Up Your Game or Lose Your Life?

For the past eleven years, I have been spending three days in January at the Hilton Garden Inn in Des Plaines, Illinois. This is where the North Central Jurisdiction Committee on the Episcopacy and the NCJ College of Bishops meets every year. For eight years, I represented the West Michigan Conference on the NCJ Committee on Episcopacy, and for the last three years I have participated in the College of Bishops as the episcopal leader of Iowa. 

Both groups have their own agendas. However, part of the time we spend together building relationships, and, in the case of last week, discerning and praying about who God is calling us to “be” at the special called General Conference in February. Each bishop also meets with a small group of Episcopacy Committee members to give an update on our lives and ministries. In addition, a mid-quadrennial evaluation is completed for each bishop by selected lay and clergy members of each bishop’s annual conference. It’s always a spiritually enriching and blessed time.

I observe two “traditions” for my yearly visit to the Hilton Garden Inn in Des Plaines. In 2009, I was preparing for the Boston Marathon in April and decided to train for the Boston hills by running up and down the ten flights of hotel stairs early one morning during my stay. I’ve continued my yearly “memorial” stair climb each January. 

My other tradition is to visit the Rivers Casino, which is a five-minute walk from the hotel. The Rivers Casino opened in 2011, and my inquisitive nature led me to check it out. I do not normally frequent casinos and agree with our United Methodist Social Principles, Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, destructive of good government and good stewardship. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice.” (¶ 163G, United Methodist Book of Discipline, 2016)

Every year, my experience is the same. The huge rotating sign outside the casino urges me inside: Bigger Jackpots! Let’s Go Big! Up Your Game! As I gaze around the packed casino, all I see is people, some in wheelchairs and even hauling oxygen tanks, but most mindlessly pulling on slot machine handles, eyes glazed over. Although there are the occasional whoops and hollers of a winner, few people look happy. 

I am bombarded by sights and sounds, all carefully orchestrated to encourage me to become a winner. Hypnotic rotating wheels, amazing video displays, and flashing images are intended to keep me focused solely on the games. Fifty table games, including Blackjack, Craps, Roulette, 3 card poker, Baccarat, Mississippi stud, Pai-gow, and Caribbean Stud, beckon me to gamble.

Almost 1,000 slot machines are programmed to deliver small, frequent “prizes” at irregular intervals, psychologically manipulating me to keep coming back in the hope of finally hitting the jackpot. Naturally, the big jackpots only come when huge bets are placed, thus encouraging gamblers to risk more money. History is strewn with gamblers who won the big one, only to lose it all within hours.    

In its relatively brief existence, Rivers Casino has become the leading casino in Illinois in gross income. According to the Illinois Gaming Board, Rivers had 3.1 million admissions in 2017, with adjusted gross receipts of more than $433 million. By comparison, the 2016 General Conference of The United Methodist Church approved a general church budget of $604 million for the 2017-2020 quadrennium. 

Every time I enter Rivers Casino, I learn something new about human nature and about the church and my faith.

  • As disciples of Jesus, we need to be upfront and honest when sharing our faith with others. Whereas the casino always wins, you and I will almost always not win. The heart of Christianity is found in losing, not winning. Jesus says we have to lose our lives in order to save them. The first will be last, and the last will be first. Being a Christ-follower implies thinking of others as better than ourselves, emptying ourselves, and humbly asking, “Could I be wrong?” 
  • In the casino, everyone is welcome to play the slots and lose their money, although the high rollers are often given preferential treatment. As Christians, we also need to be transparent about who is welcome in our church and who isn’t. If we say everyone is welcome, then we must live that out by how we greet guests, how we invite others to participate in the leadership of the church, and by our conscious decision to be inclusive. I suspect that gamblers treat the strangers sitting next to them with more kindness than some of our church members treat “outsiders” sitting in their pew.

  • It is important for Christians need to understand the difference between gambling and risking. The only sensible way to approach gambling is to be prepared to lose everything. If we place a $5 bill in a slot machine, it is not a risk, it’s an almost sure loss. With gambling, we have to be able to anticipate and absorb the loss, but the addictive thrill of winning the “big one” keeps us coming back. 
  • Risk, on the other hand, is an important part of our Christian faith. When we risk stepping outside our comfort zone to engage our communities in deeds of love and caring, we grow in grace and hope. Risk is thoughtfully and wisely making big decisions to give ourselves away, while gambling pays no heed to failure.
  • Whereas signs outside the casino like “Bigger Jackpots!” “Let’s Go Big!” And “Up Your Game!” may rally people around the gambling table, the signs that describe the mission of a disciple of Jesus are more like “Lose Your Life,” “Love Your Neighbor,” and “Make a Difference.” 

A few years ago, I had a conversation with a retired pastor in his 90’s who was so invested in the future of The United Methodist Church that he even volunteered to pastor a church if it would help. He said, “The church has to change, or it will die. We have to change our image by putting a moratorium on judging and welcoming everyone into the church, without exception. We also need to be continually offering spiritual growth and mission opportunities to people and sending them out in ministry wherever there is hurt and pain in our world.” 

As I wander the casino, observing and praying, the words of this pastor still linger in my heart. As different as the church and the casino seem to be, they are also very much alike. Many people go to the casino to find community and acceptance. Strangers get to know each other when they sit side by side. There is a remarkable camaraderie around both winning and losing. 

In the same way, the church is the body of Christ in our world. It’s where we connect with God and others as we pursue a common mission to bring in the kingdom of heaven. Human beings yearn to be in relationship with one another and be accepted for who they are. Healthy churches provide multiple opportunities for people to form deep and lasting commitments and then go, make a difference.  

Wouldn’t it just be better to tell the truth before people walk through the door of the church? “Enter at your own risk. Even if you’re fortunate enough to come in a winner, you’ll leave a loser. Only when you recognize your weakness and vulnerability will you see your need for a savior. Join the rest of us losers, for when Jesus gets a hold of you, you’re going to die to everything you hold dear. God may ask you to give up your career, your home, your salary, or your long-cherished misconceptions about life and other people. You may even end up at the bottom of the rung rather than the top: dead last. Up your game or lose your life. What will it be for you? 

Justice, and Only Justice, You Shall Pursue

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) Where is justice today?

I’m embarrassed that I had never heard of The Green Book before I watched the movie by the same name a few weeks ago. The Negro-Motorist Green Book, by Victor H. Green in Harlem, began publication in 1936 to provide an annual travel guide for African Americans in regard to food, lodging, gas, and other services in a segregated America. Some of the annual guides, which were published for thirty years, included these words, “Carry your Green Book with you – you may need it” … to avoid finding oneself in compromising, oppressive, or even dangerous situations.

The movie, Green Book, which is in theaters now, is based on the true story of Don Shirley, a world-class African-American pianist, who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. Knowing that he needs a driver as well as protection as he travels through the Jim Crow south, Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali) recruits Tony Lip (played by Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American tough guy/bouncer from the Bronx. The two men have very different backgrounds, yet they form a deep respect and even friendship as Shirley is continually confronted with racism and danger.

The Green Book told Lip which hotels would and wouldn’t accept blacks, with both men often staying in separate places. Despite the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which eliminated legal segregation in public education, segregation in many other arenas continued throughout the United States.

The indignities Shirley had to endure as a black man, even though he was a highly educated person and concert pianist, were painful to watch. From being directed away from classical piano, which Shirley loved, to jazz music because of his race; to their car being stopped more than once because a white man and a black man were in the same vehicle; to not being allowed to eat with and use the same restrooms as his white audiences at banquets where he was performing, reinforced the injustice and reality of racism, even today.

Father, Son and Holy Spirit, one God,

we give praise to you for your great glory made manifest in all of creation.

Give us an open heart to embrace all who experience discrimination.

Help us to grow in love beyond prejudice and injustice.

Grant us the grace to respect the uniqueness of each person,

so that in our diversity we may experience unity.

This prayer we make in your holy name. Amen.

“Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue.” Where is justice today? Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is a federal holiday. It’s a time for us to ponder the state of our country, our world, and our own hearts and the fact that we are not done with racism yet. We are not done with inequality yet. We are not done with injustice yet.

Over this past week I was drawn to King’s book Strength to Love. This is a collection of sermons that King began while spending two weeks in a jail cell for holding a prayer vigil outside the Albany, Georgia City Hall in 1962.

  • “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”
  • “Courage faces fear and thereby masters it.”
  • “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
  • “We talk eloquently about our commitment to the principles of Christianity, and yet our lives are saturated with the practices of paganism. We proclaim our devotion to democracy, but we sadly practice the very opposite of the democratic creed. We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time we assiduously prepare for war. We make our fervent pleas for the high road of justice, and then we tread unflinchingly the low road of injustice. This strange dichotomy, this agonizing gulf between the ought and the is, represents the tragic theme of man’s earthly pilgrimage.”

When 800,000 federal workers are in their 31st day of a government shut-down and are suffering mightily simply because our lawmakers are not able to come to the table and reason together, where is the justice?

Below: Chef for Feds Relief Kitchen: Feeding federal workers and families in Washington D.C. ©Washington Press. Photo by: Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post

God of the widow, the orphan and the stranger,

You have shown us the path of justice.

Help us to follow your way by doing justice as our worship of you.

As Christians together, may we worship you not only with our hearts and minds, but also by our deeds.

May the Holy Spirit help and guide us to work for justice wherever we are,

so that many people may be strengthened through our works.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue. Where is justice today? We are in the midst of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (January 18-25). This is an annual opportunity for Christians the world over to pray for and actively seek the unity that we already share in Christ and also recognize the power of the ecumenical movement. When we are a part of this annual celebration, Christians seek the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus, the Son of God, “that they all may be one.”

The worship materials for The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity 2019 were prepared by Christians from Indonesia. Indonesia has a population of 265 million people, 86% of whom are Muslims and 10% of whom are Christians from different traditions, including the autonomous Methodist denomination, Gereja Methodist Indonesia. The prayers in this blog come from the worship materials, which you can access here.

The Christians in Indonesia chose Deuteronomy 16:20 as the theme verse for the 2019 Week of Prayer for Christian Unity because corruption is experienced in many ways in the country: in politics, business, and even the environment. The organizers write, “Too often those who are supposed to promote justice and protect the weak do the opposite. As a consequence, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened; and so a country rich in resources has the scandal of many people living in poverty.”

Then they get to the heart of the matter, the reason why Christian unity is so fragile. “Every year Christians across the world gather in prayer for growth in unity. We do this in a world where corruption, greed and injustice bring about inequality and division. Ours is a united prayer in a fractured world: this is powerful. However, as individual Christians and communities, we are often complicit with injustice, and yet we are called together to form a united witness for justice and to be a means of Christ’s healing grace for the brokenness of the world.”

Where is a united witness for justice be today? How can you and I, along with disciples of Jesus in every corner of the world, live out the words of Deuteronomy 16:20, “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.” What will you do to be a means of grace and justice today?

And where will justice be from February 23-26, 2019 in St. Louis? How will you be a means of grace and unity, as The United Methodist Church gathers for General Conference?

May God embrace you with love and make kindness flow out from you. May God ignite courage within you and transform you into agents of justice and peace.

May God grant you humility and give you perseverance to nurture unity.

A Sweet, Sweet Story About the Hope That Matters

It was a fascinating time to be in West Berlin, Germany. In the summer of 1974, I began a year-long adventure living in West Berlin as a student at the Berliner Kirchcnmusikschule (Berlin Church Music School). Living within walking distance of the Wall, I often sat on a hill, looking over the Wall into the East German countryside, watching the guards with their machine guns, and wondering how in the world this beautiful city and country became divided in the first place.

Several months ago, I came upon an amazing story that took place in Berlin, Germany, seventy years ago, a story that is inspiring, tender, and sweet. Some of you were alive in 1948 and remember how turbulent the 1940’s were. Three years earlier, after Germany’s unconditional surrender on May 8, 1945, the Allies divided Germany into four military occupation zones at the Potsdam Conference in July. There was France in the southwest, Britain in the northwest, the United States in the south, and the Soviet Union in the northeast. The capital city, Berlin, located in Soviet territory, was also divided into four parts: the French, British, and American sectors (West Berlin), and the Soviet sector (East Berlin). In 1974, I lived in the American sector.

Peace and stability had not returned to the country after World War 2, however. Much of Germany had not been rebuilt, and life was very difficult, especially for those living in Berlin, which became a divided city within a divided country. On June 23, 1948, the western powers introduced a new form of currency into the western zones, which prompted the Soviet Union to cut off access to West Berlin through a blockade. In an effort to literally starve Berliners into submission, the Soviets did not allow any food or goods into West Berlin by road or train, and the men, women, and children of this divided city began to suffer horribly. When winter came,  there was no food, warm clothing, or medicines, and the Berliners were desperate and starving.

Truman Library

Determined to keep the West Berliners alive, the United States, England, and France decided to do something unthinkable. They airdropped food into West Berlin! The Soviet blockade lasted from June 24, 1948 to May 11, 1949, with the airlift continuing for several more months after that. During the year of the blockade, a total of 277,804 flights landed in Berlin, carrying 2.3 million tons of food. Each West Berliner received an average of 2,300 calories a day. By April 1949, an allied plane was landing in Berlin every single minute, and each pilot flew an average of three flights a day.

The code name for the airdrop was Operation Vittles. But there was one pilot who felt called to do more. On July 19, 1948, Lt. Gail “Hal” Halvorsen from the US became a stowaway on a friend’s plane. When they landed in Berlin, Halvorsen saw some boys and girls at the fence, watching the planes land, and he decided to approach them. Their clothes were in tatters, and very few were wearing shoes. Some of the children knew English, so they asked him questions about the planes and the food they were bringing.

Having flown in South America, Africa, and Europe, Halvorsen was accustomed to children asking him for candy, but he noticed that these starving children did not ask for anything. So Halvorsen took two sticks of Doublemint gum out of his pocket and gave them to the children. He tore them into pieces and passed them through the fence, with other kids asking to sniff the wrappers. Only four children received gum, but “the expressions on their faces were incredulous, full of awe – as if they were entering a wonderland.”[i]

britannica.com

Halvorsen promised the children that he would return with more candy and asked them to watch for the plane that wiggled its wings. He faced several challenges, however. First, distributing candy was against regulations. Second, Halvorsen had to find a source for the candy. And, third, he had to figure out to “throw” the “candy bombs” out of planes that were traveling 110 miles an hour. Halvorsen devised mini-parachutes out of handkerchiefs, with candy attached inside with twine. At the right time, he signaled his engineer when to push the packages out the emergency flare chute.

The news traveled fast! The next day Halvorsen was summoned to appear before his commanding officer, who realized the value of Halvorsen’s idea and encouraged him to continue with this new operation called Operation Little Vittles. News of the Candy Bomber spread like wildfire, as hundreds and even thousands of children and eventually their parents gathered every day at Templehof Airport, waiting for the wiggly wings of planes that would rain down candy from the sky.

Almost overnight, Halvorsen became the face of the Berlin Airlift and a symbol of American goodwill. He called this moment his “moment of truth,” “the continental divide of his life.” Halvorsen’s life, the life of the children of Berlin, and the world were all transformed. [ii]

All told, Operation Little Vittles rained down 23 tons of candy from 250,000 parachutes. Each of the few dozen Candy Bomber planes was allowed to drop 600-700 pounds of candy onto the streets of Berlin.

When Halvorsen was asked to tour America during the Berlin airlift, tens of thousands of candy bars and supplies were donated by people all across the country. Though it took nearly a year, the Soviets eventually called off the blockade because it just wasn’t working anymore. The airlift was a success, people were fed, and the spirits of Berliners were lifted in large part because of the efforts of Uncle Wiggly Wings. The Candy Bomber gave Berliners hope in the midst of the darkness. Most children never received any candy, but it didn’t matter. HOPE is what mattered.

TKTK (Wikimedia Commons)

The proof was in letters send to Halvorsen from the children of Berlin. “Dear Uncle Wiggly Wings, When yesterday I came from school, I had the happiness to get one of your sweet gifts… I could not come home quickly enough to look at your wonderful things. You cannot think how big the joy was. They all, my brother and parents, stood around me when I opened the strings and fetched out all the chocolate. The delight was very large.” [iii]

On September 3, 1948, this letter was received, “Dear Chocolate Uncle, The oldest of my seven sons had on this day his 16th birthday. But when he went out in the morning, we were all sad because we had nothing to give him on his special day. But how happily everything turned out! A parachute with chocolate landed on our roof! It was the first sweets for our children in a very long time.” [iv]

According to Halvorsen, now 97 years old, many people over the years have tracked down the Candy Bomber to say thank you and to share their stories of the Berlin air lift. Halvorsen’s response was, “The small things you do turn into great things.” And he is still dropping sweets from the sky!

This past July, Halvorsen led a candy drop in Spanish Fork, Utah, for the 70th anniversary of the Candy Bomber air drops. Speaking about his original idea of dropping candy, Halvorsen said, “Well, gosh, I get a chocolate ration. I can share it.” He continued, “If we get outside of ourselves in the road of life for somebody who is struggling more than you are, then you’re going to be rewarded in a way you’ll never know.” Money is now being raised for the Gail S. Halvorsen Aviation Education Center in Spanish Fork, where Halvorsen makes his home. Listen to Hal Halvorsen in a 2015 interview.

Where will you experience hope in 2019? How can you embody a hope that matters for those who see no hope for today or tomorrow? How can your congregation be difference makers and bearers of hope? What small things can you do for others that can turn into great things? It doesn’t take much. Just eyes open to the hopelessness around you, ears open to the cries of human need, and hearts open to reaching out with love to all who yearn to hear the good news of a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

[i]The Candy Bombers; The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour, Andrei Cherny, New York, Berkley Caliber, 2008, p. 299.

[ii]Ibid.

[iii]Ibid, p. 358.

[iv]Ibid, p. 365.