11 December 2014

Unbroken

Warning: there may be spoilers here, depending on how you define "spoiler." The movie opens December 25, but the book has been out for several years. I will not divulge any secrets of the movie (there really aren't any), but I will highlight important differences from the Laura Hillenbrand book, as well as overall impressions of the film.

Another note: sometimes at advance screenings viewers are forbidden to post their reactions before the release date. Aside from "keep your mobile phone in your pocket," no such admonitions were given.



The other night I was invited to attend a special screening for the new Angelina Jolie directed film Unbroken (I also learned from the end credits that Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the script, with others-- this was a surprise. I am huge fans of those guys). Let me say from the beginning this is one of the best books I have ever written-- I know that is a cliche, but here it is true. It is a thrilling, nearly unbelievable true story of Louis Zamperini, American Olympic athlete and war hero.




The film did not live to the expectations or hype. Here's my prediction: those who have not read the book will universally love it, despite lukewarm reviews. The auditorium applauded at the end of the movie. Those who have read and loved the book will be disappointed, because, at least from my point of view, it leaves out the most important part of his life: his faith, and the impact it had on him and many others. The movie is being marketed amongst Christians as a testimony to Zamperini's faith (the company screening the movie even offers pastors sermon notes and study guides for the films it presents-- although I have not yet received them), but aside from a couple of references there is very little.

The first time we see a reference to faith is in a church service, where the pastor preached a sermon on forgiveness. Later his mother prays for her bored, troublesome teenager. During the war Zamperini was the bombardier on a flight crew. Following the crash of his plane after flying a mission, Zamperini sees the pilot praying a silently. The two exchange some sarcastic words. The big moment of faith-- and it is only that, a moment-- follows another crash. The crew was sent on a rescue mission, and the plane crashes into the sea, killing all but three crew members. After several days the three survivors face giant waves during a storm, and looking to the sky, Zamperini prays, "If you get me through this I will serve you for the rest of my life." I remember this distinctly from the book. They survive the storm. After more than 40 days adrift they are captured by a Japanese ship and spend the rest of the war separately in POW camps in Japan. Zamperini is especially tormented by a sadistic man the prisoners called The Bird. Upon his return to the USA his family greets him at the airport and the movie is over, save for a few sentences before the credits, like (paraphrased):

"Louis kept his promise and lived out his faith for the rest of his life."

"Louis was able to overcome his bitterness and forgive."

But we don't see this in the movie.

Ever heard this?: "Go to the graveyard and look at the tombstones. You'll see the birth year and the year of death, and the dash inbetween. The dash is where you live your life." Here you go. Louis Zamperini lived 1917-2014 (died July 2), meaning his dash should encompass 97 1/2 years. In the movie we only know him briefly as a kid and during his 20s. What about the last 70 years of his life? What makes the Zamperini story so incredibly special is how his faith impacted those years. His faith was born in the ocean on a raft waiting to be rescued. But after the war he was troubled for years by nightmares about The Bird, which resulted in alcoholism, and nearly destroyed his faith. He reluctantly attended a Billy Graham tent revival in Los Angeles in 1949. There his faith was renewed and he was transformed.

Rev. Billy Graham in the middle, Zamperini far right.


Louis Zamperini's Christian faith empowered him to overcome bitterness and forgive his captors: "Surely it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but you have held back my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back" (Isaiah 38:17). "Forgive each other; as the Lord has forgive you, so you must also forgive others" (Colossians 3:17). This is what is missing from the movie-- Zamperini was not "unbroken" because he overcame his physical and emotional suffering during the war, as awful as that was. He was "unbroken" because he overcame the resulting spiritual brokenness and was not defined by it.

One of the great cliches around the church is that preaching on Easter and Christmas is the easiest-- the stories preach themselves. And this man's life, even the first 30 years of it, is enough story telling in anyone's hands. This was Angelina Jolie's first major film as director, and it shows. The script from the normally funny and sophisticated Coen brothers was very disappointing-- none of their characteristic wit or irony. When I first saw the trailer months ago I thought it was destined for award nominations, but no: it was shut out from the Golden Globes, and Oscar will probably pass too. You'll hear the word "snubbed," but the truth is: it's just not good enough for awards. On its own, does the movie work? Sure. Like I said, those who have neither read the book nor are particularly interested in the remaining years of Zamperini's life will enjoy it.

04 December 2014

Join the Conspiracy!

(I'm a week late in posting this, but here you go.)

True story: several years ago when I served at a church in Duncanville, I visited a family in their home for a funeral visit. In the middle of the summer, a Christmas tree graced the living room. It was this family's practice to never take their tree down. The son of this couple met a young woman, and was going to her parents' home for the first time. She warned him: "You might think this is weird, but my parents keep their Christmas tree up all year long." "Mine too!", he thought. You knew the relationship was off to a good start!

Admit it: you love Christmas that much too. Maybe not enough to keep your tree up or lights on year round, but you dig the holiday. So do I. To get us in the spirit of things, let's count down our favorite Christmas cliches:

1. It's too commercial. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans will spend $600 billion this holiday season. FYI, that more than thirty times what we spend on Mother's Day!
2. The Christmas season unofficially starts too soon. Stores have had their holly, etc. up since Labor Day. Radio stations are playing 100% Christmas music three weeks before Thanksgiving. Your neighbor has already decorated her house.
3. It's lost its religious significance-- now, like Thanksgiving, it is a secular observance more than anything else.
4. Speaking of Thanksgiving, Black Friday is getting old. Forcing low wage earning employees away from their families so shoppers can save $10 on an iPad stinks. Retailers react differently: some are shaming those who open on Thanksgiving (because nothing says, "Give Thanks!" like shaming someone); others are stretching Black Friday to Black Week or month. $600 billion is not enough!
5. It's too busy. Office parties, Sunday school parties, school holiday concerts, you know the drill. Get those tacky sweaters ready!

Several years ago, a few pastors and congregations had an idea to combat some of our cliches. They called this movement Advent Conspiracy. They produced fun videos like this one. Instead of spending so much,  parishioners were encouraged to spend less. Instead of participating in the busyness, use your time more wisely. Instead of buying clothes or toys no one will wear or play with, donate that money to a worthy cause-- like water wells. In seven years, nearly $10 billion has been raised to provide clean drinking water to folks around the world.

Over the next few weeks at Custer Road, we'll learn more about this movement and invite you to join in. By doing so, you will rediscover the Christmas joy that is possible when we:

  • Worship Fully
  • Spend less
  • Give more
  • Love all

02 December 2014

A Remembrance of John Oestmann

Note: this sermon was shared at the funeral for John Oestmann today. I offer it here for those unable to attend the service, but also for anyone who has struggled with an untimely loss of a loved one. 

I first met John Oestmann when I became the pastor at Prosper United Methodist eight years ago. And did this guy make an impression! It isn’t often that I am made to feel small around others—but John was a giant in every way you can imagine. People always say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well, that was never truer than when one considers our husband, father, brother, son, and friend, John. Many of us might have crossed the street when we saw this large, tattooed, sometimes Mohawked man approaching us. And if we did cross that road, we would miss out on knowing one of the best, most genuine, most dependable men we would ever meet. But the lasting impression John gave had little to do with his appearance and everything to do with the way he lived his life. One of my favorite lines from Pulp Fiction is, “Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.” We all know John was a character and had character.

John, with his two sons James and Ethan (left), Peyton, Chance, and our James (back row).
I have John to thank for the only times my son James ever painted his fingernails—when he was in Mr Oestmann’s cabin at Camp Bridgeport. John’s love of the church camp is legendary—so much that the camp itself posted a tribute to John on its Facebook page yesterday. I had always heard of John’s Bridgeport exploits second hand until this past summer, when Pastor Jason, John, and I were all at camp together, though in different cabins. John’s towering, unique voice could be heard from anywhere: “OMEGA!,” leading the cheers of his group. His presence at Bridgeport next summer and beyond will be dearly missed.

Several years ago I began recruiting a new Disciple Bible Study class at the church, and one of my target couples was John and Angela. Angela remembered the other day me sending her 100s of emails asking for one good reason they should not participate. Finally she relented and she and John signed up with another dozen or so folks. We met every week in my home for nearly a year. And several years later, I can still say it was one of the best groups I have ever participated in—largely because of John. At the end of class when others were often uncomfortable praying, John stepped up. When the discussion bogged down, or we chased too many rabbits, John brought us back on track. When I was absent I knew John would faithfully substitute for me; and when I was assigned to another church in Dallas, I asked John to take on the teaching duties for the next year. Of course he excelled at it.

John was skilled at his work as an electrician too. Several years ago I set up an above ground pool at the parsonage. John came over to convert the outlet to something that would work with water, potentially saving all of us from electrocution. When our boys needed ceiling fans installed this summer, it was clear Christy would not allow me anywhere near it—so we called John, of course. He picked Ethan up from Bridgeport, then spent a couple of hours in my sons’ rooms doing this job for us—Ethan hadn’t seen his mom or family in a week but John still made time to help us out. Our James was thrilled to have both Ethan and Mr Oestmann in our home.

John was the ultimate husband and father. He cherished Angela: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” And you weren’t around John long before the stories of his kids’ latest achievements were shared. He was very, very proud of Ethan, James, and Lilah.

The other night as I sat with family planning this service, we spoke about John’s faith. I thumbed through his Lutheran Bible, highlighted and full of pages of notes. Here are a few random scriptures he noted: Psalm 33:12: “Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.” We know John was a patriot and proudly served our nation in the military. Jesus’ words from John 14:27—Pastor Sam read them a moment ago: “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” And this, also from the Gospel of John: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

John was a man of great faith, and his untimely death no doubt has caused many of us to question our faith. Many of us are angry—we have lost someone dear to us and we want answers. We may even direct that anger toward God—and let me say that is not only ok but healthy. God can certainly handle our grief. Shouting to God, “WHY?” is an act of prayer, even when we do not intend it to be. But trying to find answers in such a situation can also lead to frustration. John’s death is unfair but it was not caused by God—God did not take John from us or have any more important need for him elsewhere. God’s heart broke as much as anyone else’s last Friday. Scripture tells us that Jesus himself experienced grief in the face of death.

One of Jesus’ closest friends, Lazarus, also died a premature death, and it broke Jesus’ heart—he wept openly. Yet in spite of his grief he saw a deeper meaning in his friend’s death: it was meant for God’s glory, that Jesus may be glorified in it. What did he mean by that? Well, not that God caused Lazarus’ death, but that even in the most raw of human emotions—the loss of our beloved—somehow the light of God’s hope and power can be seen. Offering words of comfort to the grieving—including himself—Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” This is a promise John held at the very center of his being—faith in Jesus Christ’s power over death and life—and it is that faith that will carry us through our questions, doubt, and anger. Later Jesus, from the Cross, cried out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?,” quoting from Psalm 22. He felt abandoned by God, as many of us do today. But that’s only verse one of the psalm; it also reads, “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” That journey from despair to hope is one that God promises to walk with us: Psalm 55:22 says this: “Cast your burden on the Lord, and God will sustain you.”

Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Life was meant to be lived.” This was how John approached his life, and it is the best way I can think of to honor his memory. There is a large, John-sized hole in our lives now—how can we fill that hole for each other, so that we can experience the healing power of love over the coming days? Maybe we can do that by being more available to each other—not just when things need to be fixed but the few extra moments of holding a hand or sharing an encouraging word.

A few years ago I came across this quote from Earnest Hemingway, who, like John, was an avid outdoorsman. From his classic A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway said: “The world breaks everyone, and some become strong at the broken places.” My prayer for those of us who are broken today is that we will be made strong in those broken places.

The other night at the Oestmann home we formed a circle in the middle of the room: Angela, Ethan, James, Lilah, John’s parents, sister and brothers, their spouses, Erica, others. We shared many tears together. We remembered John and honored his life. We prayed together. And as we shared holy time in the circle, my eyes kept returning to the mantle over the fireplace where this scripture can be found:

“Weeping may linger for a night, but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

Angela and the rest of the Oestmann family, I am so glad that scripture is in such a prominent place in the home. There’s no better word for you today. Our weeping may linger, but joy is coming. At this time of year we anticipate God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ. Jesus said this: “No one will take your joy away from you.” And so may each of you—family and friends of John Oestmann—may each of you know that joy. May the God of joy wipe away your tears and bring healing and restoration to your life. May you know, as John did, the great promise of our faith, that nothing in life or in death can ever separate us from God’s great love in Jesus Christ. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, amen. 

12 November 2014

How Far Would You Go For Love?


Last Friday I enjoyed a double feature at the Alamo Drafthouse: John Wick (an old school revenge shooter type movie) and Interstellar the latest Christopher Nolan movie starring Matthew McConaughey. There is a ton of buzz around the movie, and I'll leave the "does it live up to the hype?" argument to others. 

There are two huge quotes from McConaughey's character that had huge impacts on me:

"We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt."

"We were born here, but never meant to die here."

The first quote is a feeling I share, regret of the loss of the manned space flight programs. Yes, they were expensive and dangerous, but when we stop exploring we stop evolving. Just this morning a probe landed on a comet, and that is an exciting achievement, but it's not the same as astronauts going to the moon or Mars. The second quote is the mission statement of the movie. Earth's population is starving, so a new home world must be found. NASA sent several astronauts to different planets to evaluate their ability to sustain human life. Through a series of extraordinary events, McConaughey is the guy to lead the last chance mission to determine which planet could be humanity's new home.

But it carries a heavy personal cost: a widower, he must leave his young children with his father in law. His son, a freshman in high school, is at peace with the mission; the younger daughter carries the bitterness of her father's leaving for most of her adult life. The children are able to send video messages to their father, who has traveled beyond Saturn and into another galaxy. McConaughey in a few minutes watches his children age to adulthood while he has not aged at all, due to the time effects of space travel. In one sequence on a remote planet, three hours' exploration equals 23 years on Earth. He begins to wonder if he will ever see his kids again, to keep his promise to his daughter. Every action he takes is about getting home.

I appreciated the movie's intelligence, and its respect for my own. I also love the ambition of the whole project. A fair amount of the criticism I have read about the movie has to do with its astrophysics: either too technical and wordy, or not accurate. This debate misses the point of the film. As I understand the movie, the message really comes down to what the Apostle Paul called the greatest gift-- love (1 Corinthians 13). What does he say about love? It:

Bears all things;
Hopes all things;
Endures all things;
Love never ends.

Not even across galaxies.

Sometimes when I travel out of town for a conference or retreat I feel guilty about leaving Christy and the boys. They don't have the daily changes now like they did when they were little so there is not the potential to miss something significant, but it's still tough, even though I know I will only be gone a few days. But years? 

Every now and then it's a good exercise to reflect upon this question: What drives you? What makes you you? What is your passion, your greatest motivation? Like any loving parent, McConaughey longs to return home. So I kept wondering throughout the movie: could I do that? Be an astronaut? No way. Leave without knowing I would ever see my family again? I can't even imagine that. His driving force is to get home, and when it looks less and less likely he pushes beyond his limits-- even beyond what may be physically possible. Love is that strong. Paul had other thoughts about love:

"Let all you do be done in love" (1 Corinthians 16:14).
"Live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us" (Ephesians 5:2).

After their first unsuccessful planetary exploration, the crew debates about which planet to go to next: the one where the best astronaut was sent and his readings hold the most promise, or the one where the man Anne Hathaway's character loves was sent. McConaughey votes for the former, and in full disclosure shares Hathaway's love, which may be influencing her vote. She says, "Love is what makes us human." And she is correct. I read somewhere that folk on the set reacted strongly whenever the term "science fiction" was used-- like "this looks too much like science fiction." Interstellar is not, at its heart, a science fiction movie. It is an exploration of what makes us human, and in the end it is our humanity-- our love for each other-- that will ensure our survival.

01 November 2014

All Saints Day: A Litany to Honor Women

(from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

All Saints Day, observed November 1, is a day to celebrate the lives of the departed faithful. That being said, All Saints is also about God's sanctifying grace, giving us the hope of being transformed into saints in this life. The mothers of Plaza de Mayo and Alice Walker are still living; their witness echoes that of the other women listed here.


---

We walk in the company of the women who have gone before, mothers of the faith both named and unnamed, testifying with ferocity and faith to the Spirit of wisdom and healing. They are the judges, the prophets, the martyrs, the warriors, the poets, lovers and saints who are near to us in the shadow of awareness, in the crevices of memory, in the landscape of our dreams.

We walk in the company of Deborah, who judged the Israelites with authority and strength.

We walk in the company of Esther, who used her position as queen to ensure the welfare of her people.

We walk in the company of you whose names have been lost or silenced, who kept and cradled the wisdom of the ages.

We walk in the company of the woman with the flow of blood, who audaciously sought her healing and release.

We walk in the company of Mary Magdalene, who wept at the empty tomb until the Risen Christ appeared.

We walk in the company of Pheobe, who led an early church in the empire of Rome.

We walk in the company of Perpetua of Carthage, whose witness in the 3rd century led to her martyrdom.

We walk in the company of St Christina the Astonishing, who resisted death with persistence and wonder.

We walk in the company of Julian of Norwich, who wed imagination and theology, proclaiming, "All shall be well."

We walk in the company of Sojourner Truth, who stood against oppression, righteously proclaiming in 1852, "Ain't I a woman!"

We walk in the company of the Argentine mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who turned their grief to strength, standing together to remember "the disappeared" children of war with a holy indignation.

We walk in the company of Alice Walker, who named the lavender hue of womanish strength.

We walk in the company of you mothers of the faith, who teach us to resist evil with boldness, to lead with wisdom, and to heal.

Amen.

19 October 2014

Prayer and Reflection for Domestic Violence Month

Please note: this prayer and reflection was shared during the prayer time in worship today at Custer Road.
October is Domestic Violence awareness month. As an act of prayer this morning, we unite our hearts and minds with those who suffer brokenness within their most intimate relationships. We know God’s own heart breaks at every sign of violence and pray that the compassion of Jesus may shine forth through the hurt and pain of so many. The statistics regarding domestic abuse are overwhelming:

  • ·        95% of the victims of domestic violence are women
  • ·        One in four married women suffer abuse from their partners—this number is too low because most abuse goes unreported
  • ·        Most abuse occurs on Sundays
  • ·        Family violence is the leading cause of death for women aged 15-44.
  • ·        Boys who witness domestic violence in the home are 1500% more likely to commit it themselves
  • ·        70% of children of abused women are physically abused, and 20% are sexually abused
  • ·        Number of Texas family violence incidence in 2012: nearly 200,000, an increase of 11.5% from 2011
  • ·        Highest numbers of victims were aged 20-24
  • ·        Of Dallas, Collin, and Tarrant Counties, Plano ranked 6th in reported cases—just over 1,000
  • o   McKinney: nearly 800
  • o   Allen and Frisco: nearly 400 each


We must stop asking, “Why doesn’t she leave?” and instead ask, “Why do you hurt her?”
Why is this something we hear about in the church? Scripture is clear: God is on the side of those who suffer. So must the church be also, lest we are complicit in the violence. Because abuse occurs across racial, economic, and social barriers. As the church we need to stand against violence in our families. As the Body of Christ, we cannot look the other way when our fellow members and friends are hurting. Hear these comforting and challenging words of scripture:

“My eyes flow and don’t stop. There is no relief until the Lord looks down from the heavens and notices. My eyes hurt me because of what’s happened to my city’s daughters. My enemies hunted me down like a bird, relentlessly, for no reason. They caught me alive in a pit and threw stones at me; water flowed over my head. I thought: I’m finished. I call on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit. Hear my voice. Don’t close your ear to my need for relief, to my cry for help. Come near to me on the day I call to you. Say to me, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ My Lord! Plead my case, redeem my life. Lord, look at my mistreatment; judge my cause” (Lamentations 3:49-59).
Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid of those who kill the body but can’t kill the soul. Instead, be afraid of the one who can destroy both body and soul in hell. Aren’t two sparrows sold for a small coin? But not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father knowing it already. Even the hairs of your head are all counted. Don’t be afraid, you are worth more than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:28-31).

Let us pray. We pray for victims that they may know God’s presence and love, as well as our own; and for victimizers, that they too may know of God’s power to break hard heartedness and heal all brokenness.

Silence

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we enjoin your divine mercies. Lord, why do we suffer? Why do we hurt? Shall our only answer be the eternal abyss of the cosmos? Shall our only answer be the whirlwind of unknowing which engulfed Job? Why do the wicked flourish while the righteous waste away? I am left speechless, left with the words, “I will trust in you, O God.”

God, we ask for the sending of your healing Spirit, who came to us through Jesus, as he breathed upon his disciples. This Spirit gathered your people, to be warmed by the fire of divine presence. By this warmth may the victims of domestic violence be healed and taken into your care. You are our Anointed One, the one who also anoints us and points us to the love of God. Grant all those who suffer your healing peace. In the name of our Creator, our Liberator, our Resurrection and Life, we pray. And as he taught us, so now..

(Prayers adapted from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Thanks to Bishop McKee, Mike Baughman, and Stefanie Hayes, who contributed helpful information.)

16 October 2014

A More Excellent Way

Leaders and staff in the church are often faced with the challenging task of creating rosters of folk to fulfill the needs of a given ministry. For example, the outreach at the school may need 50 volunteers to make it happen. Well, how do we go about filling those needs? Often we resort to the way we have always done things: announcements, emails, even reaching out to fellow staff or leaders to help us out.

Now, I am sure these are wonderful, fulfilling opportunities, and certainly part of our calling as Christians is to serve. But offering a more biblical approach to staffing ministry may be more fruitful. As the Apostle Paul said, I want to show you "a more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31).

I picked up on the idea of creating a “so that” statement for ministry from Dr Lovett Weems when I was working on my doctorate. We offer X ministry so that... I am involved in the X ministry so that... It's basically a purpose or mission statement. It's really fun when all the ministries of the church align around a common "so that." Then you know everyone is clear on the commonly adopted mission. 

Church leaders and staffs exist so that we, in the words of Paul, "equip the saints for the work of ministry" (Ephesians 4:12). We facilitate opportunities for others to serve. This can be a very lonely, frustrating process, so we often look to our friends in leadership or staff to help. Staff and leaders already serve, so recruiting others to serve in your ministry is redundant and dramatically decreases your potential pool of servants. Think about it: if the average Sunday morning attendance of a church is 500 and there are 10 staff members, seeking servants from the staff potentially reaches only 2% of the population. Another important point: encouraging staff and leaders to serve in your ministry area  increases the possibility of burnout.

In every setting I have served, I have encouraged the pursuit of spiritual gifts. It's fun to discover your gifts, leadership style, and spirituality type. After this discovery process, folk are excited and ready to serve. You just need to discern what gifts are needed for your particular offering. Do you need folks gifted in administration, leadership, servanthood, helping? Recruit people with those gifts, rather than seeking servants from staff or established leaders. It is a much more biblical approach to ministry, and with minimal effort you will see fruitful results. All that is missing is a personal (not email or voice mail) invitation from you. Announcements from the pulpit, notices in the bulletin, signup sheets in the Fellowship Hall, etc. are generally ineffective—particularly for reaching new people. If after your best efforts you still are having trouble meeting the servant needs of a particular ministry, perhaps it is time to evaluate its effectiveness.


Being a leader/staff in a congregation is tough work, and it is often unappreciated. So thanks for what you are doing! Considering a more gift-based approach to ministry, versus the more common volunteer-based model, will yield better results, many more people serving, less stress and burnout on you, and a broader sense of what it means to be the Body of Christ in the world.

16 September 2014

The Revival at Custer Road


Word is starting to get out about a special event we have coming to Custer Road at the end of this month, September 28-30: a Revival. Our guest preacher will be Robert E. Hayes, Jr., resident Bishop of the Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Indian Conferences. Bishop Hayes was the preacher at the Opening Worship of Annual Conference in 2013, and at the Ordination Service of Annual Conference in 2007 (held at Custer Road). Please make plans to join us for the worship services: 9:00 and 10:30 a.m. Sunday morning, and 7:00 p.m. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evenings.
Bishop Robert E. Hayes, Jr.
I have known Bishop Hayes for twenty years. I first met him at senior high church camp. I was a counselor, he was the Houston Southwest District Superintendent. We sat across the table from one another at breakfast. I immediately found him engaging, funny, and a lively spirit. Later that summer, I attended the Walk to Emmaus. On those three days away from my work and ministry (I was a part-time youth director and a full-time History teacher) I experienced a profound call on my life: God called me to ordained ministry. I shared this development with the Spiritual Director of the Walk, who told me my next step was to share my call with my District Superintendent. Here is a picture of the guys on my Walk-- twenty years to the day. That's me, the young guy on the top row, 5th from the left, wearing the Captain Caveman shirt. I was 23 years old.


After sharing my experience with (then) Rev. Hayes, he encouraged and supported me. He assigned me a Mentor Pastor, I became a candidate for ministry, and applied to Perkins School of Theology. I moved to Dallas in 1995. I was ordained an Elder in 2001, and Rev. Hayes laid hands on me at the service. Rev. Hayes became Bishop Hayes in 2004 and was assigned to lead the Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Indian Conferences. Ask any United Methodist from Oklahoma about Bishop Hayes-- you will hear only glowing love and respect.

On a professional level, Bishop Hayes has had more of an impact on my ministry than any other individual, aside from Christy. I would not be a United Methodist pastor without his support and encouragement. On a personal level, Bishop Hayes is a friend and brother in Christ. He has preached two revivals for me in the past, most recently in 2008, when I served in Prosper. At that Revival he baptized our youngest son, Linus HAYES Drenner. You'll know by now where the name Hayes comes from!

Bishop Hayes is an outstanding speaker. If you come to worship on Sunday morning the 28th I know you'll be back for the other services. He's that good. But do not come to the Revival for the entertainment value. Come to be renewed. You will be inspired, encouraged, and transformed by these services. You will encounter God in a new, vibrant way. You may even be led to renew your faith in Christ, or profess faith for the first time. Please plan today to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to join us for worship at the Revival:

Sunday September 28: 9:00 and 10:30 a.m., 7:00 p.m.
Monday and Tuesday September 29 and 30: 7:00 p.m. 

Opportunities for fellowship (ice cream, popcorn, cake and punch) will follow each service. There will be special activities available for children in other parts of the building during the evening worship services. Click here for directions to Custer Road. We hope to see you!

11 September 2014

The Face of Evil


Today marks the 13th anniversary of September 11, 2001 attacks on our country (read my sermon from the tenth anniversary, Sunday, September 11, 2011, here). Many friends have changed their Facebook profile pictures to images from that day, or like the one above, from our recent trip to New York City. #NeverForget, #911Anniversary, #Remember911, and #September11 are all trending on Twitter. It's a day forever etched into our national memory.

Today, the face of evil has a new name: ISIS, or ISIL. They are terrorists, perhaps more evil than the ones who attacked the US (the group was even condemned by Al Qeada for its brutality). We have all been horrified and saddened by the very public beheadings of two American journalists, James Foley and Steven Sotloff. Both were men of faith: Foley a Christian and Sotloff a Jew. Following these killings and many more innocents, folk began calling upon President Obama to respond. I saw many posts from folk angry about what they perceived was posturing or stalling or, even worse, indifference. And too many pundits capitalized on the suffering of others for their own benefit. 

Last night, the President addressed the nation (full transcript here), outlining our military response.  Here are a few highlights:

"Now let's make two things clear: ISIL is not 'Islamic.' No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of ISIL's victims have been Muslim. And ISIL is certainly not a state."

"So tonight, with a new Iraqi government in place, and following consultations with allies abroad and Congress at home, I can announce that America will lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat."

"Our objective is clear: we will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL through a comprehensive and sustained counter-terrorism strategy."

Summing it up, we will be ramping up action against the terrorists.

Long ago I grew tired of political "debate" as we call it America now-- you'll never find my TV tuned to either MSNBC or Fox News-- so I can only assume that those who disliked the President before his comments still do, and those who support him still do. I am more concerned that the best way we know how to respond to evil is to retaliate. 

I wonder how much we have learned over these thirteen years.

How do persons of faith respond to evil? How do I, as a Christian, respond to fear? I obviously do not have access to tanks or missiles, and I myself am not a representative democracy. The best tools I have to respond to hate and evil are the teachings of Jesus, so I look to the Bible for solutions to the very real concerns I have for peace for those who suffer.

"Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up with wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not grow weary" (Isaiah 40:31).

"An angry person does not produce God's righteousness" (James 1:20).

"Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no danger because you are with me" (Psalm 23:4).

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:17, 21).

"See that none of you repays evil for evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:15).

"Turn aside from violence and oppression. Establish justice and righteousness" (Ezekiel 45:9).

The witness of scripture is clear: war does not make for peace. Coincidentally, last Sunday we sang Down by the Riverside in worship, the refrain of which is: 

"I ain't gonna study war no more."

As more resources are directed to war, persons of faith must pause for prayer. So we lift up before God:
  • The families of those who have been killed, that they may be comforted
  • The fear and restlessness of the innocent, that they may find peace and security
  • Our fearful and vengeful hearts, that we may experience forgiveness and grace
  • The hearts of those who embrace wrath and violence, that they may be changed
  • That war, anywhere and everywhere, may end
From the United Methodist Book of Worship, 520:

Remember, Prince of Peace, the people of the world divided into many nations and tongues.
Deliver us from every evil that obstructs your saving purpose, and fulfill your promises of old to establish your kingdom of peace.

For the curse of war and all that creates it,
O Lord, deliver us.

From believing and speaking lies against other nations,
O Lord, deliver us.

From narrow loyalties and selfish isolation,
O Lord, deliver us.

From fear and distrust of other nations, from all false pride, vainglory, and self-conceit,
O Lord, deliver us.

From the lust of the mighty for riches, that drives peaceful people to slaughter,
O Lord, deliver us.

From putting our trust in the weapons of war, and from want of faith in the power of justice and good will,
O Lord, deliver us.

From every thought, word, and deed which that the human family and separates us from the perfect realization of your love,
O Lord, deliver us.

Amen.


25 August 2014

BOYHOOD, First Days, and Every Day Following


Today was, obviously if you have a Facebook account, the first day of school. Not only was it that for our boys, but it was another first day in a new school. We've had all summer to contemplate this day, since we made the decision to buy a house in Allen. We tried to comfort James with the reality that every other 7th grader would be new at the school too, but of course many of them have previous relationships from other schools. Thankfully James has some church friends there. This will be Miles’ (4th grade) fourth school, and Linus (2nd) second school. Yeah, we are hoping for some school stability! I was excited to hear first day reports—including James’ first experience riding the yellow dog to school—and the good news is everyone had a good day.

Christy and I recently watched Boyhood, the new film from director Richard Linklater. You may have heard about because of its unique nature. Richard Linklater spent twelve years filming two actors, one of whom was his own daughter. The movie stars Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the kids' divorced parents. The kids are played by Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane. Again, let me say: the kids were not professional actors. Nor are they replaced by other actors as they grow up over the twelve years. Their hair grows longer, is cut off, or colored. Their bodies grow taller. Over nearly three hours, you literally watch them grow up from elementary age to college.  And you thought your kids were growing fast! We bond with them immediately, sharing their concerns and sorrows as they move from place and school to new territories. Yet the most significant bond, between parent and child, remains, despite the lack of structure and constant change.

That I saw this movie right around the time our boys faced more transition in their lives was interesting. And insightful. And encouraging. It's an amazing movie, and I hope it's remembered by Oscar next year.



What's astounding about the movie is the level of commitment and investment that was necessary. Ellar's parents made the huge commitment for him to be available throughout the span of filming. I even read there was an agreement that if Richard Linklater died during production Ethan Hawke would take over as director. What kind of commitment and resources does it take to maintain these relationships for twelve years?

Twelve years-- the entire span of my oldest son's life. Think of the changes in your own life since August 2002. Twelve years ago Christy lived in Irving, my Pez collection was still small enough to be allowed in my home, and I was still learning how to change diapers. Twelve years ago I did not own a mobile phone. Those twelve years ago do not feel like they swooshed by-- believe me, James is a long way removed from infancy. 

This is not meant to be one of those "they grow up so fast" first day of school reflections, and it is not meant to inspire guilt as I reflect on the sometimes poor choices I have made as a parent. 

I'm thinking instead of looking backward with gratitude and forward with expectation. 

I've always thought time worked differently on me. Last night we pulled out my old yearbooks from junior high and high school to show the boys some of my experiences. This was me in seventh grade:

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We're talking 30+ years ago. But they do not seem like that far away-- or like it was recent. It's more like a parallel, different lifetime. Those days when the boys were babies or playing on a soccer team for the first time... it doesn't feel like yesterday. People have always said time goes faster as we age, but I'm several lifetimes older than that blonde kid with the bowl-like haircut now and things seems to go on the same pace they always have. Someone said to me once that it means I live in the moment. Maybe so.

This morning I woke up early, probably because of the excitement of the day. I went outside because I left my phone in my truck. As I walked out into the pre-dusk morning, I was astounded by the stars. Having lived in Dallas the last three years, I had grown accustomed to only seeing nighttime stars when I visit my hometown. This morning was the first time I was awake enough-- literally or metaphorically-- to see them in the Allen night sky. It took my breath away. I spent several minutes out there in my driveway, my neck craned to the heavens. I downloaded one of those star map apps and checked out the different constellations. I wondered at the quiet beauty as the stars sparkled in the sky. And I felt the presence of God in a very familiar way.

Because God is mindful of us. And God has a similar way of looking upon us as we look upon our growing children. Without regret. Filled with anticipation. Infinitely more loving and searching than we can muster. Or comprehend. That holy moment was what I needed-- and it seemingly happened by accident. Seemingly.

So celebrate and appreciate your growing kids, not because they grow too fast or because you want to make up for lost time. Embrace them, and your moments with them, as holy, because that is what they are. And may all of us live our lives with joy and thanksgiving for the great privilege to be parents or grandparents or uncles and aunts or mentors or Sunday school teachers or whatever role with have with children as they grow under our-- and God's-- care.

19 August 2014

Faith: Of or In Christ?


Ever have one of the moments where you leave a discussion and on the drive home you think of an amazing point you could have contributed? That happened to me the other night in Bible study. We are studying Romans and the material referenced Martin Luther's incredibly impactful changing of a single word in his translation of Romans-- a change that shifted Christian theology. Luther changed the word of in Romans 3:22 to in:

Romans 3:22

  • New Revised Standard Version translation: "...the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ..."
  • Common Englsh Version: "God's righteousness comes through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ for all who have faith in him."
We talked about this change and its significance, not only for what the Bible says but how it effects the mission of the church, for quite some time, to the point where one or two basically said, "There's really not much difference. Let's move on." I was ready to move on too!

But on the drive home I thought: wait a minute. What if the significance of in/of is not an either/or question-- but a both? Forget a scholarly translation of the Greek text of Romans 3:22 for a moment (by the way I do not know Greek-- so there). What if experiencing faith was a process that begins with faith in Christ and then becomes-- eventually, not immediately-- the faith of Christ? So we begin as believers. We believe in Christ and faith becomes real. But that faith is not stagnant. It grows to the point where, at times-- or for a few it shines brightly perpetually-- our faith more reflective of the actual faith of Christ. Meaning that our faith is no longer modeled after Jesus' faith, but it is the embodiment of Jesus' faith.

How do we see Jesus' faith embodied in scripture? Well, everywhere-- here are a few examples that quickly come to mind:

  • His refusal to transform rocks into bread even though he was starving (Luke 4:2-3)
  • His speaking the truth in love to his neighbors at his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:23-27)
  • His confrontations with the overly religious and self-righteous (Luke 6:41-42)
  • His courage in the face of imperial, earthly power (John 19:11)
  • His confidence in God's sovereignty and presence (John 18:11)

So what difference does it make in my life when this change happens-- from faith in Christ to faith of Christ? I thought of this woman: the Rev. Renita Lamkin, a pastor shot with a rubber bullet by police in Ferguson, Missouri last week as she walked, praying, in the street, surrounded by the chaos of that night. Or the Rev. Willis Johnson, pastor of the two-year-old Wellspring United Methodist Church in Ferguson. Or a few weeks ago, a couple of friends and colleagues of mine, the Revs. Eric Folkerth and Owen Ross, were arrested outside the White House after protesting US immigration policies. These are just a few examples recently of folks being led by their faith in Christ to exhibit the faith of Christ, even at risk to themselves.

There are many, many ways this faith of Christ is lived out-- not just in places of danger or discomfort. Folk who go beyond the normal, accepted definitions of comfortable discipleship to dreaming bigger, reaching further, serving more through the outreached arms and love of God's grace. The faith of Jesus, shown by his disciples, will transform our communities, relieve pain and suffering, heal injustice and oppression, and feed every hungry person. Flash back to Jesus in his hometown synagogue, reading a scroll of the Book of Isaiah. May it be a prayer for each of us to move from faith in Christ to the faith of Christ:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19).

And may others see and hear your faith of Christ, and echo his own words: 
"Today this scripture has been fulfilled just as you heard it" (Luke 4:21).

15 August 2014

New York, New York

Last week we took the boys on their first-ever flights, to New York City. Each day started fairly cool and ended warm and sunny-- about 85-87 degrees. Christy has visited New York several times; for me this was the second time-- the first was only a weekend five or so years ago. We flew on Southwest, still constricted by the Wright Amendment, meaning we had to stop in St Louis on the way up and Nashville and New Orleans on the way back. We arrived at La Guardia, which, compared to the airports above, and especially Love Field, is way too small and crowded. The plan was to take the bus and subway to the hotel, but for some reason neither our credit card nor debit card worked (we fixed it later)-- and the machines did not take cash. So we hired a mini van! Like our every day life!

We stayed in a hotel in MidTown, near Penn Station and Madison Square Garden. Checking in around 4:00 p.m., we picked up some hot dogs and giant pretzels from a street cart and headed to Times Square, where we picked up some goodies-- notably Miles' "Cooper Trooper," a 31 inch storm trooper from Star Wars (he's peeking out of Miles' bag):


Soon it was dinner time, so we stopped at Patzeria, a sort of whole in the wall joint. By the way, if you are traveling to NYC, download the Trip Advisor New York guide on your phone. Great reviews and maps.

First Full Day-- Tuesday
We bought those hop on/off tour bus deals, which can be fun-- the boys liked being up on the second deck. But they are also slow (we waited in line nearly an hour Wednesday morning), can be unsafe (there was a wreck in Times Square during our visit, injuring about 13 people), and the tour guides aren't so knowledgeable. 

We jumped off our bus at the Empire State Building. I was very excited about this, but in the end I am not sure 20 minutes on the 86th floor observatory were worth three hours or so of our time. The views, were, of course brilliant; but there were lots of touristas up there with us. James and Linus both said Empire was their favorite part of the trip. Later that afternoon we journeyed downtown to the 9/11 memorial (we did not go to the museum). It was a very moving experience, filled with emotion. If you are interested in the sermon I preached on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, click here

Our next goal was to take the Staten Island Ferry past the Statue of Liberty. Side note: each member of the family picked one thing they really wanted to do in NYC. Miles' choice was to go in the Statue's crown. Knowing we had to buy tickets in advance, I logged on a week early, only to find out I was three months late-- tickets are available for October visits! Fearing one of those terrible Dad conversations, Miles was very understanding, thankfully. It helped knowing it was 300 steps, 21 stories, no A/C, and 20 degrees warmer inside. Considering how warm it was on the trip, I was glad I messed up Liberty! Anyway, Miles decided to skip the whole ferry trip of he couldn't go to the crown. The ferry is free-- saved us $100+! Paid for dinner that night!
(Note the shirt-- we actually bought this a couple of years ago before any NYC plans-- it should have been handed down to Linus by now, but it was too perfect for this trip!)

Christy had the great idea to find a restaurant on the Staten Island side, so I whipped out Yelp! and found a place called Ruddy and Dean's Steakhouse. This turned out to be one of my highlights of the trip. There were only two full tables, and a few solitaries at the bar-- no tourists. Food was delicious and reasonable for the quality. A real find. Back across the Ferry, then the boys had their first Subway ride. For the rest of the trip they wanted to ride the train everywhere!

Wednesday
This was the day that started with an hour long wait for the tour bus. We finally got on the thing, but became crunched for time after rolling through Harlem. We jumped off at the Guggenheim planning to catch the subway, but we only had 40 minutes or so to get back to Times Square for the matinee showing of the Lion King. So we hired a taxi and hoped to make it. 

Of course traffic was a nightmare once we got to Times Square-- so we jumped out of the cab and made a run for it-- over six blocks or so. We arrived at the theatre at 1:55, just enough time to go to the bathroom and settle in to our seats. Of course the show was amazing. Christy and I saw LK at Fair Park when it rolled through Dallas several years ago, and were lukewarm to it. Kids made everything different. Brilliant.

After the show we took Tim Pullen's advice to eat at Carmine's Italian restaurant, literally right next door to the theatre. Unlike the place the night before, this place was packed-- but the food equally delicious. 

Thursday
This was a special day for Christy. Her childhood caregiver, Murl, moved to Brooklyn 20+ years ago. She had never met me, nor the boys, so we met her in Brooklyn for breakfast, walked across the Bridge, and explored Chinatown. The day was warm, fun, and exhausting. Murl was hilarious and instant hit with the boys. Compared to the lame tour guides on the buses, having her first-hand knowledge of where to go, what to say, not to mention her personality just made the day. We were so worn out we went back to the hotel, ate leftovers from the previous two dinners, and shut down the day before nightfall. It was a nice, quiet evening away from crowds. 

Friday
This was our museum day. It started at the Museum of Natural History and continued with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with stops in Central Park for rock conquering. I had no idea the Met had so many historical collections: Egypt, Rome, Greece, etc. Amazing. The boys' favorite spot was the medieval armory. 


We ate lunch at Shake Shack, a New York fast food phenomenon (20 minute wait at 2:00??) and it was delicious. Dinner was at Pizza Suprema a few blocks from our hotel. Good stuff. I told the boys it'll be hard to go back to lame pizza like Papa John's etc., but they weren't so sure. We'll see.

Saturday
This was a travel day, so we only had time to walk through FAO Schwarz before heading back to the airport. 

Cooper Trooper was too big to fit in any suitcases, so he was Miles' carry-on. We worried his giant plastic blaster would not make it through security, but I guess his reputation preceded him. He caught many smiles and turned heads as we bounced through several stops on the way home.

Now, if you ask the boys about the trip, you'll get an earful about the smells and crowds of NYC. And they were overwhelming at times. Christy and I are confident more, better memories will rise to the surface over time. It was a great trip and the boys did very well. It helped that our hotel had an outside deck, a kitchen and eating area, and a fold out couch for the boys.

14 August 2014

Our Need to be Fully Known


Ferguson, Missouri is roughly the same size as my home town of Bay City, Texas. Police in riot gear shooting tear gas into peaceful protesters is impossible for me to imagine where I grew up. But it has happened every day this week near St Louis. Protests erupted after Michael Brown, an unarmed, young African-American man (18 years old) was killed by police. The police responded with aggression and tactics WAY out of scale with what was happening in their community-- including gassing members of the media and destroying their equipment. #mediablackout is now trending on Twitter.

Across the country, those communities who have felt threatened by, rather than protected by, the police have made their voices heard. Many years ago I participated in an anti-racism training with other pastors and layfolk from North Texas. The material referenced this perspective, although I have forgotten the source: "To African-Americans, even a black man in a blue uniform is a white police." These and similar voices this week have aroused other voices too, some in support, others in opposition-- with many opposing folks denying these terrifying days in Missouri have anything to do with racism. Of course it does.

A Prayer of Thanksgiving for the Social Order, from the Book of Common Prayer:
O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Also this week Robin Williams, one of the most popular and gifted actors of all time, took his own life, evidently as a result of his constant battle with depression. I was never a huge fan of his, but I always recognized his talent. The outpouring of love and emotion from his fans on social media has been very touching. His death was a tragedy and has raised the issue of depression and suicide to the public's attention.


Being a celebrity has to be one of the loneliest professions of all. Of course the wealth and power one receives are much, but at what cost: privacy, trusting relationships, conflicting motivations for others' actions. It's exhausting to think about. I have a theory about being a celebrity: their "private" lives, the stuff TMZ and others are always waiting to capture on camera, like going to the grocery store or the gym or out with friends, is the real acting celebrities do. Every step they take in the public arena-- the most mundane things non-celebrities like me do every day-- is both monitored and rehearsed. It's only on the set, where an actor is pretending to be someone else, that their truest self is revealed. I returned to this theory after reading this brilliant reflection by David Simon, creator of The Wire, on his solitary encounter with Robin Williams. Maybe Robin Williams' truest self was revealed, not in front of the cameras in your favorite movie, but at the moment at the end of the piece, as he prepared to go before the cameras again.

One of the most popular scriptures in the Bible has to be 1 Corinthians 13, Paul's thoughts on the gift of God's love. As I have thought about the terrible news this week, this text has come to mind; especially verse 12:

"For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."

Paul is looking in to the future, to a time when the unsolved mysteries will be solved and all our lingering questions answered. We're sort of stuck in this in-between time, where we want to figure it all out, yet we are constricted by our limits. The struggle every single one of us faces is this sense of being known. The absence of being fully known is the root of loneliness, hopelessness, and possibly depression. What so many of us are missing in our lives is a sense of being fully known by others: a spouse, our kids, our church friends, our family. When we fully know many of our brothers and sisters of color, we are able to to empathize and demand justice, instead of dismissing the impact of racism and the fear of the police. When we fully know many of our brothers and sisters who struggle with depression or other illnesses, we can offer love and support, not judgment. 

But Paul does not end with our desire to be fully known by others-- he continues to say that "I have been fully known." By God. God fully knows us already, even as we are waiting to be fully known by others. Back to 1 Corinthians: "Anyone who loves God is fully known by [God]" (8:3). Or this: "...We ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences" (2 Corinthians 5:11). This sense of being known is practiced by God in sending Jesus for our salvation: "It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known" (1 John 1:18). God's love is revealed to us in the coming of Jesus. God's heart is made fully known to us. This gift makes it possible for us to fully know others-- and for them to fully know us. Again, this need to be fully known belongs to every one of us. Seeking to fully know others is at the heart of real community. It's the place where healing and restoration and hope is birthed.

This week has been difficult. Hey, to be honest I've come close more than once to imposing my own media blackout. But I know deeply that disconnecting myself from others' pain and suffering will only lead to isolation, and more hurt. We offer our prayers to the families of Michael Brown and Robin Williams, as well as all who struggle with brokenness within the human family.

From the United Methodist Book of Worship, #482:
Lord Jesus Christ, you are the way of peace. Come into the brokenness of our lives and 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 real forgiveness. By the fire of your Holy Spirit, melt out hard hearts and consume the pride and prejudice that separate us. Fill us, O Lord, with your perfect love, which casts out our fear, and bind us together in that unity which you share with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

01 August 2014

Amazing New Friends, and New Faith

Last week I tweeted a couple of seemingly random messages:


(Farsi is also known as Persian, one of the predominant languages of Iran.)

Then the next day:


آیا می خواهید برای گرفتن تعمید means, in Farsi, "Do you want to get baptized?" (thanks, Google translator).

Why the interest in Farsi? Well it's kind of a complicated story with several characters. Every Sunday I spend a few hours "mugging" folks-- meaning a visit I make to every first time guest of Custer Road on the day they worship with us. I bring them a CRUMC coffee mug as a welcome gift. A few weeks ago I mugged Marci, who lives less than a mile from my house. She and her family came to America fourteen years ago from Iran. I met Marci's husband and son. Marci and her daughter are both baptized Christians. Their house is full of laughter, great food, exotic decorations, and hospitality. So much that as I left Marci packed me a huge plate of dinner to take with me. It was delicious.

Anyway, Marci has been attending worship at Custer Road with her friend Nazli. Nazli, her husband, and four year old son came to America a month ago from Iran to live with her sister and parents, who have lived here for eight years. After worship one Sunday Marci told me Nazli was interested in being baptized. I was leaving for Bridgeport camp, but gave her my number so we could talk upon my return. Nazli speaks very little English, but more than she thinks. The following week I received a call from Nazli's sister Shukova, inviting me to their home for dinner and to discuss Nazli's baptism. I met the entire family, and enjoyed a delightful three hour visit. I tweeted the message about learning Farsi after I left their home. Nazli was a lawyer in Iran, and her husband a civil engineer. They are here on a six month visa, and hope to stay. They both must start their educations completely over to continue their professional lives in America. Incredible. The next morning I tweeted the baptismal question in Farsi. We decided to baptize Nazli the following Sunday, July 27.

I preached that morning (link to the sermon here) on the challenges Christians face every day, specifically the sin of apostasy (renouncing one's faith, either as a choice or under duress from outside influence). I mentioned the ongoing crisis in Mosul (Iraq, not Iran; Christians have lived there peacefully for 2,000 years and have now been displaced), and shared the story of Miriam Ibrahim, a woman from Sudan charged and sentenced to death for apostasy after proclaiming Christian faith and marrying an American Christian.

Thankfully she and her family are now safe in the US.

Around the world Christians are facing apostasy at the hands of others, while at the same time in this country a woman experienced the opposite: she proclaimed faith in Christ for the first time. At the end of the worship service Nazli came forward and was baptized. The congregation responded with joyful applause. She received dozens of hugs from folks who speak a different language, observe different cultural practices, etc.-- but who were now sisters and brothers in faith nonetheless. This was a cherished moment for her and for the church. After worship Nazli (white hat) and her family came to our home for lunch. Marci, the friend who brought Nazi to church, is crouching in front.

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It was an amazing day, and the climax of a few weeks' worth of holy conversations, shared meals and stories, and prayers. At the end of the sermon Sunday I shared 2 Peter 1:5-10, words of encouragement for struggling Christians. The more I reflected on them the more appropriate they are, not just for the sermon but for the events of the last few weeks: 

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters,make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble.