A True Saint

I was sitting at a meeting of Pittsburgh Presbytery. I was bored out of my skull.  A gathering of preachers with access to a microphone is a very dangerous thing.

Someone came late and sat next to me. It took a second for me to recognize that it was Fred Rogers.  Many people don’t know that Fred was an ordained Presbyterian minister. His entire ministry was to children through the medium of television.  No one has ever had a greater impact for good than the soft spoken man from Latrobe PA.

At that Presbytery meeting he leaned over and asked me where we were on the docket. He sounded just like he does on TV.  What we saw on the Neighborhood was genuine Fred Rogers. It was not an act. That was who he was in reality.

I told him how much I admired his work. He said thank you. But he really wanted to know more about me and my ministry. That is the kind of person he was. He was never overcome with any sense of stardom or self-importance.  He was humble and genuine. The love for people that came over the TV was truly what Mr. Rogers was all about.

My children loved Mr. Rogers.  It was must see TV for them. And it was a great time of bonding to watch with them. Gradually, I realized that he was not just teaching children about love and acceptance and self worth. He was also teaching these gospel themes to the adults.

He was a witness to all that Christ stood for without being overtly religious.  Some people are blessed with a double spirit of God’s presence. Fred was one of those rare people. He was blessed with a great spirit and he blessed all of us with his ministry.

What do you want to be when you grow up? I want to be just like Mr. Rogers who likes me just the way I am.

Talking about guns

Why is it so hard for us to talk about guns? I think it is because there is so much emotion involved.  One side feels threatened by any talk of control. The other side feels like no one is listening to their heartbreak.

I think a good first step is for all of us to stop demonizing the other side.  I have heard people say that gun owners are heartless and don’t care about the kids who were killed. I know some people who are friends and family members who are gun owners. And I can tell you that they feel just as much grief and pain as anyone else. They are not demons. They are people with a different point of view.

Some gun owners believe that anyone who wants stricter gun control laws is defying the Constitution and trying to take away their 2nd amendment rights.  But they are just people with a different point of view. They are not demons.

So let’s try to put emotion aside and see if there is any common ground in common sense. ( I know that is hard. I tear up when I see the pictures of the kids gunned down in school.)

The second amendment was written at a time when you had to fire a musket. It took about one minute to fire a single shot.  We can’t know what the framers would think about a weapon that can fire 45 rounds a minute.

Is it possible for us to defend the 2nd amendment and still limit the kinds of weapons that an individual can possess?  For instance an individual cannot own a tank or an Apache Helicopter with a 50 mm gun on it. Is it really unreasonable to limit A R 15 rifles while still allowing people to own hunting rifles and shotguns and handguns?

Guns are not the only reason for these horrific mass shootings.  Mental health is indeed an issue that needs to be addressed. We need more funds to employ more health professionals. We need to have screening procedures to identify troubled kids. We need stricter background checks to make sure that people with mental issues will not be able to purchase guns at stores or on line or at gun shows.

Another thing that we can do is to ban assault rifles and high capacity magazines. It should be illegal to manufacture, sell, buy or possess these weapons whose only function it to kill a lot of people in a short time. The A R 15  and other such weapons should be collected and the owner reimbursed for the cost of the gun. After a period of time anyone still in possession of one would face serious jail time.

I can already hear my NRA friends angry responses. THE SECOND AMENDMENT! It is a limit on that Constitutional right. But doesn’t that have to be weighed against the rights of our children to be safe and the rights of a parent putting their child on the bus in the morning to have a reasonable expectation that they will still be alive at the end of the day?

I also think we need to take measures to make our schools safer. I envision a buzz-in system where a person with no legitimate business in that school would not be able to get in. The schools should also have metal detectors and bullet proof glass at the entrance. The schools should also have an armed security person on duty.

And even if we did all of these things, there would still be shootings. But we would have taken reasonable common sense measures so that there would not be as many and perhaps not as many deaths if there was one.

I don’t want anyone to take away anyone’s right to own a rifle or a shot gun or a hand gun.  These all have a purpose that does not harm innocent people as long as the owners are responsible for the security of those guns.  But an AR 15 has no other function but to kill a lot of human beings in a short period of time.

So anti-gun people, stop demonizing responsible gun owners. And NRA people, stop and think about your own child being gunned down at school. Isn’t it worth a compromise of one right to make our kids safer?

A Question for Evangelical Christians

It’s no secret that Evangelical Christians support Donald Trump. My question is WHY?

Now let me begin by saying that in my experience Evangelical covers a pretty wide range of believers.  I understand that not everyone who self identifies as evangelical does support Trump.

But there is a segment of that group that does. Franklin Graham is an example.

Evangelicals are supposed to stand for strict moral and ethical rules. They support marriage as sacred.  They condemn those who commit adultery. They stand strongly on the need to be truthful.  They stand for being peaceful and loving towards your enemies. They put great emphasis on the Bible as the undisputed truth.

So let’s look at Trump. He has made a mockery of the sanctity of marriage.   During each of his three marriages he has openly bragged about adulterous affairs with other women. He continues to battle accusations of sexual abuse and affairs with porn stars.  Now they may be all false rumors. But 19 women have accused him with nothing to gain for themselves by false accusations. It turns out that Stormy Daniels did gain financially by NOT talking about her affair with Trump since his marriage to Melania. The only one to profit by lying is Trump.

He has also played loose with the truth. He even bragged about his ability to profit from lies in his book.  As for promoting peace or love for enemies, he demonstrates just the opposite. As for the Biblical admonition to take care of the poor and the stranger, that is totally lacking.  He has not attended worship since being president. He has found lots of time to golf, but no time to honor the Lord.

So my question for my evangelical brothers and sisters is, “Why do you continue to support him?”  With sins that were far less numerous, you condemned Bill Clinton with intensity and no mention of grace.  If Clinton or any other Democratic President had done a tenth of the things that Trump had done you would have called down fire and brimstone upon them.

Clinton deserved to be condemned for his immoral behavior. But why have your standards changed?  Please don’t tell you so hated Hillary that you would have voted or anyone else. I wasn’t crazy about Hillary either.  But the election is over. Now we are dealing with a president who has set the record for behavior that should be the epitome of  what you  claim to be against.

So is it that you have so embraced the Republican Party that you have compromised your religious convictions?  Have you sold your soul to the GOP?  I hope not. The church  universal needs you to keep purity in public view. Even if you can’t support the rest of the Biblical direction about the poor and the stranger, at least stand up for the values with which you have been strongest proponent.

Tell the truth. If Trump were a Democrat, would you support his behavior? So what is wrong with this picture? I would like to understand. If you are an evangelical of any kind and you support this immoral man as your president, please explain it to me.

football and life and I have had enough

So the Steelers are in the NFL playoffs. They have a tough game ahead.  In years past, this would be dominating my thoughts and even my emotions. I was that big of a fan.

But then I matured. I realized that this is just entertainment.  The players on my team or your team do not care at all about you and your life.  They are loyal to the team and the city they play for as long as nobody else offers them more money.

Then there is the issue of injuries, some of which are permanent. I think about the ancient Romans being entertained by watching gladiators fight each other to the death. Should Christians be a part of that?

I still watch. I still want the Steelers to win. But I admit that is a guilty pleasure. And the truth is, that with all that is going on in the world it just isn’t that important.

That is what I started out to write. But I have had enough. One of the parts of what is going on is the disgrace of this presidency. I have tried to hold my piece, but enough is enough. And any Christian, or any person with a good heart must speak now. For to be silent in the face of this evil that is destroying this nation that I love, is to be complicit in that evil.

I like to study presidential history. I have read most of the serious biographies. It is fun to rank the presidents from best to worst. At the bottom of the pile would be Calvin Coolidge, Richard Nixon, George W. Bush, James Buchanan, then 50 miles of shit, then Donald Trump. (Sorry about the language. I’m just following the lead of our “stable genius” president.)

I will not take the time to list all of the evil that this man represents. It seems like every day he says or does something that is the antithesis of what it is Christian. The Prophet Micah says:  “He has shown you what the Lord requires of you. Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God.” If I were to try to define the exact opposite of Trump this verse would do that perfectly.

He is dangerous to the environment, the world’s people and the ideals that America is supposed to be about. His recent racist rant and then false denial is only the most recent debauchery of the Presidency and this nation. He has turned the White House into a SHIT HOLE!

I do not know what it will take to stop him. Will it be the mid-term Congressional elections? Will it be the Mueller investigation? Or will it take some more radical form of a revolution?

So when I think about my fear that my grandchildren will not have much of a future, and when I think about the deconstruction of this nation, it is just hard to take seriously who wins a professional football game.

Still Wonderful

STILL WONDERFUL

A SHORT STORY BY RICK SWEENEY

 

George sat on the edge of the bed and wondered how things had ever gotten this crazy. He listened to Violet snore softly beside him. He could not help looking back at that Christmas Eve 12 Years ago. He sometimes thought it was all a dream.  Guardian angels don’t just show up when you are in trouble.

It had been nine days since Potter had called him and asked him to stop by the bank. He was dubious of Potter’s motives. He had never known a time when they were good.  He went out of curiosity as much as anything.

He certainly didn’t need anything from the old penny pinching power grabbing self-centered bastard. But why would he want to talk to George?  Potter had lost. The building and loan was more successful than ever.  Bailey Park was almost full of new houses that the average person could afford.  George was still not rich in spite of what his brother Harry had said that night.  But he and Mary got by.

Potter started the conversation without his usual fanfare or even his poor attempt at being nice. He came right to the point.

“George, I am dying. The doctors tell me that I have less than six months to live. A man starts thinking about his life when he knows it is coming to an end.  I have spent all of my energy accumulating wealth and power by any means possible. In so doing, I almost ruined your life. I wanted to say I am sorry for what I did. In spite of all my wealth, believe it or not, I admire you. You have a family and many friends. I have neither. But I want to say it in the only language I have ever understood.  George, I have had my will drawn up. It leaves all of my money and worldly possessions to you. You are my sole heir.”

George nearly fell out of that same chair that he had sat in years earlier when Potter had offered him that cigar and a job. He had been wise to Potter’s motive then. He just wanted to destroy the Building and Loan. But now, George was mystified.

Potter was telling him that he would be a very rich man soon and he was asking nothing in return. It seemed the only thing Potter’s money could not buy was a clean conscience. He desperately wanted to ask him why he would want to do such a thing, but the words would not come. He half believed that it was another trick. He just couldn’t find the angle this time. There were no conditions.

Only half believing it, George left the musty smelling office and mumbled a thank you on the way out. Time would tell what Potter had up his sleeve.

Well the time came sooner than expected.  Just two weeks later, they found Potter’s body in his room, alone. He had been dead two days before someone at the bank checked in on him. He died as he had lived, alone and unattached to anyone.

The preacher from the local Presbyterian Church conducted the funeral in a nearly empty church.  George insisted that and Mary attend.  It was a few days later when the lawyer called and told him that he was the sole beneficiary of Potter’s will. It was true. The old man had left him a fortune.

At first, not much changed.  But then he started to think about expanding his business interests. He took over control of a large investment firm in New York City. The Building and Loan continued to operate. But Uncle Billy was not up to the task. It turned out that Mary’s brother Marty was out of work. He had some business experience so George asked him to take over the Building and Loan and keep Uncle Billy on as his assistant. It was just the sort of kindness that people expected of George.

Uncle Billy died penniless less than a year later. The church was packed with mourners.

With Marty running the Building and Loan effectively, George started spending more time in New York. He bought an apartment in Manhattan. He traveled back and forth to Bedford Falls. But he loved life in the city. He was a shrewd business man. All of those years trying to figure out how to save 3 cents on a length of pipe had prepared him well for deals on a much larger scale.

Mary hadn’t noticed at first, but George was changing. Slowly she came to realize that the sweetness of this kind man was beginning to disappear. He started coming home less and less. He was a big shot now and he was needed more and more in the city.  He missed Pete’s big game and Jane’s recital. She confronted him the next time he was at home.  She said, “George, you are letting this business take over your life.”

George was angry. “Look, what do you want from me?  I am making a lot of money. Don’t you have all the pretty dresses you want? I told you we could afford a maid. And I told you that we could afford a bigger and nicer house.”

Mary cried. “I don’t want a bigger house. I want my George back.”

On the train back to New York, he felt like Mary was ungrateful. He felt like she was not being supportive of his success.  Then things took another turn away from the old George. He ran into Violet at a restaurant near his office. She was single and working as a secretary. George invited her to have dinner with him. Then they went to see a show the next time they were together. Then after dinner only a week after having re-connecting with her, he invited her back to his penthouse apartment. She stayed the night.

The sex was as wonderful as he had imagined it when they were both back in Bedford Falls.   He started going home less and less as he spent more and more time with Violet.

So now he sat on the edge of the bed wondering how his life had gotten this crazy.  He turned to look at Violet, still sound asleep. When he turned back, there was a very familiar face. It was Clarence. He jumped, stunned and at a loss for words.

“George I feel very sad. I have my wings now and I could see for myself these terrible decisions you have made. You were given a gift once that showed you what a wonderful life you had. Now look at you. I hardly recognize the George Baily I knew. Don’t you see, George, Potter got his revenge by leaving you all that money. He tried once before to ruin you. This time he has succeeded. You have a lot of money and no soul. That is exactly the way you once described Potter. I can’t interfere this time. It is you who will have to do the hard work of getting your life back.”

George was weeping softly.  “What can I do, Clarence?”

Clarence put his hand on George’s shoulder. “I can’t tell you want to do George. You have to figure it out yourself.” But I believe that you could still have a wonderful life if you are willing to make some big changes.”

“Who are you talking to George?” Violet said in a raspy sleepy voice.  George turned toward this woman that he knew he didn’t love. “I’m talking to Clarence. Can’t you see?”

“See who? Violet said sitting up and looking around the room. When George turned back to his side, Clarence was not there anymore.

Violet laughed. “You must have been dreaming baby. Come here and I will make your dreams come true again.”

George stood up. He was not interested in sex with Violet. Just like that he knew that this relationship was over.  “Get dressed Violet. I have to go home.”

“O, Georgie Porgey, come back to bed.”

“No Violet. I am not coming back to bed; not now and not ever. I am going home see. This is where this whole affair ends, right now.”

Violet’s anger kicked in. “You can’t treat me like that. I’m not just some whore you can use to have your fun and then go back to dear old Mary. I will tell Mary what has been going on here if you try to kick me to the curb.”

Violet began to dress. She was furious. George could fee his own anger kicking in. It wasn’t so much anger at Violet as it was at himself. “That is not going to work to get me to stay, Violet. I am going home and tell Mary everything. She may not forgive me and I wouldn’t blame her if she threw me out on my ear. But I am going to try to make it up to her. I want my wife back. I want my family back. I want my soul back.”

Violet did not cry as she slammed the door on her way out. He realized that she was angry that her good thing was coming to an end. Love had never been a part of this for either of them.

On the train ride home to Bedford Falls, George thought about how he would tell Mary. He realized that Mary had been right when she said he had turned into a different person. Clarence confirmed it. He had turned into Potter.  The old man had gotten his revenge by ruining George and leaving him a life that was as empty and lonely as the one that Potter lived.

The talk with Mary went on for hours. He left nothing out. He said he was sorry and that he would not blame her if she wanted to divorce him. He would always see that she and the kids had what they needed. But he hoped that she would give him a chance to show her that he had changed. He had realized what was really important in his life. He knew now that being rich in things was not fulfilling. He didn’t care if he lost every cent. He just could not bear losing his family.

Mary cried and George cried. Then she came to him and held him. She said it would take a while, but she wanted him to work his way back into her trust. “You still are as you have always been my one true love. I want us to find a way to make things work out.”

They just held onto one another as if letting go would be the end of them.  George asked if he should tell the children. Mary said, “I think you have to. We all have to know where we have been so we can work together as a family to figure out where we are going.”

Tommy, Zuzu and Janie all cried. But they were happy that he was back and they wanted things to be like they were before they were rich. George said that being rich had very little to do with being happy.  Pete was away at college and would return home in a week. George hoped that things would go as well with him as they had with Mary and the other children.

When he got home, George took him for a ride and told him the whole story and how he wanted to put things back the way they were before.

Pete replied, “Things can never be the way they were. You hurt mom so bad. I don’t think I can ever forgive you. Is this the kind of example you wanted to set for us? I hate you.”

But George was patient. He thought that Pete might come around with time. In the meantime he sold the investment business. He used the money to open a plant just outside of Bedford Falls. It would employ some 500 workers. It was not nearly as profitable as the business in New York. But now he had seen that success was about something other than money. He gave a good deal of money away to the churches in town and to other charities. He still had the funds to pay for college for the kids and take care of all of the families’ needs.

There were a string of funerals.  Mr. Gower died. Then George’s mother passed away. She was never told about George’s fall in New York. Burt the cop was shot dead by a drunk husband on a domestic disturbance call. George made sure that his widow and children had all they needed.

Some months late the family, even Pete was back in tact. George visited the grave of Henry F. Potter. The grave was overgrown with weeds. There were no signs that anyone else had visited.  “Mr. Potter, you lost again, I still have a wonderful life. Thanks again Clarence.”

An Advent Sermon

YOU BETTER WATCH OUT

LUKE 2: 8-20

  1. THE REAL SANTA

A. A friend bought a dog for his kids for Christmas. He said, “Its part dog and part bull. I paid $1,000 for it.”  I asked him which part is bull? He said, “The part about me paying $1,000 for it.”  Do you know what else is bull? The song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.”

B. I like some of the non-religious Christmas songs. I like Santa Baby ever since last Christmas morning when it was played right here in church.   The Ertha Kitt version. I like Louis Armstrong’s Cool Yule and Sleigh Ride.  But I don’t like Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

C. It’s not that I don’t like Santa. I LOVE the real Santa. I love the Santa that reflects the real meaning of Christmas. But the Santa of that song is not the real Santa. He sees you when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. That just sounds creepy. The threats that if you are not good, if you cry and pout and shout you will end up on the naughty list and he will double check that list to make sure that you don’t get any Christmas gifts. You better watch out! That is not the real Santa.

D. When our son Dee was beginning to suspect that Santa was really dear old dad, he left a bottle of beer and pretzels instead of milk and cookies. So I drank some of the beer. The next morning he got up and exclaimed; “Now I know Santa is real. If it was my dad he would have finished the whole bottle!”

E. O, Santa is real alright. But not the miserly scorekeeper of naughty lists and coal in a stocking. Santa reflects the meaning of the birth that he celebrates. And that is All children get presents.

2. TO ALL PEOPLE

A.He sees if you’ve been bad or good. What does that have to do with Christmas? Listen again to what the Angels proclaim.  We bring good news of great joy which shall be to ALL people. Not we bring good news of great joy to some people, to people who behave themselves, to people who go to the right church.  Great joy to ALL

B. If you have been using the ‘you better watch out’ strategy to make your kids behave, I’m sorry to interfere with your parenting But that is just not how the story goes. Great joy to all people sounds so good on a Christmas card. But when we begin to unpack the meaning of that we might be surprised. ALL people includes everyone. Every person is the recipient of God’s grace. Every person is favored by God in receiving this gift of love.

C. Luke has Jesus say in chapter 6 that “God is kind to the ungrateful and the So much for the naughty list. Both here in Luke and in Matthew this is demonstrated in the cast of characters.  Shepherds are the first to hear the proclamation. Shepherds were basically guys who could not find any other kind of work. It was miserable and paid next to nothing. A shepherd was the lowest class of work you could do.  And THEY are the ones the angles sing for. In Matthew, the Wise Men were outsiders, astrologers and magicians.  It is to these that God announces the birth of his son. Not to the powerful or the religious or the rich. Why?  It’s God’s way of saying EVERYONE is invited. It’s good news to ALL people.

D. Who are the equivalents to the shepherds today? It would be the working poor who eat at the Soup Kitchen so they still have enough money to pay the rent. It’s the woman down the street who always seems to be so negative. Liberals, it’s FOX News followers. Conservatives, its MSNBC adherents.  Who is the good news for? It’s the Moslem and the Jew and the agnostic and the lazy Christian and the prisoner and the heroin addict. YOU.

 

3. FEAR NOT

A .The manger is the intersection of heaven and earth. And in the proclamation, the angels tell us to FEAR NOT.  The message says that no one is excluded. The fear of being on the naughty list has been taken away.  Fear not. But we are still afraid.  You almost want to say to the angels, Fear not? Did you see how a storm devastated an entire region of the country?  Were you not paying attention in Newtown to this monstrously evil act beyond our imagination?  Yet, that’s what they said; Fear not.

B. Luke tells us the shepherds were sore afraid. Still there is revelation of the birth of love and hope. Then the shepherds respond. They go and worship and then they go and tell.

C. That’s what happens when fear not overcomes sore afraid. We We weep for families. We help people rebuild on the Jersey shore.  We try to check some of the runaway violence in our culture from easily accessible assault weapons to violent video games and movies to increase in mental health care availability.  WE respond, even when we are still afraid. But now our fear is tempered by what happened in Bethlehem.  The overwhelming grace of God comes near. And great joy is available to ALL people.  It is only possible to tell the good news into a world like ours when our fear is tempered by this non-exclusive, great good news.

4.  SNEAKY GRACE

A. For an event that changed the world forever, very few people noticed. From the world’s perspective there was nothing remarkable about this birth. It was just like many other births to people who were far from home or poor or anonymous. That’s why God set it up this way. It is for everyone.  In their song The First Light, Glad sings, “In the first light of a new day, no one knew he had arrived. Things continued as they had been while a new born softly cried.” But the world had changed forever.

B. I think most of the time that’s how it is with us. God usually speaks to us in hushed tones of unexpected hope. God raises the volume a little when our hearts are heavy with grief and fear. No angel voices except the voices of our children will be heard. But you better watch out. Grace will sneak up on you. When you least expect it and need it most, God will find a way to make your life the intersection of heaven and earth.

C. The third verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem sings, “How silently how silently the wondrous gift is given.” Now I have been in the delivery room a few times and it is anything but silent. There are cries of pain and medical noise and some fool telling her to breathe and her telling him where he can put his Lamaze coaching and then a baby’s cry and a father’s cry. It’s a noisy place. But outside in the waiting room it is very quiet.  People out there don’t hear any of this.  “So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven. No ear can hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Christ enters in.”  Forget about anybody being on the naughty list. You better watch out for the great gift of God’s grace because it will get ya!

Is this political or theological?

It is hard not to be discouraged.  It is hard to fall asleep with all the disaster and hatred in the air.

I have decided that my opposition to the current administration is on two levels.  The first is policy. I have been unhappy with other presidents for the policies they implement.  Once again, this President and the Republican Congress are trying to sell trickle down economics to us.  It has been tried and it does not work. The rich get richer and the middle class gets nothing. Huge tax breaks for the richest and more burdens for the poor and middle classes. That in and of itself is UNCHRISTIAN.  So are other policies concerning immigrants and the environment. But these are policy issues. I am OK with an administration that enacts policies that I don’t like. I have the right to vote and that is my voice on those matters.

In policy, Trump has demonstrated that he is inept and harmful to things I care about.  My faith informs me that I should oppose these policies.

But there is another level of anguish that I have not felt before; even with administrations that I have disagreed with in policy. This opposition is about the man himself. He comports himself like a 5th grader. He resorts to name calling and blaming everyone else for the trouble he causes. He mocks the free press. He lies regularly. He issues racial slurs and sexist remarks and mocks people with disabilities. He tacitly supports a  man who sexually abused a 14 year old.He incites hatred with videos that may or may not be true. He has demonstrated so much arrogance and ignorance that I suspect that he is mentally unstable and ethically unfit to be president.

I have watched and waited for the investigations to determine that he should be impeached. But it is taking so long. I wake up every morning to see if he has instigated nuclear war with North Korea. It is hard not to be discouraged.

So I asked God to help me understand how I should respond.  And in a still small voice, God asked me the source of my trust.  Of course I trust God and not politicians.  Then God placed a thought in my mind that the right will prevail and that God is in charge, not me or Trump or any other human being.  The source of my help; the reason for my hope is that God is in charge. I will not lose courage or faith.

So I am going to stop fretting about this mess in Washington and rest in the knowledge that God will fix it in God’s time. That is the source of my peace. So I will not be discouraged. I will put my trust in God .I will watch and wait.I  I will vote. I will believe that God has a better story for this nation and then I will sleep in heavenly peace.

A Thanksgiving Sermon

I based this sermon on an article I read many years ago. I do not have the name to credit the idea. I re-wrote it with my own thoughts.

 

COMMUNITY THANKSGIVING SERVICE

I THESSALONIANS 5: 14-24

 

The preacher mounted his pulpit standing high above the congregation. And gathered there before him were 100. That 100 that represented all the people of the world. He placed a lozenge in his mouth so that his voice became sweet and oily. And he said, “Let us give thanks to the Lord.” And the 100 said, ”Amen.” But there was no joy in that Amen.

“Let us give thanks for our fine possessions: For our homes and our furnishings; for our fine clothes and all those things which give us comfort and security,” said the preacher. And five who lived in poverty and three who were homeless and two who two who owned nothing stood up. And ten in all walked out.

“Let us give thanks for our jobs: For meaningful work that makes us feel worthwhile and provides us with what we need for a good life.” And five who were unemployed and three who were under-employed without benefits and two with no skills or education made their way out of that place.

“Let us give thanks for our food: For the nutrition and the joy of the taste of our bounty of food.” Then the poor who had not eaten in days and the mother who had watched her child die of malnutrition and all who never knew that joy of regular meals disappeared.

But the preacher continued. “Let us give thanks for our families and our friends: For the ones who provide us with companionship and love.” And a widow who lived alone and a man who had no friends and a boy that was an outcast as school and seven others who knew loneliness slipped out of that congregation.

Now beads of sweat were starting to form on the preacher’s forehead. But he pressed on. “Let us give thanks for our intellects: For minds that comprehend great ideas and enjoy great literature and explore the deepest truths of the universe.”  And those who were mentally challenged and those with severe learning disabilities and the imbecile all stood up and made their way out of that church.

The preacher without seeming to even notice went on. “Let us give thanks for our bodies: For healthy lets that carry us where we want to go: For strong arms that are able to do the tasks that are required of us.” And there were several in wheel-chairs and two who had lost limbs in war and others whose bodies had been ravaged by disease: Ten in all left that church.

But the preacher, drawing unction from his lozenge proceeded.  “Let us give thanks for our senses: For eyes that see the beauty of God’s creation: For ears that hear the wonderful sounds of music and discourse.” There were the blind, who tapped the deaf and ten more were gone.

“We can certainly give thanks for our mental health: For the control of our emotions and our moods,”  he said.  Only to see those who were bi-polar and those who were addicted and the depressed and the ones with uncontrollable violent tempers. In all, ten more were no longer a part of that congregation.

With his lozenge beginning to melt he cried out, “Let us give thanks for our freedom.” And the ones who were oppressed by their governments and the ones who were without a voice and the ones who were imprisoned all slipped out.

In desperation the preacher said, “Let us give thanks for justice: For the rights we enjoy and for the equality of treatment under the law.”  And the refugee from Syria and the dissident form North Korea and the Muslim form New York and the gay man form Wyoming and the black woman from Alabama left.

And the preacher looked down from his pulpit and there was no one there. All 100 had left. And his lozenge was gone. And he went out into the darkness and he cried out to God in a cracked voice, “Why have they all left?” And God answered, “Because you have given thanks for that which I never promised. When did I promise you possessions or health or any of these things?”  And the preacher said, “Then O Lord, for what CAN we give thanks?” And the Lord said, “You can give thanks that I am with you no matter what.”

So the preacher went out into the courtyard outside the church where the 100 had gathered. And he said, “My friends, I have deceived you. We can no gloat over what some of us have and other do not. But we can give thanks that God is with us no matter what.”

And the 100 came back into the church. And the preacher stood on the floor beside his congregation of 100. And he said, “Let us give thanks that the Lord God is with us.” And 100 voices said, “Amen.” And there was great joy in that Amen.

Grace points

I had back surgery two weeks ago.  I greatly underestimated the amont of pain that would go with recovery. I am healing; two steps forward and one step back.  I have also felt a kind of a blue funk setting in. I have felt down and teary for no particular reason. I don’t know if that is a normal post-op thing or not.

But in the midst of pain and impatience to feel better, I have become keenly aware of what I call grace points.  Grace points are those undeserved moments of love that come to you in the worst of times.

The first is my wife. She is indeed an amazing woman.  She has taken care of me like no other person could. She has made herself exhausted and rejected calls to rest and take care of herself. Her love is totally unconditional and selfless. I don’t deserve her.

The second is my daughter Hope. She has called ever day with words of encouragement. Often her calls are video and I get to see my grand-daughter Eve busy at play. That has been good medicine in itself.  I don’t deserve anything from Hope. All the love that she shows me is pure grace The other kids and family members have helped too. I have no claim on any of them in terms of loving me. I surely have not earned it but they love me still.

Friends have called and sent cards and Facebook images. They have put me on prayer chains and offered to do anything they could to help. This is Christian fellowship where it counts the most. I will not forget them.

And finally, I received grace from a local pastor near our new home.  We are not members of her church. We have worshiped there a few times.  But she came and prayed with me the morning of surgery. She visited twice more. Her prayer in the ER. the day of my terribly painful set back was the perfect reminder to me that God was the source of all grace. A member of her church showed up the next Sunday with bread and soup. Another member called to let me know that I was still in their prayers. I own the saints at Westminster a huge expression of gratitude for their ministry to my wife as well as myself.

I think sometimes in the depths of pain grace points are what sustain us until the healing comes.  Now I want to try harder to provide grace points to others who are suffering.

surgery

I will have surgery on my lower back tomorrow. It’s not a life-threatening operation and I am really not afraid. If anything, I am looking forward to having this pain stop. For ten months, I have been in pain and restricted from any physical activities.

I began to think about all of the times I have been at the hospital early in the morning to pray with a church member who was about to go into surgery. Many people have a certain level of anxiety about that. I think it is probably normal. A person  you hardly know is going to put you into a deep sleep and then cut you open.  I understand how that could make a patient nervous.  Maybe I should be more afraid than I am.

When I did those pre-op visits, I tried to do several things. I tried to make them laugh bringing a sense of calm. I  reminded them that the whole church would be praying for them. I prayed with them for success and full recovery. I prayed for the surgeon. Then I talked to them about when I would visit them after the surgery. I don’t know how effective it was. But many folks later told me that my visit made a difference.

Tomorrow when I go under, I will not be afraid. That’s not because I am brave or heroic. It’s simply that I have trust. I trust this man who will do the surgery. He has tremendous training and a lot of experience. But more than that, I trust God to see me through. I will go to sleep in the knowledge that God will be with me and the doctor. I gladly hand my life over to the control of someone else because in a greater sense my life is in the hands of God. God has been there from my birth until the present time. God will be with me tomorrow and in the recovery process that follows.

John says that perfect love casts our fear. Maybe we could add that perfect trust in that love does the same thing.

 

JOKE OF THE DAY

I have always struggles with my weight. I was lost once in New Jersey. I stopped at a bar and asked, “Can you tell me how to get to 204?” He answered, “Well, you might start with a salad.”