Thursday, December 28, 2006

Time Turns Ford into a Lincoln?

This week Gerald Ford passed away and there has been no shortage of glowing tributes and kind words about the 38th President.

Being born in 1967, the Presidential election of 1976 was the first one I paid any attention to or remember in any way. At Meister Road Elementary School, in Lorain, OH, we were asked to cast our vote for either Mr. Ford or Jimmy Carter, Gov. of Georgia.

One of the threads that has run through many of the stories about Pres. Ford was his humility. "I'm a Ford, not a Lincoln" was a soundbyte that has been played over and over, showing both humility, and a self-deprecating sense of humor.

The way many of the talking heads have gone on about Pres. Ford (being the "right man for the right time", doing the "selfless thing" of pardoning Nixon even though he knew it might cost him the 1976 election, being an "accidental President" who was advanced from the Congress to V.P., and then 8 short months later moved from V.P. to the President of the United States, the last 2 without seeking the office), you'd think he was on everyone's short list of greatest U.S. Presidents. But be honest, has anyone seen him on such a list?

The most common act from his Presidency for many citizens was a highly controversial pardon. For many under the age of 40, the most familiar connotation we have is not even of the actual man himself, but the Chevy Chase portrayal of the slips and falls on Saturday Night Live.

In some ways, the Ford family might actually be BETTER known for Betty's work with the substance abuse community.

This week my family has spent time watching the Rocky movie franchise. (It all started when many of the in-laws piled into vehicles at the end of Christmas Day and went to see the recently-released movie, Rocky Balbo together. It was kind of cool, taking over a theater with all of us going to the same showing; cousins sitting with cousins, uncles & aunts, nieces & nephews, all kind of acting like the giant screen was our living room.)

So this week in our home, we've spent part of the Christmas school break watching the other 5 moves on DVD. Last night we watched Rocky IV (that's "4", not "intravenous" though with all the bloodloss on screen...).

And who should appear in one of the opening scenes before the fight between Apollo Creed & Drago? James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Showbusiness. (Brown died a few hours before Pres. Ford passed away this week.) There was J.B. dancing and singing, as part of an American Spectacle, making sport with Dolph Lundgren's character.

(Interestingly enough, James Brown WAS ALSO parodied on SNL [hot tub!])

The thought crossed my mind, "Will my kids ever know Brown as anything other than the singer/dancer in that one Rocky movie?" That's how they'll remember him, unless some other image or picture comes across their path.

What a strange lesson on legacy.

So all this got me thinking: If time takes a mediocre, vanilla president and allows his accomplishments to be appreciated, lauded, and praised, what will time do to the memory people have of you and me?

If an entertainer of 50+ years becomes known by a generation, primarily for a bit role in a bit of a spoof movie scene, what seemingly meaningless acts or words in your life or mine will become magnified and grow in scope? What things that seem so significant and important now will one day crumble and blow away like "dust in the wind"?

Something to ponder and give us perspective as 2006 comes to a close.

Grace & peace.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Stealing the Church's Christmas Tree

The service was ending. I walked to the back door to shake hands with people as they were leaving the church.

One of my friends, a young father and husband came up to me and sarcastically said, "I know we had the Children's Christmas program a week before Christmas. But were we so excited to get Christmas over that we're chopping down our pine trees?!"

I asked what he meant. He walked me over to a window and pointed to where a large pine tree had been. The top 6 or 7 feet of the tree had been lopped off. Someone, obviously looking for a nice Christmas tree, had cut down what had been a beautiful (and somewhat expensive) pine tree.

I know it was pretty expensive because our church building is less than 18 months old. And I well remember what we had to pay to put in all of those trees; a landscaping cost we had to pay in order to meet that zoning ordinance that would allow us to move into the new facility.

(In defense of the thief/vandal, he left us the bottom 2-3 feet, looking like a shrub.)

[By the way, have you read my previous blog? The blog entitled "14,000 Days" asked the question about how long does it take to grow a Christmas tree to maturity. This was asked prior to the theft, but maybe a little providential.]

So I'm left to wrestle with several questions:

- What kind of person steals a tree from a church...AT CHRISTMAS??!!

- Was it for sale or for personal use? If it was stolen by the person who actually put it up, what kind of Christmas must it be to give presents around a stolen tree?

- Am I feeling more vengeful or redemptive? The vengeful side of me says, "Find the perpetrator, track 'em down and throw the book at them!"

- But them I'm struck by the meaning of Christmas; the coming of the baby, the need for sinful humanity to be saved, redeemed, healed; the call to you and me to be the Church, and become the hands, feet, and body of Christ in situations just like this. And I wonder, "How can we be redemptive in such a situation?"

I'm convinced some of the best and most creative theology is probably done at times like this. But I've got to tell you, I'm not sure what the Christlike response is.

I guess I'll begin to pray that one day, that person will find him/herself in our building. Initially, uncomfortable about the deed. But ultimately, able to know grace extended by us, and friendship and forgiveness, and finally, becoming a PART of the very church they stole a tree from (at Christmas!!).

What about you? Do you have someone in your life who has done the equivalent of stealing your church tree at Christmas?

Will you add to the cycle of anger and violence? Or will you step up and do the difficult thing? Will you return evil for evil? Or will you offer a creative prayer and grace-filled response that diffuses the situation and allows healing to flow?

What will your response be?

Grace & peace.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

14,000 Days

That's approximately the length of my life to this point.

I'm a little over 39 years of age. If you measured it in days, it would be somewhere over 14,000.

I say that because occasionally it gives me a little better perspective on things.

For instance, I have lived the majority of my life overweight and I'm now trying, again, to do better by myself and my body nutritionally. I started this "new way of life" about a month ago or 30 days ago as of today.

Every once in awhile I get on the scale and think, "It's not moving." Or I look in the mirror and think "Same old fat guy." You start to wonder if it's really worth it. This can be frustrating when I've gone out of my way to be particularly self-disciplined for a meal, or for a whole day.

But about the time I start to get discouraged, ready to throw my hands up and throw a box of Little Debbies down (my throat), I think, "It's ONLY been 30 days; 30 days out of 14,000." It's taken 14,000 days to acquire the current physical specimen that is my several-spare-tires-body. (I started this endeavor somewhere between70-80 pounds overweight).

And I think about my decision to try and make this a way (or is it "weigh"?) of life. I realize if I'm blessed enough to live another 39 years, I have 14,000 days left!

Now that may sound like a lot. But as you roll back the odometer, one day every day, they become more and more precious. I find the perspective and urgency that says, "let's do this day right", live it the way we won't regret it 1 day, or even 14,000 days from now. The first 14,000 went by so quickly.

Speaking of time and achieving a goal, I saw this little quiz yesterday:

How long does it take for a Christmas tree to reach maturity?
a. 3-5 years
b. 5-7 years
c. 7-10 years

(Answer will follow)

This past weekend our church choir presented their Christmas program. We were combining with a choir from another church, had really spent a lot of time and effort putting it together, and asked the congregation to consider inviting friends, family, and neighbors. In return, as the pastor I promised not to say or do anything that would embarass them in front of their guests. (Snake handling was out this weekend!)

After the concert, one of my friends came up to me and asked, "Did you see who was here?! It was my neighbor!! We've been asking her to come for 10 years! Every year she's said no, had another commitment, or not been interested. But THIS year she came. And as the choir sang and you invited people to pray, tears were streaming down her cheeks. I REALLY think it was a powerful experience for her!"

10 invitations in 10 years. Nearly 3,700 days. They'd invited and invited and invited. The neighbor had said no. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. No. And finally...yes.

It only took 1 yes to make the difference, change the course, and pay off all those rejections.

It got me thinking: What do you and I feel passionate enough about that we'd ask the same person, once a year, every year, for ten years, to come and be a part of it? Is there anything in your life, so amazing, so precious to you, so valuable that you wanted other people to share it so much, that you'd spend a decade patiently, persistently trying to give it away? Do you know Someone so spectacular that you'd take 9 rejections from someone just to get to one "Yes" in order to hook them up?

One of the most famous verses in the Bible reads:

"For God so loved the world, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)

God "so loved the world". I have a feeling that ONE way God's love plays out is in that type of 10-year-inviting persistence. I'm thankful for it this Christmas season. And these three numbers (14,000 days, 10 years, and the length it takes for a Christmas tree), just helped to give it a little bit of perspective for me).

By the way, the answer to the Christmas tree question is 5-7 years, according to my source.

May we start planting seeds today for 2011-2013! Maybe those seeds are weight loss. Or sharing our faith with a friend. Begin to plant now for a great payoff later.

Grace & peace

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Polar Express Rolls Through Church

A Christmas bell.

If it has a handle on it, and someone is standing next to a red kettle in Nov./Dec. and a couple of thoughts run through my mind:

1.) It's the Salvation Army.
2.) They do good work. If I have some change in my pocket, I should throw it in.
3.) If I DON'T have change in my pocket, I wonder if there's another door in/out of the store. I hate passing up a valid need and not giving.

We recently saw "Polar Express" as a family. The Tom Hanks vehicle (where the actor portrays several [is it 5?] different characters).

Throughout the movie, the main character is lamenting the fact that his friends are able to hear something he can't. Initially, you're not sure what the sound is either. Eventually, you realize it is a bell.

At one point the young boy even has it in his hands, shaking it, but no sound seems to be coming out of it.

As the story unfolds, you realize there's a connection to believing in Christmas and hearing the bell. The boy, at the beginning of the movie, doesn't believe, so he can't hear the bell.

At a crucial point in the story, he comes to believe in Santa, the magic of Christmas, and is now able to hear the bell ring.

When Christmas morning arrives, there is one last present under the tree, and it is for him. As he rips into the box, he sees the shiny Christmas bell. He shakes it and his little sister comments on how beautiful it is. She can hear it ringing.

His parents, however, can't hear the bell and apologize that their son received a broken bell for Christmas. What they don't realize is that the bell isn't the problem...their ability to hear it IS. As a viewer, I was immediately feeling sorry for the parents. They're missing out and they don't even know it!

I think this is a great illustration of faith. Some of us see things and others of us don't. It doesn't necessarily mean it isn't there. It simply means we haven't acquired the ability to see or hear them yet.

I wonder, can you hear the bell?

If not, do you want to?

Grace & peace.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Do You Hear What I...What The...?!

I went out one night this week to visit a family in our church.

The family, which has a number of small children, has been without a steady income for months and was in urgent need of some financial help. We put out a call about a week ago and asked for our church, (which runs around 80), to help us raise $1,500 in five days.

Our people were generous, God was good, and we took in more than $1,600, with checks still coming in. (1 high schooler gave a check of $200!! This type of sacrifice and generosity is when the church is at its best, and being a member of the clergy is actually FUN.)

As I got back into my car to drive home, the radio was tuned into a station playing Christmas music. (By the way, do you have a station that starts playing Christmas music, round-the-clock, WAY TOO EARLY IN THE SEASON?? Listening to Christmas music in late Oct. is as bad as seeing Christmas displays in stores before the halloween masks have been taken down. It seems to sap a little of the "specialness" of the Dec. season. I avoid the music and the displays until after Thanksgiving. [I know for the Christian Church Calendar, Advent begins four Sundays before Christmas, but let's confess. In our culture, it actually begins the day after T-giving.)

So anyway, I'm in my car, the dj comes on and announces the next song is "O Holy Night" which is cool, a great song. And he proceeds to tell us the artist is... "Hall and Oates"?!!


Hall and Oates??

Now I was a fan of "Kiss on My List" and "Private Eyes" as much as anyone.

But it was really weird hearing the same duo that did "Maneater" singing about "O night divine" and that special, once-in-the-course-of-humanity-event.

It got me thinking: What does their performing such songs say about Christmas?

The cynic in me replys that it says "anything to make a buck" and there's nothing sacred to the entertainment industry.

But the hopeful mystic in me says "maybe, just maybe, it says more people than we realize wonder if there isn't something going on here that is more significant, more spectacular than we can put into words; that we all recognize it, even if we don't know how to explain it; even if we haven't all pledged our allegiance to it. That the possibility of Jesus being the one, unique expression of the Creator stepping into time and space and human existence is an event that deserves all our voices. Even Hall and Oates.

What do you think?

Grace & peace.

Friday, December 1, 2006

On The Waterfront

"If you need me, I'll be at the church." This was a statement made by a priest, played by Karl Malden, in the 1954 Acadey-award winning movie On The Waterfront.

He says it to a girl who has just found her brother murdered. She kneels, sobbing, over her dead brother's body. The priest tries for a moment or two to console her. Finally, when he sees he's getting nowhere, he utters that line: "If you need me, I'll be at the church."

Immediately I'm struck by the disconnect between her need and his statement. She needs a champion, someone who will find out who murdered her brother and help bring them to justice.

The priest, though well-meaning, has basically given up any responsibility and decides to head back to the safety of his church.

I wonder how many times people of faith have that same attitude.

"If you want help, come find us."

"If you need encouragement or hope, go look for us."

"Stop by our place and maybe we'll engage in dialogue with you."

"If you need me, I'll be at the church."

The girl, (played by Eva Marie Saint), responds incredulously. "At the church? Why would you go hide out at the church?" Where we need you is on the waterfront. People don't live in the church. People typically aren't lying bruised, bloody, and broken inside the church. They're at home, or in the office, or in the classroom, or on the line at the factory, or at the store.

That's where people are at. That's where the needs of humanity cry out for hope and the message of Good News.

May you be someone who takes the Good News to the waterfront.

Grace & peace.