Tuesday, August 27, 2013

My Thanks, and, There is Hope for Humanity

    A few weeks ago I read a story online by someone who was terribly discouraged about how we human beings sometimes treat people with disabilities.  At the end of the story they admitted that not every experience is a bad one, and that certainly, some of us out there on the Internet must have some positive stories.  She then asked if we might do her a favor and send her some of our stories so that she might renew her faith in humanity.  I had an amazing experience this past summer and so I sent it in and she later thanked me.  I think it’s such a good story that I wanted to share it with you, partly to remind you that there are good people out there, but also as one small way that I might thank those responsible and encourage others to do the same.  Here’s my story…

    Ten years ago, I was in the middle of two years of unemployment from a career in electrical engineering when I heard a call to ministry.  My father was a pastor, and I swore for forty years that I would never, ever do that.  Obviously, God had other plans.

    Fast forward ten years including five years of juggling full-time seminary studies, pastoring two-rural churches, some serious family health issues, and raising a family with three kids as well as eventually moving three times.  All along, I hoped that my father would be alive, and well enough, to attend, even participate in, my ordination service.  That happened this past June.  As the time for my ordination approached, it was often doubtful that my father would be able get out of the house, let alone be able to travel or participate.  Finally, both he and my mom committed to try, but that brought up a bunch of other issues.

    In the East Ohio Conference of our church, during the service of ordination, the people who are participating process through this cavernous concert hall, climb the stairs onto the stage and have to be seated for a fairly long time.  My father could do few of those things.  He is 87.  He walks with some difficulty and only for short distances.  Sitting is not always comfortable and stairs are pretty much impossible.  When we asked the organizers if accommodations could be made, no one ever batted an eye.  Every single person in the process said that they would do whatever had to be done so that my father could be there for me during that special moment.  But even on the day of the service, I wasn’t sure Dad would make it… until he arrived just a few hours before we started.  

    Before the service, Dad was warmly greeting at the back door of the concert hall, only a few steps away from the stage and the *one* step at the stage door had a ramp installed - just for him.  I was told that Bishop Hopkins, who was presiding over the ordination, had been informed of Dad’s age and disability and had no problems making everyone wait for as long as it took Dad to walk across the stage.  Since Dad doesn’t hear well, the stage manager stood near him so that she could tell him when it was his turn.  A good friend, Jan Sprague, sat with Dad instead of in the audience, missing the service, so that my mother could sit with our family and see everything live instead of on a television monitor.  When Dad’s turn (and mine) on stage came, my District Superintendent, Rev. Benita Rollins, went backstage, took Dad’s arm and gently guided him onstage, walking with him all the way on and off (even picking up the stole that Dad had dropped on the way), and held him steady as the bishop prayed over me.

    At home, family, friends, and church members who were unable to be there in person, were able to watch the whole thing as the service of ordination was live streamed over the Internet.   Many reported that seeing my Dad appear and make his way slowly across the stage brought them to tears.  Just thinking about it now does the same for me. 

    None of it could have happened without the amazing, generous, thoughtful, and giving spirit of everyone involved.

    Many thanks to Bishop Hopkins, Bishop Robert Fannin, Rev. Rollins, Jan Sprague, Paul White, Ruthie Wheeler, Jan Yandell, and so many others who were there, who helped, and who, together, made it possible for my family to experience a moment we thought might be impossible.

(If you’re terribly curious, if you go here, picture #41 in the slideshow is me, with my Dad behind me.)

Monday, August 19, 2013

I Am Encouraged

    Last Sunday evening we had our regular church youth group meeting.  Not much was really different than any other week, but I came away feeling encouraged and thinking we might just be doing something right.  Our leaders have been taking turns and our friend Brett Huntsman was the leader for the evening.  While Brett always has good games in mind that include a lesson or that reinforce the message, that wasn’t what encouraged me.  Brett also brought some thought provoking and challenging words to our young people and engaged them in conversation more than most of us (even the pastors) are typically able to do.  But that wasn’t what encouraged me either.  My source of encouragement came from something small enough that most people, other than Todd, our youth leader and I, probably didn’t even notice.
    At the end of each meeting our youth follow the custom generations of Wesleyan meetings by holding hands in a circle, arms crossed, right over left, and praying around the circle.  Each week we encourage these young people to pray out loud, even if it is a one sentence prayer thanking God for the weather.  Many of them have never prayed out loud before.  Many do not pray at home.  For most of them, it is a frightening proposition to make themselves vulnerable in front of their peers.  I still remember what it was like for me more than thirty years ago, when our youth group did the same thing.  My pulse skyrocketed as the prayers came around the circle to me.  But, I also remember that was the place where I learned to pray in public, not to an audience, but to God and not be afraid (much) of what others thought.

    Normally our group, now as well as thirty years ago, prays around the circle and about half the kids just get skipped over, they opt out by squeezing the hand of the person next to them.  It’s just too scary.  But the other half, mostly leaders and a few of the braver, more outgoing youth, lift up prayers of thanksgiving for the weather, for our group, and also prayers of support and encouragement for one another.  Sunday wasn’t all that different, except for one small thing.  The circle was the same, and the prayers were meaningful, but as we went around the circle I noticed that very few kids were opting out.  Far more of them than usual were stepping out of their comfort zone and praying out loud, even those who often do not.  In the end, nearly every (though not all) young person in the circle prayed some kind of prayer, some simple and some quite meaningful. 

    It was a little thing, but I noticed and it encouraged me.  Perhaps God is at work in this group of young people who are struggling through a difficult and sometimes awkward stage of life.  This is what we as pastors and youth leaders pray for.  That God would reach young hearts and reveal himself to them.  Most of the time God doesn’t show his hand, sometimes it’s years until we meet an adult church leader who tells us of what God was doing for them when they were youths many years earlier.  But Sunday night was different.  God gave us a peek, a hint that he was at work among our youth.  And I am encouraged.

Now, if only we could see it happen with our adults.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Are You Loving?

    As I noted in my last blog, my family and I recently spent a week at Cedar Campus in the Upper Peninsula with author Tom Blackaby.  One of the things that Rev. Blackaby got me thinking about was this:

 “Are you loving?”

    Blackaby’s point was that while Jesus never compromised his faith or his values, he was always loving before he placed any demands on anyone.  For an example, let’s look at Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (found in the Gospel of John, chapter 4).  Jesus’ disciples are off looking for some lunch but Jesus stays behind sitting near the village well.  Along comes a woman who has a problem with fidelity, has been married five times and is currently living with a sixth.  Jesus know all this but he doesn’t lead with it.  Jesus doesn’t show up with a sign that says “God hates whores” or begin his conversation by condemning her for her loose morals.  

Instead, Jesus begins by asking for a drink of water.

    That might not sound like much, but it is.  As a Jew, Jesus wasn’t supposed to even speak to a Samaritan and probably should have been careful to speak to a woman even if she was Jewish.  Because of her lifestyle, it is likely that this woman was regularly disrespected.  When she saw a Jewish man sitting by the well, she expected to be overlooked and disrespected.  But Jesus didn’t do that.  Jesus gave her respect when he spoke to her.  Jesus showed her love by asking her for something that he would have asked of one of his own disciples.  Speaking to a Samaritan would have been discouraged but drinking from a Samaritan’s cup would have been inconceivable.   Jesus showed her love by ignoring the rules of his culture. 

    Not surprisingly, Jesus doesn’t stop at being counter cultural.  Jesus doesn’t just offer this woman some self-esteem, he offers her living water saying, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

    Let’s review: Jesus meets a woman who his culture says that he should ignore, and he speaks to her.  The religious leaders of the day said that Jesus should not speak to her, should not touch her, and should not even eat or drink from anything that she has touched but he asks her for a drink anyway.  And then, when the woman wonders why he is breaking all of the rules, he offers her living water, the gift of eternal life.  And so far, she hasn’t acknowledged her sin, repented, or changed her behavior in any way. 

Only then, does Jesus tell the woman that he knows all about her history.

Before Jesus talks about sin, Jesus offered her love.

    Over and over again, in encounter after encounter, this is the model that Jesus follows.  Before Jesus said anything to Zacchaeus the tax collector about sin, he honored him by entering his home and sharing a meal with him.

Love first. Religion second.

    I am not saying that religion and repentance are not important.  Jesus thought they were important.  These things did not get left behind at the side of the road.  Jesus came to earth, lived, died and rose again so that we could know about repentance and salvation.  But Jesus always showed people that he loved them before he told them that God desired for them to live differently.

    Before we tell our neighbors that they have a sin problem, we had better be sure that they know how much we love them.  Showing up at parades or funerals with signs saying that God hates somebody doesn’t pass the smell test.  Doing stuff like that doesn’t smell like Jesus, it isn’t at all the sort of thing that Jesus did.  Everybody hated Samaritans and tax collectors and they knew it.  The woman at the well and Zacchaeus expected Jesus to hate them.   They were surprised when he didn’t.  It was his surprising love for them that made them open to listening and genuinely hearing what he had to say next when he told them that there was a better way.

Loving your neighbor opens the door so that they can hear the important message that you are carrying.

The model of Jesus is this:

Love first.  Preach second.

So how about it?

Are you loving?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Are You Good?

    My family and I spent a week in July attending a pastor’s seminar in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  The speaker for the week was Tom Blackaby who is the author of several well-known Christian books.  During that week there were many times when I gave serious though about the things that Mr. Blackaby brought to us but also about things in my own mind that his thoughts stirred within me.  During that time together Tom Blackaby stated the obvious by saying:

“Those who aren’t following Jesus aren’t his followers.  Followers follow.”

    Simple, yet thought provoking.  Of course, as I have shred here before, this idea immediately got me thinking about churches and church folk whose actions look and smell nothing like the actions of Jesus.  All too often, we discover people who say that they are followers of Jesus, but act nothing like him.  The more we follow Jesus, the more our actions will look (and smell) like his and the more we will begin to look like him.

That line of thinking brought me to this:

Good people, do good.

Perhaps not as obvious as “Followers follow” but just as true.

    While even good people have lapses in judgment and do things that they should not, failing to do good begins our removal from the category of “good.”  If we know what we should do and fail to do it, are we, indeed good?  In the epic novel “War and Peace,” Leo Tolstoy said:

"All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"

If we see evil and do nothing, how can we call ourselves good?

    Jesus said, “But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. (Luke 6:35)

    If we are expected to do good to our enemies, how much more so should we do good for those who are not?

    The first instruction that John Wesley gave to all of his pastors, and one that is still given to pastors today is this: “Be diligent. Never be unemployed. Never be triflingly employed. Never while away time, nor spend more time at any place than is strictly necessary.”  In Wesley’s mind, doing good once in a while doesn’t reach high enough.

As followers of Jesus, we are called to do good.  Sitting back and watching the world go by doesn’t count.
Doing good once in a while isn’t enough.

Good people, do good.

Are you doing good?

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