Thursday, December 27, 2018

2019 Beckons...

I know I'm a little early, but Happy New Year! Since I seem never to get a jump on Christmas, I figured this may be the next best thing. 2018 is almost history. Frankly, it will not go down as a "year to remember" for Yours Truly. WAY too many challenges reared their ugly heads than I care to tackle--good friends and colleagues with tough diagnoses, deaths of so many dear ones, the national malaise over an unorthodox government (at least not one like we've ever seen before), and a stock market that functioned more like a pinball machine than a Rolex watch.

A telegram sent to the crew of Apollo 8, after their historic lunar orbital mission, said, "You've saved 1968!" While 2018 was no where near as horrible as 1968 (the raging war in Viet Nam, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy), I found myself waxing nostalgic as to the "healing" powers of Apollo 8 and its near miraculous voyage from the earth to the moon, complete with astronauts Borman, Lovell, and Anders reading from Genesis on Christmas Eve, and capturing the famous "Earthrise" photo that would later launch "Earth Day" and a broader concern for the environment. 2018 was the 50th anniversary of this space journey, and I watched every video and read every retrospective article and editorial I could, hoping to recapture some of its magic. It helped. Tom Hanks produced a marvelous series for HBO years ago called "From the Earth to the Moon," and I have it on DVD. It covers the entire Apollo program, was co-produced by Ronny Howard, and is WELL worth reviewing. I watched the Apollo 8 episode about three times over the holidays.

Humankind needs faith and inspiration. Pure humanism, while a valid and valuable "starter" for developing care for one's fellow human beings, doesn't "make our spirits soar." Apollo 8 did that, as did Apollo 11, six months later. My wife and I saw the recent film "First Man," about the first man, Neil Armstrong. It's a very good film. It jars those of us, though, who followed and loved the space program by leading off with African American performer, Gil Scott-Heron's "Whitey on the Moon." In this piece, Scott-Heron chides America for ignoring domestic needs while spending billions to put "whitey on the moon." His point is a necessary counterpoint to spending tax dollars to accomplish what some consider frivolous pursuits (a wall on the Southern boarder?) However, the trips to the moon "saved" a difficult era and gave humanity a new vision for our planet, "a grand oasis in the big vastness of space," in the words of Jim Lovell. We are "riders on the earth, together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold" (Poet Laureate, Archibald MacLeish).

It is time for that faith and inspiration again, Dear Ones. May 2019 be one for the record books, and not for the same, inane reasons 2018 may be. Faith may best be described in the words of Robert Kennedy: "Some see things as they are, and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were, and say 'Why not?'" Faith is like the second half of this statement--it's most valuable function is to help us dream about how things COULD be, and pray and work for it to become so. May your 2019 be that kind of year!

Finally, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of Apollo 8, I quote (in its entirety) the inspiring poem by Archibald MacLeish, written as he reflected on the revelations of that first lunar excursion:

Riders on Earth Together, Brothers in Eternal Cold

Men's conception of themselves and of each other has always depended on their notion of the earth. When the earth was the World -- all the world there was -- and the stars were lights in Dante's heaven, and the ground beneath men's feet roofed Hell, they saw themselves as creatures at the center of the universe, the sole, particular concern of God -- and from that high place they ruled and killed and conquered as they pleased.

And when, centuries later, the earth was no longer the World but a small, wet spinning planet in the solar system of a minor star off at the edge of an inconsiderable galaxy in the immeasurable distances of space -- when Dante's heaven had disappeared and there was no Hell (at least no Hell beneath the feet) -- men began to see themselves not as God-directed actors at the center of a noble drama, but as helpless victims of a senseless farce where all the rest were helpless victims also and millions could be killed in world-wide wars or in blasted cities or in concentration camps without a thought or reason but the reason -- if we call it one -- of force.

Now, in the last few hours, the notion may have changed again. For the first time in all of time men have seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depth of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small as even Dante -- that "first imagination of Christendom" -- had never dreamed of seeing it; as the Twentieth Century philosophers of absurdity and despair were incapable of guessing that it might be seen. And seeing it so, one question came to the minds of those who looked at it. "Is it inhabited?" they said to each other and laughed -- and then they did not laugh. What came to their minds a hundred thousand miles and more into space -- "half way to the moon" they put it -- what came to their minds was the life on that little, lonely, floating planet; that tiny raft in the enormous, empty night. "Is it inhabited?"

The medieval notion of the earth put man at the center of everything. The nuclear notion of the earth put him nowhere -- beyond the range of reason even -- lost in absurdity and war. This latest notion may have other consequences. Formed as it was in the minds of heroic voyagers who were also men, it may remake our image of mankind. No longer that preposterous figure at the center, no longer that degraded and degrading victim off at the margins of reality and blind with blood, man may at last become himself.

To see the earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold -- brothers who know now they are truly brothers. 

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Immigrants...

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.
(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Turkey Trot...

What's Advent and Christmas season like for pastors? Crazy. I know some clergy get freaked out over the Lenten and Easter seasons, with Holy Week being a particular stressor, but personally? I pretty much lose it over December.

I saw a video posted on Facebook the other day of a small boy on his way home from school, and he was being chased by a wild turkey. You could tell the child was in a panic, as the big (dumb) bird was gaining on him. A Good Samaritan driving down the road, pulled his car onto the brim between them, cutting off the turkey, and ending the boy's anxiety. This is a great metaphor for clergy--at least for this one--in December. I am the small boy, Advent and Christmas are the turkey. Where, O where is our Good Samaritan?

I'll probably have to spend a weekend in purgatory for equating these Jesus-oriented seasons with a marauding turkey, but planning Advent themes that are meaningful without being trite is a challenge. I am blessed to work with a great Leadership Team here at St. Paul's, and we have a Music and Worship Director who leads us in putting together themes, services, and liturgy, but still, keeping it all focused in one's head, while preparing sermons and aiming at "The Show" on Christmas Eve wears one down.

We have five worship services each weekend at St. Paul's--one on Saturday night, and four on Sunday morning. Typically, I preach at three, and Pastor Karen at two, but we flip-flop that from time to time so each congregation gets to hear a different perspective. It's a little daunting that each of the services is a different format, and that the sermon is best "tweaked" and at worst sometimes totally revamped to fit the aesthetics of each. Yours Truly likes to use a little humor, from time to time, and I get a kick out of the fact that in one service, a planned moment of levity in a sermon is liable to fall totally flat, while being greeted by guffaws in another. One must also learn that a proud moment of "inspired" biblical exegesis doesn't seem as awe-inspiring to an 8:30AM wake-up crowd as it may to a 10:30AM pre-lunch assembly. And, of course, these congregations expect a few real stem-winders over the December holidays. After all, Advent and Christmas are about Jesus, past, present, and future.

What complicates matters for this clergyperson is that I love these seasons, personally. I think it was Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes who said, "If you have a big cannon, SHOOT it!" Christmas is our "big cannon" in the church. While Easter is endowed with much more theological significance, Christmas is the holiday that has won universal acceptance. It's when a church of 1,200 members here in Allison Park usually has about 1,500 show up for worship on Christmas Eve. Finding time to personally revel in the revelry is like trying to find the red needle in the green haystack. Usually, Christmas Day is a time to recuperate, especially after getting home around 2:00AM the night before.

Still, I love the season, and usually DO find time to thank God for the gift of Jesus, who came into the world to rescue us all. The life of Jesus inspires me, the teachings of Jesus guide me each day, and the sacrifice of Jesus--which I'll never fully understand--amazes me. Preaching about Jesus is not hard, but doing it in such a way that people "meet" the Christ rather than just hear a lesson or a news report about him is, well, hard. I know, I know, "rely on the Holy Spirit." Sure, that's easy? Over thirty-four years of preaching the Good News on Christmas Eve, though, I have learned to do two things: stick to the story, and "keep the main thing the main thing." As one of our hymns proclaims, "love came down at Christmas!" Indeed.

Ever wonder what goes through the mind of a minister while she or he is navigating December? Well, here you have it. Pretty disjointed, isn't it? Where IS that Holy Spirit when you need her? To all my pastor friends, may the Spirit give "kick" to your Advent and Christmas sermons, and may you find time to enjoy God's love and grace with your partner and your family. To my non-pastor friends, just push through the bustle and celebrate like there is no tomorrow. Experience God's love that DID come down at Christmas--and has never left. Say a prayer for peace. Commit a few of those random acts of kindness. And let joy fill all of the empty spaces.

Oh, oh, here comes that turkey again. I'm off...another sermon beckons. Shalom, Yinz. And if I don't get to update this blog before it happens, Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Eulogy...

The passing of a President of the United States is always a gripping, and sad event. George Herbert Walker Bush's passing at age 94 elicited quite a series of editorial cartoons and Facebook memes about how wonderful it was that he was reunited with his wife, Barbara, and daughter, Robin, in heaven, and these are certainly nice sentiments. We are comforted by such thoughts, not just for our former Chief Executive and family, but for our own loved ones and friends at the time of a death. Our faith "kicks in" strongly when a dear one passes, helping us imagine them being "welcomed home" by Jesus or greeting family who have gone before, at the "Pearly Gates." Given that scripture doesn't really give us much of a picture of the afterlife, we are free to let our imaginations run wild, and the fact that we have such imaginations, and the desire to use them to picture a loving, receiving realm like heaven--even heaven of the movies--complete with a cast of loved ones on the welcoming committee, certainly must be a gift from God. Maybe this "tendency" we have is actually a kind of backdoor "proof" of there even being a God?

We bid you "adieu," President George H.W. Bush, or as we have come to know you after your son ascended the throne, too--"Bush 41." And, while, as a person of faith, I DO hope we get to see you again, I would be even happier if we could see "your kind" return to the seat of power here in the U.S.A. While neither you nor your son, Bush 43, were any kind of orator, I can still see you saying--quite decisively to a gaggle of reporters asking you about Iraq's invasion of Kuwait--"This WILL NOT STAND!" Years later, I saw an interview with Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs when you made that pronouncement. Powell said he saw the report on TV, and immediately called the rest of the military brass to let them know that we were going to war with the Iraq and their Republican Guard. There was no doubt, because he knew you always meant what you said. Period. Oh, and Bush 43? When the attacks of September 11 happened, he spoke very plainly and forcefully when he condemned ANY violence against American Muslims and mosques, saying they were peaceful people, and should not be punished for the actions of a few foreign extremists. AND, any of us who were here at that time remember him standing with the first responders at the ruins of the Twin Towers in New York, and speaking words of gratitude to them. And when one of them shouted out, "We can't hear you!" over the din of bulldozers in the background, Bush 43, extemporaneously shouted back,"I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people – and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon." These two responses were the kind of leadership we expect and hope for in a President, regardless of how you feel the later war with Iraq unfolded.

Eulogies often focus on the "goods" of a person's life, and that's not a bad thing. The "fits" and failures of a departed friend or loved one don't need punctuated, as, if we knew them and loved them, we know these full well. The best eulogies point out the celebratory successes of the departed, and/or tells of some little known, or even unknown, stories or events of that person's life that brought inspiration, blessing, or resolve to another in their orbit. Eulogies of heads of state may seek to make the leader "bigger than life," although I'm not sure that is possible, considering that, as a head of state, they had at least one major success--they won a national election. Even our current President has that as a legacy, regardless of how hard he may be working to undo it, at least in many people's view. Both Bush 43 and "Poppy" faced crises of aggression and responded with strong resolve. I give 41 credit for building a great multi-nation coalition, forcing Iraq out of Kuwait, and then coming home. 43 spoke for a hurting nation when he stood on the pile of rubble next to an improvised shrine in New York City. As history rolls on, they will be remembered for these good words and acts of courage. Much of the folly that also crept into their terms (especially with the mire of the Iraq war under 43) will fall away. The current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue would do well to go to school on these ideas, if he hopes to have a nice eulogy spoken of himself some day.

We're not heads of state, though, are we? What of our legacies? What of our own eulogies we are still either providing fodder for, or putting up so badly that our survivors will have to make up a lot of stuff to be able to say something nice about us? This is where we have one advantage over the dead--we are still "writing" our eulogies! Bush 43 did a lot this week to bare his heart to America and show us something. How about you? When I officiate at funeral or memorial services, I take stock of my own life, knowing that my turn at the stile may be sooner than I think. I don't want my family to have to make up stories to convince anyone that I wasn't just a waste of 98 cents worth of chemicals and a few quarts of water. And I also say a prayer to God, asking for a fresh positioning of myself under the redeeming, inclusive, and forgiving grace God has offered me through my faith in Christ. By the way, I will not apologize to anyone that I believe God is working in people's hearts of every faith that leads them to seek God's favor and motivates them to love their neighbor as themselves. This is why I am proud that part of my faith legacy is the interfaith relationships I have sought to form as I have matured. These, too, are children of the Most High God.

A few weeks ago, I wrote my own obituary. Try it, and be honest about yourself. Then, from time to time, look at it. How are you doing, keeping up with how you want to be remembered? It's a sobering exercise, believe me. I have learned, though, that I would rather fix my life than re-edit my obit, so that's something. 

One more thing: when the great people--the luminaries--pass, pause, stop what you are doing, and listen to the words said about them. Listen to their "familiars" and the platitudes they offer, but also listen for the honest assessments of those in the "other camp"--those who had reasons to dislike or be hostile toward them. It's also an education. I will never forget that awe-inspiring scene of former Senator Robert Dole fighting to his feet to offer a salute to a deceased contemporary, an adversary, and one who sent him to political defeat. Through personal tears, I could hear John Mellencamp's lyrics, "Ain't that America!"

What's Next?

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