Archive | August, 2013

Evidence of God in the least likely places

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On airplanes, I dread the conversation with the person who finds out I am a minister and wants to use the flight time to explain to me that he is “spiritual but not religious.” Such a person will always share this as if it is some kind of daring insight, unique to him, bold in its rebellion against the religious status quo. 

Next thing you know, he’s telling me that he finds God in the sunsets. These people always find God in the sunsets. And in walks on the beach. Sometimes I think these people never leave the beach or the mountains, what with all the communing with God they do on hilltops, hiking trails and . . . did I mention the beach at sunset yet?

Like people who go to church don’t see God in the sunset! 

-Lillian Daniel

This is the time of year when I ordinarily wax poetic about the sunsets on Lake Michigan.  Last year I wrote something on my blog about sunsets being “the best glimpse of heaven we’re going to get this side of glory.”

Or something like that.  I’m not even sure what that means.

I do like sunsets, though.  And I especially like them over Lake Michigan.  And I think there is something in the beauty of them that alerts us to a thing greater than ourselves, a creator.

I like it that at this time of year – on vacation, with family and friends – we’ll suddenly leave the board game or shut off the DVD player or put down the novel and run to the deck to watch the sun set.  We’ll get quiet for a few minutes, as quiet as any church, and just watch, before walking slowly back to whatever we were doing.

We’ve seen it all before of course – many times – but there we’ll stand taking it all in one more time, as though we can never get enough.

And of course the truth is, we can’t.

But what is it that we can’t get enough of?  I’m thinking – and Lillian Daniel, one of my favorite preachers, has started me thinking about this – that maybe more can be said.  Yes, those leisurely summer evenings when we take time to watch a sunset over Lake Michigan are wonderful and – for someone like me – deeply spiritual, but isn’t there something more that could be said, that should be said?

Those of us – and there are more of us than you might think – who see the significance of a sunset could be prodded to see things greater than ourselves in other places.  If we can see evidence of a creator in a sunset, couldn’t we learn to see evidence in … well, that’s just it, isn’t it?  Couldn’t we learn to see evidence for the creator just about everywhere?

I’m working at it.  A lot of the time.  Sometimes it’s easy.  The beach, yes.  The mountains, of course.  If I could golf, I’d even see God there, I’m sure of it.  But what I’m working at these days is seeing God in unlikely places – at committee meetings (where I spend a lot of my time), in difficult conversations, in moments of conflict and pain.

I have to remind myself to do it, but when I do, I’m often pleasantly surprised.

“Where is God right now, in this situation, with these people?”  If you see evidence of the creator in sunsets, in the mountains, and in those places where it’s relatively easy to do so, could you begin – with a little effort – to notice God in other places?  In the least likely places?

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The Summer Beard

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Today’s controversial topic?  The summer beard.

Among all the difficult and complex issues I’ve tackled since I started this blog, the summer beard just has to rank … yes, close to the bottom.

Still, let’s think it through.

For years summer vacation has been a good time for me to grow my whiskers. Like most of what happens on vacation, a beard requires little work.  Just the way I like it.  Give me two weeks – or so – and there it is.  As easy as floating in the cool, fresh water of Lake Michigan.

So, that’s what I did most summers.  I let it grow.  Until about mid-September, or even early October, when I remembered that beards actually require more upkeep and maintenance than the clean-shaven look.  And that’s when I typically shaved the thing off.

Trust me on this: it’s easier just to shave every morning.

What was interesting all those years, though, was coming back to church on Sunday morning and looking like Jeremiah Johnson, fresh from hunting grizzlies in the north woods.  I didn’t keep records, but my clear sense is that more women than men objected to the look.   I didn’t ask for their opinions, of course, but that didn’t stop church members (especially the women) from letting me know how much they didn’t like the beard.

One Sunday morning – this was a long time ago at my New Jersey church – a woman even handed me a brand-new disposable razor at the door after worship.

“You should use this,” she said.

But things started to change about 10 years ago.  My beard still came in – with absolutely no effort on my part – but the thing was clearly changing color.  First it was a couple of white patches on my chin, and then, well, the whole thing went white.  I had turned into Santa Claus.

And that ended the fun.

Until this summer when I spent some time in the Dominican Republic – without running water or a mirror.  And – you guessed it – the thing reappeared just like that.

I wasn’t disappointed by the reaction at church either.  I discovered that women still don’t like beards.  (My wife would be an exception to this rule, by the way.)   But beards at my church are more common than you might think.  Every year on Maundy Thursday my church presents a moving drama which ends with a re-enactment of Leonardo daVinci’s “The Last Supper.”  It’s always one of the best-attended services of the year.

So, around the beginning of Lent, a few men start learning their lines and growing their beards.  Here’s the thing: No one says anything about it.  They wear their beards proudly.  I suppose everyone knows that they’ll all be clean shaven by Easter.

I’ve been asking the director to write a role for me – Caiaphas, the high priest, seems like a good fit – but so far nothing has happened.  Maybe now that I’ve demonstrated what I can do in the facial hair department, he’ll change his mind.

Even though I’ll be shaving soon, I want to point out what the Bible says.  Mostly the Bible assumes that men will be bearded which – to me – ought to settle the matter.  However, scripture often has a way of offering another, opposing point of view.  In Genesis 41:14, the story clearly tells us that Joseph shaved before going to meet with Pharaoh.  A sign of respect?  I don’t know.  Hard to tell.

A better story, I think, is found earlier in Genesis where Esau (Jacob’s fraternal twin) is described as a hairy man.  Jacob, in contrast, is smooth.

What can we conclude from this story?  Not as much as I would like.  Even though Jacob was probably clean shaven, he was a scoundrel.  And Esau, who probably had a big bushy red beard, was not terribly bright.

Facial hair – or the lack of it – doesn’t seem to be a factor in God’s plans.

I’m glad I was able to shed some light on that difficult subject.

(Photo credit: No, that’s not me.  That’s actually George Clooney, though we’re frequently mistaken for each other.)

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We can do more than fight

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(Summer re-runs are mostly a thing of the past.  And that’s mostly a good thing, I think.  So, I am somewhat hesitantly re-running this old blog post.  It’s from April 14, 2012.  Partly I’m re-running it because my blog was still in its early stages when it was first posted – and I didn’t have all that many readers – but mostly I’m re-running it because I’ve had some very recent conversations with family and friends about the topic – namely, how should Christians talk about illness and disease?

If anything, I’ve grown even more uncomfortable with the militaristic metaphors that people like to use when they’re sick.  I know what “fighting cancer” means, and I’d likely do the same with cancer or any other illness I might face, but fighters are not typically the people I admire, as the story about my college roommate makes clear.  And I wonder if our faith, too, leads us to say something more.

A member of my family recently completed a year of chemo and radiation therapy.  She battled – no doubt about it – but what everyone saw and loved about her response to the illness wasn’t the fight.  It was the way she re-discovered life.  She lived the last year with the kind of zest and determination that thrilled the rest of us.  She savored each moment with grandchildren.  She traveled   And mostly she lived.  And everyone around her loved hearing and reading about it – not the war she and her doctors waged, but the life she lived.)

The story of my college room-mate

A dear friend of mine from college days – he was my roommate, and his wife was my wife’s roommate – has now entered hospice care.  A year or so ago, he learned that he had a brain tumor and that he had maybe six months to live.

I had lunch with him last August when I was in Michigan on my vacation, and it was good to see him again.  And even though he looked ravaged from the chemo and radiation treatments, he was the same sweet man I knew from our college days.  I count the two hours we spent together as precious and sacred time, God’s good gift to me.

His vocation over the years has been college-level English teaching, and at our lunch he expressed the hope that he would be able to teach at least one class in the fall, which as it turns out he was able to do.  I wish I could have heard him teach that class!  That he has lived more than a year after diagnosis has been a blessing to him and his family, a wonderful gift.

Last week I read in the Care Pages that he, his wife, and his sons post regularly to keep friends like me up to date on his condition, that he had entered hospice care, and I saw that someone praised him there for his “courageous battle” with cancer. That’s not the first time I’ve seen war or military metaphors used to describe our experiences with diseases like cancer, but for the first time it struck me as wrong – or at least not quite accurate.

Having cancer is not always like waging war.

What others are saying

So, I sent an email this week to an old friend who’s a Presbyterian pastor and who has been living with cancer off and on for several years.  He keeps an online pastor’s diary about his experience with cancer, and I’ve been a regular reader.  To Carlos, I wrote, “Where are you with this whole ‘courageous battle’ thing?”

And here’s what Carlos wrote: “Cancerous cells are not some foreign invader: a band of terrorist commandos who slip across the border on forged passports, to blow themselves up, and us along with them. Cancer cells spring from our own loins. They arise from out of our own bodies, the result of genetic mutations that, despite science’s best efforts, are still only dimly understood….It just doesn’t make sense, biologically speaking, to think of cancer as an outside invader. Our own bodies make the cancer. The cancer is us. If we’re going to use the military metaphor at all, I suppose we’ve got to describe it as a civil war – a protracted, brother-against-brother slugfest – rather than some pious crusade against a foreign enemy.” 

But my friend Carlos isn’t the only person who resists this language. A quick Internet search turned up dozens of articles from people who think it’s not quite the right language.

Here’s something from Dr. Gary M. Reisfield, a palliative care specialist at University of Florida, Jacksonville: “Over the last 40 years, war has become the most common metaphor, with patients girding themselves against the enemy, doctors as generals, medicines as weapons. When the news broke about Senator [Ted] Kennedy, he was ubiquitously described as a fighter. While the metaphor may be apt for some, it may be a poor choice for others. You think you have to fight this war, and people expect you to fight.”

A new way of thinking about illness and disease

As a pastor – and someone who spends a fair amount of time providing pastoral care to people who have cancer – I often find myself admiring people for their courage in the face of illness, but I try not to have expectations for them. We all respond differently to illness and disease.

To some it’s natural to fight and resist.  For others – and I think my friend in Michigan fits this other category – it’s far more natural to live with the disease, to find each new day to be a marvelous gift, to accept the care of physicians for what it is, and to seize the time between diagnosis and death as a time to take relationships to a new and deeper level.

Is it time to add new language, new metaphors, to our conversations about cancer and other disease? I think so.

(The college friend I mentioned, David J. Klooster, passed away June 2, 2012.  The news story is here.)

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Plaza Towers Elementary School

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I had never heard of the Plaza Towers Elementary School before my week-long mission trip to Moore, Oklahoma, this week.

I had heard that an elementary school had been struck by the tornado that roared through Moore on May 20, and I vaguely remember that some children were killed, but then I hear a lot of bad news.  I didn’t pay much attention.

Last Monday, after a day of getting to Oklahoma and settling in and doing only 2-3 hours of debris-clearing work, our 12-person mission team drove slowly through the areas devastated by the tornado, mostly residential streets.

A great deal of the debris has been cleared away.  Many city blocks where houses once stood are now cleared with only concrete slabs visible.  But there were a few blocks where houses looked as though they had been blown apart with a powerful explosion.  Those houses, we were told, should be cleared away soon.

Finally, though, we saw the school.  Well, the school isn’t there anymore, but we saw the memorial that has sprung up on the fence around the school property.

First – and hard to miss – were the American flags.  In Oklahoma, where “the winds come sweeping down the plains,” those flags are always standing at attention.

Next we saw T-shirts.  Dozens of them.  Every relief group that comes through, it seems, leaves a shirt with the names of the volunteers scrawled across the organization’s name.  (I didn’t keep an exact count but I think church youth groups accounted for the majority of the T-shirts I saw.  Where would Moore be today without church youth groups, I wonder?)

Finally we saw greatly enlarged photos of families who had lost their homes in the tornado.  The families were shown next to where their home had been.  Mostly they were smiling and happy.  And the tag lines that accompanied the photo included: “A tornado took our home, but no storm can ever take our faith.”  “Our house may be broken, but our home is strong.”  And here’s the one that brought tears to my eyes: “We lost it all, but walked away with everything.”

How do people find that sort of resilience in the face of so much devastation and loss?

Inside the fence were seven small chairs for each of the seven children killed when the walls of the school collapsed.  More children might have been killed, but at least one teacher shielded her children with her own body.  Both of her legs were broken – and her pelvis too – but the children beneath her walked away unharmed.

I was struck by the importance of that shrine.  People seem to need holy ground.  People need a place to come and be quiet and reflect on the enormity of what has happened.  Holy ground can be just about anywhere.  A civil war battlefield.  The site of a terrorist attack.  A property where a school once stood and where seven children lost their lives.

On the last day we were there, the group I was with left attached a shirt to the fence.  The shirt had all of our names – and the name of our church.  We listened to a few verses from scripture.  I prayed, trying my best not to cry.  And then we sang one verse of “Amazing Grace.”

It was as holy as any church.

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Bill Benson and the Village Mountain Mission

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A little over 12 years ago, after a few years of sailing the Caribbean in retirement, the brother of one of my church members sailed into a small inlet along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.

Like many sailors before him, he was looking for some shelter during a storm.  But something happened on that brief visit that changed his life.

Bill Benson had retired from a career with the Boy Scouts of America and was enjoying a well-deserved retirement on his sailboat.  His plan was to keep sailing the Caribbean and to finally spend some time with his wife after years of seven-day work weeks with the Scouts.

(This is the place in the story to tell the old joke about how to make God laugh.  You tell him your plans.)

What happened was that Bill fell in love with the people of the Dominican Republic and – importantly – he saw their need.  The Dominican Republic isn’t as poor as Haiti, which shares the same island, but it’s plenty poor and its educational system is among the worst in the western hemisphere, worse even than Haiti’s.

Bill spent the better part of the next two years riding around the island on a motorcycle, trying to figure out how best to be of help to these people.  Finally – and it’s a good story, but really it’s his to tell – God let him know that two years of research was enough and that it was time for him to get started.

So, Bill founded the Village Mountain Mission. He bought a beautiful piece of land in the Dominican Republic.  He acquired some vehicles.  And he started inviting mission teams from the U.S. to join him in building houses, and starting schools, and providing medical care.

I’ve gone on mission trips just about every year for the last 20 years, usually to places in this country and usually with high school students, but I’ve also gone with church members of all ages to places like Haiti and Peru and the Philippines and (last November) to South Africa.

This one, I have to say, was the toughest yet.  I returned last Tuesday night and have never been so glad to get home.

The work was hard, there was no escape from the heat, and the living conditions were … let’s just say they were primitive.

I don’t like camping.  Never have.  And this was tougher than any camping trip I’ve ever taken.  But Bill wants mission teams who visit the Village Mountain Mission to eat and live the way the people of that island eat and live.

And mostly we did.

But … and every person who has ever gone on a mission trip will tell you this, I returned tired and happy.  I learned something – about myself, about the Dominican Republic, and about what God is doing in the world.

I had the privilege of riding in the front seat with Bill Benson several times during the week we were there, and so I had an opportunity to see up close what a 70-something man looks and sounds like when he gives up retirement to follow God’s call in his life.

To be honest with you, I have never pictured my own retirement like that, like Bill’s.

And then I came home and read the scripture reading I had chosen to preach about tomorrow, Jesus’ parable about the “rich fool.”  Jesus of course doesn’t tell us that the rich fool was retired – in fact, there doesn’t seem to be anything in all of scripture about retirement – but I couldn’t help reading this little parable as a story – and maybe a warning – about retirement.

Jesus’ parable is a story about someone who has accumulated a great deal over the course of his life, someone who has been very responsible with his property, and someone who should probably feel good about all that he has.  And nowhere, it’s important to note, does Jesus criticize the man for having worked hard and done well.

And yet, Jesus is not at all flattering.  As Jesus tells the story, God is displeased with the man – not for his hard work, and not for his wealth, but for his attitude, his unwillingness to notice anyone around him.  He’s all caught up in himself.  And God uses the word “fool” to describe him, a word that in biblical terms is, well, rather harsh.

I serve a church with plenty of retired people – and with plenty of people who are at least contemplating retirement.  I don’t usually go out of my way to step on toes, but I’m thinking that tomorrow I’ll talk about Bill and I’ll ask a few questions about retirement.

Like, what is it exactly that God asks of us?

(Photo credit: This photo was taken by a member of our mission team.  Thanks, Anna.  Remarkably, if you face one direction, you see sugary sand, palm trees, and that wonderful blue Caribbean water.  If you look the other way, you see abject poverty and thatched-roofed huts.  All week long, as we built a house for a family in the village of Cambiaso, the contrast was jarring.)

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