Thursday, September 8, 2016

Slow Transformations

The term “transformation” can be confusing.  It means a thorough and dramatic change but it’s not necessarily a sudden one. In fact most major changes are hard won, taking years of work and learning.

I walked across a stage and picked up a diploma, first for high school, then for college, then for grad school. But the ceremonies did not transform me. The changes came in the classrooms, in the library, in my living room chair where I read, and at my computer where I wrote. A business person may be recognized for a major achievement, however the award is not what made this person accomplished—it was in the doing, growing, and learning. Likewise, the athlete doesn’t suddenly become great when the Olympic medal is awarded but only after arduous years of practice and effort. 

You understand what I mean. Yet when it comes to matters of spirituality, many of us look for the quick change. We think major change is supposed to happen in a miraculous moment with a fast prayer or some other religious ceremony, or perhaps merely a return to church attendance. But change usually happens gradually, requiring much time in meditation, self examination, and study.  Learning, spiritual awareness, maturity, healing, virtuous living—these all take time and growth.    

On the day of Pentecost, we read that the wind blew, the flames rested over the disciple’s heads, and the Word was spoken in every language.  It all looked instantaneous, but Luke says that these events had been part of God’s plan from the beginning of time.  Pentecost was not a quick transformation, but rather an event marking the beginning of a new covenant with God.  And yet, even though this was the result of much preparation, it was also the beginning of another long growth process of the church, one in which we are still engaged.

Want big changes in your life? They begin with one step. But it is only a first step. 

Life is full of first steps.  

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

The Worth of a Penny

Yesterday, Dr. Walt pulled out a bunch of pennies to give out to the children during their time in the church service.  He’s done this before.  He takes an especially dull and worn coin and applies cleaning solution to it while speaking of the forgiveness of God. As he talks, the penny becomes clean and shiny, looking brand new. 

But this time, he had a different message.  He pointed out that some pennies were old, some were new, others were dirty, and others were shiny.  He said, “They may all look different, but they are each worth just as much as the others. Their value is the same.”

It’s a message we need even in this modern age where we still place differing values on persons based on race, income, looks, gender, etc. 

To add another twist, sometimes in our religion we focus on the sin, and we’ll designate a negative value on each other based on which sins are committed. We speak of ourselves as “miserable sinners,” and sing of how wretched we are, how undeserving of love, as if God is not very smart to care for us.  But in truth, even if we may not know why, God must think we are worth it.  Why else go to the trouble of redemption?

It’s important to see underneath the dullness and remember the shine is still there. Our value remains regardless of our sins and mistakes. 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Look to the Helpers

Once again, there has been a mass shooting in our country, this time in Orlando, Florida.  Over fifty people are dead and more than that are wounded. 

Once again, people will pick out small pieces of this story to use as fuel to feed their discussions on guns, religion, politics, and mental health issues.  They’ll will pick sides and argue with red faces, clinched fists, and increasingly stupid memes on facebook.  This time, discussion will also center on the LGBTQ community—and further wounds will be inflicted by words.    

We sink into these arguments because we feel helpless. 

But we’re not helpless. 

Fred Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister as well as the star of “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood,”
once said that we should look to the helpers that rush to give aid at times like this. They remind us that there is hope in the world. 

Think of the police who ran toward danger to render aid, the fire and rescue people, the paramedics and EMTs, the nurses, aids, and doctors.  Then there were the counselors and ministers to care for the grieving. People lined up for a mile to give blood. Family and neighbors called one another to say, “Are you ok? How can I help?”  Stories of heroism are already being told where people helped each other while they were under fire. And all over the nation people knelt in prayer for the sake of the victims.  All these people are examples of nobility, bravery, and generosity. 

Let’s not shy away from the images of the people who have been harmed.  Think of those who cowered in a crowded room while shots were fired. Think of those who died, were wounded, and those who are now in the throes of sudden grief.  Think of those who are still shaking because they feared their loved one might have been killed. And let’s resist arguing with each other. 

Instead, let’s go to work and offer our help. 

Monday, May 23, 2016

Protective Fathers

I should save this for Father’s Day but these feelings are with me now, so I thought I’d share them even if it’s a little early. 

They entered the restaurant exhilarated: an older man carrying a small boy, a grandchild probably, his hand cradling the back of the child’s neck, their heads close enough to touch.  I surmised this was the first time ever that these two had ventured out just by themselves. Somewhere, I imagined, there was a houseful of relatives from which they had escaped. 

photo by David Mercer

They discussed their order at length, which was a complicated affair: Burgers or chicken nuggets? Fries?  Milk or soda? A chocolate shake instead? And which small toy to choose?  That task completed, they reached their table, where the man began to set out their meal. 

Then the boy darted away, I think in search for a restroom.  The man did a double take as he processed that his charge had vacated the vicinity.  I had been enjoying watching them, and when the boy took off, I kept my eyes on him until the man could catch up.  The boy turned a corner, and I saw another man come to attention to keep watch over him.  The old man scurried past, muttering about how fast the little guy could move. I pointed him in the right direction.  The second man also pointed. 

The old man caught up with him and they continued their outing. The other man and I relaxed our vigil and resumed our respective meals.

There was something significant about that moment when all three of us men, strangers to each other, shared guardianship over the child.  I have no doubt that each of us was a father, in the older man’s case a grandfather, because we each automatically slipped into the role of protector. It’s what we do for our children. And when necessary, we watch over each other’s children, too. 

Photo by David Mercer

My sons are grown and preparing to pursue their destinies.  Like that child, they will be darting away outside the range of my protection. I think they’re ready but I hope there are some dads out there who will lend a hand if I can’t be there. I’ll do the same for the young ones around here.

Presumably, one day my sons will become fathers, and the moment it happens they will understand me a little better. We will look into each other’s eyes and recognize the protective quality we share for the children. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

World Changers

I was thinking about how capable the people of our church are. We have lawyers, judges, teachers, doctors, nurses, dentists, businessmen, counselors, vocational professionals, and retired professionals, etc. Additionally, all of our people have abilities too unique to be categorized. Every civic and service group in town has United Methodists participating, offering their leadership and service. In every major community fundraiser, I see United Methodists participating.  Additionally, wherever there is major damage from natural or manmade disaster, you’ll see United Methodists among those who are helping.  Our motto for disaster cleanup is, “We’re the first ones in and the last ones out.” 

Our mission statement is, “to make disciples for the transformation of the world.” Our church is full of people who do that every day, who go out to serve, teach, heal, and render aid.  We make things better and we don’t stop at religious ritualism—we put our beliefs into practice.

A vibrant church equips its members to go out and do their best work. I think we forget that goal when we become overly concerned with self maintenance, if not self preservation.  I say all churches need to quit thinking of themselves and focus back on their mission, which is to make the world better and to make the kingdom of heaven remains accessible.

We come together to worship God and fortify each other with encouragement and healing. We study to know more about Christ and how to grow as disciples. We train the children to take on Christian values and help them to fully know their God.  And all these things equip us to serve Jesus’ purpose, which is to help and heal all people

United Methodists. We are world changers. 

Monday, April 11, 2016

I Am the Nerdy Healer!

When Jesus hung out with the drunks, prostitutes, and tax collectors, it doesn’t appear that he actively worked to change them.  In other words, I don’t think any preaching or teaching went on while they ate, drank, and danced--he just had a good time with them.

Was he criticized for being with them? Of course he was, but his answer to the criticism was that they needed him, so he was there for them. It wasn’t just his teaching or miracles or good example that affected them. They needed him because it is the presence of Jesus that is healing and restorative. For them, the eating, drinking, and dancing became the church activities that facilitated their being with Jesus.   

I wonder sometimes... was Jesus the life of every party.  You know, the fun guy toward whom everyone gravitated? I figure he was, considering his entertaining stories and personal popularity.  Yeah, he was probably cool. 

Not so with me.  I usually end up sitting on the periphery of these gatherings, watching, listening, and smiling, because I enjoy people. However, I never quite know how to participate in these settings, and sadly, people become a little uncomfortable about turning it loose in front of the pastor.  Occasionally a kind person will come over and speak to me for a moment, then wander back to the crowd.   

I’d like to be cooler, but wine gives me a headache and as I get older I become more and more the absent minded professor who isn’t well versed in pop references. I can’t dance and I listen to music that’s a little out of the mainstream, which is to say dull.  I don’t even follow sports.  No matter how hard I try, there’s just no changing the fact that I’m kind of a nerd. 

And that’s okay because in addition to the drunks, prostitutes, and tax collectors, Jesus loves nerds like me.  He sees the worth in all of us, and when I look through his eyes, I see more deeply the worth of each person, including myself. 

I don’t have to be exactly like Jesus, which is good because my personality is somewhat different. But I can be happy being me, and I can enjoy being with others, appreciating them just as they are.  And that makes me a kind of healer too, even if I am a nerd.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

It Really Is Good News

Gospel, which means Good News, is a term found often in the synoptic gospels and the book of Acts. 

When I was growing up, I had a narrow understanding of the term which consisted of the story of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.  It also included the process of claiming the assurance of salvation. While I do not discount those things, I’ve come to realize there was more to Jesus’ good news. 

The good news is that God is not the vengeful, warlike entity that we might understand from earlier writings, but rather more like the doting, overindulgent father of the tale of “The Prodigal Son.”  Or he’s the shepherd who loses all perspective and leaves everything to find the one lost sheep. 

The good news is that God is the Great Physician who looks at sinfulness and sees it as sickness which he can cure.  He repairs, restores, and revives us rather than rejecting us if we don’t measure up. 

The good news is that the kingdom of God has different values than other kingdoms. In God’s kingdom the first are last and the last are first, the poor are more important than the rich, the weak are honored over the strong, and the children get more attention than the adults. Furthermore, though it may honor the weak, the kingdom of God is stronger than any earthly kingdom.  It continues to advance, cannot be destroyed, and will last forever. 

The story of the cross is about atonement, but it is also about triumph where evil is overcome with good, darkness is overcome by light, and death is defeated by life. 

As we celebrate Holy Week, let’s remember the full blessing of the Good News.