Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Prepare Him Room

Prepare him room - now, not later
 
On Christmas Eve, right after we finish the last stanza of "Silent Night," and then blow out our candles, the lights blaze and we triumphally sing "Joy to the World!" - including the intriguing plea, "Let every heart prepare him room." One year I remember muttering, "Too late."

When Jesus came the first time, there was "no room in the inn." Sorry, full already. If we have any chance of Jesus getting into our lives, we'd best start today. Only 23 shopping days left? Only 23 getting ready for Jesus days left!

Your agenda probably involves bringing bags of things into your home: gifts to give, food to serve, coats for winter. But for me, the excess of Christmas in our culture reminds me that we suffer from an excess of stuff not just on Christmas morning but all year long.

And not just stuff. My time is jammed full, especially in December. My soul is crammed to overflow, not with simply joys, but with anxiety, impulses, cravings and wounds. To hang out a "vacancy" sign on my life, I'll have to do some clearing out. For me to say Yes to Jesus, I will have to say No to a few (or many) other things.

We fear not grabbing all we can, or staying on the move - but the greater, deeper fear might be that we never slow down, that we climb to the top of the ladder and realize (as Thomas Merton suggested) the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.

So before we sing "Joy to the World" on the 24th, let's take inventory right now, on the 2nd, and get serious about "Prepare him room," or there won't be room. You can't squeeze in a little mini-Jesus in the cracks between an otherwise untransformed life. Just say No to this, to that, to the dazed craziness of December. Be still, know that God is God and you aren't. Breathe - and wait on Jesus.




Prepare him room - Christmas Lists

I'm a compulsive list-maker; I stay organized, and dig the satisfaction of marking through a task as "Done." At Christmas we make lists of things to do, gifts to purchase, places to be - and even things we might want for Christmas. Kids rattle off a wish list for Santa, who is himself "makin' a list and checkin' it twice."

Why do we exchange gifts at Christmas? I mean, we always have... but why? What's the purpose? During the Depression, kids got socks and coats they needed. Do we give to show our love? And why now?
What to give someone? Do I ask What do you want? Do we simplify (for ourselves) and settle on the gift card - the self-evident purpose being "so he can get whatever he wants"? Is Christmas about getting what we want? The world didn't ask for an infant - but that's what God sent.

Do we really need (in our souls) more gadgets and clothing options? Jewelry and toys? I love Amy Grant's carol, "Grown up Christmas List." She sings of being beyond "childhood fantasies - but we still need help somehow, the heart still dreams." So her grownup Christmas list, "not for myself, but for a world in need": "No more lives torn apart, time healing each heart, everyone has a friend, love never ends... Packages and bows can never heal a hurting soul."

What is needed this Christmas? What do you need? What do those on your list really need? Can we give not what they superficially want, but what they need deep inside? Can we discover gifts that are genuine blessings? Perhaps something precious we already own, long unspoken words written, a prayer, something made with our own hands, something that might lead the other person to know this Jesus?

Let every heart prepare him room. Can we prepare a list that might be more about blessing than accumulating? Is there a way I can give my very own self, my deeper, spiritual self, appealing to the other person's deeper, spiritual self? That's what God gave us the 1st Christmas: God's own self, reaching out to our inner self, inviting us to love, to belong, and to hope. Spiritually speaking, might there be a grown up Christmas list this year?


Here's Amy Grant singing "My Grown Up Christmas List."

 
Prepare him room - like Joseph



When I was a little boy, I tried out for the part of Joseph in the Christmas pageant. Some other kid landed the role, and I wound up as a baahhing sheep.

Absolutely no acting skill would be required to play Joseph! He just stands there, no lines, no dramatic gestures, just peering over Mary's shoulder into the manger, holding the reins of the donkey.

We don't know much about Joseph - and the little we know seems ridiculously inconsequential. And perhaps God's highest calling is for us to be like Joseph. He was simply there; for him it was enough to be close to Jesus. "As for me, it is good to be near God" (Psalm 73:25). Our world insists, "It's all about you." But in God's upside-down culture, it's not about you. It's about Jesus - and the genuine fulfillment of You is simply to stick as close to Jesus as possible.

Something else on Joseph's spiritual resume: he did not rush to judgment, or judge at all. Mary looked terribly guilty. Joseph had good cause to "expose her to public disgrace," and to divorce her (Matthew 1:19). But he was quiet, and prayerful enough, to be in sync with God's Spirit on this one, and so he refused to pass judgment.

How do we "Prepare him room"? Your mind, if it's like mine, drifts easily to little critical barbs, even if we don't say them out loud. I seem to be adept at finding fault, and zeroing in on what's wrong with everybody else. We might combat this with the famed words from Pogo: "We have met the enemy, and he is us."
But Jesus is even better: he came not to knock off your enemies, or to expose the enemy that is us. Jesus came so we would not have enemies. "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity" (Martin Luther King). Jesus is all love - and the way to prepare for him, to let him be in you fully, is to get rid of enmity.

A judgmental thought rings your doorbell? Don't answer. A critical remark hangs on your lips? Hush. An ugly observation, about somebody out there, someone you love, or even yourself, suggests itself? Take a breath, and imagine Joseph hovering lovingly next to Mary, whom he could have despised, and over Jesus, God's love bundled in the manger.

Then cling to those donkey reins, and be still in the presence of the Lord.



 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Homosexuality, We Methodists, and Thanksgiving

     Two Facebook messages I saw recently have given me cause for immense thanksgiving, all the greater because of the deep sorrow involved.  The first: a friend wrote to me, “I am just heartbroken over our church’s posture.”  I replied, “Which of its many heartbreaking postures do you have in mind?”

     I knew, of course.  It strikes me as especially galling that the term “trial” is bandied about:  a minister performs a ceremony invoking God’s presence where people who love make a lifelong commitment – and we put that person on “trial”? as if it is criminal, heinous, destructive? and the culprit must be put away?  In the Pennsylvania/Schaeffer case, it was a father and his own son's marriage - but then a "trial"?  Can’t we honor (or deal with, if we must) holy intentions with better language?
 
     More than one Board of Ordained Ministry in Methodism is fond of asking candidates for ordination, “What if John and Jeff came to you and asked you to marry them?”  The “right” answer is supposed to be “Oh, I would listen to them and love them but – even if I disagree with the church’s posture – I would decline, explaining I am in covenant to uphold the Discipline.”

     I fully understand that people who can’t uphold the way we do things may pose a few problems... But what if, after deep prayer and theological wrestling, a minister feels for the sake of conscience that this lone piece of civil disobedience is not only desirable but actually required by God?  Is this the kind of person we would not want leading God’s people?  Would we refuse to acknowledge God’s calling him or her into ministry? or lay in wait to put her/him on “trial”?  Don't we need a little courage among our leaders? even if we might disagree with their stance?

     Facebook message #2. A good friend, the day before speaking at a church weighing whether to become a reconciling congregation or not, hoping to persuade them to be accepting, asked for prayer, noting that “I'm tired of showing up and saying the equivalent of ‘Like me, please.  Consider me as worthy as you are.’"

   Beyond flinching in the face of such a pained weariness, I was reminded of something Amos Oz wrote about growing up Jewish, the kind of overcompensation and constant defense of simple human worth he knew too well.  “The fear in every Jewish home that we never talked about but were injected with like a poison, drop by drop, was the chilling fear that we might, heaven forbid, make a bad impression on the Gentiles, and then they would be angry and do dreadful things.  A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must behave nicely and politely with Gentiles even when they were rude or drunk; we must not provoke or argue with them, or irritate them; we must speak quietly, with a smile.  We had to try very hard to make a good impression that no child must mar because even a single child with dirty hair could damage the reputation of the entire Jewish people.  They could not stand us at it was, so heaven forbid we give them more reason.  You can never understand how this constant drip-drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust.”

     We are upon the season of Thanksgiving.  I want to express something my best words, or even a painting, ballet or symphony would fail to articulate – and that is how very grateful I am for those I have met, befriended, and now love, who are heartbroken, whose very life is like a trial, whose dignity has been eroded, and yet is miraculously intact, resilient, a shimmering wonder, a mirror reflection of the very loving heart of God.  You have good cause to lash out at our church, which we know is deeply flawed and always in need of reform - but then it has this nasty habit of being mean...  And yet you stay, and that shows me what God’s grace looks like.  I love all of you and am standing, not so much with you but a little bit behind you, hoping to follow, or maybe to help catch you if you’re knocked down.  Thanks be to God for you, for us, for grace.

http://revjameshowell.com

Saturday, October 26, 2013

What's Special about Christianity? 4 things

What is special about Christianity?  What is unusual, striking, telling - and at the very heart of what Christians believe?
 
Special Thing #1 - Incarnation
The Incarnation: we believe that God "became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Other religions do not believe this; in fact, Jews and Muslims shake their heads, puzzled, pointing out the absurdity, the sheer impossibility of God somehow being just a small person. This is the scandal of Christianity, our odd peculiarity.

Logical definitions of God involve a laundry list of in- and omni- words: infinite, invisible, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, ineffable... The Bible tells us God did something even greater than all the greatest attributes our language can muster. As Martin Luther taught us, God became small for us in Christ, showing us God's heart, so our hearts might be won. God was too much love to dwell in remote, heavenly transcendence. God wanted it to be personal with us - as personal as a mother cradling her newborn infant. Knowing the tender wonder of childbirth, God said I'll do that, I'll be that, and perhaps they will then know me, and even love me.

Risky for God to do such a thing. Infants are entirely vulnerable: they can't fight or defend themselves; control of their destiny rests in the hands of others. God put God's self into our hands, yearning for love. Small children can evoke a gentle tenderness in even the most muscular, gruff people; God wants tender care from us.

God could have become something we admire, or fear, or obey - like a general riding a stallion, a king sitting on a throne, a tycoon jangling gold in his pocket. God could have been married, or tall, or a father. But instead, God came as an infant, because that is the one thing all the people God wanted to reach had in common.

The beauty of this? We need not be scared of God; we are invited to love - and even to remember being small ourselves, back when we were young children, or maybe just yesterday when somebody made you feel small, and you felt in some peril, and you had to depend on others. God says I know that feeling; I know you and I love you, not at a distance, but from the inside, and I want - with you! - the kind of intimacy a baby enjoys being held joyfully in its mother's embrace.

This is special, lovely, and helpful. But there's another aspect to this God becoming small by taking on flesh - as we will see come Monday.

"Lord, how wonderful, risky, and engaging of You to enter into our human world! We praise You, and long to know more of Your heart, and love You more deeply."

Special Thing #1 (part 2) - Crucifixion



 
The idea of God becoming flesh was a bit jarring and intellectually ludicrous - and yet in the ancient world, pagan mythology featured tales of the gods coming down to earth. What was utterly appalling, and laughably absurd, was the Christian insistence that this God in the flesh suffered, and died - and as a convicted criminal. This is the very soul of the Christian faith, not shared or even deemed rational by any other religion.

Skeptics and atheists have declared "God is dead." In the crucifixion of Jesus, we witnessed the suffering and death of God. "For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son" (John 3:16). Jesus loved the wrong people; he took on the powers of his day; with courage he marched into the teeth of mortal danger - but instead of crushing his foes, he let evil do its worst to him. Now, when we ponder the crucified Jesus, in agony, rejected by his closest friends, misunderstood, mocked, even forgiving those who just executed him, we see clearly into the tender heart of God Almighty. What wondrous love is this?

Whatever we suffer, pain, illness, fractured relationships, any misery, even death itself, God bears that with us, and for us; God knows the darkness from the inside. Jesus even cried out "My God, why have you forsaken me?" - so this God in the flesh even experienced what it is like to feel abandoned by God.
Rick Lischer tells of his son's bout with incurable cancer. They entered a church where a crucifix of Jesus hung over the altar. The message this church was sending to this young man, skinny, discolored, gaunt, and to his numb, bent father was this: "You are no freak, and we are not freaked out by your suffering." Because God entered fully into our suffering and dying, we need not be ashamed to suffer, and we need not be frightened of death.

Plenty of religions believe in life after death, and so do we. But ours has an edge: it was the God in the flesh who suffered terribly out of an abundance of love for us - this is the one God raised up from the dead. The resurrection, for us, isn't a mere continuation of life beyond the grave. It is a healing, a vindication, a redemption of what has been suffered. No denials, no escapism, but an embrace of bodily suffering as having a place in God's ultimate plans for us and for the universe. All our loss, pain and darkness are enveloped into the loving, healing arms of the God who raised Jesus from the tomb, and all is made well, it all finds meaning and purpose.

"Lord, we cannot fathom the depth of love You spread to us by enduring the cross. Thank You that You are closer to us than our own tears and pain, and that You redeem it all."


Special Thing #2 - Grace
The heart of Christianity is our sense of the grace of God. "By grace you have been saved... This is not your doing, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). Our salvation is not by stacking up good deeds, and salvation is not achieved through ever deeper states of spiritual mysticism. It is all grace, unearned, unearnable, all mercy, sheer gift, love you can't outrun.

Jesus' best story was about a wayward son being enfolded in the loving arms of the father he had despised, disappointed, and wounded (Luke 15:11-32). The father didn't demand he shape up first, or re-earn his place. He loved, and there was nothing the rebel lad could do to lose it or gain it.

You don't choose grace; you don't really even accept it - since God's tender, loving grace isn't deterred by those who try to bolt, or shove God away. Frederick Buechner pointed out you can't bring it about any more than you could bring about your own birth. The God who fashioned the universe loves you more deeply and intimately than any parent or lover; God loves you unconditionally - yes, even you. Knowing you better than you know yourself, God loves - so your true self is free to emerge, butterfly-like.

Unconditional love need not lead to bad behavior. If I am loved irrevocably, no matter what, I guess I could recklessly misbehave - but not if I understand the love. Grace moves me to love boldly in return; only grace can motivate me to be a better person.

In fact, this grace that is peculiar among the religions is the grace of God. It is God's active presence, and transforming power in our lives! God's grace looks like Jesus - touching, inviting, challenging, cleansing, forgiving, comforting, empowering every person to realize whom God made us to be. It's not a mushy love; it's powerful.

Grace is something we enjoy with others. On Christmas Eve, I could stay home and raise a candle alone, and it would be pretty. And since there are like a thousand candles being raised in the sanctuary whether I'm there or not, it doesn't depend on me. But I wouldn't miss it for the world: the beauty, the joy of being part of something glorious I didn't and couldn't create or pull off myself.

"Lord, the very word 'Grace' is amazing, puzzling, astounding, and unfamiliar apart from You. I once was lost, but now am found. All I can say is Thank You; I am obviously Yours."

Special Thing #3 - a social revolution
 

Christianity has been, since its inception, a social revolution. Jesus was unimpressed by social standing; if anything, he exhibited a pronounced bias toward the poor, the marginalized, the people society despised. Some of his followers were people of means - but no special favors fell to them because of it.
The first Church in Corinth was a curious mix of rich and poor, and Paul scolded the rich for assuming what they assumed before they became Christians - that they got the best seats, they curried special favor, they ate the finest foods. There was to be an equality, a sharing of resources, a dissolving of barriers. There were to be no haves and have-nots among the Christians: "No one said any of the things which he possessed was his own, but they shared everything in common. There was not a needy person among them" (Acts 4:32).

But why? To be close to God, we cannot remain closeted off from the others in God's family. We grow in faith and love when we befriend, break bread, and bear burdens with those from whom society would keep us apart. God is a warrior for justice and good for all people - so how could we lazily remain unengaged?

This egalitarian impulse is at the heart of our faith. We share this with Judaism - for it was from the Old Testament that the Christians learned to welcome the alien, the stranger, the outcast, to care for widows and orphans. Given our DNA, stratifying people into castes - class distinction, or social exclusion - is abhorrent to us Christians.

And yet we Christians have forgotten who we are in Christ's eyes. We hang with those like ourselves; we enjoy benefits that we've earned or lucked into, and either pity or blame those who have little. We are segregated by race, and economics on Sunday morning. We avert our gaze from our society that blesses some while denigrating others; we don't know people who are different, and become as self-interested and rancorous as the rest of society.

But then at times we rediscover our vocation. The churches have occasionally led the rabble-rousing, as in the Civil Rights movement. We're the peace party, we're the champions of the rights of the marginalized - and not surprisingly, faithful Christians are tagged with ugly labels in our society that too blithely settles for social stratification, and prefers a status quo that benefits one group while crushing another.
"Lord, remind us that You were (and are) a revolutionary; we are ready to meet Your beloved children we do not yet know."

Special Thing #4 - Love

And finally we come to the fourth "special thing" about Christianity. When we are at our best, when we are true to our Lord and the mission we are in no position to abandon and remain faithful, we love.

But everybody loves, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists - right? When we began this series, I pointed out that in its infancy, for the first few hundred years of Church life, outsiders observed that the Christians loved - not just parents loving their children or lovers smooching. In a cruel world of despicable conditions among rising urban populations, where there was no social net, the Christians tackled hunger, homelessness, sickness, the elderly and abandoned. They did something.

They didn't mail in charity, but they cared physically for hurting people; they included them in their own lives and homes. The anti-Christian emperor Julian the Apostate complained, "Those impious Christians support not only their own poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people get no aid from us."
This was a novel practice. In those days, the rich endowed public games and marble buildings - but the Christians were determined to embrace the outcasts and focus their energy on those in need. And why? This wasn't just what Jesus told them to do; this was precisely what Jesus did. And they had come to a theological awareness that they too were impoverished, in soul if not in body. When we love, we are close to Jesus. When we love, we actually love Jesus himself.

Perhaps we can see how these "four special things" are intertwined, how they really are just one thing. Jesus. God gave us a direct look into the heart of God. An infant in his mother's arms, a healer, a teacher who turned society's values upside-down, a revolutionary whose friends were rich and poor, sane and insane, admired and despised, holy and decadent, prostitutes and rabbis, fishermen and tax collectors.
We call this determination to deliver hope to any and everybody Grace. And if Grace is real, the known world shifts on its axis and nothing is ever the same. We find ourselves at lunch with a stranger who's no stranger than we are. We feel God's sorrow over what's broken in our world, and we do something. We discover a deep humility of soul, that will never have enough days to offer up our thanks and praise to God. We feel special - not superior, but as special as a newborn infant, which is where God wonderfully chose to meet us.

"Lord, Christianity is a great mystery, with marvelous treasures, and some bumbling fools who've lost their way. We would meet Jesus again, and know the grace, and let it take on flesh in our lives, and in our world."

Friday, October 25, 2013

What's Special about Christianity - parts 10 and 11


(10) The Worst of other religions - and ours

This evening will mark the feast day of St Francis: he died on this night in the year 1226. Seven years earlier, he had found himself in the Middle East with bloodthirsty Crusaders battling the savage Arab army of Malik al-Kamil. St. Francis saw the worst of Islam, and found himself in the camp with the worst of Christianity - and then he boldly crossed no man's land toward the Muslims with the best of Christianity. Unarmed, speaking gently of God's love, vulnerable and risking life and limb, he befriended the sultan, and bought peace.

So much of the time, we size up a religion based on its worst representatives - that is, when we are sizing up somebody else's religion. We would resent it if we Christians were dismissed as mean and violent because of Christians who've behaved badly. But think of the Holocaust: most of the Gestapo were churchgoing Lutherans and Catholics, and the vast majority of church leaders heiled Hitler with everybody else. In America, we've had cross-bearing Klansmen who've prayed and sung hymns before terrorizing African-Americans. Crusaders slaughtered Jews and Muslims, thinking their victories assured them a place in heaven. Loads of Christians in every town have been just plain smug and petty in their faith.
When we study other religions, we cannot avoid noticing evil perversions - largely because this is what the press will cover, and due to the political and security implications. This is true nowadays of Islam - but also Christianity. We read about priests abusing children, or clergy misconduct; we feel the menace of the violent edge of militant Islam.

But we can also look to the noble heart of other faiths, and our own. Recently I finished a book about the biblical Israelites and the other nations (and religions). The writer concluded that the biblical prophets claimed that the people of Israel could not and need not sit in judgment on, or try to fix what was wrong with others; but they could repent and become better and truer to their own faith - and that this was what God asked of them.

"Lord, we see the dark side in other religions - and we shudder; and sometimes we see their holy side, and we rejoice. Shine Your light onto our own faith, expose what is dull, vapid or even a problem to other people. Help us go deeper, to be truer, better, and holier, so when others look at us, they will see not the worst of Christianity, but the very best, the most faithful witness to what Christ offers not just to us but to the whole world - like St. Francis did."




(11) True Faith does not equal Sincerity

Back in the 1950's, President Eisenhower once declared, "I don't care what a man believes, as long as he is sincere." That pretty much captures how we Americans have felt for the past generation: any kind of spirituality must be good because it's.... spiritual - right?

But not all spiritualities are good. There are plenty of religious thoughts that are just plain false - or harmful. Very sincere people have hurt others, and their own people. Even the truest possible heart of Christian belief can be misused, and twisted into a blunt weapon or a tool of manipulation.

How would we assess the validity of a given religion, or even something believed within a religion? What makes truth true? And how would we distinguish what is in sync with the real, living God versus what is a made up fantasy? How can we discern what is beneficial to people versus what corrosively erodes the human spirit in the name of piety?

There are ways to test the worth of religious thinking, and to ask if a set of beliefs are sufficient; that is, Can they explain the beautiful and yet also the most sorrowful aspects of life in the world? Simplistic thinking, like "Do good and God will bless you, do bad and you'll get the opposite," doesn't actually pan out. We need beliefs that are as complex as life itself, beliefs that can deal with brokenness and then bring hope, beliefs that work not just for people like me but for everybody, rich and poor, healthy and sick, local and far away.

I'm firmly convinced that there are four peculiar, "special" things about Christianity that pass these tests, help us understand happy and horrible circumstances, enable us to be better people, and provide hope during the darkness and even beyond death itself - and not just for me but for all of humanity.

Let me add this: sometimes when we see religion gone bad we think the problem is too much religion. Moderation, a bit less religious zeal: that's what the world needs. But religion gone bad is bad religion, whether it's intense or casual. We are called to have much faith, to get deeply serious about what is life-giving and sustaining, the radical following of Jesus that ushers in goodness and beauty for us and for others. A tepid faith, a bland religiosity, is too trivial to matter. God, the good and living God, is everything.
So what are these four "special" aspects of Christianity? #1 is coming Thursday.

"Lord, heighten our sincerity - regarding what is good, true, and special about the faith You've given us."
James

Monday, September 30, 2013

What's Special about Christianity - parts 7, 8, 9

7. CHURCH & STATE
The practice of ancient religion, for the average person, was about fending off disease, helping crops to grow, insuring safe travel. Much of the ancient religion the Israelites and then the first Christians encountered was really magic and fortune-telling.

Religion was largely about money: the banks in ancient cities were the temples. Religion was highly s-xualized - and Dionysus, the god of wine, functioned as a divine sponsor of drinking and revelry. Any of these (prayers for health, safety, pondering the future, money, s-x and alcohol) sound familiar today?
Ancient religion was not about conversion, or salvation. The goal was not character change, or improvement; the Jews were the first and only religion (until Christianity) focused on morals.

What did ancient religions have in common? They were about buttressing the government, keeping citizens in line, establishing a divine aura around the power and politics of the emperor. To worship Marduk was to be subservient in the realm of King Hammurabi; to sacrifice to Osiris was to declare allegiance to the Pharaoh.

The Pharaohs came to vaunt themselves not as lieutenants of the gods, but actually as divine themselves! Daniel and his 3 friends refused to bow down to worship the golden image of King Nebuchadnezzar - and were thrown into the fiery furnace for their civil disobedience, for their lack of patriotism.

By New Testament times, the real competitor Christianity faced was the religion of the empire, the cult of the state. Caesar declared himself a god; citizens were expected to engage in city-wide worship services lauding Caesar. This the Christians would not do - and it cost them respect, business, and their very lives. When the Bible says "Christ is Lord," we need to hear how subversive and unpatriotic that was - for this implies "...and Caesar isn't!"

What's special about Christianity? From the beginning there has been a dogged refusal to cozy up to any government. It's in our DNA to be a bit revolutionary, to keep our distance and not bless any earthly power - for we know the fallen, broken nature of all humanity, and the perils of power that can only be wielded wisely by the one true God.

Americans seem to cherish the "separation" of church and state - and yet we see religious folk blessing governmental policies that are alien to what God is about; we see politicians pandering to evangelicals to win votes, and this nonsense that the church's job is to support our government. The Israelites, and then the Christians were wary, even critical of those in power, and would have been appalled by a bland civil religion that lamely wraps a spiritual blanket around the government or consumer society or the status quo.

"Lord, You are captive to no political party or single nation; remind us how to be revolutionary."

8. WHAT WE SHARE WITH OTHER RELIGIONS
Ten days ago, we considered the way Christianity refused to settle for being just one more spirituality in an open-mindedly tolerant religious world. Christians claimed there was one truth, and that you had to choose to be a Christian and give up your old beliefs and way of living.

But this does not mean Christianity had ideas that were 100% unique, none of it ever heard of before, absolute truth cordoned off from all other thinking. Interestingly, for a faith claiming to be the truth, Christianity shared many truths with the non-Christian world; Christianity borrowed and adapted much from other religions.

Christians treated the Jewish Bible as Scripture; the heroes of faith, and patterns of living were shared so deeply that most of the first Christians never thought they weren't Jews. But all through the Bible: names for God, and ideas about a holy life, were snagged from neighboring faiths. Styles of worship, music, poetry, wise sayings we find in the Bible had ancestors in other religions, from which Israel simply adopted what was lovely and constructive. When Solomon built his temple, he secured the best architects and builders with experience from other religions.

When I was in college, I took a religion course where we learned that many other ancient cultures had sacred stories about a worldwide flood. Fundamentalist students got upset; the professor sneered, declaring he had debunked the validity of the Bible's flood story. But I mused to myself that, if there had been a widespread flood many centuries ago, you would expect all cultures to remember, and to cherish the tale of survival. All cultures had sagas of the creation of the world - and so not just Jews or Christians, but all people have harbored an unshakable belief that God made everything.

The world's religions are not identical. Not all beliefs are valid; we can believe we're onto something special in Christianity. But God wants us to notice, and to celebrate, the good we have in common with all of God's people all over the earth. God has bestowed wisdom in more places than just the churches.
Thomas Merton, who wrestled deeply with and learned much from Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism, yet remained as intimate with Christ as any saint, took a large view of God's revelation: "All that is true, by whomever it is said, is from the Holy Spirit." He also believed the other religions not only teach us things we need to know, but actually rekindle a recollection of much in Christianity that we have forgotten - as we will see come Monday.

"Lord, we celebrate Your activity in all places. Make us learners, not narrow isolationists."
9. HOW WE LEARN FROM OTHER RELIGIONS
I don't know too many people more passionately attached to Christianity than I am. And yet when I am around faithful folks of other religions, I feel in my soul a kind of interfaith envy. I see something beautiful, something "special," and I wish I had what friends who believe very differently have - or I realize what we Christians have forgotten about ourselves.

Every time I converse with my friend Rabbi Murray Ezring, as I will tonight, I find myself (1) incited to a secret wish that I were Jewish, and (2) strengthened in my sense of why I am a Christian follower of Jesus. How can it be both?

It's no surprise Judaism has much to teach us: Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, we share Scriptures with them, and the "Father" God Jesus prayed to was and is the God of the Old Testament. We've joined the Ezrings for Passover in their home - and we Christians just don't have anything nearly so cool as this evening-long celebrative reading (and eating!) of the stories of the Bible. But we could...

I think about the Sabbath. The Jews remind us how to mark time and discover its sanctity, and how a day of rest, a day for God, invigorates all of life and makes us holy. What the Jews do with their Sabbath reminds us of how we might cherish our holy day called Sunday.

We can learn much from Islam. When Will Willimon was Dean of the Chapel at Duke, a Muslim student asked him, "Why don't the Christians here ever pray?" He was in the habit of stopping at prescribed hours during the day, kneeling, and praying - and he never saw Christian students praying anywhere at all. When do we pray?

Eastern religions: once in a while someone will tell me they are abandoning Christianity for Buddhism - "because they have silence and meditation." Christians have silence and meditation! But we busy Christians have forgotten, and perhaps adherents of Asian religions might help us shake our amnesia and become quiet before God.

Zen Buddhism teaches us that at the very center of our being there is nothing, that poverty of the soul is God's glory in us. This is what Jesus was trying to tell us! The Tao master Chuang Tzu wrote, "All the fish needs is to get lost in water. All man needs is to get lost in Tao." We believe this: God isn't one more object in our world; God is everything.

"Lord, the other religions aren't our foes - or Yours. Show us what we might learn from others - and remind us what we've forgotten, or neglected then in our own faith."

Monday, September 23, 2013

What's Special about Christianity? Parts 5 & 6

Part 5 - TOLERANCE AND TRUTH

   Tolerance is a virtue - sort of. Intolerance is a sinful mood. But tolerance is a low-level virtue, nothing more than a baseline to keep us from harming one another. If you merely "tolerate" me, or my behavior, you may still dislike me. I don't want to be "tolerated." I want to be understood, maybe even loved.

Tolerance can also mean nothing matters, everything is relative. Live and let live, think and let think: if there's no absolute truth to cling to or worth standing up for, we might as well all get along.

This is interesting: over time, the early Christians were not tolerated - in a world that was astonishingly tolerant! But one of the reasons was that they themselves weren't tolerant at all.

They were extremely open to people who were different, or hurting. But when it came to belief, to ideas about God? The Christians insisted there was such a thing as truth, and only one truth. This is what was shocking in the ancient world. Read about Paul's visit to Athens in Acts 17, and we see a world that was quite religious. There were many gods, and many were worshipped. Ancient spirituality was infinitely "roomy"; there was always room for one more religion.

So Christianity's debut on the scene was hardly a novelty. What was curious, and then downright offensive, was that Christianity said You must choose just one! There is only one God, not dozens. And that one God has revealed what is truly true. If you believe differently, what you believe may be fascinating - but it doesn't happen to be true to ultimate reality. It was this insistence on truth that rankled, and made the Christians the target of ridicule, and then violence.

We have learned - rightly! - to be open, and to avoid arrogance in thought, or feelings of superiority in belief. Is there a way to believe in such a thing as absolute truth without veering into intolerance? Can we find a way to believe in the heart of Christianity (and with deep passion) without being smug? Can we treasure Christianity as truth without being judgmental, and - precisely because we treasure Jesus and the Bible - be more than tolerant but also understanding and even loving?

I think so. And so we pray, "Lord, you told us the truth will set us free. Help us to believe in you, and love you, and know the truth, and still love (and not just tolerate) others."

 
Part 6 -  WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT ISRAEL’S GOD?
   Psalm 82:1 imagines God (Israel's God, that is) "presiding in the great assembly, and giving judgment among the 'gods." Logically (to us) there can be only one God (by definition). But in Bible times, people thought there were many gods. The question was Which ones will you be involved with? Which ones will you serve? Which ones might deliver for you?

Israel's God (named Yahweh) was downright weird when it came to the gods in the ancient world. The gods of Babylon, Egypt, and Canaan (1) were capricious, (2) argued among themselves, and (3) had to be accessed through idols.

Capricious: these gods were moody, lashing out in anger over not much of anything, bestowing blessing on the wicked, or on the righteous, pouting for months on end. They could not be "trusted," they were unreliable; you tried to placate them, but there was no personal relationship.

Arguing: the gods Judaism and Christianity encountered bickered among themselves. Peering down on hapless mortals, Ea would wish to be merciful, but Enlil would want to hurl down thunderbolts, Marduk would push for famine instead.

Idols: Israel's God was the only divinity in history to insist "No graven images" (Exodus 20:3). Ancient people were not foolish enough to believe the statue or golden image was really divine. But the way the sculptors depicted the gods tells us what their religion was about. The gods were never imaged as daffodils or field mice, kittens or puffy clouds. Instead we see muscular bulls, mighty lions, and the blazing, unviewable sun. These gods were all about power, victory, fertility, riches and plunder, the crushing of foes. Idols inspired awe, and frightened everybody.

Israel's God could not be captured in stone or golden images, because God's heart was not about riches or power. Israel's God could not be seen, but only known by words, commandments given in love, promises made that God would not be capricious but trustworthy. This God didn't want to crush anybody, but was zealous to lift up the poor - a shocking, revolutionary notion back then (...and today...).

The gods of Babylon, Egypt and Canaan were impressive. But perhaps we can understand why Israel's religion was appealing: an invisible God who could be trusted, who was profoundly personal. True religion isn't about favors for the elite, or placating or manipulating some impersonal god to do our bidding... which is why the one true God says "You shall have no other gods."

Prayer: "We praise You for being a trustworthy God, a God who loves personally, who doesn't echo society's pandering to the rich and powerful, for being beyond all the fakes. We will place no other pretender gods before You."

Thursday, September 12, 2013

What's Special about Christianity? - parts 3 and 4

Part 3 – Why Christianity Grew

   How can we explain the astonishing growth of Christianity in the ancient world? In the year 100, Christians were a mere 1/100th of 1% of the population; by the year 200 they made up 2%, and by 300, 50% of the people were Christian!

Sometimes debunkers of Christianity chalk this up to the Emperor Constantine - as if he suddenly declared everyone in the empire must be Christian. But half the people were Christians two decades before Constantine came to power!

Christians had some peculiar, wonderful ideas, and a deep passion for ultimate truth - and we'll get to all this next week. But outsiders observed that the Christians multiplied, not because their ideas were more persuasive, but because of the unusual, downright revolutionary way that they loved.

Late in the 2nd century, Tertullian explained: "It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of our opponents. They say, 'See how they love!'" Two centuries later, when the emperor Julian tried to stamp out Christianity, he sourly complained, "Those impious Galileans (the Christians) support not only their own poor, but ours as well. Everyone can see that our people laid aid from us."

The pagan world Christians encountered was cruel. The sick and dying were cast aside. Newborns with defects were left to die. Women had no rights, slavery was common. Cities were overpopulated - and it was the Church that pioneered ways to cope with urban problems, offering hope to the hungry, homeless, widows, orphans, those burned out of their homes, the sick and dying. They cared, even for strangers, even for non-Christians - and not just heartfelt care but practical care. Instead of being a private club, the Church offered a sense of belonging to any and everybody. They loved - and that is why Christianity won the day.

Could it be that the hope of a slowly shrinking Christianity in our culture isn't slick ad campaigns or catchy worship styles, but the simple, harder but doable practice of caring, loving, finding those in dire straits and becoming family to them?

Let us pray: "Lord, we wish people were astonished by the way we love the hurting, the hungry, the hard to love, the homeless. I want to be in sync with Jesus, who certainly cared for the suffering. I'm ready to stop procrastinating, and to get involved and do something, even if I may not do it all that well. I want to be like the Christians of old."

 

Part 4 – A Changed America

Sometimes I hear older Christians fretting over the tremors and then the avalanche of change in the religious landscape of America over the past couple of generations.  Once upon a time (or so we vaguely recall) America was more “Christian.”  You could assume most people were churchgoing members, and that public displays of Bible things was not just permitted but encouraged.  Now the churches are shrinking, other faiths are growing stronger all around us.  How to be a Christian when you aren’t the majority any longer?

   Our memory may be faulty.  Scholars have tracked church attendance over many decades – and as it turns out, people a century or two ago didn’t go more or less than we do; the trend oscillates up and down.  Was there more religious fervor before laws changed, or before science elbowed belief out of the way?  It’s hard to say.  Many people were quite pious, but others went through the motions, or under social pressure; people still drank too much, cheated on spouses, and clung to abysmal ideas about people of different races.

   The earliest Christians harbored no nostalgia about the good old days.  They were brand new, and tiny; nobody had heard of them.  We may think Christianity gets dissed these days; we may feel sad you can’t have Christian prayer in public.  But the first Christians were harassed, beaten, cut off from business deals, imprisoned, and sometimes executed.  The other religions had grand buildings, big crowds, and government support.  Nobody joined a church because it seemed like a “nice” thing to do; the decision was harrowing, risky, deadly serious.

   But then a huge change in the 4th century:  the emperor Constantine made Christianity something of the official religion of the empire.  Soon, most people were Christian.  But were they?  If everybody is a Christian, if it’s pretty much the same as having a pulse, does it mean anything?  Hadn’t it been somehow more meaningful when it was harder, when a courageous decision was required?  We may be nearing a day when to be a Christian is a hard, costly choice – and that may be surprisingly beneficial.  Jesus meant us to take this stuff seriously…

   “Lord, we see slippage in Christianity’s numbers and place in society.  We feel more and more a minority.  Show us the blessing in this, remind us of our kinship to the first Christians and their religious world, reveal to us what’s at stake, what really matters, and the real heart of following Jesus – and maybe then we might stem the tide?”

 

Monday, September 9, 2013

What's Special About Christianity - parts 1 and 2

This Fall I want us to think together about what it means to be Christian in a culture where other religions not only exist, but are evident, strong, often admirable (or they make you shake your head, the way many Christian groups do…). My question? What’s Special about Christianity?

For centuries, Christians felt “superior.” Some today would insist we still are superior. But the very impulse to feel superior is a decidedly un-Christian mood. Jesus could have vaunted himself as superior to his disciples, but he bent low and washed their feet.

When Christians have felt superior, they have behaved badly. The ironies of Christian history: just a few yards in Worms from the place Martin Luther ignited the Protestant Reformation, there is a cemetery where hundreds of Jews were buried – dead because Christian Crusaders, on their way to annihilate Muslims in the Holy Land, stopped off for the night and killed some Jews for the heck of it. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Poisonwood Bible, is a rich exploration of how Christian notions of superiority go bad.

We aren’t superior to others – but we’re not all the same either. Hardly! Christians, Jews and Muslims (not to mention other major religions) believe very different, and frankly incompatible things about God and the point of life. We can ask What’s special about Christianity? without denigrating anybody else, and without the innocuous idea that we’re all the same.

Mister Rogers used to sing a cute little ditty: “You are my friend, you are special.” I want us to explore how to feel special, and at the same time to be friends with people of other faiths – and even Christians who seem frustratingly different. Mother Teresa once said, “I love all religions, but I am in love with my own.” Like each person you love, each religion has its wonders, and its foibles, immense goodness and yet with deep flaws.

Over the past few months, I’ve discovered that the printed prayers of others have helped me so much. I hope mine can help you.

So let’s begin – with prayer: “Lord, we find ourselves down here in a world of many religions. Sometimes it’s confusing, a little scary, maybe delightful too. Show us ways we can be friends with those who believe differently – and at the same time discover what is special about the Christian way of following Jesus.”


Part 2 - Blessed are the Humble 

To weigh the value of other religions, to befriend those who believe differently, and even to understand what's at the heart of our own faith, much humility is in order. This shouldn't be hard for us Christians.

Consider the shrinkage of Christianity - and not just in numbers. A long generation ago, the front page of the Monday New York Times featured summaries of preachers' sermons from the day before. Churches were being built, not being shuttered like so many today. The only press coverage Christians get today is about reprehensible behavior.

We can erect artsy signs that say "All are welcome," but so many feel unwelcome - or even worse, they have no thoughts or feelings about church or God at all. Less relevant, fewer in number - we have good cause to feel humble, and to ask questions like "Why bother?" or better, "What's Special about Christianity?"

It's helpful to realize that Christianity's most valiant moments have come when there weren't many Christians at all. Seventy years after Jesus' crucifixion, Christians were a mere 1/100th of 1% of the population. After 200 years, Christians were much larger - nearly 2% of the population!
Major religions dwarfed the Church; Christians were ridiculed, shut out of business deals, and even executed. Yet Christianity grew. Theologians wrote profoundly; stories of holy heroes became big news.

In 1948 the Communists made Christianity illegal in China, and expelled or killed all the missionaries. Thirty years later, the number of Christians, all converted underground in constant peril, had grown tenfold.

The humble can listen and learn. The humble aren't eaten up inside by a judgmental spirit. The humble can feel very special - if for no other reason than they are much like Jesus, our founder, who got annoyed only with the pious believers in his own faith who felt superior.

So let us pray: "Lord, you said 'Blessed are the humble' (Matthew 5:5) - and we would be blessed. Give us humble hearts and minds. We ponder Christianity, and confess we've been cocky, dull, irrelevant, turned inward, designed to suit me and my preferences more than your glory and your holy mission out in the world. Forgive us - but in a way that keeps us mindful of our desperate need for you, and to learn and grow. Daily, let us recall that you said 'Come to me, all who are heavy laden... Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart' (Matthew 11:28-29)."

Monday, August 26, 2013

Which Carolina will we be?

    My daughter and I were in England last month.  A young woman, as she took our tickets as we entered a museum, identified us (by accent? dress? gawking faces?) as Americans, and asked “Where are you from?”  We said “North Carolina.”  She thought a moment, and asked, “Isn’t that the progressive one of the two Carolinas?”  I was impressed she’d know such a thing, but I only half-jokingly replied, “Well, we used to be.”

     I’m not sure what she or any of us mean by “progressive.”  Not all progress is a happy thing, and even good progress has its casualties, just as clinging to old ways can be a lovely cherishing of tradition or a paralyzing refusal to embrace fresh life, and changed circumstances.  I’m weary of the worn out labels, “liberal,” and “conservative,” which don’t fit most people I know who are weary of the nasty combat.  We want to find some common ground, and get something done.

     I’ve been pretty disturbed about Moral Mondays.  When I was a little boy, I saw protesters on TV and begged my mother to let me make a sign and take to the streets with them and even go to jail.  She quite rightly insisted as an 8 year old I just was too young.  Once I was of age, the streets had emptied.  As an adult I’ve tried to stir up some protests, but to no avail.  Then back in the Spring, I left the country for a three month sabbatical – and as soon as I left, thousands stormed Raleigh in protest.  I feel like Rip van Winkle, sleeping through the revolution.

     I support moral, peaceful, respectful protest.  Outside of the Democracy we say we treasure, if you protest you wind up in the slammer or worse.  Too often our citizenship is reduced to looking at some narrowminded “news,” and them fuming in our living room.  How good that people care enough, not just about their own personal, backyard issues, but about people other than themselves, that they take hours, travel, stand, declare, and hope.  Which “side” the protesters are on is far less important than the lovely reality that we have citizens who have a dream they insist must be heard – but without violence, or meanness.

     We’ve never settled on the best way to navigate the unavoidable intersection of faith and politics.  But people of faith do have the right to be heard – and not just heard, but noticed.  Way too often in North Carolina, the religious people pour great energy into little shows of religion, instead of actually doing something that matters and effecting real change.  If protesters merely hoist signs and declare they are advocating for the women and the poor, but don’t actually engage at a high level and change things for the women and the poor, the protest is a travesty.

     The same holds true regarding public prayer.  I never quite understand why people get upset if explicitly Christian prayers cannot be offered at government meetings.  The law can prohibit many things, but it can never stop me, or a board member, or a student from praying – although why anyone would be so inconsiderate as to pray in Jesus’ name when Jews or Muslims or atheists were in the room, I do not know.  Prayer is an insubstantial thing if it isn’t buttressed by deep and abiding labor.  If the Christians want Jesus to look good, they merely need to get busy doing good, investing their time, energy and resources in the people God cares about. 

     My dream for North Carolina is not that we become roundly Republican or resoundingly Democratic.  I yearn for us to strive to be good.  Inevitably we won’t agree on the precise definition of this good, but we can be sure that divisive rancor is not good.  We are all North Carolinians; we need each other.  We need our elected officials to recall that they represent not just the narrow faction that made donations or corralled votes to get them elected; they represent all of us, even those with whom they disagree.  Moral passion may veer far to the left or right, but the middle is a healthy place from which to govern.

     So let’s talk to each other.  And far more importantly, let’s listen to each other, and even dare to work together – and this applies to the good public servants we sent to Raleigh, not to bicker or represent only some few of us, but all of us.  Which Carolina are we going to be?

 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

an experimental sermon...

  so Sunday I said more about my visit to Good Shepherd, and some other "unseen" things - and played the piano, having failed to practice ahead of time.  Oh my...  Give it a watch/listen.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

My Visit to Good Shepherd

    What fun for me to get to visit a church, and nobody knows I’m there.  This morning I popped in to the 10:00 service at Good Shepherd – United Methodist just like Myers Park where I usually find myself up front on Sundays, but pretty different.  Here’s a photo I took from the back (where I sat) next to one from the back of Myers Park.

     Facing a free Sunday morning, I’d chosen Good Shepherd largely because the pastor, Talbot Davis, is a good friend – and he visited my place back on Nov. 11, and wrote a great blog reflecting on his experience.  Here’s mine – on visiting Good Shepherd.

     Driving past Carowinds’s Intimidator whirling up high, I was tempted to stop and ride – but drove on to the church’s parking lot, which featured marvelous signage, beginning at the street and on into the lot, welcoming me.  One sign was intended for me:  “First-time visitor parking.”  Great idea, but I found a shady spot instead. 

     Entering the place was intriguing.  Wearing khaki slacks and a short sleeve dress shirt, I felt a little bit overdressed.  A teenager at the door handed me a nametag.  I asked her if I should put my name on it, and she laughed and said, “Yeah, that’s kind of the idea.”  I stood at an information desk, where the people behind it were chatting with one another.  I interrupted and asked what they had.  The woman claimed “Oh, all kinds of things, including cds and dvds.”  I told her I would check out the quality of the preaching and then decide whether to get a dvd.  She said “I promise you, unequivocally, that the preacher is the best you’ve ever heard in your life.”  Hmm…

     I found a seat, and even though at least one-fourth of those attending wandered in late, I was impressed that the place was packed – on August 4.  Excellence, attention to detail - lots of kinds of people. 

    I sat down and pondered the bulletin,
which was very cool and captivating - but it made me grow uneasy, as it didn’t tell me what was going to happen or when.  Two cards were stuffed inside inviting me to something or another; well-done, they made me want to come. 


     One guy (named David) came up, shook my hand in with immense warmth, and welcomed me.  I was again impressed – but then when the music started I noticed he was a guitarist on stage.  An official greeter.  No unofficial person spoke – but I know this is normal in big church life.

     There was an information sheet in the bulletin, which I filled out, but couldn't figure out what to do with it - so now it is on the seat of my car.  It asked amazing things - like my birthday, and the birthdays of my children.  Will I get a card?  We pass an attendance pad at my place - which I see is probably outmoded and not as helpful as this card.  I should have listed a prayer request.

     The music then started.  Very professional, warm – but I didn’t know any of the songs, and there was no music to help me know to go up or down.  The music was catchy, but the words were all about “me,” “I,” no “we” or “the church.”  God was a “he”; it would be hard to get away with that where I work.  And we stood for quite a long time – which was difficult for somebody like me with a bad back.  And it was dark…  The lights did come up (thankfully) when the sermon began.

     During this extended singing, I counted about 50 people around me I could see well.  About one-third were singing, about one-third were maybe singing a little bit now and then, and another third didn’t sing one note.  But the music from the front was loud, so it didn’t feel like there was a lack of singing.  Almost every person, even those not singing, was bobbing up and down, and seemed to be digging the experience.  I think I bobbed a little.  At Myers Park, nobody bobs – but we really do need just about all of them to sing for the sound to be full.  My folks actually sing really well.
     My friend Talbot handled the major welcome – and announced a major staff change right on the spot!  Very engaging, enthusiastic, speaking of God’s role in the decision, with lots of “your board,” “we,” group language… and then he prayed over it.  Lovely.  No robe, no tie; not 1 person in the place wore a tie!  Felt like he was up close, even in the huge auditorium.

     At sermon time, Talbot walked on stage to sound effects, like a storm at sea (which was his topic).  I’d studied ahead and knew he’d be preaching on that kooky text in Genesis where Noah gets drunk and naked, only to be covered up by his sons.  He prayed, saying “God, I can’t do this without you” – and then talked.  Very warm, clear, loads of charisma, a genuine feel, and wicked funny.  Hilarious intro stuff, and then, 7 minutes in, he made his first memorable point:  we are vulnerable after a success.  Well-played. 

     Talbot debunked crass misreadings of Genesis 9 (pointing out quite humorously that Noah’s curse was in fact made when he was drunk and naked…), and focused on the idea of the messes we make, and who cleans them up.  He spoke of edgy things that might make my folks shiver:  incest, drunkenness, nakedness, taking advantage of someone drunk.

     The sermon lasted precisely 31 minutes.  That’s 2 sermons for me at Myers Park!  Talbot is a terrific preacher, very real-life, personal without getting maudlin.  I wanted him to work on Jesus and grace a little more…  We pastors always rewrite other’s sermons while we’re semi-listening to them, and I thought about the sons covering Noah’s mess, and thought if I were preaching this I’d pick up on the image of the "covering" of mercy and grace, and healing power of that covering mercy.  But then the sermon would have stretched to 41 minutes…

     And then it all ended, sort of "Okay, we're done now" – and they hadn’t taken up an offering.  I was planning to drop a check for $15,000 in the plate… so they missed that opportunity.  I wonder how they raise money.  As I exited, I noticed the folks were friendly with one another, although nobody spoke to me, which was fine.  Talbot seemed – happy? – to see me; we clergy never expect to see one another on Sunday morning!  And another young person handed me a little piece of paper I could use to find an online ebook.  Back to the parking lot where I was even happier not to be in visitor parking, as I was still in the shade! 

     And then I drove home, grateful for the chance to be in a place with d├ęcor and music and dress and the whole experience so different from my home church, and yet both certainly United Methodist, both very devoted to the living God, who makes all of us unidentical children into holy sons and daughters in God’s family.