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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Fixing Fence

 In the 1914 poem “Mending Wall” Robert Frost popularized a 17th century proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Even now when the group Restless Heart sings of reconciling with others they still speak of “Mending Fences.” 
      I grew up fixing fence.  There are few sentences that still cause more of a visceral reaction than, “The cows are out.”  The whole family had to drop everything, night or day, in order to locate the gap where the cattle escaped, drive the escapees out of the neighbor’s garden, and re-stretch new wire in the broken places. 
       Boundaries kept the neighborhood at peace.      
      I, like Frost, grew up in a world where houses had porches which formalized entry into another’s space.  Before Funeral homes ruined the word, front rooms were called “parlors,” which were formally decorated in order to honor and receive guests.  People came over by invitation, or else apologized for “dropping by” just for a moment.  Once guests arrived at another’s home, they did not roam through that person’s house without being shown into the other rooms.  Both host and guest paid respectful attention to boundaries. 
     Healthy neighbors take responsibility for transitional space. 
      A few weeks ago one of the wood slats from my neighbors’ new fence was somehow knocked off into my yard.  I propped it up on their side of the fence, assuming they were the ones who busted it.  The next week I again discovered the slat thrown in my yard—probably by the professional crew that mows my neighbor’s place.  I started to get irritated. 
     Then I remembered my baptism.   Jesus does not ask me to like how my neighbor or his renters keep fence.  He commanded me to love my neighbor.    And so, I didn’t throw the slat on the other side of the fence, again.  I didn’t anonymously call code enforcement about other things that might irritate me.  Christians must not create resentment and suspicion like that. 
     I fixed my neighbors’ fence.  Love cannot do less.   Now, I just need for people to pray that I will enjoy it more next time.


Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Shameful Driving

     These days many people are sufficiently cut off from their neighbors that they no longer care what others think.  Last summer a fellow drove over the cones I set up to protect the fresh sealer I was spreading on the church parking lot.  I raised my arms as if to ask what he was doing.
       He gave me the finger.
       Honestly, I’m glad my disapproval bothered him enough for him to offer me his own.  I’m more worried about the kid who later drove through the wet lot and laughed.  Such people, as we say, “know no shame.”  They seem unfazed by the disapproval of others. 
       It’s a problem.
      And for that reason our culture has intensified its attempts to embarrass such people.  In varying degrees people may deserve this rising tide of ridicule. Businesses may deserve their negative reviews on Angie’s List.  Cheating boyfriends are ousted in front of a thousand friends on Facebook.  Celebrities become fodder for late-night farce while our most fragile people have Judge Judy scold them on national television. 
       Other people are slandered for a mere lapse in judgment.  Others have just taken moral stands that are completely misunderstood.  But in all these cases we seem to justify shouting at them; we boycott, threaten and single people out for public scrutiny—not because we are calling them to a transcendent moral standard, but because their behavior makes us mad.
     This culture of shame is a much bigger problem.
     Shame is an intensely painful embarrassment that will not easily go away. It spawns every form of defensiveness.  It’s the primary emotion which drives addiction and leads to death.  It is such a problem that after humanity made its first mistake, God fashioned clothes to hide our nakedness.  Jesus teaches us, that "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you.”  The love of God covers over a multitude of sins.  The gospel offers people who have otherwise fallen into disrepute an opportunity to find in God a refuge from the disapproval of others.  
      God does not want to “put them to shame.” God doesn't want them cut off; he wants them integrated with their neighbors so that their neighbors feelings mean something.  I’m not sure it helps us or others to honk at people for their shameful driving. I’m not sure that publicly exposing people and creating a culture of perpetual outrage is doing any of us much good.

A Father's Day Note to the Bereaved

       National holidays like Father’s Day are too preachy for this preacher. 
     Don’t get me wrong. It’s important to honor parents. Scripture says that honoring parents is the first commandment that has a promise attached to it—“that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth." 
      Honoring parents is not a bad idea for Mom and Dad’s sake, either. 
      I usually have to fly to Texas right in the middle of cherry season, but this year my wife and daughters climbed up on the ladders and started picking cherries for me.  They picked and pitted and bagged and froze my favorite fruit in order to honor me with cherries on Father’s Day.    I was touched.
      But our national celebrations of parenthood can get on my nerves because in the pews every Father’s Day sit any number of children who do not know who their Daddy is.  Two pews down sits a man who ran away from his abusive father, whom he still regards as dangerous.  On the other side of the sanctuary sit children whose hearts ache because their loving Dad has died prematurely.   Their wounds are not rawer than the father who has cried through his prayers every night for a decade wondering where he went wrong with his kids. 
      These people are too bereaved for the sentimentality of Father’s Day. 
      This article is for them. 
     God would have them celebrate Advent, which assures us of the coming future that will heal all wounds.  Christmas speaks of a God who has come as an infant into a world of fatherless infanticide.   By Good Friday we learn that there is nothing he will not bear. By Easter and Pentecost we are declaring with him that death and failure are undone by the loving power that has come to dwell in our midst. 
     The church calendar has what Father’s Day lacks—dignity for the childless--adoption for the orphaned.  The secular calendar preaches about being thankful, but it does not offer a Father to the fatherless nor does it offer eternal life as the ground for true hope.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pre-Pubescent Leadership

We have… had fathers who disciplined us… No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.  Hebrews 12: 9, 11

     I noted on the news today that a lady has been charged with a crime for letting her young child drive the family vehicle.  We usually don’t allow children to make decisions that affect their safety and that of others.  Children lack the judgment to make weighty decisions.
       This may seem rather obvious, but wise parents limit their kid’s time on the play-station.  They make their kids do their homework, eat vegetables, take baths, brush their teeth and go to bed at a decent hour.  No child naturally chooses these things.  That’s why parents make the decisions.
      Don’t shoot me when I say kids shouldn’t be allowed to pick churches, either.  Please, don’t think I have it out for any set of churches.  We are all on the same team.  I’ve been a youth minister.  I’ve done the pizza parties, ping-pong tournaments, Kings Island trips, short term “mission” vacations, stayed up all night at lock-ins trying to make church fun.  At one time I tried to be hip for Jesus.
      It’s just that statistics suggest it doesn’t work.  In my tradition, over 80% of the children who have been raised in large youth groups apart from traditional assemblies no longer attend church by the time they turn 25.  It turns out that fun relationships with other children do not solely impart faith. Kids learn forgiveness by watching it practiced among adults. Kids learn of Jesus by feeling the gravity in an older saint’s smile.  They come to love scripture, not when it’s been made relevant to their adolescent drives, but when they are brought within hearing distance of a different world.  It turns out that whatever substantially helps their parents’ spiritual lives ends up being far more meaningful for kids in the long run. 

     Parents ought to drive the car.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Two Kinds of Bravery

    The B52 flyover at the Indianapolis 500 gave me goosebumps this year. I’m moved to gratitude when I think of men and women who have selflessly provided security for our messed up world.   Our society could not do without this kind of self-protection made possible by the sacrifices of what we call the “Defense Department.” 
      This Memorial Day allow me to retell one story from the life of a South Carolina sergeant from the Civil War era.  Richard Kirkland spent the night of December 13, 1862 listening to the cries of hundreds of Union soldiers his unit had shot down that day in front of Marye’s Heights outside of Fredricksburg, Virginia.  The next day he informed his commanding general that he wished to help the wounded Union soldiers.  The general, warning of the possibility of Kirkland being caught in a crossfire, allowed him to leave his secure position in order to help, but Kirkland would not be allowed to fly a white flag while doing so.
     "All right, sir, I'll take my chances."   Kirkland replied.
      Kirkland filled all the canteens he could carry and then went out onto the battlefield several times, giving the wounded Union soldiers water and warm clothing. While dangerous at first, Kirkland’s loving, vulnerable mission soon became obvious to both armies who started watching him.   Cries for water erupted all over the battlefield. Kirkland proceeded to help every wounded enemy, earning the title the “Angel of Marye’s Heights.”
       Kirkland engaged in one kind of sacrificial service on December 13.  It’s was a form of defensiveness that shot his enemies.  It was a different kind of sacrifice in which he engaged the next day.  Bravery that risks life to share water is about a vulnerable love for enemies.  Self-protection and a concern for justice can give way to compassion and mercy. 

        We celebrate selfless bravery which is about “preserving and protecting” on Memorial Day.  But we should not lose sight of the fact that this kind of bravery is only necessary because sacrificial deference, mercy and reconciling love—the kind Jesus showed on the cross—has broken down.

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.