Who’s Your Daddy?

Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent – we’ve all heard these three descriptors for God that claim that God is everywhere, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Jesus’ incarnation and the promise of the Holy Spirit certainly cements God’s claim to being everywhere. Jesus’ knowledge of all our sorrows backs up God’s omniscience. Perhaps it is the miraculous power of God that underscores God’s omnipotence. But I’ve got a problem and it’s been brewing for a long time.

It’s not just about the first two of these descriptors. I can believe God is everywhere. I can even accept that God knows everything because knowing everything and causing everything are two very distinct things. Omnipotence is where I get antsy in my faith. If God is all-powerful then why is there so much violence, heartache, and poverty in the world? How can an all-knowing and all-powerful God allow the creation to be so corrupt?

My mental conception of God, probably like everyone else, is shaped by my relationship with my own father. Daddy was wonderful in so many ways, always helping, yet always demanding excellence and voicing high expectations. His nightly “knock, knock, knock” on his and Mother’s bedroom wall will always be cherished. His three knocks, and my return signal of the same were our coded messages of love. “Knock, knock, knock” meant “I love you.” Sure, he could be distant, demanding, annoying and a real pain sometimes, but his essence was love and love overlooks a multitude of sins.

Daddy quit school in the eighth grade so my education was important to him. He wanted me to have a better life than he did. I can hear his voice in the summertime yelling “Make haste!” when I was running the stockyard alleys with a walking stick in hand cutting cows, and then the same voice sounded pretty much identical the rest of the year when he voiced his opinion about schoolwork: “Make A’s!” “Make Haste!” and “Make A’s” were phonetically synonymous. Without elaborating further one can see how my perception of God was shaped by my Dad: loving, encouraging, high expectations, and more – some good and some not so good.

It’s interesting that tear-jerker movies for me are usually about father-son relationships and reconciliation. No matter how many times I’ve seen “Field of Dreams” I get choked up. “Build it and he will come” and the theme of father-son reunion really get to me. Another is the movie “October Sky.” I highly recommend it. I see my Dad and me in the relationship between the coal mining father, John Hickam, played by Chris Cooper and the son, Homer Hickam, a teenager fascinating by Sputnik and rockets, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a poignant true story about chasing one’s dreams, and loving people in spite of differences. The reconciliation scene at the end of the movie after the father has constantly shown disdain for his son’s interest in rockets is so powerful that I can’t help but cry. Please watch the scene below and/or see the whole movie.

Our parent image really shapes how we view God, and some of us, if not all of us, need either to forgive or be healed from some of those influences so we can embrace God anew. This is especially important to me as I ponder the attributes of God in the face of uncertainty. I saw a sign yesterday on a church of another denomination that declared an opposite theology from United Methodism. The sign said, “God Never Changes!” and appropriately the church was on Blarney Street right here in Columbia. Yep, that’s right, “Blarney,” as in “Baloney.”

God never changes? God changed God’s mind in the OT Book of Jonah when God was about to zap Nineveh. God changed God’s mind when Abraham was dickering over saving his nephew Lot and Sodom because of the number of righteous people there. My word, if God never changes why did Jesus pray for his life to be spared in the Garden of Gethsemane, or why do we pray for God’s will to be done in the Lord’s prayer if it’s a sure-fire given that it always will be? Why pray if it doesn’t have the possibility of changing anything? This presupposes that God can change, right?

Sure, I’m close to heresy here, but, thinking theologically, is God immutable and unchanging? God’s nature is unchanging to be sure, but doesn’t God out of love always change as God responds to our minute-by-minute choices and vagaries? God is always in love with us and that love has to respond in different and changing ways given the particular circumstances. So never confuse God with a distant puppet master that has a “plan” for your life. Do you think God made you marry that abusing spouse?

Gracious, even in the news this morning, Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson gave me the creeps in what he said. He got his 200th win last night and he hit a rare home run for a pitcher. This guy is a lowly .179 hitter! His response was, “The stars were aligned and it was meant to be.” Yeah, tell that to Boston marathoners who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the bombs went off. Tell that to Marcus Lattimore, football player from South Carolina, who is a United Methodist and has had two horrible knee injuries. It was the difference between being a first round NFL draft pick and a fourth! I dare you to say, “It was meant to be,” to uber-Christian Tim Tebow after his release this week by the New York Jets. Don’t dare say it to me about my daughter who is 33 and has a brain tumor! Fatalistic Calvinism says, “Praise the Lord!” when things go our way, and “Blame the Lord!” when it doesn’t.

We can say “Praise the Lord!” in all circumstances (Philippians 4:4-9) and let go of our anxiety because we have a God who never fails, especially when life is crummy. God does what God does best and that is to be with us and help us get through things. God will always respond to us because God’s unchanging nature is love. That’s God’s immutability! It’s blarney to accept an “It’s meant to be” perception that God never changes. Don’t let your skewed daddy-image put a barrier between you and the God in Jesus who is ever responding to our situations. God enters our suffering and redeems it. Jesus is a redeemer, not a schemer planning our next calamity. Who is God to you? Who’s your Daddy?

Embracing Blessedness over Worry in a Worrisome World!

Today is my brother’s birthday. Ralph is the eternal optimist. He has been through more than his share of problems, including heart surgery, diabetes, and business challenges, but he has always been one to see the cup more than half full. I guess that this positive outlook came from my mother’s side of the family because our Daddy was a worrier. The events of this last week would have absolutely freaked him out. Daddy worried about worrying!

One year I thought that he was unduly dragging my Mother’s optimism down so I thought that I would make him a Christmas present that would make him lighten up. The little church that I was serving had a mimeograph machine. Those of you who can remember using them recall the smell, the ink, the aggravation, and the inevitable mess. Anyway I typed up a template, glued in a stencil, and made a perpetual calendar of sorts. I entitled it, “Papa Mac’s Ailment Calendar.” For every day of any given month I typed in different things that were on his worry list and his lips. There were things such as illness, money, taxes, arthritis, bursitis, and any other “itis.” I added a sub-title that said, “For God’s sake and Mama’s, please only worry about one thing per day!”

I’m glad that my brother Ralph is pretty much immune from our McClendon OCD-ish list-making worryitis. Jesus had a lot to say about worry and its futility, “How can worrying add a single hour to your life (Matthew 5:25-34)?” A guy went to his doctor and complained of feeling run down. The doctor said, “Sir, you’re not run down. You’re too wound up.” Not Ralph, but it is the story of too many of us, right? This past week exacerbated it!

Contrast a worry-filled life and the blessed life of the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those who are persecuted (Matthew 5:3-10).” In the aftermath of last week’s tragedies and the anticipation of unknown troubles ahead, how do we embrace and live into the blessed life that Jesus offers?

It is difficult at best to live in the world while not being of the world. For each beatitude that Jesus offers, there is evidence of a contradictory worldview around us. Being poor in spirit is less valued than being rich in spirit, upbeat, exuding self-confidence, and on top of the world. No one wants to be poor in spirit. Our culture values winners over losers. We would rather be happy than mourn. The meek are devalued in our pushy society where we belittle those who aren’t assertive enough and can’t “suck it up” and succeed. Those who want righteousness as their daily sustenance appear weird in our condoning, non-condemning society where the strongest rebuke is “I’m just saying…” Mercy is seen as weakness. We want justice and we want it now. Being merciful and being the most litigious society on the planet aren’t compatible realities.

Goodness, purity of heart is just plain unrealistic. I’m just being human. In other words, forget about regeneration and new life. We have turned piety into a bad word! At least peacemakers have gotten good press this past week for running toward danger and subduing evil. For the most part, however, we applaud vigilantes and anyone who stands up for themselves. Think about the political nastiness of D.C. Where are the peacemakers in our homes, schools, churches, and government? Lastly, who wants to be persecuted? Give me a break. We all want to go along to get along with others. I remember when I used to walk out of movies if I heard certain words, and now I’ve sadly become inoculated.

No wonder worry has overtaken us! We live and act like we have one foot in God’s peaceful kingdom and the other in a violence-ridden world. Our split personalities have torn our lives asunder. We shouldn’t be surprised at the calamities and atrocities that surround us. As good as humankind is, too often we hide the Creator’s image and embrace the darkness of our masks.

We have got to make better daily choices: Be blessed or yield to worry; Trust in self-made goodness or depend on God’s grace; Be like Jesus or Judas. If we keep on living like the distinctions aren’t clear then the light grows hazy, if not dark. No wonder Jesus ends the Beatitudes with talk of persecution. The clash of values leads to clear division. In the words of Chris Tiegreen, “The Beatitudes serve as an emphatic imperative: Live in the world where God placed you, but never, ever blend in.” Amen.

Claiming Life After a Hard Day

Cindy just gave me a reminder of the power of faith over fatalism. My previous post was more than a bit dour and dark, and probably not that helpful to Narcie or anyone else. Authentic, real – yep, that’s me and that’s what I was feeling about life in general earlier today. The horrible events in Boston haven’t changed the ugly realities of life, but my dear wife is a glass more than half full kind of person and has reminded me of LIFE in Christ. I ought to know better anyway. Life always wins!

After Mt. St. Helens blew up who would have thought that plants and wildlife would return, but they’re there. Terrorists of all kinds would love nothing better than make us cower in fear. Jesus said that he came to give abundant life (John 10:10). Tonight as I lay down, it will not be the sleep of the scared or afraid. It will be the sleep of the confident. Faith, you see, is always resilient. The light shines best in the darkness. Boston will rebound. Narcie is going to do the same and better!

Earlier today I chose fear over faith. Tonight I am aiming for heaven and will rest in a loving God’s arms. As the Scriptures say in Psalm 30:5, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” My funky Monday is done and joy is mine tonight. As someone aptly put it, “Joy is not the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God.” I will go to bed in solidarity with the sorrowful and wounded, but I am going to wake up with the resilient Spirit of Beacon Hill and Boston. To do less is to yield to tyranny.

It is Easter season yet and I need to act like it! As Peter Bohler said to weak-kneed John Wesley, “Preach faith until you have it.” So, here’s at you life with all your vagaries: Bring it on and see who wins. It will be Christ in me, the hope of glory! I will choose to listen and believe the Voice of Truth who says, “Do not be afraid!”

“Fanfare for the Common Man”

Going to seminary in Boston was wonderful. Living on the North Shore was exhilarating with its historic towns of Salem, Rockport, Gloucester, Ipswich, Marblehead and Swampscott. The sea air wisped throughout the campus. The ocean froze in the winter with floes left behind as the tide went up and down. The seafood was superb!

Boston proper was utopia. Cambridge and Harvard Square were Mecca’s for free thought and expression. The place exuded intelligence in an unobtrusive air. Boston’s sites were so historic and more than quaint: Old North Church, Bunker Hill, the U.S.S. Constitution; Fenway Park; Copley Square; Paul Revere’s home; Park Street Church, Filene’s Bargain Basement, “Cheers,” and Quincy Market located next to Faneuil Hall: the cradle of liberty and the Boston Tea Party.

Cindy and I will never forget staying in the home of members of the Boston Pops. Part of what makes the Fourth of July so special to us is listening to the Pops play Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” “Pops Goes the Fourth” on PBS isn’t to be missed!

However, with all of New England’s patriotic fervor and sites I am reminded that the bulk of the Revolution’s cost was borne by Southerners. New England gave the American Revolution its philosophical underpinnings and treatises while Southerners fought most of its battles with South Carolina having had more Revolutionary battles than any other state. Think about the movie “The Patriot” to catch glimpses of King’s Mountain, Cowpens, Charleston, Camden, and Buford’s Massacre. Thank God for backwoodsmen and Over-the-Mountain Boys in addition to the Swamp Foxes of the Lowcountry.

July Fourth is a holiday that should rouse the weakest spirit. It is the triumph of the farmers and shopkeepers, the little people, over the high and mighty ranks of Redcoats. It is indeed “Fanfare for the Common Man” including women the likes of Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher, African-Americans like Crispus Attucks the first martyr of the Revolution, and American Indian tribes doing their part, too. What makes America so special is our common humanity. We don’t relish elitism. We are all here because we escaped somewhere else, except for the Native Americans, and African-Americans brought here against their will. If we will but remember our shared pain, travails, and triumphs, America will yet be a beacon of hope to humanity.

All this makes me think of the little church that I’ve been passing on a regular basis. It’s located on I-77 near Winnsboro, SC. The church’s sign is a bit out of the ordinary. The name of the church is “New Independent Methodist Church.” The logo, however, is the Southern Baptist symbol which is pretty appropriate, actually. Southern Baptist churches have by-laws each unto themselves in their congregational polity. This is much too independent for my liking. As I think about Independence Day 2012 and ponder our life together as United Methodists, there’s no such thing as an independent Methodist church. We’re all connected and I’m glad! We’re a dependent denomination. We depend on God and each other!

That’s a good reminder for America, too. Indeed, as I think about who we are as Americans and United Methodists, I’m drawn to the fact that our history is a multi-colored and multi-cultured tapestry. We’re meant to be a melting pot of diversity not a salad bowl with lettuce, then cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. topped by whatever dressing in a top-down hierarchy. Our political system shouldn’t be about who’s in office or has the majority. We’re in this thing together and better not forget it!

American democracy and United Methodist connectionalism work best when they’re horizontal not vertical. What we hold in common trumps special interests any day. As for me this Fourth of July, I’m going to celebrate it as American Dependence Day. We need each other. Together we can do more! Happy Fourth! Think dependence more than indepedence!