Friday, August 19, 2005

Out of Control

If you ever think you're in control of your life, enjoy the moment and then forget it. You're not. My trip to Dayton last Sunday was a thirteen hour experience. I was so relieved when we boarded AirTran flight 705 to Atlanta on time, around 2:15 PM this afternoon. Just as all passengers were settled, the captain addressed us with the announcement that we'd been delayed for at least an hour and a half because of weather in Atlanta. As I walked past the captain on the way out of the plane I asked, "We should be back at the gate by 3:45? "Yes," he told me. So I went for coffee and waited. The sign with the departures did not even list my flight. (I happened to take that photo at 3:15 just for an illustration). At 3:40 I arrived at my gate only to discover that the gate was closed and the plane had left. Without me.

Back to AirTran's desk with my story and to get some help. They put me on a flight that leaves at 8:28 tonight, but that is already delayed until 9:52, arriving in Atlanta at 11:27. The last flight from Atlanta to Houston tonight is a 10:50 flight already delayed until 11:39. Not enough time for me to make the connection. Unless the 8:28 delayed until 9:52 leaves early like the 2:15 delayed until 3:45 did. If the 8:28 delayed until 9:52 leaves by 9:30, I can probably make the 10:50 delayed until 11:39 connection and be in Houston by 12:39. If the 8:28 delayed until 9:52 leaves later than 9:30, then I'll need to get a hotel room in Dayton and catch a 5:45 AM flight tomorrow and be back in Houston by around 10. Otherwise I'll spend the night on the floor of the Atlanta airport. Wherever I spend the night it will be without my suitcase, a change of clothes, or anything other than what is in my laptop briefcase. So much for control. I feel like Tom Hanks in The Terminal. This is not how I would plan my itinerary. Seems like a lot of wasted time, inconvenience, and hassle.

I must say that if you have to be stuck in an airport for hours, the Dayton Airport is a good place to be. They have two very nice Business Centers with overstuffed chairs, good brewed coffee (Ethiopian today), a free wireless connection, and a plasma TV screen on the wall with CNN. I learned this when I flew home from Dayton in January and weather not only delayed my flight to Atlanta, it rerouted it through Cincinnati.

So I'm sitting here blogging, sipping coffee, and listening to Amy Grant. Just before boarding the flight I later missed I was reading a chapter in The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh (pronounced Tick-Naught-Han), a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. "Mindfulness" is that state of awareness in which you are keenly aware of what you are about and who you are in the present moment. As you know, we live out many of our moments by being present in the future in the form of worrying or fretting. We are seldom really "here" and "now." The concept is expressed in the proverb: "When you walk, walk. When you sit, sit."

I read a book several years ago called Art of Pastoring in which William Martin taught me that only two questions are really important: Where are you? and What time is it? The only correct answer to the first question is "I am here." And the only correct answer to the second is, "It is now." We live, Martin said, as if there were a more important time than now and a more important place than here. Pastors have a bad habit of not being present with the people they are talking to, always looking over the other's shoulder for who else might be passing by, or glancing at their watch as is they have something more significant to be doing.

In recovery groups we used to talk about the importance of "being in the moment," or "living in the present." Jesus seemed to have that down. He was where he was with whom he was with. I am certain I live much of my life as if it were more important to be somewhere else, with someone else, doing something else. I often find it difficult just to be present, mindful, conscious of where I am, and, in Christ, letting that be enough.

AirTran may not have been able to fully predict the weather today or last Sunday or last January. They made their plans, but they do not control the environment. I made mine and they are dashed again. So here I sit in Dayton Airport. I want to be on my way home. But I am here.

What are my choices? I can decide to be frustrated with the airline or angry with myself or as disturbed as the weather in Atlanta. Or I can choose to be present. I can choose to be mindful, to reflect, to let this be enough. That's a little easier to do with a relatively few hours in a city distant from home. I find it more difficult to do with life in general. I want to be different. I want to do better. I want to be further along. I want to control the world and people around me. And when that is what I want, I find myself frustrated because, like the weather, there is little I can do about where I am at this particular moment in my life. I can choose where I go next. I can make plans. But for now, this moment, I can be present.

Homeward Bound, but OK in Dayton,


Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Overhearing the Gospel

We love to eavesdrop, although we know it is not polite. But when people whip out their cell phones in public places and conduct private conversations, you really cannot help yourself. A guy in an elevator today was talking away into his headset while seven other innocent passengers were forced to listen in.

I did some eavesdropping my first day on the job at Houston Baptist University as a twenty-something professor. I was sitting at a desk in an open area typing up a syllabus for New Testament 123. Two upper-class students stood nearby discussing this new teacher named “Creech” who was going to be doing the Greek classes. I let their speculation go on for a while, but eventually interrupted them and introduced myself before they got into trouble.

Overhearing the gospel is one of the most effective ways for the Word of God to penetrate the human heart. I try to take advantage of that at weddings. I speak to the bride and groom about their marriage with no confidence whatsoever that they will hear or remember anything I say. But I also am aware that the pews are filled with people who struggle with marriage and who need a word of encouragement and a reminder of the solemnity of their promises and of the grace of God. And I know that they are eavesdropping on the gospel and that in that moment of indirect address the Word of God is sometimes more easily heard.

Jesus knew that also. His stories and public conversations with individuals took advantage of his eavesdropping followers who would hear the Word of God through his indirection.

This afternoon I listened in on a lecture by Dr. Thomas Dozeman, a professor of Old Testament at the United Theological Seminary. He was addressing Doctor of Ministry students about the appropriate and necessary use of the Bible in the ministry projects they will conduct as part of their work on this degree. He wasn’t addressing me. I’m a mentor, not a student. But I was there to hear what my students were being told. I was eavesdropping.

And in that moment of indirect communication God found a way to bring a word to my life. Dozeman talked to the students about the way that Scripture is a living force in our lives in the present. Some passages are familiar, woven into our spiritual DNA. They flow easily from our lips and stir our hearts. We live out of them. That is fine, he said. Having those portions of God’s Word in our lives makes us a player. But growth is found elsewhere.

Growth, Dozeman said, is found in the experience of finding those texts we least like, are least attracted to, the ones we most often filter out of our lives, and making room in our lives for them. This is the place where we are stretched and taken to new places spiritually. I overheard that and it made sense to me.

I thought of the portions of Scripture that for so long had not been shaping my life, not easily on my lips or stirring my heart. I reflected on the way in which God had been pointing me to these passages recently and calling me toward them. I recognized that while I have many favorites I could quote from memory, they did not include passages about the issues of the poor and the hungry, issues of social justice. But my reading of the Bible this year has taken me face to face with many such texts.

I began to think about how that is a growing edge for me, learning about how these portions of God’s Word are to correct and inform my personal discipleship as well as my pastoral ministry. I considered the fact that with few exceptions I was part of a tradition that had managed not to hear these words as authoritative for many decades. They were commandments intended for others to obey.

I overheard this Presbyterian tell my students that belief in the authority of Scripture is found in a willingness to enter the polarity between what I already believe and obey and that which I am rejecting. That’s theological language that means disciples are called always to allow the Scripture to trump their past, their denomination, their tradition, their comfort, their politics, and their culture. If we can only hear what we have already heard from the Bible, then we no longer need a Bible. But if we really do believe in its authority over life, we must be open to hearing that which we have up to now rejected.

What in Scripture is missing from my life? What in the Bible am I rejecting? What is it I refuse to hear? That is where the growing edge will be for me. Dozeman really gave these students their money’s worth today. His presentation was inspiring, challenging, and encouraging. I hope he did not mind my eavesdropping.

Monday, August 15, 2005

All Dressed Up

Today I dressed up like a professor and walked in a formal procession. I recall the first time I did that officially. I had left the pastorate at the North Main Baptist Church to teach full-time at Houston Baptist University. Opening Convocation required the faculty to wear our academic regalia and march into the assembly. I had brought my rented cap, gown, and hood home, so I decided to impress my three year old son, Alan. Not as easy as it sounds.

He was sitting on a yellow plastic booster chair at the kitchen table, bringing one spoonful of Cheerios after another up to his mouth while I prepared to leave for work. I said, “Alan, you know how different people wear different clothes to do their jobs? Like policemen wear policeman clothes, and firemen wear fireman clothes?” He nodded in full understanding. Bright boy.

I said, “Would you like to see what college professors wear?” He nodded, milk dripping from his chin. I retired to the bedroom and donned the full outfit, ready to impress my son with my new role. I retuned to the kitchen and said, “Look, Alan. This is what college professors wear.”

He turned around, a full spoon in hand, and looked briefly. “Now do a fireman,” he said nonchalantly, turning back around to his bowl, obviously impressed.

Academia has been part of my life since I was five. I spent thirty years having my life neatly divided into semesters. I enjoyed it from both sides of the lectern.

Teaching in the university or seminary classroom provides a kind of thrill, believe it or not. I enjoy being with people who want to think about their faith, about the Scriptures, about theology. Servants of God who are working to put their faith into practice in the ministries of local churches challenge me. I have learned to satisfy this part of my heart by teaching as an adjunct professor at Houston Baptist University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Houston Graduate School of Theology over the past 18 years since leaving the classroom as my “day job.” Lately I have been getting my fix by teaching in the Doctor of Ministry program at the United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. In fact, I’m in Dayton as I write.

The program requires me to be here twice a year (January and August). I am the “mentor” for a “peer group” of four students. I prepare a syllabus, read their papers, guide their reading, and share their lives. Between our two weeks in January and August we’re required to gather for two and a half-days for a Peer Seminar. Our last gathering was in Houston in July. The next will be in North Carolina in October.

I made the trip to Dayton in a mere thirteen hours yesterday, slightly longer than my recent flight from Thailand to South Africa. My AirTran flight from Hobby to Atlanta was half an hour late taking off because of a thunderstorm. I missed my 4:59 connection in Atlanta so they bumped me to an ATL-DAY flight at 9:15. Then the rough weather arrived in Georgia and my flight was delayed until 11:45. I checked into the Doubletree in Dayton at 1:30 AM.

Our Intensive Week began this morning at eleven. Mentors (the thirty or so others doing what I am doing) met for a workshop and lunch. The week opened officially for students with a formal procession of professors and mentors. Dr. Charles Booth, pastor of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio delivered a powerfully prophetic message about dreams coming true, taking his text from 2 Kings 4, the story of Elijah and the wealthy woman of Shunem.

I spent the afternoon with my peer group. I wish you all could meet them. You’d like them. Matthew is the senior pastor of the Central United Methodist Church in Monroe, North Carolina. He has been there six years, the longest tenure of any pastor they’ve ever had. He’s working hard to help the church become an equipping church that prepares its members for ministry and helps them find their way into meaningful and influential places of service.

Elizabeth is the director of the Pohly Center for Leadership and Supervision at UTS. Since she is a member of the faculty, she needs a terminal degree. She read The Leader’s Journey a couple of years ago and began using it in her classes. She is the one who recruited me to this task. Elizabeth is working on a book about leaders of equipping churches. She belongs to a Church of the Nazarene congregation in Dayton.

Chris serves as Pastor of Life Development at Westover Church , an independent presbyterian congregation in Greensboro, North Carolina. He is working with Elizabeth on the book I mentioned. Chris has a passion for seeing churches equip lay leaders for ministry that makes a difference in the world.

Connie is a member of the Church of the Resurrection, a large United Methodist Church in Kansas City. She works in spiritual direction and is preparing for ordination in the UMC. She loves Christ deeply and I think she understands as much about listening to God as anyone I know.

So for several hours each day this week, around attending classes and gathering for worship, the five of us will talk about leadership, transformation, family systems, and their plans for developing a transformational project in their congregations. This is one of the many privileges of my life.

Why do I do this? Good question. Partly it scratches an itch that allows me to teach in an academic setting without making that my life. But the truth is that my experiences in teaching feed me and the work I do the rest of the time. Teaching through John and Acts a couple of years ago provided the preparation that became two lengthy sermon and Weekend Bible Study lesson series. The work at United is exposing me to the traditions of social justice that my previous training neglected. I am sitting with men and women who are doing that work in many congregations across the country. I listen to preaching that I need to hear from people I would never hear otherwise. I’m reading books that would not likely have made my personal list. And I do have a sense of making a contribution to the lives of four very bright and devoted servants of God who in turn are having an impact on three very lively congregations and a seminary leadership development program.

So today I dressed up like a professor and walked in the procession. Maybe tomorrow I’ll do a fireman.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Justice for Janitors

The day after I published the last post (“It Didn’t Start in Africa”) I received a phone call from the Rev. Mark Hardin. Mark is an African-American pastor in Lufkin, a former student of mine at the Houston Graduate School of Theology, and a Chaplain in the U.S. Army. In fact, he was in Neal Hicks’s chaplaincy training class. Last year UBC’s two gospel quartets went to Mark’s church to provide the music for a men’s night program. Anyway, Mark called out of the blue. I had not spoken with him in more than six months. I missed the call but returned it the next day.

After the usual exchanges of how everyone is doing, I asked him how I could help him.

Mark said, “I need your help with a social justice issue.” I have never had a call like that in my life. But it comes this week, following my preaching and writing on that very subject. Mark had not read this blog, by the way. I was all ears. “Tell me about that.”

I am still surprised, although I should not be, with how persistent God is with matters when he is teaching us. Jesus is our Teacher. And when we are ready to learn about something, his resources are quite remarkable.

Mark is working with a program called “
Justice for Janitors.” He faxed me information about their concerns: Houston janitors are not high school kids working after school to earn some spending money. Generally they are one of the primary wage-earners for a family. On the average, Houston janitors make $5.25 an hour. Do the math: times forty hours a week = $210; times 52 weeks = $10,920. The poverty line for a family of four (unrevised in 40 years) is $19,350. WIC and the federal school lunch programs use the figure of $35,798 as the measure of self-sufficiency for a family of four (185% of the poverty line). This represents the earnings a family requires to meet its basic needs without government assistance. That figure does not include healthcare. Janitors in other cities across the U.S. earn up to twice as much as they do in Houston, some of whom work for the same companies. So the campaign is to help them receive a more just wage for the service they provide to society.

Mark sent me this information and asked me if I would come downtown on Wednesday and participate in an interfaith prayer vigil on behalf of these issues and these people. I agreed to show up and pray with them.

As soon as I hung up the phone I realized I had some personal accounting to do. What do we pay our custodial workers at UBC? And what does the service we use (American Janitorial Service) pay its employees? I didn’t know the answers to those questions. I assumed we were fair. I have done some checking and have found that we do much better than the city average. I have turned to our Executive Council to double-check and to think with me about these issues. We will do the right thing.

Here is the situation as I am seeing it from the perspective of biblical justice. We expect Christians to be more Christian than our culture in many areas of our morality. In the arena of sexual morality, for example, we expect Christians to live by a different set of values than the culture. But what about economic areas? Are we expecting ourselves to live by the culture’s values or something higher?

Do you see how easy it would be for any organization – a church or a business operated by Christian people – to find itself in the position of exploiting the poor in a matter like this? The culture says that an organization needing its buildings cleaned should take bids from several janitorial services and, other things being equal, choose the lowest bid. That makes good business sense. But in the case of certain contracts, the poor may be the ones who pay for the business’s “good deal.”

What are the economic weaknesses of the men and women who work as janitors for these services? Often, their language, educational, or vocational skill sets keep them from being able to take other jobs. So they take a job and work hard doing for companies a valuable and necessary service. They clean carpets and toilets and scrub walls so that when we arrive at church or work the place is clean. We value cleanliness.

The fact that the local market will support a wage averaging $5.25 an hour does not necessarily mean that Christians should pay that wage. Should we not be asking what is just? Should a person who is willing to work at a job that contributes to the ability of an organization to do its mission be paid a salary that keeps them from being self-sufficient, that keeps them in poverty? Are we not taking advantage of their weakness by paying only that? Would that not be the definition of “exploitation”? And should a Christian become involved in helping to remedy that situation in their city?

I have never asked such questions before nor have I heard them asked as we have worked to squeeze the most out of our budget income at UBC. But as I read Isaiah 1 or Isaiah 58 or this week’s lesson from Jeremiah 7, I understand that such questions must be asked. Doing something different here will require spending money that we could not then use for other things. And nothing in the culture would require us to do that. Perhaps we need to be asking what is right and not what is expedient, comfortable, or usual.

Suddenly, “doing justice” becomes costly. And personal. The words of the prophets about people coming to worship while continuing to exploit the poor become contemporary. People with no intention of doing such a thing could nevertheless do so by simply neglecting to question our actions. Reading of God’s displeasure with such behavior becomes downright frightening.

This is not the forum for discussing what we should consider doing as a church. You have elected people to serve in roles where those decisions are made. And they are faithfully and wisely considering these things.

This is the place to say that our religion has to be more than words. I cannot preach and write about justice and then be unwilling to join those in prayer who are working on it. Neither can I be willing to join them and pray about justice without taking a hard look at my own life and the organization that I am part of. Neither can you. Integrity demands that we make these matters practical and personal.

So I went downtown last Wednesday. I was asked to wear a suit – outdoors on a Houston August afternoon. I took the MetroRail downtown and joined about fifty or sixty people on the corner of Fannin and McKinney. Several organizations had people there – mostly Black or Hispanic. I joined a rabbi, an imam, a priest, and an African American Baptist pastor as representatives of the religious community. People carried signs saying “All Religions Believe in Justice.” We marched with a purple banner through six or seven blocks of downtown Houston to a park between Minute Maid Park and the mall. Someone in the back of the line had a guitar and began to sing “We Shall Overcome.” We assembled under some trees. One woman handed out bottled water to the group. Channel 45, a Spanish-language channel, had a camera and a reporter there. We actually got about five minutes on the evening news.

One woman who works full-time as a janitor explained in Spanish the difficulty of living on $5.25 an hour with no health care benefits. We religious leaders prayed, one after another. I voiced a prayer for these people and their families, and for their employers. Inwardly I was repenting.

And I was sensing there may be much more to repent of down the line. I am not yet certain of how deeply entrenched my life is in a system that regularly steps on or over those whom God has said that he sides with. But I am determined to learn as much about that as I can. I want to be on the same side as Jesus is in this matter just as I want to on other issues.

One preacher I read said that in Matthew 25:31-46 Jesus taught that no one gets into heaven without a letter of recommendation from the poor. That is not a bad reading of the text. The text is not about earning our salvation by doing good works. It does, however, insist that true followers of Jesus will be about the same things Jesus was and is about. We minister Christ to people by ministering to people as if they were Christ.

That whole experience was a first for me. I didn’t go looking for it, it found me. I suspect I’ll be found again before long. God has a way of doing that with sinners.