Saturday, September 26, 2009

Number 4 Comes First

I like the number “4”.

Most everything comes in threes. The three wise men, the three pigs, the three bears, the Trinity. We eat three meals a day. Jokes and stories often have three parts: The Priest, the rabbi and the protestant walk into a bar….

I prefer four. Four is more than enough. Four means there’s something extra. Something we weren’t looking for. Four means there’s an extra helping.

Four is the number of children in the family in which I grew up Four is the number of my immediate family now.

Four is when you are no longer a toddler, but are turning into a full fledged kid.

Four ruins the meter and flow of a story. It doesn’t quite fit—I like that in a number, and often in people, too.

There was Matthew, Mark, Luke—three perfectly synoptic gospels. Then John comes along. He doesn’t fit the pattern of the other three. He is grander, more eloquent, bolder, and deeper.

Peter, James, and John were the special three out of Jesus' followers. But then occasionally we see Andrew quietly adding himself to the triad. Without Andrew there would have been no three. Without him, Peter wouldn’t have met Jesus. Peter wouldn’t even have the name we know him by. Andrew also brought the boy with the loaves and fishes to Jesus—five thousand families might have gone hungry without this fourth man—the one that didn’t fit in with history’s three.

Four is the surprise ending, the goal beyond the goal. Like strawberries to go with your bacon, eggs, and toast.

It’s the heaven beyond the earth, water, and sky.

Monday, September 21, 2009

She Was Mean

He was old and alone. His wife of many decades had died after a lengthy illness. He didn't go to church but he knew me from the senior citizen center, so he asked me to do the funeral.

I sat with him in his living room to talk about the funeral. “What can you tell me about your wife?” I asked.

Without a beat he said, “Well David, she was mean.”

That was about all he had to say. But I pressed him some. “Do you have any nice memories from when you were young.”

He shook his head. “No, David, she was mean.”

I tried once more. “Did she have a sense of humor?”

“No. She was mean.”

So I wrote in my notes: “MEAN.”

The one notable thing about her was that she was a true miser. She never spent any of her money. Every check she ever received, she would cash and then hide it away in the books on her shelf. After she died, they found tens of thousands of dollars in those books.

She was selfish, joyless, and bitter. No one came to her funeral except her husband.

I wonder if Jesus was so gracious as to allow her into the pearly gates, how would she feel about heaven? Would the throngs of angels and people singing praise be so much noise to her? Would she feel offended at the waste she saw in the lavish feast spread before her at the banquet table? Would it outrage her that the gold she held to so tightly was now used as pavement?

Would heaven be hell for her?

And what would she think that after the funeral, the old man took her money, married a woman half his age, bought a motor home, and left town?

She probably felt pretty mean about it.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009


The restaurant was swankier than I first realized, with shimmering candles and three forks at each place setting. The waiter had a fancy jacket and spoke in low tones that made me say, "huh?" a lot. I bolted upright when I saw the prices on the menu, more startled than when the waiter put the napkin on my lap for me. Even the soup was out of my price range.

So I slipped out when the waiter with the fancy jacket wasn't looking.

I once attended a church service where I felt the same way. The building was dark, expensive, and oppressive, with serious stain glass and stonework. The service itself was more formal than what I was accustomed to: stand, kneel, sit (play dead?). I had to sit in the in the front of the sanctuary (the back pews were taken by the regulars), so I couldn't watch what others were doing. I ended up standing when others were kneeling, sitting when others were standing, and so on. If I could have, I would have sneaked out, just like I did in the restaurant--it was just too fancy and high priced for me.

Churches and restaurants need to focus on helping people feel at home. Hospitality means a lot more than cleaning the premises and putting out the good dishes. Welcoming folks means we help them feel comfortable, accommodate their needs, and explain things enough so they don't feel awkward. We need to make an extra effort to lend dignity to those who would feel the most out of place.

Jesus had a way of making the uncomfortable feel honored. He spoke to foreigners, ate with tax collectors, healed the beggars, and touched the lepers. He also had a way of making uncomfortable those who were too satisfied with themselves. He confronted the Pharisees, embarrassed hypocrites, and defied religious convention. I wonder if he would have intentionally used the wrong fork at a fancy restaurant or stood when others sat in church!

I want to make my home and my church a place where Jesus would approve and the poorest beggar would feel at home.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Key to Unity

My friend Virgil is usually good for a quick word or two. Want to know how Obama’s doing? Virgil will tell you. Need a history on economics? Virgil has some thoughts. Want a religious discussion? Virgil can accommodate you. Need a good joke? Talk to Virgil.

On rare occasions, Virgil and I will come down on opposite sides of an issue. He and I are alike in that when we have an opinion, we’re not likely to change it easily.

We like that about each other.

I like people who will put a little oomph into their thoughts, and can do so without being mean. I like not having to worry about what they think because they’ve already made themselves clear.

The other evening Virgil was almost apologetic when he said that he probably talks too much at church and asks questions people don’t want to hear.

I replied that it’s people like him that keep our church functioning well.

And that’s the truth.

When people don’t talk to each other, the anxiety and resulting tension builds. Eventually someone blows and the result is spectacular. But if we ask our questions respectfully, address each other respectfully, and work to come to a consensus, that brings us a special quality.

It’s called unity.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

It Was Good

When I read about the creation in Genesis 1, I imagine everything forming as if an artist was making a painting in front of me.

First he draws the earth amidst the heavens with contrasting lights and shadows. Then he fills in the large land masses and defines the waters with brilliant blue. Then with lots of green, red, blue, and yellow, he paints a brilliant array of vegetation. Now sprinkle in some stars around a full luminescent moon against the dark part of the sky. And show a beautiful sun on the other side of the world radiating warm light.

Next he takes a smaller brush for fine detail and makes some fish in the water, birds in the sky, and animals on the land (I especially like the bald eagle and the black panther).

Finally, he adds the image of the man and woman--perfect versions of the human form.


He stands back to admire his work. "It is good," he declares.

These are not lab notes scrawled by a student in biology class. I get a little sick that we try to hammer out a science curriculum from this poetic message.

The creation poem is a powerful statement about the sovereignty of God. It makes the bold claim that instead of many pagan gods, there is only one God who made everything.

And it was very good.