Friday, May 23, 2008

Uncle Reece

It’s an odd thing to say. Something I have never said out loud as a matter of fact. Even writing it feels a little strange. Uncle Reece is my “would-have-been uncle.” He was my father’s older brother. I’ve heard a few stories about him, but not many. He was enough older than my dad that they didn’t do a lot of things together. And he was just old enough to sign up for the war. Or I should say The War. WWII, the big one, the one over there. The biggest war to end all wars. That one. Anyway, Uncle Reece went to war and never came back. That is why he is my would-have-been uncle.

Memorial Day is about remembering those who served their country. The history begins with the Civil War and was originally called Decoration Day because of the way folks would decorate the graves of the civil war soldiers. And still graves will be decorated. Services will be held, if not well attended. We do remember. We will remember. But it is good to be reminded of the need to remember.

Our history is rich with stories of sacrifice and dedication in the face of overwhelming odds. Many families can remember with pride a family member who stood up when it was needed. Many families remember a family member who paid a high price for their country. Some of those we remember died during the conflict; others came home and died later – sometimes much later. But we remember them all. And we give thanks.

Not for their death, however it came. We give thanks for their willingness to serve. We give thanks for the terrible sacrifice. We honor them. On this day and beyond. Memorial Day is one day, but there are other days and other ways to remember. We chose a personal way to remember Reece Weber.

Our son Rhys is named in part in memory of my would-have-been uncle. But also in memory of my Grandfather who was named Reece and who also is dead now. We changed it to the Welsh spelling to celebrate our British connections too. We remember them both in tangible ways.

I said earlier than I never heard much about my dad’s brother, and that is true. But I do know one thing about him. The fact is, he was under age when he went to sign up for military service. But there was a loophole. If a young man was under 18, he could still join if he got his parent to sign for him. So, he went and asked his dad to sign for him to serve. He really wanted to go, it was the right thing to do, he though. It was necessary for his country, he thought. Everyone was doing it, he thought.

Dad said that Uncle Reece and Grandpa sat up late into the night arguing. There was yelling and silence. There were even tears and pleading. But his mind was made up and in the end Grandpa went down with him and signed the forms. It wasn’t long after that moment before Reece went off to war. And never came home.

Dad says Grandpa lived with regret for the rest of his life. There was even some strain on the rest of the family. If only, he said and he thought, if only. The truth is the war last long enough that Reece might have gone a year later and still died in the war. But no one could ever know. Hearts were broken. Families were torn apart. Tears in the night were a common occurrence in a time of war. And still are. War is and always has been an ugly thing.

We can, on Memorial Day, honor service and commitment and remember those who are no longer among us with flowers and parades and moments of silence. But I think that the best way to honor the sacrifice is to do all that we can to work for peace. We honor the dead by protecting the living. We thank the peacekeepers, by becoming peacemakers. We lift up those who have fallen while fighting, by choosing to study war no more.

Thank you Uncle Reece.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sit Down and Shut Up

How does that old joke go? We can’t wait for our children to learn to stand and to speak, so we can tell them to sit down and shut up.

Sitting down and shutting up speaks of obedience and order. When we can get our kids to do that then we feel like we’re in control. We have accomplished something. At least, we think, we won’t be embarrassed by them. That’s a great motivator. Which airline has that ad campaign: "Want to get away?" It is a campaign based on avoiding, or escaping, humiliating moments. Whoops, you put your foot in it. Whoops, you went too far. Whoops, you said too much. Want to get away? Sit down and shut up.

It is advice many of us should take more often. We have this insatiable desire to fill silence with the sound of our own voice. I’m writing this at the end of my conference on preaching (and yes, here’s a case when shutting up might have saved me some embarrassment. By telling you about this conference I may have raised unrealistic expectations. I can hear it now: "You’re not any better than you were before you went!" Anyway...) It has been a wonderful experiences, filled my soul in ways I didn’t expect. But it has also reminded that even preachers are human – as if I needed reminding. I suppose it was unrealistic to expect reverence and silence out of 2,300 preachers before worship. But the noise seemed excessive even in that over-filled setting. Worship leaders constantly struggled to get the thing started because we couldn’t sit down and shut up!

One of the scriptures for Sunday is about this very thing. Psalm 131 is a tiny little psalm tucked away among larger statements of praise and lament. Statements such as "Unless the Lord builds the house..." and "Out of the depths I cry to you" and "How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity" and "O give thanks to the Lord for he is good" and "By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and wept" and O Lord you have searched me and known me" and on and on and on. In the midst of all these words is Psalm 131. It goes like this:

Psalm 131:1-3 O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. 3 O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore.

On the face it sounds mousy. "I’ll just sit in the corner and not say anything because I am out of my comfort zone." It is like finding yourself in a conversation with quantum physicists. I do not occupy myself with things too great and too momentous for me. I don’t want to display my ignorance, so I’ll keep quiet.

Certainly, God’s ways are not our ways. Certainly, God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts. Certainly, to speak of God at all is to dabble in mysteries beyond the intellectual capacities of the human mind. Bishop William Willimon gave a lecture on "The Homiletical Value of Bewilderment" saying this very thing. We can’t always explain, we don’t always understand. Better to sit down and shut up than to make even more of a fool of ourselves.

And yet, the Psalm doesn’t seem to be about withdrawal. It doesn’t seem to be asking us to put our heads in the sand, to cover our ignorance or our sinfulness away from the blazing eyes of the mystery of the universe.

Instead Psalm 131 invites us to lean into that mystery with satisfaction and contentment. Like a weaned child, it says, filled up with the presence of mystery; filled up with faith and hope and love - and not worried about unanswered questions.

We don’t do that very well, do we? We want answers. We want to be convinced. We want information to pass on to the seekers around us and within us. But the Psalmist tells us we don’t need more information. So, quit asking your questions – sit down and shut up – and hope in the Lord.

Jesus says it a little differently in our Gospel passage for this week. The end of the sixth chapter of Matthew:

Matthew 6:25 - 7:1 "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, 'What will we eat?' or 'What will we drink?' or 'What will we wear?' 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 "So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today.

Do not worry about your life ... seek first the Kingdom of God. Don’t worry about stuff. Don’t worry about sustenance. Don’t worry. Be happy! Can it be that easy? Doesn’t that just raise a whole host of other questions? Doesn’t that open up new avenues of worry? Rivers of anxiety come rushing over us and sweep us out into a sea of uncertainty. What should we do? How will we know? What do we say? With whom do we associate? How do we organize ourselves? And on and on and on. We worry. We wonder. We whine, and ask, and pout and feel put out by our ignorance. And we turn inward, thinking we have to find our own answers, we have to figure this out for ourselves, we have no one to rely upon except ourselves, we must...we have to ... we ... we ... We sit down and shut up.

Do not worry about tomorrow. Like a weaned child be satisfied with the questions. Be filled up with a fleeting awareness of a Presence we can’t explain or control. Be content with glimpses of grace in the beauty of a flower or the flight of bird. Be sustained by a shy smile of a grateful child, or a gesture of love from a healing heart. Be at work in the world from your fulness in the face of so much emptiness – an emptiness we can’t fill with our words. It will take much, much more than that.

O Israel, O Church, sit down and shut up. And hope in the Lord.

Derek C. Weber

Saturday, May 10, 2008

"Mother of All"

It was during the first Gulf War, wasn’t it? When the phrase "the mother of all ..." became a part of our language. I don’t even remember what the original referent was. Maybe the conflict itself - the mother of all wars. It was a statement of defiance, of strength and power. It was a "don’t mess with me" sort of thing, wasn’t it? It was one of those "you’ve cut down more hay than you can pick up," or "your mouth is writing checks your body can’t cash." That sort of thing, a taunt, a jibe, a ... a ... a "yo mama."
Do mothers get a choice about their inclusion in these sorts of things? I’m just wondering here. Whether it is a playground feud or an international conflict, we can raise the stakes by including mothers into the rhetoric. Things get really serious when you bring your mother to the battle.
This was on my mind today because this year Mother’s Day and Pentecost fall on the same Sunday. Mother’s Day wins in the minds and hearts of the people of this nation. We might as well admit it. How many Pentecost cards did you find at Meijers this week? How many ads headlined the Pentecost sales on gadgets and sweets? I rest my case. Mother’s Day is a big holiday according to card companies - second only to the Christmas juggernaut; and according to the phone companies - more calls made than on any other single day. You might be able to argue that it is "the mother of all holidays!" And why not? We need to honor mothers even in the life of the church. Mothering is a noble profession, and the church ought to be in the business of encouraging mothers.
Though it is a delicate celebration in the church. As individuals and as families, pull out the stops, go to extremes to say thank you to your mothers. But as the church we have to be careful. We can’t assume that everyone’s experience of mother is a positive one. I’ve known individuals who cringe at Mother’s Day celebrations on Sunday mornings because they still bear deep wounds, scars inflicted by a mother. Others have been abandoned by their mothers, stunted, ignored, crippled. It is a delicate celebration to honor a potential that some fail to embrace.
This is why many are dissatisfied by our Mother’s Day worship. It is as if we don’t care, some think. The rest of the world paints a glowing picture, and asks for us to spend our gratitude on things. Why should the church neglect, some think, that wonderful institution of family and that wonderful person the mother?
Well, we shouldn’t. But maybe we have to look broader, or deeper than tip of the hat to a person who has been good to you. Maybe we have to think of our mother the church. Pentecost is the church’s birthday, some argue. Leonard Sweet called Pentecost the church’s IPO – Initial Public Offering. It is when we went online. The beginning of this body we call the church. And, according to Luke, it was quite a blow out. Let’s remember Luke’s Pentecost story.
Acts 2:1-21 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2 And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3 Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11 Cretans and Arabs-- in our own languages we hear them speaking about God's deeds of power." 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?" 13 But others sneered and said, "They are filled with new wine." 14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15 Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o'clock in the morning. 16 No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17 'In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18 Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19 And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20 The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord's great and glorious day. 21 Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.'
On Sunday I want to do a compare and contrast between Luke’s version here in Acts and John’s version at the end of the Gospel. But for now, we’ll be satisfied with Luke’s more familiar story.
"Wait," Jesus told them, "until you have been clothed with power from on high." (Luke 24:49) And here it is, wind and fire, clothing them from on high. It was powerful, the sound filled the whole house. It was complete, a tongue, as of fire, touched each of them. This was the event they waited for, this was the empowerment. The mother of all divine visitations. Or was it? There are echoes here. First there is the giving of the law, on a mountain with fire and wind. It was terrifying and yet it launched a people. Now we have another high place, an upper room. Again there was wind and fire and it launched a community of faith.
The passers-by think it is a wild party, they think it strange. But Peter explains, "it is the pouring out of the Spirit, it is the beginning of hope and of joy, it is permission to build the Kingdom of God." Because the result of this wind and fire is a capacity to connect, to build community. They spoke in other languages. Wait a minute, another spirit fell and different languages was the result, but the purpose of that was division, separation. The Tower of Babel was an ending. Pentecost was a beginning. "We hear them speaking in our own languages of the mighty works of God."
The Spirit comes and outsiders understand. The Spirit comes and we climb out of our hidden rooms and celebrate loudly. The Spirit comes and something new is born. We are born again in the fires of this Spirit. We, like Peter and the rest who were there that day, are empowered to love like Christ loved. We are empowered to build the church, the community of faith that welcomes and transforms and sends. The mother of all holy days – Pentecost.
It makes sense that the church would celebrate Mother’s Day a little differently than the rest of the world. Not that we ought to ignore those who mothered us, but we ought to not be exclusive about it. We can honor and thank and celebrate those who put the wind in our sails, those who gave us new birth, those who nurture and support and comfort us. We should celebrate the church, born of the Spirit, and mothering us into faith.
And before I forget, because I know she reads this... I love you mom.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Welcome to "The Eyes of a Fool"

Proverbs 17:24 reads "The discerning person looks to wisdom, but the eyes of a fool to the ends of the earth." Now, I realize that we are supposed to choose to be discerning persons and look to wisdom. This is a call seek a higher wisdom and not be satisfied with earthly thinking. OK, got it. And sure I want to think the higher thoughts from time to time.

Yet, I am fascinated by the world we live in. And the reason for my fascination is that I think God is fascinated by it too. At least God pops up here and there in surprisingly earthly places. So in order to discern this elusive presence, we have to develop the eyes of a fool.

I have always been intrigued by the character of the fool. Surprising wisdom can be found in the words of the Fool in Shakespeare's King Lear, for example, or the character Bottom in Midsummer Night's Dream. At times, what makes the fool foolish is the willingness to speak an uncomfortable truth. A fool speaks to reality, a fool names what is when everyone else wants to avoid it, or close their eyes.

I am a preacher, and as such, called to be such a fool. I am called to speak truth even when it is difficult to hear or acknowledge. And to speak truth in a day when truth is elusive at best, dangerous at worst, and risible most often is a task for a fool. But I take it willingly, even joyfully.

This space will be filled with musings and wonderings and even the sight of the ends of the earth. I write a weekly bible study and a bulletin editorial, some of which will be posted here. But there will also be other reflections and questions uinique to this space. I'm still learning how to see with the eyes of a fool. Come along and look with me. Who knows what we might find?