Passion and/or Palm Sunday?

Palm Sunday is a mixed up day for the church. We know the rest of the story too well and want to get there too quickly. We know the following Sunday is Easter and there are anticipatory smiles all around. We want a taste of that joy on Palm Sunday, too, as if to soften the gruesome events of Holy Week. We even call the day of Jesus’ crucifixion “Good Friday” when it was anything but good for Jesus.

Our rushing the week to an early happy conclusion by celebrating Palm Sunday with such gusto is indicative of our culture’s enthrallment with happy endings. But if we don’t speak on Palm Sunday about what Jesus went through then the only opportunities left are Maundy Thursday or Tenebrae services, which are usually not well-attended. What a disservice and underestimation of the depth of Christ’s love and pain.

Our desire for a “good outcome” and selfish “me-ism” trumps an adequate appreciation of what we’re really commemorating. We jump from high point to high point and skip the horrible events of mid-week. Doing so, to me, is too much in tune with Satan’s challenge for Jesus to jump off the pinnacle of the temple. That was as if the devil was saying to him, “Bypass all that suffering, Jesus. Here’s a shortcut. Show them who you are and you won’t have to die.”

Who wouldn’t want a shortcut or bypass suffering? I know that I resemble that remark! For instance, I want to know ahead of time if a movie concludes well; i.e., has a “happy ending.” Life is difficult enough. I don’t want to see a movie that’s a downer. I need a lift, and desire entertainment. Therefore, I’m not much on watching anything sad or tear-jerky. I recently watched a rerun of Nicholas Sparks’ movie, “Nights in Rodanthe,” and it was a bummer and I am cured from being a fan of the sad and sappy genre.

Is this a universal desire to skip the sad and welcome the glad? Is this why we focus on the children waving palm branches and giving Jesus the Red Carpet Treatment, rather than castigate the throng who begged for Jesus’ death later in the week? Do we prove our aversion to pain by our preference in calling the day “Palm Sunday,” rather than “Passion Sunday,” or the phrase “Holy Week” over “Passion Week?” The word “passion” derives from the Latin “passio” which means “to suffer.” No wonder we don’t use it very much, or have changed its meaning to something steamy and erotic.

Here’s the rub. Changing the name and the emphasis doesn’t change the facts. Jesus suffered. If we rush over Jesus’ sufferings and go from one little Easter (Palm Sunday) to the real Easter, then we’ve missed the point of the Incarnation. Jesus, God-In-The-Flesh, came and suffered with us, for us, to save us from trying to save ourselves through entertainment or attainment. Nothing we do to inoculate ourselves from the world or evil’s consequences will work. It’s all been attempted and failed miserably. God comes to us and allows Himself to be subjected to the worst in humanity to restore us to the best selves humanity can ever imagine.

Therefore, don’t rush from mountaintop to mountaintop this coming week without pausing in the valley of the shadow of death. It is in the valley that God does what God does best. There in the trenches where you and I struggle with personal sin, fears about health, finances, or relationships is where we see Jesus at His best. In the midst of Holy Week, He struggled with whether or not He would take up the cross. He dealt with the betrayal of two of his disciples and the desertion of all the rest. He agonized in pain from the scourging that He received, and suffered a death the likes we have never imagined.

It is in the valley that Jesus lets me know full well all of that from which I can be redeemed. If I rush from Palm Sunday’s parade to Easter’s glory, I might miss that. My solemn promise is to attempt to walk the Via Dolorosa with Jesus so that I might relish even more the victory that He’s won. I hope that we all have a blessed Passion Sunday and a solemn Passion Week.

 

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Is it the End of the World?

Everyone experiences the “end of the world” at some point in their lives. It may be through the horror of a typhoon, a disaster in space as the movie “Gravity” portrays, learning that a cherished friend or family member has cancer, or through our own mortality that the end is near. As a new Christian in the midst of the Jesus Movement of the early 70’s it was semi-required reading to digest Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth, aka the Premillennialist’s Guide to the End of the World.

Little did I know back then that there were at least three interpretations of the end times: Premillennialism, Postmillennialism, and Amillennialism and there are huge differences between them. Pretty quickly over the years I have embraced Amillennialism as the standard for me. I believe the millennium described in Revelation 20 is a figurative way to describe the time between Jesus’ First Advent and His Second, and, simply put, that’s where we are right now. We’re in the millennium where the forces of evil are at least checked by Christ then the end comes and all hell literally breaks loose. In the end times Christians will suffer horribly, but Christ will come back to set things straight.

Premillennialism suggests that Jesus comes back before all hell breaks loose and raptures the faithful so they don’t have to go through the tough times.  Instead of a figural view of the end times, it’s pretty literal and lends itself to figuring out times and signs. Amillennialists, on the other hand, see signs of Christ’s appearing in every generation and look forward to Christ’s Second Coming as victorious over all evil, sickness, and calamity. Postmillennialists are a whole other breed entirely. They believe that the millennium means that we can make the world a better place during the 1000 years, and then Jesus comes back and basically says, “Thank you!”

The “A” in front of “Millennial” doesn’t mean the same as in “a” in front of “sexual,” or “a” in front of “gnostic,” or an “a” in front of “theist.” “A” usually means “not,” as in “not sexual – asexual,” or “not knowing – agnostic,” or “not a believer in God’s existence – atheist.” It’s not that Amillenialists don’t believe in the millennium, but, like most of Revelation, the numbers are all code. For instance, there are 56 “7”’s in Revelation which is code for the 7-day completion of creation. One thousand is especially meaningful. There are numbers like 144,000 in Revelation 7 which when you break it down to 12 X 12 X 1000 it makes perfect sense. It’s code for Believers of the Old Testament (12 Tribes representing Israel) times the Believers of the New Testament (12 Apostles representing the Church) times 1000 which is perfection at its very best and equals 144,000. It’s not a literal number meaning that Jesus is only going to save 144,000 and get to 144,001 and say “That’s it!” The number 10 or its permutations are in the Book of Revelation a total of 10 times. That’s not an accident. Ten is a great number because it means penultimate perfection. It is 7 + 3 = 10, 7 days of Creation plus 3 of the Trinity and, voila, 10! One thousand is even better because it’s 10 to the third power! So, any time you see the number “1000” in Revelation it means: “Wow! Like forever and ever, countless, ultimate.”

So how does our view of the 1000-year millennium affect the way that we live? If Premillennialism is right and Jesus is going to come back before things get tough for Believers and beams us up in the rapture, then that can lead to either a hurry-up offense of witnessing to people, or a laissez-faire attitude of doing nothing while waiting on the fireworks. Posmillennialism is an optimistic view that purports that the world is going to keep getting better and better then Jesus comes back, and, according to most theologians, it died as a viable option in the horrors of World War I. Things are not getting better, but they’re not as bad as Premillennialists wish. Premillennialists seem to welcome bad news because the worse things get the better chance Jesus comes back. Amillennialists believe that Jesus has already been in the world and continues to be here through the Holy Spirit and the Church, and that we need to act like it, share the Good News, and prepare for Jesus’ Second Coming via personal accountability and in mission to the world.

When it comes to movies like “Gravity” and our experiences of mortality, the question arises, “What’s going to happen to me?” This is the crux of the whole matter of millennialism and the end of the world. Whether our end occurs before the end of the world or we’re around when Jesus’ parousia occurs, we see in the Second Coming a glimpse, a foretaste, and a preview of what will happen to us whenever our time comes. In other words, how we view the end of the world can help us view our present circumstances, too.

For instance, look at Revelation 11 and the two witnesses, one like Elijah (11:6a) and one like Moses (11:6b). These two are the same that met with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They are the two that represent the law and the prophets that Jesus said he came to fulfill. Moses was the greatest lawgiver and Elijah was the greatest prophet. It strikes me that these two figures in Revelation 11 represent the church since we are the fulfillment of the law and the prophets.

Read what happens to them in Revelation 11:7-12. They offer their “testimony” and then they’re killed. Isn’t it interesting that the Greek word for “testimony” is “martyrios” from whence we get our word “martyr” or “someone willing to die for what they believe in?” The whole message of Revelation is repeated in Luke 21:5-19, this week’s Gospel lectionary text. In Luke 21:19 it says, “By standing firm you will gain life.” In verse Revelation 11:12 it says of these two witnesses who are emblematic of the Church, “they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here.’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.” Their rapture wasn’t pre-death but post-death. I dare say that is the message of all this for me. I need to hang in there and when my time comes to meet Jesus either when I die or when he comes back, I better be a faithful witness.

Therefore, the message, however obfuscated by the code language that’s found in all apocalyptic literature or the differences between each view of the millennium, is simple: Jesus wins! No matter how much trouble we have in this life, there’s going to be a payday someday, and faith in Jesus makes all the difference. Never giving in or giving up, we have hope in Christ. Through death and resurrection we find life that is truly life. Jesus wins! I am going to cling to that promise and live in the millennium today while I look forward to Jesus’ coming – “By standing firm you will gain life.”

Getting Ticked at God!

You know the story from Matthew 20: Different workers show up at different times of the day and the personnel manager decides they all get the same pay. The Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard bothers me every time I read it. I know that there are those who make it a metaphor for how God’s grace is so extravagant. That’s a great sentiment but the raw audacity of the parable just makes me mad. It really bothers me that everyone gets equal treatment even though they haven’t put in the same amount of work! This parable adds insult to injury! Ask a person of color if life has been fair to them. Ask a person whose kid has cancer, been a crime victim, or a government worker who has been furloughed if life is fair. Needless to say, this passage is hard to preach to people who have been on the short end of the stick.

Do you know what I mean? Have you ever experienced God’s silence as you suffered? Have your prayers gone unheeded? Have you ever wanted to shout, “God, if this is the way you treat your friends, no wonder you have so many enemies.” So, when I read Matthew 20 about equal pay for unequal work I want to yell at God and say, “UNFAIR!”

It doesn’t seem right to treat the dutiful workers and the flunkies alike! Today, I’m like the writer of Ecclesiastes, “All is vanity!” I’ll be better by tonight – maybe. I’ll keep working hard, but right now I’m more than a tad upset and this parable doesn’t help. How are you doing? Do you ever get angry with God? Have you about had it with the Teflon-coated people around you who seem to always dodge danger? Aren’t you a little tired of the people who get paid the same thing that you do and do one-third the work? Don’t you just want to yell, “Why? Why? Why?”

Then you’d be in good company. Jesus asked the same thing while he was hanging on the cross. He quoted Psalm 22’s refrain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If Jesus felt abandoned, no wonder we do, too! We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We don’t like it when we have apparently been targeted for cosmic retribution and others get away with whatever they want to. But, let me be clear before moving on. Bad things happen either because of our choices, the choices of others, the crud of the world that’s been around since Adam and Eve’s debacle in the Garden, or, lastly, Evil. God is never to blame. Every good and perfect gift comes from God (James 1:17), and God tempts no one (James 1:13). However much I want to cry out and blame God, that’s really not fair. God never causes evil! God is on our side and even dealt with life’s junk personally!

So what to do when Matthew 20 stares me in the face? For one, I don’t need to take a parable literally. It is a metaphor, stupid me! Next, I need to pray like Jesus prayed on the cross when he voiced his complaint to heaven. It’s alright to get ticked at God. Some of the best psalms are the ones loaded with lament, curses, or complaint. Sometimes their fancy names are “imprecatory” psalms. Their gist is either “Sic ‘em, Lord!” or “God, I’m tired of you punishing the wrong people!” Here’s a partial list: Psalm 5, 6, 10, 11, 12, 22, 35, 37, 40, 44, 52, 54, 56, 58, 60, 69, 74, 79, 80, 83, 94, 109, 137, 139, and 143. If you’re feeling ticked, let it rip. God even provides the words!

The message for me is that God is not unconcerned about evil doers or our plight. There is going to be a payday someday with both comeuppance and compensation. I just need to hang in there and wait with the patience of Job. Maybe every now and then I’ll pray something like Jaron Lowenstein’s “I Pray for You.” This song/video is not PG-rated but most laments and “Sic ‘Em” songs aren’t! I hope our days turn out better than they started!

Curing Optic Rectosis

Back in 1996 I was elected to my first of 5 General Conferences of the United Methodist Church. Since then I’ve been on some very effective teams and some that weren’t. I was on the former General Council on Ministries for 4 years, The Connectional Table for 8 years, The Worldwide UMC Study Committee for 4 years, and now on the General Commission on Religion and Race for a four-year term. I’ve been on plenty of other teams in the global UMC including mission teams, pastoral teams, and am now in my eighth year of a Cabinet team. I also like to think of the Columbia District as a team. That’s been our motto: “Together We Can Do More!” and it has happened. I clearly remember the use of “team” back in 1996 as our Episcopal nominee, Ted Walter, gave his speech before the gathered delegates of the Southeastern Jurisdiction as we met in Denver, CO at General Conference.

He used a story to emphasize that he wanted to be a part of an Annual Conference’s team. The story went something like this: “A mule named ‘Jim’ was being driven by his owner. When everyone got on the wagon, the driver yelled ‘Giddyup, Jim. Giddyup, Sue. Giddyup, Sam. Giddyup, John. Giddyup, Joe.’ As the wagon started to move, one of the passengers said: ‘When Jim is the only one there, why did you call all those other names?’ The owner replied: ‘If Jim knew he was the only one pulling this wagon, he’d never budge an inch.’ It takes teamwork.”

Sometimes when I get optic rectosis, which is a nice way of saying I’ve been looking at life from a position a lot lower than a pat on the back, it helps to know the truth of 2 passages of Scripture that have a lot in common: I Corinthians 10:13 and I Peter 5:9-11. They have a lot in common, especially that God delivers and that we’re never alone when we think we’re the only one in the world going through this mess.

Listen to the commonalities between the passages. First, I Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up against it.” I Peter 5:9-11 says, “Resist him (the devil), standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

What I hear is that I’m not the only one who has ever been through this crud. There are plenty of other sojourners who walk a similar path, and in both passages we have a God who is faithful and strong and on our side! Now that’s a team!

“Team” is a simple word to describe the Trinitarian theology that I appreciate so much, although I’m a little taken aback at the words I’ve heard lately at the conclusion of prayers: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Didn’t Jesus say to pray in his name? What’s with this? Maybe I’m late to the game, but it’s no big deal, really. After all when you see one person of the Trinity, you see all three at work in that marvelous dance, distinct but indivisible, when Holy Perichoresis takes place.

“Perichoresis” is a word composed of two roots: peri which means around, and choresis from whence we get our word, to dance. In other words, God is always dancing around as a team, as the Trinity – always on the move, on the go, and at the ready – together! Better news for us is that when we feel alone facing life’s problems we should remember that we bear the Imago dei, the Image of God. Therefore, if God exists and works in the community that we call the Trinity how much more so should we lean upon one another when times are tough? We are vital members of a divine-human team that always wins!

Why do you think that “ER” was so popular on TV from 1994-2009, or “Bones” now? One reason is that emergencies or crisis management, require not solo players but team play, and we are enthralled and galvanized by the way in which a motivated team can take on a challenge. It’s not white knights, lone wolves or highflying eagles that solve crises. It’s team play. Can I dare say it’s the Trinity and the church!

So chunk your optic rectosis and hold your head up! You’ve got a lot of big-time H/help all around you! “Together We Can Do More!”

Our Family Wreath Includes You!

Years ago Cindy and I bought a framed pressed flower wreath composed of the tiniest of colorful blooms. It still hangs on our wall. Inside the wreath in dainty calligraphy were prophetic words that we have tried to honor through all the subsequent years: “Our family is a circle of strength and love, with every birth and every union, the circle grows, every joy shared adds more love, every crisis faced together, makes the circle stronger.”

There have been births and deaths, tragedies and triumphs, and we continue to praise the Living God who gives us the grace to endure together. If anything, it’s the together part that makes the journey easier. No wonder Jesus wanted his followers to be formed into a community of faith. The “two or more…” of the church represents the strength that we gain from bearing one another’s burdens. I can tell you this if you don’t have a community of faith, United Methodism’s connectionalism works! I want to say “Thank you!” to all of you who have been a part of our family sagas over the years. You have lightened the load. You have inspired us to live life with honesty and hope through Jesus.

The Christian faith is not an opiate for the masses as said Marx. Christianity is a very real source of hope. The world’s ways of coping with problems isn’t sufficient. Take a peek at the mostly inadequate methods espoused:

Sixteen Thoughts to Get You Through Almost Any Crisis

1. Indecision is the key to flexibility

2. You cannot tell which way the train went
by looking at the track.

3. There is absolutely no substitute for a genuine lack of preparation.

4. Happiness is merely the remission of pain.

5. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

6. The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant.

7. Someone who thinks logically is a nice
contrast to the real world.

8. Things are more like they are today than
they ever have been before.

9. Everything should be made as simple as
possible, but no simpler.

10. Friends may come and go, but enemies
accumulate.

11. If you can smile when things go wrong, you have someone in mind to blame.

12. One-seventh of your life is spent on Monday.

13. By the time you can make ends meet, they move the ends.

14. This is as bad as it can get, but don’t bet on it.

15. Never wrestle a pig; you both get dirty and the pig likes it.

16. The trouble with life is, you’re halfway through it before you realize it’s a “do-it
yourself” thing.

Although there may be some truth in a couple of these, all in all these clichés are absolutely no comparison to the hope that comes from Jesus Christ. John 10:10-11 says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Yes, the source of evil and disease isn’t God but the thief. Jesus is the Good Shepherd that gave himself so that we poor sheep can have life to the full.

As a family we thank you for your prayers through the years. Some critical times were when we lost our fathers 5 weeks apart in two sudden deaths, and your support through the deaths of both of our mothers was unwavering. Your prayers and presence through my brother’s sudden death were comforting. Your wisdom and guidance through our youngest son Caleb’s journey have been appreciated as well.  You have been with us through the births of our grandchildren Enoch, Evy, and Kaela, too. Guess what: Josh and Karen are about to have another daughter within the month, so thanks ahead of time for prayers for them! The baby is going to be another little girl! My Dad often said that he would have traded all three of his sons for one daughter so Josh and Karen are doubly blessed!

Thanks to Narcie, I can really understand my Dad’s sentiment about daughters. So today I want to thank you especially for your support through Narcie’s travails. It doesn’t seem like it’s been almost three years since her first surgery and diagnosis of an oligodendroglioma brain tumor, and here we go again. May 10, this coming Friday, she is scheduled for another brain surgery. Dr. William Friedman at Shands Medical Center at the University of Florida will be the surgeon. Pray for him and the whole team!

When Narcie got the appointment at UF for the Gator Wesley Director’s position, we had no clue that they had a medical school, much less a renowned tumor center, and Dr. Friedman is chair of the department! God’s providence is marvelous. Even when life’s storms have come our way, God has provided. God doesn’t cause the dilemmas, but God always provides a way out. I Corinthians 10:13 says: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so you can stand up under it.”

So thank you now for the prayers for Narcie, and please continue to lift her up. We will make it by the grace of God. We will continue to live in a posture of faith trusting in a good God who gave his only Son that we might have everlasting life. We will rejoice together and suffer together, and we will prevail together! Thank you for being a part of our family wreath,

tim

Who’s Your Daddy?

Omnipresent, Omniscient, Omnipotent – we’ve all heard these three descriptors for God that claim that God is everywhere, all-knowing, and all-powerful. Jesus’ incarnation and the promise of the Holy Spirit certainly cements God’s claim to being everywhere. Jesus’ knowledge of all our sorrows backs up God’s omniscience. Perhaps it is the miraculous power of God that underscores God’s omnipotence. But I’ve got a problem and it’s been brewing for a long time.

It’s not just about the first two of these descriptors. I can believe God is everywhere. I can even accept that God knows everything because knowing everything and causing everything are two very distinct things. Omnipotence is where I get antsy in my faith. If God is all-powerful then why is there so much violence, heartache, and poverty in the world? How can an all-knowing and all-powerful God allow the creation to be so corrupt?

My mental conception of God, probably like everyone else, is shaped by my relationship with my own father. Daddy was wonderful in so many ways, always helping, yet always demanding excellence and voicing high expectations. His nightly “knock, knock, knock” on his and Mother’s bedroom wall will always be cherished. His three knocks, and my return signal of the same were our coded messages of love. “Knock, knock, knock” meant “I love you.” Sure, he could be distant, demanding, annoying and a real pain sometimes, but his essence was love and love overlooks a multitude of sins.

Daddy quit school in the eighth grade so my education was important to him. He wanted me to have a better life than he did. I can hear his voice in the summertime yelling “Make haste!” when I was running the stockyard alleys with a walking stick in hand cutting cows, and then the same voice sounded pretty much identical the rest of the year when he voiced his opinion about schoolwork: “Make A’s!” “Make Haste!” and “Make A’s” were phonetically synonymous. Without elaborating further one can see how my perception of God was shaped by my Dad: loving, encouraging, high expectations, and more – some good and some not so good.

It’s interesting that tear-jerker movies for me are usually about father-son relationships and reconciliation. No matter how many times I’ve seen “Field of Dreams” I get choked up. “Build it and he will come” and the theme of father-son reunion really get to me. Another is the movie “October Sky.” I highly recommend it. I see my Dad and me in the relationship between the coal mining father, John Hickam, played by Chris Cooper and the son, Homer Hickam, a teenager fascinating by Sputnik and rockets, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s a poignant true story about chasing one’s dreams, and loving people in spite of differences. The reconciliation scene at the end of the movie after the father has constantly shown disdain for his son’s interest in rockets is so powerful that I can’t help but cry. Please watch the scene below and/or see the whole movie.

Our parent image really shapes how we view God, and some of us, if not all of us, need either to forgive or be healed from some of those influences so we can embrace God anew. This is especially important to me as I ponder the attributes of God in the face of uncertainty. I saw a sign yesterday on a church of another denomination that declared an opposite theology from United Methodism. The sign said, “God Never Changes!” and appropriately the church was on Blarney Street right here in Columbia. Yep, that’s right, “Blarney,” as in “Baloney.”

God never changes? God changed God’s mind in the OT Book of Jonah when God was about to zap Nineveh. God changed God’s mind when Abraham was dickering over saving his nephew Lot and Sodom because of the number of righteous people there. My word, if God never changes why did Jesus pray for his life to be spared in the Garden of Gethsemane, or why do we pray for God’s will to be done in the Lord’s prayer if it’s a sure-fire given that it always will be? Why pray if it doesn’t have the possibility of changing anything? This presupposes that God can change, right?

Sure, I’m close to heresy here, but, thinking theologically, is God immutable and unchanging? God’s nature is unchanging to be sure, but doesn’t God out of love always change as God responds to our minute-by-minute choices and vagaries? God is always in love with us and that love has to respond in different and changing ways given the particular circumstances. So never confuse God with a distant puppet master that has a “plan” for your life. Do you think God made you marry that abusing spouse?

Gracious, even in the news this morning, Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson gave me the creeps in what he said. He got his 200th win last night and he hit a rare home run for a pitcher. This guy is a lowly .179 hitter! His response was, “The stars were aligned and it was meant to be.” Yeah, tell that to Boston marathoners who were in the wrong place at the wrong time when the bombs went off. Tell that to Marcus Lattimore, football player from South Carolina, who is a United Methodist and has had two horrible knee injuries. It was the difference between being a first round NFL draft pick and a fourth! I dare you to say, “It was meant to be,” to uber-Christian Tim Tebow after his release this week by the New York Jets. Don’t dare say it to me about my daughter who is 33 and has a brain tumor! Fatalistic Calvinism says, “Praise the Lord!” when things go our way, and “Blame the Lord!” when it doesn’t.

We can say “Praise the Lord!” in all circumstances (Philippians 4:4-9) and let go of our anxiety because we have a God who never fails, especially when life is crummy. God does what God does best and that is to be with us and help us get through things. God will always respond to us because God’s unchanging nature is love. That’s God’s immutability! It’s blarney to accept an “It’s meant to be” perception that God never changes. Don’t let your skewed daddy-image put a barrier between you and the God in Jesus who is ever responding to our situations. God enters our suffering and redeems it. Jesus is a redeemer, not a schemer planning our next calamity. Who is God to you? Who’s your Daddy?

Narcie Needs Prayer!

I try to write a weekly blog as a part of my spiritual disciplines, but just before Easter I was knocked into silence by personal events. Two weeks ago we learned that our daughter Narcie McClendon Jeter was going to face more uncertainty with a brain tumor. Narcie is the United Methodist Campus Minister and Director at the Gator Wesley Foundation in Gainesville, Florida where she ministers to the students at the University of Florida and Sante Fe College. It is a marvelous ministry! I know that I am biased, but she is amazing, and she has an extraordinary family. She and Mike have been married for 11 years now and are parents of our grandchildren Enoch (5) and Evy (4). We love them so much!

Almost three years ago Narcie was diagnosed with an oligodendroglioma brain tumor. You can google it to find out the particulars because I’m not going to put into print the ominous facts and statistics. I am simply asking you to pray for Narcie, her precious family, and her students. I can feel the tears just at the brim as I write this, and for years I have ministered to people who have been through so much worse, but I’m a Daddy or “Padre” as Narcie calls me. It’s tough, but God is stronger than death, brain tumors, and whatever adversity we might face.

Now, I know facts are facts and that every medical statistic has exceptions. I also know that Narcie comes from good genetic stock of beating the odds. My Dad was given 6 weeks to 6 months to live when he was 48 as his cancer metastasized, and he lived for 38 more years! My most sincere prayer is, “Lord, Please do the same for Narcie. Please heal my daughter!” I want her to live a long full life that goes way beyond her 33 years.

It’s possible, and that’s why Dr. William Friedman, the Director of Neurosurgery at Shands-UF Medical Center, is going to operate on May 10. Please pray for him and all of those who will be working with Narcie to get rid of this thing. Pray for Cindy and me as we seek to support Narcie, Mike, and the kids. We know the facts, but faith is greater than facts. That’s the audacity of Easter! God doesn’t cause pain and suffering. God endures it and beats it. What God does is deliver us from death and the grave!

I know how much courage Narcie and Mike have, and I am astounded. I sense in them the reality of Romans 8:35-37: “Who shall separate us from love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: ‘For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Thank you for your prayers and support for Narcie. We trust in the Lord. All hail the power of Jesus’ name, Amen.

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Narcie’s Blog is called “Blessings on the Journey” and is at http://narciejeter.wordpress.com/

Check out her post on 3/28

Releaf the Tree – Easter’s Coming!

Last night Cindy and I watched a TV rerun of a Wednesday night perennial for us: “The Middle.” A tree limb had fallen on Frankie and Mike Heck’s car and the windshield was no more. Oh, they had paid for the extra “Acts of God” coverage, but the insurance company disallowed their claim because the tree limb was longer than it should have been, ought to have been trimmed, and, therefore, constituted homeowner negligence. To make a long story short, a church van saved the day. The van kept them from being frozen while driving their glassless car on wintry days. An act of God? An act of humankind? Which one – the limb falling or the church donating the van? Both? Neither? One or the other? Do you ever wonder about bad things happening and why?

It’s a question of God’s will, isn’t it? Some have said that the most powerful prayer is the one Jesus told us to use in the Lord’s Prayer and the same one, in essence, that he himself used when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 6:10 & Matthew 26:39): “Your will be done (On earth as it is in heaven).” This simple prayer is often misinterpreted as a feeble resignation to the unknown desires of a distant God, a caveat placed at the end of faithless prayers when we hope for the best but let God and ourselves off the hook by saying the common addendum, “… If it be your will, in Jesus’ name. Amen.” I am sick and tired, worn out even, from pondering the “Why’s” of life, and I will not use God’s unknown will as an excuse to accept life’s crud and vagaries. Understanding God’s will in a fickle for us/against us sort of way doesn’t do God justice and it certainly doesn’t do anything for me.

I know God doesn’t cause disease and tragedies because God loves and can only give good gifts (James 1:17). Illnesses and problems occur for lots of reasons, but the reason is never ever God! While God isn’t the source of tragedies, God does what God does best and that is the incarnational presence of God through Christ. Jesus is the Living God to whom we pray. So, when we pray for God’s will to be done, it isn’t some lightweight inadequate panacea for the ills of the world. It is an assault on the gates of hell! Our prayers are a battle cry against everything that’s not God’s will. To pray for God’s will to be done is not a statement of resignation or like extra-fine print at the bottom of our prayers that somehow voids the whole deal by letting God off the hook – “just in case.”

God doesn’t want disease or tragedies to prevail! Human freedom and e(E)vil have their way because God’s love gives the whole creation the freedom to run amok. The suffering of Jesus during Holy Week reminds me of this in the most poignant way. Freedom gone wild yields disaster, except that for Jesus and those who trust in him there will always be hope and a victory.

Therefore, I will cling to Jesus when I am worn out by this drama-filled life. I will continue to pray in Jesus name that God’s kingdom comes! I will pray as Jesus did that God’s will happens on earth as it does in heaven, and there aren’t any illnesses or tragedies there!

If you’re tired and worn, listen: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. (2 Corinthians 4:6-9).” “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30).”

This song is for you:

Neo-Calvinism and The God Who Risks!

Two connecting coincidences occurred today. One is that I have just been asked to read a soon-to-be-published book by a friend and offer a back-cover endorsement. Second is that another friend asked me for a book list on theology in general, plus Liberation Theology, Process Theology, Wesleyan Theology, and differences between denominations. So after my morning devotional I have spent time perusing my library and noting which books have been most formative in my faith journey. I’m about to turn to reading my other friend’s manuscript, but first I have to work through my personal theological grounding. It’s something I need to do every day.

Why do we believe what we believe? That’s a hugely important question even for those who say believing in Jesus is all that counts. I spent 10 years on the Board of Ordained Ministry’s Doctrine and Theology Committee and know it’s important for our new clergy to articulate more than a cursory undeliberated faith. Too often clergy and laity alike are guided by the embedded theology of our culture and times. Our culture, unfortunately, has been inundated for several decades by a neo-Calvinism (Rick Warren) mixed with Dispensationalist’s premillennial understanding of eschatology (Tim LaHaye). United Methodists have had to work overtime to lift up the alternatives of Wesleyan Process Theology and amillennialism. For the former and latter perspectives I would recommend John Sanders’, The God Who Risks and N.T. Wright’s, How Became King.

The favorite two questions that I asked repeatedly in the Doctrine and Theology Committee were: “If you are close to heresy, how so and why?” and “Using the Wesleyan Quadrilateral, why isn’t foot washing a sacrament?” Both questions provided an assessment of a candidate’s ability to do theology. Rather than spout rote answers via whoever put the biggest funnel in the person’s head, these questions gave people a chance to work out a theological perspective on the fly. Isn’t that what most of us have to do anyway? We’re caught in a hospital hallway and someone wants to know why bad things happen to good people. Our theodicy is quickly exposed. All the trite and unhelpful words of non-comfort like, “It was meant to be…” “God has a purpose/reason for your tragedy…” are antithetical to a God who risks submission to human whims and vagaries, even unto death.

If you haven’t been through the fire yet, you will. If economic disaster, natural calamity, ill health, tragedy, and crud haven’t come your way then watch out! They’re on the way – duck and run – to God! God doesn’t cause any of this stuff. What God does is meet us in the fiery furnace and stay with us through it all. God’s gracious act in Jesus Christ is proof that God enters our pain and redeems it, not through some escapist trick like the hymn “Farther Along,” or self-deprecating platitudes in the ilk of Job’s so-called friends, “What did you do to deserve this?” God’s response to our questions doesn’t provide an answer as much as a Presence.

Why do bad things happen? Reason One: my choices. Reason two: the choices of others. Reason three: the general decay that’s in the world that causes everything to fall apart. Reason four: evil (John 10:10). The Scriptures are clear that God is the author of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17), therefore when I ponder the big question, “Why?” I am not going to blame God, but claim God. God does not jerk us around like puppets on strings. It does me no good to think that God is somehow the Mastermind pre-engineering everything, both good and bad, in my life. I am comforted and heartened more by the truth that Jesus knows my every weakness and sorrow for He was a man of sorrows (Isaiah 53:3), and tempted every way like us (Hebrews 4:15-16), yet conquered the grave and death through painful obedience. This isn’t cheap grace, but hard-won incarnational hope.

So what difference does this make on a Tuesday morning? I am going to do the very best that I can through the grace of God to avoid evil, personal defeat, and the vicissitudes of reckless people around me. I am going to pray the prayer that we all have prayed so much and try to really mean it, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” If everything that happens is God’s will, then why in the world should we pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? So, there you have it, right there in the Lord’s Prayer – what we need to do when life hits us with a sucker punch. Pray – pray hard, and even when the answers don’t come, God does come, and it is prayer that lets us know God’s supreme love, not enmity, towards us in Christ Jesus our Lord. Protect us, Lord, this day and every day, and give us grace to endure as your Son endured. Amen.

It Is What It Is?

I was listening to a sports radion station on the way to the office this morning and some unease about the phrase, “It is what it is,” finally jelled. I went to an on-line dictionary for the phrase and here’s what it said: “A phrase that seems to simply state the obvious but actually implies helplessness.” “It is what it is” is the new “Whatever” in our society, so no wonder our culture is in a funk .

Some of the funk is due to, I daresay, an embedded Calvinism that is fatalistic at heart: “It was meant to be,” “What goes around comes around,” “There’s a reason for everything,” and the scary one, “It’s God’s will.” Now, I admit I think God does have a will, but I know that there’s a big difference between God’s permissive will and direct will. I know that God knows everything that happens but I cannot believe that God causes everything that happens. That’s a huge difference. An “It is what it is” philosophy or theology is a set-up for expecting the worst. It doesn’t leave any room for redemption or corrective action. It doesn’t even leave much room for prayer because everything is “It is what it is.”

Why pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” or “Lead us not into temptation,” unless we think God can actually change the course of human history. I would rather say “It could be better” or “Things aren’t what they ought to be” rather than “It is what it is.” Praying and adding action to our prayers puts us on the offensive when life’s junk comes our way. As United Methodists we are a theologically optimistic bunch. We believe God loves the whole creation enough through prevenient grace to allow us to cooperate with God in making a new creation through Christ. We’re not passive fence-sitters with our heads in our hands futilely accepting our plight. Process theology leads us to an understanding of God’s providence that does what it says: God provides!

I Corinthians 10:13 comes to mind: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” There are plenty of other passages that also affirm to me that what God does best is not heap junk on our lives but helps us get through it. I Peter 5:6-11 is one when it says “…Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you…and the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.” Another strong reminder of the real source of suffering and blessing is from James 1:16-17, “Don’t be deceived, my dear friends. Every GOOD and PERFECT gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”

So when I think about Narcie’s tumor, my diabetes, and the tragedies I have seen or the economic disaster that has wrecked many a family – I am not going to say “It is what it is,” fold up my tent and give up. I’m going to pray to a God who gives good and perfect gifts, that delivers us from death and the grave through Jesus. God provides a way out of every grave situation. Instead of holding my face in my hands like “What will be, will be” and “It is what it is” implies, I’m going to open my eyes and see what God’s escape plan is. I’m going to participate in life’s solutions and not resign myself to a depressing done-deal fatalistic outcome. God is ever moving through us and history to work his good purpose. I can either get with it or give in. I refuse to give in. I’m going to do my best today not to say, “It is what it is.” There’s very little or no faith in that statement. Here goes, “It could be better!” That speaks to me and says “God and you can change this situation for the better!” Go for it! “Things aren’t what they ought to be!”