Saturday, April 30, 2011

Lights On The Highway

A few years ago I took a trip to New York City to meet with some folks at our denominational mission agency headquarters to talk about Haiti. Outside of my first ride on the NYC subway and a couple decent slices of pizza in Greenwich Village, the trip turned out to be a bust. Five out of the six people who were supposed to meet with us bailed at the last minute. I never did get to talk to anyone about our denomination's work in Haiti, and to top it off, my flight out of LaGuardia was delayed due to rain.

When I had left two days earlier, my ticket said I was supposed to land in Dayton by 7pm, so instead of driving my car to airport, I decided to ride. It was June, so I knew I could get home before dark. No problems, right?


My flight was supposed to be direct from NYC to Dayton, but with all the changes and cancellations I ended up on a plane bound for Cincinnati. I arrived a little before 11pm, and having missed my connecting flight the airline offered me an all-expenses paid overnight experience in C Terminal. I found two other guys trying to get to Dayton, so we split the cost of a car service... about 60 bucks apiece. By the time we arrived in Dayton it was after 1am, and it was raining.


I uncovered my bike, put the soaking cover in one saddlebag, put my clothes in the other, put on my raincoat and water-proof gloves, and headed for home.

Have you ever ridden at night, in heavy rain, when the sky is completely dark, and you can't see a thing? I hadn't. Ever. I avoided, whenever I could both riding at night and riding in any other weather than whatever it is we call "good weather" here in Ohio. I'm what you call a "fair weather" biker or as my hard core friends like to call it, I'm a wuss.

But I'd just spent my last sixty bucks on a car ride, and I really wanted to go home, so into the night I rode.

I didn't have a visor, so my glasses were my windshield. The lines on the road were obscured from the rain and lack of available light. I couldn't see squat.

Soon I was passed by a semi going about sixty. I settled in a fair distance behind him, and just followed his tail lights as far as I could, until he pulled over for the night. The rest of the evening I either lived off the head lights of vehicles coming up behind me, or followed tail lights of those ahead of me so I could stay on the road. I just followed the lights on the highway, until finally, very late at night, or very early in the morning, I saw the unmistakable glow of the refinery, the lights and flame lighting up the rain in sky.

It was a beautiful sight, all that orange light. I meant that home wasn't that far away. Lights on the highway, guiding me home, to a city shining in the middle of night.

You probably don't think of Lima, Ohio that way do you? Well, I can tell you, soaking wet in cold rain, that's exactly how I felt.

Jesus described himself as the light of the world. He does this many different times, but the one I like the most happens after an unusual occurrence in the courtyard of the Temple of Jerusalem. It's described to us in the 8th chapter of John.

Jesus prays alone that morning to start the day on the Mount of Olives, the same Mount of Olives where he will descend into Jerusalem in Palm Sunday to the cheers of "Hosanna", and the same Mount of Olives were there is a garden called, "Gethsemane", which is a word that means "olive press", where he would sweat blood the night before he died, begging his Father for another way to save the world from sin and death. He prays on the Mount of Olives, and then descends into the city, through the Temple Gate into the Temple where he begins to teach.

Soon, though, the Temple priests and authorities, into the middle of the Court of the Gentiles, drag a woman accused of adultery. And in that moment, these learned scholars who were tired of getting their butt handed to them again and again by a carpenter's son, decide to use the occasion to see if this time they could get him say something either stupid, wrong, or so offensive that the crowds who loved Jesus - the least, the last, and the lost - would quit following him around and maybe even turn on him so they could arrest him without incident or riot.

"Moses", said the religious super-preachers of the day, "commanded us to stone an adulterer to death. What you think Jesus? What do you think we should do?"

In the year where we pay special homage to lady bikers, I think it's appropriate to use this scripture this day. In a world where women had no say, no power, and no standing, Jesus looks past what is, to what should be. He befriends women. Champions them. Empowers them. In a world where a husband can leave his wife with absolutely nothing and no repercussions, Jesus holds those men accountable for their actions. There are no second-class citizens in Jesus eyes... not lady-bikers, not 1%ers, not weekend biker warriors, or even wusses on Kawasakis.....

Those who appear the furthest away from God, are loved by Him the most. Don't hear that much any more, any where do you.

But it's true. And so Jesus kneels down, thinking about his answer, and begins doodling in the dirt with his finger, not saying anything. The priests wouldn't leave him alone, but there he knelt, just doodling. And then, slowly, he got up. In the Greek it tells us that he moves toward the center of court, next to the woman who is all but doomed, and utters those powerful words.

"He who is without sin, may cast the first stone."

After everyone, dumbfounded, drops their stones, he turns to the woman, tells her that if no one else condemned her, neither did he, and told her to go and live a better, new, life.

And that's when he does it... he looks at the crowd and says, "I am the light of the world; those who follow me will not walk in darkness, but will have Light in life."

"I am the light of world; those who follow me will not ride in darkness, but will have Light in life."

You know, all this crazy worship service is a little light. Just a dim taillight on the highway of life chasing after the ultimate Ride Captian to let you know you are either on the right track, or if you have been riding in the darkness, that there's someone safely ahead of you that you can follow until that day you see the glowing light of Home.

I don't know, maybe in the story you identify with the Pharisee. I know they're out there. I get complaints every year. Too much rock music. Too much fun. Not enough Jesus. Not enough about salvation. I baptized a little baby this morning. You can bet I'll get a letter or two about it. About how baptism is for believing adults and teens only. If you're out there thinking this, that's fine. Come see me later. We can have a little discussion about what the Greek word "Oikos" and how its how it's used in the the sixteenth chapter of Acts. I'd be happy to have that conversation with you.

But I wish we wouldn't. Because there's a whole world out there filled with condemned people, people who don't know any better and just follow the crowd picking up their rocks to throw, and confused people standing by not knowing exactly what to do. You can rile up the crowd if you want, but remember... Jesus is just doodling in the dirt right now, and he's the light in those people's darkness.

For your darkness.

This little worship service and the short prayer I'll say for so many of you when you pass me by later - "May this bike, and all who ride upon it, be blessed by the Living God" - is all geared to just let you know that if you came looking, hoping, wondering, whether or not Jesus Christ really does teach us what's important about life. How to live. How to love. How to forgive. How to be forgiven. How on that Friday he took your nails, your crown, and your cross, so that on Easter morning you wouldn't just be gifted with life after death, but life in a world filled with death, well then you have come to the right place because that's what this service is... a light on the highway, guiding you home.

You are loved exactly as you are, infinitely, without hesitation and measure.... and yet, you are promised so much more than what you have. You are meant for greater adventures that you don't need to necessarily go seek out on some highway somewhere. Follow Jesus, and if you do it right, you'll find yourself looking in your rear view mirror, in the darkness and the rain, and there will be a headlight.... following you.

I started visiting this guy in the hospital. Every year he comes to the blessing. He's very, very sick. We don't ever use the words "going to die" around here because only God knows how many days each of us gets, but let's just say he knows he's most likely more days behind him, than in front of him.

I sat and we talked about it. He's got little kids. Lives filled with lessons that need to be taught that he's not sure he'll be around to teach. But there's one lesson, not really the one the you want to be assigned, but an important lesson none-the-less he decided to take on. He decided to tell his kids the truth about his disease and most likely what that disease will result in.

And then he did the most remarkable thing. I mean, he isn't a saint or a perfect guy or anything. Ask him or his buddies and they'll tell you he's far from it. But he did this remarkable thing. He tells his kids the truth about what's coming, and then he tells them this.... that he loves them.

You see he doesn't want them to wonder. He doesn't want them to ask "what if". He doesn't want to leave it unsaid. He wants them to know. To know that he loves them, that he's found peace with Jesus, and that the love Jesus has for him and for them, can't be defeated by death.

A light on the highway for those kids. A light on the highway for all of us in that room. A light on the highway for all of us here.

You might be in a place where you feel like Jesus is doodling in the dirt as the fate of your future hangs in the balance. Or maybe you were following someone you thought was taking you home, but just took you for a ride. But in terms of what God wants for you, and what others need from you, Jesus is the light. The light emanating from a beautiful place you call home. A light that seen in a thousand little lights, all on the highway, following the one plowing through the darkness on his divine Kawasaki.

Jesus is the light. If no one else has condemned you, neither has he. Now go and live a better, good, loving, disciple-making life.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Believing Without Seeing

I have a confession. It's tough to admit and I'm not sure how coming clean this way will effect the way I'm perceived, but in this culture where people feel the need to bare even the most minute details of their life ("Going grocery shopping. Hope they'll take these expired Fruit Loops coupons.") I figure you might as well know the truth.

I'm a Facebook junkie.

It's ridiculous, I know. I mean I probably shouldn't care what color you decided to paint your bathroom, what vegetable you steamed for dinner, or anything about your latest pictures of your cat.... but I do. I check Facebook so often on my phone that I think my wife is about to stage an intervention. I check it in meetings, before and after dinner, while I'm watching TV, when I'm on the phone with someone else.

Help me. I'm a Facebook junkie.

It's not all bad though. Occasionally I stumble on something useful or thought provoking. Such was the case when to my surprise, I saw this article in the Toronto Globe written about this fair city we call home. It comes to us from a reporter, who for reasons unnamed, decides to stop here for the night on his way from someplace north of Lima, to someplace south. In the article, the reporter is surprised at the decay he finds in the city. Abandoned buildings. Empty houses. Urban blight. In Detroit, he says, he expects such things, but in towns like Lima he's surprised at the effects of our community being "crushed by the tectonic plates of the global economics" (or some such similar overwrought metaphor). And then he takes a plenty of potshots at our two-WalMart metropolis as a place where people eat at faux-Mexican restaurants only wear baseball caps, stretch pants, and camouflage. He paints us as a post-industrial apocalyptic community where drug dealers no longer hang out due to a lack of financial opportunity.

In short, in the words of the author, living in Lima is "a no-job, no-hope reality". A place Phyllis Diller, once joked, you escape from.

If you live here, or lived here, you get used to people taking potshots at your home. I mean, I don't know why the author of the article is so surprised at the condition of our town. He could find the same kind of blight in Toledo, Dayton, Hamilton, Middletown, Youngstown, Akron, Ironton, and countless other cities and towns all over Ohio. Heck, hasn't he ever heard the song "Allentown"...

Well we're living here in Allentown
Where they're closing all the factories down
Out in Bethlehem their killing time
Filling out forms. Standing in line.

Billy Joel wrote this 25 years ago. As the industrial fortunes of the country have continued to decline, discovering a depressed section of the City of Lima in 2011 is akin to going to Berlin and discovering they tore down the Wall. And while I'm sure there are more than a few people locally ready to affirm everything the Globe reporter observed, by no means is this a place where hope has jumped ship. I'd concede that from an economic standpoint, at least over the last thirty years, we've racked up more losses than wins, but that doesn't mean that Lima as a community is losing.

If that's what you see, then, well.... your eyes deceive you.

Like a lot of kids growing up in Lima, in high school I was bucking to get out of here to someplace "not boring". I went off to college, married my high school sweetheart, and after a few more years living here while working on my graduate degree, moved off looking for greener pastures.

But then a funny thing happened... after eight years away, we actually started missing Lima, Ohio and when the opportunity presented itself, we moved back.

Part of the reason for our willingness to return was that we learned something the author of the article apparently doesn't know: there's a post-apocalyptic section or two in every town and city in every town, everywhere. Columbus, for example, has become a mecca for people across the state and the country. It's a place of opportunity, where a mix of public and private sector jobs in every field imaginable are available to qualified applicants. And yet, in Columbus, while there are better bookstores, a larger mall, and more places to eat, there are still drug addicts, crime, run down buildings, empty factories, and in addition to all of that, it seems to take at least 40 minutes to get anywhere. Lima might not be Disneyworld, but what place is? I mean, Disneyworld is built on the backs of a lot of part-time laborers working for little more than minimum wage without benefits.

Where exactly is Nirvana? If you live on the beach in Hawaii, and your neighbor's kids are crying from hunger, have you found paradise?

Name me a town, and I'll point to statistics that show growing social ills. Lima once rode growth spurred by the discovery of oil. Now we know the truth about boomtowns where the future appears to be nothing but bright and rosy: their foundation is built on a bubble that eventually, as the winds of fortune blow elsewhere, burst.

And all the while the poor are shut out either way due to a lack of jobs or an affordable cost of living. Silicon Valley for example is riding a second wave right now of tech fueled growth, but if all you can afford is a house that five families have to share in a dilapidated part of town, how much better off are you really?

No. With the Globe columnist, I'll have to disagree. The quality of life in a community, any community, can't be based on what can be seen and observed. Rather, that which is important, which should be counted, when a community, or for that matter any organization, family, or individual is measured as desirable or undesirable, are characteristics that can't be seen down your nose from a car window. In fact, it can't be seen at all.

I know that sounds confusing. Some sort of preacher's hocus pocus. But it's true.

I have a friend who works for a large corporation in Detroit. For two or three years before he was re-located to a city which has become the poster child for America's industrial decline, he lived in Southern California. SoCal is a place where temperatures start in the 70's and sunshine every day. A place so filled with opportunity that even the Kardashians can become huge stars. And yet, his only regret now as a Motor City resident was that he didn't leave SoCal sooner.

"Detroit is filled with the same people we grew up with", he told me. "Hard-working, honest, decent, good people. If character counted for anything, Detroit would be one of the finest places in the world to live. All I know, is I hope we never leave."

All of this from a man who, with his wife, just adopted two young foster children left in the wake of the only dimension of the city the Globe reporter could see. It's people like my friend the father who yields pictures of his young son and daughter with great pride and enthusiasm who make Detroit, or Toledo, or even Lima a great place to live. You either get that, or you don't.

You can't see good. You can't see decent. You can't see honest. You can't measure character. You just can't. I wish the Globe columnist had recognized this. His entire column might have been different. For while certainly there is here in Lima a hunger for something better than what is, there is also an abundance of people who live hopefully, instill it in their children, and realize what someday some lucky people in post-industrial apocalyptic Shanghai will learn: what makes life worth living has nothing to do with shifting tectonic plates of economic fortune.

Everything important can't be seen. When you believe that, you'll know it's true.

That's why I think Jesus made it a point to let Thomas, who now believed death was beaten as he put his hand in Christ's side, that the greater blessing would be for those who did not see, and yet still believed in the message of the Gospel. A message filled with hope, love, grace, mercy, and a belief in a Kingdom of Heaven that couldn't be seen, but was yet still present and emerging. Jesus calls us to pursue all these things with the fervor and passion that can't come from out of a properly applied scientific method, but rather only through a faith realized so completely that a slave trader was compelled to write the words, "Amazing Grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found. Was blind but now I see."

The greater blessing is for anyone, living anywhere, who doesn't trust their eyes, but rather only trusts that which can't be seen. Understand that, and the Kingdom is at the gate Lima, Ohio. It's at your gate, wherever you are.

If you keep reading the story after Luke ends, and Acts begins, you'll discover that Jesus' resurrection becomes the confirmation Peter, James, John, and the rest of disciples need to put their faith into a Kingdom that by all acceptable and normal measures, seems ridiculous. A place where the first become last and the last become first. A place where peacemakers are blessed and those who earnestly want to know and live righteously find fulfillment. A place where leaders wash the feet of their followers and assure them that what they'll accomplish will be far greater than anything the leader accomplished in his own lifetime.

A Christian's whole life is invested in what can't be seen, and a refusal to accept as true a no-hope reality.

The fact is that nobody who lives in Lima and likes it (of which there are many of us) is devoid of hope or broken beyond measure. It is possible to make a very nice living here, but if that's not possible countless volunteers, agencies, churches, and service organizations band together, striving to form a safety net to catch those who are falling between the cracks. It's a place where the soup kitchens get funded out of a sense of humility one check or dollar at a time, and where the Rescue Home keeps the "Jesus Saves" sign on with donations from people who know "there but by the grace of God, go I". Its a place where people are always dreaming and working toward something better because, while they can't see it, they know it still exists. Maybe tectonic forces crushed many of our factories, but our spirit is left intact.

I'll close with this.... last fall our community buried a great man. Dr. Gene Wright. Dr. Wright was my doctor growing up. As a kid he made me stick out my tongue and say "ah", and later as an adult, he chastised me about my weight. I was one of thousands, I suppose, who could say the same. In his life he was instrumental in not only keeping Lima healthy, but also training up generations of new doctors, improving our health care facilities (which are now our principle employers), and because he was well aware of the challenges people without health insurance faced, the founding of Allen County Health Partners, a publicly and privately funded agency that provides health care to thousands of people who currently are not insured. He was an ordinary person who did extraordinary things all because when he sat in the pew, he believed what he heard when he was told that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. He spent his whole life making sure that on his watch, all God's children here would get to stick out their tongue and say "ah".

I serve a congregation in community filled with Dr. Wrights. They bust their hump raising millions of dollars for causes of all kinds. They donate hours upon hours of their time. They pray "thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven", and then live it out. They understand that there are variations on the joke, "First Prize: A week in Lima, Ohio. Second Prize: Two weeks in Lima, Ohio", and are still love this place they call home enough that they give back to it, willingly and passionately.

And like Dr. Wright, they are strangely compelled by their belief in things unseen. A hope not yet fully realized. A love that defies logic. And a willingness to make sacrificially an investment in the kinds of mercy and grace that make town like ours, a great place to live.