Saturday, October 30, 2010

Ask Me About My Grandkids

No, no. I don’t have any grandkids. So, all those who were about to be up in arms about teen age parents, just relax. It’s just a bumper sticker I spotted again this week. I say again because you used to see this sort of thing a lot. But now not so much. Yet, there was one in front of me as I was driving around Fort Wayne this past week. “Ask me about my Grandkids!”

Of course, I doubt if anyone ever does. It would be just asking for trouble. And there are those grandparents who don’t need to be asked. They manage to work it into whatever the conversation was about. They just can’t help themselves.

And why not? Aren’t there some things worth boasting about? Grandkids being but one of those things. Your church being another. Seriously. Any time I have been a part of a growing church, it wasn’t because it had a specific plan for evangelism. It wasn’t because it had a certain kind of music or building. It wasn’t a program of any kind. It was simply because the members couldn’t stop talking about their church. They boasted about what they loved about it. They told anyone and everyone what it meant to them to belong there. And there were invitations aplenty. “Come and see.” “Join us,” they would say. “You don’t want to miss this!”

That is the secret to church growth, a membership that boasts about their church. And no less a biblical figure than St. Paul himself was the model for this. On this All Saints Sunday celebration, we turn to Paul for boasting directions. Take a look.

2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12 Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: 2 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. 3 We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. 4 Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. ... 11 To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul was always warning about boasting, and then would do it every chance he got. You can’t blame him really. He was proud of these churches that he helped to launch. He traveled all over the known world at the time and started little communities of faith. And then he kept in touch with them as he moved on. It wasn’t so much “out of sight, out of mind” for Paul. If it were, there would be big gaps in our New Testaments. We read story after story, letter after letter, of Paul and others trying to keep in touch with these communities. Trying to help them sort out difficulties. Trying to help them combat confusion and obfuscation. Trying to keep them on track with where Christ would have them be.

We don’t know what was going on in the church at Thessalonika. All the letter tells us is that there were difficult times in front of them. We know that the persecutions of the early church were terrible and wide-spread. We know that each time one of these communities gathered for worship they would end with a benediction - a good word - that would send them out into the darkness knowing that when they gathered again, some of their number would be missing. We know that there were times and there were nations who were so threatened by these upstart Christians that any mistreatment of those identified as belonging to that group was tolerated - from ridicule and ostracism to enslavement, imprisonment and torture. We don’t know what the church of the Thessalonians was enduring at the time of Paul’s writing. All we know was that Paul was proud of them. Proud of their faith and proud of their love and community spirit. This is a church, he was declaring, this is the true community, a reflection of the Kingdom of God living among us. Why wouldn’t you boast about that? Why wouldn’t you want everyone to know what was going on there? That lives were being redeemed, that meaning was discovered, that hope was declared.

Paul knew that his letters would be shared. He knew that others would hear and learn from the instruction he gave to the churches he served even from a distance. And Paul was admitting his relationship, his authority or paternity over these bodies. He was claiming them. So, in effect Paul was saying “Ask me about my Grandkids!”

Which is what makes it an appropriate passage for All Saints Sunday. Sorry. Did I lose you there? This Sunday, this All Hallows Eve, we are jumping ahead to All Hallows Day. Hallows – Hallowed – Holy – Saints. Follow the drift there? Halloween was originally a pointer toward a glorious celebration of the people of faith. All Hallows Even was the night before All Saints Day. OK, somewhere along the line it got mixed up with all sorts of other observances, “Samhain” the end of summer or a borderline day when the dividers between this world and the next became a little more thin, for one. And since All Saints was in part a reminder of those of our number who were no longer among us, the ghosts and goblins of the pagan celebrations leaked into the early observance.

I’m not going to take the time to argue the rightness or wrongness of the popular observance of Halloween in this space. Maybe next year, if anyone is really interested. Instead I want to move us toward All Saints. Which is, I’m arguing, a time of boasting!

Or should be anyway. It is a time for us to remember and to tell the stories of those who have gone before. And to tell them with pride. To tell the stories of faith in our communities, of the obstacles overcome, of the setbacks that didn’t thwart us. It is a time to celebrate the living examples of faith among us as well, to look around and see who we can boast about in our midst. And it is also a time to welcome new saints into our midst, those whose stories are still being written. The new chapters of our witness of faith.

It is a busy, a full and rich time. No wonder John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, called All Saints his favorite Christian observance. “How superstitious are they who scruple giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints,” he wrote. It is a time of thankfulness and, yes of boasting.

Except, now that I think about it, maybe our bumper sticker should read a little differently. Since we are celebrating those who have gone before, our predecessors in the faith, maybe our All Saints Day bumper stickers should read “Ask Me About My Grandparents!”


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Hearing Voices

I’ve been hearing voices this week. Uh, oh, you’re thinking. He’s finally snapped. Gone off the deep end, wandered into the twilight zone, traveled to his happy place, been elected mayor of crazy town. But no, I will argue, it is none of that. Admittedly, since I have been alone for a few days while La Donna and the kids are in Washington DC on the youth trip, there have been moments when the remaining cat and I have had some serious conversations. But that isn’t what I’m referring to right now. Though, Hairy is a cat with opinions, let me tell you. I can’t say I know what they are all the time. Or any of the time, come to think of it. But he is good in the expressing department.

No, it isn’t the howling cat voices that I’m talking about. Or even the inner dialogue that sometimes happens to fill the silence. Surely I’m not the only one there. Am I? No, I don’t think so. They say talking to yourself isn’t a problem. The problem is when you start answering yourself. Is that right? Yes, it is.

OK, I really need the family to come home.

Back to my point. It was in the office that I was hearing the voices this week. And don’t say “well, duh.” It was in the quiet moments, when no one was there that I heard the voices. It was while I was reading or writing. No one around that I could see, and there would be these voices. I couldn’t always tell what was being said, and that was just the problem. I would find myself straining to hear. Interrupting whatever it was that I was supposed to be doing to tune in these voices. It sounded important, urgent even at times. And then at other times there were words followed by muffled laughter. It was curious, distracting, interesting, all at the same time.

OK, full disclosure, they’ve been replacing the roof at the church this past week. The voices were accompanied by footsteps clumping over my head, and hammering and generators and the occasional flying piece of roofing material dropping past the window. Curiosity explained.

Except the voices continued. I don’t mean the guys on the roof. Though they were still there all week long. I’m shifting philosophical gears here, stay with me. The voices continued. We live in a talkative world. And all these voices seem to be trying to tell us that they know better than we do how to live our lives.

These voices might simply be distracting, or they might be truly destructive, it is often hard to tell the difference. What we really need is the ability to listen. Jesus seems to imply in our passage this week that listening is an easy thing to do. But is it really?

Listen to this:

John 10:1-10 "Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2 The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5 They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers." 6 Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them. 7 So again Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8 All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9 I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

I know, you’ve heard this before fairly recently. These verse sound familiar, don’t they? We began our One Month to Live challenge with these verses and now we end with the same words.

I’ll tell you again that the real crux of this passage is the last half of verse 10: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” But while that is the crux, there is always the larger issue of what does it mean? Or in this case how do we get it? What do we need to do in order to experience this abundant life?

We need to learn to listen. OK, it is never as simple as that. That is only a part of our task. We need to not only to listen but to follow. We need to not only to listen but to trust. We need to not only to listen but to hope. We need to not only to listen ... well, you get the idea.

But the piece I want us to hear today is that we need to listen. Following, says Jesus in this passage, is a product of listening. He will lead, he tells us in verse four. But only after we’ve come out at the sound of his voice. He will lead, he tells us, if we choose to follow. And the only way we can follow is if we know that voice. If we can recognize the sound of it. It calls for a certain amount of discernment. There are voices we need to run from. Voices that don’t have our welfare and our safety in mind, voices that don’t want us to prosper and to grow, to know the joys of abundant life.

So, how do we know? How do we figure out which voice is His and which voice is the one who wishes us harm? Unfortunately, John doesn’t help us out a whole lot in these verses. In part it takes a lifetime of study and devotion. John Wesley called this lifetime process sanctification, the process of moving closer to Christ, becoming more like Him. There is more involved than I can pull out of John chapter ten.

But there are a couple of hints that I want us to be aware of in these verses. First of all, the Shepherd knows our name. The call that comes from Christ matches us in the deepest essence of our being. He calls us to be who we are, and not who we might think we want to be, or who the world tells us we need to be. Following Christ has a “rightness” about it. It is a response to the longings of our soul. And the more we follow, the more we are truly ourselves.

In verse nine, we are told that Christ is the way, “whoever enters by me will be saved.” But then it says we will come in and go out and find pasture. Come in and go out. There is a lot of movement in the Christian life. We don’t just sit, we don’t just find a safe corner and then remain there. We don’t lounge in place waiting to be fed. We find our sustenance in coming and going, in study and in service, in spending time with the word and going out to share it. We are called to be coming and going throughout our lives.

If we feel as though we are pulled in too many directions, then we need to come back. Worship with the community of faith, study together the Word or books on Christian living or knowing, find places of fellowship for laughter and joy together. On the other hand, if we feel as though our faith isn’t doing much, is all head knowledge, then you need to go. Go and serve, go and help, volunteer in our community, do something with your hands, teach or share, help or heal, there are lots of opportunities for us to be going out in service to the world.

The odd thing is that it is both in the coming and in the going we learn to listen. We listen through the study and contemplation of the Word. But we also listen through the voices of need and hope in the people around us. And the more we listen, the more we come to recognize the voice of the shepherd. A life of no regrets is a life lived in hearing distance of Jesus Christ.

Did you hear that voice?


Saturday, October 16, 2010


I think it was my daughter Maddie who said it best, said it for all of us as yesterday afternoon she declared “This has been a terrible October.” Less that two weeks ago we had to put down our beloved Cocker Spaniel Cissy who had been a part of our lives for around 15 years. And then just yesterday it was our cat Wesley, who came into our family almost the same time.

His full name was Wesley Wilberforce Weber. We tried for a brief time referring to him as But that seemed just too cute to stick. And even the more formal name was unwieldy, so he was just Wesley. The explanation was that he always had something say, a sermon to preach. He was a cat, just a cat for some, I understand that. For others he was a cat with personality, who shouldered his way into our family and took his place with confidence and grace. He was a cat with opinions, and wasn’t hesitant about sharing them. Whether we ever got what he was trying to tell us was obviously our problem and not his.

What he wasn’t was one of those aloof creatures who hid from human contact, only appearing to eat and to be let out. No, Wesley was a people person, I mean cat. He wanted to meet and greet, to sit on laps and watch football or even engage in conversation. And he loved the dog. Not in a mushy, huggy, touchy feely kind of way. But in a cat way, in the knowing that there are just certain ways that things should be, and checking on her on a regular basis, and just looking out for her since everyone knows cats are much more intelligent than dogs - at least in the opinion of most cats.

It was after Cissy was gone that we noticed Wesley’s problems. He quit eating, moved more slowly, just seemed to struggle with most things. At the end, the vet said that it wasn’t grief that killed him, but I have to believe it was a part of it all. Their lives were intertwined from the day we brought them into the house, so it only makes sense that they would leave this world together too.

You just never know, I guess, which lives will get wrapped up together. You never know the impact you might have on someone else. Whether it is the someone else you would expect, spouse or children or parents, or someone you might be surprised to know finds a connection. This fourth and last principle of our study is “Leave Boldly.” Meaning in part that while we live we should ask what we are doing that will last beyond us. We should pay attention to the lives that we might impact for good, or for God. How can we live in such a way that those around us are better, are different, are impacted because we were there.

That is the question that Paul was asking in these verses from the first letter to the Corinthians He was asking it of us, but he was also asking it of himself, I think. Take a look:

1 Corinthians 3:12-14 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-- 13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14 If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.

These verses follow the more familiar “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” verse that described his ministry as a partnership. Or at least a recognition that he only has a part in the building of the kingdom. The third chapter opens with that agricultural image of ministry. Paul is staking his claim for taking part in the planting of the faith, but also acknowledging that others (like Apollos, whoever that is) have played a part as well. That in fact it is this partnership that Christ has in mind when it comes to building the church.

Which is the image that he shifts to in verse 10. Well, verse nine is a transition verse: “For we are God's servants, working together; you are God's field, God's building.” So, out of the field into the building - or off the farm into the construction business. We are building, says Paul. But are we building to last, that’s the question before us in the middle verses.

The foundation, he says is Jesus Christ. That was verse eleven. That’s a given. Even the foundation he says he laid in verse ten, is really the foundation that is Jesus Christ. He didn’t invent it, he didn’t define it, it just was. So, now we all have an opportunity, he argues, just like he did, to build on that foundation. We can’t change it, we can’t determine the boundaries, can’t redefine the dimensions. But we can enhance it. We can make space for others. We can add color or comfort. We can, well, who knows what we can do. It is simply amazing that Christ chooses to let us participate in this building process. But he does. He wants us as partners, as co-creators in building the Kingdom, in shaping the church.

But Paul asks are we building something for ourselves, or something that will last beyond us? Are we building for our own preferences and tastes, or are we reaching beyond us to build something bigger, something more inclusive?

He reminds us that there is a variety of building materials available. He describes them as gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw. Because we are used to Paul’s lists, we might be inclined to think that some of us have gold and some of us have straw. Which is the way the world talks to us. Some of us can do great and lasting things, others don’t have the capability. But in this case any of these options are available to all of us. It is a matter of choice and not personal ability or giftedness. Do we choose the things that will last or are we only concerned with quick and easy. Are we into shortcuts - working with metals and stones is much more difficult than with wood or straw. So, it is an invitation to choose that more difficult route. More difficult but more lasting.

More difficult. We all know that opening yourself up to others has risks. We can get hurt. Our hearts can break when we risk loving. Sometimes it seems more prudent, or certainly safer to just worry about yourself. To look our for number one, as the world tells us. Yet Paul tells us there is a reward in doing this well.

Verse fourteen is an interesting one. “If what is built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward.” Our first thought, of course is eternity. If we do this right, then we get eternity in heaven, a place in the kingdom. But then that can’t be right. Because that sounds like salvation is by our own efforts, by our own works. And Paul would never say that. If we were to read on verse fifteen tells us that the reward isn’t salvation: 1 Corinthians 3:15 If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. Salvation isn’t contingent on us building rightly. So, what could the reward possibly be? Some talk about levels of heaven, or the size of the mansion we inhabit. But that has never sounded right to me. Heaven must be a place of equality, of unity, not of hierarchy.

It may be too subtle for some, but I believe that the reward Paul speaks of is the satisfaction of working for something bigger than yourself. It is the joy of loving despite the risks. It is the mutuality we experience when our lives intertwine with others, even those we may never meet, who may come after us. It is the second wind we receive in running this race because of the cloud of witnesses of those who have gone before and glimpsing the vision for those who will come after.

We may think we are a small pebble tossed into a big sea. But those ripples may circle out and touch lives in surprising ways. Just a pebble. Or just a cat. And yet we are different because he was here. May it be said of you as well.