Friday, August 9, 2019

A Litany of Thanksgiving


Image result for cherI am thankful…so very thankful…and not least that it is this Friday and not last Friday. While I am sure there are other people who for their own reasons wish they could turn back time a few days or weeks or however long (Cher is their patron, uh, saint), I for one am resolutely grateful to be living now and not then.

In many ways. Would not want to go back to my childhood, which was “melodramatic, disorganized, and emotionally exhausting” (Brooks, 75). I certainly do not want to revisit Jr. High, or High School, where I was, in turn, bullied, bullied again, willfully humiliated by the first loves of my life, betrayed by bandmates and ridiculed by classmates and teachers. I flunked-out of two colleges—not really interested in going there. One let me back in and that was not too bad, and in fact, one of my professors there (Dr. Byrd) changed my life. I still talk to him now and then, and he recently had the same surgery I had, but that is as close as I want to get. Another professor (Dr. C____) was like Byrd’s antimatter.

I could go on, but won’t. Suffice it to say that through seminary, early work experiences, early church positions, trying to get published—not even to mention trying to date, get married, have kids, hold it all together—I was not very good at it and abidingly unhappy. I am sure I made most if not all the people around me miserable, as I myself was melodramatic, disorganized and emotionally exhausting.

GLAD to be where I am. Do not want to go back. And not even a week.

Last Friday about this time I got the good medicine, made by Glenmark Pharmaceuticals in Kishanpura village, on the Baddi Nalagarth Road, in the Solan, Himachal Pradesh District, India. I have thanked God for those (presumably) Hindu saints for their good and merciful works for me, a sick Christian. I am so much better and I am so thankful for the healing, release and relief that those good people via the doctors gave me.

And perhaps that is where it started: this weeks’ deep prayers of thanks. The last two nights I have spent long, focused seasons in prayers of thanksgiving; this, after several nights just remembering before God those who made my medicine (“Bless, O Lord, this ointment and the hands that prepared it”). And the doctors and pharmacologists who researched, developed and manufactured the elixir! Surprisingly, I even thanked God for Glenmark’s investors and the medical regulators for getting the stuff to market.
Image result for prayer emoji


Two nights ago, I began with the people in my church who had cooked for me this last month, offered to take me places, brought me groceries, offered to do laundry and take out my trash. Hawthorne Lane, as a congregation, is well-practiced in its compassion and kindness and I am but the latest sick/wounded pastor to have benefited from their care.

Soon, I was thinking about/praying for the nurses, techs, orderlies, janitors, food service workers and, of course, doctors and surgeons and PA’s who tended to me. And even—I am not kidding—the people who conceived, designed, manufactured, patented, sold all the machines, gauges, gizmos and monitors, the tubes, vacuums, hoses, bags, and needles (that one was hard!) that were part of the healing process.

It was one of those moment (and they come rarely for me) when I was overcome with overwhelming and very focused thanks for all of what secured me a successful surgery and recovery. And it did not stop there.
Image result for the Second MountainI have recently been reminded that “(by) one calculation the mind can take in eleven million bits of information in a second, of which the conscious mind is aware of forty” (The Second Mountain, 113). That factoid has informed my prayer life this week: for everything I know to pray thanks for, there are so many other things that have blessed and attended me of which I am completely unaware. I am oblivious to millions of unseen bits of care every second: behind every meal: planters, cultivators, harvesters, salespeople, shippers, receivers, preparers, servers. (I am reminded of Sideways, when the character played by Virginia Madsen said something to the effect that when she opens a bottle or drinks a glass of wine, she wonders about all the people that had a hand in it—the growers and pickers and such. She wonders if they are still alive. She thinks how grateful she is for them providing such a moment to her. I’m hip).

So, several nights (cumulative First Night): Thanks for my medicine-makers in India.

Second night: Thanks for my own congregation and their care, and all the other caregivers, seen and unseen, that blessed me these last weeks.

Third night, which was just last night: all my many “formal” teachers along the way. I called so many names: Barnett, Glenn, Morris, Greenwood, Rowell and Woods at Crieve Hall. Tatum, Doris, Johnson, Campbell, Mathis at MacMurray. No one at MBA (brrrr!). Williams, Stevens, Karnowsky at John Overton.  Drs. Byrd, Tullock, Helton and Mr. Awalt at Belmont. Drs. Stagg, Polhill, Blevins, Halbrook, Calloway, Tupper, Mueller, Tuck, Leonard, Shurden and Hinson at Southern. Drs. Wood, Angell and Talbert at Wake Forest. Drs. Hackett and Gerkin at Emory.

But again, I did not stop there. I thanked God for their teachers, and for the many who have taught me informally, who were congregants, colleagues, supervisors and supervisees. I thanked God for the authors of books that have blessed and tried to educate me: Baillie, Buechner, Heschel, Dillard, Lewis, Norris, Taylor, Winner, Haidt, Peterson, Benson, Brooks, Ware, Abba Anthony and Abba Joseph, Bonhoeffer, Burghardt, Lamott, Dykstra, Barth (a little; as much as I could absorb and understand). I thanked God for columnists and other writers: Parker, Gerson, Grizzard, Amend, Watterson, Shultz, Jenkins. And so many more that I could not remember or name.

I offered intercessions for counselors, like Larry and Marc, and editors, like Rachelle and Liz and Anne and Jeannie, Bishops Jones, Kammerer, McLesky, Goodpastor, Leeland. For friends like Doris, and Doris; for Paul and Ruth, Mr. Lovett, and others whose hospitality I have never deserved but always enjoyed.

I thanked God for Mr. Sanford, my third grade SS teacher at Radnor Baptist Church in Nashville, TN, who for all else I don’t remember, taught me the books of the Bible. I DO remember that about him.  

So many more I could name and did: my children, of course, my granddaughter and the child on the way, my wider family (including my two ex-wives) and others besides.  

Image result for liturgy of the hoursBut it is so odd.

My prayer life is usually not nearly so focused. I pray the Liturgy of the Hours, which I have on my phone, but those prayers are mostly scripture. These prayers were very different than that. And I wondered why I was prying them. Did I have a sense that my end is near and that I needed to be sure I had said thanks to God for each of these saints and the millions who were saints to them and here we go… to assure God (and myself) I was/am sufficiently aware and grateful? I don’t know.

But I would suggest it as an exercise for anyone: to take a full measure of your indebtedness, to name as many people as you can name, to be as specific as you can to thank God for everyone who has blessed and taught and helped you on your way.  

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Jonathan Swift would be proud



Have been thinking a LOT this last week and a half about Gulliver and the Lilliputians.

Like Gulliver, I made my voyage through deep and dangerous seas with great ease. What might have been a difficult passage from diagnosis to surgery was actually rather routine. And even the matters I was most scared about--the IV, my customary nausea, the cathether--passed quickly and uneventfully. Yes, the catheter was unkind, and I did have to drag it for two weeks, but I was able to negotiate even that inconvenience better than I might have anticipated. Good for me.


And when the doctor said, said again, and reiterated, "No cancer outside the prostate, no further treatments or protocols," I thought, truly (to use another metaphor), I had passed through the valley of the shadow of death and might make a recovery in record time. Only then... My little boat, the SS Recovery, ran aground on the archipelago called The Miseries. 


Somehow, perhaps with some of my post-surgery medicine, I managed to contract some of sort of skin irritation... quite a benign description for the yeast or fungus or whatever it was and the unremitting, well, misery it caused me for 11 days. As effectively as the Lilliputions tied down old Gulliver, I too was held captive, vexed in body, mind and spirit.


Two doctors, one dermatological PA, a steroid shot, two oral meds and later (see to the left), I was no better, and perhaps worse. Think: hamburger. My only recourse at one point last week was an ice pack, in hopes of numb myself enough to sleep. And to wake without claw marks. 


Attempts to see other dermatologists were futile. Two (including my PA) could not see me for another 7-10 days. I was on the brink...


Then, a providence. A church member brought me a meal and stated to visit. She said she had an appointment next morning with her dermatologist and would ask him to see me (I am thinking, no way: these guys are booked-up for weeks on account of giving botox shots).


For her sake, though, he saw me at 1 and prescribed the new medicine, which, he said, would give me pretty quick relief.

I went immediately to “my” Walgreens and, naturally, THEY DID NOT HAVE THE MEDICINE!

They promised to order it and have it next day, Friday. Only, when I called mid-afternoon (when my app showed the Rx as "still delayed," they told me it had not come in and it may be Monday before it arrived. I was livid, pitiful, desperate...told them that it was approaching a medical emergency. They got busy and found another store that did have it.


I had secured the prescription at 5 this afternoon, applied it by 5:15, to find that it burned, I mean. As it has with each subsequent application, though a bit less each time. And in a good way—if that makes sense. It seemed a kind of warm comfort, not least after the ice capades of the previous morning. I was able to sleep for the first time in a week.


Now, a couple of days later, I have definitely turned the corner--though as bad as the condition got, the doctor said and I believe it will take some time to get anywhere near completely well. 


Last night I had a long prayer meeting, thanking God for all the little things that contributed to my finally getting some relief. For my friend, who "happened" to be signed up that evening, and just before her own appointment. For the doctor, God bless him. And Jessica, his assistant--who was so kind and understanding. For the Walgreens that had the stuff (and mercy, I prayed, for those who one way or another broke their first promises). I prayed for the people in Kishanpura, India, who made the medicine: "Thank you, Lord, for the medicine and bless the hands that made it." I  thanked God for the scientists and pharmacologists who developed the medicine in the first place. And if all that sounds silly, it goes to show how despairing I was and how thankful I am.


Challenges remain, of course; but now I am on to the expected, typical challenges that come on the downside of this kind of surgery. The Lilliputions, as it were, have untied me and I can start the next leg of the voyage.   
 

Thanks be to God, and thank you for your continued prayers.

Monday, July 15, 2019

A Week Out, A Week Away


I’m a week-out from surgery, and a week-in to the kind of uncomfortable indignity that is part-and-parcel of this kind of surgery. Staples, a catheter… this time next Monday, God willing, I will have all of those implants out of me and I will be on the road to feeling more nearly normal.

I am not complaining. Things could not have gone much better than they have. Last week I was worried about 1) IV’s, 2) nausea, 3) discovery, and 4) the catheter.

So, by the numbers…

The nurse who did the IV left the back of my hand alone, thankfully, and found a good vein near my left wrist. It was not too bad a stick. The surgical team installed another in my other hand, which is scarred, but I was asleep. Both IV’s held all week, stayed open and did not have to be replaced. I was thrilled.

Various patches and drugs kept my stomach calm, so that I had no nausea at all—until after I got home, when the only thing on TV was “Christmas in July” on the Hallmark channel. Chemicals can only do so much against such toxins. Still, I had no problem while in the hospital (in the past, over the course of multiple surgeries, I have had my head in a bucket on account of anesthesia), so I am thankful.

The pathology report came back doubly early on Thursday morning: early in the day and early in the process. I did not expect to hear till sometime this week or later, nor did I expect to get the call from my doctor on the hospital phone. Now, if I had been awake, I might have been taken aback and worried: after all, it was my doctor’ early morning call, and unexpected, on the Monday after my Friday biopsy that told me I had cancer. That he called, early, and earlier, could have meant bad news. Quite the opposite, turns out. But I had to be sure… with my hearing the way it is, and the room phones the way they are, I was having trouble getting a clear “read” on what the doctor was saying. Fumbling with the volume control on the phone, getting my hearing aids adjusted, I finally heard him say, “clean lymph hones, clear margins, self-contained, you’re on cruise control.” I said, “Let me say that back to you. Is this what I heard?” He said it was. Great, good news. (Since that moment, which I have not properly toasted as of yet, I have been praying, humbly, for the many others who have heard other than good news. Seems only appropriate to join my prayers to theirs and to the Lord’s).  

              The catheter… well, that is what it is. And will be.

              Come next Monday, God willing, I will be free of these situational, uh, enhancements and able to drive again and begin the real road back.

              Meanwhile, Hawthorne Lane UMC has been so wonderfully gracious to me over these last weeks and months. So many pastors have gone through difficult diagnoses, procedures, recoveries and rehabs without any of the kind of support I have received. I have been so humbled by the outpouring of compassion and care.

              I hope more congregations realize that ministry and pastoral care is mutual. I hope more pastors are able to benefit from the blessing of receiving care. While it may be indeed be more blessed to give than to receive, I am here to prove that it is a real blessing to receive, too—which means others are enjoying the “more” blessing of giving.

Wonderful, God’s economy.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Three Out of Four... ain't bad?


Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body…”

Hard to admit that those four commandments are just the latest that I have disobeyed in the last few weeks.

Well, maybe only three. Three out of four.

I am not anxious about my life. Check. BUT... I am anxious about others’ lives: my son and his (potentially serious) girlfriend; my daughter and her new husband; my ex-wife, who is surely dying and way too soon; and, most especially, my granddaughter who will be four in August.

I AM anxious about their lives, wanting them to be well and happy; wanting to spare them grief and scars; wishing them health and prosperity; hoping to see all of it—more grandbabies, great-grandbabies, every wedding, every graduation, every joyous moment—and knowing that I will not. That I cannot. At least not all of it. At some point the procession will leave me behind and that, of course, is the way of the world.

I am also clear that seeing them, their events, their joy—or even being present to them in their sadness—is much more important to me than it is to them.

This last week, I watched my poor ex-wife—who is suffering from a very rare and quickly debilitation neuro-muscular disease that leaves her diminished in so many ways—I watched her watch our lone grandchild move here and there about the room among a house full of folk, gathered for our daughter’s remarriage. There were children and toys and the baby had no interest in older folk, her or me or even her mother (though she did cry after the ceremony, apparently wondering if her mother would still love her after taking vows to her new husband; she was assured she would be, and she will be!). I could sense how desperately the grandmother wanted to engage the granddaughter, to no avail. The child, and the world, is leaving her and the sadness of that, and the incomprehensibility of her situation, weighed heavily on me that night, and still.

I am anxious about my daughter, new husband, new house, new situation. I want everything to be as sweet and prosperous and redemptive as it can be, and especially given the pain and difficulty she has endured.

And my son, who has had a hard time figuring it out with women, but finally is in a relationship that seems so right for him. I want him to marry and have kids; and I would like for him to do all that before his mother dies, but I don’t want him to do any of it—nor, strong of character as he is, will he—for the wrong reasons in the wrong timing.

So, my apologies to my Lord, I do take thought, am somewhat anxious, for their lives. I guess that is what Dads do and are. But I also trust them into His care. One time in my life I thought I had had a stroke and was dying. Not very far into the crisis (which was serious, but not that serious) I found the serenity to let go—to let myself go into the care of Jesus, and to believe that He would take care of those I was leaving behind (since He, unlike us, is not bound by time or human parameters). Now, again, when my mortality is a metallic taste in my mouth, I leave them to the Lord. But still I worry a little. And wish. I would so love to see my girl start school, finish school, date (though I may hurt any boy who presumes he is worthy of her), marry, have kids of her own… alas, that is not up to me.

More worrisome than breaking the "do not worry" commandment is the “take no thought of what you eat and drink” commandment/s. Ever since my doctor took me off caffeine of any sort, and cigars—which I do not smoke often but dearly love—and alcohol in all its forms (I have done better with the first two than the third!),  I have realized how much of my day is organized around eating and drinking. More the latter than the former.

I am of a constitution that allows me to not eat as often as others. When I try to, I gain weight. When I eat only when I am hungry, which I do not often notice, I lose weight. But I have gotten into a routine of afternoon study with beer, dinner with wine, and bourbon before bed. Not all those every day. Not a lot of any one of them, usually. But part of my routine. And especially as I am single and live alone, kind of my companions.

It’s been hard. Mary in a Sunfish, pray for me.

As to food, I have so wanted to lose some weight, so I have been over-concerned with what I am eating and when. Not good. I should not, at 64.5, be concerned with body image or the curvature in my spine that makes my stomach look as if I have swallowed a basketball… but there is vanity at work, I have to admit.

Meanwhile, “(take no thought) of your body…” Jesus goes on to talk about wardrobe. That is not my concern. More is the fact that prostate cancer killed my father. Bladder cancer killed my maternal grandfather. It has been three months since the diagnosis, and while the doctor assures me there is no rush (my surgery will be three months to the day from the diagnosis), I do wonder what is going on down there. I wonder what he will find. I am a bit anxious about what my family and friends will hear from him when he comes out of surgery and says… what?

“Everything went great! No sign of cancer in his bladder or lymph nodes or surrounding tissue. Consider him cured.”

Or, “The surgery went well, but we were surprised to see more cancer than we expected. He will need radiation and chemo. He has an 80% chance to live five years,” which is what the doctor told us about Dad and, sure enough, he lived to within a few weeks of 5 years. I do not know how long my grandfather, for whom I was named and never knew, was sick before he died.

But Jesus says, I am of more value than the birds. Jesus says I need not worry about tomorrow, for today’s anxiety is enough for today. Let tomorrow take care of tomorrow, and let Jesus take care of it all.

I will do my best, dear Lord. Dear Lord, pray for me.

I am doing my best.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

New Beginnings

A word from the preacher, who was also the bride's father...
I
There is nothing quite so wonderful as a beginning… unless, of course, it is a new beginning.

Nothing more exciting than a real chance, unless it is a real second chance. Or a third. So no wonder the great English theologian, Stevie Winwood has said, “When you see a chance, take it!”


In fact, to use theological language: nothing more powerfully, or eloquently testifies to God’s eternity and will and purpose than the creation itself; except, of course, for new creation.  
Do you remember, how in the book of Genesis, after six long days, God looked at everything the divine Word had created and, behold, it was very good.


II
But, eons later, in the book of Isaiah, God summoned that very same, very good but now languishing creation—all the world and all its people and Israel, most especially—to take note, to bear witness, to pay attention.” Look! God said…   

“I am about to do a new thing;

Even now it springs forth,

do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness…

I provide water in deserts—

streams in thirsty lands for (my beloved children).
So do not remember the former things,
    or consider the things of old.

What a great text to recall today! Even now, as refreshing new beginnings spring forth!

III
I want you to know I am as excited about new beginnings, about second and third chances, about the new creation, as it is possible to be. And today, especially.

So happy. So happy I thought I might sing. And especially since there is no other music. I might give voice to an old hymn, kind of,  penned by that great American hymn writer, Johnny Nash: which I thought especially appropriate for today (and even more so now, given what happened in the last hour):

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.

I can see all obstacles in my way.

Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind…

Join me on the chorus?

Oh, yes, I can make it now, the pain is gone.

All of those bad feelings have disappeared.

Here is the rainbow I’ve been praying for.

It’s gonna be a bright, bright, sunshiny day.

I believe that for these two. They can see clearly now. The rain is gone. And with it, much of the pain and bad feelings.

Or, as St. Paul says in II Corinthians: because of Christ, one way or the other, in ways we might not be able to imagine: here, today, we do see new creation! “All things are new! “Everything old has disappeared!”

St. Paul echoes the Almighty’s over-speak in Isaiah: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old…”

With apologies to the Lord, we want to remember some things, one creation to the next. With all due respect to St. Paul, everything old has not disappeared. 

Which is to say, hyperbolic prophet and preacher poetry aside, there is joyous carry-over in evidence here today: children, to name two.   

Even in the setting: this old house becomes a brand new home.

And just think: a civil, and sometimes uncivil, less-than-sacred sacred institution, marriage—old and broken and confusing, sometimes, these days: today, in this green, feels fresh as Eden.

IV
So, yes, we rejoice in new beginnings; no, everything old has not disappeared.

We do not want to forget everything, but instead choose to remember, and celebrate, and thank God that God was present for Eric and Bethany in what may at the time have seemed God-forsaken moments; blessing in ways that could not always be recognized, there in the wilderness. God provided water in the desert, and comfort even in painful times.

And so it is for all of us, always.

God does not just show-up at the beginning and the end—and never as a reward for our perseverance, but always as a gift of his abiding grace. Not only when the rain is gone and the clouds have passed-away. No, God is present even in the storms: that’s what rainbows prove.  That is what Eleanor and Trinity prove.

And, truth to tell—a truth we all know—in spite of Mr. Nash’s hymn, all the rain is not gone, all the clouds have not disappeared, all the bad feelings are not entirely a memory… Look straight ahead: there will be yet be cloudy days as well as sunshiny ones… sickness as well as health, hard times as well as soft.

But in those very moments, look all around: God will be there.

These two know that: for among the other carry-overs from one beginning to the next is wisdom: real wisdom born of real experience.

Wisdom, gestated in hope. Crowned with love. And faith.

All those ancient virtues—and these two along with them along with them—today reconfigured, rearranged, recreated: made wholly new.

A new creation.

Thanks be to God.

Dinner Church


I

The fishing was terrible. In three days we caught almost nothing.

            The food, however, was wonderful. In 6 ½ days we ate almost everything.

            I had planned to lose ten pounds before July 8; I may have gained that much last week. Three meals a day—I never eat three meals a day. Two appetizers before supper each night: spicy meatballs, enormous stuffed jalapenos, nachos, shrimp and cilantro ceviche, bacon-wrapped shrimp, shrimp cocktail…   

            In fact, our chef, Emerson, declared all-out war on shrimp, and lobster, and fish, and chicken, chorizo, rice and beans, tortillas. Lord, goodness. He made fresh cherry cheesecake. He made fresh key-line pie.

Forget the Mediterranean or Holy Land: my next trip may be back to Belize. If I can score a villa where Emerson is cooking, who’s with me?

II

            But the fishing was terrible.

I did catch a couple of insights, however.


This one day, off in search of bonefish, we happened onto a small diving village. On the pier we saw half-a-dozen mostly shirtless young men, fifteen to twenty years old. All of them skinny, but muscular, , wearing wide straw hats against the sun. They had had come back to the pier with that day’s haul of rock lobsters.
And a model of efficiency there in the pier’s little cleaning station, how quickly one of the guys cut and bagged the lobster tails, forty or fifty of them by my count, and dumped the rest of the lobster like chum into the water. That’s where we found the bonefish. Caught a few of them.

            Soon, a man walked down the pier. He was from the local co-op, it turned out, which regulates the harvest and sets the price, buys from the harvesters and sells to the restaurants and chefs. The young men gathered around him while he examined the lobster tails, calculated and paid them…

But not, apparently, as much as they had hoped.

            The very next night, Emerson prepared lobster tails for us: two apiece for our group of four: so rich and sweet and buttery.

But with every bite, I thought back to the pier—chewed on the fact that in Belize, and elsewhere, some dine sumptuously while others subsist, and receive only a few pennies for all the many dollars rich tourists fork-over, as it were.

            Between bites, I remembered, prayed to myself, a little table prayer I learned as a boy: “Bless, O Lord, this food, and the hands that prepared it.”

That night, I had more than Emerson in my mind and heart.    

III

            From my observation—and I hope I am wrong—but it would seem that these days few, even Christian families and their Christian friends, stop to pray before meals. Home or restaurant.

The consequences are, I believe, of course, but also ethical.

Spiritual, because when we forget to pray, “Bless, O Lord, this food…” or something like that, we gradually forget how indebted we are to God these and all our many blessings (another old table prayer).

And ethical: because when we forget to pray God’s blessing on the hands that prepared it, we forget how indebted we are to so many other people for the food we are about to receive.

When we do not call ourselves to regular, humble thanks-giving, we can begin to imagine that we deserve to eat lobster, while others deserve only pennies on the pound.

There are, I believe, eternal consequences to that kind of thankless presumption.
IV
Which brings me to our gospel lesson for today, and all the excuses people gave to the man who had invited them to his party.

And have you ever noticed how much of Jesus ministry is taken-up with meals? And eating?

How many of his parables are set at banquets, dinners, feasts?
 
Image result for banquet feastHow many of his miracles involve food—whether the multiplication of the loaves and fish, or turning water into wine?

            How much of his teaching takes place at Table… The Last Supper, the First Breakfast? The banquet at the Pharisee’s house, who was offended when the woman washed his feet. And again, later, at Lazarus’ house when Mary, sister of Martha and Lazarus, did the same thing? Jesus was always teaching a dinner time.

            And do you remember how one of the main criticisms of Jesus was that he ate with sinners?

            But so much of what he wanted to show, what he wanted to tell; where he earnestly desired to be with his disciples, where he wanted his disciples to demonstrate the lessons he taught them, up to the very last night of his life—involved eating together.

And even this morning. 

“When you give a banquet,” Jesus says, “do not invite friends and relatives and others who can reciprocate.” That is not hospitality; that’s investment.

Instead, he said to his disciples, invite the folk who cannot, will not invite you in turn. Your reward will come at the Last.

And perhaps that is what today’s lesson evokes: The Last. The Kingdom of God. The End of Days. Suppertime in heaven. 

How sad, then, for the ones who turn down the nan’s invitation.

Who don’t even realize they need, or should want, what the man offered. Because they have so much to do. They don’t want to be rude—please excuse me, if you will—it’s just that they don’t have time for this particular activity when there is so much else going on.

They have excellent, familiar excuses: I have a field, I must go see it. I have five new yoke of oxen. I must go examine them. I just got married. I’m still on my honeymoon.

            Their excuses don’t make them bad people. Quite the opposite, in fact. I mean, yes, it’s just a parable, but as Jesus sets-up the story you assume they are good people, successful people, prosperous people. With money to spend, family to enjoy, property to farm: they have means. AND…

The things they choose are not bad things. They are good things.

These people are so good, and so busy with good things, that it never occurs to them that they really need what the man offered them. Instead, they just go on in their self-sufficiency, imagining that the good life is the life they can make for themselves, full of business and possessions, full of activities and narrow associations.

Good people—just, with other good things to do.

Can anybody relate?

V

            You remember how the story comes out: the man is insulted, and so others get to share the banquet with him. People who were not on the A-list, or B-list. People who could not have given him a  banquet in return, but that is part of Jesus’ point.

And how wonderful for those who get the surprising, gracious, never-expected invitation the poor, maimed, blind and lame. And more besides, even further off the path than those. And soon the banquet hall is full of the not-so-respectable—but the absolutely appreciative.

Those original invitees? They never got a taste.

VI

            Reading this parable this week in Belize, I have been reminded of a new kind of ministry that is taking hold here and there, a new vision of what it means to be church in this day and time. Looks kind of like the early Methodist movement, when on Thursday nights small groups came together to read the Bible and pray and hold each other accountable to the demands of the gospel…

            Only, not quite like that, either. For the followers of Wesley, they gathered Christian formation: like Theology on Top, or Sacred Space: it was the way they grew into Christ.

            This new thing, which is an old thing if you stop and think about how much of Jesus’ ministry happened at Table, is called “Dinner Church.” People invite people to dinner, at someone’s home. Sometimes everyone knows everybody—8, 10, 12—instead of a Sunday School class or small group.

Sometimes people don’t know everyone: there are colleagues of others, acquaintances, the marginalized, even the homeless.  

Sometimes they cook together, then eat what they cooked. Sometimes, the host cooks and you just eat.  

            In some places it is evangelism: an intentional invitation to the skeptical, to people who may not feel comfortable in traditional church settings—may not feel good enough or worthy enough—but might accept the unexpected invitation to dinner to come hear about Jesus, or prayer, or being in an intentional faith community.

However it starts, whoever shows, the meal turns into a Eucharist before it is over. Bread. Cup. Worship, but away from any sanctuary.

There is little in the way of liturgy or music—kind … kind of like it was back in Jesus’ day.

            Some predict that, in the not-too-distant future, after all the big-church scandals and denomination schisms, on account of the disaffections and disenchantments, “what’s left” of Jesus’ Church will look this this: people purposing to set aside work, and busyness and all the other things that are good things but can get in the way—and eating together.

And remembering Jesus: his teaching, his miracles, his love.

And trying to be more like him in the world, and inviting people over again next week.  

            A bunch of sinners. And Jesus right there with them, we believe.

Nothing magic about it. But interesting. How many of you might find that kind of venue and small group attractive? Already thinking of people you could invite?

            Rachel Held Evans, the best-selling young author who died so surprisingly and horribly back in May, once wrote, not about dinner church, per se, but about any church, at all, and what it be and remain if it is represent Jesus in the world. 

She says, “…the gospel does not need a coalition devoted to keeping people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls and throwing open the doors and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine! Come and talk!” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy. It is a kingdom for the hungry. This is what God's kingdom is like: a bunch of outcasts and oddballs gathered at a table, not because they are rich or worthy or good, but because they are hungry, because they said yes. And there's always room for more.”

At Hawthorne Lane, we will not keep anyone out. There will always be room for more.

            As it was in the beginning. Is now and ever shall be. Of such is the Kingdom of God.

A Litany of Thanksgiving

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