25 December 2011

...And a Happy New You!

Titus 2:11-14
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

Last week the world lost a great mind: Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens was a noted atheist who wrote on all kinds of topics, especially politics. He wrote a favorite book of mine, GOD IS NOT GREAT, how religion poisons everything. Now it may seem strange to mention such a thing on Christmas Eve, but bear with me. Hitchens' atheism took root growing up in a Christian primary school in England. An interview with his brother traced the exact moment when Christopher had enough: his teacher said God intentionally made grass green because the color is meant to be a calming influence on us. Now why the teacher made such a claim is a mystery to me; seems like "I don't know why grass is green" may have been a satisfactory answer for a nine year old. Although I have an inquisitive nine year old at home and that probably would not work on him!

Hitchens' main issue with religion- not just Christianity, but all religions- is not that believers are idiots, but that faith is a precursor to evil acts.  He argues that the great evils of history can be traced to religious fervor or fanaticism. And any unbiased reading of history would agree that religious folk often do horrible things in the name of their faith- there are even such stories in the Bible! We know about Islamic terrorism, conflict between Serbs and Croatians, Catholics and Protestants. Ugly, horrible stuff. But Stalin was a brutal dictator, as was Kim Jong Il, and Saddam Hussein. And no one ever considered them persons of faith.

One of the core beliefs of many of the world's religions is in the power of sin. There is a real force at work in the world, leading us astray from just behavior and influencing us to act selfishly or harshly toward others. To be clear, sin does not force us to make unjust choices- we do that on our own. We hope our faith is strong enough that when we face difficult choices in life we will choose good over evil. Our hope is when we give in to sin and make destructive choices, we remember we are never too far away from God's redeeming power.

The Apostle Paul would have been someone Christopher Hitchens could point to as an example of religious fanaticism. Early in Paul's life he was certainly no apostle- he was a religious zealot, like those feared by Hitchens, charged with bringing an end to the movement within Judaism which identified Jesus as the Messiah even with violence. Paul's work was to hunt down the so-called Christians and arrest them. One day as he was on his way to Damascus in Syria, where there was a Christian congregation, he was struck by a bright light. Blinded and unable to move, he heard the words of Jesus: "Why do you persecute me?" Paul later converted and was baptized a Christian. He went on to write more of the New Testament than any other single writer. The formerly violent, fanatical zealot wrote such great words as:

"Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails."

And this:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."
That does not sound like religious zealotry to me, but the assurance that comes from one who has experienced the radical change God's power can make in the heart of a believer.  How is such a change possible? And why are more evil people not changed so they can stop their destructive actions? 

Paul also wrote the text from Titus we read tonight, which speaks of a break between periods of time known as epiphanies, or manifestations of the holy in our world. "For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all..." The grace of God has appeared- manifested- bringing salvation. The manifestation Paul speaks of is not just the birth of Jesus, but his entire life, including death, resurrection, and ascension. Then Paul speaks of a second epiphany in verse 13: "While we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ."  When is the second manifestation? No one knows. In the meantime, between the two epiphanies, we wait. But it is not a twiddle your thumbs type of waiting. We undergo what Paul calls "training": a process of growth and maturity in faith. This is not the sort of training runners do before the White Rock Marathon, but the training parents offer to their kids. “Say ‘Yes sir and no ma’am.’” “Always brush your teeth and hair.” “Give a firm handshake.” “Look people in the eye when you speak to them.” “Don’t give up on something that is too hard.” It’s training that leads to maturity.

As we grow stronger in faith, we turn away from sin and its power. Later in Titus 3:3 Paul reminds us of what behaviors this faith change leaves behind: "For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another." See how he uses past tense there? “We were once foolish, disobedient…” etc. The process of change has already begun in is. We have begun to leave behind the sort of behavior Hitchens was so concerned about. We could argue that seeing that sort of mean spirited, undisciplined behavior is evidence of someone who is still immature—untrained. Now God's grace is "training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly..." Paul experienced the transforming power of the grace of Christ. The same transformation- training- is available for us all! 

This change in us is why the message of Christmas is so important. The Christmas message of love, grace, and hope makes it possible for us to become new people—Christ’s own people. It is about good news—grace—that is manifested in us through the appearance of the holy. God’s love was manifest in the angelic chorus that announced Christ’s birth to the shepherds. God’s love was manifest in the star the Magi followed from the East. God’s love was manifest in Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. And God’s love is manifest every year we celebrate these world-changing events. God’s love is manifest in us tonight.

Christmas offers the Christian an opportunity to reflect upon the world, the society in which we live, and our own lives. The training, or transformation, we experience is due to the grace of Christ, which made its first appearance this night in Bethlehem. Christian faith, born on this night, is no more a source of evil than it is a cure. Evil is as real a force today as it always has been. The power to defeat evil is not ours, but Christ's. This makes our faith even more important. As Paul said, Christ redeems us from iniquity- sin- and we become zealous- but not the kind of zealots Paul once was or that Hitchens believed all persons of faith had the potential to become. We become zealous for good works. So we fight against injustice. We advocate for the poor. We stand alongside this who suffer. We feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort those who hurt. Because we remember that on this night Christ was manifest for us. We have been purified, redeemed, and made zealous for good works. We are Christ's own people!

Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer nearly two years ago. His prognosis was bleak, and he gave several interviews in which he reflected on his mortality. He was adamant that no one think he had a change of heart about religion as death approached. He wanted to cling to his atheistic world view until the very end, even as thousands of persons of many faiths sent him prayers and well wishes. I hope the end of his life was peaceful. I respect his way of seeing the world, but obviously I cannot agree with it. Maybe if he had known more mature—fully trained—persons of faith his view of religion would not have been so harsh. Then again, Hitchens believed Mother Theresa was a zealot and fraud, so don’t hold your breath on that one.

Tonight, celebrate the infancy of faith. Consider your own training in Christ. And look forward to a day when all of God's dreams for the world- and your own life- come true.  Our four year old son Linus has been singing Christmas carols for weeks now, with a four year old spin on them. I mentioned "Jingle bells, Batman smells" recently. The other day was another: his version of WE WISH YOU A MERRY CHRISTMAS. The original version ends with, "Good tidings for Christmas, and a Happy New Year!" Linus' ends like this: "Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New You!" There it is, the gospel according to a four year old. Tonight we celebrate faith born for us. And the promise made manifest to each of us: a new you- a gift of grace from a loving God and powerful Savior, born on this night for each of us. Merry Christmas! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

09 December 2011

When Christmas Becomes Real

Since Christy began working full-time at SMU last October, some of our family roles have changed. I cook dinner more often, and I am the everyday chauffeur for our boys (James, 4th grade; Miles, 1st grade; Linus, pre-K).  As I drive Linus to and from school recently, it's been a joy to hear him singing Christmas carols in the car. Cruising up the Tollway yesterday, I hear this from behind me: "Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open sleigh." Then the magic happens: improvisation.

He infuses the classic song with words his brothers have brought home from their school: "Now I'm going to sing Batman and Robin. "Jingle bells, jingle bells... Wait." Again: "Jingle bells, jingle bells... Wait." A third time: "Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin laid an egg. The Batmobile lost a wheel, and Joker got away. Hay!" 

What Batman has to do with "dashing through the snow" I do not know, but if you've been to worship on a cool Sunday or been around the church on a rainy day recently you may have seen our four year old trotting about in his Batman raincoat and matching rubber boots, a Christmas gift from his grandmother last year. Maybe that's the mystery- combine the joy of the season (singing carols) with great memories and prized possessions (coat and boots) and one sees the pieces fall together.   Christmas is a time of infinite mystery and infinite joy. We ponder the whole idea of God coming into our world as one of us, even in the form of a vulnerable infant. We sing in our hearts "O Come, O Come Emmanuel...," remembering that Emmanuel means "God is with us!" Even in the form of a child. God has given us every good gift: life, health, peace, a heart to serve. As much as God has blessed us, this Christmas we embrace the greatest gift- just as we do every year.

In a setting that had nothing to do with Christmas or the mystery of Incarnation, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3). Some of us have experienced more Christmases than we'd like to admit. Some of us were fortunate enough to spend them surrounded by loved ones. Some of us will be able to share Christmas joy in worship at Oak Lawn this year (Christmas Eve: 3:00, 5:00, 11:00; Christmas Day: 11:00 a.m.). Wherever we celebrate, let's do it with the joy and spirit of children. Because that's who we are. Children of a loving God, who bestows upon each of us grace and love.  Christmas has become more real for Linus this year- and through his expectation, it's become more real for me too. May we all embrace this Christmas with the faith of children! 

(The Batman jacket and boots are a bonus!)

29 November 2011

Merry Christmas!

Welcome to the Oak Lawn Church! We are very proud to be a diverse congregation, where everyone is affirmed as a child of God. If you are looking for a church home where everyone is welcomed, we'd love for you to join us this Christmas season.

We are very excited about Christmas worship at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church this year. We will offer three Christmas Eve worship experiences. The first, at 3:00 p.m., will be a family service led by our Associate Pastor Kerry Smith. The others, 5:00 and 11:00 p.m., will be traditional services led by Senior Pastor Frank Drenner. The celebration continues Christmas morning. Following a brunch at 9:30 a.m., as our Associate Pastor Gregg Alan Smith leads our worship at 11:00. Please join us this year for a wonderful Oak Lawn Christmas!

Christmas Eve Worship, Saturday December 24
3:00 p.m. Family Service
5:00 and 11:00 p.m. Traditional Services

Christmas Morning, Sunday December 25
9:30 a.m. Brunch
11:00 a.m. Christmas Day Worship

The Peace and Joy of the Season be with you!
- Pastor Frank

16 November 2011

Partners for Sacred Places

A couple of weeks ago I received a call from Mr Bob Jaeger, President of Partners for Sacred Places, an organization dedicated to helping established churches further their mission. He asked if I had received a letter from him—that I would be very pleased with the news. I had not, so he faxed it to me. Oak Lawn UMC has received a $100,000 grant! It will be used for renovations/improvements to our facility (our Trustees will decide exactly where the money will be spent—but it will not be for the operations budget). What a surprise! Joy! Glory! Halleluiah! I immediately notified David Shuford, Chair of Trustees.  Upon collecting himself from the floor he was as overjoyed as I.

Partners for Sacred Places (sacredplaces.org) began its work in 1989. Here’s a summary of its work:
Partners for Sacred Places brings together a national network of expert professionals who understand the value of a congregation's architectural assets, its worth as a faith community, and the significance of its service to the community at large.
Through our training programs, information clearinghouse, and professional network, we have helped congregations in all 50 states. Stories of success unfolding in cities, towns, and rural areas inform Partners' knowledge bank. Each story fuels our capacity to help congregations, and we are expanding our national reach by strategically growing our training projects and regional offices.
Partners is the only national advocate for the sound stewardship and active community use of America's older religious properties. Informed by its research, Partners is building a shared sense of responsibility for the future of sacred places.
Partners was founded in 1989 by a national task force of religious, historic preservation and philanthropic leaders. Since then, Partners has served several thousand congregations and other local organizations and represents the needs and concerns of over 100,000 older, community-serving sacred places in every town and city across America.

This week I participated in a conference call with Mr Jaeger, as well as Dr Bill Bryan of Perkins School of Theology, Mr Sam Hodges from the United Methodist Reporter, and the Rev Judith Reedy of Grace UMC, near Baylor Hospital (Grace will receive a $25,000 grant).  Our hope is to get the word out about the work of Oak Lawn, Grace, and Partners for Sacred Places. Bob Jaeger mentioned a new project Sacred Places is researching: the “Halo Effect.”  It’s the annual economic impact churches that are invested in their neighborhoods have. It’s estimated to be $3-5 million per church. What impact has Oak Lawn UMC had on Oak Lawn over the years?

We know there are “circles of philanthropy” out there with interest in supporting congregations making a real difference in the lives of their community. In fact, Pastor Judith said she just had lunch with a donor recently who is a member of another United Methodist congregation doing no mission work. So this person is actively supporting Grace Church and its work. I learned that it is often the case that 2/3 of funds raised for the church come from those outside its walls. Do you know any organizations or individuals who would support our mission and empower us to do even more?

I spoke proudly on the call about the hands on work Oak Lawn does for its community and the changes I have seen since I last served here eight years ago. Dr Bryan, who served as my Intern Supervisor years ago, said, “I am proud of you, Frank.” I replied, “Thanks, but I had nothing to do with it!” I am grateful for visionary pastors and layfolk who decided to step out in faith, embrace the community around us, and see what good things God will do. I believe our faithfulness to this mission is being rewarded, not just financially but with more and more people who seek a diverse congregation with a heart for its community.

I am thankful for organizations such as Partners for Sacred Places who see the value of congregations such as Grace and Oak Lawn, and choose to generously join us in fulfilling God’s vision in our community. The other day Joan Wu reminded me of a story I shared in a sermon when I served here previously ( I had long forgotten it—how did she remember?). It was about a church in a changing neighborhood. They needed a new roof, but could not afford to do that and support programs for the community. Or the church could just close its doors. After much prayer and discernment, the church decided to repair the roof. They were afraid of how the community would respond. Would they be perceived as being selfish or turning their backs on the needs of their parish? What they heard back was: “Thank you for fixing the roof! That means you’re staying here!” Oak Lawn made the decision decades ago, when many urban churches closed or moved to the suburbs, to stay right here. Every day when I drive here, when I meet a new face, when I see entire communities embraced who were once underserved, I am grateful for that decision to stay. Many of our members and friends who worship with us are here because of that decision. That decision is producing real fruit in the form of changed lives.

I say it often, and proudly so: thank you for the privilege of serving such a place as Oak Lawn.

13 November 2011

Flawed Assumptions- delivered at OLUMC Nov 13, 2011

The other day I was in Sam's and the Christmas music was blaring! Every HDTV had a red ribbon on it, there were aisles of gift wrap, even the familiar bell ringing of the Salvation Army guy. As I left a guy in front of me said to the woman at the door, "Christmas is going to go and y'all will be so tired of all this music!" Holiday cheer for everyone! Yes, nothing rings in the holidays like people being upset about celebrating them too early. One home in our neighborhood had lights up the morning after Halloween. Last night as we came home we saw more lights going up. Through the miracle of Facebook I know of some folk who already have their Christmas tree up-but for their safety I will keep them anonymous.  We're going to wait a few more weeks before we decorate the church for Xmas- Saturday December 3 to be exact. The way the Christian calendar works is different from commercial observances. Christmas is a season, but it's only 12 days, and it begins- not ends- December 25. Before that is the Season of Advent, the four Sundays before Christmas. The first Sunday of Advent is November 27, but many churches are observing Advent earlier to give it its full consideration. It was only a thousand years ago that Pope Gregory changed Advent from a six week season- like Lent before Easter- to four (no one seems to know why). But the gospel lessons for the Sundays in November remained the same, dealing with traditional Advent themes like preparation for a new reality ushered in by God. Take the parables of Matthew 25.  A few weeks ago we read the first parable, the one about the bridesmaids waiting for the bride and groom to arrive for the wedding. The parable at the end of Matthew 25 is a vision of ultimate justice. Stuck in the middle of those is today's text, where a landowner gives three slaves a tremendous opportunity. They are each given talents- a unit of money that represents years of work. This is a ton of money to share. The first slave is given five talents. Enough for a lifetime of work. The second receives two. And the third one. The slaves are given no instructions whatsoever- no strings or expectations attached. Then the master goes on holiday.  The first two slaves see this as a great opportunity to make some cash. They sit down with their investment planners and go to work. The third slave's investment strategy involves a shovel, a box, and a metal detector. Now, recently I did something I had successfully convinced myself to not do for the past several years: in a moment of weakness, I opened my pension statement. That was a mistake. If this was a parable about investment strategies for the 21st century, slave #3 is your guy, right? Stuff those mattresses! But this parable is not about market fluctuations. The last thing Jesus would be interested in is Greece's debt crisis. No, the first two slaves are the stars here. Without any instruction from the owner, upon his return these two share great news: they have doubled the money. The owner is so pleased- they are both promoted for their actions. The third slave? Not so much.  Dusting off his unearthed box, he returns the talent to his master with these words, paraphrased: "Master, I know you cheat and steal, and you're kinda mean, so I was afraid to do anything with this dough. Take it back." Now the owner is not pleased, but I wonder how surprised he was- this guy was only given one talent after all, not multiples like the others. The master turns his words back on him, "I'm the jerk, huh? Well, at least you could have opened a checking account and earned .25% or something, but instead you give back exactly what you were given. Fine. We'll give it to the first guy and see what he can do with it. As for you, go away where you can't mess up any more  great opportunities." Now you're thinking, "The third slave was right. The owner is a lousy guy- look at how he treats this guy. I mean most of us would take a 0% return after these last 3 years! But here's the thing: this is not a parable about money.  It's about using what we've been given. It's about risking everything for Jesus. It's about sharing our blessings and watched the Kingdom of God grow around us. If we have a negative view of the landowner, it's only because the 3rd guy said so- and why would we trust his judgment? HE's clearly motivated only by fear- why should that influence us?  The other slaves are not afraid of their master. We should they be? We know him to be exceedingly generous with his money. He gave those talents- again, it's a huge amount of money- and he didn't ask them to do anything with it. It's their money! These are the verbs Matthew uses to describe the owner's actions: he gave it to the slaves, and they received it. These are not wages earned for labor- these are gifts freely given.  The first two recognize this and use their blessing to create more opportunities for blessing. The third one creates this whole new reality. Returning the talent, he says, "Here you have what is yours." But the talent does not belong to the landowner! The first two slaves make no effort to return the original money or the proceeds: "Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more." This is not a shareholder's meeting, but a celebration. To the third slave, who has called him lazy and a thief, he plays along, using his assumptions against him: "...You ought to have invested my money... I would have received what was my own with interest." He repeated the slave's mistaken assumptions about his character, "You knew, did you...?" Then turns the tables again: "Take the dusty talent, wipe it off, and you guessed it- give it to the first guy. To those who have received much, more will be- given- so they my have an abundance. To those who have little, it was will be taken."  The landowner is God. The talent is the grace of God. It is offered to us without pomp and circumstance, and without strings attached. And this is not a little helping of grace- this is seconds and thirds. Not an investment. An opportunity. A challenge. Multiply it. Not because God demands it. But because you know a relationship with Jesus is the most precious and valuable thing you have- given to you through no work on your part. That s not the kind of thing to be buried in the sand. Don't waste it. You've been given a great gift because God loves you that much- and sees such greatness in you. Turns out the third slave did not know the master at all- and his ignorance was all he was left with.  "It's the most wonderful time of the year..." is a popular tune in the stores.  I'm not sure if it was going at Sam's the other day or not. It is the most wonderful time of the year- but not because of Thanksgiving or even Christmas. It's the most wonderful time of the year because during Advent it's time for us to really ask ourselves: who is God? Do you even know- or are your assumptions as flawed as the third slave? Why is what we believe important? How can what we have experienced help others who are searching? God has given us a message. A brilliant, life-giving message of hope, love, and peace. Don't bury it in the ground. Multiply it. Share what you know. Even if it's before Thanksgiving or Christmas. There's no grace in waiting! In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Comments shared at a remembrance service for the Cancer Support Community of Dallas

 1 There is a time for everything,     and a season for every activity under the heavens:  2 a time to be born and a time to die,     a time to plant and a time to uproot,   3 a time to kill and a time to heal,     a time to tear down and a time to build,   4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,     a time to mourn and a time to dance,   5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,     a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,   6 a time to search and a time to give up,     a time to keep and a time to throw away,   7 a time to tear and a time to mend,     a time to be silent and a time to speak,   8 a time to love and a time to hate,     a time for war and a time for peace. Those are the familiar words from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Even if you have not read them in the Bible you've probably heard them on the radio- the classic song TURN,TURN,TURN by The Byrds was a smash hit in 1965, and, apart from the last line, is based entirely on this text. According to Wikipedia, it easily holds the record for the #1 song with the oldest lyrics!  Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the classic WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, called Ecclesiastes "the most dangerous book of the Bible." If you read the book, you'll quickly see why. It's written by a philosopher/teacher who has reached middle age. Or maybe even on the other side of the middle. He looks upon his own life, as well as those around him in his community and world, and seeks to find meaning there. It's very difficult. Most of the book is filled with negative thoughts of folly, waste, and bitterness. It is a brutally honest book- no rose colored glasses on this guy- which is why Kushner affectionately called it "dangerous." I agree. It's one of my favorites.  It's a real honor to be amongst you today. Hearing these stories of grief and love has been a real privilege. I am thankful for the work of this organization and will continue to pray for each family as I have since Daniel Blackburn first invited me to speak some time ago. I am especially mindful of two families in our church I prayed with just yesterday who are facing the same days of grief as many of you have endured. Death is a reality of life we all must confront. There are many ways to do that, some  are positive, and some are not.  I recently read a book by Rev John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California. It's called WHEN THE GAME IS OVER IT ALL GOES BACK IN THE BOX. It's about playing the game of life with grace, forgiveness, and joy. And knowing for certain that death is a reality we all must face. Thinking of an uncle who recovered from a serious illness, Ortberg says this:  "One thing is certain to everyone: that life is a gift, that every day is an unpurchased miracle, every second is overtime. I do not know why life works the way it does. I do not know why some people recover and others die. I do not know why some prayers are answered and others (seem to) go unheeded. But I do know life is a gift. I know this is not something we earn, create, control, or sustain. I know that one truth about us we forget is that we are going to die. The other truth is that we are alive." Ecclesiastes never loses his "dangerous" outlook on life, but he did realize one truth: loneliness is the last thing any of us needs. In times of grief and despair, joy and hope, life is always best lived with others: "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to the one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold chord is not quickly broken."  It's interesting that the metaphor Ecclesiastes uses for our life together is a three-fold chord, rather than two-fold, when all the examples he gave involved two persons. The third chord must be God. So may we cling to our loved ones- and each other- in our time of grief, as well as embracing the future with hope. And may we find God in whatever season we face: birth and death; planting and plucking up; killing and healing; breaking down and building up; weeping and laughing; mourning and dancing; throwing away and gathering; embracing or not; seeking and losing; keeping and throwing away; tearing and sewing; keeping silence or speaking; loving or hating; making war or peace.  Wherever you are today, however you are confronting your grief and the reality of life and death, may you find joy and companionship there, and the strength faith provides. In our remaining days, however many there are, may we live with hope, expecting to find God in every season. 

09 November 2011

feedback from a guest to oak lawn umc

I am always interested in how guests, particularly first timers, experience the church. So when I learned that a dear friend from a former congregation I served joined us for worship last month, I was eager to hear her reflections (we were out of town that Sunday). Here are some of her thoughts:

I was warmly greeted by ushers as I arrived in the rain exactly at 11AM.  I heard the bells or chimes.  I did not know how to enter the building.  I followed a couple up the steps to the front entrance.  I gladly took a seat in the rear center.  Took me a few minutes to get my bearings in a new place.  I understood the order of worship from the guide.  It was Children's Sunday though they had (in my opinion) limited participation in the service.  I believe they paraded off to children's church.  They blessed us with a song near the end. People around me were friendly and introduced themselves.  There was some trouble finding my way out.  Since it was still raining, I wanted to go out near the rear.  Someone showed me the way but discovered that the elevator was not working.  So we walked back up near the front to exit on the side.  One gentleman so proudly showed me the recently completed renovations of the parlor/reception area with the flat screen monitor.
I read worship guides cover to cover looking for education and mission ministries.  There is vibrant activity in both of these areas.  I was curious about adult SS classes but guide did give me a clue.  I loved the study offerings for Disciple and Jesus in the Gospels.  There was not contact info for the [book club] so I plan to call the church to see if there will be another time for discussing this book.  Maybe it is on the website. I would have appreciated email contacts in worship guide for all activities. Thanks for asking me to comment on experience.  I look forward to visiting again.

We recently heard feedback from Oak Lawners that hospitality was one of our strengths—I agree! But there are always areas to improve. How could we have improved her experience? Better signage on exterior of the building? Greeters outside near the elevator? More information in the bulletin? Share your thoughts with others in the church. Form a team and seek solutions. We know the holidays are a popular time for guests to check out the church. Help us to improve and offer the best welcome possible. Hearing feedback from those new to OLUMC helps us to remember our mission—to reach more persons for Jesus Christ—and reminds us that each of us once felt that confusion and excitement as we entered the building the first time. May we have open hearts, minds, eyes, and hands to our neighbors in the pews today and every Sunday!

05 November 2011

check your cliches at the door

ok, so it's november, meaning two things: the weather is officially amazing (we woke up to a 60 degree house this morning!), and it's time to roll out the thanksgiving cliches. someone discovered this poster published by nordstrom in 2007 and it began to pop up all over facebook:

(i imagine more people downloading and reposting.)

someone even said on a friend's wall: "if that's true i am definitely shopping there for Christmas!" and the cynic in me said, "kudos to nordstrom's marketing team!"

now, don't get me wrong: i love thanksgiving. it is my favorite holiday. if you have attended any church i have served you've heard me speak of the "three f's" of thanksgiving: food, family, and football. it's simple, little stress, and great fun. but here's the deal: why does it bug us so much for Christmas stuff to go on display in late october or early november? this and its cliche cousin about the commercialization of Christmas go hand and hand this time of year. but hold on for a second.

Christmas has feelings associated with it-- even for non-church folk-- of joy. yes, retailers anticipate the season all year, but i don't hear anyone boycotting the wall street journal when it begins to publish stories about that fact (yes, that article was dated october 10-- shocking!). 

is it such a bad thing if Christmas stuff brings a little joy in october and november? these are both great holidays-- let's celebrate both of them, but do they have to be confined to their respective months? what are we defending again? does Christmas really need the cliche police to protect it? the "naughty list" sermon series, the "war on Christmas" stuff... that can be stored away with the halloween decorations. if our excitement makes either holiday come faster, is that such a bad thing? just please do not start getting excited about the coming of summer. i may have to start a campaign against the commercialization of the sun.

so: happy holidays, everyone! oh wait, the Christmas cliche police banned that blessing years ago.

20 October 2011

Trade Denied/Grace Realized

This week several teams in the NFL traded players.  One trade, between the Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles, would have swapped running back Jerome Harrison for running back Ronnie Brown.  But the trade did not happen. Both players were required to undergo a physical before the trade was made official; upon seeing the results of Harrison’s physical, the trade was voided.  According to ESPN, the physical revealed a brain tumor.  If this proposed trade had not happened, it is impossible to say when or if Harrison’s tumor would have ever been discovered.  Fortunately it is in the very early stages, and he hopes to make a full recovery.

Have you ever accidentally tripped upon grace? Ever had one of those “ah-ha moments” when the universe seemed to tumble together in the right order?  I have no idea if Mr Harrison is a spiritual/religious guy or not, but I suspect upon hearing the news of his physical he saw life in a different light.  And I imagine there was more than a little bit of gratitude, perspective, and celebration.

Each of us stands on one side of a door. We do not know what is on the other side, but somehow, someway, we are beckoned to grasp the knob, turn it, open the door, and step inside. There are a number of scriptures that speak to the metaphor of the door: one of my favorites comes from Revelation 3:20: Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. Open the door, and I will come in to you.” There is a famous painting in St Paul’s Cathedral in London by William Holden Hunt called “Light of the World.” Jesus stands there, knocking, and we wait with him to see if the person opens it.  The thing is: if you look closely at the painting, there is no handle on the outside of the door. It can only be opened from the inside. Jesus calls each of us and waits: knocking, listening, hoping.

Join us this Sunday for Commitment Sunday. We’ll ask the Lord to guide us through the door to another year full of opportunities to minister to others. We’ll seek faith strong enough to step through the open door to newer, deeper life in Jesus Christ. We’ll challenge one another to grow further in love, and we’ll hold one another accountable through it. Because every now and then we are accidentally surprised by grace. And in those moments we want to be mindful, and thankful, for all of God’s gifts.

19 October 2011

Kickin in the Doors

I grew up a Houston Oilers fan, and as such I hated the Dallas Cowboys. When I was a kid, The Oilers were coached by the loveable, Texas cliché Bum Phillips, father of former Cowboys coach Wade Phillips.  The Cowboys, on the other hand, were coached by the stoic Tom Landry. The Oilers in the late 1970s were a powerful team, led by football legend Earl Campbell.  As much as I disliked the Cowboys, I really hated, and still do this day, the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Every year they seemed to knock my team out of the playoffs. After one such defeat, the Oilers returned to the Astrodome, packed full of adoring fans, holding signs which said, “Luv ya blue.” Bum Phillips was handed a microphone and he uttered these words in the thickest Texas accent one can imagine:

"Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we're going to kick [it] in."

The [it] replaces the more colorful words used by Coach Phillips. Unfortunately the Oilers kicked nothing in again the next year.  After several heartbreaking playoff defeats, their owner, Bud Adams, to this day still hated in South Texas, moved the team to Nashville where they became the Tennessee Titans.  They actually made it to the Super Bowl in 2000; you can guess what happened.

Upon becoming a father I faced a difficult decision: we lived in Dallas. Houston received a new NFL franchise, the Texans, but come on, how does one follow another Texas team in Cowboys country? There was no way I would cheer for the Titans after they abandoned Houston.  So I adopted the Cowboys. It’s been a painful decision! They have not won a Super Bowl since—blame me if you want. Now it’s the Cowboys, every year, saying, "Last year we knocked on the door. This year we beat on it. Next year we're going to kick [it] in." And so we wait until next year. And the year after that.

Join us this Sunday, October 23, as we make our commitments for next year. We’ve talked over the last several weeks about doors we face.  They are opportunities. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you. Search, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened for you” (Matthew 7:7-8). There’s nothing there about kicking in the door—no need for a violent reaction. Something on the inside invites us inside. There’s an excitement there. We want to see what is behind the door.

This Sunday is Commitment Sunday, where we dedicate our lives and resources to God for another year in ministry at Oak Lawn. Take some time with family this week to discuss the percentage of your income God is calling you to give next year, and come ready to share that in a private moment of prayerful celebration in worship. We’ll hear more about the door each of us faces, and toward the end of the service we’ll have an opportunity to literally step through a door, symbolizing newer, deeper, more committed relationship with God. We will leave the worship excited about new possibilities offered by a God who loves us, who calls us to enter the door, and who sends us out the door to serve.

07 October 2011

A Response to the Eraseboard

The other day someone left a message on a dry ease board in a classroom at the church. Someone spent several minutes explaining why individuals in our congregation should change who they are- to conform to this person's biblical understanding.  Words like "Repent!" were there, alongside phrases like, "God does not support homosexuality," "God loves the sinner, but hates the sin," and "Don't wait, be straight!". Several people saw this, and responded with anger, frustration, or disgust. How should we respond?

Recently we had a sermon series called "Christians Behaving Badly," and this type of situation was exactly what we were concerned about. Those with one perspective feel compelled to share it, without sensitivity to how it will be received. Oak Lawn UMC is a place that values inclusivity in everything we do. Every Sunday I stand before the congregation and say something like this: "We are proud to be a place where everyone is valued and respected as a child of God, made in God's own image." I have heard several people say how much they appreciate this. The thing is: no one coached me on that. My first Sunday here I literally stood up to welcome folk to church and that came out.  I did not plan it in any way. It's who Oak Lawn is. It's important for everyone who calls Oak Lawn home for their heart knows this.

As upset as I was to see these messages in our church, I also had a different reaction: the message that we are a welcoming congregation to everyone is getting out. Those who do not support our message of welcome are feeling a need to respond. And those who have looked for an inclusive, diverse place to worship are hearing about Oak Lawn too. We see them every Sunday, and we are more than happy to extend God's love and grace to them.

These comments were left on a dry erase board. It would be easy to erase them and pretend the sentiment never existed. Instead we chose to address them openly. We hope those with similar opinions would seek out others in the congregation and ask about our church's DNA. At moments such as these, it is helpful to ask, "What are we about?" "Who are we?" It's interesting that this happened just as we are going through a process to determine a new vision for our congregation. Wherever we go from here, God is going to take us there together. And more and more people, with varied understandings of theology, the Bible, and sin, will join us on the journey. I am proud to serve such a diverse place as Oak Lawn as your Senior Pastor.

27 September 2011

all a's

yesterday i had a great day off.  after a wonderful breakfast, i went to the cinema for a double feature: moneyball and drive.  drive i knew nothing about, except that after seeing crazy stupid love i became a ryan gosling fan; moneyball, on the other hand, was a book by michael lewis, which i read several years ago.  as a baseball junkie, i was fascinated by the idea that baseball could be remarkably predictable: formulas and calculations, not the physical or psychological cliches we hear about during every game, would determine which players were successful.

after the 2001 season, the a's lost some key players to richer teams.  they decided to overhaul their system of player evaluation and development.  they wanted players to walk more-- on base percentage (obp) was their most important statistic, not home runs or batting average.  they were not interested in avoiding errors (the book argues against the use of the term "error"-- why does a moral term like that belong in a sport?).  no bunting-- that's giving away outs.  no stealing-- the risk of getting an out is not worth the reward of getting to second base.  if the guy hitting behind you walks you'll end up there anyway.  and let's put an end to useless stats like batting average with two out (there's no statistical reality to the cliche known as "clutch hitting").

i read a review of moneyball written by keith law, a baseball guy.  he calls the movie a "mess"-- but he writes about it from the perspective of a baseball guy, not a moviegoer.  he points out no general manager would fly to another city to discuss a possible trade, and of course he's right.  it would be over their third arms, their mobile phones.  but that meeting in the movie does not take place to discuss a possible trade-- it's to introduce the a's g.m. to an analyst for the indians.  this guy later becomes the a's assistant g.m., and the architect of the new philosophy.  in other words, the whole meeting is a plot device.  it doesn't matter if it would actually happen that way.  law also does not like the way scouts are portrayed, certain players, etc.  but this is not a documentary, and it's not even really a baseball movie-- unlike, say field of dreams or bull durham or the natural.  to review the movie as not understanding baseball culture correctly is to miss the point.

as i watched moneyball, i was reminded of the social network (same writer-- aaron sorkin).  for one thing, my initial reaction to both films was the same: why are they making this into a movie again? facebook is a good thing and everyone loves it, but do we need to know mark zuckerberg better?  moneyball is an interesting way to dig deeper into baseball, but is it a movie-worthy story?  people reacted similarly to the social network as keith law did to moneyball.  what it says about zuckerberg or any other character was not accurate.  but that's not what we have movies for, is it?  we're looking for a story.  the social network was great not because it was a biography-- it was interesting because the guy the film suggests is socially awkward (doesn't matter if he really is or not-- it's a movie) created a network for people to be more social.  moneyball isn't about the sport of baseball as much as it is the thinking behind it.  and the man behind the machine.

billy beane was then, and still is today, the a's general manager.  he is a former major league baseball player. in the film he relives the moment he signed his big league contract over and over again.  we see pictures of him as a kid in a baseball uniform over and over.  he craves solitude.  he refuses to watch the team play.  he constantly eats and exercises.  he is a classic "type a" personality.  he is devoted to his daughter.  the more you get to know the guy, the more a movie makes sense.  he is a visionary.  he has to adapt to financial constraints that do not exist for other teams. the oakland a's 2002 payroll was under $40 million, compared to the Yankees' of $140 million, but they still made the playoffs. in fact, the team won one more game with the cheaper players. this year the a's payroll is $65 million, 21st among the 30 mlb teams.  they'll finish the season, which ends tomorrow, 73-89 give or take a win or two, in third place.  they have not made the playoffs since 2006.  while it is true the a's have not won a world series under the moneyball philosophy, the boston red sox, who hired the guru of modern baseball statistical analysis, bill james, years ago, won titles in 2004 and 2007.  they still have a pulse for the final playoff spot with two games to play.

as a rangers fan, i could not be more excited and impressed with the team's performance the last two years.  last season they made the world series but lost; this weekend they begin another playoff run.  they've done this without an enormous payroll: $91 million, which ranks 13th out of 30th.  ten years ago, the rangers payroll was higher than that-- yet they lost every year. the rangers, now under new leadership, have adopted some of these processes, but not others.  ron washington, the rangers' manager, was the third base coach for the a's during the moneyball years (he's in the movie, always referred to as "wash").  but washington gives his players free reign on base stealing, and calls on them to bunt often.  personally i agree with moneyball's stance here.  bunting is rarely effective, and basestealing, while exciting, has significant risk to it.

the movie is excellent.  brad pitt, who produced the film as well as stars in it, is great.  it's funny, witty, and thought provoking, even if you're not a baseball fan.  it was very absorbing.  many people in the auditorium  cheered as the a's won their record 20th straight game in the '02 season.  i have always been attracted to visionary type people, who reinvent the system in new, challenging, sometimes threatening ways.  billy beane is certainly that. if i weren't a rangers fan and the a's were not our rivals, i would root for beane to get his ring.

22 September 2011

Oak Lawn Vision Quiz

We’re beginning a process for establishing a new vision for Oak Lawn—how appropriate as we gather this Sunday to celebrate 137 years of ministry!  As an act of worship today we will complete a brief survey together.  Next week members of our Church Council will host listening sessions, where members and friends of Oak Lawn can come together for a time of sharing hopes and dreams.  There are also opportunities for online discussions.  Check out our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/OLUMC, follow me on Twitter: @revdrfd3, or post to my blog: www.pastorfrank.blogspot.com. Part of the vision process is knowing what is going on in our community.  Based on some demographic information offered through the North Texas Conference (brought to my attention by Joan Wu and Patrick Aunkst), here’s a quiz:

Which group will grow between today and 2015: Those with less than a ninth grade education, or those with a college education?

By 2015, most households in 75219 will have an income of:
a.       Less than $20,000
b.      $50,000-75,000
c.       $100,000-125,000
d.      $200,000+

Households by size (number of people in a home) will increase or decrease over the next three years?

Asians represent approximately 4 ½ percent of 75219.  What is the largest group?
a.       Vietnamese
b.      Chinese (non Taiwanese)
c.       Filipino
d.      Japanese

What percentage work from home?
a.       1
b.      2
c.       5
d.      10

Which population will increase by 2015?
a.       African Americans
b.      Asians
c.       Hispanics
d.      All of the above

Each of these trends—and there are a bunch more—represents exciting, new ministry opportunities for us.  I am very proud and excited to be a part of Oak Lawn UMC’s efforts to re-vision and reach more people for Jesus Christ!

Answers: College; D; decrease; A; C; D

13 September 2011

Swords into Plowshares

“Where were you on September 11?”  I don’t know how many times I have heard or seen that question asked over the past couple of weeks.  Most of us can say exactly where we are when we heard the news of the attacks on our country.  Christy and I were in our apartment on Henderson Avenue getting ready for work.  We were watching the Today show, which was rare for me.  We watched live, as most of here and billions around the world did, as the second plane hit the World Trade Center.  We were horrified, unsure what to do next.  She drove to her job, near SMU, and I drove here, where I served as Associate Pastor.  I remember driving along Turtle Creek listening to the radio and worrying about Dallas being attacked.  It was doubly terrifying for me—Christy and I had just learned the day before, September 10, that she was pregnant with our first child, James.  Throughout the day I struggled with guilt, watching and reading of great human suffering, while at the same time feeling joy about our own news.

When I arrived at the church, most of the staff was gathered in Wyndal’s office, where the TV was tuned in to ABC’s coverage.  Peter Jennings gave updates as they came available.  There was chaos all over the country, no one knew what was happening, what the extent of the attacks would be, what the next days would look like.  We began to think: how should we respond as a church?  We hastily organized a prayer service for that night.  I went to my office and began sending out emails to every person I knew and asked them to forward it on.  That night we gathered in this sacred space to pray.  We were angry, confused, worried, vulnerable.  We prayed for our country, its leaders, its people.  We lifted up emergency workers in New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania.  We thought of hundreds of Dallas folks who turned out to donate blood, seeking any way to offer help.

President Bush called for a time of national prayer Friday, September 14 at noon.  Russ and I put together a service of prayer and healing.  The Sanctuary was absolutely packed with people from the neighborhood on their lunch hour, many of whom without a church home.  I remember walking to that pulpit with a profound feeling of inadequacy.  I had no words to explain God’s will in this act of evil.  I knew folk were struggling with existential questions of why God would allow such a thing, where was God, what had we done to deserve this.  All I could think to offer were psalms of lament, the great tradition of laying out all our hurt and anguish before God in a desperate act of prayer and trust.  So I read words from a psalm.  And Russ played music.  And I read more.  And Russ played more.  And somehow it worked, as far as I know.  Maybe some of you here today attended one of those services.

A couple of weeks ago I sat with ten other pastors and we discussed what we were doing in worship today.  One person said for much of her congregation she wasn’t sure it would be meaningful to commemorate September 11 at all, they are so busy with their own lives and needs.  For those churches who do decide to have an observance this day, there will be a wide variety of offerings.  Some will speak of national pride and patriotism.  Others will repent of warmongering as a way of expressing grief and anger.  We chose to offer a more meditative approach with music and prayer.  It is interesting that the two texts we read for this service, Matthew 18 and Exodus 15, are assigned for this Sunday—not because of 9/11 but those texts are to be read this particular Sunday of the year, the Sunday between September 11 and 17, every third year.  I rarely use the Lectionary myself, but with a special service like this I turned there first weeks ago as I began to pray about today.  And I was astounded to find Jesus’ preaching about forgiveness transposed with the Hebrews’ songs of celebration as their enemies are defeated.

There has been much talk about the role of religion in America since 9/11. We have seen growth in interfaith observances and understanding by some.  At the same time we have seen a distinctly American Protestant form of Christian patriotism by others—we are a Christian nation.  We sing God Bless America with a little more pride.   We speak of ourselves as good and our enemies as evil.  We believe that because we are special God is on our side.  The Exodus text speaks directly to this reality.  One commentator urged churches to edit the Exodus text if they used it at all so worshipers would not think God still hates the Egyptians, but that’s ridiculous, and I’ll give you more credit than this guy did.  A first impression of this text reeks of triumphalism, the idea that God favors one side over the other in a conflict.  God saved the Hebrews by dividing the Red Sea and the people crossed.  When Pharaoh’s army followed through the walls of water, God brought the waters down, drowning the Egyptian forces.  And the Hebrews sang and celebrated.  God brought us victory!  Yes, they see God’s hand in their victory: Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy.  In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew our adversaries; you sent your fury, it consumed them like stubble.  And so on.  When things work the way we need them to, it is easy to see God as on our side. 

Ten years ago today, most people wanted vengeance, not forgiveness.  We were hurt.  We were scared.  We were vulnerable.  Americans do not like feeling this way.  We had to respond swiftly and powerfully—sending a strong message to those who would hurt us.  On Friday as I prepared for this message I watched a clip from David Letterman’s show from September 17, 2001 on YouTube.  It was The Late Show’s first episode since the attacks and Dave was obviously upset, struggling with the same feelings of inadequacy as I did here in this pulpit and so many others with public responsibility felt in that first week.  After several minutes he invited Dan Rather to speak about the attacks and he wanted to know why we had not yet responded.  When were we going to get in there—Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, wherever—and get even with Osama Bin Laden and the others who perpetrated such evil against us.  I felt the same thing, and I am sure most of us here did too.  Some people even took that need for vengeance to horrific extremes.

Weeks after the attacks, Mark Stroman entered a convenience store in Dallas.  He shot three men he believed were Muslims, two of whom died.  The third man, Rais Bhuiyan, survived, despite being shot in the face at close range.  He is blind in one eye today.  Mr. Stroman was arrested and charged with capital murder.  He was found guilty and was sentenced to death.  The execution was scheduled to take place earlier this summer.  An amazing thing was happening as the usual appeals process was going on.  The man Stroman injured for life, Mr. Bhuiyan, mounted an aggressive campaign to stop the execution.  He had forgiven Stroman, as he understood his religion Islam commanded:  “I decided that forgiveness was not enough. That what he did was out of ignorance. I decided I had to do something to save this person’s life. That killing someone in Dallas is not an answer for what happened on Sept. 11.  He did not want his state to return violence for violence.  All the appeals, legal and otherwise, failed.  Stroman was executed July 20.

Our country has fought two wars, first in Afghanistan and two years later in Iraq, because of 9/11. Ten years later we are still fighting in both places, the longest ongoing war our nation has ever fought.  Thousands of American lives are lost, countless thousands of civilian lives were lost, families shattered, and for what?  Please do not hear this as a criticism of our military folk who make such profound sacrifices—I have incredible respect for them and honor their service.  It took us ten years, but the first of May we learned that we got Bin Laden.  We’ve heard of other 9/11 masterminds killed over the years.  Does that make us feel better, help ease the burden of grief?  I am not sure it does.  In our emotional rush to respond, we did not think to turn to the teachings of Jesus.  Peter asks Jesus a question that perhaps we should have asked in those prayer services here at Oak Lawn that first week after the attacks: “If someone else hurts me, how many times should I forgive?  Seven times?”  Seven is a good number, right? Lucky number 7?  It’s a minimum standard.  If Peter was a negotiator, he would always low-ball people.  But Jesus sets the bar incredibly high: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” or, as others translate it: “Seventy times seven times.”  Whoa.  What if, in the days after 9/11, instead of singing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war…” we sang, “Lord make me an instrument of your peace”?  What if, instead of searching the scriptures to justify our need for retribution we read, “Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21)”? 

We are all still hurting from that horrible day ten years ago.  Some of us still cry out for vengeance.  Some of us still look at others who are different with suspicion.  We have tried to make ourselves feel more secure, more in control, more the masters of our own destiny.  As we do so often, whether in our personal lives or as a community, we have drawn ourselves inward thinking it is a safer place to be.  And that we can reclaim some of the “no one can get at us” mentality most of us shared September 10th.  But if God is on our side, doesn’t that mean God must be against others? Bishop Will Willimon has said that in the days after 9/11 America missed a great spiritual opportunity.  In our need to respond to our hurt, we wrapped ourselves in the flag instead of grasping the cross. The Exodus text begins with a “God is on our side!” and we could easily transfer that feeling to Iraq or Afghanistan or terrorism or anywhere else evil lives.  But the Hebrews quickly moved on from triumphalism to a celebration of the faithfulness of God, meaning they realized that in the defeat of the Egyptians they were now truly a free people with a future for the first time.  They really were no longer tied to their past of oppression and bondage.  That reality brought such joy that they danced: The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him; my father’s God, and I will exalt him. In your steadfast love you led the people whom you redeemed; you guided them by your strength to your holy abode. 

Exodus 15 ends with Miriam’s tambourine making joyful sounds to God: “Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea!”  You know what happened next?  A few days later the people complained about drinking bitter water.  God freshened the water.  Then they complained about being hungry.  God sent them manna.  Then they complained because it was manna every day.  As they moved further and further away from the Red Sea, they forgot the faithfulness of God.  The people were unchanged by such dramatic events.  Eventually they crossed another body of water, the Jordan River, and entered the Promised Land.  God delivered on the promise given to Abraham long ago.  Over the next centuries the nation of Israel flourished, until it was overrun by other, more powerful nations, and the Israelites lost everything.  For generations they lived under bondage, longing for the day when they would return to freedom.  They took responsibility for their actions, not blaming God for their sufferings.  They hoped for a new day.  A future.  The Book of Micah was written during such a time.  Hear the words of Chapter 4:

In days to come  the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains,and shall be raised up above the hills. Peoples shall stream to it, and many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,  to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  He shall judge between many peoples, and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.

There are two predominant clichés about 9/11: that America was brought into the global community in a new way, realizing we were not impervious to terrorism, and that we have been changed forever.  I wonder how true that is.  How much has the life of the average person changed as a result of 9/11?  We have more inconveniences to deal with, particularly at the airport, where ID must be presented over and over again.  Maybe there’s a lesson there: the ID confirms who we are—our identity.  But do we really know who we are?  Are we still growing in to God’s vision for us as a people?  It took centuries for the Hebrews to realize who they are—and whose they are—and that learning accompanied a tremendous amount of hurt, loss, and anxiety.  Maybe 9/11 revealed a hidden need for wholeness in our communities.  Maybe the attacks on our country and the subsequent wars revealed a need for the sacred in our national character. 

Ten years ago I was a 30 year old Associate Pastor and learned I would soon become a father for the first time.  Now I am 40, serving here again, and that kid, James, is a fourth grader.  Ten years ago the Oak Lawn staff gathered around a TV in Wyndal’s office to learn more about what was happening in our country.  Now that office no longer exists as part of our ongoing renovations.  Ten years ago we began conflicts in Afghanistan and later Iraq and our presence is still there.  Ten years ago we gathered in this very sacred space, dealt with our grief, fear, anxiety, inadequacy, need for revenge, and came face to face with reality: without the strength of our faith we were utterly powerless.  Ten years ago God cried with, and for, us.  Just as God cries for human suffering everywhere.

The pain of 9/11 is real and may never go away.  Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.  Remembering the pain, even the thoughts of rage, can be a source of healing.  Instead of calling for God to be some sort of cosmic bodyguard and defend us from whatever bully is out there, we can call upon God out of our fear and sense of loss to make us a people of hope, peace, and justice.  Instead of returning violence for violence, let’s commit to being a nation that shall lead others to “not learn war anymoreNo one shall be afraid.  We will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever.  As followers of Jesus, the one we call Prince of Peace, we must forgive those who hurt us.  How often should I forgive?  Just a little bit?  Enough to get through the day?  Seven times?  No.  seventy-seven times.   And not just a little.  On this 10th anniversary of that horrible day, let us remember the 3000 innocent lives that were taken.  Let us remember the families who grieve.  Let us remember the lives of emergency workers who risked everything to help others.  Let us honor those who fight on our behalf in the military and their families.  Let us remember all the thousands of lives lost because of the evil intentions of a handful of megalomaniacs.  Let us put aside our fear, our hate, and our vengeance. Instead of beating ploughshares into swords, let’s live in to Micah’s vision and beat our swords in ploughshares.  Let's build instruments of creation rather than destruction. Instead of asking, “Where were you on September 11?”, meaning 2001, let’s ask: “Where are you today—September 11, 2011?”  Let us join with Moses and Miriam and those ancient Israelites, who journeyed into a new freedom while singing and dancing: “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will exalt him!”  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.