Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Unplugged to Recharge?

Unplugged to recharge? Is that even possible? Every day we are plugging in to recharge our phones, tablets, and laptops. In airport terminals passengers crowd around the charging stations or sit on the floor beside a wall outlet, anything to stay charged. We hate to be unplugged.

But people are wired differently than their devices, aren't they? For you and I to truly recharge, we have to unplug, disconnect, disengage. We must find ways to turn down the juice, turn off the power, and find genuine rest and renewal. 

This Monday I will begin a two-month sabbatical, laying down my daily duties and responsibilities for a season of Sabbath and renewal. I am grateful to serve a church that understands and values pastoral ministry and provides for a seven-year cycle of sabbatical time for family enrichment, spiritual renewal and professional growth.

I have served as a pastor since January, 1980, and this will be the first time I have stepped away from my pastoral responsibilities for more than a week or two of vacation. I don't believe I have ever missed more than two Sundays in the pulpit, and even that has been rare. So this is a new experience for me. I'm not sure how it will feel to disengage and disconnect for an extended time.

Honestly, I don't feel some terrible burden or desperate need to get away. I will confess that there have been a few times in these thirty-nine years when I would have begged for a sabbatical, when I felt drained and discouraged and defeated. But not now, not here.

And yet, maybe this is God's timing after all. I'm fifty-nine years old and I've served here at Memorial for seven years. I don't pretend to know the future, but I hope to have many more years of fruitful, productive ministry ahead. I don't want to coast into retirement. I don't want to take it easy or play it safe. I want the rest of my ministry to be the best of my ministry.

You've noticed how some coaches sit their starters on the bench for a few minutes in the second half to catch their breath and be well-rested and energized for the final minutes of the game. Perhaps for me this sabbatical is my few minutes on the bench, a chance to get my second wind so that I can play my best down the stretch when it matters most. It feels that way to me.

I'll be reporting in from time to time, posting about my experiences these next two months. Rather than list my plans, I'll let them unfold week by week as I journal and share a few pictures. I hope you will stay tuned.

Henri J. M. Nouwen took a year-long sabbatical late in his life. His diary from that experience begins with these thoughts which express my feelings so well:

This is the first day of my sabbatical. I am excited and anxious, hopeful and fearful, tired, and full of desire to do a thousand things. The coming year stretches out in front of me as a long, open field full of flowers and full of weeds. How will I cross that field? What will I have learned when I finally reach the other end. . . .

I feel strange! Very happy and very scared at the same time. I have always dreamt about a whole year without appointments, meetings, lectures, travels, letters, and phone calls, a year completely open to let something radically new happen. But can I do it? Can I let go of all the things that make me feel useful and significant? I realize I am quite addicted to being busy and experience a bit of withdrawal anxiety. . . .

But underneath all these anxieties, there is an immense joy. Free at last! Free to think critically, to feel deeply, and to pray as never before. Free to write about the many experiences that I have stored up in my heart and mind during the last nine years. Free to deepen friendships and explore new ways of loving. Free most of all to fight the Angel of God and ask for a new blessing. . . .

One thing that helps me immensely is that the Daybreak community has sent me on this sabbatical. . . . Although many of my Daybreak friends said, "We will miss you," they also said, "It is good for you and for us that you go." They affirm my vocation to be alone, read, write, and pray, and thus to live something new that can bear fruit not only in my own life but also in the life of our community.

Right now I have no excuses for anything but to embark on a journey and to trust that all will be well.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

A Sign of Hope

I watched in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral was gutted by the flames, a sobering loss that left impassive Parisians weeping and singing hymns under the smoke-filled sky. The loss of this 850-year-old architectural treasure and cultural icon is impossible to measure. Many of the skills that were used to build this magnificent structure no longer exist. They just don't build them like that anymore.

For the French people and 13 million visitors each year, it is an unthinkable loss. But beyond it's role as the symbol and heartbeat of Paris, Notre Dame is a church, an ancient house of worship, a cathedral originally raised to the glory of God. It's soaring beauty has gripped generations calling forth confession and praise. Roman Catholics and Christians of many traditions have found solace and comfort in the shadow of those majestic towers. Even the cynical have found hints of the divine in Notre Dame's timeless presence.

Bewildered people have asked, "How can this happen, and of all times, during Holy Week?" The faithful have no place to gather, to remember, to celebrate. Wherever they go to worship, it won't be the same. How sad for them.

Then I saw this picture. After the flames were finally extinguished, someone made their way through the smoldering ashes to see what was left of the altar. And there it was, gleaming in the smoky darkness. The cross remains. After the raging inferno, after the roof collapsed, after most of the inner structure was incinerated, the cross still stands, still shines. I thought about the words of an old hymn:

In the cross of Christ I glory, towering over the wrecks of time,
All the light of sacred story gathers round its head sublime.
When the woes of life o'ertake me, hopes deceive and fears annoy,
Never shall the cross forsake me: Lo! it glows with peace and joy.

Cathedrals rise and fall. People come and go, in dust and ashes. The cross remains, a sign of hope for all the world.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Birds in the Bathroom

It's a sure sign of Spring, but we may never notice it. In our mad rush to start each day and get where we're going, the sound escapes us, drowned out by whatever ambient noise plays background to our routine. I would miss it myself were it not for my ever-present reminder - a China painting, framed and hanging beside my bathroom mirror. It is the handiwork of Mrs. Marguerite Reeves, a tall, thin, stately, silver-haired lady from Texas. We called her Mom, all 180 of us residing in Eaton Hall at William Jewell College. I was one of Mom's resident assistants for two and half years at Jewell.

What a great lady she was, kind and gentle, never losing her temper or even raising her voice, yet she commanded respect. It was impossible to be rude to Mom without a lingering sense of embarrassment or shame. Drunken frat boys sobered up. Rowdy football players towed the line. Metal heads turned down the music. No one wanted to disappoint Mom.

Homesick boys found a friend at her door. Struggling students regained their confidence in her company. She listened far more than she spoke, but her words always carried the freight and got us back on track.

I started preaching in a little country church during my junior year and Mom was a big fan. Even though I didn't behave much like a pastor those days, she saw something hopeful in me. She once explained to a friend of mine, "Drew is a good boy, a little earthy, but a good boy."

Each semester Mom would pick a Sunday and require all of her resident assistants to get up, put on a suit, and make the one hour trip with her to Nettleton to hear me preach. Most of the guys went along because they didn't want to disappoint Mom, and they knew a wonderful Sunday dinner would be served after church. It still makes me smile to remember the guys crowded into our little pews, bleary-eyed, sometimes hungover, but Mom had all of her boys in church.

Once all of her assistants took Mom to dinner for her birthday. There were nine of us, all bigger than me, including blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. When we sang in the restaurant, "Happy birthday, dear Mom," several people stared at her in open-mouthed disbelief. Mom just smiled and nodded.  

When Suzanne and I got married after college, Mom painted this piece of china as a wedding gift. She told me about when her husband died and how she struggled to work through her grief and find her way forward. In those dark days a friend gave her a plaque with those same words, "My, ain't them birds hollern' purty this morning." She said just seeing those words each day helped her move on and find encouragement for each day. 

So, for thirty-seven years I have been reminded each morning to stop and listen and find hope for the day. My second mother continues to bless and encourage me all these years down the road. I bet it would work for you, too. Scribble those words on a sticky note in the corner of your mirror and see what happens. You might just have a better day, maybe even a better life.

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Castle and the Wall

I confess, most of the sermons I have heard in my lifetime I have long since forgotten. Even the ones I wrote and preached myself are mostly lost to me until I look them up in my files or on my hard drive. Not much really sticks with us, does it?

But one sermon from long ago has lingered in my memory. It was 1988 at the Southern Baptist Convention and the preacher was Joel Gregory. Those were the days of denominational wars, doctrinal debates, baseless accusations and hard-line resolutions. Gregory ended his sermon with a story about a castle and a wall that was timely and prophetic though largely ignored by those original hearers. Lately, his story has come to mind, wondering if it might have a more contemporary application. You can decide.

Gregory recounted:

It was the ancient home of the Castlereagh family, one of the most princely residences of the Emerald Isle. But the ancient home fell into decay and was no longer inhabited.

The usual happened. When peasants wanted to repair a road, build a chimney or pig-sty, they would scavenge stone from the fine old castle. The stones were already craftily cut, finished and fit. Best of all, they were available without digging and carrying for miles.

One day Lord Londonderry visited his castle. He was the surviving descendant and heir. When he saw the state of his ancestral home, he determined to end immediately the robbery of the building for its stones.

The ruin itself reflected the earlier glories of his family and was one of the treasures of Ireland. He sent for his agent and gave orders for the castle to be enclosed with a wall six feet tall and well-coped. This would keep out the trespassers. He went on his way.

Three or four years later he returned. To his astonishment, the castle was gone, completely disappeared, vanished into the air. In its place there was a huge wall enclosing nothing.

He sent for his agent and demanded to know why his orders had not been carried out. The agent insisted they had been. ‘But where is the castle?’ asked the Lord. ‘The castle, is it? I built the wall with it, my Lord! Is it for me to be going miles for materials with the finest stones in Ireland beside me?’

Lord Londonderry had his wall—but the castle, without which the wall meant nothing, had disappeared. It's a strange irony, to lose what we treasure by our efforts to protect it. Especially when what we lose is our identity, our family legacy, our ancestral home.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Bye Bye Blackface

Once again, we have controversy in the news over matters of race. This time, our Governor and Attorney General have been confronted by their "blackface" past. Many are calling for resignations and others consider the whole matter no big deal, ancient history, boys will be boys.

I was not familiar with the whole "blackface" practice, so I did a little research. I found the following background information from the Smithsonian, National Museum of African American History and Culture:

The first minstrel shows were performed in 1830's New York by white performers with blackened faces (most used burnt cork or shoe polish) and tattered clothing who imitated and mimicked enslaved Africans on Southern plantations. These performances characterized blacks as lazy, ignorant, superstitious, hypersexual, and prone to thievery and cowardice. Thomas Dartmouth Rice, known as the "Father of Minstrelsy," developed the first popularly known blackface character, "Jim Crow" in 1830. By 1845, the popularity of the minstrel had spawned an entertainment subindustry, manufacturing songs and sheet music, makeup, costumes, as well as a ready-set of stereotypes upon which to build new performances.

Blackface performances grew particularly popular between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century in Northern and Midwestern cities, where regular interaction with African Americans was limited. White racial animus grew following Emancipation when antebellum stereotypes collided with actual African Americans and their demands for full citizenship including the right to vote. The influence of minstrelsy and racial stereotyping on American society cannot be overstated. New media ushered minstrel performances from the stage, across radio and television airwaves, and into theaters. Popular American actors, including Shirley Temple, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney donned blackface, bridging the minstrel performances across generations, and making blackface (racial parody, and stereotypes) a family amusement.

So, maybe it's not so difficult to see what all the fuss is about. Doesn't sound like harmless fun to me, but it does point to a bigger question for us. Who decides what is racist and what's not? Who determines what is offensive and what's not? We know the answer - it's the victim, the target, the scapegoat who has the right to say so. Not the accuser, the one who makes fun and ridicules and puts down, even if he "didn't mean anything by it."

When I hear people of faith gloss over racist behavior as no big deal, I get a little queasy. When white people set themselves up as the experts on what should or should not offend African Americans or people of any ethnic minority, I feel sick to my stomach. When followers of Christ subtly devalue and dismiss their fellow human beings as somehow less than or lower than, I think gentle Jewish Jesus blows a gasket. I wouldn't want to answer for such behavior. If it doesn't look good in the newspaper, how will it look on the big screen come Judgment Day? 

Thursday, January 10, 2019

My Life as a Poem

As I mark another birthday this weekend, I share a beautiful few lines from Parker J. Palmer. Inspired by a brief couplet from Thoreau, Palmer considers life as poetry and our words as the stuff of life.  

The Poem I Would Have Writ

My life has been the poem I would have writ
But I could not both live and utter it.

-Henry David Thoreau

The first words are the hardest.
Sound surrounds you in the womb,
grows louder when you're born.
You listen, for the day will come
when you must speak words, too -
that's how we make our way
thru this trackless landscape
called the world. But how?
And what to say? And what
does saying do?

Later, words come easily. You learn
to speak the language of what you
want and need, to help you find a
pathway into and through your life,
to make clear what you believe,
reach out to friends, find work to do,
heal your wounds, ease your fears,
get chance on chance to give love
and receive. Sometimes words leap
out of you in ways you soon regret -
or in ways so magical you silently
rehearse them, hoping never to forget
how they came out of the blue,
demanding to have life
breathed into them by you.

Then you learn that first words aren't
the hardest. The hardest are the last.

There's so much you want to say,
but time keeps taking time and all your
words away. How to say - amid the
flood of grief and gratitude you feel -
"Thank you!," or "How beautiful, how
grand!," or "I don't know how I survived,"
or "I was changed forever the day
we two joined lives and hands."

As you reach for your last words,
you realize, this is it - this ebbing tide
of language called your life, words
trailing into silence, returning to
the source - this unfinished poem
you would have writ, had it not been
for the heartache and the joy
of all the years you've been living it.

- Parker J. Palmer

Friday, January 4, 2019

Listen to Your Mother

Just getting around to thinking about the new year, so I'm running a little behind. It is a good time to pause and take stock, to do some self-examination and honest reflection, and to ask ourselves some timely questions. Not sure what to ask yourself? Well, you could do a lot worse than just listening to your mother. Don't you remember the questions she asked you, day in and day out, often ignored, dulled by familiarity? I remember, her voice still echoing in my ears all these years later.

"Where have you been?"
"Do you know what time it is?"
"What were you thinking?"
"Does this look clean to you?" 
"Do you think you're living in a hotel or something?
"Where do you think you're going?"

Like me, you may cringe at the memory of your mother's questions, since the setting for such dialogue was not always happy or pleasant. But I submit, though we dreaded the sound of her voice, these may be the best questions for us to ponder today at the turning of the year.

"Where have you been?" Usually the emphasis was on the first word, always spoken with hands on hips. Like most of us who grew up in a small town, I had freedom to roam the neighborhood and beyond, but if I strayed too far or stayed too long or went where I knew I shouldn't, I would be in trouble. Sometimes I gave a straight answer. Other times I was less than honest. Eventually, the truth came out.

Not a bad place for us to begin. To look back and consider where we have been, the road we have travelled, the paths we have chosen, the miles we have covered. Ditches and detours and dead ends. Wise moves and wrong turns. Look in the rear view mirror for a minute and answer the question. You might learn something.

"Do you know what time it is?" Always asked well after curfew and immediately before being grounded or pounded. Missing the appointed time, messing with the schedule, failing to pay attention. I have known how to tell time from a young age, but the question kept coming. Pokey. Distracted. Lazy. Irresponsible. Lots of reasons but never a good excuse. I always had a watch.

Do you know what time it is? Are we paying attention to the passing of time, the opportunities of the moment, the importance of right here, right now? Nobody's getting younger and there are no do-overs, no second time around. There is no rehearsal, just one time through, so when the moment comes, we would be wise to be ready. What are you waiting on? Seize the day.

"What were you thinking?" Of course, this question only served to highlight the times when I wasn't thinking at all. Total brain disconnect, sometimes only reconnected by a swift kick administered from behind in an upward motion. We all had our moments. Just being a dumb kid, leaving our parents baffled that their superior intelligence could skip a generation.

It's a more serious problem for us now. The bonehead play, the bad decision, the abject failure. When we do the unthinkable, losing what we can rarely recover, we may sit in the wreckage and echo our mother's words. What was I thinking? And there are never any good answers. It always sounds rhetorical. Who knows?

It does me good to remember that my most mindless moments were not fatal or final. Neither are yours. Whatever regrets you are carrying from your past, it's time to live and learn, to lay them down and leave then behind. Find some grace for yourself, grace to begin again.

"Does this look clean to you?" Picture my mother standing in the doorway of the basement bathroom used only be her four youngest sons, usually after our half-hearted efforts to complete our weekly chores. Pointing in every direction from sink to stool to shower, "Does this look clean to you?" Oddly enough, the honest answer we were afraid to utter was "Yes!" It looked plenty clean to us, good enough anyway, not too disgusting, better than it was before we started. It took Mom a few years to revise our definition of clean.

 Funny how we can get confused. Dirty is not so dirty after all. Sort of clean is clean enough. We content ourselves with dingy gray, but after a while, the stains won't come off. Trouble is, some things in life are just black and white, right or wrong, clean or dirty. We may blur the lines as best we can to ease our conscience. After all, ethics are pretty fluid these days. Whatever works to our advantage, whatever gets us ahead, whatever satifies our desires, must be okay, right?

It's a humbling and scary thing to invite the searchlight of the Spirit to shine on the dark corners of our lives. "Does this look clean to you?" It may be time to take out the trash, to clean house, to do some soul-scrubbing in the basement of your heart.

"Do you think you're living in a hotel or something?" This question was actually the more refined version of exclamations including phrases like "ungrateful kids", "lazy bums", or "spoiled brats." This was Mom's gentle way of reminding her children that though they had been born into a fine family, it was not the royal family. We would have no little princes or princesses in our household. We were all peasants expected to pull our own weight and do our part to make the family function.

The bane of great blessings, which we have all received, is that we may feel a sense of entitlement, an expectation that this world owes us the advantages we take for granted. We must deserve a place of privilege, and blessings seem to come our way naturally. It's subtle, but deadly. As Clint Eastwood says in Unforgiven, "Deserving's got nothing to do with it."

It's not a bad idea to put yourself somewhere from time to time, where you can see the underside of life in this world and put names and stories with the faces of people who were not born already on third base. We need to be reminded this world is not our hotel. Our blessings and benefits come with inescapable obligations. It's not enough to pray, "Gee, thanks." It's our job to be the answer to someone else's prayers. Like old Abraham, we are blessed that we might be a blessing to others. To whom much is given, much shall be required.

"Where do you think you're going?" Mom would stop me on the way out the door, trying to get my attention, to make me think, to listen to her. It was a question usually asked of me when I was headed in the wrong direction or at the wrong time, and it retrospect, it probably saved me from a great deal of trouble. Hard to imagine I know, but sometimes as a child I would get too big for my britches and determine to go where I wanted without any thought or guidance or permission. I would come home muddied or bloodied, crying or complaining about the consequences of my own dumb choices.

That question took on new meaning later on, heading off to college, ministry, marriage, all along the way. "Where do you think you're going?" A great reminder that we dare not live on autopilot. We must make our choices and chart our own course. Don't fly blind, by the seat of your pants.

As the calendar's change, do you know where you are going? Are you headed in the right direction? Have you chosen a worthy destination?

So there you have it. If you would be wise, if you want to have a great 2019, just listen to your mother, will you? Listen and learn and live. Better days ahead.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

The Death of Team

It began innocently enough. Some well-meaning person made the suggestion. Why not put the player's names on the back of their jerseys? Team's name on the front, player's name on the back. Fans wouldn't have to keep checking the numbers in the program. Every player would be easily identifiable. It made perfect sense.

So began the long, slow demise of team sports, the end of an era when players put team success before individual achievements. Sound a little overly dramatic to you? I think I can make my case. The evidence abounds.

College stars are drafted by pro teams offering millions of dollars, but sometimes they refuse to play for that team, demanding to be traded to a team more to their liking.

Consider the emphasis  in sports media on individual awards over team success. Players are touted for the Heisman or the MVP or whatever statistical record they can reach.

College players are benched, beat out by a better player, and often tranfer to another program, rather than accept their new role on the team.

College stars decide to sit out their bowl game, rather than risk injury before the NFL draft. The team's achievement and the opportunity to play one last game for their team and with their teammates is secondary, easily set aside.

Fantasy sports (which I do play and enjoy) have changed the focus from the success of the team to the statistical success of individual players.

Free agent athletes offer their services to the highest bidders, with no sense of loyalty to their team or their fans.

Pro players decide to sit out entire seasons, choosing self-preservation and money over the needs of their team. Future contract considerations is an adequate reason for hanging out your teammates.

I admit I'm generalizing and there are exceptions, but put these examples together and you begin to get the picture. The days when it was all about the team are long gone. Rudy is a relic from history. Hoosiers doesn't happen anymore. We don't believe in miracles like we once did. Who do you play for? Yourself!

Now it's all about who scores the points, who sets the record, who wins the prize, the award, the trophy, who's the GOAT, the greatest of all time. 

I know I sound like a grumpy old man homesick for the good old days, but I can't help but think we've lost something significant, maybe the most important thing we can ever learn from sports - the concept of team. 

Vince Lombardi was once asked to explain the difference between a good team and great team. Lombardi said it comes down to how players feel about their teammates. If you really care about the player on your right and on your left, if you would do anything to keep from letting them down, if your best efforts are devoted to doing your part for the success of the team, then great things can happen.

The last holdout for genuine team sports may be in women's athletics, where the enormous and fragile male ego is not present to poison the pot. These words from Mia Hamm give me some measure of hope:

“I am a member of the team, and I rely on the team, I defer to it and sacrifice for it, because the team, not the individual, is the ultimate champion.”

You go, girl. Show us the way.