Monday, December 10, 2007

In praise of Meg

My "baby" is twelve years old. She loves to read long novels, and keeps her mind nimble by playing challenging games on the computer.

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

Imagine There's a Heaven

Thinking about a dream-like poem from today's scripture text (Isaiah 65:17-25), I remember a monument in Manhattan. It's near the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West. The peaceful spot is shaped as a teardrop, set among a grove of elm trees. At the intersection of three paths is a mosaic of black and white stones imported from Italy. In the center of the mosaic is a single word: “Imagine.”

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.

Isaiah draws such a picture in chapter 65 of his book. No more weeping, no more crying. Children grow up in safety to a ripe old age. There is a continuity of generations. No more of the disruption of exile: if you build a house, you get to live in it. If you plant a vineyard, you will enjoy its wine. People will be rooted. They will flourish in well-being. This is one of the great pictures of peace in the Hebrew Bible, perhaps the clearest picture after the Garden of Eden.

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

Matthew, Blow Your Horn

That's my tall nephew Matt tooting on a trombone. He is a really fine musician. In one of God's little ironies, he loves jazz - - which drives his mother (my sister) crazy.

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

Everybody has a shelf life

So I went into a religious bookstore yesterday, and immediately saw a sale rack. I never pass them up. I found a bargain or two and tucked them under my arm.

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

Thank God for Her

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

The Punchline

Just finished reading Harper Lee's classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird. I can’t remember if I read it as I was supposed to in eighth grade, but I did read it recently. Six-year old Scout is not sure about living in Maycomb, Alabama. It’s a scary place. There’s a cranky lady who judges the world from her front porch. A black man named Tom Robinson is falsely condemned for a crime he didn’t commit. The school kids pick fights when Scout’s attorney father defends Tom in court. At the end of their street is a spooky neighbor named Boo. The whole novel is about Scout coming to terms with the neighborhood. On the very last page of the book is the moral of the story. Scout is talking to her daddy Atticus at bed time, and complaining that people around town are accusing a neighbor kid of something he didn’t do. She says:

“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

Song of the Lonely City: a World Communion Sermon

Song of the Lonely City
Lamentations 1:1-11
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1)
This is a day when we imagine a world-wide community. We gather under the promise that “people shall gather from east and west, from north and south,” to sit at Table in the Kingdom of God.
How ironic that we are given a poem about a city that fell apart! Once it was a great city, a “princess among the provinces.” Now the streets are empty. The playful laughter of children is replaced by bitter weeping. The once-busy city is described as a lonely woman, a widow who cannot be consoled. The dream of community has been fractured. Today it’s worth reflecting on how this happens. A community is an interactive series of human relationships. How can it become a shadow of what it once was?
Some time back, I tried to take a shortcut from on the way from Harrisburg to Bloomsburg. The map suggested Route 61 north, somewhere around Frackville. I took the exit, went over the hill, and found myself in a strange site. The road I was traveled took an abrupt detour, with an ominous sign: “Warning - Danger! Underground Mine Fire.” Just beyond it, there was another sign: “Welcome to Centralia, Pennsylvania.”
I had heard about this place, but was not prepared for what I saw. There were sections where the asphalt road had melted and pulled apart. White smoke billowed out of gashes in the ground. The grass was burned yellow. Trees still standing had no leaves. Stovepipes spew steam and carbon monoxide from beneath the soil. At St. Ignatius Cemetery there was a freshly dug grave – the grim joke among the locals is that you can be buried and cremated at the same time, no extra charge.
The most haunting sight was how empty that community had become. Centralia is nearly a ghost town – just a handful of houses remaining, inhabited by seven survivors who can’t afford to buy another or are too proud to move. The coal mine fire has burned underground for forty-five years. Most of the row homes that once stood together are were plowed under or hauled away, although a few solitary places stand all alone.
Now the reason I describe all of this is to tell you how Centralia got this way. Two things happened: a mistake and the poison. The mistake was when somebody burned some garbage in 1962, and it was a little close to the coal vein. Nobody intended it to catch fire, but it did. It hasn’t gone out. And then the poison got in the soil and in the air. That’s when everybody began to move away. The community came unglued.
There are mistakes. There is poison. This is what somebody like Jeremiah is lamenting in the poem we heard today. The mistakes – the human errors – are the things that start the fire. The poison is what keeps being generated. As Jeremiah describes a lonely city, smoldering and steaming after invaders destroyed it, he can’t help but remember all the mistakes and bad decisions that brought the city to this point. As he considers the wreckage and the desolation of what is still their home, he sniffs the poison in the air: all the blaming, the denial of responsibility, the warlike tendencies.
This is not, of course, what God wants for us. God wants people to live together in peace, to dwell in unity as sisters and brothers, to live without division or destruction. God wants the one community of human beings to get along.
At times, God allows us to live with the consequences of our actions. Surely that’s what the poet means by saying, “the Lord makes us to suffer for the multitude of transgressions.” God did not make the mess; people did, and they have to live with the consequences of what they've done or left undone. It’s just that simple.
Nobody can blame God for the mistakes we make or the poisons we manufacture. Historian David McCullough talks about the Johnstown Flood, another Pennsylvania disaster that destroyed a city. After the flood, some preachers on higher ground declared it was God’s judgment on a guilty land. McCullough says slyly, “If that’s the case, God should have better aim; the flood blasted into churches and missed most of the bordellos.”
No, don’t blame God for that one. The Johnstown Flood happened because wealthy Presbyterians up in a hunting camp didn’t take care of a dam, showing little regard for the peasants downstream. Maybe you noticed: God doesn’t usually fish us out of our blunders or our short-sightedness.
What God does provide, however, is forgiveness for our mistakes and fumigation for our poisons. That’s what happens in the cross of Jesus. It was the mistake of humanity to nail him there, yet he took that – and all the poison that surrounded it – he took it away.
In the words of one early preacher, “In Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has … broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us… that he might create in himself one new humanity… reconciling people to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” (Ephesians 2:13-16)
This is what gathers people from east and west, from north and south, to sit at one Table in God’s kingdom. It’s the promise that nothing needs to have the power to divide us. Thanks to Jesus Christ we are brought together - - one to another, all of us to God. The pains and poisons of the world never need to break us apart.
As we come to God’s Table, we have the opportunity to leave our mistakes behind, to let God’s love cancel them, and then to begin living toward God’s dream of “one humanity.” The promise of the Gospel is that every ghost town is haunted by the Holy Ghost. Every painful ending has the promise of a new beginning. Every divided family and destroyed home can be rebuilt somewhere by the God who wishes us all to be rebuilt.
These are the promises of broken bread and poured-out wine. And they are available to every last one of us – taste and see!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

A sermon: "Can't Shut Him Up"

On the brink of my 22nd anniversary as a minister of Word and Sacrament, here's a sermon that hints at the crazy work that I do...

Can’t Shut Him Up

Jeremiah 20:7-13

September 30, 2007

We have been working through the poems and prayers of Jeremiah. That’s how the prophets of Bible speak: in super-charged language, through poems and prayers. The poems are addressed to people; the prayers are addressed to God. Today it’s a prayer - - and it happens right after Jeremiah is beaten by a priest named Pashhur. After being struck, he is locked in the stocks. It’s a restraining device, and it doesn’t restrain Jeremiah at all. After he condemns Pashhur the priest with a poem, he turns to God with a prayer. It goes like this:

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.”[1]

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

In Praise of Katherine

I praise my first-born child,
Katherine Ann,
who is on the move all summer.

Right now,
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

Celebrating Family

Q - What do you give to parents who have everything?
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

"The Best Thing That Happened to Me Today"

Today I decided to take the back way to visit a man under hospice care. Winding over the mountain on my way to Mid-Valley Hospital, I noticed two cars paused ahead of me in opposing lanes, with the drivers chatting with one another. So I slowed down.

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

If you forget to preach the Gospel... can always turn your church into a movie theater! Sell those stained glass windows, board up the holes, and put up a marquee. Strange, but true.

Here's what we saw in Galeton, PA:

I wonder how they made out on the Sunday matinee.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Faith Confirmed

We took nine saints-in-training to a weekend in New York City. These seventh and eight graders are in our confirmation class.

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 the Road

I think I'm the only Presbyterian minister who takes a week of vacation to tour with a jazz quartet. For five days I'm out on the road with the Presbybop Quartet. The whirlwind tour is taking us through Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Erie.

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

Who picks the tunes for Muzak?

OK, so yesterday I'm visiting a patient in a nearby hospital. As I walk down the hall, I recognize the "ambient melody" coming from the speakers overhead. It's a Duke Ellington tune called, "I've Got It Bad, and That Ain't Good."

Probably not the best selection for the cardiac floor. Could somebody in charge please find a different tune?

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Evidence of Easter: Forgiveness

In the 20th chapter of John, the Risen Christ returns to speak a word to the church: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
The Greek word for “forgive” is cancel. The Greek word for “retain” is clutch. That’s the eternal choice: are you going to cancel or clutch? Are you going to let go or hang on? Amazingly, many of the people who struggle the most with this choice are church people.
I subscribe to a magazine called The Presbyterian Outlook. About three weeks ago, the editor wrote a wonderful piece on the power of forgiveness. I know the man, so I went online to the magazine website and wrote a quick note of thanks. “Your work is consistently helpful,” I said, “and I really appreciated the article.”
No more than twenty minutes later, I received a piece of hate mail. Actually it was a piece of hate e-mail. A minister in West Virginia had read my two-sentence note online, and fired back his artillery at me. With plenty of angry words, he called my friend a hack, told me how he has ruined the magazine, and said in no uncertain terms that I was wrong to give him a compliment, because it’s people like him who are "destroying our church." Then he added a few surreal words: “And have a happy Easter.”
Anybody who stands up in front of other people for a living will receive some unusual mail; I've certainly had my share. If it’s signed, it goes into a file. If it’s unsigned, it goes into the circular file. This was really unusual, because it’s the first time I was ever condemned for complimenting somebody for an article on forgiveness. Obviously he’s still clutching something that he doesn’t want to let go.
What do you do? Do you forgive or retain? Cancel or clutch? For my part I decided to cancel the poison; I looked at that nasty e-mail and hit the word “delete.” And I pray God will lighten the writer’s heart so he can release his grip on my friend.
In the words of Lewis Smedes, "When you forgive, you set a prisoner free. And then you discover that the prisoner was you."

Monday, March 26, 2007

No Mere Fish Story

Just finished preaching through the book of Jonah. I took on successive chapters for the four Sundays of March, and the experience was a hoot.

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

On prayers in the Garden

“Then Jesus withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:41-42)

This is one of the few prayers of Jesus that has been recorded for us. It comes from the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his arrest, and it teaches three truths about prayer:

(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 Garden of Gethsemane called “The Church of All Nations.” It is surrounded by olive trees. In the garden, tour guides chat piously how some of those trees are ancient enough to have heard Jesus pray. Maybe so. But as you approach the door of the chapel, a sign warns: “No Explanations Inside the Church.”

The chapel of prayer is not a place for tourists or pious chatter. It is only for those who stand before the mystery of God’s ways in the world. It is for those who ask while kneeling.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

How St. Patty Drove Out the Snakes

Last Saturday was the big St. Patrick's Day parade in nearby Scranton. It's touted as the "third largest St. Patrick's parade in the country." There are some who believe it's held a week earlier than the actual holiday so that people can get intoxicated two weekends in a row.

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

To Mom and Dad on their 50th anniversary

They look so young in the old black and white photograph. The country boy with his flat-top, the small town girl who wasn't quite twenty-one. So full of promise and hope.

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

Have a happy...

My 47th birthday landed on Ash Wednesday this year. I would have preferred a Fat Tuesday celebration with a Dixieland band, but the calendars didn't intersect that way.

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.
  • There is a special kind of happiness in accepting such limits. We don’t have to worry how the day will turn out. This is the day that the Lord has made, and that is enough. We don’t have to fret how we shall save the world before we fall asleep; the world already has a Savior and we have to trust he will get it done. We don’t have to fear that we can’t accomplish everything we hope to do; there will never be enough time for that any way, so let's lean back into God’s stronger arms, and learn how blessed it is to receive.
It was an honest acknowledgement for somebody on the brink of Old Dufferhood. Each day is a gift from God, and I am grateful for the life that God has given me.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The teacher's voice

Word has come that Dr. Bruce Metzger has died. He was the only person I've met whose name is actually published in my Bible. He was only 93 when he died.

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

The Grace of a Good Snow Day

A nor'easter storm has slowed our region to a crawl. It's the first real storm of winter, and couldn't have come at a better time. On a snow day, you stick to what's necessary and help out your neighbors. Everything else is left to grace.

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

Hooray for Selena

Meet Selena Waters. She's one of the wonderful kids in the youth group at our church. Selena is a senior at Abington Heights High School. She's also one of the best deacons we've ever had at First Presbyterian.

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

How do you spell APCE?

Just returned from a wonderful conference in Philadelphia. It's sponsored by the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators, or APCE. This is a fun group, and about 1100 of them showed up for their annual get-together in Philadelphia.

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

Lesson from Johnstown

I've been reading David McCullough's book on the Johnstown Flood. It was one of the greatest natural disasters in America, and over two thousand people died when it struck in 1889. Until I read the book, I didn't realize that the flood was caused by God and the Presbyterians.

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

The Promise of Winter

One of my treasured books for this time of year is a book of winter reflections by Martin Marty. Commenting on black and white seasonal photos taken by his son, Dr. Marty believes winter is a promising time for spiritual reflection. As he notes,

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.