hearse thief

Medical schools starting two centuries ago faced a continuing need: corpses.  They needed recently healthy corpses.  They needed the pregnant, children, old or diseased and mostly: fresh corpses.

Dying as a pauper in London or New York made a fair wager — your corpse passed to a dissection class before a grave.  Medical schools harvested no corpses. Needing plausible deniability, there arose a trade providing corpses, and these men were bizarrely titled Resurrection Men, spitting on Christians’ hope of resurrection.

If caught, they faced grave robbing charges.  Or worse, if police suspected he hurried anyone from this life to help doctors-in-training learn surgery — he faced death — and of course, a final turn ‘through’ medical school.

Grave robbers.  Hearse thieves.  Everyone — murderers, thieves, prostitutes — looked down on them and feared, desperately feared passing through their hands.

Christians were offended at such a title for these men.  This ‘resurrection’ horrifically twisted hope in Christ.

But God has, if anything, a profound sense of humor, and a deep, deep sense of irony.

So Jesus hiked from the north country through valleys southward.  At evening, He climbed up from the road to tiny Nain.  Maybe Nain was built on Shunem’s ruins or nearby.  And in tiny Nain where birth and death were bookends for few surprises, everyone could recite a time when God let a town woman push the great Prophet Elisha to attempt, to ask the impossible.  All these centuries later, every child and agnostic knew the story.  Elisha promised her a son.  She bore him, and on a hot day in harvest he died.  She rode hellbent for leather straight to Mt. Carmel where prophets commune with God.

And she answered the Prophet’s servant pointedly asking, “Is all well with you?”

“Yes!”

“Is all well with your husband?”

“Yes.”

“Is all well with your child?”

And she lied, or she believed more than a cooling corpse waiting in the Prophet’s room she built for him.  “All is well!”

It shook him.  Such faith.  Such hope.  Elisha rushed from the mountain to spend an afternoon begging God to relent and resurrect the child.  God gave him back.

Centuries ago.  Where legends live.

So, Jesus walking into Shunem/Nain stopped a funeral for an only son: a widow’s final hope.  And disregarding all civility Jesus touched the hearse to talk to — the dead boy.

Who responded.  Jesus helped him from the hearse, gave him back to his mother, and everyone paraded back into town, leaving a bewildered hearse driver scratching his head.  The first victim of The Hearse Thief, doing a dress rehearsal for Himself soon enough, and all of us soon enough.

If Jesus wept at a later funeral, He surely smiled at this one, and God, as usual, had a laugh on any who call hearse thieves by such an exalted, holy title as Resurrection Man.

My Life.Church Sermon I will never preach

This is too long for a blog, so if you don’t read it all, I get it.  Should you read it, I hope it encourages you.  I did the whole thing in a dream this morning, and I almost never share dreams, but, here goes.  Sermon follows:

I have listened to speakers speak here for years, and they begin the same way.  “I love Craig and Amy so much, you have an amazing church, and I am so delighted to be here today.”  It is that last phrase where I listen, you know, to hear what they say.  Are they saying, “I am humbled and honored, truly!” Or, does it smell a little more like “You are in for a treat!  I think I have something amazing.  In fact, a lot of folks think I am amazing!”

So how could I possibly be preaching here?

What I think happened was that we made a small mistake!  You know how when a manager walks to the mound and he starts to touch one fore arm, but he puts a couple of fingers on the other, like he wasn’t sure, and he could not remember who was warmed up in the bullpen?”

I am the bullpen.  I am that guy in the bullpen whose name is Tom, or Tim, I am pretty sure it wasn’t Tammy.  He is a member that we don’t call members at LifeChurch, but we have a couple of hundred thousand of those.  He tithes most months, but more people are completely faithful there.  He and Jill lead a life group just like 251 others at Stillwater.  And the Stillwater campus is a mistake.  If we had not added it when we did; we would not fit the profile where they hope to expand these days, but GT and Megan were commuting every weekend and God was working, and today, one in ten staff members in all the Life Churches have passed through Stilly.

That kind of “mistake”.

So, they called the wrong guy out of the bullpen.  In fact, someone might investigate where I got a uniform and dropped down into the bullpen with my glove and enough swag to act like I just got traded from a Canadian hockey team where I was the equipment manager.

Wrong guy.  I am a small mistake, but LifeChurch is a great place because I have been comfortable in the dark watching Craig on screen.  He is really taller in person.

Well, maybe I am here because you are a small mistake.  Maybe you have a sin or two because you somehow think they make you cool.  See, I swear for effect some days when teaching or making a point.  And like everyone who smokes I have it under control, except when my daughter in law, Fair Claire, sends a request through my son that I watch my mouth during Christmas in front of the grandkids.  You see, “under control”.

It is freaky, but sometimes when the stress is bad, or my health is in the toilet I swear more.  Isn’t that the dumbest thing?  I think I can pin my potty mouth on something outside me when the Bible says, “The stuff coming out of your mouth is the overflow from your heart.”  Oops.  My heart’s overflow must resemble my toilet overflowing.

So there you are, sitting in the dark, or with your computer using earphones so your family and neighbors don’t know that Jesus is the best thing that ever happened to you, but you seem to make more mistakes than progress in following Him.

It could be that you love Jesus, and are astonished that He left heaven, lived and did all those astonishing miracles, and got religious people angry at Him — and they crucified Him thinking, “That takes care of that;” only God raised Him from the dead to emphasize His boy was telling the truth.  All along.  Every day.  In every miracle for undeserving people.  Jesus was telling the Truth, and telling Truth so well that it turns out that Truth is one of His Names.  Truth has a Name above all names and it is — wait for it: Jesus.

And that right there makes Jesus, forgive me, unbelievable.  I mean Jesus was just like us except for the perfection thing, having Satan give Him the VIP tour of earth and testing, miracles everywhere, demons testifying to who He was when He was trying to be cool about it.  Okay, not exactly like me.  I am an example of human, I think.

And that makes me uncomfortable even in the dark some weekends at LifeChurch.  Jesus was true to His calling, true to His message.  And I fail my calling, and some days I fail His message that I deliver.  You know how people say Craig is the same in the pulpit and at home except when driving?  My wife and sons and daughter in law would all say, “He is the same in both places” with all their fingers crossed in back of them.

When Jesus walked out to the mound, Heaven rushed the infield to breathlessly watch.  When I walk to the mound, people are checking their programs and smartphones and shrugging at each other, “Who is that guy?”  No name on the back.  His pants are too big, and why can’t he stand up straight?  How come he isn’t even listed?

In spite of all that, I found some small things that surprised me in the Jesus story.

There is this day when Jesus has been feeding thousands and the people want to make Him an earthly king, and Jesus realizes that before He can address the crazy crowd, He has to get rid of His disciples.  All of them.  He puts them in boats and dismisses them, and only after sending away His own does He lose the crowd.  The disciples were wanting to drink the Kool-Aid.  They were ripe for everything except what Jesus was doing.

Jesus also had been handing out freebies on miracles, food, healings, casting out demons and He knew it was time to ratchet up the message, call people to faithfulness, to followship, to maturity — and people were walking away — and this is the part that froze my heart.  Jesus turns to His disciples and asks, “Do you want to walk away, too?”

And all of God’s plans and power, and all of God’s predestining, and all of God’s plan for planet Earth comes to this point.  Jesus hands the ball to failers (not failures by God’s grace) but failers like me.  Like you.

And obviously, at this moment, Jesus is thinking that handing the Gospel Football to these guys is maybe not going to work.  He is looking at Peter who suffers from foot in mouth disease.  The two Sons of Thunder who think the coolest thing about Jesus is that He can call down fire from heaven and maybe blow away an entire town.  Matthew is a never ending fountain of questions.  Mary of Magdala is still conflating a puppy love for followship.  And Judas, Judas is stealing from the till and will pointlessly betray Jesus at the critical time, just before Peter denies Him three times.

Do you want to walk away, too?

I don’t know any mature Christians who have not made some sort of truce with church and religion, and decided to still love Jesus more than what they see in other Christians.  Ouch.

Some of them believe Christ even though what they saw in me made believing Jesus tough, because what they saw in me made them want to walk away.  OUCH!

My wife, Jill has this thing that thunders in the silence, “Your Plan A was to use us all along?  Even with the Holy Spirit, what were you thinking, God?”

Which forces the question.  Is God missing something, a lot of somethings, or did God decide what was most true about us before He began the experiment?

I am a creature saved by God’s grace and I lust for if-not-sex then intimacies where I should not, and toys, and money that buys toys.  All are true.  Now for the HUGE question.  What is more true?

Life and faith have daunting conundrums.  The light coming out of these lights, is it waves or particles?  Yes.

Is Jesus fully God and fully man?  Yes.

Is God three or One?  Yes.

Am I a sinner or God’s dearly bought son?  Yes.

And Jesus knows how I struggle here!  Remember that night before they killed Him?  No?  Let me tell you how crazy this is.  The die is cast.  The trial members have been assembled in two houses.  Soldiers are following Judas to find Jesus, and Jesus is in this Garden with his sleeping disciples, yes they failed Him this time as well, and Jesus is sweating blood!  No kidding.  Think about it.  Sweating blood.  I would say He was really wrestling, wouldn’t you?  And here was the question.  Here was Jesus’ big question.  It was time to die.  It was time to suffer.  For better or for worse, there was nothing more Jesus could do for the disciples.  And it all looked impossible.

Jesus was asking for a bye.  Jesus was asking to be let out of this part of the contract.  He went from thinking about it, to truly tempted to bail out.  He was sweating blood.

Jesus was asking if God could be happy with less.

And God thundered back in silence to His beloved Son.  Sure you feel this drag, this bent to failing, and this understandable horror at dying.  Now, which is more true?  You’re wanting to bail out, or you are My beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased?

He knows when I want to fail.  When I want to be let off the hook.  When I want to be left alone.  When I don’t want to measure up.  How afraid I am to walk out to the mound some days.  When I want God to settle for less from me.

Occasionally God sends someone to remind me who and Whose I am.  Occasionally, He puts me in the stands to remind some friend, or student, or colleague what is most true about them — that he or she is a son or daughter of the High King and He was right to give her salvation and call her to follow Him.

But sometimes, God is silent.  He and heaven hold their breath to see me come through, to see me come true, knowing that I face bogeys.  Some days, I am sweating bullets, and God nods silently to His angels who will never understand why God trusts us, and he says, “Let the bet ride on my boy, Thomas.”

The angels can think of as many reasons as I can, maybe more why God should spread His bets, and God laughs, and according to Ephesians 1, He is gesturing that He was right to let anything ride on me.

God’s bet is riding on me because He has given me Jesus and Spirit, and watches to see me act on what is most true about me.

How about you?

 

 

Waste or Largess and yet.

I few minutes ago I had a brilliant insight into life and the universe.  It may or may not interest you, so I won’t bore you.

It struck me deeply.  I sensed two possibilities for my insight.  It resonated through me.  The insight gave me joy.   The resulting feeling suspended me “up” in a long, draining week for seconds.

Again, I see two possibilities for my insight, for a depth of feeling and realization words fail to convey.

Possibility one.  All we are today results from a profoundly long series of random outcomes, against the Second Law of Thermodynamics, gathering star-dust from millions of extinguished stars to donate elements farther down rows of our Periodic Table to fire-form a planet within a hair’s breadth of distance from a correct sun needed for incredibly sophisticated RNA and DNA to take on a job of blindly evolving past millions of blind alleys to get to us.  “Us” who can write, laugh, love, hear and even sometimes understand each other; and die.  All of my memories, depths, and sharing now a meal for worms blindly eating either my corpse or plants enriched by my ashes.  In a generation, at most, any who interacted or shared with me; join me in oblivion, as will we all.  A remorseless universe neither taking note, caring or laughing.

Possibility two.  A God described as having infinite capacity created the thought of me before assembling the iron and nickel for a core for Earth.  He brought my mother from her birth family to an adopted family so she could marry and unite again with my father after two miscarriages to birth me.  And so, minutes ago, this God shared my brilliant insight into life more intimately than even my wife could hope for.  And if all that’s written of Him is good, when I die I am resurrected out of time into eternity to get this — share that insight with Him and possibly at the same depth with those purchased by His grace — around a dinner beyond compare before we get back to work.

How it all works is above my pay grade.

Possibility one says as a terrorist dies, it holds equal lack of value with the deaths of Jesus, Gandhi — the named and the forgotten.  From nothing formed, and to nothing returned.

Possibility two gives me Hope to hold to values. I choose P two.  Probably as it demands more of me in faith, giving to, making a difference, loving and weeping — living.  If Hope is a crutch, then inscribe mine with the name for me in Heaven I don’t even know, yet.

See?  I can now say, “yet”!

i wonder if i can love enough

When I met and married Jill, I was in professional ministry: stuff we can now do for free.  As a seminary trained minister, I allowed me to think I was, what?  More spiritual?  A little better?  I am not sure.

It evidenced often.  Here’s a way.  Jill loved horses and Colorado.  Loves.  And I wondered subconsciously if maybe she loved them more than Jesus, or God.

When we married, I knew for a while that I loved Jill more than anything, but I “corrected” that by relearning to love Jesus first.  Again, I got paid to believe like that.

I spent another thirty years with Jill.  I resigned from church work, and I now play at being honest.  I say “play” because honesty without love or grace is an all-consuming monster.  Brave souls have faced it and been ground to dust.  Many write novels to journal it.

In my honesty I found nothing affects me like a horse or mountains move Jill.  Okay, I weep at some books or movies, but it’s different: not as structural, as fundamental as is Jill’s love for horses like Firefrost or Dartagnan; or the Princeton Valley, Chalk Cliffs, and skiing the Rockies.

I ride bikes.  Clear land.  Work in wood.  Ski.  Write.  Travel some, and nothing grabs me like being on a horse on a snowy day grabs, sustains, heightens, infuses Jill’s day with light and hope.

Which caused me to go back and hear John, whom I translated from Greek: [1 John 4:20] “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.”

Jill loves her brothers and sisters, and we see them more than mine.  Jill loves our grand-kids, and goes to lengths to babysit them more than me.  Jill also walks our land and draws strength up out of the ground through her boots — when I see all that needs to be done.  Jill also loves Lewis and MacDonald as if they were fiances she lost in the war.

And John shattered my thinking.  Jill has been passionately crazy about people and things God has crafted for her and handed her — far more than anyone I know.

So God, by way of John, is using Jill, not my measuring stick, to show me: Loving who and what has been evidenced to me by God, is the first step in really learning to love the One who created them as evidence of His love to — me.

This may be a great year to learn to love more.

 

Decanting Souls

Jan asked, “Will we decant mom on Sunday, then?”

The week was full of boxes crammed with scrapbooks, photos, and correspondences — scattered through the house, the storage building, the pool house and workshop: detritus of Barbara K. Johnson’s life.

We laughed hard to hear little Jill write her mother in the hospital, that she neither believed her brother that mom was in the hospital, or worse, was having a baby and it was another boy.  It was funniest when Jan read, “And please do NOT call him Douglas” to the youngest, Doug.  So my dearest Jill held strong opinions at age nine and could articulately express them.

We each mutely read the neatly typed letter wherein Philip, their dad, said he had not had sexual relations with the woman he had run off with over the weekend, and he would return as pastor if all could be forgiven.

Steve quietly sorted the box with all of the bills that Phil returned unpaid to the hospital, pharmacy, and utility company after he left for good with the woman and emptied all of the accounts.

And I was struck by the probability that all great fiction, all award winning plays are barely recognizable shadows of authors’ families, or the shattered family of friends, or the shattering family at home.

And all these years later, the siblings taking cues from the astounding woman of God they had as mother, these siblings who had visited the man of unpaid bills in the nursing home as he wept and laughed with them, were choosing what will go to flame tonight in a bonfire of vanities, joys, and deep realities.  And they cho0se what to give to children and grandchildren.

Doug, who happens to be an award winning woodcarver has carried out one last wish from Nana, Barbara, and carved a final resting box for her ashes, kept safe in the plastic bag in which they were delivered over a year ago.  And on Sunday we will decant her ashes, as reverently as the siblings decanted the correspondences, savored them, laughed and wept over them.  We will decant them into Doug’s box preparing them for February when these four proud children of Barbara K Johnson will head to a windswept cemetery in South Dakot to send her ashes on a slow journey of becoming one with the dust of Alcester from whence she came.

And that will be the end of it, unless you know anything about Jesus and final banquets at the juncture of time and eternity, where we will decant life in the limited way we know it here, as an aperitif toward heaven.

Lifelong Passion

When I was in my twenties, I served on staff in churches because I loved Jesus.  I saw older men who had begun by serving Jesus in churches, but no longer did so.  They quit, crapped out, fell away, stopped, and a host of other ungenerous, unkind ways to simply sum someone else’s life.

In my fifties, I resigned from serving on a church staff.  I spent more time, drained more of my soul managing an organization rather than serving or loving anyone.

In my twenties, I knew my passion for Jesus would sustain me, allow me an obedience in a long line, enable me to finish well.  I still do, but the world is more complex than I understood.

I remember Larry Bethune, a pastor, saying, ” I am going to leave church work and go into ministry. ”   We laughed, but now I smile quietly.

People wear you down.  Churches goof up.  People fail you and hurt you.  You fail people, dear ones, and hurt them.  You find that people and churches study their navels and loving the poor, fighting for justice, and establishing new answers to stupefying challenges missionaries face around the world, is relentlessly, witheringly, draining.

To have fire left in you in life’s autumn, it turns out, is like salvation: a gift.  You should not claim gifts as if you manufactured them; you nurture them as precious bought kindnesses you could never have deserved.

 

Big and Small

We have it backwards.  Small things happen in Washington and Presidential Elections.

Big things happen every day in every store, school, church, and place of business.  Big things happen when people treat each other as Neighbor, you know, Jesus slapping the religious clown with the Samaritan Story Neighbor.

Neighbors cross the street unasked to help with the kids, paint, take people to the doctor, help a kid get tutored.  Big things happen when we treat others as they should have treated us.

Look across the street.  Do you see Washington?  Me neither.  I see my neighbor who is wondering what I am doing.  Who I am.  What I believe — as evidenced in my actions.

I see someone waiting for a surprise.