If I Knew Then What I Know Now

Watching the Oscars wasn’t on my must-see TV list for Sunday night, but I have been amused at the mix-up with the “Best Picture” winner. Everyone has an opinion on who dropped the ball. There’s a huge difference between assigning blame and someone taking it. Harry Truman, in good Kansan fashion, said “The Buck Stops Here!” The acceptance of responsibility is refreshing in our blame-everyone-else world. Blaming your parents, your environment, the government, your DNA, and your whatever and whomever is just too easy to do. It’s certainly a lot easier than taking responsibility.

I’m sure Price-Waterhouse appreciates the saying, “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” It is an easy mantra to use when it’s too late. It excuses poor past decisions. Wouldn’t it be better if we counted the cost of our decisions ahead of time? In this season of tax forms and filings, we ought to know that the IRS knows how to do math so we better get it right. No excuse. Similarly, God’s E.R.S., Eternal Revenue Service, can also do math. On the balance scales of life we need to realize that “what goes around, comes around.” There’s payback. Even with the grace of God, we’re all found out as poor mathematicians.

People throw away relationships, their lives, and a lot of everything else because of poor choices. We need to take responsibility before it’s shoved onto us. A good friend has a lot of sayings. Most famously, “There’s no lesson learned in the second kick of a mule.” Frankly, I’ve been kicked by a lot of the same mules. I didn’t learn my lesson.

This Is Us isn’t just a TV show that’s taking the country by storm because of fine acting, or the past and future cliffhanging clues in each episode. It’s a hit because it truly is the story of us. We see bits of ourselves in every show. The same could be true if we took a long look at human history. It repeats itself too much. We must not, however, yield to the fatalism that says that it has to.

Lent gives us a chance to take a long look at our choices and lives, and change them with God’s help. The word “Lent” has its root in the Old English “lencten” from whence we get our modern word “lengthen.” The days grow longer in the spring of the year so during these solemn days before Easter we should take a longer look at our lives and repent, re-think and change our ways. It’s time for me to learn something, do something about it, and not make the same old mistakes.

I was looking through a book filled with stories, humor, anecdotes, and noticed there were pages and pages about the subject of “success,” and only half a page on “temptation.” Seems like the opposite should be true. If it weren’t for temptation, I might have more success! Temptations are distractions from what’s important, and oftentimes it’s a “W/who” that is most important. Sometimes it’s a spouse, a child, or others. Truth be told, it’s always God – the big W, WHO, that we continually let down. When we let God down, it’s all downhill for everyone and everything else affected by our decision making.

Lent helps us to get back on track. Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God…” The problem is that we usually don’t figure that out until AFTER we’ve messed up. There is good news, however. Lent ends in Easter. Thanks to Jesus’ resurrection, our sins of omission and commission are forgiven if we want them to be. The end of the story overshadows the beginning. This is how Christianity trumps history every time. When Jesus is really Lord of our lives we get to make it through the valley of death, sin, and even the solemnity of Lent with the absolute knowledge that Jesus has already been resurrected.

It’s like the order of the installments in Star Wars. The original trilogy came out as episodes 4, 5, and 6, and then there was the prequel trilogy of episodes 1, 2, and 3, and “Rogue One” fits between episodes 3 and 4. We also have a sequel trilogy of 7, 8, and 9, with only 7 having hit the theaters. It’s confusing, but, here’s the deal: Some people watch in chronological order, some in theatrical release order, and some of us just watch them in the order of the ones we like. Anyway, the point is that Star Wars’ order helps me look at Easter’s retroactive and proactive effect on our lives: Episode 6 lets us know the Empire loses and the prequels let us know how we got into this mess to start with. Episode 7 and the next installments are what’s coming, but we already know the victory is already won.

Easter does the same thing! We know the end before the beginning! The resurrection speaks to what’s come before and should change everything in the future! Easter is God’s story from the beginning of time to its end. Though I have temptations, sins, and failures in the past, I know the sequel – God wins! This doesn’t let me off the repentance hook, but it does inspire me to shape up before my final installment occurs. Just like Star Wars, the New Testament sequel is always better than the Old Testament prequel! My after-Jesus life should be better than my before-Jesus one: “If I knew then what I know now, things would be different.” Right?

lent

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Pray for UMC General Conference

The United Methodist people of South Carolina are asked to pray tomorrow Thursday, February 18, for our 2016 UMC General Conference. General Conference will be held in Portland, Oregon from May 10-20, and decisions will be made about what we hold in common as a connectional people. There’s a word that’s synonymous with “connectional,” and it’s the word “covenantal.” There are many who seem hell-bent, literally, on fracturing our denomination because they want to be connectional without being covenantal. I don’t think you can have one without the other!

We’re not a perfect church, but John Wesley, our founder, said that we should and could go on to perfection in our intentions. God doesn’t save us through Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. We all have a long way to go, and the only way to make progress is through grace, to be sure, but none of our good intentions means a whit if we don’t make some hard choices about our covenant and what unity means.

Making hard choices is the Lenten message of Jesus’ decisions leading up to Holy Week, and it’s our message as we take up our Lenten disciplines. Hard choices are the very essence of General Conference. We first need to make a choice to bathe it in prayer. I am going to commit this Thursday’s prayer time to a focus on our ability in Portland, and, in every local church of every ilk and creed, to do more than get along with each other, to not only have good intentions, but to do the right thing and make peace.

Making peace is the rub, isn’t it? I can smile and glad-hand almost everyone even if I can’t abide what they think, do, or say. But to make peace – that’s hard, beyond hard. It makes me wonder. In making peace do I have to tolerate and accept that they are okay in their position? I don’t think so! Jesus didn’t make peace with the sins he confronted. He did try to make peace with the sinners though. He even said to Judas when he was about plant the kiss of betrayal on Him, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” Jesus hardly ever used the word “friend,” only twice, as a matter of fact. If Jesus can call his betrayer a friend, can we dare do less?

What I think is right might differ from what you think is right, but that shouldn’t keep us from expressing Christian love and charity toward one another. John Wesley famously said, “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” The problem is that most of us have opposing lists of non-negotiable essentials, and charity is routinely trumped by angry vitriol.

Can’t we all agree to pray tomorrow for Jesus and his will to reign as we meet for General Conference, and the same to occur in whatever meeting we’re in, even if it’s one in your family’s den? In our discussions, unanimity is less my goal as is selflessness. You see, my understanding of every church fight, whether on a big stage or in a local church, boils down to selfishness – a power play about pecking order and getting what’s best for me, me, me.

Think Downton Abbey and the battle about the village hospital’s control. Cousins, Isobel Crawley and the Dowager Countess Violet Crawley, are on opposite ends of the argument. One might say that their issue is about principle, but there’s a whole lot of “my way or the highway” selfishness at play. In General Church meetings, conference ones, local churches, workplaces, companies, and families, the same story perpetuates itself.

My prayer for General Conference is that we can agree on the primary essential: Jesus Christ. Certainly, every other issue is important and many would say the sexuality debate is essentially about our Christology, but I hope that we can glorify God even in our differences and love each other in such a way that the words of Jesus’ prayer in John 17:23 come true for our denomination: “May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

Wow! If we promote unity then the Scripture says that the world will know Jesus and His mission! Please join me in prayer for General Conference tomorrow and all the days leading up to May 10-20, 2016. Let’s try to remember than unity doesn’t necessarily mean unanimity. There’s room in unity for diversity. Our covenant should not ever be broken, but every covenant has clear stipulations about what the parameters are for disagreement. That will be the hard work of General Conference to decide. Most of us who are married already know about this endeavor. Ask any couple who has been married for more than a couple of hours, “Does unity mean unanimity?” Pray! Pray! Pray!

General Conference 2016 Picture

A Lenten Test

 Who doesn’t like to take those IQ/knowledge tests on Facebook? This week we have a bigger more important test. We have to figure out what to do with a confluence of special days in the life of the church. Here are the three significant events to ponder in your worship planning: Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Valentine’s Day. You could add a few more secular ones if you’re celebrating the end of football season with Super Bowl 50’s completion, The South Carolina vs. Connecticut Women’s Basketball game, and maybe the biggest celebration of all for some of you, Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday! What a mixture to think about from a Christian perspective.

It seems to me that what we have is a grand opportunity to think about love and sacrifice. Ash Wednesday voices the somber realization: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a call to self-denial and reflection whose very name carries the tug of seasonal change. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word lencten which meant “lengthen.” As the days march forward and lengthen with minute amounts of extra daylight, we should also take longer contemplative looks at our own lives.

Valentine’s Day celebrates a canonized priest who purportedly married young lovers when it had been outlawed by a Roman emperor who thought marriage made soldiers less dedicated and effective. In keeping with Lent’s call to carrying a cross, beginning with Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes, St. Valentine chose doing the right thing over doing things right. Before his execution he passed encouraging notes to the Christian faithful and signed them, “From your Valentine.”

Valentine’s causes me to wonder if the love notes we share last longer than the paper upon which they are written. Ash Wednesday makes me ponder when or if ever should I wipe the ashes from my brow. The whole season of Lent gives me pause to take a long look at my personal discipleship and discern where and how it may be lacking.

My sincere prayer is that people might see Jesus in me with or without an “X” of sorts to mark the spot! I don’t want to be like the young woman who gave a picture of herself to her boyfriend. On the reverse she exclaimed, “I’ll love you forever and always to the end of time!” with an added postscript, “P.S. If we ever break up, I want the picture back.” Fickle love is not even love, being infatuation more than anything else. No wonder our Ash Wednesday ashes are made of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds burned to a crisp. A wishy-washy crowd that welcomed Jesus with a loud “Hosanna!” quickly switched to a dastardly, “Crucify him!” by the end of Holy Week.

My personal prayer is that we who call ourselves Christ-followers will have a more faithful Lent this year. I hope that people will see Jesus in us, with or without a smudge on our heads. It’s even better, in my opinion, if the people around us see Jesus in us without the sackcloth and ashes of an outward show of repentance. May they see the Lord in our smiles, joys, commitments, and our doing the right things a´ la St. Valentine. More chocolate, not less. More smiles, not mournful somberness. More love!

I have a test to help remind you that you might be the only Jesus that the world will ever see. Look intently at the four dots in the middle of the image below for 30 seconds, then look away and stare for a few seconds. What do you see? Who will others see if they look at you this Lent?

Jesus and Four Dots

Holy Week Highlights

It’s the last day of winter! Sing and shout, spring starts tomorrow and I’m ready for it, not the pollen so much, but even that’s a sign of new life. I’m ready for Easter after a long winter. That sounds vaguely familiar as something the character “Phil” aka Bill Murray said in the classic movie “Groundhog Day.” I love the movie. Phil seemingly is doomed to repeat Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA wooing Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita. The only thing that finally ends his purgatory is that he finally gets one complete day right, no selfishness or self-serving stratagems. His life is redeemed by letting go of himself and loving others, purely and sincerely.

That is one of the purposes of Lent – to lay aside self, put others and Christ first. The question on my mind today is how well has that gone for me this year. I feel like I’ve been treading water going from one crisis to another. My brain is mush and I’m still waiting for that perfect day. By now you also know if your Lenten observance plans have worked out, too. There are some of you/us who are planning on a crash-course during Holy Week to make things right. You can’t have a great Easter without a good Lent.

This begs the question: What makes for a “Good Lent?” Was it something that you gave up this year, or started? Just making it to “Low Sunday” on April 12 will mean it was a holy observance for most clergy and church staff. “There’s no rest for the weary!” is especially true this time of the year, but it’s meant to be this way. Holy Week services have been around ever since the Early Church and its commemoration of the significance of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. It’s supposed to be a whirlwind because that’s what it was for Jesus. Thanks to the plethora of preparations we literally feel the weight that Jesus must have felt that last week.

This has made me think about the most important revelations that all this busyness brings. Which services and Scriptures are most poignant and powerful? Without falling further into the tiredness that only church can bring, think with me about the highlights of your preparations for Easter.

Of course, it begins with Palm Sunday. In Matthew and John, it was palms that the people waved, although Matthew added additional cloaks to the red carpet treatment. In Mark, it was unidentified branches cut from the fields that the people used along with cloaks. In Luke, there are no branches of any kind. If the only Gospel we had was Luke it would have been called “Cloak Sunday,” because that’s the way he portrays the people’s welcome for Jesus.

The bigger deal to me about Palm Sunday has nothing at all to do with branches versus cloaks or how many donkeys were used. By the way, Matthew has two, the rest one. The big deal to me is that the crowd went from Sunday to the next Friday from praise of Jesus to demands for his crucifixion. It’s little wonder that our ashes for every subsequent year’s Ash Wednesday are made from burnt fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday – a powerful reminder of how we fickle humans have failed the Lord throughout the year and need Lent to help get us back on track.

I am going to jump ahead, but it fits with the fickleness theme. The people on Good Friday asked for Barabbas over Jesus. The significance of Barabbas’ name is powerful. “Bar” means “son of,” and “abbas” means “father,” so the Son of the Heavenly Father, all caps “BARABBAS,” is sentenced to die in the place of all the rest of us “small cap” children of earthly fathers. Such horrible irony, but this is a clear image of the depth of God’s love.

Back to the schedule, though. Maundy Thursday is a must! “Maundy” derives from the Latin, mandatum which means commandment. It is the night of Jesus’ Last Supper, his washing the disciples’ feet and his command to go and do likewise. This event is only recorded in John’s version of the passion narrative (John 13), which may explain why foot washing didn’t make the list of sacraments. If something is only mentioned once in the Bible there’s an argument that one shouldn’t make it into a sacrament or a doctrine. However, John’s depiction of Jesus’ servant-like kingship is amazing, especially when you consider that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Maundy Thursday always inspires me to think about whose feet I need to wash.

Another Lenten and Holy Week epiphany occurred when I noticed something very interesting in Matthew’s passion account. When Jesus is about to be betrayed by Judas with a kiss in Matthew 26:50, Jesus says a rare and powerful thing, “Friend, do what you came for.” Jesus hardly ever calls anyone “friend.” I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus wasn’t a friend, but the fact remains that it wasn’t a word that he lightly tossed around when he was talking about people. He called Lazarus a “friend” (John 11:11), and the guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof (Luke 5:20). Only 3 times in the entire Gospels does Jesus call anyone “friend,” and Judas is one of them! This really sets the bar high for my Lenten observance. Who are the enemies with whom I need to reconcile?

God’s amazing grace is on glorious display after the resurrection in Mark 16:7 when the women are told to go announce Jesus’ resurrection. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter…,” are their instructions. This is only mentioned in Mark’s account, though in John we have the dramatic reinstatement of Peter. What’s powerful to me is that here’s Peter who has denied the Lord multiple times and yet he’s singled out to get the good news about Jesus being alive. Peter wasn’t at the crucifixion. After he heard the rooster crow after he denied Jesus, he went away weeping bitterly, but Jesus didn’t give up on him and leave him out.

This word instructing the women to go tell his disciples AND Peter, is amazing grace and gives me so much hope. I have been a betraying Judas, a denying Peter, and a fickle fan. I have lived through days that seem like a never-ending purgatory where nothing ever seems to go right, and the God of the universe, who is yet fully human, suffers, dies, and rises for me – for you.

The song “Better” by MercyMe captures how this makes me feel today. Give a listen.

The Time Change and Using God’s Time

Daylight Saving Time (DST) has kicked me to the curb this year! I love the hour we gain in the fall, but this “Spring Forward” thing is ridiculous. The person who said that for every hour you gain or lose, it only takes one day to adjust didn’t have my circadian rhythm! It has been 5 days and I’m still whacked! Ben Franklin, an early advocate of the time shift, may have said, “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” but I don’t think that DST proves the point. It proves the opposite for me. What do you say?

Studies have made conflicting claims over the years about the benefits and drawbacks of DST. Those in favor say that it saves energy, promotes outdoor leisure activities in the evening, and provides more time for shopping. Yay for more daylight to cook out, play a round of golf after work, and go fishing. Others have said that since most mischief happens in the dark, the extra daylight cuts down on crime.

However, the cost benefit for electric usage is negligible if you compute the cost of turning on lights for longer periods of time in the mornings while it’s still dark, and using them less in the evenings because it’s light. After all, most of our big-ticket home electrical systems run constantly, and don’t give a rip what time it is.

On the other side of the issue are those who claim that DST costs as much as $40 billion in what it takes to adjust clocks, computers, and even the stock exchanges. Health officials have concluded that DST increases the risk of heart attacks by 10%, and changes in sleep have a direct correlation to poor work performance. Contrary to the popular opinion that DST was created for the benefit of farmers, they are some of the biggest opponents of it. The rationale is that grain is best harvested after dew evaporates, so when farmers or their help arrive at earlier hours and leave later it causes quality problems with the products, especially if you depend on someone with paid-by-the-hour drivers, harvesters, and trucks whose schedules have been rearranged by the time change. Dairy farmers also complain because their cows are finicky about the timing of milking which is dictated less by the sun as much as it is by when the dairy company sends their trucks.

So I am confused, since there are both benefits and disadvantages. I just know how whipped it has made me feel this week, and I have a spouse who works in the education system who says that everybody is dragging a lot more this year. In the discussion of pros or cons there is one thing that’s clear: Nobody is talking about the time change from a religious perspective.

Is there a valid theological reason to have DST? To be sure, I know that I should use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason to figure it out, but I’m not – I’m too tired! It’s not that big a deal, right? But there are more than a few Scriptures about time and its use. II Peter 3:8 says, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Psalm 39:4-5 and James 4:14 declare, in similar ways, that life is very fragile and transitory. “Our time on earth,” as one writer puts it, “barely registers on the eternal radar screen,” so we better use our time wisely.

That’s the essence of Ephesians 5:15-16 where Paul cautions, “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as the unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Jesus’ “Parable of the Talents” in Matthew 25:14-30 basically says the same thing – use your talents and time wisely! One of my favorite passages about the use of time is Proverbs 6:10-11, “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest – and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man.” I like the poetic imagery, but I must admit that the workaholism that is promoted is a little too American, not that I’m pro sloth, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

The bottom line is that we need to make the most of time and I simply wonder if Daylight Saving Time actually helps! What do you think? Has DST helped your Lenten spiritual disciplines or set you back more than forward, pun intended? Give a listen to the Byrds and their rendition of that famous time passage, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. This has helped me wake up and enjoy the day better than most things this week. How are you doing?

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!