I Shot a Red Bird

I killed a Red Bird. There, I’ve confessed it. As a little boy, about this time of year, a Christmas present of a B-B-Gun was used to kill a beautiful Cardinal. I love Cardinals. Their scarlet red feathers bring color into the frosty hues of winter. I saw one on the ground pecking at pecans lying under one of our abundantly fruitful trees. I leveled the barrel over a fence rail, put the bird in my sights, and pulled the trigger. The Cardinal fluttered and tried to fly. He was dead within 10 feet, and I immediately felt guilty. It’s one of the very first times I ever knew that I was a sinner. One of my first thoughts was typical of Adam and Eve in the Garden, blame someone else. I never got age appropriate gifts anyway. My parents shouldn’t have given me a B-B-gun, but I knew better even as a little boy.

So I looked over my shoulder. I knew that I had done a bad thing. Grandmother was always lurking around. She loved Red Birds. She even kept finches and parakeets in the house. If anyone could make you feel guilty, it was her. You wouldn’t dare call someone a “fool” for any reason without her quoting Scripture about those who did so going to hell. She was the conscience for everybody in the family. She still makes me feel guilty sometimes, and rightly so for the most part.

But the day I shot the Red Bird, I was guilty of my own accord. I knew to my core that I did something wrong. Does anyone feel that they have done wrong anymore? Where has our sense of propriety gone? I used to blush quite regularly and hardly do it anymore. Is it because I have a heightened sense of grace, or a cavalier callousness about sin? It makes me wonder. Grace really makes little sense without a need for mercy. I think sometimes that I have ether claimed or promoted grace so much that I have forgotten that if it weren’t for God’s wrath, there would be no need of grace, no need for Jesus.

The Bible conveys many images of the atonement, ways of describing what Jesus did to make us at-one with God again when we’ve done wrong. I don’t think that one is more correct than another. They are just different ways to explain or depict what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish. I’m convinced that there are so many because they speak to us individually and correspond to our particular needs. Questions are begged: Which one do we find most helpful? Which one would help us explain the Gospel to someone else who needs it?

The Financial or Ransom Image (Titus 2:14) suggests that we humans are captives that are held in bondage and have lost our freedom, but Someone steps up and pays the price, the ransom, to redeem the incarcerated. This image corresponds to the language of redemption. Jesus, of course, is the redeemer, but the question remains, “To whom is the ransom paid to redeem us?” Is it the devil that God has to do business with to buy us back, or is it God to whom Jesus pays the ransom? Seems strange. Nevertheless, it’s just an image of the atonement.

I think most of us get the picture of being kidnapped/captured and need deliverance, but no worries if we don’t. This is just one of many atonement images that are heart-matters more than literal constructs. No matter what, this image is one, like them all, which works for me because sometimes I feel trapped and know that I can’t free myself. I need Jesus!

Another image in the Bible is the Military Image of the Atonement or, as it is sometimes called, Christus Victor. Jesus fights evil and wins the victory. He triumphantly defeats evil and retakes the world from Satan (cf. Colossians 2:15). Christus Victor is a great image for those who feel powerless against the armies of sin as they have been fighting temptations like addiction, and oppression of any kind.

The Sacrificial Image is another good one. Blood is shed, one life is offered for many, a sinless life for sinful ones. Death can’t win because Jesus never sinned. Because the “Wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23), Jesus rises from the dead, not just for himself, but for all who have faith in him. This is a great image (cf. Hebrews, chapters 8-10) for anyone who feels the need for things to be set right, and eye for an eye, a life for a life, and a belief that there must be adequate payback for our sins to be forgiven.

I do, however, know some people who are a little squeamish about the Sacrificial Image and its so-called “blood theology.” They avoid hymns about the blood of Jesus. It seems too Old Testament-like with its sacrificial system that is gory and strange. It does make me wonder what these folks do with communion. After all, there’s a cup of Jesus’ blood front and center because he gave his life as a sacrifice. I would imagine, however, that soldiers and vets could really resonate with this image – anyone in a helping profession, like teachers, nurses, doctors, police and firefighters, or people who sacrifice to take care of family members.

Next, the Legal Image’s scene is a courtroom. God is the Judge. Satan is the prosecutor accusing us. Jesus is the Defense Attorney. We’re declared guilty and sentenced to death. In God’s grace, Jesus, who is the only person to ever obey every law, steps up and takes our punishment on himself. It is the language of “reconciliation” (Colossians 1:19-20). Jesus “takes the rap” for us. This is very effective for anyone who feels their guilt and wants to know that they are forgiven and reconciled to God and one another.

It brings to mind the love/hate relationship that I have with the late Gene Wilder’s character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He plays the eccentric weird factory owner who’s more than a little bit scary. Good little Charlie is one of 5 fortunate children who gets a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s factory and get a lifetime supply of chocolate. Without going into gory detail, all of the kids except Charlie give into temptations along the way and meet creative but horrible ends. They are selfish and Charlie sticks to the rules. He is tested and inherits the factory. He makes good choices and is rewarded. Sound familiar?

It’s a pretty good analogy of the flawed way we present the Christian life. On our tour of this world we are promised Gobstoppers of rewards if we follow our Leader (Jesus) well. Along the way, we and our fellow travelers will be tempted to be selfish and will reap the consequences. If we remain faithful, there will be a reward. This is all well and good if we want to promote right-living, but there isn’t much grace in Willy Wonka’s pages-long contract that he makes all the kids sign before they begin the tour. Thankfully, in the Gospel, rightfully proclaimed, God isn’t bizarre and strange like Willy Wonka. God doesn’t get gleeful when we get our just desserts, pun intended.

God, to be sure, has commandments and stipulations, but God knows full well that we can’t fulfill the contract. We aren’t little Charlie’s who can pass the test. We all fail, but God takes the test for us through Jesus and fulfills his own contract. That’s an image that works for me! What works for you? What works for your neighbors, or your enemies? How can we share the Gospel in a way so that people understand it, and accept it?

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MLK and Nathan Bedford Forrest: Walking in Memphis

Last week I was in Memphis for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy. We had productive time together as we met just up from Beale Street at The Peabody Hotel, famous for its lobby ducks. One thing we didn’t duck was the racial history of Memphis. Bookends to pain are plain to see. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is there. So is the statue and burial place of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest, former KKK Klansman and Confederate general, was a citizen of Memphis until his death on October 29, 1877 and is buried in a city park. He is depicted on his cavalry horse for all to see. We passed it every day. Picturing the Lorraine Motel and that statue of Forrest was disturbing.

To plenty of people MLK Day is a brief break after Christmas to help us catch our collective breath after a busy Christmas season. In Memphis there is visible evidence that the racial divide in our American experience is still very real. Ours is the ongoing experiment to overcome racism and its main tool: tribalism. Christmas season had http://www.ancestry.com ubiquitous over the airwaves with TV ads and Facebook postings about people discovering their ancestral past through DNA. This may help in verifying some genealogical research, but it promotes tribalism.

You may ask, “What’s wrong with it?” Well, tribalism tends to set one group against another. I had a history professor at Carolina that was a member of the Hitler Youth. He dared to teach us to sing “Deutschland über Alles,” “Germany Above All,” in class. We saw the temptation of tribalism this past Monday with the National Championship football game between Clemson and Alabama. Clemson fans booed Steve Spurrier as a new inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame because he coached at their bitter rival, South Carolina. There were plenty of South Carolina fans pulling for Alabama instead of Clemson for the similar tribalistic reasons. It seems to be a part of human nature to form tribes, and think ours is better than someone else’s.

There is evidence to support that Nathan Bedford Forrest repudiated much, if not all, of his racist tendencies as he dropped out of the KKK and sought racial reconciliation. We also know that Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that!

The United Methodist Church calls this Sunday before MLK Day, “Human Relations Sunday.” Its purpose, according to the UM Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 263.1, is to occur during Epiphany, a season manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day “calls the church to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with one another.” How I wish we, as the church, did this better. The most segregated hour during the week is still from 11 am to 12 Noon on Sundays. This coming Monday we are invited to Second Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Aiken, for dinner and a movie. The movie, Selma, will be shown followed by a discussion. The time will be from 4-7:30 pm.

My hope is that we will forfeit our tribalism and give our primary allegiance to God. We all need Jesus desperately. No one has a right to feeling smug. “Except for the grace of God, there go I…” levels elitism to a posture of mutual valuing and collaboration. That’s the essence of the work of The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race of which I am glad to be a member. By the way my DNA testing confirmed family stories and suspicions with a few surprises: Eight percent sub-Saharan African, double digits Native American, a whole bunch of Irish (a shocker for a Scotsman), and plenty of Viking Scandinavian, with a smattering of middle European Jewish. Some would say I’m a mutt. Well, I’m an American who believes more in us being a melting pot than a salad bowl separated into tribes of tomatoes, romaine or iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and bacon bits.

I like praying, “Our Father who art in heaven,” not “my.” I like singing, “When We all get to heaven. I very much like the TV show, The Story of Us. It’s up to me to spread the tent wider and work for the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven so that it comes true. Rev. 7:9a says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

This should be our refrain, something to repeat, which is what a refrain does. Refrains, however, for the preacher, vocalist and the actor do more than repeat things. A refrain is the jazz-like ebb and flow of oratory from Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, Jr. that invites us to belong to the play, to own the words. Think of MLK’s phrases, “I have a dream,” until it’s our dream, not just his. Hear his words, “Let freedom ring,” until we all pray for the bells to peal the news that the Jubilee has come.

Walking in Memphis did me some good. Marc Cohn agreed. Give a listen.

 

 

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

The Whole Story: Being Charitable at Christmas

I like Hallmark movies because they always end well, but that’s Hallmark, not life. As much as I would like Christmas to be neat and no needles on the floor, it isn’t reality. There have been Christmases in my family where gifts were thrown out with the wrapping paper. A bummer! There have been toys that didn’t work right out of the box, and macaroni that was too soupy and turkey overcooked and dry. There have been too many deaths.

One family member’s funeral was on the day after Christmas. The death was sudden and shocking in many respects. The death occurred at a paramour’s house. The spouse was greatly disturbed by this and made sure that our kindhearted United Methodist minister was upstaged by a fire and brimstone preacher of a denomination that focused more on guilt than grace. Every other funeral in our family was pretty generic. But, since the spouse had the unkindly preacher dwell on adultery in his comments, for the first time in many funerals, we knew exactly who was in the casket.

It was the truth, but it didn’t need to be said. Payback makes for interesting actions. In the case I’m remembering from Christmas long ago, said spouse was finally “laid to rest” beside the wandering partner. The son of the wanderer made sure that the so-called “rest” didn’t last long, had the person uprooted and the person’s name excised from the granite marker, and his own name inscribed instead. Now, that’s payback.

That was a tough Christmas. We have all had them, and we all need more grace than guilt. Who has the moral high ground to denigrate someone else to the nether regions? Except for the grace of God, there go I. Every time I point my finger at someone else, the majority are pointing back at me. Can’t we cut everybody some slack – especially at Christmas? Nobody ever knows the whole story anyway.

The wonder and mystery of Christmas is that God knows the dirt on everyone, and still chooses to become one of us, live our lives, die our deaths, and rise so that we might rise, too. Sometimes in our fictionalized versions of Christ we make Jesus so majestic and powerful that He can’t identify with us in our weakness. This is much like Aslan the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Hear Aslan roar, but Aslan does die unjustly and the sacrificial stone is cracked, and he is finally resurrected. Aslan is still on the move today if we will notice the underdogs more than we do the magnificent.

Many have heard the story of Barrington Bunny. Perhaps you’ve heard it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Sunday. I almost want to say that I’m sorry that you did because the telling of it can become a preacher’s ploy to play to the “Chreasters,” you know, the Christmas and Easter folks who only come to church twice a year. That is so unfair and such a guilt trip. Thank God for the people who come on the high and holy days. At least they come then. Some of the best people I know are the unsung people who can only muster the time, good health, or energy to get here on Christmas and Easter. You are welcome to come whenever you can. I’d rather assume that you have good reasons, not bad ones, for your choices.

Nevertheless, you can find solace from the story of another underdog who gets the connection between Christmas and Easter and reminds us of Jesus. When most of us want Hallmark and perfect gifts and perfect lives, God dares to say to everyone, “It’s alright if the gifts don’t fit, aren’t age appropriate, or the food is a disaster.” Barrington Bunny is your hero, or, at least one of them.

Barrington is the only bunny in the forest and enjoys hopping about in the snow, perennially looking back to see his hippity-hop designs. He’s furry and warm, but he’s feeling all alone at Christmas, and doesn’t feel gifted or special at all. He hears squirrels chattering up in a tree and asks what they’re doing. They are having a Christmas Party. He wants to join them but can’t since Barrington can hop, not climb. He hears the sounds of joy coming from a beaver’s home as their family celebrates Christmas. Barrington invites himself to the frivolity but isn’t able to swim to get inside.

He is so sad. No parties, no family, just hippity-hop, hippity hop, and then he gets a visit from a great silver wolf. The wolf offers Barrington encouragement and tells him that all of the animals in the forest are his family, and that Barrington does have gifts to share. Then the wolf disappears, and Barrington decides to give gifts to his forest family. He puts a stick and note at the beaver’s saying, “A gift from a member of your family.” He scratches through the snow to find leaves and grass to make the squirrels’ nest warmer and again attaches a note, “A gift from a member of your family.” The wolf’s encouragement gives newfound purpose and family to Barrington.

However, a blizzard is brewing. Snow piles up and Barrington barely hears above the howling wind the small sound of a baby field mouse. The mouse is lost and freezing, but Barrington tells him that his fur is nice and warm and that he will cover the mouse and provide shelter. Barrington has two thoughts, “It’s good to be a bunny who is furry and warm. It’s also good that all the animals in the forest are my family.” The next morning the baby mouse’s family finds him alive and warm under the sadly dead body of Barrington Bunny.

On a cold winter night in Judea we were all given a gift that tells each of us that we’re a part of the same human family. God’s love is as sacrificial as Barrington’s. His gift to us cost Jesus his life when he grew up. May we love others as much and always be charitable. We all need it even if we don’t deserve it. Only God knows the whole story that connects you and me to both Christmas and Easter. What is your gift and who is your family?

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Christmas Longings – Past and Future Make the Present Better!

Should I long for Christmas past or future? The way things used to be is a tempting road to travel. There are good memories even when things were difficult. My Mother had a major stroke in late fall 1992 and was in a coma for several days. I clung to her bed-rail asking her to wake up and come back. Out of motherly love she did, but it was a terribly difficult life for her. She could barely smile and move just one hand. She couldn’t walk or speak above a whisper.

Christmas 1992 was tough. Mother had a little tree with lights in her nursing home room, but it was hard to see her like she was. Just before Christmas, Cindy and I and the children visited on my parent’s anniversary, December 23. I had the flu and wasn’t allowed inside. Cindy and our children were in the room and I was outside her window looking in. We tried to sing Christmas carols to her with me trying loud enough for her to hear me through the glass. I’ll never forget her look and her smile back at me as she was propped up on a pillow.

She died thirteen days later, January 5, 1993, from another stroke. Oh, how I have missed her, but wished I had let her go months earlier, but I was too selfish. I still feel guilty for begging her to wake up from her initial stroke. She would have been so much better off. We have to love people enough to let them go to that place where there is no more pain or sorrow. But it’s hard, isn’t it? I was only 36, way too young, in my mind, for my Mom to die.

Longing for Christmas Past is nostalgic and idyllic, but it isn’t reality. As Christians we are more a New Jerusalem people than Garden of Eden ones. Living in the past isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, there are fond memories, but the future is the culmination of our hope. Adam and Eve were exited from Eden after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cherubim with flaming swords kept them from going back inside. I used to think that was part of God’s punishment, but I think differently now. If they could have gone back they might have eaten from the Tree of Life, and then having eaten from both trees they would have lived forever knowing both good and evil. That would have been a horrible thing. God wants us to only know good forever so the cherubim with flaming swords were God’s agents of grace.

The New Jerusalem is our destination where there is no sorrow or pain. If the good old days were really that good how did we get into the mess we’re in today? So let’s focus on making the world a better place and working for God’s preferred future. What can we do to make the Kingdom come when all things will be set right, no more evil, injustice, sickness or oppression?

To be honest, some of that future vision does depend on a recollection of the past. I think that it’s okay to reminisce about lessons learned and people who graced our lives in years gone by. The past becomes a tutor and that’s okay, but that’s very different from it being a prison. We need to learn from it, but not languish in it. What helps me most is to remember the good things and try to build on them. That turns the past into a healthy present that springboards us into a great future.

As an example, my Grandmother, Milbria Dorn Jackson, known as “Mib” to many of her friends, conjures up a plethora of memories. Some are great and others not. My perspective is jaded because I lived with her. She was of tough German extraction. There are two smells that immediately come to mind when I think of her: BenGay and Sauer Kraut. There was a kraut jar in the kitchen where she fermented cabbage, and BenGay was her daily medicine for what she called her “neuralgia.”

She wasn’t what I would call the world’s jolliest person. As a matter of fact, she could be pretty stern. She was devoted to my older brother, but my middle brother and I were too rambunctious. I’m just saying, she was tough on us. Papa was jolly and happy, but nobody would claim that Grandmother was the life of the party. She wasn’t!

But, you know if I dwell on the not-so-fond memories of the past, it doesn’t do me much good. It makes me forget the good things like the twinkle of Grandmother’s clear blue eyes. The same eyes of my Uncle J.C. Thinking only of her strict standards makes me forget that she loved to hear me whistle and told me so. Nobody else ever did that. Thinking of her not-so-frivolous nature makes me forget how much she shaped me in good wonderful ways.

There’s a Bible on my shelf in my study that she gave me for Christmas 1964. Let me tell you, as a 9 year old in 1964 I thought that a Bible was the worst present ever. You couldn’t play with it, and it just underscored her usual guilt trips for our shenanigans. I opened it this morning just to glimpse her handwriting and was astounded to read something that I had forgotten was even there. The whole inscription reads: “To Tim from Grandmother, the one that loves you dearly. December 25, 1964.”

Wow, “…the one that loved loves you dearly.” If I only lived in the past of BenGay and Kraut, I would have forgotten the amazing love and gift that it was to experience her daily presence. So my advice is to let the past inform you, but don’t live there. If conjured up, remember the good times and good things. The rest does you very little good. We weren’t meant to stay in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s disaster, but to live forever only knowing good in the New Jerusalem! Savor your good Christmas memories, and make new ones for the future.

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A Christmas Gift From My Mother

Christmas 1978 was memorable, and not for all the right reasons. Cindy and I were in seminary in Boston. We wouldn’t be able to come home for the holidays, but I wanted to spread some cheer, especially to my Mother. She was always keen on doing unselfish things for others. She had a huge heart and was generous to a fault. She didn’t like much fanfare or thanks. She was kind to the core. Plus she was gifted in making crafts which provided a never-ending source of “pretties,” as she called them, to give to people.

One Christmas I recall her melting paraffin and pouring countless quart milk cartoons full of wax to make candles. She painted. She crocheted all sorts of things. At Christmas 1978 she decided to make a gift for President Jimmy Carter’s 11 year old daughter, Amy. Since President Carter had been a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, Mother decided to crochet what she called a “peanut doll” for Amy’s Christmas present. From what she described to me on the phone, it was an elaborately painted peanut with all the features exquisitely done with a full blown costume including a purse and shoes.

She also described the derision that my brother Carlee and my Father heaped on her. They said things like, “She probably won’t even get the doll. The Secret Service will confiscate it.” “You’re wasting all your time on something, and you’ll never even get a thank-you note.” She told me all of their comments, and I decided right then and there to do something about it. Cindy and I might not be able to come home for Christmas, but I could certainly stand up for my Mom. I wanted to silence her critics!

The next Friday I called. My brother answered and I put on a fake voice, “This is James McCabe calling from the White House. I want to express to Mrs. McClendon the gratitude of President and Mrs. Carter for the gift sent to their daughter, Amy.” Before I could say anything else from my script, my brother interrupted, “I’m sorry. She’s not here, but if you will call back in 15 minutes she will be here.” I said, “Certainly. I’ll call back.”

I didn’t think about my Mother’s usual Friday hair appointment at Sara’s in Edgefield. Anyway, I found out what my brother did. He went into town, burst into the all-female domain, blurted out that a phone call from the White House had been received, and that they were calling back in a few minutes. Mother was rushed out with her hair half-completed and whisked home.

I made the call with just the right amount of delay. Mother answered the phone and I went into my spiel: “This is James McCabe, White House Chief of Staff, and I just wanted to convey the President’s thanks for the lovely Christmas gift to his daughter.” I went on a little further and then gave her time to respond. She said, “Thank you so much for calling. I didn’t expect this at all. I just wanted to let Amy know that I was thinking about her and wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas.” She said some other formal sounding pleasantries, ever the Southern Lady in genuine appreciation for the call.

You could smell and hear the honeysuckle dripping. I couldn’t hold back any longer so I semi-yelled, “Mama, it’s me, Tim! I wanted to show up Daddy and Carlee for making fun of you….” She interrupted me, as if I hadn’t said anything or revealed my true identity, and said, “Once again, Mr. McCabe, thank you for your call. My husband and son are standing right here and are so pleased that the White House has called. Have a Merry Christmas and give my best to the President and Mrs. Carter, and, of course, to Amy. Goodbye.”

As I learned later, my brother drove her back into town whereupon she was greeted at Sara’s like a regal queen. No doubt they had heard about my Dad and brother’s mocking of her crocheted Christmas gift to Amy Carter. She told them about the call and got back under the dryer. By afternoon she had been contacted by what we affectionately called the “Edgefield Astonisher.” A front-page article the next week was titled, “White House Phone Call.”

Mother called me and said in no uncertain terms that I should never, ever, ever do anything like that again. My Dad and brother never learned the truth. Mother went to her grave never spilling the beans. I’ve wondered ever since what the moral of this Christmas story is. I think I’ve got it now. Mother always did things for others without ever wanting any thanks. She would have been happy even if she never got a thank-you note from the White House, which she did, by the way, the very next week. I was the one who wanted thanks as I blurted out my name to her on the phone. It was my way of saying, “I’m the one you ought to thank for defending you.”

I was right to defend her, but I was wrong to have wanted her thanks. It made the whole ruse about me more than about her. Well, my lesson was that Mama didn’t need defending nor did she require thanks. I wish that I was more like her every day. We don’t give gifts for the thanks we receive. God sure didn’t when he gave us Jesus, the best Christmas gift of all.

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Christmas Weddings and Wakes

Christmas memories are forever, good ones and not-so-good. My mother’s parents’ wedding anniversary was December 25. Since they lived with us, we were the hub where everyone gathered on Christmas Day. We laughed, exhibited our favorite gifts to one another, shot fireworks, and ate turkey, dressing, ambrosia and caramel cake. It was hilarious and holy all in one. I can hear Papa’s laugh and Grandmother’s orders. I can see Mother’s every-year-a-different-theme of decorations adorning the seventeen-stepped hall bannister. I can also see heavy-set Uncle Lee waddling up those same stairs to see the children play, the only adult brave or caring enough to dare invade our space.

He was also the one who gave us the strangest, yet most precious gifts. Uncle Lee would wrap a signed $2 bill around a pig’s ear, foot, or some other part then bundle it up in meat wrapping paper and grace each child with semi-macabre joy. I still have those treasures including a silver dollar with his “L.J.” initials in red fingernail polish across the coin’s face. The memories were mostly happy and they should have been. We found our cedar trees and cut them down. We were like explorers looking for treasure every year as we went Christmas tree hunting. Christmas was magical.

Christmas elicited the most marvelous experiences and memories. For instance, my call to ministry was shaped by Christmas Communion by candlelight at Trinity Episcopal. I can sense the awe and the love of God incarnate in Jesus right this minute. The Lord’s Supper never tasted so real. God marked me at Christmas. To this day, Christmas Eve services without communion just aren’t enough.

Christmas brought out the best in most people. I sold fireworks for my Uncle Homer every day of the holidays, a continuation of his son Jackie’s business. I nearly froze to death in that tiny little stand. I was warmed with very little heat thanks to all the gunpowder at hand. It was a happy joy to help a myriad collection of people celebrate the holidays. That was a gift in itself.

Christmas always meant love was in the air, too. It was not only my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, but my Mother and Father got married on December 23. In doing some family research this seems to be an automatic thing. Multiple generations have December weddings. Cindy and I got married on December 20, 41 years ago this year. We honestly didn’t think about any familial connection. I thought we were just too enamored with one another to wait until June.

But Christmas was a sad time, too. Uncle Lee died suddenly on December 23, 1974. Grandmother died sixteen days before our wedding on December 4, 1975. Uncle J.C. died on December 8, 2000. Weddings and wakes have been our family’s December experience for generations. Christmas has been the best of times and the worst of times. That sounds a lot like the first Christmas with Caesar Augustus and the Pax Romana, the enforced peace of Rome cobbled with a taxation to fund it. Good times and bad ones. That’s life, isn’t it?

And Jesus entered it, just like He always does. Jesus comes when we’re having a blast and making good memories, and He’s with us when times are tough and hard. Some of the chairs will be empty around the Christmas table again this year. Some of them will be filled by new mini-me’s of the latest iterations of our collective progeny. That probably won’t lessen the pain, but it certainly helps.

That’s our story, your story, humanity’s story. Maybe my family has been shaped by Christmas more than most as we ride the roller coaster of weddings and wakes, but, if anything, it has made us real. We’re such a Faulknerian Southern family. We have more saints and sinners than a story-teller like me can use, but authenticity is never a problem for us. Even better this Advent and Christmas is the Good News that Jesus is more real than us. He is the authentic, fully Human, fully Divine Savior. Whoever we are, whatever we’re going through, as my late brother Carlee always repeated, “Best of all, God is with us.” Emmanuel has come! He came to deliver us from everything that needs to be left behind. He came to make all things, including memories, new. Hallelujah!

Halloween Masks, Elections, and Christians

Halloween and election season are intersecting well this year! Which candidate is wearing the biggest mask? As I make my final decisions about the presidential campaign and weigh the pros and cons of each person, I have a number of values that I hold dear. A couple of those are authenticity and transparency. Neither candidate is totally forthcoming. One has a lack of clarity about tax returns and charitable contributions. The other has an email saga and a “pay for play” history with their namesake foundation. It’s a sad state of affairs when I am left trying to discern the most honest and least hypocritical of the people running for the highest office in the land.

The word hypocrite ultimately came into English from the Greek word hypokrites, which means “an actor” or a “stage player.” The Greek word itself is a compound noun. It’s made up of two Greek words that literally translate as “an interpreter from underneath.” That strange compound makes more sense when you know that the actors in ancient Greek theater wore large masks to mark which character they were playing, and so they interpreted the story from underneath their masks.

It’s difficult for any religious person to avoid the charge of hypocrisy. We are human, after all. It would be wonderful if our actions and beliefs were 100% in agreement, but they aren’t. So, we keep trying, and we put on a good show. We would prefer to look like we’re bosom-buddies with God than look like the reprobates that we are. Schmoozing has replaced doing as the object of the hypocrite’s charade. We want to look busy, even if that’s all we do.

Some have described the path of hypocrisy as “all show, and no dough.” I wonder how much truth will be in that statement in the fall financial campaigns? Saying one thing and doing another is the picture of hypocrisy. Famous churchman, D.L. Moody, said it well: “Most people talk cream and live skim milk.” The truth of the matter is that our sins of hypocrisy find us out far more quickly than we can imagine. As a seminary professor once explained, “People may not live what they profess, but they will always live what they believe.”

Halloween is a perfect holiday for hypocrites. Hypocrites hide behind masks all the time. They play-act at religion. But like the empty void that Halloween candy leaves, fake religion hardly satisfies either. I need the real thing in these perilous times. In the storms of life; i.e., Hurricane Matthew, I need a real relationship with Jesus.

Hypocrisy is easy-come-easy-go religion. It’s not about a relationship with a risen resurrected Lord. Hypocrisy is like a television show during sweeps month. It’s all about the ratings. Who cares if the writing or acting was any good? The only thing that matters is whether or not people watch. No wonder there’s so much junk on television. Hypocrisy plays to the crowd, not the Director.

We all want to look good, to be sure. I do my best to match colors in my attire, but the truth of the matter about who I am isn’t found in my color-matching ability. It’s found in how I act. Hypocrites care more about the cover than the book, the clothes rather than the person underneath.  It’s high time for us to synchronize the content of our character with our actions.

There is a “Peanuts” cartoon in which Lucy – that bossy, assertive, always-take-control character – is playing her role as psychiatrist. She sits in her booth with a banner on the top that says, “Psychiatric Help – 5 cents,” and then down below there’s a sign that says, “The Doctor Is In.” Charlie Brown, of course, is the patient.

Lucy says to Charlie Brown, “Your life is like a house …” In the next frame, she asks, “You want your house to have a solid foundation, don’t you?” Charlie Brown has his usual blank look on his face. Lucy says, “Of course you do, Charlie Brown!” Charlie Brown is still silent – saying nothing. Then in the fourth frame, psychiatrist Lucy says, “So don’t build your house on the sand, Charlie Brown.” About that time, a huge gust of wind comes up and blows the psychiatrist’s booth down. In the final frame, Lucy crawls out of the rubble saying, “Or use cheap nails …”

You don’t want to use cheap nails in building a house, or building a life. Hypocrisy is using cheap look-alike materials instead of the real stuff. In the storms of life we need the real Jesus with real discipleship.  This Halloween, and election season: take off your mask and quit playing somebody else. Be the best person that you can be. Be the real deal in and through Jesus!

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Donkeys and Elephants, Oh My!

Who am I going to vote for? Someone even suggested that I could help the congregation discern the right path by using code phrases in my pastoral prayer this week, tipping people off as to whom I think is the better candidate. That’s not going to happen, however well-intentioned the request. I hesitate to even mention it in prayer for fear that someone may read into my words some ulterior meaning. In many ways I really feel like Yogi Berra as he was playing catcher behind home plate. He was watching the opposing batter standing in the box making the sign of the cross across the plate with the bat. Berra said to the other guy, “Why don’t we just leave God outta’ this one and just play the game.”

Wishful thinking or stupidity! I know we can’t leave God out of our national politics, but if there was ever an election year for God to lay low, this might be it. Why? I don’t think God needs to take the blame for the mess we’re in. We’ve done it to ourselves all on our own. Why pray now when God has been bumped to the sidelines for too long already? Democrats and Republicans and every party in-between claims to be on God’s side and leaves my mind reeling. Give me a break! This election season has been nasty and I’m sick of it. I really appreciate the bumper sticker I saw the other day: “The Donkeys and the Elephants are fighting. If you want peace, turn to the Lamb!”

So I don’t want to leave God out! No matter who wins we need to pray that the Lamb wins. The answer to America’s problems are spiritual more than political, and until we get that through our thick heads we’re doomed. This country is always in better shape when we turn to God. I saw proof of that in Washington, D.C. a few weeks ago. Cindy accompanied me to my meeting with the General Commission on Religion and Race. As a group we toured the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It was a powerful experience. It was easy to see how an oppressed enslaved people turned to God in their abject situation. On her own, Cindy saw more evidence of how people find strength from their faith in tough times. While I was in meetings, Cindy toured the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of the American Indian. These are clear examples of how America’s people have repeatedly turned to God and filled our houses of worship when times are tough.

On a free afternoon together we meandered down Capitol Hill and saw in linear fashion: The National Archives, The Willard Hotel, The White House, Blair House, the World War II Memorial, the Reflecting Pool between the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, which we entered after seeing the Vietnam Memorial and Korean Memorial. The order of our steps held a deeper meaning upon further reflection, pun intended.

I literally reflected on our journey as a nation from lofty ideals to written words to the actions of soldiers and statesmen like Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. whose “I Have a Dream” speech was given from the very spot where I stood. Ponder our journey and see the connections. We started with the archives and viewed the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights. Next was The Willard Hotel where presidents used to go hang out in the lobby and were approached by those who courted favors. It’s the lobby of The Willard that has given us the word “Lobbyist.”

Next we went to the White House, and as many times as I’ve been to D.C., I had never made it over to it. I was shocked by how small it looked. The Executive office Building next door was massive in comparison, and the Blair House, which is home to the Vice-President, smaller still. Then we went further on to the National Mall and the war memorials.

I couldn’t help but connect the dots from the documents of our founding, to the lobbyists who try to use every loophole as an advantage, to the White House where Presidents attempt to lead our republic, and to the war memorials that exist because that leadership either excelled or failed. Commanders-in-chief have often invoked the Constitution goaded on either by higher ideals of freedom or by self-serving lobbyists, both resulting in soldiers having given that last full measure of devotion in blood. Standing near those memorials I couldn’t help but recall how as a teenager I attended the funeral of Bennie Clayton who died as a grunt in Vietnam.

If I can’t vote for God as Commander-in-chief then it’s going to be hard to vote for anyone, but I’m going to vote. I just don’t want us to become a more divided nation of winners and losers with mutually assured destruction and retribution that will consume news channels, court picks, congress, and everything else. A choice between a donkey and an elephant isn’t much of a choice, but the consequences are real. If you don’t believe it, then walk the streets of Washington, Aiken, or stroll the Freedom Trail in Boston. Walk the cemeteries, and see the tombs of those who gave their lives. Pray that there will be hallowed halls in Congress, the White House, and your house. Please, God, help us to do your will. Amen. Help us to pray for the USA and every leader.

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Airplanes, Storms, and God’s Providence

The last few days have been quite interesting. Cindy and I went on an overnight trip by plane last Thursday. We didn’t have any luggage to check for such a short trip. All we had was just a carry-on with some essentials. We were supposed to fly United out of Columbia, go to Dulles for a 47 minute layover with barely enough time to dash to the next plane. Then we were to fly to Dayton, Ohio and on to Chicago, our final destination. Unfortunately, as our plane taxied out to the runway the pilot informed us that there was a mechanical problem and we would need to go back to the gate and deplane. There went our 47 minutes at Dulles, and that was the last flight to get us anywhere near Chicago. We were stuck.

United called a cab and paid for us to be ferried to Charlotte and gave us tickets on an American flight. In the process of putting Cindy’s purse and our one satchel into the cab, I left my black leatherette folder with my sermon in it on the ledge beside the ticket counter. On the way to Charlotte the driver called the agent at the counter and asked them to hold it until we got back on Saturday morning. I also called the hotel in Chicago to let them know that we would be a late arrival and please save our room. Little did I know that things were going to get worse.

In Charlotte, the folks at American said our ticket wasn’t valid. It had not been entered into the system correctly by the United agent back in Columbia. So we had no ticket, no flight, and they were the last flight to Chicago and it was already overbooked. So back to United and after some more confusion they got us on the last row of a Delta plane. We were going through 3 different air carriers to get to our destination, a record for me. Then the closest they could get us to Chicago was Detroit. Finally we had a short flight from Detroit to Chicago on whatever carrier I have no clue. Late Thursday night/Friday morning we got to our hotel with a marvelous 5 hour window for sleep before the next morning’s itinerary started.

And we kept monitoring the hurricane. So mid-Friday afternoon we noticed that Columbia, where my car was parked, was still open. We took the hotel shuttle back to O’Hare and went to the ticket counter. The flight to Columbia was still open, but my anxiety rose as the agent kept mixing up the airport codes for Columbia (CAE) with Cleveland (CLE) which might be the reason we ended up in Cleveland at about midnight Friday night. It was practically deserted and our next flight toward Columbia was going to board at 5:15 am headed to Dulles in DC. Cindy and I tried to sleep in those wonderfully firm seats, but it was very hard, pun intended.

As dawn approached we got on a plane to Dulles and kept watching the storm on the weather app radar. Upon arrival at Dulles we found out that everything to Columbia was cancelled. The closest they could get us was Charlotte. Remember my car was in Columbia. I had a smidgeon of hope that Columbia would clear by the time we got to Charlotte mid-morning on Saturday. It didn’t. We got off the plane in Charlotte and scurried to a ticket counter hoping for a taxi voucher for Columbia. The agent said, “Sorry it’s not our fault. It’s an act of God.” I replied, “I work for Him and I don’t think He did this!”

She looked at me unamused and said a tall guy was trying to make it to Columbia, too. She said for us to hurry and we might spot him in the rental car area across from the terminal. We didn’t see a tall guy, but there was this small pony-tailed leprechaun-like dude walking toward the rental counter. I spoke from behind him and asked, “Hey Buddy, are you trying to get to Columbia?” He said that he was and if we wanted a ride, we could. I said I’d be glad to pay and he said it was on the company. Wonderful news!

But the next problem was that there were no cars available, only a truck. Our new-found friend said he didn’t drive trucks. We saw why when he peered between the steering wheel and the dash. He was height-challenged, indeed, but by the grace of God, just over 24 hours after we started trying to get to Columbia, we got there – and by then it wasn’t raining anymore.

Storms are not “Acts of God,” or Jesus would have never rebuked the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee and said “Peace, Be still!” The act of God in our situation was a small-framed guy named Bryan who disappeared as soon as I went inside to retrieve my folder with my sermon inside. We got it and made it home, but my sermon changed. Psalm 66 became a message about praising God in the storms of life, storms God doesn’t cause, and about what God does best and that is to enter the storms with us in the most providential ways. I’ve got a stack of boarding passes about 3 inches thick to prove however crooked our paths may be, God can straighten things out. Thank You, Jesus, and thanks for Bryan.

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