Handling Our Diferences

Someone has said that our greatest strength is diversity, but it is also our greatest weakness. Jesus prays for his followers (John 17:21) to be one, but the Gospel passage (Luke 12:49-53) for this coming Sunday seems to suggest Jesus promotes division. The two passages seem contradictory, and the latter passage doesn’t particularly sound like Jesus. It doesn’t sound like something anyone who loves unity, especially church unity, would say: “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled. But I have a baptism to undergo, and what constraint I am under until it is completed! Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Surely, Jesus spoke the words from Luke against the backdrop of the end of the world and the final judgment. He is stating a fact that what we believe about Him is going to put us in different camps. This is a hard word. We struggle with doing everything we can to hang on to unity in our relationships, families, and the world of politics. We very much live in a time of division where unity is hard to find. John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Movement, said these famous words: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, let there be freedom; in all things, let there be charity.” The dilemma is discerning the difference between what is essential and what is non-essential.

Some contrast helps! This is a new take on things for me. I would prefer everyone to get along with each other, and keep the fireworks of life at a minimum. Frankly, I’m learning that the Proverbs are right in 27:17 when it says, “Iron sharpens iron.” To distill the truth in complex situations we actually need to go through the wrestling of diverse opinions. This is why debate teams only get better in the challenging crucible of taking different sides on issues and articulating them.

Could this be what we hope for in the church in what we call “holy conferencing”? We confer, converse, look for compromise, or resolution. We try to discern the will of God through debate and discourse. Sometimes we simply have to say, “In Christian love I think that it’s best we move on. Further interaction is going to hurt both of us, and we should not do one another harm by ripping open this same wound over and over again.”

That is a hard place at which to arrive. It seems un-Christian almost, but it may actually promote healing. It’s not a cold shoulder or snub. It is caring enough to confront the other with the truth, and live and let live, apart or together. It cuts down on the perpetuation of acrimony. There are people that I will never ever agree with, but by struggling through the conflict we can actually better affirm our mutual care of one another. It’s the stages of peacemaking that Dr. Scott Peck presents in his seminal work The Different Drum: Community-Making and Peace.

He proposes that the first stage in a relationship is “Pseudo-Community.” It’s the stage where everything and everyone is chummy, hail-fellow-well-met like a honeymoon or a high school reunion – all hugs and no shrugs, but it isn’t real. That’s why it’s called “pseudo.” However, if you allow for honest dialogue and truth-telling, which is necessary for any genuine relationship, then you arrive at “Chaos” where differences are exposed. Most people don’t like chaos, but it’s a mandatory stage in order to get to where we want to go in our dealings with people. So, church people should welcome chaos that at least gets beyond the fakeness of the prior stage. A disclaimer: There are some people who love drama and get stuck not just in the chaos stage, but in any of them or go up and down the continuum at every whipstitch. But, if you plow ahead then you move out of Pseudo-community and Chaos, and get to Emptiness – a live and let live humility as opposed to my-way-or-the-highway, an honest care for one another, but empty of venom and vitriol. This can be a wonderful stage, but if stuck in “emptiness” it leads to a passive sublimation of genuine feelings and people simply shut-down. Emptiness can be apathetic instead of empathetic. Empathy, in spite of differences, leads to the last stage which is Community. Community is marked by transparent love and a prioritization of group health more than individual satisfaction. Community fosters deep communal relationships through individual self-definition.

Where is your family, church, civic club, and national ethos on this scale? Let me give you an example of a healthy sense of community through a story shared by Dr. Len Sweet, a United Methodist clergyperson and professor. He tells the story of when university chaplain Tom Wiles picked him up from the airport in Phoenix, Arizona. They didn’t know each other. Tom was Dr. Sweet’s ride to a conference he was leading. Tom was driving his brand-new Ford pickup. Len Sweet was still mourning the trade-in of his Dodge truck. Though the two guys didn’t really know each other, they immediately bonded as they shared truck stories and laughing at the bumper-sticker truism, “Nothing is more beautiful than a man and his truck.”

Here’s what happened next in Sweet’s own words: “As I climbed into Tom’s truck for the ride back to the airport a day later, I noticed two huge scrapes on the passenger door. ‘What happened?’ I asked. Tom replied sadly, ‘My neighbor’s basketball post fell on the truck.’ ‘You’re kidding! How awful,’ I said. ‘This truck is so new I can still smell it.’ Then Tom said, ‘What’s even worse is my neighbor doesn’t feel responsible for the damage.’ I immediately rose to Tom’s defense and asked him if he had contacted his insurance company, or thought about other ways he could make his neighbor pay up.

Then Tom replied in an unforgettable way: ‘This has been a real spiritual journey for me. After a lot of soul-searching and discussions with my wife about hiring an attorney it came down to a simple thought. I can either be in the right, or I can be in a relationship with my neighbor. Since my neighbor will probably be with me longer than this truck, I decided that I’d rather be in a relationship than be right. Besides trucks are meant to be banged up, so I got mine initiated into the real world a bit earlier than I expected.’”

A better person than me.

When You Haven’t Got a Prayer

Have you ever thought that the “praying hands” emoji is really the one for high-fiving someone? They sure look alike, and there is an online debate about which is the correct answer. I like high-fives, but I need prayers more. I need a high-five from God that can come from prayer! “Turn your worries into prayers,” is a phrase I often hear from my wife Cindy, who is a wonderful intercessor. She has tried to keep me from worrying about worrying, which I easily do. List-making, added to more than a little bit of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a semi-eidetic memory are just a few of the ingredients that cause me to naturally worry. If only, I could turn my worries into prayers.

I remember the first days and years of my faith when I could literally feel God close. God was nearer than my breath, the Grand Thought behind all my thinking. God overwhelmed my sub-conscious. God is still there. I’m the one who has usurped His responsibility and moved more towards my will than His.

Remember the days when front seats in a car were one long bench without a gear-shift console divider? There was an older man and his same-aged wife who were traveling in such a car. The guy was driving and his wife was sitting next to the passenger side door when they came up on a young couple who were in the car in front of them. The young couple was sitting so close to each other that they looked like a two-headed monster. The older woman pointed to the young couple and asked her husband, “Why don’t we do that anymore?” Her husband replied, “I haven’t moved.” Ouch!

God hasn’t moved either. Our worries do not consume us because God is distant, but because we have become distant from God. Prayer is the connecting link that we have not exercised in a long time. It is that needed exercise for both our souls and minds. Prayer strengthens us spiritually and emotionally. And, it’s a dialogue. Too often it’s a time when we tell God everything we need or what those we love need. Effective prayer is a two-way street where we listen for God’s nudging responses and clarity.

Recently I did a funeral for a wonderful man who was an engineer to the core. He puzzled out problems for a living. In my mind he had one of the most delightful ways of turning things over to God. He would get up in the middle of the night, fill a bowl of ice cream and pray. He told his family, “By the time I finished that bowl of ice cream everything was all figured out.”

Some of us pray while we drive. Some of us, out of desperation, pray while we ride with others, or when we’re about to face some sort of health scare. Others of us pray like it’s our second breath, breath-prayers exhaling our worries and inhaling the Holy Spirit’s answers to our worries. Sally Deford puts it this way in her poem and hymn, “Prayer is the Soul’s Sincere Desire:”

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire
Uttered or unexpressed
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast

Prayer is the burden of a sigh
The falling of a tear
The upward glancing of an eye
When none but God is near

Prayer is the simplest form of speech
That infant lips can try
Prayer, the sublimest strains that reach
The Majesty on high

Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath
The Christian’s native air
His watchword at the gates of death
He enters heav’n with prayer

Prayer is the contrite sinner’s voice
Returning from his ways
While angels in their songs rejoice
And cry, “Behold! He prays!”

Nor prayer is made on earth alone
The Holy Spirit pleads
And Jesus at the Father’s throne
For sinners intercedes

O thou by whom we come to God
The Life, the Truth, the Way
The path of prayer thyself hast trod
Lord, teach us how to pray

 

May God hear your desires and give you peace, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Advent and Tommy Luck

Advent is the season the Church lives in all year! To live in the light of Christ’s coming is to be fully aware that He has come and will come again. It is a belief in the First and Second Coming of Jesus that gives me hope and strength in this bewildering in-between time. We don’t like to wait. We make fun of people who aren’t very fast by saying that they are “Slower than Christmas.” Well, right now that’s quick and before we know it, Christmas will be upon us, barreling down on us. How are we to handle the hustle and bustle?

Are you an elevator button pusher? Do you try to make the elevator go faster by pushing the “close door” button over and over again? It doesn’t really help. Thanks to the American Disabilities Act of 1990 the “close door” button is really just a placebo, a fake designed to make us feel better. All elevators are programmed so that no matter how many times you push the button, there’s enough time for persons with wheelchairs or other ambulatory aids to get on and off without fear of the doors closing on them.

Maybe we need to stop doing the things that don’t really help us deal with stress and impatience. It would be better for us during this Advent season and year-round to chill out and relax. This should be a time of peace, not panic. Do you know anyone named “Irene?” Irene is a name that isn’t very much in fashion these days, but it is letter for letter in English the Greek word for “peace.” We don’t need to sing “Good Night, Irene.” Instead we need to welcome Christ’s peace that passes all understanding. The basis for patience is trusting in God’s peace.

Ambrose Bierce wasn’t keen on patience, and I bet that he was a “close door” elevator pusher. He said, “Patience is a noun, a minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.” How wrong. Patience only becomes a form of despair if we forget Jesus and the peace and confidence that He brings. One of my favorite short stories is the one by Bret Harte, “The Luck of Roaring Camp.” Harte tells of a Wild West mining town that is full of gruff dirty miners in deplorable conditions and only one woman, “Cherokee Sal.” Cherokee Sal is pregnant and, sadly, during childbirth, dies. The miners name the baby boy, “Tommy Luck,” hoping for good luck from his birth.

They didn’t exactly know how to take care of a baby, but they work it out. Little by little, baby steps and giant leaps, the hamlet of Roaring Camp changes. For Tommy’s sake, the miners start bathing. They clean up their ramshackle houses. They built a church and got a preacher to come. They even invited decent God-fearing women to come and they did. The luck of Roaring Camp changed because Tommy Luck came into their midst. Jesus’ presence in coming as a child changed this roaring world for the better, and when Jesus comes again, all things will be made right – no more cancer, dementia, poverty, injustice, racism – nothing bad.

So to inspire our patience, we need to focus on Jesus. To have a better Advent we need to trust in the greatness of God. If we will do that, the whole world will notice that there’s something different and better about us. How great is your God? The answer to that one question will determine the peacefulness of our lives. A man said to his friend, “When my wife and I were on our honeymoon we decided I would make all of the big decisions and she would make all the small ones.” The friend asked, “How’s that working for you?” His buddy replied, “Fine, I guess. We’ve been married for 30 years, had 3 kids, bought and sold 3 houses, and purchased at least 15 cars; and I’m still waiting to make a big decision.” I hope God makes all of our decisions, big and small! How great is our God?

Think about it through the context of this story about a man who was late in getting a package mailed for Christmas delivery. The post office employee told him that for $47.10 it would get to its destination just in time. The man said the price was fine, and added, “It’s for my Dad. His birthday is Christmas Day, and I’ve got to get his present to him.” The customer directly behind the man who thought the cost was exorbitant said, “I’m sure glad that I don’t know anybody born on Christmas Day!” Another customer, who was evidently a Christian, said, “I’m sure glad that I do!” Are we glad we know Jesus? So are we ready for His birthday? We don’t want to forget the Guest of Honor at His own birthday party?

Jesus is coming, ready or not. There are 39 books in the Old Testament in 4 groupings: 5 books of Law; 12 of History; 6 of poetry; and 16 books of prophecy – and ALL 4 groups speak of Jesus’ second coming. We would all say that “new birth” is a major theme of the New Testament, but it’s only mentioned 9 times. “Baptism” is another key NT theme, but it’s only mentioned 20 times. “Repentance” is a NT key, and it’s mentioned 70 times. Guess what? The Second Coming of Christ is mentioned an astounding 380 times in the NT, one out of every 25 verses. Why is it so important? Why does it give us peace? It helps us because it lets us know that the future belongs to God. Wait for Jesus’ coming patiently and with confidence. Everything is going to be better than alright!

220px-Second_Coming_of_Christ_window

Jesus and Confrontation

Jesus got angry when he saw what was happening in the Temple. The Court of the Gentiles was overrun by crooks making a buck off pilgrims at Passover. To make an acceptable sacrifice, it took a cow, lamb, or doves, and all without blemish. Jews from around the world would come. It was their duty. That kind of trip meant that an unblemished sacrifice was hard to come by, so they bought them when they got to Jerusalem.

But, it would prove difficult to pay for the sacrifice with an inflated price in such a seller’s market. The people couldn’t use the money from wherever they came from in the Roman Empire because the coins had Caesar’s image on it. Graven images weren’t a good thing for an orthodox Jew, especially in the Temple. So money-changers set up shop so that people could exchange their “heathen” coins for acceptable money. Guess who got a cut of the exchange rate? It was religious extortion by the Temple fat cats.

No wonder Jesus got mad! Not only were Gentiles kicked out of the only place they could worship, but fellow Jews were also treated with contempt. So, Jesus sets the animals free and then turns over the tables in the currency exchange booths. You’ve seen those booths if you’ve gone overseas. Some are legit and use the going central bank rate. The ones down the side roads or out in the boonies have a rate based on their own “trouble.” The rate depends on how much time and effort it will take for them to get enough from the exchange to make a living.

What kind of stuff makes you angry? Is there such a thing as righteous indignation? I sure hope so. We all get mad. Surely it must be for a good purpose sometimes. It’s an emotion, not a decision. Nobody puts anger on their daily “to do” list: “#4. At noon get angry for 15 minutes, then have a wonderful afternoon.” It doesn’t work that way, does it?

In Transactional Analysis-speak, it’s hard to tell the difference between what a Not-Okay Child sounds like and a Critical Parent. Both sound whiny. Both sound like the teacher’s “Yah-yah-yah-yah…” from Charlie Brown. Which is easier to forgive? Which is easier to get angry with? Not-Okay Children, of course, are easier to forgive, and Critical Parents are not. How can you tell which is which in a tense exchange? To my ears, a Not-Okay Child blurts things out. It’s not pre-meditated. It just happens, and there’s no way to put the toothpaste back into the tube. Critical Parents, on the other hand, either mean to slight someone else through premeditated harshness or through passive-aggressive put-downs.

Passive-Aggressive behaviors are especially egregious. The words come across in a passive way, but are terribly mean-spirited and meant to hurt you longer and are done under the guise of passive “niceness:” “Do you like the way that color looks on you?” “Are you sure that’s the way you like your hair?” Their attacks are meant to sting in such a way that you can’t fight back without looking like a jerk, and you can’t get it off of your mind for the rest of the day or maybe your life.

So, I’m glad that Jesus was direct in his zealous foray into the temple. He didn’t play mind games, parse words, or try to sneak something past his listeners. He was straightforward. Why don’t we do that? Oh, well, we want to be “Christian,” as if that means at all costs, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Malarkey. Jesus had a problem with harsh judging, but he didn’t mean for us to let verbal terrorists get away with their character assaults and bullying.

Jesus in the Temple shows us how to have courage in the face of injustice. We can stand up to the people who think that they’re so right that they can get away with just about anything. These are usually the “well-intended dragons” in our communities. They seem nice enough until enough people figure them out! These are those privileged folks (at least they think so) who want their way or it’s the highway for the rest of us. They manipulate others to push their agendas, and are big-time control freaks. They are Critical Parents who think they’re doing God and the world some sort of favor. Jesus modeled objective Adult to Adult displeasure, not Critical Parent nor Not-Okay Child. I pray that we can do likewise. The world needs tough love sometimes. God help us to take appropriate stands!

Cleansing_the_temple2

The Olympian Life

Epiphany season goes out with a bang every year! Its concluding Sunday is always Transfiguration Day when Jesus is transformed in front of Peter, James, and John. Epiphany is about God’s self-revelation of divine power in the world. It began on January 6 with God’s revelation to the Magi through the star, and ends this Sunday with the awe-inspiring event of Jesus on the mountaintop with his closest disciples, and the best representatives of the Law and the Prophets, Moses and Elijah respectively. Then next week on Ash Wednesday we begin an intentionally self-reflective journey to Holy Week that calls us to genuine repentance. Lent begins with ashes and ends in Christ’s death, literally ashes to ashes.

Some of us remember sports commentator Jim McKay’s voice-over of the iconic tune of ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” as he described “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” The scene that I remember most is the one with a ski jumper crashing. Both spiritual and Winter Olympics are upon us in this up and down time between Epiphany and Lent. Like Olympic athletes who train for years, we disciples of Christ suffer exhaustion on a daily basis for the chance at overwhelming exhilaration. This is our description of the journey of faith that travels from mountaintops to valleys and up and down again. This is Jesus’ life. This is our life as Christians.

It is really the life of humans in general. Jesus shows us how to make this common occurrence into uncommon grace, to fill our up and down existence with ultimate and grand meaning. A king and savior who knows only the heights of victory isn’t one of us, but Jesus knows our every sorrow and amplifies every joy. Jesus shows us the path to redeem every experience of life, however high the mountaintop or low the valley.

Life’s ever-changing nature is a bothersome phenomenon for me. My desire for predictability and stability is a common human desire. Nobody likes volatility. Look at the stock market fluctuations of this week. Nobody likes too much risk. I’ll try something new every now and then, but I’m okay with ordering the same meal at the same restaurant time and time again. I know there won’t be unwanted surprises, but where’s the risk in that, and the sense of adventure that makes life worth living?

Jesus models the Olympian life of risk and reward throughout his ministry. This is the liturgical basis for the end of Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. To be fully human is to go from top to bottom, bottom to top, and repeat ad infinitum. It strikes me that fluctuation and volatility are examples of our being fully human, and they also reflect how we’re made in the Image of God.

Doesn’t God embrace the world’s ups and downs? God has embraced us! Our history proves that we are no better than kids with daisies saying, “I love him/her!” or “I love him/her not!” In our yearly ode to love on Valentine’s Day, appropriately on Ash Wednesday this year, God gives us the best Valentine in spite of our fickle devotion.

God gives us Jesus who in the Incarnation has chosen to ride this rollercoaster with us. He has modeled the ultimate in risk and reward by showing us that love is the utterly amazing opportunity for self-giving and yielding intimacy. Faith is our confidence that God can and will transfigure you and me. It’s the hope of young, old, and in-between love that is both treasured and perpetuated. It’s the kind of love that sustains us from the height of Epiphany to the depths of Lent, from Palm Sunday’s “Hosanna’s” to the despair of Good Friday’s “Crucify Him!” for better for worse, in sickness and in health…

The Demise of My Mini Cooper

The recent demise of my Mini Cooper Roadster was a traumatic and sad day. Two-seaters aren’t that big, but mine got considerably smaller when a truck plowed into me going somewhere around 50 mph. I was stopped in traffic as the second car ahead of me was trying to turn. I glanced up and there it was, no brakes, nothing that I could do, then just a big crunching BAM! I felt my neck abnormally extend between the seats, then come back and whack the steering wheel. I learned the hard way that when you get hit from the rear your airbags don’t deploy. The sensors are in the front and side. A cop, who was 50+ yards away working another accident said, “I not only heard the collision, I felt it.” The ground shook and the back of my car ended up about 2 feet from my head and back. I am blessed to be alive. God’s providence is a reality!

Eulogizing a car seems nonsensical, inappropriate, and somewhat sinful after seeing what I’ve seen this past year in the Congo and Philippines, but I really appreciated my car. I’ve been in Mini’s for years. Their seats fit me, 11 inches from floorboard to seat edge. I can ride in Cindy’s Accord and 30 minutes into the drive I’m ready to bend my leg around my neck. Not with my Mini. In it I could literally drive for days.

Our last big road trip in the car was 4,000+ miles to the Men’s Basketball Final Four in Phoenix, Arizona. I learned on Tuesday afternoon March 28, 2017 that my request for tickets was granted, but we had to be there by Thursday to pick them up at Will Call in the team hotel. The game was on Saturday, April 1. We packed in a rush determined to travel light, fast, and cheap. We were going to camp in a tent the whole way. I drove for 22 straight hours, except for pit stops, and we reached Las Cruces, New Mexico on Wednesday evening. I thought we would never get out of Texas, but Cindy and I had a great time with me driving while she navigated. We were cozy, to be sure, in the little cockpit of my car. We had such a good time talking that we never, not once, turned on the radio.

God’s providence showed up big time over the course of the trip. Cindy and I had a scary encounter going through Dallas in a heavy rainstorm. It was between night and dawn on Wednesday morning about 14 hours into the trip. The sky was on fire with lightning. A truck literally danced back and forth on its rear wheels several feet in front of us. We got caught behind a huge accident in the torrential downpour, and were in the farthest lane away from the exit that would help us get around it. Cindy, using her Southern charm, lowered the window and started asking other drivers, one after another for 5 lanes, if we could move over. We did and made it safely around the mess.

From Fort Worth to California there’s not a lot of anything green or tall except mountains. The trees are more like shrubs, and there’s not a lot of them. It’s wide open spaces out there and the barren beauty of the desert is magnificent. I can now understand why people get claustrophobic when they move back east. Our trees block the view of the expansive sky. On the other hand, the wide open spaces of the West can become hypnotic. Dangerously hypnotic. We were stopped in traffic in the middle of nowhere between Midland and El Paso, and I heard screeching and looked into my rear-view mirror. There was smoke that smelled of burning rubber and the pungent sudden down-shifting of a clutch. A loaded 18-wheeler literally slid past us on the shoulder of the road as if it was on fire. If it had hit us we wouldn’t have been much bigger than a grease spot in the road.

One of the few annoying things about the trip was a beep-beep-beep sound that I had been dealing with for over a year. I had taken the car back and forth to the dealership numerous times. It was the sensor that indicated that my convertible roof wasn’t securely fastened, when it actually was! They never could fix it, but then providentially on Saturday’s game day we found out what the problem was. We had put on our Gamecock gear and got out of the tent to make our way to Glendale, but the car wouldn’t start. A guy next to us in the campground who happened to be bicycling to South Carolina of all places had a portable battery charger in his brother’s escort truck. We went straight to a little car parts place in Apache Junction, but they didn’t have the specialty battery that we needed. I kept the car running and googled Mini Cooper dealers near Phoenix. Tempe had one although it was about 60 miles out of the way. I was freaking out because I didn’t want to miss the game. By God’s grace the Tempe Mini dealership was open, including the all-important service department. A rarity on a Saturday! We got there, and they had the battery. Guess what? Almost as good as getting the new battery was that the beep-beeping stopped!!

We went to the game and watched our team come close to beating Gonzaga who had “Big’s” who should have been on a football team. In defeat, we walked out of the arena, quickly sold our ticket to the final, and went back to our tent in Apache Junction. We left Sunday morning heading toward the Grand Canyon. “Why not?” we said. “We’re this close.” Hours, hours and hours later we arrived and, thanks to selling the ticket, we had enough money to pay for a nice room. Sunday evening we were chilling out waiting for our room to be ready and sat in the balcony overlooking the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel. There were just a few chairs and a TV. Providentially this gave us a chance to watch the Lady Gamecocks vying for the Women’s Basketball National Championship. A young lady walked up and asked if she could watch. I said, “If you will pull for the Gamecocks.” She said that she would and was from South Carolina. I asked, “Where?” She replied, “Edgefield.” I told her that was my hometown and asked her name. She said, “Kylie Keesley.” My immediate response was, “Are you Billy Keesley’s daughter?” She said, “Yes.” I told her how he and I were next door neighbors growing up, etcetera, and etcetera. Then Billy walked up. We hardly watched the game because we spent most of the time catching up with each other. We hadn’t seen each other in years. It was great. Plus we won the game, too.

God’s providence shielded us through more stops and tent camping in Tucumcari, New Mexico, and avoiding being killed outside of Memphis where the road construction was horrible on I-40. It was a great trip. I miss my deceased car, but Cindy and I have great memories of God watching over us. You want to know what her biggest worry was – a flat tire. My car didn’t have a spare tire, only run-flats that just last for a max of 50 miles. If you’ve ever been out west you know that it takes a lot farther than fifty miles to find gas, much less a tire for a Mini Cooper. Jesus watched out for us, always does. God’s providence knows no bounds or distance, and I’m grateful.

Mini Cooper in Phoenix

Opening My Heart to Jesus

The mystery of the Incarnation is overwhelming. That God-in-the-flesh would come and dwell among us is amazing. Prophets had been sent to no avail. Laws had been given that did more to confirm our guilt than make us better people. God took the greatest risk of all and was born to fulfill both the Law and the Prophets. The Eternal God embedded in time and born! How could it be? It is as incomprehensible as any miracle. A virgin with child? He had to be different from us, yet essentially the same – one of us but completely divine, too. We should all be grateful that Joseph believed in the Virgin Birth! That’s a sticking point for many modern naysayers, but how else could Jesus be the Second Adam, born without Original Sin, and with the ability to say “yes” or “no” to temptation, and, having been found without sin, he died and rose again because “the wages of sin is death,” and since Jesus always chose God’s way, death could not hold Him, and He burst forth from the tomb! He lives forever!

Think of parallels between the first century and today. Leaders back then and now misinterpret God’s ways more than understand them. Herod wanted the Magi to keep following the star and report back to him so he could kill this newborn threat, but a baby born in a stable isn’t a sign of a weak and powerless king. It is a sign of real majesty, and at least Herod grasped that and shuddered. What he missed was that true royalty embraces the power of love over the love of power. A God who would be born in the humblest of circumstances is a sign of a ruler who is secure and knows who He is. It’s a sign of the tremendous love that God has for the lowly likes of you and me.

The message couldn’t have been written more poetically and so genuinely believable: Poor Mary with her obedient heart yielding herself to God; Joseph, a doubter and who wouldn’t be, yet he gave his dreams credence and believed; Magi who in faith followed a starry sign to God knows where, but came they did to see a king and present Him with their homage; Poor shepherds, the lowest of the low, left their flocks, their everything, to see the Savior born; and Angels who followed God’s bidding to sing a song that echoes to this very day. What a message! It continues to stir humankind, and rightly so.

God is always the best Author. I have my favorite writers in my preferred genres of history and mystery, but God out-writes them all. I also have my favorite Christian authors. Clive Staples Lewis is at the top with classics like The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and A Grief Observed. C.S. Lewis is hard to beat with his imagination, authenticity and clarity of thought. Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his works on community and ethics have informed me since I first became a Christ-follower: Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship are two treasures. His absolute heroism in the face of Nazism and his ethical decision to take part in the July 20, 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler has resonated with my warrior-spirit within. He was hung as a martyr on April 9, 1945 as the result of Hitler’s last orders. In C.S. Lewis and Bonhoeffer you can smell the smoke of faithful discipleship.

I wonder at this Christmas season if that smoky smell is as apparent on me. The rush and the thick of things that clamor for our time mask the musky smell. The materialism run rampant tramples goodwill. Can I smell the manger straw and hear the cattle lowing? I long to mean it when I sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and its words: “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin, and enter in, be born is us today.” Can I make room in my heart for the Christ who is both Child and King? Can our world? O, Lord, be born in me today. In us. Amen.

Nativity Scene

Welcome to the Party!

I haven’t written many blogs lately because the world is full of people sharing their opinion. I still have lots of thoughts about things but I want to help ease the tension rather than cause more. So these days preacher humor is a primary delight for me. If I’m not careful I will wander into the abyss of trying to find a Scripture text to fit the great joke that I just heard. Honey works better than vinegar in a sermon any day. To his horror a pastor just about to preach realized that he had left his sermon notes in his study. As his apology, he said, “This morning I shall have to depend upon the Lord for what I might say, but next Sunday I will come better prepared.” Yeah, right?

Who needs notes for a kind word, a saving word? If you know the joke, if it struck a chord then it’s easy to retell. So it should be with the Gospel. Jesus brings Good News. Every worship service should be more like a wedding reception than a funeral. Last Sunday I asked everyone to turn around and say, “Welcome to the party!” It was fun and uplifting. Some people better than others can brighten up my day, but we all can spread the cheer in our otherwise stressed world.

NFL millionaires taking a knee, North Korean nukes and ICBM’s, Trump, Congress, Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Wildfires, Walls, Racism, and more, what’s the hot topic on your mind or Facebook feed? What’s the crisis about at your house, or in your community? Some people make sure they’re plugged into the concerns of the world. They meet with their morning coffee group or hang out at the barber shop. I have friends like that, and cherish my time with Cindy in the early evening when we watch the news. We tongue-in-cheek call it the “War News,” because that’s what my parents called it, and they called it that because it was usually true. It still is. How many years have we had in the last one hundred that didn’t have a war somewhere on the globe? Zero. All the more reason for us to hear some good news, especially THE Good News!

I don’t do a morning coffee group or a regular golf foursome, but I do go to the Y every morning during the week. I flip between news channels at 5:30 a.m. and they can’t seem to agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day! All of the issues are important to someone, but, like it’s said, “Politics is all local.” In other words, what matters is what matters to you, your locale, community, where you live, work, and walk, so I look at the local news or the Weather Channel. You can’t get more local than that.

So who do discuss things with – the things that really matter? Is it your golf friends, your book club buddies, your Sunday School Class, or whomever? I heard of a preacher recently who asks people to send him texts during his sermons so he can respond and literally connect with the congregation. That is a little much for my taste, and I can’t type that fast. Autocorrect isn’t usually my friend either. In our polarized society I much rather prefer to focus on Jesus, and connect with people using humor. I want people to leave St. John’s with the sense that God was pleased with their worship, that it was a joyful celebration of faith over fear.

This is annual meeting season in United Methodist churches. We elect officers, make plans, and vote on other important matters. We get to celebrate connectionalism, the United Methodist hallmark that says “Together We Can Do More!” That’s the point of having a cadre of friends to share with, and sharing a vibrant worship service. We get to connect with God and one another.

Six months after the owner of a little store at a crossroads was appointed postmaster the folks in Washington started getting complaints. Not one piece of mail had left the village. The postmaster was investigated. He explained his reasoning, “It’s simple. The bag ain’t full yet!” What a poor excuse. What if we acted like that? What if we waited until our lives we’re full of blessings before we shared any of them? If we waited until we could afford children to have them then there certainly wouldn’t be many.

Our bag doesn’t have to be full for us to share our blessings with others. If your bag isn’t full, that doesn’t matter. Use what you have. Share what has been generously given to you. Enrich the lives of others with what you have right now. Smile and spread all the joy that you can. Remember that joy isn’t the absence of suffering, it is the presence of God. In our frazzled and stressed world we get to be God’s smile. Let it show! Tell a good one for me. I need some new material!

Take a Smile Pic

Valuing Diversity

When I was a youth you either pulled for the Baltimore Colts or the Green Bay Packers. We divided up in other ways, too. People were often defined by their affinities or choices. In my hometown you either liked Johnny Unitas or Bart Starr, Fords or Chevys, the Red Sox or Yankees, and South Carolina or Clemson.

There wasn’t much wiggle room. Today we are even more polarized: red state/blue state, pro-gun/no-gun, liberal/conservative, Democrat/Republican, and Fox/CNN. One of the few positives out of this horrific hurricane season is that the things that normally divide us don’t matter as much when we’re facing calamities together.

Being united in common cause is so much needed, hurricane or not. Wouldn’t it be great if bi-partisanship ruled the day rather than acrimonious finger-pointing? When we start pre-judging instead of pre-loving others we make assumptions that are usually false. A lot of our differences disappear when we get the facts and get to know someone personally.

Some of you know that I’m a member of GCORR (General Commission on Religion and Race), an agency of the United Methodist Church that works for reconciliation and grace across racial and tribal lines. It is the can-do group in the UMC that promotes a three-fold mission to promote intercultural competency, institutional equity, and vital conversations. We provide resources and training so that people can value each other and create systems that will be fair to all. We encourage conversations so that the grace of Jesus Christ might not be bound by any individual’s or group’s sense of supremacy over another. We want to help people know all the facts and back-stories of those that they assume are different from them.

If you’ve been unfortunate enough to be driving down the highway with a stuck horn and have a motorcycle gang in front of you then you know that you would love it if they knew that you couldn’t help it. But, they didn’t know all the facts. I’ve been in traffic with my lights stuck on bright. People blew their horns, threw up “Hawaiian Good Luck” gestures, switched their lights to hi-beam, and even swerved into my lane. If they knew the whole story then they would probably be more sympathetic.

Knowing people’s back stories can help us avoid paralyzing polarization and judgment. For instance, when I was a kid, born and raised in the South, there was a certain common opinion about Yankees. I was in college before I knew that what we used to call Northerners was actually two words. There was an automatic word that went with “Yankees.” Then I got married, graduated from college, and Cindy and I moved to Boston for seminary. I remember some of the linguistic and cultural differences. We stopped at a McDonald’s on Boston’s North Shore. I went inside and came back to the car without any food. Cindy asked what was up and I replied, “I didn’t understand them, and they didn’t understand me.”

We had to learn a whole new lingo. A “tonic” was a “coke.” The “rubbish” was the “trash can.” A nearby town was named Peabody which I pronounced as Pee-body and they said Pee-bah-dee. My first request for a milk shake was a surprise. The person waiting on me poured milk into the stainless steel cup and put it under the agitator and handed me shook milk. I learned that what I really wanted was called a “Frappe” up there. There are numerous examples of similar experiences.

Until moving up North one of my favorite stories in a Southern-pride sort of way was about Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman after he burned Atlanta. He was traveling down I-20 (not really) on the way to Savannah when he and his men started taking sniper fire from the top of Stone Mountain. He told 3 of his men to go up there and take care of the lone Confederate sniper. They went, and, after a big commotion, all 3 came flying off the summit. Sherman then sent 12 men and the same thing happened. Then Sherman sent 40 men and told them to take care of this Southern soldier. 39 of the men came flying off, but one, bloodied and near death, came back down. He said to Sherman, “General, it’s a trick! There’s 2 of them!” Yes, in my ignorant cultural allegiance and prejudice, I thought better of those below the Mason-Dixon Line than those above it.

What moved me from thinking of Northerners as DY’s was getting to know people, specifically Keith and Ella Nutter. They were members of Memorial UMC in Beverly, Massachusetts, next door to Salem, where I was a pastoral intern. We visited them often and became friends. After graduation they sent us a new subscription to “Yankee Magazine” every Christmas, and we sent them “Southern Living.” I learned that Yankees and Southerners aren’t that different. We just had to get to know each other!

Remember Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham? The main character is circled and badgered by Sam-I-Am to the point of utter frustration. The main character says, “That Sam-I-Am! That Sam-I-Am! I do not like Sam-I-Am!” Because he doesn’t like Sam-I-Am, he rebuffs Sam-I-Am’s constant offer of green eggs and ham: “I do not like green eggs and ham,” but when he finally tries it, he likes it, and also ends up liking Sam-I-Am. Getting to know someone. Having the whole story and all the facts make a huge difference. Too often we would rather prefer to judge others and separate ourselves from them.

Without knowing the whole story some people thought that Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii was anti-patriotic when he was sworn in. As he took the oath in 1963 he raised his left hand instead of his right one. Everybody thought it was some kind of protest. Boy, were they wrong. Daniel Inouye served in the US Army during World War II. He was wounded fighting in Italy and earned the Distinguished Service Cross, Purple Heart with clusters, and the Bronze Star. The reason he didn’t raise his right hand is because it was blown off during an enemy attack. He went on to honorably serve in the US Senate until his death in 2012.

My joy in serving in Aiken, South Carolina is that everybody here pretty much chose to be here, moved here on purpose for work or retirement, and are from everywhere. The diversity is refreshing and adds a vibrancy to the city. My hope is that we emulate what this city has done so well: Diversity is a good thing. Value each other!

hurricane-harvey-harris-county

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