Easy Buttons and The Waiting Place: Trusting God and the Need for Revival

Hearing “That was easy!” from an “Easy Button” from Staples would come in handy with a lot of our current situations. The stock market has taken a tumble, politics has rattled everyone, North Korea’s nuclear missile ambitions are frightening, the Artic is clogged with plastic waste, and the list goes on. Then there’s the usual personal stuff: illnesses, financial limitations, emotional struggles, work-related stress, and add graduation to the list. Whether it’s graduation from kindergarten, high school, college, or grad school, we wonder what’s next. What if my friends move or switch schools, what if I can’t find a job? How will I pay off these student loans? What’s the next step in my relationships? None of these questions are easy.

Then there’s the cultural dilemma of a rudderless society. We need a revival that is Spirit-led that begins with repentance. Our flippant devil-may-care “YOLO” – You Only Live Once attitude smacks us in the face every day when YODO is more accurate, You Only Die Once. Kids, youth, and adults of all ages make goals out of things that are so self-centered and oftentimes unspeakable. Our standards of morality have fallen to new lows. We need Jesus more than ever.

My favorite gift to graduating high school seniors for years has been Oh, the places You’ll Go! By Dr. Seuss. I’ll give them out again this year, but my optimism has been tempered by “fake” or real news. The bias in the news media makes me long for the days of Huntley and Brinkley or Walter Cronkite. I remember clearly the awful daily reports of the number of Vietnam dead. That was terrible, but today’s cacophony of talking heads makes it impossible to compartmentalize our lives to block out the noise. Sports used to be a great escape, but doping scandals and head injury debates make me feel like we’re watching fights to the death by gladiators in ancient Rome.

We can get fooled by placebos that only mask our main malady. I can push my “That was Easy!” button and it doesn’t change a thing. Heck, in my rush to get on and off elevators, I can push the “close door” button countless times to no avail. What most people don’t know is that those buttons don’t even work. They are set with specific intervals so that no one gets caught in the doors. The placebo effect makes us think we’re going somewhere, but it’s really the same-old, same-old. I can go out and buy an Ultra High Definition 4K Television and fool myself into thinking how sharp and crisp the picture is when all the while it doesn’t matter. My cable provider can’t handle 4K, so there you go. It’s a sham.

So, Dr. Seuss, the places we’ll go don’t look that great right now. What are we to do? If you know anything about Seuss’ book then you know that he identified what he called the “most useless place.” It is “The Waiting Place.” For maybe the first time I think the author is wrong. In these tumultuous times, a waiting place might just be the best place to be. Instead of purchasing or chasing placebos for what ails us, why don’t we wait? There’s a Bible verse in Isaiah 40:28-31 that says that “those who WAIT upon the Lord will renew their strength…” Amen to that!

Our society is into pushing the instant gratification button, and it doesn’t work with elevators or much of anything else! We think we can control all of life’s variables, and we overlook the best source of real peace and joy: Jesus. It doesn’t get much plainer than Matthew 11:28 where Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Our frantic frenetic world needs to wait on the Lord, pause, quit rushing here and there, and cast our cares on the Lord.

I Peter 5:6-11 says the same thing another way, and speaks volumes of good advice to me: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

Another Bible passage that helps me wait and listen for God comes from I Kings 19. The prophet Elijah was about to give up and was in hiding and waiting in a cave while his enemies pursued him. In the midst of his waiting, God spoke to him: “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Then the Lord spoke, but not through the powerful wind, nor the subsequent earthquake, nor the fire that came next. After the fire came the Lord’s “gentle whisper,” sometimes translated as “a still small voice.” Let us be like Elijah and, though our foes be many, let’s listen for God’s whispers each day. He will speak, not in huge ways usually, but in gentle whispers.

We need to cock our ears toward God and be attentive. Our world and especially American culture needs to get right with God. We need to repent of our own foolish efforts to fix our problems. We need to shut our ears to the shouts of doomsayers, and we need to listen to God. We need to wait on the Lord, listen to his direction and follow his will. Just maybe, if we wait long enough, we’ll hear God’s still small voice and there will be grand places that we will go! Listen!

So hear this blessing from Jesus in Matthew 6:25ff: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, drink or wear…Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?…Seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Let us turn to the Lord and mean it more than we ever have before. It’s time!

Oh The Places

Pray for UMC General Conference

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Conference 2016 Picture

United Methodists and Missions

What do you want to happen in 2016? Get started now or it will never happen! I would contend that our whole year takes shape by what we do or don’t do in January. We set the stage for the whole rest of the year. If we want better relationships then start now. If we want a better world, start now. If our biggest desire is for a grand remodel on our homes, or the best family vacation ever, start saving now. We turn the calendar to inspire us to have fresh starts. One of the best ways to beat the after Christmas blues, is to start getting ready for the next one.

I have found that one of January’s biggest temptations is to think about our needs before anything or anyone else. The winter months put us into survival mode and it leads to selfishness. For instance, many people just got over the hump of paying last year’s pledge to the church so they’re not that compelled to think about doing it now. The reality is, however, that if we want a great 2016 we have to think about giving our lives and resources away now. Jesus in Luke 9:24 said, “Whoever wants to save his or her life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” So start the year off right by asking how you will give yourself and your resources away for Jesus. Don’t wait until the fourth quarter. Do it now!

Of course, the question arises, “To whom should I give my resources?” A wealthy man asked his pastor what he should do with his intended bequest of $50 million. This faithful church member knew that his pastor would be able to help him decide where to leave the money. The pastor reminded the man that the man had served on the hospital’s board of directors for years so it might be the perfect place to give the money. The man only half-way nodded in agreement, leading the pastor to suggest another place. “What about the local university?” the pastor asked, knowing that this philanthropist dearly loved higher education. The man replied, “No, I don’t think I’ll leave the money to the hospital or the university. They’re great institutions, though. I’m going to leave it all to my church.” The pastor asked incredulously, “Why?” The man’s response was amazing: “If I give all my money to the hospital or the university, they won’t build a church. But if I give it all to the church, they will build a hospital and a university.”

He was exactly right. History proves it! There are over 70 United Methodist hospitals in the United States and hundreds more overseas. There are 102 United Methodist colleges and universities in the U.S. and hundreds more around the globe. Claflin University, Columbia College, Wofford College, and Spartanburg Methodist College were all founded and continue to be supported by United Methodists in South Carolina. Duke and Emory are two other United Methodist institutions that are in nearby states and fit in both categories as hospitals and universities. Give to the church and missions will follow. Over and over again, Christians have given themselves to Christ and to the world. We have been blessed with Jesus’ example and admonition, “Do unto others as we would have them do unto us.”

This coming weekend at St. John’s we will host a “Missions Impact Celebration.” We will hear missionaries from nearby and faraway. They will share compelling stories of what God has been doing, and it will be up to us to be partners with them. Our church gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to missions. We’re doing what Jesus dared in Matthew 28: 19, “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” What we often leave out in our quoting of this Great Commission is the next verse, Matthew 28:20, “and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

In my mind there’s a direct correlation between these two verses: discipling includes obedience. Whoever said that the church is a “voluntary society” missed this correlation. In Luke 9:23, Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he or she must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” In other words, discipleship is a daily matter between you and God. This coming Sunday, you get to prove it as you make your pledge to our above-and-beyond mission partners.

Another passage of Christ’s comes to mind in Luke 6:38, “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” A farmer had a cow who gave one pail of milk each day. The man invited guests for a party. In order to save his milk for the special occasion, he refrained from milking the cow for 10 days. He expected that on the last day the cow would give 10 pails of milk. When he went to milk the animal he found that she had dried up and gave less milk than ever before. Simply put, “Hoarding doesn’t help!”

Tim in Nica

 

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

 

 

 

A New Year’s Epiphany

This coming Sunday is when we celebrate two convergent events: New Year’s and Epiphany. For many of us our January 1 resolutions will already be obsolete when January 3 and Sunday rolls around, but I am grateful that there are some of you who will make important promises and keep them. You will reap benefits throughout the coming year. What spiritual disciplines will you give attention to in the coming year? What health choices do you need to make? How can you make 2016 a banner year in your life? The song from the Broadway hit “Rent” comes to mind: “Seasons of Love” with its lyrics about 525,600 minutes comprising a year in a person’s life.

January gets its name from the Roman god Janus that is always depicted with two faces in opposite directions. Janus was the mythological overseer of beginnings and transitions and offers an appropriate perspective as we begin a new year. Like Janus, we spend a lot of time at this annual juncture with one eye on the past and another on the future. It usually takes me a couple of months to get my years straight. I want to learn from the past, but I want to focus on the future. The only way to do that is to make the most of the present!

Rather than believe in a false god Janus, I believe in the one true God incarnate as Jesus. Epiphany Sunday on January 3, 2016 is a perfect time to believe in our God who forgives our past, makes the present His home, and promises to make a path through the days ahead. I can trust an unknown future to a known God! The Magi followed a sign that brought them face to face with Christ. What signs will he use to bring us closer this year?

The means of grace like devotional Bible reading, dedicated prayer time, purposeful ministry with the poor, consistent authentic worship all come to mind as attainable and healthy spiritual goals. I also think a mindset and demeanor make-over is necessary. Remember the old children’s church song, “If You’re Happy and You Know it,” and how it says our faces will surely show it. It takes a lot fewer muscles to smile than to frown.

People sometimes vex me, and it’s a weakness that I want God to help me with in 2016. My biggest problem, however, is with inanimate objects and hypotheticals. I can get so upset when a “thing” breaks or doesn’t work right. Hypotheticals are those “What if?” questions that make my brain race in a thousand directions. I want to trust God with them and not fret so much. They are mostly unanswerable anyway, or have so many answers that I either freeze up or dash headlong where only fools rush in.

Mostly, I want to make 2016 a bunch of epiphanies. There’s that word again, and it means “a revelation of God.” Like the Magi I want to look up, around, inside, and in every direction to see how and where God shows up. I don’t want to be like that poor guy out West last week who walked off a cliff because he was too engrossed in his smartphone. The most meaningful epiphanies in my life this year will be finding God in the faces of those around me.

My musing at this nexus of New Year’s and Epiphany is all about making the main thing the main thing in 2016. And they’re not things, they are “Who’s.” They’re either God or people. If I don’t get to know God better and value other people more, then this will be a stunted endeavor way short on epiphanies. Fred Craddock, the greatest preacher I’ve ever known, sums up my thoughts pretty well:

“The young woman, twenty-eight years old, at St. Mark’s church in Atlanta, said to me, ‘This is the first time I was ever in a church.’ ‘Really?’ I replied. ‘Yeah,’ said she. ‘Well, how was it?’ She said, ‘Kind of scary.’ ‘Kind of scary?’ I asked. She said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Why?’ I asked. And she said, ‘It just seems so important.’ She said, ‘You know I never go to anything important. This just seemed so important.’”

And it is – everything that you and I do this year needs to carry the weight of importance, or we don’t need to do it. Simple as that, and an epiphany awaits.

Epiphany

 

Thank God for Educators and Schools!

Summer schedules are changing for a lot of people this coming week. It’s already begun for educators who are already back at school having team meetings, professional development days and school or district wide pep rallies of sorts. On top of that I am sure that many educators are sorting through the previous year’s supplies and spending more than a little extra money to get new materials so that their classrooms will be in tiptop shape.

Children, youth, young adults, and others are also feeling the change from summertime schedules. Cindy is in her 28th year of education, and comes from a family of educators. She has been easing back into getting up early and switching gears. This week she’s up at 5 a.m. and next week it will be 4 a.m. It takes a herculean effort for teachers, parents and students to make the adjustment. I especially think of those first-time college students whose parental alarm clocks will be replaced by digital ones, and I pray for those parents who are first-time empty-nesters as they send their children off to college. They’re probably the only parents who aren’t rejoicing that school is about to begin.

At church we have the Blessing of Backpacks this Sunday and will give out very nice identification tags that include a space for the owner’s name and also has the name and logo of the church. It’s an even better idea to let others know your identity as a Christian. Of course, that means that there are certain standards and expectations, but, best of all, I hope these tags remind students and teachers alike that there is a God who is always present and hears every prayer before a test.

In my mind, a new school year provides a literal clean slate, a fresh start: new teachers, new friends, new opportunities, and new challenges. Frankly, I am now convinced there is no such a thing as a clean slate. Every one of us brings knowledge and experiences forward from either our families of origin or previous classroom experiences. Our educational system is built upon those previous encounters, interactions, and building blocks of learning. We might have new surroundings, classmates or students, but we are standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before us. Our whole society rests on the bedrock of our civilization’s foundations when we promote education.

British historian Arnold Toynbee said that over the last 5,500 years there have been at least 30 different civilizations across the world, and 25 of them have collapsed. He said that the fallen civilizations weren’t destroyed by invading armies but by self-implosion. He put it this way, “Civilizations are not murdered. They commit suicide.” Toynbee summed up the stressors that cause such self-immolation in this way: “The number one cause of the fall of civilization is a loss of purpose. When a civilization’s leaders and their institutions lose their sense of purpose, they lose the energy to grapple with all the challenges to the commonweal. If leaders and institutions have no guiding North Star, no sense of cultural mission, they are reduced to currying favor with power or to satisfying the impulses of the masses. If the choice is to exist merely at the pleasure of power on the one hand, or of people’s whims on the other, then leaders and institutions begin to embrace a fatal nihilism.”

If our educational system doesn’t promote purpose then our whole culture is fated for destruction. Of course, it takes compliant students and supportive parents and communities to get it done. Teachers aren’t doling out facts as much as they are instructing students about life and how to be good people who make wise decisions.

Toynbee’s words are so true and frighteningly accurate: “We are only one generation from barbarism.” If teachers, parents, clergy, and the rest of society’s leaders fail to adequately communicate and transmit decent values then our culture is doomed and nihilism’s depressing grip creates an insurmountable death throe: living without purpose. If we want better lives, then our daily choices matter. We can try to turn the ship of state around through legislation and mandated educational benchmarks, but none of this takes the place of good old fashioned responsibility. Parents can’t pawn their children off to educators and expect them to undo parental mistakes or make up for a lack of adequate preparation.

Each of us must begin with our own personal responsibility and investment in community. New school years and weekly worship are two of the most effective ways to get our lives in order. When we go to church and start a new school year we are building on society’s best role models, heroes, pioneers, and paragons of moral virtue. Our society is only as good as our institutions.

We live in an anti-institutional age and that may very well be our culture’s downfall, but the start of every school year gives me hope for the future. So, I want to say thank you to all educators for their personal sacrifices that preserve our culture, and I pledge to pray for you because the stakes are so high. If this country or any culture desires to survive we must value those who carry the most responsibility. Too many in helping professions are underpaid, and you certainly are. None of us would know a thing if it weren’t for a teacher! God bless you! Thank you!

 Book Bag Tag

South Carolina Strong

My prayer today is that all the hoopla and hotheads will settle down so that we can do the real work of forging what our Constitution dares us to do: “Form a more perfect union.” My great-grandfather, Daniel Byrd McClendon, was a Confederate soldier who never owned a slave but suffered greatly in the Civil War. In a sense, it is fitting that it was July 9, 1864, 151 years ago today, that he was shot in the back of the head during the Battle of Monocacy outside of Frederick, Maryland. He was captured, treated for months in two different Union hospitals, and then imprisoned for the remainder of the war. He survived, just barely. The question for me in the aftermath of this day’s historic events is whether we will survive and move forward as a people. I think the answer is the same as it was for my great-grandfather 150 years ago: “Yes.”

I am so glad that on the anniversary of his valor, the people of South Carolina have exhibited grace when under fire once again. No matter your heritage or politics, this was the right thing to do. I can’t think of a better tribute to my great-grandfather and to each person of every race who has borne the brunt of hardship so that future generations will remember that freedom is never without a price. With tears in my eyes, this is a holy day of remembrance for slave and free, Americans all. There is no room for whooping and hollering with glee. This is too special for that, too sacred. This is not just Charleston Strong. This is South Carolina Strong. We will move forward.

Therefore, I have mixed emotions today with the painfully magnificent realization that 9 martyrs did not die in vain, while, at the same time, a flag that has taunted so many can still get its due in a museum. A flag is a symbol, and this banner has meant many things to many people, good and bad. We need to remember that, if we’re going to get along, we must do so in the way that Lincoln suggested near the end of the Civil War. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln said that the Union could be reborn, “With malice towards none…” We must heed his advice, therefore, bind up our common wounds and live life in genuine grace-filled community.

In 1913, on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, a throng of nearly 54,000 Union and Confederate veterans descended once again on the tiny hamlet in southern Pennsylvania. This time, the men of Pickett’s charge didn’t find themselves greeted by deadly blasts of cannon and grapeshot that decimated their ranks. Instead, as the Southern veterans let out their rebel yell, the Union soldiers left their positions behind the stone walls and met their former enemies on the slope below. They embraced with outstretched arms and old foes shed tears of relief and reunion. They had survived and so had their country.

The next day, July 4, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson described the healing of the nation’s wounds, and I’m sure the sight from the previous day moved him: “We have found one another again as brothers and comrades in arms, enemies no longer, generous friends rather, our battles long past, the quarrel forgotten—except that we shall not forget the splendid valor.

On this hallowed day in South Carolina history, may we not flaunt our winning or losing with either hubris or bitterness. Let’s do our ancestors and our recent dead proud by hugging each other, reaching across barriers of race and culture, and saying today that we will dedicate ourselves anew to a future that embraces an indigo blue and every other hue. Splendid valor will not be forgotten. This indeed is South Carolina Strong.

Gettysburg1913

Commencement 2015

Commencement 2015

Dr. Tim McClendon

(Given at Mead Hall, Aiken, SC)

 

Perhaps you have heard the story of the pilot and his 3 passengers: a fifth grade Boy Scout, a priest, and a famous astrophysicist. The pilot frantically opens a door and yells to the others, “The plane is going down and we only have 3 parachutes. I have a family that needs me.” Then he grabs a parachute and jumps from the plane. The famous astrophysicist stands up and says, “I’m the smartest man in the world. It would be a shame for me to die. The world needs me!” He grabs and jumps. The priest says to the Boy Scout, “My son, there’s only one parachute left and I’ve lived a long good life. I don’t have a family, and I’m ready to meet my Maker.” The Boy Scout says, “Hold on, Father. Don’t say anymore. We’re both alright. The world’s smartest man just jumped out of the plane wearing my knapsack.”

Are you, are we smarter than a fifth grader? Do we have wisdom? The difference between wisdom and knowledge is evident in this story. Knowledge is the right information and wisdom is putting it to use. The scientist had knowledge but didn’t know how to use it. I know a lot of smart people today, successful people, affluent people, but they’re jumping out of airplanes wearing knapsacks filled with knowledge and stuff they don’t need instead of parachutes. What is needed in our “Information Age” is not more knowledge, but more wisdom.

My task on this Commencement Day is to help you, all of us, commence, aka begin to live with more wisdom. James 1:5-6 says that if we want more wisdom we should ask God and it will be given to us. Proverbs 4:6-9 tells us that if we value wisdom it will protect us, watch over us, exalt us, honor us, and even give us grace. The best source of wisdom and everything else is found in what Jesus said about Himself in John 14:6: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”

I could end there but counting on His wisdom I offer these tidbits on Commencement Day 2015. I share these 18 thoughts in no particular order. Take them or leave them.

  1. Up until now, especially with your senior year, you have been building a resume to get into the college of your choice and/or win a scholarship, too. Some of you have been building a resume for a different track after high school, but either way from here on, my advice is instead of building a resume, build relationships. Do your work, for sure, but if, from here on out in life, you focus on relationships you WILL get into grad school or a leg-up on the next step in your life!
  2. Don’t post anything on Snapchat, Facebook, or Instagram that you don’t want a future girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, employer or mother-in-law to see. Social Media is permanent so be careful. Even if you set your Snapchat time limit at 1 second, it may last in someone’s brain file forever.
  3. Avoid “Selfies”! Our self-centered, self-obsessed narcissistic society is too full of itself. Don’t be one of those people who takes pictures of their meal, their clothes and God knows what else. The world has little use for name-dropping, pompous, full of yourselves, entitled people who have a preoccupation with appearance over substance. Remember that pride goes before a fall and the branch that hangs the lowest bears the most fruit. If a fraternity, sorority, or group of friends wants you to be or do something that isn’t you, they aren’t the friends that you need anyway.
  4. Avoid, at all costs, living a “plagiarized” life. Copying someone else’s work and claiming it as your own is stealing. Give credit where credit is due. Don’t depend on google, Wikipedia, or Wiki-how for your answers. If you cheat, you will be exposed as a poser in every area of life. Do your own work!
  5. Keep reading and continue to do independent research for the rest of your life. Make sure that your ideas and writing are original. Expand your vocabulary. Read for pleasure and fun. My suggestions would include J.R.R. Tolkien with the Moody Blues playing on your earbuds; anything by N.T. Wright, and the Bible, not necessarily in that order.
  6. Your biggest liability is your need to succeed and please people. It’s okay to fail if you learn from your mistakes and move on! If you make pleasing people your goal in life then you will be a slave to everyone else, and you will play second-fiddle to whomever you’re sucking up to.
  7. When caught in a dilemma, don’t try to force things, panic, and struggle. Instead, practice purposeful pausing. Walk away, take a break, do something unrelated to your problem and then come back to it. This gives you space and opportunity for an epiphany, a new insight. Call it “white space,” whatever – just do it and a new way forward will present itself. Trust me!
  8. Every successful person knows that life has foul lines just like a baseball field. Some things are in play and some things aren’t. Some things are out of bounds and plain wrong. They are off limits. I don’t care what the misbehavior is, even if it makes you supposedly happy, it won’t for long, so have standards and live up to them. It’s called “integrity,” from Old French in tegere which means “in touch,” that you have a core of beliefs upon which everything in your life connects or is in touch. In essence, everyone needs to have a core set of values about which we will not hedge, compromise or desert!
  9. Do your classwork or your necessary labor every day in spite of the adage that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” If you work on your assignments or projects along and along, you’ll actually have more time to relax and play responsibly. Cramming doesn’t promote effective learning nor does procrastinating and waiting until the last minute foster quality work. My adage, “Get it done and have more fun!”
  10. Yes, you will have a laptop, IPhone, Smartphone, and/or a Tablet to use in life, but don’t forget to look up more than you look down. If you’re not careful you’ll run into a telephone pole, plus you may miss meeting the most important person of your life. Look up and listen to people before you forget what their voices sound like because there will come a time in your life when their voices will begin to fade. Look up and listen, and don’t text and drive so that your voice isn’t the first to fade through death!
  11. Think with your head and not with your hormones. Experimentation only belongs in the lab, but don’t do anything improper there either. Love and sex are very often two different things, so avoid the complication until you’re ready. There’s nothing casual about casual sex, and it will have permanent consequences. Watch out for users and abusers who want benefits without commitment.
  12. An observation: The music that you love right now in high school will be your favorite for the rest of your life. Maybe it’s the emotional connection to these wonderful years, but whatever the reason, just accept it and enjoy it. Let the music bring back all the good times, even the tumultuous ones. There’s something therapeutic about it. By the way, it doesn’t hurt to make new playlists for every age and stage of life, too, and, guess what, your future children will have their own playlists and they probably won’t sound like yours, but that’s okay. That’s life, c’est la vie!
  13. Internships are something that will help you decide your direction in life. If offered an apprenticeship and a mentor, go for it. You get paid for an opportunity to test drive a career, but remember a calling, a vocare, a “vocation,” like the word “voice,” is always better than a career. Callings will always make you happier than a career so listen for the Voice!
  14. Sure you hardly ever use cash or a checkbook and that’s great. Plastic is the way to go, but being pre-approved for a credit card doesn’t mean that you have to apply for it. And when you use your debit card for everything, be moneywise and make sure to check your balances often. Avoid student and personal debt like the plague and with all transactions keep your identity protected. There’s some pun in that because how you spend your money reveals a lot about your identity. What do your purchase habits say about yours?
  15. Avoid Platonic thought! The philosopher Plato taught that mind and matter were two separate things and that our minds are good and matter is evil. So what he promoted and is now our soup de jour in our everyday lives is that “If you don’t mind, then it doesn’t matter!” Other interpretations of this line of thinking say things like, “If it feels good, do it!” or “YOLO” – You only live once. What a crock – whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or sex – there will be a payday someday. Therefore, don’t be foolish. You are not invincible. Accidents happen. Buy a life insurance policy and do not separate your thinking from your doing.
  16. Then there’s “Virtual Reality,” which is Platonic thought on steroids. This is the philosophical underpinning of our current worldview with its reliance on computers, virtual on-line relationships, video gaming. We must not forget that as much as we would like some of this to be real, it’s not. Fantasy leagues aren’t reality. Neuroses are something we all use to escape realities we don’t like, but we shouldn’t let “Game of Thrones,” “Trivia Crack,” “Candy Crush Saga” or whatever the latest virtual game is take over our lives to the point where our neuroses become the basis of a psychotic break from reality. When I say, “Get real!” – I mean it. Beware the temptation of living in a fake world with fake friends.
  17. Simple advice: Never buy a new car. Let someone else “eat” the depreciation. A new car loses 11% of its value the first day you drive it home. That’s $2,200 on a $20,000 car. Therefore, never make quick, “I just gotta have it,” knee-jerk decisions whether it’s about shopping, deciding on a major, or a job selection. You need to be adaptable and never “settle” for anything or anyone. Change is the only constant in life, so as much as you like the new this or that, remember it’s going to change. Get used to this fact and do your best to slow your decision-making down through reflection, meditation, and prayer. Never buy a new car!
  18. Remember everything does happen for a reason and you are the usual reason. Everybody wants to say it: “Everything happens for a reason,” and they’re right. Most people want to make God the reason but God loves us and the whole creation enough to give us free will, so don’t blame God for the crud in your life. If God caused the pain and calamities then God would be worse than a child-abuser, and God’s not. Both bad and good things happen mostly because of our choices, and the choices of others. Bad things also get added nudges from the general decay that’s in the world or from Evil. But, remember, YOU are the primary mover of the course of your life. God’s providence will help you and lead you, but it’s up to you to make the decision and do something about it. I guess what I’m saying is this, “Take responsibility.” It’s yours. In conclusion, as I have thought about this Graduation and Commencement I have recalled a favorite song from my senior year in high school. It’s the song “Tin Man,” by the band “America.” The line keeps going through my head: “But Oz never did give nothing to the Tin Man that he didn’t, didn’t already have…” That’s right. The Wizard of Oz didn’t give the Tin Man a heart. He already had one or why did he rust from his tears? The Lion didn’t need Oz to give him courage. He had already exhibited that he had courage. The Scarecrow certainly already had a brain. They already had what they needed before they met the Wizard in the Emerald City. So do we. Each of you already has what you need to reach the Emerald City, too. The yellow brick road awaits. Start walking!

Graduation

Holy Week Highlights

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ferguson and the Pecking Order

“The Pecking Order,” is what my father-in-law, Guy Godwin, a retired High School principal, called the tendency for one person or group to try to dominate or lord it over another. The pecking order can be seen in Ferguson, Missouri and it’s everywhere else, too. I saw it as a child at mealtime, especially at holidays, when there was a “Children’s Table,” and we went last. From schoolyard bullies, family systems and birth order, businesses and preferential treatment, or the socio-economic pigeon-holing of the have’s and have-not’s, there is always a pecking order. I want to say, “Like it or not, deal with it,” but I don’t like it. None of us should. I think that it is a pattern of existence that predates society and civilization. It goes all the way back to Lucifer’s attempt to usurp God’s throne in Isaiah 14:12-15. It is found in Adam’s silence when he and Eve were tempted in the Garden. It’s been in every culture since and seems to be an integral but horrific characteristic of human nature. It’s in the animal kingdom, too, and surely brings out the barbaric animal in us.

We like pecking orders because it sets up one of the most insidious patterns of sinful behavior: the “blame game,” and proves my Dad’s point when I thought that I was doing some new, unique, and improved sin as a teenager. He would say, “Son, You don’t think your brothers didn’t try that, your uncles, me, and your grandfathers? There isn’t anything original about original sin.” That might have been my first theology lesson. Yes, there’s nothing original about attempting to stratify society and try to either hurt or blame somebody else. We’re great at being victims, and victimizing. Unfortunately, it’s true. Did Bill Cosby victimize women? Seems so. Did the Ferguson Police Department with its out-of-balance ratio of white-to-black police officers promote victimization? Seems so. Didn’t someone say that perception is reality?

So whether one thinks one side is right and the other wrong is irrelevant. The fallen human desire to have pecking orders presupposes that one race always wants to be higher on the rung of society and the way to get there is to demonize the next lowest, and the next lowest does it to the next lowest, ad infinitum. The problem is that in God’s view all of humanity is simultaneously at the top of the heap and at the bottom in a sense. Every one of us is at the same time a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5), and sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We’re the best that God has to offer and our own worst enemies.

The problem with racism and the blame game is that we can repent over and over again and we’re still stuck in victimization. I’m not saying that we need to let perpetrators off the hook. We need to hold people accountable, but sadly grand juries and street mobs view evidence that we all know is skewed. Every so-called fact has bias, and we wonder like Pilate, “What is truth?” My father-in-law was right. Most mayhem and what’s wrong with the world isn’t about the facts, it’s about the darn pecking order.

Well we could try the communist method and not have a pecking order at all but, truth be told, even in communism and socialism there’s a pecking order. One person explained the difference between capitalism and communism this way: “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” Pardon the sexist language, but isn’t it true: the only difference is that you trade one set of fat-cats for another?

How do we move past Ferguson and racism, elitism, unfair judgment, and the pecking order tendency we all have? I suggest we own it, confess it, and repent. We need to admit that our judgments are very often not true, our assumptions are false, and our elitism actually betrays our very weakness. We are all pitiful creatures that need a Savior. The only way to make this world right can’t be legislated, though we can continue to try. The only way to have lasting peace and harmony isn’t through riots and demands. It’s through emptiness and non-violence. I daresay and mean it 1000% – it’s through a come-to-Jesus meeting for all of us. The only way for us to move forward is through self-sacrificial love, forgiveness, and human transformation. In other words, through an encounter with Jesus. Therefore, we pray the Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” No more pecking order except Jesus as Lord and everyone as our sister and brother. Amen.

Black and White Praying hands