Thursday, October 29, 2009

What Am I Waiting For?

My son, Paul, sent me a very moving video yesterday of a sermon by a Covenant brother I have not met and do not know. His name is Harvey Fitzgerald Carey and he pastors the Citadel of Faith Covenant Church in Detroit, Michigan.

Participating in a Leadership Conference recently, sponsored I believe by Willow Creek Church north of Chicago, this African American brother deserves 20 minutes of your time as he describes God's call on his life to live out the Gospel, ministering in what he describes as the poorest zip code in the poorest city in America today.

This is a rousing call to respond in faith to God's claim on our lives--not first by measuring our resources but by believing again in the enormous power of his Spirit, by risking urselves, moving out from the comfort zones that seal us off from others into the maelstrom of convoluted life all around us.

Brother Carey's challenge came to me while reading and pondering N.T. Wright's amazing new book, Surprised by Hope, in which the British New Testament scholar seeks to reawaken in us the spirit and faith that stirred those first named Christian, who either experienced or had passed on to them the good news of Jesus's resurrection from the dead.

Listen to the video you can access from the link below (give it time to load), and while you are listening ask yourself, "What am I waiting for? Where can I go and what can I do this very day to share what the the Lord has done for me in the power of his Spirit?" And after you have listened, open The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshipbook to No. 685 and hear again the Lord calling you.

Our need, after all, is not finally for more programs and resources. It is really, as it has always been among God's people, for more faith in his will, and hope in his power, and love for the whole world of people he came among us to save.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reformation Perspective

Two realities grabbed my attention yesterday.
One long-term, much too long and lingering,
came at the bedside of an a Hospice patient
In a Catholic Elder Care Center nearby,
Beside a woman now in the process of dying.
The other, on leaving, was of outside windows
At the same Center, from which before he died
The lonesome husband of the Hospice patient
Used to wave at me on leaving from a visit.

The outside windows seem somehow permanent
While on the inside of the Care Center,
Whether offering Hospice now to the woman
Or Elder Care earlier for her grieving husband,
The focus seems more on meeting temporary needs.
What a parable on life! Brick, mortar, and glass
And the commerce and industry they support
Impress us with their strength and permanence,
While in our humanity we are all only temporary.

I was stunned momentarily by the contrast,
Until realizing in Reformation perspective
That what often seems permanent is not
And what seems only fleeting will endure.
After all, how can fifty or a hundred years,
Even of massive brick, mortar, and glass,
Compare with the gift of eternal life
Both offered by God and already received by
A man now gone and a woman in Hospice?

Oh for wisdom and grace, as in this case,
To use the brick and mortar and glass
To offer faith’s vision to the lonely and dying.
And oh for perspective on driving off
to retain in soul and spirit that same vision.
What we too often see as permanent
is in reality only passing with its use,
while what seems more passing and fragile
carries within it the seeds of eternal life.

Reformation Sunday

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Put Loss in Context: Symbolize It

It was Sunday morning, early October, in Libertyville Covenant Church north of Chicago. We were there with our children and grandchildren for Sunday School and Morning Worship. Brian Madvig of the Winnetka Covenant Church nearby was leading the second session of a Adult Class on loss. In the first session, we were told, he had asked the group to share a loss in their lives, i.e. witness to it, name it. On this morning he began by asking how it felt to name such in public? "I was left feeling a lot of pain over things yet unresolved," he offered. The group agreed. Before leaving that first session he risked asking the namers to create during the week some "symbol" of the loss to which they had witnessed. Could they? Would they?

Indeed. A brother pastor thanked him warmly for the pain of naming a grief he was living with and offered a torn copy of the membership directory of a church he had lately served that was now in disarray. A gentle man and good, his heart was broken for a people he had loved and served but now--at a distance--he could no longer shepherd and comfort. His dear wife, also a long-time friend, catalogued her grief over painful family memories going back to childhood.

One middle-aged father help us a series of tile-like photos mounted on a panel depicting his family's grief over the recent loss of a disadvantaged son, and a young woman offered a similar symbol of the pain she was experiencing over the loss of a friend with whom she used, among other things, to play cards.

Then an elegant elderly friend of many years named Dolores stood erect to detail for us in a prose/poem her feelings both of grief and resolution, grief over the loss of her husband and the comfort God has supplied, helping her to see her life now in larger perspective. Moved both by her pain as a human being and her strength as a woman of faith, I asked for a copy of her poem to ponder further myself and eventually share with others. Titled "Loss," it follows:

A young man saw a girl
and the girl saw him.
There was lake, woods and moonlight,
lovely halcyon days.
War clouds were parting.
Separation endured, prayers said.
Peace, homecoming, future plans.
Marriage, home and children.
Love and laughter, and some tears.
Years pass, growing old,
Gray hairs and illness.
Knowing God loves, come what may.
Then that too cold moment.
He's gone before me!
Oh, the loneliness and emptiness.
But the wonderful memories,
The caring friends, family,
The gratitude I must feel
For the loving Father and his Son
Who bear me up
When I want to surrender
And go into the dark
To wallow in grief.
God holds me in the warmth of his everlasting arms.

Bless you, brothers and sisters all. You ministered to me witnessing to how God is even now ministering to you. And thank you, Brian, for thus facilitating that witness. The symbols, I heard, were to be posted in the narthex for others to see and consider. I am now at a distance from that place, but it does not matter. For both the symbols and the witness to them so freely offered that morning are graven on my mind as gifts from fellow pilgrims clearly in touch with God.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

An Unlikely Saint

Next month, still nearly all in Pentecost, begins with All Saints Sunday, one of my favorites--a time not only to remember those who have passed from us over the last twelve months but the larger host of all who now, including them, have inspired our faith in God over time.

One such for me was George Fischer of Bethany Covenant Church on the south side of Chicago, an Archie Bunker kind of guy who worked for the Swift Company in their meat packing division. I always liked George and was drawn to him, in spite of the fact that so far as I knew he never said much about his faith or relationship to God. We most often shared lighter banter, mixed inevitably with jokes, nothing all that serious.

One Sunday evening, however, in Bethany's lovely Fireside Room at the rear of the sanctuary, we had gathered by a glowing fire to worship as we did in those days. A senior in Seminary, I was serving Bethany as a kind of student-interim. Way across town, the three-times-weekly trek Alyce and I made to serve in that roll, even while carrying a full load of study, were both inspiring and tiring. Sundays were especially challenging, in that we were gone from home on the north side twelve hours or more.

Alyce was pregnant with our first child, and after morning activities and dinner at some one's home--usually chicken, not her favorite at that point--we would return to the church for an afternoon nap on the sanctuary pews. It was a long time until evening.

When it came time to preach that night I really did not feel like preaching, so not to appear unprepared I simply held up my notes before the people--thus to justify myself--before telling them so. "I'm tired tonight," I said, "so if it's alright with you I"m just going to sit down and wait with you in silence until someone has something to say." Two, three, four, and five minutes passed. No word from anyone, nor any sound save for the crackling of the fire in its place.

I was about to get up and say "O.K., I'll preach!" when George Fischer stood erect like a ramrod in the back row and startled us all by crying out in a very loud voice, "O God, what a sinner I am!" I'll never forget that moment or the outpouring of fervent and honest witness that followed from others. Thus did the saints preach, inspired by brother George, and pray together afterward in as moving a way as made clear that God's Spirit was present.

The lesson, for me, remains indelible. Saints are not manifest in Plaster of Paris. Nor are they revealed in memorized spiritual jargon that just as often as not hides hardened and judgmental hearts. Saints are sinners who are in touch both with their sinful nature and the God who alone opens their hearts to confess, if only to offer them his forgiveness.

I'll miss Saint George this year, and pray while remembering a host of others like him whose lives and spirits have blessed mine, to be more like them in the sharing of my own need for God and his grace.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stunned by Grace--Kajsa's Grace and God's

I was stunned yesterday by this brand new picture of our granddaughter, Kajsa Grace, sent me by her mother. I knew a Nikon camera had a lot to do with it, capturing so sensitively the nuances in a child's face. But without Kristin's sensitivity as a mother to the particular moment in which the shutter clicked, the Nikon could hardly have recorded what it did. And without the subject herself, neither photographer nor camera could have delivered the image thus beautifully captured.

Only a child soon to be seven, Kajsa has been and remains a living reminder to all who have followed her life journey until now an incarnation of her middle name--Grace. No less a child than any other, and perhaps even more feisty than most having in her case to survive with half a heart, four major surgeries, frequent hospitalizations, and endless medications, she has developed the character of a survivor. And in her survival we have seen another grace--the grace of God--at work.

Are you ever stunned by God's grace to you in another-- by some sudden awareness that startles you awake and recovers your sense of wonder in life? If not, pray God that he will "new life in you awaken" as a hymn writer puts it, stir you life from slumber and the normal; run of things by the grace in a loved one's face or a neighbor's need, or just the forgiveness of your own sin.

Come thou fount of ev'ry blessing, tune my heart to sing thy grace;
streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet, sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I'm fixed upon it, mount of thy redeeming love.

O to grace how great a debtor daily I'm constrained to be!
Let thy goodness, like a fetter, bind my wand'ring heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, prone to leave the God I love;
here's my heart, O take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.

(The Covenant Hymnal: A Worshuipbook, No. 68, sts 1,3.)

Monday, October 12, 2009

"I Don't Have a Single Friend in this World," He Said!

The statement came like a lightning bolt out of the blue, entirely unexpected. Standing off a moment from cutting my hair, my barber said, rather abruptly, "I'm not sure you'll believe this, but I'm a very insecure person. I don't have a single friend in this world!"

I couldn't believe what I was hearing. An apparently gregarious person with an inviting smile, and a good conversationalist as most barbers are, we had shared stories over time--and, of course, jokes--typical barbershop banter. But this time there was more. It was significant I soon realized that two other barbers in his small shop were not there that day. Nor were any clients waiting to be served.

"All these years in your barbershop and you don't have a single friend?" I responded. "I can't believe it." Returning to task, he filled in on details. "As I said, I'm a very insecure person, and long for a friend, but every time I come on someone I think could be a friend--someone that seems higher and wiser than me--I come over time to see flaws that eventually cause me to reject them out of hand."

"Are there other problems with you, more personal? I wondered. "Yes," he responded, "alcohol among them. Could we talk sometime?"

How moving the conversation was for me, a client of his now over 14 years, myself on that very day in the midst of preparations for leading an Adult Sunday School Class on "Friendship Evangelism" less than two weeks later.

As it turned out, the class I led was yesterday, the basic thrust of which, using a beautiful one-hour hourglass as an object lesson, was that we as Christians in this world are simply the overflow of God's friendship toward us and that unless we are living daily in that flow our witness to others gets wooden and stale.

Today, not over lunch as he wished--my barber friend is taking his mother to the doctor this morning--but over coffee in Stillwater at 1:30 he and I are going to have that talk. I'm going to become the friend he is missing, God helping me. He'll soon enough discover my foibles and faults as well, educated and perceptive as he is. But I'm praying early this morning that in, with, and under all that--even perhaps in the midst of my own vulnerabilities--he will sense and come over time to receive not only the friendship of God, who is the healer of all our ills, but the warm and healing communion of his people as well.

Pray that I will not get in the way of the Friend who has thus set the stage for our coming together as human beings. Surely he is even now standing by our place of meeting to draw us together to himself.