Thursday, December 28, 2017

Gaming Disorder

Today the World Health Organization is going to add “Gaming Disorder” to its list of Mental Health Disorders. One of the criteria is “significant impairment in personal, family, social, educational, occupational or other important areas of functioning.”

Note the word “functioning”, this is a mechanistic word, as is the word “dysfunctional” - but we are not machines (are we?) - if we have a problem “functioning” then we have a mental health disorder; and who defines “functioning”? - our social engineers. Forget about relationships at home or work or school, let’s focus on functioning. If we function we have societal worth, if we don’t and we can’t be fixed then let’s dispose of ourselves (as long as we are disposing of others this doesn’t seem to be a problem, but when they come for us we wonder what happened).

Have the social engineers who came up with Gaming Disorder been to a restaurant lately? High end or low end, it doesn’t matter, diners are checking their smartphones, paying little attention to those with whom they are eating. I’ve seen couples dining together, both focused on their smartphones for the entire evening - the phones may be smart but we are stupid. Have these social engineers been to a business meeting with attendees checking their phones throughout the meeting? Maybe these engineers have been to restaurants and have been to business meetings, but they haven't noticed because they've been checking their own smartphones and tablets.

For years Asian and European studies have demonstrated the deterioration of cognitive development and ability in children and adolescents who use smartphones and tablets, but we have chosen to ignore these studies. Our collective addiction to electronic devices is akin to opioid or nicotine addiction. Some parents are sending their children to electronic detox facilities - I wonder if we can all get a group discount.

Of course, when our political and “cultural” leaders communicate via Twitter...well, what is one to do?

We are living within Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and don’t know it. Bradbury was a better prophet than many Christian authors and speakers who pedal “End Times” drama for a dollar and an audience. Just which “Matrix” are we living in?

In the Bible God calls His people out of Babylon. No doubt Babylon has many manifestations...perhaps one of them is the babble of Twitter, the text, the Instagram, and the compulsive Facebook post.

We are a nation of addicts. As Neil Postman wrote, we are “Amusing Ourselves to Death”. If Mr. Postman were alive today...what would he think, how would he update his book?

When Paul wrote in Romans Chapter Twelve that we should be renewing our minds I don’t think he was thinking about electronic cocaine. If we are not renewing our minds with the noble, and just, and pure, and lovely, and good, and virtuous (Philippians 4:8) then just what are we putting into our minds and the minds of our children?

Gaming Disorder = Parental Disorder = Societal Disorder = ???? What is the natural consequence and trajectory?

And then there is the folly of the church trying to be like the world to attract the world...but I’d better stop because I haven’t checked my email for the past two minutes.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Margaret (5)

A couple of days after my visit with Margaret I was in Winchester shopping at a big-box pet supply store. After leaving the store I pushed my shopping cart over to my pick-up truck and began loading dog food into the truck bed when I noticed a man walking toward me, it was Frank Sr., Margaret’s father-in-law. I didn’t really know Frank Sr., having only seen him in passing at the Cat Mountain General Store or the Cat Mountain post office - we had always politely acknowledged each other but had never had a conversation.

Extending my hand I said, “Well hi Frank,how are you?”

As we shook hands he replied, “I’m fine Bob. Fran told me that you were over to visit Margaret.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Well, I thought I’d mention that she isn’t going to buy any of your religious merchandise. She’s too smart for that - you’re wasting your time.”

“Thanks for your insight Frank.”

“If she wants to get out of the house and go down to the church once a week that’s probably good for her, good for her to be around people, but beyond that she isn’t going to fall for using a religious crutch during her illness, religion is for weak people, weak-minded, and weak-willed.”

“Well again Frank, thank you for your insight. Is there anything I can help you with?”

“Help me? I don’t need any help. Just thought I’d tell you the way things are.”

“Thanks for coming over to talk Frank, have a great afternoon.”

With that I finished loading the dog food and headed home, back to Cat Mountain. Well, at least Frank Sr. was upfront about where he stood with his thinking. I hadn’t detected such an attitude with his wife Fran, but then again I hadn’t really talked much to her during my visit to Margaret’s - just pleasantries.

I wondered why Frank Sr. would want to deprive Margaret of any possible comfort she might derive from considering the Gospel, from hearing that “God so loved the world…” I knew that he was retired from the faculty of the regional community college, but beyond that I didn’t know anything about Frank.
If death is the end of the line then why does it matter what we believe? It wouldn’t make any difference to Margaret either way - whether Frank was right nor not it wouldn’t matter if the grave is the last stop. If Margaret could derive comfort from believing something not true why the big deal?

On the other hand, if what Jesus says about Himself is true, if He is not a liar or a lunatic, but if He really is the Son of God, then it does matter; it matters what Margaret believes and it matters what Frank Sr. believes - for when we believe in Jesus and trust Him something happens inside us, it’s a miracle, we come into a relationship with the Living God. C.S. Lewis pondered how this could be, how could the death of someone 2,000 years ago affect us today? While I don’t know that Lewis fully answered the question, he did discover that it could indeed affect our lives today, in fact it could change our lives today - for the Man who suffered and died and rose again comes into the lives of those who desire a relationship with Him today and, mystery of mysteries, He gives them new life, His very own Divine life.

I don’t know why Frank Sr. was so opposed to Margaret hearing the Gospel. My own father was like that for most of his life - vehemently opposed to any discussion of religion, of church, of God, of Jesus. Is the Gospel a threat? Does it represent the possibility that we’ve been wrong all of our lives about there being no purpose in life, no existence beyond death? Perhaps the idea of not being the center of the universe is too much, of surrendering life to God and truly worshipping Him as God and dedicating life to Him?

Maybe some have only seen darkness in the church; charlatans, cheats, liars, adulterers? Margaret had little use for the church in any form when I met her - she had seen too much religious ugliness in the clergy and in congregations while growing up. Perhaps still others have had their minds poisoned by prejudiced teachers and professors who have done their best to close the minds of their students to eternal truth - academic pressure can be difficult to resist.

As I drove home from Winchester I pondered my brief encounter with Frank Sr. I wondered what Frank Jr. thought about spiritual things. I wondered where Margaret’s mother-in-law, Fran, stood in all of this, what did she think? I wondered if Margaret would come to the next ALPHA evening.

Friday, December 22, 2017

“Do not be afraid.”

“But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah.’ ” [Luke 1:13]

“And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary.’ ” [Luke 1:30]

“And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not.’ ” [Luke 2:10]

“ angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear…’ ” [Matthew 1:20]

The world that Jesus was born into is the same world we live in today; while the names of people and some nations may change, the hopes and fears of humanity remain pretty much the same, as Solomon wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun.”

Life is full of the unexpected, and few lives are not touched in some way, at some time, by the unexpected. The lives of Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and Joseph were touched by not only the unexpected, but by the Divine bursting into their lives in unexpected ways. While we don’t know what happened to the shepherds after that Holy Night, we do know that the lives of Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, and of Mary and Joseph, were irrevocably changed. It is natural to be taken aback by the unexpected, it is even natural to fear to some degree, it is especially natural to fear when the Divine invades our lives for God is so “other” than we are, so far above us and beyond us, that when He bursts into life it is overwhelming.

And so we have the repeated assurance of angels to men and women, “Do not be afraid.” God comes in Christ to give peace and relationship, to reconcile us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and in doing so He desires to take our fears, our insecurities, our guilt, our sins...upon Himself. So He comes to give us life and love and to take that which is destroying us; no wonder the angelic message included “fear not”.

The birth of Jesus Christ was accompanied by words of peace.

But let us now look at the man Jesus, the Messiah (the Christ), on the night of His betrayal, the night before His crucifixion. On that night, also a Holy Night, He says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid,” (John 14:27). Now it is not angels giving a word of peace, it is the Son of God giving His word of peace, His very own peace. How could this be? He is about to be betrayed, abandoned, and crucified - how can He speak of peace? Think of how concerned He is that His followers have peace in light of His impending crucifixion. The powers of this age have finally caught up with Jesus, the religious leaders and Roman governor will do what Herod could not do when Jesus was a baby. Soon He that was announced to the shepherds will be tortured and die on a cross. Soon His mother, who laid Him in a feeding trough in Bethlehem, will see unspeakable cruelty inflicted on her son as He is not laid in a manger, but nailed to a cross. The trough made of wood, the Cross made of wood - the trough to feed animals, the Cross to feed humanity.

On Easter evening His disciples are huddled in a room in fear, the door to the room is locked because of fear. Have they forgotten the words of Jesus, the words of peace, the encouragement to not let their hearts be troubled or afraid?

“Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’...Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you.’ ” [John 20:19 - 23]

At the birth of Jesus words of peace are spoken by angels. The night before His crucifixion He speaks words of peace to His followers. The evening of the Resurrection Jesus appears and again speaks peace to His followers.

Isaiah the prophet writes (Isaiah 9:6 - 7):

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end…

The world that Jesus was born into is the same world we live in today, a world of uncertainty, a world of much sorrow, a world of injustice and inequity, and a world of fear. But the same God in Christ who spoke peace in that time is still speaking peace today to those who will hear Him and seek Him and open their lives to Him. God does not want us to live in fear, He wants to come into our lives and draw us into an intimate relationship with Himself and His Son Jesus. He does not want us to live in hearts and minds with locked doors, but to know what it is to open our minds and hearts to Him so that we may know the wonder of His love and care for us.

Yes, there is the unknown when God comes into our lives; yes, our lives will never be the same; yes, there will be the unexpected - but it will be a love we’ve never known, a life that we could have never imagined, and a peace so unexpected that it simply passes all our understanding. Isn’t this what we should expect when God comes in? Isn’t this what happens when He who fills the universe comes to live in a woman, a man, a child?

The angel says to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

You  are included in the all, this message is for you. You may be given many gifts in your life, but the gift of God’s love in Christ is the one gift that I hope you’ll receive and unwrap - do not be afraid, what is in the box was wrapped by God and it has your name on it - inside is His heart for you, inside is Jesus Christ. Many people leave this earth everyday without unwrapping God’s gift - He sends the gift to all, but many leave it under the tree. Jesus Christ gave His life to purchase this gift for you. I can’t say I fully understand all of this, I don’t think anyone really does, but I don’t need to know how a gift was made to enjoy it.

If the Christmas message is not true then it really means nothing; but if it is true it means everything.

Don’t be afraid of the One who loves you beyond all that you can imagine. Allow Him to be born into your life this Christmas.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Margaret (5)

“Margaret,” I said, “I don’t pretend to know why you and your family are going through this, but I do know this, that Jesus loves you and wants to walk with you and Frank and the children through it. He wants you to know His love and how much He cares for you.”

“One of the images I have of the relationship Jesus wants with us is that of a loveseat, kind of like the sofa you’re on right now, but instead of being a long sofa it is an image of a small loveseat. Of course it’s called a loveseat because only two people can sit on it and when they sit on it they are close together - it’s the kind of furniture that lovers like to sit on because they’re close, they’re touching, they can look into each other’s eyes, they can feel each other’s skin, they can whiff each other’s scent, they can even feel each other’s breath. The man can put his arm around the woman and hold her close.

“This is want Jesus wants, He wants us to sit on the loveseat with Him, He wants us to be close to Him. He wants us to know how much He loves us, He wants us to allow Him to love us, to receive His love, and to love Him, to know Him.

“The Bible tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, God loves us. The Bible also tells us that the greatest commandment is that we are to love God with all that we are - so you see God wants a love relationship with us.

“But sadly there is another image that a lot of us have about God, I used to have it and in listening to you it looks like you’ve also had it - it’s an image of a ladder that we can never climb, at least not to the top to get to God. We climb a few rungs and we slip down, we climb a few more and we slip again. God is at the top of the ladder and it is as if He is saying, ‘You aren’t good enough, you don’t measure up, you will never measure up, you will never be accepted. Keep working, keep working, I am not pleased with you, keep working.’ Nothing we can do can ever please Him. It is like He has a big wooden spoon looking for us to mess up so He can hit us with the spoon.”

As I shared my thoughts Margaret kept eye contact with we, listening to every word; I could tell she was thinking, processing, considering.

“Margaret, Jesus died and rose again to bring you to Himself, He loves you, He wants you on the loveseat with Him, He wants to hold you, He wants you to know His love. He has His arms out for you and He is saying, ‘Come Margaret, sit down here next to Me and know My love.’ ”

I could tell Margaret was getting tired so I asked, “Can I pray before I go?” She said I could and after a short prayer I said goodbye to her and Fran, saying that I hoped to see her at ALPHA the following week and Margaret saying that she looked forward to it.

The image of a ladder and a loveseat came to me a couple of years before Margaret and Frank moved to Cat Mountain. I was preaching through the Gospel of Mark on Sunday mornings when I came to a passage that was one of the first that I’d learned as a new Christian, Mark 12:28 - 34, what we know as The Great Commandment, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; with the second commandment being to love others as ourselves. I don’t know about other pastors or preachers, but with me often the most familiar passages are the most difficult for me to preach or teach because I need to step back and approach them anew and not assume that because I know them so well that I really know them. I wrestled with this passage - so simple on its surface at first glance, but what does it really mean?

It dawned on me that God wants a love relationship above all else, otherwise why is this the Great Commandment? Jesus didn’t say that the foremost commandment was to learn the Bible or the catechism, or preach or teach Sunday school, or learn all the doctrines of the church, or to dress a certain way or talk a certain way or any number of other things - He said the first and greatest commandment was to love God with all that we are...that means we are in relationship with Him, intimate relationship with Him.

For sure we can’t love God unless He first loves us, and the Good News is that He loves us; He gave Jesus for us, and Jesus gave Himself for us - to bring us from spiritual death to spiritual life, to wash away our sins and give us new life in give us His very own life living within us.

The Sunday I preached on Mark 12:28 - 34 I moved the pulpit away from the platform and placed a loveseat on one end of the platform and a step ladder on the other end. As we as a congregation worked through the passage I moved from the ladder to the loveseat and back to the ladder and then to the loveseat, concluding the message on the loveseat. I knew that most of us lived on the ladder, thinking that we’d never measure up to God’s expectations and that therefore we lived in insecurity, not being sure of where we stood with God, not being sure if He really accepted us. Images can be liberating or they can be debilitating, many of us live with debilitating images, images that cripple us, sometimes crushing us.

We can’t do anything to earn God’s acceptance, this is why Jesus Christ came and died and rose for us...we just can’t do anything. We are incapable of loving Him or others in and of ourselves, but when we open ourselves to Him a miracle happens, yes it is a miracle, we are given new life and life goes from black and white and gray to Technicolor. The trouble with many Christians is that they climb down from the loveseat and climb back up on the ladder - no wonder people become disillusioned - it is like clipping the wings of a healthy eagle so it has to live with chickens, pecking feed from the ground. Then those who don’t yet know Jesus see professing Christians on a ladder, often a ladder of self-righteousness and judgmental attitudes, or a ladder of despair, and a ladder of contradictions, and they think, “I’m not getting on that, I’m out of here.”

I wanted to give Margaret an image that she could ponder, an image of hope, an image of life, an image of love...the image of a loveseat.

What about you? What is your image of your relationship with God in Christ? Are you on a ladder or a loveseat?

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

Monday, December 4, 2017

Margaret (2)

During one of my early visits to the Silver Spring, MD property where Ms. Jackson lived, I was walking down the street with the manager, Ginger, when I saw a woman in a colorful bathrobe gliding down the street, I write “gliding” because it wasn’t a walk and it wasn’t a skip and it didn’t seem she had a care in the world - nor did it seem she knew she was in the world for she didn’t appear to be overly concerned with her surroundings...after was 2:13 P.M., the day was bright and warm, and she was outside in her bathrobe.

“Who is that?” I asked Ginger.

“Oh, that’s just Mrs. Jackson. That’s just the way she is. She doesn’t hurt anyone and she usually isn’t outside very long, and we keep an eye on her. She has a son who lives in Bethesda but he never comes to see her.” Bethesda was less than thirty minutes away.

Ginger continued, “She used to be a pretty important person in government.”

That was my introduction to Mrs. Jackson.

A couple of years later Mrs. Jackson was nowhere to be seen for a few days. When the staff opened her apartment door to check on her they found her lying on the floor under her bed, she had she got under her bed we’ll never know; she was still alive, but she was bruised and dehydrated and disoriented. Mrs. Jackson never came home from her trip to the hospital; social services intervened, since her son would not participate in her care, and sent her to a nursing home.

I imagine Mrs. Jackson never thought she’d end up living by herself in our apartment community; never thought her son and his family would abandon her; never thought that the final chapter or two of her life would be as it was. On the walls of her apartment home were photos of her with President Herbert Hoover and other dignitaries - she had indeed been in the highest echelons of the United States Government. The well-dressed confident lady in those photos would likely have not envisioned herself walking down a street at 2:13 P.M. in her bathrobe.

Margaret, who had never heard of Cat Mountain before meeting Frank, moved to Cat Mountain with Frank and their children after receiving the diagnosis of cancer. Frank’s mother was a nurse and would be able to help Frank care for Margaret, Frank’s father was retired and would be able to help with the three children. While Frank would be able to do some telecommuting from their new home, most of his focus would be on Margaret; by the time Frank and Margaret moved to Cat Mountain her cancer treatments had run their course, palliative care was all that could be medically done.

A few weeks after Frank and Margaret moved to town our church launched the ALPHA Course. ALPHA is a course designed by an Anglican parish in the UK that introduces people to Jesus Christ. The format is an evening of dinner, a presentation, and then small group discussion. The community’s response to the course was wonderful and the first night we had a number of people from the broader community as well as people who were involved in our church. After the dinner and the presentation we split into small groups.

I introduced myself to the people who had been directed to my small group and then asked them to introduce themselves and share why they were there. Some were there because they had questions about God, others because a friend had invited them, others because while they didn’t believe in God they thought it won’t hurt to come. The mood was lighthearted and respectful. Margaret was the last to speak.

“Hi. I’m Margaret, I’m married with three small children and I’m dying of cancer and that’s why I’m here.”

This was the first time I, or anyone else in our group, met Margaret.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Margaret (1)

Her photo is lying on the bookshelf, it needs to be placed in an album. She sits in an outdoor patio chair with thick cushions, an unfinished wood picket fence in the background, beyond the fence an open yard, beyond the open yard trees. Her left leg is thrown across her right leg, her right elbow resting on the chair arm, her head leaning ever so slightly so that it rests upon her right hand...she is smiling...her hair is it growing back from the chemo.

Vickie and I sat in that backyard with her husband Frank some months after this photo was taken; we sat with Frank as Margaret and Frank’s three children played around us. I might have sat in the chair in the photo, the chair Margaret once sat in. Frank invited us to dinner a few months after Margaret’s memorial service, a big service in a little town with people from big cities; from D.C., Baltimore, New York, Paris, Geneva. Margaret had been an international investment banker for a European firm with branches across the globe.

I doubt she had ever heard of our little town when she was growing up. I doubt that she had heard of our town when she was travelling around the world. I imagine the first time she heard of our town was when she was dating Frank. “Where did you grow up?” she might have asked. Or maybe it was, “Where are you from?” Or perhaps Frank wove the name of our town into an early conversation as they were getting to know each other; if he did she would have asked, “Where is that?” Our little town is the kind of place you don’t know about unless you need to know about it. The kind of place that you can drive right through without stopping, or noticing, or even looking around - unless of course you happen to see a bear crossing the road - then you might both stop and look.

I remember when I received the first phone call from a member of the pastor-search committee, among other things Susan said to me, “Our town has bears. The mountains surrounding our town have bears and it is common to see them in and around town - I just thought you should know that.”

The town is so off the beaten path that when Federal troops were burning The Valley it may have been the only town they missed between Staunton and Winchester. It is said that for years after the Civil War that no one really knew whether the town was in Virginia or West Virginia, for it virtually straddles the border.

I doubt that Margaret anticipated spending the last eighteen months of her life in our town, Cat Mountain is hardly where a self-confident sophisticated international banker would plan to retire...or die. Why we didn’t even have a traffic light.

The pastor before me, Johnny Travis, was a prince of a man and a fine pastor; thoughtful and gentle. A year or two before I arrived a young mother in the parish was killed in an auto accident on I-81, leaving a three-year old boy and a two-month old daughter - I used to wonder how Johnny got through it with the family, living with them through the shock and sorrow and grief. I used to wonder how I would have handled that. I don’t know how this sounds, but the truth is that I was glad Johnny was the pastor and not me. Of course that was during my first few weeks at my first church and, as I was to discover, life and death wouldn’t wait for me, wouldn’t ask my permission anymore than death asked Johnny’s permission - being with folks in life and death soon became a way of life for me - a continuum that they didn’t teach us about in seminary. A doctor once told me that they didn’t teach med students about the continuum either.

Some folks spend all their lives in Cat Mountain or in one of the small surrounding towns. Some of the older men and women were born in Cat Mountain and they will die, as others before them, in Cat Mountain. Younger generations were born in Winchester or Harrisonburg and were brought home to Cat Mountain and never left. If you weren’t from Cat Mountain you weren’t likely to move to Cat Mountain...but if you were from Cat Mountain there was a good possibility that you would move away, unless you were going to farm, or raise cattle or sheep, or unless you didn’t mind a long commute, or unless maybe you had a moonshine still operating in one of the hollows.

I guess when Frank went off to George Washington University and then Johns Hopkins that he never thought he’d move back to Cat Mountain - he ran a research center at N.I.H. and he and Margaret were living in Kensington, MD when she received her diagnosis.

Sometimes folks end up where they always expected to be, like the folks who were born, lived and died in Cat Mountain. But then sometimes we end up where we had no idea we’d be, where we couldn’t even imagine. When I visit nursing homes I sometimes wonder if any of the men and women thought they’d be there...often alone, isolated; sometimes incapacitated.

I am reminded of a resident of an apartment community I used to manage in Silver Spring, MD - Mrs. Jackson. I don’t think she expected to live the final years of her life alone, isolated, with family within a thirty-minute drive who didn’t come to see her, didn’t call, didn’t be continued