Sunday, December 25, 2016

can you hear me now?

Last night, we held the traditional Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion service, one of the best parts of the church year; one of the best parts of being a pastor.  It always follows the same liturgical format, the readings are always the same, except for the psalm, the carols are familiar and beloved, and everything moves towards the moment when we sing 'Silent Night' and pass the light of Christ to one another. 

But I have learned over the years to expect some sort of glitch (where did the Christ candle go), some oversight (what do you mean no one ordered individual candles), or the scary (a little kid's hair getting singed by leaning too close to the Advent wreath).  Last night proved to be no exception.  Just as I started to sit down following the homily, a cell phone* blared out, loud enough for everyone to hear, "If you said something, I didn't understand."  And yes, it got a good laugh, and we moved on with the service.

Yet, I wonder, isn't that our response to the Christmas story, if truth be told?

The angel announces not just good, but the best sort of news, a Savior has been born.  We don't have to depend on our ingenuity, our arrogance, our foolishness to save us from ourselves.    No, God announces, I will take the burden off your shoulders.  So there is no reason to fear - God or our future.  And we basically say, with our insistence that we are quite capable of looking after number one, "If you said anything, I didn't understand."

The angelic chorus bursts out into a great cantata celebrating this momentous moment in our history.  Wow! they sing, this is great stuff.  Peace is being poured out upon all people; you are invited to share it with everyone around you, to see your sister and brother in every person we meet.  And the world responds, as nations decide that it's time to ratchet up the nuclear arms race once again, "If you said anything, we didn't understand."

The folks we usually ignore, the people who work behind the counters at the places we eat, the folks who pull our cars out of ditches, the housekeepers who clean our rooms, the folks who mow our lawns, they all crowd around us to tell us of the One they have met.  The baby who has been born in poverty so we might inherit grace; the little one who shed glory to be swaddled in our fears and worries; the God who chose to become one of us so that we might discover how much we are loved (not hated), how much we are cared for (not forgotten), how much we are welcomed (not rejected) is in our midst.  At it is those little, least, lost, and last of our society who goes to see, and they runs to tell us.  And we yawn, with our lack of compassion for the most vulnerable among us, and say, "If you said anything, we didn't understand."

And yet, however tempting it must be, that is never God's response to us when we cry out for help, when we pray for hope, when we seek God's presence, when we ask for directions once we have left Bethlehem, when we whisper in the loneliness of life's night.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

* Clergy colleagues will appreciate the fact that it was the phone of the PK that went off in the middle of the service!


Saturday, December 24, 2016

christmas eve at the diner

they pulled in late at night,
   the parking lot overflowing
   ‘cause it was the only
        place open for the holiday;
the dash was blinking
      ‘check engine soon’
   they were running on gas
            fumes
      and bone weary from
      the long trip;

with callused, blue-collar
hands, he helped his
      the-baby-will-come-any-moment
   wife out of the cab
   and into the warm diner
      where a couple of
      goths offered them
   their booth, when they
   should have been placed
   on the at-least-45-minutes
   waiting list;

when her water broke,
   the waitresses suddenly grabbed towels,
   the short-order cook gave the husband
         a snort from his hip flask,
   the cop at the end of the counter
      delivered the newborn, gently
         placing him in a nest
         of clean aprons, while
   the squeaky-voiced cashier began to
      sing, ‘silent night,’ until all joined in:
               the stammering introvert,
               the burly college student,
               the lonely grandparents,
               the voiceless teenager signing along;
 
and in all the commotion,
no one noticed the grizzled
      trucker slip the manager
      the funds to pay everyone’s bill,
   as well as a nest egg for
   the little one and his family.
 
©  2016 Thom M. Shuman

bubble bursting

And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  Luke 2:7

He is a stock character in just about every Christmas pageant.  He is the fall guy in many a Christmas Eve sermon.  He has become the symbol of the indifferent world into which Jesus was born.  Of course, I am speaking of the innkeeper.  The stocky, bearded, robed figure who has the effrontery to slam the door in the face of the holy family and let them freeze! 

Of course, he is actually a mythical character.  In that 'Christmas flu' that strikes us every year at this time, our version of what actually happened is based not so much in what the story tells us, as how the story has been interpreted in song, sermons, pageants, children's moments, movies, and books.
Because in reality, there is no record of any sort of inn/traveler's lodging place in Bethlehem back then.  No inn, no innkeeper.  Sorry to burst your well-known story bubble.

The real story has been lost in translation.  The Greek in which the gospel of Luke tells us that there was no space available in the 'guest room' not the inn.  (Luke uses this same word in describing the place where the Last Supper is held, and a completely different word to speak of the inn in the story of the Good Samaritan).  Back in those days, houses usually had a guest room in the front.  Apparently, Joseph was convinced a cousin, a friend, an associate would have space for them when they arrived.  But with the influx of people into Bethlehem for the census, not a chance.  But, each house also had a 'cave' attached to it - the place where the animals were secured at night.  And what with the view the accompanying blood and fluids of childbirth were 'unclean,' it might seem logical to folks for Mary to be placed in an area that was already messy.

So, no dastardly innkeeper.  No coldhearted rejection of the Christ Child.  No effrontery to God.  Just simple human attempts to make the best of a difficult situation. 

After all, what would you do if family shows up out of the blue on Christmas Eve, and every spare bed, every sofa, every rug is already being used by folks who had let you know they were coming?
You would do your best to accommodate them, wouldn't you?

Maybe that is what this verse is really all about.  Whether or not, we will do what it takes to accommodate the other into our lives; we will do our best to make sure those around us are fed and clothed and sheltered and loved; we will seek to keep our hearts, our minds, our imagination open to the One who comes to us when we least expect, when we are least prepared, when we are most frazzled and frayed.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 23, 2016

do you know what it will cost?

For God so loved the world . . . John 3:16

I have done a lot of weddings over the years.  Mostly 20-somethings who are passionately and joyously in love.  They are so much in love with love that I sometimes want to ask them, "Do you realize what you are doing?  Do you understand the words you are saying?  Do you get what the rings symbolize?  Do you have any idea what love is going to cost you?"

Because love is costly.  It means becoming more aware of the other than yourself.  It means sleepless nights, if you are blessed to have children.  It means putting up with the quirks of your partner that drive you crazy.  And love just might not only break your heart, but take it away completely.

Some years ago, I got to know two special people.  Decades long friends, fellow church members, she lost her husband seven years ago, he his wife six years ago.  They know what love can cost.  Yet, last night, with their kids, grandkids, friends, they said their vows to one another, exchanged rings.  I was blessed to be the one presiding as two people who decided, no matter what it cost, to love.

On that night long ago, knowing full well what such love would cost, God became one of us. 

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 22, 2016

emmanuel

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
  "Look, the virgin shall
            conceive and bear a
            son,
      and they shall name him
            Emmanuel,"
which means "God is with us."  Matthew 1:22-23

you came,
struggling through
the deep drifts of our sins,
to pull us out,
hand us a warm toddy of grace,
and wrap us in
the comfort of
your hope;

you came,
unlatching the storm windows
we have hung over our
hopelessness,
so we can open our hearts
to the bracing breath
of your joy;

you came,
you arms full of groceries,
cooking up a storm,
letting us lick the bowls,
and decorate the kitchen
with icing and sprinkles,
then sending us out
with our arms full
of your goodness,
so everyone might
gorge themselves
on your love;

you came,
that little child
taking our hand
on a cold winter night's
walk,
suddenly stopping
and whispering,
'did you hear that?'

you came,
and oh, how quickly
we
forget!

Prayer:  Take away our Adventnesia, Emmanuel, so we can see you still with us,
in every moment, in every person.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

this fellow

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.  And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, "This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them."  Luke 15:1-2

For some, it is the exchange of Christmas gift lists among family members, even after they have become adults.  For others, it is the baking - the cookies, the pies, the fruit cakes.  Many cannot wait to go caroling with the folks from the church; there are those for whom the yearly gathering with neighbors does it.  Perhaps it is the late night, candlelight service on Christmas Eve.  But for all of us, there is something - a moment, an activity, a carol - that says to them, "Now, at last, it's Christmas."

For me, it is the movies.  Not the overly violent ones that 'count' because they are set at Christmas; not every single schmaltzy one; not every animated ones.  Just certain ones, mostly older but not always.  And there's one common thread to them (and no, it is not Christmas!).  It is the common thread of brokenness.  There is the single mom working in the corporate world ('Miracle on 34th Street), the retired general who feels forgotten ('White Christmas'), the husband who thinks that he is a failure ('It's a Wonderful Life'), a divorced dad ('The Santa Clause').

Yet in the midst of all this brokenness, in the midst of all their self-doubts, in their lonely struggles, and into their shattered hearts, something happens.  A community is formed.  Maybe it's the love of the fellow in the flat across the hall, maybe it's a village coming together, maybe it is a reunion of old buddies, maybe it is discovering that at the heart of all the Christmas hype and stress and worries and fears, it really does come down to relationships. 

This is the secret to the miracle of the One whose birth we celebrate.  He recognized that each and every one of us is broken, and longs to be repaired; he knew that loneliness that walks with each of us in the midst of crowded stores; the fears that we all have that we have not achieved what others think we should (or worse, that we think).  And he takes those worries, those fears, that loneliness, that longing, that brokenness, and creates a community - the family of God.  His brothers and sisters aren't the religious leaders, the power brokers, the wealth and the mighty (though they are welcome).  It is the little and the least, the worriers and the weary, the tax collectors and sinners, you and me.

A community we can find for real, not just in the movies.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

stuart little

Philip found Nathanael and said to him, "We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth."  Nathanael said to him, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"  Philip said to him, "Come and see." John 1:45-46

For over 70 years, it has been a classic read and re-read to generations of children and grandchildren.  E. B. White's Stuart Little is a fantasy novel about a little boy born to human parents, who wo is so tiny that he "looked very much like a mouse in every way."  While he is tormented by Snowbell, the family cat, his experiences turn him into a compassionate person.  Rather than becoming an object of embarrassment for his family, his is completely and totally accepted by them, for who he is, not as they may have wished he had been.  He is an outsider who becomes a central player in this story of hope, love, and acceptance.

In the gospels, Jesus is certainly the ultimate outsider.  Born into poverty, he never really leaves his village until he begins his ministry.  He remarks that he has no place where he can stop and rest.  When Philip rushes to tell his friend about Jesus, and longs for them to meet, Nate cynically dismisses Jesus for who he truly is (in Nate's eyes), an outsider who comes from a nowhere place.

Maybe that's why Jesus was always drawing outsiders to himself.  He called them to be disciples, and he healed them of their loneliness and illnesses.  He invited them to his parties, and accepted their invitations to feast with them.  The religious outsider, the ethnic outsider, the gender outsider, the economic outsider, the political outsider - all were welcomed by Jesus, into Jesus family.  Simply because he accepted them for who they were, not what others might have wished they were.

Perhaps you know what it is like to be an outsider because of your country of origin, your family, your job, your gender, your orientation, your economic or educational status.  Does it make you more sensitive to the outsiders around you; does your experience cause you to reach out to others; do your strive to be the welcome the excluded long to find?

Prayer:  We are so busy explaining exactly why someone cannot be who they claim because of where they come from, Accepting God, that we may miss the grace, the hope, the life they are longing to share with us.  Amen.

(c) 2016  Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 19, 2016

a cold shoulder?

Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.  He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.  Luke 2:4-5

They didn't hop the daily shuttle for the quick flight to Bethlehem.  They didn't climb aboard the megabus for the 2-hour trip down.  No, they walked.  Across rugged, dangerous country.  No smooth Isaiah type holy way for them.  It was uphill and downhill, steep both ways.  It was cold and rainy.  They risked encountering bears and lions along the way, as well as bandits and folks who preyed on the innocent.  We aren't told how long it took them, but given the weather, the locale, the pregnancy, it probably took them at least 9 days to make it from Nazareth to Bethlehem, every step more and more difficult.

We aren't told, as usual, the details of this journey.  But my guess is that as Joseph and Mary traveled, they managed to find a place to rest, a home which provided them hospitality, a shelter from the elements, the animals, the bullies.  Maybe it was accomplished simply by knocking on the door of the nearest house and looking as bedraggled as possible; maybe it was "a friend of a friend of a friend said you might be able to put us up tonight."  Maybe they managed to get the last bed in the local hostel in the village.  We don't know.  But I am guessing that along the way they encountered hospitality, a welcome from strangers they might never meet again, a meal that tasted like something served in a fine restaurant, a bed that floated them into safe dreams - all from nameless, forgotten people along the way of their pilgrimage.

Would we be willing to take in soaked, cold, bedraggled folks knocking at our doors?  Would we be gracious enough to offer hospitality to complete strangers?

Madeleine L'Engle was talking with a friend, a recovering alcoholic, who was planning to drive across country to California.  She would be stopping along the way, sometimes in towns where she did not know a soul.  Concerned for her, L'Engle asked what might happen if her friend was in a motel room, alone, and suddenly faced with wanting to go down to the nearest bar.  "All I would have to do is open the phone book, look up the local chapter of AA," her friend said, "and someone would come and be with me until that longing went away."  Madeleine L'Engle went on to wonder what might happen if she was traveling, found herself in a motel room, lonely.  What would be the response, she asked, if she called a local pastor, saying something along the lines of , "I am a Christian, alone and in your town, and I am afraid I may do something that will take me off my journey with Jesus.  Can you help?"  What would be the response?

Hospitality or a cold shoulder?

Prayer: If we are lucky, we have encountered such hospitality, Host of our hearts.  If we are more fortunate, we are offered the chance to be such gracious hosts to folks who need rest, a meal, a friend.  Open us to such chances, we pray.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, December 18, 2016

back on the hillside

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."  Luke 2:15

I wonder who got left behind?  Maybe it was the old guy, who was dozing by the fire but with ears like a hawk, would hear any sound.  Maybe the youngest one, the kid still on probation and hadn't had the first job evaluation yet, drew the shortest stick.  Maybe it was the shepherdess who was tasked with the job, simply because of the 'ess' at the end of her position description.  But someone got left behind with all the sheep.  After all, no self-respecting shepherd would leave flocks unattended, unprotected even if God has made something known to them.  After all, the angels didn't say, "Go!  We'll stay and keep an eye on everyone."

We are so enamored with the mythological, greeting card, Christmas-Eve-homily setting, aren't we?  There is sweet baby Jesus, the Holy Child who never utters a plaintive wail.  There is virginal Mary, with her pristine-white robe and perfectly coiffed hair.  There is sturdy Joseph, leaning on his staff, gently smiling down at the Currier and Ives picture.  There are the animals - 1 cow, 4 sheep, 2 donkeys, maybe a cat up in the rafters.  We are so enamored with this image, we forget the ones who are left behind.

Just as we forget the ones around us who are at their posts when everyone else is celebrating Christmas, attending parties, gathering with the family around the tree.  We don't have to work, we can take the time off, we enjoy the holiday break that we don't notice the ones who are still up on the hillside, keeping watch.

The 911 dispatcher who is ready for any emergency;
the volunteer at the suicide prevention hotline;
the firefighter pulling the 24-hour shift starting Christmas Eve;
the tow truck driver pulling cars out of ditches;
the nurse sitting at the bedside of a little girl in ICU -
do we notice them, remember them?

The security guards at my college were a mixed bag of folks.  Some were first-class, others we considered a joke.  Some spent time getting to know us and letting us know them, some kept their distance.  They were always around, always on the job, usually ignored and forgotten.  One year, I spent the holiday break on campus, working to earn money for the next semester.  Christmas Eve found me in my room, listening to music, reading, lonely.  There was a knock on the door.  When I opened it, there was the security guard who was spending the night, looking after the campus, including me.  He simply said, "If you don't have any plans for tomorrow, why don't you come and have Christmas dinner with me and my family?"

The one left behind, the one who drew the short stick, the one usually ignored and forgotten, remembered me!

And I have never forgotten him.

Prayer: Help us to remember the forgotten around us and shower them with as much love, attention, compassion as we offer to everyone else.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, December 17, 2016

nameless

The LORD listened to the voice of Elijah; the life of the child came into him again, and he revived.  Elijah took the child, brought him down from the upper chamber into the house, and gave him to his mother; the Elijah said, "See, your son is alive."  1 Kings 17:22-23

What happened to him?  This child, I mean.  This nameless one who is at death's doorstep (or beyond) and brought back to life.  What did he do after life 'came back' into him again?  Was he successful or a failure; did he do mighty deeds or just go about the daily routine?  We don't know.  Give the culture and attitudes of the time, we aren't even told his name (or that of his mother who is simply the widow of Zarephath).

We don't know, we aren't told, because like so many stories in the Bible, this is not so much about this particular child and his mother.  Yes, the story is to show the authority of the prophet, as he moves towards his confrontation with the priests Baal as well Ahab and Jezebel.  More importantly, as usually is the case, the story reminds us of what God is capable of doing through us.  Just as Jesus does so many times in his life and ministry, we are pointed towards God.

Towards a God who listens.  A God who listens to us.  But the first step in the process, according to this story, is that we are the ones who have to listen first.  Just as Elijah did in listening to the child's mother, do we listen to the cries around us, to the hopes, to the voices of all the nameless around us?

Do we listen
   to the mother who needs medical care for a child,
      or do we just discount her as someone gaming the system;
   to the father who needs a car repaired to get to work,
      or do we send him around the corner to the next church;
   to the teenager who struggles with loneliness,
      or do we just brush her aside on our way to important meetings?

Do we listen to the nameless, the voiceless, around us?

Do we listen to God, who speaks for them and knows them by name, and would have us care for them?

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 16, 2016

nahum

Look! On the mountains the
         feet of one
   who brings good tidings,
   who proclaims peace!  Nahum 1:15a

in tiny dancers
      celebrating the
      Birth on Christmas
   Eve;
in the shuffled steps
      of the fellow
      leading the granddaughter
      he raised solo
   out onto the dance floor
   at her wedding;
in the freezing extremities
      of the runners, walkers,
      wheelers, bikers
   on a wintry day
   raising money for
      medical research;
in prophets
      who walked lonely
      paths often wondering
   if they were speaking
   only to the wind,

peace comes leaping
into our lives!

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 15, 2016

tertius

I Tertius, the writer of this letter, greet you in the Lord.  Romans 16:22

Some people think he actually wrote this letter attributed to Paul.  Some think he had some notes and sermon scraps from Paul and from those, composed them into a logical form.  Some think he was Paul's amanuensis (your word for the day!).  His name, which means 'third,' was a common one for slaves, so he may have been one of Phoebe's servants, sent by his benefactor to help Paul.  We don't really know anything or anymore about Tertius, except this one line at the end of a lengthy letter.  Then, he simply disappears into the mists of history, only a tagline at the end of book that has transformed churches, as well as lives.  Forgotten.

Tertius was simply the conduit, the communicator, the intermediary who put Paul in touch with the good folks in Rome, as well as us.  In my mind's eye and in recent memory, he would be like the operators at telephone switchboards who would receive your call and then connect you with the person, the store, the company you were trying to reach.

Bill was our conduit, our communicator, our intermediary for years when we lived in Cincinnati and would call to speak to Teddy.  "Grounds, Bill!" would come his enthusiastic and generous welcome when we called the main number.  He would always ask how were doing and then connect us with Teddy.  When we started driving up every week, Bill was usually the one working at Grounds, where we would stop and take a pit stop, before heading over to pick up Teddy for an outing.

Bill was big and gruff, and gentle as a lamb.  It didn't matter what the weather, he always wore an Hawaiian shirt, and if the outside temps were above the teens, usually had shorts on.  We always enjoyed the few minutes we go to see him and talk with him because he shared his graciousness, his joy in life, his compassion on his sleeve.  It was a special treat for us, if Bill had his dogs with him, which he often did, giving us the opportunity to love them and receive their unconditional love. Since we moved to Columbus, we didn't see him as much, but still heard his voice on the phone, still bathed in his warmth when he answered.

The other morning, Bill went out on his back deck, to let the dogs outside.  And that is where his partner found him, sadly silenced by a fatal heart attack.  We will no longer hear his gruff and generous voice, no longer hear about or see his dogs, no longer be warmed by his spirit.

But Bill will not be lost in the mists of our history, or forgotten.

Prayer:  We give thanks for those good and generous folks, Listening God, who make it possible for us to be connected with families, friends, neighbors.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

crumbs

Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.  She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.  He said to her, "Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.  Then he said to her, "For saying that, you may go--the demon has left your daughter."  Mark 7:26-29

This is one of those passages folks, especially preachers, wish could be clipped out of the gospels.  It simply doesn't present Jesus in a very favorable light.  Which is probably why folks, especially preachers, come up with all sorts of rationalizations for this story.  Jesus was having a bad day; Jesus hadn't slept well; Jesus was focused on something else; it is the writer's way of saying Jesus saw his primary role to be to his Jewish friends and neighbors, not the outsiders.  Any, and all, might be valid.

But I think the reason it makes folks, especially preachers, wish the story wasn't in the gospels is because it doesn't present us in a very good light.  Because we live in a time and culture which says that not only are the 'children' entitled to the whole loaf in life, the outsiders don't even deserve the crumbs.  And far too many folks, particularly preachers, go along with this view. 

A family shows up in distress and we give them a $20 gift card to send them on their way, rather than take the time to listen to their story.  We walk past an addict sleeping in a doorway and shake our heads, instead of seeing what we could do to help rid her of her demons.  Churches collect food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas, but figure the same recipients can fend for themselves the other 11 months of the year.  We collect supplies for the kids at the start of the school year, and then vote down the levies that will support their education.

Because we have the whole loaf, because our pantries and refrigerators are stocked, because we throw away perfectly good food simply because it might be a little funky, we don't realize how important crumbs can be in the lives of our sisters and brothers. 

With enough crumbs, a family can be fed; with enough crumbs, a home can be built; with enough crumbs, lives can be rebuilt; with enough crumbs, we might be able to see those around us not as outsiders who are less deserving than us, but family members who should be offered a seat at the table and passed the first plateful of grace, of goodness, of hope from the Feast.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

rudolph

These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.  Matthew 10:2-4

(tune: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer)
You know Andrew and Peter,
James and John;
Philip and Matt,
Judas and Tom;
but do you recall,
the most insignificant disciple of all?

(Yes, I know that is not how the song goes)

But the truth is that there are those disciples/apostles for whom we know very, very little.  Oh, the big names: Peter, John, Matthew - the ones who got to go on the book tours and appear on all the talk shows; Thomas, who didn't know the way and was obviously from the Show-Me state; even Judas, the traitor, the guy who kissed Jesus on the cheek and then kicked him over to the authorities - we know all these folks.  Their backgrounds, their families, their work.  They have churches and schools, hospitals and colleges, even cities named after them.

But James (the Little or the Less, depending on who knew him)?  Thad? Simon?  Who are these guys?  Where did they come from?  What did they ever accomplish?  Truth is, we don't know.  They seem to be mentioned once, maybe twice, and then disappear from the stage.  Their later lives are shrouded in mystery, legend, speculation.  They are forgotten, dismissed, lost.

They didn't write any books and become big successes, but maybe they were the ones walking the streets and taking care of the folks who live in the shadows.

They didn't appear before crowds of thousands with megawatt smiles on their faces, but maybe they were making sure kids who needed a meal, or a schoolbook, or health care got all these things.

They weren't the ones the media folks contacted when they needed a 'faith representative' to come on the morning show, but maybe they were the ones that the mother with the addicted child, the dad needing a car repair, the lonely teenager knew that if they knocked on Thad's or Simon's door, they would find a friend.

Maybe, just maybe, they weren't so insignificant after all.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 12, 2016

onesiphorus

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chain; when he arrived in Rome, he eagerly searched for me and found me . . .
2 Timothy 1:16-17

She was talking about her teenager, who just seemed to have lost the way.  Nothing major, no drugs or other addictions, not troubles with the authorities.  But breaking the curfew, ignoring advice, driving recklessly, that sort of thing.  What are you going to do, a friend asked.  Well, she said, my philosophy is to let folks make their own mistakes, but be there to help them pick up the pieces.  If they lose their way, I'll help them find the road back.

We all need an Onesiphorus in our lives.

We all make mistakes, and wish there were folks who could help us white them out.

We all do stupid things, and wonder if we can find the someone who is smarter than us and will share their knowledge.

We all lose our way and far too often, there is no one willing to come find us and help us get back on the path.

Another minister once told me the story about a foolish stunt he and some friends pulled in high school.  Nothing dangerous, nothing really law-breaking.  Just the sort of thing that teenage boys do at that age.  Living in a small village, where everyone knew everybody else, pretty soon the sheriff showed up at the diner to escort the boys to his offices. 

When they got there, Gene was allowed to call home.

"Dad," he began, and stopped, not sure what to say.
"Where are you, son?"
"Dad, I have been pretty foolish, and . . ."
"Son, where are you?"
"Dad, I am so, so sorry.  I don't know what got into me . . ."
"Son, you don't understand.  I don't care what you've done. Where are you?  I am coming to get you and bring you home."

This is the season where God simply says to us, "I am coming to bring you home."

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, December 11, 2016

hur

But Moses' hands grew weary; so they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it.  Aaron and Hur held up his hands, one on one side, and the other on the other side; so his hands ere steady until the sun set.  Exodus 17:12

Who held up Hur's hands?

She was the CEO of a leading corporation.  She sat on the boards of city leadership, business consortiums, and the important charities of her community.  When critical decisions needed to be made, when mayors/senators/governors needed a listening ear, she was the one called.   One day, in a conversation in her office, we talked about her responsibilities, her challenges, what it was like to be so close to power, to be a part of the power.  The stresses and strains of being an important player was evident in her face and voice.  At one point, her administrative assistant came in with some papers for her to sign.  As he was leaving, she looked at me and nodding towards him, simply said, "He's the one who holds up my hands."

We all know the folks who advise a country's leader; they are constantly interviewed, chatted up, profiled.  We know the major players in all the political, economic, cultural, religious groups.  They are well-known faces and voices.  We don't use such language, but they are the Hurs of our time.  The ones who make it possible for folks to keep steady and do the work they have been charged to do.

But who looks after Hur; who holds up her hands; who supports him; who stands for them?

We focus so much on those in front of the cameras, at the head tables, in the lead cars of the parades.  And so, we never see the partner who provides the safe haven, the kids who keep the parent
grounded, the neighbors who look after the yard, the friends who keep Hur from getting too big a head.

Who holds up your hands?

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, December 10, 2016

wastrel

While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broken open the jar and poured at the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was this ointment wasted in this way?  For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor."  And they scolded her.  Mark 14:3-4

Who did she think she was?

Of course, she was scolded.  We would have done far worse.  We would take a picture of her foolishness and posted it instantly.  We would shame her on every form of social media we could find, until she would have to slink off, move to another town, assume a new identity.

We wouldn't be that wasteful, would we? Who do people think we are?

Given a gift of great value, receiving a donation of stock unexpectedly, blessed with a check we did not expect - we wouldn't waste it, would we?  We would immediately cash it, transfer it, convert it into currency and give it all to the poor around us, wouldn't we . . .

. . . unless the boiler needed repair
. . . the rainy day fund needed to be replenished
. . . new choir robes could be bought
. . . the budget needed to be balanced.

Who did she think she was? 

God breaking open grace and pouring it all over us in that baby born in Bethlehem?

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 09, 2016

everyone

And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the LORD's offering to be used . . . Exodus 35:21

It's one of those moments, one of those memories, which should be in brilliant colors, with loud dramatic music composed by John Williams, with hundreds of thousands watching from massive grandstands.  But it is a grainy, black and white, flickering image on a very small screen.  There were muted voices, silent prayers being offered that this time the rocket would not explode as it left the ground, a simple muttered "Godspeed," as John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth.  It's an all-too-brief memory of so many years ago, of a transformative moment in our shared history.

John Glenn, who died at age 95 yesterday, came back a hero.  So much of one, that the president issued a secret order forbidding him from flying again for fear of losing this icon.  So Glenn dedicated the rest of his life to public service, to becoming one of those people that others knew they could count on in the tough moments.  He became the epitome of courage, and whenever people thought of the space program, his face came to mind.

But what about the folks who put him atop that rocket; the ones who helped him to put on his space suit, to squeeze into that tiny Mercury capsule?  What about the men and women who designed the computers, manned the gadgets and gizmos, came up with the formulas for the fuel?  What about the people who built the gantry, who assembled the rocket, who riveted the seams?  What about all those whose hearts had been stirred when they first looked at the stars as a kid; whose spirits were willing to spend long, lonely hours in labs in pursuit of dreams everyone laughed at; those people who spent days in libraries studying chemistry, physics, calculus, and other things so many of us find so complicated, simply in order that one person might fulfill the dreams of others?  They didn't get the ticker-tape parade.  They didn't get the interviews on television.  They didn't have the public adulation, the honors that came along John Glenn's way.   

No, they simply went about their jobs.  Offering their hearts, their minds, their spirits, their lives in the ages-old dream of reaching out to the stars.  We don't know their names (though their families do), we don't remember their achievements, we don't honor them on their passing.  But without them, John Glenn would not have been the hero he became. 

Without the unnamed, forgotten, overlooked 'everyone' who are all around us, students would not be taught, patients would not be nursed, the hungry would not be fed, the homeless would not be housed, the cold would not be sheltered.

Prayer:  In a world that honors the individual, Star casting God, help us to join everyone who simply dreams, reaches, serves, cares for those around them.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 08, 2016

hannah

"Do not regard your servant as a worthless woman, for I have been speaking out of my great anxiety and vexation all this time."  1 Samuel 1:17

I minored in history while in college and so I know the reality of who gets to write the history.  It is the winners, it is those with the power, it is those who have control over everything and everyone. Or at least, that is how it seems.  Which is probably why we have 1st and 2nd Samuel in the Old Testament, but no 1st and 2nd Miriam; it's why we have 1st and 2nd Kings, but no histories of the common person.  It is why we have the letters of Peter, James, and Paul, but no letters by Phoebe in the New Testament. 

I wonder what it would be like to read 1st and 2nd Hannah, if we could.  Instead of stories about priests, perhaps we would hear more about women who struggled with infertility and seeing so many of their babies die before age 1.  Instead of long lists of kings, many of whom obviously didn't have a clue as to what they could be doing or should have done, we would hear of the poor, who were doing everything they could to put food on the table, to care for their families, to seek to be faithful to their God.  Instead of generals and battles, maybe we would have been told the stories of the most vulnerable in that day, of those who were forgotten or simply overlooked in the hurry to win one's status as a great warrior, of the folks who were more like us.

Perhaps if we did have histories written by the women, if we had gospels as seen through the eyes of children, if we had letters sent by the oppressed and the forsaken, we would have caught on a lot quicker that the God we worship, the One whose birth we celebrate this season, the Spirit which seeks to infuse us with mercy and peace is on the side of the poor, is longing for us to join in the struggle to end injustice, is waiting for us to discover the value of all those we dismiss as simply being worthless.

Prayer:  Though it is easier to read about folks, help us to listen to the stories, to the lives, to the hearts of all around us.  Amen.


(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

habakkuk

I admit it.  I more minor than major when it comes to this holy season.

Me, I'll take the simple Advent wreath instead of the Christmas tree.  I'll take the purple and pink candles instead of 40 thousand lights timed to gaudy songs flashing from every house.  I'll take the silence over the din of commercials; I'll take the waiting over the wandering from store to store for just the right gift/card; I'll take the sitting in the shadows over the stress and strain of the season.

For some folks, it isn't Christmas until they sing or hear 'O Holy Night,' 'O Come, All Ye Faithful,' 'Joy to the World,' or the overly used 'Hallelujah Chorus.'  But for me, it has always been the minor key pieces that speak to me.  I could sing 'In the Bleak Midwinter' every time in worship.  Part of it has to do with the incredible moving words of Rossetti.  But it is also the musical dissonance, which reflects the tension which hangs in the air as we celebrate the Child born into poverty with opulent gift-giving, the tension which exists within us as we live in a culture which throws away more food and stuff this time of year, while so many lives grow emptier and emptier.

Perhaps that is why, in this season where every time we gather for worship we hear from Isaiah, I turn to the minor key prophets.  Folks like Habakkuk, who don't get the glory, the recognition, the honor of being read every Christmas Eve and Day, but who use moving words to speak of that time we should await, not all the hectic moments which assail us; who remind us of the God whose one desire is to love us, even when we think love is a commodity to be bought and sold, not offered unconditionally.

A professor in seminary told of the Presbyterian pastor serving a church in the Shenandoah Valley during the American Civil War.  An area which was utterly devastated as battles raged, and changed sides over and over again.  After a particularly tough time, when one of the armies moving through had taken all the food, the crops, the livestock, leaving the people of the area with practically nothing to their names, the pastor stood up on Sunday morning and read from Habakkuk:

Though the fig tree does not
         blossom,
   and no fruit is on the
         vines;
though the produce of the
         olive fails
   and the fields yield no
         food;
though the flock is cut off
         from the fold
   and there is no herd in the
         stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
   I will exult in the God of
         my salvation.  (3:17-18)

In every bleak midwinter, Habakkuk reminds us, God is with us.

Prayer:  May we rejoice in every moment, Timeless God, recognizing that you are with us always.  Amen.


(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

centurion

A centurion there had a slave whom he valued highly, and who was ill and close to death.  Luke 7:2

How much value do we put on those who serve us?

The person who cuts our hair, and asks us how things are going, what we are doing today?  Do we ask them about their work, their families, what might be happening in their lives?  The server at our table at a meal with colleagues or friends - do we notice the dark circles under their eyes, the way she stretches to get the kinks out of her back, the worry lines on the forehead of someone too young to carry such burdens?  The driver who gets out every morning to deliver the paper in the dark/cold/damp, the bus driver who picks up our kids or grandkids, the person who works on our car, the lady who speaks a different language who cleans and tidies the room of the hotel where we stay?

How much do we value those who serve us?

One of the jobs I had to pay my way through college was as a cook in a restaurant.  I know the long hours that have to be put in, the incredible amount of time on one's feet, the attitude of caring for customers who obviously don't care for anything or anyone other than themselves.  I know how much I was paid (which wasn't a whole lot).  But I also came to know the folks who waited on the people, took their orders, served them the meal, cleaned up after folks.  I saw them berated by people because there was not enough ice in a drink, hollered at because a knife was dirty, rudely waved at by someone who thought he was a VIP but was really a JERK.  I know how much the servers got paid, which was less than me.

I heard their stories of trying to feed and clothe kids on subsistence wages which meant they relied on the gratuities offered to them, only to see a group of businessmen who had just spent several hundred dollars on a meal, drop $2 on the table for the server.  I have seen well-dressed people leave a table so littered and messy their mothers would be utterly horrified and ashamed.  I have seen folks pull out calculators to figure out (to the penny) what each person owed on the bill, and then walk away leaving the server with nothing but a table to clean. 

How much do we value those who serve us?

As much as this nameless centurion?

Or less?

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Monday, December 05, 2016

compatriots

Greet one another with a holy kiss.  All the churches of Christ greet you.  Romans 16:16

This simple little verse comes after a long listing of people mentioned by Paul at the end of the letter he is sending to the believers in Rome.  It doesn't have the great theological implications of chapters 4 and 5, it doesn't resound with the high notes of chapter 8, it isn't urging folks to a new lifestyle like chapter 12, but this often overlooked part of the letter tells us something very important about the early church.

Paul mentions women, as well as men.  He speaks of individuals, as well as faith communities which gather in another's home.  He speaks of people who are never mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament.  He tells of those who have been imprisoned with him, as well as those who supported him in his journeys, in his ministry of spreading the gospel.  He calls them friends, co-workers, relatives - thinking of all these people not just as people who attend church with him, but who have shaped his life in profound ways.

They are Jews, and they are Gentiles.  They are folks whose names reveal they are Greek, while others carry Latin names.  They are Romans, and they are Asians, and some are folks who come from places not mentioned.  They are rich and poor, there are young and old.  Paul considers them all to be saints, not because they are more pious than we, but because they are believers just like we are.

They are the constant reminders that the early church was a diverse community, which welcomed people from every culture, from every background, from every economic status, from every sort of work, with every level of education.  They lived out the good news that Jesus came for all people, not just a few; that the church is the household of all people, not just the privileged; that faith is shared and learned from every imaginable person.

They are us, or who we could be, if we just dared.

Prayer:  We sing about the roll that will be called up yonder, Generous God, so remind us of those who are living out your trust and hope in our midst, not waiting for it to take place in the future.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Sunday, December 04, 2016

ananias

So Ananias went and entered the house.  He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit."  Acts 9:17

Every church I know wants to grow; every pastor wants to be able to bring in new people. 

Up to a point, right?

What happens when the most progressive church in town is visited by the most conservative voice in the community, who gives every indication that this is the family of faith which she has been searching for and finally feels she has found?

How does the pastor who takes (humbling, of course) pride in looking after all the folks who live on the streets - making sure they are fed, battling the city leaders to open more shelters for longer hours, encouraging parishioners to spend just as much on the most vulnerable in our society as they do on the folks they most love at Christmas - respond when two of the street families show up and announce they want to be baptized and join the church?

The seminary student who all the professors are convinced and tell her that she is destined for one of the Tall Steeple churches coveted by so many in the denomination - what does she do when she opens the letter from the tiny, struggling, destined-to-close-its-doors congregation, telling her that they believe God is calling her to serve with them at the corner of Hopeless and WashedOut?

Maybe these are the moments, the people, the challenges we are offered that will help us to regain our sight, and see the kingdom as it truly is meant to be.

Prayer: When it would be easy to refuse the risks you offer to us, Life-changing God, help us to grasp them firmly.  For we never know where or to whom they might lead us, but you do.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Saturday, December 03, 2016

shiphrah and puah

But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live.  Exodus 1:17

They had absolutely no power.
No one was going to come to their defense.
No one would be willing to stand at their side.
So, why did Shiphrah and Puah do it; why were they willing to risk their lives (and perhaps the lives of their families and friends); why were they daring to defy the most powerful ruler of their time? 

Why?

Because it is precisely when despair roams our hearts,
   that we need to midwife hope;
it is precisely when the bullies stand over little children,
   that we need to midwife courage;
it is precisely when the power hungry gain control,
   that we need to midwife weakness;
it is precisely when the arrogant tell us only they can save us,
   that we need to midwife trust in God;
it is precisely in this moment as in every moment,
in our communities as in every place,
   that we must midwife the spirit of Shiphrah and Puah
   so grace, peace, life continue to be birthed
   when we most need them.

Prayer:  You call us to be midwives, Mothering God, not because we are strong and courageous, but because you can use our vulnerability and hope if we but trust in you in every moment, in every place.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Friday, December 02, 2016

the other mary

After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  Matthew 28:1 

Some years ago, there was a television comedy whose cast of characters included three guys who would come into a scene.  The fellow in the middle always introduced themselves this way, "Hi, I'm Larry; this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl." Of course, we never heard from either Darryl, and we certainly were never given a clue as to what the other Darryl did, or who he was as a person.

This is similar to the woman in the New Testament known as the "other" Mary.  We really don't know who she is, but obviously not in the same 'star' quality as Mary Mags.  Some say she is given this title because Mary was such a common name back then.  Some believe she was the sister of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Some posit she was married to Alphaeus, and that their son was James, one of those called as a disciple (who, was also known by a similar 'title' - James the Little/Less - as if he too was of little consequence in the grand scheme of things).

We don't know what she did, either.  Maybe she simply made sure the folks following Jesus were fed and looked after, coming around after them and picking up their dirty clothes.  Maybe she was the one who always made creative excuses for Jesus, when he had disappeared and everyone was looking for him, never revealing the fact that he had gone off to recharge his spiritual batteries.  May she kept refilling Andrew's cup, and listening to his plaintive, "Peter!  All everyone ever talks about is Peter.  He wouldn't even know Jesus if I hadn't introduced them . . ."

We don't know why she is even mentioned.  But perhaps it is simply a recognition by the gospels of a woman was always there when someone needed her, and always overlooked when they didn't.

Just like some folks we know.  Just like some folks like ourselves.

Prayer:  Open our eyes to those who look after us, especially when we don't notice them; those who listen to us, though we can't remember what their voice sounds like, those others who simple go about their ministry of caring, giving, loving, even when they are not.  Amen.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman

Thursday, December 01, 2016

haggai

Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory?  How does it look to you now?  Is it not in your sight as nothing?  Haggai 2:3

   It was only a short-term contract, the manager at Temp Prophets, told Haggai.  It probably wouldn't last longer than six months or so, so don't sweat it.  Just put in the hours, do what you're told, and come back for the next posting. 
   Which is precisely what Haggai did.  He went, took care of the job, and went back to his obscure life after the contract ran out.  No wonder his little book is stuck towards the end of the Old Testament, no wonder his words are rarely heard in the church, no wonder people ask 'what in the world does some dead, old guy named Haggai have to do with us?'
   Yet in the midst of his obscurity, in the middle of his forgotten words, comes some key questions which resonate with all generations:
   Why do we obsess so much about the past? 
   Why do we keep talking about the "good ol' days" as if there was nothing that happened before them, or since, that can compare to this mythological era?
   Why do we insist that the church can/will only be successful when we once again have 3 services in the morning (and one in the evening) and a Sunday School program with 1,000 kids (and only 3 teachers!).
   In just a few short months, Haggai caught on to what God was trying to do.  Not build an exact replica of the past, but creating a dynamic, new community.  Not living in the state of What-Used-To-Be, but forming a new people, including those we least expect.  Not sitting around the table at night, as the crumbs of dinner are licked off the floor by the dog, and the last of the wine is poured into people's glasses, and we tell the stories that our ancestors passed on to us, but pointing our eyes out the window, where the new days, the new things, the new life, our future with God is just beginning to dawn.

(c) 2016 Thom M. Shuman