Congo Conviction

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by life? My trips over this past month have done that to me: spiritually, emotionally, and physically. I’ve just gotten back from a preaching mission in the North Katanga Annual Conference of the UMC in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is the largest conference in United Methodism. South Carolina gets 16 delegates at General Conference. North Katanga gets 56! Bishop Mande Muyombo asked if I would preach at his first Annual Conference, and I was honored to say “Yes!”

My first mistake was to go entirely by myself. There was a reason Jesus sent out the disciples 2 by 2! My high school French and my minor in it at USC came in handy, but near enough! Dikonzo, my translator, was spectacular. When we landed on the dirt strip in Kamina after buzzing the goats off, I was greeted by the choir. Bishop Mande asked if I was ready to preach. I said, “Sure!” I didn’t think he meant right away. I had been flying for over 20 hours and was beat. But we immediately marched to the tabernacle where I “held forth,” as people used to call preaching. I preached and preached and preached the whole time I was there. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is powerful no matter where you go!

I was overcome by the depth of spiritual dedication that I witnessed. These are people so poor in comparison to the U.S., but so rich in the things of God. They had walked miles and miles to come. They spoke French as their national language inherited by their Belgian colonial oppressors, but there were many tribal languages present. It was as if John’s vision of the church in Revelation 7:9-10 was a present reality: “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 in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.’”

As I participated in the ordination of these dedicated preachers who live off $30 a month US, I was awe-struck by their depth of commitment.  The life span in the DRC isn’t great anyway, but for preachers it is years lower. They literally give themselves to the work of ministry. When these laborers in God’s vineyard answered the call, they meant it. You could literally feel the weight of their call. When they answered Wesley’s historic questions like everyone else in every other Annual Conference as one goes into ministry, I couldn’t help but think about early pioneer preachers who died young and penniless. I know there are clergy from other parts of the world who carry a load of student debt, but this was different.

They wore their worn clergy shirts with missing plastic tabs replaced by pieces of cardboard or just soiled tissue. It is the dry season so everything was dirty. It rains from September to May, but right now it is hot and dry. Nothing is growing. These poor preachers could teach every U.S. ordinand a thing or two about taking your vows seriously. There is no mocking of our Connectional Covenant, and the church in North Katanga is booming. Bishop Mande and his dedicated clergy and laity trust Jesus in the harshest environment.

Electricity only came on for a short period of time in the mornings and evenings. Mosquito nets were a welcome necessity to avoid malaria. Thank God for the UMC “Imagine No Malaria” project. Bishop Mande and his dear wife, Blandine, lost their oldest child to malaria. North Katanga’s conference headquarters is 16 hours from the nearest hospital. U.M.C.O.R. (United Methodist Committee on Relief) has a tiny clinic in Kamina with a 1950’s X-ray machine, but they need so much more. About $500,000 US will build a hospital, and donated used equipment is desperately need. I passed open sewers that flowed into creeks where women and children were washing clothes.

I saw churches crumbling on the outside, but alive on the inside. They were literally crumbling because the rainy season had wreaked havoc on the sun-baked clay exteriors. Most everyone has a pit near their thatched-roof shack. This dry time of the year is when everyone uses a broad hoe to pick out a 10 inch square chunk of clay to replace the deteriorating walls. It’s an endless cycle, but the Lord sustains the people. I went to one UMC and heard intercessors praying in every corner of the sanctuary which was bare bones, no chairs, and a makeshift altar. Their prayers filled the air with power that was greater than their circumstances, but this doesn’t mean that I don’t feel a special burden to do everything that I can to change their circumstances. I am convicted!

Pastors giving their lives for $30 a month is unacceptable. What if we could sponsor a pastor and make it $100 a month? We could set up a direct transfer from the US to North Katanga with complete trust that everything would be handled on the up and up. These are great people. They trust the Lord. I’m thinking that we need to be the hands and feet of Jesus and put legs to our prayers and help them. I will know more on logistics and post them as soon as I can. Meanwhile, I implore you to be in prayer for the people of the Congo. God has blessed us so that we can be a blessing. We are so blessed in the U.S. We must share in the sufferings of our brothers and sisters, and learn from their utter dependence on God. Amen.

College Baseball and the Strike Zones of Life

Most who know me are aware that I am a big fan of college baseball. I actually think that it’s one of the purest sports left today. Only a handful of each team’s players are on scholarship. The rest play because they love the game. I’ve been to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska 6 times. I stay in a tent for $11 a night at Lake Manawa State Park across the Missouri River in Iowa, about 5 miles from TD Ameritrade Stadium. It’s a blast and a definite bucket-list item for anyone who loves baseball.It’s big time on my mind today because tonight the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers will play the University of Arizona Wildcats for the National Championship. I’m pulling for the Chants! The whole thing has gotten me to thinking, especially as we approach Independence Day. There are the usual notions about teamwork, and the ways that each person is important, an e pluribus unum sense of “out of many, one.”

I cannot help but think about a baseball field’s foul lines. Some things are fair and in play, and some things are foul, out of play. Tolerance is the key word on my mind as I anticipate how much leeway tonight’s umpire will give to the strike zone. Every ump seems to call it differently. By rule, a strike is supposed to go over the plate somewhere between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of the torso. Sometimes they get it right, and sometimes they don’t. I’m almost ready to let a machine do it, except for making baseball’s history of stats meaningless.

Home plate in baseball, all the way from Little League to the Majors, is 17 inches across – every time. It doesn’t change based on the pitcher’s ability or anything else. It stays the same. Shouldn’t some things, some rules of behavior, morals, or whatever you call them stay the same, too? Do we have too much independence? Baseball has a degree of order and rules, but our country is so conflicted over who’s right and who’s wrong.

Can we agree on anything? Sure, we all know that terrorism is wrong, and all children are precious gifts. Lots of things are right and lots are wrong, but in our good old USA we have confused tolerance and love. We have blessed and embraced our inalienable rights to the point that they are harmful to civilization. We don’t know what’s fair or foul or any clue as to the strike zone. The biggest victims are our children. They have to survive our self-destructive bent toward too much freedom that really isn’t free!!!

British theologian N.T. Wright has something worth hearing as I wonder about baseball, Brexit, Western pluralism, and all the precious children who have got to grow up and try to make sense of what’s right and wrong in our confused world:

“I was going to quote a Beatles song, but then I remembered that you have to pay a lot of money even to quote a single line. But the song is well-enough known, declaring that the only thing one might need is love. It’s ironic, of course, that you have to pay through the nose to quote a song whose whole message is that love matters and money doesn’t.

That irony haunts the mood, and the philosophy, of a large swathe of Western culture over the last forty or fifty years. ‘Make love, not war’, ran the slogan from those who were protesting against the war in Vietnam. Nobody was going to say that love was a bad thing. Surely life would be simpler and better if we all agreed to love each other and not fight any more. But the protests, insisting that love is better than war, contained a dark note of hatred against Western governments and ways of life, a hatred which easily spilled over into a different type of violence. What happened to all that love?

The trouble is, of course, that ‘love’ covers far too many things in our language today. Yes, as Peter says, ‘love covers a multitude of sins’ (I Peter 4:8, quoting Proverbs 10:12). But it is clear throughout the whole New Testament, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself, that ‘love’ was never meant to mean one of the main things which, sadly, it has come to mean today.

Today, ‘love’ is regularly supposed to mean ‘tolerance’. You should never insist on anything, but always ‘love’ the other person who does things differently. You should never say that anything is actually wrong: that’s ‘unloving’ to the person who is not only doing it but claiming that it’s the right thing to do. You should never say, either, that this way of doing things is ‘right’, still less that it is the only ‘right’ way to live: how ‘intolerant’, how ‘arrogant’, how ‘unloving’. That is where a large part of our culture now stands. So strongly is this view held that if a Christian attempts to challenge it they are accused of being, well, unChristian.

But, as with protest movements, this passion for ‘tolerance’ only extends so far. Such a position is in fact extremely ‘intolerant’ of people who take a more definite stance – which includes the mainstream of adherents of many traditional faiths. This shows up the cult of ‘tolerance’ for what it is: the moralistic invention of the modern secular world, borrowing Christian language to refer to something very different. Underneath the nice language this view is just as ‘arrogant’, just as ‘intolerant’, as those it opposes. If anything more so, because it effortlessly claims the high moral ground without taking seriously the claims of other world-views…

Is it ‘intolerant to warn people that they should not drive down that road, because the bridge has been weakened by floods and might collapse? Is it ‘unChristian’ to insist that if we are to worship the God we know in Jesus we can’t simultaneously be worshipping one of the very different gods who are on offer elsewhere? Of course not. Is it a failure of Christian charity if we warn people that certain styles of behavior lead to ruin rather than to life?

Of course not – though, naturally, we need to be sure we are standing on the firm ground of the gospel, not on a point that just happens to embody our particular prejudices. All of that has to be worked out. No doubt this challenge is too hard for some. And, yes, it is difficult to know where to draw the line today. It’s quite unlikely that we will be faced with people teaching what John’s opponents were teaching. There may well be other issues which, when we understand what’s at stake, function as flash-points…”

What are the flashpoints where we need to take a stand? Is it too late? What is the “firm ground of the Gospel” and is it too broad or narrow? Is the Scripture inspired to give us the Word of God more than words of God? What is Christian? Our strike zone is all over the place with conflicting answers. Lord Jesus, help us, help me, to find our way back to you. Amen.

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Trifecta of Tragedy

There’s been much pain with the horrific events of Orlando’s massacre, the death of a two-year-old at Disney, and the anniversary of the heartless deaths of Charleston’s Emanuel Nine. I have been leery of treading on the holy ground of these emotionally-charged tragedies. Somehow, in my mind, this right is reserved for the families and friends. However, as the church has done through the centuries, we can use the megaphone of pain, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis, to speak to the world.

What will the Church say? To answer that adequately, we must look to Jesus. Philippians 2:5 says that our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” In the immediately following verses it defines Christ’s attitude.  Jesus emptied himself and died. Therefore, humility and service must flavor everything we do in response to all the world’s crises. I am dared to ask if my attitudes reflect Jesus or me.

This is the Church’s question today just as it has been from the beginning. Ten years ago sociologist Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity, postulated why the church grew so fast. It has been suggested that for Christianity to have reached the size it did in the time it did, it must have grown by 40% a decade for three hundred years! According to Stark, the Church grew because early disciples of Jesus were more compassionate than others. They out-loved and out-served others.

He cites several examples. In A.D. 165 an epidemic spread throughout the Roman Empire. It was probably smallpox. Within 15 years a quarter to a third of the whole population died. The same thing happened in A.D. 251 except that measles was the likely culprit. Whole towns and regions were decimated. Unlike the pagans around them, Christians took care of not only each other, but their neighbors.

A bishop named Dionysius described their actions this way: “Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains.”

This same bishop wrote of pagan behavior as follows: “At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers and fled from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead … hoping to avert the spread and contagion of the fatal disease.” A hundred years later the Roman Emperor Julian praised Christians for their “moral character” while berating pagans for their selfishness. In Rodney Stark’s assessment it was Christian compassion that brought order out of chaos, and community out of abandonment. He says, “Christianity offered a new basis of social solidarity.” They loved and served others without concern for themselves.

Much of the basis for solidarity today is Facebook and social media, and that’s not enough! Instead of selflessness, we are quick to take selfies. If pain is a megaphone to a complacent world then we have a choice as to what we shall say and what we shall do. Will we vilify, politicize, and navel-gaze at our complicity in a self-centered way, or offer solace, comfort, and declare Jesus’ perspective? To answer “yes” or “no” too quickly in any direction leads to second-guessing our motives, and also makes me wonder what good we have actually done for the victims and survivors. To be sure, a flag needed to come down in South Carolina, especially in light of Charleston’s massacre; Disney needs to protect its guests; and all God’s children need to be valued and protected, but blanket position statements often diminish appropriate actions.

So what do we do or say? Will we talk about theodicy and why bad things happen? Will we point the finger of responsibility to one individual’s evil toward others, or creation’s perfection gone amok that allows for nature to turn in on itself and drown a child? Should we get into the blame game or politicize these events? Or do either? I will not blame the parents of little Lane Graves. I support the sacredness of all human beings. I struggle with living in a fallen world where freedom allows for all sorts of chaos, by creatures and corporations. I am challenged to do something about righting wrongs with the compassionate clarity that declares that being loving and supporting doesn’t imply wholesale acceptance, but it does absolutely require total subservience and servanthood.

 

Hospitality and Hope

The Coen brothers are sibling film-makers that have done some marvelous work. The movie, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” is one of my absolute favorites with its spin on the Depression-era South and the imaginative use of Homer’s “Odyssey” as its inspiration. The dialogue is classic and includes some of the funniest truths you’ll ever hear. Without spoiling it, the main trio of characters are Everett McGill (George Clooney), Pete Hogwallop (John Turturro), and Delmar O’Donnel (Tim Blake Nelson), and they are on the run from the law. Their adventures, after their prison break, are a hoot, and there’s fodder for multiple sermons.

There’s an especially good segment that fits with this coming Sunday’s lectionary text from Acts 16:9-15. The text focuses on Paul’s visit to Philippi in Macedonia and preaching in Europe for the first time. Paul goes down by the river and meets Lydia and other women. Lydia and her whole household get baptized as Christians, and then she invites Paul and his entourage to stay at her house. The connection with the Coen movie is the river and baptism.

In the movie, vocalist Alison Krauss, sings “Down to the River to Pray,” in the background as the white-robed throng wade into the water. The three convicts look on. Delmar’s expression changes and he charges into the water to get baptized. When he comes out of the water he yells to Everett and Pete, “Well that’s it, boys. I’ve been redeemed. My sins have been washed away. Neither God nor man’s got nothin’ on me now. C’mon in boys, the water is fine.” Pete takes him up on the invitation. Everett, the semi-brainy one of the trio, has nothing to do with it and replies, “Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi’s a little more hard-nosed.”

As hard-nosed as some are to forgive, the cleansing waters of baptism are just fine for everybody. That’s what Delmar, Pete and Lydia found out. God’s got enough grace to forgive what anybody might harbor against us. This isn’t to say that if we do the crime, we shouldn’t do the time. There is God’s justice to reckon with, but Jesus has taken God’s own wrath upon Himself and invites us all, “C’mon in boys and girls, the water is fine.” You might already be an almost Christian “God-worshipper” as Lydia is described in Acts 16, or a reprobate like Delmar who robbed a Piggly Wiggly in Yazoo. God is ready and willing to “warsh us clean,” using Delmar’s accent.

This passage has a lot to say about God’s welcome for us and our hospitality towards others in response. After she gets into the water, Lydia invites Paul and his group to stay at her house. Lydia becomes the first European convert to Christianity, and that makes this scene at Philippi a momentous one for most of us. Christianity makes its first foray outside of the Middle East, and, I daresay, since that’s not where most of us are from, this has huge consequences for all Christians. Lydia’s conversion and baptism literally sets the stage for the conversion of the world.

European converts carried the faith from Philippi up the Egnatian Way and the rest is history. Now, we all know that a lot of that history fostered a Christianity propagated by coercion and sword. Nevertheless, Lydia is a primary ancestor for many of us even if the methods were sometimes awful. Lydia’s being down by the river to pray changed her and the world. She experienced the same Jesus that inspired native peoples to forgive atrocities, slaves to forgive cruel masters, and poor people to forgive oppressive policies of institutional inequity. We need that same Jesus all over this world today.

So, the song, “Down to the River to Pray,” is just as important to sing now as ever. As a matter of conjecture, the song, has been attributed to multiple sources in its history. What is known for sure is that all of the groups that it is attributed to were people looking for hope and strength. They sung it as a way to keep the faith in times of darkness. Some have said it is a Negro Spiritual written and sung by African-Americans. Others say that it originated with Native-Americans, and some say it was an old folk song that gave hope to poverty stricken people in Appalachia. One of the first known written forms of the song was in The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion in 1835. Another was in a book titled Slave Songs of the United States published in 1867. Both of those specific dates remind me of Andrew Jackson’s forced removal of American Indians from the East, and the horrors of slavery.

Either way, it’s a song whose origin is born in poverty and pain. Some have declared that its lyrics which speak of going down into the water to pray, wearing a starry crown, and a desire for God to show the way are code language for oppressed people looking for a watery way to cover their tracks and scent, and an encouragement to use the stars as guides to find the way to freedom.

In a sense it’s what the words still mean today. God’s hospitality sets us free and forgives our sins, not by overlooking them, but by washing them away. Jesus is a Redeemer who is the Way, Truth, and Life. God’s hospitality is a model for us. It was for Lydia.

 

Brussels and a Proper Response to Evil

In Brussels sheer evil has once more been visited upon the innocent. We must not yield to the terror of jihadists and forget that democracy most resembles God’s Kingdom of freedom and love. Democracy represents the basic human attribute of choice. Didn’t Jesus, who could have called 10,000 angels to save him, choose to die on a cross to set us free from death’s oppression? Wasn’t it Jesus who chose to say from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” Those Roman soldiers made a choice to follow orders and knew what they were doing. ISIS knew what it was doing and individuals chose to follow. I usually know exactly what I’m doing, too, when I choose to do something wrong.

Easter is God’s answer to our poor choices. It says that evil’s cycle of violence can end if we choose the power of love over the love of power. Jihadists want the West to become as closed minded as they are. The controlled environment that their religious totalitarianism provides is tempting in our freedom-gone-amok world, but at what cost? If God’s will is always done, why would the Lord’s Prayer include the words, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven?” The answer is, “Because it isn’t!” and we’re most often the reason. We abuse freedom, but it is foundational to our unique identity as bearers of God’s image. What we need is Easter’s resurrection power to guide our choices, and use our freedom for the common good.

Freedom of choice, however, is a risky business. I daresay that the West’s unfettered embrace of freedom and extreme individualism is what incites fundamentalism that pushes societies toward coercive control. Many of us, like them, would prefer a society where we put a funnel in people’s heads and the result would look something like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.” But we can’t do that without lessening freedom, one of the key ways that we reflect God.

Since God’s exists in the three distinct persons of the Trinity, yet is one indivisible God, then we must honor both diversity and unity, too. Freedom isn’t the only way that we are made in God’s image. Responsibility is another, and aren’t we grateful for responsible parents, adults, youth, children, institutions, governments, and more.

The rub for most us is in determining whether or not certain actions responsibly reflect God’s best intentions for humankind, or not. When nothing is out-of-bounds then anarchy results. When structures of common decency become so porous that nothing is either sacred or profane, the pendulum swings toward the radical fundamentalist voices that provide what seem like easy answers in a complex world.

It’s just not that simple. It would help if we made sure that the Ten Commandments weren’t “Ten Suggestions.” It takes hard work to shape civilization’s values. Jesus proved that during the first Holy Week as he stood both before Pilate and endured the cross. He wants us to make those same stands today for good, but I wonder if we have the “want to” to do it. I’m afraid that we’d rather browbeat or bomb our opponents into submission, and, all the while, I can hear Jesus say to Peter in Gethsemane, “Put away your sword, Peter. They that live by the sword shall die by the sword.”

This isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be swords, but our faith puts boundaries on the use of power. We are not to take personal revenge or resort to vigilantism. The government is supposed to be the entity that protects and fights for common decency (Romans 13:1-5). Unfortunately, government sometimes is the perpetrator of wrong-doing. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to elect the best leaders that we can. We must ask ourselves which persons can best stand in the gap and stop the xenophobia that separates countries and foments violence.

There’s a difference between “violence” and “war.” They are not synonymous. The U.S. has only had 11 “declared” wars, but over 125 shooting conflicts/wars in our history, not counting the so-called “Indian Wars,” one against the Apaches that lasted a horrific 46 years. It seems to me that the constitutional rule of law should dictate that we be clear about responses that are lawfully sanctioned by the government. That is democracy in action. It is not a unilateral decision by one person.

Terrorism is violence. What the US has done to Native Americans has been violence. Jim Crow laws and racial profiling by police are violence. The list of abuses of power in inappropriate ways is a long one, 125 versus 11 at the least. This isn’t to say that I prefer Augustinian “Just War” theory, but I do support the notion that there are some wars that have to be fought against evil, injustice, and oppression. I come up pretty empty on that score except for World War II and the Civil War. We shouldn’t answer violence with violence, but with a reasoned response that may opt for a serious governmental action called “war,” always as a last resort when all attempts at diplomacy have failed. For democracy and the rule of law to prevail, we must rise above vengeance and enforce justice.

I admit that I’m no “Dove” when it comes down to it, but I am not a “Hawk” either. Complex issues have layers of truth and untruth. I know that I cannot sit back and let injustice and terrorism win the day, but I also cannot simplistically write off every Muslim. Sure, I sincerely believe that salvation is only found in Jesus, but it is also true that violent crusades do more harm than good. I am caught between legitimate use of force and pacifism. The international debate is how to legitimize our actions before a God who loves all people and wants us to treat one another with mutual responsibility and promote freedom. God’s Easter response to our dilemma demands a new approach. We have a lot of work to do to find that answer. We’ve tried about everything else and it hasn’t worked. God help us!

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“Fear Not,” Charlie Browns of the World

Our Nativity Scenes conflate the differences in Luke and Matthew in wonderful ways. For one, we have the Magi from Matthew mixing with the Shepherds from Luke. There are differences, of course. Matthew has Jesus in a house and Luke has the birth in a stable. Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus goes back to Abraham and Luke’s all the way back to Adam. There are theological reasons for their differences, but, more than that, the differences highlight their primary emphases: Matthew and Luke wanted to present the facts of Jesus’ birth in ways that engaged their audiences.

Matthew’s audience was primarily Jewish, hence the genealogy going back to Abraham, the progenitor of the Jews (Arabs, too, through Ishmael). Matthew quotes the Old Testament more than the other Gospel writers, somewhere around four to one. All this focus on the Jewish people, fulfillment of Jewish prophecies and Scripture, is all very ironic since Matthew was a hated Roman Collaborator and Tax Collector, not a popular guy among his own people. It shows just how much Matthew loved his own people, and shows us how to love those folks this Christmas who get under our skin at family gatherings. But Matthew didn’t give up. He told his Gospel in a way that especially invited the Jewish people to believe in Jesus.

Luke, on the other hand, is a Gentile-focused gospel. His primary audience in his euanggelion are non-Jews. His literal “good message” or evangel reminds us why each Gospel writer is called “Matthew the Evangelist,” “John the Evangelist,” and so on. Each wrote to specific groups of people to best try to win these individuals to Christ. Luke’s shift from “they” to “we” about Paul and his entourage in the Book of Acts (Acts 16:10) is significant. It supports the common scholarly contention that Luke was a non-Jewish convert to Christianity. How wonderful it would be that we could find Gospel-bridges to the “nones” with no faith around us, to present the Good News of Jesus in engaging ways with our culture that welcomes and invites the outsiders to come inside.

So the focus of Luke’s evangelistic/euanggelion/Good News was the Gentiles. He quotes Jesus’ parables about the common lot of the Gentiles of his day. They were the ones most likely to be the least, last, lowest, and lost. In Luke, Jesus tells parables that would uniquely speak to those that were either poor in resources or spirit. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, therefore, includes poor despised shepherds and a stable rather than a house and wealthy Magi. By the way, Matthew’s use of the Magi, given his heart for his own people, is more about the fulfillment of Hebrew prophecy (Genesis 12:1-3) about a Jewish savior of the world than being pro-gentile.

Nevertheless, each Gospel writer remembered and shared the parts of Jesus’ history to reach a specific audience, or a general one in John’s case. This is one of the reasons why we can legitimately mix Magi and Shepherds in our crèches though they come from two different Biblical sources. Both make the same point, which is belief in Jesus Christ. That should be the point to us as well, and, in addition, there are lessons to be learned in making the Gospel accessible to all people whomever our hearers.

I, for instance, especially like the shepherds and the Gentile-focus of Luke’s gospel. Frankly, most of the Christians that I know today wouldn’t be Christians if it weren’t for the Lucan emphasis on God’s mission to poor Gentiles. That’s the spiritual and genetic background for most of the worldwide church. Jesus’ family tree in Luke that goes back to Adam emphasizes that Christ is the savior of all humanity, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. The question is, “Is He my savior?”

I resonate with the lowly shepherds, a despised bunch without rights or legal standing, who found themselves relegated to the outskirts of town, literally marginalized. With my mixed-blood heritage and a father who didn’t get past the eighth grade, it’s Luke’s message that speaks volumes to me. God’s angelic message of Jesus’ birth doesn’t go to the high and mighty, but to the poor and unaccepted. It’s to the shepherds that the message is given, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…” News for them, news for all – God’s love is not just for some, but for all – spoken to each human heart’s individual need; i.e., “For God so loved the WORLD…that WHOEVER believes in Him shall have eternal life.”

You’re included and so am I. I’ve played a humble shepherd in every Christmas pageant since I was a little boy. I never got promoted to being Joseph or a Wiseman. It was not only type-casting, it was true. I have often felt like a scared second-rate shepherd.

I also resonate with Linus from Peanuts fame who has always needed his security blanket. Maybe you do, too? Don’t we all want security? Haven’t we all sometimes experienced denigration and a lack of acceptance?

I am struck by something on this 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” when Charlie Brown shouts, “Isn’t there anyone who can explain to me what Christmas is all about?” It’s Linus, carrying his security blanket, who goes to center stage and says, “Lights, please,” before beginning his monologue. Then precisely when Linus quotes appropriately from Luke’s message to the hurting and lost; i.e., the shepherds, something amazing happens. It is exactly when he quotes the angel’s message of “Fear not” to the shepherds that Linus drops his trusty blanket. After that he goes over to Charlie Brown and says, “This is what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Yep, there’s a message of hope to all of us Charlie Browns who never kick the football, and feel put down just like the shepherds. Jesus’ birth ushers in shalom and a whole bunch of “Fear nots!” that we all need to hear.

Drop whatever security prop you use. Me, too. Linus’ fear subsides and so will ours. This is what I need to hear this Christmas. Listen, “Behold, I bring YOU good news of great joy that will be for ALL the people.”

Pink Candle Sunday

The third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is an Old English word for “joy” that comes from the Latin, gaudium, which also means, “joy.” The essence of the Gospel and of Christmas is joy! This Sunday we light the pink candle! It’s not gaudy in a bad way. It’s gaudy because Jesus’ coming makes us glad!

But, joy is an elusive and difficult emotion for many of us to feel at this time of the year. There are so many unfulfilled dreams, too much poverty, terrorism, violence, family tensions, grief, and personal difficulties that seek to destroy our sense of joy. I read about a man who just had his annual physical and was waiting for the doctor’s initial report. After a few minutes the doctor came in with his charts in hand and said: “There’s no reason why you can’t live a completely normal life as long as you don’t try to enjoy it.”

Too many of us have heard reports like that. The news hasn’t been kind to us. There are unresolved contingencies that concern us to the point of extreme fatigue. Our supply of joy is at or near empty on the fuel tank of our lives. Jesus, however, is the one described as “the joy of heaven to earth come down.” A father asked his child why she liked her Sunday School teacher so much. She answered, “Because her eyes twinkle like she’s laughing inside all the time.” If Jesus is our joy the corners of our mouths can perpetually keep turning upwards no matter our circumstances.

As much as I believe that statement, it sounds too trite and too easy to my ears. Joy, as I have experienced it, isn’t something that can be manufactured. It most often just happens! Nevertheless, I do know some things that anyone can do to help the process along. One thing to do is to help somebody. Remember that the “Grinch who stole Christmas” had a heart “two sizes too small.” Doing something nice for someone else enlarges our heart enough to let others in, and joy, too.

Another idea for joy-enhancement is to associate with people and places that warm your soul. I’m not talking about being raucous, but surrounding yourself with events and people who are heartwarming. I have to hand it to television at this time of year. Some of the holiday specials actually make the holidays more special. Christmas caroling with the family or church group is another way to spark your heart’s ignition. Also the Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at St. John’s is one scene that is unforgettable and joy-filled!

This holiday season, no matter what you do or how you enter into a new state of being, my prayer is that all of us will experience more wows than woes! Some of us will worry ourselves into a tizzy this season. I wrote the following poem, not at all a personal strength, which sums up my feelings about Christmas Joy and where it comes from. I gave it the title “By the Calendar or Christ’s Coming:”

In our rush to reach the climax of Christmas

We have surrendered to the siren of success.

Our reckless abandon has left us anxious

And, for most, a destructive case of terrible excess.

 

Over spending, over eating, over doing everything

With cards to mail, and tree lights to string,

Packages to wrap and carols to sing,

What joy, if any, will all this busyness bring?

 

We hustle and bustle to get the best buys,

Which usually result in an exchange of size.

We are lured by on-line shopping or valet parking at the mall

And forget that God’s greatest gift was born in a stall.

 

Neither upon crowds of people, myriad lights, nor gifts without end,

Does the Joy of Christmas depend,

It isn’t a yuletide project to create;

It occurs simply as we learn to wait.

 

We can choose to live by Christ’s coming or by the calendar,

Marking off party-filled days, or by God’s Son so near

Amid the terror of our violence-filled world and its horrible sneer,

Or by the Prince of Peace’s presence so dear.

 

A choice to shake off earth’s trappings of glitter

And bask only in God’s splendor,

Thinking about Jesus of whom the angels sing

And to whom Wise Men their gifts bring.

 

By the Calendar or the Coming is our choice

One drowns out the world’s thunderous noise,

While the other yells evil’s seductive ploys,

Marking time or experiencing God’s joys.

 Pink Sunday!

 

 

Family and Faith – Narcie on my Mind

 

*Narcie got a great report! Thanks for your prayers; still a long haul and trusting Jesus and counting on you!

Have you ever had a day that has your antenna and ganglia hanging or sticking out all over the place and your sensory overload has you jacked up more than with 4 cups of coffee. Well, that’s this morning for me. I’m a little nervous, more than usual. I have a good friend and parishioner’s surgery shortly and am about to head to the hospital. Then I’m meeting with a family about a funeral then probably heading back to the hospital. Sunday’s sermon is on my mind. The text is about Jesus’ own family thinking he was nuts and I’m wondering how to preach that and make it relevant. I hate to admit it but as I was driving to the church a few minutes ago all these alliterating words jumped out at me as options to think about when it comes to family relationships: Restoration or Rejection; Respect or Rebellion; Redemption or Retaliation – what is it about preachers and our phonetic thinking? Anyway, at the stoplight I pulled out my pen and a business card and scribbled my thoughts down while holding the brake and clutch pedals down.

Two other big deals on my mind this morning are Narcie’s regular 3-month MRI about her brain tumor, and next week’s Annual Conference. We do well dealing with the anxiety about Narcie until a two-week window closes in and I begin to get antsy, ratchet up my praying and my out-of-sight-out-of mind attitude is replaced by front-and-center preoccupation. Vice President Biden’s son’s death this week has kicked things up a notch, and another amplifier about Narcie is that next week at our South Carolina United Methodist Annual Conference I’ll be the Memorial Service preacher.

Memorial Services are primarily in memory of the clergy who died since the last conference session. We show photos of the deceased, and their families, along with Annual Conference members, are gathered to have a funeral service. Sure, each of these individuals already had their own service, but this is one of the United Methodist things that we do. Since we are a connectional church and try to do everything together, we mourn together, too. Actually, Annual Conference becomes every clergyperson’s church. When we become clergy our membership is literally transferred from our home churches to the Annual Conference.

Next week we will remember many individuals who gave their hearts, lives, and families for the cause of Christ, and we will cry. Narcie and I usually sit together during this service and we have cried. She cried buckets, we both did, when Rev. Charlie Summey’s face went across the screen. He had the same cancer as she and had a better prognosis, but he’s dead. The reality hit us and it should everyone: There’s going to come a time when Narcie’s picture, mine, Josh’s, and even Cindy’s will be up there on that screen at an Annual Conference Memorial Service. Over half my family has the South Carolina Annual Conference as its church home, and there’s going to be a funeral someday.

Of course, my prayer for Narcie is that it’s a long time away but since she has her appointment this morning and I’m preaching that sermon next week, I can’t seem to shake this nexus of events. I covet your prayers that her report is good. Her situation is so important to the doctors that they call her in within an hour of the MRI to give her the news. It’s a big deal. Of course, Narcie’s attitude is typical Narcie: “I’m going to do my ministry, show no fear, and live until I die!” But my eyes are welling up as I write this. I want my “little girl” to live for decades more. God bless every parent who’s ever been through this, or lost a child. For years, I thought as a pastor that I had a clue and could help people through their losses. Maybe my ministry of presence helped, but until all this has happened with us, I didn’t know what this really feels like. Your life is forever changed. God bless every parent who carries this, and please heal every child; in Jesus’ name.

When I think of this day and the family dynamics with every situation I’ll face this morning I can promise you that I will choose Restoration over Rejection; Respect over Rebellion; Redemption over Retaliation – and today I am especially going to choose Rejoicing over Remorse, Resurrection over Regret. A life well-lived, however short or long, is a gift to treasure. Treasure the people around you today as the gifts that they are.

Me, Narcie, and Josh at Josh's Ordination

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

Last-Minute Christmas Trees

Even today, one week before Christmas, I notice on Facebook that some people are just now putting up their Christmas tree. Part of me thinks, “It’s a little late, isn’t it, and why bother?” There have been those years when we all wonder whether we should put up a tree or not. Family priorities, circumstances, or infirmity may make it an unnecessary luxury. Some of us are going to be traveling to someone else’s house so why not let them deck the halls and decorate a tree? Putting up a tree is such a hassle anyway, but isn’t the mess of Christmas part of the message?

Should we put up a Christmas tree, or not – that is the question for the procrastinators. Although the smell of a tree permeating the house is grand, there’s a cost. Getting a tree, fitting it to the stand, lugging all the ornaments down from the attic, and the sheer horror of untangling the lights is a daunting task. Then there’s the fact that children, pets, and underestimating the size of the tree relative to the ceiling could pose an unsolvable logistical problem, plus the weight of the tree might overwhelm the stand and collapse. So, why take the chance. After all, the whole Christmas tree idea is a co-opting of a pagan Germanic custom that celebrated the midst of life in bleak midwinter, an evergreen to remind the household that there is life after the long arduous cold. The idea isn’t even Christian, right?

But, doesn’t it still make sense? An evergreen does remind us of eternal life in Christ, and wasn’t the first Christmas pretty messy, too? Stables, animals, and shepherds aren’t sanitary hospital delivery rooms. Maybe those procrastinating or worrying about a tree can compromise and get an artificial one, and try not to think, “fake.” When I was a child in the age of modernity’s glory, we had a shiny silver aluminum tree. We used one of those revolving pinwheels of color to add the effect of lights. It was great, sanitized, and the only hassle was looking at the ends of the branches for the code that revealed the proper placement.

But, it wasn’t real, and there’s already too much that isn’t real about Christmas, so out with the artificial tree idea. So back to the real thing: the mess-maker. Old Christmas trees do what every dying thing does. They shed their needles. Don’t you love vacuuming up dead Christmas tree needles months after the holiday. Every time I see another needle, I wonder where they keep coming from. It’s a mess, but isn’t that part of Christmas’ charm: the hustle and bustle, the decorations, even the crowds? Although I long for a simple Christmas, the fact of the matter is that Christmas isn’t simple. It is God’s most elegant extravagance, in keeping with Golgotha and Easter. It begs for a mess and deserves it!

So what kind of tree should I get? Did you ever hear of the lovely legend of the three trees that grew near The Manger – the Olive, the Palm, and the Fir? The Olive made an offering of its fruit and the Palm of its dates. The poor Fir, having nothing to give but worship, raised its boughs in adoration and the Angels hung stars on its branches. Supposedly that’s how the Fir became the first Christmas tree. When Native Americans experienced a spiritual low tide, they revived their vitality by standing with their back to a tree, absorbing its strength and power. Therefore, whatever the tree, a real tree helps open up the real energy of God’s coming to earth as a vulnerable baby, one of us, Immanuel! That’s a message that I need to underscore this Christmas.

Ponder the familiar carol, “O, Christmas Tree” and notice the attributes of God, new life in Christ, and the Incarnation symbolized in the very essence of a Christmas tree – though messy, there’s a message:

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree!

Thy leaves are so unchanging

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Not only green when summer’s here,

But also when it’s cold and drear.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Thy leaves are so unchanging!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

For every year this Christmas tree,

Brings to us such joy and glee.

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

Such pleasure do you bring me!

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

A symbol of goodwill and love

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Each shining light, Each silver bell

No one alive spreads cheer so well

Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree,

You’ll ever be unchanging!

Christmas tree