Friday, June 28, 2013

What a month this has been, this June

What a month this has been, this June.

We United Methodists began it with annual conferencing, a three-day working breakfast, and we've ended it with a zombie war at the movies. Come to think of it, those are real similar occurrences. Both are long. Both are deadly. Both feature answers to questions that seem to make no sense. Oh, well.

This month has seen temps begin to soar, and I really do believe a man can fly.
This month has seen muscles and joints begin to seek their lowest points, and the Super Moon didn't disappoint nearly as much as the super man.
This month has seen the worst of times draw near; and it has seen the best. In the end, it was a typical June in which to spoon.

The defense of marriage act was defenseless we found out.
Equality came to mean something new, and apparently everyone has the right to be married.

Where we are going in this nation is not where we have ever been. That might or might not be a great thing.

What a month this has been, this June.

What amazes me in the long run is that we've completely lost the ability to disagree, and I strongly suspect we're never gonna get it back. If we disagree with a particular issue, then my goodness, we must be a bigot, and over time we've seen that being a bigot is the biggest, baddest thing one can be. If we said a wrong, terrible, hateful word 50 years ago because our parents, misguided as they were, taught us wrongly, we are racists to this very moment. Paula Deen's biscuits are burned, indeed.

If the end is near, we've shown that we created the end. What a month this has been, this June.

Even before Wednesday’s rulings by the Supreme Court many religious groups who oppose gay marriage – and other policies, such as the Obama administration’s decision to mandate free contraception insurance – had been reframing the argument as a matter of religious freedom. OF, OF, THE WORD IS OF NOT FROM.

That in fact is the focus of the Catholic bishops’ current “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign, which the hierarchy deployed to argue that gay marriage and the birth control policy would force churches to comply with laws that violate their teachings, and their conscience. If believers become martyrs to gay marriage – if Christian florists and bakers who refuse to supply bouquets and wedding cakes for gay couples are subject to lawsuits or sanctions, for example – then public opinion could turn against gay rights.

Oh, and a new study came out this week that shows believers are generally happier on Twitter than atheists. I suspect that if we spent more than 140 words at a time, we would find that believers are generally happier off Twitter than atheists also. Kind of goes with the territory, that whole joy comes in the morning thing.

And an NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City that’s owned by the Mormon church has decided to start airing "Saturday Night Live," after years of blocking the show’s sometimes racy content. No word on whether John Belushi still is alive on the Mormon station but I truly hope so. That would give a whole new meaning to the Saturday Night Live thing, wouldn't it? Live? You know... Live?

Look, we have tremendous problems in this country. We really do. I'm not making fun of those big, big problems. At least most of the time, I'm not.

But I believe that the ability to communicate with each other is right near the top of the list, as I've written many times. We don't agree to disagree any more.

If one of us disagrees with another's thoughts and beliefs, whoa baby. That's it. We're gonna gthrow down.

Then, why then we no longer can get along, then we don't enjoy the company of each other, then we don't even attempt to care for each other. At that point, hatred is pushing its way to the top of our problems, with a bullet (so to speak).

The end is near, and we've created the end. What a month this has been, this June. Whew. What will July bring?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Throwing out the first pitch

On the back of the mound in Cardinals Stadium in St. Louis is a cross drawn (sketched, etched, hollowed out) in the sand. There also is a fish symbol, the ichthys there. Someone on the grounds crew apparently is the designer.

Bob McClellan, a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, wrote a column in Sunday's paper saying the artwork scares him.

Manager Mike Matheny, who brought up his faith at one of the first team meetings last spring, not only isn't bothered by the art, he likes it. "I'm not going to shove my faith down your throat," Matheny said, "but when the opportunity presents itself, don't expect me to walk away. This is who I am, and Jesus Christ is at the center of my life. It's all that I am, every day, every decision that I make. I'm going to stand up and tell you what I believe is true."

McClellan, in his column, says he is not very religious but he is not against public displays of faith. He has argued on behalf of Nativity scenes on public squares at Christmas, for example.

Ironically, the guy who covers the Cardinals for the newspaper, used to work for me in my other life. One day we had a long discussion about Christianity that finally ended when he said he would never believe because "babies die." My staffer said he couldn't believe because God allowed babies to be born, to be loved by their parents, then often die. He said the pain that caused was so terrible, and God could prevent it if he wanted. Instead, God allows the suffering to happen.

McClellan, in his Sunday column, wrote, "I look at the photos of that cross etched on the mound and I get an uneasy feeling. What does religion have to do with baseball?"

The answer, of course, is nothing. Religion and baseball have nothing to do with each other except, and this is a big, big exception, baseball is played mostly by humans. And humans were created by God. And in this creation business, this human business, God shares humanity and gives His love. So that by creating, then loving, then sharing that love, God's business becomes our business. It's not only the circle of life, it's sure nuff the circle of love.

God's business is this: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whosoever he loves would have eternal life.

Does religion have anything to do with baseball? Nah. But God does. And that's enough, even if it scares a sports columnist who thinks the fish symbol (which was used to identify those secret-identity conscious Christians in the very early days of The Way) is "a looping figure said to represent Stan Musial's number 6." God loves the sinner and hates the sin, so therefore, God loves those who participate in baseball even if he's iffy about the game itself.

Play ball.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Ivy is as Ivy does

We're on Day 3 of our VBS at Eunice. My tiny appendages at the end of swollen, ugly feet have committed toe suicide, I think. I am staggering toward the end. But God is so good He's taking us through it, not to it. Or whatever the cliche of the day might be.

Here's the story: Every Friday at 2 a.m. JoAnne Whalen’s cell-phone alarm goes off and the 60-year-old wakes up in her Bethany, Okla., bedroom, boots up her computer and watches a prayer service streaming live from central New Jersey. The bespectacled man singing hymns on Whalen’s screen in the middle of the night is Steven Nagy, a Newark native who ministers at the International House of Prayer, which provides round-the-clock prayer and worship, 365 days a year. He’s also the driver who pulled over last June when Whalen’s 37-year-old son lost control of his motorcycle and crashed into a guardrail.

And he’s the man who ran toward Anthony Whalen as he lay dying on the shoulder of Route 78 and stayed with him, whispering prayers into his ear, as the motorcyclist took his last breath. That vision, of a stranger giving comfort to her son in his final moments, is what now gives JoAnne Whalen solace.

Sing like never before, oh, my soul.

Halfway through the marathon that is VBS, I'm seeing more and more delighted faces, young and old. The joy has become malignant, and we're collecting it every bit as much as we are soup labels or money. VBS is about, it seems to me, connecting with each other and finding that the mysterious thing we call fellowship is as contagious as Poison Ivy on fair skin. Just get out the Calamine and pour like your life depended on it.

The kids' joy has collected in puddles like rain water, and I must tell you that even as these tired ol' bones and muscles have  become saturated with this out-pouring of joy, they've absorbed the newness and freshness of each day and then let that joy flow onto others. It's wonderful to watch. It's wonderful to hear. It's wonderful to be a part of.

I'm "in charge" of games, although I'm not too sure I've been in charge of anything. It's more like the games have gone on around me, and I wouldn't dream of trying to say we've learned anything -- Biblical or otherwise.

But what I will say is that God has joined us again, and that's a beautiful thing every year. Pour me up another glass of Calamine. It's time to toast.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Moses and his cheerleading unit

They say most folks use 10 percent of their brain. Me? I, on occasion, use something in the five percent area code.

Now, those whose IQs rival Gates and Jobs, use closer to 20 percent. If one gets into the 30-to -50-percent community, that area of brain-town where the lots cost, well, a lot and where the houses on those lots are big in price-point (hours watching HGTV to get that phrase friends) and low in size, you got yer big brains like, uh, I don't know, like Tony Stark and such..

So, when I asked my small group of yutes recently (that's the My Cousin Vinny spelling and pronunciation; for anyone else, that would be youths instead of yutes) what is there out there in yute land they would stand up for, fight for, make a major, major issue of, what more could one thin lass do than concentrate like someone who has just seen Bruce the shark come popping out of the water all bloody and toothy and decided a bigger boat was needed.

The skinny, freckled blond squirreled her nose, apparently using it as a rudder on the high seas of yute-dom. She summoned all the brain she could, more than I was cranking at that moment or perhaps any moment, and pondered deep, reflectively, almost emotionally.

What indeed would she stand up for? What would she pronounce as vital, important, worthy? What would she use in this area?

We in the room, of course, being fine up-standing old folks were seeking answers that would include something in the God zipcode, maybe something from the Bible, Jesus, prayer in school or at football games or when the bus driver was trying to get the old bus to start. Maybe the Holy Spirit, or the return of the Mc-Rib. You know, important stuff.

Nose squirreling accomplished, she blurted out her answer, the moral and ethical equivalent of Luther nailing 95 theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany all those years ago for this teen who really was taking this seriously.

What would she go to the mat fighting for? "That cheerleading is a sport," our young theologian said.

There. Fighting through fear and distrust, dancing through and about theological landminds, she skidded to a stop in the cemetery of warbling cheerleaders. Others might find something poking out of the Ten Commandments. Our lass found two-four-six-eight a worthy commandment listing.

I fought my momentary urges like a deaf man given an I-tunes library without instruction. I didn't say a thing. I didn't laugh. I didn't smirk. I didn't even smile. I let her statement sit there like a big ol' turkey on the Thanksgiving Day table.

Now, I'm mostly kidding here, looking for a lighter column after weeks of seriousness, though indeed this happened just like the telling of the tale. The idea that someone would take cheerleading so dang seriously is, uh, serious I reckon. Batman's Joker comes to mind. Why so serious?

So, where is my wandering effort at a point? What are we doing as a community to find a point here? Where is the sky in this painting? The ground? The white picket fences?

My question is this: How does a teen-ager, any teen-ager, any smart young woman although it could be any gender, any faith, reach a stage in their young lives where words like cheerleader, sport and standing up all intersect in a paragraph like the triangle in Twilight?

In other words, while the fight over constitutional rights continues from dawn to dusk, while this land of the once and future King of Kings, the need to teach and preach remains alive.

Jesus is allowed to be a part of young and older lives, but only a part out there in the public square. But say the name too loudly, in the wrong places, at the wrong time, and whole organizations come running ready to file suits. Jesus is a fulcrum of a religion, but we're working hard to make Him a bit player in his own play.

Ultimately, what is at stake is the very heart and minds of our yutes. We need to be teaching and guiding and helping and praying with and praying over and praying about all those yutes, so that when the question arises about what they will stand for, where they will draw the line in the moral sand one day, it will be the real important items in that real important book we call the Bible.

That book clearly teachers that "... I (the Lord, God) have raised you up or this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.

We are called to raise up those who follow behind us. To teach. To offer. To give.

Forever and ever, amen.

(And by the way, in answer to that weighty question about cheerleading the answer is no. A thousand times no. Cheerleading is quite worthwhile. But a sport? Nah. Given a golden trophy for a cheerleading tournament, Moses would have melted it down).

Monday, June 24, 2013

Isn't it worth trying?


And then there's the kitten. The newby. The next rescue in a house-full of rescues.

He's about the size of a hot dog. A regular hot dog, not a foot long. But his voice is that of a great soprano. And it's loud. And constant.

Unless he's on my shoulder or my lap. He's gone from sheer terror to wanting to be with me 24-7.

We're calling him Mokey, as in Mokey Bear, as in Smokey Bear. That's a long, long story from a summer of baseball an amazing 45 years ago.

He joins (and I would apologize for this except I don't feel like apologizing), the old lady Trudy whom we saved when I promised a 96-year-old dear lady I would take care of Trudy if anything ever happened to her. Trudy hates me, but that's okay. She puts up with Mary most of the time.

There's Missy, whom we saved when someone put her out at the church in Lacombe and drove away. Missy and Trudy are roommates, though I've not seen them talking together.

There's Elsie, who we raised from a baby and who is, well, nuts. She's probably the oldest of the lot, having lived through Katrina with us all those years ago.

There's Callie, a rescue from a trailer lot years ago. She's probably the sweetest of the bunch, but she lives to try to get out of the house and wander.

There's the boys: Harry, whom we rescued from a street in Slidell. He's the size of a Panther, and his tail still is broken or at the least crooked; and Rocky, whom we rescued from a ditch outside the parsonage in Covington.

I think that's the roster, but like the Braves, rosters change.

Now, there's Mokey. He's the son (we think) of a stray we call Squint for the way her eyes look. Squint was kind enough to drop five kittens on the carport a few weeks ago. It hasn't been easy since. Two died tragically. Oh, I wished I could have done something that would have prevented that, but they wouldn't allow it. One has disappeared, and I fear the worst. One still is hanging with Squint.

Then there's Mokey, the sweetest of the bunch.

Saturday when we found one beautiful little life snuffed out on the street outside the house, we moved. We picked up Mokey and moved him inside. Like something out of Twilight, he has imprinted on ME. When I go into the living room, he's great. Comes to me. Stretched on me. Loves on me. Purrs on me. Plays on me.

He's eating -- wet food and milk. He's happy, happy, happy.

I know I can't save every cat and dog in the world, but goodness isn't it worth trying. They've done nothing to cause this. They're out there alone, in fear, living on the edge. What I can do, I must do.

Which leads me to thinking about how God must feel. He, too, can't save every person in the world, but goodness, wasn't it worth trying?

And isn't it worth all our efforts to help those humans living on the edge?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Nothing ordinary here

A friend at a meeting last night said what I think we all feel: It's ordinary time.

In the church, that's a call for green as the color for the pulpit and altar. It means in the Christian Calendar it is not Advent or Lent or Pentecost or Easter. It's ordinary.

But it's more than that. It's summer. It's, apparently, a time of Vacation Bible School and people taking off for parts unknown.

And you look up and wonder where is everyone in the church.

This morning is ordinary, in all that means. I'm tired (despite or because of coming off vacation in Florida), and I had trouble going to sleep last night as I worried about the next year of this church, these churches.

Then I sat down at this desk and punched in Pandora Radio and I heard this:

Over the mountains and the sea
Your river runs with the love for me
and I will open up my heart
and let the healer set me free.
I'm happy to be in the truth
and I will daily lift my hands
for I will always sing of when Your love came down

I could sing of your love forever.

No where in the song is there a bit about how one feels, or being tired, or ordinary time. In fact, everything about it is extra-ordinary, for God is never relegated to the ordinary.

Each morning is a miracle. The sun comes up...miracle. I'm breathing .... miracle. I have a call and a mission ... miracle and miracle.

So this morning, I sing. Not for what I see, but for what I don't. His love...forever.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Wacky weather, this

It should come as no surprise whatsoever that I tell you I'm writing this as lights flicker and thunder booms and rain falls and one of the dachshunds is shakily walking around the parsonage looking for massive amounts of drugs to take he's so scared.
After all, it's a day that ends in Y in Eunice.
It's summer, but this is no summer weather pattern, or at least as I remember it from the far, far past.
Warmer oceans may be causing jellyfish swarms from Japan to Florida, ruining vacations, stinging swimmers, foiling fishermen. Millions of the giant ones. Twenty-thousand leagues under the sea sized ones. Okay, I made that part up, but they’re biguns.
It snowed in the U.S. in May. May. Did I mention that it snowed in May? Wacky weather, this.
Heavy sandstorms are wracking Baghdad. Oh, that happens all the time, never mind..
And a French sociologist declared the Smurfs to be racist, which has nothing to do with weather but it simply another sign that the end of the world as we know it is upon us.
Is it the end, or just a weird beginning to a summer that already has two tropical storms named before we get to July 4? Well, both.
Clearly things were, uh, unusual this spring, continuing a pattern of the past few years. Wacky weather, this.
In sunny California, there was a frost in April. Temperatures in the Bay Area were 15-20 degrees below normal in May. The winter across the country was much colder than normal, with record snow falls that produced record melted waters.
Last year at this time there was a drought going on in the South, even as flood waters were going down? Meanwhile, April temperatures for central England were the warmest in the entire 353 year record that stretches back to 1659. Wacky weather, this.
This year, there was less than 20% of normal rainfall over large parts of England during both March and April.
So Tuesday in England, leading scientists and meteorologists met to discuss the UK's unusual weather patterns in recent years. Their conclusion? Wacky weather, this.
This comes after the Met Office said below-average temperatures through March, April and May made it the fifth coldest spring in national records dating back to 1910 and the coldest spring since 1962.
In Alaska Wednesday (Alaska?), the place was sweltering in temps that were above 80 degrees in a place where few have air conditioning. While that sounds like relief to our ears, temperatures are normally in the 60s in June. In Anchorage Tuesday, 81 degrees broke the record of 80 set in 1926.
It's wacky out there, friends, is my point. Someone once spoke about how much we talk about the weather but no one does anything about it, and I guess that's about right -- especially seeing how we can't do anything about it really but we’re talking about it all the time.
But in pondering all this on a dark, wet morning, I went back to the source.
In the book of Job, God says (in the Message), "Have you ever traveled to where snow is made, seen the vault where hail is stockpiled, The arsenals of hail and snow that I keep in readiness for times of trouble and battle and war? Can you find your way to where lightning is launched, or to the place from which the wind blows? Who do you suppose carves canyons for the downpours of rain, and charts the route of thunderstorms That bring water to unvisited fields, deserts no one ever lays eyes on, Drenching the useless wastelands so they’re carpeted with wildflowers and grass? And who do you think is the father of rain and dew, the mother of ice and frost? You don’t for a minute imagine these marvels of weather just happen, do you?"
Well, no. Guess not.
I'm not absolutely certain how that applies to the puddles that are amassing below my office window, but I do believe this: Even if we've wrecked the climate (a debate in which we've spent way too much time and money when one reads the column above), God still is in control. God controls it all. Do I know or understand all his ways? Nope. Do I know why he allowed folks to go swimming in pristine lakes normally freezing cold? Nope.
Do I know He's sovereign? You betcha. Call me wacky, but I do.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

And what will I say: Two local pastors went into a ....

I spent three days in Shreveport recently at the "convention" we United Methodists call Annual Conference, a Wesleyan thing that simply means we come together to do business.

There are many elements of this conferencing over the long three days, but perhaps my favorite is the time we allow (five minutes, I believe) the ones who are retiring to speak to the conference. It seems my viewing of these things the past 14 years or so has led to me dividing them into the funny or the poignant or a combination thereof.

Immediately after hearing from one distinguished gentleman who was hilarious, a friend asked me what I thought I would say when it was my time.

I've given that a lot of thought since. At first, I thought I would give a litany of things I'm sorry I didn't do or didn't do better. That's my half-empty self. You know, I didn't building up churches the way I sincerely wanted to, I certainly didn't do as much visitation as everyone and their brother wanted, and I didn't make disciples like I planned. Just didn't. Never heard anyone apologize for not doing his job as well as he would have liked or as well as Christ would have liked.

But as I continued thinking about it (eight years of thinking about it will give me five minutes of speech I reckon), I decided all that was wrong. True, but wrong.

I've had a wonderful life. Because of Mary, my wife, whose birthday it is today. I hit a wall at the age of 42, slid down like a cartoon character, and wound up here, in Eunice, La., as a pastor. Never planned it, never really wanted it. Shocked it is what it is. But I'm so grateful that Mary was with me every step of the way.

Brandon Heath sings, "I wished I could show you how I'm not who I was." And that goes for tons and tons of friends I no longer see but were steps along the path to Eunice (and beyond). But the one constant, beyond kids and grand kids and numerous pets and rescues, was Mary.

She helped Jesus heal me. She bandaged me. She loved me when I was pretty unlovable. Oh, I was perfectly capable and perfectly functioning, but I was unlovable.

She has taken all my badness and set it aside for the goodness she believed existed buried down inside. She has given me grace, as did my Lord and Savior, but hers was a human-based grace, which I believe is even harder to understand or believe.

Without her, there is no retirement, no future, no old age. We will probably be without money, without a paid for house to retire to, but we will, I believe, never not have each other.

That's a gift that can never be repaid so I won't try.

And that's what I think I will say.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Merry Christmas, Texas

Things didn't exactly ease up as I took my first week off from these blogs in more than three years.

While I was gone, Texas Gov. Rick Perry  signed a law protecting Christmas and other holiday celebrations in Texas public schools from legal challenges — but also stressed that freedom of religion is not the same thing as freedom from religion. Dubbed the "Merry Christmas" bill, the bipartisan measure sailed through the state House and Senate to reach Perry's desk.

"It removes legal risks of saying "Merry Christmas" in schools while also protecting traditional holiday symbols, such as a menorah or nativity scene, as long as more than one religion and a secular symbol are also reflected. The inclusion of other religious and secular symbols seeks to avoid challenges to the law under the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause which prohibits the government from determining a national religion or expressing preference of one religion over another. "I realize it's only June. But it's a good June and the holidays are coming early this year," Perry said. "It's a shame that a bill like this one I'm signing today is even required, but I'm glad that we're standing up for religious freedom in this state. Religious freedom does not mean freedom from religion."

I try not to get too worked up about such things as this, which most assuredly will be challenged I would think in Federal Court, but I happen to agree with Perry in this instance.

Religious freedom does not, or should not, mean freedom FROM religion.

I read this about the subject:

Human rights include:
+ Freedom of Speech, not freedom from Speech
+ Freedom of the Press, not freedom from the Press
+ Freedom of Religion, not freedom from Religion

Freedom from Speech infringes on the Freedom of Speech.
Freedom from the Press infringes on the Freedom of the Press.
And Freedom from Religion infringes on the Freedom of Religion.

The Freedom from Religion movement is an attack on the Freedom of Religion by a few Atheist extremists. If this movement is successful then not only will we lose our Freedom of Religion but, using the same argument, the door will be opened to lose our Freedoms of Speech and the Press.

Oh, there's that Freedom of the Press thing? How's that working out when the government tries to spy on reporters?

Anyway, I thought it would be instructive to simply mention what our freedoms consist of.

The First Amendment contains two clauses about the Freedom of Religion. The first part is known as the Establishment Clause, and the second as the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from passing laws that will establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. The courts have interpreted the establishment clause to accomplish the separation of church and state.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s practice of his or her religion. However, religious actions and rituals can be limited by civil and federal laws.
Religious freedom is an absolute right, and includes the right to practice any religion of one’s choice, or no religion at all, and to do this without government control.

So, what scares those who don't want to have any religion the most? Those who have a religion, including. That Christians have a religion PLUS AND MOST IMPORTANTLY a savior simply rubs the lost, er, the unbelievers to no end.

Merry Christmas, Texas.

Monday, June 17, 2013

I'm back

vacation  2013

10-year-old Gabe: At least my suntan is earned, not bought. 
Shanna (mom): Listen kid, the reason you are so tan is something called genes.
Gabe: I haven't worn jeans in weeks.
Shanna: No, genes. Your father was hispanic.

Six-year-old Gavin (after getting off Space Mountain at Disney World: That was terrifying, but it was awesome.
Gavin (floating into what is billed as restricted area at Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studios): Mom, I don't think we're supposed to be in here.
Gavin (in same ride): Mom, I think the plant-eaters are real. The meat-eaters aren't, right?

Four-year-old Emma as we trailed her on the first ride upon which we road: My gosh, you are so slow.

We've made it a week, perhaps the first time we've spent that much time together since Carrie was 13, Shanna 18 and me and Mary much, much younger. We've hurt together (long periods of leg cramps, back aches, calf boo-boos, you name it). We've had our disagreements about what would come next, and through it all, I felt a bit of something close to being maudlin. Why? Does everything think so deeply while on vacation? Admittedly not. But I watched people on those less than rare moments when I had to take breaks because I was hurting so dang much, and I saw older people than myself walking with wee grandbabies and I wondered just what I have left in that regard.

I looked backwards at 13 years ago, and the kids were, well, kids. But in those 13 years, life happened. 

It's like a turn on that old Tee-shirt, "I came to Universal Studios and all I felt was old."

My prayers for patience were answered, but I kept thinking about the churches I left with someone else, about the change in charge coming in two weeks, about saying goodbye to one church in a week's time, about vacation Bible School coming in two weeks and I'm happy the vacation came to and end and mournful as well.

That's life, I reckon. I long to be closer to Jesus even at Disney World. I long to be better. I long to be, well, good. And I never seem to get there. It's only in those moments when I finally turn to the grace God gives me that I can really, really lighten up.

And it seemed to happen Sunday at a wonderful contemporary worship service at First United Methodist Church Kissimmee, Fla. 

God is here, there and everywhere, all the time.

Friday, June 7, 2013

What we need is freedom from freedom from religion...soon

In the hymn How deep the Father's love, I read these words:

How deep the Father's love for us,
How vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son
To make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss,
The Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the chosen One,
Bring many sons to glory

Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed I hear my mocking voice,
Call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that left Him there
Until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life
I know that it is finished
As I wander into the Florida wilderness for a week's vacation with family, I pray I never forget these incredible words.

 Love beyond all measure, I have because the mission of our Lord was finished, once and for all. Even me.

I'm reminded that it is so very important to remember the wonderful cross in everything I do. I only hope when the time comes I can be as disobedient as South Carolina Liberty High School's valedictorian Roy Costern IV was last Saturday. 

At the beginning of his speech, he makes a charming joke about his speech having been approved, which means “obviously, I didn’t do my job.” He then rips up the speech, and pulls out another prepared speech, which he then begins to read. A few minutes later, Costner said “I’m so thankful that both of my parents led me to the Lord at a young age,” then reads the prayer, to thunderous applause. The reason this was an act of defiance and not simply just a spiritual moment, is because the Pickens County School District decided to eliminate all prayer from graduation ceremonies this year due to protests from a Wisconsin group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation..

Of course the Freedom From Religion Foundation blasted what it called the “open defiance” of Costern. My problem all along is that in this country by my reading we have freedom OF religion, not FROM. Clearly that has become for me THE issue of the day.

The story continues:
“The valedictorian who so insensitively inflicted Christian prayer on a captive audience at a secular graduation ceremony, is a product of a school district which itself set an unconstitutional example by hosting school board prayer,” FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a prepared statement.
A school district spokesperson said the valedictorian will not be penalized for what he did and Costner told Fox News that he has absolutely no regrets.

“I’m happy with what I did,” Costner said. “I want this to glorify God. I want to use this as a witnessing tool and I hope others will stand up for God in our nation.”He got the idea to deliver the prayer about two weeks ago when he learned that he had been selected as the top academic student in the graduating class. He was summoned to the principal’s office.

“She informed us that we could not have anything about religion or talk about God or Allah or whoever we choose to worship,” he said. “And they had to approve the speech prior to me going onto stage.” The prayer controversy had gripped the small South Carolina community for quite some time – and many locals took issue with a group from Wisconsin causing problems. “Our community is very passionate about prayer in our schools,” Costner told Fox News. “I began writing the speech and I knew from the start that I was going to include prayer.” He talked it over with his father, the youth pastor at Fellowship Community Church. And he also sought the counsel of other pastors in the area.
“They wanted me to make sure I was doing it for God and not myself,” he said.

So Costner spent the next few days in deep prayer and Bible study. “I asked God exactly what He wanted me to do,” he explained. “I was trying to think of a prayer that would suit all denominations. That’s why I went with The Lord’s Prayer.” And on graduation day a very nervous Costner took his place at the ceremony – with a serious case of the jitters. “I was extremely nervous,” he said. “I didn’t know what kind of reaction I was going to get. I didn’t know which way it was going to go.”

And there was another problem. Costner’s speech had already been placed in a binder – on the platform. He would not be able to bring a copy of his replacement speech on stage. What happened will be remembered in Pickens for quite some time – when an 18-year-old boy defied a group of atheists, agnostics and freethinkers. “I was always taught to stand for what I believe in,” he said. “That’s what I believe in. I was thanking my God before everyone. I wanted to give him a shout-out.”

The battleground has been shown to us all. I'm aware there are probably more important issues out there for some, but for me, the ability to sing praise when I so desire, to remember the sacrifice when I can, to acknowledge that God has permitted me to do this I do can never go away.

Even on the hot asphalt of Universal Studios.

If this is what I do when I'm worn, imagine the words shooting off the keyboard when I return. God bless you for the next week. And remember, "thy kingdom come, thy will be done, ON EARTH, as it is in heaven.

You go young jedi.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Jesus left

I've turned in columns for Sunday and for June 16 to the local newspaper.
I've done most, but not all, of the bulletins for Sunday and for June 16.
I've written one draft of this Sunday's sermon and it needs a polish.
I've paid bills, started the packing process, starting the winding down process.

It's time to go on vacation.

Truthfully, I don't remember what that really feels like. But I must tell you all that I'm going to not write for a week. There. Said it. I'm going to do it. Really. I know it won't upset any of you, and heck, I might lose some of you. But I am going to vegitate. There. Said it. I'm going to do it. One more day of writing, then off to Never Never Land, which by the way I always wanted to fly to when I was a child.

This sat me thinking about Jesus (as most things do). He, near as I can tell, never went on a vacation. Like, packed up and walked over to India or whatever. Near as I can tell from reading the Gospels.

But he often went away. For a night. Maybe a day.

He left and spent some down time, away.

He fed 4,000 and ... "Jesus left there and went along the Sea of Galilee. Then he went up on a mountainside and sat down."

He finished teaching/preaching one day and "When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan."

Then, "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed."

The list could go on an on. Jesus was always leaving someplace and going.

For a week I'll be in sunny (maybe) Florida. For a week I'll be away. I won't be preparing for the next sermon or the next sermon series or writing the next epic. I'll be away.

Hopefully to be recharged, reinvigorated, re-something or other.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

tearing down idols

Exodus 34: 11-15 -- Observe what I command you today. See I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care not to make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you are going, or it will become a snare among you. You shall tear down their altars, break their pillars, and cut down their sacred poles (for you shall worship no other god because The Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God).

We've been at Annual Conference for a couple of days, and I've noticed this issue of Idols appearing everywhere around me.

When one does budgeting in the millions, idols are certain to appear. One clergy's most important issue, can't not budget it, can't live without it, is another clergy's least important issue, don't need to budget it, certainly life will go on type of thing.

Our main speaker, Bishop Palmer, pointed out Monday night and Tuesday morning that we, the people of the United Methodist Church, used to be the largest protestant denomination. He said we were quite proud of that, and we existed in our pride. Then our numbers began to fall, and we were both shocked and frightened.

Our identity, he said, was bound up in those numbers.

I'd liken it to having a covenant with the identity, rather than with the one who gave us that identity.

Now, Bishop Palmer said, The Lord is not through with us. In this dry and weary land, there is hope for every man. There is love that never dies, or if it does, it is resurrected better than even before. There is peace in our wilderness, if we understand we were led (or shoved) to this wilderness by a loving God who wants the wilderness to knock some of the rough edges off but eventually lead us not only out of the wilderness but to a great and green land of milk and honey.

I can speak only of myself.  A year ago I was so filled with enthusiasm I wanted nothing less than complete change for my three (count them, three) churches. why? I guess I had it figured that was the one with the answers, or at least the proper questions.

A year later, I've done some of what I had read I must do, or at the least all Adam Hamilton said I must do. I had numbers that would rival anyone's proportionally in one of the churches. I loved the people of the other two churches, though they do not do all I would like for them to do.

And I'm worn slam out.

I always feel I'm one step away from Jesus' leaving me, letting me wander in a wilderness at least partially created by myself.

Why? Again and again, why? Why do I have the consistent thought pattern that the wilderness is something bad, awfully bad, and therefore it is somewhere I SHOULD actually be.

Some of it, I believe, comes from the fact I didn't tear down any altars, didn't break down any pillars, and certainly didn't cut down their sacred poles. In other words, I tried to find what each of the churches' did, liked to do, etc., but then I just did them. I kept their sacred ways sacred. I didn't lead them into the future. I didn't change anything, really. Why? That's the 64-thousand dollar question. I suspect it is because I have a far too great of a desire to be liked rather than do what I truly feel needs to be done. What I've learned about clergy loneliness I could write books about. 

There. Said it. Did it. Aways do it. Perhaps in the end, that's the difference in leading and managing, this ability to get people to do things they reaaaaaalllllyyyy don't want to do. Perhaps.

What now? The wilderness grows larger, the weeds bigger, the darkness darker, the dryness acute.  Water is much harder to come by. A fleeting piece of bread is difficult to find. Wilderness is, well, wilderness. 

I enter my second year in these parts in wonder as much as anything. My being tells me I can't stay the same, just can't. It isn't part of who I am at my core. . I pray (still) that God uses me in a manner than He chooses, even while I know that I am holding out hope He uses me in the manner I have chosen.

 I pray that the music that lifted my spirits on Monday night be somehow part of the Sunday routine. I pray that the hymn God lifted me becomes a record of my life, that I tear down the routine and begin to have the courage to make the right choices and right changes to build up the uncommon and the unseen.

Then the wilderness, though remaining dry and rock-covered, will be an incubating area rather than a death bed. God can use this wilderness to build upon.

As Ohio Bishop Greg Palmer said in a voice that God must have borrowed on occasion, all deep and forceful and such, "when next we see Jesus (after the temptations in the desert), he is in the Temple. When he leaves the wilderness, it is ON."

When the day comes that we, that I, leave the wilderness, let it be ON like Donkey Kong, as Si Robertson would say.

Then and probably only then will I being in the tearing down idols mode. Let it be so, Lord. Let it be so.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

This is our God

What covenant have you made recently with The Lord? And I don't mean if LSU will just win this game, I'll ...

I'm talking about a serious commitment to a serious God.

Moses pleaded in 34:8-9, "If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let The Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance."

God answers Moses in the next verse: Exodus 34:10 -- He said: I hereby make a covenant. Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation; and all the people among whom you live shall see the work of The Lord; for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you."

Don't you long for God himself to stand among his people and exclaim, "It is an awesome thing that I will do with you."

Not pretty good.
Not fair.
Not okay.
Not even really, really good.

Red-sea parting good. Back from the dead kind of good. Healing brokenness kind of good. Awesome good.

Hear it again: It is "an awesome thing" that he's gonna do with us. 

I think of Rich Mullins' Awesome God when I read this passage. "He ain't just putting on the Ritz. There's thunder in his footsteps and lightening in his fists."

That's our God.

Chris Tomlin reminds us: A refuge for the poor, a shelter from the storm, a father to the orphan, a healer to the broken, a fountain for the thirsty, a lover for the lonely. That's our God.

And as we heard Monday night, the Holy Spirit can sometimes lead us into the wilderness to make us humble, to deal with our own sense of infallibility. 

That's our God, too.

That's who promises the awesome things that he's gonna do.

Part of what we've learned today is that we all need to accept the manna, the awesome things we're to be given by God, though we sometimes have such a difficulty doing so.

He's in the giving business. We should be about the accepting business. 

And soon

Monday, June 3, 2013

And so it begins

It is the evening of a long day. We've worshipped, driven, worshipped some more in Shreveport as we begin three days of conferencing as John Wesley would have us do. We have spent time together, seen old friends and even made a couple of new ones.

We're on to the next bit of work this day, Monday.  The work of the conference is a bit like your first job. You know you have to do it, you have to start somewhere, sometime, but man, is this all there is?

I will pray that we do our work, and I will pray that we all -- clergy and laity -- grow closer to God in the next few days. From the first time I came to one of these till now, an amazing 16 years ago, I've felt more and more like an outsider instead of an insider. Much of that is my fault, I know. But for the life of me, I can't seem to enter into the fray easily. This year I turn 60, so I've sort of aged myself out of helping very much now, although I am the average age of a Methodist, ironically enough.

Anyway, today I pray we do our best to meet our call from God, each of us, the connected and the disconnected, the young and the old, the insiders and the outsiders, the elder and the local pastors, the top and the bottom. I pray we find the time to find the time and use it wisely. I pray we make good decisions, good choices, and that what we talk about be God's business and not our own.

May we all do what we need to do to make this a better conference, whatever that might be.

This I pray...