The Olympian Life

Epiphany season goes out with a bang every year! Its concluding Sunday is always Transfiguration Day when Jesus is transformed in front of Peter, James, and John. Epiphany is about God’s self-revelation of divine power in the world. It began on January 6 with God’s revelation to the Magi through the star, and ends this Sunday with the awe-inspiring event of Jesus on the mountaintop with his closest disciples, and the best representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah respectively. Then next week on Ash Wednesday we begin an intentionally self-reflective journey to Holy Week that calls us to genuine repentance. Lent begins with ashes and ends in Christ’s death, literally ashes to ashes.

Some of us remember sports commentator Jim McKay’s voice-over of the iconic tune of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” as he described “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The scene that I remember most is the one with a ski jumper crashing. Both spiritual and Winter Olympics are upon us in this up and down time between Epiphany and Lent. Like Olympic athletes who train for years, we disciples of Christ suffer exhaustion on a daily basis for the chance at overwhelming exhilaration. This is our description of the journey of faith that travels from mountaintops to valleys and up and down again. This is Jesus’ life. This is our life as Christians.

It is really the life of humans in general. Jesus shows us how to make this common occurrence into uncommon grace, to fill our up and down existence with ultimate and grand meaning. A king and savior who knows only the heights of victory isn’t one of us, but Jesus knows our every sorrow and amplifies every joy. Jesus shows us the path to redeem every experience of life, however high the mountaintop or low the valley.

Life’s ever-changing nature is a bothersome phenomenon for me. My desire for predictability and stability is a common human desire. Nobody likes volatility. Look at the stock market fluctuations of this week. Nobody likes too much risk. I’ll try something new every now and then, but I’m okay with ordering the same meal at the same restaurant time and time again. I know there won’t be unwanted surprises, but where’s the risk in that, and the sense of adventure that makes life worth living?

Jesus models the Olympian life of risk and reward throughout his ministry. This is the liturgical basis for the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. To be fully human is to go from top to bottom, bottom to top, and repeat ad infinitum. It strikes me that fluctuation and volatility are examples of our being fully human, and they also reflect how we’re made in the Image of God.

Doesn’t God embrace the world’s ups and downs? God has embraced us! Our history proves that we are no better than kids with daisies saying, “I love him/her!” or “I love him/her not!” In our yearly ode to love on Valentine’s Day, appropriately on Ash Wednesday this year, God gives us the best Valentine in spite of our fickle devotion.

God gives us Jesus who in the Incarnation has chosen to ride this rollercoaster with us. He has modeled the ultimate in risk and reward by showing us that love is the utterly amazing opportunity for self-giving and yielding intimacy. Faith is our confidence that God can and will transfigure you and me. It’s the hope of young, old, and in-between love that is both treasured and perpetuated. It’s the kind of love that sustains us from the height of Epiphany to the depths of Lent, from Palm Sunday’s “Hosanna’s” to the despair of Good Friday’s “Crucify Him!” for better for worse, in sickness and in health…

Opening My Heart to Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

Nativity Scene

MLK and Nathan Bedford Forrest: Walking in Memphis

Last week I was in Memphis for the Southeastern Jurisdictional Committee on Episcopacy. We had productive time together as we met just up from Beale Street at The Peabody Hotel, famous for its lobby ducks. One thing we didn’t duck was the racial history of Memphis. Bookends to pain are plain to see. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is there. So is the statue and burial place of Nathan Bedford Forrest. The Lorraine Motel is where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968, and General Nathan Bedford Forrest, former KKK Klansman and Confederate general, was a citizen of Memphis until his death on October 29, 1877 and is buried in a city park. He is depicted on his cavalry horse for all to see. We passed it every day. Picturing the Lorraine Motel and that statue of Forrest was disturbing.

To plenty of people MLK Day is a brief break after Christmas to help us catch our collective breath after a busy Christmas season. In Memphis there is visible evidence that the racial divide in our American experience is still very real. Ours is the ongoing experiment to overcome racism and its main tool: tribalism. Christmas season had http://www.ancestry.com ubiquitous over the airwaves with TV ads and Facebook postings about people discovering their ancestral past through DNA. This may help in verifying some genealogical research, but it promotes tribalism.

You may ask, “What’s wrong with it?” Well, tribalism tends to set one group against another. I had a history professor at Carolina that was a member of the Hitler Youth. He dared to teach us to sing “Deutschland über Alles,” “Germany Above All,” in class. We saw the temptation of tribalism this past Monday with the National Championship football game between Clemson and Alabama. Clemson fans booed Steve Spurrier as a new inductee to the College Football Hall of Fame because he coached at their bitter rival, South Carolina. There were plenty of South Carolina fans pulling for Alabama instead of Clemson for the similar tribalistic reasons. It seems to be a part of human nature to form tribes, and think ours is better than someone else’s.

There is evidence to support that Nathan Bedford Forrest repudiated much, if not all, of his racist tendencies as he dropped out of the KKK and sought racial reconciliation. We also know that Dr. King said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Amen to that!

The United Methodist Church calls this Sunday before MLK Day, “Human Relations Sunday.” Its purpose, according to the UM Book of Discipline, 2016, Par. 263.1, is to occur during Epiphany, a season manifesting God’s light to the world. Human Relations Day “calls the church to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with one another.” How I wish we, as the church, did this better. The most segregated hour during the week is still from 11 am to 12 Noon on Sundays. This coming Monday we are invited to Second Baptist Church, an African-American congregation in Aiken, for dinner and a movie. The movie, Selma, will be shown followed by a discussion. The time will be from 4-7:30 pm.

My hope is that we will forfeit our tribalism and give our primary allegiance to God. We all need Jesus desperately. No one has a right to feeling smug. “Except for the grace of God, there go I…” levels elitism to a posture of mutual valuing and collaboration. That’s the essence of the work of The United Methodist Commission on Religion and Race of which I am glad to be a member. By the way my DNA testing confirmed family stories and suspicions with a few surprises: Eight percent sub-Saharan African, double digits Native American, a whole bunch of Irish (a shocker for a Scotsman), and plenty of Viking Scandinavian, with a smattering of middle European Jewish. Some would say I’m a mutt. Well, I’m an American who believes more in us being a melting pot than a salad bowl separated into tribes of tomatoes, romaine or iceberg lettuce, cucumbers, and bacon bits.

I like praying, “Our Father who art in heaven,” not “my.” I like singing, “When We all get to heaven. I very much like the TV show, The Story of Us. It’s up to me to spread the tent wider and work for the Book of Revelation’s description of heaven so that it comes true. Rev. 7:9a says, “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people, and language standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

This should be our refrain, something to repeat, which is what a refrain does. Refrains, however, for the preacher, vocalist and the actor do more than repeat things. A refrain is the jazz-like ebb and flow of oratory from Shakespeare to Martin Luther King, Jr. that invites us to belong to the play, to own the words. Think of MLK’s phrases, “I have a dream,” until it’s our dream, not just his. Hear his words, “Let freedom ring,” until we all pray for the bells to peal the news that the Jubilee has come.

Walking in Memphis did me some good. Marc Cohn agreed. Give a listen.

 

 

Christmas Longings – Past and Future Make the Present Better!

Should I long for Christmas past or future? The way things used to be is a tempting road to travel. There are good memories even when things were difficult. My Mother had a major stroke in late fall 1992 and was in a coma for several days. I clung to her bed-rail asking her to wake up and come back. Out of motherly love she did, but it was a terribly difficult life for her. She could barely smile and move just one hand. She couldn’t walk or speak above a whisper.

Christmas 1992 was tough. Mother had a little tree with lights in her nursing home room, but it was hard to see her like she was. Just before Christmas, Cindy and I and the children visited on my parent’s anniversary, December 23. I had the flu and wasn’t allowed inside. Cindy and our children were in the room and I was outside her window looking in. We tried to sing Christmas carols to her with me trying loud enough for her to hear me through the glass. I’ll never forget her look and her smile back at me as she was propped up on a pillow.

She died thirteen days later, January 5, 1993, from another stroke. Oh, how I have missed her, but wished I had let her go months earlier, but I was too selfish. I still feel guilty for begging her to wake up from her initial stroke. She would have been so much better off. We have to love people enough to let them go to that place where there is no more pain or sorrow. But it’s hard, isn’t it? I was only 36, way too young, in my mind, for my Mom to die.

Longing for Christmas Past is nostalgic and idyllic, but it isn’t reality. As Christians we are more a New Jerusalem people than Garden of Eden ones. Living in the past isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, there are fond memories, but the future is the culmination of our hope. Adam and Eve were exited from Eden after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cherubim with flaming swords kept them from going back inside. I used to think that was part of God’s punishment, but I think differently now. If they could have gone back they might have eaten from the Tree of Life, and then having eaten from both trees they would have lived forever knowing both good and evil. That would have been a horrible thing. God wants us to only know good forever so the cherubim with flaming swords were God’s agents of grace.

The New Jerusalem is our destination where there is no sorrow or pain. If the good old days were really that good how did we get into the mess we’re in today? So let’s focus on making the world a better place and working for God’s preferred future. What can we do to make the Kingdom come when all things will be set right, no more evil, injustice, sickness or oppression?

To be honest, some of that future vision does depend on a recollection of the past. I think that it’s okay to reminisce about lessons learned and people who graced our lives in years gone by. The past becomes a tutor and that’s okay, but that’s very different from it being a prison. We need to learn from it, but not languish in it. What helps me most is to remember the good things and try to build on them. That turns the past into a healthy present that springboards us into a great future.

As an example, my Grandmother, Milbria Dorn Jackson, known as “Mib” to many of her friends, conjures up a plethora of memories. Some are great and others not. My perspective is jaded because I lived with her. She was of tough German extraction. There are two smells that immediately come to mind when I think of her: BenGay and Sauer Kraut. There was a kraut jar in the kitchen where she fermented cabbage, and BenGay was her daily medicine for what she called her “neuralgia.”

She wasn’t what I would call the world’s jolliest person. As a matter of fact, she could be pretty stern. She was devoted to my older brother, but my middle brother and I were too rambunctious. I’m just saying, she was tough on us. Papa was jolly and happy, but nobody would claim that Grandmother was the life of the party. She wasn’t!

But, you know if I dwell on the not-so-fond memories of the past, it doesn’t do me much good. It makes me forget the good things like the twinkle of Grandmother’s clear blue eyes. The same eyes of my Uncle J.C. Thinking only of her strict standards makes me forget that she loved to hear me whistle and told me so. Nobody else ever did that. Thinking of her not-so-frivolous nature makes me forget how much she shaped me in good wonderful ways.

There’s a Bible on my shelf in my study that she gave me for Christmas 1964. Let me tell you, as a 9 year old in 1964 I thought that a Bible was the worst present ever. You couldn’t play with it, and it just underscored her usual guilt trips for our shenanigans. I opened it this morning just to glimpse her handwriting and was astounded to read something that I had forgotten was even there. The whole inscription reads: “To Tim from Grandmother, the one that loves you dearly. December 25, 1964.”

Wow, “…the one that loved loves you dearly.” If I only lived in the past of BenGay and Kraut, I would have forgotten the amazing love and gift that it was to experience her daily presence. So my advice is to let the past inform you, but don’t live there. If conjured up, remember the good times and good things. The rest does you very little good. We weren’t meant to stay in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s disaster, but to live forever only knowing good in the New Jerusalem! Savor your good Christmas memories, and make new ones for the future.

bible-pic

A Christmas Gift From My Mother

Christmas 1978 was memorable, and not for all the right reasons. Cindy and I were in seminary in Boston. We wouldn’t be able to come home for the holidays, but I wanted to spread some cheer, especially to my Mother. She was always keen on doing unselfish things for others. She had a huge heart and was generous to a fault. She didn’t like much fanfare or thanks. She was kind to the core. Plus she was gifted in making crafts which provided a never-ending source of “pretties,” as she called them, to give to people.

One Christmas I recall her melting paraffin and pouring countless quart milk cartoons full of wax to make candles. She painted. She crocheted all sorts of things. At Christmas 1978 she decided to make a gift for President Jimmy Carter’s 11 year old daughter, Amy. Since President Carter had been a peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, Mother decided to crochet what she called a “peanut doll” for Amy’s Christmas present. From what she described to me on the phone, it was an elaborately painted peanut with all the features exquisitely done with a full blown costume including a purse and shoes.

She also described the derision that my brother Carlee and my Father heaped on her. They said things like, “She probably won’t even get the doll. The Secret Service will confiscate it.” “You’re wasting all your time on something, and you’ll never even get a thank-you note.” She told me all of their comments, and I decided right then and there to do something about it. Cindy and I might not be able to come home for Christmas, but I could certainly stand up for my Mom. I wanted to silence her critics!

The next Friday I called. My brother answered and I put on a fake voice, “This is James McCabe calling from the White House. I want to express to Mrs. McClendon the gratitude of President and Mrs. Carter for the gift sent to their daughter, Amy.” Before I could say anything else from my script, my brother interrupted, “I’m sorry. She’s not here, but if you will call back in 15 minutes she will be here.” I said, “Certainly. I’ll call back.”

I didn’t think about my Mother’s usual Friday hair appointment at Sara’s in Edgefield. Anyway, I found out what my brother did. He went into town, burst into the all-female domain, blurted out that a phone call from the White House had been received, and that they were calling back in a few minutes. Mother was rushed out with her hair half-completed and whisked home.

I made the call with just the right amount of delay. Mother answered the phone and I went into my spiel: “This is James McCabe, White House Chief of Staff, and I just wanted to convey the President’s thanks for the lovely Christmas gift to his daughter.” I went on a little further and then gave her time to respond. She said, “Thank you so much for calling. I didn’t expect this at all. I just wanted to let Amy know that I was thinking about her and wanted to wish her a Merry Christmas.” She said some other formal sounding pleasantries, ever the Southern Lady in genuine appreciation for the call.

You could smell and hear the honeysuckle dripping. I couldn’t hold back any longer so I semi-yelled, “Mama, it’s me, Tim! I wanted to show up Daddy and Carlee for making fun of you….” She interrupted me, as if I hadn’t said anything or revealed my true identity, and said, “Once again, Mr. McCabe, thank you for your call. My husband and son are standing right here and are so pleased that the White House has called. Have a Merry Christmas and give my best to the President and Mrs. Carter, and, of course, to Amy. Goodbye.”

As I learned later, my brother drove her back into town whereupon she was greeted at Sara’s like a regal queen. No doubt they had heard about my Dad and brother’s mocking of her crocheted Christmas gift to Amy Carter. She told them about the call and got back under the dryer. By afternoon she had been contacted by what we affectionately called the “Edgefield Astonisher.” A front-page article the next week was titled, “White House Phone Call.”

Mother called me and said in no uncertain terms that I should never, ever, ever do anything like that again. My Dad and brother never learned the truth. Mother went to her grave never spilling the beans. I’ve wondered ever since what the moral of this Christmas story is. I think I’ve got it now. Mother always did things for others without ever wanting any thanks. She would have been happy even if she never got a thank-you note from the White House, which she did, by the way, the very next week. I was the one who wanted thanks as I blurted out my name to her on the phone. It was my way of saying, “I’m the one you ought to thank for defending you.”

I was right to defend her, but I was wrong to have wanted her thanks. It made the whole ruse about me more than about her. Well, my lesson was that Mama didn’t need defending nor did she require thanks. I wish that I was more like her every day. We don’t give gifts for the thanks we receive. God sure didn’t when he gave us Jesus, the best Christmas gift of all.

mother-picture

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.

 

God’s Kiss

I walked on hallowed ground yesterday. In fact, it happens pretty much every day if I open my eyes. This Sunday’s Gospel lectionary text from John 13 is about love. Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” How awesome and scary is that? Our love expressed either allows or prevents people from knowing Jesus. Yesterday I saw love.

There was a family gathering at the bedside of a loved one transitioning from earthly life to heaven. The husband of 60-something years was poignant as he stated the obvious. His beloved’s condition was deteriorating during this holy moment, but, as he put it, “She still gives good kisses.” We, the church, individually and corporately, are God’s kisses to the world.

That sounds like a mission statement of sorts for Christians, but our mission statements are usually so nice, catchy, alliterative, and wrong. Sometimes we have created them without much regard for God’s mission. I’ve done it myself. “MD4C” was one of my favorites: “Making Disciples for Jesus Christ.” It passed the tee shirt test because it was short enough to fit on one. It was long enough to be memorable, and short enough to be memorized. It met all of the secular benchmarks of an effective mission statement, but when I think about the love I witnessed yesterday and the ways that God gets our attention in the Bible, I’m a bit ashamed of “Seek, Save, Serve” even though that’s a pretty good one. The mission statement I saw in that family yesterday was “Love” and that’s what Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35.

There’s even a website that can help you generate a mission statement. Go to the address www.netinsight.co.uk/portfolio/mission/missgen.asp, and press the “play” button and presto! As someone said to me, “Substitute ‘church’ for ‘business,’ and you’re in business. Ha! A better place to find mission statements for the church is in the Bible, but they aren’t so catchy or cute: “Die on a cross.” “Leave your home, and go somewhere I’m not going to tell you.” “Marry a Hooker.” “Go speak to people you hate.” These are all in the Bible and are tough! I daresay that they boil down to “Love,” which is tough, tender, and time-consuming. Oh, there I go with 3 “T’s.” Sorry.

In one of his sermons, Walter Burghart tells the story of a surgeon’s observations of a couple much like what I witnessed yesterday. He says, “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, somewhat clownish. A tiny twig of a facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, had been severed. She will be this way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.”

He continues, “Her young husband, at least that’s who he might be, is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, the moment is a private one. Who are they, I ask myself? He and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at each other so generously, so lovingly. The young woman speaks. ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it will. It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles.”

The story unfolds, “’I like it,’ he says, ‘it’s kind of cute.’ All at once I know exactly who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a God moment. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

I wonder how this world and our church might change if our mission statement was to reinforce the fact that God so loved the world that he has leaned in toward us, and has contorted himself to show love to us – even allowing himself to be twisted on a cross for us. What would it mean for us to truly live the Biblical mission statements rather than concoct our own, to be God’s kiss to the world?

Kiss Me Pic

 

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

Human Relations DaySSSS!

Sometimes we just don’t get along with one another and we don’t know whether to lash out or just eat our anger. We can glad-hand it away and pretend it didn’t happen by seething inwardly, or we can go ballistic. Is there a middle way that is both truthful and therapeutic? In Charleston, SC there were no riots. A middle way was found because the families of the Emanuel Nine spoke the truth of their hurt, but also modeled grace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us profound insight in how to live in this middle place: “We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Violent co-annihilation may be tempting when we’re dealing with what appears to be an intractable stalemate. This makes me think of North Korea versus the world; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Democrats and Republicans; and pro-this and con-that people that are on opposite sides of a multitude of subjects. Isn’t Dr. King right? Co-annihilation and evisceration doesn’t help. Chaos-promoting language is an oft-used campaign tool that appeals to many people, but it disregards the fact that rhetoric which foments mutually assured destruction ends up causing it. It’s co-annihilation.

The US government thought they could annihilate native people’s ways by creating boarding schools where tribal ways and languages were beaten out of our people. So-called Christian missionaries tried to destroy native spirituality to create “white people” out of a people who had a deeper understanding of God than they could dare imagine. Isn’t it strange that the church has adapted and accepted pagan customs over the centuries just as long as they came from people whose skin looked the same? Annihilation also came to native peoples through outright murder and ghettoization through events like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres, or reservation-induced dependency and abject poverty.

January 17 will be Human Relations Day and is the Sunday nearest Dr. King’s birthday. Its purpose is “…to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with each other. The purpose of this day is to further the development of better human relations.” This is our day to make up for past failures and to embrace something better than nonviolent coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is better than violence, but love is more than tolerance.

In our unresolved conflicts, whether they are between people, countries, or cultures, we must be both truthful and therapeutic. I think that the genius of Dr. King’s statement about a choice between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation is not in the either-or choice of toleration or destruction. His statement is most prophetic when he says, “This may well be humankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Tolerant coexistence isn’t truthful or therapeutic. It puts scabs on wounds that need lancing before any real healing can take place. To choose chaos isn’t really helpful either, though it airs out the truth. The middle way that promotes real healing is what Dr. King called “community.”

How do we work for real community? Thankfully, the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race gives us clear tangible guidance. GCORR’s ministry model first promotes the teaching and implementation of Intercultural Competency. Second, it models for us how to have genuine, transparent, uncomfortable, and healing Vital Conversations between persons of disparate cultures and viewpoints. Last, GCORR’s ministry is to foster the creation of lifestyles and operational systems that value Institutional Equity, not just for some, but for everyone. The desire is that all aspects of every society’s structural life is fair to all.

If this ministry model is incorporated into our daily lives then we can have Human Relations Day every day. The questions for me: Will I do my best to learn about people who are different from me? Will I engage in substantive conversations that will promote cross-cultural understanding? Will I do the hard work that ensures that every person has an equal chance to be a reflection of God on earth? I pray that I will do all of this and more. What about you?

MLK

 

Jesus’ Baptism and an Epiphany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

JesusBaptism