Monday, December 31, 2012

Blog … Resolutions For a Better 2013 - Cynicism be Damned

After this year of mass shootings, economic hi-jinks in Congress, hateful political rhetoric leading up to the election, one absurd celebrity incident after another, discord and division in every realm of our society, and failed attempts at being a better people - I am tempted to be cynical about 2013. But somewhere deep inside me there is still that kid who gathered with her family around a table on New Year’s Day to eat black-eyed peas for good luck and share the resolutions we made for the new year.

I have not really made personal resolutions the last few years because I typically fail at keeping them within the first few months of the year. But this year I want to try something new – I want to make some for our society. And yes, we may fail in the first few months of the new year but I want to put them out there anyway … and will continue to pray that we try to make them come true.

First, let’s resolve to end the culture of obscene violence in our society. Let’s end the sale of assault and assault-style weapons outside of the police and military. Let’s end the production of and sale of high volume ammunition clips. Let’s set an example as a culture that has been intimately damaged by the slaughter of the innocents and chooses to do and be better as a result. Let’s be a society that values life more than the 2nd amendment. This does not preclude hunters from being able to hunt or cops and military personnel from having the weapons they need to protect us but regular citizens do not need assault weapons or high volume clips. Our society will be better for it.

Second, let’s resolve to be more loving of one another. Let us take care of those around us who are weak, mentally and physically impaired, destitute, sick, and/or living in poverty. Let’s resolve to do the right thing for our neighbors so that they feel love in their lives in ways that are profound and personal. Let’s be willing to show mercy to those in need and not require some means-test from them to be considered worthy of that help. Let’s be our best selves and help others to be their best selves as well. Our society will be better for it.

Third, let’s be more tolerant and accepting of those with whom we disagree or with whom we have profound theological, political, or cultural differences. Let’s look for our similarities instead of always focusing on the differences first. Let’s be kinder to one another – in our real lives and in the digital world. Let’s have civil conversations and listen to the opinions of the others in our lives. And let’s show this to our children as the way to honor each other’s uniqueness so that the next generation learns from us. Our society will be better for it.

Fourth, let’s be a people of faith who trust each other again despite our diverse faith traditions. Let us be a people who honor the faith of others in profound and important ways while still being true to our own beliefs. Let’s be people of faith who welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned, help the sick, bring the wounded stranger from the side of the road into a place of care, and accept that we can make a difference in the lives of others by being true to the God who love us all. Our society will be better for it.

Lastly, let’s be a people who are open to affirming the rights of others. Let us see persons of color and work to right the injustices inflicted upon them. Let us listen to the stories of injustice of the LGBT community and honor them with acceptance and greater moves toward full inclusion. Let us hear the desperation of kids in failing school systems and work to make things more just for all kids needing to be educated. Let’s see the elderly and little kids as the gifts they are and cherish them in ways that protect their safety and care for their needs. And let us make the effort to be connected to each other – not just on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest – but in real life. Let us reach out and make a difference in our world. Our society will be better for it.

Maybe we will fail at these … but isn't it worth the effort to try? And to keep on trying no matter what?

Our society will be better for it.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Gospel Purée, Newtown, Little Kids, and Grace …

My last name is Wiseman. And I have two sisters. We grew up in the church as the three Wiseman sisters. So you can guess which kids were always picked to play the “Three Wisemen” in the annual Christmas Nativity play at church. It drove me insane. All I wanted was to be a shepherd and wear a bathrobe with a towel wrapped around my head – but the directors of all of these plays thought it was adorable to let the 3 Wiseman girls play the 3 wisemen since it would be “so cute.”

As I grew up and went into ministry I got a bit bothered by the purée of Gospel that is the typical church nativity play. We take some shepherds being visited by an Angel from Luke, add some magi and a star leading them to the baby from Matthew, and the inn keeper from out of thin air. And we get a Nativity created out of Gospel purée. It is familiar to most of us – and at the same time it is not quite accurate to the story.

This week, I went to a Christmas Program and nativity play at my son’s parochial school and he played one of the wisemen – once again because the director thought it would be “so cute” for him to play the role. We had an angel visit the Shepherds, Magi visiting from the east (three of course, even though there is no evidence that there were actually three), and an innkeeper who allowed Mary and Joseph to stay in a stable out back for the birth of Jesus because no rooms were available in the inn. And I survived. As a biblically trained minister and scholar of practical theology – I survived.

One reason I survived – with little to no reaction – was that I had just experienced something so moving it made me weep. The little kids had sung a song about peace. They were Kindergarten and First Graders – all dressed up in red, green, and white with their hair (for the most part) just right and their smiles so big they lit up the room. And as they sang, I thought about the 20 little kids who were killed last week in Newtown, CT. The similarities were eerie. There were a few little boys with mussed up hair and little girls with bows and hairclips. There were missing front teeth and fidgety bodies. There were beaming parents with handheld video cameras catching every moment of their song – a song about peace. It was almost too much to bear.

But I heard the words and saw the smiles of the kids and parents and knew we were experiencing a moment of amazing grace. Many of these parents had hugged their little ones more tightly over the last week and prayed for those who couldn’t do that anymore. Many of those kids had asked if they were safe at school and their parents and teachers did all they could to reassure them.

Many of them were unaware why the audience seemed to react more to them than to any other group singing that night – but we all “got it.” We saw the little faces of “our” kids but were symbolically seeing the little ones from Newtown. When the crowd applauded louder than normal – the kids took an extra bow. And we knew why we were so touched. I doubt they did but it was profoundly powerful.

The entire show was full of big smiles, cute kids, one or two out of tune singers, a few forgotten words to songs, parents beaming and catching every second on digital memory cards. And it was a sign that we can continue to live fully – even in the midst of the mess of death and horror – and that God is with us in the midst of our grief.

We prayed for those families and lit a candle in remembrance. But we did not need that to bring the irony of these adorable little kids in front of us to remember but what a gift to witness their spirit and delight.

And at the same time to be reminded that we have to be better … we have to end this horror.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Taking A Stab At Our Infatuation With Guns ...

By the late, great Molly Ivins, a columnist from Texas. She wrote this in 1993.

AUSTIN - Guns. Everywhere guns.
Let me start this discussion by pointing out that I am not anti-gun. I'm pro-knife. Consider the merits of the knife.
In the first place, you have catch up with someone in order to stab him. A general substitution of knives for guns would promote physical fitness. We'd turn into a whole nation of great runners. Plus, knives don't ricochet. And people are seldom killed while cleaning their knives.
As a civil libertarian, I of course support the Second Amendment. And I believe it means exactly what it says: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Fourteen-year-old boys are not part of a well-regulated militia. Members of wacky religious cults are not part of a well-regulated militia. Permitting unregulated citizens to have guns is destroying the security of this free state.
I am intrigued by the arguments of those who claim to follow the judicial doctrine of original intent. How do they know it was the dearest wish of Thomas Jefferson's heart that teen-age drug dealers should cruise the cities of this nation perforating their fellow citizens with assault rifles? Channelling?
There is more hooey spread about the Second Amendment. It says quite clearly that guns are for those who form part of a well-regulated militia, i.e., the armed forces including the National Guard. The reasons for keeping them away from everyone else get clearer by the day.
The comparison most often used is that of the automobile, another lethal object that is regularly used to wreak great carnage. Obviously, this society is full of people who haven't got enough common sense to use an automobile properly. But we haven't outlawed cars yet.
We do, however, license them and their owners, restrict their use to presumably sane and sober adults and keep track of who sells them to whom. At a minimum, we should do the same with guns.
In truth, there is no rational argument for guns in this society. This is no longer a frontier nation in which people hunt their own food. It is a crowded, overwhelmingly urban country in which letting people have access to guns is a continuing disaster. Those who want guns - whether for target shooting, hunting or potting rattlesnakes (get a hoe) - should be subject to the same restrictions placed on gun owners in England - a nation in which liberty has survived nicely without an armed populace.
The argument that "guns don't kill people" is patent nonsense. Anyone who has ever worked in a cop shop knows how many family arguments end in murder because there was a gun in the house. Did the gun kill someone? No. But if there had been no gun, no one would have died. At least not without a good footrace first. Guns do kill. Unlike cars, that is all they do.
Michael Crichton makes an interesting argument about technology in his thriller "Jurassic Park." He points out that power without discipline is making this society into a wreckage. By the time someone who studies the martial arts becomes a master - literally able to kill with bare hands - that person has also undergone years of training and discipline. But any fool can pick up a gun and kill with it.
"A well-regulated militia" surely implies both long training and long discipline. That is the least, the very least, that should be required of those who are permitted to have guns, because a gun is literally the power to kill. For years, I used to enjoy taunting my gun-nut friends about their psycho-sexual hang-ups - always in a spirit of good cheer, you understand. But letting the noisy minority in the National Rifle Association force us to allow this carnage to continue is just plain insane.
I do think gun nuts have a power hang-up. I don't know what is missing in their psyches that they need to feel they have to have the power to kill. But no sane society would allow this to continue.
Ban the damn things. Ban them all.
You want protection? Get a dog.

Friday, December 14, 2012

No words ...

There are no words to express the deep sorrow and grief that the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are feeling. We lift them up in our thoughts and prayers. We ask for God's comfort and grace in this tragic moment - a moment we have endured too many times. 

Lord, in your amazing abiding mercy, we send our thoughts, prayers and positive energy to the children, parents, siblings, staff, administrators, first responders, and community members in Newtown, CT.

God, in your mercy. Christ, in your mercy. Spirit, in your mercy.

Hear our prayers.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Not the Happiest Time of Year for Everyone …

 Growing up, I was sick a lot. And when I say a lot ... I really mean it. Epilepsy, allergies, lots of infections, double viral pneumonia, etc. I spent a lot of time with doctors and with my mom and dad waiting for doctors. It was just part of my life growing up. I got used to it.

Some of the time we were certain of what was going to go on when we walked into the office ... like the regular neurological visits when they would do an EEG to test for seizure activity (I was lucky to have outgrown my epilepsy). Some of the time I was hoping for a quick in and out ... but it was a long wait and I got a shot when I was sick. Some of the time it was for tests ... and they would stick my back and arms for allergies and I would react to just about all of them.

One of the sickest times of the year was always around Christmas. I would be ill from late in the month of November to early January (the same time we had a tree in our home). We began to suspect that it was my allergies. When they tested me for about 500 items, I was allergic to over 400 of them. And I was allergic to just about every type of evergreen there is. So we got rid of our live tree and evergreens and have had artificial trees ever since.

That solved the issue for the most part but it does not solve it completely. I still have to be in places with live trees and greens and they are not easy places for me to be. I visit homes that have pets and evergreens and come home sick. It is kind of hard to avoid at times – especially around Christmas.

I take meds and precautions - sometimes even taking too much just to survive. But still it is a miserable time of the year allergy wise.

Today I was at my church - a church I dearly love - and found that their method of hanging the greens this year meant no safe space for those of us with allergies. It was beautiful and miserable all at the same time.

As I sat there feeling sorry for myself and others who were suffering, I was reminded of all of the people for whom the holidays are especially difficult. Some due to illness, some due to the loss of a loved one, and some due to a dislike of the consumerism and greed that seems to have infected the season. There are many reasons why this time of year is hard for folks. Some of those reasons are very personal and private.

But there reasons are very real. We hear songs about this being the happiest time of the year, but for many it is a time of torment and suffering - depression and anguish. For some it is painful, dreadfully lonely, and a reminder of just how blue they feel. For some it is a constant drumming of joyful songs all around them in the midst of feeling very little joy themselves.

I love Christmas - especially with artificial trees and greens - and live trees from a distance.  When I was a pastor, my churches all switched to artificial greens and trees while I was there which was very kind and caring of them. My family loves their artificial tree now and we never miss the "real thing." Adaptations helped me a lot.

So I pray for folks for whom this time of year is tough. You don't have to fake happy for us. You don't have to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays to us. Many of us will try to be sensitive to your needs and not push our love of Christmas off on you - though unfortunately not everyone will be aware of your feelings.

You don't have to love the lights and carols. You don't have to explain that going to the Mall this time of year is just too much for you. You have the right to feel and experience the holidays as you need to.

Just know that we see you. We know you are there and we acknowledge that this time of the year is tough for you. We feel it too at times. Know that you are loved.

Whether your Christmas is decidedly red and green or some shade of the blues - you are special and God's beloveds.

Feel that, if you can, and know you're not alone.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Whiny Thanks and All ...

I have just finished, I hope, one of the busiest periods of my professional career.  And I am exhausted. I have finished my first book, been on the curriculum revision committee at the seminary where I teach, created a brand new course and taught it this semester, had a lot going on in my church and personal life, presented at the meeting of my professional guild, and have taken on too many writing obligations than I should have. So I am beat.

But I am also so amazingly aware of how blessed I am. I have a family I love, a job I adore, students who inspire me, writing jobs that challenge and engage my mind, and I love to teach new and old courses alike. So I am blessed.

I watch friends and even family members struggling without jobs or suffering in jobs they do not enjoy or are not fed by. I watch colleagues struggling with job searches and reduced teaching loads. So I am thankful.

I have not blogged in a while because my writing was focused on my book. I have not felt good about it and have complained because I missed it terribly. But I hear friends and colleagues struggling to get what they want to say on paper and I am aware again how lucky I am to have these projects and contracts to write. So I am appreciative.

Many times, however, when I am busy and tired - I whine. Many times when I over schedule - I whine. Seldom do I stop - and just sit in gratitude and bask in the blessing.

So this past month I took on the Gratitude Challenge on Facebook. I wrote every day of the month of November about things I was grateful for. Some were silly ... like being thankful for ice-cream. Some were situationally based ... like being grateful for a fantastic sermon preached in class by one of my students.  Some were family focused ... like being grateful for the heritage passed on to me from previous generations and the chance to pass them on to my son.

Some were about vocational and personal happiness ... like being grateful for a job I love and the terrific house that is part of my compensation and the chance to live in our wonderful community. And some were deeply personal ... like being thankful for the safety of my son when some friends of my niece were in a terrible auto accident. And some were intensely spiritual ... like being grateful for being part of my faith community in its inclusive, progressive, challenging, incarnational, and prophetic reality.

I am writing this after Thanksgiving week and at the end of the Gratitude Challenge on Facebook - a natural time to stop and give thanks. And I am immensely thankful for all of these things, people, situations, communities, etc. But today I also want to say thanks for keeping me busy, for making me crazy with deadlines, for my family and community, and for obligations that bless me and my vocation.

I may still whine and complain when I allow too much on my plate, but even in those times I want to stop and say thank you. I am grateful for my life - and all that is part of this fantastic existence that God has blessed me with.

Thank you, God for my life - in the craziness and in the calm.
Thank you, God for my family - in their lovely absurdity and in their caring.
Thank you, God for my faith - in the times of doubt and in the moments of certainty.
Thank you, God for my job - in the crush of papers and in the moments of grace.
Thank you, God for my church - in the challenges and in the growth.
Thank you, God for my parents - in their aging issues and in their spry youthful joy.
Thank you, God for my writing - in the moments it rocks and in the ones when it sucks.
Thank you, God for your presence - in all times and in all places.
Thank you, God, again, for my life - in the blessings and in the pain.
Thank you, God.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Preaching Texts We Do Not Want to Preach

 I was asked months ago to provide pulpit fill for a Lutheran congregation in a suburb of Philadelphia for today's service. I agreed and put it on my calendar. I forgot about it until two weeks ago when I saw it on my calendar and scheduled some time for sermon prep as we got closer to the day. Then a week ago I looked at the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary for today. (This is the common list of scripture passages read on any given Sunday in many Protestant Churches throughout the world).

When I read it I nearly dropped my jaw to the floor. The Gospel reading was Mark 10:2-16. The passage is about divorce, adultery, Jesus being tested yet again by the Pharisees, and little kids coming to Jesus and being stopped by the disciples. I wished in that moment that I had looked at the readings before saying yes.

This happens sometimes. Preachers read the passages for a coming Sunday and literally cringe inside. Can I call in sick? Can that Sunday be a vacation Sunday? Then it hit me, the pastor I am filling in for took this weekend as vacation ... Hmmmm. Smart guy!?

Troubling preaching texts are found throughout the Bible. They are found in the war stories and "angry God" limited view of some Hebrew Bible texts. They are found in the epistles about the role of women in ministry right beside Paul welcoming Phoebe as a "deacon." They are found in the book of Proverbs' image of the "noble wife" and in epistle readings about wives’ submission to their husbands. They are found in the Genesis story of Lot being willing to send his daughters out to be raped. And they are found in the hard stories of betrayal and death in the Gospel account of Jesus' final week.

Many of my examples are about women today, but not all, because that is the topic that I am immersed in right now. I preached twice at the Lutheran Church today as pulpit fill-in and I am preaching in chapel at LTSP tomorrow. The text for tomorrow, you ask ... Matthew 5: 27-36. And what is that text about; you ask ... marriage, adultery and divorce.

Seriously? Yes, seriously. I kid you not.

How did this happen? I am a very smart cookie. How did I get into this fix? How is it that I am preaching three sermons in two days on two passages about divorce, adultery and marriage? Me? Help! Where is my vacation Sunday?

The truth is that pastors feel this way from time to time. We are sometimes faced with texts that are generally hard for everyone. And we are faced with tough texts because of a specific reality within our community of faith. And sometimes they hit us as problematic just because of our own life circumstances. It would be easier to run away from them at times. 

But we have to wrestle with these texts. We have to help folks see the deep contextualization of these texts and how they do not speak to us like they did when they were written (if they even did then). We have to help folks process what was happening then that brought about these challenging images, phrases, and texts. 

Maybe it is right that I am preaching on these texts, because right now I am struggling with what I believe about modern relationships, marriage and divorce. There is an entire group of people in our country who are barred from basic marital rights because the definition of marriage is so tied to cultural and religious understandings of that rite.

There are people in broken relationships, being abused and mistreated, and are forced to endure because they and their families have views on divorce that do not allow them to find healing and health away from their current spouse.

There are churches battling over whether or not it is right and appropriate to do civil unions for GLBT persons or to accept them at all in their churches. These are hard discussions for some, but for me it is crystal clear.

Covenantal relationships recognized by the state are due to all Americans, regardless of gender. Period. Now the hard part is the role of the church in this. In France rights from the state are bestowed by the state in a civil ceremony. Then if the couple chooses to be married in the church, they do so and have their unison blessed.  It works there.

I do not know if it would work here. But right now we have a problem. And preaching a word of grace about expanding our understanding of modern relationships is something I believe in to the core of my being. So being asked to preach on these texts is actually a gift. Maybe not for everyone preaching them this week, but is has been for me.  I have found it a blessing.

Next tough text ... bring it on.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Growth Obstacles

I got an email today with some stunning photography in it – and it included one picture that especially caught my eye. The email was from my Mother, who loves to send me emails. I get a lot of them from her. I appreciate them because they often (though not always - LOL) give me some insights or amusement.  This one caught my eye because it reminded me of how growth – no matter what the growth looks like – can encounter some amazing obstacles.

The image above is the one that my mother’s email included. It is of a tree growing up into and through an old car. For me, when I saw it, the tree represented the individual and how we grow. It is still just a tree. It grows with sunshine, water, and nutrients. It grows based on the wind that twists it and the type of tree it is. It grows despite the obstacles that get in its way. Some grow off the side of mountain tops, some grow in desolate places, and some grow in the midst of friends and forests. But they grow anyway.

The tree in this picture either had its origins as a seed that blew in and took root there – or it was already growing when the old car was abandoned over it. But the tree kept growing and growing and growing. It made adaptations and changes to grow – despite the obstacle that was in its way. It grows through the car – through the large and small openings in the car. It grew despite the obstacle. It grew to reach the sunlight and the rain. It grew to be what it was created to be.

That’s important for us, too. We grow despite the obstacles. Sometimes we grow right through them. We have to be persistent. We have to adapt and change to the circumstances. We have to find the small and large openings to grow through.

But sometimes we get derailed by the obstacles in our way. We stop growing … we get stuck. We refuse to find a way to grow despite the struggles.

But this is the exact time that our growth can be the most potent and lasting. When we grow in the midst of obstacles we are choosing to be all of who God created us to be. When we grow we are embracing what God wants of us and for us. When we grow despite the obstacles we are growing with God’s grace.

We will all encounter obstacles. As my Dad said often when I was growing up, “Nobody promised you that life would be easy.” But we are not alone in our growth. God is with us in this growth. God is blessing us with sunshine, rain and nutrients – all we need to grow. God is here – right now – cheering on your growth, sending you all you need, loving you through the obstacles.

So, here’s my invitation to you – grow despite the obstacles. Grow in the midst of the hard times that you find yourself in. Hang on to anything you can grab hold of.

Find a way. Don’t give up.

Keep growing. Don’t give up.

Make a way through the obstacle. Don’t give up.

God is with you. Don’t give up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Going for Gold ... Or Not!

The past week and a half, many people in the world have been watching the Games of the 30th Olympiad from London, England. Some were focused on swimming or gymnastics or track and some just watched whatever was on. Some complained about the tape-delayed nature of the Games (especially since everyone and their dog were posting the results without spoiler warnings). Some were rooting for their own country's athletes and some were rooting for the best "story" of the field.

The truth is ... the vast majority of the athletes competing in the games will never win a medal or hear their country's national anthem played after receiving a gold medal. Many represent countries which have rarely even won gold medals.

The public hears about the golden gods and goddesses of the Games. And don't get me wrong - I enjoy watching Michael Phelps swim or the Chinese divers dive or the USA basketball teams trounce teams. But that is not what the Olympics are all about. They are about doing one's best to represent their sport, their country and themselves on the field of sport.

One of my favorite stories from Olympic Games are the athletes who swim for the first time in an Olympic sized pool, because their country has none that big. Or stories about athletes and their communities having to have bake sales to raise money to send them to London. Or stories about little known athletes rising to the occasion and doing their personal best in an event even if they come in last place.

These athletes are my heroes. These athletes are the ones to whom we owe our awe and appreciation. But once again those who win will get fame and glory. And they deserve some of it.

However, I for one want to remember the stories of the athletes who beat the odds, amazed even themselves with their performances, and made their countries beam with pride -- no matter what place they got in their event.

I want to remember Grenadian sprinter Kirani James trading name tags with Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee, after a semifinal of the 400m race. I want to remember Sherab Zam, an archer from Bhutan, who only wanted to compete and introduce her country to others around the world. She was eliminated after only 6 arrows but did her country proud. I want to remember Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world, stopping a live television interview because a medal ceremony was happening and he wanted to respect the medal winners.

 I want to remember the athletes who won no medals but did their best. That's all we can do -- our best with all that God has blessed us with.

I will never be an Olympic athlete, but I am enough. I don't need any medals to show me or anyone else that. (I do, however, have a "World's Greatest Mom" card I can show you if you ask).

So root on your favorite athletes -- the medalists and the idealists. But save a few cheers for the other athletes, Moms and Dads, bus drivers, cashiers, wait staff, mail carriers, teachers, police officers, and others in your life as well who deserve our awe and appreciation. They are enough, too.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Preaching in the Midst of Evil

This past weekend, we experienced yet another mass shooting of innocents. We saw the pictures on TV of the theater in Aurora, CO and were once again dismayed and bewildered by the horror we inflict upon each other in this world.

One man - a mentally ill person, a modern day terrorist, a bad man, or just a mixed up guy - used the guns he had acquired to rain terror on a group of innocents at a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises. It was evil and violent. It was tragic and horrific.

So what happened on Sunday in worship services around the country?

Some preachers discussed the shooting only in their prayer time, some had a moment of silence for the families involved, some addressed it fully in their sermons, and some avoided it because they did not know how to address the evil from the pulpit.

The truth is - we as preachers of the Gospel - must address the evil around us. We must name the bad stuff and acknowledge that these acts are not God's will for our world. We have to be willing to speak the truth. We have to be willing to preach a Word of grace and love in the midst of violence.

We have to state clearly that God does not punish people with hurricanes and earthquakes. We have to be firm in our conviction that God does not want us to inflict harm on one another. We have to speak the truth that violence is not the way we are to live.

Sometimes there is serendipity in the chosen text for the day. Sometimes the text speaks a word we need to hear, as the lectionary did the week after September 11, 2001. Sometimes, though, the text for the day does not speak to the events happening around us. When this is the case, we need to consider changing the text of the day to find a word of grace more appropriate to the events and emotions to which we need to minister.

Speaking truth in these circumstances means acknowledging that God does not wish evil for us, but God is certainly present with us in the midst of evil - holding us, calling us, challenging us, and leading us out of the dark.

So let’s preach the Gospel of grace, love and hope to the people in our pews, folding chairs, park benches, couches, and everywhere else we encounter folks who need to hear the Word.

Preach it, people. Preach it.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Taking a Leap of Faith

My family just moved into a new house. It is a faculty house belonging to my seminary where I teach and I am delighted to get to live there. The move went well - for about a day. Then I got sick and ended up in the hospital having two surgical procedures in two days.

Luckily, we had family coming to help with the move and they did more than could possibly be expected of family members during a move. They helped us clean, unpack boxes, and hang pictures. They helped us shop for new items for the house, carried out trash by the barrel, and helped us get organized. I am so grateful they were all here to help us out while I was sick and recovering from my surgery.

Today we were listing moves we made as a family. Since my birth I have lived in 21 different homes. That is 21 different moves. Some were just across town. Some were across country. Some were when I was too young to help. Some were with my own son who barely remembers the move. Some were painful and some were joyous.

Moving is never easy. Packing up and moving means saying goodbye to one reality and hello to a new one. Saying it 21 times means saying a lot of goodbyes to realities.

When I was a kid there were moves that made me angry. As an adult several of my moves were to grand new adventures - to college, to my first job, to attend seminary, to serve my first church, to grad school to get my PhD, to my first teaching job, and to Philly to teach at Lutheran. These were amazing new adventures.

But each and every one of them required a leap of faith. The moves required a sense of trust in the possibilities ahead. That trust is sometimes hard to come by. But trust must be lived out in the midst of change.

My prayer for this move and for the ways your life is changing is that trust comes to you. It takes small leaps of faith - trusting that God is present in the midst of the change, trusting that things will work themselves out, and trusting that you are not alone in the journey.

I'm leaping here, people. Wanna jump with me?  

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Civility in Discussing Monumental Decisions

Like many in this country I was up and ready to hear the Supreme Court decision this morning on the Affordable Care Act, or as many like to call it - Obamacare. Many were waiting anxiously to have the entire law upheld. Others wanted all of it ruled unconstitutional. Still others thought maybe if they kept everything but the individual mandate they could live with the rest of it.

When the ruling came down, there was some serious confusion. Getting accurate information from Twitter was absolutely impossible. Even CNN and Fox News got it wrong for a few nervous minutes. Then the ruling was disclosed accurately. Obamacare – the ACA – was upheld -- all of it.

Some screamed for joy, while others wept for what they saw was an unjust decision and an overreach by the government. I was joyous. But I fully acknowledge that there are quite a few folks who are so disappointed right now. I feel for these folks. Sincerely.

Many times decisions that are monumental in nature leave us breathless. Sometimes with great joy and satisfaction that our side "won" the day and others determined to overturn the decision due to their side "losing." I have been on the losing side many times - and on the winning side - but it never feels like winning when people you love and care about are distraught.

However on this decision - I wholeheartedly believe that the Supreme Court (and the Congress) got it right. We have a health care crisis in this country that has to be addressed. And in the ACA a lot of those issues were indeed addressed - mandatory coverage of persons with pre-existing conditions, continuation of coverage for young adults until age 26, protections against going bankrupt from healthcare costs, coverage for all persons, and a way forward to care for all Americans. Yet, there are still going to be problems for us to address.

And I hope we can do that in a civil and open manner. This is what I posted on my Facebook page right after the decision:

I know that some of my friends are not happy with SCOTUS upholding Obamacare - but it helps so many people. I am proud that many poor and underemployed will be covered and that pre-existing conditions will continue to be covered. Seems that children up to age 26 can still be covered by their parents' insurance. I am proud of my government for caring for all. I acknowledge that for some this is a tough day and I want to say I care about you, too.

So far the responses have been positive. However, some have expressed their dismay. We can have civil conversations about policy and politics, religion and beliefs in humane and open ways. We have to acknowledge that whoever “won” means someone they care about “lost.” And we have to stop using win/lose analogies like I just used.

As I read scripture, God calls on us to care for one another, to uphold one another, and to love one another. Today, I think we can show how we understand this and care for each other during the debates about this monumental decision.

I pray for us all. And for our continued civil conversations on this and other monumental decisions in our lives and in our politics.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

On Being 50

Yesterday was my birthday. I am a half a century young. I am 50 years of age and am actually really excited about it. Several celebrations have already occurred (with my son before he went off on a 10 day mission trip with our church, with my Wabash friends in Indiana, and last night with friends). Amazingly some have made it known that turning 50 should make me sad. They have flat out stated that 50 is old. Of course most of them were much younger than I am. And I do not believe it. 50 is just a number and it doesn’t make me sad in the least. I am proud to be 50.

So today I pause to look back at 50 years of life.  And it has been a great life. I was blessed with an astonishingly great family of origin. My parents taught me to stand up and speak for myself. They taught me to be open and affirming of persons not like myself. They taught me my faith and how to live it boldly. They provided me with a wonderfully loving home and two sisters who are my dear friends. Not many people can say that. 

I was also blessed to receive a fantastic education. I taught with some amazing colleagues for 9 years in secondary education in Texas. I am so grateful for the education and the M.Div. I later received from Saint Paul School of Theology and for the churches I served as a United Methodist pastor in Kansas and New Jersey. Blessings continued to flow as I received a Masters of Philosophy and a Doctor of Philosophy degree from Drew University. I have received amazing support and collegial encouragement from colleagues at both Hood Theological Seminary in NC and Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia. In my work I have found friends for life who are so important to me.

I am blessed with an amazing family of choice. They lift me up when I am down and call me into accountability when I screw up. They love me no matter what and I love them as well. They are friends, family, and loved ones who make my life worth living. I cannot imagine my life without them.

I am blessed with a vocation that I love. I have been teaching in one form or another for most of my adult life and it is in my blood. I teach and in those moments I am the best of who I can be. I teach and I help propel the church into the 21st century in exciting and engaging ways. I teaching and it makes me happier than almost any time else in my life. I am lucky to have this joy in my life.

But most of all I am blessed by a faith that keeps me sane, makes my life complete, and connects me to the Creator in ways that lift me off the ground. I am blessed with a church community that inspires and challenges me. I am blessed by a life that brings me hope, love and joy! Thank you to all of you who play a role in it.

I am 50 – and I am proud and blessed.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Me and My Stuff

I heard a comedy routine some years ago by George Carlin about STUFF. I still remember it:

“That's all I want, that's all you need in life, is a little place for your stuff, ya know? I can see it on your table, everybody's got a little place for their stuff. This is my stuff, that's your stuff, that'll be his stuff over there. That's all you need in life, a little place for your stuff. That's all your house is: a place to keep your stuff. If you didn't have so much stuff, you wouldn't need a house. You could just walk around all the time.”

The routine continues to talk about getting so much stuff you need a bigger house for your stuff, you go on vacation and need to take just a bit of your stuff, and after trips you bring home more stuff, etc.  It is raw and rough in spots but I love the bit, because it is so dang true. The acquisition of “stuff” is part of the American reality for most.

We are moving this month and going through all of our stuff – decisions about keeping stuff, giving away stuff and moving stuff is a big part of our lives right now.  We have bags of stuff to give to Goodwill or some other charitable organization. We have bags of stuff that is going out in the trash.  And other stuff is getting packed up to load on a truck and take all the way to our new house – a mere 15 blocks away. But we have to pack up as if we are moving cross country almost.

And the stuff is amazing. Going through your stuff is a kind of archeological dig of sorts. We have talked about items in my son’s room that he wanted to hear the story about. We have talked about priorities in regards to what stuff we have and how we use it – or don’t use it. We have talked about how to decorate the new place with our stuff. And we have talked about the need to acquire less stuff in our lives.

We discovered that we have stuff we have not used in the two years since we moved here – so it is getting tossed or given away unless it is a keepsake. We have stuff that is important so we cannot pack it up until closer to the truck coming to load. We have stuff that has to go with us and stuff that we’re still debating about keeping.

Stuff can weigh us down. Stuff can make us possessive and oppressed. Stuff can separate us from ourselves, from others, and from our God. Stuff is not what God wants for us – God wants faithful living, nurturing relationships, spiritual formation, living missionally, and building family, among others.

Truth is … me and my stuff need a reality check.  What is important in my life is not going to fit in the back of the moving truck. I need to remember that fact.

(And I'm not even gonna get into the "unpacking" of my stuff ... that's for another blog)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Preaching Joy

Recently I was asked by a former student how to adequately express joy in a sermon without sounding “slap-happy.”  The preacher had been told by several members of her congregation that she sounded a bit sappy when she talked about the joy we can all find in our faith.  They just didn’t “buy” her joy when she preached.

I am not even going to go into the fact that there is a significant possibility that the comment was sexist – since it possibly was.  And I am not going to touch the fact that preaching without joy seems oxymoronic in most circumstances (however I admit there are times when abundant joy is not appropriate – like Good Friday and other more solemn occasions).

So here’s the deal.  Preaching with joy is important.  The people in our churches and communities of faith are often in search for a good word, a spark of hope, and a sense that God is present.  Going into the pulpit prepared to speak a word of grace, hope and joy is important.  Doing so is imperative in today’s climate.

But it also must be done with sincerity and authenticity.  Perhaps my former student’s presentation of the Gospel’s joy was not in character with her normal pulpit presence or was in contrast to her physical presentation.  Maybe she was exhibiting a joy that was not related to the text of her sermon.  Perhaps she had not prepared her people to receive a message of joy.  Maybe – just maybe – she was out of touch with her people and did not realize they were not in a place of hearing joy.

There is more to preaching than exegeting (doing research, study, interpretation, and analysis on) the text and writing a sermon manuscript or outline.  One of the most important pieces of preaching involves exegeting the community.  We have to know our people in order for our words to better reach them.  We have to know what is going on in their lives, in our community, and in their faith journey.

Taking the time to really get to know our people puts us in the position to be able to relate what we are doing from the pulpit in ways that connect the text to their lived lives.

Being authentic and showing who we are in ways that communicate the Gospel’s joy and its passion is imperative. Many in and outside of the church today feel a disconnect between their lives and the Gospel message preached in our pulpits. They need to feel God’s presence, to hear a word of grace and hope, and to experience moments of awe and joy.  

And they also need to feel the passion of Christ’s suffering and death, the feelings of “lostness” in the parables of Jesus, and to learn to experience the transformation of lives brought about by the life and death of Jesus.

We are called to share this – all of this story with our people.  We are called to share this message as authentically and connectively as possible. We are called to be honest and “real” in our preaching. We are called to know our people so that all of this is possible.

So get to know your people … spend time with them, learn what is important to them, study and play with them, and let them get to know you. If you do this … they can hear the joy, the hope, the passion and the amazing grace you are called to preach to and with them.

Preach away folks.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Hospital Time Warp

I am not a patient person. I fully admit that fact. I am anxious for things to happen. I work on a schedule and plan ahead. So I always take something with me to grade, read, play with, or otherwise keep my brain, hands and spirit engaged. Normal time lapses do not make me too crazy.

But hospital time is ridiculous. I was in the ER and hospital for 24+ hours with a dear friend who had chest pain and shortness of breath. And I can attest with no reservations that hospitals exist in a totally different time continuum than my own. It seems that time in hospitals runs more slowly than anywhere else in the world. Time almost seems to run backward. And at times it seems not to move at all.

Nurses, aides, PAs and doctors are busy and amazing people. They do very tough jobs and work long hours. They are part of a noble calling. I admire them immensely, but they work on a schedule that is completely unfamiliar to me. I feel like a foreigner in a strange land. A land where waiting is the norm.

 We have waited for tests to be run, waited for a room, waited for dinner, waited for test results, waited for blankets, waited for doctors, and waited for news about dismissal from the hospital. Throughout this time - the professionals all around us are busy, polite, engaged, compassionate, and caring. But they cannot speed up a system that runs on a different time continuum. No one can.

So we sit here waiting. Knowing that God has led us through this amazingly tough scare. Knowing that we are being cared for in remarkable ways. Knowing that people are taking care of Shelby with great joy and care. Knowing that we are blessed to have the insurance to not be overly traumatized by the stay in the hospital. Knowing that there are many folks who live in this limbo of "medical time" way too much of their lives. Knowing that we are not alone - that many of our family and friends have reached out to us in remarkable ways. Knowing that God is with us and is guiding us with grace and love.

Knowing all of this is amazing. Knowing that God is in control and not my desire for time to run on my needs is a learning experience. Knowing that I still need to work on this is ok. God is not done with me yet, evidently.

Knowing you all care about us is a blessing.  Thanks.