Archive for August, 2013

While We Were Dreaming…

What a great celebration for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr. King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech. I hope and pray that we’ll see widespread renewed commitment to achieving that dream. We’ve made remarkable progress in the last fifty years. But while we’ve been celebrating in recent days, I’ve been reminded how very far it is to that time when “…justice rolls like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.” (Thank God Dr. King listened to singer Mahalia Jackson’s urging to dump his manuscript and tell the Spirit-inspired truth. May more of us preachers tune our ears to hear such voices and our hearts to follow their lead!)

Some recent experiences got me thinking along this line. Last Friday the son of some friends of ours chose to end his life. He’d battled mental illness for years. His family had fought the battle alongside him. Along the way they’d discovered the dismal lack of resources, funding, and caring available to those who suffer from mental illness. Today yet another family mourns its tragic loss because we choose not to provide sufficient resources to meet the basic health needs of some of our most vulnerable neighbors. Want to know more? The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill is a good starting point.

Last Monday my wife and I spent the day with long-time friends in Tucson, Arizona. When we had some time to fill before dinner, we decided to visit the nearby Titan Missile Museum.  The Titan II missile was developed and deployed in the early 1960’s. Launch sites were built around Air Force bases in Tucson, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Wichita, Kansas. Each of the 54 sites housed a single missile equipped with a 9-megaton nuclear warhead capable of destroying everything within up to 900 square miles when detonated. The hardened silo and underground control center were designed to survive a first-strike and still be able to launch a retaliatory strike.

These missiles supported our defense policy of Mutual Assured Destruction. Very simply, US leaders believed that if we could keep the Russians convinced that any missile attack launched on this country would be met with a response that would inflict unacceptable damage on their country (not to mention the rest of the planet!), they would never fire the first shot. And if we believed the same about their capability, neither would we initiate an attack.

In the 1980’s the missiles were phased out, due to a combination of arms reduction treaties and technological advances that made the Titan II obsolete. All the sites have now been de-commissioned. The other 53 have been dismantled and converted to other uses. Vista de la Montana United Methodist Church is built on one former Titan II site north of Tucson!

This museum is the only Titan II site still relatively intact. I’m grateful for the service of all who built and maintained these sites over the years. The retired Air Force members who were our guides recalled their service proudly. My father-in-law worked at this particular site as a civilian contractor for two years.  But the musem reminds us of a disturbing chapter in our history. The US and the USSR spent countless billions on the deadly game of nuclear chicken we called Mutual Assured Destruction. It truly was MADness. For me, going down in the missile control center and experiencing a simulated launch wasn’t the game our guides tried to make it. It was a chilling reminder of the MADness of which we humans are capable. Right now that madness is playing out in Syria, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Washington D.C.. Too many times in too many places we have chosen to fight rather than to recognize the other’s humanity and do the hard work of finding a way to live together in peace. We’ve stepped back from the brink of imminent nuclear holocaust, but we still have the firepower to destroy life on this planet. We must find another way.

In the midst of it all Miley Cyrus took the stage. I didn’t watch the VMA Awards. But I heard and saw more than enough. Some agent/talent guru convinced Miley that debasing and disrespecting herself would advance her career. Her handlers clearly loved dollars and ratings more than their client. Was Miley so brainwashed by our hyper-sexualized culture that she went along? Did she buy into a success-at-any-cost mentality? Has she so little respect for herself as a woman? Did anyone in her life love her enough to speak up:  “Is this really what you want to do? This isn’t who you are. I believe you have enough talent to connect with your audience in a way that’s mutually respectful instead of mutually degrading.” The issue goes beyond Miley to all the young girls who will see her and follow her lead, and all the young men who will take Robin Thicke for a role model.

While we were “dreaming” and reaffirming Dr. King’s vision of a new world, these nightmares and others continued unabated. Fifty years ago Dr. King spoke of “the fierce urgency of Now” when he called us beyond talk to substantive action. President Obama echoed the words and the call in his speech on Wednesday. Maybe your life doesn’t have much “fierce urgency” at the moment. But mentally ill people and their families and caregivers do. So do other vulnerable members of our communities who scramble for scraps and leftovers of time, money, and attention. The  victims of violence and war in this country and many others feel that fierce urgency. So do the women and men victimized by our hyper-sexualized culture. So do lots of other folks with lots of other equally pressing issues.

We may not be feeling much “fierce urgency” for ourselves right now. But we’re easily within reach of someone who is. Our Risen Lord is already at work in these situations. He’s expecting his followers—you and me—to join him. Let’s not make him wait any longer. When we drag our feet, we deny Dr. King’s dream that is also God’s dream for the world.

Postal Weeds and the Common Good

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 The weeds had grown up around our corner post office–again. So I cut them down–again! Our “post office” is at a street corner about a quarter-mile from our home. It’s not one of those sterile, institutional steel fortresses. Years ago (before we lived here) our neighbors turned down the Postal Service’s offer to install one of those. So our rural “post office” still consists of individual mailboxes in a row, each on its own post (unlike this picture), planted and maintained by its owner. This works well enough—most of the time. In July and August the “monsoon” comes to Arizona. “Monsoon” in this country means at best a couple of inches of rain. But it’s enough to get the weeds very excited. By this time most years they reach mailbox height. Every time I pull up and reach through my truck window, I worry that a man-eating plant will grab my wrist and drag me home for dinner.

Our boxes are in a public right-of-way. It doesn’t seem to be anyone’s job to cut down the weeds. So my neighbors and I wait…and wait. Finally I get my weed-eater from the garage, throw it in the back of the truck, drive up to the corner, and cut down the weeds. It takes less than half an hour. Everyone now has easy access, my horror-show fantasy is over, and I got to use a power tool!

This is our third summer here since I retired. It’s the third summer I’ve cleared those pesky postal weeds. Last year I tried unsuccessfully to wait out my neighbors. This year I was equally unsuccessful. Or did my neighbors successfully outwait me? It doesn’t matter. The weeds are cleared. Our corner “post office” is easily accessible. I have done my bit for the common good.

Remember “the common good”? At our best that’s why we elect leaders—to serve “the common good”. That’s why we volunteer to serve others in various church and community organizations—to serve “the common good”. Trouble is, we humans aren’t always at our best. Self-interest poisons the political process, both on the part of those who run for office and all of us who vote. Self-interest poisons our volunteering and even our church-going. We tweak and twist “the common good” until it means “good for me and my tribe”. Our tweaked, twisted visions clash with increasing intensity. We no longer care if “good for me” means “too bad for you”. We’ve abandoned any pretense of working for the common good. We’ve chosen instead to live by the law of the jungle—“Everyone for him/herself.”

Jim Wallis has devoted his life to working for the common good. The title of his latest book is On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about the Common Good. Wallis wrote recently in Time Magazine that “…the ethic of the common good has been lost on all political sides. We have entered a dark and dangerous period of selfishness in both our culture and our political life. ‘I’ has replaced ‘we’. Winning has indeed replaced governing, and ideological warfare substitutes for finding solutions to real and growing problems.”

Wallis urges people of faith to help transform this toxic trend. He suggests that our shared spiritual traditions in this country offer common ground from which we can work together for the common good. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a core teaching common to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Even the US Constitution states that one purpose of our government is to promote “the general welfare”. Can we set aside our ideologies and special interests and agree on some basic moral values ? For example, love of neighbor, care for the weakest and most vulnerable among us, and a more equitable distribution of resources are values that unite people across traditional divisions of age, class, ethnicity, and ideology. They are affirmed by many who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious”. “A commitment to the common good,” Wallis writes, “could bring us together and solve the deepest problems this country and the world now face: How do we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another?”

Restoring our nation’s commitment to the common good will take more than one guy with a weed-eater. It’ll take more than an army of weed-eater-wielding old guys! It will take our personal commitment to let our lives be guided by our understanding of “the common good” instead of “what’s in it for me?” It will take courage and patience in every conversation where we have a chance to encourage others to join us in moving beyond polarization to partnership. It will take political involvement that holds all candidates to the standard of serving the common good rather than the largest contributors. It will take prayerful persistence and persistent prayerfulness. We didn’t reach this “…dark and dangerous period of selfishness…” overnight. We won’t find our way into the light without an equally long journey. A fourth-century Christian named John Chrysostom wrote, “This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good…for nothing can as make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for his neighbors.” Twenty-first century Christian Jim Wallis says, “Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.”

Yes, we need much more dialog about the content of “the common good”. But let’s take the first step first. Let’s choose to make the common good the standard for our lives. Let’s reject once and for all the Law of the Jungle in our common life.

Recognize Anybody?

?????????????????????????????????? 

Recently my wife and I spent a week in a large RV Park/campground just south of San Diego, CA. Officially we went to watch our grandson play in a baseball tournament. Truthfully, summer in San Diego is The Promised Land for summer-weary Arizonans. Any excuse will do! It was our first trip in our new-to-us travel trailer. The “RV lifestyle” had a fairly steep learning curve at first. But the closest we came to a major crisis was a brand-new water hose that burst our second day out.

A fence separated the park from the river that ran along one side of the park. During the day a gate allowed campers access to the river bank. It was a popular place to run or walk, with or without a dog. Carson (by his own account the fiercest, bravest 17-lb. Shih Tzu on the planet) and I walked the bank daily. We met both two-legged and four-legged neighbors from the park. We also met  folks for whom that river bank was their freeway. While we vacationers walked or jogged along, they pushed their shopping carts and rode their bicycles along the bank to get to work and do whatever it took to survive. Under the bridge we saw evidence that some of our neighbors slept there regularly.

That campground accommodated everything from tents to sophisticated RVs worth as much as our house. The total value of the rolling stock in that large park was well into the millions. A few campers were long-term park residents working far from home in construction or other jobs. But most of us (in July in San Diego) were “on vacation”. We had comfortable, spacious homes awaiting our return. Our camping “equipment” represented substantial “discretionary spending”. Yet literally within a stone’s throw were neighbors whose worldly possessions fit in the shopping cart they pushed everywhere. They biked to work out of necessity, not the pursuit of fitness or an environmentalist ethic. They slept under the bridge at night out of necessity, not because they enjoyed “camping”.

The stark contrast has stayed with me. What’s wrong with this picture is not merely that some of us have more than others. Life will always be like that. What bothers me is a nagging question: Did the folks in in the campground recognize their neighbors? If so, what did do about the gap between our abundance and their need? I said a silent prayer for the guy who went past on his bike and the woman (and children) pushing the shopping cart; smiled and waved when I saw the same person at the same time each day. Since I’m home, I’m feeling nudged to address this issue I can’t even name in a more substantial way than just blogging about it. But I’m convinced that lasting change will come when many of us recognize the other person as a person. He/she is a human being just as we are. Therefore we are family. We are neighbors with responsibility for each other. Once someone asked  Jesus,, “Who is my neighbor?” His answer was, in effect, “Who isn/t?” (Read the story in Luke 10:25-37.)

Another time Jesus told a story about a rich man who saw a poor on his doorstep–but never recognized his brother:

“There was once a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped at his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.” (Luke 16:19-21 MSG)

For weeks, months, perhaps years, that rich man stepped over Lazarus every time he left his house. Maybe he used another door so he didn’t have to pass that disgusting sight.  Or maybe he just developed a blind spot. Lazarus was so desperately poor and disease-ridden, the rich man thought to himself, that he wasn’t merely at the bottom of God’s list. Lazarus had been deleted from God’s list! The rich man may well have prayed every time he stepped around Lazarus, “Thank you, God, that I’m not like this miserable wretch.”

Eventually both men died. Lazarus wound up in the lap of Abraham (heaven). The rich man found himself “in hell and torment”(16:23). When he complained, the response was, “You enjoyed your life and ignored that poor soul on your doorstep. You didn’t recognize your brother in need, your neighbor. Now the tables have turned. How does it feel being as anonymous and unrecognizable as Lazarus was to you?”

Imagine Jesus walking the river bank with us. After we’ve passed a few folks, he asks us, “Recognize anybody? That guy on the bike? That woman with the cart? Those folks sleeping under the bridge?”  “No, Master,” we reply. “Never seen them before.” I hear Jesus sigh with disappointment. Then he takes a deep breath and retells another one of his stories(Matthew 25:31-46) . We obviously didn’t get it before. At the day of judgment folks are lined up and sorted into two groups. The difference between the two groups? How they treated the most vulnerable people within their reach: “…as you did it (or not) to one of the least of these…members of my family, you did it to me.” ( Matthew 25:40)

Look more deeply at the folks you meet on the street today. “Recognize anybody?” Your brother, your sister? You’ll soon discover a family resemblance with the most unlikely folks.If you dare, let Jesus’ story play in the background: “…as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me.”

We Can’t…But We Can–Part 2

As I was writing Part 1, I thought I knew just how Part 2 would go. I’d briefly recap the five qualities I’d identified from my childhood church experience—1) Church-family partnership; 2) Sense of genuinely being cared for by church people; 3) Children and youth involved in meaningful ministry; 4) Exposure to different and challenging ideas: 5) Clear, consistent values taught and modeled. Then I’d address each point and suggest ways to bring it into our very different 21st-century context.

But you know the saying—“We plan. God (and the Blogosphere) laugh.” Your comments led me toward a more holistic approach. My childhood experience didn’t happen because church leaders consciously focused on those five qualities. It happened because pastors and lay leaders built a culture of discipleship over many years. While far from perfect, that Maynard Memorial Methodist Church culture shaped us in profound ways that I’m still discovering. The question isn’t, “How do we put these pieces together the right way?” It’s “How do we build a church culture that forms committed, effective disciples of Jesus Christ?” If I had all the answers, I’d be on a book tour right now. But I don’t, so I’m writing in my basement study.

One commenter said, I do wish families today had the love of a church family. But they have to go to church first!” Once upon a time mainline churches could open their doors and watch the building fill up. Fifty years later, the church’s role in many communities has become peripheral at best. We’ve lost our place at the center of community life. The church is no longer the “go-to” place for families.

What if we turned that statement around? “I do wish churches today shared God’s love effectively with families in their communities. But first they have to go where families are!” [Please remember that today’s families come in many configurations besides the stereotypical working dad, stay-at-home mom, 2+ kids, a minivan, and a dog.]  Hard as it may be for life-long church folks to comprehend, a growing number of people today have either no significant church experience or significant negative experience. They aren’t likely to get up and pop into our church some Sunday. Reaching them starts with meeting them on their turf. After we’ve established a genuine relationship and let our deeds and presence do the talking, our new friends are more likely to be receptive to hearing about our faith and eventually venturing onto “our turf”. [NOTE: If “making friends” is merely your “strategy” to get folks in the door and on the roll so the church can survive, don’t bother. Folks know when they’re being used. If genuine Christlike love isn’t motivating you, you’re hurting the cause of Christ, not helping it.]

What would it mean for you and some friends to go “where families are” in your community? ASK SOME FAMILIES YOU KNOW! Ask church families. Ask your neighbors. Ask families who live near the church. Ask folks where you work. If you dare, ask families who have left your church. WHEN YOU ASK, LISTEN CAREFULLY! “School” and “sports” are two common responses. You’ll discover others in your particular context—4H, the homeless shelter, Children’s Hospital. Ask yourself and your friends: How can we go where families in our community are as the presence of Jesus who was Love-in-the-flesh? The Jesus who told his disciples, “I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:27)? Ask the school principal or the soccer league president how you can be of service. Expect some suspicion about just being there to proselytize. Expect to have to prove yourself. Do the jobs nobody else wants to do better than they’ve ever been done. Focus on building relationships and being yourselves. Over time your church will become known as a faith community that genuinely cares about children and their families.

“First we have to go where families are.” One Sunday afternoon Rev. Adam Hamilton visited a first-time visitor to that morning’s worship service. She told him she’d enjoyed the service but she wouldn’t be back. She explained that her son (who had stayed home with her husband) needed constant one-to-one care. She couldn’t participate in worship and also care for him. She didn’t expect to find a church that could provide that care. “If we can provide the care Matthew needs,” Adam asked, “will you come back?” She said she would. Adam Hamilton very quickly found folks willing to be trained to care for Matthew on Sunday mornings.  His mother was able to come to worship and know he was being cared for. Adam Hamilton led his church to stand beside Matthew’s family (and others) where they were—“staying home with our child whose special needs make it nearly impossible for us to take him/her anyplace that’s not absolutely essential.” Today “Matthew’s Ministry” shares God’s love with hundreds of families whose children have a variety of special needs.

Nearly every church I know says it wants to reach children and families. But few actually “…go where families are.” You can hardly blame them. It’s a missionary journey likely to trigger a seismic shift in the life of the church. It requires substantial investments of time, energy, study, prayer, and faith. It demands that we set aside “the way we’ve always done it” in order to discover “the way to share God’s love with today’s families in today’s world”.

On the other hand—the journey transforms us. We grow together into a community of “effective, committed disciples of Jesus Christ.” We claim the possibility of changing lives and whole communities. We are faithful to the One who says, “Let the little children come to me…” (Mark 10:14). I’m ready to go. Are you?


Categories