Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Margaret (4)

As I drove to Frank and Margaret’s that afternoon I asked God to make me a blessing to them and to give me grace and wisdom. It is a sacred privilege to be invited into the lives of others, and especially sacred when it is in the midst of suffering, pain, sorrow, fear, and the unknown.

Parking in the front of a home you’ve never entered, approaching a door you’ve never knocked on, awaiting someone to answer the door, the first steps into the home; scanning the room you’re invited into, sitting down, speaking the first words, listening to the first words, watching the eyes of others, the brows, the faces...and prayerfully listening to God while at the same time listening to others...the first visit to a home and family is a visit into the unknown - you are a stranger, you have been invited - how will the time go?

Margaret’s mother-in-law answered the door and invited me in. She guided me to the living room and then went to get Margaret. Margaret walked in, each step deliberate; I stood, we greeted each other. I sat back down in a chair while Margaret sat on a sofa a few feet away. She draped an afghan over herself. The living room doubled as the kids playroom, there were toys and children’s books strewn about the room; a couple of toy boxes, a train set in one corner with the track scattered and needing to be reconnected, crayons and coloring books on a small child-sized table with two small chairs.

Fran, her mother-in-law, asked me if I’d like anything to drink and I said water would be great - Cat Mountain had the sweetest water I’ve ever tasted, no matter whose well it flowed from. Once Fran had brought me water and Margaret hot tea she excused herself and went into the kitchen.

“Thank you for coming,” Margaret said.

“Thanks for letting me come,” I replied. “It was good to have you at ALPHA.”

“I had a good time, it was fun meeting new people. I’m glad Shirley and Ralph invited me and I’m so glad they offered to drive me. It’s hard for Frank to take me places at night when the kids are home unless his parents are around, they can’t be left alone.”

“Well, I’m glad you came and I hope you’ll be back,” I said.

“Oh, I’ll be back, I look forward to next week.”

“That’s great.”

“I haven’t been to a church for years, unless it was a wedding or a funeral. When I left home for college I stopped attending church. I saw too much ugliness and hypocrisy growing up, both in the church and in my family - people saying one thing and doing another; and the way people could be so judgmental and controlling. I really didn’t want anything to do with church, and frankly haven’t thought about it for years.

“But when Shirley and Ralph told me about ALPHA and how it encourages questions and discussion, plus the fact that there was dinner and desert, I thought I’d give it a try - it would get me out of the house, I’d meet new people, and who knows...maybe I’d learn something. After all...I’m going to die...maybe it’s time to think about God.”

Margaret talked and I listened. She talked about growing up, about college, about her career, her marriage, her children...and her cancer. She had traveled the world as a successful businesswoman, now she was in the little town of Cat Mountain, with not even a traffic light, talking to a pastor whom she had only just met, telling him her story.

Many people have a story about a bad church experience, or a story about professing Christians who don’t measure up, who act badly; everyone it seems has an Uncle Jessie who was a deacon on Sunday and a dishonest businessman Monday - Friday, or an Aunt Joan who directed the choir and also cheated on her husband. Often the story is about church people who are controlling, petty, judgemental, and downright mean. Sadly the story can also be about a breach of trust - something was told in confidence and then the person, at times a pastor or other church leader, tells others and the gossip train leaves the station.

Of course a bad church experience can go the other way too, people may leave when the problem primarily is their problem and not that of the local congregation. These people may reject the teaching of Jesus in how we are to live, they may desire to control others and insist on being the center of attention, they may be the Uncle Jessies or Aunt Joans.

Then there are those times when people leave a church as a result of unintentional conflict or hurt feelings - no one meant for things to happen but they did and the parties involved did not invest themselves in reconciliation. It is easier to walk away than to work through problems, and there are different ways to walk away. When it comes to church, people often walk away physically, they don’t return. But we can also walk away mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. I’ve known husbands and wives who live together physically but their hearts walked away years ago. I’ve seen employees just go through the motions at work, taking a paycheck without being invested in their jobs. Siblings relationally walk away from each other, or people who have been friends for decades walk away and sever bonds which had once been close.

In Cat Mountain I officiated at funerals when the deceased person’s sibling lived in town, a very small town, but either was not welcome to attend or who had no desire to attend.

It’s hard to change our momentum when we start walking away, for we are walking downhill and often at a very fast pace. There is no bottom to the hill, it is endless and it becomes dark; pitch black with, it seems, no way back.

Maybe we should all wear ropes tied around our waists so that when one of us starts walking away the others can hold the rope and pull us back? Jesus talks about the faithful shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep and goes after the one sheep who has gone astray, who has walked away and become lost.

I knew my time with Margaret was limited, she could only be out of bed for so long, she could only sit up for so long, she could only talk for so long, and she could only listen for so long - she only had so much physical and emotional energy. I wanted to leave her with just one thought, one image - I wanted to share God’s love with her. How best to do that?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Margaret (3)

As the first ALPHA evening progressed a pattern was set in our small group for all subsequent meetings (there were about ten weekly sessions and one weekend retreat). No question or comment was out of bounds, and Margaret cared about people. After her introduction, “Hi. I’m Margaret, I’m married with three small children and I’m dying of cancer and that’s why I’m here,” she was asked if she was okay sharing the specifics of her condition, which she did. After that, Margaret was full of questions about faith, about God, and about Jesus - and she was full of questions about the other people in the room. When others shared doubts or tough things they had gone through or were going through right then, Margaret wanted to listen, to understand, and to connect.

Another pattern that was set that first evening was that if humor could be found in something Margaret would find it, and that included telling stories about herself and her family. Her laughter was contagious and there were evenings people were moved to tears as they doubled over with laughter.

Margaret was there that night because shortly after she and Frank moved to Cat Mountain their neighbors, Shirley and Ralph Bennett, came over to introduce themselves. When they learned of Margaret’s illness they made it a point to be available to help Frank and Margaret in any way possible. Shirley and Ralph were committed followers of Jesus Christ, and when they heard about the ALPHA program, a program designed to engage those who are skeptical about, and even hostile to, the Gospel, they told Margaret about it and offered to drive her to the program and then pick her up when it was over. Margaret was with us because other people cared enough to ask her to come and to drive her both ways.

How many people live around us who are experiencing tough times, but we don’t know about it because we don’t seek to know others? Then there are those who we know are going through tough times, but we fail to reach out to them, we make excuses, and then one day they are gone and it is too late to touch them. There is always the good-old standby, “I wouldn’t know what to say. I wouldn’t know what to do.” Let’s remind ourselves that more than anything people who are hurting just need to know that others care about them - just to be with those in pain and distress is not at times the only thing we can do, it is also often the only thing others desperately need.

Margaret needed people to be there with her and Frank and their children, but she also needed to be there for others - she didn’t quit living because she was dying; she didn’t quit caring, she didn’t quit laughing. She was the best listener in our group over those ten weeks; perhaps that was because she knew every moment matters, every word matters, every person matters. She was also perhaps the most transparent person in our group - what’s the point with pretending to be someone you are not when you only have months to most. Perhaps we can learn from that too.

The first evening of ALPHA gets right to the point with the question, “Who is Jesus?” Jesus is either who He said He is - in which case He means everything; or He is not who He said He is, in which case He means nothing. The ALPHA presentation utilizes a straightforward approach, popularized by C.S. Lewis who drew on others in developing it: Jesus is either Lord, Liar, or Lunatic - take your pick. What Jesus cannot be is a good man, that is impossible.

Here’s a quote from Lewis along this line from Mere Christianity:

“I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

As the evening concluded I wondered what Margaret thought about Jesus, I wondered what she thought about what Lewis had written, I wondered if she would return the  following week. As she was getting ready to leave with her neighbors I asked her if I could call her and come visit - she gave me her phone number.

A couple of mornings later I called to see how she was feeling and whether I could visit her - she told me that the afternoon would be great...

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Make My Life A Prayer To You

This morning a song by Keith Green was set aflame on the altar of my heart and resonated throughout this frail temple. On my Mind on Fire blog I'm working my way through Galatians 2:20, and in many respects this is about Galatians 2:20.

The words, "No empty words and no white lies, no token prayers no compromise" are words that God's people need to recover. "I wanna die and let You live" is our calling in Jesus Christ. How have we fallen into the abyss of narcissism? Replacing the Gospel of Christ in which He died for us so that in Him we can die for others, with a message that is all about us, about making us happy, about us consuming "things", about "me, me, me"? 

How can we live as "closet Christians" ashamed of Him and of the only possible hope for the world?

The salt isn't going to season or preserve anything if it stays in the shaker.

Much love,


Make My Life A Prayer To You
Keith Green

Make my life a prayer to You
I wanna do what You want me to
No empty words and no white lies
No token prayers no compromise
I wanna shine the light You gave
Thru Your Son You sent to save us
From ourselves and our despair
It comforts me to know You're really there

Well, I wanna thank You now
For being patient with me
Oh, it's so hard to see
When my eyes are on me
I guess I'll have to trust
And just believe what You say
Oh, you're coming again
Coming to take me away

I wanna die and let You give
Your life to me so I might live
And share the hope You gave me
The love that set me free

I wanna tell the world out there
You're not some fable or fairy tale
That I've made up inside my head
You're God the Son and You've risen from the dead