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One of my earlier childhood memories about Autumn is going Trick-or-Treating with my dad. I am sure my youngest brother was off with the big kids this time, but I was too little, so Daddy took me to the houses around my neighborhood. He was very patient with me, carrying my bag so I could manage my cumbersome costume and sometimes carrying me, too.

Sometime in September, Daddy had made me a promise. He would take me to as many houses as I wanted – not returning home until I was ready to go. I had visions of an all-night candy quest. My plan was to wake anyone who had already gone to bed with my demands for goodies, and to see the sun rise on my way home.

When we started out, it was just getting dusky, and we covered a lot of ground. I suffered through all the “Oh, she’s so cute!” and the “My, how scarry you are!” for the handfuls of chocolate, peanut butter, lollypops, and candy corn. I obediently took just one cookie from steamy plates, and even said “Thank you!” politely for raisins and the occasional apple or orange. It seemed we rambled up one street and down another for ages, and the bag was getting quite full, but I pushed on, intent on harvesting all the sweets I could.

Finally, when the night was edging closer to the tiny circles of light over doorways and streetlights, I looked up at Daddy and whispered a sleepy surrender. “Can we go home now?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.” I managed through a yawn.

Okay, he said, scooping me up and starting off down the hill. I was dozing in his arms when I felt my mother’s hands lifting the plastic mask from my face and pulling my hat from my tangled hair. I was out of my costume and into soft flannel, and my toothbrush was in my hand.

“I want candy!”

“In the morning,” was the sage reply. “It’s almost 9:00 o’clock.”

My heart sank. I was sure it must be nearly sunrise, and I must have left way too much candy in the neighbors’ bowls! But I was very tired, and the flannel was so soft and warm. I was so glad to be home.

Sometimes, when the road gets long and the gathering darkness feels heavy on my soul, I look up toward my Heavenly Father and whisper, “Can I go home now?” I have walked so far. I have been so blessed, and I have been grateful. But I am tired, and sometimes the load is heavy, even when Father helps me carry it. I feel like the dove circling the Ark, finding no place to rest my feet. I walked all this way to discover that the golden years are mostly base metal with a thin sheen of brass.

I know we have a way to go, and there are doors on which I have not knocked – places where folks are waiting for me – but sometimes my energy is flagging. Sometimes I am so tired – tired to the very center of my soul. Who knew it would get this dark this soon? So, I sometimes hear myself saying it…

“Can we go home now?”  

Tell me, are you ever discouraged? Sometimes, I am. And that’s okay. God carries me…

Even to your old age and gray hairs
    I am he, I am he who will sustain you.
I have made you and I will carry you;
    I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Isaiah 46:4, New International Version

Balancing Obligations

As we pause today to honor our connection with all Christians around the world through our adoption into the family of God through faith in Jesus, we recognize a thread of discord on the issue of immigration in this age of mass migration. What do we do about the stranger at the gate? It is not a simple question.

Listening to the rhetoric from both (all?) sides of this ragged debate, I am struck with the contrast in the presentations. People are talking about two separate issues, continually conflating the two. The dividing line seems to me to break along the speakers’ experience base. Some speak from a foundation of conceptual obligation while others speak about a lived reality.

Those taking a conceptual approach tend to lean toward an open border. Let them come. Let us share our way of life. We are not miserly monsters, are we?

Those speaking from the depths of personal experience talk about safety, scarcity, and concern for their families and neighbors. It is true, they say, that not every migrant crossing the border in defiance of immigration regulations is a wanton criminal, but if one in a thousand is, how many have poured through the gates this year, mingled with the more than two million with whom we have interacted? How many more have slipped by unnoticed in the throng?

We gladly invite the stranger to share a meal and shelter among us, but we stop the intruder at the door and protect our families from theft and violence. It is the witless shepherd who welcomes the wolf to sleep among the lambs.

Recently, we have witnessed governors from heavily impacted border communities broach this subject very concretely. “You are criticizing the way we handle things? Here. Come join us in our lived reality.” I understand, though I cannot celebrate the further disruption of migrants’ lives.

Hard working communities, already stretched by a shift in the work-ethic of citizens who have adjusted to dependance on government hand-outs, are tasked with providing food, shelter, medical care, and social services to hordes of people with unknown ties and undeclared income and resources. This is not like the outreach efforts after a disaster. It is a daily grind of providing for others from resources inadequate to care for our own who have never learned, or have forgotten, the skills of self-reliance.

We are so grossly out of balance. Extremes have eclipsed the center – that place where we know that we are called to share with the stranger and care for our own. We cannot choose between the two mandates.

We are watching the increasing destabilization of our form of governance, unless our eyes are closed, and our heads are buried in the sands of denial. What comes next? If this democratic republic stumbles here, what power will rise to displace it?

Maybe we should stop screaming at each other for a moment and listen to each other. Can we do that? Or is it already too late?

“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ The King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.’

“Then He will also say to those on His left, ‘Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.’ Then they themselves also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?’ Then He will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

Matthew 25:31-46, New American Standard Bible 1995

Honor widows who are widows indeed; but if any widow has children or grandchildren, they must first learn to practice piety in regard to their own family and to make some return to their parents; for this is acceptable in the sight of God. Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives. Prescribe these things as well, so that they may be above reproach. But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.

1 Timothy 5:3-8, New American Standard Bible 1995
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Shaped by Grief

I grew up across the street from a church. When I was just a child, I remember watching funeral services with a dark fascination. It intrigued me that people would carry out such deeply sad rituals. Why, I wondered, would they put themselves and each other through such unpleasant experiences. When I was the preacher, we would never do such unsettling services! (Imagine how shocked my childhood self would be to learn that I conducted fourteen funeral services in my first thirty days in pastoral ministry.)

As a child, I could grasp the reality of the ritual, but not the irreversible and inescapable quality of death.

Children notice when people leave, but they do not always understand where they go. Tell a child that Sally has gone to Heaven and that Pete has moved to New York, and one is about as sad as the other. I can still remember the day that my brother told me the hard truth about death. A family pet had died – I do not remember which one – and my brother told me as gently as his limited life experience allowed that Daddy would dig a hole in the ground, put my pet in the hole, and cover him with dirt. I could plant flowers if I wanted. That was what people did.

I was deeply upset. How could we put someone we loved in a hole in the ground? It was completely unthinkable. I ran to tell my mother how mean my brother was, only to learn that it was not my brother, but reality that was perpetrating this enormous insult to my sensibilities. It was true. We actually did take folk we loved out into a field and leave them there. Who, I wondered, came up with this idea?

But there is a mercy in it. It is deeply sad to suffer such a terrible loss. It would be sadder by far to cling to the decaying remains when the life had clearly gone out of the cherished form. How could anyone bear that?

The death of a friend, a compatriot or a parent is a tearing away of a part of the fiber of the soul. It leaves a gaping wound and a hollow grief. The death of a marriage, a dream, the death of hope, the death of innocence – these are also soul-deep losses. I cannot begin to express the depth of grief in the loss of a spouse or a child.

Life is defined as much by its losses as by its gains and accomplishments. Grief etches real change into our natures. Once a heart is broken, it is never quite the same.

Yes, grief changes us. It scars us. And in the process of the scarring, grief works with our other human experiences to sharpen or obliterate the image of God that we bear. Experience is one tool by which we are formed, but the outcome of the process is largely determined by the way that we lean into or cringe away from the work.

I will strive to embrace the experience of grief in my life as a dark but beautiful gift from God:

  • Grief builds in us a deep appreciation of the magnitude of love.
  • Grief helps us to define what really matters to us.
  • Grief teaches us humility, and helps us to grasp our own limitations.

I will accept that I will not so much recover from grief as I will be shaped by it. I will endure the process with all the patience I can gather, and I will pray for a sweet spirit in the middle of the pain. I will accept the scars it leaves on me without shame.

In the end, I will be changed. My greatest hope is that people will see the love and compassion of God more clearly in me when grief’s work is done. When those darkest days relent, and the world begins to brighten again, I hope that my broken heart will spill out pure faith and be made truly holy.

Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

Genesis 23:2-4, New American Standard Bible 1995

Keep Watch

When Jesus sent His disciples among the Jewish people, He sent them to family, to be cared for along the way by their own people. He said to them:

Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel. As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.

Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave. As you enter the home, give it your greeting. If the home is deserving, let your peace rest on it; if it is not, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, leave that home or town and shake the dust off your feet. Truly I tell you, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.

Readings from Matthew 10:5-15, New American Standard Bible 1995

But later, when Jesus was approaching the hour of His passion, He changed the disciples’ approach to going on mission.

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”

“Nothing,” they answered.

He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

Luke 22:35-37, New American Standard Bible 1995

The mission had not changed, but the atmosphere had. The lines of separation had been more clearly drawn between the governments of the world and the spread of the Gospel. There would be fewer houses open to receive the missioners, and more hazards along the way. Jesus was helping the disciples come to terms with that.

For generations now, we have walked in the earlier atmospheres. We were going out among friends and family, sharing good news with a sense of security. But times are changing. We live in litigious times when the world is turning a wary eye on The Church. The truth is, we have earned some of it with our lax attitude toward mutual accountability.

Although Jesus warned us, “Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many. Because lawlessness is increased, most people’s love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.” (Matthew 24:11-13, New American Standard Bible 1995) we only half listened. We (as a fellowship and as institutions) failed to keep adequate watch, and false prophets waltzed in. Love cooled in the gathering, and acceptance cooled in the community.

The mission has not changed, but the atmosphere has. Surely, we see that. What are we doing about it?   

I know that many denominations have adopted training programs and enhanced accountability processes that are more than enough to keep the innocents secure, and the sincere under-shepherds and congregational leadership both protected and equipped. But not every shepherd or leader is sincere.

More than one mission is at work here. While The Church is reaching out to the world, the world is infiltrating The Church with tendrils of malice. Their mission is the thwarting of the mission of The Church, and the subjugation of the Great Commission to the concept that there is no one true religion. Some see that as the great evil it is, and others see it as another sort of salvation. Which perspective is right? Time will have its say, but eternity will tell.

Do we need to do some house-cleaning? I suppose we do unless it is so late in the game that we need to simply change houses. But for some of us – those who were called to the work of spreading the Gospel – the answer is to hear that call as a mandate to a modified minimalism. We do not need all the bells and whistles. We need a wallet, a go-bag, a sword, and the road before us. We need folks to hold us accountable, and the courage to hold them accountable, too.

We do not have the option to quit. We may not have the opportunity to officiate at formal worship services, but we will find ways to share the faith if we look for them. Calls do not evaporate when systems fail us. They simply pack up and walk on, and if we are wise, we walk with them.

And about that sword? I see it as a call to internal protection. Among the approaches I suggest is to have good locks, alarms, and security systems in place and trained personnel keeping watch during worship gatherings. If violence erupts in any of its currently popular forms, call the police and activate plans in place to secure your people and eject or stop down the intruder. Make sure that your electronics, musical instruments that remain in place, and costly items used in sacraments and other sacred events are marked as property of your congregation. If they are stolen, they can be readily identified and recovered. In case your meeting place is vandalized, have video security systems in place and functioning in key locations. Copy the tape before surrendering it to police and certify that copy to an attorney representing the church. If the state will not call the bad actors to justice, launch a civil case against them. (No, you should not have to do that, but if you do, be ready.)  

Be proactive in this reactionary world. Be kind, gentle, and forgiving, yes – but also offer bad actors the grace of righteous discipline. Then you can pray for their souls while they deal with the consequences of their actions.

Love is not the same as approval, and neither cowardice nor ignorance is a virtue. Stand up straight. Square your shoulders and be the shepherd or congregational leader your people need. Embrace the calling and live it out. The flock is at risk in these agitated times. Keep watch.

Accountability 101

In my childhood, I was only aware of two kinds of doctors: Dr. Grigsby and “the surgeon.” Although the surgeon was the smartest and best trained, at least according to my Granny, I preferred Dr. Grigsby. You see, when I went to Dr. Grigsby with a pain, or a bad case of “the yucks” I got some medicine, maybe even a shot, which I hated out loud, and a lollypop. In a few days, I felt a lot better.

I never went to the surgeon back then, but neighbors, and some of my extended family did, and toward the end of my childhood, one of my parents did. All those people had the same experience except one. They went in sick and came back sicker and had to lay around for days – even weeks – taking medicine, changing bandages, tossing their cookies, and feeling dizzy, before they finally got better.

The one exception was the neighbor who died.

I asked my Mom why the people were so sick and she told me the doctor had cut out (or off) the thing that was making them sick, and throw it away. Then they had to heal from the surgery. Well, I thought that was just rude. Why couldn’t he just give them some medicine – even a shot – and a lollypop like Dr. Grigsby?

Mom told me that some sicknesses were worse than others, but it seemed to me that some doctors were better than others. I was not going to anybody who was going to cut bits off me. I need all my bits. I was sticking with Dr. Grigsby.

As it turns out, I couldn’t, but that would be later in my life, when I knew that medicine and a lollypop can cure only so much.

Arguments are like going to the doctor. Something in a relationship gets sick, and it needs to be sorted out. Most of us do not want to do it, but some folks are experts at it.

People seem to approach arguments in one of two ways – like Dr. Grigsby, or the surgeon.

Some gently probe, looking for ways to heal things. They cleanse wounds, pour on ointments, and cover hurts tenderly. They speak softly and listen when you speak. Sometimes what they do hurts, but you know they don’t want to hurt you. They don’t just say so – you can feel it running out of them toward you. It hurts them to hurt you because they are, by nature and practice, healers.  

Others approach arguments like surgeries. First they paralyze you then they systematically cut away at you until they like what they see. When nothing is left that they find offensive they use pressure to stop the hemorrhaging, throw in a few stitches, and slap on a bandage. Then, in a moment of generosity, they prescribe something for pain, and maybe send you to someone who can teach you how to get along without the part of you they cut out or off, and that therapist helps you recover at least some of your previous form and function.   

Sometimes you have no access to the therapy, so you just limp along without it.

I have seen pastors and teachers who take this approach to arguments who have gutted congregations and crippled promising students. I have seen parents rear hobbled children, and adult children deprive their aging parents of any meaningful life. I have seen friends walk away rather than be emotionally and spiritually mutilated, and far too many marital unions surgically separated. What a waste!

There is a scripture passage that is often used to discourage people from using strong or offensive language, and I cannot argue with that usage, but it also applies to our focused conversations when we disagree. Please read this passage at least three times and ask yourself whether you are a Dr. Grigsby or a surgeon when it comes to an arguments. I know it may be a painful experience, but then you can go get a lollypop and feel better about yourself. You might even find that your friends feel better, too.

Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such a word as is good for edification according to the need of the moment, so that it will give grace to those who hear. Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:29-32, New American Standard Bible 1995