Saturday, November 16, 2013


I don't know about you, but I like stuff. All kinds of stuff. Just bought, as an example a Martin Backpacker guitar a couple of weeks ago. I have other guitars, but this one is different. It's small. It's easy to play. It's a Martin.

Stuff man. I like stuff.

I think other people like stuff. All kinds of stuff. Monitored a Facebook post that took on a life of it's own as people started weighing in on area eateries, particularly the newer local ones that opened  downtown. Lots of passionate arguments for the wine here or the steak there or the mediterranean dip over there.

I don't own a gun but I have friends that talk a lot about guns. And ammo. I thought all bullets are just bullets. I am apparently wrong. Bullets, I have been told, are different. I have heard bullet arguments.


Charlie Dray is partial to flat billed caps. He owns a lot of flat billed caps. I personally think you should never trust a person in a flat billed cap. But he tells me that this is because I'm old. Apparently we only had straw or a big leaf to cover our heads back in the olden days to hear Charlie tell it. Anyhow, he likes flat billed caps.

When my Uncle Dennis comes to town we go to Cabella's or the Bass Pro store up by Toledo. There are at the Bass Pro store a million fishing poles for sale. They apparently all do something different. I could listen to my Uncle Dennis talk all day about fishing poles, because to choose the right pole, you have to know something about fish. He knows a lot about fish, so he knows a lot about poles.


When I've been to your house I've seen your stuff. Buckeye stuff. Commemorative plate stuff. Some of you collect something specific. My mom collects apple stuff. Other people collect pig stuff or puppy stuff. I spent a whole afternoon once walking around Beverly Hills with three doctors who did nothing but look at watches and pens. Watches and pens. Ridiculously expensive watches and pens. Pretty ironic. Doctors. Can't keep a schedule or write legibly to save their lives, and there we were looking at watches and pens.

Maybe you like clothes. Dresses. Socks. Shoes. Or tools. Maybe you dream of a trip to Lowes. Power sanders and socket wrench sets. Cutlerly. Skis and snowboards. Golf clubs. Jewelry. Coins. Quilts. Electronic gizmos.

Stuff. Lots of stuff. People love stuff.

That's probably why the scripture this morning is so jarring. It's a scripture about stuff.

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”
14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” 15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”  (Luke 12:13-21)

Jesus, it seems, has something against stuff. It's Jesus who tells the rich man who says he's kept all the commandments to give away all of his stuff, and come follow him. It's Jesus who says you can't serve God and money, you gotta choose one or the other. Jesus, in fact, talks more about money and stuff than he does anything else, except the Kingdom of Heaven. 

Why is that? Well, apparently stuff can get in the way of our being "rich in God". 

And why might that be?

I have this theory. Based on what I see Jesus talking about, I have this theory that it's a lot easier to to be successful in accumulating stuff than it is to be rich in God. To be rich, in fact, in any kind of relationships. 

I mean when we were young, Aimee and I, just kids. 21 and 19, married and clueless. We barely got by. We were in college, both us, working part time jobs and relying on the generosity of our parents to make our rent, utilities, tuition, groceries.

One time, at the end of the month when we were totally broke, Aimee searched around the kitchen for something to eat, and only found a can of spinach. To this day we have no idea why we had a can of spinach in our house. Neither of us likes spinach. It had to be some mistake, but there was nothing else in the house to eat, and nothing in our bank accounts, so my wife, hungry, is staring at this lonely can in our pantry when her mother calls her. 

"Aimee, it's Mom. How are you doing?"

My wife starts bawling. "I'm hungry and all we have is a can of spinach."

Her mother, God rest her soul, hung up the phone, grabbed Aimee's dad, and went grocery shopping. It was like manna from heaven when that 280Z pulled up, loaded down with food. 

Now we look around us. We can provide for our family. What's more all those years we lived on one income, to now have two good ones, the end of the month isn't bleak like it used to be. When we first got married I owned a used push mower. Now I'm in the market to for zero turn.

We want to measure our progress in terms of stuff, or our career, or our portfolio. We're better at that than we are relationships. Workaholics thrive on work because it's something they can do. They can master. It gives them a sense of self-satisfaction, a high, that they can't find anywhere else. It's easier to measure a life by a zero turn mower and how far we've come in terms of promotions or positions at work. 

I said this in a sermon a couple of months ago, and I still mean it. There's a power that we feel when buy something. Even if nothing else in our life is going quite right, we can still buy something, anything really, to make us feel better. 

I think Jesus, recognized the truth in an agrarian, pre-industrial economy that people find it's easier to develop a love affair with stuff, and that's not healthy. That's not life. Things might make us feel alive, attached, rooted. But it's a lie. 

You can almost hear Jesus wonder aloud, "Why worry about an inheritance? Why would you use me to get you money, to get you stuff? What's the stuff really worth? Wouldn't you rather be rich in brothers? If you'd use me to compromise, to leverage your brother for stuff, then, what hope do you have to know God? Why don't you leverage me, leverage all you have, to reconcile with your brother, so you can be reconciled with God?  

As someone once told me, in a moment when he felt very alone, all that stuff is just dirt. It's just dirt. And that's the danger. We can make so many compromises, even for good reasons, like providing the basics for our family, that we can begin to deceive ourselves in thinking that what others really need from us is stuff. The stuff we earn. The stuff we bring. And we work hard for our stuff, so it's easy to justify using a little of it here, and a little of it there, to make us happy. To satisfy us. To remind us why we work so hard in the first place. To mark our success. To measure it against someone else.  

Is that the way it works?

Well, what if one day, one day, you woke up completely alone. No family. No friends. Nobody on the planet knew who you were. You have no obligations or responsibilities to anyone else, but if you get hurt, who is going to pick up from the hospital. Or who are going to spend Christmas with. Or who is going to celebrate your birthday or any day for that matter, with you?

I mean if stuff is so important, so vital for us to survive, then right now we should be happier, more satisfied, and better adjusted than in any time in human history. There has never been more stuff available more cheaply than right now. 

And yet relationships with others, relationships with God….. if stuff is so doggone important, wouldn't it correlate that the greater the abundance of stuff the healthier our relationships would be? The greater the overflowing of God's presence and power? 

The church is growing fastest in sub-saharan Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia, the poorest places in the entire world. That's where they can't build churches fast enough. Can't raise up pastors quick enough. People got nothing but one another and God.

And here, in the abundant land of stuff, in the land of IPhones, Elves on Shelves, and Keurig coffee makers we're trying to figure out how to get people out of their warm, comfortable homes on Sunday morning, and into church. To slow prune their lives so they can share time together. To learn to take care of one another. To pray for one another. Out loud.  

Hear, we're selling church? Like a commodity, in a world where everything is for sale, and everyone is completing for your time and attention.

"Hey… over here! Look at meeeeeeeeee! Remember us?" And people think we're heading to hell in a hand basket faster than we ever have before. 

Fools, rich in things, and poor in God.  

I did a funeral for a woman this week. She was 67 years old. At 44 she had a massive stroke, and lay helpless on a the floor of her home for days until a paper girl, seeing the papers pile up, decided to call the police. It's a miracle she survived, but as you might imagine, her life changed, immensely. She's was institutionalized for 23 years. In the end, only her immediate family and a few friends stayed connected with her. They said that for a time, in the nursing home, she loved to sing hymns. They were the songs, I suppose, emblazoned in her brain, something the stroke couldn't take away from her, so she'd sing. Sing hymns of praise, paralyzed in a wheelchair, and later, bedridden. It's all she had left that she could do.

Her greatest hope, her sister told me, was the Lord. Her greatest joy was her family and close friends. I mean, she knew they were in, because so many others had not been, physically, in her life. 

What has to be taken from us before we learn this same lesson?

Dirt. What you think you have - your stuff, your talent, your position - is dirt. You'd be shocked how quickly it can disappear. And then, on the other side of that illusion, what do you have left?

How many people recognize the song that Jeff sang earlier? It's a song from the greatest era of pop culture ever…. the 80's. The song was made popular in a movie called "Say Anything", an 80's movie (which are the best, ever) where a young John Cusack played a character, a graduated senior named Lloyd Daubler, who pines for the class valedictorian, Diane Court. And while Diane had a whole life of education and success her father had planned out for her lined up before her, Lloyd wanted nothing else but to be a kick boxer, a kick boxer in love and married to Diane Court. 

The famous scene is Lloyd, holding up a boom box with a cassette tape in it, playing this song. I'd demonstrate this for you, but we no longer own a boom box. And I haven't touched a cassette in decades. Now Lloyd would have to hold his IPhone above his head and text Diane Court the lyrics. But he lifts up the boom box, and plays the love song, because Diane has dumped him because her father doesn't think Lloyd can provide the life he wants for his daughter. A good life, with lots of success, and lots of stuff. 

And yeah, the scene was corny. It was the stuff of adolescent romantic fantasy. But in the end of the movie, after her father is caught embezzling money, stealing money, in the name of getting a "better life for his family", all the family assets are seized, and he is in jail, guess who ends up with Lloyd. 

Rich in God. Stuff, success, isn't the pathway to richness in God. When we make the pivot, from me to we, from I to you, stuff is nice, it's a blessing, but it's just a tool. A tool that tests our integrity when we have much, and when we have nothing.  A tool to be used to draw us closer, or a something we can concretely reject so we can drawn closer together. It is the place where Jesus is, in the point of greatest need where we can risk ourselves, risk loving someone else, and meet their point of greatest need. 

Our denomination's founder said it best: Work all you can, to earn all you can, to save all you can, so you can give all you can. Stuff should first and foremost, be a tool to draw us into deeper relationships with others, and a place where our trust in the living God is most at stake. 

Will we really take care of one another? Will we really care for one another? Will our lives, shared mutually, dedicated to making God's will manifest in this world, become the center that hones the center of who we are? 

Are you just a fool, sitting in the middle of a pile of stuff, or is your stuff drawing you deeper into the heart of God?

One last story.

When I was a kid, there was a guy in our church, Dan Powelson, who whenever an impromptu sermon was needed, always volunteered, or was volunteered, to tell one story. The same story. It was a story we'd all heard - men and women, old and young - again and again, about Mr. Give and Mr. Get.

Mr. Get owned a huge house. He needed it. He had a lot of stuff. He'd clip his coupons and hit sales and be the guy who bought ten razors for a penny or a six Thanksgiving turkeys at pennies on the dollar the day after Thanksgiving. As a consequence, his house over flowed. Freezers filled with turkeys. Closets filled with razors. A storage rooms filled with soda pop. The place was busting with stuff, because Mr. Get was always worried he wouldn't have enough?

What if there's a turkey shortage? What if all the razor factories exploded? What if all the soda pop was stolen by terrorists? Mr. Get was always packing in more and more into that house, until only small pathways existed between piles and piles and piles of things. 

Mr. Give lived next door to Mr. Get. he never seemed to have as much stuff, I mean not even close to as much stuff as Mr. Get, but there were always a lot more people. People hanging around on his front porch. Kids playing in his front lawn. There always seemed to be a carry in or cook out at Mr. Give's house. And people knew if they were short of something, Mr. Give would share it with them if they he could. A cup of sugar. A cup of milk. If Mr. Give bought cheap turkeys he'd see if anyone needed one. I mean he only really needed one, and even if he gave a couple away he still came out ahead. Besides, whenever Mr. Give needed anything, it seemed like the other neighbors were quick to share with him too. He didn't worry if the razor factory blew up. He'd just have a beard growing contest with his friends. And he enjoyed nothing better than sharing a glass of soda pop with a friend. He didn't fully understand why, but Mr. Give, while he didn't have much, never seemed to want for anything. 

One day a kid from the marching band came around selling nut bread to raise money for a band trip, and both Mr. Give and Mr. Get both decided to buy a few loaves. Mr. Get noticed that as soon as he bought the loaves, Mr. Give shared them with his friends. There was a big congregation on Mr. Give's front lawn, and as he watched it, Mr. Get laughed. 

"His nut bread will soon be gone, but I'll have plenty." And so in a corner of his pantry, he wrapped it and put in tupperware, balanced the nut bread on top a pile of other tupperware containers... and soon forgot it.

Until many, many months later, when he got a hankering for some nut bread.

He went into his pantry, fighting through many more tupperware containers than had been added over that time, and after hours of looking, finally found the nut bread, tucked in the corner. He open up the tupperware, and inside, there it lay, moldy, crusty, rotten, and ruined. 

Just then, across the lawn, he heard noise. It was another crowd of people gathered again on Mr. Give's lawn, and Mr. Get found himself getting angrier and angrier. All of his nut bread was rotten. In fact his pantry was filled with spoiled and stale food that had been sitting there forever, and there was Mr. Give, laughing. Mr. Get got angrier and angrier and angrier.

Until finally, he could take it no more. 

He came bursting across the lawn. "Why must you always be so loud? Why must there always be so much laughing and screaming and talking and singing over here? Here. Look at this. Look at my nut bread. It's stale and it's ruined. And I wanted some, and now there isn't any. And CAN'T YOU ALL JUST BE QUIET!"

Everyone got dead silent. Nobody could say a word. It seemed like an eternity, as they all stood there staring at him, and he began to feel foolish, embarrassed. 

"Hey", Mr. Give said, "I'm really sorry about that, but we're eating dinner together and it just so happens I made a great nut bread to share with everyone. Would you like to come eat with us?"

And as they filled his plate, filled it to overflowing until he needed a second plate, filled with nothing but nut bread. As he ate his fill of nut bread, as he found himself thirsty, he excused himself, went home, and came back, with two liters, cans, and bottles of every kind of soda pop imaginable. And while much of it had to be thrown away, the rest was wonderful. And from that day on, if anyone needed anything, they could stop by Mr. Get's house. The house that was once filled with stuff, but was now filled with friends.

Wouldn't you rather be rich in brothers? Wouldn't' you rather be rich in sisters? Wouldn't you rather be rich in God?

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Get Out Your Wallets - Be a Hero To Some Heroes through the Hands for Heroes Half-Marathon/5k

Hello All,

It's that time of year again. The Hands for Heroes Half-Marathon/5k is coming up, Saturday, September 28th here at Shawnee Community UMC. As in years past, proceeds from the race will buy lunch for school-children at Victory Christian School, located at Borde', a little village in northern Haiti, and medicine for those who can't afford it it at a medical clinic in Labruyere.

This year a portion of the proceeds will also go to support "Team Red, White, and Blue", and organization who, through sport, rehabilitates mind, body, and soul of veterans who were injured serving their country. A number of these folks will be running with us that morning. Their stories and TRWB's work is inspiring. For more info on TRWB, click here.

In order to make this a success (i.e. raise a lot of money) we need your help. In years past I've asked you to sponsor me as I walk the 5k. This year I want to do something a little different. In the race there are "Mile Markers" that can be sponsored for $100 apiece and water stops that are $250. I'm going to give you a choice. Instead of sponsoring me, I'd like to donate to honor somebody else. You have three choices:

- Sponsor the "Honoring our Haitian Heroes Water Station" (any $ amount): Pastor Marius through his dedication and sacrifice has made life for the people of Borde', Haiti, better. His faithful work has educated hundreds of children, started dozens of small businesses, taught young people a trade, and provided clean water for the village. He's also baptized hundreds of new believers in the power of Christ's love and grace. Pastor Marius is just one of our Haitian Heroes, make a difference in the poorest nation in the western hemisphere. Make your donation towards the $250 that will sponsor a water station to serve runners, just like Pastor Marius and others in Haiti are providing "living water" to those in need. In the PayPal special instructions box, or in the memo of your check just put "Haitian Hero", if you want your hero's name on the sign (I'll have my crack staff take care of that), and their name..

- Sponsor the "Honoring our Military Heroes Water Station" (any amount): Some men and women served bravely in our nation's military and safely returned home. Others were not so fortunate. This is a chance to remember those who serve, and served. Those who made it home safely, others who came home needing our help, and still others who lost their life. Include the name of a soldier or vet you'd like to honor, and I'll make sure my crack graphics team. Make your donation towards the $250 that will sponsor a water station to serve runners, just like our soldiers serve their nation. In the PayPal special instructions box, or in the memo of your check just put "Military Hero", if you want your hero's name on the sign (I'll have my crack staff take care of that), please add their name.

- Sponsor a "Standing Stone Mile Marker" (minimum of $100): We'll have 150 or more runners/walkers here on Saturday. Put a word of encouragement to them on a mile marker. You can choose your own scripture verse or some other encouraging saying, and we'll put it on the sign RIGHT FROM YOU, or if you wish, in honor or memory of someone else you love. If you need help with a scripture here a few good ones:
Psalm 23
Romans 12:1-2
Romans 12:21
Hebrews 12:1
I Corinthians 9:24
John 3:16
Jeremiah 29:11
Proverbs 18:10
Philippians 4:13

In the PayPal special instructions box enter "Mile Marker" and whatever verse/saying you want us print, and if you desire, who the "Mile Marker" is in memory or honor of. If you send a check, just enclose the same info on a sheet of paper, or email me at Make all checks payable to "Community UMC" and put "Mile Marker" in the memo. All checks can be mailed to:

Community UMC
Hands for Heroes 
2600 Zurmehly Rd.
Lima OH  45806

Hope to hear from you. Be a hero to some heroes!!!!!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Stop and Go (part 1)

I was a youth pastor for a long time. Long relative to how long youth pastors usually last, anyway. The benefit of this is that now, more than 20 years when I first started working as a youth pastor, I've had the chance to see how my work, long ago, continues to play out. Since I've been out of that kind of work for almost a decade, even the youngest middle school students I worked with are now in their early twenties, and as for the oldest ones.... well, I had a senior from my first year at Shawnee who just turned 40 (which is to say that I was only four years older than she as a pastor, which probably as a Lead Pastor I would never be OK with today.... but then again, when I was a kid, we were never buckled in the backseat and we could ride our bikes halfway across town without any supervision, so I come from a different age). Via mechanisms like Facebook, you are able now to get some sort of feeling for where all these young people are at now.

Some are active in churches. Others aren't. Some have left Christianity altogether, either for another faith or atheism. Some have taken on all the trappings of modern evangelical Christianity - conservative socially, theologically, and politically. Others are much more open and progressive. Some are spiritual, but not religious. Most have been married. Many are divorced. Some have come out of the closet, and are living openly at gay and lesbian adults, many in committed relationships. Quite frankly, where they are spiritually is all over the map.

It's been a fascinating study. 

When I've asked, I've found in the majority of these adults the experiences they had as teens has helped shape the course of their faith journey. For most the experiences they had as teens were important and positive. If asked most list a camp or mission trip or a leader from that time and place as an influencer on the direction their faith life has headed. While the number of these folks isn't exactly replete with pastors, missionaries, and seminary theologians, these ministry experiences got people thinking about God. Who God is, what God wants, and what that might mean for them. And they've continue to wrestle with this question as time has passed and they discovered too, who they were.  They've changed over the years, and as a consequence so has their relationship with the Lord. 

The book of Ecclesiastes is the journey of a person who was trying to figure out both who they were and who God is, and where those two questions meet. He's a person who has tried to find meaning and hope in both austerity and excess. In selfishness and holiness. He's run the whole gamut. He's been everything you can be socially, emotionally, and intellectually. And in Ecclesiastes 3, we get a little bit of that wisdom he's discovered through experience shared with us.

1    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2     a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3     a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
4     a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5     a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6     a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7     a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8     a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

Pretty striking if you think about it. The author has found that contrary to the platitudes he's heard in his life, that he's found there were times that required him to be engaged in all of these things. Killing and healing. Destroying and building. Giving his everything and giving up. Life he discovered had called him to all of these moments. Sometimes extreme moments. But those moments never last. At some point, they cease, and a new time for something else arrives. It's when you've refused to acknowledge the moment has changed, and so should you, you can you end up in some real trouble.

Balance. To realize both the character and competency of Christ, we are called to a life of balance. Work and rest. Ebb and flow. And what's more, to not be surprised that life will be this way. To not feel disappointed or abandoned in those times that are difficult, especially, but to realize they are just a part of living. A part of being a disciple.

I'll be the first to admit this isn't easy. Fortunately, I don't have to be. The Apostle Paul beat me to it. We tend to think of Paul as a single-minded, driven individual whose every waking moment was focused on how to spread the Gospel to the Gentiles. But Paul paints a different picture. He tells us Romans 7 that his inner life is split. That some things he knows he should be doing, he does, but that there are other things he knows he needs to do that he just can't bring himself to. On the other side of the ledger, Paul acknowledges there are those things in his life he ought not to be doing, but he does anyway. He acknowledges too that no matter how much he tried to make himself obedient to divine law and order, that he found himself failing. It was only in Christ he found he could begin to bring this together. 

And maybe that's because Jesus, it would appear, in what by all accounts was an extraordinary life, doesn't let relationships with others get him imbalanced with the relationship he has with his Father. He has moments when thousands come to hear him preach and other moments when people want to throw him out of town. He's tested by those not sure of who he is. He's pushed by those who think he's dangerous to the good of the order. He's overwhelmed by huge crowds  who want something from him. He's visited in the middle of the night by someone who is worried how it would look if he came to him as a seeker in the middle of the day. 

And yet Jesus continues on. He goes to the big crowds willingly, and he withdraws to be alone to pray to God. He feeds the masses, and then when they come back looking for more he refuses to feed them again physically, imploring them to seek a different kind of bread from the Lord. He always goes back to the fundamental relationship he has with God, and works out of it.

His life was an ongoing ebb and flow of being sustained by a different kind of bread. We see this, and yet can't seem to work this much into our own spiritual life.

I mean for example, let's just talk about prayer for a moment. If we keep saying that it's important to seek the Lord's presence, and that prayer historically has been foundational to God's presence in the form of a a new understanding of purpose, or a new resting place where peace can be realized, what does it say if it's hard for you to pray? 

Is your schedule too busy?
Are you afraid of silence?
Do you just not know where to begin?
If there too much clutter in your life?
Is there some unresolved anger at someone else, or at the Lord, that is dominating your thoughts?
Would you do better with a set time and place for prayer that would inform the prayer life for the rest of your day?
Are you not convinced your prayer is being heard by anybody? 
Have you honestly just not actually, really ever tried to pray?

All of these possible responses, and others, gives us a window into who we are. How we define our relationship with God, and how maybe the times and our experiences have defined our relationship with God. But if we are unable to pray in a way that's really meaningful, what does that really say about the nature of our relationship with God? And you can begin to do this with every and all relationships with others, our relationship to our possessions, job, wealth, those who are different..... 

Is our life so out of balance, that in the end our relationships are suffering, and as a consequence so are we?

John Wesley always believed himself to be destined to do something great for God. It's a path he could have chosen or not chosen to take, but from an early age he felt this burning in his bones that God wanted to use him mightily. That belief was born from his mother, Susanna, who upon John being saved from a fire that was consuming the family home (a fire John believed was set by parishioners who disliked his father, who was their Anglican vicar) as a child, felt God spared her son for this reason. We don't have any record that she felt the same way about any of his 18 other brothers and sisters, but considering that nine of her children died as infants, John being spared probably for her took on even greater significance. Something she bore down into him as she raised and educated him as a child. 

John's destiny in many ways was set for him, but he still had to wrestle out what this meant. He tried by sheer will and the force of his own effort to grow into this destiny placed upon him. He completed his studies as Oxford and was ordained in the Anglican Church. While at Oxford he mapped out a disciplined life that marked out every moment of his day in times of prayer, study, service, worship, and even a little bit of rest. Others joined him in his systematic pursuit of God, and the number of these methodical Christians - Methodists they became known - continued to grow. He even took a pastoral appointment to the colony of Georgia, seeking a greater challenge of evangelism to Native Americans and slaves, far outside of the limelight that the work of Methodists in England could have brought him.  

But the peace Jesus promised in the book of John (My peace I give you. My peace I leave you.) was not his. It bothered him that despite all he was doing for the sake of the Gospel, he still wondered whether or not he was truly accepted and forgiven in the eyes of God. It forced him home to England, and for a time not doing much in the way of ministry. It was only in the silence and quiet of Aldersgate that Wesley heard God speak on his own terms.

Work and works had to give way to rest and listening. 

We have to pay attention to these movements. Movement in our lives. Movements in our times. And seek how we feel about them, what they say about us. About who we are, and where we're going. 

If we find all of our identity and purpose in our work, is that good? Is that bad? What is God trying to tell us?

If our core relationships are broken, what is required of us? Do you move further away, or do you make some changes to draw closer and make some repairs?

If you never feel like you are enough, but yet you are told that God loves you, what does that say about you? About God?

In the midst of a discipling relationship, where we are seeking to become like Christ by putting ourselves under his authority by receiving a little help from someone of integrity to help guide us, as we learn who God is and what God wants, we will learn much about ourselves... and it might not always be very pretty.

I started being discipled by a pastor who lives and works in Ft. Wayne via Google Plus and the folks at 3DM sometime early last fall. To be quite honest, I would have never have chosen this particular individual on my own to begin helping learn how to walk around the circle, which involves us...

Listening for God.
Sensing when God has spoken.
Reflecting on what has been said, and figure out what now is required from me.
Sharing this word with others.
Making a plan to be obedient to what God wants.
Being accountable to others to follow thru.
Listening to how that plays out with God later.

Being in a group with this leader and five other guys, as I listened to how their lives were being navigated professionally, personally, in regards to their family and friends, their health.... I didn't feel so great about my own life. Certainly I had something to offer but starting with the most fundamental of all my relationships with others - namely my wife and kids - I began to realize just how much God wanted me to grow in Christ's character and in his competence. 

It scared the crap out of me after more than 20 years of marriage, and being a father for 14 years, how much more I didn't know than what I really did. How much I took for granted and how fundamentally how much growing I still had to do. I began to realize how much my identity and self-worth were tied up in being Pastor Bryan, and how little I thought about being "Aimee's husband" or "Max's dad". 

It started to really mess me up. Call it a midlife crisis. Call it the bottom of defining my worth by working my tail off for since I was in seminary. Call it whatever you want. All I knew was that by January, I knew and those who truly loved me knew, I had to get away and start sorting some things out... which is why the first week of January I found myself chanting Psalms with the monks who are brothers together at the Abbey of Gethsemane in a remote part of Kentucky. 

Everything for me just stopped, and I had to go to a place where I my title or history meant nothing, and the only thing I could do was wait and listen to God on God's schedule and God's terms. 

You at the heart of this Christian faith is the relationship we have with God, and the greatest gift we can give one another is to help discover how to live that relationship out authentically. Not perfectly. Not in some pre-packaged sort of way where we say all the right things and do all the right things as it seems to have been determined by a few influential preachers, lobbyists, and writers. But authentically in a way that shapes all our other relationships. To know when we need to set aside something else, and move closer to someone who needs us. To draw away from the hustle and bustle, and seek a place of solace and peace in the presence of God, and God alone. To spur one another on in this journey so that the peace and purpose and joy promised, is theirs. 

To learn the rhythm of how the Lord wants us to live, and become obedient to that rhythm. Which leads me now to ask you three questions:

- Do you have someone of integrity in your life you can be completely real with who you know seeks only that you would know the movement of God in your life?

- Are you sensitive to the way you are using your time, energy and resources to accomplish that God wants to accomplish though you in your life and the lives of others?

- Are you sharing what you are learning with somebody else?

So this week, I leave with those questions, as we keep thinking about living a life in God's rhythm, and next week we seek to confront the possibility that if we take this seriously, something, or things, might have to be pruned out of our lives. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Finishing Their Work

It's Memorial Day weekend. The practice, who those who don't know, began in the aftermath of the Civil War in the south with something called "Decoration Day". Those who remembered the death of their loved ones in the war began going to cemeteries and decorating the graves of the lost. Over time the practice spread, and eventually it became tradition not just to decorate the graves of soldiers, but to commemorate anyone you loved who has gone to their "great reward".

My uncle, for example, will go to the grave of my grandfather this weekend. My grandfather is a vet. He fought in WWII. Was at the battle of the bulge as a 17 year old kid. But that's not why my Uncle goes. Every year on Memorial Day he leaves a golf ball on the grave. It's a simple tribute, but for a son who spent hours and hours with his Dad on the golf course, it's appropriate. It's a tribute to a great dad.

Tomorrow, in Gettysburg, there will once again be a memorial service at the national cemetery at which President Lincoln spoke so eloquently during it's consecration. Two minutes the Gettysburg Address lasted. Lincoln thought it was a failure and the words would be lost to obscurity.

How many of you had to memorize it when you were in school? I know I did. Probably the most famous two minute speech ever given.

The words are captivating, I think, because the Great Experiment - democracy - of which Lincoln spoke is still not that old. Certainly it's grown since the Civil War, but we need to remember that for the nations of the world at the time, democracy was odd... even threatening. Most of the nations of Europe at the time were still monarchies in one form or another, and they ruled most of the world as colonies. Colonies that had the same say in their governance the American Colonies had with Britain before the Revolutionary War. Democracies were the things of rebels and rabble-rousers. And I'm sure that many at the time wondered whether or not the cost of the Civil War was really worth it.

58,000 men had died at Gettysburg, and many, many others had been wounded at that battle. The townspeople from the area had to bury all the bodies. It was their backs that had dug the graves, and their hands who had cared for the wounded. It was those people who listened to Lincoln's speech that day, and all as the war raged on.

Lincoln's declaration, his address, was that the cost of the battle for the cause at hand was both dear and necessary. So dear and so necessary that it was worth further sacrifice of time, energy, money, and blood. Blood Lincoln himself would ultimately have to shed as part of the cost. And we keep teaching the Gettysburg Address to our children, because in the 150 years since Lincoln uttered those words more time, energy, and money have been spent. More blood has been spilled and more graves have been dug. We don't want our children to forget it, and we want to remind them that maybe, someday, it will be their turn to carry this Grand Experiment forward themselves.

Our nation isn't perfect. Our intentions haven't always been purely nobel. Such is the reality of democracy. It's a human institution practiced by humans. That's why we have elections. If the last bunch did things we didn't agree with, if they turned out to be bums, we vote in a new bunch. It's not perfect, but given the alternatives I think we can all agree that even with all it's flaws, democracy has been, and will be, worth the cost. That's the idea we want to pass down to our children. This idea that has become the way we govern cost something. It's been consecrated with blood. Care for it as a trust, and never forget what has been sacrificed so that you might have the chance, one day, to be entrusted with it's care.

The book of Hebrews is different than the other Epistles. Nobody really knows who wrote it. Authorship wasn't really ascribed to Paul until the 4th century, and while the translators of the King James Bible continue this tradition, it's writing style, grammar, and even subject matter is unlike anything else Paul wrote. Some people think one of Paul's students wrote it. Others have thought it might have been Priscilla, the woman Paul speaks of who raised Timothy to the faith. If, in fact a woman wrote Hebrews, afraid of the scandal of female teaching in a patriarchal world, it was all the more reason scholars speculate the early church buried the authorship. In the end, it might have been Paul, or it might not have been Paul.

But most scholars agree that the purpose of Hebrews was "encouragement". Encouragement to early Christians who were being persecuted, even slaughtered, and beginning to wonder if in the delay of the return of their Messiah, Jesus - which they had been promised was immanent - wasn't a delay, but rather a sign. A sign that he wasn't who others had been saying he was. Hebrews is a letter to people asking the questions, "Is our continued faith in Jesus worth the price?"

Much of Hebrews is a reminder of all of those who have suffered so that the faith could be carried down through the ages to us. Of course the author spends a lot of time talking about the gift of Jesus, the gift of his blood. But the author also speaks of Abel who dies at the hands of his brother because of the sacrifice he makes to the Lord. Of Enoch, the only man we are given account of who God takes without tasting death because of his faithfulness. The author speaks of Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. He mentions Rahab, the prostitute at Jericho who risked her life so sneak the spies of Israel into the city. He lists judges like Gideon, kings like David, and prophets like Samuel. People of high and low places who when their moment came, their moment of truth, did what they had to in order to keep the faith alive.

And what a faith it is!

A faith which aspires to the last being first. A faith which ascribes the highest moral order to a person giving up his or her life for their friends, and defining friend as anyone who was created by God. A faith that calls us to serve the least of these, and overcome hatred with love. It's a faith that often puts us at odds with the ways of this world. The way the world is organized and managed and ordered. It's a faith that isn't afraid to speak out to presidents, prime ministers, kings, queens, generals, or dictators. Industrialists, bankers, stock brokers, or venture capitalists. The professional or totally unskilled. The sober and drunk. The wife and her child, and the widow and the orphan. Nobody is exempt from the demands of it. It's a faith which asked:

Do you love what Jesus loves?
Do you love who Jesus loves?
Do you love like Jesus loves?

A faith that aspires to restore what we believe was intended in the first place: a world where we hold one another and all that the Lord has created for us, in trust, with care and responsible stewardship. A world where justice isn't arbitrary, but fixed on something so deep it's at the foundation of everything created. A world where that justice is tempered with mercy, and we judge others slowly remembering we aren't God. A world where God is present. A comforter. A provider.

It is this faith, Hebrews tells us, that has been handed to us by Jesus, but has been intended for all since the beginning of the world. A faith that calls us to struggle against the sin of death and disease. Against those who seek to take advantage and wreak havoc upon others, particularly the innocent and those who can't protect themselves. A world where hearts seek to do the will of Jesus first.

Love. Love. Love.

And so in chapter 12, to those losing heart, losing faith, we are introduced to a new concept. In animistic religions both then and now, people engage in the practice of elder worship. That being the idea that those who have gone before us, now in some form shape our way forward now. Some elders in these traditions are agents on our behalf. Others are out to get us.

Hebrews though gives us another view of those who have gone before us. They are a part of the "great cloud of witnesses" who have already passed down the baton of this great race of faith, who now stand along the course of the race we now run, rooting us on. Figures of hope. Figures who carried the faith of love and grace down to us.

"We made it. So can you. We knew in part, but now we know fully. This reward is yours also. Don't give up. Come join us. Not just as one who is here solely by grace, but as one who helped carry that grace to others."

These are those who have helped carry the faith of love and grace to others. Some you've read about. Some you know. Some handed that grace to you, hand to hand.

I typed out this sermon on a MacBook that belongs to the church. It's a fancy shmancy machine that's probably more computer than I'll ever need. It's one of many laptop computers I've had over the years. Too many for me to remember, really.

But I still remember my first. It was manufactured by a company called Ultra and it had Windows 386 and some version of DOS loaded on it. That's so old that now Windows just uses one number - currently 8 and nobody uses DOS anymore. It had a black and white screen, and it came with one of the first mobile printers. It didn't have an ethernet port or was wifi capable because the internet was something we only heard about in the movie War Games.

(Remember that movie? Matthew Broderick, pre Ferris Bueller, as a teenage hacker who hacked into a defense computer that threatened to blow up the world with nuclear missiles? Kids, that was back during the Cold War and Berlin Wall, both of which you can read about it in your history books.)

It was the first laptop I had ever seen and it cost $3000 back in 1991, which adjusted for inflation is just over $5000 now. $5k for a laptop computer. Can you imagine? And there I was, a snot nosed kid toting around for what was at least a couple of years the only lap top anybody ever saw on the campus of the seminary where I was student. Not even the professors had one.

And all because my grandmother bought it for me. She thought I needed it to be the best seminary student, and eventually the best pastor I could be.

She took her turn carrying grace. Now she's in that great cloud of witnesses.

She's standing there with her grandfather, who - after her father, before his drinking days were up temporarily abandoned his family to life of booze and pool on the road - stepped into her life and brought stability and love. A grandfather so close she called him "Dad". It was he who she called out to on her deathbed earlier this year. The one who helped her know that she was coming home.

He took his turn carrying grace. Now he's in that great cloud of witnesses.

He's standing there with her. He and the drunk, my great-grandfather Po-Po, who came home, started going to this new thing called Alcoholics Anonymous so he could be a father and husband. An old drunk who found grace, and then sponsored countless others to learn how to live responsible lives in the world by following one simple rule: Don't drink.

He took his turn carrying grace. A drunken sinner. Now he's in that great cloud of witnesses.

Helen Dornette, a retired school-teacher, never married, who inherited a large sum money, but never saw fit to spend it. She invested it, plus that which she saved herself, and at the end of her life started giving it away. Some she gave to me in the form of a scholarship that enabled me to carry that insanely expensive lap top around that seminary campus.

She took her turn carrying grace.

There are so many for me... my paternal grandmother. Carol. Sherman and Henrietta. Joe and Weezy Myers. The Hersheys. Helen and Pat Price. Stan and Betty Weller. E Larry Moles. Dr. and Mrs. Flickenger. The Connors and the Reeves. Fred Blosser. So many others....

I'll bet you now some of those faces along the side of the road. Witnesses who carried the faith in grace and love, and helped hand it down to you. Maybe you need a moment, remember, and give thanks.

It is they, these good people, who line the course which ends at the foot of a cross. Cheering you on. Their cause... his cause... is worth the sacrifice. Today, we remember them. Tomorrow, let us finish their work, carrying the faith of grace and love so that one day we too will stand, cheer on those whose day is still yet to come.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

How Can You Support our Haiti Ministry in 2013-14? Well, Glad You Asked! Here's How....

Have had a few inquires online as to how people can support our Haiti ministry. Thought I'd reproduce the information sheet we gave the congregation this morning that breaks down cost, and give folks some idea what they might want to contribute to and at what amount.

First, let me describe the opportunities:

Victory Christian Church Primary School (K-5) Tuition and Fees
On the average there are about 120 children enrolled at our sister congregation's primary school. There is state provided education in Haiti, but 1) it is not universally available to all children and 2) it very competitive to get into. A child who has the opportunity to get a primary education not only becomes literate (which is good no matter where you live) but has a fighting chance to get into a secondary school where they can continue their education. There have been a number of kids during our association with VCC (led by Pastor Marius and Pastor Maccine) who have been able to make the leap to a secondary education, and some of those to college. The school provides on average about 10-15% of it's own financing (families pay what they can), but without our partnership, the vast majority of children could not afford to be enrolled by the their parents. Education gives a parent, a child, a church, and a community hope. We like being in the "hope business". Here is the breakdown of cost:

Education and fees:
- $0.48 day/ $2.60 week/ $9.60 month/ $86.40 year - PER STUDENT
- $57.50 day/ $288 week/ $1,150 month/ $10,350 - 120 STUDENTS

Victory Christian Church Primary School Lunch Program
For the past ten years, Community UMC has providing a warm lunch to every student three out of every five days of the school week. The lunch usually consists of rice and beans, bread and something to drink. For many children these are the only meals they can count on receiving each week. Led by long-time CommUMC member and a true champion of the children of VCC, Flora DeVoe, this year we are seeking the necessary support to feed all VCC students every school day. The cost includes not only the food, but the cooks who are paid to prepare the meal and properly clean the plates/utensils, and cooking fuel. Here is the breakdown of cost for a daily lunch, all five days of the week:

- $0.36 day/ $1.80 week/ $7.20 month/ $64.80 year - PER STUDENT
- $43.20 day/ $216 week/ $864 month / $7,776 year - 120 STUDENTS

Labrauyer Medical Clinic (Living Hope Mission)
The village of Labruyer is about 20 miles from CapHaitien, but the journey to get there take about 90 minutes. A hub for trade (they have one of the largest rural market days in all of Northern Haiti), Labruyer is a service center for the villages and farms that surround it for miles. The Labrauyer Medical Clinic is a ministry of Labrauyer Christian Church, which has been led by Pastor Doleon since the late 1980's. The clinic, which is was started with Pastor Doleon by a nurse from Nebraska, lost it's primary forms of funding when that nurse retired, and returned to the United States. Now, partnering with our friends, Wilbert and Meg Merzilus of Living Hope Mission, the clinic - which now employs a bright young Haitian physician Dr. Odrigue Norestine -  is seeking to re-open the clinic five days a week. The clinic which addresses all issues related to basic health care is held in such high regard that the Haitian Ministry of Health funds a vaccination program for children through LMC to serve the community. Our medical professionals were able to see Dr. Norestine at work, and are all immensely impressed. Here's our proposal of support for the clinic:

LMC Staffing, Overhead and Medication Cost
- Partial Underwrite of One Average Office Visit (including meds): $2.50
- 20 Patients Per One Typical Day: $50/ per week: $250/ per month: $1,000/ $12,000 per year

Living Hope Mission Water Ministry
Our friends at Living Hope Mission are working with many committed servants (including our own Don Knepper) to host teams 6-10 times a year who do nothing but repair broken water well pumps. Nothing improves the health of a community faster or more effectively than clean water. With each pump serving hundreds - sometimes even thousands - of people, a broken pump forces people to walk further to find a source of clean water, or choose instead to pull water out of an area stream or river. With water-born illnesses, like Typhoid and Cholera, still very much a danger in Haiti (particularly to children and elderly) and other water ministries focused on digging new wells, Living Hope Mission has found an opportunity to improve the live of Haitians by repairing existing wells that have been broken. With a goal of $100,000, this new well pump repair ministry will be able to buy containers of well-parts, as well as equipment and transportation, to repair wells all over Northern Haiti. Here's the breakdown of cost:

Water Ministry
- Average cost to repair one pump: $250
- Two pumps: $500
- Four pumps: $1000

Ministerial Support
Pastors in Haiti work hard. Long hours for uncertain pay. You can help us support a pastor and in turn, the continued sharing of Christ's Gospel of love in Haiti by helping a church fund their salary:

Pastor's Salary Partial Underwriting:
- $150 per month
- $1,800 per year

Got all that? Also, you can make an undesignated gift and trust us to use your gift for Haiti wisely. Follow these simple steps to make a one time donation:

1) Review the options listed above.
2) Choose the amount you'd like to donate.
3) Click the "Donate" button above
4) Enter the amount you would like to donate.
5) Send an email to Cathy Dempsey ( who does all of our posting, with your name and address (so we can send you a statement - all gifts are tax deductible) detailing how you'd like to direct your donation. If you have no preference, simply just email us your name and address. If you aren't interested also in a statement, don't bother email us if you don't want to.

For a donation that repeats monthly or quarterly, simply call us at 419 991 4806 or email Cathy, and we can make arrangements to send envelopes or arrange e-withdraws.

Community UMC takes no "administrative fees". 100% (after the 2.7% fee PayPal takes) of all directed funds will go directly to the school or mission of your choosing. Undesignated funds not used to meet the needs of the work listed above will be used for things like shipping donated medications, school supplies, customs costs, and other needs which arise only in relation to our Haiti mission work. No funds will be used for Community UMC general fund expenses or other endeavors.

If you don't like the idea of giving PayPal or don't like using e-commerce, feel free to drop off or mail a check to our main office at our Shawnee Campus:

Community UMC
2600 Zurmehly Rd.
Lima OH  45806

Make all checks out to Community UMC, and put in the check memo in what ministry you'd like your donation direction (if you have no preference, enter "Haiti Undesignated").  If you have any questions, feel free to contact the church office via the email address above, or by phone at 419 991 4806 ex.111.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Better To Have A Good Name

(sermon thinking for Sunday... enjoy)

I first want to thank everyone for their love, prayers, and support during my spiritual leave. I naturally supernatural ways I felt God' love through you. Whether or not it was a shout out on Facebook, a phone call just let me know you were thinking of me, or the folks who told me they were going to pray who I have been assured supernaturally followed through..... thank you all. Now that I've returned jut about everywhere I go I get greeted with hugs and hoorays. It's good to be loved. I guess absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Know the feeling is mutual.

The topic for today's sermon is "Better To Have a Good Name". One of my heroes in ministry is a now retired pastor in our conference who is regarded as being one of the most liberal or progressive pastors West Ohio has ever known. While we don't see eye to eye on every theological or social issue what I've always admired about this pastor is that he has always backed up in both word and deed what he's said and what he believed. 

He didn't just say that health care in Haiti for the poor was substandard and borderline nonexistent... he started a health organization that runs a children's hospital and a series of clinics throughout the country. 

He didn't just say that he believed that people together needed to engage in racial reconciliation. He, as a white man, volunteered to step away from a position of institutional power at a pay cut to serve in a cross-racial appointment, and even succeeded in making it grow.

He didn't just say that the church should be open and available to ALL people. He opened the doors of that church to the entire community, standing up to those who would believe that you had to pass some litmus test before you could sit in a pew.

He even at the age of 70, forced by Discipline to retire, not feeling like God was done with him yet, sought a part-time appointment nobody else seemed to want, the demands of which would wear out a younger man. Years later, he's still going strong, convinced that as long as he has breath that he not only must preach the Gospel, but demonstrate it. 

He engages in service, not lip service. His beliefs and actions are aligned and as a result he's one of the few people who everyone, even very conservative people in our conference, respect. Through a witness and life dedicated to proclaiming and living out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, his name has been made good.

Better to have a good name.

Proverbs 22:1 drops this pearl of wisdom: "A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver and gold".

I think there's a good reason Solomon passed on this nugget to us. It gets at the core of both what leads to us developing a legacy where our name is good. To look at this in more detail, let's turn our Bibles to Luke 4:1-21. In the scripture, we read that Jesus full of the Holy Spirit, is led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There, he encounters "the devil", which is translated from the greek word "Diablos" which means "slanderer" or "gossip" or "one who make false allegations". And in the desert, Diablos seeks to get dirt on Jesus by tempting him in three ways: he appeals to his appetite (4:3-4), which Jesus resists. Then he appeals to his ambition (4:5-8), which Jesus again resists. And finally, he appeals to the need Jesus has to find approval (4:9-12). Diablos wants an example of Jesus turning his hunger, a need to succeed, and a desire to be adored and accepted sideways, so that nobody will take him seriously.

He fails. Notice the difference in 4:1. Before he resists these temptations, Jesus is both filled and led by the Spirit. But after he resists Diablos, verse 14 says he's been empowered by the Spirit. It's one thing, for example, to want to be a police officer. You can even be led to apply for the position and go somewhere to receive training for the job. But it's another thing to be empowered with a badge and gun. Somewhere in that resisting, the Spirit gives Jesus sway, influence, authority over people who before, maybe wouldn't pay him much mind. His name can't be sullied or gossiped about - although it is repeatedly, even by people who should know better - because he lives an authentic life dedicated to the will of his Father. 

This is the reason I think Luke conveys to us that Jesus resists the temptation to allow his appetite, his ambition, and the need he has, and we all have, to feel approval from someone who would use those needs he has to destroy him. To channel our efforts and energies behind Jesus to hunger first and foremost for righteousness, to make known the Kingdom of Heaven, and seek the words "well done good and faithful servant", and mutually encourage one another to do so, empowers us. I'd venture a guess that more than one person's good name has been destroyed when they've cut corners or ran over others in an attempt to satisfy their appetite, ambition, or fulfill that need to be validated as a success.

It's the difference between being led by faith, and being empowered by it, day by day, slowly, with greater authority as we leave a legacy of grace.

I think now in our day instead of calling it an appetite, we'd call what Jesus resisted as crass consumerism or materialism. The attempt on our part to principally find satisfaction and happiness through the physical or material. I think that's why on every extended mission experience I've had to place like Haiti, the folks who go with me - old or young - are generally humbled, and maybe a little bit shamed by the joy they see in others who have very, very little. How often in your life has "enough" just not been "enough" to the point of comedy, or even tragedy? "I did what I had to do" might carry us in justifying what we did to get what we needed or wanted but if the cost resulted in creating fear, anger, resentment, or derision on the part of those who were watching us closely, it won't take out the sting.

And worse yet, what if in getting what we want, we still aren't DIRECTLY satisfied? I'd guess there a lot of people out there carrying around regret over sacrificing their integrity and principles for stuff that in the end, still didn't make them happy.

To carry this forward, ambition too is a killer. Ambition that overwhelms us, consumes us. Ambition that leads to workaholism.... working past the point where your effort and energy expended in pursuit of "doing right by yourself and others" actually does right by others. Unrealized ambition that has made us bitter about how we've spent our lives. Ambition is a cruel master.

You know I was gone three weeks, and not long after I got back I was taking my oldest son, Max, to one of his many activities and events. He was asking about my trip, what the highlights were, and we got around to me talking about how the hardest part of being away so long was being away from Aimee, his brothers, and himself. 

"Yeah", he said, "I'll bet you didn't miss Eli and Toby (our two youngest) half as much as they missed you."

And I'm like, immediately, all over that.... what about you and Xavier? 

He assured me they missed me also, but when I talked to my wife about it she was just honest.... "Honey, for the first week they didn't even realize you were gone. You're gone a lot."

(Can somebody pull this knife out of my heart?)

Now I don't know about you, but I work long and hard and I justify the time I'm working (among other things) by doing what I do to feed my family. And yet, my family, all things being equal, would rather I was present and involved in their lives. Our drive to succeed and quest for power often bends our values.

Often too, just like satisfying our appetites with things that don't matter or last, too many people wake up one morning after years of devoted to their ambitions still unfulfilled, wondering what they traded all the time, energy and effort for the end.

Finally, I think the last temptation Jesus resists to feed the gossip mill, approval, is particularly interesting. Never at any time in history has it been as easier to collect fans than it is right now. People can become famous for being famous. It you are geek like me, you know that this how ultimately, Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. Each poor choice he makes to grow in power as a means of control, which he justifies as being necessary to protect his family, drives his family from him. I get the sense that more than one person in this world has had their name sullied because their ambition drove them to make choices that in the moment seemed wise, but in retrospect came at a dear, dear price.

Our need for approval, too, can erode how others feel about us, and the clout we have with others to be an effective witness and servant. Maybe at no other time in history are those with an outsized need for approval, for fans, been as easily fulfilled than right now. You can even be famous just for being famous. To attract and collect devoted fans for no other reason than you have other fans.

I watched an interview with one of those famous for being famous people not too long ago. At one time she was everywhere - TV, radio, billboards, websites, social media... you name it. The interview was done in the wake of multiple underperforming projects the celebrity had just launched years now after she had appeared on the scene and done all she could to stay in the public's eye. A TV show had been cancelled. An album hadn't sold. A product launched hadn't been bought. And the interviewer asked this celebrity a simple question, "With so many new celebrities like you coming onto the scene, do you worry that your time has passed?"

The celebrity began to cry, threw a tantrum, and ended the interview.

There is a part of us that is still the little child who begs mom and dad to watch him ride his bike or wants her art project to be put in the place of honor on the front of the refrigerator. I've watched unmet desire for approval destroy marriages, careers, financial portfolios, and generally drive a life spent making poor decisions in the quest for personal affirmation. It's a reason, I think, you see so much bizarre behavior in the world today. People will do just about anything for, and to keep, a fan.

I think that's maybe why we see so many celebrities who get famous ending up really messed up. Either the approval becomes suffocating and overwhelming, or it eventually dies down and is withdrawn altogether. Maybe the only thing worse than not getting approval, is getting it in spades and then have it withdrawn. In any event if we ever craved approval, particularly from someone who mattered a lot to us, and it wasn't received, it can hurt. Deeply.

Solomon in all of his wisdom knew when he wrote that verse in Proverbs that we are built to receive satisfaction, accomplishment, and assurance. These are needs deep within us that have to be fulfilled. But we can't let those needs warp the choices we make. To sell out something more important - summed up by Jesus as loving God and loving our neighbor - than our hunger, need to succeed, or receive applause just so we can feel a moment of temporary peace, will only lead to moments of temporary peace.

I think that's why for so many there's so much power just in the word, "Jesus". Somebody who stopped by my office not long ago talked about how in the aftermath of a family tragedy, in the depths of despair, all they could do was just repeat the word, "Jesus" over and over. Jesus, who was led by the spirit into the wilderness, but after resisting the temptation to give into his appetite, ambition, and need for approval, came out of that wilderness empowered by the spirit (v.14) to accomplish over the next three years, with each teaching, miracle, and in the example of his life, what he said he came to do:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoner
and recovery of sight from the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (v.18-19)

Jesus, who hungered for the Father and his kingdom, who lived so that the work of that Kingdom would be accomplished, and in the cacophony of voices sought only One from whom he needed approval, was single-minded enough fulfill that promise made. A promise that took staying within the discipline the empowering Spirit demanded from him, and us.

That's how he built his good name. That's why his name continues to live on, and carry weight of authority and power for people.

But here's the problem... it's one thing if the sum total of someone's life, all we know of it, sought to seek the fulfillment of appetite, ambition, and approval from the Lord, first and foremost. It's something totally different if your life has meandered from that purpose... maybe far away from that purpose. To a degree every single one of our names has been sullied... spoiled. We've failed by letting our appetites get the best of us, letting our ambitions - realized or not - get out of control, and our need for approval to drive us to do things that now we regret.

So, if that describes you, now what?

Well, as we prepare for communion this morning, I'd share one last thought on this matter that was shared with me by one of the leaders at a conference I recently attended. As he has been pondering all of this, he's started coming to realization that maybe, in all of his years of ministry, his own insatiable appetites, ambitions, and need for approval might have been drivers in his ministry, as opposed to the leading and calling of the Lord. And as he began to unpack the reality that maybe even the good things he was trying to do came out of a place that was less than Heaven directed, he began to be filled with guilt and shame.

And then, he remembered Jesus', hanging on the cross, uttering the words of the Psalmist:

"My God, my God. Why have you abandoned me?" 

Jesus, who lives rightly and out of the right motivations, experiences the sting of an appetite going unfilled. An ambition being extinguished. And probably most devastatingly, approval withheld.

And then this leader at this conference said these words I'll never forget....

"Knowing Jesus did everything right and still felt that terrible sting of rejection upon the cross, crucified the sting of those failures in my life."

Not that that man, that day, speaking to us, doesn't know or understand any longer the ways his sin has hurt others and sullied his name. It's just now he doesn't have to be trapped in an endless cycle of regret, beating himself up for what was done or done, said or not said. When Jesus rises from the dead, that sting on the cross is now healed. He doesn't have to wonder about God's attitude or opinion regarding his life. He is secure in those words, "This is my son with whom I am well pleased".

Jesus invites us into experience so that it should be with us.

Nothing you have has destroyed God's love for you, or altered the course of history for you or anyone else for that matter, that will deny that same divine love and acceptance from being available and encountered by others. Even if we are a little late to the game of realizing that the only legacy we have is how we've protected our good name, and that by walking with Jesus, doing what he did, loving who he loved, that name is made good, nothing we've done to this point needs to defeat you. In fact, it can be offered to Christ, who can use it for victory.

Just ask this broken man who found mercy in the words of a leader at a conference they both just attended.

And so, this day, I invite you, if there's something that's left a sting. A failure to properly satisfy your appetite, ambition, or need for approval to place it at the feet of Jesus, and let it go. Give it up. Let it drive you deeper into His arms and Kingdom, and away from your despair.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

"As My Grandmother Sleeps"

My grandmother is 86 years old.
86 years of books and letters.
86 years of experiences, good and bad.
86 years of being.

She sleeps a lot now.
It's part of the dementia.
Slowly she is drawing away.

When she awakes I like to sit with her.
I make jokes about commercials with elephants in them.
"You don't need medicine for an elephant. You need a zookeeper."
She laughs.

She asks me to explain what's on the news.
I make up crazy explanations.
"He's really a Martian. That's why Oprah wants to interview him."
She laughs.

Mostly we are quiet.

I give thanks for the time we've had together.
Time talking about politics.
Time talking about religion.
Time talking about our family.
Time listening to learn about my past.
Time spent over ice cream and instant ice tea.
Time spent timelessly.

Valuable time.
I did not know how valuable the time I had with her was.
Now.... I do.

If now were then, she'd listen.
She'd offer advice.
She'd ask questions and clarify.
She'd encourage and build up.
She'd tell me to do good and help people.
Through her God would heal.

But now is now.
Now is different.
Time is short.
I am here for her.
Because she "is" and we "are" I am here.

So I sit quietly and wait for my grandmother to awake.
Soon, we will sit together.
I'll will make her laugh.
Mostly we'll be quiet.
That is enough.

Through her God does heal and I give thanks.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Life Worth Imitating (21st Century Monks)

A Life Worth Imitating (21st Century Monks)

I just ended a three day sojourn with Cistercian monks at the Abbey of Gethsemane located near Bardstown, Kentucky (and also near the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, which was unfortunately closed the day I went for a visit). I hadn't been to the Abbey since my Beeson experience, and had always longed to go back. I had always remembered the place as being quiet and had enjoyed singing the Psalms with the monks. However, since there were a few loving-but-somewhat-closed-minded members of my Beeson Class freaked out about all the Catholic religious imagery (not to mention the veneration of Mary, an image of the "feminine divine" which always makes virtually all Protestants uncomfortable on some level), I wondered what it would be like to go by myself without others unpacking their theological baggage (because Heaven knows I have enough of my own).

Verdict: It was a good experience. 

There's something about the monks singing (or chanting in the Gregorian sense.... we didn't sit around going "ohm, ohm, ohm") those Psalms on a regular schedule that's calming. Reassuring. Maybe even hopeful. There's something about knowing those guys are singing Psalms each and everyday that's reassuring. It's a sign of "groundedness" in a world that's ever changing. A mark of God's never-ending devotion to us via the monks' devotion to the world on behalf of Christ. It was just good. 

My favorite service of the day is "Compline", the final service of the day. I told my wife that my impression of Compline is the monks are singing lullabies to one another, the world, and the Lord. In addition to the Psalms, the monks sing this prayer: 

Before the ending of the day
Creator of the world we pray
that with thy gracious favor thou
wouldst be our Guard and Keeper now

From fears and terrors of the night
defend us Lord by thy great might
and when we close our eyes in sleep
let hearts with Christ their vigil keep

O Father this we ask be done
through Jesus Christ thine only Son
who with the Paraclete and thee
now lives and reigns eternally

My last sermon before I left was all about imitation. Are you imitating the life of Christ and are you discipling someone else so their life might be imitating the life of the Christ? I was thinking about this as I worshipped the Lord with the monks. Monks are all about imitating one another as they seek to imitate Christ. This is their attempt to be just like the disciples: They are seeking to imitate His disciplined simple lifestyle, prayer life, dedication to the Father and world, life of reflection, and even the fellowship he experienced with others. 

I'm not saying that Jesus acted, dressed, and ate exactly as the monks do today. The lifestyle of the monk is Jesus' lifestyle re-imagined into a particular context and for a particular purpose. Jesus and disciples seek to unfold the Kingdom of Heaven into the world. The monks are in their own way and specific place, attempting to live out into that Kingdom. They readily admit that their particular lifestyle isn't the only concrete example everyone should follow. Theirs is a specific calling, just as we are called in some specific kind of way. But the object of their calling is the same as the calling of every other disciple of Jesus: Through faithfulness and devotion to the way of Jesus, create the opportunity for others to find the rest, grace and peace made real in the Kingdom of Heaven now and forever. The monks follow the example set for them for the sake of the Lord and their neighbor, hence the opportunity for anyone to come and retreat with the Lord and from the pressures of the world. So should it be with us and others everyday in our home, in our presence as the church.

It's really the question of what example I have been setting that I take with me on this journey, but it's the question of what example I want to set I need to bring back home. 

This is what really drove me into this current journey -  all that's comforting and everything else that vexing about how I'm imitating Christ - to a monastery (and beyond) for some unpacking and reflection. Because just like the abbot of those Trappist monks, I have a responsibility in some way, shape, or form set an example and create an environment where people can both imitate Christ ultimately for the sake of God and others. Somewhere along the way what this looks like for me personally in the specific context of where I live and work has gotten muddled and confused. 

So I suppose on some level I'm looking for some variation of the order the monks live out every day. And while it probably doesn't mean singing Psalms and praying prayers seven times a day (eight, really, if you also count their daily Mass), wearing a robe, and making a fudge, the idea that everything in our life should be designed to bring honor and glory to God by creating a place of hospitality for all restless souls makes a lot of sense. Or as my friend (and current host) Paul Rebelo puts it, "a life built on serving 'The Other'". A place created through holiness, helpfulness, prayer, grace, mercy, and a vision focused on imitating a life dedicated to the restoration and liberation of others in a Kingdom built on love and not force, should be the essence of every church, every home, and every heart that calls Jesus, "Lord". 

The world needs some 21st Century monks. What that order looks like is what I'm chasing.