Resurrection Dust

In seminary a bunch of us students would unwind by playing the board game “Risk!”  The game is all about world domination, and the winner is the one who conquers everyone else. There was this one guy who would always quote Jesus’ words, as he perennially went down to defeat, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” I can hear him even now. The rest of us thought that it was just a game, not a theological exercise.

I’m afraid that’s the attitude many people have about their faith. Life is a game to win or lose, and one tries to fit God in wherever one can. Like Peter admonishing Jesus about the absurdity that the Son of Man must die, many of us think it’s better to gain the whole world than carry a cross. Carrying a cross seems like losing, game over. So, we are convinced that it is a hard journey to carry a cross. Jesus says that without this self-sacrifice we are doomed. Jesus is the only One who conquers everyone and everything else!

We have to let him “conquer” us so that we give up our wants and wishes and accept God’s will. If we don’t, everything is lost. We need to move from being WAM people and become WAY people. “What About Me?” people are always looking out for themselves while WAY people consistently ask, “What About You?” It is even better if the “You” in question is God. WAY people are selfless, not selfish. The way of the cross is about what’s right and pleases God. It’s the ultimate choice to do the right thing, no matter what the personal cost.

Christians have been called people of The Way before. It takes faith in action. Lent is our season to drill down and discover our faith’s bedrock. It’s a time to ask ourselves what we really believe, whom we really follow, and will we carry a cross. The song by Matt Redman, “Jesus, it’s all about you,” sings and sounds well enough, but is so hard to do in our self-absorbed world. It is usually the poor who get this truth before anyone else. They depend on the power of resurrection to be real. Actually everybody I know depends on this truth if they’re honest enough.  All of us need an Easter faith. So, Lent and Easter come at a perfect time. We want winter to be over and warmer weather to arrive.

I’ve been nursing an amaryllis since Christmas a year ago. Trying to get it to re-bloom after more than a year has taken more effort than I imagined. I’ve followed all the rules about letting the leaves absorb sun throughout last summer. Finally the time came for me to stop watering so that the leaves would die before last fall arrived. I cut the old fronds away, then stored it in the fridge. I was careful to keep any apples away because their proximity causes sterilization.

Finally I pulled it out 8 weeks before Christmas and expected it to be a holiday delight. I repotted, watered, and put it in as much sun as I could. It turned an ugly rotten brown. I figured I had overwatered it and firmly felt underneath it several times to see it was soggy and too far gone. It felt okay, so now, three months late, it finally started sending out green shoots. I went from being in Dr. Seuss’ “waiting place” in Oh, The Places You’ll Go to Resurrection time, and I’m looking forward to the blooms!

Has this been a “waiting place” of a winter for you? If so, there’s hope! Pollen has begun to fall and cover our cars in our temperate Southern climate. My daughter, Narcie, calls pollen “Resurrection Dust.” It wreaks havoc on sinuses, but it’s a wonderful sign that no matter how long the winter, or how hard the journey, or how heavy the cross, there’s a resurrection coming. Spring is on its way to scatter away the last vestiges of winter’s chill. “Resurrection Dust” sprinkled over our lives gives us renewed hope.

This makes me hear echoes of Natalie Sleeth’s “Hymn of Promise” – “In the bulb there is a flower…, a spring that waits to be…, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see.” My amaryllis was done for, but now it’s alive! God’s “Resurrection Dust” is a sign! If nature recognizes this pendulum that swings from death to life, why don’t we? Look out at the yellow pollen and be grateful. Easter’s coming!

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

Music and Lent – Beating the Blues

I’ve got Lenten music on my mind this morning. Should it be somber, sober, and dark? Sundays in Lent aren’t technically Lent because the season’s 40 days don’t count Sundays since they are “Little Easters.” However, hearing the choir and congregation sing upbeat Easter-type music would feel more than a little weird. It would feel like we’re getting ahead of ourselves, wouldn’t it? On the other hand, doesn’t our faith hinge on Easter? Without Easter, Christianity falls apart. So as much as I would like for these Sundays in Lent to focus on penitence and preparation for Jesus’ suffering, I think it is a theological imperative for us to have a big dose of Easter every chance we get.

I feel it especially this week. There was a funeral for a 62 year old last Sunday, an 85 year old on Monday, and a 73 year old this Saturday. I have another family whose 59 year old daughter just died, too. I don’t need to hear gothic dirges. I desperately need to hear some Easter joy. There is no doubt that music has carried the faithful through every season of worship and life for eons. I’ve been comparing the Passion Narratives in the Gospels for a church-wide Bible Study, and I noticed that, just before Jesus’ arrest and after the Last Supper, the Lord and his disciples sang a hymn before they headed to the Mt. of Olives and his subsequent arrest in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30).

“Hymn” or “Hymns” are interesting biblical words, and not used much – four times for the former and four times for the latter in the entire Bible. Of course there are other words like “song” or “songs” that rack up about 40 instances each, but this begs the question, “When is a song a song or a hymn?” We almost might wonder, “What’s the difference?” I think I have some semblance of an answer, but it’s a tad confusing. Is a hymn so designated because God specifically is the audience, and a song is directed at many recipients, including human ones? According to the dictionary, a hymn, coming from the Greek “humnos,” is an ode or song to a to a G(g)od or a hero. With more specificity the modern usage of the word denotes that it is a religious song of praise to a G(g)od.

Doing biblical word studies add more of clarity, and let’s know that the differences aren’t enough to fret over. Colossians 3:26 uses three almost synonymous terms, “admonish one with all wisdom, as you sing psalms “psalmos,” hymns “humos,” and spiritual songs “odais.” Maybe people back then knew the distinction but modern scholars are less certain of any differences at all. What I get out of this is that it is in our spiritual and, perhaps, human DNA to break out into song, especially when we feel moved by either tragedy or triumph. That must have been the reason that Jesus and the disciples sang a hymn as they were leaving the Last Supper. It was an encouragement for them to praise God.

Typically at Festival days like the Passover, the setting for the Last Supper, devout Jews sang the “Hallel.” The word literally means “praise’ and its words are found primarily is Psalms 113-118. These are the psalms that every Jew used during the Passover. There are other “Hallel” psalms in the Old Testament, especially 136, but Psalms 113-118 are the ones that Jesus would have used during the Passover. Therefore, it might be good for us to reread them and ponder them, even sing them, during Lent.

We need to recapture the word “Hallelujah” anyway. We almost use it as a colloquial “Whew!” when we’re relieved or things go our way. It’s actually a word that means “Let us,” which is the “u” in Hallelujah; “praise,” which is “Hallel;” and “jah,” which is short for Yahweh, the Name of Israel’s God. “Hallelujah,” therefore, is a sacred important word that is praising the Lord. It always is an act that not only lifts up the Name of the Lord, but it encourages us.

So, if and when, you’re in a week surrounded by literal funeral dirges or the emotional dregs of ordinary or overwhelming stress, SING!!! Singing about the Lord’s might and power gives us strength, hope, and the fortitude to thrive.

My favorite passage besides the one in Matthew 26 about Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn on the way to the Lord’s betrayal is found in Acts 16:25ff. Paul and Silas were in prison in Philippi. They had been stripped of their clothes, beaten, feet locked in wooden stocks, and severely flogged, but they sang! It says, “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.” I would have been listening, too. Here were two guys who had been horribly mistreated and it was midnight for crying out loud, but instead of crying out loud and complaining, they chose to sing praise to God. The result shouldn’t be surprising. The very next verse says, “Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake … that the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose.”

Praising the Lord, especially when our circumstances are dire, reminds us that we have a God that is strong and on our side. When we praise, we let the Lord do battle with our grief, bondage, and despair. He sets us free and our chains fall off! So during this Lenten season let’s take a cue from Jesus and remember to offer praise on Sundays even if we bemoan our need for penitence the rest of the week. We are and will ever be an Easter People. Dirges don’t open prison doors. Sing out praise to God on Sundays and every day, and see what the Lord can do!