Do Not Say “I Am Only a Youth”

Like many I have been very discouraged about the prospects for the future of our nation. The re-emergence of latent hate and racism that have poisoned our country in recent months has made me despair about human nature itself. The shooting in Parkland, Florida only added to my depression. But this week as I listen to the impassioned pleas and protests of young people demanding action about the epidemic of gun violence in our nation I am encouraged about our future for the first time in much too long.

It often takes the idealism and passion of youth to force change upon adults too enslaved to the status quo. Young people were the prime movers that brought an end to the Viet Nam war when adult leaders could not. Some of those young people paid with their lives at Kent State and Jackson State along with their peers who died in Southeast Asia. Young Freedom Riders suffered and died in the civil rights struggles of the 50’s and 60’s just as their fathers did on the beaches of Normandy or in the Battle of the Bulge.

Freedom is never free, and freedom from the fear of deranged gunmen with AR-15’s for our students and teachers and parents is not free either. It has been bought and paid for by the blood shed everywhere from Columbine to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It has been paid for by Gabby Giffords and her crusade for gun control reform. And now I hope the final payment will be made by politicians and gun manufacturers who may have met there match in the angry young survivors in Parkland.

These young people understand that truth and justice do not know generational boundaries. The God of peace and love is rejoicing at the witness of these students because whether they know it or not in the depths of their pain and grief over their friends and teachers these young prophets have caught the spirit and power of God’s words to Jeremiah:

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the Lord said to me,
“Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’;
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you,
says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 1:6-8)

These brave student survivors like Isabella Gomez and David Hogg have articulated beautifully the pleas of the youth of this nation for action, and their passion has struck a chord with young people all over the nation who have had enough empty adult talk. Will they be heard this time? History says “yes” because those on the side of peace and justice do not fear because God is with them and will deliver them.

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Pastoral Prayer in Response to Parkland Shootings

O great comforter, we are a nation in mourning.  On Valentine’s Day when we celebrate the gift of love we were devastated by yet another senseless violent act at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  Words are simply inadequate to express the pain and grief we feel and we can only imagine how much all of those directly impacted are suffering.

It was also Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season of repentance.  With the funerals for two police officers in our own community and the tragedy in Florida our Lenten theme of being in the wilderness seems all too real just now.  This is one of those times when we are so grateful for the Scripture’s assurance that you “help us in our weakness so when we don’t know how to pray the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

We humbly ask O God that you will grant healing mercies to those physically and emotionally wounded by these tragedies.  And we pray also that our time in the wilderness will help us draw closer to you that we might be agents of healing and comfort to any we meet who are hurting.  And please O Holy One show our leaders and all of us how to live according to your will that our broken nation might come together in peace and cooperation that benefits all.

We pray for those named in our own prayer concerns this day with the assurance that you know our needs even before we ask.  Our needs are many but today we especially pray that those who mourn will be comforted as we name those who died on Wednesday in Parkland:

Carmen Schentrup, Meadow Pollack, Peter Wang, Nicholas Dworet, Christopher Hixon, Aaron Feis, Luke Hoyer, Alaina Petty, Jaime Guttenberg, Martin Duque, Alyssa Alhadeff, Helena Ramsey, Scott Beigel, Joaquin Oliver, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, and Alexander Schachter.

Lord, in your mercy hear our prayers in the name of Christ who taught us to pray…..

Dust and Ashes

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19) Those familiar words used on Ash Wednesday will have more meaning for me this year with the taste of death very fresh in my mind. My 96 year-old father died yesterday after a long and full life. I was not there when he died but was able to say good bye to him before the funeral home came to take his body away. His death, unlike the last few difficult months, was peaceful, and I am grateful that a hospice nurse and my sister were with him at the end.

We knew the end was near for Dad when I quoted “Thanatopsis” in my sermon on Sunday (posted here as “Itchy Ears and the 99-yard Dash,” 2-11-18), but it wasn’t until a friend pointed it out that I realized how personally relevant that was when I asked for prayers for a peaceful passage for him. And indeed when I got to the nursing home where he died he did indeed lying there in his bed look like one who had “wrapped the drapery of his couch about him and lay down to pleasant dreams.”

There will be time in coming days and weeks to celebrate the many gifts of his life, but for now on this Ash Wednesday eve I simply want to give thanks for the gift he gave me in the most powerful way possible, a reminder that I am mortal and need to do a better job of living each and every day as the precious and holy gift it is.

It is gradually sinking in that I’m now the patriarch of my family. That’s a sobering thought and not a mantle I’ve ever coveted; but like many roles in life one accepts the inevitable and learns on the job what that means.
Life-long learning is a journey of discovery, and my dad’s passing is just one more lesson in life’s amazing curriculum. Thanks Dad. I pray that before I too return to dust that with God’s help I will live each day in a way that will honor your memory.

“Itchy Ears and the 99-yard Dash,” II Timothy 4:1-8

Today as we conclude this sermon series on being called I want to examine how Paul’s sense of calling was expressed even in his death. The problem is we don’t know how Paul died or when. Tradition has it he was beheaded in Rome as part of Nero’s persecution of Christians sometime around 63 AD/CE. But the New Testament, our main source of information about Paul’s life, is totally silent when it comes to the matter of Paul’s death.
Most of the book of Acts is a pretty detailed account of Paul’s ministry from his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus to his missionary journeys all over Asia Minor and southern Europe, and finally to his arrival at last in Rome where he was a prisoner under house arrest awaiting trial. But after all the details of geography, arrests, shipwrecks and starting many new churches listen to how the book of Acts ends: “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!” (Acts 28:30-31)

In other words as he faced Roman imprisonment and possible execution, Paul spends his time doing exactly what he did for all the years of his life after his call to follow Christ—he proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ “with all boldness and without hindrance.”

Paul is one of the best examples of what I like to call the “Hokey Pokey” Gospel. You remember that fun little song which says in part “You put your whole self in, you take your whole self out, you put your whole self in and you shake it all about. You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!” To be called means to put your whole self into whatever God is calling you to do. That doesn’t mean those who do full time Christian work are called any more than teachers, homemakers, bus drivers, garbage collectors or bee keepers. Any job can be a vocation if it is done fully as part of a life lived according to God’s will and values.

But just as the Hokey Pokey says, to fully respond to one’s call you have to “turn yourself around” or more accurately you have to let God turn you around. We often think the word “repentance” means to apologize, to say we’re sorry, and that’s partly correct – but it also means to turn around and go in a different direction. Paul did that when he was converted from being a hit man against the Christians to Christ’s boldest and most dedicated messenger. He had to give up his old life and do a complete 180. Most of us can’t do that on our own. To beat an addiction, to change careers, to turn our backs on the tempting idols of our materialistic world takes the help and support of others and the divine guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Most of us are more like Woody Allen than Paul when it comes to death and dying. Woody Allen says, “I don’t mind dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” The best description I’ve ever found of what I’d call a good death is in a poem called “Thanatopsis” written 300 years ago by William Cullen Bryant. The word thanatopsis is derived from two Greek words and means “a consideration of death.” The poem is much more than the title word says; it is really a consideration of death and life because those are two sides of the same coin. One cannot die a good death without first living a good life.

The poem ends with these words:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

So however or whenever St. Paul died I have the feeling he “approached his grave with an unfaltering trust like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.” But the question is how in the world do we achieve that kind of peace, a peace that enables us to be obedient to the end, to truly walk the walk of faith all the way to the finish line?

To find that kind of peace one must let go of regrets, and we all have them. Frank Sinatra sang “regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again too few to mention.” I wish I only had a few! And don’t think that just because Paul turned his life around on the road to Damascus that he lived 100% regret free from that moment on! In Romans 7 Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” Sin dwells in every human being. It comes as part and parcel of our free will; and that’s why repentance and conversion are not one and done events but on-going life-long journeys.

As Pastor Chris pointed out a few weeks ago Paul doesn’t always come across as a humble, repentant sinner. He frequently boasts about himself as a paragon of virtue and challenges people to live up to his example. And given all the hardship Paul lived through he truly is an excellent model to follow, not because he was perfect but because he was human like you and me, warts and all.

To run the risk of sounding too political one could say that Paul persisted. He refused to give up in spite of bitter conflict in the early church about the legitimacy of his evangelism among the gentiles. One of the most beautiful descriptions of the kind of determination it takes to live a faithful life is in the Scripture read for us today from II Timothy. As an aside, you may know that many biblical scholars are convinced that I and II Timothy were not actually written by Paul. The language in those epistles is a bit different from Paul’s other letters and the organization of the church described in these letters is far more advanced than would have been true in the first century.

But the testimony in these verses is so personal that if Paul didn’t say it he certainly could have. They describe his life and ministry to a “T” in beautiful poetic imagery that is especially vivid just now when we are watching the remarkable achievements of Olympic athletes who have trained all their lives for these games. II Timothy offers these words as Paul’s summary of his life’s work, and I don’t know about you but I’d love to be able to have these words as a eulogy for my life:

“As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

When I was a Boy Scout 100 years ago one of the merit badges I needed to become an Eagle Scout was one for Athletics. This 98 lb. weakling had to accomplish a list of athletic tasks to the satisfaction of the supervisor for that merit badge. I don’t remember the other activities on the list but I still vividly remember the task that seemed insurmountable to me. I had to run ¾ of a mile in under 6 minutes. And yes I know that Olympic athletes today run twice that fast.

But I didn’t. Running was painful for me. I got cramps and pain in my side after about a half mile and that last lap around the track was sheer agony. But I did it because I had a goal I wanted to achieve and had further motivation from a friendly competition with one of my best friends to see which of us could make Eagle Scout first.

Do you ever quit on something before you reach your goal – weight loss, mastering a musical instrument, learning a new language, mending a relationship? I’ve got a terrible record as a quitter – stopped taking piano lessons, dropped out of band in middle school because staying there got complicated with my family’s priorities. I quit on my first marriage. I have not always fought the good fight and finished the race.
Did you ever hear of anyone getting a medal for running a 99-yard race? No – the race is 100 yards and no one wins by stopping short of the finish line. Jesus needs followers who are willing to give it all they have – whatever those talents may be that are uniquely yours. God can use all of us if we trust God enough to put our whole selves in. What that means will be different at each stage of life. As we age we have different amounts of time and life experience to draw upon, different talents and skills we’ve learned over the years.

For those who are called the real question is not “Is there life after death?” But “Is there life after birth?” Are we living life to the full or just going through the motions? Have we found a purpose and passion for our lives that keeps us going when the finish line seems totally out of reach? The power of focusing on that life purpose is what enables us to keep the faith and finish the race.

What keeps you from doing the things you know you should do? Timothy says it’s our “itchy ears.” Listen to these verses again: “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable…. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths.” (Vs. 1b-4)

When our ears get itchy we look for teachers and leaders who say what we want to hear, and we turn away from the truth. Like allergies different things make different peoples’ ears itch. For some it is wealth or power. For some the temptation of living an easy life leads us away from God. Paul’s life teaches us that being called is not for sissies. Paul suffered greatly for his faith and has the right to tell us: “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry (life) fully.”

“Do the work of an evangelist!” What does that mean for all of you sitting out there? Is an evangelist only a pastor or a TV preacher? Is it someone who goes to the inner city or foreign lands to share the Gospel?

I have a friend who is spending a full month just now in Myanmar as a medical missionary. That’s her calling but it’s not mine and not most of yours. She has special skills as a nurse and great devotion to that type of ministry that enable her to go on such trips every year.

We don’t have to go anywhere special to be an evangelist because an evangelist is anyone who shares the good news of Christ with others. We can all witness to the world by living kind, loving Christ-like lives in whatever our work is or as students or in retirement wherever we are. St. Francis once said that all of us should “preach constantly and when necessary use words.” In other words how we treat others speaks louder than any eloquent preacher. Finding your calling where you can do that may mean turning yourself around. It may require making some tough sacrifices, but the Good news of Christ is that we are all loved and accepted by God and therefore do not need worldly comforts to live a meaningful life.

To be loved and cared for unconditionally is the salve that soothes itchy ears. Itchy ears can cause us to believe harmful myths – like our race is better than others, or that men deserve higher pay for doing the same job as women, or that children are to be seen and not heard! Paul fights the good fight until the day he dies to proclaim the truth that “there is neither slave nor free, Jew nor Greek, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus.”

Age is one of those myths we need to examine carefully before we let them into our itchy ears. They, whoever they are, say “age is just a number.” That’s true but some of us have much bigger numbers than others!! And those bigger numbers can become excuses for not living life as fully and faithfully as we should. Aches and pains can make us give up certain activities. Exercise is too hard; everything takes more time and energy than it used to. We literally can’t do things we used to take for granted. We have to schedule time for simple things like tying shoes or cutting our own toenails because that requires extra effort. My days of giving grandkids piggy back rides are over, gone with the wind like my hopes of ever breaking 80 or even 90 on the golf course.

So it’s true, we old gray mares and stallions can’t horse around the way we used to, and that’s not all bad. I don’t want to go back and make the mistakes I made as a 20 something or 30 something! I’ve probably told you this before, but not today. There’s an organization called “Sageing International” that teaches people instead of saying how old they are to say “I have 71 years of life experience.” Instead of seeing age as a burden let’s value life experience more as an asset. And for you youngsters who don’t have your AARP cards yet, find some elders you can hang around with. We may not be able to figure out our smart phones, but like the Farmers Insurance commercials say, “We know a thing or two because we’ve seen a thing or two.”

Here are just a few examples of people who refused to let ageism stop them from finishing the race:
• Albert Schweitzer ministered to the sick in Africa until he was 89 – received the Nobel Peace Prize when he was 77.
• Anna Mary Robertson started painting when she was 76 saying “I am too young to sit on the porch and too old to work on the farm.” She worked until she was over 100. We know her better as Grandma Moses.
• Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court justice served until he was 83
• Golda Meir became the 4th prime minister of Israel at age 72. She said “Old age isn’t a sin; it’s a call to service.”
• Artist Pablo Picasso did some of his best work in his later years and kept painting almost to his death. When asked what his greatest work was, he said, “The next one!”

Paul was not a spring chicken when he achieved his goal of getting to Rome. He didn’t get there the way he would have liked arriving as a Roman prisoner. But he didn’t let that stop him from doing what he was called to do.

So no matter how many candles were on your last birthday cake find God’s purpose for you at this stage of your life. Don’t let anyone with itchy ears convince you life is just a 99-yard dash.

Preached February 11, 2018, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH

Power Parade

President Trump’s desire to have a big, ugly military parade is wrong on so many fronts. The first is money. When we can’t afford to rebuild our crumbling roads and bridges, when public education is being starved to death (perhaps intentionally) for lack of funds and when the latest budget proposal feeds the already bloated national debt by increasing military spending it is insane to spend millions of dollars to rattle our rockets and roll our tanks down Pennsylvania Avenue. Secondly, what message does such a display of military prowess send to the rest of the world about our national priorities and values? It demeans us to look like Russia and North Korea to a world starving for peace not more war.

Third, beating our pruning hooks and plows into spears and swords only serves to give terrorists around the world more propaganda that the United States is a bully that threatens them and justifies their own murder and mayhem. But most important to me is the theological argument against militarism. There are many passages in the Bible that advocate for peace and portray God’s will for creation to live in a peace and Christ as love incarnate. But the one that this pompous parade idea brought first to my mind is this:

“Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God.
They will collapse and fall,
but we shall rise and stand upright.” (Psalms 20:7-8)

If we want peace in the world and not just an excuse to pour more money into the military-industrial complex the answer is not more weapons. Ask Pharaoh how well his horses and chariots did against unarmed refugees at the Red Sea. (Exodus 14) Peace will not come by unpeaceful means. Life will not flourish by weapons of mass destruction.

This is not a new problem of course. I found these words I wrote in this blog 2.5 years ago: “The answer is not more horses and chariots or bigger bombs. The answer is not more guns. The answer is to examine our fears that drive us to build gated communities, to propose building walls on our borders to keep others out. Instead of repairing roads, educating our children, alleviating poverty, and addressing social injustice, we spend obscene amounts of money and resources on defense because we are afraid. The gun lobby sells more and more automatic weapons that have no purpose but to kill other people because we are afraid. Wealthy lobbies buy more and more congressional votes because our legislators are afraid to take courageous stands that will cost them their office and lifetime benefits. The church is silent about being peacemakers and turning the other cheek because we are afraid those unpopular views will cost us members and contributions.” (Aug 6 2015, Blowing in the Wind: Hiroshima and Our Addiction to Violence)

Our money says “In God We Trust” but Trump’s parade would proclaim loud and clear that is not true. For too long we have put our trust in more and bigger horses and chariots, and if we continue to do that the United States will go the way of every other empire in human history, just as the Psalmist says: “They will collapse and fall.”

Perhaps this is best captured in the words to a contemporary rock song by that very name, “Horses and Chariots:”

“Horses and chariots, churches and states
Devotion turns dangerous when armed with rules of faith
Prisoners and patriots, angels and saints
If minds are persuaded enough compassion turns to hate

So when the tide comes to bury us, together we must stay
Don’t let their horses and chariots drag our love away
No!

Borders and boundary signs drawn by red tape
Those who color outside of the lines define the human race
Warlords and suffering eyes, soldiers and slaves
The side of the fence that we climb determines who’s afraid

So when the tide comes to bury us, together we must stay
Don’t let their horses and chariots drag our love away
Until we swallow our pride our hearts will collide.” (Billy Talent, 2016)

Pastoral Prayer for Hearing One’s Call, January 28

O Savior God we know you have called us to follow you, but sometimes that call is as hard to understand as finding our way on a dense foggy morning. Be our fog horn and a beacon to light our way. As our nation struggles with issues of security versus compassion give our nation’s leaders wisdom to make good decisions that are fair to all.

O God of grace we come to call upon you again today because you have first called us. You have called us to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. When we look at all the injustice in our world today and when we honestly confess our failure to love others and ourselves the way you love us, we fall on our knees in humility and shame.

Please forgive us for the times we have rushed by someone in need because we were too busy or too uncomfortable to stop and help. In this time of prayer give us ears to hear both the challenge and the comfort of the Gospel. Whisper words of comfort and mercy to soothe our guilt, words of wisdom to light the narrow road less taken, and words of courage to banish our doubts.

All of us have needs for personal healing of our bodies and minds and to mend relationships that are strained or broken by the challenges of daily living. When we add to our prayer concerns the needs of our friends and family and those of our community and world the weight of those concerns can overwhelm us. That’s when it’s hard for us to hear your call to minister to the lost and least, to love our neighbors and even our enemies as ourselves. That’s really hard, Lord.

And so we pray that your holy spirit will descend on every one of us today. You know our needs even before we ask, and we are often too busy or feel too insignificant to ask. We cannot fathom the wideness of your grace and mercy. That’s why we worship and pray and study your word to be reminded again and again that nothing is impossible with you.

We lift up to you Lord those named and unnamed today, for victims of abuse and violence, for our nation’s leaders, for those suffering from floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Hear our prayers O God and let us hear clearly what you are calling us to do in response to improve the lives of those in our corner of the world. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days so that when you call us we can answer, here I am Lord, send me.

We pray in the name of the one who answered the most important call of all – the one that led him to the cross of salvation. Let us join our hearts and voices in the prayer he taught his followers to pray.

What’s Your Binky?

My colleague Chris Rinker told this story at our church recently, and I felt like it has such an important lesson for all of us that I asked Chris and the family in the story for permission to share it. They agreed; so here’s the story:

A few weeks ago at our church’s Breakfast with Santa event, one of the younger members of our congregation made a monumental, life-changing decision. He gave up his binky to Santa. Now, as most of you know, separating a toddler from his binky is no easy task. At some point, we all must grow up, and give up the things that bind us to the old way of living. But it is never easy. We asked the father of this brave boy about this decision and this is what he told us:

“Grant originally had two binkies. There was a particular one he put in his mouth, and another he always held in his hand. Last Christmas, we got him to give Santa (at the mall) the one he held in his hand. That spring, we tried to get him to give the one he kept in his mouth to the Easter Bunny. No dice. So, the Easter Bunny brought him a special little basket to put it in when we left the house. He took to that (reluctantly), and we seldom had to take it out of the house. During all this were countless frantic scrambling around the house (usually at bedtime) to try and find where he had left it.

Over the summer, we (mostly I) got frustrated with him trying to talk with it in his mouth. I was convinced it was affecting his normal speech. When I caught him trying to talk with it in, I would remove it and throw it across the room (playfully… mostly). He eventually took to the practice and would throw it across the room as well, which made finding it at bedtime even tougher. In June, he fell in love with a toy he saw in a catalog. His mother secretly bought it, and we promised him that Santa would make an early visit if he would leave it on the fireplace hearth. Again… no dice. He wanted to give it to Santa like he did last year. And not just any Santa, but the one at the mall.

It shocked us, then, as we were getting ready to leave for the church event, when he declared that he was bringing binky to give to the Santa at church.

Reality set in later that night when it was time for bed. There wasn’t a major meltdown, but Grant was a little sad when he realized the gravity of what he had done. The next morning, as promised, Santa left him the toy he wanted. This was followed by a few teary evenings at bedtime. On one particular occasion, through a veil of tears, he asked to stay a baby forever so he wouldn’t have to give up his binky. The next several nights were better, and now we’re back to normalcy. As for binky? It’s alive and well in our office drawer. The day he finds it will probably be the day he no longer believes in Santa.”

And so I wonder – what is your binky? What are you holding onto that is holding you back from moving on – physically, emotionally, or spiritually? What don’t you want to let go of that is necessary to leave behind? Whether it is guilt, or a memory, a grudge, a mistake, a habit, an idea, or a possession, let us take this time of offering to give it all to God.