Monday, March 29, 2010

Hey Jesus, I Need a Little Help Here

It was time to go upstairs and do what I had prayed for seven years not to do. She was eight years old and I had walked the road of constant chemotherapy and radiation with her parents for seven of her eight years. At least three times the odds dictated that she would not make it. Every time she paid no attention to the odds and continued to dance. She loved to dance.

Every morning I started my prayer time out in the tradition of the Jewish way of "demanding" something from God in a very bold way. We Christians clean up spirituality and make it "nice" but in our heritage the Hebrew scriptures are full of "in your face" language. So I said to God, "I do not want to do her funeral." Then I went on and prayed for her and her dear parents.

I guess it sounds selfish but so be it. Yesterday I had to do her funeral. I was with her when she struggled to breathe her last. I saw the pain in the face of the parents who held her as they said their goodbyes. I wrapped my arms around the three of them knowing that all I could do was "tell" God to wrap bigger arms around them.

But it was time to go upstairs and do her funeral. There would be dance, and celebrative songs, and planned laughter to go with the tears...but...I still had to "do" it. I had seven years of requests built up in me and I was a bit worried about "how I would do." I knew me. I wrote her a poem and I crafted a service of celebration. It all looked good on paper, but I now had to do it.

As I started to walk out of the office a bit of fear and emotion swept over me. That was not good. So I turned back and walked over to my wall that held a special crucifix given to me by Edith. Edith took that large crucifix off her mother's chest. Edith' s mother requested that she be buried "with him." But just before they closed the casket Edith reached in and grabbed Jesus and said to her mother, "Mother I need him more than you do."

For many years he hung on Edith's wall and she told me that she would look up at him looking down at her and he always helped her in time of need. Edith asked me to come by to see her before I moved from the church I had served for eight years. I was her pastor and she was undergoing treatments for cancer.

She brought me up close to him, hanging on the wall and she told me the story of her grabbing him. Then she reached up and took him off the wall and handed him to me, "Here, you need him now."

I did Edith's funeral a few years ago and I brought him with me. I again took him off the wall and told her story. I said to all who listened that he was Edith's but she had given him to me and I still needed him.

So...yesterday I walked over to that wall and I looked up at him looking down at me. I cried a bit and said, "OK, I need you." I did not "hear" any response but there was one. Edith heard it too. I walked upstairs and lead a church full of people in a real celebration. I "did" fine. All kinds of people beginning with her dear parents hugged me and thanked me and told me what a marvelous job I "did." I thanked them and told them it was a honor to have been invited in to such a sacred space with this dear family.

I "held up" fine. My fear of coming apart was contained. I walked downstairs and back into my office. I took off my robe. I walked over to him. I leaned up against the wall and I looked up at him and I came apart. I leaned against the wall and I leaned against him....and as I softly cried I looked up into his face with his silent head leaning down from his cross and I said, "Thank you...thank you."

I suppose it is what this week ahead we call Holy is all about...
Thank you....thank you.


Saturday, March 20, 2010

March Madness: The Other Version

It's called March Madness for a reason. The brackets are full of big name schools and some names that even after you hear the name you ask, "Where is that?" As the brackets shrink and the days toward the finals approach there are fewer and fewer names.

My strange mind thought of all this as I helped put together our church's "stations of the cross." The stations are composed of original art pieces made by members of our congregation. The walking prayer journey begins with a sculpture by none other than the resident artist of our house, Betsy. It depicts Jesus with his hands wrapped in prayer kneeling in the garden. He leans against a large rock and of course, since this is Betsy's doing, there is a garden around him with small tress and plants.

His eyes are closed and he is offering that now famous request that is heard through the years, "Can you take this cup away from me?" As you leave Jesus in the garden you walk toward a musical selection that can be listened to through ear phones of a piece from a requiem that our Chancel Choir did recently. Then there comes the stations where Pilate condemns Jesus, he picks up his cross, he falls, Simon of Cyrene helps him, he is nailed to that ugly tree, Mary holds the body of her dead boy, and he finally is placed in a borrowed tomb.

It's March Madness. As I walked through the stations I felt the "brackets" narrowing. Jesus is still in the "game" to the surprise of many who look on. In fact he makes it to the finals even though most of his "team" fouls out.

The odds makers are proven right after all as he is defeated. His hoped for "one shinning moment" is shrouded in darkness as a cloud appears over the scene of his loss. The crowds who were shouting earlier go back knowing that business as usual is around the corner and March Madness will soon take its place along side other left over newspapers that will be tossed. The brackets are no more.

Except in this "game" the loser ends up being the winner. It takes a few days for the dust to settle but the "madness" of it all ends up being a road to victory after all. Why does it take such madness to get to a final one shining moment for the guy whose image is frozen in a kneeling position at that first "station?"

It is because the one who created this teaming cosmos of ours decides to "play the game" with us knowing that our defeats matter. He does not just show up and declare victory. He comes, offers a game plan, and then takes the court with all the madness involved.

The difference here is that with the cut down nets still hanging around the neck of the team that thinks it holds the trophy there is a sunrise a few days later that ends up being a final victory. It seems that even though the brackets were completed by those who bend and abuse the rules to get to the finals there is one who offers a last comment that is perceived as "real madness" by a world bent on going its own way. Just as people start to go back to work after March Madness God whispers, "O death where is thy victory, O death where is thy sting."

It seems that Jesus is "not" frozen forever in that kneeling pose nor is he frozen by the power that always reaches the finals. So...when we get to the "finals" March Madness will have a different ending. So as I say at the conslusion of all the funerals I do, "Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord and saviour Jesus Christ."

Blessed March Madness to you....

Friday, March 12, 2010

If Now Was Then

I spent the last week interviewing new candidates for ministry. To be a United Methodist minister you have to complete 3 years of seminary then go before 3 committees and defend your "call,"answer questions about a sermon preached, and explain your doctrines and theology. If you pass that, and 40% of them did not, you are examined for 3 years as to how well you "perform" in a church setting...then you do the committee thing all over again.

I don't think I would pass now. I'm not sure how I passed "then." That was 38 years ago. Maybe they were more lenient back then. I know I had trouble with some of the doctrine stuff...and the audio tape of my sermon did not work the Sunday I taped it so I had to preach it again the next day... this time in an empty room.

One of the Board of Ministry members "back then" said the quality of the tape sounded almost like it was done in an empty room. I did not respond. He then asked me if I preached this sermon in front a congregation and I simply responded, "yes." Well, I did the first time.

So is my whole ministry in fact built upon a lie? Anyway, after examining these new folks last week I'm glad I"m on this end of the interviews. I never took a preaching course, my beliefs "then" and "now" are not exactly orthodox, and my call was one I continually wrestled with. I think if the tables were turned and those folks with whom I am now on the Board of Ministry got the chance to put me down at the "other" end of the table, I might be selling cars for a living.

The truth is that the longer I live the bigger God gets. Doctrines that are the basis of hard questions asked of candidates do not seem nearly as important to me as making ways for people to find the various handles that open doors to paths that lead to an authentic spiritual journey. Preaching for me is now more of an exercise in engaging imagination than technique.

I really felt for some of my younger colleges that didn't "measure up." Some of them should not have. Some of them probably should not be ministers, but some of them simply did not answer the questions the right way or did not preach up to par.

Ah but alas my credentials now hang on the wall. I'm "in" so to speak. Now my test comes most every day when someone sits across from me and asks questions with their lips or with their eyes as to why they have cancer or if God really is involved in the challenges they are having with their family?

The "examination" now is done by a large number of faces into which I offer "the Word" most every Sunday. I can sometimes tell if I'm passing or failing by looking into those faces.

I'm glad it's "now" and not "then." I've grown comfortable with my hybrid heretical thoughts. They are like an old pair of shoes that I wear because I have no interest in breaking in new ones. I'm too old and set in my strange ways to finally "learn" how to terms of examining the credibility of my "call"...well...God simply would not let me alone and I could not escape. Jonah's fish is a good image and I was spit up on the shore long ago only to find that this wonderful and crazy thing called ministry is what I simply have to do...


Sunday, March 7, 2010


What kind of stuff do you have? In the past few weeks I've been cleaning out my father's stuff. He is now in one of those "Assisted Living" places and he does not need all his "stuff." (I sometimes think "Assisted Living" places are the purgatory of life...not the dreaded end that we call "nursing homes" but also not the home living that we try to make them look like.) Going through his stuff and deciding what to do with it was both hard and sad.

I found some of my "stuff" along with know, old pictures that remind you that at one time you had more hair and less body. There were old, new things that I had given him that he never opened. There were things that were probably special to him but not to anyone else. There were "gadgets" that I'm not sure what they were.

A wisdom teacher once said, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and dust corrupt and thieves break in and steal..." Well, I started to leave the door open hoping that some thieves could simply come in and take...they did not even have to steal it. What to do with all the stuff...

The footnote to the saying above could add, "or that Goodwill will get someday." What are we collecting all the stuff for anyway? So I started thinking of ways to get rid of some of my stuff before my kids had to go through it to figure out what the heck to do with it.

I also pondered just what stuff was worth keeping and what stuff was, you know, important. I found a yellowing set of papers that contained the words I said at my grandmother's funeral. I came upon a picture of my mother when she was 18. Her half-smile and rouge covered cheeks looked strangely like our youngest daughter...somewhere in there.

And then there were all the things that ended up in bags...some for friends and family...some for the kind folks at Goodwill...and some for the truck out back that would journey to the graveyard where we offer last rights for our "stuff."

I need to start getting rid of some of "it"...not getting too much more of "it"...and trying to be more careful about just what is worth "it."

Bless you....and some of your stuff (not all of it)