Saturday, December 24, 2016

Jews and Christians Both Light Candles

One of my good friends, who was Jewish, died this year.  I did not get to say good-bye.  Tonight, while I am celebrating Christmas Eve, I am going to light candles. Tonight, if he were here, he would be lighting a candle too, on a menorah, to mark the beginning of Hanukkah. Tonight, I will light one for you.

Tonight, in a rare alignment of calendars, marks the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah and the Christian celebration of Christmas Eve.  While Hanukkah is a celebration of a different miracle of light (the mysteriously un-ending supply of oil that supplied eight days of light during battle by the Maccabees which led to the rededication of the Temple in 166 BC), it is an annual reminder that God sends light into the dark places of our world and our lives.  We can celebrate this other truth as well: Jews and Christians alike await the coming of the promised messiah. As the noted theologian, Martin Buber suggested, “Let’s all pray for the messiah-Christians and Jews alike. When he arrives, we’ll ask if he’s been here before.”  As Rabbi Michael Gottlieb puts it, “Christianity dispels a lot of darkness…. In its glow, it challenges Christians and non-Christians alike to consider that which his transcendent, eternal and greater than all of us.” (WSJ 12.23.16)

Tonight, Jews and Christians around the world will celebrate the miracle of light which sustains us during the battles of life. Tonight, Jews and Christians alike will rededicate themselves to worship God and God alone.  Tonight, we will all draw closer to God by lighting a candle which carries the hope that God still is doing miracles.  Tonight, Jews and Christians alike will think about the messiah, the one who, on the last day, we will have the joy of knowing “he’s been here before.”

I never made one effort to convert my Jewish friend to Christianity. I saw no need to do so. God already saved him. As a recent resolution by a German church organization puts it, “The secret of God’s revelation includes both the expectation of the return of Christ in splendor and the confidence that God will save his first-called people.” (Christian Century, 12.21.16) I believe this beautiful statement of faith expresses precisely the sentiment of Paul’s words: “…all Israel will be saved…for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” (Romans 11:26,29).

Tonight, I will be thinking of my friend. While I did not get to say good-bye, one day he and I will together say, “Hello. Hallelujah. He is here.” 

Happy Hanukkah, friend. Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

What I Saw at Grant School

Smiles. Possibly because it was Friday; or because the teachers wore Christmas sweaters, or a Mrs. Claus’ dress. I told her she must be Mrs. Claus’ daughter because she looked too young to be the “Mrs.” More smiles. It made me happy that my first impression was of teachers and staff who were happy to be there.  I saw children’s smiles too, on the playground where the kids in snow pants and boots slid down little “hills” of snow, making noises of glee only elementary kids can.  I saw the faces of children from nearly every background. I could see why God would make a rainbow of skin colors, because when they play together in the snow they paint a masterpiece.  No skin color is supreme on the playground, just as God intended.

Great books.  The Kids Hope USA (“KHUSA”) lunch was in the Media Center (what we used to call a “Library”), where I could not help myself from looking at the books. I found one which the Librarian let me borrow called “Need It or Want It?”(C. Herd, Rouke Publishing 2012) “A need is something you must have to live a safe and healthy life. Food, clothing, and shelter…” for example.  “A want is something you would like to have, but do not need to survive. A new video game is an example… .”  Now, isn’t that a perfect Christmas story?

Adults loving the kids.  The KHUSA participants from our church ate lunch with their students, some parents and some teachers.  The reason KHUSA can be in a public school is that the program forbids any speaking of religion or church.  The purpose of the program is to show the love of Jesus to children in need without ever saying Jesus’ name. You spend one hour a week to build a relationship with one child.  You spend time helping with homework, but mostly it is time learning to love each other. Can there be a more profound sermon these children hear each week?

I stopped in the Principal’s office to say “thank you”.  In the midst of the organized chaos of the end of the lunch hour and recess, the Principal, in his fun “Packers” sweater, was kind enough to chat for a few moments. I told him how his school gave me hope for our city’s future. This school was forming a future society which could work. What I saw at Grant School was an Advent song of love, peace, even joy: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. (All their faces bear his light), they are precious in his sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.”  Hope is here.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Disappointment, Doubt and Jesus

...the mother who feels like she is at her last thread of hope with a "problem" child; the spouse who stares at the wall wondering what happened to the marriage;
…the sick person who wonders when, if ever, healing is coming; the child who struggles to find some way to understand that Mom won’t be here this Christmas;
...the survivors of the storms of life, who wonder why the fire happened, why their loved ones were there.

December, the church’s season of Advent, highlights the disappointments of life in a stark way.  The month in which we are supposed to celebrate Hope, Peace, Joy and Love seems to instead be filled with news or memories of just the opposite. And when disappointments persist to those locked into prisons of despair the mind moves to doubt. Is this Jesus really the Messiah we seek?

We can relate, just a little, to John the Baptist who was so fired up to announce the coming of the Messiah, but who finished his days in prison, waiting for the end of his life which ended with a decapitation. How exactly was Jesus being the Messiah for his prophet, John?  Are you the One we have been waiting for, or is there someone else?  John’s inquiry of Jesus becomes our question.

The mission of Jesus then and now, and the concurrent mission of the Church, is to encounter life’s disappointments and doubts with pictures and stories that people with eyes of faith can see. The child who was to die but now is scheduled to graduate from college.  The men and women with “incurable” cancer who instead become cancer “survivors.”  The poor being fed and clothed. The unjustly punished receiving justice.

Advent’s message is that if you look with eyes of faith, you will see just enough; just enough to see disappointment filtered through the lens of Joy; just enough to replace doubt with Hope. The almost hidden beauty of Advent is the promise that Christ is real, here still, and coming again.  Until then the faithful, today's prophets, can be excused expressions of doubt generated by cruel disappointments, for staring at the empty manger and wondering, Jesus, where are you?  Until then the prophets keep going to tell it on the mountain, Christ(mas) is coming. Just you wait...


Pastor Bill

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Real Meaning of Black Friday

I thought I was ready. I went through the store ads, carefully ripping out the pages which had items I “needed” to buy. I then circled each of the best deals I would head for in each store.  Since my wife, Jill, and I had decided to spend part of Friday doing some Black Friday shopping I was going to take an organized approach to this. So, when Friday morning came, I thought I was ready.

At my first stop I walked in and saw some people in line to check out, and then some more people, and then more and more and more people.  I got to where there was a lady in a red elf outfit wearing a cute little hat and holding a sign that said “The Line Starts Here”, and I took out my phone and called Jill. “I can’t do it! There are hundreds of people in line to check out. I don’t care how much I am going to save, I refuse to stand in this line.  I will come back in January for the Inventory Reduction sales.” As I left I saw it: “Advent Calendar.”  Now, this has promise, I thought. I picked up The Advent Calendar and saw it featured the Elf on a Shelf. Who else?  So this is the new meaning of Advent.

Then it was off to church to join in the decorating of the sanctuary for Advent.  Having no Elf on Shelf in the Liturgical Supplies closet, we got out the Advent Wreath, only to discover we were missing three of the five candles.  So, it was time to head back into Black Friday stores. At my next stop, I was greeted warmly by a young woman from our church. Maybe there was some hope for this day.  While shopping, I was greeted by a girl who attends our church, and we talked about her Black Friday working experience. I could feel peace coming over me. When Jill and I checked out our receipt told us we saved way more than we spent! Now this is joy! 

We headed back to church and finished placing the candles in the Advent Wreath. As I surveyed the sanctuary, now displaying the beautiful dark blues of hope and expectation, and the evergreens in a circle displaying God’s unending Love, I was struck by the starkness of the white candle in the center of the Advent Wreath. And then I understood.  We wait in darkness for the light. We wait in the world, together, in the busyness of life, frantically looking for the best deals.  It is in the world that we seek the signs of Hope and Peace and Joy and sometimes even Love.  But it is in the community that gathers from the world into worship that we experience the coming of the Light.  Millions of people spend (literally) four weeks getting ready, and it all starts on Black Friday.  May they all see the Light of Christmas Eve.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Revolution + 11 Field Report

In Michigan they still do not know who won the presidential election vote.  The rest of the nation knows, and now, eleven days later, while social media still buzzes with joy for the “winners” and despair for the “losers”, I thought I would give you a field report of how it’s going here in one of the states that could have decided the outcome.

The highways are open. Cars are running at 80 m.p.h. in the fast lane. No more road rage than usual. The airports is operating. Airplanes fly in and out carrying vacationers to Mexico and business travelers from Michigan. No hijackings. 5th Grade Crossing Guards stand at their post before and after school each day and little children, from red and blue families both, make their way safely across the streets of Michigan.

I was able to attend an elementary talent show in which all thirty (30!) acts performed to the delight of their classmates and under the enduring eyes of parents and grandparents. All thirty acts went off without a hint of protest.  There was a girl in a red dress.  And then a large assembly of red-blooded 5th Grade boys in blue clothing filling up the stage doing 5th grade boy antics, full of life and not yet realizing that being “cool” requires them to slouch and frown in front of girls and adults. Maybe next year.  The crowd cheered for all of the acts, red and blue. Did I mention that there were thirty of them?

That’s how things are in this state where the tension over the election results plays out in the halls of political power. The people have spoken, although we don’t know what they said yet. But, there is a fine line between acceptance and resignation.  Both the “winners” and the “losers” have an obligation to give meaning to what “the people” said. 

I received an email from a friend who wanted to know how to give to a Michigan-based woman  our church supports as a missionary who is raising money to serve Muslim refugees in Greece.  His rationale for giving is that “Christian charity and compassion toward Muslim refugee families is of vital importance.” I suppose that he figured now is the time to act; to do something positive. 

Life goes on. Everything seems the same.  And everything is changing.  And that is what a modern American Revolution looks like in the field eleven days later.  What are you going to do about it?

Saturday, November 12, 2016

The Revolution of 2016

Remember the Revolution.  The American Revolution, that is. We are a nation which was born out of a revolution. People from many nations gathered together in a rare common cause against a king. We, the people on the other side of the ocean, wanted to be independent and people fought and died for that cause.  I don’t know if a revolutionary spirit is passed on genetically or socially or spiritually, or some of each, but the Revolution is one critical thread that binds together this nation’s history.  Some of us are, at heart, revolutionaries.  The amazing thing is, it is not always the same people who are revolting against the government. But, it seems, someone is always in the beginning, middle or end of some sort of revolutionary movement against some “king.”

The genius, (and while this is a word used too often and without care, in this case I think we can say our Founders did find a collective genius), their genius idea was that it would be brilliant if future revolutions happened not with wars but with a ballot box.  The history of the right to vote is, of course, full of stories of mini-revolutions. But, with the huge and desperately sad exception of the Civil War, we have made our way forward without a full-blown war. Sure, there were periods of violence (battles for Labor Rights and Civil Rights being two notable examples), but the genius of the Founders reveals itself every four years when the powers of our national government change hands without military involvement as we elect and inaugurate a new President.  In the context of world history this is a rare accomplishment, that we can have what amounts to a “revolution” without a war preceding or following the changing of the guard.  We should thank God for this gift.

Did God choose the choice of Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump, or did we the people choose while God looked on?  Regardless, we had one choice which was cast as “the king” and one choice which was cast as “the revolution.” Now, we the people have chosen, by the actions of those who voted and the inactions of those who stayed home.  But, regardless of how one analyzes it, the revolution of 2016 happened.  It behooves us to respect and honor the choice of the people. That is the American spirit, and it is also the spirit which God urges upon the Church.

The way forward will happen under God’s watchful eye. But, if history is any indicator, there will be another revolution. May God bless President-elect Trump and the transition process, and may God give us a way forward in peace and revolution. God, please bless the U.S.A.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

And Then It Rained

And then it rained.

Time stopped. For 17 minutes, baseball time stopped. The umpire said the rain wasn’t supposed to fall on the ballpark in Cleveland, but then, unexpectedly it did. Hmmm.  The Cubs were living a movie script no one would dare write because the plot twists, if you made them up, would not be believed. World Series, Game 7, the Cubs with a small lead, then a bigger lead, then an insurmountable lead; until the Indians scored late off the sure-fire relief pitcher who never gives up a home run, until this game. And then, with the score tied, the Cubs in a seeming freefall, it rained.

The Cubs players moved inside, into the strength and conditioning room, and an impromptu team meeting was held, the pep talk reminding the team to focus not on winning or losing, but on “how we got here.” Someone said, “This is going to make it sweeter boys.” And then the rain stopped.  It took almost as long to remove the tarp covering the field as rained.  And then the game resumed.

Then boys and girls, women and men, fans reliving childhood dreams and creating lifetime memories of “where I was when it happened”, as that last toss from a charging third baseman to the glove waiting at first was squeezed into the joyous final out, they all screamed, yelled, smiled, shouted, cried tears which said, “Cubs Win, Cubs Win, Cubs Win!!!”

History will tell you that the team which won was the “Best Team in Baseball” in 2016.  And when you are living into the destiny that comes with that label; when you are dealing with 108 years of angst and frustration and waiting, well, sometimes you just try too hard.  Sometimes you need to step back and remember, we don’t have to do anything special, we just need to play the game.  But it is hard to find time to remind a team of that in the final innings of the final game.  Unless, of course, the storm clouds suddenly shift just enough to persuade the umps, “time to stop the game”.

Following the historic, epic, monumental win the television picture showed Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations, bouncing his young son and just as he turned to kiss his wife, he quickly looked up to the sky from when the rain had come and, I swear, I saw him mouth the words that spoke for a nation of Cubs fans, “Thank you.”

And then it rained. Thank You, indeed.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Camping Community

“What do you do all day?,” I asked my friend seated at the edge of the camp fire.  “This.,” he answered.  I was beginning to understand.  We walked from his campsite to the next campsite I wanted to visit and I asked my camping friends, sitting around the fire with a cold beverage in hand how their day was and then inquired, “So, what did you do today?,”. They looked at me with this smile that says, “You don’t know what you are missing”, and replied, “This.”  I understood a little better. All of these people came here to do nothing more than “This.”

My friends took me on a walk through the state park where I was visiting members of our church who were camped out for the weekend to celebrate Halloween. I wanted to see for myself what the attraction was that drew them, along with hundreds of other people, to this heavily wooded location right along the shores of Lake Michigan. We were on our way to see an amazing display of tricks and treats that one family had set up to entertain the crowds on Saturday night.  Creatures popping out of garbage cans, an old-fashioned popcorn stand with the “bearded lady” as the hostess, and so much more.  Even their kids get in the act of entertainment by and for the whole family.  The site I viewed was the best, but there were dozens of others which were similarly decorated by people with creative imaginations, people who spent hours erecting sights like Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin amid the chorus of gravesite markers, ghosts and goblins.

On the walk back I asked my tour guides, this wonderful young couple with their young children scampering on ahead of us, “So what’s the attraction? What is it that draws so many people here on a late fall weekend in quite cool weather?”  It’s a hard kind of question to answer, the kind which asks you to put into words why you love doing something you love. But answer they did.  The answer was, as the song says, “blowin’ in the wind.”  “The smell is amazing,  isn’t it, Pastor Bill?” So, I focused on the smell, and it was like being transported to another era.  Try to smell in your mind a hundred campfires burning, the smoke and the smell wafting through the trees and over the marsh.  Listen for the sound of the waves crashing onto the shore, the rhythm of the water retreating and returning.  And, they said, “We never know what time it is.”  The dad clarified, “Except when we are hungry, we know it’s time to eat.”  “We fish for hours and maybe catch nothing but we are having a blast, together. We go on long hikes. The kids ride their bikes and we sit by the fire.” Quiet. Together.

Do you know what the “this” is that my friends did all day? Sabbath. Do you know what my friends were describing in their experience of the smells and sounds of smoke and waves and quiet? Shalom.  This is why God invited, no commanded, us to rest every seventh day.  Not because God knew we would be tired and needed to sleep in, but because God knew the Creation was so beautiful that, by just experiencing it in silence and in community, it could draw us closer to God, to our families, to our friends, to a whole new community.  Taking the time to be intentional in forming and keeping a camping community could create memories that will last a lifetime.  The laughs lifted up, the food and drink shared from camper to camper, this is how you make community. This is how you learn what it means to rest in the peace of God. It is not the experience of doing nothing. It is the experience of doing something together with no goal in mind other than “This.”

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Christmas in October or 'The Bells of Bartella'

I wonder why they didn’t destroy the bells?  The armed forces of the Islamic State desecrated the interior of St. Matthew’s Syriac Orthodox Church in the town of Bartella, located in northern Iraq, which had been the home of thousands of Assyrian Christians until two or so years ago. The Islamic State, according to news reports, had turned the church into some sort of training facility for their army. The floors are covered with filth, the hymnbooks are strewn about and the pews are no longer in their orderly formation.  There are other signs of destruction and defacing in and around the church, yet the church bells remain intact.  And yesterday, when the Iraqi forces freed the town and reclaimed the church, the sound of church bells rang across the liberated skies.

The bells rang messages to the world: the city is taken back from the enemy; the thousands of refugees may start to plan their return home; evil had lost a foothold; God is not dead.

I imagine that for at least some of those soldiers working for the Joint Operations Command, whether Christians or Muslims, this was what we might call “Christmas in October.” This was good news. It was more than one small victory in one small city. The opportunity to ring the church bells was an opportunity to send a message from God: “Do not doubt that God will win the battle.”

As I read the headlines in the newspapers and watch the nightly news it becomes tempting to conclude that God has given up on this world.  The litany of death and destruction caused by humans against humans is enough to cause one to give up any hope that there is a “Good” which is waging battle against “Evil.”  But then, even though it might not be lead story material, we hear that the bells of Bartella are ringing again.  I wonder if this is how God always invades history: small, even insignificant events in time are signs. Signs of hope. Signs that God is surely alive and acting.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men."
(“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1867)

I know it’s only October.  But today, hearing the “Bells of Bartella”, I cannot help but think of Christmas.  If God seems “dead” to you today, keep listening for the bells. God promises that he will send you a sign. You may need to search in some remote village, but there, in a small stable, behind the animals, in a feeding trough, you will find your sign. And if you have lost the heart to search, which sometimes happens, please keep an ear open for the sound of bells.  Do you hear them peal, loud and deep? Keep listening…

Saturday, October 15, 2016

"Raking Leaves"

A confession: I hate doing yard work.  An admission: I have complained about and dodged yard work so much that my loving spouse has reduced my sentence to two days a year. Once in the spring and once in the fall.  An explanation: we have agreed to allocate a part of our discretionary income to paying people to cut the grass, shovel the snow, deal with the landscape. So, the money and time you spend fishing or hunting or camping, I spend on avoiding hard labor. So sue me.

But, today is one of the two days.  I anticipated this day all week, like the week before you know you have get a root canal. You cannot stop thinking about it. And now the day is here.  Look, I know you are thinking, “Oh poor baby” or “Cry me river, you wimp”, but, really, this is cutting into my time I should be reading and writing. Or golfing.  Or watching football. But today is here, and I need to face the reality that hours from now I will be sore in places I forgot I had muscles, and there will be blood shed, I fear, or at least blisters.

I need to stop writing now. I need to get out there and attack the dead and decaying stuff in my yard. I have someone standing at the door with two rakes in her hands looking at me with this strange, sinister smile.  “Here we go, honey.”  To prepare myself; to give my mind something on which to focus; to give this day some redeeming value, I will do my utter best to channel this poem:

Raking Leaves
There is something soothing about the scrape of a rake,
the rhythmic process of pulling dead leaves,
bending to pick them up, dumping them
in curbside lawn bags,
something soothing about the way the sun
warms your hair one of these last
seventy-degree days as you labor past
soreness in your arms, until you forget
emails to send, reports to file,
take-home work you left at the office,
until you forget the splendid mums will shrivel,
the tree that sheds now will wear nothing soon,
and you will curse the cold.

Brian Fanelli
Source: Waiting for the Dead to Speak from inward/outward

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Do You Have a Reservation?

We were planning a special Friday night out on the town, beginning at one of our favorite local restaurants.  They have a reservation “system” which allows you to call in during the day and reserve a table by leaving a message. When we arrived at the appointed hour we approached the hostess and announced our arrival.  The hostess announced, “I am sorry, we don’t have your name in our book.”  The usual “discussion” followed: we called and left a message; we are not saying you didn’t, but we still don’t have your name in the book; etc., etc.  No amount of talking was going to change the fact, our names were not in the reservation book, and it being a very busy night, there was just no way to get us a table.  We were turned away at the door.

During Rosh Hashanah, the time of celebration of the Jewish New Year, one of the traditions is to greet each other with wishes that a person’s name is written in the book of life.  According to Jewish tradition, there are three “books”: the book of life, the book of death, and the book for “doubters”, those who are unsure whether their lives have been lived sufficiently well to have earned inscription in the book of life.  For all of those whose names are sealed in the book of life there is joyful anticipation of the judgments that follow and the next festival, called Tabernacles, which is a feast of celebration and joy for all whose names are sealed in the book of life.  For those who are unsure, there is a time for repentance, a time to get your life in order so that your name can be written in the book of life.  So, for observant Jews, during Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to greet each other with words which amount to good wishes for an inscription into the book of life and for a good year. (source: Wikipedia, “Rosh Hashanah”)

I believe that there is a book of life, and that it amounts to a “reservation book” for God’s children to dwell with God in the life to come.  We are promised that the inhabitants of the New Jerusalem, which will appear when the New Heaven and the New Earth are revealed, will be “only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (Revelation 21:27) 

But here is the thing, it is the “Lamb’s book of life.”  The Lamb, Jesus, does not write with a pencil that bears an eraser. The Lamb’s book is not smeared with erasures caused by cancellations.  The Lamb reservation system does not rely on you leaving a message on voice mail. 

In the biblical understanding of the names written in the book of life there is no “wishing” about it.  There is no concept of “living a better life this year” so as to earn an inscription.  When someone who knows Jesus says, “I hope my name is written there”, what they mean is “I know my name is written there, because my reservation was made for me by the Lamb.”  You can rest assured that you will not be turned away at the door.  You can know that you have a reservation at the Table for the celebration of a lifetime and beyond.  “Yes, I see your name right here! Your table is ready!”

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Happy Birthday, People!

This Saturday is, for our friends in the Jewish faith, the last weekend of the year.  Tomorrow, October 2, at sundown, the New Year begins.  (God-created time begins with sundown, not sunrise. Read Genesis 1:5 if you don’t believe me.)  So, on the first day of the 7th month of the biblical year, the Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah are observed. It begins with the blast of a shofar (a hollowed-out ram’s horn), and so it is a time also known as the Feast of Trumpets.  The trumpet announces the arrival of the time to celebrate the old being made new.

Some people believe that this day is the anniversary of the day God created humankind, namely, Adam and Eve.  We can argue about the meaning of the “six days” of Creation, and all that goes with it, but the thought that brings me joy today is this: humanity has a birthday, and we should celebrate it. October 2 is the day that God spoke the words that ushered in humanity,  which followed the days that God spoke the words which ushered in the globe on which humanity would walk, the Lights which would show them the way, and the animals and plants which would surround them.

“People” have a birthday.  There was a time there were no people. When I woke up this morning I was trying to picture what that must have looked like, when nothingness became the World and all that is in it. What was it like on the day when the rabbits and deer first saw Eve’s eyes admiring them; when the plants first felt Adam’s hands gathered  them up in the harvest?

Why doesn’t the Christian faith have a day to celebrate the birth of humanity? (There is a lot more to Rosh Hashanah than this, of course. Indeed, the Holy Days that follow are known as the Days of Awe, and it all ends with Yom Kippur,  the Day of Atonement. The holy days are filled with thoughts of the Book of Life, a topic to which I will return next Saturday.)

I wonder if Christianity’s lack of a day to celebrate humanity’s birth is because the Christian focus is not so much on what is as it is on what will be.  What the Christian expression of faith in One God adds to the Jewish expression of faith in that same One God is a focus on Hope.  We focus on the Hope that is found in the birth of the Creator who became a human.  We focus on the Hope that is found in the transformation of a new body after the old body dies.  And we focus on the Hope that this Old Earth will become the New Earth. We celebrate Genesis 1 and 2 by reading it through the lens of Revelation 21 and 22.  Go and read just the headings of those chapters and you will see what I mean.

So, yes, we should join our Jewish friends in the faith in helping them to celebrate the anniversary of humanity. Tomorrow night we should raise a “happy birthday, people” shout. I do believe there was a time when we “were not”, and I want to celebrate that we “are.”  But mostly, I want to celebrate the Hope that we “will be”.  Forever. Hallelujah. Sound the Trumpet!

Saturday, September 17, 2016

My 'Miss Leynse Lesson'

I enjoyed school. In fact, as I look back on it, I would say I loved it.  But there were two subjects with which I struggled greatly: 4th grade penmanship and any grade math.  But one of the most important lessons about life I learned was from my 4th grade teacher, Miss Leynse.  I am thinking about Miss Leynse because yesterday my assistant was struggling to read my notes about the church bulletin content.  I apologized for my poor penmanship and told her it was not Miss Leynse’s fault. I know how to write proper cursive, but too often I write in haste, failing to make the proper curves and humps which make cursive writing a joy to readYou see, it’s not that Miss Leynse didn’t teach me well. It’s that I don’t always remember my “Miss Leynse Lesson”.

I remember the day. The sun was shining. The windows were open. My classmates were outside for recess. And I was sitting at my desk, pencil to the lined paper, writing rows of “m” and “n.” I was struggling with getting the second “hump” on each of the “m’s”, not because I didn’t know how, but because I was in a hurry to get outside with Billy and Duane and Suzie and Cindy and the rest. So, I took my paper up to Miss Leynse, seated at her neatly arranged wooden desk, handed it to her and confessed, “some of the “m’s” have only one hump, but is this good enough?”  She didn’t even look at my paper. She just looked into my eyes and said, “Billy, it’s good enough when it’s right.” She handed the paper back to me. I retreated to my desk and I made all the malformed letters into proper m m m m m m m m m. And then  I ran outside to the cement playground for the few minutes remaining before the loud bell rang.                          

I think of my Miss Leynse story often, and I tell it every time someone will listen to it.  I cannot tell you how many times I have said to myself, “Billy, it’s not good enough until it’s right.”  Miss Leynse was both my second and fourth grade teacher at Sheboygan Christian School, where in those critical years I learned about life and academics and God with the same thirty classmates. I can recall nearly all of my elementary school teachers and tell you stories about them.  I am who I am today because these were teachers, along with my later in life teachers, who heard and responded to the call to teach children.  And while Miss Leynse couldn’t cure me of my habit of rushing through “details”, she could teach me about not settling for “good enough” in life.

Your children and grandchildren are back in school.  They have teachers who are forming their lives. If it was up to me, I would make sure all teachers heard “thank you for forming my child” at every opportunity.  The future of our society, indeed, of the world, depends on teachers who respond to God’s call to teach children.  Each day, every teacher could be giving every child a “Miss Leynse story” which they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.  Have we told our children to listen well?  We, as a society, should make sure that we honor, respect and thank people who every day put up with the demands and challenges of their teaching jobs because they want to help some little Billy or Suzie know what it means to be valuable and valued as a child. 

I should send Miss Leynse a note.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Found and Waiting

I was searching through our church’s “Lost and Found” yesterday.  It was a part of my sermon research on the stories about the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (Luke 15:1-10).  I was struck by the contents: lots of clothing articles; a child’s backpack, some jewelry articles and, of most interest to me, several pairs of reading glasses.  I had a picture in my mind of people somehow connected to our church who either decided reading wasn’t all that important to them, or they adapted by extending their arms full length to hold their reading material.  

Why have these articles been sitting in a cardboard box marked “Lost and Found” for so long a time?  Are none of these items of enough value to the owners to justify returning to church to retrieve them? Or, perhaps the owners simply could not recall where they “lost” these items.  But, if they were of real value to the owners, they would have retraced their steps, right?  Am I the only who obsesses over things of mine that my wife or co-workers have misplaced, leaving them in a state of being lost to me?

Anyway, I was thinking about what we could do to fix this problem. One, I suppose, is to move the box out of the coat closet.  A better solution, I think, would be to rename the box. Instead of “Lost and Found”, I am thinking we could go with “Found and Waiting.”  You see, the term “Lost and Found” is not accurate, at least not from the viewpoint of the original owner.  The owner lost her reading glasses. The cleaning service “found” them and turned them in to the office. So, at this point, the glasses are no longer lost, but they are awaiting their return to the rightful owner.  They have been found, but they await reconnecting with the owner who “lost” them. (This word also bothers me. The glasses were really just misplaced. They were not “lost”, as in “unfindable.” They were not “lost”; they were just “not yet found.”)

So, if we changed the label to “Found and Waiting” perhaps the found items would be of greater interest. People would wonder whether there was some valuable or interesting item of their own just waiting to be reclaimed.  The fact is that, if we don’t do something soon we will need to discard the items in the box, and then they really will be lost in some trash dump on their way to incineration. We need to motivate people to start searching. “We found your glasses. You can read again if only you will claim them!” Alas, it seems that the owners have decided the glasses are not worth the effort to retrieve, or they have given up hope of finding them.

Glasses are not people. People have an Owner who deeply desires that everyone be “found”, and this Owner never gives up hope. Which brings me back to where I started. Do you think you are lost? Do you know you are found? Are you waiting for your Owner to come back for you? Perhaps some servant is being sent to let you know you have been claimed, to free you from the box today!  Do you want to be retrieved, or do you prefer life in the box?

Monday, September 5, 2016

Monday's Hope

It’s Labor Day.  Monday. 

It’s a good morning for a long walk. It’s Monday, but it’s Labor Day, which in its somewhat oxymoronic definition means I am not required to labor. So I walk…

Past the apple tree that so shortly ago held the promise of beautiful blossoms and now bears the fruit of the tree’s labor. It’s Labor Day.  And I walk on…

Past the beach entrance which reminds us that the beach is open from Memorial Day to Labor Day.  It’s Labor Day. Monday. Already. And I keep walking…

Looking down the babbling brook that feeds the still pond which overlooks the lake which holds people trying to find a final summer memory to hold onto while wrapped in blankets next January.

And past that same apple tree once more.  A few of the apples have fallen, I see.  I wonder why. Are they ripe already?  Did the wind get them and if so, why those apples and not the others?

It’s a week after the Monday my friend and co-worker for Jesus and Hope died.  At age 51.  Her husband eulogized her best: “She had a good life. Too short.”  I thought about Barb as I walked on…

It’s Labor Day. Summer is over, even though the sun would disagree.  As I walked and thought of beaches and water and apple trees, I saw a tiny caterpillar ‘racing’ to get to the other side…

It’s Labor Day. Monday. Summer is over. Again. BUT… 

Summer is coming again. The melancholy of Labor Day Monday is the environment needed to produce hope…make that Hope.

As in “Sure Hope”:  the trees will blossom, the beach will open, the people will return for new memory-making, the caterpillar will fly.  Barb lives, to be seen again.  Monday’s Hope.

So I keep walking…and waiting…and looking for signs…“Open up the heavens/We want to see you/…. Show us, show us your glory, Lord.” (Meredith Andrews, Open Up the Heavens)

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Where Will We Be Seated?

I’m going to a wedding reception tonight. (Yes, I am going to the wedding as well, so don’t start on me about that.) I don’t know what you think about when you are invited to a wedding reception, but I am wondering where we will be seated.  The pattern most wedding reception planners follow is that numbers are assigned to tables and then the guests are assigned to a table number. And then the fun really begins, when you find out who shares your table number.

I still hold out some hope for Table 1, but since I only know the bride through my wife, and since I don’t know the groom at all, I am guessing my hope is misplaced.  I won’t get served first. Maybe we’ll be near the front, right in the line of sight with the wedding party, and then everyone will know I am there. People will think that I am someone important, being seated so near the front.  I can hope. But, being realistic, I guess the most I can really hope for is that I don’t get served last.  I suppose I could try to move up a few tables, going around telling people that I have to get home early, asking them to trade places with me.  Maybe I could buy my way to the front. 

In reality, of course, I don’t want to sit in the front. And I certainly don’t want to be seated right next to the dance floor. The expectations are simply too high that I am going to do the Chicken Dance. I can never get it right, and I look like someone having uncontrolled muscle spasms, so better that I have that table in the far corner.

I don’t know where I am sitting tonight, and that really doesn’t matter. What I do know is that I will be seated at a table with the woman I love and with good friends.  I know this because my wife and her friend told me we would be seated together.  I don’t know how women know things like this in advance, but I am glad they shared the secret of the seating chart with me.  You see, it’s not so much a question of where you are seated at the banquet that matters, it’s a question of who you are seated with.  That’s why the seating chart planners spend so much time on it.  They want everyone to have a good time around the tables, whatever the number.

That’s what it is like in the Kingdom of Jesus.  Don’t fight to get the best seat. Take joy in that you are invited, friends. Know that Jesus has been planning the Banquet seating for a long time, and the people you will be dining with at the Table will be the perfect tablemates.  People you love. People with whom you can share a memory, a laugh, a hug.  People you want to be with for an eternity.  I am not going to miss that party.  You’ll be there, right?  Jesus is saving a seat for us.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

It's Never Just a Handshake

When human beings touch a message is sent.  When human beings refuse an offer to touch an even stronger message is sent.

The Olympics value sportsmanship and one of the ways that this value is displayed is in the handshake (or hug) following a competition.  It can be understandably difficult to touch the person who has just defeated you on an international stage, who has perhaps denied you a lifetime goal.  Yet, we take for granted that following sporting events, especially at the Olympics level, competition ends with a handshake.

So it was newsworthy when Israeli heavyweight judoka Or Sasson extended his hand to Islam El Shehaby, his Egyptian opponent, whom he had just defeated in a first-round match. Mr. El Shehaby backed away from the offered hand of the victor, refusing to shake his hand.  The disharmony between the Egyptians and the Jews is of course the plot line of one of the most famous stories in the Bible, the Exodus.  Over the centuries, it seems, things haven’t really improved. While the governments of the two nations engage in diplomatic relations, there is still great tension among the people, mostly due to their differing religious beliefs. Mr. El Shehaby is, according to one news source, an “ultraconservative Salafi Muslim”. He explained his actions by stating that a handshake is not required in judo rules and that shaking hands is for friends, of which Mr. Sasson is not one.  Mr. El Shehaby was reprimanded for his actions, and, depending on who you believe, he may have been sent home early.

Now, we might say, “Well, it’s just a handshake. What’s the big deal?”  But, on the Olympic stage, it’s never “just a handshake.”  The whole point of the Olympics is to seek to find ways for nations as war, through their athletes, to exist in peace in the arena.

That’s the way we should look at handshakes in real life too. Is there someone who, given the opportunity, you would not want to shake his or her hand?  If so, why? What is the message that this form of human touch sends that makes you recoil from it?  You know how it is after two people are fighting, how those in charge will say, “now shake hands and move on.”  Those handshakes are never sincere, but they are a first step in overcoming whatever divides them.  It’s the effort at human touch that begins healing. It’s never just a handshake.

I think it was right to discipline Mr. El Shehaby.  No religion should espouse the practice of refusing to touch those with whom we disagree. Make a list of the people you don’t want to shake hands with and then commit to doing so the next time you see them. So far as it depends on you, make peace.  Someone said, “Love your enemies”, right?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

"Everything That Has Breath"

My week ended talking to the horses.  To be clear on this, let me state up front, they did not talk back, at least not in a way I could comprehend.  My week began with a video of our grand-dog howling away as he listened to a goose call.  My daughter's laugh, heard on the video, as she was watching her big puppy "sing", was the sound of love mixed with joy.

Later I toured the wooded lot of a friend, which comes complete with a large pond, paths that lead to a river, and quiet spots next to a bubbling brook for meditation.  During the course of our tour we saw frogs who seemed to welcome us to their pond as old friends. We saw toads engaged in the spring ritual of creating new life, although our host did admonish them for their lack of discretion in choosing to mate in public.  Of course, the toads may have been wondering about why we were staring at them...this was their yard after all.  One certainly had a great sense of the rhythm of life wandering past bird's nest and rushing water.

My week was capped with an invitation to bless a horse cared for and ridden by the daughter of a some friends of ours.  When I said "yes" to the invitation the word spread throughout the barn and by the time our blessing service was set to occur there was a parade of about ten horses and their riders waiting to be blessed.  I was introduced to them all by name: Maxx, and his friends.  They were beautiful animals.  The caretaker of one told me that her horse was crabby that day.  When I asked how she knew, she made a face that somehow managed to perfectly capture the look on her horse's face, and it did indeed look crabby.

I offered a prayer written by an archbishop of Canterbury which begins, "O Lord, give us humility to thank You for the creation of animals, who can show affection which sometimes puts us to shame. Enlarge our respect for these your creatures, of who we are the guardians."  That line captures an idea that is as old as God’s promise to Noah that God loves all of his creation and the creatures in it, and he appoints human beings as the caretakers, or guardians of God's creatures. So, the blessing I offered properly states of the animals, "May we respect them and cherish them for they are Your gift to us; through them may we come to know You better and praise you, their Creator."

I grew up singing a hymn, now a favorite, that he wrote, "All creatures of our God and King, Lift up your voice and with us sing, "Alleluia!"  A more current take on that idea is in the song which declares "Let Everything that has Breath Praise the Lord,"  That is our privilege as the guardians of God's creatures, to nourish and protect them so that they can sing Alleluia. I can't be sure if our grand-dog was singing "Alleluia" or crying "please stop!"  I don't know if the horses could sense that I was trying to bring God's blessing into their barn and over their pasture.  I wonder whether the frogs were welcoming to their pond or wishing I would go away.  But, the week was a blessing for me because I was reminded that we do not walk this earth alone.  I was reminded, as Paul tells us, that "all creation" waits for the restoration of the new Kingdom.  So, this week, as you feed your birds, as you play with your pets, as you search for creatures along rivers and wooded paths, remember to invite them to sing "Alleluia!"  And don't forget to sing with them.

(This entry is from 2010, but offered anew in honor of a friend’s dog who died this week. As we mourned together, I was reminded how dear are all God’s creatures.)

Saturday, July 16, 2016

"Woes and Visions"

The voice of the Church in the World should speak the Word and the words of God.

The voice of the Church speaks Judgment upon evil; Forgiveness of Sin and sins; and Love which covers a multitude of wrongs.

The voice of the Church speaks its unique comfort of Hope into hopeless times; its piercing yet warm Light into the darkest corners; its vision of the new Jerusalem where God dwells with mortals.

When people defy authority with violent means it is then the duty of the Church to say that “Blue Lives Matter.”  God has ordered society and the Church is called to be a voice for orderly peace, seeking to ensure that the police who act within the law and their authority are respected and protected. 

Yet the Church speaks for justice for those who are persecuted wrongly, who are judged because of the color of their skin or the zip code of their home.  So the Church says that “Black Lives Matter.”  The work of the Church is to encourage the non-violent, peaceful “speech” which can be effective in rendering just change without invoking civil unrest, so far as it depends on them.

To those who plot evil, the Church’s voice speaks: “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! ...The LORD says: “I am planning disaster against this people.” (Micah 2:1,3)

To those who seek to bring a Word of Salvation into a desperate, dying world, the Church’s voice speaks: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Judgment rests with God. May the Church speak Love, through its thousands of churches speaking into their communities demands for justice and cries for mercy. May the Church’s Pilgrims of Hope walk with the humility which comes from knowing that they walk with God and that they are not gods. May God grant the Church the platform and the courage to speak the Word of Life today.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

When Silence is A Sin

It’s another beautiful Saturday morning, a perfect summer day in Wisconsin, the sort of day to write about something lighthearted and fun.  In Dallas and Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul the weather conditions are meaningless. They are engaging in or planning funerals for people who were killed this week: men shot and killed by police and police killed by a lone sniper/murderer. “For whom does the bell toll?”

At dinner last night one of my companions asked, “What is going to have to happen before we all just go to Washington and march until something gets done?”  None of us had an answer. I didn’t have an answer because, first, I don’t know what will change the pattern of violence which leads to new horrors each week, from Orlando to Dallas and who knows where next.  Second, I don’t know that I have the motivation to march, to speak up.   It is too easy, sitting here in the upper Midwest on a spectacular sunny Saturday to just try to forget about it, to say, “what difference could I really make?” Third, I don’t know if I have the courage to speak. This is the part which troubles me the most. Have I lost my voice?

The problem I have in my role as pastor of a church is that the “church” doesn’t have a “position.”  It would be my role to help the “church” find a message and a voice, but if I do that I risk “blowing up” the church.  Our nation is so divided that there is no one “position” that represents a consensus view of what God would have to say about this pattern of violence. Am I willing to risk my job and to risk the cohesiveness of the community I serve over a problem that has (not yet) affected our city directly?  Am I willing to march, to speak up, when the people who have called me to speak may not follow?

Elie Wiesel, in his 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech said this, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”  Sometimes, I conclude, silence is a sin. “God, forgive me.  Help me to find my voice.  Fill the silence with your Word. Amen.”

Saturday, July 2, 2016

"My Heart Leaped for Joy"

I would like to argue with her, but how do you take issue with a world-class poet? And anyway, her practice is not far from what I preach.

I have concluded that, just like God loves a cheerful, not a grumpy giver, so God’s invitation to worship is meant to stir joy, not a bad case of the “grumpies”.  I could try to  “guilt-trip” folks into worship, but it makes me feel like a grumpy-old minister who needs validation by their attendance.  Instead I always tell people, you should come to church when you are able and when the idea of joining together with your worshipping community makes you happy, or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, when your hearts leaps for joy at hearing the invitation. (Psalm 122:1, The Message) So, what should I encourage people to do when their hearts don’t leap at the thought of coming together to worship the LORD in community, when they would rather be outdoors enjoying these rare blessed days of summer? 

A Service of Song

Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church,
Our little sexton sings.

God preaches,—a noted clergyman,—
And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I’m going all along!                                Emily Dickinson (Source: Emily Dickinson Poems, discovered at Inward/Outward)

I still would like to make a few good points in response, about the values of regular worship in community, but the birds beckon. God is preaching!

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Butterfly Surprise

"Do caterpillars know they're going to be butterflies, or does God surprise them?" (Family Circus, Bil Keane, Feb. 23, 2007)

Last fall I watched the caterpillars crawling for safety.  It was a slow, long crawl to a destination I did not know. I don’t know if they did either.

This summer I saw the transformed butterflies in my backyard enjoying the plants. It appears their long crawl was successful.

I wonder what it was like that first day when they awoke to find themselves flying instead of crawling?

Was this a long-winter’s night dream come true or a shocking revelation?

So much of life is lived like a caterpillar crawling for food, for shelter, for security, for safety. 

But then, one day, or maybe several “one days”, we wake up and discover we have wings and we are doing things we only dreamed.

Whether we knew such a day was coming or not, it always has an element of complete surprise.  I can fly? I can fly!

May God grant you a butterfly surprise, my friends, sooner than you imagined, and not later than you need.  And may you remember to thank God for the wings.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Praying For a Better Day

Tuesday was not a good day. In fact, it was a bad day; not the worst, but still, all things considered, beyond disappointing and approaching depressing. The details of why this was so don’t really matter to my point. You have had, and may be having one of those days right now, and you certainly will in the future. Generally, the badness of Tuesday involved people I love, the denomination I belong to, and the nation in which I live.

Beyond just wanting such a day to be over, the other key feature of such a day is wondering where in the world God is hiding and what in the world God is up to in my life, the life of those I love and in the battle against evil in this world.  The questions are the oldest ones facing humanity once we got past the point of figuring out food and fire, and maybe the wheel and how to sharpen stones. If you read the forever relevant book of Job you will see all of these questions and more, and you will see the suggestion that it might be better to just deny, or at least abandon one’s faith in God when confronted with the overwhelming sense of defeat.  So, I went to bed feeling despondent, without hope.

Wednesday morning I awoke and I had to decide whether I could engage God in my morning prayers.  It was not as hard as I thought it would be. God allowed me to vent a bit, and then a strange sense of calm, the budding of hope, began to take over my mind. God was still speaking to me. In the shower (not a sight you want to visualize, but important to the story) I started to think of something to sing, which is a sure elixir of hope.  My mind settled on an old theatre audition piece:

When you're down and out
Lift up your head and shout
There's gonna be a great day
Angels in the sky
Promise that by and by
There's gonna be a great day…
(Barbra Streisand, “(It’s Gonna Be) A Great Day”)

Which reminded me of this prophetic word:

Though the fig tree does not bud
    and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
    and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
    and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
    I will be joyful in God my Savior.
(Habakkuk 3:17-18)

Wednesday was better than Tuesday. Some days that is sufficient.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Making of a Hero

You know his name.  That’s why they can just put his picture on the cover. No name needs to accompany the photo because you know his name.  And he made it so.

Before his name was Muhammad Ali he was Cassius Clay.  That’s when I was introduced to him, as an impressionable boy looking for heroes.  Mr. Clay, as he was known in 1964, wrote a piece for a sports magazine before his big fight against Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. I became a fan of championship boxing during these years, and even as I write this I marvel at this because it seems so out of character for the rest of my self-image.  I attribute it to the name change, Clay became Ali, and all that followed the decision to change his name, to re-identify himself.

Mr. Ali went on to beat many opponents, and only some of them were in the ring. I think that is why I was attracted to him. He proclaimed himself to be “The Greatest” and he lived into that proclamation. I wonder if he was the greatest boxing champion of all time because of his physical skill and mental determination, or did he create a persona that he forced himself to live into?  I think it was the former, that he really was that good, and all he needed was the world to know what he knew. But I think that when people like Mr. Ali set the bar for themselves so impossibly high, it become a self-fulfilling prophecy. He tells the world “I am the greatest”, and now he has to prove it.

He admitted that the behavior which made him famous was what I call “performance art.”  He was a self-promotion machine who the media fed on in a frenzy, and the sports-obsessed public loved to hate him. Until they loved to love him.  He wrote in 1964: “Where do you think I would be if I didn’t know how to shout and holler…. I would be poor…and I would probably be down…in my hometown, washing windows or running an elevator and saying ‘yes, suh’ and ‘no suh’ and knowing my place. Instead of that, I’m saying that…I’m the greatest fighter in the world, which I hope and pray is true. Now the public is saying to me, ‘Put up or shut up.’” And he did. (SI, 6/13/16. C. Clay)

Every boy and every girl needs a hero.  Someone whose picture needs no name.  The problem is that one day all of the heroes die.  But One.  You know his name.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

The Cost of A Handshake

You know the saying, “when in Rome, do as the Romans”, right?  Well, Switzerland has given new meaning to that old maxim.  Switzerland’s northern canton of Basel-Landschaft follows the national tradition which one reporter describes as follows: “(s)haking a teacher’s hand before and after class is part of Switzerland’s social fabric, and is considered a sign of politeness and respect.”  The tradition became a problem when two Syrian immigrant brothers refused to shake the hands of their female teachers. At first the authorities fashioned a compromise in which the brothers would not shake the hands of the male or female teachers.  This caused a national uproar, which led to the eventual adoption of a law requiring the parents of students who refuse to shake the hands of their teachers to pay a fine of up to $5,050 (5000 francs).

The issue arises from a clash of social custom and religious practice. The Syrian brothers, ages 14 and 16, are devout Muslims and interpret Islam’s ban on having physical contact with the opposite sex (except for immediate family) to mean that they cannot shake the hands of their female teachers.  The social custom advocates say that this breach of tradition will harm the students incorporation into society and run afoul of the goal of creating equality among men and women. The problem of integrating immigrants is not limited to Switzerland.  Germany proposes to require all immigrants who desire citizenship to learn German and follow all local laws and customs. One community in Denmark voted to require public day care centers and kindergartens to include pork in the meat on their lunch menus. (Source: D. Bilefsky, NY Times, 5/26/16)

Should religion bow to social custom or social custom bow to religion?  Paul writes: “Accept the one who is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters”; “…let us stop passing judgment on one another”; “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.”; “Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.”; “Accept one another…just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.” (Romans 14-15)  The church should “do as the Romans” when Christians are the immigrants, and it should welcome immigrants into their communities without requiring them to adopt traditions which will cause distress and division.  The way of Christ is one of humble service to all people in all places.  Except in matters which are not disputable, e.g. worshiping God alone, Christians should forego their “rights” and “customs” as an act of sacrificial love. Such is the way of Christ. Let’s shake on it. Or not. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

I Wonder What Happened

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

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

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

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

Footnote: I wrote this on Memorial Day weekend in 2013. I repeat it today in honor of all those who served our nation, and especially in memory of my Dad who passed into life eternal five years ago this week.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

"Found Girl"

Imagine a 17-year old girl studying for final exams. She is kidnapped and taken away by her captors. She is taken into the deeps woods, so deep and so dense that she cannot be found.  The captors “marry” her in a forced marriage, resulting in a baby being born. Now imagine this girl and her baby 2 years later.  She is near a road with her “husband”, seated and breastfeeding her baby daughter.  Suddenly, out of the covering of the woods, hunters spring out, and they are able to free the now 19-year old girl and her baby. They bring her home. There is great joy in her hometown, and they hold an impromptu celebration. Their rejoicing resounds throughout the night, for the lost has been found.

What emotions does this story stir up inside of you toward the girl you were just imagining, or for the baby girl who is someone’s granddaughter, or toward the captors?

This is a true story. Amina Ali Nkeki is the girl, the mother, the survivor.  She is one of the Chibok girls, one of the 276 school-girls kidnapped in from the Nigerian town.  She is the first of the girls to be found. She reports that six of her schoolmates died, but that all the others remain. Imagine that: 269 girls held captive, having babies, “serving” soldiers, in the worst sense of the word.  But, as Oby Ezekwesili, a former government official puts it, “We are going to use Amina as a symbol.” A symbol of what?

Well, of hope, of course. Hope that the strategy of using hunters who know the land; hunters who insisted that the government’s army let them help in the search, will be successful in locating all of the other girls. Hope that Amina is really just the first, and that the grandparents of 269 other babies will be reunited with their daughters and grandchildren. Hope that people around the world will remember and help the #BringBackOurGirls activists find success.  One found girl inspires the mission with new hope.

Hope is universal, crossing oceans and impenetrable borders. Hope stirs hunters to actions. Hope keeps the lost alive.  And when the lost are found, there is rejoicing in heaven.  This hope, that one found girl is the symbol of finding all the lost, is the hope that stirs hunters into action and parents into prayers.  This hope is the church’s “why.”

(Source: WSJ, May 19, 2016,Drew Hinshaw and Gbenja Akingbule)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

To Go A Far Way

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

“For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.” Romans 8:14

When the Lost Boys and Girls of the Sudan were threatened with death by the soldiers who killed their families and destroyed their villages they walked, up to a thousand miles, to reach the safety of refugee camps.  Many were lost along the way, but many survived. They were able to go a far way because they stayed together, and because they followed some child who became a leader.  They resisted the temptation to go alone,  which would have been faster, but much more likely to end in death. Going fast was not going to accomplish the goal of the trip. To complete this trip it was necessary that they travel together, following the leader all the way to their new homes.

What is the destination of your life’s journey? What community do you want to dwell with among in the end? Do you even know?  Who are you following to get “there”? 

The point of life’s journey is not to get somewhere quickly.  Being “young, rich and famous” sounds so alluring, and if that was the goal of life, all those who find that would be the truly joy-filled souls in life. But, instead the lives of those who choose to “go alone” so they can get “there” fast, often end in despair because once they are “there”, they understand they have not planned a long enough trip.  There is still so much further to go but they have no travel companions and no one to follow.

The point of life’s journey is to go a far way.  The best way to survive the inevitable dangers of this wild journey through the wilderness is to travel with a community, to travel behind someone who knows the way. The only way to go a far way is to travel together as lost children desperately trying to find refuge. We are all lost boys and girls on a journey to a new home, and if we are complete the far way journey we need to stay together, a community of children following the Leader.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Myra's Abiding Loves

On the evening of the day that Myra died I needed time to reflect. Time to reflect on what the life of this woman I loved meant to me. Time to ponder how it came that she defied every stereotype of “mother-in-law”, as we developed a unique relationship defined by our shared love of God, Jill and our families.  I turned to my usual companions on such a retreat: hymns and my Bible.  Well, if you know Myra, that sentence says it all.  We were soulmates. I turned on my Pandora music service and first up was a piano rendition of Amazing Grace, followed by When the Roll is Called Up Yonder.  Now who do you suppose selected that song sequence? Thanks for the confirmation, Myra.

I turned to my Bible, in which I keep a card from Myra sent for my birthday in 2006.  It bears the signature of “Space & Mare”, nicknames for Myra and her deceased husband, Roy.  Beneath her signature she wrote this:  Romans 5:1-2. This is the only Bible verse she ever quoted to me in writing. She read her Bible through, cover to cover, many times. I believe she chose to bequeath me this one verse, ten years before her death, as her message to her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, whom she loves so dearly, about the source of her abiding faith: Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.  We are rejoicing with you, Myra.

Is it true that Myra and Roy and her loved ones, Mike, Helen, Carl, Nancy and all the rest are united again? It is a fair question.  I am as sure of it as I am of the fact that I am typing this sentence.  Experiences like the night Myra died, as I recalled her love of hymns, her love of absorbing God’s Word, confirm my faith.  These messages from above are God’s mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won, a line from a hymn Myra and I would sing with gusto every chance we had.  Today I feel it, Myra.

As Myra lay dying I am confident that her brain was replaying from memory one last time the words to her favorite hymn: Abide with me: fast falls the eventide; The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide! When other helpers fail, and comforts flee, Help of the helpless, O abide with me./Hold thou Thy cross before my closing eyes; Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies: Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.  He heard you, Myra.

Thank you for the love, Myra. I love you too. I’ll be there soon. Say hello to everyone for me.  Billy