God’s Right Hand Man, Ours, too!

Ascension Day doesn’t really make the hit parade of Christian holidays, but it should! It proves Jesus’ triumph and exaltation to “the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” as the Apostles’ Creed declares. Easter is the highest point of our faith and has, of course, always been tied to Passover. The reason the date of Easter shifts is because Jesus’ death and resurrection coincided with the Passover. So, ever since the inaugural Easter, it has always come on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easter, therefore, can range between March 22 and April 25 each year.

Ascension Day is always 40 days after Easter because Luke says in Acts 1:3, “After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” Forty days after Easter is always a Thursday. This Thursday is Ascension Day!

We need to recapture its importance because it gives so much hope and encouragement, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Ascension Day confirms that Jesus has been elevated to God’s right hand. That act symbolizes his identity as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He’s literally God’s Right-Hand-Man! We usually shake hands with someone using the right hand because the right arm is most people’s side of strength and where a weapon might be held. Shaking right hands reveals that a person comes without a weapon, in peace.

A right-hand-man is, therefore, exalted, strong, dependable, the first to be called upon, and a representative of the one at whose right hand they sit or stand. When you see one, you see the other; and we know Jesus said when you’ve seen him, you see the Father (John 14:9). There are many passages about Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand: Luke 22:69, Colossians 3:1, Psalm 110:1, Hebrews 12:2, Hebrews 8:1, Matthew 26:4, I Peter 3:22, Mark 16:19, Acts 2:33, Hebrews 10:12, Revelation 3:21, Hebrews 1:3, Ephesians 1:20, Mark 14:62, Acts 5:31, and there are more! Please read them this week and be encouraged!

Ascension Day’s importance as evidenced in Scripture gives great hope. Jesus is too tough to tame. He’s king of the universe, an embodiment of the Father’s glory, power, and strength. There is nothing too big or bad that can defeat him. He has already defeated everything that comes against us, and it keeps getting better and better because He ascended. Jesus told the disciples that it was better for them if he ascended so the Holy Spirit would come (John 16:7-16).

In other words, Jesus said that his ascension triggered the outpouring of the Holy Spirit 10 days later at Pentecost. Jesus could only be in one place at one time, but the Holy Spirit, which is His Spirit, can be everywhere. This is what Peter meant in his first sermon after Pentecost when he spoke about Jesus and what was happening, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear (Acts 2:33).” Amen!

Jesus’s exaltation through the Ascension gives us the Holy Spirit and confidence so that we might have forgiveness of sins and be empowered by the Holy Spirit!  Over and over in the Bible it tells us what Jesus is doing while He is at the Father’s right hand. He’s praying for us, you and me! What could be more encouraging? Romans 8:34b says, “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Hebrews 7:25 says, “Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” He is interceding for us, intercedere, as our literal “go between,” as the word itself means. Jesus becomes our “Right-Hand-Man,” along with God the Father’s, in speaking up for us, defending us, doing everything possible to help us. What an encouragement!

The most powerful example of Jesus interceding for us is with what happened to the first deacon, Stephen, in Acts 7:54-60. Stephen is being stoned to death as the first Christian martyr when, as he was being executed, says “Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56).” This is amazing confirmation of the importance of Ascension Day and what Jesus continues to do for us who believe.

The interesting thing is that it portrays Jesus, the One that the Scriptures mostly say is “seated at the right hand of God the Father,” as standing at God’s right hand in this passage. Some say this is Jesus giving Stephen a standing ovation! It leads me to believe that there are times, tough times, in our lives that Jesus stands up and shows up in mighty ways on our behalf. Amen! Amen! This is my prayer: “Please God, remind us this Ascension Day, this Thursday, that you have been exalted and are ever ready to pour out your Holy Spirit to comfort, empower, and teach us. You are interceding for us, STANDING UP for us when times are difficult. We are so grateful! In your powerful name, we pray; Amen!”

National Nurses Day, Teachers, and Mother’s Day

Today, May 6, is National Nurses Day. It is the beginning of a weeklong celebration that culminates on May 12, the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth. She was the “Lady of the Lamp” that modernized nursing in the field hospitals of the Crimean War that was fought between her native Britain and the Russians in the 1850’s. Those of you who are nurses or related to one have attended those “Lighting of the Lamp Ceremonies” in which a nurse is given a small white ceramic lamp with a candle in its holder on one end to remind them to pierce the darkness with care and compassion. This is exactly what Florence Nightingale did in the cramped conditions of Crimea, and what nurses are doing today.

As Christians during this pandemic we join in this effort to bring light to those in the throes of darkness. Mothers have also taken on the role of nurses during this pandemic trying to bring light to children and families. Those who weren’t teachers by profession have been tasked, along with Dads, to make sure school packets have been thoroughly vetted with reading assignments, math, and all the rest completed. Nurses and Moms alike have had to console children and patients of all ages while they can’t see or play with their friends or have visitors, even family, as they are sequestered in hospitals. Nurses have been the last family some dying persons have known. God bless them in handling this profound responsibility.

It’s what nurses, and Moms do, others, too, and moms and nurses come in every imaginable guise. Some nurses are men, and some Moms are “Mr. Moms.” This isn’t about gender-bending, it’s about all of us as grandparents, parents, medical personnel and others each doing our part to pierce the darkness. As much as parents have been overtaxed, and out of their element in teaching an unfamiliar way to do math, and children are missing their friends.  Think about another group – teachers who are not only missing their children and colleagues, plus they have been thrown into distance-learning without much, if any, preparation. God bless the teachers during this difficult time.

Medical personnel, nurses, doctors, teachers, children and youth, churches, ALL of us have been learning on the fly. All of a sudden our worlds have been turned upside down. There is no NBA, no golf tournaments, Major League Baseball, no college hoops and baseball, or spring football practices. We don’t even know if sports will gear back up in the fall, much less our favorite TV shows. Instead of sports and Hollywood celebrities in the spotlight, our heroes have been frontline nurses, doctors, medical personnel, and teachers who are being valued like never before. It’s about time for all of these first responders, last responders, and everyone in between to be honored. Maybe, instead of the world being upside down, it’s finally right side up for a change. If only we would carry these new values into the future, and those in helping professions get paid as much as a movie star or a top NFL draft pick!

Right now we have a values war taking place. Some of us want our freedom so much that we will fight to be able to go to the beach, or wherever we think our right to freedom of assembly will lead us. Others of us, are wanting to be extra careful, wear our masks and gloves and sanitize everything. Perchance, we’re trying to answer the wrong questions between what are my rights as a “Don’t Tread-On-Me” libertarian and a “What-Is-Best-For-Everybody’s-Protection” law-abiding citizen. The better question might be, “What does God want me to do?”

To answer that question as simply as I can while honoring mothers for Mother’s Day, nurses during National Nurses Week, other medical personnel, store shelf stockers, first responders and anybody else who is exposing themselves in harm’s way is with this one thought, “What would my Mother want me to do?” That’s a good question as we reopen the country, continue social-distancing, and try to save lives as nurses or anyone else. Mother never steered me wrong. What would she do, and what would she want me to do? I never left home without her admonition and love ringing in my ears, “Be careful. I love you.” I never heard her say, “Make sure you do something risky today,” or “Do whatever you want to do and don’t think about how it affects anybody else.” It was always the opposite.

As a matter of fact, her voice and phrases sounded a lot like God’s. Maybe the best way that we can honor Nurses and Moms this week, and everybody else we need to value is to ask what’s God’s voice telling us? W.W.J.D. for me this week is going to sound more like W.W.M.D. – What Would Mother Do? That question turns my world right side up!

If you’re a nurse or Mom or just overwhelmed and maxed out then I’ve added two songs by Matthew West. The first titled, “Quarantine,” is a bit of comic relief, and the second is for all of you on the front lines at home and the hospital, “Hope Returns.”

 

Assault on Mt. Mitchell

Some of you have heard of the “Assault on Mt. Mitchell,” and a few of you may have done it. I’ve seen it, and witnessed the literal gut-wrenching agony of many of the participants, but I haven’t done it. The Assault is a 102.7 mile bicycle race that starts in front of the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium in Spartanburg, SC and goes 11,000 feet up to the top of Mt. Mitchell near Burnsville, NC. The winners are usually able to accomplish this feat in around 5 hours. It is grueling to say the least.

Does this sound familiar as we make our assault on COVID-19? Have you ever had small kids on a trip ask every whipstitch, “Are we there yet?” That’s what is on everyone’s minds right now. “This too shall pass” is a popular phrase, especially when we are ready to move on. Even as I think of the eloquent, but simple language of the 23rd Psalm, there are lots of us that focus on the part that says, “Even though I walk THROUGH the valley of the shadow of death,” as if to say we’re only going to be in it for a short time until we come out on the other side. What if it’s not going to be a short time? What if we’re not there yet? What if we haven’t climbed that last hill on the way to the top of Mt. Mitchell or in our assault on COVID-19?

It seems like we’ve been in COVID-19 quarantine forever, but that’s exactly where we still are. We’re not through it, are we? Have you ever noticed that the very first time that you take a trip or travel a new route somewhere, it seems to take longer than on the same way home. Why? Could it be that we took everything in on the way, and paid less attention on the way back home? I don’t know the exact reason, but this is my experience. No matter the reason, a first time trip somewhere always seems longer than the trip back.

Well, this pandemic is a first time trip, and we aren’t back to normalcy yet. I’m not even sure if we’ve turned around yet. I am going to assume that we’re still on the trip. We’re still in the assault stage. We’re not ready to coast downhill. We need to stay the course right now, and not jump too quickly to the downhill side. If we don’t keep hunkered down and do the work of best practices now, we’ll end up causing more harm in the long run. I refuse to waste what this uphill battle has already cost us. I want the trip back home to normalcy to go by quickly.

So, let’s absorb all the info we can while we’re still on the way so that we can protect others and ourselves on the trip home. I don’t want anyone to die on the way to or from. I’ll have to admit I’m torn on the reopening issue. Sure, some businesses need to start. Economic disaster is tantamount to death for lots of people. We need to reopen everything at some point, but we’re not there yet, are we? We’re not through this yet.

The governor of Georgia thinks we are on the other side of this enough so that we can get our nails done and have massages. Are you kidding me? I want gyms and churches and everything that’s been closed to reopen, too, but is it safe yet? Thankfully we have a Bishop who will determine when our church will begin to have face-to-face worship. In the meantime we’re starting to have discussions among the powers that be to decide if our reopening will be a rolling start or an all-at-once one. I’m thinking a determined gradual reopening is best for safety’s sake.

One of our three rules that we Methodists live by is “Do no harm.” We will not violate that! We’re going to use these days of continued assault on COVID-19 to make sure we beat it completely! Thinking out loud or at least in print, we will most certainly avoid handshakes, hugs, and high-fives. We will have 6 ft. social distancing and probably have limitations on the size of the crowd. We may have to take reservations for attending church, block off pews and seat people on either ends and make sure that they’re staggered so no one is behind anyone else. There probably won’t be any Sunday School to start with. We’ll have to keep doing a lot of that by zoom.

We might have to have certain services for specific groups of people delineated by age, illness or whatever criteria works to mitigate risk. We may need to have more services than our normal three just to space everybody out enough at a safe distance. We will need people at preset entrances in full hazmat gear to take forehead temps of people. Children’s Ministry and Youth are already meeting by zoom. The choir is doing that, too, but letting there be face-to-face choir practice or sitting in the choir loft together is going to have to be a work in progress. Needless to say, it is going to be interesting. Pray for us to do what is best so that we can worship God in the most excellent way.

So, we’re doing what we can in this in-between time to get ready. We will do whatever it takes to get to the top of Mt. Mitchell. We’re just not there yet, so let’s use this gap-time wisely to pray and think it all through. In our impatience to crank back up, let’s put the brakes on enough to do everything we can to be smart. God gave us brains, so let’s use them. Let me encourage you, we will get wherever “there” is, but right now we are going to stay in this valley, and do what it takes until we can all come out on the other side as safely as we can. We want this assault to lead to complete victory, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

The Virus Didn’t Steal Easter

How the Virus Stole Easter

By Kristi Bothur, With a nod to Dr. Seuss

Twas late in ‘19 when the virus began

Bringing chaos and fear to all people, each land.

People were sick, hospitals full,

Doctors overwhelmed, no one in school.

As winter gave way to the promise of spring,

The virus raged on, touching peasant and king.

People hid in their homes from the enemy unseen.

They YouTubed and Zoomed, social-distanced, and cleaned.

April approached and churches were closed.

“There won’t be an Easter,” the world supposed.

“There won’t be church services, and egg hunts are out.

No reason for new dresses when we can’t go about.”

Holy Week started, as bleak as the rest.

The world was focused on masks and on tests.

“Easter can’t happen this year,” it proclaimed.

“Online and at home, it just won’t be the same.”

Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the days came and went.

The virus pressed on; it just would not relent.

The world woke Sunday and nothing had changed.

The virus still menaced, the people, estranged.

“Pooh pooh to the saints,” the world was grumbling.

“They’re finding out now that no Easter is coming.

“They’re just waking up! We know just what they’ll do!

Their mouths will hang open a minute or two,

And then all the saints will all cry boo-hoo.

“That noise,” said the world, “will be something to hear.”

So it paused and the world put a hand to its ear.

And it did hear a sound coming through all the skies.

It started down low, then it started to rise.

But the sound wasn’t depressed.

Why, this sound was triumphant!

It couldn’t be so!

But it grew with abundance!

The world stared around, popping its eyes.

Then it shook! What it saw was a shocking surprise!

Every saint in every nation, the tall and the small,

Was celebrating Jesus in spite of it all!

It hadn’t stopped Easter from coming! It came!

Somehow or other, it came just the same!

And the world with its life quite stuck in quarantine

Stood puzzling and puzzling.

“Just how can it be?”

“It came without bonnets, it came without bunnies,

It came without egg hunts, cantatas, or money.”

Then the world thought of something it hadn’t before.

“Maybe Easter,” it thought, “doesn’t come from a store.

Maybe Easter, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

And what happened then?

Well….the story’s not done.

What will YOU do?

Will you share with that one

Or two or more people needing hope in this night?

Will you share the source of your life in this fight?

The churches are empty – but so is the tomb,

And Jesus is victor over death, doom, and gloom.

So this year at Easter, let this be our prayer,

As the virus still rages all around, everywhere.

May the world see hope when it looks at God’s people.

May the world see the church is not a building or steeple.

May the world find Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection,

May the world find Joy in a time of dejection.

May 2020 be known as the year of survival,

But not only that –

Let it start a revival.

Jesus Is Alive!

Easter has held a deeper meaning for most of us this year. Seeing the huge number of unclaimed pine coffins buried in a New York mass grave has been a stark reminder of what’s been happening in too many places because of COVID-19. Our realities, in short order, have been shaken by social distancing and self-quarantining; the nearly empty streets and shelves; the worries about our family members, who either work in healthcare, or are sequestered by health issues; plus countless concerns about small businesses, school years and graduations, jobs and financial stresses, plus everything else that has changed in our world. These uncertainties have made Easter’s hope more important than ever.

I sense a wake-up call, not caused by God, but one that can be used by God to make us better people, redeemed people, and a more spiritual people. Our uncertain world is met by a sure and certain God. Alarm clocks have gone off. People in India can see the Himalayas in the distance for the first time in decades because pollution has decreased. We can hope that China will NEVER EVER allow another “wet market” stay open and cause another pandemic. My prayer is that our lives will forever be altered in good ways. It would be even better if our lives were “altared,” notice the spelling, and placed on God’s altar –dedicated to God Almighty, who is the Living God, and the One who is, was, and is to come in Jesus Christ.

Because Jesus is alive we can face tomorrow with hope. It has often made me think about Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. He has a new and improved body. He can eat with his disciples and pass through walls, too. He’s better than new, but let me tell you what really gets me this year in particular. It’s an exhilarating and sobering thought. If God raised Jesus from the dead, why didn’t God fix him up? Why were the scars left in his side, feet, and hands for Thomas and the other disciples to touch and see?

They were left for us to see, too. Why? Could it be that God is trying to say, “You cannot see or understand Jesus Christ or Easter’s Good News unless you see the wounds?” Somehow what my heart is feeling this Easter is that the resurrected Christ is forever the wounded Christ. He is living, but never fixed up. He is not bound by death, but he is scarred for eternity. Is that what has happened to us and the world this year? We’re scarred, too, maybe forever. The Good News of Jesus, however, is that we can be scarred and resurrected at the same time. We will get through this! That’s the message of Easter Season 2020. We are not defined by COVID-19, rather we are defined by our relationship to the One who knows our sorrows, carries our scars, and is yet alive. He is alive, but he is wounded so that we can look at his scars and claim hope.

In his drama, “The Trial of Jesus,” John Masefield has the centurion Longinus report back to Pontius Pilate after Jesus’ crucifixion. Longinus had been the officer in charge of the execution. After he gave Pilate his “official” report, Pilate’s wife Procula summons him to tell her how Jesus had died. After he told her what happened, she asks, “Do you think he is dead?” Longinus answers, “No, Lady, I don’t.” “Then where is he?” asks Procula. Longinus replies, “Let loose in the world, my Lady, let loose in the world where no one can stop his truth.” Amen.

Jesus’ resurrected body with scars is the sign of the Gospel’s truth. It validates everything we believe. If we will put our trust in the Lord who is let loose, we, too, will be let loose and freed, not just from COVID-19, and not just for Easter, but forever. That is our certain hope! I feel it more this year than ever, and I hope you do, too. Jesus is alive, and NO ONE and NOTHING can stop his truth!

Holy Week Isolation

A theme for Holy Week 2020 for me is isolation. We’re all doing our best to keep others safe by isolating from one another. It protects us, too, and we sincerely pray that it stops or at least slows down the COVID-19 spread. That first Holy Week created an overwhelming sense of isolation for Jesus. It shows up throughout the week. It is showing up across the world right now, too.

Isolation is something that weighs heavily on all of us today. Some of you have already known it because of treatments or immune-deficiency conditions. COVID-19 has made it real for everyone. Residents of care facilities cannot see their families, funerals are graveside only, hospitals have necessarily strict visitation limitations for every patient, and churches have gone virtual at a time when we really need a hug. God made us in God’s own image, and a huge part of that is being social. If God exists in the community that we call the Trinity, how much more do we want and need to be with each another.

“Non-essential” small business owners are especially feeling isolated. God bless each category of person or business in this period of isolation. God bless all our healthcare workers, first responders, SRS employees, grocery store and pharmacy workers, and all the others that have to come home every day in fear of contaminating their loved ones. Then there’s another kind of isolation felt by the teachers that are  at home, but are still producing lesson plans for their students. Another isolation is the “cabin fever” that separates children from their friends, neighbors, and classmates. Plus, there are the students that will not have a prom or a graduation ceremony this year. God bless every person who is feeling isolated and alone.

This is exactly why Holy Week 2020 will be especially poignant and helpful. If we wrap our minds around the fact that God in Christ knows our difficulties and pain, it lets us know we’re never truly alone. Jesus literally knows what each one of us is going through and desires to redeem it (Romans 8:28-39). That is the promise of Holy Week every year. We have a God that has skin; mysteriously truly divine and utterly human – One who is able to empathize with our every weakness (Hebrews 4:14-16).

It wasn’t long after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday that he experienced a distancing between himself, the authorities and even his friends. Judas, the group’s treasurer, betrayed him with a kiss. Peter who was usually brash and brave cowered in fear in the courtyard of the High Priest’s home, and denied ever knowing Jesus three times. When the temple soldiers came to arrest Jesus, all of his disciples fled. Jesus was totally isolated.

One can really “feel” his isolation when it came to his late-night prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. He ventured into the darkness with only three of his disciples with him. He asked Peter, James, and John to offer their nearby prayer support while he went further into the darkness and prayed alone. The Scripture says that he agonized so much in his praying that it was like he perspired “great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44). He went back to his three closest disciples over and over again and each time found them sleeping.

His horrible isolation on the Cross is so evident. In one of his last statements, Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was isolation within himself, being both fully God and fully human. Some of us have felt that kind of turning on oneself when we cannot see past our own hands. Good Friday was only good for us, not at all for Jesus. One can feel his emotional, spiritual and physical heaviness as his body sagged on the Cross.

Holy Week 2020 is a unique time for us to see what Jesus went through with a fresh albeit difficult perspective. It may be the closest we have been to it ourselves in our lifetimes. May our sense of isolation help us grasp the depth of sympathy God has for each of us, and also take hold of hope because it may be Friday, but Sunday is coming. We are not quite yet to Easter yet in our fight against COVID-19, but it will not be long. Until then, we travel our own via dolorosa (Way of Suffering), but, like Christ, we will win. There is a resurrection!

Easter Hope from Old Salem

Holy Week Hope is what I need this year. COVID-19 has ravaged the world and things like Easter services have changed in its wake. This doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is alive and well. Holy Week’s drama doesn’t end on Golgotha, but at the empty tomb. There will be differences this year because we can’t meet together, but I pray that we will hear the echoes of “Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!” reverberate in our hearts.

I have always wanted to attend the Easter Sunrise service at Old Salem in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Being a pastor makes it nearly impossible to pull that off due to leading my own flock in worship. This year marks the 240th uninterrupted succession of Easter Services at Old Salem. The Moravians since Count Nicholas Von Zinzendorf in Herrnhut, Germany have given this poignant and powerful homage to Christian hope and faith. This year it will be just as rich except it will be live-streamed at http://www.moraviansunrise.org/. It’s not an extravaganza, never has been. It’s deep and worshipful. It is the essence of Christian hope because it’s not based on pyrotechnics or stage management. It is simple, yet extremely profound.

We need to remember the Moravian influence on John Wesley, Methodism’s founder, who was caught in a storm at sea frightened for his life and soul, yet surrounded by these German Pietists who had heart faith that inspired them to sing hymns and pray through the storm. They had more than the head faith of Wesley. The Moravian’s witness had a profound effect on Wesley that led him to believe Methodists would do best if we connected head and heart, and literally “felt” our religion. Wesley even met with Zinzendorf at Herrnhut to experience more of this living hope himself.

Feeling our religion is the essence of hope. So yearly, albeit 2020 will be quite different, the Moravians who have been in Old Salem since the 1700’s have celebrated their faith in a special way. At 1:45 am a brass band of nearly 400 using trumpets and tubas goes around the city and plays Easter music, alerting everyone that sunrise will soon be coming. Then they gather at the Old Salem Church at 6 am when the bishop steps out of the Moravian Church into the darkness and says the traditional Easter Greeting: “The Lord is Risen!” The gathered throng responds, “He is risen indeed!” Then silently they make their way to the ancient cemetery called “God’s Acre” where bodies have been buried or sown in faith as physical bodies so they can be raised up as spiritual bodies.

The cemetery is a witness itself of new life. Every flat recumbent stone is identical and they are covered with flowers: forsythia, jonquils, azalea and dogwood blossoms – whatever plants, bushes, and trees are full of color are carefully laid on each tomb as a sign of resurrection piercing the night’s fading darkness. The tombs are all the same for each person as a reminder that each of us needs God’s grace the same as anyone else. Tombs are not gathered in family plots, but are ranked in specific order of married women, unmarried women, married men, unmarried men, etc. Zinzendorf himself said this is the way it should be as if our bodies were “choirs,” of sorts, with equality and democracy the same rule of heaven as it should be on earth with no one better than another.

Gathered there at the cemetery in silence everyone looks toward the eastern hill beside God’s Acre and the cedars that were brought from Germany when the first Moravians settled Salem. The sun comes up over that hill and the Communion of Saints is revealed: the earthly saints in the Church Militant joined with the deceased saints in the Church Triumphant, all living saints as represented by the people standing and the graves festooned by every imaginable color of flower. It is impressive. “Christ is Risen!” “He is Risen indeed!”

Pray and plan that Holy Week and Easter 2020 will be as glorious as any in Old Salem. May we feel stronger in the faith as we visualize our deceased loved ones alive again and rooting us on in our quest for hope and resurrection today. Amen.

The Sky Isn’t Falling!

“The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” is what Chicken Little yells when nothing but an acorn falls on its head. Chicken Little decides to tell the king and on its journey other animals join the scared little band of creatures. They all have rhyming names like Henny Penny, Cocky Locky, and Turkey Lurkey, but the names aren’t what’s important. This is a folk tale that makes light of paranoia and mass hysteria, and it doesn’t end well. From the panic of a single acorn, Chicken Little and its friends get invited to a fox’s lair for supposed refuge and end up as lunch. The moral of the story is to not get freaked out, and make matters worse.

Well, the COVID-19 pandemic is no acorn. It’s real and it’s eating our lunch! People are dying, businesses are closing, jobs are being lost, and there’s even a run on toilet paper! Just when I think the church’s doors ought to be wide open, we’ve been told to shut them. I get it, but it feels so sad and wrong, but we don’t want to spread germs and make things worse. Church services, daily devotions, blogs, live-stream and every means imaginable are being used to keep hope strong among the faithful.

If there’s ever a time to need Jesus and proclaim hope, this is it! The Scripture is filled with those who faced adversity and survived, even thrived. Hebrews 11 defines faith and lists quite a few people who lived with confidence in perilous times. Then Hebrews 12:1-3 offers a summation and challenge based upon all the ways the faithful hung in there. It gives all of us the encouragement to keep the faith, too.

It says, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

There’s a cloud of witnesses around us, too. Even when we feel alone or isolated because of mandatory social distancing, God is with us, and so is the church. Don’t yield to negative thinking. This crisis can be the seedbed for the next great awakening for America and the world. Spend your time in prayer and Bible reading. Ask God to fill your heart with the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. We may have social distancing, but through the union of faithful hearts in the Spirit we will never have emotional and spiritual distancing!

Throw off the sin that so easily entangles like panic, fear, and worry. Sure, my retirement has lost big time, but what good does it do for me to look at that. I would rather sit here and pray through the faces of my family and friends as I look at the pictures around our house or in the church pictorial directory. God knows what each person needs, and I can call, text, or email them, too! I can count my many blessings, as the old hymn goes, and name them one by one! There’s so much that I can do to spend these last days of Lenten season as a spiritual preparation for the best Easter ever.

This is an opportunity to let God recalibrate my life, to get my priorities in order, to give on-line to the ministries and missions of the church, to soak up the Word, and write notes of encouragement to those whom God lays on my heart. I just need to listen, and if I can’t hear His voice now then there’s something terribly wrong with me!

Mostly, I can do exactly what Hebrews 12:1-3 says: I can FIX my eyes on Jesus, what He went through on the Cross for me, and all of us. He is the pioneer and perfecter of my faith, the pathfinder and the road-paver, of what’s important. I’m not going to freak out during this crisis about the future of the United Methodist Church, my pension, or anything else. If I can concentrate on Jesus, it’s all going to be alright! Look what He went through, and how that turned out. Sure, it was horrible on Good Friday, but Easter Sunday’s coming! Take heart! Read: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18; I Peter 5:6-11; Jeremiah 29:11; Psalm 23; Romans 8:28-39; Isaiah 40:27-31; Psalm 46. Pray for revival!

South Carolina Flood Relief

This is a good week for I Kings 17:7, “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land.” The State of South Carolina has been inundated and has literally had its fill of rain. My son’s home is split-level and the lower level flooded. His expectant wife along with their 4 and 2 year olds are staying in Aiken with us while he is at home trying to start the repair process. I have been back and forth to Columbia 4 times using every imaginable route to try to maneuver the streets. His situation isn’t dire and everything will be fine. I only mention his situation to say that there are a lot of people in far worse circumstances. People have died. Cindy’s school has been closed all week because roads have disappeared. This clean-up will take a long time, and we need the brook to dry up!

The context of I Kings 17:7 is instructional. Prior to the brook drying up, God had been feeding Elijah via ravens, and his source of life-giving water was a brook near the Jordan River. Then the brook dried up which wasn’t good news for Elijah like it is for us. It’s good news for us in flood-stricken South Carolina, but bad news for a desert-bound prophet. God then provided another avenue to meet Elijah’s needs. Maybe that’s the primary lesson from Elijah: Hang in there no matter what, or using the words of the South Carolina motto “Dum Spiro Spero, “While I breathe, I hope.” That is what defines both SC Strong and Christian Strong!

Sometimes, though, it takes a while to even gather hope. God told Elijah to find a certain poor widow in a nearby town and ask for food. She didn’t have any, plus she said that she barely had enough ingredients to make a final meal for herself and her only son before their anticipated deaths. Elijah asked for a meal anyway and she complied and miraculously her food supply stayed constant. That says something about giving even when you’re hurting. Unfortunately the celebration of that miracle was short-lived because her son did die. But the story doesn’t end there. God raised the widow’s son from the dead. We are also in that weird interval when we’re not sure how the story of the SC Flood will end, but we have hope in resurrection, beauty from ashes, bricks out of mud, and lessons from loss. Like the widow, how we respond will largely determine the outcome.

For many of us our theological understanding of God’s taking care of us has been flipped. On one hand there is ample Biblical hope that suggests that we will be saved from floods; i.e., Isaiah 43: 1-2, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” That didn’t come true for some this week, but the God “with” us part has for all of us. Other passages are tricky to understand, too, like the one Jesus uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:24-27: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” This doesn’t offer much comfort and seems to blame us if we get whacked by calamity.

Frankly, most of us would agree that we live this conundrum of “Why, O Lord?” every day and especially in times of crisis: “God, if this is the way you treat your friends no wonder you have so many enemies.” So floods, cancer, and calamities are very complex from a Christian perspective. For instance, we affirm that God sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The part I don’t like, maybe you don’t either, is that God is the one doing the “sending” in Jesus’ sermon. I’m good with a heavy rainfall in a drought, but not like what we’ve had! The counterbalance to God’s seeming responsibility in rain or drought is the time Jesus was on the boat in the storm with the disciples in Luke 8:24. It says Jesus rebuked the storm, “He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.”

Jesus only used the word “rebuke” when dealing with evil or those possessed by evil. Why would Jesus have to rebuke the storm if nature was already under his control? If God’s will is already a done deal then why are we asked in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? It seems to me that nature has a mind of its own, and is often at cross-purposes with God’s perfect will. So we trust God to do what God does best and that is to enter our pain and redeem it.

God does exactly that in the Incarnation of Christ: Jesus experienced all of our problems, died all of our deaths, and ROSE AGAIN! Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:14-16 assure us that Jesus went through all of his suffering so that we can know that God will make a way for us, too. That is the basis for our hope. It is not a fanciful rose-colored hope that knows no storms. It is a hope that is true because it has been through the storms. South Carolina will live up to its motto and then some. It has done it before and will do it again. While WE breathe, WE hope!

How is St. John’s Providing Flood Relief?

We are encouraging monetary DONATIONS to SC Conference Disaster Response, which will:

* Rebuild and repair affected churches, including small churches that do not have flood insurance.

     * Initiate an estimated three-year recovery phase until everyone is back in a home.

     * Walk with those who, even with FEMA help, will not have the resources to rebuild.

Why money rather than tangible assistance?

     * While bottled water, food, and flood buckets are absolutely necessary, the UMC Disaster Response team will provide sustainable and long-lasting means of recovery, rather than solely initial relief.

     * Our UMC SC conference staff are trained to identify how our resources can be used most productively.

     * ALL donations will only be used for SC flood relief as our apportionments cover all administrative costs.

How can I give?

* Bring a donation by the church office or drop it in the offering plate.

     * Cash donations and checks: Please specify on your envelope or memo line “SC flood relief.”

     * Donate online at:                                                                                                                     http://www.umcsc.org/data/disasterresponseflood2015.php

South Carolina

The Fourth and Flags

The Fourth of July has a shady heritage in the South. It wasn’t until World War I that most people below the Mason-Dixon Line approved of Independence Day celebrations. The poverty and animosity caused by Reconstruction caused many Southerners to avoid our nation’s birthday. Reconstruction was a tumultuous time. South Carolina was under harsh military rule until 1877, twelve long years after the end of the Confederacy. It was a long military occupation that resulted in exacerbated resentment and retribution against people of color.

Perhaps this explains why Southerners remember “The War” so well. But there is a difference between history and heritage. History is something to learn from so that its evil may not be repeated and so its good might be perpetuated. Heritage is what we pass on to our descendants. I don’t want to pass on a history fraught with prejudice and poverty. I do want to pass on a heritage of front porches and smiling faces, family reunions and neighborliness. In these days of reflection since the Charleston Massacre, I want to make sure that my legacy, our legacy, reflects Christ more than country. Sometimes they are not synonymous.

Our flags should represent our values, our heritage. What happens, however, when flags, whether they be swastikas or rising suns, stars and bars, or even Old Glory, fail to represent our Christian heritage? What if there’s a difference between what we profess as Christians and what we profess as a nation? If history, by definition, is something to be learned from, and heritage is something to be passed on, we, therefore, need to be very careful about the flags to which we offer our allegiance.

I would be highly offended if swastikas still flew over Germany. That symbol invokes hatred and genocide. With that being said, I wonder what people think when they see an American flag? Surely to many it represents freedom and the sacrifice of America’s millions that gave of themselves so that democracy might defeat fascism in World War II. We are grateful for those whom Tom Brokaw called, “The Greatest Generation,” plus previous and subsequent generations who have protected our freedoms and honored our flag.

However, people who live in so-called “Banana Republics” think of Americans in a whole different light. To them our flag represents people who will sacrifice democracy and fairness if it will provide us with cheaper gas, clothing, or produce. NAFTA (North American Free Trade Act) was passed to help us more than it was to help poor Third World residents. We want to pay 1950’s prices for things no matter how it affects people in poorer countries, and we have the gall to gripe about jobs being sent overseas as if it wasn’t our fault. No wonder poverty-stricken countries are more than eager to let our greed for pleasure consume their illegitimate drugs. In their minds it serves us right! Our flag, to them, stands for oppression. To them, we seem very hypocritical, especially in the way that we define “our vital national interests.”

To combat this perception I propose that we do two things. First, we need to be vigilant that our nation’s values be steadfast in fulfilling the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Second, we need to beware of ever confusing our faith with our flag. As a matter of historical fact, nations and their banners hardly ever represent Christianity. America perhaps has come closest. But that’s our opinion. Ask a Nicaraguan or Panamanian and the answer might be different. Let us make sure that our flag is a consistent international symbol of peace and hope. Then it will remain a worthy national one. God bless America, for we surely need it.