Fear is a Trickster

My Column for The Elgin Review June 26, 2019

We moved to a suburb of Detroit, Michigan when my sons were entering first, fourth and fifth grades. In Ohio where we’d lived before, my older boys walked the block and a half from our house to Lincoln Elementary School. My youngest son, because he had special needs, took a bus across town. In Michigan we lived about a mile from the boy’s school. They were, by then, old enough and easily able to walk a mile to school. I’d done it growing up in Omaha, their Dad walked to school in Cleveland and there seemed to be no reason for my boys not to do it in Michigan—except—there were no cross-walks, no crossing guards and two four lane roads between our house and the school. When I asked why not, I was told, “well, nobody walks to school anymore.”

We lived in Michigan more than a year when I began to hear why “nobody walks to school anymore.” Twenty-five years earlier, two suburbs over, there had been a kidnapping and murder of a child on his way home from school. Tens of thousands of school children had safely walked to and from school for generations before that tragedy occurred, but since then, fear of a similar crime taking place kept a whole generation of school kids from knowing the pleasures of walking to school.

Fear is a trickster. Fear is a natural and needed response, bred into us to keep us safe, but it can also be irrational. Fear can paralyze us and keep us from life’s pleasures. Fear can separate us from our neighbors. Fear can motivate us to take up arms when the arms themselves are a greater threat to us and those we love than what we were originally afraid of. Fear can deceive us into giving up our liberties and freedoms under the guise of security.

One of the more frequent admonitions in the whole of Christian Scripture is “Do not be afraid.”

The Bible was written over a span of 3400 years give or take. Those were years in which people had true and legitimate threats to their safety on a near daily basis and yet again and again the writers of the Jewish and Christian faith stories tell us, “Be not afraid.” God is with us and for us and will be with us no matter what happens in our lives. The one who created everything continues in creative love to make all situations new. No matter what, God’s love is with us. When we know that to be true, we have nothing to fear.

We need to be wise and prudent. We need to take appropriate precautions. Danger is real. Harm happens. Some people do evil things to others. But, live fully. Live boldly. Practice hospitality. Let the kiddos walk to school. Most people are kind and good and loving. Most people want to help others. Most people want the best for each other.

At Park Congregational Church everyone is always welcome. Have no fear, you are welcome here.

Peace on Earth

My Column for the Elgin Review 12.18.19

For two or three weeks before Christmas, little Libby, a precocious three-year-old whose parents were directors at the YMCA, answered as her parents taught her to every time she was asked by people at the Y, “What do you want for Christmas, Libby?”

“Peace on earth” was her constant, quick reply.

Word spread throughout the Y, “ask Libby what she wants for Christmas, she’s just the cutest little thing!” And so, a gazillion times, Libby responded saying all she wanted for Christmas was peace on earth, until, she was asked the gazillion-tenth time. Libby didn’t answer right away, but looked at her mother and said,

“Mommy, I don’t want peace on earth for Christmas anymore. I want toys!”

Peace on earth is a lot to ask for, isn’t it? And, truly wanting peace requires sacrifices we aren’t all that interested in making once we find out what they are. I mean, who doesn’t like shiny new toys? Who doesn’t want some nice new thing chosen just for us, wrapped up in a bow? Wanting stuff is easy. Giving and receiving gifts is fun. Peace, on the other hand, makes demands on us. If our prayer is, “Let there be peace on earth” we know the next stanza of the old song is, “and let it begin with me.”

Wanting peace on earth means sharing earth’s resources fairly so everybody gets clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink. Wanting peace on earth means protecting the planet’s resources, not pillaging them to fuel our latest desire for gizmos and high-tech gadgets and the profit-driven desires of big business.

Wanting peace on earth means doing the hard work of going beyond charity like providing food in back packs of school children for the weekend, to figuring out why so many families are too poor to buy their kids food, and then doing something about it. Wanting peace on earth means going beyond putting plastic toys into a shoebox for children across the globe, to finding out why those children die of cholera or have so little hope for living healthy, productive lives.

Wanting peace on earth means being willing to give up some of our comfortable homogeneity to make room for people fleeing persecution or hardship where they come from. Wanting peace on earth requires us to be brave enough to say, “this is wrong” to those in power when what they are doing makes life harder for people whose lives are already hard. Peace requires of us the willingness to sacrifice things we want for a greater good, for the collective good of all people.

God did not send Jesus into the world so we can have picture perfect celebrations with our families around lighted-trees each year, even though our celebrations are wonderful and good. God did not send Jesus into the world so we could be a thousand dollars in debt and ten pounds heavier come January 1st even though the gift giving and delicious indulging feels worth it at the time.

God sent Jesus into the world, a baby, a refugee, a small-town boy from an occupied land, to teach us the way to peace. God sent Jesus into the world to be the Prince of Peace, a Messiah who saves us, not through power and not through might, but through self-sacrificing love. A Savior who died, not to make us feel good, but to show us the way to make the world good, as it was in the beginning, as it is in God’s holy imagination, as it is in heaven.

What do we want for Christmas this year? What are we willing to give up in order to receive it?

Join us at Park Church for worship this Sunday. Worship is at 9:15 am ten miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south. On Christmas Eve you are welcome to worship by candlelight at 7:00 pm followed by refreshments in the fellowship hall.

What if God Simply Wants to Hold You?

My Column for The Elgin Review 12.11.19

“What if God simply wants to hold you and love you?” Anne, my spiritual director asked me. Sitting in her cozy corner room looking out the windows at quiet sports fields blanketed in snow below, I held that thought.

I have a nativity scene made of cast resin with only three figures, Mary, Joseph and the baby. Mary lies on her side, her arm crooked in the way of mothers after giving birth, ready to cradle her baby at her breast. Joseph sits, his knees drawn up and his hands open, in nervous readiness to hold his newborn son. The baby is swaddled and sleeping. In this nativity there is no manger, only loving arms as cradles and new parents’ eyes gazing down in wonder on their sleeping son. Sometimes Joseph holds the baby, sometimes sweet Jesus sleeps in his weary mother’s arms under his father’s watchful gaze.

“What if God simply wants to hold you and love you?” I imagined God holding me as tenderly as my nativity Mary and Joseph hold their newborn son. Seeing me, not with critique, but with wonder, looking on me with tenderness and awe. Holding me, safe and protected. Soothing me with sweet lullaby sounds.

I was avoiding time in prayer. I was overwhelmed and soul-weary. I had been wounded and I was ignoring God. I told Anne I wasn’t on the outs with God, I was merely keeping my distance. She laughed and asked why. Slow to answer, eventually I said, “Because, I’m afraid. If I listen for God’s voice, God is going to ask me to do something hard, or something I don’t want to do.” She looked quizzically at me. “Like going to Zaire, or leaving the congregation I loved to do not-for-profit work. God has asked some fairly big things of me in the past, and I’m not ready for something like that right now.”

“What if God simply wants to hold you and love you?”

Long ago the prophet, Isaiah wrote,

But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you…
…For I am the Lord your God…
…Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…
…Do not fear, for I am with you.  (Isaiah 43:1-5 selected New Revised Standard Version).

My conversation a year ago with Anne stays with me still. At the core of the story of Jesus is the profound truth that we are loved. We are loved by the source of all creation. We are created in love to be loved, to share love, to live in love.

You, my dear reader, I ask you what Anne asked me, what if God simply wants to hold you and love you?

Will you give God opportunity in this holy season to gaze upon you with love?

You are always welcome to worship God with us at Park Congregational United Church of Christ. We’re ten miles west of Elgin on Highway 70 and ½ a mile south. This coming Sunday we are having a no-rehearsal Christmas pageant during our service at 9:15.

I love to hear from you. My email is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com

Home for Christmas

My column for The Elgin Review 12.4.19

“I’ll be home for Christmas, you can count on me, please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree…” Bing Crosby’s famous song has woven its way like a ribbon around a wreath through our thoughts about Christmas. In the dark of mid-winter, we make our homes cozy with twinkling lights and evergreen branches and anticipate a Hallmark movie kind of happiness to fall like snow upon us. A blanket of white against the chill of what’s real sometimes.

Once, when my boys were little, I left them playing nicely in the family room while I ran upstairs to get something. I had gotten no further than the top of the stairs when I heard a commotion below, wailing and yelling so loud I thought the house was on fire (or something similarly dire). What I found after my mad dash down the stairs was eighteen-month-old Daniel with a death grip on two fists-full of three-year-old Adam’s hair. Dan was holding Adam hostage and banging him against the front of the sofa. “Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow, Pow.” Both boys were hollering and bellering.  It was an epic battle over a toy.

I pried open Daniel’s hands and scooped him under one arm, and scooped Adam under my other arm and carried them into the dining room where I plopped them, one and then the other, onto chairs on opposite sides of the room. When they quieted, I said, “Boys. In our family we do not hurt each other. In our family we love and protect each other.” Yeah. Right! Who was I kidding? I had just seen first-hand evidence that what I was saying was untrue. In our family the little brother took his older brother by death grips on his hair and walloped him!

Except, it was true, too. In our family we love and protect each other. In our family we were raising little boys to be the kind of men who care about and for each other inside our home, and about and for their neighbors everywhere. Time on the chairs in the dining room was a time for recalibrating relationships and remembering who we are.

Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas isn’t about appearances and creating lovely memories of a snow-covered, idyllic season at home. Advent, this season we are in right now, is a time to recalibrate our relationships with each other. It is a time to remember who we are, and whose we are. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah talks about beating swords into plowshares. Advent is a season for making peace and for making right what has been wrong. It is a time to let go of the death grips we have on old resentments and bygone battles. It is time to make our hearts ready so that our homes and our lives will be places where it is clear that God lives with us here.

At Park Congregational United Church of Christ, ten miles west of Elgin on HWY 70 and ½ mile south, you are welcome to be part of a faith home where we gather every Sunday for worship at 9:15 am. Worship is when we sit a while together to recalibrate our relationships and to remember who and whose we are. All of us are welcome home with God not just for the holidays, but every day.

I love to hear from you. My email is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com

Bad God/Good God

My Column for The Elgin Review, Elgin, NE

June 18, 2019

I was ten or eleven when my older brother mustered the courage to ask the question every kid on the Vacation Bible School bus was dying to know the answer to. “Hey, so what happened to your hand?” Our bus driver was also the preacher at our Grandma’s little church. The convenience of the bus pick-up service meant my brother and a bunch of our neighborhood friends and I all went to Grandma’s church’s VBS instead going to our own churches scattered across the city. When John asked, the bus driver stopped the bus, turned around in his seat and held up his right claw-like thumb and pinky of a hand. “Children, I’m so glad one of you asked. God did this to me.”

His story was God wanted him to be a preacher, but he didn’t want to be a preacher, so he ran away from God and went to work in a lumber yard.  God cut off his fingers so he couldn’t work there anymore, and he gave in to God’s call on his life and became a preacher. Moral to the story? —don’t mess with God or God will get you.

That’s some messed up theology!

I was just a kid, but I knew the preacher’s story about God didn’t sound at all like God who loves us. Love doesn’t chop off fingers.

Later that week my best friend, Carla and I were scooping ice cream in her kitchen and I told her about my day at Bible School. I’d been “saved” because if you got “saved” you got to go to the stage and pick out a prize. My prize was a short chapter book about a girl who was kidnapped, but because she loved Jesus, she was able to escape from the back of the trunk where she had been stuffed. Carla’s mom was in the kitchen. She said, “Becky, I don’t think that’s a good way to think about God. God doesn’t scare us into loving him. God loves us into loving him.” (God doesn’t bribe us with prizes, either).

Carla’s mom that day in her kitchen was my first theology teacher. I had good Sunday School teachers since pre-school, but Mrs. Acker was the first person who taught me to think critically about what was being said about God rather than simply absorbing a story and believing it hook, line and sinker solely because it was about God. Theology means to study, to think about the nature of God. (“Theos” –Greek for “God” and “ology”—the study of something). Theology requires of us some wrestling with God (like Jacob in the Old Testament and like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane).

Bad theology does a lot of damage. Bad theology keeps women in abusive relationships. Bad theology causes gay kids to commit suicide. Bad theology fuels racism. Bad theology combined with nationalism fuels wars. Bad theology denies science and skews priorities.

Humans are spiritual beings.  We all need to nurture our spirits. We benefit from being in relationship with God and from gathering with others to practice being together in loving community. We also owe it to God and to our neighbors to think, to wrestle with our ideas about God so that what we claim in God’s name does good instead of harm.

You are always welcome to join us at Park Congregational United Church of Christ ten miles west of Elgin and ½ mile south off of Highway 70. Worship begins at 9:15 am on Sundays.

I would love to hear from you. My email address is beckyzmcneil@gmail.com.