Three-legged Chickens and Enthusiam

As a preacher I have found myself trying to drum up enthusiasm for all kinds of things. Stewardship campaigns are aptly named because it carries a military connotation. If it takes a “campaign” to get people to give then the war is already lost. We clergy-types want people to sing with gusto, give cheerfully, and serve faithfully. We want to pay off that building loan. We want the numbers in attendance to stay up without a slump, rain or shine. We like enthusiasm.

Not too much or it’s distracting, but we rather have a few smiles while we’re preaching, if not a few people saying “Amen!”  But, “Happy Clappy” people can turn a good worship service into a free-for-all with little decorum even though there’s evidence in the Bible to promote clapping in worship and even dancing! The bottom line is that everything that we do is to glorify God, not anyone else. Unless it brings honor to God, we’ve failed in our worship! I think we know when to clap at a worshipful rousing anthem by the choir. The joy just rises up from the congregation and spills over into overt enthusiasm.

You’ve heard the story of the circuit-riding preacher who needed a new horse. He went to someone who told him that he had the perfect horse for him. He said that the horse understood religious language. If you wanted him to stop, you said, “Amen.” If you wanted the horse to go, you said, “Praise the Lord!” The preacher bought the horse and started on his way when he came to a steep cliff. He couldn’t remember how to stop. Finally, as he was about to go over the edge, he remembered that you had to say “Amen” to stop the horse. With great relief, he then said, “Praise the Lord!” and both horse and rider plunged over the edge. Some people are too reluctant to say “Amen” and others are too quick to yell “Praise the Lord.” Enthusiasm does not need to be blind emotionalism. We’ve all seen people go off the religious deep end, and are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

That being said, most of us preachers do like feedback on how the sermon went. Often we subject ourselves to the brutal honesty of our spouses and children. Humor us and tell us how it went, gently and with courtesy, and show enough enthusiasm to let us know you got the point. I think that’s the purpose of enthusiasm. It shows the Good Lord that we’re on the same page with Him. We want to be enthusiastic disciples!

Have you ever been to a football game and sat beside someone who either acts like they have no interest in the game or knows nothing about it? It’s annoying at best. They stand at the wrong time, clap in the wrong places, and they don’t usually look at the field! You wonder what in the world caused them to be there. Maybe it was a free ticket or something, but, at least, you wish that they had researched the game – something! There are a lot of people in church and outside the church who profess faith, but act like they don’t know a blooming thing about the Lord. God help when these folks get put on a committee. It’s usually a disaster.

We need enthusiasm! We need people who want to REALLY know Jesus and make Him known! Lent is our church season to wake us up. It should be a time when we rise every day to an ever higher crescendo of discipleship. I’m not talking about somber dull faith. We need folks who are on fire for Jesus with enthusiasm overflowing. John Wesley, our Methodist founder, said of our movement’s success and its cause, “Set yourself on fire with passion & people will come for miles to watch you burn.” Amen to that.

The story is told about a city man who was riding along at 55 mph when he looked out the window and couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw a three-legged chicken running beside the car. He accelerated to 60 mph and the three-legged chicken kept up with him! At 70 the chicken took off and left him in the dust. The man pulled over dumbfounded, and stopped in a farmer’s yard.

He rolled down his window and asked the farmer if he had seen the chicken dash by. The farmer said, “Sure, I saw it. I’ve seen plenty of them.” “What was it?” asked the man.  “The farmer said, “That was one of our three-legged chickens.” “Three-legged chickens! What do you mean, three-legged chickens?” “Well,” said the farmer, “there are three of us in the family: my wife, my boy, and myself. We all like drumsticks so we decided to breed three-legged chickens. That way we all can get a drumstick.” “Well do they taste good?” asked the city fellow. The farmer shook his head and replied, “I don’t know. We’ve never been able to catch one.”

May our enthusiasm keep us from being caught by laziness or a lack of faithfulness. Let’s outpace the world and outrun the Devil! Run on!

Three-legged chicken

Jesus and Confrontation

Jesus got angry when he saw what was happening in the Temple. The Court of the Gentiles was overrun by crooks making a buck off pilgrims at Passover. To make an acceptable sacrifice, it took a cow, lamb, or doves, and all without blemish. Jews from around the world would come. It was their duty. That kind of trip meant that an unblemished sacrifice was hard to come by, so they bought them when they got to Jerusalem.

But, it would prove difficult to pay for the sacrifice with an inflated price in such a seller’s market. The people couldn’t use the money from wherever they came from in the Roman Empire because the coins had Caesar’s image on it. Graven images weren’t a good thing for an orthodox Jew, especially in the Temple. So money-changers set up shop so that people could exchange their “heathen” coins for acceptable money. Guess who got a cut of the exchange rate? It was religious extortion by the Temple fat cats.

No wonder Jesus got mad! Not only were Gentiles kicked out of the only place they could worship, but fellow Jews were also treated with contempt. So, Jesus sets the animals free and then turns over the tables in the currency exchange booths. You’ve seen those booths if you’ve gone overseas. Some are legit and use the going central bank rate. The ones down the side roads or out in the boonies have a rate based on their own “trouble.” The rate depends on how much time and effort it will take for them to get enough from the exchange to make a living.

What kind of stuff makes you angry? Is there such a thing as righteous indignation? I sure hope so. We all get mad. Surely it must be for a good purpose sometimes. It’s an emotion, not a decision. Nobody puts anger on their daily “to do” list: “#4. At noon get angry for 15 minutes, then have a wonderful afternoon.” It doesn’t work that way, does it?

In Transactional Analysis-speak, it’s hard to tell the difference between what a Not-Okay Child sounds like and a Critical Parent. Both sound whiny. Both sound like the teacher’s “Yah-yah-yah-yah…” from Charlie Brown. Which is easier to forgive? Which is easier to get angry with? Not-Okay Children, of course, are easier to forgive, and Critical Parents are not. How can you tell which is which in a tense exchange? To my ears, a Not-Okay Child blurts things out. It’s not pre-meditated. It just happens, and there’s no way to put the toothpaste back into the tube. Critical Parents, on the other hand, either mean to slight someone else through premeditated harshness or through passive-aggressive put-downs.

Passive-Aggressive behaviors are especially egregious. The words come across in a passive way, but are terribly mean-spirited and meant to hurt you longer and are done under the guise of passive “niceness:” “Do you like the way that color looks on you?” “Are you sure that’s the way you like your hair?” Their attacks are meant to sting in such a way that you can’t fight back without looking like a jerk, and you can’t get it off of your mind for the rest of the day or maybe your life.

So, I’m glad that Jesus was direct in his zealous foray into the temple. He didn’t play mind games, parse words, or try to sneak something past his listeners. He was straightforward. Why don’t we do that? Oh, well, we want to be “Christian,” as if that means at all costs, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Malarkey. Jesus had a problem with harsh judging, but he didn’t mean for us to let verbal terrorists get away with their character assaults and bullying.

Jesus in the Temple shows us how to have courage in the face of injustice. We can stand up to the people who think that they’re so right that they can get away with just about anything. These are usually the “well-intended dragons” in our communities. They seem nice enough until enough people figure them out! These are those privileged folks (at least they think so) who want their way or it’s the highway for the rest of us. They manipulate others to push their agendas, and are big-time control freaks. They are Critical Parents who think they’re doing God and the world some sort of favor. Jesus modeled objective Adult to Adult displeasure, not Critical Parent nor Not-Okay Child. I pray that we can do likewise. The world needs tough love sometimes. God help us to take appropriate stands!

Cleansing_the_temple2

Resurrection Dust

In seminary a bunch of us students would unwind by playing the board game “Risk!”  The game is all about world domination, and the winner is the one who conquers everyone else. There was this one guy who would always quote Jesus’ words, as he perennially went down to defeat, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” I can hear him even now. The rest of us thought that it was just a game, not a theological exercise.

I’m afraid that’s the attitude many people have about their faith. Life is a game to win or lose, and one tries to fit God in wherever one can. Like Peter admonishing Jesus about the absurdity that the Son of Man must die, many of us think it’s better to gain the whole world than carry a cross. Carrying a cross seems like losing, game over. So, we are convinced that it is a hard journey to carry a cross. Jesus says that without this self-sacrifice we are doomed. Jesus is the only One who conquers everyone and everything else!

We have to let him “conquer” us so that we give up our wants and wishes and accept God’s will. If we don’t, everything is lost. We need to move from being WAM people and become WAY people. “What About Me?” people are always looking out for themselves while WAY people consistently ask, “What About You?” It is even better if the “You” in question is God. WAY people are selfless, not selfish. The way of the cross is about what’s right and pleases God. It’s the ultimate choice to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost.

Christians have been called people of The Way before. It takes faith in action. Lent is our season to drill down and discover our faith’s bedrock. It’s a time to ask ourselves what we really believe, whom we really follow, and will we carry a cross. The song by Matt Redman, “Jesus, it’s all about you,” sings and sounds well enough, but is so hard to do in our self-absorbed world. It is usually the poor who get this truth before anyone else. They depend on the power of resurrection to be real. Actually everybody I know depends on this truth if they’re honest enough.  All of us need an Easter faith. So, Lent and Easter come at a perfect time. We want winter to be over and warmer weather to arrive.

I’ve been nursing an amaryllis since Christmas a year ago. Trying to get it to re-bloom after more than a year has taken more effort than I imagined. I’ve followed all the rules about letting the leaves absorb sun throughout last summer. Finally the time came for me to stop watering so that the leaves would die before last fall arrived. I cut the old fronds away, then stored it in the fridge. I was careful to keep any apples away because their proximity causes sterilization.

Finally I pulled it out 8 weeks before Christmas and expected it to be a holiday delight. I repotted, watered, and put it in as much sun as I could. It turned an ugly rotten brown. I figured I had overwatered it and firmly felt underneath it several times to see it was soggy and too far gone. It felt okay, so now, three months late, it finally started sending out green shoots. I went from being in Dr. Seuss’ “waiting place” in Oh, The Places You’ll Go to Resurrection time, and I’m looking forward to the blooms!

Has this been a “waiting place” of a winter for you? If so, there’s hope! Pollen has begun to fall and cover our cars in our temperate Southern climate. My daughter, Narcie, calls pollen “Resurrection Dust.” It wreaks havoc on sinuses, but it’s a wonderful sign that no matter how long the winter, or how hard the journey, or how heavy the cross, there’s a resurrection coming. Spring is on its way to scatter away the last vestiges of winter’s chill. “Resurrection Dust” sprinkled over our lives gives us renewed hope.

This makes me hear echoes of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise” – “In the bulb there is a flower…, a spring that waits to be…, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” My amaryllis was done for, but now it’s alive! God’s “Resurrection Dust” is a sign! If nature recognizes this pendulum that swings from death to life, why don’t we? Look out at the yellow pollen and be grateful. Easter’s coming!

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