Wednesday, February 23, 2005

The Dark Side of Small-Town Life

I'm a city girl. I was born in a city and spent most of my previous career working in an even bigger city. When I came to a small town to pastor a church, I thought I knew a little about small towns because I had lived in a town with a population of 47,000 twenty miles outside the big city. I didn't know squat. I had been living in a bedroom community of a city, with all the amenities of a city close at hand. And 47,000 is NOT a small town. A small town of 6,000 people is a whole 'nother ball game.

To complicate matters, the local area where I live now is one of the poorest in the state. And when you live in a poor area, housing prices are low, property taxes are low, and there isn't any public money available for some of the things you take for granted in the city.

My little church has been blessed in the last year to be hosting a group of developmentally disabled adults during the week. There are six or eight adults, with a supervisor who is training them to do meaningful work. They use our education building, which otherwise would sit empty all week long.

Great. But then we started to have plumbing problems. The toilets would overflow every time we had moderate to heavy rain. And in our part of the state, let me tell you, we are famous for getting a lot of rain.

We had a plumber come out. He did what he could. We got someone from the town to check the town's side of the sewer line. The upshot of it all seems to be this: years ago, maybe in the 1940s, the town installed "temporary" sewer lines under the streets. And after sixty years or so, "temporary" just can't handle the rainwater anymore. I don't think rainwater and household wastewater are supposed to be in the same line, and excess rainwater should not be making toilets back up, but I am not a sewer expert. I just know that the experts are telling me the rainwater is backing up our toilets and when it rains, you can't use them. And we have people in wheelchairs, working all day long at our church, and they can't use the bathroom on a rainy day.

My personal solution to the problem is to go home from the church office. I live out in the country, and I have a well and a septic system. No problem. At least not yet. But the folks working at our church don't have that option.

I'm told the town doesn't have the money to fix the sewer lines. "There is nothing we can do," they say. "Many areas of the town have this problem. We just can't afford to fix it." And if I can get past my outrage that the town can't seem to find the money for as basic a service as this -- and let's face it, this is a public health issue and darn well ought to be a priority -- I take a deep breath and stop and remember how poor the area is. And if they say they don't have the money, well, they probably don't. Big cities have budget crunches too, I know, but not this bad. In a city, the newspapers and the television stations jump on the bandwagon and keep pestering and embarrassing the city officials till some budgets get juggled and the problem gets addressed. In a small town, nobody has that kind of clout. At least, I don't think so.

But I'm not giving up. I used to be a journalist, by golly, and one of our favorite expressions (now kind of quaint in the era of the Internet) was, "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel." I'm going to do a little legwork here and try to figure out what I can do. Some people think all the minister should do is preach on Sunday and visit the sick, but this one comes under the heading of social justice. People living in a community deserve basic services. And a sewer system that works is one of them.

Friday, February 18, 2005


Last night I was talking on the phone to a member of my church, and at the end of our conversation he said, "By the way, Galaxy Quest is on." And that was the rest of MY evening. I have seen the movie before, although it's been a few years. If you've never had the pleasure, let me recommend it to you. If you are a science fiction fan, you will bust a gut. There is a scene -- if you are a fan, you know exactly which one I'm talking about -- that had me laughing so hard the first time I saw it that I couldn't catch my breath. Even if you have never watched Star Trek (I actually met someone once who had never seen the show), you will laugh.

There are a lot of in-jokes and scenes that are reminiscent of different tv shows or movies, so if you are a fan, you will get them. Tim Allen even looks and sounds a lot like William Shatner, fer cryin' out loud. As for the scenes at the fan conventions -- well, they're not so far off base. Back in the early 1990s, I was privileged to live in a city that had at least one or two science fiction cons every year, and I would go with a group of my friends. We got to see most of the cast of the original Star Trek, plus a number of the actors from Next Generation. For a mere twenty dollars, you could spend a Saturday far, far from your mundane life, in a hotel ballroom transformed into a wonderful world of imagination and creativity, surrounded by folks who loved the same shows that you did, and some of them would even sell you stuff related to your favorite shows that you'll never find in Wal-Mart. I have original fan art of charactes from the shows, non-authorized-by-the-copyright-holder mousepads, t-shirts, tote bags, bootleg videos of a British show starring one of my favorite actors, you name it. I get emails from "lists" of fans of my favorite shows just about every day. So, yeah, I am a fan, and I have gone to these fan conventions, and I still go when I can.

And I will tell you, my friends who used to accompany me to these "cons" had a rule we all adhered to: Never make fun of someone dressed as a Klingon. These people are serious. And they carry bat'leths.

But I digress. Galaxy Quest is great. Watch it if you get a chance. My special delight last night was discovering that one of the actors is Tony Shahloub. Since I last saw Galaxy Quest, I have become a fan of Monk. Shahloub's role in this movie is almost a predecessor to Adrian Monk, who, in case you're not familiar with the show, is a detective who has obsessive-compulsive disorder. Someone who is obsessive about details makes a GREAT detective, but he is also hilarious in his compulsion to neatness (cleaning up a crime scene in the middle of an investigation, for instance).

So, this blog has absolutely nothing to do with theology. We all need a little fun in our lives. Or, as a character in another of my favorite shows put it, "Everyone needs to have a hobby." Enjoy.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Ash Wednesday

This is the meditation I gave at our Ash Wednesday service last night. It struck me as more a blog post than a sermon, so I share it with you.

Lent has a reputation for being the grimmest season of the church year. What positive things can you say about a season that begins by bringing the partying of Mardi Gras to a crashing halt at midnight on Tuesday by sending everyone to church to get ashes on their foreheads? That continues through forty days of giving up chocolate or something equally desirable, and builds to a crescendo on Good Friday as we are asked to contemplate the torture of Jesus, who had nails pounded through his flesh and who hung by those nails on a cross? And then, thank goodness, we come to Easter. Easter, yes, Easter is great, but getting through those forty days of Lent is another story. Does it all have to be, so, well, depressing?

Let's hope not. The key word here is "hope." The season of Lent -- and the Christian life, for that matter, could be seen as just one depressing event after another if we didn't look at it through that prism called hope: hope in the Lord Jesus Christ. We have to begin at the end in order for the whole thing to make sense: Jesus Christ is raised from the dead, and it is in him and him alone that we have our hope.

What we do here tonight -- the imposition of ashes on the forehead as a recognition of our own mortality -- would be the most depressing thing in the world were it not for that hope. "Hey, forget it, life has no meaning, you are just dust, and to dust you shall return." No, we have hope in spite of the fact that all of us, at our own appointed times, will face death. Jesus himself has given us that hope by his death and resurrection. Because he lives, we shall live also.

In Genesis we are told that God created a human being from the dust of the ground -- the Hebrew word "adam" is a play on the words for "earth" and "human" -- and breathed the human creature into a living being. Human beings weren't created out of gold and silver, sorry to say, just plain old dirt, lest anyone get too enamored of themselves. And at the end of our earthly lives, we return to that earth from which we were created. There's a symmetry to it, humbling though it may be.

When we read the New Testament, we need to keep in mind that the people of the early Christian church lived each day in the stark realization that it might be their last. They were being persecuted by the religious and civil authorities for their faith in Jesus Christ and their refusal to worship the Roman emperor. Also, they expected that Christ would return at any time; the apostle Paul recommended that people not marry if possible, because the time was so short. So for them, hope in Christ was what they lived for.

All of this can seem very remote to us, something that was written down centuries ago in the world of the Roman empire, among people whose lives and expectations were very different from ours today. And then, something can happen and it all seems a whole lot closer, a whole lot more relevant.

One of those "somethings" happened to me in the past couple of weeks. Maybe it has happened to you at some time in your life. A doctor tells you that something has turned up on a routine test. It might be cancer. It might not. More tests are needed. If it is, it means surgery...


And so for a week, I lived in the world of not-knowing, as I had more tests done and waited for the results. Maybe you have been through this too. For a week, I didn't know whether I could make any plans for the future or not. And in that week, a few thoughts came to me, and they were the kind of thoughts that might be appropriate to consider on Ash Wednesday:

1. We are all mortal. Nobody gets a free pass out of this one. Some of us have more days than others, and that is the Creator's call to make, not ours. During the week I waited for my test results, more young soldiers died in Iraq, and so did the longest-married couple in our state, who died within three days of each other at the ages of 101 and 103, respectively.

2. What we do with our lives determines how we will be remembered. A Jewish Roman citizen in Palestine, two thousand years ago, made tents for a living. But the apostle Paul is remembered, down through the ages, for his faith in Christ and the remarkable letters he set down that established the foundations of our understanding of the cross and what it means to follow Jesus.

In your own life, who has influenced you for good? Who has made a difference in your life? Who has helped you on your journey of faith? And what have you done, what are you doing, what can you do to make a difference in someone else's life?

3. Jesus is Lord. That's the bottom line. Afraid of death? Jesus has been there, done that. Do you trust him with your life, or not?

The most modern confession of our denomination, A Brief Statement of Faith, begins with these words:

In life and in death we belong to God.
Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
the love of God,
and the communion of the Holy Spirit,
we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel,
whom alone we worship and serve.

It is as simple -- and as complex -- as that. It's a matter of trust.

At the end of one of the darkest weeks of my life, the doctor called and said the additional tests were giving some very different results. It didn't look like cancer after all. No surgery in the immediate future (THANK YOU!!). I could make plans again.

But as you know, if you have ever been in this situation, no matter what the outcome, you are changed. You think differently about day to day living. I am still sorting it all out -- this has all happened very recently -- but I have a whole new appreciation for trusting in God. It isn't about trusting that God will fix everything the way I want it to work out. It's just about trusting God. Period. No matter how much we like to think that we are in control of what happens to us, guess what: we're not. And to be able to trust our lives to God is...well, it's a blessing. It's a blessing of the Christian life.