31 January 2012

Seven Deadly Sins: Envy: "You Shall Not Covet!"

Proverbs 24:1-9

Do not envy the wicked,
  nor desire to be with them; 
for their minds devise violence,
  and their lips talk of mischief. 

By wisdom a house is built,
  and by understanding it is established; 
by knowledge the rooms are filled
  with all precious and pleasant riches. 
Wise warriors are mightier than strong ones,
  and those who have knowledge than those who have strength; 
for by wise guidance you can wage your war,
  and in abundance of counsellors there is victory. 
Wisdom is too high for fools;
  in the gate they do not open their mouths. 

Whoever plans to do evil
  will be called a mischief-maker. 
The devising of folly is sin,
  and the scoffer is an abomination to all. 

Adventures in parenting: What to do when kids fight over toys. I have no idea. "It's mine!" "I had it first!" "Whack!" "Bam!" I step in, make a judgment on who gets the toy, offer the prize to the winner, and... 30 seconds later it's left on the floor, forgotten, as the next battle begins. "DAD!!" We're halfway through the Seven Deadly Sins series now, and today we'll discuss Envy. Now, let's get one thing straight: envy is not the same as jealousy, though we often use them interchangeably. Jealousy is motivated by fear. Fear of losing what belongs to us. Envy is wanting something that does not belong to us. Jealousy is an inward urge to protect what is ours; Envy is an outward urge to take from others. 

Think of some of the biblical stories we've mentioned in the series: We spoke about Adam and Eve in the message about Pride, the selfish drive to become more powerful than the already are. What made the fruit all of the sudden so appetizing? Envy. They were forbidden to eat it. It was the one thing they could not count as their own. Joseph's brothers sold him to slavery- why? They envied his favored position with their father- he was special; they were not. Cain murdered Abel because Abel's offering was accepted by God. He envied the acceptance Abel received. 

1 Kings 21 tells a brutal story of envy. King Ahab has ascended to the throne of Israel. He has wealth, power, prestige. But it's what he does not have that keeps him awake at night: the small vineyard near the castle walls. Naboth owned that vineyard- indeed, it had been in his family for generations. It wasn't the most beautiful, largest vineyard around.  But it was his, and he was proud if it. But the king demanded it. Ahab even offered another vineyard- a bigger, better one. He wanted this one because of its proximity to the castle- but also because he felt like he should get whatever he wanted- even if it didn't belong to him. Especially if it didn't belong to him. So he made Naboth an offer he couldn't refuse. Except he did. Over and over. He told King Ahab this was his ancestral land- a lasting connection to his family, which he filled intended to pass on to his own family. Ahab knew he had no recourse once the offer was rejected. So he moped. When his wife Jezebel heard his whining and could take it no more, she ordered Naboth killed- a lie about insurrection- and brought the deed of property to her husband. This treachery led to  the King's own destruction. For his Envy. 

Ahab violated the 10th commandment: "You shall not covet anything that belongs to your neighbor." Covet is another word for envy. Looking upon something that is not yours- another's spouse, their home, whatever- and wanting it so badly that you can't stop obsessing over it. Envy is often listed among lists of dangerous behaviors. Romans 1:29-31 "They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters,* insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless." Specific for Envy, check out James 3:14, 16: "If you have bitter envy and  selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. For where there is envy and selfish ambition there will be disorder and wickedness of every kind." Dangerous, ugly stuff!

What's the big deal, you say? Well, Envy at its most basic level is a lack of awareness of what God has done for us. Being envious of others means we feel a sense of dissatisfaction. Ahab is a king with limitless properties, wealth and power- but not enough for his appetite. Envious folk cannot say "Thank you." All they can say is, "This isn't good enough." "More." Envy makes even the richest among us poor, because we do not have enough. Our focus is on our own desires, not God, and certainly not God's desires. Even Jesus' disciples argued about which one was greatest- none of us is immune from envy. 

The writer of Psalm 73 struggled with envy too, ultimately resting in God's goodness and judgment:

Truly God is good to the upright,
  to those who are pure in heart. 
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled;
  my steps had nearly slipped. 
For I was envious of the arrogant;
  I saw the prosperity of the wicked. 

For they have no pain;
  their bodies are sound and sleek. 
They are not in trouble as others are;
  they are not plagued like other people. 
Therefore pride is their necklace;
  violence covers them like a garment. 
Their eyes swell out with fatness;
  their hearts overflow with follies. 
They scoff and speak with malice;
  loftily they threaten oppression. 
They set their mouths against heaven,
  and their tongues range over the earth. 

Therefore the people turn and praise them,
  and find no fault in them. 
And they say, ‘How can God know?
  Is there knowledge in the Most High?’ 
Such are the wicked;
  always at ease, they increase in riches. 
All in vain I have kept my heart clean
  and washed my hands in innocence. 
For all day long I have been plagued,
  and am punished every morning. 

If I had said, ‘I will talk on in this way’,
  I would have been untrue to the circle of your children. 
But when I thought how to understand this,
  it seemed to me a wearisome task, 
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
  then I perceived their end. 
Truly you set them in slippery places;
  you make them fall to ruin. 
How they are destroyed in a moment,
  swept away utterly by terrors! 
They are like a dream when one awakes;
  on awaking you despise their phantoms. 

When my soul was embittered,
  when I was pricked in heart, 
I was stupid and ignorant;
  I was like a brute beast towards you. 
Nevertheless I am continually with you;
  you hold my right hand. 
You guide me with your counsel,
  and afterwards you will receive me with honour. 
Whom have I in heaven but you?
  And there is nothing on earth that I desire other than you. 
My flesh and my heart may fail,
  but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever. 

Indeed, those who are far from you will perish;
  you put an end to those who are false to you. 
But for me it is good to be near God;
  I have made the Lord God my refuge,
  to tell of all your works.

Jesus said, "Strive first for the kingdom of God, and all these other things will be given to you as well." Envy strives only after the kingdom of Frank! Jesus also challenged us to love our neighbors as ourselves. What would a loving neighbor do when her neighbor receives a promotion? Congratulate her! What would a loving neighbor do when his neighbor comes home with the car he wants so bad but cannot afford? Celebrate! Paul wrote: "Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment."

"Envy cannot grow in a thankful heart." -William Stafford  " Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant." -Paul (1 Corinthians 13:4). We will always struggle with envy. We will be tempted with advertising. Our neighbor will come home with the thing we want. The coworker will get the promotion we deserve. On its own envy is not harmful. It's when our desire overwhelms our judgment that we get into trouble.  The best way to overcome is to be grateful for what we have. Honor God in everything we do, and sin will not overwhelm us. 

22 January 2012

Seven Deadly Sins Continues: Pride! "Blessed are the Meek."

This week an amazing thing happened: Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection. Kodak was the leading camera film and equipment company in the world for more than a century. At its peak, around 1997, its share price on Wall Street was close to $100. Today it is close to nothing. Kodak once employed nearly 150,000; today it’s less than 20,000. In 1996 revenues were $16B, and profits peaked in 1999 at $2.5B. Now, you can think this was inevitable; people don’t buy film anymore, and more and more of us use phones to take pictures, not cameras—even digital cameras. True. But here’s another truth: Kodak’s longtime rival, FujiFilm, is still a very strong company. Last year, while Kodak turned a profit of “only” $220M, Fuji profited $12.6B. There are several reasons why Kodak failed, but it’s much more than the obvious transition from film to digital photography. One of its main problems was pride, with an unhealthy mix of sloth. Fuji began to diversify years ago; Kodak did not. Executives believed the company too strong, too important, too powerful, to fail. They could meet any challenge without having to do the difficult work of reallocating priorities in the face of change demands. Many of them are available today if you’re hiring!

Pride can be a frustrating sin to talk about, because it has two meanings with differing contexts. You could rightly say, “How can Pride be a sin? Are you saying I should not be proud of my kid when he gets a good grade? Or proud of my granddaughter when she hits a game winning shot?” Every Sunday I speak with pride of how our church is inclusive—to the point of having a float in the annual pride parade! That sort is good and should be encouraged. One of the most important things I can say to my boys is, “I am proud of you.” The sin of Pride is different. It is not an expression of satisfaction in a person or thing—it is an excessive love of self. The other day Pastor Kerry sent me a link to a photo essay on the Seven Deadly Sins. The one for Pride was a woman looking at a cross, which doesn’t sound prideful at all—except that the cross was a mirror. She saw herself in the cross, not Jesus.

Remember, sin is anything that separates us from relationship with God. Through God’s grace, we have been given the power to overcome sin’s pull on us. Pride is often disguised as ambition, a need to be noticed, a feeling of superiority. Of the Seven Deadly Sins, Pride is commonly thought to be the most serious—it is a fundamental flaw in our character, an insecure, self-defeating narcissism that causes us to see everything and everyone as a projection of ourselves. It is an innate need to show off, claiming power and authority that do not belong to us.
Consider the sin of Adam and Eve. They lived in a perfect paradise with everything they could ever need, but the one restriction given to them by God—not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—was what they thought most about. When challenged by the snake to eat the forbidden fruit, the snake tempts them at their most basic desire—Pride: “God does not want you to eat it, lest you become like God.” Immediately, the fruit of that tree looks different. They disobey God’s only command so that they may be transformed into gods themselves. Overstretching their only limit, God expels them from the Garden forever. 

Generations later, Genesis tells us the people of the earth all spoke one common language. They achieved great success in their endeavors. They decided to build a tower to the heavens to proclaim to God their own goodness: “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves…” God punishes the people again for their Pride—not expelling them from a Garden as much as expelling them from community with each other. They no longer speak the same language. They are forced to settle across the earth. God does this because, “…this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

In the Book of Exodus the people are liberated from slavery in Egypt. Moses leads them to the mountain of God, where they receive the law of the covenant. The first commandment says, “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.” The second commandment is similar: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God…” Pride is the worship of self, where we place ourselves at the center of our lives—and the lives of others. Jesus told a parable of a Pharisee, a religious leader of his day, and a tax collector. Both men prayed in the Temple, and their prayers revealed much about their character. The Pharisee’s prayer went like this: “Thank you, God, that I am not like other people, like this tax collector. I tithe my income. I observe your laws. I, I, I.” The tax collector confronts his sin and his guilt, unable to look to heaven, he simply prays, “Hear my prayer, a sinner.” Jesus then said, “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:14). He warned us to not to assume to take the honored place around the table, but sit at the end of the table. Paul chastised his congregations for taking favored spots at the Lord’s table. He reminded the Corinthians to be aware of God’s grace: “What do you have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Corinthians 4:18-21). He offers them a choice for his next visit: should he greet them with a stick—WHACK!—or with gentleness?

Jesus himself was tempted with pride. After his baptism the Spirit drives him into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan over a period of forty days. Listen to how he is tempted: ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.’ ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down;’ ‘All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ They all have to do with pride. Show off your power! Test God’s favor! Realize your ambitions! But Jesus was steadfast in his refusal, finally saying, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written, “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” ’ In refusing to give in to pride, Jesus affirms God’s power and authority in his life. 

One of my favorite Bible stories is found in 2 Kings 5, the story of the great captain of the army of a neighboring country suffers from the humiliating disease of leprosy. A servant of his wife tells her of a Hebrew prophet, Elisha, who can help. So Namaan loads up a caravan of mules and horses with riches and goods. His plan is to buy favor from the prophet. When he arrives at Elisha’s home, the prophet does not even come outside. His servant tells Namaan to jump into the Jordan River seven times and he will be healed. Namaan becomes angry. “Doesn’t he know who I am? He should at least come out here and wave his hands over my wounds or something! Besides, we have better rivers in Syria. I’ll just bathe there!” Pride. But his servants ask him: “If the prophet had asked you to do something difficult you would have done it. Why not do something easy?” Namaan changes his mind and jumps in the Jordan. He is healed. A powerful lesson in humility, which just happens to be the opposite Virtue of Pride.

Humility places others’ needs above our own. Humility acknowledges the goodness in everyone and turns away our focus on self. There are many teachings about the virtue of Humility—so many you’d think we struggle with it or something: “And all of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble’” (1 Peter 5:5). “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich. (2 Cor 8:9)
Jesus himself illustrates the virtue of Humility when he washed the disciples’ feet. Peter resists: “You will never wash my feet!” But Jesus did it to give them an example, that they should wash others’ feet. “The Son of Man came not be served, but to serve,” he often said. Scripture testifies to Jesus’ humility: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God   as something to be exploited, but emptied himself,   taking the form of a slave,   being born in human likeness. And being found in human form,  he humbled himself    and became obedient to the point of death—    even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). 

Kodak’s downfall was an inability to change in the midst of an identity storm—and great was its fall. How ironic that a technology-based company would be resistant to innovation. But that’s pride at work. Too big to fail. You and I struggle with pride all the time, though often when we do not realize it. Let’s not become so self-absorbed that we are unaware that everything is eroding around us. Remember: the power of sin is real. And pride may be the strongest—the very source—of all sins. But we have faith in the power of God, which saves us from sin and saves us throughout our life. When we begin to think we have it all figured out—when we feel the pull of gravity to make us the center of the universe—take a moment for some perspective. 

The Gospel of Luke takes a unique perspective on the calling of Peter to discipleship. Jesus came to the sea where Peter had been fishing, unsuccessfully, all morning. Jesus stepped into Peter’s boat and went out onto the water to speak to the crowds. After speaking, Jesus asked Peter to go out to deep waters and throw his nets overboard. Peter did it, but he could not resist sharing his experience that day: ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ The nets were immediately full—so much they had to call in reinforcements. Soon the boats were sinking with the weight of fish. Peter was overwhelmed: “Go away from me, Lord! I am a sinful man!” He was not yet the all-star disciple. He did not have the answers. He was not worthy of the honor of Christ’s call. Yet he would become the rock on which Christ would build the church. We may feel destined for greatness. We may be confident in our strengths. But let’s not allow our ambition, our anxiety, our insecurity to become gods themselves. Remember Peter’s humble affirmation of who he really was when Jesus invited him to be a disciple. But still hear, and respond to, Christ’s gracious invitation: ‘Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.’

Boxing legend Mohammed Ali turned 70 last week. There’s a story about him taking a flight years ago. The flight attendant tried to coax Ali to wearing his safety belt. “Superman don’t need no seatbelt,” he said. “Superman don’t need no airplane,” she replied. Pride is a real temptation for all of us. We all crave the recognition we know we deserve. In a culture that values individuality and the pulling up of the self by one’s bootstraps pride runs rampant. I mean, we’re from Texas, right? We’re not exactly short on pride. I don’t imagine “Ford is the Best in Rhode Island” would be a very effective slogan. If boasting is so difficult a behavior to put aside, then let’s put it to good use and honor God: “My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad” (Psalm 34:2). “But let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jeremiah 9:24).

21 January 2012

"Do Your Due Diligence!" - from the Seven Deadly Sins series: Sloth

Proverbs 6:1-11
My child, if you have given your pledge to your neighbour,
   if you have bound yourself to another, 
2 you are snared by the utterance of your lips,
   caught by the words of your mouth. 
3 So do this, my child, and save yourself,
   for you have come into your neighbour’s power:
   go, hurry, and plead with your neighbour. 
4 Give your eyes no sleep
   and your eyelids no slumber; 
5 save yourself like a gazelle from the hunter,
   like a bird from the hand of the fowler. 
6 Go to the ant, you lazybones;
   consider its ways, and be wise. 
7 Without having any chief
   or officer or ruler, 
8 it prepares its food in summer,
   and gathers its sustenance in harvest. 
9 How long will you lie there, O lazybones?
   When will you rise from your sleep? 
10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
   a little folding of the hands to rest, 
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
   and want, like an armed warrior. 

Maybe as a child—or as a parent to a child—you read the story of the grasshopper and the ants. The ants are so diligent, spending each summer day storing away food for the winter. The grasshopper, on the other hand, is happy to enjoy each lazy summer day, hour after hour doing whatever he wants to. Of course when the winter comes there is no food and the grasshopper appeals to the ants for help. They do not hold the grasshopper’s nature against him and share their food. He promises to be more diligent the next year. But I wonder what happened when the sun began to share its warmth again! Last week we began our sermon series on the Seven Deadly Sins by thinking about Wrath—the sin of allowing our anger to lash out at others, ourselves, even God. Each of the sins has an opposite virtue associated with it. The virtue for Wrath is kindness. Today’s sin is Sloth, a sort of laziness or apathy. The virtue for Sloth is diligence. I don’t know much about grasshoppers—whether they are lazy at all—but I feel sorry for the creatures known as sloths. These gentle creatures are by nature slow and sleep often. They were branded with this name because someone assumed they understood the sloth’s nature and judged them lazy. What about you and I?

Sometimes we need lazy days to deal with all we face during our busy lives. For me, those lazy days are Mondays. I am very scarce on a Monday. Even if I pop in to do something, the staff knows I am not really here. I prefer to spend those days by myself, watching a movie, playing an Xbox game, taking a nap, whatever. The constant running of our lives can have harmful effects on us. But the other side is just as bad—it does us no good to sit around all day, aimless and restless. Today I want to discuss the spiritual side of sloth. How our laziness about our relationship with God can be destructive and cause us to miss out on great growth and happiness.

People love to tease pastors about sleeping through sermons. I’ve often said that if these 20 minutes are so are the best opportunity you have to rest then use them as a means of grace, by all means! Even the most dedicated of church members tend to nod off sometimes. My prayer is that it’s not the content that is so sleep inducing, but who knows? Maybe it’s the gentle tone of my small town South Texas voice. (Consider that the cue to wake up if you’re still able to do so!) Sloth in worship isn’t just about falling asleep during sermons—it’s about the mind wandering during our worship time. In my last appointment there was a woman, a doctor, who dutifully took notes during every sermon. It always made me feel so proud. Then one day I noticed a slip of paper left where she sat. It was her grocery list! We intentionally offer silence before the pastor prayer—not to make for a more accommodating rest, but to confront the noise of everyday life. Use that time to pay attention to what God is saying to you—rather than filling those precious moments with your own needs. Maybe singing isn’t your thing—but hymns or anthems aren’t moments to drift off to think about tomorrow’s schedule or the Cowboys’ offseason needs. Listen to the words. Feel the music in your soul. Be aware of God’s movement in your life at this particular moment. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, was known for his diligence in worship. Take out your hymnals for a moment and turn to page vii for his Directions for Singing. Do you pay that much attention to the singing? The messages? The prayers? Do not allow sloth to hinder your worship of God.

You know I am a Star Wars geek, so it was a combination of thrill and confusion when I learned that The Force is a growing religious identification in Europe. Yes, it is true that when I walk through the automatic doors at the grocery store I imagine myself a Jedi; but turning to George Lucas’ thoughts as a source of comfort and challenge in my life? I don’t think so. Many people are concerned about the secularization of US society, even the rise of atheism and agnosticism. But the most frightening trend for me is the number of people of simply believe nothing. We are facing in our society a real crisis of faith. By that I mean that more and more people are choosing "none" when asked about their religious identity. I'm not talking about atheists or agnostics- these are not doubters or unbelievers- they're people whose response is, "Meh." The hot religion statistical trend of recent decades was the rise of the “Nones” — the people who checked “no religious identity” on the American Religious Identification Survey — who leapt from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008. The “So Whats” appear to be a growing secular subset. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s Landscape Survey dug in to the Nones to discover that nearly half said they believed “nothing in particular.” David Kinnaman wrote You Lost Me, a book about young people outside of the church. “I’d estimate seven in 10 young adults would say they don’t see much influence of God or religion in their lives at all.” Check out these results from a recent survey, reported in the Washington Post this week:

— 44 percent told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19 percent said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”
— 46 percent told a 2011 survey by Nashville, Tenn.-based LifeWay Research that they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.
— 28 percent told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18 percent scoffed at the idea that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.
— 6.3 percent of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Those are real numbers for today. Now combine them with some projections facing the United Methodist Church in the coming decades, as reported by Dr. Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary:

--Death rate for UMs 35% higher today than in 1968

--Until 2009, the UMC continued a 30 Year pattern: growing revenues, less members. Over the last three years membership has continued to drop, and we’ve seen a massive decline in giving. We’re looking at some very big financial measures to fight against these trends, which will require a major change in how we do the business God has called us to do.

--For the next ten years or so, the death rate will continue to be about 9%. After that, deaths are expected to increase very year- growing to more than 10% by 2030. During those years, 2030-2050, if current tends continue, the UMC may well cease to exist in many parts of the country. There will be a higher death rate during this time than at any point in US history since the introduction of antibiotics. 50% more deaths in 2050 than 2010. 

We need to reach more people, more young people, and more diverse people. I was so pleased to hear from our own congregation these same priorities when we offered a survey last Fall. The feedback was: reach younger people; offer more varied worship experiences; offer more fellowship opportunities.  We have made all three of those priorities for this year. But we need everyone’s help. Invite your friends or neighbors who do not have a church home to some of the great opportunities for growth we offer: Bible study, challenging worship, hands on ministry to those in need. We have fun activities coming in the spring to invite friends to: Blessing of the Animals, Easter Eggstravaganza, Sneaker Sunday. Invite everyone you know to Easter Day worship. We’ll have a very interesting sermon series after Easter. The best way to combat spiritual sloth is to invite others. Your church has made a difference in your own life. What could it do for others?

It’s fitting we would talk about Sloth this weekend, as we prepare to observe a holiday in Dr King’s honor tomorrow. Dr King personified Diligence. He took an active role in the leadership of the Civil Rights movement because he was young and willing to risk- more established preachers did not want to risk status, etc. A quote a friend posted on her Facebook the other day summed Dr King up well: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Much of the resistance Dr King faced was from within the church itself. Many Anglo pastors basically said, “Yes, this is injustice. And we’ll deal with it. At the right time.” Sloth. What if Dr King, Rosa Parks, and the many other leaders just gave up and waited? Would we still have segregation today? Would we still regard US citizens as second class? What other situations do we turn away from because the climate is too challenging?

“Do your Due Diligence” is a phrase often used in business: as in, “We’ve done our due diligence on the deal. It’s makes good sense. Let’s go for it.” It has to do with doing the background work to make whatever goal achievable—so there are no surprises. We’ve been handed on a great legacy from past generations who did their due diligence. And we benefit from it. The question we must ask is: are we doing our due diligence to reach future generations for Christ? Are we sharing the life-transforming grace of Christ for others? Will they benefit from our legacy?

Churches are getting older. Money is tighter. People are struggling with basic needs. Fewer and fewer people self-identify as religious. We can choose to confront this reality like the grasshopper or the ant. Sloth is destructive because we do not invest our God-given energy in ways that help to share the gospel and change lives for Jesus Christ. We give in to apathy, just sitting around, not concerned about the coming winter, just our present comfort. God calls us to move beyond that place. As the writer of the Proverb said, “Get up, lazybones!”

16 January 2012

Remembering the Lives of Three Great Oak Lawn Saints

Over the past three weeks, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church lost three of its wonderful saints: Tommy Nance, Marietta Ragsdale, and Bryan Clark. It's been a difficult time for us, saying goodbye to such amazing people. I had three privilege of knowing all three well, since I served the Oak Lawn church as an intern and Associate Pastor many years ago, before returning last summer as Senior Pastor. For those unable to attend any of the services, or if these words are any comfort to those still grieving such losses, I have included here my words of remembrance from each service.

Tommy Nance, Restland Funeral Home, 
December 22, 2011

Thomas William Nance, Sr., long time resident of Dallas, TX., passed away on December 18, 2011 in Dallas. He was preceded in death by his wife of 56 years, Dell Emmalee Nance. He was born on May 31, 1919 in Dallas to Mr. and Mrs. C. S. Nance.

He is survived by his four children, Patricia D. Flores, Thomas W. Nance, Jr., Donald L. Nance and Robert L. Nance, their spouses, five grandchildren, other family members and friends. He served in the U. S. Army during World War II in the Pacific. He was wounded in action while serving as a Staff Sergeant in the 112th Cavalry in New Britain. He received the Purple Heart. He was also an active member and officer of the Retired Members of the 112th Cavalry.

Tommy lived a simple life, devoted to the things he cared most about: his faith, his family, his work and hobbies, his country. He shared those typical “Greatest Generation” traits of devotion, dedication, and commitment. Having lived through the Great Depression he knew the value of money and understood that nothing could be taken for granted. He was suspicious of outward displays of what we would call a successful life—like when his son Tom showed him his new house. Tommy asked, “Why do you need this?” Tom gave his best answer: “Because I can.” Tommy replied: “That’s not good enough.”

Tommy had great skills in the woodshop of his garage, where he made treasures for children and grandchildren, even for church auction fundraisers. A wooden duck that wobbled was a particular favorite—it was mentioned several times the other night by  family members. Or one piece of furniture Tommy made had been sanded so much that it would not take the finish—so he had to rough it up a bit. 

He loved to work outdoors, even affixing a floodlight to his lawnmower so he could work after dark. He took tremendous pride in yardwork, and his kids could always sense a little disappointment when their yards did not live up to his standards! There was a great story about building a deck with his son-in-law. Tommy was in his 60s and Larry in his 30s, but you wouldn’t have guessed it by who worked the hardest in 100+ temps. As Larry put it, reflecting upon the beautiful, newly finished deck: “I was amazed at what I could push my body to do to avoid being embarrassed by a man twice my age.”

He was a perfectionist who believed in doing everything one way: the right way. If the kids struggled with homework he would insist they stay at the table until every math problem was answered correctly. If they protested with those great homework existential questions like, “When will I ever use this?” He would respond with, “You will.”  Someone said when Tommy locked up the office at work he had a look of pride on his face like he owned it. And in a way he did.

He had a love of music that spanned his whole life, from playing in the band at halftimes of football games—where he played on the team also—to playing classical music in his workshop, singing in the Oak Lawn Church choir, or the Dallas Male Chorus.
And he was a great patriot, serving in the 112th Cavalry in the Pacific during WWII, where he was wounded, receiving the Purple Heart.

He was a devoted husband to Dell for more than 50 years. I loved the memory of Tommy leaving potted plants and flowers on the patio where she could enjoy them from her wheelchair. He faithfully took care of her during her declining health.
The most poignant moment for me the other night came when Tom spoke about his sort of rebellious youth, when he and Tommy would spar over late nights out with friends. Tom would come home late and his dad would say, “Nothing good ever happens after midnight.” Tom’s eyes began to water a little bit remembering that, and I asked him: “Thinking about it at your age now, what do you think?” Tom said, “I’d say he’s right.”

There are great lessons to be learned from Tommy’s life. Commitment. Faithfulness. Fidelity. Generosity. We can look upon toys or furniture he made and remember him. Treasure those tangible reminders of Tommy's skill and creativity. But more importantly, remember his great faith, which, by nature, is intangible. Imitate his faith. Tommy endured many trials throughout his life, but his faith never wavered, and he never complained. He accepted whatever challenges he faced with confidence. Whether it was a war wound that afflicted him for more than 65 years, or nursing his beloved wife for her last nine years, Tommy could witness to one of the great promises of scripture: Nothing can separate us from God's great love in Christ Jesus.

“The Lord is my Shepherd. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He restores my soul.” Tommy is now resting in the green pastures of the Lord, perhaps making sure they are up to his high standards. “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. I go to a make a place for you.” Tommy now has been resurrected by the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.” Tommy has taken his place among the great company of the saints of light, whose enduring witness continues to inspire those of us who remain in our earthly life. These are some of the comforting words of promise and hope our faith gives us. We can celebrate this day, even in the midst of our grief, because Tommy has fully realized these promises. He has been welcomed home by a loving God and a resurrected Lord. And the same promises are for each of us.

It was mentioned the other night how much Dell and Tommy loved Christmas, and how it is sort of appropriate that he would die at this time of year. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas in a few days, surrounded by family and friends, may we all reflect upon the goodness and faithfulness of God, who gives us wonderful gifts: life, faith, each new day, and fathers, grandfathers, husbands, and friends such as Tommy Nance.

Marietta Ragsdale, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, January 3, 2012 

There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die...
Marietta Lucas Ragsdale was born December 22, 1920 in Grand Prairie, Texas and was received into God’s arms on December 29, 2011.  Marietta was a descendant of a proud Texas family who came to Texas in the mid 1840’s.  Marietta worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development and was one of the first women to be promoted to manager.  She worked as a realtor with Matisse Realtors until she retired at the age of 85.  Marietta is preceded in death by her father Henry J. Lucas and mother Anna Lucas, sisters; Eunice Harris, Juanita Baldwin and Louise Lucas and brothers; Guy Lucas, James Conroy (Mike) Lucas and Reed Lucas.  Marietta is survived by many nephews and nieces, as well as many great nieces and nephews, and many friends.

The other day Christy and I were in Target when I remembered a call I had missed an hour before. The message said Marietta was rushed to the hospital and was not expected to survive long. We were in Houston, so it was impossible for me to visit. I told Christy the news, and our hearts sank; Marietta was dear to both of us. Christy and our boys had just visited Marietta in her apartment on Christmas Eve, where James, Miles, and Linus treated her with Christmas cookies and sang songs. A few days before that Marietta was here for a Saints Alive Christmas program and lunch. She had invited a couple of her caregivers to the event, and we sat at the same table and enjoyed a meal together. My mom happened to be in town, dropping our boys off here after a couple of days of fun in Dallas. I introduced mom to Marietta. Pointing at me, Marietta said, "He's mine." Mom agreed to share. It was the last time I saw Marietta alive. 
There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to plant and a time to uproot,  a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
 a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time for war and a time for peace.

Marietta weathered many seasons during her life. She grew up in the Great Depression. She knew need and poverty. One time during a spiritual study we took together, she mused that people today may well need another Great Depression to learn to appreciate what they have and know something of dealing with challenges. She certainly faced her own. But she approached whatever season with grace, perseverance, and hope. She never abandoned her lifelong pursuit of knowledge. In that spiritual study  group with Marietta, we discussed all different angles and practices of faith. She loved every moment. Her curiosity was rampant. Last summer I visited her in her home and she asked me how I understood heaven. I told her the truth- I didn't have all the answers, and I am always suspicious of those who claim to understand everything fully. But, I said, I am confident it will be so much more than we could ever conceive of. Words would not be able to describe it. That answer was good enough for Marietta. She embraced the unknown without fear. Today, she has all those answers, and we are left to do the asking and wondering. Good for her!

There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens: a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to weep and a time to laugh…
Marietta was a proud woman of style. On Christmas Eve when I called about the boys visiting she said, "But I’m on my way to the beauty shop." when I assured her they would not be there until afternoon, she was excited for the visit. She always looked great and her home was immaculate.  Appearances mattered. But she was also a woman of great substance. She was, as many of us would know, one of a kind. She had just celebrated her 91st birthday last week. She was, in her own words, "A 91 year old one legged woman." Marietta also had a wicked sense of humor. Her comments, if spoken aloud, could break uncomfortable silences or brighten up a dreary discussion. But it was the under the breath comments that would shock you, coming from the self described 91 year old one legged woman. She would not hold back her opinions, prejudices, or expectations. If she disapproved, look out. Any conversation with Marietta had the potential to be hilarious, offensive, uplifting, inquisitive. Sometimes in the same sentence!

 There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to kill and a time to heal,
  a time to tear down and a time to build…

Marietta was faithful. She lovingly took care of her sister Louise for many years near the end of Louise’s life. She was a faithful member of Oak Lawn United Methodist Church for many years. She was brave and strong. One time after a fall she waited for hours until someone discovered her. She was never despondent about her health. She could bounce back from just about any challenge she faced. She was, as someone said yesterday, a role model.  There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to love and a time to hate…

 Those of us who knew her well could speak of her loving spirit. As she kissed Christy goodbye last Christmas Eve, she said, "Love you good." After or before every Sunday morning service, she would hug me and say, "Love your heart." everything has its season. Today is a season to love. We celebrate Marietta’s love,which has its origins in God’s love for her—and for us. We give thanks for God's love revealed to us in such a powerful way in Jesus Christ. God's love is most powerfully revealed at Christmas, one of Marietta's favorite seasons, so it is fitting she should die during the week around Christmas, when she celebrated her Lord's birth, as well as her own. Today we celebrate her resurrection as well.  There is a time for everything,
  and a season for every activity under the heavens:  a time to mourn and a time to dance…

On their visit to her apartment, Miles asked, as six year olds are likely to do, what happened to Marietta's leg. She replied, "I lost it, but it's OK." That was the way she looked at life. If God asked her right now in heaven about her earthly life, she may well say, "I lost it, but it's OK." No, it's better than OK. We all know that death is as much a part of the rhythm of earthly life as anything else- that doesn't make it any easier to deal with. But everything has its season in time. As we mourn today, Marietta dances. And even as we grieve, we dance for Marietta, as the promises she so faithfully embraced in her earthly life are fulfilled in her heavenly life. Marietta and I shared a love for THE BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC, which Bill sang. Today, we can confidently say that Marietta has indeed seen "the glory of the coming of the Lord." Her soul has answered him, her feet are jubilant. She has experienced the glory of his bosom that transfigures you and me. And as God's truth and day confidently march on, so does Marietta march on, in glory. She now shines as a saint of light. Love you good, Marietta. Love your heart. 

Bryan Clark, Oak Lawn United Methodist Church, 
January 14, 2012

Bryan Leland Clark was born February 14, 1926, and died January 6, 2012. Bryan was a proud Texan and a graduate of Texas Tech University. He served in the United States Marine Corps 1944-1946 and was present when the iconic flag was raised over Iwo Jima. He worked for many years at the National Automobile Theft Bureau (NATB) and was appointed a Special Texas Ranger.  Bryan was an active volunteer for many years at Methodist Hospital of Dallas, serving as President of the Auxiliary.  He is survived by his beloved wife Reba, his cousin Sharon Nelson and her husband Michael, and special friends Lynda and James Cagle. He was a loving uncle to Tom and Julie Clark.

If you didn't know Bryan well, as I was fortunate to know him, you missed out on a great opportunity. I have never known anyone like him. When I was a kid, I had a full set of Encyclopedia Brittanica. I used to pull a volume off the shelf randomly and just start reading. If I ever read anything from an encyclopedia about sports, Texas geography, military service, or police work, it would have been incomplete. Bryan had an incredible amount of knowledge and he never missed a beat. Counties in TX. I used to tease him. I would pull out a map and start naming them randomly. He knew every county seat town. He had some kind of story to go with it- someone he hunted down for stealing a car in San Antonio. Someone who had a real shot at Major League baseball but was injured. Somehow, and I am only mildly exaggerating, Bryan knew every thing about everyone.

He and James Cagle were together all the time talking about sports, sometimes watching and playing and talking sports at the same time. Last week I walked in to the room and they were talking about Oklahoma and Rice players. Bryan sort of drifted in and out, but somehow kept up with the conversation. Baseball, football, golf, basketball. If a player came from TX- or ever played in TX- Bryan knew him and could tell you  about his high school and college career. Bryan knew all six of those guys who raised the iconic flag over Iwo Jima. I've been reading the book FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS at home. One day I called him at home and mentioned t. He named every one of the six and remembered a story about each one. He knew JD Tippit, the DPD officer Lee Harvey Oswald shot before he shot JFK. And if you are wondering,  he was convinced Oswald did it alone. He never forgot anything. He wanted me to speak about a trip he and I made to Houston years ago-something about my truck overheating on the way to an Astros game- but I don't remember! I was about 28; he was about 70. And he remembered the story.

If you were ever a part of the Oak Lawn Church, you knew Bryan- and he certainly knew you. He knew the building's secrets like no one else, giving countless tours, sharing memories. He and his tag team partner Truitt Brinson will always e remembered as two of the most influential members of this grand congregation. Bryan liked to talk about a certain church he and Reba worshiped at in Houston many years ago. When he volunteered to be an usher, he was told, seriously, that someone had to die first. Here, Bryan and Truitt held court every Sunday. For what seems like forever, one or both would greet every single person who was a guest. And not just a "hi, here's a bulletin." They both genuinely cared about who you were, where you were from, what you did for a living. When one of them called during the week to invite you back to church, they sincerely looked forward to seeing you and shaking your hand when you joined the church. Those guys were so effective here that an entire group of young couples and singles who burst upon the Oak Lawn scene in the late 90s changed its name from the adolescent and generic "Young Adults" group to the "Brinson-Clark Class." Many will tell you the biggest single influence of their becoming part of the Oak Lawn family was the work of these men. They are Christy's and my dearest friends. Without Bryan and Truitt's influence, that may not have been the case. So at every Christmas party, birthday, or baptism, there's an element of Bryan and Truitt there.

When you heard Bryan speak of the things and people that were dearest to him, it was impossible to miss out on the pride and the gratitude he felt. His devoted love for Reba. His thankfulness for the fidelity of James and Lynda Cagle as his health declined. His joy when Sharon and Michael joined their United Methodist church- he hoped he had some role in that (you know he did !). And the renovations of the church. He and Reba first got to see everything on Christmas Eve- he acted like it was the greatest gift he had ever received. The way he spoke about Oak Lawn you'd think he experienced heaven within these walls. At our last one on one time together, he spoke about his hope that he would be remembered around here. Summoning up my years of experience and theological training, my response was, "Oh, please." I told him one thing I have learned upon my return to OLUMC was that no one ever forgets anyone here- and no one ever really leaves this place. You may move to another congregation, but Oak Lawn always feels like home. Bryan Clark made that kind of impact on people. And now he has taken his place among the great, enduring witness of the Oak Lawn saints.

Lynda told me Bryan said he strove to be honorable in all things. He wanted to be remembered as an honorable man. It's hard for me to think of a single adjective to better sum up Bryan's life. Growing up in West TX, serving in WWII, being a loving, cool uncle, dedicated to his work, devoted to his wife, committed to his church, secure in his faith, fearless when facing the transition from earthly to eternal life. In all things Bryan Clark was an honorable man.

"In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. I go to prepare a place for you." "The Lord is my Shepherd. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters." Truitt Brinson died in November 2010, and Bryan told Christy recently how much he still missed his evangelistic partner. If there is a heavenly welcome wagon, it got a boost 15 months ago, and today it runs on all cylinders. We buried Bryan's earthly body the other day with a brief graveside service that includes different  prayers than we use today: "For all that Bryan has given us to make us who we are, we give you thanks."