The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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So this is Love

Left to Right: Cherry, Donna Brown (aunt), Jordan, Natalie Brown (cousin), Rachel, Joel, Dottie Grace (cousin), Kelly Brown (uncle).
Kayytie and Jace in front.
Paulo is on duty and missed greatly.

Many of you know our older daughter and her husband have been working toward the adoption of a daughter.  Yesterday, July 11, Kaytie was made an official part of their home, joining Jace as our grandchildren on the Hernandez side of the family.    No adjective describes fully the power of the day.  Paulo was patched in, via conference call.  The judge asked him why he wanted to adopt Kaytie.  He gave a simple, powerful statement.  The judge said it was one of the best rationale’s for adoption he had heard.  Until Rachel spoke.   I don’t have a copy of what Paulo said, but here are Rachel’s words:

Your Honor, I have known that I would be asked this question for many weeks and I have struggled to put my feelings into words. Part of me feels very guilty to say that, but Kaytie’s life, especially the beginning, has not been easy and therefore perhaps that it is why I couldn’t just give an easy answer. I don’t know a lot about Kaytie’s first 6 years but I know that the culture of where she was what not one that cultivated love, learning, laughter or loyalty. Thankfully she found her way to a loving home filled with several foster siblings, and a foster mom whom Kaytie loves fiercely and I don’t think will ever forget. When she entered this home she did not know the basic things most 6 year olds know such as colors, animals, letters, or numbers. She struggled with coordination and strength. She did not like to speak to others and was obviously afraid of much. Through diligence, love, and patience she has surpassed what anyone thought she might accomplish. Since she came to be a part of our family she has grown even more. Her favorite color is pink, with purple as a close second. She hasn’t met a dog that she didn’t instantly want to pet or take for a walk. Her favorite letter is K for Kaytie and her second favorite letter is J for her brother Jace. She loves turning somersaults into the ocean waves, swinging, and riding her bike. And she is learning to live with less fear.

My life has been very different from Kaytie’s. I have been blessed to know a lot of different kind of loves from many different people and if I am honest most of those loves have come with only a few challenges. You may be familiar with the Love Chapter in 1 Corinthians 13. There are many characteristics mentioned about love in these verses but not one of them says that love is easy. My love for Kaytie, if I am honest, it is not easy. But I have learned much about love and perseverance from this 7 year old. It has helped me gain another glimpse at just how much God loves me and how I am called above all else to love others. I read a quote that says “’Family’ isn’t defined by last names or by blood; it’s defined by commitment and by love. It means showing up when they need it most. It means having each other’s back. It means choosing to love each other even on those days when you struggle to like each other. It means never giving up on each other.” I believe this world be a better place if we all defined family in this way. So, today and all of my days, I promise to be strive to be that kind of family for Kaytie.

The judge said he thought it was impossible to improve on what Paulo said, but Rachel did it.

As a pastor for more than 40 years, I have often preached and written about love that is distinctly Christian.  Rachel’s comments contain more power and passion than any sermon I remember preaching.    If you aren’t sure what love is, here it is, lived clearly…and fiercely.

We welcome Kaytie Hadassah Hernandez to this family of love.

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The Lottery

“The Lottery” is a famous American short story.   It has appeared in countless literature textbooks and anthologies since The New Yorker first published Shirley Jackson’s piece in 1948. The event which gives the story its title takes place in a small American town as residents prepare for the annual drawing of lots. Jackson describes the preparations and the emotional anticipation of the characters getting ready to pull slips of paper from a black box.   Not until Bill Hutchinson draws the black dot do we begin to see that this is a lottery no one wants to win. After a second drawing among the Hutchinson family, Bill’s wife, Tessie, holds the single slip with the black dot. When the story ends with the rest of the village stoning Tessie, we realize that the only thing Tessie wins in this lottery is the opportunity to be a victim.

The story has sparked controversy for decades. Most readers find it hard to identify with a village that could turn its back on one of its own and ignore the cries about the injustice of the lottery of death.

My mind turned to “The Lottery” recently when I heard the story of Brian, a middle-school student diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The treatments compromised his immune system and he was forced to avoid crowds. For months his mother home schooled him until his ability to fight infection recovered to the point that he could return to classes. You can imagine his anticipation as he prepared to get back to his normal routine and to be with friends again.

You can also imagine his surprise when he returned to school and his friends ignored him. Maybe we should say they shunned him. None of his friends had anything to do with him. Disturbed by her son’s account of the day, Brian’s mother called the mother of one of his friends to see what happened.

The friend’s mother reported that several parents met during Brian’s absence and decided their children could not be Brian’s friends any longer — because he was going to die. His death, the woman explained to Brian’s mother, would be too traumatic for their children, so it was best they cease being friends now, in order to lessen their grief later. No one has said that Brian is certain to die, but Brian’s friends ignored him to save themselves the possibility of pain.

Congratulations, Brian, you’ve won “the lottery,” where being one among thousands means losing, not winning. It means being cut off from the people who once surrounded you as community and friends — and now turn their backs on you as you die. Just like Tessie Hutchinson.

In case you are wondering, yes, this is a true story. I’ve altered the circumstances to protect both the innocent and the shameful. Though I will never meet them, I would like to address the parents of Brian’s friends.

If you only take one thing from this article let it be this: you cannot protect your children from grief.  If Brian dies, your children will still grieve. Long ago I tested a theory of mine. I asked people, “Who was the first person your age that you can remember dying?” As most people remember where they were when Kennedy was shot or when the World Trade Center was attacked, every person I asked had an immediate answer. They remembered a child hit by a car. A teenager who died of a mysterious heart attack. A suicide. They remembered the name of those who died and their age when it happened. Your children will remember, too. You can’t protect them from knowing and you can’t make them forget.

You cannot stop death from coming near your children and you cannot stop them your from grieving when it does. By removing them from contact with Brian, all you have done is added the prospect of shame to your child’s grief if Brian dies. Your children will know he died and they will remember they turned their back on him when he needed them most. I have seen the grief of those who failed to do their part as a friend or family member died. No grief is pretty, but the grief of the guilty is the ugliest of all.

And, in your effort to protect your child, what if you do raise a son or daughter who has no connection to those in pain, no grief for the dying, and no guilt for their own actions? Congratulations, you have raised a sociopath. Look up the definition. Was that your intention?

And, if we follow the plot of Shirley Jackson’s story, what about next year? What if your child is the next to win the lottery? Will you voluntarily withdraw from public life so that their surviving friends will not have to love your sons and daughters, lest they grieve more when your children are gone? What if you get cancer? Will you move away from your children to spare them the pain of seeing you die? No, you will cling to every precious moment because, like Brian, you will need the presence of those you love.

I have a suspicion that the issue here is not the tender feelings of the children, but your own fear. The fear that you will have to think about death and try to explain it to your children. The fear of your own children’s grief. The fear of facing the prospect that your children are also mortal. It is a terrible thing to love that which can be taken from us.

The adage says “growing old is not for sissies.” Neither is parenting. So buck up and take the responsibility that you cannot put aside, no matter how difficult it is. You signed on for the task when your children were born.

Teach your children that true love is not without sacrifice, but it is the sacrifice that makes it most dear. Teach your children that real life cannot be avoided, but it can be lived courageously. Teach them that faith in Christ is strong enough to sustain us, even when we don’t understand all that happens around us.

You cannot control the events in your child’s life. Such control is an illusion.   You can, however, help your children develop the virtues and the faith that empower them to bear with and to overcome life’s most painful moments. But first you will have to acquire them yourselves.


 

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Planning for Retirement

This post was originally prepared for the Center for Healthy Churches. If you are interested in discussing how to plan for retirement in another field, make a comment below, or email me.

 

I admit it – I am anal. A classic “Type A.” I’ve tested as a conscientious personality style, the characteristics of which include: not resting until the job is done and done right, working hard to do well, and loving to work and be challenged. If there were a club for those least likely to retire early I would be a charter member. Last May, however, I retired at 63 and haven’t regretted it a day.
In order to make this transition, I started thinking about retirement eight years ago. Two factors weighed on me. First, I knew I wouldn’t be happy in retirement without something meaningful to do. Finding something to fulfill me in my post-pastor chapter of life could not wait until the day after my last Sunday. Second, my love for the congregation would not allow me to walk away from the pastorate with a large amount of unfinished business (there’s the conscientious personality trait rearing it’s head). If I had hopes of retiring I had to know what I could do for personal fulfillment and I had to know what God needed me to do in the church I served. I could not discover these two things overnight; they required much prayer and work. Eight years seemed a workable timeframe, so at 57, I began a journey of spiritual discernment.

I “tried out” a few paths to personal fulfillment. Some did not satisfy, including training as a mediator. I also created a website where I could author in small doses to see if writing would be gratifying. That experiment worked. Leadership coaching already provided significant gratification and felt like a ready-made extension of ministry, so I continued to develop those skills.

Additionally, a friend and I developed a list of things we wanted to do, if only we had more time. We all know the tyranny of a crowded calendar on a beautiful spring day. These are the days we want to be outside, soaking up the sunshine, but we have people needing appointments and deadlines to meet. With the help of my friend and I created a simple catalog of “things I’d like to do today.” I wanted to learn Excel, take better photographs, go cycling…I have more than 25 things on that list.

Consequently, the day I retired I was training for a cycling trip. Three writing projects awaited me, along with multiple coaching clients.

Along with the joy of grand-parenting and family life, they provide satisfaction and avenues to continue my calling to minister. Had I not planned ahead and discarded a few interests that did not fulfill, I would not have been ready. On the few days I’ve suffered boredom, I take a hike, grab my camera, or cycle an extra hour, relishing the fact I have time to do them.

The discernment process also uncovered three major projects which seemed necessary in the life of the church. I sketched a rough timeline for them and began to work toward their completion. A nugget of wisdom says: “the days are long, but the years are short.” Without the intentional plan for these long-range projects, it would have been easy for time to slip away, while waiting for a more convenient time to begin them.

God speaks to each of us in different ways. On a February day, two months after surgery resulting from cancer screening, God spoke to me. I didn’t hear a voice, but the Spirit made a clear impression on my heart. It was time to retire. When I felt that prompting, I was ready. I had discovered some things that were fulfilling to me and I could see the end of the church projects I had started. I could see where one path transitioned into another. In May I announced to the congregation I would retire twelve months later.

One more thing remained. During my last year, I made regular lists of my duties. What pastoral tasks happened weekly, monthly, and annually? What processes did I initiate that might not occur to anyone else? I was 42 when I went to First Baptist in Rome — the junior member of the staff. After 20 years I possessed much of the institutional memory. With the help of others, I compiled a list of my duties and made explanatory notes for many of them. I believe that list was the most helpful thing I did for the congregation, prior to retirement.

Planning for retirement is about more than IRA’s and Social Security. If we take our callings seriously, retirement planning includes discerning what Christ needs from us in our current roles. We all want to know we finished well. We also want to consider how to continue our calling in another form. There is no retirement from our Christian commitment, but that doesn’t mean we have to keep the same role.

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