Friday, September 26, 2014

Open Door-Maybe Not!

This afternoon I read a post about a proposal to have a 'closed 2016 General Conference' when the United Methodist Church gathers for its global meeting.  It seems the 2012 General Coference got a little too messy for some folks.  Disruptions and unexpected challenges to the 'schedule' have led some to seek a way to keep the 'unwanted' out.  This strikes me as very odd for a Church whose theme has been "Open Doors, Open Hearts."

I want to compare that proposal to what I observed sitting in a really messy room this afternoon.  I was at my cable company's office.  Only the bravest of the brave dare enter such a den of human emotion.  Can you believe parents letting their children crawl around, stand and shout, drool, and approach you like you want to talk to them!  I saw people waiting (me too) clutching their 'number' praying someone got frustrated and left so we would not have to wait so long.  I watched people argue, challenge, perhaps even mildly threaten the 3 women behind the counter.  Grumbling, rumbling, and looks of defeat or anger moved from face to face.  The one thing we had in common was we wanted to say something about the service we were getting.

NOW let's give a cheer and credit to those 3 women.  They patiently dealt with each one of us.  They listened even when they knew we were not right.  They smiled and showed respect to each person.  That is the spirit of hospitality!  It would have been so much easier to have a 'closed' setting where they could control the number of people, determine who to talk with and who to ignore.  BUT life is messy and sometimes getting done what needs to be done requires us to roll up our sleeves and wade into the mess.

When we see disruption, not as a possibility for hearing others, but as an obstacle to doing the business of the church then we have no business to do.  Closing doors sends a chilling message.  Prayerfully we will see our delegates be willing to roll up their sleeves, listen to all, and together move the vision of being a church for all forward.  If we are not certain how to do this then I can provide the planning committee with the names of 3 women who can teach us. 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

In the Still of the Night

In the still of the night it came to me.  Despite a household filled with furniture from two homes, 4 adults, two children, three cats, and a dog there was a stillness in the night.  I was reading a Navajo mystery novel, the lights were low, Max the dog was asleep in 'his chair', and a cat slid slowly through the shadows.  I was very relaxed and, no, I had not had a glass of wine.  A sentence about one of the main characters stirred my mind.  "He retired, didn't he?"

After a little more than 3 years since my official retirement I think the time has come for me to really retire.  I had begun to think about serving a small church.  What was I thinking! I had taken a step back from being Pastor Norm several weeks ago when I decided not to do children's messages at church anymore.  I enjoy doing this but I have been doing it for 44 years.  Others can do it just as well as me.

I am teaching a study group through November.  They are a great bunch with inquiring minds.  Together we are thinking about how the Bible fits into our faith journey.  And I have some friends joining us via an online study group.  I love teaching!  This morning I am thinking this will be my last study group.  Others can lead just as well as me.

Earlier this month I led a memorial service for a dear friend who died too soon.  It is a privilege and an honor to be asked to celebrate an individuals life. Later, I learned that several attending wanted to know what church I was preaching at.  I am grateful for the compliment.  I will do services such as this but I no longer have the need to do funerals.  Others can do it just as well as me.

I am scheduled for one wedding and possibly a second wedding in 2015.  I look forward to doing these as ,again, it involves significant friendships.  It will be a joyful time.  Honored as I am to be asked, friendships will decide my answer.  Others can do weddings just as well as me.

Finally, preaching.  I love preaching and have done so several times this year.  To engage the congregation in reflecting on our faith and how we live it out has always been a delight.  I will continue to preach from time to time but am content to more and more be a pew person rather than a pulpit presence.  Others can do it just as well as me.

IF you are still reading thank you.  I felt the need to move these thoughts out of my mind and into black and white on a page.  In the still of the night I answered the question "He retired, didn't he?"  YES


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I Could Be Wrong

I shared a walk in Israel in March with a group that included a delightful young woman.  One day she remarked "I could be wrong but I am usually right."  She said it with a soft smile and a positive tone and I believe she probably is usually right.

My dilemma is that I find myself sharing my thoughts and views with some degree of certainty.  However, I am comfortable saying "I could be wrong."  So I want to wade into the muddy waters of theology and bible and it is likely you will decide this is one of those times Norm is wrong. 

My tradition, United Methodists (and that label is now a real struggle), is searching for a way to hopefully stay together and be faithful to the bible.  The hot button focus at the moment is inclusion of all people in terms of sexual orientation.  My observation is that the dialogue needs to begin with respectful and open conversation about what the bible says.

Some take a literal approach and say 'the bible says what it says.'  Some take a historical/critical approach and say 'the bible says what it says but we need to look at the context in which it was said' (and you thought I wasn't paying attention in how to use doublespeak).  Some of us like bible study groups that reflect our view.  Some of us like bible study groups that challenge our view. 

I pose two thoughts.  The first is that I think there is always the temptation to tell the people what they want to hear.  One defines reality rather than wrestling honestly with the possibility of having misunderstood reality.  It happens in politics, it happens in news media, and it happens in the church.  The second thought is simply this-can we stay together in faith community with those who understand the bible differently?  Is it okay to see different realities in the same faith community?

I could be wrong but I think this sits beneath the buzz and heated views swirling at the moment.  Is being gay a sin?  Do Muslims and Christians believe in the same God?  Can I believe that every word in the bible is without error?  Can I believe that the bible contradicts itself?  Is it possible we have misconceptions about heaven and hell?  Is there more than one way to God?

It took me awhile but I ended up in the muddy waters.  I could be wrong but I believe until we are willing to be together in the muddy waters we will continue to muddle along becoming more and more irrelevant to more and more people.  I could be wrong but I believe God calls us to live out the vision of love, compassion, and justice for all the peoples of the earth.  AND THAT DRIVES MY PASSION TO LIVE WITH FAITH AND DOUBT.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Defining God

This Sunday was a simple day filled with everyday moments.  I left the warmth of my bed at 6:30am (and I wasn't even preaching!) to shovel 2 inches of snow from our driveway.  A bagel and orange juice breakfast followed by a hot shower prepared me for going to Sunday worship.  Cheryl, Kristen, and I were pleasantly surprised by having good friends, Pastors Hugh and Erma Rohrer, join us as their church was snowed out of services.  It was a communion Sunday and we had-for me-those awful, tasteless wafers and grape juice.  Surely Jesus meant for us to have two of the joys of life-good bread and wine!

Lunch was at the Southside Diner where they might not call out "Norm" when I enter but they do know my name!  A solid breakfast for me at 1:00 in the afternoon and some teasing with the wait staff.  Then home to shovel off what the city plows threw back onto my driveway.  With the promise/threat of bitter cold and more snow the next 3 days it was off to the library to pick up some reading material.  Man does not live by television alone.

Two pain pills and a recliner carried me away for a winter's nap.  A light supper and washing the dishes brings me to the first shadows of the night.  A simple day with everyday moments.  In the darkness a siren now echoes and a life faces a crisis-may it become song and not sorrow for those at the end of the ambulance run.  A God given day and I choose to end by sharing with you a poem by Jane Kenyon.  Her poetry speaks powerfully to me.  She defines God in her poem Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks. 

I am the blossom pressed in a book, found again after two hundred years...
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper....
When the young girl who starves sits down to a table she will sit beside me....
I am food on the prisoner's plate...
I am water rushing to the wellhead, filling the pitcher until it spills....
I am the patient gardener of the dry and weedy garden....
I am the stone step, the latch, and the working hinge...
I am the heart connected by joy...the longest hair, white before the rest....
I am there in the basket of fruit presented to the widow...
I am the mush rose opening unattended, the fern on the boggy summit....
I am the one whose love overcomes you, already with you when you think to call my name...

And so a simple day ends with a simple definition of God that comforts me and reminds me of where to look for God's presence.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Shivering Santa

When I saw my breath early this morning I knew bell ringing was going to be very cold for this Santa's helper.  Fearlessly and somewhat foolishly I donned my thin Santa suit and pulled on my non-insulated rubber boots.  For two hours I would experience 9 degrees of separation from being the cool Claus and being the cold Claus.  My cheeks turned a bright red.  My toes froze and ceaseless dripping came from my nose.  My fingers, inside thin white gloves, struggled to hold on to the bell as they stiffened. 

I could have dressed for the weather and been much more comfortable.  I must admit, after about two minutes, that I wished I had come wrapped like we wrap up children before turning them out into the snow.  Holly and jolly are hard to do when icicles form on your beard and a chill wind blows the smile off your face.  What was I thinking?

But, oh the rewards of placing S. Claus outside Wal Mart this morning!  A woman came running up to me to ask if there was a fee to have a picture taken with me.  I said 'No.'  She ran back to her car and wrestled a young puppy ('afraid of people' she said) and promptly dropped him in my arms.  I offered my best smile as the tan and white pup squirmed in my arms.  And I thought 'Please don't let him pee on my suit.'

I heard a little boy's voice 'Santa!'.  I turned to see a boy of two or three running to wrap his arms around me.  I shivered inside when I saw the slimy, green thing hanging from his nose.  And I thought "Please don't wipe your nose on my leg."  A mother had her picture taken with me followed shortly by her teenage daughter coming back for a picture while planting a kiss on my frozen cheek.

Child after shy child came up to me with eyes filled with joy.  Men called out telling me they had been 'good' this year and could I bring the boat, the gun, fun in the sun this year.  Inside the store, much in need of a restroom break, Santa stopped to talk to each one who called to him while wondering if he was going to pee on his own knee. 

9 degrees of separation gave way to the amazing: a parent thanking me for bending to talk to her little boy...a family thanking me for being willing to have a picture taken (their only Santa picture of the season)...a child promising me they would go to sleep tonight...the warmth of one greeting after another in the parking lot and store.

Being a Santa is such fun.  Being a Santa willing to hug a snot-nosed child, wrestle a pup, listen to a child's wish, and always making time for one more visit thawed this Popsicle Santa time and time again.  I am so glad I dressed, not for the weather, but for the season of joy!  (PS-It only took me 2 hours and a hot shower to thaw my fingers enough to type!)

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The Dark Side of Christmas

This Saturday I will become 'Santa's Helper' once again.  I really enjoy the twinkle in a child's eyes when they see me wrapped in red with my white beard.  My heart thrills to hold babies who look at me in wide-eyed wonder with no idea of what has happened to them.  I delight in whispered secrets, hugs that hurt, and even a kiss or two.  Christmas is the most 'wonder full' time of the year.

It is also one of the darkest times of the year for some of us.  Prior to my retirement I came to appreciate and look forward to our 'Longest Night Service' on December 21.  While the number of folks attending the service was never great, each person's attendance was significant.  We were a gathering of people holding on in the midst of our our pain and sorrow while living in the dark side of Christmas.

Psalm 88 is a song of sorrow and lament.  The last verse is a painful one to read or hear: "You have deprived me of friends and companions, and all that I know is the dark."  As Christmas comes with carols in the air, shoppers with a blank stare, gifts galore, parties and more there are those who carry heavy hearts.  It is tempting to try to 'jolly' them out of their sadness.  It is tempting to push them to parties that hurt to much when it seems all is wonderful but not really for them.  It is tempting to grab hold of the baby Jesus and tell another-"See, there is good news and great joy coming."

That is not what they need.  They know all that.  They feel more than that.  They do appreciate our presence.  Yet, perhaps the best gift we can give to those living in the dark side of Christmas is affirmation that it is okay to feel the way they feel.  Blue Christmas is more than a sentimental song from years ago-it is a reality for some people.  Professor Ellen Davis, commenting on Psalm 88, wrote these helpful words: "sometimes the only act of faith that is possible--for those who suffer and those who minister to them--it to name our desolation before God, and to implicate God in our suffering."

Reality is that life, at times, hurts so much we can barely rise up and function.  The Christmas season may be one of those times.  If you know of someone living in the dark side of Christmas this year, your gift to them is understanding, patience, acceptance of how they feel, granting them space, and sitting in faith with them.  For I believe God is with us this Christmas even in the dark side.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Do More Than Pray

I have to 'do more than pray' as our nation considers a military strike in Syria.  I admit that I do not have any clear idea what the right or best answer is to the question of whether we should or should not strike now.  I also want readers to know I was an activist against the Vietnam War and was opposed to the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

So this is another time I have to do more than pray.  I have to ask myself hard questions: when more than 100,000 people have been killed by all sides in Syria what is the sense of us drawing a 'red line'?  While we are drawing this line what about any 'red line' for the ongoing violent conflicts in Africa that continue to take innocent lives? How much 'military aid' are we already providing to the rebels?  Since there seems to be many 'shades' of rebel (some like us, some do not) what happens if there is a regime change?  As a nation, what other options have we really considered? And the questions go on.

My United Methodist denomination has called for a 'day of prayer' for the people of Syria.  I'm good with that but I have to do more than pray.  I have to educate myself, question policy statements, challenge any pronouncement that seems to invoke 'we got it right this time', share my views with others, including my congressional leaders.  Finally, I wonder if there is wisdom in the American vision of exporting our form of democracy to Syria or  other Middle Eastern nations?  I have seen the clothing in stores that says 'one size fits all.'  That doesn't work for me and I am not convinced it works for the world.

However you feel and whatever side you find yourself on in this crucial decision all I asking is suggesting is 'do more than pray.'