Thursday, October 28, 2010

Principle Versus Reality

I will be praying for this church:

http://www.thelutheran.org/article/article.cfm?article_id=9460

As a parent, I can understand those who do not wish a tent city of homeless people near their neighborhood.  A high percentage of homeless adults have mental illness, and the question of safety is a real one.  If I had a tent city just a block away from my home, how would I respond?

Would I keep a more watchful eye on my kids?  Yep.

Would I be more concerned about folks possibly breaking into my house?  Yep.

Would I support a tent city near my home in spite of these fears?  In principle, yes.

But that's in principle.

It's another matter in reality.

I know this all too well.

It's easy to pontificate when the issue is "out there" far removed from one's own place of work or living.  Yet, it is another matter entirely when one is confronted face to face with reality.

I've had such things happen in my life. 

I can remember harboring very negative feelings toward gay folks as I started college.  As long as they were "out there" I could continue to have my attitude that something was wrong with them.

Until that day right after chapel service at Texas Lutheran.

It was the day a young lady came up to me to talk. 

She told me she was very afraid.  Because I was heavily involved in Campus Ministry and appeared to be a nice guy, she said she felt like she could trust me.  She told me she was gay and because of some things that had been said and done on campus, she feared for her physical safety.

Right then and there, my perceived principles were rocked.  I knew there was nothing wrong with this young girl.  The people with the problem were those who wished her any form of harm because she was gay.  In my estimation, there is no justification in the Christian faith for physically, mentally, or spiritually harming another person.  That is not what Jesus taught. 

Jesus taught compassion.

Jesus taught understanding.

Jesus taught the way of love and peace.

Jesus taught that all were children of God.

Such teachings became really real at that moment in time for me.  It's a lesson I haven't forgotten, nor do I wish to.

How would I react to a tent city of homeless people a block from my house? 

It's a good question.

I'll be praying for that church.

Invitation Extended

Most successful blogs offer others an opportunity to share their views with those reading.  I would like to make a standing offer to anyone who wishes to offer a guest post.

Generally all views will be welcomed.  I will not permit exchanges with explicit name calling or those I deem mean spirited.  However, if you wish to share your views with things theological, please do.  Seen something you disagree with, please offer a rebuttal.  God doing something neat in your life, please share.

Here are the rules and guidelines:

1. Be respectful.  (And all it entails.)
2. Have fun.

That's it.

You can submit a post through messaging me on my Facebook account (for those who follow on FB) or making a comment.  (I just figured out how to let all folks comment and not just those who have a google account.)  I will moderate them, and if it's a guest post, I will give it a heading of its own.

Hope for some fun discussions and to see what God's doing all over the place.

Another Interesting Sermon Forthcoming

Gotta wait until after Sunday to post it, but I've got another sermon to deliver that is giving me some fear and trepidation.  Got a few church members who are friends on Facebook and who follow this blog, so I can't post it yet even though it's done.  They might decide to skip church since they know what's coming.  ;-)

But here's a hint and  a snippet:

Just about everyone knows what is happening this Tuesday. It’s election day, and if the experts are correct, voter anger will carry the Republican party to retake the House of Representatives and make substantial gains in the Senate. It’s a stark change from two years ago, when, once again, voter anger, carried the Democrats to win the White House and a super-majority in Congress. The prior election cycle, voter anger carried Democrats to win power in both the House and Senate, which they had not held since 1994. Are you seeing a pattern here?

In each of these elections, voter anger seems to be the key, and, with the exception of Texas (at least according to the Houston Chronicle), voters are angry. All you have to do is turn on the television to see it. Lines are drawn. Ideology reigns. Even though I believe most folks are actually quite moderate when it comes to how they would like to see this country run, it is the extremes which grab the headlines. You are either liberal or conservative. There is no middle ground. You are either for us or against us.

Can such anger be good for our nation? I mean, on the one hand, anger can be a tremendous motivating force. It can propel us to do the right things. It can give us the impetus to make a difference when we see things that aren’t right. For instance, the other day, Dawna and I took our kids to a park to let them run off some energy. While we were there, I witnessed something that made me angry. There was a little boy playing at the park who obviously had some mental issues. I won’t go into all the details, but he did several things that made it abundantly obvious that he suffered from mental illness. There was another kid at the park who was being absolutely merciless to him. I watched this other kid put the mentally challenged kid in a headlock and hurt him. Then, as the two of them were swinging next to each other, the kid went up to the mentally challenged one and without cause, hit him in the back.

Anger boiled up within me. I looked at him and said, "Do you really like being a bully?"

The kid was shocked. "I do it all the time at home," he said.

I looked at him and said, "That doesn’t make it right."

At least for the rest of the time I was there, the kid made no more moves to harm the mentally challenged kid. Anger can be a force for good.

But let me be quick to say, anger can be a force for good only if it is tempered and motivated by compassion. I think that’s what my anger was motivated by. I was angry because I had compassion on the kid getting picked on, and I think I was being compassionate on the bully as well. Bullies have to learn to curb their behavior or else they are looking at a lifetime of trouble. Perhaps I made this kid think for just a few moments–at least I hope so.

Unfortunately, I think much of the anger we are seeing in our society today is not driven by compassion...

Stay tuned for more.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

In the Middle of a Dog Fight

There are blessings and curses with living in the country.  The blessings, of course, I have listed before.  The curses, not so much because I usually don't focus on them.

But every once in a while, they are shoved into your face, and you can't avoid them.

Yesterday was one of those times.

I was headed home for lunch.  A neighbor from down the street had come to see if he could use my phone.  He has three dogs: two of them un-neutered males.  Much of the time, they run freely in the area, even though his yard is fenced.   This day was no exception: the two males had joined my neighbor in his quest to use my phone.

As my neighbor approached me, another neighbor's dog (who mysteriously had gotten out of the house) came tearing toward the initial guy's pets.  This dog too was un-neutered.  Apparently, he was on bad terms with the dominant male of the first guy's pack.  A fight ensued.

I am no stranger to dog fights.  We have two spayed dominant females.  Those of you who have been in this situation before know--that ain't a good thing.  As my vet once said, "When pack order is perceived to be violated, it's a bitch fight."  And they are vicious.  I've had to break up more than one battle between my two females, and I have the scars to show it.  Fortunately, I have learned that when such battles occur, I must wait until the right moment to secure both of my dogs' choke chains.  When I can get them and twist them, I effectively end the fight because neither can breathe.  The animosity is still there, but the fight is over because they have a choice: breathe or fight.  Most dogs, even though the desire to fight is still there, do want to live.

My wife and I believe in responsibility, and we believe we have the responsibility to take care of our pets, even two which will fight.  Therefore, our house is a maze of baby gates.  No longer do our children really need them, but our pets do.  Out two female dogs spend the entire day and night separated from each other.  Not only do we want to endanger their lives, but if one of our kids were to get between those two dogs while fighting...well, I hate to even go there.

Which brings me back to the dog fight I witnessed.  I could see this thing unfolding right before my eyes.  My neighbor's boxer versus the other neighbor's lab mix.  Neither dog was wearing a choke chain, and neither one was backing down.  The lab mix actually was the top dog in this battle.  I have little doubt he would have killed that boxer.  He was bigger and stronger, but definitely not quicker.  However, I have noticed that dogs usually don't use their quickness when it comes to fighting.  They tend to rely on their strength.

As the two battled, the lab's owner got himself in the middle of it trying to break it up.  He started asking for my help.  Now, I know I'm supposed to help others.  I know as part of my faith tradition, I'm supposed to lend a helping hand.  But at that moment, I was not going to get myself in the middle of a dog fight.  #1: They weren't my dogs.  #2: I didn't want to get bit.  For those of you who know, the odds of getting bit when trying to break up a fight are extremely high unless the dogs have choke collars that you can easily grab.  #3: I have no idea what the vaccination records of these dogs are.  I don't know if they've had their shots, and the last dang thing I need is to go through a series of rabies shots.  No.  I wasn't about to get involved in that dispute.

I ended up running to the home of the guy who owned the boxer.  He came out, and they eventually separated the dogs.  The boxer was hurt pretty bad with a couple of gashes near his neck.  Nothing fatal, but definitely debilitating for a while. 

And of course, no one did anything illegal.  That's one of the curses about country life.  You can let your pets run all over God's creation with no consequences.  They can fight and bite, and there's really nothing you can do about it.  My wife and I said we wouldn't move out here until the back yard of the parsonage was fenced.  And when we used to take our dogs for a walk it was always on a leash.  Cities and towns can enforce such things--not in the country.

I'm not complaining about this; it's just the way it is.  We've adapted and will continue to take responsibility for our animals.  But, again, I refuse to get in the middle of a dog fight.

Yet, how many of us do so even in our regular lives?  How many of us interject ourselves into fights between others?  How many of us take sides or try to separate warring parties, and we are the ones who eventually get bitten?

I know Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers."  But how does one go about making peace between parties that literally hate each other and will fight to the death?  How does one go about making peace without getting one's self "bitten" or worse?

I make it my policy as a  pastor to refrain from entering into any family disputes.  There have been one or two of them that I've come across.  I make it known that I am available to talk to anyone, yet I will not try to tell anyone what to do.  I make it known that I have a care and concern to see families reunited and made whole, but I will not try to save them unless all parties agree to work together.  I tell them I will pray for them; not that someone will come to their senses (usually in a dispute both sides have some blame), but that God's Spirit of healing will work among them.

Is this chickening out?  Is this failing to follow the words of Jesus?  Maybe.  Maybe I am completely wrong, but I also know how foolish it is to get in the middle of a dog fight.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

No "Ganas"

I watched in almost disbelief last night when Tony Romo, quarterback of my beloved Dallas Cowboys, suffered a fractured collar bone.  It's the kind of injury that disheartens teams and fans.  When your leader goes down, it knocks the breath out of you.  It feels like someone punched you in the gut.

Yet, I have found in life, one has a choice in responding to such occurrences.  One can stand around, befuddled and say, "What are/am we/I ever going to do now?  How can we/I ever go on?"  Or one can meet the challenge by stepping up, in this case, one's own play--by becoming better, by becoming more focused, by reaching deep within to overcome adversity.

Sadly, last night, my 'boys seemed to choose the first option.  The offense became ultra-conservative when the back up quarterback began taking snaps.  The defense continued to look like a sieve.  Instead of stepping it up, it looked like the team panicked, became rudderless, and had no desire to even try and overcome the loss of their leader.

I'd argue, they had no "ganas." 

I grew up in a little town in deep South Texas called Odem.  The town was and is predominantly Hispanic, and it was there that I first learned about the term "ganas."  It can be loosely translated "desire" or "motivation sufficient to act", but as with many translations from the original language, such translations don't quite capture the fullness of the word.

Perhaps a little better understanding is "heart", in the sense of knowing what one is supposed to do and deeply desiring to accomplish that task.  Perhaps you have known someone who is so deeply driven to accomplish a goal, a task, nothing will stand in their way.  They will work through obstacle after obstacle after obstacle to reach the finish line.  They will not gripe, moan or complain.  They will play through the pain.  They will fight the fires of hell with a bucket if those fires are standing between them and their goal.

That's "ganas."

Sadly, the Cowboys didn't have it.  Whatever fire they might have had at the beginning of the game ended when Tony Romo headed for the locker room. 

The commentators noticed the shift in the Cowboy's offensive philosophy even commenting it had become far too conservative.  Then John Gruden, former coach of the Oakland Raiders and Tampa Bay Buccaneers said something very interesting.  I'll probably miss a few words, but this was the gist:

"I talked to Jason Garrett [offensive coordinator for the Cowboys] and I asked him what he would do if he had to play Jon Kitna [backup quarterback].  He told me he draws on his experience as a backup quarterback.  He said if he was forced to go in and execute the game plan, it was very difficult for him, so he sticks with what is comfortable for the back up.  When he did what was comfortable, it became a little easier for him."

I am sorry to say this, but comfort never won any football games.  Doing what is comfortable never helped anyone overcome tragedy.  Doing what is comfortable never helped anyone climb a mountain.  Doing what is comfortable never helped anyone grow physically, mentally, or spiritually. 

If you have "ganas", you won't allow yourself to be comfortable.  You will go above and beyond to meet the challenge of reaching your goal.

The Cowboys chose to be comfortable.  No "ganas."

It is unfortunate because I believe much of our society and our church is geared toward comfort.  Before us are many, many challenges, yet instead of growing; instead of urging responsibility for our actions; instead of encouraging folks to take risks, we want to make folks comfortable.  We don't want anyone to have to struggle to overcome obstacles.  We want to make it easy on people.

Newsflash: life isn't always easy.  It is a bed of roses: thorns and all.  Do you have the "ganas" to face it?

I ask such a question in light of the faith I am called to proclaim.  As a Christian, I have been instructed by Jesus to make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything He commanded.  Further, He has called the church to be witnesses to the love and grace of God.  Such a calling is not easy.  There are many obstacles which lie in that path--from a nation which has tried to decrease the role of faith in the public square, to individuals taking offense at one's faith, to the threat of losing funding and decreased giving if one speaks the truth.  BUT DO YOU HAVE THE "GANAS"?!!!

Do you have the heart to do what you are called to do?  Do you have the "ganas" to share God's love even if it means offending others?  Or do you want to be comfortable?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Science, Faith, Morality, and Compassion

I know many of us grew up in a society that assumed homosexuality was a choice. I know this is a hard thing to understand, but science, medicine and psychiatry have come to a new understanding of this issue, that started in the late 1800s with research done on sexual orientation. This work has expanded to include the complex question of gender identification. Do some reading. It’s that important.

Sometimes you have to choose: self-righteous moralism or compassion and justice? Reading Jesus in the gospels, the answer seems clear to me.

These two statements appeared in a blog by my bishop.  You can find them in context here:

http://bishopmike.com/2010/10/15/compassion-and-understanding/

I am not trying to take them out of context, and I hope that you will see this.  However, I am going to offer my response to these quotes because I think they lead to a very unfortunate place, and then I will try to deal with them in a responsible manner as I try to talk about the relationship of science and faith and then morality and compassion.

First, science and faith.  In his post, the bishop seems to lead one to think because science, medicine, and psychology have come to a different understanding of homosexuality, it should radically alter how Christianity has addressed the issue.  Because science, medicine, and psychology has come to see homosexuality as something "born" into individuals, the church should stop thinking of homosexuality as sinful and begin thinking of it as God given.

The problem with such a stance is the authority given to science.

Now, don't misunderstand me.  I know very well the importance of science.  Without those who have rigorously studied the natural world, how it works, and how to use what is in it, we as humans would be in a sorry state.  We have harnessed the power of fire, iron, steel, wind, water, the sun, the atom, and countless other things to alter our environment to provide us with safety and security.  Without science, we would still be living in caves, seeking out our meals, struggling to grow crops, and struggling to survive.  Science has enabled us to thrive as a species and provide food for 7 billion people.  Quite an amazing accomplishment!

But science is descriptive.  It cannot deal with the morality of people.  Therein lies the problem of my bishop's quote.  Science has also brought us evolutionary theory.  (Please note I am using evolution here with a little "e" and not a capital "E".  I am addressing the widely understood theory that species adapt to the environment and survive by such adaptation.  I am not dealing with the theory humans evolved from lower life forms.)  This theory is almost universally accepted to describe how species within nature interact.

Anyone who has spent generous amounts of time within nature knows: it ain't pretty.  Sure, we have glorious mountains and majestic trees.  They are pictures of beauty.  But within those landscapes, plants and animals are in a continuous battle to survive.  For the most part, it is eat or be eaten.  Only the strong survive.  The weakest within the species are killed off by predators or left to die.  Those who are different (for instance a white wolf) are attacked more often and must become stronger than the rest just to survive.  In nature, it is survival of the fittest.  Almost without question.  This is what science teaches us.

And I ask: where does survival of the fittest fit within the Christian faith? 

Take a moment to hear Jesus' words in the Beatitudes in Matthew chapter 5:

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Does any of this teaching gel with evolutionary theory?  Does care and concern for the widows and orphans appear in nature?  Not a chance.  Only within the human species do we have such care and compassion, and it doesn't come from evolution.  It comes from our standards of morality.  And where do those come from?  Faith.  Plain and simple.

If Christians wish to appeal to the authority of science, they do so with risk.  Let us take the example my bishop uses with homosexuality.  According to evolutionary theory: homosexuals have been removed from the gene pool.  They will not contribute to the further survival of the species.  Therefore, they are using resources the rest of the procreating population could use.  Furthermore, since they compose a minority position in the species and are different, they should get used to bullying--for such things happen in nature all the time.  They must learn and become stronger if they are to survive.  They must learn to strive and compete for resources that should be used to help our species become stronger to survive.

Do you really want to go down this path?

I don't.

The Christian faith, at it's core, centers on a man who taught compassion and justice.  He leveled the playing field when it came to sin and taking responsibility for one's actions.  I believe Jesus would be appalled at those who would carry signs that say, "God Hates Fags."  I think Jesus would be appalled at anyone who would bully, not only homosexuals, but anyone who was smaller or weaker than another.  I believe Jesus would stand against those who would claim we should be more "scientific" in our treatment of each other and allow the "Law of the Jungle" to dictate how we treat one another.  I believe He would say, "It shall not be so with you."

Biblical, scriptural authority trumps such scientific authority every time.

Yet, at this point, we must deal with the other comment made by the bishop:

Sometimes you have to choose: self-righteous moralism or compassion and justice? Reading Jesus in the gospels, the answer seems clear to me.

Really?  I must ask.  Do you really mean that?  My Sunday School class and I had a real problem with this statement.  Every single one of us gathered at that table believed in some sort of moral standard.  We believed there was such a thing as right and wrong.  Yet, we also believed in compassion and justice.  It seemed that the bishop was leaving us out of the discussion.

Let me explain it in this fashion.  Jesus taught compassion, yet He also taught morality.  Here's a perfect example:

A little later on in Matthew, Chapter 5, Jesus says, 27“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart."

Now, I am a man.  A heterosexual man.  God has hard wired me to be attracted to women.  I can't help that fact.  And there are women who are head turners.  I don't care how hard I might try, but when I see a woman who is curvy and vivacious, my brain starts going to places it shouldn't necessarily go.  I firmly believe the only guys this doesn't happen to are either gay or not breathing.  Therefore, I have committed adultery more times than I care to admit.  I have sinned and continue to sin.  I'm wired that way.

Yet, I have never run across any biblical scholar who argues:

Men are visual.
Men look at women.
Testosterone causes them to think about women sexually.
God created them that way.
Jesus is wrong.  It is not adultery.

It's a morality thing.  Jesus doesn't let me or anyone get away with it.  And if I think I'm better than someone else because they have physically acted on their lust and I have not; well, Jesus has news for me.  As humbling and as troublesome as that might be.

I think the tie in to homosexuality is clear at this point. 

Yet, it must be rammed home very strongly at this point, even though I don't measure up, Christ has compassion upon me--just as He has compassion on those who are homosexual.  Christ extends his love to me--just as He extends it to homosexuals. 

There is nothing wrong with the argument that God loves the sinner and hates the sin because that is true of each and every person--even down to a person's core identity be it sexual or otherwise.

And as such, as Christians, realizing that God has this stance toward everyone, and I mean everyone, it compels a Christian to act with compassion and justice toward those in need, those who are bullied, those who feel unloved, etc., etc., etc. 

Indeed, a Christian is called to strive to be moral as well as compassionate.  It's a both/and not an either/or.  And that morality should never, ever lead to self-righteousness.  No one is any better morally than another.  That's a lesson we get from Jesus time and again.

A Self-Righteous Rant

Preached: October 24, 2010

Gospel Lesson: Luke 18: 9-14

9Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10"Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ 13But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted."

Sermon Title: A Self-Righteous Rant

I have a confession to make to you this morning. It’s not necessarily something I am proud of, but here it goes. When it comes to dealing with folks, I generally don’t have a problem. I don’t mind sitting down and talking to folks who might be considered "sinners." I rather enjoy hanging out with folks who don’t go to church for one reason or another. I enjoy building relationships with them and getting to know them. I appreciate their critiques of the church and listening to the reasons they say they don’t go. Generally, they aren’t in your face about anything, and even if they do become belligerent, it doesn’t concern me too much. I can argue with the best of them.

I also don’t have much problem dealing with Christians who are faithful people yet who are also very humble. Perhaps these Christians can be personified in the example of that tax collector we read about in our Gospel lesson. You know, the one who sat in the back of the temple, beating on his chest and saying, "Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner." I love hanging out with Christians who show this form of humility. They recognize their sinfulness. They are not quick to judge. They look at others who are struggling with life–who may be living in sin, with compassion, knowing at one point in life they were there themselves. Furthermore, such Christians, as exemplified by this tax collector, realize they are just one step away, one misstep from heading down that path of sinfulness. Such a realization gives Christians like this a sense of humility. They understand how much they are dependent upon God’s grace, and they are quick to show it to others. I strive for this in my own life, and I enjoy hanging around such kindred spirits.

But, there is one particular group of people that I have a real problem dealing with. There is one particular group of people that I almost can’t stand to be around. Every time I’m around someone like this, the hair on the back of my neck stands on end–not because of fear, but because I get angry. I know as a pastor who shepherds a flock of Christ’s followers, I am supposed to love all of God’s children in the same manner. I know I am to show respect to all who call themselves Christian, but I find myself really, really struggling to do just this with one particular segment of the church. Even though they are my sisters and brothers, I do not like hanging around with a bunch of self-righteous hypocrites who act just like that Pharisee in our Gospel lesson.
You know the type, don’t you? You’ve been around long enough to have experienced such a type of Christian, haven’t you?

Well, let’s look at that Pharisee one more time in our Gospel lesson. He’s standing right in front of the temple–by himself. Perhaps he considers himself too good to be standing with anyone else. He wants others to see him there. He wants them to see how faithful he is in attending worship and being at the temple. He’s less concerned with what God thinks of him and more concerned about what those who are worshiping in the temple think of him. And his mere presence isn’t enough. He’s going to announce to everyone just how good he is.

Talk about one of the most conceited prayers you could pray. "God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income." Now, it’s highly likely that everything this man says is true. He’s probably absolutely correct in that he is not like other people. He doesn’t steal. He doesn’t sleep around. He doesn’t try to cheat others like most tax collectors do. As a Pharisee, he literally does fast two times per week as a discipline, and he is required, so he does, give ten percent of all his income to the temple. He’s following all the steps of holiness, and he is proud of himself. Very proud. He’s so proud of his accomplishments, he’s up there telling God how good he is, and he’s thanking God, not for God’s blessings, but thanking God that he is such a good person. I can’t tell you how badly such a thing rubs me.

And it rubs me when I come across a Christian who acts in the same manner. It rubs me when I have to have a conversation with someone who is so dead set that they know all the answers; they know everything about God; they know how the church is supposed to operate; they know how every situation should be handled, and they want to either tell you how you should act or criticize every single move that you make. Ohhh, how such people tick...me...off.

I’ll share with you an example of such a person. When I first started working in my previous congregation, I came to work one morning to find a message from one of the local funeral homes. A young 19 year old woman was killed in an automobile accident by a drunk driver. They asked me if I would handle the funeral.
I met with the mom and dad of this young lady. They were in a state of shock. You could see the pain, devastation, frustration, and myriads of questions with a brief look into their eyes. We talked about funeral arrangements and planned out the service. I offered them my condolences and set out to write this girl’s funeral sermon.

How does one address such tragedy? How does one offer hope in the midst of despair? I hope the Spirit led me because I hit their questions right on. I opened my sermon with the words, "At times like these, one of the first questions that comes to each and every one of us is ‘Why?’." I then proceeded to say that it was O.K. to ask such a question, not only of us but of God as well. It was O.K. to ask Him why this happened and why He didn’t stop it. I told them right then and there, I couldn’t fully answer that question for them. Anything I would say at that moment would be inadequate to help them understand why this young lady had died.

However, I then talked of what I did know. I told them God had not deserted this young woman. God was present with her in her death just as He was now present with all of us who grieved. And not only was God present with us, He was now offering us hope. Through Jesus’ own death and resurrection, God showed us what the end result was going to be. The wrongs will eventually be righted. Death will not have the last word. God will, and it will be good. As hard as it might be at this juncture, we are called upon to trust that word–trust that God will follow through on His promise. Today, we would grieve, but we would not grieve without hope.

I know my words had an impact on the family. They actually took out an ad in the local paper to thank me for my kindness and providing them comfort in their grief. Made me feel pretty good.
But, I also got a letter. Yep, a few days after the funeral, I received a signed letter from some jerk in town who tore me up one side and down the other for what I had said in my sermon. This idiot said that I should never, ever have told folks to question God. He said it was my job at that point and time to convey to everyone the importance of their being ready to meet God. I should have used that tragic accident to scare the tar out of people so they would give their lives to God and be prepared–just like he was. Pardon me, but this guy didn’t give a flying flip about anyone else who attended that funeral. He didn’t give a darn about their grief, their agony, their pain and frustration. He didn’t care a bit about that mom and dad who had to bury their child; he only cared about himself, and he wanted to hear words that made him feel good about his own standing with God. I can’t tell you the name I had for this guy running through my head. I can’t stand Christians who act in this manner. Thank God, I’m not like them.

(Pause.)

Wait a minute. What did I just do? Did I just become one of them? Did I just travel down that slippery slope and put on the same shoes as that Pharisee in our Gospel lesson? Yes. I did. Do you see how difficult it is to have true humility? Do you see how easy it is to point the finger at others? In a sense, I just stood before God and said, "Thank you God that I am not a self-righteous hypocrite like those others out there. I am not judgmental because I know I am forgiven." Yet the reality is, I have become just as judgmental and just as self-righteous. Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble, so please teach me how it’s done. Amen.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Heart of Christian Action

At the very heart of their [early Christians'] view of reality was a man who died for his enemies, praying for their forgiveness. Reflection on this could only lead to a radically different way of dealing with those who were different from them. It meant they could not act in violence and oppression toward their opponents.

Timothy Keller: The Reason for God, pg 20-21

Keller comes to the crux of the matter when it comes to dealing with others. 

So often, Christians want to "demonize" someone who is different.  We believe we must shun those we call "sinners".  We believe we must devastate our opposition and help our "side" win.

Yet, how different is this from the man/God we claim to follow?

Even a cursory glimpse at Jesus' life shows no tendencies in Him to do such a thing.  Jesus ate and drank with those who were considered "sinners."  He was called a drunkard and a glutton for doing so.  He was criticized because some of their unholiness was bound to rub off on Him.  Yet, time and again, Jesus turned the tables on those who criticized him.  Doctors don't go to people who are well.

Jesus never demonized His enemies.  He never admonished the Father to destroy them or allow them to burn in hell.  From the cross, He looked at those who were murdering Him, and Jesus spoke, "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do."  Jesus put into practice His own teaching spoken on the mountain (or on the plain depending upon which Gospel you read), "Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you."

I know it is human nature to hate your enemy.  I know it is human nature to fight those we disagree with.  I know it is human nature to hold grudges on those who have wronged us and become our enemies.  Yet, as Christians, we are called to rise above common, human nature.  We are called to grasp and hold God's nature, Christ's nature.  The nature of forgiveness.  The nature of humility.  The nature of unconditional love.

How hard this is! 

The U.S. is at war with terrorists.  Most of them embrace radical Islam.  Osama bin Ladin is perhaps the most hated man with many in our nation.  What would happen if the president of the United States--be it George Bush a few years ago or Barak Obama now--stood up and said, "We are a nation built upon Christian principles.  We are offering our forgiveness to Osama bin Ladin, and we will be praying for God's blessing upon him."  How well do you think that will go over?

Yet, there are many in our country who wish to call us a Christian nation.   How Christian are we?  How well do we embrace and put into practice the teachings of the One who has called us and claimed us as His own?

How many families are torn apart by argument and anger?  How many fathers refuse to talk to sons because of bull-headedness?  How many mothers are estranged from daughters because of pettiness?  How many churches become divided over meaningless issues (at least in the big picture of things)?  How many of us hold onto our anger, our frustration, our pain that another caused us?  How many of us absolutely refuse to consider that another person is just as much a child of God as we are?  How many of us absolutely refuse to consider that God wants even those children of His who have committed heinous crimes to come to Him?

It's easier to hate.  It's easier to gnash one's teeth.  It's easier to hold onto every wrong and every slight that we have experienced.

"It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave." --Matthew 20:26-27

What a radically different world it would be if Jesus' followers actually tried to do what He said.  What a radically different place our churches would be.  What a magnificent vision of the future to hold onto as we strive to put such a thing into practice.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Why I Go to Crossroads Tavern.

Religion, generally speaking, tends to create a slippery slope in the heart. Each religion informs its followers that they have "the truth," and this naturally leads them to feel superior to those with differing beliefs. Also, a religion tells its followers that they are saved and connected to God by devotedly performing that truth. This moves them to separate from those who are less devoted and pure in life. Therefore, it is easy for one religious group to stereotype and caricature other ones. Once this situation exists it can easily spiral down into the marginalization of others or even to active oppression, abuse or violence against them.

Timothy Keller: The Reason for God, pg. 4.

Perhaps you have heard the following Joke:

Do you know the three religious truths?

1. Jews do not recognize Jesus as the Messiah.
2. Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the head of the Church.
3. Baptists do not recognize each other in the liquor store.

I apologize to my Baptist brothers and sisters out there, but as with all cutting jokes there is a ring of truth to it.  In fact, even when I pull up to the liquor store I wonder if I am going to run into anyone I know there and then be forced to explain why I am purchasing some hard stuff.  I really shouldn't worry.  Most folks around here have seen me have a drink on more than one occasion, so the fact the local pastor drinks a little from time to time is widely known.

Yet, there is still that little pang.  Not because I believe I am doing anything wrong, but because I believe I might be judged unfairly.  I feel like I might be judged as a tee-totalling preacher who says one thing and yet does another.  (For the record, I have already said I do not believe consuming moderate amounts of alcohol is sinful.)

Why does such a thing bother me?  Perhaps it goes back to the initial quote from Timothy Keller regarding religion.  Oftentimes, our religious belief can indeed put us on a slippery slope to self-righteousness.

Christianity proudly proclaims that Jesus is the "way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through" Him.  There have been many who try to soften Jesus' words and make Christianity sound more open and less exclusive.  There have been many who out and out say that Jesus didn't mean one had to believe in Him in order to achieve salvation.  I understand their reasoning.  I know why they say such a thing.

Believing one has the absolute Truth can and very often does lead to an attitude of self-righteousness.  It can and very often does lead one to believe that "I've got it, and that poor schmuck over there doesn't."  It can and very often does lead one to begin viewing one who does not believe in the same manner as you as inferior--not worthy of the same consideration as you; as less loved by God.

It is exactly this spiral of beliefs that contributed to a couple of black eyes for the Christian Church, namely the Inquisition of the Middle Ages--where thousands of Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths were brutally tortured and murdered simply because they were of another faith tradition--and the Russian pogroms where thousands of Jews were murdered simply for being Jewish. 

Such behavior surfaces even in our day and age and is witnessed by Radical Islam.  Islamic terrorists have no issues killing folks of other faith's.  Those who do not adhere to the strict understanding of Islam are infidels, and if one is killed while killing infidels, one gets great reward in the afterlife.  Is it surprising, then, that we have suicide bombers?

The examples I speak of in the previous paragraphs are indeed the extreme.  Yet, you can easily see examples of behavior all along this slope.  You have probably seen or heard fellow Christians who make snide comments about someone drinking, or smoking, or dancing, or engaging in some form of sexual activity.  You might have heard snide comments of someone being less than accepting of others points of view.  You might have even heard comments chastizing those who go to church but fail to help the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, or the sick and imprisoned. 

Such comments are usually followed up by a refusal to engage or even hang out with the people they talk about.  Folks don't want "sinfulness" to rub off on them.  Soon, it becomes an us versus them situation, and we travel further down the slope.

While there might be some truth in the initial statements, generally, they come from a person who is lifting up their own willingness to do what others are not doing.  There is a smidge of self-righteousness in their comments.

So, what is the cure for such an attitude?  What is the counter-balancing force that leads a person away from the slippery-slope of demonizing another and separating one's self from them?

Two thoughts on that one.  First, humility.  Genuine humility.  As Jesus commented, "Why do you worry about the speck in your neighbor's eye, yet refuse to remove the log in your own eye?"  Remembering that one is a forgiven sinner who continues to live in sin works wonders.  Intentionally looking for the log in one's own eye and seeing it lessens the willingness to judge another.

Secondly, intentionally seeking out and spending time with those who, in the words of Keller,  are less devoted and pure in life.  Yes, get to know and spend time with those who do not share your perspective on faith.  Spend time and effort building relationships with those who don't attend church.  Liberals spend time with conservatives, and conservatives spend time with liberals.  Those who don't drink, spend time with those who do, and vice versa.  And I don't mean spending time just to argue and become absorbed in one's "rightness."  That's not forming a relationship.  That's being self-centered.

Engaging others who do not share my own perspective on faith has been something I have tried diligently to put into practice.  This is why, on occasion,  I will head down to the local tavern in the afternoon. 

Crossroads Tavern is the place all the locals gather to unwind after a busy day.  They enjoy their beer there.  The owner of the tavern is a church member, and she doesn't put up with unruliness.  She won't allow you to go too far in your drinking--for this I have the utmost respect for her--and she won't tolerate obsene language or obnoxious behavior.  Believe it or not, I feel very comfortable taking my kids to the place at all hours of the day and night for two reasons: 1. I know the owner and the environment she tries to create.  And 2. I know the people who frequent there.

While some might look down their noses at the crowd who gathers to socially drink and relax, I have come to know them.  I know many of their stories.  I know their families.  I know how hard they work to make a living.  They are blue collar, rough around the edges, and oftentimes they smell of a hard day's work.  They can cuss with the best of them, and they aren't afraid to let their feelings be known about a great meany things.  Not many of them attend church regularly--if at all.  None of them fit the stereotypical image of a Christian who has turned his/her life around after finding Jesus.

Yet, I have found they have a tremendous respect for God.  They respect me.  I've been offered drinks just about every time I walk in.  A few times, I have joined them, but I only drink one.  They respect the fact I don't judge them, and I think they don't judge me as someone who is holier than thou.  A few of the folks have come to church.  Some have even become church members.  Many won't, but that's O.K.  I don't mind.  They are finding their way in this world, and even though they are not doing it in the path I am traveling, I have come to know them as good people.  I know if I had a need, I could count on them despite the fact they do not share the same ideas of faith I do.

I don't think I could say those things if I acted in the manner Keller speaks about in his book.  Religion can divide.  Christianity can set a person up to act holier than thou and self-righteous.  But, I believe that's only if a person picks and chooses what parts of Christianity to adhere to. 

If a person follows in the footsteps of Jesus--who ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners--he or she will seek out those who are different and seek to form real realtionships with them.  Not the superficial crap that many of our relationships tend to be, but honest to goodness friendships.  It's much harder to demonize someone when you truly know them.  And that's why I go to Crossroads Tavern.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Text from Heaven

Quite possibly the most unique funeral sermon I have preached:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and from our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

About a month, when Sharon was first admitted to St. Joseph’s Hospital in College Station to have fluid drained off her lung, I went to see her. She had just discovered she had cancer, and we had one of those amazing conversations between a pastor and a congregation member.

She laid it on the line, ""I'm not afraid to die, Pastor," she told me. "I'm just not ready to do it yet." She went on to explain that as a person of faith she knew where she was going. She knew what it was supposed to be like in heaven. She didn’t fear dying. There were just things she wanted to do before having to walk through that valley. I understand such sentiments as a pastor because I believe the same way.

She continued, "Pastor, I have never grieved for anyone at their funeral when I knew where they were going." She even went as far as to say that she had been to funerals for people who were taken far too early in their earthly lives; who had died from illness or car wreck. She said as hard as they were, I didn’t grieve because I knew where they were going. "I've wanted to shake my fist at God wondering why such things happened," she said. "But I didn’t grieve for them. I guess I’ve just got that child-like faith that Jesus talks about. I really try to hold onto that strongly."

Indeed, Sharon needed that child-like faith in her life. She had many, many struggles. There were things that really drug her down at times. There were moments of depression and sadness as she wrestled with her suffering, but time and again, she came back to her faith–a faith that inspired hope.

St. Paul talks about such hope in our first lesson from the book of Romans. He reflects upon what it means to be saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Paul writes, "3And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us."

Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope. Yes, I can tell you this afternoon that Sharon indeed had that hope.

Marcy shared this story with me, and I think it illustrates that hope beautifully:
Mom was very proud that she was a 63 year old grandmother that could text! The day she was diagnosed, she & I shared tears and laughter and made her bucket list. During our talk, I told her "Mom, whenever you do get to heaven, would you send my a sign of some kind to let me know if it's as beautiful as we all think it is. She quickly put her hand on my knee & said "I'll text you!". We laughed so hard! Such laughter is produced by that hope that I spoke about earlier. But just one quick question, Marcy, have you gotten that text yet? No. Well, I guess we will continue to wait for it.

Mmmm. Hang on a second. This is quite interesting and coincidental. My phone is buzzing. It’s the message buzz. That’s weird. Wonder if I should check it? Hang on.

Definitely don’t recognize the number or area code. Never seen it before.

Whoa! Holy Cow! You’re not going to believe this. I’m just going to have to read it to you.

Pastor, I know where you are and what you are doing. I also know who’s there, and I just couldn’t let you be the only one to say something. Tell Marcy I would have sent her a text a few days ago, but they only let you send texts to those who need a miracle to strengthen their faith. (Now, wait a second here.) Gotcha on that one, Pastor.

I just want everyone to know, I’m doing great. I can breathe deeply again without pain. In fact, I’ve never experienced breathing quite like this before. It’s as if with every breath you are breathing in the coolness of the first cold front mixed with the freshness of the air after every rain. It fills your lungs and brings about joy. It’s hard to put it into words that you can understand.

I always believed heaven would be wonderful, but it even exceeds my expectations. I’ve been spending time catching up with everyone, and they send their regards to you too. I’ve gotten a chance to sit with the Man as well. It was rather painful at first to go through the judgment, but when Jesus spoke my name all guilt and frustration vanished, and I am free. Oh how I wish you could experience what I am experiencing now. But you will have to wait. All I can say is, remember when I told you about having the faith of a child–keep having it. Don’t get too frustrated and upset. Just have faith. One day, you will understand.

I know you probably have a million questions. You might even be wondering why I had to go so quickly and suddenly. Unfortunately, one of those other rules up here is I can’t tell you the answers yet. I can tell you that it’s O.K. to ask plenty of questions, and I can also say that seeing things from God’s perspective really clears a lot up. Keep the child like faith. It really helps.

I wish I could explain to you all that I have come to see in my short time here, but Pastor Haug is already going to freak when he gets the text bill from this one. Yes, in heaven, we do have a sense of humor.
Yet, before I finish, I do want to convey a few things. Take care Ed. I’ll see you again one day. Tell my kids and my grandkids that I love them all. I’ve always loved them even when we were separated by whatever distance came between us, but now I love them even more as I love them with the same kind of love that God has for them. Tell them Fro Mama loves them. And to everyone else, remember to laugh and love. Don’t let despair get you down. Cling to hope. It will not disappoint you. Trust me. I know. I’ll see everyone again one day! Keep the faith.

Perhaps there is nothing more to say at this point other than Amen.

Monday, October 18, 2010

My Detest of Politics

I think these younger Christians are the vanguard of some major new religious, social, and political arrangements that could make the older form of culture wars obsolete. After they wrestle with doubts and objections to Christianity many come out on the other side with an orthodox faith that doesn’t fit the current categories of liberal Democrat or conservative Republican. Many see both sides in the "culture war" making individual freedom and personal happiness the ultimate value rather than God and the common good. Liberals’ individualism comes out in their views of abortion, sex, and marriage. Conservatives’ individualism comes out in their deep distrust of the public sector and in their understanding of poverty as simply a failure of personal responsibility. The new, fast-spreading multiethnic orthodox Christianity in the cities is much more concerned about the poor and social justice than Republicans have been, and at the same time much more concerned about upholding classic Christian moral and sexual ethics than Democrats have been.

Timothy Keller, The Reason for God p. xix

If there is something I truly detest it is politics, and with the advent of the internet, political blogs, and and endless stream of television devoted to said subject, it is very difficult to get away from it.

Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if folks told the truth about what they believed.  Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if opponents didn't lie about each other so much and sling mud.  Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if the extremes didn't seem to dominate.  Perhaps if a frog had wings he wouldn't bump his butt every time he hopped.  But a frog ain't got wings.  I'm just saying...

From a Christian perspective, the rule of politics is a complicated matter.  On the one had, we are engaged in the political process.  We are called upon to be members in both the church and the state.  We are also called to allow our Christian convictions to guide us when casting our votes.  Yet, within the church, allowing one's deep seeded belief guide one's voting hand has often turned into advocacy within politics.

Now, let me be clear about what I believe.  I believe that advocacy is not a bad thing in and of itself.  I engage in it all the time.  Whenever I say that I believe abortion should be severely limited in its availability (only in the cases of rape, incest, and endangerment to the life of the mother), I am advocating a particular point of view.  Also, whenever I say I believe no one should go broke because of catastrophic illness, I am advocating another point of view.  Both of these convictions come from deep within my understanding of the Christian faith.  I believe abortion for the purposes of birth control violates the commandment "Thou shalt not kill."  I also believe loving one's neighbor as one's self demands us to care for our neighbor in times of need.  Siphoning off all a neighbor has because that neighbor has a catastrophic illness is not loving one's neighbor.  Now, I know there are those who might disagree with me on both of those points, but I have come to both of those positions after much struggle and thought.  You'd have to have a strong argument to sway me.

Yet, as deeply as I hold these convictions and advocate for them, I do not take the next step and try to impose these positions upon society in general.  Why?  What prevents me from doing such a thing?

Simply put, it is not the church's role to dictate politics.  The Religious Left and the Religious Right have it wrong.  History is filled with circumstances in which the church tried to govern and rule in the realm of politics.  The results were almost always disastrous.  For a religious organization that preaches love and compassion, when the church has garnered political power, it has generally turned into an abusive, corrupt institution.  The Spanish Inquisition and Russian pogroms bear witness to such a fact.  So do the Salem Witch Trials.  Not exactly pretty moments in the history of the church

I fear the same thing is happening with the Religious Left and the Religious Right.  People in both of these arenas are pushing to have the United States' government adhere to Christian principles.  Both are short sighted, as Keller points out.  Both are relentless in their pursuits: one side almost blindly supporting Republicans and the other almost blindly supporting Democrats.

For people like myself, such blind support is appalling.  This is why I have written in candidates for the past several years when it came to voting.  I couldn't stand the options because neither seemed to encapsulate the values I held dear--values, again, that come from my Christian faith.

I mean, as a Christian, I hold for myself a high standard of morality.  I do not like the permissiveness of the sexual culture that surrounds me.  I don't like how women and men are turned into objects for mere gratification.  I don't like the prevalence of divorce, and while I believe there are cases when divorce is necessary (I've even a counseled a few to obtain one), I believe it should be very difficult to go through.  I believe should I choose to invoke the name of God at a school function, I should be allowed to do so as a witness of my faith.  I believe homosexual intercourse is a sin.  I believe that even though I have a hard time following all the tenets of the Christian faith, I am still called to uphold them as best as I possibly can.  Try articulating such beliefs in the public arena, and one is immediately pigeonholed as a lunatic, right wing conservative.

And, they would be right in one sense.  But they also might be surprised to learn: I believe the government should provide a safety net for those who fall on hard times (although I think there should be work created for folks to get that safety net).  I don't mind paying taxes when I know they go to a young man with cerebral palsy whose mother has forsaken all to care for him and keep him alive.  I don't mind my taxes going to pay for his health care one iota.  I also would like to see some sort of civil service which allows gays and lesbians to receive the benefits of marriage without calling it a marriage.  I hate it that my wife's uncle's partner could technically be refused entry to a hospital to visit him because he's not "family."  I also believe there is such a thing as institutional poverty, and we should work diligently to address the failures of every form of government to address that poverty.  I believe every person should have access to basic health care--at what point we draw the line between basic and intensive, I haven't figured out yet.  I believe immigration reform is a dire need so that folks can come and work to provide for their families--yet I also believe safeguards must be in place so folks cannot game the system.

Tell me: where do I fit in politically?  Do I fit comfortably with Democrats?  Do I fit comfortably with Republicans?  Nope.  I'm a hybrid of some sort.  There really is no place that I fit on the political spectrum.

Given time, I believe most Christians would find themselves near to where I am at.  If they really examine their beliefs, I believe they would find themselves morally conservative and socially liberal--just as Keller articulates. 

Yet, and here is the kicker, we must not try to impose such an imposition upon the rest of the culture.  We are not to seek power.  We are to seek to be salt and light.  We are called to add our flavor to the surrounding culture and change it by our humility and witness to Jesus Christ.  It is only when others see our faith in action--our willingness to make sacrifices, care for others, and uphold morality, that they will be convinced our way of life is different and worth seeking out.  This is what it means to be a witness to our Christian faith (Acts 1: 7).  We do not seek to influence through power, but through service.

Politics is about power, and that is why I hate it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Healthy Doubt

A faith without some doubts is like a human body without antibodies in it. People who blithely go through life too busy or indifferent to ask hard questions about why they believe as they do will find themselves defenseless against either the experience of tragedy or the probing questions of a smart skeptic. A person’s faith can collapse almost overnight if she has failed over the years to listen patiently to her own doubts, which should only be discarded after long reflection.

Believers should acknowledge and wrestle with doubts–not only their own but heir friends’ and neighbors’. It is no longer sufficient to hold beliefs just because you inherited them. Only if you struggle long and hard with objections to your faith will you be able to provide grounds for your beliefs to skeptics, including yourself, that are plausible rather than ridiculous or offensive. And, just as important for our current situation, such a process will lead you, even after you come to a position of strong faith, to respect and understand those who doubt. 

--Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, pg. xvi

I have long argued the opposite of faith is not doubt.  Doubt is a very important part of the process of growing in faith.  Without doubt, you become certain of your faith.  There is no longer any questioning that one needs to do.  There is no longer any growth that can take place.  You believe you have all the answers and you know all there is to know about God.  Is this even possible?  I would argue, no.  Living in absolute certainty is not possible.  In fact, I'd argue it's dangerous.

Living in absolute certainty leads to two very different conclusions--both of them very dangerous.

First, if one is absolutely certain in their faith and belief, they turn into a fanatic.  Fanatics who are in this state of mind are willing to blow up buildings, people, and themselves for faith.  In the middle ages, when Christianity was infected with such fanatics, folks were willing to kill Muslims with impunity, send children on crusades, and torture others to get professions of faith.  How in the world are such actions compatible with a Lord who teaches us to pray for our enemies and bless those who persecute us?  How are such actions compatible with a Lord who teaches us that even hating another is tantamount to killing them and a breaking of the commandment?  In short, such actions are not compatible; yet, there were those who were (and are) absolutely convinced they are correct in their faith and are willing to still commit such atrocities.  The absence of doubt also leads to the absence of humility and the abundance of self-righteousness.  Very dangerous.

Not only is this dangerous, but I challenge anyone to try evangelism--spreading the good news of Jesus Christ--with such behavior.  Tell me just how many souls are truly saved by such actions.  Do you honestly believe that folks are converted by beating them over their heads with "The Truth," as you see it?  Do you honestly believe that people are fully won over because you can out shout them?  I personally haven't seen that work too well at all.  Yet, I have seen the fruits of a humble heart and how they have really and truly made a difference.  (More on that to follow the second dangerous consequence of absolute certainty.)

The second inevitable conclusion to having a faith absent of doubt is the damaging effect of having such a faith shattered.  For instance, if you believe, with all your heart, if you do the right things--if you believe in Christ fully--you will never experience suffering.  And you strive to do them day in and day out, and then something tragic happens--you get diagnosed with a terminal disease, your child becomes paralyzed in a horrible accident, you lose all your possessions in a fire, etc--what happens to your faith?  Either it gets shattered an you turn your back on it or you walk away with a tremendous sense of guilt because you feel like you didn't have enough faith or you didn't work hard enough at your faith.  Such a tragedy has befallen more than a few people I have come across in life.  They were so certain in their faith until something happened that was outside the realm of their belief.  It shattered them and their faith.  Some still haven't recovered.

However, if you have doubt; if you believe you don't know all there is to know; if you find yourself wondering sometimes where in the world God is at and what He is up to, I would argue that you open yourself up to truly growing in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God.

I use the example of Mother Teresa.  Recently, documents were revealed that she struggled with her faith.  She entered a prolonged "dark night of the soul," one that lasted many, many years.  It's not surprising since day in and day out she walked among the poorest of the poor and experienced human suffering on a level that most of us could never dream of experiencing.  When you walk amongst such tragedy day after day after day, it has to affect your spirit.  I get small glimpses of this in my own work among people who are suffering.  After staring into the face of someone who is dying, who is in great pain, who is burdened with depression and sadness, not only do I need a beer, but I need some time to wrestle with God and ask Him what the hell He is (or isn't) doing.  I can't imagine having to do that day after day after day as Mother Teresa did.

And yet, despite her doubt, who can question this amazing woman's capacity to draw people to God, both saint and sinner alike?  Who can doubt her capacity to inspire atheist, agnostic, and believer?  Who can doubt her willingness to engage a person: Hindu, Muslim, or Christian in a respectful, kindly manner, without judgment and full of compassion?  How many souls do you think she won with this kind of disposition?  Even with her doubts?  Perhaps, just perhaps, her doubt enabled her to do the things she did because it brought her humility.

And, in a crazy way, I believe her doubt strengthened her faith.  Yes, her doubt was great, but is there anywhere anyone has found where she out and out renounced her Christian faith?  Was there anywhere she entered into such a state of doubt and darkness that she forsake her God?  No.  One who goes through such doubt and yet believes has, without a doubt, faith the size of a mustard seed.  It has to be strong.  I can imagine the conversations going on in her head because I have some of my own.

There are days when I wonder about this faith that I have.  There are days when I am amazed at the almost stupidity of it.  Yes, you heard me right when I said that.  I mean, what person in his or her right mind would believe that God became human to die for us and save us from our sin.  God is almighty.  God could have done anything He wanted.  Furthermore, even though God chose to act in this manner, we haven't done a very good job in living out what Jesus told us.  Believe me, I deal with the political crap of church all the time. While many believers get along well together, there are always petty jealousies, disagreements, and disputes.  Folks will argue about what color to paint the restrooms or whether or not adding another church service is a good thing.  Hearing such things on a daily basis is enough to make one very cynical--not only about the church but about faith.  There are even brief moments where my mind says, "Do you really believe all this stuff?"

It is at such moments when I am forced to take a good, hard look at myself.  I have to dig deep within to the recesses of my memory and into the recesses of my heart.  As I dig, I rediscover the things God has planted there.  I rediscover the goodness I have received when I didn't deserve it.  I rediscover the times when God touched me in a way that was totally unexpected.  I rediscover the amazing capacity of God's people to make a difference in the world.  As each of these things comes forth, my faith is renewed and strengthened once again. 

"Yes."  I say to myself.  "Yes, I believe this stuff.  I believe in God the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.  I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord..."

Such doubt may be seen as weakness to some, but I celebrate it.  It helps me relate to others who share doubt.  After having wrestled with my own, I am better able to talk with them about what they are sensing, what they are feeling, and why they are doubting.  I can do a better job of sharing this faith that has been given to me when I do so with humility and understanding and compassion.  I've been there.  At times, I'm still there.  But, each time, God provides me with what is needed to work through the doubt and become even stronger. 

One day, the cycle of faith and doubt will be broken, but on that day, I'll be breathless.  Until then, I hope to have healthy doubt.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

More on Fanatics

As I continued my reflections on fanatics, a thought occurred to me.

It wasn't a pleasant one.

What if, just what if, we all have a bit of fanaticism within us?

What if, we all become fanatics at some point and time?

Think about it.  How many of us at some point begin to think that we have it right?  How many of us at some point believe that we have "it" on any given issue?  How many of us believe that we know what is right and what is wrong, and those who don't agree with us are ignorant, stupid, or just don't know better?

I pause as I reflect upon my experience dealing with fanatics on either end of the political/theological spectrum.  Yes, you read that right.  I believe there are both liberal and conservative fanatics. 

Here is another snippet from Keller's book, "The Reason for God" pages 59-60:

The tendency of religious people, however, is to use spiritual and ethical observance as a lever to gain power over others and over God, appeasing him through ritual and good works.  This leads to both an emphasis on external religious forms as well as greed, materialism, and oppression in social arrangements.  Those who believe they have pleased God by the quality of their devotion and moral goodness naturally feel that they and their group deserve deference and power over others.  The God of Jesus and the prophets,however saves completely by grace.  He cannot be manipulated by religious and moral performance--he can only be reached through repentance, through the giving up of power.

Think about those of religious faith who are on either end of the political spectrum. Think about the "Religious Right" and their political aspirations.  Are they interested in giving up power?  Hardly.

At the same time, there is another movement from the religious left.  This group does not focus on the morality issues of the "Religious Right".  Indeed, they do not focus on abortion, distributing condoms in schools, or school prayer.  Instead, they focus on justice issues.  They focus on care and concern for the poor and marginalized.  Yet, how does this group go about their quest to raise these issues?  Do they seek to give up power?  Hardly.  They seek to vote certain candidates into office who are sympathetic to their points of view just like the folks on the "Religious Right."  They too are seeking to manipulate the process through power.  They too are fanatics.

While some of you may be shaking your heads in agreement (and others thinking I am completely wrong), I ask you to reflect a moment on how you tend to operate when it comes to believing that you are right.  When you believe you are solid on a position, how do you relate to others?  Do you seek to get your point across with giving up power or acquiring it?

So much of the way the world works encourages us to get power; to get prestige; to influence things through that power.  Yet, Christianity calls us to do the exact opposite--to exercise humility by giving up power; to influence the world through humble service; not by political gain.

But that is hard.  We feel like we aren't making a difference.  We see the scope of the problems of the world, and we think, "If only I had enough power to influence things for the good..."

Yet, is this not a fallacy?  As Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings said, " Understand that I would use this Ring from a desire to do good. But through me... it would wield a power too great and terrible to imagine."  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Many of us know this.  Many of us have had this ingrained in our thoughts, but there is something within us that believes we can handle the power.  We can handle whatever situation.  We have proved it by our actions and our faith. 

I catch myself doing this more often than I would like to admit.  Most recently it was on one of my walks around the area.  I was passing a particular house.  The couple who lived there had been through a difficult time in life.  They had to go through some dark tunnels.  I had worked with them and talked with them and prayed with them.  After a long stretch, things finally settled back into place.  Much of what had been wrong was righted.  They have much to be thankful for.  And they haven't been back in church to offer any form of thanks since things have become better.

Reflecting on this, I laid out my complaint to God.  "They've got things working out for them now.  Everything is better, and they haven't been back to church.  Why is it that I work my butt off for you in the calling you gave me, and I don't get to have the things they do?  Why is it they beg you for help; you give it; and then they forget about you and worshiping you?  I've given my life to you and your service, and how come I have to penny pinch and watch what I say and do all the time.  One slip up from me, and I can get toasted.  Yet, these folks can seemingly disregard what you've done for them, and no one cares."

Perhaps I was feeling a little sorry for myself that day.  Yet, as I think about it, wasn't I being fanatical?  Wasn't I lifting up my own righteousness in the face of these folks who I considered unrighteous?  Yep.  I was.  I was being a fanatic.

Forget the rest of the song, but "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble."  It really is.  It's easier to be a fanatic.  It's easier to be consumed by self-righteousness.

Luke 18:  9 Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: 10‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. 11The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. 12I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” 13But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” 14I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’

God, be merciful to me, a sinner!  Give me the gift of humility.  When I think I am righteous, help me see that I am being a fanatic, and turn me away from power to service.  Amen.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Exercising My Brain

This morning, I picked up a book.  I haven't really been taking time to read as much as I should, and so I expect some sore brain muscles in the coming days.  It might not have been so bad if I had picked up a light-hearted book about personal faith and doing church; however, I picked up a doozy.  Not in a bad way, mind you, but a book that is real "meat" for the brain and for the faith.

It's entitled "The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism" by Timothy Keller. 

I've finished four chapters in half a day's reading, and holy smokes, I'm ready for more.  The book is fantastic.  I think for the next several days, I'll post some of Keller's thoughts and add my reflections.

Thought for today, page 57:

Belief that you are accepted by God by sheer grace is profoundly humbling.  The people who are fanatics, then, are so not because they are too committed to the gospel but because they are not committed to it enough.

Think of people you consider fanatical.  They're overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh.  Why?  It's not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough.  They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving, or understanding--as Christ was.  Because they think of Christianity as a self-improvement program, they emulate the Jesus of the whips in the temple, but not the Jesus who said, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" (John 8:7).  What strikes us as overly fanatical is actually a failure to be fully committed to Christ and his gospel.

Wrap your brain around that one for a minute or two.

I've run across more than one or two fanatics in my time.  The experience hasn't necessarily been a good one.  Keller hits it right on the head.

One of my first funerals was for a 19 year old gal who was killed in an automobile accident.  There were over 700 people who packed into the church not three months after I had been ordained and installed as a pastor.  To those 700 people, I was called to speak a word of hope, a word of resurrection, especially since many were grieving and wondering "Why?".

I acknowledged their pain and frustration.  I acknowledged their hurt.  I acknowledged that many were asking, "Why?".  I told them flat out, "There are no good answers.  I can't tell you right now why this happened.  But I can tell you two things:

1. God did not abandon this young woman.  God was with her, and she is now with God.  And just as God did not abandon her, He is not abandoning any of you who grieve on this day.  He is present with you offering you comfort as you grieve.  (Romans 8:18-30)

2. In the midst of tragedy, we are called to hold onto hope.  It's a hard thing, but this is the good news of Jesus' resurrection.  When all seemed lost; when all seemed darkest for the disciples; God acted and raised Jesus from the dead.  God's action showed that death did not have the last say, evil did not have the last say, God does.  In some way, shape, or form, God will have the last word on this too.  We must have hope.

I know the family was appreciative of such sentiments.  They even took out an ad in the local paper to thank me for the kindness of those words.

However, some jerk-water fanatic had to have his say.  I received a letter in the mail several days after the funeral chiding me that I should not have cast any doubt by saying it was O.K. to question God.  I should have told everyone there they needed to be ready because you never knew when death was coming--and if you weren't prepared, you would burn in the fires of hell.

Jackass.

Talk about embodying the very traits Keller writes about, "overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive, and harsh."

I wanted so badly to respond.  There was a return address and everything.  I struggled.  I wanted to jump down this guys throat.  Obviously by my calling him a "Jackass" I still haven't fully gotten over it.  But what would it have accomplished?  Not a darn thing.  I know the type.  He would have been convinced I was persecuting him for his faith--just like Jesus said would happen.

Give...me...a...break.

I know for a fact this guy hadn't sat down with this gal's parents and looked into their eyes to see the shock, the anguish, the pain and agony they felt.  This guy couldn't have cared less about their feelings.  He wanted to feel superior to everyone because he was ready.  He wanted a reinforcement of his own beliefs instead of the comfort faith gives to those who are grieving.

Honestly, if there was an unchurched person in that room who heard a message of--get your act together or rot in hell because what happened to her could happen to you, do you think that person would darken the door of your church?  And yet, if that same person heard the words of compassion--that God understands your grief, God mourns with you, and God will make everything right, what would be the response?

Which has a deeper understanding of faith?

Fanatics seem to abound in the Bible Belt.  I personally don't like dealing with them, but I force myself to remember they are brothers and sisters in Christ as well.  I force myself to listen to their arguments and even to act with compassion toward them.  If I don't, then I become self-righteous myself, thinking I know how it should be done.  I show myself to be a fanatic, in a very different fashion.  That's not good either.  I have to remember to be humble as well.

I remember all too clearly having to adjust my line of thinking in this manner.  It was during my seminary training when I took Clinical Pastoral Education--CPE for short.  I was required to work as a chaplain in a hospital, and of course, in such an environment, I ran across all kinds of folks--from fundamentalists to atheists.  It was challenging.

I remember clearly visiting a fanatic.  She had been in and out of the hospital numerous times with difficulties in her lungs.  Once before, I visited with her, and she simply asked for a prayer that she could accept God's will.  She firmly believed her illness was caused by God; she didn't know why, but she believed she needed to accept it.  On that first visit, I simply prayed with her and left.

The next go round was a little different.  We actually had a visit.  She again focused on God's will.  She deeply and truly believed this illness was caused by him.  She figured she needed to accept it, and she couldn't be angry about it, or cry about it, or be upset in any form or fashion.  It was God's will after all.  She needed to be happy.

Now, yours truly is not a believer that God intentionally sends illness or cancer or tragedy upon anyone.  These things simply occur and are a result of the imperfection of this life.  There's really no escaping them.  Yet, you cannot necessarily convince a fanatic to come over to this point of view.  Believe me, I've tried.

I tried with this woman as she sat in her hospital bed.  I tried to help her come over to my point of view, but it just didn't work.  Luckily, I had talked to her in a manner that didn't offend her, because suddenly in my brain, a light bulb went off.  I have to chalk it up to the Spirit who intervened at that moment.

As she continued to say that she needed to accept her illness and be happy with it, I finally raised an objection that even she couldn't argue with.  "Ma'am," I said.  " Do you believe that Jesus knew God's will?"

"Of course," she replied.

"And didn't Jesus cry?  I mean, in the Garden of Gethsemane, didn't Jesus cry about having to die on the cross?  Didn't he ask God to remove the cup?  Even though he knew he would be raised from the dead, he still cried about it and wasn't happy with it."

You could see the words sinking in.

"And, ma'am, if Jesus was the Son of God, and he cried about having to suffer, don't you think it's O.K. for you to cry and not be happy, even if it is God's will?"

Breakthrough.  Not only for her, but for me as well.  She learned to cry, and I truly believe it helped her healing process.  It wasn't long after that she walked out of that hospital almost completely healthy.  I learned to meet someone where they were at and not where I wanted them to be.  I learned to have and show compassion to someone I disagreed with. 

I try to remember such things as I try to follow in the footsteps of The Man.  It's hard sometimes, and many times, I misstep.  But, it keeps me humble, and I hope it keeps me from becoming a fanatic.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Congregation Meetings

Today we held our annual congregation budget meeting.

I have come to see such events as necessary evils in the lives of congregations.

I've been very fortunate in my six years here to endure relatively little controversy.  Thankfully.

In my previous congregation, I had to endure no less than three congregational meetings that lasted over two hours.  They sucked!

This one had potential.  We brought two budgets to the floor.  In one, we removed the money we usually send to our synod, and we established a fund for people to voluntarily contribute to the greater church.

The main reason for this was my denomination's decision in August of 2009 to ordain practicing gays and lesbians.  As you can imagine, folks who are on the conservative side of the theological spectrum have been none too happy with this decision.  Many are wondering if they can continue to be a part of a church that holds to a decision they feel is not biblically based in any way, shape or form.  I understand such folks because I am on the more conservative side of that theological spectrum.  However, I have a different take.  I still believe you show love and generosity to those you disagree with.  Watch the movie "Fireproof" for a good example of such unconditional love.

Yet, that is perhaps an issue to be covered in another post.  Some folks have a very hard time showing such love, and, as I said, they sometimes wonder if they can support and be a part of such a church.  If their congregation continues to send money to an organization they believe is sinful, they have no way of voicing their displeasure other than to withhold giving to their church.  Of course, this hurts the local congregation and its ministries. 

Furthermore, if we are to say that we are a church that welcomes everyone, that means we must welcome folks on both the right and left of the theological spectrum.  We must respect their points of view even if we do not agree with them.  Offering folks an opportunity to give to the church without their money going to the head organization seemed the logical choice.  Also giving an opportunity for folks to contribute directly to the national organization gives a congregation the ability to avoid the conflict that invariably ensues with such issues--conflict that detracts from the church's mission and ministry.

The budget with this choice passed.  We have made a diligent effort to accommodate folks from all parts of the spectrum.  All are welcome in church.  Now, we will watch the fallout.

In general, churches that have made such allowances in their budgets have seen an increase in the amount of money sent to the church wide organization.  If this weren't the history, I would not have been in favor of this budget passing.  What will be interesting is to see the reaction of those on the far right.  If giving to the church wide organization increases, will they continue to be upset?  Will they raise a fuss? 

I hope not.  Because as far as I am concerned, this is the final effort to be made to make all feel welcome.  Everything is dependent upon folks' choices.  If someone continues to be angry and upset, I feel like I now have the backing to say, "We have done everything possible short of leaving the national organization.  I am too stubborn to leave because I believe I can make a difference in the church at large.  There are many who feel the same way; therefore, the church isn't leaving the national body.  If you continue to be unhappy, I suggest you look for another congregation where you feel more at home."

I hope it doesn't come to that, but one must do what one must.  I am proud our congregation passed this new budget.  For my congregation, it's necessary.  Hopefully, we can put this garbage behind us and continue to work on ministries like our 100K walk and making a difference in our community.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Raising My Glass...

Note: This blog is not intended to offend those of my friends who are of a different denominational persuasion and who believe that drinking alcohol at any time is sinful.  I respectfully disagree.

Every once in a while, I run across someone who shows amazement when the see me with a beer in my hand or enjoying a mixed drink--especially if they know or come to find out I am a pastor.

"You drink?" they ask.

"Hey, I'm Lutheran, " I reply.  "It makes a big difference."

Yes, we Lutherans have been known to enjoy our beer, our wine, and other spirits.  We started out in Germany after all.  Martin Luther once remarked that his wife Katie made "the best beer in all of Germany."   Indeed, when we read the story in the Bible of Jesus turning water into wine and saying, "Party on!", we say, "Hell yeah!"

Now, there are many who disagree with such an interpretation.  These folks also have ways of getting around St. Paul's admonition to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5: 23, "No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments." 

I personally believe that reading the Bible shows that drinking alcohol isn't sinful; however drinking alcohol to an excess definitely isn't such a good thing.  Don't believe me, take a gander at what happened to Noah and his daughters when too much alcohol became involved (if you thought Jerry Springer was bad, you should actually read the Bible sometime.).

As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate the value in a little bit of alcohol.  When I was younger, I hardly touched the stuff.  If my high school buds were honest, they would tell you they never saw me take a drink--ever.  My college buddies will tell you that I rarely took a drink.  Never went to any frat parties, and was never drunk.  In fact, I have never been drunk.  Been buzzing a couple of times, the last one after drinking a margarita at Rita's on the Riverwalk.  Didn't anticipate how big it was going to be, and I darn sure was going to finish it after paying six bucks for it!  I tend to take a page out of Louis L'Amour when his characters say, "I figure I can handle pretty much any situation when I'm sober."

But one or two drinks can be good for one's body and psyche.  Physicians have discovered the amazing capacity of red wine to lower cholesterol and keep arteries clear.  Alcohol does relax the body, and it also is a diuretic--helping the body eliminate liquids. 

And there is nothing, and I mean nothing like drinking an ice cold beer after a hard day's work.  My favorite place to get a beer is a little joint called Pilzner's Place just outside of Columbus.  You can have your choice of bottled beer there, but they only have one beer on tap: Budweiser.  Even if you don't like it, I highly recommend getting it.  You will never have a colder, more refreshing beer.  When they bring it out to you, there are ice crystals in the mug.  It is cold enough to make your teeth hurt and your taste buds celebrate.  (I'm getting thirsty thinking about it, and it's not even 8 a.m. yet.)

During my most stressful days, I have been known to head down to the local tavern, Crossroads, and drink a beer with everyone there.  It's a rarity, but when someone who I am close to dies or someone gets a serious illness, I'll stop in before heading home.  Honestly, it's not the beer that is important at that moment, but there is something healing sitting at the bar with others and talking with them and having them pick you up.

I remember clearly the day a little three year old girl was life-flighted into Houston with a mystery disease.  That little girl was sick.  Desperately ill.  I met with the family at the local hospital, and my heart went out to them.  My own daughter was barely a year older than this little girl, and there was a connection.  It's a parent's worst nightmare to see his or her kid lying in a hospital bed, barely responding, and throwing up blood and mucus.  It's a parent's worst nightmare to be told they have to transfer you to another hospital because what is happening is beyond their ability to heal.  It's a parent's worst nightmare to stand in that different hospital with doctors examining your child right and left and having no idea what is going on.  It's a parent's worst nightmare to have those doctors tell you they are placing your child in critical care for an undetermined amount of time.  You get a sinking feeling in your stomach when at that moment they turn to you and ask you to pray for their child and for them.  It's frustrating as hell knowing you can't make them feel better.  You can't take away any of their pain.  You can't tell them everything is going to be o.k. because you just don't know a damn thing at that moment.  All you can do is ask God to be with that little girl, place His healing hand on her, and give the parents strength.  You would love it if that little girl jumped up and was immediately healed after you laid hands on her.  You'd fall on your knees thanking God for His healing, but that's never happened to me.  I don't have that gift of healing--maybe my faith isn't strong enough.  But after such an experience, I needed a drink.  I needed healing myself. 

Crossroads Tavern was on my way home.  A church member owns it.  Several members frequent the place, and I was all too happy to see them.  To my friends who are not clergy and who are members of churches, please know that at such times, you are a blessing to your pastors.  When you talk with them and show that you are just as frustrated as they are; just as hurt as they are; and just as concerned as they are, it means a lot.  You bring healing to our emotional and spiritual wounds at that moment.  If you see your pastor dragging and having a hard time, offer to drink a beer with him or her--if alcohol is prohibited...well...um...take them out to dinner?

In my community, I think it's healthy for me to set an example of how one should drink.  When at a wedding or other celebration, I make it a point to drink a beer.  Only one.  Usually, I drink it before eating so folks can see me.  I have a lot of fun at this point by telling them before we pray, "I've had a beer already, so if the prayer goes on and on and on, I apologize now."  Or, if I've only drained half, I say, "You're lucky, I've only had half a glass so the prayer will last only five minutes instead of ten."  Laughter is good, but I think when folks don't see me grab another beer, that's even better.  They see me drink in moderation.  They see me try and set a good example that one can enjoy alcohol without going to excess.

It's all in moderation.  Like with so much in life.  Tonight, I'll be enjoying a little concoction I put together in an attempt to help my wife stomach the taste of alcohol.  She can't stand the taste because it's too bitter.  Took one part vanilla rum, one part grenadine, and one part Sprite and blended it.  Very sweet.  Delicious.  My wife was able to stomach it, and she enjoyed it.  Did I mention that she is getting over a cold and was having trouble sleeping.  Her throat wasn't doing so well, and she couldn't relax.  The drink coated her throat, relaxed her tremendously, and she slept like a baby.  All in moderation folks.  All in moderation.