Saturday, November 7, 2009

coffecupGood morning, Campers!

It’s 7:30 on a Saturday morning.  The front page of the newspaper is still scratching its head over the bloody massacre at Fort Hood on Thursday, wondering what would motivate a man to open fire on his fellow soldiers.  Just below that on the page is the shocking news that U.S. unemployment is above 10 percent for the first time since 1983 (Yikes!).  But there’s good news, too: the Jefferson Hotel has managed to hold on to its five diamond rating, Thomas Dale High School beat Meadowbrook 35-34 (which is good news if you’re from Thomas Dale; not so good if you’re from Meadowbrook), and today is going to be a gorgeous, sunny day with a high of 59 degrees.

So, what should we do with a day like today?

We could begin by praying for those who have suffered the loss of loved ones in the Fort Hood shooting, and for those who have lost jobs in the recession.  I’m going to follow that up with a hot breakfast (most important meal of the day) and then get on with sermon writing, which is my usual all-day-Saturday occupation.  This week I’m well ahead of schedule, thanks in part to the difficulty I had getting the sermon together last week.  I’ve been working overtime this week, and although the sermon is not ready to preach yet, it’s close, which opens up the possibilities for the rest of the day.

I’d love to get in a run if I could, although I’ll have to bundle up.  It’s cold out there!  And then, at 10:00, I’m hoping to stop by the Community Outreach Center at 2944 W. Marshall Street (just a few blocks from the church) to help out with the Refugee Outreach Work Day.  Have you met these refugees from Nepal?  They’re precious, and even the children press their palms together in greeting and say, “Namaste.”  I’ll have to be finished in time to get a shower, get dressed, and go to a cookout hosted by one of our church families, and then I’ll need to leave early to get back to church in time for the Dennis Swanberg concert at 7:00. 

It looks like it’s going to be a busy day.  So, what am I doing still sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee and blogging?  I need to get up and get on with it!  If you’re in the area I’d love to see you at the Refugee Outreach Work Day, and if you can’t make that maybe I’ll see you in church tomorrow, either in person or through the lens of the camera as you participate in our live webcast, at 8:30 or 11:00. 

And whatever you choose to do with this day:

May the Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you,
     and be gracious unto you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
     and give you peace.


Guns Don’t Kill People…

glockI’m still learning details of yesterday’s Fort Hood massacre, and haven’t processed enough to be able to comment on it at this point, but it brought to mind this essay written by David Von Drehle shortly after the shootings at Virginia Tech.  David is an editor-at-large for Time magazine and a close personal friend.  Few people are able to put thoughts and feelings into words as well as he.

We won’t know, for some time now, what prompted Major Malik Nadal Hasan to open fire on his fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, but David’s thoughts on what has motivated other shooters is worth reading.  As we remember the victims and their families, may we continue to pray for peace in the world, and in the troubled souls of those who aim to kill.


It’s All About Him
by David Von Drehle, Thursday, April 19, 2007 

My reporter’s odyssey has taken me from the chill dawn outside the Florida prison in which serial killer Ted Bundy met his end, to the charred façade of a Bronx nightclub where Julio Gonzalez incinerated 87 people, to a muddy Colorado hillside overlooking the Columbine High School library, in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold wrought their mayhem. Along the way, I’ve come to believe that we’re looking for why in all the wrong places.

I’ve lost interest in the cracks, chips, holes and broken places in the lives of men like Cho Seung-Hui, the mass murderer of Virginia Tech. The pain, grievances and self-pity of mass killers are only symptoms of the real explanation. Those who do these things share one common trait. They are raging narcissists. “I died–like Jesus Christ,” Cho said in a video sent to NBC.

Psychologists from South Africa to Chicago have begun to recognize that extreme self-centeredness is the forest in these stories, and all the other things– guns, games, lyrics, pornography–are just trees. To list the traits of the narcissist is enough to prove the point: grandiosity, numbness to the needs and pain of others, emotional isolation, resentment and envy.

In interviews with Ted Bundy taped a quarter-century ago, journalists Stephen Michaud and Hugh Aynesworth captured the essence of homicidal narcissism. Through hour after tedious hour, a man who killed 30 or more young women and girls preened for his audience. He spoke of himself as an actor, of life as a series of roles and of other people as props and scenery. His desires were simple: “control” and “mastery.” He took whatever he wanted, from shoplifted tube socks to human lives, because nothing mattered beyond his desires. Bundy said he was always surprised that anyone noticed his victims had vanished. “I mean, there are so many people,” he explained. The only death he regretted was his own.

Criminologists distinguish between serial killers like Bundy, whose crimes occur one at a time and who try hard to avoid capture, and mass killers like Cho. But the central role of narcissism plainly connects them. Only a narcissist could decide that his alienation should be underlined in the blood of strangers. The flamboyant nature of these crimes is like a neon sign pointing to the truth. Charles Whitman playing God in his Texas clock tower, James Huberty spraying lead in a California restaurant, Harris and Klebold in their theatrical trench coats–they’re all stars in the cinema of their self-absorbed minds.

Freud explained narcissism as a failure to grow up. All infants are narcissists, he pointed out, but as we grow, we ought to learn that other people have lives independent of our own. It’s not their job to please us, applaud for us or even notice us–let alone die because we’re unhappy.

A generation ago, the social critic Christopher Lasch diagnosed narcissism as the signal disorder of contemporary American culture. The cult of celebrity, the marketing of instant gratification, skepticism toward moral codes and the politics of victimhood were signs of a society regressing toward the infant stage. You don’t have to buy Freud’s explanation or Lasch’s indictment, however, to see an immediate danger in the way we examine the lives of mass killers. Earnestly and honestly, detectives and journalists dig up apparent clues and weave them into a sort of explanation. In the days after Columbine, for example, Harris and Klebold emerged as alienated misfits in the jock culture of their suburban high school. We learned about their morbid taste in music and their violent video games. Largely missing, though, was the proper frame around the picture: the extreme narcissism that licensed these boys, in their minds, to murder their teachers and classmates.

Something similar is now going on with Cho, whose florid writings and videos were an almanac of gripes. “I’m so lonely,” he moped to a teacher, failing to mention that he often refused to answer even when people said hello. Of course he was lonely.

In Holocaust studies, there is a school of thought that says to explain is to forgive. I won’t go that far. But we must stop explaining killers on their terms. Minus the clear context of narcissism, the biographical details of these men can begin to look like a plausible chain of cause and effect–especially to other narcissists. And they don’t need any more encouragement.

There’s a telling moment in Michael Moore’s film Bowling for Columbine, in which singer Marilyn Manson dismisses the idea that listening to his lyrics contributed to the disintegration of Harris and Klebold. What the Columbine killers needed, Manson suggests, was for someone to listen to them. This is the narcissist’s view of narcissism: everything would be fine if only he received more attention.

The real problem can be found in the killer’s mirror.


The Baptist Mother Teresa

LeenaWe had the privilege of hearing Leena Lavanya last night at Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  Leena is from Narasaraopet, Andhra Pradesh, India, where she works with lepers, AIDS orphans, prostitutes, and others who rank among the poorest of the poor.  She has been called “the Baptist Mother Teresa” and is this year’s winner of the Baptist World Alliance’s prestigious Denton and Janice Lotz Human Rights Award.

Leena was raised by Christian grandparents (her grandfather was a seminary professor and one-time vice-presisdent of the Baptist World Alliance).  When she was in her early twenties she won a scholarship to attend the Baptist Youth World Conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she was challenged by noted speaker Tony Campolo to dedicate her life to Christian service.  “He talked about that hymn ‘I Surrender All,'” she said.  “But he told us, ‘We don’t surrender all.  We surrender a dollar, a pound, a rupee.'”  In that moment Leena decided that she would surrender herself completely to Christ. 

And then she began to tell us what happens when you do that.

It started when she found herself seated beside a prostitute on a bus.  She struck up a conversation with the woman and eventually told her, “You should give up your prostitution.  You should start a new life.”   “Fine!” the woman answered.  “If you will feed the eight people in my family I will start a new life.”  And so Leena and her grandparents gave up breakfast for three months, saved the money, and bought this woman a sewing machine.  Then they spent six months teaching her how to use it.  Now the woman owns her own small business.

Leena talked about finding a boy crying by the side of the road.  His family had learned that he was HIV positive and put him out of the house.  “They had a nice barn,” Leena said.  “Their animals were well-kept.  But they put their son out of the house!”  She had to do something.  And so she found a place for this boy to live, and then discovered that there were others like him.  Now there are twenty boys living in an orphanage run by her ministry, Serve Trust.

One of the most touching stories she told last night was about her work with “leprous people.”  She said these people lie under trees outside the towns and villages.  No one will touch them; no one will take care of them.  But she had surrendered all to Jesus, and Jesus ministered to lepers.  And so, approaching them hesitantly, she began to talk to these people.   She began to feel compassion for them.  Before long she was caring for them, even dressing their sores.  “Why are you doing this?” one man asked her.  “Because of Jesus,” she answered, cheerfully.  “Who is Jesus?” he asked, and she began to tell him.  When she finished he told her through tears that he wanted this Jesus in his life.

But he also wanted to be baptized, and since Leena is not a pastor she asked the pastor of the local church to baptize the man.  The pastor came and had a look at him, but eventually shook his head and walked away.  The man was very sick, almost at the point of death.  How would they get him into the baptistery?  So, Leena began to tell him that it wasn’t absolutely necessary to be baptized.  Look at the thief on the cross!  Jesus said, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”  But the man still wanted to be baptized.  He pleaded with her.  Finally, Leena said, “I dragged him over to a water spigot, turned it on, and as the water poured over his head I said, ‘I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!”

He died a month later.

She went on and on like that last night, telling one story after another about seeing human need, feeling the pain of others, and doing something about it.  Her organization, Serve Trust Ministries, operates a home for the aged, a home for lepers, homes for HIV/AIDS-infected children and adults, and an HIV/AIDS counseling center.  She has been instrumental in starting more than 40 Baptist churches in the villages surrounding her hometown of Narasaraopet.  And yet she retains the bubbling enthusiasm of the young woman who went to a Baptist Youth Conference in Zimbabwe nearly twenty years ago.  When she finished speaking last night I stepped to the podium and said:

“Now I think we know the difference between surrendering some and surrendering all.”

From the Cutting Room Floor

cutting room floorI laughed out loud over one of the comments on my last post.  After reading about how I had struggled for days and hours to come up with a sermon I still wasn’t satisfied with JP commented: “Is this an introduction for your class called ‘Anyone Can Preach’ beginning this Wednesday?” 

Good one, JP.  Please notice the class is not called “Anyone Can Preach Well.”

Anyway, I was looking over what I didn’t preach last Sunday, the pages and paragraphs I cut from the sermon.  I had been thinking I might re-tell the entire biblical story in just a few minutes—gallop from Genesis to the last few pages of Revelation and then slow the tempo down so we could appreciate together how God brings his story to an end.  I wanted to set it up as if the congregation were sitting in a theatre, watching all this happen on the stage in front of them.  I wrote a couple of pages along those lines but they just didn’t seem to “fit” into the sermon I was trying to preach.  So, rather than relegate them to the “sermon notes” file, where they will never see the light of day, I thought I would share them here. 


God’s Story: the Broadway Version

Aristotle once said that every good story must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Well, Revelation is the end of God’s story.  It began with creation, as the curtain opened on total darkness and the voice of God commanded, “Let there be light!”  Suddenly the lights blazed and there was God himself, calling all things into being: moving his finger in a sweeping arc across the sky to create the firmament; piling up heaps of earth and letting the waters run between them; calling forth vegetation until the earth was covered in green; putting the sun, moon, and stars in their proper places; conjuring up fish and fowl of every kind so that dolphins leaped from the waters and osprey swooped low; and then calling forth living creatures of every kind, cattle and sheep and creeping things; and finally making humankind in his own image and giving them dominion over all the earth.

Which may have been a mistake.

Because, in the middle of the story, humans have their way.  Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit; Cain kills his brother Abel; people become increasingly wicked; God decides to destroy them.  He sends a flood to wipe out all life on earth with the exception of righteous Noah.  God starts over again with Noah’s family but it isn’t long before the earth is as corrupt as before, with people trying to build towers to heaven and knock God off his throne.  So, instead of thinking everyone will love him and serve him God chooses one man: Abraham.  Maybe his family among all the families of the earth will be faithful.  But you know how it goes: there’s Abraham, Isaac, and rascally Jacob; there’s Joseph down in Egypt and Moses setting the people free; there’s wandering in the wilderness and promises to obey, but in the end God’s people go chasing after every other god in the land and God has no choice but to send them into exile.  They stay in Babylon for a long time and when they come back to Israel they are humbled.  They hardly dare to lift their voice to God and God doesn’t lift his voice to them.  For four hundred years there is silence in the land, and then the voice of a prophet—John the Baptist—crying, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near!”

And so it had. 

Jesus, the son of God, came walking the earth like an ordinary human being.  He healed the sick, cleansed the lepers, raised the dead, and cast out demons.  He promised eternal life to anyone who would believe in him, and for all his troubles they nailed him to a cross.  He died and was buried, but God raised him from the dead, set him on a throne in heaven, and gave him the name that is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.  But that’s not how it went.  Some people confessed Christ as Lord; most people did not.  Through the years his church has struggled to survive and when it has succeeded things have usually gotten worse rather than better.  Church fights, church splits, protestant reformations and countless denominations, and now here we are, at the beginning of the 21st century when it seems that Christianity is in decline and most people don’t come to church anymore.  Good Lord, what’s going to become of us?  Is this the end of the story? 

Well, no, probably not.

Aristotle said that every good story has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  God’s story had a definite beginning but the middle isn’t so definite.  We don’t know if we are near the beginning of the middle, or in the middle of the middle, or near the end of the middle.  For all we know we might be seconds away from the end, and maybe we are.  Someone may be standing at the side of the stage even now, getting ready to pull the rope that closes the curtain.  People sometimes ask me if I think we are living in the last days and when I ask them why they say, “Because things can’t get much worse than they are, can they?”  I don’t know.  It seems that in every age people have thought things were as bad as they could get.  Those Christians the book of Revelation was written for didn’t know how it could get any worse.  They were shaking in their shoes, grieving the loss of those who had been killed, and terrified that they might be next.  Out of that chaos and horror these words come sounding forth:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:1-4, NRSV).

Now that’s good news, no matter how the sermon turns out.

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Ministers

trashI thought I had Sunday’s sermon all wrapped up. 

I started early—on Monday afternoon—sitting in Starbucks with a tall coffee, reading over the text I had chosen from Revelation 21 and taking copious notes.  By the time I got to my lectionary study group on Tuesday morning I was overflowing with ideas.  I looked at the commentaries on Tuesday afternoon and talked with my worship planning team about how all this might come together.  I was excited.  I followed up with further study on Wednesday and then did what I usually do on Thursday, my day off, which is to let all those ideas simmer on the back burner of my brain, hoping that late in the afternoon an “Aha!” will come to me—an interesting way to preach that particular text.

That didn’t really happen for me on Thursday, and I ran out of time to draft an outline on Friday, which is something I usually try to do.  So, on Saturday morning I sat down with my laptop at the kitchen table and began to write.  By five o’clock that evening I had written nearly eight pages, double-spaced, which is more than enough for a sermon.  But when I sat down in front of the fireplace later to edit what I had written (and give out candy to the occasional trick-or-treater) I didn’t like it at all.  It looked like three different ideas that didn’t really hold together as one sermon.  I began to strike out whole sentences, and then paragraphs, and by 10:30 last night I was down to only the introduction of the sermon, which I liked better than anything else I had written.

So, I did what I usually do in a situation like that.  I went to bed and asked the Holy Spirit to come whisper in my ear during the night and tell me how to salvage the sermon.  When I woke up at five I had some ideas about how to do that.  I started jotting down fresh outlines and trying the words out loud while the clock kept ticking toward time to go.  Because I had set the clock back the night before I had an extra hour, but it still wasn’t enough.  I showered and dressed and hurried out the door into the rain with some radically revised pages in my hand and very little idea what would actually come out of my mouth when I began to preach.

I’m not writing this so that those of you who heard the sermon will console me with your comments.  I just wanted you to know what it’s like to be the preacher on those weeks when things don’t come together in the way you had hoped.  After a day like today I’m always grateful that I got through, and that when I opened my mouth some words came out (I hope they were good and even more than that I hope they were God’s), and I’m grateful that the people of God are usually willing to give the preacher another chance next week.  It makes me all the more eager to get an early start.

So, as darkness falls over the city of Richmond on this Sunday evening, I’m thinking ahead to next Sunday’s sermon, and already starting to take notes…