16 December 2012

Reflecting Upon Newtown

Note: I offered these words during the prayer section of worship Sunday, December 16.

Last Friday was a day full of surprising ministry. After I wrote my usual Friday email devotion to the church, I received a call from Byron Proutt, our missions coordinator. He and others had recently partnered with Park Cities Presbyterian on a project, and their missions director called Byron to say another ministry was unable to pick up several boxes of food for their pantry—could we use it? Of course we could! So Pastor Gregg, Mr Johnny, and I rolled out to the warehouse and hauled back 80 boxes of food. Praise God! After we unloaded it Gregg and I went to Kroger to give them a letter of appreciation for making our Thanksgiving baskets for hungry families a priority. After I dropped Gregg off at home, I turned on my radio for the first time that day and heard the reports of the shootings in Newtown, Conn. I could not believe what I heard, especially as a father of young children.

I came back to my office and started to write something to offer words of comfort. After about a paragraph, my computer froze, as if the Holy Spirit was saying more time was needed to process what had happened. So I went home and embraced the quiet as much as I could. I was angry and disgusted. I still am. I did not watch anything on TV because I did not want to participate in the media frenzy. The few posts on Facebook and Twitter I saw were mixed. Some expressed outrage; others withdrew to their political positions—gun control! This isn’t about guns!; others simply offered words of scripture. Pastor Kerry posted from Psalm 23: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid.” This morning I turned to these words:

Psalm 5

Give ear to my words, O LORD;
give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.
O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice;
in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
evil will not sojourn with you.
The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house,
I will bow down towards your holy temple
in awe of you.
Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.

For there is no truth in their mouths;
their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves;
they flatter with their tongues.
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.

But let all who take refuge in you rejoice;
let them ever sing for joy.
Spread your protection over them,
so that those who love your name may exult in you.
For you bless the righteous, O LORD;
you cover them with favour as with a shield.


And

1 Corinthians 2:2-5

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,* but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power,so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

The words that really stuck with me over the weekend, however, first came from the White House, then others: “This is not the time to discuss _____.” This is not the time to discuss gun control. This is not the time to talk politics. This is not the time to worry about the 2nd Amendment. This is not the time. And I began to think: “When is the time, then?” It wasn’t the time to talk about gun control after Columbine, Virginia Tech, or after any other fill in the blank mass shooting. When will we have the conversation? It’s never the time to talk about teen suicide or domestic violence or any other tragedy where human agency is the primary actor. It’s never the time to talk about the disconnectedness we feel, the abandonment, the sense of loss of community. Listen to neighbors and acquaintances of folk who are interviewed about the people who commit such horrifying acts: “He seemed so normal.” “They seemed so quiet.” They seemed—I didn’t know them, but I assumed they were as normal and you and I.

I wasn’t supposed to preach today since the choir is offering their cantata for Christmas, but we can’t let tragedy like this go by unnoticed or ignored. Who knows? Someone may have come here today because of the events 48 hours ago: explain this to me. Help me understand why God would allow such a thing to happen. The murder of so many children. What kind of world is this? All I can say is I share those same questions—except the one about God allowing it to happen. We’ve allowed this to happen because we have become so disconnected from one another. The next tragedy, and the one after that, will continue until we make the decision to stand together and adjust our moral compass. All the metal detectors in schools, posting armed guards and whatever other quick fixes we can come up with will not protect us by themselves.

If you haven’t seen Lincoln, I urge you to—the timing of its release could not have been any more fitting, considering the brokenness we are experiencing. The last scene in the movie is at President Lincoln’s second inauguration, still a few months before the Civil War ended. He finished the speech with a vision of unity and healing of wounds:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

This is the work we must do: bind up the nation’s wounds. No more talk of “This is not the time.” No, this is the time. Today. Right now.

As I was driving in this morning I was stopped at the light at Lemmon and Turtle Creek. Across the street, a man was lowering the flags at Lee Park to half mast to observe the national pain of the shootings at Newtown Connecticut. He carefully measured each flag so it was in its right place. It will take this same thoughtful, focused effort to establish a new vision of what it means to live in community with one another. For today, know this truth: God’s grief for this tragedy is as acute as it is for those parents and loved ones. Throughout the season of Advent we have looked into God’s vision for the future—what Paul called the Day of Christ—with expectation of renewal and hope. We have heard words that looked beyond current pain and suffering and embraced a world full of promise. We must train our eyes to see as God sees.

I’m going to extinguish the altar candles and the three purple candles for the remainder of the service as a sign of our grief and solidarity with all who suffer this morning. I will also light the Christ candle to remind us that while the darkness has surrounded us, it is never more powerful than the One who said, “I am the Light of the world.”

14 December 2012

The Advent of the Texas Rangers


This has not been the best couple of weeks for Rangers fans. Three of our favorite players, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, and Josh Hamilton will wear different uniforms next season. Playing catch with James in the backyard yesterday-- he owns two Hamilton t-shirts-- it was difficult to explain the situation to him. Financial flexibility, depreciation rates among players, development of younger players... these are concepts not easily understood by a 10 year old. Or, honestly, by a 41 year old. All James knows is that some of the guys who were Rangers when he first became a fan are no longer around. Like every other Ranger fan, he/I/we have to accept a new reality, confident that team is headed in the right direction and has a plan.

Advent is a time of expectation and waiting. This is the time to reflect upon the ultimate purposes of God that seem far away and distant. No, Advent is not about baseball-- it's about God and looking for God to fulfill a vision for our reality-- but the emotions sports fans feel are similar to the ones faithful observers of Advent experience. Longing. Hope. Anticipation. Read these texts assigned for this Sunday and listen for Advent themes:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies.

The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.

I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
I will deal with all your oppressors
at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the Lord.
(Zephaniah 3:14-20)

Surely God is my salvation;
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
for the Lord God is my strength and my might;
he has become my salvation.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say on that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
call on his name;
make known his deeds among the nations;
proclaim that his name is exalted.

Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
let this be known in all the earth.
Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion,
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.
(Isaiah 12:2-6)

Every Advent and Lent I take out a favorite prayer book, given to me years ago: Prayers and Litanies for the Christian Seasons by Sharlande Sledge (1999). Let me share this Advent prayer, called "Risktaker God," with you:

Risktaker God,
help us to empty our hearts
to make room for the birth
of something new
and altogether unforseen.

Cast off whatever
we assume will sustain us,
so we can receive the light
of the unknown things
you have in store.

When we are full of our own ideas,
there is no room for the birth of hope.
When you are looking for a warm room for a baby,
we are inside our homes with the doors closed.

During Advent may we accept your invitation
to come out of our safe places--
to let go, to open up--
not to forsake the things and people we treasure
but to learn to hold them lightly and freely.

What do you have in store for us God?
While we are preparing a home for you,
what are you preparing for us?
What is taking up too much room in our hearts?

O, God, assure us it is all right
if we do not have all the answers
because that is what Advent is all about...
waiting without knowing,
waiting with nothing but faith, hope, and love
in the company of God's love,
a love that promises everything,
even your advent,
to those who have saved you room.


May your remaining Advent days be filled with the promises of God. Do not give up on God's direction for your life. Do not lose hope of God's vision for peace and justice for the world. Rangers fans, be still. After all, we're talking about a game here (can't believe I wrote that!). May we all place our trust in God this season-- the Advent season and next year's Rangers season! One last text assigned for this Sunday. Hear it as invitation and challenge:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say: Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7)

07 December 2012

Seeking God in the Unexpected Places

This week I have spent much more time on the phone than normal, calling folk who have yet to turn in their anticipated financial commitment to the church for next year. Yes-- you are next on the list-- so why not save everyone the effort and turns yours in Sunday? Thank you! Anyway, I called one of my favorite people in the church to ask about her pledge and she said she would get back to me in a few days. "Great," I said. Then, sort of out of the blue, I asked: "Is there anything I can do for you?" "You can pray for me," was the reply. I said, "I'd love to. What should I pray for?" There was a long pause. There was a trembling sound-- she was crying. I asked, "Can I come over this afternoon and check in on you?" She said that would be nice. So I went to her place and we had a nice visit and made come plans for dealing with her issue. It was a holy moment.

Turns out I've had several of those this week. I've had lunches with devoted members of Oak Lawn to discuss the church's future, a colleague to get some tips on launching small group ministry next year, hospital visits, a random email from an old buddy going through a difficult season, a conversation about dealing with challenges to faith. This week has been filled with opportunities to share God's love, to pray for and with folk, to touch another's life. And many of these moments were sort of hidden under the surface-- a long pause on the phone, a comment inserted into a conversation.

After an administrative meeting last Sunday, I was headed to the hospital to visit a long-time Oak Lawner. I said to another as I left the building: "I've done church work, now I'm going to do the work of the church." I recently read a post from Bishop Ken Carter (Florida area) where he gave several pieces of advice for the Season of Advent (four weeks before Christmas), one of which was, "Do not have administrative meetings in December unless absolutely necessary." [Read the entire post here.] His point was this season is filled with enough distractions, frustrations, and diversions-- so limit whatever additional distractions, frustrations, or diversions you can. Advent, and, fairly quickly, Christmas, will be much more meaningful the quieter, calmer, less hectic your soul is.

Your schedule is probably as full, or more so, than mine this month. We are busy people and there are many things to attend to. Some of these things are important, others not so much. Some of them could probably wait until January. When you feel the days slipping by too fast-- December moves like a bullet train for me every year-- what do you mean it's already December 7?-- seek after the little Advent surprises God is dropping into your life during these days. Pay closer attention to the words spoken during a conversation. Or the body language. Or maybe the voice you should listen hardest for this month is God's, speaking to you.

I love the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer. He was an priest, married to Elizabeth. They were both faithful, elderly people, sort of like Abraham and Sarah-- and just like Sarah, when Zechariah heard from an angel that he and and Elizabeth would have a son, he didn't believe it. Because of this, the angel Gabriel took away Zechariah's ability to speak for the entire pregnancy-- a difficult thing for any preacher, but probably a great blessing to Elizabeth! Anyway, when the boy is formally named John, Zechariah receives the ability to speak again, and here are the first words he says:

‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days' (Luke 1:68-75).

His first words have nothing to do with the birth of his long-wished for son-- that's the next few verses. His first thought is to see a bigger picture of God working, not just in his own life, but in the life of the whole world, for all time.

During this time of frustration and joy, anticipation and busy-ness, hope and confusion, seek after God. You will find God in the mundane tasks and in the moments of ultimate happiness. God is seeking you in the surprising, unexpected places as much as the obvious ones-- like worship. God is looking for you in the conversation you are really too busy to invest in fully, the office party you really wish you could avoid, even in the pursuit of the perfect gift for Uncle Larry. When you encounter God this Advent-- not if, when-- know that this blessing-- a phone call, the unexpected turn of a conversation, is part of a bigger plan. God is at work in your life, my life, and every life this Advent. If we are quiet, centered, focused enough we will see light of glory breaking in around us.

30 November 2012

Value Added

A little news blip caught my attention this week. The Department of Treasury is seriously considering eliminating the penny and nickel from monetary circulation next year. This sort of thing has been talked about for years, and maybe it is being driven by all the "fiscal cliff" chatter. The article said it costs roughly 5 cents to produce a penny, and nearly 11 cents to produce a nickel. Quarters and dimes, on the other hand, cost less than their respective 25 and 10 cents to produce. There is also talk of replacing $1 bills with $1 coins, which would also produce great savings. There is much discussion about whether this is window dressing or if it would make a significant impact on our budgetary situation. Personally I am all for it-- and considering our leaders are contemplating cutting billions of dollars in aid to folk in need (clearly a justice issue), I'm for pinching every penny we can find elsewhere. You could say, wait for it: Changing our currency just makes sense. Or cents. You're welcome.

This time of year we're bombarded with advertising, consumer driven marketing, every one and every thing competing for our money. As I said before in this space, the United Methodist Church recently launched "Reclaim Christmas," a marketing campaign to help us be more attentive to godly things in December. The tag line: "Spend Less, Give More." I really like it. But I wonder if we ought to Reclaim Advent too. We can leave Christmas for its rightful place on the calendar: December 25-January 6 (you know, the whole 12 days of Christmas deal), and focus more on the message of Advent, which begins this Sunday for four weeks. Advent is a time of searching for a new reality, a new possibility, a new era, instituted by a God who promises to make all things new.

The discussion about currency got me thinking about the value of things, and not just materials used to produce coins. What value does human life have to God? And us? This text came to mind from the Sermon on the Mount: "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" (Matthew 6:26) Or this: "But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Luke 12:24). And check this out: "For, while physical training is of some value, godliness is valuable in every way, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). Our lives matter to God-- they have value-- and the lives of every other person should have value to each of us. Reclaiming Advent helps us to understand the value, and responsibility, of every human life. Linking our present with God's future helps us to soften our hearts to suffering and injustice wherever it is found. Understanding the inherent value of human life fills each of us with purpose. We can no longer look away when our sisters and brothers hurt.

When you see a penny on the sidewalk or a nickel on the ground, do you pick it up? Try taking that penny to the bank and asking for the 5 cents it cost to produce the thing. Is the value of the coin even worth the effort to bend over and grab it? What if it was a $5 bill? Or $100? Two people will split the nearly $600 million Powerball jackpot this week. Are their lives inherently more valuable today than they were last week? What "change" could happen if in every penny and nickel we saw, not the faces of Lincoln or Jefferson, but the faces of the poor? The hungry? The lonely? The sick? The ones without water/medicine/peace/hope? The ones who, so often, whose lives are undervalued by you and me. It's not so with God!

May you reclaim Advent this December. May you hear, perhaps for the first time, the call of God to justice, mercy, and liberation for those in need. May you know that your life has value. Your life has purpose. Use that value and purpose for God's purposes and for what God values! "More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:8).

16 November 2012

135 Days

"After the [insert cliche] there was a sound. Thin. Quiet"
(1 Kings 19:12).

Yesterday I went to the boys' school for lunch: it was billed as a Thanksgiving lunch with dads, so the cafeteria served turkey, dressing, sweet potato pie, etc. A more skeptical person might have suspected the real motive here was to get dads and their wallets on campus for the school book fair. Actually I'm pretty sure that was the deal, so maybe it's not so skeptical after all. Anyhow, I took the boys on their book buying spree the day before, so we were able to enjoy lunch together without the pressure of eating quickly and rushing to the library to celebrate Thanksgiving by... Yeah, it doesn't really work, does it?

I, and many other pastors, have made careers out of preaching this time of year, fueled by cliches: Christmas decorations up too early; music playing too soon; stores pushing December into September or October; Thanksgiving being overlooked. I could go on and on. For some, this is a pretty emotional thing; for me, it's pretty entertaining. But there are some good messages in the midst of the blustering: waiting for Christmas-- I'm talking about after Thanksgiving-- is a wonderful thing. Being too caught up in things is not. Anticipating God's justice is what we are called to do-- overindulging in food and stuff is not.

For many folk, Black Friday has become a holy day itself. I've already started to see this message pop up on Facebook-- it's pretty good: “This year we'll give thanks for the blessings we have on Thursday; on Friday we'll say, ‘It's not enough!’" As an alternative, we're seeing billboards funded by the United Methodist Church across the country offering this message: "Spend less, give more." Use the resources we have to bless someone in real, meaningful ways, instead of spending on things that will break or wear out. Now, I have not noticed whether the message has been endorsed by the National Retailers Association, etc., but I am fairly sure it is consistent with what we see in the gospels.

Thanksgiving is early this year-- November 22-- so we'll have a full five weeks before Christmas. That's a good thing. There will be plenty of time to decorate, sing carols, and be excited for December 25. If you can resist the timing of the malls, you will find a deeper meaning of the season. Next year Easter is also early-- March 31-- so we'll have less time to store away the joy of salvation that God promises us. That’s also a good thing. If we can focus our attention on the messages God is trying to communicate to us between today and Easter (135 days?) we'll be stronger in faith. Think about it: Gratitude. Generosity. Peace. Joy. Sharing. Salvation. Invitation. Journey. Holiness.

These and other profound words are out there for us, even if they are hidden or lost in our easily distracted selves. I often hear people lamenting the way God spoke to folk in biblical times: a burning bush, a divided Red Sea, inside a giant fish, feeding thousands with a kid's lunch, raising the sick or the dead to new life. Yeah, it would be great if God was a little more obvious today. But maybe the issue isn't with God-- it's with us. Maybe God is ready to send you a word-- just the word you're needing to hear-- if you'll be present enough to hear. Maybe God will use your voice to communicate a message to someone else-- if you'll listen closely enough in prayer.

135 days.

That's time enough for God to reach out to you in all kinds of ways. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Easter. Cowboys vs. Redskins. Black Friday/Cyber Monday. Decorating church and home. Parties. Parades. Egg hunts. Changing weather. Trust me when I say this: God is more than capable to break through the cliches, the blustering, the busy-ness (and the business), the work, the pace of life, and every other barrier we set up. God can, and will, deliver a message to you-- or through you-- even in spite of you. And it is in that message, and nothing you can buy or exchange or sell, where you will find the real message of [insert holiday] or the reason for [insert season].

Do you know the story of Elijah on the mountain (1 Kings 19)? He was a prophet with a powerful message to deliver, but he ran away because he was afraid. While he was there he had an experience of holiness. There was a violent wind. But God wasn't in the wind. There was an earthquake. But God wasn't in the earthquake. Then a fire. God wasn't there either. Hear this: "After the fire, there was a sound. Thin. Quiet. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his coat." He went outside the cave and heard the voice of God. So be still. Wrap your face in your coat and step into God's presence. Listen for the still, small voice Elijah heard-- in the quiet, where it was least expected.

135 days. Today. Right now. Thin. Quiet.

09 November 2012

Unity Service for Election Night

i should have posted this three days ago, but if anyone is interested here is the liturgy we offered for our unity service on election night. based on reactions over the last 72 hours, i'm fairly sure it will be valuable in 2016 as well.

The psalmist declares: “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”
We are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, so that we might proclaim the mighty acts of the one who called us out of darkness and into the marvelous light!
We are no longer Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, but we are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God!
We are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus as the cornerstone.

Opening singing All Who Hunger
All I Need Is You
As the Deer

Prayers From the UM Book of Worship
…of Confession
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of our land with your healing love. Help us to be willing to bow before you in true repentance, and to bow to one another in true forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt our hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice that separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
…of Intercession
Teach us, God of every nation, to see every question in the light of our faith, that we may check in ourselves and in others every passion that makes for war, all ungenerous judgment, all promptings of self-assurance, all presumptuous claims. Grant us insight to recognize the needs and aspirations of other nations, and remove our suspicions and misunderstandings, that we may honor all people in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
…of Hope
God of all the ages, in your sight nations rise and fall, and pass through times of peril. Now when our land is divided, be near to judge and save. May leaders by led by your wisdom; may they search your will and see it clearly. If we have turned from your way, reverse our ways and help us to repent. Give us your light and your truth, let them guide us; through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of this world, and our Savior. Amen.

Scripture Lesson Galatians 3:28
The Message “Gone with the Wind”

An Invitation to the Lord’s Table
Jesus said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Lord Jesus Christ, we come to your table this evening carrying burdens of exhaustion. We’ve either shouted, “Four more years!” or “No more years!” for so long now. Take our burdens of partisanship, that we may take on the joy of discipleship.


Before his arrest, Jesus prayed these words: “As you, Father, are in me and I in you, may [my followers] also be in us, so that the world may believe that you sent me. That glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as you and I are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”

Lord, make our nation one, as you are One: Father, Son, Spirit.

Jesus said, “My Father gives you true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” Then he said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Give us this bread always! We come to your table hungering and thirsting for righteousness. For justice. For mercy. For hope. For comfort. Heal the woundedness of our nation, and fill us with the nourishment we need to live full, rich lives for your sake.

By the Spirit of the Lord we are made one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world, until Christ comes in final victory, and we feast at the heavenly table forever. Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is yours, almighty God, now and forever! Amen!

The Lord’s Supper
Closing singing Dona Nobis Pacem
Sending forth

Little Things -> Big Things (When God Is Involved)

"If it is possible, so far as it depends on you,
live peaceably with all" (Romans 12:18).
"If I could, you know I would; if I could, I would, let it go." (U2)

Sometimes it's the small things that make the big difference. You have heard that cliche a ton-- I know I have. The thing about cliches, is that they are usually based on hard earned, shared experiences. They are true to many people over time. I'm thinking about small things today, and how they can become big things when God becomes involved.

Two weeks ago we went home for a family reunion, and discovered Mom had lost a bunch of weight. Christy inquired as to how this happened, and the answer, was, you guessed it, simple: sugar. She cut out sugar and the weight went away. What happened next, you ask? Well Christy shared this news with me, as well as the news that we would now be cutting out sugar as well. I enjoyed the Coke I drank on the drive home, because I knew it would be my last one for a while. The next morning I weighed and wrote it down. Two weeks later, with only a couple of small sodas and no refills I'm down seven pounds. Many of you will remember Ray and Chia-Ying Wang, members of OLUMC who moved to San Diego a few years ago. Ray was my doctor for a while, and he would tell me that all the time: stop drinking sodas and you'll lose weight. Did I listen to my doctor? Nope. To Mom and wife? Yup.

Little things, little changes, matter. They may seem insignificant at the time, but they can add up. This week we wrapped up the 10-week Psalms course. Anyone who knows me knows I love Disciple Bible Study, but I was worried about offering a 10-week course, as opposed to the usual 30-week option. My concern was about the material and the smaller commitment. But folk signed up, we finished the course, and I learned a lesson: I was wrong. The material was some of the best I have ever used, and just about everyone committed to "trade up" to a longer (30 weeks!), more in depth study starting in January. Sometimes little things add up to big things.

When you get to the bottom of this message, keep reading. A few weeks ago we began sending out these emails for two reasons: to foster better communication, and to touch people in more ways than just Sunday morning. We received the first email to the right about a month ago. I wrote Mary Kay back and asked her permission to share what she said. Her response is the second email. When we began to send these emails out-- a little thing-- no one thought of the potential to speak to someone on the other side of the world-- a big thing! When we talk about Oak Lawn's parish being bigger than 75219, you see what we mean! God bless you and your service, Mary Kay!

Little things matter. Small things add to big things. What little changes could you make today that would lead to big changes? What attitude could you change? What invitation could you accept? What insignificant gesture from you would make God's love real to someone today? As I was writing this I listened to U2's "Bad." There's a recurring line throughout the song: "If I could, I would, let it go." What little--or big-- thing can you let go today that would make a little-- or big-- change in your walk with Christ? And the first part of the line-- the "if I could..." part-- is within you. You can make that change. The power of God lies within the heart of the believer. The song reminded me of Paul's line in Romans 12: "So much as it depends on you, live peaceably with each other." You can control your actions, your tongue, your will. Start with small changes and watch God make them into huge changes.

How long will my soda fast last? Dunno. If I keep listening to my real Dr and avoiding Dr Pepper, will I keep losing until I evaporate? Doubtful. But I will say this: one of the real blessings of being in ministry is seeing how God changes the lives of people. This weekend, think to yourself: what small change could I make? What different words could I speak? What new action could I take? If I take the first step, can God lead me the rest of the journey? You know the answer to that one.

So-- who's up for a vanilla Coke from Sonic??

+++

I would like thank you for sending me the weekly messages from Pastor Drenner. Although I only have the opportunity to come to OLUMC a few times each year, I absolutely love the the church and the people within. I am currently in Kabul, Afghanistan working with the US Department of State. These emails provide much comfort during a very stressful time in my life. Please know that your work is very much appreciated. Thank you again for being wonderful Christians. I hope to see you soon.

Warm regards,
Mary Kay

+++

Rev Drenner,

Thank you for your response. You are welcome to share my comments with others; the more prayers, the better!

The hardest part of being here is the stress. It doesn't take long to see attitudes change and tempers flair. People seem to lose their common courtesy very quickly. As being one of two whose job it is to keep morale up for close to 2,000 in an enclosed compound - most are unable to leave, you can imagine how hard it is to keep positive. Along with a constant security threat, working long hours 7 days a week and less-than-appetizing food everyday it is a major challenge. Your messages are a link to home and God, allowing a quick escape in a tumultuous environment.

Please know again how much I appreciate your messages. They help me to re energize and in return I can pass that positive energy to my colleagues.

Thank you for your prayers. I'm counting the months until I can return to Dallas and visit OLUMC.

Warm regards,
Mary Kay

04 November 2012

A Message for All Saints Sunday

Last weekend our family attended a family reunion. We used to do these every couple of years when I was a kid. Then for whatever reason we stopped for quite a long time. A couple of years ago my grandfather, approaching his 89th birthday, wanted to do another one, and we've had two more since then. This year's reunion was memorable for two reasons: 1. Half the people went home sick. A stomach bug that attacked my uncle's family two weeks ago has somehow gotten hold of my parents, grandparents, my own kids, and many others. 2. During the reunion there was a video playing in the background- a video from a reunion in 1988 or 89. I know this because my cousin, who I was playing cards with in the video, is wearing his high school class ring.

Watching this video was fascinating. Laughing at the 80s fashion was great. Seeing relatives who have gone on to glory, like my grandfather's brothers, was meaningful. Then my mind began to make some calculations. I freaked my dad out when I told him he is as old today as my grandfather was in the video. I realized I am older today than my mom was in the video. And as my 17 or 18 year old self kept popping up on screen, I thought: what have the last 25 years taught me? If I had a chance to speak to that high school kid, what would I say? Well, that kid really wanted to be the next Donald Trump/ Wall Street guy, so I'd probably say something about my hero shaming himself by demanding to see the President of the United States' birth certificate and college transcripts. I'd probably encourage him to spend more time studying and less time watching soap operas that first year in college. I'd certainly encourage that young guy to move on from, and not try to resurrect, that relationship that didn't work out in high school. Then I thought: instead of going to the past to share life experiences, what would it be like to go from the future? Instead of the 41 year old Frank talking to 17 year old Frankie- no you may not call me that- what if 75 year old Frank- the retired grandfather living somewhere far away from Texas summers- could come speak to me today and give me some advice? How great would that be?

The thing is: we really don't need that. God gives us mentors in the faith that teach us, guide us, and shape us- based on their experiences. I don't have to invent a time machine and serve as my own mentor. Instead, God places in my path people like the ones we celebrate today on All Saints Sunday. People like Martha Hoffman or Jean Pate, who volunteered at the desk by the elevator every week and would allow me to sit and share in their lives. Or Bryan Clark, who served as the chair of my intern committee here at Oak Lawn fifteen years ago. Or Tommy Nance, who testified to his great faith every Sunday climbing into the choir loft to sing despite great pain from a WWII injury. Or Marietta Ragsdale, who taught me about hospitality with the way she loved having people visit her apartment.

You may have noticed I'm using a different Bible this morning. This Bible was given to me after Reba Clark's death. Bryan and Reba were dear friends of Christy and me, almost surrogate grandparents, and Lynda Cagle, their wonderful caregiver, thought I would want this. This Bible was given to Reba and Bryan by the Followers Class in September 1973. I wonder if there was a joke here, because this is a Jerusalem Bible, a Catholic translation- so why a Methodist class would give it is a mystery. But the great thing is everyone in the class signed the Bible- it was a gift of hospitality. Dave and Laverne Marr. Blanche and JD Edwards. PD and Nancy King. Tommy and Dell Nance. Allene and Stephen Nichols. Truitt and Jeanie Brinson. These are all names of great Oak Lawn saints- some have gone on to glory, others have not.
The Isaiah text I read this morning is a vision of a heavenly banquet, but not in the same sense we might associate with heaven. This is a powerful vision of the future. At the invitation of The Lord God, all people are welcome to a great feast- and this is no Healthy Choice type dinner- this is a banquet of the mot delicious, unhealthy food and wine one can imagine. It's a place of great comfort and enduring joy: the mounting veil of the people is removed, the shroud entrapping all nations is gone. Death is destroyed forever. The Lord wipes away our tears, takes away our shame, and we testify, saying to our Host: "This is our God in whom we hoped for salvation. We rejoice that he has saved us!" In a few moments we will receive an invitation from The Lord to this table, where Christ is host. This table anticipates the heavenly table of Isaiah. As we share the Lord's Supper, be aware of the presence of our saints next to, and within, you.

The lesson on All Saints Sunday is not about death- but the promise of a living faith even in the face of death. These whom we remember and name today live on in glory in service to the Lord's eternal kingdom, while at the same time leaving a witness to those whose lives they touched in this world. The writer of the wonderful book of Hebrews uses a powerful image to explain the relationship between past, present, and future saints of the church: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, we should throw off everything that hinders us, especially sin, and keep running the race that we have started, never losing sight of Jesus, who leads us into faith and to its perfection..." The cloud of witnesses is reassuring to us. The wisdom and experience we have gleaned from others does not disappear at their death. Nor will the impact we have on others disappear when we die.

Watching the video of a reunion 25 years ago brought back memories of my own family who have died. My cousin Ron, the 17 or 18 year old guy I played cards with, just five weeks younger than me, my best friend in the world, died nine years ago. Seeing him in the video was shocking, but not in a painful way. I carry those memories of sleepovers and getting into all kinds of trouble with me every day, and I am grateful for every moment. I didn't know my grandfather's brothers very well, but I know the impact they had- and still have- on him, and he has certainly impacted my life. I was honored by the gift of this Bible and the names listed here, even the ones I never knew. Who knows how to measure the impact those lives on the movie had on my own- or how these names we read today touched all of us. We hope God will use us in such a way that we too may have a similar impact on others, even after our earthly life has ended. All Saints Sunday reminds us that every person is invited to a table where we feast on the best stuff. It's a place where there is no grief, no pain, no tears. Only everlasting glory and praise. So today we give thanks to our great Host, as we anticipate sharing in that meal with our beloved saints. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

01 November 2012

Of Squirrels and Passion

A couple of months ago our family grew by a factor of fur and four paws: Sammy, an eighteen month old schnauzer. Sammy was rescued by a long-time friend who is passionate about dogs. She posted pictures of him on Facebook and it was all over. Anyway, Sammy has been a real joy for us. He is gentle, loves to play, and has a great personality. He has a bit of a bark, as our neighbors would testify- what are you going to do? Sammy's real passion, however, is squirrels.


I don't know what these other furry, four pawed creatures did to arouse his curiosity, but they really enjoy putting him to the test. Now, before he walks out the back door, he pauses: his nose just on the outside for a sniff. He creeps down, almost like a cat ready to pounce. After a few seconds, he bolts to the nearest tree, hopeful of finding a squirrel within reach. What would he do if he caught one? Does he even know? Last week there was an epic showdown- a squirrel was on the ground in the middle of the backyard. Sammy did his creeping thing, shot out, and barely missed the squirrel jumping back to the tree. There was a classic moment as the squirrel, holding on with only his back paws, leaned upside down and taunted the dog. Better luck next time, Sammy.

What drives you? Where is your passion? We have been doing lots of work over the last couple of months about establishing a new vision for OLUMC. About thirty of us gathered for Vision13 in August and shared ideas and dreams. A writing team was formed to take that feedback and form it into proposals for new vision, values, and purpose statements. These were shared with the Church Council, revised after discussion, and will be presented for adoption at this Sunday's Church Council meeting (November 4, after 11:00 worship). You are welcome to attend and share your thoughts. Particularly if you were present at Vision13. I am very proud of the work of this writing team. Come and see what has become of your thoughts.

What's it all for? I've heard a couple of rolled eye comments about this process: we've done that stuff before, but we never DO ANYTHING with it. Well, that may be true of the past, I don't know, but it will not be the case in 2013 and beyond. Our goal is to establish a ten year plan for Oak Lawn Church, taking us to 2024- our 150th anniversary year. I and others will be exploring other congregations similar to Oak Lawn to learn from their experience. We'll have concrete next steps to build up the future. We're doing this because I, your church staff, lay leaders, and every lay person around the place earnestly believe Oak Lawn has unique potential to be a model church for urban ministry in this century. That's the whole enchilada, right there.

So what does this have to do with Sammy and squirrels? I want to know what makes you run. I need to know how you best live out joy. For some, that's being a leader in the church. For others, it's teaching, serving dinner to the homeless, inviting others without a church home. Some aren't sure where they belong yet- and those may be the most important folk we need to hear from. All of us together, living out our passions and gifts, will build the Oak Lawn of 2024. Your passion is out there- just outside the back door. Almost taunting you. Are you ready to rush after it? Do you know what to do with it when you catch it? I promise it's there. Waiting for you to respond. In the church we refer to it as a calling of God. So in your prayer life this week, pause in silence and listen. Let your imagination, working with the Holy Spirit, reveal to you where you should go/what you should do. That's your squirrel. Then seek after it with all your energy.

28 September 2012

Experiencing Joy

I am hopeful summer soon "leaves" us for good and we some fall weather! Fall is also an exciting time of year for reasons beyond the weather. It's the traditional time to consider one's place within the church and think of how one can grow in faith over the next year. We become more aware of the resources and responsibilities God gives to us, and joyfully use them for God's glory. We're called to be good, faithful stewards of those gifts, and when we commit to the church as members we promise to support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. October is the month we'll discuss how exactly we do that at Oak Lawn. You'll hear multiple messages across different media from our inspired stewardship team members:

*  Lynn and Jim Parsons (co-chairs)
*  Scott Collen
*  Lillian Lawson
*  Byron Proutt
*  Elaine Tricoli
*  Delena Watson

The theme of this year's stewardship emphasis is "Experiencing Joy." We'll learn about the joy we receive as a gift of of the Lord through grace, and how that joy is lived out in our lives.
We'll learn about experiencing joy in the next sermon series:

*  October 7: Experiencing Joy
*  October 14: Experiencing Joy through our Commitments
*  October 21, Commitment Sunday: Experiencing Joy for the Future

We'll discuss experiencing joy at dessert and coffee meetings at my house:

*  Monday, October 1
*  Monday, October 8
*  Wednesday, October 17

Meetings will begin at 6:30 and last less than an hour. Transportation is available if needed. Please RSVP to one of those dates (reply to this email) so Christy will know how many delicious desserts to make-- and I'll know how much to pad the numbers so there will be plenty of leftovers!

One of my favorite all-time "church postcards" shows a kid being hauled in to church by his dad's hand, firmly tugging on the kid's collar. The caption read, "Church doesn't have to be a drag." Well, stewardship doesn't have to be a drag either!
The goal of the stewardship team, and the overall effort, is to promote an understanding of our role as stewards, and the joy we receive as we grow into God's vision for us-- as a church and as individuals. My personal hope is that this time of year becomes one we expect with as much anticipation as we do for Easter and Christmas. Are you ready to experience joy?

29 August 2012

Celebration of the Ministry of Truitt Brinson and Bryan Clark


Sunday August 26 we dedicated a marker in the foyer of the church commemorating the ministry of Truitt Brinson and Bryan Clark, legendary members of the Oak Lawn Church.

Leader: We gather today to remember and celebrate the ministry of Truitt Brinson and Bryan Clark, who for many years welcomed people to worship at Oak Lawn United Methodist Church.
People: The Book of Romans says, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Leader: Truitt and Bryan remembered names, introduced new people to established members and guests, and invited everyone to further their relationship with God.
People: The Book of Deuteronomy says, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers…”
Leader: Bryan and Truitt did not know strangers; they saw the potential each person had to grow in faith in Christ in this place.
People: The Book of Matthew says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me…”; The Book of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
Leader: May each of us, as we remember the ministry of Bryan and Truitt, realize our own potential as ambassadors for Christ and his church. May we welcome all in love and grace.
People: We dedicate this marker today in memory of Truitt Brinson and Bryan Clark. We are grateful for the impact they had on countless people, including each of us, and pray we may have the same impact on others for Christ.

09 August 2012

Welcome Cori Berg!


Dear Church Members and Oak Lawn CDC Families:

On behalf of Oak Lawn’s Staff/Parish Relations Committee, I am pleased to announce the hiring of Cori Berg as Director of our Child Development Center. After several months of prayer, discernment, research, and interviews, we are certain we have found the right person to lead our Center. Cori is the former Director of Christ Lutheran Child Development Center in Dallas. Before becoming a Director, she held teaching positions in early childhood development and elementary school. She is also a dedicated artist and teaches others to develop their artistic skills. Cori has a Bachelor’s Degree in Theatre, Art and Philosophy (Valparaiso University), a Master’s Degree in Art and Theology (Union Theological Seminary), and did some doctoral work in Art and Theology (Graduate Theological Union and University of California Berkeley). Cori has a warm, engaging personality and a passion for creativity and we very excited for these and other gifts she brings to our Center.

I am very grateful for the work of so many who helped us through a difficult season. Our teachers and staff dealt with much anxiety about the future while going about their work with professionalism and dedication. Jeanette Watson and Markina Watson picked up extra administrative work during the absence of a Director. Mark Stevenson, a CDC parent, volunteered his time, sending us many resumes, including Cori’s. Our CDC Board faithfully interviewed many applicants, followed up on references, and patiently sought the best candidate for the position. Parents supported this process with positive feedback and encouragement.

Cori will begin her work as Director of Oak Lawn Child Development Center Monday, August 20. She is very excited to be a part of this great ministry, and I know everyone will want to welcome her to Oak Lawn. I ask your prayers for her as she begins this great task, as well as for the school’s teachers and staff, and, of course, its students. 

03 August 2012

On Chick Fil A and Silence


$601.97.

After a few mouse clicks on our financial software, I learned that’s the amount our family has spent at Chick-fil-a since 2006. I have remained silent on this “controversy” until this point, not out of fear as to what others might think—my blog is filled with sermons and commentaries on a wide range of topics that some would consider controversial. I have remained silent because this issue would not exist if we were not so tied to our Facebook and Twitter feeds. We would not know what certain employees of Chick-fil-a think about same sex marriage, what entities they support, if we were not so plugged in.

Chick-fil-a was targeted because of an executive’s opinion on one of the great social issues of our time. Chick-fil-a was targeted because they support financially an organization that has been identified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group. This week thousands or more people either showed their support or protested Chick-fil-a in a variety of ways, and in the era of instant communication shared their positions with pictures and commentaries for all to see.

I proudly serve a congregation with a significant number of LGBT persons, who, like every other Christian, seek to live their lives in a manner worthy of the gospel. We worship, study, learn, gather, grow, and go into the world together as disciples of Jesus Christ, who calls us to share the love of God with our neighbors. Every Sunday we articulate for all present one of our central values as a church family, that we welcome and honor all people made in the image of God.

In the past I have supported Chick-fil-a, because of its decision to close on Sundays, offering their workers rest and an opportunity to worship and spend time with family. The fast food industry is notorious for its treatment of its employees, who are underpaid and overworked. Chick-fil-a also regularly supports Vacation Bible Schools around the country, offering free meals to kids who participate. In fact, June 29, the last time our family ate at Chick-fil-a, was on the way home from their last day at VBS.

This week I have seen too many posts, pro and con, about a fast food chain. We have expended too much energy about chicken sandwiches. I promise this whole “controversy” will be forgotten by the time school starts, if it even makes it that far. And what will we have accomplished? Some will feel they have defended first amendment rights by drinking a lemonade. Others will think they have supported their LGBT friends and relatives by eating chicken nuggets at McDonald’s instead. Many folk have said the issue of same-sex marriage and other rights for LGBT folk will not go away—and they are, thankfully, truthfully, correct. But making a fast-food chain the focus of our activity will not hasten those sorely-needed changes in society.

I have been silent about Chick-fil-a until this morning, but I have not been silent about the issue of marriage equality—in fact this spring at Oak Lawn we had a series on issues in the news and marriage equality was the climax of the series. You’re welcome to read the sermon, posted here May 20, or listen to it on olumc.org. The best part of that series was not the sermons themselves, but the dialog after worship, when a different speaker offered further discussion in a face-to-face, heart-to-heart manner—not the kind of clicking “like” or status updates we’ve seen this week. I have been silent about Chick-fil-a until this morning, but I have not been silent on the issue of gay rights because I treat same sex couples the same as I do opposite sex couples. I have been silent about Chick-fil-a until this morning, but I have not been silent on the issue of gay rights because I support LGBT persons for leadership in the church as much as I do heterosexual folk.

If we want to support our LGBT friends, neighbors, relatives, co-workers—even strangers—let’s do it in a substantive way. Let’s lobby Congress to repeal the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which almost certainly will be ruled unconstitutional very soon. Let’s lobby the State of Texas to change the constitution banning gay marriage in our state. Let’s go out of our way to stop bullying, end the enormous rates of LGBT teen suicide, provide shelter for the disproportionate numbers of homeless LGBT teens, encourage families to accept, not reject nor even tolerate their loved ones who come out.

My emotional reaction this week has been grief. Of course I grieve for those I care for who have shared their hurt. I share the confusion over what exactly other loved ones are professing by holding up their Styrofoam cups for all to see. But as I read those posts and saw those pictures, and I am sure there will be more to come for a few more days, my mind kept remembering two scriptures:

·         “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
·         “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (James 1:19-20)

$601.97.

That total most likely will never change, not as an act of protest but because with every sip of Chick-fil-a’s sweet tea I would think of faces I know and love who have been hurt by organizations the company has supported. I have been silent about Chick-fil-a until this morning, and now I shall return to my silence about Chick-fil-a. But I will not be silent about justice. Or mercy. Or love. Or forgiveness. When this “controversy” is gone in a week or two, forgotten by most, we’ll still be left here. There will still be work to be done to ensure every person is respected, loved, treated with dignity, and offered the same rights and protection under the law. There will still be the command of Jesus to love our neighbor as ourselves, and there will still be folk who question, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer will have nothing to do with fast food.

02 August 2012

Of Surgery and THE TWILIGHT ZONE

Dear Church Family,

Thank you to everyone who offered support to me during my recent surgery and recovery. Many of you brought meals, sent cards, texts, and Facebook posts. For those of you who do not know, I had surgery to remove a fragment of a disk in my back that pressed on a nerve there for several months, causing pain, numbness, and weakness. Turns out the fragment was 3cm! It's a wonder things weren't worse. My recovery is ongoing; I'll start physical therapy soon.

I spent the two weeks following surgery resting at home- watching lots of TV. No, not the Olympics or even Rangers baseball, but mostly movies and reruns of THE TWILIGHT ZONE. I've always loved THE TWILIGHT ZONE. It's a wonderful reflection of American society in the late 50s and early 60s, a time of great anxiety and wonder. The space race was in high gear, as well as threats of global nuclear war. Episode after episode centered around individuals lost in their own struggles. They were often isolated and out of control. A classic example: a man, played by the legendary Burgess Meredith, is the lone survivor of an atomic explosion in his city. At first he struggles with loneliness and survivor guilt, but then he realizes he now has all the time he lacked before- he can read every book in the destroyed library. Then he drops his glasses and they break. Reality sets in.

 Time Enough at Last.jpg

My experience of THE TWILIGHT ZONE was very different this time. I was feeling much of the same loneliness and anxiety. The house was quiet- the boys were in Bay City, Christy at work. I was unable to do the simplest of activities. A big difference: I did not feel despair. I knew my family was near, my church family was praying for me, I was supported by friends, and my faith was strong. Jesus promised each of us abiding love, presence, and peace through our faith.

Isolation and despair make for powerful stories- real and imagined- and too often end in disaster. May the strength of our faith, realized in fellowship and connections with like-minded believers, give us the courage and hope we need to endure during the challenges we face. Remember the words of Jesus: "I will not leave you orphaned. I am coming to you" (John 14:18).

21 May 2012

at least one guaranteed appointment!

the united methodist general conference met a few weeks to discuss matters related to the church. i am thankful for our faithful north texas conference delegates, clergy and laity, who worked very hard, and endured unbelievable frustration, on behalf of the church. watching online was painful; i can't imagine what it would have been like in person.

one of the unfortunate outcomes of the general conference was the removal of so-called "guaranteed appointments" for united methodist elders. this was one of the benefits of full-time leadership in the church. an elder in full connection was guaranteed to be appointed somewhere, unless circumstances made an appointment impossible. there were disciplinary steps in place to assure accountability among pastors in the annual conference. but the general conference felt these steps did not go far enough. the judicial council, the church's equivalent to the supreme court, will rule this fall whether this decision violated united methodist polity. personally i believe the decision will be overturned.

today i received an email from our bishop confirming a rumor many had voiced for nearly a year: paul rasmussen will become the senior pastor of highland park united methodist church upon the retirement of mark craig next summer-- 2013. the bishop used words like "unusual" and "unique" to describe the announcement a year in advance, and said this would eliminate clergy competition for the post or representatives from the church from checking out prospective successors for mark craig. our district superintendent, dr. clara reed, thought this could be a model for clergy transition in larger churches. i was reminded of the situation at frazer memorial united methodist in montgomery, alabama, upon the retirement of senior pastor john ed mathison. it makes absolute sense for those senior pastors to have a voice in the leadership of the church after their retirement.

my question: why only large churches? pastors who serve medium sized churches or small ones still know their congregations better than anyone else. and the congregations themselves are certainly aware of their needs. should we not be concerned with fruitful transitions for churches of all sizes? i have no problem with the highland park situation at all; if h.p. and mark craig and the bishop and cabinet think paul is the right guy, great-- but what would happen if senior pastors, congregations, and cabinet were consulted on every appointment at the same level as this instance? how much stronger could our churches be-- of all sizes? i love my appointment to oak lawn, and i can confidently say it was an inspired move last summer. but when my tenure here is ending-- 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, 25 years from now, how can we best promote stability here too?

20 May 2012

Love Never Ends: A Message on Marriage Equality

Last week I received an email from a guest who was here last Sunday with his partner and his partner’s mother for Mother’s Day. He was very upset that on Mother’s Day we would discuss political matters, and made it very clear that he would not be back today for marriage equality—he assumed that since we are a church and we’re speaking on the issue it would be hostile. I invited him back, assuring him we would take a broader approach, that if Christians do not speak about issues in the world it leaves only the loud, obnoxious ones to speak for everyone, but never heard back from him. I hope he’s here somewhere!

I intentionally formulated the issue today as marriage equality, as opposed to homosexuality in general, for several reasons. The primary reason is this: homosexuality, as I understand it, is not an issue to be debated—we’re talking about people here. There are all sorts of theories and ideas about homosexuality—where does it come from? Is it a choice—a lifestyle—or is there some sort of natural inclination toward the same sex that a certain proportion of the population has? Is it learned behavior—and if so, can it be unlearned? Is it a sin? Is there a conspiracy within the gay community that threatens the rest of us? Should gay Christians be celibate or should they embrace their sexuality? Is there a fundamental difference between married  couples and unmarried couples in committed, long-term relationships—gay or straight? These issues, and so many more, could fill up weeks of sermons, and at the end we would probably feel about as frustrated as many of us do today. I am not a sociologist, so all I can say based on my limited understanding and research is that there is no consensus opinion out there about the sociological and psychological roots of homosexuality. What we know is this: homosexuality is not a modern invention—it’s an established reality in the history of human sexuality. There is some evidence of tendencies showing up early in some children. And it is virtually impossible for a person to change their sexual orientation. I can say, based on conversations I have had with parishioners and friends alike, the universal response to the question of choice or lifestyle has been absolutely no, that they were... Wait. I will not quote Lady Gaga in a sermon!

Last summer we offered a sermon series called “Christians Behaving Badly.” I read the book UnChristian, which studied statistics and demographic trends of young people. The author’s conclusion—let me note that he is a conservative, evangelical Christian—is that young people think of Christians as judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay. He argues in the book that this impression must be changed for the future of the church—the reality is: gay rights is a non-issue for younger generations. Yet in the book the pastors and leaders he interviews for strategies going forward all shared a similar theological perspective as the author: of course homosexuality is a sin, but Christians are all sinners in need of forgiveness. Everyone should be welcome to hear and accept God’s grace and love regardless of who they are. I kept raising my hand to the book, and another one I read this week, to ask: is it possible to have a sound theological argument that does not conclude with sentences like, “Of course homosexuality is a sin, the Bible says so.”?

There are a handful of scriptures, in both the Old and New Testaments, that seem to forbid same-sex relations. The tendency with regard of these scriptures of those within this debate is to either throw them at their opponents, or, for those on the other side, to dismiss them outright. I’ve said this before many times: any time someone begins a sentence with “The Bible says…” duck. Run for cover. Seek shelter immediately. I heard someone say recently that Leviticus 20:13 is the only commandment anyone notices from the entire book today. Does that mean we should throw out the whole thing? Or the wonderful book of Romans—one of my favorites—should we throw out the whole thing based on 1:27-28? We cannot do that. We affirm that the Bible has ultimate authority in our pursuit of God, and contains all we need to know for our salvation. But sometimes we place burdens on the Bible that do not properly belong there. The Bible is a collection of sixty-six books of truth about God, and each book represents a community from its own context and history. People today try to pin their own need for understanding on the Bible, and unintentionally force it to perform a function not of its purpose.

For example, the Book of Genesis begins with two creation accounts, which describe totally different understandings of God and humanity. Most Christians, not all, but the great majority—read Genesis not as a scientific account of creation, but as a poetic metaphor, highlighting the rightful relationship between a loving Creator and the created order, which includes us, a relationship ultimately broken by sin. So one could argue that the texts so often used as scripture bombs by one side or ignored by the other do not presuppose a modern knowledge of human sexuality but reflect the attitudes of a particular people in a certain time and space. For example, in the Romans 1 text, Paul condemns all kinds of abhorrent behavior he has witnessed in Roman society, a culture known for excess and moral depravity. Is it fair to Paul to say his words were meant to condemn people forever, regardless of changes in understanding of human behavior? One could reasonably make the argument that just as we do not consider Genesis a physics textbook we could also not expect Leviticus or Romans to be guidebooks for human sexuality. Does this diminish the Bible’s ultimate authority in any way? One could argue that using the Bible in ways it may not have been intended does more to undermine its authority. It should be noted here that for the great majority of Christians who oppose homosexuality or marriage equality on religious grounds this, not bigotry, is the primary issue: the authority of scripture. To be sure, there are Christian bigots who use the Bible as a weapon against others, and their behavior should be universally condemned as hypocritical and judgmental. But when those on the other side of the debate demonize and make caricatures of their opponents as bigots do they not commit the same sin?
The issue of marriage equality is complicated for Christians on all sides.

One of the primary reasons this question has received so much attention recently is the break-neck speed at which public opinion has changed about marriage for same sex couples. In your study guide there is a graph created by the Pew Research Center that highlights the changes. In just 2001, 57% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage, while 35% supported it. Look at today’s numbers—47% support, and 43% oppose. There have been dramatic changes across generations, except for my own, those born 1965-1980, which has consistently split 50/50 over time. The silent generation, those born 1928-1945, have increased their support of same-sex marriage by 10%. Baby boomers, born 1946-64, 7%; the biggest level of support is from the millennial generation, those born after 1981, who favor marriage equality at 63%. Support among Democrats and Independents has increased, 16% and 9% respectively, and Republicans increased by 2%. However, when people identified by persuasion rather than party, self-identified conservatives increased their support 7% since 2011.

We’ve heard lots of rhetoric about a war on traditional marriage; President Clinton even signed so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in 1996, which clearly defines marriage as between a man and a woman. State after state seems to be joining the fight on one side or the other. New York State began marrying gay couples last summer. A couple of weeks ago the state of North Carolina passed an amendment to its constitution banning gay marriage, but it was much more far-reaching than that—it gave its blessing to only married couples. So unmarried heterosexual couples do not enjoy the same domestic rights as married heterosexual couples.  There are several challenges to the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” making their way through the courts. Many proponents of marriage equality argue that until the federal ban is lifted, what individual states decide doesn’t really matter. My marriage to Christy is honored in all fifty states; however a same-sex couple that marries in Connecticut and then moves Florida loses whatever was gained at their marriage because of the federal law. I sat down with several same-sex couples here at Oak Lawn to hear their stories for this sermon. Some of these couples enjoyed the blessing of family and friends on their relationship, while others do not. They all echoed the same sentiment: none of them needs a certificate from the state to validate their relationship, but they all wish they enjoyed the same rights as heterosexual married couples. Same sex couples cannot file taxes jointly. If one person dies the other does not automatically receive the Social Security benefit of their partner. Determining insurance benefits for children or partners is difficult, if not impossible, where for me it’s a phone call or a couple of mouse clicks. If one becomes seriously ill, the other is not considered legal next of kin by the state. Imagine the horrifying life event of a family who does not support a relationship making decisions for their loved one without having to consult with that person’s partner. Should the state guarantee decision making rights for critical events like health care and children to some of its citizens and exclude others from the same rights?

For all the talk we hear of defending traditional marriage we’re really thinking about the modern conception of marriage. In other words, if you are a woman, you do not want a traditional, biblical marriage. Polygamy was practiced by many of the Bible’s leading figures. Marriages were often arranged. Women in biblical times had little rights, and what rights they did have were due to their relationships with men—husbands, fathers, and sons. A man could divorce his wife easily, but women were often forced to remain in abusive marriages. Adultery and divorce were a major issue in Jesus’ day—he spoke of both frequently, while he never said anything about homosexuality. Jesus himself never married, and neither did Paul. In fact, Paul, the one we turn to for advice in sexual matters, said we should not marry unless our sexual appetites were out of control. Paul had no interest in earthly rites that would distract the believer from the imminent return of Jesus. Marriage as we understand it today, in terms of a life-long commitment based on love and blessed by the church, only dates to a few centuries ago. If we want to protect marriage, let’s have real dialogue about the dangers of adultery and divorce. I’m not against divorce as a right of both parties in a marriage—but how can we work to reduce the 35-50% of marriages that end in divorce? Let’s consider whether it should be as easy as it is to begin—and end—a marriage. Defending an institution by excluding people who want to join it just does not make sense.

Some have offered civil unions as a compromise—in fact, the governor of Colorado recently called a special session of the Legislature to consider civil unions instead of gay marriage—but it died in committee. Civil unions do not promise any of the benefits of marriage, but more than that they do not bestow the blessing of God upon the relationship. In our marriage covenant service we remind the couple of Jesus’ presence at a wedding in Cana of Galilee and that marriage is meant to reflect the love of Christ for the church. We pray these words: “Enable [the couple] to grow in love and peace all their days, that they may reach out in concern and service to the world.” “Send your blessing upon [this couple], that they may surely keep their marriage covenant, and so grow in love and godliness together that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace.” We end with these words: “God the eternal keep you in love with each other, so that the peace of Christ may abide in your home.” These words remind the couple, and all present, that marriage is a sacred covenant. It takes hard work to build a great marriage. The most rewarding work there is. If marriage is to be thought of as a sacred covenant, meaning it is rightfully practiced in the church, could we not consider a model I read about in Holland (I know, it’s Europe, but still…). All couples—gay or straight—go to a magistrate for a civil union. They are guaranteed all rights. Then if they want to be married they go to a church and the church decides if it will perform the ceremony or not. This preserves the church from the demands of the state, which cannot force the church to perform a service contrary to its doctrine.

Pastors in the United Methodist Church are forbidden to perform same-sex weddings or civil unions, even in those states where they are legal. Our recent General Conference unfortunately continued wording in our Discipline that defines homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching,” language that is almost as old as I am and has somehow survived. “Self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” may not be ordained in the United Methodist Church. These are all stances I personally disagree with. I believe their theological understanding is limited. Yet I am charged with upholding the Discipline as an Elder in the church. I will do that. During the debate I was reminded of the words of Bishop Alfred Norris, who laid his hands on me at my ordination. He preached a sermon years ago, recalling a segregated Methodist church. He said, “I’m not leaving until we get this right.” Historically institutions are very slow to change, particularly when threats of division come from all sides. At the General Conference, even legislation basically saying the issue is very complicated and we don’t all agree on it went nowhere. As we read from Romans a couple of weeks ago, “Hope that is seen is not hope.” We wait with hope. Out of all the frustration surrounding General Conference there is a sign of hope. A service of healing from the brokenness at General Conference is being put together for Wednesday May 30, 6:30 p.m., at Grace UMC in East Dallas. The service is not particularly focused on homosexuality but on our denomination’s present state of being.  And it’s being organized by young, hopeful United Methodists—much younger than myself—who see brokenness and are unwilling to leave until we get this right. I plan to attend the service and invite you to do so as well.

There are several texts that are popular for use at weddings, one of which is from Romans 12: 9-18: “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil; hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Another popular text at weddings is 1 Corinthians 13, part of which says, “Love is patient, love is kind. It is not envious or boastful or arrogant. It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” Love never ends. Many same sex couples would say they do not need the state or the church or any individual to bless their relationships because they are grounded in love that never ends: God’s love for every single person, regardless of age, sex, race, sexual orientation, relationship status, or any other category we can imagine.

One could make the argument that the work on this sermon began not just when the series was conceived three months ago, but when the news came to Christy and me that we would be appointed to Oak Lawn UMC. One could argue that the sermon was written when a same-sex couple with children approached Pastor Kerry after my appointment was announced and asked if they would still be welcomed here. One could argue the message was written as I walked alongside our float in the Alan Ross Freedom Parade last September. One could argue that this message was formulated when, last October, we noticed messages quoting scriptures condemning homosexuality written on an upstairs dry eraseboard. One could say this message was being written when I sat down with the editor and a staff writer of the Dallas Voice a couple of weeks ago to invite collaboration between Oak Lawn and the newspaper. One could argue the sermon was written during the recent United Methodist General Conference, as the denomination’s official stance on homosexuality was continued. One could argue the sermon was written around a table with other like-minded pastors recently as we discussed the future of our denomination. One could argue the sermon has been written every Sunday as I stand before you to affirm that we do welcome, honor, and love everyone, and in every email I have received over the last twelve months saying something like, “I’ve been looking for a church like this where I could be loved and welcomed for the longest time.”

I’ve been present at several meetings recently here at the church where we’ve discussed how to generate more wedding business. Well…There are probably easier ways to do that than repealing federal law, changing the state constitution, and changing the policy of a denomination of eight million members. The absolute truth is: every Christian, individual, church, community, whatever, is soul searching on the issue of marriage equality. President Obama expressed his support recently and the NAACP endorsed gay marriage just yesterday. Public opinion has changed so rapidly—perhaps faster than any other issue in modern history—that churches must respond. Some will say, as Paul warned us in the text we read from Romans 12, to not be “conformed to the world.” Just because public opinion is headed in one direction doesn’t mean we should all jump on the train. Others will continue the quotation of Paul to finish: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.” Whatever our position on same-sex marriage, or the government’s position, or the denomination’s position, let us “outdo one another in showing mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” “If it is possible, so far as it depends on [us], let us live peaceably with all.” The ultimate goal, as we’ve said from the very beginning of the series, is to seek unity in a divided world. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Study Guide

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted April 4-15, 2012, finds that the public is divided over gay marriage:  47% favor allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry legally, while 43% are opposed. In 2008, 39% favored and 51% opposed gay marriage, based on an average of polls conducted that year. In 2004, just 31% supported gay marriage, while nearly twice as many (60%) were opposed.

Moreover, for the first time in a Pew Research Center survey there is as much strong support as strong opposition to gay marriage. In the current survey, 22% say they strongly support allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally; an identical percentage (22%) strongly opposes gay marriage. In 2008, there was about twice as much strong opposition to as strong support for gay marriage (30% vs. 14%).


Why have people's thoughts on this issue changed so quickly?


Same-sex marriage is legally recognized only in Vermont, New York, New Hampshire, Washington DC, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Washington and Iowa.

Twenty-nine US states already have a ban on same-sex marriage.

The U.S. Census Bureau released recently new statistics on same-sex married couple and unmarried partner households. According to revised estimates from the 2010 Census, there were 131,729 same-sex married couple households and 514,735 same-sex unmarried partner households in the United States.


What are some areas of common ground where we can change our language to support marriage, rather than using terms like "gay" or "traditional" marriage? How does the overall society benefits a from healthy, committed, sanctioned relationships?