Thursday, December 29, 2011

Dragons at the Manger.

The afternoon of Christmas Eve our family was getting ready to head downtown for the 5:30 Christmas Pageant at First United Methodist. While some of the children in the pageant work hard to memorize lines, and the adult leaders have the young people amazingly well prepared, the whole thing is a rather chaotic, wild, rich, swirling, beautiful mess. (Which happens to draw hundreds of that the sanctuary is, year after year, nearly full.)

As we were getting ready we asked four year old Ella and two year old Olivia if they wanted to be angels in the pageant. Olivia, who is a cute little brown-eyed thing, said, "No, I want to be a dragon."

Many of us have been reading stories for years about children wanting to play their own roles in Christmas pageants. Someone told me that a girl in the last year or two here at First wanted to be a dog at the manger! They had advertised roles as sheep, donkeys, cattle, wisemen, etc. but this young woman wanted to be a dog.

Livy said, "I want to be a dragon." It is hard to see this little girl as a dragon. She sure looks more like an angel to Grandpa but there must be a dragon in there wanting to get out!

The cool thing is that when we got to the church, where adults were helping children into costumes, Nicole heard that Olivia wanted to be a dragon and she smiled. She said, "Sure, she can be a dragon. Let's see what we can find..."

I like the idea that God welcomes not only donkeys, cattle, and sheep at the manger...but also dragons. Luke would have understood, I think. Luke makes a point of telling us that the first visitors to the manger were shepherds. And shepherds were considered dirty, ritually unclean, impulsive, and untrustworthy. There were, I once said in a sermon, the first century's version of traveling carnival workers.

We have a God who is big enough to make a place at the manger for dragons. Wild things. Untamed creatures. Who set fields and trees on fire when they sneeze. Whose appearance is unsettling...and whose scales are rough. But who, in their eyes, have the light of God's kingdom.

Change Agent?

One of my seminary professors (who happens to be a rather prolific author) is fond of saying that one of the most amazing things about Jesus is his expectation that people can change. It is really rather stunning to see him speaking with the Samaritan woman at the well, whose life is a series of failed relationships, speaking as if a new kind of life for her is within reach. Jesus goes to the home of a tax collector, breaks bread, and somehow the man whose life has been built on greed becomes a giver.

People had this way of changing when Jesus got involved in their lives. When people hung out with Jesus, when they had him over for a meal, when they asked questions of him and listened, and when they stood on a hill outside Jerusalem and watched him die, they changed. Not all of them. But many of them.

It's stunning to see this. Especially in a world where we are told, as children, that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks" or "a leopard can't change its spots."

So this evening, as we tip-toe up to the start of a new year, I am thinking of change. How exciting the prospect of change may be for those of us who are stuck in lifeless, frustrating, soul-numbing, broken places.

Perhaps it is possible not only for people to change but for nations. And for churches. Which is a good thing...because while there is beauty and grace in most churches the truth is that many congregations are turned inward. Not only are too many churches focused on being a provider of religious services that will please constituents but the church has too often fallen silent in the face of injustice and profound human need.

Change is never easy. Change rarely comes quickly. But with God there is the possibility of life. Jesus says if we take his love and truth into our lives (he talks about himself as bread that brings life to those who receive it) then we can live in new, eternal, free, right ways.

Remember that tonight (or today...or whenever you read this), okay? The Carpenter shows up and leopards change their spots, old dogs learn new tricks, tax collectors start giving money away to make things right, and a Samaritan woman stops trying to fill the hole in her heart with one more boyfriend.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

You Never Stop Missing.

Just over a week ago I took a road trip north to the lake country of Indiana. Our extended family has a lake cottage at Webster in Kosciousko County and Sharon's folks live on Koontz Lake in Marshall County.

On a ferociously hot Thursday afternoon I climbed in the Miata, kept the top up and the AC, and headed north. Just north of Indianapolis I stopped for fast food and put the top down. Turned off the AC. And listened to songs like "In the Still of the Night" and Jerry Butler's "For Your Precious Love."

As the air began to cool and the sun disappeared, I found myself thinking of my brother Eric. We were about two years apart in age. Close as two peas in a pod. Thick as thieves. You get the picture. We'd begin most days by strapping on our pretend six-shooters. (These were the days when Roy Rogers and Gene Autry were cowboy heroes to most young boys across the United States.)

On his 5th birthday Eric was being taken to the Hershey chocolate factory on an outing. The road was wet. The car slid. In those days before seatbelts and airbags his head tapped the dashboard and he was killed.

I heard, as my Dad drove me home from school, that Eric had been killed.

I've never gotten over his loss. The hole in my heart has never entirely healed.

So as I was driving north through Grant County, where he is buried in the Jefferson Township Cemetery, I found myself crying. Not heavily. Not enough to make it difficult to drive. But my eyes were wet. My heart ached. My world, you know, has never felt the same since that accident...since I lost him.

There has been a lot of talk lately about Elizabeth Kubler-Ross' "stages of death" (shock, denial, anger, etc.). People are now saying the stages she identifies make it look like some process you go through and then you are finished. You get a little certificate and then go on.

The truth is the work is never done. You never stop missing.

The Bible says the Lord is near to the broken-hearted. I find that a promise that keeps me going down the road...headed north.

Some Things Were Better.

Last week I headed north on Thursday afternoon. The family was gathering at Lake Webster in Kosciousko County, where our extended family has a cottage, and then at Koontz Lake in Marshall County (where Sharon's folks live).

It was a fiercely hot day. I drove with the top up on the Miata and the AC running into I got to Carmel/Fishers. Then, I stopped to pick up some fast food, put the top down, cranked up the stereo to play some favorite 1950's and 1960's "doo wop."

The fields were full of corn and soybeans. The sun dropped low. I drove through small towns whose names weren't all that familiar. You see I have never really done much driving up the east side of Indiana on highways like 13 and 37.

A couple of things happened to me as I drove north. The one thing I want to mention in this blog entry is the awareness that in some ways -some ways- life was better 25 and 50 years ago.

I thought of that as I drove through the small town of Point Isabel. Like many small towns I suspect it had more life before big box stores showed up in the county seat and pulled business out of those small, independent stores. Then, I noticed just north of town an abandoned, three story brick schoolhouse. There was fencing around it to keep troublemakers out. But the building was still standing...the closing evidence of the wave of school consolidations across the midwest back in the 1960's and 1970's. People said children would get a better education if they went to a school of 600 instead of a high school of 150 or 200. People said students would have better curriculum, advanced placement classes, and so on. In many ways that is true. No doubt about it.

But something has been lost. All across the midwest students were going to small schools where the teachers knew them and they knew the teachers. Out of those small schools came business leaders and astronauts and physicians and successful farmers and teachers. They may not have had the opportunity to take advanced placement calculus or beginning Chinese but those small schools, in those small communities, were often places where students were known, given a place to grow up, and allowed to be. You didn't need to be an athletic superstar to play varsity basketball or volleyball the way you need to be to play at a school of 1-2,000. You didn't need to have a extraordinary voice to sing a solo in the high school's annual musical or the Spring concert.

It is ironic, now, to hear people talking about the ideal size of schools. It is ironic to hear educators talking about reducing the size of schools so that students don't get lost and the staff know them well enough to coach life.

So the music on stereo is up loud. Some group whose name I can't recall is singing "Since I Don't Have You." The sun is hiding behind the rows of corn to my left as I head north. The brick schoolhouse is left behind. And I realize that in some ways things were better in the past. Does that mean I have been overcome by nostalgia or am a dinosaur? Or is it possible we've left some good things behind as we keep trying to catch the next "new thing?"

Killing Applause.

Whatever you may think of the opinions of the politicans who stood on the stage at the recent GOP presidential debate, it was stunning to hear the audience break into applause at the mention that more than 234 persons have been executed in the state of Texas during Governor Rick Perry's tenure. An audience of soccer moms and suburban middle class folks (a good many of who, I presume, attend church most weekends) cheered the killing of 234 persons? Really?

Study after study shows serious problems with the way that the death penalty is carried out. Cases of mistaken identity are not that unusual (which led the State of Illinois to halt executions), and there is evidence that some innocent persons have been put to death. Studies show the penalty is applied disproportionately so that minorities are more likely to receive this most extreme of all penalties. Some who should know also say that capital punishment does not serve as a significant deterent to violent crime. Finally, the cost of applying the death penalty -when you factor in legal appeals that often go on for years- can exceed the expense of putting an individual in prison for life with no possibility of parole.

Oh, there is one more thing: it seems impossible to me for a Christian to cheer the death penalty while claiming to follow Jesus Christ. Jesus said we are to turn the other cheek when struck. Jesus told his disciple to put down the sword. And Paul encourages us to overcome evil with good.

Truth is I believe Christians are called to be pro-life. For me that means opposing the death penalty and opposing abortion in most cases. It also means supporting government policies that will enrich the lives of children and encourage a republic where there is life, liberty and the opportunity to pursue happiness.

Long ago Baptist preacher Will Campbell, who has been friend of the Black Panthers and served as a chaplain to the KKK down south, was asked to go on public tv to debate the death penalty. Will listened to a proponent of capital punishment make a lengthy opening statement, and then Will simply said, "I think it's tacky."

I don't know what it says about us that a washed up, well dressed room full of middle class and upper income types cheer the death of 234 individuals. Maybe it says we are afraid. Maybe it says we have somehow lost the connection between our political views and our souls. The next time Christians are tempted to cheer the killing of men and women they might want to open the New Testament, hang out with Jesus, and listen for the voice of the Galilean.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Gifts We Give One Another in a College Town.

Bloomington has been busy this week. Folks down here call it "Move In Day." It used to be the single day when IU students descended on the campus and town. Now their arrival is spread out over several days. You can feel the town -especially along Kirkwood- coming alive during the days of late August. Every day there are more students on the streets and in the stores. There is a kind of "buzz."

Even spread out the return of the students fills the streets and slows down traffic. Getting from east to west (or vice versa) in Bloomington is almost impossible. People from other towns of 80,000 would never believe this and residents of New York City will laugh but our world down here feels like a "mini New York."

I've seen a lot of parents looking weary. Getting your son or daughter's things up to a room on the fifth floor of a dorm, or squeezed into an apartment, and doing the hard work (I know...sometimes it is blessed relief for all concerned!) of saying goodbye to your college student, is hard work.

As I navigated my way through traffic around College Mall today, I realized there are two things these two population groups -students and townspeople- need from one another. First, college students need to be welcomed. I don't mean just because they and their families pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy each school year. They need to know we are glad they are here. They need to know we are glad to share our streets and sidewalks and neighborhoods. They need to know we are praying for them.

College students need to give full time residents of Bloomington a different gift: respect. When I was here as a student I heard some of my classmates refer to townspeople in patronizing or negative ways. Students often, by the way they drove their cars or talked in restaurants or mistreated their apartments and dorm rooms, communicated a "we're better than you and we'll use all of this the way we want to use it." There are a few who act spoiled and have a demanding attitude. (Maybe it isn't an act!) People here are great people, many of them work hard at the university or local businesses, and they deserve the respect of the students. It would be super cool (a phrase a red-headed friend in Elkhart often uses) if students came to IU committed to leaving the place (the town...the campus...their apartments) better than they found it.

"Live responsibly," Paul says in Romans 13 (The Message). Live that way not just to avoid punishment but also because it's the right way to live.

Classes start on Monday. Bloomington is humming. Here we go. Let's take good care of one another, okay?

Love Means Showing Up.

When you're young you don't fully understand the gift of showing up. (Or at least I didn't.) We're invited to a wedding, or a graduation party, or we know someone who has lost a person they love, and we don't think it is that big of a deal if we show up -or not. They'll barely notice you stuck there in the middle of the crowd, right?

As our boys graduated from high school I noticed what it meant to us when people showed up. People drove a couple of hours, people carved out a good part of a day, and they showed up when Bryan, Nathan and Michael graduated. We noticed. It meant something. Somewhere down deep inside we felt the reality of friendship's blessing. We also, on the other hand, noticed good friends who didn't show up. Most of them had good reasons but some just hadn't learned that love means showing up.

I thought of this today as I drove north to Lebanon, Indiana for the funeral service of a colleague. David Patrick was a 46 year old United Methodist pastor who did great work mentoring young pastors and served on the Board of Ordained Ministry with me. I didn't know him well. He had served most of his ministry in the "old" South Indiana Conference, and I have always hovered around the Michigan state line. Until we came to Bloomington I had never served a congregation south of #30! So we didn't know one another all that well but David was a brother.

When you are a United Methodist pastor you are a part of something we call "the connection." As I write that it almost sounds mysterious. Or threatening (like the word is a synonym for organized crime!). Whether you like it or not, whether your theology or ministry style or political ideas match those of the pastor serving down the road in a nearby United Methodist Church, you not only belong to Christ but you belong to one another.

So I drove north on this beautiful morning with the top on the Miata down, the music of the Rolling Stones and then Joshua Bell playing on the stereo, with a cup of coffee in my hand. I sat in the back of a packed sanctuary. The family will never know I was there. I believe David noticed. I believe that love means showing up if there is anyway to do that.

Paul, in Romans 12, says if we are in Christ we are a part of one body. The apostle says love is to be genuine (not faked...not a going-through-the-motions type of love). He summarizes the commandments and then finally says love does no wrong to a neighbor (13:10) and that, in fact, love is "fulfilling of the law." In verse 15 he encourages us to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.

Love means showing up (if there is anyway to do that).