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Archive for September, 2011

I’m in Frederick, Maryland, today, honoring my father and mother by taking care of them while my brother Scott and his family prepare for his daughter’s wedding at their farm in West Virginia. 

It’s been a pleasure.

This morning, for example, Dad came in to breakfast with a memory about sacking oats in his boyhood with a fellow named “Willie T.”  Dad said, “There we were, sacking oats in that little shed with the tin roof on it, on one of the hottest days in the summer, and boy, did Willie T stink!”  I had never heard that story before, and I had to look for a place to file the mental picture it created.

And then Mom spread out all her family photos on the dining room table while I was doing some reading for Sunday’s sermon.  One after another she would push them across to me and ask me if I remembered this or that event.  There they were: pictures of me and my brothers, my grandparents, some of the places we used to live.  Most of them I had seen before, but some of them were new.  Again I looked for places in my brain to store the images. 

The mental file cabinets are overflowing.

I’ve cooked meals for my folks, washed dishes, helped Dad get a shower, helped Mom find a pen—all those things they used to do for me without grumbling or complaining.  And it really is that endless stream of “little things” that flows into the pool of family love.  They did them for me, and now I get to do them for them, and the pool gets deeper and wider. 

If there were a theme for this Fifth Commandment Retreat it might be “Abundance”: an abundance of memories, an abundance of love, an abundance of care once received and now given with gratitude.  “Honor your father and mother,” God said.  Today it strikes me not so much as a command but as an offer, as a way of entering into abundant life.  But those of you who have cared for your aging parents know how it goes:

Tomorrow may be another story altogether.

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The Kind of World I Want to Live in

Thanks to my colleague Bob Browning for this story from September 11, 2001, and for the commentary that follows:

Usman Farman, a twenty-two-year-old Muslim of Pakistani descent worked in Building 7 of the World Trade Center. His office was a stone’s throw from the Twin Towers. After the second plane hit, Farman made his way down twenty-seven flights of stairs to the street. He had walked two or three blocks when the first tower collapsed.

“The next thing I remember,” he said, “was a dark cloud of debris about fifty stories high came tumbling toward us. I ran as fast as possible, but fell down trying to get away. I was on my back, facing this massive cloud that must have been 600 feet away. Everything was already dark and people were running by me. Then, help came from the most unexpected place.”

Farman said he always wore a pendant around his neck inscribed with an Arabic prayer for safety.  He said a Hasidic Jew came up to him and held the pendant in his hand. He read the Arabic aloud and with a deep Brooklyn accent said, “Brother, if you don’t mind, there is a cloud of glass coming at us. Grab my hand and let’s get out of here.” Together, arm in arm, this Muslim and Jew made their way to safety.

This is the kind of world I want to live in and want to help build. I believe you do, too. We experienced it in this country for about three days after 9/11. America unlocked its gates and became the caring community all of us needed.

Strangers hugged, families took in stranded passengers when airports shut down, neighbors checked on each other and churches filled with worshipers seeking solace and courage.

What keeps us from living this way all the time?

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On the first Sunday of every month I climb the stairs to Room 243 to teach our newcomers class.  My assignment is to talk about “a Christian way of being human,” and I like to begin with an emphasis on the word way.

Some people will tell you that to be Christian you have to believe certain things.  You have to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin.  You have to believe that he rose from the dead.  You have to believe that he’s coming again.  But have you noticed that, when Jesus called those first disciples, he didn’t mention any of those things?  He just said, “Follow me,” and those fishermen dropped their nets and followed. 

Christianity begins with a commitment—not to a set of beliefs, but to a person—to Jesus.  It starts for us when we drop whatever we’re doing to follow him.  Those first disciples were able to do that literally.  It’s harder for us, but it’s not impossible.  One of the best ways I’ve found to follow is to read the four Gospels closely—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—to look at the things Jesus does there and to listen to the things he says.  In this way I learn who Jesus is and what he’s up to, and the word disciple, at its root, means “learner.”  A disciple is a kind of apprentice who watches the master, who learns his craft and studies his moves.  As we follow Jesus through the Gospels we can do the same. 

One of the things we will notice if we do that is that Jesus spends a lot of time talking about the Kingdom of God.  In the four Gospels combined he makes reference to the Kingdom some 120 times.  And when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray he says, “Pray for this: pray that God’s Kingdom would come, and God’s will would be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).  Being a disciple in our time means being an answer to that prayer; it means working alongside Jesus to bring heaven to earth.

How do we do that?  It’s simple: we look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and we go to work there.  And the good news is that we get to look through our own eyes.  The thing that breaks our heart may be the very thing God is calling us to do.  That was certainly true for Jesus. 

I think this is the “Christian way of being human.”  It’s not just believing things about Jesus (although I find that the more time I spend with him the more I believe about him).  It’s believing in Jesus.  It’s following him so closely and so passionately that you begin to do the things he would do, and say the things he would say, and love the things he would love.  It’s becoming more and more like him until people—even some of the people who know you best—begin to say,

“You know, you remind me of someone…” 

 

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It’s 6:30 a.m. on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and all across the Greater Richmond Metropolitan Area mothers and fathers will be trying to get their children out of bed and get them off to school.  In honor of those efforts, and those parents, I’d like to tell the stories of how my own parents used to get me and my lazy brothers out of bed on a school day (as shared in last Sunday’s sermon).

When my brothers and I were boys, living in that big, old farmhouse in West Virginia, my mother would try to get us up on a school day by cooking breakfast for us, hoping that the smell of frying bacon would bring us down the stairs.  And if that didn’t work she would start calling up to us, sweetly, “Boys!  Time to wake up!  You’ve got to get ready for school!”  But if that didn’t work she would move to her measure of last resort.  She had this record called “America’s Favorite Marches.”  She would put it on the turntable, crank up the volume, and drop the needle.  And as soon as we heard that scratchy hiss coming through the speakers we would leap out of bed, come running down the stairs, and turn down the volume, because if we didn’t “Hooray for the Red, White, and Blue” would come blasting out of those speakers at something upward of 200 decibels—the equivalent of a Saturn Five rocket lifting off the launch pad. 

And then…

There was a three-month period in our life when we lived in my grandmother’s cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.  It was a summer cabin, but we were there in the winter, and it was cold.  My two older brothers and I slept in a little room under the eaves that was reached by a ladder through a door that opened out into the large main room.  Beside the ladder there was a brass fireman’s pole that my grandfather had put in, just for fun.  On those cold winter morning my dad would get up early, build a blazing fire in the fireplace, and then come over to that pole and start banging it with a wooden block.  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  Clang!  “This is the day the Lord has made!”  Clang!  Clang!  Clang! Clang!  We were supposed to say, “Let us be glad and rejoice in it!” and then leap out of bed, slide down the pole, and run warm ourselves by the fire, but usually it was only my brother Scott who followed the script.  Ed and I would lie there and groan until my dad finally climbed the ladder, stuck his head through the door opening, and threatened us with bodily harm. 

America’s favorite marches, banging on brass poles, threats of bodily harm…sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to get your children out of bed in the morning.  Because it’s true, and maybe especially on the first day of school:

Waking up is hard to do.

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