And to think it all began with The Church Without Pants

Thursday, December 27, 2012

And so this is Christmas ...

Christmas Eve is supposed to be that wondrous time when the hope and anticipation of Advent collide with the very real and living presence of God.  It's where the "Now and Not Yet" of Advent begins to coalesce into the "Now and Yet Again" of God's kingdom come on earth. 

We gathered on Christmas Eve for our traditional Tortilla Soup with Tamale Feast.  I'd add, "as we always do" but that would be redundant since this is our tradition.  It is also tradition that we open up our meal and our home to guests who are far from home and exchange some simple gifts.  We invite them to worship with us and then share in a late supper. We do it so some people don't have to be alone on Christmas Eve.

Now before you start feeling guilty about how you spend Christmas Eve, it's not like we invite the homeless shelter to bring all their overnight guests to the house.  Usually it's just students who come over and that's simply a function of who we hang with. And students, whether they're International or just can't get home for the holidays, are like most of us.  They don't like to be alone either.

But this year was different. All of our students either made it home, had better offers, or they heard we were serving Tortilla Soup and Tamales, again. So, having plenty of tamales and no students to munch them down, we tried something else. Joining me, my wife and our son at the table were three friends: Queen Anne*, Sarah*, and Job* who, even though they live nearby, thought that the offer of Tortilla Soup and Mama Inez's tamales was better than a Home Alone Christmas Eve. 

Sarah arrived first (Anne had joined us for her very first Christmas Eve worship ever) and there was a moment of recognition between them as Sarah put down her purse. Introductions seemed unnecessary but we held our breath as they began to place how and from where they knew each other. Turns out that Anne and Sarah were distantly related by marriage through their respective "exes" and hadn't seen each other in over 20 years. Cousins-in-law twice removed, or something.  This had all the ingredients

What are the chances?

Breath holding escalated into intentionally trying to deprive ourselves of oxygen in the hopes that we'd faint. I considered doing the legendary "stand up" routine so I could just hyperventilate and get it over with... Anything would be better than resuming an ancient family feud that would ruin my tamale dinner.  We felt like we were on that icy road heading toward the ditch. The buzzing/ringing in my ears was saying, "No soup for you!"

My vision was beginning to fail, meaning I was about to go down, when I saw them embracing.  So, there was no feud ... I took a shallow breath ...

They were smiling and they weren't blaming us for resurrecting memories of ex-husbands and long parted families.  I took a second, deeper breath ... My vision was returning.

We let them catch up, but only until I could see again and not so much that the tamales got cold.

Anne is a single parent now estranged from her only child. When she finds work, it usually involves intense physical labor.  She is easy to find at the local farmers market where she is often helping out different farmers setting up and taking down their stalls.  Anne heats her home with, and cooks on, a wood-burning stove. She chops her own wood - not only because she can, but because she must. To say she doesn't have a lot of money would be an exaggeration. 

Sarah, Anne's distant relation through long sundered marriages, is also a single parent with a grown daughter and now finds herself in the enviable position of getting that "second chance" with a child that so many of us wish for. Only Sarah's second chance involves raising both daughter and grandchild while working full time.  And she is at the age where trips to the doctor are less and less about routine check ups and more and more about diagnostic lab work, exploratory surgery and potentially serious diagnoses.

And then there's Job.  A retired pastor, he's spending his first Christmas alone after putting his wife of more than 50 years in a full-time care facility - living with a spouse with Alzheimer's had finally become more than he could handle.  His son-in-law, his daughter's husband and also his good friend, was recently diagnosed with an aggressive and incurable cancer. Oh, and Job's sister died on Sunday.  He'll bury her on Thursday.

And it wasn't just Job, Sarah and the Queen who brought their broken-ness to the table.  To say that my life is all in order or that we host these dinners so people can lay their burdens at our feet or across our broad shoulders is beyond laughable.  Between us all, this had the potential of being a real downer of a Christmas.  I even picked out the perfect carol** for us to sing:

Merry Christmas! (Ungh)
Merry Christmas! (Ungh)
Sickness, Sorrow and Despair
People dying everywhere
Merry Christmas! (Ungh)
Merry Christmas! (Ungh)

So our gift exchange began with an appetizer of unexpected family reunion and continued with soup.  It's a tasty but spicy broth, muy caliente, according to some and it went well as our gathering of the wounded shared stories of recent hurts, old scars, and present dangers.  As we moved to the tamales (also on the caliente side) we began to speak to one another about some of our very real doubts and fears. 

But moving on to dessert the Spirit of God, perhaps recognizing an appropriate moment, reminded us that not all of life is too hot to handle.

Our dessert came from Queen Anne's kitchen and she truly shared of her wealth and from the abundance given her. She chopped wood (the weather was mild that day) and fired up the oven.  Then she baked not one, but three of the most beautiful and amazing pies we've ever had. I'd like to think that her generosity comes from God (because, where else can it come from?) and that deep down she knows that she can share this because in the Kingdom of Now and Yet Again there is enough for everyone.  I also hope that somewhere, deep down, she also knows that she (along with anyone else who seeks God) is considered royalty in God's realm.

And part way through dinner, Sarah laughed.  Why, at an age when we wonder what the doctor's next bit of bad news will be, are we not only raising our children but our children's children as well? And Sarah laughed?  There are many reasons to laugh:  One might say laughing is better than crying.  Someone else might admit that there will always be those times when we have to laugh at ourselves and our helplessness.  I think another reason Sarah laughed is because she loves her daughter more than anything and her granddaughter is the joy of her life. And maybe our Sarah also laughed because in God's Now and Yet Again Kingdom she knows that she won't be alone.  Besides, laughing makes it easier to smile when help comes from expected places.  

Then there's our old friend Job. How often do we find ourselves alone and unable to find comfort, or wind up in that foreign place of being unable to offer comfort because our own grief threatens to swallow us? Our Job asked some really hard questions on Christmas Eve.  None of us had answers but we were able to offer our hands, shoulders and hearts to him. And our Job decided, for that night and the next day anyway, to remain faithful and to trust in the God of "Now and Yet Again," the God who restores all things and makes all things new.

And so the gift exchange continued through dessert.  Prompted by Anne's generosity we forgot about singing "Ungh" as we each took turns listening, offering both ears and tears.  We offered each other our shoulders and hands and responded with hugs and silent prayers. We held each other up that night and I'd like to think that during this dysfunctional family gathering God, even though there were no happy Hallmark endings, was in our midst.

The griefs and the comforts we shared reminded me of words from Jesus, the Grown-Up Christmas Child, in Matthew 5:

 “Blessed are the poor ..."
 “Blessed are those who mourn ..."
 “Blessed are those who are humble ... "

*Not their real names
** Sung to the tune of "Happy Birthday! (Ungh)"

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Uniform Resource Locator - Part 1

Saruman and Eddie Munster shown recently debating the existence of Sauron while accusing each other of being evil Sith Lords
We Are Not Alone

I remember a day when URL stood for University Religious Leader.  Outside of that small group who were actually campus ministers, chaplains or other types of religious leaders serving within the university community no one would have any idea what that acronym referred to.

In my later years I actually became a university religious leader and I’ve been an active member of the University Religious Leaders group for several years now.  I pay a yearly fee for that privilege and in exchange I get a name tag, free bus rides, and I have to attend at least four URL meetings a year.

Our URL isn't the most diverse group.  There are about 40 "Christian" groups represented and only a few attend from other faiths and religious traditions.  The speakers present topics and issues that, even if they not particularly interesting, are usually pertinent to anyone who works with college students.  And there are always announcements or bulletins that we all need to hear. 

Like the rest of our meetings, the announcements are supposed to be pertinent to anyone in the room, even the lone Jew or solitary Wiccan, and we're not supposed to announce or promote activities or events that are specific to our ministry. However, we can (and should) invite the URL to participate in events that are broader than the scope of any one particular group.  Every once in a while as one of these “broader” events shows up on the calendar there is a well-intentioned and passionate plea to further broaden that event by appealing to anyone in the room.

One such event is a seasonal clean-up activity that involves going to the homes of elderly and not-so-abled people in our community to help prepare their houses for the change in seasons.  The students do things like rake leaves, clean gutters, and wash windows and cars.  There is a winter version of this event and a spring version.  The winter version happened just last month and over 900 students from nearly every religious and irreligious tradition on campus were involved.  Considering that the two campus ministries who sponsor and take on the leadership roles in this project have maybe 60 people between them, this event seemed to be a pretty good demonstration of how serving others can be unifying.

But every once in a while we forget the rules and we forget who else might be in the room and the announcements sound something like this ...
“Hey, I’m Gunner and I'm part of the Doctrinally Insightful Christian Know-it-all group here on campus, and us DICKs, together with the girls of the Submissive Handmaids Awaiting Grooms cooperative house are sponsoring what we hope will be the most ultimately evangelistic evangelizing outreach this campus has ever experienced and we want to invite everyone here to bring their groups to this awesomely awesome show. It will be a three-day, three-way debate between internationally renowned scientifically atheistic atheists, our own national DICK leaders, and I think … ya, it’s the Methodists this year.  The SHAGers will be baking cookies and brownies and serving coffee and other yummy edifying snacks and drinks.  On behalf of Jesus, we always win this debate in a convincing and convicting style so bring all your unsaved prospects, er, friends.  Last time we did this the atheists and the American Baptist debaters converted before the end of the meeting.  They were in tears.  God is so awesome … So start praying that all those students you and your group have been targeting as friends can come to this.  All of us DICKs will be there for advice and  counseling and defend the faith because we’ve got all the correct answers to those hard-to-answer questions that might come up during the sessions. There's nothing like proving someone wrong to help prove you're right, plus, it builds up our own faith.  And it's a total headrush.

“So, yeah, the DICKs and the SHAGers are really excited about this and it would be great if for once everyone in this room could get together on something.  I know we pretty much ignore you non-hipsters, mainlines and “progressives” (Gunner does the “quote” sign with his fingers) but you should really bring your students to this.  They’ll learn so much and will grow a lot in their faith and there are always people who are converting or rededicating their lives to Jesus during these events, so your students won't feel all alone. The information at these debates is incredible and our leaders are really good at dominating the debate.  The other guys just end up looking dumb when one of our guys brings up something no one's ever heard of.  They're just sitting there looking dumb and our guy just keeps talking. Those big DICK guys from National will even blast how they dress. Most of them are so last century.  Remember the idiot with the Hawaiian shirt a couple of years ago? We call it “Crazy Radically Aggressive Proselytizing”  (and Gunner does the “quote” thing again). It’s revolutionary Jesus stuff and you won’t want to miss the CRAP at this big DICK event.

“So, uhh, anyway, all of us at DICK are really psyched about this and we’re doing this for everyone in the name of the Kingdom of God and Christian unity.  We don't want any of the credit because this is all for Jesus. So, here’s my contact info and here’s some flyers that talk about the stuff DICKs do and some brochures about the girls over at the SHAG house.  The DICKs just want us all of us to be able to be united in something and we meet every day over at The Union for prayer and Bible study and we've got meetings in every building on campus every night of the week - so just lettin' you know that if you’re new to our group or haven’t become a DICK yet there's nowhere you can go on campus without running into a DICK. We’re the ones who wear the neon “I’m a DICK and I Love Jesus” shirts (Gunner does the “quote” signs once again)  and walk to class in groups and always sit together. Oh, and you can get a DICK shirt from me anytime.  They’re only $12 but that's a real small price to pay for not hiding your faith.  Just wearing the shirt attracts attention and then you can share the gospel. And it works even better when the girls wear their "SHAGers for Jesus" shirts.  They’re so cool that even “cool” (and there it is … Gunner’s “quote” sign one last time) doesn’t describe how cool they are.

“So … yeah … 12 bucks. And again, even though this isn't about being a DICK and I know a lot of you believe that size doesn't matter, but DICK is the biggest group on campus and that does matter.  Any student who really wants to know Jesus should be at this DICK event and then join our post debate Bible study, debriefing, decontamination and re-purposing series. It's like taking off the blinders and putting on a microscope.  It's just amazing how many of the little things we miss.  And speaking of the little things, I just want to say again that we just really want to see the groups finally united about something and I hope you'll pray for the DICKs and support the big debate.

"And that’s all I’ve got.  God bless you in your ministry, Praise Jesus, and we’ll see you at the debate.”

Uh … thanks, Gunner,    



I was sitting with the Jew that day.  

He looked like he was blessed.

And I'm sure he noticed that Gunner did this immediately following the "thank you" offered by the winter clean-up leadership team for everyone's support and participation in this year's event.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Advent in a Box Redux: Hope

My friend, the Blind Irish Pirate, led some of us in assembling what she called “Advent in a Box” last year.  Our “Not Quite Church church” doesn’t meet every week and so we did Advent all in one night – hence the compact title.  Focusing on the elements of Advent (Hope, Peace, Joy and Love) we read Scripture, sang, shared life stories, and even made a short video that, taken all together, conveyed the sense of anticipation and celebration that goes along with the recognition that all is not right but that God has made some promises to our troubled world.

We opened a flap of that box last night when we gathered for worship at another friend’s home. We shared a meal, I read my story about Packing Jesus, Hap told some tear jerking tales from his childhood about life lessons learned from three Jewish kids during their school’s Christmas program and some “crippled” bullies (children with polio) who finally found someone that they could pick on, one of our hosts shared about Angels and admitted that she’s a bit skeptical about them, and the Pirate shared about Advent and the God of Second Chances.

The first Advent candle is most often associated with Hope. In the Christian world Jesus is the promised messiah who repairs our broken lives and our broken world.  Some doubt that this is true. I can’t blame them. If the messiah really fixed things, why do we still hope?  I wonder what I would hope for if everything were fine.

But maybe I’ve got this Advent thing turned backward.  Maybe it’s not all about me and my hopes, or even all of us and our hopes.  Maybe Advent is more about God and God's hopes for the world.  Maybe Advent is about God's Hope, God’s Peace, God’s Joy and God’s Love.

Thinking of it this way I am reminded of that very first season of Advent.  It lasted a few centuries and the final days of Advent actually stretched themselves out for about 30 years - from the days of Zechariah, Simeon, & Anna and the silent Baby Jesus - to the days approaching the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy just prior to the emergence of the indomitable Grown-Up Jesus.  Here Luke announces that it is John, son of Zechariah and known as "The Baptist," who will make the path straight and level the roads, allowing all to see God’s salvation. 

And what is the first thing John does to level things out?  He shouts at those coming to be baptized and calls them a “brood of vipers.”

A brood of vipers?  I’m pretty sure a viper is venomous snake, but I wanted to make sure I understood what a "brood" is. So I looked it up. According to a “brood” is the “offspring” of a certain animal, or those “hatched.” It can also refer to a breed, species, or kind of animal. So John is talking about the offspring of, or creatures of the same kind as, a poisonous snake.  Probably not a compliment and most likely akin to today’s bottom dwellers so often referred to as, “sons of bitches.”

Meanwhile, back at the river we have a hoard of these, now irritated, sons of bitches waiting for John to baptize them. But instead of offering an olive branch, or a "JK, we're all cool here," and proceeding with the cleansing ritual that allows sinners and impure people to re-enter in to fellowship with their people, John rails at them further for being a bunch of hypocrites and challenges them to “produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” 

So repentance from living as a brood of vipers is the very first helpful thing that John talks about in that very first Advent season.  Repent from being of the same ilk as a poisonous snake. Repent from following the crooked path. Turn from the world from which you’ve been hatched and look at another one that works completely opposite to the one you know...

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” 

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”

Note that the ethics and the economics of the kingdom John is talking about are completely at odds with those of the kingdom from which the crowds were hatched.  And this was supposed to be good news.

Luke implies that John did finally get around to baptizing them, but perhaps just as importantly, various translations convey that John appealed to them, exhorting them with challenging and encouraging words, words that gave them strength.  This is how he told them the good news about how God’s kingdom would be different.

Maybe John is right and Jesus really is the messiah, the one who saves the world and turns it all around by offering us an alternative.  If so, I think God’s Hope is that the world would repent and turn from the kingdoms we’ve created. This turning is a total about-face, a complete 180, which means that God’s realm would in many ways run counter to those kingdoms from which we are hatched.  Everything would change – all the way from who’s in charge down to the nitty-gritty of the how the ethics and the economy are manifested in the new realm.

It’s hard to repent from the life and culture that we’ve been immersed in (baptized in) our entire lives.  Maybe that’s why it’s so important, as our friendly Pirate reminded us last night, that God is a God of second chances.  In that, we can Hope. 

It begins with repentance and that, I think, is God's Hope for us and for the world.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Packing Jesus

Maybe it’s because I grew up celebrating Chanukah - rooted in miracles and steeped in tradition, it's an eight day festival, a pure and unabashed holy-day party complete with candles, decorations, food, eight nights of gifts, sacks of gelt (cash money), and gambling – that I still don’t totally get Christmas. 

Contrasted to the unambiguity of Chanukah, Christmas is kind of a schizophrenic holiday.  Some of our best minds have tried to figure it out: Irving Berlin, Charles Schultz, and Dr. Seuss, to name a few.  But even with their collected wisdom plus that of the experts who write letters to the editor of our local  newspaper and the professionals at Hallmark I am only left with more questions:  Is Christmas about “home” and “family” and predictable happy endings? Or is it all about displaying nativities in public venues? Is Christmas every day?  (Or because Christmas begins in August do we just feel like it’s every day…)  Do we just need more snow?  Is it the gifts or the thoughts that count?  Santa, Frosty, help me!

So, I am on this journey (and maybe some of you are, too) to figure out Christmas.  And I don’t even want to pretend that I have the answer.  But I think I know where to look.

First, I’m going to try and let Jesus grow up this year.  It seems that even when we try to strip away Macy’s and Walmart and focus on the Nativity, we fall into a tradition of honoring the Baby Jesus just long enough to pack him up again in protective bubble wrap and newspapers where he’ll be safe until next Christmas.  Nicodemus, the Pharisee Jesus speaks with in John’s gospel asks, “How can anyone be born who has already been born and grown up? Surely they don’t go back into their mother’s womb a second time.”  It seems like an intentionally ridiculous question, but we’ve discovered the answer, haven’t we?   

Don’t let him grow up.   

We don’t want Jesus to say anything to us.  Maybe because we know, deep down, that Grown-Up Jesus is challenging and even dangerous and that if we let him grow up he will be impossible to ignore. 

In John 17 Jesus prays for his followers, “I want these people you gave me to be as I am …” Maybe that's what Jesus wants.  But we might not really want this because who Jesus was, was what got him killed.  Maybe this makes us just a little afraid and so we put Jesus back in the womb while he’s still a helpless infant who doesn’t even cry. 

Jesus is more than a silent and well-behaved testimony to a holiday with a befuddling identity.

Second, I'm going to try and listen to what Grown-Up Jesus has to say. I might start at the end of his life by looking at that prayer in John 17. It is a prayer about his dreams for the world, his followers and those who come after them. 

His last will and testament. 

The prayer of a dying man. 

The prayer of a grown man.

In this prayer Jesus speaks about a togetherness, a unity and a oneness.  He prays for his followers:
that they can be one …”

Make them ready for your service …”

I want these people You gave me to be as I am …”

Because they have seen me they can know what You are like

And the prayer concludes, “As You [God] are in me and I am in You, I pray that they can also be one with us.  I will be in them and You will be in me so that they will be completely one…

According to Jesus then, the reason he came (was born) is so that we could be part of something bigger, better and grander than ourselves. And we means it’s something must do together; in community where we celebrate, learn, grow, live and serve together.

Third, I will light the candles of the Chanukah menorah.  Underneath, and perhaps even serving as the foundation of the party atmosphere of Chanukah is a celebration of remembrance and anticipation.  We remember God's unexpected presence and we anticipate a future where God's "shalom" is ever-present.  I think that, perhaps, another symbolism hidden in the menorah is that we don’t need to be afraid. 

The lights didn’t go out. 

So, on this first night of The Festival of Lights, I will start with The Shammes. It’s the candle that stands a little taller than the others and is used to light the other candles.  When I was a child I thought the The Shammes was the "Boss" candle, the one that was in charge of all the others.  After all, without it the other candles are useless decorations.  I have since learned that The Shammes is really the “Servant” candle. It lights the others by giving of itself.  It empowers them and beckons them to shine. And each night the menorah gets brighter and brighter as The Shammes ignites more flames. That's the way things happen in God's realm.

The Shammes, in the tradition of Chanukah, is a reminder and a demonstration that, as Jesus also showed us, one can give (and let others can shine) without losing any of one’s own radiance.

And finally, I will continue to look to the church, that sloppy community of Jesus followers, because we are meant to be together when we celebrate. Also, I don’t think we are meant to figure these things out all on our own.  

Saturday, September 15, 2012

"I'm Waiting for the Book"

Many of my friends have me heard say "I'm waiting for the book" way too many times.  This cute little phrase usually discharges from my mouth in the context of who among us has seen the new movie yet.  Most of my friends find me so predictable that they’ll say it before I can.  

I’ve written a few short stories about my life. Some of my friends have read them and think they are good enough that they’re bugging me to write more.  My friend the Musk Ox calls me The Blog Camel because I go so long between posts.  I think I’m up to ten months now.  The Musk Ox’s wife is building a baby inside of her.  She’s been working on it for four months now.  That means in five more months it will be ready. She is building a baby in less time than it takes me to write a few paragraphs. Certainly, if she can build a baby in that time I should be able to think of something to write about.

Or is my life that boring and my thoughts just that slow in coming?

Donald Miller, in A Million Miles in a Thousand Years (a story about making a movie based on a book of stories about himself) asks, “If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off testing the windshield wipers.”  He also asks, “Who would want to tell their friends about the movie?” and “Who would even remember that movie a week later?”

I can justify a great many things to waste time and money on.  I paid full price to see Cowboys and Aliens.   I spent years recording all the original Star Trek episodes on videotape.   And I own a Fiat – a 40-year-old Fiat. (Need I continue?)

But as boring and predictable as my life sounds, even I might cry if I saw that movie about Volvo Guy.  

Especially if I had to pay for it.  

Anyway, Miller writes this best selling memoir of his years hanging out with a college aged crowd that he hopes to translate into a movie and his screenwriter is going around asking questions like, “What could we do to get people to like Don?” It’s not so much that Don was an unlikeable self-absorbed young adult (well, he was a self-absorbed young adult, but that’s not point here) as it is movie-speak for taking something that reads well and morphing it into something memorable, something watchable.  

It seems to me that Donald Miller, through this process, learns two things. First, he finds he needs to ask himself whether he’s in a good story, a story worth making a movie about.  Is it a good enough story, that if I put down the book the I’ve been waiting for to watch the movie, will I actually stick with the movie? Or, when I see the life behind it, I’m going put down that book I’d been waiting for and actually go see the movie?

I think it’s a good question to ask of oneself.  Some of my friends think my life is readable.  But is it watchable?

Sometimes I feel like I’m just the Volvo Guy.  I’m Volvo Guy with a Fiat.  It’s a barely readable life (although I do take some solace in that as far as watchability goes, Volvo Guy with a Fiat has to be immensely more watchable than simply the Volvo Guy story.)  

I probably need to give some thought to what it would take to morph my life into something watchable.

I think the second thing Don learns is that for his story to be watchable he needs a pretty female lead. In Don’s case they chose Claire Holt to play Penny.

At least I have the pretty female lead.

Who knows, there may yet be a reason to light up the projector.

But first, who’s up a for an 81 episode Star Trek marathon on the old Betamax?