Opening My Heart to Jesus

The mystery of the Incarnation is overwhelming. That God-in-the-flesh would come and dwell among us is amazing. Prophets had been sent to no avail. Laws had been given that did more to confirm our guilt than make us better people. God took the greatest risk of all and was born to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. The Eternal God embedded in time and born! How could it be? It is as incomprehensible as any miracle. A virgin with child? He had to be different from us, yet essentially the same – one of us but completely divine, too. We should all be grateful that Joseph believed in the Virgin Birth! That’s a sticking point for many modern naysayers, but how else could Jesus be the Second Adam, born without Original Sin, and with the ability to say “yes” or “no” to temptation, and, having been found without sin, he died and rose again because “the wages of sin is death,” and since Jesus always chose God’s way, death could not hold Him, and He burst forth from the tomb! He lives forever!

Think of parallels between the first century and today. Leaders back then and now misinterpret God’s ways more than understand them. Herod wanted the Magi to keep following the star and report back to him so he could kill this newborn threat, but a baby born in a stable isn’t a sign of a weak and powerless king. It is a sign of real majesty, and at least Herod grasped that and shuddered. What he missed was that true royalty embraces the power of love over the love of power. A God who would be born in the humblest of circumstances is a sign of a ruler who is secure and knows who He is. It’s a sign of the tremendous love that God has for the lowly likes of you and me.

The message couldn’t have been written more poetically and so genuinely believable: Poor Mary with her obedient heart yielding herself to God; Joseph, a doubter and who wouldn’t be, yet he gave his dreams credence and believed; Magi who in faith followed a starry sign to God knows where, but came they did to see a king and present Him with their homage; Poor shepherds, the lowest of the low, left their flocks, their everything, to see the Savior born; and Angels who followed God’s bidding to sing a song that echoes to this very day. What a message! It continues to stir humankind, and rightly so.

God is always the best Author. I have my favorite writers in my preferred genres of history and mystery, but God out-writes them all. I also have my favorite Christian authors. Clive Staples Lewis is at the top with classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis is hard to beat with his imagination, authenticity and clarity of thought. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his works on community and ethics have informed me since I first became a Christ-follower: Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship are two treasures. His absolute heroism in the face of Nazism and his ethical decision to take part in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler has resonated with my warrior-spirit within. He was hung as a martyr on April 9, 1945 as the result of Hitler’s last orders. In C.S. Lewis and Bonhoeffer you can smell the smoke of faithful discipleship.

I wonder at this Christmas season if that smoky smell is as apparent on me. The rush and the thick of things that clamor for our time mask the musky smell. The materialism run rampant tramples goodwill. Can I smell the manger straw and hear the cattle lowing? I long to mean it when I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and its words: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born is us today.” Can I make room in my heart for the Christ who is both Child and King? Can our world? O, Lord, be born in me today. In us. Amen.

Nativity Scene

Advertisements

Welcome to the Party!

I haven’t written many blogs lately because the world is full of people sharing their opinion. I still have lots of thoughts about things but I want to help ease the tension rather than cause more. So these days preacher humor is a primary delight for me. If I’m not careful I will wander into the abyss of trying to find a Scripture text to fit the great joke that I just heard. Honey works better than vinegar in a sermon any day. To his horror a pastor just about to preach realized that he had left his sermon notes in his study. As his apology, he said, “This morning I shall have to depend upon the Lord for what I might say, but next Sunday I will come better prepared.” Yeah, right?

Who needs notes for a kind word, a saving word? If you know the joke, if it struck a chord then it’s easy to retell. So it should be with the Gospel. Jesus brings Good News. Every worship service should be more like a wedding reception than a funeral. Last Sunday I asked everyone to turn around and say, “Welcome to the party!” It was fun and uplifting. Some people better than others can brighten up my day, but we all can spread the cheer in our otherwise stressed world.

NFL millionaires taking a knee, North Korean nukes and ICBM’s, Trump, Congress, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Wildfires, Walls, Racism, and more, what’s the hot topic on your mind or Facebook feed? What’s the crisis about at your house, or in your community? Some people make sure they’re plugged into the concerns of the world. They meet with their morning coffee group or hang out at the barber shop. I have friends like that, and cherish my time with Cindy in the early evening when we watch the news. We tongue-in-cheek call it the “War News,” because that’s what my parents called it, and they called it that because it was usually true. It still is. How many years have we had in the last one hundred that didn’t have a war somewhere on the globe? Zero. All the more reason for us to hear some good news, especially THE Good News!

I don’t do a morning coffee group or a regular golf foursome, but I do go to the Y every morning during the week. I flip between news channels at 5:30 a.m. and they can’t seem to agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day! All of the issues are important to someone, but, like it’s said, “Politics is all local.” In other words, what matters is what matters to you, your locale, community, where you live, work, and walk, so I look at the local news or the Weather Channel. You can’t get more local than that.

So who do discuss things with – the things that really matter? Is it your golf friends, your book club buddies, your Sunday School Class, or whomever? I heard of a preacher recently who asks people to send him texts during his sermons so he can respond and literally connect with the congregation. That is a little much for my taste, and I can’t type that fast. Autocorrect isn’t usually my friend either. In our polarized society I much rather prefer to focus on Jesus, and connect with people using humor. I want people to leave St. John’s with the sense that God was pleased with their worship, that it was a joyful celebration of faith over fear.

This is annual meeting season in United Methodist churches. We elect officers, make plans, and vote on other important matters. We get to celebrate connectionalism, the United Methodist hallmark that says “Together We Can Do More!” That’s the point of having a cadre of friends to share with, and sharing a vibrant worship service. We get to connect with God and one another.

Six months after the owner of a little store at a crossroads was appointed postmaster the folks in Washington started getting complaints. Not one piece of mail had left the village. The postmaster was investigated. He explained his reasoning, “It’s simple. The bag ain’t full yet!” What a poor excuse. What if we acted like that? What if we waited until our lives we’re full of blessings before we shared any of them? If we waited until we could afford children to have them then there certainly wouldn’t be many.

Our bag doesn’t have to be full for us to share our blessings with others. If your bag isn’t full, that doesn’t matter. Use what you have. Share what has been generously given to you. Enrich the lives of others with what you have right now. Smile and spread all the joy that you can. Remember that joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. In our frazzled and stressed world we get to be God’s smile. Let it show! Tell a good one for me. I need some new material!

Take a Smile Pic

Congo Conviction

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by life? My trips over this past month have done that to me: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’ve just gotten back from a preaching mission in the North Katanga Annual Conference of the UMC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the largest conference in United Methodism. South Carolina gets 16 delegates at General Conference. North Katanga gets 56! Bishop Mande Muyombo asked if I would preach at his first Annual Conference, and I was honored to say “Yes!”

My first mistake was to go entirely by myself. There was a reason Jesus sent out the disciples 2 by 2! My high school French and my minor in it at USC came in handy, but near enough! Dikonzo, my translator, was spectacular. When we landed on the dirt strip in Kamina after buzzing the goats off, I was greeted by the choir. Bishop Mande asked if I was ready to preach. I said, “Sure!” I didn’t think he meant right away. I had been flying for over 20 hours and was beat. But we immediately marched to the tabernacle where I “held forth,” as people used to call preaching. I preached and preached and preached the whole time I was there. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful no matter where you go!

I was overcome by the depth of spiritual dedication that I witnessed. These are people so poor in comparison to the U.S., but so rich in the things of God. They had walked miles and miles to come. They spoke French as their national language inherited by their Belgian colonial oppressors, but there were many tribal languages present. It was as if John’s vision of the church in Revelation 7:9-10 was a present reality: “After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’”

As I participated in the ordination of these dedicated preachers who live off $30 a month US, I was awe-struck by their depth of commitment.  The life span in the DRC isn’t great anyway, but for preachers it is years lower. They literally give themselves to the work of ministry. When these laborers in God’s vineyard answered the call, they meant it. You could literally feel the weight of their call. When they answered Wesley’s historic questions like everyone else in every other Annual Conference as one goes into ministry, I couldn’t help but think about early pioneer preachers who died young and penniless. I know there are clergy from other parts of the world who carry a load of student debt, but this was different.

They wore their worn clergy shirts with missing plastic tabs replaced by pieces of cardboard or just soiled tissue. It is the dry season so everything was dirty. It rains from September to May, but right now it is hot and dry. Nothing is growing. These poor preachers could teach every U.S. ordinand a thing or two about taking your vows seriously. There is no mocking of our Connectional Covenant, and the church in North Katanga is booming. Bishop Mande and his dedicated clergy and laity trust Jesus in the harshest environment.

Electricity only came on for a short period of time in the mornings and evenings. Mosquito nets were a welcome necessity to avoid malaria. Thank God for the UMC “Imagine No Malaria” project. Bishop Mande and his dear wife, Blandine, lost their oldest child to malaria. North Katanga’s conference headquarters is 16 hours from the nearest hospital. U.M.C.O.R. (United Methodist Committee on Relief) has a tiny clinic in Kamina with a 1950’s X-ray machine, but they need so much more. About $500,000 US will build a hospital, and donated used equipment is desperately need. I passed open sewers that flowed into creeks where women and children were washing clothes.

I saw churches crumbling on the outside, but alive on the inside. They were literally crumbling because the rainy season had wreaked havoc on the sun-baked clay exteriors. Most everyone has a pit near their thatched-roof shack. This dry time of the year is when everyone uses a broad hoe to pick out a 10 inch square chunk of clay to replace the deteriorating walls. It’s an endless cycle, but the Lord sustains the people. I went to one UMC and heard intercessors praying in every corner of the sanctuary which was bare bones, no chairs, and a makeshift altar. Their prayers filled the air with power that was greater than their circumstances, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a special burden to do everything that I can to change their circumstances. I am convicted!

Pastors giving their lives for $30 a month is unacceptable. What if we could sponsor a pastor and make it $100 a month? We could set up a direct transfer from the US to North Katanga with complete trust that everything would be handled on the up and up. These are great people. They trust the Lord. I’m thinking that we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus and put legs to our prayers and help them. I will know more on logistics and post them as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I implore you to be in prayer for the people of the Congo. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing. We are so blessed in the U.S. We must share in the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, and learn from their utter dependence on God. Amen.

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!

Airplanes, Storms, and God’s Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hurricane

The United Methodist Sandwich

Someone asked me the other day where I’ve been, as in blogging. General Conference left me and our denomination in a kind of fog. There were high moments of grace when the Arapahoe and Cheyenne forgave us for the Sand Creek Massacre that was led by a Methodist Lay Preacher. The depth of heartfelt grace in the convention center was palpable. I felt a lot less grace when a thousand points of order, derisive accusations, and stalling tactics derailed any hope of recapturing Methodism as a movement.

Sure, we made some good, even great, decisions. A new hymnal was approved and that’s such a wonderful thing. We are much better at singing our faith than articulating it. In other good news, we gained 1.2 million new members, raised $75 million dollars to help eradicate preventable diseases like malaria, and we celebrated milestones like the 60th anniversary of full Clergywomen’s rights, the 30th year of Disciple Bible Study, and the 25th year of Africa University.

There was so much more for which to be grateful, but where are we really as United Methodists? The aftermath of General Conference has left me speechless for the most part with intermittent bouts of verbalized frustration. I’m somewhat at the point of thinking of us as a sandwich. There are two slices of bread on either side of the middle, and though the bread is extremely important, what’s in the middle is what’s most important. It makes it a sandwich. Perhaps if we focus on the middle we can find reasons to celebrate and move forward. I honestly think the middle is where most of us are.

The middle is a scary place and it’s usually not a very satisfactory place to be. The June 6, 2013 edition of The Atlantic has a helpful article by Larry Alex Taunton. It’s about college students who were formerly Christians, but now count themselves as atheists. The author observed these commonalities: they had attended church; the mission and message of their churches was vague; they felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions, they expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously; ages 14-17 were decisive; the decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one; and, finally, social media factored heavily into their conversion to atheism.

Since the theme of GC2016 was “Therefore Go,” implying a focus on making disciples of Jesus, then we need to listen to these young adult atheists. All of Taunton’s observations strike me as especially pertinent to United Methodism. Several even more so: “the mission and message of their churches was vague,” and “their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.” Did we come out of GC2016 with vagueness? Will the creation of a special Commission add to our lack of clarity, or will it actually help answer life’s difficult question about the practice of homosexuality?

Interesting, isn’t it? On one hand there’s a sense that we became vaguer even though the Discipline’s language on homosexuality did not change, and, on the other hand, the Commission is going to try to tackle one of the most difficult questions of our time. All the while, I want young adults and every one of every age to come to know Christ. On that, we must not be vague. In a paraphrase of systems-thinker, Ed Friedman, “Clarity equals maturity,” but, self-differentiation is difficult in a one-size-fits-all denomination that values equanimity and consistency. So our struggle is about what can we be clear about, and what can we leave ambiguous.

We can agree that Jesus is Lord, even while we hold to very different meanings of the atonement. Connectionalism is a core value, but worship styles may vary. We certainly agree that together we can do more than if we’re apart. Our seemingly insurmountable impasse is said to be about homosexuality, but I think it’s also about covenant. We are in the thick of a battle between competing covenants, and some of us claim that our understanding of covenant is more sacred than another’s. But are there different levels of covenant? Perhaps, and that’s the source of much of our conflict.

To illustrate, our W-2’s, voter registration cards, military oaths, federal loan agreements, and driver’s licenses represent civil covenants with the government, and all of these implore people to act responsibly. Our ordination documents and the Book of Discipline are at a different covenantal level, very much like marriage. When we were ordained we knew what was expected and required. Marriage vows are very clear, too, “in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” Certainly, there have been people who just went through the motions of a wedding without due consideration of the gravity of these statements, but that’s no excuse for violating, ignoring, or devaluing the holy covenants we’ve made.

That word “holy” may make all the difference. Some covenants are actually holy, while others only rise to the level of a “deal” or a “transaction;” i.e., like the ones that I enumerated about citizenship, though Memorial Day makes me feel the weight of holiness as I ponder how much is owed by so many to so few.  Nevertheless, systems theory and doing a transactional analysis of GC2016 may actually help the UMC. The Council of Bishops’ Commission gets to rethink what is or isn’t a vow. Hopefully, they will study the theological impact of “covenant” on both homosexuality and our ecclesiology, our very identity as a church.

Someone came by my office this morning and made me ponder our denominational situation with two statements. The first was, “Help me to choose the harder right than the easier wrong.” Secondly she stated wisely, “Help me to bring gentleness to the hard places.” We’re so afraid of the hard places, but being between a rock and a hard place is the meat of the sandwich that we call United Methodism. I pray that I can choose rightly and bring gentleness to the hard places.

13151536_10154922476912575_6754839860366658336_n

Hospitality and Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

If You Haven’t Got a Prayer, Pray Together!

Prayer has been on my mind a lot in the past few days. The United Methodist Council of Bishops has asked the whole denomination to pray for General Conference. Our congregation has had many illnesses and deaths. We had a 14 hour prayer vigil last week for a marvelous thirteen year old who had a kidney transplant. I have found myself in the last few days praying at bedsides, over the telephone, and with people in hallways of the church.

Yesterday one of our ESL teachers had a medical emergency and fell unconscious on the floor. It was time to pray. Whenever nudged, we shouldn’t just say “Let’s pray about it,” but try to do it right then and there. Saying we’ll pray is only as helpful as we do it. Praying is like rocking in a rocking chair. If you don’t rock, it’s just a chair. Saying “I’ll be praying for you” is just a nice salutation unless we actually do it!

The one quality that gives me the sense that my prayers have gone further than the ceiling is focus. By focus I’m talking about “fervor,” I guess. Fervor isn’t just excitement or desperation. Fervor is more than getting worked up about something. When Powerball got to a billion dollars there was a lot of fervent let’s-make-a-deal prayer, but that was a shallow kind of prayer that only lasted a short time. When someone does something with fervor it isn’t a passing fancy or whim. It is dedicated, serious, constant, and passionate.

But appropriate and effective fervent prayer is easier to identify than to define. It’s something you can tell, though. At least that’s my experience, but even Biblical writers had a hard time with this. For instance, the Greek adverb ἐκτενῶς (EKTENOS) or “earnestly” only occurs in Luke’s writing in the New Testament, and both times it’s about prayer! It is first found in Luke 22:44 concerning Jesus praying earnestly in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Then it is found, again by Luke, in Acts 12:5 about Peter being imprisoned and about to be executed. The exact quote in Acts is, “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” It’s interesting to me that Luke, the doctor, is the only Biblical author to use this adverb. It makes sense, though, since doctors often know the urgency of things better than the rest of us.

As I have found myself deluged by life, it is earnest prayer that gives me a sense of peace. God and I have an actual conversational dialogue rather than a one sided Tim-toned monologue. When I pray earnestly I can tell it’s working when my voices wanes and God’s gets stronger. I quit listening to myself, and listen to God.

But, the most unique lesson that I get from Acts 12:5 is that the whole church was earnestly praying for Peter. A dedicated group of Believers passionately praying about the same thing is almost too marvelous to comprehend. This corporate expression of prayer bathes a church and its ministries in God’s power. A church-wide conversation with God has to result in a rich fruitfulness. How I long for that to happen at the United Methodist General Conference 2016.

The best hymn I know to help us get “prayed up” for whatever is before us is # 492 in The United Methodist Hymnal, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire,” by James Montgomery. It goes like this:

1. Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed,
the motion of a hidden fire
that trembles in the breast.

2. Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
the falling of a tear,
the upward glancing of an eye,
when none but God is near.

3. Prayer is the simplest form of speech
that infant lips can try;
prayer the sublimest strains that reach
the Majesty on high.

4. Prayer is the contrite sinners’ voice,
returning from their way,
while angels in their songs rejoice
and cry, “Behold, they pray!”

5. Prayer is the Christians’ vital breath,
the Christians’ native air;
their watchword at the gates of death;
they enter heaven with prayer.

6. O Thou, by whom we come to God,
the Life, the Truth, the Way:
the path of prayer thyself hast trod;
Lord, teach us how to pray!

Amen!

 Prayer pic

Pink Candle Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

In our rush to reach the climax of Christmas

We have surrendered to the siren of success.

Our reckless abandon has left us anxious

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

 

Over spending, over eating, over doing everything

With cards to mail, and tree lights to string,

Packages to wrap and carols to sing,

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

 

We hustle and bustle to get the best buys,

Which usually result in an exchange of size.

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

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

 

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

Does the Joy of Christmas depend,

It isn’t a yuletide project to create;

It occurs simply as we learn to wait.

 

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

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

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

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

 

A choice to shake off earth’s trappings of glitter

And bask only in God’s splendor,

Thinking about Jesus of whom the angels sing

And to whom Wise Men their gifts bring.

 

By the Calendar or the Coming is our choice

One drowns out the world’s thunderous noise,

While the other yells evil’s seductive ploys,

Marking time or experiencing God’s joys.

 Pink Sunday!