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.”

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Conflict Control

I just reread Jesus’ prayer for us in John 17 and a timely theme has guided my prayer thoughts this morning. Four times in this short passage Jesus prays that we might experience a unity like that of the Trinity. Wow! What a thought! Listen to the verses. In John 17:11 Jesus prays, “Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name – the name you gave me –so that they may be one as we are one.” In John 17:21 Jesus prays, “…that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” In John 17:22, He prays, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.” Finally, in verse 23 Jesus prays, “… 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.”

It’s pretty obvious that Jesus wants us to be united – one! It’s a powerful testimony to how we reflect God in our witness to the world. One of the primary ways that we as United Methodists celebrate being made in God’s image is in our use of the words connectionalism and conference. We try to do things together because we focus on being made in God’s social image. If God is revealed as Trinity and works in community, so should we!

But, why don’t we? Selfishness and “My-way-or-the highway” attitudes too often prevail. What makes you angry? Are you one of those people that get bent out of shape by inanimate objects? I admit that I can much more easily deal with bothersome people than an uncooperative computer. Anger can consume us so quickly that it overruns most of our controls. I even heard of one guy who shot his computer because it kept crashing. Well, he took care of that didn’t he? Needless to say, anger can be dangerous to the point of injury, murder, and harm. My grandmother readily preached the admonition of the Sermon on the Mount that if anyone calls someone a “fool” they are in danger of hell-fire. Unfortunately, this did more to inspire a quest for synonyms than conquering my temper.

So how can we effectively deal with our anger? The anger advice of none other than Rodney Dangerfield makes great sense: “It would be great if people never got angry at someone for doing something they’ve done themselves.” Wouldn’t that be nice? Jesus put it similarly in the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” However, saying and living the Golden Rule is extremely difficult. It’s easier said than done!

Abraham Lincoln had a couple of skunk stories or sayings that keep my anger in perspective. One was “What kills a skunk is his own publicity.” This reminds me to be like Jesus and not toot my own horn, plus give troublesome people enough space that they are found out on their own. The other story occurred when Lincoln was about to replace his Secretary of War. Some senior members of his own party urged him to make a clean sweep of the whole Cabinet while he was at it. He responded by telling them a story about a farm family in southern Illinois that had a problem with a skunk. The farmer’s wife told him to take care of it, so he got his shotgun out one night and waited for the skunk to appear. His wife heard a blast shortly thereafter. The farmer came inside and his wife asked him, “Did you get him?” The farmer said, “Well, first of all, there was a family of six skunks, not one.” Then he added, “I shot the lead skunk, but he raised such an awful stink I decided it was best to let the other five go.” All the people left Lincoln’s office chuckling, but they certainly got the message: Sometimes raising a stink causes more trouble than it’s worth. It reminds me of United Methodism’s first rule: Do no harm.

So why get angry if it doesn’t help? That doesn’t sound like a Spirit-filled reaction to conflict. We need Jesus’ Spirit to help us when we’re dealing with troublesome people. God’s Spirit can do for us what we can’t do ourselves. The Holy Spirit can give us creative nudges and new eyes to see ways that we can live at peace with others. The key to the Spirit’s infilling is a yielded life. Rather than retaliate, fly off the handle, or overreact inappropriately, we can exhale our anger to God and inhale the Holy Spirit. The Spirit’s fruit then becomes self-evident: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There’s not much room for ungodly anger in this list!

The late Dr. Wallace Hamilton, novelist and playwright, was a Spirit-filled Christian and it showed in his anger-control. He liked to tell of an American Indian sheep farmer who had a big problem. His neighbor’s dogs were killing his sheep. It got so bad that he had to do something. So he examined his options. First, he could have brought a lawsuit and taken his neighbor to court. Second, he could have built stronger fences so the dogs couldn’t get in. But he had a better idea. He gave some lambs to his neighbor’s children, and the children loved them! When the lambs began to multiply and their little flocks began to develop, the neighbor tied up the dogs and his problems were solved. Jesus said: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons and daughters of God.” May peace be with us all today as we act like Jesus’ peacemakers!

Steve Jobs, Daddy, and Abraham Lincoln on Reconcilation

Have you ever felt like telling someone to go to the bad place? My Dad was a master at telling someone to go to you-know-where and they would still walk away smiling. It was amazing to watch. He always said if you were around someone who was having a fit of anger, “give ’em a horse to ride home on.” What I saw him do and what I think he meant is that conflict happens and it can literally blow up in your face. The secret to surviving is being peacemaker enough in what you say so that after you say it, it doesn’t hit them until their on the way home. You want them at a safe enough distance when they figure out what hit them. I’m not trying to say Daddy was sneaky or passive-aggressive in his goat-getting. He wanted to say the right thing so that people’s anger would dissipate. He didn’t compromise but he said things in a way that people could hear it. He was a peacemaker.

Man, have I had some humdinger charge conferences and need to remember Daddy’s advice. Actually it didn’t originate with him. The Proverbs say that “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” Paul told Timothy similar words  in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.” Sounds like a New Testament version of Daddy’s method. Use humor, reframe the question, don’t let it get personal, pray and, yet, stand your ground speaking the truth in love. Gosh, we’re terrible at that part, aren’t we. We would rather kiss up or a little lower down than dare to confront the bully who’s been ramming their version of the truth down everybody else’s throats at church.  How can we avoid it?

Steve Jobs’ death reminds me of the uncanny knack he had in making peace with his naysayers. Sure he was exacerbatingly obsessed with details, but he was a survivor of trench warfare in the business world. He knew how to let off steam, keep his integrity, and be a peacemaker. I won’t bore you with details you haven’t already heard on CNN, but, suffice it to say, he had the art of giving people a horse to ride home on down pat. He started Apple with Woz his partner then got ousted by the Board of Directors, started Pixar of “Toy Story” fame then was brought back to Apple on his own terms after making a bundle selling Pixar. Instead of a long list of angry Steve Jobs haters, there’s a long list of people he worked for, was fired by, and with whom he then reconciled. Genius! He turned computerese from lines of unintelligible code to a extension of a person’s hand via the iPhone thereby blurring the lines between phones and computers, but he did so much more. What was one of his best gifts to humanity ? It was both his secret to gadget building and peacemaking: perspective.

Perspective is a key ingredient to any recipe for peacemaking. Why is this person so  miffed in this church meeting? What is the underlying cause? If the response is way over the top for the context then, trust me, the issue isn’t about you. There’s something else going on in this person’s life so grin and bear it, use some humor, clarify the facts and speak the truth but don’t sink to the emotional level of the offensive party. Stay objective and, like Steve Jobs, you can not only go back to work for them but actually enjoy it. Wow! Take a listen to his speech for Stanford’s commencement address 6 years ago, right after he found out he had cancer: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It cleans out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic but it is quite true.” MSNBC said of this quote: “That was typical Jobs: Dramatic and no-nonsense all in the same breath.” Perspective! When you think the junk you’re going through is enough to make you want to fire everybody or lambast the whole church leadership – Whoa, keep the big picture in mind, state your piece, let the chips fall where they may, and give ’em a horse to ride home on. Use some perspective!

And, by the way, Steve Jobs was wrong in his Stanford address, at least sort of wrong. He said “Death is the destination we all share. No one has escaped it.” Well, yeah, except for Jesus. He did die. He couldn’t escape the process on Golgotha, but he did get out of the tomb!!! Now that perspective actually makes the small potatoes of church conflict or any conflict for that matter seem more bearable. Abraham Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War, decided to get rid of one of his prominent Cabinet members. Republican Senators met with him and demanded that if he was going to get rid of one then they should all go. Lincoln said, “Let me tell you a story about a farmer from Illinois. His farm had a family of skunks that bothered everybody. The farmer’s wife told him to do something about it so the farmer went out one moonlit night, shotgun in hand, and the family of seven skunks came around the barn. He blasted away. He went back inside and his wife asked him what happened. He told her this: I saw the seven skunks and shot at ’em and killed one. He raised such a terrible stink I decided to let the other 6 go.” The senators left Abraham Lincoln laughing, rode their horses home and figured it out. Thanks, Daddy and Thanks, Steve Jobs for giving me a little perspective on life and keeping the peace. Give ’em a horse to ride home on.