Jan 28, 2010

The Best Way to Listen

In our philosophy class at Navarro Community College (Midlothian campus) several of the students were discussing how no one really listens anymore. The pupil’s observation reminded me of a Max Dupree story—always a good thing. Here it is:

The Marquis de Custine, a French traveler, was crossing with a group of Russian nobles from Sweden to St. Petersburg in the nineteenth century. The Russians were discussing the burdens of attending at the Czar’s court, among which was the obligation to listen politely to all sorts of trivial and boring conversation. They were trying to determine the best way of appearing to listen, since we all admire attentiveness. The Frenchmen made a simple observation. “The best way of appearing to listen,” he said, “is to listen” (Max Dupree, Leadership Jazz, Dell, New York, 1992, pp. 28-9).

As I think about the life of the church, one of the greatest gifts we give one another here at FUMC, Arlington, is the gift of an attentive ear.

Jan 23, 2010

We Live in a Different World

Paul writes, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). When I was a child there was a general respect for all things church. Even the most heathen—many of my Dad’s friends, for example—were people who at least feigned respect for pastors and church folks. I am not naive enough to think that preachers like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Baker (along with their local minions and impersonators) did not add fuel to the disrespect fire—no doubt they did. But for me, I remember the day the gloves came off and I realized what people like me were up against.

When I was a graduate student at the University of Texas I attended many classes—that was part of the education drill. One afternoon a particularly irritating student stated an opinion that not only was objectionable to me personally and the rest of the class, but he had avowed factual errors in presenting his case. Naturally, as a seeker of truth, I could not sit idly by and let his statements go unchallenged, so I answered his assertions point by point. I got carried away by my own indignation and pretty well demolished the young man and his opinions in a quite comprehensive way.

At the conclusion of my harangue, the room was silent for some time; even the professor had nothing to say. Finally, perhaps as a way to break the tension, one of the other students said, “Say, aren’t you some kind of a preacher?” Everyone laughed loudly and for a long time. The student’s quip discounted everything I had said, whether or not it had merit as truth. It was as if because I was a preacher that I could not really have anything worthwhile for a secular class in the university. It is against this low estate of the preaching office that many preachers must now fight in order to get a hearing.

And yet people need to hear a word of hope and sometimes a word of challenge—it is into this circumstance people like your pastors try to step. Sometimes we succeed and at times perhaps we do not. But God originally built Christ’s church on preaching and it is has been the best way we have to deliver the gospel message to the world for the last 21 centuries or so.

As Paul asked rhetorically, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:14, 15, 17).

Jan 16, 2010

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

On Monday, 18 January 2010 we as a nation will observe Martin Luther King’s birthday although he was in fact born at noon on 15 January 1929. Many folks deeply appreciate this day and how it shapes our best inclinations as human beings. Of course when we celebrate the civil rights struggle that Dr. King led America through in the 1960s, it also brings to mind Jesus’ words in the first century. In Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount we read:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same” (Matthew 5:43-47)?

Do any of us like every person we know? Of course not, but Jesus calls on us to respect a person and not to prejudge them based on race, religion, creed, national origin, and so on. Jesus tells us to love one another—he never says we must like them. On a day like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day the world needs us to remember the dignity of other people and the implicit suggestion that our right to being is no more, or no less, than any other person’s right to being. As Paul reminds us, we may not be equals in our blessedness, but we are indisputably united by our sin: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Sometimes it saddens me when I read some random e-mail or another that puts a whole race or religion or language group or gender down simply because it differs from the sender. God created us all—for better or for worse. My prayer this week as we try to comprehend the tragic circumstances in Haiti (that has even touched individuals in our own congregation) is that we need each other and need one another desperately. To pick a fight with another group of people simply because of the actions of a few seems illogical at best. May we “guard each man’s dignity and save each man’s pride” as the hymn They’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love suggests.

Last, thank you for not sending me or forwarding to me hateful e-mails that degrade any people or groups—as I have enough demons of my own.

Jan 9, 2010

Beginning Again

Doris Mortman once wrote, “Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have.” I can’t say as I have ever heard of Doris, but I think I would enjoy visiting with her. When Paul was writing out of deep gratitude to the church at Philippi, one of the things he wrote follows:

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress” (Philippians 4:11-14).

It takes integrity to finally be able to say who we are. Of course that does not mean we stop trying to grow or do what Wesley urged when he wrote and spoke of “going on to perfection”—that is “being made perfect in love in this life.” The integrity comes by finally and simply making a stake in life that says “I stand for these things.”

In this vein as we begin a new year and strive to be what we were created to be, Socrates’ words have a ring of helpful truth about them: “The way to gain a good reputation is to endeavor to be what you desire to appear.”

Jan 2, 2010

You can be an evangelist . . . Invite a Friend to Church!

Sometimes the “liturgical” among us will ask me either what I want for Epiphany (tongue-in-cheek) or what the church wants. I have been thinking about this some and I decided if I wanted anything, or the church needed anything, it would be an inviting attitude of Christian hospitality from our wonderful church members.

Thus, if you want to give a gift of love to someone, then, invite a friend, neighbor, co-worker, or family member to attend a service with you during this season of Epiphany or Lent which follows. Afterward, you might even go so far as to share a meal with your guests and talk with them about how important your faith is to you.

Believe it or not, this kind of gracious hospitality we can offer with an affable spirit. Many people are receptive to an invitation by a friend to attend worship at or around the Epiphany season as it this worship season that begins a New Year and people want to become better than they are. The New Year allows all of us to start over. For some of us, the person who introduced us to Jesus may have been one of the most warm-hearted, far-seeing people we have ever known.

Go and be that person for someone else. Become for them a great Epiphany present.

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