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Hanging Out With All the Wrong People

November 22, 2010

I recently had a conversation with a professor about current events. He told me he had read a story about a neighborhood in another county here in Georgia having an argument about schools. There’s no school in the proximity of this relatively new neighborhood. The children who live here have to be bused to a school in a neighborhood across town. This has become a news worthy issue because the school the children are being bused to has seen a decline in the quality of life there. That neighborhood has experienced a transition along economic lines. With that, crime, drugs, and other bad influences have slowly become present at the school. The parents of the children being bused in are concerned about these influences and have banded together to decide whether or not to force the county to build a school in their own neighborhood, thus avoid the bad influences of the current school their kids attend.

I’m not a parent yet but I know enough parents to know this is a reality of life when you have kids. There’s so many bad things out there, we do all we can to help our kids avoid the wrong people thereby avoiding a negative influence in their lives. We try to keep them from friends who might be bad influences on them. For me, his name was Patrick. Patrick was a friend I had growing up who had two older brothers. The end of our friendship came the day I came home from school cursing like a sailor and using all the new words Patrick taught me. My mother was very mad and informed me I was not to hang out with Patrick anymore.

We try to not only keep our kids from negative influences in life; we work hard to introduce them to positive ones as well. In the church we face the pressure of needing to have quality children and youth programs because parents need a place to send their kids to encounter good influences. In the end, we want to not only help our kids avoid the wrong people in life; we want them to encounter the right ones along the way as well.

But it’s more than just our kids who are caught in the tug-o-war between the right and wrong people of life. Maybe it’s in high school or college where we learn that knowing the right people in life will get us ahead. This doesn’t mean we can’t be friends with all people. It simply means that it’s nice when friendships can benefit us in additional ways. Again, this is not a bad thing. If you have any drive or ambition in life you know it’s important that you surround yourself with the right people. I once read an article from a former insider of the Reagan Administration. When asked what President Reagan’s strengths were he noted that among his greatest was, “knowing who to surround himself with and when to do it.” Life just works more smoothly when we’re savvy enough to know how to hang out with the right people. On the flip side, we avoid a great deal of stress and temptation if we know how to avoid the wrong people in life.

Luke’s Gospel portrays an account of Jesus that’s a little different from this reasonable way of life we live. Luke hints at this early on in his account of Jesus as he worships in the synagogue on the Sabbath-something any good Jew would do. He gathers that day with friends and family and probably many of the right people of his society. There he is given the scroll of Isaiah, and he begins to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Well it’s no wonder they drove him out of that place! What kind of nut preacher would stand in the place of worship and align themselves with the poor, the oppressed, the criminals, and the disabled in their very first sermon in a new place? I think sometimes if Jesus had the benefit of a good, solid seminary education, he would know you couldn’t be that radical so early in his ministry. There’s protocol to be observed. Sure we can minister to these folks, but where does that leave the good people of our congregation now? No, if Jesus had the benefit of a seminary education he would know that effective ministry begins by building a church of the “right” people and then you work to minister to those others.

Luke doesn’t stop there. If we read throughout his Gospel account we find that Jesus does indeed heal the sick and bless the poor as he promised. He had a knack of hanging out with all the wrong people. And his odd judgment of company he keeps doesn’t seem to have any regard for race (Good Samaritan), gender (he has female disciples and ministers to women), age (blesses little children) or even socio-economic status.

Remember that despite his particular word about the poor, Jesus takes the time to dine with Zaccheus-the rich tax collector who had swindled many out of their life savings. That’s a hard pill to swallow these days too. It’s as though he went to have dinner with the CEO of Enron or Lehman Brothers. This means he was willing to hang out even with a man who made his riches on the backs of those he swindled. Some probably lost their savings to this crook. And yet, Luke tells us that Jesus declares this crook is a child of God in spite of it all. Jesus really seemed to have a knack for hanging out with all of the wrong people in life.

As the Church, we struggle with this because we’re called to do much of the same ill advised way of living. We’re called to keep similar company as Jesus even when it makes no sense or is too uncomfortable for words.

Bishop Will Willimon tells the story of a pastor in his conference who had an interesting first few months of ministry. She was appointed to her new church and found a wonderful congregation of 10-15 people who worshipped together. She made up her mind early on that she worked much too hard on her sermons to have only 10-15 people come to worship. She asked someone about why the congregation was so small. One man told her very quickly, “no one is left-everyone has moved away and there’s no one left around us.” This puzzled the pastor so she decided to go driving around the area nearby. She found that across the railroad tracks there was a housing complex where probably 30 families or more lived in various apartments. She decided to go over there one day and tell them that if they would be outside on Sunday morning, she’d pick them up, take them to church, and then feed them a good lunch after. Willimon asked, “Did anyone show up?” “Oh they showed up all right. I picked up 3 carloads of folks and took them to church that next week. We’ve since added 10 to our roll and we’ll baptize 4 more this next Sunday.” Willimon said he was astounded. He told her that she should win the Denman Evangelism award. She just doubled her church size! She said, “Well, not so fast. I added 10 to our roll but I lost 8. I asked them why they wanted to leave. All they could tell me was that they didn’t feel comfortable going to church with a bunch of crack heads and their kids.”

Yes, Jesus has a knack for hanging out with all the wrong people sometimes. It’s not easy being the church when it means we’re called to get out of our comfort zones sometimes. It’s not easy being the church when, frankly, life is much easier and often more pleasurable if we just avoid the wrong kind of folks when we can. Ministering outside of our comfort zones causes things to get sticky. They get complicated. Issues arise and we’re put in the place of having to make tough decisions about where to go and who to minister to. Yeah, life would be so much easier if we could carry on just as we are.

That brings us to our text for today. Isn’t it odd that here again we find Jesus doing the very thing he did so often in his ministry-he’s hanging out with the wrong people. Only this time, he’s literally hanging there-with two criminals-the wrong people. One criminal looks to Jesus in his time of need and asks to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom. And just as he did so many other times in his life, here in his final moments of life as he faces death, Jesus speaks a word of grace, and offers salvation. But it’s not to those in this scene we might see as the “right” people of the world. It’s to a criminal. “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” And here we’re able catch a glimpse of a king with a very strange idea of what it means to build a Kingdom. His is a kingdom that is so deep and wide, it’s one where the poor and the disabled, the captive and the swindler and the crook and…it’s a kingdom that has a special place for all the wrong people-even us! Amen.

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Some Days are Just Bad Days

November 18, 2010

We’ve all had them. In my job, to confess this is like confessing that you drink alcohol when no one’s looking or watch movies with lots of cursing in them. Bad days. It’s hard to be cheerful some days. On days like these you do what you can. You get up, get dressed, get in your car and go about your day. Somewhere along the way, you wait for the tide to shift and the stars to realign themselves. But alas, no such luck. It’s just a bad day.

It’s often the little things that make us relish in just how bad our days are. You’re out of creamer for your morning coffee. You stub your toe on the side of the tub as you make your way into the bathroom for your first-thing-in-the-morning routine. You grit your teeth, use a little creative adult language, and hope things turn around soon. You might even convince yourself that good luck and rays of sunshine are just around the corner. That is, until you find that the shirt you wanted to wear that day has a stain in it. The dog has decided it’s easier to just do their “business” on the rug inside this morning. Never mind that you wasted 15 minutes standing outside using your best coaching phrases to convince the dog to do what you know good and well it’s just about ready to burst over doing. Looks like it’s still just a bad day.

You’re now 15 minutes late for work as you speed down the road and try to balance that bitter cup of coffee because, at this point, you’d trade the effects of caffeine for your first-born child, much less for savoring a decent tasting cup of coffee. You get to work to find out that yesterday’s good decisions have become today’s problems to fix. Nothing is going right, your coworkers irk you more than usual. Especially that one-you know the one. The one who comes to work humming or whistling or doing whatever it is that nauseatingly cheerful people on their way in to the office. Yep, it’s still just a bad day.

You leave work with more to do than you came in to find. Frankly, at this point you consider turning the desk over or seeing how long it would take to burn up if you “mistakenly” dropped a lit match on the paperwork. Before you get carried away you realize it’s time to pick the kids up from school. “I have a science project to work on.” Ugh. “When is it due?” you ask. “Tomorrow morning.” “How long have you known about this?” You now feel your blood pressure climb point by point to some ungodly high level. “Um, 3 weeks or so.” Well that’s just great. An evening doing a science project. You wish they wouldn’t put things off to the last minute. And now you know that you’ll be up all night doing this because, frankly, you don’t trust the crap they may come up with on their own. For all you know, they’ll try to pass of a few glued toothpicks, gum, and string as the solar system. So it’s science project time after dinner for the rest of the night. Yep, still waiting for the winds to shift because it’s still just a bad day.

As you climb in to bed after midnight. The science project is done. The kids are asleep. You lie there and think about the day and just how rotten it’s been. You start to laugh. Maybe a giggle at first, but then you begin to laugh out loud. You catch yourself so you don’t wake up the little monsters. Um, I mean kids. Maybe it’s the glass of wine you had that’s making you feel a little silly. Maybe it’s laughter in the place of tears or whatever else sort of irrational reactions that seem appropriate. The work is still there for the next day. Last minute projects will inevitably come up again. Come to think of it, you forgot to go get creamer for the coffee. But you go to bed with the knowledge that tomorrow might be a good day. If nothing else, after a rotten day like today, you like your odds a little better that tomorrow will be a little brighter. And that’s enough for now.

Can We Get Real For a Minute?

November 7, 2010

I was recently reading a article where someone reminded me of a poignant scene from one of my favorite movies. You will remember that several years ago, Hollywood produced a movie about the life of Johnny Cash called Walk the Line. The film includes a powerful scene every preacher should see. In this scene, Johnny Cash and his band secure an audition at a small recording studio. They sing an unimaginative gospel song. Less than one minute into the song, the unimpressed owner of the studio interrupts them. He says, “Do you guys have something else?” Unhappy with his negative response, Johnny asks for an explanation. The studio owner says, “We’ve already heard that song a hundred times.” Johnny complains, “But you didn’t let us bring it home.” The owner says, “All right, let’s bring it home. If you were hit by a truck, and you were lying out in that gutter dying, and you had time to sing one song that people would remember before you are dirt, one song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth, one song that would sum you up—you’re telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same tune we hear on the radio all day about your peace within, and how it’s real, and how you’re going to shout it? Or would you sing something different? Something real? Something you felt? Because I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people.” Johnny then decides to sing a song he wrote years earlier about a man in prison. In his deep penetrating voice the “Man in Black” begins to sing, “I hear that train a coming. It’s rolling round the bend. And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when. I’m stuck in Folsom prison, and time keeps dragging on …” As Johnny sings, the recording studio owner’s eyes light up. This song is real.

How often is this true for us at church? We do things the same way we’ve always done them. Church hasn’t changed all that much in the last 50 years or so. Our theologies are oversimplified because we live in the world of the sound-byte and it’s much better to sum up our faith in 12 words or less. We become narrow and entrenched in the way we do things. If we didn’t know better, someone might accuse us of leading unimaginative faith lives.

In a world of facades and pretentiousness, I wonder if what we long for more than anything else is a good dose of reality. Now this isn’t the scripted reality of TV reality. No, it’s the honest to goodness ugly, lots of excess baggage, burdensome reality we all know and avoid at all costs. There’s something oddly beautiful about this load of dirty laundry we call life. Sometimes it’s in living into our brokenness that we come close to God’s wholeness. It’s not the unimaginative, everything is A-Okay faith that people want to hear about. No, it’s the reality of that which is truly felt, lived and yet still sort of a mess that truly saves people.

John Stewart: A Voice of Sanity???

October 31, 2010

(For this post, I’d like to steer away from my normal theological leanings)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I’m not sure if these words have rung more true than they do today. Charles Dickens probably never intended to have the words he penned in this famous novel describe the transition point of our modern society. Now before we get too far off on tangents and soapboxes in the land of politics and values-a land surely of no return-let’s just take a deep breath and count to ten. See, now don’t you feel a little bit better now?

I have become fascinated as of late with the influence of one of my all-time favorite comedians and television personalities-John Stewart. Stewart took over the Daily Show in early 1999. Since then, he’s grown to be as much a part of many of our lives as Mac computers or Starbucks coffee. He’s made a living billing his news show as the faux news that informs us. It’s political sattire at its very best. He spends his time bashing the personalities of Fox, CNN, the Republican Party, Tea Party, Democratic Party, NRA, Green Party, party of Oprah, etc. Well, there’s not really a party of Oprah but I think Stewart might agree that she could create it from the dust of the earth if she so wished. I personally love to hear folks, often older than I am, say how Stewart is a nut or that it’s just crazy that a generation such as mine would ever consider his show even a source of news.

This past weekend, Stewart and his cohort, Stephen Colbert, threw the Rally to Restore Sanity-for all of those who are too busy to attend a rally. Simultaneously, Colbert held his March to Keep Fear Alive. Amid the comedy, light-heartedness, and even pointed words toward the 24-hour media, the clip above offers a few serious moments of, dare I say it, hope.

You see, Stewart points out that most of the problems we face as a society are problems because the media has amplified them as such. “If we amplify everything we hear nothing.” These are words to live by-and also to kill 24-hour news by. He pointed out that “we live in hard times, not end times.” We can’t escalate the level of chaos in our world any more than it is already. This means we have to consider what it means to panic and cause panic in others. I’m afraid there are many among us who thrive off the creation of false panic. Now for some, this false panic comes from a small, sensible level of panic taken to an extreme. For others, this panic is created from a nasty little disease called Ignorance, whose side effects include bloating of hatred and frequent trips to internet blogs that help to continue stirring such symptoms up. All the while a steady diet of hating that which is not like what we see in the mirror is developed.

Before we jump off the deep end into a different pool of insanity, please don’t think I’m building Stewart up as some sort of Messiah figure who’ll lead us to a Promised Land where unicorns run free and puppy dogs come with lollipops to all who dwell there. I don’t think Stewart would dare put himself there. I will say however, that I think Stewart touches on a nerve for me because he voices a language I sense among many in my generation. We’re tired of dividing teams up and divvying up weaponry to launch missiles of hatred at each other. Teams of liberal v. conservative, democrat v. republican, rich v. poor, Christian v. not, or even fundamentalist Christian v. hippy, social justice Christian just aren’t relevant anymore.

I think my favorite quote of the day sums it up: “The truth is, there will always be darkness. But we keep moving towardt that light at the end of the tunnel. And sometimes that light is not the Promised Land at all. It’s just New Jersey. But we keep moving anyways.” Maybe we can solve our problems or even exist together if we begin by taking ourselves a little less serious. Laughter in that face of hard times may be the beginning of a remedy that might not cure all that ails us; but it just might make life a little more enjoyable as we experience it together. No, everything isn’t a “life-or-death” matter at all. Sometimes it’s just about life.

You Mean It’s Stewardship Time Again???

October 28, 2010

It’s October and I’m sure churches all over the country are busy doing their annual Stewardship campaigns. Why is October such a popular month to do Stewardship drives? Maybe because it’s around the harvest time and a tradition formed somewhere along the way to make it a part of our Fall activities. The season’s crop can determine our success over the next year and maybe churches saw October as a good time to ask while it was fresh on people’s minds. Who knows? Now days, many of our cities and churches are long past the days when the annual harvest dictated our calendars. We now work on annual salaries. Giving is much more systematic and more things play in to how we determine to give or pledge for the upcoming year.

The difficulty happens when we find ourselves in times like we’re in right now. I know it’s not a newsflash for most, but we’re in a Recession. How do we ask people to give in times like this? It’s in “times like this” that we may even wonder “why do we give in the first place?”

For me, I have to believe that stewardship doesn’t begin with money at all. Stewardship begins with the Church. More specifically, as a pastor it begins with the church I’m a part of right now. It goes beyond programs and bells and whistles that we may or may not be able to afford. It speaks to the very life that is at the core of the church. It’s the living vitality of our very existence. In other words, it’s why we’re crazy enough to get up at such an odd time on Sunday mornings, sing weird songs and say strange words, and go about our lives in peculiar ways. Quite simply, we’re about the business of changing lives.

Sometimes that change comes in the form of children’s ministries that teach a child the language of faith. As an adult who was raised in the church I cannot emphasize emphatically enough how important this is. It may not take root during the entire time a child is in your children’s program. But watch out. Sometimes that child will encounter God long after they leave your children’s activities along the roadside of adolenscence. And when they do, they can interpret this experience with a seemingly ancient and strange language they learned much earlier in life. And their lives are changed for that.

Sometimes this change comes in the form of missions. Recently I was told a story by a staff member who had a conversation with one of the homeless persons who sleep in the bushes around our church. She asked her, “Why do you sleep here in our bushes? Isn’t there a better place nearby?” The homeless person told her, “I guess I sleep here because it’s the safest place in this neighborhood. I just figure no one will bother me if I’m here at this church.” That change speaks to a witness that exists at hours of the day we’re often not even aware of.

Often this change can happen in the form of the bonds we build as we grow into adulthood and raise our children together. We laugh and love together. We support each other in times of need like divorce. We help raise each other’s kids. We cry when we lose our parents or, God forbid, others who are close to us. We bring food and offer listening ears and stand with each other when it seems no one else in the world will do so.

I give because I truly believe that in spite of my best efforts sometimes, God lives and moves in ways I don’t understand. It’s in our church family that we see the fabric of our lives woven around the peculiar notion that God is always with us. And maybe October is a time where we can remember to thank God for the harvest of these and many, many other blessings. In a world where the bad all too often seems to triumph, I wonder if the fruit of these blessings are, dare I say,just crying out to be multiplied. So I can give to that.

It’s Good to Be Home

October 24, 2010
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Home. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines this as: a place of origin or the place where something is discovered, founded, developed, or promoted; a source. My wife and I have recently moved into a new home. One of the things I always like to do in a new setting is my place; that “home within the home.” You know where I’m talking about-that place where you go for sanctuary, where no one else goes. You go there to withdraw from the world. More importantly, you go there to be revived so that you can go back into the world with a fresh perspective. I think everyone should find a place like this if you don’t have one already.

For me, I’ve found that my desk is my “home” at our new house. It’s nothing fancy. It’s a old, used desk that is maple-colored. It has old-fashioned wooden drawers on one side of it and an open space on the other where you sit. On top of it is nothing more than my laptop, a printer, a desk lamp, and some sort small desk organizer my wife made me get because she can’t stand my “methods of organization.” If you were to look at my desk you wouldn’t be struck by anything out of the ordinary. It feels too small when I get buried beneath my gaggle of books pertaining to whatever my next big paper or research project is. But the desk sits beneath a very large double-window that overlooks our side yard. Again, nothing too special. The guest bedroom has a light in the ceiling fan that won’t work and I can’t figure out how to make it work. So besides the small desk lamp I’m often dependent on the daylight for assistance in my work.

I’ve really come to cherish my “home” at our new house. I’ve sat at this desk at various times of the day over these past couple of months. I’ve worked in the afternoon so long that between my reading and typing I can watch the daylight as it leaves me for yet another day. I’ve also sat here early enough that I begin in the dark with my little desk lamp on, only to watch as the new day unfolds over the horizon right outside my window. This desk is where I can play my jazz and let my thoughts run away. It’s where I can furiously type whatever my next writing project is as though the words might escape out of my ears if I don’t get them down in time. It’s where I can sit and stare out the window because writer’s block has attacked me like the winter flu. It’s where I can go to read and pray and think and just be. It’s one place I can go and drop every pretentious notion I might have about “being a pastor” and I can just be “Ben” for a few uninterrupted minutes (or hours depending on the assignment or project).

You’ll hear me often advocate that God can be found everywhere. I’ll go on and on about how God finds us when we’re not looking and in the most strange places of life. But sometimes, when I’m out and about, moving through the day from one thing to the next, I long for my “home” at home. I wish I could just get 15 minutes to sit and be free. I wish I could go and sit and think and write. But I think most of all, if I could just get back there, God might be waiting for me right where I left God last. And sometimes, when I make it back to my desk, I imagine God smiling and saying, “welcome home.”

God Works Even Through the 4-Legged Creatures of the World

October 17, 2010

God loves even the Bearded Dragons

God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. An God saw that it was good. -Genesis 1:25 (NRSV)

Yesterday our church held its first ever Blessing fo the Animals Service. It was an opportunity to invite folks to come and bring their pets to recieve a special blessing in accordance with the Feast of St. Francis which traditionally honors animals. The blessing was quite simple, and was given to both pet and owner. It was : “(Name) – may you be blessed in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. May you and your owner enjoy life together and find joy with the God who created you.” We also had a short liturgy that included prayers and a reading from the book of Genesis. There was a giant, community water bowl for dogs that was actually a plastic baby swimming pool. And we had lemonade and cookies for one and all. By 11:00 a.m., it was a gorgous 70 degrees or so. It was truly a beautiful day.

However, the most interesting part of the event had nothing to do with the outward details. As the community of folks gathered, with pets in toe, it was a testimony to many quite interesting stories:

There was the very large dog who still carried the scars of when some kids tried to set him on fire back in the Spring. He has since been adopted by a church member and loved and nursed back to health. You’d think a dog who has been treated like that would be shy of people or at least aggressive. The only thing he was aggressive about was trying to lick and love every person who would get close enough to him. At times he seemed as though he might drag our church member across the ground trying to get to another person to love.

Then there was the church member who had to have her dog put down over the summer. It was a heartbreaking loss of her true companion in life. But there she was, with a borrowed dog no less, present to participate in our event. “I just can’t help it,” she said, “I just love animals.”

There was even one couple who showed up late after we had began putting things up. They wanted their dog (note here “baby”) blessed. So I did it. And then I proceeded to pose with the dog so they could take pictures of their “baby” after his blessing. I also took their picture with the dog and the doors of our beatiful courtyard in the background. It was truly a family celebration for them.

Though the details may be different, these stories all share a common theme: they are part of a much greater story. You see, the dog with the sorted past showed us how every now and then love can be stronger than hate and cruelty. The woman who came despite her loss proved that even in our loss, all is not lost. The young family I didn’t even know showed that in a world that demands we accumulate all we can in spite of all else, we can actually take a day away from it all to celebrate those gifts that come without a price tag. And all of these are examples of the subtle, yet profound in-breaking of God’s kingdom all around us. Yeah, it was a beautfiul day alright-in more ways than one.