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Open Wide Your Hearts

Last Monday marked the 34th anniversary of my ordination into Christian ministry. June 14, 1987 was a hot summer day in suburban Chicago. I drove to church early that Sunday morning and the bank sign informed me that it was 78 degrees at 7:30AM! The ordination service to ceremonially authorize Garrett and me for ministry was in the afternoon. We wore our robes in a sanctuary that was not air conditioned. I sat upright for much of the ceremony, feeling the sweat literally drip down my back! My dad, a career U.C.C. minister, gave the charge to Garrett and me. He said that there was a fairy tale element to serving in Jesus’ name. Princesses have to kiss frogs without knowing that there’s a fair prince mysteriously inside that green body. Likewise, we disciples of Christ are called to embrace lots of toads trusting that their inner beauty can shine forth.

Denominational leaders laid hands on us. The congregation stood so that they, too, were linked to our two kneeling bodies through a web of prayerful touch. At the close of the service, I was able to put my newly-ordained status into immediate practice by baptizing my two-month-old daughter, Lisa. Wearing a baptismal gown that her father and grandfather had both worn at their baptisms, we welcomed her into the family of Christ. All four of our parents and seven siblings were present to celebrate her place in our extended family. The Holy Spirit transformed the First Church of Lombard into holy ground for us. After being feted with cake and hot coffee at a reception, we headed home to our duplex where fourteen of us sat around a ping pong table in an unfinished basement, eating steamy lasagna and garlic bread. Like the Pentecost fire, the Holy Spirit blessed our gathering!

Just as a couple standing starry-eyed at the altar, it’s impossible to know where our vows will take us. Pastor Paul, knocked off his horse while persecuting members of the early church, could have not known where Christ would lead him as the church-planter-extraordinaire! In 2 Corinthians 6, we read a portion of a letter Paul wrote to one of his beloved congregations that gave him much angst! In this thick theological correspondence, Paul is blunt and vulnerable. The theme of the letter is reconciliation with a divided, distracted community. We know that this letter follows another that was lost. He references that letter in 2:4: “For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” Scholars refer to the lost document as the “severe letter” or “letter of tears.” In this follow-up letter, Paul attempts to guide this fledgling Christian community into a spirit of genuine Christian service rather than heated disagreement. He wants them to understand that faithful living is not the absence of hardship. Rather than running from hot debates, Paul exhorts them to know God’s grace within that hardship. This is a lesson every generation of believers has struggled to embrace.

On the eighth anniversary of my ordination, I found myself at a camp situated in the Mayan jungle. I led a youth group on a mission trip to Belize where we were immersed in a new culture while facing the challenges of living together as a community. My experience with week-long mission trips is that the initial excitement wears off after three or four days of hard work and minimal sleep. Add extreme tropical heat and humidity to the mix and “my kids” were not at all happy with each other that Wednesday night. Facing off with angry words in the community room, my heart was heavy as I tried to move them from frustrated animosity to unified service. Through tears I told them how sad I was that they succumbed to divisive tension when they had worked so hard for this tremendous Christian adventure in beautiful Belize. I hugged each one of the angry teenagers and left the room. As I wandered the darkened campus, illumined by moonlight and amplified with insect sounds, I realized that I was honoring my ordination vows in that moment. By the end of the week the group had forgiven each other their irritating behaviors and grieved the conclusion of our mission trip. Perhaps my tearful message helped to reshape the way we related to each other. Perhaps we understood anew that true Christian community is not forged out of an absence of hardship but through God’s grace while living those trials. Whether in the jungles of Belize, the crush of school hallways, or the tension of crowded offices, we can expect heated moments when only our faith will enable us to emerge as friends.

Peter Hawkins (Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 3, p. 159), a commentator on this text, writes this about Paul: “In essence, he is writing his own letter of recommendation to a church he planted, loves, and feels betrayed by.” Two other leaders in the Corinthian congregation became inflated by their elevated positions and turned the members against Paul. Not being physically present to them, Paul had to defend himself in this letter so that the congregants wouldn’t be led astray by Cephas and Apollos. He worried that these two men were dividing the church family while advancing their own status. Paul reminds them of the call to be servants on behalf of Jesus and subservient to each other’s needs. He points to himself as a good example for discipleship. He doesn’t do this to receive kudos. He fervently tries to convict them of Christ-like behavior. He names the many ways he suffered to point them toward their baptismal calling: be willing to die to self for the sake of others. Paul is at his most vulnerable in this letter as he voices his deep love for them.

Three years ago Garrett and I spent our ordination anniversary touring my favorite place in Paris, Sacred Heart Basilica. I spent a semester in France while in college but was too poor to take tours of significant places. So I was happy to learn much about this beloved church and the surrounding area 39 years later. I didn’t realize that the Church of St. Peter, a much earlier structure, sits right next to the grand basilica that dwarfs it.

As we toured through that tenth century church, our guide told us that St. Peter’s had been built on the site of a Roman temple to the god, Mars. Later it became a sacred spot for Druid worship. Many ancient church buildings are built atop the ruins of pagan altars in a sort of archaeological game of “King of the Mountain.” Conquering groups feel superior when they are able to move into the space of the vanquished and use it for their own purposes. But remnants of the past remind us that we take our cues from previous believers, whether by imitation or differentiation. Two immense Roman columns that date back nearly 2000 years stand in the nave of the Church of St. Peter. I touched one of them, thinking of believers who worshiped in a sanctuary whose structural support relied on these massive posts. Human-made structures have a lifespan. Every now and then, they survive for generations, serving as reminders of our transiency, like those pillars erected to bring praise to a Roman god. On our roots tour to Europe, I was humbled to learn of the sacrifice of my Christian forebears so that I could stand firm today as an ordained Christian pastor in a congregation that dates back to 1847. Like our forebears, the congregation and I honor our commitment to this community as the very first Christian congregation who gathered to worship. Some of you sit in the same sacred space where your grandparents and great grandparents worshiped. Each generation faces trials but must learn to persevere by God’s grace. Their suffering teaches us what it means to carry the torch of faith in our time.

Paul’s leadership was hotly contested. He was unafraid to name sin because his allegiance was to God and not to any human conventions. Often pastoral leadership shifts away from bold proclamation in a futile effort to keep everyone happy. Paul didn’t concern himself with that. (He might have benefitted from a Pastor/Parish Support Committee in Corinth!) On occasion, I’ve had to stick up for this bold apostle when folks in our bible studies tell me that they’re not a fan! What we witness in this letter is that Paul loves each congregation deeply and suffers repeatedly for the sake of the Gospel. Our existence as a Christian congregation owes Paul and other ancient messengers of the faith a debt of gratitude for their courageous witness that went against the grain of their time.

Last year I marked my ordination anniversary by welcoming a class of confirmation students into church membership. We were in the thick of the quarantine so we had to get creative about how to hold our final class session. Each student brought a beach towel and sat apart from one another on the side yard of the church building. They worked on their statements of faith as a final expression of their desire to be confirmed into the Church.  Most had no recollection of their baptism. Their parents took vows to raise them in the faith and now it was their turn to make a commitment to follow Jesus. At an outdoor service in our parking lot that was limited only to immediate family, twelve young people, wearing masks, read their statements of faith. Family members laid hands on them as we prayed over their commitment. No hugs. Cupcakes individually packaged from a bakery. A group picture of 12 kids standing at a distance from each other. Different form for a confirmation ceremony but as rich as ever. Those of us who have traveled a few miles as Christians know, like the Apostle Paul, that it is not an easy journey. Our faith does not insulate us from problems. But we also learn that Christ walks with us every step of our journey, giving us a holy perspective on suffering. Paul, almost as an aside, tells this beloved congregation that he is speaking to them as he would to his own children. Hawkins writes of this passage, “Nothing else in the rest of his correspondence approaches this level of self-disclosure.”

Paul urges these church members to follow his example. “Open wide your hearts,” he begs of them. In other words, accept the grace of God. Don’t waste your life complaining about inevitable hardships. Accept your brokenness and invite Christ to transform it into areas for powerful ministry. Earlier in this letter he used the image of fragile pottery: “We have this treasure in clay jars.” Unable to carry the burdens of this life on our own, we entrust ourselves to God. We are baptized, confirmed, and ordained into Christian service so that the light of Christ will shine through the cracks of our fragile lives to inspire others. Paul tells this divided, distracted congregation that the time is NOW! The Greek word used is KAIROS: God’s favorable time. Now is the opportune moment to open wide our hearts to the presence of Christ who accompanies us on our pilgrimage. Each moment we live confronts us with certain demands and opportunities. The best we can do is to point beyond ourselves to the only One who keeps us upright. In the powerful name of Jesus, Paul gives himself away to this congregation. He pours himself out for the many individuals who met Christ through his sacrificial evangelism.

Having celebrated the privilege of 34 years of ordained ministry last week, I give God thanks for the courageous testimony of Paul. I am thankful for ancestors who handed the torch of faith to me so that I was led to this particularly rewarding vocation. I am so grateful for the congregations that have embraced my family and me, for churches that have opened wide their hearts so that Jesus is powerfully experienced among us!

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The Other Boy

I recently met in a small group and the story of the tension between Sarah and Hagar was used for opening devotions. It’s an odd story to use if you’re looking for light-hearted optimism to kick off a meeting! But it prompted much conversation. The story speaks to us on a number of levels. Abraham is ordered by his wife, Sarah, to expel Hagar (Sarah’s servant) and Ishmael (Hagar’s son) from the family compound. Never mind that Sarah was the one who suggested that her elderly husband try to make a baby with her maid, Hagar  Abe and Sarah’s efforts at procreation (both older than 80!) weren’t very successful so desperate measures were taken. It worked! Old Abraham sired a child with Hagar with the blessing of his wife. Well, sort of. Legally the boy belongs to Sarah since Hagar is her servant. The boy also belongs to Abraham since he is the baby daddy. Though Sarah hopes that this little boy will feel like her own, it is always apparent that Hagar is the mother. When God’s promise to Sarah is finally fulfilled and she holds her own flesh-and-blood child, she wants the other mother/son pair out! Heartbroken, Abraham obeys. Hagar and Ishmael are exiled to the wilderness, refugees from family, home, culture and nation. They must leave everything that is familiar to them behind.

In discussing the story our group shared the ways they related to this refugee duo. One man in his early 40’s had lost his wife to cancer a couple of years before. His grief was still overwhelming. Her absence in his daily routine echoed into his social life. Everywhere he went, he felt like a foreigner. He struggled with a sense of betrayal by God. Why should he lose his beautiful wife to cancer when she wasn’t yet 40? Why would God leave him to raise three small children on his own?

Another group member was preparing to move to a small town in Georgia. It was more her husband’s vision for their retired life than hers. So they were packing up all that was familiar: household goods, friendships, and a sense of belonging. They would be living near family but these relatives viewed the group member’s spirituality with suspicion. She wondered if she and her husband would find a church that nourished their spirits in their new hometown. Anticipating the move, she already felt like a refugee amidst family in Georgia.

One other group member had experienced an injury since we last met. His days revolved around pain management administered out of the  palliative care unit of the hospital. A retired doctor, he spoke of the discomfort of being cared for by others after a career as a caretaker. His senses were dulled from pain meds and there was no promise of returning to his routine. He voiced that he felt like a refugee from his former life, a life that gave him the freedom he enjoyed. Continual pain made him a refugee from his own body. He was struggling to adjust to this new life.

The story of poor Hagar and Ishmael struck a chord with our group in surprising ways!

In Genesis 21 we read that the child promised to elderly Abraham and Sarah finally arrives. We witness in this miraculous birth just how powerful God’s promises are! A newborn is delivered to a couple who, according to St. Paul generations later, are “as good as dead.” But there is not the sort of celebration they might have expected. The birth announcement is sandwiched between narratives of tension between members of the family compound. Biblical scholar, Walter Brueggeman, notes that the proclamation of Isaac’s birth is “peculiarly understated.” There is no prolonged jumping for joy. Abraham doesn’t distribute cigars to the towns’ elders. It would be easy to miss this first page in Isaac’s baby book even though God shows up in creative force in the form of a baby boy. Years of anguished waiting evaporate but the story moves forward quickly to ugly jealousy that leads to eviction.

Sometimes the choices we make in the present rob us of joy when good things arrive at our door later. I look at the birth of a little girl this past week. A tiny princess was born to an British Prince who resides now in California. A sort of refugee from his own family or, at least, from their royal way of life, Harry and Meghan announced to the world the joy of Lilibet Diana gracing their family. The international buzz over this wee child cannot melt the tensions that keep Harry an ocean apart from his own kin. Personal and communal sin can make us refugees from our dream of having a happy family life.

We are given a glimpse into the awe that accompanied the miracle birth of Isaac in just two verses (verses 6 and 7). The 90-year-old new mom cries out, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me. Who would ever have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” The joy bursts forth from those brief words but is short-lived. The text fast-forwards several years to the time of the boy being weaned from his mother. Sarah sees her little boy playing sweetly with his half brother and jealousy wells up within her. Two heirs to her husband’s good name and the other boy is the elder. Ishmael is deserving of the larger portion of her husband’s estate. So the laughter and community feasting dissipate as a distant memory as the older boy and his mother are sent off without a moment’s notice. They quickly run out of food and water and Hagar fears that her young son will die in the desert. Everyone but Sarah values Ishmael who, in fact, is never called by name in this story. We do harm more easily to someone we refuse to name. The young boy, through no fault or power of his own, is cast aside by a heart-broken father who is instructed to do what his envious wife asks of him.

In a previous parish one family had five children. The third child was adopted. He looked different from his four siblings. But what underscored his “otherness” was the fact that his mother would refer to him in conversation by saying, “He’s our adopted son.” She loved him but always set him apart in her own mind and heart. His sense of belonging was continually compromised by a mom who saw him as being different from her biological children. He thrashed his way into adulthood, struggling greatly to claim a healthy sense of identity. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that he was the one who lived with his elderly mother in the last years of her life. He was a faithful son who tended to her physical and emotional needs. The earlier lines of genetic demarcation disappeared with each meal he served and load of laundry he folded. As his elderly mother expressed her utter reliance upon him, he was finally able to leave his refugee status behind.

As Christians, we trace our lineage back to the promised son, Isaac. We share that family history with our Jewish brothers and sisters. But remember that God promised Abraham that the exiled boy would be cared for and made into a great nation. Muslims trace their spiritual roots back to Ishmael. We have witnessed how the division between these two sons of Abraham has festered over thousands of years into a bitter hatred. A recent round of peace talks has brought a brief respite from the bombings between Israel and Gaza. Several of us journeyed to the Holy Land in 2017 and are thankful we were able to go when we did. Even then, we felt uncomfortable seeing police holding machine guns at check points that were heavily guarded. They exchanged easy conversation with one another near a gate into the old city of Jerusalem. At first glance they looked at ease. But their fingers were always on triggers and their eyes were always vigilant. The sons of Abraham are still refugees from the peace they both crave because of ancient jealousy and a possessiveness of God’s promised favor.

Our southern border is overrun with refugees seeking asylum from poverty and danger. In recent months tens of thousands of unaccompanied children have crossed from Mexico into the United States. They were sent by desperate parents who would rather be separated from their own offspring than risk losing them to violence in their home countries. We are a nation built on the hard work of refugees but we anguish over how many we can successfully assimilate into our country? Like Ishmael, these children cry out for mercy.

My small group members experienced refugee status in unexpected ways. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in our social groups because of a changed status: divorce, lost job, or a wayward child. A younger generation is learning that BFFs on social media may not amount to much when looking for in-person support. Poverty can isolate one family from another. But then they are blessed with a new sense of belonging when invited to move into their own Habitat house that hundreds of volunteers have built with them. Their nomadic life is exchanged for a home.

In this story of two brothers, God provides water for the outsider. God does for the refugee pair what Abraham cannot do. God brings life out of a hopeless situation and invites us to do the same for others who are excluded. When sin separates us from our dreams, God gives us a future. When our efforts to push through a plan fail, God picks up the broken pieces and fills us with awe. When we relinquish our fierce grip on each day, God blesses us with joy and we live with with renewed wonder.

The Psalmist gives a beautiful insight into the joy that is available to us when our sense of alienation is replaced by God’s generosity. When the Israelites are restored to their own land after a time of wilderness living, they express a joy that flows forth like rainwater gushing through a dry riverbed.

From Psalm 126:

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of[a] Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.[b]
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”

God’s promises replace our refugee status with a deep and abiding joy. Hallelujah!

(Sculpture of Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael is by George Segal, 1987)

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Which God?

On Mother’s Day we had the joy of welcoming a little girl into the life of our congregation through the sacrament of baptism! It seemed a particularly fitting day for this young family to entrust their child into the care of the Church. On the second Sunday in May we pause to honor the gifts of mothers. Their gifts have been more brightly illumined in the past 15 months in this age we call COVID! Moms have learned to homeschool their children while keeping up with their paying jobs. They’ve cooked countless meals in quarantine and reminded their children repeatedly of the tasks that come with independent learning. The house has been in a constant state of invasion with very few residents interested in keeping it clean! So this little girl, baptized into the faith and family of Jesus Christ, reminded us of why we moms happily set about the many tasks that come with parenting our children! We serve simply because we love them!

This tiny girl, wearing a beautiful white dress, was at a very sweet age. The sleep deprivation of the earliest months had passed and she hadn’t yet started to say, “No!” She knew that her parents are in charge and already learned that she needs to follow their lead. She trusts them completely and rests well in the safety of the home they have fashioned for her. In some ways, these toddler years are easier than when children begin their journey into adulthood and try out their wings. What is both exhilarating and terrifying as parents is the age that our children begin to drive, go to college and define themselves apart from us. When we are no longer the enforcers of helpful rules, who will be? What authority will they recognize and obey?

In John’s first letter that he wrote to fellow believers, he challenged them to name the God they chose to obey. To choose a god is to be ready to obey that god. So which one is it? Whose rules are you ready to follow? What or who will be the driving force behind all your choices? Obedience describes the nature of our faith. It is a gift because who we choose to serve narrows our options. But obedience to any outside force also becomes our greatest struggle. By age two we’ve learned to stick our chin out and answer, “No” to our parents. Keep that image in mind when you consider how willing you are to accept the sovereignty of anyone or anything over your life! We are a stubborn people and we cry out from an early age, “Me do it!” Fortunately for us, when we choose to follow the intrusive God, who interrupts our labors, we discover that we are loved. That love makes it much easier to obey!

To choose a god is to be ready to worship that deity. John used repetitious language to remind us that God the Father and Jesus the Son are one. Tom Wright gives his own translation of these verses: “Everyone who believes that the Messiah is Jesus has been fathered by God. Everyone who loves the parent loves the child as well.” So what do we learn about God when we look at the Son? Most notably that God is willing to sacrifice on our behalf. Like any loving parent, we would give up our life to save that of our child without a second thought. We hear in these words that God loves us unconditionally, not because we’ve completed a particular list of holy tasks. Most other gods punish disobedient subjects who can never measure up to their standards. The gods of many religions exercise their power by vanquishing their enemies. We worship the God of Jesus Christ because our God’s show-of-force is by dying for the sake of all others. This is the God we choose to worship.

John went on to say that anyone who has the Son has life. He laid a foundation for the earliest believers to claim that their lives hinged on their faith in Jesus as the Son of God. This is the new life into which the little girl was baptized on Mother’s Day. Maybe we need to look at our own experiences of faith to understand what that means. Remember when someone exclaimed to you, as you awaited the birth of your first child, “Kids will change your life!” We nodded knowingly. After all, we’d read lots of books that prepared us for baby. We had a custom-designed nursery filled with diapers, pacifiers, and toys. We’d watched other parents raise their kids and had carefully critiqued their flaws, knowing we would do better. We knew, without a doubt, that we were ready for this child! And then they were born. After just a few months of parenting, we found ourselves saying to other expectant couples, “Kids will change your life!” Depending on the day, we stated it with a glowing smile or a sigh of exhaustion! What does that new life look like when we have taken a child under our wing and into our home? Can we truly describe that?

In 1966, in response to the Civil Rights Movement, Peter Scholtes wrote the words to the familiar hymn, “We are one in the Spirit.” It took him a matter of hours to put the lyrics to music because the God he worshiped inspired him. Do you remember the words to that song? “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord…and we pray that all unity will one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love…” This composer lived in the world that the Apostle John described. In the first three verses of the fifth chapter, John dropped the word “love” five times! Love enables us to obey God. Love for God will catapult us into the world to be of holy service to those around us. What does this new life look like that comes from our baptism? We have a deep understanding that we are loved. We work alongside of our neighbors to better our communities. We worship the God we choose to obey.

John went on to say that everything that comes from God conquers the world. I don’t typically look at my day in terms of what I have conquered! I remember feeling like I had conquered the laundry as a working mother of four children when the pile changed from “dirty” to “clean.” When I’m able to throw away the post-it notes that are stuck all over my desk top because I’ve completed the tasks, I feel as if I’ve conquered my to-do list. But what does it mean that the God I choose to worship has conquered all of creation? In John’s Gospel (16:33) Jesus used this same language with His anxious disciples: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But cheer up! I have conquered the world!” How do we work alongside of Christ to conquer the world? Do we do it for ourselves or for others? John urged us to look at the world in which we live with the eyes of an outsider. What fits well under the umbrella of God’s love? What choices can we make that either reflect this powerful, loving God or eclipse our view? What language do we use when talking with others? Is it sacred or filled with profanity? What do we feel in our heart toward the driver who just cut in front of us to shave a few seconds off their commute? What words do we have for a neighbor who lets their dog dig up our flowers and whose kids jump dangerously on our trampoline? What does it look like to conquer the world just as the One we choose to worship has done for us?

John wrote this letter in an effort to bring his straying congregation safely back into the fold of faith. He challenged them to recognize the contradictions in their way of life that claimed obedience to the God of Jesus Christ but, in fact, made gods of money, power, prestige, or (even more innocently) family? The gauge by which we measure our discipleship is how we love others. Do we treat folks like family even when conflict arises? Or do we shake the dust off our feet and close ourselves off from them for good? By what actions would outsiders know that you are a Christian—yesterday, last month, or last year? How have we been compassionate toward complete strangers during this pandemic that has tested and tried all of us?

John asks this congregation to decide which God they choose to worship and obey. Those who are welcomed into the Christian faith through the waters of baptism are assured that love is their birthright. Through the sacrificial blood of Jesus, we are made one. We are “blood relatives.” By the work of the Holy Spirit we are unified and empowered for service. This God invites us to choose whom we will worship. This God asks us if we are willing to be obedient to a new way of life. This God of Jesus Christ has conquered the temptations of the world for us and reaches out in boundless love to claim us as family! Hallelujah!

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Night Talks

My sons are just thirteen months apart in age. They developed their own language when they were toddlers, saying things to each other that we couldn’t understand. After exchanging words that were unintelligible to the rest of us, they would head off together in some sort of joint venture. When they left crib life behind, we tucked them in each night in bunk beds, one boy stacked on top of the other. I always tried to keep my children on a good sleep schedule. So, when I heard them talking in the dark, half an hour after saying bedtime prayers, my instinct was to suggest they pipe down and go to sleep. But then I would hear their conversation. They processed the day, they giggled over funny moments, and they asked questions that the other was willing to answer. Many times, even though there was no answer to a question, they knew that they were heard. One brother cared enough to reflect on life with the other even if they couldn’t make sense of every experience. This loving dialogue allowed them to fall into a deep sleep.

The philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, described Nicodemus as an admirer of Jesus but not a follower. He came to Jesus in the night, drawn to what he saw in Jesus but not ready to publicly own Him. Emmanuel Lartey states, “Like Nicodemus, we discover some of our most profound understandings about life come from conversations and consultations with people we talk to ‘at night,’ people we are often afraid to be seen associating with.”

Nicodemus is a work in progress in John’s gospel. He moves from intrigue to belief. In this introduction to him, Nicodemus seeks Jesus out but only under the cover of darkness. In chapter seven we meet him again and he defends Jesus in the midst of his angry Pharisee colleagues. They deride him for his willingness to see Jesus in a positive light when they only see Him as a threat. Finally, we meet Nicodemus in John 19 after Jesus’ death. The man who initially was not willing to meet Jesus in the light of day anoint Jesus’ dead body with expensive spices. He and Joseph of Arimathea give a proper burial for the man they love. Like us, Nicodemus is a work in progress, moving from admiration to worship.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the night looking for enlightenment but finding only confusion. Notice where he starts the conversation: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God…” This learned Pharisee is giving a lecture to Jesus about who He is! But it sounds like Nicodemus is trying to convince himself of Jesus’ identity. He begins his speech with assuredness. As a scholar he is accustomed to being the one who teaches students. He is the intellectual who studies his world and defines it for others.  But his teaching moment goes downhill from there. He thinks he knew Jesus well enough to lecture about Him. But, when faced with the very man he so admired, he learns that there is much he can’t comprehend.

I wonder if you have ever been certain that you knew someone well only to discover that you never really knew them? You missed telling revelations because you were sure you knew all there was to know about them. Many in our world today are put off by Christians because they come across as know-it-alls. These believers are ready to lecture about truths they have pinned down. In their self-righteousness, they miss the remarkable revelations others bring to the conversation because they aren’t open to a re-ordering of their carefully constructed world!

Nicodemus, the scholar, begins with a proclamation about who Jesus is and ends with a repeated refrain of, “How can this be?”

What did you once understand thoroughly only to humbly discover that you grasped the subject matter very little? In matters of faith, the closer God draws near, the more we realize that we cannot know this God fully. The instant we are sure we can predict the movement of the Holy, the wind shifts and we recognize that the power of our God cannot be contained. In our arrogance, we are humbled.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Last week I was outside with my grandson. He was racing along the sidewalk, trying out his running skills. At a rare moment when he was still, the wind gusted and a thousand rosy helicopter seeds blew toward us from a nearby maple tree. We were mesmerized as they floated past and tried to anchor themselves in a manicured lawn. The breeze moved on and our world was once again still. God’s creation seeks to bring growth, to perpetuate the species, to put down roots so that life can break forth from unlikely places. If we devoted all our energies to stopping the shedding of seeds from plants and trees right now, we could not. If we put all our efforts into preventing locusts from showing up every seventeen years to do their brief dance out in the open before leaving their eggs deep in the ground, we could not.

The Spirit of God moves over the face of the earth, sending seeds of growth that challenge our self-assuredness.

John Calvin thought that Jesus wasted His precious time on proud Nicodemus. But Jesus understood that there are lots of us who begin as secret admirers. In the dark of night, we dare to ask our questions, hoping that we will be heard. Jesus’ willingness to challenge this scholar gave Nicodemus the opportunity to recognize how much he had narrowed his world. Nicodemus understood that Jesus loved him enough to engage with him. Jesus trusted that this confident Pharisee could see the world newly through Jesus’ eyes. When we meet him again in John 7, Nicodemus is no longer in the dark about Jesus. He takes a stand before his judgmental colleagues, losing professional credibility because of his willingness to see the divine in controversial Jesus. You see, Nicodemus was indeed born again through that night talk with Jesus. The encounter gives him the humility to allow the Spirit of God to take the lead and teach him new truths. Nicodemus learns that the life of faith is built upon a continual movement of self-surrender. Lartey states, “Rebirth is a spiritual experience available to all, but perhaps most needed by religious people who might think they do not need it.”

Does that challenge you like it challenges me?

On Trinity Sunday we remember that the nature of God is to be in community. God sent Jesus to give us a greater understanding of who God is. Like those helicopter seeds that optimistically float to the ground, hoping to put down roots, the Spirit blows in each of our lives. We are reminded of a glorious truth: God blows across the face of this earth seeking relationships with all of humanity. God searches you, me, our children, our crabby neighbor, a dying atheist who is finally willing to look for the Divine in the sunset of his life. This is one of only two places in John’s gospel where Jesus speaks of the kingdom. His message is not that God’s Realm is limited to the great beyond, experienced as eternal bliss beyond this physical space that we call home. The Realm of God is here and it’s now! It is found in the quality of life we shape for ourselves and others today, tomorrow and next week. Nicodemus embraced this lesson because we find him for the third time in the nineteenth chapter of John’s gospel, taking a very public stand before the religious authorities. They are so threatened by Jesus that they orchestrate His crucifixion. Nicodemus, alongside of Joseph of Arimathea, tenderly carries the broken body of Jesus (who died a criminal’s death) and anoints Him with spices to welcome Him into the next life. To say that Nicodemus’ caring for Jesus’ body is controversial is a gross understatement. He understands that God’s realm is lived out here and now with each word, thought and decision that we make, both privately and publicly. In the end, Nicodemus worships Jesus.

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This past week was Trinity Sunday. The point is not to understand the Trinitarian God. We are called to love God. We are invited to watch for the movement of the Spirit by the seeds that drift before us and settle in our lives, trying to take root. Nicodemus would tell us, “Don’t hold back from God! Never stop asking your questions because God is listening and will hold you in your times of need!”

It is in the dark of night that we wrestle with our deepest questions. Captives, held against their will, whisper questions about their future for which there are no immediate answers. In the asking, they are comforted to sense that God is with them. Lovers at night pledge their devotion to each other, choosing to commit to one another for a lifetime of faithfulness. They know that they can be true to those promises only if they invite God to guide. A father holds his fearful child, assuring her with the words she somehow believes: “It’s Ok.” She falls into a deep slumber because she knows she is safe. My boys’ questions, uttered from stacked bunkbeds in a darkened room, may not all have been answered but they, nonetheless, drifted off to sleep contented that they weren’t alone in their journey. As children of the Tri-une God, we understand that we are created for community. The past fifteen months have been a painful lesson in how much we need to be in each other’s presence, hugging, listening closely, and looking each other in the eyes. Even when we can’t answer each other’s questions; even though we get it wrong at first, what matters is that we are heard and held and loved. What matters is how we hear and hold and love.

Will Willimon reminds us of how much God loves us: “Salvation, our healing and restoration by God, through God’s son, is not our achievement. It is God’s gift. The requirement is not that we know, but that we are willing to be known. God so loved the world that God gave the Son.” Amen!

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Revival

Little Kennedy Buettner, a four-year-old, went to a pool party and ended up at the bottom of the pool, in spite of the fact that there were more than 40 people in the pool at the time. A team of 9- and 10-year old boys managed to pull him off the bottom of the pool but he was non-responsive. He had been in the water long enough that his prognosis was poor. His parents, who rushed to the Children’s Hospital in Birmingham, Alabama to be at his bedside, were told that he would likely have severe brain damage, if, in fact, he survived. Kennedy’s family and church began to pray. Amazingly, he not only lived, he began to show some signs of improvement. Two days after the near-drowning, he began fighting with the tube down his throat. Then he began squeezing their hands on command and prompted tears of joy when he gave them a thumbs-up! His mother felt prompted to read a portion of Psalm 18 during that precarious time of waiting:  “God reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”

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     Exactly one week after the accident, Kennedy was released from the Hospital. While this was a miracle in and of itself, his mother learned more as she talked with him in the weeks afterwards. She asked him, “You were asleep for a long time, I have been missing you. What did you do?” He answered, “An angel picked me up and we flew. We flew through walls, clouds, and I flew through you, Mommy.” She asked him what the angel looked like, and he told her the angel had long white clothes. Kennedy told her they flew to heaven and that there was a door with jewels all around it and “when they opened that door, it was snowing in there.” His mother was careful not to put words in his mouth. He told her that he had seen his recently deceased uncle in heaven, and that he looked “just like Jesus, and all his boo-boos were gone.” He told his mother that Mark was happy and that he wanted to stay in heaven. Kennedy told her further that Jesus held him and that there were a lot of angels. She asked him continually if he was ever afraid. He said, “No, I was with Jesus and Uncle Mark, and I was standing on glass; I was invisible.” When asked how he got back he told her that Uncle Mark gave him a push and an angel flew him back. His mother asked Kennedy if he would like to go back to heaven again, and he said, “Yes, but Jesus is coming here.”

     Two weeks before, Kennedy was a little boy who would have gotten upset if you discussed death and going to heaven with him. Now he was a boy who told of seeing Jesus and being in heaven with excitement and joy. The effect of his words is to have emboldened his family to shout aloud the good news of what God did for their little boy and the assurance they now have confirmed of what awaits us when we leave this world.

     The apostle John shared a story of similar conviction in his first letter. He affirmed what he and the others had witnessed personally: that Jesus had died and resurrected and promised them an eternal life with Him in a place free of sorrows and pain. Those who saw Jesus alive after his crucifixion courageously spoke of His resurrection and risked their lives to proclaim to a doubting world that He was the long-awaited Messiah.

     We struggle to keep the good news of the resurrection central to who we are. Easter is in our rearview mirror before we’ve finished our Cadbury egg and laundered our fine Easter outfits! So we have to continue to look for the ways that Christ appears among us and assures us that His claims are true. It is our responsibility as the Church to share that news, no matter the risk, no matter the doubt, so that others can find their way to Him.

     The beloved preacher Fred Craddock tells the story of his unbelieving father:

“My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being late when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, ‘I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me. Church wants another name, another pledge, right?’ Sometimes we’d have a revival. Pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, ‘There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him,’ and my father would say the same thing. Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt. And always my father said, ‘The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge.’ I guess I heard it a thousand times.

One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to seventy-three pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and said, ‘It’s too late.’ They put in a metal tube, and X rays burned him to pieces. I flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat. I looked around the room, potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed. And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat, on that was a flower. And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church. He saw me read a card. He could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare. If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: ’In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story.’ I said, ‘What is your story, Daddy?’ And he wrote, ‘I was wrong.’”

     Just as John had to tell the news of the resurrected Jesus to a doubting world, we are called to live and speak in such a way that people meet Jesus in us. They find hope in our cards, kindness in our words, self-sacrifice in our deeds. And this isn’t just for the people we know and like. It’s for those God places before us who carry a grudge, whose nose is out of joint, who have a chip on their shoulder and only angry words for God. Particularly for these people we carry the message of the resurrected Christ.

     After my mother died of cancer at age 66 my dad said, “If someone had asked me a year ago whether I would want to die suddenly or in a long drawn-out process like cancer, I would have said a sudden death, without hesitation. But, now I think I would choose the other. I would not trade the last nine months your mother and I had together for anything. In dealing with life and death issues we were closer than ever before.” When cancer comes calling, we draw on our resurrection hope. When death takes someone home, especially at an age we deem as being young, we cling to the promises that Jesus is waiting (and other loved ones as well) to carry them into an eternal life that knows no suffering or loss. The news of the resurrection must be on our lips for all people, all of the time.

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Repairer of the Breach

She was a walk-in and we haven’t had many of those this year. Our building has been in varied stages of lockdown, like the rest of our world. So there haven’t been many folks who have rung our church doorbell, asking for help. But, on a cold February morning, Jennifer did.

She was a thin young woman who appeared very tired. She smiled—I could tell just from her eyes since we were both dutifully masked. She wondered if we ever help people with expenses so I invited her to follow me upstairs to the Fellowship Hall where we could sit at a distance from each other and talk privately.

Once settled into hard plastic chairs with a safe distance of two tables between us, I asked her what was going on in her life. She needed assistance with room rent. She had landed at the Colonial Motel the night before. This is a local motel that serves as short-term housing for those without shelter. There are rough stories of broken lives in those rented rooms. Jennifer’s limited budget had gone awry with an unexpected car repair and whoever had housed her most recently had suggested it was time for her to move on. I asked if she had anyone who would help her. I could see her eyes welling up with tears, a courageous smile under her mask. She quietly said, “I had a difficult home life.” I didn’t ask for details because I knew they wouldn’t change the obvious fact that Jennifer was fending for herself.

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I asked her if she had children. Our congregation works with Family Promise, a housing organization that ensures homeless families have a safe place to stay. She nodded and said she had three children. When I told her about Family Promise she shook her head and said that they weren’t with her. “Are they with their father,” I asked. She nodded, her eyes again filling with tears. Their ages? 11, 10 and 6. “Do you ever see them?” She shook her head. Her ex had bankrupted her through enough custody hearings to exhaust her meager funds. She hadn’t seen them in several years so she couldn’t be sheltered as a family. I gave her a couple of other suggestions of places that might offer her long-term support. She said she needed enough money for one more night at the Colonial because after that her dad would receive a check. He would help her out. “Is your dad good to you?” I asked. She smiled and nodded.

I excused myself to go downstairs to my office to get the check book for our Discretionary Fund. Overseeing this ministry of financial mercy allows me to meet people like Jennifer. Rather than simply handing her a check, I wanted to sit with her and listen. She needed the tangible experience of Christ’s unconditional love. I seldom write out checks to individuals. Rather I pay their bills through utility companies, landlords, pharmacies, or car repair shops. But I knew her needs were greater than just one night at a hotel. So I made an exception. I wrote out a check to her. I told her I was glad to meet her and prayed that she would find a place to stay on a more permanent basis. We both stood up and she offered her tired smile again. But then she surprised me: she asked if she could have a hug. Like most of you, I haven’t been doling out hugs this year, especially to strangers. But I made an exception. With our masked faces angled away from each other—the new COVID clasp—I offered her a hug and felt God in the embrace. Christ repaired the breach between our very different lives as we connected in the safety of the Fellowship Hall, long empty because of a pandemic. The woman who hasn’t been able to hold her babies for years asked for a hug. Nothing could have felt more right to me.

For the Lenten season this past winter, a couple of clergy colleagues and I wrestled to find a theme. One suggested that the only fitting thing for us to give up for Lent this year would be our burdens. The COVID virus has enshrouded our days for what seems to be an eternity. We’ve lived Lent for many months so sacrificing further from our lives seems redundant. What I invite our church members to do this year is to lay down their burdens at the feet of the One who sits with us, listens to us, and rescues us more times than we know.

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The prophet Isaiah speaks on behalf of a God who is wearied by folks trying to earn brownie points for heaven. God turns from the spiritual show-offs who flash their good deeds before others like a woman in a fur stole pulling out a $100 bill to pay for a cup of coffee. God tells the shallow servants, “Don’t bother. This isn’t what impresses Me. I want you to open your home to the poor. Keep the peace in your family. Feed the hungry. Give a coat to those who are trying to survive the cold of winter without a home or a friend.” This is how we rebuild the ruins of lives eked out in the Colonial Motels of our society. This is how we restore the streets where people live. We have dim memories of how it felt to open our church building to homeless families not so long ago. We invited people into our space to lay down their burdens and we look forward to offering that hospitality again soon. This is how God is glorified.

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As restrictions mercifully loosen and we resurface in each others’ lives, start small as a repairer of the breach. Open the door and let Jesus in. Entrust your burdens to Jesus because He will carry them!

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Family Reunion

(A sermon I preached in Thetford, England in June of 2018 while on sabbatical. I was graciously invited to lead worship at the Cloverfield Church in Thetford, England. There was a sense of “homecoming” to that journey!)

Good morning! Thank you for welcoming me into your worship service today. It is a privilege to step into any pulpit and I deeply appreciate the trust Rev. Helen has shown by inviting me to offer a message to you today. I am from Michigan where I have pastored a congregation for 22 years. I’m ordained in the United Church of Christ, a sister denomination to your reformed roots. I am on sabbatical this summer and enjoying a trip around Europe, the first two weeks with my husband and daughter and now with three of my sisters.

I received a Lilly Foundation Clergy Renewal Grant that is funding my adventures. The theme to the grant is Nourishing Roots and I am on the move first in Europe and then in various parts of the United States to learn more about my ancestors.

A couple of things bring us to England. First, I did a DNA test that confirmed what my siblings and I already knew: we belong here! 92% of our genetic make-up comes from your British shores! That was even a little higher than we had thought. So we’re looking into graveyards and at street signs that bear the names of Tharp, Chapman, Seymour, Readyhough, Camp, and Webster.

After England we will scoot up to Scotland where we will visit the MacDougall castle in Oban to get a feel for the clan and land from which our paternal grandmother’s side of the family immigrated. The other fact that brings us to you, here in Thetford, is that my family lived in Barton Mills for three years when my father was stationed at Lakenheath Air Base in the early 60’s. Number three sister, who is here today, was born among you—named Elisabeth, in fact, to honor one of your own! Given this authentic claim to English roots, we were a bit miffed when we weren’t invited to the Royal Wedding! We would have moved up our trip to be part of the festivities. But it looks like George and Amahl got in ahead us. 

So let’s talk about the royal wedding just for a moment! My husband and I watched it on TV several hours after the fact. Do you know what I liked about it? Well, the fashion show was, of course, mesmerizing. The celebrity appearances were interesting. The horse-drawn carriage ride along quaint streets lined with cheering citizens was endearing. But that’s not what really moved me. I was grateful that the world was given a glimpse of what it looks like to be a Christian! The worship service was reverent but also had humor—a critical mix for a healthy faith! There was beautiful music that has inspired the human spirit for generations. We heard authentic preaching of the Word by a priest who probed a deep understanding of the meaning of love. Congregants prayed the Lord’s Prayer. The couple spoke vows that positioned God at the center of their relationship. I was touched that millions of people got a peak into our experience as Christians. I prayed that those who have been turned off to the Church or never even been exposed to it— which is increasing numbers of people—would meet Jesus in that service and be drawn into our communion in some fashion.

When we trace our roots, we find ourselves meeting up with folks at family reunions. The dynamics of each clan is somewhat different. Idiosyncrasies of the family are on display in greater measure when everyone meets together with shared genetic material. Some of us look forward to our family gatherings—others, not so much! I have a friend who carries the same needlework project with her to each holiday celebration with her extended family. This gives her the excuse to focus on something other than the bickering that tends to dominate her reunions. When she returns home she sticks the needlework in her closet until the next gathering. What I loved about the royal wedding is that folks all across the globe were invited into our reunion as Christians which takes the name of “worship.” The service was rich and beautiful and inviting.

In the setting of family, God allows us to experience the fullness of life. This happens with wonderfully easy moments and those that are challenging. Good family reunions are the ones where people share their gifts readily with each other, take an interest in each other and listen well. But nobody is perfect, right? Some of the most interesting stories we have come from interesting characters who share our DNA. We all have at least one crazy aunt or drunken cousin, right? Do any of you have an interesting relative that you can count on to bring some excitement to the reunion?

In our congregation we did a winter retreat with a theme modeled after the TV show, Family Feud. We polled our congregation beforehand about their family reunions. When asked, “Who/what would you prefer NOT to see at your next reunion” there was an interesting mix of answers: weird uncle, sassy old aunt, step mom, cousin’s boyfriend and Uncle Rick. In fact, Uncle Rick showed up in quite a few of the answers so we had fun hearing about the role he played in one couple’s family! Another undesirable part of the reunion was a flaunting of grandma’s scars! The source of tension at some reunions, acccording to some who returned our surveys, were talk about tattoos, drunkenness, politics, drama and lies. But when asked what emotion accompanies their reunions, the most popular answers were love, joy, happiness and excitement. Every family has their history, which they pack up and bring with them to the reunion. Sharing blood ties is not always easy but it is the most influential of all our relationships, for better or worse!

From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible tells a story about family, about our family! I could recite some of the genealogical lists that we find scattered throughout this book: Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob and Esau, who begat Joseph and brothers and so on and so forth.

Boring, right!? No one wants to be the liturgist when that’s the Biblical passage because the names are hard to pronounce and mean very little to us. But our text from Hebrews traces our lineage way back and names the common denominator that marks every reunion of God’s people: FAITH. One look at the list and we know that the family crest for every guest at this ancestral parade could be, “Nobody’s perfect!” Abel tops off the guest list and his pure sacrifice to God infuriates his brother who then kills him. I wonder how many times that story was told around family campfires?! We have Abraham who introduced his beautiful wife, Sarah, as his sister to safeguard his own security. The two of them gave up on God’s promise of offspring when they found themselves blowing out close to 100 candles on their birthday cakes. We read the name of Jacob who was known as a schemer. It is only fitting that he would meet his match in a conman of a father-in-law. So these folks, who are in the distant reaches of our spiritual ancestry, are very human. I find that reassuring, don’t you? God loves them and uses them in the grand drama of human salvation because of the one attribute they possessed that mattered: FAITH.

Faith is hard to come by. Let me clarify that: faith in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior is not going to win you entrance into elite affairs in our societies today. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 7,000 churches close their doors each year in the States. Fewer than 20% of Americans regularly attend church services. All mainline denominations report a loss in numbers over the past 30 years. Those reporting no religious affiliation (the “Nones”) has risen from 6% in 1992 to 22% in 2014. Among millennials, the figure is 35%. From statistics I could pull up on my hand-held encyclopedia, the percentage of the British population who claimed no religion rose from 14% in 2001 to nearly 25% in 2011. Interestingly, Norwich, just south of here and home of the revered Julian, claims the highest proportion of folks who claim no religious beliefs: 42.5%. Poor Julian must be turning in her grave. So, whatever the figures, it’s clear to all of us who gather at this reunion called worship each week, that the vast majority of our neighbors wish NOT to join us. 

So I wonder what it is that draws you here? This is counter cultural so why do you get out of bed, put on presentable clothes and make your way to worship and other church functions during the week?

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I brought my baggage with me today. We all do that when we go to a family reunion, right? We stuff a suitcase with every conceivable outfit we might need and a bag of toiletries besides. This isn’t even all the baggage I could’ve brought! I’ve lived out of this small suitcase for about three weeks now so it’s best that I not open it. Sometimes our baggage doesn’t smell so fresh. What’s awesome about being part of a Christian congregation is that we are welcomed—even when we are a stranger and even when we bring in the baggage of our past. It is by FAITH that we meet together. We have witnessed unimaginable transformation in our lives and those of others who have invited Christ to be our Guide. It is our faith that allows us to be hopeful in the face of tragedy.

We’ve had a spate of suicides recently of public figures—we grieve the death of Anthony Bourdain who seemed at the top of his game. Suicide rates in America have increased by 28% since the year 2000. Remember the high percentage of millennials who have rejected religion? Well, suicide is the number three cause of death for youth in the US. We are experiencing an epidemic of despair with those who have abandoned the gifts of the Christian faith. Symbols for the Church historically have been an anchor, a solid rock, a boat in a storm, a fortress offering protection from enemies. Each week we gather in some sort of a sanctuary. I think we go against the grain of our cultures because we have seen Christ take every form of brokenness and offer healing. Even amidst our hardship, we’ve found joy for the simple gifts of each day. The line-up of ancestors in the Hebrews 11 list isn’t perfect but they clung to their faith so as to navigate the choppy waters of their lives.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that these giants in the faith died before seeing God’s promises fulfilled completely. They could see the hoped-for changes from a distance and that was enough.

So four wild and crazy sisters come swerving into your town in a rented Peugeot, trying desperately to stay on the right—I mean, the left—side of the street. We’re searching out our roots but we’re reminded in your holy presence this morning that those roots are found wherever two or three gather in the name of Jesus. Our reading today tells us that we will never be able to find our identity simply in geography or race or on one particular family tree. The family reunion where we will always feel welcomed is not the one where we leave our baggage behind. No, it’s the one where we meet under the sign of the cross, showing off our scars and sharing the faith that has brought us healing. Let’s be sure to share that good news with a world that may not know their way to the reunion!

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When the Spirit Moves

At the young age of ten, George Lowden and his friend, Alan French, crafted their first guitar out of fishing line hooked over bent nails attached to a sound box. Alan’s father was a boat maker so he provided technical help when asked and the boys found building supplies lying around his workshop. At age eighteen George crafted his first electric guitar with a dream of becoming Ireland’s version of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. Five years later, when considering his life’s vocation, George felt led by God to become a luthier—maker of stringed instruments such as violins and guitars.

What had been a hobby was to become his life’s work. In an interview with Irish musicians, Keith and Kristyn Getty, Lowden explained that God not only led him to pursue this unusual vocation. God also equipped him for each challenge that arose. It was in prayer that his questions were answered. Through prayer he was directed and redirected at each crossroads of the business. For 47 years, George Lowden has designed and produced high-end guitars for some of the most noteworthy musicians. In 2019 Ed Sheeran asked if George would enter into a joint venture with him to produce sonorous guitars at a lowered price so that new musicians could afford an esteemed Lowden instrument. (The price tag for one of those cheaper models begins at about $850!) George’s career path continues to be Spirit-driven in ways that no longer surprise him. He expects the Spirit to move. God has become the central craftsman in the workshop, guiding George as he provides a means for making beautiful music to so many musicians.

Since Easter we have been spending time in texts that trace the growth of the Church. The passage from Acts 8 could easily be developed into a movie! One part sci-fi, another part drama, a miracle occurs because two men follow the leading of the Spirit and their lives overlap. Philip, one of the disciples, is directed by an angel to go to a certain place that is on a deserted road. In our movie that translates into a dark alley in a deserted part of town. Anyone with a lick of sense would know not to go there. But Philip is so attuned to the Spirit that he immediately gets up and RUNS into danger! His commitment to lead others to Christ takes him to places and people that no friend would direct him to go. When the Spirit moves, he trusts that God will protect him.

Many years ago I decided that I wanted to add an element of urban ministry to my sabbatical experience. So I volunteered to lead a spiritual study group at Liz’ House, a shelter for women and their children. It was on Division Street in Grand Rapids in the early ‘90s when a number of human services could be contracted out of car windows around that area at night. Garrett was concerned for my safety—and I was, too. But I knew God was calling me to this teaching task by the enthusiastic response to my offer. Each week a group of the residents met with me, some caring for their small children during class, and we talked about life issues: hope, despair, love, injustice, evil, grace, and God. I couldn’t advertise it as a Bible Study since Liz’ House received government funding but each woman brought her Bible to class on that first day. So I invited them to examine different texts that we were able to connect to our own experience. One of the class members was a young white woman had gotten pregnant by her black boyfriend. This led to her parents disowning her. She lived in the group setting, waiting to deliver her baby and line up a means to live independently. Another young woman who joined the class suffered from epilepsy. She had mild seizures at a couple of my classes and I was deeply moved to see how the other women knew to get her in a safe position. She would surface out of her spells to see concerned and supportive faces around her even though her own family had abandoned her. The challenging task that God gave me to lead a class in a homeless shelter became a blessing of inestimable value to me. I should have known that my safety would never be an issue: these women watched out for me! When the Spirit moves, we can trust that God will watch over us.

As Philip is running toward the intersection in the forsaken area, the screen cuts away to another scene. A man is bouncing along in a chariot, reading aloud. Apparently immune to motion sickness, he is immersed in his book. We learn right away (and repeatedly!) that he is a Eunuch. He would have been castrated at an early age so that he could become a trusted staff member on the Queen’s court. He was important in his own hometown and must have been a God-fearer because he had made a pilgrimage to the Jerusalem Temple. His relationship with Judaism would have been complicated since he was a Gentile. He would not have been able to get any further into the Temple than the Court of the Gentiles. He was also viewed as being ritually unclean because of his castration. No one with bodily imperfections or mutilation was allowed into the Temple at all! In spite of his limited access to the Temple, he still chose to journey a long distance from Africa to worship God in Jerusalem.

But the story doesn’t dwell on his shortcomings in the eyes of faithful Jews. It only presents his positive attributes. Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “…the text presents the Ethiopian as someone wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help. He is also hospitable…”

As we look in on this African scholar, a figure comes into view, running with determination and catching up to the chariot. He is able to overhear the passenger reading from the prophet, Isaiah. Neither man seems particularly surprised to encounter the other in such unlikely circumstances. The eunuch invites the jogger into the chariot and Philip invites dialogue.

The Eunuch is reading about the suffering servant so he asks Philip if Isaiah is speaking about himself or someone else. Perhaps the emasculated man who faced discrimination at every turn related to the description of a sheep that is shorn. The essence of this foreign believer’s question is, “Can this only be about Isaiah and his situation or is it about me too?” He easily related to the injustice described by the prophet 600 years earlier. According to Jews, the right-hand man to Queen Candace was the wrong nationality, race, and sexuality. The Book of Isaiah promises freedom from marginalization in the worshiping body of believers. This would have been of encouragement to the Eunuch. Philip doesn’t challenge who he is or condone his life’s work. He does what the Spirit leads him to do. He interprets scripture for this foreign convert so that he might be welcomed into the Body of Believers. Philip is so caught up in the presence of the Spirit in their conversation that he agrees to baptize the man when he asks. In a lake that seemingly appears out of nowhere, the royal servant is dunked three times: in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. No sooner is he admitted into full life in the Spirit and Philip is mysteriously drawn away from the Eunuch. The disappearing act doesn’t stop the newly baptized man from praising God and telling anyone who will listen about his new family in faith. The screen shifts to the town of Azotus where Philip physically materializes like some bodily reconstruction in Galaxy Quest. The disciple keeps teaching in all the small towns. He must have felt a hint of moisture in his robe that reminded him that his baptism of the regal eunuch was real!

Julian of Norwich lived in the time of the Black Death when half of the residents in her English town died of the bubonic plague. She herself came so near to death that her mother called in the priest to offer last rites. While she was absent from this world God gave her 15 visions or showings that revealed intimate knowledge of the triune God. She surfaced from her coma and her condition miraculously began to stabilize. The next day she had one more vision, a sixteenth showing in which the Spirit assured her that her previous visions were real. This final showing was separated out from the previous fifteen because God knew she might well doubt their authenticity once she recovered. She detailed those sixteen revelations in her writings and they have inspired believers for more than 600 years.

In this remarkable story of evangelism in the Early Church, we must note that there are three main actors in this story: Philip, the eunuch and the Holy Spirit. Thomas Long writes, “…as the gospel moves into the world, it gathers under the wings of God’s mercy more and more of those who have been lost, pushed away, and forgotten.” We are reminded in this story from the Early Church that God’s love is boundless. God’s attention is focused on a single sparrow as well as a royal servant who faithfully serves his Queen.

Years ago, when my father was dying, my neighbor, sent me a message saying that God had drawn her attention to me during a time of prayer. She offered to be present to me in whatever way would be helpful. I let her know that I was deeply moved to know that I was in God’s sights. Intellectually we believe that God knows and loves us. But to truly experience that God is aware of our struggles and sends people to us is breathtaking. I thanked her for getting vulnerable and letting me know of God’s nudging. We walked together and she ministered to me in my grieving. We were joined on our walk by a third companion: the Holy Spirit.

A common theme in Luke’s writing is the joy that comes when something that has been lost is found. Even though Philip miraculously disappears after the baptism, the Ethiopian man changes. The power of the apostle’s Biblical interpretation and the arrival of the Spirit at his baptism stay with the African man. The eunuch is made whole through this encounter. Philip is further convicted in his faith from this unlikely encounter and emboldened to preach the good news of a crucified and risen Lord. What Christ’s death inaugurates is the age of the Spirit. Miracles abound as healing breaks out in contagious glory. Long writes, “When the eunuch’s story of shame is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration, and hope.”

These are signs of the movement of the Spirit. Watch for them! Be assured that, wherever you are led, no matter how unlikely the tasks set before you or how seemingly dangerous the path ahead, God goes with you. You are never alone.

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Ron

I always knew Dallas DJ, Ron Chapman, as Uncle Ralph. He was my dad’s younger brother. So, if I ricochet between the two names, you’ll understand.

I remember my dad telling me that he had preached a sermon featuring his brother as the centerpiece. In fact, he stated that Uncle Ralph was a model for understanding God. I know, right? That verges on heresy!

So what prompted a sermon that exulted his kid brother in such a way? Ron and his lovely wife, Nance, invited my parents, Jim and Katie Chapman, to join him for a cruise. This is not the sort of cruise most of us take–where thousands of people are crammed into small cabins sharing tainted, recirculated air. While most of us would welcome that sort of vacation but Ron had a different excursion in mind! He chartered a ship that came with a staff, including a private chef. He also invited his sister and her husband, Florence and Fred Littauer. The six of them were the sole passengers. With a crew ready to meet their every need, they headed out into aqua waters where they had days to connect with each other. Since all three siblings were public speakers, I can only imagine the volume and constancy of their conversation!

So how does this turn Uncle Ralph into a model example for God? Ron had a gift for creating significant moments. He knew who he was inviting into any particular experience. He knew their gifts and shaped the experience to more than satisfy their needs and desires. He was a gracious host and expected nothing in return. My dad stated that, if his brother invited him to join in on an adventure, he would drop everything, pack a bag, and run to meet him. He could completely trust that his little brother, Ralphie, would know what suited him best and have a great experience in store. My dad preached that this gives us an understanding of our God. The One who created us is trustworthy. God knows us intimately and directs our lives so that our needs are more than met. God grants us the deepest desires of our hearts. When we encounter God, we are imprinted with memories that transform us. In this way, dad appreciated the way his brother reflected an image of the divine. That’s a pretty high compliment to give the brother who slept on the bunk beneath you!

As they disembarked from the ship, my dad stood before his brother and said he was unable to adequately express his gratitude for such a tremendous gift. He described his brother’s response to his words of thanks. As my father fawned all over him, Ralph simply smiled modestly and said,

IT’S SOMETHING I CAN DO.

No fanfare. No egotistical posturing. No consideration of what my dad owed him because of his extravagance. Simply joy that he could provide for his siblings this fantastic time of respite from the daily grind.

ITS SOMETHING I CAN DO.

One brother for another, the younger treating the older to a memorable vacation. 

ITS SOMETHING I CAN DO.

These are the brothers who shared a bunk bed in the same room as their dad. He was older than most dads so he got the twin bed. His wife, my grandmother, shared a daybed with her daughter. Every morning it was folded away to make a little more space in their tiny communal area. Running a general store for their town, they lived in three small rooms behind that store. One was the bedroom that became the men’s quarters. One was a small communal space that had room only for a table with four chairs. (That’s right, there were five of them.) The daybed that my grandmother and aunt slept on served as a couch during daylight hours. The third room was a small bathroom that had a sink and toilet. No bathtub or shower. Water was heated for a bath each Saturday. Four of the family members vacated the living space so that one of them could bathe. One after another was given privacy to clean up for the week.

Ralphie was the youngest of three. His two older siblings followed the rules and excelled at school. Ralph had different gifts. From an early age he was aware of his family’s meager circumstances. Of course, most families were living with financial limitation because of the depression. But the living conditions of the Chapmans of Haverhill, Massachusetts seemed a bit more austere than they did for many. My father was four years ahead of Ron and Florence was eight years older. So Ron continually felt that he lagged behind them. He was aware of the mountain he needed to climb to measure up to their sizable accomplishments. With a steely resolve, Ralph’s mantra was born:

I’LL SHOW ‘EM!”

It’s evident to me that Ron Chapman’s genius as a DJ and his caring nature was forged in that store. The family lived their private life in the public eye. The only place that had ample room to seat five around a table was in the store. So, as they sat down to eat their dinner, they knew it was entirely possible that Mrs. Miller would stop by to purchase laundry soap during their dinner hour. When she did, she would interact with the whole family as they ate their baked beans and spam supper. Then one of them would step away from the table to ring her up. From a young age the three Chapman siblings were taught to ask, “May I help you? Is there something I can help you find?”

In spite of their meager finances, it was a home where there was plenty of laughter with enough love to go around. They claimed joy amidst poverty. And the youngest child developed a tenacity to persevere, to see it through, and to help folks out.

All of these attributes prepared Ron for a very public life. He lit up a room. He was the life of the party without seeking attention. He was driven to prove that the youngest would not just succeed but thrive! In fact, he once jumped out of an airplane to show that he could SOAR! Neither of his accomplished siblings dared to undertake such a feat!

Just as his parents continually welcomed people into their home, Ron invited his listeners to greet each new day with him. There was always room for more at Ron’s “morning show” party. For a city of Dallas moms, time spent with Ron while getting the kids off to school wasn’t tedious. It became FUN! He called out the best in people. He affirmed their gifts. He prepared them for each day with weather and traffic reports. Ron relayed the news of the world to his people. Even as he covered stories from across the globe, he knew what mattered most: the places we call home. He never took for granted that he was invited into so many people’s lives. As they sat at table drinking their coffee or fought traffic while driving to work, Ron was a trusted companion for the journey.

I remember my father smiling as he said to me in the last stage of cancer, “I can’t imagine the world without Jim Chapman.” I was privileged to spend the weekend in Dallas with family members, remembering the impressive life of my uncle. We agreed that we can’t imagine the world without Ron Chapman, even though we’ve been living that reality for several days. His larger-than-life personality is noticeably absent. I suspect many of us remember moments when he did something kind for us. We still marvel at a generous gesture. So I give God thanks for a man who could say with a shrug, after treating someone to an extraordinary moment, “It’s something I can do.”

Ron was modest in thinking ahead to his death. He suggested that those who cared for him could remember him by going to their favorite bar and raising a glass to him. So I raise a glass to remember Ron, a man who magnificently combined humility with generosity, who laced the ho-hum morning news with an element of humor.

I toast a man who cherished the intimacy of his own family while keeping good company with thousands of listeners who welcomed him into the privacy of their homes.

I offer a toast to celebrate Ron Chapman who exceeded his childhood resolve because

HE SHOWED ‘EM, DIDN’T HE?!

We are impressed! But, more significantly, we are blessed.

Rest in glorious peace, Uncle Ralph.

Cheers!

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One Flock, One Shepherd

For several years I traveled fifteen miles to a church each Wednesday for a Lectionary Study group. We pastors sat in their multi-purpose room which was set up for an after-school program that meets each Wednesday afternoon. While the program offered academic help to young children, its primary function was to provide safe and free after-school care for at-risk kids. A highlight to this group of children was the snack that was provided. Hungrily they devoured whatever was served. They grew to trust the adults who were there each week, offering kind words and homework help.

The host pastor said that several of these children started coming to worship on Sundays. Some were by themselves, without any parents who cared to join them. Not having been raised in the church and absent any parental guidance, they were often talkative and inattentive. Established church members started complaining about these rogue children who weren’t polite. They wanted to mandate the presence of parents for any children in attendance. So the pastor addressed these murmurings. She dismissed all the children to a Sunday School class one week. She preached about Jesus welcoming the children and blessing them, even after His disciples had tried to shoo them away. She pointed to Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who taught about leaving the 99 secure sheep whose needs were fully satisfied so as to search out the one lost lamb. Was not any neighborhood child who cared enough to join them for worship worthy of their compassion and grace? I want to say that she scolded her parish for their expectations that all children must behave “properly” in worship. But she would say that she exhorted them to model kindness to these young guests. The pastor reminded her congregants that Jesus, the model Shepherd, expected them to nurture the very fledgling faith of these vulnerable members of their community.

The most challenging part of this passage is the assertion that there can only be one flock and one shepherd. Our image of Jesus as Shepherd engenders warm fuzzy feelings of a well-kept man calmly standing amidst grazing sheep in a lovely meadow. But the life of a shepherd was not serene or clean! There was always danger lurking as sheep have many predators. The job requires the herdsmen to be away from home for long stretches of time as they search for green pastures. It was viewed as a menial job that guaranteed compromised hygiene! And yet, for the sheep, the shepherd was crucial to their survival! The relationship between the two is based on what the shepherd does. The sheep are just pawns who have to be led. Sheep follow the shepherd because they know and trust him. The shepherd knows the sheep well enough to recognize when one is missing, to know which one is crippled and needs help, and which one is regularly pushed away from the feeding trough. If the flock scatters when a wolf appears, the shepherd knows where to look for them and they follow him back to the fold.

On April 1 a ten-year old boy from Central America was found walking alone just north of the Mexico border in Texas. The group he had been traveling with left when he was sleeping and he awakened to discover that he was without adult protection or care. The video by a Border Patrol officer shows the young boy hurriedly approaching the patrol car, asking for help. Through tears he told the officer his story and said he was afraid. He was taken to a child detention center in Donna, Texas where he joined thousands of other unaccompanied minors in that part of our country. Some families are separating from each other in Mexico so that their children have a chance of making it into our country solo. The situation is complex, fraught with ethical dilemmas no matter which policies we embrace as a nation. These young ones are caught in the vortex of their elders’ politics and posturing. They are literally crying out for protection. In the relationship between shepherd and sheep, there is an intimacy and security even as danger looms. Shepherds hear the cry of the young and immediately set out to rescue them.

In the first chapter of James we read this from The Message translation: 26-27 Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

You mean, reach out to those ill-behaved kids who talk in worship and devour the cookies in coffee hour before the adults can even get there? Are you saying we should help out with the local residents whose homes will be repaired during our summer work camp in Cedar Springs? Surely you’re not suggesting that United Church Outreach Ministry workers deliver food to the homes of some of their Hispanic clients when they dare not get their name entered into any data base for fear of deportation? If they can’t make it to the food distribution center, that’s their problem, right? Who are these “others” that Jesus named who are also part of the one flock He loves?

Stephen Cooper writes, “The ‘other sheep’ of today must be determined by the setting in which the word is preached and heard. Who are ‘other’ for us? This line of questioning brings the affluent churches of the developed world into discomforting reflections on the ‘other’ in our midst—in our own societies—and the ‘others’ elsewhere in the world. Both ‘others’ are on the margins of our horizons, the horizons established through circumstance, habit, and counsels of prudence. The key point is that these ‘others’ are Christ’s sheep, just as we are, and they too recognize his voice.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 2, page 450)

The notion that there is one flock and one shepherd is the most challenging directive from this passage! Christ’s teaching confronts denominationalism that splinters the Church into competing segments who spend more time proving their moral superiority than doing Christ-like outreach in their communities! The motto of our denomination (the United Church of Christ) comes from John 17 and it echoes Jesus’ words in our passage for today: “…that they may all be one…” It sounds good. We may even heartily agree with it. But living toward that vision of unity will occupy our lifetime.

Yesterday was Compassion Sunday for our congregation and hundreds of churches across our country. We spent time looking in on the plight of disadvantaged children across the globe. The theme for this year is “A Call to Hope.” “Hope” is a hard-sell item lately. Our nation seems in as much turmoil as we’ve witnessed in half a century. There’s no way we can look at our country and affirm that we are one flock under the guidance of one shepherd. Even those who claim to be followers of Jesus are angrily divided against each other. We argue theological points while these Compassion children smile for the camera, hoping that someone will choose to sponsor them.

Our congregation was given 31 children’s names from all over the world who look to us as members of the same loving shepherd’s family. In the impoverished communities of these Compassion International children, COVID has ravaged countless families. Mim is an 8-year-old girl from Bangladesh. Last year her father suffered a back injury that kept him bedridden for months. Shortly after his accident, their world was shut down due to the pandemic and her mother couldn’t find work. Their food supply quickly dwindled. By God’s grace, Mim’s family learned about the Compassion outreach in their church and she was accepted into the program. Though the congregation didn’t meet in person for months, they nonetheless distributed food packs to Mim’s home. Because Compassion works through local churches, they are able to provide families with food, medical care, emotional support and many other essentials. However, what they deliver primarily is hope!

I learned from my brother-in-law’s sheep farm in Morley that orphaned lambs are not adopted by other ewes. They know the scent of their own babies and those are the only ones for whom they accept responsibility. Each Spring Scott’s parents have baby lambs housed in their main floor bathroom, crying out to be bottle fed again and again! Those sweet, vulnerable, abandoned lambs would not survive without the provision of a human family.

A name I remember from my childhood is Chang Yueh Mei. My father spent one year stationed in Taiwan. He met a young girl that must have reminded him of the five daughters he had to leave behind for a year. He learned that she was enrolled in the Christian Children’s Fund and hoped for a sponsor. Our family, far across the globe from our dad, sponsored her and grew to know her through him. When I lived in an apartment complex in the Congo as a teacher, there was an African family with eight children who lived below me. The youngest, whose name was Banywesize, became me little friend. Five years old and small for his age, he would knock at my door and I would let him in for a visit. I didn’t know much Swahili but spoken words didn’t matter much. We connected on a human level and I was able to help him and his family at certain times of need. Garrett and I have sponsored two different boys while raising our own kids. Our children wrote letters to Brandon, a Native American in South Dakota until he aged out of the program. We continue to support a young man named Luis who lives in the Rio Grande area with his mother and older sisters. Being connected to these children at different stages in my own life and in the lives of my children has shaped us to model our own lives on that of the Good Shepherd, Jesus.

Cooper writes, “The world surely will perish if its inhabitants continue to pursue narrow forms of self-definition, identities based on nation, class, race, and gender. The voice of Christ calls out to all the others just as it calls out to us; thus now is the time to examine our attitudes, practices, and behaviors that keep us safe from the concerns and needs of Christ’s other sheep. To the extent that we decline to enter into the world of these other sheep due to discomfort or limited perceptions of our advantage, it is we who are refusing the voice that insists ‘one flock’ is a correlate of the principle ‘one shepherd.’”

On Compassion Sunday for our congregation, the Good Shepherd issued a call to hope. We have the opportunity to take under our wing one child from another part of the world and to offer them a level of security that is life-changing. And the gratitude with which they receive our meager financial gift and friendship will transform our lives as well!

One flock, one shepherd. May it be so.