Mental Meaderings

Sometimes memory is a curse. I’m fast approaching some milestone memories, the kind that end in zero or five. My 55th high school reunion is next month and the 50th anniversary of my ordination is also. Such milestones give me pause to remember the highs and lows of my 70 plus years of life experience.

For example, for some reason I decided to add up how many U.S. Presidents there have been in office during my lifetime. From Truman to Trump adds up to 13 occupants of the White House since I was born. What shocked me about that number is that it means that I have been alive for almost one-third (13/45) of all U.S. Presidents ever. I wish I hadn’t done the math.

One of the most interesting courses I took in seminary back in the Nixon administration was a course called “Theology in the Modern Novel” taught by Professor Don Webb. In that class I began to learn the power of fiction to reveal a truth deeper than fact. That experience was the beginning of my life-long appreciation for the power of narrative to touch people at an emotional level that rational-logical discourse can never reach. I had not realized till I started writing this piece that my whole appreciation and dedication to narrative rhetoric began in that class and shaped my preaching and teaching ever since. Thanks, Don.

Remembering today the work of the author I studied in that class on narrative theology I found this quote that resonates with my own intellectual and theological journey and may explain how I was drawn to his writing. “Having seen that I was not capable of using all my resources in political action, I returned to my literary activity. There lay the battlefield suited to my temperament. I wanted to make my novels the extension of my own father’s struggle for liberty. But gradually, as I kept deepening my responsibility as a writer, the human problem came to overshadow political and social questions. All the political, social, and economic improvements, all the technical progress cannot have any regenerating significance, so long as our inner life remains as it is at present. The more the intelligence unveils and violates the secrets of Nature, the more the danger increases and the heart shrinks.” (As quoted in Nikos Kazantzakis (1968) by Helen Kazantzakis, p. 529)

As an aside let me throw in here an observation about the mystery of memory and how it leads to different and I hope deeper reflection than expected. By the way, that only happens if we take the time to explore our inner journey—and more importantly to learn from the insights we uncover there. It is a rare journey we don’t usually take time for in our hectic 5G world, and that may be an excuse, at least it is for me, because I may not like what I find if I go spelunking down memory lane. As Barbra Streisand sings in “The Way We Were:” Mem’ries, may be beautiful and yet, what’s too painful to remember we simply choose to forget.”

This all started because I’ve been feeling my age more than usual this week as a head cold has been added to my “normal” aches and pains. The memory I thought was going to result in a light-hearted blog post about the joys of aging was the lyrics to a song in the musical “Zorba,” called “Grandpapa.” The setting for the song is one where the elderly Zorba is being ridiculed for his age by some younger men in a bar. The banter back and forth between Zorba and his tormentors goes like this:

“A young man with no money is better than an old man with no money. Goodbye, Grandpapa!

Grandpapa? Grandpapa? I’ll show you who’s Grandpapa! Zorba! Zorba! Listen! There are two Zorbas. The inner Zorba is as slender as a reed!

Look at that, look at that, poor old man is weak and fat!

He has thirty-two teeth!

Look at that, there’s no doubt, every tooth is falling out!

He wears a red carnation behind his ear!

Look at that, over there, golden beard but long white hair.

This is the outside Zorba!

Look at that, old and feeble Grandpapa”

Trust me, I know the many joys of being a grandfather; I just wish it could come at an earlier age when I could play ball and shoot hoops and get down on the floor to rough house or play like I used to. But all that aside, that “Grandpapa” song led me down a memory trail that resulted in this much longer rambling about the influence on my life of the creator of Zorba, Nikos Kazantzakis.
I don’t remember how I chose Kazantzakis to focus on for that seminary class, but I’ve always been glad I did. My life and thinking have been and continue to be enriched by that decision. Yes, Kazantzakis died in 1953; so many today would not consider his work “modern,” but remember this class was in 1971, just 18 years after Kazantzakis’ prolific writing stopped. I only scratched the surface of Kazantzakis’ work in that class, reading “Zorba the Greek,” “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “The Greek Passion,” and “Saviors of God: Spiritual Exercises.” The latter is described this way by Simon Friar, the English translator of many of Kazantzakis’ writings, “Saviors of God” occupies a central role in the work of the Greek author….where in a passionate and poetic style, yet in systematic fashion, he set down the philosophy embedded … in everything he has written.”

One of the thoughts that has stayed with me all these years from “Saviors of God” is this one about prayer: “My prayer is not the whimpering of a beggar nor a confession of love. Nor is it the petty reckoning of a small tradesman: Give me and I shall give you. My prayer is the report of a soldier to his general: This is what I did today, this is how I fought to save the entire battle in my own sector, these are the obstacles I encountered, this is how I plan to fight tomorrow.”

I have often turned to that passage for inspiration when I am weary of the struggle for social justice, even though I don’t like the military metaphors. Too often human struggles to comprehend the mysteries of existence have led to violent conflict because in order to manage our discomfort with ambiguity religious and political get hardened into concrete symbol systems that must be defended at all costs. But the struggle Kazantzakis is talking about is not for one ideology or belief structure about God and the universe. Kazantzakis says in that same work: “We do not struggle for ourselves, nor for our race, not even for humanity. We do not struggle for Earth, nor for ideas. All these are the precious yet provisional stairs of our ascending God, and they crumble away as soon as he steps upon them in his ascent.

In the smallest lightning flash of our lives, we feel all of God treading upon us, and suddenly we understand: if we all desire it intensely, if we organize all the visible and invisible powers of earth and fling them upward, if we all battle together like fellow combatants eternally vigilant — then the Universe might possibly be saved.

It is not God who will save us — it is we who will save God, by battling, by creating, and by transmuting matter into spirit.”

One of the things that keeps attracting me to such abstract thoughts and images is how my finite little mind is stretched by Kazantzakis’ spiritual language. And like my muscles I often resist such stretching. Even as I write this I kick myself for starting down this path. I am feeling cornered by the impossible notion that I need to somehow wrap this post up with some neat summary of what this all means. But of course I can’t. Any God I could “explain” or capture in human language would be woefully inadequate.

So I will leave you here with one of Kazantzakis’ most mysterious quotes that has tugged at my soul for all these 50 years. This one is also from “Saviors of God.”

“Blessed be all those who hear and rush to free you, lord, and who say: “Only you and I exist.”

Blessed be all those who free you and become united with you, lord, and who say: “You and I are one.

And thrice blessed be those who bear on their shoulders and do not buckle under this great, sublime, and terrifying secret:
That even this one does not exist!”

I can’t explain why that image appeals to me, but I recently found another quote from “Saviors” where Kazantzakis at least hints at what it meant to him:

“Nothing exists! Neither life nor death. I watch mind and matter hunting each other like two nonexistent erotic phantasms — merging, begetting, disappearing — and I say: “This is what I want! I know now: I do not hope for anything. I do not fear anything, I have freed myself from both the mind and the heart, I have mounted much higher, I am free. This is what I want. I want nothing more. I have been seeking freedom.”

Most appropriately that passage was used for Kazantzakis’ epitaph: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”

Hide and Seek, Sermon on John 20:19-31

A young boy was out walking with his mother and out of the blue asked, “Mom, how big is God?” The mother thought a moment and noticed a plane flying overhead high in the sky. She pointed to it and asked her son, “How big does that plane look, Ryan?” He said, “It looks really small.” “Remember that when we go out to the store later today,” was the mother’s reply.

I’ve been thinking this week about a question Pastor Mebane asked in her Easter sermon last week. The text for last week’s sermon told how two of the disciples run to the empty tomb and find only Jesus’ grave clothes there. John tells us, “Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed.” Mebane’s question was about how long it took between when the disciple “saw” and when he “believed.”

It wasn’t a total transformation at the grave because just a few verses later we are told “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week … the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” They are playing hide and seek with the wrong guy. Even locked doors can’t stop Jesus from finding them.

And Jesus’ command to the disciples and to us is that it’s our turn. Believing in the resurrected Christ is just step one. We need to be sent, to shed our grave clothes and go be the church in the world that is dying for Good News.
That does not diminish the fact that our fears are real. Doubting Thomas usually gets most of the attention in this story. I like Thomas. I identify with his honest doubt. Frederick Beuchner says, “Doubt is the ants in pants of faith.” Honest doubt keeps us alive and growing.

There is no faith without doubt; they are two sides of same coin. Beucnher goes on to say that is not the presence of God that keeps us coming back to church – but the absence, the seeking of true peace in the midst of our broken world.

We don’t know where Thomas was. John just tells us he wasn’t there the first time Jesus appears to the other 10 disciples. Maybe Thomas was the most scared. The disciples are hiding – but Thomas is even afraid to hide in the same place with them. That’s ironic because Thomas earlier in the story where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead is the disciple who says, “Let’s go to Jerusalem and die with Jesus!” What happened? Maybe Thomas realized it’s easier to die with Jesus than to live with or for him? After all, the Jews or other oppressors can only kill the body. Jesus wants our souls too.

But see what happens when we give into fear and hide from God? God breaks down the barriers anyway – even thru locked doors. And when Thomas is not there Jesus doesn’t give up on him; he comes back a week later specifically to address Thomas’ doubt and fear. Faith is not a one-time deal like a polio vaccine. It’s a lifelong journey. One of my favorite biblical characters is the man in Mark’s Gospel who asks Jesus to heal his son of an evil spirit. When Jesus inquires of the man’s faith his honest response is, “Lord I believe, help my unbelief.” Both Thomas and this father remind us that faith and doubt dwell in creative tension in all of us.

But I don’t want to focus on Thomas today. Instead I want us to look carefully at what Jesus says and does in these first post-resurrection encounters with his disciples.

John says the doors are locked in that upper room and Jesus comes right into the room anyway. How he did that is an interesting question we could explore, but that’s not really the point. Jesus coming into that locked room means that God breaks through whatever barriers we try to put up – whatever excuses we offer: I’m too old, too young, too poor, too busy, not good enough, too scared. “Sorry,” Jesus says, “it’s your turn now.”

One of the best Easter sermons I ever heard was by Bishop Dwight Loder, and the phrase I remember from that sermon is this. Bishop Loder said, “Jesus was not resurrected by the church. He was not resurrected for the church. He was resurrected AS the church.” We are the body of Christ, and as such God sends us in mission and service to the least and the lost. We are transformed by the salvation of Christ, but the story doesn’t end there. We are transformed so we can go out and change the world into the Kingdom of God.

How in God’s name can we do that? Exactly – we can only do it if we do it in God’s name and with God’s power. And here’s the good news – that power is ready and available for anyone who is willing to accept it and surrender to it.
Do you want peace in your life? Don’t we all? We long for real peace that only God can give, the peace that passes all human understanding. And the secret to finding that peace is right here in John 20. The first thing Jesus says to the disciples is “Peace be with you.” He doesn’t send them out looking for peace on E-bay or Craig’s list; he imparts it into their hearts and then sends them out. We don’t find or create that kind of peace; it finds us, in the midst of our doubts, not after all our doubts are resolved.

How does that work? Notice what happens right after Jesus says “As God has sent me, so I send you.” “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’” He breathed life into them just as God breathed life into humankind in the creation story. God’s Holy Spirit empowers before it sends us out to serve.

But here’s the catch – that powerful spirit only comes in surrender. True peace only happens when we are vulnerable enough to get up close and personal with God. You have to get very close to let someone breathe on you. The question is do we want Jesus getting that close? Invading our personal space, meddling with our priorities? That’s scary. But, if we let down our barriers and allow Christ into our hearts we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to humbly and obediently do justice and act mercifully – outside our comfort zones in the world God sends us into. To say with all the saints that have gone before us, “Here I am, Lord, send me!”

Now I want to circle back to young Ryan’s question about how big God is. That afternoon Ryan’s mom took him with her to go grocery shopping, but on the way she took a slight detour to drive by the city’s airport. She parked near a fence where the planes on the tarmac were visible and said to Ryan, “Do you remember how small that plane looked when we saw it today way up in the sky? Ryan nodded. “And how big do these planes on the ground look?” “They’re really big!” her son replied. And Ryan’s mom said, “That’s how God is. The closer we are to God, the bigger God is.”

Peace comes only when we get close enough to Jesus that he can breathe on us. I’m not sure I want Jesus or anyone to get that close. We have to really trust someone to let them invade our personal space. If we let Jesus get that close we might have a have heartwarming experience like John Wesley. We might get called out of our comfort zone to put our faith into action!

I don’t know what Jesus is calling you to do. That’s between you and God, but I do know that we will only find the peace and power to fulfill our calling if we let the risen Christ get close enough to breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into us.

Benediction – God is big enough to help our unbelief if we allow God to get close enough. Jesus finds us when we foolishly try to play hide and seek, and he says, “You’re it. I send you out, but only after I breathe the power of the Holy Spirit into your hearts.” Go in Peace. Amen

It is Well with My Body, Sermon on II Corinthians 12:7b-10

Those who know me might think the title of this sermon is a belated April fool’s joke. But it’s not. Our Lenten sermon series has been about spiritual wellness that comes not because of but in spite of the brokenness around us – broken systems, broken hearts, or broken bodies. And for some reason when we got to the theme of broken bodies everybody turned to look at me.

I am at the age where it seems the favorite pastime among my peers is to report on our aches and pains – even though we have all sworn we wouldn’t be like that when we got old. But if you are younger or fortunate to have fewer physical ailments than I do this sermon is still for you. When Paul says he asked God to remove the thorn in his flesh we think it must be some physical problem he had—arthritis, glaucoma, neuropathy? No wait that’s my medical chart. Seriously, biblical scholars have tried to figure out what Paul’s thorn was for 2000 years, and we still don’t know.

But it doesn’t matter because this text is not medical, it’s theological. It invites us to wrestle with the question of how we as Christians cope with the pains of life – physical, emotional, or relational, and we all have one or more of those. We even describe other frustrations as physical. We say “she/he’s a real pain in the neck” (or some other body part). A cartoonist depicts one such idea about Paul’s thorn like this.

One of my new year’s resolutions back in January was to be able to cope better with my chronic pain. Instead I learned again that it pays to be careful what one asks for. Less than a week into 2019 I was diagnosed with a torn rotator cuff. That wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, God! Now I’m sure I’ve asked God way more than three times to take away my aches and pains, but the answer I keep getting is the same one Paul got — which is “no.” Paul says God told him “my grace is sufficient for you.”

Today’s text also says, “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh.” Other translations say “to keep me humble.” I don’t know how long it took but Paul came to understand that his problem served to keep him humble. I do know that when I stop focusing on my own problems and pay attention to people with more severe physical pain than I have that works for me too. I am in awe of those of you who come faithfully to church using a walker or a wheelchair, or wearing a knee brace, or in between chemo treatments–who keep a positive attitude in spite of the slings and arrows life has thrown at you.

What Paul learned from his thorn in the flesh is that we have to learn to deal with the hand we are dealt. It doesn’t have to be fair or even understandable – it just is what it is. God is not some supernatural magician who can pronounce a holy abracadabra and take away our pain. Our God is one who suffers with us and gives us the strength to carry on no matter what.

You’ve probably heard it said that we can’t control things that happen to us; all we can control is how we respond to the challenges of life. If that sounds like a cliché it’s because it is. But it’s also true. I had the privilege to witness that in action over the last few years as my father and mother-in-law both dealt with very similar end of life issues. Diana’s mother, Mary, was confined to a wheelchair and lived in assisted living for 9 years. She didn’t just have a thorn, she had a whole rosebush! She had plenty to be unhappy about, but she was always cheerful, content and pleasant in spite of all that. My dad was in similar physical condition in his final years, but his attitude was entirely different. He was angry and never satisfied with anything. He resented his circumstances and made life difficult for those caring for him and also for himself.

I don’t say that to be judgmental because I’m much more like my father than my mother-in-law. All too often I throw myself a pity party and catastrophize my problems even though I know better. I know that words matter especially how our self-talk shapes our attitude toward the challenges we face in life.

For example, I went to the thesaurus to find another word for “pain” while writing this sermon so I didn’t keep repeating myself. The first three choices my thesaurus gave me were: “discomfort, agony and aching.” What a difference a simple word choice makes in describing the same sensation. To be in “agony” is certainly a whole different ball game than having “discomfort” or “aching.” The good news is we get to choose how we want to label what we’re feeling.

Another way of saying that is that “pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.” Pain is part of the human condition. No matter how much we wish it wasn’t, it comes with the territory. I find the Buddhist explanation for suffering very helpful. Buddhism says that we suffer because we are too attached to the things of this world which are all temporary, including these mortal bodies we are privileged to inhabit for a while.

My physical limitations remind me constantly that aging is about learning to let go — letting go of stuff I don’t need, letting go of things I can no longer do while humbly asking for help when I need it. Letting go frees up energy to celebrate the things I can do, and to give thanks for more wisdom gained through life experience.

If a picture is worth a thousand words (or has that number gone up with inflation?) then this one is definitely worth that much.

Letting go is important practice for the ultimate letting go that comes with mortality. But I would hasten to add that letting go doesn’t mean surrender. It doesn’t mean quitting all the things that give life meaning. It means finding ways to still do what we enjoy. Remember, nowhere in the Bible is there any talk of letting go of serving God and our neighbors. In fact one sure way to not be turned in on myself and my problems is to find ways to help others.

Humility means letting go of our need to control things. God’s answer to Paul is that our weakness allows God to be our strength. It boils down to God saying, “I’m God and you’re not – so trust me.” Those are great words to remember if you’re heading into surgery or awaiting a birth of a baby. Letting go of our need to control, of having things our way can also free us of anxiety, worry and fear which are all stressors that only make our physical pains hurt more. As the 12 step programs put it, “Let go and let God.”

I realized this week that humility is so central to our faith that it serves as bookends to the season of Lent. Every year we begin the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday. We put the mark of the cross on our foreheads with ashes, and the traditional words that are said are from Genesis 3:19: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” We don’t say that to be morbid, but to remind us all of our place in creation. Yes, we will all die someday, and making our peace with mortality makes every day of life all that more precious.

And at the end of Lent we have the ultimate example of what humility looks like in Jesus. The night before he was crucified Jesus prays for his thorn to be taken from him. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Father, if it’s possible take this cup from me.” We’ve all prayed that prayer. I know I have many times. But what makes Jesus’ example so important are the words that a come next: “Not my will but yours be done.”

I don’t pretend to have that kind of faith. Paul says he’s achieved contentment with “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities,” and no, Lord, I’m not asking for those so I can learn to deal better with them. But I do believe the secret to abundant life is what Paul describes elsewhere in Philippians 4:11 where he says he has learned to “be content with whatever I have” or as some translations put it “to be content in whatever state I’m in.”

A couple of years ago I chose Psalm 90 as the Scripture I read and meditated on during Lent. Mornings are the worst time for my discomfort; so I really identify with this part of that Psalm: “Turn, O Lord! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” (vs. 13-14).

Pity-party Steve gravitates to the first phrase “How long, O Lord? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning…” Yes, Lord, especially in the morning. But the compassion I’m asking for isn’t what I really need. I want to feel like a 30 year-old again. I want the pain, ache, discomfort, agony to all go away.

But the Psalmist has a much deeper request that works for every age and stage of life. “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” The pain meds modern science offers are never more than a temporary fix, and because of our overreliance on quick, easy remedies we have an opioid epidemic that can lead to horrific addiction and death. There’s a reason we don’t say “In Big Pharma We Trust.” God’s solution to pain is simply unconditional steadfast love, and it doesn’t just last for a morning. It enables us to rejoice all our days because unconditional love doesn’t say “I love you if you are faithful and brave or if you don’t complain.” Steadfast love says, “I love you, period.”

And that is exactly what Paul means when he says God’s grace is sufficient – it’s all we need, no matter what kind of pain we are dealing with.
I want to leave you with a story from Robert Fulghum about how we deal with pain and suffering. Fulghum is best known for writing “Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” In one of his other books he tells about an experience in his early twenties when he worked for a country resort. He had to do the night shift as a receptionist and mind the stables during the day. The owner was not the most likable or the kindest person on the planet and Robert was getting weary of eating the same lunch every day. In addition, the cost of the lunch would get deducted from his paycheck. It got on his nerves.

One night, he could hold it no longer, especially when he found out that the same lunch was going to be served for another couple of days. One of his colleagues, working as a night auditor, was Sigmund Wollman, a German Jew and a survivor of Auschwitz; Sigmund had spent three years at the concentration camp. He was happy and contented in the same hotel where Robert was mad and upset. Finding no one else around to share his frustration, Robert spoke to Sigmund and expressed his anger against the hotel owner.

Sigmund listened patiently before saying: “Lissen, Fulchum, Lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the food and it’s not the boss and it’s not this job.”

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“Fulchum, you think you know everything but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house is on fire — then you’ve got a problem. Everything else is an inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy.”

Fulghum says, “I think of this as the Wollman Test of Reality. Life is lumpy. And a lump in the porridge, a lump in the throat and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”

When we are tempted to turn inconveniences into problems, God says, “Let go. I’ve got this.” And our best response is, “OK, not my will but yours be done.”

Preached on April 7, 2019, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio

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.

A Tribute to Bishop Judy Craig

The world is a little colder today and not just because the weather outside is frightful. With thousands of people around the world I am mourning today the death of Bishop Judy Craig. When my mother and mother-in-law both died within 3 months of each other Bishop Craig went out of her way to inquire how I was doing when I saw her at a meeting. She was the most pastoral and yet genuinely prophetic human being I have ever known. 15 years later when we were colleagues at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio – I was the director of the Doctor of Ministry program and Judy was Bishop in Residence. She was scheduled to teach a course in that program one weekend and got news on Thursday that her brother had died out of state. I was also out of town and very concerned about who would teach that course, but when I reached Judy on the phone there was not one question about it. She was at peace with human mortality and knew there was a time for mourning, but it would be after she taught that course.

The last time I saw Judy was at a special dinner in her honor at the seminary where a scholarship was established in her honor. She had her portable oxygen with her, her physical being was failing; but it was oh so very well with her soul. When I waited my turn in line to greet her after the dinner I bent down to speak to her and in true Judy Craig style she complained about our making all this fuss over her. But then she did something I’ll never forget. She pulled me down close to her and kissed me on the cheek; and now I will always know what the kiss of peace is.

She was a rebel and a trailblazer for any and all who were marginalized, but she also had spent many years in local church ministry where she learned the art and necessity of balancing pastoral and prophetic ministry. When she gave the best commencement address I’ve ever heard at MTSO in May 2008 she told this story that captures the very essence of her spirit which lives on in all of us who were blessed to be touched by her life.

“I’m reminded of the story of a farmer who hired a builder to come and use the finest materials and build a beautiful barn. Then the farmer went out and got on his tractor and bulldozed down the old barn.

And the next day there was a storm threatening, but the farmer went into town anyway. And the storm hit, and the sleet was going sideways, and as he drove home, he was smiling to himself because he thought of his cattle in that nice, warm barn. He’d left the doors open so they could get in.

But when the farmer got home, he found the new barn empty. He went back out in the sleet and the wind, leaned into it as he walked toward where the old barn had been. And there, huddled in the wind and the sleet, were the cattle – inside the foundation of the old barn.

Recognize that? You’ll encounter people like that. Just then, dig out your patience and your modeling and your best invitational self. Pull out those great biblical illustrations about God’s future and the wonderful stories of church history. And then go and stand with those miserable cattle in that wind and love them anyway until they will finally begin to follow you into the new barn.”

Judy, you will always give us compassion to love because you so loved us.

4th Sunday of Advent, Candle of Love

Like expectant parents we can hardly wait for the miracle of new birth this Advent season. Our spirits are anxious about the labor pain required of us to be reborn in Christ, but the Love of God is stronger than our fears. And so like Mary and Joseph and. Elizabeth we dare to say no to hate in all its ugly forms and a resounding yes to God’s gift of Love wrapped in swaddling clothes.

It is God’s love we celebrate in Joseph’s devotion to Mary, a love so strong that even the baby John feels it while still inside his mother. It is love that dares to believe in the impossible, even a virgin birth. Love is the source of all of the Advent gifts. Hope, Peace, and Joy all flow from God’s love, but the greatest gift is Love. And so on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we light the Candle of Amazing Love that gives Hope, Peace and Joy to a world that badly needs them all.

Prayer of Confession: Please pray with me: O God of holy expectations, we are humbled when we ponder the faith and trust of all the Christmas story characters who trusted and believed in the power of your incredible love to change the world. We confess we don’t say yes to your Holy Spirit like Mary did, we don’t believe like Joseph, we don’t leap for joy like Elizabeth. The pressure of deadlines and responsibilities are enemies of love. Fear of getting outside our comfort zone keeps us from sharing the most precious gift of your love. Help us in the middle of this hectic season to recognize acts of kindness in others and face honestly our own failures to trust and obey your radical claim upon our lives. Help us keep Christ in us. Give us eyes to see the star, ears to hear the angels and the courage to obey and go where you say. Our Christmas prayer, O giver of life, is that we will be open to your amazing love being conceived in us this Holy Season. Amen

Incomprehensible Incarnation

Amid the cacophony of the mad world, in the darkest days of the year, in times of personal stress or sorrow, when we most need the peace that passes all human understanding, that’s exactly where God chooses to break into our world. Praying that you will feel that holy presence wherever you need it most this Christmas.