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.