Knowing Right From Wrong – Christ the King Sunday

A friend sent me a quote recently from the author Oswald Chambers: (Satan) “does not come to us on the premise of tempting us to sin, but on the premise of shifting our point of view…” How true for me! The premise also seems to be true for lots of people. We have become so confused about what’s right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. Like scotch tape yanked away from a piece of paper, we have picked up more of the world than the world has picked up us.

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday and if Christ really is King then we who are the subjects of the realm have usurped the throne! Does it appear that Jesus is in charge of our lives? Doesn’t anyone take responsibility anymore? I’m around clergy and parishioners as a District Superintendent who are often in conflict, and it seems everyone says its somebody else’s fault. I remember the old hymn that says “It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, O Lord – standing in the need of prayer…”

We need to take responsibility and personally put Christ on the throne of our lives every day! As United Methodists we use the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to do theology and determine if something is kosher, orthodox, or sinful. The Quadrilateral, a matrix used by our founder John Wesley, is a good determinant for right and wrong: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason. Where I get fouled up is when I put Experience before anything else. The United Methodist, even Christian reality, is that Scripture is primary and is informed by and informs Tradition, Experience, and Reason. We get into trouble when we think of the Quadrilateral as an equilateral, as if all 4 components are of equal value. It would be much better from an orthodox point of view to think of the Quadrilateral as a three-legged stool with Scripture as the seat with Tradition, Experience, and Reason as legs. I would avoid so much sin in my life it I started with Scripture, recalled the teachings (Tradition) that the church has valued over the centuries, checked my actions via the lens of Experience, and finally asked if what I’m doing or about to do is Reasonable; i.e., “Rationally, what are the consequences of my actions?”

I remember hearing about 2 preachers who were talking one day. They usually rode past each other on their bicycles but on this occasion one of the ministers was walking. The other asked, “What happened to your bike?” The other responded, “I think one of my parishioners stole it.” His fellow minister said, “What you ought to do is preach on the Ten Commandments next Sunday and really bear down on the part about ‘Thou shalt not steal’- You’ll get your bike back.” The next week the 2 preachers met up and both were on bikes. The one who had given the advice said, “It looks like you did what I said and preached on not stealing and got your bike back.” His colleague said, “Not exactly. I did preach on the Ten Commandments, but when I got to the part about not committing adultery I remembered where my bicycle was.” Ouch, big ouch!

I think most of us would be hard-pressed to name the Ten Commandments, much less live them. We need to have a firm understanding that Scripture is more important in our ethical decision-making than experience or anything else. There is a cartoon which I’ve seen in several places. It shows a crucifixion scene, and depicts Jesus saying, “If I’m O.K. and you’re OK, then what am I doing up here hanging on this cross?” As much as we seem to hate to admit it, “We’re not O.K.” We need a Savior. We need Jesus and we need to drop our rationalizations and pretense of false innocence.

There was a big burly lineman for a NFL football team who really liked to sneak out of the confines of his motel room on the night before games. Despite the club’s curfew he would try to fool his coach as he made his rounds to do bed-checks. He would pile things under his blanket so that it looked like he was in bed. At one motel, however, he couldn’t find enough things to stuff under the covers so he stuck a floor lamp in the bed and took off. When the suspicious and wise coach peeked in way after curfew and flipped on the switch for the light you can guess what happened – the bed lit up! Our sins have a way of finding us out! We may think they are hidden, but the light of judgment is coming!

Christ the King Sunday reminds me that there is only One to whom I owe allegiance and it’s Jesus, not my own desires and wants. If Jesus is Lord and King, it’s high time we acted like it. Don’t let evil shift your point of view. Some things are wrong.

The Night the Devil Came to Church!

I heard of a lady who wanted to paint her back porch’s walls and ceiling and didn’t want to mess up the floor. She carefully laid out a drop cloth, taped it down, and went to get her painting supplies. When she came back the drop cloth and all the tape had disappeared. She wondered what in the world had happened until she noticed a pile of plastic twirling around on the ground in her backyard. It seems a snake had come up on her porch and got entangled in the drop cloth. The snake went on its way but couldn’t shake off the plastic because of the tape. In fact, the harder it tried the more ensnared it became.

Sounds like me and my personal efforts to shed some of the crud in my life. I’ve seen it in church, too. Church is where we ought to know that we can’t save ourselves. We need Jesus. I remember a cartoon showing the crucifixion scene depicting Jesus saying, “If I’m okay and you’re okay, what am I doing hanging on this cross?” It’s Easter season in the church, but we don’t act like it. We want to fix ourselves rather than let God do it.

I was preaching revival services in the small South Carolina town of Wagener, and one night we all got a jolt. A lady had brought her boom box to play recorded music as her accompaniment. She finished singing, the offering was taken, and I had started preaching when I noticed that a snake had crawled out from behind the boom box. The lady later surmised that she had left the boom box out in her carport while she went back inside her home giving the snake ample time to crawl into the empty battery compartment. Nevertheless, the snake slithered off the front pew and started heading toward the pulpit and me. I stopped preaching and asked the ushers to immediately come to the altar. They looked at each other like I was crazy so I emphatically repeated my request. They walked up and saw the snake. One of the ushers stomped the snake and the other picked it up while it was still wiggling like crazy. The crowd gasped and some swooned as the ushers escorted the snake outside. I went back to preaching. The next night the place was packed. It seemed like the whole town got wind of the “devil” coming to church and they wanted to see what was going to happen next.

Oh, the devil still comes to church. In John 13:31-38 Jesus tells his disciples he’s going to leave them and to love one another. Peter wants to know where he’s going and says he’s willing to lay down his life to follow Jesus. Jesus tells him that Peter is going to deny him 3 times before the rooster crows the next morning. How like me and maybe quite a few folks in church? We talk big and before the sun comes up, we’ve blown it. We need Jesus or we get tangled up worse in our own failures.

Sure, we need to do our very best to live Christian lives, but if it weren’t for grace we don’t have a chance. The Wesleyan matrix of grace is so descriptive of our Christian hope. God woos us through prevenient grace that comes before we even want or expect it. Justifying grace is when we are regenerated and reconciled to God. Sanctifying grace is that continual process of God making us into Christ’s likeness. It’s all grace from start to finish!

C.S. Lewis was asked why so many Christians seem less than perfect. His reply, “You should have seen them BEFORE they became Christians.” Absolutely, the devil comes to church every time we enter, but, thanks be to God through our Lord Jesus Christ, we can be a saint every time we leave. We can either slither in and slink out, or we can walk out into the world filled with grace and hope.

Never a Low Sunday or Day!

The Sunday after Easter is often anti-climatic because the throngs that filled the pews last week have dissipated. It’s called “Low Sunday” because church attendance has dipped so drastically from the week before. How do we keep up the enthusiasm when Easter comes and goes?

The answer lies in the fact that every Sunday is a little Easter. Early Christians moved from Judaism’s worship on the Sabbath, Saturday, because Jesus rose on the first day of the week. The first day of the week is not only appropriate because of its theological emphasis on Jesus’ resurrection, but also because it’s during the work week that our faith faces the largest obstacles.

Easter faith is needed more than once a year, or even once a week. Our credo needs to be: “Never a Low Sunday!” or “Never a Low Day!” if we truly believe in the grace and power of Jesus! To worship the Living Christ is to put Jesus first day in, day out. A victorious life depends upon constant faith and faithful dependence upon Christ. To keep Easter is to let Jesus set us free from the sins that hold us.

A couple sat in a pastor’s office preparing to be married. It was the second marriage for both. The pastor asked, “When did your relationship with God become very real and personal?” The bride-to-be’s answer was profound. She said, “It was following my divorce, during a low period in my life. I was running with the wrong crowd. One morning at 3 am, I found myself in the parking lot of a place I did not want to be. I said, ‘That’s it. I’m tired of this lifestyle. Lord, I confess that my own sin has fouled up my life. I believe you loved me enough to die for me and rise again for me so that I can be forgiven. Please forgive my past. I want to be your child from now on.’” She said that she felt an immediate release, as if a huge burden had been lifted from her shoulders. She became a new person in Christ.

Each of us has a past, some more sordid than others. Unless it is faced and resolved, it will haunt us and pull us down every time. Easter can continue if we will let God heal us. Each of us has our own particular list of sins. But none is too short to dodge judgment, and none is so long that Jesus can’t forgive. According to a story I heard, Sam Snead, the great golfer, was playing a round of golf with the baseball great, Ted Williams. Ted said, “Sam, you’ve got it made. You just tee the ball up and hit it. The ball is dead still. But I have to stand in a batter’s box and face an incredible array of fastballs, curves, and sliders. The ball is moving, maybe 90 miles per hour. That’s why my sport is tougher than yours.” Sam Snead thought about that then said, “Yeah, but you don’t have to play your foul balls.” That reminds me of Bubba Watson’s incredible hooking golf shot last Sunday from the foul ground in the woods off of #10 at the Masters during the play-off.

What do we do with our foul balls? How do we fix our mistakes? The answer for the Christian is through forgiveness. Jesus forgives us if we confess our sins. He sets us free. He empowers us through the Holy Spirit to begin new lives. He gives us the supernatural ability to say, “No!” to sin.

Our faith puts God first in true worship. Then God changes us into God’s likeness. Did you hear about the three people who were asked the question, “What is integrity?” One man, a philosopher, answered, “Integrity is how you act when no one else is watching.” The second person, a business person, said, “Integrity means that when you shake hands on a deal, no written contract is even needed.” The third person, a politician, looked this way and that and said, “What do you want it to mean?” The third person could have been any profession especially as I think of Coach Bobby Petrino’s lack of truthfulness with his family, the Arkansas Athletic Director, and others in the last few days. His self-proclaimed one-person motorcycle wreck, which we now know included a female staffer with whom he was having an inappropriate relationship, finally sunk him.

As much as we would all want to distort God’s standards to mean what we want them to mean, God has a set standard. When we couldn’t meet that standard, Jesus came to save us. Now through faith and the Holy Spirit we can be made children of God, redeemed and set free from sin! Easter’s hope of redemption is needed every day for all of us! I’m counting on it!

A Trace of Grace

Someone has said it well, “A trace of grace works better than a pile of guilt.” My conclusion is that this is surely one of those things easier said than done. I know better thanks to a mother who was patient and eager to forgive. My father was like most dads I guess. His love was very conditional: if you made good grades, had the right friends, performed your tasks, and behaved like you should then you were okay with him.

When I thought as a teenager that I was doing some new misadventure or sin that my two older brothers had never done Daddy would pull me aside and remind me that it had all been tried before. He spoke good theology to me: “Son, There isn’t anything original about original sin.” What I got from that was the affirmation that though I thought I was unique in my contrived plans, I really wasn’t. Either he or my brothers or somebody else had already done it, so he offered that I should save myself and everybody else the trouble and follow the straight and narrow path. When I tried it anyway, as we are all bound to do at some time or another, he came down pretty hard.

 Mother had expectations just as high, but her love was unconditional. She authentically and simply loved. One of my biggest tests of her love was one of my many adventures. I was between fourteen and fifteen and didn’t have a driver’s license. Mother and Daddy were gracious enough to go ahead and let me start practice driving and fix up her old car. I relished taking driving trips with Mother down back roads. I took great pride in “souping” up her old car. I did all that I knew to do or afford to make that 4-door 1967 Chevy into a hotrod. But I still didn’t have a driver’s license.

Nevertheless, one weekend “Red” Rainsford was spending the night over at our house. On a lark, when Mother was at work and Daddy was busy, too, “Red” and I sneaked out, got into my car and I started driving. Here’s when I should say that no one else should try this when they’re underage! We first drove the eighteen miles from Edgefield to Saluda. Then we kept going as our bravado increased and drove the next twenty-something miles to Newberry. It was at Newberry that we made a fateful turn.

We got on the interstate, a fairly new experience in those days, and, therefore, one we thought was worth trying. We headed north on I-26, passing exit signs for places we had never heard of until we got just inside of Spartanburg. My conscience was bothering me about what we were doing. I was concerned that my parents might be worried sick. So we stopped. I tried to call home, but nobody answered. In a last ditch effort to assuage my guilt I called my Aunt Florence. I asked her to call my Mother and tell her that “Red” and I were fine and would be back in a couple of days. I hung up too quick to get any sage advice.

We kept traveling up the interstate and it was getting dark. By this time we were somewhere between a plan to find out where the interstate ended or go to Chimney Rock State Park above Lake Lure, North Carolina. My middle brother and some friends took me there several years before so it was vaguely familiar as an okay destination. Then the highway made the decision for us about finding the end of I-26. You may not remember the days when the interstate ended just below Saluda Grade between Tryon and Rutherfordton, but it did.

 We took a right and I drove through Rutherfordton, no license and all, and then headed north on NC 64 if I remember correctly. We ended up in Chimney Rock some where around 2 a.m.We saw a roadside campground and we pulled in. In my false bravado I told “Red” that he could sleep in the back seat of the car. The console prohibited that for me so I stepped outside and tried to sleep on the ground. It was warm even for the mountains, but I still couldn’t sleep. You know what kept me awake: my conscience! I kept thinking about my poor Mother in particular, worrying. She didn’t deserve that, so after maybe an hour I got back in the car and we headed home, arriving somewhere around9 a.m.Mother just hugged me. She hadn’t told Daddy. He thought we were at the Rainsford’s. In her grace I learned a lot about unconditional love. When she finally told Daddy what I had done years later, he still got upset that I would dare do such a thing. I was even more grateful for Mother’s grace. Indeed the Scripture is correct: “Love covers a multitude of sins.”

The word for me today is that though I will certainly make mistakes whether as a District Superintendent, a husband, father, friend, and in the roles of life – God is ever more gracious and will hear my plaintive cries for mercy. I should forgive as God in Christ has forgiven me. Nobody is perfect so I’ll do my best to live Jesus’ love and let that guide my thoughts, actions, and reactions. I’m glad for a wise Daddy and even more grateful for a loving forgiving Mother. Thank you, Jesus! I hope that I’ll be more like Christ today.

The Burden

I have a sense of unease this morning. It’s Tuesday and I am already longing for the weekend. I preached last Sunday and then presided over 3 Charge Conferences, had consultations every hour on the hour yesterday with clergy, plus worked in a few crisis situations; then experienced a great Charge Conference last night. Consultations will begin again in less than 45 miniutes, go all day, then another Charge Conference tonight. I did walk for 45 minutes early this morning in the dark – praying, pondering – trying to give it all to God, but here at the office the dread has come back.

I just reread my testimony in a misconduct trial, and that is what probably pushed me back over to the dark side of pessimism. I’m overcome with sorrow about the state of “affairs” that I have to deal with. Nobody blushes anymore, whether they are lying to my face or hedging the truth. Last night I looked forward to getting home and watching the season premier of one of my favorite TV shows, “House.” The build-up in the paper was well-hyped. It said that it would be another Emmy-winning performance by Hugh Laurie, and finally “he would have a mature relationship with a woman.”
Well, as good as the show was, especially in its plug for good therapy and how to deal with pathological persons, the “mature” relationship House had was with a woman who was married with children. In light of Governor Sanford and the idiocy of adultery (There’s nothing adult about adultery), I am appalled at the lowering of our standards of morality. Manipulation, half-truths, and outright lies have jaded me to expect lesser of people rather than better. My gift of discernment has been in overdrive and it’s wearing me out.
One of the things I did yesterday was read a person’s paper on doctrine and theology. One section was on humanity and the need for divine grace. Sure, we have been made in God’s image: moral, legal, and social; but we have fallen beyond any semblance of self-repair. Total Depravity is total, and only by God’s gace in Jesus can we find salvation.
My prayer for today is to hear truth in every conversation, spoken in love with accountability. As a District Superintendent, I must expect no less if I truly believe that God saves us through Jesus to transform us for the transformation of the world. I long for days of truth-telling seasoned with love and grace; but not “cheap grace” or avoidance.

Ain’t Nothin’ Original ‘Bout Original Sin or Adult ‘Bout Adultery

The events that have rocked South Carolina with our Governor’s admission of infidelity have me pondering about sin and grace. I love the “Grace” emphasis of the United Methodist Church. We celebrate an openness that invites rather than coerces an awareness of God through Christ. However, it must be remembered that for all the grace language of our church, we are still called “Methodists” for a decidedly different reason. We’re methodical because we know that grace is not cheap. As real as grace is, so is sin. God woos us, loves us preveniently before we are even aware of His attention, is gracious toward us without reservation, and, yet, expects us to live holy methodical lives.This methodical lifestyle should never lose its graceful foundation, but our United Methodist openness threatens to undo our promotion of personal piety and social holiness.

We have become Methodist in name only because we wink at sin. The awareness of sin used to be our denominational and personal shadow. I remember thinking vividly that I might actually go to hell for calling my cousin a “fool.” My grandmother overheard me and explicitly described the fires of hell that were reserved for someone who derided anyone as a “fool.”Christians hated sin. Talk of sin was the center of religious life. We feared sin, fled from it, grieved over it. Remember the old Communion liturgy. It comes to mind quickly without any need for reference, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed…” I remember the days when persons who might have lost his or her temper wondered if they could still receive Holy Communion.
A woman who for years envied or disliked her sister-in-law worried that her sins threatened her very salvation.Now we say, “You have sinned,” with a grin and a tone of voice that sounds like an inside joke is being told. No more wailing! The word “sin” now finds its home mostly on dessert menus with names like “Sydney’s Sinful Sundae” or “Lethal Brownies.” Eating fattening cholesterol-laden mounds of chocolate is sinful, but lying is not. The new measure for sin is caloric. How wrong! The new language of sin misses its sheer ugliness: “Let us confess our problem with human relational adjustment dynamics,” or “Pardon me, those were misstatements.” Corporate America has decided lying is an accounting error, but not a sin. Teachers are afraid to say to an unruly student anything as pointed as, “Stop it, please! You’re disturbing the class!” Instead, educationally correct teachers are encouraged to ask a sequence of caring questions to the youth who is hitting his neighbor, “What are you doing? Why are you doing it? How does doing this make you feel?”
It is time for Methodists to bring back an understanding of sin as much as grace. Grace doesn’t mean near as much, or maybe even anything, without a clear doctrine of sin. We hardly ever blush any more because we are oblivious to moral standards, Biblical judgment of right and wrong. It’s time to take the word “Sin” out of mothballs and call it what it is. If we don’t, we won’t know the full power of grace. Awareness of sin is grace’s subwoofer, amplifying the depth of God’s love for each of us. I, maybe, for one, need a not-so-subtle whack of good old-fashioned righteousness. It matters!