Friday, April 26, 2019

Rainy Days...

It's raining. No, I'm not talking metaphorically about the current state of American politics, nor am I sounding an alarm about any upcoming disaster, either. It is literally raining outside. Wish it were an "April shower"--you know, the kind that brings "May flowers." It's more of a deluge, currently, but it's water, it's coming from the sky, and I'm guessing that eventually it will find its way into the soil where it will make stuff grow. The grass here at the church is surging, and our mower guy, who typically mows on Friday afternoons, will not be happy that it appears to be a soaking, all-day rain.

I like rainy days. I like driving in the rain, walking in the rain (with a decent umbrella, and with a certain incredible lady by my side), and even sitting at the ballpark waiting for a rain-delayed game to begin. As one of about six people who actually liked Three Rivers Stadium, I remember going to a night game with my family on a rainy evening, watching the "Zambonis" sucking the water up off the Tartan Turf, and shooting it over the center field fence. My Dad was amazed at this, as the game would have definitely been a rain out at old Forbes Field, but this game against the San Francisco Giants got played, and Willie McCovey blasted a grand slam into the upper deck to win it for the West-coasters. Why did I like Three Rivers Stadium? I was a kid, and didn't know any better. Actually, it was a combination of its gargantuan size, the huge scoreboard (which, like Apollo 11, was the latest in 60s technology), and the fact that, unlike Forbes Field, rats didn't run over your feet at night games. I also liked to look up at the "elite" eating and watching the game in the spacious Allegheny Club, and hoping I would get to do that someday. Thanks to Mark Cottrill, a St. Paul's member back in the mid-1990s, I did actually get to do that once. (He had a great job at the higher echelons of the Henry Hillman Company, and those people had both an Allegheny Club membership and one of those "lounge boxes" at Three Rivers, a primitive forerunner of today's luxury boxes at PNC Park.)

Does this blog have a point? Probably not, other than to say that I don't find rainy days at all depressing. If you are one who does, my prayers are with you today. Rain reminds us that God does care for the planet, nourishing its "greening" process in what appears to me to be a miraculous cycle. Rain reminds me of the sprinkling waters of Christian baptism (officially called aspersion). If we pastors can flick water from the font onto a congregation with the words, "Remember your baptism and be thankful," I suppose I can walk in the rain and tell myself that, too. As I write this, the hard, wind-driven rain is hitting the windows of my office, making me thankful I have a warm, dry place to work, study, and write. I am reminded by the pelting rain, though, to pray for those for whom "warm" and "dry" are not as readily available.

I do like driving in the rain, but not today. I brought the Miata in to Allison Park, as it had to go in for inspection, an oil change, and a set of new tires. I try never to drive it in the rain, as it's 29 years old now, and keeping it out of the elements has well preserved its carcass for these many years, but since it had to be inspected by the end of April, here we are. Its convertible top leaks like a sieve by the driver's side window, so I will have to drive it home while sitting on about ten towels, or I'll be "remembering my baptism" by the seat of my pants. That little sports car likes to be "daring" on the turns in a good rain, too, doing something we used to call "fishtailing" at an alarming rate. And driving in the rain means driving with the headlights on (a PA requirement since January of 2007, people! If your wipers are on, so should be your headlights!). Unfortunately, with the "pop-up" headlights on the 1990 Miata, it looks pretty "bug-eyed," and not cool at all. These are the two main reasons for driving a Miata--because it's fun to drive, and to look cool. And at highway speeds, the popped-up headlights whistle. Not cool at all.

In a dry car, and if I ever get unscheduled time (retirement, maybe?), I have a strong desire just to "head out," kind of like Peter Pan: "Second star to the right and straight on 'til morning." Thankfully, I am partnered with someone who likes to do stuff like that, too. Rainy days are good days to just go somewhere. I guess my personal Christian spirituality has always worked that way, as well. When the going gets tough, as they say, I like to go somewhere, as opposed to hunkering down and brooding. Unfortunately, my Myers-Briggs type indicator (ENFP), combined with a mild case of adult ADHD, means I don't necessarily have an agenda or a specified destination. My partner is quite happy that I am now compelled to take the back roads rather than the Interstates, and that, too, has some interesting spiritual meanings, I'm sure.

So, what about you on this fine, rainy day? Are you an upper or a downer on such precipitous occasions? Do you only like to "make hay while the sun shines," or do you say, "Hey, it's raining, let's go somewhere?" Even if you enjoy just sitting and watching the rain outside the window, here's hoping that only Mondays get you down, and not rainy days! As Amos 5 famously says, "Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

There will be plenty of justice and righteousness, then, on my drive home this evening. (Gotta' figure out how to get that leak fixed)...a big, damp shalom to yinz.

Friday, April 19, 2019

A Little ROOM in the TOMB...

We now have a full-sized, garden tomb in our narthex. With special thanks to Boyd Dawson, our resident artist, and Robb Montgomery, our resident SFX guy, the tomb will serve as a giant object lesson for the services of Holy Week. Right now, she's closed up tighter than a drum, with the huge stone covering the entrance, a Roman Seal in place to assure no unauthorized visitors. But for the obvious biblical reasons considering the Easter story, how did we end up with a big, hunkin' tomb in the church?

It all started with these rings. For our "Relate" Lenten theme, we chose the interlaced series of purple rings (suspended above the chancel in the sanctuary, and in Wesley Hall, where we have our Saturday service) as a symbol of relationships. Upon mentioning the desire to have some kind of large, interlocking rings hanging over the choir, the aforementioned Robb, himself a theatrical set designer, came up with a way to make them, color them, and suspend them, with no danger to those under them, should gravity become a sudden problem. Something interesting will be happening to the rings for Easter, but that is another story. As our Leadership Team "brainstormed" ideas with circles to go along with the rings, Yours Truly mentioned the "garden tomb" idea of the place where Jesus may have been interred, complete with its wheel-like stone that could be rolled over the entrance. The round stone was a circle, I thought. A mention of this idea took flight with Boyd and Robb, and voila, we have a big tomb in the narthex. I'm guessing that when that stone is rolled away for Easter, Robb may have a surprise of some kind--possibly a neon "Vacancy"sign?

We don't normally have tombs around St. Paul's. Oh, we do have a columbarium, where the ashes of dear, departed church members reside, and that is a more meaningful thing than I can tell you. I find myself making more frequent trips than I would have ever imagined to the chapel where the columbarium is, just to ponder the names on the plates on each of the niches, remembering precious saints of this church, and offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God for their lives, now gone "online" eternally. I've been visiting it a lot more since Faith Geer is there. We all still miss her so.

But a huge garden tomb? Normally, I would think it "schmaltzy," but this week, as it sits with the stone in place, it has taken on new meaning for me. Sure it is a reminder of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us all, that which cements our relationship with God, and offers all the promise of eternal life. But it is more than that. Even as I stand before the niches in the columbarium, remembering those precious ones, so now I've spent more than a few moments before the sealed tomb, thinking about Jesus, and how his followers must have felt staring at that big, cold stone, and about the remains of an extraordinary life lying behind it, in the damp darkness. Pondering those lives whose remains are in our columbarium, I fantasize about what it will be like to see them again in heaven, and to joyously "catch up" on those relationships cut short by the sting of death. Now, standing before our garden tomb, I ponder what it will be like to greet Jesus in the same way. As I think I mentioned in an earlier blog, I have no interest in hugging him, or even a desire to ask him anything (I wouldn't manifest those behaviors if I met some contemporary luminary for whom I have great admiration, and Jesus is, well, GOD!) I would just like to join all the rest, sitting at Jesus' feet and listening to what he has to say. I love a good lecture, and I'm guessing that since his "Sermon on the Mount" made the "top ten" of all-time great lectures, he probably has a few more in him, and time will be on our side on the other side.

The danger of having this thing in the narthex is that people may just pass by and comment, rather than take time to stop, ponder, and pray. Jesus had that problem the first time around, too. In the words of Lamentations: Is it nothing to all you who pass by? His tomb, at least according to some, was in a thoroughfare where people just passed by, even as the cross itself was on Golgotha, a public place of execution. If there is one thing I have learned in my almost-65 years, it's that we miss too much if we just pass stuff by. 

I hope I have time to ponder at this ginormous tomb when the stone is rolled away on Easter. As a "grassroots" theologian, I understand the resurrection, and have preached Easter sermons for 33 years thus far, but I've never had a tomb in my church at which I could stop and just imagine, as John Lennon once said. Now I do, and given the difficulty they had getting this thing built and moved into here, I'm guessing it's not leaving too soon. I should have some time alone with the empty tomb, just like I did with the stone-sealed one. 

Friends, don't miss the wonder, the promise, and the love of Easter, even if you don't have a tomb as an icon upon which to meditate. This weekend, don't miss an opportunity to hear the glorious story again, the story of Jesus and his love, the story of the cross and the resurrection, and, of course, the waiting. Don't let your theology of redemption get in the way of your grasp of it, like a child holds tightly to a beloved blanket. And take some time this week to feel your redemption, and to feel how it is performing its magic of transforming you--the way you think, the way you live, and the way you love. While the cross may be a convenient symbol to wear around our necks or to display in the chancel, this Easter, the people of St. Paul's United Methodist Church have the real deal to gaze upon--a beautiful, life-sized garden tomb with a vacancy sign. He is Risen. He is Risen, indeed! Happy Easter, Yinz. 

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Love flexibly...

No, this is not a suggestion out of Masters and Johnson's research. It's actually an appeal from the pen of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 13.

"Love does not demand its own way," is the phrase upon which "Love is Flexible" is based. "Love is Flexible" was our sermon title from this past weekend at St. Paul's, incidentally. The concept has a much bigger kick than that old chestnut from Love Story,  "Love means never having to say you're sorry." What drivel that was.

Flexible love is one that bends but does not break, regardless of the circumstances in which it finds itself. In our closest loving relationships, this is important. I told our congregations that if my wife's love for me wasn't flexible, she would have either committed homicide or flew the coop long ago. I can test a person's patience. If I'm coming off a fresh reading stretch (I read four newspapers per day, and am currently reading about four books), I can really be full of it. New knowledge, that is. And if she gets in the way of one of my resulting barrages of tweaked brilliance, she may feel "belittled," or at the very least, becomes an unsuspecting audience at one, receiving the fusillade of argumentative logic I would rather rain down upon the random Trump supporter. She knows I never am attacking HER, of course, but when I'm in one of these "I just have to tell somebody" jags, I'll let loose upon the first sentient thing I encounter. But she does love me, and takes it, her dedicated agape-based flexibility on  full display. (When she's really on, though, she will listen to my diatribe and interject one enlightened "But what about this_______?" that destroy's my fueled up forensics. I keep forgetting that she is smarter...)

Flexible love "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." That's a tall order. I confess, in my marriage, it is easy for me, as I'm still caught in the "worshipping the ground she walks on" stage, for almost 42 years now. Amazed that this incredible (and stunning) female has chosen to walk with me on life's journey without wavering, I need little "flexibility" in my love, other than to be much more observant of what HER needs are, the cluelessness of which is a common failing among we males of the species. I don't need to be convinced I have a very good thing going. She, on the other hand, could easily muster the argument that hers is the harder hand, and therefore requires a more malleable love, going forward. Every one of my "post reading" pontifications revives the need for this, I'm sure. (Please note, I'm not talking about my actual church sermons--she has always been my best critic and most ardent "attaboy" promoters in this regard. The few times she has had to respond with a "What was THAT all about?" to one of my homiletical efforts, I was made painfully aware that I had just laid an ostrich-sized egg.)

When meeting a struggling couple in the counseling room, the first sign I typically see of their trouble is a clear inflexibility on the part of one or both of them. As each brings their opening argument, it becomes clear that an anchor or two has been dropped, and the love involved has become quite rigid. "I can't love her if..." or "How can I love him when he says..." are fighting words, when a more flexible love--born of the growing history of the relationship, an active faith, or both--might have allowed a complete pass on the offense, or might have resulted in a therapeutic conversation over coffee instead of a major brouhaha. [DISCLAIMER: I'm not talking about bonafide situations of abuse, either physical or emotional--no love is flexible enough to fix these, and in fact, may bring real harm to the victim if she or he tries to apply it. As they say, "Don't try this at home." Get help!]

The Apostle Paul was addressing relationships at multiple levels in his famous "love chapter." The early church was a hot mess of different nationalities, former religious affiliations, socioeconomic classes, and genders, all thrown in together and told to be "Christlike." Thankfully, the Christian church has evolved over our 2,000-plus years, and now we have matured into a hot mess of different nationalities, former religious affiliations, socioeconomic classes, and genders all thrown in together and told to be "Christlike." John Lennon was right--all we need is love. Unfortunately, that is like saying, "All we need is a boatload of cash," or "All we need is a way to defy gravity, if we want to go to Mars." The kind of flexible love that meets the criteria of not demanding its own way, or one that  "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" takes a lot of work to have and perfect. Our greatest error in trying to muster it is to believe we can, in the first place. This kind of love must--MUST have its origins in the divine, and MUST be germinated and fed by grace--God's grace. John Wesley wasn't nuts when he spouted endlessly about grace, and Paul wasn't either. Martin Luther was enamored by grace, and so was Jean Calvin, in whatever else he was doing with that goofy stuff about predestination. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that only a grace-driven, flexible love would bring about the beginnings of liberation for persons of color, and we must admit today that dismantling racism and fighting discrimination against LGBTQIA+ persons will not be successful without God's grace and flexible love. Flexible love builds bridges, not walls, humanly speaking, and it doesn't make demands that benefit only itself. Yep, this will be hard. But so is what my wife has to put up with, and I'm so glad she hasn't given up! Let us not give up on these fruits of flexible love either, Dear Ones!

I'm not even getting into parenting issues in this brief discourse. Let me just say one word about how we ultimately develop genuine, flexible love in parenting: teenagers. Also boosts your prayer life...

My wife says I ramble, so I'll quit now. But may we never give up the pursuit of the healing, hopeful, and transformational thing we call flexible love. If you forget for a moment what it looks like, gaze at your loving partner, or turn to Jesus, the "author and finisher" of it. Shalom, Yinz...

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The Mistaken Identity of Good News...

What would "good news" look like for you? I'm not talking about the obvious kinds of things like, "Hello, this is your doctor--good news, no cancer!" or "Your car passed inspection without needing anything." Everybody facing stuff like this would deem these responses as good news, I'm sure. But we live in a time when harsh polarities have become governing factors, with not too much in "the middle," or at least much we're hearing from or about. In politics, what is good news for a Trump supporter is a bad day at black rock for Nancy Pelosi and company. One person's celebration over a big tax cut is another's denial of services, or worse yet, an amendment to the tax code that makes churches pay tax for parking spaces used by their staff. [Seriously, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed in 2017 had a sneaky provision wherein non-profit organizations and churches may have to pay a tax for each parking space used by staff members throughout the work week. Why? Because you know these non-profit organizations and churches are paying such HIGH SALARIES that they have to hit them where they hurt! Seriously?]

The news from the special General Conference of the United Methodist Church was considered quite good for those supporting the Traditional Plan, but quite bad for the ones this plan harms by excluding them. The para-church Good News organization heralded the narrow vote of approval for the restrictive plan, while the Reconciling Ministries Network found it well, not quite reconciling. And I'm sure that this plan and a related "disaffiliation" piece were not good news for the UMC's Judicial Council, as both were adopted with questionable constitutional elements, and now the Judicial Council is on the hot seat to review them and issue a ruling at the end of April. Happy Easter! Such a ruling will again be good news for one group, and bad for the other. Was there no way for the United Methodists to come to some compromise so that both "poles" got something? Surely there could have been a way that those who experience a crisis of conscience over the inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in the church and those whose conscience guides them to WANT to include LGBTQIA+ persons to come to a compromise assuaging both consciences? Oh, yeah, there was something called the One Church Plan, wasn't there? Its adoption may not have been good news for either group, but it would have been news, and it may have been a ray of light and hope in an otherwise increasingly polemical world. But now, the denomination stands divided by 54 votes--50 if you throw out the 4 questionable votes from the Central Conference delegation. That's not good news for anybody.

Here's another set of "poles" that is beginning to present itself--the Millennial generation vs. the rest of us. As the Millennials emerge and assert themselves on the cultural and national stage, it is becoming clear that they have quite different views from the Boomers and GenXers, both of which have evolved areas of compromise, including some music, tastes in art, and their approach to transportation (which car to buy vs. taking public transportation). Millennials are moving back to the city, while Boomers and GenXers are ensconced in the suburbs. (I'm not sure if one of these groups is driving the tattoo craze more than the others, because ink can be seen on members of each generation.) Politically, I'm guessing it will be Mayor Pete (Millennials) vs. Beto (GenXers) vs. Bernie or Trump (Boomers). Like tattoos, libertarians can be found among all three.

When it comes to religion and church, the Millennials have pretty much "voted with their feet," as in left the building. Polls show most are decidedly spiritual persons, just not trusting of what the previous generations have done to the "institutions" of religious faith. Millennials tend to be radically inclusive of marginalized groups like the LGBTQIA+ community, interested in interfaith dialogue, and generally believe humanity and its care and feeding is a matter not left up to ancient passages of scripture unless viewed with a level of scholarship allowing for regular reinterpretation. Boomers and GenXers are intrigued with social media and their "smart phones," while for Millennials, these things are as common and necessary as opposable thumbs.

As you can imagine, what is "good news" for Boomers and GenXers isn't even on the radar screen for many Millennial Generation persons. In fact, from observing them, I would guess that Millennials are rather skeptical of anything called "news" at all, with some of their older counterparts touting it as truth, while others branding it "fake." With the brouhaha currently going on among the Boomers and the GenXers (at least politically), I'm guessing that the only true "good news" for Millennials would be if they heard we had all left the planet on a fleet of Elon Musk's Big Falcon rockets. After they had cleaned up the environmental mess we left behind, they would live happily ever after. And who knows, with us and our restrictive rules on another world, they just might build a church.

As a pastor in a struggling denomination that was once great, I can say that I still dream of preaching a Gospel that is good news. I still have fantasies that the teachings of Jesus, if left to stand for themselves without much "nuancing" by Yours Truly, might still be transformative, even for Millennials. And I also believe that the genuine and "organic" faith of the Millennials might just be transformative for us Boomers and GenXers, too! Essentially, what I think I'm trying to say here is that "good news" is only good news if it is good news for everybody, not just one interest group, political party, ethnicity, religion, or generation. If we ever stop striving for this good news, no rocket ship will ever rescue us.

Oh, and one final thought: when Jesus began his ministry, he was a Millennial of his day....

What's Next?

  What’s Next?   2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 6:1 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 6:2 David and all the people...