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.


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.