Sunday, August 27, 2006

Who helps you when you're down?

Who encourages you when you are down? Perhaps it's an old college roommate, a former teacher, or your spouse. The prototype encourager in the New Testament was a man named Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus who became a disciple of Jesus. Repeatedly, this man took actions that comforted and encourage. He sold his own land and gave to the poor in the church. He took the side of new converts with whom established church members were not comfortable (one of those unaccepted new converts whom Joseph stood up for is better known to us as the apostle Paul). He mentored less-seasoned preachers and groomed them for greater service. Joseph encouraged so well that he earned a nick name - Barnabas, the son of consolation or the encourager.
Maybe you are the encourager in your group and don't even realize it. Military chaplains sometimes talk about the "ministry of presence," encouragement and spiritual assistance that is somehow given simply by just being there. Your presence may make it easier for another to do what is right. Your attendance at worship services may inspire someone who is discouraged and might drift away if not for your example. Sometimes a simple smile from someone at the right time helps me. So, keep smiling. Give a hug to the downcast. Give a cup of water to the thirsty. The ministry of encouragement is not always dramatic. It is, however, crucial. Thank you to my encouragers. It would be so hard without your prayers, hugs, e-mails, and brilliant smiles. Keep the Barnabas tradition going.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

When People Just Won't Leave You Alone

It seems that it is almost impossible to get away these days. When you settle back in a secluded spot to read a good book or cast a fishing line or just spend a few treasured moments with a loved one, your cell-phone interrupts. Your automobile is equipped with GPS, which helps others to find you when you're in an accident and disabled, or any other time, for that matter. Meanwhile, work schedules grow increasingly more intense. You want a break. I know I do. Jesus did, too. On several occasions, he broke away from the crowds for some quiet time to pray, or fish, or just do what ever a Messiah does on vacation. In Mark 7:24-30, for example, Jesus makes a rare excursion outside Palestine. He goes to the vicinity of Tyre. If you have watched the news recently, you've seen reports of Israel's attacks on southern Lebanon. Among the cities bombed was Tyre. Jesus went to a house in Tyre and the Bible says that he wanted no one to know it. Why? Perhaps he just needed some down time. However, it was not to be. He could not keep his presence a secret, even far from home. A non-Jewish woman from that area, who had a daughter who was demon-possessed, heard that the miracle-working teacher from Galilee was in her city and tracked him down. How do you react when someone intrudes on your personal time? Are you more abrupt, perhaps even a little rude? Jesus replies to her initial request with a cryptic remark that seems almost rude and perhaps even racist. "First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs," he said. Gentiles were unclean, as were dogs. This woman was on a mission, however, and she would not be pushed aside. With just a touch of humor, the desperate woman responded to the curt dismissal, "Yes, Lord, but even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs." Jesus was impressed. "For such a reply, you may go," he said. "The demon has left your daughter." She went home and found that her daughter had been healed. This story has much to say to us. First, like Jesus, we may have times when we want to be left alone, but people, maybe even people we do not like, really need our help. We may have to struggle to contain our frustration or even revulsion. They still need our help, and most of us have probably had a time when we needed help but it seemed that no one cared. We have to take a deep breath, and listen, then help if we can. Second, like the woman, we may be brushed aside by someone who is preoccupied or off-duty or on vacation. Their treatment of us may sting, may even cut deeply. This woman's grace when rejected speaks to us. Responding with anger or cursing rarely helps. Humor and good-mannered persistence may. We may even need to ask if we might come back at a better time. Third, Jesus's initial response may remind us that cultural values and environment influence our responses. Even if Jesus was just testing the woman (as many commentators suggest), his response was just what this Gentile woman might have expected from a typical Jewish man of the time. Later, Peter the apostle would have his own struggles with cultural bias (Acts 9, Galatians 2). Fourth, Jesus's ultimate response demonstrates that racial or ethnic prejudice have no place in a Christian's worldview. Jesus reached out repeatedly to people whom his cultural peers found disgusting: Gentiles, lepers, tax collectors, Roman soldiers.
Jesus helped this woman. It was not a good time for him (perhaps a fifth lesson here is that everyone needs to take some time off), but he still came through. Sometimes, we don't. It is at those times that we need to remember this woman and her statement that "even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the children's table." We're more like the dogs in those moments when we fail to show grace. We need the crumbs of grace, too. Jesus will help us, too.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

AWOL: a book you need to read

Among the unsung heroes of any war are military families. Some time ago I saw the author of a new book being interviewed on television. Frank Schaeffer, whose father's books about religion and worldview I read in college, talked with the wife of a military chaplain about his new book AWOL, which he had co-written with Kathy Ross-Douquet. General Tommy Franks wrote the foreword to the book and Senator John McCain writes a glowing note of approval on the cover. Schaeffer is a Republican; Ross-Douquet is a Democrat who actually worked in the Clinton White House. This is not a book written from the fringe. The book discusses a new phenomenon in American society which has emerged since World War II, and that has accelerated since the Vietnam Conflict: the failure of children from wealthy or politically powerful families to enlist in the military. Five of President Franklin Roosevelt's children seved in the military. Their cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., was the only American General on the beach on D-Day. John F. Kennedy and his brother Joseph served in the military; Joseph died in action. Today, some private colleges prevent military recruiters from visiting their campuses. Schaeffer began his pilgrimage towards writing this book when his son decided to join the Marines rather than attend an Ivy League university. Ross-Douquet, after establishing a successful political activist career, married a Marine officer, only to receive sympathetic comments from friends who could not understand how so talented a man would choose the military rather than a civilian career. The book reminds us about the importance of duty and honor in military service, and the potential dangers of having people who have not served or who will not let their children serve make the decision to send less fortunate people's children to war. Both the nation and military suffer when all parts of society are not represented in the military. This is a significant issue; I encourage you to read the book and weigh its argument for yourself. I have served in the active duty and reserve components of the military; I encouraged my children to talk to recruiters. Especially if you support our nation's current military expeditions, have you or your children volunteered to serve? If not, why not? Is it because you have sincere moral objections or do you think your family is too privileged to share in the responsibility of defending our nation?
I want to encourage the parents, spouses, and children of our military members. I've spent a lot of time this summer with military families; their pain, pride, love, and sacrifice stand in stark contrast with some I have met during my travels who had almost forgotten we were at war. A new "greatest generation" is emerging; sadly, too many are opting out. I commend those who who are at least talking to recruiters and telling their grown children to do so. Thank you for your integrity.