Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Real News

An Inkling
When I was in ninth grade I was the Editor of our Jr. High newspaper, having worked my way up through the ranks as a reporter and photographer.  As I think back on it, I’m amazed that we were so ambitious – a weekly, 6-pager, printed on newsprint, complete with photos and ads.  I’m sure our sponsor, Mrs. Davis, was the driving force in its scope and success.  I know she was the driving force behind good grammar and accuracy – and that from a bunch of Jr. High students.  God bless her with a dozen stars in her crown for such boldness, and its undoubted “opportunities” for long-suffering! 
Would you venture to guess the most popular section?  It wasn’t even on newsprint – just a mimeographed sheet inserted in the “real” paper.  Neither was it carefully composed.  It consisted mostly of sentence fragments taken from a contribution box in the hall.  Its title was the “Gossip Page.”  Its hot “news” items were bits like:  “Guess who Tony’s got an eye for.  Rhonda wants to know.”  And “There’s a reason Tina looks mopey.  Ask Mike.”  No last names, mind you.  The innocent must be protected!  And Mrs. Davis would nix anything too risqué or mean.  But the students did manage to get in their digs at each other, and especially at the popular kids, i.e., cheerleaders and football players.
The best part of being the Editor was that the Assistant Editor and I got to go through the gossip slips each week and choose which ones would be printed.  That meant that we got to see the risqué and mean ones that Mrs. Davis would nix for everyone else.  I’m embarrassed now to think back on how mature and privileged I felt!
I thought of that youthful episode as I observed the current Tiger Woods media feeding frenzy.  To put a twist on an old saying, “You can take us out of Jr. High, but you can’t take the Jr. High out of us.”  The “Gossip Page” is still the most popular section.  And, of course, the “news” providers excuse their appeals to the worst in us by saying that they only provide what the public wants – which was true with our Jr. High “Gossip Page” too.  Only now risqué and mean is the order of the day.  And if risqué and mean can bring the high and mighty down a notch, fine.  The foibles of cheerleaders, football players, and Tiger Woods are still high entertainment.
All of which is irrelevant for us Christians, since we’re exempt from such lingering “Jr. High-ness.”  Yeah, right!  Don’t we wish?!  The fact that the “Gossip Page” still piques our interest too can itself call us to serve the Lord in our Jr. High society in several ways:
§       First we can be readied to serve by confessing our own inner “Jr. High-er,” and by asking God’s forgiveness.
§       From the posture of confession, we can then pray for our fellow “Jr. High-ers,” including those who make lots of money calling forth the worst from us while disguised as news media – like Fox, CNN, etc.
§       From that same posture of confession we can pray for Tiger (in his shame) and the women (in their shamelessness).  Since we’ve known both shame and shamelessness, we’re well qualified to pray.
§       And we can thank God that he has sent a Savior for all of us perpetual “Jr. High-ers.”  It’s a good thing, because there is no sign of us saving ourselves.  Jr. High-ers can’t save Jr. Highers from their Jr. Highness.
We’re saved only by the One who left his highness to come among us.  Thus we celebrate his birth.
And that’s real news!

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Grand Illumination

An Inkling
Friday night Sarah and I went downtown for the “Grand Illumination” at the James Center.  This was the 25th year for this popular Richmond tradition.  It’s a thrill to see tens of thousands of lights come on all at once, filling the cavernous corridors of downtown with their charming sparkle.  (If you haven’t been, you can get a more than this photo glimpse through the youtube video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t4r9h5cVy-c
Actually I found the people more fascinating than the lights.  Here’s why:
§       I’m guessing that there were over ten thousand people gathered – and this in the cold and dark.  That meant parking blocks away and walking.  We parked seven or eight blocks away, and as we walked we fell in with scores of others doing the same, many with the extra challenge of little children and baby strollers.  When people really want to do something, they will find a way to do it.
§       The crowd was a wonderful cross-section of Richmond, racially, socially, and in age.
§       The crowds displayed a simple, child-like delight in the occasion and the spectacle.  The plaza swelled with “oohs and aahs” when the lights went on, and then continued to buzz as people resonated with Santa’s antics, or the high school band, the brass ensemble, and the mariachi band.
§       The crowds were polite.  The tightness of the space might well have prompted some pushing for the best views, yet I saw people deferring to each other.  There is something about the Christmas occasion that can call forth the best from people.
Were all of the people there for the same reason?  Yes and no.  No, they don’t all know the One who really is “the reason for the season.”  But yes, they were all there out of a natural human delight in festivity, celebration, pageantry, and mutual enjoyment.
Sometimes we Christians get too much on our high horse as we exhort the larger culture to “keep Christ in Christmas.”  Such exhortations are best directed to ourselves – those who know the Christ of whom we speak.  Those who don’t yet know him can only hear such words as stuffy scolding. 
We would do better to focus our attention on finding as many ways as possible to unite with our fellow Richmonders in such festivities, and along the way to show them by word and deed that the season does have a reason – a reason of great substance and joy.  It’s the something more they’re all looking for, braving even in the cold and dark.  We can bring that “something” with us even to cultural Christmas celebrations.  We thereby live in the light of the truly Grand Illumination!
Ooh, Aah,

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Little and Big in the Kingdom

An Inkling
There is an extra joy in our family gatherings these days, as a new generation is making its appearance.  Jack, who turns three this month, and Hilton, who is six weeks old, were very much at the center of things at our Thanksgiving gathering.  And I’m sure they’re still seeing stars from the camera flashes.
The picture attached here is of my hand and Hilton’s.  It’s fun to see a hand fully formed, yet tiny.  And the tiny-ness is most apparent in contrast to the big hand.
It’s a visual image of how much the little needs the big.  Little Hilton needs big hands to provide virtually everything for him – food, clothing, protection, cleansing, and guidance.  His hand, though fully formed, is not yet fully able.  And it is very satisfying to be on the big hand end of things, caring in such important ways for the little one.  (Of course it’s also exhausting!  But I’m the grand dad now, and so the satisfaction is more mine and the fatigue more his parents’!)
But in fact the big hands need the little ones too.  Jesus thought so.  He once set a little-handed child in the midst of his big-handed disciples.  They had just been having a big-handed debate about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of God.  And Jesus said, “Unless you become as children, you will never enter the Kingdom.”  Big hands posture in power and feign competence.  Little hands can’t even pretend to such.  And thus they are more ready to receive the Kingdom that comes only as a gift, not an accomplishment.
The picture is actually a bit deceiving.  Most of us would see it as the big hand guiding the little hand, but Jesus saw it as just the opposite.  May he give us grace to follow such guidance, and to see just how tiny our hands in fact are.
In his grip,

Friday, November 27, 2009

Praying it Forward

An Inkling
Tears streamed down his cheeks as he told about the letter.  His mom had just died at the age of 97.  As he was cleaning out her house, he found an old box of letters, one of which was written to him as a baby by his grandparents.  His mom had filed the letter away, and he had never known that it existed.  In the letter his grandparents told him that they were very proud to have him in the family, and that they would pray for him daily to become a Christian, and then to become a pastor.
The man I heard tell about the letter is Gary Demarest, a retired pastor, and a leader among evangelicals in the Presbyterian Church.  One reason that the letter touched him so deeply is that he never really knew those grandparents.  Moreover, his parents were not practicing Christians, and so Gary grew up ignorant of the faith.  By God’s grace others introduced him to Christ as a teenager.  Soon after, he determined that God had called him into the ministry.  He served as a pastor for over 50 years.  Gary was so overwhelmingly grateful for those grandparents who prayed for him that he could hardly tell the story.
All of which leads me to ask:  for whom are you praying?  In particular, for what children are you praying?  Gary’s grandparents never knew how God answered their prayers – at least not in this life.  But answer he did, and in a way that has multiplied blessings across many families and years.  They prayed it forward.
So can you.  So again I ask:  for what children are you praying?  Your own children and grandchildren?  I hope so!  That’s a high calling.  But many other children also need your prayers, which means that those who are not parents themselves can be central to the praying.  Which children does God particularly place upon your heart?  Be diligent in prayer.  God uses such prayers to multiply blessings across generations.
And one more idea:  how about writing a letter to the children for whom you pray, and letting them know?  Gary was doubly blessed:  by how his grandparents prayed God’s blessing forward for him, and by the testimony of the letter.  It’s a wonderful way to serve some people who are very special to God, and in ways beyond our view – and likely beyond our lifetime.  They need it.

And so do we,

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Savior For Our Fears

An Inkling
How much of your behavior is driven by fear?  We’d like to think that it’s not much.  But truth be told, fear is one of our biggest motivators.  It’s easy to identify fear-based behavior when there is a clear physical peril – we run for our lives!  But the more subtle fears also prompt a lot of our behavior, and we don’t even realize it. 
Years ago I heard James Mallory, a Christian psychiatrist, describe some subtle fears that haunt men and women, and that twist their relationships with each other.  Typically men fear that they will be found inadequate and controlled, and women fear that they will be used and abandoned.  Of course our gendered identity is more complex than that, but time and again I have seen these fears played out, both in my own marriage, and in those of others I’ve counseled. 
We laugh at the stereotypical male reluctance to stop and ask for directions, but it’s a behavior that arises from deep within (i.e., fear of appearing inadequate).  And how many comedy shticks have you seen featuring a hen-pecked man (i.e., fear of being controlled)? 
As for women, which one wants to be valued only for the “3-M’s” – meals, maintenance, and mating (the fear of being used)?  And so common are tales of wives being dumped for sweet young things that many a wife clings to a relationship that is little more than those “3-M’s” (the fear of being abandoned).
When 1 John promises that God’s perfect love casts out fear, we usually picture some terrifying scene of peril.  And it is true that we need not finally fear terrorists or cancer or assault, for God himself holds us in his perfect love.  But day to day, in our closest relationships, God’s perfect love also releases us from fear.  And as it so often is with our Lord, his approach is paradoxical.
To men that fear they will be found inadequate he offers no assurance of adequacy.  Rather he says, “Of course you’re inadequate.  It’s high time you admitted it and turned to me.”  As one of the male persuasion, I can report that it’s a huge relief simply to go ahead and acknowledge the obvious:  I’m inadequate.  Okay.  There is One who is adequate, and he’s my Savior.  And as for being controlled, that fear also gets unplugged in a paradoxical way.  Jesus calls us to total obedience to him and mutual submission to each other.  How’s that for being controlled?!  And yet therein is freedom.
To women who fear that they will be used, the Savior issues an invitation to join him in serving the very people who are prone to take others for granted.  A willing servant need not fear being used.  And as for being abandoned, the steadiest promise in the whole Bible is God’s assurance that he will be with us.  No matter what others may do, it is literally impossible for a Christian woman to be abandoned!  God himself stays with her.  Thus his perfect love casts out fear.
May it be that we would grow up into Christ in such a way that even our gendered fears fade away!  That fading fear will be matched by a rising reflection of the One who saves us – and who lives free of all fear.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

An Inkling
            The Post Office may not be carrying mail on Veterans Day (November 11), but our E-News is still flying!  Still, it’s well not to treat Veterans Day like just any ol’ day.  We want to honor our veterans!
            Veterans Day began 90 years ago today.  On the previous November 11th (1918), an Armistice was signed that ended the hideous slaughter of World War I.  President Woodrow Wilson designated the next November 11th as Armistice Day, a day set aside to honor those who had served in the war. 
In fact, Wilson and others had hoped that these veterans had fought the last big war, the “war to end all wars.”  It was certainly horrid enough to make everyone shudder at the thought of another.  But another came, one even more ghastly – World War II.  This time no one was so glib as to call it as the “war to end all wars.”  And sure enough, the Korean War soon followed, and then Vietnam and several others, leading up to our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Even if smaller, every one of these wars is horrid.  To recognize the ever-growing roll of veterans, in 1954 our nation changed the holiday’s name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day.
Across the centuries Christians have dealt with wars in many ways.  Sadly, some have acted as if our faith had nothing to do with it.  But gratefully most have recognized war’s evils, and have tried to respond accordingly.  Some have refused to participate at all – pacifists.  Thankfully our nation has allowed for conscientious objectors.  That, as much as the strength of our nation, makes me proud to be an American.
But many more Christians have participated in the Armed Forces, seeing some wars as unavoidable – the lesser of evils in a broken world.  Such Christians have sought to corral war’s chaos with “Just War” principles, and to some measure they have succeeded.  In the process they have secured our freedoms as a nation.
We as Christians can join with all Americans in celebrating the sacrifices of those who have served to preserve our freedoms.  As they say, “freedom is not free,” and thousands have paid with life or limb.  That is a huge gift, for which we must thank both God and the veterans.  We especially celebrate the service of our St. Giles veterans.  If you’re a Vet, check out their monthly meeting - http://www.stgiles.org/veteransgroup.cfm.
There will never be a war to end all wars, but there is a Savior who will end all wars.  Until he does, we serve him by doing all that we can to foster peace – prayer, bridge building, negotiations, and yes, service in the armed forces.  The challenges of both peace and war give urgency to our prayer, “Come, Lord Jesus!”  It can’t be too soon.

Thanks Vets!                                                                                   

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Modified Christians

An Inkling
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting with another Presbyterian Minister, and in the course of conversation I referred to St. Giles Church as “evangelical.”  He responded, “And we’re not?”  Granted, it’s not the first word that comes to mind as I think about the church he serves.  But his readiness to claim the term made me think.
The modifiers with which we nuance our identity frequently obscure as much as they clarify.  That’s because these words pick up baggage along the way.  Wisdom would suggest that we use fewer such adjectives, and let the proper nouns carry their own freight.  “Christian” says quite a lot on its own. 
But sometimes we need to specify our beliefs and commitments with modifiers.  If we’re to do so, then we must also have periodic conversations about what we mean by our modifiers, and that’s to the good, for we are thereby forced to clarify both our thinking and our vocabulary.
So with that in mind, let me clarify some modifiers that I use for myself these days.  I’m a liberal, conservative, evangelical, charismatic, feminist, Presbyterian – which might lead you to add one more modifier:  schizophrenic!  But here’s what I mean:
I’m liberal.  Some use the word to describe those who discredit the scripture.  That’s not me.  By it I mean that I try to be open to diverse opinions. 
I’m conservative.  It’s not that I’m opposed to change.  I just want to conserve what’s true and best. 
I’m evangelical.  Though some use the word politically, I don’t.  Rather I mean that I’m confident in the good news of Jesus, and I welcome others to follow him too.  (And in conversation with my pastor friend, I was also using the word to mean a full trust in the scripture’s teaching – one of the great divides in our denomination.)
I’m charismatic.  It’s not that I roll in the aisles, but I’m open to all that the Spirit would do to enliven us and equip us for ministry.  (We need all of the help we can get!) 
I’m a feminist.  Some would cast women and men as just alike and ready for all the same roles.  I don’t.  But I do support the long overdue efforts to recognize the full range of women’s gifts, and to see that they are treated fairly in every setting.
I’m a Presbyterian.  Of all the modifiers I bear, this is the one that causes me the most angst, due to the current dysfunction of our denomination.  But for centuries it has been an effective arrangement for serving Christ, and it remains the one to which I’m called.
I’m sure you have your own modifiers for me!  Let’s continue to talk and clarify who we are, what we believe, and what we want to do as “modified Christians.”

No mere Christianity,

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Connecting With Our Well-Heeled Neighbors

An Inkling
St. Giles has never connected very well with her own neighbors.  The most recent figures I saw showed that only 11% of our folks come from the two closest zip codes!  There are many factors involved in this, not the least of which is that our immediate neighborhood is wealthy, and there’s that little matter of the “needle’s eye.”  (See Mark 10:25.)
As best as I can tell, St. Giles is where she is by the providence of God, which means that we cannot ignore where we are.  How might we connect with our own neighborhoods for the sake of Jesus?
Something happens when well-heeled Christians venture out of their tidy communities into the chaotic communities of the poor.  There we meet Jesus in distressing disguises – a la Mother Teresa – and he begins to heal us of many blindnesses.  Thus the exhilaration of our student ministries in their regular encounters with the homeless.  We’re all called to such ministries in one form or another.
But that doesn’t replace the challenge of how we might minister for Jesus right around the block.  Our neighbors don’t need many of the things that give us an entree in our ministry with the poor – food, education, and medicine.  They have the best of all such things.  But our neighbors do need what money cannot buy:  friendship and purpose.  We have those in spades.  What is Christian fellowship, if not friendship in its truest forms?  And what is our high calling as disciples, if not a purpose substantial enough to garner all of life’s ambitions and energies?
It will take some creativity, but I believe that we can minister close to “home” as well as far away.  And I thank God for the privilege of your friendship as we pursue his high purposes for us.


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Our Hope in Life and Death

An Inkling
In the space of a single week our family is gaining one and losing one.  Hilton Robert Sherrard was born last Thursday, our second grandson.  He’s healthy and happy – at least when he’s fed and rested!  We’re rejoicing at such a marvelous gift.
But this week we also heard that my Uncle Bill is dying.  He’s 87, and has a mass around his heart.  He was the Uncle who made us laugh with crazy ranching stories and hilarious wisecracks about his favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys.  The whole family is saddened to think of his departure.
A birth announcement and an obituary in a single week put me to thinking.  Such listings in the newspaper stand next to news that poses interesting questions, such as: 
Given that Hilton has been born into a world where AIDS is pandemic, terrorism is unleashed, the economy is unstable, and families are in chaos, why would we celebrate his birth?  Who knows what sorts of hideous realities young Hilton will face over the course of his life?  Would it not have been better never to have been born?
Given that Bill was an honored veteran of World War 2, married and fathered wonderfully, ran a fine oil leasing business, was a fine churchman, and contributed a lot to his community, but died anyway, why would we do anything but despair at his death?  If someone does everything right – or nearly everything – and still dies, does life or how we live it really matter?
Every generation has asked such questions about life and death.  Some answer such questions with despair or cynicism, but those who have met Jesus answer with hope.  He brings hope to both life and death. 
Jesus is Hilton’s hope for a life of meaning and peace in a world that makes for neither.  And he is Bill’s hope for life beyond the hard boundaries of mortality.  Thus we crazy Christians celebrate both births and deaths.  One celebration comes easily, and the other comes hard.  But both celebrations honor the one who is Hilton’s and Bill’s and our hope.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009


An Inkling
I’m not sure who first said it.  The earliest attribution I can find is the mid-90s.  Here’s the quote:  “We live in an age in which everything is permitted and nothing is forgiven.”  (Alan Jones, Dean of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco)
That’s what came to mind this week as I read about Roman Polanski and David Letterman.  Polanski has been arrested for the sexual assault of a 13 year old many years ago, and Letterman was forced by a would-be extortionist to acknowledge his multiple trysts with women on his staff.  The resulting public conversation is instructive.
Both men have their defenders.  For Polanski: “He’s a great artist who has done so many good things.  Besides, that was forever ago.  Let it go.”  And for Letterman:  “He’s come clean and apologized.  Anyway, everyone has indiscretions.”  Polls indicate that public response on both men is all over the map.
Why the confusion?  Because “when everything is permitted, nothing is forgiven.”  If we have no real sense of right and wrong, then forgiveness is, by definition, impossible.  Indulgence is possible, but not forgiveness – indulgence being the affirmation that “we’ll just let it go this time,” and forgiveness being the gift of grace even though a sure enough wrong has been done.
Confused?  The culture is.  But think about how this plays out in parenting.  We see what happens when children have no boundaries, and are indulged rather than held accountable and forgiven.  Such children become insufferable.  Why would we imagine that it works differently with adults?
May God have mercy on Polanski and Letterman.  Not dumbed-down masquerade mercy, but the real mercy that is ours in Jesus Christ.  He doesn’t permit everything, but he can and does forgive anything.