Saturday, June 25, 2011

one more thing . . .

What's your image of God?

Many times, I think of God as being Columbo.
You remember him, don't you?

He didn't show up until 30 minutes after the movie
started, but when Lieutenant Columbo arrived on the
scene in 'Prescription: Murder,' one of the most creative
characters in television walked into our lives.  Gene Barry,
as the suave psychiatrist, thought he could easily outwit
this rumpled detective who couldn't even get his act together,
much less solve a murder.  But he was only the first to discover
(as the viewers, who knew from the start who the murderer
was and how it was done, did as well) that this disheveled,
cigar-in-the-corner-of-his-mouth, almost naïve cop was
a genius at what he did.

Columbo didn't 'get his man' (or woman) through pyrotechnics,
shoot-outs, wild car chases (not sure his banged-up Pugueot
could get above 50), or sudden revelations.  He didn't have
some sexy sidekick, though his basset hound called 'Dog' was
cute.  He didn't solve the crime with scientific razzle-dazzle.
He simply walked and talked with folks, especially the suspect.
He watched, waited, observed, pondered.  He picked up on
little clues, and watered them with his patience until they
developed into proof.  He acted the fool, asking innocently
(and aggravatingly), 'oh, one more thing,' so often that the
murderer fell into the trap that this guy didn't have an idea
what he was doing, until he solves the case.

Like Columbo, God already knows what we have done.
We can try to come up with well-thought out alibis, finely
tuned excuses, phrased with great psychological insights
or reasoned rationale, and God will simply stand there,
listen to us, scratch his head, and before going on his way,
turn and say, 'oh, one more thing.'  We can clean up
the mess we have made, bag it up and take it a dumpster
in another neighborhood, shove it deep into those other
messes left by so many others, and God will rummage around
in the pockets of his rumpled trench coat, until he finds the
matchbook or piece of paper we didn't notice had fallen on
the ground, and hand it to us, asking, 'does this belong to you?'
We can think that God is so 'old school,' God is so naïve,
God is so out-of-touch with our world and with us that
he doesn't have an idea of the sleight-of-hand tricks we
are pulling behind his back, but then he drives up in his
dinged car, telling Dog to stay in the seat and behave,
while he walks up to us and simply says, 'I forgot to ask
you before . . .'

Simply following us around - persistent, pushy, pesty -
until we discover the truth about ourselves.

© 2011  Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, June 09, 2011

breakfast at faithfulness

At least once a week I would guess, I get some sort
of communication - electronic, mail, phone - which
usually tells me "Pastor!  We have the perfect program
for your church to grow/bring in new folks/attract new
members!  If you act now, we will throw in, at no extra
charge, our refurbished 'Transform Meager Misers Into
Stewardship Saints' DVD series."  Or so it seems.

But I have never gotten an invitation, a flyer, an email,
a phone call regarding that seminar which would show
me "How To Develop a More Faithful Church."

Until yesterday.

Every Wednesday morning, those who are around and
available gather as the 'urban pastors' of our presbytery,
to break our night's fast, to share prayers of joy and concern,
to speak of our struggles, our hopes, our dreams.  Yesterday
morning, we were invited to meet at Third Presbyterian Church.
In the eyes of the world, of the church growth experts, of
(probably) most of the leadership of the presbytery, it is seen
as a small, struggling, impoverished little congregation,
holding onto its past with its fingertips.  After all, it has only
about 18 members, doesn't have a full-time ordained pastor,
doesn't have a big budget, has a facility that most people
would just drive past in their search for the nearest
'successful' church.

But there in the basement fellowship hall of this church,
sitting around tables with mismatched chairs, and eating
a breakfast fixed by hands of love and hope, I found one of
the most faithful congregations I have ever encountered.

Only 18 members, but 19 ministries carried out by this
congregation of ordinary, everyday folk.  Members and
ministries that reach out to draw in the children and youth
of their community with tutoring programs, vacation bible
school (that had so many kids show up last year they had
to transport some of them to one of the bigger churches
nearby), programs to help young men become better
men and fathers, young women to be more caring, more
virtuous, more focused on their futures than their pasts.
Ministries that let children, youth, parents, neighbors,
strangers know that God is present in their neighborhoods,
that Jesus joins them in their prayer walks past the drug
dealers (who sometimes join with the pray-ers), that
the Spirit still swirls through their lives, dancing flames
on tops of their heads.

In that place, with those people, on that morning, I found
what faithfulness looks like, what the tongues of Pentecost
sound like, what grace and hope taste like.

And as I drove away, I wondered, "What if every church had
more ministries than it did members?"

© 2011 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, June 05, 2011

just your typical Sunday

Just your typical Sunday morning.

Very nice prelude by the organist; announcements about the Heifer Project luncheon next week, a piano recital this afternoon including twin sisters from the church, a reminder about wearing red next Sunday for Pentecost; good job done by the lay liturgist with the opening parts of the service; the typical enthusiastic singing by the congregation.

The scripture lessons (we use all four designated by the lectionary) were read, with time for silence and reflection after each one.  The choir shared a superb anthem that connected with the Lord's Supper we would be celebrating later in the service.  The sermon?  Well, maybe a B- today - talking about the 'tools of the trade' we are given as God's people and how we might use them (while wearing a tool belt and using some 'visuals' as examples).  After that, I invited folks to remember all the blessings God had given them and to share from that abundance as we offered our tithes and gifts to God.

That's when it happened.

I glanced to the back and saw that there was only one usher ready to take up the offering.  I figured Bob, being the rather proper person he is (always a coat and tie on Sunday), would simply ask one of the other folks sitting in the back to help, as usually happens.  But he went over to Paul and asked him.  I could tell by Paul's reaction that he thought he was being asked to put something in the plate, and Paul has nothing to put in the plate, as Paul is mentally challenged, usually disheveled, always seeking food and other things when he comes to church; so, Paul simply shook his head 'no.'  Then Bob said something else, and Paul got a quizzical look on his face.  Bob spoke again, and handed Paul the other offering plate, and together they went up the center aisle to begin taking up the offering.

Mr. Dressed-In-His-Sunday-Best and Mr. Wearing-Whatever-He-Put-On-This-Morning living out the gospel before our very eyes, the soft petals of grace gently falling on the carpet behind them as they journeyed together down the main street of the kingdom.  The Spirit must have thrown some grit in our eyes, for many of us were blinking pretty rapidly; God must have turned up the sun because it seemed just a bit brighter in there; and I could swear I heard Jesus whisper, 'finally, finally.'

And then we gathered at that Table where the homeless will offer their brokenness to the owners of McMansions so that all might be healed; where little children will hold their grace-filled sippy cups to the mouths of those with palsied hands; where those who have trouble putting two thoughts together will explain the gospel to professors of philosophy; where the voiceless will have the solo part in the anthem; where the gospel is not just a book on the shelf but Bob, Paul, and the rest of us living our lives.

Just your typical Sunday morning.

© 2011  Thom M. Shuman