My mother-in-law has Alzheimer’s, but it’s still Thanksgiving!

26 11 2019

BlogIt’s a terrible disease!  We all know that!  Watching Alzheimer’s slowly and insidiously destroy memories, and wipe away parts of a loved one’s past, is like . . . dropping your grandfather’s favorite coffee mug: the one you’ve been saving for decades, afraid to use out of fear of breaking it, and then when you finally do, that’s exactly what happens!  The mug shatters and is gone; and it’s departure takes all kinds of stories with it.  It snatches them right out of your hands, slowly perhaps, but over time removing every last shard of loving familiarity that for so long had found a home in the corner of your loved one’s heart.  Even if at times that mug was forgotten, unintentionally ignored because it was hidden in the back of the cupboard, you knew it was there, and found comfort in that knowledge.

As as pastor, I’ve been dealing with people suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia for more than three decades; but now it has hit home, and things are very different this time.  My mother-in-law was diagnosed last spring, and the disease is moving quickly — too quickly!  She’s been visiting for over a week now, and my time with her has been both sad and joyful.  The worst thing is watching my father-in-law and my wife attempt to navigate the situation; but the joy continues.  And the joy is what I will remember about what may indeed be my mother-in-law’s last visit to the States.  Because while she is indeed sick, she has not stopped laughing.

No, she’s not been able to fully follow or participate in all of our conversations.  We’ve answered the same 4-5 questions, 14-15 times; and she has occasionally used words that my wife has considered to be slightly ‘inappropriate.’  She’s been more open and honest about the ‘wrongness’ of my taking her only daughter away from her 35 years ago; and clearly a few of the much-needed ‘filters’ that the rest of us have are gone.  But she is still laughing!  Amazingly, in spite of all that is going on in her head, she is still smiling, and she is still laughing . . . at herself, at me, and yes even at life!

My mother-in-law is happy.   She knows that she’s lived long and well!  At 82 she has been blessed with a wonderful husband, an amazing daughter (my wife), two loving sons, ten wonderful grandchildren, and five beautiful great-grandchildren.  Her faith continues to sustain her, and her love of singing and classical music continues to bring her joy.  And when she makes a mistake, or forgets something that she knows she should remember, she just laughs.  When we jokingly tell her to stop talking so we can watch the news, she just keeps on mumbling and muttering, and laughs at us.  And when we give her a hard time for something she has said or done, she smiles and laughs right along with us.  Oh, don’t get me wrong – she has her moments.  There are times when she, and those are around her, are clearly frustrated by all that comes with the disease; but laughter persists none-the-less!

People rarely die from Alzheimer’s, but there’s no doubt my mother-in-law is in the gloaming of life.  And I know already that in her death, she will model the same faith and joy that she modeled throughout her life.  She knows full well that dying is part of living; and her laughter is not the laughter of someone nervously trying to cover up what some might consider an embarrassing illness.  Her laughter is the laughter spoken of in Proverbs 31.  When she ‘laughs at the time to come,’ she is laughing out of joy.  Strength and dignity are indeed the clothing of my mother-in-law, and her laughter is born in the knowledge that whatever comes her way, she is being held in the arms of eternity.  She is being held in the arms of God, and there is absolutely nothing to fear!  So she, and we, remain grateful.

Thanksgiving is a time to give thanks.  And even in the midst of this dreadful disease, that is what we are doing.  We are giving thanks.  We are giving thanks for the time we have together.  We are giving thanks for the love of family.  And we are giving thanks for laughter that can sustain us even in the darkest of days.

 

 

 





Election Day 2019

6 11 2019

Wave

It was an embarrassing blog!

On November 6, 2016, the morning of Election Day, I wrote . . . “I believe in America!”

I was convinced that policies and politics aside, there was no way the American people were going to send Donald Trump to the White House.  I wrote about the “spirit of America . . .  a Spirit of grace, generosity, civility, and love.”  I wrote about how I believed that our nation had learned to “recognize, name, and eradicate the color, gender, and religious bias in our life together.” And I wrote about my conviction that we would “do the right thing.”

The words came easily: too easily, I have since discovered!  Like so much of human sin, when challenged and confronted it often moves underground.  It goes into hiding and works in secret.  And that is what had been happening in America.  Our sin – racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and patriarchy – which was so visible to some, was invisible to others.  People like me had naively thought such sins had been lamented and confessed, and that we were moving on.  We believed that most of our nation was hanging . . . no, swinging! . . . on the moral arch of universe, forcing it to bend, and to move cultures and societies closer to God’s reign in the world.

But oh how wrong we were.  Oh how wrong I was!  We did NOT do the right thing, and I am embarrassed by that blog.  With the election of Donald Trump, our sins were put on display for all the world to see; and today, three years later, those sins have been legitimized and nurtured.  Sadly, for far too many of us, that have become a condoned new sense of the normal.

But here in Virginia, yesterday, Election Day 2019, revealed that things may be changing.  It appears that perhaps our nation is learning a few things.  Maybe business people, whose primary goal is always going to be personal profit, are not the best leaders of nations; for the skills required to be a CEO, or a real estate mogul, are different than those required to run a government.  Maybe ‘outsiders’ can be sometimes be so ‘outside’ that they have no idea what they are doing; for not not all bureaucracy is bad, and sometimes it provides a structure for governing, and a cadre of people who know what needs to be done in order to keep the wheels of government moving forward.  Maybe character and integrity really do matter; because words, behaviors, and lifestyles reveal a great deal about what is in a person’s heart, and they can never be overlooked because of a particular political agenda.

Election Day 2018 and 2019 have offered me some hope.  My faith in the American people is beginning to be restored; and not just because people in my political party are winning elections.  Rather, at least for me, every election since 2016, and right on thru 2020, is about nothing and no one but Donald Trump!.  And Americans are finally beginning to reject him.  People are finally coming together; and not necessarily around gun, abortion, military, or even financial policies.  America is coming together to reject everything that the current administration represents: narcissism, greed, arrogance, ineptitude, vulgarity, and lies.

For three years many have been saying that people like me to need to ‘get over’ what happened three years ago: that people like me need to stop whining, and instead do a better job of listening to those with whom I disagree.  They have been crying out for a return to civility in our national discourse, and for the eradication of the polarization that is plaguing American politics.  And they have been quick to challenge the American people to embrace the ‘purple’ nature of our families, communities, and churches.

But I continue to believe that if being purple means accommodating the national sin that is Donald Trump, I will continue to avoid the color purple.   And if ‘red’ America is going to continue to avoid rejecting his ways, then I will continue to work to make blue waves a reality around this country.  I will do that as a husband to a gifted wife and as a father to a remarkable daughter.  I will do that as a friend to countless immigrants and people in the LGBTQ community.  I will do that as a citizen of the world and as a member of the great human family.  And I will do that as a follower of Jesus Christ, and a leader in the faith community.

Perhaps, contrary to what so many would have us believe, the Trump presidency will not leave America more divided than ever.  Perhaps his time in office will leave us more united than ever.  And perhaps that unity will be around the things that really matter . . . things like justice, equality, goodness, decency, and truth.  For in the end, those are the only things that ever can, or that ever will, make America truly great!

May that be our goal.  May that be our prayer.





Can we let Baby Jesus Grow Up?

30 10 2019

Cross MangerIt’s the end of October and retailers are already preparing for the bustling holiday season!  I’m still enjoying all the mini–tootsie rolls that come out for Halloween, and eagerly anticipating my annual left-over turkey, cranberry. and stuffing sandwich on the day after Thanksgiving.  But with visions of dollar signs dancing like sugarplums in their heads, businesses are already preparing for their most profitable time of the year.

Now don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining.  I’m far from a Scrooge!  I love Christmas as much as anyone — probably more!  And Christmas music will be playing in more car long before many people throw out the rotting jack-o-lantern on their front porch.  But I’m continually amazed at the ways in which the rest of the world gets so wound up over the birth of a baby!

Sadly, for most people, this Holy Day is really more like a holly-day.  It’s a beautiful time of year; full of twinkling lights, the Spirit of giving, eggnog and homemade cookies, and everything else that December brings.  And even if the baby born in a manger is not the focus of the season for most people, the infant child is at least part of the holiday hoopla.  I know it is for those of us in the Church.  And rightly so!

Babies are cute and cuddly.  Their warm and fuzzy swaddling cloths almost make you want to climb into their cribs and fall asleep under the stars with them!  And the Christ-child is no exception.  Renaissance paintings and Fontanini nativity scenes have created a chubby little cherub who is worthy of our praise; with a golden halo, a facial expression revealing more awareness than is normal for a newborn baby, and in whose presence one is quickly reminded of a more divine than human audience.  We, like the wise men, are quick to offer our adoration.

Having just welcomed my first grandchild into the world a little over a year ago, I’m well aware of the power of babies.  I have been touched and moved in ways I never imagined!  But as wonderful as they are, babies don’t change the world.  And so it’s time for all of us to let Baby Jesus grow up?  Before he is even born, let’s remember that Jesus was a man, who altered the course of human history!

My tradition teaches that Jesus is the fullest and most complete expression of God in human form.  And this is not because he was born in a manger in Bethlehem, or because he died on a cross on Calvary.  His expression of God in human form was made a reality because of the way he lived . . . as an adult!  And too often we forget that.  We allow his birth and his death to overshadow his life.  Both Christmas and Easter are important markers in the life of the Church, but Jesus is much more than a baby to be worshipped or a savior to be resurrected!  Jesus is the Christ that we’re called to follow!

Adult Jesus stood up to injustice and challenged the oppressor.  He called the lowly to follow him and the proud to listen to him.  He sat at the tables of sinners and outcasts, and overthrew the tables of moneychangers in the temple.  He taught the poor to persevere and the religious to repent   He offered words of grace to the woman caught in the act of adultery and words of judgement to those ready to throw stones.  He blessed the meek and chastised the merciless.   He comforted the afflicted and he afflicted the comfortable.

Jesus’ expression of God in human form was all about the way he lived; and we who seek to follow him are called to walk in his footsteps.  His life, gives birth to our lives!  And his way, guides our way!  So it’s time to we let him grow up.  It’s time to move beyond the baby in a manger and instead focus on the adult in the market.  It’s time to move beyond the infant in the stable and instead focus on the rebel in the temple.  The Savior born on Christmas night grew up to to challenge systems and structures, empire and ecclesiology, oppression and injustice.  And while his incarnation announced that God was in the world; it was his life that changed the world!

For too many of us, the only Jesus we know is the baby born in the city of David . . . the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths . . . the baby laying in a manger.  We celebrate his birth year after year, but consciously and unconsciously we keep him in a perpetual state of infancy and never let him grow up.

This year, may that not be the case.  Let’s see beyond both the manger and the cross, and prepare to follow an adult.  For as cute as baby Jesus was, he didn’t change the world.  Adult-Jesus did!  And we who are his living body can do the same thing.  But only when we allow him to step out of the stable, and move towards the cross!

 

 





Sometimes, it’s the little things!

23 10 2019

Gratitude

Seeing the world through the eyes of a child has the capacity to change everything!

It had been a long week, and all I really wanted to do was hold the tiny hands of my granddaughter!  I wanted play peek-a-boo, read “Good Night Moon,” and squirt whipped cream into her tiny mouth.

Like so many of us, I too want to leave my mark on the world.  I want my life to count for something, and I want to make a difference . . . for God’s sake!  I want to model what it means for one spouse to love another spouse unconditionally.  I want to raise children who are passionate and COMpassionate, who aren’t afraid to dream and stand up for what is right, and who are responsible and healthy contributors to society.  I want to pastor people and serve the church as the constitution of my denominations says . . . “with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.”  I want my voice to be prophetic.  I want my heart to remain open.  And I never want my mind to stop growing.

But sometimes I get tired.  And so in those moments I need to stop and learn to put my agenda on the back burner for a while.  I need to put aside my goal of ushering in the reign of God all by myself! – and slow down.  I need to see the world through the eyes of my granddaughter, and return to some of the simple things in this life!  I need to go Butler’s Orchard and feed the goats!  I need to ride the carousel at the zoo.  And yes, I need to squirt whipped cream into my own mouth, and smile!

Whether running through a field holding the hand of someone they love, gazing out at a garden of sunflowers on a glorious October morning, or spotting a pumpkin patch from the back of an old red pickup, children have the capacity to change our perspective and offer us a healthier view of life.  They ground us, and remind us of the simple joys of life!  So when weeks become long, feet get tired, and spirits are low, it’s time to stop and see the world through the eyes of a child.  It’s time to appreciate the little things.  It’s time to breathe in the cool fall air, hear the rustle of the falling leaves, and notice the changing colors of the of trees.

Fall is the perfect time to see the world through the eyes of a child, and to appreciate the little things.  And today, that means worrying less about changing the world, and focusing instead on enjoying the world!





Race, Grace, and Warm Fuzzies

8 10 2019

Because I would never dare to presume to know what was in the heart of either Brandt Jean or Amber Guyger at the time of this embrace – the photo of which has gone viral – I’m going to be careful in making assumptions or calling others to model their behavior.  I have no desire to speak for people of color, presuming that my privilege has given me the wisdom to know how they should respond to a systemic form of American racism that continues to take the lives of too many young Black men.  And, as a pastor and person of faith, I in no way want to minimize the healing power of repentance and the transformative nature of forgiveness.  But having said all that, there is something about this photo that just doesn’t sit well with me.

Brandt knows that hating the police officer who killed his innocent, unarmed brother Botham . . . as he sat in his own apartment, watching TV, and enjoying a bowl of ice cream . . . will only harm his spirit and hurt his soul.  His remarks at the trial revealed a forgiving spirit and deep love of God.  And he made it clear that he wanted only the best for Amber, and that he hoped one day she would give her life to Christ.  Amber too revealed a distraught and tender spirit at the trial, tearfully apologizing for taking the life of a beloved brother and son.  Both she and her mother spoke mournfully about how the killing had so tragically ruined the lives of so many people.

So at first glance, it is easy to see why people were so powerfully moved by the photo!  But when set in the context of all that is going on in our nation today, and when interpreted in light of the Christian faith, things become far more complex.  And here’s why.

First, Amber is part of a culture in which systemic racism still rules the day; and throughout the trial she failed to acknowledge that.  She admitted that she made a mistake, and that she didn’t know she was in the wrong apartment until she had already pulled the trigger.  But she failed to acknowledge the role race had played in her sudden fear and overreaction to seeing a Black man sitting on what she thought was her sofa.  And she never apologized for that.  In fact she actually stated during the trial that she had fired to kill!  Because that’s what fear of another does.  And Amber’s fear was not the fear of an intruder!  It was the fear of a Black man.  And so she killed him.  Had Botham been White, the confusion over which apartment the officer was standing in would have likely become quickly apparent, laughter over her mistake would have ensued, and no shots would have ever been fired.  But Botham wasn’t White.  He was Black.  And so Amber made all kinds of false assumptions, and wound up committing murder.  Her racism was put on display for all the nation to see, and she never acknowledged that . . . not once, during the entire trial.

Second, Brandt appears to be part of a church that fails to see repentance and forgiveness as part of the larger reign of God in this world: a reign in which shalom – justice, wholeness, and rightness – are required to truly transform creation.  For as important as repentance and forgiveness are, without shalom, they are little more than a warm sentiment or a kind embrace!  Shalom is justice: and where there is no justice, there is no shalom.  There may be repentance, and even forgiveness, but they are only the first steps.  And if justice does not follow, shalom will never come, and the reign of God will cease to become a reality!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about “cheap grace” in his 1937 book, The Cost of Discipleship, and defined it as the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance.  I would add that it is also the seeking of peace without requiring justice.  For without justice and repentance, peace and forgiveness mean very little!

So Brandt may have forgiven Amber for killing his brother, but she has still not repented of her racism.  And Amber may have stumbled into the arms of a reconciling peace with the brother of the man she murdered, but there continues to be little justice for Brandt, and for millions of other people of color in America.  America’s version of White Supremacy is one that too many still refuse to acknowledge and confront.  And until we do, pictures like the one above will continue to go viral, and give well-meaning White folk ‘goose bumps.’  But nothing will change.  And people of color will continue to die.

America does not need pictures of Black people forgiving and making peace with White people in a hug.  Forgiveness and peace, without repentance and justice, are nothing more than warm fuzzies!

 





I long to be inspired again!

19 09 2019

inspireIn President John F. Kennedy’s Inauguration Day speech, on January 20, 1961, Americans were encouraged to . . . “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your county.”

Two years later, on August 28, 1963, in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream speech”, our nation was inspired to imagine that day when people will . . . “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

January 28, 1986, after the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, President Ronald Reagan comforted a country mourning the loss of seven courageous astronauts by beautifully articulating the tragedy as their having . . . “slipped the surly bonds of earth and touched the face of God.”

And on July 25, 2016, Michelle Obama spoke about the power of not meeting evil with the same evil.  “You don’t stoop to their level,” she said.  “. . . when they go low, we go high!”

Oh, how I am longing to be inspired again!  Every time I turn on the news I’m longing to hear from a national leader who can speak in a way that lifts my sights to the highest of human goodness, and who can give me picture of the world not as it is, but a vision of the world as it should be . . . as it could be!

My wife and I are binge-watching “The West Wing,” and it is not unlikely that this fictional account of the work of the people in the White House is raising my already high standards, and leaving me with expectations that may be slightly unrealistic!  But surely we cannot allow the uninspiring times in which we are living to become the norm.  Surely we cannot continue to put uninformed and unimaginative people in positions of power.  Surely we cannot continue to condone leadership that lacks moral and ethical integrity, that denies facts, and that scorns those with differing perspectives.  And surely we cannot continue to embrace leaders whose preferred vehicle of communication is a mere 140 word tweet, and whose only method of debating important concepts and ideas is by name-calling opponents.  Regardless of the political party with whom one identifies, surely these are all things upon which we can agree!

How often have we all heard someone say, “I want your average Joe in the White House, and in Congress . . . common people . . . just like me!”

Well I DON’T want people in the White House, OR in Congress, who are just like me.  In fact I want women and men who are not at all like me.  I want leaders who are smarter than I am.  I want leaders who are more informed than I am.  I want leaders who are more articulate than I am, and who are more knowledgeable of all that is going on in the world than I will likely ever be!  I want leaders who will inspire me — who will call me and this nation to a higher version of ourselves, and who aspire to their own better nature!

Is it really too much to expect our leaders, like the West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett, to be less concerned about reelection, and more concerned about speaking the truth?  It is too much to expect our leaders to communicate in a ways that builds others up, and that edifies our people – all people, of every gender, race, ethnicity, and ideology?  And is it too much to expect our people, to walk into a voting booth and put character before charisma, and principles before party?

I hope not.  Because I don’t think I’m alone in my thinking these days.  Something has gone terrible wrong in our nation, and we need leaders who can lift our sights to all that is right, and good, and beautiful, and pure! We need leaders who truly understand service before self, and who know in their bones that in a great nation, no one succeeds unless everyone succeeds!  We need leaders who, in the words of Dwight D. Eisenhower, “have unquestionable integrity”; and we need leadership, that in the words of Stanley A. McChrystal, “builds trust and . . . inspires.”

Oh, how I long to be inspired again!

Would someone, please, for God’s sake, and for the sake of our nation . . . inspire me.  Inspire us!

 





Religious, but not Spiritual!?

10 09 2019

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy now most of us are well aware that America, and perhaps the world in general, is more spiritual than religious. Survey after survey, book after book, sermon after sermon, all tell us that people have been driven away from the historical forms of Christian religiosity in favor of a more personal and self-defined understanding of spirituality.  And this is certainly understandable.

The largest and most visible religious movements of our day tend to be inclined toward fundamental extremism, and are accurately judged by many to be naive and narrow, anti-science and anti-intellectual, and morally hypocritical and ethically inconsistent.  And while many of these right-leaning churches have let go of empty rituals and traditions, and managed to engage culture and society in meaningful ways; their relevance has often come at the expense of a theology with any modicum of intellectual integrity.

Meanwhile, many left-leaning churches have worked hard to create a theology that is intellectually credible and morally consistent, but in so doing they have neglected the task of being relevant to an ever and always changing world.  As a result they appear to be in a perpetual state of decline.  Far too often they are more concerned with maintaining their religious rituals and traditions, than finding new ways to reach out to, and connect with, the community and the culture.  They embrace a faith centered around the incarnation, and a God who in the words of Eugene Peterson “moves into the neighborhood,” but their talk about incarnation appears to have little if any impact on what they do and how they do it!

As a result, religious activity and church membership continue to decrease around our nation.  Rather than ‘going to church’ on Sunday mornings, people are now attending the soccer games of their children, visiting their local Starbucks to read the morning paper, or merely surrendering to the simple desire to sleep in!  Because people remain spiritual beings they want to hang on to their spirituality; but as far as religion goes, they want out!  They want nothing to do with our religious institutions and traditions because they have rightly concluded that we have lost our spirituality.  They regard us as more religious, than spiritual: and that conclusion that has left the future of the institutional Church hanging in the balance.

While we Church folk are quick to label many of the unchurched and dechurched people in our communities as being spiritual but not religious; perhaps it would do us well to consider their assessment of us; for they regard us as religious, but not spiritual.  And as someone who has spent his entire life in the Church, I’m inclined to agree.

Churches on both the right and left — as well as countless that would be described as ‘purple,’ ‘middle of the road,’ or as I’m more likely to say, ‘lukewarm’ about anything that really matters — have lost their voice and no longer have much to bring to the public square.  We were once respected, and brought a great deal of wisdom and integrity to our communities.  We had much to contribute to the national dialogue about the important issues of the day, and while not always consistent with Biblical values, we were never the less at least attempting to do good around the world.  But this is no longer the case.  Sunday morning worship attendance continues to decline, growing Churches are merely ‘stealing sheep’ from other congregation and NOT making new disciples, and the respect for and admiration of clergy is now as low as it is for attorneys!

Why?

Because the world’s assessment of us accurate.  The American Church is far more religious, than spiritual!  We love our buildings more than we love the people in our communities.  We are more concerned with budgets and bulletins, than with the hungry and the homeless.  And the only thing we’re interested in changing, are light bulbs!  . . . and even then, only after three committee meetings and congregational vote!  We’re still singing the same hymns we sang 200 years ago, reciting creeds that were written to address issues from a different time and place, and memorizing passages of Scripture without the slightest knowledge of Biblical history or the task of Biblical interpretation.  Most tragic of all, we believe that our mercy ministries absolve us from entering the world of politics, where we might become the justice-seekers we’re called to become as followers of the most-high God!  It is as though we’ve become content with debates about the virgin birth, musical styles, whether or not wine can be served on church property, and how long someone can remain on our prayer chains.

Are any of these matters spiritual?  Do any of them have anything at all to do with one’s spirituality?  Some perhaps come close; but most are not . . . by a long shot!  So what if our theological discussions were less about telling people why Jesus had to be born of a virgin, and instead focused on what it means to understand God as “the one in whom we live and move and have our being?”  What if we stopped telling people that worship was about getting together for an hour on Sunday morning, singing, and telling God how much we love Jesus; and instead helped people find ways to worship God Monday thru Saturday, in the ways they engaged with their neighbors, their colleagues work, the students with whom they go to school, or the strangers on the street?  What if we stopped even thinking about wine before we got the coffee issues solved, and stopped serving warm dishwater simply because it was on sale at Cosco; and instead sought to make our fellowship times opportunities for real and genuine sharing, where people were not afraid to be authentic in their interactions, vulnerable with their struggles, and honest about their faith journeys?  And what if we we began to understand prayer as less about telling God what we’d like done over the next few weeks; and instead more about becoming mindful of God’s presence in our world and the Spirit’s movement in our lives, so that we might become agents of reconciliation and transformation?

After 34 years in ministry, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the world needs far fewer religious people and far more spiritual people.  And if that means that the Church as we know it needs to die; then let it die.  Perhaps then something new can be born.  Perhaps then resurrection will become something more than a simplistic and naive interpretation of the activity of Jesus on the third day, and more about what it means to be “born again!” Perhaps then the Church can become what it was meant to be: Christ’s living body in the world: seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.

Church, let’s stop worrying about everyone outside of our walls, and better deal with those inside!  Let’s stop trying to make spiritual people more religious, and instead focus on making religious people more spiritual.