Monday, October 31, 2011

Paying Back

November is the season for the celebration of Thanksgiving but it is not necessary to wait until the fourth Thursday of November to give thanks.  And saying “thanks,” although important, is best expressed in actions and not words alone.  Recently thanksgiving came to life once again in the amount of a check for $50,000 that was sent to the Eastern PA Annual Conference from the Mississippi Annual Conference.  This check was for Hurricane Irene flood relief and it was sent as a way of saying “thanks” to the many teams of Volunteer in Mission workers who came from PA to Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina destroyed so many homes and businesses.  The people of Mississippi wanted the flood victims in Pennsylvania to receive their thanks by returning the favor.  I expect we will see some VIM teams from Mississippi coming to visit us as well. 

What are you thankful for?  Can you give back by returning the favor to someone who has done much for you?  There are so many people we can thank for our blessings.  Do it today.  Returning thanks is a blessing for both the giver and the receiver.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Buildings and Bodies

In the second letter to the Church in Corinth Paul writes: “For we know that if our earthly house, this tent, is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” (5:1). This is indeed good news for our souls as we consider the inevitable decline and decay of our earthly bodies.  I think this also can give us hope as we consider our many church buildings that are in decline and decay.

Recently the newspapers reported on the front page that the Episcopal Cathedral in Wilmington was closing.  The $400,000 annual cost to maintaining the property was prohibitive. The small number of remaining members will be transferring to a neighboring Episcopal Church and the building will be sold.  This is also a struggle for many of our large, aging United Methodist properties, not only in cities but in the suburbs and the country as well.  It is certainly a source of grief and a neon sign that announces decline and there is sometimes a feeling of failure. 

Paul would not have us so bound to our church buildings just as we should not put too much stock in our earthly bodies.  Buildings and bodies pass away but the Gospel lives on forever.  As we attach ourselves to the mission of the church we will live eternally in heaven. There are constant resurrections here on earth with churches closing and being re-born in new ways in new locations.  It is the cycle of life.  Church was never about a building in the first place.  It is about the spiritual life that comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ.   Paul reminds us in II Corinthians “we walk by faith and not by sight.”  (5:7) Have faith and hope even when the church is closing, that God is up to something new and the gates of hell will not prevail against the true church.  

Monday, October 17, 2011

Poverty Summit Ponderings

Last week there was a Poverty Summit held in Camp Hill, PA that was hosted by UM Advocacy.  There were many wonderful panel discussions, worship services, and a key note address by author and humanitarian, Shane Claiborne.  During one of the panels it was mentioned that relationships are more important than money.  The speaker had voluntarily lived on the streets in order to experience the life of homeless people and he explained how mainstream society totally ignores street people.  Even those who provide help often keep them at arm’s length and don’t want to relate to them as humans.  The point was clear: we need to offer genuine hospitality and respect to people who are poor.  That means taking the time to talk and listen and not just hand people a bag of food or decide for a person what it is that they want.
My mind goes back to an experience my husband and I had when we were pastoring in Baltimore.  We became friends with a homeless man who was mentally challenged.  Herb spoke with a halting, sing-song voice and his imposing body, strong odor and long fingernails scared most people he would meet.  My husband, Mike took the time to get to know this gentleman.  They would talk in his office for hours and Mike would drive him to get a shower at the food bank, help him get to the doctor, and at the end of every month Herb would be asking for money

Mike and I worked with Herb faithfully for 10 years and we longed for him to get into an apartment.  He had diabetes and his legs were swollen and he did not have any feeling in his feet.  Because he was disabled he received a monthly Social Security check from the government.  By a true miracle of God we were able to get him into a Section 8 apartment building that would only charge him 1/3 of his monthly check for his rent.  Normally there was a 7 year waiting list but he got in after only waiting 6 months.  It was a warm, comfortable efficiency apartment and the food bank found him some nice, used furniture.  The apartment became available at Christmas time and our church people were especially generous.  The little kitchen was packed with his favorite foods and he even had a free telephone.  The first night he was in the apartment it snowed and I was so happy that Herb was finally indoors with his feet resting on a clean bed.  And he could have a shower any time he wanted one. 

A few days passed and we got a call from the apartment building manager.  It seems he paid someone to pack up all of his furniture and he was moving out.  He did not like the cramped courters and the noise in the hall.  My husband rushed to the apartment building just as the truck was loaded up and convinced Herb to give it one more try.  The furniture went back upstairs. Two more times he loaded up the furniture and headed back on the street and two more times my husband begged him to reconsider.  Herb could stand it no longer.  The fourth time he succeeded in leaving the comforts of his own apartment in exchange for a life back on the streets that he preferred. 

We did not listen to what he really wanted.  We imposed our values on him.  He was simply unable to live in “captivity” in an apartment and this makes Herb a very unique person. What Herb valued and still values to this day (he still calls us) is that relationship with my husband.  He just wants to talk.  Mike is the only human he really knows. Last week we were visiting my parents in Baltimore and we stopped by the hospital to see Herb.  He has a bad infection in his legs.   Mike’s name is in the hospital charts as “next of kin.”  I guess he really is and I think we could all be a “next of kin” to someone like Herb.  The world would be a better place.  Knowing Herb is really the same as knowing Jesus.  

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Thoughts on the Feeding of the Five-Thousand – Philip or Andrew?

John 6:1-9

After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.  A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.  Jesus went up the mountain and sat down and there with his disciples.  Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews was near.  When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”  He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.  Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

We are seeing a goodly number of large crowds gathering in our big cities lately. There are crowds protesting the state of the economy and the plight of the poor in this nation.  These are crowds looking for answers, for relief, for justice.  Long ago a crowd followed Jesus up a mountain.  They followed him because he was the answer to their physical ills and the hunger of their souls.  But Jesus was also concerned about their physical sustenance.  He cared that they had food to eat while they were on this pilgrimage.
Jesus still cares about our bodies, what we eat, what we drink, what we put on.  On that day there seemed to be a lack of food for a crowd of that size.  And there we meet two disciples who have two different approaches to the problem:
They are Philip and Andrew.  Philip’s approach was practical but faithless: “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”  Don’t we often feel that way when confronted with the staggering realities of world poverty and need?   In our own strength and our own resources there is little hope to feed this hungry world.  We sometimes get so overwhelmed that we just want to say it is impossible and give up.
Then there is Andrew.  Equally aware of the enormity of the need he looks around for an answer anyway.  He locates a humble lunch that a boy was willing to donate.  He admits it is not much to offer given the need, he offers it anyway.   We can be like Philip and throw our hands up in despair or we can also be like Andrew and do something, even a small thing.  That small thing made all the difference in world because from it the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes came to be. This miracle is so central to the truth of the gospel that it is the only miracle that is recorded in all 4. 
The text says that Jesus asked Philip where he would find bread for the crowd because he was testing him.  Jesus knew what he was going to do.  Still today Jesus knows what he is going to do.  He is going to use the likes of Andrew in this world who offer what they can to turn the world upside down and care for the needs of the poor. 
So you don’t have to have all the answers…just lunch…just lunch and Jesus will do the rest.  What do you have in your hand that you can offer to God to take and break and bless and multiply for the use of the kingdom?  Habitat for Humanity was begun in 1976 with a couple with a tool box and a truck and God did the rest.  Michelangelo had a cast-off piece of marble that he got from a dump and God used that humble stone to create the famous statue of King David.  God will take whatever you have to offer him to bless and feed a hungry world. 
Be an Andrew.  It is how the kingdom of God works here on earth!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Reflections on a Class Reunion

I am one of those people who goes to high school class reunions.  I am not sure why.  I did not go to the first few but after the 15th I was hooked on the idea and have served on the reunion committee ever since.  It is a source of fascination to see how everyone has turned out and who has grand-children, etc.  Last Saturday was my 40th class reunion and out of a class of 430 graduates only 50 of them showed up but that was actually better than the planning committee expected. Those who want to be there come every time.  In our earlier years there was a great deal of loud music, dancing and people going back and forth to the bar.  As we have gotten older the music is quieter, the bartender had few customers and no one was on the dance floor.  We are getting older, maybe wiser.  Here’s the God-part:

Into the class reunion came Mr. Redd, our civics teacher who taught at the high school for 40 years.  He was well-known to everyone.  Some of his earlier students had children and grandchildren in his classes at the high school.  Mr. Redd came in with a CD player and a microphone and proceeded to sing Elvis Presley songs to us.  At the age of 77 his tenor voice was still truly beautiful and the room was hushed.  He said to the reunion attendees that teaching was his greatest joy on earth because he got to work with students whom he loved and he had a chance to shape the future.  When he was finished he got a standing ovation.

Truly Mr. Redd shaped the future with his teaching.  All of the students at Lansdowne High School in Baltimore learned from him and also we experienced his warmth and concern.  Teaching is a very important profession.  Teachers don’t have an easy time, if they ever did, in the classrooms of today’s schools.  Pray for our teachers.  May they continue to love their students, shape the future and make a difference in this world.  Why not adopt a school near your church and find ways to show appreciation for the teachers there?  Church and school go hand-in-hand in many ways to set the tone for the character of our young people.  Be a part of making the world a better place through education.