Meaning

The Season . . . Is The Reason Dr. Timothy McNeil, LMHC Ecclesiastes 3: 1-11

The Season Is The Reason

          By our very nature we are creatures who hunger for meaning and to make sense out of experience. Terrorists explode pressure cooker bombs at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and immediately we want to know who did it and why. We now know the who and we await the why. A fertilizer factory explodes and decimates a small Texas town and we want to know how and why.

          Speaking of explosions, last Saturday evening Brenda and I were in Cherokee Sound in the Abacos for a brief weekend fishing trip. In the distance I could hear thunder. I borrowed a bicycle and rode down to the dock and took this picture of an approaching storm. We came back to the house, ate dinner, cleaned up the kitchen, and began to settle in for the evening. Our hosts were watching marathon re-runs of the Golden Girls which I took as a signal that God was calling me to go upstairs to gather a few thoughts about what to say for today. I knew the announcement that was going to be made. I was staring at a blank page on my I-Pad and my mind was as completely blank as the page was in front of me. And then the power went off. And I was wondering if this was what it was going to be like here on Sunday . . . blank minds and to add stunned faces and a feeling like all of the air leaving the building and the power going off.

          I want to apologize to any of you who are first time visitors because this is probably going to feel like you are attending someone else's family reunion and you must have stumbled in here by mistake. Last Sunday it was announced that Bill and his wife Becky, who have provided the pastoral leadership for this church, will be leaving after 5 years in June. No mention of where they are going and no mention of who is coming to replace him. With this comes a vague assurance that everything is going to be ok, it's a done deal, and trust the system. And so if you are visiting hang with me . . . eventually this might work.

          Since we are by nature creatures of meaning making, and we always try to make sense out of experience, we all want to know why. I've been a United Methodist all of my life. My Grandfather, P.T. Holloway, was a Methodist preacher and a member of the South Georgia Conference. When my grandfather served the church pastors didn't find out where they were going until the last day of annual conference. Pastors would have to go home and pack and be in their new assignment the following week. After 70 years the logistics haven't changed all that much, and the emotional dynamics are about the same.      

And so in this way it is frequently like a death or a divorce. The church can ask for it or the pastor can ask for it. If a pastor practices self-awareness he or she will always be asking whether or not they sense and feel they are the right fit in this place and at this time for the people they serve. When I was in my 5th year in Madison I once asked George Foster, a wise pastor who has long retired to the other shore, "George, when is it time to leave?" And he told me, "The year before you have to." Bill didn't have to and it probably wasn't the year before he had to. The church didn't ask for it and technically Bill didn't ask for it. When we left Hollywood Hills after being an apprentice associate for three years I asked for a move sensing it was time for me to lead my own congregation. When we left Madison and moved to Daytona and then when we left Daytona and moved to Palm Harbor both churches asked for us to stay and we asked to stay.

          Technically he didn't ask for it and I didn't ask for it but in a sense we did when we who are United Methodist Clergy accept the vows we take at the time or ordination. Ordained elders agree to itinerate. We agree that the Bishop and the District Superintendents have the authority to send us where they believe our gifts, talents, skills, and abilities may best be utilized.  And so in this sense the pastor is ultimately married to the conference."You've brought stability and helped facilitate healing and we need Bill over there and we think this one is the right fit for over here." There are times when they get it right and there are other times it is a mismatch. It is both matriarchal and patriarchal in the sense that in this day and age it seems strange to have to be a part of a system of arranged marriages. Most of us tend to push back against authorities when someone tells us, "We know what is best for you."

          As the John Mellencamp song goes, "I fight authority and authority always wins." We don't like hearing, "we know what's best for you." I remember being 12 years old and going to the Midway Drive In theatre in Jacksonville. I was in the back seat with my pajamas on and the movie was "Shenandoah," starring James Stewart." He played a widower who was raising 6 sons cast during The Civil War. The Confederate Army was calling for recruits and they came to Jimmy Stewart's farm. The recruiter said of his sons, "The Confederate Army needs your sons. And Jimmy Stewart said, "Where was the Army when we needed a spare (breast) around here?" My twelve year old mind was shocked at what I heard, especially since the word used was slang for breast.

          But some higher authority is always asking us to sacrifice our sons and daughters for a "higher cause," for God, or for the church, or for the good of the nation. I have always struggled with the story recorded in Genesis when God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. I know from a form critical perspective that the story represents the end of human sacrifices which were quite prevalent until around the 17th century BCE but I still don't like it. 'We were all horrified when an eight year old boy died at the bombing at the Boston Marathon and more so the Shady Hook massacre that claimed the innocent lives of 20 school children. However, the fact of the matter is that 70 other children were murdered by a parent that same week and every week since then by one or both parents and most of them are under 5 years of age. If it happened today either God or Abraham would be reported to DCF. At times it is the military and in other times it is corporations, Jimmy Stewart's protest is the protest of every parent. Why does this higher authority have the right to lay claim to our own flesh and blood?

          And so how do we make sense out of this? We are creatures who are always trying to make sense out of experience. One of the dangers we face is to reduce it all down to a cliché. Pain is the sign of weakness leaving the body. What doesn't kill you will make you stronger. God doesn't give you anything that you can't handle. God has a plan and a purpose. Everything happens for a reason. None of these commonly held beliefs are to be found in the Bible. I wish there was a way we could apply a vacuum to the language of Christian clichés and suck them all out of our vocabulary.

          I'd really like to tackle all of these but I'm only going to stick with one. Everything happens for a reason. I am fairly convinced we default to these clichés when we really don't know what else to say. I have learned that whenever I am in doubt as to what to say it is better to say nothing. It had only been about four or five months after I had this strong sense that I needed to finish my undergraduate career and prepare for the ministry when my Dad, Bob Peters who was to become my father-in-law, and I were mixing concrete and pouring a walkway between the back porch and the utility room. The day happened to be Good Friday when we were doing this chore and while digging and mixing and pouring Bob asked me, "Why do they call it Good Friday?" I'm guessing my Dad read the dumbfounded look on my face when he immediately said, "If you don't know the answer to that question then don't say anything." It was good advice.

          At times the most appropriate response we can make is silence. In other moments we don't really want answers we just want our cries of pain to be heard. When we are heard we feel cared for and comforted. On Wednesday evening we were entrusted to be the babysitters for Maya. This was Mom and Dad's first trip out in leaving their child while they went out to dinner. We had been warned "she's been fussy lately." For about three of the four hours Maya gave us a full demonstration in order to let us know that her lungs were working correctly. After checking for the obvious signs of distress, with a clean diaper and knowing she had been fed, I told her, "You just go right ahead and tell Papa all about it." She is such a smart girl because you know what? That is exactly what she did. We may say we want answers when what we really want is to be held in whatever anguish we happen to be experiencing.  Now I can honestly say I do know the answer to that question. It was named Good Friday centuries later. But when the nails were being pounded into his hands I can't imagine anybody that day thought it was good.

          In Genesis 50 Jacob has died in Egypt and Joseph has his father embalmed and asks Pharaoh if he can take his body back to Canaan to bury him. When Joseph's brothers hear of his arrival they are quaking in their boots, or sandals, or whatever they were quaking in. They hated their brother. He was clearly their father's favorite. His father had given him the Brook's Brothers coat of many colors. It was trimmed in leather and suede. They were first going to kill him, then they threw him in a well, then they pulled him out and sold him into slavery. Potiphar recognizes Joseph's abilities and puts him in charge of his household. Potiphar's wife early on had auditioned for "Desperate Housewives" and she tries to put the move on Joseph. Being the gentleman he was he spurned her advances. As a scorned woman she now claims he tried to rape her. Joseph is imprisoned, nearly executed, and gets labeled as a sexual predator and has to register on Pharaoh's data base. While he is in prison he enrolls in the University of Phoenix, takes on line courses, and studies to become a psychotherapist. Joseph learns how to interpret dreams which come in quite handy when he interpreted Pharaoh's dream of seven fat cows and seven skinny cows. "The seven fat cows means we are going to have a bull market and for the next seven years you need to invest in grain futures on the commodities market. After that there are going to be seven years when the market is going to look worse than the housing bubble burst and a famine is going to hit that will make the great depression look good." He had been thrown down into a well, down into slavery, and down into prison and had to reinvent himself three times. He was now the 2nd most powerful man in Egypt. Joseph's brothers were shaking in their sandals. And then Joseph puts a spin on all of this that requires most of us to take our heads off and shake them and then put it back on. "You meant it for evil but God meant it for good." I don't think Joseph could have come to that conclusion when he was in the bottom of the well or in solitary confinement in prison.

          Paul writes in Romans 7:15 about being conflicted. "The very thing I know I ought not do is what I end up doing. Wretched man that I am. Who will deliver me from the bonds of this affliction?" It is what I call the psychic crucifixion. The most vivid closest association I have with wretched is vomiting. It is the evoking of disgust. But it is only through this that we get to Romans 8:1 "Now therefore there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." And further in Romans 8:28 "All things work for good for those who love God and who are called according to His purpose." If you find yourself in the belly of the whale just hold me and be with me in it. Life doesn't come with a fast forward button and we can't microwave our way through it.

          Does everything happen for a reason? Nobody can make that for us. Like Jesus, Joseph, Jonah, Paul, and you and me and Bill and Becky, we just have to hold those affirmations until we are ready to make them for ourselves. Let's just say it this way for now. Everything does happen in a season. A time to plant and a time to reap. A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to kill and a time to heal. A time pitch our tent and a time to pack it up and move on.

          So what does it all mean? How do we make sense out of your time with us and our time with you? Harry Baas is a colleague in ministry who is now retired. I remember a story Harry told many years ago about returning to the Peeler Memorial UMC for a homecoming where he had served as the pastor years earlier. Many of the previous pastors had returned for the occasion and someone had put together a booklet outlining their achievements. Harry was somewhat stunned when he read the synopsis of his pastorate when some well meaning person wrote, "During Rev. Baa's pastorate the Pastor's Office was moved from the East Wing of the administrative building to the west wing."

          And so it's only natural for a pastor to wonder about the legacy and the footprint they leave in the life of a congregation. Did it matter? Was it worth it? It may be early to say this but I'm going to say it anyway. You are a gifted teacher. You have brought stability to this congregation. You have helped to facilitate healing. You have brought hope.

          A couple of years ago when you were trying to embed and work on a purpose statement you came up with two simple words. We Care. And although that may say something about us it says everything about you. When my father was dying in a nursing home in St. Augustine Bill and Becky showed up. If you were in the hospital here or in Jacksonville or Gainesville or Orlando Bill would be there. If there was a death Bill would be there. You have excelled as a teacher and at times a prophet and you could say anything to us you wanted to from that sacred desk because we know you have cared.

          Bill and Becky have loved and cared for us but we have loved and cared for them. Their son Jeremy is a captain of a ship half way around the world in Quadulan. We celebrated in the marriage of their daughter Beth and Keith in January. Their son Wesley is in the Marine Corp and Maggie and Callie are in San Diego. We pray for him every week. Callie is the most beautiful granddaughter I have ever seen . . . until our granddaughter Maya was born. Their family has become our family.

          Everything happens in the season. But the season is changing. Spring will soon be summer. Does everything happen for a reason? Maybe. Let's just not try to rush through it. When you tell me it all happens for a reason it feels like you are just trying to shush me. Hold me when I am hurting. Teach me to be silent when I do not know the answers.

What Makes You So Sure? Romans 8:18-39 All Saint's Sunday November 6, 2011

If you were to die tonight, would you go to heaven? If so, what makes you so sure? If you’ve been around the block a few times, I’m sure you’ve been confronted with this question a time or two.

We’ve all had influences that have shaped how we look at this issue. Some people are extremely hostile to this approach. Others confess to being saved by it. How you look at this has something to do with how you perceive God on the continuum of justice and grace. I grew up with more of the judgment than the grace.

My mother was a “P.K.” P.K. is an abbreviation for “Preacher’s Kid.” My grandfather baptized me as an infant on his 50th wedding anniversary and he died just prior to my 2nd birthday. I guess you might say I’m still feeling the effects of that baptism. I never knew him. However, when I sensed this divine tractor beam drawing me into the ministry, I wanted to know more about my grandfather since I was following in his footsteps.

When we lived in Madison, my mother’s oldest sister, whom we called Sister, lived in Quitman, Georgia and we would occasionally go and visit. On one such occasion she gifted me with Papa’s Bible and a collection of his books and sermons. As I poured though his papers I found a sermon he preached in 1924 condemning a lynching in the community he served. There are the outlines of 66 of his sermons in this loose-leaf Bible. There wasn’t a lot of gray in his sermons. It was mostly black and white. He was in the ministry for over 20 years before he served his first station. This meant he served circuits that had two, three, or four churches all linked together and the family moved on average every two to four years. My grandmother played the piano and she was well loved. On more than one occasion I am told he was asked to move and they wanted my grandmother to stay.

When my aunt handed me these materials, she told me of a Sunday evening when she was home from college. It was the summer and one hot summer evening she was lying on her bed trying not to move in order stay cool. Papa stuck his head in and asked her if she was going to go to church that evening. Sister said it was too hot and that she thought she’d just lay there under the fan. Papa said, “It’s going to be a whole lot hotter where you are going.” Needless to say, she got up and went to church.

I mention this because it must have been the culture my mother was familiar with. The following stories both come from my early years when I was five or six years old. The first story involved a Bible study that was conducted during a severe summer thunderstorm. How’s that for getting your attention? I had two older sisters, and my oldest sister was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. Each boom would be closely followed with a scream. Mother got out the Bible, I think, in an attempt to calm my highly neurotic sister. She had a captive audience. In between the “boom” and the “scream” I heard my mother read, “It is easier for a rich man to get through the eye of a needle than it is to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” My first grade mind didn’t understand metaphors. If someone said, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you go look for a new puppy or kitten. “My arm is killing me.” Then you should cut it off! Mother kept a pin cushion on a table next to where she sat. I could see the needles sticking out and I remember consciously saying to myself, “I don’t have a chance.”

The second involved a science project my next oldest sister was not prepared for. She had procrastinated to the last minute and in the 11th hour she needed a cardboard box, which I happened to have one I kept some of my toys in. My sister needed my box to which I resolutely refused probably more than anything because she wanted the box. If I had been older I would have said, “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.” Exhausted with their efforts to persuade, Mother finally said,” You know Tim, one day when you die you’ll sit in front of the judgment throne of God and you’ll have to explain to God why you didn’t give your sister the box when she needed it. What will you say to him then?” She smacked me right between the eyes with the God stick. I got guilt. My sister got the box.

I mention these stories because I grew up in a culture of fear, at least as it involves the Bible, God, death, and the last judgment. It is one of the Biblical images but it is not the only one. Maybe that casts light on why there are so many heaven jokes. There was a rabbi, a priest, and a Methodist preacher that all died and went to heaven . . . The good news? Jesus is coming back. The bad news? He wants us to meet him in Salt Lake City: My apologies to Mitt Romney. St. Peter was conducting an orientation for a group of new arrivals in heaven. He toured them by the streets of gold, the mansions over the hilltop, still waters, green pastures, and then finally down a long corridor toward a break room where they could receive some refreshments. Off to the right there was one room and as they approached St. Peter turned around and “shushed” everyone to tell the new arrivals to be quiet. They tiptoed by this one room back to the break room. Finally one of the new arrivals said, “Why did we have to be quiet?” St. Peter said, “There are Baptists in that room and they think they are the only ones here.”

We tend to make jokes about the things that make us anxious, judgment and death, well, is no laughing matter. Miscarriages, stillborns, suicides, murders, accidents, and natural disasters – every tragedy you could possibly imagine. You just can’t make these things funny. Not only do we face these situations, we are also faced with the plague of meaning . . . why? I’ve witnessed these situations and attempted to absorb the anguish. I’ve been with families when loved ones have died suddenly, leaving their families in shock, and those who fought for years fighting cancers and Alzheimer’s and everything betwixt and between. One dear woman who was a member of my congregation in Daytona, fought long and hard with congestive heart disease. She had been a nurse and unfortunately she knew too much. I sat with her time and again in the hospital. The day before she died I met her in the Emergency Room at Halifax. She was drowning in her own fluids barely able to breathe. Every word was labored. Last words leave lasting impression, and I’ll never forget the last thing she said to me. She pulled down her oxygen mask and said, “You know Tim, dying isn’t for sissies.” No truer words could be said. I’ve stood at these places in my feeble attempts to offer comfort. I’ve stood at the foot of hundreds of graves as well as having conducted the funerals for my Mother, My Father, My Sister, and a Brother-in-law.

For years my sister would ask me, “Is he ok? Is Don ok? She’s not the only person who has ever asked me that question about a loved one. My attempts to reassure her never did seem to get any traction. I would tell her, “He’s o.k.” When I would say this she would get frustrated with me. In her mind my statement lacked credibility. “What makes you so sure?” It’s like trying to do a lay-up with Dwight Howard guarding the basket. I’d try to lay it up off the glass and she would just swat it away. It’s not unlike telling someone how bright, smart, pretty, handsome, insightful, intelligent, etc. If you don’t believe it about yourself, nothing I’m going to say is going to get into the hoop. I can’t download this on to your hard drive. I can’t give you a bone marrow faith transplant or a type and cross-match it in order to donate platelets for a transfusion.

My sense of being sure doesn’t come from a place of certainty. Certainty has to do with logic. It has to do with reason. Certainty has to do with debate. Certainty is about being right. Certainty creates oppositional energy because if I’m right that means you have to be wrong. Not only do you have to be wrong, I generally have to ridicule you in the process. I have to undermine your sense of confidence and attack your competence. Not only do I have to make my position look superior I have to make the opposition look stupid in the process. Pick any of the Republican presidential candidate debates thus far.

Certainty gets lost in the translation when communicating to someone who has doubts, just like it did with my sister. Certainty communicates arrogance. Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Whereas certainty is about the head, assurance is about the heart. Being “sure” is in the center of assurance. The word is translated “persuaded” in the King James Version. Certainty pushes against. Persuasion pulls the other forward. Persuasion draws others in. It doesn’t attempt to fix, or change, or heal them. It allows others to be where they are. Authentic spirituality allows the other person to be where they are, in the midst of doubt, confusion, suffering, struggle, paranoia, fear, anger, or anxiety. When you have heard, valued, validated, and accepted me when I am in these dark places, I am more apt to hear what you have to say. You have earned the right to persuade me by loving me in my pain. You can persuade me because I trust you. Trust has to be earned. And trust is not a matter of the head. It is a matter of the heart.

There is a huge amount of persuading that Paul is attempting in the 8thchapter of Romans, which is a tall order, since he is writing to a congregation he has never met before. He is being trusted by reputation. That might not be so odd if you think about it. How many times have you gone to see a doctor, a dentist, a beautician, or an automobile repair shop based upon the urging of a friend? “You come highly recommended.” Paul came highly recommended.

There is a great deal of “if” and “then” logic to Paul’s persuasion. If we are suffering now: then glory will be revealed. If God gave his son then how much more will he give to us? If God is for us, then who can be against us? If we and creation are in a state of decay then God will redeem both. We sigh too deep for words. All of creation is sighing and in labor to be completed. In other words, Paul is saying because God is being faithful to us in the present we can trust God with the future. Why would the future be any more than a continuation of God’s faithfulness.

Christianity is the only faith that invites its followers to go ahead and die now and get the dying over with. Once we get the dying over with we can get on with the business of living. Some people figure this out long before their physical death.  And the more letting go we are able to do along the way the more assurance we are able to accrue for the last journey we’ll ever make.

I was driving in a procession on a Sunday afternoon on the way to a graveside service for a woman who had been my church treasurer for many years. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was spent. I had taught at Sunday School and preached that morning, had lunch with my family, and they went home. I went to conduct the funeral. Sunday afternoons are reserved for curling up in the fetal position and sucking my thumb. Preaching is the most exhilarating and draining thing I ever do. On Sunday afternoons I suffer from the NASCAR disease I call Narcalapsy. If there are no yellow flags after ten laps the hypnotic effect of driving in circles makes me fall asleep. I was drained and self-loathing because I had agreed to do this funeral on a Sunday afternoon. We had this Soccer Mom van at the time for kid hauling and transport and the only consolation to the behemoth was that it had a Bose 10 speaker stereo system. I tried to find something on the radio that would revive me when I found a PBS station playing what my kids would have called elevator music. What I found was a Boston Pop’s version of 76 Trombones. It started off with just one trombone, then more were added, until finally, I suppose, there were 76 trombones playing in the hit parade. Driving in this somber procession, I cranked it up close to full blast. By the time we pulled into the cemetery I had been mysteriously transformed into Arthur Fiedler. And as we were pulling in to park, the song was not quite over and I’m thinking, “I can’t get out now. It’s not over. And then the thought hit me, “What in the world am I going to do?? I have been conducting the Boston Pop’s Orchestra and now I’ve got to put on my funeral face and go stand at the head of the casket and say the last words to be said over Lillian’s life. I felt enormously conflicted.

As I walked to go stand at the head of that casket, the only thing I could think to do was to own it. I told the family and friends that had gathered about being tired, about the radio station, about the 76 Trombones and about Arthur Fiedler. I told them, “You know, we should play 76 Trombones at every funeral . . . we can march into cemeteries with trombones blaring away because there was another one who first marched out of one and he’s leading the way.” And that’s what makes me so sure.

This is Your Quest . . . What is Your Purpose?

This is your quest. The quest begins when your search for meaning takes precedent over your need for safety. The quest begins with questions. Why am I here? What am I supposed to be doing with my life? Is there something I am missing? When do we set sail? How can I board this ship?

This is our current dilemma. Sailing ships and space ships have now circumnavigated the earth. Our planet can no longer provide us with new lands to pioneer, divide, and conquer. In this place and time we can no longer expand. We can only divide, conquer and re-conquer what already exists. The expansion we so desperately seek is an expansion of consciousness.

The very survival of the planet may depend upon whether we make an inward journey. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “What lies behind us and what lies ahead of us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” What did Emerson mean? What lies within us? Does he allude to the soft whispering of the soul?

Is what lies within us is more important than past or future? How can we move beyond a false identity based on distorted images of the self? How do we discover a deeper sense of identity that transcends family, tribe, or nation? We must make way for the inward journey to discover our destiny: “Out there” holds false promise. It is not “out there” but it is “in here.” It is not without but within. To live in the mystery is to Discover our Destiny within the Soul, the Self, and the Search. Wherever you are right now, in this very moment, you are standing on the gangplank that can launch your life into a brave new world!