Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Moving Day

Fifty years ago today was moving day. On October 10, 1967, the Hill family pulled up stakes and headed south from Maryville, Missouri down to the thriving little metropolis of Windsor, and, yes, it really was thriving back then. We blamed the whole thing on God. Dad had been "called" to a new church, though I apparently wasn't around when the call came in. Neither were some of my older siblings who were not too keen on moving during high school. I think Jean was just beginning her senior year. But when God calls, what do you do? Well, in our family, that was the end of the discussion. Time to go.

I was in second grade, too little to make much sense of the matter. For me, it was a big adventure. I just said goodbye to my church friends, Danny and Fred, and the neighbor kids, Lonnie and Randy. I didn't even have to help pack. In fact, Mom sent me to school on moving day, just to keep me out of the way, I guess. Then, in the afternoon, the voice came over the intercom in Mrs. Birkenholtz's classroom, "They're ready for Drew."

I didn't realize it at the time, but Mrs. Birkenholtz had almost all of the Hill kids come through her classroom. I was the last in line, and I think she must have felt some special kinship or affection for our family. So when the message came, she helped me gather up my school supplies and she explained to the class what was happening so they could give me a friendly send off.

Then she walked with me, leaving her class behind, down the hall, past the office, and outside. We lived just up the hill and across the street from the school, and she walked me all the way up to the corner. As we walked, she assured me that I would have a wonderful new school to attend and lots of new friends waiting for me there. When we got to the end of the walk, she said goodbye, leaned down and kissed me on my forehead. Then she turned and hurried back to school as I skipped across the yard.

By the time we made it to Windsor that evening, it was dark. We were winding our way through the curves and hills of Highway 2, and I remember the lights of town as we arrived, the four-way stop, the strange parking in the middle of the street, Dad's new church with tall white columns and steeple, Jerry and I moving into our newly paneled basement room.

Mrs. Birkenholtz was right about my new school and new friends. I remember the big, round-faced smile of Mrs. Chaney, my new second grade teacher. And my new friends were waiting on me or so it seemed. Three new buddies - Bruce, Richard, and Steve - who would always be my musketeers or accomplices or stooges as the situation required. God bless them.

And what a neighborhood we moved into. Kids everywhere - Williams, Madoles, Greifes, Robersons, Ackers, Welborns, Ellis's, Masons, Brooks, Hess's, Buells, Vincents, Nelsons, Akins, Sadlers, - more than I can remember. It wasn't unusual to play ball in the vacant lot next door with fifteen or twenty on each side. What a wonderful place to grow up.

So, moving day, fifty years ago today, turned out pretty well, all in all, at least for me. Just a wave and a kiss, and a whole new adventure. I still blame the whole thing on God.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

When the Sky Is Falling

After a disaster like Hurricane Harvey, we can't help but ponder the seeming randomness of such events in nature. Those families who have lost loved ones and those whose homes have been ruined are left seeking a reason, struggling to find some explanation as to why this happened to them.

One of the strangest lawsuits in US court history was filed on September 14, 2007. Nebraska Senator Ernie Chambers, seeking to stop evil and injustice in the world, actually filed a lawsuit against God. The lawsuit sought a permanent injunction against God's interference in this world.

Senator Chambers said of God, "[He] has allowed certain harmful activities to exist that [have] caused grave harm to innumerable people in the world." The lawsuit charged God with causing fearsome floods, egregious earthquakes, horrendous hurricanes, tornadoes, plagues, famines, devastating droughts, genocidal wars, birth defects, and the like. Chambers continued in the lawsuit, saying that God has allowed "calamitous catastrophes resulting in wide-spread death, destruction, and the terrorization of millions upon millions of the Earth's inhabitants including innocent babes, infants, children, the aged, the infirm, without mercy or distinction."

Eventually the lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice. The Nebraska court ruled they could not properly notify God because they did not have his address. Senator Chambers disagreed with the ruling, claiming that because God is omniscient, he should have known he was being sued and appeared in court to defend himself.

While we may ridicule Senator Chambers for his ill-reasoned accusations, we can at least respect his honesty. Chambers is not alone in seeking to put God on trial. When life pulls the rug out from under us, when all that's right with the world suddenly goes terribly wrong, we can't help but wonder why God would allow such things to happen. Has God fallen down on the job? Has he lost track of us? Doesn't he remember that we're on his team, we're in his family? Why is the sky falling on us?

Certainly, we are not the first to ask such questions, and probably not the last to puzzle over the harsh inequities of life. There are mysteries that we cannot solve on this side of eternity. So, when the worst of things happens to the best of folks, we would do well to focus on what we can and do know to be unshakable realities.

This world we journey through is a fallen world, broken and plagued by sin and suffering, hardship and heartache, and no one is immune. No one gets a free pass. It rains on the just and the unjust. We are all fragile and frail human beings, susceptible to illness and accident, vulnerable to violence and injustice, prone to trouble and tragedy. We wish it were not so, but such is life in this wayward world.

Gratefully, when the sky is falling we have a Rock on which to stand. God is faithful and his promises are true, more precious and powerful in the storms, in the trials, even in the nightmares of life that seem to block out the sun. God in his grace holds on to us when we can barely hold on to him. Even when we are faithless, he is faithful still. He is our hope and encouragement, our God, a very present help in times of trouble. He lives at the end of our rope.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Feeling Small

Brooke and I were standing outside the church yesterday as the eclipse came along, a pretty dull show around here, especially since neither one of us had the special glasses. The light was a little funny, less intense, and it did seem cooler for a little while. It was more fun watching the news last night and seeing pictures and interviews, big crowds and long lines of traffic all along the trail of totality. It was exciting and festive. People were awestruck, cheering as the darkness fell, the streetlights blinked on, and the glasses came off. And then, about two minutes later, here comes the dawn again, not from the eastern horizon, but from every direction. How cool! I hope you got a good look with the appropriate eyewear. (Of course, if you didn't, you wouldn't be able to read this.)

The most interesting comment I heard in the interviews was this: "It made me feel small." I think this sentiment was fairly widespread. It's the feeling the psalmist expressed when these words were written:

When I consider your heavens,
   the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
   which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
   human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4 NIV)

William Beebe, the naturalist, used to tell a story about Teddy Roosevelt. At Sagamore Hill, after an evening of conversation, the two would go out on the lawn and search the skies for a certain spot of star-like light near the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then Roosevelt would recite: "That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each one larger than our sun." Then Roosevelt would grin and say, "Now I think we are small enough. Let's go to bed."

It's not a bad thing to feel small, is it? We are often puffed up out of proportion, too big for our britches, pretending that we are the center of the universe. A little smallness can put us in our place and help us regain our perspective. Maybe we shouldn't wait for the next eclipse to pause, to look up in awe and wonder. "The heavens declare the glory of God."

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Remembering Donna Jones: A Eulogy

"Most of all the other beautiful things in life come by twos and threes, by dozens and hundreds. Plenty of roses, stars, sunsets, rainbows, brothers and sisters, aunts and cousins, comrades and friends - but only one mother in the whole world." - Kate Douglas Wiggin

What a great lady she was. I know it's fashionable these days to blame our parents for anything negative in our lives, without giving them much credit for the positive side, all of the good gifts we have received. But we know better, don't we?

I also know a bunch of mother-in-law jokes, but I never told one on Donna Jones, the world's greatest mother-in-law. She was never anything but gracious and kind to me, and so helpful in tough times. I told her that whenever our family was in a crisis, seeing her come through the door was like the cavalry coming over the hill to the rescue. Hearing that front door open and hearing her voice, "You-who!" was a familiar and comforting sound to us. I'm sure you know what I mean.

I am so grateful that our children and yours have had the blessing of knowing their grandparents for so long and so well. We shouldn't take that blessing for granted.

Mitch Albom wrote, "There's a story behind everything. How the picture got on the wall. How the scar got on your face. Sometimes the stories are simple, and sometimes they are hard and heartbreaking. But behind all your stories is always your mother's story, because hers is where yours begin."

And it's a good story, isn't it, your mother's story. Sara wrote up some of the details, but there's more than we can tell, isn't there?

Since Donna's passing, I took the time to read again her book of letters to her family that she prepared for us in 2010. What a wonderful gift to us.

A few things struck me as I read. First, what a full life she lived. When we put all the letters together, we get a wonderful picture, a pretty thorough history of her life, from the stories of her grandparents all the way through to our own special moments with her. Someday, when Graham and Donna's seven great grandchildren have become great grandparents, they'll be able to tell their family's story back through the generations.

Something else is obvious in the letters, but we already knew it. Donna Jones mastered the art of friendship. Some of you here today have been friends with her for most of your lives. Children she grew up with, classmates, neighbors, church friends. Many of Donna's friends have already passed from this life, she's outlived them. One thing for certain, if Donna befriended you, and she made friends everywhere she went, you had a friend for life. She always remembered, she stayed in touch, her thoughtfulness and companionship spanned the many years and great distances. What she must have spent just on the postage alone. There goes your inheritance, forty-two cents at a time.

To be honest, I should say not everyone appreciated her letters. There were a number of elected officials who likely dreaded getting more mail from Donna Jones. But her many friends cherished each thoughtful note and letter.

To hear Donna talk, every friend was a special friend, a close friend, a best friend. We have a room full of Donna's best friends here today. She treasured each one of you. We all should have such a friend. We should all be such a friend to others.

When Donna was a young mother to her growing family, she had her hands full, but somehow she managed. She was certainly not one to coddle or spoil you guys. No time for that. A mother to eight children spread over twenty years, from diapers to diplomas, with a hard-working husband who provided for his family, but was required to travel for his work. Let's be honest. None of us has any idea what that was like for her, from her perspective. No wonder your mother was strong and fierce. No wonder she ruled the roost, and no wonder she lost it from time to time. Maybe that's how you survive. Maybe that's how you keep going. Maybe that's how you blow off enough steam to get it together and face another day. Maybe that's how you stay, when you want to run away. She said it herself in her letter to Rebecca:

"When I had eight children at home, ranging from infancy to college age, I struggled to keep my life balanced. Taking part in community activities, reading, writing, swimming at the YMCA and involvement in church helped me find balance. Sometimes I lost it, but managed to get back on track. It was a good life in spite of the pressures."

I think we would all agree that Donna mellowed through the years, she softened and seasoned with the passing of time. Any resentment in those early years gradually gave way to deep gratitude. Her burdens became her blessings. That fierce side of her personality melted down into a thoughtful, gentle sweetness. I do not mean that she lost her convictions. (I remember wondering a few times what would happen if Donna ever met George W. face to face.) But she did mellow in many ways and that's a good thing.

And, of course, what happened to Donna should be happening to you and me. It's what supposed to happen to all of us. We grow wiser, we learn from our lives. We recognize our own limitations. We appreciate our own blessings. We make peace with our past. We find grace for ourselves and for one another. We expand our capacity to love. And, hopefully, we find a faith to carry us through.

It seems to me, Donna might have done many other things with her life. There were many paths she might have chosen. She was certainly capable, gifted, and interested in many things. When she talked about growing up on the farm, it was almost like she would go back if she got the chance. It might have been Farmer Donna. Or, she might have stayed with her teaching career that ended when Dan was born. She loved music and might have pursued that direction, either performing music or teaching music at school or leading music at church. We know how she loved to write and she might have made that her career, as a journalist and an author. She was also a capable leader, administrator, and an activist for peace, equality, education and other issues that mattered deeply to her. And we didn't even mention the professional Scrabble circuit.

With gratitude today we remember that of all the other things she might have done with her life, of all the other paths she might have chosen, of all the other ways she might have invested her life and blessed this world . . . she chose us.

I know, in the beginning she didn't have much choice, did she? But that's just it. She didn't take those choices, she didn't choose those other paths, so that we would have all of the choices and opportunities that we have enjoyed.

She chose us. She gave herself to her family, to her husband and her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. She gave herself to her friends, her faith, her community. She chose us.

God bless her for that. Her life was her gift to us.

And under it all was Donna's faith, a rich spirituality beyond what we might recognize or fully appreciate. Her faith was mature and tested, not naive or simplistic. She had grappled with her faith and applied its truth to the world around her. Her life was centered, her faith was the rock, her anchor, in all of the seasons and struggles of life.

When I read in the New Testament about the life in the Spirit, I think of Donna. It's described like this: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." (Galatians 5:22) Do you know a better example?

When I was a young pastor down at Lincoln fresh out of seminary, Donna volunteered to be my reader and collector. She would find wonderful little tidbits that she thought might be helpful to me, a prayer or a poem, a reflection or a devotion, a litany or a quotation. And she would cut and paste and type and tape all that she found along with her highlighting and hand-written thoughts into notebooks, blank journals that she turned into wonderful resources for a young pastor just getting started.

I'm sure a few folks in Lincoln heard me speak in those days and thought, "Hey, Pastor Drew is kind of deep and thoughtful and spiritual for such a young guy. Wow." I never told them it was my mother-in-law feeding me all the good stuff.

Donna believed that we are not here by accident or chance, but for a purpose. She believed that we are more than the dew on the grass, here and gone, more than ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Donna believed in an eternal reality beyond the limits of these mortal bodies, a place of reunion in the presence of God.

Even an old skeptic like Mark Twain once said, "Death is the starlit strip between the companionship of yesterday and the reunion of tomorrow." That reunion of tomorrow is our hope today.

In Valladolid, Spain, where Christopher Columbus died in 1506, stands a monument commemorating the great discoverer. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the memorial is a statue of a lion at the base of it where the Spanish national motto is engraved.

The lion is reaching out with its paw and is destroying one of the Latin words that had been part of Spain's motto for centuries.

Before Columbus made his voyages, the Spaniards thought they had reached the outer limits of earth. Thus their motto was "No More Beyond." The word being torn away by the lion is the word, "No", making it read instead, "More Beyond." Columbus had proven that there was indeed "more beyond."

And the same is true for people of faith. Christ has gone beyond the limits of our mortality, and like a lion He has torn away the shackles of the grave and assured us by his own deathless life, there is "more beyond." Donna believed there is "more beyond" the bounds of this mortal life we live.

I was thinking about your parent's big, beautiful home on B Highway. And you remember the little house on the prairie, the tiny, yellow farmhouse on the property, where Suzie and I lived for five months after we got married. Just three small rooms and a bath, the whole house just 20 x 20. I think Neal lived there before us.

Well, we didn't have two nickels to rub together. We had a fridge that only worked part-time, and we went through lot of Always Save mac and cheese. Graham and Donna were great, giving us our space, and respecting our privacy. But from time to time, Donna would take pity on us and she would call in the late afternoon. "Would you like to come up for dinner? I fried some chicken and baked a pie." We never turned down her invitation. The food was wonderful, of course, but so was the time around the table.

That's how I think about Donna today. All of us, whether we know it or not, are living down here in the little house on the prairie. But now your mom is up at the big house. She's settling in, enjoying her own reunions, so happy to be home.

But if I know Donna, she's already bustling around, beginning her preparations. The table must be set, the food prepared, everything just right for her family.

And, one by one, in God's own time, she'll be calling for us. "Dinner's ready. Come on up and join us." And we'll all be gathered in, finding our place at the table.

And as the scripture puts it, "So shall we ever be with the Lord." Let us pray.

O God, we give thanks for the life of Donna Jones. As you first gave her to us, now we give her back to you, into your loving and eternal care. Receive her into your arms of mercy and receive us also, and give us who grieve your promised comfort. Help us to so love and serve you in this world that we may enter into your joy in the world to come. Amen.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Our Father Is Younger than We

In staff meeting yesterday, Brooke shared these profound words from G. K. Chesterton. Serving a church that is filled with little ones, these thoughts seem appropriate:

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, "Do it again," and the grownup person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grownup people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.

But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, "Do it again" to the sun, and every evening, "Do it again" to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike. It may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy, for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger then we.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Stranger than Me

When I was a kid I was frequently reminded to beware of strangers, not to talk to strangers, and to never under any circumstances get in a car with strangers. Even in a friendly, small town in the Midwest, parents thought it best to be vigilant, warning their children to be wary of those unfamiliar faces who might mean us harm. I'm guessing most of my fellow Baby Boomers were given similar instructions.

But times, they are a changing. Sociologists tell us that Millennials are far more likely to engage a stranger online or in person. Last year they got in the car with a stranger (Uber) five million times. Young adults are also much more likely to trust the reviews of other anonymous consumers over the brand advertisements and official endorsements of various products.

Dozens of dating sites encourage singles to connect with strangers with the faint hope of finding the ideal companion or mate. What are essentially "blind dates" are becoming the common scenario for meeting someone. Boomers like me were rarely so bold.

And now with the advent of Airbnb, people are flocking to the homes of strangers and welcoming strangers into their spare bedrooms. Who is that guy sleeping under our own roof? Who knows?

Millennials, it seems, are not afraid of strangers, they are more accepting of others, and willing to give people unknown to them the benefit of the doubt. But some of us older folks just can't go there. It seems too risky, too dangerous, or at least too uncomfortable. It's hard to reprogram our basic operating procedures, to delete our inbred fear and insecurity, and rewire ourselves for greater openness, friendliness, and trust.

But maybe it's worth a try. Connecting with a stranger is not just a good idea in our diverse world. It's a Gospel idea. The greater openness of our Millennials is not far from our calling as followers of Jesus. Let their example be a good first step for all of us toward greater compassion and service. Jesus reminds us that we will ultimately be judged not by how many strangers we avoided, but how many we welcomed.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father . . . For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me.'" (Matt. 25:34-36)

So, my fellow Boomers, let's swallow our pride and learn from our kids. Better yet, let's take a tip from Jesus, counting every stranger a part of the family, a child of God.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Next Step

This morning I attended the Next Step Breakfast of our mission partner, Samaritan Ministry of Greater Washington. The strategy of this ministry is to come alongside homeless and disadvantaged people so that, step by step, they can make progress toward healthier, more secure and productive lives. I am always moved to hear the stories of those who have rebuilt their lives through this combination of encouragement and support, challenge and accountability. Not all at once, of course, but step by step.

So it is with life. It's all about steps. Whatever our tax bracket or social status, whatever challenges or problems we face, whatever destructive habits or addictions we struggle to manage, whatever broken relationships and opportunities we have lost, whatever wreckage we have left behind us, the way forward is always the same - steps.

It seems so simple, doesn't it? Take a step, just a step in the right direction. Every wise mentor, counselor, pastor or priest knows the truth of it. That's all it takes. Steps.

There may be battles too big for us. Problems may seem insurmountable, obstacles immovable, consequences inescapable. Doors are locked and no one hears our pounding. The phone never rings and the letter never comes. Waiting turns to inertia and spirals towards hopelessness. The scenery never changes.

What can we do? The road is just too hard, the mountain too high, the river too wide.

Some do nothing, of course, while others sit around complaining about the gross unfairness of life. They bitch and moan about all those who have conspired to bring them down or keep them down. Playing the victim, they are certain life would be beautiful if they had just been given a fair shake. Life would be different, if only . . . .

Those who make it in life, those who overcome, those who find their way through and get where they're going, are those who learn the secret of steps, one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. Not leaps and bounds. Even baby steps can move us in the right direction.

The good folks of Samaritan Ministry have learned another vital secret about life. Steps are easier to take when we are walking side by side, hand in hand. Partners in the struggle, companions on the journey make all the difference. We can step boldly forward for we are not alone. Someone cares. Someone walks this path with me. Someone steadies me when I struggle. Someone catches me when I fall.

Steps. This is the path to progress, the hope of a future decidedly different from our past. Step by step, step by step together.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Never to Be Afraid

An encouraging word for Monday morning from Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel:

Charles Foucauld, the founder of the Little Brothers of Jesus, wrote a single sentence that's had a profound impact on my life. He said, "The one thing we owe absolutely to God is never to be afraid of anything." Never to be afraid of anything, even death, which, after all, is but that final breakthrough into the open, waiting, outstretched arms of Abba.

"There is no need to be afraid, little flock," Jesus said, "for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom." (Luke 12:32) . . . I long for you to let go of worry and allow yourself to trust God completely. It's one thing to know your Father loves you and quite another to experience it.

I wonder if fear is not our main obstacle to prayer. When we enter into the presence of God and start to sense the huge reservoir of fear inside us, we want to run away into the many distractions, which our busy world offers so abundantly. But we shouldn't be afraid of our fears. We can confront them, give words to them and lead them into the presence of the One who says, "Be not afraid. It is I." - Henri J. M. Nouwen