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

Were You There? Metaphoric Imagery and Jesus’ Passion

I have often used metaphoric imagery in marriage counseling, especially premarital counseling. I ask the couple to close their eyes and picture themselves as a person, animal, place, or thing. They are asked to see themselves in as much detail as possible. What colors do they see? What are they doing? When they finish picturing themselves, I ask them to picture their spouse, or spouse-to-be. What are they – a person, animal, place, or thing? What are they doing in as much detail as possible? Then, lastly, I ask them to put the two pictures together, the image of themselves and the image of their partner, and picture what kind of interaction is taking place, again with as much detail as possible.

It amazes me what people say. Frankly, the couple usually remembers this exercise much more clearly than any other thing I use in counseling. This is what they end up talking about week after week. It truly is a metaphoric image of who they are separately and who they are together. It sparks great conversation. The use of metaphoric imagery has been on my mind a lot this week as I have pondered Jesus’ last days before the resurrection. Where would have been in the crowd? What person do I most resemble in the cast of characters? Would I be a sobbing Mary, a grieving John, a jeering priest, a penitent or impenitent thief, a soldier doing my gruesome duty? Would I dare to say that I feel like Jesus?

So, using metaphoric imagery and a sanctified imagination, make yourself think about the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the name of an important Lenten hymn for this Holy Week. I want us to imagine what it must have been like to be present on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, when Jesus was crucified. Too often I jump from Palm Sunday’s loud Hosanna’s to Easter’s Alleluia’s without really plumbing the depths of Jesus’ suffering, and it shortchanges the whole point of it all: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. He died for yours and mine. It begs the question: What does that mean?

So, all the more, I want to visualize and feel what Jesus went through for us, for me. If I could make you, I would ask that you close your eyes during this whole exercise, but you can wait until I prompt you at the end. Use your five senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste, and sight to make the events of Jesus’ last hours real. What smells would you smell if you were there that fateful day? Some scholars have said that Golgotha was the city’s trash dump as it was located outside Jerusalem’s city gates. Do you smell the refuse and debris, the garbage, and the stench? Some have said that there are times that you can smell death in the air. Some have experienced this casually during a drive in a car. Others of us have smelled it with the passing of family members, or in other life-threatening perilous situations. Do you smell death on this executioner’s hill? Of course, you do. Others say that you can also smell fear. Can you smell Jesus’ fear, the criminals’ fear beside him, Mary’s? I smell it even now. Pure unadulterated fear. What do you smell? Ponder it. Smell it. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you hear? What sounds come to mind? Do you hear the hammers clanging on the nails driven into multiple hands and feet? Do you hear the screams of those who were tortured? Can you hear the awful sound of the soldiers breaking the legs of the two men hanging beside Jesus? Do you hear Jesus’ 7 last sentences: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?) and hear the weight of feeling utterly abandoned; Jesus saying from the cross to his disciple John, “Behold your mother,” taking care of his dear mother Mary, along with his saying to Mary, “Behold your son,” giving her a new son-like relationship in the person of this beloved disciple?

Do you hear Jesus saying “I thirst,” and sense the dryness of his voice; do you hear his words of assurance to the penitent thief beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” even in the midst of the two thieves’ harsh banter; can you listen to Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” to the crowd looking on. Can you imagine his strength to be able to ask forgiveness for his executioners? Can you hear the love and grace in his voice? Do you hear his last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and “It is finished.” Do you hear the release and resignation that these sentences convey?

Do you hear the soldiers mocking him, the priests jeering, and the crowd daring him to call down heaven’s host to set him free? Do you hear the clink and rattle of dice as the soldiers gambled for his garments? Do you hear the thunder and storm, and the centurion’s declaration as he saw the heaven’s weep, “Truly, this man was the Son of God?” What do you hear? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you feel? What textures come to mind? The wood of the cross is coarse so be careful of splinters. The ropes that were used to raise the cross and set it in place were also rough. Ropes also bound his limbs to the cross as the nails were driven in. Do you feel the cold metal of the nails as they pierced his skin? Do you feel the texture of the cloth of Jesus’ outer garments as the soldiers divided them? Do you feel the textures of the myriad people, flesh and clothes of all kinds, from Simon of Cyrene to me and you, pressing in from all sides? Do you feel the ridges of the blood stains as they settled upon his flayed skin from tip to toe, a thorn-crowned forehead all the way down to his pierced feet? What textures do you feel? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you taste? Do you taste Jesus’ parched lips and their cracked dryness? Do you taste the perspiration? And if someone can smell death, they can also taste desperation. Do you feel how thick the desperation is in the air, and in the people’s hearts? Can you taste the blood? We all have been socked in the mouth at some point, or have bitten our lip, drawing blood. Can you taste the iron-like warmth and its bitterness as the blood flowed that day? What do you taste? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you see? Close your eyes now for sure. What colors do you see? Red, brown, white, blue, or the deepest darkest gray? Look over the crowd. Who stands out? Surely you see the three crosses and the men upon them. You see the sign over Jesus’ head and the INRI, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Can you see the priests, the women, Mary, and John? What do you see? Who do you see? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

With eyes still closed, where are you on Golgotha?

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.

 

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.

hurricane

Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.

 

“Fear Not,” Charlie Browns of the World

Our Nativity Scenes conflate the differences in Luke and Matthew in wonderful ways. For one, we have the Magi from Matthew mixing with the Shepherds from Luke. There are differences, of course. Matthew has Jesus in a house and Luke has the birth in a stable. Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus goes back to Abraham and Luke’s all the way back to Adam. There are theological reasons for their differences, but, more than that, the differences highlight their primary emphases: Matthew and Luke wanted to present the facts of Jesus’ birth in ways that engaged their audiences.

Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, hence the genealogy going back to Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews (Arabs, too, through Ishmael). Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than the other Gospel writers, somewhere around four to one. All this focus on the Jewish people, fulfillment of Jewish prophecies and Scripture, is all very ironic since Matthew was a hated Roman Collaborator and Tax Collector, not a popular guy among his own people. It shows just how much Matthew loved his own people, and shows us how to love those folks this Christmas who get under our skin at family gatherings. But Matthew didn’t give up. He told his Gospel in a way that especially invited the Jewish people to believe in Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, is a Gentile-focused gospel. His primary audience in his euanggelion are non-Jews. His literal “good message” or evangel reminds us why each Gospel writer is called “Matthew the Evangelist,” “John the Evangelist,” and so on. Each wrote to specific groups of people to best try to win these individuals to Christ. Luke’s shift from “they” to “we” about Paul and his entourage in the Book of Acts (Acts 16:10) is significant. It supports the common scholarly contention that Luke was a non-Jewish convert to Christianity. How wonderful it would be that we could find Gospel-bridges to the “nones” with no faith around us, to present the Good News of Jesus in engaging ways with our culture that welcomes and invites the outsiders to come inside.

So the focus of Luke’s evangelistic/euanggelion/Good News was the Gentiles. He quotes Jesus’ parables about the common lot of the Gentiles of his day. They were the ones most likely to be the least, last, lowest, and lost. In Luke, Jesus tells parables that would uniquely speak to those that were either poor in resources or spirit. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, therefore, includes poor despised shepherds and a stable rather than a house and wealthy Magi. By the way, Matthew’s use of the Magi, given his heart for his own people, is more about the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy (Genesis 12:1-3) about a Jewish savior of the world than being pro-gentile.

Nevertheless, each Gospel writer remembered and shared the parts of Jesus’ history to reach a specific audience, or a general one in John’s case. This is one of the reasons why we can legitimately mix Magi and Shepherds in our crèches though they come from two different Biblical sources. Both make the same point, which is belief in Jesus Christ. That should be the point to us as well, and, in addition, there are lessons to be learned in making the Gospel accessible to all people whomever our hearers.

I, for instance, especially like the shepherds and the Gentile-focus of Luke’s gospel. Frankly, most of the Christians that I know today wouldn’t be Christians if it weren’t for the Lucan emphasis on God’s mission to poor Gentiles. That’s the spiritual and genetic background for most of the worldwide church. Jesus’ family tree in Luke that goes back to Adam emphasizes that Christ is the savior of all humanity, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. The question is, “Is He my savior?”

I resonate with the lowly shepherds, a despised bunch without rights or legal standing, who found themselves relegated to the outskirts of town, literally marginalized. With my mixed-blood heritage and a father who didn’t get past the eighth grade, it’s Luke’s message that speaks volumes to me. God’s angelic message of Jesus’ birth doesn’t go to the high and mighty, but to the poor and unaccepted. It’s to the shepherds that the message is given, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…” News for them, news for all – God’s love is not just for some, but for all – spoken to each human heart’s individual need; i.e., “For God so loved the WORLD…that WHOEVER believes in Him shall have eternal life.”

You’re included and so am I. I’ve played a humble shepherd in every Christmas pageant since I was a little boy. I never got promoted to being Joseph or a Wiseman. It was not only type-casting, it was true. I have often felt like a scared second-rate shepherd.

I also resonate with Linus from Peanuts fame who has always needed his security blanket. Maybe you do, too? Don’t we all want security? Haven’t we all sometimes experienced denigration and a lack of acceptance?

I am struck by something on this 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Charlie Brown shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who can explain to me what Christmas is all about?” It’s Linus, carrying his security blanket, who goes to center stage and says, “Lights, please,” before beginning his monologue. Then precisely when Linus quotes appropriately from Luke’s message to the hurting and lost; i.e., the shepherds, something amazing happens. It is exactly when he quotes the angel’s message of “Fear not” to the shepherds that Linus drops his trusty blanket. After that he goes over to Charlie Brown and says, “This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Yep, there’s a message of hope to all of us Charlie Browns who never kick the football, and feel put down just like the shepherds. Jesus’ birth ushers in shalom and a whole bunch of “Fear nots!” that we all need to hear.

Drop whatever security prop you use. Me, too. Linus’ fear subsides and so will ours. This is what I need to hear this Christmas. Listen, “Behold, I bring YOU good news of great joy that will be for ALL the people.”

Pink Candle Sunday

The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is an Old English word for “joy” that comes from the Latin, gaudium, which also means, “joy.” The essence of the Gospel and of Christmas is joy! This Sunday we light the pink candle! It’s not gaudy in a bad way. It’s gaudy because Jesus’ coming makes us glad!

But, joy is an elusive and difficult emotion for many of us to feel at this time of the year. There are so many unfulfilled dreams, too much poverty, terrorism, violence, family tensions, grief, and personal difficulties that seek to destroy our sense of joy. I read about a man who just had his annual physical and was waiting for the doctor’s initial report. After a few minutes the doctor came in with his charts in hand and said: “There’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.”

Too many of us have heard reports like that. The news hasn’t been kind to us. There are unresolved contingencies that concern us to the point of extreme fatigue. Our supply of joy is at or near empty on the fuel tank of our lives. Jesus, however, is the one described as “the joy of heaven to earth come down.” A father asked his child why she liked her Sunday School teacher so much. She answered, “Because her eyes twinkle like she’s laughing inside all the time.” If Jesus is our joy the corners of our mouths can perpetually keep turning upwards no matter our circumstances.

As much as I believe that statement, it sounds too trite and too easy to my ears. Joy, as I have experienced it, isn’t something that can be manufactured. It most often just happens! Nevertheless, I do know some things that anyone can do to help the process along. One thing to do is to help somebody. Remember that the “Grinch who stole Christmas” had a heart “two sizes too small.” Doing something nice for someone else enlarges our heart enough to let others in, and joy, too.

Another idea for joy-enhancement is to associate with people and places that warm your soul. I’m not talking about being raucous, but surrounding yourself with events and people who are heartwarming. I have to hand it to television at this time of year. Some of the holiday specials actually make the holidays more special. Christmas caroling with the family or church group is another way to spark your heart’s ignition. Also the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at St. John’s is one scene that is unforgettable and joy-filled!

This holiday season, no matter what you do or how you enter into a new state of being, my prayer is that all of us will experience more wows than woes! Some of us will worry ourselves into a tizzy this season. I wrote the following poem, not at all a personal strength, which sums up my feelings about Christmas Joy and where it comes from. I gave it the title “By the Calendar or Christ’s Coming:”

In our rush to reach the climax of Christmas

We have surrendered to the siren of success.

Our reckless abandon has left us anxious

And, for most, a destructive case of terrible excess.

 

Over spending, over eating, over doing everything

With cards to mail, and tree lights to string,

Packages to wrap and carols to sing,

What joy, if any, will all this busyness bring?

 

We hustle and bustle to get the best buys,

Which usually result in an exchange of size.

We are lured by on-line shopping or valet parking at the mall

And forget that God’s greatest gift was born in a stall.

 

Neither upon crowds of people, myriad lights, nor gifts without end,

Does the Joy of Christmas depend,

It isn’t a yuletide project to create;

It occurs simply as we learn to wait.

 

We can choose to live by Christ’s coming or by the calendar,

Marking off party-filled days, or by God’s Son so near

Amid the terror of our violence-filled world and its horrible sneer,

Or by the Prince of Peace’s presence so dear.

 

A choice to shake off earth’s trappings of glitter

And bask only in God’s splendor,

Thinking about Jesus of whom the angels sing

And to whom Wise Men their gifts bring.

 

By the Calendar or the Coming is our choice

One drowns out the world’s thunderous noise,

While the other yells evil’s seductive ploys,

Marking time or experiencing God’s joys.

 Pink Sunday!

 

 

Missing Tomato Aspic

There’s a funeral tomorrow and grief for another family that will have an empty seat at this year’s Thanksgiving table. This is everyone’s reality: How do you give thanks when someone you dearly loved is missing? This year our unexpected death was Aunt Claire. There were other deaths with Aunt Alva and first cousin Virginia, but Claire’s was a total shock. As much as I disliked the tomato aspic that she dutifully brought to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year I will sorely miss it because I’ll miss her. One way to handle Thanksgiving when you feel the losses is to add up the blessings that those no longer with us gave us while they were here.

This reminds me of a very poignant Thanksgiving that our family observed 14 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. We deeply missed Mr. Godwin or “Gandaddy,” as the children called him. My Dad’s sudden death just weeks before his was heavily on my mind, too. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants in the yard and the last ice storm decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located so precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent and immediate. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive again. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to try and keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day Bud just disappeared, either he was stolen or instinctually wandered off in order to die away from his “Mother,” as if to spare Mrs. Godwin yet another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a couple. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog, but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train another one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney just happened to be house-broken already, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size so he could protect Mrs. Godwin, and he quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. One recent year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s first brain tumor surgery. Every year since, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual.

Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to move toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, a new baby like Josh and Karen’s due in February, or the ultimate gift of new life that comes in the Christ Child grown up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Yes, we will miss Aunt Claire, Aunt Alva, Cousin Virginia, and the rest of our loved ones who have died this year, but we will look for the signs of hope that they all taught us to see!

tomato aspic

 

South Carolina Flood Relief

This is a good week for I Kings 17:7, “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land.” The State of South Carolina has been inundated and has literally had its fill of rain. My son’s home is split-level and the lower level flooded. His expectant wife along with their 4 and 2 year olds are staying in Aiken with us while he is at home trying to start the repair process. I have been back and forth to Columbia 4 times using every imaginable route to try to maneuver the streets. His situation isn’t dire and everything will be fine. I only mention his situation to say that there are a lot of people in far worse circumstances. People have died. Cindy’s school has been closed all week because roads have disappeared. This clean-up will take a long time, and we need the brook to dry up!

The context of I Kings 17:7 is instructional. Prior to the brook drying up, God had been feeding Elijah via ravens, and his source of life-giving water was a brook near the Jordan River. Then the brook dried up which wasn’t good news for Elijah like it is for us. It’s good news for us in flood-stricken South Carolina, but bad news for a desert-bound prophet. God then provided another avenue to meet Elijah’s needs. Maybe that’s the primary lesson from Elijah: Hang in there no matter what, or using the words of the South Carolina motto “Dum Spiro Spero, “While I breathe, I hope.” That is what defines both SC Strong and Christian Strong!

Sometimes, though, it takes a while to even gather hope. God told Elijah to find a certain poor widow in a nearby town and ask for food. She didn’t have any, plus she said that she barely had enough ingredients to make a final meal for herself and her only son before their anticipated deaths. Elijah asked for a meal anyway and she complied and miraculously her food supply stayed constant. That says something about giving even when you’re hurting. Unfortunately the celebration of that miracle was short-lived because her son did die. But the story doesn’t end there. God raised the widow’s son from the dead. We are also in that weird interval when we’re not sure how the story of the SC Flood will end, but we have hope in resurrection, beauty from ashes, bricks out of mud, and lessons from loss. Like the widow, how we respond will largely determine the outcome.

For many of us our theological understanding of God’s taking care of us has been flipped. On one hand there is ample Biblical hope that suggests that we will be saved from floods; i.e., Isaiah 43: 1-2, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” That didn’t come true for some this week, but the God “with” us part has for all of us. Other passages are tricky to understand, too, like the one Jesus uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:24-27: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” This doesn’t offer much comfort and seems to blame us if we get whacked by calamity.

Frankly, most of us would agree that we live this conundrum of “Why, O Lord?” every day and especially in times of crisis: “God, if this is the way you treat your friends no wonder you have so many enemies.” So floods, cancer, and calamities are very complex from a Christian perspective. For instance, we affirm that God sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The part I don’t like, maybe you don’t either, is that God is the one doing the “sending” in Jesus’ sermon. I’m good with a heavy rainfall in a drought, but not like what we’ve had! The counterbalance to God’s seeming responsibility in rain or drought is the time Jesus was on the boat in the storm with the disciples in Luke 8:24. It says Jesus rebuked the storm, “He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.”

Jesus only used the word “rebuke” when dealing with evil or those possessed by evil. Why would Jesus have to rebuke the storm if nature was already under his control? If God’s will is already a done deal then why are we asked in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? It seems to me that nature has a mind of its own, and is often at cross-purposes with God’s perfect will. So we trust God to do what God does best and that is to enter our pain and redeem it.

God does exactly that in the Incarnation of Christ: Jesus experienced all of our problems, died all of our deaths, and ROSE AGAIN! Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:14-16 assure us that Jesus went through all of his suffering so that we can know that God will make a way for us, too. That is the basis for our hope. It is not a fanciful rose-colored hope that knows no storms. It is a hope that is true because it has been through the storms. South Carolina will live up to its motto and then some. It has done it before and will do it again. While WE breathe, WE hope!

How is St. John’s Providing Flood Relief?

We are encouraging monetary DONATIONS to SC Conference Disaster Response, which will:

* Rebuild and repair affected churches, including small churches that do not have flood insurance.

     * Initiate an estimated three-year recovery phase until everyone is back in a home.

     * Walk with those who, even with FEMA help, will not have the resources to rebuild.

Why money rather than tangible assistance?

     * While bottled water, food, and flood buckets are absolutely necessary, the UMC Disaster Response team will provide sustainable and long-lasting means of recovery, rather than solely initial relief.

     * Our UMC SC conference staff are trained to identify how our resources can be used most productively.

     * ALL donations will only be used for SC flood relief as our apportionments cover all administrative costs.

How can I give?

* Bring a donation by the church office or drop it in the offering plate.

     * Cash donations and checks: Please specify on your envelope or memo line “SC flood relief.”

     * Donate online at:                                                                                                                     http://www.umcsc.org/data/disasterresponseflood2015.php

South Carolina

Soul Drought and The Lord of the Dance

I’m preaching on Psalm 1 this coming Sunday and not feeling at all like a tree planted by God’s living water. There’s some soul drought going on. Do you have days when you can perceptively feel the heaviness in the air, even the cosmos? These are the times that the poem “Footprints” is helpful. It reminds me that when I have felt the most tired and alone and I’m upset that there’s only one set of footprints on the beach, that’s exactly when the Lord carried me.

We go through life thinking that we and God are walking hand in hand and see two pairs of footprints. Suddenly we notice there’s only one set and we wonder where God went. We have all been there. Whipped, tired, and worn. If another shoe falls, we don’t have the strength to pick it up. We need Jesus to carry us. Unfortunately, I often teeter into a melancholy and find myself unable to get moving again. I want Jesus to keep carrying me.

That’s not the life most of us want. We want God’s help when we’re powerless, but we prefer joy. Someone said it this way, “Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.” I think it’s more than that. It’s more than Jesus carrying us through tough times. It’s more than hanging in there. We want to do more than survive. We want to thrive!

This is when I most appreciate the variation on the “Footprints” poem. It fulfills Psalm 30:11, “You (Lord) have turned my mourning into dancing; you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” I don’t know if you’re ready to hop out of the Lord’s strong sheltering grip and get on with Life with Jesus by your side, but read this and see if it describes where you are or want to be:

“Imagine you and the Lord Jesus are walking down the road together. For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your footprints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns. For much of the way, it seems to go like this, but gradually your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s, soon paralleling His consistently.

You and Jesus are walking as true friends! This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: Your footprints that once etched the sand next to Jesus’ are now walking precisely in His steps. Inside His larger footprints are your smaller ones, safely you and Jesus are becoming one. This goes on for many miles, but gradually you notice another change. The footprints inside the large footprints seem to grow larger. Eventually they disappear altogether.

There is only one set of footprints; they have become one. This goes on for a long time, but suddenly the second set of footprints is back. This time it seems even worse! Zigzags all over the place. Stops. Starts. Deep gashes in the sand. A disordered canvas on the sand, as both sets of footprints go every which direction. You are amazed and shocked. Your dream ends.

Now you pray: ‘Lord, I understand the first scene with zigzags and fits. I was a new Christian; I was just learning. But you walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with you.’

‘That is correct,’ says the Lord.

You continue, ‘… and when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps; followed you very closely.’

‘Very good. You have understood everything so far,’ says Jesus.

‘… when the smaller footprints grew and filled in Yours, I suppose that I was becoming like you in every way.’

‘Precisely.’

‘So, Lord, was there a regression or something? The footprints separated, and this time it was worse than at first.’

There is a pause as the Lord answers with a smile in his voice. ‘You didn’t know? That was when we danced.’”

Maybe today is a day that you need Jesus to carry you and that’s fine, might even be necessary. Maybe today’s a day when you want to walk hand in hand beside Jesus with two sets of footprints. Frankly, what I’m feeling is to get up and go, and stop wallowing in this soul’s dark night. I need a dance partner today – Jesus. I want joy; to thrive, not just survive! What about you?