A Potter's Perspective on Life, the Church, and Culture

“Hate the sin, and love the sinner,” is an oft told phrase. It reminds me of Matthew 22:1-14 where Jesus says that everyone is welcome to come to the Wedding Banquet but they need to dress appropriately. This is a often misunderstood passage. Of course, this is all metaphorical and not about an actual dress code. The point is that God wants us all to go to heaven but not without forethought and repentance.

How does it make you feel to go to a special function and there is someone there who is inappropriately dressed? Are you tired of the dressed-down casual look that is so pervasive in our society? Ball caps don’t cut it in fine restaurants. Where are our standards of proper decorum? But just as quickly as I want to put up fences to keep the riff-raff out, I am reminded that Jesus wasn’t very exclusive. Unlike Augusta National, He let just about anybody into the Kingdom. It was the Pharisees who had such impossibly high standards that they missed both the Messiah and the Kingdom.

Thinking of pharisaical dress codes reminds me of a family that had invited a college student and his date over to their house for Sunday lunch. As everyone started to relax, the host said to the young man, “Why don’t you take your coat off?” The host had already taken off his coat and tie. The young man kind of hem-hawed around, however, as if he didn’t want to do it. Finally, he got the host off in a corner and said, reminding the man of an old trick that he knew well when he was in college, “The only parts of my shirt I ironed were the cuffs and the collar.” He had pressed just the parts that showed. The rest of the shirt looked as if he had ironed it with a weedeater! That was the way of the Pharisees: the part people could see looked great, but their interiors were a different story.

Jesus wants us to look good inside out. His solution to our dress code dilemma is found in the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s work in Sanctifying Grace that creates clean hearts and lives in you and me. We cannot measure up on our own, but God can make us new creatures! Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “The gospel life isn’t something we learn ABOUT and then put together with instructions from the manufacturer; it’s something we BECOME as God does his work of creation and salvation in us and as we accustom ourselves to a life of belief and obedience and prayer.”

This is a good old-fashioned Wesleyan emphasis on Sanctification. We’re saved by grace, to be sure, but there IS a dress code! Consider this pastor’s dilemma: There were two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians. Then their pastor retired, and a new one was hired. Not only could he see right through the brothers’ deception, but he was also a good preacher so the church started to grow by leaps and bounds. A fund raising campaign was started to build a new sanctuary.

All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At my brother’s funeral, you must say that he was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check. The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” the pastor said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on in this vein for awhile, he concluded with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

Compared to what we think a Christian should be or look like, what are we?

wedding reception

Southerners are known for their manner of speech. A woman from the South was talking to her young son about why all their relatives from the North talk funny. “They have a different accent,” she explained. “Everybody talks in different ways,” she continued and added, “To them, we sound like we talk very slowly, and all our words are drawn out.” The little boy’s eyes got big and he asked, “You mean they hear funny, too?” We all talk in a manner that is peculiar to our region or even our families. For instance, my mother used a phrase about people, women in particular that exasperated her or had questionable morals. She said that they were a “big six.” I have no clue what she meant, but if you do, please let me know! I’ve been trying to figure it out for years!

Southerners are truly exceptional at indirect speaking and passive-aggressive behavior. I have been at the dinner table with Southerners and instead of daring to ask directly that someone pass the salt, the proper way to do it is, “Would you like some salt?” The acceptable response is, “No, but would you like some?” which is the cue to say, “Certainly.” Why not just come out and ask for the blooming salt? What if they said that they did want some salt and you were stuck sitting there inwardly fuming because they didn’t know the unwritten rules of indirect communication?

This, of course, leads to passive-aggressive behavior. Southerners are famous for this, especially church people. We hate to launch an attack at someone in a frontal assault. It would be so unbecoming, Darling! Maybe you’ve heard about the two Southern Belles who were sitting on a veranda one day. Darlene said to Billie Jo, “See the red Cadillac over under the magnolia. My husband Billy Bob just handed me the keys one day and said I’d look good in it. It wasn’t my birthday or anniversary or anything.” Billie Jo replied, “How nice.” Then Darlene said, “You know last year he sent me on a ten-day cruise and said here’s a few thousand dollars to buy some new clothes to wear. I’m not going to go with you. I want you to look good. You dance with whomever you want to.” Billie Jo responded, “How nice.” Next Darlene pointed out her 4 carat diamond and said, “Last year Billy Bob just up and gave me this diamond. It wasn’t my birthday or our anniversary. He just said he thought I deserved it.” Billie Jo responded again, “How nice.” Finally Darlene said, “Why Billie Jo, I’ve been going on and on about all these things that Billy Bob has done for me. Has your husband ever done anything like this for you?” Billie Jo replied, “Why yes, last year he sent me to charm school. Now instead of saying ‘Up ______, I say “How nice.”

Passive-aggressive behavior is what Jesus got a lot from the Pharisees. They asked roundabout questions trying to trap him. They said something that seemed innocuous, but meant something more subtle yet sinister. Passive-aggressive behavior is like that. It comes off as harmless but really is aggressive. It’s like someone asking you, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” Sounds simple but will make you think all day that you must look horrid in that color. Maybe someone will ask you, “Do you like your hair like that?” Sounds like a fair question, but there’s nothing fair about it. It’s an indirect passive-aggressive insult because they want to say that your hair doesn’t look so great, but they don’t want to be too direct in their attack. After all, such an explicit remark might hurt your feelings.

Why can’t we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Rather than triangle in another subject or person, shouldn’t we care enough about each other to talk plainly? Southerners and diplomats need to quit quibbling here and there trying to sound all nice and cordial and get to the point. We could avoid more than a few spats and wars and get over the tension more quickly. Seems like the Bible says something about, “Speaking the truth in love.”

I’ll never forget the kick I got out of my Dad and the Yankee. This particular woman had been visiting his Edgefield Pottery museum, cataloging every piece for a book she was writing, and picking up and photographing every piece to his silent but obvious dismay. After a day of quiet exasperation, he was ready for her to leave. In typical passive-aggressive Southern fashion he said, “Wouldn’t you like to stay for supper?” She replied, “Sure!” He was cooked. He threw something together, we ate, and then she wanted coffee of all things. After she finally left, Daddy blasted her for being rude, staying for supper and so forth. I said, “You invited her.” To say the least, he didn’t think that my lack of sympathy exhibited proper decorum. She simply didn’t understand Southern passive-aggressive behavior.

We would rather shift the focus to someone or something else to avoid being direct, and it only complicates our misunderstandings more. I hope that today I will exhibit speaking the truth in love without sugarcoating it so much that the message is muddled or missed. We must care enough to confront or we don’t care enough!

passive-aggressive picture

It is interesting to live on the edge of South Carolina’s border with the state of Georgia. I have been amused with the Augusta, Ga. television stations’ ads for that state’s political candidates. However amused I am with the not-so-subtle mudslinging, their ads are very well done and better than any I’ve ever seen in South Carolina. As a matter of fact, they’re so good, as an objective newcomer who knows nothing of the Peach State’s politics, I can’t easily discern who I would vote for if I was registered there. When every candidate says the same thing it all starts running together, and the truth is either lost or at least blurred. Jesus said something about knowing people by their fruit, and when it comes to Georgia, I’m clueless.

What I do know is that every ad purports that their person has a solution to either real or perceived problems. I wish that was so! Wouldn’t it be great if there was a pill or a politician that would really cure all that ails us? Some might say that our national malaise is the product of a poor economy, the war on terror, election year mudslinging, the disintegration of the family, and sorry football teams. It’s tough when sports, one of our sources of distraction from life’s difficulties, only adds to the problem. So much for being a South Carolina Gamecock fan!

So what are we supposed to do? What I’ve found when life is on a slippery slope is to do something worthwhile. It doesn’t matter so much what the task, just so it takes commitment. Psychologists, for years, have said that one of the best ways to get out of the doldrums is to make yourself do something for somebody else. They’re right! If we give in to the pits we’re never going to get out of them. Commitment is the ability to push through the pain, the angst, the pessimistic cynical mindset in which we find ourselves and keep at the projects that we’re supposed to complete.

George Miller gave an interesting analogy, “The trouble with eating Italian food is that five or six days later you’re hungry again.” What he’s saying about Italian food is true for me, and reminds me that what we stick to doing keeps on nourishing us long after we’re done. So when we’re down, we shouldn’t give in to it. We should stick to doing the things that we know that we’re supposed to do. Sure, I know very well that I don’t feel like going to the “Y,” but I also know that the endorphins that are released when I exercise will make me feel better. Unfortunately, many of us easily avoid the things we should do. Jerome K. Jerome, who lived from 1859-1927, said it for all sad-sacks and procrastinators, “I like work; it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

We shouldn’t vegetate and let our burdens build up. Doing something good and worthwhile is a better answer. It’s all about commitment. Lewis Smedes puts the matter quite plainly, “I want to say to you that if you have a ship you will not desert, if you have people you will not forsake, if you have causes you will not abandon, then you are like God… When a person makes a promise, he reaches out into an unpredictable future and makes one thing predictable: he will be there even when being there costs him more than he wants to pay. When a person makes a promise, he stretches himself out into circumstances that no one can control and controls at least one thing: he will be there no matter what the circumstances turn out to be. With one simple word of promise, a person creates an island of certainty in a sea of uncertainty.” Amen!

Think what would happen if we followed Smedes’ advice. What a better world we would have if we kept our end of the bargain as employees even when under-appreciated, as spouses to our spouses even when things are rocky, or as parents to our children even when feeling disrespected and worn out. When we’re in a funk do something positive. Don’t lash out. Do the unexpected – your duty!

Doesn’t this apply to our faith communities, too? Wouldn’t our churches be better off if members actually kept their promises and vows? Someone said that there are three different kinds of believers: “if,” “because,” and “regardless.” An “if” believer follows God IF he or she receives blessings and rewards in return. This person waits to see what God will do first, then decides whether or not to respond in obedience. A “because” believer follows God BECAUSE God blesses the person. This person has seen the connection between personal obedience and God’s blessing and wants to keep it going. A “regardless” believer follows God REGARDLESS of the person’s circumstances, cynicism, and hardships. A “regardless” believer honors commitment and knows that God is faithful to the faithful. Which are we? How you act today casts your vote, so choose wisely! Do something worthwhile, follow God, and do the right things REGARDLESS.

Donkey and Elephant

This is that time of year when I ponder what World Communion really means. I can say that I love everybody, but if I harbor ill will when I come to the Table then it doesn’t do much good. If I’ve been a jerk to someone, I have prevented them from knowing grace, too. I very much like what someone said, “The three phrases we most often desire to hear are: “I love you!” “I forgive you!” and “Supper’s ready!” In the sacrament of Holy Communion this is what we hear from Jesus. It’s His Table, and all are invited. It’s up to us to come!

When I was a youngster in my home church we went to Sunday School and afterwards made our way into the sanctuary. The educational building was behind the sanctuary so that if you went from one to the other you usually entered through the back door that opened into the sanctuary right beside the pulpit and altar. If we saw the communion elements and the white cloth spread out we immediately pressed our parents into leaving early.

Communion services were so long and were as somber as a funeral service. We used the old ritual; where what we said focused more on guilt than grace . We used words like, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed in thought, word, and deed…” I felt sinful enough already. Our communion service added to my sense of guilt. The words of pardon were miniscule in comparison to the confession. I usually left feeling worse.

This is one reason that today when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper; we attempt to focus more on Christ’s marvelous work of grace than on our power to reform ourselves. We, more often than not, now refer to Communion as the Eucharist. Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The most important thing that we do when we come to the Communion Table is say, “Thanks!” to Christ for his gift of mercy. Rather than focus overly on our sinfulness, we thank God for God’s graciousness. What a better perspective!

World Communion Sunday is an event that bridges denominations and spotlights our commonality in the Body of Christ. This world would be so much better off if we looked for that which we hold in common rather than our differences. Holy Communion, rightly observed, reunites the Church. This is the pastor’s hope when he or she holds up the loaf of bread and says, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body in Christ.”

Therefore, our focus this week is in how to get over our differences and find common power to live in Christ. The Eucharist is a time of positive celebration, reunion, prayer for healing, and a sacred time to put others before ourselves. Dentist Thomas Welch found himself wanting to make communion accessible to all back in 1869. Communion was problematic for a number of reasons, but the alcoholic content of the wine was primary. Dr. Welch was the Communion Steward for the congregation of First Methodist Church of Vineland, New Jersey. To his dismay, more often than not, communion either set some of the participants off on an alcoholic binge or on a rush to judgment by the abstention crowd. He and his family did experiment after experiment to come up with a solution and they did. He created unfermented grape juice, dubbed it “unfermented wine,” and soon churches all around wanted the product. By 1890 “Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice” had become a staple on communion tables, where it remains so today, all because someone saw communion as a sacrament that brought Christians together, not divided them! Let’s pray that our World Communion 2014 brings the whole Christian family together in grace and thanksgiving.

Communion pic

Fall Is In the Air!

I finished my yearly Health Quotient assessment by my insurance company this morning. It’s not mandatory to complete it, but it has several perks. One is a reduced deductible for next year, and the other, more important incentive, is an encouragement to change habits, exercise more, and enjoy a healthier diet. This is a great time of year to get ready for next year. Summer’s busyness is past and the rush of Christmas is yet to arrive.

Fall is in the air! The crispness and chill of the morning air rejuvenates my spirit. At this stage of life I sense autumn’s metaphorical approach. I’m not as young as I once was, but the winter of older years is still at bay for now. As the song goes, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was!” Autumn is a season that helps me take stock of the year that has already transpired, and ponder my life as a whole. This is the most reflective time of the year for me.

It may not be your most introspective time of year, but I do hope the change of seasons gives you an opportunity for a fresh perspective on your life. Lin Yutang appropriately describes fall in these words, “I like autumn best of all, because its leaves are a little yellow, its tone mellower, its colors richer, and it is tinged a little with sorrow. Its golden richness speaks not of the innocence of spring, nor of the power of summer, but of the satisfaction and kindly wisdom of approaching age. It knows the limitations of life and is content.”

Where are you in your relationships, aspirations, contentment level, and overall happiness in life? Are you feeling as mature as your years? Ann Landers once said, “Maturity is the ability to do a job whether or not you are supervised, to carry money without spending it, and to bear an injustice without wanting to get even.” The autumn years of life reveal our maturity level. They clarify who or what is important to us. Our values are revealed as either treasure or trash.

It should be no great surprise that autumn is the season for church stewardship emphases. The harvest is upon us so we gauge our giving accordingly. Those who have embraced their autumn years know the true power of giving. Just as trees shed their leaves to prepare for spring’s new life, good stewards are reflective and effective as they make wise choices of the beneficiaries of their bounty.

Harvard Professor David C. McClelland writes about progress in individual development. In his book The Search for Power, he describes 4 stages on the path to maturity. Stage one perceives power as coming from others, but is directed toward oneself. Stage two perceives power as residing within oneself, and is used for the needs of the self. Stage three perceives power as residing within oneself, but is used for the sake of others. Stage four perceives power as residing outside the self, flows through the self, and is used for the sake of others.

He says that stage four defines the essence of religion, faith, theology, and Jesus. In his version of what I will call “Autumnal Assessment” he says that the task of every individual who strives for maturity is to remove the last vestiges of stage one from our lives where we feel like victims, by teaching that even in the world of work, power resides within us, and can be used for the sake of others. So long as people do not know or believe this, theology may well beckon then in vain, to stage four, where we recognize that true power comes from without, flows within, and then out again to and for others. In summary, he says, “We must first learn that we are not victims before we learn that we are stewards.”

During this autumn’s opportunity to assess and reassess my prayer is that we move into a fruitful stewardship of our lives, appreciating the passing seasons, and welcoming an opportunity to give back. Like an apple tree whose gifts sustain us with the crispness of each bite, may we offer ourselves as gifts of the Giver to everyone around us.

 

Stop Domestic Violence!

Tony Stewart, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Jameis Winston and I have a lot in common and it’s not football or NASCAR, and it’s certainly not domestic violence. What we have in common is that they made bad choices and so have I. We all have, but is that an excuse for more bad behavior? The Scripture (Romans 3:23) says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There are no exceptions, but I’m not in a confessing mood about my personal preferences and penances. Therefore, although we may not have committed the same shortcomings, we have all made mistakes. However, is knocking a woman out cold a mistake or allegedly committing a sexual assault, stealing crab legs, or yelling obscenities about women sophomoric hijinks? Will there be more facts added to the ongoing sagas about a racetrack death or child abuse by NFL players?

The answer is, “Probably,” and all of the above are more than “mistakes.” When I do something wrong, we need to call it what it is – “sin.” We need to recapture the appropriate word for our actions in our loosey-goosey society. We need to use the language of sin to reinforce that wrong is very, very wrong. A culture of permissiveness has encouraged too many people to shirk personal responsibility and want to let bygones-be-bygones, turning sin into miscues, mis-statements, and misogyny. South Carolina is the worst state in the US in terms of misogyny and violence against women and it is SIN! The two-word phrase “domestic violence” doesn’t even begin to capture the despicable nature of this epidemic.

Well, as United Methodists we don’t believe Jesus saved us to let us wallow in our same-old-same-old condition. We believe in sanctification – that God saves us through Jesus Christ to transform us for the transformation of the world. We believe it when Titus 2:11-12 says that God’s grace teaches us to say “No” to sin and empowers us to live new lives.

Differences in theology make a difference in whether or not we accept personal responsibility. If I think that it’s definite that I’m going to heaven no matter what I do then what I do doesn’t really matter in final analysis. If a person has a “low” view of sin they sometimes slip into a moral coma and think live and let live is an okay philosophy for everyone; i.e., “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then there are those who think if there’s no hell, there are no consequences. Just keep smiling away.

Let me give you an inadequate illustration of all three views. Maybe you heard the semi-humorous story about the difference in Baptist, Methodist, and Humanistic Positive Thinking attitudes about Judgment and Hell. Three men went out fishing. The first was a Baptist who believed, “Once saved; always saved.” The second was a Methodist who believed one could backslide and lose salvation, but there was little clarity about why and when that might happen. The third was a Positive Thinker who followed the doctrines of ministers like Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen.

A storm arose and the three men drowned. They were shocked to end up in the fires of hell. The Baptist cried out, “I thought I had it, but I didn’t. I thought I had it, but I didn’t.” The Methodist wailed, “I had it, but I lost it. I had it, but I lost it.” The Positive Thinker was curled up in a corner with his hands over his eyes, chanting, “It’s not hot, and I’m not here! It’s not hot, and I’m not here!”

But we are here, and it’s not funny. Baptist “What’s-In-It-For-Me” indifference, Methodist over-emphasis of grace over sin, and Positive Thinking’s prosperity theology makes it difficult for us to counter-attack our primary culprit to holy living: Sin. Sure, I know that all Baptists, Methodists, and Mega-church Perpetual Smilers aren’t the same and simplistic labeling probably isn’t helpful and I apologize, but I sincerely hope that all of us who call ourselves “Christian” will get our acts together and fight back against sin. We have let it go on for one reason or another for too long and it’s winning.

We all need Jesus to save us and no one sin is worse than another from God’s perspective, but we need to stand up today for respect, love, covenantal faithfulness, and common decency before it becomes utterly uncommon. If we don’t do something then we have failed all of our wives, women, daughters, sisters, mothers, and sons. The violence needs to stop NOW!

coffinposter

Taking the Rat Up!

I need hope to conquer worry! The Great Recession has knocked a dent in our ability to fulfill the so-called “American Dream” of home ownership. Our doctors and medical experts are great but new diseases are cropping up every day. Ebola and the new viral respiratory disease attacking children are real fears. On the political front, Isis is a new threat that President Obama wants to eradicate. Real and imagined fears consume us every day.

In order to survive we need an overwhelming awe of God, faith in Christ’s love, and an assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence so that faith and hope will sustain us in troublesome times. Several years ago a teacher assigned to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particularly sick child. The teacher told her that the class was studying nouns and adverbs and hoped that the child would not fall behind the other students by being in the hospital.

The teacher went to the hospital and found the boy in the burn unit. She wasn’t prepared to see the young man in such pain and obvious agony from his burns. He and his situation looked terrible. She was about to run to the door in horror when she stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your regular teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.” The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?”

Before she could finish with an abundance of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him and his will to live.  But ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment… It’s as though he’s decided to live.”

The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. With joyful tears he expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy would they?” Everyone needs hope! It motivates us. It encourages. It pushes us beyond the bad news and helps us grasp new possibilities. It stops worry in its tracks.

In the pioneer days of aviation when planes were little more than mere fabric held together by piano wire, a pilot was attempting a flight around the world. After he had been gone for some two hours from his last landing field, he heard a noise in his plane. He recognized it as the gnawing of a rat. He realized that while the plane had been on the ground a rat had gotten into the fuselage.

For all he knew the rat could be gnawing through a vital cable or control of the plane. It was a very serious situation. He was both concerned and anxious. At first he did not know what to do. It was two hours back to the landing field from which he had taken off and it was more than two hours to the next field. Then he remembered that a rat is a rodent. It isn’t made for heights; it is made to live on the ground and under the ground.

Therefore the pilot began to climb. He went up a thousand feet, then another thousand and another until he was more than twenty thousand feet up. The gnawing finally stopped. The rat was dead. He could not survive in the thin atmosphere of those heights. More than two hours later the pilot brought the plane safely to the next landing field and found the dead rat.

Worry is like a rodent trying to crash our planes, dash our hopes, and make us give up. Our job is to inspire others like the teacher with the burned boy, and find encouragement ourselves by taking the rat up into the rarefied heights of heaven where we can reach out and touch the face of God through prayer and praise. Worry can’t live when it’s that close to God. I am going to try to take the rats up today to God and let them die because they don’t compare to the power of God that seeks to work his wonders and way in our lives. Have hope and discard worry. God is greater than both! Today is going to be a great day if we will believe it!

biplane

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