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

The Fourth and Flags

The Fourth of July has a shady heritage in the South. It wasn’t until World War I that most people below the Mason-Dixon Line approved of Independence Day celebrations. The poverty and animosity caused by Reconstruction caused many Southerners to avoid our nation’s birthday. Reconstruction was a tumultuous time. South Carolina was under harsh military rule until 1877, twelve long years after the end of the Confederacy. It was a long military occupation that resulted in exacerbated resentment and retribution against people of color.

Perhaps this explains why Southerners remember “The War” so well. But there is a difference between history and heritage. History is something to learn from so that its evil may not be repeated and so its good might be perpetuated. Heritage is what we pass on to our descendants. I don’t want to pass on a history fraught with prejudice and poverty. I do want to pass on a heritage of front porches and smiling faces, family reunions and neighborliness. In these days of reflection since the Charleston Massacre, I want to make sure that my legacy, our legacy, reflects Christ more than country. Sometimes they are not synonymous.

Our flags should represent our values, our heritage. What happens, however, when flags, whether they be swastikas or rising suns, stars and bars, or even Old Glory, fail to represent our Christian heritage? What if there’s a difference between what we profess as Christians and what we profess as a nation? If history, by definition, is something to be learned from, and heritage is something to be passed on, we, therefore, need to be very careful about the flags to which we offer our allegiance.

I would be highly offended if swastikas still flew over Germany. That symbol invokes hatred and genocide. With that being said, I wonder what people think when they see an American flag? Surely to many it represents freedom and the sacrifice of America’s millions that gave of themselves so that democracy might defeat fascism in World War II. We are grateful for those whom Tom Brokaw called, “The Greatest Generation,” plus previous and subsequent generations who have protected our freedoms and honored our flag.

However, people who live in so-called “Banana Republics” think of Americans in a whole different light. To them our flag represents people who will sacrifice democracy and fairness if it will provide us with cheaper gas, clothing, or produce. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) was passed to help us more than it was to help poor Third World residents. We want to pay 1950’s prices for things no matter how it affects people in poorer countries, and we have the gall to gripe about jobs being sent overseas as if it wasn’t our fault. No wonder poverty-stricken countries are more than eager to let our greed for pleasure consume their illegitimate drugs. In their minds it serves us right! Our flag, to them, stands for oppression. To them, we seem very hypocritical, especially in the way that we define “our vital national interests.”

To combat this perception I propose that we do two things. First, we need to be vigilant that our nation’s values be steadfast in fulfilling the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Second, we need to beware of ever confusing our faith with our flag. As a matter of historical fact, nations and their banners hardly ever represent Christianity. America perhaps has come closest. But that’s our opinion. Ask a Nicaraguan or Panamanian and the answer might be different. Let us make sure that our flag is a consistent international symbol of peace and hope. Then it will remain a worthy national one. God bless America, for we surely need it.

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the man whose neighbor saw him come home every day from a hard day at work and stop in his yard before entering the house and would hold his hands out and run them up and down on the leaves of a certain tree. Then the man would go inside. One day the neighbor asked the man why he went up to that tree every day. The man told him about his anxieties and difficulties at work and about how much he loved his family. He didn’t want to take his troubles into his home and bother his family so he picked a tree that he called his “Trouble Tree” where he would leave his problems. He said it always amazed him how few troubles were on that tree the next morning. We all need a way to let go of our troubles.

My Dad had a particular way of dealing with his troubles. He had a way of saying, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” but it wasn’t in church-appropriate words. I have told Cindy for years that I want the saying on my tombstone. She has refused, of course, due to the quote’s edginess. I have suggested getting it translated into Hebrew, Greek, or Gaelic, but no dice. I can’t even let you know what it is, but, suffice it to say, it means, in essence, “Try not to worry.” I’ve thought a lot about Daddy in my post-Annual Conference processing and discernment. Our imminent celebration of Father’s Day has him on my mind, too.

The way that I have most heard his advice intoned during the last few days has come from an unlikely source, and one I’m pretty sure he would dislike: The Beatles. Driving around in my car since last week and listening to my favorite playlist, Paul McCartney’s song “Let It Be” has been my “go-to” song. I never really gave much thought to what the lyrics meant. Over the years I think I guessed that the words, “Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be…,” was some reference to the Virgin Mary, and I thought that “Let it be” was a prayer-like phrase with a connotation of “que sera, sera,” i.e.; “whatever will be, will be.” The notion that whatever happens is going to happen as if God pre-planned disasters, shootings and calamities is malarkey. It doesn’t leave room for human choice and the sheer evil that occurs.

After really listening to the song in the context of some of my personal anxiety and discernment about the future, it hit me! This is my Dad’s saying in different words! “Let it be,” means “leave it alone,” not “let it happen.” Give it to God, walk away, don’t keep fretting and dwelling on the “what-if’s” of life. Let it be! It’s not about accepting things the way they are as if there’s no way to change things. It’s about not getting so worked up that you can’t think or hear straight.

Actually that’s what Paul McCartney says about the song’s origin. He was at a low point in his life, and was sensing that the Beatle’s weren’t going to make it much longer as a band. His childhood anchor was his mother who died when he was fourteen. When he wrote the song he was at the point that her face was beginning to fade from his memory and he desperately needed her, just like I still need my Dad.

So in the midst of despair, McCartney’s mother came to him, and her name was Mary. He described what happened, “So in this dream twelve years later, my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point in my life and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it will all work out. So, being a musician, I went right over to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me’… Mary was my mother’s name… ‘Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.’ It didn’t take long. I wrote the main body of it in one go, and then the subsequent verses developed from there: ‘When all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.’”

So, as I discern and we all try to figure out the senseless tragedies of life as in all the broken-hearted people in Charleston, SC, we leave alone that which we cannot know, and do something about what we do know to find or create solace, justice, and hope. We don’t just shut down and give into a tragic and fatalistic cosmic plan. My way of letting things be is to go to God in prayer, embrace solitude in tiny and large moments, and trust that God always is present.He doesn’t cause pain, but has entered our pain through the wounded Christ to redeem it. Therefore, instead of Mother Mary coming to me and whispering words of wisdom, it’s Jesus standing up on the storm-tossed boat and rebuking the wind and waves and saying, “Peace, be still!” I’ll wait for His answer and trust His tremendous love for all of God’s children. On this tumultuous ride that we call life, don’t work yourself into worse thinking and reactions: Let it be.

 

*Narcie got a great report! Thanks for your prayers; still a long haul and trusting Jesus and counting on you!

Have you ever had a day that has your antenna and ganglia hanging or sticking out all over the place and your sensory overload has you jacked up more than with 4 cups of coffee. Well, that’s this morning for me. I’m a little nervous, more than usual. I have a good friend and parishioner’s surgery shortly and am about to head to the hospital. Then I’m meeting with a family about a funeral then probably heading back to the hospital. Sunday’s sermon is on my mind. The text is about Jesus’ own family thinking he was nuts and I’m wondering how to preach that and make it relevant. I hate to admit it but as I was driving to the church a few minutes ago all these alliterating words jumped out at me as options to think about when it comes to family relationships: Restoration or Rejection; Respect or Rebellion; Redemption or Retaliation – what is it about preachers and our phonetic thinking? Anyway, at the stoplight I pulled out my pen and a business card and scribbled my thoughts down while holding the brake and clutch pedals down.

Two other big deals on my mind this morning are Narcie’s regular 3-month MRI about her brain tumor, and next week’s Annual Conference. We do well dealing with the anxiety about Narcie until a two-week window closes in and I begin to get antsy, ratchet up my praying and my out-of-sight-out-of mind attitude is replaced by front-and-center preoccupation. Vice President Biden’s son’s death this week has kicked things up a notch, and another amplifier about Narcie is that next week at our South Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference I’ll be the Memorial Service preacher.

Memorial Services are primarily in memory of the clergy who died since the last conference session. We show photos of the deceased, and their families, along with Annual Conference members, are gathered to have a funeral service. Sure, each of these individuals already had their own service, but this is one of the United Methodist things that we do. Since we are a connectional church and try to do everything together, we mourn together, too. Actually, Annual Conference becomes every clergyperson’s church. When we become clergy our membership is literally transferred from our home churches to the Annual Conference.

Next week we will remember many individuals who gave their hearts, lives, and families for the cause of Christ, and we will cry. Narcie and I usually sit together during this service and we have cried. She cried buckets, we both did, when Rev. Charlie Summey’s face went across the screen. He had the same cancer as she and had a better prognosis, but he’s dead. The reality hit us and it should everyone: There’s going to come a time when Narcie’s picture, mine, Josh’s, and even Cindy’s will be up there on that screen at an Annual Conference Memorial Service. Over half my family has the South Carolina Annual Conference as its church home, and there’s going to be a funeral someday.

Of course, my prayer for Narcie is that it’s a long time away but since she has her appointment this morning and I’m preaching that sermon next week, I can’t seem to shake this nexus of events. I covet your prayers that her report is good. Her situation is so important to the doctors that they call her in within an hour of the MRI to give her the news. It’s a big deal. Of course, Narcie’s attitude is typical Narcie: “I’m going to do my ministry, show no fear, and live until I die!” But my eyes are welling up as I write this. I want my “little girl” to live for decades more. God bless every parent who’s ever been through this, or lost a child. For years, I thought as a pastor that I had a clue and could help people through their losses. Maybe my ministry of presence helped, but until all this has happened with us, I didn’t know what this really feels like. Your life is forever changed. God bless every parent who carries this, and please heal every child; in Jesus’ name.

When I think of this day and the family dynamics with every situation I’ll face this morning I can promise you that I will choose Restoration over Rejection; Respect over Rebellion; Redemption over Retaliation – and today I am especially going to choose Rejoicing over Remorse, Resurrection over Regret. A life well-lived, however short or long, is a gift to treasure. Treasure the people around you today as the gifts that they are.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

Commencement 2015

Commencement 2015

Dr. Tim McClendon

(Given at Mead Hall, Aiken, SC)

 

Perhaps you have heard the story of the pilot and his 3 passengers: a fifth grade Boy Scout, a priest, and a famous astrophysicist. The pilot frantically opens a door and yells to the others, “The plane is going down and we only have 3 parachutes. I have a family that needs me.” Then he grabs a parachute and jumps from the plane. The famous astrophysicist stands up and says, “I’m the smartest man in the world. It would be a shame for me to die. The world needs me!” He grabs and jumps. The priest says to the Boy Scout, “My son, there’s only one parachute left and I’ve lived a long good life. I don’t have a family, and I’m ready to meet my Maker.” The Boy Scout says, “Hold on, Father. Don’t say anymore. We’re both alright. The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane wearing my knapsack.”

Are you, are we smarter than a fifth grader? Do we have wisdom? The difference between wisdom and knowledge is evident in this story. Knowledge is the right information and wisdom is putting it to use. The scientist had knowledge but didn’t know how to use it. I know a lot of smart people today, successful people, affluent people, but they’re jumping out of airplanes wearing knapsacks filled with knowledge and stuff they don’t need instead of parachutes. What is needed in our “Information Age” is not more knowledge, but more wisdom.

My task on this Commencement Day is to help you, all of us, commence, aka begin to live with more wisdom. James 1:5-6 says that if we want more wisdom we should ask God and it will be given to us. Proverbs 4:6-9 tells us that if we value wisdom it will protect us, watch over us, exalt us, honor us, and even give us grace. The best source of wisdom and everything else is found in what Jesus said about Himself in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I could end there but counting on His wisdom I offer these tidbits on Commencement Day 2015. I share these 18 thoughts in no particular order. Take them or leave them.

  1. Up until now, especially with your senior year, you have been building a resume to get into the college of your choice and/or win a scholarship, too. Some of you have been building a resume for a different track after high school, but either way from here on, my advice is instead of building a resume, build relationships. Do your work, for sure, but if, from here on out in life, you focus on relationships you WILL get into grad school or a leg-up on the next step in your life!
  2. Don’t post anything on Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram that you don’t want a future girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, employer or mother-in-law to see. Social Media is permanent so be careful. Even if you set your Snapchat time limit at 1 second, it may last in someone’s brain file forever.
  3. Avoid “Selfies”! Our self-centered, self-obsessed narcissistic society is too full of itself. Don’t be one of those people who takes pictures of their meal, their clothes and God knows what else. The world has little use for name-dropping, pompous, full of yourselves, entitled people who have a preoccupation with appearance over substance. Remember that pride goes before a fall and the branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit. If a fraternity, sorority, or group of friends wants you to be or do something that isn’t you, they aren’t the friends that you need anyway.
  4. Avoid, at all costs, living a “plagiarized” life. Copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is stealing. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t depend on google, Wikipedia, or Wiki-how for your answers. If you cheat, you will be exposed as a poser in every area of life. Do your own work!
  5. Keep reading and continue to do independent research for the rest of your life. Make sure that your ideas and writing are original. Expand your vocabulary. Read for pleasure and fun. My suggestions would include J.R.R. Tolkien with the Moody Blues playing on your earbuds; anything by N.T. Wright, and the Bible, not necessarily in that order.
  6. Your biggest liability is your need to succeed and please people. It’s okay to fail if you learn from your mistakes and move on! If you make pleasing people your goal in life then you will be a slave to everyone else, and you will play second-fiddle to whomever you’re sucking up to.
  7. When caught in a dilemma, don’t try to force things, panic, and struggle. Instead, practice purposeful pausing. Walk away, take a break, do something unrelated to your problem and then come back to it. This gives you space and opportunity for an epiphany, a new insight. Call it “white space,” whatever – just do it and a new way forward will present itself. Trust me!
  8. Every successful person knows that life has foul lines just like a baseball field. Some things are in play and some things aren’t. Some things are out of bounds and plain wrong. They are off limits. I don’t care what the misbehavior is, even if it makes you supposedly happy, it won’t for long, so have standards and live up to them. It’s called “integrity,” from Old French in tegere which means “in touch,” that you have a core of beliefs upon which everything in your life connects or is in touch. In essence, everyone needs to have a core set of values about which we will not hedge, compromise or desert!
  9. Do your classwork or your necessary labor every day in spite of the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you work on your assignments or projects along and along, you’ll actually have more time to relax and play responsibly. Cramming doesn’t promote effective learning nor does procrastinating and waiting until the last minute foster quality work. My adage, “Get it done and have more fun!”
  10. Yes, you will have a laptop, IPhone, Smartphone, and/or a Tablet to use in life, but don’t forget to look up more than you look down. If you’re not careful you’ll run into a telephone pole, plus you may miss meeting the most important person of your life. Look up and listen to people before you forget what their voices sound like because there will come a time in your life when their voices will begin to fade. Look up and listen, and don’t text and drive so that your voice isn’t the first to fade through death!
  11. Think with your head and not with your hormones. Experimentation only belongs in the lab, but don’t do anything improper there either. Love and sex are very often two different things, so avoid the complication until you’re ready. There’s nothing casual about casual sex, and it will have permanent consequences. Watch out for users and abusers who want benefits without commitment.
  12. An observation: The music that you love right now in high school will be your favorite for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s the emotional connection to these wonderful years, but whatever the reason, just accept it and enjoy it. Let the music bring back all the good times, even the tumultuous ones. There’s something therapeutic about it. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to make new playlists for every age and stage of life, too, and, guess what, your future children will have their own playlists and they probably won’t sound like yours, but that’s okay. That’s life, c’est la vie!
  13. Internships are something that will help you decide your direction in life. If offered an apprenticeship and a mentor, go for it. You get paid for an opportunity to test drive a career, but remember a calling, a vocare, a “vocation,” like the word “voice,” is always better than a career. Callings will always make you happier than a career so listen for the Voice!
  14. Sure you hardly ever use cash or a checkbook and that’s great. Plastic is the way to go, but being pre-approved for a credit card doesn’t mean that you have to apply for it. And when you use your debit card for everything, be moneywise and make sure to check your balances often. Avoid student and personal debt like the plague and with all transactions keep your identity protected. There’s some pun in that because how you spend your money reveals a lot about your identity. What do your purchase habits say about yours?
  15. Avoid Platonic thought! The philosopher Plato taught that mind and matter were two separate things and that our minds are good and matter is evil. So what he promoted and is now our soup de jour in our everyday lives is that “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!” Other interpretations of this line of thinking say things like, “If it feels good, do it!” or “YOLO” – You only live once. What a crock – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex – there will be a payday someday. Therefore, don’t be foolish. You are not invincible. Accidents happen. Buy a life insurance policy and do not separate your thinking from your doing.
  16. Then there’s “Virtual Reality,” which is Platonic thought on steroids. This is the philosophical underpinning of our current worldview with its reliance on computers, virtual on-line relationships, video gaming. We must not forget that as much as we would like some of this to be real, it’s not. Fantasy leagues aren’t reality. Neuroses are something we all use to escape realities we don’t like, but we shouldn’t let “Game of Thrones,” “Trivia Crack,” “Candy Crush Saga” or whatever the latest virtual game is take over our lives to the point where our neuroses become the basis of a psychotic break from reality. When I say, “Get real!” – I mean it. Beware the temptation of living in a fake world with fake friends.
  17. Simple advice: Never buy a new car. Let someone else “eat” the depreciation. A new car loses 11% of its value the first day you drive it home. That’s $2,200 on a $20,000 car. Therefore, never make quick, “I just gotta have it,” knee-jerk decisions whether it’s about shopping, deciding on a major, or a job selection. You need to be adaptable and never “settle” for anything or anyone. Change is the only constant in life, so as much as you like the new this or that, remember it’s going to change. Get used to this fact and do your best to slow your decision-making down through reflection, meditation, and prayer. Never buy a new car!
  18. Remember everything does happen for a reason and you are the usual reason. Everybody wants to say it: “Everything happens for a reason,” and they’re right. Most people want to make God the reason but God loves us and the whole creation enough to give us free will, so don’t blame God for the crud in your life. If God caused the pain and calamities then God would be worse than a child-abuser, and God’s not. Both bad and good things happen mostly because of our choices, and the choices of others. Bad things also get added nudges from the general decay that’s in the world or from Evil. But, remember, YOU are the primary mover of the course of your life. God’s providence will help you and lead you, but it’s up to you to make the decision and do something about it. I guess what I’m saying is this, “Take responsibility.” It’s yours. In conclusion, as I have thought about this Graduation and Commencement I have recalled a favorite song from my senior year in high school. It’s the song “Tin Man,” by the band “America.” The line keeps going through my head: “But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That’s right. The Wizard of Oz didn’t give the Tin Man a heart. He already had one or why did he rust from his tears? The Lion didn’t need Oz to give him courage. He had already exhibited that he had courage. The Scarecrow certainly already had a brain. They already had what they needed before they met the Wizard in the Emerald City. So do we. Each of you already has what you need to reach the Emerald City, too. The yellow brick road awaits. Start walking!

Graduation

As Pentecost approaches on May 24, I am reminded that each Christian is gifted by the Holy Spirit. As much as we like talking about our Trinitarian beliefs, the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift in both theology and practice. It is the Spirit, however, that unites us as a body made of different parts and supernatural abilities (I Corinthians 12). Sometimes our natural abilities and aptitudes are exactly synonymous by the Holy Spirit’s unique gifting of us, but sometimes not. Rather than digressing into the question of how you can tell which, I think that it is better to affirm the Biblical truth that every Christian has unique “gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:4b).” Whether one feels like they have something to offer is irrelevant because we all do!

The Holy Spirit’s presence was let loose by God on an unsuspecting populace in Jerusalem and the world was turned upside down by an explosion of spiritual power. As I read the Pew Research Center’s newest religious poll of America’s faith habits this morning I was dismayed that the “none’s” with no religious affiliation are growing while those professing Christ are declining. I cannot help but wonder if it’s because we resemble the words of 2 Timothy 3:1-5a, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Sounds quite descriptive of us, doesn’t it? A form of godliness but denying its power.

The power that supplies godliness is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the dunamis, “power” in NT Greek, from whence we get our word “dynamite.” The early church saw miracles and exploded with growth. The Wesleyan Movement saw the same effects and England, America, and most of the rest of the world have witnessed the unleashing of God’s Spirit through our church. Lately, however, we have become too domesticated. Where is the power of the Gospel in our midst? The Holy Spirit is our dynamite!

An interesting article was written several years ago in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) Starr concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live.

  • It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
  • There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation.

  • And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.
  • “Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t know anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote an editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”
  • Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”
  • Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implications…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

What I meant by saying that we should remember the particulars of the three authors is that other people, from very disparate viewpoints, think there is something that Methodism still has to offer. In reality, the genius of Methodism isn’t a thing, but a Who – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s great love for all humankind.  The question is whether or not we are full of the Holy Spirit, or full of ourselves? A tree is known by its fruit. Pray for a new Pentecost, and I know it needs to begin in me!

pentecost1

 

Mothers of God

Theotokos or “Mother of God,” is an expletive to some and a name for Mary for others. To most of us it is a vaguely familiar expression that we somehow recall as being “Catholic.” Sadly Protestants are often a little leery of our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, especially in the veneration of Mary. But, on this Mother’s Day, can’t we agree that “Ave Maria” is just as appropriate in a Protestant church as much as in a Roman Catholic one?

If it weren’t for Mary’s humble willingness to endure the ire of Joseph and surely that of the rest of Nazareth’s townspeople, we would be without a Jesus born both of God and of humanity. Jesus had to be human to satisfy justice, and he had to be divine for his death to save the whole world. I dare say one reason for Jesus to have a human mother is to claim that the very best representatives of humanity are women. Too often more is made of the political incorrectness of God as father when we miss the greater affirmation of women found in the person of Mary.

Meister Eckhart, famous theologian and mystic of the fourteenth century, described our affinity to Mary this way: “We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: when the Son of God is begotten in us.” Like Mary, we should all birth the Christ!

Of course, women are ahead of the game in this regard, whether they have had a child or not. For instance, I am reminded of a somewhat obscure passage of Scripture found in Paul’s lengthy greeting at the end of Romans. In this list he greets a host of people that have meant something to him. One such greeting includes a special word to every woman who has been a spiritual and emotional mother but maybe not a biological one. In Romans 16:13, Paul states, “Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord, and his mother, who has been a mother to me, too.

Haven’t we all had women in our lives like Rufus’ mother, someone who has nurtured us, taught us, cared for us? A lot of my mothers were actually my real mother’s helpers. Aunts and school teachers come quickly to mind. Included would be the wise women of my first parish that taught a young inexperienced minister the way to care. My mother-in-law certainly was a mother to me, and with deepest sincerity I humbly admit that my wife has been like a mother to this her “fourth child” more often than she should have.

Mothering isn’t about biology. Like Mary and Rufus’ nameless mother, we can all fill in the blank of those women who have mothered us. We are grateful! This day is for every one of you. Our prayer, like Meister Eckhart’s, is that your grand unfathomable love might be born anew in us, that we might become Theotoki, bearers of the Christ child, as well as you. This is our tribute to you who have borne Him so well. This is our prayer of dedication. No greater compliment can we pay, no greater Mother’s Day gift can we purchase save the desire to be like you in birthing Christ in the world.

Mary and Child

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

Where are our society’s foul lines? Baseball has foul lines to let us know if a ball is fair or foul. Basketball, football, volleyball, soccer, golf, and pretty much every sport has designated areas of play, and there are always penalties for breaching the boundaries. It saddens me that I can’t remember the last time I blushed. The Supreme Court is making a momentous decision about what’s fair. The people on the streets in Baltimore, both police and demonstrators, are trying to do the same thing. The issue is too simply put, but it’s about what’s right, legit, moral, and just in our individualized society. Is everything okay or can we as a people agree on positive helpful expressions of what’s in the best interest of all?

Tonight we have a Charge Conference, which in United Methodist-speak, is a meeting of elected church leaders who get to discern the proper and God-pleasing course of action on a particular issue. I will be presiding using predetermined boundaries of procedure and decorum. Our order of precedence in discerning what’s in order or not is fourfold: The United Methodist Book of Discipline, the Standing Rules of the Annual Conference, the Rules of Order from the preceding General Conference, and, finally, Robert’s Rules of Order.

The more basic determinant may be simpler than these four: Does what we do and say uphold love of God and neighbor? The basic parliamentary dictum and the premise of most people is that, “the minority must be heard, but the majority must prevail.” The problem with that dictum is that the majority may be wrong and deluded by faulty group-thinking as in the coed raped on a “spring break” beach in front of hundreds of onlookers. The dictum is also destructive if the minority seeks its hearing through violence. Without sounding like a fundamentalist, we need to do what I’ve heard coaches say when their team is struggling: “We need to go back to the fundamentals of the game.”

Can we agree on what is fundamental and basic to humanity’s best self? Can we agree that everyone is special and worthy of civility? We have all been made in God’s image. We carry God’s Moral Image and can do what is right. We are also made in God’s Social Image which reminds us that if God needs to dwell in the community that we call the Trinity, so we need each other, too! Therefore, we need to personally and corporately promote the things that are right, and that support community.

All this being said, I firmly believe that some things are out-of-bounds, past the foul lines, sidelines, and every other boundary. All of us have stepped across the chalk into foul territory. As much as we have been made in God’s image, we have also embraced the darkness of unbridled self-interest that doesn’t care a bit about anyone else. We can laugh at the Mark Sanford’s of our society who go off and say they’re hiking the Appalachian Trail when they’re really in Argentina with their so-called “soul mate.” Give me a break!

But, giving us a break is exactly what God does. Romans 3:26 describes God as both “just and justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.” What that says to me is that though I have sinned and God is just in pronouncing judgment on me, God also makes things right between us through the bridge built by Jesus. This also begs my attention to being nicer to everyone around me. I can’t point my finger at anyone else without three pointing back at me. Someone said, “There’s a court more Supreme than the one in D.C.!” Yes, but God lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust. God’s punishment and grace are upon us all. O Lord, give us divine help in dispensing them out fairly and justly!

So with all the uproar in Baltimore and the deliberations at the Supreme Court I recall the words of author James Michener, “I was born to a woman I never knew, and raised by another who took in orphans. I do not know my background, my lineage, my biological or cultural heritage. But when I meet someone new, I treat them with respect. For after all, they could be my people.” As the psalmist said in Psalm 100:3, we are all God’s people. I pray every day that I’ll act like it – with respect.

 

 

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