Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Strength in Weakness

Yeah, yeah! I know the Bible verses (2 Cor 12:8-10). Christ is made strong in our weakness. It’s all well and good. I love it when others are weak, Christ is strong. I teach it, I preach it. I just don’t like it when I am the one feeling weak. I especially don’t like it when I am so weak I feel helpless. But I was reminded this morning in our staff devotion time that this is exactly what Paul is talking about. And he is talking about it for me.

George, our student ministries director, was leading devotions and asked the question, “When was a time in your life when you felt most led by the Spirit, like Romans 8 says, “walking in the Spirit”? I thought about it. Of course the immediate response from a pastor is some superspiritual thing like, “I am led by the Spirit every moment of every day.” Yeah, right! I confessed that when I think about feeling led by the Spirit I am more like a cell phone with poor reception. The connection comes and goes. But as I thought more, I remembered a time when I really felt connected and totally led by the Spirit of God. It was during the most difficult time in my fifteen years of ordained ministry. It was a time of explosive conflict in a church I served as an associate. What had been little brush fires around the congregation for years (we learned later) erupted into an inferno one August following a seemingly routine issue in the life of ministry. Within hours the conflict became personal and pointed. Though I was not directly involved in any of the related issues, my convictions about what had happened made me one of two targets for all the rage. And the battle raged for over two years. There were days when I did not want to get out of bed. There were times when I was paralyzed in an attempt to avoid those who were on the attack. I never knew who I would run into at the grocery store or bank, and even in the halls of the church I served I could suddenly be confronted with a very angry person. There was also the deep sense of sadness over the loss of people who were so confused by what was happening that they withdrew from fellowship. When it was all over about 100 people left the church of 700. It felt to me like 100 deaths without goodbyes. Though I was not suicidal, there were days when I felt as though I did not want to go on living. The pain was so deep and I could see no end in sight.

As George continued to push the question I realized that this was the time I remembered most feeling the Spirit leading me. In fact, I remembering telling someone that I felt so weak I did not know if I could walk. But I did walk. And I did work, and I did go on. But I felt numb, like I was floating around from place to place. That is when I realized that the Spirit of God was carrying me. I was walking in the power of the Spirit and completely led by him. My absolute weakness allowed Christ to be my strength. I was living out the poem Footprints in the Sand.

I have been a Christian since a very young child, and I have studied Scripture since I was a teenager. I know that one of the dominant themes of Scripture is about suffering and weakness, and that we grow most in our faith when we are tested. I know that the very heart of the gospel is that through death life emerges. Through the Valley of Achor there is hope. I know this and love the truth. I don’t like living it out! It is painful. And yet this is exactly what Easter is all about. Through Lent we prepare to realize the weight of our sin and the price for its eradication on Good Friday. Easter morning, resurrection, is only possible because, as J├╝rgen Moltmann said, Christ suffered godforsakenness for us. Total weakness and defeat leads to absolute strength and victory. I hate it. But it is the way of the cross and it is the way of Christlikeness.

The church I served during those years grew stronger through those days of agony and pain. So did I. And I have been strengthened to travel with others walking that way of agony. Christ is sufficient. Most of the time it requires our absolute insufficiency to experience this kind of walking in the Spirit.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Scrappy Beginning to Holy Week

On the first day of Holy Week my email inbox was full of letters of concern. For the last ten months I have been working with another church in our presbytery that finds themselves in a time of conflict. The trouble has been brewing for a couple of years, maybe more. But it is now coming to a head. The leadership is working to bring into the open what has been festering under the surface for some time. They have invited members with “concerns” to put them in writing and then attend a special meeting to talk about these concerns. In our fallen condition we often avoid conflict at any cost. Time and again we fail to understand that conflict is normal and expected wherever at least two people live together, in whatever manner. When it is avoided for longer periods, it only grows. Then bringing it to the forefront always feels like things are getting worse. They are, but only visibly. But once visible—in the open air—the conflict can be better seen, understood, and potentially resolved. That is what this group of church leaders is working toward and hoping for.

Monday morning, the first day of Holy Week, I was reading all of these letters of concern that had filled my inbox. I must confess my first thought was, What a way to begin Holy Week! Then it hit me. This is the way Jesus began Holy Week. Tensions that had been hidden and building for years were mounting, and those who were against Jesus were getting bolder in their opposition. I am not suggesting that the writer’s of these letters of concerns are “crucifiers,” nor am I suggesting the pastor involved is Jesus. I am just reminded that we are broken and sinful folks, and Jesus came for this very reason. Jesus came because we are a scrappy lot! Holy Week was not an antiseptic, spiritual Kum Ba Yah! It was a scrappy, contentious, confused caravan of folks encountering God incarnate. Some recognized him and followed, some got caught up in all the miracles and wanted to believe but were confused, others were outright hostile, and a whole bunch of folks were just to busy to notice God had visited. Sounds all too familiar!

We would all love to jump right to the Hallelujah Chorus and sing the praises of the risen Christ and glory in our being adopted as heirs. But we must first wander through the streets and alleys of broken relationships, disobedient and distracted lives, and self-absorbed hostility. We must come crawling—scrappy, contentious, and confused—to the cross. And when we look up, we see God incarnate suffering there for us—the weight of the sins of the whole world on his shoulders. Our sins and the sins of those we are in conflict with are all together laid on Christ. We cannot get around it. We must confess our scrappiness—our sin—and then, only then, can we see our way through to Easter morning and the resurrection and glory of the risen Lord. Thank God that beginning Holy Week scrappy is exactly the right path to the resurrection.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Facing Death in a Rice Paddy

Five years ago today, my father, Kenneth Earl Davis, died at the age of 86. That he died is no surprise. The surprise is that he lived to this ripe old age. It is a testament to the power and glory of God. My father was a WWII POW and a year and a half after he enlisted in the army he found himself facing death and his life flashing before his eyes.

Just turned twenty-one, Ken found himself face down in a hard, dry rice paddy in the Philippine Islands. He figured it was his time. He would be executed like the other American soldiers he saw dragged to this spot the day before—shot and bayoneted, and stripped of all earthly possessions. Though he had not slept or eaten for days, he could not sleep, and the hunger and pain he felt was overwhelmed by the reality that he believed his life was coming to an end.

Ken had seen this in movies. A person caught in death’s trap would suddenly see their life flash before their eyes. In the movies it was a flashback played out by the characters of the film. For Ken there were no actors, no characters. This was real life. Less than two years after he enlisted in the Army and looked at a map and chose the Philippine Islands as a place to serve, he found himself facing death in a rice paddy on the Bataan peninsula. And his life began to flash before his eyes.

It was as if a screen was suspended in his mind and his memory began playing back all the scenes. He saw his mom and dad and his 11 brothers and sisters. He saw his childhood antics and his rebellious escapades. He saw his home and the church he attended as a child and the chapel he attended while at the CCC Camp. And he remembered the good news of the gospel he learned from as far back as he could remember, that Jesus died for his sins and that he, Ken, would have a place in heaven because of God’s grace and mercy demonstrated on the cross no matter what he had done. It was April 12, 1942. It was about that time of the year—Easter. The screen went blank but Ken’s mind did not. He described an overwhelming sense of peace that came over him. He knew he was about to die, but he reached deep down into the faith he embraced as a child and took hold of it again. And he prayed. He thanked God for this faith given to him. He thanked God for his family. And he prayed that if somehow he survived this rice paddy death hole he would live his life differently. He would dedicate himself to following the one who gave his life for him—Jesus Christ.

Ken did survive that rice paddy. He did not know exactly why, but he did. The Japanese soldiers returned but they did not kill him. They kicked him and told him to get up and directed him toward a column of American and Filipino troops forming down the road. Ken had survived the death paddy, but now, just two weeks past his 21st birthday, he was about to join the infamous Bataan Death March. He would survive this, too. And the death rail cars, and the death camps, and a death ship (hellship), and another death camp. For three and one half years Ken would survive unspeakable torture and brutality. And he would live another 60 years to make good on the promise to dedicate his life to following Christ.

Ken would do more than survive. He would thrive. Despite these four years of the most inhospitable treatment, Ken was the epitome of hospitality. Even though he suffered untold prejudice and evil, Ken would extend acceptance and kindness to all kinds of people. And even though these years were filled with darkness and despair, Ken would prove to be a man of optimism and hope. His life was a testament to the power of the grace and love of God.

[This story is an excerpt from a soon to be published book about Ken’s WWII POW story and how it shaped his life and the life of his children, Forged by War: A Daughter’s Story of Her WWII POW Father and How It Shaped Her, is due to be published summer 2011.]

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A God-Shaped Hole

It's a well-worn cliche. Every person has a place in their lives that can only be filled with God. If a person rejects God or is not open to knowing God, then that person will have a “God-shaped hole” in their lives. No matter what else he or she does to try and fill that hole, nothing will fill it. It is shaped only for God. Nothing else fits.

This is an old saying but a timeless truth. Just this week I had the sacred privilege of hearing a woman’s testimony. She reminded me that four years ago when she and I first visited over a cup of coffee, I asked her what brought her to our church. She said there was something missing in her life, a void that would not go away.

After she attended worship for some time, we had coffee again. This time she was hungry, not for food but to know more about Christ and what it meant to have a relationship with him. I encouraged her to join one of our small groups and attend adult education hour, where she could learn more about Christ but also grow in relationship to others who were seeking the same.

This week we had tea and a bowl of soup. During our lunch she asked me if I remembered what she had told me several years back. I must confess, I didn’t. Once she reminded me, of course, I remembered. Then she told me the really good news. The void is gone. She has found what was missing in her life. Christ has filled that void—that hole. It’s gone! And she was able to articulate an even deeper relationship with Christ. She said that she now knows that Christ is enough. No matter what else her circumstances, no matter what else she has or lacks, Christ is enough. His grace is enough. Wow! This is the testimony of one who belongs to and knows Jesus Christ. And now, she is sharing that experience with others whenever the opportunity presents itself.

This testimony was a gift to me. Many are the days when I wonder if anything I’m doing or saying in ministry makes a real difference in people’s lives. I know that God can use what we offer him in ministry anytime—today, next week, next year, or forty years from now. The fruit of ministry is entirely up to God. We are only called to share the good news of God’s grace with others. But oh how good it is to hear the kind of testimony that gives evidence to the fruit of the labor of ministry. It brought tears to my eyes.

I am stoked for another tour of duty! That empty void that God-shaped hole can be filled. God is at work filling it, one person at a time.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Monkeying Around at a Memorial Service

Can you do that? Today I did. Steve Eugene Ruckman was a stellar human being and an equal opportunity prankster. He loved the song, “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkeys,” and he loved to monkey around. There would be no way to celebrate his life without a little of the same at his memorial service.

Steve was one of those people who was always available when you needed him. He was also a man who could fix anything. Not a bad combination! He was the property manager for our church and one of our ruling elders. The former he came to willingly. The latter, I had to drag him kicking and screaming. Well . . . quietly kicking and screaming. Steve never made a scene. He did not want to be seen.

He resisted being an elder first because he was so dedicated to his family. He was the quintessential parent for his daughter, Katie, and son, Eric. They were in high school band and so Steve and his wife Ruth were band parents. They chaperoned, they chauffeured, they fed, they financed—everything a band needed, they were. Eric was a scout, too. Like his dad, he attained to Eagle Scout. So, of course, Steve was a quintessential Scout dad. He camped, he pledged, he built, he organized, he taught, he scouted—everything a scout troop needed, Steve was.

He did not see himself as a leader. He did not like to be “up front.” He was quiet and preferred to do things rather than talk about doing things. But he was a leader. People followed him. Peopled trusted him. When he did speak, people paid close attention. After his kids were out of band and Scouts, I cornered him. He succumbed to my pleading and carrying on. He became an elder. And he led. Quiet but strong leadership was his hallmark through a critical time in the life of our congregation.

But through all of it, Steve had fun and made life fun for others. He was in the office almost every day. He lit up the office with his pranks and teasing. When he first became ill from his chemo treatments, it was like the sunshine had been taken from the interior space of the church. We missed him. Steve and his family were in worship fifty Sundays out of the year, and on those Sundays Steve was the first person to greet people. As one frequent visitor described him, he was “the face of First Presbyterian Church of Downey.” And a warm and welcome face he was!

In 2006 I needed to move my office. Steve offered to put together a moving crew while I was on vacation. The new office was bigger, and so I had told him I would like to have a small table and chairs for working space if possible. Steve accommodated my request as only Steve could.

When I returned, there it was. Carefully placed in the middle of my office was a red and yellow Tyco picnic table, benches and all! And for added effect, in the middle of the table sat a large box of crayons and a tent sign that read “Pastor Candie,” each letter written with a different color crayon. Steve loved to monkey around.

Last year during my sabbatical I was in Southeast Asia. Steve could not resist teasing me even from around the world. He sent me an email with a picture of my office door attached. A bright pink piece of paper covered my name plate, and on that paper was the name “Steve Ruckman.” The subtitle declared that he was in charge.

About nine months ago Steve was diagnosed with endocarcinoma. It was already fairly advanced, and the chemo and radiation treatments quickly zapped him of his energy and ability to get around and fix and lead and monkey around. On Tuesday, March 15, at 4:22 p.m., after a day with family and friends laughing and crying at his bedside, Steve entered the eternal kingdom.

So earlier today I presided over the memorial service to celebrate Steve’s life. We can do that because Steve knew Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, and lived it plainly and simply. Steve is not dead. Steve is alive because that is what Christ promises in John 11. Because Jesus died and lives again, even though a person dies, he or she will live. This was my meditation text for his memorial service. That is what Easter is all about. We will also celebrate because Steve would have it no other way. He would want us laughing and joking. He would want us monkeying around. It’s likely that is what he is doing right now. He is enjoying being in the presence of God, and I am quite certain he is monkeying around with angels.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Learning from a Harley

One of the stories my father told me about his war experiences happened after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor but before they began their full assault on the Philippine Islands. After the order came to retreat to the Bataan Peninsula, he and another soldier he only remembered as Jackson were told by their commanding officer to go to a town called Olongapo about two hours away to see if there was anything there useful for their impending defense of Bataan. There they found a brand new Harley Davidson parked with no one anywhere around. After checking it over a man did come out of a building and asked my father if he knew how to ride "that thing." My father responded, "No, but I'm gonna learn." And so he did.

Dad left Jackson and took the Harley for a spin. He figured out the throttle, gears and brakes. He got a little overconfident, though, and was speeding around a corner when he suddenly came upon a sandbag embankment. He had learned how to ride, but not well enough to stop quickly. He overplayed the brakes and went flying over the embankment. God's grace abounds. He got up and was not seriously injured. His determination also abounded. He got back on the Harley and continued to survey the town to see what else might be worth taking. Nothing. He circled back to where he had left Jackson standing. Now they realized they had a problem in taking the Harley back. The small bridge into Olongapo had already been blown. There was enough left of it to walk across but not enough to drive a motorcycle across. The determination ran deep in my father. He and Jackson found some lumber and began to build a ramp. They had seen this done in the movies many times over much wider flows of water. Certainly they could do this over this small 20-30 foot flow. Somehow, amazing as it may sound, they succeeded in building a small ramp. My dad described the rest of the story with frustration still apparent in his voice. He said that he "took a run" at the ramp three times and every time "chickened out" just before hitting it. Perhaps it was the bruising from flipping over the embankment, or perhaps it was the fatigue of a long day without food. All the determination in the world could not get that Harley across the river. Jackson and my father decided they did not want to leave this beautiful machine for the Japanese to use. So they pulled the plugs and ran it into the river.

My father learned from that Harley much more than just how to ride it. He learned both the possibilities and limits of his determination. This lesson would be repeated over and over again during the next four years, particularly during his three and a half years as a prisoner of war. There were "Harleys" everywhere he turned--things that he was able to use to survive and some that he had to learn to let go of in order to survive. His determination was important in both cases. To survive required determination to overcome obstacles but it
also required determination not to allow seemingly insurmountable obstacles to have the last say. My father learned a lot from that Harley. And so have I.

I am my father's daughter. I have found Harley's in my life, too. Some I have been able to acquire and use. These experiences have built my confidence. Others I have had to turn away from. Determination can easily become stubbornness. These experiences have taught me humility and have served to teach me to trust God who always finds another way to move me forward.

This story is taken from the book, Forged By War: A daughter shaped by a WWII POW story. Available this spring.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Don't Martha, Martha, Me!

In Luke 10 Martha is understandably upset. Hospitality is the main thing on her mind and to do it right she could use some help. She would probably like to sit at Jesus’ feet, too, but someone has to get the meal on. When she appeals to Jesus she is irritated enough to forget just who she is talking to and is pretty demanding in her tone and choice of words. Basically she is telling, not asking Jesus what to do. Get my sister to help me!

Jesus is so amazing. He responds so tenderly. The double use of the name is clearly a result of his deep love for her. Think about it. The other two places recorded in the New Testament where this is done by Jesus is when he is weeping over Jerusalem ( Luke 13) and when he reassures Peter that though he will deny him, he will be restored and help others as a result (Luke 22). Tenderly, Jesus speaks the truth to Martha. He does not address what she is doing primarily but her attitude in what she is doing. She is worried and distracted—literally “being pulled away” by many things. The tasks she is doing—providing food—is necessary and good. But she has lost sight of the person she provides for—Jesus. Jesus then teaches her. He tenderly calls her, he speaks truth to her, and then he explains what is most important. Working for Jesus is good. Being with Jesus is better. Martha did not choose a bad thing and Mary a good thing. Martha chose what was good, but Mary chose what was better. When tempted by hunger Jesus said we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God (Matt.4). Martha was preparing food for God; Mary was receiving food from God. Tenderly Jesus calls to Martha, identifies the condition of her heart, and invites her to be with him. This is not rebuke. This is courtship.

My new son-in-law Kyle recently spoke this truth into my life. His parents were coming to town and he wanted us to get together for a meal. I suggested we have dinner at our home rather than a restaurant. He agreed on one condition--that I would sit and visit and not be up and serving the whole time. He has my number. I love to provide hospitality for others. But what Kyle wanted was for me to get to know his parents and for them to have a chance to get to know me. My usually m.o. in hospitality would not have accomplished this.

My calendar is beyond full. I am so busy for Jesus. I love serving the Lord. But am I spending time listening to and learning from him? Don’t Martha, Martha me, is my immediate response. I am not just cooking up a meal, I am leading a congregation! Jesus responds tenderly, Candie, Candie, you are worried and distracted by so many ministry tasks. Only one is really needed—more important than all others. Be with me. Put down all your to do lists and ministry plans and sit with me. While preaching this text yesterday Jesus spoke truth tenderly into my life. He “Martha Martha’d” me! I am going to try and listen.