Mardi Gras, Lent and The Hypocrisy Meter of the UMC

Today is Fat Tuesday when we have our last indulgent splurges before Lent begins tomorrow. Mardi Gras and masks go a long way back – a self-protective way to dive into devilment without being found out. We have to take our masks off during Lent or we have robbed the Gospel of its power to set us free. This is our season of confession and repentance, and for me and the UMC, all of us perhaps, it’s a journey. So, off with the masks and let’s get real!

We take a Lenten “journey.” We don’t say an Advent journey though Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, nor an Epiphany one even with the Magi traveling from afar. Easter and Pentecost seasons aren’t called “journeys,” either. But, Lent is definitely one, down from the heights of the Mount of Transfiguration to the pit of Gethsemane, Golgotha, and a stone-cold tomb. It was a journey that Jesus made, and dares us to make. It is a hard journey that begins with Ash Wednesday’s words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

This is the journey that every human being will make from birth to death. The solace in this bleak journey is that God has taken it, too, in Jesus. We are not alone in our sorrows. Even Jesus’ baptism shows Christ’s solidarity with us. Though he was in no need of repentance, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism. His ministry began with obedience at the Jordan River and ended with obedience on the cross. How unlike my fickle allegiance. Thus, I need this Lenten journey every year, a journey of penitence and repentance. It’s hard to get the devil off your back if you won’t admit he’s there.

Hypocrisy is the age-old complaint about church goers. We say one thing and do another. At the end of a concert a patron noticed that two ushers standing near his seat were applauding harder than anybody else in the theatre. It was impressive to the man that these ushers who, no doubt, had seen many great performances would be so appreciative. His hope in humanity was dashed when he overheard what one usher said to the other, “Keep clapping. If we can get them to do another encore, we get overtime!”

Selfish gain is the essence of hypocrisy. There are lots of issues: personal, political, and ecclesiastical that are loaded with hypocritical bias and deception. I am one who follows the news both secular and sacred. Both are easily nuanced and have hidden agendas to me. I’ve tried network after network to find the untarnished secular news, and it seems an impossible task. On the church front I read United Methodist news outlets to glean the latest about our denomination’s upcoming special session of General Conference. Everyone wants to do God’s will, but use themselves to define what that means. It is so difficult, if not impossible, to separate bias from truth as we try to discern God’s will.

Everyone says that they want contextualization in deciding what’s right and wrong, but too much local contextualization interpreting God’s will leads to spiritual anarchy. In my mind, we’re either United Methodists or un-tied Methodists. You can’t have it both ways. We’re either connectional or we’re not. Jesus said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand!” Here’s my problem! I am tired of all the political, financial, and so-called spiritual arm-twisting to get people to vote to either loosen our stance on certain practices or make it more stringent.

I have seen people across the theological spectrum parse words, redefine words, and make up new words to try and push people into one camp or another. My word of warning is that we take off our blinders and don’t let the wool be pulled over our eyes, whomever is talking! I’ve heard progressives say that they’re moderate and they’re not; and I’ve heard traditionalists say that they are moderate and they’re not. I’ve heard moderates say a little bit of everything. Give me a break. Let’s at least be honest or there is no hope for a way forward either for the UMC or as individuals. On this Lenten journey we must be clear that we are serving the Lord and not our own personal agenda. Off with the masks!

hypocrisy

The Olympian Life

Epiphany season goes out with a bang every year! Its concluding Sunday is always Transfiguration Day when Jesus is transformed in front of Peter, James, and John. Epiphany is about God’s self-revelation of divine power in the world. It began on January 6 with God’s revelation to the Magi through the star, and ends this Sunday with the awe-inspiring event of Jesus on the mountaintop with his closest disciples, and the best representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah respectively. Then next week on Ash Wednesday we begin an intentionally self-reflective journey to Holy Week that calls us to genuine repentance. Lent begins with ashes and ends in Christ’s death, literally ashes to ashes.

Some of us remember sports commentator Jim McKay’s voice-over of the iconic tune of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” as he described “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The scene that I remember most is the one with a ski jumper crashing. Both spiritual and Winter Olympics are upon us in this up and down time between Epiphany and Lent. Like Olympic athletes who train for years, we disciples of Christ suffer exhaustion on a daily basis for the chance at overwhelming exhilaration. This is our description of the journey of faith that travels from mountaintops to valleys and up and down again. This is Jesus’ life. This is our life as Christians.

It is really the life of humans in general. Jesus shows us how to make this common occurrence into uncommon grace, to fill our up and down existence with ultimate and grand meaning. A king and savior who knows only the heights of victory isn’t one of us, but Jesus knows our every sorrow and amplifies every joy. Jesus shows us the path to redeem every experience of life, however high the mountaintop or low the valley.

Life’s ever-changing nature is a bothersome phenomenon for me. My desire for predictability and stability is a common human desire. Nobody likes volatility. Look at the stock market fluctuations of this week. Nobody likes too much risk. I’ll try something new every now and then, but I’m okay with ordering the same meal at the same restaurant time and time again. I know there won’t be unwanted surprises, but where’s the risk in that, and the sense of adventure that makes life worth living?

Jesus models the Olympian life of risk and reward throughout his ministry. This is the liturgical basis for the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. To be fully human is to go from top to bottom, bottom to top, and repeat ad infinitum. It strikes me that fluctuation and volatility are examples of our being fully human, and they also reflect how we’re made in the Image of God.

Doesn’t God embrace the world’s ups and downs? God has embraced us! Our history proves that we are no better than kids with daisies saying, “I love him/her!” or “I love him/her not!” In our yearly ode to love on Valentine’s Day, appropriately on Ash Wednesday this year, God gives us the best Valentine in spite of our fickle devotion.

God gives us Jesus who in the Incarnation has chosen to ride this rollercoaster with us. He has modeled the ultimate in risk and reward by showing us that love is the utterly amazing opportunity for self-giving and yielding intimacy. Faith is our confidence that God can and will transfigure you and me. It’s the hope of young, old, and in-between love that is both treasured and perpetuated. It’s the kind of love that sustains us from the height of Epiphany to the depths of Lent, from Palm Sunday’s “Hosanna’s” to the despair of Good Friday’s “Crucify Him!” for better for worse, in sickness and in health…

The Demise of My Mini Cooper

The recent demise of my Mini Cooper Roadster was a traumatic and sad day. Two-seaters aren’t that big, but mine got considerably smaller when a truck plowed into me going somewhere around 50 mph. I was stopped in traffic as the second car ahead of me was trying to turn. I glanced up and there it was, no brakes, nothing that I could do, then just a big crunching BAM! I felt my neck abnormally extend between the seats, then come back and whack the steering wheel. I learned the hard way that when you get hit from the rear your airbags don’t deploy. The sensors are in the front and side. A cop, who was 50+ yards away working another accident said, “I not only heard the collision, I felt it.” The ground shook and the back of my car ended up about 2 feet from my head and back. I am blessed to be alive. God’s providence is a reality!

Eulogizing a car seems nonsensical, inappropriate, and somewhat sinful after seeing what I’ve seen this past year in the Congo and Philippines, but I really appreciated my car. I’ve been in Mini’s for years. Their seats fit me, 11 inches from floorboard to seat edge. I can ride in Cindy’s Accord and 30 minutes into the drive I’m ready to bend my leg around my neck. Not with my Mini. In it I could literally drive for days.

Our last big road trip in the car was 4,000+ miles to the Men’s Basketball Final Four in Phoenix, Arizona. I learned on Tuesday afternoon March 28, 2017 that my request for tickets was granted, but we had to be there by Thursday to pick them up at Will Call in the team hotel. The game was on Saturday, April 1. We packed in a rush determined to travel light, fast, and cheap. We were going to camp in a tent the whole way. I drove for 22 straight hours, except for pit stops, and we reached Las Cruces, New Mexico on Wednesday evening. I thought we would never get out of Texas, but Cindy and I had a great time with me driving while she navigated. We were cozy, to be sure, in the little cockpit of my car. We had such a good time talking that we never, not once, turned on the radio.

God’s providence showed up big time over the course of the trip. Cindy and I had a scary encounter going through Dallas in a heavy rainstorm. It was between night and dawn on Wednesday morning about 14 hours into the trip. The sky was on fire with lightning. A truck literally danced back and forth on its rear wheels several feet in front of us. We got caught behind a huge accident in the torrential downpour, and were in the farthest lane away from the exit that would help us get around it. Cindy, using her Southern charm, lowered the window and started asking other drivers, one after another for 5 lanes, if we could move over. We did and made it safely around the mess.

From Fort Worth to California there’s not a lot of anything green or tall except mountains. The trees are more like shrubs, and there’s not a lot of them. It’s wide open spaces out there and the barren beauty of the desert is magnificent. I can now understand why people get claustrophobic when they move back east. Our trees block the view of the expansive sky. On the other hand, the wide open spaces of the West can become hypnotic. Dangerously hypnotic. We were stopped in traffic in the middle of nowhere between Midland and El Paso, and I heard screeching and looked into my rear-view mirror. There was smoke that smelled of burning rubber and the pungent sudden down-shifting of a clutch. A loaded 18-wheeler literally slid past us on the shoulder of the road as if it was on fire. If it had hit us we wouldn’t have been much bigger than a grease spot in the road.

One of the few annoying things about the trip was a beep-beep-beep sound that I had been dealing with for over a year. I had taken the car back and forth to the dealership numerous times. It was the sensor that indicated that my convertible roof wasn’t securely fastened, when it actually was! They never could fix it, but then providentially on Saturday’s game day we found out what the problem was. We had put on our Gamecock gear and got out of the tent to make our way to Glendale, but the car wouldn’t start. A guy next to us in the campground who happened to be bicycling to South Carolina of all places had a portable battery charger in his brother’s escort truck. We went straight to a little car parts place in Apache Junction, but they didn’t have the specialty battery that we needed. I kept the car running and googled Mini Cooper dealers near Phoenix. Tempe had one although it was about 60 miles out of the way. I was freaking out because I didn’t want to miss the game. By God’s grace the Tempe Mini dealership was open, including the all-important service department. A rarity on a Saturday! We got there, and they had the battery. Guess what? Almost as good as getting the new battery was that the beep-beeping stopped!!

We went to the game and watched our team come close to beating Gonzaga who had “Big’s” who should have been on a football team. In defeat, we walked out of the arena, quickly sold our ticket to the final, and went back to our tent in Apache Junction. We left Sunday morning heading toward the Grand Canyon. “Why not?” we said. “We’re this close.” Hours, hours and hours later we arrived and, thanks to selling the ticket, we had enough money to pay for a nice room. Sunday evening we were chilling out waiting for our room to be ready and sat in the balcony overlooking the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel. There were just a few chairs and a TV. Providentially this gave us a chance to watch the Lady Gamecocks vying for the Women’s Basketball National Championship. A young lady walked up and asked if she could watch. I said, “If you will pull for the Gamecocks.” She said that she would and was from South Carolina. I asked, “Where?” She replied, “Edgefield.” I told her that was my hometown and asked her name. She said, “Kylie Keesley.” My immediate response was, “Are you Billy Keesley’s daughter?” She said, “Yes.” I told her how he and I were next door neighbors growing up, etcetera, and etcetera. Then Billy walked up. We hardly watched the game because we spent most of the time catching up with each other. We hadn’t seen each other in years. It was great. Plus we won the game, too.

God’s providence shielded us through more stops and tent camping in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and avoiding being killed outside of Memphis where the road construction was horrible on I-40. It was a great trip. I miss my deceased car, but Cindy and I have great memories of God watching over us. You want to know what her biggest worry was – a flat tire. My car didn’t have a spare tire, only run-flats that just last for a max of 50 miles. If you’ve ever been out west you know that it takes a lot farther than fifty miles to find gas, much less a tire for a Mini Cooper. Jesus watched out for us, always does. God’s providence knows no bounds or distance, and I’m grateful.

Mini Cooper in Phoenix

Opening My Heart to Jesus

The mystery of the Incarnation is overwhelming. That God-in-the-flesh would come and dwell among us is amazing. Prophets had been sent to no avail. Laws had been given that did more to confirm our guilt than make us better people. God took the greatest risk of all and was born to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. The Eternal God embedded in time and born! How could it be? It is as incomprehensible as any miracle. A virgin with child? He had to be different from us, yet essentially the same – one of us but completely divine, too. We should all be grateful that Joseph believed in the Virgin Birth! That’s a sticking point for many modern naysayers, but how else could Jesus be the Second Adam, born without Original Sin, and with the ability to say “yes” or “no” to temptation, and, having been found without sin, he died and rose again because “the wages of sin is death,” and since Jesus always chose God’s way, death could not hold Him, and He burst forth from the tomb! He lives forever!

Think of parallels between the first century and today. Leaders back then and now misinterpret God’s ways more than understand them. Herod wanted the Magi to keep following the star and report back to him so he could kill this newborn threat, but a baby born in a stable isn’t a sign of a weak and powerless king. It is a sign of real majesty, and at least Herod grasped that and shuddered. What he missed was that true royalty embraces the power of love over the love of power. A God who would be born in the humblest of circumstances is a sign of a ruler who is secure and knows who He is. It’s a sign of the tremendous love that God has for the lowly likes of you and me.

The message couldn’t have been written more poetically and so genuinely believable: Poor Mary with her obedient heart yielding herself to God; Joseph, a doubter and who wouldn’t be, yet he gave his dreams credence and believed; Magi who in faith followed a starry sign to God knows where, but came they did to see a king and present Him with their homage; Poor shepherds, the lowest of the low, left their flocks, their everything, to see the Savior born; and Angels who followed God’s bidding to sing a song that echoes to this very day. What a message! It continues to stir humankind, and rightly so.

God is always the best Author. I have my favorite writers in my preferred genres of history and mystery, but God out-writes them all. I also have my favorite Christian authors. Clive Staples Lewis is at the top with classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis is hard to beat with his imagination, authenticity and clarity of thought. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his works on community and ethics have informed me since I first became a Christ-follower: Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship are two treasures. His absolute heroism in the face of Nazism and his ethical decision to take part in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler has resonated with my warrior-spirit within. He was hung as a martyr on April 9, 1945 as the result of Hitler’s last orders. In C.S. Lewis and Bonhoeffer you can smell the smoke of faithful discipleship.

I wonder at this Christmas season if that smoky smell is as apparent on me. The rush and the thick of things that clamor for our time mask the musky smell. The materialism run rampant tramples goodwill. Can I smell the manger straw and hear the cattle lowing? I long to mean it when I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and its words: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born is us today.” Can I make room in my heart for the Christ who is both Child and King? Can our world? O, Lord, be born in me today. In us. Amen.

Nativity Scene

Welcome to the Party!

I haven’t written many blogs lately because the world is full of people sharing their opinion. I still have lots of thoughts about things but I want to help ease the tension rather than cause more. So these days preacher humor is a primary delight for me. If I’m not careful I will wander into the abyss of trying to find a Scripture text to fit the great joke that I just heard. Honey works better than vinegar in a sermon any day. To his horror a pastor just about to preach realized that he had left his sermon notes in his study. As his apology, he said, “This morning I shall have to depend upon the Lord for what I might say, but next Sunday I will come better prepared.” Yeah, right?

Who needs notes for a kind word, a saving word? If you know the joke, if it struck a chord then it’s easy to retell. So it should be with the Gospel. Jesus brings Good News. Every worship service should be more like a wedding reception than a funeral. Last Sunday I asked everyone to turn around and say, “Welcome to the party!” It was fun and uplifting. Some people better than others can brighten up my day, but we all can spread the cheer in our otherwise stressed world.

NFL millionaires taking a knee, North Korean nukes and ICBM’s, Trump, Congress, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Wildfires, Walls, Racism, and more, what’s the hot topic on your mind or Facebook feed? What’s the crisis about at your house, or in your community? Some people make sure they’re plugged into the concerns of the world. They meet with their morning coffee group or hang out at the barber shop. I have friends like that, and cherish my time with Cindy in the early evening when we watch the news. We tongue-in-cheek call it the “War News,” because that’s what my parents called it, and they called it that because it was usually true. It still is. How many years have we had in the last one hundred that didn’t have a war somewhere on the globe? Zero. All the more reason for us to hear some good news, especially THE Good News!

I don’t do a morning coffee group or a regular golf foursome, but I do go to the Y every morning during the week. I flip between news channels at 5:30 a.m. and they can’t seem to agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day! All of the issues are important to someone, but, like it’s said, “Politics is all local.” In other words, what matters is what matters to you, your locale, community, where you live, work, and walk, so I look at the local news or the Weather Channel. You can’t get more local than that.

So who do discuss things with – the things that really matter? Is it your golf friends, your book club buddies, your Sunday School Class, or whomever? I heard of a preacher recently who asks people to send him texts during his sermons so he can respond and literally connect with the congregation. That is a little much for my taste, and I can’t type that fast. Autocorrect isn’t usually my friend either. In our polarized society I much rather prefer to focus on Jesus, and connect with people using humor. I want people to leave St. John’s with the sense that God was pleased with their worship, that it was a joyful celebration of faith over fear.

This is annual meeting season in United Methodist churches. We elect officers, make plans, and vote on other important matters. We get to celebrate connectionalism, the United Methodist hallmark that says “Together We Can Do More!” That’s the point of having a cadre of friends to share with, and sharing a vibrant worship service. We get to connect with God and one another.

Six months after the owner of a little store at a crossroads was appointed postmaster the folks in Washington started getting complaints. Not one piece of mail had left the village. The postmaster was investigated. He explained his reasoning, “It’s simple. The bag ain’t full yet!” What a poor excuse. What if we acted like that? What if we waited until our lives we’re full of blessings before we shared any of them? If we waited until we could afford children to have them then there certainly wouldn’t be many.

Our bag doesn’t have to be full for us to share our blessings with others. If your bag isn’t full, that doesn’t matter. Use what you have. Share what has been generously given to you. Enrich the lives of others with what you have right now. Smile and spread all the joy that you can. Remember that joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. In our frazzled and stressed world we get to be God’s smile. Let it show! Tell a good one for me. I need some new material!

Take a Smile Pic

Valuing Diversity

When I was a youth you either pulled for the Baltimore Colts or the Green Bay Packers. We divided up in other ways, too. People were often defined by their affinities or choices. In my hometown you either liked Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr, Fords or Chevys, the Red Sox or Yankees, and South Carolina or Clemson.

There wasn’t much wiggle room. Today we are even more polarized: red state/blue state, pro-gun/no-gun, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, and Fox/CNN. One of the few positives out of this horrific hurricane season is that the things that normally divide us don’t matter as much when we’re facing calamities together.

Being united in common cause is so much needed, hurricane or not. Wouldn’t it be great if bi-partisanship ruled the day rather than acrimonious finger-pointing? When we start pre-judging instead of pre-loving others we make assumptions that are usually false. A lot of our differences disappear when we get the facts and get to know someone personally.

Some of you know that I’m a member of GCORR (General Commission on Religion and Race), an agency of the United Methodist Church that works for reconciliation and grace across racial and tribal lines. It is the can-do group in the UMC that promotes a three-fold mission to promote intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversations. We provide resources and training so that people can value each other and create systems that will be fair to all. We encourage conversations so that the grace of Jesus Christ might not be bound by any individual’s or group’s sense of supremacy over another. We want to help people know all the facts and back-stories of those that they assume are different from them.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be driving down the highway with a stuck horn and have a motorcycle gang in front of you then you know that you would love it if they knew that you couldn’t help it. But, they didn’t know all the facts. I’ve been in traffic with my lights stuck on bright. People blew their horns, threw up “Hawaiian Good Luck” gestures, switched their lights to hi-beam, and even swerved into my lane. If they knew the whole story then they would probably be more sympathetic.

Knowing people’s back stories can help us avoid paralyzing polarization and judgment. For instance, when I was a kid, born and raised in the South, there was a certain common opinion about Yankees. I was in college before I knew that what we used to call Northerners was actually two words. There was an automatic word that went with “Yankees.” Then I got married, graduated from college, and Cindy and I moved to Boston for seminary. I remember some of the linguistic and cultural differences. We stopped at a McDonald’s on Boston’s North Shore. I went inside and came back to the car without any food. Cindy asked what was up and I replied, “I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.”

We had to learn a whole new lingo. A “tonic” was a “coke.” The “rubbish” was the “trash can.” A nearby town was named Peabody which I pronounced as Pee-body and they said Pee-bah-dee. My first request for a milk shake was a surprise. The person waiting on me poured milk into the stainless steel cup and put it under the agitator and handed me shook milk. I learned that what I really wanted was called a “Frappe” up there. There are numerous examples of similar experiences.

Until moving up North one of my favorite stories in a Southern-pride sort of way was about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman after he burned Atlanta. He was traveling down I-20 (not really) on the way to Savannah when he and his men started taking sniper fire from the top of Stone Mountain. He told 3 of his men to go up there and take care of the lone Confederate sniper. They went, and, after a big commotion, all 3 came flying off the summit. Sherman then sent 12 men and the same thing happened. Then Sherman sent 40 men and told them to take care of this Southern soldier. 39 of the men came flying off, but one, bloodied and near death, came back down. He said to Sherman, “General, it’s a trick! There’s 2 of them!” Yes, in my ignorant cultural allegiance and prejudice, I thought better of those below the Mason-Dixon Line than those above it.

What moved me from thinking of Northerners as DY’s was getting to know people, specifically Keith and Ella Nutter. They were members of Memorial UMC in Beverly, Massachusetts, next door to Salem, where I was a pastoral intern. We visited them often and became friends. After graduation they sent us a new subscription to “Yankee Magazine” every Christmas, and we sent them “Southern Living.” I learned that Yankees and Southerners aren’t that different. We just had to get to know each other!

Remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? The main character is circled and badgered by Sam-I-Am to the point of utter frustration. The main character says, “That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like Sam-I-Am!” Because he doesn’t like Sam-I-Am, he rebuffs Sam-I-Am’s constant offer of green eggs and ham: “I do not like green eggs and ham,” but when he finally tries it, he likes it, and also ends up liking Sam-I-Am. Getting to know someone. Having the whole story and all the facts make a huge difference. Too often we would rather prefer to judge others and separate ourselves from them.

Without knowing the whole story some people thought that Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was anti-patriotic when he was sworn in. As he took the oath in 1963 he raised his left hand instead of his right one. Everybody thought it was some kind of protest. Boy, were they wrong. Daniel Inouye served in the US Army during World War II. He was wounded fighting in Italy and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart with clusters, and the Bronze Star. The reason he didn’t raise his right hand is because it was blown off during an enemy attack. He went on to honorably serve in the US Senate until his death in 2012.

My joy in serving in Aiken, South Carolina is that everybody here pretty much chose to be here, moved here on purpose for work or retirement, and are from everywhere. The diversity is refreshing and adds a vibrancy to the city. My hope is that we emulate what this city has done so well: Diversity is a good thing. Value each other!

hurricane-harvey-harris-county

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I work out at the Y early in the mornings. The elliptical machine is my friend. Treadmills kill my knees and hips. An episode of “Matlock” lasts an hour, so that’s how long I do the elliptical. I plug in my ear buds and watch and perspire. Ben Matlock, played by the now-deceased actor, Andy Griffith, believes in the American justice system’s premise that a person is “innocent until proven guilty,” but he always asks if the person did the crime before he takes a case. He never takes the case of someone that he suspects is guilty, but Jesus does it all the time!

Jesus knows we’re all guilty and loves us anyway. The historic Christian faith is very similar to Napoleonic law. It labels accused criminals as “guilty until proven innocent.” As harsh as that sounds to Americanized ears, it’s so true from a Christian perspective. We’re all guilty, and the only way to be proven innocent is through God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

My Dad taught me my first theology lesson about guilt and innocence, and it was about original sin. As a teenager when I thought I was doing some “new” sin that was historic in the annals of our family, my Dad said to me: “You surely don’t think that you’re the first one in this family to try that. Your brothers tried it. Your uncles did. I did. So did your grandfathers. There ain’t nothing original about Original Sin.” He was so right in many ways!

Sure, Jesus’ work of redemption erases just enough of Original Sin so that we can respond to God’s prevenient grace, but it’s still God’s action and not some inherent goodness in humankind. We may be made in God’s image, but the only place Wesley and Calvin agreed is that all humanity is totally depraved. We are lost. We cannot save ourselves! If we gloss over or pretend away the effects of that total depravity then we have reduced grace to a self-help farce. The only cure for the ills of this world, stretching from Charlottesville to my den, is Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, I am hell bent and hell bound. Those are strong words, but anything less is humanistic claptrap.

For example, I dearly love my grandchildren. I love stories about how innocent all children are. One, in particular, comes to mind as I mull all this “innocent until proven guilty” or “guilty until proven innocent” stuff over. In the story a guy asks a 7 year old girl, “What is life all about?” She replies, “The purpose of life is to be kind and loving, to be here for other people, to make the world a better place than before you came.” The impressed guy then asks, “Did you learn all this from your parents?” The little girl replies, “No.” They guy asks, “In school?” “No.” “At church, then?” “Uh, no.” “Well, where then did you learn such things?” asks the guy. The little girl thinks and finally says, “I just knew them before I came here.”

Ah, yes, before we came here. I know that the longer any of us live the more we’re affected by the corrupt world. However, in all honesty, the world doesn’t do the corrupting. Adam and Eve and all their children, including little children and big ones, do the corrupting. I don’t know how Original Sin is transmitted. I’ve studied the arguments and listened to angles that suggest some sort of biological answer, or a theoretical legal argument that since Adam was our representative, we, too, are corrupted. Frankly, it matters little to me how we got to where we are, but I know that every human from both a Biblical perspective and personal experience is in need of a Savior. We cannot save ourselves. From our earliest cries we are self-centered and the Image of God in us is marred beyond any self-made solution to our ills.

Therefore, I deplore any kind of supremacist attitude. Pre-judging is an anathema to me, but one thing is certain: we have all been weighed on God’s balance scales and found wanting. God in Jesus has pre-loved us though. “Even while we were yet sinners,” says Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.” The foot of the cross is level because none of us is better than anyone else, as much as I think some people will go to hell a lot more quickly than others. But, I’m not God. God knows that we all have messed up, came into the world that way, and in Wesley’s words have both “inherited sin” and “actual sin.” The Good News, however, is that God loves us enough to offer us redemption. Unlike Original Sin, redemption is not inherent in each person, but it’s possible. It takes a choice. Do we choose to look down our noses at others? Sure. Do we choose to race-bait and kill? Yes. So, how can we be redeemed? Choose Jesus! He has already chosen us!

Jesus provides grace, but one has to accept it. There’s a story that makes sense to me in this process of redemption: There was a young monk who sat outside a monastery every day with his hands folded in prayer. He looked pious as he chanted his prayers day after day thinking that he was somehow acquiring grace. One day the head priest of the monastery sat down next to the young monk and started rubbing a piece of brick against a stone. Day after day he rubbed one against the other. This went on week after week until the young monk finally blurted out, “Father, what are you doing?” The older priest said, “I’m trying to make a mirror.” “But that’s impossible!” said the young monk. “You can’t make a mirror from brick.” “True,” replied the mature priest. “And it is just as impossible for you to acquire grace by doing nothing except sitting here chanting all day.”

We can’t earn grace, but we can accept it. I wish I could get that through my thick head. There is no room for racism, prejudice, or any sense of supremacy. Only Christ is supreme. My prayer is that we will all invite Him to sit on the throne of our hearts.

Matlock Picture

Eclipse Protection

If I have my facts straight, only the U.S. will experience a total eclipse of the sun on August 21. People are planning Eclipse Parties, buying special glasses, and doing all sorts of eclipse-related things. Some schools are beginning the school year a day or week later in order to avoid harm to students’ eyes. I even saw a piece on the news about whether one should protect the eyes of their pets. Our church is going to give out 200 pairs of approved Eclipse Glasses along with our nice Bookbag Tags on Backpack Sunday. Fortunately or unfortunately, I will be on my last overseas mission trip of the year, and will be in the Philippines.

I’ll miss the whole thing, except for the fact that I figuratively or literally experience eclipses on a daily basis. I think most of us do! The word “eclipse” is from Greek, ek or “out,” and leipein or “to leave.” There are things that I “leave out” every day. Sometimes it’s God. Very often, it’s people. I face issues, difficulties, opportunities, adventures and oftentimes put the object of my worry or affection in between God and me. I am also blind to the needs of others due to my priorities. Just like the moon is between us and the sun, there are things between us, God, and others. This fits another definition of “eclipse” – “to obscure, to block out; to deprive someone or something of significance, power, or prominence.”

Haven’t we deprived God and others of their true significance, power, or prominence? Since this eclipse is a solely American event I can’t help but ponder the way that we as a nation have set up idols to block our view of God and people. When we say the Pledge of Allegiance at our Monday Rotary meetings, I have found myself cringe occasionally at the part that says, “With liberty and justice for all.” Does everyone truly have liberty and justice?  As a nation we have allowed Jesus to be eclipsed. The moral fabric of our nation has been eclipsed by our penchant for all things self-centered.  Our individualistic tendencies have overtaken community, bi-partisanship, and teamwork.

I saw these words on the locker-room door at Spartanburg Methodist College about a week ago: “If you’re not prepared to put the team first, turn around.” From Congress, sports teams, churches, and marriages, we must stop letting our egos overshadow and eclipse God and others. Oh, how we have deprived the capital “S” Someone of significance, power, or prominence. We have done the same with others. Last year at St. John’s UMW’s Apple Fest fundraiser, we had some items that we wanted to give to a local charity. They drove their truck under the overpass between buildings and got stuck. No one knew exactly what to do. I can’t remember who figured it out, but there is a lesson for me, maybe all of us, when we get so full of ourselves that we get stuck and can’t see God or anyone else. The solution was to let the air out of the tires! I need to let the air out of my ego.

As a nation and community, as individuals, we can learn from this solar eclipse. There are people in darkness because we want things our way or the highway. We must quit our posing and finagling to get our way. The story of three Holstein cows comes to mind. They were tired of their black and white lives, looking the same day in, and day out. They found some purple paint, and had a blast rolling around in it. They were covered in purple paint. Their owner was impressed and thought about charging people admission to his barn. One day, however, when the cows were out in the pasture, it rained. All the purple paint was washed away. No more pretense, no more all show and no dough.

The Sun will come out after the eclipse and we’ll see clearly again, too. I Thessalonians 5:4 is instructive about August 21 and every day: “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.” Ephesians 5:8-11 also says it well: “For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” My Dad’s favorite passage is hard to beat, too: “So let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:16).

Eclipse Photo

Congo Conviction

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by life? My trips over this past month have done that to me: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’ve just gotten back from a preaching mission in the North Katanga Annual Conference of the UMC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the largest conference in United Methodism. South Carolina gets 16 delegates at General Conference. North Katanga gets 56! Bishop Mande Muyombo asked if I would preach at his first Annual Conference, and I was honored to say “Yes!”

My first mistake was to go entirely by myself. There was a reason Jesus sent out the disciples 2 by 2! My high school French and my minor in it at USC came in handy, but near enough! Dikonzo, my translator, was spectacular. When we landed on the dirt strip in Kamina after buzzing the goats off, I was greeted by the choir. Bishop Mande asked if I was ready to preach. I said, “Sure!” I didn’t think he meant right away. I had been flying for over 20 hours and was beat. But we immediately marched to the tabernacle where I “held forth,” as people used to call preaching. I preached and preached and preached the whole time I was there. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful no matter where you go!

I was overcome by the depth of spiritual dedication that I witnessed. These are people so poor in comparison to the U.S., but so rich in the things of God. They had walked miles and miles to come. They spoke French as their national language inherited by their Belgian colonial oppressors, but there were many tribal languages present. It was as if John’s vision of the church in Revelation 7:9-10 was a present reality: “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 in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’”

As I participated in the ordination of these dedicated preachers who live off $30 a month US, I was awe-struck by their depth of commitment.  The life span in the DRC isn’t great anyway, but for preachers it is years lower. They literally give themselves to the work of ministry. When these laborers in God’s vineyard answered the call, they meant it. You could literally feel the weight of their call. When they answered Wesley’s historic questions like everyone else in every other Annual Conference as one goes into ministry, I couldn’t help but think about early pioneer preachers who died young and penniless. I know there are clergy from other parts of the world who carry a load of student debt, but this was different.

They wore their worn clergy shirts with missing plastic tabs replaced by pieces of cardboard or just soiled tissue. It is the dry season so everything was dirty. It rains from September to May, but right now it is hot and dry. Nothing is growing. These poor preachers could teach every U.S. ordinand a thing or two about taking your vows seriously. There is no mocking of our Connectional Covenant, and the church in North Katanga is booming. Bishop Mande and his dedicated clergy and laity trust Jesus in the harshest environment.

Electricity only came on for a short period of time in the mornings and evenings. Mosquito nets were a welcome necessity to avoid malaria. Thank God for the UMC “Imagine No Malaria” project. Bishop Mande and his dear wife, Blandine, lost their oldest child to malaria. North Katanga’s conference headquarters is 16 hours from the nearest hospital. U.M.C.O.R. (United Methodist Committee on Relief) has a tiny clinic in Kamina with a 1950’s X-ray machine, but they need so much more. About $500,000 US will build a hospital, and donated used equipment is desperately need. I passed open sewers that flowed into creeks where women and children were washing clothes.

I saw churches crumbling on the outside, but alive on the inside. They were literally crumbling because the rainy season had wreaked havoc on the sun-baked clay exteriors. Most everyone has a pit near their thatched-roof shack. This dry time of the year is when everyone uses a broad hoe to pick out a 10 inch square chunk of clay to replace the deteriorating walls. It’s an endless cycle, but the Lord sustains the people. I went to one UMC and heard intercessors praying in every corner of the sanctuary which was bare bones, no chairs, and a makeshift altar. Their prayers filled the air with power that was greater than their circumstances, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a special burden to do everything that I can to change their circumstances. I am convicted!

Pastors giving their lives for $30 a month is unacceptable. What if we could sponsor a pastor and make it $100 a month? We could set up a direct transfer from the US to North Katanga with complete trust that everything would be handled on the up and up. These are great people. They trust the Lord. I’m thinking that we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus and put legs to our prayers and help them. I will know more on logistics and post them as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I implore you to be in prayer for the people of the Congo. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing. We are so blessed in the U.S. We must share in the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, and learn from their utter dependence on God. Amen.

21 Life Lessons for Graduates

Commencement 2017

St. John’s UMC, Aiken, South Carolina – Dr. Tim McClendon

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

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

I could end there but counting on His wisdom I offer these tidbits on Commencement Day 2017. I share these 21 thoughts in no particular order. Take them or leave them.

  1. Up until now, especially with your senior year, you have been building a resume to get into the college of your choice and/or win a scholarship, too. Some of you have been building a resume for a different track after high school, but either way from here on, my advice is instead of building a resume, build relationships. Do your work, for sure, but if, from here on out in life, you focus on relationships you WILL get into grad school or a leg-up on the next step in your life!
  2. Don’t post anything on Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram that you don’t want a future girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, employer in-law to see. Social Media is permanent so be careful. Even if you set your Snapchat time limit at 1 second, it may last in someone’s brain file forever.
  3. Avoid “Selfies”! Our self-centered, self-obsessed narcissistic society is too full of itself. Don’t be one of those people who takes pictures of their meal, their clothes and God knows what else. Group pictures are great but the world has little use for name-dropping, pompous, egotistical people who have a preoccupation with themselves, and appearance over substance. Remember that pride goes before a fall, but the branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit. If a fraternity, sorority, or group of friends wants you to be or do something that isn’t you, they aren’t the friends that you need anyway.
  4. Avoid, at all costs, living a “plagiarized” life. Copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is stealing. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t depend on google, Wikipedia, or Wiki-how for your answers. They’re okay to start with, but you need to do better than that! If you cheat, you will be exposed as a poser in every area of life. Do your own work!
  5. Keep reading and continue doing your homework for the rest of your life. Make sure that your ideas and writing are original. Expand your vocabulary. Read for pleasure and fun. My suggestions would include J.R.R. Tolkien with the Moody Blues playing on your earbuds; anything by N.T. Wright, and the Bible, not necessarily in that order.
  6. Your biggest liability is your need to succeed and please people. It’s okay to fail if you learn from your mistakes and move on! If you make pleasing people your goal in life then you will be a slave to everyone else, and you will always play second-fiddle to whomever you’re trying to please.
  7. When caught in a dilemma, don’t try to force things. Don’t panic, and struggle. Instead, practice purposeful pausing. Walk away, take a break, do something unrelated to your problem and then come back to it. This gives you space and opportunity for an epiphany, and a new insight. Call it “white space,” whatever – just do it and a new way forward will present itself. Trust me!
  8. Every successful person knows that life has foul lines just like a baseball field. Some things are in play and some things aren’t. Some things are out of bounds and plain wrong. They are off limits. I don’t care what the misbehavior is, even if it makes you supposedly happy, it won’t for long, so have standards and live up to them. It’s called “integrity,” from Old French in tegere which means “in touch,” that you have a core of beliefs upon which everything in your life connects or is in touch. In essence, everyone needs to have a core set of values about which we will not hedge, compromise or desert!
  9. Do your classwork or your necessary labor every day in spite of the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you work on your assignments or projects along and along, you’ll actually have more time to relax and play responsibly. Cramming doesn’t promote effective learning nor does procrastinating and waiting until the last minute foster quality work. My adage, “Get it done and have more fun!” Start with the hardest and the toughest thing first and everything else will be more of a pleasure!
  10. Yes, if you don’t already, you will have a laptop, IPhone, Smartphone, and/or a Tablet to use in life, but don’t forget to look up more than you look down. If you’re not careful you’ll walk into a telephone pole, plus you may miss meeting the most important person of your life. Look up and listen to people before you forget what their voices sound like because there will come a time in your life when their voices will begin to fade. Don’t ever, ever, ever, text and drive or your voice will be the first to get silenced! Use proper decorum and mute your cell phones around people you love and situations that demand respect.
  11. Think with your head and not with your hormones. Experimentation only belongs in the lab. Love and physical intimacy are very often two different things, so avoid the complication. There’s nothing casual about casual you-know-what, and it will have permanent consequences. Watch out for users and abusers who want benefits without commitment.
  12. An observation: The music that you love right now in high school will be your favorite for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s the emotional connection to these wonderful years, but whatever the reason, just accept it and enjoy it. Let the music bring back all the good times, even the tough ones. There’s something therapeutic about it. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to make new playlists for every age and stage of life, too, and, guess what, your future children will have their own playlists and they probably won’t sound like yours, but that’s okay. That’s life. Don’t look down on your elders. You will be one someday.
  13. Another observation: You know the saying, “Dance with the one that brought you to the party.” Remember your friends and family who helped get you here. Be loyal. Most importantly, don’t forget your parents, grandparents, teachers, aunts, and uncles, and other important adults. I know that your tendency is not to answer your phone, but if one of the people like Mom and Dad or Granddad and Grandma call you, answer the phone, and not with a text, if you can help it. There are some of us who can talk faster than we can type and we’d rather hear the sound of your voice because your voice matters and we can tell a lot more from its sound, inflection, and tone.
  14. Internships are something that will help you decide your direction in life. If offered an apprenticeship and a mentor, go for it. You get paid for an opportunity to test drive a career, but remember a calling, a vocare, a “vocation,” like the word “voice,” is always better than a career. Callings will always make you happier than a career so listen for the Voice – God’s!
  15. Sure, you hardly ever use cash or a checkbook and that’s very convenient, but please learn how to keep up with your money. Plastic is a great way to go, but being pre-approved for a credit card doesn’t mean that you have to apply for it. There will be tables outside of buildings and along the sidewalks all around your dorm or college student union trying to get you to sign up for all kinds of things like credit cards. Nothing in life worth having is free, so beware! And when you use plastic for everything, be moneywise and make sure to check your balances often. Avoid student and personal debt like the plague.
  16. The mantra in our everyday lives is that “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!” Other interpretations of this mind-over-matter philosophy say things like, “If it feels good, do it!” or “YOLO” – You Only Live Once. What a crock – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex – there will be a payday someday. Instead of “YOLO,” the truth is, “YODO,” You Only Die Once. Therefore, don’t be foolish. You are not invincible. Accidents happen. Make sure you have health insurance and buy a life insurance policy, too. The younger you get it, the cheaper. Do not separate your thinking from your doing. There are serious unintended consequences to everything. The only sure thing about instant gratification is that it only takes an instant to lose everything. Pretending you can believe one thing with your mind and do the opposite with your body is malarkey.
  17. Then there’s “Virtual Reality,” which is mind-over-matter thought on steroids. This is the philosophical underpinning of our current worldview with its reliance on computers, virtual on-line relationships, and video gaming. We must not forget that as much as we would like some of this to be real, it’s not. Fantasy leagues aren’t reality. Neuroses are something we all use to escape realities we don’t like, but we shouldn’t let “Game of Thrones,” “Trivia Crack,” “Candy Crush Saga” or whatever the latest virtual game is take over our lives to the point where our neuroses become the basis of a psychotic break from reality. When I say, “Get real!” – I mean it. Beware the temptation of living in a fake world with fake friends.
  18. Simple advice: Never buy a new car. Let someone else “eat” the depreciation. A new car loses 20% of its value the first day you drive it home. That’s $4,000 on a $20,000 car. Don’t be afraid of shopping at Goodwill. You actually make a purchase that starts a new fashion trend. Read the book, Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell if you want proof. So, never make impulsive, quick, “I just gotta have it,” knee-jerk decisions whether it’s about shopping, deciding on a major, a boyfriend/girlfriend, or a job selection. You need to be adaptable and never “settle” for anything or anyone. Change is the only constant in life, so as much as you like the new this or that, remember it’s going to change, they are going to change. Get used to this fact and do your best to slow your decision-making down. Keep your cool. Avoid “fake news” and don’t be a Drama Queen or King. Have enough guts to stop being passive-aggressive, and, instead, speak the truth in love. Passive-Aggressive people say things that on the surface seem passive, even helpful, but their intent is to put you down. People want truth-tellers for friends, and will quickly get tired of those who always have too much drama in their lives.
  19. Remember everything does happen for a reason and you’re usually it. Everybody wants to say: “Everything happens for a reason,” and they’re right. Most people want to make God the reason, but God loves us and the whole creation enough to give us free will, so don’t blame God for the crud in your life. Most of the bad and good things happen because of your choices, or the choices of others. The same with the bad things. God doesn’t cause bad things. God helps us get through them. I guess what I’m saying is this, “Take responsibility.” It’s yours. Mom and Dad aren’t going to wake you up for your class or to get to work.
  20. You and your generation have a lot to live up to against difficult odds. A lot of folks think that you’re the most spoiled entitled group ever, and life has been easy for you. I think that most of you know better, but get a job and prove the naysayers wrong. Don’t just make good grades, make excellent ones. Sure, it’s okay to have fun. God wants your life to be joyful, but don’t be foolish, and don’t think you’re owed anything. You have got to earn your due. There’s a young immature dictator in North Korea that is Trouble with a capital “T” because he thinks the world revolves around him. Don’t be that person!
  21. It’s a scary world. How you handle it will say a lot about you and your faith. There will always be malware and ransom-ware that will seek to infect your mind and your computer and shut you down. You’re only worth $300 to hackers, but you’re worth everything to God. Please always remember that Jesus paid the full ransom for your life and it cost him a lot more than a few hundred bucks. So, don’t give into dark thoughts, fears, or worries. Remember that God loves you and will always be with you. Oh, and don’t forget to keep updating your anti-virus protection. It’s even better to make sure that you’re always up to date in your relationship with Jesus! Don’t be a stranger to church and campus ministries, and be sure to come back and see us! We’re your family!

In conclusion, as I have thought about this Graduation and Commencement Sunday, I have recalled a favorite song from my senior year in high school. It’s the song “Tin Man,” by the band “America.” The line keeps going through my head: “But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That’s right. The Wizard of Oz didn’t give the Tin Man a heart. He already had one. If he didn’t then why did he rust from his tears? The Lion didn’t need Oz to give him courage. He had already exhibited that he had courage. The Scarecrow certainly already had a brain. They already had what they needed before they met the Wizard in the Emerald City. So do we. So do you. Each of you already has what you need to reach your version of the Emerald City, too. The yellow brick road awaits. Start walking! Commence!!!