through the wardrobe

Monday, March 16, 2015

Kay Warren on the loss of her son

I've been thinking lately about some of the losses people around me have experienced in the last few years and the pain that they're dealing with still. We've seen far too much of this in the Grace Church family.
This morning, all of this reminded me that I've been meaning to check out Kay Warren. Kay (yes, her husband is Rick Warren, of The Purpose-Driven Life fame) has had a lot to share over the last two years about loss and grief and hurt because, in April of 2013, her son Matthew took his own life. He had suffered from mental illness, and eventually he decided that the pain just had to stop. While not entirely surprised, his family was entirely devastated.

Last year, as the first anniversary of Matthew's death drew closer, Kay wrote a post on Facebook which exploded across the internet. Among other things in it, she said:

As the one-year anniversary of Matthew's death approaches, I have been shocked by some subtle and not-so-subtle comments indicating that perhaps I should be ready to 'move on.' … I have to tell you – the old Rick and Kay are gone. They're never coming back. We will never be the same again.

Don't tell me to get over it.
Don't tell me to go on with my life.
That life is gone. Period.

Her words echo the frustrations and struggles of so many who are mourning, and the rest of us need to take note.

When I decided to look up Kay Warren, I discovered an interview she did with Christianity Today about a year ago, Kay Warren: A Year of Grieving Dangerously. The interview's relatively long, but I can't exaggerate how worthwhile it is. If you've lost someone and experienced that hurt, if someone close to you is burdened by the pain of loss, please read this interview. I would excerpt a bit of it, but to me almost every line was pure gold. Just read it.

Matthew Warren's death is a tragedy. At the same time, the Warren's loss has resulted in an incredible gift to the rest of the world: Kay's honest and poignant reflections and testimonies. For thousands of people, her messages have offered hope and named truths that they just hadn't been able to find the words for. Maybe they will be a gift to you too.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

learning the lingo: Lent

Churches like to use secret codewords to bewilder and befuddle the uninitiated. Terms like "Advent," "VBS," "DS," and "intinction."
Ok, so we don't like to bewilder and befuddle folks, but we do it all the same. There's church lingo that, unless it's explained to you (unlikely), it may take some time to decode and decipher. But that's where this series comes in! In these "learning the lingo" posts, I try to demystify some of the churchy language that might leave people feeling a little out of place.

There's one church word that, if you're in a more traditional worship environment, dollars to doughnuts you will hear in the weeks ahead. That word is "Lent." What are people talking about when they talk about Lent or "Lenten" activities coming up at the church?

Lent is a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays - more on that later) starting on Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, and ending with Easter Sunday. This 40-day stretch of Lent is one of the "seasons" in the church year, something I've written about before. Just like Advent is the season leading up to Christmas, a time for getting ready for that holy day, Lent is a time to prepare for Easter, the day of Jesus' resurrection. Lent's a more serious, somber season, characterized by repentance - this goes back to the ancient church, when baptisms happened on Easter Sunday each year, and all candidates for baptism used the 40 days prior to Easter to get their hearts and lives ready for baptism.

The main shape this repentance takes during Lent is fasting. That one should come as no surprise. Even if you're not from an area heavily steeped in Roman Catholic tradition, you've probably heard of 'giving something up for Lent' - if nothing else, it's an occasional plot device on TV and in movies. Fasting is a classic expression of penitence, as well as a spiritual practice for intense periods of seeking God (for instance, take David, after the debacle with Bathsheba and Uriah, in 2 Samuel 12, or Jesus in the wilderness in Matthew 4).

Why don't Sundays count towards the 40 days of Lent? Because Jesus rose from the grave on a Sunday, the first day of the week is always a day for celebration and feasting - not fasting. No matter what season you're in, Sunday isn't a day for penitence and self-abasement. It's a day to party! So the 40 days of Lent only count Mondays-Saturdays.
(You may notice that devout Catholics will not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. This is the same principle as the Sunday celebrations, except in reverse: every Friday in Lent is a remembrance of Good Friday and Jesus' death, hence the extra strictures.)

A couple of other quick Lent facts:
  • Every season in the church year has a designated color - Lent's color is purple. Don't be surprised if you see purple runners and purple banners appearing on altar tables and walls in your sanctuary this week.
  • Sunday services during Lent will often involve extended times of confession, to help worshippers engage the penitential nature of the season.
  • A lot of United Methodist churches (including my own) have a tradition of gathering for Lenten lunches or suppers one day a week during this season.
Whatever is going on at your church this Lenten season, I hope you'll find a way to participate and begin preparing your heart for Easter. That's the real purpose of this season, so get busy and don't waste the opportunities it brings!

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

that's what I call 'putting Christ back in Christmas'!

There's no manger, no traditional Christmas carols - no Hark! the Herald or Silent Night. There's not even an inflatable Charlie Brown or Linus, ready to tell us what Christmas is all about.

But this may be the most exciting and faithful Christmas observance I've seen this year.

Wait, what? Nance, this is very entertaining and impressive, but how does this Star Wars light show celebrate the birth of Jesus?
Good question. The answer may surprise you, but it's very simple: this display is a fundraiser, and everything collected supports a meal program for poor and homeless individuals at the local church.

In the information beneath the video on the YouTube page, the man responsible for this light show explains why they do this:
... people say things like, “what does this have to do with Christmas?” In all reality, what do any of our traditions have to really do with Christmas? There were no lights or even a tree to decorate when Jesus was born. I do this because it brings families together to enjoy something for free while raising thousands of dollars for those who are need. Jesus said, “if you love me, obey my commands.” He told us to help those in need - and that’s why I do it and that’s what I think Christmas is really about.

He's doing this, putting on this brilliant, apparently-not-very-Christmasy show during the holidays, to be obedient to Jesus' teachings. That's what I call putting Christ in your Christmas! And he does it in a way that's innovative, fun, and disarming. Even a Scrooge who doesn't want to hear 'Merry Christmas' and sues his city government over a nativity scene would have a hard time turning his nose up at this deeply Christian way of celebrating the holiday.

What if we all focused less on people who don't want to hear about Jesus during the season and more on finding ways to celebrate or making family traditions that honor Christ at Christmas?

Jesus taught in Matthew 25 (see verses 31-46) that whenever you're compassionate to someone in need, giving a hungry man something to eat, providing shelter to a woman with nowhere to go, when you do something like that for them, you're actually doing it for Jesus himself. Every gift you give to someone in need is a gift you give to Jesus.
A Star Wars musical-light show may not mention Jesus' name, but every dime it raises to feed the hungry adds up to a sizable Christmas gift for the birthday boy himself. What better way to celebrate?

Monday, December 01, 2014

learning the lingo: Advent

Like most congregations, a United Methodist Church comes with a lot of church lingo, "insider language."
Maybe you've heard explanations for it all before. Maybe you haven't. Maybe you did... but it's been awhile, and you could use a *ahem* refresher.
That's what this new series is all about - learning, or maybe relearning, the church lingo. What do all of those acronyms stand for? What does that committee do, anyways?  What are they talking about up there? These posts are your secret decoder ring, to help you piece together the puzzle of church terminology.

For reasons that will soon become clear, I thought we'd start the series with the word "Advent" - or you might hear people at the church talking about the season of Advent. What's the deal?

Well, just like a year is divided into four seasons - spring, summer, fall, winter - a year in the church is divided into different 'seasons' too. The church's seasons are: Advent; Christmas; Epiphany; Lent; Easter; and the season after Pentecost. If you've ever wondered why the colors of the drapery in the sanctuary seem to change at random, it's because the different seasons (and some individual Sundays) are represented by different colors.
(By the way, this isn't just in United Methodist churches - Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and a lot of other Christians use the same 'church calendar'.)

Advent is the first season of the church year. It's color is purple (sometimes blue), and it usually starts right after Thanksgiving. In other words, watch for the color purple coming to a sanctuary near you - this past Sunday, November 30th, was actually the first Sunday of Advent for 2014.

But what is Advent? Why do we have this 'season'?
Advent always starts four Sundays before Christmas, because it's a season of preparation for the coming of Christ, a time to make our hearts and lives ready for his advent (coming). Once Christmas day comes, Advent is over, and we enter the actual Christmas season. So, while all the stores are blasting the Christmas music to get us in a generous, spending kind of mood, churches around the world are still technically waiting: it's not Christmas yet; it's Advent. We're taking time to make ourselves ready for Jesus. If we spend weeks (or months, even!) getting ready for Christmas day with the family, buying gifts, sending cards, preparing the meal, why not spend some time getting our hearts ready to celebrate Jesus?

But there's a double-meaning there. We're getting ready for Jesus' birth in Bethlehem on Christmas Day, but we're also getting ready for Jesus' coming again, his Second Coming, when the dead are raised, history as we know it wraps up, and God's new world begins. During Advent we're doing some introspection, making sure there's 'room in the inn' in our hearts for Jesus, so we can celebrate Christmas meaningfully and rightly, and trying to make sure we're people who are ready for Jesus' return, people who will hear him say "well done, thy good and faithful servant."

So, over the next few weeks when you hear people mention the Advent candles or say "this is the 3rd Sunday of Advent," or something like that, remember what it all means. These next few weeks are our chance to very consciously examine ourselves and seek the Holy Spirit's transforming power, so that we can make ourselves ready for the Christ Child and ready for Jesus' coming again.
That's Advent.

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

West Wing Christianity

Emily and I have noticed that it seems like there haven't been many strong, admirable Christian characters in mainstream TV in recent years. Usually you end up with someone like Kenneth on 30Rock or Angela on The Office, characters with an extreme and quirky, comedic sort of faith. Ned Flanders on The Simpsons may or may not be an exception. (And there's always Shepherd Book from Firefly!)

Martin Sheen as Josiah Bartlet
But one Christian character from just a few years back who stands out in my mind as intelligent, likable, well-written, and just real, is President Jed Bartlet from The West Wing, played by Martin Sheen. Here is a character who struggles to be faithful amidst the burdens and ambiguities of his work and the tragedies and hurts of life, on a show that consistently and ably addresses some of the most pressing and divisive social issues of our time.

If you couldn't tell, I'm a fan.

Well, at the Hixon home we've recently begun watching The West Wing on Netflix, from beginning to end (the show premiered in 1999 and wrapped up in 2006). I haven't seen an episode of this in years, but as I'm getting reacquainted, I haven't been disappointed. The show, which is consistently ranked as one of the best-written shows in television history, is smart, witty, full of great performances, thoughtful, and powerful when it raises the important questions.

Last night we watched an episode from season 1 that raises one of those questions: "Take This Sabbath Day," where the President and White House staff wrestle with the question of capital punishment as a man's execution hour draws near.
There are characters on all sides of this debate: a Jew and a Quaker who object for religious reasons (Quaker Christians have consistently opposed all violence since the group emerged in the 1600s); 'bleeding heart liberals' who reject the death penalty; apathetic characters; others who feel this is simple justice for a man convicted of a double-homicide; and a character who passionately supports capital punishment because his mother was a cop recently killed in the line of duty. President Bartlet himself is a devoted Roman Catholic, and so he is opposed to capital punishment (the RCC is resolutely pro-life - anti-abortion and anti-death penalty).
The episode isn't meant to settle the debate on capital punishment, just to get you thinking. They debate the Torah, talk about the limits of executive power, and consider the writings of St. Augustine. In my opinion, it's really excellent television.

But why am I bringing this up?

At the end of the episode, the President is in the Oval Office talking with an old friend, who is a priest, about the situation and how he struggled with his decision. Then the priest asks him, "Did you pray?"
President: "I did, Tom. I know it's hard to believe, but I prayed for wisdom."
Priest: "And none came?"
President: "It never has. And I'm a little pissed off about that... I'm not kidding."

Have you ever felt that way? I've prayed for wisdom, I've prayed for direction, and nothing came. It never has.

What comes next is powerful. (The whole scene is worth watching, but the part I'm talking about begins at 1:35 on the video.)

If you don't have a few minutes to watch the clip, here is what the priest says next:
You know, you remind me of the man that lived by the river. He heard a radio report that the river was going to rush up and flood the town, and that all of the residents should evacuate their homes. But the man said, 'I'm religious, I prayed, God loves me, God will save me'. The waters rose up. A guy in a rowboat came along, and he shouted, 'Hey, hey, you! You in there! The town is flooding! Let me take you to safety!' But the man shouted back, 'I'm religious, I prayed, God loves me, God will save me!' A helicopter was hovering over head, and a guy with a megaphone shouted, 'Hey you, you down there! The town is flooding! Let me drop this ladder, and I'll take you to safety!' But the man shouted back that he was religious, that he prayed, that God loved him, and that God would take him to safety. Well, the man drowned. And standing at the gates of St. Peter, he demanded an audience with God. 'Lord', he said, 'I'm a religious man. I pray. I thought you love me. Why did this happen?' God said, 'I sent you a radio report, a helicopter, and a guy in a rowboat. What the hell are you doing here?'
He sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker, Mr. President, not to mention his Son, Jesus Christ. What do you want from Him?

It's an old, familiar joke. When the priest started to recite it, I thought this would ruin the end of the episode, honestly. But it worked. You prayed for wisdom, and God sent you a priest, a rabbi, and a Quaker - not to mention Jesus! What do you want from him?

Maybe sometimes the answers to our prayers are right in front of us, but we refuse to see them. Maybe sometimes the wisdom we need is right there, but we just don't want to listen to it. We wait for God to zap us with lightning from heaven or send a golden shaft of light and an almighty voice to answer our questions, and we ignore the answers God actually sends.
And the greatest irony is, in Jesus God actually did miraculously come down from heaven and offer us some direction, but so often we won't even listen to that.

Usually TV shows just use Christianity for an easy laugh. But sometimes they preach.

Have you ever recognized the answer to a pray that was right in front of your nose? Do you ever struggle to listen to the wisdom and guidance God offers you?
Are there other likable, faithful Christian characters you've seen on TV?

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Tuesday, November 04, 2014

the #1 factor in teens keeping their faith

Christian Smith is a professor and researcher at Notre Dame who's spent years studying the faith of American youth and young adults. The Church has owed him a great debt in the last decade for his books detailing our youth's views of God, how their faith is changing over time, and the factors affecting their religious commitments, among other things.

Last week the latest findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion, which has interviewed and re-interviewed over 3,000 youth periodically since 2003, were released, and the media is starting to report on it. The Huffington Post has a clear, helpful summary of the new findings here.
When this study began in 2003, the interviewees were between 13 and 17 years old; today they're in their mid-to-late 20s. I hope you'll read the article on the study's latest results, but let me share the big takeaway with you. The biggest factor effecting these teens' continued religious activities as young adults is their parents. Christian Smith is the lead researcher on the study, and as he put it, no other influence "comes remotely close to matching the influence of parents on the religious faith and practices of youth." As the Huffington Post report highlights, "82 percent of children raised by parents who talked about faith at home, attached great importance to their beliefs and were active in their congregations were themselves religiously active as young adults."

Young adults in America today have been dramatically affected by the faith of their parents. There are exceptions to every trend, but it's a clear trend nonetheless.

You can learn more about the National Study of Youth and Religion here, and, again, you'll find the Huffington Post article on the study here.

Is this surprising to anyone? Parents, what does this information mean to you?
I hope that anyone concerned about their children's faith and the future of the Church in America (particularly the mainline denominations: Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Methodists) will read over this and take this data seriously. What kinds of examples are we setting? What do we need to do differently?

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Tuesday, October 07, 2014

animal blessings

St. Francis of Assisi

October 4th every year is the feast day of St. Francis, a day set aside to remember and celebrate the life of the beloved Christ-follower and patron saint of animals. (A "feast day" is the formal term for a Church holiday; for instance, Easter is also known as the Feast of the Resurrection. For more traditional churches there are feast days all over the year, commemorating dozens of saints and events.)

At Grace UMC we celebrate the Feast of St. Francis each year with our annual Blessing of the Animals service, a fun, unique service that's held near or on the feast day, depending on how the weekend falls. For this service, folks are invited to bring their pets (or other domesticated critters) to the church for a little prayer and singing, followed by a chance for each animal to receive an individual blessing. In the United Methodist Church, we generally say something like 'Bless, O Lord, this creature, and fill our hearts with thanksgiving for its life'. We just had the service this past Saturday, and you can read a bit about it and see some pictures here.

While I was getting ready for an afternoon of asking God's blessing on these animals, I couldn't help thinking of how, so often in scripture, it works the other way around: God uses the animals as a blessing to us. Elijah would have starved without those ravens (1 Kgs 17:2-6); Jonah would have drowned without that big fish (Jon 1:15, 17); Balaam would have been toast without his famous talking ass (Num 22:21-33).
The circumstances may be a little less dramatic, but this is really still the case today, isn't it? The Lord frequently uses animals to bless us. And that's something to celebrate and give thanks for. So I'm wondering: how have you seen animals be a blessing to you or to others? Please share - don't keep God's works hidden from the rest of us!

I stumbled onto a story of animal blessings last week that really is of almost biblical proportions. In Tanzania, one organization is training rats (yes, rats) to sniff out old land mines. You read that right. These rats are busy detecting the lethal explosives in places like Mozambique, where there are still innumerable land mines unaccounted for after a 15 year civil war that ended in the early 90s. The rats can clear a 200 square-foot area in less than an hour - a human working to detect the mines in the same area would be at work for about 50 hours. There are some pictures, as well as details on how rats are being trained to identify people who test positive for TB (!), in a news article here.

You'd be surprised at the stories about gorillas and pigs I heard this week too. But what stories have you got to share? How has God used his creatures as a blessing in your life or the life of someone you know?

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