Wednesday, August 5, 2015

"It Is Life that Is Going On"

This week I was privileged to attend my first Bris, a religious ceremony through which male babies are welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent's obligation to circumcise a son according to God's covenant with Abraham, and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy, and good deeds.

It was a beautiful ceremony with a deep sense of history and family. To begin, the father explained that their son was named after his maternal great grandfather, no longer living, and their hopes that this little one would have some of those same wonderful character traits. Then the child was passed from his mother to his grandmothers, aunts and uncles, and great grandmothers, each in turn, with a blessing and picture. After the ceremony, the baby boy was held by his great grandfather as we were reminded that the same words of prayer and blessing have been spoken over each new life for generations and centuries past. Finally, the baby was placed in his grandfather's lap and given his Hebrew name and blessing, a wonderful and touching moment.

Reflecting on the ceremony, I thought about how important it is for our children to know that they are part of a larger story, a family story and a faith story. I'm not sure how well we do as Christians getting that truth across to our little ones. Perhaps we could do better. I was also reminded of these words from Frederick Buechner:
a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent’s obligation to circumcise a son and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (chuppah), and good deeds. - See more at: http://www.reformjudaism.org/brit-milah-circumcision-ritual?gclid=CLu8so31kccCFYiPHwod4cQPqw#sthash.3RZTyDPD.dpuf
a religious ritual through which male babies are formally welcomed into the Jewish people. According to Jewish tradition, it is a parent’s obligation to circumcise a son and offer a threefold blessing for the child: a life enriched by Torah, the wedding canopy (chuppah), and good deeds. - See more at: http://www.reformjudaism.org/brit-milah-circumcision-ritual?gclid=CLu8so31kccCFYiPHwod4cQPqw#sthash.3RZTyDPD.dpuf

A religious observance can be a wedding, a christening, a Memorial Day service, a bar mitzvah, or anything like that you might be apt to think of. There are lots of things going on at them. There are lots of things you can learn from them if you're in a receptive state of mind. The word "observance" itself suggests what is perhaps the most important thing about them.

A man and a woman are getting married. A child is being given a name. A war is being remembered and many deaths. A boy is coming of age.

It is life that is going on. It is always going on, and it is always precious. It is God that is going on. It is you who are there that is going on.

As Henry James advised writers, be one on whom nothing is lost.

OBSERVE! There are few things as important, as religious, as that.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

"Set Apart and Ordained"

The other day I happened to glance at my ordination certificate which hangs on the wall of my office, near my desk. I noticed the date written in Marlin Brown's clear handwriting - August 3, 1980 - thirty-five years ago this Monday. It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with an older pastor and mentor of mine, Lewis Krause. Lewis was reflecting on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his ordination, talking about the road he had traveled, the churches he had served, and the lessons he had learned along the way. I remember thinking, as any young person would, that thirty-five years seemed like an eternity, a milestone far out in the distance, unthinkable to me as a young pastor. Well, here it is, my turn to mark thirty-five years and to reflect on my own journey. Somewhere in heaven, Lewis is smiling down saying, "I told you, didn't I, Drew?"

I snapped a picture of my certificate in case you've never seen one. The good folks at my first country church in Nettleton, Missouri, called for my ordination and asked my home church, First Baptist Church of Grandview to do the honors. The deacons from the church in Nettleton, Bill Ford and Bob Shaney, participated in the service, and most of the folks in my little congregation made the journey south to Grandview. The other men and women who participated in the service were all special people to me, a Who's Who of family and friends, ministers and mentors, who had been and continued to be great encouragers to me through the years. It still humbles me to think of the investment that has been made in me and my ministry by such choice servants of God. Here's the program from the service.

Some of those who participated in my ordination are gone now, leaving it to my generation to carry the ball. My father has been gone for twenty-six of those thirty-five years. I often told Dad that the sermon he preached at my ordination was the best sermon he ever preached. He suggested it was probably the only sermon of his that had my undivided attention. I do remember it well. Dad was talking about what it means to be called, to be sent from God, and he didn't pull any punches. He put it to me straight. And thirty-five years later I can read his ordination sermon and know how wise and thoughtful were his words to me. My two preacher brothers, Pete and Jim, chimed in as well, and have been wonderful help all along the way.

So, this week I have been thinking about the journey and what I have learned along the way. Eight days after my ordination I met a beautiful, brown-eyed girl on campus at William Jewell. After some serious persuading on my part, Suzanne decided to come along for the ride and what a ride it has been. First came three years of seminary while she paid the bills and I tried my hand at church planting in south Kansas City. Then, on to Lincoln (5 years and one child), Independence (5 years and two more), Lamar (5 years and a doctorate), Sedalia (14 years and an empty nest), and then across the country to Arlington, Virginia (3 years and counting).

I did a little math. That's more than 1700 Sundays with at least one sermon preached, nearly 500 funerals and around 200 weddings, marrying and burying through the years. I have no idea how many new believers I have baptized or how many Supper's I have served. And I don't want to know how many committee meetings I have attended or how many business meetings I have endured. No doubt I have been in far more hospital rooms than the average person.

What have I learned in these thirty-five years? When I began, I thought I would change the world, using my gifts and talents to accomplish great things for God. But, I have learned through the years and sometimes, the hard way, that I am merely a lucky spectator. I get to watch God do His good work in people's lives. As a pastor I have a ringside seat to watch the Champ do His thing.  

Have I ever wanted to quit? Yes, to be honest. Once or twice I might have laid it down and walked away, except for the understanding and encouragement of fellow pastors and mentors. Have I ever wondered what my life would be like if I had chosen a different path? Sure, but quarterbacking the Chiefs has its own unique challenges, too. All things weighed together, I have known far more laughter than tears, more joys than sorrows, more grace than pain.

Dad concluded my ordination message with these words:

"Drew, I became a pastor like you did when I was nineteen years old. After thirty-two years in His ministry, if I had a thousand lives to live, I'd spend every one of them as a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ."

"My prayer is that you will stay so close day by day to the One who called you that His power will be upon your life, and that those whose lives are touched by your ministry will say: 'There was a young man sent from God whose name was Drew Hill.'" 

Now I get it, Dad. At last, I understand, Lewis. Thirty-five years is a long time, a tough and tiresome journey, but worth every step.
 

Monday, July 20, 2015

"Was It Worth It, Jesus?"

I spent last week working in northeast DC alongside a team of volunteers from Memorial. We were working with a wonderful ministry called City Gate which provides after school activities and summer day camps for disadvantaged children in eleven locations around Washington. Our team provided leadership for a week-long day camp at a large, Section 8 apartment complex. We had about 80 kids and we adapted a Vacation Bible School approach to this unique setting. My job was to work with sixteen 6th - 8th graders, who were actually too old for the program, but came anyway because they had nothing else to do. Believe it or not, this is my favorite age group to teach or coach, not quite too cool for school, and still able to be motivated and engaged, at least for short periods of time.

We didn't have a room, since the younger kids filled up the two classrooms inside the community building. So, we put a canopy over a picnic table in the yard to give us some shade from the heat and cover from the rain.

I guess I had one advantage from the start - being a man. Most of these kids have so few men in their lives, even fewer that express any real interest or concern for them. They seemed surprised that I was coming back, committed to being with them all week. I'm afraid most the volunteer teams that come through drop by for a day or two and then head to the Smithsonian. Everyday, "Are you coming back? You'll be here tomorrow? You here all week?"

"Sure, I'll be here. See you tomorrow." Hard to believe that a single week of contact with these kids could represent so much more consistency than they usually have in their lives. So, day by day, we began to get acquainted - Tilly and Tomiwa and Tyler, Josh and Hivan and Kerod, Jalia and Toure' and Makayla, Tiwalade and Latasha and LT, Daniella and Brandee and Adetilewa and Raivlyn. Man, I thought Bible names were tough. They seemed to pick up "Drew" pretty quickly.

"Help me remember who you are. Tell me your name and tell me about your best day ever." Around the table and the tent, each one shared. Some hesitated, "My best day ever? Hmmm." "My best day was my birthday. I got to go skating." "My best day was when my little sister was born." "My best day was when I got to go to Six Flags."

As we were nearing the end of that conversation, Latasha asked, "Can we talk about our worst day?" I said, "Well, you don't have to, but you can if you want to." When her turn came, she said, "My worst day was when my grandma died of cancer." I said, "I'm sorry you lost your grandma. Did she live here close?" She nodded and said, "I lived with her."

Around the circle we went, each one sharing their worst days, some not so bad really, others heart-breaking stuff, right out in the open. It was real. No pretense, just raw life experience. It was quite a conversation. Here's a few exerpts from our study time each morning, my questions and their answers:

If you were the Creator, what kind of world would you create?
  • No apartments, only houses.
  • No killers, no rapists. No kidnapping or car-jacking. No stealing.
  • Everything is free.
  • No aging. (We stop getting older at 28.)
  • No getting sick.
  • No war.
  • No dentists.
  • No rich people. 
  • No Donald Trump.
  • No commercials.
  • Skittles, lots of Skittles.
  • Rainbows every Tuesday.
 If you were starting a new church, what kind of church would it be?
  • Gospel rap.
  • Involved in everything.
  • Serves the neighborhood.
  • Helps the homeless.
  • Feeds the poor.
  • Teaches about God.
  • Has Vacation Bible School.
  • Gives away Bibles.
  • Sunday lunch.
  •  A celebration every day.
If you could interview Jesus on your own late night talk show, what five questions would you ask Him?
  • What did it feel like to be born into a homeless family?
  • Were you ever afraid to do what God asked you to do?
  • Why did you have to be crucified?
  • Why did you have to go alone?
  • What did you mean when you said, "It is finished,"?
Tilly's group came up with a final bonus question for Jesus:
  • The way the world is today, was it worth it?
 As you can imagine, we had lots of great conversation, talking about their thoughts and ideas and questions. I remember seminary classroom debates that were not nearly as gritty and challenging as talking with this bunch at City Gate.

In the afternoons it was touch football, between two sidewalks, a building, and a row of trees. And watch out for that manhole cover. I was quarterback for both teams, kind of a seven on seven drill, and we had a great time each day. Of course, I could only throw to one person each play, so the others let me know how open they were and why I should've thrown it to them. Tomiwa said repeatedly, "You are the worst quarterback in the history of the world!" He kept track of how many picks I threw, eight in one game, but I also threw 22 touchdowns, so not too bad. The score was 98 to 84. By Thursday I thought my arm was going to fall off. It's been a long time since I was coaching youth football.

My worst moment at City Gate was my last. When I handed the football back to LT at the end of the day Friday, he looked at me and said, "So, this is it? You're done? You won't be back next week?"

"No, LT. I won't be here next week, but I hope to come back sometime before too long," being careful not to promise more than I could deliver. "Take care of yourself, LT. Remember what we talked about." He nodded looking down at the football in his hands and then he was gone.

I wouldn't trade my week at City Gate for anything. I was exhausted, sunburned and sore, yet somehow refreshed, renewed. It took a bunch of kids in the projects to remind me of just how good the Good News is, and how great is the love of the Father for all His children. God bless them all.

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Icing on the Cake

Yesterday I wrote a brief note to a special friend of mine that I have not seen for nearly 35 years. His name is Doug Beyer and when I met him he was serving as the pastor of West Side Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. I had just finished my first year of college and was planning to work a second summer in a grocery warehouse in Kansas City. Somehow (providentially?) the warehouse personnel office misplaced my file from the previous summer. So, I was in the middle of finals with no job for the summer.

That same week, the church in Topeka decided to delay calling a full time staff person and instead try to find a college student to serve as a summer youth minister. Doug called the campus minister at William Jewell College while I happened to be sitting in his office. An interview was arranged and the next week I moved to Topeka.

Doug Beyer was a gifted pastor with a PhD from Baylor and a wealth of experience. He was writing a discipleship manual for new Christians that was later published and widely used among American Baptists. By contrast, I was 19 years old with one year of college and no experience. Nothing but enthusiasm really. I showed up on my first day in cutoffs, a t-shirt, and sandals. It took me about fifteen minutes to move into my office. I had about six books to put on a whole wall of bookshelves. Didn't take long.

Doug stuck his head in and said, "Get yourself a cup of coffee and come on in my office." I thought, I can't be in trouble already. I haven't done anything. Doug's office was the opposite of mine, with books and files and stacks all around. We sat down in one corner by a little table. "I'm so glad you are here, Drew." He put me at ease with his big smile. Surprisingly, Doug didn't have any agenda for this conversation, just fellowship and the beginning of a growing friendship. I remember him saying, "Ministry is a piece of cake, Drew, and this is the icing on the cake, the time we spend just as brothers in Christ, just enjoying each others company and the fellowship."

And so this became the pattern of my summer at West Side Baptist Church in Topeka. Every work day began with thirty minutes of coffee and conversation with Doug. Sometimes we talked shop. Other days we never touched on ministry stuff. Sometimes we prayed, sometimes we celebrated what God was doing in the church. I knew he was busy, that he was anxious to get to his studies, that he had a far more demanding job than I did, but every morning there was his smiling face. What a gift he gave to me.

I have lots of wonderful memories of my summer in Topeka, great times with the youth, a camping trip to Colorado, a couple of terrific retreats, leading Bible studies, starting a drama team, playing a lot of football and basketball with the kids. I also preached two Sundays. It was a great summer of ministry.

But what I treasure the most is the memory of those first thirty minutes each morning with a gifted and busy pastor who took the time to befriend and encourage a eager young kid just getting started.

So, yesterday I took out some stationary and wrote a note to my friend, Doug, who now lives in an assisted living facility in California. I caught him up on where I'm serving now and thanked him again for his encouragement and kindness to me so long ago. I also wrote that we had welcomed a new summer ministry intern last week here at Memorial, Ross Tarpley. I told Doug that I would do my best to welcome and encourage Ross as he had encouraged me, paying it forward, and I will. It's no trouble really. Actually, it's the icing on the cake.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Staying Connected

Have you noticed how quickly our culture has become obsessed with staying connected? How often do you check your phone? How long can we survive without Wifi? Rebecca and I went to a movie last week and sat through the repeated reminders to silence or turn off all phones and tablets, but many people just couldn't shut them down. I guess two hours is just too long to be unavailable, out of touch. Must we be continually sending and receiving, communicating and connecting? For many of us, being disconnected or shut down is more than uncomfortable, it's almost unthinkable.

Do you suppose we could focus just a little of that desire to be connected with our phones and the internet toward being connected and staying connected with God? How strong is your connection to Christ? How many bars are you getting?

The divine service provider is the Holy Spirit, constantly available, and always providing a strong signal. The Spirit's service never goes down, it's never off, never faulty or unreliable. So, it's up to us to keep the connection open. Don't close it out. Don't shut it down or turn it off. Some of us are connected on Sunday and then spend the rest of the week in airplane or game mode. But the Spirit is always present and available unless we, for whatever reason, shut down the signal.

Something else to think about. In this world we must filter, block, and delete as necessary. How much junk (a kind word for it) comes our way each day through all forms of media, advertisements, and entertainment? Some of it we may choose, and the rest comes whether we want it or not. Studies indicate that more than half of young males, both church-going and otherwise, use pornography regularly. We must find the fortitude to filter what goes into our minds. No one is going to do it for us. We may need to build some accountability into our lives to help us stay on track. Filter, block, delete.

To stay connected with Christ, don't forget to update your status throughout the day. Stay in touch with the Spirit all day long. The old saints used to call this "practicing the presence of God," and we can do it, too. We can take opportunities throughout the day to connect and communicate with God. Our waking moments and our fading moments, when we are getting ready for work and when the day is coming to an end. Commuting, waiting for a train, stuck in traffic, any time our lives are put on hold for a minute or two. We can pause and connect. Recognize the Spirit's presence with you.

And as we go, we can have a running conversation with God, much like texting, all through the day. We stay in touch and we talk: What are you saying to me today, Lord? What are you trying to show me? How can I face my day and handle my responsibilities in a way that please and honors You? How can I bring the presence of Christ into this situation?

And whatever you do, stay in the network. Don't go it alone. We really do need the fellowship, the community, the relationships, the network of believers that we call church. Nothing encourages us like having those alongside who are on the same journey, facing the same sorts or problems and challenges. And this network is always open and available. It's never locked or restricted. No security code or password required, and no secret handshake. Just come on in.

Last of all, let's admit it - sometimes we need to refresh and reboot. That's my one bit of IT expertise - turn it off! Restart. Let it reset. That's not a bad picture of repentance and renewal in your heart. We may need to have our lives reset, refreshed, rebooted by the Spirit of God. Sometimes that's the only fix for our disconnected, convoluted, corrupted lives. The drive may need to be dumped, files will be lost, but what's most precious will be saved, and the life-giving connection with Christ will be restored.

Jesus said, "I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." - John 15:5 NIV

So, take an honest look. How many bars are you getting?
  

Monday, April 27, 2015

A Cup in the Hand of God

A wise, old rabbi offers us a vivid description of what it means to walk with God:

"The pious man is possessed by his awareness of the presence and nearness of God. Everywhere and at all times he lives as in His sight, whether he remains always heedful of His proximity or not. He feels embraced by God's mercy as by a vast encircling space. Awareness of God is as close to him as the throbbing of his own heart, often deep and calm but at times overwhelming, intoxicating, setting the soul afire. The momentous reality of God stands there as peace, power, and endless tranquility, as an inexhaustible source of help, as boundless compassion, as an open gate awaiting prayer.

It sometimes happens that the life of a pious man becomes so involved in God that his heart overflows as though it were a cup in the hand of God." - Abraham Heschel, Man Is Not Alone

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Perils of Playing Jesus

I figure most of us have seen the Easter story dramatized in one way or another, either pageants or programs at church or one of the "biblical" movies at the theater or on television.  Some of us have probably attended a passion play, a dramatized outdoor reenactment of the Holy Week story, Palm Sunday through Easter.

When I was in college I heard a guest speaker, a woman who produced passion plays professionally, getting them up and running and well-established, before moving on to the next start up. She gave us some great perspective about what goes on behind the scenes and what kinds of things can go wrong. I asked her to describe her worst opening night experience, and she didn't hesitate. Here's her story as best I can remember it, too great a story to ever forget.

Three things went wrong, she said, which wouldn't be bad for an opening night, except these three things were just about the worst imaginable. Number one: the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the first major scene in the play. Jesus was coming down the road into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the enthusiastic crowd waving palm branches before him. The road was lined with fake Roman columns of decreasing size to give the effect of greater distance. About halfway down the road, the donkey stopped cold, determined not to go another step. The disciples tried to coax him on, pulling and pushing, all to no avail. Jesus was stuck. The procession halted. (The producer explained to us that all such outdoor dramas follow a recorded soundtrack. The action on stage must keep up with the soundtrack or everything falls apart.) Knowing this, one of the actors playing a Roman soldier decided something had to be done to get this stubborn donkey moving again, so he pulled his sword and jabbed the donkey, trying to prod it forward. This proved to be a mistake. The donkey sprang to life, bucking off Jesus and knocking down several of the fake columns which went down like dominoes. Jesus dumped unceremoniously on his can - not in the script. Ripples of laughter from the surprised audience. The red-faced Messiah had to hoof it into the city on his own two feet. Oh, well, soon enough things smoothed out and the drama regained it's serious mood and message. Until, that is, it was time for the events of Good Friday.

Our guest speaker explained to us that she always worked hard to insure the safety of the cast, trying to anticipate and eliminate all potential hazards. But this night something went very wrong. Number two: the crucifixion of Jesus. The actor playing the role of Christ was hanging on the cross, perhaps the most solemn, tearful moments of the play. At the end of Jesus' suffering, a Roman soldier standing near the cross was supposed to thrust a retractable spear in Jesus' side confirming his death as the Gospels describe. But the spear in the soldier's hand was not the retractable spear he was supposed to have, it was a real spear. So, when the soldier thrust the spear into the actor's side, he doubled over and screamed, "Jesus Christ! I've been stabbed!"

Hard to imagine the shock. The sheer surprise caused peals of laughter. Hilarious. And, it was certainly an interesting choice of words, wasn't it, more like a SNL skit than a passion play. But, then again, the poor guy had never rehearsed this. The producer said that looking back, the actor could have said a lot of things much worse.

The whole set went dark, the soundtrack stopped, as Jesus #1 was taken to the hospital for treatment and Jesus #2, his second, assumed his place on the cross. The sound and lights came back up and once again the crowd settled down and the story continued, although here and there people would burst out laughing again, just thinking about those stunning words of Jesus, swearing to himself. Well, Easter went off without a hitch and the producer thought she was home free now.  Surely nothing else can go wrong on this night. Or maybe it can.

Number three: the ascension of Christ. The plan was that Jesus would be invisibly wired up so that he could be raised from the ground slowly as he gave the Great Commission to his disciples. He would then be lifted up into this high arched ceiling, dramatically disappearing from sight. The unanticipated problem was that Jesus #2 was taller and heavier than Jesus #1. So, when Jesus was supposed to begin his ascent, he didn't. "Go ye therefore . . . ." Nothing. He's too big, but Jesus didn't know it, so he tried once more. Raising his arms and beginning again, "Go ye therefore . . . ." Still nothing. Backstage it's panic. Somebody overrides the system and suddenly Jesus takes off like Superman. "Go ye therefore . . . ," and he was gone. Again, uproarious laughter. No effort to hold it back now.

And then, just to add insult to injury, the angel appeared and said to the disciples, "You, men of Galilee, why do you stand here gazing up into heaven?" And there, in the heavenward gaze of the disciples, still dangling in plain sight, were the feet of Jesus. The launched Lord had not completely ascended after all, too tall to get his toes out of sight.

When it was finally over, all those present that opening night were offered a full refund, the only fair thing to do in the producer's mind. She said that surprisingly enough, not a single request for a refund was received. Apparently, everyone present believed they had gotten more than their money's worth that night, a night never to be forgotten.

Maybe it's just as well that God planned and produced those great Easter events without our help. Better to just let Jesus be Jesus.    

Monday, February 23, 2015

Cripples All of Us

Sharing a few lines from Frederick Buechner's Brendan that touched me this morning. A good reminder.

Pushing down hard with his fists on the table-top he heaved himself up to where he was standing. For the first time we saw he wanted one leg. It was gone from the knee joint down. He was hopping sideways to reach for his stick in the corner when he lost his balance. He would have fallen in a heap if Brendan hadn't leapt forward and caught him.

"I'm as crippled as the dark world," Gildas said.

"If it comes to that, which one of us isn't, my dear?" Brendan said.

Gildas with but one leg. Brendan sure he'd misspent his whole life entirely. Me that had left my wife to follow him and buried our only boy. The truth of what Brendan said stopped all our mouths. We are cripples all of us. For a moment or two there was no sound but the bees.

"To lend each other a hand when we're falling," Brendan said. "Perhaps that's the only work that matters in the end."