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.