Saturday, December 31, 2011

Maureen and Sean – XIII

On the last Sunday of June, at 8:00 AM, we gathered at the Shenandoah River for a baptismal service. As I huddled with the elders to review who would do what during the baptisms I looked up and beyond the crowd, walking toward us, were Maureen, her children, and an older lady who I did not know. After we finished our review I went over to Maureen.

“Maureen, it’s great to see you, how are you?”

“Pastor Bob, I heard you were having baptisms this morning and I’ve come to be baptized. This is my mother, Nancy O’Neill.”

“I’m so excited about Maureen being baptized,” Ms. O’Neill said. “I’ve heard so much about you and the church, and it’s wonderful everything you’ve been doing for Maureen and her family.”

“Well, it’s great to meet you,” I replied. “And Maureen, it’s great to see you.”

“Sean didn’t want me to come. He’s been giving me a bad time about coming to church, a really bad time. And when I told him a few days ago that I was coming this morning to be baptized he was pretty angry and insisted that I not come. But I told him that I need to think about eternal things, that I’m not going to be here forever and that I have to come.”

Susan and Sharon had walked over to us during our conversation. I looked at them and said, “Ladies, since you are Maureen’s friends, and since you’ve been on this journey in Christ with her, why don’t you come out into the river with Maureen when it’s her turn to be baptized.”

After the congregation gathered in a semi-circle we sang a song, accompanied by two guitars. I opened my Bible and gave a teaching on baptism, after which we sang another song. Then the elders and I went out into the river, followed by about twenty people, young and old, who were to be baptized.

Baptisms are sweet times, sacred moments in the lives of individuals, families, and the covenant community. Parents stood with us and participated in the baptism of their children and teenagers. In one case we first baptized big Gerald Stone, and then Gerald assisted in baptizing his two children, Cissy and David, with Joan Stone (wife and mother) rejoicing to see her prayers answered.

The last one to be baptized was Maureen, confessing her faith in Jesus Christ and making a public commitment to follow Him in death, resurrection, and in her daily life. As Susan and Sharon stood with us, praying with Maureen, I baptized her in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When Maureen came up out of the water her face was radiant, simply radiant.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Email and Driving Habits

I am coming to loath email as a form of business communication. While realizing that email communication in business is not likely to go away anytime soon, I am seeking to intentionally change the course of many email exchanges I have throughout the week - often by picking up the phone and telephoning the other person. Most emails I receive are written in staccato - short, crisp, often without broad context, seldom inviting thoughtful discussion, and rarely with regard to people as people. Emails are, more often than not, the exchange of data from one computer to another (the two computers are the two people). I also observe that people are often copied on emails who need not be copied; it is as if the sender is saying to the recipient, "Here is what I'm saying and I want you to know that I'm letting all these other people know what I'm saying so you'd better respond to me right away about my concerns". It other words, copying others can be a form of attempted leverage rather than a sincere attempt to bring others into the conversation. 

I often wonder, "Would this person talk to me like he (or she) is emailing me? Would the face to face conversation be as impersonal as this email? Would it be as abrupt?"  

Mind you that I'm not talking about isolated emails, I'm talking about a culture of email.

This leads me to the morning and evening driving commute. People weaving in and out of traffic at high rates of speed, tailgating, aggressive driving without regard for the safety of others; again I wonder, "Are these people like this at home and at work?" No doubt the answer for some of the people is "Yes", but I can't believe it's true of many of the drivers. Then again, as I write these very words I'm reminded of the common experience of being in a public place, such as a restaurant, and being subjected to the inconsiderate cell phone conversation of either someone at your very table or at an adjacent table - disengagement from others is an epidemic.

Responding in kind to rudeness and aggression is a trap, it is a descent into the world's matrix and it entails drinking from the cup of devils; I've drunk from that cup more than once and will likely do so again - but I pray that God will deliver me from that foolishness and toxicity. Our call in the midst of an insane and depersonalized society is to be salt and light, agents of grace and mercy, in Paul's words, it is to show others "a better way".

Monday, December 26, 2011

Three Observations/Interactions

The First: Since the two ladies are both professing Christians I decide to ask one of my Christmas questions:

How many wise men were there and where did they find Jesus?”

There were three and they found him in a manger that was part of the inn”, one of the ladies replied with the other nodding her head in assent.

Okay, can you show me where it is in the Bible?”

After some hesitancy on the part of the women I said, “The wise men are in Matthew Chapter Two”.

Frances (not her real name) read Matthew Chapter Two and said, “There were three wise men and Jesus was in a manger”.

Having done this drill numerous times in my life I asked Frances to read the text again. After the fourth or fifth try, as Shawna was also reading the text, Frances said, “It doesn't say how many wise men there were, and they found Jesus in a house”.

This gave me an opportunity to talk to Frances about learning to read the text as it is written and not how we think it is written; as well as to talk about how strong preconceived notions influence our perception of text.

Then Frances said, “Shawna wants me to get her a study Bible so she can learn what the Bible says”. About that time people came in the office and I had to mentally file the conversation for follow up. I want to suggest to both Frances and Shawna that the best way to know what the Bible says is to read the Bible – and I think I can use the “wise men” question to illustrate the importance of reading things for ourselves. Maybe I'll ask them to read the Gospel of John and we can interact over it from time-to-time.

The Second: A dear friend is confessing a mess he is in to me; he feels guilty. There is no doubt that guilt in this instance is appropriate, on the other hand once we've confessed our sin to Christ we have the promise that He will forgive our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). My friend, a Christian, says, “I don't feel worthy to come to Christ”.

I say, “Twelve months ago you weren't any more worthy than you are now, and right now you aren't any more unworthy than you were twelve months ago”. Oh for us to know and to know and then to know again that Christ is our worthiness, that His death, burial, and resurrection constitute our justification and acceptance by God our Father. Yet so many of us continue to live a life in which we try to have our good works outweigh what we consider to be our sin, or our selfishness, or what have you – we still think we have to measure up, we still think we can measure up to God.

In reflecting on my time with this friend, I think that if each believer would just learn one NT book that things might be better; I know that's simplistic, but how many Christians really know just one book of the NT? Know it so that if they don't have a Bible they can still effectively and comfortably share the Biblical book with others? Oh that we would know Biblical thinking so that we can think about life Biblically, that our minds and hearts would be oriented to Jesus Christ.

The Third: I'm at the car dealership getting an oil change. I walk into the waiting room, the TV if off, there is quiet; I'm the only one there.

A couple with a child are led into the room by an employee – he picks up the remote control to turn the TV on for the family but he can't figure it out. “Good”, I think.

After an apology for not knowing how to turn the TV on the employee leaves. A woman customer comes in, sits down, and begins talking to the couple; I'm reading a magazine. The couple eventually leaves.

The woman picks up the remote and tries to turn the TV on. “Was this on when you got here?” she asks me. “No”, I reply; thinking “and I hope you can't figure it out.”

The woman tries and tries to turn the TV on, to no avail.

Why is it that people assume that others want to hear the noise of the obnoxious box? Of course even if they knew that others would love it off it probably wouldn't make any difference – after all, how strange is that...someone not wanting the TV on?

On my way to the dealership I was singing and worshiping. After beginning my drive home from the dealership I turned on the radio – then I thought about the wonderful singing and worshiping and reflecting on my drive from home to the dealership; I thought about the sweet silence in the waiting room; and I wondered what in the world I was doing by shattering the silence and reflection and worship; I turned the radio off.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Maureen and Sean – XII

When I think back over Maureen and Sean’s financial crisis I marvel at two things: the response of the community and the fact that the community’s response did not soften Sean’s heart.

Susan and Sharon, along with other friends in the community, put together a fundraiser for the Coughlin’s at the county fairgrounds. The American Legion, Rotary, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Little League, VFW, Moose, and various churches were all part of the event. There was an auction of items donated by families and businesses, craft booths, food and drink, games, and music by local Gospel and Bluegrass bands. It was pretty amazing – what a community could do when a neighbor was in need. The profit from the Coughlin Fun Day went to a trust account at the Valley Savings Bank to pay for Maureen and Sean’s medical bills and housing expenses. I played a modest part in the event by being in the dunking booth – dunking the pastor was quite the attraction for the kids in our church.

After the Coughlin Fun Day we saw Maureen less and less at church. It seems that as Sean regained his health that he became insistent that Maureen and the kids stay home with him on Sunday mornings. Susan and Sharon and others continued to provide transportation and child care in conjunction with Maureen’s cancer treatments, and our parish continued to seek ways to help the Coughlin family. The Coughlin Fun Day was in late August, we hardly saw Maureen and the kids after the event – not even during Christmas. Oh I’d seen Sean at the post office or café or Food Lion, and we’d talk about sports and the weather, and I’d tell him that we missed seeing his family; he was always polite…but never open…never telling me what he really thought.

It is a mystery to me that the same sun that melts the wax hardens the clay.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Fawns

Yesterday I saw the twin fawns for the first time since Hurricane Irene. Nice to know they're still around.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Absurdity of Happy Holidays

The Absurdity of Happy Holidays
Prisoners of our Society
Witnesses for Jesus

Robert L. Withers
December 13, 2011

I don’t believe in being militant about Christmas; about Christ being the Reason for the Season; after all, the world is the world is the world and we have no reason to expect the world to be anything other than the world.

On the other hand, the Church should be the Church should be the Church; and the Church should faithfully witness to Jesus Christ with or without the world’s permission. The Christian should be the Christian should be the Christian; and while the Christian need not be vitriolically militant, indeed such militancy typically does a disservice to the Gospel, the Christian should not be a closet Christian, but rather a faithful witness to Jesus Christ and His birth.

I think it is better for me to personally share that Jesus is the Reason for the Season than to expect a button or a bumper sticker (I’ve used them both!) to do what I ought to be doing with my words and actions.

We live in a virtual prison with bars on our minds and words. Let us not speak the words “Merry Christmas” lest we step outside the prison walls and make ourselves objects of derision to our fellow inmates.

“Happy Holidays”? Now just what does that mean? What is the basis for such happiness? Is it gifts or health or spiked eggnog or a year-end bonus? If so, what a flimsy foundation we have for wishing happiness to one another – for we all get sick at one time or another, and we all die sooner or later, and eggnog is produced (the good stuff, not the product in a can) only two or three months a year. And what about the word “holiday” with it being derived from the word “holy”? Why are we going around saying, “Happy Holy Days”?

I want to ask my fellow “Happy Holiday” citizens just how they date their checks, correspondence, and emails. I want to ask them if the year isn’t 2011, and if 2012 won’t follow, and if 2013 won’t follow that? And then I want to ask them what do 2011, 2012 and 2013 represent? I wonder if they know?

Absurd isn’t it? Saying “Happy Holidays” while we send an email with the year 2011 on it?

Did I mention we live in a prison? What do you say we do a little prison ministry?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Maureen and Sean – XI

Sean was sent home from the hospital after a couple of weeks, but he would not be able to return to work for at least three months. In the meantime not only were hospital bills piling up for the Coughlin family, but food in the pantry was dwindling down. Maureen’s retail job didn’t bring in enough money to pay the mortgage, buy groceries, and purchase other necessities. With Sean not being able to work with his men, what his crew could do was limited – though they did the best they could; plus Sean wasn’t able to visit prospective job sites to provide estimates for new work since he was restricted to home – he wouldn’t be able to drive for the three-month period.

On top of everything else Maureen’s cancer had returned and she would be losing time at work due to treatments.

Bags of food began appearing on the Coughlin porch; gift cards to grocery stores and gas stations arrived anonymously in the mail; Kenny Falcon and Jerry Spanner mowed their lawn and took their trash to the dump. Susan, Sharon and other ladies took the kids from time to time to give Sean and Maureen breaks, and drove Maureen to radiation and chemo. But still Sean and Maureen were falling behind on their mortgage payments and other bills.

Maureen and the kids showed up just about every Sunday for church, with Maureen always having a light in her eyes and a smile. I never heard her complain. In July when we had Vacation Bible School Maureen volunteered to help – it was great to see her involved with the kids.

Sean pretty much stayed at home, not being able to drive. I stopped by now and then to see him, but my visits were usually pretty short because Sean had begun to resent Maureen’s church involvement. He had been pretty irritated that she helped at Vacation Bible School and was criticizing her for getting “too religious”. I’m not unaccustomed to hostility – it goes with being a follower of Jesus Christ. I don’t mind it so much when it’s directed at me, but when I see it directed in a family or marriage toward a spouse or child or parent who has come into a relationship with Christ it is hard to watch. C.S. Lewis said that he wrote Till We Have Faces to illustrate the phenomenon of misunderstanding, possessiveness, and incomprehension that can occur in families and friendships when someone comes to know Jesus – it was his least popular book and remains his least understood work.  

The Coughlin bills were piling up; the mortgage payments were falling behind.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Simeon and Anna - Do We Hear Them Today?

Simeon and Anna - I wonder if we'd have time or attention for them today? In Luke Chapter 2 we read:

"And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, "Now Lord You are releasing your servant to depart in peace..."

Then there is Anna, 84 years old, who comes into the temple as Simeon is speaking to Mary and Joseph;

 "At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem."

I can't recall the last time I heard an 84 year old speak to a congregation. And while Luke doesn't tell us how old Simeon was, he was turning the last page in his life. I wonder how many people paid attention to Simeon and Anna? Perhaps they were viewed as eccentrics? There is Simeon purporting to have been shown by God that he wouldn't die before seeing the promised Messiah - come on now, really Simeon. 

We don't know whether Simeon was shown this when he was young or old or somewhere in between. If he was old when he was given this promise perhaps folks thought he was delusional in his old age. If he was younger then perhaps people thought he was holding onto a figment of his imagination - either way he probably couldn't win. 

And Anna? Perhaps she was considered a kind and well-intentioned old woman. 

The Temple is filled with priests and members of the governing class of Israel; the influential and the wealthy trod its pavement; business is transacted (a feature Jesus Christ would deal with in due time); politics is discussed; national affairs are decided; Simeon and Anna may go about their days relatively unnoticed - they are likely without influence. And yet who in the Temple "sees" the Messiah? Who in the Temple speaks about the Messiah they see? Two old folks, two senior citizens.

I imagine there are many Simeons and Annas in our communities and in our churches, there may be a Simeon or Anna living right next door to you or me - but how often do we see them? How often do we hear them? How often do we give them the place of honor or preference; not honor or preference analogous to a Boy Scout helping someone across a street; but honor and preference due to wisdom, experience, humility, and a life-long passionate desire to see the Lord's Christ?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be Careful What You Pray For

The other day I was reading about the father of John the Baptist; no, I'm not talking about my neighbor John who is a Baptist, or your neighbor John who is a Baptist; I'm talking about the wild man John the Baptist in the Bible. I've no doubt that John the Baptist would have ridden a Harley had they had bikes in those days, as would have Elijah...but I digress.

John's father's name was Zacharias and he was a priest. I don't know if when he was a kid they called him Zack or not, and I don't know if he played baseball with the neighborhood kids, I am pretty sure he didn't play football because of the whole pigskin thing.

Ok, so I'm reading Luke 1:5-24 and I get to the words of the angel to Zack, "Do not be afraid Zacharias, for your petition [prayer] has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John."

Now verse 7 tells us that Zack and his wife, Elizabeth (was she called Betty or Liz?), were "both advanced in years". That means that they were old. That means that Liz was likely past her childbearing years.

So here's a question, this prayer that the angel refers to that Zacharias prayed (probably a whole series of prayers) - just when was the last time Zack prayed the prayer? Did he pray it that morning? Did he pray it that week? Or had it been so long since Elizabeth had passed her childbearing years that Zacharias just didn't pray the prayer anymore? I've got an idea that it had been years since that prayer was prayed, I've got an idea that Zacharias had long since ceased to hope for a child with Elizabeth.

This is encouraging to me in that I'm sure there are prayers I've stopped praying for one reason or another - but just because I've stopped praying them doesn't mean that they won't be answered - any maybe answered when I least expect it, maybe answered when I've long forgotten about them, maybe answered when I think that there's just no way an answer is possible.

Do you have any prayers like that? If so, hang in there - you never know!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Maureen and Sean – X

Around 10:30 that night a nurse appeared in the waiting room and guided us into an adjacent consulting room to meet the surgeon. While Sean’s injuries were life-threatening at the time of the accident, due to the quick response of EMT’s, the rapid transport to Charlottesville, and the fact that he was in surgery shortly after arriving at the hospital – the long-term prognosis was good. However, because he was pretty banged up there would be an extended time of recovery.

During my drive home that night my thoughts returned to Mike Gunther. About four weeks after Mike’s crash Ray located one of his daughters and found out from her the rehab facility that Mike was in. The facility was in Harrisonburg; Mike was transferred there so he would be close to his family; Mike was divorced and had two adult daughters and one adult son, all of whom lived in the Harrisonburg area.

Ray and I visited Mike a few times during his five-month recuperation; sometimes we visited together and sometimes one of us would drop in if we were in Harrisonburg on errands or other visits. Mike was a pretty big guy, around 6 feet 4 inches; a photo of him and his bike that was on a table in his room showed an auburn beard down to his chest and hair in a ponytail; the beard and ponytail were gone when we met him; while the bike was gone too, totaled in the crash, I had little doubt that one day Mike would ride again if at all possible. On a bulletin board in the room were tacked get-well cards and Mylar balloons that had lost their helium. Some of the cards were store-bought; others were made by his grandchildren.

Because at the time I was still riding my own motorcycle I used bikes as a bridge for conversation. Mike rode a Harley, I rode a Honda, so while Mike probably felt a bit sorry for me (that’s the way some of those Harley guys are) I guess he thought that under his present circumstances that it would be ok if he communed with a Honda rider – and after all, I was a pastor and he probably thought I didn’t know any better about bikes – I mean, what can a man who only works one day a week possibly know about bikes?

About eight months after his accident our church invited Mike to be our guest of honor at a Saturday night fellowship dinner. He came with one of his daughters, her husband, and their 2 children. Mike thanked everyone for their support and prayers, as did his daughter – it was good to see him. I didn’t realize that I’d soon see him again under another set of trying circumstances.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Maureen and Sean – IX

The following morning in our worship service, during our general sharing time, Ray Hammond gave us an update on the biker:

“The ambulance met the helicopter at Johnson’s store on the way to Middletown. Johnson’s was the only place to land at night and the thinking was that if for some reason the helicopter couldn’t land in the parking lot that they’d just continue to Middletown hospital. They almost lost him a couple of times in the ambulance and then again on the flight to Charlottesville. I’m trying to get some information on him and his family so we can see how he’s doing.”

The biker – his name was Mike Gunther – made it through surgeries over the next week and was soon transferred to a rehab facility. I wondered what Sean was going through as I thought about Mike. I wondered if Sean was being operated on. I wondered if Sean would be in a rehab unit. I wondered how Maureen was doing.

After arriving at University Hospital and checking with the front desk I made my way to ICU. As I entered the room Maureen and Sharon were sitting together; they stood as I walked toward them and I hugged them both together.

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

“They’re operating on him”, Maureen said, “we haven’t talked to a doctor yet, it all happened so fast, they did say that he was stable and alert when they got him here and that that’s good news.”

Susan came into the room with 3 cups of coffee. “Hi Bob, can I go back and get you a cup?”

“No thanks, I’m good right now. When did you get here?”

“About two hours ago,” Sharon replied.

“Let’s pray,” I said, holding out my hands as a sign for us all to join hands. We prayed for Sean, for Maureen, for the kids, for the doctors and nurses. We prayed for God’s grace and love to envelope the Coughlin family. I thanked God that Susan and Sharon were such great friends for Maureen.

In our society people can be uncomfortable about praying in public – that’s sad. If we are God’s creation, and if we are His children, then prayer is a natural response to our heavenly Father and it should be a major thread in our tapestry of life. Prayer not only allows us to express our desires to our Father and Lord Jesus, but it also reminds us and those around us that God is with us and that His love and grace surround us. If we are to be the presence of God for others, then part of being that presence, part of being a conduit of Divine grace and mercy, is prayer - including verbal and public prayer.

On the other hand I’m not a fan of prayer at civic functions. I don’t think perfunctory prayer (which such prayer is for most people) is generally appropriate because it can delude people into thinking that God is hovering over the gathering to impart His benevolence on our civic or political or sports agendas – God is not a civil servant whose job is to impart blessing and protection and good feelings to us while we live life as we darn well see fit.

After prayer I walked out in the hallway to call Vickie and tell her that I’d probably be at the hospital for quite awhile.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Maureen and Sean – VIII

As I took the ramp from I-81 onto I-64 east toward Charlottesville, my mind was taken back to a Saturday night a few years previously. We were having a dinner theatre in the fellowship hall, produced by our youth group. The evening had concluded; there were folks in the parking lot leaving while some of us were still inside making sure things were tidy for use the next morning. As I was sweeping the kitchen floor Ron Gentry came running through the front door, “Call 911, there’s been an accident. A motorcycle crashed.”

Vera Green picked up the phone and pushed the numbers while I, along with others, ran outside across the parking lot to Route 11 towards a small group of people gathered in a circle. Inside the circle Ray Hammond, one of the men in the church, was bent over a pretty big man, asking questions, taking a pulse, and giving directions to others about finding coats or blankets to cover him – Ray had been a medic in Vietnam and was a volunteer EMT. Since emergency services in our area were nearly all volunteer, and since the nearest rescue squad was six miles away over dark Route 11, with one lane in each direction, we didn’t know how long help would take.

Ray turned to Frank Bishop and said, “Frank, call 911 again and tell them I think they’d better alert the medi-vac team, he’s going to need to be air-lifted to Charlottesville.”

The thing about a helicopter transport was where in the world would a helicopter land at night in our immediate area with hills, bordered by mountains, with no lights anywhere to speak of, and winding roads? Assuming he was alive when the ambulance arrived, how far would the ambulance have to drive to rendezvous with the helicopter – assuming the paramedics on duty concurred with Ray’s assessment? Or would the ambulance decide to race the 40 some miles to Middletown hospital?

I prayed, we prayed. There didn’t appear to be bleeding, but there wasn’t much response from the man. We gave Ray and the biker plenty of room. A couple of blankets were brought from the church nursery – Ray kept talking to the man – could he hear Ray? When would the ambulance arrive? Had they left the station yet? Who was this guy? He didn’t look familiar. He must have been riding by himself. Why was he in our country town riding by himself at night – a stranger riding through a little town in the hills? There was no baggage on his mangled bike to indicate that he was “touring”.

As I thought back to that night, I wondered how people could be so near death, come back from it…and continue to live as if death would never come, or to live as if death didn’t matter.

It seemed like forever, as it often does in such circumstances, before the ambulance arrived; but arrive it finally did…

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Maureen and Sean – VII

From Middletown hospital Sean was airlifted to University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. Maureen’s mother came to the house to watch the kids and Susan and Sharon were off with Maureen to Charlottesville, a two-hour drive. I was on my way to Middletown when my cell phone made a beep-beep-beep to indicate I had a new voice mail message; I pulled off the country road to listen to the message; cell reception was on again-off again in certain sections of the Shenandoah Valley so the call had come when I was out of cell range. The call was from John who had followed the ambulance from the jobsite to Middletown hospital.

“Bob, they’re flying Sean to UVA in Charlottesville.”

I doubled-backed for a few miles until I hit a road that would lead to the interstate and Charlottesville, the drive would be about two hours and thirty minutes.

On the way to Charlottesville I prayed for Sean, for Maureen, and for their kids. Then I started mentally going through the entire congregation, praying for each individual and family, then I started thinking about each person I knew in town and praying for them. Times like this, reminding me of how fragile life is, are a good motivation to pray.

The unknown hovers over you on drives like this. How is Sean? How is Maureen? What will she find when she gets to the hospital? How are the kids? How is Maureen’s cancer? Sean’s injuries must be life-threatening, is he going to make it? If he makes it will he be able to work? Do they have health insurance?

I visualized every mile of the road, then I visualized the approach to the hospital, then the hospital parking lot. I visualized parking the car, walking into the hospital, going up to the front desk to find out where Sean was, finding Maureen, hearing the news of his condition – that was as far as my visualization went. I knew there would be something waiting for me when I approached Maureen; I knew that this something would be there no matter what the news, no matter what the future; that something was the amazing grace of God; I knew that the grace of God and the Lord Jesus would be right there – and that meant that I could trust Him to walk with me, as a pastor, through the afternoon and evening with Maureen. I didn’t need to know what to do or say when I meant Maureen – all I needed to do was to be there for her and her family and to trust Christ to love us and lead us.

There are things in this life that are beyond answers; but there is nothing in this life beyond the grace of God.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Maureen and Sean – VI

The medical news for Maureen wasn’t good, the cancer was back.

One of many things they don’t teach you in seminary is that vocational ministers live on a continuum of life and death, sickness and health, joy and despair. In any given week babies are born and folks die, not just old folks, but young folks, sometimes very young folks. And the folks that die don’t always know ahead of time that they have an appointment with death – death can be sudden – we just never know.

I was talking to my physician about this continuum once and he said, “They didn’t teach us about this in medical school either”. Now I guess you’d think that doctors and ministers would simply know about the continuum and know that they’re going to experience it – but I haven’t met anyone who had that foresight and who was prepared for the bottom-line reality of life and death on an on-going basis.

Over the next two years or so Susan, Sharon, and others would gather around Maureen and her family, providing childcare and trips to Charlottesville for radiation and chemo. Maureen became a regular in our fellowship, usually sitting with Sharon and Susan – they were like three sisters, they were certainly three dear friends.

In the meantime Sean was back operating his heavy equipment, keeping his business running, putting food on the table.

I was at home in the afternoon, having lunch, when the phone rang. It was John, my parishioner who worked for Sean, “Bob, Sean’s been in an accident. He was grading a hill out on the River’s Bend jobsite and the front loader tipped over – part of him got pinned beneath the equipment and he’s pretty tore up – they’re transporting him to Middletown Hospital.” 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Maureen and Sean – V

Maureen became a semi-regular at church after that first Sunday. By semi-regular I mean a couple Sundays a month. During the first summer her son, Frankie, attended our Vacation Bible School (VBS) and Maureen helped out on the last night of VBS when we had a cookout for kids and parents. Her daughter, Chalice, learned to walk, speak her first words, and discovered the joy of cookies.

I’d see Sean occasionally at the post office; or at the Old Village Café early in the morning or at lunchtime. We’d talk about whatever construction or road building job he was working on; since he was a hunter, during deer season I’d ask him about hunting – Sean was especially fond of the bow as well as black powder.   

It turns out that Maureen had been raised by a mom who belonged to a Presbyterian church and a dad who was Roman Catholic, so she was accustomed to going to worship services of both traditions. Since our congregation was comprised of individuals and families that represented a number of traditions, with a good many from no religious tradition, we easily assimilated folks into our church family. We were a casual group as churches go, casual in the sense of being relaxed with each other. We were not casual about what we believed, for our focus was on Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and as the only hope for a dying world. But as Susan said one Sunday morning, “When I’m here I feel like I’m with my family – right in our living room, with people I love and with whom I can share my life.” Since the early Christians typically met in homes I was gratified to hear Susan’s comment – after all, Jesus said that others will know we are His followers by the love we have for one another.

Early in our second year at Rock Castle, I was in the Old Village Café having a cup of coffee and waiting for my pastor friend George to meet me for breakfast when Susan and Sharon stopped by my table on their way out after finishing their breakfast.

“Well ladies, what’s your day look like?”

“We’re headed over to Maureen’s”, Sharon said, “I’m going to watch Chalice and Susan is taking Maureen to Charlottesville.”

“What’s going on in Charlottesville?” I asked.

“Maureen hasn’t been feeling good and she’s going for some tests”, Susan answered. “You know, she had cancer about three years ago and they thought they’d got it, she’s been doing fine for all this time.”

No, I didn’t know Maureen had had cancer.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Maureen and Sean – IV

Months passed without seeing Sean again or meeting his wife, Maureen. Then, one Sunday, a young mother came to church with two children, one a baby girl about a year old and the other a boy who looked to be about five years old. She sat with a couple of younger women (Susan and Sharon) in the back, and I could tell from the hugs and greetings that they knew each other. Making my way over to them during my “meet and greet” time before the worship service, I was introduced by Susan:

“Pastor Bob, this is Maureen Coughlin.”

“Well hi Maureen, glad to meet you and great to have you here with us, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. How’s Sean doing?”

“Oh he’s doing ok, been back to work for a while.”

“I heard from John that I gave him quite a scare when I visited him in the hospital.”

“That was funny, we had a good laugh about that. Though he really was pretty sick.”

Maureen was quite the contrast to Sean; he was big, really big, she was little; he had a voice you could hear across a football field, she was soft spoken, almost to a whisper. In all the time I knew Sean I hardly ever saw him smile – Maureen smiled often. When Sean was in a room you knew it; Maureen, on the other hand – well I guess it was the difference between billowing smoke from a barbeque coming at you compared to the fragrance of a rose that takes you by surprise when you walk past it.

After the worship service, as I stood at the back of the sanctuary greeting people, I told Maureen to tell Sean that I said “Hi” and that I hoped we’d see her again.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Maureen and Sean – III

The day after visiting Sean in the hospital I saw John at the post office.

“Hey Bob, you sure put a scare into Sean,” John said.

“What do you mean?”

“He called me as soon as you left his hospital room and thought he was going to die.”

“Going to die?” I asked.

“Yes,” John continued, “Sean’s Catholic, so when you came into the room he thought you were there to give him Last Rites. He figured he was sicker than he was being told and that they’d called for a priest, but that they couldn’t find a priest on short notice so they got you to come to pray with him because he was close to death.”

“No kidding?” I smiled.

“I told him that he was going to live as far as we all knew and that you just wanted to drop in and meet him.”

Sean did indeed live – though he would have a brush with death in the not too distant future. But did he really live? Is he living now? It’s funny how we use that word “life” or “living” or “death” or “dying”. It can be used in different contexts to mean different things. There are those who are alive but yet are dead; and then those who are dead but yet are alive.

A hospital visit is how I met Sean. Now about meeting Maureen…

Friday, November 4, 2011

Maureen and Sean* – Part II

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt pressure to say anything during a hospital visit. I don’t go to hospitals to say things to people; I go to hospitals to be with people. Oh, I also go to hospitals to pray with people. To listen to people, to be with people, to pray with people – that’s what I do in hospitals.

People in my parishes have had the idea that if they visit someone that they have to have answers – where did that idea come from? It’s a debilitating thought because it stops people from being with people; it hinders people from being with people who need people to be with them. This is exacerbated by the business model of clergy and churches in that pastors are first expected to operate a successful church, not to care for their people. Just as salespeople are measured by their sales numbers, so pastors are measured by how many people are in the pews and how much they’re giving – how did we come to accept that idea?

I like to take people with me on visits because I want them to see how to be with people; listen, then pray – pretty basic. We think we have to “do” something when we’re with people; we think we have to make things happen – that’s nonsense. When we think we have to “do” something we usually end up doing the wrong thing and making things worse – people in pain, people in uncertainty, people facing the unknown, first need us to be with them; let God do the work, we just need to be available. Oh, and did I mention that we should pray with people?

Sean was dozing when I walked into his room, so I just stood for a minute or two until he sensed someone there.

“Hi Sean, I’m Bob Withers, John’s pastor. He told me you were here so I thought I’d come see how you’re doing.”

“I’m doing better today. When they brought me in here a couple days ago I’d lost about 25 pounds and was weak as a fawn. I guess I’m still not that great but I’m better than I was.”

Sean and I talked for a while. I asked him about his family and business and how long he’d been sick. Nurses and aides and cafeteria people moved in and out of the room as they tend to do during hospital visits. I excused myself for a few minute when an aide helped Sean with the bedpan drill. After 20 minutes or so I knew it was time to go and that meant that it was time to pray.

“Sean, I’d like to pray with you – is that okay?”

“Sure.” (What did you expect him to say?)

I placed my hand on Sean’s shoulder and prayed for his family, his health, his healing, his business, and that our heavenly Father would draw Sean and his family close to Him, that they would know the incredible love and care of Jesus Christ.

Listen, ask questions if you need to in order to have things to listen to, be with people, pray with people; those are the basics. Pretty simple, yet we don’t do them enough.

Right after I left Sean picked up the phone and called John…  

*The names and some details have been changed for various protections, but no change has been material to the actual story.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Maureen and Sean* – Part I

“My boss is in the hospital, he’s pretty sick.”

“What’s going on with him?” I asked.

“Looks like Lyme disease,” John replied.

“I’ll go visit him tomorrow,” I said.

I’d only been in town a couple of weeks and was just finding my way around geographically and feeling my way around relationally. A small town with a new pastor, a new pastor with a small town; what are the people like? What is the pastor like? How does this “getting to know you” dance work? There weren’t any lectures on this in seminary.

I hadn’t met Sean yet. By all accounts he was a hulk of a man, a heavy machinery operator who owned his own equipment – self-reliant, self-sufficient, making his own way, making his own way his way. He employed John, one of my parishioners, and a couple of other men – when the work was there things were good – when it wasn’t – which usually meant the winter, things were not so good. One thing was certain, Sean’s business depended on Sean…and Sean’s family depended on Sean. If Sean had Lyme disease that could be a problem, that could be a very big problem.

Meeting people and getting to know them was my job – that’s what pastors do, or at least that’s what this pastor did. It’s kind of ironic in retrospect, for I’m an introvert and I used to be painfully shy and introverted. The idea of walking into a hospital room to meet someone I didn’t’ know would have been terrifying to me in one stage of life, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do and I’d pretty much gotten over the painful part of introversion a number of years ago – though I guess I’ll always have my moments.

The next day I drove the forty miles to the medical center in Middletown; this would be my first visit to the hospital and I wondered what it would be like. I wondered what Sean would think of a strange pastor coming to visit him. I knew Sean had likely been raised Roman Catholic, after all his name was Sean Coughlin and we lived in a region in which Roman Catholics made up over 50% of the population; I hoped he wouldn’t mind a Protestant pastor dropping in on him for a few minutes. This would be a good opportunity to meet the employer of one of my congregants; more importantly, it would be a good opportunity to share the grace of Jesus Christ.  

*The names and some details have been changed for various protections, but no change has been material to the actual story.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Energy of Anxiety

I’ve been reminded this past month that our society operates on anxiety. From my morning commute to many of my business interactions, anxiety reigns in place of thoughtful consideration, in place of reasoned response, in place of long-term vision, and in place of leadership. And what do we reap as a result of our collective and individual anxiety? Fragmentation in all aspects of life – from the Eurozone crises to road rage to reactionary domestic policy to broken families and other broken relationships to poor business decisions. Anxiety also destroys truth for anxiety pressures a society, a business, a family, an individual, to lie for the sake of relieving pressure – the tyrannical and unrelenting pressure of anxiety assaults the ethics and morality of society until spin and lies are normative.

We no longer value reflection and context, we value trivia, we value data – there is an underlying value assumption behind the popularity of games such as Jeopardy – games that stress data over contextual understanding and thoughtfulness. (After writing this sentence I read a letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to the BBC in which she declines to participate in a Jeopardy-type show because of this very problem – and the letter was written in the early 1940’s!.)

The anxiety of society is to us today as the floodwaters were to those living in Noah’s time – both engulf a generation.

Isaiah writes: Behold a king will reign righteously and princes will rule justly. Each will be like a refuge from the wind and a shelter from the storm, like streams of water in a dry country, like the shade of a huge rock in a parched land, (Isaiah 32:1-2). Am I a refuge in Christ for those around me? Is the church a refuge from the anxiety that is sweeping over our friends, families, neighbors and coworkers? Or, is the church fostering and contributing to the anxiety? Is the church connected to the power grid of the world – or are we resting in Jesus Christ?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

I'm Leaving Now - III

Stacy's wife, our dear friend Alethea, has written about her grief (and C.S. Lewis's) on her blog, Moments of Truth:

I'm Leaving Now - II

I have a friend who is on a FEMA team that is mobilized for disasters. In the aftermath of the Joplin, MO tornado he served on the bereavement team. Rob shared some things about his Joplin experience that I’ve been pondering:

We are desensitized to the death and suffering of others because we see so much of it on television and in movies; we find it difficult to distinguish real suffering from fictional suffering.

Many people in Joplin ignored the first tornado warning sirens because they thought they were just a test.

People in Joplin had only a brief visual warning of the tornado because they could not see it through the storm.

None of us know what our expiration date is.

Our desensitization leads to compartmentalization – it happens to others, I won’t think about it happening to me. Death is around us everyday, but we choose not to think about it. Thinking about death need not be morbid – it can be quite positive, after all – if this life is the first chapter of the rest of the story, if it is the prelude to eternity, if this life has eternal consequences – then living life in the light of the certainty of death is logical.

Consider Paul’s words to the Corinthian church (2 Cor. Chapter 5 – Peterson paraphrase)

For instance, we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven – God-made, not handmade – and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move – and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.

Just as many in Joplin ignored the first warning sirens, most folks ignore the issue of death – not just in their own lives, but in the lives of those they love. Earlier this year a coworker told me that he was going to the funeral of his son’s hockey coach, a young man in his 20’s. I asked my coworker what he would say to his teenage son if his son asked him about death. His reply was, “I’ll tell him that ____ happens.”

I then pressed my coworker as to why he’d take that approach. He said, “Well, that’s what my father told me about death.”

Does this make sense? Does it make sense for a parent to ignore the one inevitable and final subject which their children will face one day, in fact, a reality that they will face many times in their lives? Does ignoring death make it go away? And please, how many times have I heard the line, “Well, when they grow up they can make up their own minds about death”? Why not let them make up their own minds about putting their hands on a hot stove or eating rat poison?

People in Joplin could not see the tornado because of the storm. Death often comes unannounced – we don’t see it – it comes to us in the storms of life, in a sudden squall, a flash flood, and when it comes…more often than not…the way we live is the way we die.

Rob’s comment about the expiration date is so true – I don’t know what mine is and you don’t know what yours is, but we all have one. Patrick, Stacy, and Mike all had expiration dates we would have never guessed – but they were all living as if their homecoming could be at any time. Were they perfect? Of course not; but they were in a relationship with the One whose perfection and love ensured them a certain future in His Presence.

I’m going to close this posting with words I used in Becket, MA in December 1999 – it was a Sunday message leading up to Y2K:

Recall Ebenezer Scrooge in Dickens’s classic A Christmas Carol, as the ghost of Christmas future escorts him to the graveyard…Scrooge is drawn to a grave that is unkempt, uncared for…hidden by a bush…he pulls the bush back to find his own tombstone…his own future grave…but it is without a date of death…for it is yet hidden.  One day we’ll purchase a calendar that will contain the date of our own death…but we won’t know it…it will be hidden.

As to the final date for history as we know and understand it…we don’t know that either.  Jesus says that no one knows the day or the hour except our heavenly Father…though of course we can observe the flow of history and see the correspondence of the Scriptures to natural, national, and international trends and events.  We don’t see a date…but we do see a blueprint.

When I was a boy I was embarrassed to have others see my mother hug and kiss me in public.  If she was dropping me off at school, or at a friend’s house…I tried to get out of the car before she could hug me…I didn’t want others to see…my pride…vanity…whatever you want to call it…got in the way of me receiving the love that my mother wanted to give me…I erected barriers to my mother’s love…

God is in the business of removing barriers…not building them.  He sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to remove the barriers of separation between Him and us.  Christ died and rose again to break those barriers down…even the barrier of death…so that when we each…individually…come to that hidden date on our individual calendars…that it might be a date for continued transformation and not one of judgment…

If I had known that my mother would die when I was 17, and my brothers were 15 and 12, perhaps I would have relinquished control and allowed her to love me whenever and wherever she wanted…but at the time I had to be in control to preserve my pride and vanity…to be king of my little kingdom of self…

This morning…God deeply desires to wrap His tender arms of love around you.  He created you to experience His presence, His love, and completeness in Jesus Christ.  There is nothing, absolutely nothing in your life, present or past, that God can’t bring healing and forgiveness to…if you’ll give up control to Him and trust Him…

Y2K…today can be a Y2K day for all of us…maybe you’ve never had a Y2K day before…maybe it’s one of those hidden dates on your calendar…maybe that’s why you’re here this morning [or reading this blog]…to have a Y2K day…a Y2K life…perhaps to renew your Y2K life…

For this morning…God call us to Y2K…to Yield to the King…His Son…Jesus Christ.

Monday, September 26, 2011

I'm Leaving Now - I

Mike McDonald, a first cousin of my coworker’s wife, died on September 16. No, let me rephrase that, according to the obituary Mike McDonald, “…was called home to be with his Lord on Friday, September 16, 2011”. A couple of weeks prior to Mike’s homecoming he and his wife, Marjorie, recorded a song entitled, I’m Leaving Now. I suggest you listen to it before continuing with this post.

In light of Mike’s September 16 homecoming the song is especially poignant – but does its poignancy lie solely in the fact that Mike died shortly after recording the song with his wife – or does it also lie in the message it brings to us and that it speaks to us of a subject our society avoids – death? In this series of posts I want to explore Mike and Marjorie’s song from a least three perspectives; 1) of a life lived; 2) is the song true? 3) our society’s attitude toward death.

Mike is the third young man (young for me!) who has had some connection with me that has been “called home to be with his Lord” in the past few months. While I didn’t actually know Mike, knowing John (my coworker), listening to Mike’s song, hearing John’s thoughts about Mike, and reading about Mike, have all served to give me a sense of Mike. Mike (age 39), Patrick (age 46), and Stacy (aged 41), were all men with families and men who were committed to Jesus Christ – all of their deaths were sudden – and all of their deaths were homecomings. All of their wives and children have hope and assurance that death is but a portal into the presence of our Lord Jesus – and while the pain and grief are real, so is the assurance and hope.

I see from Mike’s obituary that he was a member of Calvary Temple in Williamsport, MD. I know from John that Mike played in the church band. I learned from a quick Google search that Calvary Temple is “Apostolic”, and since I’ve never been in an Apostolic church that wasn’t exuberant and unashamed of its Christian witness I’m pretty certain that Mike was full of joyful life; and not just on Sundays.

Mike’s song left his family and friends a message that he isn’t dead but that he is with Jesus. He left them a message that he hopes he’ll see them one day – based on the Person of Jesus Christ. Is Mike’s song based on wishful antiquated thinking, or is it true?

I’m amazed that we don’t talk about the one thing in life that is certain for us all – death. When we do talk about it, it is often in terms of estate planning, life insurance, or euthanasia (a generally utilitarian discussion). In the business world we are constantly focused on the “bottom-line” and we have no trouble talking about the bottom-line of a business (unless we want to avoid unpleasant realities – which does happen), but we don’t discuss the bottom-line that is true for every person ever born into this world…death.

Mike, Patrick, and Stacy had the best estate planning possible for their families – a relationship with Jesus Christ – unless of course Mike’s song isn’t true, unless of course Jesus was a liar or a lunatic (remember that Jesus couldn’t have been a “good man”).