Tuesday, December 4, 2018

What Can We Learn From George H. W. Bush?

Tomorrow, a grateful nation celebrates at the National Cathedral a fallen national leader:  George H. W. Bush.

There's much to learn from the likes of our 41st President.  And I'll get to that shortly.

But first, an acknowledgment:  George H. W. Bush was far from perfect.

After all, he was a politician, and all politicians survive, only through a fair measure of expediency, 'game-playing,' narcissism, shadiness, and 'out-and-out deceit.'

And George H.W. Bush did a lot of such 'stuff,' like all politicians.

For example, an under-reported part of Bush's career was his penchant, over the years, for "...cheerful flirtation and overt fondness for attractive women..." (Jon Mecham.  Destiny and Power, p. 310)  -- other than his wife -- now pegged, in an era of #metoo -- as abuse.  Though he never crossed into intimate sexual engagement, he came way-too-close, on more than one occasion.  As Bush's sympathetic biographer Jon Mecham writes, quoting a long-time Bush advisor,
"...From time to time he would let things go on too long and almost -- almost-- too far...I really don't believe he ever crossed the line, but he got right up to it..."  (Jon Mecham, Destiny and Power, p. 310) 
And so with that said:  what's the 'good of Bush'?

Well, there's a lot.

Learning #1 -  Relationships Can Be Preserved, Despite Ideological Differences.

Today, relationships largely disintegrate if we have ideological/philosophical/theological differences with each other.

I mean, nowadays:  if you're a conservative and I'm a progressive -- our relationship is largely over.  But George H. W. Bush had a marvelous ability to 'bury the hatchet' in spite of political variance.

Bush's unexpected relationship with Bill Clinton, the Democrat candidate who prevented Bush was becoming a two-term President, has been widely reported. But, Bush had many unexpected relationships.  One was with Representative John Dingel of Michigan, yet another Democrat. As WXYZ in Detroit reports:
"...Bush and Dingell often found themselves on opposite sides of the issues.  "I didn’t always agree with him. We had lots and lots and lots of fights and they were fights that were bitter but they weren’t fights that prevented us from being personal friends...That was very very important."...He would come down to the gym and play paddle ball...The comraderie across party lines is one Dingell writes about in his book, "The Dean" [for which Bush wrote the Foreword] ...reminiscing about a time when two people could disagree and somehow become the best of friends..."  https://www.wxyz.com/news/an-unlikely-friendship-john-dingell-remembers-president-george-hw-bush
Recently, I had a colleague question:  "what your label? You know," she clarified:  "we all have been labeled!"  I get that.  But when our 'labels' prevent us from seeing us first and foremost as human beings (not just human doings), children of the Most High -- then life dives deep, free-falling into competitive cut-throat darkness.

Mind you:  George H. W. Bush competed like the best, was even cut-throat on occasion.  But Bush never did the deep-dive; Bush never did the free-fall.  As Jon Mecham, Bush's biographer goes on to observe:
"...[Bush] spent his life presenting a face of grace and generosity to the world, and that face was real. He was graciousness and he was generous..."
We are called to do the same.  As the writer of Hebrews reminds us:
“…Let it be your ambition to live at peace with all men and to achieve holiness “without which no man shall see the Lord”. Be careful that none of you fails to respond to the grace which God gives, for if he does there can very easily spring up in him a bitter spirit which is not only bad in itself but can also poison the lives of many others...”  (Hebrews 12:14-15, Phillips) 

Lesson #2 - It's The Little Things That Truly Produce The Greatest Gain

Of course, George H. W. Bush did big things. What follows is only a partial list of the world-changing results of the 41st President's remarkable life:
  • Flew 58 combat missions for the Navy during World War II and was awarded three Air Medals and the Distinguished Flying Cross…After earning his commission and wings, becomes the youngest pilot in the Navy at the time. 
  • Ambassador to the United Nations 
  • Chairman of the Republican National Committee  
  • Serves as chief of the United States Liaison Office in China.  
  • Director of the CIA. 
  • 41st president of the United States, with 53.1% of the popular vote and 426 electoral votes. 
  • A commissioned aircraft carrier: The USS George H.W. Bush aircraft carrier commissioned. 
  • The Presidential Medal of Freedom. 
  • The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation Profiles in Courage Award. 
But Bush is probably best remembered for his little acts of kindness, often referred to by Bush, as a thousand points of life
  • Bush's hundreds and hundreds of hand-written notes and letters. 
  • Bush's willingness, at one point, to shave his head, in solidarity with a leukemia patient, the son of a member of his Secret Service detail. 
  • Bush's outreach to a Marine who dropped his rifle during a presidential appearance:  “I want to thank you and the others in the platoon for a super performance . . . Please thank all involved in the drill.” 
One of the most amazing Bush-kindness-stories is told by Dick Cheney.  Now, you'd think Cheney, of people, if asked to tell his favorite George Bush story would tell of a big Bush accomplishment.   But when asked this week, Cheney told the following tale:
"...I remember, 2004 election night, we're upstairs in the residence at the White House...We [Lynne and Dick Cheney] had our granddaughter there … about seven years old at the time and the president walked over to her and said, ‘You're the youngest person here, I'm the oldest, let's chat.’" "He sat down and spent a long time talking with the youngest person in the room at that time. She's never forgotten about it...There was no gesture that was too small or insignificant in terms of what he was willing to do to make people feel comfortable, to help when he could help. He just was one of the most thoughtful people I ever knew...”  https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/dick-cheney-recalls-time-thoughtful-george-h-w-bush-had-a-chat-with-his-young-granddaughter 
A huge reminder that it's often the little 'stuff' which is often the 'tipping point' between impact and insignificance.

So, don't neglect even the smallest gesture to those around you, living out Paul's reminder to “…be... kind one to another, tenderhearted…”  (Ephesians 4:32, KJV)).

Lesson #3  - Faith Can Be Integrated Into Life, Humbly, But Unapologetically.

On many occasions, George H.W. Bush would muse:  I don't wear my faith on my sleeve.  Yet, Bush and his wife Barbara were some of the most open and vulnerable recent public servant/leaders regarding their faith.  

Thus, it wasn't a coincidence, that when Billy Graham chose a dedicatory speaker for his library in Charlotte, NC, Graham chose George H.W. Bush. https://billygraham.org/video/a-look-back-george-h-w-bushs-heartfelt-message-on-his-faith-billy-graham/

Bush set the tone for his faith-commitment during his 1989 inaugural address when he declared that his first act as President would be an act of prayer.
“I ask you to bow your heads,” he said. “Heavenly Father, we bow our heads and thank You for Your love. Accept our thanks for the peace that yields this day and the shared faith that makes its continuance likely. Make us strong to do Your work, willing to heed and hear Your will, and write on our hearts these words: ‘Use power to help people.’ For we are given power not to advance our own purposes, nor to make a great show in the world, nor a name. There is but one just use of power, and it is to serve people. Help us remember, Lord. Amen.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/religion/2018/12/01/george-hw-bush-helped-push-gop-towards-evangelicalism/?utm_term=.e17bf92483d7
Bush then closed his inaugural address by concluding: “I do not fear what is ahead. For our problems are large, but our heart is larger. Our challenges are great, but our will is greater. And if our flaws are endless, God's love is truly boundless.”  

Bush reminds us that we do can be open with our faith, without fearing the label 'Bible-thumper' or 'holier than thou.'  Bush's style recalls Peter's reminder, too: "…Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”  (1 Peter 3:15, NIV).

And so a great patriot and leader, has fallen: George H. W. Bush.

But most importantly a great man of character, and genuine virtue, has fallen.  A national and global leader, who reminds us that inner character/virtue is not dependent on perfection, but a long obedience in the same direction -- as one -- confesses his or her sins -- strives for the right -- keeps working for the good -- in spite of the inadequacy, of many a day. 

As our culture becomes more bifurcated, angry, vitriolic, filled with insult and hatred, it's good to remember George H. W. Bush -- a national/global leader who resisted such darkness, calling for a thousand points of light, summoning us to multiply acts of kindness, in spite of opponents and enemies.

George H.W. Bush was not a saint; far from it.  

But George H. W. Bush was just consistent enough in his character to remind us, there is another way of living, that can major in magnanimity, not meanness -- kindness, not kick-ass -- gentleness, not getting even.  

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Migrant And The Messiah

Migrants, at the border.

It's the headline, as we head toward Advent.

The New York Times summarizes the situation as follows: 
"...Thousands of migrants from Central America have massed along the border of Mexico and the United States — with thousands more on the way. American border patrol agents fired tear gas at them on Sunday to prevent hundreds from reaching the border.
Mr. Trump has vowed to keep the migrants on Mexican soil while they apply for asylum in the United States, a process that could squeeze them into squalid, overcrowded shelters for months, possibly even years. Mexican officials say the strain is already causing a humanitarian emergency, creating a political crisis for Mr. López Obrador [the new Mexican president] even before he takes office.
'Mexico should move the flag waving Migrants, many of whom are stone cold criminals, back to their countries,' Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter on Monday. 'Do it by plane, do it by bus, do it anyway you want, but they are NOT coming into the U.S.A. We will close the Border permanently if need be. Congress, fund the WALL!..'
A complicated, sorted situation -- for sure.

For starters, every nation-state is entitled to border security.  Just opening up a national border, in a carte-blanche way, is not wise - or -- frankly -- humanitarian.  

But is 'turning-away' and walling-out migrants -- in a carte-blanche way -- wise and humanitarian?

Well, if the migrant is criminal and life-threatening, there is wisdom in failing to great entry into a nation-state. 

But if the migrant is legitimately in need of asylum because, indeed, their safety and well-being are in jeopardy -- well -- that's another story.

To be specific:  a biblical story. In fact -- a Christmas story!  

As James Martin has pointed out:
"...With refugees and migrants in the news, some commentators have sought to draw parallels between their plight and that of the Holy Family—Jesus, Mary and Joseph. How accurate are these comparisons? Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph what we would consider today “refugees”?   
In the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, we read the story of the “Flight into Egypt” in which, after the birth of Jesus and the visit from the Magi, an “angel of the Lord” comes to Joseph in a dream and warns him to leave Bethlehem for Egypt (Mt 2:12-15). Why? Because King Herod was planning to “seek out the child to destroy him.” Mary and Joseph do leave, along with Jesus, and, according to Matthew, make their way into Egypt. 
Afterward, King Herod slaughters all the male children in Bethlehem under two years of age...[And so] A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution. This is the classic modern-day definition of a refugee. So, according to the Gospel of Matthew, what is going on? A family is forced to flee their homeland for fear of persecution. This is the classic modern-day definition of a refugee..." https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/12/27/were-jesus-mary-and-joseph-refugees-yes
Again, please note: there are some refugees/migrants not comparable to the fleeing Mary/Joseph/Jesus.  For example, as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol tweeted on Sunday: 
 "...Today, several migrants threw projectiles at the agents in San Diego. Border Patrol agents deployed tear gas to dispel the group because of the risk to agents' safety. Several agents were hit by the projectiles..."  https://twitter.com/CBP/status/1066842405415124994
Scripture does not defend such refugee/migrant action.  

But neither does scripture assume that such refugee/migrant action (by several) is the action of all refugee/migrants. In fact, scripture tends to 'side' with refugee/migrant/immigrant people, inferring most flee their homeland for honorable and needed reasons.  

One of the most forceful biblical indicators is in 1 Kings 8:    
“…And don’t forget the foreigner who is not a member of your people Israel but has come from a far country because of your reputation. People are going to be attracted here by your great reputation, your wonder-working power…Honor the prayers of the foreigner so that people all over the world will know who you are and what you’re like…(I Kings 8:41-43, The Message)
News sources confirm the motive and demeanor of most migrants/refugees/immigrants approaching the U.S. border.  As the BBC reported:
"...The migrants, who are mostly from Honduras, but also from Guatemala and El Salvador, say they are fleeing the threat of violence in their home countries and looking to make a better life for themselves and their families.  They have traveled in large groups, dubbed "caravans", for more than 4,000km (2,500 miles) from Central America and most want to reach the United States, where they say they plan to ask for asylum. Among them are many families with young children..." (emphasis added) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-46339085
As in previous immigrant episodes, we need to be especially mindful of the children.   For Jesus was explicit:  “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14, NRSV).  

But once again, as in previous immigrant cases, the children are in peril.  As the Reuters reported yesterday,
"...After traveling north from Honduras and spending a week in the Mexican border town of Tijuana, Maria Meza...set out on Sunday with her five children to claim asylum at the U.S. border crossing.She and hundreds of other Central American migrants were blocked by Mexican police and staged a protest in front of the border, some rushing the U.S fence. Three tear gas canisters shot from the U.S. side landed around Meza and her children, who range in age from toddlers to teenagers...“The first thing I did was grab my children,” said Meza...“I was scared, and I thought I was going to die with them because of the gas”... Her young son James nearly fainted when a canister landed near him. Meza fell and struggled to get up amidst the gas. A young man gave her his hand and pulled her to her feet...“We never thought they were going to fire these bombs where there were children, because there were lots of children,” said Meza..." https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-family/there-were-children-says-migrant-mother-tear-gassed-at-u-s-border-idUSKCN1NW015
Still, it's complicated.  I mean what do you do, when, as the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol tweeted, several migrants threw projectiles, endangering agents. 

All I know is that Jesus would find some way to prioritize the children.

For just as the Jesus-Child is at the center of the Christmas tale of Mary/Joseph/Jesus fleeing the violence of Herod -- the Migrant-Child is at the center of the current tale of the thousands of refugees fleeing the violence of Central America.  

For often in immigrant narratives, it is the children who suffer the greatest.  As James Martin again reflects:
"...From 1992 to 1994, I worked with the Jesuit Refugee Service in Nairobi, Kenya, where I came to know hundreds of refugees who had fled from Sudan, Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Rwanda, Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire and many other countries out of a “well-founded fear of persecution.” Some, as the Holy Family had feared, had seen their children murdered in front of them. Others had watched as their parents were slaughtered before them. 
Despite their intense and almost unimaginable suffering, they were among the most faithful people I have ever met—holy families in their own ways. Surely these families deserve our protection as much as the Holy Family did..."  
I agree.

In making this affirmation, I am not downplaying the complexity of the current crisis at our Southern border.

And I am not purporting, I know all the practical, political answers.  I don't.

But I am asserting that the spiritual, biblical answer is clear:

  • We are to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the migrant, the immigrant (Leviticus 19:34)
  • We are to prioritize the safety and well-being of the children (Psalm 127:3-5). 
  • We are to tear-down walls, not build walls (Ephesians 2:14-18).  

All this is wildly controversial.

Especially, bringing the immigrant into the Christmas story.

But there is a direct connect between the refugee and the Redeemer -- the migrant and the Messiah.

For God always sides with the persecuted and the oppressed -- the poor and downtrodden -- the sojourner and those in transit.

For the Son of God who comes this Christmas, is the Son of Man -- who -- as Jesus attested -- had "...nowhere to lay his head...” (Matthew 8:21).

At this very moment, thousands are at our Southern border, with nowhere to lay their head. 

I know it's grating -- inflaming -- and political.  

But I can't imagine Jesus shouting:  build a wall.

Instead, I sense Jesus admonishing:  over-time, welcome them in.  

Discreetly.  Lawfully.  Care-fully. Wisely. Discerningly. 

But welcome them in!  

"...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…Then the righteous will answer...‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in…

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  (Matthew 25:35-40)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

How To Handle 'The Relatives,' At Thanksgiving

Are you excited?

Thanksgiving is coming and with it lots of feasting, festivities...and...family.

But have you noticed:  family is a mixed blessing.  Sure, there is cuddly, warm, gracious Grandma Sadie.  

But there is also, smelly, rude, obnoxious, Uncle Joe.

Recently, Jenny Shively, an experienced, savvy, pre-school educator advised parents: don't make your kids hug Uncle Joe:
As the holidays approach, PLEASE don’t MAKE your kids hug their relatives. Don’t you remember being made to hug creepy Uncle Joe when you were a kid?...and you were like ummmm, I really don’t want to but....um...oh well...OK.....ugghhhh....Don’t put your kids through that—they can have good manners and say goodbye, give a fist bump or a high five-or nothing at all. Let their actions match their own emotions—it’s one step in the right direction of kids owning their bodies! And if the adults are disappointed, well, that’s on them.  [Disclaimer: I never had an Uncle Joe, and my apologies to any really super uncles out there who are indeed named Joe!]  https://www.facebook.com/jenny.shively.1
Jenny's counsel is wise -- but -- jarring for some. I mean, as Christ followers, aren't we supposed to love and embrace everyone -- even Uncle Joe?

Love, yes.  Embrace, not necessarily.

Though it is seldom acknowledged, Jesus did not pedestal biological family as supreme.  Only family, in and through Him, is supreme.  As Charles Moore has observed:
"...Jesus dethroned the biological family. While he never denied the family’s worth as a creation of God, he made clear that its importance is not absolute; it is not the primary means by which God’s grace is transmitted to this broken world. Something else is.
Jesus calls his disciples to give their allegiance first and foremost to him. Those who forsake human security, including their families, will receive “a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29–31). 
In calling into question the primacy of the family, Jesus asks us to imagine a different social order, an all-encompassing community based not on natural ties but on discipleship. Jesus came to establish the new family of God, a family of disciples who follow him with the entirety of their lives (Matt. 10:34–37)..."  https://www.plough.com/en/topics/community/education/jesus-surprising-family-values
And so, this Thanksgiving, we are to value family, but not enthrone family.  Sure, as Jenny Shively clarified, we're to be civil and have good manners.  But civility and manners are not synonymous with embrace.

Including, an embrace, of Uncle Joe.  Well, then, what do you do with Uncle Joe?

A few Thanksgiving Tips, not only for 'handling' Uncle Joe, but other family-challenges, at Thanksgiving time, or any other holiday time.

Thanksgiving Tip #1 - Remember:  There Is No Such Thing As The Perfect Holiday Event. 

A lot of us think Norman Rockwell, as in Norman Rockwell painting, when we think Thanksgiving or any other holiday.  You know, a wonderful, harmonious, 'perfect' gathering of the clan.  But there is no perfect gathering of any clan.

Not even, Norman Rockwell.  Why even Norman had his problems!  According to his son Peter:
"...life [for the Rockwell family] was not as idyllic as it seemed. Rockwell was a workaholic, painting seven days a week and leaving family and financial management to his wife. In 1951, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized near Stockbridge, Mass. She never fully recovered.
"My father was the sort of artist who expected someone else to do everything but the art," his son said. "So my father had to change his ways, which he did, and get his situation in order.  "But it was difficult to deal with the notion that he could not have 'a Norman Rockwell family.' One of the things that was a problem for our family was that my father had a very regular, very correct view of what a family should be. My father was in some sense infected by his own vision and his paintings." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/1999-11/21/034r-112199-idx.html
We are too, but family is always a mixed bag.

Even Jesus' family.  Why his family lineage itemized in Matthew 1 has laudable folk like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  But also unlaudable folk -- folk like Rahab the prostitute (Matthew 1:5); David the adulterer (Matthew 1:6), and Ahaz the wicked, pagan king (Matthew 1:9).   But Jesus reckoned with his family – and so must we.   

That’s why I often commend, Craig Barnes’ concept of ‘the good enough life.’  “You don’t have the perfect home, the perfect job, or the perfect body.” Craig reminds us.  
“But it is probably good enough. Life only comes with scratches and cracks.  That [reality] can…preoccupy you with improvement plans -- or it can be… [an] opportunity to give thanks to God who insists on loving us -- only by grace…”   
So what’s preoccupying you…driving you?  A perfect Thanksgiving, or ‘a good enough’ Thanksgiving?  A perfect family or ‘a good enough’ family?   Happiness never comes at holidays, until we receive and give…grace at holidays.

Thanksgiving Tip #2 --  Don't Take Comments Personally, Rather View Persons Objectively -- Even, Compassionately

At some point, on some holiday, someone will probably say something on that will grate you and really get 'under your skin.'  

But resist the temptation to get back and bitter. Instead, give your difficult relation the 'benefit of the doubt,' concluding: the dig, the slight, the barbed comment, really says more about them, than you.

To be specific: that your relation is probably in pain, and hurting people hurt other people.

Now please don't miss understand:  such a conclusion doesn't excuse the hurtful behavior.  It just clarifies the source of the behavior.   

And the source is not you -- but some traumatic life event, person or issue -- in the hurt-full relative's life experience.

The best single-sentence-counsel I've found outside the Bible, are Ian McLaren's words:  "...Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle.

So, yes, don't excuse, rationalize or placate a word-missile projected from a difficult family member. But also, don't take it personally.  Rather, 'consider the source' and the pain that, undoubtedly, is stabbing that loved one's life. 

But you might need to distance yourself, at some point, in the process.  Translated:  you might need to walk away -- or hide away -- for a while.  In fact, one writer advises, during holiday, family events:  “Use The Bathroom As A Sanctuary, As Needed.”  In other words:  when you’ve reached your limit with a particular family member, just excuse yourself to the bathroom, until you regain your composure.   Now persons might wonder why you’re in there so long, but it sure beats getting upset or in a fight!

Well, in any event, find some sanctuary.  And, if needed, exit early.  Remember:  there’s no law that states you’ve got to stay for the entire family function or party.

Thanksgiving Tip #3 -  Face: There's A Cost To 'Facing' Family, But The Required Sacrifice, Results, In Blessing 

Sure, as Jesus advises: family is not supreme.  But Jesus, and scripture, over all, affirms:  family is nevertheless a gift, in spite of its imperfections.  

Thus, we honor, e.g., respect and value,  our mother and father (Deuteronomy 5:16)  and other expressions of our family system, in spite of their exasperating characteristics.   

As inferred: honor, respect, value of family does not mean embracing all aspects of family.  But it does mean accenting the 'good' of family -- nevertheless -- resisting the temptation to divorce ourselves from family because of it's challenging, even insulting elements.  

The best family system theory is Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST).  And BFST is clear, as Issac Butterworth points out:
"...While the separation from parents, spouse, siblings, or colleagues may be a relief at first, the cutoff eventually leads to increased anxiety, which leads to symptoms, which may not be recognized in relation to the cutoff..." http://www.isaacbutterworth.com/emotional-cutoff-in-bowen-theory/
In other words:  you can try to 'stuff' [e.g. divorce yourself from it] your angst about family -- but it will 'pop-up' somewhere, sometime, as unresolved pain and anxiety.  As Bessel van der Kolk M.Dnotes in the book:  The Body Keeps Score:
“As long as you...suppress information [e.g. stuff it, divorce yourself from it], you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
So, take long bathroom breaks -- limited your time at the holiday dinner, event or social -- but don't boycott the holiday dinner, event or social.

Face your family -- realizing there is no perfect family -- even Norman Rockwell's family -- giving thanks for 'what you have' in family - 'warts and all.'

Now, that will take some swallowing of pride, some sacrifice, but sacrifice is a vital sub-theme of this holiday season, especially, Thanksgiving.  As Pat Bailey has noted, look at the Thanksgiving table: the only reason we have bread is because ‘the wheat sacrificed,’ allowing its heart to be ground, on the wheel of the mill.  The only reason we have cream is because ‘the milk sacrificed,’ allowing its best to be beaten and churned.  And the only reason we have meat is because ‘the turkey or hog sacrificed,’ giving their all to be the main course at the feast.

What’s the main course at your feast?  Your willful instance on family perfection -- or -- your sheer thankfulness, for family -- period!  

As the story goes, two women were ‘belly-aching’ on the subway about the cost of raising kids. “Why first, it was the cost of a nursery. Then, it was the cost of music lessons.  Then, it was the cost of clothes.  Then, it was the cost of senior portraits.  Then, was the cost of college.  Then, it was the cost of a wedding.  And now, they’re still ‘hanging on,’wanting more!”  Just then, the woman behind interrupted.  “You know, I was just like you two.  Why the expense of my son was a pain.   But that’s all changed.  You see, he died two weeks ago.  And he doesn’t cost me anything, anymore.”

In some way, shape or form, encountering family this Thanksgiving is going to cost you something.  I mean:  some relatives are a pain -- and it's a sacrifice -- to just be around their shenanigans, even insanity!  

But an even greater sacrifice is having no earthly family, at all.  

Sure, Jesus and His family are supreme.  But Thanksgiving reminds us that the gift of a biological family -- no matter how marred and limited -- is a special, valued gift as well.  

Once a man walked up to G.K. Chesterton and bragged that he said grace before every meal. Every meal!  Surprisingly, Chesterton was not impressed.  My friend, Chesterton remarked, you should say grace before everything.  You should say grace before reading.  You should say grace before walking.  You should say grace before swimming.  You should say grace before working.  You should say grace before studying.  You should say grace before breathing.  You should say grace before everything.

Not bad advice as we enter the holiday season:  say grace before everything.  Including your family --Uncle Joe -- and all. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

What's The Use?

It's easy to feel 'what's the use.'

That life is for naught.

I mean, outcomes and results are seldom instantaneous.  Rather, outcomes/results, mature and ripen over time.

But in the meantime, it's easy to get discouraged, feeling that nothing is resulting from all the effort, sacrifice and devotion of our days.

This came home for me in a renewed way at the recent memorial service for Dean Miller, a leading pastor, and former Moderator, of the Church of the Brethren.

In the course of Dean's service, many persons shared, including Gene Hagenberger, District Executive for the Mid-Atlantic District Church of the Brethren.  As Gene shared, he reflected on the apparent futility of ministry, quoting William Willimon:
“A good teacher must be content to be a sower rather than a reaper.  Teachers must not expect to see immediate, specific, concrete results of their efforts.  If they have any effect upon their students, it will show up later in life, long after their students have left them.  The same can be said of the pastoral ministry.”
Gene then went on reflecting on the parable of the sower, wherein Jesus reminds us:
"...[that] unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). 
These Jesus-words articulate the challenge of life, whether:

  • a life of teaching... 
  • a life of parenting... 
  • a life of ministry... 
  • a life of marriage...

Or any other life pursuit.  

A lot of giving, 'blood, sweat, and tears,' travail is required, as a part of us seems to die, in the sacrifice of it all. 

But such self-emptying is not for naught, Jesus suggests.  In fact, out of such seemingly worthless giving, comes the very bounty, the very fruit of life.


And that's the rub.  Results take time, a lot of time.

And until they develop, it feels like all of our efforts are a waste -- in vain.

"I mean, what's the use'...

  • "...I've given all that I can to my kid, and he's still in trouble..."  
  • "...I've given everything to this job for 20 years, and I still see no gain, no benefit..."
  • "...I've given everything to this marriage, and little increased-intimacy or joy have resulted.  

 There's no denying the frustration of delayed results.  They do feel like they will never come.  Many a  psalmist agrees.  Psalm 13 is illustrative:
"...How long, O Lord?  Will you forget me forever?  How long will you hide your face from me?  How long must I counsel in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all the day?  How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?  Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;   light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death, lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,” lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken...  (Psalm 13:1-4)
Every felt that way?  

I have.  

But I've always been struck by the way the psalmist often ends his lament.  Sure, his disappointment is undeniable and intense.  It cuts deep and feels endless.  But, nevertheless, almost in the 'next breathe,' the psalmist sings that the 'end is in sight' -- that a resolution will occur -- a harvest will come.  
"...But I have trusted in your steadfast love [nevertheless];  my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord,  because he has dealt bountifully with me..."  (Psalm 13:5-6).
Translated, in the words of Solomon, in Eccelesties 3:  
"God makes everything happen at the right time. [Though] none of us can ever fully understand all he has done..." (Eccelesties 3:11). 
Or reading the text, in reverse:  None of us can ever understand, fully, how God operates. But God can be trusted, making everything happen in His time, the right time.  For as the African-American spiritual affirms:
"...Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again. There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole..." 
And so, in the words of the Apostle Paul:
“…Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up..." (Galatians 6:9). 
As Gene Hagenberger continued his remarks at Dean Miller's funeral, he told a fascinating story of harvest from his own ministry:  
"...Two pastorates and a district ministry ago...I pastored the Roanoke, Ninth St. Church of the Brethren in Virlina district.  I became “pastor” to a [couple, Jeff and Linda]...tangentially connected to the congregation by virtue [of living in] a little one room white bungalow on the back corner of the church parking lot.  
I officiated Jeff and Linda’s wedding, [ending up as]...a character reference [in law enforcement proceedings that ensued]...after a rowdy reception [wherein Linda]...dropped her purse as [Jeff] tried to carry her over the bungalow threshhold... 
[Subsequently] the derringer [Linda] carried ...went off, wounding the best man in the chest, although it took them a little while to notice the blood and call the ambulance.   
I connected with more members of [Jeff and Linda's] family as my nine years [at Ninth St] went by. I married, buried, and did my best to counsel them when they came to me... 
...I remember the funeral of [extended members of Jeff and Linda's family, after they were] tragically killed when [they]...tried to pass a tractor trailer on the right side shoulder of Blacksburg Mountain. Their baby hung on the longest in the ICU...I remember the gray winter day I officiated her graveside service...[as]...the family [released] balloons [drifting] toward heaven, disappearing into the gray mist and low hanging fog.   
[Just recently, however]...I got a letter from another member of [Jeff and Linda's family] -- Ricky...I vaguely remembered him... 
...He wrote to tell me that he and his family had [now] become members of [the Ninth Street Church of the Brethren!! -- thanking] me for what my ministry had meant [to him and his family]!!   
[Ricky's unexpected, surprise outreach reminded me]: idoes happen! 
Beyond our imagining -- the seeds we sow do take root -- and by the grace and power of God -- grow, and bear fruit..." 
Gene is right:  beyond our imaging, the seeds we sow do take root.

  • They do grow.  
  • They do bear fruit.

And so, don't be discouraged. Your life is not for naught.

Your humble contribution will have a heroic impact, far beyond anything you ever imagine.

Edward Kimbal was a Sunday School teacher determined to reach persons for Christ. One individual reached was a young boy named Dwight L. Moody. Moody, in turn, went on to reach yet others, including Wilbur Chapman. Chapman, in turn, went on to reach yet others, including Billy Sunday.  Sunday, in turn, went on to reach yet others, including Mordecai Ham. And Ham, in turn, went on to reach yet others, including...the famed evangelist...Billy Graham.  

And so, from Edward Kimbal's modest ministry-'seed,' spouted a whole array of outcomes, including the greatest evangelist in recent history.  

Your modest ministry seed might not produce a Billy Graham. But trust me, your humble servant contribution will have some heroic result.

You might not see it in your lifetime. But over time -- in God's good time -- much fruit will be borne out of your outreach -- for […God’s]…word [and ministry] shall not return…empty, but it shall accomplish that which [God purposes], and shall succeed in the thing for which [God] sent it.  (Isaiah 55:11, ESV)

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Pipe Bombs. Shootings. Terror -- How Do We Respond?

It still is early in the news cycle.

So, it's risky to say too much about the latest rage of pipe bombs --the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, etc.

But there are some things we do know, giving clues of what's attached to this spine-tingling horror.

  • We know specific persons are being targeted
  • We know a desire to prompt confusion and terror is part of the motive. 
  • We know the 'oxygen' fueling the effort is an overall culture of violence in our country and around the world
  • We know mental illness (more prevalent than ever) might be a factor 'in play.'
  • We know God is still Sovereign -- still 'on the throne.'  

Given 'what we know,' how do we continue to respond to these unfolding news stories?

Response #1 - Be Honest, And, Accurate About All The Factors Fueling Fear, And, Violence.

It's tempting just to point to one 'cause' of the current culture of fear and violence.  For example, a prominent tendency is to point to the current President. alone, who is well-known for his vitriolic rhetoric. As former CIA Director John Brennan, the target of a potential bomb sent to CNN, commented this week:    
“…“Unfortunately I think Donald Trump, too often, has helped to incite some of these feelings of anger, if not violence…”/http://fortune.com/2018/10/24/brennan-condemns-trump-he-incited-anger/
But in fairness to Donald Trump, he is hardly the only politician employing hot rhetoric.  In fact, in recent weeks, there has been a concerted effort from Trump's critics to 'take off the gloves,' and 'fight fire with fire.'   

As former Attorney General Eric Holder said recently at a campaign event for Georgia gubernatorial candidate, Stacey Abrams:
"...Michelle [Obama] always says, you know, ‘When they go low, we go high.’ No. When they go low, we kick them.  That’s what this new Democratic Party is about..." https://thehill.com/blogs/blog-briefing-room/news/411010-holder-doubles-down-on-when-they-go-low-we-kick-them-comment
Kick them.  Or to quote President Trump at a recent campaign event:  Body-slam them.  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-45913921

Well, you get the point.  Violent rhetoric as a means to confront opponents and enemies is rampant -- in all sectors of society.

And so, if we're going to 'point the finger' at persons for fueling fear/violence -- fingers need to point in all directions.

Thus -- overall -- we need to encourage -- overall -- a 'dialing back' of warring words.

For a moment, last Wednesday, President Trump seemed to point in this direction.  As USA Today reported:
"...Trump...implored politicians to stop questioning the moral character of their opponents...[calling] for a more civil politics hours after a series of suspicious packages were sent to high profile Democrats and CNN.  "No nation can succeed that tolerates violence," Trump said, breaking script from his usually highly partisan rallies to discuss the packages. "The language of moral condemnation and destructive routine, these are arguments and disagreements that have to stop. Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective."
Though Trump quickly returned to threatening talk on Friday https://www.cnn.com/2018/08/28/politics/trump-evangelicals-midterms/index.html  the words he uttered on Wednesday, were the right words.  

Let's pray, they're revived with even greater longevity and 'staying power.'  

Response #2  -- Affirm: Christ-Followers Are To Model Another Way Of Addressing Differences  

In a class, I am taking at St. Mary's Seminary, in Baltimore, MD. -- I was reminded of a slogan made famous by the Mennonite Church:  'every church is a peace church.'  In other words:  every church is to model another way of handling differences, in the midst of a vitriolic -- hostile -- mean -- back-biting world.  

But then our professor, Michael Gorman clarified, that according to the New Testament -- and -- the New Testament church -- every church is a peace church.  In other words, peacebuilding/making is not just the opinion of the Mennonite Church -- but the conviction of the entire witness of the entire New Covenant.  

In doing so, Dr. Gorman quoted his friend Richard Hays, the recently retired professor of New Testament at Duke University, who states unequivocally, in his classic, The Moral Vision Of The New Testament:    
"...The teaching of nonviolent enemy-love [in the New Testament] is not merely an eschatoglogical vision or an ideal.  Jesus practiced it to his own death, and...[scripture]...presents this teaching as a commandment that is to be obeyed by Jesus disciples..."  (Richard Hays. The Moral Vision Of The New Testament, p. 323).
And for a good reason:  Jesus anticipated a world of 'hot' rhetoric and pipe bombs.  Thus, Jesus expected the need for a counter strategy.  But not the normal counter strategy of more hostile talk and violence.  As Richard Hays notes, God's people advance another way of combating evil.  And, the results are startling.
"...[For] whenever God's people give up the predictable ways of violence and self-defense they...[model]...imaginative new responses...as startling as going the second mile to carry the burden of a soldier who had compelled the defenseless follower of Jesus to carry it one mile first...If we live in obedience to Jesus' command to renounce violence, the church will become the sphere where the future of God's righteousness intersect -- and challenges -- the present tense of human existence.  The meaning of the New Testament's teaching on violence will become evident only in communities of Jesus' followers who embody the costly way of peace..."  (Richard Hays.  The Moral Vision Of The New Testament, p, 322-32
Thus, in a world flamed by inflammatory words -- and 'eye for an eye' tactics to 'get even' -- Christ-followers -- indeed -- model another way of handling differences.

Please understand: such an approach does not ignore or placate evil, but contains it, in a manner, as Hays advocates, that is imaginative, and not the 'same-old,' 'same-old,' predictable, but ineffective, 'eye for an eye,' retaliation.  The specifics vary from evil outburst to evil outburst, but as Hays infers, God reveals a nonviolent way-forward, to Jesus communities willing to risk and embody "...the costly way of peace..."

Response #3 -- Resist The Temptation To Live In Despair And Fear

With the rise of pipe-bombs, terrorism, and hate-speech -- it is tempting to 'circle the wagon' and collapse into a survivalist mode -- in which we no longer creatively live --  but cower in anxiety, cynicism, and fear.

Recently, I discovered, that a member of my relational world, had purchased precious metals -- and boxes of canned food -- because of the conviction that the world was collapsing under the weight of unGodly -- corrupt ways.

It was just a matter of time before the world, as we know it, would totally 'pancake' -- resulting in 'the survival of the fittest.'

This individual is not in isolation.  Survivalism is on the rise, because of the world's woes.   As The New York Times reported last year:
"...[An increasing number of persons believe]...the world is clearly coming to an end...[and so you must prepare]... following the endless headlines about disasters, both natural and manufactured...[But today's 'survivalist' is not]  the wild-eyed cave dweller in camouflage fatigues, hoarding canned goods. You may even see one in the mirror...[for]... everyone, it seems, is a “prepper,” even if the “prep” in question just means he is stashing a well-stocked “bug-out bag” ...[a bug-out bag being]...typically...lightweight military-grade backpacks stocked with provisions for at least 72 hours. Ready-made bug-out bags containing staples like water purification tablets, a 20-hour body warmer and a multifunction shovel..."lhttps://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/23/style/how-to-survive-the-apocalypse.html
But scripture calls us away from such fear, reminding us, that in spite of endless headlines of disaster, this is -- nevertheless -- still -- our Father's world.  Psalm 46 is especially demonstrative:
 “…God is our refuge and strength [mighty and impenetrable], A very present and well-proved help in trouble. 
Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth should change And though the mountains be shaken and slip into the heart of the seas, Though its waters roar and foam, Though the mountains tremble at its roaring. 
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, The holy dwelling places of the Most High. God is in the midst of her [His city], she will not be moved... 
The nations made an uproar, the kingdoms tottered and were moved; He raised His voice, the earth melted. 
The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold [our refuge, our high tower]…”  (Psalm 46:1-7, The Amplified Bible] 
Such helpful reminder, amid any pipe bomb scare -- terrorist threat -- cancer diagnosis -- economic downturn --  synagogue shootings -- or any other fear-factor -- seeking to undo us.

In the 16th century, a great plague began to advance on Europe.  As it did, Martin Luther sought to bolster his people, and so, he penned one of the most famous hymns ever, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, based on Psalm 46.   Its third stanza is especially stirring:
"...And though this world, with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim, We tremble not for him; His rage we can endure, For lo! his doom is sure, One little word shall fell him..."
I would counsel singing that stanza (based on scripture) -- frequently when pipebombs -- shootings -- or any other fear-factor -- threaten.

For Luther is right:  "...And though this world with devils filled, Should threaten to undo us.  We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us..."

No matter the headline -- the diagnosis -- the dilemma.

God's Truth -- Will Triumph -- Through Us.