Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Beyond the Bloodshed

We have all been troubled and shaken by the horrific mass murder in Orlando early Sunday morning. We struggle to take in the devastating loss of life and the darkness of such hatred. As always in such tragedies, the news carried countless hours of reports, updates, stories, and descriptions. Sometimes in the midst of such carnage there are accounts of great courage and heart-rending tenderness. Most bewildering of all, is trying to make sense of the shooter, the killer, some mother’s son who came to believe that his murderous plan was justified, entirely appropriate, even God-honoring. 

Listening to the reports, it seems that this senseless act of violence is being interpreted, discussed, and debated from a variety of perspectives. In the aftermath of all the killing, while dozens of bodies were yet to be identified, government officials labeled this shooting an act of terrorism. Politicians immediately began to debate our national strategy in the war on terrorism and how to defend against such “lone wolf” attacks. Or is this an immigration issue? Shall we ban all Muslims from coming to America, judging the many by the actions of the one? 

Some commentators are talking more about gun control, wondering how a person being investigated by the FBI for his espoused ISIS sympathies could still legally buy an assault rifle. Others seem focused on the LGBT community as a target for these kinds of hate crimes. And, even as we think about all these issues the bottom line does not change – the murder of 49 innocent victims and countless others wounded physically or scarred emotionally from having witnessed such terrible trauma.

What goes on inside the human heart that gives rise to such hatred? How sick is our world that provides the soil in which hatred and intolerance can take root and produce such a deadly harvest? Ours is a world desperately in need of recall and redemption, a prodigal planet not yet willing to come home. 

What shall we do? We pray for those who suffer, those who grieve, and we pray for those who are so disturbed and disillusioned that killing has more appeal than living. We light a candle in the darkness. We turn loose the love of Christ in a loveless world. We sow good seeds of grace, Gospel seeds, that can help and heal, turn and transform, soften and save.  Against such love even this hateful world has no defense. 

“For God so loved the world . . .” Everyone and each one. Always has. Still does. Always will.    

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

This Side of Paradise

More wisdom this morning from Frederick Buechner about the nature of faith and what it means to follow this illusive Jesus:

Christ is our employer as surely as the general contractor is the carpenter's employer, only the chances are that this side of Paradise we will never see his face except mirrored darkly in dreams and shadows, if we're lucky, and in each other's faces. He is our general, but the chances are that this side of Paradise we will never hear his voice except in the depth of our own inner silence and in each other's voices. He is our shepherd, but the chances are we will never feel his touch except as we are touched by the joy and pain and holiness of our own life and each other's lives. He is our pilot, our guide, our true, fast, final friend and judge, but often when we need him most, he seems farthest away because he will always have gone on ahead, leaving only the faint print of his feet on the path to follow. And the world blows leaves across the path. And branches fall. And darkness falls. 

We are, all of us, Mary Magdalene, who reached out to him at the end only to embrace the empty air. We are the ones who stopped for a bite to eat that evening at Emmaus and, as soon as they saw who it was that was sitting there at the table with them, found him vanished from their sight. 

Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Rahab, Sarah are our brothers and sisters because like them, we all must live by faith, as the great chapter puts it with a staggering honesty that should be a lesson to us all, "not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar," and only from afar. And yet that country we seek and do not truly find, at least not here, not now, the heavenly country and homeland, is there somewhere as surely as our yearning for it is there; and I think that our yearning for it is itself as much a part of the truth of it as our yearning for love or beauty or peace is a part of those truths. And Christ is there with us on our way as surely as the way itself is there that has brought us to this place. It has brought us. We are here. He is with us - that is our faith - but only in unseen ways, as subtle and pervasive as air.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"The Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry", by Brett Foster

Most of my Missouri friends will remember the great Royals relief pitcher, Dan Quisenberry, who threw his famed side-armed sinkers during those glory days of 1970's and 80's. We also remember that a brain tumor took him while still a young man. Quiz is remembered as well for his quirky good humor, his plain-spoken faith, and his personal courage. I came across this poem by Brett Foster that includes italicized quotes from Quisenberry. He's still an inspiration, part of our Royals legacy, and a great example of authentic faith.

The Little Flowers of Dan Quisenberry (1953 - 1998)

I've had so many good things
happen to me.
So why not me?

And why not there, in that relic-worthy skull, where his good-willed
thrust and parry with the local press existed in its jocular fullness?

I think Christ
would do it that way. Or
Steve Garvey.

Hardly a laureled Hall of Famer, but saintly in the modern sense, still hero
enough, emblazoned on my place mat, his submarine curveball thrown.

No man is worth more
than another, and none is worth
more than $12.95.

He'd be clutch in the ninth, seal the game after afternoon bullpen slumber:
those summer double-headers in the grim bubble of the Metrodome:

I don't think there are any good uses 
for nuclear weapons, but this
might be one.

I-70 World Series that year, whole state euphoric, that autumn of '85,
Was a Royals victory "God's will"? Of course! Their winning meant I'd be assertive.

God is concerned with hungry
people and justice,
not my saves.

New boy in Cardinal country, I crowed and wagged my mouth and galloped
to class wearing a plastic batter's helmet. When last bell rang I got my ass whipped.

It's here! It's Merry Christmas!

There are toys
in my locker. Gloves and bats and balls.

Friend of Dad's swore Quiz was a neighbor, single men in suburban apartments.
He gave me a signed ball (real? maybe? doubtful now) for a birthday present.

I have seen
the future, and it's much like the present,
only longer.

No idea where that ball went. For ten years I've been reprobate, estranged
by boredom from the mediocre Royals. The game never changes, but people change.
I hope Quiz had a good seat in heaven to watch the Royals return to his winning ways. More importantly, may we all learn to win at life, to throw our best stuff, and to hit whatever is pitched.

Monday, April 18, 2016

No Going Back

One bright Sunday morning we were all standing and singing in our contemporary worship service. The music was great and the singing was uplifting and heartfelt, I'm sure. But, there was one line of one song that we sing sometimes that really bugged me. It always bugs me, and I've heard the same words in other songs and often in speeches or sermons or conversations or even in prayers. "Take this nation back."

What does it mean when a Christian says we need to take or win or bring this nation back? Back to what? Back to the good old days? Back to when we felt more comfortable and secure perhaps? Back when the world was not quite so frightening? Back when people were more civil and respectable?

Back to God? Just when did God really call the shots around here? The whole idea that our country used to be a bastion of godliness is based on a distorted, inaccurate reading of history. We can idealize the past however we choose. We can pretend that we grew up in some Norman Rockwell painting, but be careful what you wish for. The past had it's own set of hangups and issues.

Back then, in the good old days, churches were mostly segregated, and few Christians ever questioned why blacks and whites weren't allowed to worship together. Racism was the status quo. Back then, women knew their place and stayed at home to raise children and keep house, and not by choice either. The few women who ventured into the workplace were usually restricted to menial, clerical positions befitting their inferior status in a male-dominated society.

Back then, we didn't have to worry so much about civil rights or caring for the disabled. Back then, gay folks stayed in the closet where they belong, and abuse and exploitation happened behind closed doors, so we didn't have to deal with it. Abortions were performed down dark alleys in unsanitary conditions by unqualified persons with no counsel or support available to young women. Those were the good old days?

It might surprise you to know that a much higher percentage of our U.S. population attends church today than during our early history. And, since when is the Christian faith about moving backward? This was the mistake of the ancient Hebrews, always looking back through rose-colored glasses. The prophets were forever calling the people to look ahead, move on, to focus on the new thing that God was doing.

"Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland." (Isaiah 43:18-19 NIV)

Certainly, Jesus came proclaiming the new work of God in the world, and taught us to pray, not "Bring back the kingdom," but "Your Kingdom come, Your will be done." The Kingdom of God is coming, already initiated in Christ, a transforming power at large in the world, this world, today.

I know we are confronted today by terror and violence and uncertainty on a larger scale then we may have ever experienced. But the answer is not our futile attempt to turn back the clock to a time when evil seemed more manageable. The answer is to be the people of God today, to love this world and live out our calling in Christ here and now. Our commission is to claim the future, not reclaim the past. There's no going back. Full speed ahead.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Learning to Pray

Lately I have been reading Abraham Heschel's "I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology" in my own devotional time. His thoughts on prayer have disturbed and challenged me. I am often tempted, as most of us are, to approach prayer from a self-oriented, self-centered perspective. Our prayers are all about us, our needs, our wants, our concerns. In fact, unless we feel some strong sense of personal need, we are unlikely to pray at all. Rabbi Heschel helps me get myself out of the way so that I can connect with God, the whole point of prayer in the first place, and maybe, just maybe experience the wonder of His presence. So, I share with you some of Heschel's words, hoping they will speak to you as they have spoken to me: 

"We do not step out of the world when we pray; we merely see the world in a different setting. The self is not the hub, but the spoke of the revolving wheel. In prayer we shift the center of living from self-consciousness to self-surrender. God is the center toward which all forces tend. He is the source, and we are the flowing of His force, the ebb and flow of His tides.

Prayer takes the mind out of the narrowness of self-interest, and enables us to see the world in the mirror of the holy.

We do not refuse to pray; we abstain from it. We ring the hollow bell of selfishness rather than absorb the stillness that surrounds the world, hovering over all the restlessness and fear of life - the secret stillness that precedes our birth and succeeds our death. Futile self-indulgence brings us out of tune with the gentle song of nature's waiting, of mankind's striving for salvation.

Is not listening to the pulse of wonder worth silence and abstinence from self-asserting? Why do we not set apart an hour of living for devotion to God by surrender to stillness?

We dwell on the edge of mystery and ignore it, wasting our souls, risking our stake in God. We constantly pour our inner light away from Him, setting up the thick screen of self between Him and us, adding more shadows to the darkness that already hovers between Him and our wayward reason. Our mind has ceased to be sensitive to the wonder. . . .

Rushing through the ecstasies of ambition, we only awake when plunged into dread or grief. In darkness, then, we grope for solace, for meaning, for prayer."

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

"Giving Hope" (Optimist Christmas Breakfast)

I want to talk with you for a few moments this morning about one of your least favorite things - waiting. Waiting . . . waiting at the traffic light . . . waiting, then honking, “C’mon, the light’s green. Put down your phone and drive!” I wonder, how long does a person live in Northern Virginia before they become a honker? You know where I come from, the Ozarks of Missouri, the only time people honk is just to say hello. Folks will honk at someone and just wave, “Hey, how you doing?” Around here, people honk all the time, but I’ve noticed if people wave at all, it’s usually a different kind of gesture.

Oh well, no one likes to wait. We hate it, don’t we? Waiting . . . stuck in traffic on the beltway or jammed up on 66 . . . waiting for the Metro after work or after a Nats game . . . waiting for your flight that’s been delayed, again . . . waiting on your luggage, always the last bag to come up . . . waiting in line . . . Saturday at the grocery store . . . Friday night at the movies . . . just waiting . . . waiting for your wife to get ready to go . . . waiting for your husband to fix whatever needs fixing . . . waiting on your kids to load up their backpacks and get in the van . . . waiting for your teenager to come home at night . . . waiting at the doctor’s office . . . waiting at the car repair place. I’ve noticed these newer car dealerships have improved their waiting areas, trying to provide all the amenities, but you know what, it’s still just waiting, isn’t it?

Disney World invented a wonderful thing called a “Fast Pass.” You come by early or go online, get your fast pass, come back during the busy time and you don’t have to wait. It’s great, although you can count on getting some dirty looks from all those people still stuck in line. Don’t you wish life had a fast pass? Some special ticket that meant we never had to wait! That would be great, but of course even Disney can’t pull that one off.

Have you ever considered how much of life is waiting? Waiting to turn sixteen and get your license, waiting to leave home and be out on your own, waiting for that special someone to come along, waiting for that promotion at work. Long waits. Waiting for a young soldier to come home from the war, waiting on your test results from the doctor, waiting in an emergency room. Waiting. Still waiting. Waiting until you can finally retire. Waiting for the kids and the grandkids to visit once in a while . . . waiting for the grandkids to go back home so we can get some rest . . . more waiting. . . . Waiting in a nursing home, waiting for a visitor, any visitor, waiting for some attention, sometimes just waiting for the end of life.

I saw an interview the other day with a Syrian man who had his wife and small children in an overcrowded refugee camp in Eastern Europe. It reminded me how tragic and frustrating waiting can be, waiting for water, for food, for a safe place for his family to sleep, for some place to go. I could see the desperation on his face. Waiting.

Waiting at its worst. Waiting for your pain to ease, waiting for healing, waiting for grief to go away, waiting for a broken heart to heal, waiting for a prodigal to return, waiting for forgiveness, for a second chance. Waiting for a door to open and maybe it’s a door you have been pounding on for years. Waiting, waiting on God, still waiting, and it feels like forever.

It might surprise you to know that the Bible is all about waiting. The scripture always tells the truth about life, and the truth about waiting, especially what it means to wait on God. There’s old Abraham and Sarah waiting for decades for a promised child, until one day much to their amazement, the waiting was over, a bouncing baby boy.

The Hebrews knew a thing or two about waiting, four hundred years in bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt. Generations of slaves toiling under the desert sun waiting, waiting on deliverance, waiting on God until one day the waiting was over. Later on the Hebrews found themselves defeated, driven off their land, and carried off into exile in Babylon. And what did they do in Babylon for some 70 years? You guessed it. Waiting. Waiting to return. Waiting to rebuild, until one day the waiting was over.

And then came an even greater promise, the promise of a Messiah, a Savior, “Immanuel.” First came the promise and then the waiting, the long wait for the fulfillment of God’s words. Years, generations, even centuries, and then, one day, on that first Christmas, the waiting was over.

“Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Time’s up! The waiting is over. The moment has finally arrived. In the fullness of time a Son is given. Christ is born. God has come to us. Immanuel, God with us in this world.

Christmas is, of course, a time of great anticipation, as much about waiting as it is about celebrating. I grew up the youngest of eight children and we always had to wait until Christmas morning to open gifts. Some of you liberals opened your gifts on Christmas Eve, but I never understood how that worked out. If Santa comes on Christmas Eve, how could we open our gifts until after the big guy shows up? Never made sense to me.

But the waiting, oh, the waiting, just about killed us. Lying awake, too excited to sleep, or pretending to be asleep so Santa wouldn’t skip us. Up at the crack of dawn, lined up at the top of the stairs, youngest to oldest, me first in line on Christmas morning. Then, there was more waiting, waiting for Dad to get around, to get shaved, to get dressed . . . are you kidding me? Of course, I didn’t know back then that Dad had been down in the basement all night putting everything together. C’mon! C’mon! Is it time? Is it time?

And then, and then, finally, the waiting was over. Thundering down the stairs. Our hopes fulfilled. Sheer joy. It was time to celebrate.

Did you know that in Hebrew the word for “wait” is also the word for “hope?” To wait is to hope. To hope is to wait. “They that wait upon the Lord will renew their strength, they that hope in the Lord will renew their strength.” Same meaning. The psalmist expressed this truth in his prayer:

"I wait for the LORD, my whole being waits, and in his word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning . . . ." (Psalm 130:5-6 NIV) And so while we wait on God, we place our hope in God. To wait is to hope . . .

A Scottish minister once remarked, “The most profane word we can use is ‘hopeless.’ When you say a situation or person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God.”

I was thinking about the waiting and the hoping and your work as Optimists. Young people, so many youth in this world are waiting, waiting for a chance, waiting for a door to open, waiting for an opportunity to build a future, just waiting for the encouragement, the assistance, the direction they need in order to find their way in this world. Just waiting.

And here you are as Optimists, ready and able to turn their waiting into hope, to open doors, to make a way, to provide the needed resources. That’s the gift you are giving this Christmas and throughout the year – the gift of hope to those who are waiting. The mission statement of Optimists International says: “By providing hope and positive vision, Optimists bring out the best in kids.” By providing hope, what a wonderful gift you are giving.

So let us not grow weary in doing good or lose heart, even in a world that seems overwhelmed with waiting. We have a hope that is grounded in the goodness and faithfulness of God. So we must never give in or give up or give out. Instead, we give hope. Give hope this Christmas. Somewhere, someone is waiting.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Thanksgiving at the Mission

Remembering my Grandpa Barnes this morning. I guess I always think about Grandpa around Thanksgiving. He was born on Christmas Day, 1900, the one birthday I can always remember. Otis Theodore Barnes, the tallest, strongest, and most devout man I knew as a child. He seemed to me a gentle giant, with the large, powerful hands of an auto mechanic, hands that showed me how to throw a curve ball.

When Grandpa wasn't under the hood of somebody's car, he was always doing "the Lord's work." He would take off his gray work shirt with his name on the red and white patch, and put on the white shirt and narrow tie of "Brother Barnes." Grandpa was a lay preacher in the Nazarene church, serving in small churches that needed help. But his main gig was at home, where he would record and broadcast "The Voice of Hope" Gospel program on Kansas City's AM radio waves. For years, "Brother Barnes" taught the Bible on the radio, not with the glitz and glamour and bad theology of most radio preachers today, but with plain, simple, straightforward Bible teaching, and lots of people tuned in. I guess there is no way to know how many people he touched and blessed through those broadcasts, but the letters and postcards kept coming as Brother Barnes shepherded his radio flock. Year after year, he never faltered. He never quit.

When it was time to retire from the auto shop, instead of slowing down or taking it easy, Grandpa and Grandma took on the biggest project of their lives - "The Voice of Hope" storefront mission in a rough part of downtown Kansas City. For years Brother Barnes and his faithful wife drove down to the mission every day, preparing a meal for all the street people who came through the door. Grandpa would stand at the door and greet each one as if his guest was the King of England. Along with the hot meal, Grandpa led a worship time and presented a simple Gospel message, every day, without fail, until his health faltered and he grudgingly gave it up.

That's why I always think of Grandpa and Grandma Barnes at Thanksgiving. Every year my family drove downtown to the mission on Thanksgiving morning to lend a hand and celebrate Thanksgiving with Grandpa and Grandma and all the folks that had no where else to go. Being the youngest, all I did was stand beside "Brother Barnes" at the door as he welcomed each person, most he knew by name.

The last chapter of Grandpa's life was difficult and sad, his health failing quickly. He was bedfast for seven years, blind and deaf for the last two years. Believe it or not, my grandmother cared for him at home all those years until he died. I was in college at the time in nearby Liberty and was often called over to help with Grandpa, sometimes in the middle of the night. Grandpa was always gentle and apologetic, not wanting to be a burden. When the end finally came, it was a long-awaited, merciful homegoing.

We gathered in Gladstone for the funeral and my dad conducted the service, but that's not what I remember best. I was sitting on one of the front rows with the rest of the family and I saw something remarkable and beautiful just before the funeral began. We heard the shuffling of footsteps in the rear of the chapel. Turning around I watched the back two rows began to fill with men, rough-looking men from the street, men who still remembered and loved "Brother Barnes" after all those years.

Dad read the words that day, never more appropriate. "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 tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

So, I am feeling very blessed on this Thanksgiving, the blessing of "Brother Barnes."

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"Love and Fear" by Michael Leunig

There are only two feelings, Love and fear:
There are only two languages, Love and fear:
There are only two activities, Love and fear:
There are only two motives, two procedures,
two frameworks, two results, Love and fear,
Love and fear.