Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Send Lawyers, Guns, and Money


“Send lawyers, guns, and money” is a repeating lyric in a late 1970’s song “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” by Warren Zevon. Unfortunately it also seems to describe the current needs of our Regional Church – the Christian Church in Ohio. Not the guns part hopefully, but certainly legal advice, and definitely money.
I know that some of you have received one or another email from the Chair of our Regional Church Council lifting up part of the story. He is among those tasked with steering our Regional Church through some turbulent times, and it won’t be easy.
Few of the details have been shared – whether on the advice of lawyers or out of a sense of propriety - but as best I have been able to discern from my “out of the loop” position as a local church pastor in Akron, Ohio - the past decade or so at our Regional office has been allegedly stained by that age old and yet always popular mixture of the misuse of power and of money with a few other ingredients thrown in that I hesitate to mention.  I don’t share this news lightly but sadly.
I’ll be honest – I have a whole lot of feelings about this situation – sadness, anger, outrage, disbelief, confusion, disappointment, and maybe even a bit of fear. Though not a member of any Regional Council or Committee, I wonder if I could have done anything to prevent it. I am still working through my emotions and my possible culpability. And I know that a lot of other people are sorting through this wreckage as well.
When such a thing happens – and supposedly occurs not once but for years – it speaks to more than one person behaving badly. It indicates that an entire system has failed to prevent such abuse. It also suggests to me that the cleanup from this situation involves a much more extensive remedy than a single staff member moving on.
I am reminded of the flooding that occurred in the town where I live in the summer of 2003. As a result of historic amounts of rainfall, torrents of nasty water containing some very bad things flooded many residents’ basements not once but twice. I remember people’s ruined carpets and other possessions piled high on the devil strip, and I also recall scrubbing our basement with bleach to try to remove the germs and the odor. But we had it easy – two local men, one a teenager, were killed by rising floodwaters. None of us felt truly safe until the city redesigned the sewage and storm drain systems to reroute the water if it ever came at that intensity. Yet even now when heavy rains come, we check the basement just in case.
I have the feeling that a thorough scrubbing is needed for our Regional Church – maybe more than once. And a redesign of our structure is needed as well so that such a thing doesn’t happen again. Yet even after a new system, I think we’ll need to check in from time to time just in case.
What does all this mean to us at the New Horizons Christian Church?
For one thing, it should serve as a reminder for us to be as open and transparent as we can possibly be especially in matters related to finances as well as other significant decision-making opportunities. Some of my colleagues in ministry have been surprised to learn that we publicly post our local church operating budget including salaries. I think that people have a right to know how their offerings are spent.
As far as our relationship with the Regional Church is concerned, our denominational structure is not a top-down system in which our Regional or General church leaders give us orders. Disciples of Christ have always been fiercely independent and even a bit suspicious of authority. We participate freely with other churches because we know that together we can create ministries that we cannot do by ourselves. Our Regional ministries to young people and children – especially our ministries at Camp Christian - are the most visible manifestation of our cooperation with other churches in Ohio. It is not yet clear how the troubles at our Regional office will impact our shared ministries, but we have been assured that Camp Christian will be open and running once again this summer.
Ministries of the Christian Church in Ohio have transformed my life. My experiences at Camp Christian helped lead to my call to ministry as well as connected me to Holly. We will celebrate 36 years of marriage in a few months. And our children have also been touched by Camp Christian as have many, many of the young people at the New Horizons Christian Church. For the third year in a row, we’ll be sending a large group to Camp this summer. It would be difficult to overestimate the positive impact that Camp Christian and other Regional programs have had on so many people especially young people.
            I would ask that you keep our Regional Church in your prayers in the coming months. We are all part of the Body of Christ. As Paul wrote centuries ago in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoice with it.” There is no quick fix for what has happened, and it will take time for the restoration of healthy behavior and healthy relationships. It may get worse before it gets better. But I am hoping for some better days ahead – some days of rejoicing ahead - even if it takes some time for those days to come.


Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Anything is possible

All things are possible with God.” Jesus

“In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” Lebron

            This has been an incredible year for me. On June 9, I turned 60 years old. In celebration of my birth, the CAVS won their first NBA championship ten days later. They were down three games to one but found a way to win it all anyway. Less than three weeks after that, our grandson Joseph was born. And the Indians have done their part by winning their way into their first World Series since 1997. You would have to say that I am on a roll.
            When I was a younger man, I didn’t believe that I would reach 60. I don’t think I was fatalistic but 60 seemed impossibly old – an age for other people but not for me. And I also didn’t think I would be a grandfather either. As I grew older and those things became more likely, the chance that any Cleveland sports team might win a championship in my lifetime seemed to become more remote. I witnessed in person “The Drive” Game in January of 1987 when the Browns lost to the Bronco’s and have caught my share of CAVS playoff games over the years. I have seen Lebron James arrive in Cleveland, leave Cleveland, and return once again. Until June of 2016, I saw Cleveland teams get close now and again but always come up short.
            I accepted getting close occasionally yet losing as part of the fabric of Northeast Ohio culture, and I was ok with it.  So I was as stunned as anyone on the planet when the final seconds of the NBA championship game ran out and the CAVS actually won. Like many Cleveland fans, I looked at the screen expecting a late call, a disqualification, or Lucy pulling the football away from a charging Charlie Brown. It just didn’t seem possible. The seeming impossible actually happened.
            I have been around long enough to know that there are many more important things than professional sports teams. Each week our prayer team lifts up people and situations that couldn’t be more serious. A winning or losing sports team can seem pretty trivial. And I have noticed that many of my daily concerns haven’t changed a whole lot since the CAVS won, and my life is unlikely to be transformed by an Indians World Series win either.
But the success of these teams has made daily life in this part of the world just a little bit sweeter. Just a bit.
            When Lebron James was returning to Cleveland a few years ago, he was quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying: “In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have.” It was his way of saying that winning a championship was not guaranteed and was bound to be difficult to achieve. And he was right.
            The CAVS worked hard to win that championship, but I didn’t do a thing except show up at a playoff game against Toronto and yell until I was hoarse. We were so far away from the court that I don’t think Lebron heard us.
            So it is accurate to say that for me – and for just about every Northeast Ohio resident – the championship could only be described as a gift – a gift to us earned by the effort and determination of others. I didn’t work for it. I didn’t earn it. Yet it was given to me just the same. 
There is certainly a value to setting a goal and working towards it. We can achieve many good things in life if we work hard enough. Yet some of the best things in life cannot be earned no matter how much we try. We can only receive them as a gift.
We are offered the gift of salvation and the forgiveness of our sins, and there is absolutely nothing we can do to earn it. No good works will suffice. Instead it is the work of Jesus, his willingness to die for us on the cross, that earns our freedom for us. We didn’t do anything to deserve it.
Even at the advanced age of 60, I still have some things I am working for, but I am so grateful for the blessings and gifts that have come into my life because of the hard work and efforts of others. Family (including grandchildren), love, and friends are among the best gifts that I have even received. I don’t deserve them, but I cherish and savor them just the same.
The Cubs haven’t won a World Series title in 108 years, and the Indians last won in 1948. Unless the World Series ends in a tie, one team’s fans will soon be euphoric and the others disappointed. I hope that the gift of a World Championship comes to Cleveland once again, but I can’t say that we deserve it more than Cubs fans do. And I tend to think that God won’t intervene in the outcome no matter how many prayers are lifted up by faithful fans.
But, as I said before, I am on a roll. I have seen things this year I never thought I would experience. And the year – and the baseball season – isn’t over just yet.  I am beginning to believe that just about anything is possible.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Adventures in Aging

A few days ago, I was running in the final mile of the Capital City Half Marathon in Columbus, Ohio. This will be my last half marathon before I turn 60. At this point in the race I know a few things: 1) I will finish; 2) My time will be about my worst half marathon time ever; 3) Despite #2, I am having a good time; and 4) I have only one goal left – get across that finish line without incident or embarrassment. In previous Cap City races, I have seen people collapse during that last mile as well as at the finish line. I don’t want to join them.
I am glad that there are no mirrors or store windows nearby. I have no need to see what I look like at this point of the race. This is not a matter of vanity. It is a matter of reality. I have little self-respect left. All I want to see is that finish line.
But, unfortunately for me, a young man in his 20’s or 30’s provides me with the feedback that I am not seeking or wanting. He runs alongside me, and after sizing me up, he figures that I need a bit of encouragement. He says: “You are going to make it,” then he adds that terrible word at the end of his sentence: “SIR.”
“You are going to make it, SIR.” I can only imagine that he says this because he doesn’t want me to collapse in his general area and present him with the ethical challenge of whether or not to stop or to keep running to get his PR. If he is running near me, he’s not very fast. His words don’t seem uplifting to me. Instead of encouragement, what I hear is: “Man, you look awful. Should someone of your advanced years be running this kind of race? Maybe you should be watching, not running, SIR.”
If I had had enough energy, I would have kicked him. But I probably would have tripped. Instead I said: “We are BOTH going to make it.” At the end of my sentence, I wanted to add (like Dirty Harry would have) “Punk” or at least “Callow Race Participant,” but I had used up the six words I had left.
I don’t remember if he finished ahead of me or behind me. If he finished behind me, I hope he has a self-image healthy enough to withstand the shame of finishing behind a man old enough to be his father. A man who he needed to call: “Sir.”
A recent “New York Times” article asserted that when runners get older, they also get slower. That isn’t exactly shocking news. Ray Fair, a professor at Yale, has created a chart to predict how much slower a runner will get every year after they have passed their peak years. This is not a chart I am all that interested in studying. Who needs a chart about aging when you have yourself as a reference? I’ve got years of race times that tell me all I need to know.
Getting older has its benefits, but your body’s betrayal is not one of them. Just a few days before the race, I was paying a specialist affiliated with a local hospital to do things with my body that I would have punched him for attempting to do to me when I was a teenager.
Trust me. When they say, “Just relax,” that’s the last thing you are able to do. When they say: “You’ll feel a little pressure,” what they really mean is “This is going to be a special pain that you won’t forget for a long time.” And this is just the diagnostic process. I am sure that the treatment will be even more fun.
So a young man calling me “Sir” as I shuffled my way through the last mile of a half- marathon wasn’t really all that bad compared to my intimate time with my new special doctor friend. What I am unclear about is whether or not I am supposed to send the doctor flowers. Maybe after my next visit.
So, runners, walkers, shufflers of all ages and shapes and sizes, here are my words for you: “You are going to make it.” Really. If you are moving ahead at all, I complement you. Keep it up. I am proud of you. It will help you stay as young as you can as long as you can.  Moving has got to be less painful than stopping at the doctor’s office.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Among the many great benefits of being a grandparent is getting to experience old things in a new way. Abigail turned a year old in July and almost every day she encounters something new to her or is excited about something that most of us have long ago stopped noticing. I have the privilege of spending time with her every Monday, and as luck would have it, Monday is garbage pick-up day in Dublin, Ohio. Not exactly a banner day for most of us – not something that we get excited about – but Abigail is fascinated with the big yellow garbage truck that rolls down her street. It is large and loud, and Abigail loves it. A few weeks ago, I was taking her for a walk and numerous garbage trucks crossed our path. We had hit the mother lode. One driver even stopped to wave to Abigail. I can’t remember the last time that seeing a garbage truck was so much fun for me. She is also fascinated by the airplanes and helicopters that fly overhead. She cranes her head skyward to follow their paths as they go by.
On other occasions Abigail will be in the yard pulling up a blade of grass or studying some bug or other object that the rest of us overlook. It is all so captivating to her. She has some really cool toys, but she is just as likely to be interested in a dried up leaf that she finds on the ground.
Jesus tells us to consider the lilies and study the ravens, but most of us don’t do that. Abigail does. She is constantly learning something new and finds joy in the simplest things that comes her way. Jesus also advises us that unless we become like little children we will never enter the kingdom of God. Jesus associates childhood with humility and openness to hearing and experiencing new things such as this thing that Jesus calls the Kingdom of God.
Abigail is growing up, but I hope that she never grows so old that she ceases to be curious and open to all the ways that God shares His beautiful creation with us. As for the rest of us, let us be reminded that even a garbage truck or a dried up leaf might contain a lesson for us.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Confirmation Class of 1981

            A few days ago I was informed that I was tagged in a Facebook posting. The same kind of thing happens to millions of people every day who are registered on Facebook. Sometimes the postings are mundane or profane, but this one was deeper than that.
            A few members of the first youth group I ever worked with scanned in a picture of their confirmation class from the spring of 1981 as well as a copy of the worship bulletin the morning the class joined the Church of the Master. I had only been at the church a few weeks and wasn’t in the picture, but my name was listed in the staff section. According to the bulletin, 357 people had attended worship the week before, and the offering had been $2,093.65 (not a large offering these days but it bought a lot more back then – my salary was $13,000.)
            The real treasure wasn’t found in the bulletin but in the picture of thirteen 12 and 13 year olds who had just confessed their faith and become members of the church. As one of the guys (now in his mid-forties) wrote: “We mostly look like the middle school dorks that we were (but not the girls).” I was just shy of 25 years old when the picture was taken, and I didn’t feel that much older than the youth group members. That’s probably why the group was so fun and so successful.
            John Deever, one of the group, described me as a “very tolerant, kind, generous, and trustable” youth pastor, but those adjectives more accurately describe the church that offered me my first position in ministry and allowed me to figure it all out. Many clergy denigrate youth ministry and many clergy also drop out of ministry after their first church leadership experience,  but I received a renewed call to ministry while sharing a significant amount of experiences with the young men and women in that picture. What great people you were. We grew up together. Well, most of us anyway.
            A few years after the picture was taken, many of us were together on a Habitat for Humanity mission trip in Baldwin, Michigan when we received word that one of the girls (who often went on these trips with us) was killed by a falling tree branch while peddling her bike home in a storm not far from the church. We were devastated and spent time trying to decide whether or not to just come home. The news had an extra element of grief because that young woman had already been through many struggles and finally things seemed to be headed her way. That evening one of the group pointed to a star in the sky and expressed his conviction that that star was our friend who had died.
            To say much else would sound trite or maudlin, and I don’t want to be either. I am sure that members of the Church of the Master Confirmation Class of 1981 have had their share of joys as well as tragedies. Thirty-four years have a way of delivering their share of both. I salute those of you who have continued to support each other these many years, and I thank you for all you did for me.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Those Zero Anniversaries

            We’ve all had them, haven’t we? They are not something that we usually earn, but if we live long enough more than a few of them will arrive at our doorstep. Sometimes we anticipate and plan for them and even celebrate them – sometimes in a big way with a big party. Other times, they show up and we would just as soon forget them.

In either instance, we open our door one day and there they are like freshly delivered Amazon packages waiting to be opened. In some cases, we are excited and filled with expectation – “Hurrah, it is finally here.” In other cases, we think: “O, you again. I think I’ll leave you in the box.”

I am talking about those “zero” anniversaries – the 10th, 20th, 30th, 40th, 50th (or more) year after an important milestone in our lives. These events include a number of life passages such as graduation from high school or college, your wedding day, your birthday, your sobriety, the birth of a child or grandchild or great-grandchild, the death of a loved one, your being declared “cancer-free,” and so on.

One year when I served on our Ohio Regional staff, a number of us all had zero birthdays in the same year: Our bookkeeper turned 30, I became 40, one secretary turned 50, and another person was 60. Some folks get depressed about these zero birthdays, so I decided to take all the zeros out to lunch. We had fun, and I remember the non-zeros feeling a bit left out. We may have graciously shared our birthday cake with them. Maybe.

I’ve got a few zeros this year: 30 years ago on Mother’s Day I was ordained into ministry at my home church in Warren, Ohio (I shared this in a sermon a few weeks back); 40 years ago this week my father died just a week shy of his 48th birthday; in September our oldest son Jacob will transition from his 20’s to being a 30 year old.

Each of these events was among the defining events of my life which still shape and inform me. One of the lessons that my father’s early death continues to teach me is that “about that day or hour no one knows.” None of us is guaranteed even one more day or life either for ourselves or for those we love. This has not made me fatalistic or despairing, but has helped me appreciate the value of each and every day that we do have with those we love. The taking of vows at my ordination (not unlike the taking of wedding vows) helped me to understand that despite not knowing how many days that we might have (or what those days might hold) that we can still commit ourselves to something of value and purpose long term. The birth of a child to Holly and I not only launched a new phase of our lives together but gave us the chance to sacrifice and to serve in a way that we could not have done otherwise. It also brought a sense of hope and joy and anticipation about the future.

What are the important milestones of your life? How did they change you? As you think about them on those zero anniversaries, do they still teach you something of importance?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

In praise of single-tasking

I am not all that perceptive, and it can take a while for something to make an impact on me. But eventually even the obvious can catch my attention. I have been babysitting our granddaughter Abigail once a week since the middle of October, and here’s something I have learned: Babysitting a granddaughter is easier than parenting two sons – at least so far. When I was with Jacob and Joshua when they were growing up, I rarely was able to devote my full time and attention just to them. There was always something else to take care of such as church work or laundry or household concerns of one kind or another. I was feeding Abigail a few weeks ago, and it was taking a bit longer than I had anticipated. But I wasn’t the slightest bit impatient since I had nothing else to do or nowhere else to go. I didn’t have to rush her through her meal so I could pack her up and run some errands. The only item listed on my agenda that day was: “Watch Abigail.” I am often an impatient person, and it is usually because my mind is already moving beyond what I am doing to what I need to be doing. It is rare to have only one item on my agenda for an entire day, but on Mondays that’s the way it almost always is. I bring along my laptop, and when Abigail takes a nap I sometimes do some writing, sermon research, or return some emails (if I am not taking a nap at the same time that she sleeps). But I never assume I will have the time to do any of those things so I am not uptight if I don’t get them done. On one day of the week, all of my time, attention, and devotion are directed to one person. I am not in any hurry to move from one activity to another. I am not saying that it isn’t tiring because I can be exhausted by the end of the day after my drive home. And the more mobile she gets the more interesting things will become. It can be tiring but it is as simple and uncomplicated as a day could be. My priorities are clear and not in conflict when I am “single-tasking.” How many of us are ever able to give a full day of undivided attention to just one person without looking at the clock and thinking about what comes next? How many of us are able to direct a day’s worth of time, attention, and devotion to God alone? For most of us most of the time, the answer to each question is “never.” Most of us have a hard enough time focusing on God for one hour during Sunday worship without our attention wandering to other things that we will be doing that day. Most of us have busy lives with crowded schedules that do not easily lend themselves to prioritizing a single person for an entire day. Numerous studies have suggested that multi-tasking (which most of us do on a regular basis) just doesn’t work very well. Our performance is less than ideal when we are not focused. One report suggests that we damage our brains and our IQ decreases when we attempt too many intense multi-tasking activities at the same time. I am under the impression that Jesus didn’t do a lot of multi-tasking. He seemed to be focused on the moment – on one thing at a time and one person at a time – regardless of how much demand there was for his time and attention. And there was always someone or something needing his time and his consideration. Jesus may not have always given people everything they wanted – some went away unhappy or upset – but he always gave them his full attention. And many people probably had never been looked at that deeply or completely in their entire lives. You can argue that Jesus helped transform the world as much through his ability to honor and to elevate individual people as he did through any particular teaching or commandment. Jesus regarded every person from the prostitute to the priest as deserving the best of what he had to offer. If you want to transform your own world, try simplifying and eliminating rather than complicating and adding. Do fewer things but make sure they are the most important things. If you can’t give things up easily (or if your boss keeps adding), then at least do one thing at a time. And try the same approach to your relationships. Pick the ones that are the most important to you and give them more of your undivided time and focused attention. Go deeper with them rather than cultivating too many surface level relationships that will bear little fruit. Certain people are worth more of your life, aren’t they? Make a decision to spend concentrated time with God. It is a new season – a season of new life. Make your own life more life-giving (for you and for others) by eliminating multitasking and replacing it with “single tasking.” And try taking those naps when possible. You won’t regret it.