Resurrection Ferns on Live Oaks

The “Angel Oak” on John’s Island, SC near Charleston is a survivor. Hurricane Hugo did significant damage to it in September of 1989, but it has since recovered. It’s a huge live oak tree that everyone ought to see if they want to increase their hope and courage. That tree has been around through much worse things than COVID-19. It fits the description that someone ascribed to special trees, “Every great oak was once a little nut that held its ground.” Amen to that! With hope and courage, we, too, can survive. The “Angel Oak” is 400-500 years old. It stands 66.5 feet tall, measures 28 feet in circumference, and produces shade that covers 17,200 square feet. Its longest branch is 187 feet in length. It is the star of the American Live Oak Society.

It makes me wonder if we are the stars of Jesus’ Resurrection Society? By the way, we have a huge live oak in our yard that has what are called “Resurrection Ferns” growing on its aged limbs. When it’s too dry they turn brown and crispy. When there’s rain, the bounce back, and resurrection happens. That’s my prayer for us in our pandemic-ridden world. May we sprout God’s resurrection power, and take courage!

Frankly, I wonder if the coronavirus has done as much damage to our faith as fear has. Don’t get me wrong. Fear has its place. An abundance of caution is a good thing, but holding our ground in the onslaught of life also takes courage and more than a little bit of bravado. I was raised by a Mother who went through a lot, and it took a toll on her. Her by-word whenever I left the house was, “Be careful!” Being careful is a good thing, but life also takes daring and a lot of inspired recklessness.

Some of you recall the 2002 Winter Olympics. Michelle Kwan was the queen of world figure-skating. She was the darling of the sport, and rightly so. In 2002 there was an upstart 16-year-old at the Salt Lake City Olympics: Sarah Hughes. She skated with reckless abandon and did it flawlessly, winning the gold medal over Michelle Kwan. I remember the commentators describing how the upset happened. Michelle Kwan skated not to lose, and Sarah Hughes skated to win. One used too much caution, and one threw caution to the wind, and won. Which do you most resemble?

A lot of people absolutely love their SUV’s. Sport Utility Vehicles aren’t exactly known for their smooth comfortable ride. They aren’t as roomy as a minivan or as nimble as a regular car, but people love them. Car manufacturers have watched the SUV phenomenon with great interest. Gas mileage certainly isn’t the incentive to buy one, so what is the reason? Well, people do like the extra roominess over a regular sedan, but the primary reason people like them is safety. As a matter of fact, one SUV company has capitalized on that sentiment in their advertising: “Look upon it as a 4,000-pound security blanket.”

We want security in these uncertain times. Security companies are doing quite well in the midst of our national unrest. Gun sales are at an all-time high. We have embraced a bunker mentality, and it’s both the law and the prudent thing to do with COVID. I hope, however, that the drug manufacturers are not being that cautious in their pursuit of a vaccine. Sure, they need to be responsible and ethical in their trials and testing out of safety for the human Guinea pigs, but slow thinking and a plodding response isn’t going to help us get to where we need to be in this battle. Sometimes you have to chunk a cruise ship attitude and become a battleship.

Would you want your child who is writhing in pain to have to wait until the doctors ran every test “just to be safe,” or would you want them to go into surgery as quickly as possible and get that about-to-rupture-appendix out? Okay, so a balance is needed, but I prefer action over slow reactions and too much navel-gazing. I would much rather have a “Human Dynamo” on my team than a “Steady Freddie.”

John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, preferred action, and deeds over words. One of the early American Methodist preachers is a perfect example: Peter Cartwright. One time while he was preaching a vulgar-mouthed man threw a rotten tomato at him. In his diary, Peter Cartwright said, “I pummeled him lustily while singing ‘All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.’” My kind of guy! Another time in Cartwright’s ministry he was warned that President Andrew Jackson would be in attendance. Cartwright was told to tone things down and show the president some respect, and try not offend him. Peter Cartwright got up and spoke, “I understand that President Andrew Jackson is here today. I have been advised to be very guarded in my remarks. Let me say this the same way I would tell you all: Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent of his sin.” Everyone gasped! President Jackson walked up to Cartwright after the sermon and said, “Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could capture the world.”

Evidently Peter Cartwright was a nut who held his ground. May we be like-minded people of hope and courage so that we can look danger in the face, and skate to win! Amen.

Tombstone-Cleaning in a Pandemic: Fighting Depression

Pastoral ministry has been steady and unrelenting in this COVID-19 environment.  If anything, most clergy that I know have been working harder than ever, and there’s no break. Please be kind to your pastors as we keep leaning into these uncertain times. We weren’t trained in seminary to do all that we do in a virtual world with 24/7 digital access. It is stressful to the point of emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion.

My temper has been short. Sleeping has been difficult. Dreams have been vivid, but not soothing. Eating my problems away has served only to compound them. Usually it is only inanimate objects that get my goat. Lately it’s been anything, everything, and everyone who gets on my hypersensitive nerves. Lucy of “Peanuts” comic strip fame doesn’t have to charge a paltry nickel to give me the diagnosis: depression.

Usually when I’m down the sure-fire cure is to get busy on a project. All kinds of projects have been done over these 19 weeks of isolation. Beyond the constancy of ministry, there have been other tasks to do. Planting blueberry bushes was one project. It had been a long time since I used dreaded posthole-diggers but I dug ten huge holes, plus amended the soil with enough wettable sulfur to make it more acidic for the blueberries. Unfortunately, in my COVID-fog, I ordered twenty bushes instead of ten, and ended up planting two per hole, plus they sent me a couple of extras.

There were lots of such projects around the house. Cleaning out and organizing cabinets, installing shelves, gardenia bushes were planted, several foundation shrubs were replaced. Unfortunately, once you start doing home projects they begin to multiply. You can’t paint one room without it making the rest look like they need it. I have dug, piddled, planted and tried to work myself out of the funk that I’m in. The plan worked until the nutsedge invasion.

Nutsedge, otherwise known as plain old nutgrass, is insidious. When you cut your lawn, it’s the nutsedge that comes back first and rises above your manicured lawn like a greenish-yellow monster. Every time you cut the grass, it gets worse because it spreads. Half my yard is infested. I bought “Sedgehammer,” an appropriately named nutsedge killer. It’s expensive stuff, like $200 per ounce expensive, and I had to purchase a surfactant additive to make the deadly stuff stick to the invading army of nutsedge. I sprayed the whole yard multiple times. Still there. Bought a different product, same woeful results. This was a project that I made worse instead of better. The nutsedge pushed me into heinous depression. This was my tipping point: Nutsedge is something I can’t fix, and I’m a fixer! Wham!

We all like projects where we can accomplish something, and see the results. I thought maybe that would help, so I have spent quite a few days social distancing with dead people in a cemetery. I have driven 18 miles from Aiken to Edgefield, SC to clean off my brother’s grave, and my Mom and Dad’s graves. I ended up cleaning off grandparent’s tombstones, great-grandparents’ and more. Fifteen wheelbarrows of gravel have spruced up the family plot. I figured out the right combo of chemicals, tools and elbow grease to get those gray-green lichens out of the carved dogwood blossoms that encircle my parent’s marker. I have a new appreciation for dental hygienists, and the need for everyone to floss. However, let me tell you that one of the most satisfying things that I’ve done during the entire pandemic is to make my family’s multiple tombstones shine like brand new. I also sprayed on enough heavy-duty year-long grass-killer to fry the rest of my scalp off like the scorching summer sun. I wish the nutsedge was as easy!

Have you been in a funk? Are you depressed? We need projects to accomplish, but sometimes they’re futile. We need one another, and we’re made by God to have human contact, but the pandemic has relegated us to lonely cemeteries. If you’re like me, you’ve either run out of projects or the brains to fix them. Depression has set in. We perfectionists, who have more than a touch of obsessive-compulsive disorder, are FREAKED OUT by the chaos in our world. But, here’s the good news. God is God, and I am not! As much as I think that mantra is tattooed on my brain, I forget. God is God, and I am not! God give me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change, the courage to change the things that I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. Whew!

The harried mother of a newborn reached for her cellphone and heard a loving voice say, “How are you, Darling? What kind of day are you having?” “Oh, Mom,” said the young mother while breaking into tears, “I’ve had such a bad day. The baby won’t eat. The garbage disposal is backed up and leaking. I need to go shopping, but don’t have the energy, and besides I’ve just sprained my ankle and have to hobble around. The house is a wreck, and I’m supposed to have two friends over for dinner tonight.”

The mother was shocked and full of sympathy. “Oh, darling,” she said, “sit down, relax, and close your eyes. I’ll be over in half an hour. I’ll do your shopping, clean up the house, and cook your dinner for you. I’ll feed the baby, and I’ll call a repairman I know who’ll be at your house to fix the garbage disposal and leak in a jiffy. Now stop crying. I’ll do everything. In fact, I’ll call George at the office and tell him to get over at your house and help, too.”

The young mother asked, “Who’s George?” Her mother replied, “Why, George! Your father… Is this 284-1373?” The young mother replied, “No, it’s 284-1376.” The older woman said in return, “Oh, I’m sorry. I guess I have the wrong number.” There was a short pause. Then the young woman asked, “Does this mean you’re not coming over?”

Are you feeling it? A lot of us are, aren’t we?  So, we pray, “Please, Lord, show up in our time of need. We don’t know what to do, or which way to turn. Save us from this pandemic; in Jesus’ name. Amen!” Thank God that we reopen the church this coming Sunday. I sure do need it!

A Family Systems Approach to COVID-19 and Every Other Drama

How have you been handling the prolonged stress of the pandemic? Has your fuse gotten shorter? It appears the whole world needs therapy. How do we survive the madness we’ve been seeing? We have taken up sides on whether to mask or not, to buck “The Man” and become libertarian super-spreaders, or to hunker down and Lysol everything. What is going on? Whatever it is, we’re becoming afraid and frayed as a society. Anxiety is rampant. World civilization is at stake at the same time as the relationships in our own homes. We need help!

Family Systems Theory may offer a helpful strategy. It gives us a macro view of our society in the midst of COVID-19, but it also goes to the micro view as family stress is in everybody’s home. We need to recognize that what we’re seeing is a personal, communal, national and international systemic crisis. Systemic crises are like sepsis in the body that causes total organ failure, one after another. It’s the domino theory made very real. Seeing and treating COVID as a systems problem may actually help us survive, and find an emotional vaccine, if not an actual biological one.

Think of it like pulling in a medical team that looks at all of a person’s ailments instead of just the presenting problem. To help the person, you need to look at multiple body parts and interconnections. Edwin Friedman is the author of the two most-used books by therapists and clergy in situations like this. These two books are helpful to anyone. The first is his seminal work, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. The second book is one that anyone in a family, church, local community, or nation needs: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.

Most of us are individual-centered in our diagnosis of issues both in our personal family and nation. It’s like the couple that comes to see me so that their teenage son can get help. In family systems theory what happens to one member of the family happens to every member of the family. The teenage son is the identified presenting patient, but the whole family system is really in crisis. It’s like a baby’s mobile that is attached to the top rail of a crib. If you weigh one piece of the revolving objects down, it throws all the others off balance. Everything and everyone are interconnected.

The same is true in a community, church, country and world. As much as we would like to fix a particular identified patient or group, that only masks what’s wrong with the whole system. You can switch out individuals like Trump, Pelosi, Schumer, Barr, or whomever and things might seem to get some immediate relief, but it doesn’t take long before things revert to the same patterns. It’s called homeostasis or the “same state.” We try to change things, but the more that we try, inertia makes it all spring back into the same place. The names may change, but there’s still anxiety in the system. It shifts around, but that’s about it. We can blame it all on one thing like the “Deep-state” bureaucrats in the swamp, but the reality is that the whole system is a swamp, you and me included. As the saying goes, “We have met the enemy, and they are us!” We need a cure that really works, rather than one that just shifts the blame.

So, what should we do? This is where Murray Bowen of Bowenian Theory leads the way in an overarching manner, though, frankly, practitioners like Edwin Friedman and Monica McGoldrick make family systems theory more accessible to the masses. Whether one is talking about a family, country or world, the same principles are at work. The world needs to be in family therapy right now. We need to understand that it’s going to take a group effort to analyze our condition, and work our way out of it through some serious conversations. We don’t need to focus on individuals or even be sidetracked by constant fact-checking. Most conflicts are about emotional processes, not the facts. It’s often not what we say (facts), but how we say them (emotional process).

Joe and Sue get married and bring all sorts of expectations into the marriage from their families of origin. They are more in heat when they get married than in love. Along comes Baby, and their “perfect” world changes. They fall back on instincts, primordial cross-generationally transmitted patterns of values and ways of being. Tensions rise and guess where the tension goes – to Baby. Whenever we find ourselves stressed we tend to avoid risking our relationships with our key partners, so we pull in a third party or issue to be the dumping ground for the stress in the whole system.

We create a triangle to relieve the pressure. This triangulation has been on full display during the pandemic. We’re mad as hell at one another, but to salvage our relationship we put the onus on China, W.H.O., the CDC, Andrew Fauci, the President, the Congress, the Deep State, those pesky Russians, whomever, and somebody. Triangles are normal. As a matter of fact, triangles are the most stable form of construction on the planet. The pyramids are examples, but triangulation in a family, city, or country just picks a relief valve in one corner who then gets sick on behalf of the whole system. The problem is that it keeps us from figuring out what’s really eating us.

What we need is self-definition, or as Bowen, Friedman, and McGoldrick call it – self-differentiation. We need to step away from the triangles, defect-in-place while remaining in relationship, and exhibit non-anxious presence. We continue in relationship with the other parties in our many inter-locking triangles, but we refuse to play the stupid self-defeating blame games anymore. We need to metaphorically super glue our feet to the floor, and keep our mouths shut except only to make “I-Am” statements that define who we are. Differentiation and self-definition don’t mean we’re going to take our ball and go home through an emotional cut-off or fake distancing that really doesn’t help. You can move halfway around the world and still be caught in a triangle. Rather than cutting others off or emotional distancing, we promise to stay in relationship and work through what the real culprit is in our personal, national, or international crisis. It’s called leadership, responsibility, and engagement. It’s hard work!

What we’re after is like a crime drama, a psychological who-done-it where we ponder together where the anxiety in the family system is coming from. Once we can name the real reason for the drama, we can actually demythologize it and do something productive about it. We move from subjective emotional processes to objective reasoning. We need to keep asking the same question, “What’s really going on here?” Rather than blaming, shaming, or going for the obvious easy answer, we should avoid quick fixes and look at EVERYTHING, as if we were all observant Persian cats, taking it all in and figuring out, “Ah, this is where this is coming from.”

No doubt the answer ultimately comes from John 10:10, “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy,” but Jesus says, “I came that they might have life to the full.” Amen, but to hear Jesus above the din of all the drama, we need to calm down and ponder. Ask the right questions. Don’t jump to conclusions. Take a step outside of yourself and take a big view of things. What is causing this, not WHO is causing this? Remember, what happens to one member of the family, happens to all. Let’s work on this together, by the grace of God!

Quit Calling People Ugly Names

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” These famous words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are spoken by Juliet, a Capulet, to Romeo from her family’s archrival house of Montague. These words and the whole play, for that matter, tell us that our name matters little compared to our character. If we love another does one’s last name matter so much? No matter what name or epithet, what matters most is not my name, but who I am and how I act. Romeo responds to her desire that names don’t matter by declaring, “I take thee at thy word; Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

If you were, in Romeo’s words, “new baptized,” what name would you want to be called? Names carry such important meanings. Remember the saying from your youth, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” but they do, don’t they? Name-calling has hurt most of us at some point in our lives. Worse than saying somebody has cooties is the ugly name that sticks to us like a parasitic tick that sucks the life out of us. Even worse is when we damage others so much that calling someone “Fatso” evolves into a self-fulfilling prophecy of morbid obesity. Words are either God-given blessings or devilish curses that we heap on people made in God’s image.

Oh, how I wish we called each other endearing names that would bring out the best in us. Names stick like super glue. When I was a child I had a difficulty saying my fh, ph, and th-sounds so I went from “Tim” to “Fim,” until I put on some muscle. Truly trivial, but I have never gotten over it. I think about it every time I have to pronounce a word that starts with one of those sounds. I have to concentrate extra hard to get it right. Decency and civility should keep us from labeling others with any kind of name-calling, trivial or not. It matters to people, and people should matter to us.

I remember dealing with a family that had a wonderful son that was named after his father’s older brother. At the time of the son’s birth, the older brother was highly esteemed, but along the way fell into some bad behaviors. When that happened the younger brother transferred his disappointment over his older brother to his son. He started seeing flaws where there weren’t any, and became extra critical. The dad was afraid that since his son’s heroic namesake had fallen, he would too. A lesson in picking names wisely.

What if you were a guy like the one Johnny Cash sang about in his song, “A Boy Named Sue?” That couldn’t have been easy. Who in their right mind would name their daughter “Jezebel” or son “Judas?” Names are powerful. Samuel means “Our God Hears,” and Karen comes from the Greek, “Charis” which means “gift.” Our wonderful daughter-in-law’s name is Karen, and she is certainly a gift to our family. Her grandfather, Rev. Myron Von Seggern, and I officiated Josh and Karen’s wedding. He was such a sweet man and exuded genuine kindness, plus an added bit of good-natured mischief. He had special loving nicknames for his grandchildren and even his first born great-grandchild, Kaela, that he called “Chiclet.” The names ranged from Sugar Babe, Sweetheart, Pal, Honeycomb, Honey Bee, and more. Each name was a sign of love. It makes one wonder what one’s own name or nickname means? Where did it come from and why? Most importantly, is it good? If not, make a new name for yourself, and “be new baptized” like Romeo.

Children born 5 or more years apart from their siblings are said by psychologists and sociologists to practically be from different families because of the discrepancies in experiences. My brothers, both of whom were much older than I, were like that. My oldest brother, now deceased, was born August 15, 1940, my middle brother April 22, 1947, and I was born in late 1955. We were the “oldest only child,” the middle “only child,” and the youngest “only child.” Out of a desire to give my brothers some sense of investment in my survival, my parents gave them “naming rights” over me. My oldest brother gave me my grandfather’s name, “William,” and my middle brother picked out the name “Timothy.” I’m grateful for both, especially “Timothy,” because it means “honoring God” in New Testament Greek. When I asked him how he came up with that as an 8 ½ year old, he revealed that he actually got it from the Dick and Jane books, not the Bible. The name of the toy teddy bear in the books was “Tim.” Mama and Daddy edited it to the more Biblical “Timothy,” from whence it comes. I should be grateful. I could have been “Spot” McClendon.

All of this is to say, names are important in spite of Juliet Capulet’s wish otherwise. In the end it certainly made a difference sadly in what happened to Romeo and Juliet. When you’re passing out names, make them mean something or someone special. Everybody is, after all. What’s in a name? A lot! O Lord, help me to keep my words soft and sweet, for I never know from day by day which ones I’ll have to eat. Amen.

COVID Fourth of July and Too Much Independence

It never fails that lots of people get Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day mixed up. Facebook, on either occasion, has photos of family members who have served regardless of whether they died in the service. Memorial Day, of course, is for those who made the supreme sacrifice while on duty. Veteran’s Day is for anyone who has served in any branch of the military. You may be asking, “What has this got to do with anything?” Well, as I’m pondering the upcoming July 4th weekend, the service personnel that protect us in our country’s uniform; the doctors, nurses, and all medical staff that are fighting against COVID; the scientists and lab workers doing the grunt work of coming up with a vaccine and those willing to be guinea pigs for the common good, and lots of others strike me as being “in the service,” too.

When thinking of service, first responders come to mind, and last responders, too. The police and anyone in law enforcement, EMT’s, volunteer and professional firefighters, and anyone in what we call the “service industry” can’t be left out either. According to those familiar with labor and statistics, the “Service Sector” includes teachers, housekeepers, painters, plumbers, and even preachers. There are lots of professions that are service-oriented.

Most of you know that I like humor, but lately there’s precious little to find funny. For instance, in thinking about the phrase, “the service,” there’s a story of a little boy standing with his Dad in a church’s lobby, the narthex. The lad points up at a plaque on the wall and asks his father what it is. His Dad says, “It’s a memorial for people who died in the service.” The little boy then asks, “Which one? The 8:30 service or the 11 o’clock?” It’s not very funny because people have been dying in the service of justice and freedom for over 200 years so that we can even have an Independence Day. An interesting thought is why we call our worship time, a “worship service.” Guess what? It’s not called a “worship service” or “church service” because we serve God, but because God calls us together so God can serve us. We have a wonderful example of selfless service in Jesus.

With July 4th upon us with all of the turmoil that our country is facing with COVID, racial tension, civil unrest, and an overall sense of anxiety, we need to pull together and EVERYONE be of service. Can’t we lay aside partisan bickering which has gone way past that lowly threshold? Can’t we model Jesus who stood up for truth, but did it through washing Judas’ feet and dying an ignominious death on a Roman cross? I am begged to ask the important question, “In whose service am I serving?” Am I following God’s example in Christ, or some less than helpful motive?

“In the service” is a phrase that reminds me of the BBC’s “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” where someone like the character of “Carson” takes pleasure in a job well done while serving others. I think we can all differentiate between those who serve with their hearts in it, and those who are working for a paycheck. Since when did we turn servanthood into a platform for the selfish disregard of others by treating people made in the image of God with disrespect? The United States needs to be a place where we all want to serve, not out of selfishness, but where our passion is on display for the sake of E pluribus unum – “Out of many, one.”

That phrase strikes me as a summation of St. Paul’s 12th chapter of I Corinthians that likens the church to a body where every part is important, and Jesus is the head. Our dilemma in our freedom-happy me-istic society is that we have replaced Jesus as the head and have become Hydra, the many-headed god of Greek mythology where if you cut off one head, two would grow back in its place. Now, I know Jesus isn’t the head of the US. No, we’re not a theocracy, as attractive as that sounds, but we have certainly fallen from our perch of common decency to a form of extreme democracy. Everyone’s individual indignity, justified or not, is often treated as important as everyone else’s complaint. Oftentimes, it is more important.

It’s hard to celebrate that kind of self-absorbed Independence Day. How about an Inter-dependence Day, instead? The “American Dream” has been a myth for some groups for way too long, but that shouldn’t keep us from working together to straighten things out. Take Native Americans for an example. It’s a limb worth crawling out on to say that I don’t know of any one group more mistreated, but taking “service” to mean military service, American Indians have enlisted to protect our freedoms at a rate per capita higher than any other ethnicity in our entire history. All I can say is, “Wow!” with profound thanks.

Are there more coronavirus cases in the US than in Russia and China because of more freedom, and less government controls? If it’s because we’re more free then what do we do to slow it down? Servanthood. Here’s a simple test of our level of servanthood: Can social distancing and wearing a mask be our patriotic duty? Is it our Christian duty? Our behaviors in the midst of this national and international crisis should be to go beyond the Golden Rule. We must treat others better than we want to be treated. Many of us have touted with pride that there are so many people who want to come to America, as if that makes us the best nation on the planet. Is that still the case, or have we let selfishness ruin our reputation? Have we made “independence” look less desirable? I pray not.

Pentecost’s Power for Today

The pandemic has stripped us of a lot of things, but many of us are little changed. Many clergypersons have hoped that one of the life-altering things to come out of all this drama would be a national and international return to God. What do you think so far? Has this been a speed-bump in our lives, or a Come-To-Jesus moment that stops us in our tracks and makes us take stock of everything? As Pentecost Day approaches this coming Sunday, It’s something we need to ponder. Is Pentecost a watershed moment in the life of the church and us as individuals, or is it just another lesser known day on the church calendar?

As a cradle-Methodist, I don’t recall hearing much about the Holy Spirit growing up, not even on Pentecost. About the only time I remember hearing anything about the Holy Spirit was in the pastor’s benediction. I did go to a tent-revival, invited by a Baptist or Pentecostal, I think, and heard more than I wanted to hear about the Holy Spirit. Pretty much I had a generic belief in God, and semi-understood that Jesus died for us, but I don’t recall anyone saying how you made sure that you had salvation, forgiveness, and faith. Heck, it was the 60’s and we went through confirmation, and we got enough religion from that to inoculate us so that we wouldn’t catch the real thing. We weren’t fanatics. We were Methodists.

Then my mother’s dad died. Papa never went to church, but he belonged. Then in short order, Uncle Lee died suddenly, and just like his dad, he didn’t go to church. I remember the conversations around the edges of both funerals. People were actually wondering if they went to heaven. What!? My safe 60’s assumption was that everybody went to some sort of heaven, but Papa and Lee’s deaths rattled me. Grandmother must have noticed. I don’t recall her ever going to church either, but she told me that she would give me a dollar if I watched Billy Graham every night of his TV crusades and could tell her what he preached about. A buck is a buck, and I’m no dummy. I watched every time.

I still went to Sunday School, grateful for Mrs. Eaddy’s tutelage. I had been confirmed, but had no clue about faith being any more than a notion that “Jesus loves me this I know.” As a pre-teen trying to navigate life with the deaths of two of my most favorite people, I found myself sitting on the edge of my twin bed watching Billy Graham on a small 13” TV. Three nights in a row, I prayed for Jesus to come into my heart. I was that desperate to know for sure that my faith was real.

I learned about the Holy Spirit shortly thereafter, and it wasn’t at church. I started meeting with a bunch of teenagers who were way more than a youth group. We sat on the floor of Miss Margaret Lyon’s house and shared Bible passages and talked honestly about faith, temptation, and Jesus’ presence in our lives through the Holy Spirit. That was welcome news to me. I knew I couldn’t live a Christian life in my own strength, so I asked Jesus’ Spirit to fill me as I exhaled out my own prerogatives and inhaled His. The Holy Spirit is who changed me from a “churchian” to a Christian.

Several years later I was meeting with a denominational committee about going into the ministry. I was in college and planning to go to seminary. They were trying to grill me about my faith and Christian experience. One asked me when I became a Christian. I told them about sitting on the edge of the bed watching Billy Graham and praying to receive Christ. Another said in a high-and-mighty way, “Well, since you already were confirmed, you were already a Christian.” My response seemed to silence the group, “I may have already been a Christian, and God might have known it, but I didn’t.”

Does any of this resonate with your story, or your spiritual journey? The purpose of Pentecost is to remind us that the Holy Spirit lets us know we’re saved, made right with God, transformed, whatever words that you want to use. The Holy Spirit turns our head knowledge into heart knowledge. Sitting on that bed listening to Billy Graham, I began to know it, but being filled over and over again with the Holy Spirit ever since has made it real. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The Holy Spirit is real! Ask Him to fill you up, and Pentecost will be one of the best days of the year for you. Amen.

God’s Right Hand Man, Ours, too!

Ascension Day doesn’t really make the hit parade of Christian holidays, but it should! It proves Jesus’ triumph and exaltation to “the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” as the Apostles’ Creed declares. Easter is the highest point of our faith and has, of course, always been tied to Passover. The reason the date of Easter shifts is because Jesus’ death and resurrection coincided with the Passover. So, ever since the inaugural Easter, it has always come on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter, therefore, can range between March 22 and April 25 each year.

Ascension Day is always 40 days after Easter because Luke says in Acts 1:3, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” Forty days after Easter is always a Thursday. This Thursday is Ascension Day!

We need to recapture its importance because it gives so much hope and encouragement, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ascension Day confirms that Jesus has been elevated to God’s right hand. That act symbolizes his identity as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s literally God’s Right-Hand-Man! We usually shake hands with someone using the right hand because the right arm is most people’s side of strength and where a weapon might be held. Shaking right hands reveals that a person comes without a weapon, in peace.

A right-hand-man is, therefore, exalted, strong, dependable, the first to be called upon, and a representative of the one at whose right hand they sit or stand. When you see one, you see the other; and we know Jesus said when you’ve seen him, you see the Father (John 14:9). There are many passages about Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand: Luke 22:69, Colossians 3:1, Psalm 110:1, Hebrews 12:2, Hebrews 8:1, Matthew 26:4, I Peter 3:22, Mark 16:19, Acts 2:33, Hebrews 10:12, Revelation 3:21, Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:20, Mark 14:62, Acts 5:31, and there are more! Please read them this week and be encouraged!

Ascension Day’s importance as evidenced in Scripture gives great hope. Jesus is too tough to tame. He’s king of the universe, an embodiment of the Father’s glory, power, and strength. There is nothing too big or bad that can defeat him. He has already defeated everything that comes against us, and it keeps getting better and better because He ascended. Jesus told the disciples that it was better for them if he ascended so the Holy Spirit would come (John 16:7-16).

In other words, Jesus said that his ascension triggered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit 10 days later at Pentecost. Jesus could only be in one place at one time, but the Holy Spirit, which is His Spirit, can be everywhere. This is what Peter meant in his first sermon after Pentecost when he spoke about Jesus and what was happening, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear (Acts 2:33).” Amen!

Jesus’s exaltation through the Ascension gives us the Holy Spirit and confidence so that we might have forgiveness of sins and be empowered by the Holy Spirit!  Over and over in the Bible it tells us what Jesus is doing while He is at the Father’s right hand. He’s praying for us, you and me! What could be more encouraging? Romans 8:34b says, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Hebrews 7:25 says, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” He is interceding for us, intercedere, as our literal “go between,” as the word itself means. Jesus becomes our “Right-Hand-Man,” along with God the Father’s, in speaking up for us, defending us, doing everything possible to help us. What an encouragement!

The most powerful example of Jesus interceding for us is with what happened to the first deacon, Stephen, in Acts 7:54-60. Stephen is being stoned to death as the first Christian martyr when, as he was being executed, says “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).” This is amazing confirmation of the importance of Ascension Day and what Jesus continues to do for us who believe.

The interesting thing is that it portrays Jesus, the One that the Scriptures mostly say is “seated at the right hand of God the Father,” as standing at God’s right hand in this passage. Some say this is Jesus giving Stephen a standing ovation! It leads me to believe that there are times, tough times, in our lives that Jesus stands up and shows up in mighty ways on our behalf. Amen! Amen! This is my prayer: “Please God, remind us this Ascension Day, this Thursday, that you have been exalted and are ever ready to pour out your Holy Spirit to comfort, empower, and teach us. You are interceding for us, STANDING UP for us when times are difficult. We are so grateful! In your powerful name, we pray; Amen!”

Press Conferences, Presidents, and a Search for Truth

When do we reopen the church? Is it safe to eat in a restaurant? Can people go visit family members that are in care facilities or hospitals? Is COVID-19 mutating? Will warm weather, UV light, or a pool’s chlorine kill it? How much alcohol content in a cleaner kills it? Can I go on vacation at some point, and will it be safe to sleep on a rented beach house bed? When can I safely go back to the gym? Should states reopen? Do we shut down our meat processing plants because they are the American version of a Wuhan wet market? Is it safe to buy “Made in China,” or is it time to bring all our manufacturing back home? What mitigations should we put in place so we can open Sunday Schools? Is it safe to reopen the church, and how many people can attend?

Ask any of these questions, others like them, and there will be more than one answer. There are webinars, seminars, advertisements and pronouncements on all of these questions. I get promotions and pronouncements everyday about which products the church needs to buy in order to open up. I’m thankful for the information, but, unfortunately there’s not a lot of clarity. Scientists are all over the map because there is still so much unknown about COVID-19. Politicians have seemingly politicized the situation, so much so as to make me doubt their veracity. The news media certainly has used this as a tool to bloody the President, and he is poking China in the face over the whole situation. A former President is throwing gas on the blame-game fire while the current administration defends itself.

I am so tired of watching the charade of what is supposed to be a “news briefing” at the White House when the President, whether one likes him or not, is baited and treated with out-of-bounds berating and disrespect by so-called reporters. It is appalling. It will be a long day in you-know-where before any clergy have an open-mic talk back session after a sermon. Somebody just give me the news. Give me the unadulterated truth! I long for Walter Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Harry Reasoner, somebody, anybody that is unbiased without an agenda. At least a short time ago it seemed as if everyone’s agendas were hidden. Now the agendas are so blatantly apparent that it feels like there is no truth. No wonder Russia’s state newspaper is named “Pravda,” or “Truth.” Yeah, right?

Pontius Pilate asked Jesus at his trial, “What is truth?” It’s really the same question, the penultimate question, behind the plethora of all our questions. We want the unvarnished truth. We want some certainty in the midst of our anxiety-ridden world. Unfortunately, we have entered the days predicted in 2 Timothy 4:3-4, “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine (TRUTH). Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the TRUTH and turn aside to myths.” Oh, how this so accurately describes our day and age. We want to make wise choices, and we can’t trust the information because we don’t trust the sources.

This isn’t just about our problem with COVID-19 information. It’s the story of our whole post-modern narcissistic world. We wrongly assert that what we think is the sole determinant of truth. We demythologize the Bible into what we want it to say as if we, the readers, are more important than the God who brought forth the Truth in the first place. We have fallen into the same abyss as one popular Christian author, one who wrote a book, Seeing Gray in a Black and White World. He is so wrong. I don’t trust my eyes to see that well, so I would rather let the Biblical text and its Author do the talking. Maybe then we will see black and white in a gray world.

Where do you think all this confusion about truth is coming from? Why do you think we are so at odds over what the truth really is? Jesus (John 14:6) said He is the way, TRUTH, and life, so He’s certainly not the author of confusion, but guess who is: Evil. Jesus, speaking in John 8:43-44, nails our current reality on the head, “Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say. You belong to your father, the devil … for there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

So I pray, “Please, Lord, open our ears to the truth, and expose the lies and liar for what they are. Wipe away all the confusion, and give us clarity, especially to our scientists, those who govern us, and to all spiritual leaders. We need your truth. Speak, for your servants are listening; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

National Nurses Day, Teachers, and Mother’s Day

Today, May 6, is National Nurses Day. It is the beginning of a weeklong celebration that culminates on May 12, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. She was the “Lady of the Lamp” that modernized nursing in the field hospitals of the Crimean War that was fought between her native Britain and the Russians in the 1850’s. Those of you who are nurses or related to one have attended those “Lighting of the Lamp Ceremonies” in which a nurse is given a small white ceramic lamp with a candle in its holder on one end to remind them to pierce the darkness with care and compassion. This is exactly what Florence Nightingale did in the cramped conditions of Crimea, and what nurses are doing today.

As Christians during this pandemic we join in this effort to bring light to those in the throes of darkness. Mothers have also taken on the role of nurses during this pandemic trying to bring light to children and families. Those who weren’t teachers by profession have been tasked, along with Dads, to make sure school packets have been thoroughly vetted with reading assignments, math, and all the rest completed. Nurses and Moms alike have had to console children and patients of all ages while they can’t see or play with their friends or have visitors, even family, as they are sequestered in hospitals. Nurses have been the last family some dying persons have known. God bless them in handling this profound responsibility.

It’s what nurses, and Moms do, others, too, and moms and nurses come in every imaginable guise. Some nurses are men, and some Moms are “Mr. Moms.” This isn’t about gender-bending, it’s about all of us as grandparents, parents, medical personnel and others each doing our part to pierce the darkness. As much as parents have been overtaxed, and out of their element in teaching an unfamiliar way to do math, and children are missing their friends.  Think about another group – teachers who are not only missing their children and colleagues, plus they have been thrown into distance-learning without much, if any, preparation. God bless the teachers during this difficult time.

Medical personnel, nurses, doctors, teachers, children and youth, churches, ALL of us have been learning on the fly. All of a sudden our worlds have been turned upside down. There is no NBA, no golf tournaments, Major League Baseball, no college hoops and baseball, or spring football practices. We don’t even know if sports will gear back up in the fall, much less our favorite TV shows. Instead of sports and Hollywood celebrities in the spotlight, our heroes have been frontline nurses, doctors, medical personnel, and teachers who are being valued like never before. It’s about time for all of these first responders, last responders, and everyone in between to be honored. Maybe, instead of the world being upside down, it’s finally right side up for a change. If only we would carry these new values into the future, and those in helping professions get paid as much as a movie star or a top NFL draft pick!

Right now we have a values war taking place. Some of us want our freedom so much that we will fight to be able to go to the beach, or wherever we think our right to freedom of assembly will lead us. Others of us, are wanting to be extra careful, wear our masks and gloves and sanitize everything. Perchance, we’re trying to answer the wrong questions between what are my rights as a “Don’t Tread-On-Me” libertarian and a “What-Is-Best-For-Everybody’s-Protection” law-abiding citizen. The better question might be, “What does God want me to do?”

To answer that question as simply as I can while honoring mothers for Mother’s Day, nurses during National Nurses Week, other medical personnel, store shelf stockers, first responders and anybody else who is exposing themselves in harm’s way is with this one thought, “What would my Mother want me to do?” That’s a good question as we reopen the country, continue social-distancing, and try to save lives as nurses or anyone else. Mother never steered me wrong. What would she do, and what would she want me to do? I never left home without her admonition and love ringing in my ears, “Be careful. I love you.” I never heard her say, “Make sure you do something risky today,” or “Do whatever you want to do and don’t think about how it affects anybody else.” It was always the opposite.

As a matter of fact, her voice and phrases sounded a lot like God’s. Maybe the best way that we can honor Nurses and Moms this week, and everybody else we need to value is to ask what’s God’s voice telling us? W.W.J.D. for me this week is going to sound more like W.W.M.D. – What Would Mother Do? That question turns my world right side up!

If you’re a nurse or Mom or just overwhelmed and maxed out then I’ve added two songs by Matthew West. The first titled, “Quarantine,” is a bit of comic relief, and the second is for all of you on the front lines at home and the hospital, “Hope Returns.”

 

I Miss Church!

Where is the church in these quarantine days? It’s everywhere, and that’s a good thing. We certainly miss being together though. Let me start with where the church staff is. We miss everybody and being together. Zoom meetings are nice, but still not the same. We’re steady at work, maybe more than ever, just in a different way. Everybody needs a pat on the back every now and then, and this crew has earned it, so thanks for all the notes of encouragement. Every two weeks I have been writing reports for our Staff-Parish Committee so that I can affirm what each staff member is doing during quarantine. Each person has gone above and beyond! We don’t know when we will be back together, but we’re certainly doing ministry in the meantime.

You are doing ministry, too! It may not feel like it sometimes, but you are. This church is all about the mission of Christ. You’re doing ministry wherever you are, and your cards, calls, Facebook posts, emails, texts, and continued giving are a witness to it. The church is deployed, not unemployed. During COVID-19 we may not be physically in the church building, but let me tell you that the church, staff and congregation alike, is busy. Satan may think he’s won by closing churches down, but we’re not closed. We’ve just left the building! We’re meeting by Zoom, phone calls, texts, mail, Facebook Live, and last, but not least, by prayer. We’re having church in people’s houses and rooms, and all sorts of places. We’re proving the fact that the church is not a steeple, it’s the people.

This doesn’t mean that 104 Newberry Street isn’t important, or that we don’t miss it. While we’re doing church offsite we also want our facilities to be in their best shape when we get back. We’ve discovered that this is a great time to catch up on some repairs. It is also a great time for us to disinfect the whole building. We want to make sure that St. John’s is the safest place in Aiken when we’re able to come back together.

 There’s already been one complete top-to-bottom disinfecting done to our huge facility. We will do it again before we return. Yesterday our Trustees voted to purchase 3 motorized disinfecting atomizers and 100 gallons of a liquid virucide that can be sprayed on every surface, and kill coronavirus and every other germ in five minutes. These machines can do 5,000 square feet in 15 minutes, and our buildings are about 25,000 square feet.

The reason why we’re doing this is quite apparent. The church building itself is a physical, emotional, and spiritual sanctuary for all of us. For instance, we call the most used worship space a sanctuary – a sacred safe place! There are towns that have bird and squirrel sanctuaries. Well, the church is our people sanctuary. Maybe you’ve noticed the ceiling in the sanctuary, and how it is shaped like the interior hull of a ship. It’s meant to look like that. For centuries, churches ceilings have been reminders that the sanctuary is like Noah’s ark that saves us from life’s floods by floating us to safety.

Every part of the church, from the Faith Center’s Cross and Fronds sculpture to the outdoor signs, carries spiritual meaning and encouragement. As a side note, I’ve seen some hilarious, helpful, and pointed church signs during the pandemic: “Give us clean hands, O Lord, and a Purell heart,” “Services cancelled. God is now making House Calls,” “Jesus rode an Ass into Jerusalem. Keep yours at home!” and “6 Feet Apart is better than 6 Feet Under.” Well, sorry if these may have been a bit over the top, but, while most of our bodies are at home, we want our signs, ceilings, and symbols to communicate that Jesus is Lord, and that He will defeat COVID-19.

Church members and staff are deployed beyond the walls, with most of us working from home. As we think about getting back to worshiping together, we all need to get prepared: What can we do to disinfect our lives, and clean up our individual temples of the Holy Spirit? The church has left the building, and that is always a good thing, but what kind of shape will the church building be in when we come back? How about us? I think we’re finding out that the church is the people and the steeple. It’s both/and nor either/or. Thanks for who you are, St. John’s [insert your church’s name]!