Monday, October 31, 2005

Random Stories from the Road

I'm in the Philly airport waiting for a flight to Detroit. Looking around me I am reminded of that question that plagues every writer, cartoonist, or songwriter: "Where do you get your ideas?" Stories are all around us.

1. An Air National Guard sergeant is sitting beside me. Four people have come up to him in the last half hour and thanked him for his service, shaking his hand, and sincerely wishing him well. He responds that he really isn't someone to thank, that he is "just" in the guard. People wave his humility away and thank him again, tenderly. What kind of man has six stripes on his sleeve and yet considers himself a minor player?

2. One woman was helped over to speak to him. She is elderly and tells him, in a soft voice, that she was a nurse in World War II. He treats her as kindly as if she were his beloved grandmother and she looks at him as an honorable descendant. What stories tie these two together?

3. An Amish woman is walking down the concourse with three little girls, all in dresses and bonnets. They all hold hands. The mother keeps her eyes straight ahead but one of the girls can't help but look all around her at these strange people, foods, clothes, and lifestyles. What is she seeing? What difference will it make in her life? Where are they going? How hard was it for them to get their bishop's permission to fly? Will this trip lessen or confirm their fear of outsiders?

4. Across from me is a young man and woman, both around thirty. She is reading a book on the wonders and blessings of being a stay at home mom. He is reading a book on economics. They stop every now and then and share passages they just read with each other. They smile when they do so, show interest in the other and their reading or insight. From time to time she lays her head on his shoulder. What is their story and how many people in this crowded concourse would give their new Lexus and Rolex for a life like theirs?

5. I spoke at two churches in New Jersey this week. At Tabernacle the teens gathered excitedly on the front three rows every night. They were bright, friendly, and articulate. Their parents beamed with pride over their teen's behavior -- and rightly so. A man who only knew me from the internet drove in from Pennsylvania to hear me in person and remarked that he had never had his hand shaken so many times, been greeted so warmly, and made to feel so welcome as at this little church in a rural area of south Jersey. What brought them to this place? What impact will their simple kindness have on his life?

6. At the Pitman church I saw heroism and Christianity alive and well. The preacher's wife is fighting two kinds of breast cancer and yet is full of smiles, hugs, and welcome. The preacher himself is a lifelong evangelist; one of the best I've ever met. The congregation is a blend of white, black, and Hispanic all living in love and harmony -- perhaps the best example of this I have ever seen. One recent baptism was of a former go-go dancer, now in her sixties and finally home with people who love her. Two others were baptized yesterday. A woman had been in the hospital with a member of the Pitman church who was terminal, yet that woman's faith so affected the other that, after the believer's death, she and her husband came to the baptistry and gave their lives to that same Lord. How many other stories like this are in this church? What kind of spirit lives there?

7. Little stories abound around me. A young African American woman dozes alone in a chair, holding a bouquet of a dozen pink roses. Somebody loves her. What is her story? An older white man, perhaps in his nineties, sits alone, quietly. Does he have someone to help him get to the bathroom or to buy him a soda at the shop across the walkway? Wait! A woman in her thirties has just sat down beside him. Someone is there for him. A woman empties trashcans and has the prettiest face and smile in the whole airport. I speak to her briefly about the nice weather and we both say "God bless you" when we part. Have I just met a Christian? What is her story? What brings her joy in this dark and dusty airport?

I sit here in my Maxwell Smart Edition Cone of Silence and watch God's children all around me. For a brief moment I wonder what God thinks of these people. I know He loves them, but for some reason I am convinced that He is proud of them, too. I cannot articulate why that idea brings me such joy, but it does. May He be proud of me, too.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Timing and Tapestries

It is twenty inches high and 230 feet long. Woven into the tapestry is the story of the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings, 1066, when everything changed forever in the British Isles. But that's a different story. The story is the tapestry. It is a work of art, stylish, detailed and complete...on one side. On the other side, it is a tangled mess. It is always that way. Look behind lovely weavings and you see a tangle, a confusion of colors and lines. Which brings me to laughing in church and spontaneous figure skating.

Let me explain.

We laugh every Sunday and Wednesday at Rochester. It's not a non-top laugh-fest, of course, but we find at least one reason to smile when we gather. I have been accused of trying to make sermons a stand-up comic routine and several have suggested that I should really leave the pulpit and go around making people laugh, but that presupposes that I have control over my one liners and tall tales. I fear it is somewhat like figure skating.

Let me explain.

My wife was a figure skater before I married her and ruined everything. She loves to watch figure skating to this day and I, the loyal and faithful husband, sit and watch with her. She will oooh and aaahh when a skater does some frippery move and I will protest, "I can do that!" She gives me the look so I go on: "I just don't know when it's going to happen. I walk out in the rain to get the mail and -- boom! -- a triple toe loop and a double something else!" I can do it... I just can't plan it. The timing is just as big a surprise to me as it is to the neighborhood. The same with my humor. It isn't planned. It just happens... and I am usually as surprised as everyone else (like the Wednesday night when I said that Michael Jackson makes me love America, for in what other country can a small black boy grow up to be an old white woman? C'mon -- does that comment show any evidence of pre-thought?).

My life seems, to me, to be a tangled mess of lines and a confused jumble of colors. Sections of my life are corded in a relentless darkness while bursts of bright color and light fly in from outside my field of vision. What it all meant was a mystery to me until I saw a poem on a bulletin board of a facility that housed and helped adults with Down's syndrome and similar handicaps. It was written by that world famous poet "author unknown" and read thusly:

My life is but a weaving
Between my Lord and me.
I cannot choose the colors
He works so steadily.

Oft-times He weaves in sorrow
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I, the underside.

Not till the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the tapestry
And explain the reason why.

The dark threads are as needed
In the weaver's skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned.

There's a lot in my life I don't "get." There are large sections of it where I can't see the hand of God and other sections that I wish I could forget. The soundtrack moves from comic calliope to Slavic dirge and lights and shadows flit in sequences that defy logic or pattern... but I am only seeing this side of the tapestry. I believe God is weaving something beautiful, adding in the dark and light as He sees fit; as the Master Weaver.

Last story: my mother loves those puzzles with a thousand pieces. I am not so good at them, though I am proud that I finished one recently in less than a week when the box said "four to six years".... but I digress. When she gets stuck and can't find a piece or see where a piece fits she will step away, go to another part of the room, climb on a chair, or sit down low, changing her perspective until suddenly the reason, the place, and the pattern become apparent. I am down here with one point of view. He who can see all, who knows all, and who is love has a different perspective. As I told a teen class recently: you see before you a man who is nearly 49, fairly short, without much in the way of muscle or beauty.... but I assure you: I'm gorgeous! You can't see it, though, 'cause you're standing on this side of the tapestry.....

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Shrink Wrapped

I am SO not qualified for ministry. I frittered away my college years getting two doctorates that had nothing to do with theology, ministry, or baptistry maintainence. What was I thinking? Actually -- I can tell you: I always knew that one day I would need a shrink so I became one so that when that day came I would be there for me. When I am on the couch, eyes closed, arm over my face, I tell my wife that this is not napping: this is therapy. Leave me alone -- I'm near a breakthrough. One more plus about being a shrink: the inkblots mean whatever I say they mean.

It's also pretty cool being in an elders' meeting thinking "I could sign a couple of forms and these guys would be in a padded room and never eat with a fork again." Not that I would really think something like that. Really. Never crossed my mind.

Having the degrees helps when I am called to speak on this or that. I am leaving tomorrow for Indiana where I'll do three days on angels and demons. After a couple of days at home I go to New Jersey to do three days on Christian evidences and then one day (at another church) on a standard Bible-type topic. Right after I get back to Detroit I have to go to Phoenix to do three days on marriage and family issues. When I get back home I have to take off for West Virginia to do three days on mental health issues.

I get to meet interesting people -- many of whom need a shrink, or a minister, or both. I'll overhear enough conversations to feed my sermon illustrations for a few more months. I'll eat 3.5 miniature pretzels per flight which is good because I'm going to need my strength to fight Mongo in the seat beside me when he tries to take over the armrest that God, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles can all plainly see belongs to me by right. The stewardess... sorry... flight attendant will not be helpful as she can't manage to get her walker down the tight aisle and, besides, her oxygen tank only has a twelve foot long tube and I'm sitting back in the "let's slaughter a chicken for lunch" section among the rolled up prayer rugs.

Not that I'm complaining.

Shrink humor: when someone tells me their dream I like to scream and run away. I had one guy ask me if I thought he was paranoid. I said, "That's what everybody's saying." Another guy said he thought he had an inferiority complex. I said, "Yes, but it's not a very good one." Another time two extremely whiny people came in and after a painful twenty minutes hearing them complain about each other in tones that only dogs could hear I told them I couldn't help them as I was never trained in child psychology. I'm not proud about that one. (okay -- a little)

I never said I was a good shrink. I said I was cheap. There's a difference. Here's the good news for you who get to stay at home and worry about who gets kicked off what reality show: if you could get in my head you would pay money to get out.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

A New Culture

The Nation of Islam is marching in Washington this weekend. Neo-Nazi's and gang members are fighting each other in the streets of Toledo, Ohio as I write this. And here in Detroit -- the most segregated area in the United States, according to the census bureau -- around seventy men and women met at Rochester College to discuss how we can break down the walls between black and white churches. JC Thomas and David Fleer planned this gathering and it was heartening to see how enthusiastically church leaders of both races embraced their dream. We listened to impassioned speeches on "White Apathy" and "Black Anger" and then broke into small groups -- mixed by race, age, and gender -- to discuss a list of provocative questions. We sang with each other other, ate with each other, and hugged each other.

While the world outside our doors seemed to be degenerating into racial incidents both farcial and tragic, we were able to speak to each other -- not at each other. (Note the continued use of "each other." It's almost as if we were in the book of Hebrews....) I said to our group leader, an African American minister, "I have far more in common with you than I will have with almost any white person I will meet later today. We serve the same God and have a common speech. However, when I go into the inner city and speak with a group of troubled black youths, they have a language I just don't understand. If I can't understand them I can't empathize and draw alongside them. How can a middle aged white man make the journey from here to there?" My comment was initially misunderstood to mean that I didn't understand them linguistically. After a few clarifying comments it was clear that I meant that I would never be able to understand what went on in the mind of a black man since I have been white all my life (!!!).

They agreed and said that they would never know what it was like to be white. Our stories, backgrounds and experiences are different. So what can be done? After a morning thrashing this out only one solution presented itself: since I cannot entirely move into black culture and since blacks cannot entirely move into my culture, we must develop a different culture. Rather than wasting time trying to fix black or white culture (and it is silly to speak of either race as if they were monolithic, isn't it?) all of us must come to an alternative culture -- the culture of Christ. As if this weren't enough, we would also have to continually monitor ourselves to make sure that we were not creating a white or black god and calling all to him. We agreed that the god most of us worship lives in the mirror and likes what we like and thinks as we think.

We are holding each other accountable, praying alongside each other, and working with all our might to establish a culture of Christ, a brotherhood that transcends race, gender, age and socioeconomic status. If we are true to our word, God is sure to bless this effort and one day we, or our children, will see a city set on a hill, a light in the darkness here in southern Michigan. May God help us.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Part Three -- High Noon in Action

She was a high school senior with a 4.0 and was bound for a good college when she got an "F" on a major test in advanced biology. Her fellow teens at church alerted us (ministers and elders) concerning the reason why: she had defended her belief in creation. Her teacher was an aggressive evolutionist and had given them a long, hard test requiring ten short essay answers. She had supplied the "evolutionarily correct" answers and then added her objections and counter arguments; effectively doubling the amount of work on her test. The teacher did not deny that she had learned the material and could spout it back on command, but gave her an "F" since she "clearly did not understand it."

Our elders were at the school the next day. They were kind, soft spoken, and respectful as they spoke with, first, the principal and then the teacher. Later that day they also spoke to the superintendent of schools. The grade was changed two days later to an "A." The elders took her original paper, complete with red "F" and laminated it, hanging it in a prominent position of honor in the church building.

I could also speak about the new band teacher who upon coming in immediately changed practice from Thursday to Wednesday night and made it mandatory. When two of our teens tried to explain that they had church they were told: show up or drop the band. Our elders once again went into the school -- gently and with a Christ-like spirit. The practice was switched back to Thursday.

Or the time that a single mother who struggled against all odds to raise her children ran up against school regulations and an uncaring employer. She wanted to be at her kids' school for the parent teacher conferences but her employer -- a manager at McDonalds -- wouldn't give her the night off. The elders volunteered to go to the conferences in her place but the school wouldn't allow it. State law said only the parent or legal guardian had the right to confidential info about the child (understandable). One of our elders, who owned stores all over the state and was a very well to do man, went to the McDonalds manager and asked him personally to release the woman for that evening. When the manager refused, our elder volunteered to work in her place. He came in three nights in a row to learn her job and then worked that night for her -- for free. By the end of the week the entire town had heard about it. It's hard not to notice when a wealthy man is working at McDonalds mopping floors and cleaning toilets... without a word of complaint.

Each of these people stepped up and stepped out for something bigger than themselves. The teens could have stayed mute, shrugged and said "What can you do?" They didn't. The elders could have tsk-tsked and complained about the state of things today... but they moved in sweetly to change things. No voices were ever raised or threats made. In case you are wondering, this wasn't in some small rural backwater, but in a major metropolitan area. And we don't win them all, but we put them all in play.

Today we sent three of our own away. One of them, a lovely twenty two year old girl, is going to work at planting a church in the Bronx over the next two years. She said she had only 20% of her needed funds, but promised God she would go anyway... and then the money came in. A young couple with three elementary school and preschool children are walking away from their upper middle-class home and great jobs to live in Jinja, Uganda for five years. Why? Because on a visit they saw the need for God in the eyes of those there and determined to take the good news to them.

High Noon moments. Gotta love 'em. Step up and step out. All praise to Him who lets us in the game.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

High Noon Moments, Part Deux

I had an email on this subject that I think speaks more eloquently than can I. Let me share it with you and hear from you about whether or not this strikes a chord in your heart:

"I've thought about your call for "high noon" stories over the past couple of days. the one resounding thought is how few of these stories come to mind. I can remember a few minor ones like when I gave a pro-life speech in a class my senior year of high school. But that was really no big deal -- I wasn't persecuted for it. It shouldn't even be considered a major event. I remember confronting my high school football coach my junior year. However, I don't know that I did it for Jesus as much as for myself. The fact was that his form of motivation (swearing endlessly and belittling you when you screwed up) didn't motivate me, and I wanted him to stop it. It actually worked and his vocabulary towards me changed, but it didn't change towards the rest of the team. Once again, not really a "high noon" moment, but more a moment of me overcoming fear and facing a perceived foe.

"So here I am. I've been a baptized believer since I was 14 years old. Next March will be the 19th anniversary of this event. More importantly, I knew Jesus long before I was baptized as a teenager... So the question I keep asking myself is WHY: Why don't I have more stories like this packed into my Christian journey of faith? What have I really done for Jesus over the last 20 or so years? I've done a lot of "good" things, but these are things that I probably would have done whether or not I knew Christ. They were morally motivated. In other words, they were things that any "good" person would do. They were not things that stand out and say, "I'm different because of Christ!" I'm left with the impression that I'm really a big wimp. I want to be a MAN for Christ, but wimp is what rises to the surface.

"I speak to my children about persecuted Christians. Since I can remember, I've tried to remind myself that I am raising them to be martyrs for the Lord. I don't just mean martyrs in some abstract sense, but actual martyrs who will choose to give their earthly life for our King. More importantly, I try to teach them that living for Him is more of a task at times than actually dying for Him. I teach this but I question whether I am living it.

"More than "high noon" stories, I am reminded of several times when I stood at the crossroads and chose the path of least resistance. These were not monumental moments when I had a gun to my head and [was] asked to deny Jesus or take a bullet. I actually think I would make the right decision in that circumstance. However, it's the little choices that I've let slide by. I'm often prompted to pray for someone I barely know. Instead of immediately praying for them, I talk myself out of it and say that I will pray silently, or pray later, or question how they might respond if my prayers aren't answered in the way that is desired. Other times the Lord will call me to give money or something of value to someone and I dismiss it as some emotional response. I rationalize how it wouldn't be prudent to give money to a person who would not use it correctly. (Like it's actually mine to determine how it is used -- It's God's -- given to me by grace only) Or how about the times when I'm in a conversation with people who don't know the Lord or are at least not speaking in a manner that shows they know Him? Many times I have let conversations continue down wrong paths -- never sharing the gospel -- never letting them know that I am a fanatical follower of Christ! I keep quiet in order to avoid conflict.

"What if it was by Divine appointment that these people crossed my path? What is the message I had to share was their last opportunity to hear the good news?... What if the impracticality of my money gift "in the name of Jesus" actually broke down a wall that previously separated them from His love? What if I actually chose to enter into conflict with my brother/sister and it helped saved their marriage? How many opportunities have I wasted?

"Looking back I see that my fear of man surpasses my fear of God in most situations. But today is a new day! This is a new season of life. The old is past and today I have a choice. A new chance to stand up for Jesus! I recently ended a fast and the overwhelming message I received from the Lord was what Samuel spoke to Saul, "To obey is better than sacrifice!" I was bombarded by this message every single day of my fast. the Lord was and is calling me to obedience. he could care less about my sacrifices. He wants me to jump when he says jump and shut when when He says shut up. I am to obey Him in the little things, as well as the big, in the silly, as well as the sane, in the loud, as well as the quiet, in the things done before the eyes of man, as well as those done in secret. Over the past few weeks I've done some strange and wonderful things just because the Lord told me to. None of these would qualify as "High Noon" moments, but perhaps they are preparing me for future "High Noon" moments. I certainly hope so. I pray that I will be obedient in the little, so I will have no choice but to be obedient in the big! I was to be a man like David -- a man "after God's own heart." I don't want to be a disappointment, a wasted life, a wimp, a self-serving egotist, an unrepentant fool, etc. (you get the idea)....."

I think my brother's email is brilliant. What do you think? Share your stories, comments, and insights. Another High Noon column is coming in a few days.

Monday, October 03, 2005

High Noon Moments

We have a seeker service every Wednesday we call "Connections." We are doing a series on the intersection of film and faith entitled "Reel Spirituality" and have chronicled lessons from everything from "Napoleon Dynamite" to "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and this week we are discussing the classic Gary Cooper film, "High Noon."

If you haven't seen the film, shame on you -- go rent it now. I'll wait. (sound of humming) Back? Great! Since you've just seen it you know that it is about decisions. Will I do what is right even if I have to do it alone? Will I stand up for whatsoever things are pure, lovely, noble, etc. even if it means that I lose friends and family for doing so?

So here is the question of the day: what High Noon moments have you had? How did you decide to handle them? Want to share them with the group? I'll start:

It was at the University of Alabama in Birmingham back in the middle seventies. I was a scared teenager with an accent (and it wasn't southern) in a morning Anthropology class. There were a total of 147 people in the classroom and, for reasons which will soon become apparent, I will never forget that number. The professor was an aggressive atheist and relativist. On this morning he went on a tear for a full 45 minutes ridiculing the Bible, Christianity, the concept of God, etc. After his spleen had finishing venting and we were up to our frontal lobes in bile he turned to us and challenged, "Does anybody have a problem with anything I've been saying?"

Only one idiot in the room raised their hand. And I have no idea why it went up. I absolutely do not recall telling it to go up, but there it was, my hand, trembling, but raised. Yikes. He turned the full force of his glare on me (I think he must have practiced glaring at home in the mirror because he was -- credit to whom credit is due -- extremely good at it) and said, "And WHAT is your problem?"

I wish I could tell you that I stood up and silenced him with the power of my intellect, razor sharp wit, and a Colt .45 but, alas, it wasn't quite that way. I tried to speak but I had turned into SheepBoy: "W..w.w...welll, uuuuuuuuuhhhh, I... that uuuuuuuhhhh...." and so it went. I did what I could but it wasn't impressive and no one was trampled in the rush to the baptistry when I was done. Afterwards, shamed, I gathered my books with my head down and eased out of the room toward my car, intending to skip the rest of my classes when a couple of other students came up to me and said how much they appreciated me speaking up. They told me they agreed with me and were furious at the professor. My response was "Where were you?"

There have been other moments, but let that suffice. So... wanna share a High Noon story? Keep it brief, pithy and to the point. Of course, if no one shares then I will be stuck here in the middle of the dirt street on my own... again... but that's okay. I've still got my badge and my .45.