Wednesday, November 29, 2017

A Race Worth Running

It was on a Sunday evening, November 30, 1975, just a few months after the last Americans left Vietnam. Gerald Ford was President. We were jammin' to K. C. and the Sunshine Band's "That's the Way I Like It," and Elton John's "Island Girl." Truman Corners Cinema in Grandview was showing "Jaws" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Gas was 44 cents a gallon. A brand new Mustang costs just $4100, but I was learning to drive in Dad's red Pinto wagon.

I was fifteen years old, a sophomore at Grandview High School. Our youth minister, Carl Hobbs, had asked Dad for one Sunday night each month for a youth night, a service either aimed at the teenagers or presented by them, giving all of us a chance to get involved. Some youth night services were concerts by gospel groups and I think we showed a Billy Graham film or two. But this time, Carl wanted us to lead the whole worship service. My friend, Doug, could sing and lead the music. Others read scripture or gave testimonies. We had a youth choir that a sang an mildly upbeat anthem.

And, you guessed it, I was recruited to bring the sermon. This was way before I had any sense of calling to ministry, so getting up to speak was more of a dare or a novelty to me. But I wasn't going to blow it off. I knew I should take it seriously and prepare a real talk. I didn't want to disappoint or disrespect Dad who I had already embarrassed a time or two. And beyond my feelings for Dad, I knew even as a dumb kid that it is no small thing to stand at a pulpit, open the Book, and speak into people's hearts and lives.

I prepared for weeks. I chose two verses from Hebrews 12 about running a race, an image I could easily grasp and explain. I borrowed some commentaries from Dad, but couldn't make sense of them. I typed up my sermon on my Smith Corona and retyped it more than once. I practiced in my room and timed myself, certain that my sermon would take a full twenty-five minutes to present.

When the big night came, I put on my only suit, a snazzy gray pinstripe, and gave it my best shot. Being pretty nervous, I stuck close to my manuscript, reading at an ever accelerating pace, and finished the whole thing in eleven minutes. Then I sat down. No sense dragging it out, trying to fill the time. I said what I had to say and stopped, thus fulfilling, even as a novice, the first rule of preaching.

"Nice job, Drew. You did it!" Lots of encouragement from my friends and all the church folks. "There you go, just like your dad!" Scary words to a teenager with other plans.  

That was a long time ago. Seems like about a century. I confess that when I talked about running the race on that Sunday night I had no idea just how long the race would be. I was thinking dash, not marathon. And I never dreamed that I would see such staggering beauty and stark tragedy along the way. I couldn't know then what the long run would take from me and give to me, calluses on my soles and on my soul. I do know that in many ways I am not the same person that stood in Dad's pulpit on that Sunday night long ago.

But even in that first sermon, I was right about one thing, right on the money - there is a race worth running. No matter how long, how hard, how lonely it may be at times. We take heart, find faith, and keep going, knowing that we are closer to the finish line than we have ever been before. Forty-two years closer in my case. I want to finish well.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

A Little Thanksgiving Smoke

It's pretty quiet around here, early on Thanksgiving morning. I got up while it was still dark and put the turkey in my smoker, an eight hour project hopefully worth the trouble. (Say a prayer for the bird. Sixteen people coming for dinner.) Rather than head back to bed, I put on some coffee, ate a banana, and decided to collect my thoughts as I reflect on the day.

Thanksgiving can get a little cheesy, being reminded to count our blessings like ungrateful children, which of course, we are. Historically, we can take our pick - William Bradford and his pilgrim crew, George Washington as our government was founded, or Abraham Lincoln when our nation was deeply divided. Each one proclaimed a day of giving thanks for the blessings of Providence. Maybe Lincoln is most appropriate for this year.

Nothing is more nostalgic and predictable than Thanksgiving dinner. Most families eat the same meal every year with few creative alternatives. Something about marshmallows on sweet potatoes and stuffing parked beside our turkey makes the day complete. I wonder how many pumpkin pies are smothered in Cool Whip and passed around the table today. These are foods that we don't indulge any other time of the year, and I guess that's a good thing, keeping them special, as if they carried some kind of gratitude virus.

So what does Thanksgiving mean to me this year? I mean, beyond the basics, besides the obvious, what moves me to give thanks this morning?

First, home. Suz and I have lived in a tiny country house, a seminary apartment with a serious roach problem, three parsonages, and we have owned two houses. Like most people, we hate moving, but we've always had somewhere to go, a place to unload our stuff and make a new home.

Sunday afternoon my friend Jon, our son Jake and I were handing out hot Thanksgiving meals to homeless people in one of our local parks. The guys were very appreciative, sitting on park benches eating in the dark. I wonder where they are today. The local shelter? One man told me with a smile that he had an invitation, a place to go on Thanksgiving. I wanted to bring them all home. Maybe I'll find the nerve to do it someday.

I've always had a home. My parents were never on the street. My family has never known the kind of desperation that millions of refugees live with everyday. Mothers and fathers huddling their children together in the harshest of circumstances, running from war, pleading for provision, struggling to find a roof to come under. They love their children as much as I love mine. How heartbreaking, to be without a home.

Second, family. Suzanne and I went out on our first date on Thursday, November 6, 1980. No, she doesn't remember the date, but I do. Boy, did I fall fast, head over heels, goofy in love. Two weeks later, on Thanksgiving Day, I called her from my parent's house in Grandview. It was the first time I said to her, "I love you." How corny is that? We had only been going out for two weeks. What did I know know about love? Well, apparently, thirty-seven Thanksgivings later, I knew all I needed to know.

All these years Suz has followed me around, spurring me on, backing me up, and making the journey immeasurably better. Sometimes I think we know each other too well. Even our disagreements have a familiar ring to them. I know we've been good for each other.

Along the way, three kids have joined the show and they are the real stars. Sam, Jake, and Becca have staked a claim to my heart that I can't deny or resist. From diapers to diplomas, to finally getting off our payroll, we couldn't be prouder of the people they have become. Makes me glad I didn't kill them.

Like most families, Thanksgiving is a divided holiday, some are present and others are absent, and I'm not just talking about geography. This is our first Thanksgiving since Suzanne's mother passed away. Her whole family will feel her absence as we do. Some are gone and some remain, this is the nature of life. I am grateful for our family, near and far, present and absent.

Finally, church. How could I say otherwise? The church has been my life, my work, my calling, from the time I was a nineteen year old kid. Without the church, I would have had to get a real job. In the first three churches I served, I was the youngest pastor in their history, but that has proven a difficult streak to maintain. I'm an old veteran now, though I don't really feel much different then those early days. Maybe not quite as much vim and vigor. Maybe a little more savvy.

I have seen the church at its best and its worst, and the churches I have served could say the same about me. Ministry, I have learned, has its seasons, its ebbs and flows, its dreams and its nightmares. No one makes that journey without a few regrets, a wishful do-over or two, but we live and learn.

And through it all, by the grace of God, the church moves forward, sometimes haltingly, hesitantly, but always moving ahead, even with people like me leading the charge. God has blessed along the way, not so much because of me, sometimes in spite of me, but either way, I am blessed and the church is blessed as well. God is faithful.

So now my turkey has been in the smoker two hours and I'm hoping that the smell of wood smoke becomes a new Hill tradition. Six hours to go. We'll see. Thanks for reading my thoughts today. May your Thanksgiving be filled with good food and grateful hearts.

"If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice." - Meister Eckhart

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

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."