Protect the Children!

Like everyone else I am shocked and saddened by the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The loss of twenty children’s lives is unfathomable. I cannot imagine the pain and grief of the parents, and I pray for them and the families of the adult victims, too. We have all noticed that many of the newscasters have painted this massacre as “evil.” They are absolutely correct.

For more evidence of evil’s reality, read Dr. Scott Peck’s book, ­People of the Lie. He talks about all kinds of evil and contends that those who exhibit it most dangerously are those whom have no conscience and are so enamored with themselves that they have a coating of self-assured Teflon. They are so deluded that no sense of personal responsibility sticks with them. They are narcissistic gods of their own dominions. This is the source of much of the evil in our world and especially the evil that victimizes children in human trafficking, pornography, neglect, sexual abuse, and the like.

Those who perpetrate these attacks on children are minions of a worse Evil that has been around ever since the Garden of Eden. In other words, there’s a history of evil’s war against children and it didn’t start this Christmas. For instance, when God-in-the-flesh Jesus was born, narcissistic King Herod’s jealousy was inflamed when the Magi came to visit the Christ Child. With his own power threatened by a child, he ordered all the little boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity murdered (Matthew 2:13-18).

Indeed, evil has been attacking children from the beginning of history. Who have been and continue to be the hardest hit victims of hunger, war, and crime – children, the innocents? I’ve seen this terrible history’s evidence. One of my seminary professors showed us tangible proof of atrocities against children. He brought a clay jar about 12 inches tall to class. He had acquired it on an archaeological dig in Carthage, located in modern day Tunisia. He described to us how there were thousands upon thousands of these urns unearthed. He opened up the urn and scattered across the desk the ashes and tiny bones. It was a child. In Middle Eastern culture there were those who thought that fertility gods would bless you if you paid homage by sacrificing one’s children.

This urn reflected the reality of ancient Israel’s compromise with the surrounding cultures. 2 Kings 17:7-23, especially verse 17, describes why this caused God to send them into exile in 722 B.C. They followed the Baal and Molech-worshipping practices that were prevalent in Carthage and many other places. They put their young children on a pyre of wood, slit their throats, and while they were dying of blood loss they also burned them to death. How horrible! The burial grounds called Tophet(h) in Carthage were replicated all around the Mediterranean, including the Valley of Ben Hinnom just outside the gates of Jerusalem. God punished the Israelites because they attacked their own children!

So at the first Christmas and throughout the Biblical witness there is ample evidence of children being victimized by evil. God, on the other hand, is always on the side of children. Let’s just use Jesus as described in Matthew’s Gospel as an example. In Matthew 18:1ff the disciples ask Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and the text says, “He called a little child and had him stand among them. He said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven…’” The text goes even further and says about those who mislead a child (vs.6), “It would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

Even with this endorsement of children and warning to those who would mistreat them, the disciples still didn’t get it. Matthew 19:13ff says, “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’”

On this day of wondering, “Why?” there is very little that a anyone can say to the distraught and heartbroken people across Newtown, Connecticut, the U.S., or the whole world in which children will continue to be targeted by Evil’s attacks. There are unanswerable questions of why didn’t God strike down the shooter, why my child, why, why, why? The only answer is that evil did this, not God. God has a history of being on the side of children. Jesus in John 10:10 says, “The thief comes only to kill and steal and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” Let’s tell our children that there’s a war between good and evil, and evil often wins; but there will be a Day when good will have the final word and evil will be no more.

Until then we need to trust in the loving Parent who is on our side and does everything in God’s power to shield us in this freedom-ridden world which allows terrible crimes to occur. God allows us humans to have freedom only to see it abused. It is a mystery and we wish God would set things right so nothing like this will ever happen again. We know that in Bethlehem’s Babe the process of retaking the world for good has begun, and we say, “Come, Lord Jesus – Come!”

In the meantime, we can all hug our children and count every second with them as precious gifts beyond measure. We can do all that we can to protect them better. We can pass gun laws. We can pray, and especially we can teach children that houses of worship are supposed to be sanctuaries – places of refuge and protection in an evil world that specifically targets them. Christmas is a witness that this world has little or no room for the Christ Child who was born in a stable, but we can make room for Him in our hearts and live like Him in the world. We can send the message that while evil does lurk across the land, there is a God who has consistently proven love toward the least of these. God even chose to come and live among us as a child because children best reflect God’s purest creation.

Oh, God, please overshadow the broken lives of your children everywhere and give grace and comfort. Teach us to offer sanctuary to children so that we might better reflect the coming Prince of Peace, even Jesus the Christ. Stop the evil Herod’s of this fallen world, and help us to do our part in crushing crimes against children of all ages. In a choice between light and darkness, let us always choose the light of redeeming love. Amen.

Frankenstorms and Questions of Why

One of my clergypersons in the Columbia District is enduring an unusual burden. His wife’s parents have been ill. Saturday night the father died at home. The mother was in the hospital, and the family decided not to tell her until Sunday morning. In their tenuous broaching of the news with her, she interrupted them, “I know what’s going on. Jack’s dead. I felt it during the night.” Within a few hours she was gone, too. Eleven hours apart they met Jesus face to face. It’s a powerful example of the intuitive power of love in a good marriage, yet a tough grief for a family to bear. How do we handle such news? Where is our solace?

Overcome by the news trickling out of the middle and upper Atlantic regions of the U.S. and the broad swath of tragic effects from Hurricane Sandy, I think there’s a message for all who go through the trials of life. Here we are in an uncertain economy, a toss-up election season, and a society that has more non-religious people than people of faith. What is our message to a hurting world overcome by natural calamity and difficult choices? What is our message to Marcus Lattimore, University of South Carolina running back and faithful United Methodist, who has already endured one horrific knee injury and rehab last year only to have another disaster hit his other knee this past Saturday? How do we encourage this forlorn planet where so many bad things happen to good people?

First off we have to answer people’s “Why?” questions with a non-Rick Warren/Purpose-Driven response. We do not believe it is God’s purpose to harm God’s children. That would be child abuse! The Scriptures tell us that “every good and perfect gift comes from our Father in Heaven …” (James 1:17). Therefore, hurricanes, cancer, knee injuries, and economic disasters don’t come from God. Grace is what comes from God. Call the source of calamities whatever or whomever you will, but never say that it’s the God we have encountered in Jesus. Jesus enters our pain rather than causing it. He redeems our fallen faltering world. He works for good our mistaken freedom-caused dilemmas that have led us down the dark path of blaming God instead of the real culprits.

So today as I ponder my daughter’s continuing saga of a brain tumor, and my dismay at the world’s suffering, I will NOT go quietly into the dark abyss of hopeless fatalism that falsely claims that our God is the enemy. I will rather face this day and every day with the Christian Hope that life trumps death; God’s grace and strength are sufficient for every time of need; and I am one of God’s agents for redemption in every situation. I choose to remember God today!

I dare you to read Roberta Bondi’s Memories of God as a way to recall the ways of God in tough times. Her last chapter is especially helpful to me. It is entitled, “Memories of God: In the Communion of Saints.” In it she poignantly describes her Auntie Ree’s last days on earth and the struggle Roberta had with medical professionals about her aunt’s end-of-life decision. Her Aunt Ree was ready to die and refused further treatment. The healthcare professionals wanted to attempt some more heroic efforts. Unable to fend for herself, Roberta interceded on her aunt’s behalf. Her Auntie Ree was ready to leave the Church Militant and join the Church Triumphant. With Roberta’s successful intervention, the last doctor and nurse indignantly left the room. Roberta says that her aunt’s joy was overflowing at that point, not so much because of the absence of jabbing needles, but because, as Aunite Ree said to Roberta, “You have given me eternity, my darling.” She thanked Roberta over and over again for the gift of transition from one life to another.

All Hallow’s Eve is tomorrow, October 31, and my mind is swirling with memories. My mother was the best at finding the right houses to get the most Halloween candy. Every year the car would be filled with ghoul and goblin dressed kids who wanted a chance to ride on my mother’s treasure-filled route. She made me a popular kid! I miss her greatly. She was so full of love and gave it so freely.

Bondi’s book comforts me because in 1993 after suffering a major stroke I hung on the side of Mother’s bed begging her to wake up and come back to us. I was selfish. I think that I got my wish because she was selfless and responded out of her love for us without a thought about herself. As usual! Unfortunately, she came back with only the faintest resemblance of her old self. She was so debilitated. She could only move one finger and smile just a bit and that was it. In her gift to us she allowed us a few short months to say goodbye and let her go. As she was finally dying, like Roberta Bondi’s Auntie Ree, you could see the response in Mother’s eyes, “You have given me eternity, my darlings.”

As Halloween approaches and I think of Mother I find great comfort in the Apostles’ Creed. In it we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints.” What does it mean? Very few of the classes that I had in seminary discussed it, so I naturally assumed it had something to do with Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper. It’s not that it doesn’t in a tangential way, but the creed speaks of a communion that goes well beyond the tremendum mysterium of a regular Communion service. It really wasn’t until my parents died that a study of eschatology gave me a proper grip on the subject.

The “Communion of Saints” is all about eschatology. Eschatology is literally “a study of last things.” So, when we say that we believe in the “Communion of Saints” we’re saying that we believe that there is some sort of mystical interaction, call it influence, memory, or inward impression that occurs between the saints in heaven and those on earth – an intersection of this life and the after-life. Saints on earth are called the Church Militant because we’re still struggling through life. The saints in heaven are called The Church Triumphant because they have overcome. Though dead, they are yet alive and continue to influence and inspire us to greatness.

They cannot see the bad things that we do. That wouldn’t be heaven, would it? I cherish the hope that just as much as I can feel my mother and father’s cheerleading presence, somehow, they, too, can know the good things that happen in my life. If they can see the good that I do, I am inspired to do all the more. Therefore, the “Communion of Saints” is a wonderful basis for inspiration and hope. It evokes the image of the family table reunited, loves ones living eternally, the cross-generational transmission of positive influence, and the circle unbroken.

Robert Benton’s Academy Award-winning film “Places in the Heart” captures this motif better than I can say it. The movie is a story of a young woman, played by Sally Field, widowed within the first few minutes of the film, struggling against all odds in a desolate corner of Texas during the 1930s. Her husband is killed and human vultures try to take away the only thing her husband has left her and her two small children – a small farm. The tapestry of Benton’s story is woven with every sin and hardship imaginable.

Then the film ends with a communion service. At first the camera shows you a few of the good folk in town. Next, the film reveals some of the not-so-good characters who have been part of the movie, like the banker and others who conspired to take away the farm. They’re all sitting together on the same pew, or in the same church. Suddenly the scene morphs into a visualization of the Communion of Saints. The camera continues to move with the cups of wine. There is the faithful African-American farmhand who helped bring in the crop so the widow might pay her mortgage; next to him, the blind boarder. The plate passes to the children, then to their mother. She is seated next to her late husband. As you are trying to take this in, the plate moves to the deceased young man who shot her husband. They commune, and each responds one to the other: “The peace of God.” All these folks, some dead and some alive, commune, and there’s peace!

This is more than a regular Sunday morning Communion service; this is the kingdom, eternity captured in time. The camera has given us a new look at life, the way Jesus said God looks at it. God has done something to enable everyone to come to the Table. The apostle Paul says it this way: “In Christ, God was reconciling us to himself, not counting our trespasses against us.” This is the Communion of Saints that we celebrate! This coming All Saints Day, Thursday, November 1, 2012, I will remember. Though the goblins of life attack and assail us in countless ways, I will not yield to despair. I will claim the Good News of Jesus Christ that God is love and love turns crosses into crowns. That is the story of Jack and Judy Lewis who died 11 hours apart. It is the message that the world needs desperately to hear on tough days. This is the only way for all the non-religious people to survive the Frankenstorms of life. In Jesus, the Wounded Healer, we can find hope and redemption.

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.

UMC In Exile

As I continue to process GC2012 and look forward to God’s preferred future, I am struck that where we are is a good place in spite of the predominant reaction of despair over the state of our church.  It’s a painful place, a scary one, but also a hopeful one. We are not people who want to go back to the good old days of the status quo or Garden of Eden. We are people who long for the New Jerusalem and want to be used by God to help usher in the Kingdom. We are a people who desire to put legs on our prayer, “Thy kingdom come…” If author Scott Peck is right then our pseudocommunity has given way to chaos, and if we let it do its work then we shall find ourselves embracing a Jesus-like emptiness that will lead us into a bright God-blessed future. But first we have to mourn our chaos: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh…Woe to you that laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep (Luke 6:21,25).”

The acceptance of Enlightenment era certitude created a centuries-old illusionary humanistic optimism that has fueled two opposing sides of hardliners. This has been evident in the halls of Congress and at GC2012. It is time for us to move away from the  literal and liberal fundamentalism of old world empirical stances and follow God’s directives which often find voice in mysterious ways.  As much as I would like to put funnels in people’s heads so that they know the difference between unchanging doctrine and ever-changing theology, it doesn’t work that way. Sure, I’m going to teach the truth of our Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, but I want to do it in ways that allow God to speak more than me. I have to be quiet. We all do. We have to let God do the talking in contemporary ways. Then we can move forward and stop the status quo entrenchment of extremist polarities that are holding us back.

I’m not saying that we need to check our understanding of good theology at the door, but we do need to open ourselves to a new word from God.  Not a new Word of God, but a new epiphany so that we have a personal theophany with the Living God. Of course, this is where chaos reigns in our discussions. Who decides what is God’s W/word for today, this generation? What does this kind of thinking do to the unique salvific person and work of Christ? How do we objectify the Immortal, Invisible God that we see face-to-face in Jesus? Is there a way for us to hold in tension the apparent paradox and oxymoron of a God bigger than all, that created ex nihilo, yet is made incarnate  and truly human while remaining very God of very God? “Whew!” is about the best response I can make because I can’t answer all of these questions adequately. However, I will not yield on who Jesus is and what Jesus does or what Jesus says. He is the Logos! But, until I give up a great measure of what I think that I know, I know that I won’t know the God of the Apocalypse. There can be no revelation (apocalypsis) if everything is already revealed. Isn’t this the essence of our dilemma? Is God dynamic or static? Is God immutable only in God’s loving nature? Is God ever-changing in nano-second immediacy in response to God’s loving relationship to creation? If not, then why pray? The questions continue, leading from one to another, and yet we need a clarion call, a sure pronouncement from God. I contend that we will not and cannot hear such a pronouncement until we give up our human machinations that put words into God’s mouth. Where we are is between chaos and emptiness and this is where the Old Testament’s prophets found themselves. They, like Jesus after them, were strangers among their own people. They spoke God’s truth of judgment on a wicked and idol-worshipping people. They spoke also of a God eager to love. They were the voice of exile, and out of the Hebrew Exile came the most profound renewal: Dedicated care for the poor and oppressed, overwhelming revitalization of worship practices, and absolute dedication to community.

We, too, can find hope in our time of chaos and emptiness, our sense of exile from our glory days of yesteryear. Our hope is found in our hopelessness. Our salvation isn’t found in empirical data mining called metrics for the Spirit blows in unseen ways before there is fruit even imagined. Just ask Nicodemus. Our Gospel is a saga of exile to hope, death to resurrection, crying in the night before joy in the morning. To bypass chaos and death diminishes the cross’ victory! Now, that’s a paradox – “the cross’ victory!” But this is our Gospel after all. God redeems! Jesus died and rose again. We are not stuck between Good Friday and Easter. We are post-Pentecost Christians that supremely worship a Living Lord who can make all things new! Think about Jesus and the wineskins analogy or I Corinthians 5:17. Something’s got to give if we are to move past our semi-idolatrous harkening back to the supposed “good old days.” Polarities are keeping us from admitting the failure that is ours in reaching a confused generation. Revival can come only if we repent. If we will repent then we are able to have hope. If we focus overly on what was or is then we miss what can be and will be. We absolutely must give up all hankering for going back to the Garden of Eden and press on toward the New Jerusalem – a place described, interestingly enough, a lot like post-exilic Judaism: care for the least, last, lowest, lost; fantastic worship; blessed community.

So first things first. We can’t get to the New Jerusalem without going through real chaos and emptiness. Therefore, it behooves us to lament, to cry out, to express our anguish. GC2012 and Election Year 2012 have me convinced that theological and political gridlock on top of economic disaster is real.  We cannot dare to be priests or prophets who say, “Peace, Peace – when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11), in a divided world or church. We cannot put a useless band-aid of denial on our situation and strike a passive stance of do-nothingism on our dismal condition. If we want to have hope in the God who sends exiles home and resurrects the dead, then, like the Hebrew prophets of the Exile, we must declare our utter failure at trying to manipulate and manage God. By accepting our emptiness and expressing our grief we acknowledge that God has judged us. Listen to the prophet in Jeremiah 30:12: “This is what the Lord says: “Your wound is incurable, your injury beyond healing.”  We are judged by God who then enters our grief and surprises us. When all hope is seemingly lost by virtue of self-caused and God-judged chaos and emptiness we are surprised by God; i.e., Jeremiah 30:16-17: “Therefore, all who devour you will be devoured; all your enemies will go into exile. Those who plunder you will be plundered; all who make spoil of you I will despoil. But I will restore you to health and heal your wounds.” Only grief allows newness and only newness can come from God entering the judgment we have brought upon ourselves. Jesus saves, not this group or that one. Only Jesus saves! That is the essence of my report about General Conference 2012, and it is my message to everyone about the state of our world: “We’re broken and we’ve tried everything we can to fix things on our own, and it hasn’t worked. God help us! And God does help. There is our only hope. God is our only hope!”

By the way, you need to know that this hopeful comparison of the Hebrew Exile to today is thanks to the gentle prodding of retired Bishop Ken Carder to reread Brueggemann. His book, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile is a must read. The book’s premise of Hebrew Exile as a means of renewal is more than a timely word for us. It was published in 1986 yet its words speak as if written today (pp. 45-47) (Hint: When you read “city” think Jerusalem, Church, Enlightenment, or Culture, etc.):

“I believe that we are in a season of transition, when we are watching the collapse of the world as we have known it. The political forms and economic modes of the past are increasingly ineffective. The value system and the shapes of knowledge through which we have controlled life are now in great jeopardy. One can paint the picture in very large scope, but the issues do not present themselves to pastors as global issues. They appear as local, even personal issues, but they are nonetheless pieces of a very large picture. When the fear and anger are immediate and acute, we do not stop to notice how much our own crisis is a part of the larger one, but it is.

When such a massive threat is under way, so comprehensive in scope, so acute in personal hurt, frenzied, dangerous activity takes place. Such activity runs from arms stockpiling to frantic self-fulfillment to oppressive conformity. All of these are attempts to hold the world together enough to maintain our dignity, our worth, our sanity, and probably our advantage. I believe these attempts can be identified among conservatives (including theological conservatives) who want to stop the change by formulae of authority and conformity. I believe these attempts can be identified among liberals (including theological liberals) who want to keep power in place because liberals have had a good season and still trust the worldly knowledge of the social sciences to keep us human and to keep us safe. The voices of newly revived conservatism and responsible liberalism are important. Both voices have something to tell us.

Neither voice, however, touches the issue of the death of the beloved city that must be grieved. Indeed, one can argue that the polarities in our society are a game on which we have agreed in order to keep us busy, so that we do not notice. Powerful vested interests are at work, perhaps mostly unwittingly, to keep the grief from notice. In one way or another, we believe the ideology of our party, our caucus, our nation, our class, because ideology serves as a hedge against a serious diagnosis. If one denies serious illness, then there is no need for the diagnosis. There is then no cause to weep over the city. There is no call for such poignant poetry. But if the city is dying, if the old order is failing, if the poet has diagnosed rightly, then the grief is urgent. It is a personal grief. It is a quite public grief. It is facing our true situation, in which living waters have been rejected and we are left with broken cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13), in which all our lovers despise us (Jeremiah 30:14), in which we are like restive camels in heat (Jeremiah 2:23-34). All the metaphors mediate our broken, beaten fickleness. The news is that God enters the broken, beaten fickleness.

In God’s attentive pain, healing happens. Newness comes. Possibilities are presented. But it all depends on being present with God in the hurt, which is incurable until God’s hint of healing is offered. We wait, along with the poet, to see what the tone of the next ‘therefore’ (Jeremiah 30:16) will be.”

This post is long, but long overdue. Where is our hope? The answer is found in our hopelessness. We can only find hope in Jesus! Exile is hard! Life is hard! The alternative is deadly! Let us give ourselves to Christ, the Only One who raises the dead back to life!

General Malaise

Maybe it’s the clouds and drizzle that we’ve had for three days, but I’ve literally sensed a pall over things. I don’t know what it is, but IT is usually something. Charge conferences are going well although there have been a few rough patches. There have been the usual nay-saying phone calls that are the soup de jour for a district superintendent. I have been non-reactive and tried very faithfully to be calmer as things get more tense. So far so good, but I have a wierd sense of dread-like unease waiting for the other proverbial shoe to fall. I am not a worrier, but there’s that nagging question of “What’s going on?” running through my subconscious and breaking into my conscious thinking. Have you ever been like this?

I am sleeping well, eating well, been around good positive people. My devotional life is great. Heck, even the stock market has been pretty much up for the last week. The biggest downers that I can point to are Steve Spurrier, the USC Football Coach, acting juvenile with a newspaper reporter that gets his goat, and 5th year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia’s final dismissal from the team. As a long-suffering Gamecock fan I know not to get too worked up or stressed out about the fortunes of our football team. I know this feeling I’m having isn’t about the ALCS or NLCS baseball games or a delay in the NBA season. Sports is a wonderful distraction from life, but I’m not one of those who lives and breathes for the next game or the stat line. Sure, it’s important and I want my team to win but there are bigger fish to fry in the game of life.

So what is it? What is it for you? Is there a general malaise that’s befallen society, the church, me, you? Christmas is coming and I have pottery to make but the thought of doing it is daunting rather than its usual exhilaration. Has the worry-bug got me? You? Maybe. Most of us in church work know the truth of the misconstrued sign, “Don’t let worry kill you. Let the Church help!” Yep, for us churchy types, lay or clergy, the church is often our source of anxiety, not the cure. Worship and spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, serving others, being in a small group, and giving always improve my depleted emotional resources. Going to Mt. Mitchell is my oasis but that won’t happen again until sometime in November or next spring. Too cold and wet right now. Now into a three-day funk it wouldn’t much matter what I do or where I go. As someone said it, “If you want to get away from it all, don’t take it all with you.” Yeah! Duh, but what if there’s no escape?

Caleb has been to visit friends in Washington State for a few weeks. Maybe it’s him on my mind. Narcie will be soon due for another MRI in the midst of what I call our “prolonged anxiety” about the brain tumor, but I’ve been following Cindy’s sage advice: “Turn your worries into prayers.” Maybe the breakthrough is just around the corner. I pray so for her and everyone who is out of work, who is facing the unknown with a terrible or unknowable prognosis, or anyone who  is sensing a cloud of nebulous bewilderment. These are stressful times!

So I’m going to turn back to the One who is ever ready to come to our aid: God! Jesus! Helmut Thielicke, in his book Life Can Begin Again, offers a great word for me and all of you who are tired or just plain weary: “We should not artificially turn away from our worries by constantly listening to the radio, for example, or running to the movies, or some other kind of busywork, but rather direct our cares to him who wills to bear and share all our sin and all our suffering and therefore all our cares. No diversion, but directing our cares. This is what to do. Jesus did not say: Look at the ostrich, how it buries its head in the desert sand and so tries to escape the fear of danger. No, he said: Look at the birds of the air, keep your eyes open, stand up straight and look to the heights where God makes known his grace and care.” Matthew 11:28 works, too. Straight from Jesus: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” 1 Peter 5:6 is also a help: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may lift you up in due time.” Isn’t it due-time yet? That’s not my task. My task is to humble myself and wait. God does the lifting. Check out 2 Chronicles 20:1-23 and start warming up the choir!

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!”

Drought or Doubt?

Is it right to pray for rain? Does nature have a mind of its own answerable only to the inherent laws of the universe? Can prayer change natural phenomena? These questions are decidedly more serious than simply asking God for rain. If Jesus is God and God controls everything then why would Jesus, awakened by the disciples in the midst of a storm on the Sea of Galilee rebuke the wind and waves (Luke 8:22-25)? If nature was already under his control, why would Jesus have to do rebuke anything?

 The answer is quite obvious. There are things in this world that are not under God’s direct control. In God’s love for creation, He created it with freedom. It is a gracious freedom that allows us to obey God without coercion. True love doesn’t have to love, it wants to love. It is love and fellowship that God desires to have with His creation. God’s permissive will, therefore, allows for natural and human contingencies – out of love. God’s permissive will has allowed this wonderful planet about which He declared, “It is good!” turn into a place of decay and disobedience.

 However, before we proceed to tell God we would have rather stayed in Paradise without freedom than have freedom and lose Paradise, let’s be sure we understand what is lost if God had so ordered things. AParadisewithout choices might seem tempting at first glance, but if God controlled everything we would be mere puppets jerked around by divine machinations. Even if only benevolent jerking, it would still be jerking. Living in a perfect world without true freedom wouldn’t be perfect. It would generate a passive fatalistic attitude about life that would breed even less concern for both the people and environment around us. We would say, “What will be, will be,” and be done with things. Don’t you want people to love you because they want to and not because they have to? It is the same with God and creation. He has given us freedom because He loves us.

 This leads us from His permissive will, to His direct will. God’s direct will is that through Jesus the whole world has a gracious measure of his grace. Some would call this natural grace. United Methodists call it prevenient grace, from the Latin prevenio, which means “coming before.” It is a grace that precedes our response. Through the work of Christ and his resurrection, the whole earth is given a measure of grace, enough grace at least to respond to God’s overture to humankind through Jesus.

 In other words, the image of God has been restored to some semblance of its Pre-Fall condition through Jesus, enough so that every person has the God-given ability to accept God’s mercy. God’s direct will was that in Jesus we would all see His permissive will for what it really is – not some abandonment by an unconcerned Creator – but as a specific claim on our lives and our planet by a God who so loves us that He is willing to let us freely yield our lives and our very beings to Him.

 Bad things happen because we don’t yield, others don’t obey God, evil, or mainly because the very creation and its laws reflect a world given over to decay. So how do we respond to this freedom? How do we reconnect with God so that we can return to Paradise? The answer is FAITH. So when you’re asked to go to a prayer meeting for rain, carry an umbrella. Jesus asked of His disciples in the boat during the storm, “Where is your faith?” Faith encourages us to ask God to intervene and use His direct will and give us rain. It is faith that also helps us accept the fact that sometimes He doesn’t intervene and His permissive will allows nature to withhold its nourishment. Either way, faith is more than necessary; it is all that we have and it’s enough!

When the Storms of Life Are Raging

We’ve all seen some storms. We know about the devastation across the south this past spring, and continued natural calamities happening everywhere. What do we think about God when stuff like this happens? You’ve seen the W.I.G.I.A.T. bumper stickers that ask the question, “Where Is God In All This?” I took this photo when Caleb and I were in Omaha for the College World Series. No rain was falling yet. A trash can lid went by going about 50 mph just before I flipped my IPhone up to take the shot. It was dangerous, scary and awesome, too.

I used to love sitting on the front porch during thunder storms when I was a kid. It was so powerful. I was struck by the majesty of nature’s fury. I have felt the same awe when I’m on top of Mt. Mitchell. My dilemma is my tendency to give God the credit for the beautiful things that occur in nature and to blame Nature for the things that are terrible. I get bent out of shape when people say such-and-such was “an act of God,” but I have fueled the dichotomy by my own lack of clarity in answering the question, “Where is God in all this?”

With Narcie’s tumor I want to blame nature gone wild. That’s what tumors and cancer are anyway. When tornadoes strike and people are killed, I want to say Nature did it. Same with hurricanes. Hey, what about the freak accident last night when a firefighter, Shannon Stone, age 39, fell 20 feet reaching for a foul ball in a Texas Rangers-Oakland baseball game. Man, his little boy saw it all. His dad died. Where is God in all this?

Now I know enough about theodicy and am Wesleyan enough to know God doesn’t cause junk like this. James 1 says “every good and perfect gift comes from God and that God doesn’t test anyone. (my paraphrase). This reminds me of the hymn “Stand By Me” which says to me that God in Christ through the Holy Spirit isn’t the source of the bad stuff whatever it may be. God does what the hymn says. He stands by us. That’s one of the strongest messages of Jesus’ incarnation. God has entered our fallen existence and says, “No matter what happens, I’m with you!”

So if God isn’t the cause of junk; i.e., the storms of life – where do they come from? My choices are the first cause. I drove too fast. I chose to disregard my doctor’s advice. I, I, I… but sometimes stuff occurs because of somebody else’s choice. They chose to travel through a stop sign after they decided to drink and drive. They chose…. but sometimes it’s not my choices or those of others that result in mayhem. Sometimes it’s the simple fact that life and natural laws reflect a higher law that was broken a long time ago by Adam & Eve in the Garden. The results of the Fall have reverberated across the centuries. Our doctrines of sin and salvation start with the Fall -wouldn’t need Jesus if everything was pre-Fall perfect, would we? But that doesn’t end the list of why bad things happen to both good and bad people. Lastly, I have to admit in a Scott Peck “People of the Lie” kind of way that there’s evil in this world, sometimes big “E” evil.

However, Here’s the Gospel for my daughter with her brain tumor, the family of Shannon Stone, flood and tornado victims, and the oppressed victims of institutional evil, etc. – Jesus is stronger than any storm. He is the author of everlasting life even when death breaks down our doors. Anybody who believes in an “It was meant to be” world as in the movie “Adjustment Bureau,” better watch out because we believe in a Jesus who doesn’t cause our pain, doesn’t have a perfect panacea safe ride of a life pre-engineered for you. We believe in a cowboy adventuresome Jesus who loves us and the cosmos enough to let freedom deal its cards for good or ill, BUT will be with us no matter what cards we’re dealt.

That’s how I can face tomorrow: Because Jesus lives, not because he holds the future in some controlling grasp, but because only he can beat all the sources of bad stuff. I can face tomorrow because I know that when the storms of life are raging, Jesus never fails to stand by me, us, humanity. So I pray for Jesus’ power to heal my little girl, to soothe the pain of the Stone family, to give rain to those who need it, and to keep it from those poor people ravaged by floods. Please, O Lord, hear our prayers for your presence and your delivering power; in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Earthquakes and God???

Why do earthquakes happen, cancers occur, wars start? I like the tune of Twila Paris’ song, “God Is In Control,” but I don’t like the lyrics or what they seem to say. I have heard enough malarkey from well-intentioned people concerning my daughter’s brain tumor, “It’s meant to be,” or the ubiquitous “Everything happens for a reason.”  Well the reason most junk happens in the world has nothing at all to do with God, except that God gets us through the stuff. God doesn’t cause bad things to happen. Take a look at James 1: 13-17, “God doesn’t test anyone…Every good and perfect gift is from above.”

So why the earthquake – ever since the fiasco of the Fall this world’s natural laws have run amok. Proof: Jesus was asleep below deck while with the disciples on the Sea of Galilee. They were afraid that the storm was going to drown them. They woke Jesus. He came up on deck and it says, “He REBUKED the winds and waves.” If Jesus is God and if God controls nature and everything in it, then why would Jesus have to rebuke the storm. He only uses “rebuked” in the NT for evil anyway. The point is obvious to me. There are things not under God’s control.

Bad things happen because of our choices; the choices of others, the general decay in the world because of the Falleness of Creation (the biggie); and evil – never God. So what does God do? God works miracles and that’s the line I want to be in in heaven as I ponder theodicy. I want to ask God why did God intervene and heal my Dad and not my Mom. If we had taken a family vote it would have come out very differently, thank you very much. God redeems the junk caused by life. God (Romans 8:28) can work all things for good, but God doesn’t cause them! There are so many variables, but God is constant love.

So, with earthquakes, Hurricane Katrina’s, cancers, brain tumors, and the like – I’m going to trust God with the solutions, not blame God for the confusion. It’s a huge difference to me!

Recap & "WHY?" Questions

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Seasons change and so does everything else. Waiting until…whatever happens is wasted time. Living moment to moment in God’s grace is sufficient for every time of need especially when facing the reality that everything changes on a dime. My world was changed that fast last week. I had been spending a few wonderful days with some of the Columbia District clergy for our time-apart canoeing the New River and camping.

Then the phone call came through that our daughter, Narcie, who is married to a wonderful guy, Mike Jeter, and mother to our 2 grandchildren, Enoch (3) and Evy (1.5), had a seizure while she was with students and other campus ministers at the United Methodist Student Forum in Winchester, Va. Narcie is the Wesley Foundation Director at Winthrop University. They have subsequently found a tumor on her brain and are waiting in these few days to find out what it is, what motor skills will surgery affect, what is the best course of action, and more…and with each answer there are more questions. She is scheduled for surgery this Friday, June 11 (Cindy’s birthday) at 1:30 pm at Carolina’s Medical Center in Charlotte. Please pray for her.

I have taught theology in church and seminary. I have been with people when they faced the unanswerable question of, “If we have an omnipotent God who loves us, then why do bad things happen to good people?” I have seen babies die, young parents, good people with so much to give and I think my theodicy is pretty sound, but it’s shaky right now. Theodicy is the theological study of suffering. It literally means to “judge God.” That’s something I think we all want to avoid, but read Job and you’ll find that God is okay with it. He can handle our anger and our questions of “Why?”

I think the main reason God is okay with us balling up our fists and pounding on His chest is because He utterly loves us. The other reason that comes to mind is because God doesn’t cause any of our suffering. God does what God does best and that is to redeem the junk that comes our way and help us. The problem is why do some people get the help and others don’t. My dad was given 6 weeks to 6 months to live with cancer when he was 48 and lived another 36 years. He outlived his first doctor, but my mother who was frankly more of a saint died too young and too quick. I have buried someone’s only child who died in a freak accident only to hear her minister talk the stuff of Rick Warren and God’s will and purpose in taking another angel to heaven. Well, that doesn’t cut it when you’re on the receiving end of tragedy. THERE IS NOTHING THAT CAN BE SAID.

There is something that can be done, and that is to listen to people, hug them, let them know that they don’t suffer alone, that Jesus knows all our griefs, and causes none of them. Why do bad things happen? What’s my theodicy? Bad things happen because: #1 Our choices #2 The choices of others #3 The general decay that’s in the world since Adam and Eve first sinned (probably the most likely culprit behind suffering) #4 Evil (yep, EVIL). But no matter if the tragedy is because of evil, Jesus is greater than all the principalities and powers put together. But not everyone is healed, and if it just depended upon faith then I think there would be some 200-300 year-old saints walking around, but they aren’t. They die and go home to be with Jesus which is palatable if they die at 90 and not 30 with 2 small children, a loving husband, and a vibrant ministry.

So why doesn’t Jesus act quickly and decisively, and, trust me, I’m still asking for the whole shebang for Narcie when they do the Functional MRI on Tuesday. The answer is love and freedom. Jesus loves us enough to let freedom reign. We’re not puppets on a string made to love God and shun evil. The whole creation acts freely and Katrinas and tornadoes whip us upside down. So what’s left? The answer is the same answer that’s always been there: faith, sheer faith in a God who can turn Joseph’s near-death experience into something that worked for his brothers’ good; or Jesus’ crucifixion into the salvific fulcrum upon which the redemption of the whole world balances. So in the words of the “Casting Crowns” song “Voice of Truth” I am going to “Choose to listen and believe in the Voice of Truth.” I choose God and His power even when I don’t understand and probably never will on this side of heaven.