it again to South Carolina.  Weeks pass. And then, one day Ted is driving along and his phone rings and the voice on the other end is, you guessed it, Bill Murray.

Bill tells Ted he likes the movie and they should talk. Now. In Cannes.  Mr. Melfi explains that he is working in Los Angeles.  So Bill says that maybe it’s not meant to be and hangs up. He’ll call some other time.  This drives Ted into such a state of stress that he throws out his back. He can hardly function, thinking his dream was ended. Until he gets a text two weeks later from Bill: let’s meet in an hour at the airport.  Ted puts on his back brace, takes his pain pills and goes to meet Bill.  They meet and drive for three hours to Bill’s place and, well, as they say, the rest is history. “Mr. Vincent” is coming to a theatre near you, starring (wait for it)…Bill Murray.

Whatever your dream is, what are you willing to do to make it come true? How long will you wait to find your “Mr. Murray”?  Oh, and, God doesn’t have an 800 number.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

"The Hurricane Effect"

The speaker was trying to explain his investment advice by drawing an illustration from the aftermath of a hurricane.  He said that after a hurricane rips through a neighborhood a typical reaction might be that you come out of the basement and look at your own home. You see it has been hardly damaged, say thanks, and look around the street.  You see other houses standing, and the homeowners likewise thankful their houses are standing.  But then everyone looks to the house at the end of the block and see that it is destroyed. You see the homeowners family standing there in shock, staring at the rubble which was their home. You go to comfort them and offer assistance.  As time goes by, the destroyed home gets rebuilt and it is now as hurricane-proof as you can make a house.  All of the “lucky” neighbors thought about doing something to “hurricane-proof” their own homes but didn’t follow through.  So, he asked, if you were buying a house on that block which one would you buy?

His point related to investments: buy stock in funds which weathered the post-2008 financial “storms”. They are more “hurricane-proof” when another financial storm hits. All of the other sectors thought about taking steps to protect themselves, but in the end they stayed as they were, just as susceptible to major losses.  I don’t know about that, but it sounded to me very much like the talk I hear about other parts of life.  We have all heard of someone who dies “too young” leaving a young family behind.  The typical response is, “I am going to start spending more time with my family” or “I am going to start taking better care of my health.”  But, what do most of us do? Nothing different.  That’s the “hurricane effect” I see so often.  We see the devastating effects of life and death and we vow to build defenses against those effects, but, then, pretty soon, we are living our lives again as if there never was a “hurricane.”  “The hurricane may affect the guy on the end of the block, but it won’t affect me.”

I see this in spiritual and religious life as well.  How many people do we know, including ourselves, who say that “I know I need God in my life”; or, “I know I am better off when I am surrounded by a faith community”; or, “I need to devote more time to religious practices”,  after some life-changing event which makes us aware of what a spiritually weak foundation we have in our lives.  But, in no time at all we forget that promise to re-build our house on rock instead of sand, and we remain vulnerable to the very same storms of life that we were before. For centuries humans have heard the story of the wise and foolish builders, only to conclude it applied to someone else.  So, today, why not read Matthew 8:24-27 and this time, really start re-building your life. Don’t fall victim to the hurricane effect.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

It's (sort of) Free!

We were staying at a (sort of) motel with our grandsons. In the morning they proudly displayed to me their cup of (sort of) free donut holes, exclaiming, “Grandpa Bill, you get to eat all of the donuts you wants for free!”  I proceeded to explain that the donuts were just (sort of) free because they were included in the cost of the room, but they were too busy wiping white sugar from their faces to listen. And, anyway, they didn’t pay for their room, so I guess for da Boyz (as I call them), the donuts really were free.

That’s pretty much true about all the (sort of) free stuff in life.  Your buddy gives you tickets to the game. They cost your buddy money, but to you they really are free.  Nothing is free in the first place, right? I mean, everything cost something to someone before it became free to you.  So, I figure free things are just (sort of) free.  We should think about the cost of the free stuff. And we do.  When we get free tickets to our favorite team’s big game from our friend we offer to pay; we say thank you; we try think of ways we can repay the gift, taking them out for a meal, etc.  But, the friend says, “No, take them. I am happy for you to have them. Enjoy!”  To you they are really free!

Like churches and synagogues.  In Germany church most churches aren’t even (sort of) free.  If you want a church in which to be “married and buried” then you pay a tax of 8% to 9% of your income to support the churches.  About 60% of the nearly 81 million Germans pay a total of $13.2 billion to finance most of the churches and synagogues.  Recently, the Germans expanded their collection efforts to collect a tax on retirement income.  This year 500,000   “church members” are expected to quit the church to avoid the tax.  There is a “free church” (no tax required) movement in Germany, but the churches are much smaller.  Why doesn’t everyone just go to the “free” churches?

That’s the thing about houses of worship in the United States.  They are really free. In fact, the tax system gives incentives to support religion because we really don’t want the government involved in our religion.  Think about it though.  Are churches really free, or just (sort of) free?  Churches and synagogues exist because some people freely give some percentage of their income or assets to keep the doors open and the staff employed.  Some people give nothing because they cannot or because they figure, like the donuts, church is (sort of )free.  They are wrong.  Church is really free because salvation is really free. Everyone loves free donuts. Why don’t we love free church?

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Better Than Baboons

Who’s more successful? Who’s richer? Who’s happier? Who’s kids are smarter?  The list of comparison questions goes on for quite a while, questions we consciously or subconsciously ask ourselves as we try to figure out who’s more important than us.  One evening we were visiting some friends who were explaining to us about the neighbors new, expensive car and their one car garage. It seemed that the man who owned the new “status” car always used the one car garage while the woman, who had a  kid-toting car, was thus always required to park outside.  Why, our friends wondered, would you buy a car like that in the first place, and why would the man always get to park in the garage?  It’s all about status.  We are all interested in evaluating our status relative to others and, on occasion, doing something to display our superior status.

But, as it turns out, this process of establishing and evaluating status is not unique to humans. Ravens do it, and so do baboons.  Baboons spend a good deal of their time mastering calls which display their dominance over others. (“Humans Aren’t The Only Animals Stuck on Status.” Robert M. Sapolsky, WSJ May 24-25, 2014)   The status of a baboon can be determined by their call. You can figure out not only which baboon is number one, but which one is number three or ten.  As I was explaining all of this to our friend who asked about the status car, she suddenly started mimicking baboon sounds: “Hoo-hoo; Wha-wha; hoo-hoo-hoo!”  Well, she was clearly the best baboon imitator I had ever heard!  I invite you to right now do your best imitation, out loud, and see who is the dominant baboon in your house.  (Warning: this should not be done while others are sleeping.)

Jesus teaches us to always place others ahead of ourselves; to go the extra mile; to be servants of everyone, washing each other’s feet.  This is not only counter-cultural. If Mr. Sapolsky is correct, it goes against our human instincts to seek superior status.  When you see a menial task that needs to be done in your faith community, are you more likely to say “that’s someone else’s job” or “let me do that service so someone else doesn’t need to.”  Serving the poor; housing the homeless; serving in the nursery; mentoring children; visiting the lonely.  Our society and our human nature do not put these tasks high on the status list. And that is the nature of serving our God. The member with the biggest voice and the best call is not the most important.  The challenge of the church is to teach that it is better to be a lowly servant in human eyes because we will be and are exalted in God’s eyes as we submit to and serve others.  Baboons may not be buying this distinction. But we are better than baboons, rights?

Saturday, August 9, 2014

"I Know How You Feel"

Steve died. He was just about 50. He was married and had four children, ranging from one still quite young to the one ready to start college in the fall.  Steve was a lawyer, but his work didn’t define him. What defined Steve’s life was coaching sports for his kids and all of their friends.  What defined Steve was volunteering to help children find a new “normal” in programs like Rainbow Kids.   What defined Steve’s life was actually talking to his kids and watching movies with them and just being Dad.  And Steve loved his dear wife of so many years.  And then one morning, without warning, young Steve’s heart stopped working.  Steve died.

The funeral service was a few days later.  The eldest son spoke eloquently on behalf of the children.  Of the many, many men in the congregation, few had dry eyes.  We didn’t know how that young man felt, but we could see our own sons, or we could remember our own fathers.  Steve’s sister spoke.  She began by telling us that she wished she could tell us about how much Steve enjoyed seeing his children graduate from college; sharing their wedding day joy; coaching his grandchildren’s teams. But, of course, she could not. And the many, many women in the congregation joined the many, many men in weeping for the shared moments that would not be.

The pastor spoke next and he began with a story of his own life.  You see, as it happened, the pastor’s father died when the pastor was a young boy.  So it was that he could relate to the children “I know how you feel.”  In speaking with the pastor’s wife after the service, she related what people in “compassion work” know: one of the last things you want to say to a grieving person is, “I know how you feel” unless, of course, you do.  And the pastor did know, and his message for the children was simple and profound: your father’s early death will change your life forever, but, you will grow into someone unique and treasured, because of who your father was.

I marvel at this: God’s design is not that Steve should die young, but that when Steve dies young, his family would be a part of a faith community led by a pastor who could say to Steve’ children, “I know how you feel.”  A sermon, we believe, is the Spirit speaking through imperfect preachers God’s perfect message for God’s children.  You could say it was happenstance, but I say it is providential that God brought this preacher to this family at this moment to let them know, God knows how you feel.  “Jesus wept.”

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Things That Only Seem Late

Babies, for example.  The “due date” of a baby is, I suppose, a helpful thing for parents and doctors to guess about.  But,  from my very limited perspective, announcing a due date seems to cause more stress and strain than necessary.  I think that if I were a baby-predicting doctor I would just give general windows, like, “your baby will be born sometime around June, or maybe May or July.  Whenever it is, you’ll know. So, be ready!”

Jesus, for another example.  One of our readers, in response to my comment that “Jesus was never late”, commented that to Martha and Mary, at the time, Jesus appeared to be late.  You remember the story.  Jesus’ best friend, Lazarus, was very sick. Jesus got the word and delayed his departure. By the time he arrived at their home Lazarus had died and Martha told Jesus that if he had made it on time her brother would not have died.  But, of course, Jesus wasn’t late.  He had his reasons.  So, Jesus calmly tells her, “Your brother will rise again.” And, of course, he does.  Which sort of was the beginning of the end, or the beginning of the beginning (depending on your point of view.) (John 11)

The bridegroom, for example.  Not the bridegroom who keeps his bride waiting on his wedding day. He really is late, and he is really in trouble.  But the bridegroom for whom the ten virgins are waiting.  They all want to go to the big party, but the party doesn’t start until the bridegroom arrives.  They wait and wait, and they all fall asleep. Finally, at midnight, the big announcement comes, “here comes the bridegroom.”  But some of the virgins had forgotten to put enough oil in their lamps to re-light them. So they need to find an all-night oil store, but while they are gone shopping the bridegroom arrives. The virgins who were prepared for the “whenever” arrival enter the banquet with the bridegroom. Let the party begin! But, those who weren’t ready, well, by the time they got back from their shopping trip, it was too late. (Matthew 25)

You can give babies a due date, but no one told the baby.  You can give Jesus a deadline, but he has a better sense of time that do you.  The party starts when the party starts. Be ready.  Some things, you see, only seem late.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Never Be Late Again!

When you are expected at a meeting or an appointment do you normally arrive early, on time, or late?  How does that make you feel? Your perception of the importance of the event and who you are meeting with probably changes your answer.  Most people nowadays know that if you show up late for a job interview you won’t get the job. 
When you are the person who is leading a meeting or gathering do you normally arrive early, on time, or late? How does that make you feel? How does it make the other participants feel?  I would guess that if you are perpetually late the people who are waiting for you are not happy when you do arrive. In fact, they probably feel insulted; that you have concluded your time or your schedule is more important than their own. And yet, if you are a boss or superior the participants won’t complain to your face.

In a recent study on the subject of perceptions of time it was “discovered” that people with status and power have a different perception of time. (WSJ 7.22.14 Robert Lee Hotz)  It seems that “the boss” might be late, not because she wants to appear more important,  but because she actually thinks she had more time to get to the meeting than in fact she did.  That may be what the study says, but I still think there is an element of rude behavior in the practice of “running late.”  Let me make a big confession here: I am pointing my finger directly at me as I write this. I am an “offender”!  I cannot tell you how many times a week I need to phone and say “I am running late” or I need to apologize for being late on arrival.  I am always trying to do one last email or phone call before leaving for a meeting, so I am late. 

After I read about this study I asked myself, “I wonder if Jesus was ever late?”  My first conclusion was that since there were no watches 2000 years ago, no one worried about 10 minutes either way. They had some system of knowing “the hours”, but I am guessing no one stressed about showing up late because how would you know if you were 5 minutes early or 15 minutes late?  But that isn’t the real point. The real point is that Jesus, the most authoritative, powerful human to ever live, viewed himself not as the “boss” but as the “Servant.”  Every meeting he attended was one in which he viewed himself as the Servant of everyone else, serving food, washing feet.  So, no, Jesus, the author of time itself, was never late.  So, the next time we’re supposed to meet, I am going to try to show up on time because, friends, you are more important than me.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Help, I Need Somebody!"

Throughout recorded time one of the hardest words to speak is “help.”  Maybe that is just my American world-view, but I think most people have a hard time asking for help. It is a difficult word to speak because we somehow feel that we should not need help; we should be able to solve our problems on our own.  Sometimes hearing the word “Help!” also creates a visceral negative reaction in the listener. It seems to depends on who is asking. But when need is real, asking for and giving help is right.

According to some sources, John Lennon claims that he wrote the famous Beatles song “Help” as a self-expression of his cry for help through the trauma induced by his singing group’s sudden, amazing rise to fame.  (Wikipedia “Help!”) Whether that is true or not, the lyric is popular because it speaks for the inner-cry of humans: “Help me if you can I’m feeling down/And I do appreciate you being round/Help me get my feet back on the ground/Won’t you please, please help me.”  Who among us has not cried out that phrase, probably to ourselves, in the middle of the night.  But we have such a difficult time speaking it out loud.  So sometimes the community needs to say it for us.

The idea of a community helping each other goes back to at least Moses. When raising funds to build the Tabernacle people “who were willing” gave so much that Moses eventually had to issue an order that people could give no more. (Exodus 36:6) Now that is honest fund-raising: we will tell you to stop when we have enough.  The idea of giving help as needed was a hallmark of the first church when the members sold what they had “to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:45)  You don’t need to ask for help in a community because everyone can see the need; they offer what you need just because you are a part of the community.

Which leads me to let you know that a family in my church community lost their house and worldly possessions to an accidental fire last week. The initial response of their friends and family has overwhelmed them, but the need continues.  The husband, wife and two daughters, each a special part of our community, need help to get their feet back on the ground. It is hard for them to ask for help, and it is even harder to receive so much love and the outpouring of support.  But that’s what communities do for each other: we do the asking and the giving, and when you are the one in need, you receive until you can say with Moses, “Stop, we have enough!”

If you would like to help this precious family of Hope Church, you can send your offering to: “Hope Church, Birkey Family Fund” Hope Church, 612 Ontario Ave. Sheboygan, WI. 53081

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Would You Sign the Declaration?

Because the Fourth of July, a national holiday in the United States, is a slow day around my house I have time to read the Declaration of Independence.  What struck me in this year’s reading is how politely the Founders worded their radical manifesto.  Then I began to wonder: would our present day Congress be able to write and sign such a strongly-worded call to arms today? Would anyone sign it today? What if the signers refused to sign? Would the U.S. exist, or would we be an English colony? Or Iran?

Political speech today has fallen on hard times. Character assassination has become so common that the sharp words fall on deaf ears.  We have heard so often that every politician is a lying, thieving cheater that we no longer can know a real criminal politician from a good one.  What we perhaps need is a return to political speech which states the most radical message (“we are starting a revolution to overthrow the king!”) in such polite words as these: “When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume the powers of the earth…”  I long for a politician who doesn’t feel compelled to speak and act to the lowest common denominator. Of course, that won’t change until the people stop responding favorably to negative messages.

But even if we could write such words, would anyone sign it? The Founders writing included these religious words: “the laws of nature and of nature’s God”; “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”; “with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence”.  I wonder if there is any way that our government today would agree to insert such language in any document which would get even a majority to sign, much less a unanimous approval.  (The Declaration was not unanimously approved, and thus the seeds of the later Civil War were planted.) In our nation today there are so many “gods” and so many voices declaring there is no God, would the calculating politicians be able to put their names to the Declaration today? Or would they take a poll and decide the politics of signing the Declaration were too risky to their office?

The signers also said “we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.”  Who would pledge their life and fortune and honor for America today? Who would publicly show their trust in the providential care of Divine Providence with such a bold pledge?  Would you?  Praise God those 56 signers signed.   

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Top Draft Picks

I would like to meet the Mad Ant. You probably never heard of Ron Howard, unless you happen to live in Fort Wayne, Indiana. That’s where Mr. Howard plays for a second-tier league of professional basketball players on a team known as the Mad Ants. (L. Jenkins, SI 4.28.14) The National Basketball Association (“NBA”) has a Development League (“D League”) where “really good but not quite good enough” basketball players learn the professional game, hoping to one day be noticed by the NBA.  Mr. Howard has been called up a to the NBA a bit, but mostly he has spent his young working life as a D League Mad Ant.   He and his wife and children live at Concordia Theological Seminary and run summer camps, lead toy drives at Christmas, volunteer at a food bank and mentor kids.  All while spending the basketball season playing NBA-level basketball as an Ant.

We have become nearly numb to the numbers.  Young men in their late teens or early twenties being chosen by a professional basketball team to begin a life’s work that will earn them millions of dollars before they are 35 years old. The numbers are so big that to most of the top draft picks it seems like they are being paid with Monopoly money as they take it and spend lavishly on houses and cars and lots of life’s frills and thrills.  And for a few young men, twenty to thirty of them in any given year, life as a top draft pick will be grand. Unless they get injured.  Unless they have a bad attitude toward practice. Unless…unless.  And for a very, very few, less than a dozen in a dozen years, life will be like living a dream, men with names like Jordan, Dr. J, Wilt the Stilt, Kareem, Lebron, Kobe.  But for many, their young careers end with them forgotten and alone.

When you are a Mad Ant and a Mad Ant’s wife, as is Reesha Howard, you can dream of being a top draft pick, but you might become Mr. and Mrs. Mad Ant.  What do you pray for when you are married with children and living the life of a Mad Ant? “We used to pray for Ron to make it to the NBA, but now I realize that’ so foolish,” Mrs. Mad Ant explains.  “We just thank God for allowing him to do what he loves. I never wanted to be one of those Basketball Wives anyway.  We’ve gotten so much more out of being here. We’ve gotten a real home.”

Ah, to learn the value of winning life’s bigger prizes.  It is good to learn this early.  You see, in life’s draft, the real winners are people like the Howards, Ants with a real home.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Zoom Out Living

A group of us made our way to a destination golf course.  This type of golf course is defined by at least four things: first, it will be expensive; very expensive; second, it will be visually intimidating; third, it will be very hard for an amateur to play well; and fourth, it will have stunning views. The first three of those four defining features leads to a common result.  The group gets to the end of the round and they gather round with long faces and empty wallets to share their many tales of woe. Each play finds as many ways as possible to say “that was fun” when what they really mean is “that was stupid.”

That’s what happened to us as well. But then, as we sitting outside telling our tales of woe, I looked up from the scorecard full of scary numbers and  took a panoramic view of the property. It was beautiful, the way the sun was creating shadows and the brilliance of the architects became evident.  So I said, “this is a really beautiful piece of land”.  A few looked up and said, “yeah”, but mostly everyone just kept on describing how the course had reminded us how far we are from playing like the pros.

I wonder if this is what it is like in other recreational activities. When people are out fishing, do they get so focused on watching the fish line or bobber that they fail to ever stop to see the vast beauty of lake or the river? Do bikers and joggers get so focused on their time and effort that they never look around them to appreciate their surroundings? Or when someone is crocheting, does one need to zoom in so intently on the needle that one cannot appreciate the full effect of the piece being made?  What is your favorite hobby? In order to do it well do you focus so much on the task at hand that you cannot see the whole picture?

There is a feature on electronic devices that allows you to “zoom out” when looking at a picture on a screen. You can move the view of the image out so that you see the “wide-angle” view.  Instead of just seeing one little part of the image you can appreciate the complete picture.  We should spend more of life focusing on the full view, not focused so much on the minute task at hand, or the one little problem we are trying to solve. “Zoom out living” gives us the panoramic view of God’s blessings which we otherwise might never see.  This week, if you feel stuck in a rut or beaten by a problem, zoom out, look at the full picture of your life, and give thanks for the beauty.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

What Water?

Later this morning I will be standing on a tee box looking at a green 120 yards away.  I will be playing a wily opponent in the second round of a single-elimination tournament.  Normally hitting the ball 120 yards is relatively easy, even for someone like me.  But, this particular hole I have been envisioning as a potential turning point in the match has one big hazard: a 50 yard long pond between the tee and the green.  I have been playing this course for over a decade, and yet every time I come to this hole I start to wonder if I should take “more club” so I can be sure to hit it over the water.  Over the course of time I have developed this little bit of self-talk as I approach the hole; “What water?”  As my sub-conscious brain tells me to strategize how to clear the water my conscious brain is telling myself, “what water? There’s nothing to fear!”

This is not just a problem for human beings.  I am reminded of the time I was training with a horse for a horse show competition. We were practicing on the concrete parking lot outside the coliseum where soon we, my horse and I, would enter and compete.  One of the event’s challenges was for me to ride the horse to the edge of a pool of water, get off and to lead the horse through it. So, my “trainers” had put a blue tarp down in the parking lot to simulate the water. As I rode the horse toward the simulated water the horse reared up and threw me off its back and onto my backside on the concrete. After which  I was told how to keep the horse’s attention on something other than the water. Thanks for the timely advice!

What reminded me of these stories of dealing with our fears was a story I read about a legally blind pole vaulter, Charlotte Brown of Emory, Texas. (SI 5.26.14)  She is unable to distinguish color or to judge distance, so in order to perform her feat she counts her steps up to the launching points and she relies on technology to tell her if she is near the box into which she needs to insert the pole. She recently launched herself 11 feet into the air. How? “I’m not scared, because I can’t see how high the bar is or how small the box is…I think our fears are  illusions, they’re not real. We just think they are.”  Like I said, “what water?”

Is there some fear you need to conquer this week?  Pray for vision which sees beyond the obstacle you fear. May God grant you the ability to see only the joy of victory.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Graduation Day Redux

You approach the south side of the building, using the door which invites you to “Enter Here.”  The lighting is low, but sufficient to reveal only one piece of furniture, a small square metal table. The gray of the table offsets nicely the table’s contents: 10,000 $100 bills. One million dollars.

You stare at the table and the dollar bills and you look for around for someone who will explain.  A voice comes over a loudspeaker. A calm sounding voice, surprisingly similar to the woman’s voice who announces on a GPS device in your car that you need to make a legal U-turn as soon as possible.  The voice says:

“Welcome.  You have been selected to participate in an experiment.  You have two choices. First, you may use proceed to exit through the north door. When you exit you will be 18 years old and in the precise same life situation as you were on your high school graduation day.  When you again reach your current age you can return here and retrieve the million dollars which will be for your own use.  Second, you can collect as many of the $100 bills as you would like and then turn around and exit the south door. When you exit you will be just in the same precise life situation as you were when you entered, except for the fact that you will have up to $1 million dollars, which money must be given away within the next 30 days.”

So, you stand there thinking, do I want to start my life over again from 18 knowing that one day I will have a million dollars? Or, do I want to be who I am right now with the opportunity to give away a million dollars right now?

Which choice to you make? Why?

Why does God rarely offer second chances?  Is it really better to give than to receive?  Is today the day your graduate from the school of life with one chance to start over?

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Is Jesus Hiding?

It’s not so much that we are trying to keep it a secret, but in my faith tradition we just don’t seem to pay it too much attention.  I am not sure why. Maybe if it wasn’t so close to Easter the church could work up more energy to celebrate it.  Or maybe, the Ascension of Our Lord is just one step too far in faith for us to talk about. Maybe parts of the church have some sort of collective wish not to talk about Jesus rising above the clouds and disappearing to, well, where? Heaven, yes, but where exactly is that, and how do you get there in bodily form?  Or, perhaps it is just a very practical problem: it is hard to get people to go to church on Thursday, the day Jesus ascended, so it gets lost in the hustle of life. Did you wake up last Thursday praising God for the Ascension of your Lord? 

I have no doubt that Jesus is alive in a glorified body seated next to the Father in some space I cannot see or comprehend.  I am thinking though that the reason we don’t make more of the Ascension is that, not only can we not conceive of how it happened, we cannot conceive of why it happened either.  Is Jesus hiding from us?  It sure seems like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  When I talk with my friends whose parents have died unexpectedly; when I cry with spouses who have loved one who are very, very sick; when I wonder with grandparents about the faith of their grandchildren, it is very easy to ask Jesus, why don’t you come and fix this? Why did you choose to leave us alone?

There is an answer of course. I guess there are two answers, at least.  One is that Jesus told us, if he leaves us he is going to prepare a place for us to be with him and that if he goes, well, he’s coming back again to get us.  The church spends a lot of time worrying about who the “us” is that he’s coming back to retrieve.  I don’t worry about that because John Calvin tells me to assume it is everyone and that God has it all figured out, so don’t fret about it. And, by the way, “us” includes “all Israel.”  You see, we, the Jews and Christians, I figure we are waiting for the same Messiah to come (again.)  But, that is a topic for another day.

And there is a second answer. Jesus didn’t leave us alone. Meet the Holy Spirit, you who are looking for the comforting presence of Jesus.  Oh, and go look in the mirror. Maybe the man or woman staring back at you is the presence of Christ. To someone. Today?

Saturday, May 24, 2014

"Still Worth Dying For"

The ironic aspect of giving a memorial tribute is  that the people to whom you offer tribute cannot hear you.  The best you can do is offer your tribute, post-mortem, to the family of the deceased, or to those with whom they served. Of course, when it comes to remembering those who died to establish freedom for a nation, or for the concept of freedom, family and colleagues are often not present either.  But, do we stop remembering the heroes of the Civil War or World War I because there is no one left to thank?  No, we go on giving tribute, year after year, decade after decade, to men and women who to us are anonymous and to whom we were unknown. For good reason.

When a soldier chooses a path of life that may result in death he likely thinks of people he knows and loves as the reason “why” he go down that path.  But perhaps she also thinks of millions she doesn’t know, and millions yet unborn, whom she wants to taste freedom rather than oppression.  Still freedom, as a concept, is worth dying for only if there are practical, living, breathing examples of freedom’s reward.  In the land that claims “freedom” as its song, the native citizens often choose to ignore the reason for the three-day weekend we call Memorial Day.  Perhaps this is because so many don’t know of anyone who died or risks dying for their freedom. How short-sighted they are.

But then there are people like Asim Manizada.  He was pictured in a national newspaper in his room with a large American flag as his only wall decoration. (WSJ, 5.25.14) Mr. Manizada is, I imagine, engaged in some form of memorial tribute this weekend not because he knows the heroes whom the flag represents,  but because he appreciates the freedom they preserved for him.  You see, he is not a citizen yet, but he is signed up to join the United States military so he can quicken his pace of becoming a citizen.  He is a part of a program the military offers to legal immigrants in which, if they have special skills, they can vastly shorten their road to citizenship by serving the nation which they long to call home.  In yet another irony, many of the people most likely to celebrate the meaning of Memorial Day are those do not yet have the freedom they celebrate.

Why offer a memorial tribute this weekend to people you don’t know and who didn’t know you?  Ask Mr. Manizada.  Better yet, ask God. Freedom is still worth dying for.  

Saturday, May 17, 2014

What Do You See?

You have likely played those games where someone hands you a piece of paper with black and white shapes and asks you, “What do you see?”  Most people, at first, see nothing but blobs; non-descript blotches of black and white.  But, if you stare at the paper long enough; if you will take the time to focus your eyes and concentrate your mind, you will see an image. What makes the difference? I don’t have a clue. Who do you think I am, a scientist?  But I thought about that exercise, of opening our eyes to see differently things that are right before us,  in the context of living in desperate times, or at least the part about which I have a tiny clue.

This week I encountered three situations faced by people I know and love.  What I learned from each of these dear friends is that the way to face desperate times; the way to live through tragic circumstances, is to re-focus.  One person said to me that, upon learning very bad news about the future, “you cry until you can cry no more, and then you start looking at what can be.”  His point was that, while he could spend his time “beating myself up” dwelling in despair, it wasn’t going to change the outcome. Instead, he started to think about “what could be” instead of “what could not be.”  His approach allows him to, first of all, just function. But, more important, this approach allows him to function in a way which helps him to discover pictures of joy and happiness in circumstances where others would just see random blotches of black and white.

The second lesson I learned from my friend was that if you look at life from the proper perspective you see how God is at work in the midst of our times of despair.  My friend taught me about the importance of faith.  His description of the varied ways he saw God connecting the dots to make a beautiful picture made me think of a twist on an old analogy. One of the blessings that God brings people in times of despair is that they get to see not just the knots on the backside of the quilted picture, but they get to see glimpses of the beautiful picture on the other side.  Eyes of faith see life differently. How is it that the blotches of black and white reveal a picture when we look with eyes of faith?  What makes the difference?  God. God gives the glimpses which happen when we re-focus our eyes to discover truths which really matter in a beautiful way.  There still will be tears in those eyes, but the tears of sorrow will be mixed with tears of joy when those eyes see glimpse of truth.  “Open my eyes that I may see/Glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;…Silently now I wait for Thee; Ready my God, Thy will to see; Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine.” (“Open MY Eyes, That I May See”, Clara Scott)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Disappointment Perspectives

Disappointment can ruin a day, a week, why to some extent, a lifetime.  A friend of thirty years had been struggling with a recent problem, a very serious one. I was helping him through it as best I could. And then, when he most needed help, we had a falling out. He said and did something he regrets. I said and did some things I certainly regret.  I was distraught. Had I failed my friend? Had he failed me?  After thirty years, it ends like this?  The disappointment changed me. I couldn’t stop replaying the whole event in my mind.  I snapped at my wife and had to apologize for making her a victim too.  I couldn’t digest my food; and why eat anyway?  I couldn’t sleep.  And then, in the middle of a sleepless night, I did the only thing I had left to do. I asked God to bless my friend. It was hard to form the words. I didn’t know if my heart was really in it, but I said them anyway.  The next morning I was still angry and, I think, mildly depressed.  After another sleepless night and another wrestle with God about faith and how could this happen, another prayer, and then, slowly, I was changed.  The following day, I vowed to pretend I didn’t care; time to move on.  But I did care. For my friend. So I called him again and told him I wasn’t angry, and I wanted the best possible outcome for him, that I wanted to still support him. I am still disappointed.  But I can sleep. He’s my friend.

In the midst of disappointment, with a parent, a child, a co-worker, a friend, even with God, we need to choose a perspective.  I think these are the options: there is no God; there is a God, who doesn’t care; there is a God who cares, but who is powerless to change anything; there is a God who cares, who weeps with us,  who holds and offers the power of hope.  I choose the last option, not because I think it keeps disappointment away, but because knowing God is there with the gift of hope keeps my disappointment in perspective.  God doesn’t choose to bring me (or you) disappointment.  But when friendships fail, when bodies break down, when I am feeling abandoned and alone, there is one perspective that makes tomorrow possible. I know many of you have much greater disappointments in your life right now than my own.  I can offer only this: Jesus weeps with you; God holds your tomorrow.  And that is why, in the middle of the restless night, we pray, for a new perspective.  It is the last, and best, choice.

“Someone is there….Someone is watching life as it unfolds on this planet. More, Someone is there who loves (you).  (This) is a startling feeling of wild hope...”

(Philip Yancy, Disappointment with God, p. 255)   

Saturday, April 19, 2014

What Are YOU Waiting For?

Everyone is waiting for something.  Maybe not all of the time, but most of the time, we are all waiting. For a phone call, an email, an interview, a test result, a birth, a death.

On this day one man was waiting for something unique.  To resurrect with a glorified body. A body that would still eat and walk and talk.  Still, a glorified, un-dying body. Never happened before.  Never happened since.  None of his friends, it seems, though he told them to expect it, were waiting for that to happen. Can you blame them? 

It is said that his waiting was rewarded.  It is said that we are all in a Saturday waiting time zone.  For those who wait with Hope, it is said we will share in waiting’s reward.

“It is a good thing to remember that in the cosmic drama, we live our days on Saturday, the in-between day with no name. I know a woman whose grandmother lies buried under 150-year-old live oak trees in the cemetery of an Episcopal church in rural Louisiana.  In accordance with the grandmother’s instructions, only one word is carved on the tombstone: ‘Waiting.’” (P. Yancy, The Jesus I Never Knew,  p. 275)

It’s Saturday. Something new was stirring in Jesus, dead as dead though he was.  And he waited.  Turns out, it was worth the wait.

It’s Saturday. What stirs within your soul?  What are you waiting for?  When you receive the greatest hope for which you wait, will it have been worth the wait?

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Meaning of the Parade

Giving advice about life and work is a tricky business.  What has life taught me that is really worth repeating to someone 30 or 40 years behind me on the journey?  What won’t sound like the gripes of a man who didn’t get his way? What won’t sound like the boastings of a man who is claiming success which was really earned by others?  What have I learned in life that is really adaptable to someone else’s life, to someone who is going to walk with different people, in different places, in a different time?

That was some of my thinking as I prepared to be interviewed by a seminary student for a class assignment on pastoring a church.  Her last question asked me to summarize in a few points what is most important to remember.  I came up with a few things, like, when you are conversing with people, listen much more than you speak.  Say just enough to let the person you are with tell their story.  I wish I was better at that, frankly.  Listening well is such a lost art on people who aspire to leadership.  And then I said it was important to be willing to fail, and when you do fail, to admit it, learn from it, and move on.  If you are going to lead people in some worthwhile new venture you need to be willing to fail.  If you insist on guaranteed success in your every task you cannot lead boldly.  And I suggested that in all aspects of work, leave room for the Holy Spirit to act. Have a plan of what you want to do or say, but remember that someone else is in control.  The people you work with might be the messengers of a better way.

The most important lesson I tried to pass along was this: remember you are a servant.  The people you serve are more important than you are. Their “success” is more important than your own.  I woke up today thinking about that, and the famous line from Patton.  He says that when a Roman conqueror rode his chariot in glory through the streets of Rome, showered with praise for his success, a servant stood at his ear whispering, “All glory is fleeting.”  Don’t seek glory. Seek the success of the people you are called to serve.  One of the most well-known parades happened on a dusty road near Jerusalem 2100 or so years ago.   The people shouted praise to the man who rode on a donkey.  That praise lasted all of 5 days. Then they killed him.  Had he only rode on the donkey his fame would have been short-lived. 

What God ultimately rewards is work which brings glory to God, not to ourselves.  Only one man was born to die.  For the rest of us, work is one big “thank you.” Work well.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Choosing Your Team

I was talking with a friend of mine about a potential new hire for his business.  We were considering the traits of the applicant and I suggested that she seemed confident. He suggested she seemed arrogant. Which led me to ask, “Where is the line between ‘self-confident’ and ‘arrogant’?  My friend used a sports analogy, and if you don’t follow college sports you may need to look up these names, but he said, “Frank Kaminsky is self-confident; Johnny Manziel is arrogant. One puts himself above the team and believes the rules don’t apply to him. The other works within the system for the betterment of the team. All things being equal I would rather have Kaminsky on my team.”

I cannot really disagree with my friend’s analysis. But it made me think about why we perceive this woman differently.  I wonder if our perception of other people is as much a reflection of who we are as who the other person is?  Do we evaluate people and judge them as good or bad for our own “team” based on who we are as much, if not more, than who the other person is?  Look at, for example, two basketball teams playing in the NCAA’s Final Four.  Wisconsin and Kentucky are generally judged as complete opposites. To mix metaphors, Wisconsin is the work horse and Kentucky is the thoroughbred. Wisconsin is the “I think I can win” team and Kentucky is the “of course we will win” team.  Why do some people like one and some people the other? Regional loyalties aside, it seems the teams we “like” say a lot about us. The character of the team is the same; whether you like the team or not says more about you than it does about the team. This business of deciding who people really are is important, not just in choosing employees, but in choosing friends and spouses.  I think two people, looking at the same employee candidate’s traits, could see those traits in a positive and a negative light.  Here’s a simple example: say “President Obama” in a room full of 10 people and at least two people will have equally strong and opposite reactions. He is one man perceived in two entirely different ways, not because the President is two men, but because the people perceiving him are so different.  The point being, in choosing your team, you need to know as much about yourself as you need to know about the candidates.

Jesus kept asking his friends, “Who do you say I am?” Jesus asked not because he was unsure of his identity, but to help us discover who we are.  Jesus can be perceived as either a “liar, lunatic, or Lord.”  Your choice doesn’t change who Jesus is, but it reveals who you are.  Do you want Jesus on your team? Choose carefully.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Man Behind the Counter

The man behind the counter was having a bad day. In fact, he was ready to quit. That very minute. I was in a convenience-type store, just picking up a few items, and I was behind a younger woman in the line.  The woman had her four frozen pizzas and a bottle of wine. I am guessing the pizzas were for her kids and the bottle of wine for was after her kids were in bed.  She was engaged in quite a long conversation on her cellular telephone.  She talked on her phone, gesturing with one hand while holding the phone with the other, all while the man behind the counter was ringing her up (are you old enough to remember why this check-out routine is called “ringing up”?).  After he had bagged her goods the woman swiped her debit card, picked up “dinner” and walked away, chatting away without missing a word in the conversation.

Now it  was my turn, except that the man behind the counter was visibly angry and he was not taking up my goods. He said, “How can people be so rude? She didn’t even acknowledge that I was alive. Who does she think she is? I am ready to quit, right now. I mean it. I don’t have to put up with people like that.”  Well, my wife, Jill, was waiting in the car, and I didn't want to have to find another store, so I tried to calm him down. “Well, maybe she had an emergency call.” “No,” he said, “ I could hear the whole conversation, just a lot of foolish talk.” And then came a bit of “street psychology” which caught my ear. The man behind the counter said, “They think they can ignore me because I am their inferior. They prove they are superior to me by not even looking at me. But, I know the truth; they are the inferior ones who need to act like they are so important on their phones that they can just ignore people like me.”  I quickly processed this analysis, and in some weird way it made sense. Plus, I wanted to get checked out, so I quickly agreed with him.  I joined him in bemoaning the fact that in our effort to be more and more “connected” we have in fact become a society of people that fail to connect at the most basic level. We don’t even see the man behind the counter anymore.

Before Jesus could heal the blind man he had to first see him. (John 9:1)  To be a true servant of our neighbors we first need to see them.  Some of used to sing,  “We’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” (Peter Scholtes © 1966)  Sadly, that tune went out of style, but it is more relevant than ever.  Jesus saw each person as someone he loved, because he did love everyone. Do we?  Well, a good way to start showing it is by truly seeing the man behind the counter.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

No 'Boss Key' Required

Have you ever used a “boss key?”  This little invention of the human mind is yet another testament to the natural traits of the human species: while we say ‘honesty is the best policy’, we live otherwise.  Here’s the scenario.  You are sitting at your desk “working” during the nationally televised men’s national basketball championship.  From your computer you can now watch all of the basketball games, and on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament, that is an all-day opportunity.  From 11:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (CT) you can watch non-stop hoops.  The only problem, of course, is that someone is paying you money to do productive work during those same hours.  Well, problem solved!  Some genius somewhere invented the “boss key”, which is a box on your computer screen which you can click on when “the boss” is approaching. Clicking on the boss key instantly changes the video on your computer screen to a new page which makes it look like you are working. Brilliant! Dishonest, but brilliant.

Do you go through life wishing that life came with a boss key? I mean, what if you could hide from your spouse or children all of the behavior you were too ashamed to let them know you were engaged in?  Do you think your life would be happier? Or would it be better to make a decision: “if I am going to engage in this particular behavior, then I am going to do so openly. And if I am too ashamed of the behavior to do so without my spouse or kids knowing it, then I won’t do it.”  Whether it’s binge shopping or eating; or computer usage or television viewing, wouldn’t you feel better about yourself if you didn’t feel the need to “click the boss key” if someone saw you doing it?

I wonder if we think about God like a boss we need to hide from.  Do we try to hide our true feelings and actions from God, thinking we can click on some spiritual boss key whenever we don’t want God to know what we are all about?  Friends, it doesn’t work. God knows. “ I look behind me and you’re there, then up ahead and you’re there, too—your reassuring presence, coming and going. This is too much, too wonderful I can’t take it all in!” (Psalm 139, The Message)  God is not some big “boss” walking behind you waiting to catch you at something.  But neither is God blind to how we live.

Yet, fully knowing who you really are, God still loves you with an overwhelming love.  With God, no boss key is required.  Now, don’t live like you need one.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I Need That!

You know what temptation is, right? Almost all of our temptations can be summarized in one simple phrase: “I need that.”  Something in our brain persuade us, first with a whisper, and then with a big, bold, capital letters shout: “I NEED THAT! NOW!”  And the world of social media has figured out how to tempt us, or at least me, in very clever, subtle and not so subtle ways.

The new number one source of temptation will soon be interest ads on computer pages.  Interest ads are the little windows which pop up on your computer and tell you what you need based on your “interests”.  Interest ads get to you because advertisers pay people who have pages you read to allow the ads to be placed there. So, for example, if you are car shopping on line you will find all sorts of interest ads pop up telling you which car dealers you “need” to visit for the best deals.  If you are looking up information about automobile accidents you will find ads from lawyers who will get you all the money you “need” to make things right.

That’s all really fair game. That is just a modern advertising strategy.  The more devious ones are those which tempt us with things we didn’t even know we needed. So, for example, I find out with great regularity the “problems” the interest ad writers assume I have as an older white male: failing and falling features and drives.  And the advertisers promise they can give me a new lease on life with one little click on the alluring ad.  As it turns out, most of my “problems” can be solved with a pill.  For some reason, I don’t believe them.  Maybe it’s because it always seems that today’s problem-solving pill becomes tomorrow’s class-action lawsuit.  I spent a lot of time following all sorts of links to turn off interest ads, but with only marginal success.  So now it has become a game in my mind: I am not going to look at the ads. I am going to just say no.

 It is no sin, they say, to be tempted.  The sin is in believing that the tempting offers of an easy path to possessions, power and prestige will give you the life you always dreamed of, and all of that is just one little click away.  Temptations are no different now than they were at the beginning of time.  The Tempter finds a weak spot in our life and says, “I can fix that problem. See, the ‘apple’ looks so good, and it’s good for you! Really.” And we finally persuade ourselves, “How bad can it be? I need that!” Oops.   

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Mr. Martin's Cross

People who have met him say he is an imposing figure, a big man’s big man. Tall and wide with eyes that can stare a hole through you.  Yes, Frank Martin is all of that, and he also knows his stuff. He knows it so well that, taking the package as a whole, people pay a great deal of money to have him on their team.  Just think, $12.3 million dollars for six years of work. Just this year he is making $1.9 million, and his employer paid his former employer $1 million just for the opportunity to hire him away.

And what is it that Mr. Martin does? Cure diseases? Manage hundreds of jobs? Create lasting art?  Mr. Martin is a basketball coach for the University of South Carolina; the leader of the Gamecocks men’s team.  Mr. Martin was hired partly because he is a good coach, but mostly, I think, because he gets angry. He gets angry a lot.  His stare is worth the price of admission and it helps in filling the stands, 18,000 seats at a time.  But, this year, Mr. Martin has become a caricature of himself.  He engages in behavior which, in any other employment setting would get you fired faster than you can say “where’s the door?”  Mr. Martin is an angry man, and that has become his cross to bear.  He recently was caught on camera berating a freshman player.  Can you imagine what would happen if a professor or administrator cussed out a 19 year-old boy in front of his classmates?  Well, the Athletic Director for South Carolina, Ray Turner, must have felt it was time to send a message to his very expensive coach. So he suspended him.  For one game. One game. Wow, that sure is sending a message. I wonder if it’s the message Mr. Turner intended to send.

Mr. Martin claims he doesn’t want to be The Angry Man. When he was hired he said, “What you see in six seconds on ESPN is nothing like I am.” Wishful thinking, Frank.  Maybe Mr. Martin can use his night off to read about one of the greatest coaches ever, John Wooden.  Coach Wooden rarely yelled at his players because it was, “artificial stimulation, which doesn’t last very long.”  But Coach Wooden was subject to passionate outbursts. He controlled them by carrying a little cross in his pocket, clutching it during every game. It wasn’t a magic device or a good luck charm. It was a simple reminder to the Coach that there is something more important than basketball.  Maybe if Mr. Martin tried carrying a little cross he could get rid of his big cross.

How about for you?  Do you have a cross to bear? Anger, gossip, lust, vanity, pride?  Could you use the Coach’s cross as a way to remind you, when confronted with temptation, that there is a another way to deal with life than being weighed down by the cross you created?

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Cloud Vision

Clouds.  Flying through clouds. Dark clouds. The tube carrying 100 or so people shakes, just a little, but enough to get your attention.

Do you know that moment? That moment when the chatterbox three rows back suddenly becomes quiet. The moment when the businesswomen intent on completing her presentation shuts down the computer and looks at her seatmate. That moment when a husband and wife, sitting aisle and window, reach across the empty center seat to hold hands.

When you are flying through life’s clouds it’s like that, isn’t it? My day started talking with a friend whose brother is about to go into six hour surgery, the outcome of which will bring news, and perhaps a chance at recovery. Perhaps not.  There is little to say to my friend and her family. Little that is not trite or some time-worn slogan that clergy are supposed to say. And yet, in that moment, in the dark clouds, it’s not so much what you say that matters, it’s more how you say it. It’s more that you are physically or emotionally holding someone’s hand to show her that you are there.  Everyone pays attention when the airplane is shaking through the darkness. Everyone needs a hand held, even the tough guy in aisle 12 who looks like he has survived much worse.  He could use a smile too.  Yes, in the dark clouds, people are listening.

What they want to hear; what they need to hear, is that God lives in the clouds.  And he does.  God is the Light that keeps the Darkness from becoming overwhelming.

You know, in your mind more than in your heart, that the airplane is going to get through the dark clouds. And then, wheels down, Chatty Cathy and Betty Businesswoman can get back to what they do.  In the light. On the ground. Out of the clouds.

The most critical thing to have when you are flying through dark clouds is the vision that comes not from seeing but from believing.  That’s faith, I suppose. Cloud vision.