South Carolina Flood Relief

This is a good week for I Kings 17:7, “Some time later the brook dried up because there had been no rain in the land.” The State of South Carolina has been inundated and has literally had its fill of rain. My son’s home is split-level and the lower level flooded. His expectant wife along with their 4 and 2 year olds are staying in Aiken with us while he is at home trying to start the repair process. I have been back and forth to Columbia 4 times using every imaginable route to try to maneuver the streets. His situation isn’t dire and everything will be fine. I only mention his situation to say that there are a lot of people in far worse circumstances. People have died. Cindy’s school has been closed all week because roads have disappeared. This clean-up will take a long time, and we need the brook to dry up!

The context of I Kings 17:7 is instructional. Prior to the brook drying up, God had been feeding Elijah via ravens, and his source of life-giving water was a brook near the Jordan River. Then the brook dried up which wasn’t good news for Elijah like it is for us. It’s good news for us in flood-stricken South Carolina, but bad news for a desert-bound prophet. God then provided another avenue to meet Elijah’s needs. Maybe that’s the primary lesson from Elijah: Hang in there no matter what, or using the words of the South Carolina motto “Dum Spiro Spero, “While I breathe, I hope.” That is what defines both SC Strong and Christian Strong!

Sometimes, though, it takes a while to even gather hope. God told Elijah to find a certain poor widow in a nearby town and ask for food. She didn’t have any, plus she said that she barely had enough ingredients to make a final meal for herself and her only son before their anticipated deaths. Elijah asked for a meal anyway and she complied and miraculously her food supply stayed constant. That says something about giving even when you’re hurting. Unfortunately the celebration of that miracle was short-lived because her son did die. But the story doesn’t end there. God raised the widow’s son from the dead. We are also in that weird interval when we’re not sure how the story of the SC Flood will end, but we have hope in resurrection, beauty from ashes, bricks out of mud, and lessons from loss. Like the widow, how we respond will largely determine the outcome.

For many of us our theological understanding of God’s taking care of us has been flipped. On one hand there is ample Biblical hope that suggests that we will be saved from floods; i.e., Isaiah 43: 1-2, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you… When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.” That didn’t come true for some this week, but the God “with” us part has for all of us. Other passages are tricky to understand, too, like the one Jesus uses at the end of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 7:24-27: “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” This doesn’t offer much comfort and seems to blame us if we get whacked by calamity.

Frankly, most of us would agree that we live this conundrum of “Why, O Lord?” every day and especially in times of crisis: “God, if this is the way you treat your friends no wonder you have so many enemies.” So floods, cancer, and calamities are very complex from a Christian perspective. For instance, we affirm that God sends rain on the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45). The part I don’t like, maybe you don’t either, is that God is the one doing the “sending” in Jesus’ sermon. I’m good with a heavy rainfall in a drought, but not like what we’ve had! The counterbalance to God’s seeming responsibility in rain or drought is the time Jesus was on the boat in the storm with the disciples in Luke 8:24. It says Jesus rebuked the storm, “He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.”

Jesus only used the word “rebuke” when dealing with evil or those possessed by evil. Why would Jesus have to rebuke the storm if nature was already under his control? If God’s will is already a done deal then why are we asked in the Lord’s Prayer to pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”? It seems to me that nature has a mind of its own, and is often at cross-purposes with God’s perfect will. So we trust God to do what God does best and that is to enter our pain and redeem it.

God does exactly that in the Incarnation of Christ: Jesus experienced all of our problems, died all of our deaths, and ROSE AGAIN! Hebrews 2:17-18 and 4:14-16 assure us that Jesus went through all of his suffering so that we can know that God will make a way for us, too. That is the basis for our hope. It is not a fanciful rose-colored hope that knows no storms. It is a hope that is true because it has been through the storms. South Carolina will live up to its motto and then some. It has done it before and will do it again. While WE breathe, WE hope!

How is St. John’s Providing Flood Relief?

We are encouraging monetary DONATIONS to SC Conference Disaster Response, which will:

* Rebuild and repair affected churches, including small churches that do not have flood insurance.

     * Initiate an estimated three-year recovery phase until everyone is back in a home.

     * Walk with those who, even with FEMA help, will not have the resources to rebuild.

Why money rather than tangible assistance?

     * While bottled water, food, and flood buckets are absolutely necessary, the UMC Disaster Response team will provide sustainable and long-lasting means of recovery, rather than solely initial relief.

     * Our UMC SC conference staff are trained to identify how our resources can be used most productively.

     * ALL donations will only be used for SC flood relief as our apportionments cover all administrative costs.

How can I give?

* Bring a donation by the church office or drop it in the offering plate.

     * Cash donations and checks: Please specify on your envelope or memo line “SC flood relief.”

     * Donate online at:                                                                                                                     http://www.umcsc.org/data/disasterresponseflood2015.php

South Carolina

Advertisements

Taps or Reveille?

I don’t think that it ever hit me until this week how our country went from triumph to tragedy so quickly 150 years ago. On Palm Sunday 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse to Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army, effectively ending the American Civil War. Five days later, on Good Friday 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot and died the next day. A horrible war with brother against brother, state against state was capped by another horror. From triumph to tragedy in just a few days.

I am looking out my study window right now and can see the graves of 26 Union soldiers who died 5 weeks before the Civil War ended. How awful to be so close to the end of the carnage and yet die. Historical accounts of the Battle of Aiken, SC on February 11, 1865 list 53 Union soldiers killed, 270 wounded and 172 captured for a total of 495 casualties for the North. On the Confederate side there were 31 killed, 160 wounded, and 60 captured for a total of 251 casualties. I cannot imagine the awful grief that gripped the families of these young men who died so close to the war’s end.

Jesus had his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday and five days later was killed on Good Friday, too. Both Jesus and Lincoln were killed, but Lincoln’s tomb in Springfield, Illinois is occupied, and Jesus’ is empty. Nevertheless, I am struck to the core by the juxtaposition of life and faith. We live in a world of bad news, and yet we believe in Good News. We believe in a God who can go with us from the peak and valley of triumph to tragedy and still redeem it all for good. Today is Friday, but Sunday’s coming.

I just met with a mother whose child is in that in-between crucible of surgery and prognosis. So many of us have been on that roller-coaster ride between the peak of “We got it all,” and the valley of “There’s something suspicious.” Right now, two very special people, Revs. Chris and Elise Barrett, are on this roller-coaster and are facing it with a brave Easter faith that doesn’t gloss over the very real sense of mortality that so many seek to deny or avoid. Chris’ lymphoma has come back with a vengeance and he and Elise are doing the very best that they can to fill a bucket list of memories.

We all know people all over the world who are experiencing Good Friday crucifixions but try to live Sunday’s Easter faith. They are inspirations. For all who live in this tension between a won war and the tragedy of after-action casualties, we need to celebrate Easter all the more. Jesus rose from the dead with scars – pierced hands, feet, and side, to remind us that the reality of pain isn’t touched up by the makeup and brush of a mortician’s hand. Jesus continues to carry the marks of what life dealt him, but he is very much alive.

Therefore, we can all get on with our bucket lists and dare life to deal us its worst blows because God is the conqueror of death. Sure, we all would rather not have the pain of Good Friday, and would rather go peak to peak from Palm Sunday to Easter, but that’s not reality. The deaths that we die are not the way God wants it for God loves us so much that he would never cause us harm. Bad things are never God’s will (James 1:17), but what God does best is that through Jesus Christ he walks the solemn path with us, and defeats every foe. This is our life as Christians: triumph to tragedy to triumph, over and over again, but through Jesus the last scene will always be one of triumph, not the sounding of “Taps,” but “Reveille.”

The Slaughter of Innocents Amplifies God’s Incarnation

Prelude: This post comes from my son, Rev. Josh McClendon, Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC, who always amazes me at his depth and strength. Only he could handle the Slaughter of the Innocents and write a first-person monologue to make his old man cry. It made me think of the children I have buried over the years and their parent’s pain. It made me think of my daughter Narcie as Hannah. Listen to his words of a God whose incarnation in Jesus risks our pain from start to finish, and gives us authentic hope.

Here are Josh’s words and for a picture of Joella and other wisdom go to his blog directly at http://joshtmcc.wordpress.com/2013/12/30/blood-stained/:

Even though our culture moves on pretty quickly, the 12 days of Christmas are still here. One usual reading this time of year makes very clear how raw and risky the incarnation was. The passage is sometimes titled, “The Massacre of the Innocents,” and for lots of congregations it is totally avoided. But this is roughly the very next chapter in Jesus’ story and, if not for his sake then for the sake of the “Innocents” themselves and their families, it is worth our attention. Read Matthew 2:13-23 here.

Today we’re going to approach these events from the perspective of those directly affected. I’ll ask you to imagine that we’ve stumbled across the personal journal of one such family. Try to do your best to visualize the following three journal entries as the work of a father in first-century Judea. As a fairly new dad (one of my girls is pictured above), I know this is tough but stick with it.

The journal book of Yosef son of Amos, and Divorah, of Beyt-Lechem. It is the chronicle of our Hannah.

First Entry (8th day of the month of Tishrei)
By many standards, today I am a young man, full of strength and life, who was blessed by God. I am from, well, not a wealthy family, but a good one. I have a good name, which is priceless among my people. I have good lands that flourish with wheat and barley and honey, and I have praised God daily for it. The Lord led me to my love, my wife, Divorah, and we have had three full years of joy together. God even favored us enough to give her a child, a daughter, whom we named Hannah. She has been the most precious thing I’ve ever known. Every movement, every sound, every new thing she learns or discovers – it’s been overwhelming.

Her mother and I would commission someone to paint her life, one day at a time, if we could. We wished we could record everything! That is how this journal came to be. With all of our savings, and the help of our parents and my uncle Shlomoh (one of the Temple scribes), we bought these few pages. Yesterday, for Hannah’s first birthday, we dedicated them to keep her story, to be a book of memories.

For all of that, a day ago you could have called me blessed by the Lord indeed.

But, today, let no one talk of the Lord’s favor. Let no one speak his name before me. May no prayer to this “god” pass my lips, or those of anyone in my household, while I live and breathe.

Yesterday morning my Hannah had her first birthday. She was dark-haired and green-eyed like her mother, and big for her age with a good-sized head, like me. She had become so aware – she recognized us, and her grandparents. She would smile and laugh when we entered the room, and fuss when we walked out. She could just speak a little. She was a crawler, and we couldn’t keep her out of all the wrong places. Just a year old.

But yesterday evening, on the seventh day of the first month, a Roman detachment arrived in town under Herod’s orders. Divorah and I could hear the crowds and shouting from here, and in only minutes they had come to our door. They didn’t ask about the tax, or if we were harboring a fugitive, or if I was a member of the latest Jewish rebellion. They demanded, of all things, our little girl.

I cannot tell you how bitterly I fought them, four armed soldiers. They clubbed me nearly to death. And those Roman dogs wrenched Hannah from her mother’s hands. So, today…today her life has been cut short.

I couldn’t protect her, and she is gone for it, and I cannot fathom it. My wife hasn’t spoken a word.

I write all of this now, this the first and the last entry in Hannah’s book, because it is the only thing I have left to record of her. And, now, to hell with these memories. To hell with this life.

Second Entry (12th day of the month of Shevat)
Almost thirty years to the day, I open up these pages that I swore never to write in again. I’ll confess that it’s not the first time… I’ve read and re-read those words often since that day. No birthday of my Hannah’s ever passes that I don’t come back to this page to remember. More than once I’ve even thought to record my feelings, to write to her, to tell her things I would’ve told her at 8 or 12 or 20 years old. But it seemed wrong to change this book. It seemed like moving on.

I write today for one reason: because new facts have come to light in the history of Hannah’s life, from someone unexpected. Not long ago I met again a young man named Yohanan, John, one of the sons of Zebediyah the fisherman from the Galilee. John’s mother is my wife’s cousin, and I knew the boy; he spent some time here on the farm when he was younger.

Anyway, I was in the city on the Shabbat, and had been told that John was invited to teach at synagogue. A strange thought for the son of fisherman, but apparently the local Rabbi wanted to know more about another wandering Rabbi that John has taken up with, one named Yeshua, Jesus. So, I attended, and if I’m honest I was shocked and moved by John’s wisdom, the “spirit” that was upon him and the peace that he exuded. I greeted him afterwards and he remembered me; he took me to lunch and started to open his heart to me.

That is when he mentioned Hannah’s name.

He explained that they believe this Jesus is the Messiah. Right away I interrupted him and said, “I’ve heard all of that talk before and I no longer have time for any of God’s Messiahs.” But, before I could go, he went on to say that it was because of this Jesus that the soldiers were sent to our village that night so many years ago.

He said, “My Master threatens the evil rule of men like Herod and Herod’s sons, because he is our true king. He is God’s great savior.” And I couldn’t respond. John spoke of how this Rabbi had been born to a man and wife from Nazareth who had traveled to Bethlehem; he told me about Herod’s schemes and the appearance of angels in visions and dreams to deliver the child and his parents. He described it as signs that the kingdom of God is coming and a new age is beginning, one where even grief like mine will be no more.

I admit his words started to take me in — his facts were sound as far as I could tell. It had always indeed been a point of pride in our village that Israel’s king was destined to come from the birthplace of David. Even now, I can remember the Roman census in that second year that Divorah and I had been married. The perennial rumors about a Christ child had been unusually active and vivid at the time, and we had noticed – I remember we had taken it all as a good omen because only months later Divorah had become pregnant with Hannah. “Think of it,” we would whisper to one another, “our little one growing up to see the reign of the Coming King….”

And, in that moment, I came to myself. I remembered the kind of faith that had left my home unguarded on that bloody night. I remembered the kind of hope that naïve children cling to before they know what life is like here and now, on earth. I asked John why it is that our great God, the Lord of heaven and earth, chose for his son to be born to peasants in an unsecured and unknown town. I asked him why this God speaks in fables and dreams, while men like Herod give orders to armed legions. I asked him why it was only God’s son who was warned to escape Bethlehem while Hannah was left alone that night. I asked him where he saw a Savior’s reign, in this dust-covered Rabbi of his.

I can’t remember John’s reply, if he even made one, but as I regained my temper I thanked him for the lunch and arose from the table. I wished him luck that he and his Jesus might somehow survive either Herod Antipas or Caesar, or the Chief Priest for that matter, but I feel none the better for our conversation. If I am honest, I feel no better for my rage. Here I sit, and thirty years have passed, but no words and no anger will bring Hannah to me. I have no answers to my questions. I no longer know who I am or why I live.

I write, only, to keep record of what I now know of her story. God have mercy on us.

Third Entry (20th day of the month of Nisan)
Today, I write here for the last time because Hannah’s record in this book comes to a close. And, as I read again my last words on this page, it feels like ages have past for me since my time with John on that peculiar Shabbat. I recall that over the days and weeks after our lunch together, I couldn’t take my mind away from his words, or the memory of his presence; it began to gnaw at me. The possibility that John was telling the truth sparked a fire of emotions – one moment I would long to risk some hope in God again, the next moment I would be overwhelmed with confusion and contempt at how this would-be Messiah had a part in shattering Hannah’s life. It was the first time in more than thirty years that I had truly felt something. It was the first time in so long that I cared to feel something, or that I dared to wonder at what might be. In the end, it drove me to seek Jesus out, face to face.

I started by following on the edge of his crowds, very skeptically at first. Then, through John, I was able to sit with him, and speak to him on occasion. I don’t know how to describe the experience except that the same presence and Spirit that I first saw in John in the synagogue, I experienced in this man in its fullness. It was clear that he was the source of it, like the sun sharing its light.

Can I remember when I first truly started to consider him the Messiah? No. It was gradual. It came slowly as he answered many of my questions, and gave me new ones. But something particular in his teaching, that the others usually overlooked or rebuked, started to call out to me. Occasionally, he would speak of death, and of his own suffering. He would hint at the need to shed his blood, and to tear down the Temple only to rebuild it again. He spoke of a time of great personal sorrow to come, and of his own pain, and of his followers being prepared to carry a cross every single day.

I don’t know what it was, but while the others murmured about these strange, off-hand comments of his, the words rang in my heart. The crowds asked him not to say such things. They foamed at the mouth for the triumph of Israel over the Romans and all our enemies. But, in my mind, he was hinting that something deeper was at work. And we soon saw.

Before any of us could have imagined it, Jesus had indeed arrived in Jerusalem. He had been greeted like an emperor, and had seen the hearts of the people poised to crown him their ruler. But, only a moment later during the heart of the Passover, he had just as quickly been betrayed, arrested, and put on trial.

Almost all of the others fled in fear, or they stayed only to shout in their disappointment for him to be killed like a criminal. But I felt stirred to draw nearer to him than ever before. What did I have left to lose? What could the soldiers take from me now? I hadn’t come to see a victorious king; I came to stand beside the man, my Teacher, who had led me back to life. So I did, and I prayed for him.

The scene broke my heart, and infuriated me, and I wanted to cry out to Heaven, but suddenly something else struck me. I had wrestled with these same feelings before, for some thirty years. I realized then that Herod’s assault on my Hannah, intended for the newborn Messiah, had been in the same vein and for the same purpose as what I witnessed now. It was the same injustice, cruelty, tyranny. And one thing was clear that day: the evil right in front of me, and that which stained my family’s past, was none of God’s doing. It was the fruit of what men and women had chosen to do. It was an effort on the part of darkness to quench his great light.

In that moment, I repented from every word of blame and curse I had ever laid at the Lord’s feet. God’s doing had been to spare his own son in Bethlehem, not so that he could flee to a life of safety, but so that he could return one day to shed his own blood. Jesus, the Passover lamb. As I watched what they did to him, and how he endured it, it was confirmed in my heart that this was my Lord and my God.

I stayed that day until the end. I followed them out of the city, heard his final words, watched his breathing cease, and saw the women mourn. I thought back to his many promises and wondered what could be next. Then, only days ago I received word about Jesus at my home in Bethlehem, a simple message from the believers: “the grave could not hold him.” Today, I believe I know what that message means.

I run through his words in my mind. He once said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” And didn’t he say, “Because I live, you shall live also”? I remember it. And I believe it.

I believe that, although God not intervene in that moment years ago to spare Hannah’s earthly life, today she lives also in Christ Jesus.

So, yes, today, Hannah’s story in this book comes to a close. But that is only because it continues elsewhere. As does mine. And I can think of no better words to close this book than these that I borrow from my brother, John:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom he favors, Amen.

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!

Brain Surgery to Birthing a Baby

It’s a new day, a new season. I welcome Pentecost for lots of reasons this year! This morning at 6:28 a.m. a new granddaughter was born. Joella Anne McClendon was born to Josh and Karen and beautifully welcomed by her big sister Kaela. Joella is an interesting name, and it fits both Pentecost and my family. Her birth will always be connected to the Spirit’s power predicted by the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32) and fulfilled on the first Pentecost. As for the name’s connection to us, I can name at least 17 family members who have been named Joel. Joel/Joella is a great name that literally means, “The Lord is God!” Josh’s Hebrew classes have come in handy as he and Karen have selected names. Whenever there is an “el” in a name you can bank on God showing up because it is a shortened rendition of Elohim (God). Way to go in sharing the faith-reminders of Kaela (“Who is Like God?”) and Joella (“The Lord is God!”).

Our whole family says “Amen!” because we need faith-reminders. Who doesn’t? Narcie’s brain surgery was a scant 9 days ago. The surgeon deftly removed the tumor and margins, and slowly but surely, as predicted, Narcie’s speech and fine motor skills are returning. Please keep praying for her as she continues to improve. We have been flying the trapeze between brain surgery and birthing babies. We need a fresh outpouring of the Spirit to ride these waves from crest to trough and back to crest again. Have you ever felt like an unanchored buoy bobbing from one emotion to another? Oh, Lord, we need your Holy Spirit to give us strength. We praise you for the mighty things you have been doing in Narcie and with Joella’s birth, but please help us to catch our breath. Interesting that the Hebrew word used for the Spirit is ruach, or “breath.”

So during Pentecost we celebrate the power of God’s Spirit poured out on Jesus’ followers. Pentecost has appropriately been called the birthday of the church, and it will certainly be remembered by us as Joella’s birthday. Pentecost is very personal this year because of Narcie and the baby.  Why? The answer is the same as it must have been for Jesus’ followers on that first Pentecost. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost turned reluctant fear-ridden disciples into daring witnesses for Jesus. After Pentecost every apostle but John gladly died martyr’s deaths for the sake of Christ. The Greek word martyrios meant witness before it came to mean someone willing to die for their beliefs. Pentecost gave Jesus’ followers supernatural power that inspired them to do amazing things.

Pentecost is such a contrast to our usual experience of God. Perhaps we should let God shake us up more so that we won’t be so freaked out by life’s tidal waves. How would we react if our church buildings were shaken like what occurred on Pentecost? What would our reaction be if we saw flickering flames dancing above people’s heads while they spoke about Jesus in unknown languages? Would we be worried? I hope not, but most of our churches are afraid of a smidgeon of the Holy Spirit, much less a real dose. Pentecost is a reminder of what God can do in and through us, not what God can do for us! A God chained to our desires will always be too weak to deliver us from evil or whatever trouble comes our way.

So from one extreme to another we go, God-in-a-box to God-unleashed. Which would you rather experience? I heard of one woman whose idea of worship was decidedly focused on meeting her own personal needs. She complained to the organist one Sunday, “Your preludes are so loud, I can’t hear what my friends are saying.” True Spirit-filled worship is more in tune with what pleases God than us. After all, transformative worship correctly identifies God as the audience for everything we do in worship. The congregants are the actors, and those who serve behind the chancel rail are stage hands of sorts who direct the congregation/actors in whether or not to bow their heads, give offerings, stand up, or sit down, etc. Worship services put God first and foremost or they aren’t worship, and they aren’t relevant to people who have been on life’s trapeze without a net!

Pentecost should remind us that God can do mighty things that are out of the norm to those who truly worship. A woman was attending a meeting of Church Women United where the secretary asked what her church affiliation was. She replied, “I’m United Methodist, but my husband is nondimensional.” Surely she meant nondenominational, but being nondimensional in our faith seems to be pretty popular – shallow, predictable, with a one-sided “What’s in it for me?” attitude. Many want a domesticated God that isn’t Pentecostal. We are afraid of a multi-dimensional God because a wild God who shakes buildings might shake us up, too. Let me tell you, from what we’ve been through lately, and more truthfully our whole life, we don’t want a flat one dimensional or non-dimensional God ever! We want and need the real deal – a God of Power and Might! Come, Holy Spirit, Come! Who is like God? Nobody! The Lord is God! Amen!

Kaela & Joella
Kaela & Joella
 

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.

1937_59463092574_8101_n

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:

Adaptive Leadership Opens Door for God!

Adaptive leadership versus technical leadership is the buzz in the business world and the church. Technical leadership tackles a problem in a linear end-goal way: A+B+C=D. It answers problems with clear solutions. Sometimes technical answers to problems are necessary. They sure can be easy and WRONG! Life is much more ambiguous than simplistic answers. Adaptive leadership’s answers allow for complexity and uncertainty: A+B+C=A. Adaptive solutions have enough structure as to be effective, but seldom have a one-size-fits-all certitude.

The simple answer is that things are never simple. Technical leadership tends to be top-down and hasn’t worked in the church since James and John put their Mom up to asking Jesus if they could sit beside him in the Kingdom. Their position-of-power understanding of leadership was turned on its head by Jesus in his ministry to the least, the last, the lowest, and the lost. Jesus modeled the greatest adaptive leadership tool ever used when he washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17).

Clearly Jesus’ leadership was adaptive more than technical. Jesus practiced open-ended servant leadership by constantly yielding to the whims and vagaries of life and the ever-occurring poor decisions of his closest followers. Technical leadership from Jesus wouldn’t have been eager to wash the disciples’ feet. Technical leadership would have proclaimed, “Here’s what we’re going to do!” What Jesus did was teach in ambiguous parables that left great latitude in interpretation. It’s like the difference between a funnel-in-the-head three-point sermon, and an open-ended sermon by Fred Craddock that leaves you hanging and taking personal responsibility for how the message ends or actually begins.

Ponder the dichotomy in our denomination right now: on one hand they want us to measure everything seeking a technical solution to what ails us, but, on the other hand, they say we need to be nimble and meet the adaptive challenge. Maybe the two can go hand in hand, but it strikes me as a desperate search for a technical solution to an adaptive spiritual problem. Accountability is a good thing, but I don’t recall Jesus ever asking his disciples about numbers. He wanted faithfulness knowing that what he told Nicodemus was right in John 3:8, “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” This means to me that the measurement of the Spirit’s actions is hard to do! You can know some things like the sound, but to measure more than that is to box in the Spirit.

This has all made me think about the tension between a live-and-let-live openness to church ministry and top-down “my way or the highway” strong-arming. Who am I, even as a District Superintendent, to declare by “divine” fiat that a church or its leadership is flatly wrong? Yeah, I know: I’m supposed to interpret and decide all questions of church law in the Columbia District (Par. 419.10, 2012 Book of Discipline and 423.13 in 2008), but what’s more important – doing things right (technical solution), or doing the right things (adaptive solution)?

A key book for me in discerning which kind of answer is needed has been Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Listen to what Amazon says about the book:

“Ten years after his death, Edwin Friedman’s insights into leadership are more urgently needed than ever. He was the first to tell us that all organizations have personalities, like families, and to apply the insights of family therapy to churches and synagogues, rectors and rabbis, politicians and teachers.

Failure of Nerve is essential reading for all leaders, be they parents or presidents, corporate executives or educators, religious superiors or coaches, healers or generals, managers or clergy. Friedman’s insights about our regressed, seatbelt society, oriented toward safety rather than adventure, help explain the sabotage that leaders constantly face today.

Suspicious of the quick fixes and instant solutions (Think “Technical” solution) that sweep through our culture only to give way to the next fad, he argues for strength and self-differentiation as the marks of true leadership. His formula for success is more maturity, not more data; stamina, not technique; and personal responsibility, not empathy.”

What this boils down to for me is theological: the difference between process theology and a static understanding of God’s work in the world. I am quite orthodox in believing God is immutable and unchanging in God’s nature, but there’s plenty of evidence that God is constantly responding in ever changing ways to our human vagaries. Such is the unchanging nature of God’s love towards the whole creation. Why would we have to pray “Thy will be done…” if God already gets God’s way all the time? Praying promotes adaptive leadership because it trusts in a God who can answer in lots of ways! The upshot of this is to approach problems/opportunities from every angle and without a specified result in mind, and trust that the Lord is going to always be on our side. I need the nerve to let things play out and respond accordingly, secure in God.

Adaptive leadership leaves room for magnificent yet oftentimes unexpected possibilities. For instance, ponder this information dated 1999 about Nonlinear Dynamics from Erick Larson in Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History:

“Most tropical disturbances dissipate over the open sea. … Occasionally they become killers, although exactly why remained a mystery even at the end of the 20th century. Satellites sharpened the ability of forecasters to monitor hurricane motion but could not capture the instant of transfiguration. No matter now closely meteorologists analyzed satellite biographies of hurricanes, they still could not isolate the exact coding that destined a particular easterly wave to a future of murder and mayhem. Satellites could document changes in temperature of a few thousandths of a degree and capture features as small as a foot wide or a few centimeters tall. “But suppose,” wrote Ernest Zebrowski, Jr., in Perils of a Restless Planet, “that a tropical storm develops, and that we play back the data record of the previous few days. What do we find as we go back in time? A smaller storm, and yet a smaller disturbance, then a warm, moist windy spot, then a set of atmospheric conditions that looks no different from that at many other locations in the tropics.”

Zebrowski proposed that the answer might lie in the science of “nonlinear dynamics”: chaos theory and the famous butterfly effect. He framed the question this way: “Could a butterfly in a West African rain forest, by flitting to the left of a tree rather than to the right, possibly set into motion a chain of events that escalates into a hurricane striking coastal South Carolina a few weeks later?”

The answer is, of course, “Yes!” Adaptive Leadership leaves room for the whims of butterflies, evil, and the Spirit of God. Technical leadership reads more like a dry book on systematic theology that boxes life and God into fixed presuppositions and predetermined actions. Adaptive leaders rely on the greatest adaptive leader, Jesus. He can give us the nerve to navigate the uncertain waters through the certain assurance of divine love! Take comfort: Jesus and you are going to have a great adventure today!