Friday, February 27, 2009

Remember you are dust

Ash Wednesday was this week which marks the first day of Lent. When I was a kid, I really didn't get the whole Lent thing. There was always the thing about giving something up for Lent. I tried giving up homework, but that didn't get me very far.

When I was really young, we were LCA (Lutheran Church in America) and we didn't do this kind of stuff on Ash Wednesday. Oh sure, we changed all the pulpit hangings to purple, but that was about it as far as I remember. Getting smudged with ashes wasn't part of it. When I started going to the Episcopal Church in 1975, we definitely did the ash smudging thing and I thought it was interesting, but I still didn't really get into the whole feeling of Lent.

I think it all hit home for me in 2004 - the year I turned 40. Not that turning 40 made me suddenly get all penitential or anything. It was Ash Wednesday in 2004 when I opened up my e-mail in the morning to the news that a childhood friend had died. She was the daughter of the pastor who baptized my younger sister ... and she was 40 too. She died of a heart attack. I was shocked and the reality that a peer of mine had succumbed to what I thought of as an "age related" illness was sobering. It was in that moment I realized that I was going to start losing friends more to illnesses than accidents ... a moment of facing my own mortality.

Shortly after receiving this news, my father called with more bad news: my sister had been fired from her job. She'd had an incident which should have resulted in a notice to her personnel file, but instead she was fired. Her boss was looking for a reason to fire her, and one came up. My sister appealed it and we heard the appeals board was in favor of her reinstatement; however, at the last minute, the board had it's empowerment rescinded and the management upheld her dismissal. It was unjust.

Death and injustice crashed into me that Ash Wednesday morning and that's when I got it. We are not God and we will die ... period. Unjust things will happen to us in our lives. Jesus knew this: he was set up too. But in both cases, death and injustice, God gets the last word. It's a word of life and of righteousness.

Friday, February 13, 2009

You just can't make this stuff up!

If there's anything I've learned in my years of serving the church, it's that all sorts of weird and wacky things happen there. Now I'm not talking about your average run of the mill funny stuff that makes you chuckle. No, I'm talking about the belly laugh, "No way! You gotta be kidding me!!" kind of stuff.

Like when I went to visit one of our shut ins this week at Calvary and he told me about the time the head usher's pants fell down ... as he was standing at the front of the church! And he told me about the time he knocked over a whole row of folding chairs just as the choir finished singing their anthem. Talk about a bang up finish!

Then there was the time our senior pastor first visited Calvary as a guest speaker many years ago. When he got up to the pulpit and started to speak, a stream of obscenities came out over the sound system. He stopped talking and it stopped ... but when he began to talk the obscenities started up again. Five men jumped up and ran to the sound system to change the wireless channel to another one. Turns out, the sound system had picked up a local trucker who was saying some rather colorful things over his CB radio. I told him he should have claimed he was speaking in tongues with a bad dubbing job.

Then there was the time many years ago when a friend of mine was a teenager and was practicing with the thurible at the Cathedral and the chain let go. (For those of you who don't know what a thurible is, it's the metal container on a chain in which you burn incense and sling the smoke around the church) Imagine the thurible, flying hot coals and incense shooting through the air like a comet and he's just praying it doesn't land on a car! When it landed on the sidewalk, he thought he had stomped out all the coals and cinders ... but no, the mulch caught fire and Baltimore's fire department responded to put out the fire.

Or the acolyte who, back in the days before air conditioning, just wore a surplice to stay cool in a hot humid church. But when he bent over to pick something up, the fans which were running blew up the surplice and all he had on were his boxers! A sight the visiting bishop will not soon forget.

Now I'm not saying that every Sunday is this entertaining, but I do believe God lets funny stuff happen in church and I think it serves a purpose. We need to laugh ... it's just that simple. These kinds of crazy things remind us that we are not as self-important as we think we are and there are times we just need to lighten up.

And yes, all of these things really happened in real churches ... you can't just make this stuff up!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The top five

Mitch Albom wrote a novel (which I have yet to read) called The Five People You Meet in Heaven. In it, the protagonist character Eddie dies suddenly and meets the five people who had the most impact on his life, whether he knew it or not.

I was thinking about that today along with the fact that there are people with whom we all struggle (clergy are no different than anyone else on this). What if the five you meet in heaven are the five you would have rather not been with here on earth? You know, those folks that you somehow end up in relationship with but ones you wouldn't have chosen if it were up to you: maybe it's a family member, or an in-law, or a coworker, or a member of your faith community, or someone in the neighborhood.

I have a personal prayer list of people I'm intentionally praying for each day. I realized this morning that the folks with whom I struggle most need to be at the top of my prayer list. Jesus told us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. I wouldn't say I have enemies (that seems a bit strong), but there are folks I with whom I have difficulty. It would be easier to ignore them and not pray for them. But that isn't what Jesus told us to do.

So I'm changing my prayer routine. When I open my list up, I'll start with the folks I'm struggling with ... they are my new "top five." That way, if they are the ones I'm going to end up meeting, I won't have to apologize for ignoring them!