Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Painfully Good News of April 15

There is even a word for it -- in Greek, of course; the language of almost all things significant: allelon, or "one another", "each other". Greek simpleton that I am, I encountered the word during a sabbatical experience a couple of years ago while reading a book titled Christ in Community by Gerhard Lohfink. In the course of the book, he calls attention to all the "one anothering" passages in the Christian scriptures --

Love one another with mutual affection;outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10)
Live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16)
Welcome one another (Rom. 15:7)

the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25)
Bear with one another in love (Eph. 4:2)
Build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11)
Encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18)
Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16)
Admonish one another (Rom. 15:14)
Be hospitable to one another (1 Peter 4:9)

-- just to start the list. Allelon: the fine and holy art of "one-anothering." The Kingdom of God, not as "within you" as our individualistic leanings would prefer to translate the affirmation in Luke 17, but "among you" -- in the spaces between us. The obligation of having to do with one another.

I've been trying to keep that noble notion in mind this week as I look over the tax return I picked up from the accountant. To say that we are getting no refund is a wounding understatement. To say that we "owe" hardly captures the numbing reality of it. Yes, in a word, we owe. Which is why I am working prayerfully to keep in mind the purpose of those taxes: the greater and common good -- the roads on which we travel, the trails on which we bike; the parks and monuments and landmarks we maintain; the firefighters and police and military and meat inspectors and those few precious dollars to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts; food stamps and medicaid and medicare and courts and college grants. And...and...and.... I may not always agree with the particular allocation, but that's the way it goes. I like to think of that ongoing debate as welfare for politicians. If we were always in agreement, we wouldn't need Senators and Representatives.

I think, then, of all these and countless other "one anothering" investments that my taxes represent as I sign the bottom of the 1040 form and take a deep breath. It ought to feel better than it does. There is about it the pungent odor of obligation -- which puts it in good company.

Which of the spiritual disciplines isn't?

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

The Heritage Tour -- the Epilogue

"Well, the Prodigal returns," she said as I schmoozed among the filling pews. Ironic, since the "Heritage Tour" had begun with a reflection on this very biblical story.

We arrived home last night after twelve long but pleasant hours in the car. In the previous eight days we had visited the city of my rearing, cities of interest, the family farm, and the city of my higher education. We had reconnected with parents, childhood friends, brother and family, daughter and, as the name implies, heritage. And though relationally warm and wonderful and renewing and nostalgic, it almost always comes with melancholic tightening of the chest when the car noses its way back into the garage, anticipation is replaced by memory, and the washer and dryer spin and tumble away all physical traces of the trek. It was a wonderful trip, and it is wonderful to be home. Still...

"So, the Prodigal returns," she said, and the lighthearted observation raised a question. A friend sitting in a pew near enough to overhear asked, "Do you feel more like a Prodigal returning there, or returning here?" And the honest truth is, I don't know. There is, as I later observed, something wonderful about touching again the soil in which my roots spread; likewise wonderful about this place on which my branches have since been grafted. I suppose I'm grateful that -- save in a strict, residential sense -- I don't have to choose. Yet with Texas in my soul and Iowa in my veins, it's not always clear just which -- if either -- is home.

And so the Prodigal returns, indeed -- first there and now here. But in the parable, the younger son returns only after he "came to himself," and feeling now like a tourist there and a still a transplant here, I hardly know any longer where such a "coming" takes me. Perhaps the task -- perhaps the blessing -- is finding oneself wherever one chooses to be, on the banks of whatever pond, under whatever tree, among those chosen to accompany you. And, giving thanks for all that has prepared the way, finding in the being...


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Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Heritage Tour -- Berclair, part 2

We were struck by the precarious nature of farming. Talking with Troy, the peer who farms our land and much more, he recounted the experience of recent years that included two floods and an extended draught. Miserable crops bookending no crop -- the vagaries and vulnerabilities of tending the soil. He deals the cards -- fertilizing the soil, planting the best seed he can buy, working the soil when rain surfaces the sand -- but ultimately the game is beyond his control. He may or may not have a crop to harvest, depending on the rain that may or may not come, or come too early or too late or two fast.

"It takes a special kind of person to be a farmer," we agreed as we drove back down the road; someone who can deal with the ambiguities and disappointments, the hard work and and often futile expense.

Is it optimism that keeps him going -- or a quieter kind of hope? Is it a simple passion for the effort regardless of result? Or is it what it is for all of us -- albeit on a more dramatic scale -- who enjoy no guarantees about the fruitfulness of our efforts? Exactly what, for example, is the reliable harvest of any one of my sermons into which I have invested the most fertile hours of a week?

I have no idea the emotions Troy feels when he lays his head on the pillow each night, and I wouldn't presume to romanticize them. But to us he betrayed no despair. Rather, what he put forward was a good-natured, philosophical peacefulness reflecting the conviction that he has done what is his to do, and prepared for the worst, he hopes for the best. It is, I think, something like the scriptures describe as "casting bread upon the waters..."

Finally, it is the best that any of us can do.

The Heritage Tour -- Berclair, part 1

The dark clouds seem to jump out from hiding places like mischievous children. Nothing seems to come of them, though thunder occasionally rumbles like those same children trying to be noticed. It's not that it never rains -- plant debris caught in the branches of bushes well-beyond the creeks, and washed out corn rows bear evidence to the contrary, and recently. It's just that so far the skies have threatened more than they have imposed. We have walked the country -- parked the car at one end of the property and surveyed on foot the water tanks and their depth, the feeders and the blinds, the wells and the curious but largely aloof longhorns. The wind blows a constant cool, and the wildflowers -- just beginning to bloom -- delight us first to this patch and then to that one. A few isolated bluebonnets rear their honorific heads; a handful of Indian Paintbrushes offer their salmon-colored blooms, amidst the carpet of yellow and purple and pink blossoms whose names someone more familiar will need to identify.

It is Berclair -- South Texas -- in its emergent spring; mild and sometimes sweater-cool, newly greening and full of buds. We'll not be here long enough for the full exhibition, but the foretaste is a delight to savor.

So far I have remembered my way around -- the lanes and the locks, the country roads and cattle gates, the nearby grocery store and the planted fields in which I take particular interest. And the memories -- some simple images; others narrative tales -- begin to emerge, like films retrieved from a back closet and threaded onto mental reels. People. Relations. Events. Tales. Smells and tastes and injuries and exhilarations. Dominoes in the gas station, Sunday School at the church, watermelon on the front porch, and stories -- a steady breeze of rocking chair and porch swing stories -- late into the night. Fireflies and horned toads and jackrabbits and coyotes; that special pomegranate bush and the cattle answering Grandad's car horn.

Rocking here on this afternoon's front porch, the steady wind keeping the afternoon heat at bay, I'm both then and now, and strangely grateful for them both.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Prodigal Returns

My older brother and I once worked up a musical narration of the parable of the Prodigal Son told from a first-person perspective. We would talk a little, sing a little, and with what we hoped was a touch of dramatic effect, got the points of the story across -- he, the older brother; me the younger. And we had fun with the telling; had fun in the telling of it together.

I recalled that memory this morning during worship at my home church as the minister first read and then preached on this familiar story. We have travelled to Texas, my wife and I and two friends, on a sort of "heritage tour," and home church, at least where my family is concerned, is almost synonymous with home.

Perhaps the memory came to me simply because of the narrative connection -- but then I have heard and preached, myself, on the story a dozen times or more over the years and no been similarly taken aside by the flashback. Perhaps it was because this younger son, not 50-years-old, who has moved so far away from home, had returned. And though I don't feel as though I have "squandered my inheritance in dissolute living" -- I have been serving churches all these years, for heaven's sake -- I nonetheless always return to the welcoming embrace of the congregation that formed me full of humility. At other times and in other places I can find myself feeling some cockiness if I'm not careful. But not here, not among these people who know better. Whatever the joy with which they welcome me, no matter the pride they express about me, I know -- and they know -- that I have been among them as squirrely grade-schooler, goofy and gangly teenager, and awkward adolescent. In other words, they know me naked.

It's not that I ever embarrassed them or gave them cause to be ashamed. It's just that they know me, not as a role but as a person. I am not "Pastor" here; I'm simply "Tim" -- Chris and Merita's son; Craig's little brother. Me, with all the accretions of time and accomplishment stripped away.

If it's not quite like the Prodigal returning home, it's close enough for me. the issue is not what I've done or left undone; it isn't about success or failure. The question is never "why," but simply "where have you been?" and the assurance that "it's great to have you home." And nothing else really matters --
-- to them or, come to think of it, to me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Hazardous Ice Cream

I realize that my position is likelier to be more sentimental than rational, but it is a risk I'm willing to take. Our local elected officials are pondering the weighty issue of whether or not to lift the 40 year old ban on ice cream trucks. The ban grew out of the tragic death of a girl who was struck by a car when she stepped out into the street after making a purchase from such a truck. I can understand the parents' ongoing grief, and the father's stated intention to mount a campaign against lifting the ban should he sense any wavering on City Council members' part. I can also understand the opposition of Dairy Queen owners who conveniently point out that ice cream is not in short supply.

But I also use to drive an ice cream truck from the time I was 15 years of age until I went to college. It was an entrepreneurial expression my brother and I launched as a self-employed summer job. To be sure, it wasn't one of these large panel trucks that roam the streets in other cities these days. Ours was a three-wheeled Cushman with a red and white striped canvas canopy, outfitted with a freezer compartment -- a kind of golf cart on steroids -- whose top speed was 25 mph -- downhill. We were no stranger to regulations -- music boxes were prohibited, as were any bells larger than 4 inches in diameter. There were inspections to undergo, permits to secure and insurance to buy.

When it was time to make a sale we didn't pass a popsicle through a window, we stepped out of the driver's seat and went around back to the freezer. I suppose kids could have been blindsided by a car as they walked away from us now transfixed by their bomb pop, but we were there in the midst of them keeping watch. And we became part of the neighborhoods we traveled. I can't say we learned every kid's name, but we came to recognize them and know to which house they belonged and whose parent disapproved of morning snacks and which ones knew our names. Rather than intruders, I like to think we became part of the fabric of life in those areas who, if anything, contributed to the safety of those streets rather than detracting from it. Ours were an extra pair of eyes who came to notice things out of place and different people moving about.

Locally, there are other concerns beyond the father's ongoing grief and Dairy Queen's self-interest. Some critics fear the employment of child molesters or the sale of unsafe products, but it all strikes me as excessive insecurity. Hyper-energized overprotectionism. While no one can guarantee an accident free business -- people have even been known to fall on the ice at church -- the other "dangers" are easy enough to prevent. When will we remember that life isn't a movie that we can watch from the comfort of our living rooms with all the offensive parts edited out?

My real concern is that the vendors will find no business. I don't see many kids playing outside where they might notice a passing truck, and from the looks of our waistlines, the Dairy Queen people speak the truth: sweets are not in short supply. All the potential customers are deep within their hermetically sealed houses, one hand on the computer mouse or joystick, the other alternating between a candy bar and jug of pop. Something as quaint as a fudgesicle, outside in the heat of a summer day doesn't stand a chance.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

The President's Compassionate Consumerism

Admittedly, I missed the first part of the clip in which the President talked of his hopes for Latin American vitality, and it's always dangerous to extrapolate much from little. Nonetheless, the comments I did here from a Presidential news conference over the weekend were stark. We want the people of these countries to prosper, the President asserted, because the healthier their economy, the more U.S. goods they will buy from us; and the more prosperous they are at home, the less likely they will be to cross our borders. At least in the portion of the news conference I heard, the President could think of no other real reasons for our compassion -- like the simple value of their lives or our own human obligation.

It is fascinating -- in a detached sort of way: religion is said to play such a formative role in our culture, but its influence seems conspicuously absent in such a rationale. I'm not a scholar on world religions, but I can think of no religious tradition -- Christian (liberal or conservative), Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu included -- in which such a motivation would find rooting soil. Simple, selfless compassion -- respect for the well-being of all human life as something holy and precious -- is, rather, the basic undergirding conviction. In the Christian tradition the parable of the Good Samaritan comes to mind. But, then, we are citizens of a country whose leaders preached that the best response to the terrorist acts of 9/11/01 -- the best way to heal our wounds -- was for all of us to go out and shop. No mention of "listening to understand" or penitential self-examination; absent was any thought of forgiveness, let alone any consideration of it. Aside from teeth-clenched promises of retribution, the only word we were given was, "shop."

The President's remarks over the weekend put U.S. foreign policy in a whole new light. It's not really about creating a safer world or promoting global peace, it's about holding onto our own and expanding market share. The State Department as national "national advertising agency" and the Pentagon as assertive "sales force." So to speak.

Perhaps Saddam Hussein's real crime was not that he thuggishly terrorized and murdered his own people -- despots, after all, seem to do that all the time with impunity. Perhaps his real crime was that he simply started shopping elsewhere.

And we hate to lose a customer.

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Wednesday, March 7, 2007

How Much Lower Than God?

There are certainly positive examples in the news of daring rescues, heroic efforts and charitable contributions, but it doesn't take very many examples of human depravity to wonder just what it is that we are made of. The Psalmist looks at the heavens, the work of God's fingers, the moon and the stars that God has established, and wonders aloud, "what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor" (Psalm 8).

But then I read the Associated Press story of the Pennsylvania mother who pleaded guilty this week to swinging her 4-week old son like a bat to hit her boyfriend during a fight -- and fracturing the baby's skull in the process -- and then the Associated Press story of the Indiana man who crashed his rented plane into the home of his ex-mother-in-law, killing himself and his 8-year-old daughter, and feel myself begging the question, "Just how much lower than God have we really been made?"

How much lower? Whether we are terrorists or defenders, murderers or jurors, disgruntled fathers or angry mothers, the value of life has slipped so far that, if a traded commodity, it would be dropped from NASDAQ as junk status. What would it mean to recover a glimpse of the Holy in those we live with or pass on the street? What would it change if we valued each other as highly as our cell phones and iPods? What would it feel like for tears to flow as freely over the loss of another human as they do over the loss of data in a crashed hard drive or glitched PDA?

At the very least I think it would mean using wood, once again, for baseball bats...
...instead of children.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Jesus, As We See Him

We watched them back to back. The course is simply titled, "Jesus," which I presumed to give me some leeway in what might be expected. We will get around to Matthew, Mark and Luke, along with a few other points of view, but last night it was Jesus Christ, Superstar and Godspell. One after the other. The purpose, I reminded the students, was not simple entertainment. While I hoped they might enjoy the movies, what I was interested in was the "Jesus" characterized by each telling. The Jesus in one is quite different from the Jesus in the other.

And so we watched, and listened, and reflected. One is the serious, heavy-laden revolutionary accompanied by Jimmy Hendrix-style guitar riffs in a minor key who forms in his disciples obedience. The other is the exuberant, face-painted playmaster who evokes in his followers something warm and full of joy.

"So which depiction is correct?" I asked the class, and simply hearing the question revealed its absurdity. Neither...and both. Neither portrait is adequate; both have truth to express about this One who has stimulated faith in so many. The various writers in scripture offer their own, less musical, characterizations. But theirs, too, are portraits -- no one "correct", but each expressive and evocative in its own way.

As I drove away from the classroom, I considered my own devotion. If I had wondered with the students why disciples followed the Jesus of Superstar and Godspell -- what devotees might have found compelling about each distinctive "Jesus" -- what about me? What about the "Jesus" that I have come to know do I find animating, enlivening, compelling?

Some mix, I suppose, of who I see God to be when I look through his eyes, and also who I see myself to be, and the attraction I feel to both. As I think about it, I'm not sure which is more important.

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Friday, March 2, 2007

The Parental Nightmare of Religious Kids

Remember the good old days when all parents had to worry about was their kids getting on drugs. Now, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, parents have to worry about religion. The story reports on the emerging trend of kids from good, solid, respectable secular parents finding a new sense of spirituality through one religion or another -- and in so doing, scaring the parents to death. So, here is the new scenario: kids worrying that their parents are going to hell, and parents telling their kids to get off their backs. It is, it seems to me, an ironic reversal. It would have been like me, in junior high, begging my parents for a haircut and them insisting that I wear it long.

So, what is a modern parent to do?

I am tempted to say, "get real and get over it and thank your lucky stars." But I suppose I shouldn't be too flippant. There are, after all, plenty of religious fanatics -- within every religious tradition -- of whom I would be terrified should my children become devotees. Religion, unfortunately, attracts some strange and dangerous characters who serve tainted Kool-Aid and bomb clinics and fly planes into buildings (and yes, I do lump them all together). But such miscreants are thankfully the minority.

What concerns me most about the story is not the reaction of the parents; it is, rather, that the fingerprint religion has left on so many people's psyche is so negative. If I am inclined to ask "how is it that religious reputations have sunk so low," I need only look around. While I want to counter that religion has done so much good -- and my deep conviction is that this is so -- I cannot deny that it has also caused much pain. Never mind the historic examples like the Inquisition and the Holocaust, the exit aisles from too many churches are stained with the blood of children and neighbors and parents and friends whose identities and aspirations have been summarily shredded by holy condemnation. I'm sure it always happened in good Christian love, but those rejected and wounded almost certainly missed the agape.

And so the church has apparently redoubled its evangelism efforts among those with whom it stands the biggest chance of finding success: those too young to have much of a memory.

I can't speak for Muslims or Jews, but perhaps secular parents might be less frightened of the Christianity their children are bringing home if the Gospel they saw Christians espousing really seemed like "good news" -- joyful rather than cursing; affirming rather than condemning; encouraging rather than demeaning; life-giving rather than...

...well, you get the point. It gives me pause to wonder how a parent might react should their kid come home with the Gospel I proclaim. Maybe Sunday's sermon -- and the life that proceeds from it -- isn't quite finished after all.