Gratitude Is Enough: Remembering Daniel Wald

Dan Wald

As a pastor, I have observed that there are basically two types of people in this world. I am aware this is terrible over-simplification, but I believe there is some truth in it nonetheless.

There are those who get it, and those do don’t. There are people in this world who get it, I mean, they really get it. And it is obvious to everyone, in everything that they do, how they live, how they work and how they love, that they got it. And then there are those who do not a have a clue, and it is just as obvious.

There are those who get that all of life is grace. And there are those who don’t get it.

There are those who truly understand that life, this beautiful world, is but a free, unearned, undeserved gift of God’s amazing grace, and there are those who act as if God and the world owe them something.

Dan Wald got it. He really got it. And it was obvious to everyone.

Meister Eckhart once said: “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you,’ it will be enough.”

Sadly, there are many people who go through their entire life without expressing in word or deed any real sense of gratitude. There are some who might pray for an hour on Sunday morning in church, and then there are those like Dan who live a life of prayer, who heed the words of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing and to give thanks in every circumstance, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” And to the Ephesians: “always give thanks to God for everything.” And to the Colossians: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father.”

Dan got this. And because he got it, his family, his friends and this city are better for it. Here are seven observations that I believe indicate that Dan’s perpetual prayer was, “Thank you.”

  • Gratitude instills a sense of personal responsibility.

With any gift comes responsibility. When I asked Evelyn, Ashley, Ryan, Courtney and Stephany: “When you remember your father and your husband, what is the one thing for which you are the most grateful?” They said they were most grateful for the way he taught them with his words and deeds personal responsibility. This is not surprising, because when one truly gets that all of life is a gift of grace, that they did nothing to earn their lives, did nothing to deserve to be born, I believe one tends to value life more appreciate it more, and to do whatever they can to make the most out of it, to be responsible with it, and to teach others to do the same.

  • Gratitude instills a staunch work ethic.

Dan was fond of saying: “You don’t have to go to work. You get to go to work!”

People who fail to comprehend the grace of it all, that all is gift, often act as if the world or someone owes them something. So they go through life with a sense of entitlement. On the other hand, someone who gets the grace of it all, that all is gift, unearned and underserved, go through life possessing such a debt of gratitude that they are more than willing to work hard and give back whenever and however they can.

  • Gratitude instills a profound curiosity.

When one is grateful for this mysterious gift we call life, one has such an appreciation for the world that they want to discover as much as they possibly can. They continually desire to gather more information, to study new ideas and to gravitate to new experiences.

This is perhaps why Dan taught himself to be a master multi-tasker. Dan could carry on a conversation with you, and you would never know that through his Bluetooth earbud he was also listening to a news report or a debate on talk radio or a ball game on the sports channel. He was always reading, forever learning, constantly figuring things out.

No one is surprised to learn that he owned one of the earliest computers. He calculated and figured on that thing, while watching a Razorback baseball game, at the same time listening to his weather radio and a Patsy Cline album all the while he conversed with Evelyn about what happened at the store that day.

His children thought he was crazy twenty years ago when he said told them said: “In twenty years we are all going to be carrying TVs in our pockets! And it will also be your phone, camera and computer!

Whatever needed to be fixed, Dan learned how to fix it. Dan was a self-made maker. He taught himself how to make or build anything from a Razorback rocking horse (I guess that is called a “rocking hog” though, wooden puzzles and all kinds of toys for his kids and grandchildren, to furniture, to even a house.

Because of his appreciation for life, because his desire to learn so great, his main concern the last time he was discharged from the hospital a couple of weeks ago was not so much about the possibility of having another stroke, but whether or not he was going to get home in time to watch Jeopardy!

  • Gratitude instills kindness towards others

When one is grateful, when one knows they did not earn or deserve to be born, especially healthy and whole into a good family, one is especially considerate of those who are less fortunate. When he was younger, he had a friend who only had one hand, but who liked to shoot pool. So, to play fair, Dan taught himself to shoot pool with one hand.

When playing games with his children, he would always play with one hand or left-handed to even the playing field. I am not sure what he did, if anything, to even the field though with Dominoes or Chess.

This kindness he exhibited toward others made Dan a good listener, never quick to speak, always choosing his words carefully before speaking. He was respectful to all, to all creeds, all beliefs, all faiths, “to each his own,” he liked to say.

  • Gratitude instills a love for life itself

Frederick Buechner has written: “if you really keep your eyes peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even in the most limited situations, God through life itself has something to teach you.”  “Taking your children to school.  Kissing your wife goodbye.  Eating lunch with a friend.  Trying to do a decent day’s work.  Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace that God is not present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly.”

“If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say as a novelist and a preacher it would be something like this:  Listen to your life.  See it for the fathomless mystery that it is.  In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis, all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.”

I believe this is exactly how Dan regarded his life. To Dan, vanilla soft-served ice cream on a cruise ship was divine. Blue Bell Moo Bars were holy. Evelyn said if she caught him eating more than one and ask, “Dan, how many are you going to eat?” He would reply: “As many as I want.”

Sweet tea, fresh sweet tea, in a paper cup, not plastic, was sacred. It’s all grace. Snow skiing, water skiing, scuba-diving, white water kayaking, bowling, classic country music, Ribs, brisket or pork in a smoker, sharing it his family—heavenly. Cooking enough for the neighbors— sanctified.

  • Gratitude instills a love beyond self

After Joseph, his father, passed away in early 1997, Danny, keeping a promise he had made earlier to him, was selflessly committed to LaRue, his mother. When she had to stop driving in 2010, Danny would get her ever morning to take her to work. They would often go to lunch together. When her health began to worsen, and she had a difficult time supporting herself and walking, knowing that work was her life and she would be miserable at home, when Danny would walk with her into the shop, he would often carry her purse as she used a walker.

One day, Danny’s sister LaBeth took their mom shopping in NW Arkansas where she fell in love this orange purse. LaRue wanted to get it but she said, “I don’t know what Danny is going to think about having to carrying this orange purse for me!” Of course, Danny was honored to carry it.

Family always came first. Throughout his life, Dan continually put the needs of his family ahead of his own. As a Scout leader with Ryan from Tiger Cubs, Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts all the way until he made Eagle Scout and then continuing for some time afterwards, Dan was always there teaching his children sacred values while teaching countless young men appreciation for God’s creation.

Evelyn called him a “Mr. Mom.” For when she worked as a nurse, he was happy as he could be to get the kids dressed, ready and to school. And he always made sure they had a hearty breakfast as they would always stop by Hardee’s or the doughnut shop along the way.  Evelyn said that Dan never complained tying the girls’ ties and ponytails.

Even during his recent hospital stay, he was thinking about his children and grandchildren, concerned about them driving home, checking the APP on his phone to determine if they made it home safely, wondering if the grandkids were getting their ice cream.

  • Gratitude instills a peace beyond understanding

When one understands that all of life is gift, one has nothing to complain about, nothing to be bitter, angry or resentful about. Even as a young 50-year old, diagnosed with multiple myeloma, Dan remained positive. Having to relocate to Little Rock for treatments everyday for 6 weeks, go through a stem cell transplant, chemotherapy, and the loss of hair, whatever trial Dan experienced, Dan remained hopeful and upbeat. He continued living, continued enjoying life, continued inhaling the grace of it all, scuba diving in Aruba, St. Thomas, and the Keys. And in 2008, he beat it that cancer.

And it seems to me that this was his same attitude during each recent stroke, calm, cool, collected and steadily positive. Without a hint of complaining in his voice, but with almost an excitement: “I am getting a little feeling back in my leg! Let’s do some rehab!”

There was never any complaining, no “woe is me.” No pity party.

Although we are not able to ask him how he remained so positive right up to the end, I believe he would respond with something like, “You know, I didn’t do anything to earn 64 minutes in this world, but I got 64 years. I have nothing to complain about.”

And, the good news is I believe Dan has taught all of us how to deal with our grief today.

Instead of complaining and being bitter over the years disease took from our father, grandfather, brother, husband and friend, Dan taught us to be grateful for every sacred minute we had with him. For each moment was underserved and unearned.

Thus, in what may seem very strange at first, each time the waves of grief come, we can stop and thank God for our grief. For grieving only means that we have lost someone wonderful—someone we did not deserve to have, a free gift of God’s amazing grace: “Thank you God, Daddy, for Danny, for Dan Wald.

And the good news is, even when the shadows of grief overwhelm us, saying that little prayer, “Thank You” will somehow, some miraculous way, be enough. Amen.

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Deviled Ham

torches2

Luke 8:26-39 NRSV

Today’s gospel lesson is one of my favorite stories of Jesus. There is just so much from which to glean from all of the rich symbolism in this story.

Then they arrived at the country of the Gerasenes, which is opposite Galilee.

The opposite of Galilee. The opposite of home. The opposite of familiarity. The opposite of comfort. The opposite of sanctuary.

I believe it is important for the church today to note that the man in this story would have never had an encounter with Jesus, an encounter that brought him liberation, healing and restoration, if Jesus and his disciples stayed in Galilee.

This is one of the reasons I am so grateful for our Disciples Women Fellowship that has chosen to serve at Hope Campus twice a month. If we want to follow Jesus as his disciples, the church must be willing to leave the sanctuary to encounter people who need the liberation, healing and restoration that we know the love of God can bring.

As he stepped out on land,

Jesus and his disciples had just encountered a storm out on the lake, and now, as soon as Jesus steps out of the boat, they encounter a different kind of storm.

 a man of the city who had demons met him.

A man of the city—reminds me of another story of Luke, when “a woman of the city who was a sinner,” anoints Jesus’ feet. Right away, we get the suspicion that this man had a sinful reputation.

For a long time, he had worn no clothes, and he did not live in a house but in the tombs.

And here is where we begin to get the picture that this man of the city is not the only sinner in this story. He is unnamed, naked, and homeless, and he lives among the dead. He is treated as if he was no longer alive, as if he did not exist. He is fully debased, degraded and dehumanized with no rights, no privileges, no power, and no place whatsoever in society.

 Jesus then asked him, “What is your name?” He said, “Legion”; for many demons had entered him.

He has been driven to the margins of life by the Legion. Legion is a technical term for a division of the Roman Army. Thus, it is revealed that this man is a victim of the Roman Empire and its oppressive systems that do great harm to people like him.

We don’t know exactly what that means, “people like him,” but, sadly, we could make some good guesses:

Could it be that he spoke a foreign language? Was he an undocumented immigrant or refugee? Perhaps he had a different skin color? Maybe he practiced some kind of minority religion? Did he have cerebral palsy, autism, a Traumatic Brain Injury, down’s syndrome, or post-traumatic stress disorder? Did he suffer with seizures? Could it be that he suffered with some sort of mental illness? Might it be that he was gay or transgendered?

Not only is he a victim of unjust political systems, he is also a victim of his community. Unfortunately, that is the power of government: if the state leaders are against you, then it gives permission for society to be against you.

He’s labeled “demon possessed” which means he has been fully “other-ized.”

There is no evidence that he has ever harmed anyone, yet, he is “bound with chains and shackles” and “kept under guard.”

He is not to be counted in the census. There is no path to citizenship, no process to appeal. There is no grace.In an act of gross dehumanization, he is forced to live among the dead until he dies.

This is the evil of our world. It is not a spirit that might make us take off all of our clothes and take up residence in a cemetery. No, the evil of this world is the the chaining of this man, the oppression of this man, the dehumanizing treatment of this man, treating him as if he did not exist among the living, shackling him naked in a graveyard, is the true demonic evil in this story.

And for Jesus and his followers, this type of evil should always be brought out and driven out. Jesus is never happy when any person is demeaned, degraded, dehumanized and excluded from community. Whenever Jesus encounters chains, Jesus breaks the chains. The good news is that every time we draw a line that keeps people out, Jesus is with the people on the other side of that line.

This demonic evil, this anti-Christ spirit that possessed the state and the culture to oppress this man is further revealed in the fascinating account of the demons leaving the man and entering a herd of pigs that were minding their own business, innocently feeding on a hillside. As soon as the pigs get infected by the demons, they immediately rush down a steep bank, and they drown in the lake.

I once heard a preacher joke that it is right here in this story that we have the first recorded instance of “deviled ham.”

I know, it’s a terrible joke. Sounds like the kind of thing we might hear Jim Creekmore might say. The poor pigs. What did they do to deserve to become agents of evil? And how could Jesus do such an inhumane thing to any of God’s beloved creatures?

However, we soon discover that these poor pigs were infected with evil long before Jesus showed up.

Notice what happens when Jesus liberates this man (verse 37). When they find the man is liberated, do all the people thank Jesus? No, all the people, “all the people in the surrounding country beg Jesus to leave their presence.”

The demonic evil here is not only the oppression of this man by unjust political systems and a fearful culture, but that the people valued their pigs more than the man’s liberation. The people would rather keep their pigs, their income, their stock values, their privilege and power, rather than see this man set free. This is what made this herd of ham so deviled.

If it means losing some pigs, keep the man shackled.

If it means losing some pigs, crucify the liberator.

If it means losing some pigs, succeed from the union.

If it means losing some pigs, assassinate the preacher.

If it means losing some pigs, suppress the vote.

If it means losing some pigs, oppose the minimum wage.

If it means losing some pigs, then ban foreign nationals of another religion. Separate families. Close the border.

If it means losing some pigs, then resist equality, forget fairness and defend discrimination.

If it means losing some pigs, then keep quiet. Stay silent and stay put. Learn to live with injustice.

If it means losing some pigs, then stomach the murder of children. Be okay with torture. Endure endless war.

If it means losing some pigs, then water down the gospel. Ignore evil. Neglect the poor. Send the stranger away. Don’t feed the hungry. Don’t heal the sick, and whatever you do, don’t do anything to follow the sacrificial way of Jesus. Don’t love others as you love yourselves.

If it means losing some pigs, keep the man naked, chained and guarded.

The truth is, that whenever a person or a group is liberated from oppression, there is another person or group that has some deviled ham to lose, some things that they value more than another’s freedom.

So, a good question for us is, what is our deviled ham? What do we value more than another’s freedom?

Patriarchy? White supremacy? Heterosexism? Religious superiority? Homogenous cities and neighborhoods? Homogenous churches? Cheap fast food? Inexpensive coffee? Inexpensive clothing? Easy and quick access to guns?

Another question is: are we ready to leave Galilee? Leave the familiar and the comfortable in order to bring liberation, healing and restoration to another. Are we willing to leave home so others can have a home?

The man from whom the demons had gone begged that he might be with him; but Jesus sent him away, saying,

“Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.” [Restored to his community,] he proclaimed throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.

Desiree Adaway, a consultant, trainer, and coach who helps to build equitable and inclusive working environments in companies and organizations including: IBM, United Airlines, The Girl Scouts, and Rotary International, writes:

We are all socialized into systems that oppress.

We learn to accept oppression as normal.

We are born into a social system which teaches us to accept things as they are.

We are rewarded for accepting things as they are.

We are congratulated for accepting things as they are.

We become “model members of society” when we accept things as they are.

We gain comfort, money, connections and power when we accept things as they are. People who go against the grain, pay the price.

I know [there’s] a tiny voice deep in your heart is saying “I do not oppress people.”

That might be true, you may not actively oppress others- but here is the reality- oppression is still happening, because this cycle and the systems they support continue to run uninterrupted.

Oppression is the norm, not the exception.

Justice is the exception, not the norm.

Institutions influence individuals and individuals influence institutions.

This process is pervasive, consistent, circular, self-perpetuating, and invisible.

The simplest thing to do is nothing.

But we have failed to realize that we have become participants in our own oppression by doing nothing.

Will you take responsibility for the oppression that continues? Will you stand up and confront the systems, rules, and norms?

How, where, and when you confront injustice is irrelevant, as long as you do it.

You and I are responsible for interrupting oppression. We are responsible for dismantling it. We are responsible for creating new systems and ways to share social power.

Society will not transform itself. We have to break the chains.

We all have to pay the price, so that can happen.

Let’s get to work y’all, because freedom ain’t free.[i]

[i]https://desireeadaway.com

Let’s Dance: Joining the Dance of the Trinity

dad and children

Romans 5:1-5 NRSV

It is fascinating to read the letters between Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is obvious that Stone had a more difficult time accepting the Trinity than Campbell. Stone writes:

On this doctrine many things are said, which are dark, unintelligible, unscriptural, and too mysterious for comprehension. Many of these expressions we have rejected…

I wonder if Stone’s problem was that he was trying to comprehend the Trinity in the first place. Maybe the Trinity is something to be lived, more than learned, something to be experienced more than explained, something or someone with whom to relate more than to understand.

Modern Trinitarian thought uses a word spoken by Gregory of Nazi-anzus and Maximus the Confessor to describe how three can be one. These ancient thinkers of the fourth and fifth centuries referred to the inner life and the outer working of the Trinity as peri-co-reses, which means literally in the Greek, “to dance.” They were suggesting a dynamic, intimate relationship shared by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Thus, I don’t believe the Trinity is not a doctrine to learn. It is a connection to be enjoyed. It is to be encountered more in relationship than in religion. It is something that is unseen yet true, inexplicable yet real. It is more surreal than literal, more actual than factual.

The late author and lecturer Phyllis Tickle tells the following story that I believe speaks to the mystery of the Trinity. She was addressing a Cathedral gathering on the historicity of the Virgin Birth. She recounts:

The Cathedral young people had served the evening’s dinner and were busily scraping plates and doing general clean-up when I began the opening sections of the lecture I had come to give.

The longer I talked, the more I noticed one youngster—no more than seventeen at the most—scraping more and more slowly until, at last, he gave up and took a back seat as part of the audience.

When all the talking was done, he hung back until the last of the adults had left. He looked at me tentatively and, gaining courage, finally came up front and said, ‘May I ask you something?’

‘Certainly,’ I said. ‘What about?’

‘It’s about that Virgin Birth thing,’ he said. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘What don’t you understand,’ I asked, being myself rather curious by now because of his intensity and earnestness.

‘I don’t understand,’ he said, ‘what their problem is,’ and he gestured toward the empty chairs the adults had just vacated.

‘What do you mean?’ I asked him.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘it’s just so beautiful that it has to be true whether it happened or not.’

So I believe it is with the Trinity. This dynamic, intimate relationship, this holy dance, shared by the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is so beautiful that it has be to true, whether it is the most accurate description of the image of God or not.

C. S. Lewis once wrote:

All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love.’  But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ has no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, [God] was not love…

And that, wrote Lewis,

is perhaps the most important difference between Christianity and all other religions: that in Christianity, God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, a kind of dance…

There it is again: a dance. The Trinity is an activity. It’s something moving, something to be experienced, something to be lived.

Lewis continues:

And now, what does it all matter?  It matters more than anything else in the world. The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this Three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: (or putting it the other way around) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his [or her] place in that dance. There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.

Trappist Monk Thomas Merton once said:

To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name.”

In other words, this holy dance of self-giving love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit is where we can find our holy purpose.

So, on this Trinity Sunday, I am not proposing we should understand the Trinity as much as we should appreciate it, celebrate it, and discover ways to participate in it—discover ways we can enter into the sacred dance by doing all we can, with all that we have and are, to selflessly love one another.

I believe we are given opportunities everyday to dance this holy dance during our lifetimes. The church itself, the relationships we share here, is one such opportunity.

However, for me personally, no dance has been richer or has emulated the divine dance more fully than the dance of fatherhood.

Before my children existed, I loved and was loved. And it was out of a mutual self-giving love they were both born.

I will never forget holding Carson and Sara in my arms, shortly after they were born and contemplating my love for them. Before they came to be, I thought I knew what love was, when in reality, I didn’t have a clue. I had no idea that I could ever love another so deeply, so completely, so persistently. Although I had always sought to love others as myself, as my own flesh and blood, until my children came along, I never knew I could truly love another more than self.

Consequently, it was not enough to just bring them into the world, to father them. No, my love for them demanded so much more. It demanded me to actually give all that I had give to them, for them.

I was far from perfect. At times I could be selfish, self-absorbed. It was on more than one occasion I heard their mama sing:

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon

Little boy blue and the man in the moon

‘When you coming home, dad?’

‘I don’t know when’

But we’ll get together then

You know we’ll have a good time then.

But there were times when I gladly sacrificed. There were times I gave my all. There were moments when I rose to the occasion. I protected, and I nurtured. I did my best to teach and to guide with words and through example. And I always loved them just as they were, graciously, generously, unconditionally. There wasn’t anything I wouldn’t do for them; no place I wouldn’t go.

I took them to school and I picked them up. I coached basketball and baseball. I went roller skating and snow skiing. I learned how to made cookies, waffles and doughnuts from scratch. There were football games, soccer games, carnival games, birthday parties, baptisms, orthodontist appointments, dance recitals, trips to the beach, trips to the emergency room, bicycle rides, rollercoaster rides, summer vacations, cross-country 5ks, awards ceremonies, concerts and graduations. Yes, there were graduations.

And now they are hundreds of miles away. I am no longer present physically, but I am still very much there emotionally, you might say spiritually. They are on their own now, yet they are still mine.

And just as it was not enough to bring them into the world, it is also not enough to raise them and teach them only to leave them to their own devices. No, my love still demands more. Our relationship is not over. In a wonderful way, it is a new beginning. I am no less their father. Maybe I am even more so. I know my concern, my desire to protect, my suffering, has not diminished.

A week ago, a friend of Carson’s from Oklahoma City needed help moving to Atlanta, so she bought him a one-way plane ticket to Oklahoma City. Last Sunday morning, while I was preaching, Carson and his friend passed through Van Buren heading East on Interstate 40. Unable to see him, the pain I experienced was indescribable. And my heart broke this past Thursday, as Sara celebrated her first birthday in 22 years without us.

My desire to be there for them, to do anything for them, to even die for them is now as great as it has ever been, if not more so. They will always be a part of me. I am in them and they are in me. I will always be there for them. My love for them is forever.

This is probably as close as I will ever come to knowing the height, depth and width of the love of the God who created me, became flesh and taught me how to live and love, and whose Spirit is always with me.

The good news is, said Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, if we who have have a tendency to be selfish know how to love our children, how much more does God love us? (Matthew 7:11)

No wonder the Apostle Paul was able to share such confident hope with the Romans in the midst of his suffering! If God’s love for us that we experience in the dynamic dancing relationship that is the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit is anything like an imperfect father’s love for his children, surely we can boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.

If we have peace with God who not only graciously brought us into the world, but sacrificially showed us the way to life, and promises to never leave nor forsake us, surely we can boast in our sufferings.

If we know that the love that God has for us always demands for God to love us more, then surely our hope will never disappoint us.

Thus, when we feel like falling apart, we can keep it together. When we feel like giving up, we can keep going. When we feel like fighting, we can forgive. When we feel nothing, we can love. And when we feel like doing nothing, we can dance.

Yes, Barton Stone, this dance is a mystery. But it is a mystery that has happened and is happening to us. We can’t comprehend it. But we can join it. We can live it. Today and forever.

This Old Man Has a Dream

robed

Acts 2

Mark 6:6-13

Last week, I talked about how the church, as an institution, seems to have lost its focus and purpose in the world. These days, it is an understatement to say that it’s floundering more than it’s flourishing. The model and structure of the church that baptized and made numerous new disciples of Jesus in the 20th century seems incredibly inept here in the 21st century.

If we want to fulfill the great commission to make new disciples, many believe we must come up with a new model, or new models, new expressions of doing and being the church, the gathered and sent people of God in the world.

I believe that what the institutional church needs more than anything else is a movement of the Holy Spirit. We need the same Spirit that gave birth to the church at Pentecost in the first century to give it a rebirth in the 21st century. That’s right, you heard me, I am saying that I believe the church needs to be born again!

On the day of Pentecost, Peter described the movement of God’s spirit by quoting the prophet Joel:

These are the days God says:

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,

and your young men shall see visions,

and your old men shall dream dreams (Acts 2:17).

During our graduate recognition service a few weeks ago, I talked about the importance of listening to young people who have essentially given up on the institutional church. I said we need to listen to the visions of these young people who believe the church, in the form that it is in today, is actually doing more harm in the world than good.

But I also believe we need to listen to the dreams of older folks, those who were raised in the 20th century church, introduced to Jesus in the 20th century church, raised their children in the 20th century church, but today are frustrated by the fact that their children have no interest in being a part of it.

Well, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!

This old man who has been attending church for nearly 53 years, and has served churches on staff for 33 of those years has a dream!  And I believe today, Pentecost Sunday, is the perfect opportunity for this old man to share it.

When I dream about how the church needs to be born again today in order to recover its purpose in the world (which Jesus said was to baptize and to make disciples who follow his teachings), I am constantly drawn to Mark 6:6-13, the account of Jesus sending out his disciples into the world for the very first time—on the first mission trip—to do the very same things in the world that Jesus was doing.

Mark 6:6 reads:

6aAnd he was amazed at their unbelief. 

I wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief today. Having been a part of the church my entire life, I know I am often amazed how many in the church today really do not seem to believe that we are called to live, love and serve in the selfless, sacrificial way of Jesus. Many just believe we’re supposed to accept Jesus, receive Jesus, study Jesus, and worship Jesus; not actually follow Jesus.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed by the number of people who believe the Kingdom of God is just some place we go after we die, instead of something we are supposed to work at, to give of ourselves to, to pour ourselves out, to create here on earth.

I wonder if Jesus is amazed every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” and then don’t do a thing to make it happen!

I also wonder if Jesus is amazed at our unbelief in the transforming power of the Holy Spirit—the belief that although we cannot go back to the good old days when our church pews were filled with people, we can be led by the Spirit forward into good new days. We can be led out into the world baptizing and making new disciples, doing more than we ever dreamed we could to bring God’s kingdom to this earth.

I wonder how many people in the church truly believe that our best days of doing church, being church in this world are not behind us, but before us?

6bThen he went about among the villages teaching.

Notice that Jesus never stayed in one place. He was constantly on the move, going from village to village teaching, healing and restoring. He never set up shop in one building, or on a campus with five buildings, and expected people to come to him to get fed, receive a blessing, or be restored. No, he always went out to them to feed, bless and restore. And he expects his disciples to do the very same thing.

7He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 

Jesus never intended to be on a mission to transform and save the world by himself. He called and gave authority to disciples to join him. He sent them out doing the very things that he did, some very big things like: challenging the unclean spirits of greed, materialism, poverty, sexism, racism, sickness, exclusion, and oppression. Jesus gave his disciples the power and the authority to change the world!

I wonder how many in the church today, sitting in their half empty sanctuaries, truly believe they have the power and the authority to change the world?

8He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 

When Jesus sent his disciples out to be the church in the world, he ordered them to travel light, to keep it simple, and to stick to the basics. Disciples should leave behind all of their baggage: anything that might slow them down, deter their mission, or enable them to get too comfortable in one particular place. Jesus said that if they want to be his disciples in the world, they must leave some things behind.

And notice that Jesus said that they are to take no bread. Could that mean that Jesus wants them to go out and share a meal with others? Could that mean that he wants them to share a table with others, with perhaps strangers, and break bread?

10He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 

Jesus said disciples who are sent out to encounter and love the world can expect failure. If disciples are following Jesus, and if they are taking his inclusive and unconditional love and grace out to the people, they will not be received by everyone. But they should never let that discourage or stop them. They should peacefully keep moving and keep doing what they have been called to do.

12So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 

Disciples go out and proclaim that all should repent of their selfish, self-centered, self-preserving ways. However, proclaiming such repentance is impossible if the disciples are not first willing to repent of their own misguided ways, ways that are about preserving old structures, old traditions, ways that are solely about serving some institution rather than serving all people.

13They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

As I said, disciples have the power to do some pretty big things. They stand up and speak out against evil forces. They restore, and they heal, and they forgive. They are a literal movement for wholeness in a fragmented world.

This is my dream for the church in the 21stcentury. It’s right here in this simple account of Jesus sending the disciples out into the world.

Yes, it’s Pentecost Sunday, and this old man has a dream!

I have a dream – that the church would once again believe that its main and only purpose in this world is to follow Jesus, to be his disciples, and to go out into all the world to make, not new church members who want to serve the church, but new disciples who want to follow the selfless way of Jesus to serve a world in need.

Yes, this old man has a dream.

I have a dream – that the church’s annual Mission Trip—you know, the one of which the participants said was the highlight of their year, the very best thing they did all year long through the church— I have a dream that the church’s annual mission trip was not just one week a year but was actually 52 weeks a year! I have a dream that church itself was a Mission Trip!

This old man has a dream – that the church will one day truly leave its buildings to move from place to place, village to village, to teach the selfless, restorative, healing love of God to all people with words and deeds. I have a dream that one day the church will stop talking about getting outside of the walls of the sanctuary and actually get outside of them!

Think of how much better our worship would have been on the Sunday before Memorial Day, if we set up a tent and worshipped near the edge of the rising flood waters. Perhaps had a cook-out after the service, and then helped residents in the area by feeding them lunch and filling sandbags.

This old man has a dream – that the church will one day leave behind all of its baggage—anything that is not about loving this world as Jesus loved it, being people of grace and kindness and mercy and justice, and making new disciples who do the same thing.

I have a dream – that the church will leave behind its love for the nostalgic memory of the way things used to be, its pining to return to the good old days and will get together to dream new dreams and embrace a new vision, and move forward into good new days.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will somehow learn to keep the faith simple by sticking to the basics, like simply loving others as Jesus loved others.

This old man has a dream – that the church will be a courageous, risk-taking, peace-making, justice-creating movement that’s never afraid to go to new places, even to those places it is not welcomed.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will one day finally repent and change its ways selfish ways that focus on going to heaven, receiving a blessing and being fed, to embrace a selfless way that focuses on being in, blessing and feeding the world.

This old man has a dream –  that the church will catch a new vision of how to be church, how to be a mission of selfless love following Jesus wherever he leads.

This old man has a dream – that the church will truly be about baptizing and making new disciples, teaching them to do the things Jesus did, instead of spending all of their energy and time trying to keep its old members happy.

This old man has a dream where the church no longer has any members.

It only has disciples.

This old man has a dream – that the church, the Body of Christ, God’s gathered and sent people, will be born again by the Holy Spirit to be a literal movement for wholeness transforming the world into the Kingdom of God.

Now, do you want to hear the good news?

The good news is that when this old dreamer looks around the room, I have hope that, as a prophet named John Lennon once sang: “I’m not the only one.”

 

Pride and Pastors

 

sorry

Pride is especially painful for me as a pastor, as I realize that pastors are one of the main reasons that people who identify as LGBTQ need Pride. Throughout my ministry, I have witnessed more hate from pastors directed towards people who identify as LGBTQ than from any other group of people.

I cannot begin to count how many pastors I have heard say: “It was Adam and Eve; not Adam and Steve,” and use the word “abomination” to describe persons who are LGBTQ.

I once attended a convention of pastors that voted to excommunicate an entire church from their denomination for baptizing persons who were LGBTQ.

I have attended meetings with pastors who said they believed the biggest threat to Christianity and to America were LGBTQ people.

I have attended other meetings with pastors who said that they must “fight like hell” for their rights to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

I have welcomed new LGBTQ persons into the church who were told by their pastor that they were not longer welcome in their church.

I have officiated funerals for LGBTQ persons after their pastor refused to be a part of their funeral.

I have officiated weddings for LGBTQ people whose pastors would not even consider attending the ceremony.

And here’s what may be the most painful part: From the year I graduated from seminary and became a pastor in 1992, until 2013, for fear of upsetting or losing church members, I was egregiously silent. Today, I realize my silence has made me complicit in the harm that has been directed towards the LGBTQ community. Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel has warned us: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Now, there were a few times during my first 20 years of ministry when I spoke up in defense of the LGBTQ community in informal conversations, briefly in a sermon or a Bible study, and in some posts on social media; however, during that time I never “spelled it out” in “black and white” in a manner that was fully visible to the public.

So, to all of my LGBTQ friends, I sincerely apologize.

Please know that I remain committed to be a vocal ally of the LGBTQ community for the rest of my life, because I believe (here it is in black and white) that GOD LOVES ALL OF GOD’S CHILDREN, AND TO CELEBRATE DIVERSITY IS TO CELEBRATE DIVINITY!

 

For more on this subject see: Issues of Homosexuality and the Church

Get Your Heads Out of the Clouds

River Valley Strong

Acts 1:6-11 NRSV

The risen Christ had been telling his disciples for months that he would one day leave them, and in today’s lesson, the read where time had come. But before he departed, they asked him: “When will you come again and restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Jesus replied: “It is not for you to know the time or the period…But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

With those words, he ascended into heaven and left them standing there, looking up into the clouds.

And while they had their heads in the clouds, suddenly, two men in white robes show up. They said: “You Galileans, why do you stand there looking up toward heaven?”

Jesus’ followers were instructed to get their heads out of the clouds. They didn’t need to be alarmed about the departure of Jesus, because one day, God’s kingdom would fully come, and day would come when love would finally win. The disciples did not know when, but they didn’t need to know.

“All you need to know,” said the angels, “is that the Kingdom is coming. Love will eventually win, and here’s the thing, you are going help to make that happen! That is, if you get your head out of the clouds and keep loving this world as Jesus loved this world, keep being his “witnesses to the ends of the earth.”

I believe this wonderful Ascension story has much to teach today’s church that seems to have its head in the clouds. I hear it almost every day: that the church seems to have lost its focus, its vision and its purpose in our world.

And there are several clouds that our heads seem to be stuck in these days.

First, there are still too many Christians today whose main, and really only focus as a Christian, is going to heaven. The faith in Jesus that they profess is nothing more than a ticket to escape this world. Thus, their faith is private, something they possess, hold on to, not something that is actually lived or shared with others.

I believe our scripture lesson this morning is a direct command from God to get our heads out of the clouds, get our minds off going to heaven, and come back down to earth and to do something for this world. Give something, create something, be something that will make a positive difference in the world.

Come back down to earth and go to Jerusalem. Go all the way to Little Rock and Washington DC and be moral witnesses. Why are all of you hunkered up in one place? Don’t close yourself up in a sanctuary of comfort and security. Go into all of Judea. Go all over the River Valley, and even into places that you do not want to go, like Samaria. Go into the muddy, flooded neighborhoods along the Arkansas River. Be witnesses to the ends of the earth to the good news of the love of God that Jesus revealed to you.

Another cloud that Christians have had their heads into ever since the Emperor Constantine wed Christianity with the Roman Empire is the cloud of worldly power and control. But perhaps it started right here at Jesus’ ascension into heaven: “Tell us Jesus, when are you going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?”

The desire and temptation to gain worldly power and control is strong. Today, we see the minds of Christians clouded and their souls corrupted in their embrace of greed, materialism, dishonesty, pride, all kinds of bigotry, even a little Nazism, in order to gain some dominance.

Being in a cloud is perhaps the best way I can describe what is happening today—A follower of the Jesus who emulated love and commanded love, must have their heads in some kind of deep demonic fog for them them to believe that religious liberty in this country gives them the license, not to love their neighbors, but to discriminate against some of their neighbors and cause them harm.

Many are shocked that followers of Jesus think this way today, but I suppose this is nothing new. Our nation has seen this ugly cloud before. It’s the same evil fog that not that long ago blanketed this nation that made it possible for followers of Jesus to believe that religious liberty was a license for them to not only demean and dehumanize people, but to actually own people as slaves..

“Get your head out of the clouds,” said the angels. Stop focusing on any power of this world that dominates, discriminates and divides; and instead, focus on the peculiar power of Jesus, the power that the Holy Spirit will give you, the power that gives generously, serves selflessly and loves graciously.

And there’s another cloud that I fear many Christians have their heads stuck in these days. And when I say stuck, I mean really stuck. And it is perhaps the darkest, most sinister cloud of them all. It is the cloud of the institutional church.

We are stuck in the pipedream of the way things used to be. Our minds are clouded by some hazy sentimental memory of church. And we have fully accepted the delusion that if we put all of our focus on serving the church the way we used to and getting others to join us to serve the church in this same way, then we can somehow get back to the way it was.

Consequently, our focus is on being what we believe is good member of a church, rather than on being a faithful disciple of Jesus.

Our focus is on maintaining and preserving structures, systems and traditions, rather than on following Jesus without any limitations, restrictions or hesitation.

Our focus is on serving the institution, rather than on serving people.

Our focus is on trying to figure out how to get people to come to us and support us, rather than on creating new ways we can go out to them and support them.

Thus, our focus has been on building attractive buildings and on maintaining those buildings, rather than building the kingdom God and expanding that kingdom.

This week, I have heard more than one person say that this historic flood has brought out the best in Fort Smith. I believe that is because, for at least a week, we got our heads out of the clouds.

We left behind our focus on going to heaven by literally and figuratively bending ourselves down to the earth to love our communities affected by the flood.

We left behind our lust for a power that dominates, discriminates and divides by embracing the sacrificial power of Christ that unconditionally and unreservedly gives, serves and loves.

We left behind our churches, temples and mosques. We got outside the walls of our religious institutions, traditions and beliefs, and we went out into our neighborhoods to simply love others as Jesus loved others.

Yes, this week, the focus of Fort Smith couldn’t have been more unclouded. It couldn’t have been sharper, clearer or purer.

The good news is: I believe that the week that has brought out the best in Fort Smith has something holy to teach us about how to bring out the best in the church. It won’t take us back to the good old days when our sanctuaries were full on Sunday mornings, but it will take us forward, out of our sanctuaries, into good new days.

It is the lesson to get our heads of the clouds. It is a challenge to leave behind some of the things that we thought were important, even sacred, to follow Jesus wherever he leads us.

Here’s our challenge:

Are we willing to leave behind our focus on going to heaven? Are we willing to follow Jesus as a disciple, not for some future reward, and certainly not to avoid some form of punishment, but simply because we believe Jesus is the most unclouded, the most clear and the most pure revelation of God’s love?  I heard someone once say: “If the fear of eternal damnation is the only thing keeping you from being a bad person, you are already a bad person!”

Are we willing to leave behind our focus for worldly power? Are we willing to transform this world not by imposing our beliefs on others, legislating our morality, but through selfless and sacrificial love— by loving, living and serving the way Jesus loved, lived and served? Are we willing to work alongside, not only those who believe like us and dress like us, not only the pretty and the powerful, but also those who believe very differently, those who are rough-around-the-edges, and those who are poor?

And here’s perhaps our most difficult challenge: Are we willing to leave behind focus on institutional church? Are we willing to leave behind the way we have always done things: old polities of how to be good church members that may be obstructing our focus on how to good disciples of Jesus? Are we willing to leave behind every part of church that is preventing us fulfilling the great commandment to love our neighbors and the great commission to make new disciples?

In the play, Inherit the Wind, one of the characters says: “He got lost.  He was looking for God too high up and too far away.”

The good news is that I believe we can regain our holy vision and our divine purpose when we redirect our gaze from the heavens, from worldly power, and even from the way we’ve always done things inside the institutional church, and focus on serving people and the meeting the needs of the world.

When we understand that faith in the love of God is not some ticket to heaven, that it was never intended to be coerced or used to control, or to only be experienced inside these walls, but faith is something that is to be lived everyday and shared with all, to the ends of the earth, starting right here in the River Valley with our neighbors who need us right now, then I believe we will regain the power of the Holy Spirit which can transform the world.

Go and Get You Some Glory

Class 2019

John 13:31-35 NRSV

During a recent concert here in Van Buren, in between songs, the musician interacted with the audience with some back and forth exchange. It must have been obvious to the musician that one group was there to celebrate an occasion. Perhaps a birthday or an anniversary. So he asked: “What are you guys here celebrating tonight?”

A young man sitting at the table shouted out, “It’s my graduation!”

The musician responded: “Oh, your graduation? Well, congratulations! Where are you graduating from?”

“UFAS!” shouted the graduate.

“That is wonderful! Now, it is time for you to go and get you some moneeeeeeeeey!”

Of course, everyone laughed, clapped and cheered! I even leaned over to my son Carson and said, “That’s right! You go get you some money, Carson!”

For that’s what parents want of our children do we not? We want them to get a good education so they will not only be self-sufficient, but they will be successful. We want them to be able to afford nice things and live in nice places.

But almost as soon as I said it— “Go out and get you some money”—before the cheers and the clapping had time to die down, I knew there was something wrong with those words. And then, I could almost hear the words of Jesus:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal (Matthew 6:19-20).

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth (Matthew 6:24).

Yeah, I am certain there’s now way Jesus would have shouted out: “Now, go out and get you some money!” And am even pretty certain he wouldn’t have laughed, clapped or cheered.

Now, I realize that there are some preachers you see on TV who would disagree with me here. Sitting on their opulent gold sofas, I have heard them point to scripture like our gospel lesson this morning to justify their prosperous and luxurious life-style.

“Look,” they say, “Jesus himself said: ‘Now the Son of Man has been glorified…’ That means Jesus came to earth and was ‘glorified.’ And if Jesus was glorified, then that means that God want us to be glorified too!”

Then they point to their mansions and their private jets and their gold watches and rings of every finger as signs of God’s glory. And I have seen them look into the camera and say something like: “And God wants you to go out get you some glory! And if you send me some of your money, you will get it!”

Although the word “glory” might suggest worth and value, I believe Jesus’ had something very different in mind.

The Greek word “glory” is doxaa, whichliterally means “reputation.” It is the root word of our word “doxology.” When used as a verb, it means to enhance one’s reputation. To glorify is to praise, honor or recognize someone to the extent that they have a reputation for greatness. It means to assign honor, prestige and fame to someone. So EVERYONEwill know who they are.

And while the world may glorify the rich and the famous, Jesus was talking about another kind of fame and glory. This reputation has nothing to do with having a lot of money and material possessions.

Jesus says, “Here’s the reputation, here’s the glory, I want you to have:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. (Listen to this) By this EVERYONEwill know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

In other words Jesus says: “I want you to be famous! I want you to be recognized. I want you to be renowned the world over. I want you to be glorified. I want EVERYONE to know that you have the reputation of being my disciples. And you do this by simply loving others as I have loved you.

St. John of the Cross wisely wrote:

In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human successes, but on how well we have loved.

My hope for the class of 2019, and I believe God’s desire for you, is that you will get up and go out and get you some glory. I want you to get up and go out and love others in such a way, the very same way Jesus loved others, so that EVERYONE will know that you are his disciples.

Because today, what this world needs now more than anything else is for everyone to know the transforming love of Jesus. What this world needs now is change. What this nation needs now is change. And it is a change that you have the power to bring. For our reputation as a nation has certainly been diminished in the world these days. Our glory days seem to be over.

My Disciples of Christ friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. William Barber, has made this challenge to the class of 2019:

I’m here to tell you, if you graduate and get up and get together and get involved, love can take on hate, mercy can take on meanness, justice can take on injustice, truth can defeat lies. You cannot merely get a job and a car and quarantine your life. Your graduation is more than just getting another slice of materialism. You must stand against injustice and be part of reviving the heart of this nation.

There are too many people in this world who are living their lives without any glory, without any reputation at all. Well, for the very few who know them, they have the reputation of keeping to themselves, minding their own business, being self-centered or just too afraid to step out and step up. Some would like to see the world change, but they are sitting safely back, waiting for someone else to go get the glory.

Yes, Class of 2019, what this world needs is more people who want to some glory!

We need more people who are willing to step up and step out, to put themselves out there, to put their reputation on the line, to run for office, to start a non-profit, to speak truth to power, to serve selflessly, to love this world as Jesus loved this world. We need more people to be the change, be the solution, and be the church this nation needs.

I am now going to address something that may be a very sensitive subject, especially here, in this place, during this hour. It is the subject of church.

It is no secret that the majority of high school and college graduates today and church do not mix.

According to a recent Barna Research poll, 59% of Millennials (that’s 22-35 year olds) who were raised in church have since dropped out of church completely. Only 2 in 10 Americans under 30 believe that attending a church is worthwhile. And here’s what might be the most frightening statistic: 35% of Millennials believe the church today does more harm in the world than it does good.

Nearly all church growth experts agree that this means that church as we know it today, in the form that it is in today, will slowly cease to exist in 50 years.

I had an opportunity to have lunch with Nadine Burton our Regional Minister this past Wednesday. When I asked her how she has been doing, she responded: “On most days I feel like a real estate agent more than I feel like I am a minister.” I was afraid to ask, but asked anyway, “Because so many churches are closing and selling their property?” She said: “yes.”

Now, here’s the sensitive part that I was warning you about. I do not blame the Millennials for the church’s decline. And I don’t blame Millennials for dropping out of church. For I believe the church today has a long way to go to prove that it is a worthwhile venture. Much has to change in the church today if it is going to look like the the authentic embodiment of Christ in this world. The church today has undergo a drastic and dramatic transformation to love like, give like, and live like Jesus.

I think we need to face the hard and painful truth that the church, in its current form, does not have a very good reputation in the world. The church today has lost much it’s glory. And I believe that is the reason the heart of this nation is so very sick today.

But here’s the good news. Although our glory days have greatly diminished, I do not believe our glory days are over.

So, here’s what I am here to say to the class of 2019 on behalf of the church: “I want you to go and get you some glorreeeeeeee!” I want you to get up, stand up and speak up to transform the church. If the church is not what you think the church should be, I want you to do the work to reshape it. I want you to teach us how to love others as Jesus in loved others in such a radical way, EVERYONE will know we are disciples of Christ.

Now, I am aware that not all churches will listen to you. Not all pastors want to hear from you. I understand that. That is why you are dropping out. That is part of the reason you believe attending church is a waste of your time. And that is why our regional minister can continue to expect to be in the real estate business.

But I believe that this church, the First Christian Church in Fort Smith, wants to hear from you. I know this pastor wants to listen to you. I want to work with you to help bring glory back to the church, to help restore the church’s reputation in the world.

And I believe with all my heart that your generation will one day have the reputation, the glory, of saving the church, and thus, quite possibly, saving this nation.