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.

A Civil Body Politick

The Pilgrims and Indians make a great tableau to consider for Thanksgiving, but the peace between the two groups didn’t last long. Massasoit and Squanto of the Wampanoag tribe had already been on the losing end of things because of smallpox brought by Europeans to American shores. Squanto knew English so well because of captivity, not deliberate education, but the first Pilgrims joined forces with these friendly Natives out of common necessity to survive the attacks of hardship, hostile tribes, and hunger. Common enemies and privation caused the two groups to work together. How does that compare to America today?

Unfortunately, as is often the case, a balanced reciprocity surrendered to animosity and hatred. The Pilgrims who were Separatists saw no future at all in the English Church. They came to America to start over, not to redeem or revive what they saw as a corrupt institution. But, then came the Puritans. The Puritans were all about redeeming and purifying the English Church. The Puritans and Pilgrims had totally different goals, and the Puritan attitude of judgment and superiority annihilated any goodwill toward Native Americans. Instead of the partnership the Pilgrims enjoyed and promoted with peaceful tribes, the Puritans looked down their noses at Indians, and if they couldn’t convert them, they killed them. What a difference it would make if we had stayed Pilgrims and rejected Puritanism. Collaboration between the Pilgrims and the Mashpee Wampanoag should have been the norm, not the exception in relationships between European settlers and Indians.

The Puritans also led us into problems among Europeans. Immigrants went from the Pilgrim’s “Civil Body Politick” of mutual benefit found in the Mayflower Compact to a Puritan Work Ethic of overwhelming greed and capitalism. The essence of the Puritan Work Ethic is one that often raises its head among religious-types; i.e., “if I want to prove that I’m pure, and blessed by God, then I need to be as wealthy as I can, and own as much as possible.” Mutuality is replaced by an emphasis on individual rights and ownership. It’s easy to see that America bought into that notion big time, and the Mayflower Compact devolved or evolved, from your perspective, into a “Bill of Rights” and a confederation of states, and led to Nullification and Civil War, and spiraled into the anarchy we too often see today.

I know that this is too broad a subject for a blog, but I cannot help but to think about our current incivility. What would our Thanksgivings look like if we truly shared without being piggish? Tomorrow’s celebrations should be quieter because there are less people getting together, although we will miss our traditional feasts. But, won’t there also be less chance of tension because college football rivalry games have been mostly cancelled this year? There also seems to be no point in arguing about who won or lost the election. Maybe like the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can focus on our common enemy named COVID and communicate more about what we hold dear together.

I would hope that we ponder our American Indian brothers and sisters. As a group, though from many tribes, they have per capita enlisted and fought in every American war more than any other demographic group. They have been loyal to the American Experiment even when they have been the most mistreated, overlooked, disenfranchised group in our history. As a T-Shirt I saw said about them, they have “Been Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.” If Native Americans had not introduced the Pilgrims to the “Three Sisters” of corn, beans, and squash, the pilgrims would have starved to death. Think about American Indian contributions at your meals tomorrow, and be reminded of how wonderful it is to work together and get along.

Being Christ-Like in a Crisis

Red states, Blue states, and purple states abound. The same is true for people. If there is anything this election has taught us is that Americans are all over the map in our convictions. In spite of our acrimony and recrimination, I pray that we seek and find reconciliation. Some are not ready to move on because their disappointment is too fresh, but we cannot and must not continue to abuse one another. Just when I thought we might at least have a respite from the mud-slinging TV ads, Georgia has a run-off coming up that will decide the US Senate majority. Our TV market is 13 miles from Georgia, so our ads will continue to turn up the heat at least until the first week of January. For many it would be a good time to be like Rip Van Winkle who slept for 20 years and woke up to a changed world. On the other hand, wouldn’t it be better to stay awake and be a part of the change? In my worst moments, I simply want to tune it all out. Have mercy.

Oh, we do need mercy, don’t we? God is gracious enough to give it. Someone said it this way about grace: “There is nothing that we can do to make God love us less, and nothing we can do to make God love us more.” What a gracious way for God and us to act. Jesus loves us all and wants us to be His body, though with different parts and particular opinions. He wants us to work together and seek peace. What a tough message to hear when so many are so emotionally spent by the effects of COVID, racism, civil unrest, economic uncertainty, violence, and the aftershocks of election season. The holiday season we’re about to enter exacerbates our turmoil. Isolation and quarantine have upset plans for families to get together for Thanksgiving, and many, like me, are wondering whether or not to even put up a Christmas Tree. It’s so tempting to yield to this option and hunker down in our bunkers until all this passes.

This year has taken a huge toll in deaths and emotional stress, but God dares us to be people of hope and perseverance in spite of everything. It’s not like the church hasn’t been in this spot before. Goodness, according to a seminary professor, 500 Christians died from persecution every day for the first 400 years of the church’s existence. According to current figures it’s still about 100,000 per year. Nevertheless, we still have hope. The church didn’t just survive those early centuries of martyrdom, it actually thrived.

In their honor and for my own good, I will put up a Christmas Tree. I will not stay in my bunker and live on wishes and platitudes. I will put up that tree and turn on its lights because it represents that hope is ever green, even in bleak midwinter. That tree symbolizes the words from John 1:5 that we usually say at our Christmas Eve Services, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” If I ever needed the light of grace and hope in my lifetime, 2020 is it! This should be both our personal testimony and our message as the church to a hurting world. Our individual and corporate ministry is to attempt to bring healing and hope to the world by being the hands and feet of Jesus.

Seasoning our words with grace is far better than accusations whether we dealing with actual falsehoods or not. There was a fellow who came to know the Lord, but he really didn’t understand the Lord’s way of dealing with people. As a new convert he focused more on the texts of Scripture about Jesus using whips and turning over the money-changers’ tables. The man conveniently overlooked the fact that Jesus forgave Peter, and even said from the cross, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they are doing.”

The man’s pastor tried to have a conversation with him about the difference a kind witness makes versus one that is as bitter as vinegar. The man replied, “For years I worked for the devil full-time. Now I work for the Lord full-time. I have dedicated my life to opposing everyone whose beliefs are false and who teach errors. Fighting lies is a full-time job.”

The pastor asked the man if he had ever put himself in his opponents’ positions and felt what they feel. Additionally, the pastor pointedly asked the new convert if the man had ever thought whether grace or wrath worked better in changing peoples’ minds. The man replied, “Of course, I study my opponents’ positions carefully. I do it in order to make my arguments more devastating. Through study I discover their weaknesses. It’s not important how they feel!”

Suddenly the mild-mannered pastor exploded! He shouted at the top of his lungs, and repeatedly poked the man in his chest. He called the man names until the new convert begged the pastor to stop. The pastor did stop and resumed speaking gently to the man, “It is not enough to know what your opponents think. To be like Jesus, you need to feel what they feel. It doesn’t feel good to be yelled at or attacked. Jesus used love and wisdom much more than he did anger or temper. You go and do likewise, and you will not only be more like Jesus, but you will see God truly change people. Your desire to refute people’s falsehoods isn’t wrong, but the way that you’ve been going about it is.”

Pray with me: “Oh, Lord, we do not want to cause more harm than help. Forgive us for getting so worked up over other people’s opinions. Help us take the log out of our own eye before we try to take the speck out of a neighbors. Help us today to listen more than we spew. Help us to model your response to all of our world’s tension, and speak the truth in love; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

Election Day Observations

I’ve voted and am proudly wearing my complimentary sticker on my shirt. I have no illusions about whether or not we’ll know anything about who won the election by tonight. Exit polls are about as reliable as the ones we’ve been hearing about for months. Americans are a fickle group. We’re about as bad as the Palm Sunday crowd that celebrated Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, but then turned on him by the end of the week, and asked for him to be crucified.

People will tell you that this is the most important election in American history. In many ways, I think they’re right. The differences between candidates could not be any starker, but the most important election is our vote for Jesus. If I vote for Jesus then I can hold my nose and survive whomever is elected president. Don’t get me wrong! I voted for issues that I think are hugely important and are non-negotiable. I am reminded, however, that solutions to issues can often remain elusive even if your candidate wins. Our political system necessitates bargaining and compromise, a negotiation that hammers out legislation that everyone can live with. If it doesn’t, then that party or person certainly won’t last long.

The way our democracy works reminds me of making hash with a little bit of this and a little bit of that. It’s not a pretty sight, but the finished product is darn good! The difference between Republicans and Democrats reminds me of the story of a fellow trying to explain the difference between capitalism and communism. Pardon the sexist language, but here’s what he said: “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” In other words, either way you go, usually somebody is the exploiter and someone is the exploited.

If you think any candidate or party is pure and clean as the morning dew, good luck with that. So, what we do is to try and discern, while admitting that everyone is subject to the failures that are common to all humanity, who or what is closest to the truth. Whose track record delivers, and who best upholds your non-negotiables? Frankly, I’m astounded at why in the world would anyone want to go into public service anyway unless they have a strong streak of masochism. It’s often a damned if you do, and damned if you don’t proposition. Thankfully, there are those well-intentioned servants who are truly willing to get into the fray because they care passionately about the common good. Today, of all days, I pray for these brave souls and their families.

The mud-slinging, personal attacks, and vicious rumors that would kill a weaker person end up aging people before our very eyes. Even the humor, both on late-night TV and around the water-cooler, is tainted and doesn’t do our public servants justice. There was one story going around that the word “politics” says all that you need to know about people running for office. It comes from two words, “poli” which means “many,” and “tics” which obviously means “blood-sucking creatures.” Of course, it doesn’t really mean that! Another jab has its roots in the man who wanted to try to figure out what his son’s profession would be. The man placed a Bible, a $100 bill, and a bottle of whiskey on a table near the back door so that his son couldn’t miss them. He hid behind the door and looked through the crack to see which of the items his son would pick up, thus determining what his son’s vocation would be.

The son walked in and picked up the $100 bill and the father thought, “Wonderful, he’s going to be a banker!” The son, however, put the $100 bill back down on the table. Then he picked up the Bible, and the father thought, “He’s going to be a minister!” Then the son put the Bible back down, and picked up the whiskey bottle. “Oh no, the father thought, “He’s going to be a drunk.” Then the lad put the whiskey bottle down and stared at all three objects. Thereupon, he picked up the $100 bill, the Bible and the whiskey bottle. The father thought, “Dear God, he’s going to be a politician.”

We can easily make fun of public servants, but these serious times demand great sacrifice of our public servants. We need to pray for them all daily. With the pandemic, social unrest, wildfires, hurricanes, and all the rest, this is no time for the faint of heart in the political arena. This is a difficult time for our country. God bless our leaders, our people, and our world so that “government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” God bless America. Amen.

Schilling’s Bloody Sock the Bridge to History

Due to our COVID environment and political season, there’s a wave of selfishness and pride that is running rampant across the land. COVID has us in survival mode, hunkering down in our bunkers hoarding basic necessities, or daring to claim our personal freedoms at the expense of the common good as we thumb our noses at protection protocols. The essence of many behaviors we see exhibited is unhealthy pride. Self-denial and humility have been sacrificed on the altar of the survival of the fittest. This is a scary place to be as individuals or as a society.

Jesus emptied Himself of his prerogatives. Philippians 2:5 says, “In your relationships with one another have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” It goes on in subsequent verses to poetically state how Jesus humbled Himself, made Himself nothing, and became obedient even to death on a cross. This is so antithetical to most of our thinking. We’re so caught up in our rights, our wants, and our personal protection that we overlook what’s good for the community. Thank God for the medical personnel, educators, and every helping profession that puts aside self-preservation for the good of others.

It is true that when we take an airplane ride that the flight attendant instructs us to put our own oxygen mask on first before we try to help someone else with theirs, but if we use that as a corollary for every situation, especially during this COVID season, then we are teetering on the edge of an unhealthy focus on self-survival. They don’t pass out Medals of Honor to the selfish coward who abandons his or her comrades and runs away when the going gets rough. They give the highest accolades to the soldier who, without thought of their own safety, jumps on the hand grenade tossed into the foxhole. They give up their life to save others.

We should honor the journeyman sports player who takes a hit for the team, or, without self-regard, carries the team on their shoulders. Think Curt Shilling of the Boston Red Sox who played in Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS with his ankle skin sutured to his torn tendon sheath so he could pitch against the Yankees. Amid enormous pressure, Boston team doctor Bill Morgan made the desperate decision to suture the outside of Schilling’s ankle to the tissue surrounding the tendon in an attempt to hold everything in place long enough for him to pitch Game 6. Blood began oozing out before the first inning, visibly soaking his sock.

That bloody sock still symbolizes self-sacrifice for one’s team. The Red Sox won the series, and went on to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series. Schilling pitched one of those games, too, still barely patched together, and in pain. His “Team-First” attitude brought the world champion title back to Boston for the first time since 1918. I can hear President John F. Kennedy’s words echo, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” More importantly, we can hear Jesus’ words to deny ourselves. He did it Himself, and that should be inspiration enough for us to embrace humility and put others before ourselves.

It should come as no surprise that the words “sin” and “pride” both have “I” as the middle, central letter. It’s pride that keeps me looking down on others, and thinking I’m better than others. Have you heard about the unkempt, gruff, smelly cowboy out on the range who became a Christian? He told his bunkmates about it and they insisted that he go to church. It was miles and miles away. He went and came back. His bunkmates asked him how it went. He said that when he got there he parked in the corral. They said, “They don’t call it a corral, it’s a parking lot.” He said, “I didn’t know that.” The cowboy then said he walked up to the front gate of the church. His buddies laughed and said, “That’s not what they call it. They call it a door.” The cowboy said he didn’t know that. Then he said he walked down a long chute. They laughed again and said that church people call it an aisle. He said he didn’t know that. The he said he sat down in a little stall. His friends laughed and said church people call it a pew. He said, “Oh, I did know that because that’s what the lady said when I sat down beside her.” How often do we look down our noses at people and say “Peeww…”? How sad.

As someone aptly said, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” No one is better or higher than anyone else. We all need each other. A church is as only as strong if every member shoulders the cross and builds up the Body of Christ. A country, or society, is only as strong as we value what’s best for everybody over what’s best for me.

Immortalizing Your Life

Double standards, no standards, hypocrisy, and selfish narcissism are just a few of the things that absolutely get my goat these days. No one seemingly wants to accept responsibility for their actions, and the inability to say, “I’m sorry!” has left us with enough pent-up anger and frustration that borders on the edge of explosion.

A married couple cooped up for all these COVID months were at each other’s throats. She seemingly was handling it better than her husband, so he asked her, “How do you stay so calm?” She replied, “I work off my anger by cleaning the toilet.” He then asked, “How does that help?” She replied, “I use your toothbrush.”

There’s got to be a better way, and there is. It’s called forgiveness. Though I know that I should forgive, I tend to cling to Matthew 7:6 and its admonition, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls before swine.” In other words, don’t waste good things on those who can’t appreciate them. There are a lot of mongrels and sons-of-mongrels out there, and plenty of oinkers and porkers, too, but does it help if I act like a jerk and blast rather than bless, or poison rather than praise?

It’s almost un-American to let go of revenge and anger. That’s why I like the prayer, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us; may God turn their hearts, and if he can’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” I also like the story of the big bully and the little guy. The big bully tosses the little guy over his head, and says, “That’s judo. I picked it up in Japan.” A second later the big bully whacks the little guy on the back of the neck, and says, “That’s karate. I picked it up in Korea.” Somehow the little guy squirms away and goes out to his truck and comes back in, pops the big bully on the head and says, “That’s crowbar. I picked it up in Home Depot.”

I want to say, “Yes!” because we like reciprocity, that people get what they deserve, that there are consequences to people’s actions. Rather than payback from God; i.e., “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,” we want to help out! My dad went to see my grandfather to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage. Papa didn’t even turn around and face him. He was stocking shelves in his country store, and kept his eyes on what he was doing. All he said was, “You make your bed. You’ve got to sleep in it.” He was paraphrasing the Bible, “You reap what you sow.”

Problem is, we all deserve punishment. None of us is squeaky clean. If it’s true that if you live long enough somebody is going to do you wrong, then it’s also true that if we don’t forgive them, we’re letting them do us that wrong forever. Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. If we stick with, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” there’s going to be a bunch of blind toothless people.

We are writing our epitaph every day. Paul made his life motto very clear from his Roman prison cell, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)” Is my epitaph, “Don’t get mad, get even?” I hope not, or I’m burning down the very bridge that I have to cross over myself. An epitaph is a short memoir that sums up what we hope people will remember about us. It answers a question that’s hard to answer in our pandemic panic, “What is my purpose in life?”

Epitaphs should be like mission statements. Like passing the T-Shirt test, as in it needs to fit on a T-Shirt, our mission statements should be short enough to be memorized, and long enough to be memorable. What short significant statement will immortalize your personality and passions? What will be on your grave?

There was a southern family who always went on a little road trip on Sunday afternoons. They would seek out cemeteries and let the kids blow off some steam by making a game of finding the oldest tombstone in the graveyard. One of the children yelled out, “Here’s an 1862!” The family gathered around and read this lady’s epitaph, “Ever she sought the best, ever she found it.” There, in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, when she could have blamed everything on something or someone else, she took the high road and looked for the best and found it. That’s an epitaph worth living!

I want to be remembered for better than what I’ve been exhibiting lately. How about you?

Passive-Aggressive Types and Sweet Revenge

There are a lot of anxious people around. With all of the fear-mongering with the election coming up, there are plenty of upset people. The stock market is diving and the death rate is climbing. Being cooped up together is making some folks absolutely sick of each other. Sending our youth and young adults off to school has everyone in a tizzy, and God bless the teachers to stay safe and calm in the mix. Here’s to hoping that when the clock strikes midnight on December 31, 2020, we can all shout “Hallelujah! We made it!”

But, what if we can’t? What if the other fellow gets elected, or if all the votes still haven’t been counted by the deadline? What if COVID-19 mutates with the flu, and things get worse instead of better? Handling adversity and toxic people is an art. If you’re one of those persons who needs to get a certain amount of continuing education every year, then getting your Ph.D. has been a cinch in 2020 because all of our worries and troubles have been Piled Higher and Deeper this year.

To top it all off, everybody’s feelings are on their sleeves. You can’t seem to say “love” without making somebody mad. Fred Craddock, great preacher and story teller, said that he and his wife Nettie had a neighbor who liked to rain on their parade almost every day. Fred said that the neighbor would read the paper just to see what was on at the theater, and then tell him or Nettie, “I noticed such-and-such a movie is on. Have you seen it?” Fred said that sometimes he’d say, “Yes, and have you seen it?” He said it was then that he discovered that she had sucked him right in to her judgmental negative attitude. Her usual reply was, “No, I haven’t seen it. I don’t think Christians should go to the movies.” Fred said that he and Nettie finally caught on to the fact that, “She got more pleasure out of not going to the movie than we did in going to the movie, and then she doubled her pleasure by indicting us for going.”

Who are the passive-aggressive types trying to rain on your parade? Passive-aggressive folks say something innocuous that almost seems nice, but they trick you and suck you in like Fred Craddock’s neighbor. They ask things like, “Do you think that color looks good on you?” You might not care a whit about the color, but after they ask their question you’ll think about it for the rest of the day. Which kind of critique bothers you more, or does the most harm: the direct attack, or the subtle innuendo of someone who asks, “Do you think your hair looks good that way?”

I prefer direct attacks, but this year has me maxed out. Common decency has gone out the window. It is either uncommon or non-existent. Rage, rioting, and rebellion are rampant. Whatever happened to mercy and forgiveness? Can’t we talk to each other in calm helpful ways? Our current atmosphere is so tinged with negativity that everyone acts like a mudslinging politician, or like the people who are getting rich off their tell-all books that smack of little more than simple revenge.

Ah, revenge! I’m reminded of the story of the three guys who were captured by a group of tribesmen on the Amazon. One was a Frenchman, one an Englishman, and one was an American. The tribesmen told all three that they were going to die, be skinned and their flesh used to waterproof the tribe’s canoes. Out of some tiny bit of mercy, they would let each of the foreigners pick their own method of demise. The Frenchman said, “Poison,” then gulped it down while shouting, “Vive la France!” The Englishman said “Pistol,” and said “Long live the Queen!” The American said, “Knife,” and starting poking holes all over his body, then exclaimed, “Good luck waterproofing your canoe with my skin!”

We would rather hurt ourselves than let somebody else get their way. As they say, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” in other words when it is least expected and is a surprise. Unfortunately, our society is self-destructing before our very eyes, and we’re inflicting pain on ourselves, even if it hurts us. We may say, “It’s no skin off of me,” when it really is. Instead of serving up revenge, why can’t we all just settle down and do our best to make it to a post-COVID, post-Election, post-whatever-ails-you place where we can all look back and say, “Thank you, Jesus?”

The Best Laid Plans

Cubic Feet per Second or CFS is how people measure how fast the flow of a river is. Thanks to COVID and all of the issues our society is facing, it feels like we’re in a flash-flood, and the CFS is out of sight. This coming week we’re taking our daughter, Narcie, and her husband, Mike, plus their two children, Enoch (13), and Evy (11) on a camping and canoeing trip in the high country of northwestern North Carolina. It will be a grand time, but if the water is running too fast, we may not enjoy things as much as I have planned and hoped for weeks and weeks.

In checking this morning, the South Fork of the New River is running around 1350 CFS. It needs to be below 1000 to be navigable and somewhat safe. It would be even better for fishing purposes if it was running around 450 CFS. We’ll take what we can get, and enjoy the experience as best we can. The best laid plans don’t stand a chance against rain, rivers, and the rigors of camping and canoeing. It is best to be flexible.

Many a time have I checked the waterflow from the safety of home, only to drive 5 hours, and find that a downpour has dangerously raised the speed of the river, and made the water too murky to fish. There are other options like playing chess or other board games under the large picnic shelter, and you can always go into West Jefferson to visit the Ashe County Cheese Company or the Churches of the Frescoes. Here’s the thing, when things are unpredictable and out of your control, you have to be nimble, adapt and adjust. You can’t get your hopes up or set your mind set on one particular set of circumstances or outcomes. Things change.

Someone said that the only constants in life are death and taxes. Another said that change is the only constant. Both statements are correct in their assessment. So, what do you do when life deals you a hand that is not what is expected. You can either fold and give up, or you can roll with it and do the best that you can.

I watched an episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond” last night as Ray and Deb, plus children, went with his Mom, Marie, Dad, Frank, and brother, Robert, to visit family on the sunny Mediterranean coast of Italy. Ray had talked himself into being miserable before they even left the US. Being around Marie and Frank for a lifetime can do that to you! Ray had the sniffles and was in a foul mood for most of the trip. He didn’t want to be there at all, so he sulked and moped around, until finally he started to appreciate the beauty of the setting. The tide turned in his attitude, though nothing ostensibly had changed at all. He changed, not the surroundings. I needed that episode to face the uncertainty of a well-planned and long-expected trip that may not go like I thought it should or would.

COVID-19 has been our world’s flash flood, and has created all kinds of anxiety. Everything is unpredictable about it. The science has been all over the map. We don’t know if cold weather will make it worse or better. Unlike the river, there’s not even a weather forecast model that we can follow with COVID, but we do have a choice: We can either give into the anxiety and get depressed, or we can pull out those books we’ve been meaning to read, or do those often-thought-about-but-never-done projects we’ve been putting off. As much as most of us like the comfort zone of home, it is good to have some adventure and embrace life however fast the ebb and flow.

So, on Monday we’re headed to campsite #43 (closest to the bathhouse), and we’ll see what happens. At least we will be together. The unpredictability will be a shared experience. We’ll all figuratively be in the same boat, sort of like we all are with COVID. Actually, I hope we will need to rent three boats. Our canoes will either be going down the express lane of a fast river, or we’ll go exploring and let serendipity surprise us. Life is full of marvelous opportunities, and some that are just awful. The difference is often in how we react.

As people of faith, we know that we have a known God in an uncertain world. We have a God in Jesus Christ who dealt with the worst of human fickleness, but kept his face focused on final victory. He had his times of tumult, but no one can say he didn’t roll with the punches. He struggled, but he always kept going. Put on your life jackets, grab your paddles, and go with the flow! Literally!

Human Connections Make for Human Correctness

According to Mark Twain, “Sacred cows make the best hamburger.” Everyone has their own list of what’s sacred and what is profane. That rugged individualism has been exploited by the pandemic and our most base natures. We are now scared of each other right when we need each other the most. Our divided world has been further fragmented because of COVID-19. We can’t seem to see eye-to-eye on anything.  Politics, religion, and whether or not to defund or defend the police, wear a mask or not, and an assortment of other issues have further removed us from an essential characteristic of being human: community.

Our society is splitting into camps that are pro and con on almost everything. President Trump can’t use the word “love” without people hating him for it, and Joe Biden can’t say the word “compromise” without offending the ultra-progressives. This pandemic has made utterly clear that red and blue don’t make purple. Our divisions have made red states redder, and blue state bluer. When we need each other the most, we are the most divided.

Not only have we given up on common decency that respects differences of opinion, we have also given up on the ways that we human beings have been made in the image of God. The moral image of God that promotes the ability of human beings to discern the difference between right and wrong has been tossed out the window. The bigger casualty of the pandemic has been what we’ve done to the social image of God. The moral image has been so shot to hell so much that there seems to be no way to decide if protesters are or are not more important than law enforcement, whether or not statues are history or racism, or if anyone in the news media speaks the unvarnished truth without bias.

Frankly, we better find a way to reflect God’s social image if we want to have any chance of resurrecting the moral image. Recapturing the moral image of God, where we might actually have the ability to agree to disagree, is totally connected to our appreciation and application of the social image of God. The social image in us finds its source in the personhood of God. If God lives in the community that we call the Trinity, then, surely, we need one another, too. Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three persons that are distinct, yet indivisible. Unlike our country’s purported motto, e pluriblus unum, “Out of many, one,” God actually lives up to the billing. There is oneness in God at the same time that diversity is also honored. When you see Jesus doing something, the Father and Holy Spirit are right there, too. It’s the same with any action of each member of the Godhead. It should be the same with us. We should be distinct, but indivisible, but we’re nowhere near this reality, and the pandemic has only made it worse.

We have gone from a melting pot mentality to a salad bowl one with the cucumbers in one place, the tomatoes lumped together, and the different types of lettuce are each relegated to their respective places. This is our world right now. To make things worse, we cannot even have fellowship with one another except through Zoom, or as we practice other means of social distancing. I’m getting used to teaching a Sunday School class by Zoom, but preaching to people where their faces are half covered up causes emotional connections difficult to make. I know people are ministering to one another through social media and porch drop-offs, but there is a deep longing for human touch that has gone woefully lacking. No doubt, we don’t need to start hugging and high-fiving on Sundays, but we desperately need to find a way to recapture the social image of God in our corporate lives. That, in and of itself, is the problem. Our corporate lives have been obliterated.

How do we promote a corporate life in this climate? I’ve seen videos of people who have constructed family hugging booths where grandparents from out of town can visit their grandchildren and hug on one another through a plastic sheet that has open-ended appendages securely attached for arm insertion. I’ve seen folks kiss on windows against the pressed lips of an isolated loved one. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. The bottom-line, we need to do whatever we can to stay socially connected, in spite of our differences. We will not be able to come to any consensus of what’s right and wrong; i.e., the moral image if we can’t connect with one another socially. Human connections make for human correctness!

Please look for ways this week to connect. Be safe and creative. People are dying on the withered vine of emotional cut-offs and the lack of physical touch. We weren’t made for this kind of life. Thank God that Jesus clarified where all this pain and angst is coming from. John 10:10 gives us Jesus’ assessment of this very succinctly: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

So, we pray, “Lord, please give us a vaccine to kill this virus so we can emotionally and physically reconnect. The fabric of our lives, country, culture, and world depend upon your healing us. Let it be soon; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”