Remembering 9/11

Twenty years ago, September 11, 2001, 3,229 people lost their lives to terrorism. Most of us remember exactly where we were we heard the news or tuned into the newscasts. It was a national tragedy like Pearl Harbor, JFK’s assassination, the Challenger explosion, and other seismic events that have rocked our lives. At first it seemed like an awful accident that a plane had hit one tower of the World Trade Center. That notion quickly evaporated as another plane hit the remaining tower. Then there was news out of Washington that the Pentagon had been hit, and next was the word that Flight 93 had been hijacked, put on autopilot and was headed for D.C. Possible targets were the Capitol or White House.

We recall with poignant pride that Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer said, “Let’s roll!” He and the other passengers assaulted the terrorists holed up in the cockpit, and selflessly gave their lives in a Pennsylvania field just 20 minutes flying time away from Washington. Forty-four souls died on Flight 93. One hundred eighty-nine souls died at the Pentagon, and two thousand nine hundred and ninety-six died at the World Trade Center. Of those, three hundred forty-three were firefighters, twenty-three were NYPD, and thirty-seven more were police with the NY Port Authority.

Some of you, like me, have been to one or more of these historic sites. At Trinity Church, two short blocks away from where the twin towers once stood, I saw the photo-copied faces of the missing on the makeshift barriers as the nearby buildings were held together by wire, rebar, and blue tarp. This was just a few months after 9/11, and the graveyard at Trinity was still covered in the gray ash of the dead mixed with debris. None of us will forget the scenes: fire departments and police from all over the country doing their part to sift through the rubble; President Bush with bullhorn in hand at perhaps his finest hour standing on the twisted metal; enlistment lines at local military recruitment stations; churches that were full. We were one nation pulling together.

NFL star Pat Tillman turned down a multi-million-dollar contract to keep playing for the Arizona Cardinals so he could enlist. It was 8 months after 9/11. Pat Tillman became a US Army Ranger and served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He died in combat from “friendly fire” in the mountains of Afghanistan. He gave the supreme sacrifice like all those first-responders who ran toward the destruction, not from it. We can honor them by continuing to stand in the breach, and declare, “Not on my watch!” We will honor them by filling churches once again like the Sundays after 9/11. We can promise to stand tall and support civility and civilization. We will depend on our faith in our struggle against injustice, tyranny, and the destruction of morality.

Foreign adversaries laugh now at how our fissures have exposed our weaknesses. We have given them fodder for their attacks. We have become what Jesus and Lincoln both described as a “house divided against itself.” It is our turn to say, “Let’s roll!” We cannot let our freedoms divide us. Can we not do what was done in 2001? Can we not pull together and honor one another though we might disagree? Can’t we embrace the Golden Rule by doing unto others as we would have them do unto us?

Jesus came to foster freedom, but it was not a freedom from responsibility. It was a freedom to embrace responsibility: to love God and neighbor because we want to, not because some totalitarian government threatens us. We can all be American, and live and let live if there is a common cause worth the greater fight or larger battle. We can all do our part to save America from another 9/11. The fabric and soul of our country depends on more than the few and the brave. Each one of us has a part to play.  God bless every 9/11 family, and God bless America.

Is Ignorance the Enemy at the Gates?

As we have watched scenes in Afghanistan, it feels very literally like “the enemy is at the gates.” Many of us already feel besieged by COVID. The Coronavirus has caused all of our feelings to be superglued to our sleeves, and we sometimes take ungodly pleasure in taking swipes at the sleeves of others. We have become so easily offended, and offensive. Road rage is rampant. Feelings of “my way or the highway” have turned us against one another. Everybody has an opinion about vaccinations, and devil may care attitudes about what science says. We’re living in a tough time: Hurricane Ida, wildfires out West, earthquakes in Haiti, and the debacle in Afghanistan is a crime against every Afghan interpreter, woman, girl, and the thousands of coalition forces that have suffered to make that country a better place, and ours safer.

It is convincing to me that many of our problems, especially in Afghanistan, are rooted in faulty intelligence. With COVID we could add pride and selfishness, but the primary cause of the decline of our values and morality is plain old ignorance. Every one of us could talk about multiple contemporary subjects where we have displayed wholesale ignorance, and depended on personal opinion or the opinion of others (e.g., the media) more than we should, but here’s just one. Yesterday, esteemed ex-President Jimmy Carter was extolled for his opinion that the practice of homosexuality is okay because Jesus never talked about it. I wish he would do his theological homework before “armchair quarterbacking,” an opinion that he seems to have reached only toward the end of his long life now that it’s become popular and politically expedient.

He, and the rest of us, could benefit from reading the solid exegesis of someone like Dr. John Stott, in his book Same Sex Relationships, or brilliant author and podcaster N.T. Wright, who dives deep on the subject. But, even Tom Wright gives academic deference to what he calls the best short treatment of the human sexuality debate that is found in one of the chapters in former Duke Divinity Dean, Dr. Richard B. Hays’ book, The Moral Vision of the New Testament. These are three well-respected and intelligent scholars who can be very helpful in shaping anyone’s thinking. They have almost nothing in common with either conservative fundamentalists or milquetoast progressives, but provide a fair and balanced perspective. They can provide anchors for your understanding in the face of superficial false teaching.

After all, Jesus may not have technically used the word, “homosexual,” but He certainly defined marriage. In Matthew 19:5-6, Jesus said, “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.” What Jesus said was as clear as a bell!

So, how does Jimmy Carter and many others miss the plain teaching of Scripture? Is it ignorance, or the thinking that if you say something often enough it becomes true? Really, what causes us to be amenable and accepting of behaviors that have been firmly rejected by thousands of years of Christian teaching? Is it our pride, or the influence of the cultural moment? Is it superficial reasoning or Biblical ignorance? Perhaps most of all, is it the inner conflict of observing family and close friends who struggle with same-sex attraction? Which one of these experiential factors is worthy of being elevated to a status equal or better than the Scripture of God? I know it’s difficult and can be complex. I’ve been there, got the t-shirt.

We’ve all been close to people that were or are doing things that we’re convinced isn’t in their ultimate best interest, and isn’t a part of God’s desire for them. In any such case, how do we differentiate between our dear love of someone and our well-founded concern that they’re involved in an unholy pattern of behavior? Well, the ultimate example is always Jesus.

If you’ve had a chance to watch “The Chosen” at all, it’s a great snapshot that this is all exactly what Jesus does so deftly with his disciples, even in their most ignorant moments: he lives a perfect balance of accountability and grace (watch here: http://www.thechosen.tv/app or search “The Chosen” in your app store). I love it! It’s a great reminder that cherry-picking and proof-texting Jesus’ words are never a substitute for who he was, and who he is, as a whole person and as the living God. Trying to confine him to our current cultural standards, mincing the things we claim he did or didn’t say, quoting his famous lines on “love” while neglecting his equal teaching on obedience and righteousness – it all falls short of letting Jesus be his whole self.

My hope is that we can all embody his wholeness, his balance, before our values go down the drain of human history. God forbid that the only people on the planet who promote moral absolutes are the Taliban. Couldn’t there be a movement among Christians who are as fervent about our God and our Gospel, including a holy measure of grace and forgiveness? Can’t we do the hard work of thinking through the tough questions while holding fast to both our love of God and our love of others? I think we can do both, and I believe we must.

Jesus and the Crew

Reflection on Afghanistan, COVID and Leadership

Everything about Afghanistan has confirmed my strong conviction that sacrifice, duty, and leadership count. God bless the families of fallen service men and women who have made the supreme sacrifice and those who have paid the last full measure of devotion. The latest casualties strike at the core of what makes America great because their mission was humanitarian. They were there in Kabul to rescue and evacuate. May their memories encourage us, and inspire us to be like Jesus who gave his all so that we might live, and in life itself was willing to wash the disciples’ feet.  Lord, have mercy, we plead and pray.

Lord, give strength and comfort to all those who have given of themselves in all of our battles, especially against illnesses like COVID, injustice, terrorism and every infraction against the Golden Rule. Help our teachers, parents, nurses, doctors, caregivers, hospice workers, firefighters, police, EMS, first responders, last responders, and, of course, our brave service men and women who serve in harm’s way. All of these are for whom the words of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” are eerily appropriate today.

That charge at the 1854 Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War by the British was heroic, but disastrous because of miscommunication, but they did their duty nevertheless. It reads:

Theirs was not to make reply,

Theirs was not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die.

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.

Duty, honor, and sacrifice are the by-product of leadership in families, schools, churches, and town halls on up to the highest reaches of government. We are a chain, only as strong as the weakest link, and the crucibles we’ve been facing have proven the mettle of our leaders and found it either worthy or not. The history books are the final arbiters. There will be applause and pundits in the meantime. The best leadership is gauged not by polls, but purpose.

For instance, I have been reading about Brigadier General Teddy Roosevelt, Jr., often called, “The Toughest Man in World War II.” He and his family were keen on purpose. His father was President Theodore Roosevelt of San Juan Hill and Roughrider fame who proposed that prudence demands that freedom-loving people, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” President Teddy Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was shot down and died in World War I. Another son, Kermit, served in World War I and II. Son, Archie, retired from the military after being shot in the knee in World War I, but insisted on coming back for World War II. He served in the Pacific Theater, was wounded again and received the Silver Star with three oak-leaf clusters. Ted, Jr. led the D-Day invasion as a part of the first wave at Utah Beach.

Why so much dedication to fight for their country? Their father, President Teddy Roosevelt, modeled and instilled a mindset of duty and military obligation. So, no wonder Ted, Jr. was the highest-ranking American officer on the invasion beaches. He was warned against it, but he replied that his troops needed him.

One author, K.S. Bruce, sums it up with this account: “Imagine it is D-Day, June 6, 1944, and you are a young private hitting Utah Beach in the very first wave, into the teeth of the German army, against a rainfall of enemy gunfire, artillery shrapnel and gore. You are filled with fear, and there on the beach in front of you, stands an old man. An American brigadier general – bull-frog voiced, pop-eyed, 5-foot-8 inches tall and directing the troops with his cane. Calm as a man can be in combat, he is Ted Roosevelt, Jr. At age 56 with bad arthritis, he had volunteered to be on the landing boats in order to give the young troops reassurance and to arm them with his same fortitude and courage, and he did exactly that. When he realizes he and his men are a mile from their designated drop-off point, he calmly looked at a map while dodging bullets and opined, ‘We’ll start the war from here.’”

Now, how’s that for leadership? In 5 weeks, he would be dead from a heart attack, but not without first leading his men ashore. His own son, Quentin, named after Ted, Jr.’s brother who was killed in World War I, was also in the first wave on D-Day, only to die some time later. How many invasions had this privileged son of a President been in that he, no doubt, could have escaped? Basically, all of them. As a combat officer in the 26th Regiment of the First Division (The “Big Red One”) during World War I, Ted, Jr. helped lead the Americans into France. In 1941, he was back again to help lead the same regiment in the amphibious invasion of North Africa in World War II. He battled into Sicily, and he was with the Fourth Division at D-Day.

For his bravery on Utah Beach, General Ted Roosevelt, Jr. was awarded the Medal of Honor. His father, President Theodore Roosevelt, also received one for his leadership and bravery on San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. They, along with Arthur and Douglas McArthur, are the only father and sons to ever both win a Medal of Honor. Ted, Jr. is buried in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, alongside his younger brother, Quentin, who was killed in World War I. Leadership’s ripple effect spreads far and wide. Its lack does, too.

Oh, how we need leaders today. God help all of those trying to do their best to emulate duty, honor, and sacrifice in our battles both at home and abroad: in classrooms, boardrooms, family rooms, hospital rooms, and in the continued fight against all that is not of God everywhere. May it be said of us, we pray. Amen.

Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., seen in Ste. Mere-Eglise on July 12, hours before he died of a coronary thrombosis. Arthritis caused him to walk with a stick. The 4th Infantry Division commander described him as “the most gallant soldier and finest gentleman I have ever known.” (US Gov)

Reopening after COVID is HARD!

Do you have any frenemies? You know what I mean, family members, friends, or others that just get under your skin? You are friends, but they are just as easily classified as enemies. Passive-aggressive behavior is their specialty. They say things like, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” or “Do you like your hair that way?” Both comments sound innocuous, even helpful, but you know they are really trying to get in a jab under the guise of “speaking the truth in love.”

I like Nathanael-types as in John 2:43-51. Nathanael thought out loud like many of us do and said about Jesus’ hometown, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?” When Nathanael finally meets Jesus, the Lord says of him, “Here is a true Israelite, one in whom there is no guile.” Some Bible translations say, “deceit” instead of “guile.” Either way, Jesus pegs Nathanael’s basic character trait as a straight-shooter, one who isn’t a passive-aggressive flatterer who is a well-intentioned dragon, or a devil in disguise.

Can our world take the truth, or have we created a world where truth gets so massaged that it is hardly recognizable? COVID-fatigue has severely hampered our abilities to be honest with each other. Our lack of Nathanael-like clarity for fear of being labeled or chastised in our hyper-sensitive world has caused us to keep quiet and repress our true feelings. Unfortunately, those repressed feelings come boiling to the surface at some point, and one of the easiest places for that to happen is the church. At first glance, this is a good thing. The church is where we should be able to voice our thoughts without impunity, but, let me tell you, loosening our restrictions has been TOUGH on everybody who works in and with the church! It has become quite apparent that it was easier to shut things down than to open them back up. I had hoped that we wouldn’t have to get back to “normal” in stages or in a piece-meal fashion, but thanks to the powers that be, “Here we go!”

This is all on my mind because we’re so tired as a culture, and our feelings are on our sleeves. Some people haven’t been vaccinated. Some have. Some people can’t get vaccinated due to health issues. In other words, there cannot be a one-size-fits-all plan or strategy for reopening, so can’t we be patient and quit being so “what about me” in our selfish desire to get back to what WE think is normal? Worse is that COVID and reopening our shut-down world has given a megaphone to everyone’s opinions. We live in an age where the squeaky wheels get the grease, and with all that we have been through this year it seems that everybody’s wheels are way louder than a mere squeak. We have taken the autonomy of the individual to an extreme. Everyone’s truth is declared to be THE truth, and if everyone’s truth is THE truth, then there is no truth. It’s really all just opinions and everybody’s got one, and a lot of people have had theirs on full display.

The truth is that only God is TRUTH. I am not the absolute truth, and you are not the absolute truth, so why can’t we all just keep trying to do the very best we can under whatever our circumstances, let God be God, and we all do the right thing as consistently as possible. It could be said that the Golden Rule is an excellent example to follow. However, in our autonomy-worshipping society, even the Golden Rule has been co-opted by free-thinkers and self-absorbed survivalists who don’t give a whit about what’s good for everybody. Our self-interests and so-called “rights” have made us little kings and queens of our own domains. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” has been flipped, reversed, and turned into “What’s good for me better be good enough for you, end of story!”

It is reminiscent of the passages in the Book of Judges (17:6 and 21:25) that are so indicative of our world right now, “Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.” Everybody can’t be right, right? So, how do we determine the best course of action in any given situation? Do we go with our gut, what our friends say, what the media suggests, the advice of sage counselors, or as in the words of the main song in the popular animated film, Frozen, do we just let all boundaries go? Unfortunately, I can hear the echoes of my youngish granddaughters singing “Let It Go!” in perfect pitch. Great, except the self-proclaimed independence it promotes is rubbish. Read this snippet:

It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small

And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all

It’s time to see what I can do

To test the limits and break through

No right, no wrong, no rules for me

I’m free

To be sure, things turn out better as Elsa mitigates her newfound acceptance of her own autonomy by remembering her family and the community of friends that she has. She realizes that “me being me” isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. I sure wish our world and everyone in it, including me, and a boatload of church members would figure that out. We, like Elsa, may discover that our own worst frenemy is ourselves.

Individual autonomy can be helpful for traumatized ice princesses, but not if our independence sinks us deeper into selfishness. That is the prison that our culture is embracing. Isn’t that the root of a lot that’s going on? It can be called such things as sheer selfishness, my way or the highway, or the living out of the words in William Ernest Henley’s Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” NO, WE ARE NOT! Jesus is, and His two great commandments, not one without the other, are, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.”

Mother Church and Mother’s Day

“What have you done to Mother Church?” rings in my ears. I’ve heard those words preached recently by a passionate Roman Catholic priest on the internet. Lots of people have been concerned about the erosion of values like respect and morality. Common decency is far too uncommon. There also seems to be a universal concern over the state of the church. Has the church lost its way? Is it irrelevant in our pluralistic society? The assault on our culture and church has been going on since most of us can remember.

It isn’t new, but what is new is that the assault is now unashamedly out in the open. It’s direct. The nonchalant cavalier manner in which we have become anesthetized to the attacks on our very foundations is utterly appalling, and we hardly wring our hands at it anymore. We don’t blush, and we hardly fight back. Perhaps that’s because It has crept up on us. We have betrayed Mother Church and other cultural building blocks in little ways, inch by inch, little by little, and have become the proverbial frog in the pot of water who doesn’t mind the temperature slowly rising until it is too late to do anything about it.

With Mother’s Day approaching, is that also where we are with our understanding of family? We have redefined so many givens in such short order that if we dare speak up for traditional values, then we are instantly castigated, canceled, protested, or even slapped in jail like Pastor John Sherwood in the UK 5 days ago. Something is really awry if “woke” people can say all sorts of things, but a guy who happens to be quoting the Bible is arrested. This sounds too much like some situations in the United Methodist Church where some bishops and progressives have claimed to be “Big Tent Methodists,” except when the tent has conservatives in it. Some pastors have been arbitrarily moved, licenses revoked, and churches closed.

This culture war makes me wonder how we will celebrate Mother’s Day 5 years from now? Maybe we won’t even have a Mother’s Day or a Father’s Day per se. Our designations may evolve into a generic politically correct “Parent’s Day.” Don’t get me wrong. I understand and appreciate all the ways that families are configured, and praise foster parents for their sacrificial ministry. Maybe I’m being nostalgic for the days when it seemed like all the Mothers in town set a commonly agreed upon curfew. There were certain rules, spoken or unspoken, that defined acceptable behavior, but “Ozzie and Harriett” are long gone. Think about it, though. “The Andy Griffith Show” didn’t have a Mom unless you counted Aunt Bee, and “My Three Sons” didn’t have one unless it was Uncle Charley. So, I get it, families come in all shapes and sizes.

What ever happened to when we used to celebrate “Festival of the Christian Home” during the week of Mother’s Day? That’s about as out of sight and mind as what we used to call revival services, or “Festivals of Faith.” Those things seem so passé to a lot of people. The world has changed, some for the better, but a lot for the worse. Somehow down at the gut and soul level, it seems like we’ve reached a tipping point. We’ve gone over the brink, and crossed the proverbial Rubicon. Has COVID accelerated the point of no return? Maybe, but surely, we shouldn’t toss out time-honored definitions of human personhood and family, or the church’s positions on critical issues?

Part of me wants to rail on a street corner like the priest, “What have we done to Mother Church?” What have we done to the church that gave us spiritual birth and sustenance? I also want to say, “What have we done to the family?” It strikes me that there is a corollary between the two. Both are our mothers. How we treat one says a lot about our treatment of the other. It seems to me that a laissez-faire attitude about either is the death knell of much that we hold dear. Trust me, this concern isn’t about preserving motherhood or church as a static institution. We need these hallmarks of culture to be living and breathing. By definition, doctrine should never change, but theology, the contemporary interpretation of doctrine, should always be changing. Institutions can be so self-serving and self-perpetuating, seeking their preservation as an entity over their purpose. So, how do we ask the right questions so we can better discern and fulfill John Wesley’s admonition: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity?” What are the most important questions that we need to ask this Mother’s Day? How do we shore up, promote, and strengthen motherhood and Mother Church?

The Cowboy Code Speaks to the Church and Culture


I’ve seen bulls duke it out and butt heads. Goats, too, and it doesn’t take a genius to spot a goat in a flock of sheep, and neither species is very high on the smartness scale. Growing up with a Daddy who had enough auction barns that he ran around 4,000 head a week, plus working in those barns may not have made me a full-fledged cowboy, but it sure made me appreciate good old wild west wisdom. There are lessons to be learned from the things my Daddy used to say whether you are a city slicker or somebody from Africa.

Wisdom is wisdom even when the idiom or words change from one setting to another. What’s going on among some United Methodists who are arguing about progressive and traditional theology is a lot like watching two bulls charge each other trying to establish who’s in charge. You know, trying to establish the pecking order. Isn’t that what’s going on at a lot of levels in our world? It’s like watching a bunch of big-rig trucks play chicken, and waiting to see who blinks first. In many ways, most of this head-butting is quite comical because Jesus is already in charge no matter how poorly we use our free-will, and while we play the game of “My lawyer’s better than your lawyer,” God is either chuckling or crying over our stupidity. The end result isn’t a game of chicken, it’s a demolition derby.

Let me suggest to a COVID-weary, divided, and frustrated world that we could learn a thing or two from cowboy wisdom. For instance, I think I can hear my Daddy say about some of the people who think they know everything, that they are, “All hat, and no cattle.” They can look the part, but can’t back it up. I think there’s a bishop or two in that bunch, and more than a few CEOs, preachers and parishioners, too. A leader without followers is somebody out taking a walk by themselves. In western terms, if you’re riding ahead of the herd, you better look back every now and then to make sure it’s still there.

Only cows know why they stampede, and I know at least one bishop who has poked a bear called the laity, and the stampede is fixing to start. Talk about thinning out a crowd real quick. A lot of preachers with their highfalutin thinking are more liberal than the average parishioner, so those folks in high positions or pulpits better know and appreciate what the herd thinks before things get out of hand. Common sense goes a long way, and people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

It takes leaders, bishops, pastors and laity of every ilk to work together and do one another’s part to fulfil Jesus’ rescue mission to planet earth, but the first thing you need to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. Take a breath! If you think you’re so big and bad, try ordering somebody else’s dog around. You’ll quickly find out that you’re not as big as you think you are, so chill. In many a church’s case, most of the flock knows that they need to listen to Jesus before they listen to somebody who ain’t from there, doesn’t know the lay of the land, and has no clue what really matters to the common folk. That’s been the problem with Washington, D.C. for a long time, and too many other places. The people in charge don’t serve their constituency anymore. They are serving their own agenda, much less the Lord.

One of the primary jobs of the cowboy, shepherd or leader of any kind is to protect the herd or flock. It seems to me that the Bible has plenty of safe boundaries on what’s right and wrong. As they say out west and on the farm, “Never approach a bull from the front, a horse from the rear, or a fool from any direction.” There’s an addendum that’s just as true, “A wink is as good as a nod to a blind mule.” Because it’s a blind mule, it doesn’t matter whether you wink or nod. You have got to be clear in what you communicate, so we need clarity in this upside down world. Fences need to be horse high, pig tight, and bull strong. And, finally, remember to never squat with your spurs on, or any kind of movement is going to be awfully painful. Let’s take our spurs off, and quit hurting ourselves. Let’s honor God and the Cowboy Code.

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Winter Ends, COVID Continues, yet JESUS Wins!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope Springs Eternal

Valentine’s Day and a “New Baptized” Church

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

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

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

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

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

Identifying Your Highest Values

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Pecking Order and a Possibility for Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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