Saturday, January 28, 2012

Rise Up

Friday morning at around 4a.m. while his daughter dozed somewhat fitfully on the couch next to him having been up to provide medicines and words of comfort and love multiple times during this night and many nights before, Donald Riddle died as peacefully as he could given the days of pain and wasting away that had been his life for these past few weeks and months.

The breath we had been holding for so many days is now released with grief and loss, but also with relief and peace. With a sigh too deep for words, we breathe again as we put one foot in front of another into the new reality in which we now live. But we know we walk with arms of support around us, prayers of strength and concern, love and comfort. We thank all you who have held us in your hearts as we made this journey with La Donna’s dad. And we embrace God’s gift of death in this life as a end to suffering, and we praise God for memories that even now rise up in our hearts and minds and speak of a life well lived, well connected, well loved.

We will celebrate his life in many ways. There will be a funeral service in South Bend on Tuesday morning at 10:30a.m., visitation at St. Joseph Funeral Home on Mayflower Road, in South Bend from 2 to 8p.m. But for most of you reading this, instead of a long winter’s journey, the best way to offer condolence is through the website set up by St Joseph’s. Simply go to and click on his name, Donald Riddle. There you can read the obituary that La Donna wrote and sign the guestbook if you so desire.

Most of you reading this didn’t know Don, I realize that. And some have heard me speak of him, the man he was, the family he helped to shape, the life he led. I say without equivocation that he was a man of faith. He was not demonstrative in the least about that faith, rarely spoke of matters of theology or ritual, especially with his Pastor Son-in-law. There were a few occasions over our many decades together that he would quiz me on some theological issue or church historical event or, and this is what puzzled him most, ask my opinion about the behavior of people who claimed faith. Most of the time I had to join him in a shrug of the shoulders or wide-eyed shake of the head as we examined how allegiance to Christ is lived out in some quarters.

I treasured those conversations, as rare as they were. Because they invited me into the mind of a man who lived deeply, observed widely, considered profoundly, but most importantly who lived boldly. By that I don’t mean that he was loud or brash or coveted attention, by no means. If anything he was the opposite of that. He was a quiet man, who lived his convictions more than he declared them. And in so doing redefined for me what it means to be a prophet of God.

He would shy away from the designation, I have no doubt. But someone who lives as an example of obedience and service, who puts caring for neighbor above self, who remains faithful to his covenants, abides by his own word, he is an example of the prophet raised up in our midst. At least that is what comes to my mind as I ponder our words from Deuteronomy for this week.

We are concluding our series on Call with a reminder from the Old Testament that God will take care of making sure the Word is heard. And it just might be from a surprising source. Take a look:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. 16 This is what you requested of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said: "If I hear the voice of the LORD my God any more, or ever again see this great fire, I will die." 17 Then the LORD replied to me: "They are right in what they have said. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command. 19 Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable. 20 But any prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, or who presumes to speak in my name a word that I have not commanded the prophet to speak-- that prophet shall die."

We tend to focus on the hard stuff. There is a high calling to the role of the prophet, there is appropriate warning that such a calling be not taken lightly. There is danger and threat and life and death wrapped up in here. That is important to acknowledge. We are often far too casual about these faith issues, as if they were only trivial matters like what to have for lunch or what to wear on a Wednesday, instead of the deep issues of value and purpose, of meaning and eternity. So, be reminded, pay attention to how you speak and how you live.

But for me, in this moment, this is less a warning and more a comfort, or a promise. The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet. What a blessing. What a promise, to know that there will be those who will speak for God, who will represent that Presence in a tangible way. And even better “I will raise up a prophet ... from among their own people.”

One of us, could be you, could be him or her, could be me. And maybe it is all of us in turn. It isn’t really clear whether this raising up is for an office or for an event. We tend to think of a prophet as a career choice. Do you want to be an engineer or a dancer? Well, no, I was hoping to become a prophet, do you know a good college that has a prophetic track?

Sounds a bit silly, I know. And yet when we envision a prophet what comes to mind is someone who signs up for the long haul, who joins the union, wears the name tag. But maybe the promise here in Deuteronomy is that when a word of God is needed, there will be someone who can speak it. When the community is struggling for direction or decision, God will put it in the heart of someone from among us to speak that divine word. Maybe it is a role we can all play in turn.

What it takes is a willingness to be used by God. It also takes a life of dedication to that Word, we study, we listen, we contemplate, we become familiar with the Word that God has spoken so that when God speaks to us and through us, we can recognize it. We can speak it and know that we bring a Word in season, know that we speak with authority.

Or do we? Maybe we don’t know that we are filling that role. Maybe we just speak a word that seems right to us, never realizing that is more than just our word, it is the Word. Maybe when God raises up a prophet, everyone knows who it is but the one raised up. And maybe we don’t even speak that Word, but simply - or profoundly - live it out in front of any who pay attention.

That’s what this passage is about too, paying attention. God says we are held accountable. For hearing and not doing, for doing and not hearing, but also for hearing and doing. And if we want, and most of us do, want our lives to count, there is no better way.

Though I don’t think I ever said it in words, I loved my father-in-law. And I will take his example to heart, and speak with my life more than just my words. Let us rise up to life shaped by the Word, colored by love of God and family and neighbor. Rise up.


Saturday, January 21, 2012

And Then What Happened?

It is a beautiful day today. If you are sitting in your family room with a cup of cocoa and looking out over the pristine hillsides covered with their white blanket, glistening in the bright sunshine. But if you are out trying to make your way through roads not yet cleared, it is a mess. I’ve already made two trips to the high school to drop of kids who are engaged in extra-curriculars today and then a little bit longer trip to retrieve the crazy dogs from the kennel where they spent a couple of nights while I was off leading a retreat and La Donna continues her vigil for her dad.

Yes, that’s right, I was traveling over the past couple of days. I was part of the group that crawled along I69 and then was sent off on a cross country journey by men in reflective jackets, following big trucks from Tennessee, bumper to bumper at the blistering pace of 15 miles an hour until we could re-enter the Interstate a little further south, beyond the terrible accidents that closed the road.

I was only about fifteen minutes late to my first session because I made up time at a breakneck pace around and through Indianapolis and boy did I have a story to tell. I had so much fun telling it that the next day some of the participants asked how I would have started if I had not had such a harrowing trip down! Well, I causally replied, there is always something to tell.

There is always a story to tell. That’s is what I do, that is what I am, a teller of stories. What I love most of all, is to take an experience that is not unlike the one that you have had a million times, but to tell it in such a way that it sounds different, sounds funny, sounds fantastical, over the top. Sometimes for the sheer entertainment value. I love, for example, getting my nieces going at Christmas time. They are a great audience for family stories, especially ones about their dad. And the goofier I can make him look the more they like it!

Most of the time, however, because of my other passion, the story isn’t simply for entertainment, but to make us think. A story can help us see something of significance, even in our own lives, that we might have missed in the normal course of things. A story can make us laugh at ourselves, which is something we all sorely need since we have a tendency to take ourselves way too seriously most of the time.

Like Jonah. Now he is a guy who seriously needs to lighten up. He is unique among the prophets of the Old Testament in that the book that carries his name is not really about what God spoke though him to the people of God or to the world at large. Instead this is a book about a man who struggles with his call. And it is told in such a way that you can’t help but laugh at Jonah. This is one true comedy in the whole bible. There are funny bits throughout, but this is a laugh riot from beginning to end. And to spend a whole lot of time trying to figure out whether it is historical or not, whether there really was a fish that swallowed a man, whether there really was a herd of cows wearing sackcloth and ashes, is to miss the joke. It is better understood as a parable, like the wonderful and sometimes funny stories that Jesus tells in the gospels. Full of truth that is bigger than history. So, did it really happen like it is written? Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? But did you hear the one about the prophet of God who was called to go east and he jumped the first boat going west? Here’s how it turns out:

Jonah 3:1-10 The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: "By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish." 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

The lectionary skips verses 6 through 9, I put them in here to point out one of the themes of the Jonah story. From beginning to end, the outsiders get it before the insider does. The king of Nineveh gets it, from a one sentence sermon by a reluctant prophet, in a way that the prophet himself never does. “Who knows,” he declares, “God may relent.” It’s worth a try, let’s get on God’s good side. Which is the very side that Jonah, the card carrying prophet of God, didn’t want to be on. Or at. He wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Well, except inside a fish. Wasn’t happy about that.

When Chapter three begins, it says “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” You almost have to read capital letters and italics in there: A SECOND TIME. And the word says “get up.” Why does he have to “get up”? Because he is lying on a beach covered in fish vomit, that’s why. Talk about God reaching out in your lowest moment. Can’t imagine getting much lower than that. God didn’t reach down with a helping hand, however, it was a mission, a ministry, a calling that came to Jonah in his fishy smelling moment.

God is nothing if not persistent. That’s part of the message of Jonah. God won’t leave you alone, will come back again and again with a call. Just when you think you’ve gotten away clean on your boat to Tarshish, or in the belly of a fish, God calls again. A second time, and a third and ... When God has something for you to do, you better believe you’ll hear that voice. Maybe not as directly as Jonah did. Maybe it will be an image that won’t go away. Maybe you’ll stumble across a need more times than could be explained by coincidence. Maybe the voice of God may sound like someone you know who raises a question or makes a suggestion. Who knows?

Unfortunately, the other message from Jonah is that a call from God is likely to be something difficult, or something you’d rather not do. It may be dangerous or risky, it may be uncomfortable or strenuous. Yes, it is possible that the call is your very heart’s desire. But more often it is not. And sometimes even when it is something you’d really like to do, there are hurdles to leap and obstacles to overcome. Or someone close to you won’t think it is a good idea and try to talk you out of it. That is just the way it goes, it seems.

But on the other hand, what a story you’ll have to tell! How God called you and you went, how you leaped tall buildings and mended broken hearts, how you diverted the course of mighty rivers and taught “Jesus Loves Me” to children who smiled so big you thought the sun was shining in the room, how you changed lives and set wayward feet back on the right path. We used to call those stories testimony. And telling those stories built up the church, sustained the faithful, and gave us all a good chuckle from time to time.

So, God called you, eh? And then what happened??


Saturday, January 14, 2012

Voice in the Night

The hospice nurse says it can’t go on much longer. Even though it feels like we have been on this journey forever, it now appears that La Donna’s dad only has a few more days at best. Prayers are always appreciated, thank you.

Last Sunday we got a call that it seemed like the end, so instead of leaving on Tuesday, like she has been doing for a couple of months, she left on Sunday afternoon. Now it is Saturday and he is still hanging in. But because death seems so close, La Donna is not coming home this weekend. And in fact is making plans to be gone all next week too, should that be necessary. She is where she needs to be, and we are happy to make it possible for her to be there. But we seem a bit lost around here.

It’s not that I’m incompetent as a dad and runner of a household. No, really. It’s not. It’s just that we get used to certain patterns, certain rhythms. We get used to defaulting to certain ones to make certain decisions, to fulfill certain tasks. And when the one who usually makes those decisions, does those tasks, is no longer around, there is a void. An emptiness that seems to suck the life out of everything. It becomes hard to do the things that we would normally do ourselves. There is a lack of focus, a depletion of will, a general malaise that settles down up all of us and we don’t even know why for sure.

All of which describes the situation for the boy Samuel. But he didn’t know it. He was just a kid, doing what he was told. He didn’t have any sense of the big picture. He didn’t know what was behind the scenes, what was underneath the daily duties he performed without question, or what was above the ceiling which caught to wisps of smoke from the lantern in the holy place. All he knew was duty, and he did it. Mostly because there wasn’t anyone else to do it. Eli, his mentor, was going blind and could no longer perform the duties of his office. And his sons, who should have been stepping up to fulfill those duties had already made such a mess of their power and authority that faith in the institution of the priesthood was at a very low ebb.

But Samuel just did his job. No matter what was swirling around him, he performed his duties. And this was the result.

1 Samuel 3:1-10 Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. 2 At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; 3 the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the LORD, where the ark of God was. 4 Then the LORD called, "Samuel! Samuel!" and he said, "Here I am!" 5 and ran to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call; lie down again." So he went and lay down. 6 The LORD called again, "Samuel!" Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." But he said, "I did not call, my son; lie down again." 7 Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD, and the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him. 8 The LORD called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, "Here I am, for you called me." Then Eli perceived that the LORD was calling the boy. 9 Therefore Eli said to Samuel, "Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'" So Samuel went and lay down in his place. 10 Now the LORD came and stood there, calling as before, "Samuel! Samuel!" And Samuel said, "Speak, for your servant is listening."

“The word of the Lord was rare in those days.” Seems an odd sort of beginning for a story that takes place in the temple of the Lord. And yet there it is. So, Samuel’s days were filled with the thousand little details that Eli could no longer perform in order to keep the rituals ready for the people of God, who were like sheep without a shepherd, because the word of the Lord was rare in those days.

Makes you wonder what people turned to when they didn’t have access to the voice of God, doesn’t it? What sorts of authority did people call on, what sorts of diversions did they obsess over, what sorts of voices did they listen to? To fill the empty nights and to cover up the loneliness of living what sounds did they ache for?

Living a directionless life is draining as well as pointless. It messes with your sense of self-worth as well as emptying you of ambition and of hope. So, what are we left with these days, when “the word of the Lord is rare”? Are we just supposed to generate our own direction? Are we left to our own devices? It is, indeed, all about us after all?

Or do we listen deeper? Is there something to hear after all? We’ve convinced ourselves that what we see is what we get, or this is all there is, or ... whatever. But even though the word of the Lord is rare, even though those who are supposed to speak for the are going blind, the “lamp of God has not yet gone out.” We may have given up on God, but God has not given up on us.

The Voice still calls. It may be night in our souls, the darkness of doubt and fear and emptiness, but the voice still calls. That is what our faith tells us, when our ears are wearying of listening to the silence. But then, there isn’t any silence any more, is there? That may be why we don’t hear, not because it is too quiet, but because it is too loud. Loud in our world with distractions aplenty, voices calling, blaming, warning, vying for our attention. Loud in our souls where we are filled up with our own questions and fears, filled up with our own failures and inadequacies. It is so loud we don’t hear the Voice any more, the Voice that leads and comforts, the Voice that challenges and guides. We don’t hear it anymore because we’ve stopped listening. Or if we do hear it it sounds just like all the other voices around us. No wonder Samuel thought it was Eli. No wonder we think it is a spouse or a friend, or a book we read or a song we heard. No wonder we thought it was indigestion or an impulse to do something really crazy. Because we’ve forgotten how to listen for the voice.

When Eli finally, finally!, figures out what is going on he begins to teach, he begins to mentor. Instead using Samuel as someone to do the grunt work, to clean now ask questions later, he finally begins to introduce him to the source of the voice. He names that source “Lord.” Say “Speak Lord,” says Eli, that’s what you say. That’s the beginning of putting yourself within hearing distance of the Voice. And then, having identified the source, put your self in position, “your servant” the one who follows, the one who obeys, the one who does. “Your servant is listening,” that’s what you say, says Eli. You say, I know who you are, I know who I am, and I want to hear what you have to say. I want to be led, I want to be taught. I want to be claimed, you say.

It isn’t easy, Samuel gets it wrong at first. Speak your servant is listening. Misses the address, missed the identification. But that’s ok, that will come. Because it comes from a servant’s heart. Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

I got an email and now I have laundry to do. Listen, and follow.


Saturday, January 7, 2012

Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For

When I was on Sabbatical several years ago, I happened to be in Dallas Texas looking at churches to learn from, and I happened to drive past an Episcopal church with the banner advertizing an upcoming service called the “U2-charist.” Well, needless to say I was intrigued and changed my Sunday morning plans so that I could join this church for worship.

I have since discovered that this wasn’t unique to that Dallas congregation. There are a number of churches who have set a service of communion to the music of U2. Much like the study series on the old Mayberry television show, the church is often looking to popular culture as a way of connecting faith and life. Much of it seems shallow and desperate, but sometimes it helps us hear the gospel in new ways.

The Irish band U2 has always been upfront about their Christian faith, though many - inside and outside the church - deride them for it. But I have always found their subtle presentation of faith to be captivating. Perhaps, and this seems to be what upsets many inside the faith, it is their uncertainty that is so intriguing. U2 songs seem to be more about questions than about answers. The song reflected in the title of this study epitomizes that best for me. The final verse and chorus reads like this: I believe in the Kingdom Come / Then all the colours will bleed into one / But yes I'm still running / You broke the bonds / You loosed the chains / You carried the cross / And my shame / And my shame / You know I believe it / But I still haven't found / What I'm looking for.

Sort of an “I believe, help my unbelief” kind of theme. Where many of us live our lives, somewhere between doubt and certainty. Which just might be the oddest way possible to begin a reflection on the Baptism of the Lord.

If you keep up on all things liturgical then you know that the Sunday after Epiphany is the Baptism of the Lord. So, we go from Christmas and all that celebration, to Epiphany (which is on the 12th day of Christmas - hence the song) and the wisemen finding their way to the child, and then we leap forward some 30 years to the baptism of Jesus. The main characters of the story are Jesus (duh) and John the Baptist. And I doubt that you could find a couple of guys more certain about faith and their role in the world than those two. They seemed to radiate faith and confidence. That was part of John’s appeal, I believe. Folks flocked to this wild man from the desert with his questionable sartorial choices and fad diet from an entomologist’s nightmare. There was more than the curiosity factor at work here. There was a longing for certainty. Mark’s version which we year this time, pares down the conversation and the sermon, but the other gospels reflect a man who railed against doubters and the powers of this world that would confuse us. He hands out advice like a man writing a Dear Abby column. He knows what’s what and who is whom. Mark, on the other hand, just gets to the point, he knows his place, the role he is called to play in this drama of salvation and he plays it with passion. Take a look:

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

So, where does all of my musing about uncertainty come from? I can’t read about John without remembering Jesus comments later on, in Matthew and Luke. Jesus says to the people and their fascination with John “What did you go out to see?” (Matt 11:7-15 & Lk 7:25-30) And in both accounts these remarks are occasioned by the questions that came from John when he had been imprisoned and faced certain death. Suddenly even John’s certainty seemed elusive.

What did they go out to see? Someone who knew. Someone who had found what he, and they, were looking for. So John gave it to them, with water and with words. They glimpsed in the gathering of the multitudes (I love the preacher estimate of the size of the crowd in our passage “the whole countryside ... all the people of the city”) That was why they splashed into the river to be baptized by this crazy man. He had something they wanted. He saw what they were looking for.

And he pointed it out. It’s not me, he declared over and over, though they thought it was him. That’s why they kept coming and kneeling and letting the water of his certainty wash over them. But it wasn’t him, it was another, it was that guy. That guy was Jesus, who came to be baptized by John. Not, I believe, because he needed the repentance and the certainty that was on offer. But because he wanted to be present. He wanted to align himself with a move back toward God, a movement toward certainty. And because he wanted to be a memory that would come back to them when the doubts came creeping back in.

Glimpses, that’s what we get. We want certainty, we want to be sure. But we get hints. We get whispers. And yet the baptism of Jesus reminds us that those hints are all around us. Just open your eyes and see and be reminded. See presence in the drops of water that bead up on our glass on a humid day. Because baptism tells us that if this water is a carrier of the Holy Spirit, then any water can be. The water you showered with this morning, the water you drank when you were thirsty after a long hard day, the water you gaze out upon in your favorite rest and renewal place, it is all vibrating with the Spirit. It is all a reminder that you were claimed, that you are a beloved child with whom God is well pleased.

Of course we need reminders of our baptism. It is too much of an event to keep in our hearts all the time. We forget what a transformative moment baptism is. We forget that everything old is torn away, like the heavens were rent apart, as Mark says. We forget that our orientation is from that moment, our new life is claimed in that moment. We forget that what we are looking for, longing for is already ours in that moment. We lose our grip, we forget it even happened. We are still running, we are still looking for what we already have.

Remember your baptism. It isn’t just an empty ritual for Sunday mornings. It is a way of living that keeps our eyes open for the descending doves of the Spirit. It is a choice that we can claim to embrace the possibilities in front of us instead of the doubts within us. It is an opportunity to know that we are loved and claimed and that whatever darkness is hiding away in our past or our hearts need not define us any more. It is a family we’ve entered into, who will run with us as we search for what we are looking for, and who will avoid saying “told you so” when you realize what you are looking for has been with you all the time.