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

Perspective

“Perspective” is the theme word for my life lately. I have done three family funerals this summer. Today I’ll be burying a first cousin the age of my oldest brother. He died 5 years ago. It has become increasingly clear with all these funerals that each of us has our own experience of other people. In my family it was mainly about age. My brothers and I were 8 years apart. I don’t even remember my oldest brother living at home. When I was two, he went off to college.

I had a totally different experience of my parents and grandparents who, by the way, lived with us. In talking to cousins lately, we each have a different perspective. Rather than correct one another and declare this is truth and that isn’t, it has struck me that we all have a little bit of it. We have different perspectives much like the differences between eye witness accounts of the same accident. It’s not that one is right or wrong as much as the view from which one is standing.

The lesson for me as I have had some of my assessments and memories challenged is to cut some slack and listen more than I talk. The grandfather that I loved and adored was aloof and feared by others in the family. Uncle Lee was the one to give each of the nieces and nephews a silver dollar with his initials on it in red finger nail polish or a gift wrapped along with a pig’s ear. He was a meat-cutter after all. Uncle Homer taught me how to fish, marry well, and love college football. Uncle J.C. loved Christmas and survived the WWII horrors of Iwo Jima, nightmares included. He was my mother’s favorite. Grandmother was prim and proper, and the two smells that I immediately associate with her are Ben Gay and Sauer Kraut. She was a tough one and gave her only daughter, my mother, fits.

The cousins have no clue what it was like to live in the same house as your grandparents. To them it might have seemed like a blessing, but it was tough. Thank God for being able to go outside and sneak down to the pond to catch some fish. Perspective makes some sinners into saints, and saints into sinners. If we all knew the whole story then I wonder if we could bear the revelation.

Then I think of God’s perspective. God knows all the ins and outs of everything and everybody. God’s perspective and omniscience doesn’t miss a trick. There are no 8 year gaps in God’s vantage point of creation and its creatures. I have learned a lot this week about people that I thought that I knew pretty well. It hasn’t been so much that I have been right or wrong. I may not have been there or saw the same thing. What I needed this week was to just listen and take it all in. I guess this is a vote for family reunions where you do more than play nice. I want to hear everyone’s perspectives and learn.

There was a time in our family history that everybody farmed. By their standards success was measured by the bushel, the bucket, or the barrel. I’m reminded of the story that says a lot about perspective. One dirt poor farmer never had a bumper crop. He couldn’t afford good machinery or good seed. They lived in a modest shack, but they were happy.

The father worked hard and taught his only son the satisfaction of an honest day’s labor. The family worked and laughed together as a family but to the boy it seemed that they mostly labored together. Every day was full of chores.

Once a neighbor dropped in for a brief visit when the father and son were chopping weeds in a field of waist-high corn. The prosperous neighbor knew how to raise corn so he couldn’t help but comment, “Your corn is tall enough that these weeds won’t hurt. There’s no need for you and your boy to work so hard chopping them.”

The poor farmer wiped the sweat from his brow and replied: “Maybe. But I’m not just growing corn. I’m raising a boy.”

That son continued to learn about hard work and graduated from high school as valedictorian. As he gave his speech to the rest of the graduates, the poor farmer leaned over to his wife and whispered, “That boy is the best crop we ever raised.” Perspective. It is invaluable and needed not just when we gather to celebrate the living or the dead. Perspective is needed in everything from church to politics. The way to get God’s vantage point is to listen and observe; and love more than you judge.

family reunion

 

Everybody Needs a Study

There’s a person in my life that keeps me honest. One of the ways that he does it is to ask, “What have you been reading lately?” It doesn’t necessarily get me on a reading frenzy, but it does make me think about how and with what I have been feeding my soul. Too often I find myself flitting frenetically from one situation to another without the quality intake that I need to face the so-called “tyranny of the urgent.” Pastors are blessed in that it is expected that we read. Our offices are often called a “Study,” as if to drive home the point.

There’s no better book to read than the Bible, of course. Reading it prayerfully through careful listening to God’s heart is sublime. I really appreciate devotional books that offer more transformation than information. I especially like anything by Chris Tiegreen. He’s my go-to devotional guy. This is soul-reading at its best. Another such book for any potters out there is one that resonates with me: The Soulwork of Clay by Marjory Bankson. Good stuff.

I also like to re-read Rev. William C. Martin’s insights from his book The Art of Pastoring. His breath-prayers from his other book, The Way of the Word, give me a day-long focus that sticks with me. Listen and hear with me one of Martin’s observations to pastors from The Art of Pastoring:

“You are a minister of the Word but not of words. The Word was in the beginning before words and beyond words. And whether they weave sophisticated patterns of intellectual magic, or they strike with passion at the heart of the people’s emotions, words are not Word for the Word is inexhaustible. One can only stand in wonder and point.” Wow. Will I stand in wonder and point to Jesus today or limit God either by my poor inadequate words or an overzealous appreciation of my own voice? I want to let Jesus the Logos speak!

So there are books that are read for diversion and those that inspire transformation. For escape, I prefer historical fiction, a mixture of mystery and history. Since I like to be surprised, I don’t checkout best-seller lists. Finding a good book is more of a serendipitous discovery that is often aided by wise and helpful mentors. Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s family systems primer, Generation to Generation was suggested by a good friend and has been seminal in my understanding of society, church, and interpersonal relationships. It has actually brought me healing! The Starfish and The Spider and business books by Malcolm Gladwell come to mind as important, but anything by N.T. Wright is even more appreciated. His How God Became King gave me more insight into Jesus than seminary.

One of my favorite things to do is to take a mixture of books to Mt. Mitchell or the New River and read for a week. My traveling library will include escapism stuff by James Patterson, Baldacci, Cussler, Jack Reacher novels by Lee Child, and anything with a hint of the Knights Templar. Throw in a few “business” genre books, capped off by N.T. Wright’s latest or Migliore for theology, and I’m set. I do love Clark Pinnock and John Sanders on Process Theology, too, and Barbara Brown Taylor’s sermons are exquisite reading. It also does me well to reread Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings every couple of years while listening to the “Best of the Moody Blues.” It is bliss to know that Frodo lives even after the fires of Mordor! I can hear the hoof beats with the Moody Blues playing on my buds. I will often take with me The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor. They are a walk back in time, but they are timeless in their wit and insight.

The point of all this isn’t to declare myself as a nerdy bibliophile. To the contrary, I mix it up between the serious, practical, sacred, and mundane. The real deal for me is to take time, Sabbath, and let words enrich me. They transport me to another time, place, context, and give me what I need most: perspective. They provide a creative pause in the rush of life’s crises. Please read more than this blog today! If we don’t take the time to read, we will burn out quicker than a match on a windy day. Let me ask you my friend’s question, “What have you been reading lately?” Everybody needs a study!

Pastors_Study

Summer schedules are changing for a lot of people this coming week. It’s already begun for educators who are already back at school having team meetings, professional development days and school or district wide pep rallies of sorts. On top of that I am sure that many educators are sorting through the previous year’s supplies and spending more than a little extra money to get new materials so that their classrooms will be in tiptop shape.

Children, youth, young adults, and others are also feeling the change from summertime schedules. Cindy is in her 28th year of education, and comes from a family of educators. She has been easing back into getting up early and switching gears. This week she’s up at 5 a.m. and next week it will be 4 a.m. It takes a herculean effort for teachers, parents and students to make the adjustment. I especially think of those first-time college students whose parental alarm clocks will be replaced by digital ones, and I pray for those parents who are first-time empty-nesters as they send their children off to college. They’re probably the only parents who aren’t rejoicing that school is about to begin.

At church we have the Blessing of Backpacks this Sunday and will give out very nice identification tags that include a space for the owner’s name and also has the name and logo of the church. It’s an even better idea to let others know your identity as a Christian. Of course, that means that there are certain standards and expectations, but, best of all, I hope these tags remind students and teachers alike that there is a God who is always present and hears every prayer before a test.

In my mind, a new school year provides a literal clean slate, a fresh start: new teachers, new friends, new opportunities, and new challenges. Frankly, I am now convinced there is no such a thing as a clean slate. Every one of us brings knowledge and experiences forward from either our families of origin or previous classroom experiences. Our educational system is built upon those previous encounters, interactions, and building blocks of learning. We might have new surroundings, classmates or students, but we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our whole society rests on the bedrock of our civilization’s foundations when we promote education.

British historian Arnold Toynbee said that over the last 5,500 years there have been at least 30 different civilizations across the world, and 25 of them have collapsed. He said that the fallen civilizations weren’t destroyed by invading armies but by self-implosion. He put it this way, “Civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” Toynbee summed up the stressors that cause such self-immolation in this way: “The number one cause of the fall of civilization is a loss of purpose. When a civilization’s leaders and their institutions lose their sense of purpose, they lose the energy to grapple with all the challenges to the commonweal. If leaders and institutions have no guiding North Star, no sense of cultural mission, they are reduced to currying favor with power or to satisfying the impulses of the masses. If the choice is to exist merely at the pleasure of power on the one hand, or of people’s whims on the other, then leaders and institutions begin to embrace a fatal nihilism.”

If our educational system doesn’t promote purpose then our whole culture is fated for destruction. Of course, it takes compliant students and supportive parents and communities to get it done. Teachers aren’t doling out facts as much as they are instructing students about life and how to be good people who make wise decisions.

Toynbee’s words are so true and frighteningly accurate: “We are only one generation from barbarism.” If teachers, parents, clergy, and the rest of society’s leaders fail to adequately communicate and transmit decent values then our culture is doomed and nihilism’s depressing grip creates an insurmountable death throe: living without purpose. If we want better lives, then our daily choices matter. We can try to turn the ship of state around through legislation and mandated educational benchmarks, but none of this takes the place of good old fashioned responsibility. Parents can’t pawn their children off to educators and expect them to undo parental mistakes or make up for a lack of adequate preparation.

Each of us must begin with our own personal responsibility and investment in community. New school years and weekly worship are two of the most effective ways to get our lives in order. When we go to church and start a new school year we are building on society’s best role models, heroes, pioneers, and paragons of moral virtue. Our society is only as good as our institutions.

We live in an anti-institutional age and that may very well be our culture’s downfall, but the start of every school year gives me hope for the future. So, I want to say thank you to all educators for their personal sacrifices that preserve our culture, and I pledge to pray for you because the stakes are so high. If this country or any culture desires to survive we must value those who carry the most responsibility. Too many in helping professions are underpaid, and you certainly are. None of us would know a thing if it weren’t for a teacher! God bless you! Thank you!

 Book Bag Tag

Christians haven’t been very consistent in handling disagreements for a long time. We swing between Crusader vengeance and Quaker pacifism. Tensions within families, distrust between races, disagreements between political parties, international distrust over the Iran nuclear deal or North Korea’s saber rattling, arguments between scientists over climate change, Women and men who are either repulsed or enthralled by Donald Trump, workplace jockeying, and road rage are all examples of conflict. What do we do?

Interpersonal conflict is nothing new. We need to be careful with those folks and their comments that are right on the precipice of indecorum or worse. I remember preaching a sermon on conflict that promoted three ways to deal with it: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away – nice alliteration but inadequate advice! Today I think that sermon and its methods are way off the mark. I have encountered too many self-centered narcissistic people who take advantage of the Christian aversion to confrontation.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s posture of appeasement toward Hitler and Nazi Germany was totally ineffective. If it hadn’t been for the resolve of Britain and the Allies, we might all be speaking German right now. Sometimes you have to be a bulldog, a.k.a. Winston Churchill. We should all value making peace, but doing it through appeasement enables more misbehavior and forestalls inevitable conflict. Instead of salvaging a relationship, appeasement increases the explosive magnitude of our angry silence until a later date.

So what’s wrong with laughing off conflict? I’ve seen people who are masters at using an ironic story to get someone’s goat and the people walk away smiling. About halfway to their destination, and at a “safe” distance they figure out what the humor really meant. This may be a good method, but it may not be direct enough to get the point across, and you’ve passed the hurt on to innocent bystanders.

I’ve been in a lot of repartee where people will laugh along with our subtle but ineffective chiding. They know our attempt at humor is a way to confront them, but since they know what we’re up to they just laugh right back at us under their breaths. They know they have gotten away with their misbehavior, and they know that we would rather go-along-to-get-along than carefully and specifically confront. Laughing things off may lighten the mood and defuse some of the tension, but it rarely deals effectively with the issues. It merely suppresses them and represses us. We end up with an ulcer and the offending party gets away scot-free.

Laughing things away is a stopgap method at best, but sooner or later truth-telling in love must replace this ineffective method of accountability. At some point, there must be evidentiary validity in our confrontation. Matthew 18:15ff is instructive: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Wow, private one-on-one discourse comes first. It’s my belief that most of us would rather tell everyone else, triangulate others, and marshal our allies rather than directly confront privately. Evidentiary proof comes next with caring accountability by two or more witnesses and, at last resort, the church. It’s like calling for back-up or making sure that you have a witness so that your words aren’t twisted later, and so that the witnesses can hold you accountable, too! So rather than laughing things away, we should take them seriously and work the process to attempt to restore harmony, or walk away. The point of the whole process is to “win them over.” Think about the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors and you really get the purpose of confrontation. It’s about restorative grace, but that’s not cheap grace.

Next, is letting things go, and it’s not the same as walking away. Walking away is getting fresh air, perspective, and time to think. Letting things go is selective forgetfulness and, like laughing things away, actually creates more problems down the road. Letting things go doesn’t care enough to confront and gives carte blanche to people. They are really glad when we decide to let things go because they get to keep doing them.

They almost dare us to say anything negative. They pull the “Thou shalt not judge!” card. This is a form of bullying; i.e., “If you are as Christian as much as you say you are, you would understand me and just let it go!” But, if we let it go when a dear friend uses inappropriate language, epithets about people, or blanket statements that are beyond off-color, then we’re not doing them or anybody else any favors by letting it go. It’s time to step up and speak the truth, “You know I love you, but I need you to think about what you’re saying. It bothers me. It’s not right.”

Lastly, loving away someone’s faults seems like the route to go, at least on the surface, but cheap grace and a quick, “I love you,” puts a painkiller on a wound without really healing it. Grace isn’t cheap, and neither is love. Love cost Jesus his life. Loving our enemies without forthright confrontation cheapens the pain of being wounded, and, worse, makes us appear to be “martyrs.” Martyrdom and pouting look a lot alike if forgiving someone makes us out to be better than they are. The transaction becomes more vertical than horizontal.

If we really love someone then we are compelled to do everything that we can do to help them become a better person. Instead of writing them off, telling them off, or brushing them off, we should care enough to confront. Maybe that’s why Jesus had so many confrontations with the offensive Pharisees. If He truly cared less, we would have heard less. Jesus did some hard loving and so should we.

It appears to me that we need to do better than pretend away conflict by laughing it off, letting it go, or half-heartedly loving it away. If our efforts to make peace don’t include a cross and hard work then we have missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. I am struck that Jesus only called a couple of people “friend” in the Gospels. More fascinating is that Judas was one of them (Matthew 26:50), and it came as he gave Jesus the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane.

So, what am I going to do with the troublemakers in my life? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m conflicted myself. I pray for the right words at the right time and to act like Jesus. By God’s grace, I pray for the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation. I’m also reminded of John Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Can today be a new day for making peace?

Anger Pic

Facebook and Twitter are sources of amusement and information for me. I’m not that into posting things on either, but I like seeing other people’s posts. I did get really animated while taking prednisone for bronchitis two football seasons ago. I found myself posting tweets throughout the game. I literally couldn’t stop. I was typing like a banshee and faster than the TV announcers. It was hilarious! Someone later remarked that they hoped I was going to keep posting during future games because it was such a hoot. No way!

You know the drill. Posting on social media is such an interesting way to chronicle our daily lives. Some people tell us everything from their latest meal including a photo, to how well their vacation is going. It doesn’t bother me. It lets me know what’s going on in my friends’ lives. Of course, I don’t want or need to know everything. I am extremely grateful for the posts that ask for prayer. The ones that border on narcissism don’t do much for me. Occasionally I will unfriend someone if they become so self-absorbed or xenophobic about their particular brand of whatever. Racism, political hubris and anything like elitism is more than I can bear, except, of course, when it comes to my favorite college football team. That’s fine.

Some people spend an inordinate amount of time posting or messaging their minute by minute status. It makes one wonder how much work they’re getting done. I do like Twitter’s 140 character limit, but some folks string their tweets together like an unending stream of consciousness. Facebook is where I mainly troll. I call it “trolling” because that’s what I do. I did it as a District Superintendent to see what was going on with the clergy and churches, and especially to find out if anyone was posting something that they shouldn’t. On more than one occasion there were posts that were inappropriate and told me more than anyone’s results on their battery of psychological tests. Not a good thing. Won’t you agree that our use of social media says a lot about who we are? I guess my blogging does the same thing about me.

Truth be told, I prefer Pinterest because I learn new information, styles, DIY projects, and great ideas on any preferred subject. I hardly ever pin anything. Pinterest is more informational than social. Facebook allows me to wish my friends’ a “Happy Birthday,” etcetera. I sometimes shed tears when a deceased friend’s birthday pops up. I’m torn between going ahead and sending salutations or not. All in all, social media is a great thing, if we look up more than we look down at our pocket computers or at our desktop central commands. Social media is a great thing if it promotes community, and if we know proper boundaries. What we put out there is permanent! You can go back and edit a post but it’s going to have “edited” up in the right hand corner. By then it’s too late. We must use caution!

Don’t misunderstand me. I like this new-fangled world we live in, but I don’t want my cyber-life to take more time than my real life. I can text with the best of them and enjoy using internet slang. I’m fond of the abbreviations of “smh” – “Shaking my head,” “lol” – “Laughing out loud,” or my personal favorite, “IMHO” – “In my honest opinion.” Of course, here’s where it all gets tough for me. Can I truly express my honest opinion with all of its give and take; i.e., “Well I like this, but here’s another approach.” I can talk faster than I can type plus verbal communication has nuances and tones that communicate much more than some cute emoji. I can’t tell if someone is being ironic, sarcastic, or for real when our social interaction is reduced to initials and symbols.

I recently had a situation where someone texted me and I wasn’t at all sure whether they meant one thing or another, so I didn’t respond. Later we saw each other and he asked me why I didn’t text back. I told him I wasn’t sure what he meant. He then explained that what he said was sarcastic. I pulled up the text, showed it to him and asked, “How was I supposed to figure that out?” Well, we finally understood each other. Have you ever gotten a text and without face-to-face interaction you had no clue what the real or hidden meaning was?

I guess the point of this blog is to say a couple of things: be careful with what you post because it says a lot about who you are; beware any communication that’s a one-way street because that doesn’t promote real community; and make sure you look up more than you look down at a screen because people are real and we need to be heart readers more than twitter followers.

There’s a story that gets at what I’m trying to say. There was an anthropologist who regularly went to a small village in western Africa and spent time poking around and learning the culture. During one visit she discovered a collection of new TV sets stacked 4 deep in a hut at the edge of the village. The village had acquired electricity just a few years earlier, and, no doubt, some manufacturer or benefactor had presented the village with the wonderful TV’s. The anthropologist was confused by the fact that they weren’t being used, so she went to talk to the village chief. She asked him why they didn’t use the televisions. He replied, “We have our storyteller.” The anthropologist pressed further, “Maybe so, but television has the capacity of thousands of stories.” “That’s true,” said the chief, “but our storyteller knows us.”

In all our social media platforms, never let us forget that the best way to enrich society and community is through personal contact. Superficial cyber relationships are important, but are nothing compared to intimate personal knowledge and face-to-face interaction. A pastor who’s up on all the latest in social media is great, but most people want one that “knows” them. Do both well and it will be an improvement.

Social Media

 

This week our Children’s Director, Stephanie Lord, and I were thinking about when to have our “Backpack Blessing Sunday,” and it knocked me for a loop to realize that we are that close to school starting back. Although I have been enjoying the countdown to college football, I really feel for the school teachers whose summer break is about to end. With all they deal with, it’s been too short!

Colleges and universities will crank up and have their convocations soon, too. Students and faculty will gather to officially start their academic year. For 12 years I attended the summer convocation at Emory University where I taught two courses: “Theology in the Wesleyan Spirit” and “United Methodist Discipline and Polity.” Teaching those courses was always a welcome rejuvenation of theological discourse and critical thinking about God.

Attending convocation always gave me a chance to think about an important word: Honesty. Needless to say, plagiarism is a rampant form of lying in academia. The internet and Wikipedia make it too easy to copy/steal someone else’s work. Honesty, therefore, is a good word for us to ponder before school starts, especially with the added political jockeying going on between Donald Trump and John McCain; i.e., “Who’s telling the truth?”

There’s a connection between honesty and academic convocations and it’s all in the hoods. The convocations that I have attended have exhibited a rainbow of different academic hoods. The various colors represented a person’s field of expertise via the outer velvet’s color, and the person’s alma mater was visually represented in the hood’s interior. My doctoral hood, for instance, has red velvet on the outside signifying theology and blue and gold inner trim denoting Emory’s school colors.

This practice goes back centuries. Hundreds of years ago people didn’t wear hats. They wore hoods, and they wore many different colored hoods. The color of a person’s hood signified their occupation. If you were a minister, you wore one color of hood. If you were a medical doctor, you wore another color of hood. You could tell, therefore, a person’s occupation by the color of hood they wore.

The problem with that, of course, was that some people tried to pass themselves off as somebody they weren’t. So, they wore a false hood. This is where we get the word “falsehood.” Today we think of a falsehood as something that isn’t true. It is any kind of dishonesty. A person’s honesty is of utmost importance. Lying erodes everything. Teachers promote intellectual honesty by requiring students to do their own work, or, when using information not new with them, to offer appropriate citation. If a pastor or anyone in any profession doesn’t do his or her own work, falsehood will undermine the whole of that person’s efforts. Without honesty, there isn’t much of a foundation for anything in a person’s life.

People can say wedding vows, but without honesty they don’t mean much, do they? Children can say that they love their parents, but love without honesty has little or no respect. People can say that they have done their best to put in quality time and effort at work, but the proof of their shoddy work ethic is quickly apparent if the end-product has problems. Falsehoods are found out! From the beginning of Christianity, the church stood for honesty even if it meant martyrdom. Early Christians could not say they believed in Jesus as Lord and kneel to Caesar as god, too. Honesty often means either-or rather than both-and! That’s a hard pill for our anything-goes society.

Honesty, therefore, requires a choice, a putting off of falsehood, a false hood. We get to choose every day which hood we’ll wear. Will we be honest, have integrity, or live a lie? A heart patient visited his cardiologist for his two-week follow-up appointment. He informed the doctor that he was having trouble with one of his medications. “Which one?” asked the doctor? “The patch,” the man replied, “The nurse told me to put on a new one every six hours, and I’ve run out of places to put it!” The doctor was flabbergasted. He had the patient quickly undress. The man had over fifty patches on his body! The patient didn’t understand that each time he put on a new patch, he was supposed to remove the old one.

Our new life in Christ requires taking off the old, and putting on the new. That takes honesty! Whether you’re headed back to school as a teacher, student, or administrator, or simply going about your daily life keeping score on the golf course or paying your bills, please take off your falsehoods and allow Christ to dress you in new clothing, in the truth! A life of honesty may be difficult, but it’s even more difficult to live a lie!

Academic Hood

 

This morning I am going to do the funeral for my last remaining aunt. It is an honor to eulogize such a wonderful person. Aunt Alva saw life through the lenses of grace and accountability. She was always warm and welcoming, and expressed her confidence in you through compliments. She dared you to be the best self that you could be. It strikes me that these two bookends of grace and expectation are desperately needed in the church today.

In our Christian tradition we know full well that we are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ, but we also know that God doesn’t save us to leave us the way that God found us. We believe that becoming a Christian is not the telos end-all, but is rather a beginning of a transformed life. It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but God’s grace holds us accountable, better yet, inspires us, and empowers us to do better than we’ve ever done before.

As I eulogize my Aunt today, I almost feel as if I am eulogizing a whole generation of my family. Her dear husband, Uncle J.C., was a member of the “greatest generation” that won World War II. He survived the carnage on Iwo Jima in the Pacific, though it caused him nightmares for the rest of his life. Papa, Granny, Uncle Lee, Mama and Daddy, Uncle Homer, Aunt Florence, Frank, Carlee, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ella Mae, Uncle Buck, Uncle Bruce, Gandaddy, Ganny, Papa Mac, MaMac, Nana, Pop, and more than I can name have “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

But, I feel their presence crowding around this morning. It’s times like this that I treasure that part of the Apostles’ Creed that we so casually recite on most Sundays, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Those of us who believe in Jesus who are left alive are called the Church Militant because we still have inward and outer battles to fight. Those who have joined the great company in the cloud of witnesses above are known as the Church Triumphant.

This communion of saints, this mysterious intermingling confluence of influence is especially felt on days like today. I can picture in my mind’s eye a whole host of those who have gone before us. They are our cheerleaders and models to which we can measure ourselves, or they are like prize fighters who dare us to surpass their own feats of strength or failures of weakness. Either way, we have an opportunity to measure up and/or do better. Both serve a proper function, but it is the emotional tie to these particular saints that makes the call to excel so personal and real. These are people we knew, cared for, even loved, and we want to make them proud. We are their genetic and emotional progeny.

I don’t know for certain if these saints do any more than provide examples and educative fond memories for us. I do, however, know that the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Revelation (8:3-4) says that their prayers for us are still alive and active, “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s saints, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” So, though I don’t believe that those in heaven can see anything bad that we do or that wouldn’t be heaven, I do, however, believe that somehow they can see the good we do. This inspires me to try to do all the good that I can. Whether real or imaginary or a weird mixture of apocalyptic history, poetry, and transcendent imagery, I want to sense that this whole host who have gone before us is praying for us.

Call me crazy but just think of the number of cheerleaders that we have! Each of us has had 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents and if you extrapolate that out for 10 generations, it adds up to 1,024 parents that are rooting for us. If you take it out to 20 generations, the number is 1,048,576 parents, not counting aunts, uncles, and all the rest of the heavenly host! The epistle lectionary text for July 26 is from Ephesians 3:14-21. It is rich with what I’m feeling this morning, and describes the power of family prayer encompassing all generations. This is St. Paul’s prayer and their prayer for YOU:

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

“Throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” Indeed, “Amen.” Be encouraged, therefore, and feel the unfettered wings of those set free from earth’s bonds. Feel the cool breeze of the prayers being sent your way today. They are real, actually more real now than they ever were on earth. I believe in the Communion of Saints!

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