Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Good Stories

 There was a time before Facebook when people would send out mass emails to their “friends” with jokes, stories, and political statements.  I had my favorites, usually jokes and funny stories.  There were those that I didn’t even open before I deleted them.  And there were an abundance of those that were somewhere in between.  My least favorites were those stories that ended with something like, “and if you really love Jesus you will pass this on to everyone in your address book…” or worse, “you will pass this on, unless you are embarrassed by Jesus, who was not embarrassed to die for you!”   
                One day back then I received an email from a colleague of mine at another campus.  It was a story about an incident that allegedly happened in a philosophy class at USC.  Suspicious of the veracity of this story and since he knew that I had been serving as a campus minister at USC for a number of years, my friend  wrote to ask if I knew whether or not the story was true.  The story was about a philosophy professor that had been at USC for over 30 years and was teaching a class that was mandatory for all students.  In this class there were over 300 students. Every year in his class he would claim that there was no God and challenge the Christians in his class to prove otherwise by praying that a piece of chalk (that’s what we used before white boards and PowerPoint) that he would drop would not break as it hit the ground.  Normally there would be no one who was brave enough to take the challenge.  But one year a lone Christian student was strong enough in his faith to stand up to the professor.   After an exchange the student prayed and the professor dropped the chalk.  The chalk got caught in the cuff of the professor’s pants and then rolled onto the floor in one piece.  Humiliated that he was proven wrong about the existence of God in front of 300 undergraduates, the professor went running out of the room and the student stood in front of the class and shared the gospel.  
                I told my friend that I was pretty sure that this story was not true, but I would check it out.  I knew a few professors in that department.  I wrote to the one that I knew best, Dallas Willard.  For those who don’t know, Dallas Willard was a very committed follower of Jesus and had written several books on Christian Spirituality.  Dallas told me that the story was not true but referred me to the head of the department for the “official” response to the email that was going around.  I knew him too.  I was serving on the Religious Life Advisory Committee with him.  He sent me the response which broke down the story point by point.  I won’t do that here, except to share a couple points that I thought were particularly amusing.  First, the only professor in the department that had been there for 30 years was Dallas Willard.  Additionally, there were no “mandatory” philosophy classes (except for majors, of course) and, in his words, “sadly” there were none with anything close to 300 people. 
                I am sure that many of the other “inspiring” stories that I received by email of the courage of Christians to stand up to persecution were also apocryphal, but this story made me angry.  Indicting the Philosophy Department at USC, a department that had the reputation of being supportive of people of faith, seemed to me, among other things, to be unchristian!  It is true that the story didn’t name names and the intention was to inspire people to stand up for their faith – how bad is that?  But the department was made up of people and for the sake of a “good story” good Christians were willing to spread a lie about those people. 
                There are many true stories about people who have courageously stood up for their beliefs and suffered for it—some even died!   When Christians spread a story that is implied to be true but isn’t, it is disrespectful to those who truly were courageous, and potentially is counterproductive to the good intentions of those sharing the story.  Additionally, this story annoys me because it feeds the notion that is common in certain Christian circles that the intention of most professors at secular colleges and universities is to destroy the faith of good Christian young people.  Further, it is a part of a pervading view in such circles that Christians are being persecuted right and left in the western world, as evidenced by someone saying “season’s greetings” or “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in the mall.
                Maybe if we who identify as followers of Jesus would stand up for the kind of people that Jesus stood up for we would begin to find the apocryphal stories, like the one above, to be a bit "ho hum" in the wake of real courage. Now, those would be good stories!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Thanking God for Auntie M. Cecilia

This week at the American Baptist World Mission Conference my friend and colleague the Rev. Dr. M. Cecilia Broadous was remembered.  M. Cecilia passed away in June of this year.  Though she had been in poor health for some time, it was still unexpected.
There is much that could be said about the life, influence and ministry of M. Cecilia, but there is one thing especially among the many things that I will always appreciate about my friend.  M. Cecilia has had a profound influence on my children, particularly my son.  This is something that I am keenly aware of at this conference, as he is “the man who rode his bike around the country” to raise awareness about human trafficking and in the process raising support for various projects through American Baptist missionaries.  He has a display in the exhibit hall and when people read my name tag they ask if I am related to the guy who rode his bike.  He calls himself a missionary.
When my kids were in elementary school, I was a campus minister at USC and M. Cecilia was the Minister of World Mission Support for our denomination in Los Angeles.  Two or three times a year she would gather the Mission Advocates from our churches in the city for a time of training and “charging.”  These would happen on Saturdays.  Often it was the Tuesday before that I would get a call from M. Cecilia telling me that she had put me on the program to talk about campus ministry at USC.  “After all,” she would say, “Campus ministry is a mission of our churches and people need to know about it.”  What could I say but, “See you Saturday!” 
Saturdays were one of the days that I was home with my kids.  My husband worked on Saturday mornings and after they had been in daycare all week after school, I had a hard time putting them with a babysitter on Saturdays.  So they would go with me to these meetings.  After they went to their first Mission Advocate meeting it was not hard to get them to go to the next one and the next one after that.  My kids were excited to go to a Mission Advocates meeting.  It was fun.  M. Cecilia would give them both responsibilities like putting papers at each place setting and other important jobs.  But most of all, M. Cecilia could get anyone not only interested in missions, but excited!  These meetings were pep rallies on steroids.  As a result, churches that had never given to missions became regular supporters.  And my kids became avid fans of missionaries!
Eventually, M. Cecilia was appointed to be a missionary in South Africa.  My kids became aware of this as we went to services and celebrations to send her off.  From then on, my kids would say that when they grew up they were going to be missionaries like Auntie M. Cecilia. 
My son continued to answer the “what do you want to be…” question with “missionary” clear into Junior High where he wrote a paper about it in one of his classes.  After a while he changed his answer to “engineer”, then “mathematician”, “professional athlete and philanthropist,” “musician,” “film maker,” “um, I don’t know”….  And then he graduated from college and began “Riding Against Traffic.” 
At this stage of her life my daughter is not looking to be a missionary, but she provides hospitality to everyone she meets at the front desk of the hotel where she works.  And I know that M. Cecilia has been a role model for her of a strong, gifted and empowered woman.
I thank God for my friend for many reasons, but right now for being “Auntie M. Cecilia, the Missionary.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Frazzled with Bob, Babbs and Mac: Continuing Thoughts on Legacy

I graduated from seminary 30 years ago this month (I was quite young at the time, really!).  I have just completed my 30th academic year in campus ministry.  At times it is hard to believe that 30 years have gone by so quickly.  Then again, when I look back at those early days, it is very clear that it was a long, long time ago – maybe even a lifetime or two – especially when I see how much I have changed in those years.
Original glassart based on "storm at sea" quilt block pattern
I must say that the last few years I have been struggling at several levels with my life and ministry.  I wonder whether or not I am still effective in ministry.  I look at the weeks at a time when it feels like I am on a roller coaster ride and I am just looking ahead to the day when it will be done and I can get enough sleep and some time to just sit and rest.  It seems like those periods of time are more frequent and that I am frazzled more than I am not.   
There are books that I have read that seem to identify the place that I am spiritually and in ministry.  I resonate with the authors and I strive to be able to move into the place of peace and harmony in the midst of ordinary and extraordinary chaos.  There are three of these writers that I can think of off the top of my head.  We will call them Bob, Babbs and Mac.  The reason that I started reading their stuff was because they were like me, active pastors… except for the fact that they were pastors of big churches, and they were able to find time to write inspiring and insightful books, and they were famous…   But now, I look at Babbs and Mac and Bob and all three of them are no longer actively pastoring in churches.  The answer to their struggles with how ministry got in the way of their relationship with God seems to have been to leave the pastoral ministry.  Fortunately for them, they are famous and can make a living on writing and speaking – don’t get me wrong, I still find what they write and speak about very helpful.  But in the back of my mind I keep wondering if there is another answer for the pastor who is finding the ministry is getting in the way of her relationship with God, other than leaving the pastoral ministry – especially if she is not famous and hasn’t figure out how to consistently post on her blog, let alone write a book!
After 30 years of pastoring in a university setting I have times that I wonder, do I really want to keep doing this?  And then, if I make a change, how big of a change do I want to make?  Should I find another campus ministry setting, should I move into a more traditional church pastorate?  Should I see if there is an opening at Starbucks?  It is when I am wondering these things and I read the wisdom of Mac and Bob and Babbs (and find it helpful) that I feel a little bit betrayed by them.  That is also about the time that something exciting happens in the context of my ministry, often along the edges or in the unexpected places, that makes me think that maybe I can keep doing this for another day or two.  Meanwhile, I will continue to try to figure out how to keep the ministry from getting in the way of my relationship with God, and trying to do the things that I already know could help.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A St. Barnabas Day Story

As I post this it is still St. Barnabas Day in L.A. where the story took place. The names may possibly have been changed.
                There are times when I would like to think that Barnabas, when he was in Antioch, would end a summer's day by going to the roof to enjoy the last rays of sun as it set, feeling the accompanying cooler breezes.  As he sat there relaxing, maybe for the first time all day I can imagine him starting to smile, shaking his head and maybe even laughing as he thought about the impossible variety of people who were already a part of the community of Christ-followers that had come together in that place.  Not just Jews from all over the Roman world, but gentiles as well, people from all economic backgrounds – business people, farmers, government officials, people who owned big homes and people who worked in them.  Slave and free, male and female, educated and “street-smart”—all sorts of people were a part of this group that was beginning to be identified as “Christians.” 
                Every once in a while we see this variety in our churches:  people you just wouldn’t imagine even talking with one another, committed to be a family of sorts in Christ.  It makes me think of Les and 
Carlos, both a part of the motley crew (Carlos was possibly more “motley” than Les) that was Temple Baptist Church at the time I was Co-pastor. 
The Les and Vina Tamblyn Window
Les was a pillar.  He was the church Finance Officer.  He was a typical member of the Builder generation.  He came from modest roots, fought in WWII, came back and got married, worked his way up in a bank, had kids, went to church and retired to a nice home in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  He saw Temple from the days of downtown society church through the shift of white people not wanting to come to the inner city for church, to ministering to new immigrants and people from the Union Rescue Mission.  He went from being a church trustee that managed the Los Angeles Philharmonic Auditorium (owned and operated by Temple Baptist Church) to times when it was difficult to maintain such property and finally selling out and rebuilding near downtown in the area around USC.  He was one who stayed, which meant that he caught the vision of the church in transition and didn’t go out to find a church in the suburbs (where he lived) filled with people like him.
Carlos was a teenager, he may have been born in Mexico and brought to LA as a young child, or he may have been born in the US.  His parents were definitely immigrants.  I don’t know if they were here legally.  I never knew unless I needed to.  His parents were hard-working and church-going.  They were members of the Spanish-speaking congregation of our church.  Some of the kids in that congregation ended up in our youth group.  Carlos was one.  I don’t know why, but Carlos was in a gang.  He was not in one of the really hardcore gangs, but a gang, nevertheless.  He told me about how easy it was to get a gun.  I don’t think he ever used one, but I don’t know for sure.  He definitely got into trouble.  But he came to church, because of his parents, yes, but I think also because he actually liked being a part of church.  It was like he was trying to decide which way to go, so he had a foot in each life.
One day we were in groups of three.  It was one of those meetings…or workshops…I don’t remember.  I even have a vague recollection that I may have been leading that meeting, or, at least, that exercise.  Anyway we were in groups of three and I was with Les and Carlos.  Les was in his typical dark suit, white shirt and tie.  Carlos was in his baggy dark jeans and striped polo (he dressed up for church).  The assignment was to share about a time that you felt like you heard God speaking to you. 
Les began.  He told of being on guard duty while in the army on Christmas Eve.  He was far away from family and he was lonely and homesick.  He told of looking up at the sky and seeing the stars and hearing God say that he was not alone.  God was with him and God loved him.  As Les told the story his eyes filled and a tear came down his cheek.  He seemed to have been transported back 50 years to that night.
Then it was Carlos' turn.  I can still hear his voice, with his LA –Chicano “accent.”  With every ounce of sincerity and seriousness he said, “Well, one night when I was sitting in jail and I was alone, I heard God say to me, ‘Well, Carlos, that was pretty stupid.” 
I don’t remember at all what I shared.  I do remember a connection that was made between a traditional, white, hard-working, up-standing banker and a teen-age, Hispanic, pseudo-gang-banger, who had both heard God speak to them.  To this day, I still shake my head and laugh.