Monday, December 10, 2007
Mostly she likes to sing - and does it well.
Last weekend, her children's choir sang with the local symphony. It was the second year that she has been asked to do this, and she is radiant when she does it.
Her current career aspiration is to become a vocal music teacher. College is only six years away, after all, so she is beginning to scout the prospects of this line of work . . .
She also knows exactly what she wants for Christmas. Is it any wonder?
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Visitors come from around the world. They sit quietly, and often leave behind flowers in the shape of a peace sign. Sometimes they use strawberries rather than flowers. It is called, in fact, the Strawberry Fields memorial – and it is right across the street from the apartment building where musician John Lennon lived.
John Lennon is the one who wrote a song called “Imagine.” It was a defining song for my generation. I grew up among 1960's dreamers, among a generation that tried to imagine a world of unity and peace. We had parents and ministers who heard the first line (“Imagine there’s no heaven”) and stopped listening to the rest of the tune. What they missed is what John Lennon was trying to envision, in his irreverent way. He could imagine a time and place when religious people stopped killing one another, countries gave up on war, and rich and poor were no longer divided.
Ironically this peace song stirred up death threats against the composer. John Lennon was gunned down at forty years old, right across the street from where the Central Park memorial announces the word: “Imagine.”
As for me, I’m not ready to give up on heaven. I want to imagine as faithfully as I can that there is such a place, and I imagine you do, too. It taps into the great hopes of the human race, both of this life and the life to come. If we believe that God is perfectly good, it’s not a far reach to imagine that wherever God dwells is a place of perfect goodness.
No more hurt, no more destruction. God’s children live in complete delight, to the delight of their Maker. Can you imagine something like that?
Thursday, November 8, 2007
We went to hear him play a gig on a recent Friday night. It was a group of high school students, and they were rocking out on old R&B hits. I knew all the words, mostly because they were tunes that I used to play when I wore a blue ruffled shirt with a Top 40 band back in the early '80's.
You know, as in, "She's a Brick...House."
Matt's high school music teacher is Dan Fabricius, a great soul who believes that music is best learned on the band stand. Dan put together this teenage band - without pay, off the clock - because he loves music and wants the world to have more musicians.
May the tribe increase.
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
And then I saw two copies of my book of stewardship sermons. They have been marked down to "half off," which is cheaper than I can buy them from the publisher.
I take them to the sales clerk, who points out that they are close outs. "These are old books," she notes, "and they don't sell any more. It's time to take them off the shelves."
"Ah yes," I say, "but in a used book store, we often pay top dollar for valuable books."
"Well, that's the problem," she says. "There are too many religious books published, and a lot of them don't have any lasting value. So we need to clear them off our shelves on a regular basis." Touche.
As I mulled over whether I should say anything more, she noticed the name on my credit card. "You have the same name as the author!" she exclaimed, as I smiled silently and waited for her to make the connection. She didn't. I suppose she's not accustomed to having a has-been author in her store.
Meanwhile, let me make this invitation: If you want to buy a copy, click here. You'll notice that Amazon has a lot of used copies, some of them for only a couple of bucks. Curiously, some are also for sale at more than the original price. Hmm...
One can draw a number of lessons from this:
- Some people value your work, some do not.
- Some people once valued your work, but don't any longer.
- Sometimes people value you only if your name is the same as the author of the book you're buying (even if it's you).
- Somebody else may inflate your value if they think that they can get additional money out of unsuspecting fools.
- Those who sell books often don't have a sufficient regard for the labor that it took to write them.
- Just because your book is marked down or overpriced doesn't mean that you are less or more valuable in the sight of God.
- The thrill of getting in your name in print will not last forever; somebody has to make room for Joel Osteen.
- Everybody has a shelf life, including Joel Osteen. Here today, gone tomorrow, but the Word of our God will stand forever.
Friday, October 19, 2007
Last Wednesday, it didn’t seem the same. I was leading a communion service at Abington Manor, as I’ve done each month for the past ten years or so. Mary Clark wasn’t there to assist me. She had passed away after a long illness.
Mary was one of the very first residents of that local nursing home, living there for twenty years. A number of years ago, my friend Bob London observed her compassionate care for the other residents. Knowing her to be a Presbyterian, he said, “I’ll bet you were ordained a deacon in your church.”
“Oh no,” she replied. “And I could never be a deacon either, since I live in a nursing home.”
It was the kind of challenge that Bob always rises to meet. After a conversation with her pastor and a congregational vote, Mary was elected a Presbyterian deacon, with the understanding that her ministry would be in residence at Abington Manor. She was ordained there in the activity room, served with distinction, and I pause to honor her life and ministry.
Mary worked the hallways, offering words of encouragement wherever they were needed. Rarely to be found in her own room, she would “drop by” and be a friendly presence to the residents, with particular care shown to those who had difficulty adjusting to institutional life. She was an advocate for fellow residents, their rights, and their abilities. By all accounts, she was also the best Presbyterian bingo caller they ever had, and she saved all her bingo winnings to donate to her church.
For me, she was the Bread Lady, holding the tray each month and gently encouraging all to take in the Body of Christ. She would not distinguish between Protestant and Catholic, able or disabled. Sometimes she would wake up a worshiper and say, “It’s Holy Communion; take it, because we need it.” That remains about the best invitation to the Lord’s Table that I know.
We are called to serve Christ wherever we are – that’s one of the lessons Mary lived and taught by example. While I mourn her absence, I entrust her to the power of Christ’s resurrection. That little piece of bread that she took at communion was the appetizer for the heavenly banquet she now enjoys.
“Sometimes God drops a handkerchief,” Frederick Buechner writes, “and these people are called saints.” On the brink of All Saints’ Day, let us give thanks for the faithful folks we have known and live by their example.
Friday, October 12, 2007
“An’ they chased him ‘n’ never could catch him ‘cause they didn’t know what he looked like, an’ Atticus, when they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things…Atticus, he was real nice.”
Her father bent down, tucked in her covers, and said, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.” (page 281)
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Sunday, September 30, 2007
Can’t Shut Him Up
September 30, 2007
7 O LORD, you have enticed me, and I was enticed; you have overpowered me, and you have prevailed.I have become a laughingstock all day long; everyone mocks me. 8 For whenever I speak, I must cry out, I must shout, “Violence and destruction!” For the word of the LORD has become for me a reproach and derision all day long. 9 If I say, “I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,” then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot. 10 For I hear many whispering: “Terror is all around! Denounce him! Let us denounce him!” All my close friends are watching for me to stumble. “Perhaps he can be enticed, and we can prevail against him, and take our revenge on him.” 11 But the LORD is with me like a dread warrior ; therefore my persecutors will stumble, and they will not prevail. They will be greatly shamed, for they will not succeed. Their eternal dishonor will never be forgotten. 12 O LORD of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind; let me see your retribution upon them, for to you I have committed my cause. 13 Sing to the LORD; praise the LORD! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers.
Sooner or later in the Christian life, you may find yourself saying, “This is not what I signed up for…” Jesus said one time, “Take my yoke upon you . . . for my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-29). But it is still a yoke on your shoulder. It’s still a burden. And you might think that you’ve been conned.
I’ve seen it happen with volunteers: they join the church with great delight. There is laughter and joy. They agree to do anything. They plug in coffee pots, make phone calls, work with groups – and sometimes later they appear at my door to say, “This is not what I expected.” It could be for any number of reasons.
Often it’s because people will let you down. When I worked with a middle school youth group years ago in New Jersey, two young women volunteered to help put on a picnic. We set up a soccer field, hauled in three charcoal grills. The kids told us they wanted to do this, so we planned a wonderful afternoon. Everything was ready at four o’clock. The grills were smoking. The music was playing. We expected forty kids, and one showed up – and he didn’t stick around. After an hour of waiting, we’re packing up six tubes of mustard, and one of the women said, “I don’t want to do this again.”
Or a few years ago, a group of teenagers were heading back to the mountains to do a week of mission work. They were really excited, because they were going back to the same place where they worked the previous year. They had worked hard – painting houses, nailing down roofs, cleaning up refuse. And they remembered how grateful everybody was when they finished the week – “Come on back, y’all,” the people said. So they did, and they found themselves assigned to some of the same houses – painting the same walls, repairing the same rooftops, cleaning up the junk blowing around same yards. And one of the kids said, “Rev, I don’t want to come back here again.”
You jump into the joy of Christian discipleship - - and you discover that some of the other disciples aren’t as Christian as you thought. Or that the redeemed of the world aren’t acting very redeemed. Or that the mission field is not a playground. People can let you down.
We heard it in Jeremiah’s prayer: he preaches his heart out, and people laugh at him. According to the nuances of the Hebrew words, it sounds like they are mocking his message, poking fun at his words, standing with their arms crossed and saying, “He’s really an idiot.” Oh, Jeremiah knows it is hard to be God’s servant in a world that ignores you. He knows people will let him down.
But his real complaint is with God. “God, you enticed me to do this, and I was enticed. You overpowered me, and I gave in. I speak your word, I do your work - - and it makes me the laughingstock of Jerusalem.” He has a complaint against God.
Remember Mother Teresa of Calcutta, that tiny saint who died about ten years ago? She spent fifty years on the streets, tending to those who had fallen in the gutters. They were hungry, and she fed them. They had no voice, and she spoke for them. They had no home, and she took them in. They had nobody else, and she loved them.
And when her personal journals were published this last month, they revealed she was full of doubts and fears. She confessed that she doubted if God really exists. She held her hands to receive communion, silently questioning if Christ was really there.
It didn’t start that way. Back in 1946, Mother Teresa has a series of visions, calling her to serve the poor of Calcutta. She said, “I heard the Voice calling me to serve the destitute and the dying.” In those early moments, she was flooded with holy light. But as she engaged in her work, she describes a “heavy darkness” that covered her soul. It remained for years and years.
Jeremiah’s prayer is shaped like some of the psalms. As you know, there are about eighty psalms that complain and cry for help. The most famous is the one Jesus quotes on the cross, Psalm 22. It begins with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus quotes it, we need to take it seriously. The God who calls us doesn’t always live up to our expectations. Notice I said “our expectations.” And I’m not telling you something that hasn’t, at some time or another, crossed your mind.
I met a woman in Greek class on the first day of seminary. Sally was in her mid-fifties. She heard God calling her away from a desk job and into a pulpit. She gave up everything and went back to school. It was humiliating, hanging around with young pups like me, half her age. About the only thing we had in common is that we were both pretty poor at Greek. But Sally struggled, got through, and got ordained as a Presbyterian minister when she was fifty-four.
She served only one church, for about six years. Her occasional forgetfulness became more regular. They said it was Alzheimer’s. After a year of struggling, she resigned her pulpit and went on disability. The last time we spoke, she said, “So why did God go to all that trouble, calling me, teaching me, ordaining me – but not shielding me from this damned disease?” I did not know. Last year, after suffering for many years with Alzheimer’s Disease, Sally slipped away in her sleep. I still don’t have an answer for her question.
You can understand why Jeremiah is so upset, can’t you? On the day God called him to be a servant, he said, “I’m only a child,” and God said, “Don’t be afraid; I am with you.”
Jeremiah said, “But I don’t know what to say.” So God touched his lips and said, “I’ll put my words in your mouth.”
Then Jeremiah heard the message he was appointed to speak: God would pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, and only then build and plant.” He felt frightened because he was speak against the status quo, and his own people would turn against him. And God said, “Now, don’t you worry; I am with you; they won’t prevail against you…”
Today we hear Jeremiah pray, “Lord, they are prevailing…They are prevailing because you prevailed over me.” He says, “Lord, you enticed me.” Actually the English translation is a bit weak: in Hebrew it says, “You conned me.” “You deceived me.” Or even, “You seduced me.” To think: God sweet-talks you into something, and then you find out what it really is.
In Jeremiah’s case, he is a preacher – he speaks on behalf of God. When he speaks, it gets him into trouble. So one day he decides to stop speaking – if preaching stirs up trouble, just shut your mouth – but that causes another kind of trouble. It gives him heartburn. He says, “The Word of God is inside me; it’s like a fire in my bones. I have to let it out. I hate to do it, because it stirs up trouble. But if I keep the Word in, it burns up my bones. I have to preach… it’s hard work to keep it in, but it’s hard work if I let it out.”
I don’t know if you know what that’s like, but I do. I love to preach and I hate to preach. I love to stick my nose in scripture and sniff out something to say, but it never comes easily for me. Some of you know my routine: I start working on a year’s worth of sermons during the third week of January; I need a long runway to get each one off the ground. But most of my sermons don’t get finished until midnight or so the night before they’re preached – and even then, they’re not finished until we hear them and digest them. In twenty-two years, I’ve never been able to speed up the process – just ask my family. For me, it’s just bloody hard work.
And then there’s the popularity factor. The preacher is often a Minor League Celebrity, or more accurately the congregation’s Big Mouth. Everything the preacher says or does is amplified. If you like a lot of attention, oh, you’ll get it. You get anonymous letters, quoting you for saying things you didn’t actually say. Or people make big decisions in their lives on the basis of something that accidentally dribbled out of the side of your mouth that you didn’t think of much at the time. Or they get angry about what they think you’re implying.
Or they test you: seventeen years ago today, on my very first Sunday here, a man stopped me in the hallway after the first service to tell me that he didn’t like something I said, and if I would be inclined to change it at the second service, he might be inclined to vote for me as his pastor. I didn’t change it, because I figured if I gave in to him on my very first day, there was no telling what he might want me to change a few weeks later.
I’m convinced there is no crazier job, and no more important job, than to preach the Gospel. Everybody who speaks up for God should have a sign on the desk that quotes the words of Jesus: “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).
Or to put the same thought another way, “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11-12). Just remember: the person who said that was reviled, persecuted, falsely accused, and nailed to a cross. You think they crucified Jesus for being nice? No, they crucified him for telling the truth.
And what’s true for preachers like me is also true for Real Christians like all of you:
- You know what it’s like to speak up for God when people around you want you to hush.
- You know what it’s like to tell the truth to a family full of lies.
- You know what it’s like to treat the wounded neighbor as a Child of God, and you catch some flak for it.
- You know what it’s like to forgive somebody when others think you’re foolish.
- You know what it’s like to feed the hungry in a town where a lot of full dinner plates are scraped into the garbage can.
- You know what it’s like to dig deep and give generously when others are looking to upgrade their luxuries.
- You know what it’s like to commit a Sunday morning to the Lord of your life while others are preoccupied with their own aimlessness.
If you keep standing up and speaking up for God, someone out there will want to muzzle you and knock you down. You’ll be tempted to be quiet and blend in. And maybe you will…for a while. Until something happens, and the fire of God’s Spirit burns in your bones. And it’s burning inside you, and you can’t put it out.
That’s the moment you realize that living out your faith has actually changed you. And there’s no going back. God enticed you into the Kingdom of Heaven, and there’s no going back.
For all of her well-published doubts, Mother Teresa never backed off from her public charity. She may have felt like God disappeared or evaporated, but she never felt the need to reveal her doubts to the millions of people who admired her faith. The story of her journal caught the attention of a reporter out in Detroit last week, who read and pondered it. She saw in Mother Teresa “an intimate sharing of the cross of Christ.”
In the end, she said, Mother Teresa embraced the questions and accepted the darkness of God’s will. “God cannot fill what is full,” Teresa wrote. “God can fill only emptiness. It is not how much we really ‘have’ to give – but how empty we are - so that we can receive fully in our life, and let (God) live (eternal) life in us.”
God’s life is a crucified life. God bears the world’s suffering, and transforms it through endurance and self-sacrifice. God may get quiet, but the fire of the Holy Spirit never goes out.
But I’m not telling you something that you don’t already know. “Come, Holy Spirit.” Burn, baby, burn…
Friday, July 20, 2007
who is on the move all summer.
Katie is hanging out with
4500 of her closest friends.
All of them have landed on the campus of Purdue University for a week of Presbyterian Mayhem, otherwise known as the Youth Triennium.
It's a jam-packed week of fun, study, worship, and service, all aimed at spiritual growth. Katie says, "It's sweet." Then she adds, "Church isn't boring here, Dad."
I'm proud of her. Her honesty is refreshing. Her joy is contagious.
Sunday, July 1, 2007
A - A week with children and grandchildren at the beach.
A family reunion can be a daunting event, especially if it's been a while since all of you have lived under the same roof. Old competitions are renewed. Old nicknames are updated. Somebody is liable to get voted off the island.
The Carter Clan did pretty well, all things considered. We survived a week on the North Carolina beach, and did our best to honor the Old Duffers who raised us. Here is a picture of Dad goosing Mom, and trying not to get caught.
Of course, we love one another very much.
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Good thing that I did. Out of nowhere, a deer leaped onto the road. It kissed my front bumper and blew its nose on my door. Then it ran away.
The car was drivable, but bent. No steam from the radiator, although the plastic grill was smashed. As I continued on to my visit, foul thoughts flooded me. I turned off the car radio so I could snarl to myself. I calculated the approximate expense of repairs. I breathed hot vengeance, and prayed the deer would suffer a miserable death.
Then I arrived at the hospice to visit my friend. Cancer has diminished him considerably. He struggles to stay awake. His wife had warned that his conversations are growing shorter. So we chatted for a few minutes, and I stood to leave.
Before I could sum up our time with a prayer, he asked me what was new with me. "Oh," I said, "a deer hit my car on the way down here."
Well! I had temporarily forgotten he was a retired game warden. Bumper-Kissing Deer were one of his specialties. Suddenly this withered man came fully alive. He asked questions, quoted statistics, told a few anecdotes, and smiled broadly. For the moment, he was completely animated.
We had our prayer. As we said our goodbyes, he added, "Thanks for coming. This is the best thing that happened to me today." My minor car accident had become a blessing for him.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Here's what we saw in Galeton, PA:
I wonder how they made out on the Sunday matinee.
Saturday, May 19, 2007
Near Wall Street, they posed by the bull. Aren't they a good looking bunch?
Around the block, they served breakfast to 125 folks in a downtown soup kitchen. That is, they served the poor who reside in one of the richest neighborhoods of the world.
Even though some of their parents might be astonished, they were actually photographed doing a mop dance. And (don't tell anybody) they enjoyed it!
Wow! Perhaps God is making these Christians into Christians...
I think that's exactly what is going on. And it is a great joy to be their pastor and friend.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
On Saturday, we played a concert at the Ben Avon Community Church. The music was great, but the occasion was bittersweet. Ben Avon's pastor, Brent Dugan, passed away tragically last November. We offered a memorial concert, and presented a new piece of music in memory of Brent. Titled "The Last Word," it's a haunting ballad, and an appropriate way to remember a good soul.
Since we were in the neighborhood, Linda Williams dropped by. We've been pals for twenty years, and it was great to see her. She has always been such an encouragement to me, and was a dear friend of Brent's as well.
The next day, we stop in Sewickley to lead music for two morning services at the Presbyterian Church. Sewickley is a classy town, and it was a hoot to bring some syncopation to the sanctuary. They want us to come back some time, and that would be a lot of fun.
Soon after the benediction, we hit the road for Cleveland, just two hours away. We have an evening concert at the Rocky River Presbyterian Church, in the western suburbs of the city. Al reminds me that it's the home town of Sammy Kaye, the sweet swing bandleader, but I assure him that we won't be playing any of Sammy's music. The crowd is appreciative, and we're grateful to musician Ginny Roedig and pastor Jon Fancher, who serve as our hosts.
Monday is a well-deserved day off. We sleep in, and then I ramble down to the headquarters of the United Church of Christ, which is next door to our hotel. I've been asked to take part in a conversation about the arts, jazz, and church. We're in the Amistad Chapel, a great space where the band played a few years ago.
To my delight, Bob Chase drops by. Bob is a denominational staff leader for the UCC and a creative genius. He and Bill Pindar were the guys who first invited me to make some jazz for the wider church. They think big: it was the 1989 Bicentennial of the Presbyterian Church, and we collaborated on a huge worship service in downtown Philadelphia, right across the street from the Liberty Bell. For obvious reasons, I call him "Long Tall."
My partners in the arts conversation are Cliff Aerie and Dr. Chris Bakriges, founding members of the Oikos Ensemble. Cliff has a great job title with the UCC: he is their official "Minister of Creativity."
We chat a bit, play a little music, and then go for a long cup of coffee. Later on, I hook up again with the quartet, and we have a wonderful dinner in an Irish pub. It's been a relaxing and energizing day.
Today is Tuesday, and we'll head off to Erie. Our concert tonight will be at the Wayside Presbyterian Church, a friendly place that has welcomed our music in the past. It's close to some of my family, and I'm looking forward to seeing them.
Friday, April 20, 2007
Probably not the best selection for the cardiac floor. Could somebody in charge please find a different tune?
Sunday, April 15, 2007
Monday, March 26, 2007
The popular memory of the book of Jonah is that it's a tale of a man who was swallowed by a fish. With a closer look, we discover the Big Fish has a bit part. He's merely the water taxi for a prophet who ran away from God.
There's so much in Jonah's story that is appropriate for Lent. Jonah avoids what God calls him to do, and go in the opposite direction. When the fish carries him back to his jumping-off place, he reluctantly goes to Nineveh, where he was first sent. He preaches a gloom and doom sermon, using a minimum of effort - only five words in Hebrew, only traveling a nominal distance into the city. And he is furious when the whole city repents and God changes his mind about blasting away Jonah's congregation.
"That's why I ran away in the first place," Jonah complains to God. "You're too kind to these people, and I couldn't stomach the fact that you would probably forgive them!"
To put it another way, Jonah is furious because God doesn't run the world according to the laws of punishment. If you do something wrong, there is always the possibility of forgiveness.
This is exactly what Jonah complains about: God is slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy, ready to relent from punishment. He grumbles about it.
All of this is a set-up for God's last word in the book: "Shouldn't I be concerned about 120,000 people who don't know their right hand from the left? And their cattle?" It's a question still dangling in the air. It's a sign that God is interested in something more than punishment.
Thank God that the last word on our lives will be compassion – God’s compassion. Thank God that the end of punishment comes on Good Friday. The world punished Jesus by putting him on a cross - - and when we did that, we ourselves were not punished. Instead we heard the Crucified One pray, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know their right hand from their left.”
Well, so much for scorekeeping. Life is not about keeping track of sins, or clutching our grudges, or clinging to our judgments, or comparing ourselves favorably to others. Life is about the mystery of God’s compassion. Every moment of our lives is a milestone of God’s mercy. Every moment is an extravagant gift we could never afford to purchase. The grace of God is a gift, a free gift to pass along to others.
Makes me wonder: do you suppose the clearest sign that people belong to God is that they've decided to stop punishing one another?
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
This is one of the few prayers of Jesus that has been recorded for us. It comes from the
(1)Jesus is not bashful about saying what he wants.
(2) Jesus knows he may not get what he wants.
(3) Jesus will ultimately align himself with what God is doing in the world.
Anybody who prays can speak of these insights. We must ask God for our heart’s desires. We have to respect God enough to receive whatever answer is given to our requests. And when the dust settles, the deeper call is to accept whatever God provides or doesn’t provide, so that we can participate in God’s greater desires for the world.
Some are surprised that Jesus prayed to avoid his death. That, after all, is the “cup” which he wants removed. The church records this all-too-human moment in the Savior’s life. It seems as if he seeks an alternative to the cross. And why not? There will be humiliation, brutality, scorn, and heavenly silence. What healthy soul seeks such things?
Yet, whatever the reason, no alternative is provided - - and Jesus is crucified.
Later in Luke’s writings, the church will declare that Christ’s death on the cross was the “definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Yes, but such declarations can never be made in advance. It’s only after we hear the sound of hammer and nails that we hear Jesus pray again: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” God answers that prayer affirmatively. The cross becomes the signpost of salvation.
Centuries later, there’s a chapel in the
Saturday, March 17, 2007
Nobody we know is neutral about the parade. With a small Jesuit college near the parade route, there's no telling what you might see. Two years ago, three undergrads wandered down the middle of Mulberry Street. Shirtless, they were insulated in green body paint. One was swigging from a gallon milk jug that he had loaded full of stout. It was only 8:45 in the morning.
The local Irish Christians don't seem embarrassed by any of this, even though there is nothing in the stories of St. Patrick to authorize it. The ancient saint was abducted by pirates (probably with their own snouts full of stout). Taken to Ireland against his will, Patrick escaped six years later and returned home.
Then he experienced a call from God to return to Ireland and preach the Gospel. Ever thankful to God for his previous escape, he followed orders and did just that. The legend is that he drove out the snakes off of Ireland by preaching the Gospel to them. Who am I to argue with that?
Each year I am concerned about the local alcohol abuse in mid-March. While tavern owners in a Rust Belt city argue that it's good for business, it is a waste of perfectly good brain cells.
Not only that: I thought that Irish Christians were generally more serious about keeping a holy season of Lent. Given the current practice, the only repentance seems to take place on the morning after. And it lasts for only fifty-one weeks. Or less.
Friday, March 2, 2007
Glenn was getting out of the Navy, with dreams of becoming an engineer. Elizabeth Ann (or as her sisters called her, "Betsy") was going to retire as a secretary and raise a house full of children.
Fifty years later, their four children celebrate the remarkable life that they have shared. The love of our Mom and Dad continues to shape us in so many ways.
On March 2, we gathered in an Italian restaurant to celebrate their golden anniversary. Dad surprised Mom by flying in my sister Mary from Atlanta. She's seated next to Mom on the left, and announced she and her husband Brian will have their first baby in November. So God's generosity continues!
Brother Dave (dressed in blue) arranged the dinner, with his bride Julie preparing a delicious cake at their nearby home. My other sister Debbie is getting around pretty well after a knee replacement; she's leaning over the table on the right and mugging for the camera. Four of the grandkids are lurking at the far end of the table.
The Cute Couple continue to inspire us all, and had no problem aiming the cake at one another's mouths. They continue to be our role models for life and love, and we are so proud to be their children!
Thank God for parents like them.
Wednesday, February 21, 2007
So I spent the evening smudging ashes on Presbyterian foreheads, reminding people that their days are numbered. It was a peculiarly Christian way to spend my birthday.
My brief sermon reflected on a phrase overheard in a nearby Catholic hospital earlier in the day. After announcing that ashes would be distributed in the institution's chapel, a cheerful voice added, "Have a happy Ash Wednesday." The sermon said something like this:
“You are dust,” says the Lord our God. Don’t forget that we flourish only as the wind of God’s Spirit fills our lungs. Don’t fall into the illusion that we are more than we are. Stay humble, and depend on God for everything.
Saturday, February 17, 2007
Dr. Metzger was a legend at Princeton Theological Seminary. A graduate of the Class of 1938, he taught the New Testament to hundreds of students. He chaired the translation committee for the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, an enormous undertaking that shaped Protestantism for the past fifty years.
When I took two classes from him in the early 1980's, he treated us to adventure stories from his work on the New Revised Standard Version, for which he also chaired the committee for the National Council of Churches. Apparently he had a file filled with hate mail, mostly from silly people who declared, "If the King James Bible was good enough for St. Paul, it's good enough for me."
What do I remember most about Dr. Metzger? His encyclopedic memory. His clear lectures. His calm prayers before class. His extraordinary scholarship. His gentle smile. His killer exams. Most of all, I remember his deep love of scripture. It was written upon his heart, and testified to his faith in God.
We took off our shoes for the final lecture of his teaching career and left them outside the lecture hall. Whenever Bruce Metzger taught the Bible, it was holy ground.
May the teacher's voice continue.
To read more about his extraordinary ministry of teaching, click here.
Wednesday, February 14, 2007
So far we've run the snowblower three times. In our home, my wife and I race to see who could get outside first to use it. This is further evidence that I married the right person. When she returns from the latest pass, I'll make omelettes and home fries. Why give our money to an overpriced restaurant on Valentine's Day when we can enjoy a meal at home?
Today will offer an opportunity to finish a good book and sink into another. Sometimes the "church work" precludes the deeper work of thinking and praying, which is what I often do as I read a book. I don't read as quickly as I once did; but I try to read more deeply.
And some time this afternoon, we'll watch the quintessential snow day film, "Nobody's Fool." The 1994 feature has been a continuing favorite. This was Jessica Tandy's last film, and features Paul Newman as a cranky loner who rediscovers his son.
For those who haven't seen it, it's a slow moving film. The ensemble cast gives a great depiction of small town life. There are plenty of well-seasoned characters who rely on one another. Living in subsistence circumstances in upstate New York, they gather at the local bar to bet on Judge Wapner's verdicts, contend with one another's estranged relationships, and live with a realistic assessment of one another's strengths and weaknesses. I love the truthfulness of the film.
The townspeople in the movie form a curious parish. I'm reminded that the wise pastor is the one who gets to know folks over a long time. You learn the nuances of their relationships and the depths of their personalities. You observe the ways that they fail and succeed. And when true change and growth occur in their lives, you can discern it as a blessed sign of God's activity.
This knowledge doesn't accumulate quickly. It runs counter to the impulse to use other people. It resists the desire to consume them for purposes of our own. It aspires to be deeply accepting, and intuitive of what divine forces are at work in regular lives.
Observing God's activity is always slow work, and those who leap to conclusions about it are usually wrong.
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Last night she started with the varsity girl's basketball team. Her coach didn't think that it mattered that Selena was born with Down Syndrome. Just like her parents, he believed she should have an equal chance to be one of the gang.
The crowd roared when Selena hit her first shot during warmups. They went bananas when she scored the first basket of the game.
Her coach told the newspaper, "Winning basketball games is nothing compared to seeing the smile on her face tonight. And I've won over 400 games, and some big games. But to hear the people cheering for Selena Waters, you can't put that into words."
The coach for the opposing team brought his granddaughter to the game to meet Selena. She has Down Syndrome, too. He said, "I don't even know what the score was tonight, and I don't care. You witnessed something that is life changing. In my thousands of games as a player and a coach, this rates up there as one of the highlights of my career."
And what's the name of the other coach's granddaughter? Grace.
Here is a parable of God's love. The unearned love of God levels every playing field, declaring that God makes winners, not losers. Sometimes we see it. When we do, we spread the word.
You can read the news story by clicking here. Or you can click below and see the news clip. Either way, it was one of those "you had to be there" moments.
Monday, February 5, 2007
It was a deep privilege to spend four days as their worship leader and preacher. A number of friends agreed to help me out, including Wild Bill Pindar, my creative consultant (pictured left).
It was only fair to involve him. He was the first person to con me into playing jazz piano for a large group of Presbyterians. That was also in Philadelphia, back when the General Assembly of the church was celebrating its bicentennial. Pindar put me behind a piano across the street from the Liberty Bell. We were quickly joined by twenty-foot high puppets, jugglers, and the Ghost of John Witherspoon (the only minister to sign the Declaration of Independence).
This conference was filled with other extraordinary characters, many of whom I've met over the twenty-plus years that I've served the church. It was Old Home Week, in a way.
What remains after this extraordinary week is the binding power of Christian friendship. So many dear people, so many connections between us. And we all enjoy the work of nurturing the Christian faith of those entrusted to us.
There are some cranks out there who think the Presbyterian Church is facing "utter ruin." Really? On what alternative planet are they residing? From where I sit, God continues to keep quite busy. Lives are being transformed through the work of Christian Educators, and I am proud to count them as my friends and companions in the work of Jesus Christ.
Tuesday, January 30, 2007
For God's part, God sent a lot of rain.
As for the Presbyterians, they were people like Andrew Carnegie, Andrew Mellon, and Henry Clay Frick - wealthy industrialists who made millions on steel and railroads. They built a hunting camp about fifteen miles uphill from Johnstown. When summer came, it was a great place to escape the stress of their mansions in Pittsburgh.
However they didn't pay attention to the quality of the dam that created their fishing lake. They ignored warnings that the dam wasn't safe. After God sent all the rain, and the dam burst, and the flood waters roared down the hill, those rich old Covenanters made token donations to the victims' relief fund. Then they said, "Maybe we should start summering in the Adirondacks. Or in Paris."
As David McCullough reminds us, "There is a danger in assuming that because people are in positions of responsibility they are necessarily behaving responsibility."
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Winter has its inevitable place in the human condition. Farmers know that in the rhythm of the year and the nature of the soil, there is a reason for fields to lie fallow for a season. So too we know that in the rhythm of the day and the nature of the soul, there are reasons for the pace of our thought and for our spiritual reflection to vary. (The Promise of Winter, p. 7)
The promise of winter, says Dr. Marty, is not an easy or inevitable spring. Rather the promise comes from God who speaks throughout the seasons. Sometimes the heavy snow slows us down, cancels all distractions, and causes us to be more careful with our lives. A good storm can also invite us to catch up with the inward movements of the soul that we've been too busy to notice.
On a snow day I pulled on my boots and took the camera outside. The digital camera that normally sees in color began to catch images in shades of black and white. That seems to be the invitation, not only of winter, but of the spiritual life. We can discover the places within us that have lost their luster, and we can reflect on the situations that beg for a fresh covering.
Meanwhile the snow still falls through no power of our own, and there's something purifying about it. The white blanket covers the grunge of an unkempt backyard. The lumps and dents in an uneven lawn are leveled off. Dull ordinary things suddenly look better than we expected. It's true that a snowfall can present a necessary burden to remove or blow away. But it can also create new forms of beauty.
What do we need most - beauty or burden - as we begin our late winter journey toward the cross?
Keep the faith, and drive carefully out there.