Monday, December 19, 2016

Cared For


Recently, our family has been investigating the possibility of getting a pet.  Because we are renting in Southern California, a "smallish" indoor dog seems the best option (Can you say - "Labradoodle?")  Our quest for a canine companion, however, has caused me to cast my memory back to some of our best pets we had growing-up.  We had a West Highland Terrier named "Macky" that had been sort of neglected by its previous owners.  Mack was a little bit "nippy" when we first got him, but after a couple of years of nurture, he became more docile, and good natured.  We had an African Grey Parrot named "Kiki" that had been tormented by its previous masters by hitting it with a broom handle.   Whenever we would broom the kitchen, the bird would go crazy for fear that it would be hit again.  So, we broomed less, but we nurtured more.  The bird calmed down after time.  In both cases, some of our best pets were animals that others had discarded, or mistreated for whatever reason, but made huge transformations simply by being:

Cared For

This notion of the transformative nature of being "Cared For" is true not just of abused pets, but it is true of a lot of other things.  It is true of houses, it is true of children, it is true of businesses, it is true of spouses, it is true of plants, and yes it is true...even of churches.

About ten years ago, I was asked to consult on a church near me that had declining growth in attendance over the past several years.  There was a lack-luster attitude, in general, about almost everything in the church.  In front of the sign to the entrance of the church were weeds that were growing up above the letters.  The church office was piled high with garbage from many years of disregard.  The church yard was unkempt and sprawling with weeds.  The large cross out in front of the church was weathered and paint was chipping off of it.  In short, the church just did not look cared for.

Not just the building, but the congregation itself seemed un-cared for.  Many of the shut-in members had not been called on in years.  When people got sick and went to the hospital, nobody followed-up or prayed for them.  Many of the staff at the church did not even have their own work-space or computer terminals to do their work in.  The congregation were not cared for.

When, I was asked to give my "expert opinion" on what steps this church could take to help it to grow and come back to life, I felt torn.  Because I was hired as the consultant, I sort of felt tempted to come in with some big theological concepts about how this church could grow.  I was tempted to talk about "Missionalism" or "Simple Church" or "Total Quality Management".  But I knew that none of these concepts was the "magic bullet" of what would help the church, at the end of the day.  What this church needed was to be:

Cared For

I said; "Ok, to start with, someone needs to get out there are pull some of those weeds in front of the church sign.  And then, we need to clean up this office.  And the cross out front needs to be re-painted.  And most important, we need to get to the nursing home and see some of those who are there, who haven't had visitors in a long time."  My advice was basic, but over the next several months it proved that it was helpful.  The church began to grow again, there was positive spiritual-energy in the church where there had been waning activity.

Caring for a thing (or person) that hasn't been cared for is not only about giving that thing (or person) long needed attention.  It is about that.  But it is also about giving that thing (or person), long needed worth.  By taking time and caring for them, you are helping that thing (or person), also to take stock in themselves.  You are causing others around them and say, "Wow, I never noticed you before, you are beautiful."  And what I have learned is that this worth-giving dynamic, of Caring For something or someone is what is at the heart of the Christian gospel.

All For Now,

GB



Monday, December 5, 2016

The Chartres Model


In north, central France, there is a cathedral that was built in the 12th century and that is one of the most stunning architectural achievements in history.  It is the Chartres Cathedral, in Chartres, France.  With flying buttresses, French Gothic masterpieces, hundreds of ornate sculptures surrounding the building, original windows that still survive intact, and 350 foot ceilings at the high point of the nave, it is truly one of the wonders of the world.

What many people do not know is that the central isle of Chartres Cathedral also has a very unique design.  One of these design features is that it has a slightly slanted central isle - slanted upwards from the back doors of the church to the altar.  In other words, when you enter the cathedral, there is a slight incline as the central isle moves towards the front.  Scholars have debated about this unique architectural facet for years.  Some think it was an intentional theological part of the original design, so that those who walk in the back of the church are literally walking upwards as they approach the altar up front.  Others think that the incline is simply due to years of sinking ground, and settling structures, from centuries of use.

But my favorite explanation for this architectural peculiarity is that the floor slants downwards towards the back door because years ago, animals were often brought into the church to be blessed by the priest, and for high religious ceremonies.  Sometimes those animals, while walking down the isle (or up the isle, as the case would seem to be), would leave behind traces of what animals do best - poop.  The easiest way to clean the cathedral, then, was to simply broom-push and wash the animal excrement downhill starting at the high point on the altar, and brooming it downhill through the back door of the church.

This image, of having a slanted door and washing out animal waste has got me thinking.  And I am wondering weather it wouldn't be a good idea for modern churches to have the same slanted floor-plan phenomenon - so that all of the bad things that sometimes happen in the middle of churches can then be easily washed out and washed away.  Consider this:

Every Sunday each of us brings with us to church, a certain amount of fecal matter that has collected in our lives from the week before (most people call this "sin").  We bring it to church, and during confession, we pray a corporate prayer of assurance of pardon.  And that usually does the trick.  But what if, instead, all of that waste product that is built up in our lives, could just be shot out the back door with a great power-washing of the central church isle every week?

How much easier would it be, for example, after a particularly difficult church board meeting, to just say, "Ok, a lot of hard things were said here tonight, before we leave, we are just going to broom/wash away all the crud that has collected over the evening."

All of the pain that is sometimes experienced in church - people letting us down, of hopes of the future not being fruited, of expectations not being met, of the unkind things that are sometimes said in church - they could, with one great washing and spraying, be sent right out the back door of the church.

What if the next time a church was involved in a case of abuse or graft and criminality (as sometimes happens), rather than years of working through painful and difficult legal cases, all of the awful raw waste product could just be shoved out the back door?

One of the things I love about the, and why don't we give it a name...

The Chartres Model

Is that it puts in place an expectation for bad things to happen in church, and for there to be a public and regular cleansing of those things.  One of the hurdles some churches face is that when bad things occur, there is sense of surprise or shock - "How could such a thing occur (I have heard people say)...in a church".  With the Chartres Model, there is a predetermined notion that bad stuff will occur there, and there will need to be a public washing.

I also like the notion that all people, whatever they have done, or might potentially do (and in this case, all animals), are welcome in church.  My favorite phrase here is - "No perfect people allowed".  Another way of saying this might be, "Come to our church, bring whatever you are, and whatever you will leave here, and we will wash it out the back door."  There, in church, they could then bring all of their "waste".  And then leave it behind, and then wash it out.

One last thing.  The Chartres Model brings new meaning to the lyrics of old church hymn, "All things bright and beautiful, all creatures great and small, all things wise and wonderful, the Lord God made them all..."

And then washed out the back door, whatever else was left behind:-)

All For Now,

GB


Monday, November 28, 2016

Grandpa and Fidel


As the world contemplates the death of one of the 20th century's most well-known dictators, Fidel Castro (dead at the age of 90), I wanted to share a brief snippet of how one of my family members interacted with Fidel Castro just as he was taking power in 1959.

It was the early Spring of 1959, and Fidel Castro had just marched into Havana and taken power from his predecessor, Fulgencio Batista.  Wresting control of the government from the previous dictatorship, Castro promised a new era of peace and prosperity for the bourgeoning island nation.  As doves were released at dawn, a hopeful symbol of the peace that would ensue, crowds cheered the new leader to loud shouts of; "Fidel, Fidel, Fidel!"

As it happened, right at that fateful juncture in history, my great-grandpa Jesse Baird, who was then President of San Francisco Theological Seminary, had been in Cuba on a visit to give advice to a struggling theological seminary named "Galicia Presbyterian Reformata Cuba".  The seminary was trying to raise money to build some new classrooms, and dormitories, and Jesse, being very adept at fund raising, had been brought in to help with the effort.  In 1959, international travel to third world countries was still less common than it is today, and Jesse would have stayed for up to a month or more of extended teaching time, and preaching time with the seminary and in the surrounding communities.

While in Cuba, Jesse had the rare chance to meet with the new leader of the country, Fidel Castro.  My own memory still recalls letters that were written between Fidel Castro and my grandpa (though I cannot seem to locate them at this exact moment).  The letters were filled with positive encomiums about a new relationship with Cuba and an exciting time for Christianity in that country.  Other Christian leaders from other denominations were also very positive about the new era of peace and openness that would accompany this new administration.

Upon their meeting, Jesse was initially quite impressed with the young military leader, who was, as always, donning green military fatigues, wearing a tilted beret, and smoking Cuban cigars.  Fidel Castro made promises to Jesse personally, that he would bring sweeping and positive change for this one time Caribbean back-water of a nation.  In Jesse's own sentiments; "I thought that Fidel would help to feed his people, and bring Jesus Christ to the Cuban people."

Less than one year later, in 1960, Fidel Castro would totally abandon both his promises to take care of the Cuban nation in terms of social well-fare, as well as his promise made to Jesse personally that he would support Christian churches and seminaries like the one that Jesse was visiting.  In fact, quite the opposite of his pledge to support budding seminaries and churches, Fidel Castro became a tyrant against all religious organizations.  Ushering in a new Communist era, Castro led a movement to oppress religious efforts, eject priests, and even execute pastors and their families.

In 1961, the United States would, of course, lead a failed effort to assassinate Fidel Castro through the misguided mission we now know as the Bay of Pigs.  Several subsequent United States Presidents after Kennedy, would try to lead equally unsuccessful assassination attempts.  Castro would go on to outlive most of his adversaries and hold the record for being the longest sitting Western leader (other than Queen Elizabeth in England), in recent history.

Years later, in 1974, while on his deathbed, my grandpa Jesse would relate to my father, Don Baird, how much he had felt that he was personally betrayed by Fidel Castro, and how deeply disappointed he was in his fabrications.  For Jesse, it wasn't just that Fidel Castro had lied to the United States, it was that Castro had lied to him.  Castro had given Jesse his personal word that he would develop a positive climate for Christianity there.  Still harboring an uncharacteristic level of bitterness toward the Cuban leader, Jesse looked at my father, as he leaned forward in bed and said, with steely determination and lingering resentment - "That man lied to me!"

Exactly what lessons can be gleaned from my grandpa's would-be encounter with Fidel Castro are hard to tell, and it is, no doubt, too early to say.  It is a testament to the strength of Christianity, in general, however, that dictators like Fidel Castro have always tried, but never succeeded fully in snuffing out the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Dictators, potentates, kings, rulers and Caesars have literally pocked the pages of world history, but have always failed.  Whether they were named Pharaoh, or Nebudcadnezzar, or Herod, or Marx or Castro, they have tried un-sucessfully to suppress the faith.  Each time they have tried to stamp out the light of Christ, Christianity has come back even stronger.

And so it ever shall...

All For Now,

GB


Monday, November 21, 2016

Thanksians


This is Monday of Thanksgiving week.  And once again, we, as a country will be focussed on many important things (holiday travel, football, turkey dinner, and getting along with the in-laws).   Right at the end of all of our activities we will try to remember to be - Thankful.  If we are conscientious about it, some of us might even take a quick moment around the Thanksgiving dinner table to ask each other to say; "one thing that we are thankful for".  But for Christians, this holiday should carry more than a Hallmark Card's scant notice.  One of the things that has always defined us as people of faith is our consistent and persistent ability to be thankful at all times, through all circumstances and in all things.  In fact, if we were to rename ourselves - we might consider the name:

Thanksians

Now, bear with me for a moment, while you wonder to yourself whether Christians these days should possibly be given other names;

Complainians
Worryians
Angerians
Afraidians

Those names are blogposst for another day:-)

From the beginning of the Bible to the end of the Bible there are consistent examples of people lifting up gratitude towards God.  Here is a short-list:

·     *   When Abram is brought to Bethel, the place where his family would stop and build a life, the Bible says, Abram built an altar to God, and there he called on the name of the Lord (Gen. 13:4).  Building an altar to God, was a way of saying THANK YOU to God.

·      *  When the Israelites had been in the wilderness for over 40 years, an entire generation, and then they finally crossed over the Jordan River, being led by a young leader named Joshua, Joshua commanded the people; Go over before the ark of the Lord your God into the middle of the Jordan.  Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder….In the future when your children ask you , ‘What do these stones mean?”  tell them that the flow of the Jordan was cut off before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. (Joshua, 4:6).  And again, it may seem strange to us, but that pile of stones was a way of THANKING God for what He had done to deliver them.

·      *  King David, was probably the most prolific THANKER in the Old Testament.  He wrote 150 Psalms or (songs), and almost every single one of these has the word or the sentiment of THANKS in it.  Whenever in the Bible you see the words, PRAISE, or BLESS, it basically means thanks.  Psalm 138 is my favorite Psalm of Thanks: I thank you Lord with all of my heart.  I sing praise before you to the Gods.  I face your Holy Temple and bow down and praise your name because of your constant love and faithfulness (Psalm 138).

·     *   The New Testament is no less replete with examples of THANKS.  One of my favorites is right in the Lord’s Prayer.  Jesus builds several pieces of thanks right into the Lord’s Prayer.  Our Father, who art in heaven, HALLOWED BE YOUR NAME.  calling God Holy is a way of thanking him. 
  
·      *  One of the last things that Jesus does before he is crucified is to have Passover meal.  The entire Passover meal is really a meal of thanks to God for delivering the Israelites from slavery.  But there is a part where Jesus adds an extra thanks, our communion Words of Institution: "And he took the bread and he GAVE THANKS, THANK YOU, and broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you, do this in remembrance of me.”

*  If you come from a more liturgical tradition, then you know the song the DOXOLOGY.  DOXOS is the Greek word for thanks.  The Doxology is a song of thanks;

            Praise God from who all Blessings Flow
Praise Him All creatures here Below
Praise Him Above the heavenly Hosts

Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost

Try changing this song from the word Praise to the word Thanks (eg: "Thank you God from whom all blessings flow.  Thank you God from all creatures here below...").

Here are three things that we can all do to improve our general sense of "thankfulness" this Thanksgiving.  They derive from the famous, "Prayer of Examen," a Spiritual Exercises book written by St. Ignatius Loyola who founded the Jesuit  religious tradition;

Thank Backwards
What are things that God has done for you in the past that you can be thankful for?  Here's an example letter of a pupil in school thanking a teacher and a teacher writing a thank-you note back to that pupil: "My Dear Willy, I can’t tell you how much your note meant to me.  I am in my 80’s.  living alone in a small room, cooking my own meals, lonely, and like the last leaf of autumn lingering behind.  You’ll be interested to know that I taught in school for more than 50 years, and yours is the first note of appreciation I ever received.  It came on a blue, cold morning, and it cheered me as nothing has done in many year."  Thank backwards!

Thank In the Moment
What is happening right at this moment that you can be thankful for?  For me, it is watching my five month old son swinging in his baby swing as the fire crackles behind him and my eight year old daughter plays with her miniature horses.  "Thank you God for this blessing!"  Thank in the moment.

Thank Forwards
This is the most fun form of thanks.  You will feel a bit like the famed Joel Ostein when you do it, but give it a try anyway; "Dear God, thank you for the great future that you have in store for me.  Thank you that everything that comes my way will be a blessing, not because I won't suffer some set-backs, but because you are a great God who redeems all things.  Thank you that my best days are ahead of me, because of you!  Thank you God!  Amen."  Thank forwards.

Thanking backwards, in the moment and forwards literally surrounds our souls with good feelings of gratitude and wholeness.

Before I go, I have one important thing to do.  I want to thank you! Thank you all for being such loyal blog-reading friends.  Thank you!  You make my life so much better.  I so love being a part of this internet community together.

All For Now,

GB








Monday, November 14, 2016

For Christians It's SHOW-time


This past Wednesday morning, hours after the new President-elect was announced, I was on the campus of the University of California Santa Barbara.  A heavy, hallow sense of angst filled the air of the student commons where I walked.  "Where are all of the students?" I asked a worker at the Student Union information desk.  "They were all out late last night in protest of the elections.  "People are really sad," he said, with a abject stare.  A few minutes later, I found myself in line at the student book store about to buy a book.  The girl in front of me, who I had never met before, said directly to my face, "The world is coming to an end!" "What do you mean?" I asked.  She said, "Because of the election, the world is coming to an end."  Not knowing the student at all, I instinctively put a half-arm around her shoulder and said, "I think it will be ok, our country has been through many hard times before, we will get through these hard times together."  She wasn't sure...

A little later that day, I was working-out at the 24-hour fitness in Oxnard where I live.  Oxnard is about 70% hispanic and the gym itself is probably more like 80%.  I love it for that reason.  I have many friends there who hail from multicultural backgrounds.  And yet, on this morning, it was somehow different.  There was an unspoken distance between me and my friends who are people of color.  Why...I wondered to myself, what has changed? And then I realized, it must be the election.  And so, I walked across the gym, bridging the distance of only a room, though it felt like I was bridging the chasm of Checkpoint Charlie, the marker that divided East Germany from West Germany after World War II.  Where only a day before there was brotherly love, now there was a dastardly divide.  I said; "Hey, I hope you don't think that I espouse any of the ideas expressed in this election about race.  That's not how I feel.  That's not what I think." Instantly, I felt the ice between us melt, and the possibility of a renewed friendship once again emerge.

As I had these two encounters in the same day - two encounters of fear, of distance, of division, of awkwardness of splitting, I remembered to myself what one of the names for the evil one is in the Greek language in the Bible.  It is Diabolos.  Although the standard definition of Diabolos is - "slanderer," or "accuser", the Greek is actually much more nuanced.  Diabolos is actually a two part word, as most Greek words are.  The prefix "Dia" means "across", or "between" (as in the word diameter).  The root "Bolos" means "to throw," "to cast" or "to cut".  So, Diabolos literally means, "to cut across," or "to throw across".  And then it occurred to me that that is what our country is experiencing right now - "cutting across",  the middle, "division through the center".  Modern day psychologists have a name for this - "splitting".  The evil one is the ultimate - "splitter".

Now, here is where I need to underline and clarify my main point of this blog-post.  In no way do I think that any person in either political party, in the previous Presidential election is the evil one, or even channels the evil one (although as a Reformed Protestant, I believe that all of us are fallen and can become vessels for either love or hatred at any given moment - all of us).  But there is division, and there is fear, and there is uncertainty and even dread in America.  And, as Christ followers, it is our job - no let me put it more strongly - Christ put us on the earth for the purpose of bridging these chasms of division in the world, "of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves".  And of, whenever possible, clearing the air about what is right and true and what we really think and believe.  And just to remind us, these are our mainstays as Christians;

*  All people are created in God's image
*  All people are redeemable
*  Love is the strongest power in the universe and will outlive all things - even time itself
*  Words matter, and hurtful words cause damage
*  Jesus showed the ultimate love and died for all people

And so this is why...

For Christians It's SHOW-time

It is simply no longer enough for us Christians to feel loving thoughts about those around us.  We must SHOW them.  It is no longer enough for us to have warm loving sentiments about people that come from different cultural backgrounds, we must SHOW our love in concrete actions - in real demonstrations of affection.  Our actions do not have to be to march in a rally (in fact, a postmortem of the 1960's may show how little such rallies actually often produce in the way of change).  But we must SHOW.  SHOWING may be as simple as,

*  Holding the door for someone else
*  Offering a loving comment
*  Using our words to cross the divide, letting those around us know that we are people of love
*  Walking across the room and clearing the air

I know of one woman who told me that the only interaction she has with people of a different multicultural background than the one she self-identifies with is in the people who clean her house.  Even though this is the case, she has decided to SHOW her love by doubling the pay in the coming weeks ahead, and telling them how much she appreciates what they do.  Whatever it takes to SHOW others our actual acts of love and kindness we must do.

On Sunday, after I articulated some of these aforementioned thoughts at the front of my sermon, and how uncertain I was about the future of race-relations in America, a man came up to me after the worship service.  He was an African immigrant.  Beaming with pride and hope, he looked me in the eye and said, "It will be Ok Graham."  And then he said, "Never forget what Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'Human progress is neither automatic or inevitable...Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle'"  "Yes," I told my African immigrant friend, "I suppose you are right."

This past weekend was Veterans Day in America.  It was a weekend where we honored those who have given, as Lincoln called it, "the last full measure of devotion".  In that same speech, the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln also wondered whether this nation "can long endure."  Lincoln's question for his time is now a question for our own time.  And...

For Christians It's SHOW-time

All For Now,

GB