Saturday, November 24, 2007

Don't Squander Your Gifts

I love music as much as anything in my life. While some folks think it would be a tragedy to lose your eyesight, I think I would go crazy if I lost my hearing. The fact that hearing loss runs in my father's family causes me fear from time to time.

I am a frustrated musician; while I am able to play a variety of musical instruments (piano/keyboard, organ, guitar, low brass instruments including the trombone), I was never accomplished at any of them. Moreover, I really wanted to be a vocalist. I had a good boy soprano voice, but that soon changed to a deep voice that is a bit nasal and harsh. I took lessons, but got frustrated. My range and my stamina are quite limited.

Worse, my standards are incredibly high. I can take headphones and listen to music and find the mistakes. I can also listen for hours upon end to good music and good voices. One of my favorite musical arrangements was during the 80's when Canadian singers united for "Tears Are Not Enough," a famine-relief song co-written by Bryan Adams, David Foster, and Jim Vallance (the best in their day) that brought some of the greatest and unique voices in music together: Gordon Lightfoot (remember "Sundown" and "Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald"?), Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young (he actually sang on-key), Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Bruce Cockburn, Mike Reno (lead singer of Loverboy). Geddy Lee (yes, of Rush) brings one verse home with his incredible voice. All of these folks I mention have unmistakable voices. I wanted a voice like that. (video here, history and better audio here)

God didn't give me that gift. However, he did give me gifts unique to me. While I won't be cutting a record (I guess burning a CD, now) anytime soon, I can lead a hymn. I can strum a guitar well enough that my daughter and I can sing together. If I practiced for a few weeks, I could probably work up an organ voluntary for church. Last year I played the tuba in a Christmas brass ensemble (maybe my swan song). Those are musical gifts. I'm a fair preacher, a good pastor, and a capable administrator. I'm not the highest rated basketball official around these parts, but I enjoy it and so far no one's told me to hang it up.

When it comes to the Church - I fear that we squander our gifts. Bishops and district superintendents whose hearts are in the local church instead of administration. Parish pastors and priests whose gifts would be better suited in hospitals and institutions. Laity who instead of being put on a church committee would rather serve in the background building Habitat for Humanity houses or other hands-on work. Youth who can read scripture and witness. Older adults who are gifted with working with teenagers. And the list goes on.

Sometimes, we are "elevated" to posts we really don't have the gifts for. And sometimes, we spend time wishing we had the gifts others have when in fact God created us uniquely to fit in harmony with the world, instead of at variance.

I would have loved being the lead singer for Rush. For all I know, Geddy Lee might have wanted to have been a rabbi. But I suspect that God knows what He is doing. My mother wasn't supposed to be able to have children; against the odds, she did. Geddy Lee's parents were both Polish Jews who, against odds, survived the Dachau and Bergen-Belsen concentrations camps. For some reason, the odds were defied so that I might be a clergyman and Geddy might be a singer. And we are, as the Psalmist said, "Fearfully and wonderfully made."

Rock on, Geddy. Thank you, God, for both of us - and our gifts.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Honest Doubt

It may come to a surprise to you that your pastor occasionally has his doubts and weaknesses. Let me be the first to say that I certainly do. The first time I buried a teenager I was angry with God. When a tornado went through the parish I served, I doubted God. And there are days, even now, when I wonder if I’ve been faithful to the grace I’ve been given. Theological doubts, weakness in ability and faith, doubting of faith and self-confidence – these are real. And as I have read the spiritual giants and eminent divines of the faith, I realize that they had their doubts too.

John Wesley had this struggle all of his life. Not even a year after Wesley’s heart-warming Aldersgate experience, he wrote these words on January 4, 1739:

My friends affirm that I am mad, because I said I was not a Christian a year ago. I affirm I am not a Christian now. Indeed, what I might have been I know not, had I been faithful to the grace then given, when, expecting nothing less, I received such a sense of forgiveness of my sins as till then I never knew. But that I am not a Christian at this day… For a Christian is one who has the fruits of the Spirit of Christ, which… are love, peace, joy. But these I have not.

It is very easy for those who take up the cross of Christ and practice radical discipleship to get discouraged, for this reason: any intentional attempts at practicing radical discipleship will bring opposition. And sometimes, the battles within the Church are harder than the ones outside of the Church.

Do our doubts in faith mean something is wrong with us? Hardly. One of the ways our faith is made stronger is through self-examination. And the good news is that not only Scripture, but also the experience of those saints who also dealt with struggle are instructive for us. It is a pipe dream to think that life will not have struggles – that’s simply not realistic. But it is realistic to expect God to be walking with us in our struggles.

In fact, God holds us in the palm of His hand - and doesn't let go.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Torn Between Two Loves

Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. They came to him and said, "Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn't we?"

But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. "Why are you trying to trap me?" he asked. "Bring me a denarius and let me look at it." They brought the coin, and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" "Caesar's," they replied.

Then Jesus said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." And they were amazed at him.
– Mark 12:13-17

I love being an American citizen. I have an American flag and Kentucky state flag that hangs in my garage. My father and two uncles served in the Korean War and World War II, respectively. As I prepare to leave for England, I realize that America, despite its quirks, is a great place to live. We are indeed a melting pot, and our diversity makes life interesting and fun.

I also know that my baptism called my allegiance to Christ above all – even country. I leave for the polls today to vote – something I don’t always enjoy doing. And as I get my keys to get into my car, I will also see my jury summons for U.S. District Court. I have jury duty for 60 days starting December 3rd.

Could I get out of jury duty? Maybe. Do I have to vote? Of course not. One of the privileges of being American is the right not to vote. But citizenship, just like discipleship, has responsibilities too. If we love God, out of gratitude for sacrificing His son we take things on. As the writer of James noted, “Faith without works is dead.” The same goes for citizenship: we need to be involved in our communities. Fire departments need volunteers. Communities and cities need council members, commissioners, and representatives. And out of gratitude for those who have sacrificed for our country, we ought to vote. Even if we write in Mickey Mouse’s name.

I wrestled for a long time about faith and politics. I came to the conclusion a few years ago that Christians ought to make darned good citizens. Yes, sometimes our faith will clash with our citizenship. As I was taught in counseling classes: you can’t ever get rid of conflict – you just learn how to manage it. It’s okay to give the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar. Just be sure you give to God what is God’s.