Friday, June 11, 2004

The Reagan Funeral

I was also moved by what I was able to see and hear today of the Reagan funeral and later, the committal services in California.

The elder President Bush's comments were heartfelt and moving, especially coming from a man not gifted in public speaking.

Margaret Thatcher's tribute, put on videotape because encroaching years and illness prevent her from speech-making, was more touching than I imagined possible. To my surprise, she referred to the late President repeatedly as "Ronnie," denoting the personal as well as political closeness that characterized thea side of Thatcher I'd not seen before, was the visage of the "iron lady," defying age, frailty, and death to fly both to Washington and after a long day, on to California. I was impressed that she sang our national anthem at the committal service and standing on her own, she paused before the casket to pay her last respects.

The eulogies given by the late President's surviving children were each, in their own ways, effective and affecting. Each, again in their own ways, gave testimony to their father's faith and the assurance with which they faced his death, believing that he is with God in heaven. Each showed remarkable polish and Ron P. Reagan showed flashes of the Reagan wit, wielded with a delicate and deft touch.

I loved the gracious, faithful words to Nancy Reagan, uttered by the Reagans' pastor. As my wife said, both he and Michael Reagan managed to give witness to their faith in Christ without being heavy-handed.

I watched the MSNBC coverage tonight because I so appreciate Chris Matthews' enthusiasm and his love for country and his respect for people of goodwill from all sides of the political spectrum. He recognizes that at the end of the day, we're not Republicans or Democrats, just human beings peculiarly blessed to be Americans.

May we all remember that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected. That may be the best lesson we can draw from the week of pageantry, remembrance, and goodbyes we have just completed.

On Following Jesus...

I was moved today when I read these words from Craig S. Williams and his blog:

We have a culture of admirers of Jesus. Many of us have been admirers for a long time. But when Jesus beckons us to follow, we leave the safety of admiration behind and we go to where Jesus is. As I mentioned earlier (see The Beckoning God blog) God is calling us out into deeper waters where he is, away from safety's edge. Where Jesus is going in the Gospels is a cross. He bids us to come and die - die to our selfish wants and needs and life. Once done, he gives us new life - his life. We take him on. As John the Baptist said, "He must increase and I must decrease."

Great words! More often than I care to admit, I get caught up in myself, in looking good to others, and all the rest. Following Jesus isn't always easy; but it is the way of life. Thanks for the reminder, Craig Williams!

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Thoughts from the Rummage Sale

Women from our congregation, planning and preparing for a retreat weekend they'll be giving to other women, are sponsoring a rummage sale this weekend. All day today and tomorrow, people will be bringing their "rummage," items scrounged from basements, closets, and book shelves to be sold on Saturday. My wife and I gathered up enough items to fill both our van and her car.

As we sweatily packed things to take to the church building today, my wife said, "The next time I start to buy something, stop me." Of course, I won't stop her and truth be told, I am by far, the most acquisitive of the two of us. It's not that I'm a big materialist---or at least I'm not the fevered kind of materialist to which I like to compare myself in order to salve my guilty conscience. Books are my weakness, of course, and I appall my wife (and sometimes myself) by how easily I cave in to the temptation of any book that hooks me.

But like my wife, when these rummage or garage sales come along, I'm astounded to meet up again with the long-forgotten items. Their appeal now is lost on me, but once they caused me to readily part with my cash. They make me ask myself, "What was I thinking?"

Lots of times, I suppose, I was thinking that something about this object could service my delusion of self-sufficiency. Often, the things I buy are little more than offerings to the god of me. That isn't a pleasant admission, but it's true.

The other day, a new acquaintance of mine and I were railing against the insanity of churches having lots of expensive real estate and decorative goo-gobs while millions are going hungry. It's a line of thought worthy of consideration, to be sure. But what's good for the goose is also good for the gander: What about all the goo-gobs I buy? How might they be used for better purposes? Better, that is, than genuflecting at the altar of me.

Jesus had something to say about all of this, of course. He told a story about a man whose land produced a bumper crop. He resolved to pull down his barns and build bigger ones to store his excess food. Then, the guy tells himself, I'll sit back and relax. Then, Jesus says:

But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'
[Luke 12:13-21]

That puts things in perspective. Like the ubiquitous Mr. Anonymous once said, "The U-Haul doesn't follow your hearse to the cemetery."

I've come to believe that showing restraint while shopping and giving items away for the rummage sale can be like sticking forks into the devil. They can be acts of rebellion against the evil of materialism. And they can be ways of getting myself free from stuff so that I can live for God, provide for my family, and give both myself and my money to the cause of Christ in the world.

My guess is that my relationship to material goods will always be a bit like the relationship of an AA-enrollee to alcohol. For as long as I live, especially in America, I will be a recovering materialist. But my prayer is that I'll always be in recovery and always moving toward God's way of doing things, away from my addiction to Sam's Club.

A Good Hamilton Biography

I personally feel that the best short biography of Alexander Hamilton is that by Richard Brookhiser. Brookhiser is a wonderful writer and both sparingly and thoroughly evokes the personality, character, mind, and work of this complicated American founder.

Reagan on the Ten Dollar Bill? Take a Deep Breath and Count to Ten

In the wake of Ronald Reagan's passing, there are a lot of well-meaning proposals being made to honor him. But the days immediately following the death of a beloved person are not prime time for making such decisions.

The most disturbing of these proposals, I think, is the one that would place Ronald Reagan's picture on the ten-dollar bill in place of Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton may be considered a "weak link" because most Americans know little to nothing about him. They may know that he died in a duel and that's about it. But Hamilton, who emigrated to what became the United States from poor circumstances on the island of Saint Croix and grew to be an extradorinary man, is someone contemporary Americans would do well to know better. He was brave in battle during the Revolutionary War. He wrote the lion's share of articles that make up The Federalist Papers, playing an important role in shaping the US Constitution and its critical part in forging America's national identity. He was a brilliant jurist and writer. And perhaps most importantly, as Washington's secretary of the treasury, Hamilton established America's free enterprise system. Clearly, Hamilton should not be bumped from the ten-spot by President Reagan or anybody else. As an economics major himself, the late President, I feel certain, would agree.

If Mr. Reagan is to be honored on our currency, perhaps a new denomination could be established that would feature him.

Something of Interest...

Mark Roberts' web log has a wonderful reflection on humility, inspired by the remnant of an ancient Roman sculpture on display at the Vatican. The fragment is a representation of the bust of the emperor Augustus. The original statue would have been over fifty feet tall.

Writes Roberts:
Historians acclaim Augustus as one of the great administrators of history. Under his able rule, the Roman Empire experienced unprecedented peace (the pax romana) and prosperity. Yet, ironically, all that remains of his giant statue is a big head. And this head is not the focal point of some temple in honor of Augustus the god, but is simply one exhibit in the immense Vatican Museum – a museum that ultimately honors someone who was merely an insignificant Jewish boy during the years of Augustus’ reign.

I like that!

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Never Run Out of Gas!

Second Timothy 1:3-7
Confirmation Sunday

(shared with the people of Friendship Church, June 6, 2004)

Down in Florida, there’s a sign posted along a highway as you come to a bridge that says: “It is against the law to run out of gas on this bridge.” That’s understandable. Every carload of people depends on every other carload of people to keep going. Otherwise, everybody’s progress stops.

The same is true in other parts of our lives. We depend on ourselves and on others to keep making progress. But more often than not, it seems, we run out of gas. Nearly ten years ago, Ann and I attended her twenty-fifth high school class reunion. Since Ann and I graduated just one year apart from the same high school, I knew lots of people in her class. But when I walked in, I was stunned. Looking people over, I turned to Ann and whispered a question: "Who invited all of these old people?" It wasn’t just their grey hair or their middle-age bulges. Most of us are “blessed” with those things after a certain point in our lives. It was the demeanor of many of our old schoolmates. They acted older than their years: rundown, almost afraid of living.

There’s a reason for that, I think. Most people seem to get to a particular point in their lives—it may be when they’re confirmed or they graduate or they get their first full-time job or they have their first child, or hit their fortieth birthday—and they sort of die. They run out of gas. They let milestones become millstones...or even tombstones. Henry David Thoreau had it right when he said that, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” It’s sad.

The novel and movie, The Natural, by Bernard Malamud, tells the story of a once-promising baseball player whose career is seemingly ended by an act of violence committed against him and the scandal that ensues. More than a decade later, that career is miraculously resurrected. But because of his age and his past injuries, he knows that he doesn’t have many playing years left. To his old high school sweetheart, he laments, “Things sure turned out different.”

Sometimes life can turn out so “different” from what we expect that we just give up, like one of those cars running out of gas on a Florida bridge. Disappointment leads to inertia and a decision to opt out of living.

Young people—those of you this morning affirming your intention to follow Jesus Christ throughout your adult lives and those of you who have just graduated from high school—the words of today’s Bible lesson are for everyone. But I picked them especially for you. God and we of the Church are counting on you, as we count on each other every day, to not run out of gas.

When disappointments and setbacks come, don’t give up. Jesus Christ died and rose for you so that, with a direct and personal relationship with God, you can keep growing, keep living, keep becoming the person God invented you to be! And that’s a process that never ends, even in eternity.

Our Bible lesson was written by the first century preacher, Paul, to a young pastor named Timothy. Paul and Timothy had a history, sort of like the history that our own Tim Vogel has with you young people. Paul had watched Timothy grow up in the loving Christian home created by his mother, Eunice, and grandmother, Lois. And elsewhere, Paul calls himself Timothy’s “spiritual father” and refers to Timothy as “my beloved child.”

In today’s lesson, Paul remembers that special moment when he placed his hand on Timothy’s head to ordain him as a pastor, much as I will place my hand on the heads of our Confirmands today. Paul tells Timothy:

"...I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline."

God has wonderful plans for those who follow Him...eternal plans. He doesn’t promise us easy lives. But He does promise to be with us and that ultimately, He will turn every evil that befalls us in this life into eternal good. That promise is for you, young people, and for everyone here this morning. God has work that only you and I in our unique ways can do. God has blessed us so that we will be blessings. If we followers of Jesus run out of gas, the whole world will pay the price. The world needs us!

That’s really what Paul is saying when he tells Timothy and us to rekindle the gifts of God. Another word for rekindle might be recharge. Every follower of Jesus Christ must recharge themselves in order to accomplish what God has in mind for our lives.

And another word for rekindle might be reposition. I’ve used this analogy before, but since the Reds are doing so well these days, I’ll use it again. In baseball, an outfielder has no control over what pitch the pitcher throws or over how the batter hits the ball. But a good outfielder will be able to anticipate where a hit ball is going and reposition himself to make the catch. God has blessings He wants to bat our way, beginning with the unearned gift of everlasting life. To receive it, we reposition ourselves by turning away from sin and surrendering to Christ. God also wants to give us the power and strength that comes from intimacy with Him. But again, to receive that free gift we need to reposition our lives, leaving time in our days for God to come to us.

But how do we do that? I laughed this past week when I read about a prison break from a minimum security prison in England. Two inmates escaped and immediately ran to a high-security prison. They did it on purpose. It seems that the two young men had just gone through drug rehab. But the discipline was so lax in the minimum security prison, with drugs bought and sold openly, that the two inmates, Audie Carr and Benjamin Clarke, were afraid that they would slip back into drug use again. They didn’t want that. So, they literally repositioned themselves so that through the discipline of the tougher prison, they could get the strength to keep their lives on the right path.

Over the past several years, we’ve talked at Friendship about seven habits of joyful people. Historically, the Church has called these habits, spiritual disciplines, habits that refuel us, rekindle our faith, reposition us to receive life from Jesus Christ.

The seven habits are: regular worship, service in Jesus’ Name, prayer, study of God’s Word, sharing your faith with others, encouraging others with God’s love, and giving to the cause of Christ. People who engage in these habits give God openings into their lives. They’re like doorways through which we welcome God to come into our hearts and minds. We may get wrinkled. We may get grey and flabby. But through these habits, our whole lives brim with the vitality, power, and passion that God gives to people who surrender to Him.

The other day, I spoke on the telephone with a friend of Philip’s, a former classmate of his from college. I’ll call her Christy. Christy isn’t having an easy time of it right now with the job that she’s working, getting started in life. But I know that she’s going to be okay because even in the midst of the challenges, she isn’t running out of gas. She’s rekindling her faith and refueling on God’s love by keeping her regular appointments with God. She clearly has incorporated the habits of prayer, worship, service, study of the Bible, witnessing about Christ, encouraging others, and giving in her everyday life. Later this summer, she’s going on yet another mission trip to Russia, sharing the Good News of our God Who loves us as we are and helps us to be everything we can be when Christ is our Lord and Savior!

One final thing. Followers of God make mistakes. Our judgments can be wrong. We can fail. We sin. But when those things happen, it isn’t time to give up. It’s time to look up! Ask God for forgiveness, for new wisdom, and for the power you need to go on living a good life for Jesus Christ. That is a prayer God always answers. He’ll answer it for everybody here this morning. In fact, sometime this week, I hope that everybody who has never done so before or who feels the need to recommit their life to Christ, will take some time to be alone with God and do what our Confirmands are going to do today. Tell the Lord that you know Jesus died and rose for you and grateful for that, you want to live a life in which you turn away from sin and turn toward Christ. Tell God that you want to make those seven habits the seven meeting places where day-in and day-out, week-in and week-out, you will meet the God Who loves you and is committed to helping you become the tremendous person you were born to be. This week and each day of our lives, let’s refuel on God, rekindling His gifts to us. When we do that, I guarantee that we will never run out of gas. We’ll just keep going, right into eternity!

[The story of the sign on the Florida Highway appears in Leonard Sweet's wonderful book, SoulSalsa.]