Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Tale of Two Turkeys

I was walking in the Nature Center on Friday morning, approaching a point in the path at which a bridge crosses over the water. The bridge crosses at a point where the stream is too wide to be a stream any more but not quite wide enough to be the lake. A little distance from the bridge, two turkeys emerged from the woods to the left of the path up in front of me, turned, and headed for the bridge.

One of the turkeys was about twice as big as the other, and was in the lead. So I assumed I was watching a mama turkey and her adolescent chick. The two strolled leisurely over the bridge, and I followed several yards behind them. It was a sight I had not seen before!

Just then, I saw a jogger on the far side of the water, approaching from the left of the point where the bridge met the land, jogging on the path that runs next to the water there. I wondered if the turkeys noticed her, and in the same thought wondered if she was going to continue jogging along the path or make a right turn and cross the bridge, and in the same though wondered what might happen when she and the turkeys were face to face with each other.

I didn’t have long to wonder, though. She did, in fact, turn onto the bridge, and jogger and turkeys were suddenly nose to beak, about ten yards apart, together on a six foot wide footbridge. Needless to say, all parties were startled!

The moment the turkeys saw the jogger, they took flight. Have you ever seen a turkey fly? It is a truly bizarre spectacle. You watch a turkey fly, and you think, “Hmm. That should not be happening.” Proponents of intelligent design as a scientific theory have a lot of explaining to do when it comes to the turkey, because let me tell you, there is nothing intelligent about the design of a turkey in flight.

They have this big, round, heavy body and skinny little wings that would be so much better suited on a much smaller bird. When they take off, they launch themselves with a spasmodic flurry of flapping and heaving, and in the air their unwieldy bulk hangs down from their frail looking wings like a bowling ball under a paper airplane.

But, in spite of their awkward appearance, turkeys CAN fly – and DO, by the way. Like the two turkeys on the bridge – they took off when they saw that jogger, and in their fear they flew to opposite sides of the water. The baby flew back to the side from which we had come, and the mama flew over to the side to which we had been headed.

The jogger, after regaining her composure, jogged on.

Witnessing these events, I was curious as to what would happen next. Apparently these two turkeys needed to be together, and yet now they were separated by this water that was a bit more than the stream but not quite yet the lake. How would they get together again?

I crossed on over the bridge and turned left down the path along the water. Mama turkey was on the path, about 15 yards along, walking away from me. I followed her, keeping that distance.

As she walked, she clucked. Every few seconds, she made a short, staccato sound as she walked along the path. It wasn’t loud. It was actually quite gentle. But it was steady. It was patient.

And sure enough, a few clucks later, there was a spasmodic flurry from the other side of the water, and baby turkey risked it all, launched itself rather unceremoniously from its roost, crossed the water, and made a direct line for mama. A few seconds later, together again, the turkeys strolled off into the woods together.

More than just an interesting nature anecdote, I think there’s something we can learn here. I’m sure not every single experience in life turns out to be an illustration of our faith, but maybe this one does. Let’s see…

First of all, us turkeys need to be together, too. People like you and me need each other.

And you know, sometimes you look at us people and think, “Hmm. There’s no way one of those would ever be able to fly.” But we CAN – and we DO! We are capable of such extraordinary things.

Sometimes we do extraordinary things when we are startled, when we are scared, and those extraordinary things separate us from each other. One of us flies off one way and one of us flies off the other and there ends up being a great gulf between us.

But we also do extraordinary things when we are longing to be together, when we hear a gentle, patient call that invites us in. We do extraordinary things; we launch ourselves into the air and cross the water so that we can be reunited again.

All the church is really is just a bunch of turkeys doing extraordinary things so that we can be reconciled to God and one another. God’s voice is the gentle, patient cluck that invites us in. Hearing that call, we launch ourselves from our roost to do things no one would ever have thought possible, to love one another as Christ loves.

Us turkeys need to be together.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Churches and Branches and Vines - Oh My!

Let’s talk vines and branches.

With the “body” metaphor, we get the idea that the eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you.” But when talking about gardening, you’ve got to deal with the pruning issue. Because, you see, it is possible (and even common) for the vine to say to a certain branch, “I don’t need you,” and the branch is subsequently pruned away.

This pruning happens because the offending branch is somehow threatening the overall health of the plant. The way to keep the plant alive therefore is to cut away the sick part so that the whole plant will flourish.

Oh, how fun it would be to be the gardener! Then it would be up to us which branches needed pruning and which needed to stay connected. The only problem with that is that, in this analogy, God is the gardener. God gets to do the pruning, not us. John 15:1 Jesus says, “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower.”
So it is still true, using the metaphor of the body or of the vine, that one part cannot say to another, “I don’t need you.” A single branch on the vine couldn’t look at another branch and decide to prune it. That’s up to the gardener, not the branches.

Too frequently we (the church) have put ourselves in the place of the gardener, deciding who needs pruning so that the vine can be healthy. The truth is, you and I are simply branches on the vine, as apt to be pruned away as any other branch.

I prefer thinking about it from the flipside – in order to stay healthy and bear good fruit, I had better stay connected to the vine. And consequently, as I am connected to the vine, I am connected to the other branches thereupon. It is from our connectedness that we draw that which sustains our lives.

I am thankful to be a part of a denomination that celebrates connection. It reminds us that we are a part of something transcendent, bigger than us. It calls us to expand our thoughts and extend ourselves outward. Thank God for the connection!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Appeal - A Follow-Up

If you read my last post on Enter the Rainbow but not on Facebook, you missed the 50 comment dialogue that happened there. My post was about Christian unity. The comment thread ended up being about homosexuality, which certainly was not directly responsive to what I had written, but perhaps provided a case study for the point I had actually intended to make.

To be sure, there were several commenters whose remarks were germane to the post itself, but a handful of those commenting were actually responding to the first commenter, Steve. I went to Camdenton High School with Steve – sang in the Bel Canto Singers with him, in fact. I haven’t seen him since then, and only just recently “found” him on Facebook again.

In one of his comments, Steve wrote, “Try reading the scripture and taking it for what it says instead of what makes you feel good.” This statement, of course, did not win him any fans. Because, as soon became apparent, the people who were disagreeing with him had, in fact, read the scripture and were, in fact, taking it for what it says. It just so happens that their take of what it says differs from Steve’s.

Rather than get into the specifics of their conversation, I’d like to remark on the conversation itself, and on the people participating.

One of the first to respond was Clayton, who I went to Northeast Missouri State University with – he was a few years ahead of me in the music department, in fact. He is now a UM pastor, and one of the smartest human beings I know. Clayton and I share the distinctions of being nerds in two separate areas of interest: music and religion!

Clayton’s thoughts were echoed by Cale, with whom I went to college also, but he was a few years behind me – sang in the NEMO Singers with him, in fact (or was it Cantoria by then?) He’s a few years younger than me, and he married his husband (who has almost no vowels in his name, by the way) in California.

Cale was talking back and forth with Cindy, with whom I went to Camdenton High School also, though she was a few years ahead of me – sang in the Bel Canto Singers with her, in fact. She briefly described her religious life in her comments, and I have to say it is fascinating. I’d love to hear more about how she practices her faith.

Cindy was asked a couple of questions by Kory, with whom I go to Campbell United Methodist Church – sing in the praise band with him, in fact. Kory just got married this summer and, in addition to leading the praise band, keeps track of all of our computer stuff at church. He is a poet, and a deep thinker with an artist’s soul.

Steve, Clayton, Cale, Cindy, and Kory – five people from three different chapters of my life, meeting together to talk about their beliefs. Now, Facebook is not going to be the place where we work out all our differences and end up in perfect agreement with each other. And it’s not as if that’s the goal, either.

But I’ve got to say that it was pretty cool to watch that conversation unfold over those three days. It was interesting to note that all the people in that mix are people with whom I have made music. It was a pretty good example of our vibrant, complicated, mystifying, frustrating diversity, actually.

I wish there was enough passion about the issue I was actually writing about to generate 50 comments. I’m going to keep writing about it, keep preaching it, keep living it. The unity of the body of Christ, a unity that transcends difference of opinion, a unity that celebrates diversity rather than fearing it, this unity is desperately needed as an alternative to the bitter divisiveness that seems to dominate our society these days.

Again I’ll emphasize, I hope we don’t blow it!

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

An Appeal to the Church for Our Troubled Times

There is no organization better suited to respond to the current societal divisiveness than the church. Let’s not blow it.

The bitter “us” versus “them” mentality of so many people these days is directly confronted by the radical unity that Christianity teaches. The modern day equivalent of the “Jew” and “Greek” of Bible times (Galatians 3:28) find themselves inextricably, if a bit uncomfortably, drawn together in Christ. If it is indeed true that God shows no partiality (Romans 2:11), then who are we to do so?

It should break our hearts when we hear what passes for public discourse in our nation today. One of my wife's preshcool kids said to her yesterday, "Obama is a liar." Hmm...wonder where she heard that? And I'm much more upset by a preschool kid saying it than hearing it shouted from the floor of congress, to tell you the truth.

I just learned from my cousin Bryan that, in Germany, there are signs at the crosswalks that encourage grown-ups to cross with the light because it will set a good example for the children watching. Setting aside for a second the glennbeckian propensity to see an evil governmental plot to control our lives, isn't that a pretty good idea? Shouldn't we be behaving so that the example we set is a good one?

As adults should set examples for children, so should the church set the example for society. (It's a metaphor, not an analogy, so don't jump on that.) Simply put, there is no better time than now for the church to model for the rest of the world how people are supposed to get along. If you've read H. Richard Niebuhr, this is the time to bring a little "Christ Transforming Culture" into the mix.

You want to hear something radical? I believe in the devil, and I believe that the devil doesn't really care what we believe, as long as it separates us from one another, and from God. Evil does not manifest in individual person's beliefs; evil manifests in the way that people's beliefs, whatever they are, cause us to distance, then divide, then isolate, and ultimately hate the other.

If ever there was a moment for the church to counteract our societal craziness, it is now. But here is the tricky part - we cannot repay evil with evil, but must counter evil with goodness (Romans 12:17). In other words, the church cannot "go to battle" with divisiveness, for doing so would just add more divisiveness (and the devil would love it). Rather, we must counter cultural divisiveness with Christian unity, a unity that claims and celebrates a rich and vibrant diversity within it.

Christian unity does not ignore difference. It is not "colorblind," a term that I try to avoid using. Rather, Christian unity sees the differences and transcends them. That which unites is God's love shown through Jesus Christ and present in the Holy Spirit, and no earthly force can overcome that. That means that I'm different from you - in a lot of ways - and that's okay.

That's what the church is supposed to be - left/right, women/men, old/young, gay/straight, rich/poor, Royals/Cardinals, short/tall, UMC/AG, this race/that race, this nation/that nation, citizen/immigrant, this/that, blah blah/yadda yadda - and on and on and on. God loves us all; God wants us all to be better people; God offers us all the gift of salvation. To announce and embody this good news in all of its myriad possibilities is why the church exists.

How we treat each other matters. We should neither weaponize our differences nor ignore them. For the church, there is no "us" and "them" - it's all "us!" It's all us in all of our vibrant, complicated, mystifying, frustrating diversity. And it can be such a beautiful thing to behold.

This is our moment, church. Please let's not blow it.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Current Affairs

There are some pretty buzzy political issues out there right now. Let’s see, we’ve got…
- The current administration’s secret agenda to destroy the nation,
- The Sedalia Smith Cotton High School Band’s “Brass Evolution” T-Shirt,
- President Obama’s upcoming speech to school kids across the country,
- The bureaucracy being created to kill all the old people,
- The President’s location of birth (ah, an oldie but still a goodie!),
- Random observations about the health care systems of Canada and Great Britain,
…and a few more that aren’t really coming to mind at the moment.

So I’ve decided that I would like to write about these issues. Which I will do exactly one time then move on to more substantial things.

Which I now have done. And that is that.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Different Flavors of the Same Stuff

If you and I were to meet at Braum’s, you might order strawberry and I might order mint chocolate chip, but we’d both be eating ice cream. We’d just taste different flavors of the same stuff. The same yummy, sweet, delicious stuff!

That’s kind of how I think about diversity in the Church, too – different flavors of the same really good stuff. You might look at things one way, and I might look at things another, but we’re both following Jesus. We’re just trying to live as faithfully as we can from our own perspective.

Several places in scripture, including this week’s text from James 2, remind us that followers of Christ are of one body, and should not show partiality. Romans 2:11 says is most plainly; “For God shows no partiality.” We are not supposed to show favoritism or divide the body into adversarial factions.

There is no “us” and “them” – we’re all “us.”

Nonetheless, there are times that faithful Christians do not see eye to eye. The way we handle that says a lot about us, probably even more than the idea over which we’re disagreeing. We can even disagree about some pretty substantial things; if we can do so with respect and love for one another, we’re going to be okay.

Getting ready for the work God wants us to do involves setting aside the earthly prejudices that we tend to carry. So a part of getting “revved up” for the race we have to run has to be getting rid of preconceived notions about others so that we can truly live as God desires – all us, all the time.

The most powerful symbol of this unity is the communion table, and this week in worship we will celebrate the sacrament together. It is a table that is open to all people, no matter what. All of those superficial things we use to distinguish ourselves one from another in this world are laid aside for a moment around the table of the Eucharist.

I’ll see you around the table!