Why Are Christians So…?!

You know, it’s never a good thing when a Youth Minister is sleep-deprived and homesick, AND still coming down from his MissionTrip mountaintop when starting to blog. As if I didn’t have enough trouble making a point…

This past week, while at Franklinton Center at Bricks, we had the opportunity not only to do missions (in its most traditional sense) – painting, restoring wheelchair ramps, resealing windows, etc. – but we were also able to design our own small group and large group programming and daily themes. Our theme for the week was “Raising the Bar.”
And our students most definitely raised the bar.

See, prior to this trip, reflection was something that our students would do while I talked or showed the next video clip. Prayer was a time when we would mention those in our life we were thankful for and then awkwardly wait while nobody volunteered to do the actual praying on behalf of the group.

So you could imagine my surprise when on Night #5, our students not only went through the meditation walk that lasted for an hour and a half and pushed them to dig deep to acknowledge guilt, accept/offer forgiveness and identify their core feelings but also went out of their way to thank their leaders for the experience.

And you can imagine the humbling joy we felt on Night #6, as we watched our students on the following night walk up to the communion table serve one another the elements, hold hands and pray for one another only to go back to the group, select another friend, and do the same with them.

I must admit, however, even from cloud nine, I began to feel guilty that this spiritual push and this community focus had become such a focus while on a “mission trip” which had always been used to help understand the needs of others outside our group.

And then I met Rich McCullen.

What is Our Mission?

This week I am in Orange County, California as a resource person for the SHARE 2012 conference put on for UCC/DOC college students. At tonight’s worship, Rich McCullen shared his thoughts about the future of the church. And somewhere between there and his thoughts on the current state of the church, it all became crystal clear.

Rich began with this video:

In an hour that felt like five minutes, Rich shared personally and passionately while urging the new leaders of the Church to make sure the good news is heard by all so that the message is clear: nobody is lost. He challenged the students to reclaim their Christianity to be true followers of Christ.

Though I had already understood the need to evolve church from being as Rich called it, a “behavior modification system”, I had in many ways overcorrected to guard against the emotion of the evangelicals that I have grown weary of, such to the point that our ministry ran the risk of becoming stale, intellectual, boring, and skin deep.

After seeing this video and listening to Rich two things have become clear.

First, the Church (Capital “C”) is doing a piss-poor job of being agents of hope, joy, peace, and love.

Secondly, it is as necessary as it has ever been that, whenever we act in the name of Christ, we embody the greatest commandment to love the Lord our God with all our hearts and love our neighbors as ourselves.

It is indeed our mission to do justice, love one another, and walk humbly with our God. So even (or especially) as our teenagers learn to serve and work alongside others – like most good church kids do for one week every summer – we have to also challenge and guide our youth to love more sincerely and deeply and to seek God with confidence and vulnerability.

I am thankful for being able to work alongside those who understand and support that community and spiritual growth are as vital to the workmanship when it comes to what the “mission” of our church is going to be.

Based on the video shown tonight, we who identify as Christians face an uphill battle in the attempt to demonstrate the true nature of the living Christ. These teenagers this past week made great strides to not only be able to work with humility and appreciation for those around them, but also love and seek God within and around them too.

For when they are able to experience the joy and spirit when loving fully and seeking earnestly, that spirit then goes with them whoever they go. So as they hammer a nail, make a new friend, start a new job, move to a new city, and continue their journey, the mission of Christ continues.

I am thankful for Rich’s commitment to be a progressive who reaches out into the depths of the margins to spread the good news who need it most while also claiming the emotion and sincerity that are evangelical brothers and sisters seem to do so much more willingly.

I am thankful for the way our students raised the bar. Therefore, our mission in the name of Christ continues.

May it be so, Amen.

My Daughter Spoke Her First Words!

Okay… So, not really. But it sure got your attention, right?

I needed to get your attention to make an important announcement about the guest-bloggers for the upcoming week.

Tomorrow, 73 of us get on a bus for the Franklinton Center at Bricks tomorrow to begin a Mission Trip that has been in the making for some time.

Beginning tomorrow (Monday) night, a new high school student will be blogging and sharing their reflections from the day, it will be WELL worth your reading time.

As I was reminded today (Graduation Sunday), there is nothing more beautiful than when a young person is willing to share their honest thoughts and sincere feelings.

As for me, well, all the preparation has been done, which is a good thing because there is no more time to prepare. There comes a point where you work hard to prepare so that there is nothing left to do but pray.

I am praying fervently that my hopes and visions for this time together will not overpower or mislead me from the miracles that lie in store for us that are not of my (or human) doing. (see Adventures in Missing the Point by Brian McLaren)

I am praying for those students who are excited, that they might find purpose and fulfillment.

And I am praying for those who are anxious and afraid tonight, that they may find community and friendship, assurance and belonging.

And of course I am praying for safety… I always forget that.

By the way…

for what it’s worth, when I went to kiss my baby girl goodnight/goodbye for the week, she erupted in tears…

… but after a diaper change, she was just fine.

Stay tuned, friends. Wheels up at 5:15.

A Mother’s Day Sermon

Preached May 13, 2012

Based on Luke 18:1-8

Luke 18:1-8

“18Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” 6And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

“Mother Up”

On one side of the curtain,in a triage room,lay a young woman in the early stages of labor –all alone, she didn’t make a sound.

In fact, aside from the beeping machines monitoring the increasing contractions, the entire half of the room was silent.

There were no reassuring “I love yous” from a husband, there were no animated “coachings” from parents and siblings,there was no comic relief from coworkers or friends, matter of fact, there wasn’t even a doctor.

It was a scene so exaggerated it belonged in a movie -on this side of the curtain, you couldn’t see the television, there wasn’t even a working bulb in the light panel overhead, -that half of the room, even at 1030 in the morning, was dark and cold.

Now, the OTHER side of the curtain,closest to the door, was the side with the light, and the TV, not that you could hear it, because there were so many friends and family in the room, and on top of that, the cell phones of the mom and dad to be never… stopped… ringing…

It’s fair to say, that had you been on that half of the room, you wouldn’t have known there was ANYBODY on the other side.

As cinematic as it sounds, I know this scene existed, for a fact. I was on the “lit” side of the room. And so was my wife, Pam. We were just a few hours away from the arrival of our little girl who was well on her way, even if she was over 5 weeks early.

The bathroom, however, was ON the other side and as I would awkwardly walk the curtain, I couldn’t avoid seeing this young woman in a fetal position, clutching her cell phone

that never rang.

I couldn’t HELP but notice the cold silence interrupted by her barely audible, slightly strained breaths as her contractions came and went.

 

Now, I don’t know her story… I didn’t ask. Maybe I was afraid of intruding on her privacy, or maybe I was afraid of finding out what her story was.

I can tell you,I’ve prayed about her a lot since then, in many ways out of my own need to process.

“God, forgive me for being so petty, for taking myself out of a situation where I could’ve extended your caring presence; for not being more diligent to take the comfort and concern, the assurance and the friendship that me and mine had been given and been a better steward to at least try to extend that to someone who I was guessing was not getting enough of any.”

And of course, after guilt comes anger!

“Why, God in a world where there can be such undeserved blessing on one side of the curtain, could there be such emptiness on the other side?!”

I have wondered often since then, where God was in that miracle of motherhood.

The more I think about it, I believe, with a considerable amount of peace, that God is in the middle of answering that question, not within me, but within her.

One thing I think we will all agree upon: A mother will always be as tough as she needs to be.

I’m not sure that having a child makes a woman tougher, from my perspective it seems that having a child is often a vehicle for a woman by in which God demonstrates how much a woman is truly capable of.

Outside of the maternity ward, I overheard a new daddy describes his wife this way: “I didn’t know she could be so sweet. And I didn’t know she could be so tough!”

In today’s scripture, Jesus tells of the tough, persistent, “don’t make me turn this car around, because God help me I will”, woman that I think is safe-to-assume a mother too.

Regardless of HOW this widow arrived here, the parable begins suddenly with this woman in quite a predicament. We do not know what the dispute is about or whom the dispute is with, but most believe that this is a dispute over money or property that is rightfully owed to her.

The surprise tension in this parable is the realization that the judge does not act as we have been led to expect from a judge.

To best understand the role of the judge, we can look back to Moses’ charge to judges in Deuteronomy:

“Give the members of your community a fair hearing, and judge rightly between one person and another, whether citizen or resident alien. You must not be partial in judging; hear out the small and the great alike; you shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s”

Jesus is quite clear as he sets up the parable that this authority did not live up to what was expected of him.

And if that isn’t bad enough, the fact that this woman is widowed makes her even more vulnerable in the hands of this crooked judge. In this time, widows were deprived of the support of a husband, yet they couldn’t inherit their husband’s estate which passed on the deceased man’s sons or brothers.

Stephen Dempster writes, “the loss of a husband in ancient Israel was normally a social and economic tragedy. In a generally patriarchal culture, the death of a husband usually meant a type of cultural death as well. Since she was in an extremely vulnerable economic position, she became the prime target of exploitation.”

(Sigh)

So to recap, we find our widow weighted down by a reality that she cannot control in the hands of a corrupt judge who held all the power.

This crooked judge is her only hope of securing justice, and persistence is her only recourse.

Can you Imagine that!,

I know it’s quite a stretch for you and me to imagine, a corrupt leader given a position that they’ve failed to live up to, but let’s try it anyway

Let’s really try to imagine the scenario.

Here we have a dynamic showdown, goodness vs. corruption, power vs. truth, yet another need for liberation in a book whose central themes returns over and over to the liberation of God’s people from the strongholds of corruption and oppression.

THIS TIME, the oppressors is not simply a King or Ruler, it’s someone much more dangerous, a person with authority, opportunity, and responsibility who has turned a blind eye to God’s will.

And Yet, THIS TIME, the victor’s side is not swords and conquerors, it’s not armies or rebels, it’s someone much stronger than that – a mother.

And thank God it was a mother. Who do you know could’ve met the task at hand to both pray lovingly and work tirelessly – except for a mother.

She was willing to show this judge that there was no power, no man who would stand in her way in achieving what God had provided for her.

She didn’t just defeat injustice, she wore it down!

 4For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’”

Leave it to a mother to make it all look so simple!

Clearly, to Jesus, the woman in the parable this morning is the model for how we should live our lives and this story seems to come just in the nick of time for Luke’s audience.

Ron Allen at the Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, IN and believes that this story was a necessary inclusion in order to keep the beginnings of Christianity from unraveling at the seams. He describes the scene this way:

“Many people had expected the apocalypse to take place soon after the resurrection. Luke writes a generation later and it still has not occurred.

Many in the community are drifting away. Tensions have developed within and around the church. The community perceives itself as suffering. In the language of today’s text, many people are losing heart.

I know once again, a stretch.

Once again, it is hard to imagine that people could be so discouraged at the signs of the time that they question whether or not any of it has a point.

Once again, we’re going to really need our imaginations to picture a time when there seems to be more bad news than good news; a time when people were challenging the very exsistence of God.

This new generation of athletes has developed a saying that it meant to bring the very best out of each other they tell each other, to “MAN-UP!”

Friends, if you and I believe in the notion of God, if you believe, as Luke does, that the realm of God is still at work, then, perhaps, as the athletes would say, it’s time to Mother-Up!

I suggest that these times might be the vehicle in which God shows us how much we are truly capable of.

Ya know, they say the first thing a baby learns to visually recognize are facial features.

A good friend of mind confirms this.

She told me that when her son was just a few months old, she would set him in a chair on the kitchen counter as she would cook dinner.

It became pattern that when she would turn away to the stove, the little boy would start crying. When she would turn around and look at him, he would smile. Again, she would turn away to cook – not moving any further away, mind you – and the baby would cry. She would turn around, and the baby would coo and smile.

Her son was crying because he wanted to see his mother’s face.

On a day like today, we acknowledge too that there are those who do not know their mother’s face.

There are those whose mother’s face is a vision of the past.

We acknowledge that there are those who have painful recollections of only the backs of their mothers heads.

We acknowledge that there are mothers working desperately, tirelessly, and in many ways, alone to manage the patient love and tireless work that it takes to raise a child

There are those all around us that feel as if the loving, sustaining, caring face of God has turned from them.

There are those all around us that cry out desiring, summoning, questioning, the very face of God.

Clearly, the early church audience did not throw in the towel – but rather “Mothered-UP”, to persevere love more, do more justice, and walk even more diligently with our God.

And so too, on this special day, I feel of our world is calling for us Christians to “Mother-Up”, to persistently and tirelessly be the loving and restorative face of God for those that cry out wondering why God has turned God’s face.

On one side of the dividing curtain, in a nursing home room, lives a woman named Mary.

If you met Mary today, you wouldn’t believe she was once known as quite the chatterbox, Because right now Mary doesn’t talk much. She can’t afford to replace the hearing aids that have continued to go missing.

You wouldn’t believe that she was the quite the busy-body. Because right now she can’t even push her chair or feed herself.

You wouldn’t believe that she was best known by friends and family for her precocious personality because she now she hardly ever… shows emotion.

At one point, it seemed that Mary’s health was detierating too fast for her to be able to have the chance to meet her first great-granddaughter. But, she was able to recover, at least to the point of not being contagious, and a meeting was arranged.

Mary’s nurse got her ready and wheeled her out to the nurses station by the courtyard where they were going to sit.

When she first saw her great-grandaughter, Mary’s face was as stoic as it usually was. You had to wonder if she “got” what this moment was. Her grandson and his wife mouthed and yelled their words and Mary nodded and responded weakly but appropriately – so in some ways, she must’ve understood.

When her grandson brought the baby close for one of those picture moments that her family had been hoping for, out of nowhere, Mary reached up, grabbed that baby’s foot, and started kissing it like a prized jewel.

Her grandson laughed! Apparently, she did get it!

After photos, and kisses, the family sat quietly, Mary stared alertly at the baby.

After some time, the young man asked “Granny, do you want to hold her?”

Mary looked up at him, almost helplessly, “I’m afraid to” she said.

Truth be told, everybody in the courtyard that day was nervous about that idea.

But they tried it.

As they laid the great-grandbaby in her arms, after a few minutes of leaning over her and holding both her arms and the baby, Mary’s granddaughter relaxed and went to sleep.

Mary, on the other hand came to life!

The hands too sore and feeble to lift a spoon began to stroke the cheeks of the sleeping baby, grasped firmly the back of her head, and even clutched tightly when that baby would try to roll such that no superhero could’ve pried that baby from those hands.

The face that had been frozen in stoicism for months lit up and laughed everytime the baby would move, and cooed every time the baby would cry.

She lit up with pride everytime one of the nurses would walk by her in the courtyard – it was like she was a young vibrant mother all over again!

For 45 minutes everyone around Mary was silent! astounded by what they were watching.

Mary would laugh, giggle, and then look back down at the baby and stroke her face. The silence in that time was the most beautiful thing ever said.

 

The hardest thing to say that day: “Okay, granny, it’s time to go. We have to take Casey back to Vero Beach now, you know, I’m preaching on Sunday.”

You know, that may seem like a cinematically exaggerated story, but I know it all happened, for a fact. Because that was my granny, and that was my daughter she was holding.

This morning, as her great-granddaughter turns one-month old today, on her dresser sits a framed-picture of the two of them. And my greatest hope is that it reminds her on her loneliest and weakest days, that the divine spirit of motherhood capably and persistently dwells within her.

Now, I know it’s bad form to get in the habit of telling personal stories from the pulpit, but I couldn’t help it, because,

In the past month, I’ve seen the miracle of a mother’s spirit

From both sides of the curtain.

And as I think about my grandmother, and my daughter, and that woman on the other end of the curtain in triage of the labor and delivery room, I believe

The Miracle of Motherhood is all around us! And if we are willing to persist we too can become an even greater part of that miracle!

If we pray humbly and work persistently embracing the spirit of motherhood among and within us then we too can see the miracle that happens as God makes us, like the persistent woman, like the best of motherhood, as tough as we need to be.

I pray that we Christians continue to celebrate, claim, and share the love of our God because: Nothing… not age, not circumstance, not pain, loneliness, brokenness, injustice, NOTHING, can break the miracle of a mother’s spirit that dwells within us all;

May we faithfully claim a mother’s drive and ability to conquer in the name of what is right and wear down all the is pain and loneliness and hiding the very face of God!

Who could stop us?!

For the most unconquerable, capable, spirit on the planet belongs to a mother’s spirit when she’s made up her mind!

Amen.