A Grateful Guy

I worked with a master carpenter. No, I wasn’t his apprentice. He worked in a clothing factory when I met him. Leonte Leuczuc was a refugee from Romania who escaped during the Communist era. He in a refugee camp in Italy for three years. During that time he learned English and Italian. They were additions to his list of languages that included Russian, Polish, and Hungarian. I watched how he worked and helped his fellow refugees in the plant. Often he had to translate for management.

Leonte was a lay leader of a Pentecostal Church in nearby Washburn, Tennessee. He had help bring the congregation from his home country to the area. He enjoyed the fact that I worked that line with them. He did not know many American pastors. The congregation had many questions about how Christians in America went about doing things. Their experience of communist Romania led them to try and understand how faith was practiced in a place where they were free to practice faith.

He was a carpenter by trade. He bought a “fixer-upper” house and remodeled it. I saw pictures. He was in the process of building “the nursing home” as he put it. I asked a few more questions to learn that he was building a home for his aging parents. He was missing his forefinger and thumb on his right-hand. He would have preferred to be a carpenter, he said, but no one would give him a chance. The pictures were part of a resume like package. He was a hard worker. When he finally got an interview with a construction company, the interviewer could not keep his eyes off his right hand. “Don’t look at my hands.” Leonte told him,” Look at what I can do.” The interviewer took him up on the offer. Leonte demonstrated that he could work with the tools and get whatever task needed to be done accomplished.

Leonte was not always an easy person to get along with. However, when he learned my wife was pregnant he stopped work on the line announced the fact to the other Romanians on the line. A brief celebration ensued. “Don, you want a boy don’t you? Yeah, you want a boy!” He said to me. We had a boy. “Ah, a little King!” He shouted joyfully when the baby was born.

What I think of when I consider my former co-worker is how he embodied the spirit of the “work” Scriptures. “Thieves must give up stealing: rather let them work honestly with their own hands, so that they will have something to share with the needy.” Ephesians 4:28) and 2 Thessalonians 6-12 “Now we command you, beloved, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who living in idleness…we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.” Especially the words of 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12, “Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters…for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another…But we urge you beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly to outsiders and be dependent on no one.”

Leonte was obviously a talented person. He would never have learned all of his potential if he had not tried, taken the risk of escape, and wanted to learn. Quite a few people had their lives improved by his efforts.

Here is a controversial statement. The Church has done more good in the world than most people ever consider. Yes, I know about the civil wars of the Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Crusades. I have learned a lot about the Salem Witch Trials. And I refuse to ever defend the Church by claiming the people involved were not true believers or followers of Jesus. They considered themselves to be good Christians. They were simply wrong. The Church is made up of people. And we do terrible things to each other.

The problem is our perspective. The quotes made above from a couple of the earliest writings of the New Testament are attempts to get believers into a way of thinking and living that shows a dedication to divine concerns. The “Enlightenment” gave humanity a perspective on thinking and living that has left human beings desperate for meaning and fulfillment. It also made lives better and more informed through science and technological achievements. George Orwell was correct in showing how humans have become mere objects to be used by self-important people running systems for the sake of institutions. We even learn history as being about great rulers and the events they create.

What if it was never meant to be this way? What if we are simply to try to do what we can do and to live in love with other people? It would give us the courage to either escape the dependency human systems and institutions demand or to make such thrones and powers irrelevant eventually.

I can hear someone say, “But wait! How do you intend to prove the Church has done more good than harm?” The answer to that is simple. Great evils are measured by suffering, murder, and other lasting effects. Evil like money can be quantified. Goodness cannot be. There can be no measure that says, “Eight out of every ten people are benefited by an action,” without there being a moral question involving the fate or condition of the other two people. Money is only a benefit if it is used to benefit other people. My friend Leonte is one of millions of people who have lived and died while using their talents, resources, and ability to love to help improve the lives of “the brothers and sisters.” There is no concrete way to measure what we already know has happened and continues to happen.

People like Leonte demonstrate by their actions how immensely grateful they are for the lives they have been given. It is the only reason he could accomplish the things he did. He was most of all a grateful guy.

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A New Year’s Revolution

The Baptism of the Lord is celebrated the first Sunday after the beginning of Epiphany. The day presents Pastors good opportunities to ask their congregations to reflect on the meaning of the Sacrament as well as the story of God identifying Jesus to John the Baptist as the “beloved Son.” The theme is easy to comprehend. We are identified as followers of Jesus and that Baptism also represents the witness of the Holy Spirit that we are the children of God. The thought of whether God is pleased with us is up to the disposition of the preacher.

One practice I often do for this day is to invite the congregation to renew their baptismal vows and ceremonially remember their baptism by contemplating or touching the water of the baptismal font. Some people are surprised when I introduce them to this practice. Baptism is a one time experience. United Methodist churches do not “rebaptize” people into membership of the denomination or congregation. When people present themselves for membership, if they have previously experienced Christian baptism, they are not asked to undergo a second baptism.

Jesus’ baptism, according to the gospels, is the beginning of his three-year ministry that ends with his death. His baptism by John is a ceremonial washing that foreshadows the death, burial, and resurrection of the Messiah. To say it differently, baptism means a new life is being given to Jesus the Carpenter from Nazareth. Christians begin a new life when they receive baptism. When time passes, disciples of Jesus forget that their lives have been renewed and are to be growing in life of the Spirit. Life is able to dull our memories and spiritual senses. We forget what our baptism was supposed to mean for the rest of our lives. Most of us have a lot more than three years to live after our baptisms. I find the practice of ceremonially remembering baptism important for this reason.

The practice of remembering opens the believer to new possibilities in their spiritual life. Before I step from the font so the members of the congregation can individually approach it, I say the words given in the Book of Worship, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” Being thankful for grace, redemption, mercy, salvation, and the charge for righteousness is part of recalling one’s baptism. I remember how it mattered to one person in particular.

One church I served hired a youth director who not only served the youth of the congregation. The director made it a mission to serve the friends of the youth. The friends were part of the youth group. There was no sense of “our kids” as opposed to the “visiting kids.” When I became the Pastor for the church, I expressed my views on youth ministry and told the director I fully supported how the youth program was not simply for “our kids.” I don’t recall if he used any of my suggestions. The program worked very well. I was able to participate in some activities and met a few of the parents of the youth that did not attend our church. I spoke to the father of one youth member who was doing his Christmas shopping. We had met before. Even then, it did not occur to him that I was the Pastor. He assumed I was another parent. His family were members of another United Methodist congregation. His daughter had friends in the youth program at our church. She took part. Her father and mother decided to attend a service during Epiphany. They returned on Baptism of the Lord Sunday. After the service, he approached me.

“I had no idea you were the Pastor.” He began. I hoped it was because I looked too young. I never found out for certain. “Tell me; what is it you had everyone doing?”

I explained the purpose of the celebration and the ritual.

“Can I do that?” He asked.

“Of course.” I said and led him to the font. Keep in mind the service was over and everyone else was departing.

He asked me what to do. I gave him some suggestions. He bowed his head over the font and reached his fingers to the water. He made the sign of the cross. “Thank you.” He said and then left.

They were back the next Sunday. And they came back the next one. I visited them at their home. They continued to be present every Sunday from January until July. The second Sunday in July he spoked up during the prayer request time of worship.

“I am now fifty-one years old,” He began, “And for the first time in my life I have not missed a Sunday this year. I am thankful for this church being here.” Later, he said to me, “You’ve changed my life!”

It was not just my having been friendly one day because I recognized him in Sears. Something deeper was involved. I reflected on how the grace we experience with Baptism opens us up to many spiritual possibilities. The gentleman was a member of another congregation he had some experience in churches already. Our congregation decided a youth program would be an important ministry for it. I performed my pastoral office as well as the priestly one. The congregation continued to welcome his family. The Gospel story was working in his life and the life of his family. It had already done so. And then, he gained the eyes that allowed him to see it.

There was more than a New Year’s resolution at work in this life. It was a spiritual revolution that took place. A new era was coming into being for him. He understood his part in God’s reign better than he had before then. The church is supposed to demonstrate that sort of grace in the world. There are so many potential changes for the better. When we are spiritually dull, we don’t see them.

Baptism of the Lord Sunday is not about renewal or revival. It is the day to celebrate the beginning of the spiritual revolution that is simply called “the Faith.”