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.