Christmas Longings – Past and Future Make the Present Better!

Should I long for Christmas past or future? The way things used to be is a tempting road to travel. There are good memories even when things were difficult. My Mother had a major stroke in late fall 1992 and was in a coma for several days. I clung to her bed-rail asking her to wake up and come back. Out of motherly love she did, but it was a terribly difficult life for her. She could barely smile and move just one hand. She couldn’t walk or speak above a whisper.

Christmas 1992 was tough. Mother had a little tree with lights in her nursing home room, but it was hard to see her like she was. Just before Christmas, Cindy and I and the children visited on my parent’s anniversary, December 23. I had the flu and wasn’t allowed inside. Cindy and our children were in the room and I was outside her window looking in. We tried to sing Christmas carols to her with me trying loud enough for her to hear me through the glass. I’ll never forget her look and her smile back at me as she was propped up on a pillow.

She died thirteen days later, January 5, 1993, from another stroke. Oh, how I have missed her, but wished I had let her go months earlier, but I was too selfish. I still feel guilty for begging her to wake up from her initial stroke. She would have been so much better off. We have to love people enough to let them go to that place where there is no more pain or sorrow. But it’s hard, isn’t it? I was only 36, way too young, in my mind, for my Mom to die.

Longing for Christmas Past is nostalgic and idyllic, but it isn’t reality. As Christians we are more a New Jerusalem people than Garden of Eden ones. Living in the past isn’t what it’s cracked up to be. Sure, there are fond memories, but the future is the culmination of our hope. Adam and Eve were exited from Eden after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Cherubim with flaming swords kept them from going back inside. I used to think that was part of God’s punishment, but I think differently now. If they could have gone back they might have eaten from the Tree of Life, and then having eaten from both trees they would have lived forever knowing both good and evil. That would have been a horrible thing. God wants us to only know good forever so the cherubim with flaming swords were God’s agents of grace.

The New Jerusalem is our destination where there is no sorrow or pain. If the good old days were really that good how did we get into the mess we’re in today? So let’s focus on making the world a better place and working for God’s preferred future. What can we do to make the Kingdom come when all things will be set right, no more evil, injustice, sickness or oppression?

To be honest, some of that future vision does depend on a recollection of the past. I think that it’s okay to reminisce about lessons learned and people who graced our lives in years gone by. The past becomes a tutor and that’s okay, but that’s very different from it being a prison. We need to learn from it, but not languish in it. What helps me most is to remember the good things and try to build on them. That turns the past into a healthy present that springboards us into a great future.

As an example, my Grandmother, Milbria Dorn Jackson, known as “Mib” to many of her friends, conjures up a plethora of memories. Some are great and others not. My perspective is jaded because I lived with her. She was of tough German extraction. There are two smells that immediately come to mind when I think of her: BenGay and Sauer Kraut. There was a kraut jar in the kitchen where she fermented cabbage, and BenGay was her daily medicine for what she called her “neuralgia.”

She wasn’t what I would call the world’s jolliest person. As a matter of fact, she could be pretty stern. She was devoted to my older brother, but my middle brother and I were too rambunctious. I’m just saying, she was tough on us. Papa was jolly and happy, but nobody would claim that Grandmother was the life of the party. She wasn’t!

But, you know if I dwell on the not-so-fond memories of the past, it doesn’t do me much good. It makes me forget the good things like the twinkle of Grandmother’s clear blue eyes. The same eyes of my Uncle J.C. Thinking only of her strict standards makes me forget that she loved to hear me whistle and told me so. Nobody else ever did that. Thinking of her not-so-frivolous nature makes me forget how much she shaped me in good wonderful ways.

There’s a Bible on my shelf in my study that she gave me for Christmas 1964. Let me tell you, as a 9 year old in 1964 I thought that a Bible was the worst present ever. You couldn’t play with it, and it just underscored her usual guilt trips for our shenanigans. I opened it this morning just to glimpse her handwriting and was astounded to read something that I had forgotten was even there. The whole inscription reads: “To Tim from Grandmother, the one that loves you dearly. December 25, 1964.”

Wow, “…the one that loved loves you dearly.” If I only lived in the past of BenGay and Kraut, I would have forgotten the amazing love and gift that it was to experience her daily presence. So my advice is to let the past inform you, but don’t live there. If conjured up, remember the good times and good things. The rest does you very little good. We weren’t meant to stay in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve’s disaster, but to live forever only knowing good in the New Jerusalem! Savor your good Christmas memories, and make new ones for the future.

bible-pic

Tea Olives & Seasons of Love

The seasons of life are often unpredictable. The Broadway hit “Rent” has a song that always lights me up, “Seasons of Love.” 525,600 minutes are the time span of every year, but it can never adequately describe what happens in that year. What makes for a good year or a bad one depends on the content of each moment. We should make them count, but we live our lives in counter-productive ways that waste both time and money. We live as if our mantra is: Spend it; Save it; and Share it, when our values would better reflect God’s if we reversed the order: Share it; Save it; and Spend it. In the words of “Seasons of Love,” “that’s how to measure a year in a life!”

How do we measure a person’s contributions? Is it our obituary, the influence we’ve had on others, the fruit of our labors, a tree planted years ago? I’ve often told persons who serve on the Staff-Parish Relations Committee of their local church that service on SPRC is one thing for sure that ought to be in their obituary. It’s such a tough, but important committee. Most of us have read the poem “The Dash” by Linda Ellis (http://www.linda-ellis.com/the-dash-the-dash-poem-by-linda-ellis-.html). It is a reminder that the most important thing on anyone’s tombstone isn’t the birth and death date, but the dash in-between and what it represents.

So I’m planning to go shopping in a little while for a fragrant tea olive. We have a spot beside our house that is begging for something to go there. I love tea olives. Their fragrance immediately takes me back to walking past The Russell House at USC in the fall. How wonderful it would be that our presence with others would transport them to a pleasant memory. I want my grandchildren to smell this tree and say, “That’s MacMac’s tree!” We’re all God’s trees planted for a divine purpose. How’s our fruit and fragrance?

Sometimes my years are more measured by my distance rather than my closeness to God. It is really a daily, weekly thing. A diet and good eating habits are only good if they are habits. The same with spiritual disciplines. We all have spells when we get off the wagon of healthy living, and it’s so hard to get back on. If today is the first day of the rest of my life then some changes need to be made. Planting that fragrant tea olive is a baby step. Going to the Y in the morning will be a bigger one. I have 35 days until my annual physical. If I want to have more seasons to love, I’ve got to do my part to make sure that it happens.

Good stewardship isn’t just about our material wealth. It includes our health, too, spiritually and physically, but the silken snare of disinterest and apathy are hindrances to good habits. I loved playing hide-and-seek as a child. Living in a large creaky semi-spooky house with lots of places to hide was a boon. Younger cousins would be toughest to play with because they couldn’t count as well, or they cheated. They would count off to one hundred and say those familiar words, “Ready or not, here I come!” Unfortunately, their counting to 100 often went 1,2,3,4,5, on up to 20 or so, then skip to 94,95,96,97,98,99, 100 and then the warning of “Here I come.”

Because it was my home, I, of course, knew all the best places to hide. Here’s what I discovered. After they went by me for the umpteenth time and I had held back my snickering, I finally got bored. Yes, I would get bored even though the object of the game was not to be caught. I would invariably knock on a wall, or try to throw my voice in order to get caught. I can hear them now, “I found you! I found you! You’re it!” I wouldn’t let on that I let them find me. That would be admitting my own disregard for the rules and purpose of the game. To admit being bored is embarrassing.

Truth be told, however, that’s the way I am with life sometimes. I don’t want to admit that I’m bored when I squirrel away my money for some new splurge, get tired of my unapproved past times, or start disagreeing with my stated opinions on touchy subjects. I end up hiding from God and others, and I know what I need to do.

 I need to admit that boredom and fess up. There comes a time to get caught because the alternative is being stuck in some crack of a hiding place in a creaky old house. That creaky old house might be our own body, soul, or mind. We’re better off coming out from our hiding places and planting a tree, going to the gym, visiting a relative, writing a thank-you note, or a sundry other things that make our dash a joy about which people will smell a tea olive and say, “That reminds me of Tim!” and it’s a joy for them to remember us and not a curse. I’m headed to the nursery to buy a tree! What are you going to do? Come out, come out, wherever you are!

God’s Kiss

I walked on hallowed ground yesterday. In fact, it happens pretty much every day if I open my eyes. This Sunday’s Gospel lectionary text from John 13 is about love. Jesus says, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” How awesome and scary is that? Our love expressed either allows or prevents people from knowing Jesus. Yesterday I saw love.

There was a family gathering at the bedside of a loved one transitioning from earthly life to heaven. The husband of 60-something years was poignant as he stated the obvious. His beloved’s condition was deteriorating during this holy moment, but, as he put it, “She still gives good kisses.” We, the church, individually and corporately, are God’s kisses to the world.

That sounds like a mission statement of sorts for Christians, but our mission statements are usually so nice, catchy, alliterative, and wrong. Sometimes we have created them without much regard for God’s mission. I’ve done it myself. “MD4C” was one of my favorites: “Making Disciples for Jesus Christ.” It passed the tee shirt test because it was short enough to fit on one. It was long enough to be memorable, and short enough to be memorized. It met all of the secular benchmarks of an effective mission statement, but when I think about the love I witnessed yesterday and the ways that God gets our attention in the Bible, I’m a bit ashamed of “Seek, Save, Serve” even though that’s a pretty good one. The mission statement I saw in that family yesterday was “Love” and that’s what Jesus was talking about in John 13:34-35.

There’s even a website that can help you generate a mission statement. Go to the address www.netinsight.co.uk/portfolio/mission/missgen.asp, and press the “play” button and presto! As someone said to me, “Substitute ‘church’ for ‘business,’ and you’re in business. Ha! A better place to find mission statements for the church is in the Bible, but they aren’t so catchy or cute: “Die on a cross.” “Leave your home, and go somewhere I’m not going to tell you.” “Marry a Hooker.” “Go speak to people you hate.” These are all in the Bible and are tough! I daresay that they boil down to “Love,” which is tough, tender, and time-consuming. Oh, there I go with 3 “T’s.” Sorry.

In one of his sermons, Walter Burghart tells the story of a surgeon’s observations of a couple much like what I witnessed yesterday. He says, “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, somewhat clownish. A tiny twig of a facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, had been severed. She will be this way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.”

He continues, “Her young husband, at least that’s who he might be, is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, the moment is a private one. Who are they, I ask myself? He and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at each other so generously, so lovingly. The young woman speaks. ‘Will my mouth always be like this?’ she asks. ‘Yes,’ I say, ‘it will. It is because the nerve was cut.’ She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles.”

The story unfolds, “’I like it,’ he says, ‘it’s kind of cute.’ All at once I know exactly who he is. I understand and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a God moment. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show her that their kiss still works.”

I wonder how this world and our church might change if our mission statement was to reinforce the fact that God so loved the world that he has leaned in toward us, and has contorted himself to show love to us – even allowing himself to be twisted on a cross for us. What would it mean for us to truly live the Biblical mission statements rather than concoct our own, to be God’s kiss to the world?

Kiss Me Pic

 

Who Gets Written Off?

I’ve got a different angle on the whole transgendered bathroom discussion. There are schools and institutions that are trying to dictate where people who were born a certain way need to go to a specific bathroom. This flummoxes me. I get it that I would feel awkward if a woman and I were in the same restroom, and I imagine a woman would feel the same way if I went into a women’s restroom.

But, my mind is going in all kinds of directions about civil rights; dads or moms with their opposite gender children needing a unisex option everywhere, including the church; and my European experience of it not mattering. What about campouts, cabins at church camps, single-gender activities, or even single-gender colleges? However, my thoughts today are more practical than thinking about something that I haven’t faced yet as a pastor. My mind is not wondering about being anatomically correct in our protection of people. What do we do with folks who are just odd?

They are a tad beyond socially awkward and cause more people to leave the church than come to it. They’re not just annoying. They are just plain difficult. You want to be Christian and accepting, but you might not want to sit by them. If you give them attention, they want more. Peeling back the onion layers you often find there’s a legitimate source of their personality quirks, but they don’t get help, won’t take advice, and leave you wondering whether or not you need to look out for the majority and send them packing. This is the parable of the ninety-nine and the one in Luke 15:1-7.

Jesus said to go after the one. However, as a District Superintendent, pastor, parent, friend, or whatever, it has been my experience that it is poor stewardship to give too much time and attention to the minority of malcontented well or ill-intentioned dragons that suck the life out of a church. Doesn’t it make better sense to work with the fruitful and prune the wastrels?

It might make better sense, but it seems unloving and discriminatory. I’m conflicted because everybody is both sinner and potential saint. Aren’t we all both sinner and saint at the same time? Romans 7:14-25 certainly makes it clear that the Apostle Paul experienced the tug of an angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other. I daresay that his spirituality and Christian commitment was far better than mine.

Like the one lost sheep, we have all been the one left out, isolated from the majority, and culled or lost from the flock. If I use the UMC’s Par. 244.3’s Book of Discipline standard for a church leader then a lot of church council seats would be empty. It says that church leaders SHALL be: “persons of genuine Christian character who love the church, are morally disciplined, are committed to the mandate of inclusiveness… are loyal to the ethical standards… set forth in the Social Principles, and are competent to administer its affairs.” This weeds out a lot of people.

This is the perennial church conundrum: how do we get along with people who have a difficult time fitting in with the norm of our context? How do we protect the ninety-nine without making the one feel like they’re unwanted? To take it up a notch, what do we do with the emotionally unstable who thankfully are under the ministry of the church, but make life tough for those who are a smidge less neurotic? Par. 4 of the UMC constitution is helpful to ponder: “… All persons without regard to race, color, national origin, status, or economic condition, shall be eligible to attend its [the UMC’s] worship services…” What’s left out of this list of attendees? Gender is one thing, but the thing that is primarily on my mind is “mental or emotional condition.” Was this intentionally left out of Par. 4 so that we can exclude those who are wild cards in terms of behavior? That just doesn’t sound like Jesus to me, so what do you think?

Perhaps this is unanswerable, but Jesus is daring me to think outside of regular parameters and I’m feeling a little stuck. What do we do? I would love to write-off a few people, but that means I have to write myself off, too. No thanks. Are we willing to leave the ninety-nine and rejoice over the one who was lost and now is found? A good hard question.

Jesus with Sheep

A Lenten Test

 Who doesn’t like to take those IQ/knowledge tests on Facebook? This week we have a bigger more important test. We have to figure out what to do with a confluence of special days in the life of the church. Here are the three significant events to ponder in your worship planning: Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Valentine’s Day. You could add a few more secular ones if you’re celebrating the end of football season with Super Bowl 50’s completion, The South Carolina vs. Connecticut Women’s Basketball game, and maybe the biggest celebration of all for some of you, Mardi Gras on Shrove Tuesday! What a mixture to think about from a Christian perspective.

It seems to me that what we have is a grand opportunity to think about love and sacrifice. Ash Wednesday voices the somber realization: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Lent is a call to self-denial and reflection whose very name carries the tug of seasonal change. The word “Lent” comes from the Old English word lencten which meant “lengthen.” As the days march forward and lengthen with minute amounts of extra daylight, we should also take longer contemplative looks at our own lives.

Valentine’s Day celebrates a canonized priest who purportedly married young lovers when it had been outlawed by a Roman emperor who thought marriage made soldiers less dedicated and effective. In keeping with Lent’s call to carrying a cross, beginning with Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes, St. Valentine chose doing the right thing over doing things right. Before his execution he passed encouraging notes to the Christian faithful and signed them, “From your Valentine.”

Valentine’s causes me to wonder if the love notes we share last longer than the paper upon which they are written. Ash Wednesday makes me ponder when or if ever should I wipe the ashes from my brow. The whole season of Lent gives me pause to take a long look at my personal discipleship and discern where and how it may be lacking.

My sincere prayer is that people might see Jesus in me with or without an “X” of sorts to mark the spot! I don’t want to be like the young woman who gave a picture of herself to her boyfriend. On the reverse she exclaimed, “I’ll love you forever and always to the end of time!” with an added postscript, “P.S. If we ever break up, I want the picture back.” Fickle love is not even love, being infatuation more than anything else. No wonder our Ash Wednesday ashes are made of last year’s Palm Sunday palm fronds burned to a crisp. A wishy-washy crowd that welcomed Jesus with a loud “Hosanna!” quickly switched to a dastardly, “Crucify him!” by the end of Holy Week.

My personal prayer is that we who call ourselves Christ-followers will have a more faithful Lent this year. I hope that people will see Jesus in us, with or without a smudge on our heads. It’s even better, in my opinion, if the people around us see Jesus in us without the sackcloth and ashes of an outward show of repentance. May they see the Lord in our smiles, joys, commitments, and our doing the right things a´ la St. Valentine. More chocolate, not less. More smiles, not mournful somberness. More love!

I have a test to help remind you that you might be the only Jesus that the world will ever see. Look intently at the four dots in the middle of the image below for 30 seconds, then look away and stare for a few seconds. What do you see? Who will others see if they look at you this Lent?

Jesus and Four Dots

Human Relations DaySSSS!

Sometimes we just don’t get along with one another and we don’t know whether to lash out or just eat our anger. We can glad-hand it away and pretend it didn’t happen by seething inwardly, or we can go ballistic. Is there a middle way that is both truthful and therapeutic? In Charleston, SC there were no riots. A middle way was found because the families of the Emanuel Nine spoke the truth of their hurt, but also modeled grace.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave us profound insight in how to live in this middle place: “We still have a choice today; nonviolent coexistence or violent co-annihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Violent co-annihilation may be tempting when we’re dealing with what appears to be an intractable stalemate. This makes me think of North Korea versus the world; Iran and Saudi Arabia; Democrats and Republicans; and pro-this and con-that people that are on opposite sides of a multitude of subjects. Isn’t Dr. King right? Co-annihilation and evisceration doesn’t help. Chaos-promoting language is an oft-used campaign tool that appeals to many people, but it disregards the fact that rhetoric which foments mutually assured destruction ends up causing it. It’s co-annihilation.

The US government thought they could annihilate native people’s ways by creating boarding schools where tribal ways and languages were beaten out of our people. So-called Christian missionaries tried to destroy native spirituality to create “white people” out of a people who had a deeper understanding of God than they could dare imagine. Isn’t it strange that the church has adapted and accepted pagan customs over the centuries just as long as they came from people whose skin looked the same? Annihilation also came to native peoples through outright murder and ghettoization through events like the Sand Creek and Wounded Knee Massacres, or reservation-induced dependency and abject poverty.

January 17 will be Human Relations Day and is the Sunday nearest Dr. King’s birthday. Its purpose is “…to recognize the right of all God’s children in realizing their potential as human beings in relationship with each other. The purpose of this day is to further the development of better human relations.” This is our day to make up for past failures and to embrace something better than nonviolent coexistence. Peaceful coexistence is better than violence, but love is more than tolerance.

In our unresolved conflicts, whether they are between people, countries, or cultures, we must be both truthful and therapeutic. I think that the genius of Dr. King’s statement about a choice between nonviolent coexistence and violent co-annihilation is not in the either-or choice of toleration or destruction. His statement is most prophetic when he says, “This may well be humankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Tolerant coexistence isn’t truthful or therapeutic. It puts scabs on wounds that need lancing before any real healing can take place. To choose chaos isn’t really helpful either, though it airs out the truth. The middle way that promotes real healing is what Dr. King called “community.”

How do we work for real community? Thankfully, the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race gives us clear tangible guidance. GCORR’s ministry model first promotes the teaching and implementation of Intercultural Competency. Second, it models for us how to have genuine, transparent, uncomfortable, and healing Vital Conversations between persons of disparate cultures and viewpoints. Last, GCORR’s ministry is to foster the creation of lifestyles and operational systems that value Institutional Equity, not just for some, but for everyone. The desire is that all aspects of every society’s structural life is fair to all.

If this ministry model is incorporated into our daily lives then we can have Human Relations Day every day. The questions for me: Will I do my best to learn about people who are different from me? Will I engage in substantive conversations that will promote cross-cultural understanding? Will I do the hard work that ensures that every person has an equal chance to be a reflection of God on earth? I pray that I will do all of this and more. What about you?

MLK

 

How to Handle the Trumps in your Life!

Christians haven’t been very consistent in handling disagreements for a long time. We swing between Crusader vengeance and Quaker pacifism. Tensions within families, distrust between races, disagreements between political parties, international distrust over the Iran nuclear deal or North Korea’s saber rattling, arguments between scientists over climate change, Women and men who are either repulsed or enthralled by Donald Trump, workplace jockeying, and road rage are all examples of conflict. What do we do?

Interpersonal conflict is nothing new. We need to be careful with those folks and their comments that are right on the precipice of indecorum or worse. I remember preaching a sermon on conflict that promoted three ways to deal with it: Laugh it off, Let it go, and Love it away – nice alliteration but inadequate advice! Today I think that sermon and its methods are way off the mark. I have encountered too many self-centered narcissistic people who take advantage of the Christian aversion to confrontation.

British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s posture of appeasement toward Hitler and Nazi Germany was totally ineffective. If it hadn’t been for the resolve of Britain and the Allies, we might all be speaking German right now. Sometimes you have to be a bulldog, a.k.a. Winston Churchill. We should all value making peace, but doing it through appeasement enables more misbehavior and forestalls inevitable conflict. Instead of salvaging a relationship, appeasement increases the explosive magnitude of our angry silence until a later date.

So what’s wrong with laughing off conflict? I’ve seen people who are masters at using an ironic story to get someone’s goat and the people walk away smiling. About halfway to their destination, and at a “safe” distance they figure out what the humor really meant. This may be a good method, but it may not be direct enough to get the point across, and you’ve passed the hurt on to innocent bystanders.

I’ve been in a lot of repartee where people will laugh along with our subtle but ineffective chiding. They know our attempt at humor is a way to confront them, but since they know what we’re up to they just laugh right back at us under their breaths. They know they have gotten away with their misbehavior, and they know that we would rather go-along-to-get-along than carefully and specifically confront. Laughing things off may lighten the mood and defuse some of the tension, but it rarely deals effectively with the issues. It merely suppresses them and represses us. We end up with an ulcer and the offending party gets away scot-free.

Laughing things away is a stopgap method at best, but sooner or later truth-telling in love must replace this ineffective method of accountability. At some point, there must be evidentiary validity in our confrontation. Matthew 18:15ff is instructive: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Wow, private one-on-one discourse comes first. It’s my belief that most of us would rather tell everyone else, triangulate others, and marshal our allies rather than directly confront privately. Evidentiary proof comes next with caring accountability by two or more witnesses and, at last resort, the church. It’s like calling for back-up or making sure that you have a witness so that your words aren’t twisted later, and so that the witnesses can hold you accountable, too! So rather than laughing things away, we should take them seriously and work the process to attempt to restore harmony, or walk away. The point of the whole process is to “win them over.” Think about the way Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors and you really get the purpose of confrontation. It’s about restorative grace, but that’s not cheap grace.

Next, is letting things go, and it’s not the same as walking away. Walking away is getting fresh air, perspective, and time to think. Letting things go is selective forgetfulness and, like laughing things away, actually creates more problems down the road. Letting things go doesn’t care enough to confront and gives carte blanche to people. They are really glad when we decide to let things go because they get to keep doing them.

They almost dare us to say anything negative. They pull the “Thou shalt not judge!” card. This is a form of bullying; i.e., “If you are as Christian as much as you say you are, you would understand me and just let it go!” But, if we let it go when a dear friend uses inappropriate language, epithets about people, or blanket statements that are beyond off-color, then we’re not doing them or anybody else any favors by letting it go. It’s time to step up and speak the truth, “You know I love you, but I need you to think about what you’re saying. It bothers me. It’s not right.”

Lastly, loving away someone’s faults seems like the route to go, at least on the surface, but cheap grace and a quick, “I love you,” puts a painkiller on a wound without really healing it. Grace isn’t cheap, and neither is love. Love cost Jesus his life. Loving our enemies without forthright confrontation cheapens the pain of being wounded, and, worse, makes us appear to be “martyrs.” Martyrdom and pouting look a lot alike if forgiving someone makes us out to be better than they are. The transaction becomes more vertical than horizontal.

If we really love someone then we are compelled to do everything that we can do to help them become a better person. Instead of writing them off, telling them off, or brushing them off, we should care enough to confront. Maybe that’s why Jesus had so many confrontations with the offensive Pharisees. If He truly cared less, we would have heard less. Jesus did some hard loving and so should we.

It appears to me that we need to do better than pretend away conflict by laughing it off, letting it go, or half-heartedly loving it away. If our efforts to make peace don’t include a cross and hard work then we have missed the point of Jesus’ ministry. I am struck that Jesus only called a couple of people “friend” in the Gospels. More fascinating is that Judas was one of them (Matthew 26:50), and it came as he gave Jesus the kiss of betrayal in Gethsemane.

So, what am I going to do with the troublemakers in my life? The honest answer is that I don’t know. I’m conflicted myself. I pray for the right words at the right time and to act like Jesus. By God’s grace, I pray for the strength to do the hard work of reconciliation. I’m also reminded of John Wesley’s adage: “In essentials, let there be unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” Can today be a new day for making peace?

Anger Pic

Retaking Valentine’s Day!

I recently read of a guy who went to buy a Valentine’s card and asked a clerk to help him pick out one. She looked and finally held one up. She read it to him, “To the one and only love of my life, Happy Valentine’s Day!” The guy replied, “Great, I’ll take 4 of them!” It sounds like he might have commitment issues, but at least he was ready for Valentine’s Day.

St. Valentine’s Day is nine days away! I hope every love-bird is getting ready for the big event. I know that I’ll be making a trip to Hallmark and try to get just the right card for Cindy. Her other perennial favorite is for me to purchase cut flowers from Fresh Market and arrange them myself. It’s all in the effort, I guess, but isn’t it always with love?

St. Valentine has been purported to be the patron saint of lovers for centuries. Pope Gelasius in 496 A.D. set aside February 14 to honor St. Valentine. However, the history behind the actual person and his actions is cloudy at best. Some say he was a priest who secretly married couples during the reign of Roman emperor Claudius II. Claudius had outlawed marriage so that he could draft more single men for his army. Supposedly after his arrest Valentine sent notes to Christians that were signed, “From your Valentine.” There are stories of his officiating at his jailer’s daughter’s wedding, too. According to tradition Valentine was beheaded by the emperor on February 14, 269 A.D.

What makes all this so interesting is that February 14 is the same day that had been dedicated to Roman love lotteries for over 800 years. Love lotteries were a Roman matchmaking scheme whereby eligible singles in towns and villages drew names of the opposite sex so that they could be paired for a specified time period. These love lotteries were held on the day before February 15, which is, of course, the 14th, the day dedicated to the Roman god Lupercus, so that couples could be matched. I guess they didn’t need eHarmony or match.com.

Needless to say, 800 years of a coupling custom was hard to undo even when the empire became mostly Christian. After all, love is what makes the world go round. Therefore, whether there was ever a guy named Valentine who sent love notes or not is immaterial to the greater worship of love. So, conveniently, Valentine, or the story of Valentine, was canonized and made a saint so that Christians could usurp yet another pagan holiday and turn it into something good.

Ironically, the suspicious origins of Valentine’s Day caused the Roman Catholic Church to drop it as an official Feast Day in 1969. In reversal of the church’s co-opting of a Roman mating ritual, our contemporary pop culture recaptured the original intent of February 14 – a day with an emphasis on Lupercalian tokens of love. The irony is that what was pagan-turned Christian has now been co-opted by the candy makers and greeting card companies, plus a host of other suppliers. So maybe we’re not sure if it’s love that makes the world go round or money.

Valentine’s customs through the so-called Christian centuries have been celebrated in a variety of ways. In the Middle Ages, for instance, young men and women drew names from a bowl to see who their Valentines would be. They wore these names on their sleeves for a week. It’s where we get our notion about people “wearing their hearts on their sleeve,” meaning that it’s easy for other people to see or know how they’re feeling.

Here’s how I feel about Valentine’s Day, saint or not. I’m all for showering our true loves and loved ones with expressions of affection. It never hurts to let people know that they are appreciated, valued, and loved. As a matter of fact, it’s time for the church to take Valentine’s Day back from the culture. When it comes to love we don’t need to prop up some semi-historical figure like Valentine when we can do better. There’s no better example of love than Jesus Christ. If we love people like Jesus loves then chocolates will be in order year-round! Go get that perfect card!

Valetine's Day

To Judge or Not to Judge?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weeding

 

 

Summer Road/Boat Trips and Avoiding Snake Bites

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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