Chirstmas shopping would be so much easier if Jesus would remain a baby….

If Jesus would remain a baby, I would find Christmas shopping much easier. But every time I venture out to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, by purchasing a gift for someone I love, I am stumped. I do not know what kind of gift to buy that will somehow declare the birth of the Son of God. I do not have the where-with-all for a gift that marks the birth of a King. Besides, every time I begin to shop in honor of Baby Jesus, I see him whipped unmercifully upon a cross. Nothing so confuses my shopping at Christmas than the sight of blood spilling from his side and, although I resist the thought, it will not go away.

Before I can do much looking around the malls, Jesus jumps out of the crib, fully adult, onto the streets in front of me and I can hardly keep up with him. He’s healing people and getting into all kinds of trouble with medical experts. I am lost about what to do. Besides, any free moment he goes to the wrong places. He goes to the seedy parts of town. He goes to places I have never been before. He mixes with rejected people. He goes to City Hall and hurls insults at those in leadership who are without mercy.

Downtown, he is outspoken and scathing to those who are unfair in their business practices no matter who they are or what positions they hold. Jesus detests double standards and addresses them at every encounter.

I want to shove him back in the crib where he was safe. I want him back in the crib where we were all safer. Then, just when I thought he would stop in at a church or two – perhaps a cathedral built in his honor – he’s off into a bar befriending losers. He’s talking politics in a way I have never heard. He’s talking about fairness and justice and mercy and truth. I want to tell him not to mix politics and religion but I hold my tongue and blush with the absurdity of it all.

If he would just stay in one place like a baby should is all I can think.

It’s not long before he gains in popularity and I am in a jostle with the crowds for his attention. But it’s not the kind of popularity I was expecting. I will never be able to get a gift at this rate. Prostitutes love him. Drunks run to his defense. The poorest of the poor are out in their masses. He dances in the streets with children and people he has only just met. Young men and women with piercings all over their bodies form a circle with him, and they celebrate like long lost friends, reunited. Then, instead of heeding the city ordinances and honoring the local businesses, he feeds the entire crowd by some miraculous display.

Now what do I buy? Clearly, anything I spend on any gift, if I am really out to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child has to be grand. Yet it has to be modest. His birth couldn’t have been more modest: a shed was the delivery room, an animal feeding trough, the crib. Secrecy, shame and danger were the backdrop of this dramatic night while poverty dictated the details. So I cannot spend much. Yet it was the greatest night the earth had ever seen. It was the greatest moment in all history. It was the night angels sighed! It was the night the hosts of heaven longed to witness; the night the order of everything was disturbed forever by Love’s intervention.

I try to tell him he’s ruining things: that he is too quick to befriend the wrong people. Clearly his mind is elsewhere. I plead with him to befriend the religious and civic leaders but he will not listen. Soon, as if to prove me right, they are up in arms against him. Everybody who is anybody wants him gone. They call him a hindrance to tourism, a threat to peace and they accuse him of not attending church!

Next he’s looking crucifixion in the eye.

If only he would remain a baby. It is so much easier to shop for a baby.

What Would Jesus Do?

“Now what would Jesus do?” asked the one glancing at her WWJD bracelet.

“Grape nuts,” replied her companion instantly, as if she had served Jesus breakfast that very morning. I slipped away pondering how the will and the ways of the greatest political, religious and social reformer of all time got reduced to a formula for grocery shopping.

I am glad the use of these bracelets appears to be waning. It remains a great question, but wearing it on a wrist somehow suggests that the answer is easily accessible. It suggests that if you will simply stop and think a little, having eyed the bracelet, you’ll get the answer. Then, as you act on your new found knowledge, your predicaments will be resolved, you will have a better life, and conditions in the world will improve all around for everybody.

Quite the contrary: Answering the question and doing what Jesus would do in any situation is neither easily established nor executed. Finding the answer itself would take a lot of work, like tunneling back though a couple of thousand years, researching culture, geography and weather conditions and the political and religious climate. Then we’d have to identify, and then decipher, metaphor, understand and interpret tone and intent, and immerse ourselves in at least a few ancient languages.

Besides all this, we’d need a working knowledge of the subcultures and the prejudices that existed within those subcultures. Then, with all this done we might be able to decide what Jesus would do given some, but not all, situations we face.

The next challenge, once we’ve established the answer, would be to have the courage to do what Jesus would do. WWJD is not about “doing the right thing.” Jesus did not always do the “right” thing. If that were so, no cross would have awaited him. Doing the “right thing” would have endeared him to those who mattered and would not have required him to buck authority at all.

Essentially Jesus laid a platform for his followers to live differently. It doesn’t take more than a reading of the New Testament to see that he despised pretentiousness and empty religious “performance” and was particularly vocal wherever he found religious zeal that was without internal transformation. He despised abusive systems and was a particular critic of those who ripped off others.

I do not think Jesus cares what cereal you buy, or for that matter, what dress or suit you wear or how your hair is or is not cut. But I do believe he cared about what kind of person you are and whether you love mercy, humility, truth and justice, and challenge the systems where these qualities are absent.

It is apparently forgotten that Jesus was hardly a nice guy. Today he’d be a threat to our political order and might not be able to find a church he’d attend, let alone one that would have him preach! Consequently doing what Jesus would do could significantly reduce your popularity rating. The real question, by the way, is not “what would Jesus do” but rather what will you do now that you claim to know him?

Let’s shed the bracelets. It’s not grape nuts or cheerios, but love and truth, mercy and justice, that might bring us all a little closer to being what Jesus was. But be careful, you might shed the bracelet and exchange it for a cross – and it won’t be hanging around your neck.

Womb Mates

“Pssssst.”

“Who’re you ‘pssssst-ing’ at?”

“You. It not like there’s anyone else in here.”

“I was just checking.”

“You think we going to make it?”

“Mmmmm. Touch and go I’d say, from everything I’ve read.”

“You believe everything you read?”

“Well, why not? I’m not jaded. Yet.”

“Is that you thumping?”

“Here you go blaming me again. She’s at the coffee shop. We always get a bit of a thump when she’s in here. Café Mocha does that to people…. and to almost-people.”

“Put that out.”

“Who me? I’m not smoking. It’s that guy she hangs out with. He smokes around pregnant women.”

“Well …. it’s reaching me and I don’t like it.”

“Put your hand over you mouth.”

“It doesn’t reach, yet.”

“Pssssst.”

“Is that you ‘Pssssst’-ing again?”

“Get back to what we were saying. What’s going to happen to us if she, you know, isn’t glad we’re in here? What if she makes a choice and, you know, we are not in it?”

“We go back. Silly.”

“Back? Where to? Don’t ‘silly’ me,”

“Don’t tell me you forgot already. We go back to where we came from. You know, the Beautiful Place. The Big Place. There’s no rejection there, remember?”

“No. I don’t remember.”

“That’s what they said. They said we wouldn’t remember, but I can still remember some things. Although I’ll admit my memory is slowly fading. I am having a fetus moment.”

“Wait a minute. I remember the gift shop. The day we got loaded with talents and gifts and dreams and ambitions and every good thing. I remember when we were chosen for each other. I remember when we were chosen, both of us, for her. Wow! I remember it all so clearly now. It is all coming back. They said we’d have a place to live and grow and discover everything. They said that although we’d feel far away from the Big Place. They’d be very near to us. Remember they said we’d be very useful and creative and deeply loved every day until our return no matter how we were welcomed on Earth or not.”

“Settle down. You are getting a little hyper. Can you remember, did They said it was safe?”

“No. It’s not safe. I remember distinctly. Exciting yes. Safe? No. They said we’d not like it to be too safe. It’s a human thing you know. Humans like a lot of adventure and thrill and risk. Too much safety doesn’t do humans too much good. Speaking for myself, I cannot wait.”

“Well, you have to. We’re in this together and we get out together.”

“Is that you gulping? Do you think you could respect my boundaries a little? You’re on my side.”

“Hey, you’re a little young to be doing that. Choosing sides and all that.”

“You know what I’m looking forward to? Diapers. I’m tired of swimming around here, naked, in front of you.”

“You’re thinking about diapers. Hey, this is life and death stuff. We’re in a womb for goodness sake. This is a danger zone if ever I knew one and you’re looking forward to wearing diapers?”

“Let’s agree on something?”

“What’s that?”

“Whatever choice she makes. However it pans out, we’ll stick together.”

“If we get out of here alive I’m telling you now, I’m never going to a coffee shop.”

“And I am never going to smoke.”

“You think she going to want us?”

“I don’t know. I hope so. There’s so much to do out there. So much to see. If she doesn’t want us I hope she’ll hang in there and give us to someone who does.”

“Hey, I have another question.”

“What is that?”

“Are we in an American womb?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Well I heard a lot of stories about American wombs.”

“Like what?”

“I don’t remember.”

NOTE: My editor at a major newspaper rejected this column. The original draft ends with: “Hold your breath,” says the one, “here comes the whipped cream,” which she said was a tasteless ending. When I questioned the rejection of the column (she had run more controversial columns from me in the past) she said she thought actually aborting the twins at the end of the column was tasteless. This was very surprising to me, since in the writing of the column, I had never thought the whipped cream was some chemical administered to kill the babies. It was simply the mother drinking her coffee at a coffee shop.

ANOTHER NOTE: This thought was inspired by Janet Starkey who read somewhere (or heard somewhere) the beautiful thought that babies enter the world, forgetting everything of the full knowledge of God they have. Their life mission is to rediscover the truth about God they knew and experienced before they were in the womb.

Sylvia the Hairdresser, or, how NOT to do evangelism

Now my heart warms toward her but this was not always so when it came to Sylvia the Hairdresser. I could barely go anywhere without her evangelical interference. It dogged my childhood. If I went to the barbershop, she would see my bicycle leaning against the wall, and when I came out, she would summon me sternly into her salon-for-girls to tell me about her Jesus. I felt awkward and exposed just standing there, in the bright pink salon – seeing my freshly shaved head a hundred times in her hard bright mirrors – hearing what a sinner I was, with girls watching.

God loves you was her persistent theme. Clearly, she did not share God’s predisposition towards me. I was a potential convert – a possible testimony to her faithfulness, a feather in her heavenly crown – and come hell or high water, she was going to get me saved. Somehow, according to her, I had already managed to embody all the despicable acts of humanity in one pre-adolescent frame. According to my well-versed Representative, if I failed to immediately repent (from what I did not know, nor did she make clear), even the impending bicycle ride home could terminate my miserable sin-filled life and land me in my well-deserved Hell. Any implication of Scriptural evidence that Jesus loved children was lost on her; every encounter with Sylvia the hairdresser was a foretaste of the very Hell at which she said my life was aimed.

To me, she felt omnipotent. Meeting her could happen anywhere. The encounters were most prolonged when she bought groceries from my dad’s corner store. This was when we both got it – Dad and me. As he tried to discuss her practiced presentations of her gospel, she would shrug her shoulders, extend her arms in despair, and mumble about feet and dust and pearls and swine. From behind the counter, I could see dust rising and pearls glittering around her chosen, blessed neck. If the exchange between Sylvia and Dad lasted long enough, I would imagine I could smell slaughtered pigs and see carcasses spread violently across the floor.

She said, “praise the Lord” a lot and never once waited to hear anything from Dad or me. I knew we would never make it with her Jesus. In fact, I was quite sure I preferred not to, knowing she looked forward to a promised preeminent place, ruling and reigning with God forever and ever and ever and ever.

In Sylvia the Hairdresser, the fine art of meddling in the affairs of others, which she called witnessing, was perfected. Because God is all knowing, she made everything her business. No marriage, no illness, no child-rearing practice in her self-declared parish escaped her watchful eye. I knew it was only a matter of time before she would find out I liked to play music. Once she came into our house when I was practicing Lara’s Theme from Dr. Zhivago and she stopped me mid-bar to tell me I was “playing for the devil.” She rampaged about the debauchery that followed young boys who played music for the world. I sat accused, hands spread on the piano keys and wondered how a beautiful melody, played very simply in our living room, was found pleasing to the devil and capable of leading to such destruction, the likes of which in all of my eleven years, I had never heard. “Praise the Lord,” she sang as she left our sleazy home, victory under her belt and my head in a bag. Once again I saw the dust and smelled the swine, and watched the reflection off her pearls light up her shiny smiling face.

So how I ever fell in love with Jesus of the New Testament has nothing to do with Sylvia the Hairdresser who dogged my childhood with her evangelical interference, as much as I am told she believes it. Rather, a few people befriended and loved me beyond my deserving. They listened to my wild ideas about faith, love and life, then, when I asked, told me in Whom they believed. And in the telling of such freeing, courageous and beautiful love, I saw the Heart of God.

Easter Saturday

Easter Saturday, a little more than two thousands years ago, the first followers of Jesus hit the wall. His execution was complete; the corpse secure in a tomb and the courageous teacher was gone. He, who had done no harm, who’d loved so intimately, lived so passionately, challenged everything so profoundly and, like none before or since, practiced what he preached, was finished. Kaput. There’s little doubt that depression and dejection hung heavily in the air for his followers. They had traded all they’d had and known, to be abandoned by one who could walk on water, still storms, raise the dead but not avoid his own death on a criminal’s cross.

Then, somewhere between midnight tonight (two thousand years ago) and early the following morning, Christians believe that Jesus, if you’ll excuse the cumbersome phase, stopped being dead. He cast death aside, walked from the tomb, embraced life in an eat-fish-and-walk-through-walls body. Believe it or not, you’ve got to give it to them, Christians that is; a rebound of this nature from anyone, let alone their beloved leader, would stimulate celebration.

This pivotal weekend, Easter weekend, rekindles so much for Christians: grief, loss and grief, then exuberance. Believers, of every background and representing every cultural extreme and every ethnic diversity in every country on earth will flock to church to worship their risen Lord and proclaim death defeated. On Sunday morning they will greet each other with, “The Lord is Risen,” to hear in response, “He is Risen indeed.” What they are really saying is, “On Friday I was horrified at what was done to my Lord. Yesterday I grieved his loss. Today he’s alive and there’s hope for us all, so let’s have a party.”

Great things can be learned from Easter: deep reflection, acknowledgment of grief, fresh beginnings, unreasonable generosity and partying with abandon. Let’s all do it, Christian or not. Let’s grieve deceased family members, relationships strained or severed, our possible role in the atrocities of greed, prejudice and plundering committed across the globe. Let’s acknowledge opportunities missed and misused and deliberate to see the impact we have on others. Let’s evaluate where and how we are a part of the world’s problem rather than the solution.

The uncanny thing about Jesus is that even if you don’t, as Christians do, believe he was the Son of God, doing the things he said is still good for people. Making a fresh start with someone you haven’t seen in a long time, like a brother, sister, and an in-law who gets your goat or an estranged business partner is good for the soul, rejuvenates communities. Reconnecting with people, offering grace, space to others, letting forgiveness emerge for your harshest foes, your bitterest enemies is a movement in the opposite spirit of what is expected. It disarms explosive, stressed or polarized relationships and empties our tombs of unbelief.

Call your debtors and say something like, “I’m canceling your debt. I cannot afford to have you owe me anything.” They might not deserve your generosity but Easter is not a do-or-do-not-deserve-it time. It never was, never will be. Besides, who among us can want what they deserve without experiencing feelings of fear and trembling? It’s about getting what you do not deserve. It’s about not getting what you do. It’s about grace, about being unreasonably forgiving, wildly extravagant with kindness.

Finally, celebrate your humanity. Dance with delight at the human capacity to reflect, repent and be revived. I’ll peek into my tomb today and do what it takes to clear it of resentments, self-pity, unrighteous anger and all else that keeps me from dancing. I trust you will peek into yours, find it wonderfully empty and join me in a rich and loud celebration.

Helping People is Messy Business

While embroiled in the season of Lent I want to remind you that helping people, being charitable, is messy business. They always want more. You want to keep things personably distant, under control, and people with needs want to be uncomfortably near. If churches, synagogues and service organizations, helped people like Jesus did, we’d do much more than only give money, clothes we no longer use, and pack canned food off to people we’ll never meet. Rather, like a few rare churches I have known, we’d give everything. We’d get dirty, roll up our sleeves, freely share our lives and live with troubled people.

Most religious and service organizations, in my experience, remind me of a fat, indulgent man watching football on TV. He bandies a remote, controlling everything. He yells orders at players he doesn’t know, he consumes constantly, and, and, this is most important, he NEVER himself plays football.

How do I know? I know because I did it. I thought my money (actually, my church’s money) bought me the power to dictate how the people lived their lives. Since I was the pastor/missionary, I thought I was to be obeyed, honored, respected – after all, not only was I the great White Hope but also I had God on my side. Although at the time I could not have seen it, I thought I deserved adulation, obedience and more. “Those people” needed me. Clearly their ideas did not work. They were short on manners. Slow. Uncreative. They were desperately in need of my superior ways. Besides, here I was sacrificing everything (well not exactly everything) in order to help them be more like me.

I met Temba (which means “hope”) when he was nine and looked like he needed my help. He lived in a squatter camp, an “informal settlement” of cardboard and mud houses without running water, toilets or electricity. People used what they scrounged, borrowed or stole – plastic trash bags, iron sheeting and wood merged with ancient skills using mud and stones, to build their homes. It was in such a settlement I met Temba.

He stood out from the other children and was very bright, and, although he was often moody and aggressive, there was something about him that I immediately liked. Since he was suitably grateful for my help, and always pleased to see my car arriving at the squatter camp, and came running to see what I’d brought on this occasion to ease his burden, our relationship blossomed.

And then one afternoon Temba arrived at my home in the middle of a very decent white suburb, wanting to come in. This is what I mean by “always wanting more.” He’d run away from his home and was determined and creative enough to find mine. And his being at my front door – banging loudly enough to get the attention of neighbors – was embarrassing and unsettling for me. Here was this black child, at a time when South Africa was yet under apartheid, banging on my front door! Did he not know that I came to him? Did he not know how these things worked? I called the shots. Had he forgotten that weekly I got into my car and, leaving my home (anonymous to all whom I helped) came to him and did my good deeds? Now here was this boy coming to me, breaking the rules I’d set up of how we at our church, helped people.

Temba taught me a lot and, since I was seldom a willing student, learning was not without pain. He showed me that if Jesus modeled His approach to ministry from churches (rather than the other way around) he would have commuted to Earth, perhaps He’d have docked on our planet one day a week, sometimes even stayed over at some top-notch hotel. He’d have gotten limousine rides to meetings and bodyguards would have kept people at a safe length while he preached routine sermons to admiring masses. Thank God he emptied himself, did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, lived among us and embraced the messy business of helping you and me, then commanded that we do the same.

Is that really you, God?

Rather than be present in spirit only, one Sunday, Jesus decided it was time for him to preach at First Church and so he woke Pastor Larry in the early hours of Sunday to inform him.

“Is that really you, God?” Larry questioned.

“Yes,” said Jesus, “it’s me. You have heard correctly. Shelve your sermon. I will preach today.”

The pastor tossed and turned so much so that his wife said in soothing tones, “You know how you need your rest, Honey.”

Half dazed, Larry explained that Jesus had just met him in a dream in which He requested the pulpit.

“But the PAC, the ‘Pulpit Approval Committee’,” appealed his wife, “Have they approved Jesus to preach?”

Larry shushed her backed to sleep and then wondered how Jesus would show up and deliver the sermon.

That morning, after the hymns and the general announcements Larry anticipated a miracle that would put First Church on the map forever. He imagined Christians traveling from all over the world to see the church where Jesus Himself preached. He saw himself, the keynote speaker at conferences all over the world, telling of the night he trusted his dream, of the night Jesus talked to him and of the Sunday morning Jesus showed up and took over his pulpit. Larry sat in their family pew while the confused congregation waited for the sermon. The silence was deafening, but, trusting his dream, Larry refused to enter the pulpit and preach.

“Well, this is quite the most unusual service I have attended,” said Elder Crabb as he made his way slowly down the center aisle, up the stairs and into the pulpit. “Since no one is preaching, I have something to say. Last month when my wife died,” he started, “the world seemed to end for me. But you were there, Mrs. Jones, Johnny, Sid, Pastor Larry; and I wanted to thank all of you,” he said, making eye contact with each of the persons he’d mentioned. “Thank you for your constant love, the food, cards and gifts. Thanks also, all of you, for being at the funeral.” He sat down as quiet sobbing spread throughout the congregation.

“Well since we’re thanking others,” said Miss Betty tottering to the front of the sanctuary, “I wanted to say how much I appreciate the yard work done at my home by the youth group. I can no longer get myself out to do it. Oh, and, I would also like to apologize for the way in which I have resisted the young people in the past. I struggled with your music and youth sermons and all your ruckus at church dinners, but your help with the lawn was all I needed to show me I was wrong.”

The congregation applauded. This was better than Pastor had ever anticipated and soon a line of people waited at the pulpit. Every utterance of thanks received a warm applause. Members of the congregation began to hold hands across the sanctuary and smile at each other even though the normal sermon time had run much longer than usual twenty-one minutes. No one, not a single person seemed to be clock-watching.

To everyone’s surprise a young child found his way into the pulpit, and, as if he had done it many times before, he moved Larry’s pulpit chair into position and stood tall upon it.

“I do not really have anything to say,” he said with confidence, “I just have a few questions.”

The pastor and congregation moved expectantly in their seats toward him, every person willing to address the theological quandaries of the young.

“How come some of you are rich and yet you do not give to those you know are in need?” People coughed nervously. “Why do you spend so much money on yourselves? There are poor people in every direction that could use your help? Why are some of you fighting amongst yourselves? What are you doing about AIDS, injustice, racism and world hunger?”

“This was going so well,” reflected Larry peering down at his shoes, “and then a child goes and ruins it by asking political questions.”

“I am not done preaching yet,” said the Lord to Larry.

“Oh Lord,” said Larry, “I am sorry.”

“No, no,” said the Lord to Larry, “It’s me. This is the sermon. I am preaching, Larry. You have all done quite well at caring for each other. Now get busy, rid the world of injustice and prejudice. And by the way, keeping loving each other while your are at it.”

Jesus goes to First Church

When Jesus sat between the Grumleys, in the fifteenth row of First Church on Sunday morning, for some reason, in all of his infinite wisdom, he did not realize the stir that would arise. This began an unfortunate snowball, or wave effect throughout the congregation. At least twelve families were displaced, each by one seat. As people begrudgingly moved, they tried to communicate a welcome to the stranger (so he would be sure to return) laced with enough censure to make sure he would be put in his place (or at least not in theirs) the next time he visited. This uncharacteristic reshuffling moved almost everyone in the congregation for the first time in years, skewing everyone’s view. The disruption extended the announcements sufficiently to annoy the choir who were waiting, fully robed, at the entrance to the sanctuary, hymnbooks in hand.

“I suppose of all people, I should have known better,” mused Jesus, all the while seeing the humor in Mr. Grumley’s polite, yet uncomfortable response after Jesus whispered his name to Grumley during the Passing of the Peace.

Grumley moved from side to side, a tad in excitement with the growing implications at this revelation. Not only did his surroundings take on a new look, he wanted to draw attention to the guest and let all the disrupted members know the inconveniences of having guests in church were worth it. Alas, Introduction of Visitors was already over and the Congregational Concerns and Needs were being announced. Besides, the choir was beginning to manifest their annoyance while standing just outside the doors. They were unaccustomed to being “out of the loop,” as it were, and word had already gotten to them, via the deacons, that a stranger had entered the building and sat in Wally Grumley’s seat. They, who were usually first on everything, would be the last to witness this unprecedented incident, even if it had ruined their traditional procession.

“Tell them I am here,” said Jesus to Grumley, “Go on, stand up and say I am here.”

“You mean interrupt Congregational Concerns and Needs?” whispered Grumley with a faint shush in his voice in an attempt to keep Jesus quiet.

I am terribly sorry, but I am afraid we just do not do that here,” he said in his solemn prayer voice.

“What if I am telling you to do so?” persisted Jesus. “After all, the pastor just said, that if two or three are gather in my name then I am in the midst of them? So, go on tell them I am here.”

Wally Grumley peered across to his wife for assistance, “You do it Joy, you always said you would obey Jesus if he said something directly to you.”

“I think he is talking to you Wally,” said Joy, her eyes fixed on the pulpit proceedings, totally unimpressed with her husband’s freedom with this stranger.

“Well actually, I am talking to you both.”

“You are interrupting my worship experience,” said Joy with an air of finality.

“I have come here to meet with God if you don’t mind.”

“I am God. I am here to be met.”

“Well, God just wouldn’t do it like this,” said Grumley’s wife through clenched teeth, “God just wouldn’t arrive here at church and….” She was lost for words.

“Do you believe I am here?” quizzed Jesus.

“Well of course I believe you are here,” replied Wally.

“Then go ahead and tell them I am here.”

Joy tilted her head a hairbreadth toward her husband and said, “Will you stop talking during the service, even if it is to Jesus! I am going to a quieter spot where I can enter the spirit of worship without interruption.”

“I will be challenging you to treat any stranger as you would treat Jesus,” said the pastor, “in my message today entitled Church Hospitality.”

Wally and Jesus looked at each other, and, after a moment, they burst into uproarious laughter, embraced like long lost friends and moved into the aisle in a celebratory dance. Wally, catching the pastor’s voice a little above the commotion caused by his newfound joy heard, “and now the choir will lead us in our opening hymn: ‘Stand Up Stand Up for Jesus’” as the deacons ushered the exuberant pair out the door.

Support Group Anonymous (“SGA”)

Marsha is divorced. When she walks through the door her divorce follows her like a bridal train. Trampled, it catches on every door keeping her from new beginnings.

“Hello, I’m Marsha,” she says looking at the group, “I don’t think you could like me very much. I cannot get over my husband of six years. If I work at it you will also abandon me.”

She turned to the person next to her indicating politely that she was done introducing herself.

“I’m Kyle, thirty going on twelve. I don’t do relationships very well. It’s my dad. He drank a lot. Don’t expect me to be responsible, reasonable or respectful. If I get over him what will I do about my identity? It’s not very nice to meet all of you. You remind me of my dad.”

“Martin here,” he says, stepping into the middle of the room, “I had teachers who expected a lot from me. They gave me homework, expected me to read for myself. Cruel teachers. They are the reason I’m an underachiever today. They’re the reason I cannot hold down a job. I think I’ll sue.”

“Annabel is my name. I hate spring. It means summer’s coming. I’ll have to go outdoors and see people. Grandma had favorites. I wasn’t one of them. She’s why I don’t go out and I don’t like the sun. If it wasn’t for her, I’d be fun.”

“When I know you a little better you can know my name,” she says skirting the room, “Ok, I’ll chance it. My name is May. My neighbors made fun of me when I was growing up. It’s their fault that I cannot stay with one man. I need constant approval. Not like June over there.”

“Thanks May, I can handle this myself. I’m June. I have got to smoke to calm my nerves (dad smoked), drink to ease my boredom (mom drank) and cuss to get my way (my husband taught me to cuss). It’s the government. They do not treat me very well. Expecting me to work is the most unfair thing I’ve ever heard.”

“Move over June. I am Bob. I have got something to say. I’d be thin if it wasn’t for all those commercials for food all around America. I think I’ve got a case here. My health’s in trouble yet they keep advertising those tasty hamburgers. Anyone got a lawyer friend who wants to do pro bono?”

“I’m Anthony. What are you all doing away from your TVs? Get back in there. How will you ever know who survived, who died, who loved, who married their brother’s ex-wife the third time around. How do you expect to know anything if you keep getting away from the TV?”

“Dakota’s my name. I’ve got a very rare disease that cannot be named. But I am really tired of all this expectation placed on me. My dad just says I’m lazy, but what would he know, he’s worked all his life.”

Glen, who doesn’t talk, steps forward. Once he said something funny, people laughed so he’s never talked again in public. He’s waiting for an apology from somewhere before he moves on.

Norman doesn’t stand still. He’s high. He’s so high you do not want to get in his way. It’s the dealers who got to him. Drugs were just way too available and now he is not.

“I am Doug, I am the group leader. With introductions complete, let’s begin with our group meditation:

‘Keep me mindful of my woes
And all who stepped upon my toes
Let my life be full of blame,
So I can always stay the same.’”

The Surprising Discovery of Richard McChurch

Richard McChurch was very aware that God’s a communicating God. The still small voice or the thunderous call, and anything in between, (whichever God might choose to use at a given time) was not something to which he often laid claim. When Richard felt God had spoken to him, he was always particular about inserting the words “I believe God spoke to me.” This not only gave him room to be wrong but also the appearance of humility.

One day he had a very unsettling experience. It was as if everything he had ever believed about the way God treats humans was turned upside down.

“What do you really want, Richard?” he believed God asked when he was earnestly praying about a few major decisions.

The question was posed long and hard. It lodged somewhere deep in Richard. There were no voices, no unusual feelings or anything at all weird about the moment. This was a “matter-of-fact God” meeting him, face-to-face and there was no mistaking who it was as far as Richard was concerned.

“Go on, figure it out Richard. What do you really want?” he felt God say.

It was as if God was playfully saying, “Stop asking me what I want for you. I know what I want for you. I am God. I am not at all confused about what I want for you. What I require is that you demonstrate the courage and willingness to determine what you want for you. Do this, Richard, and we can do business.”

He became very nervous. In his silent negotiations, random and scary thoughts began darting across his mind. It was very disconcerting.

“What if I want to break up my family, hurt someone or steal something?” he questioned God.

“Is that what you really want? You want to go around hurting people? Do you really want to take what is not yours? Do you think damaging others is what you were cut out for?”

“No Lord.”

“Then what kind of game are you trying to play?” he felt God’s persistent voice welling up inside him. “I am asking you to evaluate, for yourself, how you would most like to use the talents I have given you. Take stock of the time you have left, the opportunities that come your way. You keep saying I will grant you the desires of your heart, Richard. But you know what? You wouldn’t recognize them if they jumped out at you from behind a bush. I am asking you to take the responsibility for your life. Develop a blueprint of what would inspire you. Discover and know yourself, Richard. Present me with a plan instead of continually asking me for my plan for you. Find my plan buried like treasure, in your strongest desires and longings. Grow up, in other words!”

Richard was shocked to hear God speak in this manner. He had always been taught that God had a plan for his life and for many years he had waited “in faith” for that plan to unfold. Now it sounded as if God expected him to do something!

“That’s the problem!” God interrupted his confusion; “you want to give me the responsibility for your life when I want you to be responsible for your own life. You think my will is something deep and mysterious when it is not. In fact my will for you is that you discover and do what you really want! It’s about passion Richard, passion. Just make sure it is what you really want.”

Richard thought long and hard and realized to his horror that he really did not like his career, chosen purely for the financial and status benefits. He realized that even his sports interests were built around promoting his career. He sat in stunned silence and realized that if he honestly answered the question he was in trouble.

“What I really want to do God, is so far from what I am doing with my life at present that it will take a miracle from you to turn it around,” he said in near desperation.

“No,” said God, “it will take one from you.”