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?

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