Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Life in the Margins

Where we live, (in Michigan), the economy is not doing so great right now. The auto industry as a whole is down. In our area, if you don't work for one of the Big Three automakers, you work for their suppliers. Or you teach their kids, or you supply their food, or you sell them electronics, houses, or clothes. Or in my case, you pastor their church.

So when things are down for the Big Three, things are down for all of us.

I have a couple of friends who are going through tough times right now. And my heart goes out to them. And my mind begins to wander...

In this setting, one wonders what it means to be a person of faith in such difficult times.

A single mom is unable to go to work and hoping to not lose her house. A father of five has been downsized and is struggling to keep clothing on the backs of his kids. What difference does MY faith make in THEIR difficulty?

I came across a verse this morning that seems applicable. It takes place in the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel. Daniel is God's chosen instrument for interpreting dreams and delivering messages to several kings who have invaded Daniel's home country.

In this particular chapter, Nebuchadnezzar, of Babylon is the reigning monarch. And while the God of the Hebrews has used this gentile king to discipline the Jewish people, right now it is this very king who is receiving some correction and a threat. He's about to lose his mind and wander in the wilderness with the wild animals until he remembers from whom all his success has come.

Though he's the chosen instrument to bring the bad news, Daniel seems to have a soft spot in his heart for the king. He tells Neb that he hopes the dream is about the king's enemies and not the king himself. Daniel gives the interpretation, and then urges the king to "please accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed (Daniel 4:27)."

Isn't that an interesting instruction?

The prophet does NOT say "be morally pure" or "tell the truth" (though both instructions are given other places).

Instead, he instructs the one in power to "be kind to the oppressed".

I wonder if we in the American, evangelical tradition have forgotten that instruction. Another prophet tells us what God really requires of us:

"Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with your God."

It is so easy to be convinced that being religious, being spiritually sensitive, being Christian, is all about personal ethics and morals. That misses 1/2 of the story though, doesn't it?

My prayer for us is that we will take advantage of the opportunity to "do justice" when it approaches us; that we'll go out of our way to "be kind to the oppressed"; that we'll see this as a chance to live out our purpose on this earth rather than feeling bothered or greedy or irritated.

Maybe we can help bring grace, faith, hope, and love to the places where they seem to be most needed. Maybe we can bring God into the margins. Maybe this Christmas we'll begin to live out our destiny, bring peace on earth, and experience goodwill to men.

Grace & peace.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Merry Stinkin' Christmas

I did it once and I said I'd never do it again. And I haven't. Until this morning...

I got up at 5:09 AM. (I know because the red-numbered monster that is my alarm clock was staring at me with those digits.)

And as I rolled out of bed I headed to the store. I can't tell you what it is I went hunting for until Dec. 26. If I forget and you're still wondering after that, send me a "reply" and I'll tell you what it was and who it was for. That person might stumble across the blog and the whole thing would be blown.

As I was heading down the road there was ONE vehicle on the road with me. It was following me. As I approached the store, I deduced that they must be going to the same place I was. Where else would they be going on this road, at this hour, on this day?

We both pulled into the parking lot. You'd have thought it was the after-work crowd picking up groceries on the way home because there were so many cars patiently waiting for there owners to come back and jam them full of items.

However, once inside, NOBODY was on the grocery side of the store. I was able to pick up the grocery list items with the greatest of cheese (as well as lettuce, frozen peas, and other items for the famous "seven-layer salad" we'd be eating later in the day.)

While the grocery aisles were a wasteland, the electornics and clothing sections had lines in them. At 5:30 in the morning!!

Now I have to admit that I'm all up for a good adventure. The thrill of the hunt can get the best of me too.

But as I stood in line, waiting to purchase the particular secret item I'd gotten up early for, I had to step out of myself and look at us, all of us, who were there to get that perfect item for that special someone. Or were we there simply to get "a deal" on the lastest, flattest, shiniest, coolest thing we just had to have?

It's the day after Thanksgiving and I wonder, "Is this really what the next month will be about?" The guy who enters the store glances at the line in the section of the store he was heading toward, and curses. "Now what am I supposed to do!?" he asks himself and everyone else, none too quietly. "Get in line like the rest of us!" an equally frustrated woman behind me mutters under her breath.

"Merry Christmas" I thought. "Merry stinkin' Christmas."

Now I know that this little diatribe about "the real meaning of Christmas" or "the reason for the season" is cliche. But doesn't it say something about who the real gods of this culture are? Is anything bigger than commercialism, consumerism and materialism?

And don't think I consider myself holier than thou. Remember, I'm standing in line at 5:30 in the morning as I ask the question.

And how do we stand up against it? Do we NOT buy ANYTHING for ANYONE this year and tell them we're takin' Christmas back from Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy?

I hear various pundits drone on about the "war on Christmas" like the idea of saying "happy holiday" is the real culprit. What about people who "celebrate" it by perverting it into a buying orgy of flat screened tvs, mp3 players, wii game systems, sweaters, or whatever?

We try to set limits in our family on spending. We talk to the kids constantly about being stewards with their money and their time and their abilities. We encourage pro-bono babysitting and looking for opportunities to give away and share with others.

Is that enough?

Well, I was next in line. I made my purchase. I walked back to the car, drove home, and it wasn't even 6:30. I guess I'll lie down and get some sleep.

I wish there were some easy answer.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Getting Pounded: A Thanksgiving Tale

11 totes on my doorstep.

That's what I found when I arrived home last night around 9PM. 11 totes and 1 cooler.

Who left them and what was in them?

As I got closer I noticed the note that had been printed off on someone's computer. It read:

"You've been Pounded!
Dear Pastor and family, please accept this collection of items for your food pantry. We hope this will keep you well fed for a long while!
Love, your church family"

My kids started ripping into it like it was Christmas morning!!

"Here's a ham!"

"Look at all the breakfast stuff!"


"This one's REALLY heavy!"

On and on the exclamations went as each of us poured through all of the containers.

This morning as I sit here postponing sorting through all of it and carrying all of the canned goods downstairs several thoughts run through my mind.

- "Who orchestrated all of this?"

- "Who in our congregation could use some of this. We're so blessed. I know that there is a dad who's been out of work for several months. They would probably enjoy getting 'pounded' (shorthand for 'food pounding' if you're unfamiliar with churchspeak)

- Words to my kids about how blessed we are to have a church family so kind and generous only go so far. (I keep telling 'em everyone doesn't have the same positive experiences with churches that they've had.) But an action like this is a memory they'll take away with them for the rest of their lifetime. I hope when they grow up and find a community of faith, that they work to make it as warm and welcoming as this one has been to them. Apparently Someone decided this was just the right time and place for them to acquire such a story to tell.

- This came at a great time for my wife too. She had really been giving over and above the usual (which is already a pretty amazing amount of time and energy, mostly behind the scenes with stuff people don't know about). In addition, she had gotten up extra early this morning to travel to a hospital where her father was having a heart procedure. Things went well, but she was feeling spent. And Providence decided she could use a tangible pick-me-up.

"The earth is the LORD's, and all that is within it, the world and all who live in it." (Psalm 24:1)

We were just privileged to catch this particular "pounding" of God's blessing.

May you have eyes to see the many gifts you've been given. And may you have people come into your life every now and then who warm your heart and lift your spirit through their generosity...even if it's a POUNDING.

Grace & peace.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Monday: Remembering A Perfect Saturday

Saturday was a nearly perfect night.

My parents, sister & brother-in-law came over to celebrate Mom's b-day with us.

We enjoyed homemade lasagna, garlic bread, salad, and a california mix of veggies. (I did a lot of the cooking, but my wife knows JUST how to plan the menu.) It was delicious. (I haven't eaten yet today and now I have to wipe the drool off the keyboard.)

After dinner we gave Mom a couple of small gifts. Then we cut up the birthday pie (apple +), scooped the accompanying ice cream, and divided up into 2 rooms: football fans (for the OSU vs. U-M game), and fireplace fans. Strangely enough, the divide also was by gender, though that was unintentional, I think.

Being the host, I kind of made my way back and forth between the 2 rooms. When I'd hit a commercial break or the Buckeyes would look like they had things in hand, I'd move into the living room to throw another log on the fire and chat with the non-football-watching-members-of-the-family.

Pretty cool to watch my wife, daughters, mom, and sister converse. The fireplace seemed to provide the perfect backdrop to describe the ambiance of the evening: warm and glowing.

The end of the game came. My team won! (Go Bucks! [yes, I live 15 minutes from Ann Arbor.) The whole crew piled into two vehicles and headed over to the high school where we watched my daughter in the high school production of "Children of Eden".

At a break in the production, a couple of girls seated directly in front of us, commented upon how much they liked my daughter (not knowing that her family was directly behind them!). I had to have a bit of fun. I said, "Don't you think that girl is a PAIN?!"

I must have been smiling when I said it because after an initial startling, the one girl responded, "Are you her father? I think she's COOL!!"

We enjoyed a brief conversation. I made sure to find out their names so I could relay the story to my daughter as accurately and detailed as she'd demand.

The play ended. The family went home. And all seemed right in the world.

That was Saturday.

Today is Monday. Things have devolved into a little less than perfect. But simply taking 15 minutes to recount the smells, sounds, smiles, and sights of Saturday gives me the peace to clear my mind of all the crud, focus on what really matters, and move on.

My religious tradition emphasizes the principle of sabbath ("the institution or observance of a day of rest" says Funk & Wagnall's). I am glad to take such a break, mentally, if not physically, today. I'm glad for the opportunity to "clear the slate" and retarget my heart and life. Funny how such a pause can restore needed energy and passion.

Eugene Peterson writes that sabbath reminds us the world can go on for 1 day each week without us pushing, pulling, prodding, or worrying. The world was here before I came on the scene and it will be here after I exit the stage.

Good thought. Not one that makes capitalism steamroll along. But one that can bring the hurried and the harried to balance.

Here's to you building sabbath into your life.

Grace & peace.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A High School Musical

My oldest daughter, a sophmore, is in the high school musical this weekend.

Last night was the first performance of "Children of Eden".

Have you ever seen this production? It is an adaptation of the creation & flood story in Genesis.

Beyond the usual fatherly pride, I was struck by two thoughts as I watched and listened.

First, in the musical, Adam & Eve (the first created humans), refer to God as "Father". This name for God continues throughout the story. This is interesting because in the Genesis account, this title is no where to be found. God is referred to as Creator and other less personal names.

"Father" reminded me of the intensely personal nature of the Creator to those He has created; that One who made us is so much more than simply a detached architect or engineer who constructed something. He is a Person who created other people in His image to be in relationship with Him; to laugh, to cry, to share, to talk, to yell...the stuff of life with people.

Jesus teaches his disciples to call God "Father". "The Lord's Prayer" begins "Our FATHER..." (which is the same title many give the prayer.)

I wonder if some would see this as a "Christianizing" of the Genesis account. Maybe so. However, I found this to be a powerful description of what I believe Scripture teaches about the relationship God desires with people.

The second thought was this: the same problem plagues Adam & Eve that later plagues their boys (Cain & Abel), and later plagues Noah, his family, and the people living during his time. Namely, they all want something that they have been told is forbidden. In the musical, the exact same words are used as each person promises NOT to give into temptation. And the same words are used again to justify why they did break their promise.

Each time the vow is broken, the breaker is surprised by the extent to which the damage they have caused will go. Things rapidly spiral out of their control, each time, to their great amazement.

This "echo" becomes more and more powerful throughout the evening as the words are remembered and the previous situations are recalled. The audience is reminded that the situation of Noah's sons is similar to that of Adam's sons which is similar to God's first children.

As a storyteller, I thought the dialogue was quite effective, tightly wrapped and made quite an impact. It reminds me that maybe the dilemma I find myself in is not that new or unique. That the temptation you face is probably the same basic issue that has plagued humanity since our inception.

One last thought. There is a line close to the end of the musical that tells us we're not so far down the road yet that we can't turn around. It suggests that part of being "made in the image of God" is the capacity to join in creating. We have been given the gift to help shape our future.

May we use that power wisely.

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Sometimes Even The Church Can't Mess It Up

You may have noticed the quote at the top of the blog by Martin Luther. (The 16th century reformer, not the 20th century civil rights leader. That would be Martin Luther KING, Jr. Though I don't think the simiarity to names is an accident)

The quote goes something like this,

"The Church is a whore, but she's my mother."

That quote sums up the fact that often the church has been at its worst, causing violence and perpetuating institutions and actions that actually harm, rather than redeem.

But even in the darkest hour, there have been reformers, prophets who have called the remnant back to the basics of what she was intended to be. There were those who believed we were capable of something more, something so much better.

Well I've witnessed a little bit of it this week in our local community.

We have a single mom who's going in for surgery. She is heroic. She works 2 jobs, sometimes more. Scratched and clawed and saved enough and providentially was able to buy a little bungalow for her and a teenage son.

Today she's going in for surgery and will be off of work for several weeks.

This morning I had several of the ladies at church remind me that we need to step up and help her out. They were mothering her and me, in the best sense of the word. I assured them we were on top of it and had started the process of getting meals ready for the family.

Sunday when we announced a need for folks to sign-up and bring meals, the first person to volunteer was a young lady. She lives 40 minutes away from our church, but started attending 4 weeks ago. The distance requires that the family leave their home by about 9 AM, on a day they could just as easily sleep in. And as a 2-career couple, they'd probably enjoy a few extra hours of sleep. But no, not on Sunday. For the past 4 weeks they've gotten up early on Sunday, jumped in the family vehicle, and headed 40 miles down I-94. And this past Sunday, she volunteered to bring a meal to a family she's never met.

I don't know about you, but that seems to me to be the type of thing Jesus intended when he said, "whatever you've done to the least of these my brothers, you've done it unto me."

THAT is the type of story that makes me think there is still hope for the Church.

THAT is the type of story that makes me hope you'll keep looking till you find (and help create) such a place, if you have been tempted to give up on "organized religion". (And really, who of us hasn't?)

Grace & peace

Monday, November 13, 2006

I Didn't Know What I Was Missing!!

When's the last time you discovered how much you'd been missing in an area of your life? I'm interested in knowing. If you have an answer, please respond. What was it you'd been missing and how did you discover it?

If you DONT' have an answer to that question, maybe you need something new, a break-through, an awakening, an "AHA!" moment. Read on.

I had one recently.

It was in the area of computers. Specifically, it was with high-speed wireless.

We've been using an old computer for so long. And we have dial-up. So I don't have to describe to most of you how slow that is. But suffice it to say that I'd often hit ONE KEY and then walk away to do something else or finish reading that paragraph. (I'm not kidding. That's how slow it is. One time when I was at my office, my 12-year-old was with me, waiting for me to send this ONE e-mail. We started counting how many times we could walk back and forth across the room before the next screen would appear. I think we got to 40, though in truth, the room wasn't too big.)

But today I'm typing on a high-speed wireless hook-up, on what is to us, a new computer.

I didn't know what I was missing!!

I type "send" and it is sent.

I go to quit a program and it actually shuts down before I can forget WHAT the program was that I was working on. Amazing.

If this is the information highway, I had previously been on the horse-and-buggy trail. And not a speedy, quick lightning horse either. One Seinfeld would call Gluestick.

In my faith tradition, there is a lot of talk about newness. New heavens and new earth. New life. New birth.

And it isn't just talked about, either. It is PROMISED.

New things can show you how much you've been missing. A new perspective on a problem may bring a solution. A new friend in a situation may end loneliness. A new start in a checkbook that just wasn't balancing out, how great is that?!!

A new translation of the Bible, one you can actually understand, might bring new light.

A new faith community might actually prove that there ARE people living this life the way you thought SOMEBODY should be doing it.

So I wonder, are you open to something or SomeOne new?

You don't know what (or Who) you might be missing.

Grace & peace

Friday, November 10, 2006

2 Widows & comm-I-tment

Is it just me or are we not willing to commit to anything? The idea of promising to join a group or be at a particular place at a particular time causes many of us to get nervous or worried. Rather than saying "yes" we'd rather say, "let me check my calendar" or "I'll have to get back to you on that." Sometimes we really DO need to check our schedule. Other times we're HOPING that something will intervene to keep us from having to say yes and nail down our time, our money, or our allegiance.

I enjoy writing. But even making it to this blog on a regular basis can be difficult. (I just noticed it has been 2 weeks since I was here last! And the last time I blogged, I had a couple of other topics I was going to write on.)

I'm not suggesting this to fire up any guilt in particular, I'm just making an observation about us. Well, at least me. I'm not trying to make you COMMIT to such a statement.

I recently came across one of my favorite stories about commitment. It is about a woman named Ruth. She is living in a foreign land with her husband's family. Her husband dies. Ruth is still relatively young. Her mother-in-law, Naomi, who is quite elderly, tells Ruth to go back home to her family and start a new life. (Naomi has recently lost her husband, and two sons, one of which is Ruth's husband.)

But Ruth is committed to Naomi. She makes it plain that her mother-in-law can count on her, no matter what. "Don't try and get me to leave you," Ruth says. "Wherever you go, I will go. Wherever you make your home will be home for ME. Your family will be MY family. Your God will be MY God. Where they bury you, they'll have to bury me too."

These two widows begin to watch some pretty amazing things happen. A distant relative of Naomi, Bo, takes note of this commitment. It really impresses him. He happens to be quite wealthy and takes a liking to Ruth.

He takes them in, marries Ruth, and the fortunes of all three change forever.

I wonder what it would take for me to be committed to really important things. I wonder what might happen if I determined in my heart, and by God's help, that I'd give priorty to people and things of greatest significance.

I wonder when I'll back to this blog again.