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.