Holy Week, COVID-19, and The Serenity Prayer

This is the longest month of March on record! It’s not because this one has more than the usual 31 days, but these days have dragged on and on, and most of us have languished. The corona virus has unleashed so much havoc that it’s hard to believe that it was just a month ago in February that we had stock market highs, COVID-19 was only a blip on our radar, and life was pretty much normal. March has wiped out thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands in everyone’s retirement accounts. I can’t wait for March to end.

I’ll probably feel the same way about April, but time has seemed to stand still during these days as we have sheltered in place. Days seem like weeks, and weeks like months. Is this our new normal? If it is, what do we do with it and how do we handle it? As I anticipate next week’s observance of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it feels like we’re stuck in a perpetual Holy Week, and Easter hasn’t come.

Things can turn on a dime, can’t they? The loud hosannas of Palm Sunday turned into shouts of “Barabbas!” just a few days later. In Jesus’ life and ours, things can go quickly from adulation and good times to denial and the worst of times. This kind of tumult isn’t new. It’s just new to most of us. One minute we’re fine and enjoying life, and the next minute we’re scared to go outside. Some of you know this kind of about-face because you’ve seen tragedy before. One minute your daughter is alive, well, and everything is right with the world, and the next thing you know there’s a cop at the door, a somber doctor in the family consultation room, or an officer and chaplain walking up the front steps. Life is fickle.

People are fickle, too. They can and will turn on us. Woodrow Wilson knew both the height of popularity, and its quick demise. He was elected president before WWI, led us as a country through to victory, and had high hopes that he could create the League of Nations so that what had transpired in the trenches of France would never happen again. He wanted WWI to be “The War to End All Wars.” Unfortunately, his plans went awry. Not only did the US Senate fail to ratify the Versailles Treaty to end WWI, but they also rebuked Wilson’s idea of the League of Nations. He went from being a conquering hero to a broken man. He had a stroke in 1919 in the midst of all the stress, and served his last two years in office while completely bedridden.

Life is tough and filled with bad news. People praise us one minute and spit on us the next. What do we do with it, and how do we handle it? Jesus rolled with the punches, and stayed strong. Holy Week and its up and downs served as a crucible that forged more determination in him. Sure, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he could be spared, but he also made the proclamation, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” That’s commitment. That’s playing the long game, and having a stick-to-it attitude that cares not one whit what people think.

That’s what we need during these difficult days. We should do the very best that we can, and trust the rest to God. It is the essence of the Serenity Prayer: God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

How To Defeat Social Isolation

How do we deal with the change in our social habits? We humans were made for interaction, and now we can’t. In South Carolina the governor has placed coronavirus restrictions on groups of three or more in public. Social distancing has become social isolation. Some people have “cabin fever” from being isolated so long, and can’t wait to get out and go somewhere, anywhere. Others have become contented cave-dwellers. The last few nights have taken me on a journey that has kept me both safe and sane. It’s been a trip down memory lane. I have gone back to my childhood home and pictured everyone and everything as they were at their best. This may be an effective way for us all to stay engaged and human in these days of distancing.

You’ve done something similar before, I imagine. Over the years I have played the best golf I’ve ever played on familiar courses in my head just before going to bed, only to watch the wheels come off when I played the same course the next day. To get to sleep and to think “happy thoughts” has led me to walk beside, canoe or john-boat the still waters of places I’ve fished. There are a handful of ponds that I know every inch of because I was around when they were first excavated. I’ve replayed special football games, remaking interceptions or fighting for a loose football. When counting sheep isn’t good enough to give you the peace to fall asleep, where do you go? What are you doing in your mind’s eye?

To fight the ill-effects of social isolation, I dare you to go back to your best memories of your childhood. Picture the people, the smells, and the placement of things and see them where they were. Our childhood homes might not be the best place for some of you because of trauma, but for many of us it was the most idyllic place ever. When my Mother died, Daddy sold our home place, dispersed my brothers’ and my inherited pieces of our home, and had a log-cabin built with very few reminders of his grief. He did keep the “courting bench” that sat on the front porch, painted in thick multi-layers of Charleston Green. Its 1 inch wide rounded rustic stringers was where he and Mama got up the nerve to elope on December 23, 1937.

Most of our childhood, however, was dispersed to new homes. I’ve got the silver epergne that was always under the chandelier in the dining room of our childhood home. I also ended up with the dining room furniture which was quite ironic. I don’t ever remember graduating from the bar in the kitchen. I never even made it to the kitchen table, being always at the bar on a stool. We now have the silver covered platter that wasn’t for meat, but the ever present caramel cake that Grandmother made. Some of this is in the attic or already passed down to our children. I guess the point in giving us all this dining room stuff was to make up for being made to sit with the rest of the kids. I did like, however, sitting at the bar on a regular basis. It was there that Daddy had the end seat, then it was Ralphie, and I was last. The table was reserved for Grandmother at the end, brother Carlee, Mother, and Papa on the other end.

What we have here at home or at the church are the have-to items, the things that are too emotionally important to pack up or give away. There’s my Papa’s chaise lounge that he napped on every work day to collect his thoughts. I was named after him, and he taught me how to preach crawled up in bed beside him. He would say, “Timmy, I’ll start a story, and you finish it.” That was better sermon instruction than any homiletics class. God has been doing that to me ever since.

There are pieces of Edgefield Pottery that didn’t come from our very-own pottery museum, but from the family collection like my Great Grandmother Dorn’s lap churn. It’s just a small green-alkaline glazed thing, but the story is that she didn’t have the strength to use a full-size churn. This small 12 inch high one with the original ladle and top did the trick just right. There’s also the Edgefield pottery batter bowl that I saw my Grandmother repeatedly use banging the dough-covered spoon off the rim with her effort to make up her mix. The old 13-paned secretary still has drawers full of items that probably haven’t been moved in 75 to a hundred years, plus its old ornately carved chair in front. At the church are two oriental rugs that I can see in my mind’s eye in the same exact spot that they were on for the first however many years in our possession. They’re at the church because one has an intricate worship space woven into it with candlesticks as pews, a front door on one end, and an altar on the other.

My trip down memory lane includes two final items: my Daddy’s ring that goes from youngest son to youngest son. I remember as a little boy that it was so big it rolled around my finger like a hoola-hoop; and the best for last is the music box, a Polyphon with big records that supposedly came from my great-grandfather Thomas’ country store where it sat on the counter with Large Cent slots on either side as sort of an original juke box that played tunes on 19 ½ inch metal records. I have around 30 of those records. It sounds amazing. Like everything else, I can see where it perpetually stood in the hallway from the main house to what we called the Front Room. I can see Daddy or Mama showing it off, or just winding it up to play a tune for the heck of it.

Anyway, going back in my mind to the home I grew up in has kept me from going stir crazy, but more importantly it has helped me remember the first social connections that I ever knew. You might want to try it with your own childhood home or apartment, Grandmother’s house, old elementary school, or church. Picture the things, and you’ll see the people. Better yet, you know the best thing this exercise has really taught me: If I can know all this and picture it with my feeble memory, then God knows us even better. Just as these memories make special people come alive so that they are closer than my next breath, God is closer still and knows me. I am never isolated, especially not from God. Good memories!

The Sky Isn’t Falling!

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” is what Chicken Little yells when nothing but an acorn falls on its head. Chicken Little decides to tell the king and on its journey other animals join the scared little band of creatures. They all have rhyming names like Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, and Turkey Lurkey, but the names aren’t what’s important. This is a folk tale that makes light of paranoia and mass hysteria, and it doesn’t end well. From the panic of a single acorn, Chicken Little and its friends get invited to a fox’s lair for supposed refuge and end up as lunch. The moral of the story is to not get freaked out, and make matters worse.

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is no acorn. It’s real and it’s eating our lunch! People are dying, businesses are closing, jobs are being lost, and there’s even a run on toilet paper! Just when I think the church’s doors ought to be wide open, we’ve been told to shut them. I get it, but it feels so sad and wrong, but we don’t want to spread germs and make things worse. Church services, daily devotions, blogs, live-stream and every means imaginable are being used to keep hope strong among the faithful.

If there’s ever a time to need Jesus and proclaim hope, this is it! The Scripture is filled with those who faced adversity and survived, even thrived. Hebrews 11 defines faith and lists quite a few people who lived with confidence in perilous times. Then Hebrews 12:1-3 offers a summation and challenge based upon all the ways the faithful hung in there. It gives all of us the encouragement to keep the faith, too.

It says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

There’s a cloud of witnesses around us, too. Even when we feel alone or isolated because of mandatory social distancing, God is with us, and so is the church. Don’t yield to negative thinking. This crisis can be the seedbed for the next great awakening for America and the world. Spend your time in prayer and Bible reading. Ask God to fill your heart with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We may have social distancing, but through the union of faithful hearts in the Spirit we will never have emotional and spiritual distancing!

Throw off the sin that so easily entangles like panic, fear, and worry. Sure, my retirement has lost big time, but what good does it do for me to look at that. I would rather sit here and pray through the faces of my family and friends as I look at the pictures around our house or in the church pictorial directory. God knows what each person needs, and I can call, text, or email them, too! I can count my many blessings, as the old hymn goes, and name them one by one! There’s so much that I can do to spend these last days of Lenten season as a spiritual preparation for the best Easter ever.

This is an opportunity to let God recalibrate my life, to get my priorities in order, to give on-line to the ministries and missions of the church, to soak up the Word, and write notes of encouragement to those whom God lays on my heart. I just need to listen, and if I can’t hear His voice now then there’s something terribly wrong with me!

Mostly, I can do exactly what Hebrews 12:1-3 says: I can FIX my eyes on Jesus, what He went through on the Cross for me, and all of us. He is the pioneer and perfecter of my faith, the pathfinder and the road-paver, of what’s important. I’m not going to freak out during this crisis about the future of the United Methodist Church, my pension, or anything else. If I can concentrate on Jesus, it’s all going to be alright! Look what He went through, and how that turned out. Sure, it was horrible on Good Friday, but Easter Sunday’s coming! Take heart! Read: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; I Peter 5:6-11; Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 23; Romans 8:28-39; Isaiah 40:27-31; Psalm 46. Pray for revival!

King Jesus: A Bigger Blockbuster Than Impeachment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Fool and His Money

August 2 would be my Dad’s 103rd birthday and one of his favorite sayings is appropriate for this coming Sunday’s Gospel text: “A fool and his money will soon be parted.” Indeed, you can’t take it with you! I just finished David Baldacci’s book Fallen about Memory Man, FBI agent Amos Decker, who gets involved in a crime thriller while on vacation. Without giving the plot away, there’s a John Baron, IV whose ancestor John Baron I, founded a town, made a fortune, but left the family penniless. The spoiler alert is that the family is sitting on tons of gold so to speak, and people are willing to kill for it. The hint is that John Baron the First wanted to take it all with him, but we all know that there are no U-Haul’s behind hearses.

This week’s Gospel text is about the rich guy who wanted his inheritance and asked Jesus to intervene with his brother and tell him to liquidate their assets so each could get their respective part. In response Jesus tells a parable about the “Rich Fool.” The rich fool wants to take it with him, build bigger barns, and make all he can to keep so he can enjoy a life of ease. Wishful but faulty thinking!

A story comes to mind about a rich guy who also wants to take it all with him. His will is read before the burial, which is a bit unusual. He bequeaths $10 million in cash to his banker; $10 million in cash to his doctor; and $10 million to his minister. He demanded that they place the cash in his casket at his funeral. They each walked up solemnly and dropped envelopes into the casket just before it was lowered into the ground. On the way back to the funeral home to get their respective cars, the minister gets antsy and confesses to the banker and doctor that he had skimmed $1 million off the $10 million he was supposed to cough up. He rationalized was that the church really needed the money so he only put $9 million in his envelope. His confession prompted the doctor to fess up, too. He explained that the local hospital needed a new MRI machine that cost $5 million so he only dropped $5 million in his envelope into the casket. Then the minister and the doctor looked suspiciously at the smiling banker. The banker said, “Don’t look at me like that. I did exactly what the man said! I wrote him a check for $10 million and put it in the envelope.”

Smart guy! The truth of the matter is that none of us can take it with us, but we can certainly send it on ahead by helping worthy causes here and now. It was Martin Luther who said that God divided the hands into fingers so that money could more easily slip through. A lot of us have finally realized that money can’t buy happiness so now we use credit cards! Not too wise since the average family’s ambition is to make as much money as they’re spending. Money, money, money – no wonder Jesus talked about it more than any other subject. It’s wonderful, but deadly if we get too greedy.

Sixteen out of Jesus’ thirty-eight parables are about how to handle money and possessions. In the Gospels, one out of 10 verses (288 in all) deal directly with money. The Bible as a whole gives us 500 verses on prayer, less than 500 verses on faith, but more than 2,000 verses on money and possessions. Money reveals a lot about the condition of our spiritual lives. More than that, what we say and do with the subject of money speaks volumes about every area of our life. For instance, an ad appeared in the classified section of the newspaper that read: “I would like to announce that the ad I put in this newspaper last Saturday was in error. I will be responsible for any debts incurred by my wife, and I will start paying them off as soon as I get out of the hospital.”

Today at 2 p.m. the Fed will announce whether or not it will cut interest rates. Everyone with a 401k or similar instrument is hoping for good news. The stock market has been on a tear, but “More is better,” right? I must admit that I subscribe to the advice: “If you make money at poker, that’s gambling. If you make it playing bridge, it’s a social activity. If you make it outguessing the stock market, it’s a miracle.” Well, if you need a miracle to retire well and cover your living expenses plus your burial, or to even just get by right now then the best investment will be in eternal things where no moth or rust destroy and no thief can steal. Eternal things might be your children, your church, a charity of your choice, whatever will last way beyond you that does good! Trust me, the ERS (Eternal Revenue Service) will treat you much better than the IRS! Trust Jesus and it’s all a good investment.

Lateral Thinking and the UMC

There are decisions to be made in the United Methodist Church about our future, either together or separate, as Traditionalists or Progressives. There are those who are already touting plans, and I am hesitant to throw another plan into the mix. Number one, I don’t have one yet, and secondly, enough of you presume my name is synonymous to an opposite view than yours that you wouldn’t give it a passing thought. No matter, and needless to say, I’m concerned about our future. I’m not concerned about St. John’s UMC because it is thriving by making disciples and not getting stuck in ecclesiological word problems. We will keep doing what we do best by growing the church and its ministries no matter what.

Most of us are consumed by worry. It may be acute anxiety because of an immediate crisis, or it may be caused by chronic anxiety due to a lingering worry that rears its head only occasionally. Either way, worry too easily consumes us. We take vacations to try to get away from it all, but find ourselves needing a vacation from our vacation. We tell ourselves if we had enough money all our worries would disappear. Watch the news just one evening and you’ll find that being rich and famous aren’t solutions to worry.

Mary and Martha were two sisters in the Bible and both have wonderful attributes. Mary-types are into emotions and empathy. They love worship, Bible Study, and learning all that they can from Jesus. Martha-types are more practical and make lists of the things that they need to make sure Jesus and his disciples are well fed. You might recall Joanna Weaver’s book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. It suggests that Jesus prefers Mary-types over Martha’s. That is what the Bible says, but I don’t think that Scripture denigrates Martha’s as much as some might think. The world needs both kinds of people, plus those who are a mixture of the two, and it’s the same for both sexes.

There are men and women who are gifted in the practical, necessary, and mundane things like Martha, and there are those who can write the best poetry, prayer journals, thank-you-notes, and whose emotional I.Q.’s are extraordinary as they sense things. Most of us get it. Any of us, if pressed, can be both dreamers and workers, Mary and Martha’s. Who’s to say that dreaming isn’t work. That’s how we got to the moon 50 years ago. On the other hand, thank God for the people who did the grunt work to make the dreams happen. General Conference 2020 in the UMC is going to take the best of both dreaming and doing.

Sometimes I find myself pondering a problem with a practical head-on solution. Other times I’ll wait and discern until I can come at it in a new creative way. Edward de Bono who champions what he calls “Lateral Thinking,” says that it’s better for both Mary and Martha to beware of attacking a problem head-on. He suggests that we come at our dilemmas from the side. He discovered this principle when he found himself locked outside the double-walled enclosure of his university. As he climbed the outer wall in the dark he discovered that he climbed the wall at a corner and ended back on the outside. Then after he found a way to get over the wall at a place that put him where he wanted to be, he started climbing the next wall. Three-fourths of the way up he noticed a shorter gate nearby, a lesser height if he happened to fall, and a much easier climb. Assuming the gate was locked, he climbed to the top of the short gate only to feel his forward momentum cause the gate to open. Since it wasn’t locked, he hopped off and pushed it open.

He said he learned two things which are at the essence of lateral thinking: “No matter how good you are at climbing walls, you should always pick the right one;” and “Some walls don’t have to be climbed if you can enter through a gate that you never imagined.” Lateral thinking is a mixture of Martha’s practicality and Mary’s imagination.

For instance, de Bono was asked by a corporation to help with a problem. They had too many people at the end of the workday for their elevators to handle in their large building. They tried attacking the problem head-on and thought they could stagger quitting time or use a system to split up the numbers in manageable numbers. They even thought about adding new elevators outside the existing building. Before they spent all that money, they invited de Bono to come in and take a look, to hopefully add a new perspective via lateral thinking. He did just that! He looked at the elevators from a lateral vantage point, literally from the side, and a new idea hit him. It struck him that all the company had to do was to cover the walls around the elevators with mirrors, and it worked! People stood together waiting on the elevators, but spent their time waiting either looking at their own reflection or those of their coworkers. They didn’t even notice the delay!

Lateral thinking lets the Martha’s and the Mary’s do what they do best, and it cuts down the anxiety and worry. I know that the deadline for General Conference 2020 petitions is September 18, but can’t we think about this in a new way? Step to the side and get a better angle.

Love Without Truth is a Lie

The Good Samaritan account in Luke 10 isn’t as simple as it appears. Is it always okay to help others? As much as I would love for all human interactions to be as cordial as Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood, most of us would have to admit that there are some people that more than get our goat. In the preface to Jesus’ parable about being a true neighbor, Jesus asked the expert in the law to name the two greatest commandments in the Law and he answered from Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

However, does the fulfillment of the two great commandments to love God and love neighbor sometimes outweigh both common sense and responsibility? Jesus exhibited radical hospitality and we’re grateful. Without his grace we would all be left out and unforgiven, but should we just love without regard to expectations that those we love ought to act better than they do? A strict interpretation of radical hospitality might be downright stupid or dangerous.

The same Jesus also said that we should not “throw our pearls before swine” (Matthew 7:6). Sometimes I want to just walk away and disengage from some piggish people. Other times I rationalize my lack of compassion. Most of us have been taken advantage of by ne’er-do-wells, users, posers, vagrants, and the like. Do we go ahead and help them and contribute to their bad habits, or do we say “no,” and allow them to fend for themselves. No wonder many of us walk to the other side of the road and keep our eyes straight ahead. Christian ethics is complicated!

Love and acceptance have become synonymous and I wonder if that’s the best thing. Accepting harmful behavior doesn’t really help anyone. Some of us who are caught between compassion and holiness end up as little more than tolerant. Tolerating someone doesn’t sound or feel like love, does it? Preachers and ministers of the Gospel are experts at toleration. We have to tolerate people over and over again, and often slip into a passive-aggressive reaction to recalcitrant parishioners. We dread to call that irregular person back. Our hesitation to go see them is quite apparent. They don’t easily get a shoulder to cry on by anyone. Instead they get a cold or reluctant lukewarm shoulder. Is this right? Hardly.

What are we to do? We all have leeches that suck the life out of us. As much as we want to kill them with kindness, offer them money just to muster them away, or give them some of our time, is this really what we’re supposed to do? Is love always a roll-over and give into the demands of someone else kind of situation, or does tough love enter into the interaction? Tough love is something that God does all the time, and we do, too, if we are being responsible.

God disciplines us with repercussions and consequences of our failures. Parents love their children enough to say “No!” if they want to do something dangerous or might hurt themselves or someone else. The Good Samaritan risked time and expense to be sure, and so did the innkeeper who only had the Samaritan’s word that he was going to come back and reimburse any costs he might incur in tending to the poor victim. This may be a significant clue: love is real when it risks.

This parable of loving God and loving neighbor has morphed into a syrupy “Love, Love, Love” that isn’t really accurate or risky. It’s little more than an automatic behavior that appeases an immediate need. A love that is always accepting without any expectation of transformed behavior or thinking is the worst thing we can do. To quote a seminary classmate, “Sometimes the most compassionate act you can perform is to tell people the truth they need to hear.” Mushy roll-over-and-play-dead acquiescence can be the most terrible way to respond to someone in need. Just as truth without love is a lie, so is love without truth!

Advent and Tommy Luck

Advent is the season the Church lives in all year! To live in the light of Christ’s coming is to be fully aware that He has come and will come again. It is a belief in the First and Second Coming of Jesus that gives me hope and strength in this bewildering in-between time. We don’t like to wait. We make fun of people who aren’t very fast by saying that they are “Slower than Christmas.” Well, right now that’s quick and before we know it, Christmas will be upon us, barreling down on us. How are we to handle the hustle and bustle?

Are you an elevator button pusher? Do you try to make the elevator go faster by pushing the “close door” button over and over again? It doesn’t really help. Thanks to the American Disabilities Act of 1990 the “close door” button is really just a placebo, a fake designed to make us feel better. All elevators are programmed so that no matter how many times you push the button, there’s enough time for persons with wheelchairs or other ambulatory aids to get on and off without fear of the doors closing on them.

Maybe we need to stop doing the things that don’t really help us deal with stress and impatience. It would be better for us during this Advent season and year-round to chill out and relax. This should be a time of peace, not panic. Do you know anyone named “Irene?” Irene is a name that isn’t very much in fashion these days, but it is letter for letter in English the Greek word for “peace.” We don’t need to sing “Good Night, Irene.” Instead we need to welcome Christ’s peace that passes all understanding. The basis for patience is trusting in God’s peace.

Ambrose Bierce wasn’t keen on patience, and I bet that he was a “close door” elevator pusher. He said, “Patience is a noun, a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” How wrong. Patience only becomes a form of despair if we forget Jesus and the peace and confidence that He brings. One of my favorite short stories is the one by Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Harte tells of a Wild West mining town that is full of gruff dirty miners in deplorable conditions and only one woman, “Cherokee Sal.” Cherokee Sal is pregnant and, sadly, during childbirth, dies. The miners name the baby boy, “Tommy Luck,” hoping for good luck from his birth.

They didn’t exactly know how to take care of a baby, but they work it out. Little by little, baby steps and giant leaps, the hamlet of Roaring Camp changes. For Tommy’s sake, the miners start bathing. They clean up their ramshackle houses. They built a church and got a preacher to come. They even invited decent God-fearing women to come and they did. The luck of Roaring Camp changed because Tommy Luck came into their midst. Jesus’ presence in coming as a child changed this roaring world for the better, and when Jesus comes again, all things will be made right – no more cancer, dementia, poverty, injustice, racism – nothing bad.

So to inspire our patience, we need to focus on Jesus. To have a better Advent we need to trust in the greatness of God. If we will do that, the whole world will notice that there’s something different and better about us. How great is your God? The answer to that one question will determine the peacefulness of our lives. A man said to his friend, “When my wife and I were on our honeymoon we decided I would make all of the big decisions and she would make all the small ones.” The friend asked, “How’s that working for you?” His buddy replied, “Fine, I guess. We’ve been married for 30 years, had 3 kids, bought and sold 3 houses, and purchased at least 15 cars; and I’m still waiting to make a big decision.” I hope God makes all of our decisions, big and small! How great is our God?

Think about it through the context of this story about a man who was late in getting a package mailed for Christmas delivery. The post office employee told him that for $47.10 it would get to its destination just in time. The man said the price was fine, and added, “It’s for my Dad. His birthday is Christmas Day, and I’ve got to get his present to him.” The customer directly behind the man who thought the cost was exorbitant said, “I’m sure glad that I don’t know anybody born on Christmas Day!” Another customer, who was evidently a Christian, said, “I’m sure glad that I do!” Are we glad we know Jesus? So are we ready for His birthday? We don’t want to forget the Guest of Honor at His own birthday party?

Jesus is coming, ready or not. There are 39 books in the Old Testament in 4 groupings: 5 books of Law; 12 of History; 6 of poetry; and 16 books of prophecy – and ALL 4 groups speak of Jesus’ second coming. We would all say that “new birth” is a major theme of the New Testament, but it’s only mentioned 9 times. “Baptism” is another key NT theme, but it’s only mentioned 20 times. “Repentance” is a NT key, and it’s mentioned 70 times. Guess what? The Second Coming of Christ is mentioned an astounding 380 times in the NT, one out of every 25 verses. Why is it so important? Why does it give us peace? It helps us because it lets us know that the future belongs to God. Wait for Jesus’ coming patiently and with confidence. Everything is going to be better than alright!

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Three-legged Chickens and Enthusiam

As a preacher I have found myself trying to drum up enthusiasm for all kinds of things. Stewardship campaigns are aptly named because it carries a military connotation. If it takes a “campaign” to get people to give then the war is already lost. We clergy-types want people to sing with gusto, give cheerfully, and serve faithfully. We want to pay off that building loan. We want the numbers in attendance to stay up without a slump, rain or shine. We like enthusiasm.

Not too much or it’s distracting, but we rather have a few smiles while we’re preaching, if not a few people saying “Amen!”  But, “Happy Clappy” people can turn a good worship service into a free-for-all with little decorum even though there’s evidence in the Bible to promote clapping in worship and even dancing! The bottom line is that everything that we do is to glorify God, not anyone else. Unless it brings honor to God, we’ve failed in our worship! I think we know when to clap at a worshipful rousing anthem by the choir. The joy just rises up from the congregation and spills over into overt enthusiasm.

You’ve heard the story of the circuit-riding preacher who needed a new horse. He went to someone who told him that he had the perfect horse for him. He said that the horse understood religious language. If you wanted him to stop, you said, “Amen.” If you wanted the horse to go, you said, “Praise the Lord!” The preacher bought the horse and started on his way when he came to a steep cliff. He couldn’t remember how to stop. Finally, as he was about to go over the edge, he remembered that you had to say “Amen” to stop the horse. With great relief, he then said, “Praise the Lord!” and both horse and rider plunged over the edge. Some people are too reluctant to say “Amen” and others are too quick to yell “Praise the Lord.” Enthusiasm does not need to be blind emotionalism. We’ve all seen people go off the religious deep end, and are so heavenly minded they’re no earthly good.

That being said, most of us preachers do like feedback on how the sermon went. Often we subject ourselves to the brutal honesty of our spouses and children. Humor us and tell us how it went, gently and with courtesy, and show enough enthusiasm to let us know you got the point. I think that’s the purpose of enthusiasm. It shows the Good Lord that we’re on the same page with Him. We want to be enthusiastic disciples!

Have you ever been to a football game and sat beside someone who either acts like they have no interest in the game or knows nothing about it? It’s annoying at best. They stand at the wrong time, clap in the wrong places, and they don’t usually look at the field! You wonder what in the world caused them to be there. Maybe it was a free ticket or something, but, at least, you wish that they had researched the game – something! There are a lot of people in church and outside the church who profess faith, but act like they don’t know a blooming thing about the Lord. God help when these folks get put on a committee. It’s usually a disaster.

We need enthusiasm! We need people who want to REALLY know Jesus and make Him known! Lent is our church season to wake us up. It should be a time when we rise every day to an ever higher crescendo of discipleship. I’m not talking about somber dull faith. We need folks who are on fire for Jesus with enthusiasm overflowing. John Wesley, our Methodist founder, said of our movement’s success and its cause, “Set yourself on fire with passion & people will come for miles to watch you burn.” Amen to that.

The story is told about a city man who was riding along at 55 mph when he looked out the window and couldn’t believe his eyes. He saw a three-legged chicken running beside the car. He accelerated to 60 mph and the three-legged chicken kept up with him! At 70 the chicken took off and left him in the dust. The man pulled over dumbfounded, and stopped in a farmer’s yard.

He rolled down his window and asked the farmer if he had seen the chicken dash by. The farmer said, “Sure, I saw it. I’ve seen plenty of them.” “What was it?” asked the man.  “The farmer said, “That was one of our three-legged chickens.” “Three-legged chickens! What do you mean, three-legged chickens?” “Well,” said the farmer, “there are three of us in the family: my wife, my boy, and myself. We all like drumsticks so we decided to breed three-legged chickens. That way we all can get a drumstick.” “Well do they taste good?” asked the city fellow. The farmer shook his head and replied, “I don’t know. We’ve never been able to catch one.”

May our enthusiasm keep us from being caught by laziness or a lack of faithfulness. Let’s outpace the world and outrun the Devil! Run on!

Three-legged chicken

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!