King Jesus versus the Pandemic

The pessimist may be right in the long run, but the optimist has a better time during the trip! Who will do better in the COVID-19 pandemic: the person who sees the glass half-full, or half-empty? Think about our faith and Christian optimism. Isn’t the empty tomb the basis of our faith? The disciples weren’t behind just closed doors. They were locked! Being locked up is the story of our cooped up lives lately. The disciples were scared, and so are we. Where’s our optimism?

It’s in Jesus! Easter forever reminds us that Jesus was, is and will be triumphant. Certainly Jesus had moments of pessimism when dealing with the religious leaders, and even his disciples, but he never wavered in his trust of God. Even when he began his recitation of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he knew the rest of the psalm, and how it ends in victorious optimism. Please take the time to read the whole thing, and see the dramatic swing from a woeful attitude to the crescendo of faith. It ends with an exclamatory, “He has done it!”

Put that phrase into the context of Jesus on the Cross when he said, “It is finished,” and it makes what sounds like a sad surrender become a spike-the-football moment. “He has done it!” Wow! No matter what our trials, He has done it! He has done it before, and he can do it again! God’s got this! Do we believe it?

One can hear the echoes of optimism through the lives of the faithful over the centuries. Just focus on St. Paul and his life, and that’s inspiring enough. In prison in Acts 16:23-34, Paul and Silas were beaten with rods, severely flogged, stripped naked, thrown into prison, their feet locked into stocks, but at midnight, instead of crying, they started praising God while singing hymns. This is the same Paul who said in Romans 8:37-39 that we are more than conquerors through Jesus. So much so that, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor ANYTHING in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen. Take that COVID-19!

It’s a rough world, to be sure, but Jesus is Lord of Lords and King of Kings. Oh, how we have an opportunity during these quarantine days to sing hymns at midnight, to be people of joy, to be overcomers that are more than conquerors! What good does it do your spirit to be a whiner? Nothing. We all know it’s tough, some more than others. There are things that can keep us awake with worry every night, but remember the words of Isaiah 26:3, “He will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are stayed on Him.”

What are our minds focused on? Three people were visiting the Grand Canyon: an artist, a pastor, and a cowboy. As they stood on the edge of the huge gash in the landscape, each one responded with surprise. The artist said, “Ah, what a beautiful scene to paint!” The minister cried out, “What a wonderful example of the handiwork of God!” The cowboy said, “What a terrible place to lose a cow!”

Can’t we look on the bright side and choose joy instead of woe and worry? Joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. As someone said, “An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?” As people of faith, we know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not an oncoming train. It is the light of the glory of God seen in the face of Christ. The devil isn’t going to have the last word, and neither is this pandemic. God has got this! He has done it! God has got this! Jesus is King! He has done it! Jesus Christ is King!

Easter Hope from Old Salem

Holy Week Hope is what I need this year. COVID-19 has ravaged the world and things like Easter services have changed in its wake. This doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is alive and well. Holy Week’s drama doesn’t end on Golgotha, but at the empty tomb. There will be differences this year because we can’t meet together, but I pray that we will hear the echoes of “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” reverberate in our hearts.

I have always wanted to attend the Easter Sunrise service at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Being a pastor makes it nearly impossible to pull that off due to leading my own flock in worship. This year marks the 240th uninterrupted succession of Easter Services at Old Salem. The Moravians since Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf in Herrnhut, Germany have given this poignant and powerful homage to Christian hope and faith. This year it will be just as rich except it will be live-streamed at http://www.moraviansunrise.org/. It’s not an extravaganza, never has been. It’s deep and worshipful. It is the essence of Christian hope because it’s not based on pyrotechnics or stage management. It is simple, yet extremely profound.

We need to remember the Moravian influence on John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who was caught in a storm at sea frightened for his life and soul, yet surrounded by these German Pietists who had heart faith that inspired them to sing hymns and pray through the storm. They had more than the head faith of Wesley. The Moravian’s witness had a profound effect on Wesley that led him to believe Methodists would do best if we connected head and heart, and literally “felt” our religion. Wesley even met with Zinzendorf at Herrnhut to experience more of this living hope himself.

Feeling our religion is the essence of hope. So yearly, albeit 2020 will be quite different, the Moravians who have been in Old Salem since the 1700’s have celebrated their faith in a special way. At 1:45 am a brass band of nearly 400 using trumpets and tubas goes around the city and plays Easter music, alerting everyone that sunrise will soon be coming. Then they gather at the Old Salem Church at 6 am when the bishop steps out of the Moravian Church into the darkness and says the traditional Easter Greeting: “The Lord is Risen!” The gathered throng responds, “He is risen indeed!” Then silently they make their way to the ancient cemetery called “God’s Acre” where bodies have been buried or sown in faith as physical bodies so they can be raised up as spiritual bodies.

The cemetery is a witness itself of new life. Every flat recumbent stone is identical and they are covered with flowers: forsythia, jonquils, azalea and dogwood blossoms – whatever plants, bushes, and trees are full of color are carefully laid on each tomb as a sign of resurrection piercing the night’s fading darkness. The tombs are all the same for each person as a reminder that each of us needs God’s grace the same as anyone else. Tombs are not gathered in family plots, but are ranked in specific order of married women, unmarried women, married men, unmarried men, etc. Zinzendorf himself said this is the way it should be as if our bodies were “choirs,” of sorts, with equality and democracy the same rule of heaven as it should be on earth with no one better than another.

Gathered there at the cemetery in silence everyone looks toward the eastern hill beside God’s Acre and the cedars that were brought from Germany when the first Moravians settled Salem. The sun comes up over that hill and the Communion of Saints is revealed: the earthly saints in the Church Militant joined with the deceased saints in the Church Triumphant, all living saints as represented by the people standing and the graves festooned by every imaginable color of flower. It is impressive. “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen indeed!”

Pray and plan that Holy Week and Easter 2020 will be as glorious as any in Old Salem. May we feel stronger in the faith as we visualize our deceased loved ones alive again and rooting us on in our quest for hope and resurrection today. Amen.

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.

 

 

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?

Music and Lent – Beating the Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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