Just Like Us: A Boy with a Lunch, Sermon on John 6:1-15

Note: if you would like to watch the recorded version of this sermon it can be found at nwumc.com/live. The sermon starts about 2/3 of the way through the recording.

I don’t often do it but sometimes I sit in the theater and watch the credits roll after a movie ends, partly to figure out who all these young actresses and actors are, but I also get a kick out of how many different kinds of people it takes to make a movie. I get a chuckle out of titles like “grip,” “key grip,” “gaffer,” and “best boy.” I’ve never been curious enough to google those terms before, but I did learn this week that the obviously sexist term “best boy” means the senior electrician, second in the hierarchy to the gaffer, who is the chief electrician. That’s your trivia lesson for today.

The other fun thing about the movie credits, and there is a point here, I promise, are the minor characters who are listed with descriptions like “bartender,” “taxi driver,” or “second police officer.” If they made a movie about our Gospel lesson for today from John there would be a listing for a minor character, “boy with lunch.”

Here’s John’s brief mention of this boy in case you missed it. When Jesus asks, “How shall we feed all these people?”  “Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish.”  This is all we hear about this boy.  No name.  No explanation about why he has such a strange assortment of food with him.  Who eats five loaves of bread and two fish for lunch?  Maybe he was on his way home from the grocery?  Why does this kid not even appear in any of the other Gospels?  The feeding of the 5000 is the only miracle story that appears in all four Gospels and Mark and Matthew even tell it twice, but none of the others mention this boy and his food.  

We don’t know if he was a boy scout doing his good deed for the day and gave his food up willingly.  Did Andrew smell the fish the boy was trying to hide under his cloak?  Did the boy’s mom or dad have to nudge him to share what he had?   Did the disciples somehow shame him into it?  Did his example inspire others to share their stash of food?  That’s my favorite explanation.  Don’t we all carry an extra breakfast bar or some trail mix with us “just in case?”  Most women I know have a whole assortment of things in their purses. I know my wife, a former Girl Scout, certainly does.  And if this lad’s example inspired others to share what little they had till everyone was fed, isn’t that a miracle itself?

This is not the only time the Gospel writers drop in a reference to a nameless person to pique our interest.  Did you know there’s a streaker in the Gospels?  The Gospel of Mark includes this line right after the arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Mark 14:51 says, “A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him,but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.”  And even more curious is the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus in all three synoptic Gospels.  Mark and Matthew even say of her,

“Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” And yet thanks to the patriarchal rulers of the church for centuries she is mostly forgotten.  

I found something very helpful in a book I read recently by Brian McLaren to describe the dilemma about how to interpret Scripture.  McLaren suggests we need to take a literary approach to biblical stories and not a literal one. 

Here’s part of what McLaren says: “The literary approach begins with this assumption: Jesus must have been so extraordinary as to become legendary. The Latin root of the word legendary means read, so the word suggests, ‘This person is so extraordinary that people will read about him or her in the future. ‘The word legendary can also mean fictitious. And many of us feel the tension between extraordinary and fictitious every time we read the gospels. When traditional Christians tell us that we have to take every word, every detail as literal fact, we find that hard to do, as much as we might like to. But that doesn’t mean we must throw out the gospels—and Jesus—entirely.”

I like the way McLaren describes that approach because of the power stories have to affect us holistically – that is, to move us emotionally and ethically, not just rationally or logically. And what’s more, stories are easy to remember and pass along. Remember, none of the Gospels were written until decades after Jesus’ resurrection.  So stories about Jesus passed from person to person were what gave those early Christians the courage to keep the faith in spite of horrible persecution by the Roman Empire. 

And consider this story about the boy with a lunch; there’s nothing logical about giving up my lunch with no promise that I’ll get it back or even more crazy to believe I’ll get more back counting the leftovers.  A literary approach doesn’t make Bible stories less “true.”  Truth with a capital T is more than just cold hard facts.  We feel Truth in our hearts, not just our heads.  A tear in our eye when we hear a special song or witness an act of compassion reminds us that whatever builds the blessed community and makes for peace and justice is True, and anything that destroys community is not the Truth Jesus meant when he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.”  

How many of you are or were Beatles fans?  I have a trivia question for you.  Which Beatles’ song mentions a preacher?  Here’s a hint:  “Father McKenzie, (pause) writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear, No one comes near.”  Ok, that’s a little depressing.  The song is “Eleanor Rigby,” but it’s the refrain of that song that comes to mind when I think of this crowd that comes to Jesus when he and his disciples are trying to find a quiet place for some much needed R&R.  Mark’s account of this story says they were so busy teaching and healing that they didn’t even have time to eat.  So the disciples were hungry too.  And the refrain to Eleanor Rigby speaks to that hunger.  It says “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Jesus sees the crowd coming and immediately recognizes their hunger.  It’s not just hunger for pumpernickel and sardines; it’s a deep hunger for the bread of life.  “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”  Neither John nor the Beatles tell us where they come from, but we know to whom they come – the church, and that doesn’t mean this building or The Church for All People, NNEMAP, or the Manna Café; it means the Universal Worldwide Church, the body of Christ that alone can satisfy our deepest hunger.  

But of course we do know where some of the lonely/hungry people come from.  They come from Wright Elementary School, from Abby Church and other neighborhoods right in our zip code, from homeless shelters and from people who are just down on their luck.  They come as refugees from violence in Central America, or from war – Ukrainians and Russians alike.        They are victims of Hurricane Ian and climate refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa.  All the lonely people, where do they all come from? And like the startled disciples we ask, “Where are we to buy food for all these people? We’re having enough trouble just dealing with our own hunger, grief, and loneliness!”

But you know what?  Those lonely people can feed us also.  Our amazing Brown Bag Lunch crew has provided thousands of lunches to families in our neighborhood over the years, but listen to these stories of sharing in return.  Denise Gorden told me of a day she and Doris were invited in to share a snack with an Iraqi family on the brown bag route. “With so little,” she said, “They brought out fruit and other goodies for us to eat. It was very moving.”

And Doris told me that once, “On a very hot day- One second grader on the BBL route saw me getting out of the church van with lunches and ran back inside his apartment and gave me a bottle of water. He said, “Ms. Dorrie- (He calls me Dorrie since it’s easier to pronounce)  looks like you need some help- it’s too hot today, drink some water so you can keep going. On a separate day, during reading buddies- we sat down to read books outside under a large tree in front of their home, and he said, “Ms. Dorrie, here is a bottle of water for you. Since you’re giving food to everyone, why don’t you take some of mine, here are some cookies. Eat with us and then I will read stories to you.” 

Our current sermon series is exploring how the characters in the Bible are “Just Like Us.”  So what can we learn about ourselves from this unnamed boy with a lunch?  How is he just like us?

I remember my first dramatic roles in elementary school.  We did two short plays.  In one I was the star as Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.  That’s probably why I’ve been so short all my life!  In the second play my only part was from off stage where I was to make bird noise sound effects at the proper time. My prop was a small whistle shaped like a bird.  You filled it with water and blew into it to make chirping sounds.  Nothing to it, right?  Only one problem; before it was time for the birds to chirp I got thirsty and drank the water in the whistle; and those birds never chirped.  Mrs. Kay, our teacher was not pleased.  It turns out that “small” part of making bird noises was just as important as starring as Peter Pan.

To borrow a phrase from Donatos Pizza, every part counts.  Every voice in the choir or bell in the bell choir contributes to the whole musical sound.  The person who sanitizes the Operating Room prior to surgery is just as important as the surgeon or the anesthesiologist.  It’s a team effort.

The nameless boy in John 6 is used by Jesus just as much as Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene.  Most of us are fairly anonymous in the world’s scheme of things.  We are more like the gaffer or the key grip than Lady Gaga or Matthew McConaughey.   To paraphrase Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg, “The world will little note nor long remember what we do here,” but God will; because every one of us counts.  We can all make a difference to someone by simply sharing what we have and who we are.  Notice in this story that Jesus doesn’t ask the boy to give more than he has; that would be very unfair.  Jesus simply asks the boy to share what he has.  After all, we are just giving back to God what God has given us.  It isn’t our stuff anyway.

When we start thinking we own parts of God’s creation we get possessive and worry about losing it or that we don’t have enough.  We live in a scarcity mindset.  But when we live in
God’s abundance and share what God has given us there is enough to feed 5000 people and have enough leftovers to feed the next bunch of hungry people already coming down the road. 

Jesus never asks us to give more than we have, just all that we have, just as he gave his all for us. 

We are all like the boy with his lunch.  We all count – nameless or not, because God knows our name and knows we can all make a huge difference in the world. 

We recently passed the day on the calendar marked Fall Equinox, but we don’t need a calendar to tell us that the hours of daylight we have now are shorter each day and the temperatures are dropping.  Calendars help us count our days, but it is up to us to make our days count.  You don’t have to be a biblical or other kind of heroine or hero.  Notice most of the characters in the Bible are just like us, flawed and fallible human beings who remind us that all of us have what it takes to make a difference in the lives of those around us.

Jesus himself was a poor peasant boy who never traveled more than 200 miles from the tiny village where he was born, and yet his disciples all over the world will feast at his table and remember his call upon our lives on this World Communion Sunday.   As we gather at his table today, pray for God’s guidance to show you how to maximize your witness.  Each of us has a different role to play, but each one is important to the worldwide kin-dom Jesus calls us to help create.  Amen

Preached at Northwest United Methodist Church, Columbus, Ohio, October 2, 2022

Existential Equinox

“So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.” Psalms 90:12

(365 x 76) + 19 = x? One of the blessings/curses of autumn means that the anniversary of my birth is once again on the horizon. That means if I make it another six weeks I will have logged 27,259 days on planet earth!!!! Yes I know that isn’t what the Psalm means by “counting” my days, but it is a very daunting number that raises the question, “what difference have I made in the world in all those days?” And for me it means it recent years asking the other uncomfortable question – how many more days do I have left? Wouldn’t life be easier if we knew the answer to that, or would it? For the next logical question is what do I want to do with whatever that unknown number is?

I do most of my calendaring on my phone these days, but I still like a paper calendar on my desk to get a wider angle lens on my schedule. I also mark the days of the month off on a wall calendar above my desk, not so much to mark time as to make it easier to see at a glance what day it is.

That is kind of redundant since my watch also shows the day of the week and the date. But with all those reminders I still forgot a PT appointment this morning until it was almost too late to get there. A friend of mine who has a four year old said her daughter has underwear with the day of the week on them, and she uses those to keep track of which days she has pre-school. I think something like that might be useful for retirees!

I mentioned to my therapist recently that turning the page on the calendar gives me a sense of pause now that it didn’t do in my younger years. Having surpassed the 70 year life span mentioned in Psalms 90:10 several years ago the still small voice of mortality keeps reminding me with each passing month or season that numbering my remaining days now takes much smaller numbers than it used to.

When I told my counselor about those feelings he said, “So changing the calendar is existential for you?” I hadn’t thought about it in quite those terms, but I guess it is. And the arrival of fall is especially so when we drop 30 plus degrees in one Ohio day! The fall season is full of mortality reminders as plants wither and leaves fall with the temperature. And more so for me since I also have the aforementioned October birthday just waiting to add another notch to my solar orbits odometer.

They say age is just a number – an ever larger number! I have the feeling the Psalmist knew it takes more than just adding years and decades to get a wise heart. It takes wisdom not just to mark off 24-hour cycles each day but to live each day we are given to make those days count.

Schism: Ecclesiastical Divorce

The long-expected schism in the United Methodist Church finally hit close to home for me. I learned recently that the congregation I grew up in will be voting soon to disaffiliate from the United Methodist denomination. The move to sever ties, as in other congregations, is being officially described as being based on the one true (literal) way to apply “Christian” scripture, values and laws to contemporary issues of ethics and morality.

Hidden among the pious platitudes proof texted from the Bible is the real reason for the denominational divorce. No matter what the Wesley Covenant Association, the architects of the new Global Methodist Church claim, the real reason for the schism is fundamental disagreement over a few sentences inserted into our “Book of Discipline” 50 years ago excluding LGBTQ persons from ordination.

The debate has become more heated in recent years as LGBTQ rights have been recognized in society and not in the church. Instead of transforming the world as forerunners of radical hospitality the church has been playing catch up. Many courageous and progressive UMC bishops have decided to be loyal to the all-inclusive Gospel proclaimed by Jesus instead of the legalistic and exclusive letter of the United Methodist law. The modern day Pharisees in our denomination are calling those bishops and those of us who agree with them heretics subject to hellfire and damnation unless we repent and see things their way.

I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper recently in response to an article describing another congregation’s decision to vote on disaffiliation. In response a member of that congregation wrote his own letter to the paper making the standard arguments and accusations. I had to chuckle over his attempt to rebut my claim that the real issue was LGBTQ ordination and marriage. He cited a church he knows of that has a head usher who is gay. Translation: “We’ll let them in the pews, just not the pulpit,” completely ignoring the central issue of this argument which is ordination. Our current “Book of Discipline,” in similar fashion talks out of both sides of its mouth. It says LGBTQ persons are “of sacred worth,” and in the next breath says that does not make them “sacred” enough to be ordained.

Talking to a friend who is still a member in my home church reminded me that I wrote a short post about all this way back in the pre-covid era. It was after a special General Conference of the UMC was held in 2019 to once more attempt to come to some mutual agreement over this controversial topic which is an existential reality for our LGBTQ siblings. What I wrote then still pretty well sums up how I feel. I titled it “Know When to Walk Away, Know 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.”

Prayer for an Ordinary Day

Holy One, it’s just another ordinary day.  My calendar is clear but my to-do list is long and getting more so every day.  How do I rejoice and be glad in this day you have made?  On Sunday we were reminded in a sermon on the book of Esther that we are made “for such a time as this?” (4:14) If I read those words in context I see that Esther is being called to engage in civil disobedience by confronting her husband the king.  She is a biblical profile in courage and I admire her greatly for that.  But as I read just two verses later I am not so bold any more.  Esther says, “I will go to the king, though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish.” 

How do I translate Esther’s call to my ordinary life and day?  What am I created for in this time and place where our way of life is threatened by calls for civil war; where autocratic political leaders in Russia, China, Turkey, and our own nation continue to threaten our peace; where experts warn us of more brutal heat, fires, draught, and floods that will become the norm unless we take drastic measures to save our planet?

O Holy Parent, those macro measures make my puny to-do list look like someone rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Am I called to fiddle with daily chores while Rome burns?  I know that “for everything there is a season,” (Eccl. 3:1) but sometimes I wonder how mowing the grass or taking out the trash fits into your purpose for my life.  Yes, Lord, I know things are usually both/and, but where is the holy balance point between doing justice and doing the dishes? 

At a young age Jesus had to tell his parents that he was called to be about your business.  I don’t have a Messiah complex, but I answered my call to ministry many years ago.  The pastoral duties I had structured my days for many years, but now in my retirement what does that call look like?  I can rejoice in having a clear day on my calendar, but I know my biological clock is ticking; and every morning I wrestle with what I am supposed to write in that blank space to be a “good and faithful servant” in this final stage of my life.  My spirit is willing, maybe, but my flesh not so much.  I know I will never “retire” from your claim on my life, but I could use some guidance on how to live this ordinary Tuesday.  I’ll be busy doing my chores, but please feel free to interrupt me with a text or a burning bush or whatever it takes to get my attention.  Amen

Anointed: Messiah Complex, John 12:1-8

Do you remember who your childhood heroes or heroines were?  Being vertically challenged all my life I’m sure influenced mine.  I was never big enough to imagine myself as Superman, but I could identify with a little flying caped rodent who came on every Saturday morning in the cartoons on TV.  I don’t remember much about him, but the theme song that introduced the show said something like “Mighty Mouse is here to save the day.” Yes, like most of our superheroes Mighty Mouse used too much violence to dispatch the bad guys, but he was always on the side of what my 8 year-old self understood as justice.  Life was so much simpler then.  Things were either right or wrong without all the messy ambiguity that I see in so much of life as an adult.

How many of you are familiar with the term “Messiah Complex?”  That’s an occupational hazard for preachers – to think that we and we alone have the Truth that will save the world.  It’s a dangerous and heavy burden to carry around.  I had a senior pastor advise me once when I was fresh out of seminary that I should “never lose my idealism.”  That was lousy advice.  Life on this side of heaven is not now nor ever has been “ideal.”  A better word choice would be to never lose Hope.  Idealism for me implies a kind of utopian ideal we humans can create.  Hope on the other hand is an unshakeable faith in God’s power to triumph over evil. 

We are living in a dark and ugly period of human history in so many ways.  Our hearts break every time we see pictures of what’s happening in Ukraine.  I have to turn the news off when I can no longer take the anger and helpless feeling to do anything to stop the cruelty.  Where is Mighty Mouse when we need him?  Or Wonder Woman?

At the beginning of the Gospels we have John the Baptist preaching hell fire and brimstone for all those who refuse to repent of their sins.  He’s expecting a superhero to overthrow the hated Roman oppressors.  But Jesus is not that kind of Messiah. We want a Rambo to save us and instead God sends us a Gandhi.   Jesus goes to the wilderness immediately after his baptism and rejects the temptation to use worldly power.  We long for a savior on a white stallion, but next week Jesus will ride into Jerusalem on a lowly donkey.  We expect our heroes or heroines to arrive in a stretch limo or a Batmobile, but instead Jesus appears in a beat up old Volkswagen bug. 

But this 5th Sunday of Lent, before the Palm Sunday parade, the Gospel of John tells us that six days before the Passover, two days before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, he came for dinner in Bethany at the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus.  This is just after Jesus has raised Lazarus from the dead in John, chapter 11.  So this could have been a joyous celebration of Lazarus new life, but at least some around that table know that they will be dealing with another death and resurrection the following week. 

Mary understands, and she anoints Jesus’ feet with an expensive perfume and wipes them with her hair.  It is an act of love that foreshadows Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the following Thursday, but it is more than that.  The word “Messiah” means “anointed one.”  Mary and Martha and Lazarus know better than anyone that Jesus has the power over death itself; he is truly God’s anointed servant.

And so are you, and you and you and me.  Let me say that again in a different way.  When we are welcomed into the family of God at our baptism, no matter when or how that happened, we are claimed, just as Jesus was, as God’s beloved children.  Baptism means we all belong to a great and mysterious God who created this vast universe billions of years before any humans ever set foot on this tiny planet.  God created us, male and female, and declared us good and blessed from day one.  And no matter how badly we or anyone else screw things up, our blessedness doesn’t expire. 

There is nothing we can say or do, no matter how stupid or awful or sinful it may be that can ever change that.  Believe me, I’ve tried.   Jesus showed us that in the wonderful parable of the prodigal son where God the heavenly parent runs with open arms to welcome his wayward son back home.  St. Paul says it when he says “Nothing in all creation, not power, or Putin, or principalities, not even death itself can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” 

One of my favorite descriptions of resurrection came from a sermon by Bishop Dwight Loder at our annual conference many years ago.  He said, “Jesus wasn’t resurrected by the church; Jesus wasn’t resurrected for the church; Jesus was resurrected as the church.”

That’s the good news of the Gospel that we resurrection people draw strength from to be God’s servants in the world.  We all have a super power that enables us to hope when things seem hopeless; to love the unlovable, even when it hurts too much; to believe in peace and justice in a world that has gone mad.  That’s the kind of Messiah Complex we all need for these trying times to keep on keeping on.  A friend of mine reminded me recently of that old saying, “My get up and go got up and went.”  We all know that feeling.  But the power of the Holy Spirit tells us that even the “old will dream dreams” and “those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength and mount up on wings like eagles.”

The Lenten journey is long.  We began on Ash Wednesday being reminded that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.”  Don’t you hate being reminded of that?  A colleague in ministry told a group of us that he likes to change that up and say, “You are dust, but remember what God can do with dust!”  I like that so much better and just wish I had learned that earlier in my ministry.  “We are dust, but remember what God can do with dust.” 

Another way to say that might be, we know the pain and suffering Jesus will face in Jerusalem, but we also know the end of the story.  God wins!  Love wins!

When I get discouraged about my own life or the mess the world is in I often return to the words of an old song from my past.  Isn’t it funny how we can remember the lyrics to a song from 50 years ago but can’t remember if we took our meds this morning??  Anyway here’s the song from

“The Man of LaMancha.”

“To dream the impossible dream
To fight the unbeatable foe
To bear with unbearable sorrow
And to run where the brave dare not go

To right the unrightable wrong
And to love pure and chaste from afar
To try when your arms are too weary
To reach the unreachable star

This is my quest
To follow that star
No matter how hopeless
No matter how far

To fight for the right
Without question or pause
To be willing to march, march into Hell
For that Heavenly cause

And I know if I’ll only be true
To this glorious quest
That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
When I’m laid to my rest

And the world will be better for this
That one man, (or woman) scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with the last ounce of courage

To reach the unreachable star.”

Amen

[Preached at Wesley Glen retirement center, April 3, 2022]

The Kindness of Strangers

“Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” (John 5:2-7)

Our modern fast-paced living makes it easy for me to understand the apathy or selfishness of strangers that would jump in line and leave a sick man unhealed for 38 years. I have to admit I too often am so turned in on myself and my problems that I have done somethings like that. I apologize to anyone I’ve disrespected, even if I didn’t know I was doing it.

One way I try to change my negative thoughts and behaviors is to counter those painful memories by noticing the many acts of kindness that will never make the nightly news. One of my favorite personal memories of the kindness of strangers happened many years ago, 52 to be exact, when I was in New York City for the very first time. I was a young 23 year old who had lived a very sheltered small town life up to that point; so I was quite intimidated by the sights and sounds of the big city.

It was the end of a five-city tour I took with some fellow United Methodist seminarians. We had toured United Methodist boards and agencies as a group; so all of our transportation and hotel needs had been taken care of by the trip leaders. But now at the end of the trip we were all on our own to get to one of the New York airports for our flights home. So the two of us from Methesco (the Methodist Theological School in Ohio) set out from our hotel in Harlem for JFK airport. My traveling partner was an equally inexperienced traveler, and remember this was 1969, way before cell phones and gps that we rely totally upon these days to help us navigate strange places.

Carrying our luggage (in those days before roller bags), craning our necks to read street signs we undoubtedly looked as lost as we felt. We had grown up hearing and fearing how impersonal city folk were, but that day time after time strangers came up to us without being asked and offered to help us get on the right subway or bus. Without their help I doubt we would have made it to JFK in time for our flight.

And even as I write this I remember a very similar experience some 40 years later when my wife and I were in Tokyo trying to figure out which train to take toward downtown. We were about to board one going the wrong way when a kind Japanese gentleman noticed our indecision and not only told us how to get to the other side of the train platform and on the right train, he actually walked with us to make sure we did it right.

Such acts of kindness from strangers unfortunately was not the experience of the man in the text from John. Many years ago I heard the late Fred Craddock preach on this text. He explained the story this way: he said that the reason the man couldn’t get into the pool fast enough to be healed was because people with hang nails, skinned elbows and runny noses were quite mobile and always got into the pool first.

I was reminded of that story when we were flying home from a family Thanksgiving Friday night. Because of my bad back and balance issues due to neuropathy handling luggage when we travel has become a huge challenge for me, especially when other people are waiting behind us in the plane’s aisle during boarding and deplaning. So we have tried to mitigate that problem a bit on recent trips by staying in our seats while others exit the plane so we aren’t blocking the aisle and inconveniencing others. We did that Friday night when we arrived back home in Columbus, and most people were off the plane when a nice young man stopped to ask if he could get our bags out of the overhead bins for us.

For far too long I have been in the habit of declining such help because my pride made it hard to accept that I am officially old and really do need help. But this time I was simply grateful for this young man’s help. He was so much stronger and taller than I that he made handling our luggage look so easy, and it only took a few seconds for him to do what would have taken my wife and I so much longer. Yes, I hate not being more self-sufficient, but mostly I am just humbled by the kindness of strangers and vow to pay that forward more often when I can.

For the record, here’s how the story in John ends: “Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.“ (John 5:8-9)

No, I can’t heal people like Jesus did, and I will not be lifting 40 lb. suitcases anytime soon; but there are plenty of things we can all do for others if we aren’t rushing to beat them into the pool or the best parking place. It costs nothing to treat servers or store clerks or random strangers with kindness; so let’s do it. We will never know what a difference it might make in someone else’s life, but we will know the joy of human connection.

Human Doings

I don’t remember where I first heard this piece of wisdom, but it surfaced from my memory bank today as I was mowing our lawn. The sage advice comes from that philosopher known to my generation as “Old Blue Eyes.” No, you don’t have to Google that, I’ll tell those of you too young to know, it’s Frank Sinatra. One of Sinatra’s many hit song was “Strangers in the Night,” and that song has a profound refrain that goes “do be do be do.”

That nonsense phrase truly became profound for me when someone pointed out to me that if you take the “be’s” out of that phrase all you have left is “do do.”

We all make “to do” lists, and there are even apps that will help you organize your to do list(s), and I’m guessing most of us have more than one. I’ve tried multiple ways to keep, organize, and prioritize my personal and professional tasks over the years, and if anyone tells you that retirement means you can throw your to do lists away, don’t believe them.

Most of you know I’m older than dirt; so I don’t have to worry about dating myself when I reminisce how years ago all the United Methodist pastors I knew organized their lives in a small pocket sized calendar. It came in the mail every year from our denominational publishing house, and it was free; so few of us ever questioned its efficacy. My only complaint about it was that since it also had pages in the black that served as an address book all of that information had to be updated and re-entered into the new little black book every January.

Somewhere along the line I let my human doings multiply, and I had to learn to write smaller to fit each day into a tiny space, and of course because life is full of surprises, to never write anything in ink. So when it was introduced I became an early adopter of the Palm Pilot, remember those? They were basically a digital calendar and address book that replaced paper calendars and Rolodexes in one handy gadget that didn’t have to be replaced or updated every year. And of course the Palm Pilot was soon replaced by iPhones and Androids that could do all those things and serve as a phone too, and eventually took over our lives by adding internet access.

Sorry to get distracted going down memory lane. My initial point was to reflect on being and doing. We all have to do lists regardless of how we record them, but who has a “to be” list? My reflections on that question emerged because I am home alone this week while my wife is visiting family in Texas. I had grandiose plans for the week: to organize my office that resembles the aftermath of a natural disaster, to clear out and donate clothes I no longer need, and even to sort through several drawers in my desk and bathroom which should say “Enter at Your Own Risk!”

Oh, and my to list for this week also included the simple task of assembling a new exercise bike that is still in a million pieces in my basement. I am now more than half way through the week, and not one of those major projects is even started and somehow my to do list is even longer than it was on Sunday. And I have been busy all week – going to doctor appointments, running errands, swimming at the Y to maintain what little physical fitness I have left, and oh yes, dealing with the aftermath of a car accident I had about a month ago.

I may deal with the latter issue in another blog, but suffice it to say for now that I have been somewhat overwhelmed with the complexities of filing insurance claims, arranging rental cars and other transportation, while still trying to keep up with my daily activities as much as possible.

Another big item on my “to do” list for this week was to do some writing. I’ve had multiple ideas for blog posts in the last three weeks but have not had or taken the time to pursue them. So today while mowing the lawn (which should not still be growing in October, right?) I made an executive decision to just stop, put the to do list on hold, and see what emerges if I start trying to capture a somewhat chaotic collection of thoughts and feelings in writing.

What I’ve been reminded of in doing that is how difficult, if not impossible, it is to flip a switch from being a human doing governed by the almighty to do list to reflecting on being itself. I believe the reason for that is that digging into our inner lives is 1) hard because we aren’t used to going there, and 2) scary because we may not like what we find. And once we look honestly at what meaning or purpose our lives really have we can’t unknow it. That toothpaste will not go back into the tube no matter how hard we try to put it there.

What I know for sure from trying to write this after a busy day of doing is that awareness of my being needs to inform all of my doing. If I try to separate the two I am too tired from doing to really give any meaningful attention to my inner/spiritual being.

Prayer of Lament

O God! We have added Austin to our awful litany of mass shootings. I pray for the victims, the first responders, the survivors, and for whatever demons the shooter or shooters are dealing with. I also pray for our society where this tragedy barely makes a blip on the radar of our consciousness. We are so numb to this senselessness that it has become a ho hum normal occurrence. Please shock us into caring again, to mourning again, and revive our consciences and our desire for peace. Trouble our souls deep in denial. Call us to compassion for victims and passion for doing our part to create your peaceable kin-dom here on earth as it is in heaven.

The alarm is ringing again. It is not good to keep hitting the snooze button. It is not OK to pull up the covers and pretend this is just a bad dream. Wake us, give us ears to hear the cries of your children and the clarion call for all people of faith to put prayers and thoughts into action. Hear our prayer and disrupt our false sense of security. Make our fear a motivation for change and not an excuse to avoid the cold, harsh truth. Christ have mercy. Amen

Lost and Found

“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” Luke 15:8-10 (This is one of the three parables in Luke 15, the other two are about a lost sheep and a lost/prodigal son.)

Somehow yesterday I committed the unforgivable sin for those of us living in a 5G world. I lost my phone. It was not in any of the usual places I put it in the house, not in my office, bedroom, bathroom or kitchen. I wasn’t expecting any important calls or texts, but I was still feeling lost without that device which has become my constant companion and link to 24/7 news of the world.

After trying several times to call my phone with no luck I remembered that I had taken a walk earlier around our small pond and out to the mail box; so my wife and I made several trips retracing my steps. Since we looked everywhere inside we were sure the prodigal phone must be somewhere outside.

Finally I decided to try the “Find My Phone App” on my iPad to locate the wandering phone. That app gave me some confusing information that said the phone was anywhere from 40-800 feet away. Not helpful, iPad. As darkness began to descend on our outdoor search we retreated indoors. I switched the map on my iPad to a satellite view of our property, and on that map the location of the missing phone appeared to be in the house.

If you haven’t used this app you may not know that there is a button on it labeled “play sound.” I initially thought that meant it would like a gps verbally direct me to my phone, but each time I tapped that button I heard nothing. Then finally I learned by accident what “play sound” meant. I hit the “play sound” one last time and saw a promising sign when it said “connecting.” Not optimistically I went back down stairs to look one more time.

As I got half way down the basement stairs I began to heard a faint beeping sound, and it got louder with each step I took. It took a few minutes before I zeroed in on the exact spot which I had gone several times thinking I had not been in that room all day.

But then I looked down under the ping pong table, and there was my phone. And of course as soon as I saw where it was I remembered walking by there and hearing something drop to the floor, but I was in a hurry and after a quick glance back I didn’t take time to see what had fallen.

And then I remembered the parable of the lost coin, and I had a little better insight into what the joy of finding things and people who are lost feels like. Years ago I played Jesus in a children’s musical called “The Storytelling Man.” I still remember the song the kids sang after hearing the parables about the lost being found. The punch line of that song was, “Let’s have a party, let’s make a racket.”

That’s how I felt when I found something as ordinary as my phone. Can you imagine the joy God feels when a lost soul is found? Remember these parables are an attempt to give us a glimpse of what God’s reign is like. My favorite image from those parables is when the Father of the prodigal son goes running with arms wide open to meet his beloved son and welcome him home.

What or whom have you lost that is worth the effort to search diligently to find? It could be a friend or relative; it could be your passion or purpose in life. Whatever it is are you willing to put forth the effort and not stop searching until the lost is found. And if you are feeling lost yourself, drifting through life’s routines with no direction, please know that the source of all being that we call God is searching for you and will not give up until you are found.

Happy Father’s Day to My Village

My relationship with my biological father wasn’t all Hallmark warm and fuzzy. Dad and I butted heads over lots of things, from rigid rules in my teen years to how to parent my kids, politics and theology. We made our peace before he died and I’m glad we did. But I just realized recently how unfair it is to expect any parent to provide all the physical, emotional and spiritual nurture and guidance a child needs. As the old proverb says, “It takes a village.”

That has me reflecting today on all the father figures who helped shape who I am: uncles, teachers, scout leaders, pastors, Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, friends, colleagues, bosses, professors and mentors of all kinds. I’ve even learned a bunch about being a better human being from my own kids and step-son. Watching them grow and become the wonderful parents and good human beings they are is the most rewarding part of my life.

The thank you letter I wrote earlier this week to a former boss was just one of so many letters like that I could write. I remember a young pastor from a Lutheran church in my home town. He probably didn’t even know who this young Methodist was, but he had a big influence on the path my life took without ever knowing it. I was a teenager struggling with my call to ministry. Up to that point in my life the only pastors I had known were older men that were hard for me to identify with. To be honest they were both very uncool. But one day I was in the park near our home and I stopped to watch a church softball game on one of the diamonds. And there playing third base like a regular guy was Lutheran Pastor Dave Ullery. I immediately had a huge ah hah moment – I could be a pastor and still be a regular human being. Pastor Ullery had unknowingly removed one of the obstacles to my accepting God’s call on my life, just by being himself.

That softball memory triggered another sports one about several of my uncles who played catch with me and let me practice with their little league teams when I was still too young to actually be on the team. My dad wasn’t into sports at all, and I missed being able to share that love of mine with him, but these other father figures were there to play a role that he couldn’t.

My father figures list could go on forever. Harold Taylor, my high school chemistry and physics teacher who invited me to his home in the evenings to help me prepare to take state scholastic tests, a campus minister who opened my eyes to new ways to think about religion and social justice, numerous professors in college, seminary and grad school who widened my whole perspective on the world and beyond.

Were any of these men perfect role models? Nope. Have I been a perfect father-figure for my kids and others in my churches and youth groups? Heavens no! I cringe to remember all the times I wasn’t there for my kids and youth group kids. I remember writing a story in a college English class about a Dad who was so active in his church and community service that he neglected his own family — not intentionally, but because of the other good things he was doing. He wasn’t hanging out the bar or the country club. He was doing “good” stuff. Did I heed my own advice when I became a father? Somewhat, but there was far too much time spent out in the evenings at church meetings, too many weekends on youth retreats or wrestling with difficult sermons.

How do parents balance family and career? If I had any easy answers I’d gladly share them for free, but I don’t. I just know that we dads (and moms) need to cut ourselves some slack and be grateful that we share parenthood with a whole village of others who can be there when we can’t, who can be there in ways that we can’t. And together that village weaves a tapestry that is a picture of our lives. So, love your fathers and celebrate the whole cloud of witnesses who helped raise you and are still supporting you today, even if it’s on zoom or from heaven. I’m giving my village a big virtual group hug, and I hope you will to.

As I reread this piece I had a sharp pain as God reminded me that there are millions of kids in our nation and world who don’t have a village to raise them, who have no father to provide for them and protect them. That both makes me more grateful for my own village and makes me pray for guidance about what I can do and we can do as a society to be better at creating villages where fewer children fall through the cracks.

P.s. I am not excluding all of the women in my village who were just as influential in my life, but this is Father’s Day. I’ll get to my mother-figures and sister-figures another day.