Immortalizing Your Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Needing a New Exodus

Do you think things are improving, going sideways, or backwards in our world? N.T. Wright’s book The New Testament in Its World is proof-positive that the world has seen worse days than ours, but it also wonderfully lays out God’s plan in Jesus Christ to redeem the world, and set things right. It has been a timely study with all that we have going on. It addresses our COVID-19 ravaged and racially distraught world with mascots changing, statues toppling, and every other kind of turmoil.  It begs the question, “Where do we turn for an expectation that everything is going to be okay?”

 Decades ago we saw impoverished and victimized people find hope in Liberation Theology. The leaders of this movement were primarily in Central and South America, with people like Gustavo Gutierrez, Jose Bonino, and Oscar Romero. The 60’s and 70’s gave birth to similar movements in the US with the work of James Cone and Carol Christ with Black Liberationist Theology and the Feminist Movement. Though some have said that Liberation Theology is a relic of the past, recent events have given it new life.

If Jesus is King, though some might find the notion of royalty offensive, then how does that shape our current theology of God’s Peaceable Kingdom? How do we keep things both orthodox and sensitive to the plight of the oppressed? One way to do that is to use what the earlier practitioners used. They based their whole premise of God taking the side of the poor on the Exodus events. The Exodus became an outright call to revolt and protest in an earlier generation, but what many find most hope-filled about the Exodus is that God does the action, the saving, and the liberation. We’re actors in the drama, but God is the Director.

The Exodus is, therefore, not as much about anarchy and lawlessness, but non-violent witness. If focused on what God does, then it truly represents the original Exodus. The Jews in Egypt didn’t fight back. God did it for them. This has been the most successful model of real liberation. Although it is not natural for any of us to be passive, even Jesus’ “exodus” from the tomb wasn’t by his own hand. God delivered him, and He can deliver us! It is God’s mighty acts in salvation that give us hope. No protest movement or revolt will long live unless God be the Warrior that defeats pharaoh’s armies and parts the waters!

The Exodus events are echoed throughout the entire Bible and human history. Think about how its themes are repeated. Moses is called from childhood to be special as he was saved as an infant from drowning and raised as an adopted child of pharaoh. Jesus certainly had a unique birth through the Virgin Mary. Moses worked many signs and miracles, and so did Jesus. God provided Moses with bread from heaven in the form of “manna,” while Jesus fed the multitudes and called himself “the Bread of Life.” Moses liberated people, and Jesus frees us from sin, death and so much more. Moses led the people through the wilderness to the brink of the Promised Land, but Jesus takes us all the way in! Jesus is Moses on steroids. Jesus delivers and gives real hope that lasts.

There are more similarities than imaginable. For instance, it is perfectly appropriate for, “The Ten Commandments,” with Charlton Heston to be shown at Easter, an Exodus movie that merges with Jesus’ own exodus/departure from the grave. The Jewish deliverance commemorated via the Passover meal is fulfilled in Jesus, as it says in I Corinthians 5:7, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us, therefore let us keep the feast!” Jesus becomes the unblemished Passover lamb that was sacrificed to protect us. He is called “the Lamb of God” by John the Baptist (John 1:29), and “the lamb that was slain before the creation of the world” in Revelation 13:8. The connection with Jesus and the Passover meal in Exodus are obvious!

There are also plenty of similarities between Moses and Jesus. One is the comparison of Moses on Mt. Sinai and Jesus on the Mountain of Transfiguration. In their respective mountaintop experiences, we see that Jesus is transfigured and his face and clothes are brighter than lightening, while Moses’ face was shining so brightly when he came down from Sinai that people couldn’t dare look at him. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John with him up his mountain, and Moses takes Joshua. For both Moses and Jesus, a cloud covers the mountain, and God speaks from both clouds. The similarities are beyond coincidence.

Another similarity between Moses and Jesus occurs when they do miracles. Pharaoh’s magicians declared in Exodus 7:16-18 that Moses did his signs, “by the finger of God.” Luke 11:20 says that Jesus also did his, like driving out demons, “by the finger of God.” Over and over again, you can hear the words and phrases of the Exodus repeated and magnified in Jesus’ ministry and in all the writings of the New Testament. Words like “redemption,” “redeem,” “deliver,” “deliverance,” “slavery,” and “freedom,” are rooted in the Exodus experience. Maybe the correlation isn’t an accident.

Perhaps the storyline of the entire Bible and all of human history is about God’s rescue mission to give us all a way out, an EXODUS from whatever is attacking us. It’s not a new thought either. People have long clung to Exodus hope when caught in a bind or worse.  We need a Deliverer, and an Exodus. This has been repeated throughout history. For instance, it was Esther who, “for such a time as this,” helped inaugurate the Israelite’s return from exile back to the Promised Land, a mini-Exodus, out of Babylonian and Persian bondage. Just take a look at Nehemiah 9 to see the correlation. Look at Psalms 77 and 78 to encourage you when you feel in bondage. Both the Old and New Testaments use the Exodus as a sign that no matter what God’s people are going through, God isn’t going to let us down.

The Exodus inspired African-American slave spirituals like “Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land. Tell old pharaoh, let my people go!” To be set free, of course, is not just an African-American desire. We all need Jesus to get us out of the mess we’re in. Liberation is the desire for anyone who is overwhelmed by bondage as an oppressed people, those overcome by addictions, depression, health constraints, COVID-19, job losses, financial crisis, and death itself as it lurks at everyone’s door.

Would it make things better if we saw Jesus as the New Moses, a Better Moses, and the Only Everlasting One who can set us free? I think so, especially for such a time as this. We all need a mini or a maxi-Exodus. I pray so! Let it happen, God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Repentance and Racism

Straight-up, let me say that there is nothing that I can say to adequately address George Floyd’s death or lessen its pain and injustice, or that of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, or the countless others.  Every time I’ve tried to say something in the past few days on social media, it has been misunderstood, misconstrued or politicized. I own that as my fault, but I have my own stories about racial justice from my childhood. Those who know me, know the facts about Frank Arthur, Gerald Moseley, Randy Fields, and how many times Cindy and our children marched in Columbia to urge that the Confederate flag come down, and how as the Columbia District Superintendent I led our district clergy in communion at the African American Memorial, and then marched over in silent protest to where the flag stood.

Some of you know the story of how we were given a framed print depicting the last night that the Confederate flag flew over SC’s Statehouse. Cindy took it back to the gift shop where it came from, as noted by a label on the back. She handed it to the cashier who said, “I can’t give you a refund.” Whereupon Cindy said, “I don’t want one. It’s either give it to you, or toss it.” The woman said, “But, you’re a Southerner. This is your heritage.” Cindy’s reply is worth noting, “No, this is my history, not my heritage. History is something you learn from. Heritage is what you pass on to your children.” That same sentiment led me to use every parliamentary maneuver I could think of to bring a resolution to the floor of the 2000 United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland, Ohio so that United Methodists could go on the record as wanting the Confederate flag down. The resolution passed!

I could get very defensive about anyone who questions where I stand or whether I’m sensitive enough on racial matters. I served on the UMC General Commission on Religion and Race, but no matter. This isn’t about me, or who has better cred than someone else. It’s about systemic and personal racism. Racism has to stop so that no one gets stopped 9 times a year “driving a car while Black” like SC United States Senator Tim Scott. We don’t need any more Emanuel 9 massacres, or Walter Scott killings in South Carolina.

But, what can we do? That’s up to you, but do something! I know this is a watershed moment. We have tried to legislate solutions to our problems, and thank God for those efforts, but they didn’t go far enough. You cannot legislate a solution to a spiritual problem. Only God can truly change the human heart. Our problem is sin. Racism and slavery have been called America’s “Original Sin.” We can legislate all we want, and we should, but we mostly need God’s redemption to free us from this original and actual sin.

Racism and tribalism are a part of the original sin of the world. Ever since Adam and Eve we’ve been corrupted by an “us and them” pre-judging called racism. We can sing “Red, and yellow, black, and white, all are precious in His sight,” until we’re blue in the face, but unless there’s a heart change, it doesn’t matter. The human condition in its fallenness has embraced a bigoted biased one-upmanship that has pitted group against group since the beginning of time.

It is a universal crisis that many of us have witnessed if you’ve done any travel. I’ve been on mission trips and a couple of simple travel jaunts to lots of places: To the Philippines, Hong Kong, Canada, Bulgaria, Ivory Coast, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zambia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Austria, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the impoverished west-end of Grand Bahama. The human condition of prejudice is EVERYWHERE.

In the Philippines the Lumad people are looked down on, and so are the Payatas. In Bulgaria the Roma (Gypsy) orphans are treated poorly. In Ireland it’s Catholics versus Protestants. In Scotland it’s Highlanders against the Lowlanders. In the Congo the main tribes of Mongo, Luba, Kongo, and Mangbetu-Azonde have difficulties with the Batwa, otherwise known by the derogatory term, “Pygmies.” Racism and tribalism are universal! It’s not just an American problem.

It’s an everywhere problem, and we need solutions that work in our personal context and worldwide. That solution isn’t just recognizing the Image of God in everybody. It is also recognizing that we are all guilty of the original and actual sin of racism. We need Jesus, the only cure. Sure, we can legislate, but we need a spiritual solution first and foremost. God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the geographic middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, died in our place to redeem us, and gave us the words to combat racism and bigotry in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

So, pray with me if you want, “Forgive me, Lord Jesus, of all the ways that I have been an insensitive bigot, prejudging instead of pre-loving. I repent of my sin. Set me and our country free from the sin of denigrating whomever we count as the ‘other.’ Help us to embrace you as the only hope for forgiveness and justice, then help us to act like it. Change my heart and my life; in Jesus’ name. Amen.”

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.

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]!

 

King Jesus versus the Pandemic

The pessimist may be right in the long run, but the optimist has a better time during the trip! Who will do better in the COVID-19 pandemic: the person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty? Think about our faith and Christian optimism. Isn’t the empty tomb the basis of our faith? The disciples weren’t behind just closed doors. They were locked! Being locked up is the story of our cooped up lives lately. The disciples were scared, and so are we. Where’s our optimism?

It’s in Jesus! Easter forever reminds us that Jesus was, is and will be triumphant. Certainly Jesus had moments of pessimism when dealing with the religious leaders, and even his disciples, but he never wavered in his trust of God. Even when he began his recitation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he knew the rest of the psalm, and how it ends in victorious optimism. Please take the time to read the whole thing, and see the dramatic swing from a woeful attitude to the crescendo of faith. It ends with an exclamatory, “He has done it!”

Put that phrase into the context of Jesus on the Cross when he said, “It is finished,” and it makes what sounds like a sad surrender become a spike-the-football moment. “He has done it!” Wow! No matter what our trials, He has done it! He has done it before, and he can do it again! God’s got this! Do we believe it?

One can hear the echoes of optimism through the lives of the faithful over the centuries. Just focus on St. Paul and his life, and that’s inspiring enough. In prison in Acts 16:23-34, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods, severely flogged, stripped naked, thrown into prison, their feet locked into stocks, but at midnight, instead of crying, they started praising God while singing hymns. This is the same Paul who said in Romans 8:37-39 that we are more than conquerors through Jesus. So much so that, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor ANYTHING in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen. Take that COVID-19!

It’s a rough world, to be sure, but Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Oh, how we have an opportunity during these quarantine days to sing hymns at midnight, to be people of joy, to be overcomers that are more than conquerors! What good does it do your spirit to be a whiner? Nothing. We all know it’s tough, some more than others. There are things that can keep us awake with worry every night, but remember the words of Isaiah 26:3, “He will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on Him.”

What are our minds focused on? Three people were visiting the Grand Canyon: an artist, a pastor, and a cowboy. As they stood on the edge of the huge gash in the landscape, each one responded with surprise. The artist said, “Ah, what a beautiful scene to paint!” The minister cried out, “What a wonderful example of the handiwork of God!” The cowboy said, “What a terrible place to lose a cow!”

Can’t we look on the bright side and choose joy instead of woe and worry? Joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. As someone said, “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?” As people of faith, we know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not an oncoming train. It is the light of the glory of God seen in the face of Christ. The devil isn’t going to have the last word, and neither is this pandemic. God has got this! He has done it! God has got this! Jesus is King! He has done it! Jesus Christ is King!

King Jesus: A Bigger Blockbuster Than Impeachment

Within a span of less than two weeks we have a US-centric, but mostly world-wide, triple-header on the church calendar. This coming Sunday is the last day in the Christian year, and is always designated as “Christ the King Sunday.” Appropriately, we remember that Jesus Christ is King of kings and Lord of lords. He is the One to whom we bow and owe our unwavering allegiance. Next Thursday we will celebrate Thanksgiving and show our gratitude to God for all of His blessings and providence. Almost every country does something like this though it may be at a different time of year. Sunday week, December 1, will be the beginning of Advent when we commemorate Jesus’ first coming and solemnly prepare for His Parousia; i.e., the Second Coming.

How easy it is to think all about Thanksgiving and miss the bookend Holy Days of Christ the King and Advent season. It is apparent in US society that we would do well to pay attention to all three. How would I act differently if Jesus were truly King in my life? Is Thanksgiving merely a time of stuffing both a turkey and my face? Is our Advent focus mostly about Christmas? Do we follow the Scout motto of “Be Prepared” because Santa is coming or Jesus is returning?

The whole notion of holidays is so misunderstood. As recently as a few weeks ago I overheard people talking about Halloween aka All Hallows Eve as a “holiday.” All Saints Day on November 1, the real holiday/holy day, was totally overlooked. Halloween is no holy day. It’s quite the opposite! We have many secular special days, but they’re not holidays per se. As much as I would like to make the mundane sacred, it appears to me that we have more often made the sacred profane. This begs the question of how holy we actually make our Thanksgiving festivities and church events. What does a proper Advent look like in our “Frost Fest” world when we take Christ out of Christmas and give the season and its trees and other accoutrements nonsensical politically correct names?

Let’s take up the challenge and make the coming season holy by putting God first and not ourselves. If Jesus is my King how does that affect my perspective on the President and the Congress. Elected officials come and go, but according to Hebrews 13:8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” If Jesus is King then how does that change my views on injustice, the unborn, drug addiction, homelessness, and mental health? The list could go on and on.

How can I have a proper Thanksgiving if I don’t have a God to thank? It would be pretty ludicrous to thank myself, or just the special people who have made significant contributions to my life. Thanksgiving that honors humans over God is either narcissism or a mis-directed adulation otherwise known as idol worship. If Thanksgiving doesn’t cause thankfulness toward God Almighty then it isn’t a holiday at all. It’s just the day to stock up on our energy before we face the shopping frenzy of Black Friday. Football and food are no match for the spiritual nourishment of giving God His due.

An Advent season that jumps too quickly into Christmas Carols props up our overemphasis on Baby Jesus instead of King Jesus. We use purple altar cloths and stoles in church during Advent because it is about our need for penitence in the face of a regally clad King. I’m all for Christmas, but a “good” Christmas doesn’t neglect the guest of honor at His own party. We desperately need to grasp that Advent is less about a birthday party than a victory banquet. The real purpose of Advent is to get us ready for the Marriage Feast of the Lamb when He comes to set things right and redeem his Beloved, the Church.

To embrace the holiness of this season is to enrich it, to lift up God who, in turn, lifts us beyond all of our “Great Distractions,” whether in DC or wherever and re-centers our attention on what is most important. The bigger question for me during this season is not whether the President should be impeached. It is whether I and my shallow worship practices should be. Making the upcoming days all about us and our machinations or shenanigans misses the true glory and grandeur of God.

There is a wonderful anonymous parable that really makes me want to watch out who/Who is on the throne of my life. Think about this story and look with me into a mirror:

Horville Sash had a very important but humble job in the offices of the largest corporation in the world. He worked as a mail clerk in the lowest reaches of the building doing what he could do to help other people with their jobs. Often, he wondered what went on the floor just above his. He could hear their footsteps every day and he would think of the exciting jobs they must have while he worked in the basement. Then came a day when Horville found a bug scurrying across the floor. As the mailroom clerk, Horville had only bugs to command. He raised his foot to flatten the bug when the bug spoke: “Please don’t kill me,” said the bug. “If you let me live, I’ll give you three wishes.” Horville figured that even if he didn’t get the wishes, a talking bug could make him a lot of money. So he let the bug live, and the bug asked him what he wanted for his first wish. “To be promoted to the next floor,” said Horville. The next day Horville’s boss came in and told him he would move up to the next floor that very day. Horville walked into the next floor offices like a conquering general, but soon he heard footsteps on the floor above him. He said to the bug, my second wish is to be promoted floor by floor until I reach the very top; until I am in charge of the company. “Done,” said the bug, and floor by floor he moved his way through the ranks: 10th floor, 20th floor, 50th floor, 90th floor, and finally to the very top floor. He was as high as he could go: Chairman of the Board; CEO of the company; corner office on the top floor of the building. But then one day Horville heard footsteps above him. He saw a sign that said: STAIRS so He went up to the rooftop and there he found one of his clerks standing with his eyes closed. “What are you doing?” Horville asked. “Praying,” came the answer. “To whom?” Pointing a finger toward the sky the boy answered, “To God.” Panic gripped Horville. There was a floor above him! He couldn’t see it. He couldn’t hear the shuffling of feet. All he saw was clouds. So he asked, “Do you mean there is an authority higher than me?” Horville summoned the bug. It was time for his third and final wish. “Make me God,” he said. “Make me the highest. Put me in the kind of position that only God would hold if he were here on earth.” The very next day Horville Sash awakened to find himself back in the basement, sorting the mail, and doing what he could to help others be the best that they could possibly be.

The upcoming season is our chance to humble ourselves before the One True God and worship him above all others, especially ourselves. Happy Holidays! Amen.

Handling Our Diferences

Someone has said that our greatest strength is diversity, but it is also our greatest weakness. Jesus prays for his followers (John 17:21) to be one, but the Gospel passage (Luke 12:49-53) for this coming Sunday seems to suggest Jesus promotes division. The two passages seem contradictory, and the latter passage doesn’t particularly sound like Jesus. It doesn’t sound like something anyone who loves unity, especially church unity, would say: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Surely, Jesus spoke the words from Luke against the backdrop of the end of the world and the final judgment. He is stating a fact that what we believe about Him is going to put us in different camps. This is a hard word. We struggle with doing everything we can to hang on to unity in our relationships, families, and the world of politics. We very much live in a time of division where unity is hard to find. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, said these famous words: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be freedom; in all things, let there be charity.” The dilemma is discerning the difference between what is essential and what is non-essential.

Some contrast helps! This is a new take on things for me. I would prefer everyone to get along with each other, and keep the fireworks of life at a minimum. Frankly, I’m learning that the Proverbs are right in 27:17 when it says, “Iron sharpens iron.” To distill the truth in complex situations we actually need to go through the wrestling of diverse opinions. This is why debate teams only get better in the challenging crucible of taking different sides on issues and articulating them.

Could this be what we hope for in the church in what we call “holy conferencing”? We confer, converse, look for compromise, or resolution. We try to discern the will of God through debate and discourse. Sometimes we simply have to say, “In Christian love I think that it’s best we move on. Further interaction is going to hurt both of us, and we should not do one another harm by ripping open this same wound over and over again.”

That is a hard place at which to arrive. It seems un-Christian almost, but it may actually promote healing. It’s not a cold shoulder or snub. It is caring enough to confront the other with the truth, and live and let live, apart or together. It cuts down on the perpetuation of acrimony. There are people that I will never ever agree with, but by struggling through the conflict we can actually better affirm our mutual care of one another. It’s the stages of peacemaking that Dr. Scott Peck presents in his seminal work The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace.

He proposes that the first stage in a relationship is “Pseudo-Community.” It’s the stage where everything and everyone is chummy, hail-fellow-well-met like a honeymoon or a high school reunion – all hugs and no shrugs, but it isn’t real. That’s why it’s called “pseudo.” However, if you allow for honest dialogue and truth-telling, which is necessary for any genuine relationship, then you arrive at “Chaos” where differences are exposed. Most people don’t like chaos, but it’s a mandatory stage in order to get to where we want to go in our dealings with people. So, church people should welcome chaos that at least gets beyond the fakeness of the prior stage. A disclaimer: There are some people who love drama and get stuck not just in the chaos stage, but in any of them or go up and down the continuum at every whipstitch. But, if you plow ahead then you move out of Pseudo-community and Chaos, and get to Emptiness – a live and let live humility as opposed to my-way-or-the-highway, an honest care for one another, but empty of venom and vitriol. This can be a wonderful stage, but if stuck in “emptiness” it leads to a passive sublimation of genuine feelings and people simply shut-down. Emptiness can be apathetic instead of empathetic. Empathy, in spite of differences, leads to the last stage which is Community. Community is marked by transparent love and a prioritization of group health more than individual satisfaction. Community fosters deep communal relationships through individual self-definition.

Where is your family, church, civic club, and national ethos on this scale? Let me give you an example of a healthy sense of community through a story shared by Dr. Len Sweet, a United Methodist clergyperson and professor. He tells the story of when university chaplain Tom Wiles picked him up from the airport in Phoenix, Arizona. They didn’t know each other. Tom was Dr. Sweet’s ride to a conference he was leading. Tom was driving his brand-new Ford pickup. Len Sweet was still mourning the trade-in of his Dodge truck. Though the two guys didn’t really know each other, they immediately bonded as they shared truck stories and laughing at the bumper-sticker truism, “Nothing is more beautiful than a man and his truck.”

Here’s what happened next in Sweet’s own words: “As I climbed into Tom’s truck for the ride back to the airport a day later, I noticed two huge scrapes on the passenger door. ‘What happened?’ I asked. Tom replied sadly, ‘My neighbor’s basketball post fell on the truck.’ ‘You’re kidding! How awful,’ I said. ‘This truck is so new I can still smell it.’ Then Tom said, ‘What’s even worse is my neighbor doesn’t feel responsible for the damage.’ I immediately rose to Tom’s defense and asked him if he had contacted his insurance company, or thought about other ways he could make his neighbor pay up.

Then Tom replied in an unforgettable way: ‘This has been a real spiritual journey for me. After a lot of soul-searching and discussions with my wife about hiring an attorney it came down to a simple thought. I can either be in the right, or I can be in a relationship with my neighbor. Since my neighbor will probably be with me longer than this truck, I decided that I’d rather be in a relationship than be right. Besides trucks are meant to be banged up, so I got mine initiated into the real world a bit earlier than I expected.’”

A better person than me.

US Society: Going to Hell in a Handbasket

This week’s lectionary text from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 couldn’t be more appropriate given the context of our national pain and shame:

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the instruction of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
“The multitude of your sacrifices—
what are they to me?” says the Lord.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure
in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations—
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals
I hate with all my being.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I hide my eyes from you;
even when you offer many prayers,
I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight;
stop doing wrong.
Learn to do right; seek justice.
Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
plead the case of the widow.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,”
says the Lord.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red as crimson,
they shall be like wool.

If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the good things of the land;

but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Can we take a hint from God?  Doesn’t this passage offer an indictment upon our so-called faith and rituals? Faith that is real does something and it’s genuine. God asks for willing obedience, not empty words. Isaiah knew what he was talking about. He had been a prophet through the reigns of four separate kings of Judah. He had seen it all, just like we have in our media-saturated world. But God made sure that Isaiah wasn’t too used to what had become commonplace. God woke him up to ask hard questions of his own people.

We also must ask and answer a hard question, “What’s wrong with America that 31 people were gunned down in the span of 14 hours?” Before we show our political bias and reach the easy assumption that both shooters were cut from the same cloth, think about the fact that the perpetrators came from very different ideological perspectives. The one in El Paso was anti-immigration specifically of Hispanics. The one in Dayton was a supporter of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Beats me, and I don’t dare think there’s an easy answer to the problems, the hot-button issues that our country is facing. White privilege is real and is a culprit, but in a man-on-the-street poll this morning, I did a survey asking individuals what they thought were our most pressing problems that could lead us to this horrible place in which we find ourselves. Here are the results in no particular order: assault guns, drugs and opioids, racism and tribalism, quality education, the demise of the traditional family, homelessness, suicide, protecting the unborn and vulnerable adults, slick as boiled okra politicians (there are some good ones), godly values and morality, mental illness, domestic abuse, child abuse, social media (including television), liberals, conservatives, and xenophobia. It runs the whole gamut, doesn’t it? And, there’s more, I’m sure because nobody said Iran, the economy, North Korea, healthcare, or even the recently ratcheted up trade war with China.

Now, here’s what ticks me: What are we going to do about these issues? Gleaves Whitney, college professor, said, “I want you to know that we are only one generation from barbarism. Think about it. If teachers and parents and the clergy fail to transmit the culture, then in just one generation that civilization can lose significant knowledge of its heroes, models, ideals, and principles, and then an enervating nihilism can set in.” Enervating nihilism is a debilitating destructiveness. Something that enervates is the opposite of something that invigorates and energizes, and nihilism is the rejection of all religious and moral principles in the belief that life is meaningless. This is where we are right now. We have become so desensitized to the ubiquitous problems that we’ve simply given up. We seldom have the energy even to say, “We’re going to hell in a handbasket!” Hell is already here especially in the minds of the shooters.

I read of a young Frenchman who stood on a dock in Calais, France, and watched two Englishmen get off a tourist boat. As soon as they were on the dock, he immediately shoved them off the side and into the water. As the Englishmen scrambled back up and did their best to shake off the water that had soaked them, one of them asked the Frenchman, “Is this any way to treat a foreigner? Why did you do this?” The Frenchman replied, “That was for burning Joan of Arc at the stake.” Then the Englishman said, “But that was 600 years ago.” The Frenchman retorted, “Oui, but I just learned about it this morning.” This is our immediate conundrum, too. In the face of all of our problems, we focus on the ones that are most immediate, that we have some personal stake in, or finally drive us to do something!

What defines the “tyranny of the urgent” for you? I’m sick of ignorantly and recklessly blaming one person or another, even the deep-pocketed gun lobby. What are WE going to do about our problems whether its gun violence, immigration, or opioids? Instead of enervated passivity, our children deserve better. It is time to quit sitting on our hands or wringing them with inaction. Enough is enough! Do we have the moral fortitude to be like Jesus and tie together a whip of cords and run the evil out of our society?

As our seminary intern, Douglas Herlong, said to me yesterday, “Words are words. Promises are promises. Excuses are excuses. Performance is reality!” Aren’t we sick and tired of words, promises, and excuses? I sure am. There are injustices and wrongs all around us. What are we going to do? What are you going to do? Our hands are bloody, according to Isaiah, and it’s time to wash them!