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 cafĂ© 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?