Guilty Until Proven Innocent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Matlock Picture

Eclipse Protection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eclipse Photo

Easy Buttons and The Waiting Place: Trusting God and the Need for Revival

Hearing “That was easy!” from an “Easy Button” from Staples would come in handy with a lot of our current situations. The stock market has taken a tumble, politics has rattled everyone, North Korea’s nuclear missile ambitions are frightening, the Artic is clogged with plastic waste, and the list goes on. Then there’s the usual personal stuff: illnesses, financial limitations, emotional struggles, work-related stress, and add graduation to the list. Whether it’s graduation from kindergarten, high school, college, or grad school, we wonder what’s next. What if my friends move or switch schools, what if I can’t find a job? How will I pay off these student loans? What’s the next step in my relationships? None of these questions are easy.

Then there’s the cultural dilemma of a rudderless society. We need a revival that is Spirit-led that begins with repentance. Our flippant devil-may-care “YOLO” – You Only Live Once attitude smacks us in the face every day when YODO is more accurate, You Only Die Once. Kids, youth, and adults of all ages make goals out of things that are so self-centered and oftentimes unspeakable. Our standards of morality have fallen to new lows. We need Jesus more than ever.

My favorite gift to graduating high school seniors for years has been Oh, the places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss. I’ll give them out again this year, but my optimism has been tempered by “fake” or real news. The bias in the news media makes me long for the days of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. I remember clearly the awful daily reports of the number of Vietnam dead. That was terrible, but today’s cacophony of talking heads makes it impossible to compartmentalize our lives to block out the noise. Sports used to be a great escape, but doping scandals and head injury debates make me feel like we’re watching fights to the death by gladiators in ancient Rome.

We can get fooled by placebos that only mask our main malady. I can push my “That was Easy!” button and it doesn’t change a thing. Heck, in my rush to get on and off elevators, I can push the “close door” button countless times to no avail. What most people don’t know is that those buttons don’t even work. They are set with specific intervals so that no one gets caught in the doors. The placebo effect makes us think we’re going somewhere, but it’s really the same-old, same-old. I can go out and buy an Ultra High Definition 4K Television and fool myself into thinking how sharp and crisp the picture is when all the while it doesn’t matter. My cable provider can’t handle 4K, so there you go. It’s a sham.

So, Dr. Seuss, the places we’ll go don’t look that great right now. What are we to do? If you know anything about Seuss’ book then you know that he identified what he called the “most useless place.” It is “The Waiting Place.” For maybe the first time I think the author is wrong. In these tumultuous times, a waiting place might just be the best place to be. Instead of purchasing or chasing placebos for what ails us, why don’t we wait? There’s a Bible verse in Isaiah 40:28-31 that says that “those who WAIT upon the Lord will renew their strength…” Amen to that!

Our society is into pushing the instant gratification button, and it doesn’t work with elevators or much of anything else! We think we can control all of life’s variables, and we overlook the best source of real peace and joy: Jesus. It doesn’t get much plainer than Matthew 11:28 where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Our frantic frenetic world needs to wait on the Lord, pause, quit rushing here and there, and cast our cares on the Lord.

I Peter 5:6-11 says the same thing another way, and speaks volumes of good advice to me: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

Another Bible passage that helps me wait and listen for God comes from I Kings 19. The prophet Elijah was about to give up and was in hiding and waiting in a cave while his enemies pursued him. In the midst of his waiting, God spoke to him: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then the Lord spoke, but not through the powerful wind, nor the subsequent earthquake, nor the fire that came next. After the fire came the Lord’s “gentle whisper,” sometimes translated as “a still small voice.” Let us be like Elijah and, though our foes be many, let’s listen for God’s whispers each day. He will speak, not in huge ways usually, but in gentle whispers.

We need to cock our ears toward God and be attentive. Our world and especially American culture needs to get right with God. We need to repent of our own foolish efforts to fix our problems. We need to shut our ears to the shouts of doomsayers, and we need to listen to God. We need to wait on the Lord, listen to his direction and follow his will. Just maybe, if we wait long enough, we’ll hear God’s still small voice and there will be grand places that we will go! Listen!

So hear this blessing from Jesus in Matthew 6:25ff: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, drink or wear…Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?…Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Let us turn to the Lord and mean it more than we ever have before. It’s time!

Oh The Places

I Shot a Red Bird

I killed a Red Bird. There, I’ve confessed it. As a little boy, about this time of year, a Christmas present of a B-B-Gun was used to kill a beautiful Cardinal. I love Cardinals. Their scarlet red feathers bring color into the frosty hues of winter. I saw one on the ground pecking at pecans lying under one of our abundantly fruitful trees. I leveled the barrel over a fence rail, put the bird in my sights, and pulled the trigger. The Cardinal fluttered and tried to fly. He was dead within 10 feet, and I immediately felt guilty. It’s one of the very first times I ever knew that I was a sinner. One of my first thoughts was typical of Adam and Eve in the Garden, blame someone else. I never got age appropriate gifts anyway. My parents shouldn’t have given me a B-B-gun, but I knew better even as a little boy.

So I looked over my shoulder. I knew that I had done a bad thing. Grandmother was always lurking around. She loved Red Birds. She even kept finches and parakeets in the house. If anyone could make you feel guilty, it was her. You wouldn’t dare call someone a “fool” for any reason without her quoting Scripture about those who did so going to hell. She was the conscience for everybody in the family. She still makes me feel guilty sometimes, and rightly so for the most part.

But the day I shot the Red Bird, I was guilty of my own accord. I knew to my core that I did something wrong. Does anyone feel that they have done wrong anymore? Where has our sense of propriety gone? I used to blush quite regularly and hardly do it anymore. Is it because I have a heightened sense of grace, or a cavalier callousness about sin? It makes me wonder. Grace really makes little sense without a need for mercy. I think sometimes that I have ether claimed or promoted grace so much that I have forgotten that if it weren’t for God’s wrath, there would be no need of grace, no need for Jesus.

The Bible conveys many images of the atonement, ways of describing what Jesus did to make us at-one with God again when we’ve done wrong. I don’t think that one is more correct than another. They are just different ways to explain or depict what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish. I’m convinced that there are so many because they speak to us individually and correspond to our particular needs. Questions are begged: Which one do we find most helpful? Which one would help us explain the Gospel to someone else who needs it?

The Financial or Ransom Image (Titus 2:14) suggests that we humans are captives that are held in bondage and have lost our freedom, but Someone steps up and pays the price, the ransom, to redeem the incarcerated. This image corresponds to the language of redemption. Jesus, of course, is the redeemer, but the question remains, “To whom is the ransom paid to redeem us?” Is it the devil that God has to do business with to buy us back, or is it God to whom Jesus pays the ransom? Seems strange. Nevertheless, it’s just an image of the atonement.

I think most of us get the picture of being kidnapped/captured and need deliverance, but no worries if we don’t. This is just one of many atonement images that are heart-matters more than literal constructs. No matter what, this image is one, like them all, which works for me because sometimes I feel trapped and know that I can’t free myself. I need Jesus!

Another image in the Bible is the Military Image of the Atonement or, as it is sometimes called, Christus Victor. Jesus fights evil and wins the victory. He triumphantly defeats evil and retakes the world from Satan (cf. Colossians 2:15). Christus Victor is a great image for those who feel powerless against the armies of sin as they have been fighting temptations like addiction, and oppression of any kind.

The Sacrificial Image is another good one. Blood is shed, one life is offered for many, a sinless life for sinful ones. Death can’t win because Jesus never sinned. Because the “Wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23), Jesus rises from the dead, not just for himself, but for all who have faith in him. This is a great image (cf. Hebrews, chapters 8-10) for anyone who feels the need for things to be set right, and eye for an eye, a life for a life, and a belief that there must be adequate payback for our sins to be forgiven.

I do, however, know some people who are a little squeamish about the Sacrificial Image and its so-called “blood theology.” They avoid hymns about the blood of Jesus. It seems too Old Testament-like with its sacrificial system that is gory and strange. It does make me wonder what these folks do with communion. After all, there’s a cup of Jesus’ blood front and center because he gave his life as a sacrifice. I would imagine, however, that soldiers and vets could really resonate with this image – anyone in a helping profession, like teachers, nurses, doctors, police and firefighters, or people who sacrifice to take care of family members.

Next, the Legal Image’s scene is a courtroom. God is the Judge. Satan is the prosecutor accusing us. Jesus is the Defense Attorney. We’re declared guilty and sentenced to death. In God’s grace, Jesus, who is the only person to ever obey every law, steps up and takes our punishment on himself. It is the language of “reconciliation” (Colossians 1:19-20). Jesus “takes the rap” for us. This is very effective for anyone who feels their guilt and wants to know that they are forgiven and reconciled to God and one another.

It brings to mind the love/hate relationship that I have with the late Gene Wilder’s character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He plays the eccentric weird factory owner who’s more than a little bit scary. Good little Charlie is one of 5 fortunate children who gets a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s factory and get a lifetime supply of chocolate. Without going into gory detail, all of the kids except Charlie give into temptations along the way and meet creative but horrible ends. They are selfish and Charlie sticks to the rules. He is tested and inherits the factory. He makes good choices and is rewarded. Sound familiar?

It’s a pretty good analogy of the flawed way we present the Christian life. On our tour of this world we are promised Gobstoppers of rewards if we follow our Leader (Jesus) well. Along the way, we and our fellow travelers will be tempted to be selfish and will reap the consequences. If we remain faithful, there will be a reward. This is all well and good if we want to promote right-living, but there isn’t much grace in Willy Wonka’s pages-long contract that he makes all the kids sign before they begin the tour. Thankfully, in the Gospel, rightfully proclaimed, God isn’t bizarre and strange like Willy Wonka. God doesn’t get gleeful when we get our just desserts, pun intended.

God, to be sure, has commandments and stipulations, but God knows full well that we can’t fulfill the contract. We aren’t little Charlie’s who can pass the test. We all fail, but God takes the test for us through Jesus and fulfills his own contract. That’s an image that works for me! What works for you? What works for your neighbors, or your enemies? How can we share the Gospel in a way so that people understand it, and accept it?

red-bird

MLK and Nathan Bedford Forrest: Walking in Memphis

Last week I was in Memphis for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy. We had productive time together as we met just up from Beale Street at The Peabody Hotel, famous for its lobby ducks. One thing we didn’t duck was the racial history of Memphis. Bookends to pain are plain to see. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is there. So is the statue and burial place of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest, former KKK Klansman and Confederate general, was a citizen of Memphis until his death on October 29, 1877 and is buried in a city park. He is depicted on his cavalry horse for all to see. We passed it every day. Picturing the Lorraine Motel and that statue of Forrest was disturbing.

To plenty of people MLK Day is a brief break after Christmas to help us catch our collective breath after a busy Christmas season. In Memphis there is visible evidence that the racial divide in our American experience is still very real. Ours is the ongoing experiment to overcome racism and its main tool: tribalism. Christmas season had http://www.ancestry.com ubiquitous over the airwaves with TV ads and Facebook postings about people discovering their ancestral past through DNA. This may help in verifying some genealogical research, but it promotes tribalism.

You may ask, “What’s wrong with it?” Well, tribalism tends to set one group against another. I had a history professor at Carolina that was a member of the Hitler Youth. He dared to teach us to sing “Deutschland über Alles,” “Germany Above All,” in class. We saw the temptation of tribalism this past Monday with the National Championship football game between Clemson and Alabama. Clemson fans booed Steve Spurrier as a new inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame because he coached at their bitter rival, South Carolina. There were plenty of South Carolina fans pulling for Alabama instead of Clemson for the similar tribalistic reasons. It seems to be a part of human nature to form tribes, and think ours is better than someone else’s.

There is evidence to support that Nathan Bedford Forrest repudiated much, if not all, of his racist tendencies as he dropped out of the KKK and sought racial reconciliation. We also know that Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that!

The United Methodist Church calls this Sunday before MLK Day, “Human Relations Sunday.” Its purpose, according to the UM Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 263.1, is to occur during Epiphany, a season manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day “calls the church to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with one another.” How I wish we, as the church, did this better. The most segregated hour during the week is still from 11 am to 12 Noon on Sundays. This coming Monday we are invited to Second Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Aiken, for dinner and a movie. The movie, Selma, will be shown followed by a discussion. The time will be from 4-7:30 pm.

My hope is that we will forfeit our tribalism and give our primary allegiance to God. We all need Jesus desperately. No one has a right to feeling smug. “Except for the grace of God, there go I…” levels elitism to a posture of mutual valuing and collaboration. That’s the essence of the work of The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race of which I am glad to be a member. By the way my DNA testing confirmed family stories and suspicions with a few surprises: Eight percent sub-Saharan African, double digits Native American, a whole bunch of Irish (a shocker for a Scotsman), and plenty of Viking Scandinavian, with a smattering of middle European Jewish. Some would say I’m a mutt. Well, I’m an American who believes more in us being a melting pot than a salad bowl separated into tribes of tomatoes, romaine or iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and bacon bits.

I like praying, “Our Father who art in heaven,” not “my.” I like singing, “When We all get to heaven. I very much like the TV show, The Story of Us. It’s up to me to spread the tent wider and work for the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven so that it comes true. Rev. 7:9a says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

This should be our refrain, something to repeat, which is what a refrain does. Refrains, however, for the preacher, vocalist and the actor do more than repeat things. A refrain is the jazz-like ebb and flow of oratory from Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, Jr. that invites us to belong to the play, to own the words. Think of MLK’s phrases, “I have a dream,” until it’s our dream, not just his. Hear his words, “Let freedom ring,” until we all pray for the bells to peal the news that the Jubilee has come.

Walking in Memphis did me some good. Marc Cohn agreed. Give a listen.

 

 

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

The Whole Story: Being Charitable at Christmas

I like Hallmark movies because they always end well, but that’s Hallmark, not life. As much as I would like Christmas to be neat and no needles on the floor, it isn’t reality. There have been Christmases in my family where gifts were thrown out with the wrapping paper. A bummer! There have been toys that didn’t work right out of the box, and macaroni that was too soupy and turkey overcooked and dry. There have been too many deaths.

One family member’s funeral was on the day after Christmas. The death was sudden and shocking in many respects. The death occurred at a paramour’s house. The spouse was greatly disturbed by this and made sure that our kindhearted United Methodist minister was upstaged by a fire and brimstone preacher of a denomination that focused more on guilt than grace. Every other funeral in our family was pretty generic. But, since the spouse had the unkindly preacher dwell on adultery in his comments, for the first time in many funerals, we knew exactly who was in the casket.

It was the truth, but it didn’t need to be said. Payback makes for interesting actions. In the case I’m remembering from Christmas long ago, said spouse was finally “laid to rest” beside the wandering partner. The son of the wanderer made sure that the so-called “rest” didn’t last long, had the person uprooted and the person’s name excised from the granite marker, and his own name inscribed instead. Now, that’s payback.

That was a tough Christmas. We have all had them, and we all need more grace than guilt. Who has the moral high ground to denigrate someone else to the nether regions? Except for the grace of God, there go I. Every time I point my finger at someone else, the majority are pointing back at me. Can’t we cut everybody some slack – especially at Christmas? Nobody ever knows the whole story anyway.

The wonder and mystery of Christmas is that God knows the dirt on everyone, and still chooses to become one of us, live our lives, die our deaths, and rise so that we might rise, too. Sometimes in our fictionalized versions of Christ we make Jesus so majestic and powerful that He can’t identify with us in our weakness. This is much like Aslan the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Hear Aslan roar, but Aslan does die unjustly and the sacrificial stone is cracked, and he is finally resurrected. Aslan is still on the move today if we will notice the underdogs more than we do the magnificent.

Many have heard the story of Barrington Bunny. Perhaps you’ve heard it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Sunday. I almost want to say that I’m sorry that you did because the telling of it can become a preacher’s ploy to play to the “Chreasters,” you know, the Christmas and Easter folks who only come to church twice a year. That is so unfair and such a guilt trip. Thank God for the people who come on the high and holy days. At least they come then. Some of the best people I know are the unsung people who can only muster the time, good health, or energy to get here on Christmas and Easter. You are welcome to come whenever you can. I’d rather assume that you have good reasons, not bad ones, for your choices.

Nevertheless, you can find solace from the story of another underdog who gets the connection between Christmas and Easter and reminds us of Jesus. When most of us want Hallmark and perfect gifts and perfect lives, God dares to say to everyone, “It’s alright if the gifts don’t fit, aren’t age appropriate, or the food is a disaster.” Barrington Bunny is your hero, or, at least one of them.

Barrington is the only bunny in the forest and enjoys hopping about in the snow, perennially looking back to see his hippity-hop designs. He’s furry and warm, but he’s feeling all alone at Christmas, and doesn’t feel gifted or special at all. He hears squirrels chattering up in a tree and asks what they’re doing. They are having a Christmas Party. He wants to join them but can’t since Barrington can hop, not climb. He hears the sounds of joy coming from a beaver’s home as their family celebrates Christmas. Barrington invites himself to the frivolity but isn’t able to swim to get inside.

He is so sad. No parties, no family, just hippity-hop, hippity hop, and then he gets a visit from a great silver wolf. The wolf offers Barrington encouragement and tells him that all of the animals in the forest are his family, and that Barrington does have gifts to share. Then the wolf disappears, and Barrington decides to give gifts to his forest family. He puts a stick and note at the beaver’s saying, “A gift from a member of your family.” He scratches through the snow to find leaves and grass to make the squirrels’ nest warmer and again attaches a note, “A gift from a member of your family.” The wolf’s encouragement gives newfound purpose and family to Barrington.

However, a blizzard is brewing. Snow piles up and Barrington barely hears above the howling wind the small sound of a baby field mouse. The mouse is lost and freezing, but Barrington tells him that his fur is nice and warm and that he will cover the mouse and provide shelter. Barrington has two thoughts, “It’s good to be a bunny who is furry and warm. It’s also good that all the animals in the forest are my family.” The next morning the baby mouse’s family finds him alive and warm under the sadly dead body of Barrington Bunny.

On a cold winter night in Judea we were all given a gift that tells each of us that we’re a part of the same human family. God’s love is as sacrificial as Barrington’s. His gift to us cost Jesus his life when he grew up. May we love others as much and always be charitable. We all need it even if we don’t deserve it. Only God knows the whole story that connects you and me to both Christmas and Easter. What is your gift and who is your family?

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Christmas Longings – Past and Future Make the Present Better!

Should I long for Christmas past or future? The way things used to be is a tempting road to travel. There are good memories even when things were difficult. My Mother had a major stroke in late fall 1992 and was in a coma for several days. I clung to her bed-rail asking her to wake up and come back. Out of motherly love she did, but it was a terribly difficult life for her. She could barely smile and move just one hand. She couldn’t walk or speak above a whisper.

Christmas 1992 was tough. Mother had a little tree with lights in her nursing home room, but it was hard to see her like she was. Just before Christmas, Cindy and I and the children visited on my parent’s anniversary, December 23. I had the flu and wasn’t allowed inside. Cindy and our children were in the room and I was outside her window looking in. We tried to sing Christmas carols to her with me trying loud enough for her to hear me through the glass. I’ll never forget her look and her smile back at me as she was propped up on a pillow.

She died thirteen days later, January 5, 1993, from another stroke. Oh, how I have missed her, but wished I had let her go months earlier, but I was too selfish. I still feel guilty for begging her to wake up from her initial stroke. She would have been so much better off. We have to love people enough to let them go to that place where there is no more pain or sorrow. But it’s hard, isn’t it? I was only 36, way too young, in my mind, for my Mom to die.

Longing for Christmas Past is nostalgic and idyllic, but it isn’t reality. As Christians we are more a New Jerusalem people than Garden of Eden ones. Living in the past isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, there are fond memories, but the future is the culmination of our hope. Adam and Eve were exited from Eden after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cherubim with flaming swords kept them from going back inside. I used to think that was part of God’s punishment, but I think differently now. If they could have gone back they might have eaten from the Tree of Life, and then having eaten from both trees they would have lived forever knowing both good and evil. That would have been a horrible thing. God wants us to only know good forever so the cherubim with flaming swords were God’s agents of grace.

The New Jerusalem is our destination where there is no sorrow or pain. If the good old days were really that good how did we get into the mess we’re in today? So let’s focus on making the world a better place and working for God’s preferred future. What can we do to make the Kingdom come when all things will be set right, no more evil, injustice, sickness or oppression?

To be honest, some of that future vision does depend on a recollection of the past. I think that it’s okay to reminisce about lessons learned and people who graced our lives in years gone by. The past becomes a tutor and that’s okay, but that’s very different from it being a prison. We need to learn from it, but not languish in it. What helps me most is to remember the good things and try to build on them. That turns the past into a healthy present that springboards us into a great future.

As an example, my Grandmother, Milbria Dorn Jackson, known as “Mib” to many of her friends, conjures up a plethora of memories. Some are great and others not. My perspective is jaded because I lived with her. She was of tough German extraction. There are two smells that immediately come to mind when I think of her: BenGay and Sauer Kraut. There was a kraut jar in the kitchen where she fermented cabbage, and BenGay was her daily medicine for what she called her “neuralgia.”

She wasn’t what I would call the world’s jolliest person. As a matter of fact, she could be pretty stern. She was devoted to my older brother, but my middle brother and I were too rambunctious. I’m just saying, she was tough on us. Papa was jolly and happy, but nobody would claim that Grandmother was the life of the party. She wasn’t!

But, you know if I dwell on the not-so-fond memories of the past, it doesn’t do me much good. It makes me forget the good things like the twinkle of Grandmother’s clear blue eyes. The same eyes of my Uncle J.C. Thinking only of her strict standards makes me forget that she loved to hear me whistle and told me so. Nobody else ever did that. Thinking of her not-so-frivolous nature makes me forget how much she shaped me in good wonderful ways.

There’s a Bible on my shelf in my study that she gave me for Christmas 1964. Let me tell you, as a 9 year old in 1964 I thought that a Bible was the worst present ever. You couldn’t play with it, and it just underscored her usual guilt trips for our shenanigans. I opened it this morning just to glimpse her handwriting and was astounded to read something that I had forgotten was even there. The whole inscription reads: “To Tim from Grandmother, the one that loves you dearly. December 25, 1964.”

Wow, “…the one that loved loves you dearly.” If I only lived in the past of BenGay and Kraut, I would have forgotten the amazing love and gift that it was to experience her daily presence. So my advice is to let the past inform you, but don’t live there. If conjured up, remember the good times and good things. The rest does you very little good. We weren’t meant to stay in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s disaster, but to live forever only knowing good in the New Jerusalem! Savor your good Christmas memories, and make new ones for the future.

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Christmas Weddings and Wakes

Christmas memories are forever, good ones and not-so-good. My mother’s parents’ wedding anniversary was December 25. Since they lived with us, we were the hub where everyone gathered on Christmas Day. We laughed, exhibited our favorite gifts to one another, shot fireworks, and ate turkey, dressing, ambrosia and caramel cake. It was hilarious and holy all in one. I can hear Papa’s laugh and Grandmother’s orders. I can see Mother’s every-year-a-different-theme of decorations adorning the seventeen-stepped hall bannister. I can also see heavy-set Uncle Lee waddling up those same stairs to see the children play, the only adult brave or caring enough to dare invade our space.

He was also the one who gave us the strangest, yet most precious gifts. Uncle Lee would wrap a signed $2 bill around a pig’s ear, foot, or some other part then bundle it up in meat wrapping paper and grace each child with semi-macabre joy. I still have those treasures including a silver dollar with his “L.J.” initials in red fingernail polish across the coin’s face. The memories were mostly happy and they should have been. We found our cedar trees and cut them down. We were like explorers looking for treasure every year as we went Christmas tree hunting. Christmas was magical.

Christmas elicited the most marvelous experiences and memories. For instance, my call to ministry was shaped by Christmas Communion by candlelight at Trinity Episcopal. I can sense the awe and the love of God incarnate in Jesus right this minute. The Lord’s Supper never tasted so real. God marked me at Christmas. To this day, Christmas Eve services without communion just aren’t enough.

Christmas brought out the best in most people. I sold fireworks for my Uncle Homer every day of the holidays, a continuation of his son Jackie’s business. I nearly froze to death in that tiny little stand. I was warmed with very little heat thanks to all the gunpowder at hand. It was a happy joy to help a myriad collection of people celebrate the holidays. That was a gift in itself.

Christmas always meant love was in the air, too. It was not only my grandparent’s wedding anniversary, but my Mother and Father got married on December 23. In doing some family research this seems to be an automatic thing. Multiple generations have December weddings. Cindy and I got married on December 20, 41 years ago this year. We honestly didn’t think about any familial connection. I thought we were just too enamored with one another to wait until June.

But Christmas was a sad time, too. Uncle Lee died suddenly on December 23, 1974. Grandmother died sixteen days before our wedding on December 4, 1975. Uncle J.C. died on December 8, 2000. Weddings and wakes have been our family’s December experience for generations. Christmas has been the best of times and the worst of times. That sounds a lot like the first Christmas with Caesar Augustus and the Pax Romana, the enforced peace of Rome cobbled with a taxation to fund it. Good times and bad ones. That’s life, isn’t it?

And Jesus entered it, just like He always does. Jesus comes when we’re having a blast and making good memories, and He’s with us when times are tough and hard. Some of the chairs will be empty around the Christmas table again this year. Some of them will be filled by new mini-me’s of the latest iterations of our collective progeny. That probably won’t lessen the pain, but it certainly helps.

That’s our story, your story, humanity’s story. Maybe my family has been shaped by Christmas more than most as we ride the roller coaster of weddings and wakes, but, if anything, it has made us real. We’re such a Faulknerian Southern family. We have more saints and sinners than a story-teller like me can use, but authenticity is never a problem for us. Even better this Advent and Christmas is the Good News that Jesus is more real than us. He is the authentic, fully Human, fully Divine Savior. Whoever we are, whatever we’re going through, as my late brother Carlee always repeated, “Best of all, God is with us.” Emmanuel has come! He came to deliver us from everything that needs to be left behind. He came to make all things, including memories, new. Hallelujah!

Airplanes, Storms, and God’s Providence

The last few days have been quite interesting. Cindy and I went on an overnight trip by plane last Thursday. We didn’t have any luggage to check for such a short trip. All we had was just a carry-on with some essentials. We were supposed to fly United out of Columbia, go to Dulles for a 47 minute layover with barely enough time to dash to the next plane. Then we were to fly to Dayton, Ohio and on to Chicago, our final destination. Unfortunately, as our plane taxied out to the runway the pilot informed us that there was a mechanical problem and we would need to go back to the gate and deplane. There went our 47 minutes at Dulles, and that was the last flight to get us anywhere near Chicago. We were stuck.

United called a cab and paid for us to be ferried to Charlotte and gave us tickets on an American flight. In the process of putting Cindy’s purse and our one satchel into the cab, I left my black leatherette folder with my sermon in it on the ledge beside the ticket counter. On the way to Charlotte the driver called the agent at the counter and asked them to hold it until we got back on Saturday morning. I also called the hotel in Chicago to let them know that we would be a late arrival and please save our room. Little did I know that things were going to get worse.

In Charlotte, the folks at American said our ticket wasn’t valid. It had not been entered into the system correctly by the United agent back in Columbia. So we had no ticket, no flight, and they were the last flight to Chicago and it was already overbooked. So back to United and after some more confusion they got us on the last row of a Delta plane. We were going through 3 different air carriers to get to our destination, a record for me. Then the closest they could get us to Chicago was Detroit. Finally we had a short flight from Detroit to Chicago on whatever carrier I have no clue. Late Thursday night/Friday morning we got to our hotel with a marvelous 5 hour window for sleep before the next morning’s itinerary started.

And we kept monitoring the hurricane. So mid-Friday afternoon we noticed that Columbia, where my car was parked, was still open. We took the hotel shuttle back to O’Hare and went to the ticket counter. The flight to Columbia was still open, but my anxiety rose as the agent kept mixing up the airport codes for Columbia (CAE) with Cleveland (CLE) which might be the reason we ended up in Cleveland at about midnight Friday night. It was practically deserted and our next flight toward Columbia was going to board at 5:15 am headed to Dulles in DC. Cindy and I tried to sleep in those wonderfully firm seats, but it was very hard, pun intended.

As dawn approached we got on a plane to Dulles and kept watching the storm on the weather app radar. Upon arrival at Dulles we found out that everything to Columbia was cancelled. The closest they could get us was Charlotte. Remember my car was in Columbia. I had a smidgeon of hope that Columbia would clear by the time we got to Charlotte mid-morning on Saturday. It didn’t. We got off the plane in Charlotte and scurried to a ticket counter hoping for a taxi voucher for Columbia. The agent said, “Sorry it’s not our fault. It’s an act of God.” I replied, “I work for Him and I don’t think He did this!”

She looked at me unamused and said a tall guy was trying to make it to Columbia, too. She said for us to hurry and we might spot him in the rental car area across from the terminal. We didn’t see a tall guy, but there was this small pony-tailed leprechaun-like dude walking toward the rental counter. I spoke from behind him and asked, “Hey Buddy, are you trying to get to Columbia?” He said that he was and if we wanted a ride, we could. I said I’d be glad to pay and he said it was on the company. Wonderful news!

But the next problem was that there were no cars available, only a truck. Our new-found friend said he didn’t drive trucks. We saw why when he peered between the steering wheel and the dash. He was height-challenged, indeed, but by the grace of God, just over 24 hours after we started trying to get to Columbia, we got there – and by then it wasn’t raining anymore.

Storms are not “Acts of God,” or Jesus would have never rebuked the wind and waves on the Sea of Galilee and said “Peace, Be still!” The act of God in our situation was a small-framed guy named Bryan who disappeared as soon as I went inside to retrieve my folder with my sermon inside. We got it and made it home, but my sermon changed. Psalm 66 became a message about praising God in the storms of life, storms God doesn’t cause, and about what God does best and that is to enter the storms with us in the most providential ways. I’ve got a stack of boarding passes about 3 inches thick to prove however crooked our paths may be, God can straighten things out. Thank You, Jesus, and thanks for Bryan.

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