Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day 2008

There are two times of the year I catch grief from certain members of my congregation. One is Memorial weekend; the other is Fourth of July. The patriotic members of my congregation believe I should do something “patriotic” on those related Sundays, as though a first requirement of being Christian is being a patriotic American.

The second criterion for these folks is speaking English. Oy!

I take my church work seriously… a fact which some of you may find hard to believe. Over the past twenty years, I have carefully avoided watering down the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ with American patriotism. In fact, I usually avoid talking politics altogether.

Yes, I am an American citizen, and proudly so. I have visited Pearl Harbor; I have toured the monuments on the mall at Washington, D.C. I have the utmost respect for those who willingly laid their lives on the line for our freedom. And despite my passionate dislike for the sitting president, and despite a few dark moments in our history, I wouldn’t trade this country for any other.

But my first – and only – allegiance is to God.

I have been a conscientious objector to war since high school, registering with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objection and The United Methodist Church's General Board of Church and Society. In 1981 I won a national high school journalism award for an article I wrote about conscientious objection.

I remember that during his campaign for president, Ronald Reagan promised he would not re-instate the draft, but almost immediately wrote an order for draft registration, the first step toward involuntary conscription. I sent him a letter expressing my disappointment, and received in return a collection of his radio speeches… “Hopefully this will answer any questions you might have concerning the issue about which you wrote.”

In college I was a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and I was occasionally sighted at anti-war and anti-nuclear rallies. At one rally I was described by the Jackson Sun newspaper reporter as a “long-haired youth wearing a pewter cross around his neck.” I was proud: they noticed that my convictions were faith-based – I was/am pro-life… especially when it comes to the death penalty, war and nuclear bombs!

Then came Tullahoma.

During the summer of 1982 I was a youth intern at Tullahoma (TN) First UMC. That summer, July 4th fell on Sunday. Tullahoma was a military town, boasting a nearby Air Force base. The children of many high-ranking officers were in my care.

I learned three months later that there was an MX–missile silo behind the tree line.

The pastor of the church was a guy trying to make his place in the world, and he orchestrated an amazing worship spectacle for that special morning. Military personnel were encouraged to come to church in uniform. The service began with a military color guard marching in a full set of flags as the church’s choir sang the “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. As they stood at attention in front of the altar, the congregation (already standing because the flag passed by) was then “invited” to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag. The guest preacher for the morning was a 4-star general, who spoke at length about all the great men of history – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc. – but never once mentioned Jesus Christ!

The only thing missing was the National Anthem.

Funny thing about that: I have been in two different venues recently at which the National Anthem was performed – after which several in the crowd shouted, “Play Ball!” Makes you wonder what it’s all about!

So what is it all about? Memorial Day began long ago (1866) as a special day to decorate the graves of Union soldiers who died during the American Civil War. Obviously, most of the southern states did not observe the day. After World War I, the observance was expanded to be a commemoration for all wars. Flags are supposed to be flown at half-mast and a national “moment of remembrance” is supposed to happen at 3 p.m. Eastern time.

But in our modern world, what REALLY happens during Memorial weekend? The Indy 500… family picnics and barbecues… “unbelievable” sales at furniture stores… the state police kick off their annual “Click-It-Or-Ticket” campaign… and 30% of my congregation did not show up for worship.

On Friday the public schools closed for the summer and families immediately left town to take advantage of the long weekend.

My gut feeling is that very few care about the roots of the Memorial Day observance… except the one or two church members who think I should wave the flag and say something patriotic during the worship service.

Hoo-rah!... I mean, Amen.

At least I am not so jaded as to issue a party invitation like Nicole Ritchie and Masha Gordon mailed out last year:

From: Nicole Richie
Subject: Masha and Nicole's Memorial Day Party

My fellow Americans it’s that time of year to celebrate our country by drinking massive amounts of beer. Let's stand together as one, live the American dream, take shots, pass out, & wake up with our pants ripped open at the seams. Let's glorify this day in your sluttiest tops and your tightest pair of tsubi jeans -- even though we have no f***ing clue what Memorial Day really means!!
(There will be a scale at the front door. No girls over 100 pounds allowed in. Start starving yourself now. See you all then!!!)

Yes, that is offensive, even to me!

As I have already stated above, I do love my country. I’m just not a “Yankee Doodle Dandy”. However, so as to not be seen as unpatriotic or ungrateful, here is my Memorial Day commemoration for May 26th, 2008, borrowed from the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership web site:

“As people of faith and spiritual yearnings, we are called to pray and act for peace and justice. At times, our faiths compel us to speak truth to power. This is the moment in which we must show the greatest possible resolve in rescuing the fundamental values of respect for life and dignity from those who offer empty promises leading to a downward spiral of militarism and domination. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time has come for us.’”

4,081 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Iraq.
More than 33,000 have been wounded.
It’s time to bring our troops home!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Corporate Sponsors Wanted

I claim Kentucky as home, so although I now live in Tennessee, I still keep up with the Kentucky Derby and the Triple Crown. I haven’t been to a horse race since I was three years old (unless you count the occasional harness race at the county fair), and I don’t gamble, but I love to watch the horses run.

The Mint Juleps aren’t bad either.

At the beginning of May, “Big Brown” easily defeated the field at the Kentucky Derby, and on Saturday just as easily demolished the field at the Preakness. He is on his way to becoming the first horse since Affirmed (1978) to win the Triple Crown. And I hope he does. He’s a magnificent animal.

The only drawback is his name. The horse’s owners, IEAH Stable and Paul Pompa, openly admit the horse is named for UPS, the parcel delivery company. It was a stroke of genius for Pompa. Immediately after Big Brown [the horse] won the Kentucky Derby, the other Big Brown inked a lucrative marketing deal for exclusive rights to the horse’s name and image.

It was a no-brainer for UPS. Since the Derby, UPS has been mentioned in almost every article concerning the horse. It was a good deal for Pompa too. Although the terms of the deal are secret, Pompa says he will name his other horses after other companies with hopes of landing more deals like that.

Which made me think: Why not look for corporate sponsors for our churches? With dollars in the offering plate shrinking (I’ll address the myth of the “fixed income” at another time), why not sell out to a large corporation with deep pockets? Imagine, “FedEx United Methodist Church” in Memphis. Maybe in some of our smaller towns we could re-christen the churches “WalMart United Methodist Church”, displacing some of the little mom-and-pop country churches with a mega-church. Imagine your paraments sporting the Nike “swoosh” or your clergy robe lit up like a NASCAR driver’s jumpsuit.

Before you scoff, look around your church. How many brass plaques adorn the furniture? Who’s names are permanently engraved in the stained glass windows? How many of the buildings on your campus are named for a big giver?

At a former church where we built a new sanctuary, one of the prominent families called and offered to pay for the stained glass windows – a gift worth more than $100,000. The only string attached to the gift was that we would have to incorporate the family’s names into the glasswork.

My first thought was to devote a window to Dante’s “Inferno”.

I delicately explained that we were not going to put plaques on anything in the new church; instead, we would keep a “memorial book” indicating what was given by whom. They withdrew their offer.

So much for “Dedicated to the glory of God”.

The idea of a corporate sponsor is not so far-fetched now, is it? So I’m looking for a sponsor. If the price is right, I’m willing to talk. I’m hoping for something cool, maybe “iChurch” or Mercedes UMC. Maybe even Jimmy Buffett would come through for me.

Margaritaville UMC… “changes in latitude, changes in attitude…”

Thursday, May 15, 2008

You Decide!

Sometimes the news needs no commentary. I simply invite you to read the following story originally posted on the Ironic Catholic's blog, Tuesday, May 13:

College Reporter Confuses Catholic Women for Chemo Patients
Joliet, IL: A young college reporter thought he had his first break.

"I was all set to be the next Bob Woodward," University of Illinois student Matt Swain admitted sheepishly. "Our journalism professor warned us about writing on religion--he said you can't win. This proves he's right."

Swain, a practicing Presbyterian attending Mass at St. Agatha's Parish with his girlfriend, noticed that many women in the traditional parish were wearing scarves over their heads. The next morning, he was writing a speculative piece for his blog on the high correlation between Catholic women, chemotherapy, and chemical dumps on the parish property.

The problem was, the women were wearing chapel veils.

"We're not cancer patients, at least, not most of us," argued Sarah Gostomski. "We just want to show respect for God in worship by covering our heads."

Swain thought he had covered his bases. "See, first I thought these women must be Muslim. But then I saw the crucifix, and remembered, oh yeah, my girlfriend's Catholic. Then I thought they must be nuns, but then I noticed some of them had kids, and I heard that Vatican II loosened up some things, but not that one. So obviously the next choice was that the parish was just above a chemical sinkhole causing cancer in women at an alarming rate. Any educated person would have come to the same conclusion."

When asked why he didn't inquire with his girlfriend about the head coverings, he shrunk back in horror. "Dude, I don't ask my girl about fashion. I mean, she was wearing a hat, I guess it was cute, but I didn't know what to say after that. Best just to nod and smile whenever that comes up. We just don't go there."

Fr. Anthony Bain, the pastor, was taking the unexpected parish publicity in stride: "I think the only chemical spill has been some burnt coffee. And we fixed the burner. So...come visit."

Monday, May 12, 2008

A Dark Day in Memphis

Something happened in Memphis over the weekend that shook my world.

I have been sick for the last week, so my last trip to Backyard Burger was on Tuesday, when I took our youth director to lunch. Everything seemed so normal that day. Little did I know what was lurking in the “backyard”.

When I arrived for lunch today, I discovered a new menu board. No big deal, I rationalized. They do that every now and then, usually to disguise a price change. But as I studied the new board, I realized it really was different. And when I placed my order, the painful reality hit home. No longer could I get “buffalo sauce” for my chicken tenders, which also means they no longer serve the “buffalo chicken salad”. And the choice of “seasoned or waffle fries” has been replaced by some pale and greasy (and awful-tasting) semblance of “food stuff”.

I lost my appetite.

Those who know me know of my love for BYB. For the past ten years I have eaten at a BYB restaurant 2-3 times a week. It started as a “relational evangelism” ploy (which worked, by the way). I became a regular – all the employees and owners knew me, and church members knew where they could find me at lunchtime. In the afternoons, after making hospital rounds, I regularly stopped by to pick up a large ice tea to take back to the office; I would pull up and announce into the drive-through speaker, “Hi, it’s me”, and they would have the drink ready when I got to the window, served up with a smile. When the Annual Conference came to Paducah, because I was such a regular customer the local BYB owner provided 1,000 coupons for delegates to get a free burger.

So we have a history together.

I knew changes would be inevitable last fall when I heard that Backyard Burger was being bought out by “BBAC, LLC”, a corporation that doesn’t even have the courtesy to give itself a real name… just “BBAC”. I saw it happen when Carl’s Jr. bought the Hardee’s chain, although then I was hopeful that the Carl’s Jr. menu would prevail. Unfortunately, they just made Hardee’s a laughing stock in the fast food world. Have you seen their commercials? And what’s up with that Monster Thickburger? – 2/3 lbs. of beef plus bacon and cheese, coming in at a whopping 1,420 calories and 2,770 mg sodium.

Better get the large Diet Coke to go with that!

I was feeling low – perhaps just a residual from the cough medicine I lived on all weekend. What made it worse is that I have always been an advocate for change. The mantra at our house is, “It’s just paint. If you don’t like it, paint over it!” Yet, now the change is impacting something I really enjoy.

As I tried to decide if I could ever eat at Backyard Burger again, I noticed some new items added to the menu. BYB now offer loaded potato skins and cole slaw as optional sides, and there are two or three new salads. And they’ve brought back the loaded potato soup – a favorite of mine they discontinued several years ago.

(NOTE TO BBAC/BYB: I am putting you on notice… if you mess with the ice tea, I will leave.)

So I have decided to give BBAC/BYB another chance. I’ll try their new offerings – maybe I’ll grow to like them. I hope so.

Besides, I would really miss Jason calling out from across the room: “Hey, welcome to Backyard Burger… all y’all!”

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A Perfect Evening

Last night we went to a recital.

It wasn’t really my first choice of things to do. When Sarah’s mother told me about it, I gave her a non-committal “I’ll see if I can make that”. The recital was to be a combination of piano and dance, and I really couldn’t see how I could give up an evening when I had so much else to do.

But every now and then my super-ego speaks louder than my id.

We entered the auditorium, which was humming with the joyful noise of children getting ready to perform. Proud parents had already taken up position, armed with cameras and video cameras.

We found Sarah’s parents, who were genuinely surprised to see us. But also happy to see us. It has been a long road for them.

When Sarah was born, her parents cried. They knew right away that she would not be like other children.

Throughout the months that followed, Sarah’s grandfather, a college professor, would come over every night and rock her, giving her parents a much-needed physical and emotional break.

I had the privilege of conducting his funeral a year ago.

And over the past 11 years, a close-knit family, a good school especially designed for children like Sarah, and a caring church community have continued to love and nurture Sarah. She sings in the church’s children’s choir and at the end of last year became an acolyte. On Monday Sarah sang for me one of the children’s choir’s songs: “I Feel the Spirit Movin’ In Me”. She knew it all, complete with hand movements.

A few weeks ago, Sarah misunderstood something our liturgist said during the announcements and thought I was moving away. She broke into tears. Following the service we got everything straightened out, and she is happy again.

So, you see, there really was no choice – I had to go to Sarah’s recital.

The children at Madonna Learning Center were like no others. They were genuinely happy. They were well-behaved. They clapped enthusiastically and encouraged one another as each took a turn at the piano. Sarah, her hair pulled back into a long blonde ponytail, sat quietly in her Neapolitan dress, legs politely crossed at the ankles, waiting for her turn. Her one-handed rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” was simply beautiful, and during the dance portion, she danced with joy.

The recital was nowhere near “perfect”. Yet, in the minds of the children, and in the eyes of the proud parents like Sarah’s, it was nothing short of “Swan Lake”.

Two hours later, as refreshments were being served – cake, cookies and chicken nuggets – I could not remember what I had thought might have been more important than Sarah’s recital.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Memphis in May

I recently read Rudy Rasmus’ book, “Touch: the power of touch in transforming lives”. It was an inspirational read recounting Rudy’s ministry to all people at St. John’s Church in Houston, TX. In an historic church building downtown, where the homeless once slept on the church steps, Rudy took on the challenge of building a church that reaches out to both the wealthy and the poor. And without the benefit of seminary training or church credentials, he has succeeded in creating an inner-city mega-church. The famous singer Beyonce’ is a member… so is a panhandler named Steve.

Reading the book left a phrase stuck in my head: “…the least of these.”

It reminded me of our former bishop Kenneth Carder. While I was enjoying the good life as the associate pastor at a large, wealthy, suburban church, Bishop Carder was reminding us of our calling to be in ministry with “the least, the last, and the lost”.

That, in turn, reminded me of something Jesus said: “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

Coincidence? I think not.

On Saturday night we went to the Memphis in May Music Festival. Carlos Santana was closing the night. On my list of the 100 things to do before I die, seeing a Santana concert is one.

Actually, I don’t have such a list, but if I did, Santana would be on it!

The music was fantastic. Carlos Santana is one of the greatest guitar players ever, and at the age of 60 is still the epitome of cool.

I enjoy festivals like MIM because I am a people-watcher. And during the six hours that we sat out in the mud – we also heard Buddy Guy and Lou Reed – I watched the people, most of whom were pretty loaded. The ever-present beer carts limited drinkers to “two purchases per person”, and many apparently understood that as a “two drink minimum”. I’ll be the first to admit I am getting older and young people are looking younger, but I am pretty sure that some of the drinkers were underage.

And then I heard it: “…the least of these.”

Where the hell did that come from?

Some were loaded even before entering Tom Lee Park. As we walked from our car to the main gate, we passed a young man urinating against a building… as the building’s owner watched helplessly with disgust.

But there was that voice again: “…the least of these.”

Then there were the young women wearing impossibly short skirts and skimpy halter tops, out to show off their tattoos, piercings and… assets. But as the sun went down over the Mississippi River, the temperature dove rapidly toward 50 degrees and a cold wind picked up. And I thought, ‘Foolish girls, more concerned with looking good than keeping warm. Why didn’t they check the weather forecast before heading out to the riverfront?’

“…the least of these.”

And who were these young women showing off for? …the over-privileged young men who accompanied them – abusing them, insulting them – who kept the beer flowing.

“…the least of these.”

I also noticed that apparently everyone in Memphis has taken up smoking now that it has been banned from restaurants. At least, everyone at the concerts, it seemed.

Some were even smoking tobacco.

“…the least of these.”

And then there was the idiot at the front of the crowd with the $5 light saber (sold by event vendors), who insisted on waving it in the air throughout the Santana concert. He came to see the great Carlos Santana, but still couldn’t resist making it all about himself.

“…the least of these.”

Sometimes it’s hard being a Christian. It means you have to love even those people you don’t like.

“…the least of these.”

Friday, May 2, 2008