Dec 26, 2011

After All

After all . . . the eating, presents, and falderal

Now that Christmas 2011 is beginning to fade, I'll share a quick note. My friend Rev. Tom Butts, who has preached here several times, reminded me of civil rights leader and theologian Dr. Howard Thurman’s free-verse poem, "The Work of Christmas, which is about taking Christmas beyond December 25:

When the song of the angel is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home.
When the shepherds are back with their flocks;
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart . . . .

If and when we can contemplate these things, then we keep the "Christ" in Christmas as so may advocate, but fail to live. May we be part of a year-long Christmas miracle!

Dec 19, 2011

How to Make Christmas a Trivial Pursuit

We often we trivialize things in holy seasons—like God’s promise in Advent, as we rush to celebrate Christmas. Habitually, we miss the celebration of Christmas because we are too busy making plans for it. It is yet another case of “missing the forest for the trees.”

Here is a fine story about missing “the whole point.” Pianist Arthur Rubinstein once hosted a dinner party to honor Russian composer, pianist and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff. During the course of the evening, Rachmaninoff said he thought the Grieg piano concerto the greatest ever written. When Rubinstein said he had just recorded it, Rachmaninoff insisted on hearing it then and there. During coffee, Rubinstein put on the proofs of the record and Rachmaninoff, closing his eyes, settled down to listen. He listened right through without saying a word. At the end of the concerto he opened his eyes and said, “Piano is out of tune.”

Or a more mundane story about the trivial involves a first person account of a summer that ended in Yellowstone National Park. I do not know who wrote the story, but it is instructive nonetheless.

Years ago, the unknown writer writes,
I spent a summer teaching in Mexico. Both my children went with me. To pass the time as we drove, my 13-year-old son Larry watched for license plates. The trip to Mexico netted him plates from 24 states, and while we were there he saw four more. So when we started back, he was over halfway to having “collected” all 50.

Our return trip was during the peak vacation season, and to top it off, we went through Yellowstone National Park—a license-plate collector’s paradise. By the morning of the second day there, he had just one more state to go: Delaware. Larry became obsessed with finding a license plate from Delaware. When we stopped to see Yellowstone’s magnificent sights, he didn’t glance at them. He preferred to run up and down the parking lots, looking at license plates. Talk about stress! Talk about anxiety! You would have thought that his whole life depended on finding a Delaware license plate! When we stopped to eat in a cafeteria near Yellowstone Falls, my son begged me to let him look for license plates. Please, I don’t want to eat,” Larry said. “Can’t I just stay here in the parking lot?” “No,” we told him, “you have to eat.”

So he went inside and ate as quickly as he could get the food down and then headed out to the parking lot. No sooner had we finished our meal, however, than Larry came bounding across the parking lot. “Come here!  You’ve got to see it! You won’t believe it if you don’t see it!” All of us went running out—and there, pulling out of a parking space, was a blue Volkswagen bus with Delaware license plates. We even got a picture, and today, a decade later, when we look at our pictures of Yellowstone, that’s the picture that tells what we did in Yellowstone that summer.
When you seek the spirit of Christmas don’t miss it by playing real life trivial pursuit!

Dec 16, 2011

The Language of Gratitude

The language we learn shapes us as human beings. In face, in part, language is what makes us human. Infants learn what “mamma” and “dada” mean and associate these names with certain people. Part of going to law school, as I understand from some of my lawyer buddies, is to learn a certain kind of language that no normal human beings can know without a legal education. The same may be said of medical school, and even, perhaps, schools of theology. We become part of a certain group to the extent that the group initiates us. I heard one of my friends once say, “I want to yell for my child during her soccer game, but I’m not sure what to yell.” Part of the initiation into a group is to learn a special language. As we learn to speak that language, the group initiates us. To teach words is to teach skills and attitudes.

As the pastor of a generous church, I want folks to know how much I appreciate what our bighearted congregation does for others. I try to be bighearted this way as well, because being ungrateful for what we have and what are as gifts from God is downright sinful. Perhaps, there is no person who ever disappoints us as much as an ingrate.

“What is an ingrate?” you might ask. An ingrate is a person who presumes upon the goodness of another. In fact, from the spiritual point of view, ingratitude expresses immaturity. Small children do not always appreciate what parents do for them. Have you ever noticed that children are not born grateful? That is why we tell them and try to teach them over and over, “Say thank you to the nice lady for the candy . . . or else?”

Like the spiritually immature, a small child’s concern is not what a parent did for him or her yesterday, but what the parent is doing for the child right now. The spiritually mature appreciate those who labored for them in the past. A spiritually mature person understands that a relationship with another—whether the relationship is with another person or even with God—is a relationship that takes into account past, present and future.

The story of Andrew Carnegie, a multimillionaire in the early part of last century, depicts a tragic sense of ingratitude. When Carnegie’s will was probated, he left $1 million to one of his relatives, who in return cursed Carnegie because he had left $365 million to public charities and had cut him off with just one measly million.

This reminds us of an old saying about those who complain too much: “You will find that, as a rule, those who complain about the way the ball bounces are usually the ones who dropped it.”

Dec 12, 2011

Thoughts on Wilderness, Jail and Christmas

Many summers ago, I taught the preaching workshop at our Annual Conference Licensing School. There I met Ben Busheyhead, the pastor of a small inner city United Methodist Church in Milwaukee. The week after we met, Ben returned to Milwaukee while the media horrified our nation with stories about Jeffery Dahmer. I called Ben and he told me that Dahmer lived only eight blocks from his church. Creepy!

I don’t suppose anyone ever assumed Dahmer’s innocence. Yet, Jeffery notwithstanding, we know historically jails have hosted many innocent people through the ages.

Prison, I think is an equivalent in our society of the wilderness experience - a time of trials from which one emerges stronger in both person and faith. For some, prison becomes a place to incubate hate. For others, prison becomes a place to find God, hammering out a vision of what life with God would look like.

For example, the seeds necessary to sign a Camp David Peace Accord between Egypt and Israel in 1979 were sown in Egyptian president Anwar Sadat while he was in prison. Eldridge Cleaver, the former Black Panther Party leader, turned his life around in a way that is little short of remarkable in prison. As I thought about John the Baptizer this week, I realized that he too spent time in prison, like other jailbirds heroes of faith: Joseph, Jeremiah, Samson, Peter and even Paul.

What all this may mean, is that when we find God, it may not be at the optimum moment of spiritual seeking. Nor is it always in ways we might think of as religious. The people of Israel, for example, found their God in bondage to both Egypt and Babylonia. God then called them into the wilderness. Likewise, those Christians who kept winding up in Roman jails, constructed much of the good theology in Acts of the Apostles.

Sometime, such an experience can be the defining moment in a person's life. On April 8, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor involved in the German resistance movement against Nazism, preached his last sermon in a small schoolhouse serving as a prison in Schonberg, Germany.  He preached “without ornamentation, liturgy, or religious trappings” for Protestants, Catholics, agnostics and atheists. After the closing prayer, guards summoned him from the schoolroom. Dietrich then spoke to his fellow prisoner Payne Best and said, “This is the end - for me the beginning of life.” For resisting the Third Reich the Nazis hanged Bonhoeffer the next day.

How fitting is it that Bonhoeffer preached on that last day of his life? It is symbolic of a neglected side of his person and work, his love for preaching, and listening to sermons. We know Bonhoeffer for his endorsement of “religion-less Christianity” and for rejecting “cheap grace,” but these famous expressions tend to eclipse his love for the church and his devotion to the Word of God preached. He never forgot his love for God for a moment—even in prison.

If, for some reason this holiday season, you keep thinking to yourself, “It sure doesn’t seem like Christmas,” do not worry. The great gift of the Advent-Christmas worship cycle is the gift of Christ which is none other than the word of God made flesh. Also, remember these words to encourage you when you are feeling un-Christmassy: “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2).

Dec 6, 2011

Pearl Harbor and Relationships

One aim of human beings is to love other people and for other people to love us in return. Love often occurs within the limits of relationships; without relationships love cannot exist. For this reason, people make commitments to one another to forge and nurture relationships. Even the best of friendships, however, need constant maintenance.

As I write these words, a very few veterans of World War II commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor bombing. Both distance and the passing of years separate many of these military folks. Yet, as a way to keep their friendships whole, they come together as they are able for important anniversaries. They also come together to observe the importance of what they did in their nation’s service. The covenant of friendship is often a difficult relationship to maintain. Despite the difficulty, however, many people find that their investment in friendship provides their lives both value and meaning.

Our relationship with God is similar to having a relationship with friends. Friendship draws us closer to our friends. The more we practice faithful living, the closer God draws us into the divine realm. Augustine once prayed, “You [O Lord] stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (St. Augustine, Confessions, Book I). In our most honest moments, most believers desire a deeper relationship with God. As Christ mediates the covenant between God and people, we have a guide by which to live full lives. God promises that we can know God. If we take the covenant promise to heart, or better, if we allow God to place that promise within us, then we live lives that please God. In the pleasing of God, we find the pleasing of ourselves as we move toward God’s perfection for us.

As we worship this Advent may we keep our relationships alive with one another and with God. Come and worship, come and worship, come and worship the newborn King!

Dec 2, 2011

The Dad Giveth; The Dad Taketh

This is the season of giving—so beware!

Several years ago, I visited someone in a distant hospital. On this particular visit I was in more of a hurry than usual. We had a meeting at church early that evening so I was on the run. I stopped by a “McFasts” restaurant and ordered a quick lunch. Normally, I never go to McFasts unless coerced by one of my children—or, now, a grandchild. Usually I have a book with me so that I can eat and read. However, since I did not have a book, I noticed some of the people in the restaurant.

Nearby a father and young daughter sat down. The father looked to be about 30 years old and his daughter was about four or five. The father looked trim and fit. He did not eat anything and had only a cup of coffee. He was extremely well dressed. He and his daughter looked like they were having a pleasant day. The daughter had the standard issue McFasts “Happy Meal” complete with toy. I remember painfully that the day’s toy was a whistle.

But, what interested me most about the two was something that happened while they ate. Children at that age don’t really eat the happy meal. Rather, they covet the toy. Did I mention that the toy was an annoying whistle? Anyway, after the father finished his coffee he reached over to grab one of the daughter’s french fries. The father had evidently not ordered food because fast food is fattening. Did I mention he looked trim and fit?

All something broke loose when the father reached across the table for a fry—and it was not heaven. The child refused to give her father even a single fry and then screamed when he pressed her. At that point I began to think about this situation. First, the father bought the fries. Second, the father had the power to take the fries from his daughter. Instead he only asked her to share them. Third, the father could have returned to the McFasts’ counter, pulled out $100, and entombed his daughter in fries. Last, the father did not need the fries. He only wanted to share them with his daughter. I saw this as parable with respect to God and human beings—like us. God gives to us so that God can share with us. So what do we do next? Cry? Share?

Nov 29, 2011

Advent Countdown to Christmas 2011

Advent is about waiting. What exactly are we waiting for?

Advent means “the appearance or coming of the Lord” in New Testament theology. Accordingly, Paul writes in his letters about the two comings of the Lord. The first coming is what Christians celebrate when they observe the festival of Christmas. The Second Advent, what the church calls the “parousia” or the so-called “Second Coming of Christ,” addresses when Jesus returns to accomplish or complete history as humans understand it.

The Second Coming also ushers in what Hebrew scripture calls “The Day of the Lord,” or “Yom Yahweh.” Paul reminds the church at Philippi that the Lord will protect and fulfill the Lord’s promise on this day. Thus, the theological importance of the Advent of Christ and Christmas has deep religious implications. The coming of Christ is a tangible symbol of the fulfillment of God’s ultimate promises to God’s people.

To bring all this theology back to earth, I suggest that when life is tough on Christians the best defense is to remember what God has done. It is also important to remember what God has promised to continue to do for Christians. To fully and clearly remember God’s promises may fill us with joy. After all, God promises to do for God’s people everything that they cannot or will not do for themselves.

Divine gifts provide human beings with every reason for joy and rejoicing. When God’s promises fill us, we realize that we may contain authentic joy. As Charles Wagner wrote: “Joy is not a thing, it is in us.” In other words, we do not grab for joy, rather joy grabs us. Consequently Paul can write—and mean it—“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). We, as Christians, rejoice because we know the source of our joy is not within us. Our joy comes from God.

Every pastor I know has a persistent love/hate relationship with his or her church. We love our churches, but we hate some of the things people we love do to themselves and to others. I know pastors who despair when their church members violate marriage vows, or break a promise not to drink again, or disappointed their children by forgetting their little ones’ importance. Yet the joy generated in being a pastor is not from the people we serve. Rather, the joy is in serving God, who has called them into ministry.

A beautiful quilt, given to my family by one of our first churches, hangs over the end of our bed. Stitched into the quilt were the names of every member of that church. Those names constantly remind us of a gift of love that produces joy in our lives. The quilt reminds us of the loving relationship between a church and its pastoral family.

Sometimes, I can even imagine that God looks at the names God has stitched into the heavens. As God looks at these names, God no doubt ponders of the loving relationship between Christ’s saints through the centuries and God’s own self. To be in that number is all the success that any human being needs. To be in that number is all the love that any human being needs. To be in that number is all the joy that any human being needs. We need not strive for it because God has given to us as a gift. We call the gift the demonstration of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Christmas, and the Advent of Christ that precedes it, is a constant reminder that God plants our joy into our hearts. We do not need to seek joy, nor do we have to work for it. Our faith in Christ gives us our joy. This is the true Christmas present that we may search for over a lifetime—and our joy was here all along.

Nov 25, 2011

Christmas is Coming...

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Please put a penny in the old man’s hat.

It is the way the old children’s rhyme "Christmas is Coming" begins.

Indeed, here we are near Christmas, which is the one religious holiday that we all plan and work hard to celebrate. I will grant you that, theologically speaking, Easter Sunday and Easter season, the liturgical season by which the church proclaims the resurrection faith, may be the most important of Christian holy days. Yet, for some reason, all of us go all out for Christmas—sometimes, whether or not we want to and whether or not we intend to. By contrast, on Easter eve, for example—a day the church calls Holy Saturday—we see scant evidence that anyone is about to celebrate a major religious festival. On Holy Saturday most businesses are open and life looks pretty much like business as usual.

However, on Christmas Eve most communities have a different feel from daybreak on. There are fewer cars on our roads, many people choosing to prepare at home for the festivities at hand. On Christmas Eve afternoon, after the banks close at noon for the holiday, even the largest downtown square in the world look a little like the most abandoned squares in the world. We write Christmas cards and letters, we put lights on our houses, and we decorate the inside of our homes with care. Clearly, planning and preparing for Christmas are activities in which many, many people share at this time of the year.

Yet, despite our careful preparation and planning for Christmas, some of the most memorable moments of Christmas occur in times and places we least expect it. Like the unlikely birth of the Son of God in a stable to a young unmarried virgin, Christmas and its significance is all too often lost on us. Could it be, perhaps, that we look in the wrong places for Christmas meaning?

Regardless of our careful planning, my prayer for us this Christmas season is that we might find the meaning of Christmas in the mystery that God offers us in the Christ child. In a world that rarely listens to children’s voices, may we not forget the words of Isaiah who prophesied long ago “a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11:6).

May we all open our hearts and lives to that mystery for which none of us can plan.

Nov 22, 2011

Thanksgiving Cometh!

Sometimes, we Americans think we invented the Day of Thanksgiving. The truth is, however, that Thanksgiving as a day dates plainly back to our Hebrew forebears. It is a day all about rituals that teaches us about giving thanks. Sometimes, modern folk see ritual as a negative word. Yet the truth is that ritual habitually helps us assimilate those meanings of our common life that are bigger than the words we use to explain them. This is why ritual is so important in life. Ritual relates the things we hold dear, although many of us could not articulate why these things are so important. Thanksgiving is mere a day, yet it reminds us about the gratitude we can express each and every day of our lives.

One of the Bible’s greatest history lessons relates Yahweh weaving certain rituals into the fabric of the Hebrew community’s life. For one example we can consider the ritual preparation for Passover (Exodus 12). There we find detailed instructions on how, when, and where to eat the Passover meal. Moreover, these instructions also yield theological meaning. Likewise, in a lesson for Thanksgiving Day, Yahweh instructs the people of Israel concerning other rituals that continue to remind them that they are not like other peoples. Rather, they are a people, constituted by God, to be a just society that bears in mind the less fortunate. In addition, they are a community that offers its thanksgiving to God (Deuteronomy 26:1-11)

Moses reminds the people what they are to do when they have entered the land of promise. Not only will they possess it and settle it; they are also to offer “the first of all the fruit of the ground.” Why? By offering their first fruits to God they remind themselves that the land they have settled and possess was not by their own doing. Instead, it is a gift from Yahweh. It is a divine expression of the grace in which they dwell. Nothing they have done, nothing they do or will do will change the gifted nature of God’s bequest to them. Rather, the proper response of the people is clearly not self-congratulations—the appropriate response is nothing other than a human expression of thanksgiving to God Almighty. In fact, these texts remind us that Yahweh and Moses leave nothing to chance. The manner of the collection and the persons who are responsible for the gathering of the gifts are quite explicit. The offering commemorates “that I [or we] have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.”

Along with the gift is a reminder of why this gift of land is important. This is the people’s response: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous . . . ”  The response ends, appropriately enough, with these words: “The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm . . . and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.”

When a “Ministerial Alliance” asks me to preach the ecumenical “Community Thanksgiving Service” as I have often been asked to do over the years, I always do it with “fear and trembling.” After all, what does the preacher say to people after he or she says, “We ought to all be more thankful”? DUH?

When the people bring their first fruits to the Lord, they do so as a token sign and symbol of the lavish gifts that God has poured out on their community. As people of faith, these Hebrews worship a generous and benevolent God. Not only this, but this same God expects this community to likewise live lives that reflect the generous and benevolent God they worship. In other words, Yahweh, through Moses’ mouth and speech, teaches the people the fine art of generosity toward others. Can we in this rich land of our do less?

Nov 18, 2011

Acedia: the Noonday Demon

A few weeks ago Mel LeBlanc, a religious-type who lives and “councils” in Arlington, sent me a book he thought we might have a mutual interest in and discussion about. The book was Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life by Kathleen Norris. She has also written The New York Times bestsellers The Cloister Walk, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, and The Virgin of Bennington. She is a lovely writer and I recommend anything she has written—very thoughtful and very honest.

Norris begins Acedia & Me with an except from Evagrius Ponticus’ treatise called The Praktikos (written near the end of the fourth century—roughly in the time of Augustine). Evagrius Ponticus writes about “The demon of acedia—also called the noonday demon.” Funny thing is that the 2011 Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary informs us that acedia’s first known use was in 1607. Webster is wrong about this. Acedia is an ancient word that perhaps resurfaced in 1607—ironically the year that Jamestown, VA was established.

Recently, I was writing about acedia and of the dangers of success. I noted that the chief danger of success is that success places us in the province of little resistance and no struggle. The Greeks had a term for this concept and later the Romans called it acedia. Acedia is sometimes defined as sloth or uncaring. It actually comes from Latin root words that mean “absence of care” or “indifference.”

The time of day that acedia was most likely to overwhelm someone was at noontime—when no shadow was cast. It strikes in bright noonday sun of clarity, rather than in the darkness of despair. Acedia does not strike the struggling person, those who strive for daily bread and survival. Rather acedia always strikes the person who sits at the top of the success heap. It strikes the person at the apex of his or her achievement.

Norris explores this concept of acedia throughout a whole book and not just an article or essay. She writes that the:

standard dictionary definitions of acedia as 'apathy,' 'boredom,' or 'torpor' do not begin to cover it, and while we may find it convenient to regard it as a more primitive word for what we now term depression, the truth is much more complex. Having experienced both conditions, I think it likely that much of the restless boredom, frantic escapism, commitment phobia, and enervating despair that plagues us today is the ancient demon of acedia in modern dress.

One of the reasons that acedia is so applicable to us today, is that we all know the malaise of too much food, too much money, too much success, and the like. We work like crazy for free time and when it comes we do not know what to do with it. As the writer Walker Percy notes in his book Lost in the Cosmos, “Boredom is the self being stuffed with itself.” This is as good a definition of acedia as I can think of. We are each too much of everything.

Nov 11, 2011

The Venetian Blind

I read a funny story recently that has something to do with how much thought we give to giving. Caskei Stinnett wrote in Speaking of Holiday:
A fellow in our office told us recently of a household incident of which he had been an innocent but perplexed spectator. Our friend had called a Venetian-blind repairman to come pick up a faulty blind, and the next morning, while the family was seated at the breakfast table, the doorbell rang. Our friend’s wife went to the door, and the man outside said, “I’m here for the Venetian blind.” Excusing herself in a preoccupied way, the wife went to the kitchen, fished a dollar from the food money, pressed it into the repairman’s hand, then gently closed the door and returned to the table. “Somebody collecting,” she explained, pouring the coffee.

I have to admit, I thought this was a pretty funny story. Yet how often do I simply give out of habit or routine? The last few weeks I have been reading a book by Doug Leblanc titled Tithing: Test Me in This. This book, which would have been one of the last books I would have ever considered reading, reminded me that often giving is something that we robotically do. Perhaps, however, giving should be something we think about as an activity, like prayer—a part of our systematic life of faith.

As a segment of his interviews of people who tithe, Leblanc writes about what Randy Alcorn said about the spiritual practice of tithing:
What I always say to people is that if you take the standard of 10 percent and say God required it of the poorest people in Old Testament Israel, and that we’re under the grace of Jesus and we have the indwelling Holy Spirit and we live in this incredibly affluent culture, do you think he would expect less of us?
I have always tried to be a good giver—sometimes better, sometimes needing improvement. The last few years I have tried to move closer and closer to the tithing standard—not quite there yet . . . but moving closer and closer all the time.

I am thankful that even now God challenges us to be better and more complete believers and leads us in the spiritual paths that lead toward the Realm of God.

Oct 28, 2011

All Saints Day Part 2: Coming to a Life Near You

Since Tuesday, November 1 is officially All Saints Day (we will celebrate it in worship on November 6) I would ask you to take a moment and read Revelation 7:9-17. The theme is: Before God’s Throne and the lesson is “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal” (Revelation 7:14).

Revelation’s author, known to Christian tradition as Saint John the Divine, finds himself in the heavenly throne room. John writes, “At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne” (Revelation 4:2). The Revised Common Lectionary furnishes a description of only one of the many things John sees in the throne room. Among the sights is “a great multitude.” John suggests these people are those “who have come out of the great ordeal,” implying those who have been faithful to Christ’s ministry with their lives—they are martyrs. In this sense, they are the convincing stewards. These stewards have offered everything to God’s Realm.

All Saints Sunday is the day the church celebrates those believers who have died in Christ. It is a day of remembrance. On occasion believers ask, “How does a person become a saint?” All Saints Day and Revelation bring this sort of question to mind. Earlier, chapter six details the opening of six of seven seals. In the prophecy of the seals, we notice war horses, God’s altar, and natural disasters plaguing earth. After the sixth seal’s opening Revelation furnishes us an interlude. Perhaps readers need a respite after the horrors of the first six seals. The sealing of the 144,000 begins chapter seven. This image furnishes us with a picture of the church militant, that is, the church struggling for life among earth’s principalities and powers. John’s next image is the church triumphant—those who rest from their earthly labors.

Chapter seven provides strangely contrasting visions of the church militant and the church triumphant. First, there is a specifically calculated throng of 144,000 contrasted to “a great multitude that no one could count.” Second, John contrasts the twelve tribes of Israel to “a multitude from every nation.” Third, John describes the church militant as a company prepared for threatening peril and distinguishes it from the victorious and secure counted in the church triumphant. Whatever this chapter wants to impart, above all, it is John’s attempt to describe a vision of heaven.

Over the centuries the concept of heaven has fueled much speculation—regularly confused and confusing to those on this side of death. A cartoon once appeared in "The New Yorker" magazine. It showed a group of heaven-bound saints lined-up just outside the heavenly gates. Peter stood at a podium; reading off the answers to the most frequently asked questions on earth, now finally and decisively answered in heaven. Saint Peter reads the list: “# 48, true; # 49, false; # 50, William Shatner; # 51, yes; # 52, the Ponderosa; # 53, every other Tuesday . . . .” People have inquiring minds and we want to know. John’s heavenly apocalyptic vision offers us one such image.

“How does a person become a saint?” For stewards this is a controlling question, for we all believe that our response to God offers us a just “reward.” But however we conceive of heaven, John writes at least this much: heaven is the place where saints or believers—they amount to the same thing—commune with God.

Our efforts do not make us saints. Rather, we become saints when God confers on us “gifts and graces” to handle as stewards. When we use God’s resources for shaping God’s Realm, then God develops us into true saints. God bestows sainthood at the point where God’s grace encounters our stewardship. There, we find God and God’s saints.

Oct 26, 2011

All Saints Day 1: Coming to a Life Near You

One thing about the church, we know how to talk about death in a way no one else does. We see it as pretty much inevitable.

When we understand death’s certainty, then we cannot be cavalier about life. Death is a reality around which none of us like to linger long, but this reality defines life whether we like to ponder it or not. It is a truth from which we cannot escape.

Some fear death will come before they have completed life. In a thoughtful and reflective poem on this very idea, John Keats wrote:

    “When I have fears that I may cease to be before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain—”

Before his death in 1981, writer, William Saroyan phoned in to the Associated Press an interesting observation: “Every body has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case. What now?” There are no exceptions. I have a friend who ends all emails with: “I intend to live forever – so far, so good.”  With what thoughts may we fortify ourselves when we contemplate death – our own and others?

The Christian faith teaches that life is not over when we die. There is a special day in the Christian calendar called All Saints Day (which falls on November 1 – next Tuesday) when we profess our faith in an on-going relationship between those who have died and those who are living. We are touched when we remember friends and loved ones who have outrun us to heaven, but the concept of the “Communion of Saints” (see Apostles’ Creed) suggests that there is an on-going spiritual relationship between those who are dead and those who are living. Just as we believe that Jesus, who was dead and is now alive continues to touch our lives, so we believe that our friends and loved ones who have died are now alive and continue to touch our lives. Many find great comfort in that idea.

So instead of Halloween candy, feast on the fact that there are many saints who have gone before us—and thank God for them!

Sep 30, 2011

Hospitality, Inc. Part 2

In the late 1970s, I taught at the Gbargna School of Theology in Liberia. Though Liberia is a nation that has existed in poverty for decades, my year there taught me much about hospitality and welcome.

When my students took me to preach at “bush churches,” people received us Americans as if we were royalty. Each family expected us to dine with them—and sumptuously, at that. I have never eaten so much food in my life. The remarkable part was that people offered us so much, yet possessed so little.

Paul writes in part about how to practice the Christian life. He writes:

“Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers” (Romans 12: 9-13).

There are many ways to offer one’s life to Christ. In fact, we all have specific talents we can use to build God’s realm. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, employs pastors, teachers and prophets to make his point. Yet, there are other aspects of stewardship: administration, letter writing, and deep listening to other's problems. Even—and most especially—the talent of hospitality becomes a way we can build up the church.

Not everyone has the aptitude to be a teacher or the ability to cook a great banquet meal or has a musical flair. However, taken together, all of our unique talents strengthen the church. I cannot image many people who could not be more hospitable or welcoming, can you?

I like the Swahili proverb that suggests: “Treat your guest as a guest for two days; on the third day, give him a hoe.” To me, this means treat visitors like royalty, and then let them become part of the family.

Bishop Schnase’s ideas can be outlined in a few words. If we attend to them we will thrive as a church—and note well which one is first:
  • Radical Hospitality;
  • Passionate Worship;
  • Intentional Faith Development;
  • Risk-taking Mission and Service; and
  • Extravagant Generosity . . . and give them some roundness.

Sep 21, 2011

Hospitality, Inc. Part 1

As many of you know, I am an avid admirer of Bishop William H. Willimon, who presides over the North Alabama Annual Conference. Recently, he wrote about his investigation of growing congregations “in order to learn more about why they are thriving.” Bishop Willimon was perceptive enough to notice that dynamic and growing congregations had one thing in common—the gift of hospitality. Growing congregations know how to make new people feel welcome.

One example of hospitality Bishop Willimon puts forth is ushers. Willimon remarks that ushers in vibrant churches are “people whom God had given the gift of hospitality.” Pastors say visitors’ early contact with upbeat ushers makes a faithfully growing church a piece of cake!

In churches that people want to be a part of, there is an avid and loving concern for the “outsiders”—those who have yet to hear and respond to the gospel. Though our congregation has the art of Christian hospitality down pat, we can always improve our service in Jesus’ name.

A few years ago, we had as a worship series, focusing on the book “Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations” by Bishop Robert Schnase. Several people in our congregation remarked how simplistic Bishop Schnase’s ideas seemed. The suggestion, if I heard right—and I am a professionally trained listener—was that everyone knows these things the Bishop offered as guidance. We all know to offer guests “radical hospitality,” but sometimes we are so intent on seeing friends that we forget to practice our gift of hospitality. My own experience in Liberia helped remind me how precious a gift hospitality is.

Sep 12, 2011

911—A Day of Remembrance

As everyone knows our minds and hearts are transported this week back ten years to a fateful day in 2001. We know that day simply as “9/11.”

Too often we celebrate traditions and rituals while not fully appreciating where these traditions came from. I recall hearing a story about four soldiers who offered a volley of gunfire to honor a fallen soldier at his interment. A fifth soldier stood nearby and extended his hand at each cemetery service.

After a time someone asked the head of the honor guard what was the purpose of the fifth soldier with his hand extended. He did not know and it seemed as if no one else knew either.

Some further research revealed that the fifth soldier held the horses of those who fired the volley salute. However, it had been decades since any honor guard rode horses to the cemeteries. Nevertheless the fifth soldier did what those before him had always done—only now to no real purpose. As I said, “sometimes we forget the origins of our rituals.”

There are few people we know who have forgotten why we will pause this coming Sunday to remember 911. A majority of us know exactly where we were when it all happened. I was sitting at my friend Bobby Baggett’s breakfast table in Belton, Texas.

My prayer for all of us during this week of remembrance is to remember that one of the few good things to come from 911 is to help us keep the prayer for peace directly in front of us at all times. The alternative is too disheartening to contemplate.

I like what Isaiah writes in his prophecy:
The effect of righteousness will be peace,and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever—(Isaiah 32:17). Amen.

Sep 2, 2011

Labor Day 2011

One of my favorite writers, a former Southern Baptist preacher who was at Broadway Baptist in Fort Worth and later became an Episcopalian rector, is named John Claypool. He died September 5, 2005 and was an inspiration to many. As Claypool reminds us on this upcoming Labor Day: “When we offer up our daily work to the glory of God and the benefit of our families and communities, we proceed to play our roles in the daily struggle to make God more visible in the world and bring God’s realm into fuller realization.”

Labor Day is a day to celebrate the work we do in the world. Often, our work is one of the ways we define our lives and thereby celebrate our lives. I suggest that this week we use the following prayer from Reinhold Niebuhr, who offered it up to God and for us:

O God, you have bound us together in this life.Give us grace to understand how our lives dependon the courage, the industry, the honesty,and the integrity of all who labor.May we be mindful of their needs, grateful for their faithfulness,and faithful in our responsibilities to them;through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

May this Labor Day be a day of thanksgiving for our honest work in God’s Realm.

Aug 26, 2011

Pastors See Change in Society Pt. 2

I recently edited a book called “Transitions: Leading Churches Through Change” (John Knox Press). In the book, 32 well-respected thinkers take readers on a tour of their disciplines and address issues of change. Two insights are particularly helpful for our day.

First, change has its dangers. Substantive change raises an authentic possibility of failure. The book’s introduction notes that in “The New Organon” (Novum Organum), Francis Bacon wrote in 1620 about “the reality that change is dangerous.” Imagine a scenario in which 17th century farmers in a particular region each used a new method of agriculture in hopes of producing better crops. If the farmer’s enterprise fails, then the price could be starvation. Thus this kind of change is more than an inconvenience — it has the potential to put survival in peril.

Second, as Bishop Robert Schnase writes, “Change asks people to suffer loss, experience uncertainty and to redefine aspects of their identity.” Not only is consequential change dangerous, it also triggers a type of grief process. Change means embracing something else while letting go of what is familiar. It is a human emotional transaction that calls on clergy to assist people with both fear of the new and loss of the old.

The biggest transition for me in ministry is helping more people who stumble through change and addressing this change with less built-in pastoral authority than previous generations.

People I try to help are disillusioned because they want something they do not have, or have something they do not want. My job is to shine a little light of faith on their circumstance and remind them that nothing happens at once. The journey gives us the desires of our hearts. There is no guru, magician or wizard who can give you what you want. Only you can do that and not all at once. Fulfillment is found on the journey of life, usually when you least expect it.

Aug 16, 2011

Pastors See Change in Society Pt. 1

People occasionally ask me, “How has being a minister changed over the last three decades?” It is a question that might be asked of any calling or profession. From the vantage point of ministry, the question offers an engrossing perspective on modern life.

A perceptive mentor remarked that pastors probably have more experience with life-change than any other profession: The work compels ministers to be specialists in transitions. I must admit the mentor recognized a virtually certain truth. As those who work with individuals and congregations, pastors eat and breathe change within the world parishioners face.

North Americans have witnessed massive changes in the function of the leaders of our public institutions. When I was 25 years old and straight from seminary, I knew — as Sgt. Schultz used to say on “Hogan’s Heroes” — nothing. Yet my congregation said, “You are our pastor, and we will do what you say — so lead us.” Uncomfortable as I was with directing folks 50 years my senior, I soon realized that by virtue of position those I led granted me authority.

Today, despite my 32 years of experience and oodles of education, novice church members hardly hesitate to tell me how to “do it” better. A core issue for leadership in the 21st century is how to guide without the built-in authority assumed in previous generations.

 Nowadays everyone has access to information online — data, statistics, and facts. A doctor whose professionalism and expertise I value confided to me that she spends far too much time with patients during office visits notifying them that the Internet cannot diagnose as well as she can with an in-person examination.

We may know “stuff,” yet maybe we don’t understand what it means.  A great change has taken place during the recession.  Scrambling businesses have showed a readiness to swap people who possess institutional memory for new employees hired at reduced salaries. This money-saving strategy flows from a belief that knowledge of facts often trumps wisdom of experience. Yet our Judeo-Christian heritage speaks to wisdom’s place in human relations. We want wise persons among us. It is good to be smart — better to be wise. Have we as a postmodern culture substituted knowing facts for using them wisely?

Photo Courtesy of busy.pochi/flickr

Aug 5, 2011

The Return of the Ancient Practices

In a few Sundays, beginning on August 14, we will start a new worship series based on some of the ideas presented in Brian McLaren’s book: Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. It is a book that extols practicing our faith in contrast to defining ourselves as Christians either by what we believe or what we do not believe.

Ancient practices are the things the early church did to live out and not just formulate tenets - although it certainly did that. While it is important to have some rational content to our faith, the putting into practice part cannot be realistically neglected either. When people say “practice what you preach” they mean live your life so it measures up to the life you profess out loud.

Our worship series, titled “Practicing Faith,” will use some of the ideas from Brian McLaren’s book Finding Our Way Again. Among the practices we will explore in worship are “Contemplative Practice” (focus on prayer), “Missional Practice,” and “Communal Practice” (focus on Communion).

How do these practices make our spiritual journey more faithful and fruitful?

A new found basis uniting many Christians today is the “emerging church” movement. This notion states we can choose to live our faith and depart from impiety which seems to be the way of the world. As one of my former parishioners used to say: “I would rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” When we practice our faith instead of debating the finer points of orthodoxy we do just that—we show who we are and what we believe by what we do. This is an important way to practice the faith.

For two thousand years, some branches of Christianity have concentrated on skirmishing over dogma. Some of these combatants only recognize the faith in terms of sound teachings concerning beliefs about eternal security, the nature of salvation, the Trinity, spiritual gifts, etc. In the meantime, the way Christians live has become less and less important. In the real secular world, when people hear Christians squabble they want no part of Jesus.

Ignatius of Antioch gave his life for Christ—in great joy— in A.D. 110. On the way to his martyrdom, he wrote:

The tree is made manifest by its fruit; so those that profess themselves to be Christians shall be recognized by their conduct (Epistle to the Ephesians 14).

During our series called “Practicing Faith” we as a church will explore some the ancient practices as we attempt to bring the true spirit of Jesus into the twenty-first Century. 

You may order this book from Melissa Darrow in the church office (817-274-2571).

Aug 2, 2011

Avoiding the Summer Slump

My old friend, Michael Duduit, is a Southern Baptist with a sense of humor. Recently, he wrote an article outlining ways pastors can boost summer church attendance. Among his suggestions were door prizes for Sunday morning worship, free pizza to the first 250 congregants, and a sermon series based on popular movies Toy Story 3, Black Swan, Exit Through The Gift Shop, and The Social Network.

Perhaps it is sad that his humor has an element of truth in it. Many churches do run at less than 100% during the summer. I suppose that is to be expected. People attend family reunions, go on vacation, or have weekend family outings during the months of June, July, and August. We all need to get away from time to time.

However, I want to offer a word of praise for those who help us continue the work of the church through the dog days of summer. Many people do attend worship and Sunday school. Many people do help keep the church’s finances afloat even when they are in New Mexico, Colorado, Chengdu, or Iowa. Many people do continue to teach and help—even when we often operate with a skeleton crew of leaders during the summer months. For this I thank you.

Thus, although the church looks to be dormant in these hot summer days, there is work being done so that the gospel can continue to be proclaimed through the ministries of our church. Thanks be to God—AND thanks be to you.

Jul 13, 2011

So Who is Average?

Almost twenty years ago, I read an interesting article in Men’s Health as quoted in Parade Magazine (12-29-91, p. 5). It addressed what the average American man is like. This is what it said:

The average male is: 5’ 9” tall and 173 pounds. Is married, 1.8 years older than his wife and would marry her again. Has not completed college. Earns $28,605 per year. Prefers showering to taking a bath.  Sends about 7.2 hours a week eating. Does not know his cholesterol count, but it’s 211. Watches 26 hours and 44 minutes of TV a week. Takes out the garbage in his household. Prefers white undergarments to colored. Cries about once a month--one fourth as much as Jane Doe. Falls in love an average of six times during his life. Eats his corn on the cob in circles, not straight across, and prefers his steak medium. Can’t whistle by inserting his fingers in his mouth. Will not stop to ask for directions when he’s in the car.

So—how much have we changed since 1991?

Jul 2, 2011

Fourth of July Weekend

This weekend is the Fourth of July weekend. Originally conceived, Independence Day was a day of national celebration to remember the signing of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776. We as a nation have also traditionally celebrated the day to recall our memory of the principles for which someone, somewhere founded us as the United States of America. I say this because we are at least as much of an ideal as we are a nation.

The Fourth of July has also become a much needed oasis in the midst of a long hot and unusually dry stretch of calendar (especially this year) between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The Fourth is frequently a day for picnics, family reunions, and fire-crackers (depending on burn bans). It is usually one of the hotter days of the year and many of our friends and relatives “let slip,” yet again, some of their well-worn stories about how they did this or that and, by the way, much better than anyone else! We call this bragging or boasting. It seems when people get together, they love to top each other’s stories. We all know those who tell stories that sound like bragging and boasting. Some of us are prone to the activity ourselves! Time for confession: I am the worst offender of all!

But at least genetics wired this character flaw into me. As a child I recall hearing some of the whoppers my Grandpa, who ironically was born on 4 July 1901, used to pull out. My Grandmother would be beside herself, thinking that young and impressionable grandchildren might actually believe anything he might say. One of my cousins said he was surprised to learn that our grandfather was actually born on Independence Day—he had thought it was part of his routine for all those years.

I have a pastor friend who has driven many a parishioner to despair’s boundary by always being able to top their stories of hospitalization. He will go into a hospital room, and after hearing the patient’s narrative about her or his afflictions and maladies, will say, “You think that’s bad? Once when I was in . . .” and he is off to the races. If it wasn’t so painful it would be downright funny. But at least I can say that my friend has taught me what not to do in a hospital room!

We all know what it is to stretch a story to put ourselves in a little better light than if objective history were telling the story. With each passing year, I tell my children a little more about my life’s story. My grades get better with age, as do my athletic skills, my good deeds, and especially my jaunty one-liners putting some dunderhead in his place. If age helps wine, then age surely helps our personal fodder to tell tall tales and brag about the things that might have been. Who is the wiser?

Who is the wiser? We all are! Everyone who has ever heard a bragger knows what is coming next and can see it coming from at least a mile away. I am most confident that those who knew Paul rolled their eyes at times when Paul got started about how much he did or had suffered or had endured for the sake of Christ. If we were honest, and this makes bragging less enjoyable, we all know that big whoppers are really a pleasure, especially when the audience bites on what little part of the truth we happen to include in our accounts of our courageous exploits.

Can you hear Paul? Not to be outdone, he has accomplished more and faster than anyone. To refresh your memory, listen to Paul holding forth right now in Corinth: Feel free to read—2 Corinthians 11:23-28. I am put to shame in my boasting when I hear echoes of Paul saying “. . . in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters . . . .” Do you need more?

Paul, as we know from the New Testament, never does any thing half-way. He does things with greater excellence, and far more thoroughly, and at greater risk than anyone else. And I bet Paul was a real pain to be around.

This 4th of July I pray for all of you that we might, as Paul suggests in another epistle “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

Perhaps we can all leave the bragging for another day.


Jun 25, 2011

Vacation Bible School for Adults: July 10-13

Vacation Bible School for Adults is an annual summer event for those who are not able to vacation in Sweden, the Czech Republic, or in Australia—where it is now nice and cool. Rather we invite you to FUMC of Arlington for four nights of Luke. Luke unfolds both the story of Jesus and the early church in his two volumes: The Gospel of Luke/Acts of the Apostles. Of course with a combined fifty-two chapters we will only be able to give an overview. Yet I pledge to allocate time to the detail of Luke’s artistry as one of the literary giants of the Bible.

Soon around FUMC of Arlington you will notice fliers that announce what our prelude meals will be and in which room we will hold the study on July 10, 11, 12, and 13—of 2011. Meals are good ways to share what Acts tells us that the early church did when “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46). If you wish you might consider eating with others these evenings as part of your homework for the class!!! Young people who have inquisitiveness in learning what this part of the Bible is all about are also most welcome.

All you need to do for the class is read Luke and Acts as a continuous story, bring your Bible, and an appetite to eat and learn. I will try to set these writings of the New Testament in a literary and historical context. Taken together, these four nights may offer some insights on arguably the most enjoyable books in our New Testament.

I look forward to seeing you these evenings ahead and encourage you to invite your neighbors, fellow acquaintances, and the just plain curious. I hope to make these evenings worth our time and learning, remember, keeps us all young!

Sincerely, your friend,

David N. Mosser

PS. The sessions will never go more than ninety minutes—completed by 8:30 sharp and the Rangers do not play any evening that week!

Jun 23, 2011

Local Church History

I have long believed that one can learn a lot about a community by knowing the history of the three primary institutions that first arrived in most small towns in Texas between 1850 and 1880. Our church, for example, will celebrate its 133 year in 2011, as it was founded in 1878.

Generally, and in no particular order, the first three primary organizations/establishments in most Texas towns were First Baptist, First Methodist, and the local newspaper. If one reads about how these institutions developed, one would get a thumbnail look at how that particular town developed too. It is hard to say why exactly, but nowadays the churches usually fare better than the journalists.

One of the former Deans at Perkins, James Kirby, wrote a charming and revealing book titled Brother Will. Kirby’s book is about Bishop William C. Martin, whose name is etched on the cornerstone of our sanctuary just in case you wanted to know (Go look if you do not believe me). He has his name on us! His story is, in part, the story of the Central Texas Annual Conference, written from the perspective of personality. In a sense, Brother Will is a version of church history via biography.

Remembering our heritage is a key to knowing our future. As George Santayana once famously wrote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (The Life of Reason, Volume 1, 1905). It was one of Harry Truman’s favorite quotations.

Earlier last year, several members of our congregation compiled a pictorial history of the artwork both inside and out of our Church. They titled the book First United Methodist Church of Arlington Religious Art and Symbolism. It has 221 color images of textiles, glass, and carvings, along with detailed descriptions of the images’ meaning.

Adding to the aesthetic content of that illustrative book, our historical committee (which has on it too many wonderful people for me to mention) complied a book of profiles of our church’s pastors. In a sense, it is a version of church history via biography. Far too often local church history consists of dry lists of pastors, Sunday school superintendents, etc. What this book chronicles is the life of the church through the personalities and deeds of its chief-operating-officers, which the church calls shepherds or pastors.

The book’s title is Ministers: 1878-2010. It is the kind of name one might expect from a functional group of practical Methodists. But . . . it is a splendid book that narrates the story of our church through 13 ½ decades. When Ministers: 1878-2010 goes on sale again, sometime in the next few months, be sure to stop by in the main hallway and thank the historians. Sitting at the table will be a collection of folks who have given us a great gift - a well done piece of documentation about who we are and who we were. then take a look at Ministers: 1878-2010.

Ministers: 1878-2010 does for FUMC of Arlington \what the book of Acts does for us. It puts meat on the bones of the church’s early characters, whether they are Peter, Lydia, John, Pricilla, Barnabas, Mary, Paul, Bernice, Silas, Rhoda, or Timothy.

Be sure to check out the biographies of Don Pike or Virlis Bane or John Wesley Ford. If you have a historical bone in your body you will not be disappointed.

Jun 17, 2011

The War of 1812

When was the last time you thought about the War of 1812?

It began on 18 June 1812 (which is tomorrow). That is also 199 years ago and, according to my informal survey at Denny’s on Park Row in Grand Prairie, the random sample there obviously cared nothing about the War of 1812. They did find it odd I asked them about the war, as they were trying to dig into the Grand Slam Breakfast. Interviewing people while eating is tricky!

You may remember that President James Madison signed the declaration of war against Great Britain into law and the war began. Which is to say that, sometimes, we think we are doing something exceedingly important—and yet looked at from the distance of two centuries it does not seem to mean much.

Although, as a footnote, the War of 1812 did turn out to be an important, although under-appreciated, war in any event. The British—sore losers of the Revolutionary War—blockaded ports on the American East coast and targeted the French shipping industry.

It is an easy thing, I think, to forget some of the great sacrifices that others have made to bring us to where we are today. May we pray that the sacrifices that we make for others will be as important as those we have forgotten over the years.

Jun 11, 2011

Division Street Project

Over the last three years, some of our church’s best leaders—Bart Thompson, Brian Cotter, and Charles Clawson—have led our church in a project to furnish a face-lift to our south side property on Division Street. This has been a lengthy task and has a great degree of difficulty given the nature of State Highway 180 which, as we all know, runs a few miles south and parallels Interstate 30, despite never intersecting with it. Our little Division Street starts in the West as Lancaster Avenue ends. It extends through Arlington to Grand Prairie where it becomes Main Street all the way to Davis Street in the Oak Cliff vicinity of Dallas.

Brian, Charles, and Bart have spent countless hours in what they originally thought was a small landscaping project. This project was to replace the trees that the church had removed near the Vandergrift Chapel. With the renovation of Center Street and the addition of several near-by restaurants and new office buildings, the Division facelift project once completed, will provide an agreeable appearance to the exterior of First United Methodist Church of Arlington.

We need to thank those in addition to our “ringleaders” who have offered numerous volunteer hours. In addition, we understand that the legal documents produced by Brian Cotter are worth thousands of dollars. A tomorrow foundation grant of $55K will fund the whole project. In addition it is this kind of attention to infrastructure that will continue to move our neighborhood forward. There is much hope for the recovery efforts of central and downtown area of Arlington, Texas, USA. I am proud we are part of this neighborhood healing.

May 29, 2011

The Best Plans . . .

In a week (June 5-8) we will again return to Waco for Annual Conference 2011.

Several years ago at Annual Conference in Waco, our United Methodist attempts at inclusivity took an amusing turn. Off to one side of the front of the sanctuary of FUMC, Waco stood a woman using sign language to convey the worship words to the hearing impaired. This was very good.

Suddenly the woman who was praying at the pulpit began to pray in her native tongue which happened to be Korean. I watched the sign language interpreter melt down as she tried to figure out what to do next.

Sometimes the best plans just don’t work out.

May 22, 2011

The ‘Journey’ as an Image of Our Faith

As summer nears we begin to think about going on vacation and perhaps some of us even look at this time away as an adventure or as a journey. Aldersgate Day comes on 24 May 2011 this year and to this end I want to write about journey to those who read this blog--whoever you are!

Sometimes as we listen to people talk about the Christian faith, it seems as if it might be a possession. Still, when Paul begins his fifth chapter of Romans, I read the faith as a bit like a journey. When Paul writes, “Therefore, since we are justified by faith” it seems as if he reminds us where we believers are in order to help us press on. In a sense, Paul writes about a process of discovery. Paul reminds us about the past facts of what God has done by his word “therefore.” Paul shows where we are—at peace with God, standing in God’s grace. Whatever now happens to us gives us reason to “boast in the Lord.”

We do not boast in our own merits or “works” as Paul might otherwise call human effort (see Paul’s use of works—Romans 3:27-28; 4:2, 4-5). Rather, because of what God does for us, we now can boast in God’s action. In a journey mode, we move from a status as enemies to those at peace with God. The direction of this positive movement, therefore, gives us hope, if we travel with God. We travel with God only by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ.

Clearly, when I speak of a journey I do not mean so much physical journey like the one Odysseus took. Homer, in his epic, The Odyssey, describes his hero trying to return home from the Trojan War. I do not mean a physical journey like the journey depicted by Luke in Acts. This journey tells of Paul and the other disciples planting churches. These journeys took them all over the ancient Mediterranean world. Rather, I mean that here in Romans 5 Paul engages us in a theological journey. This is a holy trip from head to heart. As a wise preacher once said, “The journey from the head to the heart is one of the longest and most important journeys that any human being can ever take.”

Even John Wesley made this journey from head to heart. As United Methodists we celebrate Aldersgate Sunday (or Day) as that day when Wesley finds assurance. That is Wesley finally feels the assurance of God’s love. In his head he knew this in a rational way, but at Aldersgate he finally feels that assurance. On Wednesday, May 24, 1738, John Wesley experienced his “heart strangely warmed.” This Aldersgate experience is crucial for Wesley’s own life and becomes a touchstone for the Wesleyan movement (The Book of Worship, United Methodist Publishing House, 1992, page 439). For Paul, this movement from head to heart is what God offers us all in Jesus Christ. Paul might even call it a journey of faith.

May 14, 2011

Memorial Day 2011

I know it is a few weeks before we get to Memorial Day 2011, but I want to suggest a few ideas as we run up on an important day. Memorial Day marks the beginning of the summer holidays in the United States. These kinds of three-day weekends traditionally are times for celebration and family outings. Celebrated in most states on the last Monday in May, Memorial Day is a time to remember the U.S. men and woman who lost their lives serving their country. Originally known as Decoration Day, the “powers that be” established the day in 1868 to commemorate Civil War dead. Over the years it came to serve as a day to remember all U.S. men and women killed or missing in action in all wars.

In truth, Memorial Day is not a church holiday—the church has its own day to remember the memorialized dead which we call “All Saints Day.” Yet Memorial Day is a way our nation remembers those gave their lives in service to our country. Other countries also have their equivalents of Memorial Day. In a way, it is too bad that we have to have days like this, but war seems to be an inevitable part of being a country. Remembering the war dead remains about the only way we have to celebrate the gift of life those people have given for the ideals, we as a nation, have identified to lift up and commemorate.

“Wars are not acts of God. They are caused by man, by man-made institutions, by the way in which man has organized his society. What man has made, man can change” [from a Speech at Arlington National Cemetery (Memorial Day, 1945) by Frederick Moore Vinson (1890-1953)].

No matter what your stance is on “war or peace” remember that when we remember the war dead we remember someone’s husband or wife, father or mother, uncle or aunt, or simply friend. May God continue to bless all of us as we struggle to be what God want us to be.

May 7, 2011

“Spiritual Disciplines:" The Corporate Disciplines

We have completed our Lenten journey toward the cross of Jesus and now stand on the other side of Jesus’ resurrection. Over the last few months we have briefly shared spiritual disciplines and observed how they become for believers the doors to liberation. In contrast to the inner spiritual disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study we also note the outer spiritual disciplines: simplicity, solitude, submission and service. Today we want to remember what some call the corporate spiritual disciplines. These corporate disciplines are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration. Let’s focus in brief on each of these corporate disciplines.

Often in worship, a congregation will confess their sin in a “Unison Prayer of Christian Confession.” What this tells us—and we remember this especially during the Lenten season—is that we are each guilty of sin. This sin-guilt is not only as individuals, but also as a group of people we call the church. Certainly we strive to be God’s people, but we are always reminded that because of sin, we nonetheless need God. Corporate worship reminds us all that we need God and we need each other. It is no accident that this reminder is issued weekly. It is through worship that God guides us and we help guide one another.

Finally, celebration completes the foursome of corporate disciplines. In the end, we are left to celebration for we are thankful for God’s gift of unmerited favor toward us. We call this favor grace. About the only thing we can do with God’s grace is to receive it as a precious gift. Then we celebrate our “God fortune.” Where does one celebrate and call it a “discipline?” We celebrate discipline somewhere in the region that God calls the Kingdom of Heaven.

Apr 22, 2011

Just Friday! (Good Friday)

On this Good Friday we listen to the words of Thomas Lane Butts who highly recommends us hearing John Ed Matheson on 1 May 2011 at FUMC of Arlington, Texas and also at 7:00 pm on the next day Monday. Both of these occasions will be in the church’s sanctuary. Jim Moore will preach on Tuesday (3 May 2011)with outstanding music each evening.

Today, as we walk the via dolorosa with Jesus and weep at the cross, we are kept from despair in the sure knowledge that there is an ending we do not see. When faith in the power and wisdom of God is the theme and mood of our lives, we can live with the pain of the moment.

Several years ago I listened in rapt attention to Dr. Tony Campolo describe a sermon preached by his pastor on Good Friday titled: “It Is Friday, but Sunday’s Coming!” The disciples are lost in pain and shame. Mary is crying. The crowd is jeering: “He saved others, now let him save himself.” The religious authorities are strutting and laughing. The Roman soldiers are shooting dice for his garments. Jesus is dying. What they do not know is that it is just Friday. Just Friday! But, Sunday is coming! Do you understand that? (Thomas Lane Butts)

Apr 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday

Today Thursday, 21 April 2011 is called Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday.

As we move further into the spring we all notice that the days keep getting a little longer. Daylight savings, thanks to Ben Franklin, gives us even more light than we would otherwise have. So thanks to Ben!

Yet, we all know the truth that life is filled with both darkness and light. We have painful, difficult experiences in our lives and we have beautiful, joyful, light-filled days in our lives. Light and dark are useful metaphors for our lives and the meaning therein.

Today, we remember the dark days of Jesus’ life; after he had his last meal with his friends, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray and while he was there he was betrayed by one of his friends, taken prisoner by Roman guards, tried by the Roman governor, condemned, beaten, and nailed to a cross where he suffered and died.
Matthew says that the whole world went dark and the sun refused to shine from noon to 3 pm on the Friday afternoon when Jesus died (Mt 27:45). Just as Jesus went through dark days so we all have dark days in our lives when it seems as if the sun refuses to shine.

But the good news is that darkness is always followed by the light. The sunrise of a new day always follows the darkness of the night.

On Easter Sunday when God brought Jesus from death to life it was a sign and a symbol of this truth about life: that good ultimately overcomes evil, that life overcomes death, that light overcomes darkness, that love overcomes hate, that joy overcomes suffering, and that faith overcomes fear. Wake up early and take a look on Easter morning!

Apr 2, 2011

Growing Up in Lent

Aaron “Hotch” Hotchner quoted Madeleine L’Engle in a recent re-run episode of Criminal Minds. Of course this is about as dark as television can get, well except perhaps for South Park. Hotchner quoting L’Engle said:

“When we were children, we used to think that when we grew up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability; to be alive is to be vulnerable.”

As we careen toward Holy Week and as we approach the Fourth Sunday in Lent, we see that Jesus was at his most venerable during this time of the Passion. For example in John, where Jesus is seen as nearly the invincible son of God, Jesus shows vulnerability when Pilate asks him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?”

Then Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (see: John 19:8ff).

Thus although Jesus is God’s only begotten son, as John tells us, Jesus is nonetheless vulnerable just as we are because the incarnation reminds us that Jesus is “fully human—fully divine.” And Jesus is vulnerable because we are vulnerable.

This Lent remember that “to grow up is to accept vulnerability.” May God be with us through this revelation.

Mar 31, 2011

What We Hear

He who tooteth his own horn not, heareth no music.”—Dr. Albert C. Outler, Wesley Studies, Perkins School of Theology, Spring 1979.

Mar 19, 2011

Ken Diehm was My Friend

At virtually this very time give or take two hours, on 19th February 2011, my good friend Ken Diehm passed. Ironically, Ken died four years to the day and nearly to the minute of my 2007 car wreck in Round Rock that probably should have taken my own life. As none of Kenneth’s best preacher friends would have been in any emotional shape to celebrate his life three weeks ago at his memorial service, I want to write some thoughts here as my way of freezing Kenny in my mind and heart.

I met Ken around the fall of 1982 when he was going to Brite and Ken and Kenda were living in student housing. I was looking for John Fiedler who played intramural football with Ken and walked into Ken and Kenda’s apartment. Kenda said I was wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Bermuda shorts, and cowboy boots. Funny thing is I don’t remember that. What I do remember is that the only OU-Texas football game I ever went to was with Ken when he was in Cisco and I was in De Leon. I remember that if anything had ever happened to Helen and me, that Ken and Kenda were in our will as legal guardians for our three children. I took Ken off my pension plan paperwork only six weeks ago as Neil Mosser was turning 21 and Ken said "thanks" because he had enough trouble already. I remember traveling with Ken to New Mexico on several occasions to do Bible study with Tim, Travis, Bobby, Bruster, and Neil.

I remember talking through ideas for ministry and the fuller involvement of lay folks and how to help guide them into the joy of giving life away in the Body of Christ—and we talked a lot about the “One Mile Mission.” I remember staying at his house for Annual Conference when we met at White’s Chapel UMC because it was so far to drive back and forth to Midlothian each day. I remember Ken trying to tell Kody who I was when we were at their house and Kody looking at him and saying, as only a teen-ager could: “Come on Dad . . . you don’t need to try and explain this guy.” I remember being with Ken at Arlington Memorial Hospital when his grandson was born and how happy he was. I remember Kenny trying to put in plain words the United Methodist Pension program to me. O Boy!!!

I remember Ken . . . . and when I do, then I also remember Tim Russell, Gary Carroll, Bobby Baggett, and how fortunate I was to know them all. And then I remember Ken . . . .

Mar 15, 2011


Every day, we make what seem like a billion decisions. From tying our shoes in the morning to untying them each evening, who really knows how many decisions the average person makes?
As those in Japan learned this week, many of our decisions are out of our hands. However, many decisions are within our control. The intensity of wrestling with our decisions fluctuates from unconscious decision making to brutally conscious choices. To relieve us from some of these daily pressures, however, some well worn habits can save us from our agony.

Aristotle reminds us that there are good habits as well as those which are not so good. He said: “We are what we repeatedly do; excellence is therefore not an act but a habit.” Thus developing certain habits rescues us from having to make a decision about many things. If you want to help your children (or you) then do not decide each weekend as to whether or not your family will go to church or not each Sunday.

Make it a family habit. To save wear and tear on the human organism, perhaps we should surrender as much of life as possible to habits that save us from having to re-think matters to which there are usually some pretty obvious answers. The agony you save may be your own!

To close I want to share what I read this week in the UM Reporter: Richard A. Kauffman wrote:
I can’t speak for others, but here is why I go to church. I go first of all to meet God, to be in God’s presence. I go also to make connection with other people who share many of my foundational convictions and commitments. I go to find meaning in life, to make sense of my life and to search for guidance on how I should live out my life.

In other words, I go to church to be part of something bigger than myself, to join my storyline with one that started long before I made my appearance in this life and will continue beyond my earthly existence.

I also go for the music. My congregation is blessed with some talented musicians . . .
I like that and I certainly agree with Mr. Kauffman. It is something to think about this Lent.

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