Monday, October 15, 2012

On A Day A Smile Is Needed (Or How I Survived My Fourth Grade Year)

Kind of in a funk today. I'm finding that the post sermon letdown is lasting longer than it did a decade ago. It makes it harder to shake off the fog and get things done on Monday. But that's a post for another day. Today, I just thought I'd write about something good. An experience I go back to on days like today to find a little clarity, and maybe even a smile.

My fourth grade year was, looking back now, a strange one. My father took a job in a Lima with the firm he is still with, so for the duration of the fourth grade he traveled back and forth between Charleston, West Virginia (where we lived) and his job (where he lived during the week with his mother). 

To complicate matters, right before this job change, for reasons still never fully explained to me, Mom and Dad bought a house in Charleston in what was for us a new neighborhood. There was a kid who lived there, Brad Lesher, who simply hated my guts. I don't know the reason why I threatened him, or irritated him, so much. All I know is that all I wanted was somebody to play basketball with, and Brad made that, if not wholly impossible, somewhat unpleasant. So we were apart as a family for a whole year while my parents tried to sell a house they had just bought in a neighborhood populated by one complete ass. 

It was a crappy year.

My mom did her best. The two of us living alone must have felt as strange to her as it did to me. Dad usually took the pressure off when he came home from work. We'd throw a baseball or something, and as a parent who understands the need for one now, she could get a break from her adorable yet demanding son. But that dynamic, and so many others, were all thrown off that year. Mom rose to the occasion to keep thing as normal as possible (we'd even occasionally toss a baseball around), but it had to be tough for her.

For any younger readers out there, I must inform you that in 1979 Al Gore hadn't invented the internet yet so there was no Skyping, or endless minutes on a cell phone. People could only look at one another on a screen while talking in the world of cartoons, like "The Jetsons". You didn't have all the vehicles for communication you have now, so there was no digital way to help bridge this gap. 

But I digress...

The entire year for me had this pall hanging over it. Life without Dad was strange enough, but from the first moment he took that job, just like in the movies, the time clock was set on the bomb that was about to destroy life as I knew it. 

No more days at Elkland Pool. No more feeding "Midnight" ice cubes while my parents played cards with Pam and Harry. No more sledding at the Powelsons. No more camping, or for that matter no more anything (worshipping, basketball, softball, picnics, etc...) with our church family who had become such a huge part of our lives. No more Shoals Elementary School. No more hanging out with the only friends I'd ever known. 

In many ways, in my little 9-year old brain, that whole year felt like an ending. A period. The end.  

Now don't get me wrong.... I've grown to love what I now call my hometown, and realize how in so many ways the move was the very best gift my parents could have ever given me. I would have never have known my grandparents. I would have never have made so many long-lasting and important friendships. I never would have never met Aimee and welcomed my sons into this world. My life is all the richer for the decision my parents made to move home closer to family and friends.

But all of that during the 79-80 school year meant squat, so it was hard to enjoy anything. Everything we experienced was "the last one". The last basketball game. The last spelling bee. The last trip on my bike down the trails to Olin's Market. The last Charlies game. The year was just a series of "lasts".

If Friday night (usually after "The Incredible Hulk" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" were over) was the best day of the week because it was when Dad would return from Lima, then you would assume Sunday nights - when we left to go back to work - should have been the worst. And they probably would have been, except this is the part of the story where I begin to smile. Into this mixed up world, our friends reached into our lives, and in small ways helped ease the burden.

When we first moved to Charleston (when I was two or three) we lived down the street from The Reeves. Jason Reeves and I were same age, so our mothers, I suppose, saw an opportunity. One of my earliest memories was taking turns riding Jason's little battery operated plastic motorcycle down the street from our house to his as our mothers walked slowly behind us. We were northern transplants, Buckeyes planted in a place where we didn't know anybody. Nancy's family lived on land given to them by George Washington. Jason still lives on that land, and it wouldn't surprise me if at some point, at least one of his children will do the same.

I guess pretty quickly the Reeves, and Nancy's parents, Arthur and Louise Connor, decided they needed to take us under their wing. As strangers in a strange land, they welcomed us. Most of my fondest childhood memories in one way or another involve the Reeves family because they showed us wonderful hospitality and friendship.

It should probably come as no surprise that the Reeves, who had done much to try to help us integrate into the Charleston social scene, saw an opportunity to serve us on Sunday nights as we made our slow exit from the mountains that had become our home. On his way out of town, Dad would take us to their house and instead of Mom and I sitting at home missing him after he left, we'd have pizza with the Reeves. 

It's hard when you are nine to be upset while you eat pizza. It's pretty much impossible, actually. And that, I think, was the idea.

Jason's dad, Jack, did the best he could that year to fill in for Dad where he could. I remember him even telling me if I needed a Dad when my own Dad just couldn't be there, all I had to do was call him. When someone says something like that you don't forget it. When that same person does what he can - like get a pizza on Sunday nights to divert your attention from the pending changes that are coming, no matter what, in your life - you tend to treasure those words. Keep them safe in your heart. 

And when you are acting like a jerk, even go back to them and wonder if you can't do a better job living up to the example set for and investment made in, you. 

Jack and Nancy are gone now, both of them taken too early by cancer and disease. I was married with kids of my own when Dad and I drove down for Jack's funeral. I remember telling Nancy how much their kindness that year - my fourth grade year - still meant to me.

"Well, we love you Beano", she said. "We did then, and we do now."

They did, and that makes me smile.  

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

A Letter from a Community Summer Academy Teacher

Aimee and I received a "Thank You" letter from one of the teachers at the Community Summer Academy. It's edited a bit for length, but I think you'll get a sense of the ministry's impact. For those who don't know, forty children mainly from the neighborhood around The Future Church spent four days a week for six weeks under the leadership of Director Nicki Hughes, with three great teachers, multitudes of unpaid servants from both Community UMC campuses and The Future Church, working on academic skills and enjoying summer long VBS. They ate breakfast and lunch with us. The cost of the program was about $9000. The cost to the children and their families was zero dollars.

The kids improvement in terms of reading was measured throughout the summer, and the results were astounding. Kids on the average, if they were behind, got caught up with their grade. Most kids advanced beyond their grade for the coming year. While gazillions of books were donated for kids to read, the favorite book for each child was the new Adventure Bible they received and took home when the CSA concluded the end of July.

To get an idea of the impact, here's the letter we received.

Dear Bryan and Aimee,

I am sorry it has taken so long to write. The days have passed and I still cannot find the adequate words of appreciation for being part of the Community Summer Academy. The six weeks have been life changing for me. What a privilege. I am blessed!

I would like to thank you and your church, Community UMC, for nurturing the vision of CSA. Your members funded a possibility and made it a reality.

It is wonderful to hear the positive reports from parents, grandparents, family members, friends, and our students. Overwhelmingly "Christian Ed" was named the favorite activity. Our children are hungry to know bout God, his son Jesus, and salvation. Each had their moment when Holy Spirit brings understanding and some clarity. 

I will never forget a little girl's moment in my class. She turned wide eyed and in awe said, "Miss Tammy, did you know Jesus is no longer dead?" What a moment! 

I never would have thought our students would have preferred to read the Bible over popular books like "The Drinking Gourd" or "Number the Stars" for reading instruction. We had scheduled time to read and discuss the Bible during Christian Ed, however our guided reading instruction soon evolved to center around Bible stories. The students loved their Bible and enjoyed reading and discussing what God said to them through them.

The students also had their favorite worship songs. "Crazy Love" and "Where You Go" were sung every day the last couple of weeks of CSA. Also, while initially I was the only one who would say a prayer in the classroom, soon several students began to volunteer to pray. Our morning prayer and closing prayer time blessed me so. I know they moved the heart of our Heavenly Father.

What a blessing! Bible reading, worship, prayer, math, writing, gardening, guided reading, computer lab, media literacy, and my highlight of the day, the "Yea God Moment". Our students would tell of God's intervening power in their lives. Many shared how God made them feel better after their classmates prayed for them. Several shared how God helped them in track or dance competitions. The Lord is so real in their lives. What a blessing!

How amazing it has been to watch our students faith in the Lord develop and grow. May the Holy Spirit continue to abide in each of their hearts as we continue to pray for each child daily. Also may we pray for the vision of CSA and what is yet to be.

In closing, thank you for financially supporting the CSA and making it possible. I think of the song, "Thank You for giving to the Lord." Thank you servants who gave generously of your time. thank you those who prayed for the CSA, the staff, and the children. You have touched my heart and changed my life. I know you have blessed the heart of God.

Tammy Bush

Jesus is no longer dead, indeed. He is alive. Thank you all for faithfully committing to this ministry!

God Bless,

Water Into Wine

1 The next day Jesus' mother was a guest at a wedding celebration in the village of Cana in Galilee. 2 Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the celebration. 3 The wine supply ran out during the festivities, so Jesus' mother spoke to him about the problem. "They have no more wine," she told him. 4 "How does that concern you and me?" Jesus asked. "My time has not yet come." 5 But his mother told the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." 6 Six stone waterpots were standing there; they were used for Jewish ceremonial purposes and held twenty to thirty gallons each. 7 Jesus told the servants, "Fill the jars with water." When the jars had been filled to the brim, 8 he said, "Dip some out and take it to the master of ceremonies." So they followed his instructions. 9 When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that was now wine, not knowing where it had come from (though, of course, the servants knew), he called the bridegroom over. 10 "Usually a host serves the best wine first," he said. "Then, when everyone is full and doesn't care, he brings out the less expensive wines. But you have kept the best until now!" 11 This miraculous sign at Cana in Galilee was Jesus' first display of his glory. And his disciples believed in him.      (John 2:1-11 NLT)

As a pastor I have no idea how many weddings I've conducted over the years. More than a hundred, at least. I've done all kinds of weddings. The youngest couples I ever married were teenagers. The oldest couple I ever married stopped by the church one evening looking for a pastor to conduct their ceremony as they were traveling to Florida for the winter. They were in their eighties. I've organized large wedding parties (12 bridesmaids and 12 groomsman, 30 people total) and tiny wedding parties. I did a wedding once where the bride and groom asked specifically I complete the service before the kickoff of a Penn State/OSU game (and they were from Indiana... go figure). The service lasted 11 minutes.  I've married couples in hotels, boats, camp grounds, retreat centers, and even on motorcycles.

I'm no Las Vegas Elvis, but I've done a lot of weddings.

Weddings are mostly exciting and joyful. Everyone gets caught up in the hoopla and excitement of a couple making a new life together. But their also stressful. There's a lot of planning and expense.  A lot of unwritten rules and expectations. Family members, or ex-family members, who don't like one another are in the same room together. I've never had a bridezilla like the ones you see on TV, but often the stress of all the expectations just kinda overwhelms people.

I'll never forget a wedding I had ten or so years ago in Goshen. The bride had made a ton of plans for what she wanted at her wedding and reception, and her mother seemed to disagree with every choice she'd made. This had been a topic of much discussion during our premarital counseling sessions, but nothing could have prepared me for the battle royal that was the wedding rehearsal. The mother was trying to change the processional music, the flowers, the solos, the scripture..... it didn't take long before I had a weeping, hysterical bride. Her "dream day" was going to be ruined by her own mother.  No amount of reasoning from any party involved it seemed was going to bring a resolution to the situation.

To pull the service off, I finally had to tell the mother of the bride I'd do the whole ceremony in a tie-dyed t-shirt and shorts, with my mid-back length hair pulled into two huge side-ponytails, while I did the vows in pig latin if she didn't take a seat and just let things be. I remember taking her aside and asking if she really wanted a ceremony that included:

"Do u-bey ake-tey is-they an-mey to be your awlful-ley edded-wey usband-hey."

She gave me the stinkeye until the final kiss, but at least we got through the service. 

Those same kinds of stress and expectations are at work at a wedding where Jesus turns the water into wine. All the careful planning and preparation are proving to be inadequate as the wine at the reception runs out. Scholars and historians have tried to give us insight into what a big deal this was in Jesus' Israel. I've read that the lack of wine reflected a lack of hospitality, which in an honor and shame culture would bring great shame on the family. I've read that the lack of wine could be reflected by the father of the groom as expressing his dissatisfaction with the bride-price that had been paid as being too high, threatening his relationship with both the young couple and the bride's family. I've read a lot of possible reasons why this was a potential disaster.

But whatever the cultural issue might have been in that time and place, we can all relate to the problem of throwing a party, a suare', and running out of stuff before it ends. 

Whenever I grill for a large number of people my wife will tell you I have a pathological fear of running out of food. Years ago I bought a four-burner grill with an attached side burner and a top holding rack because it was the largest one I could afford. I don't just grill the whole cow. I grill the herd. I never want anyone to leave the Bucher house complaining we ran out of hamburgers. Ain't gonna happen.

So you might imagine that the last thing in the world the couple wants to do at the reception - which in a world where you can't just run down to Sam's Club to buy another flatbed of food or drink - is run out of something as essential as wine. I mean there are probably two drink choices: water and wine.  They'd be down to one.

It's in this this scenario, I think, we can learn a thing or two about how God works when we are facing the stress of unmet expectations. Substitute whatever you want for a wedding not going to plan. Could be a career choice (or lack thereof) that's gone awry. Could be financial goals being upset by unexpected expenses. Parents who children realize aren't panning out to be all that great of parents, or children who aren't meeting the hopes and dreams that parents had for them. A spouse or significant other who doesn't turn out to be who you thought they'd be.

Whatever it may be, we all face circumstances where that which we hoped for, longed for, prayed for, didn't come to fruition. Sometimes comically. Sometimes tragically.

First and foremost, looking at this scripture, the first thing I observed was that even though it wasn't their problem, Mary goes to Jesus on behalf of the family.

I can't tell you how important I have found it is when people who have put their faith in Jesus have been willing to go to him with the needs of others. The single most important thing we can do for a person in a time of crisis and disappointment is pray for them. 

We have a lady in the congregation who when somebody is in real-life-and-death-life-altering need, I call her and ask her to pray for them. I do it partly because I know she welcomes the opportunity to pray, partly because her faith in the Lord is rock-solid, and partly because she is a big believer in prayer after coming through trials in her own life where she felt, in part, delivered by the prayers of others. She prays because of how much it meant when others prayed for her. She's become here, a praying legend. I have people, many people, who make sure I ask her to pray for them. When I tell them I have I always sense in them relief and hope.

You could do a lot worse than being recognized as someone who is quick to pray in all things and for all people. These folks are game changers for others to be sure. Through our prayers others find hope and strength. Maybe it's just the thought someone else thought enough to say something on your behalf to the Lord. More likely it's an invitation for the Holy Spirit to his his thing. In both cases, prayer done in an attitude of humility and love creates change.

Second, God keeps His own day-planner with schedules and instructions. The timing of God is beyond our understanding. Why the answer to some prayers seems to be "yes" and others "no" or "not yet" is one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith. But Jesus seems to indicate that there is a meaning and purpose in what He does and when He does it.  It's not his time at that time, but soon his time is coming. Why not now as opposed to later is known for reasons only by him.

The problem for us is that we can't see the big picture. Our own worlds are so limited that gaining some other greater understanding for why things happen, or don't happen, is beyond us. All we're left with in the midst of the mystery is trust and faith in Lord if we that's where we put our trust and faith. Otherwise, we're just kinda hanging on.

Mary gets this. Not only does she turn to the only person she knows can properly address this situation, but even as he publicly expresses his sense that it's not the right time for him to do anything, she gives instructions to others to do what Jesus says. The Spirit moves when the Spirit moves. Our part is expect to work on God's time and do as he instructs.

So, in times of unmet expectations we should be quick to pray not just for ourselves but others facing this challenge, and we need to be obedient to the Lord's schedule and instruction. Two fairly obvious observations, I think from John 2. But there's one more thing I think we should be aware of as we seek guidance from this scripture. Let me see if I can explain it.

I don't think we can understand the centrality of marriage in that culture at that time. There's a reason you celebrate a marriage with large amounts of wine sometimes for multiple days. Marriage is the key to holding society together. The next generation existing as well as previous ones being taken care of are at the center of the institution. In marriage is your past, your present, and your future. Marriage strengthens bonds not just between a man and woman, but a family across the generations and families within a community. 

The Old Testament Law, as well as the Books of Wisdom had a lot to say about marriage. How to do it. How to end it. When ending it was ok. What should happen after a marriage ends for the man and woman. The Law has plenty to say about what is appropriate and inappropriate for every relationship, not just marriage, but about marriage it has much to say. The rituals and rules were meant to keep the institution structured and solid, even as it served as part of the backbone for the people of Israel.

The wedding Jesus attended that day, and every wedding in that time and place, was designed to put the Law and appropriate rituals at the center of the marriage from the beginning. The wedding hadn't happened until the groom fulfilled all his responsibilities to set up a home for his family and bride learned what was necessary to serve husband and family. All of the various rituals of the day had to be followed to the letter, hence the presence of those big casks for purification purposes. Ritual washing to keep things "pure" was just one part of the foundation the marriage was supposed to be built on: strict adherence to the letter of the law that day and every day thereafter.
In John 1:17, John the Baptist, as he is announcing the beginning of Jesus ministry, makes a curious statement. He says that the law is delivered by God through Moses, but that his unfailing love and faithfulness was delivered through his son, Jesus. So while the Law had become a hard taskmaster, a never-ending litany of rules and rituals meant to build walls that insulated people from the craziness of the world, in Jesus we find that which the Law was supposed to make manifest.... God's love and grace in every circumstance.

So there's a little metaphor going on in John 2. The rules and rituals where they have fallen short, Jesus is delivering God's abundant blessing. Law and Ritual has the power to make things look good on the outside, but the love and faithfulness of the Living God has the power to make things good on the inside, where it matters. In the relationship between that man and woman, their relationships with their eventual kids, their family, friends, and the world at large, it will be God's love that will make those things right. 

All that to say this... I think the third thing we have to remember when our expectations of what life should hold are dashed is that Jesus wants to re-calibrate those expectations. He wants to take the old failed expectations of what we thought would make us happy or fulfilled which have now failed us, out to the trash. To take all the outward stuff, the chrome finish we struggle to present to the world, and discard it as the chrome peels away. So it's no accident that Jesus literally filled the empty vessels of a Law that couldn't bring peace, with a symbol of overflowing grace and love.  

That's living out the spirit of the law in this imperfect world leads to, as opposed to trying to chase it down to the letter. Peace in the midst of the ambiguous roller coaster ride in what we know as this life.

As I was writing this I couldn't help but think of my friend, Stan "The Man" Weller. Stan was someone I'd describe as an angel whose halo was a little bit crooked. He was a good, good man but he definitely had a bit of a devilish side. Nothing evil or anything but let's just say from Stan I heard more than one joke I wouldn't re-tell on Sunday morning. He was a dude's dude.

I never knew Stan in any other capacity than as a retired teacher/administrator. He invested well and was able to retire early. As a result he was the type of guy who'd just pop up at the office or your house. I never knew when the invite was coming, but often he'd just waltz in and sweep me off for a bowl of his homemade chili or a Kewpee for lunch. .Even after we moved from Lima in 1997 (we moved back in 2004) he'd still come around. He and his wife Betty came and visited us in Toledo, Goshen, and even clear over in Bloomington, Illinois right after Max was born.   He was a lot of fun to be around, and despite the gap in our ages (forty years, at least?) we became good friends.

Many might have thought Stan had a charmed life, and certainly he would have described it as blessed, but he had his trials. As long as I knew him he had health issues. Betty slowly started losing her short-term memory and eventually she suffered full-on dementia. He loved his two sons and their families, and was always concerned about their welfare. The trials and triumphs, when we'd talk he always had a running account of what was going on his family, with various names going up and down the top of his prayer list. Always he was measuring where he should intervene, or just take a step back and patiently watched what was going to happen.

As long as I knew the man he was as obedient to the Lord as he could be, taking both the lumps with victories with grace and class. He could be curmudgeonly at times, but there was a timelessness about his faith. An expectation that his exceptions could be met or dashed, but in all things God would stay faithful. And in even the face of the death of his beloved wife, the loss of his driver's license (can't tell you how much he hated that), and even in the decline of his own health, the lasting legacy Stan left to me was measuring God by God's promises and faithfulness, not what was happening in that particular moment.

Stan's comfort came in not what God had done for him lately. It came rather in the steadfastness that in an ever-changing world, God never abandons us, always acting on our behalf in his own way and own time. That expectation, I think, became the bedrock of Stan's faith more than anything else. And somehow, someway, that faith was renewed and strengthened in each triumph and dark night of the soul. Maybe Stan had "been there and done that", or maybe he hadn't, but he knew no one could throw a surprise at God.

A steady God steadied Stan.

Surely we set goals. We outline and pursue visions. We dream dreams, not just for us, but those we love and for the community we live in. We live under the weight to meet the expectations of others and society. But counting on God to do what you want, and feeling let down when what you want doesn't happen when you want it in the way you want it is just plain selfish. That's the Lord living for us, not us living for the Lord. Just like failure to meet those expectations aren't the end of the world, but often the next step toward a place where peace isn't a commodity, but a certainty. And so sometimes those old expectations are like paint on a tomb. It might look pretty but on the inside it's just cold and dark.

God wants us to get off the roller coaster of constantly swinging between disappointment and elation. To get outside of the tunnel vision on the next, latest, greatest thing, and take a step back to see the whole picture. A picture the Lord is painting that has a place in it for each of us. Maybe if we take that step back the promise will be a new way of seeing blessing even in moments where maybe we felt cursed a little, and new challenges being offered to climb the next mountain, even as we stand on the one just conquered.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Rest App

1 The LORD is my shepherd. I am never in need. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside peaceful waters. 3 He renews my soul. He guides me along the paths of righteousness for the sake of his name. 4 Even though I walk through the dark valley of death, because you are with me, I fear no harm. Your rod and your staff give me courage. 5 You prepare a banquet for me while my enemies watch. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows. 6 Certainly, goodness and mercy will stay close to me all the days of my life, and I will remain in the LORD's house for days without end. 

I've must have read or recited the 23rd Psalm at least a thousand times over the years. I remember memorizing it for Junior Church in about the second grade. At bedsides, funerals, in times of trouble and celebration I've pulled out the 23rd Psalm to give adequate words where no other ones could quite fit. 

But if I'm honest, I've always focused on the fourth verse: Even though I walk through the dark valley of death, because you are with me, I fear no harm. That's usually the one that resonates, whether it be in an Emergency Room while doctors are prepping a stroke victim for a life flight to Columbus or if a soccer team is about to face their arch rival. The witness of David of God's presence, even in the places where death surrounded him, threatened him.... that's usually the word people need to hear when the 23rd Psalm is read.

For this sermon, though, my attention went somewhere else. I got caught up in verses 1-3a: The Lord is my shepherd. I am never in need. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside peaceful waters. He renews my soul.

Those words, "makes" and "leads" got my attention. David tells us that the Lord makes him rest and leads to places that are peaceful. He doesn't give him permission to rest. He makes him rest. And this is essential, we're told, to the Lord providing for our every need.

How odd I've never picked up on that before. That a condition of David never being in need, in being guided to do the right thing, to be blessed and comforted by the presence of God... a condition of goodness and mercy and to be in a place where God is present, we must rest. 

Daniel joked last week when he preached on confession that I gave him that week because confession isn't an easy subject. But as difficult as confession would be for me to preach on, it's not the same kind of challenge for me personally as the topic of rest. 

I don't rest very well. It isn't a gift I've been given. I'll bet in this room this morning, I'm not alone.

I can remember even back in the very first year I was hired as a youth director here, that the little Sunday only side job I took to pay our lot rent, the job that paid $4000 yearly, how quickly (just weeks) it began to consume my thoughts. Call it ambition. Call it a fear of failure. Call it a call. If 10 kids showed up to Senior High YF, I spent most of the next week thinking of reasons why those ten were there, why others weren't there, and how to broaden that circle. My wife can tell you stories of me standing outside the door all the kids used to use trying to will more cars traveling up and down Shawnee and Zurmehly Road into the parking lot. 

I'd like to tell you I've changed. Grown. Wised up a little bit. And maybe in some ways I have, but this relentless drive, this belief that somehow we'll always need to stretch a little further as a church to be who God has called us to be - A people who lead others in connecting with God and with others, equip disciples who change the world, and restore this community one heart, home, and block at a time - I'm still dominated by the compulsory belief that it will be, in part, my own hard work that will make this happen.  And when I don't feel like it's happening (when attendance falls short of last year's or giving is down or something isn't going to plan, etc...) the misguided belief I can somehow will better results into being through my own sheer determination still rests as my default. 

They'll probably carve, "He believed it all rested on him until the moment he collapsed under the weight" on my tombstone. 

Can anybody else out there relate?

So, while I don't stand outside trying to will cars into the parking lot on Sunday morning (very often), when I look at other indicators - giving and attendance - on down weeks I still feel this pang in my chest. My remedy for this is to go away is by spending more time in the office or out visiting people trying to make thing happen, and when for whatever reasons life gets in the way in times when I'm particularly focused, I don't handle it well.

And yet, there as those words, "He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside peaceful waters. He restores my soul." These words should, if you are like me a workaholic, create in you some pause. Discomfort. 

The journey of discipleship isn't complete without rest. 

I've been thinking a lot about this lately. I've had to. This summer every weekday I haven't been coming into the office before 11am. My wife decided that during summer swim season, for a change, it would be my responsibility to get the boys to the pool for swim practice so she could get caught up from the six weeks she had to take off when she had her surgery in May. I have to have Max to the 8:15am practice, go home and make sure the younger boys are fed and ready to go, get them to practice by 9:45, come home with Max, do some cleaning and laundry, pick up the younger boys, make sure lunch is ready, and then I can go to work.

The last three weeks our giving, which always goes down in the summer, has nosedived as people have taken off to go find their muse. And Everyday I feel like I'm cheating God or letting down the congregation because I'm not at work before 11am, as if getting in two hours earlier will somehow change the situation. As if the financial health of the congregation lay only on my back. And in the meantime, last Thursday as I was stewing about all the time I was spending at home while driving home from the pool, Xavier was sitting next to me and out of the blue he says, "I like this summer schedule. For a change I get to spend time with BOTH of my parents (emphasis on "BOTH") each day. Dad in the morning and mom in the afternoon."

Don't think the "both" in "both parents" didn't sting a little. Here I am fretting I'm not in the office somehow willing more income to fly magically into the office, and there is my son. David struck down idols others erected for the purpose of child sacrifice, and here I am more than will to sacrifice time with my sons in some warped belief if I work harder, God will loves us and bless us more.

Rest is essential in the life of disciple. Repeatedly we're told that Jesus goes off by himself, particularly after a long day of healing, miracles, and preaching, to rest. He walks on the water because the disciples leave without him because they don't know where he's gone to rest, and his his water stroll is the means he uses to catch up with them. Psalm 23 brings out three aspects of why rest is essential to discipleship:

1. God restores us through rest.

Our cousin CJ is one of those people who has made his living using a cameras and computers to make the shows and commercials you and I watch every day. I remember when he first graduated he worked for a large production firm in Chicago whose offices took up multiple floors in a building located in the heart of downtown. In these office were places where all these creatives who worked crazy hours editing film or creating animation, could blow off some steam and play. Whether it be a video game, ping pong, or even mediums involving shooting nerf darts at one another, the company understood that at some point everybody hits a wall. And the only way to get over that wall is to rest. It's no accident in Psalm 23 that restoration comes in the aftermath of lying down and chilling in a peaceful place. As many have discovered, you can choose to follow the order and leading to rest, or your body, wracked by fatigue, will choose it for you.

2. Rest is essential to our experiencing God's presence.

I'm intrigued in Psalm 23 in how David describes his relationship with God.

You are with me. You prepare a banquet. You anoint my head. You. You. You. Each time in the present tense engaged in direct action.

Today, a number of our teenagers are heading to Lakeside for a week of High School church camp. In a couple more weeks, another group of teens and pre-teens will do the same thing. For generations Methodists living in Ohio have been doing this to the point that Lakeside has become for us a special place. A place where you get away from the normal grind and routine, and instead exchange that for a different routine where seeking God is first, instead of seeking his presence as we focus on our life's normal priorities.

Many times over the years I've heard adults lament that the change of scenery and exchange of priorities at Lakeside has led many a person to make a commitment to Jesus Christ, but upon coming home promises made to change a life don't get carried out very long. And they wonder whether or not it was really the Holy Spirit showing up to convict those kids, or if it was something else (groupthink or emotionalism or some such thing)

What I've learned is that too many people take for granted the need to regularly lie in green pastures and walk beside peaceful waters. Or in other words, the problem isn't that the conversion wasn't real, but that the lesson of the experience was missed. We need to make it a regular practice to to off into a green pasture or walk beside a still water not just in middle school or high school, but all of our lives.

Just as David says in describing the Lord, "You are with me", in the present tense, and "You are anoint my head", engaged in a direct action, we must mutually reciprocate. You must go be with God and you must praise his name and be his blessing. Rest is the way we are physically and mentally restored, but breaking the same routine for the PRIMARY purpose to put aside the regular grind and routine to exchange it for a different pace where seeking God is the primary aim is an important means finding renewal through the presence of the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual retreat.... it's not just for teenagers any more.

Mission trips. Emmaus weekends. Retreats for men, women, families, marriages, or just plain ol spiritual renewal. Going off in a small group to hike out in the woods in a guided experience to encounter the Living God through the beauty and harshness of His creation. Traveling to Israel to walk where Jesus walked. The problem isn't Lakeside. The problem is that Lakeside might be all the only experience, or might be the only place people can envision God showing up, when really, the promise is if we put everything aside and seek Him, we will find His presence.

And in between those time of spiritual rest and renewal, creating times of rest to seek God with others - families, friends, colleagues - isn't a bad idea either. God is doing his part to break through your day to speak to you. Somehow each of us has to figure out a way to step back, and meet him halfway.

3. Goodness, blessing, and mercy cannot be separated from rest.

My Dad is a self-made man. My brother and I talk often talk with awe what he's accomplished in his life. One of six children raised in Lima's south end, neither my Dad's father or mother graduated from high school. And yet, despite the family's poverty and lack of education, my Dad graduated from Ohio State with a degree in Civil Engineering. When I was in high school I was fretting over how uncool my car was. When dad was in high school, he worked nights at a trucking company to help support his mother and brother after his own father died.

Everything my father he earned. Everything. Nothing was given to him.

I am grateful for the sacrifices both Mom and Dad made so they give Andy and I the best start in life possible. My mom put off college for years to raise me while Dad worked long hours building bridges in West Virginia and designing them all over Ohio. The food put on the table. The clothes hung on our backs. All the advantages that were paid for.... I take none of them for granted.

I'm grateful too for the life of righteousness my parents have set as an example for me. Church has never been a place. It's always been a community. A family. Born out of mom teaching VBS or Dad serving election night dinners for Methodist Men. Listen parents... this is fourteen years of youth ministry talking to you: Children rarely end up loving the faith just left unto themselves. Most of them love the faith because it was passed down like a cherished gift. The flavor of that faith might change from one generation to the next, but if you think that by just showing up that somehow you've fulfilled your duty as parents, well, guess again. Kids know when you're just checking off a box.

But the love I have for my parents wasn't forged while they worked or sacrificed. The love grew out of evenings spent throwing a ball, swimming in a pool, lounging at a library, eating smores around a campfire, and gathering around the TV to watch our beloved Buckeyes.

Love isn't born out of what someone does for you. Gratitude and thanks are maybe, but not love. Love comes out of what you experience together. It comes when we put aside the routine, and spend time together.

I'm doing a funeral today for a man whose came to this church many, many years ago as a child with his mother. She was the first person to man the newly built nursery in the office wing, watching the growing number of baby boom babies being brought to church by their parents. The most precious moments the family shared with me yesterday all revolved around moments they shared with a husband, father, and grandfather who is now gone. They appreciate the sacrifices he made to provide for them, but their love was born out of conversations, camping trips, yard work done together, time spent in the car as he drove them to work.

They said they knew he loved them, even though when they were younger he never said it. The last ten years, though, as he's battled leukemia he started saying it everyday.

One of the things Larry did was carry in his pocket, peppermints. He'd hand them out to kids he saw at the store. He'd hand them out to the nurses and doctor during his appointment. He handed them out to co-workers and fellow members of the VFW. Larry was quick with a mint. It made people smile. It broke the ice. It changed things up a little bit, and provided a little crack where grace could race in and fill up the space. It was the first thing the family shared with me, and one of the things they'll all miss about him.

Today, I want to take a page out of Larry's playbook. I'm gonna do something I've never done in over 20 years of ministry. I'm gonna give you a mint. I want to change things up a bit. Break us out of the same ol routine. I want you to take a moment, and if you like mints, enjoy the one I gave you today.

And I'd like you to also take a second one. Give it to someone you love, tell them you love them, and here's a mint... just because. Or go sit by a pool, or lay down on your backporch or your couch, and take that second mint, and eat it too. Just suck on it. Resist the urge to crush it with your teeth pretending your Godzilla and the mint is a Tokyo city bus. Don't do anything until it's gone, and if you fall asleep, all the better.

Or if you can figure out another, better way to tell someone you love them, or if you were planning on taking a nap today anyway, take the mint, lay it on the table, pull out a piece of paper and a pen (or just text yourself on your phone) and list one way you think you'd like to upset your routine and go out and seek God. I'm not talking about taking a long walk in the woods or chasing some little white ball with a bunch of malshaped sticks.... I'm talking about a time of guided spiritual formation. Where you put God first.

And then don't eat that mint until you are standing in that place where you are actively seeking God, made to lie in a pasture or led beside a peaceful water, seeking to be filled in your soul with the presence of God.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Great One Moves To Florida

When I was a young child I thought the most magical place on earth was Lima, Ohio. I know that sounds strange (particularly if you live here) but it was true. At least a couple of times a year we'd make the great trek from Charleston WV to Lima. We'd stay at my grandparents' house. My great-grandfather - Po Po - would fly in from Ogden. My Uncle Fred would (when he could) fly back from wherever the Air Force stationed him. All of the rest of our family still lived in town. As far as I was concerned our stay was one big, long party.

We'd play cards and go bowling. My Po Po would always let me sit on his lap and he'd tell me jokes. I can still smell his cigar. There always seemed to be cartoons on (as my grandparents had cable TV.... something we didn't have at home) and a bevy of 16 ounce Dr. Pepper bottles (the returnable ones) in the fridge. My Uncle Jack would take me to a movie and the arcade. Grandpa and I would wake up early and get donuts and elephant ears for the family. I can still see him sitting in the kitchen, coffee made, reading the paper, ready to make my grandmother breakfast. My great Uncle John owned a carryout where he'd let me fill a small paper bag with candy.

It was awesome.

After we moved here 1980 Lima became less awesome, but it was still a great place to grow up. Living in the same town as your grandparents was a lot better than only getting to see them a couple of times a year. I mowed Grandma Bucher's lawn and painted her picket fence once a summer. I was afraid of heights but I willingly climbed up into the cherry tree in her backyard to pick cherries that eventually went into the world's best pies. I fished at the reservoir and hit golf balls at Springbrook with my Grandpa Diehl. Grandma Diehl would invite us over for dinner where we'd camp out in the living room watching the Reds or Buckeyes. I never had babysitters because if given the choice, I always went over to my grandparent's house. It was always the fun place to be.

Over the years, one by one, we lost them. Po Po passed away in the summer of 1976. Grandma Bucher - a faithful woman who longed to go to Heaven - passed away peacefully the summer before I left for college (her husband died before I was born). My grandfather died in the middle of my Sophomore year of college. He was a victim of a strange cancer that struck his trachea and lungs. After a lifetime of good health he died way too soon.

My grandmother, however, continued to soldier on. When Aimee and I moved back to Lima in 1992 she was still living in the house on McDonel Street. Friday nights we had a standing invitation for dinner. Usually she'd make mac and cheese or cube steak stuff. We'd watch all of our favorite television shows because she tape them for us during the week. This was our regular routine until we moved in 1997. Aimee and I remember those visits fondly. Good company, conversation, and a lot of laughter was had on those Friday nights.

After we moved in 1997, The Great One decided to sell the house and move into a small one-bedroom apartment in the Lima Towers. When we came home we'd visit, bringing with us Kewpees so we could hear the latest on with the extended family, her ongoing UFO adventures (my grandmother, who believed she saw a UFO over Lake Erie as a child growing up in Cleveland, transcribed all of the interviews John Timmerman did on behalf of the local UFO society), and the latest scuttlebutt amongst the residents living in the Lima Towers.

Before the internet, my grandmother would cut out articles she thought we would find interesting, and mail them to us. I started receiving my articles (usually on religion, Haiti, or some issue regarding education) when we moved to Toledo in 1997. At some point her kids gave her a subscription to MSN-TV, an internet service for people who didn't have a computer, so the envelopes of articles were slowly replaced by forwarded links via email. Even as her world shrank to the size of her little "nest" she's always stayed current and informed. I never left Grandma without a discussion on politics or current events. She's a smart cookie.

After we moved back in 2004 usually Sunday night I'd go up and visit. After an afternoon spent napping I'd be up late, and my grandmother, always the night owl, was up for some company. We'd watch shows she taped because I didn't have time to watch them during the week and after they were over, we'd watch a local version of American Idol that came on after the local news. The production value was so bad It made us laugh. I laugh now thinking about it.

When we first moved back we watched "The West Wing", which was comforting in a way she never knew. My boss and mentor in Indiana, who had passed away unexpectedly in January 2004 right before we moved home, had always made a spot on his couch on West Wing night. Grandma, just by being present during that show helped me deal with his death.

By last fall we were watching Netflix shipped copies of Mad Men, a show I latched onto right away that The Great One found later. I was helping her get caught up. Over the years the shows changed, but the good conversation and company never did.

I'd like to say I was regular, every Sunday night, but that wouldn't be true. Particularly after we came back from our "Beeson Year" at Asbury Seminary, the stress and schedule of the new Senior Pastor role I filled meant more missed Sunday nights than I care to admit. But there were still plenty of evening of conversation and laughter. Coming back to Lima too enabled us to be a part of, and now host, our family gatherings. Holidays, picnics, special visits from family who'd come in throughout the year... my grandmother was always there, the matriarch contently sitting among us as her great-grandchildren ran about the house.

Last December, Grandma, who unbeknownst to any of us (including both her and her doctor) was struggling with wildly fluctuating blood pressure, fainted in her apartment. We knew her health was getting worse. In fact, not long before this happened, with her memory growing shorter and her trick knee getting worse, we visited a number of different assisted living facilities in town. Unfortunately in the fall she broke her hip and laid immobilized on the floor until my Uncle found her the next morning.

That fall ushered in a host of changes. A stay at the hospital led to a stay in the rehab at the nursing home. Pretty soon, the lease at the apartment was terminated and all of her stuff was put into storage. There was wrangling with Medicare, who at some point told her kids they'd be discharging her from the rehab unit any day now. A new season was coming, and that right soon.

Tomorrow, that new season begins. My grandmother, The Great One, is moving to Florida. She'll be living with her son and his wife in Palm City. Her stuff is already down there. All that remains is the plane ride she'll make with my Mom and Aunt Beth. It's all happening very quickly.

Today I stopped by to see her. We're taking the boys over later for one last "Chocolate Celebration" complete with a Marchocolate French Silk Pie from the Kewpee, but my chance to talk with her alone, just as I had so many of those Friday and Sunday nights, came and went this afternoon.

Her memory has been greatly affected by all of this. Once upon a time we'd have gone round and round on the health care bill or why on earth Lima Senior has had so many bomb threats but she can't keep those kinds of things straight mentally any more. So, instead, we talked about how nice Florida is this time of year. How Palm Trees are pretty and the pool deck at my Uncle's house is screened in so you don't have to worry about mosquitoes. How she would be getting a wheelchair so she could go with Fred and Kathy on walks around their neighborhood. She expressed her relief that she could go back to sleeping in late (the late sleeper didn't like the 9am wake up call at the nursing home) and for the chance to watch Fox News with Fred, who is politically a kindred spirit to her.

It was sweet moment.

I know that my technologically savvy Uncle will make sure we have regular video visits with Grandma. I'm certain that at some point I'll need to fly through Florida to Haiti soon, resulting in a welcomed visit with her in her new digs. And who knows.... the Bucher clan made it to Florida for Thanksgiving a couple of year ago. I'm sure we can do it again.

But I can't help feeling like this is the end of something, and it's a something that can never be fully retrieved. It certainly does make me feel sad. Much sadder, frankly, than I thought I'd feel because I do think this move will be good for her. She won't be alone and she won't have to shoulder the burden of taking care of things she just can't deal with any more. Besides, I know she misses my grandfather, and in some strange way my Uncle Fred kind of channels him in his appearance, voice, and manner. I can't help but think this will give The Great One great comfort. Particularly as the memory issues become more pronounced, in the sound of Fred's voice there will be echoes of the one person she most longs to hear. The one we've all missed these 22 years.

But more than sad, today makes me feel thankful. Thankful for the family who raised me. Thankful for the experiences we've enjoyed together. Thankful that the start in life they gave me has afforded me the opportunity to give my own children a similar experience of belonging and security. Thankful for The Great One, a great woman who through her strength has helped make us strong.

I'm thankful.... and someday I know we will all be together again.

I love you Great One. See you again soon.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Ten Things I Think I Think

1) A heartfelt "till we meet again" to Duane Anders, Lead Pastor of Stillwater UMC in Dayton. Duane is off to pastor the Cathedral of the Rockies at First UMC in Boise, Idaho. Duane's leaving will create a huge hole in the conference. His is a voice for missional Christian faith and practice. Stillwater UMC, now a four campus church, has grown dramatically under his leadership as it's extended its reach into the community. Our loss is Boise's gain. Blessings upon the Anders as they make the big move to the Rockies. Hope the Cathedral of the Rockies is ready for some tie dye. Bake a potato for me buddy. God speed.

2) We have two Haiti mission experiences coming up in the next couple of months. A construction team is headed to Borde' February 17-25 to make repairs on the building where our long-time partner, Victory Christian Church, meets. The foundation and walls of the church were never built properly so a substructure of columns and beams fashioned out of concrete and steel will bear the load of the roof. This will make the building safe in the event people take shelter there in the event of a storm, and should also strengthen the structure considerably in the event of an earthquake.

March 3-10, our first medical team in Haiti in three years will be working jointly with the Methodist Church of Haiti and The Haiti Mission (a United Methodist medical mission based out of Charlotte, North Carolina) to do clinic work based out of Tovar (a village 45 minutes south of Cap Haitien). The primary task at hand will see patients at the Tovar clinic, as well as a couple of others, operated year-round by a Haitian staff led by Dr. Macklin Eugene. Community UMC's history of medical mission work has largely in the past been working in conjunction with a small mission organization to do day clinics at churches in various communities in the north country. While this was good work, there was a certain level of frustration with working with a mission that didn't have an ongoing medical staff or focus. We're excited to be working with The Haiti Mission, led by Dr. Raymond Ford, a dynamic retired pediatrician living in Charlottesville, Virginia.

If you are interested in either trip (particularly if you have a medical background) we could still use you. Feel free to contact us via our website,, to receive more information.

3) January 28 and February 25, we'll do two installments of what last year we called "The Big Drop". Last year we prepared to serve 1200 families in need by doing a distribution of boxes of food at the West Ohio Food Bank building on Kibby Street. The location proved to be less than ideal as traffic was backed up on Kibby Street all the way back to Main Street (about two miles). This year we'll do our January drop at Northland Plaza and the February drop at the former Wal Mart location on Cable Road.

The Big Drop was born out of the understanding that while people tend to be particularly generous during the holiday season, the level of donations for all local non-profits drops off precipitously in January and February - or as we like to call it, "the dead of winter" - when the need tends to be the highest. By distributing food late in the month, the goal is to help eliminate hunger in Northwest Ohio by providing a family a weeks worth of food at the time of the month and time of the year its needed most. We're looking for those willing to serve. Use the link above to sign up on line.

4) On a personal note, the stomach flu is going through the Bucher house, so you'd be well served to avoid it in the near future. Consider this a friendly warning or, for those with little common sense, a dare.

5) I'm excited about the pending launch of a new "Lay Pastor" ministry here at Community UMC. Already eleven people, led by our soon-to-be "Lead Lay Pastor", Dr. David Imler, have committed to do our inaugural ten week training and be commissioned as our first Lay Pastors on Easter Sunday. Over the last five years we have learned how vital it has been to have lay people visiting our shut-ins (via our SUM Doves ministry) and those in the hospital (via our Lay Chaplaincy ministry). Lay Pastors will help us augment currently functioning lay ministries, while also helping to expand pastoral care and connection to those who are new to our congregation, those who might need some sort of aid, or to make contact with those who have drifted out to the margins. Classes don't begin until the end of the month, so if you are interested, please contact us via our website.

6) For the first time since our local ecumenical group - Church People for Change and Reconciliation - disbanded, area churches are now making plans to create a uniform effort to help those in our community who are in need. Allen County Christian Assistance (or whatever it will be called) will involve area churches utilizing the resources provided by the Salvation Army to provide aid to those calling us looking for assistance toward rent, utility bills, food, and other needs. Because the Salvation Army has connections with all the area agencies, staff to do screening, a on going data base of those who have received aid previously, and a deep commitment to fulfilling the work of the Gospel, they are a perfect funnel for the numerous requests we receive throughout the year.

There are number of benefits to distributing aid in this manner. Due to HIPPA laws it's become increasingly difficult to work with area agencies to do screening of applicants. We simply too don't have the time to track down in our office the veracity of every request. We also share numerous stories of the same people simply calling multiple churches on a regular basis to ask for support. Often this has resulted in someone else, who isn't "working the system", requesting aid after funds have been exhausted.

By utilizing the Salvation Army's social service office, we can work together to do screening, while maximizing our resources. There's also a possibility volunteers can help in the social service office to offset whatever rise in volume they might see from church referrals. I have high hopes.

7) My prediction for tonight's BCS Championship? It'll eventually end, and so too will this miserable college football season. Come quickly Urban, and that right soon.

8) Ten things is a lot of things to think. Right now I'm thinking about lunch.

9) For those who have followed this blog off and on (which describes too how often it get written), a couple of updates on a couple of the people who are often my focus. Brother Esq is now living with his family in Findlay, Ohio. He works here in Lima out of the office of "Balyeat, Daley, Leahy, and Miller" and also has an office in Toledo. He's mostly doing moving violation work, OVI's (nobody better in the area at this), and bankruptcies. You can find him at this fine looking web site which was designed by my lovely wife. He's still a rabid Buckeye fan and you can find him on any given day eating with me at his favorite hangout, Lulu's Diner.

10) The Great One (my grandmother, who got her moniker because she is our kids' great-grandmother... hence The Great One) fell in December on her 85th birthday and broke her hip. After surgery and a stay in a local hospital, she's been in the rehab unit of a local nursing home here in Lima. The Great One is struggling with her rehab, somewhat frustrated with her diminishing memory (she's always been sharp as a tack, so this has been the hardest adjustment of all, I think), and is feel down. She gave up using the internet because she struggled to remember how to operate the computer. She would frequently give me a hard time about my lack of posts. It saddens me to think she's not there reading what I've written, formulating comments and suggestions to be emailed back to her grandson (the good looking one). Please just remember to ask the Lord to send an extra measure of grace and peace to "The Great One" in your prayers. I'd appreciate it.