Saturday, December 26, 2015

What About the Baby?

One of our annual Christmas traditions is to watch the movie "Christmas Vacation" on Christmas Eve.  Some of the funniest scenes for me are those in which "Sparky", the Midwestern, all-American family guy, interferes with the lives of his young neighbors, Todd and Margo.  They are picture perfect on the outside, but they would never fit into the family traditions of Sparky's normal (meaning: dysfunctional)  family.  I try to imagine self-centered Todd and Margo as parents with a newborn baby.  They are so into themselves and their lives that it leaves me wondering, who in the world would care for the baby? They would soon learn that receiving a Child creates new priorities.

Do you picture Joseph and Mary to be like Todd and Margo?  Somehow, I don't.  I think that they had to be a little bit more like Sparky and Ellen Griswold, managing chaos with a smile. On the first morning after the first Christmas, what do you suppose the new Mom and Dad did?  Did Joseph make Mary a nice hot cup of coffee, or at least retrieve it from the Innkeeper?  Did Mary tell Joseph it was his turn to rock the Baby, or did she just want to hold on all of the time?  Joseph and Mary certainly couldn't lace up the Nike's and go off for a morning run through the streets of Bethlehem.  Who would have watched the Baby?

We celebrate Christmas as a reminder that Jesus voluntarily gave up his place in Heaven to come live with people like Todd and Margo, Sparky and Ellen and Joseph and Mary.  And you and me.  On this first morning after Christmas morning we all need to ask ourselves, "what about the Baby?"  This Baby now, in his Spirit, seeks to live in each person. Are we willing to set our priorities so that there will we be time to care for the Christ Child?  Will we surround the Child with a nurturing environment?

The Baby has arrived. Are we prepared for what’s next? We cannot be less prepared than Todd and Margo. Or Joseph and Mary.  "God with Us" comes to everyone who will receive Him.  But, like Joseph and Mary, once we receive that newborn into our lives, we dare not just ignore Him.  We need daily reminders that we have a new Child in our lives. Christmas Day may be over but be careful not to throw out the Baby with the wrapping paper.  Don’t put Him on a shelf in the basement with the decorations.  Keep your focus on what needs to be done to keep the Child alive in your life and, miraculously, you will receive the gift you have waiting for: the salvation of your soul.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Christmas Prayer for All the Saints

How often have you said of someone you know and loved, “She was a saint”; or “He was no saint”? What makes a “saint” a saint anyway?

You heard this week that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church is near to declaring  that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a Saint? Can there be any doubt that Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a saint? I think not.  Mother Teresa is a model for all Christians, indeed for all people who worship the One True God, of humble servanthood.  She was Jesus to so many people, following the leading of Jesus to all of his disciples as she cared for the poor. I join the Pope in holding her up as someone who devoted her life to God in a way which teaches me and all who will be saints what it means to be a transformed disciple of Jesus. But, are her deeds, is the good she did on this earth, that which makes Mother Teresa a saint? Our friends in the Roman Catholic Church will declare she is a saint because of two verified miracles of healing for those who prayed to Mother Teresa after she was dead. That is a part of their definition of sainthood. I do not judge their understanding of the faith, but I do disagree with it. Again, I don’t disagree with the conclusion about the good Mother Teresa, just how her church got to their conclusion.

I believe that the saints do not “earn” their status in this life or in death. The saints are those who, by grace alone, are called into the fellowship of God.  The category of “saints” includes that grandma to whom you attribute sainthood, not because she was so good and kind, but because she was a child of grace.  This Christmas week I urge you to give thanks for all of your “saints who from their labors rest”.  No miracle other than the miracle of the grace of God being visited upon them is needed. Sainthood is not attained by being good, but by the work of this Baby Jesus whom we come and worship this Christmas, the work of that Baby on his Cross done “for all the saints”, like me and you. Miracles happen, not because of the saints, but because of God alone, for God alone possesses the power and deserves the glory.  In giving praise to the “saints”, we are giving praise to God alone. So, here is my Christmas prayer for you, dear readers and friends; dear saints by the grace of God and the body of the Baby Jesus:

 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.(Ephesians 3:18-19, NRSV)

Saturday, December 12, 2015

God IS Fixing This

“God Isn’t Fixing This” screamed the headline of New York’s Daily News the morning after yet another incidence of mass murder in the United States. What we have learned since the events of December 3, 2015,  is that the violence in San Bernardino, California stemmed from a terrorist act, evidence that the insanity of ISIS had officially made its way into the U.S. borders. The newspaper’s headline writers didn’t know that terrorism, not gun control, was the real issue when they wrote their front page, but read in the light of the harsh reality of the true motive for the violence,  the headline is even more jarring. So the question is proper, I think: where is God in all of this?  May I start with this declaration from Jesus of Nazareth, whom I believe to be the Messiah, the Son of God:

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” Matthew 24:6 (NIV)

I am not a proponent of any version of “end times” theology which claims to know when the end is coming. Jesus didn’t know, and I certainly don’t know.  But, with the end of the earth as we know it will come the end of war and rumors of war.  God could bring the world to an end right now, before you finish reading this sentence, and the ISIS-spread terror would cease, along with wars and rumors of war in all of the other strife-worn parts of this world. Would you rather that the world end today, or that God continue to show divine patience so that all of his children might be able to know and profess Jesus as Lord? It is so hard to live in the light of the mystery of Advent: Jesus came; Jesus left; Jesus is coming again.  Jesus shall reign and the enemy shall be defeated.  But, in the meantime, which is when we live- today- people die in wars.  In this meantime it is the call and duty of we “keepers of the fire” to “act justly, love mercy, walk humbly,” and to pray for a “peace that is no peace, but strife sown in the sod.”

God is fixing to end the insanity humans commit upon each other.  The truth is though, until Jesus comes again, the “fixing” comes through our hands. Pray for strong hands.

    “ ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’  Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people.” Revelation 22:20-21 (NIV)

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Congratulations, It's a Girl!

Imagine this: one hundred million women missing from the earth because parents were taught that boys were more valuable than girls.  Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because it is fact.  In Asia, cultural and religious practices were so misguided that parents used gender selection, everything from abortion to infanticide, that males now out-number females by such a wide margin that the governments of these countries are implementing new strategies to put females on a more equal footing with males. One article refers to the current status of birth rates in Asia as “Not just a human-rights catastrophe, it is also a looming demographic disaster.” (G. Anand & J. Woo, WSJ, Nov. 27, 2015)

Fortunately, the tide is turning in South Korea, China and India.  South Korea, for example, in one generation “wiped out centuries-old practices in which a son was essential to inherit property, worship ancestors, care for parents and continue the family lineage.”  The challenge now moves to China and India, “one third of humanity that continues to give birth to significantly more males.” China started a “Care for Girls” campaign in 2000 to try to deal with the problems of too many men and not enough women, and it just recently abandoned the “one child policy” that likely contributed to the skewed census.

Why should we in the western world care?  For me, this problem of seeing females as inferior to males continues most in, of all places, religious institutions. Religious organizations are still “a man’s world.”  I can speak only to the Christian Church to which I profess allegiance. I know this: in Christ there is neither male or female. (Galatians 3:28)  So, if we are all equal in Christ why are we not all equal in Christ’s church?  When Christian parents today deliver a baby girl through the church’s door can they share a vision that one day their daughter would be preaching and baptizing in the church? In many expressions of the Christian Church the answer is “no.”

It is so easy for us in the west to shake our heads at the way Asian cultures and religions cause parents to cry when they bring a girl into the world.  But, we are so blinded by our own cultural interpretations of God’s Word that we cannot see the log in our own eye.  Let’s begin a new church year with a renewed commitment to being a Church that is a true expression of equality in Christ.  Let’s commit ourselves to being able to be able to say, “Congratulations, it’s a girl. She will be a fine minister one day!”

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"A Time of Distress Such as Has Not Happened"

“There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then.” Daniel 12:1

The dead and the wounded cannot fade into the trash of yesterday’s news again. Not this time. Today it is Paris. Tomorrow? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.  If there is a cause to unite the sane people of the world it must be this: “eradicate jihadism in our lifetime.”  This is the least we can do for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

If you had asked me even two years ago, I would have denied that I would ever write a paragraph like the one you just read.  I hate the fact that we need to have wars. I was not a pacifist, but I had trouble believing that violence was the solution to violence. But this is different. Now it cannot be denied.  Evil has a name, and it is ISIS.  I cannot in good conscience sit here in my living room looking at a beautiful, sun-bathed frosted earth and ignore the truth that body parts are being cleaned up in Paris.  The French are not the enemy. I am the enemy of ISIS; everything I believe in; everything I preach; the God I worship; I am the enemy. ISIS wants to destroy me, my family; my grandsons, for God’s sake. They want to destroy my way of life and, most importantly, the foundations of my faith.  This is why I have today changed my mind.

John Robert Gallagher,  a Canadian volunteer fighting the Islamic State, wrote this:  “The terrorists’ own playbook sees the taking and holding of territory as a necessary step to discredit Western democracy and prove that the Caliphate is a real political possibility in the 21st century. We have to prove that it is not. And like we did with Nazi Germany, we must crush it with overwhelming, unrelenting force….while the graves are still fresh…while there are still survivors to give testimony to the atrocities… .”

Mr. Gallagher is dead now, a result he knowingly risked in the battle to destroy evil. It is a battle Christian martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer fought as well.  The “great prince Michael” is looking for people willing to join him in the battle against evil.  The Word of God will overcome. But not without a battle that demands my unwavering support.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"...and there was light."

It took a genius to put us onto the fact that we could actually see the light.  I am not writing about the light on your computer screen or the reading lamp lighting your desk or favorite chair. I am writing about the light. You know, that light that lit up the universe for the first time; the “let there be light” light.  It is still visible, that very first light.

Don’t believe me? Turn on your television and leave the screen blank. Some of the static you seen on that screen is caused by the light particles dating back to the beginning of time. (source: R. Dijkgraaf, WSJ, Nov. 6, 2015)  The scientific minds that come to that conclusion, I am guessing, will not concede that the light which was created at the beginning of time came from the mind of God.  There is sometimes this disconnect between science and theology, a disconnect which goes both ways. That is, the scientists don’t agree with the theologians understanding of God and the theologians don’t agree with the scientists understanding of the world we all can see.  I wonder if just maybe they all think a little too hard about it for their own good. Still, I do not need to let their professional disagreements stop me from my simple conclusion: we can see God’s first light.

Here is what I know.  A Hebrew writer, a long time ago, was chosen by God to tell anyone who would listen that in the beginning God said there should be light to fill the darkness, and there was light.  One hundred years ago, Albert Einstein submitted the first in a series of physics papers which changed how we all look at the world.  Einstein’s general theory of relativity was, in my view, a gift from God. God wouldn’t let a mind Albert’s go to waste. God used the mind of a pure genius to reveal in a way that no one had before the way the universe is designed. From Einstein’s original work came the understanding of the big bang theory, the point in time when from darkness came light.

I am far from a genius in anything.  I am not a scientist in the least. But, I love the fact that scientists take work like Einstein’s and develop the GPS that guides me to my destinations.  I am not a theologian in the least. But, I love the fact that theologians take the work of the writer of Genesis to develop an understanding of God’s creative personality and power.  And perhaps because I am too ignorant to understand the details, I happily reach the conclusion that both the scientists and the theologians are right: God made light and it took an Einstein to figure out that we can still see God’s first light. Now, if only I could figure out how to get static to show up on my television.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

When Turkeys Fly

“may my heart be always open to little
birds who are the secret of living…” e. e. cummings (source: “may my heart always be open”,

In the early fall days, before the government changes the sunrise, my morning walk happens just as the sun is rising. Then the earth is pregnant with promise. It is the time that even turkeys fly.

Turkeys, another of God’s curious creations, which must bring a smile to the heavenly host, are not fleet of foot, or claw, or whatever you call that appendage. They are not aerodynamically fit for fast. And, while turkeys wouldn’t seem to have much of a brain, they have figured out that they will live longer sleeping in trees than on the ground. Foxes may be faster, but they cannot climb trees.  So, each night, after a day of walking around their territory, pecking away at the ground in search of food, they have to summon up the strength to fly up a tree. I have not seen this in person, but I imagine it to be a hard task, getting the wings going sufficiently fast to lift their rotund bodies up into a gravity-defying flight.  It must be like me trying to get out of my reading chair before bed, a time full of creaks and groans.

But then, just after sunrise, they see the day has begun. (I wonder if they are surprised?)  What awaits them today is the same as awaited them all their yesterdays and all their tomorrows: the opportunity to work at finding food and shelter, raising their family of tiny turkeys, and, if the season is right, making new turkeys.  But before they can begin their day on the ground they have the once-a-day opportunity to soar like an eagle. I saw them, one after the other, eight all together, soaring from above the tree line, gliding on the air, floating with the greatest of ease down to their stomping ground.

When turkeys fly like that it must be exhilarating for them. Once a day they soar, they seize the day. And they know, tomorrow they get do it again.  God is good.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Where's Trevor?

“Henri Nouwen was a priest and a brilliant teacher at places like Harvard and Yale. Feeling led by God, he spent the last decade of his life living in a community of people with severe emotional, mental, and physical disabilities. Henri tells a story about Trevor, a man with severe mental and emotional challenges who was sent by Henri's community to a psychiatric facility for evaluation. Henri wanted to see him, so he called the hospital to arrange a visit. When those in authority found out that Henri Nouwen was coming, they asked if they could have a lunch with him, When Henri arrived for lunch Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Troubled, Henri asked about Trevor's whereabouts. "Trevor cannot come to lunch," he was told. "Patients and staff are not allowed to have lunch together."

By nature, Henri was not a confrontational person. He was a meek man. But being guided by the Spirit, here is the thought that came to Henri's mind: Include Trevor. Knowing that community is about inclusion, Henri thought, Trevor ought to be here. So Henri turned to the person in authority and said, "But the whole purpose of my coming was to have lunch with Trevor. If Trevor is not allowed to attend the lunch, I will not attend either." The thought of missing an opportunity for lunch with Henri Nouwen was too much. They soon found a way for Trevor to attend.” (adapted from John Ortberg, in the sermon "Guide,"

Can the work of the God’s people be any simpler than this? We examine our faith community and ask, “Who is missing? Who should be here but is not?”  Then we come to a crisis of faith: the outcome of our actions can create a positive or negative result. Do we can give in to the “rules” of the folks in charge, the gatekeepers, the majority? Or, do we have sufficient faith to, like Henri, refuse to sit down at the table until Trevor is allowed to join us? Is our faith sufficient to summon up the courage which witnesses to the gospel truth that God values inclusion over custom, over comfort, over convenience.

Examine your faith community this weekend. Who is missing that really should be there? Are people of other cultures or races; are people with disabilities excluded by choice, by design, by a lack of commitment to inclusion and accessibility in your community?  Are you willing to be the one who will insistently ask, “Where’s Trevor?” 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

"Nine Missing From the Table"

Millions and millions will be there, but nine brothers and sisters will be missing from the Table.

Tomorrow millions upon millions of people who share little in common but their belief that they are made in God’s image will gather round the Lord’s Table to eat some form of bread and to drink from some form of cup.  On a day set aside for the world of Christian churches to celebrate their commonly held belief that Jesus cares enough about this re-enactment of the Last Supper to be there too, millions and millions will be there, but nine brothers and sisters will be missing from the Table.

Tomorrow Lucero, Treven, Rebecka, Quinn, Kim, Lucas, Jason, Lawrence and Sarena will not be at the Lord’s Table. Not by their own choice.  But because of yet another campus terrorist act, this time in a community college in Roseburg, Oregon.  I wonder how the pastors of these victims’ families will find the words to celebrate the presence of Jesus at the Table when these nine are missing from it.  “God is good.” Of course. “God is sovereign.” No doubt. “Evil exists.” We have seen it. Are these words enough?

What can the churches say in response to this latest in a string of unexplainable crimes against the innocents who are now missing from the Table? “They now are able to share in the Bread and the Cup in the very real presence of Jesus Christ in Paradise.”  True enough.  That is our Hope. We share the belief that the company of angels, the hosts of heaven join their voices with our voices in praise and thanksgiving for the Life-giving Bread and Blood.  We share the belief that these nine victims,  while missing from the Table at the churches in Roseburg, are not missing from the Table in Heaven.  But is it enough for the churches to just say all of this on yet another tragedy-remembered day? How is the Church to be the presence of Christ?

Would Jesus just shrug his shoulders, shake his head and say “we should do something?”  Or would Jesus throw over tables in the public square until someone realizes that these are his brothers and sisters now missing from the Table? Would Jesus not shout, “Do something, for God’s sake!”?

Saturday, September 12, 2015

"I Normally Don't Pray in English"

It had been a pleasant visit which I felt certain should conclude with a prayer. My guest that Friday afternoon was an ordained pastor, “Pastor P”. Pastor P. had been conversing with me in English for all of our visit. We discussed the call God had placed on his life, which led him to become ordained. He had started a church in Delaware, but heard the call of God to help another pastor in Wisconsin who needed someone to serve while he was on an extended medical leave.  So, Pastor P. came. When that assignment ended he heard the call to start another church in the same city in which I serve. And now he looks for a church building in which to build a new congregation.

Sometimes God has a way of humbling me in a mighty way.  I sat in my comfortable chair in a study lined with shelf upon shelf of books, where I had spent the afternoon on my computer preparing for Sunday.  I am blessed to serve in a beautiful church with many dedicated families.  And here, across the desk from me, was this much younger man who works four days, twelve hours a day, so that he can devote his weekends to trying to start a church. No salary. No study. No computer.  Just an unshakeable faith that God is preparing to open doors so that the Spanish-speaking people in our city can have another place to worship.  I think of the time that Jesus sent out his disciples with only the bare necessities and told them they would be taken care of.  I always marveled that they would obey such a command.  Now, sitting across from me was a modern day disciple sent out with the bare necessities.  Sometimes people really do take the words of Jesus literally. Go figure.

The ironic thing about the timing of this visit is that I am in the middle of preaching about how Jesus taught his disciples that the barriers society puts up, barriers like language and race and even religion, need to be torn down if we want his Kingdom to fully come.  It is one thing to preach this in the abstract, as if it applies to someone else. But now it applies to me.  Today.  Do I dare shake my comfortable world by beginning a conversation with our leaders about opening the doors of our church to people who worship in a different language, who look different from “us” and who will worship in a style foreign to what we know to be the way to worship God?

I asked Pastor P. to pray for us.  “I normally don’t pray in English,” he said. So, I suggested he pray in Spanish.  In that prayer I got a little peak behind the curtain of what is to come, people from every tongue and tribe praising God together. “What do you think, Pastor Bill?  Will your church be able to help us?”  Whose question is that, really?

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Caregivers Rest

So many people I know are caregivers these days.  Caring for parents. Caring for adult siblings. Caring for adults with special needs. The love which spurs their care is spurred by some mixture of love and duty and a need to meet expectations. Expectations which society places on caregivers, which the caregivers place on themselves, or expectations which the ones they care for place on the caregivers.  Sometimes, then, caregivers need a boundary to manage all of these expectations. Those who set no boundaries on the expectations will never really rest. There is a constant burden, a sense of guilt that there is more to be done; that taking a break will be viewed as failure to meet expectations.  Of course, if one never rests from any task, bad things happen.  Anger, resentment, broken relationships; all of this and more can come to those who fail to build “Sabbath” into their caregiving schedules. The idea of resting from work is important enough to God, after all,  to name a day after the concept. Do we get that?

I know that “a day off” is not possible for some caregivers. The need they care for truly is “24/7/365.” But it is critical that you find at least a part of a day or days to rest; to take a physical/emotional/spiritual break from your duties.  You and the one you care for will both benefit.  So, imagine someone is at your door. Go and answer it:

When someone knocks on the door,
Think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time,
Or that it’s been decided that if you lie down no one will die.
(Robert Bly, excerpt from the poem “Things to Think” in “Morning Poems”. Source: inward/outward)

Boundaries provide rest. Physical rest. Emotional rest. Spiritual rest.  Today, if you are a caregiver, decide to set a new boundary which will give you rest from your labor.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"Don't Be Afraid"

“Don’t be afraid,” Mom said. It was the first day of school, and it was hard to know who was really more afraid, Mom or her child starting that first day of the rest of his life. But she said it, because, in her heart, she knew that, really, there was nothing to be afraid of; sort of.  There would be lots to be afraid of if it wasn’t for one thing, Mom was going to be there.  When the “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” entered her precious son’s life she was going to be there, come “hell or high water”. Mom: the present one.

“Don’t be afraid,” Mom said. It was the first day of college.  Who knew eighteen years could happen in a blink?  “Got it, Mom. Love you. You can leave now.”  She had taught him well. Too well, she was thinking at that moment.  How could he be so assured? Didn’t he know that living on his own was going to meet even bigger lions who would want to devour him? Of course, perhaps the reason her little boy grown big could be so assured was that he did get it. He was not alone. Mom: the present one.

“Don’t be afraid,” Mom said. It was almost her last day on this old earth. This was way too soon, but here it was.  And there sat her son, next to her, weeping at the thought of how Mom, the Present One, was not, very soon, going to be present. But, Mom, as always, knew better. She knew that she had prepared that boy, now a young man, well. Very well. She had toughened him with love and softened him with grace.  So she told him, “Don’t be afraid.” She wasn’t afraid. She knew that she belonged, body and soul, in life and in this fast-approaching death to her God, who assured her through his Spirit that in Christ there is no fear. And she knew that her husband and children and grandchildren belonged to God too. So, she wasn’t afraid of the next life in the New Heaven and the New Earth. So of course she would say, even now, “Don’t be afraid.”

She was quoting, of course, the line made famous by another one who died too soon.  His friends and family felt so lost. So, as they journeyed on that dusty road one Sunday, three days after he had truly died, he met up with them. And as they stared at him, jaws dropped low, eyes opened wide, he told them, “Don’t be afraid.”  Sometimes, it takes a Mom to remind us to keep on walking and believing that the Present One is not gone. He is Risen, and so shall she be. Do not be afraid!

A Memorial in Witness to the Resurrection for Nancy J. Berry (1950-2015). Wife, Mother, Grandmother, Sister and Child of God, who is not afraid.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Beau's Baby Lessons

Beau focused on the cash register in front of him.  Madly pecking at the register keys, suddenly, and to his great delight, the cash drawer opened, revealing a large amount of paper dollars, which Beau quickly grabbed. Well, as many dollars as his tiny hands could grasp.  He rose from the floor and with that slight “drunken sailor” waddle of his age group, he held up the money for me to take.  I had no need of the play money in my wallet, but I took it nonetheless, thankful for the gesture. Meanwhile, grandma and grandpa, mom and dad, all looked on quite approvingly.  Beau had discovered the real joy of money: giving it away expecting nothing in return.

He returned to his favorite toy of the moment only to find the drawer closed. Mom!  But it was with a purpose, for there was one key which opened the cash register drawer. It was larger than all of the other keys and it had the letters O-P-E-N on it.  However, Beau is not yet either a talker nor a reader, so his Momma took his chubby little hand (cute “chub”, but chubby nonetheless) and placed it on the OPEN key. After a few tries Beau discovered the joy of finding the right key.  And the whole process of grabbing the cash and distributing it generously began again. And Beau had taught another lesson: the best thing a parent can teach a child is the joy of discovering the right key.  The key to joy is sometimes randomly found, but life is so much simpler if we know where to look, and if rather than someone pressing it for us, we learn to do it alone.

But then it was time to go home.  So while dad was gathering up the renegade older brothers mom found a wet cloth and hunkered down next to Beau. Beau’s face needed a cleaning after a hard play time, so mom took the wet cloth and gently pressed it to his face.  As she did so she scrunched up her own face and made those sounds moms make when they are cleaning their precious child’s face.  Beau took the cleaning in stride, not real happy about it during the process, but, although he may not know it yet, he felt so much better with a dirt-free face.  Sometimes, Beau was learning, you just have to allow someone to teach you the joy of fresh water washing away the dirt.

Generosity. Independence. Baptism.

Thanks for the lessons, Beau.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Pesapallo Community

What happens when you combine baseball with a need for speed? You get pesapallo. Right now in Finland there are little boys and girls waking up from dreams of becoming the next great pesapallo pitcher. The pitcher stands next to the batter and tosses the ball in the air so the batter can whack it out into a strangely-shaped field.  Home run hitters become heroes not by hitting it out of the ballpark, but by keeping it in the ballpark and beating the ball to third base. Triples are home runs in the Finland.  There are leagues for men and women, boys and girls, with games played in big cities and tiny towns. It is an immensely popular, community-based pastime. (Brian Costa, WSJ, July 10, 2015)

I found all of that interesting. What I found fascinating is the reason offered for the sports’ popularity among the populace.  Why would the government provide funds for the sport? Why would people volunteer to be everything from “coaches to concession workers”?  Here is the explanation offered by a top league official: “People don’t go to church here that much anymore, so it’s kind of the same thing-to have community.”

What fascinates me is that this official, Jussi Pyysalo, understands the purpose of the local church so well. Why do local churches exist? To allow people of a common faith to be together through the thick and thin of life, from birth to death; in celebrations of baptisms, marriages and funerals; in coming together to praise the God who creates and sustains the universe. The church exists to be a “happening place” for a community of people who want and need each other and to experience the joy of worshiping God.

What fascinates me even more is that Mr. Pyysalo so succinctly captures the fact that people need community, and when they don’t find it in a church, they find it someplace else. Or is that people find community someplace else, so then they don’t need the community of the local church? Once someone finds the new “community” offered by pesapallo the perceived need for the church in Finland slowly disappears.  Or is it that people stop finding community in the local church and search it out by being a part of their local pesapallo team? Regardless, I am left wondering, how can the joy of worshiping God in community get satisfied by sitting in the stands watching pesapallo?  Or have the Finnish people substituted the joy of worshiping God for the joy of a home run? I mean, triple. I am sure glad we don’t have pesapallo here. 

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Saving Hamsters

I cannot imagine why he does it.  The Great Hamster of Alsace, which is the name given to a wild creature (Cricetus cricetus) is about 10 inches long and weighs about a pound.  It roams the fields near Wittenheim, France. While it's black belly and golden appearance might make it cute, especially when it stands up on its back legs and roars, it is hard to imagine why Jean-Paul Burget has devoted his life to saving it.  Due to a number of environmental factors the Great Hamster population, which used to number in the thousands, is down to about 500 according to a newspaper story I read.  This news is so disquieting to Mr. Burget that he quit his job at a zoo and took up a part-time job as a street sweeper so he could devote every afternoon to saving the Great Hamster population.  He is committed to doing all he can to, as he puts it, "fight to the last hamster."  What's more, Mr. Burget is not alone in this quest.  He has set up a foundation for saving animals and others have caught the vision for the mission.

Julie Ledet, only 31 years old, has been at the task of saving hamsters for 10 years.  Her toughest month of the year just ended. You see, each March the hamsters mate.  Ms. Ledet discovered something special about the female hamsters one March.  She is breeding the hamsters in captivity to enhance the chances for survival of the species. She drops a male into a female's cage in an effort to create a reproductive moment, if you know what I mean. If the female doesn't take a liking to a male's amorous advances, Ms Ledet discovered, the female tries to kill the male.  The female will fight the male to the death if given the chance. Now, in the wild fields of France the spurned male can turn and run, but in captivity's cages there is no escape.  Ms. Ledet's colleague, Julien Hoffman, is working on a special double cage design to allow the male to escape.  The problem is, there are just the two of them, Mr. Hoffman and Ms. Ledet, to keep track of hundreds of the fighting couples.  So, for Great Hamster advocates, March is busier that tax season for accountants.  The difference is, according to Mr. Hoffman, "This is not about making money, it's about saving the species.”

Why do people quit their jobs to save hamsters? Don’t they realize they that no one really cares?   Unless, of course, the God does. Now that would make it worthwhile.

I’m counting on that being true.  How about you?

Saturday, June 20, 2015

"Nothing Is Ever As It Seems"

I was not quite 11 when Sonny went down.  Muhammad towered over him in his white trunks and red gloves, his muscular right arm bulging and his face contorted as he screamed at Sonny to get up and fight.  But, was the scene really what it seemed? Had Sonny Liston really been knocked out in the first round of his rematch with Muhammad Ali? Had the Mafia demanded Liston lose? Was Liston fearful of the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X now that Cassius Clay had become a convert and taken on his new name and identity? Fifty years later the controversy continues: what really happened in Ali-Liston II? There is an iconic photograph of the moment, one of the most famous sports photographs in history which carries for me the image of what I have quite recently come to realize as an adult, “Nothing is ever as it seems.”

I wonder if this is how we ought to look at all of life.  What if the truth lies hidden in a story behind the photographs of life’s story? I wonder if there is always another story behind the scene we see which explains what really happened. It doesn’t have to be sinister. It could even be something wonderful.  What if the fact that two people who meet randomly, say in grade school, and fall in love and get married, what if it wasn’t random? What if it isn’t as it seemed, and there was some “force” in the universe which brought them to the same grade school class. Would you be upset to know that it was all a part of a grand design we cannot see? What if the decision you made to move, to change jobs, to adopt the child, to have the baby, was part of a “behind the scenes” plan of Another? How does that make you feel? Does it make you happy or angry to hear that, perhaps, “nothing is ever as it seems”? What if there is a story behind the story which would explain it once and for all, but, well, no one is telling us that story. Yet.

What if the same applies to death? What if the truth is not the body in the box or the ashes in the urn? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if death is not what it seems because, well, nothing is ever what is seems? Believing that to be true is what I think, at least partly, faith is about. Faith is believing that there is some better explanation, some higher answer, some redemptive purpose to our living and our dying.

Faith is believing that nothing is ever as it seems.

(Written in memory of my father, Walter, with whom I spent many a Saturday night in my childhood watching Saturday night fights, and of whom, I am sure even now, it is not as it seems.)

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Life's Second Chances

I might never have known of Judah P. Benjamin if my wife had not taken to using my encyclopedias as paper weights.  But she did, and one sleepless night I took up the paper weight and started reading random articles in the Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 1, A-Bib.  It is an eye-opening experience to discover how much information I do not know. Like why Judah P. Benjamin has his very own article. 

Mr. Benjamin ended his life as a famous barrister in England, to the point of being appointed queen’s counsel in 1872. His fame-earning work included writing a treatise on property law that was used widely in Britain and the United States.  That work was published in 1868, which in notable because he didn’t arrive in England until 1866, where he was quickly recognized as something of a genius.  So, why should you care?

You may recall that the 1860s are a time when the United States almost became a divided land during the American Civil War. You will recall that the Confederacy formed in reaction to the policies of one President Abraham Lincoln.  What you may not recall is that the Attorney General, then Secretary of War, then Secretary of State, and confidant of President Jefferson Davis was, you guessed it,  Judah P. Benjamin.  Secretary Benjamin came to the post after having served as the first-professing Jew in the United States Senate as the Senator from Louisiana. He was a successful lawyer, business-owner, farmer and slave-owner. A slave-owner who proposed that the slaves be armed to fight for the Confederacy and emancipated.  His idea, if adopted earlier, might have changed the course of history.

How do you assess a life like that of Judah P. Benjamin, Queens Counsel?  I say this: life does not offer “do-overs”, even to geniuses, like Mr. Benjamin.  The decisions he made, the positions he advocated, the work he did, he could not take back. However, life does offer “second chances.”  The stories of Mr. Benjamin’s escape from the United States would make a great television movie (see Wikipedia’s article), and he found a way to, not so much “start over”, as he did to “continue anew”.  Is there some part of your life that you would like to escape from? You cannot pretend your past didn’t happen. But you can, with work, escape it. And then you can continue anew. Why wait?

Saturday, May 30, 2015

"Children's Crusade"

Jayne Senior is passionate about children.  Her crusade for the children started in 1999. She was a “bored stay-at-home mother” who was mentoring girls in her home town. So she sought and obtained grant from her hometown to start a youth organization which she named “Risky Business”, after the then popular Tom Cruise movie her charges enjoyed.  What started out as this partnership with the Town of Rotherham, England soon began to unravel.  Ms. Senior was much more passionate and persistent than the town officials had ever bargained for.  Over the course of the next decade and more, Ms. Senior was able to identify at least 1,400 girls who had been victims of sexual abuse in her hometown. Stop and read that number slowly. “One-thousand-four-hundred.” Girls. Sexually abused girls.  The more Ms. Senior reported the news about the victims the more she was turned away by the town officials. In fact, eventually the town reacted by simply cutting off the funding for her youth organization.  The police pretty much ignored her findings. But, year after year after year, Ms. Senior persisted.  Her passion for the children never waned. (Source: WSJ, May 2015, Margaret Coker and Alexis Flynn)

It took an independent investigator’s report and a national investigation to finally bring the town officials actions to light.  When exposed they resigned. But along the way, the injustice suffered by the victims of rape and prostitution was explained only by what can be termed somewhere between calculated ignorance and being in league with the devil.  And, if it wasn’t for the work of a Mom who cared for the children; who was passionate for children; one can only guess how many more thousands would be future victims of the sexual abuse criminals in Rotherham.

What if Ms. Senior had said instead, the fight is too big for me?  I have a home to take care of. I have to plan for my retirement.  I have fought long enough for others, now I need some “me-time.” Thank God that the Spirit sometimes finds a heart that is willing to burn with passion for “others.”  If the church wants to become “relevant” to a lost and dying world, it will need ten thousand “Jayne Seniors” who will become passionately persistent about what the world needs now, overcoming evil with justice.  To those of you who read this and are already are engaged in such a crusade for the voiceless, thank you. For the rest of us, it’s time to ask ourselves, is there nothing I am passionate about more than myself? For whom am I willing to engage in a crusade?  To whom am I called to be the voice of God? May the Spirit burn in your heart a passionate vision.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Living and Remembering

Memorials don't just happen. Someone lives a life worth remembering; someone does the hard work or remembering. It takes at least two people to for there to be a memorial: one person who "was" and one person who "remembers". The rest, as they say, is history.

When we think of the people remembered in the United States the weekend of Memorial Day we get a sense of how sometimes history creates our memorials for us.  The women of the South who may have started Decoration Day, the predecessor to what we now call Memorial Day, decorated the graves of those who died during the Civil War. Notably, they decorated the graves of the soldiers from the North and the South.  Certainly the soldiers did not set out to die.  They set out to fight for the cause in which each "side" believed.  They were remembered for dying, yes, but more importantly they were remembered for dying for a cause in which they believed.  A second person or group of persons then had to "remember" their work.  Memorials don't just happen.  It takes effort; it requires sacrifice.

 A woman approached Jesus during supper and poured out a very expensive jar of perfume on him. While some criticized her excess, Jesus defended her action and he created a memorial for her: he said that her act of devotion would be memorialized for generations.  The fact that I am writing about it today proves that Jesus knew what he was talking about.  When the first Passover happened, God directed his people to remember that act of saving grace with a memorial day, and Passover is still a memorial day for God's salvation thousands of years later.  God acts, people remember. People act, God remembers.

Think about the memorial that you are creating.  If you are reading this it is not too late to start the work of living your life in a way that you can be remembered as you hope.  It probably will require some sacrifice: fighting for a cause in which you believe; lavishing love toward God in a way that is so extravagant that the world mocks or scolds you. You are creating a memorial whether you want to or not. People are going to remember you for something!  Live your life in such a way that when someone creates that "something" with which to remember you that it will be pleasing to God, to your family, and to those who never met you.  Memorials don't just happen.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Playing Catch with Phillies Fans

I have known only a few fans of the Philadelphia Phillies.  But the few I do know fit the stereotype the media offers: Phillies fans are fanatics, loyal to the core. Why, they even name their mascot the Philly Phanatic.  The stories of Philly sports fans would fill a book (which I am guessing they already have written, maybe a few times over).

So it must have been the cause of some serious discussion when one national newspaper ran a big story about a little girl, Kate, who was attending the Phillies baseball game in her gray top bearing the Phillies logo, sporting her pink baseball glove, worn to the game in hopes, like all children, of catching a baseball for a souvenir. (Source: WSJ, Jared Diamond, “A Buddy in the Stands”, May 11, 2015)  There is nothing unusual about a child going to the ballgame; that is to be expected. What caught a reporter’s eye was the sight of a New York Mets relief pitcher, Buddy Carlyle, standing in the outfield before the game playing catch with Kate.  Mr. Carlyle, aptly named Buddy, makes a practice on road games of going into the outfield during team warm-ups to find a child with whom to warm up his arm by playing catch. Mr. Carlyle stands in the outfield and tosses the ball over the fence to a child in the stands, in this case Kate.  He invites the child to toss the ball back to him, and then the game of catch begins.  The child, of course, ends up with the souvenir and Buddy Carlyle ends up with at least one new fan.  As Kate told the reporter, Buddy was now her favorite Mets player, while admitting she knew no others.

Mr. Carlyle admitted to the reporter that he is “about as anonymous as they come” in the world of big league players.  That is what got  me thinking.  What made is possible for Kate to take a liking to a man in the “enemy uniform” was that he didn’t have a famous story. He just had a baseball which he was willing to toss. He wasn’t too important or too snobbish to remember that baseball is a game, a kids game played by kids of all ages. Even Phillies fans can be converted to cheer for a Met by a game of catch.

Do you want to attract “fans” for your “team”, people of God?  Well, maybe it’s time to stop trying so hard, and just start inviting people to play catch.

(In memory of the Rev. Dr. Carl Kleis, who loved all things “Philly”; who, upon reading this, would call me to talk baseball, presidents, and finding God with a good catch.)

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Victorious Mothers

Fatima Bukar is alive. So is her daughter.  Her husband is gone to some unknown location.  Perhaps one day, if not this year, Ms. Bukar will be celebrated by her children as one of the victorious mothers.

When the 27 year-old Ms. Bukar was kidnapped, along with her two-year old daughter, she was forced onto a two-day march into a forest where her captors had established a camp for 300 of their victims. (Source: Wall Street Journal, Patrick McGroarty, May 9-10, 2015)  The mothers survived by hunting for edible plants.  They lived through the horrific choice of submitting to soldiers who offered them the option of slavery or “marriage” to a soldier.  The slaves would prepare food for their masters and then attempt to find nuts or other food on which to survive. The “wives” became the victims of their “husbands” in unimaginable ways.

The captors of Ms. Bukar and her daughter and hundreds of other women and children were overcome by the Nigerian forces, setting the women “free.”  Victory came at a great price.  One mother, baby strapped to her back, was walking to freedom when she stepped on a land mine, which killed her baby.  The horror continued for the captives, even in victory. But, they are now in a place where healing is the goal. They are in a place where the restoration of dignity and a sense of safety is the goal. They are in a place where they can begin to think about what freedom means; and whether the government victory over the Boko Haram will bring them a lasting peace.

Fatima Bukar’s goal as a mother is pretty basic. She told a reporter, “At least now we can eat.” “We” in this case is not only Ms. Bukar and her severely malnourished daughter, but six other children too.  Along the way she took charge of these six children who had lost their mothers.   I wonder if that is about as good as a definition of “motherhood” as you can find: you adopt the orphans and you help them survive until you can find something for them to eat. “Victory” has lots of meanings, I suppose.

“For everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.” (I John 5:4)  God, give Ms. Bukar, a Happy Mother’s Day. 

Saturday, May 2, 2015

This Land is Whose Land? Part 2

So then, is it proper to understand that the gifts of the Earth are really gifts from God the Creator, what kind of gifts are they?  If you someone gives you a scarf or tie for a birthday gift you can use it, throw it in the back of the closet or just toss it in the trash. It is your gift, after all. But, suppose your best friend says, “This scarf matches your coat perfectly. Why don’t you use it?”, and she hands it to you. Now, may you throw that scarf in the trash?  When you receive that kind of a gift is there an implied promise that you will not be reckless with the scarf? Did you friend intend it to be yours forever, or only until you got a new coat? Or until your friend wanted it back?

If the ambiguous scarf-gift can cause us so much consternation, how much more the Earth and everything in it? Surely God gave the produce of the Earth as food for humans.  But how are we supposed to treat the Earth, this gift?  Throw it in the trash?  I read an interview with  a man in his 40’s who was taking over a control of his company from his father.  The company is an internationally famous plumbing-fixture manufacturer, but it is also engages is a major player in the golf and hospitality industry. Of all of the things that this new captain of industry could have talked about when ascending to his new post, he chose to say that he wanted to reduce the “environmental footprint” his company would leave on the earth. He said, "Business success doesn't matter much if we can't say we left the world a better place than we found it.” (David Kohler, Sheboygan Press, April 30, 2015)  What we with the gifts from the Earth matters to the Creator and Giver. But it also matters to us.

“A pygmy legend recounts the story of the little boy who finds a bird that sings a beautiful song in the forest. He brings it home. He asks his father to bring food for the bird. The father does not want to feed a little bird, so he kills it. The man immediately drops dead. So, the legend says, the man killed the bird, and with the bird he killed the song, and with the song he killed himself. When human beings destroy their environment, they destroy their own nature too.” Joseph Campbell Source: The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers (inward/outward, April 29, 2015)

As the Woody Guthrie song says, “This land is your land, this land is my land.” True. And, yes, “this land was made for you and me”. But, take care, the Creator is redeeming it.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

"This Land is Whose Land?"

“It’s Earth Day?”, I said to myself. My morning commute was accompanied by my usual friend on the radio who told me that the piece I was listening to, something about nature, was offered in honor of Earth Day. My virtual friend, whose personality I know only from the radio show he hosts, surprised me with his next comment: “Today we honor our Mother Earth. We should be thankful today for all of the gifts we receive from our Mother.” Following which he played another beautiful piece of music inspired by the world that surrounds us.

“Mother Earth?”, I said to myself, out loud this time. “Well,” my nature-loving side debated, “we do call the earth ‘Mother Earth’. You got a problem with that old man?”  “Yes,” I replied to my nature-inspired self, “and calling my ideas ‘old’ isn’t helping your case, so watch your language. My problem is that I think the term ‘Mother Earth’ confuses the Creator with the Created.  The Earth, I suppose you could say, has a personality. It certainly is unique among the planets and, it seems, unique among the whole (known) universe.  But I don’t think of the Earth as my mother, nor even as the earth as the mother of anything else. The earth didn’t ‘give birth’ to gifts.” 

“Not so fast, fuddy-duddy”, my tree-hugger side laughed. “Let’s agree that God created the earth. So says the holy writings relied upon by Jews and Christians to know the One True God. But once God created the Earth it started re-producing itself. It started shaking inside so much that mountains and islands popped up. The land started drifting about into continents separated by oceans. And then, well you see what became of all of those fish and birds and furry creatures.  Except for the ones that are gone forever (or at least until New Earth.) You don’t call those gifts?”

“Gifts they are,” my theologian-self agreed, “but from whom? I am thankful for annual reminder of Earth Day, remembering my awe of what is and my regret over what is not.  But the one who weeps at our ignorant disregard of the gift of Creation is not our Mother Earth, but our God, who blesses us like a Father and Mother both. I love you, tree-hugger side of myself; but I don’t want you to ever forget who gave us trees to hug and who commanded us to keep them safe until the Creator makes them new.”

Saturday, April 4, 2015

"The End is Still to Come" (Part 2)

This wasn’t the way it was supposed to end. No, the week that began with “Hosanna” didn’t end the way anyone had wanted. I wonder if Jesus was surprised by the ending.

Low in the grave he lay. His friends observe the Sabbath as observant Jews do. But their hearts are broken into as many pieces as a heart can break.  Fear grips them, one eye always on the door, one ear listening for approaching footsteps or pounding horse hooves.  Friday was not their best day. In fact, the way they retreated in the final hour, they could not bear the thought of how they contributed to making it the world’s worst day. Messiah is dead.

They review in their heads his sermons. Collectively they try to piece them together, asking each other how exactly he phrased those beautiful and ominous words. “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise up against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of the birth pains.” (Mark 13:7-8, NIV) Yes, those were the words.

Is it possible that this is not the end then? Dare we hope that the pain we feel, the fear with which we face the world today could still be replaced with hope?  The birth pains are just beginning, which must mean that there are more pains of the birthing process to happen. But, is the tomb of despair also a womb of delight?

On this Saturday, stirring in the tomb which is a womb, the end is being written.  Do not be deceived. What you see are just signs that the best ending ever imagined is written on the last page.  Do not be afraid. The life you live today, the pain, the anguish, the stones which seemingly cannot be rolled away in your life, will be moved.

It is Saturday.  When life has entombed you on Saturday, recall what He said, “…but the end is still to come.” Live for this ending. You won’t want to miss it.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"The End is Still to Come" (Part 1)

We live for the end.  We love good endings.  We love to read the book that is full of mysterious twists and turns and our minds begin to imagine the end.

 “How will this end?”, we wonder, and the temptation to turn to the last page can become overwhelming.  How can the author bring together all of these plot lines and solve all of the main character’s dilemmas in the remaining pages?  So we keep on reading, because we know that the end is still to come.

Sometimes the story is so good that we don’t want it to end.  We would rather stay lost in the writer’s imagination. We don’t want our tour through fantasy-land to end, because, well, this is the life we want to live and, even though we cannot live that life, we can imagine it. So, we slow down our reading pace, drinking in each word, like the first sip of morning coffee or the last sip of evening wine. 

And sometimes, well, the story is just not very good. We want to skip to the end and get this dreary read over with. Or we just put the book away. Enough.

What kind of story are you living? What kind of ending do you imagine for your story? Do you want to keep reading?

It’s the Sabbath before the Sunday on which the crowds adored the main character. They loved His story.  They thought they knew how it would end: the king is coming!

But wait, is he a king or criminal? Who could have dreamt that this is what the Author had in mind? Their songs become jeers?  Their palms become swords?  Holy Week!

We live for the end. We love good endings.  Imagine that this story isn’t just the old, old story. Imagine that His story is your story too? How do you want it to end?


Saturday, March 21, 2015

When Life Makes You a 16 Seed

Sixteen seeds have a 98 per cent chance of losing their first (and thus only) game in the tournament.  That’s life for a 16 seed. So, why bother playing the game?

(First a little background for the uninitiated.  There are over 300 colleges and universities which have men’s basketball teams at the highest level, called “D-1”.  Of that group, 68 teams are invited to an annual single-elimination (“lose and go home”) basketball tournament. The better teams play the lesser teams first. The best four teams are placed, or “seeded”, in the first round of games against the worst of the 68 qualifying teams, called “16 seeds.”  For over thirty years no “16” has beaten a “1”.)

So, why bother playing the “16 v. 1”  game? Because when you are a 16 seed you believe you can win.  Each year at least one 16-seed player declares, “We can beat anyone.”  They believe it. They are champions of their own conference, and they have won something like 20 of their 25 games, and they believe in themselves. And then the game is played and they lose. Every time. Reality sets in.  The game is over.  No one cares.

You would think that “David loses to Goliath” should be a headline, but it’s not. People expect David to lose to Goliath, except in the Bible story.  We want David to win, but, let’s face it, in our lives, Goliath wins more than he loses.  And yet all kinds of “Davids” keep taking up 5 smooth stones, trying to slay life’s giant enemy. I wonder if when Jesus was a little boy he played with a slingshot, pretending to be the superhero he admired from the temple stories.  But then, maybe not. Maybe he knew that he was born to be a 16 seed, always playing a 1.  Oh, he would have his moments, but then, in the end, the enemy won. And he knew it was going to happen. But, Jesus kept playing.

Why did Jesus bother to play the game of life if he knew he was going to end up dead on a cross? Well, maybe the cross isn’t the end of the game. Maybe the game isn’t over. Maybe all the “cross-watchers” are wrong. Maybe the people who give you no chance to succeed in your life don’t know that the game of life isn’t what it appears; that David still beats Goliath; that good conquers evil; that the faithful are rewarded with the victor’s crown. The game isn’t over, friend. Keep on playing.  Someone cares.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What Are You Teaching Those Children?

It all went so quickly.  Martha had been ill, but not this sick.  So it was a surprise to Joyce and her siblings when they received the call: Martha was in the hospital. It was early evening.  Then a second call came: hurry to the hospital.  And then there they were,  Joyce and her siblings, looking at Martha as she prepared to take her last breath.  Joyce, wanting to offer words of comfort, hunted for the Bible and turned to Psalm 23. Realizing that she left her glasses at home, she reached out her arm as far as she could, but the words were just a gray blob. So Joyce summoned up old Sunday School memorization lessons and she started reciting Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd…”  She surprised herself at how well it came back to her. She could see the expression on Martha’s face change as the familiar words were repeated.  Then Joyce asked Martha if she would like to pray. Martha somehow managed to nod in assent, so Joyce and Martha and the others bowed their heads, folded their hands, and everyone followed Martha’s lead in saying “Our Father…”. And then Martha slipped from this world through the thin veil and started her dance into the world to come.

As I prepared for the funeral I couldn’t help but think of all of the church teachers and pastors who taught Martha and Joyce where to find Psalm 23; of those formative leaders who coaxed Joyce into memorizing “the whole thing.”  I marveled at the fact that someone taught the family the Lord’s Prayer, and that it had been used enough to remain in the memory banks of these adult siblings.  As I delivered the funeral message, doing my best to put Martha’s life and death into perspective for the mourners who survived her, I saw the children, assembled there to watch and learn how to mourn for their aunt, a lesson they will need to use often in the next 60 or so  years of their lives.

And then it struck me.  The question flooded my mind “Will those children know Psalm 23, or even where to find it, when they spend the last hours with their siblings in 60 years? What are you teaching those children?”  I could say that the church lost the culture wars to work schedules which exhaust parents; to youth sports leaders who discovered that their activities were a better option for many than Sundays in church; or a dozen other excuses for our failure to reach the very children the church is charged with teaching.  Or, I could choose to not accept defeat. I could choose to rally the church and parents to start learning how to reach and teach the precious children who will one day be at each other’s bedside grasping for words that would be their only comfort in life and in death.  I choose to engage in the mission for the children.  You?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What Are You Afraid Of?

Rebekah Gregory knows fear.  She knows it in a way that most people never will.  You may recognize Ms. Gregory’s name as one of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. Despite many, many surgical attempts, she lost her lower left leg and she now walks with a prosthetic leg.  For nearly two years she lived in fear of her attacker, Dzhohkar Tsarnaev.  Try as Ms. Gregory might, she could not shake the images and the nightmares and the fear of confronting evil again.

Ms. Gregory, a fit 27-year old woman, blond hair, brown eyes, looks for all the world like a woman in control of life.  But, she wasn’t.  The tragic consequences of the bombing were with her, and will be for the rest of her life.  She was asked to testify at the trial of Mr. Tsarnaev, who faces the death penalty. She described her emotions to a television news reporter as beginning with a sense of dread as she approached the court room.  In a letter to her assailant she describes how she came to an amazing realization as she faced him in the courtroom.  She told the reporter, “When I walked into the courtroom and was able to look him in the face I realized that that fear was gone and I wasn’t afraid. He became nobody to me again.”  She posted a letter to the defendant on her Facebook page in which she describes how facing this person was “the crazy kind of step forward I needed all along.”

I don’t know what you deepest fear is these days.  Perhaps it is a fear caused by someone who you can, in a safe environment, come face to face with and find the beginning of healing.  More likely, what we fear is not a person but a more undefined dread. Mostly it is the loss of control; a loss of security; a fear of an unknown future.  Like Ms. Gregory, our prescription is to face our fears head-on, to find a way to control the fear so it does not control us.  What steps can you take to begin to overcome your fear?

For a 90-year old woman I know, her fear is for the future of this world.  She describes how watching the evening news causes her to cry out, “Lord, how long?”  And then, one Sunday, she sang with God’s people the words “for the darkness shall turn to dawning…and Christ’s great kingdom shall come on earth, the kingdom of love and light.” Here was here source of hope.  What she found was a way to know that our present and future life is not random. That which we hope in is greater than that which we fear.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Little Blue Birds Fly"

Audra (“don’t call me Audrey”) McDonald is blessed with a voice that can melt butter or shake the rafters.  Ms. McDonald, whom I heard in concert, performed a concert of Broadway show tunes. And while the music was wonderful, the stories were the thing that caught my ear.

Like the time she wanted to give a gift to her cast in a show in which she was acting.  (Ms. McDonald holds the record for the most Tony Awards received by any one person). She went to a place called Covenant House, a shelter for homeless youth, to deliver a check as a donation in honor of her cast.  While there she encountered a street youth, with all his worldly possessions contained in a garbage bag, and she saw how he was welcomed into the house. She witnessed hospitality like it is meant to be. She saw this young man receiving the words that could change his life, “It’s all right. We’ve got you now. You are going to be fine.”  So, she not only left a check; she joined the international board of directors and tells people around the country the story of Covenant House during her concerts. 

Or like the story of how she, an African-American woman, came to be on stage in front of a mostly white audience.  She reminded us of something that is so easy to forget.  She told us that she doesn’t ever forget that if it wasn’t for the people before her who fought all of the bloody battles for equality among the races in the United State that she would not be able to eat in the same restaurants with us; she wouldn’t be able to drink from the same drinking fountains; she wouldn’t be able to sit in the same seats on public transportation as the white people do; why, she probably would not have even been welcome on the very stage on which we now witnessed her singing.  So it is that she advocates for marriage equality, a cause which she equates with the battle for racial equality.

I have been wondering why Ms. McDonald sprinkles these stories among her songs. And I thought about a line from her last song, “Over the Rainbow”. You know the line: “If happy little blue birds fly beyond the rainbow/ why, o why can’t I?”  Life gave her the chance to fly high, and as she soars, she encourages all the other little birds.  I don’t know what stage God has given you. Maybe it is the kitchen floor and your kids are your audience.  They are little birds who want to fly.  Give them wings.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What Did I Do With The Years?

It was a typical Friday afternoon for me, trying to get ready for Sunday worship and finding instead that there are ten other things demanding my attention. Then a vendor called about a project he was doing for us, and he began by apologizing for the delay in getting back to me. I told him, “No problem. I know the feeling. Frankly, I wouldn’t have gotten to this until next week anyway. But I do need to get this done by Easter.”  My vendor/friend then reminded me, “Easter’s going to be here before you know it.” Which led to a discussion of how it seems like it was just the beginning of the year and already it is time to stress about Easter. “I don’t know if this is good or bad, being so busy that you lose track of time,” I said. To which he said, “It’s bad.  You can’t get to the things that matter.”  “Yeah, you don’t want to get to the end of your life and say ‘What did I do with all those years?’’, I heard myself say.  And then there was an awkward pause.

It was one of those unintended “light bulb” moments for me.  My friend responded, “There are two things you will remember when you get to that point: places you went and things you did with your family.  Travel and family.”  And we talked about that a few minutes and agreed that next week we will try to get our project done.  As I drove home I put on a little “smooth jazz” music, my typical Friday commute music, in an effort to transition my mind into “weekend mode.”  Listening to the melodies and soft beats I wondered, what two things will I say, at the end, made all the running around in life worthwhile.  For my friend it was travel and family. But what would I say?

I hope I will be able to give three answers to that question. One: “I served God as best I was able in the ways he called me.”  Which leaves me answers two and three. For me, being able to have my wife and children and grandchildren, and even grand-dogs, to enjoy my “post-work” years is a definite second answer.  What am I going to do now to make sure I can give that answer when the years are nearly over?  I don’t know what number three is.  That may seem strange, but what is it I hope I can say about what I did with all those years that will give meaning to my existence, other than answers one and two? I worked. A lot. So what? Do I want answer three to be that I worked a lot?

How about you? What are you doing with all of your remaining years? What two or three things do you believe will give meaning to what you did with all those years?

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Can You Identify With Brian Williams?

Brian Williams seemed to have it made. A 55-year old, handsome, well-spoken, easy-going man at the top of his profession.  He is (or was) a classic success story as well.  A good Irish-Catholic boy who started his work life as a busboy.  He started but didn’t finish college.  Instead, he found a career path in journalism and walked that path all the way to the top.  In ten years Mr. Williams made his network’s evening news broadcast the leader among all rivals. 

But.  It seems Mr. Williams had a problem: he allegedly made up facts to make tragic events even more tragic. He “conflated” facts, as he puts it; he “mis-remembered” events that for the rest of humanity would be burned in our memory. Who could “mis-remember” whether you got shot down in a helicopter?

And now it is time to own up to reality.  A long time ago Sir Walter Scott wrote, “Oh what a tangled web we weave/When first we practice to deceive.”  The web Mr. Williams is now caught up in resulted in his suspension from his job, and much more social disdain than one could ever imagine would be put upon a celebrity of the stature of Mr. Williams.

So, the easy commentary is to join the crowd which is bashing him.  Still, I wonder what separates me; what separates you from Mr. Williams.  His errors are certainly much more public than any errors I make or that you make in your life. But  I don’t want to go down that path either, really. I like the fact that, at least this time, the trait of honesty is getting some good air time.  Isn’t it comforting to know that we still value honesty above celebrity?  I wonder if that is a lesson we all can take to heart.

The temptation we all face in our work, even in our relationships, is to cut corners; put a favorable spin on the facts; dress up the truth a little.  The good news is that speaking the truth in love and with grace is still fashionable.  There is always a need to speak with discretion, of course. But if there is a lesson to take from Mr. Williams it is this: the truth will prevail. Do not start down the path of deception thinking that it is anything other than a dead-end.  “Thou shalt not lie” is still fashionable. Thank God.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Does My Face Look Old?

I was visiting family when my niece’s daughter, who is only 4, arrived. She came stood at the entrance to the room where I was seated and, well, stared at me.  Her mother explained, “On the way here Charlotte wanted to know how old you and Jill (my wife) are. I explained that you were as old as my parents. But she persisted, ‘No, Mommy, are they old? Like, do they have old hands and faces, like all wrinkly and stuff.”  By this time the pretty little girl had worked her way to within a few feet of my chair. So, through our laughter, I asked her, “Well, what do you think?”,  as I gave her a close-up of my face and hands? She, already knowing social graces, declined to answer, and went right into Mommy’s waiting arms for refuge from the bearded man.

So, now I will never know if in Charlotte’s definition of “old face” my face is an old one.  I wondered why she asked the question, and what I come up with is this:  when we are meeting someone we don’t know or cannot remember, we ask anyone who might know, “What does she look like?”  We remember people by their faces. The face is more than a collection of body parts; it is our “identity.” How often, when we meet someone we know, do we say “What’s wrong?” just from the look on their face. Or we say, “You look so happy!”, or words to that effect. Strangers identify us from our faces; friends and family know so much about our hearts from our faces.

All of which makes me wonder why God couldn’t let people see his “face” and live. Exodus 33:20 says that you cannot see the face of God and live.  Which makes the “face” of God so much more mysterious.  But then Jesus happened.  So now we are promised, in I Corinthians 13:12, that we will see the face of God and live. We can think a long time about how Jesus changed the dynamic, but the good news is, we will see God’s face and live. So now we can ask, what do you think God’s face looks like? Is it an “old face”? Is it a face that when we see it we will say, “What’s wrong?” Or, will it have such a look that we will know God is very happy to see us? 

I want to know the face of God. I wonder what it will look like.  But I know that as God invites me to look more closely God’s eyes will say “I love you.”  I hope that until that day children, like Charlotte, will look into my eyes and see the same message.  Maybe that is a face we all could put on. Even those of us with “old faces”.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Seahawks: Lucky, Good or God's Team?

I like Russell Wilson.  Mr. Wilson is, of course, the unlikely quarterback of the National Football League Seattle Seahawks.  Tomorrow they attempt to win back to back NFL championship games. It’s not that I don’t like the Seahawks as a team. Let’s just say, “I am not a fan”, and leave it at that. You see, I had a great piece planned for today, and the subject was the way that the Green Bay Packers continue to function as a highly successful team. But, they did not function in that way, so, today I get to write about the Seahawks. Yippee!  However, one of my grandsons has Russell Wilson jersey so I will do my best to write something he would like to read while donning Seahawks colors.

You know, of course, that the Seahawks should not, by any mathematical model, be in this position of attempting the rare repeat.  All it took was (at least) four improbable events in succession. In the qualifying game against the Packers, the “Hawks” pulled off a fake field goal and scored a touchdown. You can count that as one or two events which should not happen in a game between championship contenders. Then they completed a 2-point conversion (instead of kicking an extra point), which happens as Mr. Wilson launches a pass to someone I doubt he could see, who is left wide open by the very men who are paid to prevent such atrocities in life.  Then, on top of all of that, they run a kickoff play that has some miniscule chance of success, unless the opposing team fails to do what they have been, we assume, practicing for a year.  Those improbabilities are all capped off by the 50/50 coin toss which was called by the Packers (“tails never fails”), and won by, who else, the Seahawks. The rest is history.

So, Mr. Wilson says, “God made me for games like this” or words to that effect when, through his tears of shock, he is trying to explain how this could possibly have happened again America’s team of destiny, the GREEN BAY PACKERS!  Which makes me wonder, were Mr. Wilson and the Hawks lucky?  Well, I am not a big believer in luck. My theology (the things I think about God) doesn’t leave room for luck or good fortune.  That leaves the option that the Hawks are good, which they are, but they are not better than the Packers. Aaron Rogers (Packers quarterback) said so when he told the world that his team was better. So, that leaves one option: Mr. Wilson is right: God wanted Mr. Wilson and his team to win. This smacks of sacrilege and heresy. I cannot accept this conclusion.  So, next year, do we pray for our team to win? Or do we  conclude that God doesn’t really care who wins a sporting contest? Or, he cares about some players winning, but not others? Who does the God you worship want to win?