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

Christmas Weddings and Wakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Family Systems and the UMC

Family Systems Theory is fascinating, especially when I think of our United Methodist denominational situation. A couple brings in a 14 year old to see the counselor because the teenager is thought to be the family’s problem. The counselor knows that the teenager is the “identified patient,” and everyone in the whole system has issues. It’s just like a mobile over a baby’s crib when one piece is hanging lower than the others and out of sync. It’s not just a problem with one piece. The whole mobile is unbalanced.

The counselor defocuses attention from the identified patient and looks at the whole family system. In detective-like probing, the counselor determines who is the strongest person in the system and coaches, twins, or otherwise nudges that person to change. When that happens, the inter-locking triangles that have been targeting the teenager as the system’s “dumping ground” begin to fall, tension is defused, and the system resets.

In the UMC, we’re organized as a triangle with General Conference, The Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. A triangle might be the most stable structure on the planet á la the Pyramids, but triangulation can cause terrible problems in families and organizations. There’s usually an issue about which two corners of the triangle don’t agree, but they’re afraid of speaking directly to each.  They don’t want to risk total ruin of their relationship so they pull in a third corner and both other corners try to get that corner to pick their side of the argument. The third corner, either due to the way the organization/family/denomination is formed and/or due to well-meaning but harmful co-dependency, seeks to alleviate the stress exhibited by the other two corners and ends up being the relief valve and victim of the other two corners’ tension. They become the dumping ground, and pulled both ways.

In the UMC, we spread the stress around all three corners and swap off dumping grounds pretty fluidly. At first I thought the Judicial Council was absolutely wrong in deferring the decisions about Karen Oliveto, but now I think it is actually healthy. Family System theorists suggest that, in order for us to get out of being the dumping ground in a triangle, we need to do two things: defect in place which means to stay in relationship with the other two corners of the triangle, but not become too enmeshed or helpful; and have a non-anxious presence that self-differentiates without taking on the tension and dysfunction of the unbalanced system.

This sounds like what the Judicial Council is doing. The whole denomination has a choice to add fuel to the fire or let the process work. The Judicial Council has stated that they see the Oliveto case as hugely important. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked that they expedite their ruling and give less than the usual time for briefs, pro and con, to be filed. Now instead of dealing with it on their October docket, it will be addressed next May. Instead of criticizing, I think this is great leadership.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman who wrote the seminal work on Family Systems theory, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, also wrote a telling book about what we are witnessing both in the Judicial Council’s deferral and the creation of the Council of Bishop’s “A Way Forward Commission.” His book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, actually defends what some, including me, have called “kicking the can down the road.” According to Family Systems Theory, the Judicial Council and the COB have given us appropriate and helpful time to pause, reflect, have non-anxious presence, and defect in place. The question is, “Will we?”

The cycle of ecclesial attacks and reprisals need to end so that we can have a denominational reset. Our local churches and clergy, plus general agencies and bishops need calm so that the best clear thinking will prevail. Let’s let go of the tension and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. There’s a better chance that we will end up where we need to be if we lay down our swords. This will not sit well with people in two corners of the triangle (Progressive or Conservative), but we all need to chill out, take a breath and quit being distracted away from our primary mission to make disciples.

I’m not saying that we should be false prophets who proclaim peace when there is none, but let’s preach Jesus Christ as Lord while this is all sorted out. I’m sure there will be people, including me, who will still discuss, attend events, strategize, and ponder next steps, but we need to let the tension in the system escape, not by scape-goating, but by valuing one another for the common good. What difference does it make if I’m right if the cycle of tumult continues?

A wise man once said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” The following Jewish folktale reminds me that if peace is to be experienced, someone must stop the cycle of anger and retribution:

“The otter rushed in to see the king crying, ‘My lord, you are a man who loves justice and rules fairly. You have established peace among all your creatures, and yet there is no peace.’ ‘Who has broken the peace?’ asked the king. ‘The Weasel!’ cried the Otter. ‘I dove into the water to hunt food for my children, leaving them in the care of the Weasel. While I was gone my children were killed. An eye for an eye, the Good Book says. I demand vengeance!’

The king sent for the Weasel who soon appeared before him. ‘You have been charged with the death of the Otter’s children. How do you plead?’ demanded the King. ‘Alas, my lord,’ wept the Weasel, ‘I am responsible for the death of the Otter’s children, though it was clearly an accident. As I heard the Woodpecker sound the danger alarm, I rushed to defend our land. In doing so I trampled the Otter’s children by accident.’ The king summoned the Woodpecker. ‘Is it true that you sounded the alarm with your mighty beak?’ inquired the king. ‘It is true, my lord,’ replied the Woodpecker. ‘I began the alarm when I spied the Scorpion sharpening his dagger.’

When the Scorpion appeared before the king, he was asked if he indeed had sharpened his dagger. ‘You understand that sharpening your dagger is an act of war?’ declared the king. ‘I understand,’ said the Scorpion, ‘but I prepared only because I observed the Turtle polishing its armor.’ In his defense the Turtle said, ‘I would not have polished my armor had I not seen the Crab preparing his sword.’ The Crab declared, ‘I saw the Lobster swinging its javelin.’

When the Lobster appeared before the king, he explained, ‘I began to swing my javelin when I saw the Otter swimming toward my children, ready to devour them.’ Turning to the Otter, the king announced, ‘You, not the Weasel, are the guilty party. The blood of your children is upon your own head. Whoever sows death shall reap it.’”

Are we willing to defect in place, have non-anxious presence, self-differentiate, and have enough patience to act as good leaders? I hope so. Our Wesleyan witness and the blessing of God is depending on us to get this right. If we were right yesterday, we will be right tomorrow, but the Gospel’s work today needs us to clear-headed and full of the Holy Spirit. We must all stop our vicious cycle of infighting for the sake of Christ and a lost and hurting world.

Family Systems Picture

Pre-General Conference Hope

John 11:25-26

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

For at least the last decade in the UMC, we’ve been beating to death the idea that, according to the numbers, the church in the U.S. is taking a beating and declining toward death. Two of my children who are young United Methodist clergy are quick to point out that this message has dominated their entire ministry, from seminary to the present, and it still swells larger without offering enough fruitful direction or hope. We continue to receive data that confirms the impending “death tsunami.” We also continue to be inundated by articles, workshops and seminars in response, with a repetition of familiar themes: How we got into this mess; How we can still avert catastrophe; How we must change everything (or change nothing); and the ever-popular, How death always precedes resurrection.

Like my children and perhaps so many of you, I am weary of the rhetoric. Not because the trends aren’t real. Not because I haven’t sometimes shared in these anxieties, and responses. Not because we shouldn’t think critically and strategically. Rather, because conversation must ultimately give way to necessary action, and I think now is the time to simply get back to being and doing as Christ calls us.

And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

We have a straightforward call, summed up well by the UMC as: “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission is not conditional. We didn’t choose to carry it forward because it carries a wholesale guarantee of success, or an assurance of longevity, or institutional security. At least I hope not. Regardless of the circumstances, and even if the UMC one day ceases to exist, the Lord still calls us today to simply make disciples for him. And the deepest truth of all — the best possible news for us — is that authentic disciples always outlast death, and they lead others in the same.

With this in mind, like the first Christians, the first Methodists, and certainly like those United Methodists at the forefront of missional growth around the world, let’s have both a discerning faithfulness today and also a holy disregard for worry over tomorrow. Let’s refocus on the present task, which is for each of us to continue to be in the making as the Lord’s disciples, and to participate in the making of more, new disciples. It will require a healthy level of humility: to be “in the making” is to admit that we’re unfinished. It also means holding ourselves to an expectation of real-world fruitfulness, since being “in the making” implies that Christ is intentionally forming us into some new future something as a people. It doesn’t sound easy but we can do it. We are uniquely equipped as United Methodists for it because, like John Wesley, we proclaim that any and every person can actually change, in behavior and attitude, heart and action, through God’s prevenient, saving, and sanctifying grace.

In other words, we must not define ourselves as an institution that is “in the declining,” “in the grieving,” or “in the dying.” Instead, we are “in the making,” a people and movement that can be grounded in the ongoing creative action of God. My passion for the church, and my vision for General Conference 2016, is for a return to this kind of disciple-making. Not merely to try to slow the impending death tsunami or to gain back statistical ground. Not merely out of a sense of self-perpetuation. But out of a desire to live the very hope of Christ.

As we hear on the way to Lazarus’ tomb in John 11:25-26 — and as we proclaim in every United Methodist “Service of Death and Resurrection” — the plain truth is that Jesus is the Lord of Life. Even more, he promises to share his Life with his followers, so that a true disciple of Christ never dies. If that’s so, then Jesus goes on to pose the one question that could possibly remain: “Do we believe it?”

I believe it. I think most of us do! I believe this promise should drastically alter everything, especially this upcoming General Conference. It should empower the ministry of our church to shape disciples. And it should invite us, above all, to pursue a life in the making with Christ Jesus and with one another. The theme of GC2016 is “Therefore go” from Matthew 28:19. Will we be in the making, or will we lament our divisions and prepare for schism at this General Conference. It depends on what or Whom you believe!

GC Logo

 

Jesus’ Baptism and an Epiphany

The first Sunday after Epiphany on January 6 always commemorates the “Baptism of the Lord.” Jesus’ personal epiphany came as he heard the voice from heaven say, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Wouldn’t it be an epiphany for each of us to hear that we are a part of the family, loved and appreciated? Too many children are seldom told how loved they are.

I grew up in a family that had a spectacular Christmas dinner. It helped that it was also my mother’s parent’s wedding anniversary. Everyone gathered, ate, and had a marvelous time. Uncle Lee, who was a meat-cutter, always gave the nieces and nephews some coin or $2 bill with his name inscribed, usually in red fingernail polish. He always wrapped the item in meat wrapping paper and usually with a pig’s tail to add ballast. There was caramel cake which was my favorite, and others enjoyed the ambrosia. I must admit that I dislike coconut to this day because of my responsibility in hammering open and grating the prime ingredient.

You might wonder what in the world this has to do with Jesus’ baptism and the way we treat children. God didn’t do what my grandparents did as they made sure we sat at the “child’s table.” Sure, we were loved, but it was also important to know the pecking order. The first-class folks sat at the BIG table that had the untouchable finery on it. We were relegated to paper and plastic.

In God’s pecking order, something interesting happens at Jesus’ baptism. Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. He never sinned. There was no need of John’s message of repentance for him, but he did what he always did – the right thing. Some would say that he did it to give us an example to do the same. Others would say that Jesus was modeling humility. I think that is more where my mind goes. Either way, with obedience and humility there’s hardly a chance to go wrong. Jesus was baptized and God spoke. Maybe that’s the clincher for us, too. If we do the right thing, God will speak!

You and I will receive our own epiphany if we’re obedient and humble, doing the things we don’t have to do and doing the things we ought to do, whether we need to or not. God loves each of us so much. He delights in us when we we’re like Jesus at his baptism. His baptism and ours are the same except we do need to repent and have our sins washed away. I guess the closest we come to the wonder of Jesus’ baptism is when we baptize infants. They aren’t old enough to have committed actual sins, though they, like all of us, have original sin, but God does a marvelous thing. Since they are as close to sinless as a human can be to his only begotten son, he puts his baptismal seal of approval and love on them. Even when they will never remember it, from before their first conscious thought that there is even a God, God says to them, their parents, family, and the whole gathered church, “I love you and you delight me!” Pretty darn special, an epiphany!

I remember using Baptism of the Lord Sunday as a special day in the church. This was a long time before any baptismal reaffirmation liturgy was written. What I did was use it as a time to renew our baptismal covenant. At the beginning of each new year we used Wesley’s Covenant Prayer and I literally called the church roll, one name at a time. I encouraged families to sit together and, yes, they answered out loud whether or not they were present. It was kind of like Christmas with my grandparents except there was only one table – the Lord’s Table. We ratified our covenant, renewed our vows through that sacred meal, and moved into a new year with a clean slate.

Interestingly, every year I called some name and would find out that the person had died. The word had not gotten to the church office, but somebody would always know. It became an opportunity to clean up our membership rolls, or, in my mind, we made some transfers from the church militant to the church triumphant. We always had a big church dinner afterwards, and I was amazed at how people always got to talking about how their family history intersected with the church’s. It was a great time of fellowship, reconciliation, and pushed us to be better people than we would have been without it.

I hope this Sunday will be a blessed time for you and your church family. I pray that you will have your own epiphany and hear God say to you, “You’re a part of my family; I love and delight in you!”

JesusBaptism

 

 

 

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?

A Family Funeral and the Prayers of the Saints

This morning I am going to do the funeral for my last remaining aunt. It is an honor to eulogize such a wonderful person. Aunt Alva saw life through the lenses of grace and accountability. She was always warm and welcoming, and expressed her confidence in you through compliments. She dared you to be the best self that you could be. It strikes me that these two bookends of grace and expectation are desperately needed in the church today.

In our Christian tradition we know full well that we are saved by God’s grace through Jesus Christ, but we also know that God doesn’t save us to leave us the way that God found us. We believe that becoming a Christian is not the telos end-all, but is rather a beginning of a transformed life. It almost sounds like an oxymoron, but God’s grace holds us accountable, better yet, inspires us, and empowers us to do better than we’ve ever done before.

As I eulogize my Aunt today, I almost feel as if I am eulogizing a whole generation of my family. Her dear husband, Uncle J.C., was a member of the “greatest generation” that won World War II. He survived the carnage on Iwo Jima in the Pacific, though it caused him nightmares for the rest of his life. Papa, Granny, Uncle Lee, Mama and Daddy, Uncle Homer, Aunt Florence, Frank, Carlee, Aunt Margaret, Aunt Ella Mae, Uncle Buck, Uncle Bruce, Gandaddy, Ganny, Papa Mac, MaMac, Nana, Pop, and more than I can name have “slipped the surly bonds of earth.”

But, I feel their presence crowding around this morning. It’s times like this that I treasure that part of the Apostles’ Creed that we so casually recite on most Sundays, “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” Those of us who believe in Jesus who are left alive are called the Church Militant because we still have inward and outer battles to fight. Those who have joined the great company in the cloud of witnesses above are known as the Church Triumphant.

This communion of saints, this mysterious intermingling confluence of influence is especially felt on days like today. I can picture in my mind’s eye a whole host of those who have gone before us. They are our cheerleaders and models to which we can measure ourselves, or they are like prize fighters who dare us to surpass their own feats of strength or failures of weakness. Either way, we have an opportunity to measure up and/or do better. Both serve a proper function, but it is the emotional tie to these particular saints that makes the call to excel so personal and real. These are people we knew, cared for, even loved, and we want to make them proud. We are their genetic and emotional progeny.

I don’t know for certain if these saints do any more than provide examples and educative fond memories for us. I do, however, know that the apocalyptic literature of the Book of Revelation (8:3-4) says that their prayers for us are still alive and active, “Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all God’s saints, on the golden altar in front of the throne. The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of God’s people, went up before God from the angel’s hand.” So, though I don’t believe that those in heaven can see anything bad that we do or that wouldn’t be heaven, I do, however, believe that somehow they can see the good we do. This inspires me to try to do all the good that I can. Whether real or imaginary or a weird mixture of apocalyptic history, poetry, and transcendent imagery, I want to sense that this whole host who have gone before us is praying for us.

Call me crazy but just think of the number of cheerleaders that we have! Each of us has had 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents and if you extrapolate that out for 10 generations, it adds up to 1,024 parents that are rooting for us. If you take it out to 20 generations, the number is 1,048,576 parents, not counting aunts, uncles, and all the rest of the heavenly host! The epistle lectionary text for July 26 is from Ephesians 3:14-21. It is rich with what I’m feeling this morning, and describes the power of family prayer encompassing all generations. This is St. Paul’s prayer and their prayer for YOU:

“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.”

“Throughout all generations, for ever and ever!” Indeed, “Amen.” Be encouraged, therefore, and feel the unfettered wings of those set free from earth’s bonds. Feel the cool breeze of the prayers being sent your way today. They are real, actually more real now than they ever were on earth. I believe in the Communion of Saints!

slide-5-communion-of-saints

A Dynamite Church for a Powerless World

As Pentecost approaches on May 24, I am reminded that each Christian is gifted by the Holy Spirit. As much as we like talking about our Trinitarian beliefs, the Holy Spirit often gets short shrift in both theology and practice. It is the Spirit, however, that unites us as a body made of different parts and supernatural abilities (I Corinthians 12). Sometimes our natural abilities and aptitudes are exactly synonymous by the Holy Spirit’s unique gifting of us, but sometimes not. Rather than digressing into the question of how you can tell which, I think that it is better to affirm the Biblical truth that every Christian has unique “gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will (Hebrews 2:4b).” Whether one feels like they have something to offer is irrelevant because we all do!

The Holy Spirit’s presence was let loose by God on an unsuspecting populace in Jerusalem and the world was turned upside down by an explosion of spiritual power. As I read the Pew Research Center’s newest religious poll of America’s faith habits this morning I was dismayed that the “none’s” with no religious affiliation are growing while those professing Christ are declining. I cannot help but wonder if it’s because we resemble the words of 2 Timothy 3:1-5a, “But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power.” Sounds quite descriptive of us, doesn’t it? A form of godliness but denying its power.

The power that supplies godliness is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the dunamis, “power” in NT Greek, from whence we get our word “dynamite.” The early church saw miracles and exploded with growth. The Wesleyan Movement saw the same effects and England, America, and most of the rest of the world have witnessed the unleashing of God’s Spirit through our church. Lately, however, we have become too domesticated. Where is the power of the Gospel in our midst? The Holy Spirit is our dynamite!

An interesting article was written several years ago in a journal called The Public Interest by Roger Starr, a professor at City College in New York. He is a liberal, Jewish Democrat. (Remember that; it is important to the story.) Starr concluded that there was only one other period in world history that matches the day in which we live.

  • It was 18th century England. There was a problem of addiction – they had just discovered gin alcohol. Families were falling apart, children were being abused. Domestic violence was rampant.
  • There were problems of pollution, crime, and violence – problems very much like our own.

When he discovered this, Roger Starr wanted to know what saved England, or brought them out of their situation.

  • And would you believe? This liberal, Jewish, Democrat argues that the only thing that saved England was someone that he had not really heard much about – someone by the name of John Wesley who started a movement called Methodism.
  • “Now, I don’t even know any Methodists,” says Starr. “I don’t know anything about them. But this Wesley started a movement that literally saved England. It was a movement that had profound social, economic, and political consequences and transformed and indeed saved that nation. Maybe what we need to do is to study those Methodists to find out how they did it, and to duplicate what they did back in the 18th century.”

About a month later, George Will wrote an editorial for The Washington Post. George Will is a conservative, Roman Catholic Republican. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • Will wrote, “I never thought I’d agree with anything Roger Starr has ever written. But you know, this liberal has actually got a point. It is that in the 18th century you have the German and French revolutions, and other revolutions around the world; but you don’t have an English Revolution. But they did, you see. It was called the ‘Methodist Revolution,’ because these Methodists turned their world upside down. Maybe what we need to do is to take Roger Starr seriously and look at what was the secret of those Methodists.”
  • Then he added, “I know this is going to sound strange for me, saying that we need some more Methodists to save the world; and I hate to end the column this way, but does anybody out there have a better idea?”

About a month later, Fred Barnes, editor of The New Republic, wrote an article. Fred Barnes is an evangelical Episcopalian moderate. (Remember that; it is important to the story.)

  • He writes, “Can you believe this? We have George Will and Roger Starr agreeing on something. I can’t believe it! But the more you think about it, they are exactly right. But they forgot one thing. What they forgot was that basically the Methodist Movement was at heart, a spiritual awakening.”
  • Barnes continues, “Yes, it had tremendous economic, social, and political consequences, but it began as a spiritual revival – a spiritual awakening. And unless we get in this nation a spiritual awakening and a spiritual revival that will create these kinds of economic and political implications…in our day, it won’t work. It’s got to have a new generation of Methodists who will do for this day what they did in the 18th century.”

What I meant by saying that we should remember the particulars of the three authors is that other people, from very disparate viewpoints, think there is something that Methodism still has to offer. In reality, the genius of Methodism isn’t a thing, but a Who – the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Living Christ, the embodiment of the Father’s great love for all humankind.  The question is whether or not we are full of the Holy Spirit, or full of ourselves? A tree is known by its fruit. Pray for a new Pentecost, and I know it needs to begin in me!

pentecost1