First Name Basis
Following my retirement on June 30, last year, Ellie and I traveled across these United States for four months, driving some 14,000 miles. We had a wonderful trip. Only three days did we have a deadline, the rest of the time we were free as birds. At least once a day, sometimes more, we changed the itinerary, deciding on the spur of the moment to change directions. Often we felt God was leading us to new adventure and opportunity.
One side trip in Indiana occurred when we discovered that we were only a few miles from Dana, a small town that houses the Ernie Pyle museum. Ernie grew up on a farm near Dana. Some of you are too young to have heard of Ernie Pyle, but he was a war correspondent during World War II. His columns appeared in newspapers across the country. He traveled and lived with soldiers and sailors. His ability to personalize the war by focusing on the daily life, boredom and bravery of individual combatants brought the stark reality of war home to Americans. He was killed in the Okinawan campaign in 1945.
We were also interested in Ernie Pyle because his wife, Jerry, was from a small town in Minnesota, just a few miles from where Ellie was raised. As a child, Ellie remembers hearing people proudly talk about Ernie Pyle as if he were one of theirs.
Ernie Pyle was famous, popular, and loved-- a hero. But, there was a tragic side to the Pyles as well. Jerry couldn't handle Ernie's absences, and Ernie was not able to handle Jerry's alcoholism, depression, and several suicide attempts.
What struck me about the Pyles was that they were both raised Methodist. Ernie's Confirmation book is on display in the museum. The open country Methodist Church is still there, a mile or so from where the Pyles lived. In Afton, Minnesota, Jerry sang in the church choir and was active in the Christian Endeavor Society. Ernie received a strong sense of ethics and morality from his conservative, rural Indiana Methodist upbringing. He was a kind, gentle, courteous man who never lost his horror of war.
What Ernie and Jerry did not receive from their Methodist upbringing was a personal faith, a relationship with the Lord to help them deal with the stress and tragedy of their lives, a relationship with God where, as we heard read this morning, they "renew their strength, mount up with wings like eagles, run and not be weary, walk and not faint." (Isaiah 40:31) I know it is presumptuous of me to conclude that the Pyles did not know the Lord personally, but I base it in part on Ernie's reaction when Jerry, desperate in her despair, wrote Ernie that she wanted to learn to pray. He replied, "This has to be up to you, of course, but it is so different from anything you or I have ever felt. I want you to get better but I wouldn't want you to become pious." He then told her the solution to her troubles did not reside in any "mystic device." How sad! How tragic that they couldn't experience Isaiah 40:29, how the Lord "gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless."
I can't help but wonder why they felt so far from the Lord, and why their Methodist churches failed them. Were the churches of their childhood barren, dry, and dead? One visitor to our Merced Church told me how surprised he was by the lively worship service. He said he was raised a Methodist but the services were so dead, he kept looking around for a casket!
Or, were the churches what we used to call "modernist"? There was a barren period when some Methodist Churches questioned the supernatural and mystical parts of the Bible. They emphasized the teachings of Jesus and ignored Jesus as Savior. The preaching was academic. Today we would call them "right brain" churches, frightened of anything emotional. Were Ernie and Jerry never led into a personal relationship with the Lord where they would know God on a first name basis?
Or, were the churches fundamentalist and conservative, and Ernie and Jerry rebelled against the strictness. There was a barren period where no one laughed in church, where no one played games on the Sabbath, and where good Methodists did not play cards, dance or go to movies. Author David Nichols, in his book, Ernie's War, p. 36, wrote that Jerry "departed from the conservatism of her upbringing'(and) spent the better part of her short life rebelling against what she had left behind." And, in her rebellion, Jerry threw out the baby with the bath, denying the presence of God, not knowing how to pray, leaving her to deal with her terrible depression all by herself.
Or, was the gospel fervently, joyously preached and taught in their churches, and it didn't take! On my dark days, if I dwelt on it, I could easily sink into an oblivion of guilt and despair thinking of all the sermons I've preached, classes I've taught, counseling I've done, youth groups I've led, camps I've directed where the gospel didn't take! I think of the children and youth who went through Sunday School, confirmation classes, and youth groups who, as adults, are no longer in a church. How crowded it would be here this morning if they all came back to the Lord!
I take comfort from a British Baptist pastor who worshiped with us here in First United Methodist several years ago. He was a tourist who couldn't find a Baptist Church, so he reluctantly came here expecting something what he called "liberal." But, he told me, he was pleasantly surprised by my sermon. He said, "If any who were here today go to hell, it won't be on your shoulders!" I take comfort, but I also am sad about those who might end up in hell, because the gospel didn't take.
What about you this morning? Might you end up in hell? Are you already experiencing some kind of hell in your life? In these few weeks back in your midst, I've discovered that all is not glamour here in Silicon Valley. Not everyone is earning millions. Not everyone has adequate housing. How do newcomers, renters, and young adults staring out afford to live here? There is a great deal of stress, pain and fear here in Silicon Valley. When I was pastor here, a colleague asked me if I weren't intimidated by preaching to all the Ph. Ds and Stanford types. I told him I wasn't smart enough to be intimated by superior brains! I preach because even people with superior brains have heart needs. They need Jesus.
Whatever you are experiencing in your life, I pray you know the Lord on a first name basis. When you take a stand against injustice and suffer consequences like the 67 pastors who violated the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church may suffer, I pray the Lord is not just an idea, or a right brain principle, or an ethic. I pray you know Jesus as a friend who walks with you and talks with you. I pray you find your strength renewed, that you soar with wings like eagles, that you run and not be weary, walk and not faint.
Some of you may be saying that sounds good but how does it work? How do I get to know the Lord on a first name basis? Isaiah said, "Those who wait for the Lord." Most of us are doers, and want to do something. Don't do anything. Wait for the Lord. It is the Lord who comes to you. It is God who gives you strength, not you. Wait, trust, lean back, relax, take a deep breath, and let go. Let go of your need to be in control. Let go of your assumption that you must be able to handle everything that comes your way. Let go of being the center of your universe. Let go, and let Jesus take charge. Let Jesus take your life, the anxiety, worry, fear, failures, inadequacy and sin. You don't want them, do you? Let them go.
Holy Communion is a God-given opportunity to experience the presence of Christ. All the five senses are involved; both left and right brains are involved. Let the bread, dipped in juice, be the body and blood of Christ. Let his life enter your body, enter your life. Hear Jesus whisper your name, and you whisper back, "Jesus," on a first name basis.
© 2000 Douglas I. Norris