Frankenstorms and Questions of Why

One of my clergypersons in the Columbia District is enduring an unusual burden. His wife’s parents have been ill. Saturday night the father died at home. The mother was in the hospital, and the family decided not to tell her until Sunday morning. In their tenuous broaching of the news with her, she interrupted them, “I know what’s going on. Jack’s dead. I felt it during the night.” Within a few hours she was gone, too. Eleven hours apart they met Jesus face to face. It’s a powerful example of the intuitive power of love in a good marriage, yet a tough grief for a family to bear. How do we handle such news? Where is our solace?

Overcome by the news trickling out of the middle and upper Atlantic regions of the U.S. and the broad swath of tragic effects from Hurricane Sandy, I think there’s a message for all who go through the trials of life. Here we are in an uncertain economy, a toss-up election season, and a society that has more non-religious people than people of faith. What is our message to a hurting world overcome by natural calamity and difficult choices? What is our message to Marcus Lattimore, University of South Carolina running back and faithful United Methodist, who has already endured one horrific knee injury and rehab last year only to have another disaster hit his other knee this past Saturday? How do we encourage this forlorn planet where so many bad things happen to good people?

First off we have to answer people’s “Why?” questions with a non-Rick Warren/Purpose-Driven response. We do not believe it is God’s purpose to harm God’s children. That would be child abuse! The Scriptures tell us that “every good and perfect gift comes from our Father in Heaven …” (James 1:17). Therefore, hurricanes, cancer, knee injuries, and economic disasters don’t come from God. Grace is what comes from God. Call the source of calamities whatever or whomever you will, but never say that it’s the God we have encountered in Jesus. Jesus enters our pain rather than causing it. He redeems our fallen faltering world. He works for good our mistaken freedom-caused dilemmas that have led us down the dark path of blaming God instead of the real culprits.

So today as I ponder my daughter’s continuing saga of a brain tumor, and my dismay at the world’s suffering, I will NOT go quietly into the dark abyss of hopeless fatalism that falsely claims that our God is the enemy. I will rather face this day and every day with the Christian Hope that life trumps death; God’s grace and strength are sufficient for every time of need; and I am one of God’s agents for redemption in every situation. I choose to remember God today!

I dare you to read Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God as a way to recall the ways of God in tough times. Her last chapter is especially helpful to me. It is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle Roberta had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. Her Aunt Ree was ready to die and refused further treatment. The healthcare professionals wanted to attempt some more heroic efforts. Unable to fend for herself, Roberta interceded on her aunt’s behalf. Her Auntie Ree was ready to leave the Church Militant and join the Church Triumphant. With Roberta’s successful intervention, the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room. Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing at that point, not so much because of the absence of jabbing needles, but because, as Aunite Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.

All Hallow’s Eve is tomorrow, October 31, and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be filled with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.

Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I was selfish. I think that I got my wish because she was selfless and responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could only move one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few short months to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”

As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremendum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.

The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.

They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loves ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.

Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.

Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “The peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!

This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come to the Table. The apostle Paul says it this way: “In Christ, God was reconciling us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.” This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day, Thursday, November 1, 2012, I will remember. Though the goblins of life attack and assail us in countless ways, I will not yield to despair. I will claim the Good News of Jesus Christ that God is love and love turns crosses into crowns. That is the story of Jack and Judy Lewis who died 11 hours apart. It is the message that the world needs desperately to hear on tough days. This is the only way for all the non-religious people to survive the Frankenstorms of life. In Jesus, the Wounded Healer, we can find hope and redemption.

Winter Storm Warning

I just checked Mt. Mitchell’s weather station and saw that yesterday the high was 18 and the low this morning was 14, with a -9 factoring in the windchill. Tough conditions! We had our first frost this morning. Winter is soon upon us. As I have been holding charge conferences day-in-day-out, I can tell you that there are marvelous ministries, but there is also a systemic anxiety in the air. The economic fallout has caused sincere people of faith to wonder about their future. My thinking is that we’re in a time like the Great Depression and WWII that produced the “Builder” generation and what Tom Brokaw called “The Greatest Generation.” As I ponder this coming All Saints Day, I think about my father who quit school in the 8th grade to help his family survive. He was 13 at the time the Stock Market crashed. He subsequently joined the CCC’s (Civilian Conservation Corps), married my Mom, survived the War years and became a successful businessman and a superb Christian.
Churches were filled as people’s extrinsic idols disappeared. Maybe we’re on the cusp of another such time, and a time of great revival. I recently was given a October 2008 prayer by Max Lucado, “You Have Our Attention, Lord” that puts all of this in perspective:
“Our friends lost their house
The co-worker lost her job
The couple next door lost their retirement
It seems that everyone is losing their footing
This scares us. This bailout with billions.
These rumblings of depression.
These headlines: ominous, thunderous –
“Going broke!” “Going Down!” “Going Under!” “What Next?”
What is next?
We’re listening. And we’re admitting: You were right.
You told us this would happen.
You shot straight about loving stuff and worshipping money.
Greed will break your heart, you warned.
Money will love you and leave you.
Don’t put your hope in riches that are so uncertain.
You were right. Money is a fickle lover and we just got dumped.
We were wrong to spend what we didn’t have,
Wrong to neglect prayer and ignore the poor,
Wrong to think we ever earned a dime. We didn’t. You gave it.
And now, tell us Father, are you taking it?
We’re listening. And we’re praying.
Could you make something good out of this mess?
Of course you can. You always have.
You led slaves out of slavery,
Built temples out of ruins,
Turned stormy waves into a glassy pond and water into sweet wine.
This disorder awaits your order. So do we.”

Intrinsic Purpose


My pension account has dropped 17% or $70,000 this year. I’m paying for health insurance for one of my children, college tuition for another, and car insurance for all my children. I have some assets, but who wants to buy 2 tenths of an acre at Junaluska if you can’t get a loan to build a house. We don’t have a home. I’ve kept thinking that we would eventually get everybody out on their own and then afford to build something. Fat chance right now. I guess we can live at Cindy’s mother’s place if things go completely south. I’m frightened. Retirement is at least 12-15 years away, but how long will it take for the markets to rebound? I’ve already had one consultation with a pastor who was thinking that he wanted to retire this year, but doesn’t want to now. What am I/we going to do? I think I/we better be doing things for intrinsic rather than extrinsic reward.
Many of you have read Rick Warren’s, The Purpose Driven Life, whether you agree with its overt Calvinism or not. One of its propositions is that we humans that are made in the image of our Creator should enjoy creating. However, many people hardly know what their niche is in life in general, much less what their calling is when it comes to vocation. We slide from job to job hopefully making enough to get by or better, and don’t work for the job but for the paycheck. College students graduate with a degree and if they weren’t fortunate enough to be in a co-op program their job chances are scary. Many end up doing anything, which very often has nothing to do with their college majors. We don’t give teenagers many opportunities to apprentice anymore. Mentoring or shadowing someone in their career is possible, but finding a job in that desired field can be very difficult. There are too many financial and legal liability hurdles that keep it from happening, so we end up hoping that our kids have some inkling, without any experience to back it up, what they want to do before they go to college, and that their subsequent degree will actually get them a job.
Thank God for technical schools, universities and lifelong learning opportunities that have a real job goals in mind. I’m not trying to squelch the grand gift that a liberal arts education provides, but I’ve seen too many young adults get degrees and have the ability to excel in “Trivial Pursuit,” yet wind up in a job that wasn’t at all related to their college course work. I’m for apprenticeships that help people fine-tune their options before they go to college or while they are there. I have a great friend, Ovyind Hellieson, who lives in Norway who continually applauds his country’s compulsory 2 years of government service that each young adult has to pursue after high school. He says that it helps young adults, including his own children, clarify their interests and goals. I like the public service idea: Peace Corps, Teacher Cadet programs or the like, to help bring maturity and offer a sense of apprenticeship.
My Dad was in C.C.C.’s in the 1930’s. The Civilian Conservation Corps was a way for lads without jobs to learn skills, discipline, and earn money to send home during the Great Depression. The C.C.C.’s gave my Dad dignity and skills at a time when he could have been lost to abject poverty. Plus the C.C.C.’s and the W.P.A. created some of the most wonderful projects that are still enjoyed today. They accomplished something and took pride in the result.
Many people today who are either youth without a job or adults down-sized out of a job because of the economy are facing another kind of depression because they work hard for years for a company or for a degree and have little to show for it. We have to do something about this! Listen to John Haughey’s words in his book, The Conspiracy of God: “In one of George Moore’s novels, he tells of Irish peasants in the Depression who were set to work building roads. For a time everything went wonderfully. The men were glad to have jobs, and sang songs as they worked. But after a while they discovered that the roads they were building led nowhere, expired in peat bogs or simply ended. As that truth gradually dawned upon them, they grew listless and stopped singing. In the words of the novelist: ‘The roads to nowhere are difficult to build. For a man to work well and to sing as he works, there must be an end in view.’” Our end-view is to work for God our Creator. I pray that what I’m doing matters to God and neighbor. That’s reward enough.