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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Eternal in May

      As is typical in Speedway, the month of May is my busiest month.  There are family birthdays and anniversaries.  We have three sets of honor’s banquets, band concerts, talent shows, volunteer efforts, track meets, 4-H workshops, church duties, and extra rental business--all taking place in May.  On top of this, my doctoral program requires that papers be written this month.  These papers linger, still unwritten, as I write this.
       Feel my tension?  
       It arises because of my poor relationship to time. 
       The writer, Jim Forest, tells about a time experiment done at an American Theological School. A number of students were asked to prepare a sermon on the story of the Good Samaritan. The study divided preaching students into three groups.  Some were told they could arrive to tape their sermons any time of day; others were required to appear within a few hours; and the rest were told to come without delay.
        The experimenters also slyly arranged for each student to encounter a man lying on the ground by a bench near the entrance of where the sermons would be delivered. 
      The results?  Only one third of the preaching students took the time to stop and do anything for the person lying on the ground.  But those who did stop were mainly the ones who had been told they could come any time.  They felt they had time.  And the sense of having time freed them to be neighborly.
      Deep within we worry that our supply of time is evaporating, and so we get in a hurry.  Then, we get mad when people and circumstances do not bow to our schedule.

      The only cure for this anxious sense of losing time, is to experience participating in the eternal.  Following Jesus is described as “waiting” on the coming Son. (1 Thessalonians 1:10)  It is only when we take the time to prayerfully wait with those who image his presence that we discover the truth that we have all eternity to accomplish and enjoy great things.  Tension subsides when we deeply know that this schedule will not be interrupted.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Average Beauty

     For sixteen years I have gone to the annual Carl G. Fisher Elementary School Talent Show. 
      The program is not rehearsed, or, at least, it doesn’t appear to be.  My favorite assistant principal, Kevin Bourke, can’t get the sound right, though he tries.  Just in case Kevin reads this article I should say the acoustics were actually much better this year.  Give him the most improved award.
      The larger staff got into the spirit of things this year by doing a line dance as a show-stopping finale.  It wasn’t bad, though the entire town can, again, be thankful that Mr. Bourke pursued a degree in administration rather than in the performing arts.
      Seriously, I don’t want this to sound like I’m anything but admiring of the whole show.  There’s an occasional noteworthy piano recital or comedic act. Yet, mostly the show involves average kids doing average things in an average way.
      It is beautiful. 
     But I noticed something far more impressive this year.  It is an attitude which has been long-cultivated by the staff, but this year it needed no reminder.  The kids, who chose not to participate in the show were amazingly supportive. 
      When I was a child and about to attempt something new, I was told by peers that I was going to “make a fool of myself.”  They may have been trying to do me a Simon Cowell-type favor and steer me to my better gifts.  But at Fisher a student will have the whole student body simply as a cheering section. 
     It is absolutely beautiful.
     Is there anything uglier than sneering at a person’s attempt to find and express beauty and meaning? We experience sneers as ugly because God counts a faithful try as a perfect performance.  Christ, the author and finisher of our act, opens our eyes to how much pride he takes in our giving our very best shot.  There is a freedom in knowing that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses from all ages who cheer us average people who dare to believe our average try will be eternally significant.


Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Mom's Open Checkbook

Walker Percy, half-amused, speaks of a woman who has moved in with her illicit lover, but who is nevertheless frustrated with the living arrangements.   When a counselor asks whether she talks to her boyfriend about his inexplicable spending, she replies, “I don’t yet know him well enough to talk about money.”
        This Mother’s Day I celebrate the way my Mom always made sure family finances were not a source of shame.  I remember one rare occasion when Dad asked about the grocery bill. He knew from the pot-roast to the vegetables, everything had come from the farm.      
       “How can anyone spend 200 dollars at the grocery? What else besides flower and sugar do you have to buy?” he asked.
      Fearing that my weekly quota of bottled Pepsi was in jeopardy, I was relieved when Mom brought out the receipt, schooling my Dad about the benefits of, among many other things, deodorant, paper towels, bleach, and the little dryer sheets that reduce static cling. 
       Years of ministry have taught me to realize how healthy a thing Mom’s receipt was.  She could account for every dime.  It wasn’t that Dad didn’t trust her.  He did. But that trust was always bolstered on the rare occasions he asked about an expense and Mom had an answer ready.  Purchases were subject to scrutiny.
       I know there are boundaries that ought to be observed in families and that those will differ from home to home; but secret checkbooks give me the creeps.  In my thirty years of ministry nearly every family scandal I’ve endured with friends was preceded by secret finances.  Accountability builds rather than undermines trust.            

        And accountability can’t be dodged forever.  “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account...And He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts.”  One day people are going to see exactly what we do with our money.  A little openness now can prepare us for it.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Relishing Relationships

        My wife and I just came back from whitewater rafting in West Virginia where we had an incredible time getting to know two young couples at our church. 
         Such relationships bring joy.  While we may experience a deep connectedness to the land by spending time by ourselves, hermits are seldom happy.  A 2015 Harvard study shows that happiness, rather, depends most upon strengthening the quality of our close relationships.
       As a culture we are currently digesting statistics about what happens to inmates who are placed in solitary confinement.  Like babies who are not held and older people who spend too much time alone with their thoughts, we see that all of us need constructive interaction to heal and thrive.         
       Isolation is toxic.  Even the great mystics who recommend extended periods of silence generally see spiritual retreat as a means of preparing for more meaningful engagement with others.     
       Charles Taylor, in The Ethics of Authenticity, suggests that even the most rebellious young people don’t develop their identities through mere experimentation, but through struggling with a community of persons with a gridwork of existing morals.   
      One of the challenges of our age is that people don’t work together with generations of family on the farm anymore.   Now, we grow up by “moving away from home.”  The cashier at the local grocery once knew us. Now we just order food delivery from the internet. 
       Consumer convenience has created a toxic loneliness of which we are barely aware… until we go rafting with friends.  It’s then we realize how much we need the church to resist the market forces which create isolation. 

       It’s one thing not to know a cashier.  It’s quite another not to know the man who stands in the pulpit.  The shape of a pastor’s life is what gives her words power.  We intuitively know a shepherd will not leave the 99 sheep to seek us out when we stray if he doesn’t know us well enough to specifically cherish us as individuals.  No pastor can love sheep he doesn't know as friends.  Deep within we know that it is relationship that counts.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Podiatric Gospel

       While the recent commercials from The Good Feet Store are amusing, I still find them instructive.   The store’s representative ends one advertisement by saying, “I helped a person deal with a problem he’s suffered with for thirty years.  How do you not go home and talk about that?”
       We talk about what helps.  I have a friend who recently purchased some shoe inserts that delivered him from a great deal of pain.  He is able to effectively walk again; and though he knows most people don’t normally want to talk about podiatric care, he just can’t help himself.  He has to share his joy at finding relief.
       Christian witness is like this. Christ shares our grief in a way that makes our burdens meaningful.   As the woman on the commercial asks, “How do you not go home and talk about that?”
       Most people appreciate their friends sharing with them what helps.  It’s the impersonal street preachers doing bad impersonations of John the Baptist who give Christian evangelism a bad rap. I have been shocked by the insensitivity these types sometimes display toward race fans who are just trying to enjoy a day at the track.  I understand there’s always been some lude behavior that sometimes accompanies the race, but I’m more offended by representatives of the Christian faith who do far more to dampen the party by defensively airing grievances rather than joyfully sharing help.

       I’d much rather have street preachers this May performing something like Bob Dillon’s When the Ship Comes In.  The folk song celebrates the hope that uncaring systems will not ultimately win over us. That’s not mere proselytizing; that’s just suggesting someone try good medicine.   In Isaiah’s day, God sent messengers to announce that Assyrian overlords would not oppress people forever.  This kind of hope can help.  And most people appreciate someone trying to offer hope, even if they choose not to pay much attention.  It is as God says, “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those people” who are just trying to share what helps them—“who bring good news.”  (Isaiah 52:7)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Can You Spell Grace?

        The late Gerald Strauss, Indiana University’s wonderful professor of Reformation history, once asked me, “How can you go through life not knowing how to spell?”  The answer turned out to be that Microsoft Word saved my academic career.  Still, to this day, when I don’t have the foggiest idea of how to spell “badminton” the computer may correct my imaginary word into “bad mitten,” and I may not have the sense in the moment to catch the difference.   
      Most people don’t recognize the depth of my handicap and naturally assume my spelling problems can be corrected with greater effort. I have tried to implement their suggestions, often spending more time proofing my work than I have writing it, only to find my writing still littered with silly mistakes.   All this is especially painful because once upon a time I was a certified, award-winning teacher of English. My spelling problem threatens things central to my identity, and the business world doesn’t care about my handicaps.  It just measures competence. 
        Jesus, however, collected a crowd that was considered a bunch of lame, leprous, prostituted, tax cheats.  He said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” Jesus seems to think that human brokenness precedes real accomplishment.   Christ’s esteem for the least is considered a “scandal” because Christ’s love doesn’t guarantee his followers a decent salary.  In my case, parents prefer English teachers who can spell.
        What do we do for people whose whole life’s work seems shattered by their failure?  How do we value the builder who can no longer work because of injury?  Do we trust that God can use the spiritual director who is having panic attacks? The counselor who has been divorced?  What should we do for a bankrupt financial planner besides suggest a career change?  Can we trust a depressed interior designer to create a happy space?  Can judgmental people, who lack the self-awareness necessary to see how they also violate their own ideals and aspirations, still feel our gracious welcome?

       Do our lives spell grace? 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Ressurrection and Plausibility

        Yes, I think Jesus’ tomb was really found empty.
      And, yes, I know dead people usually don’t rise. Rumors of the raising of Lazarus and the widow of Nain’s Son, like the previous stories of Elijah and the widow of Zarapeth’s boy, are as rare in the Bible as today’s own resurrection reports continue to be comparatively rare.
       Yet, when I was in Chiapas, Mexico in 2009 a Presbyterian missionary shared how his experience there had changed what Peter Berger calls this man’s “plausibility structures.” The idea is that relationships and fundamental assumptions tend to make something seem more or less plausible.  This missionary came to trust a village who confirmed a mother’s story about her dead two-year-old being raised to life!  
      This should not be shocking.  Historically such stories have generally seemed quite possible.  They come from a variety of religious traditions, mirroring world-wide archetypal hopes. Earliest Christianity proclaimed that the mythical dying and rising God had entered history. Universal aspirations, written on the collective mind for millennia, were acted out in the history of Israel in a way that unleashed a newly creative power into the world.
      This seems implausible to secular people because of their mechanistic assumptions about the world.  The church needs to listen better to contemporary science, but I think some scientists need to realize that they are using dead metaphors to describe a world which is mysteriously conscious and open to renewal.   Rodney Brooks, a noted MIT scientist, who works in the field of robotics, for instance, thinks that human beings are “biochemical robots.” 
     That’s what I find implausible.  Brooks is a smart guy, but I think he suffers from what is a widespread crisis of imagination that can’t tell human consciousness apart from a robot because it’s been trained to see what is alive and pervaded by consciousness as merely a dead, chemical machine.  Surely at some level Brooks knows his thoughts are more than chemical reactions.   Surely he knows the processes he observes are open to surprise, and that he’s ignoring any testimony that doesn’t give his dead machine-world the last word.