Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Saint of the Month: Sgt. Mary Dague (Reflections on Thanksgiving)

Thirty-year-old Mary Dague describes herself as happy.

Image result for Sgt mary Dague
That's pretty easy to believe by looking at her picture. She's got luminous eyes, funky magenta hair, and a smile that seems to go all the way around to the back of her head. A Youtube video of a thoroughly enthusiastic Mary doing a tandem skydive (without a helmet, mind you!) might just convince you that this is the coolest chick ever. If I had to pick a word to describe her image, I'd say “joyful.”

I heard Mary's story a few weeks ago on National Public Radio's “Story Corp” series, and I thought to myself, “Okay. That's my Thanksgiving sermon!”

(Thanksgiving, I said. Not “Turkey Day.” Not the day before “Black Friday.” I friggin' hate, loathe, and despise those two terms. It is a revolting commentary on our culture that we so neglect a national holiday set aside to appreciate the goodness of God by nominating gluttony and excessive retail spending over gratitude. But I digress.)

I picked Mary Dague's story as an illustration for this national day devoted to gratitude because she seems to me to embody the very spirit of Thanksgiving.

If you check out her story online, you'll find that Mary was a rather shy, sentimental kid growing up in Montana. She was engaged to be married right out of high school, but her future mother-in-law scared her—unintentionally, I'm sure—with thoughts of an oppressive domesticity. Mary wanted to be something more than just a housewife. She broke her engagement and, determined to do something that mattered, joined the United States Army. In her second enlistment she rose to the rank of sergeant with the frightening Military Occupation Specialty of Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD), the “Bomb Squad” of the Army.

(She also fell in love and married a fellow soldier named Jared)

In November of 2007, while on deployment in Iraq, a small IED detonated in Mary's arms. She lost both of her arms slightly above the elbows, received lacerations to her face, and lost a good portion of her hearing. A newspaper article reports her reaction to one of the corpsmen who transported her to hospital: “Dude, this sucks.”

But if you listen to Mary's voice and hear how grateful she is to be able to share her story with other wounded warriors, if you get a sense of her whacky sense of humor, her compassion, and her new sense of purpose, you will quickly forget her injuries and see only her beautiful spirit. Mary Dague soldiers on with optimism and a collection of oddball graphic T-shirts displaying wry and darkly humorous references to her condition. Aided by her husband, a service dog, some sophisticated prosthetics (there's a great picture of her online feeding herself a strawberry with her new arm), pure Montana ingenuity, and a defiant sense of humor, this veteran is a living, breathing inspiration.

I don't know Mary, so I don't know what her religious beliefs—if any—are. I hope she wouldn't mind my using her story to make a theological point. But in seeing this courageous lady, I am reminded that God does not stop being good because we in our circumstances stop appreciating that goodness. Indeed, the crappiest day we will ever have will still be filled with blessings. There will be sky above us and beauty around us and glorious people to love us and help us through.

Mary Dague's story illustrates the point made in the appointed gospel lesson for the Day of Thanksgiving, the story of the ten lepers in Luke 17:11-19. There is a world of difference between being cured and being healed. Jesus cured all ten of the lepers in the story. That is, he restored all of them to their former conditions of health. But only the one was healed. Healed comes from a word meaning “to be made whole.” Wholeness suggests peace, acceptance, self knowledge, and appreciation. We can't be healed or whole without gratitude. Maybe Sgt. Mary cannot be completely cured (But then, none of us can. Being human is a terminal condition), but she certainly seems to be healed.

I am grateful just for the opportunity to gather with loved ones and recognize how good I have it, acknowledging that none of the blessings I enjoy come from my deserving them in the least. I guess the more I recognize this, the more thankful and the more whole I will become.

I saw a cool sign in front of a church I pass on my way to and from Faith Lutheran which sort of sums it up:

It's not a day. It's a way of life.

Or, as the old hymn put it:

Great is thy faithfulness! Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
all I have needed thy hand hath provided;
great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me.

And I am thankful to you, dear friend, for reading. A blessed Thanksgiving to you.

PS-Check out Mary Dague story by clicking on StoryCorp.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Christ the King (Year A)

Kings. We really don't know what to do with them here in America. We say that Elvis was the “King of Rock 'n' Roll” and Michael Jackson was the “King of Pop,” but for the most part we've done pretty well without them for some 238 years.

Nevertheless, Americans really do love to gossip about British royalty. Part of us has a grudging awe and admiration for someone who, by the accident of their birth or through “divine right,” gets to own an entire country. There seems to be something magical in the concept.

I've never seen royalty myself, but my late dear ol' dad, back in his “regular army” days before the Second World War, had the honor of standing guard for their Royal Majesties King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when they visited the US in 1939. Dad thought the queen was a charming and radiant woman, but he really was unimpressed by the king, whom he described as looking slack-jawed and confused.

If you've seen the movie The King's Speech, a wonderful bio pic about George VI, you won't wonder too much at my dad's impression. It seems that the King was, by nature, a fairly unimpressive guy. He suffered from a crippling stutter and an almost equally crippling personal insecurity. He was second in line to the throne behind his flamboyant and dazzlingly charming brother, King Edward VII. It was only when Edward's romantic difficulties forced him to abdicate that George was forced into the top spot—a position he feared and never coveted.

The British journalist Alistair Cooke once commented that few constitutional crises were ever more fortunate for the British people than Edward's abdication. The faltering and shy George turned out to be a much better symbol for the war-beleaguered nation than the dashing and charismatic Edward. George was the king to whom the average citizen could relate—a man obviously distressed by the nightmare of war, but doggedly determined to see the thing through shoulder to shoulder with the rest of the country.

In today's gospel lesson (Matthew 25: 31-46), the King of Kings exercises his magisterial power to judge between the sheep and the goats. But, judgment aside, he is a very unimpressive king. He comes to us hungry like the unemployed dad who arrived at my church door last week looking for food donations. He comes thirsty like the thousands in sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to clean drinking water. He comes naked like the inner-city school kid whose single mom can't afford to buy her a good winter coat. He comes as a stranger like the three Afghan women refugees who explained in their broken English that they were told a church might help them out with living expenses. He comes sick like the victims of HIV/AIDS, malaria, and the ebola virus. He comes to us in prison and on parole and addicted to drugs and alcohol. He comes as a battered wife and an elderly veteran in a nursing home. He comes as a young girl with an eating disorder and a young gay man bullied by his classmates. He comes weak, insecure, lost, angry, afraid, and in millions of different forms which have no claim on our earthly admiration. But he comes.

And, as his loyal subjects, we are called to serve him.

The Evangelical preacher and activist Jim Wallis tells the story of Mary Glover, a poor woman who volunteered at a food cupboard in Washington, D.C., a mere twenty blocks from the White House. Mrs. Glover relied on the cupboard for food assistance herself, but joyfully gave of her time to hand out groceries to hundred's of disadvantaged people living in the capital of the wealthiest nation on Earth. Each Saturday before the cupboard opened, Mrs. Glover led the volunteers in prayer, a prayer which always ended, “Lord, we know that you'll be comin' through this line today; so, Lord, help us to treat you well.”

God bless you, my fellow subjects. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Jesus' Parable of a Rotten Employee (Reflections on Pentecost 23)

Can I make a confession?

People often ask me how it was that I went from being in show business—a sometime soap opera actor, radio voice talent, and denizen of tiny Los Angeles theaters—to being the pastor of a Lutheran church in Philadelphia. My answer, of course, is God had different plans for me than I had for myself. I think that's a pretty good answer. But, if I'm totally honest, the real reason starts with the fact that my career as an actor was in the toilet. I mean, after years of auditions, calls to my agent, photos mailed to casting people, etcetera, etcetera, I just wasn't getting anywhere. And what really sucked the most was the more “no's” I heard, the more desperate and nervous I was becoming. I got to a point where I was more afraid of failure than I was excited about success. So I had to hang it up.

I guess that's why I love this parable so much. It speaks to me in a very uncomfortable sort of way.

The gospel reading in the Lutheran lectionary for the Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Matthew 25:14-30) paints an identifiable portrait of another hapless dufus. The poor slob in this story is entrusted by his master with a talent—in this sense, a sum of money which, in weight, was the equivalent of twenty years' wages for the average working man of the day. It's a lot of cash, and he doesn't want to lose it, so he buries it in the earth until the boss gets back. Two of his co-workers, whom the boss believes to be more gifted in investing, have been given larger sums which they trade and invest and manage to double.

But the poor, gutless slob does nothing with the wealth to which he is entrusted. He doesn't even put it in the bank to earn a trifle of interest. When the boss comes back to ask for an accounting, this pusillanimous employee digs up the cash, proudly declaring that he hasn't lost a nickle. The boss goes into a rage, calls the guy “wicked” and “lazy,” and promptly fires him.

Now, for my part, it does seem a bit of a stretch to make the boss in this story analogous with a merciful and forgiving God. He's actually a bit more like a Donald Trump or some other robber baron more concerned about the bottom line than the welfare of his employees. Nevertheless, he points out a hard reality: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. If you fear failure more than you desire success, you doom yourself to failure.

What's the lesson here for Christians? Let's start with the talent with which we've been entrusted. I'd say that this is the Gospel—the power to believe that a merciful Creator God, made manifest in the suffering, forgiving, crucified and risen Jesus Christ, can change our lives, give us courage, and create a just and merciful world. That's a pretty darn big treasure with which to be entrusted. So what do we do with it?

My fear is that we in the organized Church are more afraid of losing what we have—a comfortable, somewhat religiously-based social club (what Nadia Bolz-Weber would call “the Elks Club with Communion”) than we are eager to invest in the Gospel. After all, such an investment might require risk. We'd have to be willing to change our thinking (sometimes called “repentance.”), seek ministry opportunities with people unlike ourselves, and devote ourselves to the cultivation of real discipleship. Such an investment could cost our congregational treasuries money or mean that we'd have to give up some of our free time and miss an episode or two of the Real Housewives of Newark in order to attend Bible study or do some mission work. So we bury our treasure, cling to the status quo, and watch our congregations go down like Custer at the Big Horn.

But in Christ all things are possible. When my congregation first started a non-traditional music format at our late service, we had a number of volunteers to lead singing. I thought this was swell at first. Unfortunately, many of these good folks, however much they liked to sing, were more afraid of messing up than they were excited about leading worship. They'd stand a toll call away from their microphones, terrified that, if they hit a sour note, everyone in the congregation would hear it. Their embarrassment and reluctance to lead worship with praise and conviction made the whole congregation feel uncomfortable rather than joyful to be in the house of the Lord.

Little by little, however, things began to change. When one of our past worship directors suggested that we put on a concert in which the singers would actually be given solo parts, my reluctant Praise Team—with fear and trembling—agreed to give it a try. To be honest, we didn't sound all that great, but neither did we die of mortified embarrassment. We made a joyful noise unto the Lord, and from that moment on we've been slowly growing in confidence and ability.

I think this parable reminds us that we serve an awesome and powerful God who can take the investment of our talents and use them to His glory—if we're brave enough to trust Him. If all we desire is institutional survival, then survival is the best we will achieve. But if we are willing to take risks, to make the change form being church members to true  disciples of Jesus, and commit to growing in the things of God, there is no telling what we might achieve.

Don't be afraid, my friend, of the wealth God has given you. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Wise Oil and Veterans (Reflections on Pentecost 22 and Veterans Day)

Flag of the United States of America

I guess it's always something of a challenge for a liturgical preacher like my own dear self to try and marry the appointed text for a given Sunday with the secular holiday being celebrated at the same time. If you try to do it, you'll probably end up mangling the original meaning of the text in the attempt. But, shoot..! Here goes anyway.

The parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1-13) is another attempt by Jesus to tell us what living in God's kingdom and under God's rule is like. All ten maids know something is about to happen. The groom (let's make him analogous with Jesus) will certainly come to us at some point, but we need to be ready for the moment of arrival. I'm not sure that moment always has to be the Second Coming. Perhaps it's an illness, a death, a job loss, or even an unexpected blessing. The question is whether or not we're ready for it. What is the oil in the parable a metaphor for? It's got to be more than just correct doctrine. If we look at the Hebrew scripture lesson appointed for this week (Amos 5:18-24), we see that God has no time for religious observances if they're not connected to justice and righteousness.

So the next question would be, what do these qualities mean to you? What is righteousness? A pious Jew might find righteousness by being in constant dialogue with God's law, always asking what is the right course, the moral course, or the most acceptable. As Christians, however, we can't be in dialogue with the law because the law always shows us we have fallen short of it. Instead, our “oil” is to be in constant dialogue with Jesus, using the qualities we have learned from him as our guide. Which course is the most compassionate? Which the most forgiving? Which promotes peace and understanding and healing? Which the most beneficial to the suffering, the poor, the outcast? Which course is the course of love?

There are “Come to Jesus” moments in every life, and they come without warning. Those who have brought the oil of Christ's righteousness—his wisdom, his faith, his love—can't give it to those who are without it. It is up to all of us to cultivate our own relationship with Jesus, to watch for him and recognize what God is doing in our lives. The road to wisdom requires discipline.

So what does any of this have to do with Veterans' Day you ask? Honestly, not a darn thing. Except, I guess, that our walk with Jesus is preparation for any and every day. So let me just change the subject entirely and say a few words about our American secular holiday.

First, this holiday on November 11 was originally declared by Woodrow Wilson in observance of the end of the most ungodly bloodbath the world had seen up to that time—World War I. After an entire generation of young men in Europe and North America had been decimated by this carnage, Wilson thought it was a good idea to remember its horrors every year on the anniversary of the armistice in the hopes that such an event would never, ever reoccur. He further proposed that the victors of this conflict show mercy and compassion to the vanquished and create friendships and lasting peace through forgiveness and cooperation. This idea didn't go over too well at the time. A generation later we were slaughtering each other again. So Wilson's “Armistice Day,” intended to be a day to commemorate peace, was renamed “Veterans Day” to honor those who served and suffered in the defense of peace.

November 11 is also the feast of St. Martin of Tours, the patron saint of soldiers. The legend of St. Martin states that, as a soldier of the Roman Empire, Martin encountered a nearly naked beggar. Moved with pity for the man, the soldier cut his long cape in half and gave half to clothe the beggar. Later, in a dream, he saw the caped beggar and recognized that he had given his cape to Christ himself (See Matthew 25:36). He then left the military and dedicated his life to the service of God and the poor. Because of his act of selfless generosity, small churches were given the name “capella” or “little cape.” From this we get the words “chapel” and “chaplain.”

And, of course, November 11 is also the birthday of Martin Luther. Luther taught that a man could be a soldier and still honor God if he fought in defense of the weak and powerless. The temporal sword, according to Luther, if wielded by a righteous and God-fearing government, helped fulfill the first use of God's law, namely the suppression of lawlessness. (See Letter on Temporal Authority, 1523)

I hope we observe Veterans Day in the spirit intended by Wilson, St. Martin, and Dr. Luther. That is, we bring to the feast the oil of righteousness—compassion, mercy, and the desire for true peace—and not just flag-waving bravado. To honor those who sacrificed their youthful years in order that the world would be a safer, more law-abiding, and more just place, I offer a prayer by Luther and a litany of my own.

Luther's Soldiers' Prayer:

Dear God, you see that I must go to war. I would surely rather keep out of it. I do not rely and trust in the righteous cause, but upon your grace and mercy. I will not wage war against you, neither will I be in an army that robs God of the things that are God's. O heavenly Father, here I am employed as you will in this work and service of my rulers. My first loyalty is to you; then to them, for your sake.

I have learned through your gracious Word that our works cannot help us and that no one is saved by being a warrior. I will in no way rely on my obedience and work as a soldier. But I will sincerely do this work as a service to your will.

Enable me to believe with all my heart that only the innocent blood of your dear Son, my Lord Jesus Christ, obediently shed for me according to your gracious will can redeem and save me. In this faith I will stay here, wage war, do all that has to do with war, and if need be die. Dear God and Father, preserve and strengthen this faith in me through your Holy Spirit. I commend my body and soul into your hands. Amen.

A Veterans Day Litany

Spirit of the Living God, we give you thanks and praise for those who have given themselves to the cause of world peace, security, and justice. For all veterans and active duty military, we pray your blessing, your strength, and your healing love. We cry your mercy:

For those who have returned from service injured, whether in or out of combat, who have lost health or limb;

For those who suffer emotional pain;

For those who saw buddies killed or maimed;

For those who have seen sights they cannot un-see;

For those who feel guilt over the deaths of the innocent;

For those who know the pain of taking human life;

For those who turned to alcohol or drugs;

For those who were shunned, blamed, spat upon, or whose service was unappreciated or ignored;

For those who were victims of sexual misconduct;

For those who have suffered financial hardship because of multiple deployments;

For those who wonder why they were allowed to survive when others perished;

For those have missed holidays, birthdays, and the achievements of their children, or became strangers to their families because of their military service;

For those who attempted suicide;
For those who have not been able to feel pride, but rather shame for their actions;

For those who feel they haven't given enough;

For those who have become homeless;
For those who feel their government has let them down;

Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.
Thanks for reading, my friend. Stop in again soon.