Monday, July 13, 2009

Not really a God sighting...but a shot in the dark.

This morning, when I was going through a box of stuff my mom and dad brought up to me last fall, which I promised Mike I would get out of the living room while he's in Oregon, I found a stack of old letters. They were from a fellow I met when I was in Ireland in the summer of 1986. The letters covered a period of several months, but after that we lost touch. Now with the internet, I thought maybe I could locate him, as many other old friends have been able to re-connect. But all I managed to hit were dead ends. I do think I may have found a photo of his father on an Irish running website, and his name is there, too, but that's it.

I thought maybe I'd post a blog with his name and a video for a song he might remember having introduced to me during that summer, in case he decides to Google himself, as many of us often do. Unfortunately, the video in question can't be embedded, so I'm going to post an alternate that has the sound but no picture. Also unfortunately, this fellow happens to share his name (Stephen Lynch) with both a stand-up comic and a U.S. politician, so I'm not entirely sure how successful this venture will be, but I'm going to try anyway.

Stephen, if you're out there, this is for you...

Sunday, April 12, 2009

My Easter sermon.

“Of course it’s ridiculous!”
Mark 16:1-8

I think the Netflix is one of the best modern inventions. I have a basic, no-frills subscription, where they send me a movie, I watch it and send it back, and they send me another one, just one at a time.

Last one I had was Religulous. You know, that thing the comedian Bill Maher put out last year, with the apparent hope of pointing out how ridiculous it is for modern people to have religious faith, so we’d all see the error of our ways and become converts to reasonable atheism. But his examples were all from the fringes of religious belief—things that even many other religious people would tend to think are weird. And therefore, they weren’t really going to convince many religious folks to come over to his way of thinking.

But you know, there’s a sense in which Bill Maher is telling the truth. We are here today, on Easter Sunday, celebrating an event that, by all reasonable standards, is ridiculous. Really! Have you ever sat down and thought about it?

I’m not talking about what happens in hospitals pretty often nowadays, where someone whose heart has stopped is brought back from the brink with CPR or a defibrillator. That’s not resurrection. Resurrection is someone taken down from the hanging tree, wrapped in a shroud, laid in a tomb, a heavy stone rolled over the doorway, everyone gone home; and then a couple days later the tomb is empty and there’s someone sitting there pointing to the slab the dead man had been laid on, now unoccupied. And that just doesn’t happen, right?


Bill Maher and his like-minded fellows have got a point. Even the women in the story—the original version, the one we have here in Mark’s Gospel—know the whole thing is absolutely ridiculous.

The “young man”—like the man Jacob wrestled with at the ford of the Jabbok, back in Genesis 32—is enigmatic: is he an angel, or just some random kid who happened by at the right moment? And the women don’t do what he tells them to do. They don’t go and tell his disciples and Peter that he’ll be going ahead of them to Galilee. They run away in terror and amazement, and, as the text ends in the original language, “they said nothing to anyone; they were afraid, you see, for…”

For what?

It’s bad enough when a book of the Bible ends with a question, as the book of Jonah does: “And I should not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”

But the original ending of Mark ends in the middle of a sentence. Later scribes decided this couldn’t be right, so they added two other endings, with appearances of the risen Christ, disciples commissioned and sent out, all the usual stuff that’s supposed to be there. But originally, Mark ended by saying, “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone; they were afraid, you see, for…”

For what?

For it doesn’t compute. For it’s ridiculous. For that’s not how it happens. A tomb where someone’s been laid after being executed in the most horrible and violent way that the ancient world could conceive of doesn’t just turn up empty!

But it did.

That’s the reality the three women who went to the tomb at oh-dark-thirty that Sunday morning were confronted with. So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone; they were afraid, you see, for…

For it can’t be true, what the young man said: “He has been raised; he is not here.” It can’t be!

But what if it is? What if it is?

What if Jesus truly was raised, if this astonishing, completely ridiculous thing truly did happen? What else that we take for granted could be stood on its head?

They were afraid, you see, for if Jesus truly has been raised, then nothing, but nothing, will ever be the same again!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Jesus Anthology

I haven't posted a God Sighting in quite awhile, but this one may be a little much for my other blog. It may become a sermon one day, but at this stage I'm just getting some musings down so I don't forget them...

This weekend I've had the privilege of hearing Amy Gopp, the Associate Director of Week of Compassion ( speak to a group of pastors and laypeople at our Regional Church's annual School for Congregational Learning. Last night she spoke just to the workshop presenters and other event leadership at a dinner meeting. Her Scripture reading was the last chapter of the Gospel of John. She invited us to hear it as if for the first time (for us preachers, especially, this is a very familiar passage), and see what might jump out at us.

John 21 is a very rich text, including several scenes: the disciples fishing all night and catching nothing, then having someone tell them from the shore to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, whereupon they catch so many fish they can't get the net into the boat; the threefold questioning of Peter by Jesus, "Do you love me?" and threefold instruction of "feed my lambs"/ "tend my sheep"/ "feed my sheep"; Jesus' prediction of Peter's death; and clues as to who the Beloved Disciple and the author of the Gospel might be.

But what leapt out to me was the last verse: "But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." I've always thought this verse was a bit humorous, but last night something else came to me.

So there's lots more that Jesus did. John leaves the story hanging, almost as much as Mark does in his original ending, which just almost trails off in mid-sentence, with women running from the tomb and saying nothing to anyone. Only Luke (and the longer ending of Mark, which may well be copied from Luke) feels a need to bracket the story with the Ascension. As far as John, Mark, and Matthew are concerned, the story continues. (This oversimplifies the matter a bit; as it turns out, Luke continues the story, too, with Volume 2, which is Acts.)

So I wonder: those "many other things that Jesus did," could they be going on even now? Could Jesus still actually be doing things among us? Could he be acting in and through each of us who call ourselves his disciples? And if so, should we perhaps be talking about that? If you were to write your entry in the Jesus Anthology, the story of what Jesus has done in and through you, what would it say?

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Lest we forget...

This is the address that I will be delivering at the local VFW post's annual Memorial Day ceremony tomorrow.

I am honored, and also humbled, to be standing before you this morning. I honestly never thought I’d be given the opportunity to speak at this service, for a variety of reasons—a major one of which is that, as some of you know, my political leanings tend not to be in keeping with the mainstream views of rural Iowa.

But over the days and weeks since Commander Irwin asked me to speak, as I’ve thought about what I’d say today, I’ve been reminded that this day is not about politics. It’s not about my political views, or yours. It’s not about the last vote in Congress, or what the President said in his last press conference, or what a candidate might have said in a stump speech. It’s not about the latest editorial in the Sac Sun or the Messenger or the Register or any other paper. It’s not about what Congressman King said in his last article in the paper.

No, this day is about things far more important than politics. It’s about honoring the memories of our brothers—and, increasingly, sisters—in arms who gave their lives for this country, for the sake of each of us. It’s about sacrifice, and heroism, and deep comradeship tested by fire.
I don’t necessarily have any words of wisdom to bestow on you. Truthfully, wisdom ought to flow in the other direction—from you to me. I have never been called upon to lay down my life for a friend, for an ideal, or for my country. To you who have, I owe a great debt. But I have no wise words for you. I can only speak of others I have known, whom I honor and remember today, who have sacrificed greatly on behalf of our nation.

In the late 1930s, when she finished high school, Ann Meloy wanted to attend college.Her parents had put her brother through college, but in those days it wasn’t terribly common for parents to do the same for a daughter.She was able to get enough training to become a nurse; then, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she enlisted in the United States Navy. She cared for those who were wounded in the Pacific, on hospital ships and at Mare Island.

Like many who served in the Second World War, Ann doesn’t say much about her experiences. Her son has heard a few of the stories, heard her express the anguish she felt at seeing young men, who to her twenty-something-year-old eyes seemed like “babies,” come to her maimed, wounded, sometimes mortally. Ann—my mother-in-law—ended her career with the Navy as Lieutenant Ann Meloy White; the things she saw and experienced remain with her to this day. For better or worse, her experiences have shaped her into the person she now is.

One day, hopefully not too soon, Ann will rest at Willamette National Cemetery in Portland, perhaps beside some of the boys she tried to put back together at Mare Island, perhaps with others she cared for during her many years as a psychiatric nurse with the VA after she was finally able to attend college thanks to the GI Bill. Like them, she will not be forgotten as long as there is a Memorial Day.

Don McCord fought in a completely different sort of a war from the one in which Ann served. He was a classmate of my dad’s in high school; they graduated together in 1959. In 1963, he finished his time at Coffeyville College, where he was a columnist for the monthly magazine, The College Dial. As soon as he graduated, he left for the Army.

I don’t know if it’s true—don’t know if it even worked this way—but the story around town was that when he received his draft notice to go to Vietnam, he decided to join the Green Berets. Figured he wouldn’t be coming back, evidently, so he decided he’d grab all the glory he could on the way out.

No one in Coffeyville—with the possible exception of his mother—saw or heard from McCord after that, until he drifted back into town in 1979 for his 20th high school reunion. In the meantime, so the story goes, when he finished his tour in Vietnam he lived for a time in Los Angeles, working as a deejay there. Local folklore says when he lived in LA, he had a roommate, a struggling actor by the name of Howard Hessemann. When Hessemann got his big break, playing Dr. Johnny Fever on WKRP in Cincinnati, supposedly he modeled the character on his roommate, Don McCord.

Whether or not it’s true, if you’ve seen Dr. Johnny Fever, you know what McCord looked like when he reappeared in Coffeyville in 1979: satin jacket with the sleeves pushed up, sunglasses at all hours of day or night, mustache and several days’ growth of beard, hair that could use a barber’s attention—dark shot through with grey, though, instead of blonde like Howard Hessemann’s. He went to work at the local radio station, where he was the voice of my early adolescence. He was the one who was on the air on December 8, 1980, when the news came that John Lennon had been shot in New York.

McCord was something of a hero to me, although I’m sure I got on his last nerve, getting in on all the radio contests and generally being a smart aleck as only a twelve-year-old can be. To get me out of his hair, he’d let me come down to the station and pick out records from the box of demos they had in the back room, stuff that didn’t fit the station’s format so they’d never play it, or things they’d gotten duplicates of. Some of my best vinyl came out of that box.

By the time I left for college, McCord’s alcoholism—a good friend of his later said he drank because it was the only way he could get any relief from the horrors that had haunted him ever since his days in Vietnam—had gotten the best of him, and he’d lost his job as well as his wife, a fellow deejay at KGGF. He went to rehab, but it didn’t stick. Eventually he got a job working nights at the little liquor store up the street from the house where I grew up.

And then one morning, the owner of the store arrived to find the door unlocked and all the lights on. When she went inside she found McCord in the back room, dead of an apparent heart attack. He was 48, and it had been more than a quarter century since he wrote his farewell column in The College Dial—still every bit as funny today as it was when it came off his typewriter in 1963—and headed off to the Army; but he was a casualty of the war in Vietnam as surely as those whose planes were shot down, as surely as the man I knew in Oregon who died of cancer he believed to have been the result of exposure to Agent Orange.

I didn’t know—I was too young to understand, even though some of my earliest memories are of watching Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News with a map of Indochina floating over his right shoulder. I have no idea what McCord experienced in Vietnam, no idea what my mother-in-law experienced at Mare Island. Many of you do, and while our political views may not agree, I have a feeling we all have in common one deep longing: that one day there will be no new battlefields, no new impromptu memorials of rifle and helmet set up by those who have had to watch a brother or sister in arms die, no more families receiving the terrible news that the one of whom they are so proud will never come home.

We don’t know when it will come, but let us honor the memory of those who have given their lives by praying and working for that day, as described by Micah, a prophet of God…

In the days to come
the mountain of the LORD's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised up above the hills.
Peoples shall stream to it,
and many nations shall come and say:
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths."
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
and no one shall make them afraid;
for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.

Amen. May the day come soon; but may we, in the meantime, be found worthy of the sacrifices that have been made so that we might live and be free.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

To Your (Mental) Health!

This is my column for the latest issue of our local paper. Obviously, I'm not a doctor, so I apologize if I don't have all my facts exactly right--if you believe you have depression, don't make decisions based on my one little blog entry; talk to your doctor.

It’s no surprise to any of us that men and women are different. We think differently, we use language differently, we are different when it comes to friendships and even simple things like the way we use the telephone.

It took a long time for the medical community to recognize that men and women are very different in some very important ways that go beyond our plumbing and hormones. For instance, many years ago most research on heart disease was done on men, and women were assumed to be just the same in the ways heart disease affects us, the symptoms we have, and so forth. Then it was discovered that this isn’t the case. The classic heart attack symptom—crushing pain in the chest that radiates to the arm and jaw—is common in men, and when a man appears at a hospital ER with this symptom it’s immediately recognized as a heart attack and treated accordingly. But women don’t always have this symptom when they have heart attacks; they may have nausea, or more vague complaints, so for a long time ER staff would not immediately recognize what was going on, but might diagnose anxiety or indigestion. Fortunately, as doctors have learned more about the differences between men’s heart attacks and women’s heart attacks, this is changing.

There was a cover story in Newsweek magazine recently about another health-related difference between men and women. It has to do with depression. For a long time it was assumed that many more women than men suffered from depression. But here lately we’re finding that depression, like heart disease, is an equal-opportunity illness. It just manifests itself in different ways. The classic symptoms of depression, such as spending lots of time crying or sleeping, are more commonly women’s symptoms. Men with depression tend to lash out with anger, or drink too much, so we don’t always recognize them as depressed. One man in the article said something like, “I had no idea I was living with depression. I just thought I was a jerk.” But once his depression was correctly diagnosed and treated, he wasn’t such a jerk anymore.

Why is this important? Just like heart attacks tended to be fatal for women more often before we came to understand the different symptoms women have, depression tends to be fatal for men more often as far more men than women successfully commit suicide. Men tend not to seek treatment for depression, partly because it’s still seen in our culture as “unmanly.” Or they might deal with the alcoholism or drug addiction that has become part of their lives as a result of trying to self-medicate their depression, but not deal with the depression itself. Or they might not realize they even need treatment—who goes to the doctor complaining of being a jerk?

Depression is an illness, just like heart disease. It’s not a character flaw but a brain disease that can be treated with medication and therapy. There is no more shame in having depression than there is in having the flu. Men, this goes for you, too. Talk to your doctor.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Another old sermon

Ron McCreary, UMC pastor in Florida, asked me to post this old sermon so he could link to it. It's on the Gospel reading for this Sunday.

January 18, 2004
John 2:1-11

One of the best stories Tony Campolo tells has to do with a time when he was in Hawaii for a speaking engagement. Now, since he lives in Pennsylvania, there was quite a time change when he went to Hawaii, and he found himself up wanting breakfast at 3 a.m. So he went out walking to see if he could find someplace that was open, and the only place he could find at that hour was a place that gave new meaning to the term "greasy spoon." He ordered the safest thing he could think of in a place like that—coffee and a donut—and as he ate, a group of prostitutes came in. They talked pretty loudly, and so Tony couldn’t help overhearing their conversation.

One of the women mentioned the next day was her 39th birthday. Another one said to her, sarcastically, "What do you want, a party?" And the first one, far too calloused for such a remark even to sting, said, "No, I don’t need to have a party. No one’s ever given me a birthday party; why would I want to have one now?"

Well, after the women finally left, Tony said something to the fellow who ran the little diner, "Do they come in here every night?" The guy said they did, and so Tony asked, "Why don’t we throw her a birthday party tomorrow?" Well, as they talked, they both got really enthusiastic, and then the woman in the kitchen—the wife of the owner of the diner—got involved too. They planned decorations and stuff, and the fellow said he’d set the grapevine in motion to get the word out about the party—it was going to be a surprise—and insisted on making the birthday cake himself.

So the next night, Tony went back to the diner, a little earlier, and they decorated it up and waited. Didn’t take long before what seemed like every prostitute in Honolulu showed up; and then when the guest of honor arrived, they all yelled, "Surprise! Happy birthday!!"

The diner guy brought out the cake, with 30 candles all lit up. And she just stood there and cried. "No one’s ever given me a birthday party before."

They urged her to blow out the candles so they could cut the cake. But she said, "Do you mind if we don’t cut it right away? I’ve never had a birthday cake before. I’d like to look at it a while longer. Can I take it home?"

Well, sure, that was fine—there was plenty of other things to eat—so she took the cake home. While she was gone, and all the folks standing around not really knowing what to do in the meantime, Tony said, "What do you say we all pray for her while she’s gone?" They didn’t see why not, so he led them all in a prayer that she would come to know Christ, that her life might be transformed, that God would bless her.

When the prayer was over, the diner guy asked Tony, "Are you a preacher or something?"

Tony said yes, he was.

"What kind of church?"

Tony says, "The kind of church that throws birthday parties for hookers at 3:30 in the morning."

And the guy says, "There isn’t any church like that. If there was, I’d join." In that filthy diner in Honolulu, in the middle of the night, it was Epiphany.

That’s what the story of the wedding at Cana is really about, you know. Epiphany. The wine ran out, and Jesus made some more. We can talk about how he met the needs of the host—because running out of wine in the middle of a wedding celebration was a major social faux pas that would haunt him the rest of his days. But that’s not why Jesus did it, and to leave it there would cause us to miss Epiphany just like the chief steward missed it, just like everyone in the story but the disciples missed it. We can talk about how Jesus was one who loved a good party, and so he changed the water into wine to keep the party going. Well, that gets us at least pointed in the right direction, but still we haven’t gone quite deep enough.

In the other three Gospels, Jesus starts his ministry by preaching. Mark summarizes his message like this: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." But John’s way of telling the story is a lot more poetry and a lot less proposition. Instead of having Jesus make a speech, he puts him at a party and has him turn a bunch of water into about 800 bottles of wine. Jesus could have figured out just how much wine would be needed for the number of guests there were for the rest of the party, and made that much. But he didn’t! He made a ridiculously extravagant amount of wine, far, far more than was needed.

I keep telling people that you get a lot more out of the New Testament if you have a good grasp of the Old Testament, and this is one of those times. Because wine is a very theologically loaded substance. At the end of the book of Amos, which is a brutally pessimistic book, there is a short proclamation of a hopeful future. And one of the things that is said there is that there will come a day when the mountains will drip sweet wine, a time when there is abundance and what is ruined will be rebuilt with much celebration. There are other passages like that in the prophets, and in some of the later Jewish writings that didn’t make it into the Bible—by the time of Jesus, abundance of good wine was believed to be a sign of the messianic age. When the disciples saw Jesus turn water into fine wine—better than the wedding host had served even at the beginning of the party—they remembered this, and a light came on in their minds.

Instead of having Jesus say, "The kingdom of God is at hand," John has him make wine, which is a sign that the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s a lot more subtle—but it points to something important.

The story I told at the beginning of this message comes from Tony Campolo’s book called The Kingdom of God Is a Party. Tony was looking for a new image to describe the kingdom of God, one that was both scriptural and understandable to modern people. We who count ourselves as citizens of the kingdom are supposed to be party people, Tony tells us. We follow the Christ, whose first miracle was at a party, the sudden appearance of an extravagant amount of the best wine. And so whenever two or three of us are gathered, it’s supposed to be a party!

But our minds rebel. We’ve seen parties—we’ve been to parties in this world, parties of the sort that we’d really like to keep our kids from going to. Parties where people’s clothes come off when they should be staying on. Parties where too many intoxicating substances are consumed. Parties where people go home feeling worse than they did when they came. Parties that cost way too much and create more stress than they do enjoyment. That can’t be what the kingdom of God is like. We don’t want to go to a party—we want to go to heaven. And if that makes us partypoopers, then so be it.

We’re like the mother of one of the online pastors, who came home from mass on Christmas morning. When her daughter asked her whether she had fun at church, she said, "Church isn’t supposed to be fun." It’s not fun—it’s work, and reverence, and quiet.

But if that’s really what God expects, why do the mountains drip sweet wine? Why does Jesus perform his first miracle at a party? Why is keeping the party going a sign of God’s glory?
One reason: Tony is right. Ever read the end of the book of Revelation—where we have the beautiful poetic images of what it will be like when evil is done away with? Once the world is remade, and the light of God’s glory shines forever into all the corners of that world, everyone is invited not to work, not to quiet and meditation, but to a wedding feast—a party. It’s a different kind of party from most of the parties of this world.

Cana is a preview, a foretaste—a glimpse of that glorious day. It’s Epiphany—a thin place where the barrier between this world and God’s glory gets a little tear in it. And Cana reminds us that we are surrounded by thin places like that, if we’d just open our eyes and watch for them. They don’t just happen in church, and they don’t just happen when times are good.

On an episode of the TV show Joan of Arcadia, Joan and her mother attended the funeral of a little boy Joan had babysat. The little fellow was like nine or ten years old, and he had cystic fibrosis. After he’d said what he needed to say at the graveside, the priest invited others to speak and remember the boy.

Joan got up and began to talk, and began to laugh as she remembered things he had said and done. Her mother was appalled—this wasn’t what was supposed to happen; Joan wasn’t behaving right at a funeral; she was going to upset the little boy’s family. The priest stood there looking uncomfortable. But the boy’s mother also began to laugh, and she and Joan hugged, laughing and crying at the same time.

Maybe that was Epiphany.

Many years ago, you probably remember hearing about a woman who’d paid a fortune for a lavish wedding reception, but her fiancĂ© dumped her at the last minute. It was too late for her to get her deposits back for the hall, the band, the food, any of it. Now, she could have slunk off in shame, tail between her legs. But she didn’t. Instead, she said, we’re going ahead with the party. She called up the local agencies that worked with homeless people, and invited all the homeless people in town to her party. They had a wonderful time, made something beautiful out of the mess that woman’s fiancĂ© could have made by dumping her.

Maybe that was Epiphany.

Maybe Epiphany happens somewhere every day—but like at the wedding in Cana, only some of the people see it, only the ones whose eyes are open, who know what they’re looking for. It’s the party people, not the partypoopers, the ones who have fun in church, not the sour-faced saints, who can see Epiphany when it breaks in.

I don’t know about you, but I want to be one of them.

Friday, October 20, 2006

An interesting coincidence?

This morning I got into an e-mail conversation with a friend of mine who says he doesn't believe in God. As I left work I was mulling over his latest message and thinking about what my response would be.

I had to run down to Carroll this afternoon to see someone at the hospital. Before I did, I decided to stop at the gas station. Even though I still had more than a quarter-tank left, I thought it would be good to fill up because of this run to Carroll and a trip I have to make up to Cherokee for a Lions meeting.

In my bag I had three five-dollar ethanol certificates that were going to expire in a few days. I started the gas pumping, and stood leaning against the side of the car, enjoying the warmish temperature and watching the numbers on the pump. The total price was inching closer to the $15 and I was getting ready to get out my billfold to pay for whatever the ethanol certificates didn't cover, but the pump shut off at exactly $15.00. I couldn't have done that if I'd tried!

A God sighting? Maybe, maybe not. But it was sort of interesting that it happened just at that moment.