27 October 2015

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

Note: if you attended Lectio worship at Custer Road last weekend, some of this material was shared in the sermon so it will be familiar.

I spent last week at the annual North Texas Conference clergy retreat at Lake Texoma. We focused on building a sustainable ministry for the long haul. Our presenters challenged and inspired us to combat burnout, be leaders in a biblical, as opposed to a worldly, way, and remember that we are called of God to this work. It was very good stuff for clergy, but I also think there were helpful tips for layfolk.

George Mason, senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, shared some ministry lessons he has learned in his nearly 30 years in that church. He started by remembering his calling to the ministry. He was a quarterback at the University of Miami—as he said, back when they were no good—he was the last poor quarterback to play there. While he was in school he was very active in his church, and his pastor often wondered if George was called to ministry. When it was obvious that he was not an NFL prospect, the transition to seminary was an easy one. Speaking about calling, as opposed to a job, he made this distinction:

A job occupies your time. A calling preoccupies your life. A job is something you can do. A calling is something you must do.

When I have had the privilege of mentoring candidates for ordained ministry, I always encourage them to remember their calling. Whatever challenges they face, whatever criticism they hear, every pastor must remember they are called of God. This idea was especially helpful following my return from the retreat. The very first day back at church, a call came directly to my office phone. This rarely happens-- maybe once a month. I took the call, not knowing anything about the caller.

Me: "This is Frank."
Caller: "Hey Frank, it's ________. How's your day going?"
Me: (no idea who __________ is. A church member? Someone selling the latest, greatest Sunday school curriculum?). "Great." 

(I'll admit small talk over the phone, particularly with strangers, is not my strong suit.)

We bounced back and forth a little bit, until he identified himself as a veteran with profound physical needs. His eyesight is poor, he is in need of treatment but he cannot fight the VA bureaucracy any more. He has called all over the place trying to find assistance but no one can help. He needs $$ for his hotel room for one more night. A few more questions and I figure his story does not make sense. He's either scamming us, he has mental needs as well as physical, whatever. But he asks: Can the church help?

I took his name and number and promised I would get back to him after I have had time to do some investigating. I asked around, found out the answer would be no, that our emergency needs were stretched to their limits right now. So I called him back. 

And it was horrible. 

He started shouting at me. He rejected my response about our emergency funds and sharply asked, "I'm not asking what the church can do, but what you can do." I am feeling all this guilt and shame, and trying to tell him we receive a hundred calls just like this everyday. Again: "I'm not asking what the church can do, but what you can do." And then: "It's always families. What about single veterans? As far as I am concerned those families can go straight to hell." That was when I said, "I'm sorry but I am hanging up now." He replied, "Me too."


After hearing for three days about sustainability in ministry, of being affirmed again in my calling for another year, returning to church with an optimistic, refreshed mindset, I receive the worst phone call ever. I felt terrible, not only for myself but for this person. Then I found out he called up here a few days earlier, offered the same story to someone else, did not receive the response he wanted, and dropped an epithet on the woman who took his call.

Same guy, same story, same response. Ministry-- just being a Christian-- is very, very difficult sometimes.

Between Chapters 8-10 of the Gospel of Mark Jesus predicts his death and resurrection three times. The disciples are varied in their responses to these pronouncements. The first time Peter accuses Jesus of losing his mind. The second time they argue about who is the greatest disciple. The third time James and John ask to sit at Jesus’ right and left when he comes to glory. 

Then Jesus walked through Jericho with the disciples on his way to Jerusalem at the end of Chapter 10 of Mark. When Bartimaeus, a blind man, hears that Jesus is in town, he begins to shout, “Jesus! Over here! Come and help me!” Some in the crowd try to shut him up, but he only cries louder, “Son of Man! Have mercy on me!” So Jesus calls for him and asks him this question: “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:51). These are the exact same words Jesus asked James and John earlier in the gospel after they tell him to give them whatever they ask. “What do you want me to do for you?” (10:36). 

Bartimaeus says, “Teacher, I want to see.” He does not ask for glory or power. He does not seek wealth or position or anything beyond the ordinary. He simply wants what has been missing in his life—his eyesight. Jesus says, “Go, your faith has healed you.” Then Mark the narrator adds this note: “At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus on the way.” Bartimaeus did not run home to his parents or friends to show off his new ability. He became a disciple of Jesus. His calling to life with Jesus began with his humble request, but continued with joining Jesus on the walk to Jerusalem. Remember what Jesus said to the disciples when he first predicted his death: “Those who would follow me must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow.” Bartimaeus did that.

And we must also. Even when the journey of discipleship takes us places where we do not want to go. We cannot help every person, but we can love every person. Not every one will appreciate our efforts to help, but our calling to serve Christ is affirmed in our offer. Jesus asks the same question to every potential disciple, including the man on the other end of my terrible phone call last Thursday: "What do you want me to do for you?", and then waits for a response: "Teacher, I want ___________________."  I pray this man is able to find the wholeness that is missing from his life, and that being made whole he can respond to Christ's love by becoming a disciple and spreading Christ's love to others. And that all of us who have said 'yes' to Christ may set our eyes on him, as his eyes were set on Jerusalem when he entered Jericho, and continue to follow wherever we are led.

15 October 2015

Sicario and the Fear We Must Endure

Last weekend the boys and I went to Bay City for a few days. The visit included a band competition for one of my nephews, lunch and memories shared with my grandparents, worship in a different tradition than the United Methodist Church, two trips to the famed donut shop, and several pounds of shrimp fried in my dad's shack in the backyard.

And I saw Sicario with Dad.

This, along with The Martian, which I reviewed last week, is one of the best movies of 2015. Unlike The Martian, this movie has no humor and offers no optimism for the future. Set in the middle of the War on Drugs, Sicario grabs each of us and opens our eyes to the cruelty and brutality at work in many of our communities-- north and south of the US/Mexico border. The performances, the direction, even the look of the movie are all A+. This does not mean it is an enjoyable experience. Sicario is heart-wrenching.

Emily Blunt is the star of the movie, but really she is a sideline character. The movie is presented through her eyes and experiences as she is a member of a team, along with Josh Brolin and the great Benicio Del Toro, that operates secretly to disrupt the pattern of violence and the flow of money tied to drugs. The word sicario in Mexico means "hitman."

The movie looks amazing. It is shot in a way that portrays isolation and dread. When the three characters board a plane to fly to Juarez, we see the small shadow of the plane on the mountains as they pass, making us feel that their mission is irrelevant and pointless. That is certainly how Blunt's character is made to feel by her team as the movie goes on. She is simply there for the ride, but cannot jump off of the merry go round when it stops.

I am neither a policy wonk nor a sociologist, but by almost any measure the War on Drugs has been a failure for everyone. Trillions of dollars have been spent, countless lives lost, entire countries have suffered instability. Many of the migrants coming to the USA from Central America are not looking for work, but for safety. The lives of their children are no longer safe in their home countries, so they seek shelter here. It is one of the great injustices of our time that we have characterized immigrants with such broad strokes. Closer to home, the War on Drugs has destabilized our own country. One of its byproducts were so called "mandatory minimums," where repeat offenders faced long prison sentences for the most petty of crimes. On one issue many politicians agree, regardless of party: the US prison population is the largest in the world and is out of control.

What Sicario really wants us to think about is: how far would we go to achieve our goals? There are no good guys/bad guys in this movie-- no black and white. Even the folk you are rooting for take actions the most ardent atheist would consider morally questionable. How much distance is necessary between hero and enemy to keep the roles distinct? In this movie that distance is, sometimes literally, inches.

I know good things, and good people, live in Juarez, even when the news media mostly reports only distorted views of life there. In fact, our church just last week sent a team to Juarez to build a house for a family. I look forward to hearing those positive, life-affirming stories of spreading God's love. In the movie we get a glimpse into the life of one family living in Juarez, and the scene of a child staring at an empty bed is one of the most startling, painful images I have seen on film.

As I watched the movie, I could not help but feel a profound sense of fear and dread. We lock our doors at night, we try to raise our kids in safe schools and neighborhoods, but the reality is: there is only so much we can do. I kept thinking: "Where could I move to assure my kids' safety?" "How do families in unsafe communities endure?" I left the auditorium nearly speechless. Dad wanted to know my thoughts on the movie, but words just couldn't exit my mouth. All I could say is, "We live in a broken world."

Talking later that night with my Aunt Pam, she mentioned that she and Uncle Danny had seen The Intern earlier (Christy also saw it up here too; I have not seen it). She enjoyed the good feelings it generated. She said she couldn't deal with the feelings a Sicario would create. And she is right. I struggled with it, and still do several days later. It's a great, painful, scary, violent, thought provoking film-- not to be taken lightly. And it knows how serious these issues are. Now we are left to address them. What decisions can we make to turn the tide of drug abuse, the culture of death and violence, the mass incarceration, the compromises of our highest ideals we sometimes make to win?

The Ministry of Parenting

This post was created for a blog for Custer Road youth parents.

I had the privilege of speaking to the youth at Sunday night worship recently. We discussed what “true greatness” is, and how it compares to how greatness is measured and celebrated in the world (Mark 10:35-45). The Gospel of Matthew offers its own version of the same story, but it has an interesting detail missing from Mark. It’s found in Matthew 20:20-28. Check it out and I’ll wait until you come back.

Got it? Yeah—James and John’s mother is in the story! She is the one who initiates the conversation about her boys sitting at Jesus’ right and left when he comes into his kingdom. Jesus doesn’t fall for it—he immediately turns to the brothers and says, “You don’t know what you are asking!” The mom just sort of disappears from the story. Why is she included in the first place? Nobody knows—maybe Matthew was trying to protect the disciples’ naiveté a little. But let’s not be so quick to dismiss her. What is she trying to accomplish by speaking for her boys? Assuming they asked her to do this for them, just as they probably asked for rides to the mall before they could drive: why did she agree?

Parenting is hard, isn’t it? Christy and I have a 13 year old, a 10, and an 8. Nearly every day one or both of us says or does something we regret. One moment I’m wanting them to grow up and move out and the next I’m wanting them to slow down and enjoy adolescence and childhood as long as they can. One moment I want to help them with their homework, the next I want them to do it on their own. James (13) recently had a science project due. When he built it I wasn’t sure it portrayed the object in the best way so I sort of challenged him on it. With our help—not building the thing but asking decent questions—his end result was better, at least in our eyes. But it is very difficult to balance what is “helicopter parenting” and what is not.

If you’re not familiar with this term, it’s probably the biggest critique of parents in the 21st century: we hover over our kids. We want to protect them, intercede for them, interview for a job or college admission with them… We are afraid that our kids will fail at something or not get the thing they have worked so hard for—or maybe the thing we wanted but didn’t achieve (ouch). Maybe that’s why Zebedee’s wife approached Jesus that day. So her kids could get what they deserved—glory. Honor. Prestige.

Sometimes the words we say to kiddos do not match their intent—or the way we say things do not match what we feel. And we feel awful and want to change what happened, but of course we cannot. Which makes us feel worse. The opposite of “helicopter parenting” is the feeling commonly referred to as “mommy guilt.” I hate this term—it’s sexist for one thing, focusing only on the mom’s feelings, as if dads don’t feel guilt for their parenting mistakes—believe me, we do. Whatever we want to call this feeling, it is terrible. I tweeted this last Mother’s Day:

I wonder how Mrs Zebedee (sheesh, why doesn’t anyone remember her name??) felt after her interchange with Jesus. Did she do her boys right? Did she feel guilty about doing too much—or not enough?

I do not have the answers to these harsh realities, but I do believe we create them ourselves, and no stack of self-help, Parenting 101 books will save us. Maybe the key is found in Jesus’ words to this lady’s boys: “Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be your slave.” How might our parenting look/feel different if we viewed it as a ministry, rather than a job or burden or obligation with all our too-high or too-low expectations? A parent of an older teen than mine said this to me once: “Hey, basically my job is to get my kid off to college still alive.” What a great line.

James and John were present at some of the most amazing moments of Jesus’ ministry: his Transfiguration, the raising of a little girl who had died, and as he prayed in the garden before his arrest. It was enough for their anonymous mother to know that her boys’ lives—their futures—were linked to the one she bowed before, this one she affirmed as king. So leave the parenting guilt and tips to the experts in the bookstore or on the Internet. Let your kids make mistakes, learn from them, and grow. Guide them, share your experience and knowledge, but most of all enjoy the privilege. My mom always says, “No one will ever know your kid better than you.” Celebrate that! Enjoy the ministry of parenting in the same way you love to serve communion in worship or buy things for a kid you do not know as a Christmas angel or mentoring an at-risk teen in school.

I’ll never forget a banner that hung in front of one of our churches when Christy and I served in England: “Do your best, and God will do the rest.”

05 October 2015

To Mars and Back

Last year I was very unkind to director Ridley Scott after seeing his utterly dumb and pointless Exodus: Gods and Kings. After this past weekend however, I am glad to say he can still roll out good films. The Martian, starring Matt Damon in an Oscar-worthy performance, is a great movie. In the opening scenes of the movie, a small crew of NASA astronauts is working on Mars, collecting soil samples, etc., when a major sandstorm hits. The team determines that the storm is too strong and will overpower their camp and equipment, so they decide to abandon Mars. In the scramble to the aircraft, Matt Damon's character is struck by flying debris, he is lost in the storm, and presumed dead. The crew takes off.

But of course Astronaut Watley is not dead (you can tell that from the poster above, so I am not giving anything away). Initially he calculates that he has only enough food to survive for a couple of months, but after considering his situation, he says, "I'm not going to die on on Mars." His determination to survive, to get word to his NASA compatriots that he is still alive, to use every tool available to him, and his attitude about clinging to life are inspirational. But not in the typical, Hollywood sappy way. The Martian is surprisingly (intentionally) funny throughout, oozing with sarcasm and great comebacks in conversations during the most intense situations. It was obvious to me that the actors enjoyed working together and found great value in the project.

The movie is being compared to Christoper Nolan's Interstellar in which Damon also plays an astronaut in a supporting role (Jessica Chastain is in it too, but not as an astronaut). That movie, which I also reviewed last Fall, was great as well, but for different reasons. The Martian does not feel like a science-fiction movie. It is not the existential, 2001: A Space Odyssey kind of movie Interstellar is. Everything, well, most everything (it is a movie after all) in The Martian could happen. Do you believe for one moment that NASA could not successfully launch a mission to Mars? Or a series of missions? NASA has goals to send manned space missions to Mars during my lifetime (I was nearly two years old when the last human walked on the moon). In an interesting marketing tie-in, NASA is hoping this movie will generate public support for its own, real-life missions to Mars.

Given the political climate in Washington, who knows whether we will fully pursue the Mars mission. One thing I loved about The Martian was that it is not set in the future at all. There are the usual political interests and conflicts that are part of any space mission, but the idea of a mission to Mars-- or multiple missions-- is accepted and understood to be worthy of our energy, ambition, creativity, and yes, tax dollars. Let's do it!

In a related tangent, I regularly watch Real Time with Bill Maher on HBO. Bill is an avowed atheist and believes people of faith, any faith, are delusional, to say the least. I'm OK with that-- we disagree on many things and agree on many things. I gave up being offended by political comedy long ago. But this past week's episode had a "heavy" science theme to it. "Heavy" brings this clip to mind:


Anyway, Real Time featured Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins debating, proclaiming, and celebrating the achievements of science, including recent news that water actually flows on Mars. Maher and Dawkins constantly berate all religious folk as fundamentalists who question or deny science. Tyson tries to keep us all in check, regardless of religious affiliation (or not) and sees every conversation or controversy as an opportunity to teach and encourage folk to further appreciate the contributions science can offer. Of his many tweets about The Martian, here's a good example that reflects his interests:

Last night in Bible study, coincidentally, we considered the theology of Creation. We explored Genesis 1-3, Hebrews 1, and John 1 and asked: What do we learn about the Creator-- not the creation itself-- through these texts? We threw out words the spoke of God's creative energy and God's joy expressed throughout the creation stories of the Bible. But our biggest learning last night was the idea that God creates from the future, not the past. That Creation, and you and I as active participants in the ongoing creative work of God, are moving toward a future God is orchestrating. All of creation moves toward salvation. In my United Methodist tradition we call this process of renewal and discovery sanctification.

I join in with Maher, Tyson, Dawkins, NASA engineers, astronauts, and other scientifically minded folk in celebrating every new discovery and achievement. I marvel not only in God's handiwork I see in science as a person of faith, but also in humanity's thirst for new knowledge and understanding of the universe. I love the thoughtful problem solving and determination at the heart of The Martian and what, again as a person of faith, I see as humanity's partnering with God in the ongoing creation.

Let's keep the conversation going!

(Psalm 8)

Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth! 

You have set your glory above the heavens. 
   Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
   to silence the enemy and the avenger. 

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
   the moon and the stars that you have established; 
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
   mortals* that you care for them? 

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,*
   and crowned them with glory and honour. 
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
   you have put all things under their feet, 
all sheep and oxen,
   and also the beasts of the field, 
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
   whatever passes along the paths of the seas. 

Lord, our Sovereign,
   how majestic is your name in all the earth!