“The Man in the Rockefeller Suit”

No, that is not my title- oh that I wish it was.  But I cannot lie about it…but the book that carries that title, “The Man In The Rockefeller Suit,” portrays a man who not was willing to tell a lie like that, but essentially led a life of lies and deception.  The world is full of lies, and lies often drive our world.  But this?  This is indeed out of the ordinary.

Have you heard of the man, or the book of which I speak?  I am stunned by the story of German immigrant Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter turned San Marino California royalty Christopher Chichester turned Connecticut film director and English royalty Christopher Crowe turned New York securities banker and American royalty Clark Rockefeller turned world sailing millionaire Chip Smith.  That sentence alone says a lot, and it truly is an amazing story.  He came as a seventeen year old immigrant, and pretended his entire life in America to be have some royalty in his family and lots of wealth to his name, adding high and royal titles to his name from real life royal and wealthy families like Mountbatten and Chichester.  He conned people to believe that his family owned a giant cathedral that he wanted to move and bring from England to San Marino; he conned people that he was the producer of an Alfred Hitchcock film series; he conned people into believing that he was a part of the Rockefeller family and got entrance into all the private, exclusive, and outrageously expensive  clubs in New York and Boston and San Marino; he conned people into believing that he had a swanky art collection of classic artists worth many millions of dollars; he conned his wife into living off of her entire 3 million salary because his Rockefeller trust fund was tied up.  Yes, there is even more than is truly stunning and unbelievable.  But he was intelligent and very smart and all his lies had some kernel of truth (there was a Rockefeller with his name; there was an actress with the same name as his claimed mother’s name, etc…)  Honestly, my descriptions can do no justice to the shocking lies that he told, and all the b.s. that people bought without questioning.  He even used phony social security numbers in resumes to get into a managerial position selling securities, social security numbers that were tied to a serial killer in New York.  People never researched even small things, not even resume stuff that would have dead giveaways.  He lived an entire life without working but claiming to have royal and respected family bloodlines.  Truly amazing.  His downfall came when he kidnapped his only daughter whom he loved more than he ever thought he could.  He was convicted and imprisoned for five years for his kidnapping (the deceptions cannot be prosecuted because no matter what he did, he never stole or appeared in place of a real live person) and is due out in 2013.  Really you should read it and become entranced and stunned as I am.

All that being said, it makes me feel pretty good about the lies I have made in my life that I feel quite ashamed of.  As a freshman, I actually (I can’t believe I actually did this) told someone I was recruited as a tight end for USC (USC for heaven’s sakes!) football.  I told him a monster of a lie and followed through with it as I knew him that year.  I am quite ashamed of that.  I have made little white lies in conversation to try to impress others, like claiming I could some Japanese.  Now, there was a kernel of truth there- I had lived in Japan for a summer in college but really couldn’t speak much Japanese at all.  All to say I have lied and felt quite ashamed for it.  And certainly Rockefeller makes me think my lies are almost nothing.  But they aren’t.

Lies are a problem.  Deception is a problem.  I firmly believe that they are problems not simply because they are called sins.  Rather, I believe that we all are called to the image of God we are created with.  When we lie or deceive, we move away from that image.  As people created in the image of God, we are relational people.  In short, lies then are not problematic simply because they are wrong, but because lies keep us from fully investing ourselves in relationships.

Think about it.  When I lied to that guy about being recruited to play football to impress him, I wasn’t able to really forge a true relationship with him.  No matter how much we came close, there was still considerable distance from my end.  When we lie in little conversations, we aren’t able to get to know others very well.  Plus, consider the prodigious amount of effort it takes to keep telling the lie, keep covering the tracks and never make a slip up and letting others know my fraudulence.  We like to impress, but relationships grow from truth and freedom and vulnerability.  In lying, we block the vulnerabilities and imprison ourselves in our little lies and actually may not impress anybody in doing so.

Take this a step further in our relationship with God.  God wants a relationship where we are honest, genuine, accepting of who we are as frail human beings, and vulnerabilities that lead to trust.   When I lie to God and try to deceive him, I suppose I can impress him with my faithfulness or my righteousness or my obedience, when all he asks for is one who fears him, seeks justice and walks humbly with him.   Lies block our relationship with God not because lies are wrong, but because lies that we tell ourselves or others keep us from acknowledging who we are and who God is, and blocks the development of a beautiful, loving and freeing relationship.

This relationship is the stunning thing about Mr. Clark Rockefeller.  Even after he was found out and his fraud shown, he refused to break character and seek any meaningful relationships with anyone.  The relationship that brings relief and peace didn’t mean anything- rather his lie meant more.  And also, the relationship thing did betray him.  The reason it all came crashing down on him was because he did find someone to truly love and truly invest in- his little daughter.  In that relationship, the deception could not mesh with the vulnerability needed, and it cost him.

Go read the book.  And keep thinking about the lies and deception we tell. I pray that you can seek the relationship that frees us from the need to tell lies, the relationship with Jesus the Messiah.

My Help

Philippians 4:10-19 (abridged)

“I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it…I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress…For even when I was in (Riverside), you sent me help for my needs more than once.  Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that accumulates to your account.  I have been paid in full and have more than enough; I am fully satisfied, now that I have received from (you) the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.  And my God will fully satisfy every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”

That is Paul’s account to the church in Philippi, but it speaks very closely to a relationship I have with Southwest Central Church of Christ in Houston.  Yes, it is the church that I feel loved and known by, in whom I find God most beautifully and richly present.  They are indeed my help, and have provided for me and more than a number of occasions.  They are truly my help and my encouragement- they not only bless me but they value my gifts (not because I am special above others, but because they want me to participate in God’s kingdom as much as any!).

SWC’s gifts have known no bounds, literally.  Not even the city of Houston can contain their kindness to me.  I am truly grateful for their presence in my life.  In this situation, I am grateful to also share Christ’s words with them: “A little while, and you will no longer see me and again a little while, and you will see me.” (John 16:16)  I am returning very soon, and I will come like a thief in the night- no literally I am arriving at night.  (lol)

Laughs aside, I look forward to soon being restored to my church, continuing my journey with these people, and growing with them in my faith and life with Christ.  Amen!

Coming soon, March 2012!

Lenten Commitments

So Lent is here, with all its joys and struggles and callings from God to come closer to him through fasts.  It is a time that is dear to my heart because it is a time to focus on some things that either don’t get a whole lot of attention the rest of the year or I avoid the rest of the year.  It is a chance to remember the power of confession, of restoring some parts of my life, and of connecting with others through sacrifice or shared commitments and self denial.  It is an opportunity to grow in my faith by letting go of some things that may not be necessary for a time, letting go of sins and bad desires possibly, and adding practices to my faith journey- all of the three possibilities are opportunities to breathe new life into my faith and life.  So it is when I was reading the Lectionary today:

Amos 5:14 “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you.”

Psalm 147:11 “but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.”

I look forward to this time of repentance, of confession, of commitment because of the chance to seek the life found in God.  But, I must say this: I share these not for glory or for the pride or to boast before others.  Rather I share these Lenten commitments because I want to journey with you, I want to be prayed for, I want to be asked how my Lent is going, I want to be encouraged, and I want to be challenged.  Sometimes, that doesn’t happen when it is “just between me and God.”  And if you feel like I am boasting or getting prideful, please let me know, and it too will be a growth point.  But, sharing these for me is an honor and a risk in having others encourage me and keep me accountable.  That all being said, here are my three Lenten commitments and why I have chosen them:

  1. Spend 10 minutes in prayer and/or contemplation every day.  I have noticed that my prayer life has been sagging of late, and I know that when I am not prayerful my job as a chaplain when I pray for others can seem hard.  It is as though I am a stranger to prayer when I join with those patients at the hospital.  But more importantly, I want to commit to the prayer time because it helps me be others focused, to pray for others whom I have told I would be praying for, and to genuinely have compassion for others rather than become self consumed.  I have been rather convicted that my prayer life is not strong and hate that while I may (try) to read scripture every day and be a good minister every day, there are many days I don’t even try to pray.  It is actually quite shameful to write that, and I hope I receive not only God’s forgiveness for that but the forgiveness of those who have asked for my prayers.
  2. The Water Project: 40 days of water (mostly tap water), but for a good purpose. The poor across the world suffer in many ways, but one in particular is the lack of good drinking water.  One such country is Uganda.   There is a website (Called the Blood: Water Mission- http://40days.bloodwatermission.com/how-to-take-part/) that lets me track the drinks I would have given up and then donate that money at the end of the fast to help bring wells and clean water projects to Uganda.   I love this project because I love having a beer when I come home from a long day, I love joining with others for a night of wine, and I absolutely love sodas.  In the past I would give this stuff up because of health, which is always a good thing.  But the motivation changes this time- to recognize how I live in the world with other people, and to in some very small way stand with them.  It is a chance to look at my behavior with an eye on the rest of the world, lest I fulfill the words of the prophets by selling for the poor for a pair of sandals (or in this case, a soda).  I get to donate to a really good cause and not only make a small difference in my life for 40 days, but maybe a make a small but lasting difference elsewhere.
  3. Read the book of Amos, 1 chapter at a time.  This is actually a scary proposition  because Amos is no nice read.  In fact, it can be quite harsh to those who are at the top of the food chain, and really challenging to all those who “possess” and are well off, which I think might be many of us, including me, in the United States.  Amos calls for confession and repentance and a pure heart and compassion for others.  I want to read, and be challenged to look at my own life  and interactions with others.  That may mean looking at my footprints of desires and “needs” and wanting more possessions (I am very bad at this).  It may mean hearing Amos’ call to confess and repent and to do that with others more.  It may mean simply being convicted to help that apartment complex across the street from church.  But reading Amos and reflecting on it ought to challenge the way that I live to be more considerate of my time and relationships with the poor and needy and marginalized, but also more aware of my own worldly desires for stuff- money, possessions, respect, food (like nice food and nice wines…).  At least that is my hope and goal.

I ask you now to be in prayer for me and to encourage and challenge me to share my reflections from my Lenten “fasts”.  And vice versa, how can I pray for you during this season?  How can I help you or encourage you during the Lenten season so that we can grow towards life in Christ together?

Blessings on this your Lenten season!

The Good Samaritan

I heard a sermon today about the parable of the Good Samaritan that really challenged me.  Now the Good Samaritan story has been preached on so many times and its many challenges expounded upon, but there always seems to be a phrase or a sentence that hits me differently.

You know the story in Luke 10- lawyer asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, the Shema (love the lord your God with all your heart/mind/soul/strength and love your neighbor) is the reply, the lawyer wants to justify himself, Jesus answers with parable about a man who gets robbed on a road and two typically upstanding and faithful people pass by while the dreaded and hated Samaritan responds with deep compassion and care.  It’s a story built not around who’s in or out, who salvation belongs to, or even really about the requirements for eternal life (although Jesus seems to think that this man would be very well off in God’s kingdom if he simply loved God with all he had and loved his neighbor as himself- quite interesting).  Rather, the story answers the question about who is my neighbor and what love looks like to that neighbor.  A question of hospitality in other words.

Today two things hit me.  1) The preacher got me reflecting about my own life when he warned that there are many things in our own lives that we get very focused on that take us away from our love for people.  Now, he used a story of how his first attempt at baking was three failed attempts at boxed brownies and how he became so focused he forgot what was important in making the things in the first place.  That was a deeply funny story but it was a good starter for me.  Sometimes, I do things that are so unimportant but then I get so focused on it, perhaps get frustrated and angry and forget that there is life and a world outside of me worth remembering.  I thought about my video game playing (which I never did in the last 3 years) where I get so angry and frustrated and forget that there are better things to do with my time and life and ultimately let myself forget that other people exist.  This could be a product of unemployment and having lots of time, but playing has actually made want to get out and interact with people less, meaning there are less opportunities for me to love my neighbor, whether it is an enemy, a friend, a Hispanic, a bank teller, or that person I pass on the street in need.  But there were some other things that went through my mind too.  One of things I will have to watch is how money may come to control my life.  I have never had lots of it, and mostly owed it.  But with a job, I will have more money than I am used to coming in (although most of it coming out for debt) and strangely, that has meant in the past being more concerned about having enough- as though when my capability goes up I let myself consider more things necessary in my budget and stress over it too much.  I must not let this concern crowd out my focus on loving God and loving others, and I cannot allow myself to forget that life still goes on in spite of all of that.

A second point connected with me today: 2) Sometimes as people and congregations we let our traditions or old comfortable practices overcome the need to be the good samaritan to others.  In the parable, the priest likely stays away from the perceived dead man because he would become ritualistically unclean touching a dead body.  The Levite may have become unclean too, but also wouldn’t have been able to perform the duties of caring for the temple or other things because of it.  The tradition, or the law in this case, actually gets in the way of being hospitable and truly compassionate and selfless.

In our churches, this could be as complex as being so set in women’s roles that we miss that opportunity to care for those neighbors of ours.  Perhaps though, it is as direct as not wanting to help serve the homeless on Sunday night because we have to have Sunday night church.  Or it could be the unwillingness to have a communion meal because “we always” do it as matza (sp.?) and grape juice while in pews.  Maybe it is the unwillingness to learn Spanish even though we have neighbors that are Spanish.  Maybe it is that we are late to a Sunday morning service and would rather pass up the needy driver broken down on the road than embarrass ourselves being later to church.  Clearly this hit me pretty strongly.  I was amazed at what traditions I have that I value more than what they are.  Personally, I struggle with any changes to Sunday morning church in terms of different activities- could I really (in heart) not have a Sunday morning service and feed the homeless all morning without complaining?  I have a hard time with my family practices on Thanksgiving and Christmas when we want to do something a little different.  I thought this year I could get my family to spend the afternoon doing service at a community shelter, but found that I had the least motivation because it didn’t feel comfortable with our typical practices at Christmas (late all family lunch, seeing dads side of family Christmas Day Eve).

Both of these points reveal something then, about me.  I still have growth to pursue.  I still need to mature.  I still operate at times like the priest and the Levite, who are too busy, too dutiful, too assuming (oh, he must be dead- like possibly in the story), too comfortable.  There is still room for growth, and that is okay.  Christ will keep calling us and keep challenging us to grow- the question is how will I respond.

How does the Good Samaritan story hit you?  What growth must you still have?  God bless.

Our Dog’s Life

It is a truly beautiful day here in Riverside CA.  It really is quite stunning- the sunny 75 degrees, the still air, the light clouds dotting the sky here and there.  And yet, it feels a little overcast and sad.

My family’s dog, a cocker spaniel named Buttercup, has reached the end of her old age.  Just weeks ago, she was inside and enjoying life as a slower older dog, but over the last couple weeks, she has had incredibly hard times walking, her breathing labored, with no desire to eat.  In fact, over the last three days I don’t think she ate and she more or less refused to get up at all.  She looked in pain and didn’t seem to have any quality of life.  So the decision was made as a family.  She was to be put down.

My family's cocker spaniel, Buttercup

This is no ordinary dog, and the real brilliant thing is they never are.  Like most dogs, Buttercup had a sense for the family.  She loved to be in your presence, loved to bring warmth where she was as well as her never too subtle smell, and matched emotions with others.  Children played with her, elderly got along with her, and she genuinely loved people.  I only heard her growl at some of my brothers attempts to take bones from her.  But she loved people.  She loved being around and being pet by people- but for Buttercup it was about simply being in the presence of people.  She didn’t like being alone.

She was an adventurous little dog too.  We found her in an animal shelter and loved her so much, although we didn’t quite know her age.  Whatever her history, she loved to walk the boundaries around the yard, around the living room, around the bedroom, smelling the room around her.  And really, that is what it was.  Some dogs, like my beloved dog in Abilene who is also possibly being put down today or tomorrow, lick everything and declare their friendship by a lick.  This cocker spaniel smelled everything.  It was as though she was tracking down someone for a detective TV show.  That sense of smell took her through many adventures.  She brought dead birds around once in a while, loved to chase after mice that played in our garage, and when she saw the occasional Jerusalem cricket (a giant bug that looks like an ant with giant beak- yes, look it up!), she thought it wise to go smell the thing and get bit with the pincers on the nose.  Yes, she smelled it all.

But part of that was a sense of innocence or fearlessness that characterized Buttercup.  She just did her thing without fearing what was going to happen, even if that was trying to bully a big dog or chase a cat.  I’ve got to share with you a story from her youth.  She once saw a cat across the street and took off headlong and got close to enough to bite the cat, but alas it was not to be.  With one giant swipe the scared but tough looking cat  shook Buttercup’s face.  The shocked and pained Buttercup whimpered back to the house, and never again chased after a cat.  But this dog was undeterred.  Her innocence and fearlessness played out in other ways.  Her true protective prowess for the family though?  People? No.  Other mean dogs?  No.  Airplanes? Yes.  Airplanes of all things.  We live by an air force reserve, and this base produces at least 8-20 planes going overheard every day.  Buttercup hated every one.  When one came close, her ears perked up, her body became tense and she would zoom towards the corner it was closest too.  Bark after bark- it was as though this plane really meant to hurt us.  She would eagerly chase the thing across the yard without abandon, and then as the airplane would veer east back to the reserve, she would return from the opposite corner with her tail and head held high as she reflected on her accomplishment of protecting the family.  Sometimes she would treat birds the same way, but her prowess was the airplane.

Yet, with that friendship and sense of adventure and innocence, Buttercup had her moments.  She smelled bad for some reason (probably those long ears as normal for cocker spaniels), always walked through the games we were playing on the floor, and always managed to sit next to the person with the strongest and most sensitive sense of smell.  She never liked water, never liked having her hair cut, and despised being picked up (she was only about 20-25 lbs).  While she never chewed shoes, or took socks, or shed unbelievable amounts, but she seemed to be as stubborn as us in trying to get into the kitchen or get our attention.

She was never a fully inside dog, nor an outside dog.  She was kind of both, and one primarily depending on how good she had been.  Her last couple weeks were marked by her inability to control her bowel movements till she got outside, and her last weeks spent outside (mostly in our garage with access to the backyard) took their toll for sure, ultimately adding difficulty to what would seem to be her last days.  That was always painful for us.  We wanted her inside, but she was so mischievous and so unrelenting.  She was a difficult partner to sleep with by the way.  I love having my dogs in my room with me.  Buck, the golden retriever from earlier, loved to be on my bed.  Buttercup would not sleep at all, or so it seemed.  She would wander the room endlessly, nosing her way to all the nooks and crannies, making circles on the bed until her spot was just right (and it never was!).  Being inside was always its bane and blessing to her.  She just seemed at home outside, digging and chasing and lounging in the sun.

I must say though that Buttercup means more than all of this though.  She is a boundary marker for our family.  She marked the low points of our family as well as some really high ones.  She came not too long after our move into the new house, almost as a celebratory welcome.  Yet she also came out of the recent grief of our grandfather.  It was during her time that she spent many hours with my dying grandmother in our living room who endured her dying days on home hospice.  It is this moment in time that Buttercup is so tied to.  In many ways, she is tied to my grandmother.  Her labored and loud (in the hospital we sometimes call it agonal) breathing first reminded me of my grandmothers’ agonal breathing when she started her two slide towards death.  It was my grandmother who when she called Buttercup, always had such a funny and crazy ring and tone to it that I will always remember it.  It was like my grandmother who had such an innocence, fearlessness, sense of adventure that Buttercup truly imitated.  Buttercup seemingly shared a little bit of the personality in my grandmother.  Thus, in many ways, Buttercup’s life and death and more than a saddening day for her loss, but a remembrance of many memories and laughs for our family, for myself.

And that is what this truly comes down to right?  This is a dog that exemplified friendship for me, and one that I liked to think of Buttercup as my own, though wrong because she liked everyone in our family.  I wanted to see her when I came home.  I wanted to take care of her when I came home.  I wanted her to sleep in my room when I came home.  I loved this wonderful dog, and so did my family.  And this wonderful dog loved us.  Dogs have a way of reaching into our hearts, capturing those hearts, and becoming companions and partners in our journeys of life that few other animals can do.  They not only become partners, but they become part of us and we treasure their moments with us.  I treasure my moments with Buttercup and cannot stand any longer to see her in such pain and struggle.  It was noted that all of us were grieving the possible loss of Buttercup because of how special she was to us.  Like we might do for a human, we were trying to force feed her water and food and prayed and hoped that it was just a seizure.  It was like we were working right through the stages of grief, denying at times what was really happening by excusing it as the old seizures she had, or bargaining about whether we should let her die on her own since that would buy her more time, and depression.  It was indeed a sad sight as we were trying to force feed in hopes that we could somehow avoid this being the right time.  And we wondering, like with our grandmother and many others with their loved ones, is this the right time?  We grieved the situation because she was that special, because she meant that much, because she was that special of a companion.

Like any great companion, Buttercup and her memories will remain with us always.  Obviously she does not occupy my mind like my grandmother, but Buttercup has been a wonderful companion too, and I am grateful for her presence with us.  I believe we thank God for these beloved pets like Buttercup.  Go truly gives us good gifts, although we may not fully understand them or value them as we ought to.  But I think God cares for these animals, because he provides for them and has breathed life into them as well.  He gave us Buttercup’s life and I can’t help but thank God for that companionship.

Seeing Greatness

Just the other day I was wondering about the players I love to watch.  Look at the players I really enjoy watching- Peyton Manning, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Albert Pujols, Lionel Messi, Blake Griffin (for his dunks of course), and Tiger Woods.  These are players and/or athletes who are superb, who actually achieve unheralded excellence in their sports, or are simply the most incredible athletes who do the most insane things that the rest of the world can’t even begin to dream about.

These are athletes then who actually take what is impossible and make it possible:

Tiger Woods- 14 major golf tournament victories, 2nd most all time, and possibly the greatest clutch putter ever.  Any time Tiger is playing, even when he is not at his best, greatness can happen.  Consider the great shots and performances of his career- the chip off the green the actually by design went up a hill and reversed back thirty feet into the hole, the course record domination of Pebble Beach, the hobbled (won on one leg essentially) but determined U.S. Open victory at Torrey Pines.  It’s amazing.  When I watch him, I believe the impossible is possible, he sets a new definition for greatness and excellence. (As you can tell, I do not judge a sports star by private behaviors.)

Albert Pujols- this guy dominates pitchers.  His study, his consistency, all around skill, and ability to hit anything pitched to him.  There have been games and seasons and World Series where his performance single handedly wins ball games.  He hits great pitching and bad pitching alike.  He is, like many have called him, a machine at home plate with a bat in his hands, and it is pure beauty.

Lebron James- clearly not yet gifted with winning titles (although I’m sure he will), his athletic ability is phenomenal.  He dominates games, and can dominate in many ways.  I still remember him scoring 25 straight points on the Pistons in the playoffs, scoring layups, post baskets, and jump shots all over the place.  I have seen night after night dunks and passes that combine for nights where he just seems to dwarf others and have a next level ability that none can reach except him (and Jordan…now I am talking only of that next level athletic ability).  His ability to occupy the space on the court so smoothly in the midst of a lack of space and finish with authority on a dunk is amazing.  It captures my attention, it calls me to a place of wonder and excitement.

Why do I share any of this?

Not too long ago I wanted to know what it was about these things that captured me.  And really it is the sense of wonder.  The sense that the impossible is possible.  As human beings, we need to believe that the ordinary is not the limit.  Sure, most if not all of my life is lived in the ordinary (if you haven’t seen me play basketball or any other sports, you would realized this easily).  But seeing greatness calls me to greater.  Even if I can’t achieve it, I pursue it because I see someone who can and captures all of my attention doing it.  It’s not just entertainment, but expressions of potential.  Thus, when Tiger plays incredibly and dominates a course, I am not only amazed but excited to try and do something beyond what I have done before on the golf course.   That is it.  That is why these players and their abilities and performances capture us- because we are called to play ourselves beyond our own assumed potential

But there is another level here.  It is not just in sports where we are encouraged to play beyond ourselves because of incredible greatness.  It is in church, in my life, in my faith.  When I see a saint whose life exemplifies sacrifice and commitment and humility, as I saw in my grandmother, it not captures my attention but compels me beyond what I think my capabilities are for Christian sacrifice.  When I watch a peer struggle and then endure and persevere through trials, I am captured but also compelled to endure too.  When I see a Mother Teresa, or a Martin Luther King, or a supremely beautiful partnership in marriage, my attention is captured, but I am also compelled by the greatness I see.

Whether it is Tiger or Albert Pujols or Mother Teresa or my grandmother, seeing greatness is critical because it compels me forward to a greater life too- at least a life in which I try to exceed the ordinary of my own life too!  Just a thought…

 

The Mormon Faith

Now, I used to be Mormon- you know that right?  Yeah, when I was 10 or so we attended the Mormon church until I was about 16 or 17 and then I joined the Church of Christ and was baptized (immersed and baptized for the remission of my sins and commitment to Jesus a second time no less).  That 7 years grows larger and larger in my life as I come to reflect and consider and understand both my faith and the Mormon faith.  In fact, I almost always look back and consider that time critical to me and my development, and I really cherish and treasure my experiences and relationships there.

Just yesterday I was with a very good friend in the Mormon church, a kid 3 years my younger who is now a PA and returned missionary from some years ago.   He is a very smart, very reflective, and very open person who seeks truth and is very good in dialogue.  As we were talking, I realized that in both of our experiences, we have been thrown crazy questions about the Mormon church, some comical and some not:

  • “Were you born with a tail and horns?” (asked of my friend on the mission field)
  • “Do they sacrifice animals in the temple?”
  • “How many wives can you have?” (good question, wrong church)
  • “Aren’t you like the KKK?”
  • “Do you consider Mormons to be Christians?”
  • “Are Mormons your brothers and sisters in Christ?”

And as I interact with some of these very funny ideas and some very sad ones (built on myths or fear or misunderstanding or lack of communication), I find that I am very defensive about the Mormon faith.  I have seen very good people in the Mormon church, people who imitate Christ better than anyone I know and lead cross centered lives.  They do believe in Christ as the literal Son of God (there are some Trinitarian issues I think), believe in a God who has spoken in the Old and New Testament and provided a Savior in Jesus who has atoned for our sins.  All to say that I am very passionate about caring for my Mormon brethren and defending them from some of the myths and rumors that abound around them.  I am not sure that Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon makes them unChristian, and so I often consider them to be my brothers and sisters in Christ.

But I’m never completely sure about that, because even when something in their theology seems so wrong I am reminded that these are my friends and that live the life of Christ as passionately as I do.  I am a person who is always and seeking and always curious and always wanting to know.  So hear out some of my concerns and questions:

  • They differ on the definition of prophet.  Most Christians consider it an act, they consider it a function.  The prophet fulfills a role to guide the church and to make sure one person’s personal revelation doesn’t become the rule for everyone else.  I.e.: If someone feels God is calling them to go to Israel to fight Muslims, and they believe everyone should feel the same way, the prophet provides the overriding voice of God, according to the church.  Most Christians would say that a prophet is God’s voice to call out, correct, convict and transform- and they usually operate outside of being institutionalized.  I don’t disagree with the Mormon perspective of the office of prophet because they believe in a God of order who provides structure amongst all of those that have the Holy Spirit.  But I do wonder if the Mormon church has overcorrected in institutionalizing the prophetic task- prophets who speak the voice of God are rarely in positions of power and honor and are humans themselves (Jonah!).
  • Sometimes I wonder about the Trinitarian thing.  They believe in a literal Son of God who is not in perfect union with each other, but distinctly different with a union of purpose.  That perspective created the amazing amount of passion that created the Nicene Creed and the now famous explanation of Trinity- of the same substance.  Yes, there are places in Scripture where Jesus proclaims to others that he is from his Father or speaks as though they are different beings, but in John there is little difference between God and Jesus.  He is the bread of life, the Word- he is in the Father and the Father in him and anyone who comes to him is in him.  I think Trinity matters because Jesus does claim to be God, and if he is, that matters.  He is not a passing mode of God nor simply sharing a union of purpose…rather he is the Word from the beginning of creation.  BUT…the question I would raise is this: can one still live a Christ centered life and passionately and faithfully obey the gospel and acknowledge Jesus’ atonement if they do not believe in the traditional form of Trinity?  I am not sure.  There certainly are issues there.
  • Is it possible that Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon are actually prophetic, in the sense that MLK’s speeches were prophetic in offering critique of culture and religion, but not be Scripture?  I sometimes believe that Mormons are often the most prophetic critique of “religion” we have- it was in the early 1800’s when Mormons brought the continuing presence of the Holy Ghost (their term for the Spirit) to the fore.  It was them (and others too to be fair) that claimed that God still speaks and reveals to his people.  And the Mormon faith has been a truly prophetic voice to people to live wholesome lives, to remember the role of family, and the contempt of faith divisions and quarrels (the reason according to the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith even started asking questions and seeking truth).  So, I wonder, is it possible I can see the Book of Mormon as a stretch and not entirely believable but see its words as an important prophetic critique (like the Apocrypha of Catholic Bibles).  Sometimes I believe I act like their words are God’s revealing critique of our modern day culture, but I don’t think I have to buy every word.  Plus it seems like it takes focus from Christ towards proving or believing that Joseph Smith is true prophet.  It seems like the focus of the faith may move, but that is only a concern and not a certifiable truth on my part.
  • And then, what of the Book of Mormon?  What do I make of it?  I really believe the heart of that answer falls to how we see God’s revelation.  In other words, how do we understand how God reveals himself.  God gave us the bible, but does he reveal more through this book than he does to us personally, as a church, and as his body of believers?  Many Mormon missionaries will ask when meeting people if they want to see what more God has revealed, and essentially will say that as human beings that aren’t perfect, we ought to seek for every little bit more that God wants to reveal.  But that is dangerous because everyone who might say that has to figure out how to discern what God may reveal and what others reveal- no one has a completely open cannon.  I don’t really believe that we can’t add to Scripture simply because a verse in Revelation says so (that verse was for the prophecy of Revelation only).  But I think we as Christians need to be careful in adding more of the revelation of God.  Does it fit biblical principals and values?  Does it fit the character of God and/or Jesus?  Does it add anything we don’t already have in the Bible?  If God is revealing something, it first has to fit with Scripture.  But it also has to be worked out through reason and experience and also with tradition (our church, our community, our brothers and sisters).  Some may even say that the Book of Mormon would have been written about but that it wasn’t available or was lost at the time of writing the Bible.  I don’t know that we ought to work backwards like that.  Just because it wasn’t in the Bible doesn’t mean we can simply explain it away through availability.
  • But what does the Book of Mormon add that I can’t find in the Bible?  Care for the poor?  It’s in the Bible.  Concern for the hearts of men?  In the bible.  God’s love for all people? There in the bible, and actually that is part of the purpose of revealing himself to one group of people and then explodjng those boundaries constantly to the Gentiles.  Concern for the use of the Spirit as a personal tool?  In the bible.  I just don’t know what else the Book of Mormon brings that God would want to reveal that he held back in Scripture.  Which gets me back to the revelation question- Jesus Christ is the full and complete revelation of God.  He is God in the flesh, the image of God, the incarnation of his will and purpose and the incarnation of his righteousness and justice and love and peace.  Anything else that a prophet, like Isaiah or Paul or even Joseph Smith, is really only fleshing out that revelation.  God does not hold his revelation back, and will not hold back.
  • Other things like baptisms for the dead, the use of water and loaves of bread for Sacrament, and the roles of temples are all questionable.

Now, all of this does not mean I do not consider Mormons Christians.  Nor does it mean that I completely agree wholeheartedly but do not carry the title of Mormon.  But there are questions and uncertainties.  I work in a place where the externals, the non salvation issues break down and don’t matter.  It seems that the love for God, love for others, and faith in God’s atonement for sin in Jesus only matter when death and sickness dominate people’s lives.  Because of that, I feel like I can only treat people who do those three things (love God, love others, faithfully believe in the atonement through Christ) as my brothers and sisters and the rest may or may not work itself out.

I like feedback and thoughts and concerns.  Do you hear anything I need to consider?  What comes to mind in your reflection on faith and the Mormon faith?  I am not looking to become a Mormon, but I am looking to understand others and be more coherent in understanding my own Christian faith.  Join me if you want.

“Bullfighting”

I just now finished another book (number 5 since the beginning of December) by Roddy Doyle, an Irishman, called “Bullfighting.”  Quite a good read with plenty of laughs, and also plenty of poignant character moments.

As a collection of short stories, they cover men (Irish men and their families) and middle age and loss in some shape and fashion.  The loss part is interesting because of the scope of loss- loss of good health, loss of a warm relationship with a spouse, loss of independence, the loss of innocence, the loss of children moving out, the loss of a child’s perfect health, the loss of pets, and the loss of a marriage (lost communication, lost warmth, lost words, lost love…).  Loss has so many forms, some powerfully captivating and others so funny.  As a chaplain, I loved reading through the levels of loss and the tolls they take emotionally.  It is always important to be reminded of how the small things may mean so much to us as we recognize and come to grip with a loss: the telling of jokes, the peace of someone sleeping, the father caught catching poop from his lad’s diaper (nappy for the Irish) so it avoids a pristine wood floor!  Little things matter.

The short stories were a keen reminder to be attentive to all that is going on, to treasure the small things, show my gratitude for them, and try to be aware of their impact on me.  That attentiveness will help me as a chaplain, but it will help me and all of us in our relationships with anyone, helping us to recognize what others value and love and care for.  Like watching my dad and realizing how much a smile means to him and how distant he may feel, even though he doesn’t or may not be able to communicate it, when he can’t get that smile and laugh out of his wife or children or friends.

It is so intriguing just how much life and loss affect us all.

A Pair of Poems

Two poems have been on my mind lately.  First, Langston Hughes’ “Let America Be America Again,” which I heard read on NPR by Nikki Finney.  The poem has a prophetic tone to it, prophetic in terms of the call to care for the marginalized and poor.  It has been stuck on my mind, and maybe will get stuck on yours.  Secondly, John Donne’s poem Death Be Not Proud…”, has been on my mind since I taught a class at church about my work as a chaplain.  And of course, the poem plays a major part in the movie Wit, which happens to be one of the most poignant films I have watched.  It makes me think, makes me hope, makes me wonder.  May you be challenged by both as I am! (Both are copied and pasted and so the fonts are a little off, but still readable.  I hope that won’t both any!)

“Let America Be America Again”

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There's never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this "homeland of the free.")

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark? And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek--
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one's own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean--
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today--O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I'm the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That's made America the land it has become.
O, I'm the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home--
For I'm the one who left dark Ireland's shore,
And Poland's plain, and England's grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa's strand I came
To build a "homeland of the free."

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we've dreamed
And all the songs we've sung
And all the hopes we've held
And all the flags we've hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay--
Except the dream that's almost dead today.

O, let America be America again--
The land that never has been yet--
And yet must be--the land where every man is free.
The land that's mine--the poor man's, Indian's, Negro's, ME--
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose--
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people's lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath--
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain--
All, all the stretch of these great green states--
And make America again!

 

“Death Be Not Proud…”

DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not so,

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill me.

From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,

Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,

And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,

And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then;

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,

And death shall be no more, death, thou shalt die.

 

And with that, may you be challenged by these writings in surprising ways.