Immortalizing Your Life

Double standards, no standards, hypocrisy, and selfish narcissism are just a few of the things that absolutely get my goat these days. No one seemingly wants to accept responsibility for their actions, and the inability to say, “I’m sorry!” has left us with enough pent-up anger and frustration that borders on the edge of explosion.

A married couple cooped up for all these COVID months were at each other’s throats. She seemingly was handling it better than her husband, so he asked her, “How do you stay so calm?” She replied, “I work off my anger by cleaning the toilet.” He then asked, “How does that help?” She replied, “I use your toothbrush.”

There’s got to be a better way, and there is. It’s called forgiveness. Though I know that I should forgive, I tend to cling to Matthew 7:6 and its admonition, “Don’t give what is holy to dogs, and don’t throw your pearls before swine.” In other words, don’t waste good things on those who can’t appreciate them. There are a lot of mongrels and sons-of-mongrels out there, and plenty of oinkers and porkers, too, but does it help if I act like a jerk and blast rather than bless, or poison rather than praise?

It’s almost un-American to let go of revenge and anger. That’s why I like the prayer, “May those who love us, love us; and those who don’t love us; may God turn their hearts, and if he can’t turn their hearts, may he turn their ankles so we’ll know them by their limping.” I also like the story of the big bully and the little guy. The big bully tosses the little guy over his head, and says, “That’s judo. I picked it up in Japan.” A second later the big bully whacks the little guy on the back of the neck, and says, “That’s karate. I picked it up in Korea.” Somehow the little guy squirms away and goes out to his truck and comes back in, pops the big bully on the head and says, “That’s crowbar. I picked it up in Home Depot.”

I want to say, “Yes!” because we like reciprocity, that people get what they deserve, that there are consequences to people’s actions. Rather than payback from God; i.e., “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord,” we want to help out! My dad went to see my grandfather to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage. Papa didn’t even turn around and face him. He was stocking shelves in his country store, and kept his eyes on what he was doing. All he said was, “You make your bed. You’ve got to sleep in it.” He was paraphrasing the Bible, “You reap what you sow.”

Problem is, we all deserve punishment. None of us is squeaky clean. If it’s true that if you live long enough somebody is going to do you wrong, then it’s also true that if we don’t forgive them, we’re letting them do us that wrong forever. Forgiveness is giving up my right to hurt you for hurting me. If we stick with, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” there’s going to be a bunch of blind toothless people.

We are writing our epitaph every day. Paul made his life motto very clear from his Roman prison cell, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. (Philippians 1:21)” Is my epitaph, “Don’t get mad, get even?” I hope not, or I’m burning down the very bridge that I have to cross over myself. An epitaph is a short memoir that sums up what we hope people will remember about us. It answers a question that’s hard to answer in our pandemic panic, “What is my purpose in life?”

Epitaphs should be like mission statements. Like passing the T-Shirt test, as in it needs to fit on a T-Shirt, our mission statements should be short enough to be memorized, and long enough to be memorable. What short significant statement will immortalize your personality and passions? What will be on your grave?

There was a southern family who always went on a little road trip on Sunday afternoons. They would seek out cemeteries and let the kids blow off some steam by making a game of finding the oldest tombstone in the graveyard. One of the children yelled out, “Here’s an 1862!” The family gathered around and read this lady’s epitaph, “Ever she sought the best, ever she found it.” There, in 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, when she could have blamed everything on something or someone else, she took the high road and looked for the best and found it. That’s an epitaph worth living!

I want to be remembered for better than what I’ve been exhibiting lately. How about you?

Gin and Jesus

We all deal with repeat-offenders that seem to have a knack of getting on our last nerve and then challenge us to forgive them. My best buddy has a saying that is so perfect in this kind of situation, “There’s no lesson learned from the second kick of a mule.” How do we know when to cut our losses, move on, or disassociate from the hacks? Do we act like Jesus who compassionately dared to call Judas his “friend” in Matthew 26:50, or do we use Christ’s method of cleaning house at the Temple with a whip (John 2:15-16)? Do we respond to repeat-offenders by emulating “Buddy” Jesus from the movie “Dogma,” or the tough Jesus who said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me…” (Matthew 16:23)?

This is so difficult. Our choices run the gamut of engagement, disengagement, retaliation, turning the other cheek, righteous indignation, going nuclear with mutually assured destruction, radical forgiveness, or cautious pleasantries. What I wonder about my own need to forgive is whether it’s so hard because the same people do the same or similar things over and over again – the second, third, fourth…kick of the mule. I find it a little more doable to forgive someone’s one-time misbehavior.

If it or something like it keeps happening, it’s more difficult. The Lord, however, put an indefinite number on the times we should forgive (Matthew 18:21-22). In answering Peter’s question about the subject, his reply was a whopping “seventy times seven.” Most of us would have a hard time doing what the families of the Charleston Nine did in forgiving their killer. I can much more easily forgive someone if they do something to me, but it’s a whole other story if they hurt one of my children, grandchildren, or spouse. “Seventy times seven” is more kicks from a mule than I want, but I am shocked by God’s radical forgiveness for those who crucified his Son.

Jesus himself practiced extraordinary forgiveness – unilateral forgiveness, a one-sided forgiveness that didn’t depend on the offender’s repentance or even their stated desire to be forgiven. There’s not one instance in all the Gospels where anyone ever asked Jesus to forgive them, but he did. The paralyzed guy let down through the roof by his four friends didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven; take up your mat and walk.” The woman with a shady past who poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more.” More amazing was when Jesus was hanging on the cross. There’s no evidence at all that anyone in that crowd asked to be forgiven, but Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do.” So, I’m convicted and convinced that if I want to be like Jesus then I’ve got to forgive. If I want to be forgiven then the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses AS we forgive those who trespass against us,” must come true in my life.

Anne Lamott is a wonderful author whose wit and pen flare with zingers. Her book, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, combines a spiritual sincerity with a refreshing authenticity. A lot of it won’t ever make the hit-parade of sermon quotes because it’s more than a little ribald, but it’s so real. The third chapter is titled, “Forgiven,” and it is loaded with her self-exposure in harboring resentment at the seemingly perfect mom of her young son’s best friend. Her angst at this woman hits a fever pitch when this well-intentioned mom offers unwanted help. Anne Lamott’s words resonate, “I smiled back at her. I thought such awful thoughts that I cannot even say them out loud because they would make Jesus want to drink gin straight out of the cat dish.”

It is so pithy and well-written! Another section goes like this: “I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years – four former ——— presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree – it was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I had forgiven them. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity, ‘If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.’”

Her easier person, her son’s friend’s mom, turned out to be harder to forgive than expected, but she finally gets there, and gives a glimpse of hope for all of us who have a difficult time with this. She finally sees things from the other person’s perspective and understands. It didn’t mean that they became best buds like their sons, or even that she liked her all that much. Simply put, her epiphany was that she needed to work on herself more than someone else, and all the energy she spent raining on someone else’s parade was causing a flood on hers.

Seems like Jesus said something like it with these words in Matthew 7:3, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own?” As a matter of fact, reading the whole Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a pretty good remedy for anger and unforgiveness – life in general. I guess we’re people of the second, third, fourth, ad infinitum chance. I’m counting on it. You?

MLK on Forgiveness

Ferguson and the Pecking Order

“The Pecking Order,” is what my father-in-law, Guy Godwin, a retired High School principal, called the tendency for one person or group to try to dominate or lord it over another. The pecking order can be seen in Ferguson, Missouri and it’s everywhere else, too. I saw it as a child at mealtime, especially at holidays, when there was a “Children’s Table,” and we went last. From schoolyard bullies, family systems and birth order, businesses and preferential treatment, or the socio-economic pigeon-holing of the have’s and have-not’s, there is always a pecking order. I want to say, “Like it or not, deal with it,” but I don’t like it. None of us should. I think that it is a pattern of existence that predates society and civilization. It goes all the way back to Lucifer’s attempt to usurp God’s throne in Isaiah 14:12-15. It is found in Adam’s silence when he and Eve were tempted in the Garden. It’s been in every culture since and seems to be an integral but horrific characteristic of human nature. It’s in the animal kingdom, too, and surely brings out the barbaric animal in us.

We like pecking orders because it sets up one of the most insidious patterns of sinful behavior: the “blame game,” and proves my Dad’s point when I thought that I was doing some new, unique, and improved sin as a teenager. He would say, “Son, You don’t think your brothers didn’t try that, your uncles, me, and your grandfathers? There isn’t anything original about original sin.” That might have been my first theology lesson. Yes, there’s nothing original about attempting to stratify society and try to either hurt or blame somebody else. We’re great at being victims, and victimizing. Unfortunately, it’s true. Did Bill Cosby victimize women? Seems so. Did the Ferguson Police Department with its out-of-balance ratio of white-to-black police officers promote victimization? Seems so. Didn’t someone say that perception is reality?

So whether one thinks one side is right and the other wrong is irrelevant. The fallen human desire to have pecking orders presupposes that one race always wants to be higher on the rung of society and the way to get there is to demonize the next lowest, and the next lowest does it to the next lowest, ad infinitum. The problem is that in God’s view all of humanity is simultaneously at the top of the heap and at the bottom in a sense. Every one of us is at the same time a little lower than the angels (Psalm 8:5), and sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We’re the best that God has to offer and our own worst enemies.

The problem with racism and the blame game is that we can repent over and over again and we’re still stuck in victimization. I’m not saying that we need to let perpetrators off the hook. We need to hold people accountable, but sadly grand juries and street mobs view evidence that we all know is skewed. Every so-called fact has bias, and we wonder like Pilate, “What is truth?” My father-in-law was right. Most mayhem and what’s wrong with the world isn’t about the facts, it’s about the darn pecking order.

Well we could try the communist method and not have a pecking order at all but, truth be told, even in communism and socialism there’s a pecking order. One person explained the difference between capitalism and communism this way: “In capitalism, man exploits man. In communism, it’s the other way around.” Pardon the sexist language, but isn’t it true: the only difference is that you trade one set of fat-cats for another?

How do we move past Ferguson and racism, elitism, unfair judgment, and the pecking order tendency we all have? I suggest we own it, confess it, and repent. We need to admit that our judgments are very often not true, our assumptions are false, and our elitism actually betrays our very weakness. We are all pitiful creatures that need a Savior. The only way to make this world right can’t be legislated, though we can continue to try. The only way to have lasting peace and harmony isn’t through riots and demands. It’s through emptiness and non-violence. I daresay and mean it 1000% – it’s through a come-to-Jesus meeting for all of us. The only way for us to move forward is through self-sacrificial love, forgiveness, and human transformation. In other words, through an encounter with Jesus. Therefore, we pray the Kyrie eleison, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” No more pecking order except Jesus as Lord and everyone as our sister and brother. Amen.

Black and White Praying hands

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

When the Ship Hits the Sand What Do You Do?

Human nature embraces love and intimacy, but also accepts and even promotes inevitable differences of opinion. Sweet and bitter water flow from the same spring, namely us (James 3:10-11), and it is sad. Putin spars with President Obama; Democrats with Republicans; Clemson fans with South Carolina; husbands with wives; and the list goes on. We foment division more than we seek peace.

We wipe our enemies’ and occasionally our friends’ faces in the poo of life and think we’ve done something necessary, even noble. Who made us judge and jury? When did we become the Holy Spirit and get the task of convicting others of their sins? How do we avoid the alluring temptation of revenge, smack talk, or the insidious passive-aggressive entrapment of people? What are we to do when the well-intentioned and ill-intentioned dragons attack us?

We really need to be careful here because countries do go to war, couples split up, and friends never speak to one another again. Pardon the crassness but when the ship hits the sand, it is never evenly or fairly distributed!

Pardon my further indelicacy, but maybe you’ve heard the story of Great Bear and Furry Rabbit’s journey. They were out walking together one day when both literally experienced nature’s call. Great Bear asked Furry Rabbit in a loud voice, “I’m wondering, Furry Rabbit, you’re so sleek and so soft. I’m wondering if I might ask you a rather delicate and personal question.” Furry Rabbit in a meek and nervous voice, “Great Bear, we’re good friends, please ask your question.”

Great Bear lowered his loud voice and said, “I’m wondering if you ever have… the problem,” he hesitated. Furry Rabbit said, “Go on Great Friend. Ask your question.” “Well,” the Bear began again, “Do you ever have the problem… of poo… sticking… to your sleek fur?” Furry Rabbit giggled, “Why no.” He chuckled. “Of course not,” He said and giggled again.

Great Bear looked down for a moment, pensive, and looked back at Furry Rabbit. Then his great voice boomed, “Good!” Great Bear then picked up Furry Rabbit, wiped his great behind and set Furry Rabbit back on the ground.

We have all unwittingly or intentionally used our friends to alleviate our messy situations. Maybe you have not only heard the story of Great Bear and Furry Rabbit but have been in the story, on one end or the other. So, God, what are we to do with these situations? May I suggest, in an alliterative manner, that we have three options when tensions arise: Laugh it off, Let it go, or Love it away.

Laughing it off was an effective way for Abraham Lincoln to dispel anxiety and tension. There was one situation when one of his Cabinet members was totally out of line and a bunch of legislators wanted the whole Cabinet swept clean. Lincoln told the story of a farmer who had a problem with a family of seven skunks. They would raid his barns on a nightly basis and cause all kinds of havoc. One night the farmer got out of bed and told his wife that he was going to get his gun and take care of the whole lot. His wife heard a single blast and the farmer returned. She asked him what happened. He said that he shot one of the skunks. Then she asked why he didn’t get rid of the rest. He said very wryly, “The one I got rid of raised such a fearful stink I decided to let the other six go.” The legislators got the point and slinked out of Lincoln’s office. Presidents, court jesters, and you and I need to learn how to dispel tension with the friendly ease of a well-turned phrase. May I dare say that Jesus’ use of parables is an example?

Other times we need to let offenses go. My Daddy called it, “Giving people a horse to ride home on.” In other words, give people an out so if they explode they do it somewhere else and hopefully in the confines of a safe place. Jesus practiced letting offenses go. He practiced unilateral forgiveness, one-sided forgiveness. For instance, not one time in the Gospels does anyone ever ask Jesus to forgive them, yet he forgave! The woman with the alabaster bottle of expensive ointment never asked to be forgiven, but Jesus told her that her sins were forgiven (Luke 7:48). The guy whose four buddies lowered him down through the roof didn’t ask to be forgiven, but Jesus told him, “Your sins are forgiven. (Luke 5:20)” Of course most memorable in evidence of unilateral forgiveness was when Jesus was hanging on the cross. There’s no evidence that anyone in that crowd asked to be forgiven yet Jesus looked upon them and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)” What a powerful thing to forgive especially when no one asks for it!

Lastly, love it away! Love is defined as not seeking its own way in I Corinthians 13. So should it be with us as we put others first. Get this – as much as some like to sing the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” Jesus very seldom ever called anyone “friend.” As a matter of fact he does it only directly when talking about three people: Lazarus, Judas, and the unnamed paralytic lowered through the roof. With the paralytic we can only imagine. Lazarus we can understand since Jesus wept at his death, but Judas is a whole different story. In Matthew 26:50 Jesus is about to be arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Judas comes up to him ready to give the prearranged signal of a kiss so the soldiers would know who to arrest. What does Jesus say? He says, “Friend, do what you came for.” Jesus called Judas “friend” even when he was his most unfriendly. That’s love!

So when things get tense try these three things: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away! It’s a worthy challenge every day and in every situation. When the ship hits the sand, what do you do?

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!

Supper’s Ready!

This is that time of year when I ponder what World Communion really means. I can say that I love everybody, but if I harbor ill will when I come to the Table then it doesn’t do much good. If I’ve been a jerk to someone, I have prevented them from knowing grace, too. I very much like what someone said, “The three phrases we most often desire to hear are: “I love you!” “I forgive you!” and “Supper’s ready!” In the sacrament of Holy Communion we hear all three from Jesus. It’s His Table, and all are invited. It’s up to us to come!

When I was a youngster in my home church we went to Sunday School and afterwards made our way into the sanctuary. The educational building was behind the sanctuary so that if you went from one to the other you usually entered through the back door that opened into the sanctuary right beside the pulpit and altar. If we saw the communion elements and the white cloth spread out we immediately pressed our parents into leaving early.

Communion services were so long and were as somber as a funeral service. We used the old ritual; where what we said reversed our efforts at the Protestant Reformation’s focus on grace. We went back to something that resembled a large confessional booth. We used words like, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed in thought, word, and deed…” I felt sinful enough already. Our communion service added to my sense of guilt. The words of pardon were miniscule in comparison to the confession. I usually left feeling worse.

This is one reason that today when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper; we attempt to focus more on Christ’s marvelous work of grace than on our power to reform ourselves. We, more often than not, now refer to Communion as the Eucharist. Eucharist means Thanksgiving. The most important thing that we do when we come to the Communion Table is say, “Thanks!” to Christ for his gift of mercy. Rather than focus overly on our sinfulness, we thank God for God’s graciousness. What a better perspective!

World Communion Sunday is an event that bridges denominations and spotlights our commonality in the Body of Christ. This world would be so much better off if we looked for that which we hold in common rather than our differences. Holy Communion, rightly observed, reunites the Church. This is the pastor’s hope when he or she holds up the loaf of bread and says, “Because there is one loaf, we who are many, are one body in Christ.”

Therefore, our focus this week is in how to get over our differences and find common power to live in Christ. The Eucharist is a time of positive celebration, reunion, prayer for healing, and a sacred time to put others before ourselves. In my first parish I had three churches. I remember how shocked I was as I went to my first communion service at the smallest church of eight members. When I arrived there was a loaf of sliced “Wonder” bread still in its wrapper on the altar and a bottle of Welch’s grape juice and some small paper cups. They had not had communion in years. I was soon to find out why.

I went through the ritual and opened the altar for people to partake and NOBODY came forward. The reason they hadn’t had communion in years is that they were afraid. They knew full well that they were not living as consistent Christians. They felt too unworthy to come to the Table. I quickly switched sermons and preached on grace. Still nobody came up, but by the time I left there five years later, many did. Those few moved from guilt to grace, judging to acceptance. They found real communion with Jesus, a sacrament indeed.

Dentist Thomas Welch found himself in a somewhat similar situation back in 1869. Communion was problematic for a number of reasons. The alcoholic content of the wine was one of them. Dr. Welch was the Communion Steward for the congregation of First Methodist Church of Vineland, New Jersey. To his dismay, more often than not, communion either set some of the participants off on an alcoholic binge or on a rush to judgment by the abstention crowd. He and his family did experiment after experiment to come up with a solution and they did. He created unfermented grape juice, dubbed it “unfermented wine,” and soon churches all around wanted the product. By 1890 “Dr. Welch’s Grape Juice” had become a staple on communion tables, where it remains so today, all because someone saw communion as a sacrament that brought Christians together, not divided them!

Ash Wednesday Reflection

Lent is a season that calls for action, real repentance and authentic forgiveness. I remember well the old ritual we used to use for Holy Communion. It was an emotional bummer in many ways. I’m not saying what we have today is glee and gladness but at least it’s Eucharistic and more focused on thanksgiving for God’s grace than us “bewailing our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time most grievously have committed in thought, word, and deed.” At least it went something like that. I remember leaving Holy Communion services feeling somewhat worse about my spiritual state than I did beforehand. Was that such a bad thing? It did make me straighten up and ponder the depths of my being.

Although I like the upbeat God-focused tenor of the current Communion service, I do need more time in repentance than a brief prayer and a few seconds of silent confession. If by nature Holy Communion is a sacrament that mysteriously conveys Christ’s Real Presence then it should be taken more seriously than a “Jesus Snack,” which I heard one children’s sermon presenter call it. I need to recapture the depth of repentance that is part and parcel of true communing with God. I also need to own my real sorrow over the sins that I’ve committed.

To be honest, many of my sins are directly against God but most reach God through the conduit of my actions against people. Haven’t you felt belittled, slighted, or otherwise demeaned by someone? Often when we have been treated in such a way, we get even. We curse back or at the very least feel resentment. We may even feel some self-righteous smugness that we have been unfairly assailed and claim a higher ground that is more sham humility than the real reconciliation. I cannot relish any thought of being better than the attacker if I don’t admit my own sins. Nobody’s perfect, yet the Scripture (Matthew 5:48) says “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In its context this Scripture is all about God being perfect in loving everyone, both good and bad.

That’s a tall order when someone has wronged us. To quote from my devotional this morning from The One Year at His Feet by Chris Tiegreen, “No, Jesus gives no attention to whether our feelings are legitimate (when we’re upset with someone). That is not the point. Our feelings may be entirely accurate. What Jesus calls for, instead, is absolutely counterintuitive to the human experience: a rejection of our resentments and bitterness, no matter how appropriate they are. We are to love even when love grates against our souls. While we hope for the downfall of our enemies, Jesus actually expects us to pray for blessings to rain down upon them.” Wow!

The action that Lent calls us to do is a call to love when we’ve been wronged and especially when the person never ever says they’re sorry or asks for forgiveness. It can be called “unilateral forgiveness.” Unilateral literally means “one-sided.” Jesus modeled a one-sided unilateral forgiveness. For instance there’s no evidence in the Gospels that anyone ever asked Jesus to forgive them but Jesus did it anyway! The handicapped guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof didn’t ask for forgiveness but Jesus said, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” The sinful woman with the alabaster jar of ointment didn’t ask for forgiveness, but Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your sins are forgiven.” On the cross, with no pleas from the soldiers and crowd for forgiveness, Jesus really modeled unilateral forgiveness when he said, “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

A valid call to action this Ash Wednesday and throughout Lent is to model Christ’s love and forgiveness. Unilateral forgiveness sets prisoners free and more often than not the prisoners are you and me. May we repent and be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect – in love!

Unilateral Forgiveness and Advent/Christmas

For my Advent devotions I have been rereading Luke’s Gospel. All four Gospels carry a particular message for a given audience. Matthew ironically is hated by his own people as a Roman collaborator but his emphasis is on Jesus the Jewish Messiah. He quotes the Old Testament more than any other Gospel writer. His birth narrative has Jesus fulfilling the proclamation of God’s salvation to the whole world through the Jews. The Magi come from the East to fulfill Isaiah 49:6, “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Matthew has the Magi finding Jesus in a house not a stable albeit how incorrect our creches are.

Mark with all of its action verbs and the oft-repeated “immediately” is geared toward a Roman “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” audience. Luke is for the poor with his Gospel directed toward the “least,” “last,” “lowest,” and “lost.” His version of Jesus’ birth narrative has the poor disenfranchised shepherds hear the Gospel instead of the eastern Wise Men. Mary’s “Magnificat” elevates humility over power. Jesus is born in a lowly stable and laid in a manger not a bed in a house. Then there’s John’s Gospel that has no parables coming from Jesus. They are replaced by powerful “I am” statements by Christ. It has Jesus going to Jerusalem 4 times as opposed to once by all the rest except for Jesus at age twelve going to the Temple in Luke’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is a telescoping Gospel with an ever-widening view of Jesus’s salvific work that light conquers darkness. It’s a Gospel for everyone, but aren’t they all?

But, like I said, this Christmas I am spending time in Luke’s Gospel. It seems appropriate given the poverty of our economic times, and poverty of spirit, too. Then the Word spoke to me moments ago in a fresh way as it always does when I’m listening. These are tough times. Those were tough times in Christ’s day. The toughest times don’t occur for me when something hits me externally, but rather when my heart and soul are sucker-punched. The holiday season is often such a time. The shopping frenzy doesn’t exhibit a slowing down but a speeding up. Anger and frustration are evident on driver’s and shopper’s faces as parking lot and store aisles are desperately navigated. Plus there’s the added tension of family drama. That’s the sucker punch.

Ah, family drama! There’s the who gets or gives the better gift reciprocity or lack thereof. The last minute we-decided-to-not-swap-Christmas-gifts-this-year dilemma and you already bought one. Do you keep it for yourself or donate it to a charity? What if it was handmade and created especially for that person? Then there’s the unfavorite uncle or aunt that carries drama wherever they go. Don’t let them near the punch, no matter what! So, what does Luke’s Gospel say about these tense but hopefully joyous days leading up to Christmas?

What does it say about handling the fluster and bluster of anxiety and getting along with difficult people, especially the ones in our own families? Well, ton of bricks, it hit me: unilateral forgiveness! Have you ever thought that there’s not one incident in the Gospels of anyone asking Jesus to forgive them? Not once, but Jesus forgives anyway. Only in Luke’s Gospel do we have all three accounts of Jesus forgiving people in a one-sided unilateral way. I’ve just hit the concordance to recheck and it’s so. In Luke 5 we have the four buddies who want to help their paralyzed friend see Jesus so they dig through the roof and lower him down. Nowhere does it say that this guy asks Jesus to forgive him, but Jesus says to him (Luke 5:20): “Friend, your sins are forgiven.” Or how about Luke 7:36ff when a woman who had led a sinful life pours an alabaster bottle of perfume on Jesus’ feet? It doesn’t say that she asked to be forgiven, but Jesus in vs. 48 says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then the most remembered example in my mind of Jesus’ unilateral forgiveness is when Jesus is on the cross and he says to the soldiers and jeering crowd (Luke 23:34): “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” No one in that crowd asked for forgiveness. Only in Luke’s Gospel do we have these words. Wow! Jesus forgave even if people didn’t ask for it!

Well, that changes my thinking for Advent and Christmas when my anxiety gets ratcheted up and family, friends, and parking lot pirates get on my nerves. I should live grace and love not because I or anyone else deserves it but because Jesus loves us, forgives us, and sets the captives free. So cut everyone some slack. Let’s be like Jesus and practice unilateral forgiveness. It’s bound to make the world a better place, mine and your house included! Then, wham – Luke 6:37 drives the point home when Jesus says: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” To have peace is to give peace; to know grace and forgiveness is to give it. The Jesus method is to be the first one to do it whether the other person ever reciprocates. What a Jesus! What a challenge! What a hope for the world!

Mystery of Suicide


I woke up this morning to hear the news that Kenny McKinley, former University of South Carolina, star football receiver had apparently taken his own life. Friends, former teammates, coaches, and fans are shocked. He was here at the USC-Georgia game two weeks ago. According to everyone, he seemed fine. Of course, he has been injury-plagued over the last two years with the Denver Broncos. There was no suicide note, no explanation. Other than his injury there was no thought that something like this would happen.

I have never experienced suicide in my own family, but as a pastor I have dealt with quite a few. Every time I was shocked. One was especially difficult. It was an older man who was beloved in the community. His wife had some very tough health issues and had to be moved to an assisted living community. Apparently, he couldn’t take it and took his own life. I have preached the funeral of a murder suicide, too, and there have been other tragic events in the churches that I served where someone took thier own life.

It is always hard for me as a pastor to know what to say in this situation. And I have often wondered why I didn’t pick up on some kind of signal that this might happen. I have felt the sting of the prophet Jeremiah’s words when he warns that we should not say, “Peace, peace, when there is no peace.” Yet, the presence of the Incarnate Christ who came to know our pain as the Man of Sorrows gives us hope, whether we can say the right words or not.

I try to think of God’s mercy like this: If human courts will acquit someone of murder because of insanity, then God’s mercy surely must prove more complete than that. I have known people so full of despair that they couldn’t see past their own hand much less their problems. In that moment of sheer pain and darkness they have done the unthinkable. I pray in God’s mercy that they are just as acquitted as we humans would absolve the temporarily insane.

It’s a mystery, and no easy answer is forthcoming. I’m reminded of Deuteronomy 29:29 again and again, “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” What this means to me is that there are some things we can’t know or perceive and we must leave those unfathomable mysteries to God. Let’s stick to what we can know and about which we can do something.

I’m certainly not advocating suicide as an option to life’s dilemmas. Its pain and unresolved issues for families last generations. There is NOTHING beneficial that can come from doing such a thing, but I think God’s word to me this morning is to cut people who have committed suicide some slack, and open my eyes to the unseen hurts around me. A simple “Hey, How are you?” isn’t enough to delve into the human heart. If there’s anything at all to take from this it is to live more intentionally in community where we rub shoulders and look into one another’s faces and hearts. Facebook is a good thing but it cannot replace real community, face-to-face.

The Church is the best place for us to have deep relationships with one another. Small groups, Sunday School classes, mission projects, and other significant church activities put us side by side in an intimate setting where we can get to know the unseen pain of others. In our economically dark and terror-filled world, we need Jesus and He is most easily seen in one another. I hurt for the McKinley family and for any family that has faced such a tragedy. May they find peace among us, and help through us.