Thursday, December 17, 2009

We've got something to drink about

I should have known this week would be hectic. The sign was there. It was not even 9:00am on Monday, and I already had an outline for a sermon. My day began, as usually, with me reading dispatches from the HOB/D Listserv. One of the delegates in our church had posted a link to a survey proclaiming Episcopalians as the most literate denomination in the United States. That same study went on to remark that Episcopalians were the most biblically illiterate mainline denomination in the United States. In other words, we like to read, we just do not like to read the Bible (by the way, this is how we described ourselves to the pollsters, not how they describe us).

Then, as I was driving to church from the kids’ school, I turned the radio channel from K-LOVE to the local Sports’ Talk radio. And to my pleasant surprise, Mike & Mike had one of my favorite singers on their show. As they were introducing him, they were describing him as a part-owner of the Miami Dolphins, a fan of the Miami Heat, the owner of the naming rights for the football stadium, and by other sports related markers. I am speaking, of course, of Jimmy Buffett. As it turned out, he had a new album coming out last week, and he needed to do some promoting. For the first time in some years, Buffett was releasing all new songs on an album (often he simply repackages old tunes and tries to take our money). When asked whether he thought any of these songs could become a classic Buffett tune, Buffett remarked that there was one.

Buffett went on to share with the hosts and the audience his thoughts regarding “We’ve got a lot to drink about.” Buffett points out that the hard part of this song was figuring what to include and what not to include in the lyrics. We have a recession, we have bailouts, we have bailed out companies refusing to work with the very taxpayers who bailed them out, we have high unemployment, we have wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran wants nuclear weapons, North Korea has them—his list went on and on. What do you include in a song like that? Yes, Buffet said, we have a lot of pain to numb; we have a lot to drink about.

Now, you might be wondering what the two do with one another and our readings this week. Are we not still talking about Advent and John the Baptist? One of the themes throughout our readings this week is the idea of fear. Enemies have hounded God’s people. Sometimes, those enemies are external, like foreign armies. Sometimes, those enemies are internal, like the tax collectors who make their living extorting their brothers and sisters to pay for their licenses. Yet all the authors remind us that the Holy One is near, that He will dwell with His people, that He will protect his people, that He will save and redeem His people. So in the midst of these enemies, God’s people are reminded that they need not fear.

You and I get this exhortation often during the church year. How do we end the Eucharist most Sundays? Think of the blessing. “The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord. And the blessing of God Almighty . . . . “ One of our last acts, as we worship together week in and week out, is to be sent out with that reminder of our needed focus. Why? Because we are headed out of church into a wilderness that has every reason to want to numb itself from the pain. In describing his song, Jimmy Buffett was only talking about the big picture. You and I are called to work locally and often individually. To him, unemployment may be high; but you and I know people who have lost their jobs, who do not know where the next meal is coming from, or when eviction will happen. To him, the healthcare crisis is nearly overwhelming; but you and I know people who cannot seek treatment because they lack funds and insurance. And so they risk death or other consequences which, in turn, impact their own families. To him those wars are events happening “over there.” To us, those wars are impacting our brothers and sisters who offer their lives that others might experience that dream we take for granted, freedom. Anger? Pain? Hurt? We see it on the faces of those whom we serve and with whom we interact on a near daily basis. And I have yet to mention the floods, the fires, the crop failures, the human trafficking, the battered women and children, and any other of localized issues of which Mr. Buffett is unaware or unwilling to mention in a song. We’ve got a lot to drink about, if we choose to numb the pain rather than face it.

But you and I are disciples of Jesus Christ. Like that wonderful prophet John the Baptist, you and I are sent into the wilderness to proclaim the Good News! You and are I called into the world to proclaim His peace, to proclaim His coming near, to proclaim His saving grace. While the rest of the world runs from the pain and hurt or tries to numb itself from the pain, you and I are sent as His hands, His voice, His heart into painful situations. And we witness to a needy world that God became human, that God walked that path to Calvary--healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and giving hope to the hopeless—that He died for all our sins and took that pain and consequence upon Himself, and that God raised Him that wonderful Easter morning, and that the same God who raised Him to new life has promised to raise all those who believe in Him to eternal life as well! You and I are given a peace that passes all human understanding and called, not to sit and idly watch the world pass by and cluck our lips, but to share that peace with all those with whom we come in contact. The events of this world, the tragedies of our lives, have already been conquered by the Risen Christ. That is our hope! That is our promise! That is our peace!

Brothers and sisters, as a denomination, we may not be very good at telling a pollster chapter and verse of a specific biblical quote (and we should not take pride that we do not know our Bibles as well as our brothers and sisters in other denominations), but we are not necessarily biblically illiterate. Many parts of our service in the Book of Common Prayer are taken nearly verbatim from Scripture. And so, in a way, you and I are bathed in the teachings of Scripture each time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist.

Do we have a lot to drink about? You know it. But unlike those who pound beers or drinks looking for an end to the pain, you and I lift a chalice, proclaim the mystery of our faith, and rejoice that the One who redeems, the One who saves, has called each one of us to that wedding feat at the end of time. And no power on earth or in hell can separate us from that party. That’s the peace He offers each one of us. That’s the peace He offers everyone in the world. And, reminded of that certainty, reminded of His promises, we go forth into the world to do all the work He has given us to do. Not fearfully. Not worriedly. But confidently, assuredly, and peacefully!

Christ Peace,


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Calling all John's . . .

Luke tells us that John the Baptist was fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah as a “voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’.” But which prophecy is being fulfilled?

Certainly, John’s act of calling to Israel to repentance is consistent with the prophesy. After all, John’s ministry is to call the world’s attention to the Messiah, and he certainly does that. In the few verses about him in the Bible, John consistently reminds his listeners and us readers that the one Whom he announces is far more significant than himself. But have you ever considered that you are called to this kind of ministry every day? And so, in a sense, your witness to Christ is a fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy. Heady stuff? Consider . . .

Physically, the journey from Jericho to Jerusalem is demanding. It’s not like climbing the Himalayas, but it is uphill. And the sun can be scorching if one walks at the wrong time of day. Add to that the wildlife, the rocky terrain, and brigands, and we can get a sense of why the prophet was concerned with leveling mountains and smoothing the roads. But if we think about it, sometimes the Church makes salvation like that for those around us.

Sometimes we clergy speak a little too theological. We sometimes use words like propitiation, atonement, unmerited grace and the like when talking about God. It might be an accurate and descriptive truth to a Bible study group, but is it for the unchurched? Similarly, as I am experiencing at the truck stop, sometimes we use different languages in different situations, even though we would all claim to be speaking English. In the few short weeks of that new ministry, I have learned that it will take a lot of work for me to become a “bud.” I am, in their eyes, apparently still a “sir.” Such difficult terrains are experienced by those who try to fill in as youth ministers when they, themselves, lack the call. I could go on and on with such examples.

But God has called you into ministry. God has allowed you to be formed by your experiences. And He will take your language, your experiences, your life and use it and you to reach others, if you will but let Him. Can you reach others with whom you share no experiences or common lives? To be sure, all things are possible with God. But who better to reach those from broken families than those of us who come from families with issues and subscriptions of our own? Who better to reach athletes than those who played sports themselves. Who better to reach artists than those with an eye for beauty? Who better to reach those dependent upon chemical substances than those who have been freed from such burdens by our Lord.

Brothers and sisters, in a very real sense, you and I are called to be those voices crying out in the wilderness. You and I are called to go forth in the world proclaiming salvation to all with whom we come into contact. You and I, like John, are called to place the world’s focus on the One who can save. You and I are called to share with those in our lives the paths He has smoothed for us, the valleys He has filled in for us, the mountains that He has leveled for us that we might be drawn to Him and promised life eternal. And faithfully, He turns those wildernesses into gardens and sadnesses into joy!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Art imitates life (and death still sucks)

This past couple weeks, a number of players on my server have approached me about the death of one of the members of the Alliance. Word has apparently leaked out that the priest is really a priest. I have learned two important things these past few days. First, it is much easier to talk about the questions such a death provokes than to respond to as many as 8 or 10 pst’s at the same time (the challenge is remembering where in the conversation one is with each individual). The second important lesson I have learned is just how poorly we Christians have conveyed the love of God and of the hope that His Gospel gives us.

To back up a minute for those not in the game on Ysondre (our server world in World of Warcraft), one of the players died tragically near the beginning of November (I will refrain from publishing names and handles since I have asked no one for permission to post their stories and questions). One minute, this noble member of the Alliance (as opposed to those hoi polloi who choose to be members of the Horde) was preparing to run an instance. The next minute, he was dead. He was discovered by his wife, who was alerted that something might be wrong by a phone call from a friend in real life. One minute, life was good; the next, it was taken away. What made the loss even more tragic was the relative youth of the one who had died. He was of an age where one should not worry about heart failures. But, from the moment that people began to hear of his death, several questions have popped up, many of which were asked repeatedly.

How can you Christians claim that God is good when He allows things like this to happen? Where is God when someone as young as this has a bad heart? If God is omnipotent and knew this was going to happen, why did He not stop it? Have his wife be awake when he first had the heart attack? Have the doctor detect it last month?

For those who have never encountered the living, redeeming God, such questions are all important. And how we answer them is often the most important testimony that we can give about our faith. Why did God allow this to happen if He is really good? Truthfully, I am not sure. Just because I am a Christian and just because I am a priest does not mean I necessarily have all the answers. Well, I have the answer, but I do not always know what is going on in God’s plan. Heck, I do not have all the questions, let alone the answers. What I can assure them is that no actions of ours can ever thwart His purposes. No matter what we choose, He will always overcome them, redeem them, if we allow Him. And because He allows us the freedom to choose, He gives us the ability to learn. Sometimes we learn by positive reinforcement, and sometimes we learn by negative reinforcement.

So his death was punishment for us? No. Absolutely not. God became human and died on the cross so that we would not die forever. He came because He loved us. Like the perfect Father that He is, He did not want to see us suffer. When He walked the earth, He cried at our deaths. He mourned for Lazarus. He felt Jairus’ pain. This, death, was not what He intended. But He gave us the freedom to choose to accept Him or reject Him. And we so often chose poorly. And like the kids who keep reaching for the electrical socket or the hot pan who will never be satisfied with mom or dad’s “Don’t touch that,” we rejected Him. We needed to learn about His love the hard way.

So, God killed him because He loved him? No. God allowed events to proceed naturally. I don’t know what led to his heart condition. Maybe it was diet; maybe it was congenital; maybe it was genetic; maybe there was something in the environment. God only knows. But only God can overcome such a seemingly pointless death. Only God can truly redeem all things for His glory.

So how can this ever be redeemed? The fact that so many are asking questions is a start. Often, the conversations that I have with people in the game are superficial. As they get to know me, the conversations sometimes get deeper. But, for a brief time in November, a group of people who are used to rezzing at the spirit healer when they die in the game have been forced to confront the fear that plagues humanity. What happens when we die? Is this all that there is? There is no spirit healer hanging around a cemetery for us and our party members in the real world. So how do we know our lives, our faith is not pointless? Of course, as good as these conversations have been, true redemption will never be found until our Lord Jesus comes again. Until our friend is raised from the dead, glorified in Christ, and vindicated for his faith in Jesus, there can never be true redemption. His wife will suffer. His parents know the agony of burying a child. His friends will feel his absence. Heck, those of us who knew him only in WoW may even feel that we lost a good dps or good tank. And many of us will forget their grief in time. We will say stupid things to his wie or family like “at least he died playing his favorite game” or “he’s in a better place,” or “at least he is not suffering now,” as if such words are comforting for those who loved him and miss him each day. For them, the hurt, his absence is palpable. For them, his death is wrong, untimely. And for them, God offers His promise that just as He raised His Son from the dead, He will raise them and all who believe in Him from the dead as well. And some how, in some way, He will use the death of their loved one to His glory!

A few years ago, upon my arrival at my cure, I was priviledged to sit at the side of a couple, married some 60 years, who were dying within days of one another during the season of Advent. Bob and Jackie had a wonderful story, and some in our midst wanted to claim that their ending was “romantic” or a true love story. Bullshit, I said at the time. Death sucks. This was not what our Father in heaven intended. As a result of those funerals, I have become, for better or for worse, the “death sucks” preacher. The nuns and other clergy sometimes share that sermon as they selflessly minister to the dying and their families at the nursing home not too far from church. And just when I think that sermon has been forgotten, I am inevitably confronted by the words, “Hey, I know you. I have heard of you. You’re the death sucks preacher!”

Does this death suck? We are told to believe that it does. This, as good as it gets or as bad as it gets, is not what God intended for us. Thankfully, mercifully, we serve a God who knows our fears, who knows our hurts, who knows are real needs far better than we do ourselves. Thankfully, mercifully, He has chosen to redeem and to vindicate His believers. And thankfully, mercifully, He has the power to overcome all obstacles in our lives, even our deaths. Thankfully, mercifully, He has given us His promises in the Bible, that we might know that the only Name given under heaven for health and salvation is His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Do we always see how His plan is unfolding? No. But, as He has taught us so many times in the past, we can rest assured in His promises that He is still working, still saving, still redeeming, still in the business of glorifying His name in this world. Let us pray that He will redeem this seemingly senseless death to His glory and provide comfort to those who experienced a terrible loss. Lord, have mercy.


Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The dawn after the long dark night

Saturday afternoon, I read in Time Magazine that in a few weeks we will be ending the worst decade ever in American history. The decade that started with all the Y2K fears, included the tragedy of 9/11, the great Tsunami, destructive earthquakes in many locales around the world, and Katrina, is now ending with the great financial meltdown. Locally, we could add the tornadoes that wiped out Boy Scout troops, towns from our maps, and farmhouses from their land, and we could add floods which struck many of our friends and neighbors, and even some closer to home. When we think about it, there is a case to be made that this really has been a horrible time in our lives.

Where is God in this mess? How can a loving God allow such things to occur on His watch? Where was He when we needed Him? He could have stopped all these things, couldn’t He? -- such are the questions we may have asked of ourselves and been asked by others. What are we to make of all these events around us?

While the rest of the world is sharpening elbows and seeking those “can’t miss deals,” you and I are called to remember what these events portend. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” You and I are, among other things, called to be watchmen. We are called by Jesus Himself to be alert, to be awake, to be wary in the dark. Dawn is coming, and it will spring upon us quickly like a trap. And these signs that we see, they simply remind us that His return is that much closer. And so, while the rest of the world deals with projections of gloom and doom, you and I are called to go forth into the darkness as His hands, as His arms, as His feet, as His regents, and full of His light in our lives.

While the rest of the world laments the scope of the problems, you and I and all our brothers and sisters in Christ are called to address the need and share Christ’s love with all those whom we serve. We are there both to remind them that the day of His return is drawing nearer and that He would like nothing better than for them to accept His invitation to that wonderful wedding feast. And so, in the midst of disasters, we hold up our heads, we look to the cross of Christ, and we serve.

The results? Christians risk martyrdom in Bandi Aceh and serve their Muslim neighbors, and see the fatwah calling for their deaths ended. Christians go to communities and begin the long process of mucking, tearing down, and rebuilding in communities in LA, MI, or even IA. Christians reach deep and support food pantries, homeless shelters, and all kinds of other ministries, even when they themselves lack job security or infinite resources. Why? Because one of the messages we are called to share with the world is that He is able to overcome all these things, and even our own deaths, to bring glory to Himself! When the world cannot foresee any hope or possibility, that’s when His grace is most evidenced in the world and when we are reminded that our redemption is near. The worst decade ever? I don't know about that. A decade closer to His return? Absolutely!