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.

Music and Lent – Beating the Blues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hope Sustains Us!

Last night my new District Superintendent, Cindy, and I went to have our Introductory Visit at my new appointment. The Staff-Parish Relations Committee was great as is the church! It is so wonderful to get to know people and begin conversations about new ministry opportunities. To share in the grief of a beloved pastor’s move and start a new chapter with a new pastor and church is holy ground that is fertile with hope and emotion. I was very impressed with everyone’s thoughts, comments, and expectations. They energized me after a long and draining post-Easter day of Cabinet meeting.

The Cabinet’s work is grueling and impacts so many lives. It carries a holy heft of responsibility. Add that responsibility to the usual after Easter gasp for more air and you get a sense of my plight and that of many clergy and staff, choirs with Easter Cantatas, worship committees and all of Holy Week’s services, parking lot greeters who directed newcomers to sanctuaries, and all the other myriad people who help facilitate worship during the past week and what do you get?

The answer is a collective sigh that is either a sign of church overload or the best kind of tired that there is. It’s a good tired if you knew that you did your best to serve God and others. However, a lot of the folks I know need a vacation from their Easter vacation, and God bless the school districts who wisely gave students the week after off! A lot of us after Holy Week feel kicked to the curb by all of the activities. It’s almost like trying to adjust to daylight savings time or resetting our biological clocks three time zones over.

No wonder the Sunday after Easter is called “Low Sunday” with low attendance, low offering, and low about everything including energy. It’s supposed to be the happiest time of the year. Easter Sunday’s expectations were for a great sermon, great music, great attendance, and a great Easter meal to boot. For most of us all of this came true, but how do we keep Easter’s triumphal pace?

For me it boils down to one word: Hope! In tiredness, illness, or sheer exhaustion the question is, “Do I have hope?” I must let resurrection hope capture my worries. That’s what the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection did, and this is exactly what our world is longing for. Everyone around us is looking for renewed hope. The church is essentially a people and place of hope! The very reason the early disciples switched from Saturday Sabbath worship to Sunday was because Jesus rose on the first day of the week! I want that kind of life altering hope!

When we feel our spirits sagging and our worries mounting we should embrace God-given hope. Listen to Paul’s reminder: “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all people (I Corinthians 15:13-19).” Easter hope is now and forever!

Therefore, no matter how drained from a post-Easter let down we might be, this is exactly the time we should cling to hope. Hope for me isn’t an exuberant emotion. It’s a sustained positive outlook in spite of feelings or circumstances. Yes, problems and challenges exist, but Easter reminds us that we can have a hope that is everlasting. Easter candy and chocolate Bunny ears disappear a lot more quickly than the ubiquitous artificial “grass” from depleted baskets, but the hope of Easter, the enduring triumph of Easter is should always remain. So, hang in there! I have hope and am expectant of happiness – got to embrace hope first! Give Pharrell’s “Happy” a listen:

Ready for the Dance?

My Mother died in January 1993 and my Dad in July of 2000. Their funerals were genuine celebrations of life. My Dad’s was a particularly powerful testimony. Daddy had lost both legs at age 80. After Mother’s death, he couldn’t bear to be alone in that big house without her so he divided up their possessions, sold our home place and the Edgefield Pottery Museum and collection. He moved to Saluda to be near my middle brother and one of his businesses, but he would drive every Sunday back to Edgefield United Methodist Church, 36 miles round trip, on two artificial legs.

His last Sunday there was a good one. He drove himself home and that evening his kidneys shut down. He wound up in the hospital at Providence in Columbia and quickly went into a coma. He died 9 days later. In so many ways he was my hero. He overcame so many odds in life and was so colorful. His funeral was truly a “Service of Death and Resurrection” with the emphasis on resurrection. I was fine throughout it until we got to the last hymn, “Lord of the Dance.”

I could see past the mists of time into eternity and Daddy had his legs back and he and Mother were dancing. He was cutting a jig and Jesus was right there striking up the band! My dry eyes became a torrent of tears, not from sadness but joy! That funeral service was Easter to me! I can so easily hear the echo of those words now, “Dance then wherever you may be!”

I wonder where you and I will encounter Easter this week. In the throes of Holy Week we’re not there yet, are we? There will be times of abandonment, betrayal, passion, suffering, and care this week. In the midst of our present challenges I hear Jesus’ voice offering grace from the cross giving sympathetic solace to a dying thief who wants to be in Paradise and to His mother and beloved disciple who will find new purpose in caring for one another. The greatest measure of compassion was shown by Christ when he looked down on that company and said, “Father, Forgive them for they know not what they do.” I want to hear Jesus’ voice afresh this week.

Wherever we are in the dance steps of life, Jesus has gone before us – through every emotion, trial, temptation, and thanks to Good Friday through death to resurrection. This is the bedrock of our faith that sin and death can never conquer. Health challenges, family issues, financial stress, personal problems, and ethical dilemmas cannot separate us from Easter Hope: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death not life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present not the future, not any powers, neither height nor depth, not anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:37-39).”

This Holy Week reminds us that Jesus is with us in whatever life deals us, and He wins! Dance then! Cut a jig wherever you may be!

Judas Trees and Jesus

As I was driving across town this morning to the United Methodist Center I counted 19 Judas Trees. They look like thin trees or shrubs with close-cropped purple buds on the limbs. They are beautiful! Some people call them redbuds although I haven’t seen a color close to red yet. Much like the dogwood with its association to Lent and Easter via Jesus’ cross, the Judas Tree is said to have been the type of tree upon which Judas hanged himself after he betrayed the Lord.

No matter whether it’s an Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis) or a Judas Tree (Cercis siliquastrum) the bright purple Lenten-like color is a great precursor to Passion Week and Easter. Before there are any blooms on any other trees or shrubs these artful wonders stand out in yards and woodlands with their bright foliage. My mother always pointed them out when I was a child and said, “Look there’s a Judas Tree blooming. Easter’s coming, we better get ready!”

That is always good advice, hence our reason to have 40 days not counting Sundays to prepare for the Lord’s resurrection. In this in-between time of spring being sprung and the last vestiges of winter, I need a visual reminder that Passion Week and a culminating Easter are upon us. Judas Trees blooming while no dogwoods are in sight is a metaphor for the spiritual work that I yet need to do. What do I need to do to get ready for Passion Week and Easter?

I’m going to take my cue from Judas Trees, more specifically the relationship between Judas and Jesus. Judas Iscariot is such an enigmatic character. He’s the only disciple who was a city-boy, from Kerioth, which is why he’s called Judas Iscariot. We know he’s a thief who helped himself to the Disciples’ common cache of money. He struck a deal to turn Jesus in to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver.  He identified the Lord with a kiss. We also know Judas felt remorse over his actions, perhaps too little, too late.

But, hold on, we also know something else! Jesus called Judas his friend when he betrayed him with a kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:50). Jesus said, “Friend, Do what you came for.” We absolutely need to note that Jesus didn’t call many people “friend.” As a matter of fact, except for several uses of the word “friend(s)” in a few parables, the only other times Jesus uses the word directly about a person was when he healed the paralytic let down through the roof (Luke 5:20), and when he was talking about Lazarus, brother of Mary and Martha. In John 11:11 Jesus said, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going to wake him up.” Jesus only called three people, “friend!” Wow!

And one of them was Judas, and Jesus already knew that he was going to betray Him (John 13). To top off this audacity of grace, Jesus called Judas “Friend” just after He washed all of the Disciples’ feet, including Judas’, in the Upper Room. How many of us would wash Judas’ feet? How many of us would call our betrayer “Friend?”  We have all had someone treat us poorly. Rather than ostracize or at least avoid them, Jesus goes out of his way to show extraordinary grace and compassion, and He calls us to do the same knowing that there is nothing He does that He won’t empower us to do.

Therefore, I want every Judas Tree that I see make me want to have a Jesus-heart, a heart that can express friendship to all regardless of their meanness. Rather than stoop to the level of our adversaries, let us rise to the example of Christ. Jesus calls us all His friends and we’ve all let Him down like Judas. Look around you in the coming days and let the Judas Trees inspire you to turn your enemies into friends!

Judas Tree

Narcie Needs Prayer!

I try to write a weekly blog as a part of my spiritual disciplines, but just before Easter I was knocked into silence by personal events. Two weeks ago we learned that our daughter Narcie McClendon Jeter was going to face more uncertainty with a brain tumor. Narcie is the United Methodist Campus Minister and Director at the Gator Wesley Foundation in Gainesville, Florida where she ministers to the students at the University of Florida and Sante Fe College. It is a marvelous ministry! I know that I am biased, but she is amazing, and she has an extraordinary family. She and Mike have been married for 11 years now and are parents of our grandchildren Enoch (5) and Evy (4). We love them so much!

Almost three years ago Narcie was diagnosed with an oligodendroglioma brain tumor. You can google it to find out the particulars because I’m not going to put into print the ominous facts and statistics. I am simply asking you to pray for Narcie, her precious family, and her students. I can feel the tears just at the brim as I write this, and for years I have ministered to people who have been through so much worse, but I’m a Daddy or “Padre” as Narcie calls me. It’s tough, but God is stronger than death, brain tumors, and whatever adversity we might face.

Now, I know facts are facts and that every medical statistic has exceptions. I also know that Narcie comes from good genetic stock of beating the odds. My Dad was given 6 weeks to 6 months to live when he was 48 as his cancer metastasized, and he lived for 38 more years! My most sincere prayer is, “Lord, Please do the same for Narcie. Please heal my daughter!” I want her to live a long full life that goes way beyond her 33 years.

It’s possible, and that’s why Dr. William Friedman, the Director of Neurosurgery at Shands-UF Medical Center, is going to operate on May 10. Please pray for him and all of those who will be working with Narcie to get rid of this thing. Pray for Cindy and me as we seek to support Narcie, Mike, and the kids. We know the facts, but faith is greater than facts. That’s the audacity of Easter! God doesn’t cause pain and suffering. God endures it and beats it. What God does is deliver us from death and the grave!

I know how much courage Narcie and Mike have, and I am astounded. I sense in them the reality of Romans 8:35-37: “Who shall separate us from love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Thank you for your prayers and support for Narcie. We trust in the Lord. All hail the power of Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Narcie’s Blog is called “Blessings on the Journey” and is at http://narciejeter.wordpress.com/

Check out her post on 3/28

The Power of Love

The power of love versus the love of power is the cosmic battle fought every day. Do we seek to control people or manipulate circumstances into self-serving outcomes? Jesus, in his last week pre-resurrection, modeled a self-surrendered life and the power of love. He could have called thousands of angels to deliver him from death, but he did not. He could have defended himself against the arresting mob, but did not. He could have verbally throttled those who condemned and mocked him, but was as silent as a lamb before its shearers. He gave hope to a thief dying beside him when I would have wallowed in my own piteous situation. He spoke out of concern to his mother and his disciple John and gave them his charge to care for one another in his absence.

Perhaps the most telling thing that he did in showing the power of love during his agony on the cross was his plea to his Father, “Forgive them. They know not what they do (Luke 23:34).” No one in that crowd asked to be forgiven, yet he forgave. Often in Jesus’ ministry he forgave when no one was asking for it. When the paralyzed man was lowered by his friends through the roof there is no evidence that the man asked for forgiveness yet Jesus looked at him and said, “Your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2).” Another time a woman (Luke 7:48) who had sinned much showed her gratitude for Jesus’ message of grace and poured precious perfume on his feet. She did not ask for forgiveness, yet Jesus forgave. This is so counter to the ways of the world. Most of us have been taught to forgive only after someone repents and asks for our mercy. Jesus gives us a powerful example of love’s triumph over judgment, the power of love over the love of power.

As I ponder the magnitude of Jesus’ actions in his final days I am overwhelmed by the grace he shows Judas Iscariot. Sure, Jesus tells his disciples, Judas included, that one of them will betray him. He specifically calls out Peter as one who will deny him multiple times. He declares that all of them will desert him. However, these words seem more like words of warning mixed with immense sadness. I don’t hear them as accusatory or condemning. Jesus washed all of their feet, Judas’ and Peter’s included.

When Judas approached Jesus in Gethsemane to betray him with a kiss a most profound statement is uttered. Jesus simply said, “Friend, do what you came for (Matthew 26:50).” This is amazing since very seldom in the Gospels does Jesus use the word “Friend” as a personal greeting. As much as we love to sing the old hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” He only uses this epithet sparingly: once to the paralyzed man, “Friend, your sins are forgiven (Luke 5:20),” then about Lazarus’ death, Jesus said “Our friend has fallen asleep (John 11:11),” and when the disciples were worried he said, “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid… (Luke 12:4).” When Jesus addressed the disciples in John 15:14, 15, he called them “friends,” and, finally Jesus used the term in John 21:5 in the post-resurrection scene when he addressed the disciples from the shore while they were fishing in the Sea of Galilee, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?”

In a singular direct sense Jesus only used the term “Friend” three times in the entire Gospels and collectively only four times. Wow! So when I think of Jesus having the depth of love and courageous wherewithal to call Judas, “Friend,” as he was about to betray him with a kiss of all indignities, I am totally blown away. I am challenged by Jesus to forgive unilaterally and call even my enemies and those who desert me friends.

Jesus compels me during this Passion Week to lay aside self-interest and judgment and dare to embrace the power of love over the love of power. What a different world this would be if we turned enemies into friends and forgave people whether they asked for it or not. Oh, may the power of Christ’s love live through us!

Releaf the Tree – Easter’s Coming!

Last night Cindy and I watched a TV rerun of a Wednesday night perennial for us: “The Middle.” A tree limb had fallen on Frankie and Mike Heck’s car and the windshield was no more. Oh, they had paid for the extra “Acts of God” coverage, but the insurance company disallowed their claim because the tree limb was longer than it should have been, ought to have been trimmed, and, therefore, constituted homeowner negligence. To make a long story short, a church van saved the day. The van kept them from being frozen while driving their glassless car on wintry days. An act of God? An act of humankind? Which one – the limb falling or the church donating the van? Both? Neither? One or the other? Do you ever wonder about bad things happening and why?

It’s a question of God’s will, isn’t it? Some have said that the most powerful prayer is the one Jesus told us to use in the Lord’s Prayer and the same one, in essence, that he himself used when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 6:10 & Matthew 26:39): “Your will be done (On earth as it is in heaven).” This simple prayer is often misinterpreted as a feeble resignation to the unknown desires of a distant God, a caveat placed at the end of faithless prayers when we hope for the best but let God and ourselves off the hook by saying the common addendum, “… If it be your will, in Jesus’ name. Amen.” I am sick and tired, worn out even, from pondering the “Why’s” of life, and I will not use God’s unknown will as an excuse to accept life’s crud and vagaries. Understanding God’s will in a fickle for us/against us sort of way doesn’t do God justice and it certainly doesn’t do anything for me.

I know God doesn’t cause disease and tragedies because God loves and can only give good gifts (James 1:17). Illnesses and problems occur for lots of reasons, but the reason is never ever God! While God isn’t the source of tragedies, God does what God does best and that is the incarnational presence of God through Christ. Jesus is the Living God to whom we pray. So, when we pray for God’s will to be done, it isn’t some lightweight inadequate panacea for the ills of the world. It is an assault on the gates of hell! Our prayers are a battle cry against everything that’s not God’s will. To pray for God’s will to be done is not a statement of resignation or like extra-fine print at the bottom of our prayers that somehow voids the whole deal by letting God off the hook – “just in case.”

God doesn’t want disease or tragedies to prevail! Human freedom and e(E)vil have their way because God’s love gives the whole creation the freedom to run amok. The suffering of Jesus during Holy Week reminds me of this in the most poignant way. Freedom gone wild yields disaster, except that for Jesus and those who trust in him there will always be hope and a victory.

Therefore, I will cling to Jesus when I am worn out by this drama-filled life. I will continue to pray in Jesus name that God’s kingdom comes! I will pray as Jesus did that God’s will happens on earth as it does in heaven, and there aren’t any illnesses or tragedies there!

If you’re tired and worn, listen: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:6-9).” “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).”

This song is for you:

The Goodly Fere and Adventure

In the aftermath of General Conference 2012 I cannot help but reflect on the tendency I see in struggling local churches or denominations that prefer to look back toward the “good old days” rather than to the future. It’s an understandable desire to go back to the Garden of Eden when churches were packed and finances were good. However, if the good old days were that good then why are we in the mess we’re in now? Easter People are supposed to be headed to the New Jerusalem anyway. It’s a risky thought to stake your hope on the future, but looking backwards makes for crooked furrows whether in plowing or being a church.

It’s no accident that God put cherubim with flaming swords to guard the entrance to Eden after Adam and Eve’s exit. If we could have gotten back there after having eaten from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and then get another chance to partake of the Tree of Life, too, then we would be doomed forever to know both good and evil. The Gospel takes us to a better place, a New Jerusalem, where we can live forever in Christ knowing only good. We need to press past halcyon memories of yesteryear, celebrate the good of our history, but keep as our primary objective the risky but Christ-like adventure of the future.

Playing things safe is a natural tendency for most of us. Taking risks has bitten us more often than not. Armchair quarterbacking has been replaced by the safer second-guessing that comes from the sofa. “It’s too dangerous!” is a good thing to say to precocious children, but, if we’re not careful, we may oversell fear to the point that children, or any of us, aren’t given the permission to risk and fail. Risking failure is at the heart of maturity. Wisdom comes from experience, and the only way to get experience is in trying something. General Conference 2012 was a more than a bit deficient in attempting a new thing or anything. So much for making history!

Risk-taking for growth is so counter-intuitive. It goes so much against the grain of our “Be Safe!” society. One of my most frightening experiences was extremely counter-intuitive. I was in a seminary course called, “Wilderness Experience for Christian Maturity.” I should have gathered from the title what I might be in for, but naively I went along hoping for a nice camping trip in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Everything was fine with the hiking. It was cold, but not unbearable. Even as this was in the middle of May, there was chest deep snow as we followed the trail through some of the passes. After a week of hiking and camaraderie we had our first stretching experience. Each of us was given a piece of plastic for a shelter and then led off into the woods where we would be alone for three days. I didn’t know where I was. No one was allowed any food so that we had to fast. I did have a water bottle that was surreptitiously refilled each night by someone I never saw or heard.

The first half day was okay with my mind focused on settling in, setting up my tarp, unrolling my gear, etc. That night was a little scarier. We weren’t allowed flashlights, and it was literally pitch-black. The stars were amazing, but the rustling sounds of wildlife kept me on guard. During the night some animal came barreling through my open-ended shelter. It was probably one of the many tiny chipmunks that inhabited the area, but, in my mind, it sounded like it was the size of a wild boar, something impossible in the Adirondacks.

The next day was spent reading the Bible and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, Life Together. What was constantly on my mind frankly wasn’t what I was reading. I kept thinking about food and wondering what time it was. The group leaders confiscated my watch before leading me out into the wilderness. The food issue also possessed my thoughts. I tore through my backpack hoping that a stray M&M had escaped from my gorp bag before it had been absconded. There was nothing to be found. That day lasted forever, it seemed. I was frustrated in every way: bored, grumpy, and totally out of sorts.

The next day was more of the same until mid-day, at least my best guess of mid-day. Finally I gave up on hunger. I quit thinking about time. My notions of time and space were pierced by the extreme beauty of nature and God’s own quiet closeness. The sounds and the silence of the forest became relaxing and exhilarating friends. My reading of the Bible and Bonhoeffer was suddenly charged with a clarity that I had never known before. When darkness came I slept with a rare contentment.

Three days of solitude and fasting ended the next morning as I was led back to the group gathering area. All of us were treated to lentil soup and hot tang to reacquaint our stomachs to food. Everyone seemed cleansed, purified, and peaceful. It was great and it was needed. The risk was worth its reward, and it was good preparation for the unforeseen adventures that lay ahead.

I share this in the aftermath of GC 2012 to say that I know we had better days in terms of metrics years ago, but we worship a risen Lord who wants to take us into an uncharted future. It is not an unknown future, however. It ends in the New Jerusalem. Therefore, we need to lay aside our fears and our tight grip on institutional preservation. If Jesus is Lord then the future is where we need to be. We have Jesus with us and He’s no wimp. My favorite poem describes Jesus as a risk-taker better than I. It’s by Ezra Pound and called the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere.” It helps to understand the poem if you know that “fere” is Old English for “friend” or “companion” and the poem’s perspective is from one of Jesus’ original followers:

Ballad of the Goodly Fere

Ha’ we lost the goodliest fere o’ all
For the priests and the gallows tree?
Aye lover he was of brawny men,
O’ ships and the open sea.

When they came wi’ a host to take Our Man
His smile was good to see,
“First let these go!” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Or I’ll see ye damned,” says he.

Aye he sent us out through the crossed high spears
And the scorn of his laugh rang free,
“Why took ye not me when I walked about
Alone in the town?” says he.

Oh we drank his “Hale” in the good red wine
When we last made company,
No capon priest was the Goodly Fere
But a man o’ men was he.

I ha’ seen him drive a hundred men
Wi’ a bundle o’ cords swung free,
That they took the high and holy house
For their pawn and treasury.

They’ll no’ get him a’ in a book I think
Though they write it cunningly;
No mouse of the scrolls was the Goodly Fere
But aye loved the open sea.

If they think they ha’ snared our Goodly Fere
They are fools to the last degree.
“I’ll go to the feast,” quo’ our Goodly Fere,
“Though I go to the gallows tree.”

“Ye ha’ seen me heal the lame and blind,
And wake the dead,” says he,
“Ye shall see one thing to master all:
‘Tis how a brave man dies on the tree.”

A son of God was the Goodly Fere
That bade us his brothers be.
I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men.
I have seen him upon the tree.

He cried no cry when they drave the nails
And the blood gushed hot and free,
The hounds of the crimson sky gave tongue
But never a cry cried he.

I ha’ seen him cow a thousand men
On the hills o’ Galilee,
They whined as he walked out calm between,
Wi’ his eyes like the grey o’ the sea,

Like the sea that brooks no voyaging
With the winds unleashed and free,
Like the sea that he cowed at Genseret
Wi’ twey words spoke’ suddently.

A master of men was the Goodly Fere,
A mate of the wind and sea,
If they think they ha’ slain our Goodly Fere
They are fools eternally.

I ha’ seen him eat o’ the honey-comb
Sin’ they nailed him to the tree.

O Goodly Fere, Thank you for inviting us to be a part of your grand adventure. We will leave behind Eden for the New Jerusalem!

Never a Low Sunday or Day!

The Sunday after Easter is often anti-climatic because the throngs that filled the pews last week have dissipated. It’s called “Low Sunday” because church attendance has dipped so drastically from the week before. How do we keep up the enthusiasm when Easter comes and goes?

The answer lies in the fact that every Sunday is a little Easter. Early Christians moved from Judaism’s worship on the Sabbath, Saturday, because Jesus rose on the first day of the week. The first day of the week is not only appropriate because of its theological emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection, but also because it’s during the work week that our faith faces the largest obstacles.

Easter faith is needed more than once a year, or even once a week. Our credo needs to be: “Never a Low Sunday!” or “Never a Low Day!” if we truly believe in the grace and power of Jesus! To worship the Living Christ is to put Jesus first day in, day out. A victorious life depends upon constant faith and faithful dependence upon Christ. To keep Easter is to let Jesus set us free from the sins that hold us.

A couple sat in a pastor’s office preparing to be married. It was the second marriage for both. The pastor asked, “When did your relationship with God become very real and personal?” The bride-to-be’s answer was profound. She said, “It was following my divorce, during a low period in my life. I was running with the wrong crowd. One morning at 3 am, I found myself in the parking lot of a place I did not want to be. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m tired of this lifestyle. Lord, I confess that my own sin has fouled up my life. I believe you loved me enough to die for me and rise again for me so that I can be forgiven. Please forgive my past. I want to be your child from now on.’” She said that she felt an immediate release, as if a huge burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She became a new person in Christ.

Each of us has a past, some more sordid than others. Unless it is faced and resolved, it will haunt us and pull us down every time. Easter can continue if we will let God heal us. Each of us has our own particular list of sins. But none is too short to dodge judgment, and none is so long that Jesus can’t forgive. According to a story I heard, Sam Snead, the great golfer, was playing a round of golf with the baseball great, Ted Williams. Ted said, “Sam, you’ve got it made. You just tee the ball up and hit it. The ball is dead still. But I have to stand in a batter’s box and face an incredible array of fastballs, curves, and sliders. The ball is moving, maybe 90 miles per hour. That’s why my sport is tougher than yours.” Sam Snead thought about that then said, “Yeah, but you don’t have to play your foul balls.” That reminds me of Bubba Watson’s incredible hooking golf shot last Sunday from the foul ground in the woods off of #10 at the Masters during the play-off.

What do we do with our foul balls? How do we fix our mistakes? The answer for the Christian is through forgiveness. Jesus forgives us if we confess our sins. He sets us free. He empowers us through the Holy Spirit to begin new lives. He gives us the supernatural ability to say, “No!” to sin.

Our faith puts God first in true worship. Then God changes us into God’s likeness. Did you hear about the three people who were asked the question, “What is integrity?” One man, a philosopher, answered, “Integrity is how you act when no one else is watching.” The second person, a business person, said, “Integrity means that when you shake hands on a deal, no written contract is even needed.” The third person, a politician, looked this way and that and said, “What do you want it to mean?” The third person could have been any profession especially as I think of Coach Bobby Petrino’s lack of truthfulness with his family, the Arkansas Athletic Director, and others in the last few days. His self-proclaimed one-person motorcycle wreck, which we now know included a female staffer with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship, finally sunk him.

As much as we would all want to distort God’s standards to mean what we want them to mean, God has a set standard. When we couldn’t meet that standard, Jesus came to save us. Now through faith and the Holy Spirit we can be made children of God, redeemed and set free from sin! Easter’s hope of redemption is needed every day for all of us! I’m counting on it!