Tag Archives: relationships

The Treasure of a Human Life: Lessons (Re)learned

As a pastor, I have conducted so many funerals for both older people and younger people. I’ve lost count of how many. People ask me how I manage to do that, especially for someone I don’t know. The answer to that is another story. But the one thing that continually compels me when I memorialize someone is the effort to capture the existential substance of their being, the worth and reason of their life. I look at each life as a stained glass window through which God can shine. The questions: how did God shine through this person? Who benefited from that light? How does this person reflect who I know God to be? The answer to those questions become the substance of what I share at a funeral.

Justin Kurlychek

Justin Kurlychek

Admittedly, all this can come to be routine until I’m smacked in the face with the death of a friend like Justin Kurlychek. Justin died early Tuesday morning. We were just 7 months apart in age. We graduated from high school together. We sang and acted together. We shared a wild and crazy senior beach week together. (Tales untold!) We spent many hours on the phone together in recent years. He left behind two beautiful daughters. As I mentioned in a tribute I wrote, he was a beautiful, creative soul, even with all his troubles and demons.

As many times as I’ve gone through grief like this- I’ve lost several good friends to death including a fiancée almost 20 years ago- I’m always awed at how one person deeply affects the world around them. My tribute for Justin went viral in a matter of hours by hundreds and hundreds of people who were grieving Justin’s death. On top of my own grief, I felt both honored and inundated by the number of people who reached out to me in the last couple of days. But the sheer magnitude of the response to Justin’s death was something I had not anticipated. It has affirmed how many people loved Justin, how many people he loved, and the ways he sincerely impacted us all with his presence and his gifts.

I only wish Justin knew how valuable his life was and how people would respond to his untimely death. That’s the value and power of one life. Just one.

During times like these, it’s only natural and necessary to mourn our loss. It is a horribly painful thing to lose a person like Justin Kurlychek. Many have said that he is finally at peace. That may be so, but I mourn the fact that he knew so little of it while he was alive. I mourn the terrible time Justin had valuing himself for the beautiful gift he was. And I mourn the unfulfilled wish of having spent more time with him in the last few years of his life.

But if there is a gift to pick up from the ashes of our grief and regrets, it’s the reaffirmation that each of our lives is a sacred gift to be lived, treasured, and shared. Since that is true, what will we do in the aftermath of Justin’s memorials and tributes? Will we return to life as usual? Or will we make more of a concerted effort to value each life in our network, love them, spend time with them, and at the same time, give away the best of what God has made us to be as a blessing to them?

How many times have we said, “Yeah, we need to get together and hang out!” only to find that months later, nothing has happened? Or how many times have we held back from giving our very best to the ones we love out of fear, pride, misplaced priorities, or even shame? For me, Justin’s death has brought those questions into a much brighter spotlight.

I think that it’s a wonderfully divine irony that the shadow of death can invite us into the endless treasure of life. I hope you and I can discover and claim this treasure for ourselves.

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Reunions… Dreamscape and Beyond

Dreamscape back then

Dreamscape back then

This past weekend a ten-year dream of mine finally came true. I got to join up once again with the guys from Dreamscape, the band I played in during my college years. In the mid-90’s, we were all high school and college-aged guys with the whole world in front of us. We worked hard at our music, played all over the Annapolis area, and had the time of our lives. We became the best of friends and the best of combined musical talent. Looking back, those were definitely the “wonder years” of my youth.

Leading up to Friday night, the five of us spent a lot of time hashing up memories of the band days– the events that led to the creation of our band, crazy gigs we did, songs we used to play, people we remembered, etc., etc. And while it stirred up a lot of joy to recall those stories, it led us to the realization that we’re far gone from being the kids we were back then. While I don’t consider myself “old”, the experience elucidated the fact that indeed we’re all getting older.

However, the first hint I was given that perhaps we’re no longer the young guys we used to be came from my daughter, of all people. After the band agreed to get together, practice, and do a show, I got very excited and gleefully broke the news to my family. I thought they would be elated! But immediately, my oldest daughter began to laugh…I was crushed!

Disappointed, I asked her, “What’s so funny?”

She replied with an innocent smile, “Daddy, you all are old!” Hmm… That was a sobering dash of cold water. Needless to say, I tried to not ponder that thought for too long.

the guys from Dreamscape

the guys from Dreamscape... now!

Well, after a few months went by and a handful of practices, the Dreamscape reunion finally happened, and in a nutshell, we had the time of our lives! Playing music with guys who were my dearest of friends and listening to the cheering of the crowd who came to see us was simply electric.

Another nutshell word to describe the evening: surreal. Here were the five of us from Dreamscape, after eleven years, playing all of that familiar music in front of many familiar faces, some of whom we hadn’t seen since high school. It felt like deja vu. I looked around and found  that not only was the evening a band reunion, but it also shaped up to be a high school reunion of sorts, too.

And then somewhere in one of our sets of music, it hit me… My daughter was right. I am getting older.

I realized that when we were ten years younger, we got together to have parties, concerts, gatherings, hang outs, and all of that. That’s what young people do. But what do older people do? They– and now, yes, we in their company– have reunions. Reunions are all about the joy of nostalgia, memories, recreating former bonds, and reminiscing on the effects the years have had on us. Young people don’t do that, but older– dare I say old!– people do it all the time.

So would I take part in another reunion like this again? Absolutely! In a moment’s notice I would. There are few pleasures in life that surpass the deep satisfaction times like these grace upon their participants. Yet as inspiring as the music was, the experience went well beyond notes and instruments. It was the human bonding that struck deep chords within me. If for nothing else, the hugs, the smiles, the surprises, and the conversations were well worth every one of our efforts to put on that Dreamscape show.

Late that night as my wife Blairlee and I drove home through the rain, Blairlee fell asleep, and in the quiet of our ride home, I got to thinking. I began to understand why people who are maturing in years look forward to things like heaven. Older people don’t see heaven primarily as an escape from life’s pains. That’s how young people tend to view heaven.  But heaven, properly understood, is a reunion– a reunion with God and with those who have gone on before us. Even in a noisy bar setting where my band played and people knocked back drinks through the evening, as people shared the joy of their reunion, perhaps way down in their souls, God continued to do some tugging, whispering to us all, “If you think this reunion is great, I have an even better one in store for you, if you’ll only listen, believe, and follow me.”

The Apostle Paul, always keenly aware of heaven’s imminence, once told an ancient church,

Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him. According to the Lord’s word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words. (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)

I love this passage. It’s comforting, beautiful, and quite powerful, too, especially if we can draw ourselves to believe the promise Paul points to. This, after all, is what all our earthly reunions foreshadow. Paul paints a picture of the Great Reunion in which both the dead and the living are caught up together into one final, eternal gathering. And it’s all made possible by the death and resurrection of Jesus, who gave his all that we would never be estranged from God and from one another ever again. What could possibly be better than to know that God has provided a way for us to never be parted from himself or from one another, even beyond the shroud of death?

Looking at life and eternal life this way, I have an even greater desire for reunion now. Call me crazy or maybe too far gone, but I pray that one day Dreamscape and all those people who came to see us would be reunited again one Final Day. Only this time, the music we play will be in praise of the God who made us, loves us, and died for us. And our hands would be clasped together and with the Lord’s nail-scarred hands in a great celebration of God. And this time, there would be no one to yell at us, “All right, it’s time to close up and go home!” For our Lord would be the host. The food and wine would be served from his own banquet table, and the party would never end…

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Working through Anger

anger-management-poster

I’ve been contemplating a series of Sunday messages that talk about anger issues. How do we follow the Holy Spirit’s direction in identifying anger, processing it, and using it constructively to bring about positive change? When I observe other people, circumstances, and even myself, I see too much unchecked, unacknowledged anger, and that’s not only unhealthy, but dangerous. I’m convinced that much of the “acting out” we hear about in news stories and the destructive life decisions people make have their roots in anger and resentment.

Living in the Baltimore-Washington corridor, I live in a high-stress area, and so I see visible signs of anger mismanagement on a daily basis. It’s a growing, congested, fast-paced, politically and economically powerful, expensive, transient area where many people work in high-stress professional jobs they attempt to balance with family and personal life. Many of us live in constant tension. In a post-9/11 world filled much political and economic turbulence, all these factors only seem to intensify. I’ve often said that it’s no wonder we have two world-class cardiac hospitals and the best cancer treatment facilities money can buy. It’s a taxing area to live, work, and play.

So, put all of that together, and we’ve got the perfect fiery cauldron for anger leading to often severe mental and physical health issues. No matter our economic class or race, I see many of the same health issues: depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, domestic violence, addiction, insomnia, sexual issues, hypertension, heart issues, obesity, cancer, and so much more. So much of this, I believe, finds its roots in thorny depths of unchecked, unresolved stress-induced resentment and anger.

Of course, people bring what they’re feeling and experiencing into the Church. Therefore, a much-needed aspect of our discipleship must include learning how Jesus navigates us through the stormy waters of high-stress induced anger, not just for our sakes, but to be a light to the world around us, modeling peace and wholeness through the indwelling love and peace of Jesus Christ within us.

To engage my congregation in anger issues, I’m piecing together a 4-part sermon series. Here’s a rough outline:

1) Part 1: Working through Anger with Ourselves

2) Part 2: Working through Anger with Others

3) Part 3: Working through Anger with God

4) Part 4: Working through Anger with Uncontrollable Circumstances

Right now, I’m researching possible Scriptures to guide the conversation each week. I’m also looking for resources and perspectives. I’d truly appreciate any thoughts and feedback from any of you as well as your prayers. I’m not naive enough to think that I’ll solve all the world’s anger problems with a sermon series, but perhaps addressing these issues head-on will serve as a catalyst to acknowledge our anger and discover a path to healing.

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Learning How to Vacation

As I write this, I’m in the first half of a much needed two-week vacation here in sunny Florida. My family and I drive down this way every summer to stay with my mother and step-father who both work for Walt Disney World and live almost right next to the Magic Kingdom. (We can hear the train whistles blowing from the Walt Disney Railroad and fireworks exploding at night.) Of course, with family who work for Disney World, we have the added perks of getting into all the parks for free!

Cinderella's CastleHaving been been to Disney World numerous times over the past nine years, I’ve moved beyond a wide-eyed fascination with Disney magic to enjoy some things that first-timers might ordinarily miss, things like people-watching and tuning in to the finer aspects of Disney’s creative and marketing genius. There really is so much to see, take in, and enjoy. But being a people person, I’ve learned to enjoy watching how people behave when roaming around the parks and resorts.

As for the people here,  if you haven’t been to Disney World before, you might think that Disney’s guests all beam with smiles and merriment. At least that’s what you see in pictures and commercials. You do see some of that, yes. But I also see a lot of tension. People come here with great expectations and a desire to “do it all.” So I see people eagerly rushing around and even arguing with one another and with their kids. (My sister, a Disney World call center employee who has spent her last several years dealing with guests, calls Disney “the fight capital of the world.”) Or, I see flat, tired looks on peoples’ faces.  After their stay, many folks return home exhausted, feeling the need for another vacation to recover from the one they just had.

Why is that? I’ve found that there are two sides of a coin to Disney World. On the one side, Disney offers a complete escape from reality. From the moment guests arrive to their resort or a theme park, they enter an alternative reality, an exquisitely orchestrated fantasy world of play. It removes its guests from the outside world into an all-encompassing Disney-style imagination world. Disney weaves together everything guests see, hear, touch, smell, or taste to create this new dimension of happiness.

Caught up in the created euphoria, I see Disney’s guests stretching themselves to the limit in order to be fully immersed in the happiness Disney promises. That’s the flip-side of the coin. Unrealistic expectations slam against the reality that even Disney cannot satisfy the insatiable hunger guests bring with them to lose themselves in Neverland. Walt Disney World, for all of its wonder and fun, isn’t heaven… It doesn’t soothe the longings people bring with them– not by a long shot.

So for my family, we’ve decided to do things a little differently. En lieu of going out every day, we’ve taken plenty of time simply to relax. Instead of the normal running around non-stop from here to there, we’ve taken a much slower, leisurely place. I’ve gotten over the guilt of feeling lazy and non-productive to enjoy just sitting around. I read or work on some fun projects, help my parents around the house, play with the kids, or if I feel like it, hop on the computer to blog about it. I’ve resisted the temptation to worry about work or answer e-mails. It will all be there when I get back. World War III doesn’t appear to be breaking out. So why worry myself about things instead of taking advantage of the precious opportunity I have right now to rest?

I’m re-learning that vacation is a form of Sabbath, not an escape from reality. If I or anyone else needs vacation to escape reality, then it’s probably time to re-evaluate, re-prioritize, or make adjustments to that reality. Sabbath, on the other hand, has a plain purpose: it is God’s gift of rest, re-creation, and reflection. Sabbath offers new life and a deepened perspective to those who take it.

I haven’t come to Florida to escape the world. The inner issues I had when I left are still with me. The conflicts back home will still be there when I get back. But in seeking Sabbath, God has offered me the rest and renewed strength I’ll need to handle all those fires within and without.

So will my family and I be running around in Disney World? You bet! But for me it’s not an escape. I’m using the time to remember what’s most imporant in my life, specifically my relationships with my wife and children, and of course with my God. Can I see God in new ways throught the people I meet and the experiences I have? I pray so. Can my family develop some deeper bonds to sustain us through the stresses of everyday life back home? I pray for that, too. All of this is Sabbath.

And so, I’m going to get off the computer now and enjoy the Sabbath time God has offered me. I hope and pray for each of you that when you have those rare moments of time to enjoy vacation, that it truly becomes a time of Sabbath and not a cheap escape from reality. In reality, there is no such escape!

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What Can We Make of the Beer Summit?

Well, the much anticipated meeting between the President, Dr. Gates, and Sgt. Crowley is over. We saw images of the three men along with Vice-President Biden carrying on like chummy pals, and so the question remains: now what? I think President Obama was right to downplay the importance of the so-called “beer summit”. After all, it was more a recovery effort of Mr. Obama’s after he interjected himself into the story with his remarks that the Massachusetts police “acted stupidly” in arresting Gates.

First, a word about the President’s comments. I don’t completely fault him for what he said. We tend to over-scrutinize every word a president says as if his every utterance has been planned and rehearsed and therefore infallible. Obama was responding to an off-the-cuff question with a very off-the-cuff answer. Granted, it wasn’t a very helpful answer. He pitched unfair aspersions upon the arresting officer which he would days later “recalibrate.” But be that as it may, he also answered as an African-American, obviously seeing things through a long lens of racial history in America. It’s very much understandable and forgivable, yes. But perhaps Obama now knows a bit more keenly that as President of the United States, he carries a most certain gravitas, especially as an African American president speaking on issues of race.

Now I realize that what I say here comes from my worldview as a white guy. At the same time, I have dear friends from many different races and proudly pastor a multicultural, multiracial congregation. I’ve learned from my experiences that people from different races and cultures view the world from a wide range of varying angles. Who’s to say which angle is the most accurate?

Just to give you an example, the day after the Gates arrest and the President’s ensuing commentary on it, I called one of my African American friends to ask him what he thought of all this. His first words were, “Oh man… You’d have to ask that question!” Obviously, the incident stirred up a lot within him.

I was amazed and dismayed– and maybe I shouldn’t have been– to find him questioning not Gates’ behavior nor the President’s remarks but the police officer. His gut told him, “This was racial profiling.”

Then I quoted the police report which detailed Gates’ outlandish behavior and the reasons for his arrest.

My friend held the report in suspicion.

Then I said, “But Crowley has an exemplary record as a veteran police officer. He’s even taught racial sensitivity courses. He has no record of racism in his past.”

To that, my friend replied, “But past behavior isn’t necessarily an indicator of future behavior.”

Then I blurted out, “What?? So you’re saying the officer is guilty simply because the charge of racism has been made?? So the charge is greater than any other evidence??”

I have to admit that beyond that I can’t remember the details from the rest of our conversation. My friend may have had some other good things to say, but my mind shut down after that. We talked some more and agreed to keep watching to see what would happen. By the way, my friend and I rarely agree on much of anything, however we really respect and learn from each other.

Afterwards, a day or so before the White House beer summit, my friend and I talked again. We saw things a little differently than before. While we still didn’t agree on who was to blame for the incident, we both did see that there was some overreacting from both Gates and Crowley. In other words, it was a momentary mistake of judgment. I would add that the President also committed a momentary mistake of judgment by the tone of his remarks.

So is that all it was? Was there no racism involved?

After thinking about things, I’m going to throw this idea out there: There was no racism inherent in anyone’s motives or actions. But racism, like a demonic force, stepped in as an outside intruder to make this incident into yet another firestorm to throw our country into a debate on racism that quite honestly will never be resolved.

So was there any healing balm to be found in the White House beer summit? Perhaps. It was a nice symbolic gesture. Frankly, that’s all it was. Both Gates and Crowley walked away still not agreeing on who was right and wrong. But they both seemed to walk away with a greater respect for the two different worlds in which they live and work. They both want to “move on.”

And that’s probably the best thing for them and for us, too. My African American friend and I drew the same conclusion.

Of course, there is no denying what an incredibly ugly, horrific scar the history of racism has left on America. From the earliest days of slavery in the American colonies to racial segregation and inequalities to the systemic and personal incarnations of racism we find today, that scar still lives and breathes. I truly believe that over time, the scar will will continue to weaken and fade. But I do not think that we will ever find any great coming-to-terms on the debate surrounding racism, i.e. who’s to blame and what are we to do about it.

The debate on racism is what fueled last week’s events, not racism itself.

There is no victor rising from the debate on racism, only casualties. Americans of European and African descent do not see issues of race in the same way, nor may they ever. Thankfully, it’s not necessary for us to agree in order to create racial harmony in the United States or anywhere else in the world. What we do need, however, is mutual respect for the integrity of differeing views. With my African American friend, I can learn to appreciate how and why he sees things as he does, even if I don’t view things the same way, and vice versa.

So, instead of debate, let’s dialogue. Dialogue builds bridges into community with one another. Dialogue might possibly bring new, creative solutions to the lingering issues of racism that the tired out debates could never deliver.

Finally, I’d like to offer a sure, absolute cure to the issues of race, this one from the gospel of Jesus Christ:

For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus.  And all who have been united with Christ in baptism have put on Christ, like putting on new clothes. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.  And now that you belong to Christ, you are the true children of Abraham. You are his heirs, and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you. (Galatians 3:26-29, NTL)

If only we would all see, especially those of us who call ourselves Christian,  that God’s promise of Jesus Christ is our healing, our unity, and our life, we would have all the unity we need. And there would be no more need for symbolic beer summits.

Cheers!

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Real Connections in a Networked World: A Sabbath Day Reflection

Living in a small town like Laurel, no matter where you go, you’re apt to encounter a whole plethora of people. While it’s not quite the size and movement of a city, I definitely meet large numbers and a diversity of people all the time. I’ve also got the small town blessing of regular neighbors and friends whom I frequently see. On my Sabbath day today, I went out walking with my son Jacob while praying one of my favorite prayers, “Lord, show me where you are at work right now. Allow me to see where you are and what you’re doing.” I pray this in keeping with Jesus’ words about himself,

I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can only do what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does… (John 5:19-20a)

Striving to be like Jesus, one of my daily goals is to look for the activity of God around me and to join in.

So, as I walked along, I began to notice a pattern with passing by people I don’t yet know. There was either minimal eye-contact or maybe a muttered “hello”. But very little effort was given by either of us to genuinely connect. Have you ever wondered why this is? In situations like these, my first inclination is to avoid striking up a conversation with a stranger. I can do it, yes. It’s something I’ve trained myself to do, but it’s not my gut impulse to give a cheerful, “Hey, how are you doing? Where are you headed today?”. Part of me thinks I should be more open to them; after all, I bear the good news of Jesus Christ, something they need. Shouldn’t that be worth the effort?

And yet while we’re hesitant to connect with a stranger on the street, many of us could say that we’re highly networked with numerous people, many of whom we don’t know very well, if at all. For example, I’m active on Facebook, write this blog and through them, have conversations with people I’ve never met before. As a pastor in my community and a part of a larger United Methodist connection, I network in cooperative ventures with hundreds and hundreds of people, some of whom I barely know. Networking, especially on Internet social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and Xanga are all the rage. So it’s ironic that with all of these virtual connections, so many of us find ourselves feeling incredibly lonely. It astounds me that someone can look at a computer screen filled with scores of “friends” while looking at all of their contacts listed on a Blackberry and still, at the end of the day, feel isolated. It’s happened to me before…

Circle of hands 2 lowSo as Jacob and I walked on a path along the Patuxent River here in town, I saw something I had never seen before in all my times up and down that path. A Laurel police cruiser was actually driving on the pathway! I pulled Jacob’s stroller over to let him pass, but he waved me on and then rolled his window down.

“Hello there! How are you doing?” I asked.

“Just fine,” he said. “I saw you have some precious cargo, so I thought I’d let you all pass by first.”

“Well, thank you! This is an interesting, out of the way beat you’ve got here, officer,” I said.

“Ahh… I’m just making sure there’s no trouble down here. We had a stabbing recently nearby between two homeless guys, so I’m just trying to keep this area safe for folks.”

“Well, thanks,” I said. “I probably know who they are. I’m the Senior Pastor up at First UMC on Main Street, and we do a lot of work with our homeless population.”

And on and on we went, back and forth, probably for ten minutes or so. We talked about both of us needing to get in better shape and the safety of our community. After we said goodbye, I walked away grateful for the opportunity to get to know this man and wondered how my church could do more to honor and thank our local police department. But it all began with an open “hello” and some neighborly conversation. I only wished I had more time to talk with him. And I wished even more that I had slowed down enough to talk to some others I passed while out walking.

I think God answered my prayer by reminding me that most of us in this transient,  fast paced, highly mobile, digitally networked world are starved for meaningful relationships. For all the same reasons, we’re not so certain how to keep strong the relationships we already have. No wonder the divorce rate is high. Our children are increasingly acting out and growing up far too quickly. We fill our emotional gaps with multimedia stimulation. More people are prone to addiction and mental illness.

To a degree, our culture will always suffer from these things because we are fallen creatures. However, these diseases have risen to pandemic levels as families, communities, and churches cease to be the environment where people find their personal moorings. The real connections of family, community, and Church continually remind us who we are and whose we are. Otherwise, we drift into a morass of loneliness and existential crisis.

God also reminded me to do one more thing: slow down. Take the moment to just to talk and listen with people. Don’t worry so much about time and obligation. Make space for people, for anyone– strangers and most especially the people I’m closest to. Think of every opportunity I have to speak with someone as a gift from God. For we never know just how a person, each made in the likeness of God, could turn out to be among God’s richest blessings.

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