(For this post, I’d like to steer away from my normal theological leanings)
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I’m not sure if these words have rung more true than they do today. Charles Dickens probably never intended to have the words he penned in this famous novel describe the transition point of our modern society. Now before we get too far off on tangents and soapboxes in the land of politics and values-a land surely of no return-let’s just take a deep breath and count to ten. See, now don’t you feel a little bit better now?
I have become fascinated as of late with the influence of one of my all-time favorite comedians and television personalities-John Stewart. Stewart took over the Daily Show in early 1999. Since then, he’s grown to be as much a part of many of our lives as Mac computers or Starbucks coffee. He’s made a living billing his news show as the faux news that informs us. It’s political sattire at its very best. He spends his time bashing the personalities of Fox, CNN, the Republican Party, Tea Party, Democratic Party, NRA, Green Party, party of Oprah, etc. Well, there’s not really a party of Oprah but I think Stewart might agree that she could create it from the dust of the earth if she so wished. I personally love to hear folks, often older than I am, say how Stewart is a nut or that it’s just crazy that a generation such as mine would ever consider his show even a source of news.
This past weekend, Stewart and his cohort, Stephen Colbert, threw the Rally to Restore Sanity-for all of those who are too busy to attend a rally. Simultaneously, Colbert held his March to Keep Fear Alive. Amid the comedy, light-heartedness, and even pointed words toward the 24-hour media, the clip above offers a few serious moments of, dare I say it, hope.
You see, Stewart points out that most of the problems we face as a society are problems because the media has amplified them as such. “If we amplify everything we hear nothing.” These are words to live by-and also to kill 24-hour news by. He pointed out that “we live in hard times, not end times.” We can’t escalate the level of chaos in our world any more than it is already. This means we have to consider what it means to panic and cause panic in others. I’m afraid there are many among us who thrive off the creation of false panic. Now for some, this false panic comes from a small, sensible level of panic taken to an extreme. For others, this panic is created from a nasty little disease called Ignorance, whose side effects include bloating of hatred and frequent trips to internet blogs that help to continue stirring such symptoms up. All the while a steady diet of hating that which is not like what we see in the mirror is developed.
Before we jump off the deep end into a different pool of insanity, please don’t think I’m building Stewart up as some sort of Messiah figure who’ll lead us to a Promised Land where unicorns run free and puppy dogs come with lollipops to all who dwell there. I don’t think Stewart would dare put himself there. I will say however, that I think Stewart touches on a nerve for me because he voices a language I sense among many in my generation. We’re tired of dividing teams up and divvying up weaponry to launch missiles of hatred at each other. Teams of liberal v. conservative, democrat v. republican, rich v. poor, Christian v. not, or even fundamentalist Christian v. hippy, social justice Christian just aren’t relevant anymore.
I think my favorite quote of the day sums it up: ”The truth is, there will always be darkness. But we keep moving towardt that light at the end of the tunnel. And sometimes that light is not the Promised Land at all. It’s just New Jersey. But we keep moving anyways.” Maybe we can solve our problems or even exist together if we begin by taking ourselves a little less serious. Laughter in that face of hard times may be the beginning of a remedy that might not cure all that ails us; but it just might make life a little more enjoyable as we experience it together. No, everything isn’t a “life-or-death” matter at all. Sometimes it’s just about life.
It’s October and I’m sure churches all over the country are busy doing their annual Stewardship campaigns. Why is October such a popular month to do Stewardship drives? Maybe because it’s around the harvest time and a tradition formed somewhere along the way to make it a part of our Fall activities. The season’s crop can determine our success over the next year and maybe churches saw October as a good time to ask while it was fresh on people’s minds. Who knows? Now days, many of our cities and churches are long past the days when the annual harvest dictated our calendars. We now work on annual salaries. Giving is much more systematic and more things play in to how we determine to give or pledge for the upcoming year.
The difficulty happens when we find ourselves in times like we’re in right now. I know it’s not a newsflash for most, but we’re in a Recession. How do we ask people to give in times like this? It’s in “times like this” that we may even wonder “why do we give in the first place?”
For me, I have to believe that stewardship doesn’t begin with money at all. Stewardship begins with the Church. More specifically, as a pastor it begins with the church I’m a part of right now. It goes beyond programs and bells and whistles that we may or may not be able to afford. It speaks to the very life that is at the core of the church. It’s the living vitality of our very existence. In other words, it’s why we’re crazy enough to get up at such an odd time on Sunday mornings, sing weird songs and say strange words, and go about our lives in peculiar ways. Quite simply, we’re about the business of changing lives.
Sometimes that change comes in the form of children’s ministries that teach a child the language of faith. As an adult who was raised in the church I cannot emphasize emphatically enough how important this is. It may not take root during the entire time a child is in your children’s program. But watch out. Sometimes that child will encounter God long after they leave your children’s activities along the roadside of adolenscence. And when they do, they can interpret this experience with a seemingly ancient and strange language they learned much earlier in life. And their lives are changed for that.
Sometimes this change comes in the form of missions. Recently I was told a story by a staff member who had a conversation with one of the homeless persons who sleep in the bushes around our church. She asked her, “Why do you sleep here in our bushes? Isn’t there a better place nearby?” The homeless person told her, “I guess I sleep here because it’s the safest place in this neighborhood. I just figure no one will bother me if I’m here at this church.” That change speaks to a witness that exists at hours of the day we’re often not even aware of.
Often this change can happen in the form of the bonds we build as we grow into adulthood and raise our children together. We laugh and love together. We support each other in times of need like divorce. We help raise each other’s kids. We cry when we lose our parents or, God forbid, others who are close to us. We bring food and offer listening ears and stand with each other when it seems no one else in the world will do so.
I give because I truly believe that in spite of my best efforts sometimes, God lives and moves in ways I don’t understand. It’s in our church family that we see the fabric of our lives woven around the peculiar notion that God is always with us. And maybe October is a time where we can remember to thank God for the harvest of these and many, many other blessings. In a world where the bad all too often seems to triumph, I wonder if the fruit of these blessings are, dare I say,just crying out to be multiplied. So I can give to that.
Home. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary defines this as: a place of origin or the place where something is discovered, founded, developed, or promoted; a source. My wife and I have recently moved into a new home. One of the things I always like to do in a new setting is my place; that “home within the home.” You know where I’m talking about-that place where you go for sanctuary, where no one else goes. You go there to withdraw from the world. More importantly, you go there to be revived so that you can go back into the world with a fresh perspective. I think everyone should find a place like this if you don’t have one already.
For me, I’ve found that my desk is my “home” at our new house. It’s nothing fancy. It’s a old, used desk that is maple-colored. It has old-fashioned wooden drawers on one side of it and an open space on the other where you sit. On top of it is nothing more than my laptop, a printer, a desk lamp, and some sort small desk organizer my wife made me get because she can’t stand my “methods of organization.” If you were to look at my desk you wouldn’t be struck by anything out of the ordinary. It feels too small when I get buried beneath my gaggle of books pertaining to whatever my next big paper or research project is. But the desk sits beneath a very large double-window that overlooks our side yard. Again, nothing too special. The guest bedroom has a light in the ceiling fan that won’t work and I can’t figure out how to make it work. So besides the small desk lamp I’m often dependent on the daylight for assistance in my work.
I’ve really come to cherish my “home” at our new house. I’ve sat at this desk at various times of the day over these past couple of months. I’ve worked in the afternoon so long that between my reading and typing I can watch the daylight as it leaves me for yet another day. I’ve also sat here early enough that I begin in the dark with my little desk lamp on, only to watch as the new day unfolds over the horizon right outside my window. This desk is where I can play my jazz and let my thoughts run away. It’s where I can furiously type whatever my next writing project is as though the words might escape out of my ears if I don’t get them down in time. It’s where I can sit and stare out the window because writer’s block has attacked me like the winter flu. It’s where I can go to read and pray and think and just be. It’s one place I can go and drop every pretentious notion I might have about “being a pastor” and I can just be “Ben” for a few uninterrupted minutes (or hours depending on the assignment or project).
You’ll hear me often advocate that God can be found everywhere. I’ll go on and on about how God finds us when we’re not looking and in the most strange places of life. But sometimes, when I’m out and about, moving through the day from one thing to the next, I long for my “home” at home. I wish I could just get 15 minutes to sit and be free. I wish I could go and sit and think and write. But I think most of all, if I could just get back there, God might be waiting for me right where I left God last. And sometimes, when I make it back to my desk, I imagine God smiling and saying, “welcome home.”
God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. An God saw that it was good. -Genesis 1:25 (NRSV)
Yesterday our church held its first ever Blessing fo the Animals Service. It was an opportunity to invite folks to come and bring their pets to recieve a special blessing in accordance with the Feast of St. Francis which traditionally honors animals. The blessing was quite simple, and was given to both pet and owner. It was : “(Name) - may you be blessed in the Name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. May you and your owner enjoy life together and find joy with the God who created you.” We also had a short liturgy that included prayers and a reading from the book of Genesis. There was a giant, community water bowl for dogs that was actually a plastic baby swimming pool. And we had lemonade and cookies for one and all. By 11:00 a.m., it was a gorgous 70 degrees or so. It was truly a beautiful day.
However, the most interesting part of the event had nothing to do with the outward details. As the community of folks gathered, with pets in toe, it was a testimony to many quite interesting stories:
There was the very large dog who still carried the scars of when some kids tried to set him on fire back in the Spring. He has since been adopted by a church member and loved and nursed back to health. You’d think a dog who has been treated like that would be shy of people or at least aggressive. The only thing he was aggressive about was trying to lick and love every person who would get close enough to him. At times he seemed as though he might drag our church member across the ground trying to get to another person to love.
Then there was the church member who had to have her dog put down over the summer. It was a heartbreaking loss of her true companion in life. But there she was, with a borrowed dog no less, present to participate in our event. “I just can’t help it,” she said, “I just love animals.”
There was even one couple who showed up late after we had began putting things up. They wanted their dog (note here “baby”) blessed. So I did it. And then I proceeded to pose with the dog so they could take pictures of their “baby” after his blessing. I also took their picture with the dog and the doors of our beatiful courtyard in the background. It was truly a family celebration for them.
Though the details may be different, these stories all share a common theme: they are part of a much greater story. You see, the dog with the sorted past showed us how every now and then love can be stronger than hate and cruelty. The woman who came despite her loss proved that even in our loss, all is not lost. The young family I didn’t even know showed that in a world that demands we accumulate all we can in spite of all else, we can actually take a day away from it all to celebrate those gifts that come without a price tag. And all of these are examples of the subtle, yet profound in-breaking of God’s kingdom all around us. Yeah, it was a beautfiul day alright-in more ways than one.
For me, being a pastor makes it no more easy to talk openly about my faith than it is for most others who are not in the field of ministry. Sure, I’m fine giving a sermon that discusses a biblical text as I understand it and hopefully it is enveloped with a “word from the Lord” for that particular day. But those people are there to hear that. If I got up and said, “hey, I’m a bit uncomfortable sharing today, how about you all turn to your neighbors and discuss what this text means to you,” the people probably wouldn’t be very happy with me (although some may use it as an opportunity to get out early to grab lunch).
No, the more difficult faith sharing comes in those small groups or one-on-one encounters. You know the kind: the subject comes up in some broad, ambiguous way, the first comment opens the door to a comment from a faith perspective, though carefully avoiding to offer anything too specific, then you and the other party or parties do a skillful waltz for the remainder of the conversation, elegantly dancing around offering any personal testimony or perspectives. It’s downright exhausting.
When you’re in ministry there is an expectation that you’re charged with the duty of helping to initiate such conversations. If nothing else, the sheer fact that church members pay your salary is a reminder that this expectation looms around you like Pig-Pen’s dust cloud in a Peanuts cartoons. You’re a person of faith. You’re in the vocation of ministry. It’s just assumed that it’s part of who you are and that you’re comfortable telling everyone about such things. The reverse is also the case. Church members assume this and carry with them the looming notion to be sure to avoid you in case you might want to bring up such difficult conversations.
As I carry on with this constant debate in my head whenever I find myself in small group situations, I’m reminded there’s really no graceful way to breach these issues. Faith is a tough thing to put words on. It’s often tied to very meaningful experiences that offer some kind of existential meaning to our lives. We live in a society that preaches the gospel of “personally interpreted meaning” and “freedom of belief” above any notion of a transcendent God. So it’s tough to decide if someone will even accept our opinions and, God forbid, ones tied to personal experiences mind you. What do we do?
I’m not really sure. Lately I’ve found hope in the fact that through love and acceptance of each other we can, by God’s grace, build that space where holy conversations can occur. Small groups that overtly build themselves on discussing faith first are, in the end, no more than an exercise in accepting doctrine. But groups built on friendship, personal connection, and acceptance can eventually result in authentic faith sharing that will inevitably transform all who are present. This opens the door to a reality of small groups that can move outside the church walls and into homes over dessert or even restaurants over a beer. After all, there’s really no limit to where God will show up-more often than not, it will be when and where we least expect it.