Archives for February 2007


Today is Ash Wednesday. We held a small, intimate service at midday, maybe 30 people came. Dan played the guitar beautifully, everyone sang so well and the space was welcoming. Jeanne and Alice set up a beautiful Lenten tableau of bare sticks, rocks, dark candles and Spanish moss, all of it calling us to a quiet space, a simple space, a sober space, a remembering space. Because this is a day for remembering, for remembering who we are – the dust of the earth – and for remembering who God is: the one who comes in love, willing to suffer on our behalf.

Three members of the gathered community read the words of scripture for us, the familiar words for this day from the prophet Joel, the apostle Paul and Jesus himself, in Matthew’s gospel. Arleen read so beautifully, her voice full of pathos, almost to the point of tears as she closed out her passage…”The priests, who minister in the Lords’ presence, will stand between the people and the altar, weeping…” Frank worried about his voice holding up, but he made it through the verses from 2 Corinthians just fine. Jim wondered if he’d still be there when the gospel reading came to pass, as he had a commitment at 1:00 p.m. He had time to spare, and then stayed longer anyhow. It was a rich time, filled with grace and tenderness and I am grateful to have, once again, been privileged to lead and to offer ashes to dearly loved friends and even a few strangers. We missed Don very much, but are grateful for his and Martha’s ministry in Kenya these early weeks of Lent.

Dan was the last to receive ashes from my thumb, and then he impressed them on me, offering the ancient words, “Remember you are dust; repent and believe the gospel.” We offered prayers on behalf of others, we passed the peace and we read the final blessing to one another as we went back out into the world. And even though the dark marks on my forehead brought strange stares in the supermarket, I was grateful for their presence. For these dark specks in the shape of a cross testify to this day, this season, of reflection and repentance and remembering. May God bless us all as we live Lent this year.

Extravagant Giving, Part II

Warren Thompson was one of those rare people God gives us in life. People with a quiet, Jesus-like authority, with no hypocrisy showing up anywhere, no interest in recognition, or ostentation of any kind, absolutely no desire for prominence in any up-front sort of way. People who truly see Jesus as their only authority,who model their lives after Jesus’ self-giving love, after Jesus’ powerful truth-telling, after Jesus’ back-of-the-line, servant’s heart, servant’s attitude, servant’s behavior kind of living.

Thomps was that kind of person, and his absence from this planet impoverishes me and everyone who ever knew him. And while my heart weeps for his loss, I also celebrate his life and the life of Jesus that I and so many others saw in him.

Warren Thompson came to faith later in life than many. He had survived World War II and come home to meet and marry his sweetheart, Nancy. He was in his mid-to late 20’s when he encountered Jesus for the 1st time and that encounter changed his life forever.

He and Nancy raised two kids, one of whom is a pastor on the east coast and the other of whom has magnificently raised her two daughters as a single mom the last few years. Thomps and Nancy joined Pasadena Covenant church in the 1950’s, and both became diligent students of the Bible, and active members of small groups and prayer circles. In their quiet, humble way, both of them became the kind of bedrock lay leaders that pastors dream of having in their congregations.

When my family and I came to PCC in 1975, our kids were 3, 5 and 7 and we watched as this tall, skinny guy in his mid 50’s hung out with the high school students week after week. We later learned that he had been hanging out with high school students for years, going to midweek activities, attending winter and summer camps as a counselor, traveling to Mexico on mission trips, coming to high school Sunday school each and every week.

And doing a whole lot more than that. Thomps worked for the 3M Corporation there in Pasadena and every day, when he left work, he would ask God to show him whom he should contact on his way home. And then he’d drop by a student’s home, or call and meet someone for coffee or a Coke. Sometimes, he’d take them to breakfast, before work. Thomps literally gave himself away to those students – almost 30 years of those students. He was never shy about praying for kids, either, wherever they were. He wanted to know what they were learning from the word, what they were learning from their prayer times. He wanted to know how they were living like Jesus – and he did all of this with a spirit of gentle humility that was wondrous to behold. And if they weren’t living like Jesus, he loved them extravagantly anyway.

He was willing to be made fun of for being an old guy, he was willing to not be hip or hep or cool or ‘hot.’ He was willing to give himself away lavishly so that others might see Jesus. He gave extravagantly, he gave exuberantly, he gave joyfully, he gave gladly and even gleefully at times. He loved Jesus and he loved students. During his years of mentorship with the students coming through the youth ministry at Pasadena, at least a dozen and maybe closer to 20 individuals – mostly young men, because that’s who Thomps invested in – went into full time Christian service of one kind or another. Some are pastoring, some are missionaries, some are psychologists, some are youth workers themselves. That list includes several who are or were part of the community of faith at Montecito Covenant, including our former pastor.

Many others of those students answered God’s call to lay ministry, like their friend Thomps had, and they are serving God in churches, hospitals, homes, and schools all over the place. In his later years – I think when he turned 70 he decided he was really too old to work with students! – he became a lay pastor of visitation and began a ministry of powerful and loving care for seniors and others in the larger community, participating in weekly church staff meetings and praying regularly for each person on that staff. It was my privilege to serve beside Thomps for 5 years, 2 as a student intern and 3 as a member of the staff there, and I will be forever grateful that he is a part of my story.

When our son was about to go into high school, Thomps began to talk about ‘retiring’ from student ministries. We literally begged him to reconsider, to hang in there for 4 more years while Eric and his cohort of friends came of age, which he graciously agreed to do. And Warren Thompson became one of the most important figures in our son’s life, providing loving and faithful encouragement through high school and beyond. We will be at his memorial service on the 17th of this month, giving thanks to God for a remarkable life. Thomps was probably the closest I will ever come to seeing Jesus this side of heaven. He was that extravagant in his love, that generous in his attention, that alive in his love for God and for others.

So, as I invite our congregation to gather around the table on Sunday, I want to give thanks for his life. And I want to give thanks for his Savior, who is also my Savior, and their Savior.

That same Jesus who rejected an authority dependent upon ostentation, or privilege, or exploitation, or entitlement. That same Jesus who lived and ministered from a center of true authority – the authority of truth, humility, compassion and mercy. That same Jesus who noticed the widow in the temple courts, who lamented the abuses of authority which contributed to her poverty, and who drew attention to the way her extravagant giving mirrored his own coming sacrifice.

And I will offer this prayer, on behalf of us all:

Holy Friend, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our Father,

We have to admit, Lord, that this teaching is sometimes really hard for us. We like the trappings. We prefer the peacock feathers to the tiny birds’ nest [a reference to our spectacular altar piece which is a lovely study in contrasts.] We like to be shown respect, we like to enjoy a perk here and there, we like to feel important, to feel needed and necessary.

Where that can really get us into trouble, though, is when we begin to lie to ourselves and to you, when we begin to believe that we really are entitled to those perks because…we’ve done so much good, or we’ve worked so hard to attain a certain status, or educational degree, or years of service at our place of employment – or whatever. We’ve begun to think that somehow we deserve all those points of privilege that we enjoy so much.

Forgive us, Lord, for the ways we abuse whatever form of authority we may have gained in this life. Forgive us for wanting desperately to impress other people more than we want to live for you. Forgive us for wanting to live the good life more than we want to be good people. Forgive us for consciously or unconsciously stepping on somebody else to get to the rewards we think we deserve. And, by the power of your Spirit at work within us, enable us more and more, day by day, little by little, to look like your son Jesus, to whose table we come, and in whose name we pray, Amen.

Extravagant Giving

The text for this Sunday includes the story of the widow’s mite – the gift of everything that our observant Savior watched from his perch near the offering ‘trumpets’ in the Court of the Women in the Temple in Jerusalem. This happened just days before his own arrest and crucifixion and it follows on the heels of some pretty strong words of warning about religious authorities and their hypocrisy. It’s a text that has been widely preached during November (when it falls into the lectionary calendar, as a matter of fact). November – the traditional month for stewardship sermons as year end approaches and new budgets are being formulated. ‘Give, give, give til it hurts’ – that’s often the interpretation used at such times. And I do think it is possible that this text can be used as a template for preaching the power of proportionate giving…except…it’s a bit troubling. Does Jesus really beckon the disciples to join him in his people-watching in order to show them the ‘right’ kind of giving, the kind that every ‘good’ disciple should strive to emulate? Should we all really give away all that we have to live on? Or is there something else going on in this text, something a bit more subversive, and perhaps a bit more in tune with the immediate and general context of the gospel of Mark.

Jesus enfleshes the focussed concern of God for the people on the margins, most especially the widows and orphans, in a society where neither is well-cared for and where both are usually invisible. Just before this small story, Jesus castigates the scribes – those interpreters of the law who oppose Jesus all through Mark’s gospel account – and he particularly rides them for ‘devouring the houses of widows.’ Probably he was making reference to the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that these ‘unpaid’ religious professionals often used their positions of influence to extort funds from the most vulnerable, especially widows, who enjoyed no legal protection, and – if they produced no male children – no financial protection either. Though these scribes received no ‘official’ recompense for their scribal and interpretive work, they did know ways of getting funds. Somehow the picture of tv evangelists comes to mind here…perhaps with the promise of ‘increased blessing for increased giving??’

We cannot know, we can only surmise. But it does seem clear – from the harshness of Jesus’ tone and the pointedness of his words – that the behavior of those in religious leadership, those finding themselves in positions of power and authority, reflected both an abuse of that power and a misuse of that authority.

Jesus says strongly, “This will not do!” “Beware!” The disciples are instructed, in no uncertain terms, to watch out for these wolves in sheep’s clothing, to be especially careful of authorities who like the perks of the job – who wear fine clothes in an ostentatious manner; who want to be seen in the synagogue, choosing to sit up in front, on the bench that faces the congregation; who want the best couch at the banquet; who pray long, elaborate prayers at the same time they are fleecing the widows. Beware. Be careful. Watch out.

And then comes this small story of the widow’s gift. And her generous spirit is to be commended. Her admission of her complete dependence upon God and neighbor is to be emulated. Her digging deep to share with others is praiseworthy. But…I wonder. Could Jesus also be verbalizing a lament-of-sorts in this scene? Could he be calling his disciples’ attention to the very thing he has just been warning them about? Is he bewailing the religious system that encourages such destitution? I think there may be some of that in this text.

It certainly lines up with Jesus’ earlier teaching, in Mark 7, against religious authorities who shelter their money by calling it ‘devoted to God’ instead of taking care of their elderly parents. It certainly lines up with Jesus’ strong prophetic word in the verses which immediately follow this story, at the beginning of chapter 13. There, the disciples are praising the beauty of the temple building and inviting Jesus to do the same. Jesus, however, looks at that magnificent edifice and sees it in ruins, ‘no stone upon another,’ shocking his followers with his foreboding word. He sees a religious system that is rotten to the core. Where others see authority and power, Jesus sees seeping decay and imminent loss. And he will not be a party to it in any way, shape or form.

So he speaks his harshest words of criticism yet. Mark’s version is much briefer that Matthew’s entire chapter 23, but it is still powerful to read. He is on his way to the cross and he knows it. Throwing any vestige of caution to the winds, Jesus blasts away at the ‘authority’ of the religious superstructure, in essence inviting them to come after him. Jesus is preparing to give the most extravagant gift it is possible for any human being to give. And because he is the Son of God in human flesh, the extravagance level takes on untold layers of love. So I think, despite the lament that surely was there in Jesus’ words, there is a lovely way in which this small person, living on the margins of her culture, provides us with a window into the gift that is coming. Like the other widow in this week’s readings – the one at Zarepath who used her last flour and water to feed a hungry prophet named Elijah – this widow willingly gives all that she has to the service of God.

Jesus had no use for authority that was illegitimate and abusive. And Jesus spoke with true authority – with power and certainty and ability that exceeded anything the scribes could offer. Jesus called false authority what it was. He named the evil and he stepped strongly into the melee that resulted from his truth-telling words. And on the way, he noticed a poor widow, flinging her tiny coins into the offering box at the temple. At one and the same time, her story serves to condemn the insidious abuses of wrongly-used authority and to highlight the beauty of generosity and humility, the offering of oneself and one’s meager gifts with relinquishment and dependence.

How hard it is for us to do that! We’d much rather wear the flowing robes and get the best seats at the banquet, thank you. Admitting that we are totally dependent upon Another for our very breath is difficult to do. It is somehow even harder to acknowledge that we are also dependent upon that One for the money in our pocket, the roof over our heads and the abundance which we enjoy. Placing ourselves in a position of dependence – or more accurately, acknowledging the fact that we are already there – is tough for 21st century western Christians to do. I have known very few people in my life for whom that kind of humility, graciousness and generosity is a natural part of daily living. And one of my primary life examples died this past week, a person whose absence from this planet impoverishes me and everyone who ever knew him.

I’ll write about Thomps in a later edition…