Thanksgiving

November 23, 2016

I was in the midst of a conversation with my son Ben a few days ago when he reminded me of the WW 1 story about soldiers on the two opposing sides who suspended their fighting during Christmas. There are several accounts of them actually engaged in soccer matches against one another.  There are similar recordings of the same sort of things happening during the United States’ Civil War.  They didn’t play soccer of course, but they stopped killing one another long enough to meet in the middle of the battle zone and in some cases to exchange gifts. HOW AMAZING IS THAT!?

Can I suggest that we do the same this holiday season? Can we set aside our anger, hurt, social agendas, political agendas, personal agendas, rudeness, ungodliness, self righteousness…, for the sake of peace and those we love?  Or are our social and political interests that much more important than the issues facing the soldiers in those long ago wars?  I am and have been concerned greatly about the damage done to families and friendships over the caustic election process that we just experienced.  I fear that across this country, families will meet over turkey and mashed potatoes with a pretense of “Thanksgiving.”  And then some insensitive, egocentric moron will begin to spill their guts about an issue related to the election and the next thing you know, folks who claim to love one another will no longer be speaking.  Shame, shame, shame!  Senseless, senseless, senseless!  Stupid, stupid, stupid!  (I feel sort of strongly about this.)

Some members of my extended family will read this rumination. I hope and pray that what I am about to write will not hurt them.  Sadly, one of the legacies of my family is brokenness and hostility.  There have been too many years lost when “this one” is no longer speaking to “that one.”  Parents to children; children to parents; cousins to cousins; siblings to siblings… most any combination you can think of.  There are broken relationships that have been unresolved for years because one person or more just wants to live in denial and their own selfish oblivion and ambition.  (Of course it’s never seen that way.  It’s always, “I’m justified because so and so did such and such.”)  I have sadly had my own part to play in all of this.  I know there are difficult things to deal with but…,  I’m pretty sure this brokenness is not what God intended.

I know my family is not the only one to have these struggles. And quite honestly, it breaks my heart.  But you know what?  More families will be in this situation come January. Many more, I fear!  It doesn’t have to be…, but it will be.  How sad is that? I know that this does not apply to everyone but for many, your family may be your last “line of defense” in a frightening world.  You cannot afford to forsake them over an election and the things that “might not” be vs. the things that “might be.”  It’s possible that you will need your family in the years to come!

The Bible doesn’t say as much about families as we might like but it says A LOT about “love.”  Frankly, it’s a subject we don’t know much about.  Oh, I know we say or think we do but our actions betray us.  The word “love” that I speak of is a Greek word – “Agape.”  It means “self sacrificial love,” i.e., we give up our own desires so that we might serve, care for and even die for someone else.*  So, who do you love to that extent?  Seriously?  Remember, the key phrase is “self sacrifice.”  I often tell couples getting married that the problem here is that my generation knows nothing of sacrifice… and theirs knows less.  They are about to embark on a journey that requires something they know nothing about.  They better learn quickly!

So, it is my hope and prayer that you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving and Christmas. Please take to heart what I mentioned above.  You might even want to forward this rumination to a few folks (or include it in your Christmas cards!  Well, okay, maybe not.)

Just sayin.

* 1 Corinthians 13

13 If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Unity

November 14, 2016

WARNING… CYNICISM ALERT!

Obviously a lot happened in our country in the past week. I don’t have any desire to comment on who won or who lost the recent Presidential election. Nor do I have any wish to speculate on what the future might hold. I confess to my cynicism toward political types. How many of them EVER do what they say they will? Honestly… I trust God… I do not trust politicians… any of them. Period!

That being said I would like to comment on a word that I have heard bandied about recently by all sides (protesters not withstanding). The word is “unity.” We have been lectured by both parties that it is time to “unify and come together as a country. We are ‘Americans first’ after all.”  Hold that thought for a moment.

My guess is that many of you have been in situations (maybe in the work place) where you have been asked to “set goals for yourself or for your job.” One of the rules for setting goals is that they need to be measurable and also attainable lest they simple turn into a pie in the sky wish list. Does “national unity” sound like a doable goal to you today? Does it? Well, of course it all has to do with how one defines “unity.” And naturally those calling for “unity” give no definition. But it sure sounds great, doesn’t it?!

I meet with young couples for several “premarital counseling sessions” before their wedding day. I think most pastors do this sort of thing. Among many other thoughts I share this with them; “Marriage is not about hoping our partner changes after we say our ‘I do’s’.” Marriage is about recognizing that we ARE different and then figuring out how we are going to live in that arrangement.” Oh, no question… the longer we live with one another the more “alike” we will become. But that is not the goal. The goal is to love, sacrifice, cherish and die for the other even in the midst of our differences.

So when folks say that we need to be “united” as a country… um… exactly what are we to be united around? And what do we do with our irresolvable differences? They are not going to go away.

The answer is surely not this – “Well, we (whoever “we” happens to be at any given time) are in power now so we will jam our agenda down your throats.” Do I need to make an argument for how that DOES NOT WORK?!?!?! All it does is create, resentment, anger, disenfranchisement, marginalization, disenchantment, alienation… etc, etc, etc… And yet that is part of the history of our political system. (For all parties. Don’t even try to argue that your party doesn’t do that!) I doubt the years ahead will change that much.

Sadly I suspect the short term solution to our unity problem, if there is one, will be some sort of national tragedy (Pearl Harbor, 9/11…), but who wants that?

I would like to share some scripture with you. This does not really solve our problem but for Christians it does address the “unity” issue to some degree.  Take all of one minute to read the very short little letter in the New Testament entitled “Philemon.”  I will include it here for your convenience.

Philemon – New International Version (NIV)

Paul, a prisoner of Christ Jesus, and Timothy our brother,

To Philemon our dear friend and fellow worker— also to Apphia our sister and Archippus our fellow soldier—and to the church that meets in your home:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thanksgiving and Prayer

I always thank my God as I remember you in my prayers, because I hear about your love for all his holy people and your faith in the Lord Jesus. I pray that your partnership with us in the faith may be effective in deepening your understanding of every good thing we share for the sake of Christ. Your love has given me great joy and encouragement, because you, brother, have refreshed the hearts of the Lord’s people.

Paul’s Plea for Onesimus

Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus— 10 that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. 11 Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.

12 I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you. 13 I would have liked to keep him with me so that he could take your place in helping me while I am in chains for the gospel. 14 But I did not want to do anything without your consent, so that any favor you do would not seem forced but would be voluntary. 15 Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self. 20 I do wish, brother, that I may have some benefit from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in Christ. 21 Confident of your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I ask.

22 And one thing more: Prepare a guest room for me, because I hope to be restored to you in answer to your prayers.

23 Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends you greetings. 24 And so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas and Luke, my fellow workers.

12 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

The question is this – why is this little letter in the Bible? How shall we interpret it?  Possibly there are many thoughts, but I would like to suggest one.  Three main characters are found in the letter:  Philemon (the recipient of the letter), Onesimus (the purpose of the letter) and Paul (the author of the letter).  These three men were as far apart as possible on the social scale.  Philemon was likely a wealthy Greek man who came from pagan roots.  Onesimus was a runaway slave, i.e., scum and a reject on the bottom of the social totem pole who was deserving of death.  Paul was a “Hebrew of Hebrews;” the son that any and all Jewish mothers would cherish and brag about.  (Philippians 3:4-6 though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.)

There is every reason these three should be alienated and even hostile to one another and yet they are not. Why?  Because they have something more important than themselves to rally around – Jesus Christ.

In the Church when we spiral down into conflict (and we too often do), it is very likely because we have taken our eyes off of the prize, i.e., the person of Jesus. I’m not naïve… I know these things are enormously complex and difficult.  But let me tell you one other thing I mention to couples getting hitched.  When marriages fail, it is almost ALWAYS because one or both of the couples have decided to no longer sacrifice for the other, i.e., “I want what I want.  If I have enough left for you afterward so be it.”  Need I say, that doesn’t work?!

Unity does not come with separate agendas. It comes about with a common cause or goal.  So, what is the common cause or goal in America today?  Yeah, I don’t know either.

Toys

November 8, 2016

It has been a month since I have written one of these. Well, that’s not exactly true… I have started several but just… I don’t even know how to describe it.  I “couldn’t” do it?  That’s not right either.  I mean, I could have tried but there was nothing there.  I have discovered the difference between writers block and just not wanting to write.  I’ve been in the second place before where I didn’t feel like sitting down and putting something to paper.  My dear friend Chris Fay (who reads these) told me years ago that one of the keys to writing was to “just do it. Even when you don’t want to… just sit down and do it.”  I guess so but this is the first time I have been empty.  Nothing.  Zero.  Zilch.  Just… I don’t know.   I have been writing these almost every week for over 4 years now and this is the first time I have dealt with “empty.”  Not much fun.  Anyway… I’m back.  I think.  So here goes.

I’m not exactly sure how old I was when the following story took place. I’m thinking 4 or 5 but that’s just a guess.  My mother had been hired as a companion to a wealthy woman who was dying of cancer.  I think my mom mostly sat with her and took care of basic needs.  Maybe occasionally went shopping for her.  On Christmas of that year my mother took me and two of my older sisters (maybe all 3 of them?) to the home of her employer.  I remember it well.  The woman was in bed on the second floor of her very large house.  The house was dimly lit, as was her room.  I thought the entire thing was scary and creepy.  Do you remember what that was like as a young person?  Old people, old strange people, old strange people in their beds, old strange people in their beds dying…

The truth is, when you’re young, old people are just frightening and weird. I can remember when my grandmother would make a roast with a round bone in it.  My grandfather would scoop the gooey marrow out and spread it on bread and eat it.  My sisters and I would gag.  That falls into the “weird old people” category.  In the delis around Pittsburgh they sell a form of lunchmeat called “head cheese.”  Trust me… it’s not cheese!  I once asked the lady behind the counter, “Who buys this stuff?”  She looked around and discreetly whispered, “Old people.”

Suffice it to say I was not thrilled to be at this old lady’s house… at least until I was asked to go closer and the woman gave me a Christmas present! It’s amazing what a gift can do to the outlook of a child.  All of a sudden the room wasn’t so dim, and she wasn’t so scary.  (Little did I know that the gift was likely purchased by my mother.)

Before I tell you about the present I need to recount something first. I was one-year-old when Disneyland opened in 1955.  For most of my childhood I thought that if I could ever go to Disneyland, my life would be complete!  Disney movies, “Wonderful World of Disney” on Sunday night television, Golden Books about Mickey Mouse and friends, Mickey lunch boxes, everything Disney.  Not unlike today, but still crazy… in a very different way.  Anyway, back to the gift.

I tore the paper off and opened a box containing a stuffed figure of one of the 7 dwarves from Snow White. It was about 12-15 inches high.  I was enthralled… until I discovered it had a music box on the back that played “Whistle While You Work.”  Then I went out of my mind.  It immediately went into my top 5 gifts of all time.  The dwarf and I were inseparable.  Well, at least for a couple of days, until I wound the key to the spring too tight and it quit working.  I was as frustrated as could be.  My parents were no help.  “We told you not to wind it too tight.”  AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!

So I did the only thing a 4 or 5-year-old could do… I operated. I cut my dwarf opened and surgically removed the metal box.  (Actually it wasn’t quite that neat.  I sort of tore it out.)  One would think that a music box would be held together with screws that would make it easy to access the guts, but nope.  There were small metal tabs on the top that were bent into the bottom.  One screwdriver and some prying later… voila… music box innards!  Now you might imagine that as a 4 or 5-year-old, I didn’t have much experience with this sort of thing… and you would be right.  But it didn’t take me long to figure out where that spring was.  And it took less time to see that it was damaged beyond repair.  I was heartbroken.  Yeah, I still had the dwarf but without the music box… sooooo…. he became just another broken toy.

So what on earth does this have to do with anything? Hey, just be patient… I’m working my way back here!

It occurs to me that my dwarf friend is a metaphor for our lives. One of the problems for those outside of the faith is that they do not know or believe that we human beings are irreparably broken.  We may look fine on the outside but our music box is damaged.  And has been since we were conceived.  (Psalm 51:5 Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.)  So, we think that if we can just throw enough money at something we can fix “it.”  Or, if we can spend enough time in diplomacy, we can correct “it.”  Or if we can just get the right program in place, all will be well.  Sorry, but my spring is broken and so is yours.  That is also true for the rest of the 7 billion people on this planet.  We are all busted… damaged goods.  It’s hard for me to believe that there are folks who think that human beings are basically good; all we need are the right incentives.  Really?  I mean, REALLY!?  Open your eyes.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that there are good people around… but not anywhere close to enough to offset the wickedness in this world.  And “good” is only defined by human standards which are far lower than God’s standards.

So what do we do? Simply this – recognize who the “Spring Master” is.  Jesus and only Jesus is able to surgically repair our broken coils.  Only Jesus can allow us to stand before God as whole, clean, righteous, unbroken human beings.  Look what Paul says:  1 Corinthians 15:22  For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive.  Again because of the brokenness of our human condition we are all destined for the damaged toy pile.  But thanks be to God… we can be repaired.

Are you feeling broken and damaged today? Maybe not.  Maybe your pride is too strong for that.  But if you are aware of your brokenness… go to Jesus.  Cry out to Him.  Allow him to cover you with his life giving blood and mercy.  Get your spring fixed.

…so in Christ all will be made alive.

Blessings.