Winter Ends, COVID Continues, yet JESUS Wins!

Lent has begun and I’m having a bit of PTSD. No kidding, but aren’t we all? It has almost been a year since this pandemic started. Our last “normal” worship service was March 15, 2020. I remember having hopes of being back in church by last Easter, then spent 5 months preaching to an empty sanctuary pretending to look at invisible people. Things got a little better in late summer when we returned to face-to-face worship, or maybe it would be more accurate to describe it as mask-to-mask with 5 socially-distant services and safety protocols. We did have a Christmas Eve service in the parking lot of the mall engulfed by the rain, but buoyed by the hundreds of carloads of people holding their battery-operated candles. We all claimed the Apostle John’s words, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” We have learned how to be both resilient and virtual in every way imaginable. As one of our staff members put it so aptly, “We’ve been learning to fly the plane while we are building it.” Many of us wish that we had bought stock in Zoom, and here we are in Lent again, but 2021 seems to be 2020 part two. We are weary.

I am weary of the restrictions, the utter flip-flop of doing ministry the way that I have done it for 44 years. Zoom Sunday School works, and I’ve found out that Zoom pre-marital counseling sessions are pretty darn effective. I miss being able to hold the hands of the dying and hurting; visiting people when they need me most in tangible physical real, not cyber ways. I think what is depressing me most right now is the vestiges of spring’s approach. If we were still in the cold, dark wetness of winter, maybe I wouldn’t mind this melancholy so much, but I’m feeling like Bill Murray in the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Everyday is “here we go again,” and it’s not getting that much better. The weight of all the losses, the isolation, and the eradication of what we took for granted and have lost is overwhelming.

Yep, we’re in a Lenten Funk, a COVID extended drama. Garrison Keillor once said that if you were shy, from the Midwest, and Lutheran it is Lent all year-round. With COVID, it doesn’t matter if you’re shy, from the Midwest or Lutheran. The deprivations associated with Lent have become a reality not just for our country, but for the whole world. If ever we needed Good News, it’s now. Maybe that’s a main takeaway for Christians this Lent. We can offer hope that this journey we have been on will end in victory. That’s the message of this season’s 40 days. They end in Easter triumph. It’s the hope of Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

We’re not there yet, though. Times are still tough and we need to remain vigilant, but the cavalry is coming. If we listen hard enough, we can hear the bugle call. The US cavalry and Jesus’ death on the hill named Calvary are on their way. So, we hold on, and we hope. We grasp every bit of Good News that we can and we wait with patient endurance. We foster our faith and cling to the eternal truths of the Isaac Watts’ hymn, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” as it summarizes Psalm 90. These words ring truer to me now than they ever have before:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home!

Under the shadow of thy throne,
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or Earth received her frame,
From everlasting, thou art God,
To endless years the same.

A thousand ages, in thy sight,
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night,
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all who breathe away;
They fly forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come;
Still be our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Ponder and look up, google or whatever you need to do to read and/or hear the great hymns and songs of the church that exude faith in tough times: “How Firm a Foundation,” My Hope is Built,” “A Mighty Fortress  Is My God,” “Stand By Me,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “Amazing Grace,” “Great is thy Faithfulness,” “Leave it There,” and finish with a rousing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as you journey through this seemingly perpetual Lent. Watch the music video of “Worn” by the group Tenth Avenue North and feel the hope. Try the music video by Crowder, “Come as You Are.” God can give us what we need to get through whatever we’re facing. Hang in there and trust the Lord. Amen.

(P.S. Add to the comments your favorite soul-lifting hymns or praise songs that give you strength. Let’s share some Good News with each other!)

Hope Springs Eternal

Valentine’s Day and a “New Baptized” Church

I love the church, particularly the United Methodist Church, though I am reminded of Juliet’s words to Romeo: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet…” It’s as if Juliet is saying it doesn’t matter if one is called Montague or Capulet if they love one another. To which thought, Romeo responds by saying to Juliet, “I take thee at thy word: Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; henceforth I never will be Romeo.” I can love a church, a particular church, and wonder the same thing: Does it matter what the name is? My mother belonged to Edgefield M.E. Church, South as a little girl. Then in 1939 she became a member of The Methodist Church. In 1968 she found herself as a member of the United Methodist Church, and the irony of the matter is that she belonged to all three denominations and never had to change buildings. It matters not what’s in a name if the people matter more than the steeple.

Approaching this Valentine’s Day, it strikes me that the words of Revelation 2:4-6 to the church at Ephesus are appropriate as I ponder my relationship with our denomination and the potential of yet another name change: “Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”

Our theology is great, as it includes wonderful teaching and doctrine about the Christian faith, but how are we doing in honoring our “first love” for Jesus? There are some in our ranks that have switched the order of the two great commandments to love God and neighbor, and have put neighbor before God. Apparently, there is nothing new about this. The author of Revelation plainly says, “You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” It is a hating of practices, not people. Practices are the “which” God hates, not the “whom.” We have switched that up and condone and bless everyone’s practices along with the whom of identity-politics and theologies. We have worshipped the Creature more than the Creator. Changing our focus away from God feels a bit like rewriting your wedding vows, or losing your first love.

An example of losing our first love will be on full display at the meeting of the Commission on the General Conference that begins February 20. Decisions will be made as to whether an in-person General Conference can be safely held this year, or whether or not it can be done virtually. As a denomination that makes conciliar decisions, and values everyone’s opinions, it should be apparent that a virtual General Conference will disenfranchise many people around the globe. After postponing the spring 2020 one, what makes it so critical to get it done now? Why can’t we wait another year or more? Again, it makes one wonder whether or not we have forsaken our first love. What or who do we value more? How US-centric are we? Is it important to have everyone’s voices at the table, or only a select few?

When it comes to genuine love, doesn’t that require that we say what we mean and mean what we say? If our values as a denomination are to hear all voices, the question of holding a General Conference is moot. Since Jesus prayed in John 17:21 for the church to be one, then it makes sense not to exclude people of other cultures, time zones, or those without internet capability. As much as I would like to move on to whatever our future is going to look like as a denomination, I am willing to take it slow and easy for the sake of good face-to-face conferencing that honors both God and others. The issues before us are too important to rush things. In spite of its horror, COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to pause and ponder. If, for the sake of love, I’m willing like Romeo to be “new baptized,” and seek a name change, then why the compulsion to hurry things. We have a great opportunity to slow everything down and do our best work, in love!

Identifying Your Highest Values

So far 2021 feels like 2020 part two. This has been an emotionally draining time for all of us. We can identify with the excerpted words of Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? Look on me and answer me, O Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death.” There’s almost a death pall over the world. We’re tired of this. We weren’t made to be isolated creatures. We long for relationships and interpersonal contact. Our country and world have seen tempers boil over because of the sheer weight of this prolonged assault.

Added stress to an already worn out world is the politics of division. No matter what “side” one is on, COVID and evil has taken advantage of our ongoing malaise and pitted us against one another. Our inward focus on self-survival in these past months has exacerbated our differences more than our common values. If someone were to ask you what your highest value is, what would it be? What would they be?

Our church just received 150 face masks free-of-charge from our denominational communications people. What they have written on them is very telling in terms of priorities and highest values: “Love Your Neighbor” is in big bold letters, and down at the bottom in small letters is “The people of the United Methodist Church.” My cynicism is on full display at this point because I don’t think loving my neighbor should be my highest value. It would have been much more preferable to me that the mask boldly said, “Love God,” “Love Jesus,” or “Love God and Neighbor.” In these days of division and hyper-judgement, loving our neighbor is extremely important, but when I read what Jesus called the two greatest commandments, he didn’t start with love your neighbor. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and then he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Celebrating the individual is our national pastime nowadays, and we justify ourselves by buying into this anti-social tactic. It is anti-social for us to say everything anyone does is fine. Don’t we realize that God made differences between plants, fish, birds, animals and people as a good, even great thing? We want to flatten the curve on differentiation by overplaying sameness. We have made individual autonomy our highest value. This over-valuing of self is most insidious when it demands that everybody else understand me; i.e., appreciate me, love me, support me, condone me, and applaud me.

You begin to see why the commandment to love your neighbor becomes a warped slogan of self-actualization when it requires everyone else to kowtow to whatever my self-proclaimed values are. The problem with this is that no one can really understand someone else. It is absolutely important and a good thing to try to walk in someone else’s shoes, and attempt to see their perspectives. We should value one another as made in God’s image, but identity politics is basically narcissism because it doesn’t recognize that we have all been marred by original sin. Everybody can’t be right, right? So, what do we do? What message would you put on your mask that represents your highest value?

Maybe your highest value might be to hang on to The Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If that’s not good enough, we could go further and take our national conscience a bit higher by following the two great commandments, but doing them in order: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and Love your neighbor as yourself.” Hear me, I am talking both/and, not one without the other. One cannot even begin to understand and love one’s neighbor without first loving God. A blanket kumbaya that accepts any and everything from others too easily becomes a convenient rationalization of my own actions, desires, and identity. God has to come first before I can really appreciate my neighbor or love myself.

The Bible actually has a very clear statement that spells out what it means to love God first and foremost, and our neighbors second. That statement, of course, is the 10 Commandments, albeit in the McClendon version: “Have no other gods but Me; Don’t make or bow down to idols; Don’t use my name in a way to make it mean something it doesn’t; Keep at least one day holy so you can have time to remember Who I am; Respect your parents and those who take care of you; Don’t murder and that includes way more than you think; Sex is sacred, so don’t fool around in your head, bed or on your TV, computer, or phone; Never steal in any way, shape, or form; Don’t lie or spread anything that isn’t 100% accurate; Be content, and don’t be envious or want what you don’t have.”

These commandments are pretty evenly split between love of God and neighbor. They beg the question: What would happen if we took them to heart, and put them into practice? What changes would occur in our country, world, and our personal lives? How would they shape our values, how we treat one another, and, most importantly, how we view and worship God? These commandments, seriously observed, make me get out of my pompous perch of judgment and self-approval, and take God and everybody else seriously.

Fred Craddock, consummate story teller and preacher, gives us a hint of hope and instruction on how this can work. He talked about how he had to get from one place to another on his family’s farm when he was growing up. His experience as a young man gives us a good lesson in civics, civility, and Christianity in a world fraught with divided opinions. As he walked the fields working in the family truck garden, the red mule he used to plow with would often get loose and make Fred have to chase him through an old family graveyard.

He would complain to his mother about having to go through that spooky old cemetery. His mother’s usual reply was, “There’s no other way. Now when you go through the graveyard, make sure you don’t step on graves. Graves are sacred ground.” Fred, in the late hours of waning sunlight, was chasing the mule through the cemetery, and he got frustrated because, in the diminished light, he didn’t know whether or not he was stepping on his Mama’s precious graves. Getting home he told his mother, “Mama, I couldn’t tell what part of the cemetery was sacred.” And she said, “Well, I know, it sometimes looks the same. But if you’ll just treat it all as sacred, you’ll never miss.” Craddock concluded, “You treat it all as sacred, but that’s just the way Mama was.” Is that the way we are? Do we treat whatever or whomever as sacred or profane? Something to ponder as we name our values in our complicated world.

The Pecking Order and a Possibility for Peace

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃ isn’t Greek to me, but it is Hebrew, and to follow it, you must read it from right to left. If we were to read this in English, it would be left to right and, if anglicized, it would read: “Bereshith bara Elohim eth hashamyim v-eth haaretz, “In the beginning created God the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning” is repeated in John 1:1-3, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”

Here we are at the beginning of a New Year, with a new president and administration about to be sworn in, but somehow my expectations for 2021 have been diminished. So far, 2021 seems a lot like 2020, a year that most of us would like to forget. We are weary of isolation, death, disease, restrictions, high and low domestic drama and endless commercials attacking political opponents.

Fascinating to me is the Hebrew verb, “bara,” “to create.” It is ONLY used as God’s prerogative. The New Testament Greek verb to create, “κτίζω,” or “ktizo” is similar. It is also ONLY used of God. So, guess where that leaves me and you? We are not God, but we are caretakers. Psalm 8:5-6 describes where we as humans fall in the pecking-order and what our job description is: “You (God) made humanity a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands.” This sums up Genesis 1’s description (vss. 26-27) of us humans as uniquely made in God’s image crowned with glory, and though we are not equal to the God who creates, we do have responsibilities to have stewardship over the “works of God’s hands.”

Genesis 2:15 is even more succinct as it describes our function in God’s created order: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. So, how are we doing? Do we treat one another with proper respect? Are we taking care of the planet? Do we acknowledge the image of God in other people, or judge them too harshly? Have we exhibited stewardship of Spaceship Earth or taken advantage of it to its own demise?

God used positive words in Genesis 1 saying, “Let there be light…” and described everything as either “good” or as Genesis 1:31 puts it, “God saw all that he had made. And it was very good.” Wouldn’t we do well to follow God’s positive assessment rather than being hypercritical? God spoke into the formless chaos and brought forth order as his Spirit hovered over the waters. Our ill-chosen words too often create more chaos.

Can we please lay down our swords of vitriol and venom? Might we pray for peace and it begin with me, each of us? We pray for a peace that surpasses party, personal preferences, and tightly held prejudices. I know I have allegiances for things and ideologies that would put me at odds with others, and, worse than that, I have made choices that have put me at odds with the God who so loved the world that he gave his Son to redeem us.

I know that there are causes and truths for which sacrifices are necessary. This week I am utterly dismayed as people of both parties jockey to move God off the throne as the sole creator, and try to set themselves up as the arbiters of what or who is right and wrong. Yes, there must be standards, consequences, and repercussions, but I feel a strong need to say to everybody in D.C., “Please just be quiet!” As much as I love our flag, this week and every week, I need to pledge my allegiance to the one and only God, the Lord Jesus Christ, and stop the mutually assured destruction. I want to follow Jesus who looked into the storm (Mark 4:39) and said, “Peace, be still!” I want to watch the winds and waves of a horrible year subside into a calm that can only come from God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. Please Lord, redeem 2021 and our country. Please give us a second chance as the caretakers of your Creation. Amen.

The iconic “Earthrise” image taken by astronaut Bill Anders on Apollo 8 on Christmas Eve 1968. Friday marked the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 liftoff.

A Civil Body Politick

The Pilgrims and Indians make a great tableau to consider for Thanksgiving, but the peace between the two groups didn’t last long. Massasoit and Squanto of the Wampanoag tribe had already been on the losing end of things because of smallpox brought by Europeans to American shores. Squanto knew English so well because of captivity, not deliberate education, but the first Pilgrims joined forces with these friendly Natives out of common necessity to survive the attacks of hardship, hostile tribes, and hunger. Common enemies and privation caused the two groups to work together. How does that compare to America today?

Unfortunately, as is often the case, a balanced reciprocity surrendered to animosity and hatred. The Pilgrims who were Separatists saw no future at all in the English Church. They came to America to start over, not to redeem or revive what they saw as a corrupt institution. But, then came the Puritans. The Puritans were all about redeeming and purifying the English Church. The Puritans and Pilgrims had totally different goals, and the Puritan attitude of judgment and superiority annihilated any goodwill toward Native Americans. Instead of the partnership the Pilgrims enjoyed and promoted with peaceful tribes, the Puritans looked down their noses at Indians, and if they couldn’t convert them, they killed them. What a difference it would make if we had stayed Pilgrims and rejected Puritanism. Collaboration between the Pilgrims and the Mashpee Wampanoag should have been the norm, not the exception in relationships between European settlers and Indians.

The Puritans also led us into problems among Europeans. Immigrants went from the Pilgrim’s “Civil Body Politick” of mutual benefit found in the Mayflower Compact to a Puritan Work Ethic of overwhelming greed and capitalism. The essence of the Puritan Work Ethic is one that often raises its head among religious-types; i.e., “if I want to prove that I’m pure, and blessed by God, then I need to be as wealthy as I can, and own as much as possible.” Mutuality is replaced by an emphasis on individual rights and ownership. It’s easy to see that America bought into that notion big time, and the Mayflower Compact devolved or evolved, from your perspective, into a “Bill of Rights” and a confederation of states, and led to Nullification and Civil War, and spiraled into the anarchy we too often see today.

I know that this is too broad a subject for a blog, but I cannot help but to think about our current incivility. What would our Thanksgivings look like if we truly shared without being piggish? Tomorrow’s celebrations should be quieter because there are less people getting together, although we will miss our traditional feasts. But, won’t there also be less chance of tension because college football rivalry games have been mostly cancelled this year? There also seems to be no point in arguing about who won or lost the election. Maybe like the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can focus on our common enemy named COVID and communicate more about what we hold dear together.

I would hope that we ponder our American Indian brothers and sisters. As a group, though from many tribes, they have per capita enlisted and fought in every American war more than any other demographic group. They have been loyal to the American Experiment even when they have been the most mistreated, overlooked, disenfranchised group in our history. As a T-Shirt I saw said about them, they have “Been Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” If Native Americans had not introduced the Pilgrims to the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans, and squash, the pilgrims would have starved to death. Think about American Indian contributions at your meals tomorrow, and be reminded of how wonderful it is to work together and get along.

Being Christ-Like in a Crisis

Red states, Blue states, and purple states abound. The same is true for people. If there is anything this election has taught us is that Americans are all over the map in our convictions. In spite of our acrimony and recrimination, I pray that we seek and find reconciliation. Some are not ready to move on because their disappointment is too fresh, but we cannot and must not continue to abuse one another. Just when I thought we might at least have a respite from the mud-slinging TV ads, Georgia has a run-off coming up that will decide the US Senate majority. Our TV market is 13 miles from Georgia, so our ads will continue to turn up the heat at least until the first week of January. For many it would be a good time to be like Rip Van Winkle who slept for 20 years and woke up to a changed world. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be better to stay awake and be a part of the change? In my worst moments, I simply want to tune it all out. Have mercy.

Oh, we do need mercy, don’t we? God is gracious enough to give it. Someone said it this way about grace: “There is nothing that we can do to make God love us less, and nothing we can do to make God love us more.” What a gracious way for God and us to act. Jesus loves us all and wants us to be His body, though with different parts and particular opinions. He wants us to work together and seek peace. What a tough message to hear when so many are so emotionally spent by the effects of COVID, racism, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, violence, and the aftershocks of election season. The holiday season we’re about to enter exacerbates our turmoil. Isolation and quarantine have upset plans for families to get together for Thanksgiving, and many, like me, are wondering whether or not to even put up a Christmas Tree. It’s so tempting to yield to this option and hunker down in our bunkers until all this passes.

This year has taken a huge toll in deaths and emotional stress, but God dares us to be people of hope and perseverance in spite of everything. It’s not like the church hasn’t been in this spot before. Goodness, according to a seminary professor, 500 Christians died from persecution every day for the first 400 years of the church’s existence. According to current figures it’s still about 100,000 per year. Nevertheless, we still have hope. The church didn’t just survive those early centuries of martyrdom, it actually thrived.

In their honor and for my own good, I will put up a Christmas Tree. I will not stay in my bunker and live on wishes and platitudes. I will put up that tree and turn on its lights because it represents that hope is ever green, even in bleak midwinter. That tree symbolizes the words from John 1:5 that we usually say at our Christmas Eve Services, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” If I ever needed the light of grace and hope in my lifetime, 2020 is it! This should be both our personal testimony and our message as the church to a hurting world. Our individual and corporate ministry is to attempt to bring healing and hope to the world by being the hands and feet of Jesus.

Seasoning our words with grace is far better than accusations whether we dealing with actual falsehoods or not. There was a fellow who came to know the Lord, but he really didn’t understand the Lord’s way of dealing with people. As a new convert he focused more on the texts of Scripture about Jesus using whips and turning over the money-changers’ tables. The man conveniently overlooked the fact that Jesus forgave Peter, and even said from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they are doing.”

The man’s pastor tried to have a conversation with him about the difference a kind witness makes versus one that is as bitter as vinegar. The man replied, “For years I worked for the devil full-time. Now I work for the Lord full-time. I have dedicated my life to opposing everyone whose beliefs are false and who teach errors. Fighting lies is a full-time job.”

The pastor asked the man if he had ever put himself in his opponents’ positions and felt what they feel. Additionally, the pastor pointedly asked the new convert if the man had ever thought whether grace or wrath worked better in changing peoples’ minds. The man replied, “Of course, I study my opponents’ positions carefully. I do it in order to make my arguments more devastating. Through study I discover their weaknesses. It’s not important how they feel!”

Suddenly the mild-mannered pastor exploded! He shouted at the top of his lungs, and repeatedly poked the man in his chest. He called the man names until the new convert begged the pastor to stop. The pastor did stop and resumed speaking gently to the man, “It is not enough to know what your opponents think. To be like Jesus, you need to feel what they feel. It doesn’t feel good to be yelled at or attacked. Jesus used love and wisdom much more than he did anger or temper. You go and do likewise, and you will not only be more like Jesus, but you will see God truly change people. Your desire to refute people’s falsehoods isn’t wrong, but the way that you’ve been going about it is.”

Pray with me: “Oh, Lord, we do not want to cause more harm than help. Forgive us for getting so worked up over other people’s opinions. Help us take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of a neighbors. Help us today to listen more than we spew. Help us to model your response to all of our world’s tension, and speak the truth in love; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Election Day Observations

I’ve voted and am proudly wearing my complimentary sticker on my shirt. I have no illusions about whether or not we’ll know anything about who won the election by tonight. Exit polls are about as reliable as the ones we’ve been hearing about for months. Americans are a fickle group. We’re about as bad as the Palm Sunday crowd that celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but then turned on him by the end of the week, and asked for him to be crucified.

People will tell you that this is the most important election in American history. In many ways, I think they’re right. The differences between candidates could not be any starker, but the most important election is our vote for Jesus. If I vote for Jesus then I can hold my nose and survive whomever is elected president. Don’t get me wrong! I voted for issues that I think are hugely important and are non-negotiable. I am reminded, however, that solutions to issues can often remain elusive even if your candidate wins. Our political system necessitates bargaining and compromise, a negotiation that hammers out legislation that everyone can live with. If it doesn’t, then that party or person certainly won’t last long.

The way our democracy works reminds me of making hash with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s not a pretty sight, but the finished product is darn good! The difference between Republicans and Democrats reminds me of the story of a fellow trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. Pardon the sexist language, but here’s what he said: “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” In other words, either way you go, usually somebody is the exploiter and someone is the exploited.

If you think any candidate or party is pure and clean as the morning dew, good luck with that. So, what we do is to try and discern, while admitting that everyone is subject to the failures that are common to all humanity, who or what is closest to the truth. Whose track record delivers, and who best upholds your non-negotiables? Frankly, I’m astounded at why in the world would anyone want to go into public service anyway unless they have a strong streak of masochism. It’s often a damned if you do, and damned if you don’t proposition. Thankfully, there are those well-intentioned servants who are truly willing to get into the fray because they care passionately about the common good. Today, of all days, I pray for these brave souls and their families.

The mud-slinging, personal attacks, and vicious rumors that would kill a weaker person end up aging people before our very eyes. Even the humor, both on late-night TV and around the water-cooler, is tainted and doesn’t do our public servants justice. There was one story going around that the word “politics” says all that you need to know about people running for office. It comes from two words, “poli” which means “many,” and “tics” which obviously means “blood-sucking creatures.” Of course, it doesn’t really mean that! Another jab has its roots in the man who wanted to try to figure out what his son’s profession would be. The man placed a Bible, a $100 bill, and a bottle of whiskey on a table near the back door so that his son couldn’t miss them. He hid behind the door and looked through the crack to see which of the items his son would pick up, thus determining what his son’s vocation would be.

The son walked in and picked up the $100 bill and the father thought, “Wonderful, he’s going to be a banker!” The son, however, put the $100 bill back down on the table. Then he picked up the Bible, and the father thought, “He’s going to be a minister!” Then the son put the Bible back down, and picked up the whiskey bottle. “Oh no, the father thought, “He’s going to be a drunk.” Then the lad put the whiskey bottle down and stared at all three objects. Thereupon, he picked up the $100 bill, the Bible and the whiskey bottle. The father thought, “Dear God, he’s going to be a politician.”

We can easily make fun of public servants, but these serious times demand great sacrifice of our public servants. We need to pray for them all daily. With the pandemic, social unrest, wildfires, hurricanes, and all the rest, this is no time for the faint of heart in the political arena. This is a difficult time for our country. God bless our leaders, our people, and our world so that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” God bless America. Amen.

Schilling’s Bloody Sock the Bridge to History

Due to our COVID environment and political season, there’s a wave of selfishness and pride that is running rampant across the land. COVID has us in survival mode, hunkering down in our bunkers hoarding basic necessities, or daring to claim our personal freedoms at the expense of the common good as we thumb our noses at protection protocols. The essence of many behaviors we see exhibited is unhealthy pride. Self-denial and humility have been sacrificed on the altar of the survival of the fittest. This is a scary place to be as individuals or as a society.

Jesus emptied Himself of his prerogatives. Philippians 2:5 says, “In your relationships with one another have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” It goes on in subsequent verses to poetically state how Jesus humbled Himself, made Himself nothing, and became obedient even to death on a cross. This is so antithetical to most of our thinking. We’re so caught up in our rights, our wants, and our personal protection that we overlook what’s good for the community. Thank God for the medical personnel, educators, and every helping profession that puts aside self-preservation for the good of others.

It is true that when we take an airplane ride that the flight attendant instructs us to put our own oxygen mask on first before we try to help someone else with theirs, but if we use that as a corollary for every situation, especially during this COVID season, then we are teetering on the edge of an unhealthy focus on self-survival. They don’t pass out Medals of Honor to the selfish coward who abandons his or her comrades and runs away when the going gets rough. They give the highest accolades to the soldier who, without thought of their own safety, jumps on the hand grenade tossed into the foxhole. They give up their life to save others.

We should honor the journeyman sports player who takes a hit for the team, or, without self-regard, carries the team on their shoulders. Think Curt Shilling of the Boston Red Sox who played in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS with his ankle skin sutured to his torn tendon sheath so he could pitch against the Yankees. Amid enormous pressure, Boston team doctor Bill Morgan made the desperate decision to suture the outside of Schilling’s ankle to the tissue surrounding the tendon in an attempt to hold everything in place long enough for him to pitch Game 6. Blood began oozing out before the first inning, visibly soaking his sock.

That bloody sock still symbolizes self-sacrifice for one’s team. The Red Sox won the series, and went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series. Schilling pitched one of those games, too, still barely patched together, and in pain. His “Team-First” attitude brought the world champion title back to Boston for the first time since 1918. I can hear President John F. Kennedy’s words echo, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” More importantly, we can hear Jesus’ words to deny ourselves. He did it Himself, and that should be inspiration enough for us to embrace humility and put others before ourselves.

It should come as no surprise that the words “sin” and “pride” both have “I” as the middle, central letter. It’s pride that keeps me looking down on others, and thinking I’m better than others. Have you heard about the unkempt, gruff, smelly cowboy out on the range who became a Christian? He told his bunkmates about it and they insisted that he go to church. It was miles and miles away. He went and came back. His bunkmates asked him how it went. He said that when he got there he parked in the corral. They said, “They don’t call it a corral, it’s a parking lot.” He said, “I didn’t know that.” The cowboy then said he walked up to the front gate of the church. His buddies laughed and said, “That’s not what they call it. They call it a door.” The cowboy said he didn’t know that. Then he said he walked down a long chute. They laughed again and said that church people call it an aisle. He said he didn’t know that. The he said he sat down in a little stall. His friends laughed and said church people call it a pew. He said, “Oh, I did know that because that’s what the lady said when I sat down beside her.” How often do we look down our noses at people and say “Peeww…”? How sad.

As someone aptly said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” No one is better or higher than anyone else. We all need each other. A church is as only as strong if every member shoulders the cross and builds up the Body of Christ. A country, or society, is only as strong as we value what’s best for everybody over what’s best for me.

Immortalizing Your Life

Double standards, no standards, hypocrisy, and selfish narcissism are just a few of the things that absolutely get my goat these days. No one seemingly wants to accept responsibility for their actions, and the inability to say, “I’m sorry!” has left us with enough pent-up anger and frustration that borders on the edge of explosion.

A married couple cooped up for all these COVID months were at each other’s throats. She seemingly was handling it better than her husband, so he asked her, “How do you stay so calm?” She replied, “I work off my anger by cleaning the toilet.” He then asked, “How does that help?” She replied, “I use your toothbrush.”

There’s got to be a better way, and there is. It’s called forgiveness. Though I know that I should forgive, I tend to cling to Matthew 7:6 and its admonition, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls before swine.” In other words, don’t waste good things on those who can’t appreciate them. There are a lot of mongrels and sons-of-mongrels out there, and plenty of oinkers and porkers, too, but does it help if I act like a jerk and blast rather than bless, or poison rather than praise?

It’s almost un-American to let go of revenge and anger. That’s why I like the prayer, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us; may God turn their hearts, and if he can’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” I also like the story of the big bully and the little guy. The big bully tosses the little guy over his head, and says, “That’s judo. I picked it up in Japan.” A second later the big bully whacks the little guy on the back of the neck, and says, “That’s karate. I picked it up in Korea.” Somehow the little guy squirms away and goes out to his truck and comes back in, pops the big bully on the head and says, “That’s crowbar. I picked it up in Home Depot.”

I want to say, “Yes!” because we like reciprocity, that people get what they deserve, that there are consequences to people’s actions. Rather than payback from God; i.e., “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,” we want to help out! My dad went to see my grandfather to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage. Papa didn’t even turn around and face him. He was stocking shelves in his country store, and kept his eyes on what he was doing. All he said was, “You make your bed. You’ve got to sleep in it.” He was paraphrasing the Bible, “You reap what you sow.”

Problem is, we all deserve punishment. None of us is squeaky clean. If it’s true that if you live long enough somebody is going to do you wrong, then it’s also true that if we don’t forgive them, we’re letting them do us that wrong forever. Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. If we stick with, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” there’s going to be a bunch of blind toothless people.

We are writing our epitaph every day. Paul made his life motto very clear from his Roman prison cell, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)” Is my epitaph, “Don’t get mad, get even?” I hope not, or I’m burning down the very bridge that I have to cross over myself. An epitaph is a short memoir that sums up what we hope people will remember about us. It answers a question that’s hard to answer in our pandemic panic, “What is my purpose in life?”

Epitaphs should be like mission statements. Like passing the T-Shirt test, as in it needs to fit on a T-Shirt, our mission statements should be short enough to be memorized, and long enough to be memorable. What short significant statement will immortalize your personality and passions? What will be on your grave?

There was a southern family who always went on a little road trip on Sunday afternoons. They would seek out cemeteries and let the kids blow off some steam by making a game of finding the oldest tombstone in the graveyard. One of the children yelled out, “Here’s an 1862!” The family gathered around and read this lady’s epitaph, “Ever she sought the best, ever she found it.” There, in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, when she could have blamed everything on something or someone else, she took the high road and looked for the best and found it. That’s an epitaph worth living!

I want to be remembered for better than what I’ve been exhibiting lately. How about you?

Passive-Aggressive Types and Sweet Revenge

There are a lot of anxious people around. With all of the fear-mongering with the election coming up, there are plenty of upset people. The stock market is diving and the death rate is climbing. Being cooped up together is making some folks absolutely sick of each other. Sending our youth and young adults off to school has everyone in a tizzy, and God bless the teachers to stay safe and calm in the mix. Here’s to hoping that when the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 2020, we can all shout “Hallelujah! We made it!”

But, what if we can’t? What if the other fellow gets elected, or if all the votes still haven’t been counted by the deadline? What if COVID-19 mutates with the flu, and things get worse instead of better? Handling adversity and toxic people is an art. If you’re one of those persons who needs to get a certain amount of continuing education every year, then getting your Ph.D. has been a cinch in 2020 because all of our worries and troubles have been Piled Higher and Deeper this year.

To top it all off, everybody’s feelings are on their sleeves. You can’t seem to say “love” without making somebody mad. Fred Craddock, great preacher and story teller, said that he and his wife Nettie had a neighbor who liked to rain on their parade almost every day. Fred said that the neighbor would read the paper just to see what was on at the theater, and then tell him or Nettie, “I noticed such-and-such a movie is on. Have you seen it?” Fred said that sometimes he’d say, “Yes, and have you seen it?” He said it was then that he discovered that she had sucked him right in to her judgmental negative attitude. Her usual reply was, “No, I haven’t seen it. I don’t think Christians should go to the movies.” Fred said that he and Nettie finally caught on to the fact that, “She got more pleasure out of not going to the movie than we did in going to the movie, and then she doubled her pleasure by indicting us for going.”

Who are the passive-aggressive types trying to rain on your parade? Passive-aggressive folks say something innocuous that almost seems nice, but they trick you and suck you in like Fred Craddock’s neighbor. They ask things like, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” You might not care a whit about the color, but after they ask their question you’ll think about it for the rest of the day. Which kind of critique bothers you more, or does the most harm: the direct attack, or the subtle innuendo of someone who asks, “Do you think your hair looks good that way?”

I prefer direct attacks, but this year has me maxed out. Common decency has gone out the window. It is either uncommon or non-existent. Rage, rioting, and rebellion are rampant. Whatever happened to mercy and forgiveness? Can’t we talk to each other in calm helpful ways? Our current atmosphere is so tinged with negativity that everyone acts like a mudslinging politician, or like the people who are getting rich off their tell-all books that smack of little more than simple revenge.

Ah, revenge! I’m reminded of the story of the three guys who were captured by a group of tribesmen on the Amazon. One was a Frenchman, one an Englishman, and one was an American. The tribesmen told all three that they were going to die, be skinned and their flesh used to waterproof the tribe’s canoes. Out of some tiny bit of mercy, they would let each of the foreigners pick their own method of demise. The Frenchman said, “Poison,” then gulped it down while shouting, “Vive la France!” The Englishman said “Pistol,” and said “Long live the Queen!” The American said, “Knife,” and starting poking holes all over his body, then exclaimed, “Good luck waterproofing your canoe with my skin!”

We would rather hurt ourselves than let somebody else get their way. As they say, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” in other words when it is least expected and is a surprise. Unfortunately, our society is self-destructing before our very eyes, and we’re inflicting pain on ourselves, even if it hurts us. We may say, “It’s no skin off of me,” when it really is. Instead of serving up revenge, why can’t we all just settle down and do our best to make it to a post-COVID, post-Election, post-whatever-ails-you place where we can all look back and say, “Thank you, Jesus?”