Were You There? Metaphoric Imagery and Jesus’ Passion

I have often used metaphoric imagery in marriage counseling, especially premarital counseling. I ask the couple to close their eyes and picture themselves as a person, animal, place, or thing. They are asked to see themselves in as much detail as possible. What colors do they see? What are they doing? When they finish picturing themselves, I ask them to picture their spouse, or spouse-to-be. What are they – a person, animal, place, or thing? What are they doing in as much detail as possible? Then, lastly, I ask them to put the two pictures together, the image of themselves and the image of their partner, and picture what kind of interaction is taking place, again with as much detail as possible.

It amazes me what people say. Frankly, the couple usually remembers this exercise much more clearly than any other thing I use in counseling. This is what they end up talking about week after week. It truly is a metaphoric image of who they are separately and who they are together. It sparks great conversation. The use of metaphoric imagery has been on my mind a lot this week as I have pondered Jesus’ last days before the resurrection. Where would have been in the crowd? What person do I most resemble in the cast of characters? Would I be a sobbing Mary, a grieving John, a jeering priest, a penitent or impenitent thief, a soldier doing my gruesome duty? Would I dare to say that I feel like Jesus?

So, using metaphoric imagery and a sanctified imagination, make yourself think about the question: Were you there when they crucified my Lord? That’s the name of an important Lenten hymn for this Holy Week. I want us to imagine what it must have been like to be present on Golgotha, the Place of the Skull, when Jesus was crucified. Too often I jump from Palm Sunday’s loud Hosanna’s to Easter’s Alleluia’s without really plumbing the depths of Jesus’ suffering, and it shortchanges the whole point of it all: Jesus died for the sins of the whole world. He died for yours and mine. It begs the question: What does that mean?

So, all the more, I want to visualize and feel what Jesus went through for us, for me. If I could make you, I would ask that you close your eyes during this whole exercise, but you can wait until I prompt you at the end. Use your five senses of smell, hearing, touch, taste, and sight to make the events of Jesus’ last hours real. What smells would you smell if you were there that fateful day? Some scholars have said that Golgotha was the city’s trash dump as it was located outside Jerusalem’s city gates. Do you smell the refuse and debris, the garbage, and the stench? Some have said that there are times that you can smell death in the air. Some have experienced this casually during a drive in a car. Others of us have smelled it with the passing of family members, or in other life-threatening perilous situations. Do you smell death on this executioner’s hill? Of course, you do. Others say that you can also smell fear. Can you smell Jesus’ fear, the criminals’ fear beside him, Mary’s? I smell it even now. Pure unadulterated fear. What do you smell? Ponder it. Smell it. Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you hear? What sounds come to mind? Do you hear the hammers clanging on the nails driven into multiple hands and feet? Do you hear the screams of those who were tortured? Can you hear the awful sound of the soldiers breaking the legs of the two men hanging beside Jesus? Do you hear Jesus’ 7 last sentences: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani” (My God, My God why hast thou forsaken me?) and hear the weight of feeling utterly abandoned; Jesus saying from the cross to his disciple John, “Behold your mother,” taking care of his dear mother Mary, along with his saying to Mary, “Behold your son,” giving her a new son-like relationship in the person of this beloved disciple?

Do you hear Jesus saying “I thirst,” and sense the dryness of his voice; do you hear his words of assurance to the penitent thief beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” even in the midst of the two thieves’ harsh banter; can you listen to Jesus say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do” to the crowd looking on. Can you imagine his strength to be able to ask forgiveness for his executioners? Can you hear the love and grace in his voice? Do you hear his last words, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit,” and “It is finished.” Do you hear the release and resignation that these sentences convey?

Do you hear the soldiers mocking him, the priests jeering, and the crowd daring him to call down heaven’s host to set him free? Do you hear the clink and rattle of dice as the soldiers gambled for his garments? Do you hear the thunder and storm, and the centurion’s declaration as he saw the heaven’s weep, “Truly, this man was the Son of God?” What do you hear? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you feel? What textures come to mind? The wood of the cross is coarse so be careful of splinters. The ropes that were used to raise the cross and set it in place were also rough. Ropes also bound his limbs to the cross as the nails were driven in. Do you feel the cold metal of the nails as they pierced his skin? Do you feel the texture of the cloth of Jesus’ outer garments as the soldiers divided them? Do you feel the textures of the myriad people, flesh and clothes of all kinds, from Simon of Cyrene to me and you, pressing in from all sides? Do you feel the ridges of the blood stains as they settled upon his flayed skin from tip to toe, a thorn-crowned forehead all the way down to his pierced feet? What textures do you feel? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you taste? Do you taste Jesus’ parched lips and their cracked dryness? Do you taste the perspiration? And if someone can smell death, they can also taste desperation. Do you feel how thick the desperation is in the air, and in the people’s hearts? Can you taste the blood? We all have been socked in the mouth at some point, or have bitten our lip, drawing blood. Can you taste the iron-like warmth and its bitterness as the blood flowed that day? What do you taste? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

What do you see? Close your eyes now for sure. What colors do you see? Red, brown, white, blue, or the deepest darkest gray? Look over the crowd. Who stands out? Surely you see the three crosses and the men upon them. You see the sign over Jesus’ head and the INRI, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Can you see the priests, the women, Mary, and John? What do you see? Who do you see? Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

With eyes still closed, where are you on Golgotha?

Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie: The Brutality of Christmas

Who doesn’t want to skip the “Death of the Holy Innocents” and just focus on the Magi? No one in his or her right mind wants to spoil the joy of Christmas by preaching Herod’s murder of the children two years old and under. This coming Sunday’s Gospel reading stops well shy of Herod’s murderous ways and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees. This unrealistic portrayal of the Incarnation is exactly what fuels the holiday emphasis on nostalgic sentimentality. Herod’s actions starkly remind us why this world needs a Savior. Herod lives in us every time we turn a blind eye to the poor, the refugee, and the sinner.

Like all who love feel-good Christmas, I bemoan the death of innocence in our children, but they must not be shielded from the desperate children of Aleppo or the ones down the street. The down side of Christmas for most Westerners is that the real truth gets massaged and postponed until credit card bills come due. Poor and rich alike enjoy their pretties though they differ in cost. We all want a happy ending, but Matthew’s birth narrative doesn’t have one until after truth speaks to power through the dreams offered to the Magi and Joseph. The Magi are warned to not go back to Herod, and Joseph is told to escape to Egypt. Herod is foiled by God through the obedience of those who would heed God’s dreams.

What dreams might God have for each of us in 2017? Will we heed them? Will we obey and take on Herod, or stay in ignorant bliss? But as much as we try to lie to ourselves, there will be valleys of the shadow falling across our lives in 2017. The beginning of a new year gives a hint of hope, but offers little change for the refugees, the frail, the unemployed, or the overwhelmed unless the rest of us do something about the evil lurking in the world’s Herod-like fat cats. Instead of pulling babies from the sullen stream one after another, isn’t it time to go upstream and stop whomever is throwing them in? We sing Don MClean’s “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie” with gusto while we’re unsure of its sad meaning. We shouldn’t let its catchy tune and cryptic words dull our sensitivities. It dares us to ask where hope is in a cruel world.

The Holy One who offers hope shows up during Epiphany season through signs and wonders that remind us of God’s presence. It’s up to us to act on these epiphanies, to use them as inspiration. The Magi did it by following a star and a dream, and financing the Holy Family’s escape through their gifts. Joseph had his dreams, too, and acted on them. God speaks through many means and wise men and women still follow. This Gospel is all the more real because its light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Without recognizing and dealing with Herod and his kin, Christianity is what Marx called, “the opiate of the masses.” There’s enough opioid addiction in our world already. The church mustn’t be complicit in its lie.

A Christmas pageant without Herod is a feel-good farce. On Christmas Eve we saw candles brighten our sanctuary, but sanctuary must be a place of protection for everyone: the least, last, lowest, and lost. We must heed Jesus’ words to so let our light shine through good deeds so that God might be glorified (Matthew 5:16). This isn’t earning our way into heaven through social action separated from its supernatural root in God’s saving grace. Compassion for kindness’ sake is nice, but is just as much a syrupy humanism as Christmas without Herod. To think that the world’s ills can be eradicated by human action without divine intervention is to miss the real reason for Jesus’ coming and coming again. But, don’t stop! Our good deeds do bring some of heaven’s glow to every refugee family that we know. They are all around us, but we can do so much more if we do everything we do in Jesus’ mighty name and power.

There was a refugee walking down the sidewalk by the church earlier, head slumped over, with barely enough strength to put one foot in front of the other. He knows all about the Herod’s of this world. He hasn’t had enough light in his life to dispel the darkness. A gift of a left-over poinsettia wasn’t enough. He needed a meal. His Christmas was marred by family dysfunction, substance abuse, and a vain attempt to dull the pain. The real truth of the Gospel is that God will outlast all the Herod’s. Herod’s come and go, but God’s love endures forever.

Western liberalism, as I’ve seen its philosophy practiced, and observed its political machinations, is in its death throes. It can only offer short-term wins that are transitory. Mostly the elite hold onto it, and piously and pompously discuss how all we need to do is to become better people and nicer. What hubris! The humanistic demand to accept everything and everybody has a problem, though. His name is Herod. I’m not afraid to call on God to defeat him. As a matter of fact, it’s the only way! Epiphany reminds us that we cannot save ourselves, therefore we need God’s self-revelation in and through Jesus Christ. Anything or anyone less is laughable to Herod. Only Jesus causes him to quake in fear. I will enter 2017 committed to holding onto Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Come Lord Jesus, come!

Listen to the 13th century English Coventry Carol and hear the plaintive cry of Bethlehem’s mothers in the midst of loss. Their tragic plight must be noted or Herod wins. It’s not pretty. It’s not meant to be, but it’s real. Authentic faith calls upon God to deliver us from evil. First we have to admit that it exists.

 

Airplanes, Storms, and God’s Providence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

hurricane

Missing Tomato Aspic

There’s a funeral tomorrow and grief for another family that will have an empty seat at this year’s Thanksgiving table. This is everyone’s reality: How do you give thanks when someone you dearly loved is missing? This year our unexpected death was Aunt Claire. There were other deaths with Aunt Alva and first cousin Virginia, but Claire’s was a total shock. As much as I disliked the tomato aspic that she dutifully brought to Thanksgiving and Christmas, this year I will sorely miss it because I’ll miss her. One way to handle Thanksgiving when you feel the losses is to add up the blessings that those no longer with us gave us while they were here.

This reminds me of a very poignant Thanksgiving that our family observed 14 years ago. We were at Cindy’s mother’s house and we feasted and reminisced about former days. We deeply missed Mr. Godwin or “Gandaddy,” as the children called him. My Dad’s sudden death just weeks before his was heavily on my mind, too. As I was walking around in the yard before we left I noticed the stump of the old oak tree that had stood for centuries beside the house. After Hugo ripped up another of the ancient giants in the yard and the last ice storm decimated the rest, it seemed a good idea to cut down this hazard that was located so precariously close to the house. All that had been left for several years was a huge stump.

I’m sure the transformation took place gradually, but that Saturday it was undeniably apparent and immediate. The old stump that had once looked weather beaten and forlorn was alive again. It was sprouting new shoots, live branches of hope into the gray sky. They were at least four feet tall and climbing. The serendipity of the find gave me pause to think about life and its changes. We go through lifeless seasons of scarring and barrenness, and then Jesus’ power causes us to sprout again. Even when it seems like life is over, Jesus can resurrect us. There is no damage that Jesus can’t undo!

Another serendipitous occasion over that Thanksgiving holiday was the arrival at my mother-in-law’s of a cute little beagle. Mrs. Godwin had enjoyed her two cats, but she had sorely missed the Boykin spaniel that she and Mr. Godwin mutually adored. Bud was the dog that they loved so much. Bud enjoyed riding in the pickup with Mr. Godwin and lying down at Mrs. Godwin’s feet. He was so old he started to edge closer and closer to death’s door, but, because he was so much a reminder of Mr. Godwin’s life, Mrs. Godwin spared no expense in vet bills to try and keep Bud going, especially after Mr. Godwin’s untimely death. However, one day Bud just disappeared, either he was stolen or instinctually wandered off in order to die away from his “Mother,” as if to spare Mrs. Godwin yet another grief.

Other dogs had come and gone before Bud: Brio, and Britt, to name a couple. You probably noticed that all their names started with the letter “B.” So one’s imagination wouldn’t have to work overtime to figure out what new name this foundling beagle was granted: Barney. Mrs. Godwin, living by herself, had said repeatedly that she wanted another dog, but she didn’t have the desire or physical stamina to train another one for the house. Well, God does work in mysterious ways. Barney just happened to be house-broken already, had quite a menacing bark for a dog with his diminutive size so he could protect Mrs. Godwin, and he quickly learned to use the “dog door” that Mr. Godwin installed some time before his death. Once again, when we least expected it, just like the old tree stump’s new shoots, new life enters our pain and gives us hope.

Advent season can be a similar experience for us frail time-bound human creatures. One recent year our family didn’t even put up a Christmas tree because we were too overwhelmed by personal concerns in the aftermath of Mrs. Godwin’s sudden death and Narcie’s first brain tumor surgery. Every year since, determined to open our hearts to Jesus’ power to bring new life, we have put up our decorations weeks earlier than usual.

Instead of retreating into worry, which is more my problem and not Cindy’s, Advent dares us to move toward God’s in-breaking kingdom, whether it comes in the form of new shoots out of a seemingly dead stump, a new puppy, a new baby like Josh and Karen’s due in February, or the ultimate gift of new life that comes in the Christ Child grown up to be the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. May this Advent bring you inspired hope. Yes, we will miss Aunt Claire, Aunt Alva, Cousin Virginia, and the rest of our loved ones who have died this year, but we will look for the signs of hope that they all taught us to see!

tomato aspic

 

South Carolina Flood Relief

This is a good week for I Kings 17:7, “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land.” The State of South Carolina has been inundated and has literally had its fill of rain. My son’s home is split-level and the lower level flooded. His expectant wife along with their 4 and 2 year olds are staying in Aiken with us while he is at home trying to start the repair process. I have been back and forth to Columbia 4 times using every imaginable route to try to maneuver the streets. His situation isn’t dire and everything will be fine. I only mention his situation to say that there are a lot of people in far worse circumstances. People have died. Cindy’s school has been closed all week because roads have disappeared. This clean-up will take a long time, and we need the brook to dry up!

The context of I Kings 17:7 is instructional. Prior to the brook drying up, God had been feeding Elijah via ravens, and his source of life-giving water was a brook near the Jordan River. Then the brook dried up which wasn’t good news for Elijah like it is for us. It’s good news for us in flood-stricken South Carolina, but bad news for a desert-bound prophet. God then provided another avenue to meet Elijah’s needs. Maybe that’s the primary lesson from Elijah: Hang in there no matter what, or using the words of the South Carolina motto “Dum Spiro Spero, “While I breathe, I hope.” That is what defines both SC Strong and Christian Strong!

Sometimes, though, it takes a while to even gather hope. God told Elijah to find a certain poor widow in a nearby town and ask for food. She didn’t have any, plus she said that she barely had enough ingredients to make a final meal for herself and her only son before their anticipated deaths. Elijah asked for a meal anyway and she complied and miraculously her food supply stayed constant. That says something about giving even when you’re hurting. Unfortunately the celebration of that miracle was short-lived because her son did die. But the story doesn’t end there. God raised the widow’s son from the dead. We are also in that weird interval when we’re not sure how the story of the SC Flood will end, but we have hope in resurrection, beauty from ashes, bricks out of mud, and lessons from loss. Like the widow, how we respond will largely determine the outcome.

For many of us our theological understanding of God’s taking care of us has been flipped. On one hand there is ample Biblical hope that suggests that we will be saved from floods; i.e., Isaiah 43: 1-2, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” That didn’t come true for some this week, but the God “with” us part has for all of us. Other passages are tricky to understand, too, like the one Jesus uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:24-27: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” This doesn’t offer much comfort and seems to blame us if we get whacked by calamity.

Frankly, most of us would agree that we live this conundrum of “Why, O Lord?” every day and especially in times of crisis: “God, if this is the way you treat your friends no wonder you have so many enemies.” So floods, cancer, and calamities are very complex from a Christian perspective. For instance, we affirm that God sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The part I don’t like, maybe you don’t either, is that God is the one doing the “sending” in Jesus’ sermon. I’m good with a heavy rainfall in a drought, but not like what we’ve had! The counterbalance to God’s seeming responsibility in rain or drought is the time Jesus was on the boat in the storm with the disciples in Luke 8:24. It says Jesus rebuked the storm, “He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.”

Jesus only used the word “rebuke” when dealing with evil or those possessed by evil. Why would Jesus have to rebuke the storm if nature was already under his control? If God’s will is already a done deal then why are we asked in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? It seems to me that nature has a mind of its own, and is often at cross-purposes with God’s perfect will. So we trust God to do what God does best and that is to enter our pain and redeem it.

God does exactly that in the Incarnation of Christ: Jesus experienced all of our problems, died all of our deaths, and ROSE AGAIN! Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:14-16 assure us that Jesus went through all of his suffering so that we can know that God will make a way for us, too. That is the basis for our hope. It is not a fanciful rose-colored hope that knows no storms. It is a hope that is true because it has been through the storms. South Carolina will live up to its motto and then some. It has done it before and will do it again. While WE breathe, WE hope!

How is St. John’s Providing Flood Relief?

We are encouraging monetary DONATIONS to SC Conference Disaster Response, which will:

* Rebuild and repair affected churches, including small churches that do not have flood insurance.

     * Initiate an estimated three-year recovery phase until everyone is back in a home.

     * Walk with those who, even with FEMA help, will not have the resources to rebuild.

Why money rather than tangible assistance?

     * While bottled water, food, and flood buckets are absolutely necessary, the UMC Disaster Response team will provide sustainable and long-lasting means of recovery, rather than solely initial relief.

     * Our UMC SC conference staff are trained to identify how our resources can be used most productively.

     * ALL donations will only be used for SC flood relief as our apportionments cover all administrative costs.

How can I give?

* Bring a donation by the church office or drop it in the offering plate.

     * Cash donations and checks: Please specify on your envelope or memo line “SC flood relief.”

     * Donate online at:                                                                                                                     http://www.umcsc.org/data/disasterresponseflood2015.php

South Carolina

Soul Drought and The Lord of the Dance

I’m preaching on Psalm 1 this coming Sunday and not feeling at all like a tree planted by God’s living water. There’s some soul drought going on. Do you have days when you can perceptively feel the heaviness in the air, even the cosmos? These are the times that the poem “Footprints” is helpful. It reminds me that when I have felt the most tired and alone and I’m upset that there’s only one set of footprints on the beach, that’s exactly when the Lord carried me.

We go through life thinking that we and God are walking hand in hand and see two pairs of footprints. Suddenly we notice there’s only one set and we wonder where God went. We have all been there. Whipped, tired, and worn. If another shoe falls, we don’t have the strength to pick it up. We need Jesus to carry us. Unfortunately, I often teeter into a melancholy and find myself unable to get moving again. I want Jesus to keep carrying me.

That’s not the life most of us want. We want God’s help when we’re powerless, but we prefer joy. Someone said it this way, “Joy is not the absence of suffering. It is the presence of God.” I think it’s more than that. It’s more than Jesus carrying us through tough times. It’s more than hanging in there. We want to do more than survive. We want to thrive!

This is when I most appreciate the variation on the “Footprints” poem. It fulfills Psalm 30:11, “You (Lord) have turned my mourning into dancing; you have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” I don’t know if you’re ready to hop out of the Lord’s strong sheltering grip and get on with Life with Jesus by your side, but read this and see if it describes where you are or want to be:

“Imagine you and the Lord Jesus are walking down the road together. For much of the way, the Lord’s footprints go along steadily, consistently, rarely varying the pace. But your footprints are a disorganized stream of zigzags, starts, stops, turnarounds, circles, departures and returns. For much of the way, it seems to go like this, but gradually your footprints come more in line with the Lord’s, soon paralleling His consistently.

You and Jesus are walking as true friends! This seems perfect, but then an interesting thing happens: Your footprints that once etched the sand next to Jesus’ are now walking precisely in His steps. Inside His larger footprints are your smaller ones, safely you and Jesus are becoming one. This goes on for many miles, but gradually you notice another change. The footprints inside the large footprints seem to grow larger. Eventually they disappear altogether.

There is only one set of footprints; they have become one. This goes on for a long time, but suddenly the second set of footprints is back. This time it seems even worse! Zigzags all over the place. Stops. Starts. Deep gashes in the sand. A disordered canvas on the sand, as both sets of footprints go every which direction. You are amazed and shocked. Your dream ends.

Now you pray: ‘Lord, I understand the first scene with zigzags and fits. I was a new Christian; I was just learning. But you walked on through the storm and helped me learn to walk with you.’

‘That is correct,’ says the Lord.

You continue, ‘… and when the smaller footprints were inside of Yours, I was actually learning to walk in Your steps; followed you very closely.’

‘Very good. You have understood everything so far,’ says Jesus.

‘… when the smaller footprints grew and filled in Yours, I suppose that I was becoming like you in every way.’

‘Precisely.’

‘So, Lord, was there a regression or something? The footprints separated, and this time it was worse than at first.’

There is a pause as the Lord answers with a smile in his voice. ‘You didn’t know? That was when we danced.’”

Maybe today is a day that you need Jesus to carry you and that’s fine, might even be necessary. Maybe today’s a day when you want to walk hand in hand beside Jesus with two sets of footprints. Frankly, what I’m feeling is to get up and go, and stop wallowing in this soul’s dark night. I need a dance partner today – Jesus. I want joy; to thrive, not just survive! What about you?

Dogs and Cats as Christians

How would politics change if there was no more mud-slinging? We’re over a year away from the election and it is ridiculous. How about a requirement that we follow Jesus’ “Golden Rule.” It is never out of date or style, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” It’s a rule that is pertinent to the immigration crisis in Europe and the U.S. It hits home with issues of racism, prejudice, and the general animosity we feel toward everyone that irks us. It works behind slow drivers, in front of slow clerks, and beside inattentive wait staff. We want to be treated fairly and nice, so we need to treat everyone else the same way. How would our day, life, ministry, marriage, and demeanor change if we simply follow Jesus’ advice and treat people the way we want to be treated?

Consequences and ripple effects come to mind. Bad deeds reap repercussions and good ones pay kindness forward. Welcoming the stranger, immigrant, and the family outcast is an act of grace that we ourselves desperately need. No one has a corner on the market of either goodness or evil. In Romans 3:23 we get the Lord’s perspective on the universal human predicament, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” In John 3:16 we see God’s worldwide remedy, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” God’s judgment on our sin is always bracketed by Jesus’ grace.

Of course, it’s not cheap grace. Jesus’s death came at an ultimate cost. Reconciliation costs everyone! Following the Golden Rule is extremely difficult! To forgive an offending party is hard. Just ask the families of the Charleston Nine. I listened last night to two of the survivors and was struck once again by the magnitude of their grace. They made it clear that the only way they have been able to forgive is because they themselves have been forgiven. We can welcome the unwelcome and love sinners because there’s not that much difference between us. We all need Jesus, don’t we? The reciprocity of the Golden Rule is common to all, so why don’t we practice it?

I know my usual reason is my own hubris. Many of us make the assumption that we’re better than others and look down our noses at them. Since we think we’re better, then we don’t think it’s fair or right for us to have a Golden Rule quid pro quo equanimity in our relationship with the lesser-thans. How elitist and not at all like Jesus. Plus it’s just not true. We are ALL guilty and deserve God’s wrath, “Except for the grace of God, go I…”

I’ve been reading a book, Cat and Dog Theology, that is subtitled “Rethinking Our Relationship with Our Master.” It makes an interesting analogy that discloses my self-centered smugness. It offers a suggestion that Christians can either be like cats or dogs. Cats are finicky and pretty much think that the world revolves around them. Dogs are eager servants and loyal to a fault.

These are generalizations and there are certainly exceptions. Some dogs are mean and lazy, and some cats will purr you into a good mood with their affection. Nevertheless, the analogy is effective in convicting me of being too self-centered to follow the Golden Rule. Rather than please the Master, I often think I’m the master. I want to be a loving dog-like Christian that welcomes the stranger, and not like a cat in a room full of rocking chairs that is too scared to budge because I might get hurt.

It takes risk and courage to follow the Master. My experience is that dogs do leashes better than cats! Cat or dog Christian, which are you? Consider the story of two thieves to help you decide. They barged into an old man’s room and demanded all of his valuables and money. They told him that there was no way for him to stop them. He replied, “I don’t want to stop you. Here, take what money I have and anything that you can use.”

They took everything they could see and one of then pilfered a new shirt he saw in the old man’s closet. Just as they were leaving with all their booty, the old man said, “I didn’t realize that you were interested in clothing. Here, take the coat that I bought this afternoon. I’m certain it will fit you.” One of the thieves demanded, “What’s your game, old man? Why are you offering me the coat?”

The old man replied, “I try my best to live by the commands of Christ. He told his followers not to resist those who are evil and that if someone takes your shirt to offer him your coat as well (Matthew 5:39-40). The two men listened with amazement to the man’s simple words. Then they carried everything they were stealing back into the house.

As they left, the first man whispered, “Pray for us, old man.” The second one just shook his head and said, “I didn’t know there were any Christians left in the world.” Live the Golden Rule and watch how the world will change. Cats can be casual observers of life and its hardships. The world needs us to go get help. Woof! Woof!

Daddy’s Advice: “Let it be!”

Maybe you’ve heard the story of the man whose neighbor saw him come home every day from a hard day at work and stop in his yard before entering the house and would hold his hands out and run them up and down on the leaves of a certain tree. Then the man would go inside. One day the neighbor asked the man why he went up to that tree every day. The man told him about his anxieties and difficulties at work and about how much he loved his family. He didn’t want to take his troubles into his home and bother his family so he picked a tree that he called his “Trouble Tree” where he would leave his problems. He said it always amazed him how few troubles were on that tree the next morning. We all need a way to let go of our troubles.

My Dad had a particular way of dealing with his troubles. He had a way of saying, “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff,” but it wasn’t in church-appropriate words. I have told Cindy for years that I want the saying on my tombstone. She has refused, of course, due to the quote’s edginess. I have suggested getting it translated into Hebrew, Greek, or Gaelic, but no dice. I can’t even let you know what it is, but, suffice it to say, it means, in essence, “Try not to worry.” I’ve thought a lot about Daddy in my post-Annual Conference processing and discernment. Our imminent celebration of Father’s Day has him on my mind, too.

The way that I have most heard his advice intoned during the last few days has come from an unlikely source, and one I’m pretty sure he would dislike: The Beatles. Driving around in my car since last week and listening to my favorite playlist, Paul McCartney’s song “Let It Be” has been my “go-to” song. I never really gave much thought to what the lyrics meant. Over the years I think I guessed that the words, “Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be…,” was some reference to the Virgin Mary, and I thought that “Let it be” was a prayer-like phrase with a connotation of “que sera, sera,” i.e.; “whatever will be, will be.” The notion that whatever happens is going to happen as if God pre-planned disasters, shootings and calamities is malarkey. It doesn’t leave room for human choice and the sheer evil that occurs.

After really listening to the song in the context of some of my personal anxiety and discernment about the future, it hit me! This is my Dad’s saying in different words! “Let it be,” means “leave it alone,” not “let it happen.” Give it to God, walk away, don’t keep fretting and dwelling on the “what-if’s” of life. Let it be! It’s not about accepting things the way they are as if there’s no way to change things. It’s about not getting so worked up that you can’t think or hear straight.

Actually that’s what Paul McCartney says about the song’s origin. He was at a low point in his life, and was sensing that the Beatle’s weren’t going to make it much longer as a band. His childhood anchor was his mother who died when he was fourteen. When he wrote the song he was at the point that her face was beginning to fade from his memory and he desperately needed her, just like I still need my Dad.

So in the midst of despair, McCartney’s mother came to him, and her name was Mary. He described what happened, “So in this dream twelve years later, my mother appeared, and there was her face, completely clear, particularly her eyes, and she said to me very gently, very reassuringly: ‘Let it be.’ It was lovely. I woke up with a great feeling. It was really like she had visited me at this very difficult point in my life and gave me this message: Be gentle, don’t fight things, just try and go with the flow and it will all work out. So, being a musician, I went right over to the piano and started writing a song: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me’… Mary was my mother’s name… ‘Speaking words of wisdom, let it be. There will be an answer, let it be.’ It didn’t take long. I wrote the main body of it in one go, and then the subsequent verses developed from there: ‘When all the broken-hearted people living in the world agree, there will be an answer, let it be.’”

So, as I discern and we all try to figure out the senseless tragedies of life as in all the broken-hearted people in Charleston, SC, we leave alone that which we cannot know, and do something about what we do know to find or create solace, justice, and hope. We don’t just shut down and give into a tragic and fatalistic cosmic plan. My way of letting things be is to go to God in prayer, embrace solitude in tiny and large moments, and trust that God always is present.He doesn’t cause pain, but has entered our pain through the wounded Christ to redeem it. Therefore, instead of Mother Mary coming to me and whispering words of wisdom, it’s Jesus standing up on the storm-tossed boat and rebuking the wind and waves and saying, “Peace, be still!” I’ll wait for His answer and trust His tremendous love for all of God’s children. On this tumultuous ride that we call life, don’t work yourself into worse thinking and reactions: Let it be.

The Chaos Imperative – Blessings in Disguise

A blessing in disguise is a rare event for me, but I’ve had several this week. First we had a situation with a medicine that one of us takes. There’s never been any problem with getting it refilled, and it has been a regular medicine for years. The pharmacy, however, said it was disallowed by the insurance company. To make a very long story short, it’s been quite a saga of calling the doctor’s office, speaking to just the right nurse who could read the file, going through a committee of the pharmacy provider, getting an automated message last night that it was approved, “Yay!” and then 3 phone calls this morning to get a whopping three pills because the pharmacy has to order this med because it’s about to go generic. Whew!

You’re probably asking, “What was the blessing in disguise?” In the midst of all the events surrounding this saga, it dawned on me that a med that I’ve been taking for years seemed to be running low when I opened the bottle last night. I remembered that I had talked to my doctor about a refill several weeks ago, and his nurse called me to make sure that she had the right number for the call-in prescription line. I didn’t think anything more about it, safely assuming, I thought, that it would arrive shortly in the mail. But in the midst of dealing with the other medicine situation it dawned on me that I usually would have received the meds by mail by now so I went on-line this morning and checked to see if it was on the way. It wasn’t!

So I backtracked with the doctor’s office ad infinitum and called our mail-pharmacy number. Now things are straight on both meds and they’re on the way, plus the rest of the first pharmacy order should be here tomorrow. Breathe! The blessing in disguise is that if I hadn’t had a problem with the first medicine then I probably wouldn’t have remembered that the second one was delayed or noticed that it was running low. By the time I would have figured that out, I would have been out of that one, too!

Blessings in disguise are hard to see when you’re in the throes of anxiety. No wonder the British Navy has a whistle they blow just before they come to “battle stations” in a crisis or emergency. It’s called “The Still.” Their thinking is that if we will pause before we get freaked out then we’ll be better able to think and handle the situation in a much more productive manner. I just finished reading a book called The Chaos Imperative by Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack that makes the same point. They suggest that a little unstructured space or pausing can provide insights and innovation. They call it “white space.” White space allows us to recognize more clearly the blessings in disguise that we have written off as horrible intrusions. As Christians, we call this space: prayer, meditation, Sabbath, or doing our devotions. Whatever we call it, our times apart allow us to see God’s perspective on our anxious moments and recognize blessings in disguise.

My second “Aha!” moment of a blessing in disguise occurred over the weekend into yesterday. Last week was my week off. After trips to see grandkids, I was looking forward to a weekend of catching up on favorite TV shows that we had DVRed. I particularly wanted to watch the Masters. Guess what? Our TV went out. I called the cable company and the first night they said that it was an area wide issue. The next day it happened again and the person that I finally reached said it was just a service issue unique to us. Don’t you just love all the “press number” hoops you have to work through to get to a real person! Anyway the person had me reprogram our remotes, unhook the cable, re-do it, send a reset order over the line to the cable box, and on and on until 45 minutes later on Saturday afternoon they said there was no hope, and that the earliest we would get a service call was going to be on Tuesday – yesterday. Goodbye “Master’s” and “Elementary,” and “Bones,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Last Man Standing.”

The blessing in disguise was that instead of freaking out, Cindy and I were disconnected from our cyber-lives for a blessed few days and simply sat in our den and talked and read, went to bed early, and rested much better. On top of that when the repairman did come yesterday, it not only was a very simple fix, but he and I had a very helpful serendipitous conversation about faith and hope. It became a sacred moment – all because the TV went out and we went beyond a having a hassle-filled hissy to being still. The next time I get frazzled I’m going to latch onto Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God,” and give purposeful pausing a chance. There are blessings in disguise that I need to see. How about you?

Chaos Imperative

Taps or Reveille?

I don’t think that it ever hit me until this week how our country went from triumph to tragedy so quickly 150 years ago. On Palm Sunday 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army, effectively ending the American Civil War. Five days later, on Good Friday 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and died the next day. A horrible war with brother against brother, state against state was capped by another horror. From triumph to tragedy in just a few days.

I am looking out my study window right now and can see the graves of 26 Union soldiers who died 5 weeks before the Civil War ended. How awful to be so close to the end of the carnage and yet die. Historical accounts of the Battle of Aiken, SC on February 11, 1865 list 53 Union soldiers killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured for a total of 495 casualties for the North. On the Confederate side there were 31 killed, 160 wounded, and 60 captured for a total of 251 casualties. I cannot imagine the awful grief that gripped the families of these young men who died so close to the war’s end.

Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and five days later was killed on Good Friday, too. Both Jesus and Lincoln were killed, but Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois is occupied, and Jesus’ is empty. Nevertheless, I am struck to the core by the juxtaposition of life and faith. We live in a world of bad news, and yet we believe in Good News. We believe in a God who can go with us from the peak and valley of triumph to tragedy and still redeem it all for good. Today is Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

I just met with a mother whose child is in that in-between crucible of surgery and prognosis. So many of us have been on that roller-coaster ride between the peak of “We got it all,” and the valley of “There’s something suspicious.” Right now, two very special people, Revs. Chris and Elise Barrett, are on this roller-coaster and are facing it with a brave Easter faith that doesn’t gloss over the very real sense of mortality that so many seek to deny or avoid. Chris’ lymphoma has come back with a vengeance and he and Elise are doing the very best that they can to fill a bucket list of memories.

We all know people all over the world who are experiencing Good Friday crucifixions but try to live Sunday’s Easter faith. They are inspirations. For all who live in this tension between a won war and the tragedy of after-action casualties, we need to celebrate Easter all the more. Jesus rose from the dead with scars – pierced hands, feet, and side, to remind us that the reality of pain isn’t touched up by the makeup and brush of a mortician’s hand. Jesus continues to carry the marks of what life dealt him, but he is very much alive.

Therefore, we can all get on with our bucket lists and dare life to deal us its worst blows because God is the conqueror of death. Sure, we all would rather not have the pain of Good Friday, and would rather go peak to peak from Palm Sunday to Easter, but that’s not reality. The deaths that we die are not the way God wants it for God loves us so much that he would never cause us harm. Bad things are never God’s will (James 1:17), but what God does best is that through Jesus Christ he walks the solemn path with us, and defeats every foe. This is our life as Christians: triumph to tragedy to triumph, over and over again, but through Jesus the last scene will always be one of triumph, not the sounding of “Taps,” but “Reveille.”