Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bill's Backers Ready to Go for Fourth Year!

Here we go, Backers, here we go!  Here we go, Backers, here we go!

Dear Family and Friends,

(PALS  who receive this simply know it's for your ideas , not a solicitation for Bill's  Backers.)

The 2014 Walk to Defeat ALS will be held on Sunday, September 21 at a new site: the Columbus Commons in downtown Columbus. Registration will again begin at 9:30 am and the walk at 11 am. This is the fourth year a team of my family and friends (Bill's Backers) will participate as we do what we can to combat this challenging disease. The Walk raises funds to support the Central and Southern Ohio ALS Association Chapter as it provides support for those of us living with the realities of the disease and needed research. Our team (YOU!) has raised close to $100,000 in the first three years and are much appreciated in the ALS community. THANKS!

Most of you are aware that I was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) in August of 2010. If you follow my blog, "Giving Wings to Thoughts", you know that in 2013 the disease progressed to the point where I stopped driving in December, 2012; helped to my feet by paramedics four times in one week resulting in my no longer standing to transfer from power wheelchair to shower, toilet, and bed but learning to use a slide board; switched to an A-pap machine with a battery so I can still be mobile as my bi-pap needs increase; am showered and dressed by hospice aides. More recently Dorothy has hurt her back because of the care my needs demand and several folks now aide around the house as needed.  We are blessed to be living in a handicapped accessible house. Our traveling continues to slow down but I can still join Dorothy for a meal out once in awhile. I began sleeping in my power wheelchair when we were in Florida in February and have continued to do since. It's just more comfortable. Dorothy now feeds me certain foods when I am unable to stab them or tire.

We want to continue doing what we can to support research as well as the work of the local chapters providing support groups and needed equipment. We want to invite you to join us in this year's efforts in one or more of the following ways:

1)       Go to If you simply wish to join our team and make a donation, proceed to the Register drop down box and join the Bill's Backers team as a walker or virtual walker and make a donation as a team member or to any of the team members already registered.

2)         Or, this same area will also give you the opportunity to develop a Personal Page about our relationship and why you are participating. You simply make the donation to your own effort and then email this information to 5, 10, or 20+ of your family and friends thus further increasing the awareness of the disease and potential resources for this fight. You can also repost on Facebook. We want to see many of you as Bill's Backers Squad leaders which is what we will refer to the people you are able to contact - Ideas include: Bill's Backers OG Squad, Bill's Backers ONU Squad, BB Maple Grove Squad, BBLim's Squad, etc. Remember: this event is both about sharing information about ALS and raising funds. Most of the work done this way is done electronically, which means you don't have to do the face-to-face ask. If your family, friends or work associates understand why you are interested in this effort, it's amazing how willing they are to join the fight to Defeat ALS! If you are interested and need help setting up your personal page, feel free to contact one of the persons noted below.

3)         We've had wonderful success with ALS fundraising nights at City BBQ, Jersey Mike's, and the Folk Music Sing-a-Long. Would any of you be interested in hosting such a night at a local restaurant in your community? Bill's Backers captains, Nicki Crellin & Megan Croy, are willing to help with the paperwork part of it if anyone is willing to give it a try. Again, their contact information is below. (An ONU football teammate who does fundraising for Sarris Candies, John Smith, is going to roll-out a new effort on September 1. More information will follow.)

Please note: If you make a gift, you will have the option of making an anonymous gift.  Otherwise, your support will be recognized on the "Fundraising Honor Roll" scrolling on the right side of the page.

My daughter, Megan Croy (, son and daughter-in-law, Jeremy & Meladie Croy (,, sister, Phyllis Macke (, and niece, Nicki Crellin (, have all agreed to serve as contact persons if you have any questions.

Thanks and God's blessings on you all as you consider what you are able to do!  Below is an additional note from the ALS Association.

Why We Need Your Help

Often referred to as Lou Gehrig's Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressive, fatal neuromuscular disease that slowly robs the body of its ability to walk, speak, swallow and breathe. The life expectancy of an ALS patient averages 2 to 5 years from the time of diagnosis.

Every 90 minutes a person in this country is diagnosed with ALS and every 90 minutes another person will lose their battle against this disease. ALS occurs throughout the world with no racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic boundaries.

This crippling disease can strike anyone. Presently there is no known cause of the disease though support is bringing researchers closer to an answer. In the mean time it costs an average of $200,000 a year to provide the care ALS patients need. Help make a difference and donate or join a walk today.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

SERMON: "Let God Be God!"

"Let God Be God!"
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a faithful parishioner who labored diligently to recruit upstanding new people for her church; but as the months went by, other parishioners brought in new members of rather diverse backgrounds. Some were businessmen of questionable reputation, others were alcoholics, two were thought to be homosexuals, several were known to have engaged in extramarital affairs, and any others showed no outward appearance of knowing the Lord.

“Upon discovering this, the faithful parishioner came to her clergyman and said, 'Pastor, just what kind of a church are we running? Why, I perceive there are notorious sinners in our midst! I even had to kneel at the communion rail this morning next to an adulterer. Just how did all of these people get in here?'

“And her pastor said to her, 'Your fellow parishioners have done this.' And she said to him, 'Would you like me to go and form a committee (sounds like a United Methodist church, doesn’t it?) – Would you like me to go and form a committee to investigate the matter and advise the board as to just who these sinners are?'

“But her pastor said, 'No; lest while you try to distinguish between the real saints and the real sinners you throw out some of God’s own. Do this: let both worship together until we are all called before God in eternity; and at the time of the judgment, God, I am sure, will single out the righteous from the unrighteous.'” (1)

So, Carl Carlozzi, in his little book Pocket Parables, rewrites our parable – the parable of the wheat and weeds. It is noted by many Biblical scholars to be one of the most practical parables Jesus ever told. It’s been a timely parable for sure down through the centuries of Christendom for the church – and I sense it contains an important word for us in the church today. For, it’s a parable that calls us to a life of tolerance and acceptance and community, rather than to a life of rejection, isolation, and exclusion. I invite you to keep in mind Carlozzi’s rewrite as we seek to understand the meaning of the parable as the listeners in Jesus’ day probably visualized the scene Jesus artfully recreated with this agricultural portrait.

“There was this farmer who had just sown some good seed in his field.”   Being very familiar with farming the people of that day had no problem creating in their mind an image of a man out in a field sowing good seed.  And they probably said to themselves, “Of course, he sowed good seed – no one in their right mind would sow bad seed in their own field.” And so right from the beginning of the parable they understood that the kingdom of heaven, which the parable is intended to illustrate, has someone caring for it who does good things on its behalf. The farmer only intends to plant good seed. What becomes obvious as the parable unfolds is that in the kingdom of heaven, what is God’s is the recipient of good from God. As the owner of the world, God is good and provides good things out of the graciousness of who God is. God is good – God is gracious.

But then, “While everyone was sleeping, the enemy of the farmer came and sowed weeds among his good seed, and departed.” Notice, it’s not God that was sleeping but some people who had something apparently to do with the field and the crop that would develop there. Note also, and more importantly perhaps, that there’s no condemnation of those who went to sleep. This is not a parable dealing with the necessity of being watchful – there’s no attempt to pass on the blame for the weeds to anyone but the enemy. The point of this parable is not to make us spiritually paranoid – nor to build up within us some sense of guilt for the weeds that develop around us. Evil happens. And if we understand the church as the kingdom of heaven on earth then there is at least the implication in the story that our role, as the church, is not one of trying to avoid evil – to keep weedy, seedy people out, but to care for whoever comes our way.  (2)

Leonard Sweet, former president of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, attempted to convey about the same idea when he wrote:  “…Sounding out bad news is for foghorns, not Christians. A foghorn warns nearby vessels to steer clear; there are dangerous rocks and reefs and perilous cliffs hiding in the mist. Foghorns know they are doing their job when everybody stays away.” “Christians are sometimes called to sound warnings and serve as foghorns. But our primary assignment is not warning, but welcoming. We are called to issue invitations for people to live the only life for which they were created.

“Christians should be known for carrying good news – the gospel itself – out into the world. Disciples of Jesus have so many positive things to say that there is little time for braying about the bad or droning on forever about the dangers.” (3)

A church that spends too much time issuing words of warning – which constantly holds out this self-righteous image as the only kind of person it wants inside its walls - will soon have the perfect society they want but no new audience to bring to the Lord. There can be no such thing as a safe church – it’s contrary to Christ’s intention for the church. As a wayside pulpit in front of another church once displayed:  “The church is not a museum for saints, but a hospital for sinners.”

But there’s another message in this second verse that I think is also vitally important and that is that “the enemy sowed the weeds.” Now again, this was something that the audience listening to Jesus could visualize. It was something that was actually done. People actually tried to ruin other people’s crops by spreading bad seed in it. Bad seed spreaders were enemies.

I’m amazed at the people – good Christians in fact – who for some reason want to believe that the evil in the world is somehow the creation of God’s. I like Jesus’ description of why the weeds existed in the field – which is sort of an answer to the question of “why evil is in the world?” – the enemy is the cause – is the sower – not God. Evil is not part of the creation of God.  It is not God’s intention for evil to happen – to be a part of the world. Remember the earlier observation – “there’s no way a farmer is going to intentionally sow weeds in his own field?” God is good – evil comes from another source – call it the devil – call it satan, if you need to personify it – but it’s enough to simply say, “There’s a power for evil in the world.”

Why I think this is important to note is that there are a lot of people struggling with painful things in their lives – with evil that has happened in their life with no source of hope. Because they understand God as the one who caused the bad to happen, they find themselves unable to turn to God for help. God brings good out of evil because God is the provider of good. But God does not cause evil to happen to test us, or so God can bring good out of it. Bad – evil – is the work of the enemy, not God – read the parable again. Therefore, God is as pained by the evil that happens to us as we are and thus God is able to be the source of hope and new life and resurrection and joy and peace when we are coping with and overcoming the bad that happens to us.

Now, back to the parable itself, “When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds appeared.” You’ve probably heard this part of the parable explained before so I’ll make it quick. There is a weed in the Middle East, called “Darnel,” which looks just like wheat as it’s growing. It’s only after the weed and wheat sprouts that they can be told apart. But by the time they both head, the roots of the two of them have intertwined to the point that to try and pull the weeds out is to run the risk of losing much of the wheat. (4) That’s why when the servant asks, “Do you want us to pull out the weeds?” the farmer answers, “No, let them grow. When the harvest comes both the wheat and the weeds will be cut down and then they will be separated.”

And now it is, I would suggest to you, that the full message of the parable is revealed – it’s a message about the difference between what we are called to do and what God is called to do. It’s about letting God be God – letting God be judge – letting God be harvester – letting God provide grace. It’s about a tolerant God who does not want the final judgment to be rushed – who wants to give everyone the opportunity to repent until the very end and to be now in a symbolic sense, wheat, and it’s about our cultivating, our nurturing, our caring for, our associating with, our preparing one another for the harvest day. Separating wheat from weed, valuable from worthless, harmful from harmless – all that is the responsibility of God and we need to let God be God.

The primary purpose of the parable is to give us – the church of every era – some advice about how we are to deal with the evil that is around us in this imperfect world God has placed us in. The directive is that we should be careful not to become overzealous in our desire to rid our world – our churches – of the evil we perceive because there is a danger that we might do more harm than good. Historians invite us to remember the times in history when people spent most of their time weeding out people and opinions that differed from theirs. Remember Hitler’s belief that the Aryan race was the pure field of wheat and the results of his weeding? How about Stalin’s weeding program or the “Red Purge” in China under Mao Tse Tung’s leadership? Or, how about the early American witch hunts – or, the ethnic cleansings we are witness to in our own day? Innocent people suffer when we try to cast out those we think aren’t good enough to be around us.

But the one that’s causing me the most pain in this day is the one taking place within the Christian religion itself. We are in the midst of a vicious and malicious “weed eradication program” that pits fundamentalists and liberals against one another. One writer describes the situation with these words: “Both fundamentalists and liberals have clear and simple visions of truth and error in doctrine and morality, and they divide the world into those who are going to heaven and those who are going to hell. They sort people into wheat and weeds, into good people and bad people, between twice-born and once-born. Jesus tried to stop such ethic cleansing and such invidious judgments, saying we aren’t capable of knowing wheat from weeds.” (5)

Friends, the world is imperfect – I’m a part of what makes it so – and so are you. And every time we try to make it perfect according to how we perceive it should be, we make things worse. There’s not an issue causing debate today in the Christian church that is as important as what we are doing to one another in the midst of the debate over the issues. Jesus himself begged off every attempt to follow the violent path of bringing His message of salvation to the world – He rejected all proposals to force the kingdom into existence. Violence hurts the innocent as well as the evil.

When Derek Bok was president of Harvard University he was asked about his expectations for students who would receive a Harvard education. He said, “Tolerance for ambiguity.” I think that’s the point of this parable of Jesus’. What Bok later explained was his belief that in the kind of world we live in, “…some problems are so complex that the most you can hope for is different opinions from people of integrity rather than a clear delineation of who is right and who is wrong.” (6)

Certainty is hard to come by – especially certainty about other people. We should let the weeds and wheat grow alongside one another because we don’t know enough to judge others. Jesus repeatedly cautioned us:  “Judge not that you be not judged.” “Take the log out of your own eye before you take the speck out of somebody else’s eye.” And remember when the crowd was ready to stone a woman taken in adultery and he said, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  What happened? No one threw the first stone! What makes us think we have any more right to throw the stones in our day at those we regard guilty of sins different and perceived worse than ours?

There was an Indian poet, who told of an experience he had one day when his servant didn’t arrive at work on time. Like many others in his class, he was helpless when it came to menial tasks. After more than an hour, the poet described himself as getting angrier by the minute. He began to formulate punishments he might inflict upon this one indebted to him. After three hours had passed he knew he needn’t concern himself any longer with punishment because he needed to fire him on the spot.

The servant finally did arrive and immediately went to work. He didn’t say a word as he did his chores, picking up the poet’s clothes, preparing his meal, etc. The poet watched in an internal rage. Finally he said, “Drop everything and get out of here. You’re fired.” The man kept working, quietly, diligently. The poet repeated his command:  “Get out of here.” The man said, “My little girl died this morning.”  (7)

How presumptuous we are to think that we know the circumstances of another person’s life to the point that we can pass judgment on him or her.  We can never know the burdens others carry. More importantly, another reason God suggests that we should let the weeds and wheat grow together, is that God’s not through with us yet. That’s the really good news of the parable! We have no right to give up on others when God hasn’t yet.  Weeds exist – so learn to live with them. The world is God’s garden – we just live and work here. We are instructed to do our best but we are not in charge – God is and we need to let God be God.

While we’re waiting for the harvest perhaps the best advice we can follow is that which Paul offers to the Romans: “Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord”…do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

If truth be told, it is far more likely that those who spend all their time and energy trying to “revoke” other people’ tickets to heaven will be the ones who will not be getting on that heavenly train themselves. The question we need to address to ourselves is: “Can we be an embracing, welcoming, nonjudgmental church? “ or, in a more personal way we probably should ask ourselves: “Will I be an embracing, welcoming, nonjudgmental Christian?”

I invite you to seriously consider your answer not just because of the difference it would make in developing a caring, supporting, loving community of faith, but also for the difference it would make in your relationship with Jesus Christ and within your own heart.

1. Carl Carlozzi, Pocket Parables  (Tyndale House Publishers, 1985).
2. William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible Series: Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 2001), ebook, 1538/6728.
3. Leonard Sweet,
4. Barclay, 1538/6728.
5. Unknown.
6. Derek Bok - I lost the source.
7. Unknown.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

SERMON: "Christ: A Comforting Friend"

"Christ: A Comforting Friend"
MATTHEW 11:16-19, 25-30

There were weeks when I was still an active pastor that took my breath away! Around every corner was a new need for an act of ministry. Surprise after surprise - challenge after challenge - they came in waves with every situation demanding tears of joy or grief! Weeks like those were lived at a frenzied pace.

Who am I kidding? I still experience weeks like that. Oh, they don't demand the same kind of energy and skills, but the pace of appointments and visits and health-related challenges creates the same breathless frenzy.

Now, I don’t know about you but when life treats me to this kind of week, I find my need for private devotional time increasing. It’s not that I go off to a chapel or to the woods more often, but that my mind turns to God in a sort of reflective, seeking, inquiring manner as I move through the week from surprise to surprise. “Why, God?” “Why this barrage of issues all at once?” “Why to me?” Often what happens is short scripture passages of comfort pop into my mind – the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd ...He maketh me lie down in green pastures, He leadeth me beside still waters, He restoreth my soul ... Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me” – words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 find their way into my soul, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” – and then portions of John 14, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in Me ... peace I leave with you; My peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” - and finally, Ecclesiastes 3 “For everything there is a season ... A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” And it’s because of how helpful I find these words and the relationship with God and Jesus Christ they remind me of that I encourage others to memorize key passages of scripture. It’s just a powerful experience to recall the words and sense the presence of Christ within.

Even more often though words to old favorite hymns found their way into my heart and I found myself humming them at times – even singing them out loud at times, especially as I traveled from place to place in the community, inside the car of course – “Jesus, Savior Pilot Me,” “Nearer, My God to Thee,” “Amazing Grace,” “How Great Thou Art,” “There is a Balm in Gilead,” “Because He Lives,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” and many, many more. The one that crept into my mind the most often was “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.” (Today the words are repeated silently in my heart, mind and soul since I can't sing them out loud.)

“What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry, everything to God in prayer! O, what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.”

OHHH – what comfort there is in these words for me – and the tune just adds its soothing touch – the hymn fills me with a peacefulness. And its message of healing continues: “Have we trials and temptations? Is there trouble anywhere? We should never be discouraged; take it to the Lord in prayer. Can we find a friend so faithful, who will all our sorrows share? Jesus knows our every weakness; take it to the Lord in prayer. Are we weak and heavy laden, cumbered with a load of care? Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer! In His arms He’ll take and shield thee; thou wilt find a solace there.”

Now, the story behind the writing of the hymn helps us understand why it so aptly describes what has been our own experience. The author is believed to have been a Joseph Scriven who was a native of Dublin, Ireland in the mid-1800’s. After graduating from Trinity College in Dublin at the age of 25, he emigrated to Canada where he lived until his death in 1886.

As a young man he was engaged to a lady whom he had known and loved for a long time. They had set the date for their wedding and most of the plans were completed when disaster struck. Shortly before the wedding day arrived his intended bride accidentally drowned. While he was in the midst of a very deep depression over what happened, he found himself depending on Christ. Out of his experience came the first line of the song: “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!”  

When he found out his mother was also having a great deal of trouble with the loss of this special woman, he set to write more about what he was experiencing with the hope that she would be comforted as he was. The hymn’s intent is to be a powerful reminder of the friendship of Jesus and his comforting and burden-bearing role in our lives, and that it certainly does. (1)  

Yes, indeed, what a friend Jesus is – what a comforting friend. But what is really noteworthy is the fact that Jesus invites us to come to him for the comfort he can provide. The last portion of the Matthew 11 passage, has him state it in all its wonder: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Jesus was speaking these words to a people who were loaded down with the demands upon them.  The law was a burden. When the Jews thought of yoke they had in their mind “submission to.” They spoke of such things as the yoke of the law,” “the yoke of the commandments,” “the yoke of the kingdom,” “the yoke of God.” Biblical scholars believe that Jesus may well have taken this well-known image and again put his unique stamp of meaning on it. When he said, “my yoke is easy” – it was not the image that “yokes” usually called to mind. Another meaning of the word “easy” in Greek is”well-fitting.” Ox-yokes were made of wood in the Palestine of Jesus’ day and they were made to fit the animal. The ox was brought to the carpenter – measurements were made – and the yoke was roughed out. The ox was brought back some days later to try on his new yoke. The yoke was then carefully adjusted, so that it would fit well, and would not gall the neck of the patient beast. The yoke was “tailor-made,” in a sense, to fit the ox.

Now, there is a legend about Jesus that claims that Jesus was well-known for his yoke making – that he was one of the best in the business. According to the legend, people came from all over the country to buy their yokes from him – to have him fit their prized ox. Above the doors to the shops in that day, as in ours, there were signs announcing to the shoppers the wares that were inside. Can’t you just see the advertisement above Jesus’ carpenter shop: “My Yokes Fit Well.” You see, it may well be that Jesus is here using a picture from his carpenter’s shop in Nazareth that the people would understand because of the reputation he had built up during his silent years. (2)

Jesus is the yoke upon us – He’s a well-fitted friend who provides us comfort in the midst of the burdens of life – He shares the load with us – He doesn’t protect us from the load, but shares the load and in a sense lightens the load – spreads it out – provides us a way to balance what comes our way so that we might manage what life puts upon us. We no longer pull the cart of life by ourselves – face the traumas of life by ourselves – Jesus is the yoke upon us that enables us to manage what life sends our way.

Roy Smith, in his book Tales I have Told Twice, relates a true story that happened in his life which helps to illustrate this understanding of Christ’s role in helping us cope with the things that come our way – the disappointments, the mistakes, the rejections, the temptations.

He tells of a family that lived a few hundred yards away from his family on the same road. The family had four daughters, two sons, a mother and a crippled father. The father walked with a cane and a limp, and his face was heavily lined from a lifetime of suffering. But he was well-respected in the community because of his high morals, his involvement in the congregational church in town, and his determination to provide his children with every possible opportunity.

Most of the children reflected their parents’ lifestyle – they were good students, leaders, involved in the church. But the oldest son, Frantz, was always involved in mischief – not really bad, but adventurous – he lived on the edge.

Smith writes, “I was, as I remember it, about nine years old when the word went racing through the neighborhood one morning that Franz was in jail. I cannot recollect what he was accused of. The probabilities are that it was nothing more serious than some harum-scarum scrape. But the grim fact remained – he was in jail!” It left quite an impression on all the neighborhood children because when they thought of people being in jail, they thought of people in other communities, miles away – but this was Franz, one of them.

It was a Saturday and Roy kept suggesting things that they needed from the store implying that he was willing to go for his mother. His plan was to cut through the alley beside the jail and try to get a glimpse of his neighbor in his cell. He was successful with some help from one of his friends. Again hear his own words of what he saw: “One glimpse of our neighbor’s son was enough to convince me that his was a drab escapade. Gone were the defiance, the rollicking and contemptuous manner, the self-confidence, and the reckless abandon so characteristic of him as I knew him – a carefree boy on a pony, racing down the road. Instead I could see his loneliness, his shame, and his sense of defeat. He looked at me just once, and then turned away. Maybe I reminded him of his younger brother, safe in his father’s house. At any rate, I could tell there was something that made it impossible for him to look a neighbor boy in the eye.”

Smith goes on to tell about the rest of his day spent in reflecting on the lot of his neighbor and the scene around his family’s supper table. They talked about the situation filling in all the details they had learned from their individual grapevines.

The next morning was Sunday and Smith noted that his father was ready for church much earlier than normal. He was reading from his Bible beside the window that allowed him to look down the road. He wasn’t really reading the Bible though – he was watching the road.

All of a sudden he got up and quietly announced to Roy’s mother, “I see him coming down the road alone. I think I’ll walk to church with him this morning.” And out the door he went. He timed his walk perfectly so that he arrived at the road at the same time as Franz’s dad, and on they walked together.

Roy described the scene and the events later in the day: “Lithe and alert in spite of his bent back, father adjusted his step to that of his lame neighbor. It was almost as if the heavy cane beat out a somber rhythm for the two of them. Like two patriarchs – for both wore the long beards common of the day – they trudged the dusty Kansas road to town. At the turn a clump of cottonwoods hid them from our sight. A little later Wilbur, my older brother, helped mother into the old buggy, as he had seen father do so many times, and the three of us drove to church.

"Nothing was said as we came home. Each of us wanted to know, yet none of us dared to ask. It was not, therefore, until some time after father had asked the blessing over the humble Sunday dinner that mother made bold to inquire. 'What did he say, John?' 'Nothing,' father answered, quite simply.  'Didn’t you talk about it at all?' she continued. He answered, 'No.' Mother said, 'That’s funny!' to which he replied, 'No, it wasn’t funny. It was just as I had planned. I knew he couldn’t talk. At least, I could not have talked if it had been my boy. But I thought he’d understand if I just walked alongside him.

'He did say one thing, though. When we got to the corner where he turned in to the congregational church, he stuck out his hand and said, 'Thanks, John. I’m grateful to you.'  And then he went on in to church.” (3)

The title of Roy Smith’s story is “They Walked to Church Together” and I think it’s an apt description of what happens when we allow Jesus to be the yoke in our lives –there is a sharing of the pain that is around us – there is a sharing of the load that each of us bear – Jesus Christ is indeed a comforting friend – and we are witnesses of His presence in our lives as we are comforting friends to one another.

A few years ago, I preached a sermon on this same text. I titled that sermon “A Friend of Outcasts” and made the case that Jesus was a friend to those society labeled outsiders in His day and that our lot in life is to model similar behaviors when we encounter those rejected by society in our day. It’s a message we need to continually keep in front of us. I was tempted to share it again, but then came the thought of busy weeks and the hymn weaving its healing touch inside of me. I sensed that the message of Jesus being a friend was even more inclusive than the thoughts I shared in that sermon. I'm included – Jesus is my comforting friend – Jesus is your comforting friend. Today I’m thankful for the awareness of the presence of that comforting friend in Jesus. I’m thankful for all of those who meet me on the road of life and serve as witnesses of Christ’s yoke – who serve as yoke-bearers in a personal way. Thank you, Jesus -  thank you friends!

1. Ace Collins, Stories Behind the Hymns that Inspire America, (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2003).
2. William Barclay, The New Daily Study Bible Series: Matthew, Vol. 2 (Edinburgh: St. Andrew Press, 2001), ebook, 601/6278.
3. Roy L. Short, Tales I Have Told Twice  (Abingdon Press, 1964).

Thursday, July 17, 2014

SERMON: "Free Indeed!"

“Free Indeed!”
Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30 Romans 7:15-25A

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the Powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” (1)

That’s how our Declaration of Independence, which spells out the arguments for and which declares our freedom as a new nation, begins. The cost to become a free nation was enormous. Of the fifty-six men who signed the Declaration of Independence, five were captured by the British and tortured before they died - twelve had their homes ransacked and burned - two lost their sons in the army - another had two sons captured - nine of the fifty-six fought and died from wounds or hardships of the war - Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader, saw his ships sunk by the British navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in poverty. - at the battle of Yorktown, the British General Cornwallis, took over Thomas Nelson’s home for his headquarters. Nelson quietly ordered General George Washington to open fire on his home. The home was destroyed and Nelson died bankrupt. - John Hart was driven from his dying wife’s bedside. Their thirteen children fled for their lives. His fields and mill were destroyed. For over a year, he lived in forests and caves, returning home only to find his wife dead and his children nowhere to be found. He died a few weeks later from exhaustion. The signers of the Declaration of Independence came from a variety of backgrounds, ages, education and experience - some were already famous, like Adams and Franklin, - some were unheard of, recruited at the last minute as substitutes for some who refused to support the move toward independence -two of the signers were only twenty years of age; sixteen were in their thirties; twenty in their forties; eleven in their fifties; six in their sixties; and only one, Franklin, was over seventy - all but two were married - each had an average of six children - twenty-five were lawyers; twelve were merchants; four were doctors; one was a preacher; and one was, of course, a famous printer - half were college graduates; some were self-educated - few benefitted from their bravery but not one recanted his original declaration of independence. (2)

We recently celebrated the freedom we know as a nation. There’s no question it means a little more to us at this time of year.  We are a little more sincere in our thanksgiving to our ancestors and to our God. We proclaim it a little more often - a little more enthusiastically - a little more proudly - a little more meaningfully - a little more reflectively - “We’re free! We’re free indeed!”

Yes, in America we’re free to say what we want, go where we want, think what we want and believe what we want. Oh, we may have to take a few more precautions as time has gone on since the initial declaration, but still we can with confidence and appreciation shout: “We’re free!  We’re free indeed!”

What we proclaim to be our reality corporately, as a nation, is not necessarily what we sense the reality to be inside ourselves is it? St. Paul described our personal reality I think very well in the scripture passage according to Romans 7:15-25a. I invite you to read it according to Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased version The Message: “What I don’t understand about myself is that I decide one way, but then I act another, doing things I absolutely despise. So if I can’t be trusted to figure out what is best for myself and then do it, it becomes obvious that God’s command is necessary. But I need something more! For if I know the law, but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?” (3)

Do you ever feel like Paul? Can you identify with the battle going on inside Paul? I sure can.  Sometimes there just seems to be this gulf between what I want to do, what I know I should do, and what I actually do. Paul asked, “How come I am so powerless to do what’s right?” (4) and near the end questioned further, “And who can deliver me from this slavery?” (5) Or, as Peterson paraphrased it: “Is there no one who can do anything for me?” (6) And I want to shout out with Paul, “Yeah, how come?” and, “Who can?” Despite my knowing what is right - despite my wanting to do what is right - there are times when I am tempted to do what I know I shouldn’t and times when I do what is wrong. I feel powerless to overcome temptation, to do what is right, on my own.

At the end of today’s passage - in verse 25a - after lamenting his condition, after confessing his weakness, Paul makes a statement that suggests he discovered a way to deal with his frailness, his failures, his human condition of being weak of willpower. Paul’s answer to how he will be made and who will make him into the whole person, the servant of God, is, “Thanks be to God - through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (7 ) You see, we can’t do it on our own - we need Jesus Christ in our hearts! We can’t be perfect - we can’t do good all the time - we can’t always do what is right - but, thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord that our salvation does not depend on our doing good and doing what is right but on our relationship with Jesus and the grace with which God deals with us as a result of Jesus Christ. The crux of our problem, brothers and sisters in Christ, is that we try to do it on our own and what Paul learned and shares with us is that that is not possible - is that Jesus Christ is the source of the willpower and the source of grace for the lack of willpower in our lives.

The last few verses of the section of the gospel reading according to the author of Matthew proclaims the same thing but in a little different way, “Come to me, all you who are weary and who are carrying around heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (8)

At the very core of the Christian faith is this claim - a paradoxical claim to be sure - that only as we get in step with Jesus Christ, his will for our lives, will we find true freedom. Although it’s a tough concept sometimes for us to accept, in the final analysis our wills have to be aligned with Christ’s will, bent toward Christ, for us to overcome the turmoil that keeps us from doing what we know to be right.

One of the best known saints in the history of the church, St. Augustine, wasn’t always saintly.  Actually, he was pretty wild - he even was responsible for a child being born out of wedlock. But when Jesus Christ got hold of him - when his life got tangled up with Christ - he noted that freedom meant to him being free not to do what he wanted to do but rather to being free to be whom God intended him to be. Before Christ calls the shots in our lives - before we put our hands in his hands, all sorts of temptations, distractions, outside forces, jerk us around and cause us to do other than what we really want to.

It’s been said a time or two that when people become Christians they can then do whatever they want to do. While it may be true, it’s not true because we become immune from sin when we become Christians. No, it’s true because once we become a follower of Jesus Christ’s our “want-to’s” change. True freedom is bearing the burdens of others rather than our own selfish desires thus allowing us to become free to be who God created us to be.

Byron Janis, at one time proclaimed as one of the world’s great pianists, has been fighting the effects of crippling arthritis for years. He can’t even make a fist. His use of his right wrist is limited to about 40% of the normal range of motion - his little finger on his left hand is numb, partially paralyzed and scarred from a childhood accident and the joints of his other nine fingers are fused.

In a 1985 article in Parade magazine he was quoted to have said: “Learning to live with pain or live with a limitation can give an intensity to life. I thought I had nothing. Now I know I have everything. I’m saying to others, ‘If I can do it, so can you!’”

Janis shared in the article about the various methods of help he sought. They ranged from medical doctors to acupuncturists. He added, “What helped me the most, I can’t explain. I developed a very personal relationship with God. I think prayer is important. I think the belief in God is healing.”

“No one knows what it’s like for other people, but I know that, unless I had found a belief in God, I would never have been able to say what I have to say. God and we (humans) work together. Not one alone.” (9)

And then here’s the comment that connects Byron Janis’ story to our thinking today: “I still have arthritis. But it doesn’t have me!” (10) Living with ALS allows me to make a similar observation, although I certainly have my share of moments where I lament how much of me it has.

Byron Janis knows freedom - he’s free - he’s free indeed - not of the disease, but of the control it has over him. That’s what freedom in Jesus Christ enables to happen in our lives. Temptation still is a part of our lives - we still sin even though we have turned our lives over to Christ. The difference is that it doesn’t control us - it doesn’t keep us from trying to live the lives God intends for us to - it doesn’t cause us to give up hope in our salvation which is dependent upon God’s grace and forgiveness and not our good works.

An Armenian nurse and her brother had been held captive by some Turks in a war a few years ago. The nurse’s brother was killed by one of the Turkish soldiers right before her eyes. Somehow she escaped and later became a nurse in a military hospital. One day she was stunned to learn that the soldier who had killed her brother had been captured and wounded and was being cared for at the same hospital in which she worked. Something inside her cried out for revenge but an even stronger voice called within her to respond in love. Despite the conflict that raged within her she nursed the man back to health.

There finally came a day when the recuperating soldier asked her, “I know you know who I am.  Why didn’t you let me die?” Her answer was this simple testimony: “I am a follower of Him who said, ‘love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.’” The soldier became a believer in Jesus Christ not because the young woman was freed from her hatred of him as much as because she was freed to love in spite of her hatred. (11) The presence of Jesus Christ in one’s life makes one free to act in such a way.

Another young man became an attorney. He was invited to interview with a prestigious law firm. It was a first class visit that included a stay at a fancy hotel and several elegant dinners with various members of the firm. He really enjoyed the discussions about the work he would be doing should he be asked to join the firm and he really liked all the lawyers he met. Everything seemed great until near the end of the visit when one of the lawyers happened to mention that one of their clients was a company that basically ran all the video poker and gambling operations in the state.

The young lawyer was shocked and disappointed. He said, “There are a number of questions which are up for grabs, but that’s not one of them. I believe such things are the result of bad government and are wrong.”

The firm’s lawyers started in on him, “But it’s all legal.” The young lawyer shot back: “It may be legal but it’s not ethical. I could never represent a company that makes money from human frailty and ignorance.”

His chances with that firm ended. A ministerial friend talked with him about his feelings of losing a job he wanted and deserved. The young lawyer said: “Actually, I feel great. I’m grateful that they gave me the opportunity to clarify who I am and what I want from the practice of law. I’m O.K. I now have a much better idea of the kind of law I want to practice. I just feel sorry for them because I know that many of them feel the same way I feel, but they are trapped in the system and can’t get out.” (12)

Some of us understand what it feels like to be trapped in the system, don’t we? The people who are really free in this world are those who are able to be who they are no matter what others or the world says about them. Freedom is being able to take a stand without caring about what difference it is going to make to your future.

The minister friend asked the young lawyer, “What makes you so confident, so bold to live your life in this way?” And the young man said, “I’m a Christian. I’m not just living my life on the basis of what I want, or just by what seems right to me. I’m trying to live my life as Jesus might want. I just try to ask myself the simple little question, ‘What would Jesus do?’” (13)

And so, as Americans we've been shouting it out: “We’re free!” “We’re free to do what we want - to say what we want - to think what we want - to believe what we want.” And it’s wonderful to be free in this way - to have the freedoms we have in this nation.

But, it’s an even more sensational thing to be able to proclaim “We’re free” as Christians. Because when we say we’re free in Jesus Christ we’re not saying that we can do anything we want to but that we can do anything God wants us to - that we can live lives that will glorify God - without fear of what it might mean for our future. Sure there may be burdens that come with the letting Jesus Christ call the shots in our lives but they’re light burdens because by our wearing the yoke Jesus Christ gives to us he shares the load and enables us to overcome what challenges come our way. It’s a wonderful freedom this freedom known when one puts their hands in the hands of Jesus Christ. If you’ve never done it, I invite you to consider doing it. I promise you, it will make a tremendous amount of difference. Let’s pray.

CLOSING PRAYER: We’re free - oh, Lord - we’re free indeed - help us this day to grasp all that that means for us. How can we ever thank you, Lord, not only for the brave people who drafted the documents and gave their lives for the freedoms we know as a nation, but for the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ, and the freedom he offers us when we turn our lives over to him. In his name we pray. Amen.

1 Leaves of Gold
2 Unknown
3  Eugene Peterson, The Message (Colorado Springs, Colorado: NavPress Publishing Group, 1993), p. 317.
4 Romans 7:15.
5 Romans 7:24b.
6 Romans 7:24b, The Message.
7 Romans 7:25, NIV.
8 Matthew 11:28-30, NIV.
9 Byron Janis, Parade, 1985.
10 Parade, 1985.
11 Unknown.
12 Unknown.
13 Unknown.

Friday, July 11, 2014


Well, with the Now reunion scheduled for tomorrow perhaps I should put my head and heart to responding to a question one of my cousins asked me following a recent post on my "Giving Wings to Thoughts" Blog. I write because I don't want to be expected to attempt to converse tomorrow.

The blog post was one concerning influences on my theological and personal development on the issue of ecumenism and homosexuality. I don't intend to rehearse the whole piece here. If you want more details, you can go to the blog and read it in its entirety. Let me summarize here. I don't like labels - when it comes to politics, economics, government structures or religion. In order to allow readers who are compelled to locate themselves someplace on a continuum either to the right or left of me, I will succumb to being as truthful in naming myself as I am able. This is not normally how I prefer to carry on dialogues or preach.

So, here goes. There's little doubt in my mind that the early years of my life - let's say from the time I was able to understand conversations until approximately almost through high school - I considered myself traditional-conservative, bordering on fundamentalism late high school, at least on the right side of the life thinking line about most things. From that rough marking point on a timeline to today I've moved/changed/grown, depending on one's perspective, to much more on the left side at least progressive - liberal about most things.

Second So paragraph, the arena cousin Dave invited me to explore and cousin Mike suggested I do via the Herbert & Helen Now Family Facebook page was "how did grandpa Now influence or not my thinking and development along these lines?" Hmmmmm.....good question. Well, let's see. I'm sure he and grandma were as concerned about the coming nuptials as were many on all sides of our families. I like to think he was concerned about what we would have to go through because he cared about us and not because of any old biases he still carried around in his spirit and mind from challenging experiences he himself had to endure in places he lived and his own upbringing in Mercer county. I can assuredly tell you he never offered us words of discouragement personally, only words of encouragement and affirmation. What he might have shared with some of you about our situation when we weren't around, I cannot speak to.

There are some values I hold very dear. These include:

the importance of being civil to others in conversation face-to-face and behind their backs
inclusiveness always first solution and exclusion last choice
 acceptance of all people
 exploring ideas with an open mind
 science and religion are not in conflict or competition with one another
 tolerance is a worthy personality trait despite how hard it is at times
 there is no one way to do or think about everything
 never fear knowledge but always be cautious of ignorance gained because of reluctance to examine
 too many people have been destroyed physically or emotionally or spiritually because of religious intolerance. There's a lot more grey and a variety of other colors than there is black or white.

I vaguely remember a conversation grandpa and I had once about interpreting scriptures and his being much more open about it than I expected him to be. I remember one of my first images that racism might not be a good thing was learning about grandma Now's work in the migrant camps. Who of us doesn't remember trying to get up before them in the morning only to witness them holding hands and praying or reading the scriptures? I remember talking with grandpa about Odell Barry not being able to get a haircut in Findlay - he wasn't happy about it. (Those interested, I encourage you to google Odell's name and read what great things he has accomplished!) If my memory serves me correct, he served on an ecumenical committee on behalf of his beloved Church of God. He obtained his doctorate at the end of his career.

Would grandpa and grandma Now, or grandpa and grandma Croy or my parents or my teachers or my friends, or my siblings or my cousins, agree with every view I hold? I'm pretty sure not. Would they be proud of the values that helped me come to those positions? I think so. Isn't it amazing that we can all be raised in the same communities, under the same roofs, taught by the same teachers, have similar experiences in life, in the same faith, in similar universities, and end up with such a variety of beliefs about life, etc. "We are family!" I love you and am prepared for stares, glares or smiles.



Friday, June 27, 2014

SERMON: "Radical Hospitality"

Being Radically Hospitable​​​​​​​
Matthew 10:40-42

Let me set the scene for these thought-provoking words from the lips of Jesus. He had just called the twelve and given them their marching orders: who they were to go to, and what they were to do while they were among them - what they were to do if people were receptive to what they said and did, and what they were to do if they weren’t. He cautioned them about the dangers that were probably going to come their way as a result of their saying “yes” to becoming one of his followers. He warned them that they possibly would be ridiculed and rejected - be betrayed by loved ones - they might even have to face death as a result of living out their faith.

Then Jesus offered some words of comfort to his followers - some words of assurance: that God would be with them no matter what circumstances they found themselves in and that they should not, as a result of God’s promise to be with them, go forth in fear. But, that’s only the beginning of this open-air workshop, this mini-course in discipleship summarized in the 10th chapter of Matthew. There’s more - much more - for those not yet scared off.

In the portion of the 10th chapter of Matthew just prior to the portion of the scriptures I wish to reflect on in this post are perhaps some of the most disturbing words in all the scriptures. They are so disturbing we want to avoid them and pretend they don’t exist. Phrases like: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

It is with those words ringing in our ears that we read again these words at the end of the 10th chapter of Matthew. This time according to the new revised standard version: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple - truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (1)

Jesus was using a commonly understood rule of hospitality etiquette among the Jews of that day to make his point. If someone was a messenger for someone else, it was understood that the host should greet and treat the messenger the same as if it was the sender visiting. (2)  Jesus’ words to his followers simply meant: “Those who open their homes to you - their tables to you - are basically opening their homes and tables to me and to God. Those who offer you hospitality are offering it to me as well. When you visit others in my name, your presence is as good as my being present.”

Now, we know from some of the other things it is recorded that Jesus said in other places in the scriptures that Jesus was saying much more here than simply that his followers were going to be taken care of because of their relationship with him. This instructive word from Jesus wasn’t just to reassure those who follow him that the future’s secure - that social security and health insurance and retirement benefits are part and parcel - part of the package that accompanies responding to the “call” to follow Jesus.
Nor, was Jesus’ primary point to say that those his followers went to who welcomed them welcomed him. Rather, it was in addition to say that they, the followers, were ministering to those to whom they went, as Jesus. A paraphrase of Matthew 25:40 probably states it as clearly as it can be stated: “Whatever you did for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, you did for me.”
The one of the characteristics of the people of God who make up the church is to be a radically hospitable people. As the church we are to create an atmosphere of hospitality.

Perhaps my all-time favorite book by Henri Nouwen is his book Reaching Out. The fourth chapter in the book is titled “Creating Space for Strangers” and is without a doubt the most referenced chapter in all the books I’ve ever read except perhaps some of the passages in the bible. His point in this chapter is that the world is full of strangers in search of community. We’re strangers because we’ve lost touch with our past, our culture, our country, our neighbors, our friends, our family, even from ourselves and God. And so, we desperately seek to find a hospitable place where we can live life without fear, let down our hair and be ourselves, be accepted for who we are. We crave, we search for, community. Despite the fact that most strangers probably become victims of hostility, we must, as human beings, especially as Christians, must be about trying to create hospitable space where we might connect with one another. Despite the increasing tendency to be fearful or suspicious of one another and to protect what is our own, it is our calling, it is our vocation, as Christians to convert the hostility we experience in this world into experiences of hospitality - to make the enemy into the guest and to provide space for brotherhood and sisterhood to be explored and experienced. (3)

In Nouwen’s own words: “The Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host.” “When hostility is converted into hospitality then fearful strangers can become guests revealing to their hosts the promise they are carrying with them . . . thus the biblical stories help us to realize not just that hospitality is an important virtue, but even more that in the context of hospitality guest and host can reveal their most precious gifts and thus bring new life to each other.” (4)

According to the teaching of our master and friend, Jesus Christ, whenever we welcome the greatest or the least of those among us, we welcome him - to entertain the stranger is to entertain the savior. The rule of Saint Benedict is based on this understanding: “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Hopefully, when we hear the rule we don’t hear it as a burdensome rule but rather as a rule which creates for us a privilege. Think of it: the opportunity to entertain Jesus - to offer him a drink of water, a ride, a place to stay? Do you sense the privilege that would be?

Jim Wallis, of the Sojourners community in Washington, D.C., tells of how on Saturdays they open a food line to the hungry and homeless who live within sight of the White House. Before they open the doors, they gather around the food, hold hands, and are led in prayer by Mary Glover, the best pray-er of the community - someone whom herself stood in that food line a few years earlier. Wallis says, “She prays as if she knows the person with whom she’s talking,” and this is what she prays: “Lord, we know you’ll be coming through this line today. So, help us to treat you well.” (5) The last few times I had the opportunity to pray before a rummage sale or a dinner where guests were expected I tried to include this concept for those whose role it was to create a hospitable space and atmosphere.

The United Methodist Church’s mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Several years ago our West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church with the leadership of Bishop Bruce Ough determined that there's a process for disciple-making and it involves paying attention to four key elements: Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Faith-forming Experiences and Risk-taking Service and Mission. Bishop Ough noted in his 2001 West Ohio Annual Conference address: “If a local congregation is not intentionally addressing all four of these elements of the disciple-making process, it is most likely not fulfilling its mission.” (6)

While we need to reflect together on the meaning of each of these important elements so vital to being all the church can be, the Gospel reading hits us right between the eyes with the message of radical hospitality. Radical hospitality, according to the way our conference vision team expounded on it, involves “. . . reaching across economic, racial, age and gender lines and focuses on the stranger and those outside the community of faith.” (7)

While, to be sure, the challenge to be radically hospitable involves making sure the community is aware we exist (advertising); making sure our brochures, newsletters, etc. use language newcomers understand; making sure the outside of the building invites people to come in; making sure there’s adequate parking and is accessible; making sure people are greeted and made to feel welcome when they come into the church; making sure our worship is passionate and alive; making sure our morning message speaks to real needs; making sure we are all friendly and welcoming to newcomers before and after worship and making sure we do some intentional follow-up on visitors and newcomers - while these things are vital and important we also need to remember that “hospitality is about listening to those who hunger and thirst for love, acceptance, justice, bread, salvation, and new life.” (8) Radical Hospitality has to do with offering cups of cold water to the little ones, those who are outside the fellowship, those who act, live, dress, smell different than we do. What that cup of cold water is depends only on our imaginations, creativeness and sensitivity to what is going on around us and who is around us.

Dr. Michael Cordle was assigned to St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in downtown Atlanta a few years back. When he arrived he discovered a struggling inner-city congregation with a shrinking average attendance of just under 100. After one of the Sunday services early in his ministry as Pastor Mike’s family was leaving the church they were stunned to find themselves face to face with Atlanta’s “Pride Parade” - a steady stream of exuberant marchers. I assume similar to the one held in Columbus and many other communities throughout our country. As the participants paraded by his family, Cordle was struck with the thought that these were people from St. Mark’s neighborhood - St. Mark’s parish.

A year later, when the Pride Parade participants paraded by St. Mark’s they were greeted with an unexpected surprise. And I read now from the source of the story: “On that hot and steamy June afternoon, the church had set up a small oasis  - - offering cups of cold water to all the marchers who felt hot and thirsty and tired. In no time, the water was gratefully guzzled down, and St. Mark’s United Methodist Church had transformed its image in the face of that neighborhood.” (9)

Still reading from the source of the story: “What a difference from the other nearby church that bordered the parade route! That church sent out its message loud and clear (as well) - - as it erected barricades, strung up temporary fencing, hired mounted policemen to ride their perimeters, and posted “no trespassing” signs across church property.
“The ‘cups of cold water’ St. Mark’s offers on parade day have brought all sorts of thirsty neighbors inside the doors of the church once more. Membership has climbed to over 400 in the last two years, and the neighborhood feels like it has a spiritual presence in its midst again.” (10)

How indeed shall we go about offering cups of cold water as local churches and individual Christians to those thirsty around us? How is it we need to be about being radically hospitable?  To whom will you offer a cup of cold water these coming days?

1 Matthew 10:40-42, NRSV.
2 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958) p. 410.
3 Henri J.M. Nouwen, Reaching Out (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1975), p. 46.
4 Ibid., p. 47.
5 Jim Wallis, Sojourners.
6 West Ohio News, June 29, 2001,  “‘Make Disciples’ is West Ohio Vision, Ough Says”, pg. 3.
7 Ibid. p. 3.
8 West Ohio News, August 31, 2001, pg. 2, “What Do They Really Need?”
9 HomileticsOnLine
10 HomileticsOnLine

Sunday, June 22, 2014

"United Methodist Schism or 'Amicable Separation'?"

"United Methodist Schism or 'Amicable Separation'?"

"Do I dare lend my voice, thoughts, experiences, understanding of scripture to the clouding dialogue taking up space on the internet and behind closed doors about the possibility of a split within the United Methodist Church denomination?" "Do I dare not to?" The two questions are a fairly accurate summary of the turmoil I've been going through recently, like many of the rest of you.

There are few things I detest more than the thought of the further breaking apart of the physical Body of Christ (yes, I mean the individual and corporate that make up the institutional community of faith). Most have to do with the ministry we are neglecting because of the energy we are expending fighting/arguing/debating/chastising/condemning and annoying one another over this supposedly one issue. To be sure, I believe it's really a much broader issue than our views on homosexuality that divides us, but it is the one that has brought that broader issue we have never quite been able to see eye-to-eye with each other about into clearer and pronounced focus. The poor and disadvantaged are crying in our streets and around the world for us to get our act together! Children are abused and neglected and wonder where our voices and bodies are! People are being left out and bullied and we are too much in strife to notice and in fact are partially to blame because of some of our voices and actions!

The real issue that faces us is not an unfamiliar one. It's been with us throughout the whole of church history. How is it we are going to regard the scriptures? Are we going to accept  them literally? Are they infallible? Do we understand them as the inspired word of God? Are they a guide for our living as Christians? What do we do with the work that our biblical scholars have accomplished and the biblical criticism tools they have used and refined to help us understand much that we have better? When are we going to be honest/truthful with the whole body of believers about how the Bible came to be and the people leaders of the early church killed, had excommunicated, branded heretics, because they believed and taught something different than the world rulers our bishops went to bed with wanted to be the accepted and taught interpretation? What are we going to do with the secular Western Civilization writings and studies and the religious History of the Church interpretations of what has brought us to where we are? Are we really in favor of not allowing scientific inquiry and discovery to have any influence on our beliefs, our understanding of the world and God, our interpretation and understanding and study of the holy texts?

O. K., before I succumb to the temptation to become overly academic in this post, I want to focus now on the thoughts I've been having these last few weeks about my journey with the schism issue. To be honest, it's not the first time in my life I've wrestled with this concern and the range of times is the story that's been having a field day in my head and heart.

I was born and lived most of the first 18 years of my life in Ottawa, Ohio - the small (5,000+) county seat of Putnam County in the northwestern part of the state. Ft. Jennings, Ottoville, Kalida, and Glandorf were almost 100% Catholic. Pandora was mostly Mennonite. Leipsic, Columbus Grove, Vaughnsville, Continental, Dupont, Cloverdale, and Gilboa were generally regarded as having a fair number of Catholics but also had a sizeable number of protestants. Ottawa was about 90% Catholic. (This may not be statistically 100% accurate but it's my memory of the make-up of the communities and county.) I remember early in my life wondering about all these churches acknowledging Jesus as the Christ but not having much to do with one another.

Now, because of the public school I attended, the scouting program, Little League baseball and the opening of the local swimming pool I became acquainted with others who did not attend the Methodist Sunday School and worship service. Hmmm...., they seemed to dress the same as me and have feelings like mine and we even talked comfortably with one another, sometimes even about God and other religious stuff. There were some things we believed differently but they hardly seemed enough to be meeting in separate buildings. Oh, how naive I was I finally was informed - they as well, probably. We learned a little surface church history and the worst about each other from our own denomination's bias. Mine came from Sunday School, confirmation class, and working on the God and Country award. We were advised against dating teens of a different denomination - (oh, let's be honest) if you were a Protestant, it was don't date a Catholic; and if you were a Catholic, it was don't date a Protestant. We still dated one another you understand, it was just we weren't supposed to and the longer it went on the more fearful/concerned adults in the community became. My high school girlfriend was Catholic and I dated her off and on for almost 5 years, mostly because of parental pressure - er, the pressure was for us not to date.

Admittedly, that was a minor bigoted education compared to the indoctrination I later received from a popular para-church youth organization after a "born-again" experience at the Defiance District Senior High Youth Institute at Lakeside, Ohio. Now, while I still reference the experience as a significant one on my journey of faith, today it's one of many confirming moments and not even the most important one. I reference it here because of the organization I joined as a result.

The organization trained us to be evangelists in our communities. We were to target our Catholic friends because they weren't born again and didn't believe in the Bible. They probably filled our minds with other falsehoods and bigotry but those are the ones that seem relevant to this discussion. (Notice that I am not naming the organization or a specific leader. That's because they also helped me deal with a lot of stuff in a good way and the leader was a good guy despite some of his teaching that I find so distasteful today.)

I can't thank my friends enough for putting up with my armed attacks to make them "real" Christians. I also owe a lot to Rev. John Brown for his calmness and sensitivity while I was dealing with the narrow Biblical interpretation that was being fed me. And I continue to appreciate my parents for encouraging me to question as well as to grow in my faith.

Then came college. The para-church group encouraged me to consider a Bible college, which I did. I finally decided on Ohio Northern University though. While there were numerous reasons I've shared over the years, the ones relevant to this reflection were there was no dancing or card playing at the Bible college or while at home and, more importantly, I sensed that ONU was going to allow me more opportunity to think for myself. That doesn't mean I did, but I could. After switching my major from math to religion, I spent most of my religion, Bible, and philosophy classroom time being paranoid and defensive. Because though of Dr. James Udy, a visit by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to ONU, Dr. Thomas Hoffman, the Student Religious Council, Rev. Ford Hoff, a Western Civilization course, The License to Preach course of study, several friends, especially Dorothy, some of the rougher edges of my narrow view of Christianity and the world were filed down.

Shortly after I left for ONU, my high school girlfriend broke up with me. It took me several months to recover but I began to date different female friends that helped me through the transition. Dorothy and I ran in the same circle at ONU and were both math majors but we didn't start dating until we returned to our Putnam County homes the summer after our freshman year. (I'll not rehearse here that whole story as it is in an earlier blog post.) Dorothy was Catholic and I was United Methodist. We became serious fairly quickly. We were attracted to each other physically, emotionally, intellectually, culturally, and spiritually. In fact, it is our common belief that it was our similar depth of spiritual commitments that created our strong bond. We spent hours together talking about our beliefs, our wants and needs, our hopes and dreams. We went to at least two worship services a week off-campus - one United Methodist and one Catholic. And we struggled with our differences and argued with our denominational loyalties and what kept denominations from coming together with one voice.

I remember at least one ecumenical service on campus where we were able to commune together - one received from the priest and the other from the UM pastor, but it was a sign of hope. Shortly after our engagement I was interviewed by the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. I was asked about my engagement to a Catholic woman and how I would handle it in the local church when it came up or was an issue with some members. I don't remember all I said but I know I replied that I would be upfront and share in the introduction meeting so it was out in the open because there was nothing to hide. Well, they must have bought it because they passed me on to the conference.

When I shared with Dorothy the details of the interview, she cried. Then, she took her engagement ring off and tried to hand it to me. She didn't want to stand in the way of my being able to pursue being a UM pastor. While I was a bit offended and defensive by the line of questioning of the committee, there was no way I had anticipated Dorothy's reaction! Despite my shock I had enough presence of mind to immediately refuse her offer to return the ring. I tried to assure her that I loved her and we were getting married and if it impacted my being able to be a minister, well that was too bad! (Now, I later realized that every candidate had to go through the interview process - that I hadn't been singled out because of our situation! Pretty naive, huh!) The confusion in my head for why denominations had to be continued to grow despite what I learned in college, the local church and the License to Preach up to that point.

So, we continued to make our wedding plans. We went to see the priest of the Catholic Church Dorothy had been active in growing up and shared our story. We expressed our concern about not being able to receive the elements of communion together on our wedding day. He seemed to understand and expressed a willingness to send a letter to the Bishop of the Diocese for special permission for me to receive the sacrament along with her.

Another issue we raised was that because of my working at a YMCA camp near Akron, Ohio it would be impossible for me to attend the Pre-Cana meetings. We worked out an arrangement where the priest would send me the tapes of the sessions and he would meet with Dorothy. I would write a short piece reflecting on the input. It wasn't bad material - more helpful and insightful than I thought it would be.

Sometime before the wedding Dorothy's beloved priest was assigned to a different parish and Continental received a new priest. (That's right, the itinerant system is at least one of the things we have in common!) Guess what? He'd never heard of such a thing as a letter from a bishop giving permission for a non-Catholic to receive the sacraments. Dorothy decided not to receive the elements so that we wouldn't be doing something different during the mass to highlight our reality. Despite the uncomfortableness while half our family and friends remained seated as the rest came forward to receive the eucharist, it was a beautiful and holy service. But, for the purpose of this post it's another of those times when we wanted to cry out "Why?" "Why do we treat each other this way?" "Why can't we just get along?" "Why can't we believe and let believe?" (Don't misunderstand. We know the historical and theological reasons but it seems like such an embarrassing reality/result/way to solve differences of opinion/deal with the secular rulers.)

Well, then followed our honeymoon at Lake Hope, the return to Ada for our senior year at ONU, the move into our first home (a trailer in Brown's Trailer Court), some part-time work as a janitor in the Science building and as a youth minister at Lima Grace, the finishing touches on my football and track careers, and much growth in our relationship as we continued to learn more and more about one another - the good, the bad and the ugly. We continued to attend together both of our denominational worship services and grow in our understanding and appreciation of each other's faith journeys. It still bewildered us that there was a need for multiple denominations of Christianity, despite our knowledge of the history that had caused it to be a reality.

By this time I had become increasingly disillusioned with the concept that as a Christian all I had to do was to pray about something and God would direct my steps - lay an obvious path out for me - speak to me. One of the young people at Grace was helpful in my contemplating what God's will was and how one heard it when she painfully challenged me one day as to how exactly one "hears" God since she never had. That probably was the beginning of my considering more carefully the words I used when I spoke of and thought about God, etc.

So, the big question I had been considering for several years was whether God was calling me into the full-time ordained ministry. I knew I felt called to work with young people, but my early thoughts were as a basketball coach, math teacher, and Youth Fellowship volunteer. The decision to go on and attend seminary was basically about simply opening the next door and see what happened. That became my modus operandi - pray (converse with God the best I knew how), take stock of urgings or desires, and open a door. I never heard the clear voice of God via my ears - it was more a sensing in my heart and mind - still is.

After we decided that I would attend United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, Dorothy was hired to teach business and math at West Carrollton Junior High School. We found an apartment in Miamisburg and started the next phase of our lives. The next three years were a time of tremendous growth for us both faith and marriage wise. After a couple short-term field education positions I was hired as the first Director of the Burg Center which several downtown Miamisburg churches started to meet the needs of that area - a unique combination of a suburban inner-city and an appalachian neighborhood.      

During the last two years of seminary I was the student associate minister at Miamisburg Parkview UMC. The church owned a duplex next to the church and that's where we lived. They were both directly across the street from Library Park. The Catholic Church was one block west, across the tracks and closer yet to downtown. I experienced one of the more intimate clergy monthly fellowships in that community.

We visited the church several times before I became a member of the staff. On one of those Sunday visits, when it was time to recite the Apostles Creed together, we opened a hymnal like we always did despite our both knowing it by heart, and lo and behold the word catholic was crossed out! We looked at each other in shock. During one of my sermons near the end of my time there I mentioned that experience, but assured the congregation that it didn't reflect how they treated us at all. The church had a picnic at the end of my ministry there to celebrate our time together. One of our friends presented us a framed copy of that page from the hymnal! They included a note in the gift box informing us that they had removed the hymnal from the sanctuary! It was one of our most memorable moments in ministry. Everyone had a good laugh.

We endured several of the more traumatic situations of our lives during those seminary days. We suffered two miscarriages and my brother's mental health issues began. The seminary, local church, and district communities of faith were all very supportive. Now, some of the meant to be helpfulness soon lost its appeal and became further fuel for the continuing shift of where I fell on the biblical and theological spectrum. My narrow, judgmental, literal take on the scriptures, and understanding of God changed drastically during that time. Great strides toward being a more open, accepting, encouraging, and inclusive pastor were taken as I experienced life those three years. I began to appreciate and intentionally utilize biblical scholarship/criticism. It happened for a variety of reasons, one of them being the faith of others that allowed them to say such intended to be comforting words as: "God doesn't make mistakes." "Miscarriages are God's / nature's way of saying things aren't quite right." "Mental illness can be cured if your brother believed more in God." "God's trying to teach you something by doing these things." "It's all a part of God's wonderful plan and God will bring good out of it." These weren't all, but you get the picture. Oh, did I mention that both the supportive actions and the meant to be supportive comments came from family and friends. Hmmm...possible to believe differently, see things differently despite being raised in the same family and same denomination?! Imagine that!

You might wonder how we remained believers during those days. We were blessed with family, friends and a seminary community who listened rather than spoke, and who helped us to say "No, that's not how we sense God in our lives." We also continued attending together worship services at both United Methodist and Catholic churches every week, even though some of those not so helpful comments came from people in each.

After seminary I was appointed as the associate pastor of the Urbana United Methodist Church. Both of our children were born while we lived in Urbana. Both of our children were also baptized while we lived in Urbana - in two different churches. I was again a member of a particularly active and open clergy fellowship there, and we were as involved and known in the Catholic Church there as anywhere we lived. Dorothy and I had often talked of having a baptism where both denominations were represented. We had agreed to raise our children Christian. Our idea was that we would hold the baptismal ceremony in a Catholic Church and I would do the actual baptism.

When Jeremy was born we made our proposal to our friend, Fr. Bob Schutte. He was very kind and understanding. His thought was that he would send a letter to the diocesan office to get the Bishop's thoughts. (Truthfully, I don't think he wanted to be the one to burst our bubble.) We received a very kind and supportive response from the Bishop's office. Basically, the letter expressed regret that what we proposed couldn't be done because in the Catholic Church when one is baptized they become a member of the denomination and thus it needed to be by a Catholic priest.

Bob Schutte received the same letter and called us to invite us to come and see him again. He said he had an idea he wanted to run by us. During our visit he suggested that he attend a morning worship service at the UM Church and use the Catholic liturgy during the service. Since our primary desire was to express our oneness in Christ rather than my actually doing the baptism, we felt it was a generous suggestion on his part.

I shared the idea with the Sr. Pastor, Carl Robinson, and he recommended we seek the Staff-Parish Relations Committee's thoughts. They were enthusiastic and thus it happened! It was a wonderful day. The story was reported in both UM and Catholic news blurbs - "an encouraging sign of ecumenism," the reporters observed! It sure sparked hope in us! Since then, a few other small baby-like steps, but not much has changed in our relationship at the institutional level.

Our second child was a daughter, Megan. We decided that we wanted Carl, who had been my mentor and close friend while we were in Urbana, to baptize her. It was just as big a celebration in our hearts and minds as Jeremy's baptism and the congregation and family felt the same. For awhile we were referred to as the family with a baptized UM Christian and a baptized Catholic Christian. We soon decided to start correcting people and provide our perspective. We had two baptized Christian children!

Our intent was still to raise them as much as possible in both denominations. We planned on having them go through confirmation and then let them decide if and where they wanted to join. We continued to attend both churches together taking with us both children. It got more and more difficult because of the amount of time I was involved in ministry at the UM Churches, weddings, behavior of children, etc. I know we had a mixture of emotions when we attended masses where other children were receiving their first communion and when the kids decided to be confirmed in the UM Church, but we weren't surprised either. After all, most of our time was spent in the UM Church. The kids were more familiar with what was going on and comfortable.

I could go on and on, but I think this makes the point I want to make about our "mixed" marriage - Dorothy and I have long been committed to the ecumenical movement. We wanted everyone to get along - in the church and in the community. Oh, we've lost some of our naivety. We realize that people were killed, died, declared heretics, and excommunicated because of some of the differences. We know also that not all of the decisions made by the early councils were the result of good theology but because of the desire and pressure of some secular rulers who wanted uniformity of belief. It's been difficult but we've also come to the place where we realize that everyone does not belong under the same roof - that there are some people we would really rather not be around because of how differently we believe and/or come to belief or faith. Mostly, it's around one's ability to be tolerant and civil rather than particular beliefs. Although even differences of beliefs can be extreme enough to make me accept that it would be best if we not get into a theological discussion with one another. (Westboro Baptist church flashes through my mind. So does the Left-foot Baptist Church in Kentucky. It named itself that because it split off from the main Baptist Church in town because they believed that a person hadn't been baptized correctly unless they entered the water with the left foot first! I don't even care to be near people who believe like that, let alone try to talk theology or about the Bible with them.)  
Until the closing days of the last three General Conferences I wouldn't allow the thought of going through a split in the United Methodist Church - amicable or nasty! What caused me to begin to entertain the possibility is the reality, from my point of view, that the line in the sand has been drawn by most of us and we are destroying our ability to witness of the unconditional love of God and God's grace. People have left our denomination and others continue to contemplate it in this day as well because of a variety of positions on the homosexuality issue and the overriding concern about how we're going to regard the holy scriptures. Are they the inspired Word of God that provide us a guide for thought and behavior, or do we perceive them as the inerrant and infallible Word of God?

Frankly, I think the larger issue is the one that is more likely the true litmus test despite how we've made the homosexuality issue central to determining whether we are faithful or not. I just cannot fathom how an "amicable separation" or "local choice" option will ever work in the local church! (And, believe me when I say I have the utmost respect for Mike Slaughter and Adam Hamilton and their attempt to help us see a third way! If I'm still alive when and if separation happens and nothing new has been proposed, I will stand beside them even in this incapacity leave reality.) I know some of us (pastors and lay leaders) believe that all of the people who belong to our local church think just like us, but I know that's not been the reality in any local church I've ever served! Nor, would I want it that way. "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." I suppose some do have that kind of power and related authority. But I think it's dangerous. I think if people end up having to choose between being a member of a denomination that believes homosexuality is incompatible with the scriptures or one that is accepting and willing to ordain persons or marry them based on the couple's faith perspective and sexuality, we're going to have to start at least three churches to handle the different positions. There are people of all persuasions in most of our local churches. If that becomes the dividing line, we are going to have a mess on our hands.

If the dividing line, however, is how we regard the scriptures, I think it's past time to resolve that one! I believe most congregations could have a majority position about how the scriptures are regarded - literally & infallible, or inspired and able to use all of the biblical scholarships tools available to us in our day as well as science and history and our own experiences to come to a deeper understanding of faith and related biblical themes. I'm just having trouble with the idea that the denomination that raised me to be open, accepting, gracious, kind, compassionate, inclusive, and generous - that taught me to love and learn the inspired Word of God and encouraged me to question and challenge utilizing a variety of disciplines - that lifted up concepts like unconditional love and prevenient, justifying and sanctifying grace - that lived out that the scriptures were supremely important as an avenue to understand and experience God, but not something to be worshipped more than God, would potentially morph into something else.

Well, I think I've written enough. I'd like to write more but this one took me a full two weeks. It probably is more appropriate in a book than a blog, but I'm not writing a book.

Peace to all!