Monday, January 23, 2017

"Tramps Like Us . . ."

Just finished Bruce Springsteen's book, Born to Run. What a great book. No wonder his music makes such a powerful connection with so many of us. At the end of his story, Springsteen offers these words to sum up his own sense of calling and purpose. I can certainly identify with his words, maybe we all can.

I have fought my whole life, studied, played, worked, because I wanted to hear and know the whole story, my story, our story, and understand as much of it as I could. I wanted to understand in order to free myself of its most damaging influences, its malevolent forces, to celebrate and honor its beauty, its power, and to be able to tell it well to my friends, my family, and to you. I don't know if I've done that, and the devil is always just a day away, but I know this was my young promise to myself, to you. This, I pursued as my service. This, I presented as my long and noisy prayer, my magic trick. Hoping it would rock your very soul and then pass on, its spirit rendered, to be read, heard, sung and altered by you and your blood, that it might strengthen and help make sense of your story. Go tell it.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Reflection on MLK's "I Have a Dream" Speech

(Marymount University Interfaith Service: Martin Luther King, Jr. Through the Eyes of Faith)

It is my privilege and honor to participate in this service of remembrance today. My thanks to Father Tom and Dr. Shank for allowing me this opportunity, and thank you, students, faculty, and friends for your presence here.

Each time I hear those words I am moved and inspired. "I have a dream," Dr. King spoke, and still his dream lives on.

Are you a dreamer?

In the biblical world, dream were real. Dreams represented the realm of the divine and the demonic. Dreams had meaning, often carried messages, and sometimes foretold the future. In ancient times, people went to temples or holy places to sleep there, in order to have a dream which would show them the decision to make. This is strangely comforting to me, since we still have those who fall asleep in church. I used to be offended, but now I know they are just looking for a word from God.

Those who study these things say that we are all dreamers. We dream as part of our normal sleep cycle, but only occasionally do we remember the dream - an especially vivid scene, a dream that moves us emotionally, or of course, the terrifying nightmare. When I was in college I had a few supreme pizza at midnight dreams that were just plain weird.

They tell us that our dreams are unique and personal and non-transferable. You and I will not have the same exact dream tonight.

But God's dreams are different. The dreams that God gives to us are unique and personal, but they can be transferred, they can be shared. God-given dreams can become just as vivid in another person as they were in the person who first had the dream.

In fact, God's dreams are contagious, they spread like a fever. God's dreams grip the heart and mind of everyone who comes in contact with them. It is a happy and healthy contagion, not to be isolated or quarantined, but to be shared freely, openly, persistently - God's dreams. So it is that Dr. King's dream lives today. His God-given dream has become our dream.

Such dreams can set the course for our lives. When we dream God's dreams, it will rivet our attention, it will become our driving passion, the magnetic compass that points the way. And when we dream God's dream, we will pay any price, make any sacrifice, go any distance, face any darkness, to see God's dream fulfilled in our world, in our time.

Our dreams determine who we are and who we become. The book of Proverbs reminds us, "As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." (Prov. 23:7 KJV) This is perhaps life's strangest secret. We tend to become what we think about. Our dreams define us, shape us, and mold us. Our dreams become the steering currents of our lives. Dreams help us claim the future, our future.

Novelist Tom Clancy gave the 1991 commencement address at Johns Hopkins University. Here are some abstracts from those remarks:

"I will now give you your last lesson in metaphysics. Nothing is as real as a dream. The world can change around you, but your dream will not. Your life may change, but your dream doesn't have to. Responsibilities need not erase it. Duties need not obscure it. Your spouse and children need not get in its way, because the dream is within you. No one can take your dream away . . . The only way that your dream can die is if you kill it yourself."

Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a country plagued by violence and bigotry and shared his noble dream of a truly color blind culture. He led the long, hard march for civil rights and human dignity, until an assassin's bullet cut his life short.

I was just eight years old on that April evening in 1968, but I remember sitting with my family watching the news of his murder and the riots that followed and thinking how dark and frightening this world of ours must be. Dr. King, like all of the world's great dreamers, paid a great price for standing against racism and injustice.

If you would dream God's dream you had better count the cost, for it will no doubt exact a toll from you as well. This sightless, heartless world is not often kind to its dreamers.

Never settle for less than God's dream for your life. Too many settle for such pitiful, little dreams, so shallow and selfish. Meager dreams of projecting an image, stockpiling stuff, gaining power and privilege, achieving celebrity status. Such dreams lead to empty, meaningless lives, revolving around ourselves in a selfish delusion of our exaggerated importance. Those are dreams that bring no fulfillment or satisfaction, dreams that make no difference and no advancement in the human condition. Worthless dreams.

Dare to dream God's dream, as Dr. King dreamed that we might become a compassionate and welcoming people embracing the full kaleidoscope of humanity.

The Hopi Native American tribe has a fascinating custom and belief. They speak of the "dream catcher," a symbolic net hung in the doorways of their homes. Into this net fly their dreams, their hopes and aspirations.

The Hopi believe that unrealistic or unworthy dreams, unattainable visions, pass through the net. Only those true and noble dreams, those hopes that can be fulfilled, remain inside.

Those dreams remain a part of them and keep them focused on their path. Once the dream has been attained, they add a feather to their dream catcher.

Do you see the truth for us? You and I are dream catchers. It's up to us to catch a worthy dream and make it our own, to claim that God-given dream for our generation, and to lay down our lives to bring it to pass.

An unknown poet said it like this:

"Dreams are they, but they are God's dreams. 
Shall we decry them or scorn them? 
Dreams are they to become man's dreams! 
Can we say 'nay' as they claim us? 
Dreams are they all, but shall we despise them - God's dreams?"

So, I ask you once more. Are you a dreamer? God's promise says, "And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions." (Joel 2:28)

Today we remember a noble dream. Now it is time to dream again.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Frosty Birthday

As we get older, birthdays lose their luster, don't they? I turned 57 yesterday, too old for Snapchat, too young for Life Alert, somewhere in those middle years. My mom says, "Middle-aged? Are you planning to be 114 some day?" Thanks, Mom. Anyway, I am grateful for all the blessings of life, especially the wonderful people that I have known along the way.

When our son Sam was just a little guy, his favorite Christmas movie was "Frosty the Snowman," or as he called it simply, "Man!" I guess everyone knows the story, but do you remember Frosty's first words after he puts on the magician's magic hat? He comes to life with a big "Happy Birthday!" to himself. And each time he dons the hat, the friendly snowman begins his life all over again with another "Happy Birthday!"

Maybe old Frosty is on to something. I'm not much for hats, but what would it be like to start each new year or week or day with that same exuberant joy? We tend to blow out the candles on our birthday cake and grudgingly give in to our next not so magic number, clicking off the years one by one. But Frosty says whenever you wake up and find yourself alive, it's a whole new ballgame. With each sunrise we are born into a world not quite like yesterday, yet brimming with potential, ripe with possibilities. A new creation. Everyday is our birthday. Celebrate yours today.

"You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands." (Isaiah 55:12)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"No Christian at All"

Sharing a story and thought this morning from Brennan Manning, The Ragamuffin Gospel:

Several years ago in a large city in the far West, rumors spread that a certain Catholic woman was having visions of Jesus. The reports reached the archbishop. He decided to check her out. There is always a fine line between the authentic mystic and the lunatic fringe.

"Is it true, ma'am, that you have visions of Jesus?" asked the cleric.

"Yes," the woman replied simply.

"Well, the next time you have a vision, I want you to ask Jesus to tell you the sins that I confessed in my last confession."

The woman was stunned. "Did I hear you right, bishop? You actually want me to ask Jesus to tell me the sins of your past?"

"Exactly. Please call me if anything happens."

Ten days later the woman notified her spiritual leader of a recent apparition. "Please come," she said.

Within the hour the archbishop arrived. He trusted eye-to-eye contact. "You just told me on the telephone that you actually had a vision of Jesus. Did you do what I asked?"

"Yes, bishop, I asked Jesus to tell me the sins you confessed in your last confession."

The bishop leaned forward with anticipation. His eyes narrowed.

"What did Jesus say?"

She took his hand and gazed deep into his eyes. "Bishop," she said, "these are his exact words: 'I can't remember.'"

Christianity happens when men and women accept with unwavering trust that their sins have not only been forgiven but forgotten. . . . Thus, my friend archbishop Joe Reia says, "A sad Christian is a phony Christian, and a guilty Christian is no Christian at all."

Monday, December 19, 2016

Losing the Star

(Arlington Optimist Christmas Breakfast, December 14, 2016)

When I was a kid, I sold Christmas cards door to door to earn some money after lawn mowing season ended. I still like to look at the cards. There are all kinds, of course. Some with Santa or the reindeer, or furry little animals or cardinals or bells or candles. Some have a manger scene, a nativity of some sort. But the clear winners in my book are the Wise Men, those saddle-sore Magi, astride their camels and always, following that beautiful radiant star.

Comedian and sometimes theologian Dave Barry tells their story like this: We know from the Bible that the Wise Men showed up in Bethlehem and gave the Baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Now, gold is always a nice gift, but frankincense and myrrh - at least according to my dictionary - are gum resins. Who gives gum resins to a baby?

The answer is: men. The Wise Men, being men, didn't even START shopping for gifts until the last minute, when most of the stores in the greater Bethlehem area were closed for Christmas Eve. The only place still open was Big Stu's House of Myrrh. So the Wise Men showed up at the manger, handed their baby gifts to Mary, and headed for the eggnog. Mary looked at the gifts - which were not wrapped, nor were they accompanied by cards - rolled her eyes, tossed the gum resins to the goats (which ate them) and said: "Next Christmas,, we are going to have some gift-giving RULES." But the Wise Men didn't hear her, because by then they were over by the crib trying to teach the Baby Jesus to pull their finger. That's Dave Barry's take on it.

You can probably guess what might have happened if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men. They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.

So, who were these wise guys anyway? These Magi nearly slipped in and out of history without being noticed and probably would have, had it not been for the little Prince they came to see. We know almost nothing about them. Legend counts them as three Wise Men, though the Gospel does not specify their number. Three gifts are listed and so it was assumed there must have been three worshipers. Eventually they were promoted to royalty and given names - Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.

In 1158 three bodies were discovered in the Church of St. Eustorgio in Milan, and local politicians conspired to identify them as those of the three Magi. A few years later Emperor Barbarossa captured the city and took the remains to Germany where they were laid to rest in the Cologne Cathedral. Soon "The Shrine of the Three Kings" became famous. Visitors to the cathedral are still shown the tombs of these men who were among the first to welcome Christ to earth, though now the guides generally wink when they tell the story.

But there is something else about these mysterious gentlemen, a detail in their story that I had never noticed before. Apparently, these wise men saw the star when they began their journey. The star inspired them, a sign they somehow recognized, and they started on their way west toward Palestine. But somewhere along the way they lost the star. It wasn't constant, because they had to stop and get directions from King Herod before heading on toward Bethlehem. And then it says that when they set out from there, the star appeared before them and led them to the Christ Child. "And when they saw the star again, they were overjoyed."

Let me suggest that these noble stargazers have something significant to teach us this Christmas.

Life is like a journey, isn't it? We are all travelers in this world, looking for answers, for what satisfies, what matters, searching for what has lasting significance, ultimate meaning, supreme worth. Like the Magi we are on a long journey, we are all passengers, pilgrims, pioneers. You and I are seekers, sojourners, stargazers ourselves.

We begin our journey with such high hopes and noble dreams. We spot a bright star and go after it, so excited and enthusiastic. We can't wait to get where we are going, to reach our goals and fulfill our destiny. And then, somewhere along the way, we may lose the star. We find ourselves struggling to navigate, groping in the darkness, trying to find our way.

It might be a career setback, a broken relationship, a financial loss, the death of a loved one, or our own health crisis. It's a sudden, unexpected eclipse and you find yourself staring into the darkness. You've lost the star.

Sometimes we have to reroute. Sometimes in life we may find ourselves where we never dreamed we would be. Nothing looks familiar or friendly. This wasn't part of the plan. This place wasn't on our itinerary. Unexpected detours in life get us off track. We may have to make a course correction, reroute, recalculate.

A few years ago, Suzanne and I were driving back to Missouri, heading into St. Louis on I-64. I noticed a shiny new bridge over the Mississippi had opened, but my GPS had not heard the news. So, when I exited for the new bridge, my GPS showed my car going off the road, heading cross country straight toward the big river. "Recalculating! Recalculating!" As we cruised across that brand new bridge, my GPS showed the little blue car plunging into the Mississippi. Again, "Recalculating! Recalculating!" But amazingly enough, we came out on the other side and when the new highway merged with the old one, we were back on track.

There are times we do need to reroute, recalculate, we know that's true. But there are also situations where we need to hold fast, have faith, and keep going.

Other times we may have to start over, to begin again. Have you ever found yourself right back where you started? You never intended for it to happen, but it did. Wasted time, squandered opportunities.

Several years ago I was on a flight from Houston on my way to Ukraine to teach at the seminary there. I had routed my flight through London with a long layover so that I could go see our son who was finishing his college work at Oxford. We took off about ten o'clock for an overnight flight. I woke up about 2:30 and the nice British lady next to me said, "While you were sleeping, there was a volcano, and the turned the plane around." I laughed and said, "You know, that's the kind of thing that would happen to me." She pointed to the screen indicating our flight path and our little plane had made a U-turn and was headed back the way we came. They flew us all the way back to Houston. So after a nine hour flight we walked back into the same airport which I soon noticed will make passengers pretty testy. We dubbed it "The All-Night Flight to Nowhere."

Have you ever been on that flight? Maybe you had your itinerary all planned, but somehow, for some reason beyond your control, you got turned around. You find yourself right back where you started. It's time to begin again.

Who knows? Maybe we chose the wrong star to begin with. There are so many artificial lights, so much reflected, refracted light, at times it's hard to recognize the real thing, the star that is real and true, the star we can follow, the star that leads to where we long to be.

It's no easy thing, to navigate through life, to follow a star, but we can learn, we can do it. And in the darkest times, when thick clouds cover the night sky or a heavy fog descends, find your faith. It's your faith that will keep you going when you lose your star. It's faith that guides our feet when we have no light for the path ahead.

When I was a boy, my friend Bruce and I would watch scary movies together. This experience was intensified because Bruce's parents were funeral directors. We watched horror movies in the basement of the funeral home - Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Vincent Price, sometimes we watched Dark Shadows. Scary stuff for little guys like us.

What made it even more terrifying for me was walking home in the dark after the movies. It was only 10-12 blocks, but it seemed like miles to me. I imagined werewolves behind every tree, vampires in the shadows, Frankenstein lurching out of the darkness. So here's what I did. I would run between the streetlights. I felt safe in the light so I could stop to catch my breath, and then I would take off again, running from streetlight to streetlight, all the way home.

Not a bad approach to life, I guess. When you can't find your star in the darkness, keep moving ahead, follow every little flicker of faith until the sky clears and you can see your way again.

Those old Magi would tell us today if they could. It was worth it at the end of the journey, when they finally arrived, when they knelt before the newborn King. It was worth every long, weary day and every pitch black night, worth every minute and every mile, every step of their epic search.

Whatever darkness or difficulty or discouragement you face during this Christmas season. Keep going. Keep the faith. Somewhere out there in the darkness, your star still shines.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

My Post-Election Prayer

A Pastoral Prayer, November 13, 2016, Memorial Baptist Church of Arlington:

O God, you are our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. The nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter... 

"Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth." The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

We rejoice this morning in your faithfulness, O God. In times of transition and change, you are the rock, our refuge. When the circumstances of our lives become unmanageable, when crisis looms and storms arise, when we come face to face with our own frailty and faithlessness, you give us a firm place to stand.

We cannot help but pray for our nation this morning, O God. A long, bitter contest has left us deeply divided. We struggle to find our common ground. Let those who were pleased with the outcome of this election not be vindictive or arrogant. May those who were disappointed not grow cynical or embittered. Give us grace, O God, not only for ourselves, but for one another.

We ask your blessings on all those who were elected to office this week, those continuing their service and those who are assuming new responsibilities. Grant your guidance and wisdom to each one, and especially for our brothers in this fellowship, Roy and John, as they represent their state, their district. Now that this election cycle has run its course, we pray for a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation, that wounds might be healed, and that we might focus again on all the unites us as citizens and as human beings.

As we commemorate Veterans Day this week, may we be reminded of the costly legacy of liberty that has been handed down to us, the stirring sacrifices of a countless host, and let us renew our commitment to all that is best in us, our noblest dreams and highest aspirations as a nation.

Help us to be good citizens of our country as we are reminded that our highest duty is to you, O God, as citizens of your present and coming Kingdom. May our lives together be about the work of bringing your Gospel and your grace, your love and your hope into our troubled world.

All this we pray in the name of the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Dr. David O. Moore - "Apples of Gold"

Last week marked the passing of a remarkable man, one of my true heroes, Dr. David O. Moore (3/11/21 - 10/28/16) longtime professor and chair of religious studies at my alma mater, William Jewell College. Tributes and words of appreciation have been posted from countless students, colleagues, and friends. His full obituary can be found here. I want to add my words of appreciation, knowing I am just one modest example of the blessing of D.O.'s life.

Dr. Moore came to Jewell in 1956, but I didn't show up on campus until the fall of 1978. I think I underestimated Dr. Moore as a professor initially. His warmth and gentlemanly charm belied his brilliant mind and his rigorous academic standards, but I caught on right away. I soon realized that this was no glorified Sunday School class. We were soon up to our necks in the Hebrew scriptures with a lifeguard who was unafraid of deep water. His love for the Bible and for the God of the Bible did not keep him from asking tough questions and wrestling thorny theological issues. A door had been opened for me into a grander vista of study and devotion, scholarship and faith. And for Dr. Moore, the two could never be separated. It was his own profound faith that he scrutinized and tested. When he spoke freely and personally of "Yahweh," (pronounced with an Ozark twang) I knew the two of them were well acquainted.

Not everyone was a fan of David Moore. In fact to some of the fundamentalist preachers in Missouri, Dr. Moore was a godless liberal, an infidel, even the devil himself. Under Dr. Moore's leadership, the religion department at Jewell chose to educate rather than indoctrinate, and for his trouble Dr. Moore was denounced and attacked, publicly and personally.

Through it all, Dr. Moore displayed the grace and poise of a Christian gentleman, never resorting to the tactics of his accusers, but standing true to his convictions and letting his life speak for itself. And it spoke volumes to me.  

By the spring of my sophomore year at Jewell, I was becoming quite enamored with the world of academia and professors like Dr. Moore made me ponder if perhaps I should give up on this call to become a pastor and instead become a teacher like my new heroes. One afternoon I stopped by Dr. Moore's office to tell him the news, my idea to follow in his footsteps and become a professor. I was sure he would be thrilled. He took time for me that day and heard me out, but his response surprised me.

"That would be fine, Drew. Teaching is a noble profession. I've given my life to it, and I'm certain you would do well. But, keep in mind, this is not the front line."

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, what we do here in study and preparation is very important. You know that. But this, the college, is behind the lines. The front line for the Kingdom of God is the Church. That's where it happens. That's where the action is. And, I tell you the truth, Drew. I think you are a front line kind of guy." I left his office that day back on track, more focused and excited about my calling and the journey ahead.   

When Dr. Moore retired in 1986, I was one year into my first full-time pastorate in little Lincoln, Missouri. I invited Dr. Moore to come preach for our annual "College and Seminary Day." I walked out to the car to greet him as he arrived. He said, "There are two bags in the back seat, Drew. Would you mind carrying them in for me?" I found two large grocery sacks filled with books.

"What's this, Dr. Moore?"

"They're for you, Drew. I decided when I retired, I would share my library with some of my students. I picked out some books that I thought might be helpful to you. I hope you'll benefit from them." I was stunned.

"Are you kidding me? Thank you, thank you so much. I can't tell you what that means to me."

Most of Dr. Moore's books still sit on my shelves, a few I have given away. I continue to benefit not only from the books he chose for me, but also from his extensive notes penciled in the margins on nearly every page. Some days I feel like I'm back in his classroom. That's a good feeling.

That Sunday in Lincoln, Dr. Moore preached on Proverbs 25:11. "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver." I knew he would choose an Old Testament text, but the proverb surprised me. As I look back now that verse seems an appropriate benediction for D. O.'s life. A word fitly spoken, a timely word, a wise word, a word in season, how good it is. God bless him.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Hate Hate and Love Love

"These are the tests of true greatness - to bear up under loss, to fight the bitterest of defeat and the weakness of grief, to be a victor over anger, to smile when tears are close, to resist disease and evil men and base instincts, to hate hate and to love love, to go on when it would seem good to die, to seek ever the glory and the dream, to look up with unquenchable faith to something ever more about to be." - Zane Grey