A Hope and Sadness (Tempered).


As General Conference of the UMC comes to an end, the best sense of where we are as a church seems best to be described as “hope and sadness – tempered.”   I have seen and heard a large number of fellow UMs possessing such a great passion to be that church that becomes the face of Jesus to our world by practicing radical and transformative inclusionary love, that I know deep down that my children will not inherit the same United Methodist Church that I serve within.    They will one day have that church of radical love.    The example of so many in Tampa goes to attest to that fact. 

(I offer my thanksgiving to them)

At the same time, I also am sad.    A piece of my heart has been broken yet again.    I think of the many friends and fellow faithful who have been hurt and continue to be hurt by many policies of the church.   Although I celebrate the signs and celebration of repentance shared during this conference for the very real hurts the church has caused in the past (with Native Americans, Women, and Race), I cant help but interpret those moments with a hint of irony.

Repentance is a ” an admission of guilt a promise or resolve not to repeat the offense; an attempt to make restitution for the wrong, or in some way to reverse the harmful effects of the wrong where possible.”  Is it truly repentance if we resolve but dont change?    I wonder how old my children will be, when the church has an evening of repentance for the injustice of  we shared under the banner of United Methodism today.   It is sadness that many will erroneously point to us – as leaders of the church – as ask why we were so broken or why we could allow it to happen.

Will the see our indecision as a reason to turn away?   Will they see our unwillingness to talk as yet another reason for leaving our faith?   Will they be scarred by our inaction?   Will they – or their children – feel that there is no place or pew for them?  Although we can celebrate the diversity of views, theology, and biblical understanding, why do we find it so hard to just simply talk?  Why is holy conversation so hard?

In the end, one day my kids will have to justify, explain, or rationalize my action or inaction today.    I hope that my children will know that their father was a proud and strong Christian, a faithful student of Wesleyan theology, and a man who loved his church passionately and with great conviction.   

I also pray that my children will know that my God and my Jesus is one of LOVE (capital LOVE intended!).  They will know that Daddy never looked at another man or woman and saw brokeness first and foremost, but rather saw the face of God staring back.  The will know that Daddy made a practice of embracing whole and full LOVE of his neighbor, as opposed to hiding behind the powers and principalities of politics, nationalism, or silly catch phrases such as “hate the sin, but love the sinner.” 

My girls will know, because I will continue to stand up, stand alongside, stand for, stand with, and stand before those who are hurt or marginalized by society and/or the church.    I do so as my own act of repentance.   I do so because of who I know Jesus to be.    They will know because I will continue to stand with those like Mark.  I will “Stand, because we…And I…can do a lot better.” (emphasis mine).

The following is an article from UM Insight, a General Conference educational project of St. Stephens UMC.

Love Your Neighbor Campaign Urges UMC to “Stand With Mark”

After forty years of the exclusionary policies, the General Conference conducted only one hour of “holy conversation” on the subject of the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people on first day of the General Conference. Many people reported experiencing hurtful words during these “holy conversations.” Members of the coalition working for full inclusion set the tone for the coming week by speaking out against demeaning words and actions against LGBT people.

During the Thursday evening plenary, Mark Miller, a delegate and openly gay man, brought the concerns of the coalition before the General Conference. As he rose to speak, allied delegates began to gather around as a visible sign of support.

 The following is the text of Miller’s witness:

As an elected, credentialed member of this General Conference, I am offering my voice to say that the attempt at Holy Conversation about Human Sexuality yesterday was incomplete. The process failed because of a lack of leadership and oversight. It failed because there wasn’t any careful preparation that really respects people and takes this work seriously.

So we are standing as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender delegates. Yesterday the United Methodist Church did us harm. When we are harmed, the church is harmed. We serve at every level of the church though no one will admit it. We were bullied, emotionally, spiritually and physically. And no one did anything. We were harmed by the lack of leadership by the bishops. We abide by Wesley’s rule of Do No Harm and that rule was broken.

We are standing because we’re not going to wait for broken promises to fix themselves. We’ve learned that in this church waiting doesn’t work. So now we’re being proactive. It’s time for this church to live our resurrection faith. And I know that there are others delegates who are GLBT and delegates who have family members and colleagues who are GLBT. We invite you to stand with us at this moment. All means all. Stand. Stand, because we can do a lot better.

At Mark’s invitation, those in the audience stood at their seats. The Presiding Bishop ruled Mark’s witness out of order. His words generated a “Stand with Mark” campaign which quickly went viral on Twitter (#standwithmark). The comments on Twitter supported both Mark, and called for the United Methodist Church to oppose bullying words and actions.

In the closing worship healing service, Bishop Robert Hoshibata preached on “Love Heals.” He reported that he wanted “the church to include all, whomever they love.” Supporters for full inclusion left worship early to stand in silent protest. According to one witness, there were over 200 people standing in silent vigil outside worship. Delegates walked past the demonstration, a visible reminder that LGBT people are still an active part of the church, despite exclusionary policies.

***

For more information on the history of this discussion within the UMC, the following link is a great primer.  http://um-insight.net/articles/will-the-umc-say-%27i-do%27/  This is also the same source of the article above.   The chalice is the one broken (to symbolize broken communion) at the Pittsburg General Conference, and reassembled as a sign of the desire for healing and one of the greatest artifacts of the contemporary UMC.  (Mark DuBose of the UM News Service)

The Hunger Games: Finding God in the Arena


Last week I took my eldest daughter to see the blockbuster movie the Hunger Games. 

If you have turned on the news of late you would have to be a very disinterested watcher to not understand what I am referring too, because it seems to be all that is front and center of late.   The Hunger Games is the first movie in a planned trio, to tackle a dark book series, by the same name written by Suzanne Collins.  The books were intended for youths and they have sold a record 800,000 copies in 2 years.  The books are now printed 28 languages, and experts expect that number to break the millions mark very quickly now that adults are reading the books too.

The movie series appears to be on track to be an overwhelming success as well.

  • The New York Daily news reports that the film earned “a record-shattering $155 million at the box office in its debut weekend, the third-highest total in history and the highest ever for a non-sequel. Only last year’s “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” and 2008’s “The Dark Knight” finished with higher openings.”  The movie made $19.7 million on the Midnight Nationwide showing alone.
  • As a result of the initial success of the movie ABC Family has purchased the TV rights for the books for a staggering – and undisclosed – amount of money.

The merchandising is over the top and the impact of the movie is being seen in clothing purchases as millions of teenage girls now want to dress and be like the star of the movie.    Archery lessons are even skyrocketing as the girl is an expert in the movie…1

For some however, the reaction has been less than ideal.   Nowhere is that response more critical than from Christian corners of the world.

I have collected a series of quotes from around the internet, and the below is a spattering of some of the online responses to the movie:

  • Unless Hollywood returns to the historic practice of producing wholesome, uplifting movies, it must be boycotted in its entirety”
  • “No responsible parent would allow his child to see this movie. A brief moment of entertainment is not sufficient to outweigh the irreversible damage to an impressionable young mind.”
  • “There is no more adequate book for the bonfire than these.”

In the end, you don’t need me to remind you that most often what we hear on the internet or on radio or TV represents those among us who yell the loudest.  What we see and hear is usually the extreme among us, and it’s usually not mainstream Christians. 

Yet smack dab in the middle of the noise the rest of us sit back and wonder.   There is no arguing The Hunger Games is certainly a dark and violent movie and in the end, we can’t escape wondering what are we supposed to think. How is a person who struggles with their faith, in a confusing and broken world, supposed to respond to this movie and these books?   Where are we to stand?

Now, before I move this message to its next portion and talk of my own attempts to answer that question in an authentic and genuine way let me be clear.   Although I will not spoil the climax of the books or movie, I will be providing you a framework for the story, and as such treat this as my spoiler alert.   If you plan on reading the series and you want every single page to be fresh and new, this is your time to scurry off. 

10, 9, 8, 7, 6 ….

Final Warning….

5, 4, 3, 2, 1….

Okay, you’re stuck here…

I guess there also is room for one more caveat…If you never plan on partaking of the series rest assured this message will provide you just enough of the meat of the story so you don’t feel like an outcast at the water cooler. 

To summarize:

The Hunger Games is the story of a 16 year old, girl next door, named Katniss Everdeen.    Katniss lives in a place called District 12 of the nation of Panem.    Panem is a post apocalyptic United States, and District 12 would be found were Appalachia is today.    Just like Appalachia, District 12 is a poverty stricken coal mining community. Katniss lives in the bleak place with here mentally unstable mother, and her little sister named Primrose or Prim.   Her father died in a coal mining accident several years prior.

The nation is ruled by a harsh and evil dictator named President Snow.    At some point in the past, the 12 districts of Panem, revolted against the government, and eventually the government destroyed the uprising.    As a punishment, the Capitol instated something called the Hunger Games.

Think Survivor on steroids.

Each year, all the children of the nation between 12 and 18 years old entered a lottery of sorts.  On the day of reaping – as it was called – a boy and a girl’s name are drawn at random to become contestants or “tributes” in the games, televised across the nation.    These 24 youths are then taken to the Capitol, which resides amidst the protection of the Rocky Mountains, to fight in a vast arena.    Game makers create roadblocks and dangers throughout the battle, and the fight rages until all our dead but one.    That lone survivor comes back both wealthy and as a hero.

On the day of the “reaping”, Katniss’ little sister Prim’s name is drawn.   Immediately Katniss, who has devoted her life to caring for her little sister, steps up to take her place.   Almost immediately she is coupled with a boy, Peeta Mellark, who has always secretly loved Katniss, and together they are whisked away to the Capitol to prepare for the games.

The wealthy, bored, and over privileged citizens of the Capitol celebrate the brutality of the games with elaborate parties and celebrations.    The paparazzi and the fanfare go full tilt.   Each set of contestants are provided with a team of spin doctors all with the intent of helping the tributes look and sound better, as each hopes to eventually earn sponsors that provide much needed food, medicine and supplies while in the arena.

In the end, the Hunger Games is the story of Katniss and Peeta in that Arena.

And YES, That story is indeed dark.  It’s about kids killing kids, and it doesn’t get much darker than that.   At the same time it has touched on something in our culture.  First it reached out and grabbed a hold of the imagination of our children, and now it’s doing the same to our adults. 

A couple of years ago, I had a discussion with Jake and Annie about the books and one of them said, the story is just so believable.   “You can almost imagine it happening,” they said. I have read the series too and their statement is 100% true.      That fact – in and of itself – is almost heart breaking.    You have two children, both growing up in the church, to good parents and in good schools, and they both agree that the darkness, which in a perfect world should be almost unimaginable, seems almost likely.  

It is heartbreaking, but they are spot on.  It is heartbreaking because we live in:

  • A world of those that have and those that have not,
  • A world were the poor are made hungry to feed the excesses of the rich,
  • A world were violence is made regular and almost celebration,
  • A world were power trumps humanity,

We are kidding ourselves if we do not see this as an indictment of today rather than some far off fairy tale.

Even the description from the book, on the capitol, is disturbing and all to close;

“Glistening buildings in a rainbow of hues that tower into the air,

the shiny cars that roll down the wide paved streets,

the oddly dressed people with bizarre hair,

and painted faces who have never missed a meal.

All the colors seem artificial, the pinks too deep, the greens too bright,

the yellows painful to the eyes. “ 

If that doesn’t bring up the mental image of Times Square or Las Vegas nothing does.   Later in the book they refer to their home as the “place where you can starve to death in safety.”  A similar accusation can without question be made of our home.  The world of these books is not that far from the world of here and now.

A little while ago, I remember speaking on Harry Potter, and telling those gathered that for Sophie, when she closes her eyes, she imagines herself at Hogwarts or casting spells.    I theorized that it wasn’t much different than when I was a kid, and imagined myself standing next to C3PO or Darth Vader on the Death Star.  

Yet, when I think of Annie closing her eyes and finding herself in the arena, nothing disturbs me more.

AND I cannot help but ask do they see that broken world when they open their eyes too?

The books are disturbing.   I know that Sophie (my youngest) will not be reading them for a long time.

But, I will be encouraging her to read them as a teenager.   In the end, I would argue that if a child wants to read them, that a parent or adult needs to take that journey with them.   In the end there is a lot to digest in the books, and sometimes it is made easier, when a child sees the safety net of someone the trust at their side.

I have come to believe that these books are many things, all of which argue that they need to read.

They are stories of a girl battling to remain true to her humanity in the face of incredible brutality; a war that Annie will one day need to wage. They are stories of greed battling compassion; a battle Annie will surely one day fight.  They are stories of children and innocence lost; a reality that one day Annie will have to face.  They are stories that demonstrate just how wide the gulf between love and apathy is; a truth that will one day hit my daughter full on.  

There are a million stories and lessons within those pages, and a discussion is being had.   As with so many other struggles in our society, we cannot be afraid to listen and speak up.  People of faith need to be part of the discussion.   Instead, so many of us circle the wagons or cower in fear of imaginary demons.

With what should be a given, I find it hard to hear of the many that would argue to take the books, along with those like Harry Potter, and toss them into a bonfire behind their churches.    Although it is the extremists who argue this, there are many middle of roaders who silently fear the ‘what if’s that come with the book.

After some time of reflection, I sense that there is more that even the most extreme among us can learn from the story of Katniss and Peeta.   A large portion of my faith journey has been trying to position myself – as well as to teach myself – to recognize God in all things; the good and the bad, the secular and the holy, and the dirty and the clean.  

 You will find God in ALL places.  You will find him in the dark theatres or in the pages of a book that makes you squirm just as easily and intentionally as you do elsewhere.  How come it is so hard for us to remember that?

For those of us middle of the road faithful who struggle with what we are to take from this book and movie (and what we are supposed to witness to others about), the task becomes exponentially more difficult in the echoes of that judgment and that finger pointing that is born via the extreme among us.    Today, (and especially as a pastor) I struggle with the right and proper response to these books right along with the next guy. Yet, I know there can be something to hear EVERYWHERE….EVEN in the violent story of a young girl.  

I just wish I had better hearing for these things.

It isn’t easy or clear cut.   Violence has become too main stream and we have become desensitized to it.   We are no longer surprised when the violence moves from the silver screen to the real world.   We have lost our ability to see it for what it truly is. 

We have been changed by a violent world.   We believe that it’s okay to meet violence with violence.   We expect violence, redemption, and revenge to be part of the plan.   We have forgotten the adage that an eye for an eye makes the world blind and we are wander without truly seeing.

I found it ironic that a book that condemns violence as celebration and sport captures the heart of our children, but I witnessed those same children cheering in the theatre when the villain (also a teenager) gets it in the end.   We have missed and miss so much. Violence has become so common place that so many of us cannot even acknowledge there may be problem with a movie about 13 year olds killing 13 year olds as sport.

Again, I wish I had better hearing.

I chuckle because all of these mental hula hoops arose after the briefest conversation on a Facebook page with a clergy friend of mine.   I know and respect him, and I have shared coffee and conversation with him.  Yet, I was surprised on his response to this movie.  Since that time, I found myself struggling with the issue.   We had – and have – different views and I know that’s okay.   In reality, that wide range of differing theologies is what makes the United Methodist Church so wonderful in the first place.

Yet, hearing the conviction in others, got me to asking where is mine.  I know deep down I should be deliberate in what I say and think about this very precariously charged question.  Do I know what I believe?  Do I know as clearly as others what I should argue?   As a result, I decided to do that thing that the church is called to be best at; to take some time and listen.

As soon as I did, I heard the whispers of something infinitely more wonderful.    The following is what came from that discernment…

Honestly, It was like a light bulb materialized above my head.  I started to see that the Hunger Games is almost as perfect of a retelling of the Palm Sunday story as I could imagine.    As I worked through the thought, I was positive that if I spoke those words I would be met with gasps among many of my fellow church friends.   I am sure they would think that I had lost my mind, if not my theology.   

I can only imagine the heated emails I will get after this message made is published to the blog.   Yet in the end, I can’t shake the reality that the Hunger Games is a love story, and that love story seems to run so close to the Love Story of Easter.  Although you don’t need me to remind you that writing is not my forte (and this blog is my tool to improve that skill set), hopefully I can do the feeling within my heart the justice it deserves. 

If there is a central theme of the Hunger Games, it is most clearly that of a love story.   It’s not a romantic, boy meets girl, boy runs away with girl against the odds type of love, but a love that is life saving.   It’s about a love that is live giving.    It’s a story of sacrificial love.

The love Story rests upon Peeta and Katniss, and if Annie does see the arena when she closes her eyes, I hope with every ounce of me, that it’s the love story she finds herself in and not the battle.

Again in the way of some back story, during a bleak and hungry period of Katniss’ life, and years before she is chosen for the games, her family is without food and has reached bottom.   Her family is starving to death and about to reach the zero hour. It’s no longer about just being hungry; it’s about facing death from starvation.   As a last result, and braving the winter’s cold, she goes out to find whatever crumbs she can.   In that moment, she sees Peeta and Peeta provides her with the gift of bread.  

With that gift hope returns.

As soon as she receives the bread, she discovers what she calls the first “dandelion of the year”; or her reminder that spring and rebirth is around the corner.    She was given the gift of realizing that there still is a chance.   Peeta gave her hope and promise wrapped up as a loaf of bread.    I see a real parallel to the true gift hidden in the bread we receive when we kneel at our communion rails. If there is a hero in this story, it is Peeta. 

Soon a theme starts enveloping the whole book and movie; where do you find your hope.    The name of the country in the story is “Panem”, the Latin word for bread.     It’s as if a theme develops;   where is your hope?   Where is your rebirth?   Where is your bread?

Peeta, according to one minister who has written extensively on the subject and who has actually written a guide to the Gospel through the Hunger Games, is the character on which the fullness of the story is built.   Peeta is the “suffering servant, meek but not weak, who loved Katniss unconditionally before she knew him. He is jealous of Katniss’ love but patient and never forcing himself on her. He promises Katniss he will stay with her always” and throughout the story he does.   He offers his own life in all ways, so that she can survive.    He offers, at what looks to be the cost of his very life, the gift of hope, new life, rebirth, and survival to Katniss.   

You know what?  I marvel at how close that looks like the gift of He we celebrate and praise each Sunday.

As I wrote these words down, and planned for our palms to be waved as part of our Palm Sunday,   I couldn’t help but picture another tribute – the tribute – riding into the Capitol city, amidst the paparazzi and the adoring fans.    They were going to receive the tribute and knew that everything would change.     They wanted to be there when the violence and anger was unleashed.   They wanted to be there in the arena.

2000 years ago, the Jewish world was divided into 12 districts living in contention with the capitol or the rulers.   We called those districts tribes however.   Additionally, within the capital of the ancient world was a great arena.    At the center of that arena people were tossed to animals and forced to fight great battles for the sheer joy of over privileged, over indulgent and wealthy citizens.   The world crumbled while the rich partied.

Outside the arena things were almost as unpleasant.   If you opposed the state they would condemn you.   If you made enemies they didn’t shun you, they nailed you to a tree, and cast lots for your clothes.   For the haves it was a time of excess.   For the have not’s it was a time marked with the agony of nothingness.    They longed for a distraction.  They longed for a change.   They longed for a tribute, or a messiah, that would fix things.

They cheered that tribute as he rode into the city.  They saw the triumphant king returning to take the world by force.   They waved their palms high.  They sang Hosanna and bubbled over with joyous and infectious hope.

Over the course of only a few days they see something else.  They meet the suffering servant, meek but not weak.  They meet He who loves unconditionally.   They see a tribute who is patient and never forceful.  They see a tribute that promise that he will never leave.    They see a tribute who offers his live, so others can enjoy and realize life.   The tribute becomes the gift of hope, life, rebirth and joy.    They see the tribute we worship in this place each week. They see my king.

Sadly, they are unprepared.   Their world is not ready.   They scream that this cannot be so.   They start to believe they had pointed to the wrong man.    They start believing that he’s wrong.

They kill the tribute.    

Or at least they tried to…you and me, we know better.

We live in a violent world, seemingly broken beyond words.   Our neighbors starve to death in safety.  Even the youngest celebrate and cheer the violence around us.    We fight each day to ignore and forget the reality that there are too many that have, while others have nothing.  The colors, the sights, and the sounds are painful to eyes.   The hunger is real and echoes throughout us.  Some point to the image of the kings and queens they hope to fix things.   Some miss the answer and the promise; the promise of the empty tomb and the King who rides in victory.

Let us all open our eyes, and at times close them, and not see that violent world broken and bleeding in the arena around us, but let us experience the love story.  Let us close our eyes and experience the love story of this most Holy week.   Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

 

 

(Sources:  New York Daily News, Suzzanne Collins, The Unofficial Hunger Games Fan Site, The Rev. Ann Duncan, Rev. Andy Langford)

The Moments the Change Everything


Pic. used without permission.  AP(2009)

Or…The Moment That I Became A Yankee Fan

(A Message on Matthew 25:1-13 )

Obviously, with the upcoming events of  Sunday night causing my pulse to quicken, a frenzy is working its way through my day to day.   With each passing day, we get closer and closer to Super Bowl Sunday, and I can hardly contain myself.   The excitement is growing at a dizzying pace.

I am not alone either.   More than 200 countries and territories, including Iceland and the People’s Republic of China, are expected to watch the game. The game is broadcast in 32 different languages. In the United States, its estimated that more than 90 million will watch the game, which could be as high as 40+% of every home. (Long, Howie; Czarnecki, John (2007-09-24). Football For Dummies® (Kindle Locations 507-509). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.)

In just seven days, the world will shut off and watch two great teams meet in the coliseum.   Strategy will be employed.   Trash talking will ensue.   In the end, the team that knocks the other team harder, will end up walking away with a ring, and ticker tape.   The other will watch in shock from the sidelines.   

As a man of faith, I know this isn’t necessarily theologically correct, but I am praying that it’s New England that still stands when the night is over.   Seven days from today and we will have our answer.    In the meantime I wait with anxious anticipation, and do all those things that any good fan should.  

In the Masters’ house that means making sure we have all the appropriate food and beverage, making sure the girls have their appropriate attire cleaned and properly ready for that Sunday, and insure that that the 10’ Pat Patriot lawn inflatable is ready to go.

We have an additional treat this year.    We have the Patriots Tree setup in our living room.   

Actually, there is an additional story there.    We pick and cut our own Christmas Tree this year from a great farm down the road from where we live.   We cut it in late November, brought it home and set it up. 

My girls – all three of them – have hearts of angels.    After our New Year’s day open house, Stacey took the ornaments off the tree packed them away, and left the tree’s removal up to me.    In the interim between its stripping and its removal, Sophie discovered pine cones growing on its branches.  Instantly it was decided that the tree, while it was still living, needed to be kept safe in our house.    It only seemed right, according to Sophie, that if we chopped it down, that we keep it up until its ready to leave.   Considering that each of my girls have an invisible string that has one end tied to their wrists and the other around my heart, and with each tug I will give in instantly, our Christmas Tree remains standing in our home.

A couple of weeks ago, the tree became a Valentine’s Day tree, decorated with hearts and red tinsel.    If it is still alive after that celebration passes it will be a St. Patricks Day Tree.    Today, it is a Patriots tree, decorated in dollar store and I party patriots gear.

Now, I imagine that for the next two weeks there is going to be a great deal of football talk at offices, in living rooms, and across the country.  Of all those talking I will rank up there as one of the most excited.  I have turned back into an 8 year old boy, and the football, the jersey, the ball cap, and the potato chips are ready.    That tree speaks volumes to my excitement.

All that said, and acknowledging that my obsession with the sport is up there, when someone asks me who I am rooting for on SB Sunday, my reaction has been of shock, insult, and offense.  Are you kidding me?  If I wasn’t so afraid of needles and their permanence, I would have a “Flying Elvis” tattoo on one shoulder and “Pat Patriot”on the other.    I was sickened by the thought of someone looking at me and seeing anything other than a Patriots fan.

After I almost chewed up the last person who made the inquiry to which side of the fence I would sit on that Saturday, I received a reply that made everything make sense.   “How can you like the Patriots and be a Yankees fan in the spring?”   Doesn’t that mean you should root for the Giants or the Jets.   After I almost fainted over the vile notion of being a Jets fan (I actually made both my girls take an oath to never wear or purchase any Jet attire, date a Jet Fan, or joke about doing either in my home, before they were allowed to wear the Jersey), it started to click.    

I realized that some of you might be silently asking the same question, and fearing that I would yank the communion bread out of your mouth have quietly pondered the question without speaking.  I am certain that many of you have asked yourself, how Pastor Scott could be a Yankees fan.  Today, I am going to share that secret.

Truth be told some of you might know it, but many probably don’t.   As I was writing this, I thought of my childhood best friend – the biggest Sox fan I ever met – and couldn’t remember whether I actually told him.  Did I ever tell my wife or my kids?     Have I been so full of shame to share a secret version of this tale, that I regressed all memories deep down in my subconscious?

There is some shame in this story.   There was a day, when I was a Red Sox fan.   I had the hats, the shirts, and all that.  I was probably six or seven.  I lived in Orlando, not far from the spring training facility for the Sox, and like any other boy my age liked the idea of baseball.   Truth be told it wasn’t until after I left college, that I really took a down deep interest in the sport like a real fan, but I was your average 6 year old fan.

I also had one favorite player: Hall of Fame Left Fielder, Jim Rice.  I had a poster of him in my bedroom, and I thought he was the greatest thing since slice bread.  Now, with me being the exception, my family grew up far from being sports fan.   I had no idea why I liked Rice, and I don’t remember ever actually watching a game, but I knew he was the bomb.

Being a fan, and knowing that I would enjoy going to a game, a family friend invited me to a spring training game, and the two of us made the trip to Winter Haven Florida.   I remember it was an “Old Timers” celebration, and together we went from baseball legend to baseball legend shaking hands and having them sign my program.   I met Ted Williams, Rico Petrocelli, and even Johnny Pesky of the “Pesky Pole” fame.  Yet the pinnacle moment of that day, was supposed to be the moment the game ended, when the staff opened the gates and allowed kids to run out to field and get signatures of their favorite players as they walked backed to their clubhouse.

I remember running through that gate, and believing that this was a dream come true.   This was too good to be true I can recall thinking.   I remember seeing Carlton Fisk, but I had only one target; Jim Rice.    I remember being so full of smiles and joy, and being confused when I noted that he didn’t have a similar look on his face.    I was stopped dead in my tracks their in the middle of Left Field, by an angry Rice who barked out at with the language of longshore man.  

He said something akin to “Get the Blankety-Blank-Blank away from me kid,” and he never even slowed his stride.   I stood their slacked jawed –but dry eyed -and as if to rub salt in my wound, he looked over his shoulder and said “Don’t be a crybaby, Go home kid.”  It certainly wasn’t that Mean Joe Green Coca Cola commercial moment that I had hoped for.   Instead, I turned stunned and walked back to the stands.   Past the kids getting their programs signed by Pudge or Carlton Fisk.

I said nothing to my family friend, other than “he didn’t sign it”.   I remember being heartbroken at first.   I didn’t say much on the ride home.  That even the poster came down.    The next day the anger kicked in and the poster was torn to shreds.  

I tell you this story, and remind you of the old adage that you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Jim Rice wasn’t a bad man.   He has been active in changing the lives of many.   He has been a coach and a broadcaster and he deserves his spot in the Hall of Fame.  Despite all of these factors, that one moment on the field left a big impression on one child.

As I walk through this memory,  you might have guessed this message isn’t about football or baseball.   This message is about those moments where we are the best we can be, or we slip and become the worst.   For you and I, as people of faith, its more then critical that we watch and that we guard for those moments.  

From what I understand of Rice, he played during a time when racial tensions were high.   He was not only the only black man on the sox, he was the best hitter in baseball.   Many wanted him to fall on his face, but it is said he possessed quiet strength.    Today, I want to dislike this man, but yet… I cannot.   As an adult, and in retrospect, the man I met in left field is not the man he is.

Too often the men and women the world sees in us, are just not who we are either.   There is a world outside of the church who believe that all that is done inside of it screams of make believe and  foolishness.   Many think we are bumbling idiots who ignore the intellectual challenges of our faith.   Then, if there are those who don’t think we are idiots, they think we are hypocrites.   They think we preach, sing, and say one thing, and live something completely different.

Are they wrong?  Yes and No.   Was I wrong about Jim Rice?  Yes and No.

Perhaps as a kid, I had Rice on too high of a pedestal.   Perhaps I missed the nuances of the game.   Maybe I missed a bad performance or that he was afraid that an injury was more than it was.   Maybe he was stressed at the hecklers who stood in the bleachers hurling racial slurs his way?    Maybe I missed the anxieties, worries, angers, stresses, and fears that were going on in his head.    Maybe I did, but it didn’t matter.   He knocked a six year old on his back side with a sucker punch to the gut.

I am telling you this, because if you are doing this faith thing right, people are looking at you.   The might be looking at you like those in the bleachers cursing the black man, hoping that in our ignorance or in our hypocrisy that we fall down and stay down, or they might be looking at you like the six year old, hoping that we live up to the estimates and the tall pedestal-ed positions we hold.   In the end, there will be a moment that tells them which person we are.

Do we have to be perfect, all the time?   Part of me wants to say yes, yes we do.   Yet, I know we are far from being able to do so.     Yet, if we can’t be perfect, we have got to be ready.   We got to realize that there are moments, some of which might pass us by unaware, where another’s mind is made up, direction decided, or a life is changed.  

We have got to be ready for that moment.  I think that is what Matthew 25:1-13 tells us.   Many relate this to the second glorious coming of Christ in the clouds, and I think that they may be right, but that’s not all I see. I hear in this scripture a reminder that there will be a moment, when the act of welcoming in the Kingdom of God in the here and now is right in front of us.   

If we are not ready the possibility will pass us right by.   We can say the wrong words, look the wrong way, and make a passing comment that ends up changing everything.   In our lack of preparedness or foresight, will others stand slack jawed as we walk on by.   Is there oil in our lamps?

We need to be ready.   We need to see God’s hand everywhere.   We need to prepare ourselves as we leave the house, as we sit in our offices, or in the countless other seemingly trivial parts of life.  We need to be ready for Christ to knock on our door in a moment’s notice and we need to be ready for the stranger to knock on our door looking for Christ.   This is our calling.

We are not perfect.   Honestly, we are not even close.   Yet, we need to about the moment that could come right now.   We need to take our faith seriously.  We need to be positive that we are not living a life full of hypocrisy.    We need to find the time to be in prayer and to read the bible.  We need to practice finding the moments of silence needed to hear God.    We need to be about stewardship, devotion, and discipleship.

We need to be able to talk about why we believe even if some of the most intellectual around us tell us we are foolish.   We need to ask ourselves why we believe.   We need to know what we believe.   We need to understand those parts of our faith that challenge us or cause us to doubt, and be open and deliberate in our questions.

We need to be careful that a passing word doesn’t sting another. We need to remember that a world looks at us, silently and with fingers crossed, hoping we will stumble.   We need to realize that people are looking.   We need to practice at seeing the good, and seeing God in our neighbors, in our family members, the stranger on the street, and the most hated at your office.  

These are the actions that add oil to our lamps.

If we wait, and if we travel through our weeks unprepared, then in the end our witness fails.   It’s as simple as that.   We become the anxious ballplayer and we leave heartbreak in our wake.

 A week or so after that game in the mid 1970’s, when I saw our family friend again, I asked him a question – this question does reveal how little I knew of the sport at that time too – I asked “Who is the biggest rival of the Red Sox.”  

His answer is still clear in my memory.   “There is only one rival; The Yankees”.   

Most kids don’t know when or why they become fans of a team.   Most take on the teams of their fathers or their friends.  They hear dad talk and they mimic him at the school yard.  I, on the other hand, remember the day and the moment that I can be a New York Yankees fan, and since then, I have never looked back.  I wonder if there are people who say the same thing about their faith, because of me.   

I pray that each of us will find a way to be ready.

(Pic by S. Louise AP(2009))

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