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…

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Itinerancy and Appointment-making Survival!

This is an anxious time for the churches and pastors who expect a move in the United Methodist Church this year. Itineration is at the heart of who we are and what we do in clergy deployment and is a reflection of our outward focus to the world. We are people of community – a community of faith that builds us up and holds us accountable, and a secular community that needs our ministry! In Wesley’s parlance we do “works of piety” to strengthen our personal holiness, and we do “works of mercy” to transform the world for Christ.

Both of these actions are best done in community. Our piety is enhanced and built in discipleship groups and relationships. For clergy those relationships are bound by covenant in the annual conference and expressed in local churches or other extension ministries. Our works of mercy center on our local and global community. Our entire system is one in which we embrace the motto, “Together We Can Do More!”

Therefore, in and for community, through the combined efforts of many, we move clergy around to enhance works of piety and mercy. John Wesley called this active movement of clergy, “the apostolic plan of evangelization.” He sincerely believed that a primary genius of the Methodist Movement was itineration. Clergy were not to become “settled” as they routinely were in the Anglican Church of his day. In his mind, it was better for clergy to be constantly on the go in outreach to the world. The United Methodist Church continues to call clergy and laity alike to have a vibrant responsive ministry to our contextual realities!

Over the years more and more clergy have stayed longer in places. This can be a great thing if clergy and churches are continually creating new ways to minister to people. If churches and clergy are going through the motions, then it’s not. John Wesley said of himself, “If I were to stay in one place for a year, I would preach myself to sleep!” Wow, that’s a tough threshold, but his point, of course, is keeping the Gospel fresh, and the laity and the clergy, too.

But here I am about to move from being a District Superintendent back to the parish (At least that’s my hope), and I’m pondering how well I am handling the anxiety? I just got off the phone with a young clergyperson about to take their first appointment and my repeated advice to him was, “Pray and hang tight” By the way, “Hanging tight” does not mean to tense up. It is a charge to hold onto faith more than ever!

These are words that I need to heed. This is the first time in my ministry that I have known in advance that I’m definitely moving! There’s an eight-year term limit on DS’ so this has been anticipated, but I think that knowing I’m moving has actually exacerbated the uncertainty more than diminishing it. I have 15 more years of service somewhere(s), and am ready to let go of the trapeze bar that I’m on and grab the one that’s flying my way!

I’ve been meeting almost daily and quite a few times on Sundays with the persons anticipating moves in the Columbia District – S/PPRC’s and clergy. Everyone’s a bit nerved out. Sure, I know that this emotion will switch to anticipation and excitement when appointments are announced on March 10, but until then what can I and they do to find a centering place in God? When all of us in pulpit or pew have had what we perceived as less than favorable experiences in the past, what do we do to allay our fears today?

Isaiah 40 is an anchor in this storm of “already and not yet.” It begins in verse one with a message of comfort. Isaiah 40:1-11 is a song about God’s redemptive power. Words and phrases that speak of hard service being completed; that God’s comfort is greater than our fear of calamity or the “System” is balm to our souls. I especially like verse 11: “He (God) tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

For every clergyperson with a family, it’s good to know that God and the Cabinet care for you, your young, and whatever special circumstance is yours! God’s care extends to all involved in the appointment process. Yes, there will be hard decisions made, and there will be disappointments, but by the grace of God there will not be any mis-appointments when it’s all said and done!

Further comfort from Isaiah 40 is lined out in the litany of things, people, and systems that are no match for God. Verses 12-26 dare us to ask, “Who is God’s equal?” Is God greater than the nations? Absolutely! Is God greater than any human idol including a “plum” appointment? You know so! Is Creator God more powerful than creation, and the answer is certainly “Yes!” Is God greater than the princes and rulers of this world who sometimes are called bishops and superintendents? You better believe it! Is God greater than the starry host and the cosmos’ systems? By all means!

If this is all true Isaiah 40:27 confronts my fears with the pertinent question: “Why do you say, O Jacob (Tim), and complain, O Israel (Your name), ‘My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God?’” If God is greater than the litany of powers lined out in the earlier verses, then there is no cause for complaint or fear. There is, on the other hand, cause for great faith!

Therefore, Isaiah 40 concludes with a canticle of praise and comfort:

“Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young people stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

For all of us in this itinerant ministry called United Methodism, may we hold fast to God and trust!!! In the Olympic spirit give a listen to Eric Liddell’s reading from Isaiah 40 in the movie “Chariots of Fire.” Pray and hang tight!

Heroes!

Who are your heroes? I can think of the aunt who re-taught me how to tie my shoes and tell time after I had encephalitis as an eight year old. I can think of my Mother and Daddy, my brothers, and so many more who have been my mentors along the way. Today I especially recall my oldest brother who died on his 70th birthday, August 15, two years ago. I think of my courageous daughter, Narcie, a United Methodist Campus Minister who had surgery for a brain tumor in June 2010. I stand amazed at her poise and passion. She is one of my heroes to be sure! My wife, Cindy, an Elementary Guidance Counselor, is a hero to so many. Gratitude goes to all Educators starting another school year.  You are tremendous heroes! The Olympics have shown us so many heroes, too. Some have been athletes. A lot more have been coaches and family members who have paid for gymnastic or swimming lessons since their children were just beyond being toddlers.

Don’t ever say that we don’t have any heroes anymore. In 1998, Captain Timothy Stackpole was severely injured while battling a fire. He was able to recover enough to return and resume his job as a firefighter. His only comment on getting back to work was, “It’s my calling.” Those words took on a whole new meaning when September 11, 2001 rolled around. Captain Timothy Stackpole died while trying to battle the blaze and save people in the World Trade Center. No wonder that immediately after the tragic events of September 11 retailers who sell Halloween costumes announced that the most popular outfits were those of firefighters and police officers. Continue to pray for one of my pastors, Rev. Steve McCormick and his family, whose only son, Major Joe McCormick, was killed in a C-130 plane crash fighting fires out west this summer. He leaves behind a bereaved wife, 3 young sons and a newborn daughter. Joe was a hero.

Remember the Oklahoma City bombing? Rebecca Needham Anderson, a nurse, heard the first 911 call and headed immediately to the devastated Murrah Federal Building so that she could aid the injured. Her husband, Fred, drove Rebecca to the scene of the disaster that morning of April 19, 1995. Shortly after arriving, Nurse Anderson was struck on the head by concrete falling from the collapsing building. She died five days later. Her heart, kidneys, eyes, and liver went to transplant recipients. Fred Anderson said, “She gave her life doing what she wanted to do, help people.”

Yes, we still have heroes to look up to. They are all around us, most unsung and unheralded, but still there. They are children who do the right things in the face of temptations to do otherwise. They are moms and dads who work hard as well as spend time and energy as parents and as caregivers for their own parents. Grandparents, teachers, coaches, and so many more are the everyday heroes that make our world so much better.

There was an important story that emerged from the Los Angeles riots some years ago. These were the same riots that made Rodney King a household name. A Hispanic man by the name of Fidel Lopez was trapped in the rioting. He was beaten within an inch of his life, battered by bottles and bats, punched in the face with angry fists, and kicked mercilessly, until an African-American minister, Bernie Newton, threw himself on top of him. Bernie Newton cried to the crowd, “If you kill this man, you’re going to have to kill me first.” When he finally out-shouted the rioters, he got Fidel into his car, and took him to the Daniel Freeman Hospital. Some time later, Rev. Newton raised $3000 from his own congregation to give to Fidel. That was the amount of money the rioters had stolen from him.

Later, Mr. Lopez asked Rev. Newton, “How can I begin to thank you? You saved my life. Why did you do what you did? Why did you risk your own life?” Bernie Newton answered, “Because I’m a Christian. Because I believe in sowing love not hate. Because I believe in healing and not hurting. Because I believe in Jesus the Prince of Peace and the Prince of love.”

This is the hope of the world – that there will be many people who will be heroes, doing great and small things to spread love where there is violence, hope where there’s despair. Jesus, the Hero of Heroes, is the model of heroic sacrifice, love, and passion. He is the greatest Hero. There are heroes all around us! There’s one inside you and I want to say, “Thanks!”