22 February 2013

Come Fly With Me


Last year I applied for funding for a three-month sabbatical that would have taken place this summer. My plan was to travel across the country and explore other churches similar to Oak Lawn: historic, inclusive, urban. Funding was denied by the Lilly Endowment-- not because the project was not worthy; it did not meet their qualifications. Lilly sabbaticals are more personal in nature-- renewal for the pastor, while our proposal was more of an academic model for sabbatical. I was pretty upset for a few weeks, because I was very excited for what we would have learned.

Later, a family in the church came forward with a special gift to send me on a mini-sabbatical to explore churches. So this week I have been making plans for a couple of learning trips this summer. One trip will be to Los Angeles, the other Washington DC. I'll share more about this later, but the short of it is: the DC trip I'm taking the family with me-- we're driving. The LA trip is a solo-- meaning I will fly. And many of you know I do not like to fly. And later in the summer I am flying to a conference in Denver. So I am already getting nervous about the airplanes.

I have not always been so uncomfortable on airplanes. Maybe it was the anticipation of going somewhere new, or excitement about a new project, but flying didn't become uncomfortable until 10 years ago or so. I have had many conversations with pilots about this, who assure me flying is safe, turbulence is not only normal but necessary, and that they are very good at what they do. No doubt. I heard once that fear of flying is a control issue: driving my car I have the illusion of control. Sitting in coach, 35,000 feet in the air... See, I am starting to freak out now!

This morning-- literally just 20 minutes ago-- I had a thought: maybe the difference in my reaction to flying is that I have more to lose. A decade ago I was in my early 30s, I was married, with one infant child. Ten years later, I am in my early 40s, still, thankfully, happily, married-- but with three boys, one of whom, Miles, turns 8 tomorrow. Is my discomfort-- not fear-- of flying more about my fear of losing what is most important to me?

When we are faced with the fear of losing what is dear to us, sometimes our perspective changes. All the statistical information about the safety of flying goes out the window-- yikes!-- when I am afraid. What about the rest of my life-- on the ground, as God intended? The economy is stronger now than it was a few years ago, but uncertainty is still there. If I am afraid of losing income, status, even my home, how will it impact the rest of my life? Our church is facing decisions that will lead to changes, and that anxiety-- how do we deal with that? When we have something to lose, do we cling to it at all costs-- even if it means acting out in ways that are hurtful to others? Later in our sermon series on forgiveness we'll examine a text (Luke 17) when Jesus commands the disciples to forgive when someone repents. Their response? "Increase our faith!!" It's hard work. We must learn to relinquish control, lay at the feet of Jesus that which is most dear to us, and honor God as Lord not only of our lives, but of all creation. "If you love your life you will lose it," Jesus says. "Those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24).

So when I board those planes this summer I will need to remind myself to be still. I will give thanks to God for the many blessings I have received-- not earned, but received as a gift. I will allow God's Spirit to enfold me and carry me where I need to go. In fact, I can have that same attitude today. And so can you. Whatever anxiety you are feeling, whatever you have to lose, I invite you to go ahead and surrender. That anxiety, the fear, the need to control, the uncertainty about the future. Lay it at the cross. Let it go. Today. Right now. Be ready to take up your own cross and follow the Lord into your promised future. Be thankful, and be faithful.

10 February 2013

Remembering Rebecca Wriker

We celebrated the life of Rebecca Bell Wriker (5) at Oak Lawn yesterday. These are the words and prayers I offered at the service. Her parents, Matt and Samantha, gave their permission to post them here, hoping they may be a source of comfort to others.

Last week I sat with Samantha in Rebecca's room at the hospital. We talked about finding meaning in all of this, and I gave her permission to go to the roof of the hospital and shout, "THIS IS NOT FAIR!!" to God. We could probably line people around the block today to shout at God. It can be a cathartic thing to do- God can certainly handle it. Rebecca's illness, metachromatic leukodystrophy (MLD), was a tragic reality. It is not fair for a life which began as most other girls' to end in this way. Let us not define her memory by her disease, but rather our remembrance of the joy she shared with us. Every time we see a ladybug, let's remember how that was Rebecca's trademark. Every time a child shouts aloud on the swings at the park, let's remember how much Rebecca loved to swing. Every time we hear a Laurie Berkner song, let's remember she was Rebecca's favorite, even having the chance to see her in Austin via the Make a Wish Foundation. Let's remember her wonder and curiosity when she happily explored the cockpit of Matt's airplane. Whenever we see a child at the library being read to, let's remember Rebecca's love of books. When we hear a child pray the words, "Now I lay me down to sleep," remember Rebecca's "PRAY!" command to her parents every night. Or her "AWAY!!" command to healthcare providers when they entered the room.

We struggle to find the meaning in all of this, but we must be careful not to explain it away. Often when faced with such tragedy we believe we are most helpful to those we love by trying to explain away our grief: "Everything happens for a reason." "God needed another angel in heaven." What Matt and Samantha need the most today is love and compassion, not answers. Let us not try to save them from their grief- let us believe that their faith, as damaged as it my be today, will, over time, become a source of strength and healing. The Rev William Sloan Coffin quoted Hemingway from A FAREWELL TO ARMS in a sermon after losing his own son: "The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places." That's our prayer today, not just for Samantha and Matthew but for each one of us: we'll become stronger in our broken places.

Coffin remembered how countless pastors wrote to him quoting scriptures like, "Blessed are the mourners." Reflecting on that experience, he said, "While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. 'My God my God, why have you forsaken me?'" Those are words from Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted from the cross. In his time of suffering, perhaps he too felt abandoned by God, as many of us have felt during Rebecca's illness. Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament, a prayer voiced by one enduring great trial. It begins with, "My God my God, why have you forsaken me?," but does not end there:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
To him,indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.*
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.

The psalmist has become stronger in the broken places.

Several months ago Matt and Samantha returned to Oak Lawn after many years away. They sat on the back pew with Rebecca. After the service I walked back there and we spent several minutes catching up. A few months later many of us gathered in this space for Rebecca's baptism. I wheeled her around in her chair and proudly said, “This is Rebecca” to her church family. It was a special day. I don't know what brought the Wriker family back to Oak Lawn- lots of great churches between here and Frisco- but I am so glad. Sharing this time and these experiences with Matt, Samantha, Rebecca, and this family has been holy. At her baptism the two of you made the commitment "that by your teaching and example she may be guided to accept God's grace for herself." Unfortunately she was not able to get there, but you gave her great teaching and example on how to live. The 5th commandment calls for us to honor father and mother, but surely parents are called to honor their children as well. You honored Rebecca in every way.

1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 says, "Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of humankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangels and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words."

Or 1 John 3: 1-3 says,"See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure."

The text I read from Romans 8:31-39 could not be any more appropriate for our grief today: “I am convinced that neither death nor life, not angels or rulers, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth, or any other thing that was created will be able to separate us from God’s great love in Christ Jesus.” Wherever you are emotionally today and in the coming days, know that God is with you. It may seem that God is distant—but remember Paul’s promise: nothing can separate you from the love of God.

Years ago- probably 15 years ago- a group of us from church went to a Stars game at Reunion Arena. Steve and Elliot Schemmel were there- Elliot was about 3-4. We were in the nosebleed section, when we her Elliot exclaim, "I can see Jesus!" No one else saw Jesus that day as far as I know, so we could question it. There's no question today, that if we were quiet and reflective enough we might hear Elliot's cousin Rebecca say, "I can see Jesus!" We know she can, because that is where she is. She has been restored. Today she runs, sings, and dances in God's presence. She has been healed of her disease. She is no longer confined to her earthly body. And as much as this tragedy hurts each of us, we also find a way to rejoice for Rebecca, as she has been raised by the same power that raised Jesus. Let us pray.

Life-giving God, your love surrounded each of us in our mothers’ wombs, and from that secret place you called us forth to life. Pour out your compassion on Samantha. Her heart is heavy with the loss of a promise that once took form in her womb. Have compassion upon Matthew and the members of this family. They grieve the loss of hopes they anticipated, the dreams they envisioned, the relationship they desired. Give them courage to admit their pain and confusion, and couple that confession with the simplicity to rest in your care. Allow them to grieve, and then to accept this loss. Warm them in the embrace of your arms. Knit together their frayed emotions, and bind their hearts with the fabric of your love for them.

Jesus, most gentle and tender friend of children. You valued 'the little ones as those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs.' You will understand how Rebecca brought the touch of heaven into our daily lives. She transformed everything and lit us up. Darkness has come upon us now that she is gone. Lighten our darkness now we beseech you, 0 Lord. Jesus, Rebecca did not travel far into this life, and so did not have far to travel back to you. Hold her in peace now and forever in your loving arms. Into the arms of your love we give Rebecca’s soul. Into your hands we also give ourselves. Comfort us all. Keep tender and true the love in which we hold one another. Let not our longing for you ever cease. May things unseen and eternal grow more real for us, more full of meaning, that in our living and dying you may be our peace. We offer our prayer through the name of Jesus, who called the children to him with the words, “Let them come to me.”

01 February 2013

Overthought

"A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No [one] can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are made in the image of what you desire."
- Thomas Merton
(stolen from a friend's Facebook wall)

The other day James asked me to look over his math homework. There was a chart of different foods: meats, vegetables, and desserts (I actually do not remember the third category so I am guessing). It looked something like this:

Steak Mashed Potatoes Chocolate Pie
Spaghetti Lima Beans Pecan Pie
Meatloaf Corn Peach Cobbler
Brussels Srouts

Anyway, as I remember it the instructions defined a meal as consisting of something from each category. Then there were questions like this: "Billy doesn't like lima beans or Brussels sprouts. How many meal options does he have?" Or "Jessica is a vegetarian. How many meal options does she have?" James had answered all the questions fairly quickly-- you know, having studied charts like this all week-- but when I got a hold of the thing I was confused. "If a meal has something from each category, and Jessica is a vegetarian, she really has no options, right? She doesn't eat meat." Now, I specifically told James to make sure his mother and her wonderful accounting-type brain checked it later, but evidently he did not. He told me later he changed his answers according to my thinking.

Let's say the grade he received did not live up to expectations.

Thanks a lot, Dad.

Classic overthinking. No, I am not smarter than a 5th grader.

When we commit to becoming part of a United Methodist congregation, we say we will support it with our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It's been my experience that for the great majority the first four are relatively easy, the fifth one very difficult. "Dear God, I love my church. Please bless its work. Amen." That counts as supporting the church with prayer. Attending worship or participating in a ministry team counts as presence. Supporting financially counts as gifts. Serving the needs of others is service. But witness? Yikes. Many of us have uncomfortable images pop up when we think of Christians "witnessing." But don't overthink it. Being a witness means showing others the light of Christ that is within you. It means being aware of your friends or coworkers without a church home and offering an invitation.

I hope by now you are hearing of two very exciting initiatives this month: small group ministry and Ash Wednesday. February 10 is Small Group Sunday, the day we'll have an opportunity to find a small group and join. It's a six week commitment, once a week, no homework involved. Just some introspection, some sharing, some growing, and some witnessing. You'll have an opportunity to share and hear how God is working in our lives. And it'll be an easy, non-threatening chance to invite a friend to an Oak Lawn ministry that will have a huge impact.

We're deploying teams on Ash Wednesday (February 13) throughout the Oak Lawn and Uptown areas to give folk a chance to witness to their faith. I read about a church that did something similar and reading the comments on the blog I was touched by the members of the church who said it was so powerful to stand in front of strangers, away from the safety of the church building, and have ashes placed on their forehead. It was a way of saying to the community, without speaking a single word, "I am a Christian. My faith makes a difference in my life." You can participate at one of these come and go gatherings to receive ashes, or by being one of those to share the ashes-- it's not a sacrament. You'll literally touch someone else's life for a second or two. Wow.

That Thomas Merton quote above really makes it plain, right? "You are the image of what you desire." You are the image. That's your witness. So... does what you say and do help others see the love of God? Be a witness for Christ. Participate in a small group. Share your witness at Zaguan or a DART station on Ash Wednesday. Help someone else nurture their faith. Witnessing isn't about street corner preaching for 99.9% of people. It's how we live our lives. If our faith is so meaningful to us, don't we want others to see it? And maybe they'll become aware of God's love too? Don't overthink it. Live it.