Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Nine Gnarly Years

Don gave me the cactus the first year I came to Downey. It was a
gnarly looking cactus in a big clay pot. The thorns were long and
black and, unlike many cacti, could be easily seen and avoided. I
called it my Don Juan cactus.

Don was a very handsome and gregarious eighty-one-year-old man and as
charming as they come. He was very active in the community and the
church, and had a reputation for two things: the gift of gab and
public prayers. He loved both and often they would mix.  His public
prayers frequently became long and flowery gab sessions with God. He
loved plants, too.  He had a back yard full of plants. Plants of every
size and shape and type spilled over into every space. Don loved
giving away clippings or complete plants. He gave me a cute little
potted cactus for my office to welcome me to First Presbyterian Church
of Downey.  He also gave me a clipping of a long and winding cactus. I
had no idea what I was going to do with it, and it really was not much
to look at. But I had a new back yard and was eager to begin filling
it with native flaura. Don showed me the big gnarly old cactus in the
big clay pot and told me he wanted me to have it. What was I going to
do with this? There was no way I could get it in my car. Don said that
was not a problem. He would deliver it later.  Understanding the
importance of accepting generosity in developing new relationships, I
agreed.  A few days later the big gnarly potted cactus arrived.

For nine years I watered the cactus on and off--not very consistently.
It did not seem to matter.  It actually looked quite nice in our back
yard and was a consistent conversation piece with new visitors. A few
years ago I found a very large spider hiding in its gnarly and thorny
branches.  When the spider ventured out one sunny afternoon far enough for me
to get a look at it, I discovered it was a black widow. In a
cold-blooded attempt to kill the spider, I sprayed the heck out of old
Don Juan with insecticide, determined to drown the spider if the
chemical did not kill it. Surprisingly Don Juan wasn’t phased in the
least by the chemical warfare. But old Don did not seem to be growing
either. If it was, it was imperceptible to daily observation. I never
measured the height either so I am really not sure if it has grown at
all. And seemingly, no new branches (is that what you call cactus

At about seven years I realized the large and prominent thorns were
probably a danger to small children and since I had grandchildren on
the way we moved old Don Juan from along the main walkway to our
covered patio  into the back corner of the patio. Out of the way, it
posed less threat of harming anyone and it wasn’t doing much anyway.

Then it happened. In July of this year when I was watering plants, I
saw it. At the very top of the old gnarly cactus was a small bud about
the size of a large walnut.  After nine years the old gnarly cactus
was blooming! Just a couple days later a beautiful white and pink and yellow
flower opened atop old Don Juan. I was stunned. It was stunning. After
all these years with little sign of growth, this old cactus put out a
gorgeous flower.  The flower only lasted a day. Nine years of gnarly
waiting and then twenty-four hours of stunning beauty. I must say it
was worth waiting for.

And I must say that it caused me to think.  I thought about Don, who
gave me the cactus. He had died just three years after I arrived.
Every time I saw the old gnarly cactus I thought about Don. I thought
about how pleased he would be to know that I and the cactus had
persevered and now the cactus had bloomed.
It made me think a lot about people. So often I work with people and I
see so little visible sign of growth. Often, they also have thorny
exteriors that can cause others to avoid them or result in them being
put somewhere  more out of sight. Sometimes their lives hide things
that, when they come out--like the black widow spider--can cause an
overreaction in those around them who are trying to help.Thankfully,
these people often survive these ill-conceived remedies. And, like gnarly
old Don Juan, all of a sudden a bud appears. All of a sudden what
seemed to be a person who couldn't produce anything worth looking at,
presents a flower. A beautiful flower from a gnarly old cactus.

The analogy falls apart here because in my experience when this kind
of blooming happens with people, it usually lasts more than
twenty-four hours.  Although the flowering of a person might take a
long time, once it begins, it almost always continues, and the
blooming becomes more visible and more frequent.  I am so glad I
accepted the gnarly gift from Don. And I am so glad that I did not
kill it with chemicals. And I am so glad that, though I moved it to
the back of the patio, I continued to water it on occasion and that I
was there when it flowered.

The Lord has blessed me with many such encounters with flowering
people. I pray that the Lord will continue to give me the patience and
allow me to be in such places to see the flowering of his beloved gnarly

Monday, July 30, 2012

Smart Phone Balance

We were on a sunset cruise in the harbor in Newport Beach, California. I got the tickets online at a 50% discount--$25 per person with unlimited beverages. It was our 37th wedding anniversary and I wanted to surprise my husband. It was a very cool evening but this meant the sky was clear and we would have a wide open view of the sunset when it arrived. It began at 7:30 p.m. and sunset was not until 8:30 p.m. so we had time to see some of the incredible harbor homes and boats docked alongside them. I had to work hard not to be taking pictures the whole time. I took a picture of an enormous speed boat to send to a friend that likes them. I took another picture of a home built on a rock wall in the harbor to send to a friend who loves architecture. Then I thought to myself, I don’t want to give so much attention to taking pictures to show others that I fail to really enjoy the view in the moment.

So I put my camera phone away and determined to just take in the view and experience the cruise in real time. With my nose out of my own cell phone I immediately noticed how many other people were on theirs. Lots of people were sitting or standing next to each other. But the vast majority were doing something on their cell phones and not paying any attention to the cruise or to the person they were with. Oh well, it was still light out and maybe they were waiting for the grand finale—the sunset.  The sunset was cool. The lack of any clouds prevented any serious color other than that of the sun itself. But over the water it is always spectacular to see the sun set—that enormous bright orange disc gradually shrinking into the waves and disappearing as a brilliant pinpoint of light on the horizon.  An added bonus on our way back into the harbor after sunset was all the harbor lights. Most of the homes and harbor businesses, including a Ferris wheel, were strung with white lights. It was enchanting.

It was then that I noticed the glowing face. Now way past sunset the boat was dark. Sitting diagonally from us on one of the boat benches with her back to the water and view was a woman with her face glued to her cell phone. The light of the smart phone screen created an eerie glow that lit up her face. It reminded me of the old movie Tron. I expected at any minute for her to disappear by being electronically sucked into her phone.  Here she was paying good money to see a sunset harbor cruise and she was totally captivated in her cell phone world.  Just over her shoulder behind her and all around was a panorama of lights and colors reflected from the sky and water. She was really missing out.

I wonder how much of the beauty of the world and people around us we are missing out on. Don’t get me wrong. I really like my IPhone.  It is my calendar, my GPS, my news source, and my main means of communication professionally. I have the amazing ability to connect with friends and family far away with pictures as well as words.  There is a needed balance, however. I see people sitting in restaurants all the time connecting by texting or emailing with people, who knows where, and sitting right across from them is a person from whom they seem very disconnected. I see people so glued to their cell phones checking sports statistics and surfing for good deals on all sorts of products and services all the while completely missing out on conversation and discovery of relationships physically in front of them.  It was when I took my phone out to snap a picture of this woman glued to her phone that I realized that I got sucked in. Determined as I was to leave my phone in my pocket I took it out and snapped a picture of the irony. And as I did I was part of it. I could not resist. This was bloggable. This has a lesson for me and others so enchanted by and so dependent on our smart phones.

The lesson is one of balance. I will continue to use my smart phone to connect with all sorts of people at all sorts of times. But this glaring example of missing out on a sunset cruise has deepened my commitment to paying attention first to the people and world around me, then, as time and occasion allows or requires, to use the amazing technology available through my IPhone.  I have recommitted to not missing out.
Here are four guidelines and one idea I try to live by with my smart phone:

     1. When I am with someone else for a limited period of time, i.e. lunch with a friend/colleague or
          overnight with a relative or friend, I turn off the sound on my phone.
     2.  When I am with someone else for a limited period of time, unless I am expecting an emergency or
          time critical call, I do not answer the phone (or check texts or emails!). This is especially important if I
          am with someone who I do not see on a regular basis and someone calls who I do see more regularly.
     3.  If I am expecting a time critical email or text or phone call, I apologize and tell the person ahead of
          time that I am waiting for an emergency or time sensitive communication  that I will need to attend to
          briefly (i.e. when someone in my congregation is dying, I will accept a call or check a text or email
          from one of the family members).
     4.  I try to inform friends and family who I communicate with regularly about these guidelines so they will
          understand when I do not answer a communication immediately.
     5.  One last idea: I try to go without my smart phone once a week even if only for a couple of hours just
           to mediate my dependency! I dare you to try it!

How do you ensure that you are not missing out? Do you have any helpful hints for others on how you maintain balance? I still need help so would love to hear what you do! Please leave your comments.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

My Love Hate Relationship with Technology

I love that I can talk to my one year old granddaughter on facetime and receive pictures and videos as often as my son and daughter in law are willing to humor me. They live two hours away so otherwise it is usually a couple of weeks between times I get to see her.  But I hate that I can be with a person who I really adore and they are more often on their cell phone—texting, checking email, googling something, or answering the phone—more than they are interacting with me.  And it is not just my friends and family. I see this all the time when I am out and about. People all over the place together, but not really because each are on their cell phones doing other things. If it is like this now with those of us who this technology is new to, what will it be like for my granddaughter?

She already is more interested in her IPhone (an old cast off first generation one not fully functioning anymore) than any other toy she has. At one year old she knows how to turn it on and how to unlock it and slide the screen to change pictures or applications. The first time I saw her begin to demonstrate these skills she was only about ten months old! She is especially captivated by pictures and movies of herself. Now at her first birthday party she sits pleasantly enjoying her new little beach chair on her iphone. What will communicating be like for these children raised on this technology? I am not an all doom and gloom kind of gal. So I do not see this as the end of authentic human relationships or the complete demise of genuine social networking. But I do wonder how the dominance of it--music, movies, texts, email, googling-- will impact the way people relate.

Because of the ready availability of the camera on the smart phone a person can take pictures and videos anytime, and decent ones. Yet, this immediate availability of recording significant life events and moments means that we are in some sense once removed from the event  and moment itself. Recording it and watching it later is never quite the same as actually being there and experiencing it.  I frequently have to tell myself to put down the camera and just enjoy. It is hard. Because there are so many new ways to share these moments with others who cannot be there. And because I am a writer and a communicator I know that there will be numerous occasions to use these captured moments for wider communication, and in my case, ministry. Case in point—this picture of my granddaughter on her first birthday in her new little chair looking at her IPhone!

Here’s what I think we will need to do to help mitigate the potential negative consequences of this preoccupation with technical communication.

First, set boundaries for our children. Like has been done with the use of computers and video games, time limits should be set for children using these devices.

Second, create real life interactive opportunities for your children. It is not very compelling to lure them away from an interactive multi-media screen to read a book. But if you build a relationship with your child or grandchild by reading books together using props and animated voices (it does not require an acting degree to do this, just love and risk) they just may choose reading a book with you over their video screen.

Third, ahead of time prepare activities that are interactive and tactile—plant a flower together,   finger paint and then go to the store to pick out a mat and frame and find a place on the wall to hang it.

Fourth, take a walk, for goodness sake, and a simple scavenger hunt can make it quite inviting for a child!

Finally, as was the case with computer and video game technology, do not leave your children to interact with technology alone. Play games with them. Look at pictures and movies with them. Plan together to write an email, or make a phone call to a loved one. Be a part of their social networking and technological communication.

I will continue to love and hate this technology.  I can choose to be intentional and creative about how it is a part of my life and the lives of those I have influence over.  Just got a text with a movie attached of my granddaughter chasing a cat around the courtyard by her house. She is leaving for three weeks on a trip with her parents. This IS time critical. I will catch you later.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Renovating Space

It’s really exciting thinking about updating a bathroom. Imagining clean new tile, fresh paint, a beautiful new sink (countertop vessel kind!) and fixtures, a much-needed ceiling fan—all color coordinated—really got me excited. My old bathroom had cracks in the floor tile, mold in the shower, peeling paint, and a countertop that drove me crazy—too much grout to keep clean! Warning! You may have noticed the word “thinking” in italics above. That is because the thinking about and the doing are very different.

Have you ever had a moderately old home? Anytime you imagine renovating an old home you must understand that unimaginable things lurk behind the walls and under the floors. And because homes used to be made “out of iron,” they do not come apart as easy as newly constructed homes do. No tap, tap, tap to remove the shower tiles. It takes a renovator in a hazmat suite with an industrial-strength jack hammer to remove them. The tiles on our shower were attached with an inch and a half of concrete in chicken-wire meshing! Who knew? So instead of simply having a few shower tiles to discard, we had tons of concrete to dispose of! I could go on and on. I will not. Suffice it to say that what we thought would be a week of demolition turned into six weeks! Sheesh! What was I thinking!

Having been in ministry almost twenty years I realize quickly when everyday life reveals spiritual realities. This is where life and ministry meet. Between 2006 and 2008 the congregation I now serve renovated the sanctuary. Ay caramba! Changing light fixtures and moving furniture (especially the pulpit!) surfaced passions and beliefs that threatened to tear people apart not just physical space. The renovation of the sanctuary became a metaphor and a catalyst for the renovation of hearts and minds spiritually. The pain and agony of the hard work and cost of updating our facility was matched and exceeded by the same for spiritual work that needed to be done. By God’s grace both ended up bringing glory to God and new vitality to the ministry and mission of the church. But the renovation of the hearts and minds were the primary work. God simply used the physical renovation as a vehicle for his greater purpose to renew us spiritually.

As I sit in my office today I am facing some very serious spiritual work that needs to be done in the hearts of God’s people, mine included. And we are facing major facility costs--old elevator and old air conditioning! Interesting that at this very same time the elders of the congregation have committed to a new period of discerning the shape of our future ministry and mission—more renovation of our life together—organizational and spiritual. I am tempted to fear and thus try to avoid the pain and agony and the cost that confronting spiritual work will require. But today I will choose to trust the love and power of God for his people and that he is totally capable of a repeat performance in both the renovation of our mission and of our hearts so that the end result will be his glory and fresh vitality for our ministry and mission. Between 2006 and 2008 we hung a sign outside that read, “Caution: Master Carpenter at Work.” Guess we need to hang it again.

In your life or ministry what everyday circumstances have been used by God to do spiritual renovation?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Doors to Nowhere

They are doors to nowhere and they are everywhere. During a recent visit to northern Minnesota I saw them. I grew up in this part of the country and vaguely remember seeing them, but on this recent visit their prevalence caught my attention. They are doors, sometimes front doors, that are installed several feet off the ground. But no stoop (or steps) were ever built to make them functional. They are doors to nowhere.

Clearly, some were planned as an entrance when the house was built sixty or more years ago. Either the builder or homeowner never got around to building the stoop, or, over time they realized they did not want to use the door. Perhaps a side or back door proved more practical. However, I wonder why the door was not then removed. But some appear to be newer construction, giving the appearance that these elevated, unusable doors are actually desirable! Either way, it’s odd to see a door with no way of using it, and this is also potentially dangerous when you think about it.

These doors to nowhere got me thinking. In life we often do this same thing. We go to great lengths expending a lot of time and energy and even dollars to build "doors” to things we think will  “lead somewhere” but they don’t. We hear a pitch on how to get rich on TV or at a seminar and we open our pocket books and adjust our time to go through this ”door.” It rarely leads to the promised outcome. We meet someone and are taken in by their charisma or glitz and immediately begin creating ”doors” to the relationship, often closing other doors in the process. These may be potential friends or lovers, but the impulsive nature of such social decisions can end up leaving us with, at best, superficial and short-lived relationships, and, at worse, dangerous entanglements. In either case important personal resources have been wasted, and often other relationships are diminished or even destroyed. 

When we are tempted to get drawn into constructing these ”doors to nowhere,” there are FOUR  STEPS to take in order to avoid the wasteful and dangerous consequences.

ONE, do not act quickly either in laying out money or time. If a person or concept promises life-changing results for your life, go home and sleep on it ... for at least a week. Often, what seems so convincing and compelling up-close-and-personal fades substantially when given some distance.

TWO,pray and ask trusted friends to pray also. Ask the Lord for wisdom and guidance. Praying yourself at least potentially submits your thinking to the Spirit of God. Asking others to pray holds you accountable to perspectives you desperately need when taken up in the excitement of a new concept or relationship. I wonder how much heartache and brokenness--relational and financial--could be averted if we did this?

THREE, look down the road ten-to-fifteen years and play out ALL the possible scenarios. Be honest and balance what you are hoping to gain with what you know you could or will lose. Be realistic in the face of forceful idealism, especially when it is emotionally rooted.

FOUR, and finally, recommit yourself to make even better use of the “doors” already functioning well in your life. Whether it is a relationship or a job or something else, recommitting your time and energies to it can give new life and greater significance to your doors that are leading somewhere for sure!

There are plenty of times when life slams us with closed doors or tragic circumstances prevent us from completing the entrance to doors we have installed. We cannot avoid these. But by taking these simple steps we can eliminate many doors that lead to nowhere. The great news is that the great God of mercy and grace is able to take our doors to nowhere and transform them.  But that is another blog. Stay tuned!

Can you identify a time when you almost built a door to nowhere but realized it and avoided the consequences? How were you able to do that?

Monday, May 7, 2012

Cedric and Jesus

It was a long flight and a long day. We all have them. I had a 7:30 am meeting and then worked until noon. I finished my last-minute packing and headed to the airport at noon for my flight from LA to Atlanta with a stopover in Vegas.

I worked on the plane, so the time actually went by pretty fast. But I did not arrive in Atlanta until a almost midnight and then I had too pick up a rental car and head about 45 minutes north to my hotel. I am a penny pincher, so I reserved a car through Hotwire--much cheaper. I was on a week of business and then a week of vacation so I was bagged to the max. Thank goodness for Southwest's check-two-bags-free policy. But now I had to schlepp all these bags...a lot farther than I anticipated. When I finally made it to the rental car garage it was almost 1 a.m. I showed a young man my rental document with ”HOTWIRE” clearly displayed across the top. He pointed and said, ”There are only two cars left. The keys are in them you can take either one.”

I schlepped my bags a little farther and threw them into the car. I climbed in and and quickly surveyed the car to see where all the controls were situated. After what seemed a very long time at this hour I pulled out and headed for the exit with rental doc and ID in hand.

I greeted the gentleman at the gate and handed him my stuff. He took one look and said, ”I’m sorry but this is a Hotwire rental. I cannot help you. You need to go back to the rental counter." Now, remember, I had schlepped all these bags a very long way and had passed the rental counter hours ago (at least it seemed that way). I was a about ready to light into this guy when I remembered a recent sermon I preached (I hate it when this happens) and I saw the name tag--his name was Cedric. He was a person not a company. I decided to practice what I preach and treat this man as a valued person made in the image of a God and not as the company that was about to try and send me on a wild goose chase because I had rented on the cheap.

I said, ”Cedric, your my man. I have been traveling all day and I still have a long way to go. The other employee saw my reservations and directed me here, so I am not going back to the rental counter.” He said he could not process this rental at the booth, so he would have to call a supervisor. I thanked him and said, ”Cedric, we can do this. I am just asking you to try. I know you can help me. There’s got to be a way. Cedric,I am going to do what I can do. I am going to pray to the Lord Jesus to find favor for me, and you make that phone call.”

The supervisor put Cedric on hold.  After just a few minutes Cedric hung up and asked me to give him my credit card and ID. He was going to try to process it. I prayed some more. I don’t like driving in the dark any time, but especially not in a totally unknown city in the wee hours of the morning. I am not one to pray for things like parking spaces and green lights, but this felt potentially life threatening. I prayed.

All a of a sudden Cedric shouted, ”It went through!” I, though not charismatic, shouted ”Hallelujah!” Cedric laughed. I prayed again, giving thanks. I thanked him again (Cedric,that is) and said ”Cedric, don’t ever underestimate what you and Jesus can do!”

As I drove away I reflected on how close I had come to losing my cool and an opportunity to bear witness to the simple goodness of God--even in Atlanta at a car rental garage in the middle of the night. And the Spirit of God gently nudged ME that night a little closer to the sweet spot where life and ministry meet.
What helps you to treat people with respect and kindness when you are in stressful situations? What do you do when others disrespect or treat you poorly?

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Fridays With Laurel

Fridays are my day off.  At least, as long as there is not a wedding or a funeral or an emergency of some kind in the life of the congregation. Until 9 months ago Friday was the day that I would do housework, or yard work, or paint, or go to the beach. Then Laurel Ana was born. Our son and his wife were married right out of college in 2002. They waited awhile but Laurel Ana, born July 7, 2011, was worth waiting for. They live two hours away in San Diego. So every other Friday I get up at 4:30 a.m., leave by 5 a.m.  and drive two hours to arrive in time for Jeff and Jackie to leave for work by 7:30 a.m. I spend the day with Laurel—about nine hours. When my son gets home from work at about 4 p.m. I get in the car and drive two or three hours (rush hour traffic) back to LA. Why do I do this? Most grandmothers understand. I waited nine years for this child. I wrote a book for her titled, I Waited For You So Long. Spending four or five hours driving is a small price to pay to spend Fridays with Laurel. What makes me do this?

I want to know her and I want her to know me. I want to have a relationship with her. There is no guarantee that she will always lives close enough for me to spend Fridays with her.  As long as I am able I will invest the time. She has just begun to reach for me when she wants me to pick her up. Oh, how I love it when she reaches for me.  I can’t imagine what it is going to feel like the first time she says my name. You will probably hear the squeal of delight all the way from San Diego when it happens.

I want to teach her and I want her to teach me. I learned so much from raising my own three children. I know that they learned a lot from me. I am older and wiser now  (sorry kids!) and have so much to tell her and show her but I also want to keep on learning. Laurel is teaching me. Watching Laurel learn reminds me of the sheer wonder of ordinary life—the simple joys. Sights and sounds, and shapes and flavors are all fresh discoveries for Laurel. I can teach her what they are called, but she is reminding me of the simple yet amazing wonders of every day life.

It is a joy hard to describe to watch your child parent a child. He does it so well. To see the devotion and love and to watch him teach her and love her is sheer joy. I get there early enough and stay just long enough on Fridays to see a little of this. It, too, is well worth the drive.

Spending Fridays with Laurel has made me reflect on my relationship with God. Having a relationship with God also requires a commitment of time. Just like I set aside Fridays for Laurel, I need to set aside a time to be with God—reading scripture, praying, and reflecting on my life. I want to know God. The bible and prayer helps me learn more about God and I also discover how well God knows me! If it is a real relationship knowing goes both ways.

Spending time with God in bible study or prayer always teaches me. I have been doing this for almost 50 years—spending time with God—and yet I continue to learn. Sometimes I learn new things, but often I am relearning old lessons or making adjustments to what I thought I already knew! And one of the greatest joys in knowing God is watching him work in the lives of others that you have had the privilege of teaching about him.

I love Laurel so much! But I know the heavenly father loves us, his children, much more than that and more than we can ever imagine. Knowing this, I can’t help but wonder if it brings deep joy to the Father when we reach for him and when we call out his name. Fridays with Laurel is sheer pleasure and will help to build a treasured relationship with her as long as I live. Any time with God is a pleasure and will build a relationship with God that will last forever.

There is no right way or perfect time. Each of us must find a way to spend time with God. Mornings and journaling are key for me in spending time with God. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. Find the time and way that works for you. Even sporadic is better than not at all. Take time regularly or whenever you can. Invest. The Heavenly Father is always waiting for you to reach for him! What is the key to your spending time with God?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Thinking About People Who Don't Think Much

There was a week at the beginning of this year when I seemed to have run into a herd of unthinking folks. It was a week when I definitely felt like I was going against the flow. It seemed like every time I got in to a conversation with anyone beyond the polite greetings and niceties, I was hearing things from their mouths I could hardly believe. The discussions were many and varied—in depth and length—but they all had one thing in common. It sounded like these folks were on automatic pilot, repeating stock phrases and opinions, and in some cases, prejudices and bigotries that have been disproved long ago. I was stunned not at encountering unthinking people, but at how many people like this there are! It made me wonder if I was living in a different universe, or perhaps, had lost touch with reality and needed to admit myself to a hospital for observation. It made me feel crazy!

Part of this is due to it being an election year. Opinions and facts that are polar opposites abound during these times. Conversations are characterized by either-or thinking, and ideology has a good slice of prime time in media. Thoughtfulness does not make for good sound bytes. However, I am still stunned at how often this kind of thinking quickly pushes into attributing motives and character (or lack thereof) to people we really do not know. But I have always been taught and continue to believe that for people of faith, people of the BOOK, conversation and dialogue ought to be different. And our view of others ought to be filled with grace, not suspicion and condemnation. According to scripture and the example of Christ himself, encounters with others first and foremost are to be characterized by humility and respect. This is not to suggest that we should pretend we don’t know things we really know, a false sort of humility. But in a God-centered universe, with a Christ-centered theology, and a spirit-centered life, we begin by acknowledging that we don’t understand everything clearly or perfectly. And, that only God knows the heart of another. For those professing to be followers of Jesus Christ, Philippians 2 makes it pretty clear. We begin with the other in mind. We begin with being open to the other, not to simply set them straight, but to hear them, listen to them, learn from them and value them. Imagine how different many of our conversations would be if all people in a conversation approached it this way.

The unthinking character of a lot of conversations is colorfully exposed by our new social media. The internet has become a quick and convenient way to share information and express opinion. Frequently, this is done without checking the facts. Thanks to Snopes a person can check an internet story or fact before posting or passing it on. The problem is few do this, and within minutes a story or fact without any merit can spread like wildfire. Then, it is repeated in conversations. Snopes reveals that not only are some of these stories not true, they are old! They have been circulated previously and somehow found their way back in circulation again. And, again, in this medium it quickly degenerates to name-calling and character assassination.

One internet sharing experience I had during this week of thoughtless encounters demonstrates just how committed we can become to these stores and opinions without truth or merit. I had received an email with a gut-wrenching story about wounded veterans complete with pictures. My father was a POW in WWII so I get hooked very easily on these babies! I posted the story without checking Snopes. Then someone suggested I check. Sure enough, there was absolutely no basis for the story and the facts accompanying it. So, with my internet tail between my legs, I posted an apology, especially for tugging at people’s heartstrings on such a very important issue without checking first. I confessed my weakness for all things military veteran and promised to be more diligent in the future. To my utter amazement, I received an email from a person who, so committed to the ideology and message of the story, questioned the veracity of Snopes! I was dumbfounded. Now, before anyone comes after me again, I realize that Snopes is not perfect either, and is capable of error. They are billed as “the definitive internet reference source for urban legends, folklore, myths, rumors, and misinformation on their own website. However, they consistently give the source of their fact-finding to encourage users to pursue the truth on their own, and they regularly advise users when there is any uncertainty or limitation in their source work. According to Wikipedia, Fact Check reviewed a sample of Snopes’ responses to political rumors regarding George W. Bush, Sarah Palin, and Barack Obama and found them to be free from bias in all cases. In other words, they are equal opportunity debunkers.

Anyway, back to unthinking people. There are those who do not want to be confused with the facts. They hold so dearly certain opinions and feel so deeply about certain issues that they seem unable to even imagine there could be another credible view. And like automatons, they perpetuate urban legends myths, and stereotypes with no intention of ever examining them. “Autopilot living” I call it. A woman walked up to my daughter at church one Sunday and said to her, “So, how do you like Califronia?” My daughter replied, “I like it a lot.” The woman continued the interview, “Even with all the Mexicans?” My daughter was dumbfounded, unable to speak, let alone respond, and totally caught off guard by this not very thinly veiled bigotry. She was in church after all and regardless of one’s view of politics or even immigration, such a stereotypic and unkind statement about an entire population seemed entirely out of place. These unthinking people go about life with the incredibly arrogant idea that they are right about everything, and consequently, everyone of any reputation certainly must agree with them. Very bad assumption. One only has to live with one other person for any length of time to know this is not the case.

So, I have been thinking about unthinking people. The one thing I know for sure is that I do not want to become one of them. From encountering them so often, I have this sense that it is easyto become one and not know it. So…this is an all out unqualified plea—don’t let me!

Do you have any thoughtless thoughts to share from your recent conversations? I would love to hear them so as to avoid sounding anything like it anytime soon.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Baptism in ICU

The call came from the chaplain of a local hospital. A female patient in her seventies in ICU, likely in her final days, wanted to be baptized. The chaplain’s faith tradition only allowed for baptism by immersion. He called me knowing that my tradition allowed sprinkling. Would I be willing to perform the baptism? Wow! A lot of questions flooded my mind.

I agreed to visit the woman and her family at the hospital that afternoon and talk to them, and from that to determine if it was something I could do. Paramount among all the questions running through my mind was the primary question for all followers of Christ, not just pastors—is this something God is calling me to do?

Somewhere in all the questions swirling in my heart and mind I remembered a story I had heard many years ago about a pastor in Paris being asked by Camus if he would baptize him. Yes, Albert Camus, the famous existentialist philosopher and atheist, in a private conversation asked Howard Mumma, a Methodist minister, if he would baptize him. The pastor and Camus had talked about faith and Christianity through the course of several summers when Mumma served as guest pastor at the American Church in Paris. Camus came to a place where he said, “I am ready, I want this.” “This” being forgiveness of sin and the promise of eternal life and the symbol of baptism to mark it. Mumma, though thrilled with Camus’ expression of faith, had a problem. Camus did not want to be baptized publicly. He wanted it to be a private affair between him and the pastor. Mumma explained this was not possible, that baptism, besides being a symbol of personal faith, was equally an act of becoming part of the company of believers—the church. Camus was not ready to embrace this. He did not want the church. He wanted salvation and baptism.

In his book, Albert Camus and the Minister, Mumma describes the agony of this dilemma he faced. But his conscience would not allow him to baptize Camus privately, and Camus insisted it be only between him and the minister. Mumma declined to do so but encouraged Camus to continue his studies and his journey of faith. Mumma returned to America and assured Camus that they would talk again when he returned to France the next year. Tragedy struck. Camus was killed in a car accident before Mumma returned.

Mumma now had to revisit his response to Camus’ request. You can read all about it in his book. But this is the story that immediately came to mind when I received the call to baptize this woman in ICU. What did I need to know and do in order to, in good conscience and in keeping with my ordination vows, be able to say yes to this woman? What was God calling me to do in these circumstances? Of course I had to get to the hospital and find out the circumstances.

I went to the hospital knowing I was entering very sacred space. Hospital rooms always are. (Actually, by God’s omnipresence all space is sacred. But we are not always aware of it or attentive to it. It is hard not to be attentive to the sacred in a hospital room where death is lurking.) The circumstances were complex and formidable. First the woman was on a respirator. She could not talk. While not in pain, she was heavily medicated. Consequently her ability to attend to conversation was very limited. But it was clear that she could hear, and she could understand and respond by nodding her head or closing her eyes. She could only express her faith and her desire to be baptized by these subtle physical cues. Her domestic partner of 26 years was by her bedside along with a sister and a brother-in-law. Her partner explained that this desire to be baptized was a longstanding one. The partner had promised she would help the dying woman find a way to be baptized. How was I to know how much of this “desire” was the dying woman’s to be baptized and how much was her partner’s desire to make good on a promise? As I have had time to think about it more, I am not sure it matters. I asked questions of the family, trying to determine how this dying woman got to the place she was. What had prevented her from being baptized all these years? They explained that the dying woman’s parents were not church goers but had had one of five children baptized. There was the residue of faith somewhere in this woman’s childhood.

I turned my attention to the dying woman. I read a few Scriptures and then talked directly to her again. Did she understand what it means that she is a sinner? She nodded her head. Did she understand that Jesus, out of his great love for her, died for her sin? She nodded her head. Did she understand that she could do nothing to earn this? She was growing tired, I could tell. I had to rouse her and ask her again. Did she understand that she could do nothing to earn this gift of forgiveness and eternal life? She looked right at me, intently, and nodded her head. It was then that I realized, lying in a bed on a respirator in her final days, she probably understood this better than most other people being baptized! And I, like Mumma, had to explain that it was not a private or even a biological family event. It is a communal event, and that in order for me to baptize her with integrity I would need to bring other members of the body of Christ, the church, with me for the baptism. Did she understand this and agree to my bringing some others with me to baptize her? She nodded her head. I also explained to her and the family that I did not have the authority to make the decision to baptize her. I would need to get this from the elders of the church. Thank goodness for email: I would be able to do it the same night.

Finally, I explained to her that baptism was not magic. It did not, by itself, guarantee anything. I explained to her it is the visible sign of an invisible reality. I could provide the visible sign—the water—but it only “worked” in the presence of the invisible reality—faith, the belief in the saving work of Christ on her behalf. And I explained that God alone knew what was in her heart, and it would be his knowledge alone that would save her and provide the forgiveness she needed. This is true for all of us no matter what our condition when we are baptized. I asked her if she understood what I had said? She nodded her head yes.

I left the hospital believing that God, through the hospital chaplain, was calling me to baptize this woman. And I was pretty sure the elders of my church would trust my recommendation and approve. For some reasons this woman’s baptism seemed more akin to the baptism of an infant—she was helpless in so many ways and another adult was speaking for her. The truth of the matter is no matter what age a person is at the time of baptism, and no matter who performs it or how much water is used, in every instance God is doing the work of offering mercy and grace. We are ALL helpless when it comes to salvation. And in every case no one but God really knows the condition of the heart of the person being baptized.

I left the hospital thinking about Camus and Mumma. I have often wondered what I would have done if I had been Camus’ pastor/confidant. I had my own Camus, now, and I was grateful for having heard his story in order to be able to enter this sacred space more aware and open to God’s calling.