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.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What's Trending Now?

Let me tell you something that never fails to bug me. I’ll be watching the local news (yes, I still watch TV news, and I read a hard copy of a newspaper almost every day – in other words I am old), and the reporter will say, “Let’s see what is trending right now” or “Let’s see what is blowing up on the blogosphere.” Invariably this is a lead-in to something that a certain percentage of those on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media seem to be in an uproar about at that second. An hour or two later, that trend will likely have died down to be replaced by something of even less importance. For a few minutes last week, the huge trending story according to a local Cleveland news program was the question of whether or not Beyonce had lines and blemishes on her face. Some unretouched photos of her had been released which seemed to indicate that Beyonce might have a few pimples. Now the Beyonce complexion scandal was a welcome relief from yet one more weather person standing outside in a parka announcing: “Cooooooooold, it will be cooooooold. Bundle up the kiddies.” That’s a story we’ve all seen too much of in recent weeks. But it seems obvious to me anyway that even the expression “trend” indicates something of little lasting importance. A trend is a fad, isn’t it? Something that is popular today and forgotten tomorrow. With so much around us every day that is trending, I am more interested in what is of lasting importance. Something that will be here today and tomorrow (and maybe was even around yesterday). In one scene from the movie “Birdman” which won the Best Picture Oscar this past week, Riggan Thompson (played by Michael Keaton) is arguing with his daughter (played be Emma Stone) about what is important and relevant. Here is part of the daughter’s rant against her father: You hate bloggers. You mock Twitter. You don't even have a Facebook page. You're the one who doesn't exist. You're doing this because you're scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don't matter and, you know what, you're right. You don't! It's not important, okay? You're not important! Get used to it. How do we separate the important from the irrelevant? Does a presence on the Internet through Facebook, Twitter, or a blog indicate that someone or something is newsworthy and noteworthy? Or is it all just something that is trending now but is ancient history later? As some of you know, I was in the Boston area in early February working with a couple of churches. One of the churches recently celebrated its 300th birthday. In other words, that congregation is older than the United States of America by over 50 years. By the standards of churches in Europe and other areas, three hundred is not very many years old, but I was still impressed. That is a congregation that hasn’t been just a trend or a fad or a passing fancy. It was born many generations ago and has been successfully passing on the faith. But the members of that congregation know that despite three hundred years of ministry, they are not guaranteed to last even another generation without constant and continuous effort. And they now have a Facebook page. If YouTube had been around during the time of Jesus, I am sure that clips of some of his teachings would have made their way onto the Internet. Some who Jesus healed would have written their memoirs and appeared on TV to promote them: “I was Blind but now I See” or “Living with Leprosy – The Secret of Softer Skin.” I am sure that even the Resurrection may have trended for a time online. But I am also certain that after awhile, cute camel videos would have replaced the Sermon on the Mount clips. So often, we are attracted by that which amuses us rather than that which challenges and changes us. Lent has just started and Easter is a number of weeks away. During this season, I encourage you to spend some of your time and invest some of your heart in consciously connecting with that wise teacher Jesus of Nazareth. He shared a message that has outlasted all of the messengers who have brought it to others. What is trending now in your life? What is of lasting value now in your life?

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Keep Your Motor Running

I was out running in a strange city early in the morning, and even though I was enjoying myself I was wary. I hadn’t checked out the route with anyone, and I kept waiting for someone with a weapon and evil intentions to jump out at me from the shadows. As the sun began to rise, the shadows began to shrink, and my field of vision grew larger. I relaxed, but I still steered clear of any areas that seemed at all suspicious. I was almost back at my car which I had parked in an empty lot about an hour earlier. But as I grew closer I saw that my car was not all alone. Someone had pulled up a mini-van right next to my car, and the engine was running. I wasn’t sure what to think, but I was grateful that the min-van was not between me and my car’s driver’s door. I was almost at that door and was pulling out my key when the side door of that mini-van slid open and a smiling man in a three piece suit leaped out. He came towards me, and I noticed he had a leather book gripped in one arm. I didn’t know if it was a Bible, a Koran, or a catalog from Amway or Land’s End. But I knew that the man who I had never met before and who was jumping out of a van with the engine still running in the early morning hours wanted something from me. Before he spoke a word, I put my right arm up with my palm towards him and said: “I’m good.” Now if he knew me, he would have known that was an untrue statement. But it was the first thing that came out for my mouth. What I meant was some jumbled version of: “I don’t know who you are or what you are selling or if you are trying to kidnap me and throw me in the back of the van. But I am freaked out and a bit scared. So back off.” Apparently he couldn’t adequately translate “I’m good” because he kept coming and asked: “Do you know who you are?” I am sure that if I hadn’t known who I was that he would have had the answer for that question either in the leather book or the back of his van. But thankfully for me, his question was one to which I knew the answer. I replied: “Yes, I do” as I opened my car door and climbed in. He didn’t wait for me to start my car but jumped back in the van, and it sped off presumably to park next to another car all by itself in a parking lot, to keep the engine running, and wait for the owner of that car to return. I am thinking that probably the dressed up man and his driver had the best of intentions. Maybe they were Christian evangelists and someone had sold them on the “park next to a solitary car, keep your engine running, then jump out when the driver approaches” school of evangelism. Maybe they were an Amway sales team. Maybe they were human traffickers n the market for 58 year old men (a limited market to be sure). I don’t know who they were, and I admit that I was already in a suspicious state of mind when I encountered them. You might even say that I was a bit paranoid. Had I been walking into a church foyer on a Sunday morning, I would not have been startled if a smiling and suited man had walked towards me holding a leather book, although his question “Do you know who you are?” is generally a better question for a hospital emergency room than as a conversation starter with a new person. So what’s the point of my telling this tale to you? In the days following that incident, I have asked myself about how we share our faith with others. Many people who don’t go to church are suspicious and wary of organized religion. Sometimes their feelings are based on personal experiences, but other times their views are uninformed yet very real. I think most people do want to know who they are and do want to know where they fit it, yet they are apprehensive about a slick and smiling salesman trying to sell them the answer. Is our local church a safe place to explore life’s biggest questions, or are we a community that drives people away? Do are methods of sharing our faith startle people and make them uneasy? Or do we create an atmosphere that encourages open conversation about what matters most in life? Let us avoid the “park next to a solitary car, keep your engine running, then jump out when the driver approaches” school of evangelism.” It doesn’t even work on ministers. AMEN