Thursday, May 30, 2019

Getting The Lead Out

Earlier this week I arrived home after a week’s vacation, and I want to say a word of thanks to those people who filled in for me when I was away.  Thanks to Dr. Tom Johnson for filling the pulpit, Virgel Rodriguez for taking care of the Children’s Sermon, and Dan, Cliff, Tom, Michael and Bert, for your help and flexibility

Part of my vacation was spent in the town of Galena, a tourist attraction in upper Illinois.  The town is located in Jo Daviess County, which at one time provided 80% of the lead used in the United States.  During the Civil War there was great demand for lead, but after the war this demand dried up and the town’s fortunes fell, until it could be reborn as a historic tourist site.  The towns name appropriately comes from the mineral Galena which is the lead ore that was mined there.

There is a long history of lead production in this area.  Long ago Native Americans discovered that if they burned the mineral Galena in a fire, and got it hot enough, the result would be ash and lead.  The ash they threw away, and the lead they could use in various ways.  This process of heating an ore and separating the metal is called smelting, and it’s the process used to produce not just lead, but tin, copper, silver, and gold.  When it comes to ores, fire separates what’s valuable from what’s useless.  Fire is an instrument of purification.  Fire tests an ore’s metal, revealing what it’s really made of.

This is true in Biblical imagery as well.  In the Bible, fire is often a metaphor for the trials that cleanse us.  Jesus said he came to baptize with the Holy Spirit and Fire and he went on to say that the wheat will be gathered in the granary while the chaff will be burnt away (Luke 3: 16-17).  The Apostle Paul writes:

Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—  13 the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done.  (1 Corinthians 3:12-13 NRSV)

I think Thomas Edison knew something about this.  Over one hundred years ago the great Edison industries of West Orange, New Jersey were wiped out by a fire.  Thomas Edison, who was 67 years old at the time, lost two million dollars in one fell swoop.  Suddenly much of his life’s work was gone.  The next morning he walked about the burnt ruins of his life, and said these profound words:  “There is great value in disaster.  All our mistakes are burned up.  Thank God we can start anew.”  And with those words the metal of Edison’s life became visible.  Edison got the lead out, started to rebuild, and three weeks after the fire his firm delivered the first phonograph.

We all face trials and hardships in life, and those fires – great and small – reveal a lot about us.  As they burn away the unnecessary things we get to see what’s left.  For some people fires reveal only ash.  For others lead.  For some, silver and gold.

This summer, as we face the heat of the sun along with the heat of life’s disappointments, we mustn’t forget to fill our lives with things that are fire proof, things that will last, things that really matter in the end.  No one is immune to trouble, and just as fire brings lead out of Galena, may our hardship bring the light and grace of God out of us.

Yours in Christ;

Cultivate Your Garden

There’s an old classic preacher’s story that goes something like this:  A new pastor was visiting one of his members, who had a reputation for maintaining a beautiful garden.  The reputation, it turned out, was entirely deserved.  The gardener proudly showed the pastor around showcasing the flowers and vegetables that sprang from the ground. 

Finally the pastor remarked:  “God has truly blessed you with a beautiful and productive garden.”  The gardener nodded, and then added, “But you should have seen the place when God took care of it by himself!”

Gardening is one of the most ancient activities.  When God created the world in Genesis, he started by planting a garden.  And then God created people to be the gardeners of this garden.  “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15 NRSV).  Gardening is also the image the Apostle Paul draws on when he describes his ministry.  “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6 NRSV).  It seems that God didn’t create gardens so they could tend themselves.  He created us to tend gardens for him.

We till.  We plant.  We water.  But God gives the growth.

If you have a garden, good for you!  If you don’t have a garden I’m here to remind you that you really do.  Our neighborhood and world is a garden that you’ve been created by God to cultivate.  And for me, and many of you reading this, Maple Avenue United Methodist Church is the specifically local community garden we’re called to tend. 

This is both a blessing and a challenge.  Our congregation is a garden unlike any other.  We have a ministry that is unlike any other ministry in town.  We have a family of faith unlike any other membership roll in town.  And we have the potential to make a significant and positive difference in the 12 Points Neighborhood, and the world – a potential that only we can fulfill.  Just as God calls each individual to a unique ministry, Maple Avenue United Methodist Church has its own special calling to serve God’s Kingdom in ways we are specifically qualified to do.  Maple Avenue is a beautiful and unusual garden, and you’re significant part of it.

Since May is the month many people start focusing on their gardens, let’s focus on this one.  We have a free community meal coming up on Wednesday, May 15th, from 5-7 p.m.  The whole point of this gathering is for people of the congregation and people of the neighborhood to meet each other and make new friends.  Be part of this event.  And on Sunday, May 19th, we will have a pot-luck dinner immediately after our second service (11:30 a.m.).  Bring a dish to share (it could be your favorite recipe, or simply a bag of potato chips) and enjoy the food and fellowship.

Invite your friends and neighbors to join you for worship.  At all of our events make visitors and guests feel welcome.  And lift up our congregation daily in prayer.  It’s the right time of year for gardeners to spring into action, so let’s cultivate our garden together.

In Christ;

Monday, March 25, 2019

Springing To Life

Image result for rose of Jericho
You might never have heard of the Anastatica hierochuntica, otherwise call a “Rose of Jericho,” but it has some fascinating properties which you can see demonstrated in several YouTube videos.  It is actually a tumbleweed found in the Sahara Desert and other arid portions of the Middle East.  It dries up in the desert heat looking like it’s totally dead, and it can tumble around the desert sometimes for years.  If you were to see one you might think it only a wad of dead leaves.  But when it tumbles into some water or the rainy season comes a funny thing happens.  The leaves unfurl and their color changes from a lifeless brown to vibrant green.  The plant springs to life in a matter of hours.  Of course, it can’t tumble around without water indefinitely.  If it went a decade without water it would probably stay brown and withered since it deadness can become a habit.  But the plant is designed to bear times of trial in anticipation of those times of renewal and rejuvenation.   

And for its rebirth, all the Rose of Jericho needs is a little bit of water.  

The forty day period before Easter, usually called “Lent,” is traditionally a time to remember the forty day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness.  We do this by facing our own temptations in our own wilderness.  It’s a time to confront the cold hard challenges that most of us would like to put off indefinitely. It can be a time of profound spiritual growth as we tumble around our arid landscape.  But we can’t live forever devoid of pleasure.  Rough times always need to be punctuated by times of refreshment – even for Jesus.  And Lent is always followed by Easter.

Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well, “…those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life." (John 4:14 NRSV).

Easter (April 21st of this year) is the time to drink fully of that water so we, like the Rose of Jericho, can spring to life with joy and anticipation.

Appropriately enough the Rose of Jericho is part of a class of flora called “Resurrection Plants” so called because they bounce back to life when nourished.  And we are “Resurrection People.”  We bounce to life as well, fed by the Easter power of Jesus Christ.

Christ is risen and we, like him, are victorious over death itself.  Life rises triumphant from the grave.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overpower it.  So as the cold winter months finally draw to an end, this is the time to celebrate and rejoice.  

Check out our Cantata.  Share in our Bible Study.  Renew your friendships.  Enjoy the flowers and the beauty around us.  Dare to laugh.  Start to bloom.  And like the Rose of Jericho allow God to fill your dead withered leaves with nourishment and life.  

Christ is risen.  That’s our signal to follow his example and, like the Rose of Jericho, spring back to life.  

Springfully yours;

March Blog - Looking and Seeing

Years ago I was driving into Rockport Indiana in the first new car we’d ever bought; a Ford Escort.  It only had around 600 miles on it at the time and was barely broken in.  As I entered the town a car in the approaching lane swerved into my lane suddenly and unexpectedly, clobbering my car hard and throwing me against the door.  Thankfully, even though I was sore for a week, nobody was seriously injured.  The car, however, was a total loss.  The driver of the other vehicle was apparently trying to make a left-hand turn through me.  “I looked at you but I just didn’t see you,” he said. 

Then several months ago I was sitting at a red light on 3rd street near the courthouse behind another vehicle.  As I waited for the light to change there was a sudden “WHOMP” and I lurched forward.  A van had rear-ended me while I sat there.  Again, nobody was hurt and sitting in front of the courthouse the police were quickly on the scene.  The driver of the van was quite apologetic.  “I just didn’t see you,” he told me.

There is a difference between looking and seeing. 

I can’t criticize these drivers too strongly, however, because I’ve done the same thing.  I’ve looked without seeing.  I’ve searched for that salt shaker when it was sitting on the shelf in front of me, or sought my wallet or keys when they were right on the table.  We all tend to do this, and we all tend to do this especially with our own faults.  As Jesus says:

“…how can you say to your neighbor, "Friend, let me take out the speck in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor's eye.  (Luke 6:42 NRSV)

We are preparing to enter into the season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday on March 6th of this year.  It’s traditionally a time for self reflection and introspection.  It’s a time for us to make small changes in our lives that may have enormous consequences in the end.  It’s a time to look and see the logs in our own eyes.

So how does one go about looking and seeing?  We do it by focusing on what we should be looking at, putting pride and preconceived notions on hold, and opening ourselves up to new visions and insights.  God has a hard time revealing new things when we only see what we want to see.

This Lent let’s focus on those things in our lives we need to change.  Let’s put pride and preconceived notions on hold, and open ourselves to new insights from God.  Let’s move from merely looking to actually seeing.

Lent is an appropriate time to let our guard down and examine our lives humbly and honestly.  That's something we need to do before we hit the road, or another car.

Yours in Christ;

January Blog - Behold, I Shall Show You A Mystery

For the 3rd year in a row we will be presenting our Murder Mystery Theater on February 8 and 9, 6 p.m. This year’s feature, “No Body To Murder”, promises to be fun and funny.  I know the cast has been having a great time preparing to present it. 

One of the enjoyable things about a Mystery Theater is that the audience has an opportunity to figure the mystery out at the end and prizes are awarded to those who solve the mystery. So technically, while the play is a mystery before the show begins, it’s not a mystery by the time people leave.  It’s only a temporary mystery that quickly gets resolved, so those present can pack up and go home satisfied.

It’s too bad every mystery doesn’t get solved this fast.  Currently science is full of mysteries that scientists have been struggling to understand for decades.  What is “dark matter,” and how can quantum physics and general relativity be unified are just a couple of the big ones. And if we’re honest, most of us live lives full of unanswered questions; mysteries that always elude our understanding even when we fool ourselves into believing we have them figured out.  The more I think I understand people, the more they prove far more complicated and interesting than I imagined.

This is unfortunate, since most people, including myself, have a strong distaste for unanswered questions.  I want to know if flying saucers are real, big foot exists, and what happened to Amelia Earhart.  Mysteries creates a tension that we naturally seek to resolve with answers, and this is where faith often steps in.  People think of faith as that cure-all that eliminates the mysteries around us so we can live our lives secure in our certainty.  But this isn’t exactly the case. As 1 Timothy 3:16 reminds us, mystery is also part of faith itself.

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16 NRSV)

The phrase “mystery of our religion” doesn’t get thrown around much these days, maybe because we want a religion free from mystery.  But in fact, our religion is something of a mystery.  This means that we never have everything – including the Bible, Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or God himself – wholly figured out.  Christianity is a mystery that encourages us to grow in our knowledge and understanding, but it’s always bigger than what we know and understand.  And a real faith doesn’t eliminate the mysteries of life, it equips us to live joyfully in the face of those mysteries.

Life itself is a bit like a murder mystery theater, and we’re participating, trying to understand.  But that understanding will never be complete until we take our final bow and the curtain closes.

What faith does is enable us to live our lives fully and well until that time.  “Without a doubt, the mystery of our religion is great”

Mysteriously yours;

December Blog - Be A Child

            Something terrible happens to most of us, usually somewhere between the age of 10 and 20.  We grow up.  While there are certainly advantages to growing up and there are times when it’s quite helpful to be mature -- something vital and vibrant often gets lost in the process.  Think about how you experienced Christmas when you were a child.
            Children receive Christmas with joy.  There is a building sense of excitement.  Most days have only 24 hours, but the days leading up to The Big Day go so slowly for the child they’re at least 58 hours in length.  Children can’t wait for Christmas morning to arrive.
            Adults receive Christmas with depression.  There’s so much to do and so little time.  Get the gifts.  Cook the food.  Hang the lights.  Trim the tree.  Who’s gift are we forgetting?  When can we relax?  The day’s whiz by at the speed of Christmas lights, and the holiday comes and goes with the blink of an eye.
            Children receive Christmas with wonder.  There is enchantment in the air.  They have the magic of the Bethlehem star, Christ’s birth, angels and magi. Christmas is when a mysterious God breaks into the world with glorious light.  And of course, there’s Santa Claus and his reindeer.
            Adults receive Christmas with skepticism.  There’s no such thing as magic.  The Bethlehem star was probably just supernovae, or a strange conjunction of planets.  Angels are cute decorations, but nothing else.  And Santa Claus? know what adults think.
            Children receive Christmas with faith.  Anything can happen.  Dreams come true, and endings are happy.  At Christmas the world becomes less scary and cold, and more cozy and warm.  Miserly scrooges become generous friends, and people help each other.  There’s peace on earth and good will toward others.
            Adults receive Christmas with cynicism.  All people care about is money and things.  We’ve got to push our way through the crowds, to spend our cash on gifts that will probably break, or get returned.  Help other people?  No time.  Instead of peace, we have traffic jams.  Instead of good will we have short-tempered shoppers.
            I suspect that Christmas is for children.  They are the ones who seem best able to enjoy it.  Many of us adults have forgotten how.
            How many years has it been since you were a child?  Maybe it’s been too long. 
            This Christmas, why not revisit your youth? Let go of your depression, and get excited again.  Forget about your skepticism, and rediscover wonder.  Instead of exercising cynicism, embrace the world with faith.  Savor the days with delight.
            Be a child.  After all, that’s exactly what God became, 2000 years ago, in a manger in Bethlehem.

Merry Christmas!

When Troubles Return

Douglas Fairbanks, the famous actor, was driving back to his mansion in England when he saw an Englishman plodding along the road in the heat.  The stranger looked familiar, so Fairbanks stopped to offer him a ride, which was gratefully accepted.  As they drove along, Fairbanks wracked his brain trying to remember where he knew the aristocratic, well-dressed, gentleman.  Still unable to remember who he was, Fairbanks invited the man into his house for some refreshment, and to try to elicit some clues to his identity.  The visitor knew many of Fairbanks’ friends, and seemed familiar with the estate - commenting favorably on some recent improvements.

When Fairbanks’ secretary finally walked into the room, Fairbanks took him aside and whispered the question that had been plaguing him:  ‘Who is this Englishman?  I know he’s Lord somebody, but I can’t remember his name.’

‘That,’ replied the secretary, ‘is the English butler you fired last month for getting drunk.’

Problems have a way of returning to haunt us.  Not just once or twice, but again and again and again.  Just about the time you think you’re through with a difficulty, a new one takes its place.  Just about the time you think you’re rid of an inconvenience, there it is again in all its glory. 

It is the nature of life to throw obstacles in our path.  But at the same time, it’s our nature, as we share in the Spirit of Christ, to keep on going.  It is our nature to grow through adversity.

Beethoven’s composition teacher pronounced him a hopeless dunce who couldn’t learn anything.  Lucille Ball was fired from the chorus of a road company and told by a Ziegfeld aide, “you’re not meant for show business.  Go home.”  Rudyard Kipling was fired from his first job as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner and told he didn’t know how to use the English language.  Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote Tarzan of the Apes, didn’t think it was much of a story and doubted if anyone would read it.  They all had troubles return to them, and they all grew through the adversity. 

The point of the whole process is this:  Overcoming trouble is the only way we can grow as individuals.  The world knocks us down, God raises us up and we start out again.  The world knocks us down, God raises us up and we start out again.  And in that repetitious cycle our faith takes root, our inner strength blossoms, and our character begins to resemble the character of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus Christ himself was thought to be a dangerous failure, with his message of love and forgiveness.  He was nailed to a cross and written off as finished.  But far from being done, God raised him up and he started out again.  And because he rose and lives in us, we can do the same.

Troubles always return.  But so does Jesus Christ.  And with his strength and Spirit we can outlast any trial the world may send our way.

David Rockhill