Holy Week, COVID-19, and The Serenity Prayer

This is the longest month of March on record! It’s not because this one has more than the usual 31 days, but these days have dragged on and on, and most of us have languished. The corona virus has unleashed so much havoc that it’s hard to believe that it was just a month ago in February that we had stock market highs, COVID-19 was only a blip on our radar, and life was pretty much normal. March has wiped out thousands of lives, and hundreds of thousands in everyone’s retirement accounts. I can’t wait for March to end.

I’ll probably feel the same way about April, but time has seemed to stand still during these days as we have sheltered in place. Days seem like weeks, and weeks like months. Is this our new normal? If it is, what do we do with it and how do we handle it? As I anticipate next week’s observance of Palm Sunday and Good Friday, it feels like we’re stuck in a perpetual Holy Week, and Easter hasn’t come.

Things can turn on a dime, can’t they? The loud hosannas of Palm Sunday turned into shouts of “Barabbas!” just a few days later. In Jesus’ life and ours, things can go quickly from adulation and good times to denial and the worst of times. This kind of tumult isn’t new. It’s just new to most of us. One minute we’re fine and enjoying life, and the next minute we’re scared to go outside. Some of you know this kind of about-face because you’ve seen tragedy before. One minute your daughter is alive, well, and everything is right with the world, and the next thing you know there’s a cop at the door, a somber doctor in the family consultation room, or an officer and chaplain walking up the front steps. Life is fickle.

People are fickle, too. They can and will turn on us. Woodrow Wilson knew both the height of popularity, and its quick demise. He was elected president before WWI, led us as a country through to victory, and had high hopes that he could create the League of Nations so that what had transpired in the trenches of France would never happen again. He wanted WWI to be “The War to End All Wars.” Unfortunately, his plans went awry. Not only did the US Senate fail to ratify the Versailles Treaty to end WWI, but they also rebuked Wilson’s idea of the League of Nations. He went from being a conquering hero to a broken man. He had a stroke in 1919 in the midst of all the stress, and served his last two years in office while completely bedridden.

Life is tough and filled with bad news. People praise us one minute and spit on us the next. What do we do with it, and how do we handle it? Jesus rolled with the punches, and stayed strong. Holy Week and its up and downs served as a crucible that forged more determination in him. Sure, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane that he could be spared, but he also made the proclamation, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” That’s commitment. That’s playing the long game, and having a stick-to-it attitude that cares not one whit what people think.

That’s what we need during these difficult days. We should do the very best that we can, and trust the rest to God. It is the essence of the Serenity Prayer: God, Grant me the serenity to accept the things that I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference. Amen.

The Glue of United Methodism

Some Bishops, Annual Conferences, Boards of Ordained Ministry, and clergy have broken their vows to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church (UMC). Many lay persons have done the same thing by not upholding the teachings of the UMC as was promised at either their confirmation or church joining. Leadership preaches unity and cite Jesus, but doesn’t practice unity. They are disobedient to the primary way that we as United Methodists practice unity – Connectionalism!

John Wesley’s genius in theology centers around his understanding of how we humans reflect the imago dei (Image of God). There are three primary ways: The Social Image, the Moral Image, and the Legal Image. Think how the Social Image affects Wesleyan theology. If the Trinity is God in community, we should also live in a similar, interdependent reciprocal mutually accountable relationship. That’s why we confer so much; i.e., the word “conference” occurs every whipstitch in how we do church. Conference is a way we live into the social image of God, whether it is through band meetings, class meetings, charge conferences, church conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences or General Conference. Furthermore, I would contend that Connectionalism is the primary engine that makes the Social Image such a wonderful reality.

The Wesleyan Way of mutual accountability leads to the other two ways that humanity reflects God’s image. The Moral Image is exhibited in Wesleyanism via an emphasis on sanctifying grace. Since God is Moral, so should we be. John Wesley took seriously that if God is perfect, that possibility is ours, too (Matthew 5:48). Personal piety and social holiness are always done best in the context of corporate discernment – the same conferring already mentioned.

Lastly, the way that we reflect God’s Legal Image of stewardship over creation is different from a personal or nationalistic greedy dominion-like selfish ownership or destruction of God’s good earth. Wesley’s little home remedy book, The Primitive Physick, is an example of his desire that we reflect the Legal Image as mutual caretakers of people’s bodies and souls for the common good. Corporate mutuality preempts any individualistic strip-mining attitude that turns the Legal Image into a license to feather our own personal nests. Connectionalism, once again, is a very important ingredient of our theology. It makes us sensitive to what is best for everyone, and why we have hospitals and schools everywhere, and a UMC Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

Here’s where I’m going with this: if Connectionalism is so important to who we are as United Methodists, why are we tossing it aside? Frankly, I don’t see Traditionalists doing that. It’s Progressives that are ignoring or breaking the unity of Connectionalism to which we have mutually pledged our allegiance. The Wesleyan Covenant Association and other renewal groups’ best preference is that we keep and strengthen the unity that we already have in the Book of Discipline.

So, ponder this, as we reflect on the document received from the Liberian Annual Conference this week. In response to the “Protocol,” they have gone on record by saying that we should stick together, and keep our current vows, name, logo and historic sexual ethics. In essence they have expressed the hope that we remain a global orthodox denomination, and live into what Connectionalism provides as a way forward. Rather than embrace splits, regionalism, and separation, why don’t we stick with what we have, and let those who can’t abide by it go their own way for their own conscience’s sake?

Our problem, therefore, isn’t just about authority of Scripture versus interpretation, culture wars and sociology, or ordination vow-keeping. There are all kinds of ways to frame and reframe a potential denominational split. What I hear when some promote a communion of separate branches of United Methodism under one umbrella is a denial of our Connectional ecclesiology. It would give a lot of latitude, yet keep us together, but at what cost?

The cost will be the loss of Connectionalism which is the essence of UM ecclesiology, the study, appreciation, and promotion of how we do church, and how that identifies and promotes the “Method” in Methodism. Being a “connectional” church, and how that shapes or reframes this whole sexuality discussion should honor our ecclesiology. If we can hang on to that, we will celebrate the imago dei in truly Wesleyan ways.

Connectionalism is who we are. Some may prefer a congregational or diocesan polity, but the word “Connection” appears 181 times in the 2016 Book of Discipline (BOD); “Connectional” appears 175 times; and “Connectionalism” 6 times. Clearly Connectionalism is more than foundational to our ecclesiology. It is part and parcel of how we fulfill Wesley’s system of mutual accountability that promotes sanctifying grace.

Note how Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 411 emphasizes our connectional nature by stating:

The Constitution clearly provides that the principle of Connectionalism should be always primary in any organizational structure of The United Methodist Church.

Or similarly, ¶132, 2016 BOD states:

The Journey of a Connectional People—Connectionalism in the United Methodist tradition is multi-leveled, global in scope, and local in thrust. Our Connectionalism is not merely a linking of one charge conference to another. It is rather a vital web of interactive relationships.

But, what body of the UMC determines what Connectionalism is in practice? It is only the General Conference, and not any lesser body that defines how connected we are. The 2016 BOD, ¶16 of the Constitution states emphatically that the General Conference (GC):

shall have full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (emphasis added), and in the exercise of this power shall have authority as follows: … 8. To initiate and to direct all connectional (emphasis added) enterprises of the Church and to provide boards for their promotion and administration.

 JCD 364 forbids the GC from delegating its Connectional legislative functions:

The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.

Therefore, the GC cannot yield to the Annual Conference its constitutional responsibility as stated in ¶16.2:

To define and fix the powers and duties of elders, deacons, supply preachers, local preachers, exhorters, deaconesses, and home missioners.

So, the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry and Clergy Session may not negate, violate or ignore Church law, as stated in JCD 7:

It is inconceivable that the General Conference should have full legislative powers so that it can enact uniform legislation for the whole Church, and that at the same time each Annual Conference could also have the right to enact diverse and conflicting regulations, on the same subject. The reservation of the right to the ministerial members of an Annual Conference to “vote on all matters relating to the character and Conference relations of its ministerial members,” is not a distinctively legislative function but is rather an administrative function. It can only mean that the Annual Conference has the right as well as the duty to pass upon and determine the facts and apply the laws in all such cases in accordance with the uniform regulations and provisions which the General Conference may enact in reference to the same. In other words, the right reserved to the ministers of an Annual Conference to pass upon the character and Conference relations of its ministers does not mean that it has the legislative right to set up standards to measure the character and Conference relations of the Ministers except insofar as such standards do not contravene or are not covered by provisions enacted for the whole Church by the General Conference.

Judicial Council Decision (JCD) 1321 is a masterful summary of the limits of local options by Annual Conferences in ministerial credentialing. It cites JCD 7, 313, 536, 544, and 823. For instance, JCD 544 states:

The Constitution, Par. 15 [now ¶ 16], gives the General Conference the power to fix the basic requirements for ministry, while it becomes the responsibility of the Annual Conference, as set forth in Par. 36 [now ¶ 33], to measure, evaluate, and vote upon candidates, as regards the minimum standards enacted by the General Conference. Ordination in The United Methodist Church is not local, nor provincial, but worldwide. While each Annual Conference is a door through which one may enter the ministry of the entire church, the Annual Conference cannot reduce nor avoid stipulations established by the General Conference which must be met by the church’s ministry everywhere. An Annual Conference might set specific qualifications for its ministerial members, but does not have the authority to legislate in contradiction to a General Conference mandate or requirement. Judicial Council Decisions 313, 318, 325, and 513 speak to the authority of the General Conference, under Par. 15 [now ¶ 16] of the Constitution, to establish standards, conditions, and qualifications for admission to the ministry. In Decision 536, we held that “An Annual Conference may not subtract from the disciplinary requirements for conference membership, but it may under certain circumstances adopt additional requirements not in conflict with disciplinary provisions or their spirit or intent.” This was again underscored in Decision 542 at the May 1984 General Conference. “Under Paragraph 37 [now ¶ 33] of the Constitution, however, it is the Annual Conference, as the basic body of the church that decides whether those standards have been met.”

Though the Annual Conference is called “fundamental” (¶11) and the “basic body in the Church” (¶ 33), it is also true that Annual Conferences and Boards of Ordained Ministry do not have the freedom to do anything that would deny our connectional definitions of clergy, as that determination is solely reserved by the General Conference. JCD 1341 is definitive in its location of the authority for setting ministerial standards:

The General Conference acted within its constitutional authority when it established universal standards for the ministry in ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d)

 JCD 1341 further declares:

It is settled Church law that the General Conference has full legislative authority to set uniform standards for the ministry, which Annual Conferences shall not abrogate or modify. Therefore, it acted within its constitutional powers when it legislated ¶¶ 304.3, 310.2(d), 341.6, and 2702.1 (a), (b), and (d). The Annual Conference may enact additional requirements that are not in conflict with the letter or intent of these disciplinary provisions. JCD 313, aff’d, JCD 318, 536, 823, 1321.

The reach of the General Conference and Connectionalism extends from top to bottom of the church. ¶246.1 BOD reinforces it at the local level:

General Provisions—1. Within the pastoral charge the basic unit in the connectional system of The United Methodist Church is the charge conference. 

In extrapolating Connectionalism to local church practice, JCD 694 speaks clearly to the discretion of any clergy member to perform ministerial duties such as weddings:

It is the responsibility of pastors in charge to perform their duties in compliance with the Discipline and be obedient to the Order and Discipline of the Church. (Par. 431.9 now 304.1(j))

As it pertains to same-sex weddings, JCD 1185 clarifies the sacred difference between civil and Church law, and this decision also rejects local options on connectional matters:

The Church has a long tradition of maintaining its standards apart from those recognized or permitted by any civil authority. The Church’s definition of marriage as contained in the Discipline is clear and unequivocal and is limited to the union of one man and one woman. Consequently, the Church’s definition of marriage must take precedence over definitions that may be in operation in various states, localities and nations or that may be accepted or recognized by other civil authorities. To do otherwise would allow the Church’s polity to be determined by accident of location rather than by uniform application.

In summary, how does Connectionalism shape who we are with respect to human sexuality? To regionalize or break covenant with what the General Conference has decided will be the death-knell to a critical component of our identity, both as individuals and as a denomination. Clergy have made promises to uphold the Discipline of the UMC, and willingly lay aside their own prerogatives. Annual Conferences are called to be agents of the connection, but cannot dictate what only the General Conference can and must decide. Local churches, comprised of laity and pastors, cannot abrogate their allegiance to the connection or the General Conference. None of us are free agents that are laws unto ourselves. We are either a connection, or we’re not. What do you think our ecclesiology should look like? John Wesley thought Connectionalism was the best answer. What say you?

The US Mint Offers A Great Opportunity

The US Mint is trying to increase the public’s interest in numismatics otherwise known as coin collecting. It’s interesting how they’re doing it. Of the nearly 2 billion America the Beautiful quarters put in circulation this year the mint has dispersed among those only 2 million with a “W” mintmark for the West Point mint. Since there are 5 ATB quarters in 2019: Lowell, Massachusetts, American Memorial Park in Saipan, War in the Pacific Memorial on Guam, San Antonio Missions for Texas, and Frank Church’s River of No Return in Idaho, that means there are only 400,000 each of these “W” mint mark 2019 quarters out there. There’s a 1 in 185 chance that you might find one, and, because of the rarity, they’re selling for as much as $70 to $200 per quarter based on condition – a hefty return on investment for 25 cents! For $10 a roll you get 40 quarters to look at, and an opportunity to have a little bit of an early Christmas. What the US Mint is doing is wise as they try to get us to look at our money more closely.

The same thing is true for most churches at this time of year. The fall harvest season is usually the time for stewardship programs. As we approach Thanksgiving and Christmas we don’t want to forget the guest of honor at His own birthday party! To whom do we ultimately owe our thanks – God! So, take a hint from the mint and look at your money more closely. It can make a huge difference in fulfilling God’s ministries for the Kingdom.

Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are the three post-Exilic prophets of the Old Testament, and they each preach a lot about us putting God first. With specificity, Haggai (1:2-11) tells the people to get busy rebuilding the Temple that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. For 20 years they had been looking at a pile of rubble and saw it as too mammoth a task to undertake. They focused on themselves and their “paneled houses,” while God’s house remained a ruin. Haggai told them to get their priorities in order. Malachi does the same thing. He tells the returning exiles that they have been robbing God, and when they ask how, he tells them it’s in tithes and offerings. In the midst of rebuke, he offers hopeful words. In Malachi 3:10, God speaks through Malachi and says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.” Wow!

What’s interesting is the wording in how all three of these post-Exilic prophets encourage the people to put God first. More than any other writers in the Bible they use a specific designation for God: “Lord Almighty”! They want to inspire the people to give God his due because this is no wimpy God, but one to be revered. In Haggai’s 38 verses “Lord Almighty” is used 14 times; in Zechariah the same name is used 53 times, and in Malachi it is 24 times! These prophets were speaking to a people without a king for the first time in 650 years, or rather to a people who had always had a king, but forgot WHO that king is – the Lord Almighty! Our giving reveals whether or not we remember who our King is!

We are a greedy bunch and use any excuse to not give to the church. Boiled down, our excuse is usually greed and selfishness. We need to remember what Jim Cramer said on the TV show “Mad Money:” “Bulls make money! Bears make money! Pigs get slaughtered!” Money can be made whether the stock market is on a high or a low, but if you or I get greedy, we’re going to lose and lose big! We all want to do well on our investments, and investing in the ministries of the church are the best investments that we can make.

Recently I went through the refinancing process to lower both my interest rate and length of amortization. It was a good deal! It dawned on me that refinancing is exactly what we as Christians do with every stewardship campaign, indeed every Sunday and every day as we fulfill our promise to uphold the church with our prayers, presence, gifts, witness, and service. We are literally giving the church our capital to spend on its ministries. Those ministries are worth our investment. Our giving answers an important question, “Do you know how to tell the difference between a flower that’s alive and one that’s dead?” The answer is, “The one that’s alive is growing.” Our resources grow the Kingdom. Our giving refinances God’s goals. Churches that are growing are filled with people who know that we make a living by what we get out of life, but we make a life by what we give. If the US Mint wants us to look more closely at our money, we certainly need to follow God’s advice to do it, too.

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!

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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!

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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