Sunday, November 29, 2009

Service of Remembrance

Each of the candles in this photo represents the life of a loved one remembered at the annual "Service of Remembrance" at my church. Each person present at this service completed a card with the name of their remembered friend or family member prior to the service. During the service, each name is read and the family member(s) come forward and light one of these candles. As the next name is read, the candle-lighter passes a taper to the next family.

It is moving simply to hear the name of each person read. Some of the people named are people I knew and some are not, but as I looked into the faces of those lighting the candles and saw the interactions of friends and family members I felt connected the life that was honored. Some grieved with a grief that is fresh and raw and others with a grief that has been tempered with time. However, for each person, the holidays present an opportunity to connect with the memory and absence of the lost loved one. Though it was pointed out that we, as people of faith, do not grieve as those who have no hope, we do feel the physical absence of those we lose while we remain here.

It is interesting that even though I did not have a connection with all of those honored tonight, I could identify with the grief and loss experienced by their friends and family. As I allowed myself to connect with their grief, I was connected with my own losses (past and present). As a community of faith, we joined with one another in expressing grief. In doing so, we participated in a healing ritual that helped us deal with our losses.

For those of you who find the holidays to be a particularly difficult time of grieving, I offer my prayer for God's peace for you. May you find a place of healing and comfort.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Starbuck's Rant

If you were to ask me, I would tell you that I am not a coffee drinker. I don't like plain coffee. I don't regularly just drink a random cup of coffee. However, with enough milk and syrup in it, I really like a coffee-flavored beverage from Starbuck's. My favorite is a peppermint mocha. Several times a week I will go around the corner and order a "Grande, non-fat, no whip, peppermint mocha." Which, unfortunately, usually sets me back about $4. It used to be $4.32 until I learned about registered gift cards. With a registered gift card you could get your extra syrup free and just like that, my $4.32 became $4.

However, when the holidays rolled around, Starbucks offers a "Holiday" Peppermint Mocha that sells for $4.42 in the Grande size and your registered card doesn't get you nothin! Last year, I spent my days at Starbucks asking the cashier if they would not ring my drink as the "Holiday" version, but just as a Mocha with peppermint and "Presto" I got my syrups free. When the holidays rolled around this year, same issue. So, this year, I wrote to Starbuck's to say, "What's up with the added expense and no free syrup?" However, their response seems to have been to notify the stores to not ring holiday drinks any other way than as the holiday version. So now my $4 Grande costs me $4.42. This is just CRAZY to me.

There are new benefits coming in December for registered gift cards and I can't wait for those.

However, as I write this, I am reminded that there are literally MILLIONS of people in Africa alone that do not have clean water to drink and that those people must sometimes walk hours a day to get what water they have. This fact alone means that young women do not get education because they are carrying water all freakin' day.

So, I am not happier about my $4.42 Mocha, but it kind of keeps things in perspective for me.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Thought for the Day: Leaves in Fall

I was driving back from working out today and in a yard that was ahead of me I saw a magnificent maple tree that appeared to be glowing in florescent colors of red, orange, and yellow. The tree was stunning. As I drove by I looked at a few individual leaves and noted the color of each. The leaves in and of themselves were beautiful, but the collection of all of them together was what made the stunning image.

So, in this way, the Kingdom of God can be compared to a maple tree in fall. Each person is gifted and beautiful in and of themselves bearing the glory of God in themselves, but it is when we exist together that colors blend into a rich palate of vibrant color that is the Church. Therefore, let us bless the giftedness and uniqueness of our brothers and sisters and strive demonstrate God's love to on another. In so doing, we show the world the love of God.

[Jesus prayed] The glory which you have given me I have given to [my disciples], that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. John 17:22-23

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Pastoral Care: It's Not About Me

In some circles these days there are discussions about who should be the focus of Pastoral Care. Military, hospital, and other chaplains (and Pastoral Counselors) have debated to what extent the religious views of the care giver should be expressed in care of the "care receiver." In the U.S. Navy there is controversy about a prayer offered for all of the crew of one vessel that was prayed "in Jesus' name." If the prayer was prayed on the behalf of ALL people, should the Christian chaplain pray in Jesus' name. In my training and experience, Pastoral Care is about me offering care the reflects the faith tradition of the person that to whom I am giving care. I had a moving experience today that reflects just this point.

I have been seeing an older person in therapy for several months that has been diagnosed with cancer. (Please excuse the cumbersome language avoiding pronouns in this piece, but I want to protect the identity of this person.) When I first met this person, they were not expected to live longer than 4 to 6 months and our sessions focused on preparing for death and issues of faith. The chemotherapy that this client has undergone has been successful in treating the cancer and this person is now a candidate for surgery and the chances of long-term survival is now better than 70%.

Almost every time I met with this person we talked about the fact that this person was never baptized by their family in the faith tradition in which they grew up. Since reaching adulthood, this person has had a personal sense of faith, but has not been connected with any one congregation. As this person has faced the possibility of death, the issue of not being baptized has been brought up as a matter of concern. We have spent several sessions discussing what their beliefs are about baptism and how it is related to salvation for them. We have discussed the historical traditions and meaning of baptism in those traditions. Each time we came to place where this person felt that something was missing from their life, but not being sure exactly how all the pieces fit together for them.

As we met today, we came to this same issue of baptism again. There was a greater sense of urgency than usual because this person is facing a potentially healing, but dangerous surgery. This person could not find peace in the possibility of death with uncertainty about eternity. This person could articulate faith, but felt incomplete. After a lengthy discussion and at this person's request, I agreed to perform a baptism in my office today.

As a Baptist, I do not believe that baptism saves anyone. I also believe that baptism should be done in the context of a community of faith. I believe that baptism by immersion is the appropriate (though not only acceptable) mode of baptism. However, after discussion today, I retrieved a bowl of water from the kitchen. I prayed with my client and then sprinkled in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My client reported that they felt differently. They reported that they felt more relaxed and prepared for surgery and more connected with God.

I performed a religious activity that did not fit with my faith understanding in order to provide care for someone who found it meaningful. In the larger picture, I am not sure exactly what this baptism means, but I have no doubt that I provided good Pastoral Care today and I felt the presence of God in a mighty way. What a blessing.

Friday, September 11, 2009

What is human nature?

In several conversations this week, I was engaged with others about how our outlook on life, our view of God, and our view of human nature (among other things) affects the way we live our life. Tonight I watched the History Channel with different videos of the events of 9/11/01.

It was interesting to note that the events of 9/11 were an act of misguided religious fervor and hatred. There were those that certainly took advantage of these events and there were those who responded immediately with shouts and acts of hatred. However, there was story after story of people helping others, offering water, carrying others, and sacrificing themselves for others. It raises the question about whether human nature is good or bad.

There are those that insist that humans are flawed, bad, selfish, and evil and there are those that insist we are blessed with a spark of the divine that instills us with a capacity for selflessness, love, and kindness. So many times our theologies and our lives are built upon believing that humans are one or the other. Some emphasize the sin nature of humans and their brokenness, while others minimize the idea of sin and look at the human capacity for altruism. What we believe to be fundamentally true about humans affects how we approach relationship and interactions with others. It seems an odd thing on which to be polarized, and yet, there are divisions and conflict between people and churches that are based on this very split. The difficulty seems to be in our desire to reduce things to simple divisions of black or white, right or wrong, good or bad.

It seems more difficult for us to live with the tension of "both/and" in anything. In the end, people are not good or bad; they are good and bad. That Jesus needed to die for a broken people separated by God always meant to me that goodness was impossible without Jesus. I have learned from others that even broken people have the capability of goodness from time to time and I believe that God may even be present when people act in ways that are compatible with God's ways.

In the end, I was broken and sinful, but I am still broken and sinful. I am also blessed, gifted, and forgiven. It is not not that I WAS bad and now I am "good", but that I have a sinful nature and am in need of reconciliation with God on a daily basis while I am also trying to live out that love in the service of others. I struggle some days and I feel grounded in God's love others. My guess is, so do you. So, when I struggle, I will look to you for help, but take heart, when you struggle, I will do my best to bring the light in me to you.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Be Still and Know That I Am God (Psalm 46:10)

It is ironic that I have not had time to sit and write these thoughts recently. A few weeks ago, the sermon at church was on "Finding a Quiet Place" to be with God. We observed some ACTUAL silence in the service. I realized then how rarely I have actual silence in my life. There may be times that are somewhat quiet, but there are emails, facebook, voicemails and other distractions. I rarely accomplish actual mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual silence.

At a seminar a couple of weeks ago, oddly enough on how to utilize the internet and social media to reach people with the message of our non-profits, I learned just how "A.D.D." our culture is. I realized again just how many times a day we are bombarded with messages and how impatient we are as a society. During this class we watched the video clip again of Louis C.K. on the Conan show and I was reminded how much we take technology for granted and how immune we have become to the miraculous.

Then...I went on vacation. For the past few years our vacations have consisted of going to youth camp with the church youth or going on large family vacations with my whole extended family (which are nice in a different way), but this year, we went on a trip with just our four family members -Lynda, the girls, and me. We visited some colleges and then went to stay with my aunt and uncle at the beach for a few days, but it was so much more than that. We rode long hours in the car together and laughed. We ate meals together and talked and laughed. We shared thoughts, hopes, and ideas. We heard stories of our common ancestors and shared some of our lives as well. We played every day in the waves of the ocean, something that has long renewed all of our spirits. One day after body surfing and jumping waves until I could hardly stand, I went and laid on my towel and watched the clouds drift over the beach. Though there were people all around, there was a wonderful sense of peace in that moment as I wondered at the magnificence of the ocean and beauty of creation. I thanked God for the gift of my beautiful family and God's fabulous creation.

I am blessed that I don't have to go on vacation to have experiences like this with my family, but unfortunately I don't take the time to be mindful of the moment and things around me on a daily basis. It is in these moments of awareness and sense of gratitude that my soul is fed and I have a sense of peace. Here's to more silence, being still, and drawing closer to God.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What Does It Mean To Love Another Anyway?

One of the most Godly men that I have met in the past several years is Ryan Tucker. Ryan Tucker is planting a church in Billings, MT. Ryan has a heart for God and seeks to embody the "Good News" of Jesus Christ in every aspect of his life. He is creative in seeking ways to bring the Good News of Christ to people who may need to hear that news. Billings has the most churches of any town in Montana, but 85% of the population of Billings does not attend one of the churches in the area. Ryan has no desire, whatsoever, to take members of the churches in Billings. They are having their needs met in those places. What he wants to do is develop an outreach to those in Billings that will never darken the doors of those established churches.

As Ryan has been seeking to connect with others, he began spending time at a local microbrewery and talking to folks there. The owner of the microbrewery is not a church attender, but has been kind to Ryan. After weeks of spending time there, Ryan felt led to ask the owner about the possibility of holding services in the microbrewery. Ryan prepared a proposal for the owner to read and asked the owner if he could email "something" to him. The owner agreed and then said, "Ryan, you've been wanting to start a church here, right? Would it be just too weird to have services here?" It was amazing that this man who does not have a church home anywhere, offered to have worship services held in his "bar." If this is not in line with the teaching and practice of Jesus, I have no idea what is!

My father-in-law, Bill, is currently in a nursing home in Billings. (See my previous post.) He was an early member of one of the first Baptist Churches in Billings and literally helped build the church from the ground up. However, since Bill entered the nursing home, NOT ONE person from that church has been to visit him. However, Ryan has been to visit him every single week since he learned of my wife's family.

Ryan's church is currently struggling with support of its core members and part of their difficulty is the hate mail that they have been receiving demanding they stop what they are doing and repent of their sins. I don't know if these letters are coming from members of the other churches in town or someone else, but I cannot imagine too much that would be further from the teachings and wishes of Jesus.

I John 4:7-8, & 11-12 says, 7Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us.

I cannot believe that God is honored or glorified in the hatred of one person for another. Ryan Tucker has nothing from which to "repent" in what he has done to start this church. I don't believe that he is perfect, but there is a depth and maturity in his ministry that does not deserve the attacks - especially attacks by other professed believers.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Spring Break 2009: Ode to Bill

I spent my daughters’ spring break last week visiting my in-laws in Montana. I always approach these trips with a bit of ambivalence. Montana is a beautiful place and there are some fun things to there. However, I know that I will also be in the company of those like my mother-in-law, Thelma, that still blame me for Lynda moving to Nashville after college. The trip this year was complicated a bit more by the fact that my father-in-law, Bill, is in a nursing home. Each day we spent part of the day at the nursing home visiting with him. (This was probably not the most exciting Spring Break my teenaged daughters could imagine. Not that they said anything negative about it.)

However, I did come away with some reflections from my time with my in-laws that are worth noting. My wife’s family is worried and annoyed with their mother because of the pressure she puts on herself to monitor her husband’s care every day. The nursing home staff, I’m sure, loves her hyper-vigilance of all that they do. (Granted there are some things that need some attention in his care.) My mother-in-law gives EVERY afternoon to caring for and sitting with her husband in the nursing home. Her life IS caring for her husband. I have my own concerns for her well-being in this, but I did note the dedication she has in caring for and being with her husband. I also hear her say that she does these things because of the years she has spent with him, feeling that he put her interests first and pampered her. While I would argue for a bit more balance in the mix, it is moving, in some ways, to see that level of dedication to one another after 59 years of marriage.

The saddest part of the trip for me is seeing Bill in the nursing home. Bill suffers from a form of dementia, but not in such a way that he has lost touch with reality. He seems to come and go in his recognition of those around him. He also seems to have suffered some “mini” strokes or such and at this point is not able to walk, feed himself, or speak well. When he is awake (which is not often) he seems to observe the activity around him, but cannot or does not comment on it. My experience was that often he was like a person trapped in his own body; aware of what is going on around him, but not able to interact verbally or physically. What makes this profoundly sad is the level of activity and creativity that Bill had just a few years ago when he retired with big plans for his retirement years.

Bill has been a man of many gifts. While I have not always (if ever) agreed with his political or theological views, I could not deny the quality of his character or his gifted abilities. Bill has been a man who lived out his beliefs. This, to me, is the mark of a man with integrity. Even if I did not agree with him, I had to respect the depth of his integrity. Bill obviously cared for his wife. Though they often seemed to argue and complain about one another, it became clear over time that they each understood this as a mark of the care that each had for the other. Thelma describes several acts of kindness and little acts of service that demonstrated for her the depth of Bill’s love.

Bill was also a gifted craftsman, carpenter, and gardener. As a woodworker, Bill was able to craft beautiful pieces of furniture and other items. We have a cradle at our house made by Bill for our daughters. We have shelves, quilt racks, bowls and trivets all carefully constructed from carefully chosen beautiful wood. Bill could build anything from cabinets to complete room additions. He added a room to their house and completely remodeled their kitchen. Each thing he did demonstrated his strong attention to detail. He was as gifted outside as in. He could pour concrete, build flower beds, or anything else outside you could imagine. As when any artist develops his or her gifts to such a level, Bill’s abilities inspired a sense of awe that was a shadow of the creativity of God. The beauty of this was the quiet humility with which Bill used his gifts for others. Bill built equipment and props for use with children with special needs in the schools. He used his gifts to literally build a church building (with some help, of course). He was generous and caring in the use of his talents and abilities.

One cannot speak of Bill, however, without mentioning his gardens. From the carefully manicured flower beds and custom-made walkways to the raised vegetable gardens, Bill was as gifted in the garden as he was in his workshop. A picture of Bill with his prize of a 3lb tomato currently hangs outside his room at the nursing home as a testament to his ability. Flowers, fruits, and vegetables all grew beautifully under Bill’s careful attention. Without ever being among the “tree-hugging” crowd, Bill insisted on organic gardening. He could kill all kinds of blight and insects with natural concoctions that he whipped up in the house. He had natural ways of fertilizing and caring for his plants and they always responded by producing for him. Again, the care of these plants was representative of God’s care and the beauty of Bill’s gardens a reflection of the beauty of God’s larger creation.

As much as Bill could produce in the garden, Thelma could process, can, and freeze anything. The family could enjoy the fruits of Bill’s gardens all year round. Thelma carefully attended to the inside of the house as meticulously as Bill tended to the outside. In this way, they reflect the stereotypes of their generation, but don’t make the mistake of labeling them. My wife’s strong convictions of feminine strength and challenging meaningless authoritarian traditions are rooted in the strength of her mother. Thelma is a powerful woman who does not seem to comprehend the power that she wields.

Though my in-laws are sometimes frustrating to me, I have to honor the strength, integrity, and commitment that they embody in their lives and in their marriage.

Monday, January 5, 2009

A Stranger In A Strange Land

In 1987 I satisfied my one remaining foreign language requirement in college by studying Spanish in Spain. I was to stay with a Spanish family and would study with others at a language institute in Madrid. After a two-week tour of Spain, we arrived in Madrid. My
roommate and I were given enough money for taxi fare and a piece of paper that had on it the address of the apartment where we would be living for the next several weeks. We got in the taxi and could only point to the address on the paper to indicate where we wanted to go. When we arrived, we walked up a few flights of stairs and knocked on the door of our host family. They were very friendly and invited us in. The only difficulty was that my roommate and I spoke very little Spanish and our host family spoke even less English. We were going to have to learn the language in order to get by.

Every day we walked from our apartment several blocks to the school where we studied. We entered class the first day only to learn that our instructor spoke NO English. This was going to be a bigger challenge than we imagined. Our classes were in Spanish, we had textbooks in Spanish, and we lived with families that only spoke Spanish. Every time we went to eat or to
purchase anything, we encountered the same difficulty of not being sure if we were communicating well enough to get what we needed or wanted, but we also had a concern about the exchange rate of every transaction to make sure we knew how much we were paying. After struggling day after day to get around the city, my roommate and I would sit in our room in the evening and talk about our day – in English. Those moments were so nice. I did not have to work to find the right words or worry about being misunderstood. Communicating was easy and it just flowed. It was an odd oasis that would usually not last very long because our “mother” would knock on the door and in a stern voice say, “No ingles,EspaƱol olamente” (No English, Spanish only).

By the time I left Spain, I could speak enough Spanish to get around and carry on some rudimentary conversations. Much of the Spanish spoken around me was still lost on me and every conversation required effort on my part. I learned a lot about Spanish culture and appreciated a different pace of life, but I often felt lonely because I could not just connect wih someone who spoke my native language. Getting to speak my native language was a breath of fresh air in every day.

At PCCT, our new initiative to reach those in the Nashville area for whom Spanish is their primary language is an attempt to provide that breath of fresh air. Eduardo Lelli, our Spanish-speaking therapist, understands the challenges not only in language, but other challenges to adapting to a new culture. While not every Spanish-speaking client will come from the same culture or speak the same dialect of Spanish, Eduardo is providing a service that hopefully allows someone who must struggle with words and other communication to have a place to relax and breathe a bit while trying to work on the very human challenges of emotional, relational, and spiritual health. It is myhope and prayer that PCCT is always a place like that for all who seek our services.

My experiences in Spain and the experiences of our clients at the Pastoral Couneling Centers is why I am bosting this in opposition to the "English Only" proposal in Nashville. Please vote against this proposal. Early voting is open now.