Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Just Remember Who's Town This Is....

Over Christmas weekend, I heard a lot of good family stories. But none of them tops the following story - completely true, so I'm told - about my grandpa James Baird while he served as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Elko, Nevada, in the 1940's.

It was a snowy month of December, with westerly desert winds, coming off the Sierras and whipping the white farm houses and red painted barns of Elko, Nevada with the power of a sandblaster. In those days, the late 1940's, the mainstreets of Elko were as likely to see a herd of cows being driven down the center of Main Street as they were to see a white stretch limo, or a black be-curtained hearse. Cheap bars and tacky saloons lined both sides of the street, and were punctuated only by a wayward tumbleweed that occasionally blew past their doors or the bellicose drunk who crawled into the gutters. It was a cowboy, drinking man's, rough and tumble, tough dude's town.

The toughest place in town was not the bar, however, but the corner bank, where a self described "lowlife" banker and casino owner named Mr. Tibbs held court and ruled over Elko like a Columbian drug Lord. From the back of a smoky office, Tibbs swilled cheap whiskey from a chiseled tumbler and sent assignments out to his lackeys and "henchmen."

By contrast, on the other end of town, stood the First Presbyterian Church, where Rev. James Baird, a 28 year old pastor, served as senior and solo pastor. First Presbyterian Church had had a tough year. The finances were down and attendance was simply holding steady. The building, erected during the turn of the century, needed a new coat of paint. In the 5 years that Rev. Baird had served as senior pastor of PFC, he had developed a reputation among the Elko establishment for being a fiery young preacher who wasn't afraid to, "call a sin a sin." From the spindly "knox style pulpit" in the sanctuary, Baird had been known to speak against the evils of drinking, gambling, prostitution, and dancing - often all in the same sermon. While never naming anyone in particular, the city of Elko all knew that Rev. Baird was taking square aim at Mr. Tibbs. Tibbs relied on the gambling, prostitution and drinking trade to stay in business. Rev. Baird was calling Tibb's activities sinful...and Mr. Tibbs didn't like it.

One Sunday, Tibbs sent several of his "henchmen" to sit in the back row of the First Presbyterian Church of Elko. The men wore black suits, trench coats and bandito mustaches. Guns could be seen inside the hit men's coats. Just outside the door, several other men were sent to stand and send ominous, and miasmic fear into the spines of worshipers who attended there. Tibbs had intended to elicit fear, and he was good at it. After three Sundays of this intimidation and fear, Rev. Baird had had enough.

One Sunday, after the sermon, and after the thugs arrived in their usual fashion of fear and loathing, Rev. Baird finished his sermon with a crisp, "And the Lord is in this Place...". After the benediction, Baird marched directly out the back doors of church, down main street, through the front doors of the bank, past the blonde secretary in the front, past the teller with a red and black arm band. While still wearing his pulpit robe, Rev. Baird walked up to Tibbs, pointed a finger in his face, and said, "Just Remember Tibbs..Just Remember Who's Town This Is..."

Of course my grandpa meant that it was God's town. Though Mr. Tibbs assumed that grandpa meant it was his town. Mr. Tibbs backed down after that...or so the story goes...

All for Now,

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Manger & The Cross

I don't know about you, but I have always preferred to experience my holidays in separate seasons. In this regard, I like to think of holidays as individualized events - each occupying a separate month, silo, or parking spot. So, Halloween should be Halloween, and Thanksgiving should be Thanksgiving, Veterans Day should be about Veterans, and Birthdays should be Birthdays. Because this is the case, I've never been a fan of fireworks in December, Valentine Cards in July, turkey in January, or dress up parties - any time of the year. And, my general aversion to holiday "cross-pollinization" would also include a dislike of Christmas sermons with overt references to the crucifixion of Christ or Easter sermons that reference Mary's immaculate conception (call me rigid:-). As the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us; "There is a time for everything, a season for everything under heaven..."

All of this said, my mind was verily changed, just this past week, after the following episode...

On Saturday, I was attending our city's annual Christmas extravaganza; "Christmas on Vine Street." As usual, there were masses of children, hundreds of houses all decked out in Christmas glory, Christmas carols, sleigh rides, hot chocolate and the usual holiday frenzy. As Star and I and Haley were making our way down the street, marveling at the lights and the grandeur of it all, Star accidentally ran Haley's stroller (ever so slightly), into the leg of an erstwhile Christmas Caroler. It was actually more of a love tap than a running into... The man was wearing a green scarf, and a red had, and he had sleigh bells in his hand. Moments before our encounter, he had been singing a jolly tune (Jingle Bells, Deck the Halls). Wow his face was beet red with lividity and anger. "This is no place for a child's stroller!!!!" he boomed. "Oh really?" I wanted to say. "I had always thought that Christmas was first begun by a young lad who occupied a stroller (manger)." How was it that this man's outer joy was so much in disparity with his inner sense of joy.

Without going on about the histrionics of the whole episode, I have come to the basic conclusion that the man's problem was that he was suffering from a case of too much manger and not enough cross.

One of the very difficult things about Christmas is the perpetual aspirationalism of the entire holiday. Christmas aspires to be so much: a time of family wholeness, a place for individual bliss, a moment of community togetherness, a chance for church connectedness. Every year, Christmas aspires to be all of these things (and so much more). Sadly, it rarely achieves any of them. In a way, Christmas is the great set-up. It beckons us every year with an invocation to hope for all things, and then it often leaves us in January with a sense of the achievement of none of these things. Even back in the day, the manger was all that the world hoped for - but the cross ended up being all that the world really needed.

The Manger needs The Cross.

So, from now on, I am changing my tune. Holidays should be celebrated in separate seasons, but the Manger should always include a smattering of the Cross.

All for Now,

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pastor John Pharisee

So, for years, when reading about "The Pharisees" in the Bible, I conjured up images of angry mobsters, riotous miscreants, seething religious fanatics, first century versions of Mr. Mephistopheles himself. The Pharisees were a "brood of vipers" as John called them. The Pharisees were the bad guys, the ones in black hats, the ones that the ominous music plays behind in "B" grade movies. Of course, by categorizing the Pharisees in such concrete and black and white terms, I was able to discount the Pharisees as "those guys" and definitely "not me".

However, I think I have stumbled upon a simple but important Biblical fact. The Pharisees were simply a group of struggling pastors. Let me say it again, The Pharisees were simple a group of struggling pastors.

The organization of early Jewish religious community life happened around a central place - the synagogue. The synagogue was just another name for a common church (First Baptist, First Methodist, Grace Lutheran, Community Congregational). In those days there was no such thing as "pastor care" or "ministerial counseling agencies." When there was a problem, it was the local rabbi's responsibility to solve it. When a pastor needed time away for refueling, there was no alloted study leave in the contract. Actually, there was no contract! The job of a rabbi, or Pharisee was ongoing and never ending. Unlike today, where churches are usually organized into committees, that share the burden of different functions, each synagogue stood alone, and the rabbi functioned as a solitary figure. So, the Pharisees struggled.

Let me now say that I would at one time have described myself as a struggling pastor - a Pharisee (though I must strongly emphasize that am not one now:-). Here is a short list of characteristics of a struggling pastor;

* Over worked
* Under paid
* Under appreciated
* Isolated and unsupported
* Jack of all church trades, master of none
* Jealous of other pastors who had bigger churches, or made more money
* Ready to quit my calling at the drop of a hat.

In short, the first century clerics (rabbis, Pharisees) simply needed a vacation. They were burned out. The ministry is a tough job, and it can seem unending at times. And so, when it came down to it, the Pharisees were angry, struggling pastors. Mostly, they were angry that another pastor, an unordained, young upstart by the name if YESHUA (Jesus) was taking all of their congregants and the lime light they felt so much that they deserved...

All for Now,