Guilty Until Proven Innocent

I work out at the Y early in the mornings. The elliptical machine is my friend. Treadmills kill my knees and hips. An episode of “Matlock” lasts an hour, so that’s how long I do the elliptical. I plug in my ear buds and watch and perspire. Ben Matlock, played by the now-deceased actor, Andy Griffith, believes in the American justice system’s premise that a person is “innocent until proven guilty,” but he always asks if the person did the crime before he takes a case. He never takes the case of someone that he suspects is guilty, but Jesus does it all the time!

Jesus knows we’re all guilty and loves us anyway. The historic Christian faith is very similar to Napoleonic law. It labels accused criminals as “guilty until proven innocent.” As harsh as that sounds to Americanized ears, it’s so true from a Christian perspective. We’re all guilty, and the only way to be proven innocent is through God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

My Dad taught me my first theology lesson about guilt and innocence, and it was about original sin. As a teenager when I thought I was doing some “new” sin that was historic in the annals of our family, my Dad said to me: “You surely don’t think that you’re the first one in this family to try that. Your brothers tried it. Your uncles did. I did. So did your grandfathers. There ain’t nothing original about Original Sin.” He was so right in many ways!

Sure, Jesus’ work of redemption erases just enough of Original Sin so that we can respond to God’s prevenient grace, but it’s still God’s action and not some inherent goodness in humankind. We may be made in God’s image, but the only place Wesley and Calvin agreed is that all humanity is totally depraved. We are lost. We cannot save ourselves! If we gloss over or pretend away the effects of that total depravity then we have reduced grace to a self-help farce. The only cure for the ills of this world, stretching from Charlottesville to my den, is Jesus Christ. Without Jesus, I am hell bent and hell bound. Those are strong words, but anything less is humanistic claptrap.

For example, I dearly love my grandchildren. I love stories about how innocent all children are. One, in particular, comes to mind as I mull all this “innocent until proven guilty” or “guilty until proven innocent” stuff over. In the story a guy asks a 7 year old girl, “What is life all about?” She replies, “The purpose of life is to be kind and loving, to be here for other people, to make the world a better place than before you came.” The impressed guy then asks, “Did you learn all this from your parents?” The little girl replies, “No.” They guy asks, “In school?” “No.” “At church, then?” “Uh, no.” “Well, where then did you learn such things?” asks the guy. The little girl thinks and finally says, “I just knew them before I came here.”

Ah, yes, before we came here. I know that the longer any of us live the more we’re affected by the corrupt world. However, in all honesty, the world doesn’t do the corrupting. Adam and Eve and all their children, including little children and big ones, do the corrupting. I don’t know how Original Sin is transmitted. I’ve studied the arguments and listened to angles that suggest some sort of biological answer, or a theoretical legal argument that since Adam was our representative, we, too, are corrupted. Frankly, it matters little to me how we got to where we are, but I know that every human from both a Biblical perspective and personal experience is in need of a Savior. We cannot save ourselves. From our earliest cries we are self-centered and the Image of God in us is marred beyond any self-made solution to our ills.

Therefore, I deplore any kind of supremacist attitude. Pre-judging is an anathema to me, but one thing is certain: we have all been weighed on God’s balance scales and found wanting. God in Jesus has pre-loved us though. “Even while we were yet sinners,” says Romans 5:8, “Christ died for us.” The foot of the cross is level because none of us is better than anyone else, as much as I think some people will go to hell a lot more quickly than others. But, I’m not God. God knows that we all have messed up, came into the world that way, and in Wesley’s words have both “inherited sin” and “actual sin.” The Good News, however, is that God loves us enough to offer us redemption. Unlike Original Sin, redemption is not inherent in each person, but it’s possible. It takes a choice. Do we choose to look down our noses at others? Sure. Do we choose to race-bait and kill? Yes. So, how can we be redeemed? Choose Jesus! He has already chosen us!

Jesus provides grace, but one has to accept it. There’s a story that makes sense to me in this process of redemption: There was a young monk who sat outside a monastery every day with his hands folded in prayer. He looked pious as he chanted his prayers day after day thinking that he was somehow acquiring grace. One day the head priest of the monastery sat down next to the young monk and started rubbing a piece of brick against a stone. Day after day he rubbed one against the other. This went on week after week until the young monk finally blurted out, “Father, what are you doing?” The older priest said, “I’m trying to make a mirror.” “But that’s impossible!” said the young monk. “You can’t make a mirror from brick.” “True,” replied the mature priest. “And it is just as impossible for you to acquire grace by doing nothing except sitting here chanting all day.”

We can’t earn grace, but we can accept it. I wish I could get that through my thick head. There is no room for racism, prejudice, or any sense of supremacy. Only Christ is supreme. My prayer is that we will all invite Him to sit on the throne of our hearts.

Matlock Picture

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I Shot a Red Bird

I killed a Red Bird. There, I’ve confessed it. As a little boy, about this time of year, a Christmas present of a B-B-Gun was used to kill a beautiful Cardinal. I love Cardinals. Their scarlet red feathers bring color into the frosty hues of winter. I saw one on the ground pecking at pecans lying under one of our abundantly fruitful trees. I leveled the barrel over a fence rail, put the bird in my sights, and pulled the trigger. The Cardinal fluttered and tried to fly. He was dead within 10 feet, and I immediately felt guilty. It’s one of the very first times I ever knew that I was a sinner. One of my first thoughts was typical of Adam and Eve in the Garden, blame someone else. I never got age appropriate gifts anyway. My parents shouldn’t have given me a B-B-gun, but I knew better even as a little boy.

So I looked over my shoulder. I knew that I had done a bad thing. Grandmother was always lurking around. She loved Red Birds. She even kept finches and parakeets in the house. If anyone could make you feel guilty, it was her. You wouldn’t dare call someone a “fool” for any reason without her quoting Scripture about those who did so going to hell. She was the conscience for everybody in the family. She still makes me feel guilty sometimes, and rightly so for the most part.

But the day I shot the Red Bird, I was guilty of my own accord. I knew to my core that I did something wrong. Does anyone feel that they have done wrong anymore? Where has our sense of propriety gone? I used to blush quite regularly and hardly do it anymore. Is it because I have a heightened sense of grace, or a cavalier callousness about sin? It makes me wonder. Grace really makes little sense without a need for mercy. I think sometimes that I have ether claimed or promoted grace so much that I have forgotten that if it weren’t for God’s wrath, there would be no need of grace, no need for Jesus.

The Bible conveys many images of the atonement, ways of describing what Jesus did to make us at-one with God again when we’ve done wrong. I don’t think that one is more correct than another. They are just different ways to explain or depict what Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish. I’m convinced that there are so many because they speak to us individually and correspond to our particular needs. Questions are begged: Which one do we find most helpful? Which one would help us explain the Gospel to someone else who needs it?

The Financial or Ransom Image (Titus 2:14) suggests that we humans are captives that are held in bondage and have lost our freedom, but Someone steps up and pays the price, the ransom, to redeem the incarcerated. This image corresponds to the language of redemption. Jesus, of course, is the redeemer, but the question remains, “To whom is the ransom paid to redeem us?” Is it the devil that God has to do business with to buy us back, or is it God to whom Jesus pays the ransom? Seems strange. Nevertheless, it’s just an image of the atonement.

I think most of us get the picture of being kidnapped/captured and need deliverance, but no worries if we don’t. This is just one of many atonement images that are heart-matters more than literal constructs. No matter what, this image is one, like them all, which works for me because sometimes I feel trapped and know that I can’t free myself. I need Jesus!

Another image in the Bible is the Military Image of the Atonement or, as it is sometimes called, Christus Victor. Jesus fights evil and wins the victory. He triumphantly defeats evil and retakes the world from Satan (cf. Colossians 2:15). Christus Victor is a great image for those who feel powerless against the armies of sin as they have been fighting temptations like addiction, and oppression of any kind.

The Sacrificial Image is another good one. Blood is shed, one life is offered for many, a sinless life for sinful ones. Death can’t win because Jesus never sinned. Because the “Wages of sin is death…” (Romans 6:23), Jesus rises from the dead, not just for himself, but for all who have faith in him. This is a great image (cf. Hebrews, chapters 8-10) for anyone who feels the need for things to be set right, and eye for an eye, a life for a life, and a belief that there must be adequate payback for our sins to be forgiven.

I do, however, know some people who are a little squeamish about the Sacrificial Image and its so-called “blood theology.” They avoid hymns about the blood of Jesus. It seems too Old Testament-like with its sacrificial system that is gory and strange. It does make me wonder what these folks do with communion. After all, there’s a cup of Jesus’ blood front and center because he gave his life as a sacrifice. I would imagine, however, that soldiers and vets could really resonate with this image – anyone in a helping profession, like teachers, nurses, doctors, police and firefighters, or people who sacrifice to take care of family members.

Next, the Legal Image’s scene is a courtroom. God is the Judge. Satan is the prosecutor accusing us. Jesus is the Defense Attorney. We’re declared guilty and sentenced to death. In God’s grace, Jesus, who is the only person to ever obey every law, steps up and takes our punishment on himself. It is the language of “reconciliation” (Colossians 1:19-20). Jesus “takes the rap” for us. This is very effective for anyone who feels their guilt and wants to know that they are forgiven and reconciled to God and one another.

It brings to mind the love/hate relationship that I have with the late Gene Wilder’s character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He plays the eccentric weird factory owner who’s more than a little bit scary. Good little Charlie is one of 5 fortunate children who gets a golden ticket to tour Willy Wonka’s factory and get a lifetime supply of chocolate. Without going into gory detail, all of the kids except Charlie give into temptations along the way and meet creative but horrible ends. They are selfish and Charlie sticks to the rules. He is tested and inherits the factory. He makes good choices and is rewarded. Sound familiar?

It’s a pretty good analogy of the flawed way we present the Christian life. On our tour of this world we are promised Gobstoppers of rewards if we follow our Leader (Jesus) well. Along the way, we and our fellow travelers will be tempted to be selfish and will reap the consequences. If we remain faithful, there will be a reward. This is all well and good if we want to promote right-living, but there isn’t much grace in Willy Wonka’s pages-long contract that he makes all the kids sign before they begin the tour. Thankfully, in the Gospel, rightfully proclaimed, God isn’t bizarre and strange like Willy Wonka. God doesn’t get gleeful when we get our just desserts, pun intended.

God, to be sure, has commandments and stipulations, but God knows full well that we can’t fulfill the contract. We aren’t little Charlie’s who can pass the test. We all fail, but God takes the test for us through Jesus and fulfills his own contract. That’s an image that works for me! What works for you? What works for your neighbors, or your enemies? How can we share the Gospel in a way so that people understand it, and accept it?

red-bird

The Whole Story: Being Charitable at Christmas

I like Hallmark movies because they always end well, but that’s Hallmark, not life. As much as I would like Christmas to be neat and no needles on the floor, it isn’t reality. There have been Christmases in my family where gifts were thrown out with the wrapping paper. A bummer! There have been toys that didn’t work right out of the box, and macaroni that was too soupy and turkey overcooked and dry. There have been too many deaths.

One family member’s funeral was on the day after Christmas. The death was sudden and shocking in many respects. The death occurred at a paramour’s house. The spouse was greatly disturbed by this and made sure that our kindhearted United Methodist minister was upstaged by a fire and brimstone preacher of a denomination that focused more on guilt than grace. Every other funeral in our family was pretty generic. But, since the spouse had the unkindly preacher dwell on adultery in his comments, for the first time in many funerals, we knew exactly who was in the casket.

It was the truth, but it didn’t need to be said. Payback makes for interesting actions. In the case I’m remembering from Christmas long ago, said spouse was finally “laid to rest” beside the wandering partner. The son of the wanderer made sure that the so-called “rest” didn’t last long, had the person uprooted and the person’s name excised from the granite marker, and his own name inscribed instead. Now, that’s payback.

That was a tough Christmas. We have all had them, and we all need more grace than guilt. Who has the moral high ground to denigrate someone else to the nether regions? Except for the grace of God, there go I. Every time I point my finger at someone else, the majority are pointing back at me. Can’t we cut everybody some slack – especially at Christmas? Nobody ever knows the whole story anyway.

The wonder and mystery of Christmas is that God knows the dirt on everyone, and still chooses to become one of us, live our lives, die our deaths, and rise so that we might rise, too. Sometimes in our fictionalized versions of Christ we make Jesus so majestic and powerful that He can’t identify with us in our weakness. This is much like Aslan the Lion in C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia. Hear Aslan roar, but Aslan does die unjustly and the sacrificial stone is cracked, and he is finally resurrected. Aslan is still on the move today if we will notice the underdogs more than we do the magnificent.

Many have heard the story of Barrington Bunny. Perhaps you’ve heard it on Christmas Eve or Christmas Sunday. I almost want to say that I’m sorry that you did because the telling of it can become a preacher’s ploy to play to the “Chreasters,” you know, the Christmas and Easter folks who only come to church twice a year. That is so unfair and such a guilt trip. Thank God for the people who come on the high and holy days. At least they come then. Some of the best people I know are the unsung people who can only muster the time, good health, or energy to get here on Christmas and Easter. You are welcome to come whenever you can. I’d rather assume that you have good reasons, not bad ones, for your choices.

Nevertheless, you can find solace from the story of another underdog who gets the connection between Christmas and Easter and reminds us of Jesus. When most of us want Hallmark and perfect gifts and perfect lives, God dares to say to everyone, “It’s alright if the gifts don’t fit, aren’t age appropriate, or the food is a disaster.” Barrington Bunny is your hero, or, at least one of them.

Barrington is the only bunny in the forest and enjoys hopping about in the snow, perennially looking back to see his hippity-hop designs. He’s furry and warm, but he’s feeling all alone at Christmas, and doesn’t feel gifted or special at all. He hears squirrels chattering up in a tree and asks what they’re doing. They are having a Christmas Party. He wants to join them but can’t since Barrington can hop, not climb. He hears the sounds of joy coming from a beaver’s home as their family celebrates Christmas. Barrington invites himself to the frivolity but isn’t able to swim to get inside.

He is so sad. No parties, no family, just hippity-hop, hippity hop, and then he gets a visit from a great silver wolf. The wolf offers Barrington encouragement and tells him that all of the animals in the forest are his family, and that Barrington does have gifts to share. Then the wolf disappears, and Barrington decides to give gifts to his forest family. He puts a stick and note at the beaver’s saying, “A gift from a member of your family.” He scratches through the snow to find leaves and grass to make the squirrels’ nest warmer and again attaches a note, “A gift from a member of your family.” The wolf’s encouragement gives newfound purpose and family to Barrington.

However, a blizzard is brewing. Snow piles up and Barrington barely hears above the howling wind the small sound of a baby field mouse. The mouse is lost and freezing, but Barrington tells him that his fur is nice and warm and that he will cover the mouse and provide shelter. Barrington has two thoughts, “It’s good to be a bunny who is furry and warm. It’s also good that all the animals in the forest are my family.” The next morning the baby mouse’s family finds him alive and warm under the sadly dead body of Barrington Bunny.

On a cold winter night in Judea we were all given a gift that tells each of us that we’re a part of the same human family. God’s love is as sacrificial as Barrington’s. His gift to us cost Jesus his life when he grew up. May we love others as much and always be charitable. We all need it even if we don’t deserve it. Only God knows the whole story that connects you and me to both Christmas and Easter. What is your gift and who is your family?

barrington-picture

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

Holy Week Highlights

It’s the last day of winter! Sing and shout, spring starts tomorrow and I’m ready for it, not the pollen so much, but even that’s a sign of new life. I’m ready for Easter after a long winter. That sounds vaguely familiar as something the character “Phil” aka Bill Murray said in the classic movie “Groundhog Day.” I love the movie. Phil seemingly is doomed to repeat Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA wooing Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita. The only thing that finally ends his purgatory is that he finally gets one complete day right, no selfishness or self-serving stratagems. His life is redeemed by letting go of himself and loving others, purely and sincerely.

That is one of the purposes of Lent – to lay aside self, put others and Christ first. The question on my mind today is how well has that gone for me this year. I feel like I’ve been treading water going from one crisis to another. My brain is mush and I’m still waiting for that perfect day. By now you also know if your Lenten observance plans have worked out, too. There are some of you/us who are planning on a crash-course during Holy Week to make things right. You can’t have a great Easter without a good Lent.

This begs the question: What makes for a “Good Lent?” Was it something that you gave up this year, or started? Just making it to “Low Sunday” on April 12 will mean it was a holy observance for most clergy and church staff. “There’s no rest for the weary!” is especially true this time of the year, but it’s meant to be this way. Holy Week services have been around ever since the Early Church and its commemoration of the significance of Jesus’ passion and resurrection. It’s supposed to be a whirlwind because that’s what it was for Jesus. Thanks to the plethora of preparations we literally feel the weight that Jesus must have felt that last week.

This has made me think about the most important revelations that all this busyness brings. Which services and Scriptures are most poignant and powerful? Without falling further into the tiredness that only church can bring, think with me about the highlights of your preparations for Easter.

Of course, it begins with Palm Sunday. In Matthew and John, it was palms that the people waved, although Matthew added additional cloaks to the red carpet treatment. In Mark, it was unidentified branches cut from the fields that the people used along with cloaks. In Luke, there are no branches of any kind. If the only Gospel we had was Luke it would have been called “Cloak Sunday,” because that’s the way he portrays the people’s welcome for Jesus.

The bigger deal to me about Palm Sunday has nothing at all to do with branches versus cloaks or how many donkeys were used. By the way, Matthew has two, the rest one. The big deal to me is that the crowd went from Sunday to the next Friday from praise of Jesus to demands for his crucifixion. It’s little wonder that our ashes for every subsequent year’s Ash Wednesday are made from burnt fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday – a powerful reminder of how we fickle humans have failed the Lord throughout the year and need Lent to help get us back on track.

I am going to jump ahead, but it fits with the fickleness theme. The people on Good Friday asked for Barabbas over Jesus. The significance of Barabbas’ name is powerful. “Bar” means “son of,” and “abbas” means “father,” so the Son of the Heavenly Father, all caps “BARABBAS,” is sentenced to die in the place of all the rest of us “small cap” children of earthly fathers. Such horrible irony, but this is a clear image of the depth of God’s love.

Back to the schedule, though. Maundy Thursday is a must! “Maundy” derives from the Latin, mandatum which means commandment. It is the night of Jesus’ Last Supper, his washing the disciples’ feet and his command to go and do likewise. This event is only recorded in John’s version of the passion narrative (John 13), which may explain why foot washing didn’t make the list of sacraments. If something is only mentioned once in the Bible there’s an argument that one shouldn’t make it into a sacrament or a doctrine. However, John’s depiction of Jesus’ servant-like kingship is amazing, especially when you consider that he washes Judas’ feet, too. Maundy Thursday always inspires me to think about whose feet I need to wash.

Another Lenten and Holy Week epiphany occurred when I noticed something very interesting in Matthew’s passion account. When Jesus is about to be betrayed by Judas with a kiss in Matthew 26:50, Jesus says a rare and powerful thing, “Friend, do what you came for.” Jesus hardly ever calls anyone “friend.” I’m certainly not suggesting that Jesus wasn’t a friend, but the fact remains that it wasn’t a word that he lightly tossed around when he was talking about people. He called Lazarus a “friend” (John 11:11), and the guy whose buddies lowered him through the roof (Luke 5:20). Only 3 times in the entire Gospels does Jesus call anyone “friend,” and Judas is one of them! This really sets the bar high for my Lenten observance. Who are the enemies with whom I need to reconcile?

God’s amazing grace is on glorious display after the resurrection in Mark 16:7 when the women are told to go announce Jesus’ resurrection. “But go, tell his disciples and Peter…,” are their instructions. This is only mentioned in Mark’s account, though in John we have the dramatic reinstatement of Peter. What’s powerful to me is that here’s Peter who has denied the Lord multiple times and yet he’s singled out to get the good news about Jesus being alive. Peter wasn’t at the crucifixion. After he heard the rooster crow after he denied Jesus, he went away weeping bitterly, but Jesus didn’t give up on him and leave him out.

This word instructing the women to go tell his disciples AND Peter, is amazing grace and gives me so much hope. I have been a betraying Judas, a denying Peter, and a fickle fan. I have lived through days that seem like a never-ending purgatory where nothing ever seems to go right, and the God of the universe, who is yet fully human, suffers, dies, and rises for me – for you.

The song “Better” by MercyMe captures how this makes me feel today. Give a listen.

Our Baptism and the Lord’s!

This coming Sunday is Baptism of the Lord Sunday. This has always been the focus of the first Sunday after Epiphany Day, January 6.  This whole season continues week after week with miraculous revelations of God’s mighty power. At Jesus’ baptism God’s voice spoke and the Holy Spirit like a dove landed on Jesus and claimed him as God’s – a beloved Son with whom the Father was well pleased. Baptism does that for each of us, too. In baptism we are affirmed and claimed by God, set apart for holy endeavors and divine companionship.

The problem is that often I don’t feel that special. I’ve been rebuffed, picked last, and criticized. Anyone who has played a pick-up game of basketball, sandlot baseball, or backyard football knows how the experience can be downright exhilarating or humiliating. It depends on your team, and when you were chosen. No one likes being chosen last. Sometimes your estimated worth in the eyes of your peers isn’t what you had hoped. If you’re not first, you’re the first of those chosen last. If you’re not top dog and first in line the view changes appreciably, and not for the better.

Check out God’s way of picking people. Does He go for the fleet-footed? The Scriptures describe a God who picks his team without regard for what seems to make for usual success. Abram and Sarai were awfully old to be making a cross-country trip and bearing babies. Jacob was a deceiver. Joseph was an egotistical dreamer. Moses had a speech problem. David was too young when he was first picked by God, and when he grew up he went down hill with his penchant for window-shopping; i.e., Bathsheba. Solomon’s untidy way of making alliances certainly raised a mighty harem, but also destroyed his family.

The list of neurotics could go on and on. God chooses the unlikeliest cast for his tasks. In the New Testament one doesn’t have to look far before bumping into the likes of impetuous Simon Peter, money-grubbing Judas, and Paul with whatever his “thorn in the flesh” was. Of course, everyone is neurotic in some way. We all have quirky little habits that help us avoid realities that we don’t like. Nevertheless, God says that each of us is of sacred worth, and chooses us for His team. The only person ever chosen by God who was perfect was Jesus, but the greatest epiphany for me during this holy season is that he picks the rest of us, too.

God picks us before we ever choose Him. Every human being has enough vestige of God’s image, a spark of resonance with God’s perpetual love affair with humankind that allows us to respond to His grace. We differ from those who might declare that Jesus’ atonement is limited in its scope – the elect and the damned. We are universalists with regard to God’s grace. We believe God chooses everyone. There isn’t anyone from whom God wishes to withhold His grace. However, we don’t believe in a universalism to which most people commonly refer.

We believe we must respond to God’s universal election for it to work. If we don’t choose to receive God’s grace then this isn’t the love affair that it’s meant to be. People of the West really can’t fathom arranged marriages anyway. We think marriage is best when two people choose each other. So it is with God! He wants us to choose Him as much as He has chosen us. God initiates the relationship, and it’s up to us to consummate it.

Perhaps you have a gift for someone that’s leftover from Christmas. Maybe you thought that you would see them at a family gathering or the like. No matter the reason, the connection wasn’t made and you’ve taken down your tree, the holiday goodies have been consumed, and all you have left to remind you of the season is that present all wrapped up but not yet delivered. What do you do?

Someone has to make the effort to deliver the gift, and the gift-giver is the one who has to do it. However, the recipient still has to actually receive the gift. A gift isn’t really given until it’s received. It’s the same with God’s gift of grace to us. The gift is wrapped in the incarnation of Jesus, and the gift has been delivered to the doorstep of our hearts. We must open the door and receive it, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God…” (John 1:12), and “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in…” (Revelation 3:20). The gift of grace is yours through Christ! Hear God’s voice say to you, “You are my beloved, whom I have chosen,” and respond!

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Wedding Receptions and Dress Codes

“Hate the sin, and love the sinner,” is an oft told phrase. It reminds me of Matthew 22:1-14 where Jesus says that everyone is welcome to come to the Wedding Banquet but they need to dress appropriately. This is a often misunderstood passage. Of course, this is all metaphorical and not about an actual dress code. The point is that God wants us all to go to heaven but not without forethought and repentance.

How does it make you feel to go to a special function and there is someone there who is inappropriately dressed? Are you tired of the dressed-down casual look that is so pervasive in our society? Ball caps don’t cut it in fine restaurants. Where are our standards of proper decorum? But just as quickly as I want to put up fences to keep the riff-raff out, I am reminded that Jesus wasn’t very exclusive. Unlike Augusta National, He let just about anybody into the Kingdom. It was the Pharisees who had such impossibly high standards that they missed both the Messiah and the Kingdom.

Thinking of pharisaical dress codes reminds me of a family that had invited a college student and his date over to their house for Sunday lunch. As everyone started to relax, the host said to the young man, “Why don’t you take your coat off?” The host had already taken off his coat and tie. The young man kind of hem-hawed around, however, as if he didn’t want to do it. Finally, he got the host off in a corner and said, reminding the man of an old trick that he knew well when he was in college, “The only parts of my shirt I ironed were the cuffs and the collar.” He had pressed just the parts that showed. The rest of the shirt looked as if he had ironed it with a weedeater! That was the way of the Pharisees: the part people could see looked great, but their interiors were a different story.

Jesus wants us to look good inside out. His solution to our dress code dilemma is found in the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit’s work in Sanctifying Grace that creates clean hearts and lives in you and me. We cannot measure up on our own, but God can make us new creatures! Eugene Peterson puts it this way, “The gospel life isn’t something we learn ABOUT and then put together with instructions from the manufacturer; it’s something we BECOME as God does his work of creation and salvation in us and as we accustom ourselves to a life of belief and obedience and prayer.”

This is a good old-fashioned Wesleyan emphasis on Sanctification. We’re saved by grace, to be sure, but there IS a dress code! Consider this pastor’s dilemma: There were two evil brothers. They were rich, and used their money to keep their evil ways from the public eye. They even attended the same church, and looked to be perfect Christians. Then their pastor retired, and a new one was hired. Not only could he see right through the brothers’ deception, but he was also a good preacher so the church started to grow by leaps and bounds. A fund raising campaign was started to build a new sanctuary.

All of a sudden, one of the brothers died. The remaining brother sought out the new pastor the day before the funeral and handed him a check for the amount needed to finish paying for the new building. “I have only one condition,” he said. “At my brother’s funeral, you must say that he was a saint.” The pastor gave his word, and deposited the check. The next day, at the funeral, the pastor did not hold back. “He was an evil man,” the pastor said. “He cheated on his wife and abused his family.” After going on in this vein for awhile, he concluded with, “But compared to his brother, he was a saint.”

Compared to what we think a Christian should be or look like, what are we?

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Stop Domestic Violence!

Tony Stewart, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Jameis Winston and I have a lot in common and it’s not football or NASCAR, and it’s certainly not domestic violence. What we have in common is that they made bad choices and so have I. We all have, but is that an excuse for more bad behavior? The Scripture (Romans 3:23) says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There are no exceptions, but I’m not in a confessing mood about my personal preferences and penances. Therefore, although we may not have committed the same shortcomings, we have all made mistakes. However, is knocking a woman out cold a mistake or allegedly committing a sexual assault, stealing crab legs, or yelling obscenities about women sophomoric hijinks? Will there be more facts added to the ongoing sagas about a racetrack death or child abuse by NFL players?

The answer is, “Probably,” and all of the above are more than “mistakes.” When I do something wrong, we need to call it what it is – “sin.” We need to recapture the appropriate word for our actions in our loosey-goosey society. We need to use the language of sin to reinforce that wrong is very, very wrong. A culture of permissiveness has encouraged too many people to shirk personal responsibility and want to let bygones-be-bygones, turning sin into miscues, mis-statements, and misogyny. South Carolina is the worst state in the US in terms of misogyny and violence against women and it is SIN! The two-word phrase “domestic violence” doesn’t even begin to capture the despicable nature of this epidemic.

Well, as United Methodists we don’t believe Jesus saved us to let us wallow in our same-old-same-old condition. We believe in sanctification – that God saves us through Jesus Christ to transform us for the transformation of the world. We believe it when Titus 2:11-12 says that God’s grace teaches us to say “No” to sin and empowers us to live new lives.

Differences in theology make a difference in whether or not we accept personal responsibility. If I think that it’s definite that I’m going to heaven no matter what I do then what I do doesn’t really matter in final analysis. If a person has a “low” view of sin they sometimes slip into a moral coma and think live and let live is an okay philosophy for everyone; i.e., “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then there are those who think if there’s no hell, there are no consequences. Just keep smiling away.

Let me give you an inadequate illustration of all three views. Maybe you heard the semi-humorous story about the difference in Baptist, Methodist, and Humanistic Positive Thinking attitudes about Judgment and Hell. Three men went out fishing. The first was a Baptist who believed, “Once saved; always saved.” The second was a Methodist who believed one could backslide and lose salvation, but there was little clarity about why and when that might happen. The third was a Positive Thinker who followed the doctrines of ministers like Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen.

A storm arose and the three men drowned. They were shocked to end up in the fires of hell. The Baptist cried out, “I thought I had it, but I didn’t. I thought I had it, but I didn’t.” The Methodist wailed, “I had it, but I lost it. I had it, but I lost it.” The Positive Thinker was curled up in a corner with his hands over his eyes, chanting, “It’s not hot, and I’m not here! It’s not hot, and I’m not here!”

But we are here, and it’s not funny. Baptist “What’s-In-It-For-Me” indifference, Methodist over-emphasis of grace over sin, and Positive Thinking’s prosperity theology makes it difficult for us to counter-attack our primary culprit to holy living: Sin. Sure, I know that all Baptists, Methodists, and Mega-church Perpetual Smilers aren’t the same and simplistic labeling probably isn’t helpful and I apologize, but I sincerely hope that all of us who call ourselves “Christian” will get our acts together and fight back against sin. We have let it go on for one reason or another for too long and it’s winning.

We all need Jesus to save us and no one sin is worse than another from God’s perspective, but we need to stand up today for respect, love, covenantal faithfulness, and common decency before it becomes utterly uncommon. If we don’t do something then we have failed all of our wives, women, daughters, sisters, mothers, and sons. The violence needs to stop NOW!

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To Judge or Not to Judge?

Weeds are a pain! It’s hard to distinguish them from good plants sometimes, and by the time you can tell the difference it’s too late to do much about them. I guess you can just use an herbicide to kill everything, but that throws out the good with the bad. Somebody said that the way to tell a weed from a valuable plant was to just pull on the plant and if it’s hard to pull up, it’s a weed. If it comes up easily it’s probably a good plant. From my experience, that’s pretty accurate!

Someone else said, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything. What grows back is weeds.” Jesus had a different take in Matthew 13:24-30. He said that we should be hesitant to do any pulling up of weeds until the harvest when the Divine Harvester knows what’s what. He doesn’t say there won’t be a Judgment or that there aren’t any standards. I think what Jesus is suggesting is for us to be very careful in our assessments on this side of eternity.

Therefore, pulling up everything is usually counterproductive. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad? Haven’t you found yourself wondering sometimes what or who the “weeds” are? We have to ask questions daily that are judgment calls: “Is this opportunity legit?” “Should I vote this way or that way?” “Is this guy/gal the real deal?” Sometimes the answers are iffy, either pro or con, and we hedge our bets and try to abstain. Most often I try to stack up the plusses and minuses and go with my mental winner leaving a lot of room for intuition and God’s gentle nudges.

I know Jesus said to let the weeds and good plants grow together until the harvest and let God do the judging. But aren’t you challenged just a little, if not a lot, to try to go ahead and distinguish between the well intentioned dragons and the good guys, God’s best plans and the train wrecks? Doesn’t judging have as its goal the best interest of God and humanity? So, no matter what, aren’t we supposed to be careful fruit inspectors and discern a tree, a person, or an idea’s legitimacy? Jesus did say that we would know a person’s character by their fruit (Matthew 7:16).

Gosh, that last thought sounds a lot like unchristian judging to me, but aren’t we supposed to discern right from wrong? Paul was pretty plain about it in I Corinthians 5:9-13. He was addressing a situation in the Corinthian church where a step-son married his step-mom and Paul asked the church to show him the door: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy, and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. Now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a person do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”

However, before we start expelling all the sinners from the church we must leave room for grace and forgiveness. Paul, writing about the same guy and situation, says in his next letter (2 Corinthians 2:5-11) that the man learned his lesson and says that the church should welcome him back, “I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” Both of these texts are helpful in how to be church! We do have standards and should not turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of fellow Believers, and, if we do our judging with an eye to reconciliation and wholeness, the offending party will find renewal with God and in the fellowship. It’s like parental love. You have to have rules, time-outs, and consequences or you’re raising a barbarian!

To take this a step further, I’m reminded of Revelation 2:1-7 about the church in Ephesus. They are accused of forsaking their “first love.” I have often thought that it meant their love of God, but if you go back and look at what’s written about the church at Ephesus in Acts or Paul’s letter to the Ephesians you might agree that their first love is about their care for each other.

A big clue as to the identity of this lost first love is found in Revelation 2:6 where it says about the Ephesians: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Note that God didn’t say, “… the Nicolaitans, who I also hate.” We don’t know who the Nicolaitans were but we know that the Ephesians weren’t commended for hating the actual people, just their practices. My problem sometimes and perhaps yours is in hating not just somebody’s actions but the very person, too.

I guess all this is to say that we need to be very careful to separate how we critique things, so that in our judging we never cross the boundary between who someone is and what they do. If we get this right we might just be able to sustain civility and community even when we passionately disagree. The Bible isn’t against judging as much as we think. We must be careful, however, to do it with what’s best for the person and community in mind. That’s a major thrust of holiness anyway.

We have made holiness an anachronistic tired mean pharisaical word when actually it is the promotion of God’s own character in each other, plus it endorses lifestyles and actions that make our lives better. Holiness is not about who’s in and who’s out of our community as much as it is about how God wants us to best live and thrive. It’s like my grandmother who often corrected me by saying about the punishment: “This is GOOD for you.” I hate to admit it, but she was right! Indeed, judging is supposed to help our fellow strugglers know what’s best for them and how they can more clearly reflect God’s image and character.

Therefore, judge we must if we care about people and want them to have the best lives imaginable. The end game is to glorify God and love people. If we don’t stand for something we will most surely fall for anything. So what is right and wrong? I think for the most part we already know the answer to that question about any given topic, but we are either too guilty ourselves or too afraid to have the chutzpah to back it up. We aren’t brave enough to actually try to help somebody by pointing out their shortcomings, and we aren’t that interested in hearing it about ourselves. Well, whoever said being a Christian was for the faint of heart? We have work to do in our garden! Do we want weeds or fruit?

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Summer Road/Boat Trips and Avoiding Snake Bites

My mother was an adventurer and my father liked safety. Today is going to be an adventure. My brother, Ralph, his grandsons and I, plus a couple of others, are going to canoe down the Little Saluda River and beware any snakes that might drop off a tree limb into the boat. Why are we doing this: adventure! There is something about taking risks and reaping rewards.

As I said, Mother was adventuresome. She went camping with us. We had impromptu road trips. She led us on odysseys beyond the beaten path. I miss her, but today my brother and I are going to get to remember her and use her as a compass. I wish we did that more often. Our lives would be richer for it, and immeasurably more fun!

Mother was someone who loved well and we were the primary recipients. She proved her great capacity for love time and time again from legally adopting a mentally handicapped man whose family had deserted him to being more than patient with my Dad and the rest of our crew. One of my biggest tests of her love came from an adventure that occurred about this same time of year nearly 45 years ago. At the mere age of 13 a friend of mine and I decided to take our own little road trip.

I didn’t have a driver’s license but Mother had been teaching me how to drive by letting me drive with her at my side on dirt roads near our house. So I guess I could say my running away was all her fault, but I know the limits of rationalization. It was my fault! You know it, and I know it!

Mother was at work and Daddy was busy, too, so “Red” Rainsford and I decided to take off. We went outside and got into the 1967 Chevrolet that I had been given as a hand-me-down to fix up and with no license between us we decided to travel the eighteen miles from Edgefield to Saluda, SC.

Thinking that wasn’t adventure enough, we decided to go a little further and ended up in Newberry, SC. There we made a fateful turn. As I recall, when we passed over Interstate 26 we sort of looked at each other time and said at the same, “Let’s find out where the interstate ends!” We got on the interstate and off we went!

In about an hour we were near Spartanburg, SC and I was starting to feel a twinge of guilt. I tried to call home and let Mother know what I was doing. No one answered. In a last ditch effort to assuage my guilt I called my Aunt Florence and asked her to tell Mother that “Red” and I were fine and would be back in a couple of days. “We’re going camping,” I said. I hung up too quickly to get any sage advice.

We kept traveling up the interstate and it got dark. By this time we were somewhere between a plan to keep driving or take a slight detour and spend the night at Chimney Rock State Park above Lake Lure, NC. Our minds were actually made up by the interstate itself. You may not remember the days when I-26 ended just below “Saluda Grade” between Tryon and Rutherfordton, NC, but it did. Our hopes for finding the end of the interstate were set back, but I had fond memories of a camping trip with the same said brother that I’m heading off with today. We had stayed at a roadside campground near Chimney Rock for a week when I was around 8. I even hoped I might be able to recognize the same campground.

We barreled through Rutherfordton, no license at all and not much sense to obey the speed limit. Thankfully we weren’t pulled over. We made it to Chimney Rock on Highway 64 with its dizzying curves. Despite the dark of night I indeed recognized the campground and though no one was awake to charge us any money or run us off, we pulled in and parked the car.

In my false bravado I told “Red” that he could sleep on the back seat of the car while I took the ground outside. It got cold! The mountain air was so chilly even in the dead of summer that I actually started the car so the exhaust would warm up the ground and the muffler. Avoiding the carbon monoxide fumes and turning off the car I drifted off into a fitful sleep wedged under the car as closely as I could. Pretty soon I was completely awake and I am sure that you know what woke me: my conscience!

I kept thinking about my poor mother. She would be worried sick and I could hear Daddy’s ire about her teaching me how to drive and telling her that I shouldn’t have had her old car in the first place. I went through all the conversations including calls to the Highway Patrol in my mind.

We were there maybe two hours when I woke “Red” and said, “We’re going home.” “Red” hardly openly his eyes as I gunned our way down the road retracing our trip. We did end up outside Modoc near Edgefield at Lick Fork Lake where we spent a few hours of sleep. Later in the morning I sheepishly took “Red” home and headed to my house.

With her intuition Mother knew we did more than do underage driving to Lick Fork, but instead of reaming me out – she hugged me tighter than I could remember. She hadn’t told Daddy anything except that I was spending the night somewhere. In her grace I learned a lot about unconditional love and also not to do anything like it again. Her hug and tears made that very clear.

When she finally told Daddy years later what I had done, he still got upset! That made me even more grateful for Mother’s grace years before. She proved over and over again the truth of I Peter 4:8, “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” I hope that works today in a canoe on the Little Saluda, between Israel and Hamas, border patrols and children, and any other situation that calls for more grace than guilt. Indeed, love covers over a multitude of sins! May it ever!

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