Christchurch

Note: my wife and I have been traveling in New Zealand and Australia for almost a month. That and a keyboard malfunction have kept me from making many posts here. But because we are in this part of the world I wanted to share these brief thoughts about the recent massacre in New Zealand.

All acts of terrorism are painful, but the killings in Christchurch New Zealand are especially so for me. My wife and I were just in New Zealand last week and commented on how happy and carefree people there seemed. We speculated that their small island nation was somehow isolated from the fears and problems of much of the rest of the world. We were wrong. Today reminds us again that evil is part of human condition and that we must all do our part to stop it. After New Zealand we visited Port Arthur Tasmania, the site of a mass shooting in 1996 that inspired Australia’s sweeping national reforms of gun ownership. As I weep with the people of Christchurch tonight both of these examples from the other side of the world remind me of our common humanity. Christ have mercy.

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Know When to Walk Away and When to Run

“If that house will not welcome you shake the dust from your feet and walk away.” Those words from the Gospel of Matthew kept running through my mind as I followed the struggles of the United Methodist General conference last week. Leaving a significant relationship is never easy, but sometimes it is the best choice to make. I have been an ordained United Methodist pastor for almost 50 years. For all but 3 years of my entire ministry my denomination has been arguing over LGBTQ acceptance.

Like Charlie Brown I dared to hope that just maybe this time the General Conference wouldn’t pull the ball away before Jesus could kick a field goal. It pains me greatly that once again my denomination has failed to be the church. Isn’t 47 years long enough to wait for the UMC to produce good fruit? Far too many good people have been damaged by the judgmental policies of our church. Far too much time and precious resources have been wasted fiddling with this unwinable debate while the world burns from hunger, poverty, climate change, racism and rising nationalism.

The world is in desperate need of authentic ministry to the marginalized, the immigrants and oppressed, and a church that cannot even accept its own LGBTQ children so we can all join hands to care for God’s children is not a a church worthy of Christ’s name.

I will of course pray long and hard for everyone wounded again by this rejection and for the rejectors. But I will also be praying about my future relationship to the UMC. My decision may be easier because I am retired. It will be a much harder choice for others.” in active ministry. I will wait to see what last week’s vote for an even harder line rejection of my beloved sisters and brothers actually means. Like Congress church politics are messy and convoluted. Even those who were in Indianapolis at General Conference are not sure what the so-called “Traditional” plan means. Parts of it were apparently declared unconstitutional by the Judicial Council before the vote which probably means the battle will continue, and even more LGBTQ people and their progressive supporters will be alienated from Christ and his redeeming, inclusive love.

Even though we don’t know what the future holds, these things I do know for sure. God isn’t finished with us yet. For people of faith resurrection always follows death. It may feel like Friday, but Sunday’s coming! The Christ I have come to know and love says, “Come to me ALL (not just those we deem worthy) who labor and are heavy laden.” And in that verse from Matthew where it says to shake the dust from your feet, listen to Jesus’ final warning to those who refuse to welcome God’s blessed ones: “Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgement than for that town.” (Matthew 10:15)

Whatever emerges from the coming schism I for one am ready to shake the dust of judgement and rejection from my feet and align myself with those who are welcoming and inclusive. I don’t know yet what that looks like organizationally, but Jesus knows it’s not the name on the church door that matters. It’s the hospitality inside the fellowship of believers that makes us a church.

Peace Prayer

Dear God, grant me the peace that exceeds my puny ability to be calm in the storm. Remind me to inhale your grace and exhale a little breeze of compassion and understanding into this broken world – even when I’d rather throw a temper tantrum. Shake me gently to reboot my reason so things are put back into proper perspective. Clear the fog from my eyes so I can see the way you want me to go. Be my spiritual GPS and clean the prejudices from my ears so I can hear you whisper “all is well.” Pour the balm of Gilead on my dis-ease. Take my hand and help me walk in faith on the tempestuous waters of my weary world. When I am ready to push the panic button, tap me on the shoulder and remind me to look in the back of the boat where the true captain of my soul is sleeping in heavenly peace. Amen

Memories

dadonwayoutMy father died one year ago today.  On purpose or not I was too busy to think much about it today, but I do miss him.  I don’t miss the 2 hour drive to go visit him, but I miss knowing he was there even if he often drove me and my sisters crazy.  My dad and I were never very close, but in his later years I learned to accept him and forgive him for the things that bothered me about his attitude toward life.  He was too rigid and authoritarian – maybe things I haven’t accepted in myself?  We didn’t agree on theology or politics or child rearing philosophies, but in the end none of that stuff really mattered.  He was my father, and I literally owed my life to him.

He really did do the best he could to be the best person, father, husband, Christian he knew how to be. And like all of us he fell short of the mark regularly.  Like all of us he had to survive some difficult things in his life.  Unlike me and most of us he survived a near-death experience in a North Atlantic plane crash on his way home from World War II.  He didn’t talk about that experience and I regret that I never cared enough to ask him about what had to be a life-defining moment.  So I can only speculate on how the death of his crew mates in that crash or the 12 hours he spent in the water before being rescued affected him.  I know I have no right to judge him for his shortcomings and regret the distance I helped create between us by doing so.

All such life events have a ripple effect on everyone touched by them.  From that awful experience came my Dad’s conversion to Christianity, which led to my own growing up in the church and my career choices and how my faith and values have been shaped.  In many ways I am who I am now because of the engine that failed on that B-17 seventy-four years ago.

A friend told me after Dad died that someone had told him once we don’t really grow up until we become orphans.  I’m not sure I’ve made much headway in the last year, but I have a new appreciation for how fragile and temporary life is.  Things that once bothered me don’t seem so important anymore.  Maybe that’s a baby step toward maturity?

Thanks Dad.

CALLED NOW! Luke 5:1-11, Scout Sunday

All of my best friends when I was a kid were my fellow Boy Scouts. Much to my chagrin one of them posted this picture on Facebook a few weeks ago – yes, I’m the short one. This picture is from the day Blaine and I got our Eagle Scout awards. My point is not to brag but to show the Scouts here today that if this 90 pound weakling could make it to Eagle anybody can!

I see a lot of parallels between what I learned in scouting and our Gospel lesson for today, and I want to focus on just two – trust and obedience. A Scout is trustworthy is the first Scout Law. But when I try to remember all 12 points of the scout Law the one I often omit is obedient. There’s probably some deep psychological reason for that, but we aren’t going there today.

When Jesus, a carpenter and itinerant preacher gives Simon the fisherman advice on how to fish Simon’s first response is to say, “Master, we have worked all night and caught nothing.” Simon’s tired, smelly and in bad need of his morning coffee and a shower. But the story doesn’t stop there. Simon goes on to say, “Yet if you say so I will put down the nets.” Why would he do that? Jesus doesn’t know anything about fishing, and yet when he says, “Put out into the deep” Simon obeys. Why?

Luke gives us a clue. Simon begins his response to Jesus by calling him “Master.” He wouldn’t do that if he didn’t already know something about Jesus that makes him respect and Trust him. But before they can catch a boat load of fish they have to translate trust into obedient action and actually “put out into the deep.”

What might putting out into the deep mean for you right now today?? What is God calling you to do that is risky, outside your comfort zone? To fish for people means we all need to spread Christ’s love and mercy to a friend, fellow student, family member, neighbor or co-worker – especially those who are very hard to love.

Another important part of Scouting is the Scout oath which begins, “On my honor I will do my duty to God and my country.” When I was a scout I equated those two things. But with more life experience and deeper study of the Scriptures I have learned God and Country are not one and the same. God is listed first in that oath on purpose. Duty to God is bigger than duty to anything else because God is bigger than anything we can imagine or comprehend. So when our personal desires or interests come into conflict with what God would have us do, our duty is to follow the example of Christ.

That’s what it means to be called to follow Jesus, to be his disciple here and now. The call to discipleship is not just something that happened way back then to Simon and the other fishermen. It is the urging of God’s Holy Spirit calling all of us every day to do our duty to God.

The fishermen were not expecting a call from Jesus. They were just doing their jobs to try and make a living – and out of nowhere Jesus calls them instead to make a life and a life changing decision.

What might that kind of call look like today if it happened to you at work or school? Maybe like this skit:

Cast: Andrea, CEO of a seafood company.
John Thunderson, a friend and client of Andrea’s company
Jamie, John’s sister and business partner

[The scene is a contemporary office – Andrea is the only actor who appears on stage. The others are heard from offstage via microphones. Andrea is at a desk with lap top, papers piled up, disheveled, coffee cups on table, looking very frustrated and harried, coat on back of chair.]

Phone rings – Andrea ignores it for a couple of rings, then answers it, cradles it on shoulder while still working at computer

Hello, yes, this is Andrea.
[Pause]
Hi Bro. Yes, as always, but I’m never too busy for a good idea, what’s up?
[Pause]
Wait a second, Simon; is this another one of your hair-brained pyramid schemes? If I had half the money back I’ve lost on your too-good-to-be-true investment tips I could retire today.
[Pause]
Just give me the bottom line – how much do you need?
[Pause]
No money? OK, I’ll bite, what’s the punch line?

[Cell phone rings] Hang on Simon; I’ve got another call coming in.

[Answers cell phone] Hey John. Can I buzz you back in a sec – I’m on my other phone?
[Pause]
OK, yes, I understand it’s urgent. I’ll get right back to you, I promise. My brother’s on the other line–needs some money or something. I’ll just be a minute. Thanks.

[Disconnects cell phone and goes back to desk phone}

Simon, you still there? Sorry about that. What?
[Pause]
Oh, it was John Thunderson. Probably needs a new jingle for his latest Thunderson Tuna TV campaign. Anyway, what’s the deal here?
[Pause]
You don’t need money, so what do you need? [Pause] My time? That’s even worse. How much time and for what?
[Pause]
Whoa, slow down. I’ve not heard you so excited since you won the singles championship at the club. Let me see if I’ve got this anyways close to straight. You heard this motivational speaker who’s recruiting volunteers, and you want me to go with you to a training session for two weeks — in Buffalo???
[Pause]
Simon, I can’t do that. I’m swamped here. We just opened that new processing plant in Savannah. The shrimpers union is holding me up for a huge increase in benefits. [Looks at calendar] And I promised Mike I’d take care of the kids this weekend so he can visit his mother. I just can’t.
[Pause]
Yes, I’m really glad that he’s attracting big crowds. And I know we can use all the networking and publicity we can get for the business. You go and let me know how it looks when you get back. What kind of time commitment are you looking at after the training session?
[Pause]
Well, you better find out. I need to get someone to cover your territory if you’re going to be a groupie for this guy and save the world.

[Looks at phone] Now what? Text just came in. Gotta go, bye.

[Dials desk phone]

Jamie, it’s Andrea. Got your text. What’s going on?
[Pause]
Yeah, John called awhile ago, but I was on the other phone; so I haven’t really talked to him. You sound excited about something. Is everything OK?

[Cell phone rings] [Pauses and looks at phone] – Yeah, it’s John again, hang on Jamie.

[Answers cell phone]

John, sorry, I haven’t had a second to call you back yet. [Pause] Yeah, matter of fact; she’s on the other phone right now. Listen, let me call you back and we can do a conference call, OK?

[Hangs up cell and picks up desk phone] Jamie, you still there? Good. Listen, that’s John on the other phone. Let me put you on hold a minute while I call him back and we can all talk together on a three-way, OK?

[Punches buttons on phone] OK, you both there now?

John and Jamie: [together, from off stage over mic] Yes, I’m here.

Andrea: Good. What’s going on, you both sound frantic about something? Your folks OK I hope?

John: [excitedly] Yes, they’re fine, thanks, but I called because I’ve got this great idea I need to talk to you about!

Jamie: [interrupting] And I called to warn you about this crazy idea that has relieved John of his senses!

Andrea: Whoa, one at a time, please. Jamie, you go first.
Jamie: Andrea, please talk some sense into my brother will you? He’s gone batty over this guy and wants to run off tilting at windmills!

John: Jamie’s just too conservative, Andrea, not willing to take any chances. This is really big and we need to get in on the ground floor. I mean you have to hear this guy in person to understand. He’s just amazing, the way he can motivate people and inspire loyalty and creativity.

Jamie: But what does he know about the fish business? He’s a building contractor, for god’s sake!

John: For God’s sake–that’s it! I couldn’t put my finger on it, but that’s it! He’s got some kind of extraordinary power. Why take chances with something that awesome? If he’s a phony, he’ll fade away faster than Frosty in the noon day sun. But if he’s the real deal, I don’t want to be on the outside looking in. And I don’t want my friends and family there either.

Andrea: Slow down, you two. Who in the world are you talking about?

John: Didn’t Simon tell you? He said he was going to Buffalo for the training.

Andrea: Oh, that. I didn’t realize you were talking about the same thing. I didn’t listen to him all that carefully I’m afraid, just too much other stuff going on.

Jamie: Good for you, Andrea. I’m glad someone still has at least one foot planted in reality. This guy is a contractor who has had some kind of religious experience and thinks he’s God’s gift to humanity. He’s peddling peace and love and a bunch of feel good stuff that just won’t play in the real world. I hope you didn’t let Simon sell you a bill of goods.

John: I can’t explain it, Andrea. But, trust me, you owe it to yourself to meet this guy and decide for yourself. There’s something about him that I’ve never seen or felt before. He simply exudes this amazing sense of peace. He looks at you, and it’s like he sees right thru to your soul.

Andrea: Sounds like x-ray vision to me. I don’t want anybody getting that close to me, thanks.

John: I know, I didn’t think I did either. But this is different. There’s no sense of threat, no judgment–just affirmation and love. He takes you where you are and draws out the very best in you. I’m going to Buffalo this afternoon, Andrea, and I think you should come along, really.

Jamie: Great and you’re leaving me to take care of Mom and Dad AGAIN?

John: Yes, Jamie. They’ll be OK for a few days. This is more important. I’ve never felt so sure of anything in my life. Please come too, Jamie; give it a chance. The rat race we’re in isn’t making you happy. There has to be more to life than selling fish. This is more important, I just know it is.

[Pause–while Andrea weighs her options, then starts putting her coat on to leave]

Andrea: Sorry Jamie, I’ve known John since high school, I’ve never heard him so psyched before. I’ve got to see what this is about. It’s up to you, but I wish you’d come with us and give it a try.

[Andrea hangs up phone and exits, leaving everything as is on the desk]

I wrote that skit 15 years ago for a clergy gathering that was held here at Northwest over in the ministry center. It was the first time I was ever in this building, and I had no idea that part of my call would bring me here to be part of this great congregation many years later. I want to thank the talented people who made that video possible – you probably recognized Heather Sherrill as Andrea, but off camera were two other wonderful people – Barbara Luke as Jamie and our AV coordinator Eric Gauder who recorded and produced the video. These are very busy people. It took about a week of texts and emails just to find an hour when we were all available. Yet they took time to do this because they know that part of their call is to share their talents with and for God’s church.

God is still calling you and me every day, but like Andrea and John in the skit we stall and procrastinate and rationalize. So why do we resist God’s call upon our lives? When the first disciples haul in that amazing boat load of fish Luke says the crowds were amazed. But notice Simon’s immediate reaction when he suddenly realized who Jesus is. He falls on his knees and says, “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man!”

It’s that feeling you get when going a little over the speed limit and suddenly realize there’s a state trooper with a radar gun aimed right at you. To follow God can be scary because of guilt, sin, insecurity, or the big unknown of just what doing our duty to God might involve. Jesus is calling these fishermen to leave everything they have done, everything they do — their comfort zone, their livelihood. And he offers no detailed job description. He just says, “Follow Me.” That’s scary- like being a federal employee trusting the government won’t be shut down again in five days.

When I first felt my own call to become a pastor I was 15 and at a senior high church camp worship service. We were asked to sign a 3 x 5 card if we felt called to some kind of Christian service. I signed the card, but I didn’t tell a soul – not even my family. In fact it took me 4 years before I was ready to reveal that call publicly. Why? Fear – I was afraid of being ridiculed or shunned by friends who would be afraid to be themselves around me. As you saw in that first picture I was already a little nerd. I didn’t need any other uncool qualities for my peers to judge.

So I said “Sorry God, I’m going to be an aeronautical engineer.” I lived in Neil Armstrong’s hometown so that was a very respectable calling. And it promised a lot more financial security than being a pastor. But God doesn’t play fair. She persisted and even used my first college calculus course to finally convince me to switch majors and plan on going to seminary.

But answering God’s call does not mean you all need to enroll in seminary tomorrow. God’s call is as unique for each one of us as we are all different in many ways. God’s call is very simple- just love each other – and that requires no graduate degree. It can be a ministry of your presence at a funeral, a phone call or a card to lonely friend, taking a meal to a grieving family, donating to charity, praying for someone in need, visiting a nursing home, writing a letter to a legislator about a social justice issue. Opportunities to answer God’s call are all around us, here and now every day. Our call is to pray for wisdom to discern what it is God wants each of us to do right now and then trust that call enough to go into action.

All the church growth experts agree that people are most likely to visit a new church if someone invites them personally. Notice that in the Scripture for today Jesus gives a personal invitation to the fishermen, and for them to respond so quickly he must have done it with urgency. We can’t tell from the written narrative – we don’t have snapchat photos or video so we miss the inflection in Jesus’ voice or how it felt to have Jesus look you in the eye and say “Follow Me.” And he spoke their language. They knew how to catch fish; so he says, “Come with me and I’ll put the talents you’ve already got to work catching people for my Kingdom.”

We have to be smart about discerning when God is calling us and when it’s a wrong number. The best way to be smart is to enlist help. Scouts are organized in troops – there no such thing as a solo scout, and there’s no such thing as a solo disciple.

Obedience to God doesn’t mean taking every problem on personally. Even Jesus needed help and called disciplines to join him. Well, guess what – Jesus needs reinforcements even more today. He’s no longer walking this earth and relies entirely on people like us to Trust and Obey him. If we do God empowers us with the Holy Spirit and will guide us to discern exactly what it is we are each called to do. And when we say yes, God provides the courage for us to do our duty.

God often speaks to us through music, and this week for me the message has been coming through a loveable green frog. Kermit puts it this way: “Have you been fast asleep, and have you heard voices? I’ve heard them calling my name. Is this the sweet sound that calls the young sailors, the voice might be one and the same. I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it. It’s something that I’m supposed to be. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection, the lovers, the dreamers and me.”

May today be that day. Amen

Benediction: What is God calling you to do? God is pretty persistent – so you might as well answer the call, nudge, text, email or personal invitation. You won’t regret it. Go in Peace.

THE CLOCK IS TICKING

Nothing confronts us humans more with the deep mystery of life than our own awareness of our mortality. Woody Allen once said, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” By contrast one of my favorite and most challenging Scripture texts is this one in Luke 2 when Jesus is 8 days old:

“Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

I confess I am more like Woody than Simeon, and life and death are full of countless examples of those opposing approaches to the grave. Dylan Thomas famously said,
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Contrast that with Elijah passing his mantel on to Elisha and ascending into the clouds. In my own family we witnessed the stark difference between my mother-in-law who was content and peaceful as her last days approached and my father who fought against the inevitable as long as he could.

I’m not sure what to make of this, but I think the clue to contentment is found in Simeon’s surrender when he says, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation…” Simeon had accomplished his life’s purpose. He was looking forward to Israel’s consolation and believed God’s promise that he would not taste death until that purpose had been fulfilled.

What is the purpose of how we spend the dash between our date of birth and date of death? That’s a question all of us must wrestle with ourselves. We can ask God’s guidance and seek the counsel of wise mentors, but ultimately the choice is ours. What shall we live for? Are we human beings or human doings? Do we spend our lives in pursuit of things that do not satisfy our souls? Are we so caught up if making a living that we fail to make a significant life?

Since this is Super Bowl weekend let me share this analogy. Even casual football fans know that football time is not real clock time. The final minutes and seconds of a game can fly by or they can drag on forever depending on which team is ahead and who has the ball. If my team is behind they will do everything they can to stop the clock after every play – run out of bounds, spike the ball, call a time out, fake an injury, challenge a call, etc. Many a football widow knows how long it can be from the 2 minute warning till the final gun.

But if the team with the ball is ahead the exact opposite strategy is employed. They will run the ball so the clock keeps ticking after the play. They will stay inbounds; they will run the play clock almost down to zero on each play to use up as many seconds as possible before snapping the ball.

What’s the difference in these two scenarios? Team A is desperate to score again because they have not achieved their purpose which is to win the game. Team B is content to let the end come ASAP because they are ahead – they have fulfilled their purpose and accomplished their mission.

What does the scoreboard of your life say? Are you ahead or behind? Are you accomplishing your purpose or still striving to get to the goal line? I’ll be going to two funerals this week- one of the deceased was in her 80’s, the other just 50. Both dedicated their lives to helping others in personal and professional ways. Both were people of vision and compassion. One slipped gradually toward death over several months, but the other died suddenly leaving many of us again to wonder why.

I simply do not know. Maybe someday I will see clearly what is now only a dim reflection in a foggy mirror. But this much I do know, both Judy and Joe have left a hole in the human fabric; and it is part of my purpose and yours to pick up their mantle. The world will little note nor long remember who wins Super Bowl LIII, but if we want to win the game of life and be content to depart in peace whenever our time comes, we must all trust in God’s promise and make our game plan congruent with God’s will.

Prayer for Shutdown Relief

O Gracious God of the poor and the rich, of the privileged and the marginalized, the powerful and the furloughed, please hear our prayers. The uncertainty of the government shutdown is fraying our nerves and the fabric of our democracy. Working Americans are hungry and stressed by lack of pay to provide for their families. Critical services for inspecting food, conducting law enforcement activities and air travel safety are increasingly unstable. We are feeling anxious and insecure; our faith in our system of government to perform essential services is strained to the breaking point.

Out of this crisis, O God, inspire compassion for government workers that is stronger than political posturing on either side of the aisle. Melt the hearts of those who are afraid to cross political boundaries so true leadership and wisdom will prevail. In times of crisis we are not Republicans or Democrats; we are not identified by race, gender, social class or any other artificial label. We are all human beings with basic needs for food, shelter and security.

Send your Holy Spirit, we implore you, to Congress and the White House; send it to airports and food pantries. Our human efforts to resolve this conflict have failed for 34 long days; so in faithful desperation we ask that in your power you will transform the weary and fearful leaders of our nation into agents of your compassion and wisdom.

In your mercy, Lord, hear the prayers of your people. Amen