There’s no doubt that this is a campaign year. Every time one of the candidates speaks, he or she fills the air with a proliferation of promises. The problem is that the American constituency has grown skeptical of such promises. They seem to be designed to garner wider support until the candidate gets successfully through the election process; not necessarily beyond. Now, I realize, that that may sound a bit cynical, but it is a cynicism born of voter experience. “Read my lips:” politicians promises do not always – some might even say `rarely’ – hold up to the test of time.
Each and every day a deluge of media advertising saturates us with empty promises that we can be more fulfilled persons and our lives will become more satisfying if we simply use this product, or drive that car, or donate to that cause.
Our beloved Christian religion is not exempt from this phenomenon.
During a recent bout of insomnia, while channel surfing I landed on an infomercial from Peter Popoff ministries. Pastor Popoff was promoting `free’ vials of holy spring water guaranteed to bring you a wellspring of financial success. Essentially, it would seem, Popoff promises to use God’s power to help people become wealthy. “God is touching hurting people around the world,” he proclaims. “It’s always such a joy to share the reality of his saving power, healing power, delivery power, and . . . debt cancelling power! Amen!”
After an electronics expert demonstrated in 1986 that Popoff’s “divine” revelations were being fed to him by his wife via a wireless radio transmitter, he declared bankruptcy the following year. Since that time, Pastor Popoff has rebooted his ministry and today (with a net worth of over $10 million) Popoff seems to be the primary beneficiary of his own prosperity gospel. (Christopher Maag, “Scam Everlasting…,” Business Insider, Sept. 22, 2011)
“We live in a broken world riddled with broken promises,” writes Erin Dalphini. As promises have increasingly been commodified in our world, few of us have escaped the crushing heart break of an unfulfilled promise.
But God’s promises are different. God’s promises are based on what God does –and has already done – for us, rather than what we may or may not do for God.
As the prophet Jeremiah foretells, “The new covenant that I will make with the people will be this: I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they will be my people. None of them will have to teach his fellow citizen to know the Lord, because all will know me, from the least to the greatest. I will forgive their sins and I will no longer remember their wrongs. For I, the Lord, have spoken.” [Jer. 31:33 – 34]
God’s promise is covenant. Solemn and binding and enduring. It is the promise we live into and live out through the sacrament of baptism. God’s promise to his precious children that allows us to, together, become the family of God.
Comedian Martin Mull once said, “Having a family is like having a bowling alley installed in your brain.” Maybe so. Maybe so.
This past July Diane and I spent about ten days visiting my Wichita family. And I’ve talk a little bit about various members of my family since I’ve been here. But this morning I’d like to just give you a bit more of an overview of my family constellation. When we all get together, which we did several times during our visit, it’s quite a crowd.
There’s my sister Cathy, and her (second) husband Greg. My nephew Joseph; my niece Emily, her husband Paul (from Australia) and their little boy Anderson (who is now three) along with his baby brother Miles; then there’s Darin and Janiece (Greg’s youngest son and his wife) and their four children from nine years old down (the oldest Ayden [spelled with a “y”], then Addie, Aspen & Avery) who we mostly refer to as “The A-Team;” and then Greg’s middle son, Eric, and his little girl Cadence (by a previous marriage), Eric’s (now ex) girlfriend Savanah and her little boy (by a previous marriage) also Aiden (spelled with an “i”); and there’s Shawn, Greg’s oldest son, with his wife Kim, and their little boy, Trenton, and Trenton’s older sister Morgan (Kim’s daughter by a previous marriage).
And then there’s the California branch of the family, who also came for a visit to Wichita for the month of July. Now, here’s where it gets a little more complicated. There’s Kim, who was Joseph’s first wicked crush when they were 15 and 14 (respectively), before Kim discovered she was gay, and Kim’s wife Susan (previously in a traditional marriage, which did not work out). Kim and Susan have been very happy together. And when they decided they wanted children they asked Joseph, of course, to be the donor. They now have two beautiful little girls; their first: five year old Kansas Josephine (the name is self-explanatory, and which, by the way, was my first introduction into this parental arrangement) by Kim, and three year old Patten Grace, by Susan. And both girls are the perfect amalgamation of their father and their mothers. And, oh yes, the other newest of the family, Jarrett Keith, Kim’s baby by another donor.
Throw into that mix Cathy and Greg’s next door neighbors (Ann and Jeff and their little boy Holden) and friends Ashley, her little girl Lexie and boyfriend (now husband) Erin – who are by all accounts, “Just like family.”
All told, including Diane and me, there are about 35 of us; if I’m counting correctly.
The senior member of this brood is my father (Popa we all call him) – God bless his heart – who presides over this diverse and complex congregation with quiet wisdom and more understanding, tolerance and acceptance than I think I’ve ever seen in a human being. And Popa is a registered republican! (Although I’m starting to think he’s more libertarian at heart.)
This is my (immediate?) family. The largest percentage of whom I am not biologically related to. But the thing that holds us together, as family, is not genetics or blood. The thing that holds us together is love. Not love the emotion. But love the choice. Love the connection. Love the commitment. Love the covenant. That’s the cornerstone that holds – what might otherwise seem to be a rather shaky institution – together.
A year ago, the day before his 35th birthday, on July 3rd, my nephew Joseph received a phone call from his doctor to be informed that the thyroid cancer (which we had all thought had been eradicated from his body more than a year before) had metastasized into his lymphatic system.
That news was quite a shock, but perhaps it came at a good time (relatively speaking); a time when the family was able to spend so much time together. Because, during this very difficult period for Joseph (and for all of us), he was steeped in an abundance of loving support from all quadrants – young and old, blood kin and barely related – of this family.
Several weeks later, Joseph had surgery to remove the lymphatic system on the right side of his neck. Now, a year later, he is doing very well. For which we are all extremely grateful. We are also extremely grateful for this family of ours, which, in spite of our widely diverse political, religious, orientation and age differences, still finds ways to pull together in a pinch.**
Koinania, the Bible calls it. A community built on the cornerstone of covenantal love. Sharing the good times and the not so good. The church is called to be just such a family. And on a global scale, we are about as odd an assortment of characters as the world has ever seen. But we promise to love one another with a love that will not fail – not ever – come what may.
Today, through holy baptism, the eccentric family of God makes room for one more.
I remember, during that same summer, sitting in my office ruminating a bit about not being able to be with Joseph during his surgery in Wichita. We were having Vacation Bible School that week; around 100 kids of all ages. Talk about your bowling alleys!
Just when I was almost starting to feel a bit sorry for myself for being so far away from my family and, at the same time, trying to get the semblance of a little work done (with dozens of shouting children marauding through the church), little five year old Abby came into my office. She came in with a rather worried look on her face, and in very matter-of-fact-manner, closed the door behind her, came over and sat down in the big arm chair opposite my desk.
“Yes, ma’am, can I help you with something?” I said.
“Pastor Tom, I have a problem,” Miss Abby began. “I can’t find Tigger, and you know, he’s very precious to me. Will you help me find him?”
Now Tigger had been Abby’s constant companion since she un-wrapped him at her second birthday party, so I knew that this was no small matter.
“Of course,” I said, sharing her concern.
And so we went together out into the vast institution of the church to retrieve Tigger to his distressed matron (and Miss Abby to her errant teacher). We finally found Tigger in solitary reflection in the corner of a front pew in the sanctuary. It absolutely made Abby’s day. And mine.
My little encounter with Abby that day reminded me of the purpose for my calling and the reason I was in that place at that time with these good people. It’s the same reason that draws us together on this day; the reason we worship and work together, praise, pray and (sometimes) play together: To seek and to save the lost, and to return them to love’s embrace. And to perhaps help each other when we lose a handle on those things we hold most precious.
But today I’m also distressed about something else. Because I’m afraid the church is in danger of losing something precious as well. The generation of 18 to 35 year olds have long been conspicuously missing from the mainline Protestant church. I fear that we have become too cynical . . . too willing to relegate them to our fading collective memory.
“These younger generations just don’t have the same values as we did,” we lament.
Meanwhile, as Brian MacClaren (key leader of the contemporary spiritual renewal movement in America) observes: “Young adults are leaving the church in order to find Jesus.”
Somewhere along the line, I fear, we have both forgotten the promises we once made.
John Green’s book The Fault in Our Stars, captures the dilemma beautifully in a conversation between Hazel and Augustus, two terminally ill protagonists who are talking about the nature of promises people make to one another during good times, only to waver when they fall on bad times. “Some people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them,” Hazel laments, implying those people shouldn’t be held to a promise when circumstances change. “Right, of course,” Augustus replies, “But you keep the promise anyway. That’s what love is. Love is keeping the promise anyway.” (Retold by Matt Helms Aug. 23, 2015)
A church family isn’t an easy proposition: nurturing relationships; resolving conflicts; reconciling estranged members; sustaining physical, emotional and spiritual growth. Sometimes I suppose it is, indeed, a lot like trying to promote peace and unity in the midst of bowling alley chaos. But such is our call and our cause when we recite those words that accompany baptism: “Child of the covenant, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in your baptism, and you are marked as Christ’s own forever.”
And whether in good times or bad; we keep that promise anyway. It’s the promise that we are about to remember and take together once again. In Jesus Christ.
**Special acknowledge and appreciation to my family for their tolerance and understanding. I love you all. (And I’ll apologize more fully at my next visit.)